Critics Poll 34 — My Ballot

Belle & Sebastian is my favorite band.  But when I make these annual lists, Belle & Sebastian doesn’t do as well as you’d expect a favorite band to do. Late Developers, their most recent album, is their best in a long time. I still decided that at least twenty other sets were better.  I might have reason to revise that assessment later; I often do. Many Belle & Sebastian sets that have missed the annual list have remained in rotation for me over the years, while others that I esteemed higher have been forgotten. I’ve tried on many different explanations for my persistent misjudgment: ugly-American prejudice against the British Isles, overcompensation for my runaway affection for a group I’ve regularly raved about, distaste for argyle patterns, blind fury that they’ve never invited me to join the group and shake a tambourine.  I’ve come to realize the reason is simpler than any of that. “Fox in the Snow” notwithstanding, Belle & Sebastian makes the most springlike music imaginable. And on snowy days like today, spring feels far away.    

How different would this exercise be if we did it in June?  I don’t just mean my evaluations. I mean album list-making in general; prioritizing and ranking; the singling out of exemplary recordings and performances and the artistic values that those records represent. All music fans do it. Some of us are ledger-makers and archivists — rocking bookworms — and we like to get our evaluations down in ink.  For others, it’s a look back on where they’ve been, the experiences they’ve had with music during the prior trip around the sun, and an unspoken but resolute acknowledgement of what made the grade, what touched us, what surprised, and what kinda sucked. The clock strikes twelve and we take a breath.  For a few moments we think about where we are, where we were, and where we’re headed.  Then we get right back to it. 

Here in the American Northeast, the ball drops on frozen earth. These are ideal conditions for evaluating snowblowers and ice skating rinks, but maybe not the best conditions for grappling with popular music.  Some sock-hop purists would surely argue that pop in all its forms is a summertime thing, made for block parties and highway drives and flirtation under the stars.  Summer is extroverted, outdoor, hedonistic, convivial, full of opportunities for action; winter is introverted, indoor, ascetic, solitary, full of opportunities for thought. In the summertime, Mungo Jerry is going to have a drink and have a drive, and he’ll go out and see what he can find.  In the coldest winter, Kanye West, alone, contemplates his mistakes and broods about how he’ll never love again.  I prefer the Kanye song, but it’s also twenty-nine degrees and snowy today.  Ask me again in May, and I might sing a different tune.

Or I might not.  I’m neither a party person nor an action hero.  Popular music is, for me, an examination of what it means to be a human being — it’s about our pain, our longing for connection, our unquenchable sexual impulses, our dances on the brink of oblivion, moral and physical frailty, impermanence, partying like it’s 1999 because it’s way past 1999, etcetera. The end of a year always has eschatological overtones, and I don’t need much of a push, or a cool breeze, to get a nice coating of frost on my frame of mind.  This has been a particularly chilly spell in the history of the human race.  The simulated winter of the lockdown gave way to years of unexplained excess mortality and a dreadful feeling that those in power won’t level with us no matter how we frame our questions. Under the best of conditions, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” does not speak to me. In 2023, sunny music felt like emotional malpractice.

Thus, as I see it, the best music of the year was the year’s most unflinching.  I valued music that took bravery to make.  That it is mostly winter music — music made at the end of things — shouldn’t be surprising.  The boat has been caught in an icy drift for a while now.  From close observation of human behavior comes Karly Hartzmann’s description of the bird that smashes into the same screen door every day, unable to rely on instinct or learn from pain.  From a compulsion to be honest comes Brandon McDonald’s conviction that we’re presently living through the apocalypse, and from a vast reserve of earned fatalism comes an accompanying belief that we’re all back at our desks on 9/12, making believe the ash heaps aren’t right there. From the deepest quarantine comes the D’Addario brothers’ declaration that every day is the worst day of their lives, one after the other, visible through an unopenable window as they stretch toward a flat horizon. Trauma, I believe it’s called: a black fog too big to be comprehended all at once, so it billows through the hinges of the bolted door and streams through the flue. It seeps through the cracks in everything. That’s how the dark gets in.

There are no humorless artists on this roster.  Fun they aren’t, but most of these records are grimly funny.  A certain kind of veteran sad bastard, practiced in the art of whistling past the graveyard, had a leg up. It gives me very little pleasure to make room on my list for Damon Albarn and Noel Gallagher; I was told, emphatically, the there was no distance left to run, but they’re like video game avatars chugging away against a solid wall, and probably always will be.  If those names aren’t throwback enough for you, I’ve found room for Mike Skinner here, too.  Believe me, I would have preferred to honor near-misses that led with their guarded optimism by old favorites like Jamila Woods, Margaret Glaspy, Susanne Sundfør, and The Front Bottoms. But I’m not here to tell fibs today. 

Those new albums by Blur and Oas-, er, the High Flying Birds hold, defiantly, to gentility in the face of sweeping malaise and decay — Damon folds a punishingly sad breakup narrative into his usual concerns about the sorry state of the remnants of the empire, while Noel continues to be the world’s most reliable source of buck-up anthems aimed at the tough times.  It’s fair to call them both as Brexit-inspired, if we understand Brexit to be a disastrous turn away from the cosmopolitan and toward depressive, dead-end self-absorption masquerading as populism.  Mostly, I think these guys are linked at a psychic level.  If one of them raises his game or just returns to a core competency, the other is bound to follow.  (About the inclusion of the Stones, I make no apologies at all: those guys are and always will be great, as fundamental as hydrogen and helium, and those who’ve chosen to resist their album on principal are jeopardizing their rock credentials.  Yes, they do sound eighty, but they are eighty.  They’ve never lied to you about anything, and they’re not going to start now.)

I’ve embraced lions in the winter before.  Six years ago, I listed Roger Waters, Ray Davies, Randy Newman, and the man behind this year’s finest album, predicting as I did that it was an aberration, and I’d soon return to championing mallpunk, trap music, and start-up indiepop.  But in 2017, angry demagogues were ascendant all over the globe, and the primary theorists of the classic rock era were wondering where it had all gone wrong.  They’d told us to tear down the wall and save the village green, and they’d had to look at what we’d done instead.  They’ve all got big mouths and bigger talents; they weren’t going to let this happen without registering a protest.     

2023 was something different.  This was not a particularly political year.  I heard no faith whatsoever that a well-turned phrase or a crisply minted melody might save the world, or even rescue a single soul.  Our favorites sung through heartbreak that they did not expect to heal.  Billy Woods ended his latest missive from the spider hole wondering how long he had left.  He wasn’t alone.  So much of what we got — great and not so great — sounded like the sizzle and swish of the end bit of sand in the hourglass, the dull echo of a rock dropped to the bottom of a well, the muffled hush of snow on the field. As long as the earth doesn’t shudder free from its orbit, spring will come. We’ll see what thaws and what doesn’t.

Album of the Year:

  1. Paul Simon — Seven Psalms
  2. Lana Del Rey — Did You Know That There’s A Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd
  3. Olivia Rodrigo — Guts
  4. Danny Brown — Quaranta
  5. Morgan Wallen — One Thing At A Time
  6. Black Country, New Road — Live At Bush Hall
  7. Indigo De Souza — All Of This Will End
  8. Home Is Where — The Whaler
  9. Wednesday — Rat Saw God
  10. The Streets — The Darker The Shadow The Brighter The Light
  11. Haken — Fauna
  12. Jenny Lewis — Joy’All
  13. The Lemon Twigs — Everything Harmony
  14. Owl City — Coco Moon
  15. The Rolling Stones — Hackney Diamonds
  16. Blur — The Ballad Of Darren
  17. Mon Laferte — Autopoiética
  18. Origami Angel — The Brightest Days
  19. Billy Woods & Kenny Segal — Maps
  20. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds — Council Skies

Best Album Title and Best Album Cover

In keeping with the tone of the year, The New Pornographers’s Continue As A Guest contained the gloomiest, most heartbroken, most alienated music they’ve ever recorded. This was the set on which Carl Newman visualized the sun floating away to join the stars, eager as the rest of us to give humanity the slip.  Apparently the teetering Yertle the Turtle-stack of houses on the cover was drawn by Neko Case years before the beginning of the pandemic, which should tell us all we need to know about how long we’ve been feeling separated from our neighbors, isolated at home on stilts and hidden behind picket fences, tethered to the next domicile by cable wires and little else.  Then there’s the great handle: a description of the modern condition that simultaneously covers our dependence on the whims of the algorithm and our estrangement from our communities. It’s a really good album, too, especially “Bottle Episodes” and the title track. Newman, Case, and Calder have turned into another pack of lions in the winter — hungry, surly, solitary, not creatures to cross. The sprightly pop kids will come back next year, I hope.

Most Welcome Surprise

As a passionate appreciator of Voodoo Lounge, not to mention “Undercover Of The Night,” I am definitely the target audience for a supergeriatric Stones album, and I dutifully ponied up for my copy the moment Hackney Diamonds dropped. What I didn’t expect was that the band would still have enough, er, watts to turn the lights up as bright as this after the loss of their world-famous drummer. As it turned out, Charlie gave us two more performances as a parting gift, and they’re hip-swivelers in the classic Stones-y style: the pouty “Live By The Sword” and “Mess It Up,” which is the exact dance-rock song that all the imitators have been trying to write ever since Some Girls. Leave it to the masters, no? Elton John and Stevie Wonder drop by to bang on the piano, Paul McCartney gets his bass signal as filthy as he can, and Lady Gaga does her best Merry Clayton imitation on “Sweet Sounds Of Heaven.” It turns out to be a pretty great one. She’s all in; they’re all in; as for me, you know I’m all in. Danny & The Juniors said it in ’57: If you don’t like rock and roll, just think what you’ve been missing/but if you like to bop and stroll, come on down and listen.

Biggest Disappointment

I’ve been a fan of (and an occasional apologist for) the members of Boygenius in the past, and I’ve had good things to say about Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker, and even the increasingly platitudinous Lucy Dacus. But they did not bring their top-drawer material to The Record, an album that coasted on a few good songs, the deserved reputation of the stars, and one of the most relentless hype campaigns this side of Jamie Harrison. Many of the tracks felt underwritten by the artist’s previous standards, and if you don’t believe that, play it back to back to Stranger In The Alps or Sprained Ankle and tell me I’m wrong. Also, I admit some disappointment in ideological turns taken by Róisín Murphy and Homeboy Sandman, even as I think they both put out good albums in 2023. Maybe not their best, though.

Album That Opened Most Strongly

At the very outset of Did You Know That There’s A Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, the Grant family is, literally, harmonious. They’re practicing the chorus to a song on which their most famous member advances a theory about death that’s hippie enough to appeal to this Californian sympathizer with friends on the far side of the veil. Lana’s pastor hypothesizes that the only thing a dying person brings through the departure gate are her memories of experiences on earth. This strikes me as an odd sort of New Age spirituality, and physically implausible to boot, but she’s so passionate about it that, as usual with LDR, I’m willing to roll with it. She’s determined to hold on to images of her family during her passage into nonbeing. Then comes the gorgeous title track and its desperate entreaty to a lover to extend the same courtesy to her. “Don’t forget me,” she begs, backed by a chorus that might well contain some of those same family members. Somewhere, along the way, we learn that the narrator is estranged from her momma. Next, on song number three, the protagonist begins to disconnect: sweet in bare feet but remote, gone where nobody goes in the North Country. Things started ghostly, and they’re getting spookier as they go along, but you’re still not going to be prepared for what comes next: the ballad of a woman who has given up on the possibility of human connection, or making any sort of mark on the memories of those around her. Her innocence is trashed and she hasn’t seen her mother in a long, long time; holed up at a seedy Ramada and trading in sex, doubting that anybody would believe her, or even listen, if she cried rape. From there, the album descends into shadow and refraction, moments that are genuinely terrifying, prayers for dead relatives, and a long, shuddering traverse of her emotional history. Some of it is drawn out and difficult. Some of it might have been freestyled from deep within a fugue. But if you’ve listened carefully from the beginning, she’ll have you right in the middle of the whirlpool and she won’t let go. And listening carefully is all she’s asking you to do. After all she’s done for us, how could we think of saying no?

Album That Ends Most Strongly

For the better part of a decade, Danny Brown has been trying to convince us that his screwed-up youth in borderline poverty conditions in urban Detroit drove him to dive into a pile of Adderall headfirst. Well, maybe. Anybody who describes his environment with such magnificent detail is bound to be a product of it. But on the last five songs of Quaranta, he tells a more complicated story. Over beats that approach the quality of the sublime, and prove, once again, that hip-hop is the most beautiful music on earth, he admits to messing up his relationships and prioritizing his professional ambitions in a way that any middle manager might identify with. And when Danny returns to an emotional depiction of his early life, he intertwines the sound and feel of old R&B records with his family history so tightly that he leaves no doubt that anything but music could be his life pursuit.

Album That Wore Out Most Quickly

Jessie Ware’s That! Feels Good! I guess I fibbed in the 2023 Abstract that the thinness of the lyrics didn’t bug me.

Album That Felt Most Like An Obligation To Get Through

New Blue Sun. Let it be known: I listened to it all the way through three times. I doubt I would have done that for anybody but Andre Benjamin.

Album That Sounded Like It Was The Most Fun To Make

Cory Hanson of Wand gave himself license to make an old-fashioned 1970s cock rock album with extended solos galore and copious quotes, tonal and otherwise, from Mick Box and Steve Howe. He even called it Western Cum in a quasi-sheepish attempt to let you know he’s in on the joke. Cory’s a wry guy. When he’s playing that mean guitar, though, he’s strictly business.

Album That Sounded Like It Was A Chore To Make

Peter Gabriel’s i/o, but I reckon it was well worth the effort.

Crummy Album You Listened To A Lot Anyway

Avalon Emerson’s & The Charm.

Album That Turned Out To Be A Whole Hell Of A Lot Better Than You Thought It Was At First

I’ve Got Me by Joanna Sternberg. It took a bit, but after awhile, the strength of the songcraft overcame the guilelessness of the performances, and maybe even some of the sanctimony.

Okay, singles very soon!