The Year in Music 2023: One guy’s opinion

Album artwork

What makes a great music venue? There are several factors. Good acoustics and ample/accessible amenities are a given. The physical setup of the venue is another major consideration.

Ideally, there should not be a bad seat (or standing area) in the house. That means there better be some slope from stage to the back wall. Otherwise, you end up staring at the back of some sasquatch’s head (looking at you Bomb Factory in Deep Ellum Dallas).

There’s also an intangible element. A vibe if you will. Some places just feel special.

We’re blessed with a few great venues in Fayetteville. George’s Majestic is the most iconic and for good reason. If you’ve ever been to George’s with the perfect combination of band/artist and crowd, you know how special it can be. I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy a few of these moments.

The best concert experience I’ve ever had in town happened a few (okay, maybe more than a few) years ago when Michael Franti & Spearhead made their inaugural visit to our fair city. The energy was perfect, and the crowd was loud. At one point, Franti took the mike between songs with a giant smile on his face. He stared out into the sweaty sea of fans and simply said, “Fayetteville. I’m sorry. We did not know.” I get goosebumps every time I think about it.

Honorable mention goes out to The Smoke & Barrel Tavern (limited by size, but great energy) and the outdoor stage at Kingfish. Honestly, we could use another quality venue downtown. Who wants to open one? Not me. I’m spread too thin. But if you build it, we will come.

Let’s talk music. I’m highlighting my favorite albums of 2023 along with a few bonus callouts for each in a similar(ish) style. It was another exciting year full of fantastic releases. The creativity and passion of these artists never ceases to amaze.

As always, for each album selected I try to include an official music video in an effort to keep the artform alive.

Durand Jones – Wait Til I Get Over

Put on a clean shirt and comb down that cowlick because Durand Jones is taking us to church. After releasing three albums with his band, The Indicators, Wait Til I Get Over is Jones’ first solo effort, and it is a stunner.

The album is a lyrical history of his hometown of Hillaryville, LA. Jones eases us in with flowing strings and crooning vocals on the opening track, “Gerri Marie.”

Next, he provides a short historical monologue on “The Place You’d Most Want To Live” before cutting his dogs loose on the soulful, guitar-forward third song, “Lord Have Mercy.”

From that point forward, Durand Jones takes us on a journey through the heart of the American South. The album culminates with a uniquely respectful take on Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free” before winding down on the closing tracks, “Letter To My 17 Year Old Self” and “Secrets” where he reminds us “Don’t let them take your humanity.” Sage advice, Mr. Jones. I shall do my best.

If you like this, you might also dig:  Sampha – Lahai, Amanda Shires and Bobbie Nelson – Loving You, Kara Jackson – Why Does the Earth Give Us People to Love?

King Creosote – I DES

It’s far past time King Creosote got some love in this space.

Hailing from Fife, Scotland, King Creosote is Kenny Anderson. And Kenny has been busy. It’s hard to keep track, but as far as I can tell I DES is King Creosote’s 40th full-length album released over a 20-year career.

KC is a storyteller. A painter of landscapes and sculptor of moods. In I DES, Creosote continues to explore what it means to be human.

Reminiscing on good times in the track, “Blue Marbled Elm Trees,” featuring beautifully haunting backing vocals and celestial fiddle by Hannah Fisher, and then looking back on the ups & downs of relationships past on back-to-back stellar tracks “Ides” and “Please Come Back I Will Listen, I Will Behave, I Will Toe the Line.” You want to end your album with a 39-minute “Drone in B#”?

Go off, King. You’ve earned it.

If you like this, you might also dig:  Gaz Coombes – Turn the Car Around, Rachael & Vilray – I Love a Love Song!, Nina Persson / The Second Hand Orchestra / James Yorkston – The Great White Sea Eagle

Joanna Sternberg – I’ve Got Me

On the surface, there’s nothing groundbreaking about Joanna Sternberg’s music.

They write and sing simple, stripped down songs about life and love. Generally, it’s just Sternberg on the piano or guitar, and that’s it. Nothing flashy. But I can truly say I’ve never heard anything like I’ve Got Me.

The first unique aspect to jump out at you is the vocals. It’s difficult to describe. Cartoonish comes to mind, but that sounds too negative.

It’s something that must be experienced to appreciate. The piano and guitar work are simple, yet mesmerizing.

Like Meg White’s drums in early White Stripes work, the timing is perfectly imperfect. And the lyrics are refreshingly honest.

Comically self-deprecating without giving in to hopelessness. I’ve Got Me has several tasty ditties, but the highlight is my absolute favorite song of 2023, the standout fifth track, “Mountains High” (link below).

If you like this, you might also dig:  bar italia – Tracey Denim, Palehound – Eye on the Bat, Corinne Bailey Rae – Black Rainbows, Water From Your Eyes – Everyone’s Crushed

Blackbraid – Blackbraid II

There is an immerging black metal scene among North American Native American communities (see also – Nechochwen, Gyibaaw, Blood of the Black Owl), which makes a lot of sense.

If anyone has a right to release some angst into the world, it’s Native Americans. I’ve seen it manifest first-hand, but that’s a story for another day.

Blackbraid is the project of Jon Krieger, aka Sgah’gahsowáh (“the witch hawk” in Mohawk). On his second album, he takes his sound to another level by working in traditional guitar and flute, while paying tribute to our collective connection with nature.

Blackbraid gets some hate from the self-appointed black metal gatekeepers who say his music is overly produced and too approachable. I call bullshit. Yes, the music is relatively approachable given the genre. But make no mistake, Blackbraid II is plenty brutal enough to satisfy even the most hardcore metal fans.

If you like this, you might also dig:  Sightless Pit – Lockstep Bloodwar, Frozen Dawn – The Decline of the Enlightened Gods, Sleep Token – Take Me Back To Eden

Mick Jenkins – The Patience

Mick Jenkins is a poet. Literally.

He first got noticed as a member of the poetry collective Young Chicago Authors in 2013.

There he caught the ear of Chicago hip-hop heavyweights Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa, collaborating on the standout track “Crossroads.”

Those are two pretty good dudes to have in your corner, and Jenkins took full advantage of the opportunity.

Over the past ten years he’s released various mixtapes & collaborations and a handful of full-length albums. After stagnating in a label contract that was stifling his drive and creativity over the last few years, Jenkins explodes back onto the scene with his latest release, The Patience.

As the album title implies, he was lying in wait. And he woke up angry. The Patience is a focused, hard-hitting collection of 11 tracks spanning only 28 minutes. Mick Jenkins has no time to waste, and he’s put the rap scene officially on notice.

If you like this, you might also dig:  Billy Woods & Kenny Segal – Maps, Sleaford Mods – UK GRIM, ICECOLDBISHOP – Generational Curse

Creeper – Sanguivore

English goth rockers Creeper aren’t ones for subtilty.

The band makes over-the-top, glam theatre rock. Think Glen Danzig meets Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The dark subject matter isn’t for everyone, but it’s all in good fun. Everybody who celebrates Halloween isn’t necessarily in a blood cult.

The music is tight as a noose, and the production would make Vincent Price grin in approval.

Their third album, Sanguivore, is a vampire love story born in the underworld. It’s filled with soaring guitar solos and fist-pounding riffs that’ll have you ready to leap over the River Styx.

From the opening 9-minute epic gore of “Further Than Forever” to the strangely romantic closing track, “More Than Death,” Sanguivore is a wild ride. It is absolutely ridiculous and relentlessly entertaining. 

If you like this, you might also dig:  Wednesday – Rat Saw God, Swans – The Beggar, Avatar – Dance Devil Dance

Strawberry Runners – self titled

Self-confession. I’ve always been a sucker for a well-made bedroom pop album.

I’m not ashamed. Like rap or metal, it’s just another genre that can be executed with varying degrees of success.

Denver artist Emi Night knocks it out of the park with her Strawberry Runners self-titled release.

Sure, Night has a good voice and the songs are catchy, but a great pop album needs a little something extra to put it over the top.

For Strawberry Runners, it’s the synth work. Does anyone remember a Tulsa artist who went by the name Aqueduct? He would come through Fayetteville occasionally and was the master of working these crazy synth solos into his bedroom pop songs. (Side note – Power Ballads is a difficult album to find, but it’s an absolute noise-pop masterpiece).

While not quite as in-your-face, Strawberry Runners similarly works funky little synth pieces into her songs. It’s a small wrinkle that keeps the album interesting & fresh. Go check it out.

If you like this, you might also dig:  Mother Tongues – Love in a Vicious Way, @ – Mind Palace Music, RAYE – My 21st Century Blues, Water From Your Eyes – Everyone’s Crushed

Yaeji – With a Hammer

Let’s smash some stuff! Brooklyn artist Yaeji makes genre-bending electronic music.

Growing up, her parents bounced between the U.S., South Korea, and Japan. The transient lifestyle doesn’t exactly lend itself to long-term friendships, so Yaeji relied on the internet to establish and maintain relationships.

It’s obvious these life experiences greatly influence the way she makes music.

Yaeji is constantly experimenting with different technologies to create new sounds. Her song structure is loose and playful, transitioning from chill house beats to manic drum & bass while seamlessly switching back-and-forth between English and Korean vocals.

Yaeji’s DJ roots continue to peak through, but With a Hammer is way more than just club beats. She smashed her DJ table and built a sentient party robot with the broken pieces.

If you like this, you might also dig:  Trees Speak – Mind Maze, Amaarae – Fountain Baby, Fucked Up – One Day, The Serfs – Half-Eaten by Dogs

Brent Cobb – Southern Star

Like any other genre, country music ebbs & flows over time.

In my opinion, it’s been ebbing more than flowing over the last few years with too many artists trying to mimic trendy styles and getting high off their own farts.

Yes, there are exceptions. I’m generalizing here. That’s what makes Brent Cobb so refreshing.

He’s not trying to be something he’s not. Southern Star is a collection of simple songs about country living.

Cobb’s straightforward approach delivers a slow burn of authenticity where he recognizes and appreciates his place in country music.

It’s an album for sitting around a campfire or fishing off the riverbank. It doesn’t matter if the fish are biting. It’s the experience that matters.

If you like this, you might also dig:  Margo Cilker – Valley of Heart’s Delight, Tyler Childers – Rustin’ in the Rain, Amanda Shires & Bobbie Nelson – Loving You

Jude Brothers – render tender / blunder sunder (Local artist shout-out)

Who’s ready for some sick harp solos? I know I am.

render tender / blunder sunder was recorded in New Mexico, but Jude Brothers is a Fayetteville, Arkansas native, so we’re claiming them! The album is a captivating anthology of quirky alt-folk songs.

It’s a self-described “breakup album,” but doesn’t come across angry or bitter. Quite the opposite. render tender / blunder sunder takes the listener on a voyage of healing and understanding.

The songs are sparse, often only comprised of one instrument and Brothers’ voice. The vocal inflection is without a doubt the star of the show.

The delivery varies from a folksy yodel to a soft lament reminiscent of traditional Irish sean-nós.

Other local(ish) releases to check out:  JD Clayton – Long Way From Home, Bonnie Montgomery – River, Isaac Alexander – Future Sanctuary