6 Jan 2024

The Sampler: The best international albums of 2023

From The Sampler, 2:00 pm on 6 January 2024

Photo: Reuben Bastienne-Lewis

Tony Stamp reflects on 10 of his favourite international releases from the past year, including Britpop band Blur's The Ballad of Darren, African folk, UK ambient, and Australian punk.

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The Ballad of Darren by Blur

A second Blur reunion, after their first in 2009, seemed unlikely. But in late 2022 the band announced they’d be performing at Wembley Stadium, and around six months later released the first single from their first album in eight years, The Ballad of Darren

Their previous two, Think Tank, and The Magic Whip, were marked by the absence of guitarist Graham Coxon, and a rushed gestation, respectively. This one really does feel like a late-career return to form; the album might not be one of their best, but some of its songs certainly are.

Albarn had split from his partner of 25 years, and there are lyrics throughout alluding to this, but the persistent undercurrent of wistfulness on The Ballad of Darren feels more about age-related ennui.

In 2023, presumed wealth aside, Blur feel much more put-upon than they used to, with various addictions in the rear view, and a lot of hard won wisdom. The best thing I can say about the album is that its music reflects that.

DREAMER by Nabihah Iqbal

Nabihah Iqbal’s path to full-time music was atypical - she was a lawyer working in human rights, while also DJing parties and posting her own tracks to Soundcloud, which led to German DJ Kassem Mosse signing her to his label. Around the same time, she started a show on NTS radio, which draws on her undergraduate studies in Ethnomusicology.

Her second album Dreamer runs the gamut from psychedelic guitar-scapes, to new wave synths, and straight-up dance music, all tied together by her vocal delivery, which is usually spoken word.

In interviews Iqbal will cite poets like William Blake and Keats, or the painter Henri Rousseau as direct influences on her work. Spoken word has had something of a renaissance in the UK in recent years, but Iqbal's music is more urgent, and more earnest than many of her peers, and all the more compelling for it.

The Greater Wings by Julie Byrne

New York-born singer-songwriter Julie Byrne continued to blur the boundaries between ambient and folk music on her second album. Like her previous work the songs often feature picked acoustic guitar at their heart, but synths and strings were common here too, and between her patient songwriting and specific tone of voice, atmosphere was as important as any chord structure. 

Byrne worked with Alex Somers, a producer known for his work with Sigur Ros, and his sense of space wound up being a great match. The songs feel huge while staying intimate. They’re also often achingly sad, but balanced with a vein of hope that runs through each one. 

Come Back to Me by Peter One

In 1985, two musicians from West Africa’s Ivory Coast released an album that would go on to have a long life. Our Garden Needs Its Flowers merged African and French pop with American folk and country influences, and propelled its creators Peter One and Jess Sah Bi to fame in their native country.

Peter One emigrated to America, where he’s been working as a nurse for the past 30 years. And in 2023, aged 67, he released his first solo album, infused with the wisdom and weariness he’d acquired in the nearly 40 years since he last released music.

The title Come Back to Me could be read as a message to fans. Its music is frequently cheery, and sometimes, as on ‘Ejie’, sparse and spine-tingling. It’s a collection that’s quietly revelatory, and consistently comforting.

Bolted by Forest Swords

UK producer Forest Swords’ latest is his darkest, most claustrophobic work yet. A few listens in though, it becomes apparent that Matthew Barnes’ gift for melody is still present amongst the harsh industrial sounds, and his work is still thrilling for the simple fact that no one else on the planet is making music quite like this.

In each track Barnes builds up percussive assaults, then throws in a big, bold melody as a kind of lifeline. He’s composed music for ballet, film, and video games, and it’s easy to see how he’d be in demand: the mood on these tracks is consistently dour, but undeniably dramatic.

STRUGGLER by Genesis Owusu

The second album from Australian musician Genesis Owusu is a kaleidoscopic meld of styles, shot through with urgency, unexpected melodies, and the whole spectrum of human emotion.

It’s music with a cheerful disregard for genre, melding punk with hip-hop on ‘Stay Blessed’, and peeling through myriad others over the course of the album. 

In a press release, Owusu said Struggler is set in “an absurd world with no 'where' or 'why' at hand. Just an instinctual inner rhythm, yelling at you to survive”. There are references to Waiting For Godot, Sodom and Gomorrah, and Gregor Samsa, the character who wakes up as a roach in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

These layers unveil themselves after multiple listens, but the buzz I got from every emphatic statement, expert melody, or vocal vamping, kept this sounding fresh.

Secret Measure by Cloth

Hailing from Glasgow, Cloth released their debut album in 2019, with an aesthetic that transferred to their second: Rachael Swinton’s voice barely rises above a whisper, while her brother Paul’s guitar provides crisp accompaniment. Other elements like real and programmed drums are tastefully curated. It’s a sound defined by its big empty spaces, like each track was pared back to its essential elements.

Both siblings acknowledge Cocteau Twins as an obvious influence, and it’s hard to escape more recent ones like The xx. Regardless, their lean into pop structures, compared to their debut, yields ample rewards. Their music swells with feeling, at its best on moments like the yearning, lush chorus at the heart of ‘Never Know’. 

I Am the River, The River is Me by Jen Cloher

Jen Cloher writes songs that feel like old friends by the time you come to a second listen, and on their latest album, they’re invested with deep thought about environmentalism, identity, their Māori lineage, and the way these things intersect. 

Fittingly the album was made between Aotearoa and Australia, with local musicians Te Kaahu and Ruby Solly contributing, as well as Cass Basil and Tom Healy from Tiny Ruins.

Cloher tackles things like colonisation, and the treatment of indigenous populations, and does it in the most generous way possible, suggesting a path forward while acknowledging the past.

When speaking with The Guardian, they brought up the Māori word kaitiaki (caretaker) in terms of tending to the land and sea, saying “You’re not separate, you’re part of it, and that’s an invitation for all of humanity.”

Heavy Heavy by Young Fathers

Every new LP by this Glasgow trio is cause for celebration, and their latest was as infectious and effervescent as ever. Each song merges too many genres to mention, does it effortlessly, and is invested with the kind of enthusiasm and passion it’s impossible to fake.

Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole and Graham Hastings speak, rap, croon and belt out impassioned melodies, stuffing each song with memorable hooks. Their live show in Auckland remains one of the best I’ve seen, even though it was just the trio singing over pre-recorded backing tracks. They gave every bit of energy they had to entertain a small club, and they’re still able to invest their recordings with the same potency.

Lore by Robin Saville

Robin Saville’s solo work, outside his group Isan, is sparse and gentle, fond of delicate sounds like glockenspiel and chimes. Saville describes himself as an ‘avid ambler’, and this love of walking helps define the album. Field recordings are threaded throughout, highlighting a love of birdsong, and the change of seasons in Britain.

Lore is a pretty album, with a melancholy undercurrent. In the liner notes, Robin Saville explains that some of the sounds captured on the record won’t happen in the same way again, as some areas have been marked for development. 

He says: “The recordings therefore become part of the history of that place: the lore”.