Six months ago I wrote that “in 2022 I found myself getting really fixated on sounds and lyrics and needing to hear them over and over again which I haven’t done since I was a kid” This would be something that definitely carried on into the first half of 2023. While I’ve still been loving full-lengths like I always have; I’ve continued to draw a lot of strength from the immediate rush or gentle cradle from individual songs. So I wanted to mark the midpoint of 2023 by going into a little more detail around the tracks that have really soundtracked Jan-Jun for me and why; often with a focus on the lyrics too. Hopefully you find something new to get hooked on. Here’s 30, in no order whatsoever:
- ‘Set The Roof’ feat. Tayla Parx by Hudson Mohawke & Nikki Nair
Last year’s Cry Sugar felt like the first proper album from HudMo since 2015, and it was a welcome return. But this year’s joint EP with Nikki Nair was like being sprayed in the face with a fire extinguisher, in a good way. It’s been sunny consistently for over a week as I write this, and ‘Set the Roof’ sounds so, so good in the heat.
- ‘It’s Crazy’ by J Hus
The return of J Hus was extremely welcome last month after 3 years without new music from the MC. It was an incendiary comeback, with threats just cascading out of him. Every line is a quotable but my favourite is “I wanna send a message, let them know that I’m not playing / I wanna beef the world” Yeah Drake was on the second single, but this was the one.
- ‘Glory’ by Gabriels
If you haven’t listened to Gabriels yet then you’re missing out on the most beautiful act in modern soul music right now so please take this as your prompt to sleep no longer. The chorus “I might be down right now but I make do with what I got… I make a little a lot” is absolutely triumphant and just what I needed.
- ‘The Hillbillies’ by Baby Keem & Kendrick Lamar
After last year’s therapy session in album form, if you’d told me Kendrick would be shit-talking with his baby cousin again already over a Bon Iver sample I would never have believed you. Sometimes we need family to help us have fun again after getting through the heavy shit. Collab album please.
- ‘A Tale of the Twin Flame’ by Kweku Collins
“And all the following year, and year and year after that; I would glimpse or hear of you and I’m right back across from where you were sitting” So many angry tears listening to this song.
- ‘Rumble’ feat. Flowdan by Skrillex, Fred again..
Ever since Fred again..’s summer 2022 Boiler Room set, the people were crying out for the release of this song. The England football team account even teased the song on social in the build up to the World Cup. But when it finally came it was so worth the wait. It soundtracks every run/work out I do.
- ‘youth+’ by Jean Dawson
I’d been following Dawson’s output casually ever since ASAP Rocky co-signed him 3 years ago. I loved some of the songs on last year’s CHAOS NOW* but it was this double A-side release that really made me a superfan. It sounds like if New Order were Gen-Z teens and that poor analogy is honestly the closest I can get to describing it. Obsessed.
- ‘Scaring The Hoes’ by Danny Brown & JPEGMAFIA
T.S. Eliot once wrote “This is the way the world ends; not with a bang but a single person clapping while someone plays the sax badly” Does what it says on the tin.
- ‘The Summoning’ by Sleep Token
OK this isn’t usually my thing, but this year the anonymous UK metal act won me over big time. This is the song that took them from 280K monthly listeners on Spotify to over 1.8million in under a month (they now sit at 2.7million) A pretty crazy rise but even more impressive when you consider it’s a 6 and a half minute behemoth that incorporates metal, funk and soulful vocals. The pre-teen Me would have gone nuts.
- ‘Grub’ feat. Jeshi by NxxxxxS
I’d never heard of French producer NxxxxxS before he got my favourite British rapper Jeshi on the track but this is the most perfect meeting of worlds. The MC glides on the glitchy, hard-hitting beat which acts as further evidence of his greatness.
- ‘Dumbest Girl Alive’ by 100 gecs
Opening your album with the THX sound effect is a pretty bold statement of intent but the rest of the song lives up to it with acoustic guitars, Sleigh Bells aggression and the ‘Sicko Mode’ 808s. The first time I heard it I texted my friends: “I was just listening to it on the motorway, pushed the accelerator to the floor. A cop pulled me over at about 110mph but when I played him this he just started moshing with me”
- ‘Tourniquet’ by slowthai
As I write this, slowthai is awaiting a day in court for two charges of rape. Obviously, if he’s found guilty I’ll remove the song from this list and any lists to come. Attempting to suspend judgement until the verdict; this is the most emotionally visceral piece of blood-letting I’ve heard for a long time. The way he screams “I cannot learn from it
/ I keep on burnin’ shit” is the sound of him reaching a new level as an artist.
- ‘Sticky’ by Childish Gambino & KIRBY
I was very excited about Donald Glover’s new series Swarm which turned out to be just-OK (especially when compared to Atlanta) But the best thing about it was the music. This was the only song the man himself featured his vocals on but it was a trippy as the show was. “Look at the mess we made”
- ‘Symmetry’ feat. Conway The Machine by Jae Skeese
Well here it is folks; my favourite hip hop song of the year so far. That 1961 Jerry Butler sample with the trunk-rattling bass is absolutely irresistible — hats off to producer Trizzy Williams who somehow seems to have only just started his career. This is my windows-down, bothering the neighbourhood driving song right now. Long live Griselda.
- ‘You, Love’ by SBTRKT
We waited a full 7 years for a new SBTRKT full-length, then suddenly he produced the instrumental that backed Drake & 21 Savage announcing their collab album. His own record somehow didn’t quite click but the frenetic jungle sound of this one song reminded me of why I loved him all the way back in 2010.
- ‘SIXTEEN’ by BIA
By far the most menacing beat and vocal performance I’ve heard in rap music this year — in my mind BIA wears the crown as my favourite female MC right now. To hear her rap “I came from a place where there’s nobody to look up to” while stuntin’ in Dubai in the video is a big thrill.
- ‘Candle Flame’ feat. Erick The Architect by Jungle
If you — like me before I heard this song — think of Jungle as a bit one-note, be prepared to change your mind. As if the soulful, almost gospel-esque vocals of the hook aren’t enough to bring the sunshine, you also get some amazing rapped verses from 1/3 of Flatbush Zombies; a collab I never saw coming. Can’t wait to play it all summer.
- ‘Bending Hectic’ by The Smile
Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood and Tom Skinner had been saying they were working on new material as soon as their album dropped last year, but I didn’t expect something so big so soon. ‘Bending Hectic’ lulls you in with 5 and a half minutes of soothing noodling before plummeting strings drag you to hell and Greenwood lets rip with some face-melting guitars.
- ‘The Corner’ Remix feat. Open Mike Eagle, Infinite Livez & McKinley Dixon by Gold Panda
This was not something I saw coming — one of the highlights from last year’s amazing The Work gets the remix treatment with verses from US underground king Open Mike Eagle, new-to-me UK MC Infinite Livez and jazz-rap favourite McKinley Dixon (not his only appearance on this list!) It’s beautiful and flows together like waves on the beach.
- ‘Chinatown Trouble’ by Jianbo
Chinese-Vietnamese by birth, Jianbo sounds unmistakably from London. His deep but rhythmic flow owes a lot to the godfathers of grime but he weaves in his East Asian upbringing to the song; creating something both immediate but also unknowable. Very excited to see where his career goes from here.
- ‘100 Or Nun’ feat. Tony Shhnow by Kenny Mason
For my money Kenny Mason is the most promising young rapper from the States right now, and along with his producer Coupe they make the best duo since peers JID & Christo. But unlike the other Atlanta artists on the come-up, Mason’s edge is upping his voice an octave which invokes the emo guitar bands of his youth with ease. Check the rest fof his work this year for that; but this one is more straight forward hip hop, helped along by sleazy cool Tony Shhnow.
- ‘Feelings Plain’ by Overmono
Easily the most jubilant song I’ve heard this year, from Welsh brothers Overmono off their triumphant debut album. The sample of “I needed somebody to believe in” multiplies into a prism of pure light which creates the sort of frantic high that you know will end, but you wish never would.
- ‘Tyler, Forever’ by McKinley Dixon
It’s not often that an album immediately makes you buy a full trilogy of books but McKinley Dixon did that to me this year. His last album For My Mama… was a late favourite for me back in 2021 and as soon as I heard this single, I knew he had something amazing coming. The way he spits “I’m doing this so I don’t blow my shit out all over that balcony” gives me chills.
- ‘Trojan Horse’ by Dave & Central Cee
“I hit that freak, she put me in cuffs, it trigger my trauma, I tell her to stop it” Listen — only Dave can write a sex bar that becomes a comment on how the black community fears the Met Police, all while over a string-led sample that sounds like something out The Godfather. He even brings out the best of Central Cee throughout the 4-song EP, no mean feat.
- ‘Yuteman Denis’ by Skiifall
When I first heard Skiifall I immediately assumed he was from London; but I later discovered he was in fact from Montreal, Canada. He has that same electrifying Caribbean diaspora in his voice, and this was the highlight from his WOIIYOIE Vol.2 EP that dropped this year. With any luck he’ll be a global star before long.
- ‘Crawl II’ by Slow Joy
My buddy James showed me this song right when I needed it most. It has that grunge catharsis that no other genre can deliver. It starts low and churning “In my dreams, you’re still….right here” but then explodes into the kind of euphoria you get covered in sweat with your fist in the air.
- ‘Cold Summer’ by Wesley Joseph
Wesley Joseph is still the UK’s best kept secret. With friends like Jorja Smith, A.K. Paul and Loyle Carner it’s not likely to stay that way for long. And with the unmatched ‘Cold Summer’ this year — with its swooping strings and trap beat — Joseph’s effortless cool shines undeniably.
- ‘Pronouns’ (Prod. by Madlib) by Your Old Droog
I am conflicted about the wordplay in this song. Over an irresistibly louche beat from Madlib, Y.O.D sneers the hook “It don’t matter what your pronouns are; you are not him” Yes, on first listen this feels deliberately contentious given the cultural climate. But a kinder reading would be that the rapper sees gender self-identification as an uncontroversial non-issue; rather is more concerned with the false claim that a rival is ‘that guy’ — ‘the man’ rather than a man. I’m landing on the latter and I think it’s actually quite a cool cut down.
- ‘Sorry Not Sorry’ by Tyler, The Creator
Speaking of victory laps, Tyler (and DJ Drama) returned this year after dropping imo the best record of his career with a huge deluxe edition of Call Me If You Get Lost. This was the highlight; whose accompanying video (also a new best for Tyler) depicted him killing off each ‘era’ of himself as an artist. Lyrically he’s at his most diaristic honest; and no-one can touch him when he gets into that bag.
- ‘Enough’ by Fred again.. & Brian Eno
And to close us out; possibly the most comforting and graceful piece of music I’ve heard all year. It’s much more Eno than Fred; but there are the unmistakable fingerprints of the younger producer’s use of emotive vocal samples to give the glacial song a warm heart. If they played music in the Rothko Chapel, it should be this. The breath of peace I needed.