It’s been a big year for pop. In the absence of true, new stars, big acts have only gotten bigger, and the walls traditionally dividing cool from crass have melted away as genres mash together and artists transcend age and generational confines to rock it shoulder to shoulder on the world’s myriad actual and virtual musical stages.
Here, month by month, is all the goodness that you should have been all over, all through 2023.
2023 started in an Unholy fashion for Sam Smith, entering the year fresh from a four-week, UK number one stint for the single of that name and the release of the album Gloria, which proudly bears it, coming later in the month.
In fact, Smith would go on to stamp 2023 as his own with Gloria receiving multiple plaudits and the single Unholy winning the Best Pop Duo/Group Performance at the 65th Grammy Awards, making co-vocalist Kim Petras the first openly transgender artist to win a major-category Grammy gong. Unholy’s subsequent number one placing in the US Billboard chart made Smith and Petras the first openly transgender and openly non-binary soloists to hit the top spot.
Unholy became Smith’s eighth UK number one, a ranking they now share with Oasis and The Rolling Stones, going some way to show just how big a star - almost by stealth - they have actually become at this point. Significantly less stealthy, however, was Smith’s appearance at The Brits in early February where their pneumatic latex body suit succeeded in grabbing all the headlines.
Grasping creative control and displaying a more outwardly sexualised image for 2023, Smith’s world tour would dominate scandalised chat all through the year, surprising and delighting fans while appalling more prudish critics on a global scale.
Oh, and massive respect for Unholy’s placement of the Phrygian dominant scale back at the top of the charts where it belongs. Obvs.
Did you blink miss it?: Pop moved pretty fast in 2023 so let’s flag up the hits you should have been listening to. Like Flowers by Miley Cyrus - easily the best thing she’s done in ages. See also red hot Red Flags by 2023 breakout star Mimi Webb.
Oops. Much as playing heavy metal records backwards can only ever lead to mischief, so Harry Styles' unexpected, oversized spinback for his Grammy Awards appearance in early February 2023 caused similar surprise and upset.
The plan had been for Harry and a throng of beautiful hangers-on to Style it out on a giant revolving turntable for a performance of global smash As It Was. However, for reasons that remain shady to this day, at the song’s opening the turntable began spinning backwards, throwing the carefully rehearsed ‘form a line to walk along the edge’ dance routine into chaos.
However, by February 2023 Styles was a seasoned performer, having - incredibly - been on his Love On Tour tour ever since September 2021 – a jaunt that would finally end in July 2023 as a $617.3 million-grossing promo vehicle for not one but two albums during its duration, 2019’s Fine Line and 2022’s (and 2023 dominating) Harry’s House.
Thus, while Style’s performance was criticised as being detached on the night – with the piscine-loving Adore You hitmaker appearing tired and disengaged – the fact that he and his dancers were flip-reversing a dance routine on the fly in front of a live global TV audience may have had something to do with it.
Similarly, Styles’ “this doesn’t happen to people like me very often” quote while picking up the Best Album award for Harry’s House that night (arousing a global wave of anti white-privilege snark) may have been due to reverse-turntable dizziness.
Did you blink miss it?: Try Cupid by Fifty Fifty. Meet and greet the face of fresh-for-2024 K-Pop.
March delivered the embarkation of Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour, marking 2023 as a year of immense undertakings for the country-turned-global-synth-pop-phenomenon following her ongoing, self-imposed, six-album re-record project. More of which later.
So what does it take to commence a 151-date tour, spanning two years and all five continents? Firstly, you need to be an artist as professional and talented (and energetic and sufficiently youthful) as Swift to be able to pull it off. Secondly, you need a 17-year long career laden with sufficient hits to fill an insane 3.5 hours per night. And thirdly you need a legion of international fans willing to heap enough praise and money on the gravy train to ensure that the whole enterprise stacks up as the highest grossing tour of all time and the first to generate more than $1 billion.
And that final figure is still just an estimate as - at the time of writing - Swift is only halfway round the money-go-round. Following Christmas downtime she’ll recommence the tour in Japan in February before grinding across the planet to collapse into Canada this time next year. (A country hastily added after the country’s fans and Prime Minister moaned about it.)
Did you blink miss it?: By The End of the Night - Ellie Goulding. Back in the limelight and delivering all the good stuff all over again.
2023 has been a comparatively quiet year for the extraordinarily successful Ed Sheeran. He did conclude his ‘symbols’ series of albums, though, saving the only obvious remaining calculator button until last. But nevertheless, he had to go there with the album ‘-’ (aka Subtract), and its lead-off single, Eyes Closed, entered straight in at UK number one in April ‘23.
An ode to the absence felt following the death of his friend, SBTV’s Jamal Edwards, Eyes Closed saw Sheeran inevitably maturing, and pulling off the remarkable double stunt of having the grudging music press acknowledge his change of pace with a respectful nod while keeping his existing fanbase happy.
For all its simplicity and earthy, honest, heart-on-sleeve earnestness, never forget that Eyes Closed is actually a co-write with some of pop’s biggest hit machines: Max Martin (who made everyone from Nsync to Britney to P!nk a star); Johan Schuster (aka Shellback); and Fred Gibson (aka Fred Again). Dual superproducers Martin and Shellback stepped in to co-produce alongside Aaron Dessner from The National. Phew.
Needless to say, Subtract became Sheeran's sixth number one in the UK and the fastest-selling album of 2023.
But perhaps the best news of all for Sheeran in April 2023 - putting number one single and album in the shadows - was the federal jury’s decision that his 2014 (and arguably global breakout single) Thinking Out Loud did not infringe the copyright of Marvin Gaye’s 1973 hit, Let’s Get It On.
This meant that Sheeran and co-writer Amy Wadge were finally able to own the estimated £21 million in royalties that the song has amassed since release and which have been hanging in limbo since the suit was brought.
Did you blink miss it?: Need a late night conversation topic? Waffle House - Jonas Brothers. Arguably the best pop of 2023. Discuss.
After years of writing and releasing fantastic singles that seemed to come and go, Warner Brothers forced Dua Lipa through a wall of customer indifference with sixth single New Rules in 2017, two slog-filled years after her first. But it was 2018’s One Kiss collab with Calvin Harris and 2020 second album Future Nostalgia that really signed the cheque.
By May 2023, Lipa had become a bonafide star, with the deal being well and truly sealed with the release of Dance The Night, from the Barbie movie soundtrack.
Lipa would follow this in November with Houdini, from her as-yet-untitled forthcoming album. This wasn’t quite the musical about-turn that some had been anticipating: despite production from Tame Impala and suggestions from Lipa that her new music draws influence from ‘70s psychedelia, Houdini is still very much a dancefloor record at heart. Whether she’ll display a more experimental streak in 2024 remains to be seen.
May was also the month in which the second megatour of 2023, Beyonce's Renaissance, made landfall, receiving rave reviews. And, as with Swift's Eras jaunt, this was also turned into a stunning multiplex movie.
Forget any talk of a rivalry between the two stars, though; each was happy to attend the other's premiere, and they seem happy to share 'world domination' duties between them.
Did you blink miss it?: Padam Padam by Kylie Minogue, obvs. The pop anthem of the year. Beat that.
Summer breaks cover a little too early and it’s time for Glastonbury. This saw teens and 20-somethings rubbing shoulders with the trendy elderly in front of a musical bag so mixed that one has to question whether anyone attending even likes music…
But - to pick just three highlights from the cavalcade of ‘wha?!’ on offer - we’ll go for the final UK live appearance (until the next one) by Elton John, who pulled out all the stops and made the preceding “got your face on” Arctic Monkeys and Guns N’ Roses sets feel (respectively) needy and weedy. It was a sparkling return to form that had everyone wishing that he didn’t have to head off down the yellow brick road immediately afterwards.
Fans of Lana Del Rey were left disappointed after she rolled up an hour late, forcing organisers to pull the plug before she even got to Video Games. Rick Astley, meanwhile - an artist who, on paper at least, should have been piss-bottled off - successfully kick-started an ironic retro second career that’s made 2023 arguably his best year yet. And massive respect to the fans of Lewis Capaldi who, rather than asking for a refund when he was clearly struggling, instead did the singing for him and created the musical embodiment of right-on 2023 ‘feels’ for everyone present and watching at home.
Did you blink miss it?: (It Goes Like) Nanana - Peggy Gou. Nagging and infectious, setting the tone for the summer.
Proving that second albums don’t always have to be difficult, Olivia Rodrigo kicked off her Guts era - the long-player of that name would go on to be released in September - with the release of Vampire, a US and UK number one.
A piano-led takedown of what you sense is someone very specific - Rodrigo hasn’t said who - Vampire builds steadily across its 3:40 running time before reaching a full-throttle conclusion. The song is also notable for its use of the I-III-IV-iv chord progression, as heard previously on the likes of Radiohead’s Creep, Lana Del Rey’s Get Free and The Hollies’ The Air That I Breathe.
Vampire marked the start of another run of impressive singles from Rodrigo: the riff-tastic Bad Idea Right? landed in August and she delivered singalong pop-punk perfection on Get Him Back! in September. Demonstrating that, whether using question or exclamation marks in their song titles, Rodrigo and her writing partner Dan Nigro know how to pen songs that sound great on the radio.
Did you blink miss it?: Not one but two big name smashes define the month: Runaway from OneRepublic ties for top honours with Desire from the double-threat of Sam Smith and Calvin Harris.
It’s been a rather mixed-up past six years for Britney Spears, but August saw her first new music released since the end of the conservatorship that she had fought so hard to get out of.
Aping Cold Heart, John’s collab with Dua Lipa, from 2021, Hold Me Closer once more sees John and friend - in this case Spears - mashing together multiple previous hits - this time elements of Tiny Dancer, The One and Don’t Go Breaking My Heart - over a new backing that pays no heed to any of the three songs. It was produced by Andrew Watt and electronic artist Cirkut.
While a commercial success - the song would peak in the UK charts at number two in early September - Spears’ barely there vocal has only left fans wondering as to what Britney really had in mind and, more importantly, what they can realistically expect from the star in the future.
We’ve already flagged up the endless mega tours of Harry Styles and Taylor Swift, but September saw one of the big league’s biggest touring acts flipping the whole game on its head and perhaps changing the way that megabucks may be earned in the future.
Instead of hitting the road in time-honoured style, 2023’s live experience from U2 saw the band firmly routed to the spherical spot while insisting that fans got on a plane to see them for a change instead.
U2:UV Achtung Baby Live at Sphere (to give it its full title) saw the band performing within a huge spherical venue with a roof – both internally and externally – lined with a vast LED screen. This enables audiences both inside and outside the arena see whatever the artist wishes.
And combined with U2’s love of the visual arts and an ability to perform that they’ve been honing for 40 years, the results were electric to say the least.
The 30th anniversary of U2’s Zoo TV tour, itself a promotional vehicle for their 1991 Achtung Baby album, gave the band all the excuse they needed to celebrate, and the all-new Sphere - a 360-degree ‘intimate’ live event arena off the strip in Las Vegas - was the perfect place to party.
Originally intended to be a limited run of only 25 gigs, the inevitable sell-outs and ‘by popular demand’ extensions eventually produced 40, earning the band a rumoured $4 million per show. Not a bad reward for never having to step on a tour bus.
Did you blink miss it?: Totally by the numbers but hitting all the sweet spots we go with On My Love from Zara Larsson & David Guetta.
Yes, it’s been a Swifty focused year, and having marvelled at the ongoing Era’s megatour, the also still-in-progress swap-out of Swift’s back catalogue hit a milestone in October with the release of 1989 (Taylor’s Version).
While both admirable and slightly mad in equal measure, Swift’s crusade to take ownership of her first six albums has now become slightly more challenging.
While early reworkings – released since 2021 – have seen a more able Swift intelligently power up the tracks originally recorded by her younger self, recreating 1989 – the album that really saw her career take flight – was always going to be a trickier task.
Rather than being able to breathe new life into tracks via her stronger, older and wiser vocals, 1989 (Taylor’s Version) - by virtue of being her most recent remake yet and its mainly electronic construction - arguably doesn’t really represent as much of an improvement.
Swift will be facing an even more formidable challenge when she takes on 2017’s Reputation album, an even more ‘electronic’ affair, though her yet-to-be-reworked 2006 debut Taylor Swift should be an easier target to hit.
Did you blink miss it?: You can’t beat the dreamy pop perfection of One of Your Girls from Troye Sivan.
The girls are back in town. Again. November saw everyone’s favourite girl-next-door group Girls Aloud break collective cover to announce an upcoming reunion tour. Incredibly, by the time Girls Aloud hit the stage in May 2024, it’ll be over 22 years since TV show Popstars The Rivals and debut single The Sound of the Underground propelled them to fame (and 12 years since the last time they reunited and did the whole reunion thing).
So why now? Predictably, the group had planned to reunite in 2022 for a 20th anniversary tour (after the success of their 10th) but the illness and subsequent death of band member Sarah Harding forced them to abandon plans.
This reunion will be a bittersweet affair, then, but we can’t wait to see the remaining members of Girls Aloud getting back to what they do best.
Did you blink miss it?: Fresh and juicy for 2023 it has to be Lovin’ On Me from Jack Harlow.
After blithely ignoring the season of goodwill for the past half decade (though, in fairness, it was in the name of charity) LadBaby aren’t producing a Christmas single this year, allowing some genuine brilliance to once more assail the summit of mount pop (exactly as Saint Nicholas, Noel Edmonds and Tony Blackburn intended).
We’re delighted to report that at the time of writing, Wham’s Last Christmas is the UK number one single with Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas at number three and The Pogues (featuring Kirsty McColl’s) Fairytale of New York at number five.
In fact, an incredible 26 of the the top 40 are Christmas themed, making it the most Christmassy top 40 ever, and a stark contrast to 1981’s festive 40 where only The Snowmen’s (only partially) Christmas-themed Hokey Cokey was able to pierce the top 20. (The Human League’s entirely non-twinkly Don’t You Want Me being Christmas number one, of course, but that’s another story.)
Did you blink miss it?: In a change of pace and a welcome break from the festive nostalgia, Stick Season from Noah Kahan proves its staying power (it was originally released in 2022) and finishes the year in style.