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AARP’s Best Albums of 2023 (So Far)

Award-winning music critic Jim Farber shares his top picks for the first half of 2023

Photo Collage: MOA Staff; (Source: Album Photos: Sue Tallon)

We’re only halfway through 2023, but already enough great albums have come out to fill a full year’s top 10. Interestingly, many of those works were created by some of our most seasoned artists, including Paul Simon, John Cale and Taj Mahal, who are all 81. The collections they created, along with the others below, not only offer remarkable music, they prove conclusively that creativity hardly wanes with age. 


Photo Illustration: MOA Staff; (Source: Album Photo: Sue Tallon)

Belle and Sebastian: Late Developers

Those who wonder where all the great pop melodies have gone should spend time with Late Developers (January), the latest by the Scottish indie pop band Belle and Sebastian. In track after track, they blend the R&B flair of ’60s Northern Soul with the fleet sound of Brill Building pop. Better, their lyrics have the detail, character and plot you’d find in a Ray Davies song for The Kinks. It’s the kind of classic pop that never gets old. 


Photo Illustration: MOA Staff; (Source: Album Photo: Sue Tallon)

Everything but the Girl: Fuse

It’s been 24 years since the married duo who comprise Everything but the Girl, Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt, reunited for an album under the group’s name: Fuse (January). Elements of their comeback pick up right where they left off. Again, the album focuses on electronic instruments and honors the wan brand of club music the pair patented in the ’90s. At the same time, their synths have taken on new tones and Thorn’s voice has wondrously aged. It’s deeper in pitch and chestier in texture, lending her even greater character.  The lyrics also reflect their stage of life — they’re both 60 — by expressing a carpe diem urgency. Like all their best recordings, EBTG’s latest has both an intellectual perspective and a sensual sweep.

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Photo Illustration: MOA Staff; (Source: Album Photo: Sue Tallon)

John Cale: Mercy

Most long-running artists start to recycle their sound at a certain point. Not Welsh musician and composer John Cale. In his 80s, he’s still finding new styles to conquer. Over the decades, the founding member of the Velvet Underground has created rock, pop, punk, classical and avant-garde solo albums. His latest, Mercy (January), dives into fresh electronic sounds to create a synth-drenched meditation on our current world. Inspired (or, rather, repelled) by multiple topics — including COVID and Brexit — it’s not always a pretty picture he paints, though he does take time out for some lighter songs covering his relationships with departed stars like David Bowie and Nico. Together, it creates a work with both political and personal resonance.


Photo Illustration: MOA Staff; (Source: Album Photo: Sue Tallon)

Margo Price: Strays

People often try to categorize Margo Price, 40, as a country artist, but Strays (January) makes a mockery of that. Its splashiest tracks roil with trippy production tricks and psychedelic rock guitar (some of it provided by ex-Heartbreaker Mike Campbell). Key inspiration came from the psychedelic mushroom tea Price sipped during the initial part of the album’s creation. From the sound of it, the experience didn’t just free her mind, it also sharpened it. Her song “Been to the Mountain” offers a searing autobiography, while “Lydia” vividly portrays how the health care system discriminates by class. Both sonically and lyrically, the songs conjure a solid sense of place, some of it with clear Nashville roots but more that seems to spring from nowhere but Price’s fertile mind.


Photo Illustration: MOA Staff; (Source: Album Photo: Sue Tallon)

Depeche Mode: Momento Mori

Momento Mori (February), the 15th album by the enduring synth-goth band Depeche Mode features two dramatic firsts: It’s the first since the death of their third member, Andrew Fletcher, and the first time main writer Martin Gore, 61, has penned key songs with someone outside the group — in this case, Richard Butler of the Psychedelic Furs. Unsurprisingly, the loss of Fletcher inspired even more lyrical musings on mortality than usual from this crew. As for the collaboration with Butler, it resulted in some of the most darkly catchy songs the band has released in years. Four decades into their career, DM sounds like they’re just getting started.


Photo Illustration: MOA Staff; (Source: Album: Warp Records; Vinyl: Sue Tallon)

Squid: O Monolith

Fans of prog-rock rejoice! Rather than playing the same old Rush and Yes records for the 9 millionth time, you can dive into great new music from adventurous young bands like black midi and Squid. The former created one of 2022’s most exciting releases, Hellfire. Now, the latter has issued one of 2023’s most challenging works, O Monolith (February). It’s rife with the kind of tricky rhythms, extended song structures, virtuoso musicianship and baffling lyrics fans of the genre adore. Even non-prog listeners may find something here to admire.

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Photo Illustration: MOA Staff; (Source: Album Photo: Sue Tallon)

Eva Cassidy: I Can Only Be Me

On paper, the latest release by Eva Cassidy, I Can Only Be Me (March), sounds like a ghoulish exercise in exploitation. The singer, who died of cancer in 1996 at 33 without achieving a whiff of fame, has gone on to have a monumentally successful posthumous career. Scores of albums have been culled from the work she created during her short life, collectively selling in the multimillions. The latest uses complex new technology to match vintage vocals from older recordings to new arrangements for the London Symphony Orchestra. The result is anything but the Frankensteinian horror show you might imagine. The arrangements created by Christopher Willis pair beautifully with Cassidy’s exquisite vocals, making her old takes on songs like Christine McVie’s Songbird or Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time seem revelatory all over again.


Photo Illustration: MOA Staff; (Source: Album Photo: Sue Tallon)

Paul Simon: Seven Psalms

It’s impossible not to compare the latest work, Seven Psalms (April), by the very much alive Paul Simon, 81, to the final albums by David Bowie (Blackstar) and Leonard Cohen (You Want It Darker). All of them involve great artists assessing life toward its end. Ultimately, though, Seven Psalms brings to mind a very different classic: Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, echoing both its unbroken form and its dreamy allure. For 33 seamless minutes Seven Psalms flows through a mystical stream of acoustic chords and ruminative melodies which Simon delivers in a tone of wondrous pondering. In the music, he’s acting as both searcher and seer, facing death with humor and reverence, fear and grace. His sojourn ends, perhaps, in the only way it can — with a haunting, solemn amen.


Photo Illustration: MOA Staff; (Source: Album Photo: Sue Tallon)

Taj Mahal: Savoy

In his long career, American blues musician Taj Mahal, 81, has made many types of music. While he’s best known for the seminal blues albums he created in the late ’60s that influenced everyone from the Allman Brothers to the Rolling Stones, he has also recorded music that draws on sounds from India to Hawaii. Never before, however, has he made an album that honors the music he first heard as a child — jazz standards spun by his parents in their Harlem home. For Savoy (April), he interpreted classics by artists like Duke Ellington (Mood Indigo) and Louis Jordan (Caledonia). Taj’s vocals highlight all the humor, eros and pathos in the songs. From listening, it’s clear he’s been waiting his whole life to make an album like this.


Photo Illustration: MOA Staff; (Source: Album: Jay-Vee Records; Vinyl: Sue Tallon)

Bettye LaVette: LaVette!

Call Bettye LaVette the Grandma Moses of soul. The singer had a career renaissance in her 60s. Now, at 77, she has created one of her most focused and forceful works. LaVette! (June) pairs her with drummer-producer Steve Jordan (who in 2021 took over Charlie Watts’ drumming spot in the Rolling Stones) and writer Randall Bramblett, who penned every track. LaVette’s no-sense delivery makes the most of the lyrics’ dry wit, while the music pushes her into fresh turf, including the Afrobeat of “Hard to Be a Human.” More than just a singer, LaVette reasserts herself here as a master interpreter. 

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