In 2023, the Seattle region's musicians generated a lot of interesting music, as is their wont. Below, I discuss 10 releases that really stood out in my gluttonous listening diet. Not to come over all chamber of commerce on ya, but these recordings represent but a tiny fraction of cool sounds from our portion of the world. Here we go...

01 N Chambers, Seaside Resonance (Soft Profile). One of two posthumous albums from the late Norm Chambers this year (Ajax Ensemble is also highly recommended), Seaside Resonance derives from the prolific synthesizer maestro's archive of unreleased works. It contains some of Chambers's most kinetic, effervescent, and timbrally adventurous compositions, revealing a rhythmic propulsion rarely found in his more beatific output. Seaside Resonance further explores Chambers's inventive use of aquatic tones and atmospheres, a motif frequently heard throughout his discography. Experiencing such lively music from a recently deceased musician—and, full disclosure, friend and DJ partner—is bittersweet. Knowing how furiously Chambers was working toward the end of his too-brief life, even in the throes of battling cancer, it seems certain more excellent offerings will issue forth.  

02 Yves/Son/Ace, 33 Steps (self-released). Yves/Son/Ace—the solo project of multi-instrumentalist Matt Ford—allows the drummer for avant-rock groups such as Factums, Dreamsalon, and Idol Ko Si to indulge in his weirdest artistic impulses. Starting with 2020's all/non/void, Ford has been moving toward a more electronic approach while keeping things deeply subterranean. With 33 Steps, Y/S/A delves even deeper into electronic-music hypnosis. Opening track “Joy d'nocturne” is dissonant, psychedelic techno for dark bunkers, its sinewy beats peppered with plastic percussion accents and a distant, fried guitar riff. The menacing title track splits the difference between the dub techno of the legendary Chain Reaction roster and Moebius/Plank/Neumeier's Zero Set. “Casual Labor” comes off like a bulkier, more ominous Suicide, its bass riff a vivid manifestation of doom. My favorite, “Tainted Doors,” evokes the desolation and looming danger of Plastikman's minimal-techno klassik, Sheet One. It's nuts that Ford had to release music this inventive and compelling himself. Let's hope the follow-up album, which Stranger Music genius Erik Blood is producing, receives the financial support and distribution it will surely deserve. 

03 Thomas Andrew Doyle, Aberrant (Incineration Ceremony Recordings)

"Grunge-metal icon becomes master of infernal ambient music and soundtracks for the damned" is not a trajectory anyone could have predicted in the late 1980s/early 1990s, when Tad Doyle was raising hell and cracking domes with his great yet ill-fated band TAD. But the 21st century has found our lovable giant of a musician/producer honing his chops as a purveyor of imaginary scores for films too horrific to get green-lighted. This year alone, Doyle has released Forgotten Sciences, Eternal Nameless, and Aberrant, a trilogy of disturbing mood music that should net him some high-profile film gigs, if there's any justice. Aberrant offers myriad facets of Doyle's songwriting prowess: "Vast Unknown" and "After-Storm Ideation" are profoundly moving ambient drone pieces; "Probabilities" bears the extreme timbres and jagged dynamics of a Iannis Xenakis opus; the 13-minute "Disintegration Rites" vividly conjures dystopian scenarios and biological catastrophes; "Ultima Thule" glowers in the same interstellar inferno as early Tangerine Dream. In case you hadn't been paying attention, Doyle's head-banging days are long over; now he's elevating minds, and it's awesome.

04 Neil S. Kvern, Doctor Dancing Mask: Pianoisms (Freedom to Spend)

The internet yields scant info on Neil S. Kvern, but that didn't stop the discerning heads who run the Freedom to Spend label from finding (against great odds) and re-releasing the Seattle keyboardist/composer's limited-edition 1983 cassette, Doctor Dancing Mask. (They added Pianoisms to the original title.) The label's owners, Jed Bindeman and Pete Swanson, were wowed by Kvern's unique combo of cyclical piano motifs, hypnotic hand percussion, and marimba runs, as well as by the odd intriguing melody that surfaced in tracks such as “Hangup City” and “Purple Scarf.” Both trigger a feeling of unsettling contemplation and are tailor-made for existential, suspenseful film soundtracks. Kvern—who reportedly used to work at The Rocket—really captured a distinctive, compelling vibe on Doctor Dancing Mask, a work as hard to categorize as it was to excavate. One could spend many rewarding years exploring its mysterious pleasures.

05 Mudhoney, Plastic Eternity (Sub Pop). With all the surprise of a traffic backup on I-5, Seattle's longest-running grunge* ambassadors dropped another great album in 2023. Most rock groups 35 years into their existence don't sound this vital, so respect to Mark Arm, Steve Turner, Dan Peters, and Guy Maddison. Plastic Eternity finds Arm continuing his spicy diatribes against human stupidity and cautionary tales of global catastrophe over exciting, hard-rocking tracks that flaunt potent rhythms. It's as simple as that, but the fact that Mudhoney can still find interesting permutations on their trademark caustic sound this late in the game is a minor miracle. ("Little Dogs," a paean to diminutive mutts, proves that they can still surprise, too.) Mudhoney are becoming as totemic a Seattle institution as the Space Needle, on top of which they memorably performed in 2013. *No so-called grunge band ever, ever wants to be classified as “grunge,” even if doing so ultimately boosts their career and bank account.

06 (blouseusa), Stimulus Overinlcusion (Drongo Tapes). "Heavy-metal/psych-rock drummer going on an experimental-music bender" is one of my favorite micro-genres. And, in that rarefied field, Benjamin Thomas-Kennedy's long-running (blouseusa) project never fails to satisfy and mystify. Freed from the fairly loose strictures of Fungal Abyss, BTK embarks on missions for the sonic ineffable, turning his prodigious percussive, guitar, and audio-manipulation skills into pieces that dissolve categorical boundaries. Check out Stimulus Overinclusion's "Transcendence of Actuality" and "Manufactured Martyrdom," and try to slap a tag on them or think of precedents. Maybe some of Ralph Records' weirder artists, such as Renaldo and the Loaf? Not much music eludes signposts in 2023, but (blouseusa) pulls off this feat with panache. 

07 Noel Brass Jr. "Threaded From a Distance" (self-released). One of the hardest-working musicians in Seattle, keyboardist Noel Brass Jr. flexes his inspired ideas daily on Instagram Stories and then, with fruitful regularity, hones them into Bandcamp tracks that fuse astral jazz and New Age. It would be nice if a respected label collected the cream of his Bandcamp activities and released an album or three from them. But, alas, that hasn't happened, so let's go with his latest BC upload, "Threaded From a Distance" to represent Brass's stellar year—an annum, by the way, in which KEXP hired him to co-host its Jazz Theater program. "Threaded" balances a subliminal, ominous drone with some of Brass's most playful, rococo soloing (dig that flutey timbre) layered alongside some ice-blue, In a Silent Way-esque burbles. The overall effect is chill, but a chilling tension thrums below the surface. It's a masterpiece that I'd love to have on vinyl some day, if any label honchos are reading this.

08 Debt Rag, Lost to the Fantasy (Post Present Medium)

Punk's not dead—its nearly 50-year-old carcass is just morphing into strange song shapes and emitting highly unconventional sounds. At least that's the impression that Olympia trio Debt Rag leave on their cantankerously weird debut album, Lost to the Fantasy. Percussionist Lillian Maring, bassist Marissa Magic, and keyboardist/trumpeter Max Nordile also have played with Grass Widow, Preening, Wet Drag, and many other underground-music agitators; as Debt Rag, they've achieved a wicked chemistry that yields curt songs that sting bodies and stimulate minds in equal measure. Musically, Debt Rag love to subvert structural protocols and spurn proper tunings, with Nordile's wonky keyboard attacks generating the kind of timbres and invasiveness that will appeal to fans of Brainiac and Six Finger Satellite. Marissa Magic's bass patrols the low end with first-wave post-punk élan. The record's best song, "Cognitive Whirlpool," embodies the effect that Debt Rag's music has on you. Throughout the album, they've taken John Lydon's thesis from PiL's “Rise”—“anger is an energy”—as a motivational slogan.

09 Shabazz Palaces, Robed in Rareness (Sub Pop). Shabazz Palaces mastermind Ishmael Butler remains committed to keeping hip-hop sonically inventive, lyrically whip-smart, and atmospherically otherworldly on the digital-only mini-album Robed in Rareness. The epitome of cool on the mic, Butler here delegates bars to fellow rhymesters Royce the Choice, Porter Ray, Lavarr the Starr, Geechi Suede, O Finess, and his son, Lil Tracy. But the result is still echt Shabazz Palaces, where street tales rocket to deep space, with insular, interstellar productions to match.

10 High Pulp, Days in the Desert (Anti-). Seattle sextet High Pulp have risen to prominence and secured a sweet label deal by creating a kaleidoscopic fusion of funk, jazz, hip-hop, and psychedelia—no mean feat in an era of risk aversion among sizable record companies. Just as impressively, for Days in the Desert they enlisted some major figures in vanguard jazz—Brandee Younger, Jeff Parker, Kurt Rosenwinkel, etc.—to help enhance their already expansive and quicksilver-y compositions. As colorfully detailed as their recordings are, though, High Pulp are best experienced live, where their telepathic interplay and spontaneous combustions result in multiple revelations per track. 

Honorable mention: Who Is She?, Goddess Energy (Father/Daughter); Polyrhythmics, Filter System (Polyrhythmics); The Daily Flash, The Legendary Recordings 1965-1967 (Guerssen); Mystic 100's, On a Micro Diet (Listening House)