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A look at NPR music's best songs of 2023

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Right around this time of year, one of the things we always look forward to is getting a visit from our friends at NPR Music to talk about the best music of the year. So it is a treat today to be joined by pop critic and correspondent Ann Powers. Ann, hello.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: It's so nice to be here.

SUMMERS: All right, Ann, so NPR music has published its list of the best songs of 2023. And right away, there is something that stands out here. This is a list of the 123 best songs of 2023, and last I checked, that is not a round number. Please explain yourselves.

POWERS: Well, it's true. We could have done the best 100, the best 50, the best 1 million. But on some level, we just picked a number that relates to the year - right? - 2023. But, you know, also, think about this - one, two, three, go - because our list is interactive, and it's designed to lead people to music that they might not have heard before. The listener has to participate to play our game.

SUMMERS: Explain to me how this whole situation actually works.

POWERS: OK, so our list is unranked. You can start with any song that you want to start with. Pick any one, maybe something you already know like "Not Strong Enough" by boygenius...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOT STRONG ENOUGH")

BOYGENIUS: (Singing) The way I am - not strong enough to be your man.

POWERS: ...Or Victoria Monet's song "On My Mama."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON MY MAMA")

VICTORIA MONET: (Singing) I put that on my own mama, on my hood. I look fly. I look good.

POWERS: And then the list gives you seven more songs that our team hand-picked because we think you'll like these ones, too. And maybe it's another R&B song if you picked Victoria Monet, but maybe it's a pop song. Maybe it's a ballad. Maybe it's something you didn't expect. Want to try it?

SUMMERS: Obviously. Why don't you start? Pick something you loved from 2023, and let's see how deep we can get into this.

POWERS: OK. I'm going to pick a song that seems like it should stay in its box. This is "I Remember Everything" by Zach Bryan featuring Kacey Musgraves.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I REMEMBER EVERYTHING")

ZACH BRYAN AND KACEY MUSGRAVES: (Singing) Cold shoulder at closing time. You were begging me to stay till the sun rose. Strange words come on out of a grown man's mouth when his mind's broke.

POWERS: So this is a song that was a No. 1 song on the Hot 100 and on the Hot Country chart featuring two really important young country stars who also kind of defy the edges of the genre. But I picked this song because everybody thinks of country as being, like, its own island, you know, totally contained within itself. So let's show how quickly we can get beyond country with our little game.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I REMEMBER EVERYTHING")

ZACH BRYAN: (Singing) Beach towel rests on the drying line.

SUMMERS: All right. Where do we go next?

POWERS: Well, hit on the interactive, and we're going to go somewhere that I think you're going to be excited about, Juana. You see the name of that song?

SUMMERS: I do indeed - one of my favorite artists, Noah Kahan. And he's with Lizzy McAlpine on this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALL YOUR MOM")

NOAH KAHAN AND LIZZY MCALPINE: (Singing) I've been exactly where you are. I'll drive, I'll drive all night. I'll call your mom.

POWERS: Yeah. This is a song, "Call Your Mom," that I discovered because of my niece, Megan (ph) - shoutout Megan Powers - who made me a big Noah Kahan fan. And it is, you know, just a really beautiful expression of deep friendship. It's a little less known than the Zach Bryan-Kacey Musgraves song, but the connections between this totally not country song and the one we're talking about as country are pretty obvious, you know? They're both duets. They're both, you know, about longing, regret - I don't know - believing in someone or something. And Noah Kahan is one of those guys who fills a lot of categories - country, Americana, pop. He could kind of live anywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALL YOUR MOM")

KAHAN AND MCALPINE: (Singing) ...Another mile without knowing you're breathing.

POWERS: But let's jump again and see where we end up.

SUMMERS: All right, one more jump. And, Ann, tell us about this next artist. This is someone I'm not familiar with.

POWERS: Yeah. So this is what I mean by discovering something you might not know by using our interactive. This is Durand Jones.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAIT TIL I GET OVER")

DURAND JONES AND THE INDICATIONS: (Singing) Wait till I get over. Yes, I'm glory bound.

POWERS: He has a band called Durand Jones and the Indications. They do throwback soul, and they're out of Indiana. But he grew up in the South, and this beautiful album he recorded, "Wait Til I Get Over," is his own story of growing up in the South and the struggles he went through and his family background. It's really beautiful. And this song, as you can hear, is very gospel-oriented, so you wouldn't expect that out of, you know, a Noah Kahan song. Like, he's hardly a gospel artist. But we saw that connection between the emotionality and the riskiness - the emotional riskiness of Noah and where Durand goes on this song. And I think if you like Noah, you're going to like Durand.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAIT TIL I GET OVER")

DURAND JONES AND THE INDICATIONS: (Singing) Over there, over there. I'll see my father...

SUMMERS: All right. I'll have to check him out. I mean, I see the through line between these three songs we've been talking about. But, Ann, this is a huge undertaking. Y'all did this for every single song on this list?

POWERS: Yeah. Yeah. And we bled right into this list. I have to say we worked really hard. But we did it for our listeners because we know how overwhelming trying to find new music can be in this - you know, it's sort of like walking into one of those big-box stores and looking around and being like, I don't even know what department to start in, you know, to fulfill my needs, what I need. And so what we want to do is, like, take you by the hand and say, hey. You want this. I think you're also going to find out you need this other sound. You need this other style of music, and you didn't even know it. But you know what? If you just want to go for what we think are the 25 best songs of the year, we also have a list for that, the best of the best.

SUMMERS: So, OK, you can kind of take this two different ways. You can stick to those official recommendations, the best of the best. Or you can let the algorithm build your own mixtape - pretty cool.

POWERS: Yeah. And it's important to say that the algorithm here is handmade, bespoke. You know, use any of those words you want to use. The kinds of algorithms who's - that's - the kinds of algorithms that serve you on most streaming services - they're fine. I've actually discovered a lot just, like, passively letting my streams stream. But this is different because it's people thinking about how things are connected and thinking in unexpected ways, and it's going to give you more surprises.

SUMMERS: NPR's Ann Powers. Thank you.

POWERS: Thank you so much.

SUMMERS: You can see NPR Music's list of the best songs of 2023 - all 123 of them - at npr.org/music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALL YOUR MOM")

NOAH KAHAN: (Singing) Don't let this darkness fool you. All lights turned off can be turned on. I'll drive, I'll drive all night. I'll call your mom. Oh, dear, don't be discouraged. I've been exactly where you are. I'll drive, I'll drive all night. I'll call your mom. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Juana Summers
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.
Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Jacob Ganz