The Best Music of 2023, Album of the Year: The Who, Who’s Next : Life House (Super Deluxe); Plus My Picks for the Top Thirty Starring (in the Top Ten, alphabetically) Jonathan Butler, Cat Power, Louis Cato, Everything But The Girl, The Hooters, Amos Lee, Stephen Marley, Duke Robillard, The Rolling Stones and Taj Mahal and Much More


Photo courtesy of the band

Welcome to my year end list. Sifting through the new releases each week, using multiple sources, is a lot of work. Boiling that down to a list of thirty is tougher still. It would be nice if there were a gate keeper with anything like my preferences, but I have not found one yet. This list is likely to be nothing like any other year end list that you will see, not NPR, not the NY Times, not Rolling Stone, not even WXPN. That said, I thank you for reading this list and my comments about each of the entries. 

About my list, the artists' age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, country of origin, all have no bearing on their inclusion. My criteria is pretty simple. As I may have mentioned in the past, I want to hear singers with a strong voice, one that shows a little personality. I'm looking for production that allows every instrument to be heard clearly (instrumental albums are welcome, too). What I don't want to hear are wishy-washy vocals, vocals buried in the mix, etc. A strong melody is good, too. My bottom line, if you will, has not really changed in all these years: I am looking for music that excites me, even the quiet stuff. The real excitement is the urge to write about it; the idea that others will listen to a given record is what keeps me going. If I think about it, that urge has fueled my career since the earliest days of college when I first learned about radio broadcasting. It's why I became a radio disk jockey and why the full-time job I had after college was the best job I think a person could possibly have. So, that's what you're looking at below and why each and every album is on my list.

Above all, please have a great new year and keep it safe, healthy and happy.

Album of the Year: The Who - Who’s Next: Life House (Super Deluxe)

In 1969, the Who set popular music on its ear when they released the double LP TommyTommy was not only a concept album, but it was a rock opera, which had never been done before. Within that pair of vinyl LPs were some of Pete Townshend's best writing, some of it even reflected in hit singles like "Pinball Wizard" and others appearing as album tracks. 

They went out on the road with a live version of Tommy along with some well chosen blues and some of their crowd favorites from earlier in their career. They played some of the best live rock that had ever been heard, as excerpted at Woodstock and for the single platter Live at Leeds. The Who, at that point, was clearly on a roll.

The hard question was what to do next.  Pete Townshend conceived the Life House project, and even wrote and recorded some demos. Pete's only problem regarding Life House was that he envisioned too many applications, and a cohesive musical entity never coalesced. Ultimately, a handful of the Life House tracks got full recording and production becoming the album we know as Who's Next. This is arguably the closest that the Who ever got to pure musical nirvana with no bum track anywhere on Who's Next. 

For this super deluxe release, we have a gargantuan box set that includes many things, starting with the Who's Next album remastered. We also get to hear several preliminary recording sessions for  the Who's Next album. For the first time ever, all of the Life House demos have been collected in one place. Also included are a couple of live concerts from London and San Francisco from that same year. These shows include some of the songs from Who's Next, as well as some of the Life House tracks. 

I'm not going so far as to say that this is a lost album, but I understand the faithful who look at it that way. As unprecedented as the Who's career was in 1971, this release provides the most complete picture yet. I am pleased to make this my album of the year in a most competitive field. See the press release for details on the box set and a background article by Pete Townshend.

I am reluctant to comment further about the significance of the Life House project, but there is ample analysis of it online. That said, a couple of thoughts occurred while listening to the newly remastered Who's Next. Even though I had always considered Keith Moon a good drummer, and even though I've heard this album a million times or so, one thing I noticed this time was truly how important Moon's work was to each and every song. As much as I thought I knew this record, listening to it now was in some ways like hearing it for the first time. I also gained even more respect for what a nearly perfect album it is. 

The Top Ten (Alphabetically by Artist)

Jonathan Butler - Ubuntu
With your eyes closed you might think that this is a long lost Stevie Wonder album. It's not, but as Butler recently told NPR's Morning Edition, Wonder did phone him to say how much he loved Butler's version of his song that opens this album. One thing lead to another and Wonder wound up appearing on the track. I was already loving this record before I learned that one of my favorite musician-songwriter-producers, Marcus Miller, made the album with Jonathan Butler. Overall, the album has a wide open acoustic sound, defined by acoustic guitar, bass and drums. Other instruments add gorgeous solos, such as violin, piano, sax, guitar (both electric and acoustic), etc. The melodies are as beautiful as the sentiments expressed in the lyrics. Butler explained the significance of the title, "To show humanity to your brother is what ubuntu in South Africa meant. I am because you are. You know, I am because we are. It's the humanity towards others that matters even in the face of apartheid, even in the face of racism, the wickedness and stuff, the hardships that we've seen." Butler was born into apartheid in Capetown, South Africa. He may be listed as a jazz artist, but this album is truly impossible to categorize. Ubuntu is a record that is so tremendous, you don't want it to end and I can report that it is no overstatement to say that this is one of the best, if not the very best, album on this list. 

Cat Power - Cat Power Sings Dylan: The 1966 Royal Albert Hall Concert
Singer, musician and songwriter Chan Marshall, performing as Cat Power, has released a live album in which she lovingly recreates an historic Bob Dylan concert. On the new album, Marshall took to the stage at London's Royal Albert Hall to do a song for song recreation of Dylan's 1966 show at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. This show has immense significance because, halfway through, Dylan switched from solo acoustic to full electric band (it was bootlegged as The Royal Albert Hall Concert). Marshall, who has always had a penchant for covers, calls this a reimagining. The fact is that she sounds terrific doing this material. Marshall doesn't try to imitate the voice, but she does capture the magic of Dylan's compositions. The electric band starts right after "Mr. Tamborine Man" and sounds almost exactly like Bob Dylan's albums from the late 60s. Dylan got a lot of pushback at the time from folk purists, but it's hard to argue with a show that ends with a superb sounding song such as "Like a Rolling Stone." Of Bob Dylan, Marshall says, More than the work of any other songwriter, Dylan’s songs have spoken to me and inspired me since I first began hearing them at 5 years old.”  

Louis Cato - Reflections
Louis Cato is known for being the bandleader on Stephen Colbert's The Late Show. Listening to that talented band on the air, you would have no clue what Cato's album Reflections sounds like. Start with a voice that's somewhere between a Stevie Wonder and a Raul Midon. This record has a lot in common with Jonathan Butler's Ubuntu. It's mostly acoustic and other than a Rolling Stones cover, he wrote or co-wrote the entire record and he co-produced it. Cato's sound is a good deal more soul reminding me of nothing so much as Amos Lee playing acoustic soul music when I first heard him. Cato is delightfully melodic and adept at storytelling. One song is better than the next and you'll be amazed by the way the Stones' "Miss You" translates as a soul song when boiled down to its acoustic essence. This is a record I didn't see coming, but I'm sure glad it did.

Everything But The Girl - Fuse
Fans and listeners of Everything But The Girl (EBTG) were excited to learn, earlier this year, that the group would resume their career after a nearly 24 year hiatus. Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt (who record as EBTG) had plenty to do over that time. In addition to raising their three kids, Thorn released four solo albums, including a well received Christmas album. Watt was busy with his Buzzin' Fly label, disc jockey work, both club and radio, and three solo albums of his own. They also each became published authors. When they decided to record together again in 2021, the decision to revive the name wasn't an easy one, but ultimately proved to be the most appropriate. "It wasn’t like we had a master plan. But it quickly became EBTG – this life seemed to come into it that we didn’t have a lot of control over. Sometimes we’d communicate with a look about whether things were good or bad; we seemed to have an instinctive feeling for the economy we wanted to use, the minimalism of the arrangements, the fact that the lyrics should be emotional, not sentimental. All these things that seemed to be a part of what we do suddenly all seemed to fall into place. Which is quite exciting.” (Ben Watt to Alexis Petridis, The Guardian) The sound of the group doesn't so much seem to pick up where they left off as it does show where they are now. Watt's sonic synth work has only grown to match Thorn's vocals, which are even richer than before. A good part of the audience just wants to luxuriate in the sound of Thorn's voice; I know because I'm one of them. 

The Hooters - Rocking & Swing
In the years before The Hooters signed with Columbia Records they developed quite a large and loyal following in the Philadelphia area. In those days, they self-released an album and a couple of singles. The Hooters played the club circuit pretty relentlessly and in many ways I liked that period the best. Back then, they played a great combination of reggae, ska and rock. With this new album, their first in thirteen years, they offer up a significant return to those roots. Rocking & Swing consists of eight new recordings some of which were tracks from their past. In addition, on CD and digitally, they include a bonus track of a live "Man In the Street" from their Keswick Theater encore of November 2022 (longtime fans may remember that they furnished a live tape of this song to local radio in their early days). When I first heard Rocking & Swing, I could not believe my ears as to the way that they had gone back to their reggae/ska roots; it was a thrill. According to the press release, "The result is a bold musical leap into the future with a loving nod to the past!"

Amos Lee - Honeysuckle Switches: The Songs of Lucinda Williams
Amos Lee has always had a way with a soulful song and acoustic guitar. Roughly twenty years ago, I first heard Lee sitting in with one of the WXPN disc jockeys and playing acoustic soul tunes live on the air. This was prior to his first album. In the intervening years, Lee has had tremendous success. Now, in late 2023, Lee has returned to those acoustic soulful roots on his newest release Honeysuckle Switches: The Songs of Lucinda Williams. This album is decidedly not like a best of album; it's better. No, you won't hear stuff like "Passionate Kisses," "Change the Locks" or "Car Wheels On a Gravel Road." etc. Instead, Lee gives us a more thoughtful and emotional set of compositions from the Lucinda Williams songbook. As a long time listener of Williams' music, every track on the Lee record was not only beautifully selected, but astonishingly well rendered in what had to be a very personal project for Lee. Each song is based on his voice and acoustic guitar with other instruments judiciously added as needed. It was a thrill to hear songs like "Are You Alright," "Greenville" and "Little Angel Little Brother," just to name three. I have listened to both Williams and Lee for a very long time and this album works beautifully for both of them.

Stephen Marley - Old Soul
When you listen to Old Soul by Stephen Marley prepare to throw out everything you know about reggae music. Even though Marley is reggae royalty as the second son of Bob Marley, and even though his voice sounds uncannily like that of his father, this album does not sound like any reggae that we've heard before. Sporting an acoustic sound with a variety of other instruments meticulously added to the mix when needed, Old Soul includes some Stephen Marley originals and some well chosen covers from all over the musical map - from Sinatra to the Beatles to Ray Charles, all the better to elude genre classification. Which is just the way perfectionist and singer-songwriter, musician and producer Marley likes it. In addition to wonderful cover versions, there are some guests on the album, such as Damian Marley, Buju Banton, Ziggy Marley, Eric Clapton, Bob Weir, Jack Johnson and Slightly Stoopid. For his part, Clapton adds some tasty guitar leads to a cover of Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff." I wish I had more room to tell you all the things I love about the record. Once you get past all the guests and all the cover songs, the track I like the most is the autobiographical title track "Old Soul"; it's really special.

Duke Robillard - A Smooth One
Duke Robillard's extraordinary guitar talent has carried him to back the likes of Robert Gordon and Bob Dylan as well as to co-found Roomful of Blues, all the while making 37 albums of his own, flying somewhat under the radar (household name-wise). When Robillard was in Europe, the opportunity arose to play with an organist named Alberto Marsico and a drummer named Mark Teixeira to work as an organ trio. A Smooth One is the happy result of that live one afternoon recording session in Bruino, Italy. The sound is a tasty combination of Marsico's Hammond organ and Robillard's mellow electric guitar, all anchored by Teixeira's steady beat. The engineering is as amazing as the playing. Sonically, this set is right in my wheelhouse, so to speak. The sound of the Hammond organ along with the electric guitar is something I could listen to all day. The contents of the set make it better still. In addition to two Robillard originals, there are eight covers of jazz standards like "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You" and "Sweet Georgia Brown." If you know your classic jazz and blues, you might recognize some of these instrumentals. According to Robillard, "This album shows what can happen when you bring three like-minded musicians together for a few hours in the studio. I hope the fun we had recording it now carries over to the listeners." It does.
The Rolling Stones - Hackney Diamonds
This will not be about how the Rolling Stones are getting old but don't sound like it or that Mick Jaggar and Keith Richards are celebrating the big 8-0 this year. It also won't be about the fact that Hackney Diamonds is their first original new music in 18 years. What I will say is that I believe that The Stones reached their peak during a ten year period from Beggar's Banquet (1968) through Some Girls (1978). Those albums were magic and nothing can touch them. The records since then have all had their excellent moments, but I am here to say that in the last forty five years they have not made an album better than Hackney Diamonds. That may seem like a radical statement, but there are many great tunes on this new album. I've always liked their slower stuff and no, there's no "Angie" or "Fool to Cry" on here, there is a very nice triplet to close the album. Keith Richards sings lead on the melodic "Tell Me Straight," which includes a dynamite guitar solo. The slow and pleasing "Sweet Sounds of Heaven" (featuring Lady Gaga) makes a perfect lead-in to the Muddy Watters penned track that closes the record. Also appearing with The Stones are guests Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Elton John and original members Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts. I don't know how they keep coming up with those iconic sounding riffs, but I can tell you that there's a lot to like on Hackney Diamonds.

Taj Mahal - Savoy
Taj Mahal and producer John Simon have been talking about and planning for this album for many years. Savoy is an album of jazz and blues standards like no other that you've ever heard. It's not like any of those great American Songbook albums by Rat Pack era vocalists. In fact, I was thinking during "One For My Baby (And One More For the Road)" that this version gets down to the blues and jazz of the original composition much more authentically than the well known Frank Sinatra version. All of the songs on here are like that. The production is top notch. Nothing is hurried, the songs are anchored with the dependable rhythm section of Leon Joyce, Jr. on drums and Ruth Davies on bass. The core group also features Danny Caron on guitar, John Simon on piano and Taj Mahal doing lead vocals. His voice sounds like a friendly cross between Dr. John and Louis Armstrong. Add to that dynamite material that we all know, just the right soloists for each song, and some superior backing singers. The album is satisfying on every possible level; I could not love this record any more.

The Top Thirty: Numbers 11 - 30 (Alphabetically by Artist)

Blood, Sweat & Tears - What The Hell Happened To Blood, Sweat & Tears?
(Original Soundtrack) (Live)
Following the release and massive success of their self-titled second album, BS&T embarked on a month long State Department sponsored goodwill tour behind the Iron Curtain in eastern Europe providing these previously unreleased concert recordings. This wonderful album may provide a time warp back to 1970, but it does not answer the rather provocative question posed in it's title; for that, you need to see the film documentary of the same name. 

Brandy Clark - 
Brandy Clark
The latest Brandy Clark album (her fourth) features guest performers such as Derek Trucks, Lucius and Brandi Carlisle, who also produced. Clark's songwriting rings so true and the eleven tracks are so well performed and produced that they will knock your socks off. The two Brandys reportedly bonded over the fact that they are both from the Pacific Northwest, and I am pleased to report that the resulting album is a complete joy.

Bruce Cockburn - O Sun O Moon
Bruce Cockburn is primarily known as a folk artist, but he can rock with more intensity than other bands and has proven over his fifty + year career that he can do most anything. On his most recent album (his 38th), Cockburn hits many styles and the acuity of his lyrics combines subjects as diverse as environment and spirituality with the everyday. On top of all that, Coburn's voice and guitar don't miss a step making O Sun O Moon one of his best.

Count Basie Orchestra - Basie Swings The Blues
The Count may be gone but his band continues, and on this amazing album we hear classic blues laced with soul and jazz and backed by that swinging big Basie band. The high powered guests include Buddy Guy, Bobby Rush, Keb’ Mo’, Robert Cray, George Benson, Shemekia Copeland, Ledesi, Mr. Sipp, Lauren Mitchell, Bettye LaVette and Charlie Musselwhite all working in the service of making one of the best records of this, or any other, year.

Iris DeMent - Workin' On A World
Those who earmark Iris DeMent as a folk artist with country leanings (a la Emmylou) may be in for a surprise on Workin' On a World, her seventh album and first since 2015. Tackling heavy political and social issues laced with an optimism that is underlined by the nature of the backing band, DeMent has made an album that I want to listen to in 2023. I've always loved the combination of piano and organ that is all over this well produced record. 

Djabe & Steve Hackett - Live In Győr
As if to counter the potential "living in the past" impression of his Genesis Revisited tours, for the last twenty years (or so) guitarist Steve Hackett has been sitting in with Hungarian fusion band Djabe. This 2+ hour live concert is a complete delight and it is amazing to hear how well Hackett's guitar is integrated into Djabe and similarlarly, how well his own material has been reimagined to include the fusion band.

Peter Gabriel - i/o
The one time Genesis frontman has a solo career, now in its sixth decade, and yet we haven't had a new Peter Gabriel album in about twenty years, so this is a welcome return, indeed. Thankfully, there is no apparent attempt to duplicate past successes, but i/o does offer twelve tracks of exquisite melodies and examples of Gabriel's brilliant songcraft. 

Steve Hackett - Foxtrot at Fifty + Hackett Highlights: Live in Brighton
Like Peter Gabriel, Steve Hackett was an original member of Genesis, now into the sixth decade of his solo career. Among his many guitar pursuits, Hackett periodically releases new albums and he (and his terrific band) play the old stuff in tours that he calls "Genesis Revisited." This album offers the best of both worlds in a complete live concert that has an excellent selection of his solo tracks along with the fantastic execution of Genesis' classic Foxtrot album to celebrate its 50th anniversary. 

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit - Weathervanes
Recently Jason Isbell has been the beneficiary of some very high voltage praise; I've heard things like "greatest living songwriter." I don't know about all that, but what I do know is that Isbell's excellent songwriting is only the beginning of what makes his latest album Weathervanes so great. 

Coco Montoya - Writing On The Wall
Coco Montoya can stop you in your tracks with his strong and soulful vocals or his fabulous blues guitar along with a crackerjack backing band that includes some amazing keyboard work by Jeff Paris. Montoya spent about twenty five years learning from the best including Albert King, B.B. King, Buddy Guy and stints with Albert Collins (over ten years) and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers (the 2nd generation) before starting a solo career that is now in its fourth decade. His latest album, Writing On The Wall, can take its place right alongside his heroes.

Jenni Muldaur & Teddy Thompson - Once More: Jenni Muldaur &Teddy Thompson Sing The Great Country Duets
This album offers up Jenni Muldaur, daughter of Maria, and Teddy Thompson, son of Richard and Linda, singing classic country duets originally recorded by George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, and Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. Both Muldaur and Thompson are singers, songwriters, musicians and producers in their own right, but they sound like naturals at this and none of the tunes sound anything like what's been on the country chart in recent times; you might call this old school with music dominated by a weepy pedal steel or violin. 

Willie Nelson - I Don't Know A Thing About Love: The Songs of Harlan Howard
For his umpteenth album, Willie Nelson dips into the songs of Harland Howard with his longtime producer Buddy Cannon and an electric band, to come out with an album that is truly the best of the best. Nelson's voice sounds more youthful than ever, the steel guitar work is extraordinary, and the songwriting is superb with such songs as "I Don't Know A Thing About Love," "She Called Me Baby," and "Busted" (which you may know by Ray Charles). Willie Nelson has done a great many things in his long career, but it doesn't get any better than this.

Dolly Parton - Rockstar
With so many layers of phoniness so often seen in showbiz, you really have to respect someone like Dolly Parton. In 2022, when the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame informed her that she would be inducted, Parton tried to politely decline saying that she was country, not rock & roll; the Hall inducted her anyway. Parton concluded that she better make a rock & roll album. Starting with a list of her favorite songs, she invited all of those artists to participate in the recording (they all said yes), and on top of that, she wrote a batch of her own songs which all populate this packed double album. 

Scary Goldings: LIVE feat. 
John Scofield
I think what initially attracted me to this record was the sound of Larry Goldings' Hammond B-3. Ultimately, I wouldn't know how to compare a supergroup of session musicians playing a live, all instrumental jazz/funk workout, which this is, with an album of songs with lyrics. I just know that I like it.

Jake Shimabukuro - Grateful
Performing mostly on the traditional instrument of Hawaii (the ukulele), this is that rare album in which the originals are as excellent as the covers, songs like "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?", "Love Will Keep Us Alive" and more including (how could you not love) an instrumental version of "Hallelujah." In these fast times, there is something to be said for a quiet, gentle and melodic album like Grateful, by Jake Shimabukuro. 

Strawbs - The Magic Of It All
With classic folk-rock like Grave New World and their progressive triumph Hero & Heroine, the Strawbs owned the 1970s. Those albums still sound good, and with vocalist and chief songwriter Dave Cousins at the helm, they spent a couple of decades exploring the possibilities of an acoustic Strawbs. Recently, they have rediscovered the electronics and their latest album, The Magic Of It All, has a myriad of styles and is exciting and enjoyable in every possible respect.   

Teddy Thompson - My Love of Country
Although the son of famous parents, Teddy Thompson is an accomplished singer, songwriter, musician and producer in his own right. Thompson has always had country leanings in his recording career (this is his eighth release) and with this album and his duets album, this year he is all in. Together with producer David Mansfield, he whittled his list of favorite songs down to ten, which include more and less well known country classics and standards such as "Cryin' Time" and “I Fall To Pieces,” all well done.

Robin Trower - Joyful Sky
Robin Trower hit the mark he could never repeat on his first solo album, Bridge of Sighs, and it's amazing title track. He spent the next 50 years making reliably good blues/rock albums, but he could not combat that they had a certain sameness. This year, Trower found the solution with the voice of vocalist Sari Schorr and a delicious array of slowed down tempos to make the album we always knew he had in him.

Billy Valentine & The Universal Truth
Recorded in the charged environment of Covid and George Floyd, vocalist Billy Valentine and his team chose message songs to record. With an all star jazz band, Valentine made this a reality and a very solid jazz album at that. But, what really put the album over the top for me were four excellent covers starting with a wonderful version of "You Haven't Done Nothin'" (Stevie Wonder), a jazzy “Sign Of The Times” (Prince), a superb “Wade In The Water” (Traditional/Ramsey Lewis), and closing with the perfect "The World Is A Ghetto" (War).

The War and Treaty - Lover's Game
War and Treaty is the group name used by husband and wife principles Tanya and Michael Trotter who sing all the songs and wrote most of them, too. I was going to say how much I love the soulfulness of the slow stuff, but I like their rock 'n roll, also. They clearly have it both ways on Lover's Game, and we're all the richer for it.


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