Dean's List: 2023
The 83 best albums of the past year (or so)
What's most anomalous yet also I think most significant about this year's Dean's List, my annual order-of-preference selection whose 2023 edition sequences 76 albums I thought worthy of an A or A minus and adds eight late bloomers released in 2022 (notably CMAT's If My Wife New I'd Be Dead, my number three album even though I stuck her 2023 Crazymad, for Me down at 56th), is that by my count some 26 of them, not quite a third, were by artists aged 50 or over. Granted, the same was true of 18 finishers last year, which definitely got my attention, but the overall consequences were less striking. In order of preference, with only actual ages of 60 or over indicated, here are the 26: Buck 65, Iris DeMent (63), Taj Mahal (81 like me), Robert Forster (66), Gina Birch (68), the Feelies (in their sixties I assume), Dolly Parton (78), the late Bobbie Nelson (91 when she died a year ago), the Human Hearts, Lori McKenna, Lucinda Williams (71), Bill Scorzari (age unknown but he's clearly been around), David Murray (68), Rodney Crowell (73), Willie Nelson (90), Baaba Maal (68), Allen Lowe (69), Gurf Morlix (73), and Stephen Ulrich (63).
This is because what unites all the songsters on my list--excluding jazz-prone instrumentalists Murray, Lowe, and Ulrich but not piano woman Nelson, who Amanda Shires enlisted to help her do justice to "Always on My Mind," "Summertime," and other classics she couldn't wait to get her tonsils around--is that they've always loved songs and often loved love songs. Which all my canonization of James Brown's everything-is-a-drum fails even to dent my enduring affection for the catchy hits of high school years suffused with not just Chuck Berry and Fats Domino but also beloved one-shots like the Three Friends' "Blanche" and the Bobbettes' "Mr. Lee" and a hit-singles aesthetic that bloomed into the '60s rock that generated the album economy that rendered the music a gold mine. It was the ongoing profitability of that business strategy that underwrote my lifetime of writing rock criticism, beginning when I inherited David Newman's quarterly Secular Music column in Esquire at age 24--thank you Beatles-Stones-Dylan and so many more. Most albums were baited with theoretically hitbound "lead tracks" and other delights designed as follow-up radio fare even if many failed to fulfill that destiny. But as the concert circuit evolved into rock's dominant moneymaker, signature intros, showoff solos, and well-rehearsed sonic barrages proved self-contained selling points of their own. And in my case, so did the motorvating multigrooves and seminal vocalese of the many Afropop styles that surfaced first in France and the U.K. and then, with a decisive boost from Paul Simon's 1986 Graceland, in the States if you were curious enough to care. But hummable hits remained rock's gold standard whether or not they scored as the 45s that were still in play.
All this was long ago, of course. By the '90s, committed rock fans were eagerly buying and downing whole superstar albums on faith, even putting money on LPs by "hot" but less established young bands that had generated sufficient word-of-mouth. In this century alt-rock up-and-comers like the Strokes and the White Stripes and Vampire Weekend gained traction as hip-hop generated its own catchy hits while gradually generating more cannily textural and subtly beaty variants that coalesced into what was eventually classified trap. And sooner or later more single-mindedly atmospheric music was absorbed into this aural gestalt.
Although I could ride this thumbnail megahistory until its wheels fall off, I'm supposed to be bidding farewell to 2023 here. So if you'll scan the new Dean's List I'll begin by pointing out that my year was replete with all of the above. Although my Afropop tastes do tend retro (have never grokked Burna Boy and laid off two albums by the highly unretro Anglo-Ghanaian Fokn Bois because they're a decade old and I'm far from sure I understand them), I did manage to home in on seven oldish, mostly 20th-century African minigenres, which was comforting in a year when only 15 of my remaining picks featured Black vocalists. On another crucial front, however, an unprecedented 40 of my 83 album picks featured female or non binary lead singers if you count Moldy Peach Kimya Dawson. Barely half of these are on what I'd call major labels, a count that would be even lower if nine of them plus Dolly Parton's audacious and hilarious rockstar move didn't slot as country, and let's give young Zach Bryan a warm roar of applause before we proceed.
Right--the shiny new superstar of the year was young, Oklahoma-born Navy vet Bryan, with one Dean's List finisher in my top 10 and what I considered the most notable of his several EPs toward the very bottom, although in case you're wondering his many other EPs and early albums are at least worthy and you have to admire a concert double fetchingly titled All My Homies Hate Ticketmaster. Genderwise, however, Bryan was an exception in 2023's A-list country, where Ashley McBryde, Megan Moroney, Morgan Wade, Elle King, and Brandy Clark all generated notable albums with self-penned songs to match while Parton staked a claim on 30 classic rockers and Shires plus Nelson did the same for a smaller selection of country and pop standards from "Old Fashioned Love" to "Over the Rainbow."
All that said, it's not like traditional rock groups failed to inflect the Dean's List. But there are only 20, and by my reckoning a mere four of these present male vocally: compellingly abrasive veteran Detroit punks I'd never heard of Tyvek, forthrightly political and predominantly Black Algiers, the hard-touring Low Cut Connie, and the new wave veterans who occasionally convene as the Baseball Project. In others--Speedy Ortiz, Pony, arguably the wise-ass 100 Gecs, subtly trad-pop Water From Your Eyes and Bar Italia--male musicians support female leads, with Asheville's widely admired Wednesday leaving their sarcastic socialist-realism-in-the-making to lead singer Karly Hartzman, who generates moments of both compassion and love as she carries her band's ideological weight.
And there you have a condensed up-to-date account of how the grading process I began to explore half a century ago is working out. It's my "brand," at the root of why you've checked out my list of 2023 faves 56 years after I got into the game. My basic m.o. is and always has been to listen, often passively at first but soon if so moved attentively, to albums with a rep or albums by an artist I like or sometimes just albums grabbed or streamed at random. If one of them pleases me from the git, soon I'll find out how much thought and/or fun it continues to generate, and then if I've gotten lucky it'll be time to home in on lyrics that engage my cerebellum or vocals that catch my ear or riffs or instrumental bits that compel my attention--aural moments that give me pleasure, set me to thinking, make me happy. Most often the operative factor will be a tune or a groove, but sometimes a fresh texture or a sliver of drama or an engaged vocal will do the trick, and let's not forget lyrics because a well-turned line or deft conceit can send me back to the same track posthaste. Often the moments that really count coalesce into songs even when it was a rep or a beat or an instrumental flourish that got me started. Example: Carola has been cooking as I write, and having reached the end of this graf I find I just have to hear Iris DeMent sing the perfectly turned "Workin' on a world that I may never see." So DeMent's fourth-ranked album, the disgracefully slept-on Workin' on a World, has been slotted as our dinner music. (P.S. When it was over we just wanted to cue it up again.)
The process whereby I and perhaps even you make such calls is pretty basic: give the album a spin, play it again if so inclined, and notice what's sticking--a scrap of melody, an engaging groove, sharp verbiage. As I relisten I try to home in on the lyrics for what ought to be a self-evident reason: crucial though groove has been to the music christened rock and roll circa 1955, like most strains of 20th-century pop with big-band swing a partial exception it's always been a music of songs, and if you're not just an alert critic but a sapient fan you may well enjoy knowing what those songs mean. Even JB's arrantly fundamental "Sex Machine" gains bite and definition from its words. But for the most part the songfulness of rock and roll is subtler than that. In what for me is the fundamental pattern, the tunefulness as opposed to melodicism of a track sticks in the listener's brain so stubbornly that he or she may soon be humming it without recalling where that particular sequence of notes came from--until that person plays the track again and smiles literally or virtually as the catchiest of its phrases comes 'round the mountain. If the lyric this tune subtends is of intrinsic interest you have a hook. If it says something sharp or penetrating or righteous or felt or funny you may well have added a quality song to your trove. And if more such show up on the same CD you're on your way to your 2024 Dean's List or equivalent--to add to the many first-rate albums that have already enriched your humanity or just tickled your funnybone.
If you want a few examples from the Dean's List, try any of the female country albums, bar-hopping Ashley McBryde or guy-hopping Megan Moroney to start. Or sample some woman-centered indie-rock, spunky Teen Jesus or disoriented Blondshell or the grim local color that rendered Wednesday such a breakout in 2023. Beyond the commercially potent but critically short-changed tunesmithing of Lewis Capaldi, men proved not terribly catchy in this Harry Styles off-year, with a few crucial exceptions in hip-hop, most impressively beneath-the-radar Canadian Buck 65, who if you dig him at all is always worth a checkout. But what looks to me like a major shift in sensibility also deserves some thought, although whether it's the wave of the future or a historical glitch I wouldn't dare predict. The simplest way to approach it is to cite Pitchfork, not to protest its misuse by Conde-Nast, which having purchased it from founder Ryan Schreiber in 2015 recently announced a complete restructuring to widespread journalistic dismay, but to unpack what has become of its signature sensibility.
As I hope is now common knowledge, when Pitchfork rose up in '90s Chicago it was functionally a parody of rock sexism. There seemed to be no women there at all, and not many writers who were worth a damn either. But in the mid '00s, starting with onetime Village Voice intern Amy Phillips in 2005, a phalanx of manifestly gifted young women, most of whose names are now familiar to serious rock fans, began toning the site up: for starters Jessica Hopper, Lindsay Zoladz, Amanda Petrusich, Carrie Battan, and Meaghan Garvey. All of them got out of there bigger deals than just about any of the guys they learned to put up with or maybe even like back in Chicago. Whether they established some collective female principle during their tours of duty I can't say. Maybe it was just cultural evolution; for sure ignoring hip-hop got less practical for serious music heads during that span. But over the subsequent decade the alt-rock scene lost juice in the wake of the trap a few artier hip-hop tinkerers began fashioning into impressionistic soundscapes and leisurely, woman-identified, quasi-orchestral grooves as sexy as any sotto voce diva. Reflexively pro-sex sometimes myself, I was happy to fall for a few such moments: Shygirl's Nymph, PinkPantheress's more anodyne Take Me Home, and most blatant Amaarae's Fountain Baby, which I had the stones to admiringly label "pornographic," a buzzword no other reviewer I'm aware of followed up on. And I should add that also in this general category is an album several judged the year's best and I find is beckoning me to uptick my ***: SZA's SOS.
Except for one thing, this ambient, atmospheric, environmental trend is OK with me--chacun a son gout and all that. But the one thing is big, because vocals or not these post-rap/post-disco singles are basically instrumental groove records however much they're sung a little for appearance's sake. Thus they embody a shift in which the songcraft I praised up top becomes more vestigial--a shift that I hope rights itself soon. Which, how about that, brings me to my album of the year by a mile: 20-year-old Olivia Rodrigo's catchy, beaty, sturdy, audacious, exquisitely crafted Guts, 12 songs about love among the up-and-coming as likable and honest and candid and somehow even relevant as, for instance, the three-woman Boygenius's subtler and more mature debut album The Record. Beyond its abiding tunefulness, what I've found most striking about Guts is that it's situated primarily on a Hollywood party circuit where Rodrigo is confident and vulnerable enough to be on the lookout for both respect and romance without expecting too much or counting on anything. Thus it's both touching and amusing without canceling skeptical or serious.
Right--when Rodrigo turns 21 later this month, she'll be rich and famous like you and I will never be. But she's smart and funny enough to leave substantive hope not just that all the attention won't wreck her life before she's 22 but that she's capable of exemplifying the emotional balance her success has yet to throw off kilter. That's far from the most important thing in a world it's reasonable to fear is falling apart, although I should mention that like her exemplar Taylor Swift, Rodrigo is active in the good deeds department. That matters to me and should matter to you. But in the meantime there are these 12 songs, and in the world we want to live in they'll still be there five years from now, blowing our minds no matter how this young songstress has grown up.
Dean's List moved here