Welcome to a new and improved Beandon’s Musical Corner, the only place on campus for in-depth, exhaustive reviews of the latest releases in rock, jazz, experimental … and pretty much everything else. Brandon Rupp (also known by his mononymous musical title “beandon,” under which he releases music and DJs as KZSU’s Student Music Director) explores a new title and gives unfiltered feedback, regardless of the genre. Feel free to send him music; he’d love to take a look!
In his 1916 booklet “The Key to Success in Life,” Theodore Roosevelt writes:
“It behooves every man to remember that the work of the critic, important though it is, is of altogether secondary importance, and that, in the end, progress is accomplished by the man who does the things …”
But as we rapidly enter 2024, the work of the critic is more important than ever — sorry, Teddy! We face the uphill battle of having to continually affirm this fact within the music industry: Last year saw the mass firing of music journalists from all around the country. (In fact, while editing this article, Pitchfork was dissolved into GQ.) Meanwhile, top publications like Rolling Stone have become glorified public relations firms for pop stars like Taylor Swift. As a result, talented (though less famous) artists, such as underscores or Jamie Branch, are not given the attention they deserve.
At the same time, some of the industry’s heaviest hitters — the “doers of things,” as Roosevelt would say — failed to deliver in 2023. The brilliant André 3000 returned from a decade-long slumber with a boring flute album. DJ Shadow threw together a collection of glorified GarageBand loops and called it his latest project. Swans and Jeff Rosenstock disappointed with uneven new records, while zombified revival acts like Slowdive bored us to tears. Even still, good music prevailed. Here are my 10 favorite albums of the year.
But first, here are a few albums that were considered for the list but just barely missed it. I highly recommend all of these Honorable Mentions:
- “My Back Was a Bridge for You to Cross” by ANOHNI and the Johnsons
- “Desire, I Want to Turn Into You” by Caroline Polachek
- “Integrated Tech Solutions” by Aesop Rock
- “93696” by Liturgy
- “Scaring the Hoes” by JPEGMafia and Danny Brown
- “Gaburger” by Gezebelle Gaburgably
- “Heavy Heavy” by Young Fathers
- “Sun Arcs” by Blue Lake
- “This Stupid World” by Yo La Tengo
- “softscars” by yeule
- “Maps” by billy woods & Kenny Segal
- “In Times New Roman…” by Queens of the Stone Age
- “But Here We Are” by Foo Fighters
- “Dance You Monster to My Soft Song!” by Victory Over the Sun
10. “Girl with Fish” by feeble little horse
Every few years, a band comes around that redefines the role of guitar in an increasingly electronic age — Alex G’s winding folk voicings or black midi’s prodigious post-rock interplay immediately come to mind. With Pittsburgh shoegaze band feeble little horse, we have found the new purveyors of rich, unique guitar tones.
For example, the album’s best song, “Paces,” sounds unlike any other shoegaze song, alternating between pitch-shifted, glitchy guitar leads and a highly compressed, half-time breakdown in frantic intervals.
But this album is far more than the sum of its guitars: Singer and bassist Lydia Slocum brings a bizarre, though recognizable, emotional core to these chaotic sonic experiments.
Perhaps “Girl with Fish” finds its clearest predecessor in the Swirlies’ 1996 album “They Spent Their Wild Youthful Days In The Glittering World of The Salons.” It’s only fitting that the latter record is one of the masterpieces of the first iteration of shoegaze, as the former may be the best of the genre’s 2023 revival.
9. “PetroDragonic Apocalypse” by King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard
The jokes about King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard write themselves: The band releases 15 albums per year, plays three shows a day at every festival on earth, repeats the same words in the chorus a hundred times, etc. But from the opening 5/4 rhythm of “Motor Spirit,” the first song on their newest album, it’s clear that King Gizzard is not goofing off.
“PetroDragonic Apocalypse” is a brutal progressive metal record and somehow even better than their last experiment with the genre, 2019’s “Infest the Rats’ Nest.” The production is fantastic, with punchy drums and audible bass supporting sludgy guitar riffage. While the band has released better individual songs before, such as “The Dripping Tap” or “Head On/Pill,” this is by far their best album experience — and the best metal record of the year by a wide margin.
“PetroDragonic Apocalypse” is 50 minutes of pointedly political, intense and unrelenting stoner metal: just what the lizard wizard witch-doctor ordered before the end of the world.
8. “Oh Me Oh My” by Lonnie Holley
The fourth album by 73-year-old multidisciplinary artist Lonnie Holley is achingly beautiful and refreshingly sincere. The organically recorded songs are, like Holley’s textured voice, as immediate and honest as they come. When he sings “The definition of gone / Is when we look around for our friends / And they are not here any longer with us” in the standout track “None of Us Have But a Little While,” I cry without fail well into the next song’s runtime.
It’s only fitting that the title track has the lyric “Sometimes I sit alone in the corner / As tears roll down from my eyes / I let them fall, I’ll let them.” Listening to “Oh Me Oh My,” you never feel alone. Stunning.
7. “GUTS” by Olivia Rodrigo
Olivia Rodrigo has finally hit a creative stride. With “GUTS,” she has crafted an album of 12 precisely written, expertly performed pop gems. “all-american bitch” is one of the year’s best openers, featuring Hole’s frantic feminine intensity updated for the 21st century.
Rodrigo’s stylistic range is unbelievable. “bad idea right?” is a sneering, Cars-esque rocker, “lacy” is a homoerotic ballad which should be studied as a songwriting masterclass and “ballad of a homeschooled girl” is absolutely hilarious: “Thought your mom was your wife / Called you the wrong name twice / Can’t think of a third line / La-la-la-la-la-la.”
But I have to give credit to the dreamy haze of “pretty isn’t pretty,” which features the album’s most adventurous melodic line and outstanding production choices. No one is doing pop-rock like Rodrigo right now.
6. “Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die ((world war))” by Jamie Branch
When I first listened to this album, I viewed it as a riveting, unique jazz statement and immediately flagged Branch as an artist to follow. But after seeking out more about Jamie Branch and finding out that she died in 2022 of an accidental drug overdose at the age of 39, the album was completely recontextualized as a tragic freeze frame from a bandleader who was far from the peak of her career.
This is a joyous, ludic album that prevails in spite of its heartbreaking context. It is packed to the brim with danceable Latin grooves, interesting instrumental textures and fantastic trumpet playing from Branch.
The few tracks with lyrics are also great: “The Mountain,” featuring a duet between Branch and singer Jason Ajemian, is a moving jazz folk cover of the Meat Puppets’ “Comin’ Down.” If you are at all a fan of jazz or want to honor one of the decade’s best musicians, feast your ears and take the 47-minute adventure into the bell of the trumpet of Branch’s mind.
5. “Javelin” by Sufjan Stevens
I have long sung the praises of Sufjan Stevens. He’s a fresh and confident voice in the singer-songwriter world, and I confidently call his 2005 album “Illinoise” my favorite of the 21st century. “Javelin” is yet another landmark in his treasure trove of a discography, with heartbreaking reflections on his love for (and loss of) his longtime partner, Evans Richardson.
While the album features layered, complex tracks like the eight-minute highlight “Shit Talk” and massive explosions of brilliant arrangements like “Goodbye Evergreen,” I find myself gravitating to the restrained two-minute title track, “Javelin (To Have And To Hold).” Sufjan, with little more than his acoustic guitar and some light accompaniment, embodies the essence of regret in one phrase: “It’s a terrible thought to have and hold.”
Sufjan has a unique understanding of how to be frank without feeling hollow. His metaphors are precise and his words cut deep — just like a javelin thrown through the listener’s heart.
4. “Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd” by Lana Del Rey
Lana Del Rey is simply my favorite pop songstress. What can I say? I connect deeply with her chanteuse aesthetic and love of David Lynch movies. From the early-career brilliance of “Ultraviolence” to the soft-rock masterpiece “Norman Fucking Rockwell!,” I have been consistently blown away by her ability to carve a unique, surrealist niche within commercial pop music.
However, I never expected her to turn into a full-on art-pop experimentalist with “Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd,” her longest and most intense album yet. She once again makes strides other songwriters could only dream of achieving.
The multi-part “A&W” is a moving and jarring composition that takes her sensory, cinematic approach to songwriting to a logical extreme. But she also returns to the art of the soft-rock duet alongside Father John Misty: “Let the Light In” is one of the year’s finest songs. Quite simply, “Ocean Blvd” is a thrilling return to form after a series of middling follow-ups to “Norman Fucking Rockwell!,” one of the 21st century’s best albums.
3. “This Is Why” by Paramore
As I wrote last March, “This Is Why” sees Paramore back in full swing with an album equal parts Bloc Party and Talking Heads in its post-punk glory. After giving it a few more months, I am even more stunned by how much of a revelation this is for the band.
They have never sounded more confident, and Hayley Williams’s songwriting has only gotten more fierce over the course of her career. Members Williams, Zac Ferro and Taylor York are in lockstep, effortlessly working in complex instrumental interplay while churning out groove after groove. Each song has an abundance of sticky melodies (and almost all of them were earworms for me over the past eight or nine months).
Since writing my initial piece, I saw the band live — “You First” was just as good as I hoped it would be as the concert opener — and they seem to be on hiatus (again). But I won’t be fooled: When they’re making music this fantastic 20 years into their career, I know they won’t be calling it quits anytime soon. Long live the people’s band, Paramore.
2. “3D Country” by Geese
There is no way to deny what Geese is doing here. Their talent is too monumental to ignore, and the immediacy of their songwriting is a refreshing and anthemic statement on the essence of rock and roll. Not that they would tell you this: They are goofy, postmodern and surreal, lending an elastic quality to “3D Country” which prevents it from being nailed down. The album mixes the fun of Zappa with the intensity of Zeppelin.
I was close to placing this album at the top spot for a number of reasons. Cameron Winter is one of rock’s best working vocalists (even if he irritatingly seems to never sing anymore in live performances). Every song is auditory gold. “Cowboy Nudes” is likely my favorite song of the year, with a chorus so anthemic it can only be screamed at full volume.
To be completely honest, “3D Country” and my number one album alternate almost daily: They are in a plane of their own when it comes to the music of 2023. But for anyone who has been keeping up with the column, my top spot should be pretty obvious.
1. “Wallsocket” by underscores
I may have shown my cards too soon with this one: From the moment I first heard this project, I knew it would shoot straight to the top of my year-end list.
Great records craft exciting and fulfilling experiences for an audience; “Wallsocket” goes a step further and crafts an entire world to live in as a listener.
San Francisco native April Harper Grey masterminded an album packed with idiosyncratic production flourishes, adventurous song structures and more character than a Robert Altman ensemble. As a matter of fact, like Altman’s “Nashville,” underscores sweeps through a city (in her case, the fictional town of Wallsocket) and allows listeners to experience the lives of a multiplicity of residents.
In a move far beyond any other contemporary, irony-poisoned hyperpop act, underscores sprinkles her hilarious lyrics with off-kilter poetic brilliance and off-handed political commentary.
This is her true revelation: You don’t have to be plucking away at an acoustic guitar or sitting behind a grand piano to craft lyrics that mean something. In fact, you can fill your album with video game samples, dubstep wobbles and dance pop grooves and be poignant and deeply important. A classic in the making.
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and contains subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.