It would have been easy for us to pack our Top Ten Albums of 2023 with works of modern composition, as the field is so fertile at this time of year. Suffice it to say that the overall quality level is higher here this winter than in any other genre. This year many big names are returning, while promising young stars are producing defining works and brand new artists are making their debuts. We know it’s early, but so far this new year is looking and sounding spectacular!
Some of the albums listed below are actually spring releases, as artists are already looking forward to warmer weather while hoping to receive their vinyl records on time. We like to reward early publicity, so we’ll be listing these albums again in three months!
Our cover image is taken from Eldbjørg Hemsing & Arctic Philharmonic’s Arctic on Sony Classical.
We became enamored with Polish cellist Dobrawa Czocher when we heard Inner Symphonies, recorded with Hania Rani; and again on 2021’s Winter Tales. Czocher’s solo debut Dreamscapes cements our initial impression, gorgeous and elegant from beginning to end (Modern Recordings, January 23). Czocher is reunited with her friend on two tracks found on On Giacometti, Hania Rani‘s score to a documentary on the famed artist. The music was composed during a snowy winter in the Swiss mountains, lending some seasonal authenticity (Gondwana, February 17).
French pianist Ô Lake is pulling out all the stops on Still, employing a 40-piece string orchestra while leaving ample space for more intimate settings. The album cover is as lovely as the music within, a blanket for the cold winter months (Patchrock/Night Night, March 3). Our love for winter music drew us to Arctic, the upcoming album from Eldbjørg Hemsing and Arctic Philharmonic. The violinist channels the work of composers old and new in an ode to winter, from bitter cold to early spring melt. We predict an appearance on our Best Winter Music chart! (Sony Classical, February 3).
It’s pretty bold to launch an album with an eleven-minute single, but sometimes a shorter track just won’t do. Cicada leaves time for development, and reflects the nature of a hike, Seeking the Sources of Streams. The Taiwanese band specializes in sweet, nature-based compositions, and their new album brings us back to their (literal) roots (flau, January 6). William Ryan Fritch returns with Polarity, the first installment in a three-album series about the global water crisis. The music is dark and calamitous, as one might expect from the subject matter (January 13).
When a superstar returns with a big orange concept album and guest stars that include Golden Retriever, the Budapest Scoring Orchestra and members of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, we sit up and take notice. (Whirring Marvels In) Consensus Reality is bound to be one of the year’s top albums, the only caveat being that it’s not a winter release; Eluvium will unveil this masterpiece on May 12. Look for it again in our Spring Music Preview (Temporary Residence). The same holds true for Montreal harpist Sarah Pagé, whose multi-layered Voda is set for release on May 1. The album explores concepts of human mortality through the lens of the jellyfish, as demonstrated in the cover art (Backward Music).
Tvärvägen‘s A Great Circle Route is a wonderful outlier in the field, centered around a trilogy of compositions for saxophone quartet. Electronics and electric guitar come into play on the other pieces, completing a meditation on the cyclical, the circular and the sea (Hare Tracks, January 27). Ben McElroy & A Spot on the Hill sent music to each other across the Atlantic, molding piano, strings and clarinet into a meditative album. The Slow Music Movement Label makes a perfect home for Everything Was Different Yesterday, which traverses the porous borders of ambience and modern composition (March 8). Inspired by the art of Francis Vanhees, Matterhorn Well composed Sketches for Francis, a series of long, immersive works for cello and Rhodes. The mood is dark, the fascination level high ~ like staring at great art through the ears (Icarus Records, January 15).
Ryuichi Sakamoto‘s 12 contains a series of sketches composed during the composer’s ongoing battle with cancer: a bittersweet collection that nonetheless whispers hope. This is the artist’s first non-soundtrack work in years, a personal glimpse at a brilliant mind (Milan, January 17 – his 71st birthday). Piano and electronics decorate two extended works from Neal Rolnick, one composed during pandemic isolation, the other one a meditation on his wife’s battle with cancer. Lockdown Fantasies is packed with emotion, but is far more upbeat than one might expect given the subject matter (Other Minds, January 13). After completing a piano trilogy, Henrik Lindstrand chose to broaden his sound, enlisting a 16-piece string orchestra. Klangland is subtle, yet lush, spacious, yet full, an inviting suite (One Little Independent, January 29).
Bigo & Twigetti has two releases set for January 6. The first is an EP from Bluestem titled Enduring, a fair word for a new year and an exercise in restraint (January 6). The other is Paths, an expansive album from Wilson Trouvé (Monochromie), stretching from piano into luscious clouds of strings. Written in the 1970s for four pianos, Casto Ostinato takes the music of Simeon ten Holt in spacious new directions. Erik Hall inserts electric piano and organ, multitracking for maximal effect. This is the second in a series, arriving on the heels of a Steve Reich celebration (Western Vinyl, February 23).
Benjamin Gordon Cooper composed Virgin Stone as a soundtrack, although there is no film; one will have to imagine the cast and plot. The art and title imply a church setting (January 13). Lo.Flynn‘s tender piano decorates Helios, a lovely new EP led by the single Wildflowers: a foretaste of spring in the heart of winter (Télès Music, January 27). Looking very much like spring (if not summer) is Without Night, the debut album from pianist Christina Galisatus. The arrangements are fleshed out by clarinet, tenor sax, guitar, bass and drums, giving the record a jazzy feel. While much of the set is wordless, the occasional lyrics reflect a personal journey (Slow & Steady Records, January 27).