The Plague Nurse’s Top 15 in Music: 2023

The old, the new . . . whatever kept her coming back for more

J.P. Williams
9 min readDec 30, 2023
Illustration by author.

At the end of each year, the Plague Nurse usually lists her favorite new releases in heavy metal. Aside from a handful of odd albums, however, she didn’t keep up with the scene in 2023.¹ As if to make up for this, she doubled her dedication to musical enjoyment across the board, all genres from all times. Here, in chronological order, are the top 15 works of music that kept the Plague Nurse coming back for more.

1. Ludvig van Beethoven’s Egmont Overture (premiered 1810)

The Plague Nurse listened to a lot of classical music in 2023, and nothing kept her coming back more than this old favorite. Ludvig van Beethoven wrote it to accompany Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s play Egmont about Dutch resistance to the Spanish Empire. The Plague Nurse’s favorite part is the way the chords in the strings change in the third repetition of the passage beginning at 4:48 in this video. According to analysis by the Czech Philharmonic, this represents the faltering of the oppressor as it encounters resistance from people dedicated to the cause of liberty.

2. Django Reinhardt & Stephane Grappelly with the Quintet of the Hot Club of France (recorded 1938–1946, released 1965)

Django Reinhardt CDs have been floating around the Plague Nurse’s collection ever since she saw the Woody Allen film Sweet and Lowdown about a hapless musician who idolizes the famed “gypsy” jazz guitarist. CDs can be all right — the medium was fine for Bud Powell’s The Scene Changes, another favorite this year — but vinyl is a whole other experience. The tracks on this release have all the fluorish, joie de vivre and jump of Reinhardt’s playing . . . plus the magic of analogue recording and playback devices unimproved by subsequent technology.

3. Faith No More’s The Real Thing (1989)

Faith No More’s Angel Dust may be the album that turned critics’ heads, but “Epic” off its debut album The Real Thing was its first raid on the halls of pop-rock immortality. An early rap metal hit, it’s an indication of the best The Real Thing has to offer: attitude, intellect, and irruptions of thrashy guitar. The Plague Nurse hadn’t listened to this one since maybe having it on cassette back when those were the latest thing. The best thing about all that time away was hearing it again for the first time, and then again and again and again . . .

4. Black Uhuru’s Mystical Truth Dub (1993)

Every used music shop has forgotten corners, decripit bins and dusty shelves where you’ll either find music that’s a crime against nature or music so great it makes you feel like a life spent crate-digging is worth it after all. The Plague Nurse turned up Black Uhuru’s Mystical Truth Dub in a hidden drawer, but the shop staff let her buy it anyway, and it kicked off an exploration of reggae that led to lesser known names like Garnet Silk, pop delights like Tami Chynn, Serge Gainbourg’s curious classic Aux Armes et cætera, and Bob Marley’s Exodus. For more on the album’s distinct sound:

5. Dr. Dre’s “Let Me Ride” (1993)

After finally watching Straight Outta Compton (2015), the Plague Nurse was ready to give Dr. Dre another try, so finding this single from Death Row Records at an annual record sale in the heart of Tokyo was just what she needed. Not particularly fond of Dre’s The Chronic due to its excess of crude language, she still kept dropping the needle on this slick single in G-funk. It’s as cool as a car with hydraulic bounce, as cool as Corey Hawkins’s portrayal of Dre in the film, as cool as the insouciant tilt of all those White Sox and Raiders caps. The Chronic may never get much play, but this single definitely will.

6. Souls of Mischief’s 93 ’Til Infinity (1993)

The Plague Nurse had a good year when it came to discovering releases from the Golden Age of Hip-Hop. Sure, some were uneven, like Black Sheep’s A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing (1991) and K7’s Swing Batta Swing (1993), but gems like Slick Rick’s The Ruler’s Back (1991) and Nice & Smooth’s Jewel of the Nile (1994) more than made up for any discomfort along the way, and nothing hit the sweet spot harder than Souls of Mischief’s 93 ’Til Infinity. There’s a Tomtit Music Review, but Jeffrey Harvey does a much better job describing it in a piece on the ’93 renaissance in hip-hop:

7. New Order’s “Regret” (1993)

MTV Hive reports that Joy Division and then New Order bassist Peter Hook described “Regret” as the “last good New Order song.” Whether it’s the “last” one is debatable, but “good” is an understatement. Kicking off with an oddly truncated guitar riff that leaves you hanging, this track off the album Republic eventually sing-songs its way to a chorus that, once heard, gets stuck in your head for days. In 1993, grunge was reshaping the musical landscape in its gnarly, bedraggled image, but clearly New Wave still had a few sleek, synthy earworms to bestow upon the world.

8. The Holy Bible by Manic Street Preachers (1994)

The Plague Nurse tends to prescribe Gold Against the Soul, the Manic Street Preachers’ second album, as a hard rock soporific, so whatever possessed her to check out their next album is anyone’s guess. Turns out The Holy Bible is alt-rock solid: enjoyable, political and tortured. Lyricist and rhythm guitarist Richey Edwards disappeared soon after the album’s release, and the BBC reports that he’s presumed to be jamming with Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse in the 27 club. A “horror-show eulogy” to Pitchfork, a “work of genuine genius” to NME, The Holy Bible is a hell of a statement.

9. The Tango Lesson Soundtrack (1997)

The Plague Nurse hasn’t even seen The Tango Lesson, but apparently it’s a film about the steamy push-and-pull between the sexes, and apparently it’s too minor for many streaming services to carry. The soundtrack, which alternates between Argentinian tango and meditative tracks recalling David Gilmour-led Pink Floyd, was one of several the Plague Nurse enjoyed this year whose movies were inaccessible: The Last Temptation of Christ, Dead Man, The Million Dollar Hotel, Miles Ahead . . . The film buffs are right: get your movies on physical media, because they may not end up on the latest technology.

Photo by Ele. Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

10. DMX’s It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot (1998)

There can’t be that many avowedly Christian rappers with rap sheets as long as that of the man born Earl Simmons. Seriously, the “Legal Issues” section on his Wikipedia page spans 1986 to 2019 and includes everything from traffic offenses and drugs to robbery and animal cruelty. Yet the picture that comes into focus on his debut It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot isn’t one of a hardened criminal or a wannabe glorifying the life. Through all the gruff delivery shines a soul humble before his sins and bowed before the deity he believes will judge his soul.

11. “In da Club (instr.)” by 50 Cent (2003)

The Plague Nurse has always found 50 Cent a bit comical, from his appearance as a boxing promoter in the film Southpaw back through his first single “In da Club.” But there’s no denying the appeal of that Dre-produced hit, not even when stripped of the (slightly dorky) lyrics. Pitchfork claimed, “‘In Da Club’ is straight-up irresistible, Dre at both his minimalist best and most deceptively infectious,” and for once a reviewer besides Plague Nurse experimental subject and vinyl junkie J.P. Williams is right. It’s impossible not to nod to that spare beat and its dramatic bursts of synthesized strings.

12. British Sea Power selected discography: The Decline of British Sea Power, Open Season, Valhalla Dancehall (2003–2011)

Valhalla Dancehall is one of the coolest album titles ever. Valhalla is where Odin, king of the gods, assembles the worthy who have fallen in combat. Each day, they take to battle, hacking at each other, as if they didn’t have enough of that during their lives, then drink the night away, as if they didn’t have enough of that during their lives. Imagine them dancing too, hornèd helmed and by mirrorball lit! British Sea Power has an impressive body of big-indie sound, varied rock for clubbing, emoting, gang shouting and . . . probably not for killing. For that, Viking metal is still best.

13. Blurryface by Twenty One Pilots (2015)

The Plague Nurse imagines no one was ready for the sheer winsome creativity of this when Twenty One Pilots dropped it into a world on the cusp of critical political insanity back in 2015. Body-movin’ beats, melodic hooks worthy of British Sea Power, charismatic rapping and a cocktail of sounds less an eclectic mishmash than the band’s own boisterous but integrated pop vision. It’s a bit too touchy-feely at times, a bit too millennial drippy, but most of the time Josh Dun and Tyler Joseph channel their angst into heady fun. And hell, we might as well have some before the shit hits the fan.

14. Punisher by Phoebe Bridgers (2020)

Punisher is an album of mostly quiet indie folk, which makes it hard to connect to Phoebe Bridgers destroying a guitar on stage at Saturday Night Live. Overall, Punisher is much too sweet for such The Who-esque antics. It’s a joy of introspective singer-songwriting born of the grief Bridgers experienced losing her dog Max in 2019, as she told Pitchfork. The Plague Nurse is so smitten that she even purchased The National’s 2023 release First Two Pages of Frankenstein for the two tracks featuring Bridgers, despite the album also featuring Taylor Swift.

15. “Now and Then” by The Beatles (2023)

The Plague Nurse had the misfortune of grimly clawing into the world too late to hear a new Beatles track for the first time on the radio when the Fab Four was together but the good fortune of being around for post-breakup singles “Free as a Bird,” “Real Love” and “Now and Then.” “Now and Then” is the best of these, in part due to the A.I. used to break down an old demo for seamless reworking. Like so many of the best Beatles tracks, it’s deceptively simple, and like so many of the best solo work written by John Lennon, it’s an expression of raw emotion equal parts pain and love.

What are your thoughts on the selections on this list? What were you listening to in 2023? What did you love and what did you hate? Is there any must-listen metal the Plague Nurse missed out on? She wants to know, so drop her a comment, and remember to play whatever you love as loud as you can as you ring in the new year.

[1] The Plague Nurse enjoyed In Flames’s Forgone, Immortal’s War Against All, Wolves in the Throne Room’s Crypt of Ancestral Knowledge and Dark Sanctuary’s Cernunnos. But Insomnium’s Anno 1696 was boring, and Metallica’s 72 Seasons made her finally declare the band dead. For starters, the cover art is so ugly that it made her throw up in her mask a little bit.

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J.P. Williams

I usually write about the intersection of arts and ideas. Right now, mostly lighter, shorter pieces on whatever I feel like.