‘A reminder that life has to be lived’: the lyrics that got us through 2023

Wilco – Ashes of American Flags

“I want a good life with a nose for things, the fresh wind and bright sky to enjoy my suffering.” Pretty much every line on Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a quietly devastating jolt to the heart, but it was this couplet from the whispery middle section of Ashes of American Flags that grabbed me while listening to this album on repeat at the tail-end of this summer. It painted a picture, to me, of modest goals that are nonetheless worthy of aspiring to: a life that allows for simple pleasures and personal satisfaction without denying the very real challenges to them. Not long afterwards, I got a tattoo on my inner arm of a small room with a view, as a reminder that a good life is not too much to strive for – it may even be enough. Elle Hunt

Alex Rex – Black Peonies

Alex Rex has been in my head ever since I came across his raw and brilliant 2019 album Otterburn. I return again and again to his music not for its melodic invention (not to say that’s not there in abundance, likewise earworms aplenty) but for its poetry. He writes with a vivid and wry eye of the joy and pain of life and of loss, with an acute ear for tiny details and startling images that lodge deep in the brain. I’m yet to find anyone who better describes the vulnerability of being in love or better hymns the bitterness of an imploded relationship, while always acknowledging our essential absurdity in believing in the possibility of a happy ever after. But it’s his humour that I’ve loved most this past year as I piece myself back together after illness and my own imploded relationship, and so I nominate the country-and-western tinged Black Peonies from 2021’s Paradise: “I wear the knickers you gave me / When I play football with the boys … Please try to contain your laughter ’til after we’ve finished the sex … I promised you peonies, but they bloom for such a short time / Let’s see if we can make it to April before the peonies die on the line.” It makes me smile, it makes me sad. Imogen Tilden

Sufjan Stevens – Casimir Pulaski Day

The first Monday of March is Casimir Pulaski Day, a holiday observed in Illinois and on Stevens’ glorious 2005 album about the American state. Here, the day is a mere detail in a multilayered short story that unfurls over six gentle minutes – one about death, about guilt and about religion. The song begins with a young woman’s stark diagnosis of “cancer of the bone” and, as a blood cancer patient myself, I can relate to the characters’ desperation to change the course of her illness (or their hope that a higher being might): “We lift our hands and pray over your body / But nothing ever happens.” But there are no easy answers here, only a lingering confusion about how and why life unfolds as it does, and perhaps that’s what feels truest of all. Tim Jonze

Jessie Ware – Begin Again

That life through a screen can feel hollow and disappointing is now all too well known, but what struck me about Jessie Ware singing “Why does all the purest love get filtered through machines? / Gimme something good that’s even better than it seems”, is how it inverts the gaze to point out that behind these machines are people feeling energy, emotion, and love, yearning for connection. The demand to “gimme something good” feels anachronistic and necessary at a time of persistent dread, where more people are encouraged to shrink themselves down. Ware has said she began work on the song in a dark London, during lockdown, “dreaming of human touch, escapes to Brazil, beach bodies, holiday romances”. The line is a similarly bold and playful reminder that life has to be lived. Rebecca Liu

With Confidence – Voldemort

One of my favourite pop-punk bands, With Confidence, called it a day in 2022, so I spent a lot of time listening to their back catalogue this year. Mental illness, particularly depression, is a running theme throughout their first album, Better Weather; the first track, Voldemort, is a “personification of mental illness” – that which also can’t be named – according to their bassist Jayden Seeley. My favourite part of the song is the end of the chorus, which references the album’s title: “Despite the weather, it gets better / You won’t do this alone” – trite, yes, but it doesn’t matter because it comes with a guitar riff that all but cures me. Ella Creamer

Azealia Banks – Liquorice

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I love Liquorice because it makes me feel sexy – the mental health benefits of which are obvious. On paper, it’s a song about interracial dating: how hard it is to be a Black woman who primarily fancies white men. But whether in the shower, the gym, or getting ready for a party, the rush of chanting, “hey, I’m the liquorice bitch” never fails to crank me up. But Liquorice also makes me feel vulnerable – it’s not just that “bitches better tan for the summer”, a glorious one line riposte to eurocentricity, it’s that Banks can only be with a man who likes “a lady in my-my colour”. In the end, Liquorice means so much because Banks understands that Blackness is a minefield: full of taboos, rejection and shame, even for a “Black girl pin up”, such as her. Sasha Mistlin

Beverley Knight – Everything’s Gonna Be Alright

At last year’s Mighty Hoopla festival, soul singer Beverley Knight addressed the (almost exclusively LGBTQ+) crowd to dedicate the final song to anyone having a hard time because of their sexuality or gender identity. As the sun went down in Brockwell Park, south London, my friends and I sang “everything’s gonna be alright” back to Beverley, and to each other, again and again. Now every time I listen to that song I remember that moment and the world becomes a tiny bit better. And, on days when it isn’t enough to have just one music legend telling me things are going to be OK, I’ll listen to Dolly Parton singing the same words in Light of a Clear Blue Morning. Lucy Knight

Mitski – I’m Your Man

There are lyrics that get you through the year because they’re comforting and suggest a path forward: I might choose Julie Byrne’s luminous “permission to feel it, it’s all right” from Conversation Is a Flowstate in that case. But then there are the lyrics that crystallise a murky thought about one’s shortcomings, becoming a talisman to ward against continuing to perpetuate them. Mitski’s I’m Your Man, tucked at the back of her remarkable album The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We, seems to me one of the saddest songs of the year, a desolate acceptance of one’s outsized role in relationships and inability to reciprocate affection: “You believe me like a god,” she sings: “I’ll destroy you like I am.” Mitski meets “judgment by the hounds” as her moonlit saloon song ends in a spirited cacophony of woofs and toad croaks; her words still echo around my mind. Laura Snapes

• What’s the lyric that got you through 2023? Let us know in the comments.