Spotify recently sent me (as it did to many of those who are reading this) its “2023 Wrapped”, the Artificial Intelligence powered bespoke summary of what I have been up to on that streaming platform, which happens to be the main place where I listen to my music, organise my albums, and save my playlists. Spotify chattily told me that I had listened to 50 genres of music this year. Fifty! To be honest, I cannot name 50 distinct genres.
I was also informed that my top genres are “delicious” and that they are ranked thus: 1. Alternative Rock; 2. Singer-songwriter; 3. Crank Wave; 4. Jam Band; 5. Chamber Pop. Spotify also said that I listened to 1,777 artists or bands this year. But it was my No.3 genre that stumped me. I didn’t know what Crank Wave was. So I looked it up.
Turns out that there is no single description of Crank Wave. Wikipedia says it’s a bunch of bands, mainly from the UK and Ireland, which became popular in the early 2020s in a sort of post-punk revival. Bing AI had a very different take on it: Crank Wave is a subgenre of electronic music that emerged in the early 2020s and is characterised by “distorted, glitchy, and chaotic sounds, often mixed with vocals that are either heavily processed or unintelligible”, often associated with themes of dystopia, nihilism, and cyberpunk. Wow! My tastes are certainly evolving.
Seriously though, I did spend a good part of my listening time in 2023, exploring English post-punk bands such as Black Country, New Road, whose band members comprise both rigorously trained classical and jazz musicians and self-taught ones who experiment a lot and have a distinct half-sung, half-spoken vocal style. They have just two studio albums but have made quite a wave. Some of their contemporaries such as Squid, Dry Cleaning, Yard Act (all from England), and Fontaines DC (from Ireland) became fixtures on my playlists. Emerging as they did in a post-Brexit world, these bands have become iconic for the young, disillusioned and restless. They also make good music.
There was a torrent of music that was released this year. For me, there were several that will likely become memorable; to be sought out and played again and again. Such as the daring one that Cat Power came out with. She faithfully recreated a full setlist of the gig that Bob Dylan played in 1966 at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. The American singer, whose birth name is Chan Marshall, sang all the songs that Dylan had sung in 1966, including the controversial switch to electric instruments, at London’s Royal Albert Hall last year and released that live recording in November. It’s a masterful album that is a painstaking homage to one of contemporary music’s legends.
Then there were some new albums from bands that I have especially liked for a long while. Such as the alt-country experimenters, Wilco, whose latest album Cousin, produced by the Welsh musician, Cate Le Bon, will find a place on my playlists for a long time to come. Or the masters of lo-fi, shoegaze, Yo la Tengo (YLT), whose This Stupid World came out early this year and which showcases their restrained and understated yet musically adventurous style. Formed in 1984, YLT has profoundly influenced generations of bands but have remained almost under the radar themselves.
Yes, and another favourite band, The National, with their brooding melancholia, released not one but two albums this year: First Two Pages Of Frankenstein; and Laugh Track. I liked the first more than the second but The National has become an essential on my playlists for they can be the perfect sad band to go to when you are feeling…yes, sad.
Then there was the entire back catalogue of 1980s’ hip-hop legends and one of early rap’s most playful and witty bands, De La Soul. Known to sample from a wide variety of sources and varied genres, the band’s work was largely inaccessible because of copyright and royalty complications. That got sorted this year and all of De La Soul’s work got published, enabling many followers of the genre to discover the influential work of one of hip-hop’s pioneering bands. Their 1989 album, 3 Feet High And Rising, is essential listening.
A number of musicians died in 2023, prompting me to revisit much of their work. After Robbie Robertson died, I rewatched Martin Scorsese’s 1978 film account of The Band’s last concert, The Last Waltz. When Jeff Beck died in January, I re-explored the guitar genius’ work, including during his early stint with the English band, The Yardbirds, which launched his career as well as that of other legends such as Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page.
Likewise, I was drawn to the troubled Irish singer, Sinead O’Connor’s albums after her demise in July; and to David Crosby’s songs after he died in January, especially to his early work with The Byrds.
As Spotify’s customised wrap duly informed me, 2023 was a feast for my ears.
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First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music. He posts @sanjoynarayan