The Saturday Paper’s music critic looks back at the highlights of 2023. By Shaad D’Souza.

Best music: sending an SOS to mainstream, big-budget pop

A woman sitting on the end of a diving board.
SZA’s SOS album cover.
Credit: Sony Music Entertainment Australia

As far as big-budget pop music goes, 2023 has been disappointingly mid. While alternative, indie-ethos pop thrived – with experimentally minded artists such as Caroline Polachek, Kelela, Yaeji and, a personal favourite, the vapourwave artist Neggy Gemmy all releasing chic, compelling new records – the music at the top of the charts has been all sizzle, no steak. New albums by Drake and Travis Scott, two of rap’s canniest stylists, were unusually thin, relying on milquetoast production and dull lyricism. Barbie: The Album flooded the charts with a parade of lacklustre singles from Dua Lipa, Billie Eilish and Nicki Minaj & Ice Spice, and Taylor Swift’s endless stream of Taylor’s Version album re-releases and deluxe reissues of her tepid 2022 album Midnights watered down what had been, until that point, a remarkably potent catalogue.

The best album of the year was not released in 2023 but right at the end of 2022. SOS, the second album by Missouri-born singer and rapper SZA, was the album I returned to most throughout the year. It’s long and a little unwieldy, but in a totally purposeful way. SZA writes rich stream of consciousness songs about living a messy, unbridled – but not unburdened – life, and the form matches the content. I don’t think there’s a better pop lyricist currently working: her lines read like a flood of 2am text messages from the most unhinged girl you know, but they’re crafted within an inch of their life. SZA has an underrated knack for phrasing, each line locking into the next like pieces of a puzzle.

SOS also doesn’t sound like anything else on the chart: it’s structured like a blockbuster film, with huge set pieces at key points and moments of tension and release in between. Booming rap songs – “SOS”, “Smoking on my Ex Pack” and “Forgiveless” – appear at the beginning, middle and end of the record, and they’re funny and hard as nails, SZA ripping into her exes with dazzling bravado. Between those songs, she’s writing lyrics that are achingly raw, longing for love, safety and connection over beats that are subtle and finely tuned.

“Ghost in the Machine”, a song with Phoebe Bridgers, is quietly haunting. Bridgers’ ultraliteral indie-folk is a smart match for SZA’s wide-eyed earnestness. “Conceited” is sprightly electro-pop that easily slips into footwork. “F2F”, a rock track clearly indebted to emo artists such as Paramore, succeeds because SZA doesn’t compromise her intricate lyrical style for the sake of genre worship, while the haunting “Blind” is a minimalist heel-turn halfway through, an admission of total chaos addiction. Although they don’t share much musical ground, I can’t help but think of classic Fiona Apple records such as Tidal and The Idler Wheel… when I listen to SOS – both artists write songs that are raw but meticulously composed, and both are deeply committed to presenting a brave, complex portrait of female interiority. SOS also proved this kind of wide-ranging, creative music doesn’t have to sacrifice commercial success – it was one of the most successful albums of the year, yielding multiple radio hits and leading SZA to a blockbuster tour.

The only other mainstream record that came close to SOS was Lana Del Rey’s Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd. Del Rey’s ninth album, Ocean Blvd is dense and complex, barely a pop album at all – many of its songs are quiet, meandering and chorusless, sounding as if Del Rey is standing at the microphone and singing from her diary. The result is one of her best albums to date – rich, emotionally complex and lucent, despite its relative difficulty. “Fingertips” and “Kintsugi”, two ballads at the centre of the record, find Del Rey singing about her family and childhood for basically the first time, while the jaw-dropping “A&W” – the best single of the year and Del Rey’s greatest song to date – stitches together fragile, angry balladry and a bombastic trap song. Like SOS, Ocean Blvd makes no artistic compromises for the sake of commercial success – this is, after all, an album that features a lo-fi recording of controversial preacher Judah Smith as an interlude. It’s the mark of an artist using the leverage she’s accrued over the years to make a record as wild and weird as possible. Perhaps not incidentally, Del Rey was one of the most-streamed artists in the world this year. There’s a lesson in these records, and in those that foundered: following the beaten path is no longer a safe bet.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 23, 2023 as "The year in reviews".

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