Countdown to 2024: The 2023 Songs That Defined the Year

In a year when quality pop culture has been sorely needed to distract from the real-world news and help inspire a more hopeful future, the music world delivered an array of styles and beats scattered among the best songs of 2023. We compiled a chronological list of the 18 top 2023 songs that made a distinctive mark on the year, whether musically, culturally, or otherwise. So if your musical vibe gravitates more towards pop, hip-hop, country, metal, or any combination thereof, there is something for everyone on this 2023 playlist.

1. Miley Cyrus: “Flowers” (Release Date: January 12)

Kicking off the new year with the biggest hit of Cyrus’ career, “Flowers” spent eight weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100. The lead single off Endless Summer Vacation, her eighth studio album, the song opens with a seeming lament for a couple’s broken relationship: “We were right ’til we weren’t / Built a home and watched it burn.” But the song quickly turns into an anthem to singlehood as the singer reminds herself that “I can buy myself flowers… I can love me better than you can.” (While we’re all for female empowerment, we might have to ignore the tabloid stories linking Cyrus to Lilly drummer Maxx Morando.)

2. Pink Pantheress & Ice Spice: “Boy’s a Liar, Pt. 2” (Release Date: February 3)

The relationship wars continue in this remix of Pink Pantheress’s 2022 release, “Boy’s a Liar.” The British singer’s lyrics twist and turn with the aches of uncertain love: “Did you ever want me? Was I ever good enough?” This version adds a rhyme by 2023’s rap breakout Ice Spice, the Bronx-born verbal stylist whose more resonant tones bring the perfect contrast to Pantheress’s higher-pitched, breathy vocals.

3. Taylor Swift: Live Acoustic Covers (Tour Launch: March 17)

On St. Patrick’s Day, in the suburban desert paradise of Glendale, Arizona, Taylor Swift launched her global Eras tour, creating the concert event of the year in the process. While each highlight-packed show is unique, it’s when Swift sits down at the piano or straps an acoustic guitar around her neck for a two-song acoustic set that elevates them to something truly special. She surprises the audience with different songs at every show, never repeating one, so each show is a one-of-a-kind experience — it’s the kind of personal touch that creates such a strong bond between the singer and her fans. Songs performed include “Mirrorball” from the album Folklore (Glendale, AZ), “Sparks Fly” from Speak Now (Nashville, TN), and “All You Had to Do Was Stay” from 1989 (Detroit, MI).

4. Hozier: “Eat Your Young” (Release date: March 17)

Released as part of a three-song extended play album before being included on the studio album, Unreal Unearth, “Eat Your Young” uses religious imagery to comment on social themes much like the singer-songwriter’s 2013 breakout, “Take Me to Church” did. “Skinnin’ the children for a war drum / Put in front of the table, sellin’ bombs and guns,” he sings, and while the lyrics are definitely effective, what sets this song apart are Hozier’s soulful vocals and an infectious, bluesy chorus. Hozier continues to prove he is a voice to be reckoned with.

5. Rosalía & Rauw Alejandro: “Beso” (Release Date: March 24)

This collab between Spanish singer Rosalía and her real-life boyfriend, Puerto Rican singer Rauw Alejandro, was one of the high points of this year’s Coachella Festival, as both performers exhibited a chemistry that set the stage afire. With its Latin beat and Spanish lyrics, the song leans into the singers’ cultural heritage while the synth-heavy production helps keep a pop sensibility that makes it accessible to all.

6. Metallica: “72 Seasons” (Release Date: March 30)

The eternal metal masters released their 11th studio album, 72 Seasons, six-and-a-half years after their 10th, unleashing another torrent of blazing guitar work, thunderous drumming, and James Hetfield’s mighty vocals. This epic eight-minute title track opens with a full two minutes of pure guitar crunchiness before Hetfield’s throaty wail kicks. “Feeding on the wrath of man,” he sings, “Shot down, traumatic / Time haunted by the past.” The song combines everything Metallica does best and makes you wish it all could last at least eight minutes more.

7. Asake: “2:30” (Release Date: April 5)

Nigerian singer-songwriter Asake made a mark with this Yoruba-language Afrobeat banger off his second studio album, Work of Art. With its laid-back vibe perked up by the singer’s percussive flow and by distinctive, intermittent synth effects, the track showcases his knack for combining street influences with a pop flair anyone can love. A sold-out concert at the O2 Arena in London — home to a bustling Nigerian ex-pat community — this past August only hints at the emerging star’s potential.

8. Luke Combs: “Fast Car” (Release Date: April 18)

This heartfelt cover from country music star Luke Combs took Tracy Chapman’s classic to new heights, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 (Chapman’s original 1988 release peaked at No. 6). Chapman is a Black queer singer-songwriter who shaped the music industry in the ’80s and ’90s—and Combs had been covering her best-known single on tour for years. The single represents a crossover breakthrough for Combs with its acoustic, guitar-led production staying relatively faithful to the original while letting Combs’ deep vocals take center stage.

9. Glaive: “As If” (Release Date: April 28)

The rising teenage hyperpop star’s lead single off his debut album, I Care So Much That I Don’t Care at All, starts off with a spoken word question: “Why do I have to listen to you when you have zero to say?” Such an opening naturally raises the question as to whether the singer himself will have something to say. Fortunately, Glaive delivers with an honest and insightful look at his life: “My friends are so progressive, they called me “f****t” a year ago / And I couldn’t cut them off because then I’d be on my own,” he admits. “There’s so much truth in the fiction, don’t know what to believe.” His singing style mixes rhythmic spoken-word vocalizations with impassioned howls, while a steady drumbeat and forceful rhythm guitars blast away with energy and verve.

10. Jason Aldean: “Try That in a Small Town” (Release Date: May 19)

Another crossover success, country veteran Aldean’s warning to scofflaws stirred up a more controversial reaction than Combs’s crowd-pleaser. Some in the media accused the song’s accompanying music video — filled with images of riots and looting — of promoting lynching. Aldean and the video’s producers promptly denied the charge, insisting the song merely offered a contrast of rural and urban lifestyles, though it was enough for CMT to remove the video from its rotation. Naturally, the controversy only sparked greater interest, and by the first week of August, the song had hit No. 1 on both the Hot 100 and the country charts.

11. Dua Lipa: “Dance the Night Away” (Release Date: May 25)

Summer this year was dominated by all things Barbie, whether it was Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling playing the toy figurines come to life on the silver screen or this modern disco classic from Dua Lipa, the lead single off the movie’s soundtrack. With her powerful, soaring vocals punctuated by shimmering synth chords and driven by a funkified bass line, the song practically manifests Studio 54 back into its 1970s heyday. The lyrics are all about dancing through sadness, a sentiment no doubt many of us could take to heart. The accompanying video makes prominent use of a disco ball, fully embracing the dance-music comparison. It’s a sparkling addition to Dua Lipa’s already stunning back catalogue.

12. J Hus ft. Drake: “Who Told You” (Release Date: June 8)

While Drake released his own album, For All the Dogs, in October, the Canadian rapper’s most memorable 2023 work might be this collab with comer J Hus off the British rapper’s album Beautiful and Brutal Yard. Opening with a mid-tempo beat set off by deliberate, sparkling electronic chord progressions, Afro-trap pioneer J Hus soon chimes in by insisting even tough guys can dance. “Even with a wap on my hip,” he boasts, using London slang for “gun,” “I dance / Bad man, take another sip and dance.” His easy rhythm suggests low-key confidence, laidback and unconcerned, joined soon by Drake’s more bebop-style delivery, scattering lines like, “Trouble’ll find me, trouble will find me / It’s okay, girl, bubble and winey” around while the easy beat keeps things in line. 

13. Taylor Swift: “Cruel Summer” (Re-Release Date: June 20)

Originally included back in 2019 on Swift’s seventh studio album, Lover, this track earned new popularity when it was showcased as part of the singer’s Eras Tour. Peaking at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, the song takes the point of view of a woman torn by uncertainties and desire: “And it’s new, the shape of your body / It’s blue, the feeling I’ve got.” And Swift’s trademark wordplay shines in lines like, “Devils roll the dice, angels roll their eyes,” which are then echoed when she describes how her lover “looks up grinning like the devil.” A remix version and a live version were released in conjunction with the debut of the concert film Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour on a new collection entitled The Cruelest Summer.

14. Olivia Rodrigo: “Vampire” (Release Date: June 30)

The lead single off the American singer’s second studio album entitled Guts, this track starts with a plaintive piano before Rodrigo’s whispery voice chimes in: “How’s the castle built off people you pretend to care about,” she sings with a streak of bitterness. The song builds in its intensity and tone, as Rodrigo’s voice finds power and force, telling a former beau that “you can’t love anyone, ’cause that would mean you had a heart.” Debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, the song further established the former Disney TV star as a bona fide pop music star.

15. Oliver Anthony Music: “Rich Men North of Richmond” (Release Date: August 8)

Anthony’s home-produced video of himself performing his self-recorded bluegrass-tinged song with only an acoustic guitar became a viral hit on social media over the summer, turning it into one of the more remarkable pop music stories of recent years. Though the Virginia singer-songwriter was without a record deal prior to its release — Anthony had only finished recording the track mere hours before — the video received over 5 million views on YouTube within three days. Not only that, but the song, lamenting the lot of the rural poor, sparked a nationwide conversation about class and politics that continues to percolate across society.

16. Allison Russell: “Snakelife” (Release Date: August 11)

Proving that country and folk-tinged Americana is not the exclusive domain of white males, Canadian Allison Russell lets loose with this rich and powerful hymn to a changing consciousness. Opening with a subdued but insistent roots-styled beat, her soulful voice soon rises with evocative lines like, “But every scar and every bruise / They shine like blue Botswana jewels.” But about two-thirds in, the song kicks into another gear with a bluesy third verse, complete with funky bass line, before returning to its more minimalist rootsy core for a final thought: “To weave a world where every child / Is safe and loved… / And Black is beautiful and good.” This, the third single off her second studio album, The Returner, might be her most memorable.

17. Pangaea, “Bad Lines” (Release Date: September 12)

English dubstep producer Pangaea follows up his 2016 debut album, In Drum Play, with this rapid-fire, synth-drenched, dance-floor tour de force off his new album, Changing Channels, from the influential UK club label Hessle Audio. A pure instrumental work with no vocals to sully the buzzy electronic sounds, the track is meant instead to get your body moving to the rhythm. Swirls of synthesizer keyboards and an insistent, impatient beat keep things tight, filling the track with unbridled energy and unrivaled technique.

18. Jamila Woods, “Good News” (Release Date: September 13, 2023)

Chimes string out an enticing melody before a gentle bass line joins in but soon take a back seat to Chicago-based singer-songwriter and poet Jamila Woods’s sly, smoky vocals, telling us what “the good news is.” It’s a warm, reassuring sound, deliberate in its pacing, confident in its tone. The song’s the third single off Water Made Us, the third studio album from the artist, whose poetry can be found in a range of anthologies and publications. Unsurprisingly, the lyrics here are especially effective, wistful about a lost love: “I’ll make it back to where I been / My footprints will be different then,” she sings, and, “The good news is, water always runs back where it came from / The good news is, water made us.” You’ll come back, or I’ll come back — we’re not entirely sure (though a few lines later, she hints that it’s her own “indecision” behind the relationship’s troubles, but even so, she’s sure things will turn out all right.