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2023 – Ghosts Again

January 6th, 2024 · Posted by Skuds in Life/Music · No Comments · Life, Music

As a born and bred Essex boy from Basildon, its amazing that I have got this far into my lifetime playlist without putting a Depeche Mode track on it. South-East Essex has been represented by Doctor Feelgood and Yazoo already, but it has taken this long for our biggest export to get included.

Ghosts Again was the single that preceded the Memento Mori album, which came out in March. For my money, the best single that Depeche Mode released for a very long time. I’m sure that a big part of it was the whole situation with Andy Fletcher dying the previous year and this being the first material produced since then, but even so it really is a fine single. I have not disliked DM’s music in the 21st Century, and dutifully listened to each album as it came out, but this is the first time I have been as engaged with it as I was in the 80s.

It would have been easy to forget this track, because it came out in February and there was some excellent stuff released since then that is fresher in the memory. It would have been easy to go for one of my current earworms from the end of the year, like Björk’s song Oral (brilliant when the understated drums kick in), Better Way to Live by Kneecap and Grian Chatten, or Watch Me by Biig Piig.

Actually there were quite a few killer tracks this year. The catchiest has to be Players by Coi Leray, but I think she was cheating by basing it on the bed from The Message. C’est Si Bon by Say She She ran it a close second, and Topless Mother by Nadine Shah was a masterpiece which really has me looking forward to her new album in 2024. The biggest surprise song of the year had to be New York Transit Queen by Corinne Bailey Rae. Nothing that she has done before made you expect her to come up with something so punky and grungey. So far, most of my tracks of the year have been by female artists, which is good to see, but the chaps also had some diamonds too: Kicking Up a Fuss by BC Camplight, for example, or Aylesbury Boy by Baxter Dury. Of course, my self-imposed rules mean I couldn’t have included Baxter anyway because he is already on the playlist .

Generally, I took my eye off the ball a bit in 2023, and spent a lot more time listening to old music on vinyl that I picked up at record fairs, markets and car boot sales, so I am sure that I missed a lot. Not that I regret that. I was quite happy catching up on a lot of 70s and 80s records that passed me by at the time by the Alan Parsons Project, Al Stewart, or Steely Dan.

In terms of new acts, I enjoyed hearing Mozart Estate and Big Special, but I was much more excited by artists that were not new, but just new to me. In some cases they had maybe had a few singles out the previous year that passed me by, but in other cases they had long histories but I only heard of them in 2023. An example of the latter is Riverside, a Polish prog band who have been going for 20+ years before I heard their 2023 album ID.Entity, which I immediately bought on vinyl.

Other new-to-me acts were Say She She, WITCH, Coi Leray, Biig Piig, Ana Frango Elétrico, Descartes a Kant and the Lathums. Of those, Say She She impressed me the most. Such brilliant feel-good tunes.

As usual, a lot of the new music was by people almost certainly old enough to be the parents of Say She She. There were new albums from Jethro Tull, Zombies, Iggy Pop, Yes, Cat Stevens, Paul Simon, Jean-Michel Jarre, Rick Wakeman, Hawkwind, Ozric Tentacles, and Sparks. I find it a bit shocking personally that Blur, Madness, Depeche Mode, Public Image and the Selecter must now count as oldies – and all produced new albums this year.

Of the oldies, The ones I liked best, so much so that I bought them on Vinyl, were Yes, Madness and Blur, whose album, The Ballad of Darren is surely a contender for album of the year. I also greatly enjoyed the Jethro Tull and may well get that as an LPs if I see it at a reasonable price.

A subset of oldies releasing new material is, as usual, the return (or return to form) where people suddenly come out with something new after a long gap. First on this list is Metallica, coming up with a great album after a gap of 7 years. But a gap of 7 years is the blink of an eye compared to Peter Gabriel who released his first proper studio album for 21 years, which is still less than the gap between Everything But The Girl’s 2023 album and its predecessor in 1999.

The two biggest surprise returns had to be the Beatles and the Stones. The Now and Then song from the Beatles was surprisingly good. I prefer it to the previous two ‘re-discovered’ songs they dug up for the Anthology project. The Rolling Stones’ Hackney Diamonds was maybe a bigger surprise and certainly more of a return to form.

So what else caught my attention in 2023m in-between my binging of old 70s vinyl? Well there was some decent electronic/dance stuff: Chemical Brothers, Orbital, Leftfield, and Sleaford Mods. Also a new Dub Pistols album and another Gorillaz album. I liked the new Janelle Monae and PJ Harvey albums.

Those people who tend to produce lots of new music continued to do so. It is hard to keep up with the output of Jah Wobble ( 4 or 5 albums this year), Van Morrison (just the 2, but it feels like more), and obviously King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard (only 2 albums in 2023. They are slowing down). About Van Morrison: I quite like his recent records, even the mad ones. It helps that I don’t particularly pay attention to lyrics so can just enjoy the music without getting the conspiracy theory anti-vax stuff.

One interesting record in 2023 was the Daisy Jones & the Six album Aurora. This was basically the soundtrack of a TV show. I never did get round to watching the show, but lots of people have commented on how good it is, and how accurately it portrays being in a band. I did read the book though, and listened to the album, which really does sound like a missing Fleetwood Mac record. Even without the baggage of the book/show its a decent album.

A few other highlights: Bauhas Staircase from OMD, 1982 by A Certain Ration, and the new collaboration between Lol Tolhurst and Budgie, especially the track Los Angeles which features James Murphy. As you might expect, it is heavy on the drums and rhythms.

I am a bit out of the loop with so-called world music these days, but I noticed that there was a new album from Baaba Maal, which was OK, and a new album from Tinariwen. There was also a new album from zamrock band WITCH that really counts as a return, being the first album in 40 years! It also counts as new-to-me, because I hadn’t heard of them before. I think there is only one original member, but its an interesting record, and nice to see them hooking up with Sampa the Great on one track – linking the old and new Zambian artists.

Another African act that caught my ear was Les Amazones d’Afrique who released a fantastic single called Kuma Fo. I can’t believe I had missed them before. They have been going for ten years and are a bit of a supergroup, having included Oumou Sangaré, Mariam from Amadou & Mariam, and my personal favourite Angélique Kidjo during that time. I will certainly be keeping an eye out for them in the future.

Now that pop and rock music has been going for so long it means two things: lots of re-issues, especially 50th anniversary issues and retrospective box sets, and lots of notable artists dying off. There is going to be a lot more of that over the next few years I suspect.

The biggest/best 50th anniversary re-issues of the year were probably Tubular Bells, Dark Side of the Moon, and Honky Chateau and there was also a 40th anniversary edition of Dazzle Ships. The other notable re-issues were a long-awaited re-release with all the bells and whistles of Prince’s Diamonds & Pearls (his last great album?), a massive box set of Live & Dangerous (the best live album ever?) and the re-release of the two Beatles ‘red’ and ‘blue’ compilations to include the new track. They look great, but well outside my budget.

Queen of the re-issues, again, has to be Toyah. During this year there were re-issues of her Crimson Queen album, the Live at Drury Lane album and The Changeling. I have been enjoying the Cherry Red re-issues, which I have been getting on CD for the extra demo tracks and video content, but I think she has now done all the good albums, so should probably call it a day.

And then there were the albums remixing or re-imagining old albums. The highest profile of which had to be Roger Waters and his Dark Side of the Moon Redux thing. Interesting, but if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Far more interesting was his old colleague David Gilmour’s collaboration with the Orb, Magnetic Spheres, which got a remix this year, and which was another of the few new albums I got on vinyl.

As for the notable deaths, the amazing thing was that there were so few, given that so many of the original rockers from the 60s and 70s are now into their 70s and 80s. There was David Crosby, Robbie Robertson in their 80s and Jeff Beck, Denny Laine, Tom Verlaine and Bernie Marsden in their 70s. Its a worry that we could soon see multiple members of Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin all go in the same year soon.

More shocking were those who died (relatively) young: Sinead O’Connor at 56, Shame MacGowan at 65, Simon Emmerson at 67 and Phil Spalding at 65.

Anyway, to end on a more cheerful note, the musical event of the year just had to be Elton John taking to the stage at Glastonbury. That must be one of the biggest and best sets the festival has ever had. Hit after hit after hit, really showing the sheer scale of his catalogue. The re were some great sets from Sparks, Amadou & Mariam, Arctic Monkeys and so on, but 2023 completely belonged to Elton.

Now that I have re-discovered vinyl, and have discovered just where to find old records at reasonable prices I expect that 2024 will again see me wallowing in nostalgia and discovering 50-year-old records that I missed the first time round, but I hope I will still keep one foot in the present because there are a lot of exciting new acts out there.

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