Finding new music became really important to me during the pandemic lockdown. Listening to music, collecting music – none of it was simply about finding comfort in familiar melodies, lyrics, and instrumental passages anymore; I craved something fresh. For this, I credit the Beths, a band of New Zealanders whose song “Dying to Believe” had come up on one or another of my strolls through YouTube. It’s a great song – a souped-up, ticky-ticky rhythm and scrumptious guitar hook, with a singer in Elizabeth Stokes who sounded simultaneously bored by the information she was sharing and incredibly excited to be sharing it.

This was 2020, and I ordered the Beths’ then-new second album, Jump Rope Gazers, from a store on Discogs, and was knocked sideways by the upper-echelon indie pop the band peddled. The title track, in particular, became a song I wanted to hear all the time – Stokes bounces between sounding wistful, pained, surprised and happy, and the chorus describes the evolution of a love that is newly discovered, after hiding in plain sight (“And I – I think I loved you / And I think that I loved you the whole time / How could this happen?”). A universally recognized sentiment, couched in an extraordinary tune.

I had forgotten how much discovery had meant to me. To this day, I rarely go to see live performances (thanks to a combination of mild agoraphobia and extreme misanthropy), so the yields of any discovery take the form, as ever, of the the spinning black circles I amass. Sometimes I feel like I need to give myself permission to get lost in new music, making a new acquaintance with the drop of a needle. Each time I do this, though, I recognize its necessity; I feel like some aeronautic explorer, reentering the atmosphere, my mind and soul reacclimating to a memory, or feeling some emotional gravity anew.

After my experience with the Beths, I wanted to hear more new things, more new sounds. My inbox seemed to have no shortage of material someone, somewhere wanted me to check out. I’d also do deep dives on streaming service’s playlists; read articles in Paste, the New York Times, and other outlets that published weekly song and album roundups; I went on YouTube safaris; I performed searches on social media sites, found cool and interesting tracks and artists, and even checked out the comments on posts, which sometimes contained mentions of other cool and interesting tracks and artists. None of these approaches are particularly novel (and some might say there’s algorithmic dodginess afoot in the gatekeeping), but I embraced them, listened whenever I could, bought the vinyl when something made an impression.

I kept on, even after the COVID sequestration ended. 2023 was something of a motherlode – I fell in love with a stack of records as good as any I’d heard in years. Lemon Twigs’ Everything Harmony and Rat Saw God by Wednesday were the two I listened to most often – the former a great bundle of harmony and gorgeous power pop, the latter a collection of catchy (and very loud) punk Americana songs I imagine will be discovered and rediscovered for a long time. Elsewhere, the post-grunge noise present on Bully’s Lucky for You was a mid-year favorite, as were the sad-girl alternative rock of Blondshell’s self-titled record and the Cable Ties’ energetic retro-punk on their third album, All Her Plans.

Amber Bain might have been my favorite pop artist of the year, though her sophomore album as The Japanese House, In the End It Always Does, was nowhere to be found on pop radio, not to mention the pop charts. The quasi-supergroup Boygenius  could be found there, though, as the combined fans of Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus scooped up and/or streamed The Record in droves. And with good reason, too  – it’s a terrific album. Would that similar attention been given to Joseph, a ten-year-old folk-pop sister act whose spring album The Sun was chock-full of anthems that soundtracked many a drive in ye olde Robmobile.

Each of these artists had made records before (Blondshell’s Sabrina Teitelbaum had previously recorded under a different name), but with the exception of the individual members of Boygenius, I was unfamiliar with any of them. That Bully and Lemon Twigs had each made three albums previously, or that Rat Saw God was Wednesday’s fifth record, and all had escaped my attention, speaks to the unfathomable breadth and depth of music being recorded and distributed, to say nothing of the value of such resources as Paste and the popular streaming services’ playlists, however they’re compiled. Complain about them if you will; I’m grateful for whatever tool or code that brought those albums to my attention, and, eventually, to whichever retailers that helped me bring them to my turntable.

And I haven’t even mentioned the 2023 records by artists I love. Wilco’s Cousin was one I predictably played repeatedly, as was This Stupid World, the excellently named record from Yo La Tengo that came out early in the year. Quasi returned for the first time in a decade with Breaking the Balls of History, and its title track was possibly the best minute-plus blast of rock ‘n’ roll I heard all year (play it five times in a row, and you have the six best minutes of rock ‘n’ roll the year had to offer). With Public Image Ltd.’s excellent End of World, John Lydon seeped back into my consciousness, like groundwater through cracks in a basement, only much more welcome. And though I didn’t get to listen to Mitski’s The Land is Inhospitable and So Are We until late in the year, the intimacy and quietude of her songs have grown on me, much as the synth-pop moves of her previous album had, over time.

It was a good year. For music, at least, it was a good year.

I’m up for more great sounds in 2024 – new stuff, old stuff, whatever. When I hear them – when the music creates or awakens a strong impression in me – I’m going to share them with however many of you want to tag along. These diaries have more empty pages to fill.

About the Author

Rob Smith

Rob Smith is a writer, teacher, wage earner, and all-around evil genius who spends most of his time holed up in his cluttered compound in central PA. His favorite color is ultramarine blue. His imaginary band The Dukes of Rexmont tours every summer.

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