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Listen Up, Nerds: The Top 10 Releases of 2023

Listen Up, Nerds: The Top 10 Releases of 2023
letterman and me, hoosiers who make top 10s. rarified air tbh

So what *is* an album, anyway? What do we talk about when we talk about albums of the year? What’s our criteria? Emotional appeal? Reasoning? A cogent argument? When I sit down and listen to an album, am I looking to be saddened to a profound degree? Am I supposed to be entranced by something I’ve never heard before? Am I supposed to be whipped into a frenzy? What do I want out of the art I listen to?

That’s the thing: I don’t know. There’s not a guideline to art. There’s no rubric, no syllabus. It’s up to us and it’s subjective in the best way. That’s what makes everything so beautiful. A list is a tiny little insight to what people love, hate, and look for in art. I hope this list can give you an idea of what I liked this year and what I want when I look to the future of music.

10. Wednesday - Rat Saw God

Southern Gothic was the first genre of literature I ever really loved when I was assigned reading in school. I read every last Flannery O’Connor story they assigned and most of the ones they didn’t assign. Rat Saw God is the first record that captures the modern Southern Gothic reality. It’s on a lot of these year-end lists for good reason. Sure, the music is good, but the lyrics step this out of "indie country alternative" fodder and into top 10 territory. 

9. Oneohtrix Point Never - Again

The new OPN record is a concept album about the conversation he might have with his previous selves. It is full of AI-generated sound bites and randomized notes to create maybe his finest and most intimate work to date. With the Internet, with recordings, we can easily access our former selves and tap in to past emotions. It’s an ode to the Internet and lost external hard drives.

8. Tim Hecker - No Highs

Frankly, I knew this would be in this list when I heard it for the first time. There’s something so entrancing and different about Hecker's music that really sets him apart from other ambient artists. It’s sneaky, it’s dark in ways that I didn’t realize ambient could be, and this record specifically reminds me of Enemy, the Denis Villeneuve movie. Dark, confusing, and when you think you understand what it's all about, there's a big spider in the bedroom. There’s something so un-American, so foreign to me in this record that I really appreciate and it makes me feel like I’m lost in a city that isn’t necessarily threatening but it is different. It sounds like reading airport signs in a language you’ve never seen. The other cinematic parallel I could give this record is Brandon Cronenberg's Infinity Pool (2023), but this is a little better on numerous replays.

7. Tomb Mold - The Enduring Spirit

What an album. Jazzy, virtuosic death metal with a purpose. It’s deathly serious about life and this world we share with each other. It’s the most convincing argument I’ve heard this year for a world outside our own. 

6. Mil-Spec - Marathon

Getting older doesn’t mean slowing down. On their second full length record Mil-Spec are embracing their adulthood. I guess there’s still the same band in terms of sound in terms of presentation, but I think that there’s a lot more of themselves in this record than ever before. It’s vulnerable And raw about the changes (no pun intended) you have to make as you get older. Your interests, your desires, your circumstances, they all change and you have to adjust. There’s that line “Never got where I wanted to get, but I guess it’s not over yet” on the title track and it’s exactly what I needed to hear from a hardcore record. Finally, an album about aging but not dying. It’s about living. 

5. Laurel Halo - Atlas 

The “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” trope is worn thin but writing about all of the ambient I loved this year does feel... inadequate. Take Atlas for example, a brilliant and daunting soundscape that, if you weren’t paying attention, could disappear into the background. If I’m dancing about architecture, then this is the Skywalk at the Grand Canyon, a dazzling extension of technology over the chasm that is sound. I’m still learning how to walk before i can even try waltzing.

4. ML Buch - Suntub

This record sounds like having a picnic on the meadow from the Windows XP wallpaper. I can’t say anything more than this:

3. Bar Italia - Tracey Denim

Does the idea of a vibes record upset you? Because this is one of the most vibey records I’ve heard. It’s not the most pleasant vibe, it’s actually kind of a dreary, “coffee at 3 PM on a damp patio because the cafe was closing as you walked in” vibe. I really love it. It’s poppy and catchy but it’s not a pop record. It’s very reminiscent of my #1 record of the year in that it’s a throwback, somewhat, but almost a retrofuturistic look at a jazzier, moodier version of rock we didn’t get in the ‘90s. I loved it, I listened to it quite often. Just an enjoyable record from front to back!

2. Skourge - Torrential Torment

A lot of the music I cover and feature in this newsletter can be described as “evil.” Hell, I do it probably once every newsletter. Evil isn’t something you create with lyrics or music alone. To make evil music, you have to dedicate the atmosphere, the air you breathe, to dark forces. Enter Skourge, Texas’ most evil export in ages. This record isn’t just heavy, it’s leaden. It’s an anvil, it’s dark matter. It’s not metal, it’s not hardcore, it’s an incantation for something to crawl up out of the earth and turn this world to ash. My favorite heavy record this year, without a doubt.

1. crushed - extra life

It really couldn’t be anything else for me this year. This band’s debut EP was full of emotionally-charged dream pop heaters that landed somewhere between “Top 10 songs from 1993” and “Song from a 4AD comp that got wildly popular on TikTok in 2023.” Bre Morell’s voice is stunning on these tracks. The haunting and ethereal tone she can bring to her work with Temple of Angels is flipped on its head here. It’s like a lighthouse shining out over the stormy seas of samples and chords. “Coil” is the britpop-adjacent song that your favorite nu-grunge band wishes they could’ve written. The thing that sticks out to me the most about extra life is just how vulnerable it is. So much shoegaze/dream pop is clouded in a fog of reverb and obscured, hushed lyrics. On the barebones “Milksugar,” there’s nowhere to hide. In today’s landscape where music is churned in and out, always releasing, some releases never get the appreciation they deserve. A band can be cool for the Friday their record came out, and forgotten by Tuesday. extra life is, without exaggeration, a modern classic. The songs are timeless, the influences stand up to today’s standards, and at the end of the day, it’s the kind of music that makes me love music. extra life is never too far out of my rotation and it’s been the easy answer for when I’m stumped on what to listen to. To say that I’m excited for whatever they do next is an understatement of the highest degree.