By Chris Richards
Here’s one thing I love about today’s semi-democratised, perpetually chaotic digital music space: Two of the most intimate ballads I heard in 2023 are nominated for song of the year at February’s Grammy Awards, while another one of my faves – a regional rap hit whose video has miles to go before its YouTube views even begin to sniff six figures – feels larger than life.
Great songs need not be big to feel big. From nano to mega, these are my 2023 favourites.
10. Maz G, AyooLii, “Jack Tapp”
Greetings from the epicentre of the Milwaukee rap scene, where the music feels mischievous and exhilarating; where young rappers are playful and prolific in mutually reinforcing ways; where the drum machine hand claps that seem to materialise on every eighth-note feel like perpetual slaps to the face; where mosh pits are said to break out at basement shows; where Maz G and AyooLii’s “Jack Tapp” embodies the energy of the whole scene, but with an exuberance that can’t be matched.
9. Kelela, “Contact”
Kelela specialises in songs for and about losing yourself in the shadows of the nightlife, but “Contact” feels special the moment the laws of physics start swopping responsibilities.
“The bass in my body, I’m sinking, it’s so wide,” the DC native sing-narrates over a classic house music pulse.
“Time is surreal, now I’m floating in outer space.” Roger that.
8. Olivia Rodrigo, “Ballad of a Homeschooled Girl”
The song that leaps the highest off her elastic sophomore album wants to convince us that poor Olivia Rodrigo is a hopeless child incapable of normal social interaction when, in actuality, she’s a song-writing assassin whose heart pumps 33-degree Erewhon spring water – which means we should enjoy falling for the whole thing.
After channelling the Cars, the Waitresses and the least embarrassing eras of Weezer, our hero completes the ode to her own supposed awkwardness by recounting two social flubs (“Thought your mom was your wife/Called you the wrong name twice”), followed by two expertly crafted meta-mistakes of her own: “Can't think of a third line” – or a fourth one – “La-la-la-la-la-la!”
7. Noname, “Namesake”
Who else in this world of cowards and sycophants has the courage to rip Rihanna, Jay-Z, Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar for performing at the Super Bowl in one of their songs, yet has the humility and self-awareness to criticise herself for playing a corpo music festival in the rhymes that immediately follow?
The brisk, conversationally devastating rap song also explores the fragility of our ecology, the indomitability of the American war machine and Noname’s fundamental belief that nearly every problem plaguing this doomed planet has the “same solution: socialism”.
6. Lana Del Rey, “A&W”
When we used to describe Lana Del Rey’s songs as “dreamlike”, it meant that her music felt like those old television ads for Chanel where a black horse is cantering down a beach in reverse while an acrobat in a ball gown swings on a trapeze.
The song, however, sounds like the dreams we actually have: Tori Amos and Trent Reznor are finally singing that collab that every ’90s baby wished for, and the lyrics are brutal, but then Nelly bursts into the room doing “Country Grammar”, and Lana says she just talked to your mom on the phone and told her everything.
5. That Mexican OT, DRODi, Paul Wall, “Johnny Dang”
A quick who’s who regarding this pristine Texas posse cut: That Mexican OT is a splashy rookie “outta Texas” who likes to wear cowboy hats and roll his Rs as if electrocuting them inside his mouth.
DRODi is a fellow Texan tasked with upholding the song’s theme and mood. Paul Wall is the Houston rap hero who sounds as sharp as he did on 2004’s “Still Tippin”, one of the greatest rap songs made. Johnny Dang is a Houston jeweller who, in this song’s music video, appears delighted to now have the coolest jingle in the history of diamond retail.
4. Paramore, “This Is Why”
The verse is exquisite and punky-sly, like all those times Blonde Redhead tried to sound like Fugazi.
But when the chorus hits, it’s like an NBA point guard is suddenly practising his crossover through broken glass.
“This is why I don’t leave the house,” Haley Williams sings, raging against the lingering paranoia of the pandemic, or the corrosive effects of social media, or neither, or both, but either way, with more than enough vim to confirm that she’s still the most exciting rock singer of her generation.
3. Niontay, El Cousteau, Mike, Earl Sweatshirt, “Real Hiphop”
Who knows whether the title of this casually fabulous rap summit is a direct retort to all the pomp and hoopla surrounding hip-hop’s 50th birthday or just four friends having a laugh.
Regardless, the minds assembled here – Brooklyn ringmaster Niontay; D.C. wild-stylist El Cousteau; New York straight man Mike; cerebral-cool Cali hero Earl Sweatshirt – sound like they’re having way more fun than everybody else.
Earl’s parting words: “We won again.”
2. Billie Eilish, “What Was I Made For?”
Remember back in the summertime when everyone was taking selfies inside those giant Barbie boxes at the multiplex?
It felt darkly comic to me, as if every single one of these people had chosen to forfeit their sentience after hearing “What Was I Made For?”, the annihilating piano ballad that forms a black hole in the centre of the soundtrack of Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” movie.
“I don’t know how to feel,” Eilish sings from the void, “but I wanna try.”
1. Kylie Minogue, “Padam Padam”
There are many ways to hear “Padam Padam”. First, as Edith Piaf dancing to Kraftwerk in a loud nightclub. Then, as a virality that swiftly thumped across the wilds of TikTok.
By summertime, it had become the unofficial theme song of Pride Month. Now, in hindsight, it’s a hit that makes Minogue appear as durable as Janet Jackson or Madonna.
Also, here’s a fourth way to hear it: What if this song, in all its artificial sleekness, is about facial recognition software (“You look a little like somebody I know”), virtual home assistants (“I know you wanna take me home”), data scraping (“I’ll be in your head all weekend”) and digital fitness wearables (“I can hear your heart beating”)?
What if, instead of singing about one human seducing another, Minogue is singing about technology’s unstoppable seduction of our species? My worried heart padams a little faster.