Second of three end-of-year/new year wrap-ups with a bit of housekeeping to get the A-Z posts bang up to date, mixed in with the traditional best of… post.
It is rare that this blog and its subject matter have been in sync in recent times – one of the (many) reasons (excuses) for such sporadic activity.
Since returning from South America and then wading through the seemingly never-ending run of I tracks on the journey through my iPod – not to mention the almost as endless catch-up through A-I added in that time – have been playing catch up with blog posts.
It, admittedly, became a bit of a chore – especially when spending all day in front of a laptop at home post-lockdown and without the momentum built from either travelling or listening to the next tracks on this journey, bringing with them fresh ideas to drive things onward.
But as 2023 drew to a close, new home, new life and things began to line up again – the I tracks had been cleared, the catch up spanning several years had followed and J was a mere sprint.
Meaning all that was required to end the year up to date was a further catch up through the most recent arrivals.
That journey took us from one Lemonheads track to another courtesy of a 30th anniversary reissue of Come On Feel… which saw tracks dotted along the way.
They provided enough proof to remember why they could, and possibly should, have been the biggest band in the world. Mixed in with enough to remember exactly why they were not.
There were a few bits filling in gaps in my collection such as The Triffids, Ride, Husker Du – whose Zen Arcade did the job of checking downloads were working after a switch from the UK – and The National, despite being convinced the album containing Bloodbuzz Ohio (my favourite song of theirs) was already in my collection somewhere.
There was a taste of what is to come in 2024 from IDLES (along with LCD Soundsystem) but most of the catch-up consisted of those songs and tracks contending for a place in the Travel Marmot Best of 2023 list.
The fight for album of the year has been a three-way fight for a while – one which topped many end-of-year lists, one which popped up occasionally and a third which was barely mentioned. Until now at least.
A few final listens cut that down to a two-horse race, the winner taking the verdict by a short head.
So here, only a few days late, is this year’s selection…
Album of the Year: The National – First Two Pages of Frankenstein
It was a tight-run thing and may well change my mind – it has happened before. But a band once dismissed as another generic indie guitar band with The… in the name took the honours. Got that first impression badly wrong.
They came close to top spot a few years ago, but this just has too many really good songs to deprive them again. And there is something about the drumming on their songs which manages to both drive them on and keep them in check simultaneously, to say nothing of Matt Berninger’s delivery.
It is not perfect, it is a bit one-paced. Swap in a couple of tracks for some from Laugh Track, their second album of the year, and the victory would have been even clearer.
And like everything else in 2023, it had a bit of Taylor Swift. To say nothing of Phoebe Bridgers. Speaking of which…
Obligatory Phoebe Bridgers Entry of the Year: Boygenius – The Record
It has become a running joke that Phoebe Bridgers has to feature in each of these lists (even if it required a bit of cheating last year to shoehorn her in), but this is here purely on merit.
Do not fall into the typical image of a Boygenius fan, if reviews concentrating on the audience’s gender and sexuality at live performances are to be believed as the bandwagon gathered speed, but the songs are too good for pigeonholing.
Their debut EP, good as it was, smacked of solo work with the others supplying support. This appears as a collaborative effort by three singer-songwriters lifting each other.
Not Strong Enough was a genuine contender for track of the year.
Completing the Podium Album of the Year: The Murder Capital – Gigi’s Recovery
The other Irish guitar band have played second fiddle somewhat to their contemporaries Fontaines DC, but the slow burn which runs through their career and much of this album is coming close to ignition.
A friend seeing them live a while back reported the feeling of being present for “something important”. He may be right – their Glastonbury set was the highlight of what made it over to Australia.
Return to Form of the Year: Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – Weathervanes
His last couple of albums have been far from bad. But, clad in a more Nashville country sheen, they had to contend with following the remarkable double whammy of Southeastern and Something More Than Free.
Weathervanes finds something of a middle ground, confirming Isbell’s place as one of the great contemporary storytellers (to say nothing of his singing and guitar playing).
Promising Late Discovery of the Year – Wednesday: Rat Saw Good
Otherwise known as the pick of the albums tried out because they kept appearing in end-of-year lists (pretty thin pickings, which says something about the reviews, the year in music or my hunger for new music as the years roll on – possibly all three).
Wednesday lived up to most of the recommendations, like Soccer Mommy fronting Porridge Radio or Camp Cope. With bonus points for name checking the Drive-By Truckers
Honourable mention to Mitski’s The Land Is Inhospitable And So Are We.
Where The Hell Did That Come From… of the Year: Slowdive – Everything Is Alive
Back in the days when my fingers got inky at least once a week with the ritual study of the NME, Slowdive were one of a slew of shoegazing bands in the one-time flavour of the month movement.
Fuzzy guitars should really have been right up my street, but for some reason never fully connected – even with my teenage propensity to gaze at my shoes through what passed for a fringe. Back in the days when it had a hope of making it down as far as my eyes.
Slowdive were not among the bands that really gripped me back then, so their second (or even their third) coming has been a truly pleasant surprise.
Maybe staring at your shoes is better with age and Ride’s Nowhere made a welcome return after initially buying it on vinyl (sadly, left behind – albeit to a good home with my stereo – in the UK).
New music from the original line-up of Drop Nineteens – much more on my radar and contributors to a teenage Winona obsession – came from even further out of left field and is worthy of further investigation.
Need to Spend More Time With/Old Dependable of the Year: Sufjan Stevens – Javelin
Keep being told it is his best for some time. And his best his sensational – several tracks contending for any Desert Island Discs list, even if they are about serial killers or losing someone to cancer.
It is good, just hasn’t really grabbed me yet – although some of his best stuff suddenly leaped out after repeated listens. So will be doing that. And time spent with Sufjan is never wasted.
Honourable mention to The Coral’s Sea of Mirrors.
It’s Good But… of the Year: The Clientele – I Am Not There Anymore
Had several people rave about the latest from a band who apparently have been going for more than 30 years but passed me by completely.
It’s… OK. In places, really good. Benefits from definitely not sounding like it came from anytime recently. Don’t quite get the praise some people lauded on it.
But then said that about The National for a long time
Well Worth Anyone’s Time of the Year…
Girl Ray – Prestige
Wilco – Cousin
Margo Price – Strays
The Hold Steady – Price of Progress
The Wedding Present – 24 Songs
Drive-By Truckers – The Complete Dirty South
The Gaslight Anthem – History Books
Teenage Fanclub – Nothing Lasts Forever
Track of the Year – The National: New Order T-Shirt
It could have been Not Strong Enough and another title for Phoebe Bridgers, it could just as easily have been a couple of contenders from The Murder Capital. Or from Jason Isbell, King of Oklahoma was definitely in the running.
It might even have been Eucalyptus, another song by The National.
But from pretty much first hearing, Matt Berninger’s tale of keeping memories of an old flame alive (“I keep what I can of you”) through an item of clothing has been leading the race for this accolade.
Replace a T-shirt – and sort of want one of the charity ones they made to go with it – with songs and that was one of the inspirations for this entire musical journey.