By Eleni P. Austin

Music gets you through the rough times, music helps you celebrate the good times. I loved music before I could talk (at five months, no surprise there), or walk (18 months, What? I enjoyed having people carry me places, I knew it wouldn’t last). I can tell you where I was when I first heard “Bohemian Rhapsody” on the radio (ditching 7th grade), and I remember harmonizing to Men At Work’s “Overkill” with my best friend Kathy driving back to the desert after a weekend in L.A., like it was yesterday. It seems as though music has always shaped my life. 2023 has been challenging, and I’ll be glad to see it in the rearview. Sadly, we’ve had to say goodbye to a lot of heroes, beginning with Jeff Beck and David Crosby and Tom Verlaine, continuing with Tina Turner, Jimmy Buffet, Robbie Robertson and Sixto Rodriguez. Most recently, Irish iconoclasts Sinead O’Connor and Shane MacGowan have exited, stage left. Just yesterday, Jim Ladd, one of the last great free-form radio DJ’s split the scene. But their music and influence remain. I heard a lot of great music this year, but I’ve distilled it down to the 10 I think are the best.

  1. RIVAL SONS Lightbringer (Low Country Sound/Atlantic Records) – After four long years, Rival Sons returned this year with not one, but two new albums. The Long Beach four-piece has been a going concern for nearly 15 years, and typically release records at a quick clip. Coming off 2019’s Grammy-nominated Feral Roots, the band had to forgo tour commitments (as did musicians worldwide) thanks to the pandemic. The time off the road gave guitarist Scott Holiday, vocalist Jay Buchanan, drummer Michael Miley and bassist Dave Beste plenty of time to relax and, more importantly, reconnect with family. There was also time to reflect. Turning lemons into lemonade, they began to write a new album. Soon enough, they made pilgrimages to (longtime producer) Dave Cobb in Nashville, spending a week at a time in the studio. For their first seven albums, their tried-and-true method was to both write and record in the studio, creating music that was lean and unfussy, immediate and road-ready. Covid completely upended that paradigm. At the end of this lengthy process, they were left with 14 songs. Rather than issue an epic double album they opted to release the eight-song Darkfighter in June, and it’s six-song companion, Lightbringer, in October. This gave the listener time to absorb each record at a leisurely pace. (And yes, I realize Darkfighter came first, but it’s my column and I want to talk about Lightbringer first.)

Probably the most amazing thing about Rival Sons is they rarely repeat themselves. If you listen to all their albums front-to-back (and I have, many times), each record adds new colors and textures, yet maintains a cosmic throughline throughout. Coming off the heaviosity of Darkfighter, the follow-up manages to feel both cinematic and intimate. To paraphrase a classic Sons’ song, from the very first track, they come out swinging. “Darkfighter” (the song) is simply massive. The melody and arrangement incorporate pastoral and Mediterranean motifs, as introspective lyrics mirror the isolation of these last few years and the need for connection and camaraderie. The Glam-tastic bang of “Sweet Life” and the crushed velvet stealth of “Mercy” are bookended by more introspective songs like the sun-dappled ache of “Redemption,” the expansive “Before The Fire,” which speaks to a fragile post-covid world, as well as the invincible feeling of youth. The closer, “Mosaic,” allows us to embrace sorrow and pleasure, rapture and redemption, and gives us tacit permission to mourn the departed and celebrate the living. As Jay so eloquently sums it up, “In this mosaic of laughter and tears, oh to fall, to rise, to rebuild, to realize the broken pieces fit together…we’re only here for each other.”

  1. RIVAL SONS Darkfighter (Low Country Sound/Atlantic Records) – This eight-song set was the Sons’ opening salvo this year. It also packs as powerful a punch as Lightbringer. The Gospel-flavored crunch of the opener, “Mirrors” is equal parts ambitious and nonchalant. The lyrics shift from self-flagellation to moments of epiphany. There are lighter moments here, the quixotic exhale of “Rapture,” the Psychedelicized stomp of “Bird In The Hand,” and cautious optimism of “Bright Light.” But the balance of the record is given over to bone-crushers like “Guillotine,” the dense but intricate hell ride of “Horse’s Breath,” the combustible Punk thrash of “Nobody Wants To Die, and the bludgeoning final cut, “Darkside,” which details the downfall of a family man and forever friend, whose life is permanently derailed by prescription drug addiction. Taken together, these records dart between moody, monochromatic melodies and technicolor arrangements, stunning vistas offering grit and gravitas, shadow and light.
  2. THOSE PRETTY WRONGS Holiday Camp (Curation Records) – If you’re looking for a record that makes your heart break and soar at the same time, look no further. Jody Stephens and Luther Russell have been pals for decades, but only began collaborating officially a few years ago. Across three albums, they have displayed a musical alchemy that is undeniable. Both have storied pedigrees, Jody is the surviving member of seminal ‘70s Power Pop band Big Star, and Luther made his bones in bands like The Bootheels, The Freewheelers and Federale. He’s also an in-demand producer and has cultivated a rich solo career. Much like their first two albums, this one is awash in crystalline harmonies and chiming guitars. Melancholy moods brush up against hopeful melodies and thought-provoking lyrics that are spiritual but never sanctimonious. Those Pretty Wrongs take you on a beautiful ride.
  3. DAISY JONES & THE SIX Aurora (Atlantic Records) – If I had to pick one word to describe this record, it would be effortless, no, wait, infectious, or maybe authentic. Well, you get the point. The soundtrack for the compelling 10-part Amazon Prime series is meant to represent a fictitious ‘70s band that endured a bit of the romantic tsuris that Fleetwood Mac experienced. The series producers wisely enlisted singer-songwriter Blake Mills to produce the soundtrack. In turn, he recruited a cadre of talented L.A. based musicians like Z Berg, Belle Brigade siblings Ethan and Barbara Grushka, Cass McCombs, Marcus Mumford, Taylor Goldsmith, Matt Sweeney and Chris Weisman. The goal was to create new original music that sounded fresh and familiar at the same time. They succeeded beautifully. Songs like “Let Me Down Easy” and “Regret Me” sport indelible hooks and barbed sentiments that would sandwich nicely between Steely Dan and Taylor Swift.
  4. TANYA TUCKER Sweet Western Sound (Fantasy Records) – Much like Rick Rubin resurrected Johnny Cash’s career with his empathetic production, returning him to his roots, Shooter Jennings and Brandi Carlile have done the same for Tanya Tucker. Country Music’s former wild child began having hits in the early ‘70s. But her recorded output in the last couple decades has been sporadic at best. For a time, it seemed as though her early notoriety might eclipse her genuine talent. Shooter and Brandi first collaborated with Tanya for 2019’s While I’m Livin’ and it shot up the charts. She was nominated for four Grammy awards and won two. Sweet Western Sound is shot through with tenderness and twang. Tanya’s trademark sass is on full display, but there are moments of unexpected sweetness and grace. It’s kind of wonderful to have her back.
  5. THE THIRD MIND Third Mind 2 (Yep Roc Records) – The Third Mind is an intriguing collaboration between singer-songwriter Dave Alvin, bassist Victor Krummenacher, multi-instrumentalist Dave Immergluck, drummer Michael Jerome and singer-songwriter Jesse Sykes. Much like their self-titled 2020 debut, the set is a mix of originals and deep album cuts from artists like Electric Flag, The Jaynetts, former Byrds front-man Gene Clark, Fred Neil and Paul Butterfield Band. Each track finds this tight aggregate stretching out and improvising. They split the difference between expansive and economical, most importantly, it truly swings.
  6. LUCINDA WILLIAMS Stories Of A Rock N’ Roll Heart (Highway 20/Thirty Tigers Records) – Back in 1998, Lucinda Williams released her watershed album. Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. She’d made great albums before (she began her recording career in 1980), and she would make great music after. but nothing really touched the roughhewn charm of that one, until now. Stories… perfectly distills Lu’s myriad charms. The music serves up a combo-platter of anthemic Rockers, cracked Country ballads, Lonestar Blues, caustic groovers, and greazy Garage Rock. Lyrically, she offers tender benedictions for Tom Petty and Replacements’ rabble-rouser guitarist, Bob Stinson (R.I.P. to both), along with some sly, self-reflection. Front to back, the album simply crackles with authority.
  7. THE LONG RYDERS September November (Cherry Red Records) – Back in the early ‘80s, The Long Ryders distilled disparate elements of Rock, Country and Folk-Pop jangle into a hybrid sound that gained traction a decade later when it was re-branded By then, Sid Griffin, Stephen McCarthy, Greg Sowders and Tom Stevens had moved on to separate musical endeavors. But by 2019, the four-piece reunited and recorded their long-awaited fourth LP, Psychedelic Country Soul. It was met with rapturous reviews and respectable sales. Sadly, before they could fully enjoy the fruit of their labors, Sid, Stephen and Greg, were dealt a devastating blow in early 2021 when Tom Stevens suddenly died from undisclosed health issues. Although the remaining Ryders were grieving, they soldiered on and recorded a new album as a trio. On September… the band flexes new musical muscles, offering up Bluegrass breakdowns and Gypsy Jazz workouts alongside their patented Country/Psych-Folk Rock sound. The melodies and arrangements are equal parts joyful, smartass and somber. Meanwhile, perspicacious lyrics deftly take political hucksters to task and also pay homage to their fallen friend and bandmate. The album is by turns agile, bittersweet and beautiful.
  8. UNI BOYS Buy This Now (Curation Records) – Musical trends come and go, (remember Trip-Hop and Reggaton?) but one genre that has endured is Power Pop. It began with The Beatles nearly 60 years ago, and continued through the decades with The Raspberries, The Plimsouls, Matthew Sweet, Fountains Of Wayne and Sloan. Uni Boys add new contours and textures to this tried-and-true formula, folding Garage Rock, Psychedelia and Punk into the mix. Indelible, infectious melodies are buoyed by sharp arrangements and sly, self-deprecating lyrics. This record is a sweet panacea for these increasingly dystopian days. The Uni Boys have made the feel-good album of the year.
  9. PREFAB SPROUT Steve McQueen Acoustic (Sony Music) – I have loved this band for nearly 40 years. The brainchild of Paddy McAloon, they made a series of critically acclaimed albums in the ‘80s and ‘90s that seduced a certain segment of the music-buying public, but never achieved massive commercial success. This Record Store Day release cherry-picks eight songs from the Sprout’s beloved second effort, Steve McQueen (known as Two Wheels Good here in the U.S.) and refashions them acoustically. Paddy literally disassembles each song, adding shimmering guitars, fleet filigrees and lush arpeggios. The results are simply thrilling. Joy and sorrow quietly co-exist within each track, the French have a phrase for it: “La Douleur Exquise,” meaning “the exquisite pain.” This record is suffused with heartache and happiness and everything in between.

Well, I guess that’s it. If a Top 10 could magically morph into a Top 16, I would have included Jonathan Wilson Eat The Worm, The innocence mission Geranium Lake, John Mellencamp Orpheus Descending and Eyelids A Colossal Waste Of Light, Rickie Lee Jones Pieces Of Treasure and Son Volt Day Of The Doug. See you in 2024.