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RD top albums of the year 2023

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RD top albums of the year 2023
This year saw the return of Blur, John Cale and Everything But the Girl, as well as a new hit from Young Fathers. Our music writers select the best 2023 albums

James Waudby—On The Ballast Miles 

james waudby on the ballast miles album cover
From fronting an indie band signed to Jeepster Records and touring with US rock giants, Pavement, a shift to folk music was a surprising change of direction for James Waudby in 2023.
With his distinctive voice and a finger-picking guitar style reminiscent of Bert Jansch and Neil Young, it’s a rugged set of songs which mourn the East Riding of Yorkshire’s disappearing industry, as well as the resultant loss of identity.
It’s also a collection concerned with the connection we have to our natural environment, exploring its physical change and remaking through various viewpoints. Although the album’s geographic setting is specific, its themes are universal.
In true folk style, it’s an album made up of stories that pose questions about who we are and what connects us, but also stands as a stark warning of what might be to come if we’re not careful.
(Nick Quantrill, music contributor)

John Cale—Mercy

john cale mercy album cover
The world has taken a dystopian turn in the decade since John Cale’s last solo record, and it shows. No stranger to pushing his music towards strange, unnerving edges—which served The Velvet Underground’s anxious art rock well in the 1960s—his newest album imbues his sound with entirely new levels of dread.
Paranoid soundscapes emerge from eerie bleeps, ambient static and restrained drum loops, which frame fraught baritone vocals that speak to the numerous trials of our times.
“The grandeur that was Europe is sinking in the mud,” Cale sings in “Time Stands Still”, which Sylvan Esso lends her ethereal voice to. “What is the legal status of ice?” he ponders in another track over a tempest of droning guitars and pounding drums. 
This new record builds on Cale’s experiments with production techniques in Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood (2012), though thankfully leaves the questionable abundance of autotune behind.
Featuring novel collaborations with flavour of the moment Weyes Blood and purveyors of strange pop Animal Collective, Cale has devised a compellingly foreboding album to match today’s zeitgeist.
(Becca Inglis, editorial assistant)

Young Fathers—Heavy Heavy

young fathers heavy heavy album cover
Young Fathers plunge into Heavy Heavy with the momentum of a stretched elastic band that has finally snapped.
Five years is the longest we’ve ever gone without a release (we’ve not heard a peep since 2018’s Cocoa Sugar), and that break turned out to be restorative, returning the band to the kinetic, barely restrained pandemonium that defined their early sound. 
Young Fathers reportedly holed themselves up in one studio with all their instruments, which facilitated new levels of spontaneity.
Banging, twanging and scraping whatever was within reach was the order of the day, which comes through in the exhilarating “Drum” (driven by rapid metallic chords and trademark vocal harmonies) and the swirling mass of hand claps and piano keys on “Sink or Swim”. 
But it’s not all fast and furious. “Tell Somebody” is an ever expanding orchestral swell, where mounting strings and an organ carry its listeners aloft.
In “Geronimo”, from the opening whisper (“Sometimes bad guys don’t need to lie”) to the battle cry motif, “Get up”, Young Fathers prove themselves as masters of the emotive, climbing climax.  
(Becca Inglis, editorial assistant)

Algiers—Shook

algiers shook album cover
Over three records, Algiers have crafted an intoxicating horror-tinged sound, fusing post-punk, soul and southern drawl rap to evoke the enduring pain of America’s traumatic past.
This year’s Shook presents the most fully realised version of this vision—more rapturous, more rich, and more packed to the brim with influences than ever. Massive Attack, Bloc Party, Quasimoto, Funkadelic, and politically charged 1970s soul each make their mark. 
Mechanised techno bleeps frame a soaring guitar riff and furious rap from Zack la Rocha on “Irreversible Damage”. “Something Wrong” twists classic dub chords into a discordant sludge. In “Momentary”, revolutionary fervour gives way to gospel hums and a chorus of cicadas, recalling the quiet determination of community. 
Where once Algiers drew comparisons with the southern gothic novel, now they sound positively Afrofuturist, drawing from the genre’s radical, utopian thinking to compel systemic change. In one final prophetic line, Lee Bains, III imparts a sermon like a protest poem: “When we die, our beloved, our kinfolk, fear not. We rise.” 
(Becca Inglis, editorial assistant)

The National—First Two Pages of Frankenstein 

First Two Pages of Frankenstein by The National album cover
The National released two albums in 2023. Both First Two Pages of Frankenstein and Laugh Track could make the list, but let's go with First Two Pages of Frankenstein.
From start to finish, the album maintains a thread of melodic elegance. While lyrics bravely tackle the sensitive subject of depression, there’s an air of optimism throughout.
It culminates with the stunningly beautiful "Your Mind Is Not Your Friend", featuring Phoebe Bridgers. This, the penultimate track, is a true champagne moment.
The National have paid their dues. From touring humble venues in the early 2000s to their current status as arena fillers, we've witnessed a band evolve. The story of The National is refreshingly genuine.
Although this album might be their most accessible work to date, that inherent purity remains…a rare trait in today's music scene.
(Neal Sawyer, music contributor) 

Everything But the Girl—Fuse

Everything But the Girl—Fuse album cover
Returning to the musical fray after nearly a quarter of a century could have been a risky proposition. But far from tainting their legacy, the chameleonic Everything But the Girl only added to it with an album that deservedly gave lifelong partners Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt the highest chart entry of their career.
Picking up from where the meditative electronica of 1999 predecessor Temperamental left off, Fuse serves as a crash course in how the genre has progressed since, from the post-dubstep elements on "Nothing Left to Lose" to the subtle use of auto-tuned and pitch-shifted vocals.
But the pair know when to give their yearning after-hours songs space, as on the gorgeously ghostly ballads "Run a Red Light" and "When You Mess Up." A masterclass in how to reignite a musical spark.
(Jon O’Brien, music contributor)

Mike Oldfield—Tubular Bells (50th Anniversary Edition)

mike oldfield tubular bells 50th anniversary edition album cover
No doubt anyone who caught The Exorcist when it hit cinemas in 1973 will have a Pavlovian response to those first notes of Mike Oldfield’s proggy odyssey, Tubular Bells.
Fifty decades on from its debut, this spine-tingling, otherworldly composition is rendered anew on the 50th Anniversary Edition, which combines hat tips to the trailblazing record with cultural touchstones that later drew from it. 
Featured for the first time is “Tubular Bells Intro 4”, which for the uninitiated provides an eight minute introduction to the colossal two-parter. Soft metallic chimes and a segue into tranquil guitar plucks make this shortened version sunnier, before a rousing electric riff nods to the original’s mid-song rockout.  
In a meta moment, “Tubular X” offers Oldfield’s take on the X-Files theme, which in turn referenced moments from the original “Tubular Bells”. The paranormal motif may sound gimmicky at first, but soon gives way to a synthy squelch and celestial soundscape, which capture the sci-fi aura that once surrounded the late 20th-century explosion of new music technology. 
(Becca Inglis, editorial assistant)

Yusuf/Cat Stevens—King of a Land 

yussef dayes king of the land album cover
On his past two releases, Yusuf/Cat Stevens has largely turned his attention to reinterpretations of his iconic body of work—no bad thing for long-time fans of the gravel-voiced singer-songwriter, but those who crave new material have been left slightly wanting. 
This year, at long last, King of a Land applies Yusuf’s poetical imagination to a fresh collection of music, which brings his faith and desire for a fairer world to vivid life. 
Yusuf calls the record a “mosaic” of his multiple musical influences, whether it’s the folk-pop of “Things”, the surprisingly raucous rock on “Pagan Run”, or the Tchaikovsky-inspired “How Good It Feels”. 
Settling into Yusuf’s simple pleas for peace and kindness feels comfortingly nostalgic on this record, particularly when it is wrapped in his distinctive croon.  
(Becca Inglis, editorial assistant)

Chineke! Orchestra and Jeneba Kanneh-Mason—Florence Price

chineke! orchestra florence price album cover
Bob McQuiston of NPR once wrote that Florence Price’s Symphony in E Minor was an “early American symphony worthy of being rediscovered.”
Presented more than ten years after this retrospective review (and 90 years after its first performance), listeners can once again rediscover the groundbreaking symphony by Price, the first African American woman composer to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra, thanks to Chineke! Orchestra’s warmly interpreted rendition. 
Piano Concerto in One Movement summons the talents of pianist Jeneba Kanneh-Mason, who unrolls the traipsing piano cadenza—once played by Price herself—with an effortless poise. 
The traditions of African American music shine on Symphony in E Minor, particularly in the third movement, named “Juba Dance”, where gentle pats on African drums and rhythmically plucked violins imitate the body percussion once performed by slaves. 
The closer, “His Resignation and Faith” from Ethiopia’s Shadow, pulls everything back with mournful, aching strings, reminding its listeners of the gravity and dignity of the African American experience that Price sought to capture. 
(Becca Inglis, editorial assistant)

Blur—The Ballad of Darren 

blur ballad of darren album cover
The arrival of a new Blur record is always something to be savoured—they’ve only released two studio albums in the last 20 years—so it was with a mixture of anticipation and excitement that I sat down to listen to their latest offering The Ballad of Darren last July.
I wasn’t disappointed. Arguably the band’s best collection of new songs since Britpop and “Cool Britannia” ruled the airwaves, the music, anchored by the catchy lead singles, “The Narcissist” and “Barbaric”, is peppered with juicy snippets of melodic indie rock underlain by a mellower more loungy feel.
Characterised by Graham Coxon’s choppy guitar riffs and Damon Albarn’s familiar mockney vocals, there’s no mistaking that this is an album by the same band that gave us “Parklife” and “The Great Escape”.
But, with its moody, introspective lyrics and dark, melancholic themes, it carefully avoids rehashing the youthful shenanigans of the mid-1990s. Instead, Blur 2023 have matured like a full-bodied wine, without losing their experimental edge or musical curiosity.
They might be less cocky and whimsical than their former Britpop selves, but The Ballad of Darren proves that they’re still just as cool.  
(Brendan Sainsbury, music contributor)

Cian Ducrot—Victory

cian ducrot victory album cover
Although the idea of yet another social media platform to figure out fills me with dread, when artists like Cian Ducrot burst on the scene seemingly from nowhere after making it on the likes of TikTok, I do feel like I’ve missed out on what must have been a captivating journey.
This year saw the release of debut album Victory, and it’s an album I took a chance on after hearing just one song. That song was "I’ll Be Waiting", and it’s a perfect example of what Victory is all about. It works in a flash mob acoustically and is a rousing sing-a-long anthem at live shows.
Victory is the polar opposite of manufactured pop. It’s personal, raw and full of emotion. Cian’s Irish lilt cuts deep with stories of love, abandonment and the empowerment of overcoming adversity to become the artist he is today. As Cian says: "The sweeter the victory."
(Lauren John, music contributor)

Yussef Dayes—Black Classical Music 

yussef dayes black classical music album cover
In the words of Nina Simone, “To most white people, jazz means black and jazz means dirt and that's not what I play. I play black classical music.”
Jazz, for creators like Simone, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, was an entrapping racialised descriptor. Rejecting the term instead reinforced the genre’s freedom, expansiveness and global reach.  
The newest entrant to this lineage is drummer Yussef Dayes, one of the most recognisable faces in London’s jazz revival, with his debut album. His interpretation of the black classical canon is typically loose, traversing through Latin percussion (“Afro Cubanism”), reggae (“Pin Di Plaza”) and jazz funk (“Jukebox”).  
The past and future converge throughout, strings blending into time-warping, wobbling synths (“Turquoise Galaxy”) and the high pitched baby babble of Dayes’ daughter evoking a primordial innocence (“The Light”).
Jazz’s temporality collapses, sounding at once futuristic and ancient, free-flowing yet kept in check by Dayes’ taut drum licks. As a compendium of his career to date, you couldn’t get much more comprehensive.  
(Becca Inglis, editorial assistant)

The Pretenders—Relentless 

the pretenders relentless album cover
“We don’t have to fade to black,” goes Chrissie Hynde’s cry, her punk pixie persona as much intact on The Pretenders’ track “Let The Sun Come In” as it was when she first formed the band more than 40 years ago. 
Between the defiant jangly rock of “A Love”, raucous riffs of “Losing My Sense of Taste” and the gently regretful closer “I Think About You Daily”, Hynde still stands out as one of the most distinctive voices in punk—capable of staring down entreaties to slow down as the years march by, while delving in to the bittersweet memories that her senior years have collected. 
It’s testament to Hynde’s persistent dynamism as frontwoman (and to resident guitarist James Walbourne’s strident licks, which appear on Relentless for the second album running) that the veteran rock band continue to sound fresh. 
(Becca Inglis, editorial assistant)

Charlotte Keeffe—Right Here, Right Now Quartet—ALIVE! In the studio 

ALIVE! In the studio by Charlotte Keeffe—Right Here, Right Now Quartet
Choosing just one album out of the many wonderful improvised standards or new compositions that have come my way this year is difficult, but one album that stood out for me that is Charlotte Keeffe and her quartet's energy-infused Right Here, Right Now Alive, which captures the vibrance of Keeffe's compositions..
The quartet comprises double bass player Ashley John Long, drummer Ben Handysides and guitar player Moss Freed, with Keeffe on sound brush/trumpet and flugelhorn. This recording demonstrates the quartet's ease playing under a leader who understands improvisation, the space musicians need, but also how to draw the best from each player.
Keeffe's trumpet playing is particularly brilliant. At times, the trumpet sighs softly, whispering sweetness, and at others it blasts and blares like a demonic imp. Right Here, Right Now is a wonderful, squishy, squelchy, warm embrace of improvised music at its best.
(Sammy Stein, music contributor)

Miguel Atwood-Fergusion—Les Jardins Mystiques Vol. 1 

miguel atwood-ferguson les jardins mystiques vol 1 album cover
A 52-track, close to four-hour album may sound like a recipe for a meandering mess, but in Miguel Atwood-Ferguson’s hands, such a vast project becomes a tightly disciplined journey—an intentional walk down the garden path, if you will, which pauses to notice the occasional small flower.
Unbelievably, for a multi-instrumentalist credited on more than 600 albums and soundtracks, this is Atwood-Ferguson’s first solo release, which explains its breadth. 
“Kiseki” opens with a lush palette of tinkling piano, brushed cymbals and swooping flutes, resembling rustling in the undergrowth and snatches of birdsong. Resisting classical motifs in favour of short textural bursts, it evokes jazz’s improvisation, which spills over into distortedly rhythmic percussion on “Persinette”. 
Elsewhere, Atwood-Ferguson departs from organic sounds to something more space age—”Znaniya” is a star-studded number built from ascending and descending synths, while “Zarra” takes an acid-tinged turn.  
Having heard Atwood-Ferguson’s stamp on releases from Bonobo, Thundercat and Flying Lotus, it’s a pleasure to experience the full repertoire of his creative vision now on his own turf.  
(Becca Inglis, editorial assistant)
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