Music does something to me, and I’ve never been able to explain exactly why. It just happens.
My molecules are somehow rearranged when I walk into a supermarket and hear a song on the sound system.
I stop dead and forget the shopping list.
My wife becomes understandably exasperated.
I can’t not listen.
In similar fashion, I can’t ignore words wherever I see them, even when they’re on billboards as we’re speeding down the interstate.
It would be a startling change of pace for my existence to experience blank sonic space and be indifferent, except I can’t so much as imagine such an existence.
My earliest childhood memories have melodic accompaniments. When very young, I’d go to sleep to the cracklings of an ancient AM radio, and perhaps that’s why absolutely nothing about being five years old remains intact in my memory except for hearing “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “California Dreamin’” when both were smash hits.
The grooves on a LP collection of children’s music subsequently became worn and frayed. I recall two cuts in particular: An American folk song called “One More Day,” and Mozart’s “Turkish Rondo.”
The anecdotes are both endless and tedious, but the point is this: Music plays inside my noggin at all times, and has done so for as long as I can remember. At times music invades my dreams, and upon waking most mornings, a randomly selected song begins playing.
It is glorious, maddening, and central to my being. And yet, for all the ways that music is the soundtrack of my life, I possess no musical skills.
None. Zilch. Nada.
Instruments are a mystery to me, and my voice, once capable of decently carrying a tune for Floyd Central High School’s legendary choral director Mick Neely, has digressed through decades of misuse and abuse to the point of shower stall braying when alone, safely away from the ears of humans if not our terrified cats. I listen, drum fingers, hum, whistle, and participate as best I can.
It’s enough. My conclusion? If there is a “music gene,” I possess a strange variant of it. Music has spoken to me from the beginning. Had my formative years been spent with musicians as role models as opposed to athletes, perhaps it all would have turned out differently. As it stands, I’ve no complaints.
The innate pleasure to be derived from listening to music is more of an essential heartbeat than an optional amusement, and I can’t imagine life otherwise. If the music in my head ever stops playing, it will be the unmistakable sign of imminent death — and as all atheists like me know, death is a symphony without encores.
As such, my mission each year is to find new musical releases of the sort that Roger likes.
It’s as simple as that.
These might be rock, pop, world music, classical or jazz, although I’ll readily concede that rock and pop again constituted the bulk of my “new” findings in 2023. Granted, I streamed quite a few new classical albums, but not as much new world music or jazz. So it varies from year to year, although a steady diet of Billie Holiday, Bix Beiderbecke, Bessie Smith, Bunny Berigan and Duke Ellington always occurs.
Also, as a necessary caveat, you’ll see a notable absence in my customary musical vicinity of hip hop, rap, “today’s excruciatingly auto-tuned pop songs for truncated attention spans,” and country/western music. These genres don’t thrill me very much. They don’t flip the switch, but be aware that my lack of interest in them is strictly personal. I refrain from making sociological pronouncements about these genres.
All music is good; some of it is better than others, at least for me.
The idea, then, is to constantly program my brain with new music. It takes effort and a modicum of forethought. It’s far too easy to dive into the “classic” back catalogue and relive (but why?) the days of my youth.
When you’re a kid and have only a handful of albums, you listen to them hundreds of times and they’re imprinted forever; at least that’s the way it worked for me. Consequently, these days I ration my oldies, saving them for special occasions only.
Rather, my aim is to stay fresh, renew and think ahead, when this year’s new music will be bringing me nostalgic joy.
Here’s a list of eight bands or performers that I enjoyed in 2023, sharing the distinction of being entirely unknown to me on 31 December 2022.
- The Sherlocks
- The Answer
- The View
- The Reytons
- The Lathums
- Circa Waves
Some of these rock/pop acts are of recent vintage, and others are veterans of the scene. No matter; music comes to meet you wherever you are — and also when it comes time to leave. The passing of artists always saddens me in a way that the demise of captains of industry or politicians doesn’t (full stop).
Sinéad O’Connor, Tony Bennett, Shane MacGowan, Gordon Lightfoot and Jimmy Buffett were among the biggest musical names who exited the planet in 2023. Perhaps the only billionaire among them was Buffett, who I might yet dedicate a stand-alone essay to memorializing — not because I was a huge fan, but owing to the fact that so many friends were.
The lesser known names intrigue me to a greater degree.
Jim Gordon, troubled drummer for Eric Clapton’s short-lived band Derek & the Dominoes (circa 1970), stole the song “Layla’s” piano melody from ex-girlfriend Rita Coolidge, later killed his mother during a schizophrenic episode, and died after decades in prison.
Roger Whittaker is a singer from whom I cannot name a single song, but whose face is indelibly stamped into the consciousness of a certain generation (like mine) by virtue of a savvy decision to direct-market his greatest hits album “All My Best” via late night 70s-era television.
Harry Belafonte was born in 1927, the same year that Duke Ellington’s residency at Harlem’s Cotton Club began. Belafonte was of Jamaican ancestry and first came to prominence with the album Calypso, the title referring to a style of music from Trinidad & Tobago that shared influences with mento in Jamaica (a forerunner of reggae).
Dwight Twilley, whose album Twilley Don’t Mind was released in September of 1977. I bought it shortly thereafter based on the testimony of … well, I’ve no clear idea. It’s not like we had the internet, so probably FM radio. This song “Looking for the Magic” made little impression at first, but as high school graduation approached in the spring 1978, there was an unexpected second life, and suddenly became my theme (not that I found any magic on the way out the academic doors).
It further occurs to me that in 2023, for the first time in decades, I didn’t attend a single rock/pop live performance. The two live shows were the Louisville Orchestra at IU Southeast’s Ogle Center (Rachmaninov, I believe) and Dallas “Mr. Honky Tonk” Moore at New Albany’s summer concert series. Both were immensely enjoyable, and I sincerely regret missing The Hold Steady at Waterfront Wednesday during summer. Maybe next time.
Finally, it bears noting that an undisputed highlight of the year was putting on the headphones and listening to the remastered and augmented albums The Beatles 1962-1966 (Red Album) and The Beatles 1967-1970 (Blue Album), which in their original vinyl incarnations were essential early 1970s staples of a self-respecting rock ‘n’ roll fan’s collection.
Only slightly less compelling was the release of The Kinks … The Journey, Pt. 1 and Pt. 2, which made several late autumn afternoons more enjoyable (with alcoholic refreshment). As for “greatest hits” collections of the contemporary era, Rebel Diamonds by The Killers was an excellent reintroduction to a strong back catalog.
The Top 25 Albums of 2023
Honorable mention goes to How Will I Know If Heaven Will Find Me? from The Amazons, a carryover from 2022 that remained in the car and became a winter favorite as the newer releases trickled in.
25 Jimmy Buffett … Equal Strain on All Parts
24 Extreme … Six
23 Simply Red … Time
22 Depeche Mode … Memento Mori
21 Peter Gabriel … i/o
20 The Murder Capital … Gigi’s Recovery
19 Tigercub … The Perfume of Decay
18 The View … Exorcism of Youth
17 Circa Waves … Never Going Under
16 Lankum … False Lankum
15 The Answer … Sundowners
14 Sleaford Mods … UK Grim (and an EP, More UK Grim)
13 The New Pornographers … Continue As a Guest
12 The Lathums … From Nothing to a Little Bit More
11 Shame … Food for Worms
10 The Rolling Stones … Hackney Diamonds
09 Paramore … This Is Why
08 The Hold Steady … The Price of Progress
07 The Reytons … What’s Rock and Roll?
06 Blur … The Ballad of Darren
Selections from 11 through 25 are in approximate order of popularity. 10 – 06 fall just outside the upper tier.
05 Noel Gallagher … Council Skies
I contend that Who Built the Moon? (2017) is Noel’s finest solo release, and as such, this much delayed follow-up strikes me as a return to previous pre-lunar standards. However, the retro feel is utterly precious, and there are some great ballads here.
04 The Sherlocks … People Like Me and You
Hailing from South Yorkshire, the band’s tunes are pleasingly filled with a surplus of hooks, bridges and sing-along, stadium-suitable choruses. These are qualities I quite adore.
03 Gaz Coombes … Turn the Car Around
A collection of first-rate, mature songs from the creative heart of Supergrass, one of my favorite bands of the late 1990s. Again and again we see that the quality of the songwriting comes first.
02 Foo Fighters … But Here We Are
There was never a chance that Foo Fighters would disband after drummer Taylor Hawkins’ death, but what I didn’t expect was his absence to inspire a renaissance the likes of which probably hasn’t been seen since AC-DC’s Back in Black. The band channels grief, and comes out throwing punches.
01 Nothing But Thieves … Dead Club City
I first heard this band during the pandemic, around the time of its third album, and I’ve been absolutely entranced ever since. Singer Conor Mason’s otherworldly falsetto is part of the attraction, in addition to clever songs wielding numerous memorable hooks and bridges. I can’t put my finger on it, but this, a vaguely conceptual album, sank its hooks into me during summer, and the only word I can use to describe my reaction is “obsessional.”
Bands like Nothing But Thieves are the sought-after reward for every bit of time and effort it requires to find new music of the sort that I like.
And that’s the whole damn point, year in and year out.
The rest, or those albums I listened to a few times; enjoyable in almost every case, but they didn’t adhere to the brain:
The Coral … Sea of Mirrors
DMAs … How Many Dreams
Duran Duran … Danse Macabre
Fastball … Smashed Hits!
Liam Gallagher … Knebworth 22 (Live)
Himalayas … From Hell to Here
The Hives … The Death of Randy Fitzsimmons
Ian Hunter … Defiance Part 1
Iggy Pop … Every Loser
Inhaler … Cuts & Bruises
Jericho … Last in Line
Mammoth … Mammoth II
Tom Meighan … The Reckoning
John Mellencamp … Orpheus Descending
Metallica … 72 Seasons
Billy Nomates … Cacti
The Pale White … New Breed (EP)
Revolution Saints … Eagle Flight
Queens of the Stone Age … In Times New Roman
Slowdive … everything is alive
Sparks … The Girl Is Crying in Her Latte
Temples … Exotico
U2 … Songs of Surrender
White Reaper … Asking for a Ride