FIFTY3 FRIDAYS: 2023 AND ALL THAT
It is time to look back on 2023, not that I hold any affection for much of it. It has been a shitshow politically, economically, environmentally and indeed almost any adverb you might wish to add to that list. However, the creative output of musicians, many of whom struggle to balance the need for a day job alongside their writing, recording and performing habit, continues to be a beacon in the surrounding gloom. Be thankful for this and that I have a new image from Kingston's illuminations to share with you too.
For those old enough to remember it, today’s title is an oblique reference to 1066 and All That: A Memorable History of England by W.C. Sellar & R.J. Yeatman with illustrations by John Reynolds. As a callow youth, I credit this marvellous little book for nurturing my own absurdist sense of humour which led to an enduring love for the work of Spike Milligan, N. F. Simpson and, of course, Monty Python. All of which has little, if anything, to do with the 2023 musical highlights I have chosen to close this otherwise dreadful year with and is not terribly woke either.
Anyhow these are some albums I really enjoyed this year each with a sample track to give you a taste. As they say on those celebrity reality shows, they are presented in no particular order.
DIZZY – DIZZY
Canadian alt-pop four-piece Dizzy sets a high bar after sidestepping that difficult ‘second album syndrome’ with the marvellous The Sun and Her Scorch in 2020 which followed the band’s acclaimed 2018 debut full-length, Baby Teeth. Dizzy’s self-titled third album, released in August this year, finds lead singer and lyricist Katie Munshaw in an unsettling, anonymous mask offering reflections on themes of identity and upbringing, pain and liberation. The songs are disturbingly honest and expressive musically offering a rich selection of styles and melodies. Amid the high energy euphoric pop, there is also space for quieter contemplations, exemplified by the balance between dark thoughts and delicacy in “Knock The Wind”.
HANNAH ROSE PLATT – DEATHBED CONFESSIONS
Bristol-based Liverpool-native Hannah Rose Platt has featured regularly in these columns in 2023 Her third album Deathbed Confessions presents a series of dark tales highlighting her prowess as a storyteller through song while her fine sense of atmospherics adds a further, almost tangible dimension to her work. “Feeding Time For Monsters” sees Hannah asking “if a house represents the psyche – what would haunt the rooms of our very own haunted houses?” as she explores personal experiences and exorcises some of her own ghosts along the way. Hannah’s imaginative, siren-like vocal here recalls Kate Bush and perfectly suits the song’s mood. For a track-by-track guide to the full album, click here.
DEBRIS DISCS - POST WAR PLANS
Another who kindly provided us a track-by-track rundown of his, in this case, debut album was Derbyshire-based lo-fi cinematic artiste James Eary aka Debris Discs. The album entitled Post War Plans takes its inspiration from his grandpa’s Second World War letters which James uses as a musical conduit to reflect on the impact the past has on the present. “Losing the Matriarch” is inspired by his own reflections and experiences, a counterpoint to the imagined memories realised through reading the wartime letters. With imagery reflecting the WW2 album theme, the song explores loss from a more personal perspective in which musings on war resolve to a full embracing of peacetime, as life goes on.
CHARLOTTE CARPENTER – A MODERN RAGE
East Midlands-based artiste Charlotte Carpenter has been releasing music for over a decade now. Following something of a hiatus and despite a clutch of EPs and singles over past years, she has been working steadily towards a debut album, A Modern Rage, which finally came out this autumn. The 11-track collection is artful, eclectic and always challenging while her vocal versatility carries a mark of distinction with it. “You’re My Reason Why” is described by Charlotte as her favourite song on the album and the one she always wanted to write. Inspired, if that is quite the right word, by the pandemic, the song embraces the notion of facing the end of the world with the one you love in such an uplifting manner it is like applying a warm blanket to dystopia.
HOLLY HENDERSON – THE WALLS
A Maidstone native, Holly Henderson is still based in the county town of Kent, despite jetting to LA to record her first full-length album, Monday Green, with guitarist/producer Pete Thorn who first became aware of her talents via Instagram. Before then the self-confessed ‘weird kid’ cut her performing teeth in a punk band before hooking up musically with Pete Thorn. Entitled The Walls, Holly’s debut full-length album came out in February 2023. The psych-pop flavoured “The Planes” is somewhat adrift from her punk roots with its easy tempo, fuzzed guitar, sleek vocal and layered harmonies. Lyrically she reflects on how invasive thoughts do not need to be accepted as real and threatening but can be positively dispelled.
BOYGENIUS – THE RECORD
In the tradition of those bands of the late 60s through to mid-70s, Boygenius is a genuine supergroup, uniting the solo talents of seminal US singer-songwriters Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus. A 2018 debut EP seemed like a one-off as each of their solo careers took off, so five years on the release of a full-length album, The Record, was always going to be a major event. Taking you on a rollercoaster ride through aspects of the male ego, it blurs boundaries between female love and friendship and holds mirrors to one another as true confidantes. The Record is packed with visceral imagery, graphic stories, open letters and musical variation to keep everything fresh. It is an intensely unified work; playing to the strengths of individual songwriting while bringing such camaraderie to every song to stamp it as a collective work. As I can’t decide on one featured track I present two great tasters: “Not Strong Enough” above and “True Blue” below.
IAN SWEET – SUCKER
I was initially drawn to the Lynchian videos of LA’s Jilian Medford, aka IAN SWEET, whose brilliant album Show Me How You Disappear materialised in March 2021 following an impressive string of preview singles. She followed that with an EP, Star Stuff, the next year with a hint of more mainstream leanings and in November 2023 released a new album, Sucker. I truly hope this will bring this underrated artiste to the attention of a much wider audience. One of the strongest songs on a really solid album, “Emergency Contact” is a perfect marriage of indie rock and pop hooks underpinning some bittersweet reflections on co-dependency.
WINGS OF DESIRE – LIFE IS INFINITE
Life is Infinite is an album from the dream pop pairing of Chloe Little and James Taylor aka Wings of Desire released this month yet first trailed back in September 2022. The record collates all the band’s previous single releases and more, drawing ideas from psychological revolution, visual arts and 20th century counterculture. It explores the notion of things falling apart so that something better can arise. There is a great sense of cohesion to the album and an anthemic feel throughout. I could have picked virtually any track to highlight but chose “001 [Tame The War, Feed The Fire]” for its passion and intensity blending the anthemic with a dash of shoegazing amid an 80s vibe. Lyrically it picks up on humanity being at the crossroads of destruction and promotes a more life-affirming resolution to it all. The live session video is an extra treat.
SAMANTHA FISH & JESSE DAYTON - DEATH WISH BLUES
I must credit the brilliant pairing of Kansas City’s Samantha Fish and Beaumont, Texas native Jesse Dayton for reigniting a love for classic blue rock. Samantha is primarily known as a solo artiste, a singer and mean guitar player who embraces blues, rock and country with a touch of funk and balladry. From a varied musical background, Jesse has been recording in his own right since the mid-90s, playing alongside the likes of Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. The pair came together to write and record an album, Death Wish Blues, earlier this year mixing gritty blues rock with a dash of country and funk. “Riders” combines a dirty funk riff with blues licks, squalls of slide guitar and some mean verse trading. An ode to the rock n’ roll lifestyle equating tour stopovers with those of the one-night kind, it is tempered by a touch of suggestive humour behind it all. It was a real bonus to see them live on tour in November at London’s 100 Club.
GIRL RAY – PRESTIGE
My final 2023 album pick which rounds things neatly up to 10 if from North London trio Girl Ray. The band, formed while still at school, released two albums, Earl Grey in 2017 and Girl (2019) and, after a hiatus, added a third entitled Prestige to its canon this August. Girl Ray reimagines the sound of late 70s - 80s disco with an energy and panache all its own. Taken from the LP, “Up” is typical of the space afforded to musical development within Girl Ray’s songs which in this case includes a core insistent riff, a lovely reflective bridge mid-song and even a gutsy guitar solo towards the end. Like everything on the album, it is a beautifully judged song; celebratory in its design, irresistible in its charm and impossible not to dance along to.
There are many more albums I could have included in this little round-up with Lily & Madeleine, Survival Guide, The Happy Somethings and Christine & The Queens particularly top of mind. I haven’t even gone near EPs which form the basis of the weekly Fifty3 Fridays digest. There were so many good ones in 2023 with Neverending Trial by Nadia Sheikh a particular standout for me. We look forward to another great year for music in 2024 and greater recognition for all those independent artistes working at the coal face who surprisingly often produce higher quality music than their mainstream, marketing-supported counterparts.
Happy New Year and thank you for reading, watching and listening during 2023.