Songs are soundtracks. No matter what you’re doing, when you have a song in your ears then it feels more purposeful, more meaningful – more memorable. Perhaps the perfect song comes up at the right time – a Wednesday guitar jam while casually cruising above the speed limit, an ANOHNI heartbreaker to soak up your tears at the end of a long day, a Jessie Ware anthem at the end of the working week. Hell, sometimes the incongruity of a song arriving in a random moment sears it on your mind for a long time.

Every year is made up of a tapestry of these moments, mental postcards that your mind will always be sent back to when a song comes wafting out of history. If you listen to music the way we here at BPM listen to music, then your year must have been jam packed with such treasures, as 2023 provided us yet another mountain of music to sift through to find the melodies, lyrics and moments that resonate with us.

As ever, it’s impossible to whittle it down to just 50 single tracks that captured the year that was. But, with something approaching consensus, that’s what the BPM team has attempted to do again for 2023. Hopefully you’ll connect with us over shared faves that you’ve attached to places in your heart, but discover just as many new ones ready to work their way in there. Enjoy!

Listen to a Spotify playlist of our Top 50 Songs of 2023 here.


Liv.e – “Find Out”

[In Real Life/AWAL]

Girl in the Half Pearl, one of the lushest, most brilliantly shining releases of the year, documented an incredible development for Dallas-born Liv.e. Somewhat extraterrestrial, her music shifted forms and genres, an intimate and beautiful exploration of womanhood and emotional experiences. On “Find Out”, she focuses on the dynamics within a difficult relationship, choosing an Afro-futurist soundscape as a backdrop for her incredible alternative R’n’B. Seductive, the song flirts itself forward, occasionally bubbling up, whistling like a strange species of birds that observes the lovers in the song.

Liv.e’s imagery is seductive, and strangely compelling in its simplicity: “Watch the leaves fall down in the summer / Pick a flower too young from his mother / So hot take my coat off when it’s late at night / So cold I turn him into another”. The love-ins become violent sessions of grief (“Feel the sun burnin on my shoulders / Everyday on my chest like a boulder”), as the narrator struggles with how to end the entanglement. She ends on the chorus of “I guess you’ll find out find out baby / The hard way”, but admits the love still exists. The melancholia is deeply buried in her voice, finding a beautiful tone between upset and longing. It’s an incredible showcase from a unique talent that many have yet to discover. Start here – you won’t regret the tryst! – John Wohlmacher


Vagabon – “Do Your Worst”


Pegged as indie rock when she debuted, Vagabon has done much to reject the label since. Sliding into creative art pop with her self-titled sophomore album in 2019, Laetitia Tamko bucked expectations once again with this year’s glorious Sorry I Haven’t Called. Bizarrely unsung despite relative acclaim, the album launched Vagabon into territory that can only be considered one thing above all: irresistibly catchy. Tamko toying with pop was nothing new, but few might have imagined she’d ever be this danceable.

Gleefully irreverent, the album pulls from Berlin, jungle music, breakbeats, and far more, presenting a vision that somehow feels like it exists between the poles of Avril Lavgine, Half Waif, and P!nk circa Missundaztood. Choosing a track that represents this mostly fully is nigh impossible, with each providing a certain delight, from the hazy, lazy glide of “Made Out with Your Best Friend” to the gorgeous, mournful melancholy of “Autobahn”, to the trance-like electronica of “You Know How”. Still, I’ll try: with its echoing instrumentation, frantic drums, and emotive, sing-song vocals, “Do Your Worst” spirals through a netherworld of supreme pop. Vagabon provides that rarest blend of pop: music that welcomes everyone, yet makes no concessions. – Chase McMullen


Laurel Halo – “Atlas”


If you spend too much time within the confines of Laurel Halo‘s “Atlas”, you’ll lose all sense of the outside world. All that matters is immediate sensation, sound moving across your skin like winter wind. You feel a lateral shift from one reality to another, a transition accompanied by a wall of sound built around strings, synths, things I cannot recognize, dreamlike in its opaqueness yet determined to hold your attention. It’s one of her most emotionally charged songs, the sound of someone waking after a long rest, the early morning sun draped against closed eyelids. This graceful cacophony is welcomed, embraced, and we are left to stitch ourselves back together. – Joshua Pickard


Kara Jackson – “Dickhead Blues”

[September Recordings]

It’s rare for a debut album from a burgeoning indie folk artist to sound as confident and honest as Kara Jackson’s Why Does the Earth Give Us People to Love? And perhaps the best example of her ability to create intricate melodies, carefully curated layers of sound, and unexpected structural left turns, comes in the excellent “Dickhead Blues”. This alliteration-heavy ode to all the jerks out there establishes Jackson as an artist unafraid to speak her mind and does so in a spectacularly entertaining fashion. By the song’s end, Jackson proclaims herself “pretty top-notch”, and with a track as assured as this one, it’s hard not to agree. – Grady Penna


Home Is Where – “Skin Meadow”

[Wax Bodega]

It was a warm summer day when I strode into the BPM office, greeted by the excited shouts of my co-writers, exclaiming “SKIN MEADOW SKIN MEADOW SKIN MEADOW SKIN MEADOW SKIN MEADOW SKIN MEADOW SKIN MEADOW SKIN MEADOW”! Joining their congregation around the water cooler, I exclaimed what the fuck was going on around here and whether or not psychedelics were in the mix. They weren’t – my comrades were merely excited as hell about the opening track of Home is Where‘s new album.

And it’s easy to see why: the singalong appeal of the indie-emo blockbuster is infectious, and just as the song has established its patterns, it introduces a singing-saw solo, which leads to a massive guitar and trumpet led climax. “Skin Meadow” feels like a lost classic of the Bush2-era, when emo found a footing in the midwestern Indie-scene as kind of a sonic petri-dish that defied the conservative constraints of the mainstream.

There’s also the surreal body horror of its lyrics, which the album gradually delves further into later: “Kites and intestines / Tangled in branches / I’m spilling my guts / To the gutless”. Reflecting on 9/11 through the lens of horror, frontwoman Brandon MacDonald (one of the few trans-gender bandleaders of the genre) also brings a genuine tension to her delivery, suggesting deep relations between cataclysmic events and our individual perspectives on what our soul is – and how our body can be at odds with both. In this, she finds a folkloristic expression of American landscapes, underscored by the haunting sounds of the singing saw. Strange, viral rock music, that effortlessly connects the past with the present. – John Wohlmacher


Jessie Ware – “Begin Again”


The day-to-day reality of most working people is a repetitive grind. We look to films, television, music and other entertainment to escape. On “Begin Again”, Jessie Ware meets us on our level and whisks us off into a high-class drama. Like Beyonce did on “Break My Soul”, Ware here steps out of her heels and into her scuffed up work shoes, wondering “Is this my life?” Fortunately, she has a cracking disco backing and her unparalleled pipes to lift her – and us – out of this drudgery into a reverie of high drama and romance. 

On one level, her questions “why do my realities take over all my dreams?”; “why does all the purest love get filtered through machines?” and “can we begin again?” are forlorn – but set to the irresistible glamour of silvery strings, quicksilver guitars and pristine harmonies, we instead get a glimpse of what life could be. The song builds alongside its vivid cravings, horn punctuations and a four-on-the-floor backbone demanding that you dance through the drudgery to an unknown peak where you’ll finally discover “a love that’s even better than it seems”. It’s just a hair’s breadth away while “Begin Again” is playing – only for the grey day to reconvene around your shoulders when silence returns. – Rob Hakimian


Jamila Woods – “Tiny Garden” (feat. duendita)


Though its beat isn’t that close to “Sexual Healing,” moments into “Tiny Garden” the possibility remains of Marvin Gaye whispering, “Get up, get up / Wake up, wake up.” After that point, the dissimilarities only multiply. “Tiny Garden” sets the table for Jamila Woods’ remarkably mature Water Made Us, and likewise does so for a fragile, new relationship. It manages expectations and underscores practical measures (“It’s not gonna be a big production… feed it everyday”), but what keeps it from being a dry, “How to keep your man!” Cosmo-columnist puff piece is the Marvin in her who’s clearing his throat and tugging at waistbands: “I think of you when I wake / a premonition of fate,” paradoxically masking her desires in the name of openness and honesty. – Steve Forstneger


Jess Williamson – “Time Ain’t Accidental”

[Mexican Summer]

The first thing I notice about the title track of Jess Williamson’s fifth album Time Ain’t Accidental is her voice. It sounds relaxed, laid back, and effortlessly pretty. But I also notice her accent, betraying her roots as a Dallas/North Texas native. The way words like “experimental” curve out of her mouth like little curlicues of silken smoke, it’s instantly entrancing. Her voice is a clear, crystalline instrument, but it helps that “Time Ain’t Accidental” is also so incredibly catchy, with a chorus that is one of the year’s gummiest melodies.

Williamson’s lyric retells a series of snapshots from a would’ve been/could’ve been relationship. Indelible fragments about the person being “someone else’s baby” or reading Raymond Carver by the pool bar lend the song a heart-tugging specificity, as Williamson’s narrative seems to follow one of those moments in life where everything suddenly seems to be linking up, only for it to potentially blow out just as swiftly. The music behind her — a simple blend of gauzy country instrumentation and a lo-fi beat — supports her singing beautifully. Williamson has been a songwriter to watch for some time, but here on this album and on this eponymous song, she shows just how deserving she is of our attention. – Jeremy J. Fisette


Protomartyr – “Rain Garden”


As Joe Casey sat next to his fiancee (now wife) by a rain garden, in a Taco Bell parking lot, he was struck by the sudden realisation that this, right here, was the happiest moment of his life.

The closer of Protomartyr‘s Formal Growth in the Desert describes this moment in lurid, wildly romantic language and rousing desert-dock. Attempting to catch the pathos and majesty of Ennio Morricone soundtracks without rehashing Western cliches, the band composed a jaw-dropping, rousing composition with “Rain Garden”, which sounds like an armada overrunning the liminal space of the titular structure, all pounding war drums and pedal steel guitars that screech like strings. It’s grandiose and impossible to forget. But the most striking element of the song comes in Casey’s part.

Encompassing the inner struggle that led him through the album, he describes landscapes of loneliness and isolation, before finally coming to the revelatory conclusion “I am deserving of love! / They’ll say it’s just a love song / But love has found me / Clay-birthed, shale-born / They found me”. Embracing a moment of upheaval with immense joy, he quotes the biblical Song of Solomon: “My love is a feast / I am drunk on them / We sleep / Honey on the lips / Sugar under the tongue / In the vineyards of the night / They are the queen of the night”. As the song breaks down, and then comes galloping back, he finishes in a tone that Morrissey would kill for: “My love, kiss me / Kiss me before I go” – the mantra “make way for tomorrow” of the opening track transformed into “make way for my love”!

A powerful, intensely emotional song, “Rain Garden” breaks free from the sentimental constraints so often put onto how we perceive love songs, simultaneously defying the self-hatred enshrined within so many of us that takes away from the immensity of love. A battle cry of a free soul, it’s one of the rare modern Rock songs that deserves to be deemed iconic: a true, honest revelation. – John Wohlmacher


Jeff Rosenstock – “3 Summers”

[Specialist Subject]

The closing track is a daunting task for any, but to round out his latest record HELLMODE, pop punk eccentric Jeff Rosenstock dropped jaws with the record’s colossal parting number “3 Summers”.

A multi-phased behemoth beaming with resilience and self-compassion amidst perpetual chaos, Rosenstock knows his listeners’ weariness and offers a bit more than what we’re used to — though incredibly grateful for. Beyond its initial pop-punk fervor, the song veers from Rosenstock’s formula; it’s an unexpected shapeshifter, an evolving seven-minute journey of forlorn depths and emotional crescendos that harness every moment of its seven minutes to convince his listeners to press on — to “stay young until we die,” Rosenstock implores his listeners. – Kyle Kohner


Portrayal of Guilt – “III (Burning Hand)”

[Run For Cover]

Turning rancid post-hardcore songs into orchestral alternatives may sound bonkers – or it may sound perfectly normal, depending what angle you’re coming from. Either way, this is what Portrayal of Guilt set out to do on Devil Music, presenting five tracks in their usual scabrous style, then reproducing them as orchestral alternates.

While the whole project is successful, “III (Burning Hand)” is the pinnacle of the orchestral segment. The original’s rampaging guitars are re-rendered into a gallivanting array of strings that could easily soundtrack an approaching army in an epic fantasy film. Matt King’s ungodly rasp sounds perfectly at home atop these undulating cellos and violins – the leader of the goblin army calling them onward.

As “III (Burning Hand)” pivots into its coda of see-sawing violin and hissing atmospherics, his voice becomes a low but clear growl, and what seemed to be bloodlust turns out to just be pure lust: “Her burning hand will always haunt me / Bound by desire, lusting over me,” he describes, his words coming clearer than ever before on a Portrayal of Guilt song. “She paints my body in her own blood / It’s like I’m living in a nightmare” he describes, signing off with a stark and unforgettable image. – Rob Hakimian


Titanic – “Cielo Falso”

[Unheard of Hope]

Sounding like Vince Guaraldi spent some time in the studio with Mega Bog, “Cielo Falso” finds Mabe Fratti and Héctor Tosta picking apart the foundations of jazz and 70’s folk-rock while filtering their efforts through the lens of their experimental pop impulses. Titanic‘s track stretches out beyond seven minutes, a breathtaking rumination on existential crises built upon a closed piano riff that consumes multiple layers of synths, strings and sax. The song commands a disorienting tension, one that never really resolves, opting to continue its journey of discovery rather than place an artificial ending to what is an ongoing search for personal identity. – Joshua Pickard


Julie Byrne – “Death Is The Diamond”

[Ghostly International]

Even though Julie Byrne’s long-awaited third album The Greater Wings was almost entirely finished before the death of her longtime close collaborator Eric Littman, it was hard not to listen to it with that cataclysm in mind. The album retained much of what made her previous album so special, and refined it to a sharper and more robust point, adding in more electronic textures, piano balladry, and more variation in tone. Only one song was reportedly written after Littman’s untimely passing: the closing “Death is the Diamond”.

Set atop dramatic and slow piano chords, Byrne ruminates on missing Littman, expressing the beauty he lent to her life, and considering what to do now. The lyrics are largely cryptic, but then little specifics leak out — namely, the heart-tugging “You made me feel like the prom queen that I never was”, or the yearning “I’ve been missing you with my whole life” — and the song gets quietly ushered into a higher echelon, cementing its place amongst the better laments of recent years. 

I’m not entirely sure what the eponymous line means, but perhaps it’s that death is not something that happens in isolation, or that death is not a simple singular moment. Instead, the death of a loved one refracts their whole life (and yours) into a million pieces, leaving you to examine the intersecting images. Byrne does that here with grace, tenderness, and hard-won warmth and wisdom. It’s a melancholy but gorgeous finale to an album full of such qualities. – Jeremy J. Fisette


Armand Hammer – “The Gods Must Be Crazy”

[Fat Possum]

From the first moments of Armand Hammer‘s “The Gods Must be Crazy”, it’s apparent that this is El-P’s world, and billy woods and ELUCID are primed to explore it. The stage is set for them to shake the timbers within the realm of the producer’s recognizable hip-hop ethos, making the earth tremble as they speak on appropriation, middle age ennui, and their desire to rise above the noise of society’s warped expectations. The beat feels elastic, pulled taut and snapping back over and over again, stretching into a malleable canvas for woods and ELUCID to converse about the future and how best to shape it for future generations. – Joshua Pickard


JPEGMAFIA & Danny Brown – “Steppa Pig”


JPEGMAFIA and Danny Brown are hip-hop oracles, always looking into some distant future where sound is delineated and disassembled, rebuilt into a staggering colossus of rhythmic architecture. And so it goes on Scaring the Hoes, their debut collaboration, an album of pure chaos and brilliance.

You can hear the mechanisms of music breaking down on highlight “Steppa Pig”, a track as volatile and manic as anything either has ever released, corrugated drums barking in stride with whirling keys and rumbling bass contours before ascending into a blur of cosmic radiance. Fuck, it’s good. – Joshua Pickard


Tinashe – “None Of My Business”

[Nice Life]

RCA be damned, it continues to be sublime to watch Tinashe be just the Queen she always deserved to be, with the salty tears of Chris Brown only making it all the more delicious. Beginning with the all but the perfect Songs for You and continuing with the ambitious 333, Tinashe extended her seemingly undefeatable streak with this year’s BB/ANG3L. Despite its brevity, it proved another slice of pop delight.

To my ears, the standout is the woozy “None of My Business”. Set against a scattered, clattering, and ethereal musical backdrop, Tinashe mourns a situationship that hasn’t quite ended, but really ought to. “I guess if there’s someone else / that’s none of my business,” she concedes, all before firing off shots in all directions (including some at herself). It’s another display of a pop artisan at her most deft, self-aware, and icy. – Chase McMullen


OLTH – “sOng fOr jOrdan”

[Zegema Beach]

Self-styled “New York Screamo Fuck You” band, OLTH have only been together for two years and their Zegema Beach Records debut, every day is sOmeOne’s speciaL day, reputedly presents the first nine songs they ever wrote in the order in which they written. It’s an astonishing first release: raw, chaotic, violent, uncompromisingly uncommercial, yet oddly melodic and unusually memorable, like all the best of late 90s and early 2000s screamo. Vocalist, Sean Kennedy, delivers his lyrics either as a barely audible, deadpan mumble or a soul-piercing, ungodly distorted shriek that recalls The Body’s Chip King after way too many stimulants.

“sOng fOr jOrdan” crops up on the back end of the album between two relentlessly brutal slices of chaotic hardcore. It disarms by ambling in on a gentle bass guitar pattern, stutteringly jazzy drums and a minimal post-rock guitar melody. Kennedy seemingly speaks into a dictaphone, recording stray thoughts about waking up from a dream that morning. At the minute mark, the music falls away and the most triumphant moment on the record unveils itself in all its majesty, and Kennedy screeches as if he’s trying to pull his lungs out through his throat.

Like the rest of the album it’s thrilling in its unbridled energy and fierceness of attack, but it’s also beautiful and affecting in a way that catches you off guard. It even functions as structural foreshadowing, winding up having its mirror image in the album’s devastating closer, ‘THe lasT sOng’ which starts chaotic and ends in a beautiful post-rock reverie. Screamo has been enjoying a very fruitful revival over the past few years, but it’s by no means the most accessible of genres. However, if you were going to listen to just one screamo record this year, make it OLTH’s. – Andy Johnston


Spanish Love Songs – “Haunted”

[Pure Noise]

The sheer upheaval of emotions that Dylan Slocum goes through on “Haunted” requires more than just a few moments to process as a listener. The frontman of Spanish Love Songs traverses through pulling over for a post-breakup cry, contemplating death after seeing a body in a McDonald’s parking lot, and accepting fame that never came. And the relief that comes at the end of it is even easy to miss.

“Haunted” is a song that finds its way to joy and reassurance, a friend reaching out through the darkness. “You’re not haunted / You just miss everything / You’re not a cautionary tale / So don’t you vanish on me,” Slocum pleads over a vibrant rush of synth pop that The Killers wish they came up with first. Take a moment and breathe. Spanish Love Songs are the light at the end of the tunnel, beckoning you into their arms. – Ray Finlayson


IVE – “섬찟 (Hypnosis)”

[Starship Entertainment]

IVE excel at making a romantic proposition feel outright ominous. Even in a moment all but dominated by NewJeans, IVE broke through the crowded noise of K-pop with their first full-length LP, I’ve IVE. “Kitsch” may have been the clear choice for a lead single, but IVE proved themselves capable of standing in rarified girl group company: propelling successfully across a full album, rather than subsisting off airtight singles and mini-albums. TWICE may still be leading that race, but IVE flexed across B-sides as well as their A-sides.

The strongest example of this may well be “Hypnosis”. Lyrically, the song wilds love as a weapon, bristling with the likes of, “You’ll fall for me instantly,” and “You halt and your gestures say you’ve fallen,” threatening to ‘torment’ their suitor. As ever, a bit is lost in translation, but you get the idea. With a musical backdrop that swerves between pitched up (and pitched down) distorted vocals, break beat-like drums, a brazen guitar riff, and – most addictingly – keys that wouldn’t have sounded entirely out of place on Dr. Dre’s 2001, it’s the perfect display of K-pop at its best: pulling from countless influences with abandon and a lack of restraint. It’s an essential component of a major homerun from a refreshingly mature, ambitious act. – Chase McMullen


Model/Actriz – “Mosquito”

“I want this life”, Model/Actriz singer Cole Haden repeats, over and over, as if to try and convince himself that he does indeed want it, as if to force-resolve his palpable ambivalence. His sputtering vocal is complemented by short-lived flurries and echoing explosions, instrumentation collaged, fractured, and reassembled. As the piece progresses, Haden identifies with the pesky parasite, his descriptions venturing into a gothy lushness reminiscent of Anne Rice (“delicious and everything gushing / ripe and crimson”). Haden’s delivery and the instrumentation grow more unpredictable, vacillating between ecstasy and narcotization, between depressive overwhelm and manic invincibility.

Ultimately, we witness in three-plus minutes a multifaceted response to contemporary life – defiance, exhaustion, passivity, violence. What’s repressed has to come out, what comes out gets once again repressed. Ad infinitum. Ad nauseum, Model/Actriz decrying the shadows of capitalism, Christianity, and the puritanical work ethic. In the end, who’s sucking who dry? Sometimes the victim has to ape the oppressor in order to liberate themselves. “Mosquito” is more than a song; it’s a theatrical presentation, a jaw-slackening psychodrama. – John Amen




For many, ICECOLDBISHOP seemed to appear from nearly out of nowhere, skipping right past the typical hype cycle hip hop artists tend to be obligated to before putting out a proper debut, leaping out all but immediately with the masterful GENERATIONAL CURSE. The truth, naturally, is that the process was more gradual, with BISHOP popping up on future Shady Records signee GRIP’s boldest statement, Snubnose, back in 2019, as well as working with Boldy James & The Alchemist in 2021.

Nonetheless, just how fully realized his vision was proved a delightful, if grim, surprise. Most artists so clearly wearing an influence as titanic as Kendrick Lamar on their sleeve would be dead on arrival (see: J.I.D), but BISHOP twists Lamar’s vision (and, at times, delivery) into a cold mass that is entirely distinct. 

The album’s title says plenty: BISHOP’s worldview is decidedly merciless and gloomy, something, he’d argue, is the only sane response to a merciless and gloomy world. “OUT THE WINDOW”, one of the album’s highlights, weaves back and forth with a nearly careless glee, matching the amused apathy of BISHOP’s heartless chest-thumping. As ever, he mixes the hollow pride of such a lifestyle with unsettling, prescient commentary on his experience: “N***a, I was born inside this noose from my neck,” he offers as nearly an aside amidst the drivebys and boasts. Here is where some listeners may miss the artistry within his music: ICECOLDBISHOP offers his most insightful thoughts amidst decay and seering brutality. Is it cruel? Of course. Yet, that’s the reality he, and so many, were raised within. – Chase McMullen


Dougie Poole – “Nothing On This Earth Can Make Me Smile”

[Wharf Cat]

Dougie Poole knows something we don’t. Though he claims “nothing on this earth could make me smile” multiple times across the track of the same name, he still allows himself time to chuckle lightly in the middle of it all. It’s part of the song’s appeal: that knowing lilt in his voice over delicate fingerpicked guitar and swooning pedal steel. The devastation comes in biblical proportions and everyday woes; has there been a more unassuming and deprecating line than “My troubles stackеd like dishes in a crooked pilе” this year? Nonetheless, Poole sings with a plain-faced acceptance. You won’t find the source of his smirk, but he makes looking for it repeatedly such a wonderful task. – Ray Finlayson


Infant Island – “Another Cycle”

[Secret Voice]

Like a chunk of blistering hot stone driven out of the night sky to collide with the earth, Infant Island’s “Another Cycle” is a staggering assault of sound and movement, with banshee vocals, mountainous percussion, and scalding guitar riffs battering one another in a vain attempt to escape our terrestrial gravity. With a primordial roar, the Virginia screamo band steps out of the shadows of its origins to embrace a noise both volcanic and oddly hummable. Merging black metal with post-rock and punk, “Another Cycle” leaves nothing but scorched landscapes and smoldering bodies in its wake. – Joshua Pickard


NewJeans – “Super Shy”

[ADOR Co.]

What to even say about this dang song that hasn’t been said? During an era in which the global pop consciousness continues to be, if not downright dominated by, certainly supremely affected by the small peninsula of South Korea, “Super Shy” was, without a doubt, the K-pop song of 2023. I certainly can’t do it justice. The song, dare I say, nearly transcends pop itself. Erika de Casier, doubtlessly, is a key player here, with ADOR brilliantly tapping her K-pop-abstinent self to help guide NewJeans’ second mini-album, Get Up

The song boasts a palpable nostalgia, all while sounding entirely like the future. It’s shockingly patient for a pop smash, preferring to stride with ease rather than dash forward. Even amidst its aquatic drum and bass, and the distant sounds that feel propelled out of some lost Gamecube classic,  it possesses a supreme sense of calm. This very sense of calm cleverly offsets its lyrical theme of the panic that comes along with a potential newfound love. The members’ own contributions can’t go unsung, with each vocal hitting just the right feeling, capturing a real beauty that’s hard to deny. Displaying both the poise required to excel in K-pop alongside the delightful clumsiness of its concept, there wasn’t a more supreme moment in pop music this year. – Chase McMullen


Wednesday – “Chosen To Deserve”

[Dead Oceans]

Opening yourself up to someone you love – or are falling in love with – can be embarrassing, exciting, intimate – but for some it might feel downright shameful. Wednesday vocalist Karly Hartzman faces this latter feeling as she ponders the dubious honour of being “the girl that you have chosen to deserve” in the band’s kick-out-the-jams rocker. “We always started by tellin’ all our best stories first” she coyly admits in the intro, building herself up to letting all her worst stories loose; “just so you know what you signed up for”. 

Amidst rollercoaster riffing and twanging pedal steel she starts to peel away new layers of her history: weekends spent getting drunk and high on benadryl until one of her friends overdosed, sneaking into people’s pools before teaching Sunday School, fucking in the back seats of SUVs, skipping school to get drunk and piss in the streets. It’s a laundry list of teenage and young adult misbehaviour that Hartzman has hidden away from her prospective life partner that suddenly all comes out in a torrent. However, having got it all off her chest in the most emphatic way, she settles down in “Chosen To Deserve” by revealing that “Now everything is loneliness and it’s in everything” – but her soon-to-be betrothed is the one to save her from the darkness; “Thank God I was chosen to deserve you / ‘Cause I’m the girl that you were chosen to deserve”. – Rob Hakimian


PJ Harvey – “A Child’s Question, August”


Polly Jean had been gone for a few years, when all of a sudden she returned – as usual, a riddle cloaked in a cypher. “A Child’s Question, August” is both comforting and ominous, a halfling between rock and folk, partially in Dorset accent, and entranced within the personal mythology of PJ Harvey‘s poetry tome Orlam. Therein, nine year old Ira lives her last summer of childhood, worshipping a ghostly entity known as ‘Wyman-Elvis’. This entity is embodied by Ben Whishaw’s tender voice, who puts Elvis’ “Love Me Tender” into the beaks of “dunnock, drush or dove”. All while referencing Macbeth (“Hear the grinding wheel-bird grieve / Grief unknits my ravelled sleeve” directly plays off Shakespeare’s “Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care / The death of each day’s life”).

A deeply poetic song, Harvey manages to embody a sense of ghost-like weightlessness through echoing guitars and sparse heartbeat-like percussion. August is, of course, the end of summer, and Ira faces this passing in the movement of birds, their bird song strangely aligned with the music of what she perceives to be a god. The biblical love in the will of god becomes Elvis singing, huskily – Harvey’s own “Tender Love” a downward movement to contrast Presley’s “Love me sweet” up. “A Child’s Question, August” thus works as hymn to Dorset’s gothic landscape – all cliffs and castles, howling winds and gothic moors – and occult ritual in the wild imagination of a child whose inner bible comes as pop-culture. It’s not meant to be explained – but solely felt, a force of nature. – John Wohlmacher


Drop Nineteens – “Scapa Flow”

[Wharf Cat]

With their first album in 30 years, Drop Nineteens revisit the shoegaze MO embraced on 1992’s Delaware and 1993’s National Coma. They also, however, free themselves from stylistic constraints, embracing some of the most buoyant and pop-aspirant sounds in their oeuvre.

“Scapa Flow” shows the band forging a mix of ebullient drums and well-distorted guitars. Lyrically, the song works with abstractions and collagist bents, balancing semi-foreboding and semi-optimistic images (“shallow wrecks” vs. “so blue and clear”). Greg Ackell’s vocal, however, is as unmuffled and crystalline as ever. The song’s melody, too, is as shimmery and hook-laden as anything in the band’s body of work. In this way, they blend the weightier tones of classic shoegaze with a pop know-how that points to The Lemonheads and Wilco as much as Days and Atlas-era Real Estate.

With Hard Light, Drop Nineteens strive for and often achieve rich sonic paradoxes. “Scapa Flow” is one of the project’s standout tracks, the band reemploying familiar approaches while stretching themselves, claiming a broader and more free-flowing range. – John Amen


Yo La Tengo – “Sinatra Drive Breakdown”


On “Sinatra Drive Breakdown”, as on the rest of This Stupid World, Yo La Tengo use their mastery of atmosphere to more sinister ends. Ira Kaplan’s guitar screeches like a car about to fall apart. James McNew’s bass, together with Georgia Hubley’s unwavering percussion, gives the song an ominous drive reminiscent of a dream that’s about to become a nightmare, one that you’re helpless to wake up from. The song’s lyrics only reinforce this sentiment: fond memories (“I see the thought of home”) are immediately tempered with today’s reality (“I see nothing / I see it swinging too”). The trio repeats “Until we all break” like a premonition, and then the song’s final line adds one more word that seals all our fates: “Until we all break down.”

Yes, “Sinatra Drive Breakdown” is, on its surface, an ode to the Hoboken, New Jersey waterfront boulevard. But it also sets the stage for an album that’s a frank reflection of the bleakness of the world today. We may be on our way towards the end of days, but at least Yo La Tengo’s here to provide the soundtrack. – Carlo Thomas


Naked Lungs – “Relentless”


Within normalcy resides the very undoing of the human race. It’s the hideous that we accept – the systems which feed upon our flesh and souls – which ultimately consumes our humanity. Earlier this year, I wrote about the burgeoning genre of Futurismus as a direct reflection of the ghastly neoliberal hellscape sliding into cataclysmic, privatised warfare, which our world has become. I couldn’t have imagined the horrors we were yet to see. But, somehow, Naked Lungs managed to capture the reigning feeling of terror, with their dissolving brand of corrosive punk rock that ferociously rendered the everyday into a burning, hellish river of blood. “Relentless” is, as the name indicates, their most explosive and unforgiving song; on an album rich in mini-masterpieces, it rules them all!

Beginning with the repetitive grind of early morning commute, a protagonist describes himself: “Fragile, so hold me upright / Isolated living on this overcrowded train ride / The journeys never finished, relentless is the pain”. Soon, the routine turns to something more hazardous, as the train carriage turns into a horror show and guitars cut through the song’s structure: “Bone upon bone Hazardous breathing / You’re on your own, your eyes they mislead me / Empowered by living, but what is the cost / To live in the moment, when death always stalks?” In the final verse, as the narrator loses all sense of self and madness overtakes him, vocalist Tom Brady cries like a demonic entity, at the top of his lungs, over and over again: “Relentless! Relentless! Relentless!” The world explodes around him in phantasmagoric noise, a killing, hungry machine, industrialised cannibalism as the last vestige of an ancient religion of evil: to feed, unendingly. This is a warning – listen to it! – John Wohlmacher


Animal Collective – “Stride Rite”


Loss crept over 2023 like an all invading fog, clouding the minds and blanketing the hearts. Here we were, clinging on to moments, children again that longed for an embrace. “Stride Ride” allowed to make sense of these experiences, a lullaby caught in amber, the melancholy of an autumn day locked in song. Cementing Deakin’s status as the George Harrison counterpart of Animal Collective, this is the group’s “Something”: one of their very best, most moving compositions. Carried forward by piano and Deakin’s voice, a spectre of Dennis Wilson, “Stride Ride” is as melancholic as it is beautiful, cementing that, after their great record last year, Animal Collective had finally returned with a full fledged masterpiece.

Deakin had been a rare contributor to the band over the years, and only released a handful of songs fronted by himself – yet each of those stood among the best of the collective’s united and solo output. Here, he too tries to make sense of loss, portraying death in bittersweet poetry: “She’s lying sideways / Peering through the open blouse / Discovering her mother’s dying heart / And feels safe in the arms / She’d grown old just to know / Then let them go”. It’s devastating, but comforting likewise. “Stride Ride” postulates that nothing is lost, that cyclical experiences allow for forgiveness and love to be recaptured. That, ultimately, we don’t have to repeat our errors, and ultimately, move on, past death, and live besides the absence. There’s great wisdom here, in the childlike gaze and gold-hued light of the song’s words: “Ah, this winter’s sorrow’s hard, I know / But you’ve been through worse and back / All in time”. Life is a miracle – let’s embrace it, even with loss. – John Wohlmacher


Fever Ray – “Kandy”


When Karin Deijer utters “All girls want candy” on the refrain of “Kandy”, the best song from their newest record as Fever Ray, Radical Romantics, it’s a little unclear what’s really being said. Sung in their trademark voice, softly obscured by effects, the song’s lyrics are beguiling and bewildering, hinting at romantic reconnection and sweetness. Rather common song subjects, sure, but set atop a squiggling synth and very Knife-reminiscent steel drum sounds, the song takes on a deeply mysterious and carnal drive. Like almost anything that seeps out Dreijer’s mouth, it sounds almost witchy or threatening, but “Kandy” proves there’s certainly room for some sweetness in the cauldron.

Across Radical Romantics, Dreijer treats us to a new slew of bizarre, catchy, slick, icy synthpop. Alternately beautiful and eerie — and sometimes both — Dreijer is rarely better than when making a Fever Ray record. Their self-titled debut remains a highlight of the genre, and while 2017’s Plunge wasn’t as memorable or powerful as that record, it still proved that Fever Ray was no fluke. Now, on this third effort, and especially on such scrumptious morsels as “Kandy”, they’ve proven again how much of a force they are in the worlds of electronic art pop. – Jeremy J. Fisette


Car Colors – “Old Death”

[Absolutely Kosher]

2003 was a long time ago. I was 18. Charles Bissel of Car Colors was 39, and his band, The Wrens, released their masterpiece of a third album, The Meadowlands to critical acclaim. A follow up was long in the making. And, I mean long. So long in fact that eventually three of The Wrens splintered off to form Aeon Station and release an album which included material originally written for the fourth Wrens record, and The Wrens was declared officially dead by Bissel earlier this year. The cause of the delays? Life, and, shall we say, the perfectionist’s curse.

Yes, Charles Bissel has earned his place in the annals of rock history as one of the great, albeit lesser known, tinkering perfectionists alongside Kevin Shields and Brian Wilson. Little wonder that the band’s motto was, famously, “keeping people waiting since 1989.” And whilst we have been kept waiting, and many longtime fans have had their hopes raised and dashed over the years by Bissel “undoing done songs” (LP4 was reportedly complete in 2013, then 2014, then 2019), it gives me the greatest pleasure to declare that the wait will have been worth it, just to be able to hear the seven-minute debut single from Bissel’s Car Colors project, “Old Death”.

Where The Meadowlands featured a song called “13 Months in 6 Minutes”, “Old Death” could just as aptly have been called “20 Years in 7 Minutes”. It is a life told in song, a scattered, fragmented stream-of-memory of everything that’s been happening to Bissel over the past two decades (kids, cancer, jobs, art, creation, dissolution, joy, pain, love and regret) set to a driving, ascending instrumental that moves through a dozen or so distinct sections, always threatening to break out into a full on crescendo without ever completely doing so. The drumming falls over itself; the guitars do incredible, explosive, beautiful things, bouncing from channel to channel; there are horns! Glorious, melancholic, triumphant horns; and Bissel pushes his limited but hugely expressive voice to breaking point to get everything across. It is a Wrens song that could never be, it is a Car Colors song that resolutely is, it is… a perfect song.

I am pretty much the age Bissel was when The Meadowlands came out. His music somehow means more and speaks more to me now than it did then. Time can be brutal, but it is also a marker of how far we’ve come. Here and now might not be what we had planned, but it sure is something, and as Bissel sings in “Old Death’”s final moments, “there’s more on the way.” – Andy Johnston


MF Tomlinson – “The End Of The Road”

[PRAH Recordings]

Forget your pied piper, MF Tomlinson is the one that will lead you astray and out of town – or from Trafalgar Square to the End of the Road Festival in Dorset to be specific, as he traverses on his softly sprawling track “The End Of the Road”. A sublime exercise in tempered frustration and anger, Tomlinson draws you in with his perfume-like allure. Hymnal-like piano, brass as soft as clouds, and dreamy backing vocals all layer up on each other and swell and sway. “The Tempest was something to behold,” Tomlinson recounts, and it truly is. As the track gently fades out from its crescendo on a trail of voices akin to a protest march heading off into the distance, you’ll want to follow it all the way to the end. You’d be wise to keep up. – Ray Finlayson


Mitski – “My Love Mine All Mine”

[Dead Oceans]

Within the frigid, brooding backdrop of The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We, the warm and wholesome Mitski comes to the fore in wonderful, eyebrow-arching fashion. The delicate “My Love Mine All Mine” is a prime example with its drunken, lovelorn saunter and Mitski’s affable vocal delivery. There’s a gift in defining a force so towering yet intangible as love, somehow making such a sensation pocket-sized and easy to grasp. You can picture the song’s protagonist stopping within the snowy fields to gaze at a brightly-lit full moon, encasing it with her thumb and index finger. A sphere perpetually out of reach, but briefly warded from darkness with a simple gesture. – Jasper Willems


Lana Del Rey – “A&W”


“I haven’t done a cartwheel since I was nine / I haven’t seen my mother in a long, long time”, Lana Del Rey laments, launching her sonic bildungsroman/roman a clef re: lost innocence, debauched sexuality, and ruptured friendship. The opening section is undergirded by a saloon-sounding piano, Del Rey’s vocal customarily melancholic. Mining her affinity for the gilded age and its aftermath, including the glitz and subsequent glare of decadence, she launches into descriptions of throwaway encounters (“we fucked on the hotel floor”), concluding: “This is the experience of being an American whore”.

As the song gains traction, Del Rey accesses memories, crashes into diarism, and possibly gives up on love. Great Gatsby meets Tropic of Cancer meets Anaïs Nin. With a dollop of Marilyn Monroe and a dash of confessional poetry.

Midway the song deconstructs, Del Rey revisiting the trap elements referenced on Born to Die and Lust for Life – fuzzy/warped instrumentation, hollow snare beats, groggy accents. A character named Jimmy is introduced – a player, pimp, and ongoing crush who has made cameos in previous songs. When Del Rey eventually proclaims, “Your mom called I told her you’re fucking up big time”, she seems to revel in some sense of completion, the disillusionment spotlighted in the song’s opening perhaps sublimated via Del Rey getting even. Whatever the narrative, this ain’t exceptionalism, overcoming the cards you’ve been dealt; instead, it’s Del Rey experimenting with the American epic so as to subvert it. “A&W” climaxes with the perfect anticlimax. – John Amen

boygenius the record


boygenius – “Not Strong Enough”


Leave it to the songwriting talents of boygenius to turn something so benign as not wanting to adjust the time into an existential crisis. They understand the stakes of such inaction, how it could be used as justification to strip them of their worthiness of love. This self-doubt may occupy the minds of Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus throughout “Not Strong Enough”, but it’s also something they aim to overcome together as they trade their verses and build up each other’s harmonies. “Always an angel / never a God,” goes the song’s bridge, a reference to the expectations of gender roles that still weigh down our best artists even in 2023.

But push through they do— “Skip the exit to our old street and go home” they declare at the song’s end, a testament to how our homes and families are defined by our choices, not our pasts. “Not Strong Enough” finds boygenius at their most liberated and self-assured: it’s no wonder they’ve become one of the biggest rock acts around. Here on Earth, boygenius are the patron saints of the underdogs, reminding those who feel they aren’t strong enough that they possess more strength, and are more deserving of love, than they ever imagined. – Carlo Thomas


Superviolet – “Overrater”


Steve Ciolek ending his beloved Sidekicks after five records was a shot to the heart for many, but doing so also gave way to the genesis of Superviolet and his new, charming, though considerably more restrained record, Infinite Spring — restrained with the exception of its lead single, “Overrater”.

Shrouded by the faint folk-pop of its greater entirety, the galloping “Overrater” is a campfire-y singalong struck with a punch of power pop; it’s Infinite Spring‘s loud and emotive core, wearing a smile kept together by a toe-tapping melody and an infectious hook. Assisted by self-referential sentiments concerning his proverbial ‘come-up’ as an artist and snarky lyrics about self-actualization, this warm gesture of a song ultimately appeals to disappointed hearts with striking candor about doubt and authenticity as the song’s final cathartic seconds wane; the oddly triumphant “Overrater” is a dejected anthem replayable at both your worst and most elated self. – Kyle Kohner


Sofia Kourtesis – “Si Te Portas Bonito”

[Ninja Tune]

Sofia Kourtesis‘ music has the blissful and euphoric quality of synapses firing and endorphins drip feeding around your body. “Si Te Portas Bonito”, a highlight from her excellent album Madres, is all this delight sprawled across five minutes. Flashing house synths like streetlights passing overhead on the motorway, a baggy beat that gives plenty of space to move your body between each hit, and Kourtesis’ sugary voice the lift that takes you home. The track is all delight, and Kourtesis executes it in a way that feels like an invitation with each passing second.  – Ray Finlayson


PinkPantheress – “Boy’s a liar Pt. 2” (feat. Ice Spice)


Feel any way you want about Ice Spice: this was her year, and her scene-stealing verse on this remake of PinkPantheress’s “Boy’s a Liar” (the original dropped in 2022) gave an early February drop longevity enough to become the song of the summer. Ice Spice’s verse had me laying awake at night thinking about “He say that I’m good enough / Grabbin’ my duhduhduh” – only the opening couplet of a perfect 28 seconds. The rest of it ranges from braggadocious (“he know that ass fat”) to vulnerable (“but I can’t sleep enough without you”!!!) and in between (“it been what it been”), encapsulating the song’s central theme of rejecting the one who’s spurned you, as difficult as it may be to reclaim your own self-worth. All this in less than half a minute, and wrapped up with a cherry on top, that final “grah” adlib. “Boy’s a liar Pt. 2” was the year’s biggest handshake between the USA and UK, and we were all lucky to witness it. – Ethan Reis


Joanna Sternberg – “People Are Toys To You”

[Fat Possum]

In Joanna Sternberg‘s chirpy voice there’s a thorn of confidence, a barb of experience that’s risen from the depths of self-doubt and knows to no longer take shit. On “People Are Toys To You” they unpack the behaviour of a former friend: “You said you stayеd ‘cause you felt bad for me / How sweet of you to call me charity,” they sing over a ragged and upbeat guitar rhythm. Come the chorus Sternberg is practically smiling with relief, turning a toxic person into a therapeutic melody they can hum away. Each time you hear them sing it you can tell it makes them stronger, so play it over and over to help Sternberg exorcise their demons. – Ray Finlayson


ANOHNI and the Johnsons – “Can’t”

[Rough Trade]

Across My Back Was A Bridge For You To Cross, ANOHNI expresses a spectrum of grief, sadness, anger and deviousness, which are all hinted at in “Can’t” – but the overwhelming emotion is pure, glorious petulance. Pining for her deceased friend (or multiple friends) right from the off, ANOHNI’s voice quivers as she re-phrases her predicament in a multitude of heartbreaking ways; “You are dead and oh so far away / while I am here stranded among the living”; “Can’t be long without seeing your face / Want you now here beside me “I don’t like it / can’t endure it”. Death is a fact, ANOHNI understands that – but, in this moment, she can’t accept it.

As “Can’t” gradually builds through waves of growing frustration and pain, the guitar and drums pick up into a glorious jaunt and ANOHNI strains to re-state her position: “Want you here now beside me / I don’t care, I just don’t care how.” After that, even as a wafting sax line inserts a new layer of classiness, ANOHNI goes hell-for-leather, beautifully barking over and over: “I don’t want you to be dead / I don’t want you to be dead”. Even as the music fades out on her fury, she’s still spitting: “I won’t have it / I won’t have it”. “Can’t” is simultaneously a blunt force reminder of the permanence of death and one of the most cathartic musical moments of the year. – Rob Hakimian


billy woods and Kenny Segal – “Year Zero” (feat. Danny Brown)

[Backwoodz Studioz]

One of the most brutal reflections of gun violence in the USA, billy woods starts “Year Zero” with the old ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ adage: “I quit lookin’ for solutions / Bought a pistol and learned how to use it.”

His mind then unspools as he tries to process the enormity of the nation’s gun problem. “Sooner or later it’s gon’ be two unrelated active shooters / Same place, same time,” woods predicts early in “Year Zero”, before tossing off the joke-cum-evidence: “Great minds, Tesla and Edison”. It’s a chilling thought, but what with there being more than one shooting a day in the USA in 2023, it hardly seems a remote possibility. It’s one of several whipsmart observations on the horrific state of affairs he unloads in the song; “my taxes pay police brutality settlements” he quips at one point, before referring to the Constitution as “undead” due to its constant updates to allow casual gun ownership that is rife in the nation.

With Kenny Segal’s production looming like a shadow over proceedings and a synth that sounds like a vacuum sucking up the universe, woods lays down the unfortunate marker for the next generation: “Kids, you and your friends gon’ have to start again / It’s nothing you can do with us, we’re fucked up.” 

Danny Brown then sidles into the scene, his helium-voiced flow a foil to the domineering beat. He takes on the role of the senseless gun toter, shoplifting and glorifying gangster action. While more scattershot than woods’ precision bars, Brown adds an unsettling coda to this sobering song. – Rob Hakimian


Susanne Sundfør – “Alyosha”

[Bella Union]

If held too tight, “Alyosha” might shatter in your hands, thousands of crystalline fragments drifting down into the darkness of the world. The song stands out as one of the more conventional tracks on Susanne Sundfør’s blómi, an album littered with eccentric folk-pop arrangements and irregular atmospheres. And here, she finds monumental beauty in simple affections anchored by lush keyboard, elegiac piano tones, and acoustic guitar. There’s nothing complicated, nothing saccharine – just tears streaking down our cheeks as we give her custody of our hearts, byzantine muscles made accessible in her care. – Joshua Pickard


George Clanton – “I Been Young”

[100% Electronica]

If 2018’s “Make It Forever” is the movie theater of George Clanton’s musical mind, “I Been Young” is The Sphere. From its first piano note nine seconds in, “I Been Young” begs to be played loud – to crack open the sky above you, blaring its heavenly chorus-of-the-year down into your ears. This thing is such a monolith of sound that its lyrics wouldn’t even matter, except they’re fantastic. It’s as much about looking backwards as it is owning the present – “And I’ve been wrong / And I’ve been young / Wrong enough to say I’m sorry / Owning up to things I can’t undo.” And even if you thought you were done with 90s nostalgia (vaporwave was what, 11 years ago?), think again: that warped Furby on the single cover is the perfect indicator of this twisted sunshine trip-hop, trapped in a time capsule and unearthed 25 years into the future. Go ahead, listen one more time. Your life will thank you. – Ethan Reis


Caroline Polachek – “Blood and Butter”

[Perpetual Novice]

On “Blood And Butter”, Caroline Polachek makes the album’s title (and mission statement) a reality. “Where did you come from, you?” — Polachek asks this question repeatedly, each time with a renewed sense of awe in the person she’s found. She dresses them up in mythological detail, wants nothing more than to walk beside them with the sun in their eyes. The track is Heaven on Earth — bubbly percussion hits like bright dewdrops, guitar strums glide like the most inviting breeze, and Brighde Chaimbeul’s swooning bagpipe adds to the song’s ethereal appeal. Polacheck’s ra ras close out the song, telling us that she’s entered a state of bliss that can only come from daydreaming about that potentially special someone.

Potentially is the key word — Polacheck might not know this person very well, if at all. Yet she dares to dream nonetheless, dares to get “closer than your new tattoo.” There may be a difference between love and desire, but “Blood And Butter” captures the rush of happiness that comes before those boundaries are defined, that moment when you believe that anything is possible. – Carlo Thomas


Big Thief – “Vampire Empire”


Leave it to a band of Big Thief’s stature to put out just a stray single or two, devoid of any album announcements, and still end up on a Songs of the Year list. The band’s restless energy, carrying over from their monumental 2022 album Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, led to one of their snappiest and shaggiest singles in a while.

“Vampire Empire”, like many Big Thief songs, started as a live favorite. And boy was there some hubbub about the changes they made in the studio version. But alterations aside, “Vampire Empire” stands a great, catchy feather in Big Thief’s ever-growing cap. Adrianne Lenker’s vocals move swiftly across her wordy lyrics, delivering lines like “You turn me inside out, and then you want me outside in / You spin me all around / and then you ask me not to spin” with ease, while the guitars, bass, and drums all shuffle around her in perfect form.

In all honesty, Big Thief could probably do a song like “Vampire Empire” in their sleep. But when you’re as adept at what you do as Big Thief are — really finding their tightly coiled, specific footing over the past few years — even an ostensibly throwaway song remains impressive. – Jeremy J. Fisette


Indigo De Souza – “Younger & Dumber”

[Saddle Creek]

Self-reflection can be a bitch, but on “Younger & Dumber,” Indigo De Souza does so with devastating honesty on one of the most wrenching ballads she’s ever recorded. She reflects on the lover who went on to hurt her “in all the right places,” and how she used that pain to her advantage. But when she declares softly yet unequivocally that this love “Made me somebody,” you suspect that there’s a tinge of doubt running through her mind. Would she trade a little less life experience for a little less pain?

The devastation of this love still holds her down—”Which way will I run when I’m over you? / I don’t feel at home in this town” implies a state of emotional purgatory. Can she push through? Given the song’s sober yet emotional weight — the heavy piano keys, the crying pedal steel, De Souza’s wanting vocals that grow more painful with every line — that future may still be a ways off. But it’s a future she can envision nonetheless, one that’s so potent on “Younger & Dumber” that it’ll be ready for her touch when she’s ready. – Carlo Thomas


Kelela – “Contact”


Ironic in several aspects, “Contact” couldn’t be less tactile. About the heat of a party and an impromptu sexual encounter, the core track to Kelela’s first album in six years comes on like haze with a padded drum and bass beat. It sidles through the throng without brushing any bodies–erotic for the way it teases but never touches. Like the rest of the album Raven, “Contact” recasts Beyoncé’s Renaissance for rave culture with an emphasis on seamlessness. Kelela elevates her ecstasy and instinctive motions above an inherently physical situation, upgrading memories into reveries. “Contact” might be a contact high, heavy air moving through cramped quarters that would otherwise be intolerable were they not so intoxicating. – Steve Forstneger


Sufjan Stevens – “Shit Talk”

[Asthmatic Kitty]

This is going to be a heavy one.

In the middle of this year, somebody I met a long time ago and reconnected with recently decided to end their life. It caused deep ripples in my inner circle, and opened a second half to the year that was marked by sudden, tragic incisions, which transformed the here into sudden diversions of nightmares, manifesting mortality. As days went on, more people opened up about similar experiences, as if the world had collectively shifted into a parallel dimension of shadow walking. Music often comes as a way to escape the brutality of those emotions, at times finding solace in the words and atmospheres an artist conjures to capture their own dance, transforming moments of suffering into actual compositions, and somehow, beauty.

But in the case of Sufjan Stevens, I can’t even begin to imagine the gravitas of the intimately complex relations he has to Javelin. The record released following the death of his partner of many years, Evans Richardson, and a sudden onset of Guillain–Barré syndrome which left him unable to walk. Marked by a strange sense of melancholic euphoria, it camouflages its origins, and holds mystery deep within.

“Shit Talk” is one of its standouts: at eight and a half minutes, the song seemingly comes as a breakup song: “No more fighting / No more talking shit / Do as I say, not as I give up / Not as I’ve failed to live”. But, tearing apart its outer layers, there’s a more complex tapestry at play. Sufjan isn’t so much addressing a partner, as his lyrics begin to reach past this realm to address the cosmic, or spiritual, as if some greater power has uprooted his life: “Did I cross you? / Did I fail to believe in positive thoughts?” The song’s closing mantra comes as a double-sided coin, which complements itself: “I will always love you / No, I don’t wanna fight at all”. The semantics of love here seem connected to the struggles of Job, whose devastating hardship is contrasted by his devotion to god – his capacity to hope. Sufjan transports this idea forward, as the song enters an instrumental coda of heavenly synthesisers and strings, which outwardly seems rousing, but also reflects a deep sense of sadness and loss.

Yet, still, some things have to be hidden: the chorus of – again – “I will always love you” is produced consciously behind a choir, sheltered within, as if it were a written phrase ornamented and overtaken by fluid lines of pastel colours. The release of Javelin marked the very first time that Stevens has openly addressed his sexuality – and specifically in connection to the passing of his partner. This also opens the possibility that “Shit Talk” is, in actuality, an inner dialogue with the self, wrestling to accept, and pondering to give up, let go. “In the future there will be a terrible cost / For all that we’ve left undone” suddenly gains another meaning – and anger, which Sufjan’s whispered delivery could hint at. Most of all, the song, with its fluid structures and metaphysical ending, wrestles with the inner dynamics of the soul, and the endurance of love in light of failure. Possibly, forgiveness. And, hopefully, the realisation that healing is admissible. In a year that seemingly took so much from so many, “Shit Talk” seems invaluable. Hold those you love – and cherish the time you have. And please, allow yourself the love you deserve.

I will always love you. – John Wohlmacher


Youth Lagoon – “Prizefighter”

[Fat Possum]

Over a brief yet magical two minutes and 42 seconds, Trevor Powers, aka Youth Lagoon, captures the tension of being trapped in geographical, genetic, and existential corners, but also finding your way, possibilities unfolding beyond the familial and karmic contexts that often mandate who we are. 

Instrumentation is sparse, restrained, ethereal. Powers’ verses are languid, even plaintive, but when he bursts into that anthemic chorus (“I got the world, so I’ll be fine / I got the sunshine to figure me out / I’m back to work / That’s over now all I want is fun / yeah my work ain’t hard / but it’s got to be done”), the listener experiences a profound sense of elevation, transcendence, pure and unadulterated triumph.

Then, all too quickly, the song is over. You play it again. And again. Singing along with what rapidly becomes a mantra, an incantation, an extended respite from the ills and perils of the world. For a little while, planet Earth is bathed in light. Love is everywhere. Life is indeed glorious. – John Amen

Listen to a Spotify playlist of our Top 50 Songs of 2023 here.

Check out our Top 50 Albums of 2023 tomorrow.