22 Dec 2023

The best of times, the worst of times - looking back on 2023 in music

8:39 am on 22 December 2023
Ngāpuhi alt-folk musician Erny Belle (aka Aimee Renata) in the RNZ Auckland studio for NZ Live ahead of the release of her second album 'Not Your Cupid'.

Erny Belle playing live at RNZ. Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

By Charlotte Ryan

2023 has been a strange old year for music. If you've found it hard to keep up, there's a good reason for that. New research shows that 120,000 new music tracks are released every day on music streaming platforms.

Music 101 Host Charlotte Ryan

Charlotte Ryan, host of RNZ's Music 101. Photo: Calvin Samuel

For music lovers, that's a lot to get through to find your new favourite album or song. For musicians, that means it's much harder to stand out and get people to listen to your music. 2023 has been a challenging year for many musicians, with some struggling to sell tickets to gigs thanks to competition from other events and the rising cost of living.

Musicians have also spoken out about the pressure of making social media content and how it takes away the joy of making music.

(L-R) Keith Richards, Ron Wood and Mick Jagger of legendary British rock band, The Rolling Stones pose as they arrive to attend a launch event for their new album, "Hackney Diamonds" at Hackney Empire in London on September 6, 2023, their first album of original material since 2005. The Rolling Stones will on Wednesday, September 6, reveal details of "Hackney Diamonds", the band's first studio album of new music since 2005, at a launch event in east London. (Photo by Daniel LEAL / AFP)

The Rolling Stones. Photo: AFP

Some of the huge album releases this year have been from very well-known bands and musicians from the past. The Rolling Stones released Hackney Diamonds, which many critics hailed as the band's best album in decades. Dolly Parton released a rock album and Peter Gabriel released his first album in more than two decades.


Damon Albarn and the members of UK band BLUR. Photo: Reuben Bastienne-Lewis

2023 also delivered us new albums from BLUR, Iggy Pop, Paul Simon, Rikki Lee Jones, PJ Harvey, The Smashing Pumpkins, Wilco, Yo La Tengo, John Cale, Depeche Mode and Everything but the girl.

(FILES) Singer Tina Turner performs in Groningen, Netherlands, on 18 July 18, 2000. Rock legend Tina Turner, the growling songstress who electrified audiences from the 1960s and went on to release hit records across five decades, has died at the age of 83, a statement announced on May 24, 2023. "It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Tina Turner," read the statement on the official Instagram page of the eight-time Grammy winner. (Photo by ED OUDENAARDEN / ANP / AFP)

Tina Turner died in May 2023. Photo: ED OUDENAARDEN / AFP

These blasts from the past were made more poignant by the deaths of music legends like Tina Turner, Tony Bennett, David Crosby, Sinead O'Connor, Jeff Beck, Larry Morris of Larry's Rebels and Shane McGowan.

One of the biggest talking points in music this year was the new Beatles song, 'Now and Then'. The track used audio restoration technology commissioned by Peter Jackson to extract John Lennon's voice, resulting in a #1 single in the UK (the band's first #1 single in 54 years).

This year has also seen the strong emergence of AI artists releasing music and songs. Personally, I'm struggling with this and have strong feelings about songs based on algorithms rather than written from the heart.

On a more positive note, there has been some cool technology incorporated into music, including scientists working with Benee on 'Bagels', a piece of music at the right beats per minute for our mental health.

It's been another huge year for women in music. Taylor Swift was named Time Magazine's Person of the Year, Princess Chelsea won the Taite Music Prize and Lana del Ray released her ninth studio album. Epic feminist rock supergroup B0Y GENIUS (Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker) won NME's Album of the Year and have received five Grammy Nominations.

Locally, there have been some fantastic album releases from Erny Belle, Strawpeople, Homebrew, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Tiny Ruins, Christoph El Truento , Tom Lark, The Veils, Mermaidens, Dallas Tamaira (frontman of Fat Freddy's Drop), Maisey Rika, Ebony Lamb, Guardian Singles and many others.

There were no Aotearoa Music Awards this year, as the event took a hiatus to reassess its form and purpose. It'll be back at the end of May 2024, closing out New Zealand Music Month in style.

Aotearoa's musicians are still making music to protest and make change. Anohni's album My Back Was a Bridge For You To Cross pleaded with us to consider basic human rights, while

Ria Hall, Troy Kingi, and Te Kuru o te Marama Dewes are releasing a song today calling New Zealanders to unite to defend all that Te Tiriti o Waitangi represents.

It's been my great pleasure to introduce RNZ listeners to their new favourite song or artist in 2023. If you'd like to catch up over the summer break, I've compiled 75 of my favourite new songs and albums released this year into a playlist.