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New Music: Best of 2023 - Curated by Sharon O'Connell

In our final New Music round up of 2023, critic and journalist Sharon O’Connell looks back at some of this year’s most exciting and innovative tracks and albums

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“Don’t look back,” popular wisdom commands, but where music is concerned that makes little sense: its future would be nowhere without at least something of the past. 

2023 has delivered a wealth of terrific music from both established and emergent talent, across all genres. There were welcome reappearances from artists who’d been away so long it seemed we might have lost them for good, such as André 3000. The former OutKast member’s November album, New Blue Sun, was his first in 17 years. An out-there solo set of sumptuous ambient/cosmic jazz and devotional music, with a running time of 87 minutes, it saw him ditching rap in favour of a (digital) flute, tapping influences from John and Alice Coltrane to Yusef Lateef.

At the start of the year, Alabaman self-taught visual artist and musician Lonnie Holley released the extraordinary Oh Me Oh My. It’s a powerfully autobiographical record of a singularly impressionistic nature, which Jacknife Lee has worked into more structured productions encompassing cosmic soul, twitchy funk, Afrofuturism, electronica and no-wave jazz, with the 72-year-old Holley on vocals and mellotron. Guests include Michael Stipe, Sharon Van Etten (on poignant standout ‘None Of Us Have But A Little While’) and Jeff Parker. 

The release of a PJ Harvey album is always something of an event and so it was with I Inside The Old Year Dying, her first in seven years. Working again with her long-term team of John Parish and Youth, she delivered an enigmatic and often unsettling set that revels in the use of old Dorset dialect and features actor Ben Wishart on two tracks. Since the 12 songs began as poems, there’s little to whistle or hum along to, but Harvey’s mixing of experimental effects and field recordings with sparse blues, fragile folk and artful country rock is compelling and often beautiful. 

Mercury Prize nominee Nadine Shah was another welcome returnee. We last heard from her in 2017, but this year she gave us two singles, the soaring, beats-driven ‘Topless Mother’ and ‘Twenty Things’, a darkly poignant tale about lives hanging in the balance. Both are teasers for her new album, Filthy Underneath, due in February.

Alt-folk/country hero Bonnie “Prince” Billy strolled back into earshot with his compassionate Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You, which cuts the Appalachian country music of his home state with aspects of John Prine, Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen, while retaining his mordant humour. There’s plenty of genuine joy, too, as ‘Behold! Be Held!’ attests. 

Hallowed US post-punk trio Sleater-Kinney, who burn with every bit as much fervour now as in their ’90s heyday, returned with two new tracks, ‘Hell’ and ‘Say It Like You Mean It’, from their upcoming album, Little Rope. It’s the former that fits more naturally in their canon, Carrie Brownstein’s moody, blues-rock verses contrasting with the chorus’s serrated guitar fury to truly searing effect, as she reminds us that perdition is always a personal choice. “Hell don’t have no worries/Hell don’t have no past/Hell is just a signpost/When you take a certain path”. 

Last but by no means least, former Alabama Shakes powerhouse Brittany Howard let rip with ‘What Now’, the title track from her forthcoming second solo record. Its no-holds-barred lyrical honesty is a key part of the track’s appeal, but it’s the sonics that burn: an insistent blend of hip-hop beats, choppy rhythm guitar and indecently funky lead, topped with Howard’s blowtorch, soul-blues holler.

Not every 2023 release that impressed was high-profile, of course: there were countless others that flew under the radar of all except confirmed fans. These include We Buy Diabetic Test Strips, the sixth LP from Armand Hammer, a hip-hop duo from NYC whose work is defined by their bleakly realistic subject matter, vividly imagistic rhymes and thrillingly atmospheric production. Their latest offering boasts features from Baltimore rapper JPEGMAFIA and composer, poet and spoken-word artist Moor Mother, among others and is best listened to with headphones on, all the better to catch its nuances. 

LA-based multi-instrumentalist Byron Crenshaw (aka Ghalani) operates as The Growth Eternal, under which name he released ‘Holocene Pyre’. It’s a highly seductive track that combines electronic R&B, synth-soul and trippy soundscaping, with his years of jazz-bass training coming into play and a guest turn by fellow Tulsan Joy Harjo, reading her poem ‘Let There Be No Regrets’. At a very different point on the music spectrum sit Bob Vylan, the London rule-book trashing (and MOBO-award-winning) duo who weld punk, drum’n’ bass, rock and grime to righteously furious, socio-political effect. Their latest single, ‘He’s A Man’, sets racism, machismo, sexism and blinkered national pride in its sardonic sights and is a teaser for next year's album, Humble As The Sun.

Halo Maud isn’t a complete unknown – the French singer, multi-instrumentalist and producer released her debut LP three years ago – but she is an unfamiliar name, though that’s starting to change due to her guest vocal spots on the recent Chemical Brothers’ record. As a teaser for her second LP, due next March, she released  ‘Terres Infinies’ (‘Infinite Lands’), a smart and artful slice of 1960s-toned psychedelia fused with dream pop that features a surging, wordless vocal hook. Seldom has a refrain like “papapapa padadadadada” sounded so irresistible. 

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