Best Songs of 2023

Seventy-one tracks that asked big questions, found new kinship between genres and helped us see the good in Ken.

Jon Pareles

The album may be imperiled; people have been saying so for decades, even though the form has resisted extinction. Meanwhile, songs flourish, whether or not they’re destined for albums, and are ever more flexible. Some maintain the pop conventions of verse-chorus-verse; others distill themselves down to TikTok-ready hooks or sprawl across digital time frames. Here are 30 of my favorite songs from 2023 — less a ranking than a playlist, a tribute to creative abundance.

The tune could be a toe-tapping Appalachian hoedown. But the title’s blunt, irrefutable statement carries Allison Russell toward harsh thoughts about racism, slavery, exploitation, lynching and sin — and then to an unexpected coda.

Like many Peter Gabriel songs, this one has a scenario. The narrator is waking from a coma into an overload of sensory experiences, getting “back in the world”; the music is a funk carnival that keeps adding euphoric layers.

No band walks Spinal Tap’s “fine line between clever and stupid” like the duo 100 gecs. “Dumbest Girl Alive” has a primal stomp for a beat, an up-and-down guitar riff that whimsically hops around instruments, and filtered hyperpop vocals with 21st-century lines like “put emojis on my grave” — just the thing for an utterly knowing, utterly meta bash.

Sampha’s “Lahai” was brighter and more expansive than his previous LPs.Ayesha Kazim for The New York Times

Sampha gathers ideas from R&B, classical Minimalism, twitchy hyperpop and more around the androgynous melancholy of his voice. He conjures a rapturous infatuation and the need it leaves behind in “Suspended,” three minutes of vertigo from his album “Lahai.”

The peak of the Rolling Stones’ resurgent album “Hackney Diamonds” is an all-star concoction that sounds like a raw studio jam. Mick Jagger extols the glories of music and the song climbs to a big, gospelly finish, with Jagger and Lady Gaga goading each other to belt more. When it winds up, they catch their breath but they don’t want to quit — and the song builds even higher.

Two Mexican American groups — from Washington state and Texas — unite for “Frágil,” a cumbia complaint about a heartless partner. While the men in Grupo Frontera sound mildly apologetic, Yahritza Martinez sings as if her heart might burst at any moment.

With her low, tremulous, gripping voice, Baby Rose sings about love as self-sabotage, trying to break free while an orchestra underlines her despair.

In one of Shakira’s canny 2023 collaborations — others were with Karol G and the regional Mexican band Fuerza Regida — she enlisted the hitmaking Argentine electro producer Bizarrap to take revenge on her ex, with pointed wordplay and an airborne hook denouncing “guys like you.”

In a track that roves from electro to guitar ballad to bursts of gospel, Killer Mike convenes fellow Atlanta rappers — the prolific Future and the elusive André 3000 — to address art, ambition, luxury, tenacity and paying dues, culminating in a marathon verse from Killer Mike himself.

Choppy, distorted, splintered hard funk pulses around Brittany Howard as she sorts through all the conflicting impulses of a breakup: taking blame and lashing out, feeling regret and relief, wanting to stay and knowing she needs to go.

Jorja Smith used vocal nuance instead of volume to stir things up on her second studio album.Jose Sena Goulao/EPA, via Shutterstock

A wounded, defensive Jorja Smith confronts someone who had put her down, in a track that evolves from pinging, percussive defiance to orchestral contemplation.

One percussive syllable — “dang” — inspires an entire brittle production apparatus around Caroline Polachek’s deadpan voice. She sings about irreversible events, like shipwrecks and spilled milk, amid plinks, clangs, crashes, swooping strings and sampled screams, nonchalant amid the non sequiturs.

Cowbells, handclaps and piano chords drive “Better Things,” a K-pop kiss-off with ingeniously cascading vocal harmonies and absolutely no regrets.

Janelle Monáe’s 2023 album, “The Age of Pleasure,” exults in carnality while segueing through R&B, jazz and Caribbean styles. “Phenomenal” is a raunchy acclamation of lust and self-love, rapped and sung over springy, changeable Latin jazz grooves.

Noname reels off brisk, matter-of-fact rhymes over a jazzy bass line as she strives to reconcile her personal comfort with all the world’s problems. She worries about complacency, complicity and hypocrisy; she doesn’t spare herself.

Irreversible Entanglements is a fiercely riffing jazz band fronted by the low-voiced spoken-word poet Moor Mother. “We can be free — let’s fly,” she intones over the six-beat vamp of “Root Branch,” demanding something basic and essential.

The trumpeter and bandleader Jaimie Branch sets up a pummeling beat behind an environmental battle chant in “Take Over the World,” veers into a swirl of psychedelia, then whoops it up even harder.

Dolly Parton, of all people, delivers a full-fledged power ballad and stadium stomp to consider the dire state of the world. She counsels love, healing and kindness, but at the end she’s still wondering: “Whatcha gonna do when it all burns down?”

Kylie Minogue’s “Padam Padam” had a moment — during Pride celebrations and beyond — in 2023.Maggie Shannon for The New York Times

For Kylie Minogue, “Padam Padam” is the sound of a heartbeat during a mutual flirtation at a club. The beat — a TikTok favorite — is a cheerful club thump, and a hint of Bollywood perks up the melody for three minutes of computerized bliss

L’Rain — the songwriter and performer Taja Cheek — ponders vengeful, destructive impulses in a near-lullaby that wanders through a chromatic chord progression, building ambivalence into the harmonies.

Jamila Woods sings about love as an accumulation of small connections and growing trust, a work in progress: “It’s not butterflies or fireworks.” The arc of the music, from isolated percussion and keyboards to multilayered, gospel-tinged vocals, radiates optimism.

With vintage soul chords and modern electronic subtleties, the English songwriter Olivia Dean and her American duet partner, Leon Bridges, sing about growing apart and moving on, grappling with second thoughts.

In an amapiano track full of echoey, lonely spaces, the South African singer Nkosazana Daughter and guests lament the uncertainty and sorrow of an unanswered phone call.

Margo Price turned her lens outward to characters other than herself on her album “Strays.”Sara Messinger for The New York Times

In this unblinking character study, a woman named Lydia, with “an ex-husband and a midlife crisis,” smokes a cigarette outside a clinic, thinking back through a life of hard luck and rough decisions and trying to decide whether to end her pregnancy. Margo Price sets the story to simple guitar chords and an understated string arrangement, pondering the choices.

A squashed bug on the bottom of a cocktail glass leads Mitski to fragmentary epiphanies about addiction, trust and sex, with a choir bursting in to affirm each cryptic insight.

Over a waltz of simple guitar chords, Margaret Glaspy blurts out unvarnished grief in a torn voice, bereft yet struggling to go on.

A guitar meditation melts into an ecstatic death wish during the eight minutes of “Bending Hectic.” Thom Yorke sings about driving along a curvy Italian mountain road with a sheer drop, and “letting go of the wheel”; Jonny Greenwood’s string arrangement envisions the plunge, and then electric guitars careen to a finish.

The Irish band Lankum connects the fatalistic, death-haunted side of Celtic tradition to something like black metal in this nine-minute dirge about dying for love. It’s an inexorable crescendo from a solo a cappella vocal to a tolling, clanging drone topped by a howling fiddle, haunted and bleak.

In a flurry of plucked and orchestral strings, Caroline Rose affirms her love by ruling out other possibilities, then basks in wordless choral ecstasy.

In a 10-minute instrumental for muffled drums, percussion and prowling parallel flute lines, André 3000 maintains an aura of calm vigilance, contemplative but still on edge.

Jon Caramanica

It was a year in which the best pop music truly made it up as it went along. Off-the-cuff collaborations? Sure. Songs by fictional characters? Why not. A guy filmed singing in a field by a West Virginia public radio outlet? Absolutely. Microscene classics that clock in at 75 seconds and might be forgotten tomorrow? Always. (In the interest of avoiding redundancy, I’ve only included songs that aren’t on albums that made my best of the year list.)

This British rap tag team is about improbable wealth, bounteous opportunities, living so fast that what’s slipping by is almost as good as what you manage to grab hold of. As celebrations go, this is a controlled, pensive one — a relaxed ramble for the moments when the money’s so new, it sparkles.

A paean to emotional vacancy sung with emotional vacancy from a television show rife with emotional vacancy ends up … positively glistening. A cause for surrender.

A great song, sure. More than that, though, a sense of great exasperation. The quick and strong embrace of this song suggests an ocean of frustration that pop music leaves largely untapped and unvoiced, and a grass-roots resistance that it has almost no hope of replicating.

Few artists conjure a richness of sorrow the way the Canadian folk singer Mustafa does. Here, his singing is beautiful and a little distant, as if flinching ever so slightly from a pain that will never be anything but raw.

PinkPantheress took her songs from her bedroom to bigger stages after a viral hit.Adama Jalloh for The New York Times

A glimpse at how pop might — should? — sound in the coming few years. Two stars of the internet of 12 to 24 months ago who found themselves at the vanguards of their respective scenes come together for a collaboration in which neither has to concede an inch.

What makes Jelly Roll so effective is the way the intensity of his howl only amplifies the potency of his scars. It’s perhaps most pointed on this duet with Lainey Wilson, whose crisp and clear tone initially seems like an antidote, but is quickly revealed as equally bruised.

An effortless blend of Texas rap generations, fusing the tongue-twisting with the slow-rolling.

When someone is effusive, it might not mean as much when they gush. But when a stoic drops his guard, it can feel seismic.

When this stridently sad song from the “Barbie” movie hits its apogee, it’s channeling Dashboard Confessional, Meat Loaf, the Phantom (of the Opera) and maybe even Scott Stapp. Slash plays guitar, salting the melodrama hard.

The Atlanta rapper Gunna quickly returned to work after accepting a plea deal in a wide-sweeping ongoing case.Craig Barritt/Getty Images For Gunna

A year ago, Gunna accepted a plea deal that untethered him from the RICO trial that has ensnared his mentor, Young Thug. Relatively quickly, he returned to his familiar slippery garble with a hit so ubiquitous it felt like a memory of how things once were.

The best of another slew of lonely anthems from the most important and least publicly visible hip-hop star of the past few years.

A cool blast of not-quite-exuberance, this club-pop anthem is a continuation of Kylie Minogue’s sometime-diva legacy, a relentless queer anthem, a cheeky flirtation and a thump that just won’t quit.

It has been 11 and a half years since Kitty Pryde released “Okay Cupid,” plenty of time for a re-embrace.

A meaty, beatifically meandering boast by one of the rising stars of corridos tumbados.

Grandfathered in from late 2022, this song broke TikTok, broke dancing, broke the Grammys and maybe even broke hip-hop.

Corpse, “Disdain”

Miley Cyrus, “Used to be Young”

Emilia, “GTA.mp3”

evvls, “Belikeme?”

Jack Harlow, “Lovin on Me”

Sam Hunt, “Walmart”

Byron Messia, “Talibans”

Militarie Gun, “Very High”

Nettspend, “Shine N Peace”

Odetari, “Good Loyal Thots”

Lindsay Zoladz

So many of my favorite tracks of the year flipped scripts, turned tables and reimagined weaknesses as strengths. By no means a complete list of the songs I enjoyed the past 12 months, these are 20 I couldn’t stop listening to — most of them reminders of music’s ability to turn mess into meaning, anxiety into energy and heartache into a great song.

Olivia Rodrigo confronts a new class of villain on “Vampire,” the incisive first single that heralded her second album, “Guts,” but she also proves she has learned new ways to slay. “Vampire” is wrenching and formally restless, at first masquerading as a piano ballad, only to ramp up into a miniature rock opera complete with a showstopping high note worthy of a tragic heroine. But don’t cry for Rodrigo — she doesn’t need protection. Her words, her observations and her stylistic flair all have plenty of bite.

In a previous millennium, two of pop’s main young girlies joined forces to each assert that “The Boy Is Mine,” but PinkPantheress (b. 2001) and Ice Spice (b. 2000) were not alive when that song was released. On their bubbly and utterly infectious collaboration, they sidestep any hint of rivalry and turn against the guy, deciding he’s not worth the drama. “What’s the point of crying?” they shrug blithely. “It was never even love.”

The year’s best song about telling an ex-boyfriend’s mom that her son is a disaster (runner-up: Rodrigo’s “Get Him Back!”), the sprawling, portentous seven-minute “A&W” is an unfiltered look into Lana Del Rey’s stream of consciousness: misremembered movie titles, sexually frank admissions, inside jokes about Californian geography (“I say I live in Rosemead, really, I’m at the Ramada”) and all manner of other oddly juxtaposed American flotsam. “Maybe,” she reasons with a weary sigh, arriving at some self-knowledge, “I’m just kinda like this.”

Everyone’s favorite musical besties — Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus — riff on pop clichés and gender roles in this highlight from their breakout year, succinctly summing up their individual songwriting personalities and demonstrating the magic that happens when they combine their powers.

Romy Madley Croft was the final member of the xx to release a solo album.Charlotte Hadden for The New York Times

The xx’s Romy Madley Croft finds a solution for anxiety and self-doubt on this thumping, compassionate club banger: What if she looked at her life through the eyes of a benevolent mother? A luminous sample from the synth pioneer Beverly Glenn-Copeland — “my mother says to me, enjoy your life” — guides the way.

TikTok’s reluctant darling Mitski has released her share of songs that sound destined for pop crossover — last year’s sleek, synthy “Laurel Hell” was full of them — but, unexpectedly, she became a fixture on this year’s Hot 100 for the first time ever with this slow, moony ballad that sounds unlike anything else on the charts. Oblique, poetic and sumptuously sung, it’s a welcome moment of Zen.

An old-fashioned he-said/she-said country duet cut through with a chill of bleak finality. Zach Bryan and Kacey Musgraves are both at their emotive best on this bruised-hearted crossover hit.

An arsenic-laced confection that shows off Doja Cat’s multiple personalities — a romantic and an ironist, an angel and a devil, a singer fluent in dreamy hooks and a rapper with razor-sharp teeth.

The indie singer-songwriter Jess Williamson chronicles both the promise and fatigue of looking for love in this bittersweet, poetically rendered reflection, her twangy voice brimming with a weary hope.

Olivia Rodrigo sings about mistakes in serious and humorous ways on her second album, “Guts.”Chantal Anderson for The New York Times

With the possession of a driver’s license comes the ability to drive to an ex’s house in the middle of the night for an ill-advised hookup. That’s the trade-off. At least such circumstances gave us one of Rodrigo’s spunkiest, funniest and most irresistible singles yet.

El Kempner has a keen eye for tragicomic detail on this ramshackle rocker about regret, denial and long-simmering incompatibility that results in a July 4 breakup. “I’m living life like writing my first draft,” they sing. Aren’t we all.

All year I have been describing this zany, looping song from the Brooklyn art-rockers Water From Your Eyes as “what it would sound like if Sonic Youth had made an appearance on ‘Sesame Street,’” and I’m not going to stop now.

The Chicago rapper Noname says the quiet part loud — and oh so dexterously — on this refreshingly honest track, an incisive examination of pop-cultural ethics unafraid to name names, including (in addition to Beyoncé, Rihanna and Kendrick Lamar) her own.

In her cracked wail, the Southern rock band Wednesday’s Karly Hartzman — “the girl that you’ve chosen to deserve” — paints an achingly vivid portrait of suburban boredom and young adult malaise, finding just the right surface details to express something deep: “I was out late, sneaking into the neighborhood pool,” she sings. “Then I woke up early and taught at the Sunday school.”

Comment dit-on “hypnotic, endlessly loopable industrial banger”?

There’s no right or wrong way to grieve, Jenn Champion reminds us on this icy, arresting piano ballad, as she rages against a friend’s overdose in lacerating detail.

Jamila Woods’s album “Water Made Us” achieves the musician’s greatest synthesis yet between her voices as a poet and as a songwriter.Bennett Raglin/Getty Images For Slow Factory

A warm, wise ode to incremental progress and tiny, beautiful things from R&B’s resident poet laureate.

Still knitting aural autumn sweaters, after all these years.

What state is he on now? Alaska? Disrepair? Grace? Regardless, this song is a quiet doozy that watches a long-term love unravel in slow motion like a spool of ribbon underwater.

Exhibit Z that Drake is at his best not when he tsk-tsks grown women, but when he risks being outshone by inviting them on the track.

Source: Music -


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