I don’t blame anyone for missing some of the best 2023 indie music.
Like all years, 2023 had too many songs, too much buzz, way too much music for any mortal to keep track of. But now here is some help. These 3 records (probably) won’t make my Top 25 in 2023 but they are excellent releases. Listen to them, buy their music, get ready for 2023 indie music Year End Lists!
U.S. Highball (No Thievery, Just Cool)
U.S. Highball introduces record #4, No Thievery, Just Cool, with the lovely bubblegum indie pop of “Welcome to Hell.” While U.S. Highball promoters describe No Thievery in terms of the hooky choruses, “Welcome to Hell” has a terrific walkaway you’ll sing all day.
“Round and round the record spins. It’s heading for the cutout bins. You’re laying on the floor. He’s heading out the door.”
Just 30 minutes in length, No Thievery, Just Cool, shoots out of the gates with a series of indie pop songs that are perfect length and clean pop structure. The arrangements by Glasgow’s Calvin Halliday and James Hindle put the innocent 80’s hooks right up front with no added fuss.
Here is the sparkling “Adjacent Donovan.”
No Thievery is a nice step forward for U.S. Highball. While I WANTED to love last year’s A Parkhead Cross of the Mind, the melodies weren’t as memorable and the record washed out a bit for me. No Thievery has a couple of twee numbers, cynical life observations on “Irresponsible Holiday,” chiming guitars on “Nicola” and 80’s sax on “Paris 2019.” Guests include label mate Jacob Ewald from Slaughter Dog, Beach.
Not one beat is missed on the solo release from Fontaines D.C. vocalist Grian Chatten. Chaos for the Fly is poetry, deliberately paced and confident. Chatten’s voice is unmistakable but he is immensely more personal here and the discordant moments, as on “Fairlies,” are even more affecting.
Chatten also abruptly changes course and offers very-not Fontaines cuts like the chamber pop song “Bob’s Casino.” It works perfectly and segues immediately into the torchlit piano ballad, “All of the People.”
Even as I write this, I realize Chaos for the Fly is so evoking, not many enthusiasts are sleeping on it. And it’s probably going to make my indie music 2023 Year End List. But I’ve spent 25 minutes spilling my feelings about Chatten, so I’m leaving it here.
I want to step back for a second to recognize the band I am still looking forward to seeing live this year. The Bombshell Flowers have played a couple of notable venues this year and released the delightfully low-key and family friendly album Death of Me. Self-described as “your grandma’s favorite band,” The Bombshell Flowers give themselves too little credit.
A bit more muscular production would go miles and their live performances are also fun and crunchier. The Bombshell Flowers have all the hooks. Their notable benefactors notwithstanding, I recommend Death of Me without reservation. Here is “Japan.”
The only thing better than finding crushing indie rock albums is bumping them at 10 or 11 in your car instead of on earbuds. The louder and more dense the music, the less justice those workout bluetooth headphones give your guitar RAWK.
Here are 3 albums currently being played at unhealthy volumes in my car.
An American response to the UK shoegaze movement, Medicine was always wilder, weirder, dancier and a noisy avant-garde marvel. Making pop music louder and more disorienting since 1992’s Shot Forth Self Living, Medicine leads out on Silences with Jim Goodall’s hammering percussion.
Check out the bonkers cacophony of “Hey Hey Go Away!”
Medicine never lets a good hook go to waste though.
This isn’t kitchen sink noise with a side of melody. Brad Laner and Julia Monreal intertwine their Age of Aquarius harmonies like shoegaze on acid. But they never let go of song structure — however discordant things get, a pop song is happening here.
This post is not a shoegaze stalking horse. In fact the aforementioned Medicine really belong in a category of their own.
But shoegaze is loud and Slowdive are part of the genre’s Mount Rushmore. Just tonight, the Slowdive Salt Lake City show played at the Union Event Center – I regret to report I could not attend. Were you there?! Leave a comment or e-mail me about how your ears are doing tonight.
Slowdive’s canon is legendary but not deep. They basically changed the world with 1993’s Souvlaki but there are just a handful of Slowdive albums, and just two since reforming in 2017. They are shoegaze with ambience; a wall of sound with aspirational intentions.
Here is album opener for Everything is Alive, “Shanty.” Give “Shanty” about 45 seconds for the ambience to melt your face.
Rachel Goswell sounds so damn good exchanging vocals with Neil Halstead. Goswell floating in the ether, Halstead plowing ground below. Here they are on the exquisite “alife.”
As much as I suggest you buy Everything is Alive and Slowdive’s back catalogue, I also recommend you dig into Halstead and Roswell’s heralded work with Mojave 3. Ask Me Tomorrow (1995) and Out of Tune (1998) are both available at 4AD’s website. I also loved Halstead’s solo Oh, Mighty Engine! (2008) but haven’t bought Palindrome Hunches (2012).
Special Friend (Wait Until the Flames Rush In)
The ENTIRE Special Friend release isn’t angsty and loud. But OH MY HEAVENS you have to turn “Applause!” to the highest possible decibel. I was listening to it this afternoon in my car and you just can’t play it loud enough.
The spacious garage pop, synth and intense harmonies of Guillaume Siracusa and the Erica Ashleson goes over the top with the overdriven fuzz guitar solo that walks the song off stage. Wait Until the Flames Rush In will probably make my Top 20 this year, and a Top 10 for loud and proud among indie rock albums.
How many times did I see the Son VoltTrace tour in 1995 and 1996?! Probably five or six times…some of the most memorable shows of my young life.
And in 2023, after eleven studio albums, Son Volt announced an anniversary tour for 1995’s Trace (the completely logical 28th anniversary). It would land them in Salt Lake City on September 27. While they were also performing from their excellent Day of the Doug tribute to Doug Sahm…let’s be honest, we were there to hear Trace.
I recommend the Sahm record highly. Here is “Sometimes You’ve Got to Stop Chasing Rainbows” from Day of the Doug. You can buy it at Son Volt’s website.
Brief and wildly oversimplified history of alt country
Gram Parsons of The Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers introduced the world to Cosmic American music in 1973. Fast forward to 1990, Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy are credited with some hyperbole for “creating” alt country with Uncle Tupelo’s 1990 No Depression.
But it was Farrar and Son Volt, five years later, who vaulted past Wilco as the pioneers that turned alt country into a movement. 1995’s Trace changed the way country music was received by mass indie music listeners. They could connect their sound as much to Bob Mould as Woody Guthrie.
At this time I was living in the adopted alt country capital of the world, Columbia, Missouri. Columbia and Mizzou college radio station KCOU were the closest viral crowd for Belleville, Illinois’ groundbreaking Uncle Tupelo. Columbia “made” Uncle Tupelo, if you listened to the locals. Wilco and Son Volt followed the same path to success, playing for the MU kids at the legendary Blue Note club.
What a time to be alive.
It’s been almost 30 years since those heydays. In that time, I took three different jobs, got married, moved around the country, September 11 and Donald Trump happened.
So yes, the Son VoltTrace reunion performance was something of a Dad Rock moment. I was grateful it was lightly-attended at Salt Lake City’s State Room. The Doug Sahm covers were gorgeous, near perfection. But when Farrar lead into “Windfall,” it was the nearest to tears I’ve felt in a long time.
Jay Farrar plays Trace front to back; Horton kills
It was remarkable watching how Farrar, 56, paced the show in Salt Lake City. The Doug Sahm and first Trace songs, “Windfall” and “Live Free” had a determined but casual pace. As successive songs passed, though, the road crew passed guitars to Farrar with increasing speed.
Time between songs compressed and the show grew in intensity.
Although “Ten Second News” represents a downbeat cut from Trace, in the live setting of 2023, it turns into a dark, brawling thing that turned the venue upside down. At times John Horton (former of The Bottle Rockets) was channeling the Allman Brothers. At other times he could have been playing with Sonic Youth. They completely wrecked the joint and it was an awesome sight.
The emotional crescendo of “Ten Second News” then immediately lead into Volt’s guitar rock favorite, “Drown.” It was a 45-minute tour through alternative country history, concluding with Farrar’s touching interpretation of Trace closer “Mystifies Me.”
Farrar then played a few hand-selected songs from Son Volt’s 30-year cannon: “Picking Up the Signal” from 1997’s underappreciated Straightaways, songs from Wide Swing Tremolo, Notes of Blue and Electro Melodier. They covered Tom Petty’s “American Girl” and wrapped with “Chickamauga.”
Current and past Son Volt fans couldn’t have asked for more.
I neglected to post about the Charles Wesley Godwin concert in Salt Lake City more than a month ago at SLC’s The Depot. It hasn’t been for wont of enthusiasm: I was looking forward to seeing the leading man of the West Virginia Mafia taking over alt country, and he delivered in every way.
Charles Wesley Godwin concert wows
I came into the Charles Wesley Godwin concert at a disadvantage: I hadn’t previewed the singles from his upcoming Family Ties album, which came out in September.
The truth is, I’m a little late to the CWG party generally, and came to see Morgantown’s favorite son based more on reputation. He has become known for upstaging Zach Bryan as Bryan’s opener early in the year, giving a motivational speech to the Mountaineer football team this fall and emerging as the leader of the emerging West Virginia scene. Side note: Godwin entered school hoping to play football as a Mountaineer but fell back on music. We are lucky all fortunate for his career decision!
I’m unfortunately relying on six week old text notes to myself from the concert. However, they are prompting some vivid recollections.
One thing I was blown away by was the size of Godwin’s touring act. A total of seven musicians were on stage during the CWG show, including four guys on guitar, a pedal steel player, keyboardist and drums. Basically one drummer short of The Allman brothers at Fillmore East.
Godwin brought all the moves. Repeatedly dropping to his knees to solo, letting Joe Pinchotti loose for a John Bonham drum solo, guitarist and album producer Al Torrence perching himself on the handrail of the balcony for a death-defying solo and the ubiquitous “Country Roads” encore.
Charles Wesley Godwin previews Family Ties and “Cue Country Roads”
Two weeks before the Charles Wesley Godwin concert in Salt Lake City, he announced the impending Family Ties release. He also released four songs from Family Ties on August 4: “All Again,” “Family Ties,” “Cue Country Roads” and “West of Lonesome.”
We’ve heard enough arena alt country this year to know how poor half-sung/half-shouted vocals can sound. But when Godwin hit “Family Ties,” he seemed to revel in every moment hearing the audience sing along as he belted out the climactic chorus:
Strike! Me! Down! If I cut family ties…
Holy moly it was so powerful, and hard to articulate the way the audience responded. There is also some Appalachian desperation in those lyrics.
Here is the studio version of “Family Ties” on Soundcloud:
Godwin and the band returned to the stage for a single encore. They crowd-sourced a fist-pumping, adrenalin-fueled rendition of “Country Roads.”
Personally, as a West Virginia boy, I find “Country Roads” pretty clichéd. However, this is how Godwin pays the bills and it obviously prints with the audience. Here we are 90 seconds later, on the way out.
I am NOT singing but Godwin has obviously ended on a high note.
Photos from Charles Wesley Godwin Salt Lake City Concert
Imperfect set list from CWG’s Salt Lake City concert
My pretty-close set list from the Charles Wesley Godwin concert in Salt Lake City
“Cue Country Roads” – Family Ties
“The Jealous Kind” – Live From the Church
“Miner imperfections” – Family Ties
“Temporary Town” – How the Mighty Fall
“Hardwood Floors” – Seneca
“Family Ties” – Family Ties
“All Again” – Family Ties
“Seneca” – Seneca
“West of Lonesome” – Family Ties
“Cranes of Pottter” – How the Mighty Fall
“Jamie” – Summertime Blues (Zach Bryan feat CWG)
“Seneca Creek” – Seneca
“The Flood” – Family Ties
“Two Weeks Gone” – Family Ties
Charles Wesley Godwin in 2024
Godwin is not scheduled to back in SLC before headlining for Luke Combs at the The Delta Center in June of 2024. Maybe he’ll be back before this Combs arena tour for something more intimate at SLC’s Urban Lounge.
I’ve been missing for a few…but I’m motivated tonight to tell you about 6 alternative songs in 2023 you need to jump on ASAP! Some of these from spring and summer will make my year-end list of favorite alternative songs in 2023. A few are just in my head and deserve a broader audience.
How to listen to the best alternative songs in 2023
You can listen to ALL of the songs right from this page, and use the handy links to support the artists.
“Fantastic Tales of the Sea” – The Hannah Barberas (Fantastic Tales of the Sea)
“Fantastic Tales of the Sea” may be one the catchiest alternative songs in 2023.
But first, I have to say as a frequent band name critic, let’s give credit to The Hannah Barberas for possibly best band name ever. And double win, best album art of 2023?! (Credit to London designer Sally Kelly). These guys are killing it on the aesthetics.
None of this it to take away from the title track of 2023’s fantastic, Fantastic Tales of the Sea, or my story about hearing it the first time. Among the things I DON’T have to complain about is traveling some this summer. I was listening to Fantastic Tales at Hideaways Beach in Kauai. Yes, I get it, entitled white guy story here. But the moment was still powerful.
It was our last day on the island and I’m at Hideaways with my daughter. It is one of the most picturesque beaches I’ve ever seen. Surreal. Rose is recording an Insta Reel in the water and doing what teenagers do. I was taking in the ocean, listening to The Hannah Barberas’ new album. Near the end, “Fantastic Tales” positively leaped out of the headphones. The chorus was instantly sealed with those last, fading hours of our family vacation, the way some songs are forever connected to a moment in time.
You don’t have to be in Hawaii to enjoy the clear-eyed jangle brilliance of The Hannah Barberas.
“This is Gonna Change Your Mind” – Martin Frawley (The Wannabe)
Martin Frawley’s sprechgesang “This is Gonna Change Your Mind” from his second album, The Wannabe, endears itself with repeat listening. Hearing it again, I’m tempted to buy the full album by the former member of Melbourne’s Twerps. Baggy jam at one moment, enigmatic dolewave the next, Frawley’s desultory vocals tie the whole thing together. It’s a nuanced album that begs several listens to really get it.
That said, leadoff “This is Gonna Change Your Mind” is just straightforward infectious pop!
In fact CWG guests on Bowen’s Old Kanawha (modern pronunciation: kuh-NAW), the county of West Virginia’s capital, Charleston, and the Native American word for “white rocks.” Bowen is a renowned fiddle and mandolin session musician but his vocals runs are so light they could fool you into thinking it is auto-tune.
“Vampire in Appalachia” also boasts a champion version of the “Woah oh oh oh oh” bridge mirrored in the past by The Ronettes, Baltimora and Howard Jones. Bowen owns them all with his earnest “Vampire in Appalachia,” one of the best alternative songs in 2023 in alt country.
Words really only detract from pure pop sugar like Bobsled Team’s “Analita.” The whimsical echo of the chorus begins what you think will be Icelandic dream pop, but it builds to a bit of a noisy indie jam. I’m not previously familiar with Belfast’s Bobsled Team but now greatly anticipate their second album!
“Analita,” a song about a ghost, is an instant classic.
Let’s stay in this same ethereal space with Dot Allison’s “Unchanged.” Allison has been around basically forever, originally as part of One Dove. We’re virtually the same age, a discovery I usually find surprising in a contemporary indie artist.
One Dove had just one album, 1993’s Morning Dove White, but Allison has released six albums since then, culminating in 2021’s Heart-Shaped Scars and this year’s Consciousology. If she more closely identifies with the psych/trip hop space, the chorus of “Unchanged” floats weightlessly, very nearly like a country harmonic.
Is “Unchanged” a tender homage to her lover, or bitter realization?
You’re always the same Always unchanged So he should walk away Yet his love remains...unchanged
Unchanged, like a sunrise Unchanged, like your ghost Unchanged, once a lifetime Unchanged, a seed won’t sow Unchanged, like the fractal Unchanged, shaping the snow Unchanged, if statues could move Oh the stories they could tell
You can also hear the growing trippy beats under the Scottish singer’s single, which she originally released in May.
At some point, I realize I could do these playlists all night. Let’s wrap back in the states, with Philadelphia’s Hurry.
“Beggin’ For You” sounds like a Teenage Fanclub lost classic with thrilling chamber pop flourishes. There is absolutely nothing to dislike about Matt Scottoline’s ode to 90’s power pop and its influences. He owns every Norman Blake vocal peak, Big Star guitar solo and jangly Byrds chorus.
Check out how it comes together on “Beggin’ For You.”
The best alternative songs in 2023 are yet to come
Look, we’ve got 95+ days left in 2023. These 6 songs were basically some of the last 8 or 10 I put in my phone for a post just like this — an update. I have dozens of favorite alternative songs in 2023 that I’ll catalogue at the end of the year. Last year, I listed 22 of my favorites from 2022.
Subscribe for updates as we wind up another terrific year in alternative music!