The Zaw Towers Review of 2023

2023 was very much a year of ups and downs. The ups were certainly down to having taken on some positive challenges career wise and hopefully coming through those, and celebrating fifteen years with The Love In My Heart. The downs were the sad passing of some of my friends, and one of which did hit really hard as it was someone I knew for a very long time. There were thankfully some more than welcome distractions during the year, so here is what floated the proverbial boat this year.

Best Single/Track of 2023 - "Set Fazers" - Skindred
The whole of their album Smile does leave you with that, a smile on your face, as there's lots of rocking complete with Benji Webbe's vocal. Here in the second single from the album, they completely nailed it - lots of funky grooves and chugging guitars working superbly together and a chorus that wouild just have everyone bouncing around the room. I can wholeheartedly imagine just what that would be like live and to bring the joy and happiness to everyone is a thing not everyone can do, but here the band did it in multiple spades. The vibes in the place are indeed hitting the ceiling.

Also recommended:
"Big Hit Single" - Gen and the Degenerates - You want a hit, so shut up and take it - that was the defiant message from the band, parodying all the songs being used in an advert for a car, going viral on Tik Tok, and maybe even for your mother. It cleverly was spiky with the attitude, sass and a bass line that underpinned everything. I'm hoping for great things for this band - give them a go!
"Ghosts Again" - Depeche Mode - The first album as a now twosome, Memento Mori had its moments, but perhaps this single, co-written with Richard Butler from The Psychedlic Furs, is beautifully reflective with gorgeous synth lines and the best vocal performance from Dave Gahan in some time, really feeling that sense of how when you leave us you may become a ghost, and perhaps a fitting way to pay tribute to the late Andy Fletcher too.
"Not Strong Enough" - Boygenius - Believe the hype that The Record produced – it is an excellent album, characterised here by the single which got a lot of exposure, and for good reason. If you wanted a slice of all the good things about American independent music, then this serves it up in droves: layers of guitars, some gorgeous melodic vocals which build and build, and feel massively anthemic towards the end.
"Big Girls" - Natalie Merchant - The distinctive vocals of Natalie Merchant in the album opener to Keep Your Courage, coupled with the extra velvety tones of Abena Koomson-Davis, together with piano and a beautiful swelling verse and lead with its key line of "hold on" really did give you that sense of being a defiant call as the song reaches its end. I just love the way this builds throughout and showcases the vocals of both.

Best Album of 2023 - "Clear Pond Road" - Kristin Hersh
There's a real sense of both storytelling in the songs and a clear advocate of less being more on plenty of the songs here: soundscpes of acoustic guitar with strings, exemplified by the wonderful Dandelion, a shimmery sound that meshes so well between verses in Constance Street, and a hark back to the Hips and Makers era in Reflections of the Motive Power of Fire. There's a real sense of cohesion, beauty and a sense of unease throughout the whole album, which the opener Bewitched Reruns gives you a perfect flavour of, with Kristin's voice having levels of power and control in equal measure. A master class in how to write aan album.

Also recommended:
"One in a Thousand"- Obey Robots - Take Laura from Penfriend and add Rat from Ned's Atomic Dustbin, and it's a collaboration which works in powerful and strong measures to say the least. The riffs are just the right side of crunchy, and the excellent lyrical wordplay are hugely present, from the powerful Porcupine to the more reflective and acoustic Glitter To Dust, trapped in survival mode. The title track shows such a level of power and controlled defiance that it's a lesson in how to tone down slightly to make the climax hopeful and forward looking too. An excellent and richly rewarding collaborative debut.
"Dying of Everything" - Obituary - There's always been a level of control in the band's more recent album releases, without compromising with John Tardy's growling vocal. The title track is a perfect example of that, powerful riffs and drums and a chugging final superb section. The slower and evil My Will To Live is perfectly dark and black, The Wrong Time has some great guitar solo work to underpin the groove, and the doom laden Be Warned is just a statement of intent. Death metal isn't for everyone, but this is a good accessible way to start if you wanted to.
"12" - Ryuichi Sakamoto - The final album before his death, and just himself and piano being recorded during his battle with cancer brings a level of sadness but also reflection. Less is definitely more here, and the emotion felt through the piano is that which moves you and tells you to listen intently. The 20220302 sarabande is that sense personified, with a beautiful yet sad and reflective mood, and 20220404 (each track was the date of recording incidentally) has such a lovely melody that you'd see it in a film soundtrack. It's heartbreaking and yet beautiful at the same time.
"1982" - A Certain Ratio - Absolutely funky, and a nod to the past but affectionately done by the most under-rated band from Manchester. Constant Curve showcases Ellen Beth Abdi's soulful vocals, the title track has punch and panache and needs to be in a TV series, Afro Dizzy is full of beautiful grooves, Tier 3 has layers of electronica over the groove and then there's the superlative Tombo in M3 which has so much funk you won't be resisting those synth swirls and grooves to dance to. A highly magnificent record.

Best Concert of 2023 - Pop Will Eat Itself, 100 Club, London
The Poppies were superlative here, showcasing both the Box Frenzy and The Looks or the Lifestyle albums with suitable gusto. It was great to hear some of the Box Frenzy tracks for the first time live in over 30 years, such as Hit The Hi-Tech Groove, Grebo Guru, UBLUD and many more, complete with bounding around to the likes of Bulletproof, Get The Girl Kill The Baddies and Mother too. The remaining hits part though showcased just what a great band they are live, rocking out Wise Up! Sucker, Can U Dig It, Def Con One, and even the new stuff like The Poppies Strike Back and Bruiser. Ending with Their Law was genius, and the set whizzed by that it just felt such a great moment to be part of.

Other Concerts I Enjoyed:
Kristin Hersh, Halle St Peters, Manchester - For different reasons, I could have pickked any of the three Kristin gigs I went to in October. However, the one in Manchester had the acoustics sounding beautiful in the stage of the church and that just about won it for me. All three had appreciative audiences who didn't talk though the set, and together with cellist Pete Harvey, it was an intimate and warm soundscape, especially with the likes of Constance Street and Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire from Clear Pond Road, but having nods to previous with Sundrops, Your Dirty Answer, Your Ghost and Slippershell too - all expertly delivered with such love and passion.
Altered Images, 229, London - A massively welcome surprise but a really cracking set from Clare Grogan and co, showcasing the 40th anniversary of the band's Bite album with all the tracks played in full, so the likes of Love To Stay, Change of Heart and the serene Don't Talk To Me About Love complete with Clare going all Audrey Hepburn. But also nods to present and past later, with Mascara Streakz and Glitter Ball from present and I Could Be Happy and best of all Dead Pop Stars from the past, sounding beautifully dark and goth too. It was thoroughly enjoyable!
Dub War, Highbury Garage, London - Two for the price of one here as Gen and the Degenerates were supporting, and they were excellent (see my single choice above.) Dub War came on and absolutely strormed it with Benji Webbe in top form, and the Westgate Under Fire tracks such as Vibes in the Place, Blackkk Man, War Inna Babylon and the blistering Art of War were all powerfully received. Great that they put in their legacy too, so Spiritual Warfare, Strike It, Cry Dignity and the Original Murder (later released as Mental) were all powerful too. If you get chance to see Benji's other band Skindred next year, please do.
MJ Hibbett, The King and Queen, London - It was gig number one thousand for MJ Hibbett and a pleasure to be there to see a cross-section of the catalogue played Totally Acoustic style at first, but then with a full Validators band later. So many highlights including Bad Back, a whole Dinasour Planet medley, (You Make Me Feel) Soft Rock, Hey Hey 16K, The Lesson of the Smiths, Easily Impressed and of course It Only Works Because You're Here. It was such a happy joyous occasion all round and it felt special.

Best TV Programme of 2023 - Race Across The World (Series 3)
As much as I did enjoy the first two series of Race Across the World, the third one, being adapted to go all the way across Canada and have the contestants rely more on ingenuity and planning was certainly a tough task for all to complete. From being able to work in places to hitching lifts here there and everywhere, it indirectly showed what a wonderful country Canada is, and how the culture and the way of life is completely different also. The many different weather conditions, having to make particular coaches or trains to not lose time was crucial, and the format really did work in the way it was done this time, with two deserved winners at the end who were the epitomy of what it was about - and life changing for all the teams in their own voyages of discovery. Not sure how they'll top that, and the celebrity versioin later in the year was a more than welcome distraction too.

Best Sporting Moment of 2023 - Manchester City's treble
Whilst I've been used to recent successes as a Manchester City fan, I wasn't ever expecting us to win all the three major trophies in one season. As the league progressed and we moved clear of Arsenal, I did think we'd nail that one and managed that well with Erling Haaland being on fire. But what was special too was beating Manchester United in the FA Cup final and scoring the fastest goal in a final with Ilkay Gundogan that day showing captain's leadership (which we're missing a lot now.) The Champions League final was nervewracking but up stepped the ever dependable Rodri to slot home the winner, it was pandemonium for me as I finally realised the dream of us winning that. And, for personal reasons, glad that some of those I knew had the chance to witness that before they passed.

Best male of 2023 - Gary Lineker
Standing up for what you believe in is one thing, but also calling out those making incendiary statements was another. Gary did that and called the Government out for their inhumane attitudes, and was promptly suspended by the BBC. One by one fellow presenters, Ian Wright being the first, to say "no, I'm standing with Gary on this" and making the BBC realise that actually not only was their suspension doing more harm than good, but it was also proving Gary to be right that goodwill and compassion should always be something to bring people together and not to divide. He proved that it wasn't just about himself but the greater world view of how things are seen, and by leading by example (he has homed refugees himself), behaving differently, and so on, then I know which role model I'd rather have.

Best female of 2023 - Jenni Hermoso
With Spain deservedly having won the Women's World Cup, it was a moment of joy that turned into a moment of despair with inappropriate behaviour towards Jenni Hermoso. After the Spanish FA's attempted claim of that kiss being consensual, Hermoso not only spoke out but galvanised her national team mates, women players from other countries and Spanish women in a real "Me Too" moment the proclaimed that we're not having this anymore with the phrase of "Ti Amo (It's Over)" showing support from all sides. It was seismic in Spain especially as this brought about much needed change and discussion about the way sexism and sexual assaults are handled, and if Jenni's actions have brought about that change, it's argubaly just as great as her World Cup win.

Personal Moments of 2023 - Reconnections and Disconnections
On the positive side, it was lovely to be able to progress career wise despite some fundamental work changes, and I had the love and support from The Love In My Heart as we celebrated fifteen years together. Also going back to more gigs as things relented from The Thing were welcome distractions from life and reconnecting with some people I thought I had lost touch with was also lovely. However, the sad passing of some friends and one of my closest ones who I went to Manchester City games with has left a void which I don't think will ever be filled. Going to the Etihad now brings me joy seeing my team but sadness that my friend won't be there - and before kick off I look up and think of him and hope he's watching us from up there.