Welcome to /Countdown/2023 – this year’s wrap-up of the best new music that I’ve heard across the year, and the 20th anniversary of me starting to do such annual roundups (which began on LiveJournal before moving to this site). I begin as usual, with the best compilations and reissues in no particular order, although it should be noted that as is the norm these days, there are a whole lot of reissues coming through.
Other things to note: to allow me a Christmas break from writing, my “year” covers 01-Dec of the previous year to 30-Nov of this one, and I try my best to stick to that.
I run /amodelofcontrol.com as what might be called a “labour of love”. I’ve written about music for twenty-seven years, nearly twenty of those years under this website banner, and I continue to want to celebrate all that is great about this corner of the musical realm. So this site continues to exist – with no external funding and no paid-for advertising – and I will continue to do so as long as I want to do it, and as long as people want to read it.
So thanks for reading, contributing, offering comments, or being one of those people that makes the music I want to write about.
London’s Tiger Lillies are a fascinating, and surprisingly long-lived proposition. Taking influences from cabaret, from Brecht, and most importantly from London and the rich musical history of the city, they’ve long refashioned old ideas, old themes, and taken inspiration from the murky underclasses that have moved around the city and given it life (and death). In their songs, Martyn Jacques gives life to the characters he inhabits through his striking falsetto voice, and here many of the characters are terrible, murderous, violent and hugely entertaining (best of all, of course, as the crucifier of Jesus in the hilarious and gloriously blasphemous Banging in the Nails). This album serves as a “best-of”, of sorts, but was only available on vinyl, so I’ve created a playlist with all the songs on Spotify – and as a taster of what the band do, in forty-five minutes, it’s pretty much flawless.
De Staat have long been one of the more open-minded bands around – their early, taut indie-rock long since supplanted by an anything-goes approach that has reaped enormous dividends (with tracks Witch Doctor and Kitty Kitty, both helped by wildly inventive videos, pushing their popularity way beyond many of their peers). Like many artists, though, they began to think about whether regular albums would be a worthwhile endeavour – but unlike others, they took an entirely different route. They began releasing songs in late 2021 categorised under three colours (“red for the dark side, yellow for lighthearted danceable songs and blue for melancholy”), and during 2023 released a collection of fifteen songs split equally between the three colours (including a handful of previously unreleased songs), alongside a short film covering their first attempt at three shows, each by colour – something they are continuing in the new year including three shows in London.
There’s definitely a notable difference between them: the red songs are chaotic, jagged pieces in the main (the relentless charge of Paying Attention is one of De Staat’s greatest moments, too), the yellow songs are party-starters and have a heavy funk influence (best of luck getting Numbers Up or the literally bouncing Bompti out of your head), while the blue songs take us mostly into ballad territory. Some bands change, De Staat are literally evolving before our eyes, at high speed.
German darkwave band ISC have long been a unique proposition, their grandiose and thematic releases making for a sound that immediately stands out – and somehow, they’ve never stood still, either.
This year has seen two retrospective releases from them, one of their breakthrough, and another taking a very, very different look at some of their finest songs.
The first to be released this year was a CD remaster of 1998 album Face the Fear, with the download version featuring a host of remixes too. The album itself is something of a transitional one, as the group found their feet (debut album Cryogenix bears little relation to what the band eventually became, not least because of the rudimentary production), and not everything here has held up so well with the passage of time.
Two tracks on this album, though, are essential. One is the brooding Alles in Mir, a dark mediation on the questioning of belief, the other the swooning darkness of Industrial Love. The original remains a gorgeous track, and it was of course remixed by basically everyone over the years, and the digital version includes all of them (including the VNV Nation remix that probably remains the best known version of it).
German darkwave veterans In Strict Confidence have always had a sense of the grandiose about them, so a collection of what is basically their greatest hits reworked into a orchestral form (still with some electronics!) is something I’m surprised they’ve not tried before. And because their music is so well-suited, it is no surprise whatsoever that this is a magical listen. Everything works, then, but the peaks are off the scale: the string-laden drama of Set Me Free – long one of ISC’s most glorious songs – is absolutely jaw-dropping, and the ravishing Snow White just drips with lust. Then there is Silver Bullets, which keeps the charge of the original intact and with the orchestral sweeps, turns into a galloping epic. An absolute triumph.
Perhaps it was the influence of my dad, but in the early nineties I paid relatively close attention to the alt-rock/americana crossover that was perhaps spearheaded by the resurgence in popularity of Neil Young in particular. Often rather more subdued and thoughtful than the related grunge bands, many of the bands involved were lumped in with grunge regardless – particularly Grant Lee Buffalo and the (unrelated!) Buffalo Tom. GLB had formed from the ashes of Shiva Burlesque, and were less chaotic and experimental, perhaps, with Grant Lee Phillips taking over vocals in the new project.
GLB only released four albums across the nineties, and all four were re-issued on vinyl this year: but for me, it’s all about the first pair of albums.
Fuzzy, their debut, remains a marvel of songwriting. Mostly an album of lush, powerful ballads – the title track and Juipter and Teardop, in particular, are masterful displays of the band’s talents, while the glorious opener The Shining Hour and the fiery Soft Wolf Tread remind that the band could really rock out when they wanted to, too. Then there is the snippy America Snoring, the first of a number of songs over Phillips’ career where he critically examines his home country, and comes up wanting better, but otherwise, politics are generally second fiddle to human emotions, and the album is all the better for it.
The follow-up, Mighty Joe Moon, followed a similar template in many ways, but there is a distinctly crepuscular feel to the album, as if it only truly comes to life in the darkness. There’s more rock here, too – even if the ballads are once again sublime – as Phillips grows in confidence as the frontman. There were a great many bands to follow to in the nineties, and too many slipped the grasp of the listeners. If Grant Lee Buffalo was one of those for you, it’s time to dig in.
Quite a number of bands can trace their antecedents through math-rock titans Battles, thanks to the illustrious pasts of their members, and it could be argued that some of those bands have had retrospective attention thanks to this. Dave Konopka left Battles in 2018, but prior to being in Battles he was part of Boston band Lynx, who released one quite great album in 2000.
The intriguing label Computer Students (more about their ethos here) picked up the album for re-release in 2023, in their trademark lavish, foil-based packaging, and the album – freshly remastered – sounds remarkable. It strips back the usual chaos of math-rock releases to choppy guitars, basslines and drums, and despite the complexity of the songs, they are a memorable, hugely enjoyable listen – particularly the five-minute whirlwind that is Mrs. Lynx, their finest moment.
One of the great things of recent years in industrial has been an attempt to shine a light on some releases that had been lost to history, or were overlooked at the time. One such recent release was this debut 1991 EP from Detroit group Code Industry, unusual at the time – and indeed now, sadly, for the industrial scene remains dominated by white men whether we like it or not – for being a group formed of African-American men.
What’s so fascinating about this release is the crossover that it forsees. The sleek, propulsive tracks here owe as much to Detroit Techno and Chicago House as much as they do EBM and New Beat of the era, being aimed squarely at airplay in sweaty, after-dark clubs, with minimalist vocals and jagged samples.
That said, where things fully move to industrial is on the fantastic Crimes of the People, which is Vancouver electro-industrial through an afro futurist lens and suggests an alternative future for industrial that was never really realised.
/The Brutality Of Rhythm – Part.1
A fascinating compilation released by Mecanica this year was this vast release, with a stated aim “to rescue EBM-electro-industrial jewels from the 90’s”. It certainly succeeds in that respect, as there are some long forgotten names here alongside some I know very well (Birmingham 6 and Lights of Euphoria in particular). It also reminds me of my initial forays into this realm as a teenager, where MTV Europe and later overseas students at Uni would be introducing me to a world of music I’d never heard – and I vividly remember a tape passed to me by a German flatmate in halls, which was my first route into this period of electro-industrial (and where I first heard Birmingham 6, I suspect).
The nascent internet back then meant many bands barely left a trace on the internet unless you really know where to look, and Mecanica have done a remarkable job here bringing a number of artists back to attention. If you have an interest in 90s industrial, this is well worth picking up – and provides at least one “WTF?” moment in hearing a Burke’s Law sample better known by being used by Black Grape on Kelly’s Heroes in a very, very different context!
/Artificial Intelligence (30th Anniversary)
In late 1992 and into 1993, I was still only casually interested in “dance music”. Aged only fourteen or so, I was too young for the rave scene that was already heading toward commercialisation, and so the more outré electronic music of the time caught my ears first – and material by Warp artists, then a young label but one that was evolving very fast indeed, was something that intrigued. Artificial Intelligence was very much a compilation that defined what was to come.
There was downtempo ambience, there were weird time signatures and strange beats, and some of it frankly sounded like aliens had landed at the Sheffield offices of Warp Records and gifted them sounds none of us had ever heard. Sure, this might be the origin of the godawful term IDM (“Intelligent Dance Music”), but for me it paved the way for electronic music as composition, not just as four-to-the-floor fodder for pilled-up ravers. The wider world of electronic one is like an infinitely large room with endless routes through it, and this album helped point me into hugely satisfying discoveries over the years.
/As Heard on Radio Soulwax Pt. 2
/Buy: Rough Trade
I tired really fast of the mash-up trend – and still roll my eyes somewhat when I hear a DJ roll out a tired mash-up at a club night. But that might be because 2manyDJs (David and Stephen Dewaele, otherwise known as Soulwax) pretty much nailed the concept in 2002 to the point that anyone else trying to follow it was pointless. Part of why is because the breadth of music used here is absolutely wild. From Emerson, Lake and Palmer into Bassment Jaxx into Peaches into The Velvet Underground and Sly and the Family Stone (!!!), Dolly Parton into Röyksopp, The Stooges into Salt’n’Pepa, and best of all, Skee-Lo into Maurice Fulton and The Breeders.
It takes a special kind of twisted mind to realise some of these could work, but the magic is that every single one of them does, and the entire album is such fun. The technical element of this cannot be understated, either: no less than 114 separate samples/tracks were cleared, and another 60 or 70 had to be left off (which makes you wonder what other madness they had in store for us). Long eclipsing their band Soulwax – which was, like their DJing, much more interesting than many of their peers – this remains the high watermark for modern mash-up work, and likely had a hand in the indie and dance music crossover of the 2000s, too.
/Cold Waves XI Compilation
The compilation that accompanies the Cold Waves Festivals had previously been suggested that it might not happen in future, so I was glad on my fifth visit to Chicago this year that there was one on offer. Especially as it had some notable moments: particularly the belting new 16Volt track If You Like It in demo form (the first new 16v material in some years), Acumen Nation taking on The Cure’s Disintegration (who knew it would work so well?), a scorching remix of Lana del Rabies, and generally a solid overview of the festival – as this compilation always is.
Re-issued on coloured and recycled vinyl to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of Idlewild’s first album of sorts (I say of sorts – six songs and just nineteen minutes long – a third of which is the final song – does not an album make!), it’s been a joy to reacquaint with an old favourite. Idlewild mellowed somewhat over the years, losing the chaotic edge that they first burst onto the scene with, but it’s also notable that the signs of what they were going to become were always there.
Two of the songs here are melodic, anthemic joys (Annihilate Now and Satan Polaroid), there’s two lightspeed hardcore-esque tracks (Self Healer and the marvellously titled Last Night I Missed All The Fireworks)… and then there’s the two best tracks here. Captain, as was noted at the time, owes more than a little to a certain Slint track, but cuts out all the quiet bits for a taut explosion of riffage and Roddy Woomble’s rage. Then there’s You Just Have to be Who You Are, six minutes of build, release, fury and a lengthy outro where the band appear to be soundtracking something of a comedown from the minutes before. To these ears, Idlewild were never better than this, and it is well worth returning to.
I’m not exactly sure why this was released earlier in the year – the album is twenty-seven years old, having been originally released in 1996 – other than to reach the likes of me who were happy to snap up a cobalt blue vinyl of an album I’ve owned on CD since it first came out. But then, the band did reunite for a show in their hometown of St Louis in October (anyone else got their fingers crossed for a few festival appearances next year?), so maybe there was method…
Anyway, even with the passage of time, this remains a formidable album, and the remaster simply tidies up the mix a bit, as it certainly never was lacking in the volume department. Probably one of the pinnacles of industrial rock in the nineties, it has two – actually, three – stone-cold industrial dancefloor bangers in Guilty, Blame and of course the rampaging Enough, but the notable thing about this album is that there aren’t any duff moments whatsoever. Even the two ballads that end each side are great, and deep cuts like Last are phenomenal.
Some albums exist out of time and genre, and Maxinquaye is undoubtedly one of them. A strange amalgam of electronics, hip-hop, soul, rock, jazz and quite a bit more, it has been much celebrated over the years – and rightly so. Most of the album came about through Tricky’s apparent naivety when it came to composition and production, with samples, beats and effects all twisted to fit his ideas, but whatever was in his head somehow came out wondrously.
But on this expanded release – and, it should be added, not the first reissue of this album – Tricky decided to reassess some of the songs, and record “”reincarnated”” versions of them (which were done in 2022). All of these versions that feature are mostly beatless, often with little more than a bassline and maybe a swirl of synth providing a skeletal backing to new guest vocalists and occasionally Tricky himself: and it’s hard to feel that these versions would have many any impact, certainly not what the originals did.
Elsewhere on this sprawling release are a host of remixes – as far as I can tell, most of them from the nineties, but there’s some I don’t recognise – which very much give an overview of the common go-to remixers of the time, that’s for sure, as well as various different working versions of the original tracks, which if nothing else reinforce the uncanny alchemy of the finished tracks, as stripped away they don’t feel “right” at all.
Tricky has gone on record as stating that he felt that he needed to rework these songs, taking a wiser critical eye at them. I’m not sure he did: some things should be left alone, and Maxinquaye‘s strange beauty is one of them.