Have Yourself a Quiet New Year | Paul Ashby

quiet new year

Words and Photos by Paul Ashby

Niecy Blues Exit Simulation (Kranky US)

I can’t recall ever calling anything “Album of the Year.” It’s a new thing with me.

Although potential competition may have seemed significant, no other 2023 recording was this organic, spontaneous, stripped down, or ethereal. Blues blends gospel and soul roots with a quiet R&B vibe, and leavens the mix with otherworldly multitracked vocals that verge on the spectral.

The ghostly, amorphous sound of Exit Simulation is a mysterious joy, perfect for foggy winter evenings.

[Disclosure: I do try to keep up, but the only reason I know of this release is Loscil’s best of 2023 list for HHV.]


Virginia Astley The Singing Places (self-released, UK)

My friend and colleague Mike Toppe pointed out this Pitchfork review recently.

As a fan of her 1983 masterpiece From Gardens Where We Feel Secure, I’m abashed to state I was oblivious to the fact Virginia Astley was still making music. The Singing Places is a fitting followup, and each of its bucolic 26 minutes make it seem like the past forty years never happened (call me sentimental, but that’s meant as a compliment).

Slow-paced, instrumental, with field recordings of running water, wind in the trees, and birds, this is like sitting on a blanket in a meadow near the beach and turning off your brain for a half hour. And who doesn’t need to do that more often?


Dorothy Carter Wailee Waillee (Palto Flats, US)

An essential archive reissue of the 1978 private-press release. Carter’s hammered dulcimer ragas are entrancing and unique even now, and must’ve wowed the wow-able of the underground realm in the late 70s. Celtic music is a keystone, as is psychedelia, and Appalachian folk. Fans of Dead Can Dance’s early-90s albums will love the moods here, but the expansive ground covered by Carter renders comparison feeble. This is a left-field masterpiece that deserves more appreciation.


Julia Gjertsen Formations (Moderna, Canada) (2022)

Cheating a tad here, as this is from 2022. Gjertsen’s approach owes a bit to some of Roedelius’s more pastoral works — Lustwandel, Jardin au Fou, and early Selbstportraits, in particular. Formations is all-instrumental; the muted keyboards (based around an upright piano) and subtle effects ideally complement the compositions. Formations succeeds as background ambience, as well as being suited for more active listening. I’ve been playing it periodically as I drift off to sleep, and it also makes wonderful Sunday-morning listening.


Julia Gjertsen & Juha Mäki Patola Dive (Bigo & Twigetti, UK)

As above. Norwegian Julia is joined by Finland native Juha for a lovely (and brief) instrumental keyboard reverie. Sometimes there’s a wordless Harold Budd/Cocteau Twins feel; elsewhere it resembles the melancholy score to a European art film. Each of the four tracks is a discrete, understated delight — especially “When The Birds Start To Leave,” a perfect (and perfectly sad) miniature that could make A Winged Victory for the Sullen weep.


Laurel Halo Axis (Awe, US)

The first release on Halo’s (Laurel Anne Chartow) Awe label, Axis is an ode to ozone. The fuzzy instrumentals are layered with noise, and seem to owe some of their hissy genus to The Caretaker.

The sounds are often so densely mixed as to conceal the sources, lending a potentially confusing air to the whole. To some, it might sound like two or three albums playing at the same time. But sitting back and letting the sound wash over you just amplifies the overall bliss here. One of 2023’s most challenging and rewarding independent releases.


k. leimer

K. Leimer Spall (Palace of Lights, US)

The follow-up to the hard left turn of 2022’s LUYU, Spall is another wedge of disorientingly listenable avant-strangeness from Leimer. Launched by the snowballing minor-key stagger of “Implied Music,” the album explores nomadic moods with track titles like “Aimless Plight,” “Passive Search,” and “In Difficulty.” The sounds aren’t static (although there is static, sometimes); they’re edited, manipulated, re-ordered, and stratified.

Excellent headphone music for those looking for a complex experience. And, perhaps, not the best thing to have on the car stereo in heavy traffic. Your mileage, as always, may vary.

Maybe this was what Laurie Anderson was thinking when she wrote “Difficult Listening Hour”; I find it as easy as it is engrossing to listen to, and am always interested in what’s next from Kerry Leimer.

Anne Müller Heliopause (Erased Tapes, UK) (2019)

Yes, 2019. This album was released four years ago. I was asleep at the headphones and missed it. Mea culpa.

Europe and the US keep producing wonderful cello players who place a high demand on the electronic possibilities of their instrument. Müller melds the experimental with the melodic, and both are the better for the other. Example: the track “Solo? Repeat!”, a classical-based instrumental so gorgeously catchy I keep coming back to it because I’ve almost convinced myself it can’t really be as amazing as it is.

I’ve been playing this album three or four times a week all December 2023. And I’m listing it on my Best of 2023 list because it remains that good.

And the cello remains my favorite stringed instrument, especially when wielded (and processed) by this relentless wave of creative specialists like Hildur Guðnadóttir . . . Clarice Jensen . . . Zoe Keating . . . and Anne Müller.


Daniel O’Sullivan The Physic Garden (VHF, US)

What is library music?

Probably best not to click that link. It might spoil things. Just know that Daniel O’Sullivan’s latest collection of interludes is marvelous. And difficult to describe. It’s not “indie.” It’s not avant-garde, or modern classical. It’s not a lot of the types of music I tend to go bonkers over. But I’m still bonkers enough over this.

Listen and tell me you’ve heard a gathering of tracks before that even remotely resembles the myriad styles and moods here. A non-dilettante grasp on musics that aren’t easy to categorize — that’s The Physic Garden. Brought to you by the esteemed VHF label, who once issued (and forever captured my heart with) a compilation called Stand Up For Art Rock (Because Space Rock Is Over).


Jules Reidy Trances (Shelter Press, France)

Reidy plays a just-intonation-tuned acoustic guitar, woven within a base of various electronics. She also buries glassy, quiet, Autotuned vocals in the mix.

Each “side” (I’m listening to this digitally) is entitled “NON-LINEAR STAGES” and given a series of numbers, although there are only two tracks on the album. The duration of the two tracks and the unusual tuning gives the album a strange, blunted edge. The overall vibe makes me imagine stumbling through a dense forest in twilight, unsure if I’m dreaming.


Ryuichi Sakamoto 12 (Commons, Japan)

Sakamoto’s passing in March 2023 left fans and musicians saddened; tributes were many and impassioned. 12 was Sakamoto’s last work, released mid-January 2023. Performed primarily on piano and Sakamoto’s beloved Prophet 5 synthesizer, its simplicity, depth, and breadth are a wonder.

I’m reluctant to give this album more significance than it deserves. Perhaps the deeper meaning is 12 was intended to be a punctuation mark on a long, varied, artful career. In that context, it’s not easy to listen to.

Sheherazaad “Mashoor” (Erased Tapes, UK)

A sparse, intriguing single from newcomer Sheherazaad, who sings in (I believe) Hindi, accompanied only by percussion and classical guitar. The vocals are beguiling, swooping and swaying through and above the instrumentation. The only thing I’d ask, reluctantly, is a tad less reverb on the vocals.

The Erased Tapes label is promising more material in 2024. I look forward to it, eagerly.


Jason van Wyk Descendants (n5MD, US) (2022)

Instrumental electronics with more than a touch of haze. These are mostly dense, layered tracks with breathy and diffuse structures. “Undoing” is a favorite, featuring a three-note motif that’s capable of triggering acute déjà vu.


Voice Actor Sent From My Telephone (Stroom, Belgium) (2022)

Prepare yourself for four hours and thirty minutes of odd.

The tracks average around two minutes long. Instrumentation is minimal, looped, and lo-fi, with sliced/diced samples veering in and out of the mix; the female vocals are mostly spoken, or sing-sung. The effect is, alternately (and sometimes simultaneously), abrupt, and surreal. Fans of Residents’ Commercial Album could find much to love here, and not just because most the songs are so brief.

It’s just a weird album. And probably harmless.



Teresa Winter Proserpine (Night School, Scotland)

Prosperpine‘s watery environment may come across as unmoored and adrift, but there a method to its apparent lack of anchor. Field recordings are submerged within looped sounds and smudged synth pads, Winter’s oft-wordless vocals floating above — and periodically dipping in amongst — the churn.

Sometimes it recalls Cosey Fanni Tutti’s Time to Tell. This album works your subconscious. In the best possible way, I hope.