Thanks to Spotify, Apple Music, Bandcamp, et al., it’s easier than ever to find music to suit every possible interest and mood. And while that’s great for finding new music, 2023 was notable for the return of several beloved artists in the form of surprising new material, concert performances, reunions, and reissues.
Of course, 2023’s musical landscape was dominated by the phenomena that is Taylor Swift. Her ongoing “Eras” tour became the first tour in history to earn $1 billion in revenue, generating widespread cultural and economic impact, and shows no signs of slowing down as Swift heads to Asia and Europe in 2024.
Below are our favorite music-related items of 2023, including the return of pop music icons, a pop-punk reunion, goth legends in concert, and—of course—Tay Tay herself.
“Now and Then” by The Beatles
As soon as my husband got home from work on November 2, 2023, my family sat down together to listen to a “new” Beatles song, “Now and Then.” Originally conceived by John Lennon in the late 1970s, the psychedelic soft rock ballad remained unfinished until 2023 when surviving members Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr brought it to life. The resurrection of this musical relic involved extracting Lennon’s voice from the original demo using machine learning-assisted audio restoration technology. John wrote the song in his apartment, the Dakota in New York City, while living with his wife, Yoko Ono, and their then toddler son. In the 1990s, George Harrison added guitar, even though he purportedly didn’t want this particular song released. Paul, however, was insistent that finishing it was worth the trouble, emotionally, financially, and simply from a technical standpoint. According to Carl Perkins, that could be because Lennon’s last words to McCartney were “Think about me every now and then, old friend.”
“Now and Then” not only honored the Beatles’ legacy but also added a remarkable postscript to their career, leaving an unforgettable mark on 2023’s musical history. It left a similarly unforgettable mark on my family: we all cried a little while watching Peter Jackson’s stunning music video. As the four band members’ voices and pictures blended together on the screen, I recalled listening to the Beatles with my dad, now long passed. My son and daughter will now remember listening to a Beatles song for the first time with their parents in 2023, and that fact can’t be beat. Nor can my son’s off-key singing of it in the car on the way to school.
One More Time… by Blink-182
A reunion album that neither pales in comparison to the band’s former glory nor sucks. One More Time… is Blink 182’s first album with their iconic lineup in over a decade, but rather than sticking to their usual randomized antics of pop-punk croons with dead-end lyrics about teenage angst or skatepark pranks, they’re actually musing heartfelt lyrics to one another about the years of lost connection brought about by the band’s breakup(s). To hear three grown men sing songs about how they love and miss each other is so outside the norm that it almost comes across as parody during that first listen. But upon subsequent listens, you can hear the sound of real emotion embedded in the gravelly, nasally voices that invite listeners to remember their own lost friendships, unfinished fights, and ridiculous grudges.
The Cure in Concert
The Cure have been my favorite band for over three decades now, ever since I heard “Friday, I’m in Love” and my friend Leah dubbed Wish onto a battered old black cassette. But I’d never seen them live until last year. I was worried that 30 years’ worth of expectations might not be met, but there was no reason to fear: Robert Smith and Co. delivered an amazing three-hour set that contained the expected classics (“Just Like Heaven,” “Lovesong,” “Pictures of You”), a few deep cuts (“At Night,” “Kyoto Song,” “Prayers for Rain”), and even some new songs from their long-awaited Songs of a Lost World album (whenever Smith decides to release it, that is). Robert Smith’s voice has aged like fine wine, which is to say, it hasn’t aged at all; it still sounds as unique and heartbreaking as it did when I first heard it back in the ’90s. And while the tousled hair and makeup might look a bit silly on a man squarely in his 60s, the music still strikes a chord deep within my heart and soul, deeper than mere nostalgia can ever go.
De La Soul’s Catalog Arrives on Streaming Services
In the world of rap, a hip-hop trio that fills their album art with cartoon daisies stands out, even if D.A.I.S.Y. does stand for “Da Inner Sound, Y’all.” De La Soul harnessed eclectic samples—that’s Steely Dan’s “Peg” you hear in “Eye Know”—and generous doses of wacky humor in service of an unapologetically positive and self-effacing vision. The result is a sound that’s as vibrant as it is eccentric, paving the way for later adventurous hip-hop acts like The Pharcyde and Outkast. Legal battles and red tape kept the majority of their catalog locked away from streaming services, and many younger people had only a vague notion of De La Soul, if they’d ever heard of them at all. With the passing of David Jolincoeur (a.k.a. Trugboy) in February of 2023, it’s fitting that the world gets reintroduced to his band’s phenomenal music. Start with 3 Feet High and Rising and be prepared to smile, laugh, and be amazed.
Really Early, Really Late by The Declining Winter
If you were to ask me to explain why I’m drawn to music that evokes gray, rain-filled skies, chilly autumn days, and walks through forlorn countrysides, I’m not sure that I could. But I do know that The Declining Winter’s latest album is a perfect album for such things. I’ve been a fan of Richard Adams’ music ever since he played in Hood with his brother Chris, and The Declining Winter picks right up where Hood left off, blending post-rock, electronica, folk, and orchestral arrangements to sublime effect. Songs like “Song of the Moor Fire,” the title track, and “How to Be Disillusioned” are meandering, pastoral pieces that take the autumn and winter doldrums and transform them into something beautiful and heartfelt. (Some of the songs hit even harder when you know that Adams’ mother recently passed away from cancer.) It might be tempting to dismiss Really Early, Really Late as music that’s just miserable for the sake of being miserable,but it contains too much heart—and too many lovely arrangements—for that.
End by Explosions in the Sky
A constant standard for the past 20 years in the post-rock genre, Explosions in the Sky delivered their latest album, End, in 2023. This is not their farewell album, but instead, End centers on the theme of beginnings and endings. While featuring their classic guitars-with-reverb swells and big climatic moments, the band also explores the dynamics of the quiet. Explosions in the Sky hits all the right notes in their big soaring pieces; it’s their allowance for many subtle textures in the quieter moments that gives their latest album its heart. The tracks “Loved Ones” and “Peace or Quiet” in particular capture the complexity of relationships. This is an active listen full of reflection on life’s numerous transitions.
Return to the Kingdom of Fife by Gloryhammer
After booting their longtime lead singer Thomas Winkler to the curb several years ago, Gloryhammer went back into the studio and emerged from the nuclear fallout of the kingdom of Fife with a proper barnburner of an album. The story opens with Dundee being attacked by… uh… checks lyric sheet… the clone of an interdimensional wizard triggering a nuclear holocaust.
Yep. That tracks.
In patent Gloryhammer fashion, the stakes, MacGuffins, and situations become increasingly ridiculous (read: awesome) and Sozos Michael’s vocals soar as his alter ego Angus McFife. Synths and guitars follow nuclear-powered snowmobiles and power armor-wielding ancient tech wizards with ambushes by epic sax solos. Anyone with a pulse should bask in the Hemingway-worthy lyrics such as “Wizard, frozen in tomb/His nuclear clone made Dundee go kaboom.” (For my druthers, “Alright, you bunch of nuclear goblins, listen up!” is my new favorite way to address my ornery children).
Go give it a listen if you love metal in the vein of Judas Priest and Dio with a dash of someone’s unhinged D&D campaign.
Angus McSix and the Sword of Power – Angus McSix
Much like Gloryhammer’s wizard Zargothrax, Thomas Winkler found himself ejected from a kingdom he’d thought he’d conquered. How did he pick himself up and find a new life? Like most civilized and level-headed people, he made a terrible pun on the hero of Gloryhammer’s name and created a dance metal revenge album the likes of which haven’t been seen since the days of Megadeth.
The Sword of Power draws heavily from old Gloryhammer albums, but with a focus on anthemic choruses and power-pop beats. The homebrew D&D concept-gone-metal is in full effect here, including flying Amazonian warriors, magic swords and… checks the lyric sheet again… a laser-shooting dinosaur. It all works brilliantly in its smooth, unorthodox combination of genres. If Return to the Kingdom of Fife is the book, The Sword of Power is the almost completely unrelated and separately amazing video game.
If I could sum it up concisely, it’s what would happen if Adventure Time tripped over a DDR machine and landed face-first into a bunch of distortion pedals and keytars.
You can’t discuss pop culture and 2023 without Taylor Swift, Time‘s Person of the Year—and my eight-year-old daughter’s, too. As I write this on December 30, 2023, Taylor Swift has claimed every spot in the Top Four of the current Billboard charts, with 1989 (Taylor’s Version) taking top honors. In fact, there isn’t really anywhere she hasn’t claimed top honors recently. Whether in the heart of Kansas City Chiefs player Travis Kelce, on her wildly successful Eras tour, or in the open arms of Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue, Swift reigns as worldwide pop queen, soaring to the highest echelons of every chart, and nearly every heart. Her Eras tour covered all ten of her albums and the ten different “eras” she went through while making each of them. While it isn’t over yet, it’s already the highest grossing tour of all time and the first to pass the $1 billion mark. Googling “Which Taylor Swift Era are you?” will not only populate a series of quizzes but also answers from fans who define their lives by Swift’s moods and songs. Though I don’t have a specific era, my kids tease me about keeping certain songs on repeat at our house during different times, matching my mood. At the end of this year, my song of choice has been Swift’s “Closure,” the ninth song on 2020’s Evermore. Dear 2023: “I know that it’s over. I don’t need your closure.”
Tim (Reissue) by The Replacements
The trainwreck antics and devil-may-care attitude of Minneapolis’s The Replacements have been well-documented. Their early live shows were a gamble. You’d either get an electrifying performance or a drunken setlist of butchered covers. They were their own worst enemies, deliberately sabotaging some of their biggest opportunities and alienating audiences and critics alike. And yet, their best songs have that ineffable quality that somehow transcends all such limitations—namely, vitality. Witness the playful pop sensibilities of “I Will Dare,” the gut-wrenching sadness of “Here Comes a Regular,” or the snotty desperation of “Unsatisfied” (a kind of punk rock riposte to The Stones’ “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”).
With 1985’s Tim, The ‘Mats made their major label debut on Sire. The record’s a marvel of scrappy glory marred by production that buries the band’s raw power in needless reverb. Until now, that is. 2023’s reissue of Tim nixes the needless studio effects. The guitars are beefier, the drums don’t sound like they were recorded in a stadium, and Paul Westerberg’s weathered voice croaks through the speakers with all the petulance of a kid screaming at a punk show. In other words, the band sounds present. Tim doesn’t just sound better; it sounds like a new album.