Pop music’s biggest A-listers largely sat on the sidelines in 2023. Artists like Beyoncé, The Weeknd and Harry Styles still dominated the headlines—and the touring circuit—but none of them dropped new albums this year. Taylor Swift technically did—releasing re-worked versions of 2010s albums Speak Now and 1989—but it would be a stretch to count them as new records. We did get another album by the Rolling Stones, but the year was decidedly light on big-ticket blockbusters and grand year-defining musical narratives: no exciting new scenes taking over the airwaves, no big cultural moment for everyone to respond to.
In the absence of the heavy-hitters and their promotional carpet-bombing, this was a year of fragmented brilliance, with plenty of incredible releases by artists working in the liminal spaces of pop music. There were experiments with ambient ghazal (Nicolas Jaar and Ali Sethi’s Intiha), rappers-turned-flautists (Andre 3000’s bewilderingly good New Blue Sun) and triumphant resurgences of pop-punk (Paramore) and R&B (Victoria Monet). It was a year of thrilling musical alchemy, as a generation of post-internet genre-benders took their moment in the limelight to push new sounds and styles into the mainstream. Here are ten of my favourite releases this year, all of which shaped—in one way or the other—the direction of pop music, at home or in the world. In no particular order:
Three years ago, Olivia Rodrigo introduced herself to the world as Gen-Z teen idol with Sour, a melancholic breakup album brimming with grunge guitar distortion and power-ballad intimacy. On her follow-up album Guts, Rodrigo—now 20—focuses her cutting lyricism and spunky charm on the challenges and contradictions of young womanhood. Over ‘angry girl’ guitar rock and soul-searching piano ballads, Rodrigo sings of vampiric exes, social anxiety, self-image issues and the way society pits young women against each other. Drawing on inspiration as wide-ranging as Joan Didon, Courtney Love and Avril Lavigne, Guts is an instant pop classic, elevated by Rodrigo’s messy ambition and self-aware charm.
Chicago rapper Noname spent the five years since her 2018 album Room 25 hinting that she was done with rap, even as she dove headfirst into revolutionary politics and community activism. On her incandescent new record Sundial, Noname brings all that hard-earned knowledge into the studio, spitting eloquently furious rhymes that interrogate the hierarchies of race and capitalism that underpin American society—and American pop music. Over her signature mix of chromatic jazz, smoky soul, bossa nova and boom-bap, the rapper resurrects the idea of rap as the revolutionary spectre that haunts white America. “I ain’t fuckin’ with the NFL or JAY-Z/ Propaganda for the military complex,” she raps on Namesake, rap diss and socio-political polemic coming together in one sublime sucker-punch.
After four years of experiments with iconoclastic genre-bending, Ahmedabad rapper Dhanji finally finds his sound on his debut full-length Ruab. Dhanji and his army of independent producers—led by Circle Tone—conjure up funk in all its various incarnations, channelling innovations from James Brown, Dr. Dre and R.D. Burman. Over this blaxploitation-meets-Hindi-noir soundscape, Dhanji tosses off arrhythmic, barely discernible rhymes that veer between high-concept absurdist satire and low-brow snark, a fast-talking trickster deity on the prowl. Ruab is an impressive tour-de-force that pushes the boundaries of Indian rap beyond po-faced depictions of personal struggle or conspicuous consumption, into true bizarro-world territory.
Grammy-winning Pakistani singer Arooj Aftab already established herself as one of the most exciting South Asian voices in global music with Vulture Prince, her breakout 2021 album that re-imagined the ghazal for ambient music and minimalistic folk. On Love In Exile, she teams up with two other South Asian luminaries—jazz pianist Vijay Iyer and experimental producer Shahzad Ismaily—for six tracks of lush, intuitive improvisation. Iyer and Ismaily use piano, bass synths and drones to create gently unfurling soundscapes, over which Aftab’s voice soars in melismatic circles. The trio’s telepathic chemistry—and faith in the spiritual power of musical connection—imbues their music with a sense of transcendence, mirrored in Aftab’s choice of Urdu couplets focused on love, longing and belonging.
In retrospect, the pairing of JPEGMAFIA and Danny Brown makes perfect sense. They’re both musical iconoclasts who share a love for the absurd and grotesque. They’ve both been circling the mainstream for years, inventive and brilliant enough to get a foot through the door, but too weird to really break through. On Scaring The Hoes, the two rappers team up for a frenetic, genre-straddling exploration of party-killing party music, crafting maximalism all-out bangers that will get you banned from the aux cord if you put them on at a friend’s place. JPEGMAFIA’s production cycles through distorted, breakneck-speed rhythms and demonically unhinged samples at frenetic pace, while the two irreverent pranksters verbalise meme-adjacent fantasies of drug-fuelled misanthropy and shock-jock satire. It’s messy, over-the-top, and occasionally a little scary. I love it.
New Delhi rap duo Seedhe Maut have been making waves in Indian rap for years, earning critical acclaim and co-signs from their fellow artists with their aggressive, hard-hitting bro-trap, without quite breaking into the mainstream. On Lunch Break—a 30-track mixtape intended to hold fans over till they drop their follow-up to Nayaab—the duo take a left turn into more experimental sonic territory, proving that they have the songwriting and production chops to go along with their undeniable verbal dexterity. Featuring guest spots from artists as diverse as Badshah, KR$NA and Faris Shafi—a testament to the goodwill they’ve earned across South Asian hip-hop—Lunch Break’s 85 minutes offer lush, expansive pop production, catchy off-kilter hooks and freshly-minted laid-back flows. If this is just a teaser, then their next album—tentatively titled Kavi Kehna Chahte Hain—is going to be one of the most awaited Indian releases of next year.
Okay, so technically this one dropped at the very tail end of 2022, but it came out too late for the 2022 end-of-year lists. Besides, SOS was such a dominant presence in 2023—on the charts all year, including a 10-week run at the top—that it had to be on the list. The follow-up to her iconic 2017 debut Ctrl, this album confirms SZA’s status as one of this generation’s most accomplished R&B alchemists. The 23 tracks on SOS playfully jump between groovy R&B, artful electronic pop, jazz-laden hip-hop and acoustic indie-pop, as SZA weaves trauma, heartbreak and self-doubt into ingeniously compact verse. There’s heartbreaking loneliness (Nobody Gets Me), anger (Special) and revenge fantasy (the Tarantino-referencing Kill Bill), all filtered through SZA’s powerful, freewheeling vocals. SOS is a powerful, inventive addition to the haloed canon of lovelorn pop.
For the past half-decade, one of Indian music’s best-kept secrets has been its underground experimental music scene, grungy-looking music nerds in grimy dive bars and DIY art galleries fiddling with laptops and synths to create abrasive, shape-shifting structures of atonal noise and harsh sonic texture. Fatima, the debut album by Leh artist Ruhail Qaisar, is perhaps the best record to come out of that scene yet. The record sees Qaisar move away from the blackened noise of his former act SISTER, though it retains the sense of fear, anger and isolation that embodies all his work. A hauntological survey of Leh’s mythical past and crumbling present, Fatima incorporates field recordings, spoken word and tortured, otherworldly synths into assemblages of soul-scarring sonic horror, channelling the physical and ideological conflicts that have beset Qaisar’s troubled homeland for centuries. You won’t find it on the playlist at any New Year’s Eve parties, but Fatima—like all great experimental music—is a mind-bending experience that leaves you irrevocably altered afterwards, haunted by the ghosts and demons Qaisar conjures up.
Dedicated to Sufjan Stevens’ late partner, Javelin sees the Detroit singer-songwriter lean even further into the obsession with endings—of relationships and life itself—that has characterised so much of his work. Fusing his trademark intimate folk style with the electro-pop maximalism of 2010’s The Age of Adz and the sparse minimalism of 2021’s Carrie & Lowell, the music on Javelin sees the many strands of Stevens’ eclectic and diverse oeuvre come together in one cohesive sound. Songs start in simple, desolate registers and slowly evolve into complex, multi-hued assemblages, as Stevens explores grief and heartbreak in all of its uniquely devastating forms. There’s the incandescent self-doubt of Will Anybody Ever Love Me, the crushing emotional debris of eight-minute-long breakup diary-entry Shit Talk, and the monumental sense of loss that weighs down the elegiac (and otherwise ethereal) Goodbye Evergreen. Deep in the throes of personal tragedy, licking way too many wounds to count, Stevens still finds a way to express gratitude and a defiant hope in the goodness of things.