Staff Picks: The Best CDs & Vinyl of 2023 – Part 1

I’m Mark, the Music & Film Specialist at Wellington City Libraries. Every month this year my colleagues Sam, Neil and I reviewed some new material for the music collection at Te Awe Brandon Street Library. The list below is the Top 10 picks from each us for 2023, the albums we enjoyed listening to most over the course of the year. Some of these titles featured on various critics’ Best of 2023 lists, but others are just albums that struck us as being unique and interesting.

Mark’s Picks:

Sleepwalker / Post, Louise
One of the most successful female fronted ‘Alt-Rock’ bands of the 1990s, whose influence still features prominently in a lot of contemporary bands, Veruca Salt‘s original line-up split acrimoniously after 2 full length albums and an EP, as founding members Louise Post & Nina Gordon went their own ways. Post continued with a couple more heavier albums & EPs under the ‘Veruca Salt’ moniker, while Gordon delivered a couple of much more commercial sounding solo albums. Hatches were apparently buried in 2013 when the bands original line-up, like a lot of other bands of that era, reunited to tour and eventually released a 2015 reunion album. Post & Gordon collaborated with Skating Polly on a 2017 EP, but following some touring in 2018 the band had been dormant. However Louise Post’s return to music was one of the surprising releases of last year, with her first solo album Sleepwalker. Apparently arising, like a lot of material, out of the Covid lockdowns she whittled down 50 or so tracks to the 11 that make up the album. As perhaps to be expected of someone her age, it’s a darker-tinged adult oriented ‘album’, rather than a set of singles. She really digs into mature stories of the domestic comfort/discomfort of long term relationships, alongside more upbeat tracks that work as homages to her own pop past. What’s perhaps the most surprising is how great it all sounds, as she works in a lot of genres and different instrumentation, but never loses focus on investing each track with a hooky, melodic line, disproving the long-held theory that it was Gordon who brought the ‘pop’ voice to Veruca Salt’s original albums. Her immediately distinctive voice is in great shape, and the sympathetic production puts it above the mix, so there is a real clarity to the album & it’s sound.

Rat saw God / Wednesday (Musical group)
Wednesday are a US alt-rock band from North Carolina and ‘Rat Saw God’ (a nice Veronica Mars homage), is their 5th album and first on the prominent indie label Dead Oceans, was hailed as a career breakthrough and ended up on a lot of the Best of 2023 lists last year. Helmed by singer-guitarist-songwriter Karly Hartzman the band takes it’s name from cult UK 90s band ‘The Sundays’. They fuse the vocal stylings of that band’s indie pop with the shoegazy rock of Swirlies, 90s grunge, the noise-pop of Sub Pop bands like Velocity Girl or Spinanes, as well as some alt-Country influences akin to Mojave 3. The twangy distortion creates a dirty/clean sonic aesthetic, and the combined – seemingly disparate – musical elements deliver something that, while obviously trading on past styles, still feels new & fresh. It’s an album of character studies, biting lyrics, and narratives of pain and suffering that reflect both the messy and euphoric moments of the protagonists. While they have been around for a while, there is a real sense of ‘next big new band buzz’ with this album.

Mermaidens / Mermaidens
Mermaidens returned with their fourth full length in 2023. Gone are the, sometimes, obtuse post-punk/psyche-rock overtones of their previous work for a slicker more pop sound, that harks back to the fizzy ‘Alt-Pop’ that ran through bands like Pixies, The Breeders & Belly, with dashes of 80s shoegaze & punk. With Samuel Scott Flynn (Phoenix Foundation) at the helm as producer, there is a real sense of arrival with this album. Every musical element is cleanly locked in place, the song-writing is more immediate & catchy, with plenty of pop hooks, along with more harmonies and shimmery, hypnotic, grooves. Perhaps their best album yet, and clearly one headed for the top in the next local music awards. (VINYL here for Mermaidens).

Everything harmony / Lemon Twigs
The Lemon Twigs are a US band fronted by vocalists, songwriters, multi-instrumentalists and brothers Brian & Michael D’Addario. Everything harmony is their 4th album, and has been hailed as a career highpoint, with its mix of 60’s & 70’s pop classicism and sumptuous harmonies. Their previous albums apparently delivered their retro-sound with plenty of camp and glamour, but this time they eschew the more outre/pastiche elements for more nuanced songwriting and a sincere, sparse, stripped down sound. It’s a lovely album full of Beach Boys-Bee-Gees baroque chamber-pop, tender 70s soft rock moments and lovelorn harmonies. You can only really pull off this kind of thing, and rise above being more than a series of influences, if you’re writing songs that equal the best of genres that you are recreating. And these guys are doing just that. Proof that you can still create something new, fresh and timeless from sounds of the past.

Ideal home noise / Ellen, Vera
Local singer and multi-instrumentalist Vera Ellen returned with her second album on Flying Nun, following her 2021 album, It’s Your Birthday which earned won the ‘Best Alternative Artist’ award at the 2022 AMA’s as well as a 2022 Taite Award nomination. Introspective and deeply personal while still offering up plenty of catchy songs, Ideal Home Noises mines heavier material, sifting through the detritus of health and mental health struggles, and the general hopelessness felt by the younger generation. While it’s often raw and plaintive, it’s also full of darkly comic reflections and sharp, insightful, self deprecating indie rockers, full of dynamic guitar lines and surging melodies. (VINYL for Ideal Home Noise here).

Fuse / Everything But The Girl
Perhaps the last band reunion anyone expected, but 80’s sophisti-pop, and 90’s drum and bass, duo Everything But The Girl returned with their first album in 24 years. If you were expecting it to sound like a combination of the respective recent solo albums from members Ben Watt & Tracey Thorn you would be wrong, as the album picks up where 1999’s Temperamental left off and heads on from there. More glitchy, contemporary club beats, woven around lyrical imagery and melancholy songs of weary aged protagonists and hangdog losers, aiming for a last chance as the world closes in on them and the music fades. Good to have them back.

Black rainbows / Rae, Corinne Bailey
For the outsize influence she’s had on the template of the Neo-Soul genre (and perhaps vocal styling in general with the proliferation of cursive singing – a style she helped originate) it would be easy to assume a prolific discography, but this is only Corinne Bailey-Rae’s 4th album over the course of a 17 year career. Now on an indie label, it’s been hailed as a bit of an artistic renaissance, apparently inspired by an exhibition on Black history by artist Theaster Gates in the Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago that she attended. Gone are the patented soul trappings, instead the album delivers a multi-genre stew of electric guitars, jagged electronics, funky future R&B, squally saxophones and distorted vocals, delivering up a politically bent conceptual howl at the injustices perpetrated on black people. Having begun her music career in an all-girl punk band, this seems very much a personal return to an artistic core.

Pearlies / Anderson, Emma
Emma Anderson is one of the co-founders of UK shoegaze band Lush, who still cast a long shadow over the genre. Her first solo album, this emerged from tracks left-over from a potential follow up to the Lush’s reunion EP/tour. The album keeps some of Lush’s textured shoegaze trademarks, but focuses more on a layered dream-pop sound, shimmering guitars and electronic touches. Maps’ James Chapman produced the album and added some synth parts and Suede guitarist Richard Oakes featured on a number of the tracks.

Ebony Lamb / Lamb, Ebony
Local star Ebony Lamb (of Eb & Sparrow) strikes out on her own with her debut solo album on Nadia Reid’s label Slow Time Records. A smooth, warm, intimate, analogue sounding production expands the sound palette and lyrical themes of her previous band, who amicably parted ways in 2018, after an EP & 3 full-length albums. Impressionistic songs are built around jazzy psych-folk and moody alt-country, delving into coping with the complexities of relationships between friends, parents and children, the shifting uncertainty of the modern world and the strength of connections. Reminded me a bit of the latest Mitski album in places. A great leap forward artistically, and obviously just the beginning of her new music journey.

Desire, I want to turn into you / Polachek, Caroline
Polachek’s Desire, I want to turn into you, her fourth studio album, finally gets a physical release after its digital debut in Feb. Critically acclaimed (94 on Metacritic) it ended up in the top 10 of various end of year music lists, making it to 2nd on Pitchfork’s Best Albums of 2023). Super catchy, re-contextualized 90s dance floor pop & jittery beats merge into some of the best produced pop of the year. ‘Fly To You’ features both Grimes & Dido, which probably gives you an idea of how this sounds. Swooping vocals dip in & out of musical soundscapes that throw up plenty of idiosyncratic elements to create some of the most sophisticated, layered, pure pop of the year. (VINYL here for Desire, I want to turn into you).

Sam’s Picks:

O monolith / Squid (Musical group)
Hailing from Brighton, England, Squid burst onto the scene a couple of years back with Bright Green Field, which of itself was an impressive debut that, while not particularly original, displayed a highly developed level of musicianship for such a young act. With their sophomore effort O Monolith, they have stepped their game up notably. All the aspects that were so impressive on the previous album have been articulated in a stronger and more compelling way. The progressive elements that creeped through before are now much more fully-formed and confidently executed, whereas the more aggressive post-punk tendencies, whilst perhaps a little more sparse in their utilisation, are just as powerful as ever when they do come through. Most notably, the songs themselves feel more potent and memorable, making for a consistently engaging and rewarding listen. Similarly-minded new British groups such as Black Midi and Black Country, New Road really hit their stride with their respective follow-up albums over the past couple of years, with O Monolith it feels like Squid’s turn to show the world what they are really capable of.

Why does the Earth give us people to love / Jackson, Kara
Why Does the Earth Give Us People to Love?, the debut full-length album from Chicago-based singer-songwriter Kara Jackson shines with a level of competence that would normally be associated with a much more experienced artist. Her colourful and evocative lyrical storytelling oozes with a strong sense of wit, though there is a real sense of pain and sensitivity there as well. All this is coolly guided by her confident and assured vocal performance. These aspects alone are more than enough to provide a thoroughly engaging listen; however, it is really taken to the next level with the lush instrumental arrangements and intricate, progressive compositions. From a stylistic standpoint, there is a strong folk element to the music, driven by pastoral acoustic guitar passages and ornate, lavish orchestrations. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg, as the music moves in many different directions throughout the space of the record. All in all, it is a thoroughly engaging album that effortlessly takes the listener on a journey of epic emotional proportions.

Drif / Heilung
With a highly unique and eclectic sound, that could broadly be described as experimental folk, Heilung have been carving a distinctive sonic niche in the modern musical landscape for close to a decade. On their third album Drif, they continue to produce their established blend of relaxing transcendental soundscapes and thunderous hypnotic rhythms, provided largely by traditional European instruments, some of which date back to the iron age. This is nicely blended with modern industrial-esque electronic flourishes, and these elements together manage to compliment the simultaneously aggressive and soothing nature of the music in a convincing way. It is topped off with a variety of vocal styles, in several different languages and dialects, to provide a richly theatrical and ethnically vibrant listening experience, that is at once deeply rooted in history whilst firmly looking to the future. When put into words, the sum of all parts here may appear to be somewhat diametrically opposed. However, the resulting music is a remarkably natural and focused concoction, that will appeal to a wide variety of discerning musical tastes.

Rejecting obliteration / Blindfolded And Led To The Woods
Having been an active force for well over a decade, Christchurch-based titans Blindfolded and Led to the Woods have built themselves into one of the biggest names in New Zealand extreme metal. Over the course of their three previous albums, the band have shown remarkable development, starting out as a humour-laden deathcore act before morphing into a forward-thinking avant-garde/progressive death metal outfit with an impressively varied sound. On their fourth album Rejecting Obliteration, they push their limits even further whilst sounding more confident in themselves than ever before. Chaotically dissonant guitar riffs and thunderous blast-beat driven drum passages gnash and gnaw their way through relentlessly complex musical arrangements to great effect. These elements of savagery are succinctly offset by moments of atmospheric and melodic grandeur, providing a colourful musical template of epic proportions. Whilst many lesser acts often attempt such feats of creative diversity in what feels like a mismatched and awkward manner, Blindfolded and Led to the Woods are able to pull it off in a way that feels positively elemental in execution. Rejecting Obliteration is a truly impressive affair that can confidently stand alongside the best in the world within the field of progressive death metal. (VINYL here for Rejecting Obliteration).

On the romance of being / Marea, Desire
With the incorporation of a wide variety of musical styles into a single melting pot, Desire Marea’s sophomore full length effort On the Romance of Being is difficult to classify, confidently existing within its own world. There are several flavours and moods covered over the space of the record, with jazz, soul, electronic, classical and various louder forms of rock music creating a sound-world that is keenly experimental, yet powerfully immersive and coherent. Dynamic variation is a key force, with intimate instrumentals and sensitive vocal passages building up to chaotic, densely orchestrated crescendos that are truly bombastic in nature. There is a strong spiritual undertone that runs through the record, with Marea’s evocative and often pained vocals being an ever-present force of nature. If you enjoy music with an overarching sense of power and beauty, On the Romance of Being is worth a listen.

Ecstatic computation / Barbieri, Caterina
Utilising complex pattern-based sequencers and synthesisers, within a musically minimalist framework, the work on Caterina Barbieri’s ‘Ecstatic Computation’, a 2019 release that was reissued on CD on her own label last year, ranges from deeply contemplative to positively blissful. Arpeggiators weave their way through one another, in a gradually evolving manner, to create a kaleidoscopic canvas of sound. Ever colourful and laden with compositional intricacy, ‘Ecstatic Computation’ always manages to retain a hypnotic atmosphere (in part thanks to its repetitive, cyclic nature), which in turn grounds it within its ambient foundations. The production is very well executed, making for an immersive headphone listen with the reverb-laden synthetic patterns feeling like candy to the ears. Despite its experimental intentions, the music here is easy to digest and is overall a highly engaging listen.

The beggar / Swans (Musical group)
Experimental rock heavyweights Swans have enjoyed a long and illustrious career spanning several decades, covering many musical flavours throughout their prolific and varied discography. Returning from a decade-plus long hiatus in 2010, they came back to release some of the most visceral and potent material of their career with albums such as The Seer and To Be Kind, a feat made more impressive by the fact that mastermind Michael Gira was already in his senior years. On The Beggar, there is a definite sense that Gira is slowing down, with the arrangements becoming generally more subdued and less bombastic than what came before. While there are still a few moments here and there that reach up to the stratosphere, the record is generally more acoustically driven, with lush textures and the ever-poignant vocals providing an atmosphere that brings to mind the work of Gira’s other project Angels of Light. Despite the generally less confronting and more laid-back vibe, the music is as challenging and vital as ever, and from a lyrical standpoint, it contains some of the most moving work of Gira’s career. With the record spanning over two hours (the centrepiece track ‘The Beggar Lover (Three) alone lasting over forty minutes), The Beggar is a work of epic proportions. It may take some time to digest, but those with the patience and endurance to do so will be duly rewarded.

¡Ay / Dalt, Lucrecia
Lucretia Dalt is an experimental musician from Colombia who is currently based in Berlin. Through the use of traditional percussion, trumpets, clarinets, string and wind instruments, ¡Ay! features an immediately organic sound. This is nicely balanced by a stark and inventive production style, with Dalt’s sleek and airy vocals adding a sense of human warmth to the eclectic smorgasbord of sounds. Lyrics are delivered in her native Spanish and deal with a variety of esoteric philosophical subjects across the album’s ten tracks. The combination of classic jazzy instrumental elements with modern technical approaches creates a quirky aesthetic that is fully her own. ‘¡Ay!’ is truly unlike anything else you will hear this year.

Everything is alive / Slowdive
Considered to be one of the most important and defining artists of the early ‘90s shoegaze scene, Slowdive faded away into obscurity as the movement fell out of the popular sphere midway through the decade. They reformed in 2014 and since then have enjoyed a resurgence of popularity along with a general popular reappraisal of the shoegaze sound. Where their previous 2017 self-titled album saw them finding their feet in the modern musical landscape, Everything is Alive (their fifth full-length effort) shows them comfortably settling back into their dream-soaked sound-world. Much of the material was composed on modular synthesisers by singer/guitarist Neil Halstead, before it was decided that it would instead become the foundations of a new Slowdive album. With this in mind, synthesisers play a notably more prominent role here than on their previous work. However, their usage manages to fall naturally into the already dense textural-guitar driven sonic canvas. While many modern bands have been notably influenced by Slowdive (particularly the work of their heyday), on Everything is Alive, they are confidently able to show us that they are the true masters of their craft.

To be cruel / Khanate
Khanate was formed as a drone-metal supergroup over twenty years ago featuring members of legendary heavy experimental acts Sunn O))) and OLD. They forged an impressive discography throughout the 2000s before disbanding near the end of the decade. Now almost fifteen years later they have made a return with their fifth studio album, entitled To Be Cruel. Featuring thick layers of guitar drones/feedback, thunderous drums played at glacial-paced tempos and tortured vocals, To Be Cruel certainly lives up to its name with its intentionally ugly, oppressive atmosphere. The album contains three tracks spread across an hour, giving it space to revel in its own darkness. A truly harrowing listen that will appeal to those who enjoy a bit of discomfort within their music.

Neil J’s Picks:

Love in exile / Aftab, Arooj
Love in Exile was recorded live in the studio and features just three musicians. It is an intensely beautiful work; an album stripped back to an absolute minimum, an approach that ensures that each component shines. Arooj Aftab’s spectral voice weaves in and out of the bass and keys that create the rest of the tracks. There are some very atmospheric Moog synth elements, as well as some electric organ. Aftab’s voice is truly remarkable, and we rightly raved about her 2021 album Vulture Prince. As some reviews have noted the musicians are in almost telepathic communication with each other. Intricate, subtle, expressive, atmospheric and moving. Another truly remarkable work from this musician. (VINYL here for Love in exile).


Lahai / Sampha
Lahai (named after his grandfather) is London based musician Sampha’s second solo outing, following his first, Process, which won the 2017 Mercury prize. He has collaborated with some of the most heavyweight musicians in the music world such as Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar, and in this hugely expansive and ambitious album he effortlessly blends grime, African folk, Jazz, jungle, soul, electronica and R&B with a distinctively alternative edge. The lyrical content is equally expansive, exploring such varied but interconnected subjects as fatherhood, Afrofuturism and particle physics. A beautiful and constantly revealing album. It was described as the musical equivalent of creating beautiful chaos by throwing glitter in the air, and we couldn’t agree more.

Dear departed / Burton, Sam
Dear departed is clearly an album that was created on the road, even if it was recorded in a studio. Panoramic, hypnotic and past-haunted visions of America as viewed by someone who is passing through, both in an emotional and sonic landscape sense, prevail. The lyrics are mellow and nostalgic, words that smoulder rather than shout. The music fits in perfectly laid-back country rock. Overall it’s a lovely album that is in places reminiscent of Harry Nilsson, Jackson Browne, or even Neil Young in this country phase, though Sam Burton’s smooth and unique vocals make these comparisons fleeting.

The girl is crying in her latte / Sparks (Musical group)
There are lots of compelling reasons as to why Sparks are one of the most distinctive, versatile and long-lasting bands around. Amazingly this is their 26th release. And if you look at their back catalogue, one of the most notable aspects of their output is the consistently high quality of their work no matter which musical style they are adopting at the time. The girl is crying in her latte finds them in top notch form using their own brand of madcap, electronic experimental rock, perfectly balanced with hooky lyrics, catchy melodies and passages of complex layered arrangements. There are also moments of joyous strangeness and existential dread. Unmissable if you are already a fan, and if you are unfamiliar with their work well worth checking out.

London brew : inspired by Miles Davis’ Bitches brew / London Brew
Bitches Brew was fifty years old in 2020 and a series of gig inspired by the album was planned by some of the leading lights of the current London Jazz scene, but Covid put pay to the plans. However, five days after the U.K.’s second quarantine ended the musicians involved went into the studio and this is album is the result. London Brew operates at the outer edges of frenetic psychedelic Jazz and, whilst it is true in spirit to the landmark album it references, it is very much its own beast. Eccentric, eclectic dark tinged and constantly changing and in flux. It occasionally utilises some credited loops and samples from the original. I suspect that it very much depends on what you think of the original will dictate your reaction to this work. For the record I loved it, like its inspiration it is imaginative, restless, powerful and constantly in motion. A fabulous reaction to the original piece.

Oh me oh my / Holley, Lonnie
Lonnie Holley was born into extreme poverty, and spent some of his childhood in the infamous Mount Meigs community juvenile correctional facility. Even now, at 73, he is still haunted by the abuse, torture and terror he experienced there. This past and pain informs Oh me oh my, but whilst this album is a deeply moving and emotional work, it is also both an experimental and approachable album that is ultimately a testament to the human spirit’s ability to survive. It defies classification in the best possible of ways, as Lonnie Holley uses his own musical language throughout. There are some elements of free jazz, and Sun Ra and Doctor John occasionally came to mind if you need pointers. A remarkable album that has a deeply personal and spiritual aspect to it. Quite extraordinary!

Wāhine / Griffin, Hannah
Wāhine by Hannah Griffin is an album of exceptional New Zealand Aotearoa poems by the likes of Hinemoana Baker, Cilla McQueen, and Janet Frame set to music and released on the outstanding Rattle Label. It is notoriously difficult to set poems convincingly to music, perhaps because they contain their own rhythmic structure, but this collection stunningly avoids any pitfalls, largely because the musicians treat the poems as lyrics. This might seem like a small point but it makes a world of difference, allowing the songs to flow. The end result is very beautiful, atmospheric, mellow, melodic and often melancholic work, with minimalist slightly Jazz undercurrents.

Mercy / Cale, John
Music legend is a much-overused term , but it’s safe to say it applies in its proper sense to John Cale. The co-founder of the Velvet Underground, and producer of some of the most famous and successful albums from the likes of Patti Smith, The Stooges and Nico, has always travelled his own unique musical path. Now in his 80th year and onto his 17th studio album, Cale has never been one to rest on his laurels. Mercy is a chilly atmospheric album, full of menace, and at points turbulent and at others haunting. It boasts an impressive array of guest artists, but its so very clearly Cale’s album. The music is difficult to describe precisely: dark dream-pop, Alt R&B? It sits very comfortably into Cale’s previous canon of work. A stunning, if in places challenging album, sure to end up on many best of the year lists when that time comes around.

Back home / Big Joanie
UK trio Big Joanie carves out a serious Black feminist message in their lyrics whilst using an infectious mix of 60’s girl group harmonics and synth heavy post punk riot-grrrl sounds. The various elements are all sensitively fused with electronics and strings to bind the songs together. The fact that Big Joanie has expanded their sound and sharpened their lyrical focus (from 2019 album Sistahs) gives the whole album a highly approachable sound. Highly recommended if these genres are your bag.

Heavy heavy / Young Fathers
Edinburgh-based trio who won the 2014 Mercury prize for debut album, Dead, along with Scottish Album of the Year award twice. Heavy heavy is their 4th full-length album, following on from 2018’s Cocoa sugar. The sound of this album immediately made me think of Paul Simon’s Graceland album, fusing Western Pop & mbaqanga, the South African street music. Young Fathers extend this further, however, adding layers of Hip-Hop, R&B, gospel, rock, electronics, experimental noise, and just general exuberance. Huge tracks reverberate with euphoric choruses, warmth, and optimism. A pulsing rhythmic energy seems to reach out from the speakers to embrace you. Truly a unique sounding band and, as I fully expected, it made many Best of 2023 lists.

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