[sic] Magazine

Paul’s Albums Of The Year 2023

1. There Will Be FireworksSummer Moon [The Imaginary Kind]

I’ve been left simply shaking my head at this astonishing album.  Initially there’s the thinking something along the lines of, “I really enjoyed that track, but they’ll never keep that up across the next track.  Ooh… they did…”, and then the next track, and the next one… until we hit the final note.  Then I’ve found myself playing the album over.  One evening, I listened five times in succession, which is something I’ve not done in a long, long time.  Where many bands are beginning to falter with their third album, There Will Be Fireworks actually feel like they’re cruising.

With this album, I don’t know how they’ve done it, but they’ve created something magical.

I very doubt that today, you will hear a more perfect lyric than this one: “The summer moon is up, and I am starving for your love.  So I go out in the night and I walk forever…”

Full review here.

2. DaughterStereo Mind Game [4AD]

Some bands feel entirely custom-built for the 4AD label.  They arrive with an ethereal sound, “almost there” female vocals, and of course, ubiquitous guitar effect pedals.  Add some suitable artwork and they’re good to go.  And so it is that ‘Stereo Mind Game’ finds Daughter comfortably developing their sound across this, their third album for the label.  You may find yourself checking this album out thanks to the rather lovely ‘Be On Your Way’, but the reason you’re hanging around is for ‘To Rage’, ‘Swim Back’ and ‘Future Lover’, all of which are valid reasons to stop what you’re doing and take note.

There’s also something present here which feels unusual but really ought not to be: the idea of a proper album with a distinct theme running through its core.  This really shouldn’t be a surprise, but so many albums feel like collections of unrelated songs, whereas this feels thoroughly cohesive, more like twelve chapters of a book, with an intermission.

3. Hania RaniGhosts [Gondwana]

Hania may be a new name to many people, but she’s been releasing music since 2015.  Her earlier albums ‘Esja’ and ‘Home’ took us down a purely post-classical route of delicate piano pieces.  Think somewhere along the lines of Nils Frahm, Anna Rose Carter, or maybe Dustin O’Halloran.  Then something clearly happened in 2023, because there are all kinds of exceptions to the rule with ‘Ghosts’.  Suddenly, there are vocals across some tracks (particularly the magical ‘Sleeping With Ghosts’, with Patrick Watson), as well as a heady mix of ambient and electronica.  This should expand her target audience quite markedly, as this album sees Hania comfortably spreading her wings into pastures new.

4. Exit NorthAnyway, Still [Exit North Music]

Exit North started life as the brainchild of Steve Jansen (ex-Japan) and Thomas Feiner, both of whom have fine musical pedigrees.  I originally found Exit North mainly because of Feiner’s involvement.  His 2008 album ‘The Opiates’ is a staggering piece of work which I was originally introduced to via David Sylvian’s Samadhisound imprint.  Up until the first Exit North album in 2018, there had been a small handful of solo tracks but no new album, and then suddenly ‘Book Of Romance and Rust’ was unleashed.

Five years in the making, they’ve finally now followed it with a delicious second album.  I guess the best way to describe ‘Anyway, Still’ is that you don’t fix what isn’t broken.  Their heartfelt songs, lyrical imagery and the power of their delivery are all still intact.  If we were looking for confirmation that the album is a thing of beauty, then ‘Where The Coin Fell’ provides it.  From the outset, it paints a soundscape which brings to mind the likes of later-period Talk Talk.  Similarly, ‘Your Story Mine’ feels like a soundtrack to a heart-breaking movie.  It’s also as if Exit North have the sign ‘Less is more’ hanging on the wall in the studio as a constant reminder.  A word also about Feiner’s voice… it’s simply unlike anybody else’s, which is quite an incredible thing.

5. Melanie de BiasioIl Viaggio [PIAS]

It’s quite telling that the albums which genuinely moved me in 2023 are those which don’t follow the usual rules.  They defy convention and take us on a journey.  They’re also a long time in the making… six of the albums in my Top Ten have taken five years or more to make.

Album #4 is a lengthy affair, spread over two LPs or two CDs, with the final two tracks alone clocking in at almost 39 minutes.  De Biasio’s roots are in Belgian jazz, but this outing feels distinctly more experimental.  It’s music to feel.  Some of the musical ideas will certainly appeal to fans of Dead Can Dance.  Dig out your headphones, pour a glass of your favourite tipple and buckle up, because this album will take you on quite a journey.

6. Peter GabrielI/O [Real World]

Talking of protracted releases, if we discount Gabriel’s covers album ‘Scratch My Back’ from 2010, his previous studio album was ‘Up’, released over 20 years ago.  He began leaking individual tracks throughout 2023, although the album didn’t arrive until early December.  What he’s done here is really quite special and unique: he’s delivered three versions of the songs across so-called ‘Bright-Side Mix’, ‘Dark-Side Mix’ and ‘In-Side Mix’ variants, the latter available via a Blu-Ray alongside multichannel versions of the other two mixes.

I’ll get this out of the way straightaway: ‘Playing For Time’ and ‘Live And Let Live’ are up there with anything which Gabriel has previously released.  The former is such a heartfelt song which is staggering in its delivery.  From a performance and production perspective, this album will sound sweet on any system.  As an album, it’s not perfect, but it’s a massive leap from ‘Up’ and will certainly delight long-term Gabriel fans as well as those who are maybe discovering his music for the first time.

7. Sunshine PlayroomThe Old Railway Track [Persephonic Audio]

A beautifully presented collection of music, which transports us back to a time where everything just seemed so much easier.  The ‘real world’ of power cuts, 3-day weeks, expensive mortgages, and political uncertainty in the seventies and eighties may have been the problems our parents were wrestling with, but watching steam trains approaching from an old bridge and filling our pockets full of conkers were the most pressing things which we were maybe concerned about.

This is an album which feels like it opens a door to the past.  The pastoral music, aligned with a slightly hazy production, transports us back to a time where our most important memories were learning drawing, singing along with songs on Top Of The Pops, performing magic tricks, and consuming as much music as we could – but also school trips, especially to see a Shakespeare play performed outdoors in Shropshire, running through fields with friends, camping in the summertime, canoeing and walks through forests – these were also a huge part of that process of growing up experience.

Full review here.

8. Birds In The BrickworkA Strange Peace [Wayside & Woodland Recordings]

Birds In The Brickwork is the moniker for Ben Holton (of [Sic] favourites epic45 and My Autumn Empire).  His instrumental music creates an almost-dreamlike atmosphere which envelops us in its beauty.  A mix of gentle electronics and acoustic instruments conjure up reflective imagery.  The CD is accompanied by an A5 booklet of Holton’s photography which informs the music.  The clues to the music are embedded in the titles, which take us on a journey along an ‘Afternoon Suburban Loop’, before we’re ‘Leaving The Path’ and find ourselves in ‘A Lost Place’.  You kind of get the idea.  This is music to immerse yourself in.  Close your eyes and suddenly you’re transported to somewhere else.

9. Caroline PolachekDesire, I Want To Turn Into You [Perpetual Novice]

This particular entry likely stands out a mile alongside the other nine for being blatantly ‘pop’.  It’s maybe not ‘pop’ in the traditional sense, but there’s something about Polachek’s delivery which convinced me that ‘Desire’ should be here on this list.  Opener ‘Welcome To My Island’ has an infectious hook which permeates the chorus.  Elsewhere, ‘Sunset’ has a summery Balearic sound and ‘Smoke’ has that same catchy vibe.  The songs sound great too, with a warm, silky production.

 

10. The Declining WinterReally Early, Really Late [Home Assembly Music]

After multiple plays over several weeks, I stopped obsessing about this album in terms of tracks and/or individual songs, or even attempting to break it down into smaller pieces. It’s an album which I now consider as a whole – in the same way that you wouldn’t read only only chapters 3, 7 and 9 of an Ian Rankin book, you also wouldn’t audition only selected tracks in isolation from this album either.

That we accept it as a whole work puts to bed the notion that a commercial track is parked away further along the album, as it just doesn’t work that way. Instead, we can press play and simply sit back, listening to how the music evolves and envelops us. Tracks often take time to weave their web, none more so than during ‘This Heart Beats Black’. The instrumentation is an absolute treat. Each note feels considered, even agonised over.

This isn’t an easy listen which pulls you in during its first audition, moreover it’s an album which invites you to listen a good many times before being able to reflect on what’s actually happening. Once you hit that point, it turns into the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – but covered in an invisibility cloak which only you are aware of.

Full review here.

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