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Best Of 2023 (So Far)
Reaping the whirlwind
Having crossed the year’s meridian, this is not only a good time to make the compulsory top 25 (so far) list, but a fine moment to reflect on the current state of AnEarful. Near the end of 2022, I started using more features of Blogger to incorporate concert reviews without interrupting the year-end lists. The solution was a little clunky, however, and there was a growing chorus of voices on Substack urging me to join them. So, in January, I made the leap and I’m so glad I did. While my numbers still aren’t anything to crow about, I can say I’ve added more new subscribers in six months than I had in the previous five years on Blogger. Thank you to all who’ve joined this year!
I also had another epiphany in January while listening to an episode of Derrick Gee Speaks Volumes, which led me to relaunch the Discover Music With AnEarful podcast. After letting it lie fallow since 2021 I kicked off the Monthly Listening series, which has become one way to corral all the music I’m tracking throughout the year. I hope the combination of brief soundbites of passionate advocacy along with musical excerpts has given you another way to engage with what I’m highlighting as the finest music of our time. While I may add some special mid-month episodes and the format is still in flux, you can expect the monthly listening series to continue at least through the end of the year.
However, I will also say that the sense of self-satisfaction I had that the podcast would help me have a better handle on albums as they came out turned out to be a rich seam of fool’s gold. I’m just as overwhelmed as ever and continually doubling back and finding things I should have heard months ago. Such is the state of things, I suppose, and I’ve mostly reached acceptance with it. But what doesn’t sit right is the amount of music that has been sent to me that I have yet to play. Please know that I am trying and that repeated reminders - as well as physical media - do help. Keep those emails, CDs, cassettes, etc. coming!
Between the podcast, the Substack, and all the social posting I do, there should be few surprises about what I’ve listed below. As I say each time, these are the albums that, beyond being excellent, bonded themselves to me and demanded the most repeat listens. If I’ve written about them before, follow the links to find the original review. Most of them can be found in the playlist here or below - listen along while you read and tell me what resonates.
Tiny Ruins - Ceremony Considering all that’s happened collectively since 2019, when their last album, Olympic Girls, came out, I’m taking this gorgeous collection of songs even less for granted than I might have otherwise. There’s also the fact that Olympic Girls was on my list of the 100 best albums of the 2010s, putting it in another class altogether and increasing my anticipation. Besides coping with the pandemic, singer-songwriter Hollie Fullbrook was also dealing with the very personal tragedy of a miscarriage, which can cause a derailing form of grief. She eventually found her voice again and crafted these exquisite songs, which explore the bitter with the sweet in equal measure. Perhaps the one that speaks to me most directly is Out Of Phase, which uses an airy melody on a chorus that seems to describe the profound sense of disconnection following a life-changing event that stops you in your tracks while the rest of the world just keeps chugging along. The setting for the songs is as exquisite as the writing, with a crystal-clarity to the production allowing the contributions of Cass Basil (basses, vocals, fife), Alex Freer (drums), and Tom Healy (production, guitars, keyboards, vocals) to shine alongside Fullbrook’s guitars, cello, and sigh-worthy voice. Long may she sing.
Elana Low - Petrixora In my concert review from earlier this year, I declared that “I'm fairly convinced there is a nearly universal appeal” to Low’s harmonium-drenched “dark folk” - and this exquisitely realized EP makes me feel that even more strongly. Her composing and harmonium technique have only gotten stronger, lending an indomitable force to her songs of romance, risk, and metaphor. She’s also expanded her sound, layering in the Kantele harp to lend dimension. And, as I mentioned on my podcast when discussing the Goldest Hoir single (also essential), she has finally found the right engineers and studios to present her music in the high-gloss, dynamic setting it demands. There’s never been a better time to become an Elana Low fan - what are you waiting for?
Anna Thorvaldsdottir - Archora/AION This feast of an album presents committed, gripping, world-premiere recordings of two pieces by the Icelandic master, for whom the orchestra itself is her most natural instrument. Her complete grasp of the sonic possibilities of the ensemble is seamlessly wedded to her musical vision - as much inspired by narrative as by the natural world - reaches a new apotheosis here. Both pieces receive stunning performances by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eva Ollikainan and the recording is more than equal to the task of presenting each texture and dynamic with the polish and weight it demands. See also: Atmospheriques, Vol. 1, also by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, which features the world-premiere recording of Thorvaldsdottir’s Catamorphosis among other fine works.
Domenico Lancellotti - Sramba Growing ever bolder with his reinvention of the samba and other Brazilian forms, Lancellotti follows up 2021’s folky Raio with this more abstract collection. A close collaboration with Ricardo Dias Gomes, who contributes analog textures from his collection of Russian synths, some of this is nearly as spare as the Young Marble Giants’ Testcard EP - until Lancellotti spools out yet another saudade-infused melody, as on the breezy Diga. With each album, Lancellotti further establishes himself as one of the essential Brazilian artists of the 21st century.
Anna St. Louis - In The Air Somehow five years have flown by since If Only There Was A River, an album with songwriting good enough that I found myself wanting to see the look on Dylan’s face when he heard it. Now he has two terrific albums of dreamy Americana folk to catch up with, and on this one she’s shifted the frame a little, incorporating brighter sounds into the mix, like the sparkling keyboard on Trace, which opens the album. There’s still plenty of acoustic strumming, swooping strings, and shiny pedal steel, of course, and the grooves often lope along gently. But she’s also gone ahead and written Phone, a classic pop song that will stick in your head in the best way. Combining her timeless voice with a catchy song like that is simply sublime, but that word could describe the whole album. Dial it up!
Holly Miranda - Virtual Funeral See also: Dear Carlos, a wonderful collection of Amb. Parsley songs, several of which were also on the Eye Knee Experience playlist with some of the tracks included on Virtual Funeral.
Geese - 3D Country As you might expect from a band of musical omnivores who came together in high school, Geese has been on a curve of rapid growth. Even after tracking all the pre-release singles, seeing them in concert on the eve of 3D Country’s release was a delicious surprise. Whereas I had lumped Projector, their 2021 debut in with the ongoing wave of postpunk revivalism, on 3D Country, they let loose the bonds of any single genre, exploring proggy freak outs (2112, Undoer), loose-limbed funk a la Tim Buckley’s last couple of albums (3D Country) and sleek blue-eyed soul (I See Myself). Even more remarkably, the wider they cast their stylistic net, the more they see themselves. For a band with two stars - singer Cameron Winter and guitarist Gus Green - the sum still exceeds the parts, leading to an enthusiastic expression of unity. That said, my only minor caveat is that Green is a little dialed back on the album in relation to the kinetic, action-painting splatter of their live style. But that just means I need to see Geese in concert more often!
Matthew Herbert - The Horse “Bought a horse. Starting a new album,” Herbert deadpanned on Instagram about a year ago, captioning a photo of a horse’s bones. But he was also deadly serious, using the memory of a magnificent animal to create an album length work in collaboration with the London Contemporary Orchestra and many guests, including British jazz magi Shabaka Hutchings and Theon Cross. The album takes us practically through the history of human music, using bones as flutes, plucking gut-string stretched over other bones, and eventually arriving at orchestral sounds and pounding electronic music. Through that history we also connect with humankind’s dependence and connection on animals like the horse, so vital for transportation, warfare, and (occasionally) food. If the ancient cave painters seemed to imbue animals with a magical aura it’s because so little of what has transpired between them and people is easily explainable. Herbert seeks not to understand but to give us an opportunity to revel in that mystery once again while reminding us of the ritual space music can create.
Killer Mike - Michael I’ve been on record more than once that Run The Jewels, while entertaining and even gripping at times, was keeping Killer Mike from making his next great solo album. As much as I loved El-P’s production on Mike’s last masterpiece, 2012’s R.A.P. Music, I don’t need to hear him rap on every track. Of course, RTJ made Mike the star he deserved to be ever since winning the Grammy for The Whole World with OutKast, but at the price of some of the qualities that make him unique: introspection, for one, and an engagement with the power of gospel music, which is sincere even as he might question the power structures within which it is often performed. He also embraces a wider diaspora by incorporating Yoruba chants on the album-ending High & Holy. Slice it how you want, but Michael, which deals with the loss of his mother and grandmother, while also exploring the political landscape with characteristic wit, is here to prove me 100 percent right. Expertly produced by No ID, it’s a widely varied collection with many guests, all of whom Mike uses to add additional hues to his palette rather than as crutches. One spectacular example of this is the way he lets the contrasting styles of Andre 3000 and Future set up his own furious, machine-gunning verse on Scientists & Engineers, not only emphasizing his own skills but making both of them sound newly relevant. Just one highlight on an album full of them. Welcome back, Killer Mike - or should I call you Michael?
Olivia de Prato - Panorama This wonderful violinist continues the quest she began on Streya, here gathering five works by composers familiar (Missy Mazzoli, Angelica Negron) and less so (Jen Shyu, Miya Masaoka, Samantha Fernando) who each seek to put their stamp on music for solo violin, sometimes with electronics. From Tooth And Nail, the spiky, probing Mazzoli work that opens the album, to Fernando’s rich and pensive Balconies for five violin tracks, which ends it, Panorama delivers you to the heart of the instrument’s expressive possibilities. Negron’s glassy and elegant title track is especially sublime, with de Prato lending each glissandi an extraordinary emotional depth.
Feeble Little Horse - Girl With Fish I somehow missed Hayday, this Pittsburgh band’s 2021 debut. Their combination of noisy sounds with shiny melodies is definitely in my sweet spot, but it wasn’t until the first singles from Girl With Fish started arriving that the buzz reached me. There’s quite a leap between the albums for sure, but at least I would have been prepared for their overall greatness. Their songwriting is laser-focused here and the sonic curation is incredibly precise. Just listen to the combo of synth and guitar that cause Sweet to burrow itself deep in your brain. But there’s not a foot (hoof?) wrong on this collection. Sending them strength as they just cancelled their tour due to mental health issues. It’s hard out there, people - make it easier by buying merch or otherwise supporting your favorite band - which just might be Feeble Little Horse.
Michelle Lou - HoneyDripper I’m only about a decade late in discovering this remarkable composer and sonic sculptor. That could partly be because there isn’t a plethora of recordings of her work. But, thanks to the Tak Ensemble, who interviewed her on their podcast before playing the world premiere of her remarkable piece, A Forest, at their tenth anniversary Swoonfest, I am now fully on board. This release features two recordings of her piece for trombone plus various electronics and noise-making objects, one by Mattie Barbier and one by Weston Olencki, and it’s quite an experience. Almost like walking through an installation with different rooms producing different sounds, listening feels very active and, at about 40 minutes each, taking the full measure of the work makes for many absorbing hours. And if you’re like me, you’ll want to hear much more from Michelle Lou.
Youth Lagoon - Heaven Is A Junkyard My daughter has been urging me to listen to the work of Trevor Powers for years but the stars never aligned. And, having ended the Youth Lagoon project in 2016 and releasing just one solo album in 2018, I figured I’d have time to catch up. But then he announced this new album and I decided to start here, even if it can be hard to shoehorn your way into an artist’s career. The first thing I noted was the spaciousness of the sound, with each instrument seeming to stand in its own spotlight in an arena of the mind. The sounds themselves are carefully chosen, whether an analog synth, an echoey old piano, the impact of a pick on a bass string, and minimal percussion, often electronic. Powers’ voice is also specific, a pinched, high tenor that seems to seek consolation and offer it at the same time. But ultimately, it’s the full package of sound, songs, and voice that resonates, with Powers exploring heavy topics - including the loss of his voice due to a medication reaction and the death of his brother - with a fearless and poetic grace. As he sings in Trapeze Artist, “Pale, white, sick, and thin/The drugstore killing/My voice is gone and it used to be so strong/The reaper's ready for the harvest/And fear is where my broken heart is.” I imagine I’ll eventually be able to move on from this immersive work of art and explore the rest of his catalog, but not yet. There’s too much to see in Trevor Powers’ junkyard.
The Thing - Here’s The Thing This Brooklyn-based indie-rock trio is part of what my daughter and I call the “Jarret Wolfson Musical Universe,” named for the heroic YouTuber who seems to go to nearly every concert at NYC’s smaller venues. He’s given us vicarious entrée to shows we’re unable to attend while introducing us to many new bands. His video of The Thing performing Beige Bouquet at Our Wicked Lady sent us straight to the debut album, which turned out to be terrific, full of snappy, catchy, urgent songs full of sharp riffs and driving rhythms. The combo of melody and attitude has some of the vibe I treasure from the brilliant (and sadly only - at least so far) album by Jane Church. But The Thing are very much their own, er, thing and their tunes will get under your skin and renew your appreciation for the charms of rock & roll.
What’s on your list? And what are you looking forward to in the second half of the year?