The first two pages of this stupid world


The first two pages of this stupid world

FRED DE VRIES recalls the highlights and low points of 2023 and shares his top 10 (plus one) albums of the year.


THE PROS: Seeing the Drive-By Truckers, Cowboy Junkies and the Bush Tetras in New York. Driving around Texas, a state that was very different from what I expected (i.e. no gun-toting, Trump-loving madmen but instead very hospitable, friendly people). Seeing Brian Eno perform in Teatro La Fenice in Venice, which nearly brought me to tears. Watching Elizabeth Debicki play Diana in The Crown. The never-ending, feelgood bedtime series Heartland, which shows us a Canadian fantasy universe where the good and righteous still win. Women taking over the world of pop. The excellent reviews of the book about prog rock that I wrote with my buddy Siebe Thissen (Bombastisch, ondansbaar en weergaloos, Van Gorcum, 2022). Being interviewed on Bologna independent radio about punk in Holland and punk in South Africa. Joining the Quarrymen Male Voice Choir in Glencairn. The Bokke beating England at the Rugby World Cup. Swimming in the ocean.

THE CONS: My partner's breast cancer diagnosis (but on the pro side, it was caught at an early stage, so she didn’t need chemo). Wars in Ukraine and Gaza. Extreme temperatures, raging fires, devastating floods, hurricanes — in other words, the environmental collapse. The Dutch election results, and while we’re at it Donald Trump, Elon Musk, Vladimir Putin. AI. Mental health issues among young people. Increasing global intolerance toward the LGTBQ community. Load-shedding, burst water pipes, corruption, lying politicians, you know the score. Relentless WhatsApp groups. Pedestrians glued to their smartphones. People carelessly throwing rubbish on the streets. Oceans full of plastic. The struggle with an idea for a new book. The passing of musicians such as Robbie Robertson, Sinéad O’Connor, Geordie Walker (Killing Joke), Jeff Beck, David Crosby, Sixto Rodriguez, Tina Turner, Tom Verlaine, Mark Stewart (Pop Group), Andy Rourke (The Smiths), Astrud Gilberto, Carla Bley, Jane Birkin, Peter Brötzmann, Randy Meisner (Eagles), Tony McPhee (Groundhogs), Burt Bacharach, Ahmad Jamal, Bert Ruiter (Focus), Shane MacGowan (The Pogues).

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The music

1) The National — First Two Pages of Frankenstein

2) Bar Italia — The Twits

3) Yo La Tengo — This Stupid World

4) Gia Margaret — Romantic Piano

5) Bush Tetras — They Live in My Head

6) Cat Power — Sings Dylan: The 1966 Royal Albert Hall Concert

7) Brian Eno — Top Boy (Score from the Original Series)

8) Wilco — Cousin

9) Sleaford Mods — UK Grim

10) André 3000 — New Blue Sun

11) The Replacements — Tim (Let It Bleed Edition)

Let me assure you, making a top 10 (I know I’ve listed 11, more about that later) is a horrible task. It has occupied me for the last week, the last two weeks, the last month perhaps — listening, rejecting, adding, shifting, dreading the comments from friends and frenemies. Then you see the end result and you want to rearrange it all immediately. But in the end, you reassure yourself it doesn’t really matter, these are 10 albums you really love and enjoy, and if number eight should have been number five, or the other way round, who cares. So I won’t swap Cat Power and Bush Tetras, but then again, maybe I should. And yes, I did!

If you look at the list, you will (might) immediately notice two things. First, there are quite a few female artists, but not as many as I intended. In the end, Julie Byrne, Anna St. Louis, Kassi Valazza, Meg Baird and Daughter didn’t make the final 10. Second, you may have noticed that the list contains some of my regulars: Yo La Tengo, Brian Eno, Cat Power, Wilco, Sleaford Mods. Predictable? Perhaps. But hey, they did deliver the goods, and they are like dependable friends who will never let you down. So, I had to include them, otherwise it would’ve been betrayal.

But the one thing that was seriously lacking in my original top 10 was a great, swaggering, sleazy, sexy rock ’n’ roll album. This year, I heard nothing that conjured the power of a band like Drive-By Truckers or the two-minute cheek of Australian punks The Chats. They both featured in last year’s list but didn’t release an album this year. I briefly thought of including the Rolling Stones but decided against it because it would have meant the removal of one of the other 10 albums, all of which I rate much higher than Hackney Diamonds. And no, no Foo Fighters. Agreed, they do play loud rock and they do seem like truly nice people, but their songs are invariably mediocre.

There was one band I thought I would include, four guys who regularly pop up on my Instagram feed called Lions in the Street. They are from Vancouver and they have been lauded as a great rock ’n’ roll band in the tradition of the Stones and The Faces. But alas, fact checking showed they only made an album in 2009, and now they have released a comeback single called Moving Along, which sounds great and belongs to that golden Faces/Stones tradition, but no album, alas. Maybe next year.

So in the end, I added the Replacements and the remix of their 1985 album Tim as a number 11. Normally, I don’t care for remixing and remastering. Often, you can barely hear the difference. But this is an exception. The original album had great songs but sounded muffled, drenched in echo and reverb, nowhere near the fantastic, loose Let It Be that preceded it. Tim was the first Replacements release on a major label and it felt like an attempt to break into the mainstream. In a way, it succeeded. AllMusic gave it five stars and Rolling Stone made it #137 in its top 500 greatest albums of all time. But the fans knew better. Songs such as Hold My Life, Bastards of Young, Lay It Down Clown and Little Mascara could all have sounded so much better if that signature careless, ragged Replacements magic had been given more scope. And like a stroke of magic, here it is, 38 years later. It sounds as if the album has had a liberating sneeze. Suddenly we hear different guitars and background vocals instead of a muddy mess. Yes, that undefinable Replacements touch is back. So there you are, this, for me, is the great, swaggering, sleazy, sexy rock ’n’ roll album of 2023.

A few words about the other choices.

1) A few years ago, I dismissed The National as a bunch of miserable mid-westerners, a watered-down, dire, bloodless American version of the Tindersticks. And how they proved me wrong, because here they are, top of my 10 best albums of 2023. Lovely melodies, melancholic songs about growing old, losing your bearings, doubting everything in life. All this with the vocal help of younger artists such as Taylor Swift, Phoebe Bridgers and Sufjan Stevens. Maybe it’s me who changed and not them.

2) I never thought any indie, pop, punk band could ever match the cool sexiness of Elastica. And see what happens. Bar Italia, named after a Pulp song (or after a coffee shop in Soho that until the early nineties was one of the few places in London where you could get a decent espresso or cappuccino, which actually may have given the Pulp song its title), made two albums this year which almost match Elastica for sheer cool sexiness. Less angular, more dissonant and dreamy, but with just enough hooks to be totally addictive (Tracey Denim is also worth listening to, especially the track Nurse!)

3) Yo La Tengo never disappoint. The usual mix of guitar noise, sweet melodies, improvisation, clever lyrics and pop chops.

4) Apparently, Gia Margaret lost her voice then decided not to let it get her down. So she sat at the piano and wrote a number of instrumental tunes that call to mind the minimalist compositions of Erik Satie. She cheekily gave the album the kitschy title Romantic Piano. As a lovely bonus, there is one vocal track to remind us of her previous work.

5) I saw Bush Tetras in Brooklyn this year. They were one of the great New York post-punk bands of the late seventies/early eighties, sounding funky and jaggedly sharp. And now they are back, with a new drummer (Steve Shelley from Sonic Youth) and a new bassist (Rocky O’Riordan from The Pogues), and they haven’t lost any of their impact. Still hungry, still angry.

6) It takes a lot of guts to do what Cat Power has done: take us back to 1966 when a young Bobby Dylan mesmerised (and divided) the audience in London’s Royal Albert Hall with an acoustic and electric (“sellout", screamed the folk purists) set that raised the bar for rock musicians to new heights. The CD of this mythical concert finally came out in 1998. Cat Power, aka Atlanta-born Chan Marshall, who has covered several Dylan songs before, pulls it off, giving the often acerbic tunes a softer, more feminine, Southern touch.

7) After my fantastic Brian Eno experience in Venice, I had to include him in my top 10. This is the soundtrack to the gripping British crime series Top Boy, which can be seen on Netflix. Eno’s score is instrumental, ambient and just as full of foreboding as the series.

8) See 3

9) Actually, Sleaford Mods should probably be higher on this list. UK Grim meant more intense verbal vitriol from this Nottingham duo: poetry, loathing, punk, hiphop, dystopia, a deep and profound hatred for posers, fakers and social media, it’s all there.

10) After incredible success with hiphop outfit OutKast (just listen to Stankonia), André 3000, who was one half of them, had a kind of artistic and mental breakdown. He moved to California and became  interested in the spiritual and esoteric works of harpist/pianist Alice Coltrane. He also picked up the flute as his new instrument. The result is New Blue Sun, an instrumental album that is as far removed from rap and hiphop as you can imagine. The 12min 20sec opening track basically says it all: I swear, I Really Wanted To Make A “Rap" Album But This Is Literally The Way The Wind Blew Me This Time.

Playlist - Spotify

♦ VWB ♦

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