Today we enter the second segment of my top 25 albums of 2023, with the albums I placed from 10th to 6th in my rankings. I will be writing a couple paragraphs about each album on today’s list, but not a detailed review. I’ll be highlighting what made these albums stand out against their peers and perhaps a little about a few songs. Of course, there will be a link to each band’s social media and music pages, and a link to the video (or spotify link if a video is not available) of my favorite song off of each album.
10. Mustard Plug: Where Did All My Friends Go?
Mustard Plug is probably the most experienced and long lasting band on my list this year, and after 9 years of no studio albums, I was afraid this would sound stale and old, or possibly completely different from their older music in a way that didn’t sit well with me. Exactly one bar into the new album, and I knew that wasn’t the case. They addressed their aging music career in the first song, the title track to the album, and as they said in the lyrics “it’s time to shut that door”. They managed to nail their traditional sound through the first album with better production, then they shut that door, and the second song sounds different in all the right ways. “Vampire” has a two tone sound with some modern elements, and still has the powerful perfect horn section the has always been a hallmark of Mustard Plug. This album is full of elements of modern newtone ska bands while bridging them with the traditional ska punk power rhythms and vocals, and the type of production you would expect from a band that has been successfully recording music for three decades.
There was a part of me that wanted to push this album down the list a little so I could highlight other, newer bands, but I just couldn’t justify knocking this album out of the top 10. Every time I listen I have a different favorite song. It captures the sounds from throughout the band’s history in a masterful way while adding something new to the mix in every song. Incredible baselines, claps that beg for crowd participation, gang vocals, a punk rock energy designed to get people moving in the pit. By signing on Bad Time Records, the biggest new ska record label over the last 5 years, Mustard Plug has made a huge jump in bridging the gap between older ska fans who only listen to 90s and early 2000s ska and the new wave of ska fans that have built a thriving community with great new bands.
Favorite song: Why Does It Have To Be So Hard
9. J. Navarro and the Traitors: All of Us or None
While J. Navarro has as much experience and time on the scene as Mustard Plug with his various projects, his project with “The Traitors” is completely different than the more familiar ska punk/ ska-core of the Suicide Machines, and the sophomore album of this two tone/ reggae project is the perfect blend of experience and fresh music. Being able to relax and write music in a different genre really allows this to sound vibrant and exciting while giving a new audience to the core ideas of social justice, working class solidarity, and community building that has been a hallmark of Navarro’s songwriting for decades.
I hadn’t previously heard The Traitor’s first album and didn’t have high hopes for a two-tone/ reggae album from someone who had been recording ska-core for the last quarter century. I am excited to know how wrong I was. Every song on this album gets me moving and the lyrical messaging of the songs tends to become much clearer when the lyrics are easier to hear over the music, which is still every bit as catchy and danceable as any other ska or reggae album.
Holes might be the catchiest song on the album and get people moving more than anything else, but it immediately resolves into “For the Broken” which is an anthemic song, which leads immediately to “Rob from the Rich” which features Hatchet Lady and Coolie Ranx with their own verses as my favorite track on the album. This three song stretch is as good as any three song combo on any album this year. “Rob from the Rich” is particularly perfect to me as each artist’s feature isn’t just lyrical, but the rhythm and style of the song transitions to meet the guest’s style instead of the guests shifting their style to fit the song, while maintaining the same themes.
Another powerful song from this album is the laid back MLP celebrating the speech of Monica Lewis Patrick at a rally during the protests following George Floyd’s murder, reminding us that we, the people, have the power- that protest should never end until the goals are achieved. This song leads directly to the final track “World for Us” about picking and choosing our battles and creating a world for us, Ending the album with the call “You’ve gotta stand up, you gotta break your chains”.
While I love music that makes me want to dance, music is a tool for education and protest. Music is a tool to bring people together and raise awareness. This album does both in an incredible way.
Favorite song: Rob from the Rich
8. The Prizefighters: Punch Up
While J. Navarro and the Traitors used two-tone and reggae to deliver their messages, The Prizefighters layered their messages to a trad-ska and rocksteady rhythms. Constantly aware of the importance of political messaging in traditional ska, The Prizefighters start their album off with a song about climate change and the need for immediate action, reminding us that problems only get worse if we delay action.
The simple beats, upstrokes, and reggae rhythms and melodies underlay biting commentary as “Think And Pray” attacks the American tendency for platitudes while refusing to address the root causes for problems.
Not every song is political, so the album never feels too preachy, but that only helps to amplify the significance of the songs that do have political messages. The harmonies and backing vocals through this album are terrific and help bring that 1960s reggae ska feel.
The most intriguing song on the album is “The Hand at the Door”. It feels a lot darker, through deeper vocals and mostly instrumental tracking.
By far, my favorite song on the album is “Company Time”- the Prizefighters take on the idiom “The boss makes a dollar, I make a dime”, turning it into a full fledged protest song. Lyrics tie the song into community and other movements such as -”songs of freedom from Bob Marley, songs of love from Etta James, singing thanks and praise to Marcus Garvey, when we lift our voice together we can make a change”. In case that didn’t move you, the next verse is even clearer. “Singing songs of Woody Guthrie, sing the anthems of a strike, sing The Internationale, oh, sing before the revolution teach the youth to fight”.
While not subtle in the slightest, this is exactly the music I live for. This is what I want in a song. We need music of love, we need music to celebrate and rejoice, or to tell our story. Those are all necessary to the art of music, but we need music to bring us together to share our grievances and to rally us together.
Favorite song: Company Time
7. Omnigone: Against the Rest
California’s East Bay punk/ ska-core scene has always had its own unique, powerful sound, and Omnigone carries on the tradition to this day. A blend of politically aware fast paced, angry punk and ska upstrokes with occasional horns with an acute awareness of community makes for a powerful album that has the ability to stand the test of time.
The only thing this album had working against it was the release date. By pure coincidence, three albums on my list released the same week, and the other two are ranked ahead of this album. This was an incredible album that deserved constant love and listens, but it dropped with so much great music that it occasionally got ignored as the other albums warranted the attention of my ears even more.
The first three songs on the album were the pre-release singles and having heard them, I thought this had serious album of the year potential. When I realized they were the first three tracks I had serious questions about the drop in quality after those songs, but on the first listen, I knew that aas a huge mistake. There was no drop in quality after those songs, in fact, there was no drop in quality anywhere on the album. Any track from this album could have been used as a single. A few tracks have choruses or hooks that are a little more catchy and perhaps even a hint of pop as they make you sing a lot a little more, but there are zero skips on this album, and with half of the 15 tracks ending in under 2 minutes, it wouldn’t be worth skipping if you didn’t like a song. The short, direct songs are perfect for this album, each song sends a powerful message, but doesn’t dwell on it, and picks up a new beat and a new message and delivers it powerfully, with no fluff.
From the first song, the album is calling for standing up for what you believe in, regardless of the opposition, but the second track- “Communities in Collaboration”, which features Jay Navarro, has some of my favorite lyrics on the entire album with “No kids, consume the elite”, “Redistribute wealth, there is enough for everyone” and “break the illusion, your neighbor is not your foe”. These simple, straightforward messages powerfully demonstrate the themes of the entire album.
My favorite song on this album is “Are We OK” featuring Tara Hahn from Half Past Two. While I’ve been listening to Half Past Two for years, hearing her share vocals with Adam Davis had a powerful effect I wasn’t expecting. Through most of the song, both sing the same vocals together, and the harmony is powerful, and she feels like she was made to sing a faster, more aggressive style than I am used to. In addition, an album that features so many songs about community, the effect of the features on the album make the message feel more genuine. You can’t sing songs about community building alone, you need a community on the album to demonstrate the point, and it feels best demonstrated here.
Favorite song: Are We OK?
6. The Pomps: Bottom of the Pomps
This album is very different from the rest of the songs on today’s list. There is no overt political messaging on the album. Instead, this song makes the list on virtue of being a great sounding album that has its own unique sound. While it is still, at its core, a ska album, it sounds completely different from everything else. People struggle to classify it, with it also being compared to nuwave, it also has British power pop and indie influences. Regardless of how you want to classify it, the album is catchy, poppy, and in a world of its own- and it’s not often we get a ska album that doesn’t have any horns.
Lyrically, the themes of the album are about getting older, but embracing it. Sometimes I want to sing along, like in “Heart Flipper” or “Liquidator 2023”, but mostly, I don’t care about the lyrics on this album. The music and the vocals (without the context of the lyrics) are enough to make me fall in love every time I listen to the album. I just want to experience more every time I put this album on. It sucks me into this world where I don’t think about anything else, and just experience the music in a happy place as the keys relax me or take me to new places and the vocals swirl around me, engulfing me, and the simple drums and guitars just pull me through the songs, and I love it every single time. When this album came out, I didn’t expect it to be in my top 10, but the longer it has been in my life, the more I have fallen in love.
Favorite song: Elite Ennui
Don’t forget to read tomorrow’s article for a deep dive on my 5th favorite album of 2023.
Written by Gimpleg