By Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen
Our critic’s pick of the songs of the year.
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2023 has been a strange year of ups and downs, but there’s always been good music to get us through. We said hello to exciting new artists around the world, welcomed fresh tracks from mainstays, and bid a fond farewell to some trailblazers (most notably Camp Cope in Australia, who challenged and changed the local music landscape). From big-screen soundtracks and household names to a few lesser-known artists, here are 10 of our critic’s top picks for songs of the year.
Not Strong Enough, boygenius
They might have made listeners wait five long years since their debut EP was released for a full-length, but ask anyone in the know – boygenius’ full-length debut was worth it. The supergroup, made up of American singer-songwriters Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, combined their gorgeous harmonies and razor-sharp observations on the album, simply titled The Record. Not Strong Enough is classic boygenius, spotlighting the best of each songwriter’s abilities and styles, all while referencing a classic Sheryl Crow song. This is modern indie at its very best – the future is bright for “the boys”.
Stay Blessed, Genesis Owusu
In August, the chameleonic Canberra-based rapper and musician Genesis Owusu released his second record, Struggler. Inspired by Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, the concept album centres on an alter-ego, The Roach, as a metaphor for the challenges of life in the modern age. This angular track is one of the album’s highlights, fusing 2000s Bloc Party-style indie rock guitars with Owusu’s rapid-fire vocal delivery. It’s been a pleasure to see the musician go from strength to strength, carving out a truly unique niche in the Australian music landscape and pushing the boundaries of his songwriting and craft.
Genesis Owusu.Credit: Wolter Peeters
Speed Drive, Charli XCX
Love it or hate it, you have to hand it to her – Greta Gerwig truly dominated the culture in 2023 with Barbie, and the film had a star-studded soundtrack to boot. While many of the songs on that soundtrack might not stand the test of time, Charli XCX’s contribution is buckets of memorable fun, perfectly capturing the manic, weirdo energy of the film while also slotting comfortably into the English pop star’s canon alongside songs like Vroom Vroom. Its cheeky interpolation of Toni Basil’s 80s hit Hey Mickey makes it an earworm that’s impossible to shake off.
Flowers, Miley Cyrus
Alongside Kylie Minogue’s Padam Padam, this might have been the comeback single of the year. Miley Cyrus’ instantly recognisable voice sounds better than ever on this iconic kiss-off, which puts a new spin on Bruno Mars’ 2012 hit When I Was Your Man. Flowers has it all: a catchy melody, a compelling vocal delivery and celebrity gossip fuel – it’s thought to be about Cyrus’ ex, Liam Hemsworth, who once dedicated the Mars song to her. With its message of independence and empowerment, this one is sure to have soundtracked countless breakups this year, reasserting how good it feels to look after number one – no one else required.
You’re Losing Me, Taylor Swift
There’s no denying it – 2023 was the year of Taylor Swift. The superstar’s Era Tour broke records around the world, causing a squabble in Australia when tickets went on sale in June and sold out instantly. You’re Losing Me, a bonus track from Midnights, encapsulates what the songwriter does so well – it’s an understated and heartbreaking song about the end of a relationship, with her literal heartbeat laying the foundations. Swift is the queen of the pop song bridge, and this one’s a killer. The song recently was finally released on streaming platforms after months of being a bootleg favourite, so get a box of tissues ready.
If you haven’t yet heard of RVG, what are you waiting for? The post-punk band has been one of Melbourne’s best-kept secrets for years, and their latest album, Brain Worms, is their most daring yet. Squid is its sprawling, enigmatic centrepiece – in the thundering, synth-soaked song, singer Romy Vager describes stepping on a squid and then becoming one herself. Turns out that being a cephalopod doesn’t save you from the existential despair of modern life. Adventurous, compelling and strange, this is one of the best local releases of the year that shows a songwriter at the peak of her powers.
Letting Go, Angie McMahon
Melbourne singer-songwriter Angie McMahon’s second album, Light, Dark, Light Again, is a soothing balm for the anxious mind. It’s brimming with mantras and self-affirmation, acknowledging how difficult life can be, but also appreciating the small but wondrous things about the world. Letting Go’s expansive, dreamy atmosphere recalls the likes of The War on Drugs, with McMahon’s powerful vocals soaring above the chugging sound, moving ever forward. At the song’s climax, she repeats, “it’s okay, make mistakes” – a reminder that even in the dark times, there’s always hope and redemption to be found.
Angie McMahon.Credit: Taylor Ranston
Silent Assassin, Tkay Maidza feat. Flume
Two of Australia’s finest team up on this single, which will lodge itself deep into your brain. The first single from Zimbabwe-born, Australia-raised and now Los Angeles-based rapper Maidza’s album Sweet Justice, this one clocks in at just over two minutes but leaves a lasting impression. The insistent, mosquito-like buzzing and chimes of Flume’s production provides a perfect backdrop for Maidza to take centre stage, showing off her immaculate flow. It’s a singular track that takes its cues from various influences and eras – a bit of Missy Elliott, a bit of 90s industrial – and emerges as entirely its own thing.
Spring to Life, Tia Gostelow
This track from Indigenous singer-songwriter Tia Gostelow snuck into my most played for the year, according to Spotify Wrapped – and it’s not too hard to see why. The Queensland musician seamlessly melds contemporary and 80s influences on the first single from her third album, Head Noise. It’s a slice of pop perfection, ruminating on the yearning and overthinking that often comes with the experience of love in one’s younger years. Saxophone flourishes dot the tune before an extended outro, bringing to mind the best of the previous decades while also pushing Australian pop music forward into a new sphere.
Don’t Kiss Me, Maple Glider
Longtime fans of Maple Glider will be familiar with this song from her live shows, but its official release this year has doubtlessly introduced it to many more listeners. The Melbourne folk musician, real name Tori Zietsch, has the ethereality of Cat Power and Lana Del Rey. Don’t Kiss Me is a quietly angry song about consent and violation. Side by side with Dinah, both from her second album I Get Into Trouble, it’s a confronting look at how girls and women are raised and treated, wrapped up in Zietsch’s beautiful, gentle songwriting and glorious voice.
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