Tim’s 2023 Music Year in Review
Maybe America doesn’t have a problem after all.
I KEEP BEING TOLD that we are hopelessly divided. That our culture is dark and depraved. Decadent and dystopian. “Closer to Civil War than anyone would like us to believe.” And sometimes when I’ve spent a little too much time listening to Candace or reading JVL my mind goes there too.
But I gotta tell you, as I walked up to the Superdome to see Bey a few months back flanked by an exuberant, beautiful, crowd it didn’t feel like we were on the cusp of societal collapse. The crowd was overwhelmingly black and brown and multigenerational, a mix of family outings and girls’ nights out. Then there were my fellow gays and theys dolled up in glittery silver. And the Metairie Moms who schlepped in from the burbs. It made it feel as if things here in America were far from dark. That they were some kind of flawless.
The only divide I noticed that night was over which songs to shake one’s ass to. And even that was kinda the cool part. Me and my mans were there for the Renaissance disco and the B’Day throwbacks. Metairie Mom joined us for the radio singalongs. But every now and then Bey would drop some deep-cut slow-jam that I didn’t know. And right when I figured it was time to take a pee break the black ladies around me started losing their shit bringing me into their moment.
Okay, okay, I get it. I know what you are thinking.
One can get a little hippie-dippy with these things. Anyone with a Substack can take a fun night with a few gummies and overinterpret it as a transcendent, world-shaking event. It’s just music after all. I’m well aware that the 1960s-era belief that music and free love and open borders will save us has been plainly disproven by the worst generation’s behavior in the subsequent decades.
But maybe there is a more modest way to look at it.
Maybe live music can just reveal that things aren’t as bad as they seem?
The summer of Tay and Bey surely indicated that something is still working in America. That something still ties us together.
Economists estimate that Taylor gave the U.S. economy a $5.7 billion boost and Beyoncé piled an extra $4.5 billy on top of that. Those tickets weren’t cheap! (Not too bad for a country that was supposedly experiencing Great Recession-levels of economic calamity. I wonder if Bing Crosby was selling out stadiums with “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”)
Life is about more than money, though. You hear a lot of laments of late about the lack of community in modern culture. The missing “third place.” Well for many people that third place was Taylor! Taylor tour, Taylor dance parties, Taylor Discords. There’s even an app for that: The Swift Life.
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While Taylor’s Eras Tour might not have had the same levels of racial diversity that Beyoncé’s Renaissance Tour did, there was certainly no shortage of the ideological diversity that conservatives keep asking for. Tay sold out red states and blue states and everywhere in between. Sure, Stephen Miller thinks she’s a Deep State succubus and the National Review nerds are pining for Doris Day—but actual conservative young women? They were reliving their Fearless era and screaming along right next to their peers.
So here’s a thought: Maybe, just maybe, people would be less interested in a dictatorship if we did a better job celebrating these positive, communal experiences rather than obsessing over our perceived differences.
If we did that, maybe Bey and Tay could save us after all.
That’s probably a little trite, I guess.
But if you can’t manifest it at Christmas, then when can you, ey?
BEFORE WE GET TO THE LIST, I want to offer the same caveat that I have the past three years. I am merely a humble political content man, parent, and music buff. I don’t have the schooling to judge these albums on musicianship, and I no longer have the time I once did to mine the internet for all the year’s little gems. This is simply a collection of what resonated for me this year, in the hope you might find something new to love too.
In that spirit, here’s a Spotify playlist of my favorite 2023 music in case you’d rather just listen.
Favorite Shows (Non-Beyoncé Category)
Goose, Red Rocks Amphitheatre 10/6/23 (“Live music is the truth” —Peter Anspach, outdoors at 39 degrees Fahrenheit)
LCD Soundsystem, New Orleans City Park 6/9/23
Wednesday, Gasa Gasa, 4/29/23
Galactic (feat: Matisyahu), Tipitina’s 4/29/23
Sky Ferreira, Republic NOLA 12/2/23
10. Gorillaz, Cracker Island
If you are feeling like you are losing your edge and life has passed you by, consider that 55-year-old Damon Albarn put out two really great records this year: Cracker Island and The Ballad of Darren from his more traditional rock band Blur.
Cracker didn’t crush it with the professional critics but it kept getting spins in our house. It’s a synth-heavy, psychedelic pop record with fun guest appearances (Stevie Nicks! Thundercat! Tame Impala!). “Skinny Ape” is a highlight with a catchy melody and hook that’ll make you wanna throw your hands around like a crazy person.
9. Bully, Lucky For You
Are you interested in a ’90s nostalgia alt-rock girl band? If so, do I have the album for you! The lead-off “All I Do” will suck you right in.
8. Royel Otis, Sofa Kings
Pure uncut aughts indie. The synths. The catchy refrains. T-Mobile should be calling them up to be the soundtrack for their next ad campaign.
Listen to “Sofa King”:
7. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Weathervanes
The country-rock singer-songwriter is probably getting unfairly downgraded here since this record is just Jason Isbell doing amazing Jason Isbell things. Exquisite songwriting. Soulful tone. Just enough guitar to remind you it’s rock music.
My favorite song here is “Cast Iron Skillet” which is ostensibly about his grandmother’s skillet but carries an evocative message about a murder committed by a childhood friend. “King of Oklahoma” is another gem, about a blue-collar man who got addicted to opioids looking back with regret on a relationship that soured because of his addiction.
If you enjoy Jason’s music don’t miss my interview with his unbelievably talented wife and bandmate Amanda Shires, from earlier this year. It was maybe the most delightful hour I had all year.
6. Angèle, Nonante-Cinq La Suite
This album originally dropped in 2021, but was rereleased with six additional tracks in November 2022, which is recent enough to qualify for my not-super-strict 2023 list.
I wish I could tell you more about the themes of this record but it’s all in French so idk what they are talking about.
But how about this for a pitch: Would you enjoy sipping on a happy-hour cocktail in Mykonos while a beautiful young Belgian woman sings love songs in French over discotheque tracks from a world-music-infused genre-hopping DJ?
If the answer is no, well, you might just be denying yourself one of life’s great pleasures.
Listen to “Bruxelles je t’aime”:
5. Olivia Rodrigo, Guts
Definitely the record I played the most this year, seeing as I have a 5-year-old kid.
And here’s my hottest music take of the year: Guts might be the best record ever created for dads who want to take their daughter to a concert that they will secretly enjoy as much or more than she does.
Olivia’s influences are all over the record and no matter how old you are they will touch on your girl-rock coming-of-age favorite: The Breeders, Siouxsie, Alanis, No Doubt, Paramore. There are a couple of songs that could be Beck covers. “Bad Idea Right” has backup vocals straight out of a freaking LCD Soundsystem song. Plus, the girly ballads are catchy and well crafted.
If it weren’t for the fact that the album is a little bloated—I’d probably cut three or four of the clunkers—Olivia might have had the top spot for the second time in three years.
4. Amaarae, Fountain Baby
I started listening to this record two weeks ago and can’t turn it off so maybe it will turn out to have been my number-one record.
Amaarae is a Ghanaian-American R&B singer and these tunes just hit you down deep. Her unreal voice is complemented by beautiful instrumentation and Afropoppy beats. There’s nothing I could write that would be better understood than just listening to the album’s closer, “Come Home to God”:
3. Wednesday, Rat Saw God
Rock might be dead but Wednesday is gonna make the graveyard pulse. A musical Bildungsroman, frontwoman Karly Hartzman’s crackling voice gives us the punk-rock take on being young and in love in modern middle-class suburbia. Her boyfriend (I think? At least he used to be. I don’t got time for the gossip blogs) M.J. Lenderman is one of the most acclaimed indie rock guitarists in his own right and provides the bone-crushing guitar solos the kids don’t wanna play at Coachella these days.
Steal some booze from your parent’s liquor cabinet and take the journey with her—“Chosen To Deserve”:
2. Jessie Ware, That! Feels Good!
I’m gay. This was the best dance record of the year. What more needs to be said?
Turn it on when you want to “Free Yourself” and get loose.
1. Lil Yachty, Let’s Start Here
I was vaguely familiar with Yachty’s oeuvre as a rapper. Had caught him on RapCaviar. It was aight. Naturally, I became intrigued when I read that his new album would be a massive departure, venturing into psychedelic rock and experimental jazz and other trippy shit.
“Mumble rapper makes a prog rock album?” was the subject of one Reddit post. Something like that could go a lot of different ways. And this one touched all my pleasure centers.
It launches with a black pride song “the BLACK seminole” that samples heavily from Pink Floyd and features Yachty’s beautiful, haunting voice. And ends with the ethereal, Radiohead-inspired “Reach the Sunshine.”