In 2023, I saw my first “normal” live shows since the lockdown, though I only managed to hit a few and they were all local/regional acts. On April 29th, I saw Dickie/Dick Prall perform at CSPS in Cedar Rapids backed by a string quartet which was really fantastic. Dick’s music tends to adapt well to strings. Cedar Falls artist Joel Sires opened as a duo with Jacob Lampman. I also saw a reunion show for seminal Iowa band House of Large Sizes at The Octopus in Cedar Falls. I hadn’t seen them since I lived in Iowa back in the early 90’s. Considering the age of the band (and the fans, frankly) they put on a fantastic high-energy show complete with Barb jumping up and down. The show was a warm-up for the 80/35 Festival. You can watch the complete performance at 80/35 here. The band that opened for HOLS the night I saw them was 10-Watt Robot from Des Moines with Mike Sangster of The Hollowmen and Head Candy fronting. 10-Watt Robot recorded their debut album at Pachyderm Studios (where Nirvana recorded In Utero) this year and their album should come out in 2024!
I saw Joel Sires a couple more times this year– once was for a live-streamed performance for VUit that I produced (click here to watch) and I also caught him playing a show in the “Art Alley” in Marion, IA with Jacob.
I wouldn’t say that vinyl production returned to normal, but maybe to borrow a phrase from the early COVID times, “a new normal.” Pre-orders were months out, and while that isn’t unusual, most of the preorders I had missed original estimates, and often months from the original estimate. I have resorted to creating a Google spreadsheet that keeps track of my pre-orders so I don’t forget them (and also remember to check on them!). Craft Recordings kicked off a campaign to start reissuing the Original Jazz Classics series from the 80’s. The OJC series was a bargain-priced reissue series of Prestige/Riverside/Contemporary jazz titles. Under its new reboot, these are remastered from tape by Kevin Gray, but are now decidedly NOT discount at $32. I ordered Bill Evans Trio’s Waltz for Debbie and Sunday At The Village Vanguard together to save on shipping in May when they were announced. I received the albums in late December. There was a manufacturing problem with Vanguard apparently which delayed it, and since I ordered them together, Waltz was held up for me. These are gorgeous releases with very heavy Stoughton-style jackets and OBI strips and 180g vinyl. Rather than try to track down originals (or even reissues) this is a great way to build a jazz essentials catalog.
The recurring topic in the vinyl community was the rising prices of new and used vinyl across the board. Most new vinyl was $28-$30 for a single LP in 2023, with multiple LP sets often twice that. Market studies showed the vast majority of new vinyl collecting came from younger collectors who were more interested in collecting the records than actually playing them. This explains the deluge of release variants with different color vinyl and different covers. The most obvious of this are the Taylor Swift “Taylor’s Version” of her Big Machine catalog. This contributed to the clogging of the production of vinyl as well, and I don’t see this changing anytime soon. Some part of this is the increase in cost of manufacturing and distribution, but also I think that the major labels saw the opportunity to “adjust” prices. Lots of counterarguments said that these increases corrected for inflation. Used vinyl looks to be on the upswing in pricing for bigger titles, which is compounded by median pricing reported by discogs. There are still deals to be had, but you have to be diligent.
I finally bit the bullet and joined Vinyl Me Please in 2023. They had a 40% coupon for members and I was very interested in the VMP Anthology release Miles Davis : The Electric Years box set. The member price of the box set was $349, and with the 40% discount, it brought it down to $209, which is a great deal for this beautiful box set, which was mastered by Ryan Smith from the original analog master tapes. The membership for 1 month is $46 and the release for December (when I joined) was VMP’s release of Herbie Hancock’s Sextant, which I didn’t have. $46 is steep for one album, but it is beautiful with a foil-stamped tip-on gatefold with an exclusive photograph and an essay. I considered stopping my membership, but I swapped the record for January (Labelle’s Nightbirds) for Monk’s Music, which I didn’t have an official release of (I had a gray-market one I picked up from Half Price Books years ago).
One big thing for me for 2023 was the purchase of some new gear. I managed to purchase one of the NAD C 3050 LE (limited to 1,972 worldwide). This replaced the circa-1978 Kenwood amp I’d been using for a really long time. I loved it, but it had some issues with the right channel cutting in and out. It probably needs to have the pots or the power switch cleaned on it. Also, I wanted to use a subwoofer in the room, and that amp didn’t have a good way to do that without using an Aux out or trying to loop through a speaker connection. This started me down the path of looking at newer amps and I considered one of the vintage-look Pioneer amps, but I stumbled over a YouTube review of the C 3050 LE and I was sold, I preordered it in 2022 and it took months to get, but it was worth the wait. The C 3050 LE has a phono stage and a dedicated headphone stage, but also can do bluetooth and network/internet streaming via BluOS. I had been using a bluetooth receiver on the old amp, but this amp can stream popular sites like Amazon Music, Spotify, Apple Music, and Sirius XM. You use the BluOS app to chose the streaming site, which makes this amp a lot more flexible as a center of music for the home. NAD has introduced a non-limited edition version of the amp, which is available now. It’s the same except the BluOS card is available separately and the wood box is different.
Now onto the list. Quite a few interesting releases this year– I listened to a lot of new music this year, and looking back I’m reminded of releases that I was hot for a minute on, but then moved on. Writing this list each year ends up being a good exercise in reminding me of releases from earlier in the year. Here are my Top 20 of 2023 (in no particular order).
Neal Francis – Francis Comes Alive – Chicago musician Neal Francis put out a 2 LP live album this year. He brought an 11-piece band to Thalia Hall in Chicago and they filmed the concert as well as multi-track recorded the audio to analog tape. This album shows Francis in his element as a brilliant showman. The resulting album is certainly a callback to important 70’s live albums like Paul McCartney and Wings’ Wings Over America, Little Feat’s Waiting For Columbus and, of course Frampton Comes Alive. The extended workouts of songs like “Sentimental Garbage” with its Pink Floyd-esque extended outro jam is one I play a lot, especially to introduce friends to Neal Francis.
Hiss Golden Messenger – Jump For Joy – Another damn fine album from MC Taylor and company. Characteristically laid back jams with prime vintage vibes. I’ve said it before, but every year that HGM puts an album out is a year they’ll end up on this list. Bonus release: Solo MC Taylor Live from April of this year or Live at EartH Hackney.
Beth Bombara – It All Goes Up – St. Louis musician Beth Bombara was signed by indie record label Black Mesa Records, and It All Goes Up is the first release. The album is a continuation of the arc of brilliant albums from Beth. Most of these songs were written, or started during COVID, so songs like “Lonely Walls” certainly speak to that isolation, but certainly the record is more than just a “COVID album.” My favorite album of hers to date!
William Tyler and the Impossible Truth – Secret Stratosphere – An unexpected live album from William Tyler! A full-band set which includes songs from Tyler’s previous albums, but also a Kraftwerk cover “Radioactive” and a new song “Area Code 601” which is a tribute to 70’s instrumental band Area Code 615. The band includes pedal steel genius Luke Schneider. Schneider was in a post rock band with Tyler called Character in the early 2000’s, so this is kind of a reunion, too! Bonus release: “Darkness, Darkness/ No Services” 12″ collaboration between Tyler and Kieran Hebden.
Elijah McLaughlin Ensemble – III – For Chicago fingerstyle guitarist Elijah McLaughlin’s third release he moved to one of my favorite jazz labels Astral Spirits. On III, we find McLaughlin expanding the tonal palate of his work to include field recordings and new treatments to the cello and some synths. Beautiful album.
Alanna Royale – Trouble Is – For her third album, Alanna Royale took a chance and drove to California during the lockdown to work with R&B and Soul producer and musician Kelly Finnigan. Those sessions included members from Kelly’s band The Monophonics. The resulting album Trouble Is ends up being the perfect marriage– a Monophonics album lead with the dynamic vocals of Royale. A pairing we didn’t know we needed, but WOW, kind of the best of both.
I Think Like Midnight – Microtonal Honkytonk – The Philly instrumental guitar band I Think Like Midnight fronted by Andrew Chalfen started life as a band that’s original stated direction was to record albums in the style of Pell Mell, and to that end they released a lot of music that sounded like it was a continuation of that band. But, over the band’s previous albums, they’ve experimented with different styles and tones, so they’ve released albums that have strayed from that formula. For Microtonal Honkytonk, we hear some of that original sound as the band dips back into a more guitar-focused direction. If you’re a fan of bands like Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet, or obviously Pell Mell, that are less surfy guitar instrumental, then this is a band you should check out. I Think Like Midnight is one of my favorite instrumental guitar bands today.
Black Duck – Black Duck Continuing the instrumental guitar theme of this list is Tortoise bass and Bass VI player Doug McCombs’s latest project called Black Duck. Black Duck is a trio with McCombs on bass and guitar, Bill McKay on guitar and Charles Rumback on drums. If you’re familiar with McCombs’s outings in Brokeback, this album sounds like an extension of that work. Gigantic reverb on the guitar coupled with light drumming recalls Tom Verlaine’s Warm and Cool album (an album McCombs openly admits is his favorite).
Sam Prekop and John McEntire – Sons Of – 2023 brought us another unexpected release from the Thrill Jockey stable of bands. Sam Prekop of The Sea and Cake, and solo and John McEntire of The Sea and Cake as well as Tortoise collaborated on an album anchored in analog synths and sequencers. Prekop is known for his recent analog synth works and McEntire brings his love of synths to Tortoise, so the record’s synergy is one that works. McEntire brings the beats to this effort which makes it very expansive and compelling and somewhat Tortoise-like in that regard. Bonus Release: A Yellow Robe Remixes by A Soft Pink Truth who is Drew Daniel of Matmos.
Okonski – Magnolia – Steve Okonski from Durand Jones and the Indications released his first solo album on Colemine Records. The album started out as an instrumental soul record with the idea that these songs would be composed in that manner and recorded. In fact, he released the demos from the initial sessions later in 2023 and the songs seem like break beats similar to El Michels or even kind of like J Dilla’s instrumental breaks. He liked the warmup recordings so much he switched to improvising in the studio resulting in a jazz trio record and one of my very favorite records from 2023. I really love that Terry Cole expanded the genre scope of Colemine Records to include a piano jazz record. I think that Okonski is going to record a new album in 2024. Bonus Release: Trio Session Demos
John Fahey – Proofs & Refutations – Well, I certainly wasn’t expecting a new John Fahey album in 2023! Comprised mostly of an EP put out in 1996 by his manager Dean Blackwood, the album on Drag City collects some “lost” sessions of Fahey’s later career. In addition to some improvised guitar work, there are some spoken works that reveal a fascination with a digital loop pedal. This album is not for the casual fan of John Fahey. It’s on this list because I’m a huge fan of John Fahey. I wrote an article HERE about the album’s history which covers the mid-90’s resurgence in interest of Fahey which led to his later period noise and electric works.
Exploding Star Orchestra – Lightning Dreamers – Exploding Star Orchestra is one of the many projects led by jazz trumpet player Rob Mazurek (Chicago Underground Duo/Trio, Isotope 217). Mazurek more than any other jazz musician carries the mantle of the Chicago Jazz Improvisation legacy first established by the Art Ensemble of Chicago in the mid-60’s. Lightning Dreamers brings back many of Mazurek’s regulars including Tortoise guitarist Jeff Parker and Nicole Mitchell. It picks up where the band’s 2020 album Dimensional Stardust left off. Funky and angular, this album shows what jazz can be in the 2020’s incorporating sounds and textures of our times.
Subatlantic – Say It Again – Quad Cities band Subatlantic released their sophomore album in 2023. This album was the result of some woodshedding done in a cabin in 2022 by the band. The album has a kind of theme around interpersonal conflicts that clearly Rebecca Rice wanted to get off her chest. Happy that this album and their last album Villians are both on vinyl. Subatlantic albums are best consumed in a vinyl listening session, in my opinion. You can read my review of Say It Again for Little Village Magazine HERE.
DeYarmond Edison – EPOCH – This massive box set encompasses the brief but intense period of creativity of a band moving from nascent post-high school hopefuls in Eau Claire, WI to wildly unbounded Americana band in Raleigh, NC. The band is normally a footnote in the careers of Justin Vernon as Bon Iver (whose middle names comprise the band name) and the Cook brothers, Phil and Brad and Joe Westerlund who would become another brilliant but sadly overlooked band Megafaun. Phil Cook has his own solo career these days and is also a go-to producer and sideman. Brad Cook is the manager of Hiss Golden Messenger. Westerlund has found success as a solo musician as well as contributor to bands like Califone. This box is an incredible undertaking, digging out lost recordings from the band as well as the legendary Hazeltons solo album which marked the end of DeYarmond Edison and foretold the beginning of Emma, Forever Ago. It’s a massive, sprawling box which taken in whole tells the story of the band.
Jared Mattson – Peanut – Jared is one of the Mattson twins that make up the band The Mattson 2. Peanut is the first solo record from either of them. Peanut is mostly sung in Japanese– a language picked up while touring the country often as The Mattson 2. The album is not really much of a departure from The Mattson 2’s breezy West Coast sound which draws easy comparisons to The Sea and Cake and Toro y Moi (whom they’ve worked with).
Toro y Moi – Sandhills EP – Speaking of Mr. Chaz Bear/Toro y Moi, he put out an EP of quietly acoustic music this year. This 14-minute release is a tribute to his hometown of Columbia, SC. It draws comparisons to Sufjan Stevens or Elliott Smith. Beautiful record. The EP has an etched side B that also has a short track of field recordings.
James Elkington – Me Neither – James Elkington seems to be a sideman on a lot of albums I listen to from bands out of Chicago. It helps that his groups are all related to Thrill Jockey– Eleventh Dream Day, Brokeback, and Freakwater. But, his solo works are also fantastic– his moody baritone vocals are some of my favorites starting in his band The Zincs and moving to his duo with Janet Beveridge Bean in The Horses Ha (one of my early reviews is HERE) as well as his solo albums on Paradise of Bachelors. Me Neither is a 2 LP compilation of instrumental guitar sketches and is a great album to have on in the background or while driving for me.
Ratboys – The Window – Even though Chicago band Ratboys has been recording for over 10 years, I had only come across them this year. Fronted by the high soprano vocals of Julia Steiner, the band has a kind of twee sound that recalls 90’s acts like Juliana Hatfield. Really great punky pop.
Bob Martin – Seabrook – A lot has been said about Bob Martin elsewhere, but the short story is that he recorded a brilliant debut record called Midwest Farm Disaster in 1972 for RCA Nashville, but it wallowed in obscurity due to management changes at the label, as well as a change in focus to rock by RCA overall. Bob continued to record music up until his death in 2022. His final album Seabrook was produced by Jerry David DeCicca (of The Black Swans and solo). DeCicca had approached Martin about the possibility of reissuing Midwest Farm Disaster a while ago and struck up a friendship that resulted in his involvement in the final album. A bittersweet release, it is an album of reflection and a wonderful last work from Martin. Bonus Release: DeCicca released an album this year as well!
Dave Helmer – Such A Clown – Dave Helmer’s primary focus since 2014 has been his band Crystal City, which also includes his wife Sam Drella. They released a three great albums as Crystal City, with 2019’s Three-Dimensionality being one of my favorite local releases in recent history. Dave’s rough and ragged vocal delivery I compared to Paul Westerberg in my Little Village review of that album. So, it was somewhat surprising that he decided to release an album under his own name. I suspect it was mostly a factor of trying a different band or maybe the ability to focus the songs in a more personal direction. Crystal City seems more like a “we” band whereas the songs on Such a Clown are more “me” focused. Whatever the reason is, the songs are fantastic and don’t really stray too far from the guitar punch of Crystal City.