Arts Feature: The Best in Popular Music 2023

Our popular music critics pick some of the standout albums and performances of 2023.

Scott McLennan

As I lined up the music that most excited me in 2023 I noticed some patterns at play.

For example, producer Andrew Watt had a hand in both Iggy Pop’s Every Loser and The Rolling Stones Hackney Diamonds. Watt cleared the path for these two veterans to make resonant albums that remained true to their respective legacies.

On Every Loser, Pop is equal parts punk and poet, both savage and saddened, all balled up in a tangle of lean angular music. Taylor Hawkins, Chad Smith, Duff McKagan, and Josh Klinghoffer are among the various Iggy acolytes who contributed their talents to this full-spectrum display of Pop’s craft.

The Rolling Stones are well past the point of making albums we bother to label “good” or “bad”; they are simply “Stones albums.” The band has come to embody rock ’n’ roll the way Miles Davis embodies jazz or Willie Nelson embodies country music. But listening to the Stones throw down with Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, and Elton John (not to mention including tracks with drummer Charlie Watts and bassist Bill Wyman) sounds downright conspiratorial. “Now I’m too young for dying, and too old to lose” 80 year-old Mick Jagger howls. And Lady Gaga, who made a duets album with Tony Bennett when he was in his mid-90s, sounds right at home joining these lads on the stirring “Sweet Sounds of Heaven.”

Then there was that irresistible surge of cosmic country to be found on The Third Mind’s The Third Mind 2 and Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives’ Altitude. Is it coincidence that stardust twang was back in fashion the same year that a resurfaced recording of a 1973 Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels concert found its way onto the vinyl release The Last Roundup? I think not.

Dave Alvin’s psych-roots project The Third Mind features singer Jesse Sykes and simpatico players from the ranks of Cracker, Camper Van Beethoven, and Counting Crows. The group’s sophomore release is a lysergic plunge into the sounds of underground folk ’n’ blues from the ’60s (Fred Neil, Paul Butterfield, Gene Clarke) performed in a spirit that is just as much about exploration as celebration. The group’s original. “Tall Grass,” testifies to The Third Mind’s easy feel for this kind of groove.

Marty Stuart is an ‘old soul ‘of country music, but he refuses to be stuck in the past, especially on his albums. Altitude is inspired by Stuart’s time touring with members of The Byrds a few years ago to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives applied that primordial country-rock sound to a batch of original songs that effortlessly bound from jangle pop and psychedelic ballads to rowdy barroom rockers. Any time you start feeling country music is losing its way, remember — Marty Stuart is still out there making records and playing shows.

Records by two young firebrand guitarists were in heavy rotation. On City of Gold, Molly Tuttle delivers another blazing performance with her band Golden Highway. This bluegrass ensemble has grown all the tighter since last year’s Crooked Tree: the arranging and writing has now reached the point where all the troupe’s various talents can be showcased. But it is Tuttle’s acrobatic guitar work that pushes the album to greater heights.

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, who turns 25 in January, continues to mature as a musician, bringing an emotional honesty closer to his unassailable technical chops. Live in London is a snapshot of Kingfish’s artistic growth — he is playing with mature confidence and tact. The addition of keyboard player Deshawn “D’Vibes” Alexander to Kingfish’s band is another piece of the puzzle coming into place for this emerging star of contemporary blues.

As much as music can provide an escape hatch, our tunes can also be the tools used to confront – and overcome – hardship. On Such Ferocious Beauty, the Cowboy Junkies explore, in part, how aging forces transformation – the wisdom that arrives, the people who depart. And they are continuing to work in a creative space that opened up a few years back while making the All That Reckoning recording.

Lucinda Williams’s Stories from a Rock n Roll Heart is a display of indomitable strength. Williams emerged from a stroke in 2020 unable to play guitar and with compromised mobility. But her vocal prowess seems to have compensated for those changes; the musician, both on this record and in concert, singing with a newfound authority and vibrancy. At first, Stories from a Rock n Roll Heart may sound like an uncomplicated album coming from Williams. But spend some time with it and you will understand that this is the sound of a liberated soul.

And finally, it was satisfying to hear the latest recordings by The Disco Biscuits and Lespecial: both punch through the homogeneity settling around the mainstreamed jam-rock scene.

The Disco Biscuits. Who in the hell releases a 36-minute “opera”? Photo: courtesy of the artist

The Disco Biscuits have been around since the mid-’90s, part of that first big wave of jam bands to follow in the wake of Phish. The Biscuits distinguished themselves by fusing techno and guitar-rock elements into wildly improvisational concoctions. The Disco Biscuits’ erratic history has blunted its popularity but, over the past couple of years, the band has been making some of the most rewarding music of its run so far. That fresh energy is seethes through the space opera Shocked!, which contains “Twisted in the Road,” the Biscuits’ best song in years.  And who in the hell releases a 36-minute “opera”? The Disco Biscuits, that’s who.

Lespecial has found its stride as a prog-rocking power trio in its multifaceted and pretense-free Odd Times. I’m sure music geeks could spend hours deciphering the myriad musical sources that Lespecial wove into this material. The rest of us can simply let ourselves be sucked into the whirl of metal, funk, and jazz-rock.

Among the notable live music performances of 2023, the inaugural WasFest delivered several unique and dazzling concerts curated by musician, producer, and record label exec Don Was. The June 25 double-bill at the Shubert Theater of Steel Pulse performing True Democracy in its entirety and Lettuce teaming up with Judith Hill to recreate the album Aretha at Fillmore West was everything a special festival performance is supposed to be – done once, done expertly.

Lespecial: (from left) Rory Dolan, Luke Bemand, Jon Grusauskas. Photo: Chris Beikirch/cbvideomarketing

The other live-music takeaway was — to adapt an old quip about voting — go early and go often. In other words, try not to miss the opening band, even if you’ve never heard of them. Karina Rykman, Doom Flamingo, and Ben Chapman — all performers I was unfamiliar with until I found myself blown away by their live sets opening for their respective headliners. These are artists I am eager to follow into 2024.

Paul Robicheau

Five of my favorite popular-music experiences from 2023:

Anohni and the Johnsons, My Back Was a Bridge to Cross. It’s such a pleasure to hear achingly mellifluous vocalist Anohni (formerly Antony) Hegarty back in form under band moniker the Johnsons, edging into classic soul that fits the emotional commitment in her voice as she mourns lost friends and the state of our world.

Billy Strings, Blue Hills Bank Pavilion, July 25. This guitar wunderkind continued his supernova ascent, nimbly navigating pure bluegrass and psychedelic jams that earned a closing slot at Newport Folk. But his most mind-blowing moves came in Boston the week before in an extended exorcism of John Hartford’s “All Fall Down” that mixed a hyperactive vocal attack with waves of abstract fretwork that evoked Yes’ Steve Howe in his heyday.

The Cure, Xfinity Center, June 18. Who could have predicted one of the year’s hottest tickets would be these goth-rock vets on their first tour in seven years? The Cure lived up to hype, with singer Robert Smith and fellow principal Simon Gallop interlocked on guitar and bass (with ex-Bostonian Reeves Gabrels on lead guitar) through a nearly three-hour spell of moody soundscapes and spritely hits. And they bucked a growing trend, ensuring affordable tickets and merch for fans.

Sparks, the Wilbur, July 1. More than a victory lap after the documentary on this madcap art-pop duo, this show highlighted the savvy new The Girl is Crying in Her Latte while inserting nuggets like 1973’s “Beaver O’Lindy.” That rarity flipped out one young man who bounced, sang along and raised LP covers. Most amazing was that at 74, singer Russell Mael still soared through mid-phrase octaves while 77-year-old brother Ron played impish straight man on keys, adding his zany dance.

Boston Calling, Harvard Athletic Fields, May 26-28Boston’s reigning rock fest tends to be a hit-and-miss grab bag of what’s popular and diverse, but the hits stuck out in 2023. They included acts heading for their own big venues in the year ahead like Watertown’s Noah Kahan (bringing U2-ish scope to folksy sing-alongs), Alanis Morissette and the Foo Fighters, who fueled their emotional return from the death of Taylor Hawkins with ringer Josh Freese on drums. My favorite sets came from prop-inflated impressionists the Flaming Lips, the energized rapper Genesis Owusu, and  King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, a band that returns to stir the pot in similar fashion at the Stage at Suffolk Downs this coming August.

Matt Hanson

I didn’t expect The Zombies to be as great live as they were. To be perfectly honest, I would have been satisfied if they had just played their exquisite hits and left it at that. I wasn’t expecting such an energetic show from the 60’s era rockers. They played a few of the obvious cuts from their magnum opus Odessey and Oracle, such as the ethereal “Time of the Season” but the setlist of new songs from their new record Different Game maintained a sharpness and an intoxicating verve that I was delighted to hear, as was the excited crowd that was hanging on every note. Those angelic voices have miraculously held up very well over the years, and the crack band took their various solos to new heights. Closing with a fiery version of “She’s Not There” sent us all off into the night buzzing with excitement. Maybe the best concert I saw all year.

When I randomly caught Protomartyr playing recently on Late Night with Stephen Colbert the live feed was distorted in a nauseating haze of green and gray waves, looking like it had been recorded on an old VHS tape that had been left out in the rain. Add in the lead singer’s apparent indifference and it irritated me so much that I ended up listening to their entire discography. The Detroit punk/garage outfit packs some serious ferocity and pithy, jaded, class-based satire at a world gone wrong for the industrial midwest, and turns out they’re actually deeply literate cinephiles with self-deprecating senses of humor, which is just how I like my punks to be.

And as a grateful resident of the crescent city I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Floki Sessions – Boots in Place, coordinated by the great George Porter Jr, the bass master of The Meters fame. Apparently the idea was for some bright lights from New Orleans’ exceptional musical talent pool, such as Eddie Roberts and Erica Falls, to join forces in an Icelandic studio at the base of a mountain and play their assess off. The result is a raucous, joyful, and appreciably funky set, celebrating Mardi Gras and the power of music to lift the soul.

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