I like writing and posting my list on the last day of the year. It gives me maximum time in this arbitrary period to listen to new things and decide what to share.
You’re certainly inundated with lists, ranked and carefully considered. Even though I thought about putting an end to my decidedly weird and non-competitive lists, I realized that I don’t want to stop! It’s fun to look back at the year. This was an exceptional one, one quite rich in terms of music. I spent a good chunk of it outside of the Balkans, and when I came back, I went a little crazy with live shows. It was absolutely great (except for when the splav started sinking during Artan Lili's best song). Sometimes I feel like I’m getting younger, not older, as the years go by. Although nothing could have made me feel older than being in the middle of the throngs of teens at a Joker Out concert. (Which, by the way, was fantastic.) I was also invited to join an etno group and we’ve performed across Serbia. My independent music projects have started to ramp up too, at least in terms of the quantity of ideas I have!
This list reflects a lot of the live shows I saw, but also the books I read, the music I sang, and the tunes that surprised me. In 2024, what I want most of all is a peaceful, just and healthy world, but for my blog I want mainly three things: one, to share more live shows and reviews of live shows and music I listen to on my new Instagram account (to which end I’m getting a new phone with a camera and microphone that actually work); two, to advance a bit on my independent projects; and three, to actually write some of the analysis pieces I’m always coming up with but never find the time for. As always, if you have comments or ideas for the blog, want to share music recommendations, or want to collaborate, please get in touch!
Enjoy this list, and have a happy New Year!
1. Pocket Palma – III
Every year, I say this list is not in any particular order – and that’s mostly true, except for the fact that I do tend to put my personal favorite at the beginning. And in this case, my personal favorite was Pocket Palma’s new album III. This should not come as a surprise if you read last year’s list or know me. So, sorry to bore you, but for like a full month I could only listen to this, and therefore it absolutely has to be on this list. It’s an album-album, best listened to from start to finish, as the songs bleed into each other. But if I had to point out a couple of songs that will punch you in the gut, it would be “Četiri zida” (“Four walls”) and “Ruke” (“Hands”). I absolutely love Luka’s voice, so “Koža” (“Skin”) is another personal favorite, and if you also love his voice, I would recommend checking out their Drop of Comfort sessions (“Sjećanja” (“Memories”) and “Još uvijek” (“Still,” a cover of this great Boris Štok ft. Nataša Janjić song) are my favorites there). Pocket Palma was also on Nika Turković’s album this year with the fire track “bolja.” I got to see them live in Novi Sad in October, probably one of the best-energy shows I went to the entire year. Just a great band.
2. Sezen Aksu – Işık Doğudan Yükselir / Ex Oriente Lux
Now for something completely different, I read Martin Stokes’ fantastic book The Republic of Love: Cultural Intimacy in Turkish Popular Music, which traces three different singers and the role they play in ongoing, everyday negotiations over Turkish culture. One of these, of course, is Sezen Aksu, probably the most important contemporary Turkish pop songstress. Stokes analyses her 1995 album and in particular Aksu’s song “Ne ağlarsın” (“Why cry?”) in relation to a specific moment of intense change in Turkey. The song, beautiful with a prominent saz, “became an icon of national soulfulness,” writes Stokes, in large part because the song evokes “a deeply familiar trope: nation imagined as suffering woman.” I found Stokes’ book extremely interesting, but this album is also magnificent and sweeping (the opening track “Işık Doğudan Yükselir,” "The Light Rises from the East"), makes you want to dance (“Rakkas”), and makes you want to cry (obviously, “Ne ağlarsın”). I really like the use of backup and other vocalists on “Ben Annemi İsterim,” (“I Want my Mother”) which is more in the style of traditional women’s songs found throughout the region, and “Yeniliğe Doğru” (“Towards Something New”).
3. Foltin – “Milice”
Occasionally the algorithms will accidentally and fortuitously direct me to songs that change my life. Foltin’s “Milice” was that for me. I think it perfectly captures that feeling of nostalgic love; it’s one of the best of its kind. I ended up listening to quite a lot of this Macedonian band’s music, particularly their older stuff, which is not very much like “Milice” but kind of masterful. They describe themselves as being somewhere between genres like jazz and world music, and many of their songs play with language in an interesting way. Unlike most of their other music, which is full of shocks, surprises, and fun, “Milice” is sweet (but not straightforward) – just like the feelings it evokes.
4. Gabi Luncă – “Anii Mei Și Tinerețea”
I went to Belgrade venue Kvaka 22 for a show in November, and whoever they had DJing before the show was amazing. I arrived and was just hanging out, waiting for the show to start and not really paying attention to the music, when I heard the words “sarhoş gibiyim” (“It’s like I’m drunk” or “I feel a bit drunk”) in one of the songs. This was weird, because Turkish music is not that common in Belgrade. But to my surprise, it wasn’t just one great song – the DJ continued with a playlist of bangers from all across the Ottoman ecumene (including “Konya Yazdi,” a really fun Bulgarian song which intersperses hardcore women’s etno singing with dancey fiddle-heavy interludes, and Gordana Stojičević’s interpretation of the Vlach-language song “Mndra mja”). This is also not common – to be exact, this never happens. As you can imagine, I was in heaven. I wished I had gotten there earlier and they had played longer. Some of the best discoveries on this playlist were Romanian songs, including this Gabi Luncă song, “Anii Mei Și Tinerețea” (“My years and youth”). It has a super catchy chorus – so much so that I feel like there could be other language versions of this song. And I love Luncă’s smoky voice, which makes me feel like I’m in a dingy bar a hundred years ago.
I made a playlist of the songs I managed to Shazam here.
5. Mlada Beba – “Sama”
Mlada Beba is one of my favorite discoveries of 2023. I have no idea how I found her, but soon after, I saw her absolutely electric performance at Drugstore in Belgrade and I was totally obsessed. Her entire latest album Drugi Svet (with Regis) is so good, but “Sama” is the biggest banger, the gateway to everything else. She’s part of a cohort of young Serbian women who are bringing this very young, super feminine, club-dark-dangerous, hyper-sexy-cute-baby vibe, which simultaneously looks back to the 00s and forward to the space age. In my opinion, she’s one of the most exciting. Her pop sensibilities are both simple and complex, which makes for an extremely successful combination. There’s a darkness to her music that really grabs my imagination and activates the Mlada Beba in me. From “Sama,” check out “Tresem Bulju Noćima,” as well as “Ego” from her 2022 album of the same name.
6. Božo Vrećo – “Po Ladu, Po Zaladu”
Seeing Božo each year seems to be becoming a bit of a tradition, like going to see the Nutcracker every December. A few days before his concert in Belgrade, he put out this song, which is an energetic, haunting version of an izvorna (traditional) song (likely from Herzegovina). The original is pretty simple, but interestingly the main version available online has a verse/chorus sung by men, followed by one sung by women. In his version, Božo sings it all, and adapts the melody a bit for more of a pop audience. Božo’s mellifluous voice, a thumping beat, crunchy electronics, and strong brass and etno vocal interludes combine to make one of the most exciting songs I heard this year. It’s a bit of a departure from his previous work, but it really works. (And, dare I mention, it would be a perfect vibe for Eurovision!)
7. Kida x MC Kresha and Lyrical Son – “Fluturu”
It wouldn’t be a year in my life without an Albanian summer hit, and this one was my favorite. Kida, MC Kresha and Lyrical Son seem to be recurring characters in my favorite Albanian pop music. Unfortunately, this song came out after I had already left Kosovo, and so I didn’t get to experience it live. But it has this very Balkan flute part throughout, as well as some other background flutes and this kind of dark, low zurna-esque whining part beneath some of the verses, that add a sort of etno touch to an otherwise standard pop-rap song. The beat has this heavy downbeat that’s a bit accented by the melody and other instruments, and you can almost feel everyone in the whole room jumping up, floating in the air for a moment, and landing right on that beat.
8. Funk Shui, Vera Ljubojna – “Ne Vreme” / “Krug”
Funk Shui put out the excellent album Nikogash Pak (Never Again) this year and played a show at Belgrade’s Zappa Baza in October, where I finally saw them after waiting years! (You may recall that I included them in my 2020 list saying, and I quote, “I can’t wait to see what they do next.”) Well, what they did next exceeded my high expectations. “Ne vreme,” a chill rolling wave of a song which winds down with light women’s etno singing, bleeds into “Krug”, which amps these vocals up with an intense drum beat before closing with lead singer Luka Gjorgievski’s wisful vocals. It’s a perfect meld of Macedonian-style etno and contemporary Balkan indie rock. Seeing them live was key, though – hearing Gjorgievski in person feels like rain in a drought, and their drummer Martina Barakoska rocks. “Meteori” (“Meteors), “Magla” (“Fog”), and “Rodenden” (“Birthday”) are some other highlights. I like how they repeat the phrase “nikogash pak” throughout the entire album like a secret code.
9. Širom – “Grazes, Wrinkles, Drifts Into Sleep”
This experimental-folk-jazz trio from Slovenia really hit this year. They use a wide variety of instruments to create an intensive experience on their latest album The Liquified Throne of Simplicity, one that demands your attention despite the length of the tracks. I found it a very energizing album, as it toggled back and forth between ephemeral, mystical noise and palpable, joinable melodies. Nothing hits you over the head – their influences are many, but suffused so thoroughly into their sound that you have to try hard to pick them out. Although the trio specifies the regions of Slovenia where they’re each from, they also emphasize the borderlessness of their sound. I selected this track from the album as it stirs a particularly wintry feeling of longing, sadness, and fear in me. One of the band’s members, Samo Kutin, took the underwater footage accompanying the song in the video below. Thank you to friend and collaborator Jack for sharing this band with us!
10. Buzz’ Ayaz – "Fysa"
I really wanted to include this band from Cyprus that I saw at PIN Music Conference a month ago, but they don’t have much music online yet – they just announced their first single will be out soon! They do have this one video on their YouTube channel that gives you a sense, and you can check out their Instagram for some photos and vibes.
The band’s members come from the island’s different cultures, and their explicit intention is to “give… voice to the whole city [of Nicosia], one that echoes above its concrete-and-barrel walls and checkpoints, in a borderless island under the same sun.” (Whoever wrote their website copy did a really nice job!) The effects of this “attempt” are pretty masterful. The music is exhilarating and powerful, extremely fun and danceable, and detailed but catchy. What I heard in their music was an extremely Cyprus sound that at the same time can be experienced throughout the entire Ottoman ecumene as “ours.” Also, the lead singer plays a very cool electric tzouras. I can’t wait for you to hear it!
11. Lenhart Tapes – “Daj mi ruka”
This is such a good song. The original is good, the Lenhart Tapes / Tijana Stanković version is good. It’s in Gorani (“Daj mi ruka” is “Give me your hand”), a Slavic language spoken primarily in Gora (southern Kosovo / northeast Albania). This seems to be a region known for its bangers (see my entry on Suad Muska from 2020). I saw Lenhart Tapes perform with Svetlana Spajić and Tijana Stanković over the summer at a cool daytime show as part of the Fields music festival at Drugstore, and in November he released his latest album Dens. Most of the album is traditional songs woven and coated in samples, beats, and noises. "Daj mi ruka" was my favorite song when I saw it live, and it remained in my head for months after. It just feels so chaotic, kind of like how it feels to hold someone’s hand for the first time, and the Lenhart Tapes treatment brings out this essence. I love thinking about the creative process that Lehnart Tapes and his collaborators may have used to arrive at the final versions of each song on this excellent album, most of which sound like that’s how the songs were intended to be all along.
12. Tea Tairović – “Bibi Habibi” and “Budalo”
This year, I think Tairović solidified her place as one of the queens of Balkan music. We’ve talked about Tea a lot on this blog and elsewhere, so you know I was following closely! She put out a new album Balerina, which capitalized on the success of last year’s Balkanija with similar sounds and themes, and she performed all over the region. I was extremely impressed by her solo show at Belgrade’s Tašmajdan. The concert was perfectly crafted and everyone knew all the words to every single song, but beyond that, Tairović herself was so professional, such a strong vocalist, and filled the entire stage with her presence. She even brought Bulgaria’s Galena (it’s well known that Tairović’s “Neka pati ona” is a cover of Galena’s “Ti Ne Si Za Men”) out to perform their new hit “Abracadabra”, and Galena actually sang a couple of songs including “Ti Ne Si Za Men.” She had the audience sing the Serbian lyrics they knew. Tairović’s whole thing has been to acknowledge where her songs come from rather than hide it, and this took that to another level – building the idea that sharing songs across the region is both natural and good. “Bibi Habibi,” the standout hit from the album, has an Albanian version from Capital T, Anxhela Peristeri and Mandi.
Honorable mention for the song “Budalo,” perhaps my favorite off the album and an excellent pop song.
It has a Greek version from Konstantinos Galanos (2009)!
13. “Stani mome da zaigrash” / “Tsifteteli Tourkiko” / “Opa Nina Nina Nay” / “Şinanay”
I had a wonderful time at Lake Ohrid, Macedonia this summer, performing with a group from Serbia at a festival for Macedonian diaspora. One of the songs we learned for the festival was “Stani mome da zaigrash.”
It had such a catchy, recognizable melody, and the chorus was “Opa nina nina naj, nina naj naj” – so I had a feeling that this was not just a Macedonian song, but that there must be other language versions of it. In fact, I felt that I had heard it somewhere before in a different language. I’m still not sure if I really had heard it before or just thought I had, but I did find two other language versions of it – Greek:
(also Esma Redžepova in Greek!)
I really love this song. I won’t wade into the debate about whose song it is, but it suits all the languages and places very nicely. That’s what catchy songs do!
14. Benim Adim Mutlu (My Name is Happy)
(Trigger warning: femicide) This year at the Prizren film festival Dokufest, I saw the most gut-wrenching documentary about Mutlu, a young Kurdish woman in Turkey with the most gorgeous voice. On the eve of her participation in the final round of a televised music contest, a man she had been dating attempted to murder her. Although she survived, her body and voice were badly damaged. The film follows her story and attempt to regain her voice, as well as seek justice for her sister, who actually was murdered by her boyfriend. I started crying right at the beginning of the film, the second I heard Mutlu start singing – I’ve never heard a voice like that before. And I just kept crying right on through. Singers will feel this film deeply, but so will everyone else. This joint British-Turkish co-production was so incredibly well-made and well-told, and it’s still making the rounds at festivals; I really hope more people have the chance to see it.
15. Elina Duni – “Hape Derën”
I also discovered this song at Dokufest, in the credits of the short film Mbi Macet Dhe Vajzat (Of Cats and Daughters). I heard it and immediately ran to the coffee shop, ordered an espresso, and looked it up. Of course, it was this gorgeous Elina Duni version of a song called “Hape Derën.” Duni is a Swiss-Albanian jazz vocalist, and her latest album A Time to Remember features musicians Rob Luft, Fred Thomas and Matthieu Michel. The album is multi-lingual, featuring four songs in Albanian, but also songs in French and English. I love the way the quartet treats the songs with soft, floaty harmonization and percussion, reflective and dreamy electric guitar interludes, and quiet but powerful stream-like vocals that are definitely jazz. In “Hape Derën,” they have a distinct traditional Albanian inflection at times.
Here’s another version of the song for contrast, from Rilinda Velaj.
16. Zarina Prvasevda – EHO
After hearing about Macedonian etno artist Zarina Prvasevda all year, I finally had the chance to see her at PIN. During her performance, I was reminded of my favorite sevdah singer Amira Medunjanin – Zarina Prvasevda has a similar sensibility for softer, soothing arrangements and tunes that draw out her voice like honey.
Rather than go towards western European jazz, like Duni, Zarina Prvasevda leans a bit more on world music and the sounds of the Ottoman ecumene in her renditions of traditional songs. She also included a song in Albanian and a song in Turkish (both languages spoken in Skopje) on her 2022 album EHO (Echo). I keep coming back to this album over and over again.
17. Princ – “Cvet sa istoka”
This song is what I’d like to call “turbo-sevdah.” Princ (formerly Princ od Vranje, or the Prince from Vranje, aka Stefan Zdravković) is an artist from Vranje, Serbia who won the country’s hearts at Beovizija (Serbia’s Eurovision qualifier). Vranje is well known for its sevdalinka, and the song is inspired by the town’s tragic legend about the forbidden love of Ajše and Stojan. The song opens with a rubato part straight out of sevdah and then transitions into an up-tempo section with a strong baseline, sandy beat, and flourishes of strings. It’s famous for the “habibi, habibi” chorus (making it the second song on this playlist to use that word), but I prefer when he sings “Zlato, s kim si?” (“My golden one, who are you with?”). Even given the obvious exoticization of the eastern (“Cvet sa istoka” means “Flower from the east”), I think it’s a very good song. I could go on and on about its various elements, but I’ll leave that for a paper – instead, I just want to gush for a moment about Princ’s voice, which is powerful and smooth. That is all. Thank you to friends and collaborators Emma, Ivana, Sinead and Danny for their enthusiastic and illuminating discussions about Beovizija 2023!
18. Pjev – Medna Roso
I almost can’t write about Pjev because they’re a bit too special to me. But for that reason, I have to try! I have a deep love for Balkan women’s etno singing, especially the most hardcore of it, and that’s why I sing it and that’s why I love Pjev. They got the best group of singers together and picked fantastic repertoire for their first album Medna Roso. Based in Zagreb but from across the region, their songs come from different parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Serbia. They sing in the tradition of female sisterhood they imagine the songs were originally sung in rather than tying their work to a specific national identity. When I saw them live at PIN, they performed their songs straight a cappella, but on the album they wrap them in atmospheric instrumentals, heavenly golden fuzz (Kit Downes, Hayden Chisholm). The result is something that sounds both more standard, in the classical tradition, and stranger, fitting of the "otherworldly" label this music is often haphazardly given by music writers. I love thinking about this music as timeless – just as relevant to my life today as it was to the lives of those who first sang it. Listen to the whole album, but here’s one song they have on YouTube for you to try, “Listaj Goro Ne Žali Be’ara.”
There was so much fabulous music that I didn't write about, including some of my favorite stuff! Thank you to everyone who made music in 2023. You can find a playlist of many of the songs I included on this list here:
See you next year!