Tuesday, December 26, 2023

My Favorite Albums of 2023

I haven't done this since right before I retired in late 2019, but there were so many fine albums released in 2023 I've decided to make a Top 10 list this year, even though this blog is my only platform.

Except I couldn't reduce it down to 10. So I'm giving you my Top 15. (In 2019, I only did my "Top 8" because there was still more than a month to go before in the year until I quit my job.)

So here you go, my favorites of 2023. These are listed by album title in alphabetical order. (I frequently have trouble choosing -- then sticking with -- a choice for number one.) I immediately noticed that this meant that my top three records present are in the country/bluegrass mode. So nice break there, you hillbillies. But if you aren't into country: 1) You can kiss my ass; 2) Just keep scrolling down.

By the way, all the song titles below are linked to the albums' various Bandcamp sites (except Marty Stuart's album, which isn't on Bandcamp), where you can listen to and BUY.  (Yes, students, you should actually purchase music you like!)

 Happy New Year, pendejos!

* All Bad by Nick Shoulders. One reason I was hesitant in 2019 to do a full Top 10 albums list was because I sometimes late, late in the year, stumble upon a record so magical, it becomes an instant favorite. That was certainly the case in 2019 when in late, late December I stumbled upon an album called  Okay, Crawdad by a backwoods crooner named Nick Shoulders. I discovered Crawdad too late for my final New Mexican column but just in time to include in the Nashville Scene Country Music Critics Poll,  published in January 2020. "I’ve been a fanatical fan of an Arkansas-born singer named Nick Shoulders for — at this writing — several days now," I wrote when submitting my list.

Shoulders has done two albums since then, Home on the Rage in 2021 and this one earlier this year. And yes, I'm still a fanatical fan of this nasal voiced bard of the Ozarks, who's apparently accepted Jimmie Rodgers as his personal savior. With his minimalist band, named for the album that first drew me to him, Shoulders' basic sound hasn't changed. There is still plenty of yodeling and whistling -- and some occasional mouth bow. And he keeps writing memorable tunes including the title song,  the upbeat "It's the Best?" and "Won't Fence Us In," in which Shoulders reimagines the old Bing Crosby psuedo cowboy song, with a Joni Mitchell "Big Yellow Taxi" thematic twist. 

Because Shoulders has carved a niche as a hillbilly environmentalist, he doomed any chance of being invited to perform with Kid Rock Hank Junior and Jason Aldean at the upcoming Rock the Country festival. Something tells me Nick doesn't care.   

* Altitude by Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives. I'm going to try to write this blurb without mentioning The Byrds.

Oh shit, I can't do it

With this record it's impossible not to recognize the impact that late-period Byrds has had on Stuart. Just listen to the opening instrumental "Lost Byrd Space Train ("Scene 1)" and it sounds as if he's non-verbally explaining how "Eight Miles High" led to Sweetheart of the Rodeo. You might even consider this a showcase of Stuart's knack of stretching the surly bonds of traditional country without once sounding as if he's abandoning his roots. 

One of my greatest joys at a Marty Stuart show was when he did the garage-punk classic "Psychotic Reaction" as an encore a couple of years ago. I was slightly disappointed he didn't include that Count Five fave on this album, but there are plenty of strong, country-fried rockers on Altitude such as  "Country Star," "Tomahawk" and especially "A Friend of Mine," which I've embedded below.

* Bluegrass Vacation by Robbie Fulks. Fulks albums frequently made my annual Top 10 lists. Even Fulks' genre exercises like his previous album with rockabilly matron Linda Gail Lewis and his latest one (in case the title didn't tip you off,  this is a bluegrass album) are full of Fulks' heart and wit and usually have moment of transcendence. And that's true of Bluegrass Vacation, where Fulks is aided by bluegrass giants like Sam Bush, Alison Brown, John Cowan, Jerry Douglas, Sierra Hull,  Tim O’Brien and Ronnie McCoury. (Mandolin man McCoury's presence here reminded me of his participation on a similar project, The Mountain by Steve Earle and The Del McCoury band in 1999.)  

My favorite tracks here are "Molly and the Old Man," a celebration of a beautiful banjo picker and her father; "Let the Old Dog In," which, like Hank Williams' "Move it On Over," concerns a husband in the doghouse; and "Longhair Bluegrass," (embedded below.) 

On this song, Robbie celebrates the bluegrass festivals his parents took him to when he was a teenager in the early '70s with "old men doin’ the buck and wing / Young gals skinny-dippin’ in the spring / While the singin’ and the fiddlin’ and the feedback filled the air / While Mom and Daddy were getting’ fried / I was sittin' there with my eyeballs wide  ..." By the end of the number, Fulks name-checks the high priests of the "new wing" of Bill Monroe's church: Norman Blake, Tony Rice,Clarence White, John Hartford, The Nitty Gritty Dirt band, Earl Scruggs and his sons and David Grisman. These are the spirits that guide this delightful album. 

Chronicles of a Diamond by Black Pumas. This record has to be the soul album of the year, and The Black Pumas, headed by singer Eric Burton and guitarist/producer Adrian Quesada, have to be the top soul group of this era. 

And a little New Mexico True pride here, as Burton spent his childhood in Alamogordo and later attended New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. As the Las Cruces Sun News said in 2020,  Burton has "gone from performing at house parties in Las Cruces to jamming on some of the largest stages in the world ..." (Check out this video from 2014 of Burton singing the song that would become The Black Pumas' signature song. at a Cruces open mic.)

Chronicles is the studio follow-up to The Pumas' self-titled 2019 debut (another record that would have been on my top albums had I not discovered it in late November of that year after I retired, buying it at a Pumas concert in San Antonio). While mainly sticking to the same basic slow groove as the first album, Burton and Quesada stretch out a little on tracks such as the upbeat, almost poppy "Ice Cream (Pay Phone)" (embedded below); the pounding "Gemini Sun"; and "Sauvignon," which Quesada kicks off with a spaghetti western guitar and Burton sings mostly in falsetto against a psychedelic backdrop.

Creatures of Culture by The Minks.This irresistible Nashville band was my major discovery of 2023. I caught them live at the American Music Festival in Chicago in early July, and was an instant fan. I loved their high-powered punk/pop/psych/garage sound and was captivated by the sweet, sassy vocals and big smile of singer Nikki Barber.  

Album highlights include rockers like "Motorbike" (The Minks should consider doing a medley of this song and this one!); the slow and trippy country-tinged "Sweet Treat" and "Take It Easy" (embedded below), which thankfully is NOT an Eagles cover. 

Deano & Jo Deano is Dean Schlabowske, a singer, guitarist and songwwriter in The Waco Brothers, and Jo is Jo Walston, singer of the Meat Purveyors. The two have been married for four years -- a match made at Bloodshot Records, or probably at the annual Bloodshot party at the Yarddog Gallery in Austin during South by Southwest, where traditionally the Purvs played immediately before The Wacos.

This album is a mixture of original tunes (my favorites being "Murlene," written by Deano, sung by Jo) and Deano's "My Evil Twin") plus covers of classic honky-tonk and bluegrass songs. The basic sound reminds me mostly of late '50s / early '60s country, that fabled era when (former Santa Fe resident and personal idol) Roger Miller was writing songs like "A Man Like Me" (embedded below); The Stanley Brothers were singing tunes like "Stone Walls and Steel Bars";  and Nashville stars like Porter Wagoner were still singing Hank Williams songs like "Tennessee Border."

On this album, Deano & Jon are aided by some quality musical pals such as Robbie Fulks, who plays guitar, Mark Rubin of The Bad Livers on stand-up bass and Austin fiddler Beth Chrisman. 

Deano and Jo is nothing but a crazy fun hillbilly romp. And while I do love the latest Waco Brothers album (keep scrolling!) in my heart I love this one even more.

Death is Forever by The Dead Brothers. Not surprisingly this Swiss band -- who called themselves a "death blues funeral trash orchestra" always had an aura of death round them. That's even more true on this record, which was recorded in 2021, shortly before the death of singer and frontman Alain Croubalian. They always did sound like a world-weary, mournful Bizarro World Salvation Army band, a typical banjo/tuba/harmonium group with gypsy jazz and New Orleans second-line overtones. But because of Croubalian's passing, this album has that extra kick, a melodic testament to the fact that death don't have no mercy in this land.

As usual, most of the songs on their final album are Croubalian originals, some of my favorites including the delicate, ethereal "500 Horses," the snazzy, jazzy "Diamond Mind," and "Whalebone," which Tom Waits would have loved to have written. And there are a handful of songs from other sources here, including the oft-covered "Wayfaring Stranger," "I Wrote a Book," written by another singer who died too soon, Blaze Foley and "Amara Terra," a "work song of the olive harvesters of the Abruzzo region" popularized by Italian pop star Domenico Modugno and transformed by The Dead Brothers into a hymn-like dirge.

So, in tribute to his life, here's a hearty "Fare Thee Well" to the Dead Brother Supreme,  Alain Croubalian: 

Get Behind the Wheel by Eilen Jewell. Eilen is an artist who just seems to get better and better with age and continues to amaze and delight with her latest record. (Not only that, this former St. John's College student who began her performing career busking at the Santa Fe Farmers Market, put on an excellent free show on the Plaza this year, which was even stronger than her show at Tumbleroot in 2022.) 

Though my favorite Eilen album still is Gypsy (2019). Get Behind the Wheel is pure gold. From Jerry Miller's nasty guitar licks and Eilen's desperate-sounding, moaning vocals that open the album on the smoldering "Alive" through the meandering, swampy blues of "The Bitter End," this work is a winner

Embedded below is one of my Wheel favorites, "Lethal Love."

Glory by Barrence Whitfield & The Savages. On their latest album, Barrence and band keep doing what they do best: play hard-charging, early-R&B fortified, garage/punk-informed rock 'n' roll. Though the term "party record' normally refers to X-rated comedy from the '50s and '60s -- and Barrence is no Redd Foxx or Rusty Warren -- "party record" is exactly what Glory is. I wish all the parties I get invited to were as fun as this album.

This actually is a return to form for Whitfield. His previous album, Songs from the Sun Ra Cosmos, credited to "The Barrence Whitfield Soul Savage Arkestra," was a tribute to the late jazz man/mystic who was born Herman Blount. That was a fun experiment, but I prefer his work with the actual 
Savages, propelled by guitarist, former New Mexico resident, and longtime Whitfield collaborator Peter Greenberg and sax man Tom Quartulli.

Basically every glorious Glory song is joyful romp, and any one of them would make an excellent introduction for those not acquainted with Whitfield, though if forced to choose my favorite, it would be the short, punchy  “Cape May Diamond,” (embedded below).

Is Heaven Real? How Would I Know by Johnny Dowd. Is Johnny Dowd real? I think probably so.

The ever prolific Dowd once again offers a tasty, if curious, mix of deconstructed, often discordant rock 'n' roll, Okie humor, fascinating madness and, ever so often, terrifying tales of people on the ledge. (All this and an album cover by Mekon/Waco Brother Jon Langford.) 

Dowd's first solo album was called The Wrong Side of Memphis. The new one could be called "Return to Memphis," as it was recorded in that town, where Dowd has lived at least a couple of times in his youth. Heaven features several Memphis musicians, including singer and upright bass player Amy Lavere and her husband Will Sexton, who plays guitar on the record and produced it.  

The sound of Memphis soul definitely permeates the album, but, as is the case with most of Dowd's influences, it's a mutated, otherworldly version of the sound. Probably the most striking example is the title song, slow somber death march of a tune punctuated by eery, spook-house soprano vocalizing.

On the other end, there are some downright whimsical tunes, bouncy little numbers that sound as if they might have come from the world of British Music Hall or maybe even some obscure foreign cartoon. These include "Pillow," "LSD" and "Black and Shiny Crow" (embedded below). At least the middle section. This remarkable journey to the center of Dowd's weirdness starts out with slow Randy Newman-like piano meditation. That only blasts a few seconds. Then he goes into a cartoony section. But right past the two-minute mark, the song turns into a jazzy blues (or maybe a bluesy jazz) vamp, which goes on for six minutes. Truly inspirational!

The Men That God Forgot by The Waco Brothers. Like creators of other favorite albums this year -- Robbie Fulks', Barrence Whitfield's and Deano & Jo's -- the Wacos are refugees from the old Bloodshot Records, the label was responsible for stretching the boundaries of the alt country scare of the '90s. Led by founding Mekon Jon Langford, who apparently starts a new band any time he has a spare moment, the Waco Brothers embodied the crazy spirit of Bloodshot. I mentioned the Yarddog SXSW parties up in the section on Deano & Jo. The Wacos almost always headlined that party  and almost always blasted the audience into a blissful state of cosmic consciousness -- or at least, drunken joy.

Although they originally billed themselves as "insurgent country," there's actually not much "country" in The Men That God Forgot -- save a couple of songs like "Blowin' My Top" and "George Walked With Jesus" (both Deano songs). Even with the presence of Tracy Dear's mandolin (which he usually plays like a rhythm guitar instead of a lead instrument like you hear in bluegrass) and Jean Cooke's fiddle, the overall sound of the Wacos in recent years has been muscular, guitar-driven roots-rock. 

But damned fine muscular, guitar-driven roots-rock.

I can't wait until the next time I see The Wacos (it's been too many years!) and hear them play some of these new songs like the title song, "The Best That Money Can Buy" and, my personal favorite, at least at the moment, "Backstage at the Boneyard" (embedded below).

These Things Remain Unassigned by Thinking Fellers Union Local 282.The subtitle of this compilation, the San Francisco band's first release in more than 20 years, is subtitled "singles, compilation tracks, rarities & unreleased recordings." And indeed it's an odds 'n' sods collection with basically cut reminding me of the mad genius of the Fellers.  

My introduction to the Fellers was when I saw them live in the summer of 1991 at the Off Ramp which I described as "a dark little joint in an ugly part of Seattle." Yes, I was searching for "grunge" but I found something much crazier in the Fellers. When reviewing their album Lovelyville (which I purchased on cassette tape at that show) I noted the album "does not quite capture the intensity of a Thinking Fellers show." The group released many albums after Lovelyville, and while every one of them is full of inspired lunacy, they never matched the intensity I felt at that Seattle show.

 It's hard to describe their alluringly strange sound. Yeah, you can hear strains of Captain Beefheart, a smudge of Ubu, a quick snort of The Residents and echoes of The Shaggs. (They do a sweet version of "Who Are Parents," which originally appeared on a Shaggs tribute album.) You might imagine Jad Fair fronting a local high-school metal group or a Martian marching band playing Tom Waits' most incomprehensible nightmares. On These Things, besides the Shaggs cover, this album also has a couple of tracks of the Fellers playing movie music from  Rosemary's Baby (featuring sinister "la la las")  and A Fist Full of Dollars

It's only a fantasy, but I would love it if the release of this collection -- the first Thinking Fellers album in more than 20 years! -- as a sign that the band will reunite. I can dream can't I? 

Tropical Breakdown by Pierre Omer's Swing Revue. You'd never guess by listening to this upbeat, happy, jumpy album that Pierre Omer was once a member of The Dead Brothers. But indeed, he was a 

This band has strong echoes of Django Reinhardt, as well as definite traces of the ghost of Cab Calloway and more recent purveyors of such sounds, like Dan Hicks and Squirrel Nut Zippers. Pretty much all the tracks will get your face smiling and feet moving. 

I especially recommend the album opener "Atomic Swing"; "Leslie Kong," (an ode to the great Jamaican record producer;  the slow, bluesy "L’amour a la Plage," which a bass line fans of Concrete Blonde's song "Bloodletting" should recognize;  and  the snappy "Just One Kiss" (embedded below)

Trouble On Big Beat Street by Pere Ubu. For most of this century it's hard not to think of Pere Ubu as a noir band. Not that you'd expect to hear music from David Thomas and his fellow noisemakers in a remake of Double Indemnity or Lady in the Lake, and not that you hear riffs from the soundtracks of such movies in Ubu's music. But it's obvious from the titles of most of the albums they've released since 2006's Why I Hate Women (which, according to Thomas,  "... is based on the Jim Thompson novel that he never wrote but might have") that noir is in Thomas'' soul. 

Since Why I Hate Women, Ubu has released records called Lady from Shanghai (2013) (the title borrowed from a 1947 Rita Hayworth / Orson Wells murder flick) and The Long Goodbye (2019), which was a Raymond Chandler novel. And back in 2013 Ubu released Carnival of Souls, the title coming from a noir-influenced 1962 horror movie.

And now we've got Trouble on Big Beat Street, which isn't named for any known film or pulp story, though the cover looks, at least at first glance, as if it could have been taken from some noir handbook -- some shadowy guy in a fedora coming out of a dark alley onto a street where the cobblestones seem to be camouflage for an alligator. (I suspect this is a reference to the song "Crocodile Smile," where Thomas declares, "...like a crocodile I will smile / Maybe like an alligator / I will see you later ..."

Like a great noir story, Big Beat Street is an atmospheric, cacophonic tour, full of apprehension, dread and occasionally some weird humor. At one point we go from walking down the street obsessed with a movie in your head ("Make me better off than bled... all over the sidewalk ..." and the next thing you know, you've got gum on your shoe and strange voices are mocking you like a bunch of bratty street urchins ("Nyah Nyah Nyah Nyah Nyah Nyah ...")

As strange as the music is, Ubu sounds stronger than ever, though it occurs to me that I've probably said that before more than once. Maybe Thomas and crew are just getting better with age -- though certainly not more commercial. 

Besides the ones mentioned above, my favorite songs here include the opening track  "Love is Like Gravity," (embedded below), which sounds like sad trumpets,  a scratchy guitar, a fluttering flute and Thomas' tortured voice lost in the woods and trying to call for help. "I light the fearsome night," he sings, "Oh, I like fearsome nights ..." 

Then there's "Worried Man Blues," a dreamlike trip to Clarksdale, Mississippi in which Thomas discovers a Popeye's Fried Chicken right there at the crossroads where according to legend, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. And working in that Popeye's are Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Alan Lomax and Bob Dylan. Then he starts singing an alien version of the old hillbilly song first made famous by The Carter Family. Thomas declares "I'm worried now, but I won't be worried long."

I don't believe him.

Zango by WITCH. By the cruelty of the English alphabet, this album last on this list. But not in my heart. And, had I listed my favorite concerts of the year, WITCH at Meow Wolf on Sept. 17 would have been at the top of the list.

I was excited a couple of years ago when I learned the documentary, We Intend To Cause Havoc, was playing in Santa Fe. Imagine the excitement on my pretty little face when I learned the band itself was coming to a small venue in Santa Fe.

For those who aren't familiar, WITCH arose in the newly independent Zambia in 1972 (!), led by a young man named Emmanuel Chanda, who went by the nickname Jagari. The nickname was inspired by the Rolling Stones resurrected from its decades of slumber, but the sound owed much more to James Brown (who performed there in 1970), rock 'n' roll and native African sounds. 

The style became known as Zamrock, and WITCH was at the top of this vibrant scene. But as the '70s resurrected from its decades of slumber, economic and political turmoil basically killed that scene. And in the '80s, AIDS claimed the lives of most of the original band members. Chanda retired from music limelight and went to work as a gemstone miner and teacher.

The 2019 documentary led to the reformation of WITCH. The film's director Gio Arlotta, introduced Chanda to the guys who'd become the new rhythm section of WITCH, bassist Jacco Gardner and drummer Nico MauskoviƧ, both from The Netherlands. Chanda added more instrumentalists and singers so WITCH could be "resurrected from its decades of slumber"

Recorded at DB Studios in Lusaka, Zambia, where most of the original band made their magic, Zango
is clearly rooted in '70s Zamrock -- plenty of wah-wah guitars -- but has incorporated more modern sounds as well. WITCH pulls that off without a hitch.

Standout tracks include the opener, "By the Time You Realize," a slow groove in which Chandra raps the lyrics and is joined by female vocalists in the sing-song chorus,; "Waile," which sounds like a prime candidate for the soundtrack of a remake of Shaft in Africa; and "Avalanche of Love," (embedded below), which features lady rapper Sampa the Great (she's pretty great) and a middle section that slows down into a quiet storm.

Then there's "Message from WITCH," which closes the album. Here Chandra, over a bass-heavy backdrop, talks about the power of Zamrock: “It unites beliefs/Conquers xenophobia/It laughs at hate speech/Ends sexism/It erases homophobia/Shatters antisemitism/Embraces every race.”

That sounds like a great New Years wish to me.

For more songs from these albums check my Youtube playlist

And check this Spotify list for all the songs from these albums -- except for The Thinking Fellers compilation, for which Spotify had only a couple of tracks from previous compilations.

And if you're musically adventurous, play either of those lists on shuffle mode.

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