Many of the best songs of the year found the simplest ways to say the most profound things. Indie songwriters with diverse back catalogs (Sufjan Stevens, Mitski) delivered their most straightforward love songs yet, while the track that landed Wednesday a spot on our 2022 list sounds nothing like the one occupying the same spot this year. That said, there are multiple eight-plus minute songs on this list that saw artists stretch the limits of their ambition, but they all, personal as they may be, touch on something universal. They helped us hold on and let go, vibe out and really dig into our feelings. We’re confident they’ll do so long after the year is over. Here are the 25 best songs of 2023.
25. Fenne Lily, ‘Lights Light Up’
On ‘Lights Light Up’, Fenne Lily stacks one verse after another before getting to the song’s stirring chorus. In the second one, she stumbles on a definition of love that’s become familiar to many of us over the past few years: “We held each other while everything burned up ’round us/ And inside of me, too.” The Bristol singer-songwriter lays out the details of a relationship that’s transient in nature yet almost overbearingly intimate, in its arrangement more than the connection that grounds it. The tone of her voice is calm and reflective, belying not so much acceptance as the pain of a kind of loneliness that may be articulated but hasn’t fully set in yet; the imminence of letting go rather than the actual process of it. The gorgeous, almost playfully interlocking guitars between Lily and Joe Sherrin mirror the song’s delicate, conversational warmth, but you know it can only last so long before you need to pack up and get going.
24. Christine and the Queens, ‘To be honest’
It’s hard to imagine a song off Christine and the Queens’ operatic Paranoïa, Angels, True Love becoming as big as the French singer’s pandemic hit ‘People, I’ve been sad’, which came out in February 2020 and took on a whole new resonance during lockdown. But of all the songs on the epic 20-track LP, lead single ‘To be honest’ could have been it; channelling the protagonist’s path towards self-realization in the form of grand, dazzling synth-pop balladry, it sees Chris climbing through titanic production that swirls with tenderness before hardening into a kind of transcendence. “I’ve been through so much/ That sometimes it feels far/It is like a movie played by another star/ She’s a stranger, to be honest,” he sings before his confessionalism turns spiritual. It’s the moment where Chris uncovers his humanity, and with past burdens lifted, synths swirling, and an electric guitar hovering in the sky, the artist edges toward a world that’s ripe for transformation, Godly.
23. Debby Friday, ‘So Hard to Tell’
Debby Friday’s music is often fiery and brash, but on ‘So Hard to Tell’, the first single and final track on her debut album GOOD LUCK, those attributes dissolve into soft vulnerability. It feels like a necessary unveiling, and over pillowy synths and a hypnotic beat, the Toronto artist makes stepping into this fragile space sound easy. “You’re just a young girl/ All alone by yourself in the city/ Act like you don’t need help,” she sings, gracefully threading the wanderings of her restless old self with the raw emotion bubbling up in the present moment. There is virtually no separation, and Friday honours the tenacious persona she’s cultivated as much as she pierces through it, not with regret so much as a strange mix of empathy and grief. Sometimes, when tears come pouring out and you’ve been holding them back for so long, you have no way of accounting for it, of tracing things back. Still, Friday reminds us, it’s in those moments you know and can trust yourself best.
22. Angie McMahon, ‘Letting Go’
The best heartland rock song of 2023 didn’t come from one of these genre’s heavy-hitters, but from Australian singer-songwriter Angie McMahon, who was definitely listening to a lot of the War on Drugs while making ‘Letting Go’. She begins the song by catching us up on her personal journey with an intimate set of facts: “I might’ve spent six months lying on my living room floor/ I might’ve been sick, then well, then sick some more.” As the song unfolds, McMahon’s lyrics become broader and more spiritual yet powerfully wrought from the heart, delivered with the sort of passion that can make the corniest line feel lived-in. You know from the moment the drums begin to pulse forward that the song’s going to soar, and it doesn’t let you down; it’s the most expansive thing she’s madea, yet part of it also works because McMahon allows the quiet beauty that permeates the rest of her album, Light, Dark, Light Again, gently seep in as she steadies herself. “The trick was simply to surrender,” she concludes, which of course is easier said than done. The simple magic of this music is making you believe it, still.
21. Jessie Ware, ‘Begin Again’
That! Feels Good! is full of sumptuous, exuberant dance anthems, but ‘Begin Again’ yearns for more than just the physicality of the dancefloor. There’s a desperation in Jessie Ware’s voice, sublime as ever, that matches the circumstances in which it was made: working with James Ford at his London studio, she’d zoom co-writers Shungudzo and Danny Parker as they were just getting up in Los Angeles, and even when they were able to meet up in person, a COVID infection meant they were forced to collaborate virtually yet again. But on top of channelling their frustration – “Why does all the purest love get filtered through machines?” – they translate their longing into a luscious tapestry of sound, pulling influences from Latin music and revelling in escapism while still tying themselves to the present. That reality isn’t going away, but it – or at least she, or more importantly we – might be on the cusp of change. The melodic peak she hits on the chorus is so resplendent it almost seems to facilitate it, even when expressing uncertainty: “Can I start again? Can we start again?” If immaculately constructed pop is the filter, that hope’s worth getting swept up in.
20. Carly Rae Jepsen, ‘Psychedelic Switch’
Those not so well-versed in Carly Rae Jepsen’s career may be surprised to find a song from her latest B-sides album on a year-end list in 2023, but as soon as you hit play, we’re all struck by the same question: How can something so new feel so familiar, yet so good? The song harkens back to Daft Punk’s ‘One More Time’ in a way that almost feels like cheating, but Jepsen cruises through everything from classic synth-pop to four-on-the-floor house in a way that emulates the euphoria of a love that’s been the wildest trip yet already feels like home. Of course, it’s not what she has to say – you’ve heard all this corny stuff before – but how she says it, the giddy earnestness with which lands on the word “satisfied” and throws out a line like “in my birthday suit with you/ I’m putting on the Ritz.” As usual in pop music, forever is a flexible concept, but whether it’s a couple years or a lifetime, ‘Psychedelic Switch’ makes you want to keep riding that high.
19. Mannequin Pussy, ‘I Got Heaven’
The raw abrasion of Mannequin Pussy’s ‘I Got Heaven’ isn’t just cathartic in a traditional punk sense; Marisa Dabice’s rageful lyrics become a vessel for a kind of religious ecstasy. She spends most of the song grittily sneering at Christian hypocrisy (“And what if we stopped spinning? And what if we’re just flat? And what if Jesus himself ate my fucking snatch?”), then switches to a murmur in the ethereal chorus, turning inward to embrace divinity as part of the self. But perhaps the most powerful aspect of the song is how that revelatory sweetness swirls back out, as if Dabice is leaning into her role as bandleader to offer salvation – or at least the hope of it. “I wish I could have been there to save you from the reach,” she howls, “For what they did to you, I will never lay to rest.”
18. Slaughter Beach, Dog, ‘Engine’
‘Engine’, the nine-minute epic from Slaughter Beach, Dog’s latest album, barely stands still; there are moments when it seems ready to dissolve, but the band keeps rolling along and stretching it out. Jake Ewald’s lyrics developed in a stream-of-consciousness fashion, and he doesn’t sound all too aware that he’s taken up the mountainous task of sorting through a lifetime of work and movement, beginning with the true story of his van being stolen from the front of his house. There are stops and starts, but even in their specificity, his vignettes feel truly interwoven, like they could fade into different eras of his life. But just when he seems to grasp onto a bigger connection, rhythm nudges him out and forward again: “Aw man, I’m just getting my groove on,” he sings at one point, a whole different kind of groove. Still, amidst dense yet ordinary imagery, he tosses away revelations – like the way pain can, over time and through memory, soften into gratitude – so that maybe he can inspect them later. For him and us both, Adam Meisterhan’s magnificent guitar solo in the song’s final stretch is the chance to let it all wash over.
17. Kara Jackson, ‘dickhead blues’
In her poetic grasp of both language and song structure, Chicago singer-songwriter Kara Jackson makes her frustration in ‘dickhead blues’ sound surprisingly sumptuous. What really happens is that her interest in the song’s pitiable subject – not a single person so much as a stream of lovers inclined to “make a vacation out of you” – is levelled and eventually overshadowed by the recognition of her own worth. She sounds tired, sure, but is more than capable of weaving her weariness into beautifully fluid and satisfying rhymes, the organic instrumentation swelling and sparkling in response. About halfway through, as if by necessity, she turns the song around, repeating the words “If I had a heart/ I’d know where to start.” The fact that she ultimately lands on a self-affirmation – “I am pretty top-notch” – isn’t unexpected, but the journey of getting there, and the way she holds it, is not only heartfelt but a feat of endurance.
16. 100 gecs, ‘Hollywood Baby’
‘Hollywood Baby’ may not be the most chaotic, absurd, or even quotable song on 100 gecs’ sophomore album, but it’s probably the most emphatic highlight. It’s endlessly replayable without leaving you wanting more, as Dylan Brady and Laura Les channel the energy of the pop-punk they grew up with yet don’t succumb to the impulse of warping it around too much. The riff is massive and massively compressed, and you don’t feel the need to speed it up to get that dopamine rush; it just hits. As a song that pits insanity against the trappings of fame, ‘Hollywood Baby’ couldn’t make going crazy at the crib sound any more enticing. You’ll need to spin 10,000 gecs in full to enter, but this is how you know the vibe’s tailored to your taste.
15. Kelela, ‘Enough for Love’
Kelela’s Raven thrives on the constant push-and-pull between isolation and longing, and most of its songs are best absorbed as part of the narrative of rebirth that permeates it. Throughout, Kelela’s voice sinks into the production, which is vaporous, sensual, and otherworldly, oscillating between dancefloor euphoria and ambient calm. But on ‘Enough for Love’, it stands out for its stark vulnerability, echoing over icy synths and intricate drum programming but never quite washing into it. The song begins with a confrontation — “Stop so we can talk about it” — targeting a lover whose repressed pain is grinding the relationship to a halt. “Give it up/ You forgot about us/ You’re not alone, not alone/ Are you tough enough for love/ I need a tougher love,” she sings, framing her own openness as a strength. The love’s hanging by a thread, and only through it can they find their way back to each other. Regardless, Kelela’s words alone are enough to drown out some of the loneliness.
14. Indigo De Souza, ‘Younger & Dumber’
We’ve all had a moment, maybe even in the past year, where stumbling across footage of our younger selves – the kind featured in Indigo De Souza’s ‘Younger & Dumber’ video – floods us with intense emotion that goes way past nostalgia. As she dives into her personal history on the lead single and closing track of All of This Will End, the North Carolina singer-songwriter understands that capturing such a feeling requires totally surrendering to its multitudes: waves of stinging regret, grief for lost innocence, and the sudden realization that our aliveness is bound to more than just the present, our pain to more than just darkness. “You came to hurt me in all the right places/ Made me somebody,” she sings, rendering the self and body as inextricable from the past and from each other. What makes the song explode, though, is bottomless love more powerful and violent than any brutal act imprinted on it. De Souza isn’t overwhelmed by it; it carries her forward.
13. Billie Eilish, ‘What Was I Made For’
Unlike most of the artists featured in the Barbie The Album, Billie Eilish – one of the first to be attached to the soundtrack – took the totally sincere route, delivering a heart-wrenching ballad instead of coasting on the nostalgia of disco or bubblegum pop. In contrast to Ryan Gosling’s self-consciously cheesy ’80s-style power ballad ‘I’m Just Ken’, ‘What Was I Made For’ is self-aware in a way that manages to transcend the cultural spectacle that Barbie was in 2023 – avoiding arguments about how subversive an intellectual property movie of this size can be – while carrying all of its existential weight. In soundtracking the protagonist’s crisis of self, the song renders the trappings of fame and feminity through a lens both strikingly personal and universal: “Looked so alive, turns out I’m not real/ Just something you paid for.” If the words don’t stir the feeling and cynicism out of you, Eilish’s shivering falsetto should.
12. Ratboys, ‘Black Earth, WI’
About five minutes into Ratboys’ nine-minute song ‘Black Earth, WI’, you might catch yourself thinking: How the hell did we get here? What starts out as an ambling mid-tempo jam slowly erupts, via a marvellous guitar solo by David Sagan, into a heroic sing-along that finds all four band members rapturously in sync, enough for them to all realize they’ve stumbled onto a kind of magic. It doesn’t happen often in the sort of music that seems designed for the sole purpose of vibing out – indeed, the band initially picked it up as almost a warm-up while jamming in their basement – but it has the effect of pulling everything into focus. So you get to really appreciate the finer details of Julia Steiner’s impressionistic lyrics, which themselves liven up after that solo: “And if that mockingbird don’t sing/ Watch her do the twist again/ And if she’s twisted up too tight/ Let the dawn cut through the night.” What begins like a journey to the wilderness suddenly sounds more like a homecoming, and you don’t want to be left out.
11. Big Thief, ‘Vampire Empire’
Big Thief’s only release this year was a “7 single featuring studio versions of the live favourites ‘Vampire Empire’ and ‘Born for Loving You’. While the latter is a tenderly sincere long song, ‘Vampire Empire’ lands with the churning intensity that spread throughout their 2022 double LP Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You. Tangled in the knot of a toxic relationship, Adrianne Lenker quickly loses interest in symbolic imagery, her language turning deft and piercingly confrontational: “I see you as you see yourself through all the books you read/ Overwhelmed with guilt and realizing the disease/ You give me chills/ I’ve had it with the drills,” she sings, addressing another or herself or both. It’s an outpouring of emotion that feels more exacting yet no less ragged in this rendition, as Lenker seethes in desperation, aches with desire, and twists herself inside out to break free from the unrelenting cycle. It’s one of her most marvellous performances, and the band is totally attuned to rather than merely keeping up with its tumultuous current. Diving in can be overwhelming, but you feel the power of something so pure on the other side of catharsis.
10. Troye Sivan, ‘Rush’
2023 handed us no shortage of intoxicating dance-pop songs about the rush of new love, but few sounded as fluid and sultry as Troye Sivan’s ‘Rush’. The word “sultry” gets thrown around a lot in pop music criticism, but this really is the horniest party anthem to have slipped into the mainstream in a long time, and God is it good – inspired by Melbourne’s gay clubs as he moved on from a breakup, the Australian singer made a song that not only shares its name with a popular brand of poppers but goes about capturing the euphoria and sweatiness hanging in its orbit. The track would be exhilarating with little more than a house beat and the chorus of men singing “I feel the rush/Addicted to your touch,” but it’s the subtle production flourishes and the way Sivan slinks around them that takes it to the next level. Free from the trappings of bedroom pop, he does away with subtext: “Take me to the feeling boy, you know the one/ Kiss it when you’re done, man, this shit is so much fun.” It’s a momentary revelation, but the sensory reward could feel endless.
9. billy woods and Kenny Segal feat. Samuel T. Herring, ‘FaceTime’
“I feel I got to come home from a journey to have anything to really say, right?” billy woods said in an interview with Rolling Stone, and on ‘FaceTime’, you can tell he’s been away from home for a while. He’s stuck in a hotel room, drifting between thoughts and the buzzing of a phone that connects him to his far-away loved ones, and when it all hangs heavy, he takes a sharp look at his environment before it’s time to leave again. A standout from woods’ collaborative LP with Kenny Segal, Maps, the song evokes the disorienting alienation yet also basks in the ambivalence of living on the road, a subject Future Islands’ Samuel T. Herring, who hops in on the chorus, knows well. “Strangely I feel right at home on my own,” he sings, and though the track finds woods detached and on edge, you never doubt he’s really drawn to this life. There’s a reason the music is so mesmerizing, so luxuriant, and the line “I don’t go to sleep/ I tread water till I sink” could only come from someone who knows it well. I don’t know about home, but as far as the journey goes, ‘FaceTime’ is the perfect capsule of it.
8. NewJeans, ‘Super Shy’
‘Super Shy’ perfects NewJeans’ formula: simple, infectious pop songs that stand out for their charming sincerity and understated playfulness. The dreamy production is accentuated by co-writer Erika de Casier’s tasteful drum n’ bass touches, but it’s Minji, Hanni, Danielle, Haerin, and Hyein’s performances that push the song into ethereal territory: the absolute aimlessness of having a crush and the total determination to win over their attention, a push-and-pull playing out entirely in one’s own mind. Yet NewJeans make it sound so vibrant it might as well be real, earning the 2023 spot (right over Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Shy Boy’) in the ‘Dancing Queen’ lineage of songs for the introverted pop fan in need of not just the dopamine rush of a catchy tune but just the right amount of confidence. ‘Super Shy’ became NewJeans’ breakthrough single, ensuring that if you don’t know their name when it comes on in public, you’ll ask around to find out. Then maybe you’ll send it to that special someone – or just keep it on repeat.
7. PinkPantheress feat. Ice Spice, ‘Boy’s a liar Pt. 2’
‘Boy’s a liar pt. 2’ is one of the rare instances where one of the year’s most defining songs also happens to be one of its best. I love the idea of a song so featherlight and timid topping the charts in 2023, but I love the song – which PinkPantheress called “crap” while promoting the album that features its Ice Spice-assisted remix – even more. Over a Jersey club beat and pixelated melodies that sound almost too thin to be this catchy and too lo-fi to be this big, PinkPantheress lets her wispy voice work its magic, airing the song’s titular truth like something so universal it shouldn’t be this devastating. She and Ice Spice act nonchalant in entirely different ways, but it’s the perfect pairing; the rapper ends up grounding the emotion of an otherwise vibey song, delivering not just her trademark humour but more vulnerability than she ever has before – no matter how many times you come across it, “But I don’t sleep enough without you” always hits. The repetition of “good enough” could be just one girl’s insecurities on a loop, but towards the end, you might hear it echoing into a kind of collective affirmation.
6. Olivia Rodrigo, ‘Vampire’
Olivia Rodrigo’s second album provided an opportunity to talk about how great guitars can sound with the right budget, and though the pop-punk songs on GUTS are great, no amount of money can buy the sheer melodrama the singer is able to get away with on her piano ballads. ‘vampire’ was the most powerful way to kick off the GUTS cycle, earning its extravagance because it matches the fantasies her ex used to sell her – “a mesmerizing, paralyzing, fucked-up little thrill” indeed. And though there’s no undoing the damage, it fuels an appetite for revenge that prevents her from devolving into self-pity, delivering a searing bridge in the ‘drivers license’ tradition that obliterates any inkling of self-pity simply by including the words “fame fucker.” The song may open with melancholy piano chords, but you already know that chorus is exhilirating. And those guitars that are all the rage? Yeah, you get them too.
5. boygenius, ‘Not Strong Enough’
Few songs that deal with self-delusion actually spiral into it, but this is what happens when the voices of boygenius come together on ‘Not Strong Enough’. The verses find Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker tumbling through disaffected thoughts, laying out their mental ineptitude in relatively physical terms: being unable to get out of bed, fix the clocks, or drive under the speed limit. “I don’t know why I am the way I am” is the universalizing lyric, the God-honest truth that comes between distracted rationalizations and something akin to a god complex. You know you can be there for the loved ones you’ve been pushing away, but just won’t take accountability. It’s a realization that sets in as the song begins its ascent: the trio’s harmonies break the duality of “always an angel, never a god,” the mournful sigh becomes a mantra, the mundane revelatory. It flips the prototypical idea of boygenius on its head, proving itself not something to despair to, but through, against. You go home alone, but the change is palpable.
4. Sufjan Stevens, ‘Will Anybody Ever Love Me?’
Given the way Sufjan Stevens stares down oblivion in the verses of the song – religious, poetic, provoking even – you’d expect him to arrive at a different question in the chorus: Will anybody love me forever? “Burn my body, point me to the undertow/ Push me off into the void at last,” he sings, lonely, but the heart of ‘Will Anybody Ever Love Me?’ is less of a question than a universal plea, grounding the unrelenting despair of the song to the present and something we can all relate to. He asks forgiveness for “the heartache and the misery I create,” and while it may be impossible not to well up at the sheer thought of a Sufjan Stevens song with this title, there is nothing miserable about it. He cuts through the ache and into the depth of his longing, patient in receiving something altogether precious and everlasting: love.
3. Lana Del Rey, ‘A&W’
‘A&W’ begins, like so many Lana Del Rey songs, by seemingly bending the tragic female archetype, occupying a space where female sexuality and fragility are hopelessly conflated. “I’m a princess, I’m divisive/ Ask me why, why, why I’m like this,” she sings, exasperated but not at the implication that maybe she’s stopped posing the question to herself. But just like the singer sees a part of herself in the woman she inhabits, that character can’t help but catch visions of her younger self in the culture that built her, “Watching Teenage Diary of a Girl/ Wondering what went wrong.” But this isn’t a lament for lost innocence, Del Rey seems to decide halfway through the seven-minute song; it’s not even really a story. “This is the experience of being an American whore.” Brooding piano and guitar accompany her cold admission that love’s long been off the table, and as Jack Antonoff makes the jarring shift to a trap beat – stitching in strings from Norman Fucking Rockwell! for good measure – the song spins out into a lurid fantasy that brings out Lana’s brattiest side. Aside from ‘A&W’, there are many highlights on Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd. But this is unlike anything else in her discography, and only Lana Del Rey could really sell it.
2. Wednesday, ‘Chosen to Deserve’
“We always started by tellin’ all our best stories first/ So now that it’s been awhile, I’ll get around/To tellin’ you all my worst,” Karly Hartzman sings at the beginning of ‘Chosen to Deserve’, which is a little funny, considering the music video opens by switching the dial from ‘Bull Believer’. Listening to the song, you might find yourself wondering how the worst stories can befit such a triumphant sound, complete with a towering country riff, pleasant melodies, and Xandy Chelmis’s shimmering slide work? But while ‘Bull Believer’, the first single and second song on the Asheville band’s latest album Rat Saw God, channeled old pain into a harrowing nine-minute epic, ‘Chosen to Deserve’ meanders into the past but lives in the now, and now’s looking pretty glorious. Leaning into the haziness of nostalgia more than nostalgia itself, Hartzman recounts an adolescence spent skipping school, pissing in the street, and having sex in the back of an SUV. She’s a different person now, but that life’s left a mark on her: “Now all the drugs are getting’ kinda boring to me/ Now everywhere is loneliness and it’s in everything.” That last line stings more than it should, but though the titular declaration – “I’m the girl you were chosen to deserve” – could be steeped in regret, by the end, Hartzman is teeming with gratitude: “Thank God that I was chosen to deserve you.” That’s the real story here, and it’s greater than all the rest.
1. Mitski, ‘My Love Mine All Mine’
In some ways, it’s hard to believe how big ‘My Love Mine All Mine’ was in 2023. Mitski has had songs go viral on TikTok in the past – namely ‘Nobody’ and ‘Washing Machine Heart’, which combined have racked up nearly a billion Spotify streams – but listening to ‘My Love Mine All Mine’, you wouldn’t guess it’d become her first entry on the Billboard Hot 100. Mitski’s last album, Laurel Hell, featured some forays into synth-pop that seemed to be modeled after the success of ‘Nobody’, but her latest, the subdued and country-leaning The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We, displays no such ambitions. Released as its third single, ‘My Love Mine All Mine’ isn’t even necessarily the album’s most obvious standout. It might be the most straightforward love song she’s ever written, but it’s also one of the most profound. It’s a grower. Slow dance to it once, and it never leaves you.
In Mitski’s past work, love has been irreparably tied to despair, the real substance of yearning. “I want a love that falls as fast as a body from a balcony/ I want a kiss like my heart is hitting the ground,” she sang on ‘Townie’, from her breakout 2014 album Bury Me at Makeout Creek. At the end of another highlight of her new LP, she howls, “Please don’t take/ Take my job from me.” But she knows nobody can take away her love, which remains all-consuming but not even towards any one person or thing, cosmic in scale yet tenderly delivered. With her gorgeous voice echoing from afar, she gets to really hold it, the only thing she can ultimately lay claim to that could ever persist. She’s not grappling with anything, just wishing that some of it really does when she’s gone. That’s all any of us could ever hope for, and Mitski embraces the possibility with absolute freedom.