GL.23.11: Gina Uriarte
GL.23.12: Ryan Joyce
GL.23.13: Desa Warner
As is my usual practice, I limited myself to one track per artist. Unlike in past years, I did not limit myself to ten songs. I included only songs released in 2023, with the exception of the Lana Del Rey tune, which was released in December 2022 but was the title track to a 2023 album. This is in no particular order.
The Tubs – “Wretched Lie”
Did you ever ask yourself the following question: What if the Smiths and early REM had a love child and put Paul Weller on vocals? Me too. Fortunately, we now know the answer. It would sound exactly like The Tubs. Which is to say, it would sound great. “Wretched Lie” is the final track on The Tubs’ 2023 debut album, and it’s the album’s highlight for me, an infectious piece of retro ear candy that sounds like it could have been excavated from the vaults of MTV’s 120 Minutes.
boygenius – “$20”
Several months ago, Aaron, Carl Anderson and I began an email discussion – which continues to this day – on the pressing question of which Beatles the members of boygenius represent within their band. That is to say, who is the John of the band, who is the Paul of the band, who is the George of the band … you get the idea. Aaron and Carl were somewhat insistent that Phoebe and Lucy had to be John and Paul (not necessarily in that order) based on their songwriting chops, and Julien must be George given that she is the standout guitarist in the band. But I could never get on board with that, mainly because several of my favorite songs on the record are Julien-penned, most notably the scorching opener, “$20.” How could I relegate her to the third-best songwriter when she’s writing my favorite songs? This email discussion now seems oddly prescient following boygenius’ recent appearance on SNL, in which they donned Beatles attire and used Beatles typeface on their drum kit. But that performance unfortunately did nothing to answer this weighty philosophical question, which remains unresolved to this day.
JPEGMAFIA + Danny Brown – “Orange Juice Jones”
I love hip hop that sounds unhinged and crazy. Ergo, I love Danny Brown. He found a kindred spirit in eccentric producer/rapper JPEGMAFIA, and this album may be Brown’s most frenzied effort to date (which is saying a lot). This particular track – whose name evokes 80s one-hit-wonder Oran “Juice” Jones - helps keep the album grounded (if that’s possible), as it’s a slower number built around a gorgeous sample of a mid-70s Michael Jackson tune called “Dear Michael.” The lyrics, however, are filled with characteristically far-out and disturbing imagery mostly revolving around bad drug trips (e.g., ”I can't feel my face off these narcotics”). Brown released yet another album a few weeks ago that purportedly is a more introspective and mature work in which he soberly reflects on his chequered and drug-fueled past. If that marks the end of the drug-addled journey that has been his body of work to date, thanks for the memories Danny! It’s been one helluva ride.
Lana Del Rey – “Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd.”
I felt that Lana Del Rey perfected her unique brand of L.A. doomed romantic torch song poetry on Norman Fucking Rockwell. But the highlights on her latest album, Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd, are the equal of anything on that album. I especially like the title track, a quintessential Lana Del Rey number in which she repeatedly tells her audience (presumably a real or imagined lover) “don’t forget me” before pleading with him (in the chorus, no less) to “Open me up, tell me you like it, Fuck me to death, love me until I love myself.” As usual, she stares straight into the abyss of anxious attachment and allows her pain to inhabit the very specific geography of Los Angeles. This track gets bonus points for turning me onto a gorgeous Harry Nillson heartbreaker called, “Don’t Forget Me,” which Del Rey explicitly name drops in the final verse.
Olivia Rodrigo – “bad idea right?”
How the hell is a 20-year-old former child actress on Disney shows this good? It boggles the mind. I could have picked four or five different songs from Guts for this list. I settled on “bad idea right?”, a super catchy rock song that’s really funny and totally relatable, even to a 53 year old man.
Water From Your Eyes – “Barley”
This is the only band I can think of other than Deerhoof that sounds avant-garde and experimental while simultaneously being accessible and catchy. The song “Barley” demonstrates this dichotomy. It’s a speeding cacophony of swirling sounds yet it’s oddly and undeniably tuneful.
Queens of the Stone Age – “Emotion Sickness”
Wikipedia offers this definition of “hard rock”: “Hard rock is a form of loud, aggressive rock music. The electric guitar is often emphasized, used with distortion and other effects, both as a rhythm instrument using repetitive riffs with a varying degree of complexity, and as a solo lead instrument. Drumming characteristically focuses on driving rhythms, strong bass drum and a backbeat on snare, sometimes using cymbals for emphasis. The bass guitar works in conjunction with the drums, occasionally playing riffs, but usually providing a backing for the rhythm and lead guitars. Vocals are often growling, raspy, or involve screaming or wailing, sometimes in a high range, or even falsetto voice.” I sometimes wonder if Josh Homme sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads, because he seems to be the first human to have cracked the code on how to create smart, catchy, groovy music that is undeniably, unapologetically “hard rock.” At this point, I think you can make the case that Queens of the Stone Age is the best hard rock band ever. Certainly no other band that fits the foregoing definition has made consistently great albums for as long (25 years and running) as QOTSA. And they’ve done it once again in 2023 with In Times New Roman. “Emotion Sickness” is a highlight of the album, a quintessential QOTSA song built around an infectious riff-based groove, with hooks that are catchy as-all-hell but still sound like hard rock, and that modulates into falsetto vocals at all the right times. And they do it all in an utterly non-cheesy way. Long live QOTSA!
Sufjan Stevens – “So You Are Tired”
Yet another haunting, mysterious and outrageously beautiful song from the singular Mr. Stevens.
Caroline Polachek – “Welcome to my Island”
I’m a sucker for a great opening track. By which I mean a big, powerful, catchy - maybe even slightly bombastic - tour-de-force of a song that gets your blood pumping and heart thumping at the start of an album. E.g., “Baba O’Riley”; “Search and Destroy”; “Blitzkrieg Bop”; “Smells Like Teen Spirit”; “The Nights of Wine and Roses.” “Welcome to My Island” is the Polachek version of a great opening track. She uncharacteristically tones down her more overtly off-kilter flourishes and pumps up the volume, pace and energy. And, man, does it work. I find myself physically unable to resist this song, and I sincerely hope she’s not kidding when she sing-speaks “you ain’t leaving.”
Chappell Roan – “Picture You”
It’s been a long road, but deep diving into Aaron’s list each year has slowly chipped away at the indie rock snobbery in which my mind embedded itself as a twentysomething college student sometime around 1991. The end result is this: In 2023, I totally dug Chappell Roan’s debut album, The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess. This is unabashed pop and dance music. And yet I think it’s great. It doesn’t hurt that Ms. Roan is a talented songwriter with a knack for crafting strong hooks and clever lyrics. She’s also really funny and takes obvious joy in being deliberately naughty, which makes it all the more fun. I mean, the first line in the chorus of the song “Casual” is: “Knee deep in the passenger seat and you’re eating me out. Is it casual now?” In “Red Wine Supernova” she gleefully sings, “You like magic? I got a wand and a rabbit!” The song “My Kink is Karma” is about getting off on seeing her ex’s life get totally fucked up after their break up. But the song that really caught my attention is “Picture You.” It’s like nothing else on the album. Indeed, it’s a country torch ballad in the style of Patsy Cline (or, more recently, perhaps Angel Olsen). And it's a really good country torch ballad, filled with beautiful and aching melodies, lyrics about longing and desire, and sung in a voice that is both sultry and vulnerable. It’s unlike any other song I heard in 2023.
Dim Wizard – “Ride the Vibe”
Because I can't resist catchy, guitar-forward indie rock.
Bully – "Days Move Slow"
Because I can't resist catchy, guitar-forward indie rock.
Wednesday – “Bath County”
I didn’t love their 2023 album Rat Saw God as much as everyone else on earth, which I think is because I find Karly Hartzman's vocals a bit off-putting, which is compounded by the fact that they are buried so low in the mix that they are sometimes hard to hear (which is no doubt a deliberate aesthetic choice). But I can't deny the extraordinary overall sound of this album, particularly the fantastic guitars, along with the many really good tunes. Including this one, a dark and beautiful song with impressionistic lyrics about small town life that builds to a disturbing and powerful crescendo.
Noname – “Oblivion”
A few weeks ago I received a text from my brother that asked, “You ever listen to Noname?” I responded that I had not. He said, “Check her out. She’s real good.” I took his advice, and he was right. She’s real good. I like how she blends the poetic, the personal and the political. I like the jazzy, slightly off-kilter sonic palette. I like her distinctive phrasing. And on this particular track, I like the apocalyptic yet absurdly catchy chorus, accompanied by wild-ass lines like: “I'm that bitch, you sound like cat piss on popcorn.”
Remi Wolf – “Prescription”
This track is an absolute powerhouse of funky soul pop.