Some of the records I enjoyed the most this year. I realized while writing some thoughts about the Sourdurent release below that one thing linking most/all of these records is that they all have an active, process-oriented relationship with one or more particular “traditions”. (Maybe this doesn’t apply so well to Prefab Sprout and Thomas Dolby… they’re just expertly made pop music I suppose.)

That seems to be where my ears are going these days: towards process-based music, bands embedded in process, artists making music they could only make now but which arises out of a deep and careful and loving attention to the world and its music from the past.

2023 Releases

Derek Bailey & Paul Motian, Duo in Concert

Brilliant improvisation from these two. Bailey is always special and his guitar playing has left such a mark on my own understanding of the instrument, but I was most surprised by how engaging and beautiful Motian’s drumming is here. This is very special.

Brìghde Chaimbeul, Carry Them With Us

Chaimbeul is a fantastic player of the Scottish small pipes, a cousin of the Irish uilleann pipes and the cabrette from Auvergne (both mentioned since releases below feature these instruments). I want to live in those drones.

John Francis Flynn, Look Over the Wall, See the Sky

I have mixed feelings about lead single “Mole in the Ground”, but overall I love this album. Flynn’s deep lovely voice, the noisy and blippery arrangements, and the profound affection for the material make this an exciting and compelling record. “Kitty” is stunning and will bring tears to your eyes if you let it.

Kindohm, Prompt 3

Mike Hodnick is one of my favourites to come out of the algorave/livecoding world. This album is relentless! The intense focus on process throughout is something to behold. Very inspiring.

Suzanne Langille, Andrew Burnes, David Daniell, and Loren Connors, Let the Darkness Fall

Loren Connors is another guitarist who has taught me a lot about the instrument. He’s playing in a trio here supporting the otherworldy songs of Suzanne Langille. It’s the kind of record that sounds like it’s happening just for you.

Lankum, False Lankum

I love this one. I wrote an essay about it shortly after it came out, so I won’t repeat myself here. I’ll just say it’s excellent!

Jacques Puech, Gravir ///// Canon

Associated with the excellent La nòvia, this is a mesmerizing album of music written for the cabrette–a solo and quintet. Puech plays with a million other fantastic bands, some on this list. As a beginning (uilleann) piper myself, I’ve felt so lucky to have found his music (as well as Chaimbeul’s).

Claire M Singer, Saor

It’s a good time to be alive if you love longform minimalist organ music, what with Sarah Davachi, Kali Malone, and Claire M Singer.

I love patient music these days, which I suppose is because I struggle so much with patience in my own music. These pieces help me think about how I can be patient with my own music–how I can resist trying to do too much too quickly–and still have a lot going on within a single piece. That’s another thing I love about this record: despite the apparent minimalism, there is a lot going on in each of these but they never feel overstuffed. I will be studying this one.

Sourdurent, L’Herbe de Détourne

I love music that is traditional but which sees traditions as temporal phenomena–extended throughout time and therefore always in process. In a way every record I loved this year could be described this way (even the computer music records I loved!). The old sense of the word “tradition” meant something “handed over”. When you’re handed something, you can either try to keep it in the same condition you received it in–this means use it very carefully, very anxiously, perhaps don’t use it at all or at least only in the proper circumstances–or you can incorporate it into your own life and use it as you would anything else. You might “mess it up” (you can’t, at least if we’re talking about music). This means you will likely not maintain that thing’s “original” condition, i.e., the condition in which you were given it, and not its actual original condition the knowledge of which is likely more mythical than historical. Instead, living and working and playing with that thing will shape that thing, and the shaping of the thing will shape the living and the working and the playing with it that follows. And so on.

I love this band. “Petafinats” is a particular favourite of mine here.

La Tène, Ecorcha / Tailée

My current fascination with all this music from France started with this band and this record. Hearing a group of musicians making such compelling and repetitive drone-adjacent music with a whole mix of instruments, including many traditional ones (hurdy-gurdy! cabrette!), was just about the most exciting musical discovery for me of the past few years. “La Taillée” is a piece of music that I’m thinking of throughout every day, running in a loop in my head.

Trá Pháidín, An 424

Similar to La Tène, this group makes excellent music with a mix of “rock” instruments and “traditional” instruments. Less droney, less minimal, this group leans a bit more towards psychedelia and other kinds of long-form rock. Exuberant! I saw them open for John Francis Flynn at Vicar Street in Dublin, and they were top-notch.

Tokinogake Records, Time Series Processing (2 vol. compilation)

Discovering this label and community was the best thing that happened to me in 2023 with respect to computer music. So playful, precise, silly, and serious. This 2 volume compilation is amazing.

Jana Winderen, The Blue Beyond

To the things themselves! I admire Winderen’s commitment to documenting sounds found at the meeting place of human and non-human activity. I love her commitment to thinking about and through the ways human activity is changing our ecosystems. I love that she does this by “just” (it’s no simple thing, though it is) recording. She is an exemplar of attentive and careful listening, which is the same thing, I think, as attentive and careful composing.

The two pieces on this record are each fascinating and rich and truly delightful on the ears and for the mind.

Pre-2023 New (to me) Discoveries

Cocanha, Puput (2020)

I’m completely obsessed with this group, who sing traditional songs in Occitan with accompaniment from instruments such as the tambourin à cordes. The tunes are marvellous, but the thing that interests me the most is how they layer and repeat, whether with sounds, rhythms, melodies, or words, in such playful and exciting ways.

Thomas Dolby, The Flat Earth (1984)

Another gem from Song Sandwich, this one from John Bonoan’s episode (the folks in Bochek have excellent taste in music). I’d say this one encourages dancing.

The Drones, Wait Long by the River and the Bodies of Your Enemies Will Float By (2005)

This band was a revelation. I worked my way back to them after first hearing one of Gareth Liddiard’s recent projects, the lovely and beautiful band Springtime (which should probably be on this list…). I love messy, loud, shouty music. I love how this band takes an approach equally informed by Neil Young, 70s punk, and 80s hardcore, out of which comes this remarkable collection of angry and sad and defiant music. Liddiard’s lyrics especially resonate with me. Throughout his career now, starting here and continuing with his recent bands Springtime and Tropical Fuck Storm, he’s written about death, rural despair, alcoholism, the continuing effects of colonialism, virulent racism (he’s from Australia), and far right radicalization. And he’s interpreted songs from the folk tradition, like this wonderful recording of the traditional Irish song “She Moved Through the Fair”. I like this guy.

Egisto Macchi, Il Deserto (1974) and Bioritmi (1971)

A new favourite 20th Century composer of mine, becoming as special to me as Messiaen, Takemitsu, Fahey. Every sound is perfect! Much of his work was for film and TV–so called “Library Music” or “Production Music”–but it was no less glorious for having its destiny be the TV set and not the concert hall. The compositional chops here are excellent, but the most exciting thing is the experimentation with sound itself: blending sounds, ekeing out unusual sounds from usual instruments, pacing those sounds in time in a way that is exhilarating and compelling and never dull.

Jim O’Rourke, Live in Japan 2002-09-16 (2002)

Some beautiful soul taped this live show and for that I am very glad. It’s a fine set of some of O’Rourke’s turn of the century material, but the main event here is the final piece: a 33 minute rendition of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car”. It begins with the guitar looping over and over, Jim singing. Layers layer, the guitar loops fold over themselves, things get murkier. A beautiful fantastic drone develops. It’s soft, fuzzy. This process goes on and on, and somehow at the right moment–the only moment for it–Jim’s guitar arrives, and his voice too, and it’s still the song it was 25 minutes ago except it’s somehow sadder and sweeter. Nobody makes longform music like Jim O’Rourke. 33 minutes flies by, you’ve felt feelings you don’t have names for. You’ve heard a piece of music that did what it needed to do when it needed to do it. So much to learn.

Planxty, The Well Below the Valley (1973)

2022 was the year I discovered Planxty, and I was in love with their debut self-titled record. In 2023 I graduated to this their second album, and while the whole thing is brilliant the opening track is really an all-timer. This arrangement of the Frieze Breeches jig is wonderful, the drones in the strings that come and go are beautiful, and Liam Óg’s piping here is the sort of thing that makes you feel very happy to be alive at the same time as it.

Prefab Sprout, Steve McQueen (1985)

Immaculate pop music. Produced by Thomas Dolby. I learned about them from Joseph Rebelo’s episode on the Song Sandwich Podcast. All of Prefab’s stuff is great, but this record really is special.

Steve Roden, sometime in the late 80s (2018)

Roden died in September of 2023 and as often, sadly, happens, it wasn’t until then that I finally went and looked for more of his work beyond some of the more famous records like Forms of Paper that I knew and loved. I found his fascinating website and his archival recording project on bandcamp. I think about Roden’s work almost every day. The title of a track he contributed to this compilation of music inspired by the work of Ozu Yasujirō, “Tapping the inside of sitting still”, is one of those strange scraps of language that’s floating around in my thoughts on a daily basis.

I have never been able to be so patient and trusting. I think Roden really knew how to trust a sound. And he knew how to wait for a sound. I like to think I’m patient in life, but in making music I struggle, and I often try to find a sound before I let it find me.

Le soleil ni même la lune, Le soleil ni même la lune (2021)

Traditional music de Massif Central et des Hautes-Alpes, played in a duo with fiddle and cabrette. Beautiful beautiful!

Sourdure, De Bon Astre (2022)

An earlier incarnation of Sourdurent (see above), this record is delightful and hilarious and listening to it makes me want to go make my own gleeful music.

Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, Strangers from the Universe (1994)

This album is absolutely brilliant. Despite having devoted my life, since age 14, to finding and loving the most obscure and interesting underground punk and rock of the 90s, I never knew this band until early this year. Perhaps this is because I grew up in the US Northeast, and these fellers were in California? Who knows. I’m glad to know them now. Top notch players, weirdo arrangers.