Helen Jones’ Review of 2023

So that was 2023, and I think the least said about the state of the world and, closer to home, the UK government, the better. But hey, at least there was great music to distract. Sure, that’s kind of living in a Marxist nightmare but it could be worse: at least music isn’t spending your time watching Nigel Farage on ‘I’m a Celebrity’.

When he’s not making surprisingly strong acting appearances in Martin Scorsese films, Jason Isbell – and his 400 Unit – found some time this year to put out yet another excellent album in ‘Weathervanes’. There are some epic Isbell themes in there like small town prejudice, death and addiction, but I think my favourite might just be ‘White Beretta’ that, refreshingly, reflects back on a teenage abortion with thanks, the only real regrets being the disconnect at the time from the male involved.

This was also the year that Stereophonics frontman Kelly Jones finally released the Americana music I always knew he could when he put out the eponymous ‘Far From Saints’ with Patty Lynn and Dwight Baker of The Wind and the Wave. Far From Saints are a band whose shared years of experience made for an assured and confident debut, the harmonies perfect and the lyrics sharp and meaningful.

As far as returning favourites go, Morgan Wade’s sophomore ‘Psychopath’ showed she had lost none of the spark from her debut; Caitlyn Smith continued the beauty of 2022’s ‘High’ into the expanded ‘High & Low’; Charles Wesley Godwin put out a reliably rootsy epic double album with his major label debut, the 19-track ‘Family Ties’; Brandy Clark continued to show she’s one of our best living songwriters with the Brandi Carlile produced ‘Brandy Clark’; Joy Oladokun came back with yet another set of stunning songs that became even better with some perfectly chosen guest artists (Chris Stapleton, Mt. Joy, Manchester Orchestra and Noah Kahan); former cowboy Ross Cooper was back with ‘Lightning Heart’, 13-tracks that prove from their lyrical strength just how underrated he is; Austin Plaine put out his strongest album so far with the at times haunting ‘Faded Feathers’; finally, while ‘Traffic Fiction’ may have seen Tré Burt skew a little closer to soul at times than Americana, I’d still argue it’s the best album he’s made thus far.

In May Jordyn Shellhart – a new musical discovery to me – released ‘Primrose’, the first full length album she’s put out since her teenage debut in 2009. It’s full of indie, acoustic gems that show a young woman struggling with modern relationships, but the most catchy of all has to be ‘Joni’, a song where Shellhart’s and her partner have a discourse when they find her in a funk, feeling sure that Joni Mitchell wouldn’t like her songs (although for what it’s worth, I think Mitchell definitely would approve).

Continuing with artists that were completely fresh to my ears, my two absolute favourite albums this year came from David Borné and Rett Madison.

Borné’s ‘Genesis’ is his first full length album and it’s fantastic, but then given the fact Jarrad K – producer of Ruston Kelly’s ‘Dying Star’ – worked on it, it really shouldn’t surprise me that I love it as much as I do. ‘Singing Machine, Microphone’ is a standout; a swelling epic about rediscovering the pure love for music you held in your youth. With her second album ‘One for Jackie’, Madison wasn’t about to make the subject matter an easy one: it’s almost entirely about the passing of her mother, who took her own life in 2019, and the complicated relationship they shared. The brilliantly crafted ‘Flea Market’ exposes how raw Madison’s grief is when just seeing “the ugliest shirt” that she knows her mother would have loved completely breaks her. But if that’s not enough to convince you, know there is even one track where Iron & Wine (aka. Sam Beam) takes over and sings from the perspective of Madison’s mother as she looks down on her daughter.

So I guess you could say the moral of this story is take a chance on something new and it might just pay off. But even if it doesn’t, at least it was a brief respite from, well…everything else.

About Helen Jones 130 Articles
North West based lover of country and Americana.
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Graeme Milligan

Wow, great choices. I had never heard of any of the three profiled artists and these tracks are all exceptional.