BigAl’s 20 best albums of 2023 so far

So. Loving all the Top 100 threads so much I tried to make a list myself, and found it so difficult to put together I completely melted!

But around this time of year I do like to search around and see what people have been enjoying to see what I’ve missed from the last 6 months or so - stuff I’d dismissed that people love or stuff I’ve not really heard about. Not been many lists this year seeing as we’re basically at half way now. So I decided 6 months is much easier to rank than…. forever.

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Ooh looking forward to this!

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20: Grand River - All Above

Not something that came up on my radar really this, but as I’ve said in other threads I’m a big lover of Matthew Schnipper’s ‘Deep Voices’ newsletter, and when he mentioned this as a contender of his AOTY to date was keen to check it out. It’s a marvel. I suppose you can call parts of it ‘ambient’, but evidently in her early days Aimée Portioli, who records as Grand River, was classed as something of a Donato Dozzy acolyte - and you can still hear that association here. It’s really beautiful and spare at points with lots of solo piano sections but can quite quickly get really dense and dramatic - in those moments it’s not a massive stretch to place this alongside Barker or Dozzy. What I like best about it is how it’s always in flux, drawing you close before shifting in clever, unexpected ways.

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19: Icecoldbishop - Generational Curse

Alright, alright I know this is hardly reinventing the wheel, more taking a wheel that’s been around forever and polishing it up before reselling it. But it feels like there’s been a ton of rap music in recent years that’s deliberately minor and low key, and I just love how unapologetic this is. Everything here is loud, tight, pointed. It has hooks. On a base level it just sounds amazing. Bishop is a decent rapper even if he lacks the individuality that differentiates the greats. But what I found really impressive was how his sing-songy delivery can make his lyrics pretty shocking as they lodge in your brain. The closing ‘Cursed’ is properly confrontational - it’s so huge it’s basically a pop song, yet Bishop attacks it with such force it becomes genuinely uncomfortable. That’s really what I find so immersive about ‘Generational Curse’, it draws you in, stares you in the eyes and refuses to blink.

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18: Temps - Party Gator Purgatory
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This record baffles my brain. I’m not even sure it’s actually good. Might not make my top 50 at the end of the year. Might be my number 1. I don’t know what it is, or how you categorise it. It might be self-indulgent twaddle. But for the last six weeks I’ve been completely obsessed with it. For those who don’t know, the comedian James Acaster essentially oversaw the making of it with a revolving door of ‘outsider’ musicians including Quelle Chris, Xenia Rubinos & Nnamdi to make a genreless concept album based on some drum tracks he recorded and a fancy dress costume he had when he was a kid. Sounds like bobbins right? Thing is, the result sounds truly liberating, a rare case of unbridled, uninhibited creativity. Occasionally, like on ‘kept’ it collapses into prog-adjacent nonsense, but stuff like ‘at(moves)’ is really, really beautiful as Quelle Chris low-key raps about mental health ease into freewheeling saxophone and a phenomenal Mal Devisa section which I find incredibly moving. Open Mike Eagle is genuinely free on what I guess is a kinda chamber pop song not a million miles from Dirty Projectors and Yoni Wolf & Shamir are totally revelatory on the closing ‘Slowreturn’, a song that actually really does sound like the parting of clouds. I dunno. I feel like I’ve been tricked maybe. Or maybe this really is a never to be repeated work of art.

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Have been curious about this as I’m a big Quelle Chris fan but haven’t jumped on it as I guess I’m a little scared I won’t like it? I don’t know anything about this James Acaster guy. Have heard one or two songs passively when shuffling my yearly queue but they haven’t grabbed me as essential.

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It’s such a weird one. I’d never say to anyone ‘you must listen to this’, but also severely doubt I’ll hear a more unique record this year.

17: Caroline Polacheck - Desire, I Want To Turn Into You

I nearly didn’t include this because a) its two biggest songs were released about a quarter of a century ago, and b) I have no need for Dido & Grimes in 2023. But let’s be honest, it’s superb isn’t it? It’s everything I want in a pop record - constantly recalibrating to find a balance between past and future, rubbing right against naff (bagpipes!) yet still managing to sound fiercely contemporary, and covering a breathtaking amount of ground without ever sounding forced or jarring. Its best song (that’s ‘Pretty in Possible’) is so well constructed it becomes a genuine earworm without needing a chorus. I find most contemporary pop either tries far too hard to sound cutting edge, or is so saccharine and retrograde it’s devoid of a pulse. ‘Desire, I Want To Turn Into You’ though sounds human, real, relevant. It’s a joy to listen to.

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16: Yazmin Lacey - Voice Notes

I tend not to gravitate to new soul music. I don’t know why, maybe it’s because I feel it’s likely to all be a bit ‘6 Music’. I know that sounds awfully snobby, but… Anyway, more fool me because I listened to ‘Voice Notes’ off the back of a great RA review, and I love it. On a basic level it’s great summertime listening, easy to enjoy without it ever becoming background music, and Lacey is obviously a really fantastic singer and lyricist. But there’s a couple of things that really set the record apart for me. The first is that this isn’t a pastiche of a US soul record, instead it draws as much from jazz, garage, lovers rock as it does from soul without ever sacrificing it’s ‘vibe’ (I hate that word, but ‘Voice Notes’ is nothing if not a ‘vibe’). It’s easy for records like that to sound try-hard, but Lacey suits its diversity, drawing specific worlds into hers rather than creating a tick-list of genres. The second is the details. I like sound. I like bits of songs often, small pieces that make something different, or change its intention. That’s where this record excels. I could listen to the drums on ‘Pass It Back’ on their own, they drag behind the rest of the song like scuffing your feet before they pick up the pace, changing the whole mood of the song. And that’s what ‘Voice Notes’ is, a series of subtle, magic moments that slowly coalesce into a thrilling whole.

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15: Mark William Lewis - Living

And here’s one that’s flown totally under the radar, and I cannot fathom why. Mark William Lewis loosely shares an orbit with Dean Blunt, both in releasing ‘Living’ on Blunt’s World Music Group label, but the two artists also share an ethos - the songs on ‘Living’ are often heavy, oblique and without clean resolution. But they are also mesmerising. Lewis’ guitar playing is captivating, conveying real unease on instrumentals like ‘Romantic Horror’ and powering transfixing low-key pop gems on both ‘The Power’ and ‘The Heat’, two songs that deserve recognition amongst the best ‘indie’ songs of the decade so far. The way ‘The Heat’s’ somber early notes coalesce into its extraordinary main melody in particular is worth the price of admission here alone. Lewis often keeps things simple on ‘Living’, but his gift with mood and melody make the album feel much greater than its brief, plain appearance. A record that deserves a much larger audience.

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14: Lana Del Rey - Did You Know That There’s A Tunnel Under Ocean Boulevard?

I go through phases with Lana. Mostly, I marvel at how someone who screamed one hit wonder and was dismissed pretty much instantly as inauthentic has gone on to have one of the great songwriting careers of the 21st Century. She’s an artist that’s amassed an incredible body of work, almost unparalleled in modern times. And I’m in awe of the way she keeps finding new ways to basically do the same thing over and over, making something that was old in the first place sound new and interesting and different when on the surface, it doesn’t actually change that much. ‘Ocean Boulevard’ is more of the same, and if you’ve got a position on her it’s not going to change it. It’s also too long and spectacularly self indulgent. But you know what, once again, it’s really really good. ‘A&W’ is the big draw here, and it’s properly special - the kind of song Lana just does now that would be the pinnacle of hundreds of other careers, another little twist on the Lana Del Rey song everyone knows. But the real magic on ‘Ocean Boulevard’ isn’t found in its set pieces. I’ve been obsessed with the middle, quiet section - ‘Fingertips’, ‘Paris, Texas’, and ‘Grandfather’, - which might be my favourite run on any of her records. Those three songs are the sound of a master of melody, wringing everything from very little - a true sign of great songwriting. Of course, Lana being Lana she then ends it by sampling Tommy Genesis and then, amazingly herself - her post-modernism finally eating itself. It bloody works though. It always does.

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13: Avalon Emerson - & The Charm

This is not what I expected Avalon Emerson to be doing when I first heard ‘The Frontier’ in 2016. ‘The Frontier’ see, is hard, and weird and beautiful, yet on her debut album Emerson ditches the first two and goes all in on the latter. There was precedent for this, her cover of ‘Long Forgotten Fairytale’ on her DJ Kicks from a few years back (one of the modern greats of that series, can’t recommend it highly enough) was a perfect electronic pop song. On ‘& The Charm’ Emerson fully invests in that style, and makes on of the best pop records of recent years in doing so. A long way from Berghain this might be, but it’s hard to believe she hasn’t been making this music her whole life when she can write choruses as perfect as ‘Astrology Poisoning’ or tunes as endlessly replayable as ‘Hot Evening’. And on the two occasions Emerson meets her past and present in the middle on the lengthy, less structured ‘Dreamliner’ & ‘A Dam Will Always Divide’ the results are truly stunning.

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12: Bendik Giske - Bendik Giske

It makes sense Bendik Giske chose to make his third album self-titled. There’s no one else here, just Giske and his saxophone - unadorned, brittle and dry. Those last two words aren’t normally ones you’d use to recommend a record, but the starkness of what Giske is doing here is quite literally breathtaking (on some tracks, you can clearly hear his breathing cycle). What happens with so little is mesmerising, as Giske contorts his instrument to resemble techno in ‘Not Yet’ as his tapping of keys forms a beat he proceeds to explode over, and ‘Rise & Fall’ is a remarkable likeness for mentor Beatrice Dillon’s electronic experiments, using subtle changes to achieve the full feeling of its title. I find the ‘basic’ nature of its component parts, and the repetition of its melodies transfixing - it’s an intense listen, but one that feels more rewarding & explanatory each time you try. I’m not sure what you’d categorise it as - it’s not jazz, it’s not electronic - but it’s a transformative, beguiling experience.

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11: Fever Ray - Radical Romantics
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I guess I’m not alone in saying that ‘Silent Shout’ was a proper landmark album for me (alien but hyperpersonal is a type of music I’m all in on!) and I’ve always maintained a pretty active interest in what Karin Dreijer has done since, both with The Knife & solo as Fever Ray. I always think it must be hard for an artist in their position - an expectation to constantly be cutting edge, whilst not forgetting to write some actual tunes - a tightrope Dreijer, like Bjork, will wrestle with for the rest of their career. On ‘Radical Romantics’ they absolutely nail it - sounds a bit like ‘Silent Shout’, sounds fiercely contemporary, has some incredible tunes - but it’s also genuinely touching, constantly referencing domestic life and parenthood alongside lust and sex - still in their creepily alien voice, but wringing real humanity out of every word. Its title couldn’t be more apt. Maybe this one has been underrated - there’s not a misstep here for 9 tracks (understand the closer divides opinion) and if Dreijer was a new artist, ‘Radical Romantics’ would be being hailed as AOTY on every website around.

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10: Lankum - False Lankum
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Folk music isn’t normally my ‘thing’. I like modern & I’m interested in production and choices made when recording and that kind of thing. Folk music generally seems to deliberately be an absence of those things. Each to their own, but it’s just not for me. Yet ‘False Lankum’ - despite two thirds of its songs being written about 325 years ago - totally floored me. It’s the atmosphere. This is an album that doesn’t just sound like no other, but it feels like no other either. Lankum aren’t making songs, or reincarnating songs, merely for listening to, they are to be experienced. There’s a great line in the Pitchfork review - “They take songs that trace back to lost worlds and make them sound instead like a future built on the ruins of today” - and that’s it exactly. This is old music made relevant and new. The performances and playing are staggering, but nothing leaps out above the whole, the ‘record’, the concept. These worries, concerns and emotions of these songs are just as relevant now as when they were conceived, all that time ago. Everything changes, everything stays the same.

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9: Wata Igarashi - Agartha
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I’ve been a big fan of Wata Igarashi’s psychedelic techno for some time, without ever thinking ‘I’d really love a Wata Igarashi’ album. So when his debut - a long time coming - finally arrived this spring, it sort of crept up on me. That’s apt for a record which is a masterfully assembled curation of sounds and genres that is pretty low key for how well it’s precision engineered. It’s interesting too that it landed on Kompakt, which wouldn’t have seemed a natural fit for Igarashi in the past, but is a really neat fit for ‘Agartha’, which isn’t quite techno, isn’t quite minimal, isn’t quite anything really. Instead it takes elements - there’s as much Tangerine Dream here as there is Donato Dozzy, and there’s certainly elements of Pink Floyd, yet it doesn’t seem a totally unnatural bedfellow of The Field. Igarashi is so confident in his craft that where most other electronic artists would choose to bludgeon you over the head with how rich and detailed this album is, instead he just lays it all out in front of you and let’s you engage with it how you choose. It’s lovely, if a bit drifting, as a front to back listen but once you latch on to its high points (and they are towering) - the ambience of ‘Subterranean Life’, the huge ‘Ceremony of the Dead’, the jazzy ‘Burning’ - then it starts to take hold. Been really enjoying letting it sink in.

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8: Ran Cap Duôi - 1

If anyone thought that new Aphex single the other day was a tiny bit safe, then here is an album for you. ‘*1’ is 29 minutes long, but packs so many gear changes and ideas into its brief runtime it feels more significant than albums three times it’s length. I’ve tried to read a bit about Ran Cap Duoi, and I still don’t really know which of the collective did what here as this music barely seems human at all, bar an anguished scream being drowned out by a beat that sounds like a photocopier on ‘Mang Theo Toi Nua’. Gorgeous choral music tips into bloodcurdling noise, drums pummel away at twice the speed you’d believe humans are capable of, samples of voices stutter in and out, a music box plays. ‘Pressure’ erupts so violently it runs out of steam, turning into slow, crawling black sludge before a trumpet signals a hopeful new dawn. ‘Bugs Life’ - might be the best starting point, even though it’s the last track - begins with bright, dreamy synths which explode into euphoric breakbeats. If it sounds a lot, well it is, but it’s also totally electrifying. When people say there’s been no standout record this year, I’ll happily point them here. Think ‘*1’ will be considered an electronic landmark in years to come.

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How did I miss this??

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It’s not what you’d expect unless you were really into her DJ Kicks. It’s very good though.

Also, you missed it because you are listening to every record ever made at the moment right?!

Yeah, I mean that’s the only way to accurately pick the best 100, right?

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