• Our Album of the Week features will return in June.

📜 Feature Rudy's 2023 Records of the Year, Part 1

Feature article
It's time to run down some of my favorite records from 2023. As with most years, I discovered a lot of new (to me) music throughout the year. Due to taking a deep dive into the CTI Records catalog (which also included the Kudu and Salvation spinoff labels) while working on the AotW series, I had way more new music to play. To top it off, there have been many recent vinyl reissues that knocked previous versions out of the park. Those will be mentioned in a follow-up article tomorrow.

New for 2023


1703899189530.pngFor 2023 music releases, this year I honestly can't say I came across much that captured my attention, the lone exception being Peter Gabriel's i/o, his first proper studio album since Up back in 2002. Where the 2002 album was dense and darker in mood, i/o is still dense but is more positive and uplifting, a reflection on mortality, rebirth, and how our input and output (I/O) makes us part the world around us ("stuff coming out, stuff going in, I'm just a part of everything"). As with his other albums, there is no mistaking this for anyone but Peter Gabriel. That he unfolded the album on successive full moons in 2023 by releasing a single on those days (and companion "dark side" mixes on each new moon), helped ease us into the entire project, his first since 21 years ago.

For runners-up, I have a few that caught my attention.
  • There was some nice ear candy by way of the Raul Malo solo instrumental recording Say Less.
  • The multi-continental self-titled rockabilly album by The Barnestormers was also a treat, including popular musicians from Australia (the band's namesake Jimmy Barnes on vocals, Chris Cheney of The Living End on guitar), the USA (drums by Slim Jim Phantom of The Stray Cats) and the UK (Jools Holland on piano).
  • Four80East released a new record Gonna Be Alright back in August of this year, with more of the good sounds

Most listened to in 2023​


I don't keep track of the number of plays on the vinyl side (other than "jeez, I play this thing a lot!"), but my Roon Player shows me what I've listened to the most on the digital side. I can't say the top plays surprise me all that much, but it's interesting to see it all put into numbers. And of vinyl titles, as I said, I've reach for some records more often than others, and I will mention just a couple of the notable ones below. (The second article will cover other vinyl reissues in depth.)

1703898848832.pngMy top listen this year has been Idris Muhammad's Power of Soul, his debut on the Kudu label. His other albums, both before and after, are more rooted in soul--Black Rhythm Revolution is a tasty combination of instrumental soul and jazz fusion, and an honorable mention in my list. But Power of Soul would have been more at home on the CTI label as it is an easygoing melodic record that will please even many non-jazz aficionados. For me, it has become a "comfort food" title. Despite being a "drum record," all we really hear of Muhammad is his rock solid groove backing every song. Grover Washington Jr. is featured throughout, and Bob James does a fine arranging job, not dipping into schmaltz as he has done on other recordings. It's easy to see how this was considered a soul jazz classic in its day.

A runner-up for the number of listens is Johnny "Hammond" Smith's Gambler's Life. Unlike other albums where Hammond plays the B3 organ, he shifts to electric keyboards here, primarily the Rhodes stage piano that was in fashion back then. This is on the short-lived CTI sister label Salvation, which primarily featured albums that Taylor did not produce. Instead, production was handled by Larry and Ponce Mizell, well known for fusion, funk and soul production, who also contributed compositions and performances to the project. It's a busy, chaotic album, but in a good way--there is a lot to digest all at once, but it is a soul/funk workout that happens to include some jazz soloing throughout. It ranks as my second most listened to album this year.

Detroit-based trumpeter Donald Byrd's Electric Byrd album caught my ear back in September, and I played a CD rip of this title sporadically on and off up until I bought the vinyl at Third Man Records just prior to Thanksgiving. I've been playing it often through December. It's heavily influenced by Miles Davis in his Bitches Brew mode with its explorations into different sounds, yet is more coherent and melodic. "Xibaba" actually recalls a little of the first incarnation of Return to Forever thanks to Airto Moreira composing and playing on the track. It's one of those records where you hear something new unfold with each playing.

Blue Note made a deal with Third Man Records to release a number of titles in the "313" series (that being the area code for Detroit). Electric Byrd was manufactured down in the Cass Corridor at Third Man's pressing plant. Blue Note president Don Was is also from the area, hence the tie-in; his group Was (Not Was) was a local sensation back in the early 1980s. My copy of Electric Byrd is the black/yellow "eclipse" pressing (Third Man's official colors), limited to 313 copies; the other eclipse variation features the official Blue Note blue and white.

1703898904671.pngWhile I had a great vinyl haul during one of many visits to Colorado this year, my best find had to be a suitably nice copy of Horace Silver's The Stylings of Silver, on a 70s-era reissue pressing. It was the second album of his that I explored after his landmark classic Song for my Father, and anyone who has sought out jazz especially on the Blue Note label knows how pricey these have become. Thankfully this one was well under $30, and is in much better condition than the VG+ rating it was given by the seller. I've played the heck out of it.

Finally, I can't let this yearly overlook pass without mentioning Steely Dan's Aja UHQR reissue from Analogue Productions. Released as two 45-RPM records on a special vinyl formulation at 200 grams, many are hailing it as the best sounding version of Aja ever released. When the record was first mastered, Bernie Grundman had made an EQed tape copy that he used for the original ABC pressings of the record, and he reused that for the UHQR version as the original master tape can no longer be found (and I suspect it was missing before Universal let their warehouse go up in flames).

In a recent interview, Bernie mentions that since this tape copy was in excellent condition, he feels the improvements in electronics and his mastering chain made an improvement over the original ABC "AB-1006" pressing that many of us have sought out. For my part, I have enjoyed revisiting this classic. My epiphany after listening to the final two tracks is that I realized I wasn't listening to the sound quality, I was wrapped up in the music, like I am any time I listen to this record. Unless a version of this album is truly awful sounding (either poor mastering, or noisy worn-out vinyl), I can enjoy it no matter what. I plan on getting into the finer points of the UHQR reissues at a later time, but I also look forward to the SACD version that is due in the next couple of months, which was also mastered by Bernie.


1703898964522.png 1703899085828.png

Part 2 will cover some vinyl reissue series which were impressive--not all of them were new releases this year, but they were of sufficient high quality that they deserve a separate mention.
 
Last edited:
What were some of your new musical highlights for the year? Let us know in the comments!
 
i/o was probably the highlight of the year for me as well as far as 2023 releases go. I think it's the strongest album Gabriel's made since So.

Other 2023 releases I enjoyed:
- Blur's The Ballad of Darren: Probably my favorite album they've ever made. Between this and this year's nearly-every-bit-as-good Gorillaz album (Cracker Island), Damon Albarn had one of the strongest years of his career artistically
- Depeche Mode's Memento Mori: The most I've enjoyed an album of theirs since Exciter. The combination of co-writing with the Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler and bringing James Ford (best known for his work with Arctic Monkeys, Florence and the Machine, and Gorillaz) to co-produce really seems to have creatively re-energized the band
- Kylie Minogue’s Tension: She doesn’t get nearly the attention in the U.S. that she does pretty much everywhere else around the world, but she’s got an incredible body of work (my favorite being The Abbey Road Sessions, which consists of “unplugged” versions of her hits, like “Never Too Late” being performed with a single pianist as the only accompaniment) and she’s really bounced back in a big way artistically with her last two studio albums after a pair of disappointing outings.
- Rolling Stones’ Hackney Diamonds: It can’t compare to their run of Sixties and Seventies albums, no, but it’s still the most I’ve enjoyed a Stones album since Steel Wheels.
- Matchbox Twenty’s Where the Light Goes: Got virtually no promotion or airplay whatsoever and nothing from it even so much as cracked the Hot 100, but it’s the best set of songs Rob Thomas has written in at least ten years
- Paramore’s This Is Why: I can’t say that I was much of a fan when they first came onto the music scene, but their last three albums have really made a convert out of me. It’s a shame pop radio’s no longer playing them, because they seem to get better as a band all the time.
- Jonas Brothers' The Album: Guilty pleasure, for sure. But "Waffle House" is just so playful and infectiously catchy, it's impossible for me to resist, and there’s something about the music to “Wings” that reminds me in a very delightful way of Shuggie Otis’ Wings of Love (the compilation of unreleased tracks that was packaged with Sony’s deluxe reissue of Inspiration Information from 2013)

As far as my favorite older-music discoveries of the year I'd not previously been familiar with go, I'd single out:
- Barbara Dickson's The Barbara Dickson Album: an obscure Columbia release I discovered via my love of an A&M artist, Alan Tarney, who wrote and produced most of the songs (including a considerably more uptempo - and superior - cover of "It's Really You," which had already appeared on the first Tarney/Spencer Band album); not surprisingly, the record sounds a whole lot like the stuff Alan Tarney was writing/producing for Cliff Richard around the same time, but I looooove those Cliff Richard singles (i.e. "We Don't Talk Anymore," "Dreaming," "A Little in Love," "Give a Little Bit More"), so this was totally up my alley. I especially cannot get enough of "January February." Absolutely phenomenal pop song.
- Nick Lowe's The Abominable Showman and His Cowboy Outfit: Been slowly growing my Lowe collection from the beginning onwards, and Showman might be my favorite in the bunch thus far (even more so than the much more famous Labour of Lust); "Time Wounds All Heels" is the best song title I've come across in a long time
- Bob Welch's The Other One: his only studio album as a solo artist that I was still missing from my collection prior to this year; the songs admittedly aren't quite as immediately infectious overall as those on French Kiss or Man Overboard, but they're just so well-played (I especially love the synths on "Straight Up" and Roger Voudoris' guest guitar turn on "Oneonone") that I found myself playing them again and again, anyway, until the hooks started to sink in deeper
- Brian Protheroe's "Enjoy It" - obscure Chrysalis artist from the '70s; found one of his albums in a budget-bin without knowing anything about him and tried it out on a whim and was pleasantly delighted by it. His stuff can get really esoteric or avant-garde, but then he can turn right around and do something playful and infectious like "Enjoy It," which reminds me a bit of Michael Franks
- Al Stewart's "End of the Day": I didn't really have much Al Stewart in my collection beyond a greatest-hits LP, but I recently picked up a pristine copy of Time Passages and was utterly floored by how pretty and enchanting this particular track was
- The Bongos' Number with Wings EP: Knew virtually nothing about them but stumbled upon a sealed copy of this in a budget bin and thought I'd give it a try. Was not disappointed in the slightest. I will definitely have to check out some of their other releases.
- Janis Siegel's Experiment in White: Have always loved The Manhattan Transfer and have most of their releases (particularly from their years on Atlantic) but had never heard any of their solo discs before. This one's admittedly a bit all over the place stylistically, but I quite enjoyed this and may have to delve deeper into the solo well. Recommendations, anyone?
 
i/o was probably the highlight of the year for me as well as far as 2023 releases go. I think it's the strongest album Gabriel's made since So.
Us and Up were dark, especially since Us was his breakup/divorce album and he expressed some of his angst through songs like "Digging in the Dirt." i/o feels more hopeful and uplifting than the last two. In a way, Up recalls PG3 especially in tracks like "Darkness" and "No Way Out" with an undercurrent of fear (I don't want to say "terror" but my mind goes there).

I haven't had a chance to listen to Memento Mori yet, but it's on my list.

Al Stewart...I can't say much except that his music is one of those acquired tastes where, once you've latched onto a song or an album, you want to hear more. A lot of history winds through his lyrics as well--without reading about some of the songs online, the history would have gone over my head on some of the songs. Time Passages, Year of the Cat, 24 Carrots, and Last Days of the Century have been reliable albums for me, and his recent albums are also nice listens.

I've never gotten into the solo Manhattan Transfer albums at all. Janis did record two albums with pianist Fred Hersch that might be a little more grounded in a single style (I realize that I probably purchased Slow Hot Wind decades ago and never listened to it!). I think between her and Cheryl Bentyne, they have over 30 albums together outside the group. Even former member Laurel Massé has a handful of recordings in her name.
 
I agree about the Manhattan Transfer solo albums. I don’t care or like any of the ones the 3 ladies have done. Way too weird, or out there for my taste. I haven’t heard Alan Paul’s solo stuff yet. They just performed their last concerts ever in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago. That’s where Kareem Abdul Jabar fell and broke his hip, on his way to see them. They were good friends. Anyway, no more tours, or albums. They broke up for good, which makes me sad. Great group, and fun to see them live.
 
Bad wording on my part. My "not gotten into" meant I've never heard them.
 
New releases include:

The Third Mind: 2

Marty Stuart: Altitude

Noel Gallagher: Council Skies

Anat Fort Trio: The Berlin Sessions

Dominic Miller: Vagabond

Reissues:

The Who: Who's Next/Lifehouse Box

Frank Zappa: Funky Nothingness

Bob Dylan: The bootleg series: Fragments (box)
 
The Who: Who's Next/Lifehouse Box
Somewhat related...

I was hoping to find a really good mastering of Who's Next on vinyl. The only thing I have now is a Music On Vinyl version (of which views are mixed--I think it's good considering the source), and I don't recall if I ever bought a cheap used copy in my travels.

I did hear a test pressing of a 45 RPM cut of it from Analogue Productions but that was prior to COVID and it never materialized as a release. (Even then, it didn't sound all that great--it's not the best recording in the world. Although I still find the music compelling all these years later.)
 
imusic.dk offered the Who‘s Next CD/Blu-Ray box set for a really nice price.
I hoped that the Blu-Ray would have been offered for separate sale. That never materialized.

Join Together never sounded so good….
 
Back
Top Bottom