2023 – the year in music

Sylvie Courvoisier (far left) and musicians, including Christian Fennesz (far right), via sylviecourvoisier.com

Another year, another soundtrack. The first in this site’s regular summings-up of the cultural year from my perspective is music. Spotify’s annual account of your listening statistics informs me that I listened to 3,427 songs lasting 20,271 minutes in total (or fourteen days), representing 1,416 artist performing across sixty-three genres, headed by folk, avant-garde jazz and experimental music. Bizarrely, they also told me that my listening tastes were most like those of people they had found in Asheville, USA. Well, hello to all of you out there in Asheville. Here are some highlights of my listening year that maybe you share too.

The hotly-contested album of the year boiled down to three candidates. The work that came out of top, for its sheer originality and mysterious qualities, is Chimaera by the Swiss experimental jazz pianist and composer Sylvie Courvoisier. This is two-disc set, inspired by the paintings of Odilon Redon, is hypnotic, elusive, haunted music. It has enough jazz elements that you know into which category you want to slot it, but it has an extra dream-like quality, much as one finds in Redon’s paintings, which comes from the contribution made by the Swiss master of eerie electronic music, Christian Fennesz. There are trumpets, bass, drums and Courvoisier’s piano, but it is the shimmering sounds underneath that keep this listener returning again and again in an attempt to get an understanding of it all. I’m still trying. The stand-out track is the mesmerizing twenty-one minute ‘Le pavot rouge’.

Coming in a close second is Bob Dylan’s Shadow Kingdom. In 2022 Dylan’s all-seeing, all-powerful people announced a supposedly one-off live online concert that turned out to be a pre-filmed video in black-and-white of Dylan and band playing some of his older songs in a mock Marseilles bar setting. The video, which was eventually broadcast on UK television on 1 December 2023, I felt was an unsatisfactory jumble of misapplied ideas, but the standalone album is a faultless. Having for so long told us that he was not interested in revisiting his back catalogue, Dylan gives us sprightly, inventive, reimagined interpretations of ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’, ‘Queen Jane Approximately’, ‘Tombstone Blues’ ‘Forever Young’ and others, delighting both the nostalgists and those for whom the present incarnation of Bob Dylan is the finest.

Third among the leading three is Three Knots, by Michele Bonifati Emong. Bonifati is an Italian jazz guitarist who can be found as a solo artist (his album Another Kind of Bob Dylan is an inspired set of instrumental covers) and with assorted ensembles, including Michele Bonifati Emong, which is a quartet with himself, Manuel Caliumi (tenor and alto sax), Federico Pierantoni (trombone) and Evita Polidoro (drums and vocals). It’s a surprisingly effective combination, swinging between jazz and rock without sounding much like either, intent on shaping its own inventive voice. Only an unnecessary cover of ‘Working Class Hero’ lets things down, to my taste.

My most-played song of the year, according to Spotify, is ‘We Are Giants’ by Half Japanese. Funded by the brothers brothers Jad and David Fair just under fifty years ago, and still led by Jad, Half Japanese are an American at-house punk band notable for their lo-fi production and Fair’s only approximately in-tune guitar. Resolutely strangers to fashion, they just keeping on pumping out a heartfelt racket that is what rock should only be but so seldom is.

American trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire continues to produce some of the most satisfying, exploratory jazz of today, blending the beguiling with the challenging so artfully that you hardly notice the switch. Of his two albums in 2023, the solo saxophone set Beauty is Enough I found a bit too much on the challenging side, but Owl Song, a collaboration with guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Herlin Riley should charm anyone.

The ubiquitous and tireless Frisell also appears on the delightful I Am a Pilgrim: Doc Watson at 100, a multi-artist tribute to the American folk and country singer-composer, so many of whose songs have become standards. Alongside Dolly Parton, Steve Earle, Marc Ribot and other, Frisell teams up with Valerie June, who started off as a soul singer with a distinctive voice but who is becoming ever more adventurous. Their version of ‘Handsome Molly‘ is utterly charming. However, my top choice from the album is guitarists Jeff Parker and Matthew Stevens’s instrumental version of ‘Alberta’. It’s pure American dream.

Top among my why-have-I-never-listened-to-them-before discoveries of the year is Tucker Zimmermann. He’s an American singer-songwriter who made a great impression with his Tony Visconti-produced debut, Ten Songs by Tucker Zimmermann, back in 1968, but who thereafter retreated from the spotlight. He moved to Belgium (where he still lives), wrote poems and fiction and issued stripped-down, unassuming albums full of intelligent, catchy, unusual songs that have caught the ear of very few. ‘Tall Taled/Short Changed’ is typical of a rare talent, well worth discovering.

Another belated, happy discovery is The Plastic People of the Universe. I had read their story of course – the underground Czech rock band who appeared during the Czech spring of 1968, were suppressed by the Communist part thereafter, suffering imprisonment and deportment until they rose again triumphantly following the Velvet Spring of 1989. They feature in Tom Stoppard’s play Rock’n’Roll. But were they any good? It scarcely seemed to matter, but listening to them for the first time this year, heck they were good, with radical music to match any of that from their hero Frank Zappa. Their first album, Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned (recorded in 1975 but only available officially in 1978, in France) is a creative gem – just the sort of off-kilter rock-jazz that so entranced me back in the late 70s (and still does).

Another bunch of radicals that for some reason I overlooked until now was the Art Bears. Goodness knows why, since the line-up featured three musical heroes: Chris Cutler, Fred Frith and Dagmar Krause. Maybe none of their late 70s/early 80s albums turned up in the second-hand music stores that I frequented way back then. So it has taken me forty-odd years to catch up with ‘The Song of Investment Capital’. Marxist to a fault, so earnest and yet so witty at the same time.

A more recent discovery has been Benjamin Brooker. The American’s music is a mixture of blues, soul and thrash punk. His first album, Benjamin Brooker, from 2014, is an exuberant thrill, music that is impossible to sit down to. 2017’s Witness is patchier, more soulful, but fine stand-out moments including the title track. For whatever reason he has recorded nothing further since, beyond a 2020 single. I do hope he returns.

There were other discoveries, old and new. Among the latter I enjoyed the heartfelt Americana of The Bones of J.R. Jones, the wistful folk of Zac Trojano and the intricate electronic music of K. Leimer. Among the old I revelled to Sonny and Linda Sharrock’s overlooked 1975 album Paradise, in which the radical jazzers sound almost soulful; discovered for the first time Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath, the late-1960s London-based group of dazzling South African jazz musicians, including Dudu Pukwana, Louis Moholo and Mongoli Feza (the name of the group had always put me off until now); and British trumpeter (and occasional violinist) Henry Lowther, so often a sideman, but in his 1970 album Child Song with the Henry Lowther Band an individual voice creating something quite magical.

Most nostalgic among the rediscoveries was The Equals. Back in 1968 they were practically the first pop group I had ever heard. They were a mixed band, as term was at the time, whose guitarist-songwriter Eddy Grant went on to great things (he’s the one with the white wig in the video). Their famous numbers include ‘Baby Come Back’ and ‘Police On My Back’ (thanks to The Clash cover), but it was ‘Viva Bobby Joe’ in 1969 that so thrilled the eight-year-old me and which thrills me still.

Finally, this year we lost Linda Lewis, the sweetest, finest of British soul singers. If you do anything in your musical year of 2024, try to include her inspiring 1972 album Lark on your listening list. Here’s the title track with which to say farewell.


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