Back when I got paid to write about music, back when such things were possible, I always made an effort to seek out new bands, try new genres, and talk to the kids about what they were listening to. I thought I was doing a decent job of continuing that endeavor, even as my paycheck no longer depended on it. I thought I was still growing and stretching and discovering. But what do I find as 2023 gives way to 2024? That when I tally up my most-played artists of the last year, the vast majority of my Top 10 is basically indistinguishable from my Top 10 most-payed artists from 20 years ago.
A year ago, I lamented that my year-end list was dominated by styles and sounds well within my musical comfort zones, but at least it was populated by new artists trading in the familiar and nostalgic. This year it’s literally the same bands and songwriters that I loved in my 20s. Is it my fault they insist on still putting out strong, fresh material 20 years on? Am I supposed to just ignore a new The Hold Steady album and pretend I don’t like it better than Lil Yachty or whatever? What am I, Rolling Stone?
Here’s what I can promise you: The songs on this list are all well crafted, worthy of attention, and a rewarding listen. And (outside the Top 10), there’s a fair number of local, independent, Oakland and East Bay musicians that I discovered in the last year via Bandcamp before all that got ruined by debt financing and union busting.
For your listening convenience, here is a Spotify playlist of the complete countdown, or if you prefer, you can follow this link to listen on YouTube Music.
30. “Ebony Eye,” Yves Tumor
There are some “big” songs on this list, but none quite has the massive production of this track. It seems to take inspiration from the scale and instrumentation of that one Puff Daddy-meets-Led Zeppelin track from the 1998 Godzilla movie (you know the one), but with a dose of psychedelic weirdness befitting a Miami-born, Knoxville-raised, Turin-based artist who cites Throbbing Gristle as a major influence.
29. “Tell Me What You Want,” Caroline Rose
This is the “single” from the singer-songwriter’s fourth album, which followed them into uncharacteristically dark, intensely personal territory. It made for a more challenging listen than their previous efforts, but there are still memorable, cutting, fun moments—like on this song, when they sing, “I am just pretending not to lose my mind.” See? Fun!
28. “Supermodel Avalanches,” Royal Blood
If Death From Above 1979 isn’t going to put out an album in 2023, then I’ll settle for something that sounds a lot like Death From Above 1979. (Dear Royal Blood: THIS IS A COMPLIMENT. You did it. You made a dance-rawk jam with a ridiculous title. Be proud.)
27. “Free Yourself,” Jessie Ware
They say the heart of disco is still beating, and if this song is any indication, I believe ‘em. If there is any justice in the world, in 20 years this will be as ubiquitous on dance floors and in gay bars as “I Will Survive” has been for most of my adult life.
26. “Paradise Calling,” Birdy
In the tradition of such previous Rankstravaganza contenders as Jane Weaver and the aforementioned Caroline Rose, here is another female singer-songwriter who has veered away from indie-folk in favor of synth-based, ’80s-inspired dance pop. I’ve caught my 10-year-old singing this one to herself despite it getting zero airplay on her favorite radio stations, so you know it’s an earworm.
25. “FaceTime,” Billy Woods & Kenny Segal feat. Samuel T. Herring
This is the hip-hop equivalent of “Turn the Page,” all about the stress and alienation that comes with being a touring musician. New York rapper Woods’ lyrics are full of wonderful little details and observations—one big reason why his latest collaboration with L.A. producer Segal has been universally described as a “travelogue.” I can clearly picture him, looking out of place at the afterparty he describes in verse two, still wearing a cardigan that smells like the joint he just smoked among a bunch of “chunky rings, clunky shoes, lots of ink, [and] guys who order everybody’s drink.”
24. “Halloween Store,” Andy Shauf
The year’s most dramatic storytelling in song form has got to be the second verse of this track—from a very strange concept album by the Canadian singer-songwriter about a shlubby stoner/stalker who is called by God as a modern-day prophet—in which the main character decides to head out to the local Spirit outlet before nearly locking his keys in his car.
23. “Not Strong Enough,” Boygenius
Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus swung for the fences on this one. While the supergroup’s full-length debut has some quieter, folky moments, this track is pure intensity, from the stuttering beat to the raw lyrics—and it’s a standout on what was already one of the year’s most consistently strong, universally acclaimed albums. If it weren’t for that Barbie monologue, this song—building to repeated cries of “always an angel, never a god!”—would be the year’s best channeling of all the anguish and expectations and contradictions of modern womanhood.
22. “Just The Once,” Metric
The Canadian indie rock band, now into its second decade, has described this propulsive tune as “regret disco,” which is a fun little way of having your dance-pop cake while eating it with ironic detachment. It’s such a minor detail, but my favorite thing about this song is the continuous loop of “woo!” and “yeah!” deep in the mix.
21. “Gila Monster,” King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard
Do yourself a favor and take a few minutes to read through the lyrics to Australian band’s metal epic about “a biblical beast of ancient lore” that eats “witches for dinner.” Ponder them. Write a thesis on them and submit it in partial fulfillment of the requirements for a degree in Master of Arts in the Linguistics and Literary Studies. And then chant along on the chorus: GILA! MONSTER! WOO!
20. “Sippin’ Mai Tais on Kauai,” Trackademicks and Mike Baker the Bike Maker
Speaking of hip-hop travelogues … I sure wish Alameda’s own hip-hop wunderkind had released this party anthem just a few months earlier, because it would have been the soundtrack to my family vacation to Hawaii and would have upped a) the good vibes and b) the number of Mai Tais consumed by about 300%.
19. “Light Me Up,” Margo Price feat. Mike Campbell
I bet I could turn in a pretty good banger with an assist from chief Heartbreaker Mike Campbell, but it still wouldn’t be as good as this psych-rock freakout from the boundary-pushing country singer. And it’s about orgasms, apparently!
18. “Middle Of The Morning,” Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
This is maybe the most memorable melody that Isbell has written in his career, which is saying something. It’s mostly just him leaping up a third near the top of his vocal range, but boy does it work. Then there are the lyrics—which I can only assume are about adjusting to life in lockdown at at the height of the pandemic (surely a uniquely insane experience for a performer and recovering alcoholic)—that describes going outside twice a day and letting out a scream that is heard only by the flowers in the garden.
17. “My Love Mine All Mine,” Mitski
I’m not sure what I was expecting from Mitsuki Miyawaki after last year’s Laurel Hell, which frankly just didn’t connect with me as an album, but it surely wasn’t a languid, tender countrypolitan torch song in which the singer addresses the moon that somehow became a Billboard Hot 100-certified mainstream success??? Hit-making in the TikTok era continues to be a complete mystery to me, but OK!
16. “Oil,” Gorillaz feat. Stevie Nicks
Over the course of eight Gorillaz studio albums, Damon Albarn has famously teamed up with everyone from De La Soul to Bobby Womack to Robert Smith. Usually they are prominently, conspicuously featured, but Stevie Nicks doesn’t get a big hook or guest verse on this track. Harmonizing with Albarn’s cartoon alter-ego, her subtle, supporting role is easy to miss on first listen. The 75-year-old legend’s vocals actually meld really well with Albarn’s drawling delivery, and the combination means that when they sing, “Individual actions change the world,” I honestly can’t tell if they’re being ironic or sincere.
15. “On My Line,” Meernaa
Spoiler alert of sorts: This is the start of a five-track streak of local East Bay artists. Meernaa’s Carly Bond may perhaps have relocated to L.A. as her sophomore album gained some traction, but her Bandcamp page still lists her location as Oakland, which is how I discovered her. There’s such a mix of influences on this slow, funky jam. The tone on the opening guitar lick is straight outta Stax Records. Her vocal stylings are smooth as Sade. It took me a while to place what the prominent bass line plus string arrangement reminds me of, but now I can’t hear it without thinking of Beck’s Sea Change. OK, so I doubt she was purposely trying to reference all of that, but I’m happy to pretend she set out to make a decades-spanning, ‘60s soul/’80s adult contemporary/’00s sad-alternative track.
14. “I Drew a Line,” Madeline Kenney
After working with such producers as Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack (of Wye Oak) and fellow Oaklander Chaz Bear (of Toro y Moi) on previous albums, indie songwriter Kenney self-produced this year’s A New Reality Mind. She takes some chances, and nowhere do they pay off better than this track, with it’s complete lack of guitars, saxophone solo(!), and unexpected overdubs, including a sudden explosion of multi-tracked harmonies as she declares, “I had a vision I would DIE!”
13. “Six Brown Eyes in Bakersfield,” B. Hamilton
A swampy blues stomp that would do CCR proud, with bonus homage points awarded for being a Bay Area band singing about the Central Valley (and Orange County). Anaheim native and current Oakland resident Ryan Christopher Parks has been releasing music under the name B. Hamilton since 2009, but his output exploded during COVID. Parks, with producer/drummer Raj Kumar Ojha, put out no fewer than 11 new releases featuring covers, live recordings, demos, and studio recordings. That includes five EPs just this year, one of which has this tune about the family left behind by a hapless small-time crook. And not to give away or over-explain the punchline, but the highlight comes late in the song when Parks asks, “Who knew that living life like a two-bit country tune would lose you your kids and wife?” before answering his own rhetorical question: “Everyone who’s ever and will ever live.”
12. “Opalescent Ribbon,” Stephen Steinbrink
As a former member of a college a cappella group, well-arranged vocal harmonies are like catnip for me, and there are some great examples on this here list. Take this tune. It’s the most “produced” track on Oakland singer-songwriter Stephen Steinbrink’s full-length album of gentle indie folk—featuring droney Moog synths, tinkly piano, and a chugging krautrock guitar line—but it has all of the layered vocals that make the entire album such a intoxicating listen.
11. “Living in a Flood,” Everyone Is Dirty
There’s a story in the fact that the Oakland alt-rock band made a loose concept album about people persevering through hard times—the whole affair is dedicated to singer/violinist Silvan Lioncub’s grandfather, a Holocaust survivor—but for me the appeal of this song comes down to the chorus, such as it is. Who-knows-how-many vocal layers form a sea of counter melodies shifting between two dramatic chords and sung to a single word: “Desire.” It’s a wall of psychedelic sound.
This is one of those team-ups that makes so much sense, it’s hard to see why it didn’t happen years ago. The French dance-rock band and everybody’s favorite post-modern funk dabbler joined forces this summer and penned a sunny, carefree jam to promote their joint tour and, I assume, to give them something they could perform together for an encore. And what a success. If you are a fan of either, it plays to all their strengths.
9. “Sunset,” Caroline Polachek
Nothing else on Polachek’s critically acclaimed fourth album of yearning art-pop sounds quite like “Sunset,” with its pulsing samba rhythm and flamenco guitar licks. And while it is, at heart, a love song, there are heavier themes nipping at the singer’s fragile bliss—allusions to death, coping, doubt, societal decay—all of which make this electro-Latin-pop mashup more “The Rhythm of the Saints” than “The Rhythm is Gonna Get You.”
8. “Bubble,” The C.I.A.
Former Bay Area songwriter Ty Segall is no stranger to penning some creepy-ass garage rock. His side project with wife Denée Segall and pal Emmett Kelly trades out distorted guitar for menacing synth and drum loops, and makes the creepiness relentless and a little bit … sexy? The lyrics paint a simple tale of a girl with an insatiable hunger, so much so I was worried that by the end of the song she was going to devour the whole damn world. Please enjoy the video, which is sure to fuel your nightmares or your kinks or both.
7. “Carlos Is Crying,” The Hold Steady
“I love you, I feel you!” the narrator tells his titular, sobbing friend, and I gotta say I feel for Carlos, too. The guy’s midlife crisis is on the verge of evolving into a complete existential breakdown that threatens to destroy his simple existence, which primarily consists of drinking pitchers of beer with his old high-school skater buddies at some strip-mall Applebee’s knockoff called “Skippers.” I’ve said it before, but nobody weaves a tale of desperate people making poor decisions like Craig Finn, and he’s outdone himself yet again.
Calling this a “remix” is an understatement. Palo Alto native Wolf took a passable post-punk tune from Paramore’s sixth album and turned it inside out, casting Hayley Williams’ vocals in a completely different modal context (that one’s for you music theory fans), layering about six more tracks of vocal harmonies on top, and turning the “Dance-Pop Rave-Up” knob to 11. One can argue about whether the lyrics (with their references to horror movie tropes) are a better fit for the original’s minor-key brooding, but I know which I’d rather put on and play loud.
5. “Bad Idea Right?” Olivia Rodrigo
Trying to talk yourself out of spending the night with an ex? We’ve all been there. Most of us. Probably. Right? But the relatable topic is only part of why Rodrigo’s musical inner monologue works so well, though. Let me put it this way: If I’m to be counted among the the legions of dads who came of age listening to ‘90s alt-rock suffering from acute Olivia Rodrigo fandom, well I’m glad this was the song that pushed me over the edge because it’s fucking funny. “I just tripped and fell into his bed”? Flawless comedic delivery. Some multinational media conglomerate should offer this girl an acting contract.
4. “Sa-Wa-Quato,” Timothy Monger
Monger has never strayed all that far from the “Northern Rock” sound he helped developed in Great Lakes Myth Society, an amazing Michigan folk-rock band that never quite got the due it deserved; however, this track from his fourth solo release sounds particularly like an outtake from one of those earlier GLMS albums. Musically, accordion and violin and “ahhhs” come together to positively shimmer like the mid-morning sun on an Upper Peninsula lake. Lyrically, it evokes a Midwestern collective unconscious of shared cultural touchstones in the tradition of GLMS’s best moments. You’re never quite sure if Monger is addressing the titular native chief himself or the modern-day B&B that borrowed his name, but both seem to have spirits that are connected by the quiet beauty of the setting.
3. “Where The Long Line Leads,” Nickel Creek
Following a nine-year break, Nickel Creek’s second reunion is more of a 60-minute composition of chamber music for voice and bluegrass instruments than a collection of great individual acoustic-pop tunes like we’ve come to expect from Chris Thile and the Watkins siblings. This track stands out for being among the more uptempo moments in that composition, anchored by Sarah Watkins belting out the vocals between fiddle licks. Read the lyrics, though. Let’s just say there’s no fame or fortune or influence or enlightenment at the destination implied by the title, and the same grim fate awaits everyone who spends a lifetime trying to get there. That’s dark stuff, and Watkins absolutely sells it.
2. “But Wait, There’s More,” Ben Folds
Folds’ first album in eight years is frequently a rueful acknowledgement of America’s frayed social bonds and polarized political climate. A sequel-no-one-asked-for to his song “2020” about that year’s chaos and unrest, the first track serves as a Broadway-style opening number. It sets up the album’s themes and directly tackles the looming MAGA threat with humor and humanism. My only complaint is that, removed from the context of the album, the track is over far too quickly to provide any real catharsis on its own.
1. “Infinite Surprise, ” Wilco
If you’re going to title a song “Infinite Surprise,” you’d better make it at least a bit unpredictable. To help in that endeavor, Wilco enlisted Cate Le Bon, whose production certainly takes this song in unexpected directions. If the rest of the Chicago band’s 13th album never quite reaches the same level of disorienting weirdness, it was still enough for most dad-rock commentators to declare that Wilco had rediscovered its “experimental stage” (after revisiting alt-country on last year’s Cruel Country). To be clear, “Infinite Surprise” joins the pantheon of great Wilco opening tracks alongside “Misunderstood,” “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” and “Art of Almost.” It’s that good. But while each of those songs built to some sort of breaking point, Le Bon’s production teases that sort of cacophony without every arriving at a release. The incessant ticking of a stopwatch, 60 Minutes style, that springs the song into action—and seems to promise a commentary on harried modern life or the relentless march of time or some such—is quickly buried beneath a mix of whale-song synths. All of this musical frustration and uncertainty and mystery complements the lyrical themes of a song that, at its core, asks whether it’s still possible for a relationship to surprise you after years of comfortable routines.