Welcome to DC's final end-of-the-year favorites list! It's been a real hoot curating these countdowns over the past 7+ years, and I hope you find some gems in this last hurrah.
Figuring out my very favorite albums was super tough this year (dang there was a lot of good music released in 2023!) but I think I finally narrowed it down to my top ten. You'll find the cream of the crop below - all amazing works, unique in their own ways. That being said, I noticed some natural groupings within my rankings, so you'll see that I've listed the selections in pairs. Just a different way of formatting things I suppose. Gotta keep things fresh after so many years! And sure, the pairings aren't always snug fits, but oh well. What are ya gonna do?
Oh, and I give this reminder every year, but here it is one more time: I've provided hyperlinks to each artist's Bandcamp page to make purchases as convenient as possible. Who the hell knows what's going on with Bandcamp these days, but I think that there is at least one more "Bandcamp Friday" coming up here in December, so consider buying some of this music if you're into it. Your support goes a long way.
And finally, be sure to come back on Wednesday for DC's very heartfelt farewell post. That'll be it folks, so bring your Kleenex!
Okay, enough introduction. Let's get into it. Here are Deepest Currents' favorite albums of 2023, counted down from ten to one:
I'm think that I'm gonna call this first pair of albums "The Shorties" due to their short lengths. I mean, TV Songs clocks in at 25 minutes total, and Preludes is just under 21. But despite their EP-like runtimes, both of these "Shorties" stuck with me long after I first heard them, impacting me as deeply as pieces double their lengths.
Shela's TV Songs reminds me a bit of h hunt's Playing Piano for Dad (an album I adore and have written about before - hey, nice rhyme). Both are collections of solo piano takes - rough, unpolished, and textured with environmental noise. These sorts of albums feel like you're listening to a friend tinkering around on their piano as they follow whichever melodic whims pops into their head. And TV Songs is a pretty apt name for João ‘Shela’ Pereira's offering because, well, that background noise running behind the music is his TV, which he left on while he captured the album's seven piano stetches on WhatsApp. It's a strange concept, sure, but the intimite nature of the recording results in some real beautiful music.
Flaer's Preludes is a shorter album, but perhaps even more moving. I don't wanna copy/paste too much in this EOTY post, but just a couple months ago I wrote that Preludes "reminds me a lot of Plïnkï Plønkï's Pangur Din, in that it's a collection of pastoral folk miniatures which evoke a sense of melancholic nostalgia. Using piano, cello, acoustic guitar, and a whole lotta environmental field recordings, Flaer (who is a solo multi-instrumentalist) transports listeners to another time and place." Cute, right? Seriously, though: you've gotta listen to Realf Heygate's debut - a suite of of sonically-dynamic, yet thematically-connected movements. It's simply wonderful.
Okay. Shit. This whole pairs-of-albums idea might be falling apart already. Originally, I was like, "Oh man, these two feel like the darkest albums on this list - maybe that's something?" But the more I thought about it, the more that connection fell apart. Like, for one, they're not both "dark" or "bleak" or "sad" or whatever - at least not all the time. And two: when the music does descend into these feelings, the artists take us there in completely different ways. All of this is to say that I'm not sure this specific pairing is a thing at all.
Listening to Ruhail Qaisar's Fatima is a truly jarring experience. At multiple points in this sonic masterpiece, planes of glassy calm are shattered by heavy, sometimes violent drops. I literally just explained that I was going to try to avoid doing this, but since I wrote about Fatima back in January, I might as well copy/paste a bit of it here: "Described as 'a requiem for a dead future,' the self-taught musician's epic sound collage captures feelings of dread rooted in loss of homeland...Using spoken word, drones, field recordings, power electronics, and recorded screams, Ruhail Qaisar expertly conveys dark, heavy emotion." Oof. So this album is probably not for everyone, but I think that Quisar's clausterphobic music is both terryifying and incredible.
Oh man, Bailey Miller wins vocal performance of the year for sure, and maybe best songwriter too. Her album love is a dying is 11 pure first takes, the songs recorded in the order in which they were written. Most tracks are just the artist's voice over a single instrument (paino, guitar, banjo, whatever else), and sometimes she just opts to go full acapella. What Miller is able to do is just so so so impressive, and the results are simply stunning. I wrote this earlier in the year, but I feel like the album's second half is especially solid - goldfinch, mirror, and still are some of the best ballads I've heard in a long time. And yeah, love is a dying is dark, in that many of Miller's songs are tinged with melancholy, but it's not all that way. Glimmers of hope shine through Miller's music.
Let's call this next grouping "The Familiar Faces" because I've written a lot of words about both Strange Ranger and Foresteppe over the years. I go way back with these two artists.
Ah man, RIP, Strange Ranger. I've been following these kids from their humble beginnings, and after a name change, a couple cross-country moves, and some truly excellent releases, the band just announced that they are calling it quits. What a bummer. I've written this about Strange Ranger before, but perhaps may favorite quality of theirs was their desire to continually change their sound - experimenting in the studio so each release was a complete zag. This quality resulted in what felt like (as least to me), an upward trajectory - every Strange Ranger offering was better than their last. And since it looks like Pure Music will be the band's final album, that means it will forever be my favorite. The whole thing rocks from start to finish, their stadium-sized hooks popping at full blast, their sound now fully realized only for the ride to be over too soon.
Foresteppe is another longtime favorite artist of mine, but while Strange Ranger are hometown heroes, Foresteppe lives a continent away. The prolific sound artist spent 12 years (!!!) capturing the clips and melodies heard on vyosny, and this collage includes (deep breath): "nylon string acoustic guitar, bass vi, broken cymbal, casiotone mt-65, digital audio workstations, dulcitone samples, foot tapping, harmonica, mandolin, paper strip music box, (toy) percussion, recorders, school piano, samples from soviet audiotales, toy accordions, toy metallophone, toy piano, vst plugins, wooden pipe tabletop organ, zither." DAMN! What a wonderful mess of sounds! And it's such a beautiful mess, too. Definitely my favorite album of his. If you ever want a distillation of DC's favorite music, it's basically this: experimental folk music laden with all sorts of weird shit. So really, vyosny hits just right.
Let's call this second-to-last grouping "The Kitchen Label Fam." Sure, only one of these albums was actually released by Kitchen Label, but both artists played at the label's showcase a while back. I believe that Meitei performed too, and Kofū III comes out on December first. Heads-up for that one - I bet it's just as awesome as these selections. Also, I really wanted to order both of these on vinyl, but shipping doubled their cost. Yikes! If anyone knows how to find these albums via a domestic distributor, lemme know.
Like the two artists in the last grouping, Kin Leonn is someone I've followed for a while. His collaborative EP, Faraway Vicinity, with Hiroshi Ebina is an all-timer, and his solo offerings since that release have been similarly stellar. Plus, years ago he introduced me to Subsonic Eye, who I introduced to Hush Hush/KEXP's Alex Ruder, who broke them into the American market - a real cute chain of nice-folks-helping-out-nice-folks. Anyway, mirror in the gleam is definitely Kin Leonn's best work, and that's really saying something. Some of the tracks sound like Eluvium's recent turn - clockwork gears grinding toward post-rock crecendos. But then other parts of the album are much more serene and minimal - delicate strokes on muted piano. It's a dynamic album to be sure, and arrestingly beautiful. In my opinion, it's a high water mark from an artist who already boasts a very impressive catalogue.
And speaking of albums that are arrestingly beautiful, wow did moshimoss ever open this year with a stunner! Stones of Paradise is the artist's first release under his "moshimoss" moniker in nearly a decade, and it's just a perfect blend of tender neoclassical melody and warm ambient tone. At various points in the album, the music is so quiet that it barely registers, but as soon as you lean in, sound swells up and washes over you like a wave. Listening to Stones of Paradise, you can really feel this rest/tension flow in your body - like, moshimoss' music manages to resonate somewhere deep within your core. The album is just that good, and really, it's one of the best neoclassical releases I've heard in years.
Here we are at the end - my top two favorite albums of 2023. So you know what? Let's just keep it simple and call this final grouping "The Favorites." Lol, maybe I should actually call this grouping "The Orindals" since that's the label where I heard both of these artsits first and Owen LITERALLY just sent me an album he's releasing in February and it's fucking awesome. Man, I'm gonna miss running this site.
Wednesday's Rat Saw God is going to end up on a bunch of these "best of 2023" lists, so it's not like this pick is a super unique one or anything like that. The band is absolutely white hot, riding an upward trajectory toward indie stardom. Rat Saw God is an immediately accessable album, but it's also chock full of interesting elements - rhythmic shifts, wry lyricism, and sonic dynamism. The music itself is some gnarly blend of alt country with blasts of grunge and shoegaze, and Karly Hartzman and co. play it perfectly. I missed the band's first set at Pickathon this past summer, and when I asked Karly if they'd be closing their Galaxy Barn performance with Bull Believer, she said, "Yeah, I think so." This was no big surprise as it was standard practice at the time for Wednesday to end sets this way, but I just had to check, because at the risk of sounding overly-hyperbolic, that song is maybe the best track I have heard in a decade. Seriously. Anyway, the entire album is incredible, so be sure to give the whole thing a listen.
Back in May I wrote that "Gia Margaret's Romantic Piano is my favorite album of 2023 so far, and prediction: it will also be my favorite album of 2023 when the year closes." Well here we are with one month to go, and sure enough, turns out I'm still romanic about the piano! The only repeat AOTY winner here on Deepest Currents (hey-o Gargaret!), I am simply in awe of everything this artist creates. Like, how the heck do you make music so stinkin' good? Listening to Romantic Piano feels like being buried under a 'ol big pile of blankets. But also, maybe you're in like a meadow or something? And though this review has veered into sillyness (as much of my writing tends to do), I cannot overstate how much I appreciate all of Gia Margaret's work. Each offering feels like a gift - a meadow blanket sewn with love.
*Of course, the day I finish drafting this list, I hear Daniel Bachman's When The Roses Come Again. Can't really tell how it measures up against these other albums, but it definitely warrants a listen. This is what I get for starting these lists too early, I suppose.
Fuck it, should we do some standalone tracks, too? I feel like there were some songs that I loved loved loved that weren't in the albums I wrote about above. Of the already-embedded songs, I'd say that Bailey Miller's Mirror, Strange Ranger's She's on Fire, moshimoss' I'll be right here, Wednesday's Bull Believer, and Gia Margaret's City Song would all crack my top ten favorite songs of 2023. But what five more?
Lemme tell you what: since this is my last one of these posts, let's color outside the lines a little bit. I'll embed a Spotify playlist of my very favorite 2023 tracks below, without any more words (since I'm getting pretty tired of typing), and you can listen to it on your own. All the songs are so good, too, so check out some of these artists on Bandcamp if you like what you hear. Especially since, you know, Spotify doesn't pay shit.
You'll notice that I went a little over ten tracks, and they aren't ranked or anything like that - just entered in the order that I first heard them:
Oh, and this song isn't on Spotify, but I love it:
Okay, if you've made it this far: one more reminder to come back on Wednesday for DC's farewell post. Thanks, as always, for reading. And happy listening!