Once again, I look back on a year of music. For me, 2023 was rich in some phenomenal sounds. But much of what I consumed was through live performances, less through studio recordings.
The Polaris Music Prize offered plenty of new discoveries, including Debby Friday and her winning Good Luck debut, Aysanabee's Watin and Begonia's Powder Blue. For compilations of the past year, nothing for me can top Written in Their Soul: The Stax Songwriter Demos, a stunning seven-CD set compiled by Cheryl Pawelski of stripped down gems by unsung heroes who wrote the classic songs of Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave and the Staple Singers. Jason Wilson's Ashara album, an engaging blend of Scottish folk, global roots and reggae, was a surprising delight. I also thoroughly enjoyed Explosive Hits Vol. 1 by the Trans-Canada Highwaymen, a collection of CanCon hits covered by a Canadian supergroup led by Steven Page. But I've already raved about the genius of that brilliant retro concept album.
But one thing that distinguishes a favourite album is how often it gets replayed. So here are nine albums of 2023 that were on frequent rotation in my house.
The Returner - Allison Russell
This is only Russell’s second solo album, but already the Montreal native sounds wise and accomplished. That’s because she paid her dues with Po’ Girl, Birds of Chicago and Our Native Daughters. Where Russell’s folky solo debut, Outside Child, chronicled her pain and abuse growing up in foster care, the bi-racial artist’s followup is a funky affirmation of her survival. Joined by guitarist Wendy Melvoin and keyboardist Lisa Coleman, of Prince’s Revolution, Russell serves up syncopated celebration on “Shadowlands” and “Rag Child.” Best of all is the gospel-like closer “Requiem,” where she sings with a choir that includes Brandi Carlile.
Blame My Ex – The Beaches
No sophomore slump for this femme-rock quartet. Toronto sisters Jordan and Kylie Miller and friends Leandra Earl and Eliza Enman-McDaniel have bounced back from relationship breakups and major record label rejection. Like modern-day Go-Gos or Bangles, the Beaches employ infectious pop songs celebrating freedom and sisterhood, as on the viral hit “Blame Brett,” a wry kiss-off to Jordan’s real-life ex, Brett Emmons of the Glorious Sons. “I’m done dating rock stars,” she sings, “from now on only actors, tall boys from the Raptors.” More than a breakup album, the winning collection also includes the defiant “Everything is Boring” and the dreamy hymn to horniness, “My Body ft Your Lips.”
O Sun O Moon – Bruce Cockburn
Not many artists can keep breaking new ground, album after album. But, with his 38th studio recording, Cockburn proves he’s one of the rare exceptions. The dozen new songs take the acclaimed singer-songwriter-guitarist into familiar territory—folk, blues and jazz-inflected numbers about topical and spiritual concerns. Yet he never repeats himself. “To Keep the World We Know” addresses climate change, while “Orders” counsels love and understanding, even in these times of political divisiveness. There’s humor in the whimsical “King of the Bolero” and joy in the jazzy “When You Arrive.” It all sounds fresh which, for Cockburn, is his modus operandi.
Never Enough – Daniel Caesar
Silky vocals and soaring falsetto are his trademarks. So, too, are soul-baring lyrics and slowed-down, smoothed-out r&b. All of which has made Caesar, who won a Grammy for his debut, a modern quiet-storm sensation. With his excellent third album, the Toronto artist cranks up the emotion—but not the tempo. Songs like the hook-laden “Always” and the dream-like “Pain is Inevitable” deal with vulnerability and heartbreak, while the sultry “Let Me Go” is like a candle-lit bath. Brimming with confidence even as he expresses doubts about fame, Caesar’s latest finds the talented singer at the top of his game.
London Ko – Fatoumata Diawara
Diawara is a trailblazer—Mali’s first female solo electric guitar player and a gifted artist who bridges Wassoulou traditions with western musical influences. Her latest solo album is easily her best, a collaboration with Blur/Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn, who plays synths and co-wrote six of the 14 tracks. Other guests include soul singer Angie Stone, Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca, Ghanaian rapper M.anifest and Nigerian Afropop stat Yemi Alade. But this is Diawara’s party and her soaring voice and bold guitar are commanding throughout, especially on the electro dub of “Dambe,” the bluesy “Netara” and the stirring “Sete,” with backing from the Brooklyn Youth Chorus.
The Age of Pleasure – Janelle Monae
Her previous albums were Afrofuturist concepts in which Monae adopted characters like parts in a movie. The actress-singer’s fourth album is admirably more autobiographical, with the non-binary artist opting for an unabashed exploration of hedonistic delights. “Lipstick Lover” uses summery reggae to express playful queer sex, while “Only Have Eyes 42” co-opts a doo-wop classic for an ode to polyamorous relationships. With eclectic guests that include Grace Jones, Sister Nancy and Seun Kuti & Egypt 80, the album keeps things moving, rhythmically adventurous and ultimately fun. It’s a party record with a purpose: finding joy through sexual pleasure—in all its many forms.
Donlands – Jerry Leger
Leger is crazy prolific, having released almost an album-a-year of original roots rock since 2005. Specializing in image-rich narratives of heartache sung in a reedy tenor, the Toronto native has drawn inevitable nods to Dylan. At the star-studded tribute to the Band’s Last Waltz at Massey Hall in November, Leger was chosen to cover Dylan songs—and stole the show. With his latest album, the comparisons will only continue. “I Was Right to Doubt Her,” with its sneaky organ and sleepy border-town feel, conjures up Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb Blues,” while the piano-laced ballad “Wounded Wing” boasts admirable Dylanesque poetics. Leger is unstoppable, his talent undeniable.
False Lankum – Lankum
There’s nothing twiddly dee about the Irish music performed by Lankum. Yes, there are fiddles and uileann pipes. But the Dublin-based group—Radie Peat, Cormac MacDiarmada and brothers Ian and Daragh Lynch—favour darker, more subversive Celtic sounds, opting for traditional murder ballads along with original tales about modern-day horrors. Like a bleaker Pogues, Lankum revel in gothic intensity on “Go Dig My Grave” and “The New York Trader.” But there’s also beauty amid the darkness, especially on “Newcastle” and the delicate “Clear Away in the Morning.” Mixing ambient textures with eerie drones, Lankum cooks up an intoxicating brew.
At the End of the Day – Sylvia Tyson
Tyson recently celebrated her 83rd birthday with this release, which she calls her final album. The folk legend ends her career on a high note, with a dozen songs that convey the wisdom of her years. “Leaves in the Storm” is an evocative love story set in post-war Berlin, with two lovers “too old to be innocent, too young to be wise.” The fiddle-fueled “Long Chain of Love” is a touching matriarchal family saga about the chains that bind. And the rollicking “Now Tell Me That You’ve Got the Blues” proves that Tyson, retiring or not, is a mama who can still barrelhouse with the best of them.