John Morrison’s Culture Corner on the Best of 2023
The World Cafe correspondent and host of WXPN’s Culture Cypher Radio shares his top albums of 2023.
Another year in the books and more jeers for the crooks. 2023 has been a rich bouquet of sounds suitable for a wide range of tastes. Jazz has been particularly strong, mainstream rap struggled while the underground thrived, dance music continued its decades-long flirtation with the mainstream while Americana caught my ear in a multitude of ways.
Personally, I don’t like to rank records anymore. I’ve been publishing music lists on the internet since 1997 and today, my desire to create or reinforce any hierarchies in music is pretty much non-existent. That being said, writing and contributing to ranked lists is part of the gig. I don’t do it begrudgingly and literally no one is forcing me to participate in this practice, so I do it with the understanding that lists can be fun if we allow them to be. Therefore, in the spirit of non-hierarchical fun, here are 5 albums that absolutely knocked me out in 2023. Enjoy!
5. WITCH – Zango
Witch is the Zambian psychedelic rock band who released a handful of fantastic albums throughout the 1970s and 80s. In recent years, Witch’s profile has grown in the West as collectors and record heads have become aware of classic Witch releases like Lazy Bones!! from 1975. In 2023, Witch is back with Zango, their first album in nearly 40 years. With its funky mixture of hard rock, Afro-pop and psychedelia, Zango is a colorful, cosmopolitan take on the Zambian rock sound. “These Eyes of Mine” has shades of afro-pop and indie-rock while “Stop the Rot” is a dramatic hard rock tune, with a funky, open breakbeat. “Waile” is another uptempo standout that combines the Afrobeat grooves of Fela Kuti with heavy guitar riffs. A perfect meeting of African and western sensibilities and sounds.
4. Bully – Lucky For You
Bully’s Lucky For You is hands down one of the most thrilling rock records of 2023. Singer/songwriter Alicia Bognanno is a powerhouse, a rockstar with presence and songwriting chops and throughout the album, she uses all that power and skill in service of razor sharp songs that are both deeply personal and political. From the opener “All I Do” or the album’s finale “All This Noise”, Bognanno’s songs are adorned with fuzzy guitars and gnarly, distorted drums and vocals. This visceral sound is like a spool of barbed wire wrapped around the vulnerable emotional heart of Bognanno’s songs. It’s a dynamic mixture that has served all of the great rock bands that Bully’s been compared to (Nirvana, Hole, The Breeders, Pixies etc.), but it is a formula that they make all their own.
3. Immy Owusu – Lo-Life!
Guitarist/songwriter, Immy Owusu and the music he makes, are the product of a dynamic meeting of cultures. Raised in a family that played West African music, Owusu cut his teeth on psychedelic rock and playing bands in Australia’s coastal rock scene. Owusu’s latest album Lo-Life! reflects the confluence of those two worlds. Owusu’s playing on songs like “There World is Here for You” and “Appellation of Elevation” pull from the upbeat, optimistic sound of Ghanaian hi-life while the album’s production borrows texture from lo-fi and psychedelia. One of the most original guitarists on the scene today, Owusu brings his own flair to the sound pioneered by the great African guitar masters of the past like Sir Victor Owiafo, Ebo Taylor, and King Sunny Ade.
2. Buffalo Nichols – The Fatalist
The Fatalist is the 2023 sophomore album from Milwhaukee-born singer-songwriter and guitarist Carl “Buffalo” Nichols, who presents the ancient spirit of the blues with a contemporary lens. The album opens with the song “Cold Black Stare”, a heartbreaking tune about how the powerful exploit and take advantage of the weak. Backed by tambourine and acoustic guitar, Nichols sings “There’s a reason why your children will be hungry tonight. What do ya’ think it is? The man in the shadows with the cold black stare. He’s taking all the food and leaving nothing for you.”. By personifying evil, Nichols identifies our collective misery as the direct product of human action not some ghost or abstraction. In a way, this has always been a function of the blues: Using song as a means to speak to the concrete reality of being Black and poor in America. This timely yet traditionally rooted approach shows up on songs like “Turn Another Stone”, and his beautiful duet with Samantha Rise, “This Moment.” Raw, incisive and fiercely contemporary, The Fatalist helps carry the blues firmly into the 21st Century.
1. Liv.e – Girl in the Half Pearl
Liv.e is the musical pseudonym of Olivia Williams, an R&B producer and singer from Dallas Texas. Above anything, Girl in the Pearl is a singular listening experience built around a rich and colorful sonic environment full of synths, pitched-up breakbeats and vocal harmonies. As musically ambitious as it is well-worn and lo-fi, Girl in theHalf Pearl takes R&B to some beautifully psychedelic extremes. The album opens with the trippy, fever dream intro to “Gardetto”. Here, Liv.e rides a skittering drum and bass drum beat with lyrics that are all about wrestling with dark, intrusive thoughts. “Six Weeks” combines distorted vocals with warmly electric pianos for an enticing balance of lightness and darkness. “Find Out” is a gorgeous, dreamy love song tucked into a cosmic sonic backdrop. Bold, weird and warm, Girl in the Half Pearl points to an exciting future (or alternate universe?) for R&B.