Hello. I'll be reading at the OR Books/Freeman's Magazine holiday party tomorrow Thursday December 7 in New York with some great writers including Muhammad Ali Khalidi, Ana Ratner, Catherine Barnett, Marlon James, Behrooz Gamari, and Tess Gunty. RSVP if you'd like to come by.
Meanwhile all of my books and many other OR titles are currently 30% off. Might make a nice holiday present for someone in your life you want to bum out big time (?) Find them here.
Today we're gonna talk about the best and/or my favorite songs of 2023. Typically I do a much longer list but uhh inflation is happening so here's a nice tight snapshot of what I really loved this year. You can listen to the entire 120ish song playlist below if you like. Apple version here.
Or the pared-down shortlist here.
If you want to check out the last couple of lists for some reason you can find them here:
Real quick: The next edition of the Top 5 Songs series I've been doing is going to be about The Cure. If you're a journalist or a musician friend of some modest renown and would like to chime in let me know. (Read the ones about Elliott Smith, R.E.M., and Weezer if you missed them.)
The 15 best songs of 2023
15 Glare - Loma Prieta
14 Revelation - Many Eyes
13 Love Won't Hide The Ugliness - Brutus
12 I Still - Dazey Doom
11 Would You Tell Picasso To Sell His Guitars? - Ben Quad
10 Starchild - Sweet Pill
9 Never Fucked Up Once - Militarie Gun
8 Lavender Cane - Old Soul
7 Smoking Again - Ian Sweet
"Oh, I've been a mess. Haven't slept. Started smoking again,” Jilian Medford reports from the frontlines of a disintegrating and/or clandestine relationship. Probably both at once. That detail about starting to smoke again, man. Self destruction and self-soothing at once. Needing anything to hold onto. To do with your hands. Your time. It’s a funny joke on top of it all in this otherwise languishing, dreamy indie pop song.
“And I'm trying to grow my hair out, but I keep cutting my bangs every time you say my name.”
Fucking around with your hair too. Who can’t relate to that? Well not me because I don’t have hair but you know what I mean. Trying to become something else. It’s been so long since I’ve felt that specific world-consuming pain myself I almost miss it.
6 kisses - Slowdive
Hello I have arrived from the future with great news! You get a perfect new Slow Dive song in the year 2023. Yes it sounds exactly like you want it to. There’s a whole new album too. They’re on tour. All the kids love them now for some reason too. What was that? You asked about how the future world is doing otherwise? Ah hold on, my time machine’s wifi signal is being weird. Gotta go!
5 Olympus - Blondshell
I first heard this song as a needle drop in a cartoon series for Reddit Guys called Invincible. It’s set over a montage of a woman roaming aimlessly, morosely, through the city, making her way to a highway overpass to, you know… Contemplate it. Turn over the only real question there is. Give it a once over. How the wind feels on your face.
It’s juxtaposed at another point with a similar scene of her estranged husband, basically Evil Superman, doing the same at the edge of a black hole in deep space. I know it sounds goofy but I swear it was poignant and perfectly selected in context.
Sabrina Teitelbaum sounds similarly trapped in a limbo of her own making here, although a lot more grounded on earth. She’s self-loathing but self-aware, she knows better, is right now being told by her friends that she should and does know better, then sloughs all of that off and comes through the other side of it all feeling nothing but disgusted with herself.
She and the character from Smoking Again should commiserate over a pack of Camel Blues.
Actually maybe not. Keep these two away from each other.
“I'd still kill for you. I'd die to spend the night at your belonging. All my friends think that I've lost it. Up at Olympus, miss your house still. Sounds like birds and smells like vodka. You're always off your rocker.”
It’s about how a toxic love can be an addiction, which is difficult enough to work through even without all of the other literal addictions that she, we, me, have to deal with.
4 Knockin - MJ Lenderman
It wasn’t until many listens into this song that I understood that the first line was “We saw John Daly sing Knockin' on Heaven's Door,” and that he was in fact talking about the golfer, who does, from time to time, break out the old acoustic and play what he calls “the only song I know.” Watch this video. Here’s Daley, a monument to garishness and indulgence and boorishness – fitting for a Donald Trump golf buddy – best known for a sport that is meant to symbolize the opposite of all of that, dressed in a stars and stripes jacket, performing one of the most popular standards by the singular poet of rock and roll history. It’s a very (characteristically) perfectly observed absurdity from Lenderman – in a sort of found art way – of a quintessentially late American grotesque.
And yet despite ~ all of this ~ going on around us in the world we must still go through the motions, go on living, until it’s time to walk through Dylan’s, and God’s, infamous door.
“They took my drivers license, but you still have yours. You're all I need babe. Yeah, you've heard that one before.”
And damn if the slow walk up to the chorus – not quite an actual Dylan melody quote – doesn’t pay it all off in the climax. He rewrote Knockin on Heaven’s Door! And it worked! Maybe there’s still beauty left to be rung out of this American empire in decline after all if we just look around.
3 Chosen to Deserve - Wednesday
Wednesday’s Karly Hartzman has said that this was her attempt at writing a Drive-By Truckers song, and in the crunching alt-country guitars and lap steel, plus the richly observed specifics of the mundanity of suburban southern life, the exercise certainly paid off.
I’m sorry I sound like such a Music Writer there. I used to write sentences like that for years. Just over and over again.
The song is a story being told to a relatively new love about one’s youthful indiscretions, hooking up in the back seat of the car and drinking too much and getting your stomach pumped and so on, but relayed from a (somewhat) more mature remove.
“I went to school about three days out of the week. Watered down all the liquor, and then pissed outside in the street. Now all the drugs are getting kinda boring to me,” she sings, before what I think might be a turn in the song in the next line (?) A stirring of that former adolescent dissatisfaction that kind of flips the entire mood of the otherwise instrumentally upbeat number on its head if I'm listening correctly.
“Now everywhere is loneliness and it's in everything,” she sings.
“I'm the girl that you were chosen to deserve,” is the refrain of the song, and it is what makes the song the song, and it’s such a novel way to word that familiar sentiment I haven’t been able to stop picking at it all year over dozens of listens. What does it mean? Chosen by whom? And is deserving her a good or bad thing? Is it a punishment type situation or a blessing?
The surface reading is that the narrator is saying something like “I have decided that I like you enough that you are worthy of my time and affection,” right? Is that it? Being a little cheeky about it though.
Or was the love and the deserving chosen by something more powerful? I wonder this especially because of how she adds at the end “Thank God that I was chosen to deserve you.”
Who is making the choices here? Who is making any of the choices for any of us? Does it matter? The song would be very good anyway without that ambiguity and maybe I’m overthinking it, but the fact that I keep thinking about it is what elevates it to something great to me. Are we having a few innocent silly laughs about how messed up we used to be as kids or is there something else more existential going on?
Someone please help me evaluate the relative level of water in this particular glass.
2 The Window - Ratboys
“I walked across the green grass to where I knew you laid. The way the sun was shining down, I only saw your shape. But, I need to tell you everything before it's too late. That I don't regret a single day. And you're so beautiful.”
I do not want to disrespect this song by printing too many of my clumsy words next to it. This is a Tom Petty hit. It’s a Menzingers singalong. It’s a The Sundays classic.
As good as those I mean.
“I wrote this song a few days after the death of my grandma in June 2020,” Julia Steiner said. “She didn’t have Covid, but because of the pandemic my grandpa wasn’t able to visit her in person at the nursing home to say goodbye. He ended up standing outside her room and saying goodbye through an open window. A lot of the lyrics are direct quotes of things he said to her in those final moments.”
It’s so heartfelt in its yearning for a lost loved one that the identical rhyme scheme – which I normally wouldn’t like in a less viscerally felt context – isn’t just acceptable it’s downright magnificent. A revelation.
The window. The window. The window.
1 Better Than Who? - Warm Human
I made a playlist for M. this year for the first time in years. Don’t get it wrong we share songs with each other all the time in the way that you do when you want someone you love to love something you love. Here, look at this. Holding a picked flower in your outward cupped hands.
A little bird.
Giving them a bite off your plate because they said it looks good.
Telling them they look nice in the morning when they go off to work.
But “making a playlist,” well, that seems like a strictly new love thing right?
In any case this song, which led the playlist in question, is, it is fair to say, not only my favorite song of the year, and also her favorite song of the year, but also our favorite song of the year.
Wait I just ran that all by her and she just said to say her actual favorite song of the year is Black by Pearl Jam and that’s a very fine choice. My real one is Margaritas at the Mall by Purple Mountains.
But this song.
What a song. And by far the least popular song on this list for reasons I don’t understand. I do not understand after about 25 years in this business in one form or another why one beautiful perfect thing does not get the attention it deserves while 5 million brigands gouge themselves on the spoils of the rest of the trash.
I’ll tell you what I think of this song real quick then I’ll turn it over to M.
For a few years now this idea of “if you can’t handle me at my worst you don’t deserve me at my best” has proliferated as a sort of cheap Facebook ad-chum t-shirt ass kind of cliche. But I have never heard it made new so deftly before now.
In the usual context the line is about selfishness and main character syndrome and is easily dismissed. I suck and you have to like me or you’re actually the one who sucks.
But here, Warm Human, an appropriate moniker, upends it. I love it so much. How they did it.
“God how it hurts to know you couldn’t handle me at my worst.”
Needing someone to be able to stick through with you at your worst because it’s not always going to be your worst and they should know that. They know you. This will all soon pass. And they couldn’t do it. They should have been able to do it. Why couldn't they just do it?
Here’s what M. had to say:
"Everyone has had relationships that end without closure. It starts out 'Maybe in a few years I'll see you hanging outside with your friends. You'll get up from your chair, pretend it's nice to see me again…' This whole idea of pining to see someone you used to have something with, and imagining seeing them, and they’re pretending that it’s good to see you too, even though you have this storied past with them, it’s just so relatable. So right at the start of the song I feel very nostalgic. And then the other part, obviously, the star of the song, is “God how it hurts, you couldn’t handle me at my worst.” That line alone is so devastating to think about. It hurts that you couldn’t handle me at my worst. Then she changes it a little bit. She gives it to you twice, in this mourning, sad voice, then a third time, and she adds in 'how it hurts to know you couldn’t handle me…' It doesn't really change the meaning but it just adds this other layer."
"I think of people I love who I just can’t handle at their worst, and how much that must hurt for them."
Like what you've read here? Please considering subscribing for free or with a paid subscription if you can. Here's 28% off one year.
A couple reader responses to the most recent Hell World about living with a chronic illness and the need to advocate for yourself in the face of indifference to your pain or refusal of treatment from doctors or your insurance company.
People have lived in American for-profit healthcare bizarroworld for so long they've been conditioned into believing "no" and just not getting care is normal, and all they deserve.
I became very sick in 2002. Something changed, dramatically. My HMO medical group which had previously been serviceable became evasive and negative. They wouldn't do anything, even as I got sicker. I was able to go outside the group (and still have it covered) to see a naturopath. She helped. I gradually improved, but wasn't well. Even though I was able to work, get better insurance, and see ostensibly better doctors, it was that nautropath who made a conclusive laboratory diagnosis. I still remember getting the news over the phone, in 2009.
Cohn-Frankel is right: this common expectation of "if I get sick, they'll take care of me" has no basis. If your condition isn't obvious and on the list of treatable – and profitable – conditions, you will simply not get treatment. No one will advocate or do the work for you but you. Cohn-Frankel is lucky to have such a dedicated PCP who takes their moral imperative seriously.
Approach the medical system as if entering the lion's den. You always risk financial ruin, and with a complex issue, you could bankrupt yourself for literally nothing.
To Lauren: I’ve been through the appeals process several times with Blue Cross out here in Maine. I hope for the best with the peer to peer review and that it’s more positive than my experience. Unfortunately they denied it regardless and my doctor said that they basically didn’t give him the time of day. I can only imagine the soulless type of person who goes to medical school, promises to do no harm, and then signs on to deny people coverage for a living.
More importantly, I pushed further, utilizing a complaint to the Maine Bureau of Insurance who filed an external review on my behalf. That review gets handled between the state and the insurer, other than filling out paperwork. I ended up winning my case and having my treatment covered
After the case I got all the paperwork from it including the insurer files with ALL of their reasoning for denying covering, which included extremely flimsy casework that in some instances could have easily proven the opposite point they were trying to make.
I strongly recommend checking out the process in CA, as it looks like their bureau of insurance has a spot to file a complaint. Don’t give up!