2023: Riveting

Jason's Top Picks

by Jason Warburg

Around these parts, 2023 felt like a year that started busy, finished busier, and was full of surprises in between. While pop continued to do its thing almost entirely out of my earshot, the artists and genres I tend to pay attention to engaged in a wide range of experiments and comebacks, archival releases and reimaginings, not to mention some amazing brand-new music. While only time will tell where 2023 ranks among my list of favorite years for music, a remarkable volume of really good material made its way out into the world this year, resulting in a longer-than-usual list full of albums worthy of your attention. With that, here’s my usual smorgasbord of mostly made-up awards:


Did NOT See That Coming Award

Courtney Barnett – End Of The Day

Motor-mouthed Queen-of-Snark singer-songwriter records instrumental album of meditative solo-guitar pieces… and blows this fan away. Sublime and addictive.


You Shoulda Been There Award

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – Live At The Fillmore 1997

The legendary month-long stand by one of America’s greatest rock and roll bands gets the box set treatment it has always demanded, and the wait was absolutely worth it.


DANG Award

Lonnie Holley – Oh Me Oh My

Riveting, harrowing, mind-expanding and authentic as they come, this album of unclassifiable musical and spoken-word performances will knock you on your ass and then hold out a hand to help you back up.


I Will Not Go Quietly Award

Ian Hunter – Defiance Part 1

Ian Hunter turned 83 during the recording of Defiance, a factoid provided purely to astonish, because there is zero evidence of Hunter slowing down on this guest-star-studded outing full of storming rockers, pretty ballads and biting, insightful lyrics. Long may he run.



Comeback of the Year Awards

Semisonic – Little Bit Of Sun

Sometimes you don’t fully appreciate how much you missed an artist until they return. Sun-drenched medicine for all that ails you, this album takes everything you loved about classicist power-poppers Semisonic and updates it just enough to remind you that it’s been two decades.


Peter Gabriel – i/o

Twenty-one years after his last proper album, Gabriel began releasing one-a-month singles, then launched a tour in which he played his entire new album for an audience that had only ever heard bits and pieces of it. Because he’s Peter Gabriel, it all worked brilliantly.


Indie EP of the Year

Last Charge of the Light Horse – Vestiges EP

“...a collection that’s both brooding and witty, serious and light, rich with insight and layers of meaning, the poetry of the lyrics perfectly paired with spare and evocative arrangements. [Singer-songwriter Jean-Paul] Vest promises that the next set from Last Charge will be a full-band outing that rocks; for now, though, we can bathe in the considerable and particular light cast by these five luminous tunes.”


Indie Album of the Year

Ben Bostick – The Rascal Is Back

Tonal shifts can be a challenge. Over the course of his first four albums, Ben Bostick moved from rascally, rangy, electric country-rocker to serious, sincere, acoustic singer-songwriter, proving he could deliver a great song across a wide range of tones and genres. Now The Rascal Is Back, and he came to play on “an album rich with sharp-eyed insights and life-affirming laughter.”


Prog Album of the Year

Big Big Train – Ingenious Devices

It shouldn’t have worked this well—taking three established prog epics from the band’s back catalogue, re-recording portions, adding a full string section, crafting a new bridging section between them, and giving it all a fresh mix. It shouldn’t have worked this well, but it does, propelling these songs to the musical heights they always strove for and have long deserved. A magnificent achievement


Americana Album of the Year

Jason Isbell – Weathervanes

As a singer-songwriter in the Americana genre, Isbell is only competing with himself now; since Southeastern came out a decade ago, he’s left everyone else behind. Weathervanes shows again how big a challenge this is, its songs constantly reaching for the hardest moments to describe, then bringing them to life inside the sturdy musical frame built by Isbell’s crack band The 400 Unit. There’s that word again: magnificent.


Honorable Mention (alpha by artist)

Fastball – Smashed Hits

Nothing fancy, just 14 live tracks of toe-tapping, finger-snapping, head-bobbing power-pop excellence from Austin, TX’s own Fastball. Pairs nicely with almost anything you can think of.

Ben Folds – What Matters Most

This is the sound of Folds getting back to being Folds: insightful, goofy, sincere, cheesy, melodic and chaotic, sometimes all at once. And that is a very good thing.

Joe Goodkin – Consolations and Desolations

“What shines through is… the belief [Goodkin] invests in the power of his art to heal both audience and performer… the journey serves to underscore what truly matters and what can be left behind.”

Jason Isbell – Southeastern (10th Anniversary Deluxe Edition)

The deluxe edition treatment, with a second disc of demos and a third disc of live renditions, only serves to reinforce Southeastern’s status as one of the great albums of this still-young century.

Josh Joplin and Among The Oak & Ash – Figure Drawing

Iconoclastic singer-songwriter Joplin returned this year with a fresh set of songs that’s organic, earnest and heartfelt, grounded in a folk-rock vibe but ranging wherever the song needs to go.

David Longdon – Wild River (2023 reissue)

The late Big Big Train frontman’s 2004 debut solo album receives a well-deserved fresh shine on this remixed re-release of a chiming and charming set of progressive folk-pop.

Pete Mancini – The Commonwealth Sessions Vol. 1

This solo EP finds “Americana power-pop” songsmith Mancini leaning into the Americana side of his musical personality, favoring chiming acoustics and penetrating story-songs.

Pete Mancini & Rich Lanahan – Silent Troubadour – The Songs Of Gene Clark

Mancini and fellow Long Island troubadour Lanahan team up to deliver enthusiastic, often compelling covers drawn from Byrds co-founder Clark’s underappreciated songbook.

Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real – Sticks and Stones

Wille’s son delivers one of his rowdier collections of genial, playful country-rock designed to produce dancing and laughter in equal measures.

Kowtow Popof – A Punk’s Garden Of Versus

“[P]ostmodern art-pop savant (and incorrigible punster)” Popof returns, delivering a fresh set of tunes that manage to be both enigmatic and engaging.

Pretenders – Relentless

Chrissie Hynde is amazing. That is all.

Aaron Skiles – Whistle Past The Grave

Another guitar-heavy solo set that “manages to tackle serious themes without ever appearing to take itself too seriously. Like all the best parties, it leaves you thinking long afterwards about what was said.”

So Long, Sailor

Jimmy Buffett – Equal Strain On All Parts

Perpetual beachcomber and consummate entertainer Buffett’s farewell album is exactly as easygoing, amiable, and relentlessly sunny as you expected. Bubbles up.

Now Why’d You Have To Go And Do That?

Jon Batiste – World Music Radio

New Orleans musical prodigy Jon Batiste’s We Are was a revelation, my pick for 2021 Album of the Year. His follow-up World Music Radio casts aside just about everything I loved about the earthy, authentic, inspirational mind-meld of jazz, funk, and blues on that album for a muddled, heavily filtered-and-auto-tuned grasp at the pop charts.

Yes – Mirror To The Sky

When the only thing that sticks in a five-decade fan’s head a day later is a single bass line from a single track, you may have a problem. Slumbering, tedious, and nearly hook-free.

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