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2023 round up JAMES WALSH picks the best of the music

Away from the algorithms, it’s been a good year for music

WE ARE now in the era of Spotify Unwrapped. This is the zeitgeist of the streaming giant that encourages users to share which musicians they’ve not been giving their money to the most often over the past 12 months.

Out there, away from the algorithms, it’s been a good year.

The one overriding theme? Death, best encapsulated by Lisa O’Neill’s extraordinary album, All This Is Chance. Folk meets dirt meets cinematic doom, O’Neill’s singular voice manifests birds and dreams in February, the bleakest of months.

Over banjo, fiddle and harmonium, these songs are almost mantra-like in their intimacy and profundity.

Next up, the slow death of America, and Lana Del Ray’s incredibly titled Did you Know that there’s a Tunnel under Ocean Boulevard

Did you? 

Musically, lyrically and meme-worthily, Del Ray walks the sublime/ridiculous tightrope with real style. Think swooning orchestration and fey, knowing, dead-eyed observations as the sea levels rise. “Tell me you like me and fuck me to death”; this feels like an elegiac farewell to the American century.

Yo La Tengo have always had a dark, feedback-suffused underbelly, but it’s the sweeter moments and songs of ageing and commitment that tug at the emotion strings on their triumphant return. This Stupid World also has the best song I’ve ever heard about marital arguments and awkward apology letters. 

Closer to home, the revenge ballads and multi-part harmonies of Hastings’ Message From The Ravens deserve a wider audience in 2024, as do London’s pop-punk bunnies Flesh Tetris.

My other tip? Scotland’s Brenda, a queer fun-time electro pop band, who’ll make you dance like Le Tigre and laugh like a drain. Unless I imagined them: I was drunk on a tiny Highland island at the time.

In the height of summer, Britpop was back, back, back. Jarvis, Nick, Mark and Candida paid tribute to lost Pulp bassist Steve Mackey, and played a string of triumphant reunion shows — including in Finsbury Park, where I last saw them in (wait for it) 1998.

Nostalgia is a strange beast, and people don’t seem to remember how to behave at big shows. Sometimes it’s good to actually listen rather than videoing oneself drinking along to Disco 2000 in return for six Instagram likes.

Whether a post-pandemic hangover or some late internet thing of having to be “seen” to be having a good time being more important than actually just having a good time, it’s not a trend I care for.

Blur were also back, and even released a new album, full of middle-aged regret ballads, slighter on the anthemic choruses of yore but affecting with its sentiment and awareness of the passing of time.

More fun, though, was Waeve, Graham Coxon’s album with ex-Pipette Rose Elinor Dougal, all quirk, electronics, sax and seedy glamour.

And the hairy, hat-wearing ex-Supergrass singer Gaz Coombes keeps releasing belter after belter, though not many people seem to notice.

Also deserving of more attention is Jim Bob, once of Carter USM but enjoying a purple patch of late career creativity. Thanks For Reaching Out is full of humanity, grace, charm and despair — and even, on This Is End Times, a scary and affecting tale of what happens when the morality police come to town.

Sufjan (not Shakin’) Stevens also made a well-received comeback filled with pretty melodies and jarring lyrics, and boygenius is one of those concepts I thought went out with flared trousers: the supergroup. Beautiful harmonies, intensity, and indie-rock mastery, you can absolutely see why the kids are going crazy for this group of young legends.

See them play live, buy the T-shirt, mug or promotional badge — or even the physical album. 

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