The best things I heard, read, and saw in 2023*

*because things that came out this year are not necessarily more interesting to me than things that came out in previous years.


MUSIC

Slow, Deep, and Hard & World Coming Down by Type O Negative (1991, 1999)

Though these two facts are not necessarily related, it nevertheless remains true that I spent much of 2023 feeling bad and listening to metal. My biggest metal discovery this year was Type O Negative, whose huge, bold, incessantly catchy sound was the soundtrack to many of my subway rides and moonlit walks. They were a quintessentially New York band—hearing Classon Avenue shouted out on “Xero Tolerance” while walking down Classon Avenue was thrilling, as was hearing songs about Red Hook, the D train, and Brighton Beach, and forming perfect pictures of those places in my mind. But I would be remiss to not point out that the beating heart of Type O Negative was Peter Steele, and the enormity of his anger and pain. The biggest hooks on songs like “Everyone I Love is Dead” and “Everything Dies” are just Steele exclaiming “Goddamnit,” or “Oh god, I miss you,” unguarded and brutally honest expressions of his self-loathing and grief. When Peter Steele died in 2010 I was in New Haven at an All That Remains concert, and word passed through the crowd like a curl of smoke: “Did you hear? Peter Steele just died.” Now, 13 years later, I know why that news was so important to share.

Born in the U.S.A. by Bruce Springsteen (1984)

Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits were each viewed as successors to Bob Dylan in the 1970s, and while the two men were never anything but friendly and congenial to one another, that didn’t stop me from being a Waits partisan in my adolescence. My position was bolstered by the fact that they went down drastically different paths in the 80s—Springsteen became a blockbuster hit machine, and Waits went deeper and darker, obeying an obscure, personal muse. Waits even put himself in opposition to his contemporaries in some ways; the thoroughly organic sound of his 1985 album Rain Dogs was a response to the new wave influences Springsteen and others were adopting at the time. So, as a Waits partisan who had heard the repetitive, jingle-like melody of “Born in the U.S.A.” a few too many times, I felt confident writing off the album from which it came. What a mistake! Despite its glossy sound, Born in the U.S.A. is a powerful statement of skepticism and alienation, sharing much of its songwriting DNA with the dissonant Nebraska, the no wave/outlaw country-tinged Springsteen album which preceded it (in fact, some of the songs on Born in the U.S.A. were originally written for Nebraska). Songs like “I’m On Fire,” “Downbound Train,” and “Working on the Highway” use sounds from country rock and rockabilly in fresh and slightly subversive ways, and as far as heart-palpitating, pop rock anthems to sing in the bathroom mirror go, there are few better than the utterly perfect “Dancing in the Dark.”

If Born in the U.S.A. has any major flaw, it’s its strange sequencing, with tonally heterogeneous singles like the disco-influenced “Cover Me” up front, and “Dancing in the Dark” filed all the way to the back. Luckily for us, I resequenced the album, and I think my choices make a lot of sense!

Welcome to Hell by Venom (1981)

If someone were to ask you to name the most raw, fundamental, stripped-down rock music you could think of, what would you say? Howlin’ Wolf? Early Rolling Stones? 70s punk? For me, I would say it’s Venom, the early-80s British metal group that took Judas Priest-esque speed metal to its absolute limits, predicting thrash metal and black metal in the process. Welcome to Hell is as grimy, vicious, and lo-fi as anything you’ll find from this period, and sits squarely at the crossroads of old school metal and extreme metal. Its shouted choruses and buzzsaw riffs are relentlessly catchy, and its smirking homage to Satanism is gleefully anti-social. Frontman Conrad “Cronos” Lant sounds like he has a huge, shit-eating grin on his face as he chokes out lyrics like “Look out, beware, when the full moon’s high and bright / In every way, I’m there, in every shadow in the night,” and if you go in for that kind of stuff, it’s hard not to join him.

Alfonso X El Sabio’s Cantigas de Santa Maria by Ensemble Unicorn (1995)

Alfonso X of Castile was a 13th Century king of what is now called Spain. In his patronage of art and learning and in his election of Jews, Muslims, and women to prominent places in his court he predicted the Renaissance and was known as “El Sabio”—or, The Wise. He was also a composer of lyric poetry with string accompaniment, and his compositions have a rustic, acoustic sound that often feels more related to traditional folk balladry than to what we think of as classical music. It’s possible to be really transported somewhere by focusing on the swooning, old world romanticism of these simple compositions.

Wu-Tang Forever by Wu-Tang Clan (1997)

2023 was celebrated not only as the 50th anniversary of hip hop, but also as the 30th anniversary of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), one of the greatest albums of all time. It was the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album, and Wu-Tang Forever was their follow-up four years later. A lot had happened for them in the interim. Method Man’s ascent into superstardom created friction within the group, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s issues with drugs and the law not only continued but seemed to accelerate, and overlooked members like U-God and Masta Killa still struggled to break through and stake out their own artistic identities from under the shadow of the group’s more colorful members. There was a lot going on behind the scenes, and while the overabundant nature of this long, eclectic double album doesn’t exactly indicate intragroup harmony, there are moments of pure genius. Ghostface Killah’s verse on “Impossible” is an in-character narration of a man finding their friend shot dead, and it’s one of the greatest and most powerful in the group’s catalogue.

Call an ambulance, Jamie been shot
Word to Kimmy, don’t go, son, nigga, you my motherfucking heart
Stay still, son, don’t move, just think about Keeba
She’ll be three in January, your young God needs ya

And even if there are occasional hints of discord, there’s also evidence that they were working at the height of their potential. Opening track “Reunited” is thrilling in its verve of pent-up energy finally released, and a beautiful reminder that many members of the Clan were family related by blood, mutually supporting each other by the group’s success. In that milieu, even the troubled O.D.B. comes up with a great verse that invokes his pride for his family and his Blackness.

My name Black. You worms wanna play in my dirt?
Bitch, stop, my Momma serve free lunch from the church

Honorable mentions: Watching From a Distance by Warning, Horsey by Current 93, Black Sabbath & Vol. 4 by Black Sabbath, Horndog Fest by The Dirtbombs, The Smiling Stranger in Bremen by John Martyn


BOOKS

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

The shapeshifting nobleman with eyes like drenched violets spoke to me in the first months of 2023. When I first attempted to read this book in college I approached it largely from the lens of gender. In my little Bloomsbury Classics hardcover (an art object in itself) I found dutiful 2014 underlining of phrases about “fashion served to disguise the sex” and so on. Orlando certainly is about that, but it’s also about having the strength of character to argue for your own irreducible virtues no matter where you are or who you’re with, the same way that Melville injuncts us to “retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own.”

Radio Benjamin by Walter Benjamin

A collection of the short essays and plays Walter Benjamin prepared for a children’s radio hour from 1927 to 1933. Much like Apollinaire before him, Benjamin is concerned with “all the little episodes that are outside the main current of history but that give history its flavor.” His introductory paragraph to an essay on the Faust legend serves as a perfect encapsulation of this philosophy:

And so, in treating children to pocket histories on Kaspar Hauser, Cagliostro, robber bands in old Germany, the tradition of puppetry in Berlin public squares, and tall tales about dogs (including the Boot Dog, the Coach Poodle, and the Death Hound), Benjamin becomes for us the third teacher, who is less preoccupied with the forces that make the world turn, and more interested in the little bot mots that make life worth living.

Devil House by John Darnielle

In an unexpected turn of events, John Darnielle (centerpiece of indie folk group The Mountain Goats) has become my favorite contemporary writer of mystery and horror fiction. Where Wolf in White Van took tabletop RPGs as its theme, and Universal Harvester aped the aesthetics of found footage horror, Devil House is a rumination on the true crime genre, a wing of the entertainment industry that has always seemed to me at least a little morally suspect. Darnielle recognizes that, and has produced a twisting and turning novel of gothic suburbiana so close to home you can close your eyes and enter it. An astonishing surprise in the last chapter turns the whole marvelous thing on its head.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Yep, I’m real late on this one, but I’m really glad I got around to it. Coates is an unbelievably good prose stylist: phrases like “I am tied to old ways, which I learned in a hard house” and “they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold” bleed on the page. Just as powerful is his account of being a teenager and finally recognizing education as a portal to things that are rejuvenative, noble, and everlasting, a realization he only reached once at Howard University, which he depicts in such glowing tones as to feel like the Garden of Eden. “We have made something down here,” he states in the book’s final chapter, and in reflecting on the phrase “down here,” one thinks of fallen Lucifer, who lost his place in Heaven and had to make due on earth. We too are trapped on the decaying and tumultuous earth, but what we make is up to us.

Serendipities & Chronicles of a Liquid Society by Umberto Eco

One of Eco’s most impressive talents was his ability to modulate his style to fit his audience and his subject matter. In these two books of essays, he takes on subjects as academic and arcane as Dante’s search for the Biblical “Adamic language” spoken by all mankind before God struck Babel with the confusion of tongues, and as colloquial and informal as his attempt to claim an email address under his own name only to find that someone else had already staked it out (should the revered semiotician stoop so low as to take up the handle umberto_eco2@hotmail.com?) No matter how imperative or unimperative the topic is, Eco treats it with wisdom, amusement, and friendly, gentle befuddlement. Reading Eco is like spending time in the home of a warm, garrulous professor, who generously keeps refilling your glass of wine.

Honorable mentions: Les onze mille verges by Guillaume Apollinaire, Jitney & King Hedley II by August Wilson, Bartleby & Billy Budd by Herman Melville, The Skriker & Seven Jewish Children by Caryl Churchill


MOVIES

A Room with a View (dir. James Ivory, 1985)

In watching this movie with my father over the summer, I was reminded of the oft-repeated fact that in ages past peasants went to church partly because it was the only place they would get to see fine art in their daily lives. So too is A Room with a View, the sumptuous adaptation of the E. M. Forster novel, presently the nearest I can get to sun-dappled Florence and cozy Surrey.

Special performances abound, such as rakish, mercurial suitor George Emerson, played by Julian Sands (who in 2023 was sadly lost in the wilderness while on a climbing expedition), and 28-year-old Daniel Day-Lewis as Cecil Vyse, the fop to end all fops. This is the closest Day-Lewis ever got to pure comedy, and Cecil Vyse’s grimaces and affectations are certainly hilarious, but his pitiable fate upon being rejected by Helena Bonham Carter’s Lucy Honeychurch is pure, crestfallen drama of the kind for which he would become famous.

Mad God (dir. Phil Tippett, 2021)

Phil Tippett’s long-gestating stop-motion animation is a Dantean descent into Hell, and one of the purest expressions of cosmic horror committed to film. Visions of all varieties of goblinesque monsters and terrifying behemoths abound, and it’s far better to see them in action than to simply see them in any screenshot I could provide. Yet despite the film’s obvious grotesquery, when I finished watching it I was not primarily giddy or squirmy or grossed out, but was instead infused with a silent and reverent awe for the unfathomable infinitudes of creation and destruction, much as one might be upon seeing a painting from the High Renaissance.

Red Spirit Lake (dir. Charles Pinion, 1993)

This rather rare straight-to-video horror flick had long been on my list of priorities—if only I could find a way to see it! Thankfully, Brooklyn’s Spectacle Theater presented screenings of the film timed for Halloween, and the wait was worth it. A gory, sexy, wintry horror-comedy about a young woman moving into an inherited mountain cabin and contending with the strange locals, enterprising criminals, and spectral witches who want her ancestral home for themselves, Red Spirit Lake feels in some ways self-consciously Lynchian, but when it’s firing on all cylinders with its industrial rock soundtrack, its jaundiced Gen X humor, and its flashy, softcore flirtatiousness, it’s an easy sin to forgive.

Poor Things (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, 2023)

Lanthimos’s newest film, five times stranger than the already-strange The Favourite, is equally interested in the aesthetics and effects of both biology and psychology, which is entirely appropriate for a film that makes a point of simultaneously tracking its bizarre protagonist’s education in both walking in a straight line and performing fellatio. The unrepentant, uncategorizable strangeness of this film, so imbued in 19th Century science-fiction and many other disparate and elusive things as well, is a thing to adore. Emma Stone continues to be one of the most exciting and surprising leading actors in the field.

Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974 (dir. Kazuo Hara, 1974)

In 1974, documentarian Kazuo Hara’s wife Miyuki Takeda left him and took their child. Takeda no longer wanted to be with Hara, but, with considerable reluctance, she consented for a documentary to be made about her life. Throughout, Hara’s narration is halting, muted, and self-effacing, as if he wishes to apologize in some way for committing such a naked act of heartbreak to film. But his guilelessness is profound, and almost tragic. “The only way to stay connected with her was to make this film,” he states over a series of black and white photos of Takeda and their child. “I rolled a camera because I wanted to see her.”

Miyuki Takeda is a strange person, and not entirely pleasant. She is prickly and free-spirited, and the passive, impartial nature of Hara’s camera captures her engaging in all sorts of venomous, incomprehensible quarrels with the procession of lovers she takes after leaving Hara. But as the film goes on you begin to begrudgingly adopt Hara’s admiration for this utterly unique and unapologetically strong woman, especially as you watch the revelatory, unedited footage of Takeda delivering her own child on the floor of her apartment’s living room.

Honorable mentions: Prom (dirs. Martin Bell & Mary Ellen Mark, 2010), Archangel (dir. Guy Maddin, 1990), You Hurt My Feelings (dir. Nicole Holofcener, 2023), Supermarket Woman (dir. Juzo Itami, 1996), Kagemusha (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1980)


ALSO…

Kara Gordon’s plays Teeth & The Pool

I saw two plays by writer-actor-director Kara Gordon this year, and was truly invigorated by her dystopian visions of weird, despairing sex and desire. With pitch-perfect nimbleness, Teeth and The Pool approach the precipice of science-fiction and horror, only to then pull back, reminding us that our actuals lives give us plenty of opportunities to encounter the uncanny, where abyssal dangers hide in the everyday and the mundane. Kara represents an exciting new voice that I’m keeping track of.

TrueAnon

One of the many post-2016 left-wing political humor podcasts, TrueAnon distinguished itself this year with a series of excellent long-form interviews with some of our greatest contemporary thinkers. Hosts Liz and Brace captured Norman Finkelstein, William T. Vollmann, Douglas Rushkoff, and others in notably unguarded, personal discussions of AI, Israel and Palestine, homelessness, and other of the day’s most important issues. When I sought cultural commentary that cut straight to the heart of the matter in 2023, I went to TrueAnon.

More of my art writing:

The Boy and the Heron (dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 2023)
Little Songs by Colter Wall (2023)
Walking Tunes of the Valley Mourners
by Nahadoth (2023)
Bells, Boots and Shambles by Spirogyra (1973)
Billy Budd, Sailor by Herman Melville
Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray
Falstaff by Robert Nye
Sorcerer’s Son by Phillys Eisenstein
 Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition by B. R. Burg

And that’s about that. 2023 was honestly not very good for me, but I have faith that 2024 will be better.
—Matthew.

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