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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Billie Eilish, Blur and SZA: The best songs of 2023

Billie Eilish, Blur and SZA: The best songs of 2023


As Taylor Swift revels in her imperial phase, the rest of pop music is in a state of flux.

There isn’t one unifying sound or genre. Polished studio productions rub shoulders with TikTok hits recorded teenage bedrooms and songs by fictional characters.

A drum and bass revival is well under way, while K-Pop and Afrobeats have become so mainstream that acts like Blackpink and Burna Boy are headlining festivals. Meanwhile, The Beatles are back and The Stones never went away.

In short, it’s an exciting time to be a music fan – so here are 25 songs I’ve had on repeat all year. It’s by no means a definitive list, and the rankings are pretty arbitrary, but hopefully you’ll find something you love.

You can listen along to a playlist of the tracks on the following services:

25) Rolling Stones ft Lady Gaga – Sweet Sounds of Heaven

Image source, Getty Images

A return to form! Their best album since the 80s! All the clichés came out for The Rolling Stones’ first album of new material since 2005. But here, at least, the praise was justified.

A blues-rock jam so good that they start again after it finishes, the track features Mick Jagger and Lady Gaga locked in a seven-minute battle for “most histrionic vocal”. The roof is well and truly blown off.

24) Mitski – My Love Mine All Mine

Cult indie artist Mitski scored an unexpected hit with this dusky, romantic ballad about a love so strong it endures after her death.

Full of jazzy chords and slide guitar, it sounded unlike anything else on the charts, in the best possible way.

23) Doja Cat – Paint The Town Red

Image source, Getty Images

When internet trolls called Doja Cat a Satanist, she cut off her hair, doused herself in fake blood, filmed a video in which she danced with the grim reaper, and called herself a “demon lord”.

It formed part of a strange publicity campaign where the star rejected her old albums and tried to cast off her most zealous followers (“Fans ain’t dumb, but extremists are,” she rapped).

In doing so, she hit the reset button on her career, and came back with one of her biggest hits to date – a two-finger salute to her haters, set to a chunky sample of Dionne Warwick’s Walk On By.

22) Becky Hill / Chase & Status – Disconnect

The most relatable dance anthem of the year finds Becky Hill desperate to break the endless loop of work and worry and financial disaster and climate catastrophe and, you know, life.

She does so with elder statesmen of drum and bass Chase & Status, dragging them back into the top 10 for the first time in a decade.

21) Kenya Grace – Strangers

Recorded in her Hampshire bedroom, Kenya Grace’s club smash Strangers is an achingly modern story of being ghosted on dating apps.

When it hit number one in October, it made the South Africa-born, Southampton-raised musician the first woman since Kate Bush to top the charts with a song she’d written, produced and performed entirely by herself.

20) NewJeans – Super Shy

Image source, ADOR / Geffen

Most K-pop acts rely on hip-hop and EDM for stylistic inspiration, so when teen group NewJeans decorated their gossamer melodies with a patter of drum and bass, it felt like a breath of fresh air. Sweet enough to give you tooth-ache.

19) Boygenius – Cool About It

Without going into detail, I know what it’s like to live with someone suffering a debilitating mental health condition, and the last verse of this song taps so specifically into that experience that it cuts me in half every time I hear it.

18) Victoria Monet – On My Mama

A prolific songwriter who’s won Grammys for her work with Ariana Grande, Victoria Monet came into her own this year with the superb Jaguar II – an R&B album recorded almost entirely with live instruments.

On My Mama sees her revelling in her own greatness, “deep in my bag, like a grandma with a peppermint”, as the horn section plays a fanfare.

17) Zara Larsson – Can’t Tame Her

Zara Larsson is awe-struck by a mysterious clubber, whose “magic energy” and unmistakable perfume (?) have made her a living legend. A modern retelling of Dancing Queen, set to a 1980s synth landscape, this deserved much better than its UK chart peak of number 25.

16) Billie Eilish – What Was I Made For?

Image source, Getty Images

Mark Ronson: What we need is a song about a poseable plastic toy with subtextual references to the dehumanising effects of fame. Also, it needs to be a major radio hit that works within the confines of a billion-dollar summer movie.

Billie Eilish: Hold my coat.

15) Jorja Smith – Little Things

Jorja Smith only has one thing on her mind. “Won’t you come with me and spend the night,” she asks. “And if it’s meant to be, then that’s alright”.

The jittery two-step beat and choppy piano line illustrate her cards-on-the-table nerves; before the song descends into an extended dub breakdown that suggests something altogether more carnal.

14) Dave & Central Cee – Sprinter

Image source, Andrew Timms

A tag team rap about wealth and cars and sexual prowess, full of sharp wordplay and flamenco guitar lines.

It would have ranked higher, if not for the off-putting (and gynecologically-impossible) lyric, “This girl want me in her uterus”.

13) Jamila Woods – Tiny Garden

Pop music usually depicts falling in love as a split-second, life-changing event. But Chicago’s Jamila Woods approaches it incrementally, as a continuous accumulation of emotion: “It’s not butterflies or fireworks”. The music blossoms as the romance deepens, culminating a euphoric gospel chorus.

12) Fred Again & Obongjayar – Adore U

I came first, but you’re ahead beyond your years,” sang Obongjayar to his younger brother on the 2022 song I Wish It Was Me.

Dance producer Fred Again sampled his vocal, surrounding it with warm, percolating synths and retitling it Adore U. Debuted at Glastonbury, he dedicated it to his younger sister, ensuring that neither artist will have to buy their sibling a Christmas present again.

11) Libianca – People

Written in the middle of a low-point, Libianca’s People is a soulful reminder to look after your loved ones.

“Did you notice me?” she asks her own friends, as her alcohol consumption spirals. “Did you check on me?” Understated but powerful.

10) Tyla – Water

Image source, Sony Music

Sun-kissed and sensual, Water became a breakout song for Johannesburg’s Tyla Seethal after going viral on TikTok at the end of the summer.

Before long, it had crossed over to the real world, where Tyla became the first South African solo artist to enter the US Top 100 for 55 years.

In doing so, she introduced the charts to the self-concocted sound she calls popiano (a streamlined version of the African house subgenre amapiano) and provided the soundtrack to hundred of late-night hook-ups.

“The meaning of the song is frisky,” she told Rolling Stone magazine. “It’s me letting a guy know, ‘Show me what you got to offer. I’m done with all the talk.'”

9) The Last Dinner Party – Nothing Matters

Image source, Cal McIntyre

The Last Dinner Party started the year playing shows to 100 people and ended up selling out London’s Roundhouse – all thanks to the sensuous carnality of their debut single.

“Put simply, it’s a love song about not being afraid to be unbridled and unashamed in your passion for another person,” .

Recorded in late 2022, the band wanted to withhold it until they’d grown bigger. Then their record label intervened.

“They were like, ‘No, you should come out with a bang’,” singer Abigail Morris told the BBC. “And it was the right thing to do. Our approach has always been to make the biggest noise you can.”

8) Miley Cyrus – Flowers

Image source, Getty Images

After all the pain and guilt of a break-up, sometimes you just need to fall back in love with yourself. And that’s exactly what Miley Cyrus does on Flowers, She buys herself flowers, she holds her own hand… and she does it better than you can. Got it? Good.

Boasting one of those melodies that feels like it’s always existed, Flowers spent 10 weeks at number one in the UK and, at the time of writing, is the best-selling single of the year.

But by releasing it on her ex-husband’s birthday in January, Miley hinted the track isn’t quite the epic act of closure it purports to be.

7) Blur – The Narcissist

Image source, Rex Features

Blur’s first single in eight years was a slow-burning meditation on fame and addiction, wrapped up in one of Damon Albarn’s most graceful melodies in years.

The refrain saw the singer pledging not to succumb to his old demons, his bandmates offering support in their own, time-weathered backing vocals.

An unassuming comeback, it took a few plays to reveal its beauty, but by the time of Blur’s massive stadium shows this summer, it had become a highlight of their set.

6) SZA ft Doja Cat – Kill Bill (Remix)

Image source, Getty Images

It’s not often that a blood-soaked murder ballad gets nominated for song of the year at the Grammys, but that’s just further evidence of SZA’s genius as a songwriter.

In Kill Bill, the singer dreams of taking revenge on her ex and his new girlfriend, only for the fantasy to become a grisly reality. “Rather be in jail than alone,” she reasons.

Is it strange to say that manslaughter never sounded so good? Probably, but here we are.

5) Olivia Rodrigo – All American Bitch / Vampire

Image source, Getty Images

I honestly couldn’t decide which of these songs was the most deserving, so I’m having them both.

All American Bitch is a snarling riposte to the expectations placed on teenage girls: Hide your anger, always smile, tolerate cruelty. “I scream inside to deal with it,” she seethes as punky guitars crash around her.

Vampire is just as good, masquerading as a piano ballad before Rodrigo unleashes on the titular blood-sucker with a series of venomous put-downs and crescendoing high notes.

If her first album cast her as the lovesick teenager, these songs saw her taking control with her teeth fully bared.

4) PinkPantheress ft Ice Spice – Boy’s A Liar Pt. 2

Image source, Parlophone Records
Image caption,

Ice Spice hooked up with PinkPantheress after they swapped DMs on Instagram

“I didn’t expect it to be my biggest song,” PinkPantheress said of Boy’s A Liar. “I thought on an internet level it was going to be big. I didn’t expect it to be big on the radio.”

The original was “crap”, only to be saved by New York rapper Ice Spice, whose contribution was orchestrated over Instagram DMs.

The result is a pastel-coloured, candy-coated club anthem, whose infectious energy kept it in the charts for 39 weeks.

3) Kylie Minogue – Padam Padam

Image source, Erik Melvin
Image caption,

Padam Padam is the star’s 52nd top 40 hit in the UK

Kylie Minogue knows her way around a chorus blindfold – and Padam Padam gave her the perfect opportunity to show off those navigational skills.

The song’s all about teetering off the precipice of desire, and the title’s an onomatopoeia for your heartbeat. Just before the first chorus, Kylie sings it with breathless anticipation (“Padam?“). Two seconds later, she’s given in completely and headed for the bedroom, carried along by a throbbing pulse of electropop.

Originally pitched to Rita Ora, it was almost headed to Eurovision before Kylie heard it and refused to let go. Thank goodness for that.

2) Boygenius – Not Strong Enough

Image source, Harrison Whitford

Indie supergroup Boygenius – aka Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker – have had an incredible run this year, headlining their own festival in London’s Gunnersbury Park and receiving six nominations for the 2024 Grammy Awards.

Three of those nominations went to Not Strong Enough, and its dryly sarcastic lyric about having a god complex while lacking the capacity to set the kitchen clock.

Set to a rush of chiming guitars, the song pulls off some clever compositional tricks (notice how the verse runs into the chorus mid-sentence) before building to an arena-sized, screw-the-patriarchy chant in the Middle 8: “Always an angel, never a god”.

1) Lana Del Rey – A&W

Image source, Polydor Records

Few artists have had their motives and credibility questioned like Lana Del Rey and on A&W, she distils a life’s worth of negativity into a sweeping, wayward seven-minute epic.

I’m a princess, I’m divisive/Ask me why, why, why I’m like this/ I don’t know… Maybe I’m just like this.

But the hazy guitars and whispered vocals mask something deeper. The song exposes the reality of being a woman: Exploited, objectified, mistreated, discarded, commodified. “This is the experience of being an American whore,” she drawls, with more than a hint of vitriol.

Then Lana makes a last-minute swerve into electronic beats and playground chants, threatening to tell an ex-boyfriend’s mother that he’s a disaster. What this has to do with anything is a mystery, but the effect is never less than enthralling.

And 25 more:

  • Aespa: Better Things
  • Asake & Olamide: Amapiano
  • Beabadoobee: Glue Song
  • The Blessed Madonna (ft Joy): Shades Of Love
  • Chloe & Missy Elliot: Told Ya
  • Everything Everything: Cold Reactor
  • Al Green: Perfect Day
  • Beyoncé: My House
  • Calvin Harris & Ellie Goulding: Miracle
  • J Hus ft Drake: Who Told You?
  • Carly Rae Jepsen: Psychedelic Switch
  • Noah Kahan: Stick Season
  • Dua Lipa: Houdini
  • Tate McRae: Greedy
  • Mannequin Pussy: I Got Heaven
  • Peggy Gou: (It Goes Like) Nanana
  • Ryan Gosling: I’m Just Ken
  • Reneé Rapp: Tummy Hurts
  • Rosalía & Rauw Alejandro: Vampiros
  • SexyyRed: SkeeYee
  • Nadine Shah: Topless Mother
  • Troye Sivan: One Of Your Girls
  • Taylor Swift: Is It Over Now?
  • Summer Walker & J Cole: To Summer, From Cole
  • Yard Act: Dream Job



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