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The QSO Awards: Best of 2023

Eevee, evil exes, and escapism - everything good about 2023 in one award show.


A banner image of a pastel rainbow (ROYGBIV order) with 3D awards on it. The awards are multicoloured and in a wide range of shapes, some abstract, and others representing specific things. The items represented include stars, hearts, crowns, spacemen, binoculars, saturn, a sprouting plant, a cacti, a cake, and angel wings. Some awards are repeated. They range in colour, but all represent shining metal. They are metallic. It says QSO in pixelated font, twice, in the middle of the image, with the QSO logo. The text in the bottom left reads: graphic by qso media.

The year always seems to take a bit to get started back up. Have you just about started writing the correct year yet? Or are you stuck scribbling out 2023 minutes after writing it? I know I am.


The new year especially takes a minute to get going in terms of new releases. We've just wrapped up the first month of 2024, and we're still looking back on what last year had to offer. Evidently, we aren't alone, as the internet debates the Oscar nominations for the 96th Academy Awards and February brings the 66th Annual Grammy Awards (Mitski was SNUBBED again).


With award season getting into the swing of things, we thought it was probably time for us to turn our reflections and ruminations on 2023 into something a little more tangible: our annual round-up of our favourite things, or, an awards show of our own. As well as our best in show, we've also got a few honourable mentions - some things were just too good to leave out.


Let's take a minute to go over some of last year's finest releases that continue to feel fresh right now, from our favourite songs and albums to TV shows and films.



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Best Songs of 2023


Escapism (Live): 21st Century Blues - Raye


In the UK, Raye has had so many mainstream musical vignettes since 2016. If you’ve been a fan of Raye since her breakout single with dance producer Jax Jones and followed her journey, maybe you’ve wondered why she never released an album?

 

In 2021, Raye was let go from her seven-year record deal and her first independent single, Hard Out Here, showcased Raye’s ability to truly tell us a captivating story that felt all too familiar for musicians working in the industry. This song was a rallying cry for a woman who has been controlled by “white men CEOs”: teachers, industry execs - any person of authority, etc.


It was a random day in 2023 when I was scrolling through Twitter (I’m not calling it X) and saw a friend say that Raye’s recent single Escapism, is an unexpected banger.  In 2016, I might have not noticed - but this time, my interest was piqued.


It’s rare that I instantly get overcome with emotion when listening to music. But I wasn’t overcome with sadness - relatability, maybe?


Escapism manages to embody sexiness, sombreness, sensitivity in its runtime. The sonics of Escapism are moody and unnerving with three synth notes on loop as its backdrop. I never thought Raye would be such a good storyteller.


She tells us a tale about finding solace in your vices (sex, drugs, partying) but then marinating in the night after because “I don’t wanna feel”.


And we now have a live version at the Royal Albert Hall, it feels full circle. A woman who was being pushed to fit into a mould is finally being able to share her art with a crowd of adoring fans. Escapism performed with the backdrop of an orchestra and a choir was the perfect rendition to finish out the year with. The confidence in her performance oozes and this time around, I’m feeling proud.


I hope Raye recognises that she created a record that captures a myriad of topics and showcasing her soul on 21st Century Blues. 2023 was hers. ~ Anusha



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Boy's a liar Pt. 2 - PinkPantheress, Ice Spice


Much to the chagrin of my edgy, nu-metal-obsessed 14-year-old self, I’m a poptimist at heart. I’m also a massive nerd, which is why I’m an avid chart-watcher. The Billboard Hot 100 is my Roman Empire of sorts - I’m never not thinking about the risers, the fallers, and the what-could’ve-beens. Every year, there’s always some results that you can see a mile away and some that shock me - what do you mean, Levitating never went #1 in 2020? But this year had more shockers than usual. The biggest shocker of them all, of course, is that Boy’s a liar didn’t reach the #1 it deserved.


2023, by any reasonable metric, was the year of PinkPantheress and Ice Spice, with the former releasing the excellent Heaven Knows, and the latter’s In Ha Mood being in my head for roughly ⅓ of the year. I think it’s fair to say that Boy’s a liar is already a modern classic, with both artists giving instantly quotable, unforgettable performances.


Who hasn’t dealt with a lying boy, after all?


The sugary dial-up beat is a perfect encapsulation of the Y2K revival trend that’s all the rage at the moment, but no one does it better than PinkPantheress. While they may not have reigned the charts, PinkPantheress and Ice Spice reigned my heart. ~ AC



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Second Best Friend - Origami Angel


In the words of Vic Fuentes, therapy is tiring. This year was a breakthrough year for me in terms of therapy, and I’m genuinely proud of how far I’ve come. Talking about past trauma is really fucking hard. Dealing with the emotional aftershocks of that is even harder. Sometimes it feels impossible. Sometimes, though, as cringe as it sounds, it feels like a single line of a pop song can sum it all up. Sometimes that pop song is actually a power-emo banger with blast beats and mathy guitars.


Origami Angel are, without question, one of the greatest bands around, and 2023 has been a banner year for them thanks to the release of the phenomenal record that is The Brightest Days. I can’t think of many artists with such a unique sonic identity, and Second Best Friend is one of the finest examples of their sound. It’s ridiculously catchy, it’s heavy as hell, and its refrain of “I always wanted more” is one of the best of the year. It’s the best song of their career, one of the best songs of the year, and definitely the best song to scream along to in the car after a hard therapy session. Gami Gang forever. ~ AC



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Geez louise - underscores


My gut instinct is to call underscores “your favourite producer’s new favourite producer”, given her Twitch channel’s recent audience of Dylan Brady, Skrillex, Umru, Jane Remover, and more - but, for me, that would be a lie - April Harper Grey probably IS my favourite current producer. 


Wallsocket was a slight departure from some of underscores' previous releases, but perhaps an unsurprising one. On writing the album, Grey said that she was coming out of a period in her life where she had the “mentality that everything was beautiful”, instead shifting into one where most things are, but… Not everything. 


The album never shies away from capturing the brutal, using friction and contrasts to represent it. Geez louise - my personal favourite track from the album - is a particularly exceptional example of this. The track plays with multiple genres and sounds, leaping from noise to rock to country, straddling the line somewhere between each of them.


The album toys with the horseshoe theory - as maybe teased by the cover art - in a way that’s largely distanced from its original meaning, exploring what it means to become so different and reach so far (perhaps with some very long arms?) until you come back around on yourself. Geez louise, as with many other tracks on the album, does that musically as it plays with and subverts the expectations of any given genre.


Lyrically, the track explores the generational trauma of colonisation, religious assimilation, and transphobia. Grey's efforts are joined by henhouse!, a recurrent collaborator of the producer. Grey is a sonic powerhouse on her own, but the collaboration helps to elevate the song to some particularly gorgeous heights. The fifth and final verse layers vocals over a multifaceted, multi-genre instrumental, before ending in a divine, swelling crescendo: “How could I repent for time well spent?” ~ Toni Oisin H.C.



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Honourable Mentions


Anusha

  • CTRL - Mysie: Slick alt Black girl excellence, I am so proud of Mysie.

  • Cobra - Megan Thee Stallion: Depressed Black girls, stand up (no but seriously, I am so happy for Meg and this song means so much to me).



AC

  • Pendulum - Spanish Love Songs: I like my love songs with a massive shout-along chorus and a large scoop of existential dread on the side.

  • Locals (Girls Like Us) - underscores feat. Gabby Start: Anything that references Pavement is a win in my book, especially when it’s as catchy as this. Good luck!

  • Heaven - Mitski: Swoon. Mitski’s country moment has been long overdue, and my god, it’s a joy to hear.



Toni

  • Echolalia - Yves Tumor: So many people want a bit of psychedelia and glam nostalgia right now, but no one can do it as much justice - and innovate as much - as Yves. One of the most exciting artists in a loooooong time.

  • Two Wheel Drive - Magdalena Bay: How bad can a year with a Mini Mix volume in it really be? Pretty bad, as it turns out. At least we had some bubblegum bass to see us through it.

  • Grapes Upon the Vine - TV Girl: It would've been so easy to make their first full post-TikTok release a total cash-in - I'm glad they made a niche Christian guilt record instead.



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Best Albums of 2023


Fountain Baby - Amaarae


The fact that Amaarae’s catalogue isn’t the biggest, and yet she still entered 2023 with one of the best LPs is an amazing feat. Even the cover art and title of the album were perfectly chosen. I feel like I’m being immersed in the ocean with each track acting like a wave brushing over my skin.


As soon as the plucking starts of the violins on the intro track, you are being prepped for an immersive experience. Amaarae’s voice caresses each track like silk, which perfectly compliments the musical backdrop of Fountain Baby.



I could write about each track individually but then it’d be an essay. There’s not a bad track. There are tracks that I prefer compared to others but none that make me reach for the skip button.


I cannot emphasise enough how this album is most likely my favourite album of the year and if you haven’t already heard, please do yourself a favour, clear out an hour and listen to Fountain Baby. ~ Anusha



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Jenny from Thebes - The Mountain Goats


The evolution of The Mountain Goats, from semi-apocryphal cassette recordings in the early 90s to the Grateful Dead-inspired lounge-adjacent rock of their later albums, has been a sight to behold. While they’d go on to greater heights - Beat The Champ remains a masterpiece in my book - their 2002 classic All Hail West Texas holds a special place in my heart.


The final album of their lo-fi era, recorded on a shoestring in-between shifts, is a fan favourite to this day, with its fourteen songs about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys. Hell, when I was sixteen, I had a tag on my Tumblr blog dedicated to this album, poring over the relationships between the songs and the characters therein. Now here we are, eleven years later, and one of the central characters - Jenny, the great pirate herself - has an album entirely about her story. It’s a marvel that Jenny from Thebes even exists.



To dismiss the album as simple fanservice or gravedigging would be unfair. As John Darnielle pointed out, previous songs about Jenny were centred on her absence. Now, we finally get an album centred on her. But not just her. These songs are about found families, addiction, anti-capitalism, breaking down crying in supermarket car parks, and people finding their breaking points. Truly something for everyone, right?


To focus on just the songwriting (excellent, as always) of Jenny from Thebes would do a disservice to the incredible musical talent on display here. From the gorgeous Greek-chorus-esque harmonies of Fresh Tattoo, through the eerily sparse percussion of From the Nebraska Plant, to the lush strings of Same as Cash, this album is a delight to the ears.


In some ways, this album was always going to be a highlight of the year for me -but it’s so much more than that. It’s the highlight of the career of an incredible band operating at the top of their game, it’s a masterful album with impeccable lyricism and arrangements, and perhaps most importantly, it’s a story twenty-one years in the making finally being completed. Goddamn, the pirate’s life for me. ~ AC



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Wallsocket - underscores


Hyperpop is dead, long live hyperpop. While some of underscores’ early releases were lumped in with the post-100 gecs wave of hyperpop stars, Wallsocket is a different beast entirely. The evolution from the artist who made sneakerhead into the one who made Geez louise has been thrilling to watch, and even more thrilling to listen to. Think Bob Dylan meets Basement Jaxx. But so much more.



I’ve always been a sucker for a good concept album, and Wallsocket is no exception. Immersing you in the (fictional) titular town in Michigan, USA, you’re thrust into the interconnected stories of three young women who experience illness, jealousy, and the town’s first bank robbery. It’s not as hard to follow as it sounds. More than any other album this year, though, Wallsocket rewards front-to-back listens. Every time I find myself listening to the phenomenal opening salvo of Cops and robbers, I’m immediately wanting to continue the story.


Even outside of the concept, Wallsocket works incredibly well, and a big part of why is because of underscores’ incredible gift as a composer and a producer. She’s why a haunting soundscape like Horror movie soundtrack can work next to a glitchy banger like Old money bitch; she’s what makes the chilling and sparse You don’t even know who I am feel at home on the same record as the maximalist Cops and robbers. She’s in a league of her own, and Wallsocket is the crown jewel of her career so far. ~ AC



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Softscars - Yeule


My choice of Album of the Year feels immensely like I’m playing it safe: Glitch Princess, Yeule’s sophomore album, was also one of my favourite albums of 2022. But, who am I to ignore a monumental slay?


The title of the album suggests somewhat of a contrast: Scar tissue, on the surface, tends to feel tough and hard. The contrast between hard and soft, and even the tenderness hidden underneath a tough exterior, is audible throughout the album. Distorted guitars are layered against twinkling arpeggiated synthesisers, and intimate lyricism is paired with heavy instrumentals. It feels like an apt reflection of trauma, which is one of the subjects of the album.



Each song on the album represents an individual scar, reflecting both the trauma itself and the protective layer around it. Because of this, these songs narrate and excavate the past, bringing Nat Ćmiel’s inner child right to the songs’ forefront. The album musically toys with the past also by frequently evoking 90s alt-rock, particularly on tracks such as x w x and sulky baby - but never without a glimmer of Yeule’s signature take on futurism.


Every Yeule release reflects their artistic development so clearly, without ever feeling like we’re listening to a work-in-progress. Whether Softscars is at all reflective of the direction that Yeule is moving in as an artist or not, I’m excited to see what comes next - once I’ve finished basking in Softscars’ reverberant sonic world, that is. ~ Toni Oisin H.C.



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Honourable Mentions


Anusha

  • 10,000 gecs - 100 gecs: If Red Bull was an album.

  • This is Why - Paramore: Paramore’s most actualised work, even if it does sort of sound like someone in their 30's yelling at the telly (which they are, so it’s fine).

  • Her Mind - Urias: Take me to the club please, I want to be sexy with this album in the club.


AC

  • like dying stars, we’re reaching out - runnner: This broke my heart and patched it up in the span of half an hour. My favourite new discovery of the year.

  • Weathervanes - Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: In a year where country took the charts by storm, this was the best album in the genre. Tremendous stuff.


Toni

  • Wallsocket - underscores: Intoxicating small-town dystopia by way of Dance Dance Revolution (or Stepmania, for those of us who played it primarily on PC).



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Best TV of 2023


Pokémon Concierge



In a world where everything is constantly changing, there are three constants I know I can rely on: life under capitalism is depressing, trans people deserve better, and the Pokémon franchise brings me joy.


From the moment the first trailer for Pokémon Concierge was released, I knew that it was going to be the series of the year for me. Bask at the creatures! Gaze at the little felted Panpour! Hark at the delightful chirrups of the Pidgeotto and the Graveler!


The core plotline is simple but excellent, with the series following Haru (Karen Fukuhara), a new employee at a Pokémon resort. Unlike other adaptations of the game series which focus on battling, there’s very little conflict here - perhaps a mischievous Wingull will have stolen a toy, or a shy Pikachu is struggling to connect with his trainer. This makes it the perfect vehicle for some comforting slice-of-life TV that’s adorable to look at.



Truly, nothing from 2023 could possibly fill me with as much whimsy as I felt watching a soft, huggable Dragonite sail through the sky. Sometimes I have detailed, complex reasons behind liking things. Not today. Pokémon Concierge warmed my heart, and that’s enough reason to adore it. ~ AC



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Scott Pilgrim Takes Off


This review contains spoilers.



Scott Pilgrim Takes Off was one of 2023’s releases that I was most excited about. So much so that I was worried that I’d set myself up to feel disappointed, no matter how good it was. My worries were, thankfully, completely unfounded.


I’m a big fan of the comics, and the video games - I guess the movie’s pretty fun, too - but I really felt like it was time for the franchise to have a new lick of paint. Time passes, things change, and some things make you wince when you look back. With the release of the TV adaption, I would’ve been pretty much happy enough with a rehash of the same old same old, maybe with one or two issues tweaked. However, I was so much happier with the full facelift it got instead.


And to focus on Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth-Winstead) instead of Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) for an entire series? Delightful.


The Scott Pilgrim IP has a fantastic cast of characters, who haven’t always had the chance to really shine. The choice to spend a little more time with these characters, and a little less with the titular Scott, was a fantastic decision. If fans want more Scott, they can just… Engage with literally any other version of the story. It’s time for the Kim Pine (Alison Pill) and Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin) enjoyers to have their moment.


Despite being set vaguely in the real-world location of [Bill Hader voice] Toronto, Canada, something special about the Scott Pilgrim franchise is the way it builds a magical world for the viewer to suspend their disbelief and step into, full of mystical powers, brain chips, and, um, the 2000’s. I’d argue that Scott Pilgrim Takes Off is the most successful entry to the series in this regard, as it fully fleshes out the 2D world that Scott Pilgrim is up against. It manages this so well, at least in part, thanks to the way it chose to focus on the franchise’s full, glorious cast.


My favourite episode - Episode Three, Ramona Rents a Video - took perhaps the best shot at this, in a series full of strong contenders. As Tumblr users have rightly pointed out, evil ex number four Roxie Ritcher (Mae Whitman) was massively mistreated in some previous depictions of her. Instead of relying on offensive tropes and shallow characterisation, Roxie gets to find closure with her own ‘evil’ ex, all while stepping into her own as a character.


A clear tonal shift in the aptly named Scott Pilgrim Takes Off compared to its predecessors is how it never really veers into mean-spirited humour or representations of characters: everyone gets their moment, and a chance to change who they are. 


(Also - Mobile (Cory Doran) spotted! Mobile mention! The crowd goes wild.) ~ Toni Oisin H.C.



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Honorable Mentions


AC

  • One Piece: Hi-diddle-dee-dee, Goddamn, the pirate’s life for me! Roranoa Zoro (Mackenyu) has my whole heart.


Toni

  • Aggretsuko: I'm so sad my favourite little anti-capitalist isn't going to get any more screentime - what a wild ride the last series was though. Rage 4eva.

  • Game Changer - Battle Royale: TV in my heart - DROPOUT continue to be indie comedy royalty.



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Best Films of 2023


Puss in Boots: The Last Wish



You didn’t hear it from me, but the original Puss in Boots film is one of Dreamworks’ finest. It’s a swashbuckling romp with loveable characters, great voice performances, and a fucked-up egg. What more could you want, eh?


Well, turns out the answer is a sequel that ups the ante considerably, that’s equal parts Takashi Miike-esque nightmare and heart-on-sleeve existential rumination. Believe me, it was NOT what I was expecting when I sat down to watch The Last Wish, but it was what I needed, making for one of the most emotional experiences I’ve had when watching a film. For a film marketed as family-friendly fun, it really knew how to get under my skin - the early scene in the tavern alone gave me shivers.


It’s no surprise by now that a film from the Shrek-iverse is going to have tremendous visuals, but Puss in Boots: The Last Wish truly raised the bar. The action sequences in particular are quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Watching the film with some friends ended in us all stunned into silence by how good this film was. Not bad for a talking cat. ~ AC



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Asteroid City


This review contains spoilers.



I’m not normally much of a Wes Anderson fan - I actually have a tendency to mostly avoid his films. However, I was drawn to Asteroid City when I heard the premise: Space? The Wild West? Pseudo-vintage fashion? I’m in.


Still, despite all of that, I wasn’t sure if I was going to watch it - until my partner suggested it on their birthday. Something about that warm July evening seemed to make the ideal conditions for a visit to the super saturated, extremely dusty setting.


I don’t know exactly what I expected going into it - besides space, cowboys, and the desert apparently - but I know I wasn’t expecting to be hit with a gorgeous exploration of grief, partnership, and tenderness. Although grief and loss aren’t new themes in Anderson’s filmography, something about the way it was handled in Asteroid City pushed these ideas into new territory. 


Grief is random: we don’t know when it will affect us, although it could at any time, and inevitably will. More than that, the things that we’ll do to feel normal - or pretend to feel normal - seem so strange in the face of loss. In some cases, keeping up the act reaches a point where it seems pointless. The use of the fourth wall to play with these ideas in the narrative is mostly well-executed, without often becoming overstated or excessive.


I grimaced a little when I noticed some vague parallels between the events of the film and COVID-19 lockdowns, as the town’s inhabitants became trapped (admittedly, in this case, because of an alien invasion). I almost expected a crass or hamfisted attempt at comedy on the subject, as other works have sometimes attempted. Thankfully, this wasn’t the case: while gallows humour was used throughout, it rarely felt in any way belittling or minimising. Specifically, it seemed to offer an opportunity to take a peek into grief spreading across wider society, alongside and in comparison to the interpersonal loss of a partner and family member.


Perhaps similarly, I’m still sometimes twitchy when a queer plotline is introduced somewhere I don’t expect it to be: Will this be played for laughs? Is homoromanticism going to be treated flippantly or as the butt of a joke? Needless to say, this wasn’t the case. The scene played out between playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) and actor Jones Hall (Jason Schwartzman) is, hands down, one of my favourite moments from any film in a long time.


Also, when Jones and Conrad started kissing, I was cheering like someone’s dad watching the football.


Earp and Hall’s relationship is handled sweetly, despite their infrequent on-screen appearances together, including in how the film addresses Earp’s passing. Although Hall’s grief is hidden and repressed through metatextual layering, his loss pervades throughout the whole story, as his lost loved one continues to control the narrative - by literally writing the play - long after his unexpected death. The ghost of his lover, along with the repercussions of loss are still found everywhere, both in Hall’s actual and dramaturgical lives. ~ Toni Oisin H.C.



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Honorable Mentions


AC

  • Shortcomings: Between this and his cameo in Totally Killer, Randall Park made me laugh harder than anyone else this year.

  • Priscilla: An unflinching masterpiece. Cailee Spaeny should be up for the Oscar.



Toni

  • Past Lives: Okay Celine Song, let's see you adapt this for The Sims 4. The longer it's been since I saw this film, the more strongly it stayed with me.

  • Rye Lane: The chemistry between the two leads as they went on their quest (sorry) to find Yas' vinyl copy of The Low End Theory album was a total delight.



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Anusha is a musician, writer, and creator. You can find more of her work here.


AC is the Head of Written Content at QSO Media. Read more of their articles here.


Toni Oisin H.C. is the Head of Audio at QSO Media. Read more of his writing here.


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