The 20 best songs of 2023 | Music

20

The National – Smoke Detector

The wildest song the National have ever made spreads like a vine, tangled and rangy and burrowing uncomfortably into the cracks in Matt Berninger’s psyche following the frontman’s breakdown. Smoke Detector contains some classic National traits – the serrated guitar work they advanced on High Violet, a classic Berninger-ism in the “dog in the driver’s seat with a red helmet and his head out the window”, the furious striving for self-improvement straight off Alligator – but this eight-minute epic is also an unprecedented leap forward. Initially improvised during a soundcheck, it appears steady, looping just one tense refrain, but bristles with ear-catching detail that leaves it feeling fundamentally unstable, mirroring the state of manic hyper-awareness that can accompany depression. It’s unshackled, charred, dangerous and immediate, a muttered dispatch from the depths of despair as Berninger sifts like a man possessed for the faintest speck of hope. Laura Snapes

19

Boygenius – Not Strong Enough

Boygenius: Not Strong Enough – video

Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus – the three graces of youthful emotional acuity – had their most popular song yet with this chiming pop-rock anthem, up for three of their seven Grammy nominations in 2024 (including record of the year). “I don’t know why I am the way I am” is a universal enough lyric to speak to thousands of disaffected people, while “always an angel, never a god” is worthy of chanting in an arena – and arenas will surely soon host them. But there is the specificity of the trio’s best songwriting here too, such as clocks on kitchen appliances reading different times: a novelistic touch that says so much about the distracted person living there. Ben Beaumont-Thomas

18

Hudson Mohawke and Nikki Nair – Set the Roof ft Tayla Parx

US producer Nikki Nair files Hudson Mohawke’s lurid, maximalist sound down to the sharpest flints on the title track of their collaborative EP, a skittish, 2-step pebbledashing electrified by Tayla Parx’s mutant falsetto and then twisted cheesewire-tight by HudMo’s apocalyptic thumbscrews. The bassy scrapes that flare through the second half evoke the impishness of Mr Oizo, twitching like eyebrows raised at the delicious audacity of it all. LS

17

Miley Cyrus – Flowers

After the middling success of 2020’s Plastic Hearts, Cyrus’s single about singledom – produced with a bass-heavy strut by Harry Styles’ trusted duo of Kid Harpoon and Tyler Johnson – became her biggest hit yet: 10 weeks at No 1 in the UK plus eight in the US, and 1.6bn streams on Spotify. Given a gossipy boost by being released on her ex-husband’s birthday in January, its lyrics about determined self-love chimed with plenty of tear-stained new year resolutions. But its subsequent ubiquity is down to having the kind of perfect vocal melody that feels miraculous for not having been written before. BBT

16

Sampha – Spirit 2.0

Sampha. Photograph: Jesse Crankson

In the six years since he released his debut album, Sampha has guested on songs by superstars including Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Stormzy and Solange – establishing the subtle British songwriter in pop’s big leagues. But on his long-awaited return, he affirms the value of intimacy and the spiritual support of spending time with the people who know you best, hopping in their hatchback, chatting shit and sharing vulnerabilities as you drive down country lanes. Fusing neo-soul, jazz and breakbeat, Spirit 2.0 is energetic and intricately rhythmic – suggesting the revivifying qualities of time well spent together. Aneesa Ahmed

15

Young Fathers – I Saw

Young Fathers: I Saw – video

A glam-rock stomp or the sound of marching jackboots? The Scottish trio came up with a brilliantly ironic martial anthem, its chorus (“I saw what I saw / I keep on walking the line”) lampooning anyone who turns a blind eye to immorality and is cowed by authority. But there are voices of dissent too (“don’t forget I’m not susceptible to your nonsense!”) and by the end a giant childlike chant has drowned everything out with its triumphant call for resistance: “Brush your teeth, wash your face, run away!” BBT

14

Big Thief – Vampire Empire

Following 2022’s superb double album Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, the US folk-rockers returned with an instant fan favourite. Dylanesque rambles in the verses give way to a hugely catchy chorus, Adrianne Lenker making startled octave jumps to express the sheer discombobulation of the toxic relationship alluded to in the title. The pair are intimate one minute then jaded the next, a pair of twisting magnets repelling and attracting one another again and again. Or as Lenker has it: “It’s like trying to start a fire with matches in the snow / Where you can’t seem to hold me, can’t seem to let me go.” BBT

13

Jorja Smith – Little Things

Little Things tries to be casual, noncommittal: all Jorja Smith wants is one night of fun, and “if it’s meant to be, then that’s alright”, she shrugs. The UK funky piano is skittish and hard to pin down; her dancehall-inflected vocals are delivered with a nonchalant curled lip and a hard, protective edge, the effect somewhere between Amy Winehouse at her most feckless and Katy B under the strobe lights. But come the middle eight, real need enters her voice and low, off-kilter piano shadows lick the frame, unravelling her cool charade. LS

12

Charli XCX – Speed Drive

As Charli XCX has darted between musical styles, from industrial sleaze to the Top 40, a few things have remained consistent in her music, among them her lyrical love of driving recklessly in very fast cars. Her speed-freak tendencies found their perfect outlet on the OST to Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, soundtracking Margot Robbie’s character on the run from the grey Mattel bigwigs with an exhilaratingly bratty interpolation of Toni Basil’s Mickey – a neon-pink sequel to Vroom Vroom. Let’s ride! LS

11

Billie Eilish – What Was I Made For?

Billie Eilish.
Billie Eilish. Photograph: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

At the other end of the scale, the deepest song on the Barbie OST was a cloud-soft piano ballad that spoke to not only the doll’s disillusionment, but the dehumanisation of fame and the ambivalence it can create in those who find it, a subject Billie Eilish knows well: “Looked so alive, turns out I’m not real / Just something you paid for.” The vertiginous quality to her shocked falsetto hints at her alienation from her old self; backed by almost microtonal strings, her voice shimmers and shivers, as if Eilish herself is evanescing alongside any sense of the point of it all. LS

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10

Lankum – Go Dig My Grave

Lankum’s nine-minute, funereal take on the traditional Go Dig My Grave seems to wheeze from beneath freshly dug soil. It’s a feat of oppressive horror: the weight of their pained whistles and exhumed drones is chest-crushing; Radie Peat has an otherworldly ability to control her voice like a set of bagpipes – blaring and flitting starkly between notes – and the grief that she channels as she embodies a young, heartbroken woman who takes her own life is unbearably close, like too-tight skin. It’s barren, brutal and completely unlike anything else released this year. LS

9

Central Cee x Dave – Sprinter

Central Cee x Dave: Sprinter – video

Cruising towards 500m plays on Spotify, many of those from around the world, this was the track to finally obliterate any scoffing about UK rap being about beans on toast or whatever. Over an almost flamenco-like acoustic guitar line (clearly the work of co-producer Jim Legxacy), each rapper is on glorious form, trying to outdo one another with clever double meanings and ingenious rhymes. And their fortunes amusingly wax and wane – one minute they’re filling the van of the title with groupies, the next Dave’s girl has left him for P Diddy, and Central Cee is busy keeping his DMs away from prying eyes: “Before I give you my Insta password, I’ll give you the pin to my Amex!” BBT

8

Yaeji – For Granted

With sweet but sombre lyrics set against a backdrop of skittering percussion and bold basslines, For Granted reflects the mood in these uncertain times: hurrying, anxious and underlaid with a feeling of vulnerability. With its roots in drum’n’bass, it’s also a classically British sound, as heard in similar 2023 tracks by Kenya Grace and PinkPantheress – but the Korean-American producer Yaeji puts her own unique spin on it. Her song plots an emotive journey, with lyrics about the spiral of overthinking the positive things in her life mirroring the erratic, sometimes disjointed sounds. “Let it rest and I’ll flow,” she sings eventually, trying to soothe her racing mind – and the softly zig-zagging beats hurtle into a brazen sequence of fast-paced jungle drums and swooping basslines, hinting at the thrills that can come from letting go. AA

7

Olivia Rodrigo – Vampire / Bad Idea Right?

Guts, the second album by Olivia Rodrigo, arrived trailed by Vampire, a seething ballad-come-rock-opera somewhat out of the Drivers License playbook: an epic tirade against some “fame fucker” now presumably wise to the consequences of crossing someone with such a vast reach. But where Rodrigo’s debut album Sour largely dwelled on the feeling of being hard done by, other parts of Guts found her revelling in bad behaviour and discovering the fun in being the perpetrator. Bad Idea Right? – which tied with Vampire in our critics’ vote – is a campy romp straight back into an ex’s bed, consequences be damned. With a rollicking new wave rattle indebted to Toni Basil and the Waitresses, it makes transgression irresistible. LS

6

Blur – The Narcissist

Poignancy ebbs out of this comeback single as Damon Albarn recalls the road from his bedroom to stadiums, from acid-fried larks into addiction – all of it exacerbated by fame both massaging his ego and dissolving his sense of self. Alex James takes time out from promoting the UK’s most annoying celebrity wine project (a Brut called Britpop) to play a bassline of both rhythmic and melodic might; Graham Coxon’s steady garage-rock riff and Dave Rowntree’s unpretentious timekeeping give the feel of a bunch of mates working up a song in real time. BBT

5

Troye Sivan – Rush

Troye Sivan: Rush – video

Fresh out of a long-term relationship, Troye Sivan hit Melbourne’s gay clubs and went bacchanal mode. He’s said the experience loosened him up – and the lead single from his third album shakes off the sleek sophistication of his previous hits in favour of a rowdy good time. The limber house backing brings to mind Pet Shop Boys at their most sun-streaked, looping relentlessly like a night that can’t possibly end. Sivan darts around the beat, his voice nimble but softly blurred and strobed, a suggestion of ecstasy to come. You can almost see his eyes darting up and down a new body from the admiring, immediate verses – “Kiss it when you’re done, man, this shit is so much fun” – the kind of sensory revelation that makes you want to throw a parade and tell everyone about it. So he does in the chorus, a boisterous chant straight out of a men’s locker room (a delicious queering) that cheerleads for full contact sport. LS

4

Kylie Minogue – Padam Padam

With a bit of onomatopoeia meant to evoke a rushing heartbeat, Kylie sparked a padam-ic – the title entered the lexicon so instantly and totally that people started using “padam” as a bit of instinctive vocal punctuation, rather like Italians use prego. This is the kind of craze that keeps pop popping, and it was a joy to hear Kylie reconnect with decidedly contemporary dance-pop rather than the nostalgia of her last two albums – the dark twang of the bassline is a very 2020s sound. Her voice is treated with a (relatively) subtle filter, making her sound like a cyborg scanning a nightclub for a human mate. There’s something almost malevolent about the way she then stalks through the chorus: a reminder of Kylie’s sometimes underrated dramatic range. BBT

3

NewJeans – Super Shy

NewJeans: Super Shy – video

The thunderous trap or light funk still used by plenty of K-pop artists has felt very tired with the advent of girl group NewJeans (plus open-minded peers such as Aespa and Fifty Fifty), and Super Shy is fresher than a lightly spritzed bushel of mint. 4AD’s avant-pop star Erika de Casier co-writes, and the production sits somewhere between liquid drum’n’bass, UK garage and Jersey club – all touchstones elsewhere in pop this year, but synthesised here with a vocal hook beamed straight from pop heaven. The lyrics profess acute shyness but their delivery suggests otherwise: it’s actually a cute eyelash-batting flirtation. BBT

2

PinkPantheress and Ice Spice – Boy’s a Liar Pt 2

Already close to perfect in its original incarnation released in November 2022, the arrival of Ice Spice on the remix added a touch of salt to the song’s sweetness, making pop worthy of a Michelin chef’s kiss. Over the admirably lo-fi production, full of melodious burbles like a menagerie of flip-phone ringtones, each vocalist tells a tale as old as time: some absolute melt is damaging their self-esteem, but they can’t get him off their minds. Ice Spice is particularly good, vividly evoking her bum with a wordless tongue-trill and packing yearning and vulnerability into the single second of “but I don’t sleep enough without you”. BBT

1

Lana Del Rey – A&W

Lana Del Rey: A&W – video

“I’m a princess, I’m divisive / Ask me why, why, why I’m like this,” Lana Del Rey gasps in her most piercing head voice on A&W, sounding like a Cassavetes grand dame asphyxiating in a cloud of face powder. Spooked and simmering, the astonishing standout of Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd finds Del Rey turning over precisely that question, one she has been dogged by since day one as critics labelled her inauthentic. Perhaps after enduring years of unstinting criticism, A&W suggests, you may as well just give in and become what people say you are.

A&W is a brand of root beer but here it stands for “American whore”, an unmistakably Del Ray provocation that will annoy anyone put off by her trademark conflation of Americana, sexuality and capitalism. As the condemned protagonist, long estranged from her mother and mistreated by men, she nihilistically accepts that “it’s not about having someone to love me any more”, and arranges cold assignations on mid-tier hotel floors. She’s been pushed into this position, but she also understands that it’s a trap: “If I told you that I was raped / Do you really think that anybody would think I didn’t ask for it?” she sings, her delivery a blur of cold rage and disbelief.

The best songs of 2023 – playlist Spotify

But perhaps she never stood a chance and the greatest trap, A&W posits, is being born a girl: doomed to fall from innocence, to have to leave cartwheels and uncomplicated relationships in childhood, to occupy a body seen as both property and threat. Del Rey repeatedly compels us to “look at length of my hair, and my face, the shape of my body” (she is a powerlifter, resulting in a changing shape that has attracted some cruel commentary in recent years) to confront both her reality and the impossible weight of responsibility and suffering that her beholders have forced her to bear.

The seven-minute song, an incredible slither of detuned guitar, brooding piano and staticky detritus, feels like that body stretching and spreading out luxuriously, defying tidy convention. For as much as Del Rey has been contorted into this impossible space – by men, by critics, by society – her essential self remains intact in her sublimely freaky, wayward music. Halfway through A&W, the song all but dubs out then transitions into bratty skipping-rope trap as she taunts a druggy lover. It sounds like something from her maligned Born to Die days, it makes no sense and it’s oddly brilliant. Why ever Del Rey is like she is, there’s certainly no one else like her. LS


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