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The music of 2023
To celebrate the end of the year, I’ve again gone through the songs and albums that I’ve played most during the last twelve months.
Looking back, I can detect some themes and fascinations that were distinctive of 2023. I hope the overview is varied enough to be interesting as well to a listener whose musical tastes don’t coincide with mine.
Josquin des Prez, Petite camusette
The vocal works of the European middle ages and Renaissance are traces of a highly disciplined and alien culture. This piece by Josquin des Prez from 1545 renders into polyphonic choral song a vignette from the old English tale of Robin Hood. The highly constrained cultural register of the time allows for a gemlike compaction of musical ideas, and it’s what I like most about this old music.
There’s an exercise to the mind here, to imagine the social constellations that could have brought forth works like this.
Hélène Vogelsinger, Reminiscence
Polyphonic in a different way, the music by Vogelsinger marks a revival of the modular synthesiser that has been on its way for a while but that continues to spread. Contemporary electronic music generated with genuine synthesisers, instead of the now more common virtual instruments that run on your laptop. It involves dialling in countless physical knobs and connecting a jungle of wires to create a specific ‘patch’: an electronic circuit that produces a unique tapestry of tones and rhythms.
This is spiritual minimalism, I think, but then with a distinctively 21st-century bass.
I found out about Vogelsinger’s music by watching the videos she makes for her compositions. Invariably filmed in abandoned buildings and clearings out in nature, these slow, revolving videos add an extra layer to the meditative quality of her stretched-out landscapes of sound.
Patric Catani, Tic Tic Tac
Over two decades ago I first listened to Patric Catani’s The Horrible Plans of Flex Busterman, one of the era-defining albums from 1997, if you consider musical niche culture. It is computer game music for an imaginary game with Flex Busterman as the alleged protagonist. There’s even a video clip you can find online, figuring Catani and what seem to be some of his friends in the Digital Hardcore scene of 1990s Berlin.
Catani has since continued a consistent trajectory of experimental chiptune music. In 2020, he released The Brain of Flex Busterman, on which the current track figures. It is a sequel to the early album and, though more mature, I think, the tracks still centre around powerful melodic themes and thumping clipped 8-bit drum rhythms.
In the meantime Catani has also started making music for actual computer games, most recently for Alien Hominid Invasion. I don’t know the game, I don’t really play games. So I can’t really tell you how this works out in practice. But musically it’s still brilliant.
Coil, Are You Shivering?
My fascination for the English band Coil started after I received a strange and probably negative comment on social media. My friends told me it was probably negative. A user named our_daily_pain quoted a lyric to me which I found was from a Coil song. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to retrieve what the phrase was, as I have since deleted much of my existence on the capitalist platforms. But it sent me down a rabbit hole.
Coil was formed in 1982 in London by John Balance—a pseudonym—and Peter Christopherson, and they produced a shadowy body of work. Touching on occult, absurdist and erotic themes, their many albums cobble together sermon-like spoken word pieces and compilations of raw and noisy ambient music.
The hermetic underworld of Coil was frozen in time in 2004, when, in a strike of tragic irony, Balance accidentally fell from a balcony to his death. Christopherson dissolved the band not much later.
Tredici Bacci, Vendetta Del Toro (feat. Charlie Looker)
I remember that I was writing at my desk when my attention was grabbed by this song performed by Charlie Looker. It was played on Late Junction broadcast on BBC Radio 3. And that’s every Friday night. The comedian James Acaster had included it as part of his mix-tape for the programme.
The song is part of ‘Amore Per Tutti’, an album by New York-based ensemble Tredici Bacci. It’s a soundtrack for an imaginary piece of Italian cinema. There is no film that belongs to it, but different scenes and dramatic twists are represented in eleven tracks.
I was immediately charmed by this song because of the unadorned and theatrical voice, and over-dramatic lyrics that brought to mind scenes you’d expect to find in an opera by Puccini.
Meridian Brothers, Cumbia totalitaria
For a music set I had to prepare I was around this time of the year looking to gather the finest contemporary Cumbia I could find. Cumbia is a musical rhythm and traditional folk dance from Colombia, but it has spread through other regions of South-America and the rest of the world, mixing in with different influences and instrumentation.
This track by the Meridian Brothers, a Columbian experimental folk band, is like a fever dream. I found it so delirious that I decided to pair it with the most feverish piece of cinema I knew: the part in Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo, where against the backdrop of the Amazon riviera a large steamer is painstakingly dragged across a mountain by an army of hundreds of forced labourers.
The musical and visual pieces fit well together.
Earlier in the year the British band Daughter released their fourth album. I only discovered it now, and I’ve played on repeat this collection of songs, full of singer Elena Tonra’s wistful reminiscences.
To me it seems that what Daughter achieves here is the pop-musical parallel of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People—itself a pop novel. The angst of growing up and settling into a role that wokrs for you, parties with cheap red wine, and sleepless nights over text messages that should have but haven’t yet arrived.
Just as Rooney, in her lyrics and song Tonra elevates the mundane and stereotypical into something utterly real and precious to those involved.
Cesária Evora, Petit pays
In August I saw a 2022 documentary about the life of Cesária Évora, directed by Ana Sofia Fonseca. Évora is probably the most famous singer from Cabo Verde, and her music is closely tied with the West-African island country.
In Dutch we’ve got the tradition of the ’life song’, and I think Évora’s work may be the Cabo Verdean parallel to this: mundane and sentimental, with a strong embeddedness in the experience of a particular community she herself was part of.
The documentary was screened outdoors in a local square, during a summer night, with people sitting on steps and on folding chairs. It was my first introduction to Évora’s music.
Baxter Dury, Etienne de Crécy, Delilah Holliday, Tais Toi
This one is a sleazy cockney electro-pop song. I think Dury, De Crécy, and Holliday got together for the occasion to produce one album, to explore the intersection of styles. It’s plain and appregiated, as electro-pop should be.
I like this song mainly because of the crude, voiceover-like vocals by Dury. It reminds me of the early Tarantino films, or, if you’ve seen it, the English film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
Ela Minus, They told us it was hard, but they were wrong
While exploring the modular synthesiser scene I came across live-sets and tracks by Ela Minus. Born in Columbia, Gabriela Jimeno Caldas uses the name Ela Minus to produce a rebellious blend of after-hours techno and new-wave synth-pop. She has a background designing synthesisers, and most of her work is done on analog machines. Computers only come in at the recording stage.
The lyrics of Ela Minus are sung both in English and Spanish, and often have a revolutionary edge to them. She sets a great example of DIY creativity by writing, recording and producing everything herself.
De Ambassade, De Elitetheorie
Bare-bones compositions, gloomy vocals, scaffolded by quirky, archival samples. That’s how I would characterise the most recent album of De Ambassade. I found out about the group because this specific track was played, again, on Late Junction in late 2022. But since then I’ve got the vinyl album which I regularly put on repeat when I’m writing. (Well, with vinyl you can only put one side of the album on repeat, of course.)
I’m curious where the sample in this particular track is taken from. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but it seems to me it’s an anti-Leninist voice, perhaps coming from the Dutch anarchist movement in the 1950s or 1960s? In any case, if you recognise this sample, do let me know.
KOFIA, Leve Palestina
I heard this song at a protest for Palestine. I couldn’t at first place the language—because I just didn’t expect it. But it’s Swedish, a language I actually do understand.
The song is from the 1970s, but it’s still entirely actual. How disgustingly long the oppression of the Palestinians has been. And again, we’re out on the street demanding their liberation.
As Benjamin Zephaniah said, it is just unbelievable that we need to do this after all these years. Zephaniah points to something Nelson Mandela said: “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete, without the freedom of the Palestinians.”
Zephaniah died on the 7th of December. I’ve been playing his music and recordings of his poetry ever since. There are extremely few people who understand the difference between right and wrong as well as he did.
I will close this overview of my year in music with his song ‘In this world’, which is all as distressing and all as depressing as a song about this world should be.