Onward and upward we go, with the next ten records we found ourselves most impressed by this year. Without meaning to spoil things, this year’s list involved a lot more off-the-record discussion than usual concerning which albums (or artists!) could be considered within the purview of our annual review. We’ll likely get into that a bit on our wrap-up podcast (dropping Friday, rather than the usual Thursday) along with plenty, PLENTY of honorable mentions.
15. Sturm Cafe
Gustav Jansson and Jonatan Löfstedt have been making music as Sturm Cafe name for nearly 20 years at this point, the rough and ready EBM of their earliest releases having progressively given way to smoother sound informed by classic analogue synthpop. Appropriately, 2023’s Zeitgeist is an juxtaposition of musical and political history, and the ways in which those things can be alternately nostalgic and of the moment. Heady stuff in the abstract, but the reality is that you don’t need to know anything about King Gustav of Sweden to jam along to the brassy synths on “V-Gurra”, or be an expert on Europe in the 1800s to tap your toe to the funky bass and drum machine shuffle on “200 år”. It’s the particular wryness that informs Sturm Cafe’s hooks that makes their tunes great, those little winks that allows them to transcend cultural and language barriers. 909 for Emperor! Read our full review.
14. Choke Chain
Mark Trueman’s first Choke Chain LP is the culmination of an evolution from spastic DIY body music to potent new school dark electro, If you come to Choke Chain for the blistering programming and throat shredding vocals, never fear, there’s plenty of that on cuts like “Burial” and “Despair (Misery mix)”. But what stands out on Mortality is how the anxiety and anguished self-excoriation of Trueman’s music ports directly to emotional dark electro climes: the chattering rhythm of “Living this Death” is pure CC, but it’s the pads that underscore the sadness of the open wound performance, just as the snaky electro-industrial of the title track extends naturally from the project’s trademark spleen. The epigram “What you do in life means nothing in death” accompanies the LP, appropriate given the fury with which Choke Chain attacks being alive, holding nothing back for the inevitable finale. Read our full review.
The Demystification Of The Human Heart
Non Ordinary Records
The things that made us miss Neuroticfish during the project’s hiatus have been shown to be in full effect across the now three records Sascha Klein has released since reactivating it. Like its predecessors, The Demystification Of The Human Heart has immediate beats, top shelf production, and most importantly songwriting for days, often touching upon the mutability of relationships in heartfelt and direct manners. While we’ve talked for years about futurepop burnout, nostalgia, and renaissances, a record like The Demystification Of The Human Heart shows that the waxing and waning of genres doesn’t really matter if a songwriter never loses what brought them to the dance. Read our full review.
12. Die Selektion
Zeuge aus Licht
If one of the problems with the current wave of detached, too-cool-to-emote darkwave is its politeness, Die Selektion’s Zeuge aus Licht” offers welcome respite. There’s nothing crass in the shouts and horns that adorn the German trio’s damnably catchy anthems; as their self-applied prosecco wave genre tag suggests, the band is always possessed of a continental sophistication. But there’s a vitality to the material that gives it presence; that jolt of gusto you get when the vocals on “Der Katalog” are suddenly chopped into sampled pieces to signal the song’s move to galloping EBM, or the countless times a plaintive woodwind punches home a chorus, a jouissance sprouting from Neue Deutsch Welle excess and synth punk passion. Die Selektion are forever becoming a more distinct version of themselves with each record as both document and instrument of their passage. Read our full review.
Feel It Records
Completed in exile from his native Ukraine, Alex Ashtaui’s latest record can’t help but communicate a very real, very concrete sense of despair and grief within the hypnotic, otherworldly milieu of his work as Morwan. It’s there in the sparse, windswept twang of “Полетіли” and in the steadily rising rhythmic pressure and emotional tension of “Відчуваеш” Svitaye, Palaye still captures the same intoxicating blend of eastern folk and post-punk music which made Zola-Zemlya one of 2020’s best records, but when it whips into frenzies of raging percussion and howling vocals, the intensity of Ashtau’s music and emotion reaches out across borders and linguistic boundaries. Read our full review.
Surviving The Game
Jeff Cancade’s tapestry of hyperpop, synthpop, and half-forgotten rave tropes feels softer musically on Homecoming Queen than anything we’ve heard from him yet, but don’t let Devours’ gentle, imagistic aesthetic fool you; Cancade is still an incredibly cutting lyricist. Whether he’s eviscerating class traitors (ask your favourite Vancouverite to explain the savagery of “You moved out to Shaughnessy and it’s where you belong”), reflecting on how aging changes his own hopes and dreams (“37up”), or weighing the trade-off of queer acceptance for political disarmament and ignorance (“Jacuzzi My Stonewall”), Homecoming Queen proves Cancade to be one of the best songwriters Canada has today, regardless of genre. Read our full review or listen to our commentary podcast with Devours.
So here’s the thing about the debut from Berlin’s Noj: it rips. Sure, you can spend it contemplating the echoes of OG goth rock and the more virulent strains of 80s post-punk, or examining the misanthropic alienation baked into the snare-abusing clatter of “Spirals” and “No Room Cut to Fit”. But more likely you’ll be too busy digging your fingernails into your palms from the contempt in the title track’s horror movie squeals, and sneering along to “Dream Deicide”‘s lumbering bass attack. Even at their most accessible on the pulsing “Eternal Life” the band aren’t willing to tone down the visceral nihilism, sliding papercut stings into its web of synths and bilious reverbs. Yeah, Waxing Moon rips and you’ll need to let it hurt you a bit to find out why that feels so damn good. Read our full review.
8. Lead Into Gold
The Eternal Present
While the name Lead Into Gold undoubtedly brings visions of Wax Trax’s glory days to mind, Paul Barker has little interest in mining the past on the appropriately titled The Eternal Present. Eschewing the familiar for a meditative collection of analogue synth and bass excursions, the venerable producer deconstructs his hallmark musical themes – those machine-like rhythms and crunchy textures that have informed a thousand records – and rebuilding them into strange new shapes. There’s a grand entropic inevitability to all of it; guitars and bass diffuse into pure texture, drums beat with an orgasmic death drive finality. And there at the center is Barker, still smiling that little smile as he stares down the incomprehensible enormity of right fuckin’ now. Read our full review.
In A Black Frame
Having activated just before shit hit the fan, Vancouver’s Ringfinger have had plenty of time for quiet contemplation and demoing at home before unveiling their first LP. Carrying the subtle charms of their more synth-focused EPs over into a more guitar and bass-focused register, In A Black Frame has the sort of elegant balance between the stormy side of classic goth rock and the softer elements of darkwave which often takes bands four or five LPs to hone in on. Having emerged as one of our favourite live acts here in Vancouver, Ringfinger now have an onyx-shaded calling card which captures their alternately dreamy yet stoic charm as they move on to take over the noctural playlists of goths old and young across North America. Read our full review.
6. Maelstrom & Louisahhh
“Are these the dark ages? Is it getting worse?” Well, it certainly hasn’t gotten any better since 2021’s The Practice Of Freedom, and Louisahhh’s collaborative record with French techno producer Maelstrom is reflective of that harsh truth. Bringing some of the percussive aggression of her phenomenal live set back into the studio, Sustained Resistance is a defiant finger in the face not only of capitalism, the patriarchy, and everything else conspiring to make all of our lives shittier, but also the presumption that modern industrial techno has to be devoid of soul or personality. Between piston-kicking beats and Louisahhh’s gutwrenching vocals, tracks like “Vixen” burned like napalm this year. Read our full review.
Be sure to come back tomorrow for the final five entries in the list!