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Looking Back: 3 Final Album Picks From 2023

As the dates change and calendars are replaced, another year of music is in the books! I’ve said it before: despite it being my job to keep up with these things, forging my way through the whirlwind of new releases over the course of a year is a hefty task – I keep my eyes and ears open to as much as I can, and always appreciate tips and recs from helpful pals and listeners! Before we venture forth in what’s set to be another exciting year full of tunes, let’s take a quick look back at a few releases from last year I think are worth holding on to.

The Chicago band Ratboys should’ve had a banner year in 2020 with the release of their album Printer’s Devil, but the pandemic had other plans. After some anniversary celebrations in the meantime, they came roaring back in 2023 with The Window, an assured, personal album of vivid imagery and country-inflected songs full of heart and zest. The band is at their most collaborative musically yet here, with new permanent band members and skillful producer Chris Walla joining the fray. Frontwoman Julia Steiner’s words are clear and poignant, turning her gaze from self-reflection to looks through others' eyes with ease throughout. The most touching example of the latter is the album’s title track, an ode to Steiner’s recently passed grandmother through her grandfather’s experience saying goodbye through an open nursing home window, pandemic restrictions preventing a proper farewell. The song is cathartic without overreaching, evocative and direct, a brilliant emotional peak from the Windy City quartet.

In other sides of family tributes, we have the latest album from Nashville-via-Sacramento singer-songwriter Tré Burt. That album, Traffic Fiction, is a sonic tribute to his grandfather (his “pops”), expanding his folkier sound with the soul sounds they shared together while young Burt sat passenger in his grandfather’s Cadillac, and interspersing little family dialogue vignettes throughout, tiny snapshots of conversation with Pops linking it all together. “Piece Of Me” is a perfect slice of retroism here, with organ and “Wall of Sound”-style backbeat soundtracking breakup heartache. Burt’s personal concerns may be at the forefront lyrically, but the compositions are in service to his past, a “thank you” to music shared between family to rightfully honor a bedrock influence.

Finally, once more on the topic of paying tribute, we welcome jazz harpist Brandee Younger to the mix. Younger and her craft are part of a Black legacy of this instrument in jazz, notably pioneered by two Detroiters, Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby. On Younger’s 2023 collection, Brand New Life, she celebrates her forebears proudly by presenting, alongside her own compositions, many from Dorothy Ashby’s catalog, some of them never even recorded by Ashby herself. Younger takes cues from Ashby’s ventures beyond jazz in collaborations with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Bill Withers, and Minnie Riperton, and invites producers Pete Rock and 9th Wonder and vocalists Mumu Fresh and Meshell Ndegeocello along for the ride, lending their talents to both Ashby and Younger’s songs. In these reimaginings, and in some cases, first listens of unearthed material, Younger embraces her music’s heritage but firmly imprints her own style and method, playing the songs of Ashby but in a way only she could. Younger is a part of an ever-growing who’s who of innovative and forward-thinking players leading the charge in modern jazz, and Brand New Life further cements her status amongst her current peers and ancestral ones.

Take these records with you as we head off into this new year, and as the weeks and months roll in, keep your listening ears open for what fantastic new things we’ll discover together!

Evan Miller is a percussionist, lover of sound, and is probably buying too many cassette tapes online right now. Evan got his start in radio in 2012 at WWSU at Wright State University, where he was studying percussion performance. He followed through with both endeavors and eventually landed a lucrative dual career playing experimental music at home and abroad, and broadcasting those sounds to unsuspecting listeners Sunday nights on The Outside. Maintaining a connection to normal music, Evan also plays drums in bands around the area, and hosts WYSO's Midday Music show. When not doing something music-related, Evan is most likely listening to podcasts or watching food videos at home with his cat.