George Ankers

Eight Great Songs From 2023

by | Dec 31, 2023 | Music

Nope, I’m not done for the year yet! While a full album is my favourite way to celebrate musical achievement, there were plenty more highlights of 2023 I didn’t want to let slip away without a mention.

Though the album list was roughly in order with best first, here we’ll just go alphabetically through some great individual tracks of this year. Some are top cuts from albums that didn’t quite make the main list, some just singles; the only rule here is no repeat artists from the album list.

I’ve also put together a 25-song Best of 2023 playlist on Spotify, rounding up everything mentioned in both this post and the album list as well as a handful of honourable mentions.

Caroline Polachek from the video for Welcome to My Island.

Welcome to My Island – Caroline Polachek

The instant that you hit play on Caroline Polachek’s critically beloved album Desire, I Want to Turn Into You, you are immediately blunderbussed by 25 seconds of the most extraordinarily controlled vocal wailing I’ve ever seen. Polachek’s wordless voice twists and soars and shrieks and keeps going higher than you previously believed possible, and based on just reading that description I’d have expected to hate it, but in practice I think those 25 seconds alone could have put this song on this list. Halfway through that bracing introduction, backup arrives in the form of a righteous guitar riff, and the two elements combine to create the electrifying feeling of a curtain being lifted to welcome on stage an unstoppable pop god.

There’s a sense of triumph flowing through Welcome to My Island, with the chorus’s fist-in-the-air repetition of the album’s titular line a thrillingly empowering embrace of selfishness and hedonism. As someone who had never heard a Polachek song before trying out this album, I could not have been more bowled over by the magnetic daring of this song. Ultimately, while I really liked a lot of tracks on the wider album – which I admire greatly for its maximalist, try-everything approach; at one point she drops fucking bagpipes on us and it’s a moment almost as good as the start of Welcome… – it definitely suffers from the problem of having to follow an opener of this magnitude. That and a slight lack of overall cohesion saw it become a late cut from my 2023 albums list but nothing could dampen my appreciation for this absolute thunderbolt of a track.

Listen on Spotify

Australian band Clews.

Better Than Before – Clews

Clews having to follow Caroline Polachek alphabetically is a bit of a tough break for sister duo Lily and Grace Richardson; this song isn’t jaw-droppingly game-changing or bursting with ideas like Welcome to My Island. It’s just a rock song about not being over a break-up. But gosh, it’s lovely, though.

Better Than Before hooks me immediately with a shimmering guitar riff that effortlessly evokes wistful longing, preferably at a beautiful view. It’s well matched by the formulaic but undeniably effective drums that kick in at the first chorus, and by the Richardsons’ gorgeous, First Aid Kit-esque harmonies singing of a narrator who clearly got completely blindsided by being dumped and is left sleepwalking through their days. It’s big, lush and aching, and it feels like a tragedy that it was released a mere 20 years too late to have soundtracked a big moment on The OC.

Listen on Spotify

Australian band Holy Holy.

Pretend to Be – Holy Holy

Australian indie outfit Holy Holy are one of my favourite discoveries of recent years, in part for their willingness to evolve their sound and try new things with each album. That was inevitably going to lead, at some point, to a record that I didn’t like as much as the others, which was ultimately the case with their fifth LP, 2023’s Cellophane. It’s their most wholehearted embrace of autotune yet, which certainly has its moments on the album but makes the misses really miss, and particularly towards the end it has a tendency to get bogged down in purposeless waffle that really sandbags what should be a crisp, concise pop record.

Pretend to Be, though, represents Cellophane at its best: peppy, gone in time to be missed afterwards, and using a measured proportion of artificiality to meaningfully support its subject matter. Its brisk introductory acoustic refrain quickly takes a back seat to an infectiously danceable fake-it-’til-you-make-it anthem powered by a saucy bass line, handclap-heavy percussion and cooing backing vocals. It’s one of the sneakiest earworms to have burrowed into my brain this year.

Listen on Spotify

Ritzy Bryan from the Joy Formidable.

Share My Heat – The Joy Formidable

I don’t like enough wanky prog or metal bands to have many songs in my library that go as long as 15 minutes, but I love a really long song. When there’s enough of a journey there to justify the time investment, few things are as satisfying. And perhaps my favourite thing about this ridiculously long single from the Joy Formidable is the fact that it doesn’t even bother with an intro. It’s 15 minutes long but we start in media res, at full tempo. Keep up.

Share My Heat is nominally about feeling connected to each other and to the world we live in but, honestly, the lyrics are not important here. This song is mostly here to find as many different ways to iterate on its key instrumental phrases as it can, and to rock the fuck out. It’s almost all propulsion, with very few slower phases (and one rather satisfying fake-out full stop). Ritzy Bryan’s screeching guitar never fails to thrill, and though the lyrics might not be important, their stuttered delivery really adds a sense of menace to proceedings.

2023 was the year I got back into the Joy Formidable in a massive way, having loved one song from their 2011 debut, The Big Roar, but not connected enough to the rest of the album to have paid attention since. But I dove into their discography when I said ‘why not’ to a ticket to see them live, and I was so richly rewarded. Not only have I come to appreciate The Big Roar much more but I’ve found lots to love about everything they’ve done since, particularly their most recent album, Into the Blue. If you like high-volume, high-tempo rock but are too often put off by some of the more excessive sonic and thematic elements of a variety of metal genres, you should give them a look. (I should probably stress that, while they enjoy a six-minute indulgence more than most bands, a song this ludicrously long is not the norm for them.)

Listen on Spotify

Mitski from the video for Bug Like an Angel.

Bug Like an Angel – Mitski

Look, I really thought we had basically run out of interesting ways to talk about alcohol dependence in music, so as far as I’m concerned this song is a minor miracle. As is often the case with Mitski, I’m not as head-over-heels for her latest album, The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We, as most fans and critics but I have all the time in the world for this weird little ditty that starts as a gentle acoustic lament and then hits you with a gospel choir like a haunted freight train.

This song features one of my favourite Mitski lines, its title-giving opener “There’s a bug like an angel stuck to the bottom of my glass with a little bit left”. Her quiet, almost reverent vocal tone really sells this comparison to an angel in a stained-glass window, juxtaposing that pretty image with the grubbiness of the bug and the temptation of the drink still there in the glass as well as setting up a religious theme that recurs later in the song.

Listen on Spotify

The People Versus, with two members awkwardly half-cropped-out on each side because there is no good square picture of this six-person band.

Little Bit of Love – The People Versus

Always show up in time for the support act when you go to a gig. Most of the time, it’ll be nothing to write home about. Occasionally, you’ll discover the People Versus.

As soon as I got home, I bought every single the band have put out so far – they’re yet to release a full album – and found much to love about almost all of them. The People Versus flit from one genre influence to another, broadly in a pop spectrum but drawing from folk styles as well as taking lyrical inspiration from Shakespeare and Greek myths – “Patroclus if he had a dark disco phase” is one way they have described themselves. I was also delighted to find out that angelic singer Alice Edwards is ace (as well as agender) – a perspective I almost never get to find in pop music.

Little Bit of Love narrowly beats Driftwood and Pretty Words as my favourite of the band’s three singles this year. It’s the simplest of the three, eschewing the more complex drum arrangements and string parts of those other tracks for a glossy groove. Edwards sings sweetly of twentysomething queer yearning and the quiet frustration of life not simplifying as quickly as you thought it would after weathering turbulence. Between an earwormy repetition of the titular hook and a sultry, slightly sinister shift in its final minute, it’s bewitching stuff.

Listen on Spotify

Australian pop trio Telenova.

Lost in the Rush – Telenova

We only got one new song from this Australian pop trio this year, with them mostly focusing on a debut album that’s set to be one of my most anticipated releases of 2024 bar none, but this one was more than enough to tide me over.

Telenova pride themselves on a “cinematic” style – slick production, evocative imagery, ambitious pop knitted together with 90s trip-hop influences, and a glossy sense of bigness – and it’s all here in a sumptuous, bouncy dance number that I particularly loved to listen to while out walking. It might also be frontwoman Angeline Armstrong’s most dazzling vocal performance yet.

Listen on Spotify

Tom Cardy and Brian David Gilbert shaking hands.

Beautiful Mind – Tom Cardy & Brian David Gilbert

Comedy music is so goddamn difficult. You have to be really good at two things at once, and even an effort that reaches the heights of ‘very good’ often falls short of the bar that represents the transition from ‘that was funny, now I’m never going to think about it again’ to ‘this is in my head and will never leave’. To do that, you have to be funny enough that your schtick won’t get old and outstay its welcome and have a killer tune that deserves its place in your head alongside all the other ‘actual’ music.

Tom Cardy and (especially) Brian David Gilbert are two of my favourite YouTube funny people, and even they’ve only managed ‘good enough for me to actually listen to it mixed into non-comedy music’ on a couple of occasions between them. This delightful collaboration, though, smashed through the bar straight away and has not left my head since. It’s definitely best experienced first on YouTube – primarily to sell the Rorschach test premise that doesn’t get described in perfect clarity through just the audio, but also to enjoy the brilliant editing gags – but once the visuals are in your head, you can pivot to just audio so that you lose the few extra seconds of skit that come in the bridge in the video and bog things down a little once you know the punchline.

I shan’t spoil gags here but the song is packed full of clever little touches that add all manner of ‘wait-what’ dimensions to its quickly sketched characters and it’s turned triumphant by a big, dumb hook that’s hard to resist belting out. It more than earns its place among the ranks of ‘real’ music in my head.

Listen on Spotify