BigAl’s 20 best albums of 2023 so far

7: a.s.o. - a.s.o.
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And here’s another one that should have got a lot more love. a.s.o. self-titled debut is downtempo at its finest, and arrived as a fully formed sound world of its own. Although its cues are deeply familiar - ‘Mezzanie’ drums, Madonna ‘Frozen’ synths, ‘Pure Shore’s’ guitar twangs, Everything But The Girl vocals - a.s.o. take their recognisable influences (‘True’ is basically a Portishead impression) and mould them into something so complete the end result is totally immersive. It’d be so easy to fall into pastiche yet the songs are routinely so totally and utterly fantastic that nothing pulls you out of their world. It helps that Alia Seror-O’Neill is an actor by day - her performance throughout is extraordinary. ‘My Baby’s Got it Out for Me’ is a genuine earworm, ‘Rain Down’ sounds like a number 1 single from 1998, ‘Love in the Darkness’ would be a standout on the ‘Drive’ soundtrack, ‘Cold Feeling’ sounds like it’s being played in Twin Peaks Roadhouse, and ‘Falling Under’ might be best of all - a pop song made from the detritus of a ‘Trance Classics’ CD. It’s not new, but it is clever. File under ‘why is this not all over radio?’

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6: Kara Jackson - Why Does The Earth Give Us People To Love?

It’s a long time since I’ve heard a writer like Kara Jackson, one who keeps you hanging on every word. I think the best way to describe ‘Why Does The Earth…’ is unflinching. Normally that word is a polite way of describing music as bleak or depressing but it’s testament to Jackson that she is neither. He writing can be raw - even angry at times - but it is not lacking in humour, wit or joy. Instead it is sharp and pointed, cutting through the clever, winding arrangements. ‘Dickhead Blues’ pivots from sparse folk to Broadway musical on the revelation that Jackson is ‘useful’, on the title track Jackson sings in a higher register and it’s properly uncomfortable, she sounds flayed as she asks the titular question again and again, yet as the song progresses slowly the light comes in - the closing refrain of ‘you sing those high notes high my friend, I’ll sing the low notes in the end’ as her voice shifts between the two is incredibly affecting. The whole album takes this kind of slow, meandering journey across vast terrain, yet never once does it leave you behind. It’d be easy for music like Jackson’s to be too clever for its own good, but her greatness as a songwriter isn’t just confined to her words. There’s an alchemy here that just makes everything work. It’s an incredible, incredible achievement and I can’t wait to see what she does next.

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5: Yves Tumor - Praise A Lord Who Chews But Which Does Not Consume; (Or Simply, Hot Between Worlds)

And here is a record that should be absolute DIS catnip, the best rock record of the year by an absolute country mile. Mixed by Alan Moulder, who made records with NIN & Smashing Pumpkins, ‘Praise A Lord’ could, in lesser hands, be 90’s alt-radio pastiche (like some other prominent rock records I could mention from this year). But this is Yves Tumor, who I first heard making weird noise-ambient soundscapes while still sounding a bit like Prince on ‘Serpent Music’ and contributed one of the best songs to all time great comp ‘Mono No Aware’ - and for all ‘Praise A Lord’s’ big-stage rock posturing, that Yves is still present here too. So ‘Heaven Surrounds Us Like A Hood’ keeps shifting between those modes, ‘Operator’ won’t fully commit to its propulsion and ‘Ebony Eye’ (come on - no-one is writing songs this perfect!) tries to be the Verve, the Pumpkins and Prince all at the same time. Kida’s vocals on ‘Lovely Sewer’ just elevate it to a different plain entirely…. It’s impossible to pick a highlight here, it’s just one long continuous bundle of glorious, glorious sound. A total joy to listen to. Perfect.

(In a different world, should have been headlining somewhere at Glastonbury this weekend)

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Great write-up, great album.

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4: James Holden - Imagine This is a High Dimensional Space of All Possibilities

‘Imagine’. The entire ethos of this album is there in the first word of its lengthy title. What I love about this record - aside from the fact that it just sounds great for every second - is that James Holden offers no simple resolutions. Other (let’s call them lesser) producers, would wrap these productions up neatly, the build, the release, the pay-off. But Holden doesn’t release. Instead, to achieve something more akin to genuine euphoria, tracks build beyond their point of signposted pay off to travel to somewhere else entirely. Synths soar far beyond a drop that never comes (check ‘Continuous Revolution’ - which really does sound like its title). The result is genuine transcendence, moving past traditional ‘club’ music. ‘In The End You’ll Know’ is a great example of how Holden makes music feel more organic than any other working producer. The elements feel familiar, but the synth line won’t be contained by a beat or a structure. Instead it spirals, freely, elevating the rest of the track with it. The power of ‘Imagine’ comes in that refusal to close anything off, to allow nature to run its course, for an hour for everything to be truly free. To ‘imagine’.

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3: Paul St. Hilaire - Tikiman Vol. 1

Paul St. Hilaire’s music is about contrasts. A Dominican who’s been based in Berlin for many years, ostensibly he’s always in flux between the roots and reggae of his home country and the techno of his long-time home. Subsequently his is a style that’s become known as dub-techno, but I really believe it’s never been as fully realised by anyone as it is here. ‘Tikiman Vol. 1’ sounds like a quiet storm, soft and subtle but always carrying an undercurrent of menace, of trouble around the corner. It feels like finding the tranquility in decidedly un-tranquil times - “the weather man say there’s a storm” indeed. His is a sound - and it’s all about the sound, the voice, the lilting guitar, the delay, the bass - to sink into. Those contrasts are always present, his most expressive vocal performance on the opening ‘Bedroom in My Bag’ (wow, what a song) pulls the dragging dub along behind it, the uplifting sun-drenched reggae of ‘Keep Safe’ is absolute ripped apart by the best guitar solo of the year, ‘In Fortis’ bright melody literally bobs along on a sea of delay, whilst ‘Ten to One’ is all propulsion, rolling along like an unstoppable force. ‘In Door’ meanwhile is pure body music. This is music for your body, your mind and your soul. It’s a paean to sound - to the way it can describe time and place, past and future, joy and pain. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of listening to it.

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Wonderful album. Only band that have nailed the sound that Motor Faam have, and I wish more bands would

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It’s just so wild and inventive. Genuinely thrilling. Their last record was great too.

It’s been such a good year.

2: Nourished By Time - Erotic Probiotic 2

Here’s one that really snuck up on me. ‘Erotic Probiotic 2’ is one of those records which sounds totally familiar but slightly alien, taking pop songs which in other hands could be totally massive and instead making them apologetically minor and deliciously weird. It’s the album of the last few months I’ve wanted to return to the most. Marcus Brown - who records as Nourished By Time - is from Baltimore by based in London, and ‘Erotic’ does quite a singular thing - all the disparate sounds have American touchstones, but their tone fits into the pantheon of great British pop. So he croons like an 80’s RnB singer over a New Order synth on ‘Daddy’, and lays gospel over piano house on ‘Unbreak My Love’. Although it’s never less than clear that Brown was raised over the pond, particularly in his vocal delivery, these songs often feel like they are merely minor steps away from Saint Etienne or pre-stadium Depeche Mode. The songs themselves - uniformly rammed with hooks - play like a collection of great late 80’s / early 90’s pop hits just before they were given a production sheen. Brown is a deliberately minor vocalist, letting tracks overpower him, making him often feel like a placeholder on his own songs. If that sounds disrespectful, it actually makes you lean closer into these songs - on first listen ‘Erotic’ can sound a bit unfinished, but the more you engage with it, the more it gives. And it gives because these songs are without exception marvellous pop compositions. There’s not a weak moment here. It’s a short, weird, banging, endlessly replayable record - and the best, most interesting pop record of the year.

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1: Billy Woods & Kenny Segal - Maps
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This is it. This is what I’ve been waiting for. I mentioned in the Icecoldbishop write up that for the last few years a lot of rap has felt deliberately minor. That isn’t to say it hasn’t been really good, more that in a post-Kanye, post-Kendrick world, rappers have decided they can’t compete on that scale. Instead they’ve gone smaller, deeper, more insular. Billy Woods has released a lot of great music into that scorched-Earth landscape. But on ‘Maps’ his sound is broader, and his raps look at his role in a wider world. Woods and Segal have gone to a bigger place without undercutting what made them so great and unique in the first place though. This is no sellout. Instead it’s a perfection of craft so total it expands to swallow what’s around it. Woods uses transit - flights, airports, world cuisine (there’s a lot of cuisine) - to place himself in a new context. ‘Maps’, a title that feels apt the more you live with it, is a visceral, sensory album. Woods is a masterful rapper - probably the greatest working - and he changes his flow subtly to match Segal’s varied, intricate production. So he’s harsh on the frazzled boom-bap of NYC tale ‘Kenwood Speakers’, gentler and deeper on the Nina Simone interpolating ‘Soft Landing’ (“For a brief sweet moment there was nothing in the thought bubble, from up here the lakes is puddles”). On ‘Waiting Around’ he’s playful “in Bruges with time to kill” over Segal’s brightest production as he references Cam’Ron’s discography (“Purple Haze had your boy like come home with me”). The most revealing choices come on the awesome ‘Babylon by Bus’, where Segal lays an Aphex sample (sound familiar?) of the eerie 2 before a sinister Shrapknell verse is replaced by a huge orchestral sample that crashes the back end. It’s only with that dramatic ending (“People don’t want the truth, they want me to tell them Grandma went to heaven”) that you realise how much ground has been covered in just a few minutes. Essays will be written about ‘Maps’ - a work of absolute genius - but really it’s all there, in that mesmeric 129 seconds.

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Working through a tonne of this. You are one of the best music writers on here and our tastes dovetail quite a bit.

Still haven’t listened to Maps, going on when I get in the car in 15 mins :+1:

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Just listening to Soundcheck - is that how Americans pronounce pyrrhic?

Like the sound of lots of these. Cheers.

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Thank you!

Hope you enjoyed Maps

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I mean…… I guess……

This is amazing.

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Really love WheelUp. I’d never heard of it anywhere else so thanks!

Can’t stop listening to this, it’s got the hallmarks of a classic imo. The one two punch of the Fields and Rain Water Promise is the best I’ve heard for years. Brilliant.

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Glad you like it! I’m (obvs) a very big fan. One of those records I think lots and lots and lots of people would like, but hasn’t really been pushed that much.

Repackaging a really specific set of 80’s sounds, unique vocal, choruses for days…sounds like Frank ocean doing Kaputt and I am massively here for it.

Glad to see the p4k boost for the dude, people should be making a noise about it.

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