Life’s playlist is a mosaic of memories, each track painting a different picture. Whether it’s a familiar tune sparking nostalgia, a musical roadmap, or a song that perfectly captured a poignant moment, music punctuates each year’s trajectory. At the end of 2023, our writers reflect on new releases, deep musings, or the beat that made us dance on the way to our destination—pieces of music that stood out and left their mark.
Emily Chang: “Seagirl” – King Krule & Raveena
I spent my free time this past summer surfing in Carlsbad. There’s a steep learning curve, from mastering your pop-up to diving through crumbling walls of whitewater as you paddle past the break. After getting rocked by the waves in my first attempts, finally catching one and gliding with the current was pure euphoria. But mostly, I was just content to be in the water, my eyes fixed on the horizon, the board rocking gently, the sea’s surface glittering beneath the setting sun. “Seagirl” captures this meditative state well; Raveena’s hypnotizing harmonies float over King Krule’s reverbed guitar line that dissolves a little bit more with each strum, while the damp bassline is just buoyant enough to keep you from sinking completely. It’s a siren song that lures me straight into the sea, and I gladly drift away every time.
Candace Fernandez: Gun – Ivy Knight
It’s my first time playing scrabble. I’ve never enjoyed board games too much, despite my blip in chess club during fourth grade. I’m not sure what it is about the waiting and watching, the expectation of movement that makes me feel empty. I watch other people furl their brows, extend their jaws, let their pixels glitter. But mine always remain matte.
The boy next to me forms the word gun, and it makes me think of Ivy Knight. It’s two people until my turn, so I let my thoughts pool the room. I found her song “Gun” a couple days ago, and I’ve been blasting it over the static of my car’s FM transmitter ever since. Even through the stereo’s eternal hiss, the song’s emptiness never stirs.
I’m looking at the girl I love start her turn, thinking over scattered letters while I’m thinking over scattered lyrics. I’m lost in my head, listening to Knight end the song, whispering about how “I hold the bullets in my skirt while we go walking through,” and even in my pajamas, I’m feeling the same way. It’s in the wreckage of stillness that I lose myself in Knight’s lyricism, letting her grant figuration to my numbness through the click of plastic tiles and drunken chatter. And my resonance for her lyrics never wavers, even when I’m laughing at my own struggle for alphabetic discovery, adding ‘be’ to the word ‘gun’ when my turn circles back.
Ethan Kung: Quest For Fire – Skrillex
Being told that Skrillex has “had a good year” will probably make you think you’ve been sent back in time to 2011. But how strange that statement might be to hear doesn’t make it any less true in 2023. Across twelve months, the brostep pioneer headlined numerous festivals, earned Grammy nominations, and ended a 9 year album drought by releasing two new ones back-to-back. The first of these dual releases, Quest For Fire, is easily the better half, and is also the most fun you can have with an EDM-adjacent album from this year.
Throughout its 45 minute runtime, Quest For Fire proves itself shockingly re-inventive, while still containing everything that originally made Skrillex a star. Bass stabs, vocalist features, and cinematic synths still run rampant, but they’re executed in ways that feel fresh and new. Take for example, the stuttering bass thumps on “Rumble”, the Arabic folk song lyrics on “XENA”, or the gentle ambient outro on “Still Here (with the ones that I came with)”. Every song on Quest For Fire offers something distinctive, showing an eclecticism that distinguishes the album from both the current EDM landscape and Skrillex’s old work. Thankfully, none of these newfound subtleties ever interfere with the main events, as every drop feels just as monstrous as “Bangarang” did twelve years ago.
Is Quest For Fire the most serious or philosophical album out there? Definitely not, but there are countless other records that can be poetic in its stead. Those characteristics were never what Skrillex claimed to bring to the table anyways. As much as Skrillex’s music has changed, it’s thankfully also stayed exactly the same: uniquely massive, slightly goofy, and unabashedly sincere.
Emily Chang: “Promise” – Laufey
To be a hopeless romantic is to embrace both the headrushes and the heartbreaks of loving another person. Icelandic-Chinese musician Laufey distills this feeling to the highest proof in her 2023 sophomore album Bewitched. On “Promise,” she renews the jazz idiom with her intimate and aching lyricism. Accompanied by a gentle piano, brushed percussion, and sentimental strings, Laufey’s vocals rise like incense smoke in a tiny apartment, her voice as soft as the crushed velvet lining of an old instrument case. The song begins in restraint as she distances herself from an unrequited love, only for her to fold and call him again after seeing a stranger on the street who resembles him. “It hurts to be something, it’s worse to be nothing, with you,” she admits, wanting the pain of presence over its numbing absence. Loving someone without hope has never sounded more beautiful.
Arami Chang: “3D Country” – Geese
When genres like Southern rock are marked with storied pasts and a large catalog of influences to take inspiration from, bands could easily fall into the trap of recycling cliched material. Geese, on the other hand, isn’t interested in convention. On their sophomore record 3D Country, the Brooklyn-based Geese breaks the predictable cadences of trusty country rock formulas and lets all hell break loose. Singles like “Cowboy Nudes” and “Mysterious Love” are proof of just how far their shenanigans go; when they’re not busy pumping out country punk bangers, they’re infusing Talking Heads-esque grooves with bluesy gospel choirs and noisy no wave breakdowns reminiscent of black midi and Glenn Branca. But ultimately all of these idiosyncratic aesthetic touches unite under the command of Geese’s frontman Cameron Winter, whose vocal prowess is, in my opinion, honestly unrivaled. His vocal performances alone are so entertaining that they make up so much of the album’s charm. On songs like the title track or “I See Myself,” Winter flexes his vocal muscles and easily transitions from manic yelping to the most angelic falsettos. Combine frenetic country rock fusions with froggy yet weirdly harmonious singing, and you’ve got yourself one of the fiercest rock releases to shake up the year.
Arami Chang: “i was mature for my age, but i was still a child” – grouptherapy.
Both the album title i was mature for my age, but i was still a child and their band name “grouptherapy.” are fitting. Considering that all 3 members of grouptherapy. used to be child actors, they take their latest release as an opportunity to reflect on their careers in the entertainment industry and attempt to heal from all the pain of being prematurely exposed to the spotlight. But unlike their other child actor counterparts, who often grow up only to find themselves at the center of bizarre scandals, the members of grouptherapy. instead harness their experiences to craft one of the most musically diverse albums of 2023. If you’re looking for some nostalgic dance pop throwbacks, give “how i’m feeling” and “Nasty” a try. Or if you’re an enjoyer of moodier tunes, I recommend the deceptively despondent “smiles :)” and “club song :(“. Or need some actual club songs? Listen to “Lightspeed ~>” and “Peak.” The list goes on. There isn’t a single moment on the album that makes me bored because of just how many musical genres they stuff into a single package. I’m particularly fond of the variety because to me it seems like the members of grouptherapy. are finally given the agency to do whatever they want with their work, a luxury that wasn’t necessarily afforded to them at a young age. Seeing the actors I grew up watching take full liberty over their creative endeavors is a pretty satisfying sight; it’s even more satisfying when they do it all so well.
Grace Bashawaty: 5 Cities, 5 Songs
- Beirut, Lebanon [January 2023] – “Ya Tair” by Fairuz
My 2023 began on the opposite side of the world in a very small, but incredibly lively country: Lebanon. My entire trip home to Lebanon was an exploration of the beautiful nature seen from every corner of the country. Whether I was up high in Mount Lebanon or staring out into the Mediterranean Sea, there was a deep and tranquil connection I felt with nature. Fairuz’s song, Ya Tair, which translates to O’ Bird from Arabic, is a captivating, melodic song by the timeless Lebanese singer. The harmony of Ya Tair, along with the meaning of the lyrics, all remind me of a stroll in the grass and the sound of birds humming. Peaceful, and in tune with nature, Ya Tair marked the beginning of my 2023.
- Seattle, Washington, USA [March 2023] – “One Beer” by MF DOOM
During spring break, I took a trip up north to Seattle, Washington to visit my friend who attends university there. While walking the streets near Pike Place Market, I came across a large electricity box spray painted with MF DOOM in his famous gladiator mask. The simple homage to a hip-hop legend is ingrained in my impression of Seattle, truthfully because I scarcely see the rapper’s legacy memorialized in such a bold way. I was later made aware that MF DOOM’s real mask, the one he always wore for performances and public appearances, rested on display in a Seattle museum.
- Paris, France [July 2023] – “Connaissais de Face” by Khruangbin
French for “knowing someone by face,” the song bursts with nostalgia, memories, love, and friendship, as it utilizes the spoken words between two friends. Having traveled to Paris with my two friends a year prior, revisiting the city whilst listening to the song this year feels like a mirror into my reality. Even now, Paris is the most nostalgic for me, with every street, landmark, or boulangerie hashing out beautiful memories of my time abroad. Khruangbin’s Connaissais de Face was one of my most streamed songs during my month in Paris, mainly because the French title made me feel a bit more immersed in the city, but also because the groovy instrumentals were the perfect tune for marching around the city of lights.
- Copenhagen, Denmark [August 2023] – “Dandelion” by Baby Woodrose
To escape the puzzling August rain in Copenhagen, I ran towards a record store I spotted a couple blocks away. I began chatting with the owner, who managed the store for many years and had a history of involvement in the Danish music scene, especially in the musical and edgy neighborhood of Christiania. I asked him for recommendations of some Danish bands and artists, and he provided me with a very extensive list. My favorite of his suggestions is the band, Baby Woodrose, whose combination of garage rock and psychedelic sound quickly joined my Spotify playlists.
- Irvine, California, USA [December 2023] – “Needle” by Nicki Minaj, Drake
The long awaited Pink Friday 2 album finally released early this December! And while the song sampling throughout the album was a bit overdone for my liking, I can always depend on Nicki Minaj and Drake to never fault on a collaboration together. Their song, Needle, almost made me wish for the “cold” weather to go, and for the hot, long-day summers to return. Almost.
Lily Stockton: “Pool House” by The Backseat Lovers
Whether I wanted it to or not this song has followed me through the entirety of 2023. I originally discovered the song in the summer of 2022 by stumbling across a random indie rock playlist. I immediately fell in love with the entire discography of The Backseat Lovers and carried them with me into the new year. The song impressively captures the experience of being lonely in a crowded room—of “waiting around for something to change [your] mood.” The lonesome lyrics compliment the emotionally heavy guitar riffs in a sonically empathetic way. I’ve found myself screaming “Pool House” at the top of my lungs in many a car, beach, and backyard throughout this year and I anticipate many similar occasions occurring in the coming year. If you crave a good gut-wrenching belt, “Pool House” is the song for you.
Zain Aslam: Erotic Probiotic 2 – Nourished By Time
I discovered Erotic Probiotic 2 a bit later in the year, around the same time I started classes at UCLA. Initially, it was an album on my radar for all of the wrong reasons. When I first looked at the cover, despite the rave reviews the debut received upon release, I chuckled to myself but figured I’d never get around to it. Despite my appreciation of kombucha and gut health, this seemed like a prank with goofy wordplay that I didn’t need at the time. Over the course of the year, I stuck to my basics: Kate Bush, The Cure, and New Order. In effect, I was needlessly sad in the 1980’s.
I was born in the eighties. This is a glaring incongruity for a college junior in 2023, but hey, not everything has to make sense. Post-punk and nineties hip-hop is evergreen comfort, a home. A nice thing about genres is that they never die. Instead they are revived and renovated to meet the speeds and moods of contemporary fashion. Post-punk, for example, didn’t simply drift away with the eighties. Its spirit’s been alive since my teenage years with bands like Yeah Yeah Yeahs, LCD Soundsystem, and Interpol. These days my favorite iteration is a London band called Dry Cleaning, whose wit and guitar play is so infectious and charming that it’s impossible to stop playing tracks like “Gary Ashby” or “Scratchcard Lanyard.”
One morning on the number 17 bus to Westwood, I was listening to Dry Cleaning’s latest EP Swampy, which includes the nominal single along with a few remixes and covers. The record has a version of “Gary Ashby” by an artist named Nourished By Time—whose name sounded familiar to me at the time, but whose desperate baritone voice simply blew me away. Immediately I looked him up and was reminded of that terrible album from earlier in the year called Erotic Probiotic 2. What the fuck could that even mean?
Rather obligatorily I decided to give it a spin. These bus rides, despite traveling a mere three miles, tend to take over an hour to reach campus. I had nothing but time to lose.
Erotic Probiotic 2 took control. It was the only music I could listen to for the rest of the quarter. How can I explain this album? Well, first, it’s definitely not a comedy or a spoof in any way. Not to sound like the awful English major, but imagine a postmodern R&B album which wallows in the genre’s post-punk flavors. Artists from Prince to Solange have exploited this influence before, but Erotic Probiotic 2 is conceptually driven by synths and sadness. In fact, Marcus Brown—the artist’s real name—purposely recreated a moment in the early nineties which was still stuck in the previous decade—essentially my childhood. There are other influences as well, more common ones found in R&B like gospel and dance. Nourished By Time’s groove is endemic to the DMV metro area. There’s a Jesus song in the album, too.
However, the heights in Erotic Probiotic 2 belong to tracks like “Daddy” and “Shed That Fear.” The former is a socialist heartbreaker where the singer can’t compete with a wealthy sugar daddy for the affection of their crush. The latter is a spiritual anthem, of sorts. Its power lies in the surprisingly dramatic chorus: “You got to shed that fear/ of passing away/ in order to live/ your life everyday.” The density of the song didn’t track with me initially. Instead, it crystallized into the motivation I needed to get past my crippling anxieties and interact with a community where I thought I stuck out like a sore thumb with my grays, wedding ring, and dad bod. As the quarter went on, I came to realize that these concerns were groundless. I can’t express how little my classmates, many of whom are half my age, care. The wisdom of “Shed That Fear” is sage-like and provokes enlightenment. It reveals that my worries of getting older are tied to death. Countless times I’ve felt that I’m running out of time.
In the music of Marcus Brown, time is a good. It’s digestible. Time nourishes and cleanses like a probiotic. After his nine inspired, passionate, heartfelt songs, I am able to embrace the past, hold it with the present in order to live my life everyday.
Chloe Ling: Sweet Justice – Tkay Maidza
This year, I watched my father turn into what my friend amusingly dubs a “supervillain.” A cheater, homewrecker, and on all accounts a terrible parent, he spent 2023 making my life rather hellish, and my challenge this year was to try to make it out of hell without getting burnt to a crisp. Tkay Maidza’s sophomore album Sweet Justice, released last month, gave me some much-needed resolve. Centered around revenge and rebirth, this album is a reminder that the sweetest justice is living well, no matter how many times someone tries to take you down.
Maidza has been one of my favorite artists for upbeat, intense R&B/hip-hop, but Sweet Justice takes this trademark to the next level, dishing out sharper shots and bolder bravado. Tracks like “Out of Luck,” “Ghost!,” and “What Ya Know” showcase Maidza’s signature funk-dance styles, while she confidently weaves new industrial elements into tracks like “WUACV,” “Silent Assassin,” and “Free Throws,” all with flawless flow, freshness, and flair. No matter the style Maidza raps or sings in, her message is clear: rise above those who hold ill will towards you, and you will be reborn leagues ahead of them.
As I enter the next year, I use Sweet Justice to remind myself to not stoop to my father’s level. I won’t play dirty to get my revenge. I work, heal, and wait for the sweetest taste of all: success.
Kanchan Raju: Decorating time
If art is how we decorate space, music is how we decorate time. 2023 has been one of the most monumental years of my life, and when I look back on the ebbs and flows of this year I can’t help but remember every phase by the songs that carried me through them. A year full of travel gave me multiple cities I was lucky to call home– each culturally rich and personally transformative in its own special way. So I’d like to dedicate a song to each of those places, a song that I believe encapsulates each city’s irreplicable aura. A song that when I close my eyes and listen, I’m instantly transported back to that place and time.
Los Angeles, CA – “Crave You” by Flight Facilities
Los Angeles, my collegetown, the city where I spent nearly two thirds of my year. Los Angeles started for me as daunting and mystical but has since become the place where I have the deepest roots and feel the most at home. When in Los Angeles my life is driven by a “work hard, play hard” mentality, and I could guess that much of the city’s population feels the same.
Crave You is a song I heard for the first time while studying in an LA coffee shop– fitting, I know. And the moment I heard it I was entranced by its distinctive energy. It was upbeat, flirtatious and yet had a tinge of mystery and darkness to it. It was incredibly genre-blurring, with a base in electronic pop but elements of indie soul and house scattered throughout. I couldn’t quite understand its vibe, and yet I gravitated towards it anyway. And that to me couldn’t describe Los Angeles any better.
San Francisco, CA – “Intimidated” by Kaytranada, H.E.R.
I was born and raised in the Bay Area, so San Francisco has always been kind of a constant in my life. Our family SF excursions were fairly consistent growing up, and yet so much of the city felt like a mystery to me. This year I got to spend much more time than usual in SF, and experiencing the city as an independent adult was truly a breath of fresh air. I felt as though I was finally embracing San Francisco in all its charm and glory– thrift stores, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, hidden viewpoints– instead of getting caught in the tourist traps.
I chose Intimidated to represent San Francisco because this song to me is the musical embodiment of that breath of fresh air feeling. As I strolled through the bustling streets of North Beach on my way to my staple morning coffee spot, the bay breeze against my hair and Intimidated blasting in my headphones, I couldn’t help but feel like a Bay Area girl at heart.
Chicago, IL – “say im ur luv” by UMI
Me and Chicago, the unexpected love story of 2023. I moved to the heart of downtown in June for my three month internship, having never even set foot into the city prior. A completely foreign land to me, and yet by the end of that short time it had become a home that I was heartbroken to leave behind. This city made me feel rejuvenated, creatively fulfilled, and just allowed me to flourish in every possible avenue. Throwing myself into this unfamiliar territory knowing virtually no one was one of the best decisions I could’ve made for myself, for it sparked a level of personal development that I’d never experienced before.
say im ur luv was the song I listened to every single morning on my walk to work. Somehow I never got tired of it, for its soothing yet uplifting vibe was exactly how I wanted to start my day every day. And with every listen, I think I fell in love with Chicago a little bit more.
Iguazu Falls, Brazil – “Fantasy” by Kali Uchis, Don Toliver
Although Iguazu Falls was merely a two-week family vacation destination, I truly believe it was my favorite place I’ve been to in my life. The backyard of our hotel was a 20-minute walkable path through the most majestic waterfalls you could possibly imagine– think Niagara Falls times ten. One of my favorite memories of this year was walking that path by myself, listening to my favorite music and just immersing myself in the ethereal beauty of nature’s creation. Specifically when I listened to Fantasy, I remember feeling as though the sounds of the music and the water had intertwined and become one.
New York, NY – “Feels Right” by Biig Piig
I’ve spent quite a lot of time in the Big Apple this year, ever since July when my childhood friend got a flat in the heart of Manhattan. And I’ve slowly but surely started to fall in love with a city that I once found too fast-paced and chaotic to ever consider living in. Who knows– fast-forward a couple years and I might just find myself one of the many cogs in the concrete jungle’s machine.
Feels Right to me is the epitome of a main character anthem. Ever since I heard this song I’ve vouched that it would be the perfect opening track for a teen coming-of-age movie. On my most recent trip to New York, I had a whole day to myself to explore the city independently, and the moment I embarked on my journey I played this song. As I took a twirl and admired the staggering skyline that engulfed my surroundings, I couldn’t help but believe that this city is what dreams are made of.
San Diego, CA – “Summer Love” by bLAck pARty
My designated retirement spot. Ever since I spent summer 2022 in San Diego for my first internship, it’s become a forever comfort destination for me. A place that I can always come back to to unwind, to process, and to release any pent-up emotions. During my most recent trip to San Diego at the end of this summer, my former roommate and I brought picnic blankets and books to an ocean viewpoint on Harbor Island. Summer Love played on her mini speaker, and I couldn’t describe that blissful memory better myself.
Neel Bonthala: I AM SLOWLY BUT SURELY LOSING HOPE – Bladee
“I AM SLOWLY BUT SURELY LOSING HOPE” is a cry for help amidst a world that seems like it can’t get enough out of beating down on you. The track from Bladee’s 2022 Spiderr is a maximalist, hyperpop-infused anthem that celebrates the chaos of helplessness. 2023 wasn’t the kindest year to me. I didn’t get that job I wanted (on many occasions). I broke off relationships with people that I cared about. I have done irreparable damage to my mental health and image of self through academic burnout. The typhoon of existential dread about my future is looming over me. The world is crumbling around us and sometimes it feels like there’s not much we can do. The Swedish musician often constructs his own fairytale-like reality in which he explores themes of longing, loss, and doom. “I AM SLOWLY BUT SURELY LOSING HOPE” fits neatly into this world, yet it feels more intimate. Bladee bears his fears on his chest. 2023 was a year of vulnerability. It is sharing the feeling of helplessness with others. Oftentimes things work out perfectly. But it’s also just as likely as they don’t. There is some twisted comfort in collective trauma and knowing you’re not alone. It sounds a little morbid, but maybe this vulnerability is what can heal us. In 2024, bask in the doom and wear your heart on your sleeve.