December 30, 2023

Favorite Albums of 2023

My favorite albums of 2023.

Favorite Albums of 2023
  1. Ratboys - The Window

I don’t know what it is about The Window that I keep coming back to it so consistently. From the slow boil of “Making Noise for the Ones You Love” to the jangle pop of “Morning Zoo”, the anthemic “It’s Alive” or the raging tides of 8 minute plus jams (“Black Earth, WI”, looking at you.). It’s just a total breeze. It’s a record not married to a time and place and would be imposible to pinpoint that without context. It’s one of the most purely enjoyable records I’ve heard in some time, and a runaway pick for my album of the year.

2. Wednesday - Rat Saw God

Wednesday have quietly and quickly become one of the best bands today based on their varied and quickly growing catalog. Rat Saw God is their fifth LP since 2018 - this one coming off of 2021’s Twin Plagues quickly followed by their knockout covers LP “Mowing the Leaves Instead of Piling 'Em Up. Here, singer/guitarist Karly Hartman writes in slice-of-life specifics take the riff and lap steel instant classic “Chosen to Deserve” - “I was out late, sneakin' into the neighborhood pool/Then I woke up early and taught at the Sunday school/If you're lookin' for me/I’m in the back of an SUV/Doin' it in some cul-de-sac/Underneath a dogwood tree”.

On the flip side, there’s a small observation about being in love while experiencing chaos on the quasi duet with Hartzman’s partner, Jake Lenderman, (also known as MJ Lenderman): “I like sleepin' with the lights on/You next to me watching Formula One/Truck was too tall for the overpass/Got the top ripped off/didn’t see it happen/I just saw the aftermath”. It’s the tiny details that are woven into the noise and twang tapestries Wednesday creates that makes them so memorable.

3. Hotline TNT - Cartwheel

It almost feels a little weak to make the following comparison because it’s just so readily apparent, but hearing Hotline TNT’s Cartwheel for the first time reminds me of the first time I heard Loveless by My Bloody Valentine when I was 17. I am not a musician by any stretch, but for someone with the ability to pull sounds out of a guitar that sound like they’re vacuuming up the universe with every strum is something I marvel at. It’s thrilling to hear the opening bass and feedback blips of “Protocol” that seemingly jangle into infinity with Will Anderson’s voice gliding over it all. This continues over the album’s twelve tracks, whether it be the see saw riffs of “History Channel” or the woozy atmospherics and chitter-chatter of “That Was My Life”. I truly don’t know how this was made, but damn if it doesn’t feel effortless.

4. Sincere Engineer - Cheap Grills

Deanna Belos has always made good records, but her third Cheap Grills is truly great. She’s sharpened her songwriting skills even further that every hook is memorable - I find myself singing passages of the album's songs all day long. I think it’s because something about her music feels so familiar to me, emblematic of the bands I would see in the northwestern Chicago burbs as a teenager. Not that I was ever really consistent with that, but I remember lineups of local groups in parking lots of VFW halls, battle of the bands in school gyms and random one-offs at other venues in the area. It feels like a reminder of that time in the early 00’s where kids I went to school with  spoke of seeing bands at Fireside or Metro like The Lawrence Arms or listening to the dearly-departed Slapstick or another burgeoning Chicago group you might have heard of - Alkaline Trio.

Sincere Engineer’s music is not really like that at all, but it feels spiritually connected. On “California King”, she sings, “Maybe everything around me is too slow/Baby, in this city I've been feeling so alone/Lately I've been thinking 'bout leaving Chicago”. That’s something I actually felt and ended up doing. It didn't stick, but you learn from those experiences. Nothing drove this home more than one of the album's best tracks,  “A Touch of Hell”. It’s about going back home after a long time, noticing all the changes and trying to take stock of what that means in the context of your present life: “Can't believe everything I did since the last time I was here,” she sings. “I took a train ride out to Elgin/Yeah, I took a train ride out to Elgin.” Just like that, there I am again. It’s the middle of the first decade of the 00’s, I’m on the Metra coming home from college, looking out the window as the landscape zooms by, still trying to figure out who I was going to be. ***Big Timber is the final station on this train. Everyone is expected to exit*** As I walked to the parking lot under the halo of the lamppost, I'd wonder blankly what the next day would bring. Now it’s a little more certain, but this album is a great reminder of the journey it took to get there.

5. Zulu - A New Tomorrow

Zulu’s blend of hardcore is wildly intense, running the gamut of hardcore, metal, disparate samples, spoken word interludes and powerviolence. I guess the fact that their Instagram handle is @blackpowerviolence is apt. It's a stunning document that really can't be quantified in a way to write down other than to sit and listen to it.  For a band from Los Angeles, it’s weird it makes me think of Birmingham, England. That’s where I first heard of the record from my friends who lived there, as we watched videos in their apartment of the band playing a festival in the states the year prior. I’ll always think of that weekend on the other side of the world, exploring a place I’d never been, being dazzled by those sights and sounds but still feeling like my ears just discovered something revelatory from back at home.

6. The Gaslight Anthem - History Books

One of the most unlikely comebacks in recent years, History Books is a rebirth for a band that was so easy to pigeonhole and poke fun at for making what felt like the same record over and over. Of course, that never really was the case, but it was easy to say they were writing "Songs About Maria" and "More Songs About Maria". The band entered a hiatus in 2014 and only emerged once in 2018 for a short 10th anniversary tour behind The '59 Sound.

Nine years later, they returned with what's their strongest and most consistent record ever. It's a record they never could have made without the downtime and distance - it's the work of a veteran band who have found new life. While their earlier material might crackle and pop, what is in place here is a little more evenly paced and measured. The sonics are deliberately murky. Brian Fallon's workman approach to songwriting has paid off. It's a record designed for repeat listens and worth your time and effort to discover.

7. Wilco - Cousin

I was of the belief that Wilco might have already made all of the music I’d ever need to hear from them and every record since that was just a simple pleasure that I’d eventually put back down. With Cousin, I’m happy to report that I’m wrong. With Cate Le Bon behind the boards, the band is officially out of their comfort zone here making noisy, cooked/burnt out jams that don’t really sound a whole lot like anything they’ve done before. A common complaint from fans these days is that Jeff Tweedy doesn’t emote in the same ways he might have on previous records, but that's really in part to his evolution as a songwriter. It’s a record of nuance and small moments and works perfectly here. “Infinite Surprise” bubbles to the surface before swelling into feedback. “Pittsburgh” hits you with slabs of synth stabs. There’s dozens of tiny moments that build up into a very satisfying whole. It’s not a record to be slept on.

8. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - Weathervanes

With 20+ years in to a career and a decade since his breakthrough record, Jason Isbell really doesn’t have much left to prove. It’s been a career year for him - a significant part in Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon and a retrospective box set of Southeastern, it’s actually easy to forget that this all kicked off with one of the best albums of his career, Weathervanes. Isbell self produced the album after working with Dave Cobb on nearly all of his records in the past decade, and the switch seems to have done him well.

Both he and the 400 Unit sound more relaxed and have a willingness to mine and stretch the material a little more than they have on their previous releases. “King of Oklahoma” ranks among one of his best songs ever “When We Were Close” is a fitting and stunning tribute to Justin Townes Earle”, but the one-two punch of “This Ain’t It” and “Miles” show the brawn and technical prowess of the band’s showstopping live act, finally committed to tape.

9. The Hold Steady - The Price of Progress

The Hold Steady have long been untethered from the expectations brought upon by their first four records, and with The Price of Progress, that point has only become clearer. It’s easily the band’s darkest record and a sonic spiritual successor to 2021’s Open Door Policy. There’s the sweeping vistas of “Grand Junction”, the Lebron James namedropping in “Sixers” and The Birdwatchers with this visual: “Cause the rockets sound like ravens/when they're skipping off the pavement/And if you ever hear the church bells then get down on the ground”. Twenty years in their career, it’s great to see them pushing.

10. The National - Laugh Track

The National releasing an album always feels a bit like an event - and with Aaron Dessner’s foray into the Swiftiverse has amped that up a bit. First Two Pages of Frankenstein arrived in April and was perfectly fine, but the surprise release of Laugh Track in September felt a little more exciting, and for good reason: it’s the far better record of the two they’ve released this year. The National have had a tendency in the past decade to sound a little too in their heads when it comes to their recorded material, that’s why they’re such a crucial live act, where the songs transform into a form that can sometimes seem staggeringly unrecognizable.

On Laugh Track, that nervous tension has seemed to ease. The sounds are a little weirder - “Space Invader” and the soundcheck-recorded “Smoke Detector” feel freer than anything they’ve released since maybe even Alligator. The previously released “Weird Goodbyes” with Bon Iver is a sweet treat near the top of side A. Laugh Track is snapshot of a band trying a bunch of different things at once and leaves a whole lot to discover.

11. Be Your Own Pet - Mommy

12. Jeff Rosenstock - HELLMODE

13. Sufjan Stevens - Javelin

14. Olivia Rodrigo - GUTS

15. Foo Fighters - But Here We Are

16. Hiss Golden Messenger - Jump For Joy

17. Young Fathers - Heavy Heavy

18. Peter Gabriel - I/o

19. Marnie Stern - The Comeback Kid

20. Empty Country - Empty Country II