Co-Editor Top Albums & Songs of 2023: Aya
Or, "A Late 2023 Listicle from a Music Journalist Who Has Not Done a Lot of Reviewing or Listening"
I think 2023 has been a year of self-reflection. I've done a lot of meditations on who I was and who I will be in the background of extensive travels across the sunny summers of East and Southeast Asia, the depressing daily rain of London in the winter, and a brief trip to Morocco to breathe and open 2024 with a sense of optimism. After all, I did miss the sun its its full glory, completely forgetting about the horrendously humid mountains of Udon Thani or the hellish heat I've encountered in West Japan. Having spent my winters mostly in Toronto and London, I've craved the sun a lot more since the days started to get shorter and shorter, but what I also craved more out of 2023 was memorable music. If I'm being honest, a lot of the press releases that would come by on our emails were either tour announcements that I can look past and forward to the amazing writers and photographers that make the backbone of what our magazine stands for, yawn-inducing paragraphs of albums and singles that sort of sound the same, and an overall anti-climactic listen as I began to grow disappointed with each new "thing" my favorite artists release.
Part of it, I feel, is the fusion of advertising and the creative industry as a whole. While "selling out" and making it "big" has always been a thing since the dawn of music creation, I think it's gotten a lot easier for many artists to break into the market and hopefully shed their "one-hit wonder" status as soon as a single becomes a bite-sized sound that people can reuse and recycle on TikTok. There's really no incentive for smaller artists to spend an eternity pouring their heart and soul out on a record when all that matters to their manager and their record label is sales and profit—now with an added touch of online virality. Nonetheless, while this is an extremely positive thing to celebrate for creatives as they finally have access to basic marketing tools that can quickly boost their brand across the internet, everything convenient always comes with a cost. 2023 has been a year of deep meditations, but to me, it has also been a year of pessimism. If I'm being completely honest, I've grown massively disillusioned by many hobbies and hyperfixations galore—and I think a lot of it just has to do with the fact that there's really no time for anything in a fast, ever-evolving world marred by the plight of late-stage capitalism. I'm in my fourth and last year of university, I'm juggling a part-time job, I've decided to start traveling more, and I've been burying my nose inside the deep crevices of masters applications and entry-level grad jobs that work for me if ever I get rejected. There's a lot of things to be afraid of, and unfortunately, that fear translated into my listening habits. Music was now a distraction when it used to be an escape; I simply do not have the time to sit and listen in disquiet.
Despite the doom and gloom of the last two paragraphs I've written, there is a light in the form of this listicle in terms of my relationship with music thus far. The phrase "I do not have time" is a self-fulfilling prophecy; you tell yourself you don't have time and it disappears. And so, in a quest to rekindle my love for music in all its glory, I listened. I listened to a lot of music in the foreground and back, then I listened to myself as I chanted the words "I do have time for this and that" again and again, realizing that there's always going to be a hidden trove of treasures in the sea of... mediocrity, I suppose.
Without further ado, here are some albums and songs that I've deeply enjoyed in a personally uneventful year for music:
1: Squid - O Monolith (Art punk/experimental rock) Warp: Spotify | Apple Music
As per the words of a fellow demo writer, Hayden, Squid and their contemporaries have defined substream UK music towards a rather uncertain direction—which highly reflects post-Brexit and post-COVID UK’s current ecosystem. The chaos of the unsavory effects of high inflation, youth unemployment, and the distastefulness of Tory policies as of late would be the perfect breeding ground for janky, dissonant guitar solos or about five minutes of someone screaming into the microphone amidst a cacophony of instruments. If you were a young musician in such a country, you would probably make something very… unpredictable too.
It’s rather difficult to remove politics in a genre that was coined from a political event. The ethos of O Monolith is in its very jarring, ambiguous, yet extremely cohesive way of organizing chaotic sounds with effortless musicality—a very common descriptor for many post-Brexit new wave bands such as BCNR, shame, and black midi. Squid is a band that takes you under the wrapped layers of their instruments, putting a thin-layered veil of biting noise and anxiety that manages to do the exact opposite to what you’d expect. Songs such as the opener, “Swing (In a Dream)” combine the complexity of polyrhythmic guitar riffs with catchy lyrics that are easy to follow; unsettling yet safe. The album then slows down in an eerie, ambient downward spiral with “Siphon Song,” which goes to show how the band’s sound thrives off confusion and the seething tension between calm and chaos. Overall, O Monolith escaped the dreadful second album curse and solidified the sound and direction of the band, while leaving a lot for many listeners—avid or casual—to expect. Albeit uncertain, Squid has definitely left a mark this year, captivating the most confident into an anxiety-ridden trip of musical cacophony.
2: LIES - LIES (Art pop/Indietronica) Polyvinyl Records: Spotify | Apple Music
The Kinsella family seems to have a musical Midas touch in whatever they do. With their roots in the early days of emo, Mike, Nate, and Tim Kinsella have branched into a diverse range of genres and styles that are, to be quite honest, difficult to hide when Mike’s vocal tone is too distinct and too tied to his premiere project, American Football. Nonetheless, LIES—which is a duo formed by Mike and Nate Kinsella—seems to take Mike’s voice in a direction that’s reminiscent of Polyvinyl Records’ Exquisite Corpse, a collaboration between various artists that falls under ambient experimental categories with a twist of fusion jazz, pop electronica, and twinkly acoustic emo. Front to back, the entire record is surreal, to say the least—a dreamlike reverie spun by the strings in “Summer Somewhere” and “Rouge Vermouth.”
To date, this would be the Kinsellas’ most unique album sonically. With both Mike and Nate usually being at the forefront of moody Midwest emo and polyrhythmic, twinkly guitar riffs, the album falls short of the usual tropes you would expect from any Kinsella project. Though American Football have been known to add brass to elevate the often repetitive nature of Midwest guitar licks, LIES seems to create music with a categorical checklist that ticks off any instrument known to mankind—from the inclusion of electronic synths, brooding piano, reverie-inducing strings, and the appropriate use of the triangle where fit. Though on-brand with most of the tracks being on the slower end, Mike and Nate seem to use their understanding of melodrama and twist it into new, genre-bending shores, leaving followers of the Kinsella name like myself optimistic with where the family will take their music next.
3: Lankum - False Lankum (Irish folk music/Avant folk) Rough Trade Records: Spotify | Apple Music
My exposure to Irish music has been limited to Westlife, The Cranberries, and… U2… As such, discovering Lankum provided a much needed breath of fresh air into the growing repetitiveness of my daily roster. Opening with an austere spin on a classic ballad, the Dublin quartet takes their own spin on “Go Dig My Grave,” which lead singer Radie Peat likens to Jean Ritchie’s version in 1963 on Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson's At Folk City. “Go Dig My Grave” belongs to a family of “floating verses” or “maverick stanzas,” a technique often used by both blues and folk artists that synthesizes lines that have been orally passed down from one generation to another so that performers can instantly recall and constantly rearrange these set of lines in various performances. In a sense, False Lankum cements itself as the story of a fight for cultural survival in a hard-boiled, eerie wonderland. Within the fast-paced world of late-stage capitalism and hyperconsumerism, Lankum and many acts that seek to bring the heart of their culture at the forefront of the conversation are always a much-needed presence in an otherwise oversaturated market pretty much devoid of any creative drive—a weeping lamentation of a social and artistic society that has been gutted by the force of monetary incentives and social-climbing virality on the internet.
In a year that has, quite frankly, bored me with quantity over quality, I can confidently say that False Lankum has broken that foreboding pattern of disappointment with this year’s releases. An exciting listen from start to finish, Radie Peat’s low register carries the entire album through the uncertain ebbs and flows of a metaphorical river, constantly evolving and flourishing. Her voice shines at its best in dark, brooding lullabies such as “Clear Away in the Morning” and “Newcastle,” leaving you with a deeply-profound yearning for something you can never have. Towards the end, “On a Monday Morning” and “The Turn” signal an optimistic, open-ended finish—the end of the beginning in an epic tale that constantly morphs with the sparkling effervescence of a river that flows into an infinite sea. False Lankum, with the thematic nature of all of its tracks, has sincerely broadened my horizons, and I’m very excited for any future releases by the Dublin quartet.
4: Kaneko Ayano - Towelket ha Odayaka Na (A towel blanket is peaceful) (New Folk/Japanese Indie) 1994: Spotify | Apple Music
Ayano is usually known as one of the darlings of Japanese acoustic indie, championing contemporaries such as Ichika Aoba and Uchū Nekoko with soft, dainty, whisper-like vocals and light, easy-listening instrumentals. She seems to take her sound into the familiar yet completely separate scene, changing the tone of the guitar in this album from the simplicity of an acoustic guitar to fuzzy, distortion-heavy power chords present in shoegaze. Ayano says goodbye to her softer, cottage-dwelling, white witch image, repeating “farewell” and screaming some of the verses in “Watashitachi E (To Us)” amidst enveloped heaps of distorted, dreamlike guitar chords strung over and over again. Towelket ha Odayakana seems to be searching for a specific identity; Ayano attempts to leave her folk foundations behind with eclectic elements of funk and Japanese garage rock in each track. While cohesive front to back, standouts such as “Konna Hi ni Kagitte” and “Moshimo” take many tropes in Japanese music—the former having a youthful feel reminiscent of 90s alternative with bands such as Spitz and Mr.Children while the latter champions groovy bass lines found in King Gnu and Fishmans’ catalog.
Despite turning towards a direction that shelves most of her past identity into the backburner, Ayano leaves much room for anticipation with her sudden shift towards different genres that were once unimaginable when she was known as the cute, scrunching cat in Sansan. The odd conundrum with how I feel about Ayano’s new record lies in its failure to compete with more experimental, genre-altering records within my favorites from this year, whilst keeping in mind that Towelket ha Odayakana is slowly becoming a rare sound in the Japanese charts. Owing to the explosive rise of K-pop in Japan, most genres have fallen off, teetering at its last few straws as the youth rapidly shift towards a single genre they can both sing and dance to. While electronic music in general is always welcome, artists like Ayano who should have been musical giants in the early 2000s are now considered underground in an oversaturated market that favors TikTok dancing, virality, and environmentally damaging trends. Although she didn’t stand out to me personally this year, she is an important and necessary figure that could hopefully steer the Japanese charts away from the banal monotony of hard-hitting bass beats into a more diverse direction.
5: King Krule - Space Heavy (Neo-psychedelia/slowcore/art rock) Matador Records: Spotify | Apple Music
Any Krule album is always a spacey listen—one that gets you losing track of time and off the ground, floating mindlessly in the air while you navigate through the dark, brooding world that Archy Marshall conceives through his music. While it may be necessary to separate the album from the artist when critiquing music on a more objective lens, Marshall is one of the select few where that task—to me at least—is impossible. Thematically, we have seen Marshall evolve his sound with age, where 6 Feet Beneath the Moon was a younger take on adolescence and coming of age, The Ooz oozing stagnancy and loss, Man Alive! navigating the complicated world of impending fatherhood and a pandemic, and now, Space Heavy. Marshall swims through the sonic relevance of what it’s like to watch your child grow into a rather bleak world so perfectly, having meditations on climate change with “Seaforth,” and the liminality of information overload and a fast-moving world with “If Only it Was Warmth.” Moodiness and melodrama has always been the two tones that Marshall does best, but he always manages to surprise me with the lack of redundancy in his craft. Just as he reflects on his time on earth, his music speaks volumes about the many pensive thoughts that we all think about as we grow, prosper, and feel the fruits of life in a very uncertain time.
6: Hannah Jadagu Aperture (Indie pop/Dream pop) Sub Pop Records: Spotify | Apple Music
Jadagu is engimatic and angelic; her voice carries a certain yearning akin to a tragic heroine. Though I am unfamiliar with her previous catalog, Aperture is an extremely cohesive listen front to back from the 19-year-old Texan. Boxing her under the umbrella of bedroom pop who do her album a massive disservice as she also takes elements from dream pop with "What You Did," heavy synth and 808s in "Admit It," and droning choruses that you can find in shoegaze with "Shut Down." Aperture is about Jadagu finding her footing inside the tidal waves of young adulthood, and she masterfully navigates the fast and confusing times with each song she lends her voice to. There are a lot of influences that can be heard—from King Krule's distinct spaciness, Mazzy Star's whispered vocals, airy guitars owing to bands such as Alvvays and Men I Trust, and some quirky yet crisp electronic MIDI bites throughout her songs. Additionally, her small town, religious upbringing is meditated on with an expertise that only Jadagu can execute. Spacious choruses and heavenly harmonies are strewn across Aperture, especially in "Lose" and "Scratch the Surface." Elements of groove are especially prominent in "Warning Sign," a song where the bass line frankly overpowers and stimulates the rather mellow, soft nature of the entire album. I'll admit, it's not that hard to find an artist like Jadagu, but with the dominance of whiteness and the white experience in a lot of Americana-esque indie music, Jadagu paints a dull canvas with colors of what the future of a dying genre would sound like in the next few years.
7: The Murder Capital - Gigi’s Recovery (Post-punk revival) Human Season Records: Spotify | Apple Music
Another Irish band that I've fallen in love with this year. Albeit a completely different sound from Lankum, The Murder Capital carries the same depth and understanding of lyrical poetry, carrying each verse with poise, drama, and elegance alongside the bleak backdrop of wailing guitar effects and brooding drums. Gigi's Recovery is depressing without shame, opening with a lamentation of existence with "Existence," an opener that leaves you hanging with the philosophical gripe of being tired of living. Gigi's Recovery is ironically about the difficulty of recovering. This can be a reference to the complete change in sound from their debut album, When I Have Fears, which likens itself to a cut-and-paste contemporary take on Joy Division. This could also be a general response to the malaise of our current world; post-pandemic recovery has been a common theme to tackle as of late.
Nonetheless, what makes Gigi's Recovery stand out from a lot of mopey albums is that in essence, The Murder Capital combats the rather depressing and brooding nature of their lyrics with intense, upbeat sounds. The guitar wails in agony; the drums intensify in a cacophony of low hums; vocalist James McGovern is loud in disquiet. "Ethel" is a single that perfects this juxtaposing nature of catharsis. After all, the only way to let out anger and grief is to scream, and McGovern is a master of it towards the end of the song, where he repeats "hold on to her tight" like a chant—a memento for the cyclicality of loss and life. In a sense, Gigi's Recovery is, to me, the opposite of what long-term fans and critics call a departure from their "true" sound or a loss of identity. I believe the quintet has proven themselves even more with this positive direction.
8: shame - Food for Worms (Indie rock/Art punk) Dead Oceans: Spotify | Apple Music
shame is a band that took a long time for me to get into, simply because of the chatty nature of their music. The Taxpayers have a certain twang to the way they rhythmically converse through each song, and Pedro The Lion converts fluid narratives of visual imagery with a melody that guides you through each chapter wrapped underneath his verses. shame subverts the talk-singing nature that I'm used to and makes it initially difficult to listen to. Somehow, Food for Worms scratches a certain surface in my ears that suddenly makes this rather grating experience pleasant. Perhaps it is because of the harrowing theme of addiction covered in "Adderall," where Charlie Steen's static screams adds a much-needed depth into conveying the journey of watching a friend slowly succumb to addiction. Or, it could be the dreamlike cacophony of dissonance in the mismatch of Steen's monotonous voice and the rather jumpy, joyous guitar and bass in the background.
A lot of post-Brexit new wave bands are very uncertain, and shame carves a unique space for themselves in this steadily saturated scene. They play with polyrhythms in a way that encapsulates pain rather than the anxiety that Squid perfects. Another standout for me in Food for Worms is in the loose thematic significance that the record carries. I am sick and tired of love songs because it's easy to do. Yes, some can do it extremely well, but I've grown weary from one breakup song to another simply because they all converge into this mish mash of mixed messages—"girl power" in a toxic backdrop of abiding to beauty standards, a skinny white man lamenting about the same relationship he couldn't get over, and the nth song about puppy-eyed young love. Personally, I find losing a friend equally as seething and painful, especially when it's a weary one that leaves you dissatisfied yet grasping at the straws to keep a long lost time alive. While both warrant a grieving period, there's a certain, permanent itch with losing a friend that never seems to disappear. Food for Worms is the closest sound I've gotten that perfectly embodies the loss, emptiness, and confusion of the dissolution of friendships. A lot of the time, it's all out of your control. People can fall out of love, but gradually losing a friend in any way carries an equal burden that shame narrates to a painfully accurate degree.
9: Conway the Machine and Wun Two - Palermo (Boom Bap/East Coast Hip Hop/Gangsta Rap) Vinyl Digital GmbH: Spotify | Apple Music
I'm afraid to admit it, but I used to be the sort of person to shun modern hip hop. The genre just didn't take off for me after the 90s renaissance with old school heavy hitters such as the Wu Tang Clan and their contemporaries. Perhaps it was due to the fact that "guns, money, and bitches" were all that were dominating the charts, but I've gotten to a point where I completely turned my back on the genre, either celebrating my last hurrahs of the earlier days with The Beastie Boys and De La Soul, or ignoring any new releases altogether. For a time, Run the Jewels and Kendrick Lamar satiated my need for cutthroat lyrics and social commentary amidst masterful mixing and production, but I realized that gatekeeping a genre that I simply didn't know too much about was an unfair judgement. Thus, I gave Conway the Machine's Palermo a listen. In collaboration with German trap producer Wun Two, the duo adds a new sense of diabolical danger in a scene that has mellowed out from its anti-establishment roots. Lyrically, there's really nothing new that Conway the Machine adds to the table. A lot of it can't even be considered wordplay when it's about the same "guns, money, and bitches" stereotype that I've grown to dislike from the genre as a whole. What elevates this album to me is Wun Two's contribution to the record. As a big fan of J Dilla and Nujabes, the haziness of Conway the Machine's low register is played with in 808s that make my head nod to every beat. Honestly, I would have preferred Palermo to be a one-off, lo-fi record from Wun Two, but there are a few standouts that make this album one of the more esoteric releases from this year. "Brick by Brick" is woozy and moody, and Conway the Machine's cadence meshes harmoniously with the melodic synths that Wun Two disperses throughout the short runtime.
10: Carbeau - Madrugada (French indie/Dance) NUDA: Spotify | Apple Music
The downside of being a music journalist and a reviewer is that I tend to shrug off the essence of listening to music for the sake of it. Sometimes, I don't need any soul-searching or music theory to justify why I like or dislike a certain song. Carbeau and the deep house genre as a whole has filled this burden in me. There's really not much to say when I don't need to dissect the thematic ethos of lyrics or how they play into the very structure of an instrumental. It's really just music to make you dance, and Madrugada is filled to the brim with songs that you can bust a few moves to. There is a lot of Brazilian influences strewn across the record, with the opener "Tartaruga" sung in soft vocals carried by hypnotic piano riffs reminiscent of bossa nova. "Regno" is another rendition of this influence, with the guitar more prominent and loud across the entire song. A crescendo of strings in the middle adds an atmospheric tinge to the booming bass typical of the house genre, building the song up into a cathartic vocal chorus. The record is also not shy of breaking norms, evident in "Non c'è amore...." Despite the instrumental nature of house music, "Non c'è amore..." is a complete separation from the sonic themes of the album, opting to play with minimalistic piano and an empty, albeit filling ambience. Musically, Carbeau doesn't do anything new to the genre, but Madrugada is an otherwise pleasant listen, especially if you're looking for an escape into a tropical haven.
Sarah Kinsley - Ascension (EP) (Indie Pop) Verve Label Group: Spotify | Apple Music
I didn't include this release on the list as it is an EP, but Kinsley is a bewitching breath of fresh air, constantly evolving with each project she consumes herself in. While her sound is extremely piano-heavy, she departs from this trademark with "Oh No Darling!," a daring track that excites and ruminates altogether. Ascension feels like looking at youth through rose-colored lenses, owing to Kinsley's unique vocal color. She sounds old yet young, bordering between operatic vibrato, yodeling (in the nicest way possible), and low hums. Her voice dances with the piano, going up and down the scale in an impressive demonstration of vocal prowess. In "Lovegod," Kinsley shows off her voice in a captivating reverie. She is dreamy while disillusioned by love; she is longing and searching for more yet is unsatisfied; she is playful yet scared. There's really nobody like her, and I look forward to who she will blossom to in the coming years.