With the first half of 2023 already fading in our rearview mirror, we take our bi-annual look at the albums that have enthralled and entertained the Townsend Music team over the last six months. We've even provided a Spotify playlist of choice cuts at the end of the article for everyone who is inspired to sample the goods.
Alex Needham: Junior Account Manager
Ulrika Spacek - Compact Trauma
Marking their return after a five-year hiatus, Compact Trauma is the third album by alternative rock band Ulrika Spacek and it has certainly captured my attention. In comparison to their previous two albums, this release ventures into uncharted sonic territory, exemplified by the melodic jazz-infused track ‘Lounge Angst’ and the dreamy 'No Design', which could easily find a home on Air's acclaimed Moon Safari. However, the band also echo their previous releases with the inclusion of 'Accidental Momentary Blur' and 'Stuck at the Door', featuring intricate layers of guitars, reminiscent of their earlier sound.
With this album, the band delivers a refreshing and satisfying comeback that not only picks up where they left off but strays from their previous spacey shoegaze sound to propel them to new artistic heights.
The National - First Two Pages of Frankenstein (Buy Here)
Cincinnati rock band The National's new album First Two Pages of Frankenstein leans more on the gentle side of the band's releases yet it is one of their strongest. Listening to this album reveals a well-crafted record, the words of Matt Berninger feel carefully placed and thought out with depth which may well be attributed to the year-long writer's block he had during the creation process.
I think the singles such as 'Tropic Morning News' are the strongest parts of the album with the faster tempos, punchy beats and airy guitars that create the perfect canvas for the vocal lines to build. Berninger’s imagery has an emotional vulnerability that's front and centre on this record; he's being honest with himself, which is a difficult bridge to cross, but the record is all the more powerful for him doing so.
P Barney Barnes: Head Of Digital
Orbital – Optical Delusion (Buy Here)
When asked to choose my Album Of The Year, my first port of call is to inspect my Spotify account to see if my recent most-played tracks will jog my memory. So far in 2023, there's no competition: 'Are You Alive' by Orbital, from their new London Records album Optical Delusion, is the runaway leader; the type of song that hits so hard you feel compelled to share it with family and friends.
As a track, it's a great example of the balancing act the duo have managed on this record, blending effervescent electronica with a beguiling guestlist of vocal collaborations for a concoction that defies easy categorisation. The first five minutes of 'Are You Alive's' fizzy beats give Penelope Isles' bedsit-ready indie songwriting plenty of room to breathe before the track erupts into two minutes of thumping techno for the final stretch. By repurposing vocal textures and synth pads from earlier in the track, Orbital effectively drop a dance remix within their own pop song; one of many outside-the-box approaches abundant on this long player.
The delivery of fitting backdrops for the shape-shifting styles of the vocalists - from the incendiary Sleaford Mods to the opulent Anna B Savage - is the secret sauce that sets Optical Delusion apart from the dance pioneers' revered catalogue. While it's hard to compare any one track to anthems like 'Chime' and 'Halcyon and On and On', Optical Delusion offers a fully-realised project that engages the mind much as the feet. For the Hartnoll brothers to deliver work of this vitality in 2023 is a testament to exceptional talent and their ever-evolving vision of what electronic music can be.
uSUPER! Records – Bamboo Killers And Mountain Gods
Promising "a blistering sonic assault of deadly Shaolin power for the first time ever on cassette!" Bamboo Killers And Mountain Gods is the first release on uSUPER! Records, the nascent label from synth and soundtrack stalwart Darren Page AKA. Burning Tapes. Opting to release records on download via the label's Bandcamp Page alongside limited presses on collectable coloured cassettes in retro toy packaging, uSUPER! starts as it means to go on with a cinematic, tongue-in-cheek collection of kung-fu flick soundbites, hip-hop hi-hats and squelchy synths. Across 18 tracks, acclaimed producer Deadly Avenger and a host of co-conspirators (more than one of which I may be villainous alter egos...) channel their inner RZA and provide a bold and balanced collection of beats whose sum total recalls the mid-90s heydey of Beastie Boys' Grand Royal label and magazine.
While the tone is proudly B-movie, the production quality is blockbuster - this is no internet producer's bedroom beats tape. Live drum sounds, lavish soundscapes and richly processed vocals abound; fans of Madlib and J-Dilla's subterranean swagger and stumbling-drunk loops will find a lot to embrace. And as well as being a terrific treat for the ears, uSUPER! is one of a growing handful of independent labels that are eschewing the wait and cost of vinyl and the disposable culture of streaming by embracing the humble and convenient cassette as their weapon of choice. Rewind!
Lucas Barr: Business Development Manager
Boygenius - The Record (Buy Here)
At the start of 2023, the anticipation reached fever pitch as fans awaited the late-March arrival of Boygenius' debut full-length album. The Record, the follow-up to the supergroup’s self-titled 2018 EP, did not disappoint.
The record is a bold and honest exploration of friendship, love, and self-discovery; a testament to what can happen when three talented songwriters allow themselves to be fully seen. The album’s 12 tracks are a well balanced mix of their writing styles with each song showcasing the unique talents of Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus.
An album of beautiful melodies, intricate arrangements and raw emotion from three of the most talented songwriters currently recording, Boygenius have given us one of the albums of the year for sure.
Guvna B – The Village Is On Fire (Buy Here)
The most impactful album of the year so far has been Guvna B’s The Village Is On Fire. The record is a thought-provoking exploration of the aftermath of a racially motivated attack.
Inspired by Guvna B’s own experience of being attacked, the album deals with the emotional, physical, and psychological tolls that such an attack can take. However, the album is not simply a narrative, it’s also a meditation on the nature of racism and discrimination, and on the importance of understanding and respecting other people’s perspectives. Despite the heavy content, tracks like 'U Get Me', featuring Ghetts, and 'Traffic' still pop. Ultimately, it’s Guvna B’s lyrics that stay with you most on this, his tenth album, and none more so than on album closer 'Suits and Shirts'. It's an album that powerfully mixes the personal and political and really resonates.
Simon Walsh: D2C Campaign Manager
100 Gecs – 10,000 Gecs (Buy Here)
When Spotify’s Continuous Play feature served up 10,000 Gecs album-opener ‘Dumbest Girl Alive’ I was instantly hooked... and shocked. This was 100 Gecs, a band I’d previously written off with my own ignorance with a swift “I don’t get it”, but boy am I glad to have them back on my radar.
10,000 Gecs has the same genre-hopping and amusing shapeshifting style they previously had, but a lot more refined and crafted to an album which truly is just wall-to-wall bangers from start to finish and warrants a lot of repeat listening.
Incendiary – Change The Way You Think About Pain
New York hardcore veterans Incendiary's latest release evokes energy, passion and crushing riffage akin to the likes of Refused, Glassjaw and At The Drive-In, with a sprinkling of Rage Against The Machine at their heaviest.
The album’s official bio gets it spot on, succinctly declaring that the album is "the perfect soundtrack to throw a brick through a window".
James Smith: Account Manager
King Krule – Space Heavy (Buy Here)
Space Heavy is the highly anticipated fourth studio album from Archy Marshall AKA King Krule. The album showcases a distinct artistic evolution for Archy, taking his sound to new experimental territories while maintaining the raw emotion and introspective lyrics that hooked us in his earlier albums. One of the standout tracks on the album is 'From The Swamp' a mesmerizing blend of jazz-infused guitar melodies and pulsating beats. While it may not be easily accessible to everyone, those willing to immerse themselves in its atmospheric and introspective world will find a rewarding and thought-provoking musical experience. Other notable tracks on the album for me are 'Seaforth' and 'Hamburgerphobia'.
Sleaford Mods – UK Grim (Buy Here)
UK GRIM, the seventh studio album from Sleaford Mods notwithstanding early rarities, is a unique blend of punk, hip-hop, and spoken word, with politically-charged lyrics tackling social issues and reflecting the realities of working-class life in the UK. This approach has garnered them a dedicated fan base and critical acclaim, particularly for their ability to capture the frustrations and disillusionment of many people in society. Standout tracks for me are 'Force 10 From Naverone' featuring Florence Shaw from Dry Cleaning (another favourite of mine) and 'UK Grim'.
Lydia Fogg: Customer Service Advisor
ELIZA – ASWS: Sketches & Remixes
It's been a slow year for new releases on my side but one I really think deserves a mention here is ELIZA's ASWS: Sketches & Remixes. This album is essentially a re-release of 2022's A Sky Without Stars but with several new tracks and remixes that have added to my appreciation of the record. ELIZA's vocals and style have developed over time from her start in pop music to the sultry RnB on this record, with some gorgeous, crunchy lo-fi beats that create an atmosphere that is chilled and seductive. The record is super dark but the tone is very feminine which is precisely my kinda beat. I particularly love 'Midnight Rose', and the 'Abandon the Rule - Ahadadream remix' has me doing salsa with my Hoover on the regular; what more could you ask for?
King Krule – Space Heavy (Buy Here)
I hereby co-sign James Smith's write-up of this review, so please refer to the above!
I have to give a shout-out to 'Seagirl' with Raveena though; not a crossover I ever imagined but it's absolutely dreamy.
George Douglas: Account Manager
Metallica - 72 Seasons (Buy Here)
Metallica's 72 Seasons is easily my most-played release from 2023. I’m not ashamed to admit that my favourite Metallica era is the much-maligned 90’s, post-Black Album, Load and Reload hard rock period - including the Mission: Impossible II Soundtrack! Partly because of the fact that it annoys proper metalheads when I say I prefer the dense chugging along and bluesy jamming to the complex solos and pretentious arrangements on Master of Puppets or ...And Justice for All.
I like St. Anger even more (snare sound aside - obviously) and everything since, as they found their groove making songs with massive stadium-filling hooks alongside driving riffs that change direction at the pace of their benchmark thrash metal debut. The founding Metallica members were apparently just 72 seasons old when they got together to make ‘Kill ‘Em All’, still nodding to it (like we all do) by recycling 'Whiplash''s lyric “full speed or nothing” on this campaign’s lead track ‘Lux Æterna’.
Closer to 72 years old now, (even their longest-serving bassist - still the “new kid” after two decades in the band!) they’ve nailed their colours to this truck stop with all of my favourite components and, fuelled by 72 Seasons, I’m more than happy to charge down the motorway to see them in a field every few years. Providing almost as much catharsis as writing the lyrics does for James Hetfield, it’s a purifying experience to clear the mind with a mosh to this album turned up stupidly loud. I don’t believe anyone ever criticised the likes of AC/DC for being the best at what they do without veering off-road, so no one should criticise 'Tallica either.
Killer Mike – MICHAEL (Buy Here)
My second most-played new album of the year so far has been the Black Thought & El Michels Affair’s collaboration Glorious Game but I can’t think of much more than “very cool” to say about the GOAT technical rapper reminiscing over throwback funk and soul jams with the group that gave us Enter The 37th Chamber. Plus he won my end-of-year list last year with Cheat Codes!
Therefore, I’m going with Killer Mike’s first solo record for over a decade as it’s been playing at my desk for a week, freshly released. The distinct deep drawl of one half of Run The Jewels has made an album both lyrically poignant and powerfully personal, while retaining plenty of snap and swagger, particularly across Dungeon Family reunions with guest spots from Cee-Lo, André 3000, Future and more. For a change, only one of these rich tracks is produced by rapping partner El-P, the gallery of producers serving soulful hooks from gospel choirs, organs, and Southern-fried bass licks. It's a solid collection so far, revealing more of both Killer Mike’s musicality and background with each listen; I just caught the Curtis Mayfield ‘We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue’ sample on the opener. Pollictally-speaking, that may be what we have come to expect from the Atlanta activist but on MICHAEL he leans more into raw reflection than RTJ rage.