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2023 in Music: The 23 Best Songs of the Year

Lahai by Sampha

We’ve already been through the entirely objective list of the best albums of 2023 but there’s something all the most special about those individual songs which exist as perfectly formed three or four (or sometimes longer) musical experiences, telling whole stories, encapsulating the most nuanced and intense of emotions, and exploding across our senses in what passes for one single instant of time. Great albums are something we return to perhaps weekly, but a great song is something we’ll hear over and over, multiple times a day, for years, and packing so many rewarding ideas into just a few minutes is something I really am in awe of. The songs on this list are all near enough perfect, but I’ve put them in order anyways.

23. “the black seminole” by Lil Yachty

Lil Yachty releasing potentially the best psyche rock album of 2023 might have been one of the unlikeliest events of the year. One of those moments that would be impossible to convince a time traveller from last year that it actually happened—not without playing it to them, cause from the opening bars of the very first track, “the black seminole,” most listeners would be sold. The trippy cosmic atmosphere conjured up by the instrumental may be pure ’70s LSD trip, but Yachty’s boyish vocals make such a unique contrast, and as you become absorbed by the lyrics’ description of this black male icon, the quintessential archetype of black masculinity, the scale of the project’s ambition sinks in, and by the time Diana Gordon’s vocals fly into view, you really feel like you’re being ushered into a new plane of reality.

22. “One Of Your Girls” by Troye Sivan

Troye Sivan is much more who the mainstream media keeps trying to convince us Harry Styles is. He’s still not the most subversive or challenging pop artist in the world, but for all his terrible attempts at non-binary fashion, the mis-named Styles could never pull off this kind of femme queen realness. People went crazy for “Rush” this year but the standout track from Sivan’s latest record for me was easily this delectable slow dance jam, the soundtrack to that most embarrassing of romantic scenarios, falling head over heels for a straight guy, and making your desperate overtures. If we could all make them as seductive as Sivan, maybe more of us would succeed. You can just see the hearts popping out his eyes as he makes his coy case for some needy trade, serving himself on a platter for this lucky fella.

21. “Younger & Dumber” by Indigo De Souza

I turned 27 this year, an age that has a particular cultural significance, especially in the music industry. In my experience, it’s also the age you stop feeling young. So maybe I’m vulnerable to songs about nostalgia and the existential concerns evoked by realising the past is an alien land you’ll never be able to retread. “Younger & Dumber” turns over a heartbreak, and as the track builds, De Souza cries out her yearning and confusion at the sudden emptiness it has left in her life. It’s a stirring piano ballad, with some building instrumentation that grants a sense of gathering feeling and scale to her feeling, but it’s really De Souza’s voice and her songwriting that makes “Younger & Dumber” such a devastating experience.

20. “Oh U Went” by Young Thug feat. Drake

2023 was not a great year for mainstream rap music, let’s be honest. The genre seemed to be falling out of favour with casual audiences, and a lot of its most reliable hitmakers losing relevance. Legal troubles notwithstanding, Young Thug’s label did manage to put out a decent record though, and it provided an opportunity for him and frequent collaborator Drake to dig out one of the year’s best pop rap hits. With one of Thug’s most charismatic performances across the record, a laid back and infectiously fun beat and one of Drake’s best features in years, “Oh U Went” is as replayable a track as the mainstream rap scene provided this year.

19. “Counting Sheep (V2) [2018 Export Wav]” by Flume feat. Injury Reserve

Electronic producer Flume released a pair of great mixtapes this year, each one loaded with eclectic and exciting previously unreleased musical ideas, but the most attention grabbing proved to be the collaboration with Injury Reserve, the musical trio (now duo since the tragic passing of rapper extraordinaire Steppa T. Groggs), who brought their familiar off-kilter intensity and energy to the opening track from Things Don’t Always Go The Way You Plan. It’s one of the year’s most fun experimental hip-hop tracks and the chemistry between the producer and Ritchie with a T is as unexpected as it is undeniable.

18. “Tied Up” by Genesis Owusu

Genesis Owusu has quickly become one of the most exciting and unpredictable artists of the decade, following his uncharacterizable crossover neo-soul debut Smiling with No Teeth, with a concise post-punk etc. concept album the appeal of which was bolstered dramatically by singles like this one, an impeccably arranged funk jam that combines the progressive rock energy of a Gorillaz track with the sardonic seasoning of a cutting edge punk song, and the passionate and exhilarating vocals of a modern neo soul cut. It’s super catchy and infectious and only grows more likable once you dig into the lyrics and its thematic place in the whole record.

17. “Needs” by Tinashe

After bubbling under for a while now, pop princess Tinashe has spread her wings since going independent and growing her R&B chops, and now with her latest album BB/ANG3L, she’s completed her transformation into one of the genre’s most magnetic and charismatic exponents. The album would’ve made my albums of the year list, but for the fact it was basically disqualified as an EP being only 20 minutes long. But that can’t stop me from picking the endlessly replayable “Needs” as one of my favourite songs of the year! From the simple but atmospheric trap beat to Tinashe’s phenomenal vocal delivery which projects such an endearing sense of coquettish humour, “Needs” is probably the sexiest jam of the year.

16. “Silent Running” by Gorillaz feat. Adeleye Omotayo

I mentioned Gorillaz earlier, and it’s disappointing that their latest album didn’t make more of a splash than it did. Sure, it was on the short side and not quite their best work (that Bad Bunny track is well beneath them), but it had some undeniable highlights that can go toe to toe with the best moments from Plastic Beach. The title track (which released as a single last year) might actually be my new favourite Gorillaz song, and while poppier than we’re used to hearing from Gorillaz, the appeal of “Silent Running” is too evident to ignore. The groove is one of the tightest we’ve ever heard from the band, as are the vocals of 2D who sounds stunning when harmonising with guest singer Omotayo, and combined with one of the best hooks of the year, it makes for a song I’d be loathe to exclude from this list.

15. “Psychedelic Switch” by Carly Rae Jepsen

I have it written into my contract that I get to talk about Carly Rae Jepsen at every opportunity and I consider it an act of superhuman restraint that I’m only putting her at 15th on this list. Though it’s not the genre we usually associate with the Canadian pop singer, few can equal her when she’s in her dance pop bag. She always projects such an infectious sense of euphoria through her voice, and she’s in full on diva mode on this, the standout track from her latest record The Loveliest Time. It’s as propulsive and lovestruck as one would hope to hear from her with dynamite production from Kyle Shearer and the chorus drop is a dangerously potent hit of pure endorphins.

14. “Tears” by Skrillex feat. Joker & Sleepnet

I was as surprised as anyone by how much I loved the new Skrillex album (no not that one, the good one) and it proved a pretty tough task deciding which song I was going to pick for this list; so many of them have at least one moment that makes me go, “oh yeah, that’s a song of the year contender.” However, as I said in my albums list, Quest for Fire turned out to be my most played album of 2023 (albeit by Spotify’s extremely wonky metrics) and this song was my most played song of the year. It’s small wonder why too: it’s so, so well produced with each element perfectly placed and polished. It’s such a throbbing, bass heavy track but when the beat builds and those high-pitched Ocarina of Time samples cut through it hits so hard, it’s just so addictive, each of the producers brought so much flavour and depth to the track, it’s just one of the best EDM songs I’ve ever heard.

13. “Run, Run, Run” by McKinley Dixon

Sorry Blu but I’m going with the original this time. Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!? is another album stacked with incredible songs, but I honestly didn’t have too hard a time choosing my favourite; this has been locked in for a while. Few tracks display the album’s versatility and soulful energy as immediately and obviously as this one. From the opening piano riff, you know you’re in for a different kind of rap song, one that exudes a gallows warmth and uplifting sense of resilience. Nestled amongst the album’s often very dark lyrical explorations of an upbringing shrouded in violence, “Run, Run, Run” is one example of many where Dixon acknowledges the warmth and happiness that defined that community as much as the grief did, and “Run, Run, Run” is a sunny, bittersweet track that manages to articulate this paradox beautifully.

12. “Disillusioned” by Daniel Caesar feat. serpentwithfeet

This heavenly offering from UK R&B singer Daniel Caesar seems to have gone by the wayside even among the record’s fans, but the track’s nostalgic and languid tone and the complementary vocal chemistry between Caesar and serpentwithfeet combine to make one of the most intoxicating R&B songs of the year. The steady pace the song maintains as it moves between phases is as hypnotic as the chorus is blissful and bittersweet. It’s the outro that really brings the whole track together though, portraying a snatched evening of carefree love, presented as an idyllic plan that may not come to pass as the song fades out of view.

11. “Clean-Up Crew” by Spanish Love Songs

It’s times like these that I curse myself for my “one song per artist” rule. “Clean-Up Crew” might be my favourite song off No Joy by Spanish Love Songs, but honestly, I only love it barely more than the least of the songs off the record, or any of the fantastic covers the band released on their Doom and Gloom Sessions EP. That’s what the best albums of the year list is for I guess, cause not only is this my eleventh favourite song of the year, every song off that record is almost or actually as good. So yeah, “Clean-Up Crew” might be my favourite right now, but just stick any song off No Joy in this spot. Still, “Clean-Up Crew” is the one I’m going with because in an album full of painfully relatable lyrics, the chorus of this track still stands out as especially real to me, and will do to you too if you’ve ever felt like life just isn’t cutting you a break and that’s not something that’s ever going to change.

10. “Tropic Morning News” by The National

Sometimes you’ll be recommended an album, listen to it, think, “eh that was really nothing special,” but then in the weeks that follow, you’ll find a melody cycling through your head and think, “now what is that?” And six months later you’re putting a song by The National on your best list. If there’s one song whose placement on this list is hardest to defend it’s probably this one. It’s nothing new or exciting, it’s not exceptionally well performed or produced, it’s not saying something exceptionally resonant, nor is it breaking new ground for its genre. In fact, it’s about not being able to be profound or say what you mean. It’s just got a fantastic chorus that I couldn’t get out of my head and kept growing on me every time I was lured back to it. I can’t believe I’m putting it above Spanish Love Songs, but the novelty of it hasn’t worn off on me. I really really like this song and everyone’s allowed one of those a year right?

9. “Boy’s A Liar Pt. 2” by PinkPantheress feat. Ice Spice

Undeniably the year’s biggest breakthrough artist, PinkPantheress teamed up with last year’s claimant of that title and although the bedroom dance pop debutante and New York drill sophomore are unlikely bedfellows, the two managed to make the sweetest of ear candy and deliver the year’s biggest viral hit. No list of the best songs of 2023 seems to be complete without this charming little bop, but I wouldn’t add to the chorus just cause I felt I had to. No, “Boy’s a Liar Pt. 2” is every bit as endearing and catchy as promised, and will likely go down as the defining single for two of the music industry’s biggest names of the new decade, and probably go on to define the sound of this music cycle. Olivia Rodrigo…I like her okay, but she’s too much of a throwback and doesn’t have a sound of her own; she’s still just playing dress-up as a label engineered middle ground between Taylor Swift, Lorde, Wet Leg, WILLOW and Billie Eilish. Though not divorced from modern genre trends or their contemporaries, PinkPantheress and Ice Spice still sound like no one but themselves.

8. “Shit Talk” by Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens album Javelin is an exploration of the relationship the singer had with his partner up until the latter’s untimely death. In this regard, the eight minute long “Shit Talk” is the album’s centrepiece, untangling the pain and regret alluded to on the title track, as Sufjan wrestles with the guilt that every couple shares; over wasting so much time in arguments, over the hurtful things they said to one another, over the apologies left unsaid and the amends unmade, and how meaningless the causes of their disharmony seem now. It’s a painful yet extremely real subject and as always the tactful, graceful and almost jubilant way Stevens explores it is deeply humane and sublimely affecting.

7. “Sweet” by Lana Del Rey

Lana Del Rey’s Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd is another of those albums that confounded my attempts to pick a favourite for this list. “A&W” was the critical favourite and for obvious reasons; it distils and crystallizes a lot of the themes that have been central to Lana’s music for over a decade, giving them possibly their definitive expression. “Candy Necklace” is wonderful, “The Grants” is so beautiful and sincere, the title track is just as heartbreaking and career defining as “A&W” is in my opinion, “Peppers” is possibly Lana’s sexiest song ever, “Let the Light In” is a sublime duet and “Margaret” is possibly the most endearing moment on any Lana album. But I think my personal favourite right now is “Sweet,” a lush, heavenly piano ballad inviting the object of her obsession to join her in matrimonial bliss, with only a mild undertone of “well if not then fuck you too.” It’s perhaps not as critic-bait-y or career defining as “A&W” but it’s as wry, gorgeous and enrapturing as anything you’ll hear this year, and my God I swear her voice has never sounded better.

6. “Smoke” by Victoria Monet feat. Lucky Daye

To indulge myself in a no-no writing cliché, if you look “chemistry” up in the dictionary, you’ll find a definition of the scientific discipline of examining the properties of natural and artificial elements, the colloquial expression “to blend or play off one another with satisfying results,” and an instruction to “see also: Victoria Monét and Lucky Daye”.

Sorry, but seriously, these two sound soooooo good together on the opening track of Monét’s latest album, Jaguar II. It’s a straightforward and sexually charged smoke anthem, albeit one with a fantastically sultry beat and some delicious horn fanfares, but it’s the combined vocal performances of established R&B queen Monét and rising star Lucky Daye that makes this such an intoxicating experience; they’ve never sounded better than they do harmonising here and every time they hand off the mic it absolutely kills.

5. “Hello Love” by Jessie Ware

Jessie Ware put out some bangers this year. I may still think What’s Your Pleasure is a better record overall, but That! Feels! Good! has my favourite Jessie Ware songs on it, no question, and my favourite of all is “Hello Love,” a sensuous, blissfully romantic vintage disco jam about finding love just when you least expect it. Built around one of Ware’s best ever vocal performances, the horns and strings are giving everything to create a lavish, opulent backdrop to this decadent swoon of a song. Ware has never felt shallow in her music, but the emotion she brings to her every inflection lends such a dramatic weight and lush intensity to her every word here, and when the song arrives at the chorus, it feels like the most welcome of homecomings. I defy any of your to listen to this without wanting to sink to the floor or croon along to yourself, it’s pure bliss.

4. “Full of Life” by Christine & The Queens

Good gracious what a stunning song. We’re now into the section of the list where I really cannot defend any of these songs not being number one other than by pointing out that they can’t all be. So don’t take the number 4 next to this pick as faint praise, it could easily be a 1 on any other day. What Christine & the Queens created with this song leaves me awestruck and uplifted every single time.

Artists have explored the nebulous “trans experience” through a variety of different musical styles and genres, usually tending towards the harsh and experimental, but it’s safe to say that gender dysphoria has never sounded so overwhelmingly, transcendentally beautiful as this exquisite symphonic paean to the vibrant capacity for love that each of us holds, and the pain of the social constructs holding us back from expressing it. For me, this track was the centrepiece of Christine & The Queens’s vast exploration of gender, love and sexuality, a sublime orchestral climax for the record as he makes his plea for acceptance as he is, his voice gleaming in reverb, cleaving the darkness like a spotlight, with all the grace and orgasmic force in the world. It’s a career defining moment, a cathartic cloudburst and artistic flourish that deserves to echo through the ages.

3. “Neighbourhood” by Teezo Touchdown

People sure switched up on Teezo Touchdown this year. Off the back of his features with Lil Yachty and Travis Scott, he seemed primed to explode onto scene as hip-hop’s new megastar. But then his album How Do You Sleep at Night dropped and fizzled, with disappointing sales and an extremely negative reaction from critics, often being cited as one of the year’s worst reviewed hip-hop albums despite being neither a hip-hop album nor bad in the least. Teezo carved out his own lane this year and I’m still holding out hope he can receive the critical reappraisal he needs because I whittled this list down to 23 from a playlist of my 100 favourite songs of the year. Teezo had at least three of his own songs competing for a spot and still turned up three more times through his features on “Amen”, “Modern Jam” and “the ride-“. Safe to say I’m still all aboard team Touchdown. But despite strong competition from “Impossible” and “Familiarity,” it’s his deadpan exploration of the declining concept of neighbourhood that made my list.

With its catchy refrains, upbeat indie rock instrumental and typically absurdist wordplay, each verse of “Neighbourhood” tells its tale from a different perspective, from three (or possibly four) men who share the same block whose paths cross with tragic consequences, as paranoia erodes the fabric of trust and compassion that communities are founded on. Teezo’s writing and vocal delivery portray’s each man’s situation and perspective so effectively, he still has me on the edge of my seat every time I listen, flitting from sardonic and irreverent to paranoid and hostile, to open and vulnerable. I’m honestly baffled how anyone could listen and not be convinced of the depths of Teezo’s unique talents as a performer, songwriter and showman. Most artists need to be in the industry for a decade before they come through with a style and persona as distinctive and inspired as Teezo’s. No question he is the breakout star of 2023 and I cannot wait to hear more.

2. “Dancing Circles” by Sampha

I can’t believe I almost forgot to include this one. Thankfully writing this list took me long enough to realize I’d missed including it, and thank goodness, I’d never have forgiven myself for overlooking this. In fact, I might soon be kicking myself for not making it number one. Granted, I wasn’t as huge a fan of Sampha’s long awaited new album Lahai as most seem to be. Yes his voice is stunning, but too many songs felt like bad dance remixes of themselves to me. That’s not an issue I have with “Dancing Circles” though, for me, the clear highlight of the album and one of the most exquisitely beautiful pieces of music I’ve heard in years.

In many ways its reminiscent of my number 11 pick, “Disillusioned”—both songs have a steady pace throughout, evoking the march of time unsentimentally overwhelming the characters of the song’s narrative as they try and form a connection before the waters of time carry them on away from one another. But Sampha’s heavenly vocals have never been given a better vessel, providing a desperate yearning plea for the strident piano to yield and stand still a moment, long enough to bask in the euphoria of reconnecting with someone who made you feel more wonderful and happy than you can remember anyone else doing. But as that moment passes, before you know it, you’re torn away from one another, both left with happy memories and broken hearts. It’s nights like that which music exists to tell the story of, and I’ve never heard one evoked so beautifully or with such a painful sense of tragedy.

1. “Rat” by Kara Jackson

A song that feels genuinely timeless from a perspective that cannot but be the beneficiary of a modern enlightenment is perhaps the holy grail of songwriting: bringing the world a folk song that feels as rustic and mythic as “Rat” while speaking such a novel and inspired version of the truth. It’s this achievement that I want to celebrate with my number one pick, “Rat,” a song by former youth poet laureate Kara Jackson, who has the listener hanging on her every word as she tells the tale of “Rat,” a foolish southern itinerant who abandons his woman and heads West to make his fortune, tempted by sex and fame, finds himself destitute and crawls home in shame.

It’s not just the biting, cynical potency of Jackson’s tragic poetry, which casts its hard-luck title character in a variety of different perspectives that makes “Rat” such a masterpiece, though. Arranged over a simple acoustic guitar instrumental embellished against a haunting background of strings, Jackson’s voice has the kind of authenticity and drama made for singing the blues. You’d never guess from her songwriting or her singing, both of which project such sagacity and weariness, that she was only 24 years old. She really has the potential to become one of the most essential voices of her generation, but even if she does, “Rat” may still stand as her masterpiece.

Written by Hal Kitchen

Primarily a reviewer of music and films, Hal Kitchen studied at the University of Kent where they graduated with distinction in both Liberal Arts BA and Film MA, specializing in film, gender theory and cultural studies. Whilst at Kent they were the Film & TV sub-editor and later Culture Editor of the campus newspaper InQuire and began a public blog on their Letterboxd account.
Hal joined 25YearsLaterSite as a volunteer writer in May 2020 and resumed their current role of assistant film editor in November 2020.

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