01/17/2024

STEVE’S BEST SONGS OF 2023: PLUS AN ESSAY! 

I greatly enjoyed so much music in 2023, and my Best Of list runs the gamut from pure pop to r&b, country, alt rock, rap, and even a European dance record with funny, nostalgic French lyrics. But before we get to the list, a couple of observations about the year in pop:

1. O SOLO MIO

A trend that’s been building for the past few years, but which has now become undeniable, is the decline of groups, duos, and bands on the pop scene. While there are endless collaborations between stars with independent careers, the 2023 Billboard Year-End Hot 100 features just two bona fide groups (not counting Wham’s 80’s Xmas track and 90s group Aqua’s cameo on the Barbie track): Those are Texas band Grupo Frontera, whose regional Mexican stylings scored two spots on the year-end chart, and country band Old Dominion. Pop groups, r&b/hip-hop groups and rock bands are entirely absent. Of course, there are still rock bands on the alternative chart, but none crossed over to the pop chart in a big enough way this year to make the year-end Hot 100.  And no hip-hop groups have broken through to take the place of the departed Migos. As for boy bands and girl groups, the only corner of the pop world still featuring those configurations is K-Pop. (As recently as 2021, BTS was the biggest-selling singles act in the world, but they’re on hiatus.) And while dedicated K-Pop fans boosted a number of albums to debuts at number one on the US album chart, none had dominant pop singles. 

Ten years ago, there were 27 duos or groups on the Billboard year-end chart. If you care to go back 50 years, there were 46. But there’s been an accelerating decrease in recent years: 

NUMBER OF SONGS BY DUOS/GROUPS ON BILLBOARD YEAR-END HOT 100:

2017: 19

2018: 17

2019: 13

2020: 7

2021: 7

2022: 4 

2023: 3

So, the question is: What happened to the duos and groups? There are a few answers.

For starters, the influence of rock, and consequently rock bands, on the pop scene has declined dramatically. Those 46 groups on the 1973 chart were overwhelmingly rock bands, influenced by the model made popular by the Beatles, plus a smattering of R&B vocal groups. And the 2013 crop featured such alt/pop/rock artists as Imagine Dragons and Maroon 5. But the decline of rock crossover doesn’t adequately explain the disappearance of all kinds of duos and groups from the pop scene. Where’s today’s Destiny’s Child or Outkast? 

There’s no doubt that the isolation wrought by the pandemic influenced the decline of groups in 2020 and 2021. What enabled solo artists to flourish in that lonely period was the increasing availability and affordability of home digital audio workstations such as Ableton. And, having discovered how easy it is to make music by yourself at home, many artists have abandoned the notion of collaboration, which is not only more of a logistical hassle, but also necessitates compromising with others on vision. 

Further, social media has abetted the decline of groups on the pop scene. A platform like Tiktok favors confessional, diaristic content—perceived intimacy and individual self-expression—with the best TikToks working as though your friend is talking to you on FaceTime. It is simply more difficult for groups to get together in the same place and brainstorm content that doesn’t seem contrived than it is for individuals. Plus, the TikTok algorithm, built around portrait-mode video, favors a single face looking at the camera more than a group, making it less likely that content created by groups (except dance groups) will travel as widely . Of course, since social media favors solo artists, and record companies in large part base artist signings on social media success (the surest way to generate streams on DSPs), more solo artists are being signed. Thus, the trend is self-reinforcing and likely to continue for the foreseeable future. 

The reality show singing groups who attained pop stardom a decade ago—One Direction, Fifth Harmony—would have trouble getting traction today on social media, where being seen as an “industry plant” is poison. So would the types of boy bands and girl groups that pop Svengalis once assembled. In the modern pop world, it has become necessary for an aspiring musical talent to have their audience embrace the idea that they are an “artist”, however defined, as they began to share content. Their output–-both musical and non-musical–-needs to be seen as the authentic expression of their artistic vision, and their songs should convey something that gives the audience a peek into some aspect of the artist’s life or outlook. That’s why songs not at least co-written by the artists themselves have mostly gone the way of the dodo bird. And on TikTok, it’s easier to pull this off solo.

The reason K-Pop groups can still thrive is that in K-Pop culture, singers in groups are more precisely categorized as entertainers than artists, as singers in the West were categorized for much of pop music history. Thus, the old star-making machinery—auditioning members, styling them, teaching them choreographed moves and providing professionally crafted pop songs—is embraced as part of the show. But still, the most successful K-Pop artists are those whose individual members can develop an identity and inspire personal loyalty from fans. This is why so many members of K-Pop groups have been able to be spun off for successful solo careers. 

The decline of the group doesn’t mean that hits are left in the hands of single individuals, however. The 2023 year-end Hot 100 contains 33 songs in which individual artists collaborate. The collaborators maintain their own careers and their own social media identities, and borrow each other’s audiences as a matter of art or marketing.  It’s worth noting that in the Grammy category “Best Pop Vocal by a Duo or Group” every one of this year’s nominees is a collaboration between two or more artists with their own separate careers. There are no actual ongoing duos or groups nominated. 

Finally, in wondering what the immediate future might look like for groups, we need look no further than the most lauded new group of the year, boygenius. An indie supergroup featuring three successful artists, they, much like the R&B duo Silk Sonic, are a group whose members, having first built their own solo careers, forged their own identities and garnered the allegiance of their own fans, joined forces as collectives. 

We’ll probably see a few more supergroups in the coming years or two, and not so many groups emerging from thin air. But the media ecosystem keeps evolving, and the current TikTok-driven pop scene is bound to give way to something new eventually, as it always does. 

2. WONDER WOMEN

Female artists certainly dominated in 2023. Taylor Swift’s cultural ubiquity and the mammoth tours by both Swift and Beyonce towered over the music landscape. And beyond those two behemoths, women were behind so much of the year’s most important music, issuing an emphatic rejoinder to former Grammy chief Neil Portnow, who obtusely suggested in 2018 that women “who have the creativity in their hearts and souls” needed to “step up.” Well, women haven’t merely been ‘stepping up” in pop music for quite a while; they’ve been grabbing the mic and sharing messages of empowerment, independence, and strength, expressed in styles ranging from pop to r&B, rap, and country. 

When I perused my best-of list after exhaustive culling (it could have been twice as long), I realized that 43 of the 60 songs on the list prominently feature a female artist. And that’s without including SZA’s magnificent “Kill Bill,” which sat at the top of my 2022 list and thus was ineligible for inclusion this year. But don’t worry, SZA is well represented as a featured artist on a few entries here. And the list encompasses both the most popular 2023 singles featuring women–Calm Down” by Rema feat. Selena Gomez has 1.2 BILLION Spotify streams–and some undiscovered gems such as “A Woman’s Fault” by Dear Dear, with 74k Spotify streams. 

I named Miley Cyrus’ “When We Were Young” as my favorite single of 2023. Year-end accolades and Grammy love have been heaped upon her prior single release, “Flowers,” one of the biggest hits of the year—it has more than ten times as many Spotify streams as “Used To Be Young”—but I fall into the camp that finds “Flowers” a bit too derivative of Bruno Mars’ “When I Was Your Man”(which, incidentally, was on my Best Tracks of 2013 list). In my estimation, “Used To Be Young” is the most perceptive, self-aware and mature song Miley has released to date, as 31-year-old Cyrus steps into a new stage of adulthood with no regrets about her hard-partying past. Cyrus’ candid songwriting about aging is a triumph in an industry that has never let female artists move out of adolescence gracefully. It is also an anomaly in 2023, dubbed “year of the girl”, in which renderings of protracted teen girl-dom captivated the masses. 

Below is my list of the Best Songs of 2024. Since I never include on the list artists with whom I directly work, you’ll find at the end of the list really terrific music from the likes of AJR, Netta, Andy Grammer, the Moss, Daisy the Great, Jabez, and Rwandan superstar Bruce Melodie featuring dancehall legend Shaggy. I hope you enjoy the list! 

Have a happy 2024! 

Steve

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