Bells & Whistles: The Year In Review

Plus, a brief guide on escaping the discourse.

This column was originally published on Nina Protocol on 1/26/24.

Art by Tyler Farmer.



MANO: I understand the impulse of wanting to move to New York as a journalist, creative, or hell, anybody who just wants that rush of being where culture is happening. Late 2022, I became one of those transplants. The city has been amazing for meeting like-minded people, reconnecting with old friends and family and most of all, going to shows damn near every night. But this past year, I saw how this city’s media class is more of an echo chamber than I could’ve ever imagined, and how that reflects mainstream coverage of music.

As a person working in media in this city, I have often found myself in spaces that my friend winkingly calls “The Twitter Saloon.” These are the bars, shows, and clubs of New York that people in extremely online circles tend to populate. You look around and everyone’s in baggy jeans and glossy Asics and you soon realize you all kinda like the same things. There isn’t much disagreement. Every piece of art discussed is “cool” or “fire” or “you’re gonna give it another shot.” Sometimes it’s unclear whether people are even listening to this music or they just wanna talk about it.

It can be hard for me to escape this hive mind of nothingness. I’ve tried connecting with all types of people in the city, hanging with old buddies instead of new journalism friends, even leaving the city for stretches. But it’s not so simple as branching out and returning with what’s cool somewhere else—so long as it’s worthwhile, whatever you start posting about inevitably gets absorbed into “the discourse.” Don’t get me wrong, Ganger by Veeze is great, but a perfect storm of quality music, discourse, and marketing pushed a bars-first Detroit rap album to the top of almost every publication’s End of Year list. Nothing is immune to the sterilizing gaze of New York. This is a whale shark of a city, vacuuming little bits of culture into its gullet and mashing it all together into this specific soup of Taste and suddenly everyone’s talking about Bar Italia or whatever. If monoculture is dead, then why does it feel like everyone likes the same things?

When I got laid off last June, I took it upon myself to visit Milwaukee, whose hip-hop scene I was intrigued by in the way most rap critics are. Despite the microscope on the city, actually being there was probably the first and only time all year I actually felt like I’d escaped. You can talk about Certified Trapper all you want and even read multiple reports about the scene, but to actually be in a car with a local whippin’ around the Eastside listening to nothing but AyooLii and Maz G is an experience you can never replicate at Baby’s All Right.

These lists are about what I listened to as I tried to be more curious about what wasn’t directly in front of me.

Mano’s Favorite Songs of 2023

Honorable mentions:

quinn – “80mph

Anycia – “So What

Babyxsosa – “Baby G”

K$upreme & Big Yaya – “Jill Scott

phreshboyswag – “hottie

Al.divino feat. Estee Nack – “DIMELO

Devstacks – “Praise God

Lil Tecca, Kodak Black – “HVN ON EARTH

10. Summrs – “Shake It

DJ Rennessy blended this Summrs/BNYX club rap track perfectly in a set last year and it just clicked. Most of my friends hate when I play this around them but idc it’s Powerful.

9. Tony Shhnow – “Limpin

Absolute gem of a Tony loosie from the SoundCloud trenches, he skated on this dreamy club beat. 

8. Marney’SpacedOut – “All I Really Need

Yeah it’s an Ohgeesy imitation but does it still go? Absolutely.

7. Vayda – “prima donna

Put this song in my back like a battery and I could run a half marathon.

7. Niontay – “THANK ALLAH

Saw him do it live at a MAVI show last spring and immediately became a fan.

6. AyooLii – “phones down

Love “Shmackin Town” as much as the next critic but the minimal, gospel-tinged “phones down” is AyooLii’s real masterpiece. Milwaukee low-end meets Phil Collins.

5. Lil Yachty – “Strike

I’m a nice guy, I can forgive all the psych rock and oddball opinions about hip-hop he spews if he can record something as iconic as the “holster” bar every six to eight months.

4. Club Casualties – “Fall of the Leaves

A hypnotic gabber incantation from Western MA pop duo Club Casualties, who somehow did not miss a single beat after a multi-year hiatus.

3. NBA Youngboy – “Not My Friend

Let us not forget YB started 2023 by dropping a damn RAGE album and it goes. “Not My Friend” is a sweltering anthem I’ve belted way too many times in my car.

2. Izaya Tiji – “I Eat Humans” 

We making it out the Matrix with this one.

1. Playboi Carti – “H00DBYAIR

And this is why I take my sweet time making my lists. People have been comparing Carti’s muddy new vocal register to Future’s but I hear just as much early Thug in how he plays with flow like a cat with yarn, loose and deceptive. Nobody on earth is rapping like him right now.

Mano’s Favorite Projects of 2023

Honorable mentions:

Asake – Work Of Art

Valee, Top$ide – CAR TOONS

Baby Osama – Tank Girl

BabyDrill – MadMan

Lil Xelly/Soudiere – Xrrtified Posse

10. ZAYALLCAPS – BALLING OUT OF SPITE 

Dreamy yearning of the post-Pi’erre Bourne variety.

9. dazegxd, quinn – dSX.fm

quinn moping around through a digital hailstorm of the hardest fastest drums. Exquisite pairing, give them a GTA radio station.

8.  454 – FAST 5

Beneath the squeaky chirping and sunset plugg, I’m drawn to how earnest and pure 454 is. These songs sparkle like the light pooling in a swamp.

7. NOLANBEROLLIN, Harto Falion – babyG_Lock

Weeping robots.

6. Lostrushi – SISTERHOOD

Made me experience wonder and joy about the form of rap unlike anything else this year.

5. Young Nudy – Gumbo

Unlike the typical rapper arc, Nudy leans more into his influences the further into his career he gets. You can make out a DJ Paul beat if you squint during “Pancake,” only Nudy sputters out bars like if Gucci’s voicebox had a few loose screws. Ends with the lush rap ballad “Passion Fruit;” anyone else get hints of “Slow Jamz”? 

4. Navy Blue – Ways Of Knowing

Sharp and poignant, bleeding soul and bearing fruit for the lost twenty-somethings. Read my blurb about the record over at Passion of the Weiss.

3. Pi’erre Bourne – Grails

Sleeper record from a truly irresistible songwriter. He just makes living life feel good.

2. Veeze – Ganger

So dense with #bars it’s silly to even think about. Really wonderful that people all across the writer-sphere seem to fw this one.

1. Ken Carson – A Great Chaos



Not just the album that converted me (and probably you) to becoming a Ken Carson fan, the album that perfectly soundtracked the increasing absurdity of this frayed world where love is fried like “i need u” and the bass is never loud enough. Makes Whole Lotta Red sound like a Common record.

🔕🔕🔕🔕🔕🔕🔕🔕🔕🔕🔕🔕🔕🔕🔕🔕

MILLAN: Everything I’ve listed here made me feel something memorable enough to recount while trudging through my music library so many months later. Like Mano said, the music media space is 90 percent an echo chamber. I’m hard-headed so I did not enjoy much of what was served to me by the culture industry, but sometimes hits are hits and I can respect that. 

As always, a lot of my favorite discoveries in 2023 came from years prior, like Fenton Robinson’s superb album Somebody Loan Me a Dime, or Abby Sage’s entire discography

I also traveled across much of America, which provided essential context for some of these selections: While passing through St. Louis I had lunch in the northside and heard Sexyy Red blasting from car after car after car; before making poor decisions in Nashville with one of my best friends we listened to Megan Moroney’s “Tennessee Orange” and lost it; during one of the greatest nights in human history, “Rich Baby Daddy” rattled off the club’s walls in Jacksonville and I instantly understood Drake after years of brushing him off–all alongside one of my brothers. This is all to say that if a “bad” “song” hits me at the right time, there’s a good chance I’ll still fall in love with it. 

***With the exception of Youngboy, I didn’t use the same artists for songs and albums, otherwise the two would be nearly identical. 



Millan’s Favorite Songs of 2023

Honorable Mentions:

Lil Kee – “Gang Shit” 

Daniel Caesar – “Always

Margo Price – “Black Wolf Blues” 

Latto feat. Cardi B – “Put it on the Floor Again

Drake feat. Sexyy Red and SZA – “Rich Baby Daddy

Shoutout Duval county.

 

10. Lainey Wilson – “Watermelon Moonshine

“It was right after senior year, just before the summer disappeared…” An essential voice of country music’s tremendous new guard. 

9. Muddymya – “Walk Thru/I Hate U (Sped)

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8. Playboi Carti – “H00DBYAIR

For our younger readers

7. Youngboy Never Broke Again – “F*ck the Industry Pt 2

Real outlaw rap. 

6. Deebaby – “Never Gon End

THIS FOR THE TIMES I COULDN’T BALL YOU AIN’T PICK UP WHEN I CALLED NOW I GOT MONEY TO SPEND / I SIP THAT DRANK TO TAKE THE PAIN AWAY IT AIN’T WORKIN AT ALL F*CK IT POUR IT AGAIN”

5. Lana Del Rey – “Say Yes to Heaven

“If you dance I’ll dance / If you don’t, I’ll dance anyway.” Another black and white dagger from a world class writer. (Also, Youngboy remixed this song??)

4. Rob49 – “4God II

The first song he dropped after being shot in Miami and still his best rapping to date. 

3. Zach Bryan – “Fear and Fridays

“Those ‘please me’ eyes are a man’s worst fear.” 

2. Kenny Mason – “DnD” (only Kenny’s verse)



The best rapper in Atlanta

“Too hood for the art shit / Too smart for the hard shit / Too depressed to be a narcissist / I just know my shit better than y’all shit.” 

1. Oliver Anthony – “Rich Men North of Richmond”



Lightning in a bottle. An unknown artist somewhere in Virginia manages to top the charts and spark vicious debates on Fox News and MSNBC alike with just a guitar, a voice, and a camera. 2023 baby.

Millan’s Favorite Projects of 2023

Honorable Mentions:

DavidTheTragic – FRIED

Upchuck – Bite the Hand That Feeds

Brent Cobb – Southern Star

Ren Haze – Post Crush

YTB Fatt – Who is Fatt

10. RealYungPhil – Victory Music

Motivational introspection music.

9. Wiley From Atlanta – Killing Time Before The Flood

One of the realest working. Think Chris Stapleton if he was raised on OutKast. 

8. The Blind Boys of Alabama – Echoes of the South

Legends. “You can’t hurry God / You just gotta wait.” 

7. Young Nudy – Gumbo

Best rap tape from Atlanta with the best beats. Shoutout Coupe. 

6. Sexyy Red – Hood’s Hottest Princess

Hard not to love Sexyy Red. 

5. Vincent Neil Emerson – The Golden Crystal Kingdom

Some of the best songwriters on the planet are finally getting their recognition and VNE is one of them. 

4. NBA Youngboy – Decided 2 

Read Meghan Garvey’s profile of NBA Youngboy, in which she details his house arrest on “Gravedigger Mountain” in Utah and peels back his psychotic genius. 

3. Flagboy Giz – Disgrace to the Culture 

Nobody’s doing it like Giz and that’s just a fact. 

2. Megan Moroney – Lucky

A stunning debut album from the Georgia Girl—as simple and piercing as it gets. 

1. Sword II – Spirit World Tour


I wrote about this for The Fader’s end of year list, but Spirit World Tour was the most exciting and inventive project I heard all year. It really feels like celebratory proof-of-concept for an Atlanta DIY scene that has kept its artistic integrity above all else in the decade or so I’ve been around it.

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