For the past 22 years that I’ve been scrutinizing, analyzing, and criticizing modern music I’ve never gone through a full year as uninspired and boring as 2023. The entire year felt as though the world was collectively waiting for a big event that never came. A massive hit song, a masterpiece album from a celebrated act, a festival performance unlike any other before it – none of these materialized in the past twelve months. It was an empty expanse, a landscape void of genuinely big moments.
This will be further explored in an upcoming post diving into the trends of 2023, but in the meantime here are the meagre gems I managed to pluck from the wasteland this year.
The Top 25 Songs of 2023
25. Now That It’s Dark – Wicca Phase Springs Eternal —
As the worlds of pop-punk and mumble rap continue to converge we begin to see elements of experimentation in the music of the world’s Lil Peep acolytes. Wicca Phase Springs Eternal is the goth branch of the tree, and sounds kind of like if Tom DeLonge started dressing all black and made Angels & Airwaves devout to Bauhaus rather than U2.
24. Get Him Back! – Olivia Rodrigo —
The only pop star currently within striking distance of Taylor Swift’s omnipresence, Rodrigo has done everything right to set herself apart from the Queen of the World. She’s a little more brash, a little more crude, and a lot more lively. She also has the benefit of being a fresh face on the scene and having access to leading edge songwriters. Now she can say she is the one who singlehandedly made pop punk (and by extension, rock) en vogue again and in 2023 continued to mine that scene to create clever anthems like this one.
23. Alife – Slowdive —
Shoegaze can take many different forms, all of which are fraught with their own pitfalls. It can be the lilting, melody heavy shoegaze of My Bloody Valentine that often veers wildly off course. It can also be the coarse, unlistenable variant as heard in the songs of A Place to Bury Strangers. When it’s reined in properly however, it can be fantastic. Veterans Slowdive did just that with this record.
22. Summer of Luv – Portugal. The Man feat. Unknown Mortal Orchestra —
Portugal. The Man are almost too good at songwriting for their own good. As much as they position themselves as snarky, irreverent hipsters, they still write one mainstream hit after another. They’re also very aware of this fact, sometimes playing their biggest hits twice during one set.
“Summer of Luv” is yet another melodic gem, matching the titanium-plated hooks of their previous five singles and throwing in the added bonus of a searing saxophone riff.
21. Bow Down to Love – City and Colour —
Maybe Dallas Green was tired of the “always sad” jokes. Maybe that’s why a sizeable percentage of his radio singles have been the most tepid and bland tunes he’s written. Meanwhile buried deep on nearly all his records are the stark, ruminating songs that he built his legacy on. Maybe that’s why in 2023 we get the cheery “Underground” sent to radio while the dark “Bow Down to Love” gets undiscovered by the masses.
20. Welcome Child – Jayli Wolf —
Like Sarah McLachlan 30 years before her, Jayli Wolf knows how to channel an ethereal power into her music, making it both gossamer thin and razor sharp.
19. Sever the Blight – Hemlocke Springs —
One of the indie world’s new critical darlings, Hemlocke Springs is the brainchild of Isimeme Udu and seems to be poised on the verge of a major breakthrough. Since the release of 2022’s viral hit “Girlfriend” Udu has delivered a string of strong singles including “Heavun” and “Sever the Blight”. The Grimes comparisons are apt, but I’ve yet to see another review mention how much this song sounds like Canadian 80s pop star Gowan. The medieval backing section, the theatrical delivery of the lyrics – it’s straight out of the (sometimes) Styx frontman’s wheelhouse, an influence many more artists should be incorporating into their sound.
18. Beautiful View – Hannah Georgas —
Hannah Georgas’ delicate folk music ain’t broke, and she ain’t fixin it.
17. Up & Down – The Chainsmokers feat. 347aidan —
I’m not really sure why people dunked on The Chainsmokers so much during their brief stint in the spotlight, but I remember a lot of dunking. It may very well have been deserved, but it’s a different era now and their festival-EDM pop is a breath of fresh air in today’s landscape. Even the presence of yet another mealy-mouthed zoomer vocalist as their guest singer doesn’t detract from the tune, and 347aidan’s Lil Peep-esque drawl actually works with the uptempo beat.
16. What I Wanted – Quarters of Change —
Perhaps there’s some sort of mass Stockholm Syndrome situation happening in society right now, or perhaps nostalgia truly does warp perception. The critical reevaluation of Creed has been nothing short of unbelievable when one remembers the decades of lashing they got not just from the blue-blood critics upon their arrival but also from society at large years after. In 2023 one meme out of ten featured a snippet from one of their hits. It’s understandable that nostalgia has allowed for the appeal of a goofy act like Limp Bizkit to be reappraised, but for an earnest, sometimes dour band like Creed to return to playing arenas is strange providence.
Quarters of Change aren’t quite Creed. They don’t have the grit of the Pearl Jam imitators that sprung up in the late 90s and early 2000s. In fact a substantial amount of their music sounds a lot like what we’ve been hearing for about 15 years now: danceable 80s revivalism like Walk the Moon.
So it’s incredibly bizarre that “What I Wanted” exists. This granite slab of a song sounds pulled straight out of 1998. Not quite scuffed-up enough to be post grunge, but too meaty to be adult contemporary, it occupies the same space as bands like Remy Zero, Fuel, 3 Doors Down, and Athenaeum. Brawny but polished. Muscular but sleek. And completely out of place in 2023.
15. Spillhaugen – Beirut —
Beirut was once one of the most beloved hipster acts in the world. Zach Condon’s worldly melodies were everywhere in the autumn of 2007, and he was a critic’s darling right alongside Animal Collective and The National. Those two bands have maintained their fanbases – the latter expanding theirs thanks to their association with T-Swift – but Beirut have largely fallen out of favour with the elites. It seems as though forlorn Italian trumpets and jangling Bulgarian tambourine are no longer hip.
A shame, because although Hadsel is not a true return to form, it’s still got a few nice tunes. “Spillhaugen” in particular is a nice treat, the ideal soundtrack to a VHS style montage of a desolate countryside somewhere in the Scandinavian countries.
14. Hyper Trophy – Citizen —
Pop culture is currently in the midst of a 90s revival, but Citizen have zeroed in on 2004 for “Hyper Trophy”. Imagine a Bloc Party song as done by a punk band and you have a rough idea of the sound they’re going for.
13. Together Right – Finger Eleven —
Splitting the difference between the hard rock that made them popular and the pop rock that made them famous, Finger Eleven deliver a solid, enjoyable addition to their catalogue worthy of inclusion alongside their greatest hits.
12. Good Girls – Portland —
We just talked about the band Citizen doing a punk spin on the sound of 2004. The band Portland is not doing any sort of spin. They are 2004. As their name suggests, they are very much trying to sound like they are from one of the epicentres of 2000s indie pop. Yes, this song would be on The O.C. And it would play both during a montage of dramatic teenage happenings interspersed with the band playing it live at the local music venue.
11. All My Friends Are Falling in Love – Glassio —
Glassio has finally found his forte. The bedroom pop maker is at his best when making shimmering piano based ballads that have no drums. A bit of Coldplay, a bit of Bon Iver, and a bit of The National all blended together into one dreamlike sound.
10. Living Like This – Petey —
It was pretty jarring to be scrolling through TikTok and coming across a clip of an emo singer delivering a bleak rendition of a chorus in concert, only to find out that the emo singer is internet funny guy @petey_usa. The guy who does the deadpan sketches with multiple versions of himself interacting with each other is the same guy who released one of the best records of the year. An album that sounds like a midwest take on latter day Bon Iver, or like Taking Back Sunday trying to make a Postal Service record.
9. Ghosts Again (Rival Consoles Remix) – Depeche Mode —
There’s something disingenuous about including a remix of a song on a countdown the same year it was released, even if it is one officially sanctioned by the band. Maybe if this were a remix made with the intent of receiving airplay it would feel different, but this is simply one of several featured on a collection highlighting the new wave giants’ 2023 hit.
What did Rival Consoles do to merit inclusion on a best-of list? Firstly and most importantly, they stripped the song of the irritating blown out drums that marred an otherwise serviceable single. The remix floats around in a digital ocean, with Dave Gahan’s signature voice floating into infinity as washes of synths ebb and flow around him. It’s a peek into a cybernetic abyss, the sound of an electric landscape in a distant future.
8. Love From the Other Side – Fall Out Boy —
Bands love to say they’re going back to basics for a new album. Not all of them do, but they love to say they are.
Fall Out Boy weren’t back under the cork tree in 2023, but they did make a very deliberate and concerted effort to return to a specific point in their discography. So Much (For) Stardust is so eerily similar in its sonic fingerprint to 2007’s Infinity on High that it’s easy to imagine it was written at the same time and hidden away for the past 16 years. The band is no longer writing the Imagine Dragons indebted stadiumcore of the last two records, but they’re still delivering huge energy. We’ll get back to them soon enough.
7. Beach House – Del Water Gap —
There’s a handful of alternative artists whose influence can be heard in the scene today. Those are Mumford & Sons, The Black Keys, Twenty One Pilots, and the 1975. It’s the latter that most of the younger bands really want to be though. Who wouldn’t want a rabid fanbase without one good song?
The Wombats, Lovelytheband, Beach Weather – these are just three of the more prominent examples of this style without substance. Del Water Gap seems to be on the same path, but to his credit in “Beach House” he has written a song one hundred times better than the 1975 ever have. Not only is it dark and actually about something, it also features no less than FIVE distinct hooks. There are actually five different melodic parts to this song. A tour-de-force in an era when most songs tap out at two.
6. Paris, Texas – Lana Del Rey feat. SYML —
Lana Del Rey seems utterly uninterested in doing what anyone else is doing, or even participating in pop culture. She works diligently on her music, which almost always sounds exactly the same, and releases it whenever she wants. Sometimes it hits, sometimes it doesn’t. Either way she rolls up her sleeves and makes another record, like the one with the burdensome title she put out in 2023.
“Paris, Texas” is exceedingly clever in its execution. Taking a quintessentially French melody and waltz rhythm, Del Rey reframes the song to mean an American city rather than the original, and does so with the slightest of whispers. It’s a little touch that shows off her ingenuity and artisan vision.
5. Choker – ROMES —
I have seen ROMES go through three different iterations so far. There was the indie R&B version akin to How to Dress Well, Active Child, and Autre Ne Veut. There was the indie pop version that sounded like a carbon copy of Foster the People. And now there is the alt-rock version that sounds like late 90s hard rock. Half screamo, half nu-metal, this new direction suits the band well, though it remains to be seen if they’ll pivot into yet another genre in 2024.
4. Bang Bang – Momma —
The attitude might be mid-90s, but there’s nothing mid about this fantastic song that captures the pure distilled essence of alternative rock perfectly.
3. Misery Remember Me – Ladytron —
I first saw the name Ladytron about 20 years ago, digging through my father’s CD collection to find cool new music to listen to as my interest in alternative rock was just beginning. I don’t think I ever listened to their 2001 album 604 after seeing it in his collection. I looked at the cover, then put it back in the drawer. The name stuck with me though. For two decades I remembered the name Ladytron, even though I never once listened to their music. This past January I finally hit play on a song that happened to come up online, and I regretted every missed chance. This was 100% a band I could love. The bleak electronic soundscape sounds like a derelict version of M83, or a newer take on the Cocteau Twins.
2. Be On Your Way – Daughter —
For whatever reason, I didn’t buy this song after listening to the iTunes preview this past January. I’m not sure why, but I didn’t immediately pay the $1.29 to have it on my iPod.
Instead, the hook wormed itself into my brain and for days haunted me until I went back and got the song. That hook is so powerful that it overshadows the song’s flaws and makes it thrive in spite of them. A final crescendo that peaks far too early, the inexplicable decision to drop out the second chord during a momentum-building instrumental bridge – these would be fatal flaws if it were not for the world-shaking power of this hook.
Telling a tale of multiversal connection, the band has seemingly crafted a spiritual sequel to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ now 20 year old hit “Maps”. And like that song’s central lyric Daughter have crafted their own unforgettable core to this comeback single.
AND THE BEST SONG OF 2023 IS…
1. Heaven, Iowa – Fall Out Boy —
Fall Out Boy’s 2023 record has some fairly obvious influences. “The Kintsugi Kid” is a riff on Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer”. The previously lauded “Love From the Other Side” features a theatrical intro reminiscent of the Beetlejuice theme. “I Am My Own Muse” also takes its cues from Danny Elfman scores.
“Heaven, Iowa” is Fall Out Boy’s very blatant homage to Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”. And yes, it does the thing just like the 1981 classic did. The drop is incredible, a chill-inducing moment unlike anything anyone else is doing in contemporary music. It’s the pinnacle of melodrama, an anthem-defining chorus to end all choruses.
A drop alone does not a good song make though, and thankfully the rest of the song is a masterclass in songwriting as well. Filled with an abundance of melodic hooks as well as the band’s trademark twists, it hits every marker with such a degree of competence that it easily elevates itself into the band’s top 10 tunes of all time.
Anyway, that’s it, bye.