Andre 3000, "New Blue Sun"
If I’m honest, I have to ask myself: would an album like New Blue Sun be one of my favorite albums of the year if it were created by someone not named Andre 3000? Would I have even known it existed? If someone had approached me on the street, grabbed me by my shoulders, and told me I absolutely had to listen to an 87-minute, flute-based ambient jazz odyssey featuring song titles that read like drunken DMs made by a guy named, say, Herbie, would I have sought it out? Would I have spent hours giving it repeated listens — puzzling over it, meditating to it, at times pleasantly falling asleep to it, finding unexpected hints of intrigue and longing in even its sparest moments — if it were not the long-awaited, utterly unexpected passion project from a man whose earlier work brought me as much joy as any living artist? If I’m honest, I don’t think I can confidently answer any of those questions. But then, does it matter? As a great poet once said of unexpected gifts, you never look a horse inside its grill.
Olivia Rodrigo, "Guts"
I had my first real musical midlife crisis in the spring of 2019. An album by a singer-songwriter named Billie Eilish had just been released, and many, many music critics — including some significantly older and infinitely smarter than me — were calling it things like “the best debut album by a teenager since Elvis Presley’s Sun Sessions.” So I listened to it, and I think I liked it. But I couldn’t shake a nagging thought: was I supposed to like this? Was this really meant for me? Was this music that I, as a then-36-year-old Actual Dad with increasingly unignorable flecks of grey in his beard, should expect to relate to personally? On a societal level, we seem to have largely done away with the idea that we should ever reach an age at which we withdraw into a cultural cocoon, succored by nostalgia and grumpily sniping that the kids these days don’t make music like they used to. But is that actually healthy? At some point, are we — The Olds — doing future generations a disservice by so eagerly colonizing their music, thereby denying them the most time-honored way to define themselves against us?
When it comes to Olivia Rodrigo (who is, terrifyingly, a full year younger than Eilish), I’ve decided to temporarily put those worries aside. I quite liked her debut album, Sour, and I thoroughly adored this year’s follow-up, Guts. I’m impressed that there are artists like her who were born when I was in college, took notes from the music I listened to in college, and yet feel no need to mimic it outright. I admire the way Rodrigo balances floridity and plain-spoken self-deprecation, allowing herself to fully experience outsized emotions while at the same time holding them at a sort of smirking remove. I agree with my colleague below that “Vampire” is one of the best pop singles of the last several years. I dig the second-hand Gondry-isms of the “Get Him Back” video. I’m very glad the kids have a pop star like her. Now get off my lawn.
Joni Mitchell’s First Headlining Concert in 23 Years
It’s not quite true, as some revisionists have suggested, that Joni Mitchell was never fully appreciated until recently. Mitchell has long been rightfully considered one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century, with Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson perhaps her only true living contemporaries. But it is true that, with her dwindling output and scarce public profile over the past quarter century, her name perhaps didn’t always come up as often as it should have. Following her 2015 brain aneurysm, there was a renewed urgency to give the Mitchell her well-earned flowers, and it was the best kind of shock to see her surprise appearance at the 2022 Newport Folk Festival, performing several songs with Brandi Carlile years after most had assumed her performing days were well over. But even then, few would have predicted that the following summer would see her mount a full-scale headlining stint at Washington’s Gorge Amphitheater. Performing a career-spanning three-hour set, Mitchell strapped on a guitar, danced and cracked jokes, with her vocal phrasing still as transporting as ever. It’s something of a miracle that it even happened, all the more so that it was as good as this.
Earl Sweatshirt + The Alchemist, “The Caliphate (feat. Vince Staples)”
Back when Earl Sweatshirt and Vince Staples first collaborated, on Sweatshirt’s 2010 Odd Future genesis mixtape Earl, the two teenagers seemed to have both beamed in from some other, more twisted dimension. When they paired up again, on Sweatshirt’s 2013’s track “Hive," they both seemed poised to become some of the biggest rappers on earth. That didn’t quite happen, but refreshingly, it seemed to be entirely by choice. Watching both rappers take the increasingly rare trajectory of following their own eccentric artistic bliss rather than chase stardom has been inspiring to see (especially when they’ve provided such stunning work along the way), and hearing them reconnect (older, wiser, just as weird as before) over this woozy, Madvillainy-quoting Alchemist beat feels like watching two rogue planets find their way back to a shared orbit.
"May the Lord Watch: The Little Brother Story"
One of 2023’s late-arriving surprises, Holland Randolph Gallagher’s feature documentary on North Carolina’s hugely influential hip-hop group Little Brother was easily the best music film I saw this year. In an overstuffed music documentary landscape awash with gentle-touch career surveys of multiplatinum artists whose stories have been rehashed so many times before, it’s a revelation to see such an honest, insightful excavation of a genuinely untold story. Tracing the complicated relationship between MCs Phonte and Big Pooh (as well as producer 9th Wonder), the film avoids the more obvious paces of a rise-and-fall narrative by digging deep into why their partnership worked, why it soured, and the fully relatable way the two men managed to salvage the genuine friendship at its core. (The whole thing is available on YouTube, and it’s absolutely worth your time.)
David Holmes, "Blind on a Galloping Horse"
All the signs were there that the Belfast DJ/composer/musical polymath was building up to a new LP at some point soon. A pair of brilliant singles, “Hope Is The Last Thing To Die” and “It’s Over Now If We Run Out Of Love”, both featuring goddaughter Raven Violet on vocals, showed that not only had Holmes not lost the knack of a superior song title (1995’s debut album memorably called This Film’s Crap Let’s Slash The Seats) but also that his talent for filling a dance floor was in no way diminished by a career that had lately focused more on film and TV scores. It took until November for it to arrive, but the result was well worth the wait. Blind On A Galloping Horse is an album of surprises, both angry and euphoric, thoughtful and triumphal, sad and optimistic. The beautiful layered soundscapes owe much to his film work, but there are also moments of pure infectious dance energy – and lyrically he’s taking no prisoners: “You think that I think what you think, but you’re wrong,” sings Raven Violet on the album’s title track. “They’ll never show any remorse, ‘cos they’re blind on a galloping horse.”
Andy Spinoza, "Manchester Unspun"
Written by former City Life editor, Manchester Evening News hack and general man-around-Manchester, Spinoza explores the extraordinary urban regeneration of the city against the backdrop of its unparalleled musical heritage. Spinoza’s central premise is that Factory Records supremo Anthony Wilson’s harebrained decision to convert a cavernous warehouse on the edge of the city into a New York-style super club was the catalyst for all that would follow. “The Hacienda must be built,” said French Situationist poet Ivan Chtcheglov in his 1953 polemic Formulary for a New Urbanism – and Wilson took him seriously enough to actually do it four decades later. The rest, as they say, is history. Spinoza’s fascinating book is part social history of the city, part examination of how political differences can be put aside for the common good of the citizens, and part straight-up celebration of Manchester’s vibrant music and youth culture – and is written with all the insight, access and perception you’d expect from a man who was a part of it at the time.
Rick Astley & Blossoms sing the Smiths at Glastonbury
Elton who? Glastonbury 2023 was all about The Astley – and if his Pyramid stage set was the unexpected feelgood hit of the summer, it was his turn with Blossoms in the Woodsies tent that saw the former PWL teaboy’s appeal go beyond the mums and kids and cross over into near-universal (if occasionally begrudging) acceptance. If the idea of the quintessential 80s pop puppet tackling the sublime angst of prime-era Morrissey seemed sketchy at best, Astley’s utterly sincere, heart-on-sleeve approach was wholly impossible not to be seduced by – and all his passion and clear love of the songs was matched by a voice capable of doing them justice. Was it glorified karaoke? Pretty much. Was it nonetheless totally joyous? Absolutely.
Lisa O’Neill, "All Of This Is Chance"
The Irish singer has been something of a best-kept-secret on the folk scene since her 2009 debut LP Has an Album, without ever enjoying anything like mainstream success. Fifth LP All Of This Is Chance came out in February of this year and while every bit as uncompromising as her previous output, scored an instant hit with the critics – and after the sublime single “Old Note” was championed on BBC 6 Music by guest DJ (and occasional actor) Cillian Murphy, found a whole audience outside the folk world. And quite right too: the eight songs on All Of This Is Chance continue in the vein of “Old Note” – sparse, haunting, ancient-sounding, at once lovely and tragic, evoking images of wild moorland and windswept mountains and dominated throughout by O’Neill’s uniquely arresting voice and poetic lyrics. Mesmerizing and utterly beautiful.
Olivia Rodrigo, “Vampire”
That Olivia Rodrigo was set to be Pop’s Next Great Thing was obvious from the moment her debut single “Driver’s License” smashed just about every record in existence when it came out nearly three years ago – and since then the (now) 20-year-old has resisted the temptation to go too fast too soon, and instead concentrated on building both her songwriting talent and stage craft before releasing second album Guts this year. While Guts itself is a great pop record, its lead single was not only the best song released by anyone in 2023, but has to be in for a shout as the best single of the 2020s so far. “Vampire” starts slow and breathy, Rodrigo’s voice lilting behind muted, Beatles-like piano chords… before building into all-out impassioned rage that simultaneously soars and smashes without ever losing its melodic heart. “Bloodsucker! Fame f***er! Bleeding me dry like a goddamn vampire…” You go, girl.
Taylor Swift, The Eras Tour, Philadelphia, PA
You’ve hopefully already read about my history with Taylor Swift in our Q Roundtable, but the shortest possible version of the story is that my wife and I took our daughter to see T-Swizzle as an early high school graduation present, and we were effectively ordered to listen to as much of her music as possible before attending the show so that we would be able to truly appreciate the show and, indeed, get our money’s worth. We did, and then some. The Eras Tour provided an amazing performance as well as a proper spectacle, as evidenced by the fact that it was promptly turned into a major motion picture event, but having actually seen it live, I can vouch for the fact that it was worth every penny...and if I wasn’t a Swiftie before I got there, I damned sure left as one.
The Beatles, “Now and Then”
As someone who absorbed every page of Nicholas Schaffner’s The Beatles Forever before I was even in my teens, I’m definitely a card-carrying Beatlemaniac, so I was always going to be excited about the prospect of hearing this song. Well, I heard it...and I loved it. And then I saw the video...and somehow I loved it even more. Does it feel melancholy? It does. And it should. It's the last Beatles song, and even if John and George didn't know it when they recorded their parts, Paul and Ringo and Giles Martin did, and they clearly leaned into it. The end result: a properly fab farewell.
"That Thing You Do! – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack," Mondo reissue
I always enjoy movies about fictional bands, but I particularly enjoy them when the music created for the band lives up to the frenzy that the band is supposed to be creating. Thanks to the late, great Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne / Ivy), that’s exactly what we got with The Wonders’ “That Thing You Do.” The soundtrack to the film is great from start to finish, creating a wonderful homage to the pop, R&B, and even jazz of the era in which the proceedings are set, and thanks to the amazing work of the folks at Mondo, not only did we get the first-ever vinyl release of the soundtrack, but we got it in a truly glorious package that sounds as great as it looks.
The Darkness, The 9:30 Club, Washington, DC
It’s fun to see a rock show, but it’s even more fun when the band knows all of the cliches, knows that they are cliches, and can implement them in an entertaining way in the context of great songs. To commemorate the 20th anniversary of their debut album, The Darkness emerged with Permission to Land...Again, a deluxe version of the LP, and then promptly hit the road to play the original album in its entirety, along with a few bonus numbers along the way. Lead singer Justin Hawkins still has the vocal chops to howl every number with the same strength that he did two decades ago, and the pageantry and power of the band’s songs still hold up. The 9:30 Club was sold out that night, and the screams of ecstasy from the crowd were deafening. That’s rock ‘n’ roll.
Ben Folds, "What Matters Most"
It’s always a little disconcerting when you sit down to put together a list of your top musical moments of the year and suddenly realize that one of your favorite artists put out a new album and it completely passed you by, and the disconcertion turns to depression when you realize that you could’ve been listening to this album for months. Thankfully, even if I discovered Ben Folds’ latest album a little late, it’s been easy to make up for lost time, because it’s at least as good as the other albums in his catalog. Why it didn’t get hyped up as much as his past efforts... Your guess is as good as mine. If this is the first you’re hearing of it, too, though, make a mad dash to pick up a copy. It’s worth the wait...even if you didn’t realize you’d been waiting.
David Tennant & Michael Sheen, "Good Omens 2"
While I appreciated the music choices that were highlighted within the series, it was the chemistry between these two ineffable actors that had us, the "Gomens" Nation, catching our breath or laughing out loud at every single scene. Their characters’ transformation from the printed page, courtesy of Neil Gaiman and the late Terry Pratchett, to the small screen is nothing short of magical. As I recall the last scene, the very last minutes, my eyes are burning. Not crying. At all.
Tyler Spangler, Graphic Designer
As a visual person (who knew?), and one hung up on huge, vibrant colors – I use the word "psychedelic" way more than I should – Spangler’s world is a vibrant, eye-popping environment of digital collage, mixing vintage photographs, geometric shapes with a tinge of eclectic patterns that not only form a unique, positive message but allow the viewer to leave with a sense of personal satisfaction.
SiriusXM, 40s Junction
When it comes down to uninterrupted bliss for all the hepcats and swingeroos, 40s Junction is a gas. The core demographic might not quite get the technology behind the wires, but if you are even slightly curious about an era when Bing Crosby and the Andrew Sisters were topping the charts with “Hot Time in the Town of Berlin” and Harry James’ trumpet-playing prowess on "You Made Me Love You" or Harry Babbitt & Gloria Wood backed by Kay Kyser and His Orchestra… you’re absolutely ace to stay on this channel for a long, long time.
"The Stones and Brian Jones"
Not many filmmakers have been able to focus exclusively on the distant history of the Rolling Stones to anyone’s satisfaction. The subject of director Nick Broomfield’s deep-dive documentary is the misunderstood genius of Brian Jones. Through rare archival footage and interviews with people who were there (including founding Stones bass player and band historian Bill Wyman), we’re afforded a glimpse into Jones’ troubled youth and the lifelong burden he carried in his desperate attempts to please his parents by starting a band, bringing them to the pinnacle of success, only to see it crumble and fall away from his unsteady and shaky grasp. We might be left to question, “but what if,” and frankly, that ask is not an easy one to answer.
The Beatles, "Now and Then"
By now, in this century, anything we perceive as the "last" of Beatles-something is laced with curiosity and sadness. Are we going to see the finality of an entity we hold tight to our hearts? With the unveiling of “Now and Then,” Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr are finishing up (maybe? probably?) the last remnants of what John Lennon never perceived as the gift that keeps on giving. Rescued by technology, burnished and polished from a cassette demo that had a brief moment of retrieval during the Anthology sessions, to a fully formed song filled with love, “Now and Then” has proven that we do not go gentle into that good night.
Brent Faiyaz, Larger Than Life
This serene R&B album with a bouncy, articulate low end is the perfect pre-club soundtrack. There’s a disarming eroticism to Brent Faiyaz’s lush vocals that’s not terribly unlike a Midnight Love-era Marvin Gaye. The crooner’s hip-hop-style instrumentals are also imbued with a smooth energy that can hype listeners up without leaving them stressed or overexcited. This LP is the definition of easy listening music -- in the best way. That carefree vibe is furthered by the comedic skits that break up the album. Larger Than Life was a deeply collaborative project. It has nearly a dozen features including everyone from Missy Elliott and Coco Jones to A$AP Rocky and Babyface Ray.
White Reaper, "Asking for a Ride"
The 1990s and early 2000s were all the rage in 2023, but this nostalgic band is bringing back the 1970s. Their latest album Asking for a Ride is the perfect soundtrack for a joyful late-night drive through a decaying industrial suburb. White Reaper fuses the breathless fury of first-wave punk with the bluesy soul of hard rock, the precision of prog, and an undeniable radio pop sensibility. This is far from the band’s first solid release, but the production helps set the LP apart from the rest of their catalog. The album manages to sound clean and calculated without sacrificing the warm dynamics that make vintage 1970s records such a pleasure.
Dominic Fike, "Sunburn"
Dominic Fike may be best known for his role in the second season of the splashy teen drama Euphoria, but he was writing music long before he was cast in the HBO program. His latest album Sunburn managed to capture the show’s angsty adolescent energy just as well. Somehow, the summery tracks convey both a deep nostalgia for and stern critique of high school drama and heartache. Despite its radio pop sheen, Sunburn is a guitar record at its core, and Fike’s virtuosic riffing regularly shines through. Given the quality of these songs and Euphoria’s massive popularity, it’s surprising Sunburn didn’t get more attention this year.
Zach Bryan, "Zach Bryan"
This year has been huge for Zach Bryan when it comes to both creative output and commercial success. The songwriter’s self-titled album easily rocketed to the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200. The LP has a few of the rustic, spacious acoustic tracks that brought Bryan attention at the beginning of his career. But it also shows how much ground the musician can cover with the support of backing musicians. While the instrumentals on the release are undeniably country, they also take clear cues from rock, folk and soul. That eclectic vibe is furthered by a few high-caliber features including artists like the War and Treaty, the Lumineers and Kacey Musgraves. Bryan’s husky vocals are always strong on their own, but these duets bring them to another level.
Hot Mulligan, "Why Would I Watch"
Hot Mulligan has been around for nearly a decade, which is basically forever in emo band years. What’s more impressive is that they’ve yet to put out a bad release. Why Would I Watch is packed with math rock riffs in the band’s signature alternate tuning and pained growls from lead vocalist Nathan “Tades” Sanville. The most touching track on the album is “Betty,” a completely stripped-down acoustic song about Tades’ recently deceased pet rat. Hot Mulligan hasn’t ventured far beyond the confines of emo so far, but the band’s clear songwriting chops, eager embrace of electronic elements, and willingness to engage in meme-based guerilla marketing mean they could easily have Top 40 hit on their hands if they decide to go pop.