Once again we’re at the end of another year of metal (and… existence of course), and as in the past, I’m presenting my picks for the best individual songs of the year. In reviewing what I’ve selected, I think it’s a first for any of my best songs lists in that this time there are no death or black metal picks. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy anything from those genres, as you’ll see in the albums list to come soon, but I think 2023 was a big year for clean vocals amongst the metal subgenres that predominantly feature them. The songs that really stuck with me were characterized by amazing vocal performances by artists known and unknown to me. There are songs listed below that are on albums that likely won’t be on the upcoming best albums list, but I’d still urge everyone to check out regardless because there were no bad albums among all of them. I had to make some tough cuts for this list, but I’m happy with the final result. Enough chit-chat for now, here are the best songs of 2023:
1. Serenity – “Reflections (of AD)” (from the album Nemesis AD)
My general rule is that the song that sits atop this list should be a no brainer, as in being the first tune that comes to mind when I start assembling candidates for consideration. And Serenity’s unquestionable masterpiece in “Reflections (of AD)” attained that status during my first ever play through of it, where I interrupted my complete listen of the Nemesis AD album in order to hear it again and again because it was such a divine sounding piece of music. Though Serenity has delivered heaps of quality songs in the past, particularly on those first five albums, I had major doubts that they’d ever meet those heights again, let alone somehow transcend them. But with new blood in the band in the way of guitarist/vocalist/songwriting Marco Pastorini (the Temperance guy!), vocalist Georg Neuhauser finally seems to have someone that he gels with creatively on a songwriting level. Neuhauser always had a penchant for the theatrical, his songwriting on Codex Atlanticus steering the band towards those waters, but here with Pastorini, they work together to shape a soaring, bombastic epic that is not only loaded with melodramatic pathos, but genuine feelings of spirituality and purpose. The result is a song that crept into the hardened hearts of many power metal fans I know who felt Serenity’s best work was far behind them, and for those of us who still had a sliver of belief, was like receiving a benediction for our faith.
2. Sacred Outcry – “Symphony of the Night” (from the album Towers of Gold)
This sublimely regal orchestral power ballad with the deceptive lullaby intro was emblematic of the utter perfection that was Sacred Outcry’s sophomore effort, Towers of Gold. Built around Daniel Heiman’s incredible, imagination defying vocals, band founder George Apalodimas crafted a song that sounded effortlessly elegant and so intrinsically powerful that I don’t think its out of bounds to call this some of Heiman’s best work to date in his career. I was transfixed by this album upon first listening to it and “Symphony of the Night”, with its placement smack in the middle of the album struck me as simultaneously a deep breath of calm, and also the album’s crackling, emotional core. The guitar tone on that acoustic pattern during the intro is so damn perfect, so expertly mood setting, as if its lighting the campfire that we’re all sitting around by sheer auditory magic. There are a plethora of songs from Towers of Gold that could have appeared on this best songs list (“The Voyage” almost did), but this one makes the cut because I believe it was the singular song that cast a spell on me during that first listen, and really made me feel like I was experiencing something special.
3. Sorcerer – “Morning Star” (from the album Reign of the Reaper)
The storming, monumental album opener from Sorcerer’s latest and definitely greatest album to date, “Morning Star” is a swaggering tone setter of a song that punches as hard as a classic Dio era Sabbath cut. It’s surprisingly brisk tempo defies their categorization as a Candlemass influenced doom metal band, though the tonality of the classic Sorcerer sound is still very much present. This was easily my favorite song on what was a spectacular album. It’s verses are built on confidently muscular riffs, with ever articulate and fluid leads by one of my longtime favorite guitarists in metal Mr. Kristian Nieman. For all the crushing ferocity of the band’s performances though, vocalist Anders Engberg really steals the show here. I love his pacing and delivery throughout, with calculated pauses thrown into the delivery of specific lines that really bring to mind the soulful (yeah soulful!) way Ronnie James Dio would also parse out his phrasing. Like Dio, Engberg here seems to be reaching deep inside to pull up all the emotion he can muster from his gut, and sometimes its just too much to get out at once and he needs a beat to get the required energy. That kind of intensity is helped along by the songwriting decisions too, like the fact that Engberg starts singing the chorus outro line (“My name is Lucifer!”) a good second before the outro riff kicks in, as if he just can’t be restrained and those damn guitars better catch up quick. A stone cold masterpiece that might be the band’s best song to date.
4. Riverside – “Friend or Foe?” (from the album ID.Entity)
I haven’t checked any other end of the year lists out yet, but when I do, I’ll be rather shocked if Riverside doesn’t wind it’s way onto many of the prog lists. It was leaps and bounds more interesting to me than Porcupine Tree’s comeback album, mostly because the Riverside guys seemed to focus mainly on crafting hooky, memorable songs with strong melodic motifs throughout, and then dressing those up with prog arrangements. This may seem like a rather basic thing to say, but sometimes progressive bands just overthink things and can’t get out of their own way, or neglect to use recurring motifs or you know, choruses that work because of the old “it gets boring” excuse. So yeah, when I listen to a gem like “Friend or Foe?”, the opening cut from Riverside’s ID.Entity, that excuse sounds flimsier than ever before. Here is a multi-faceted, stylistically varied and mood shifting piece that has a truly memorable melodic refrain driving the song forward. Vocalist Mariusz Duda has a haunting, melancholic twist to his smoothly melodic vocals, and keyboardist Michał Łapaj’s elegant progression during the pre-chorus is so simple yet such a vital, gorgeous fixture in this song. This album came out way back in January, but I couldn’t quit the craving to hear this song again at any point through the year.
5. Metallica – “72 Seasons” (from the album 72 Seasons)
I genuinely had a joyous reaction when I first listened to this opening salvo from Metallica’s 72 Seasons, their first album in seven years and longest gap between releases to date. While the entire album suffered from a lack of editing that was made abundantly clear by the second half of it’s hour and seventeen minute runtime, Metallica did turn in a handful of some of their most inspired songwriting since the mid-90s on Load (an underrated album in that department). This title track is head and shoulders the album’s most enduring moment, a muscular, confident thrash metal meets hard rock blend that is utterly convincing in its ferocity. Hetfield sounds fired up, that old signature bark of yore heard once again in his vocal delivery, Lars delivers a crisp, energetic performance where his penchant for minimalism actually works in the song’s favor. Even Kirk turns in an excellent solo midway through, an otherwise bright spot from him on an album where he really needed someone to hide his wah pedal and force him to try something different. It felt good to root for Metallica again, both in principle and in practice, with fist in the air as I was driving around with this song on repeat shout barking the lyrics alongside James.
6. Keep of Kalessin – “Journey’s End” (from the album Katharsis)
A break in the assault that was Keep of Kalessin’s excellent album Katharsis, “Journey’s End” is the kind of thoughtful, emotive epic that reminds me of why I love metal more than any other genre. This is a gorgeous, understated, rustic ballad that brings to mind colors of autumn and reddened cloud streaked skies. It’s stirring in the way some of the best power metal ballads are, except that Kalessin certainly aren’t power metal, plying their trade in blackened melodic death metal. Notably, this is Kalessin’s first album since 2013’s fairly strong Epistemology, where guitarist Arnt Grønbech took over handling lead vocals. I’d argue that for as surprisingly good as he was then, he’s even better eight years on, and this song is a vivid example of just how expressive he can be as a gruff-toned clean vocalist (in addition to just how awesome he is on extreme vox). I got smoky campfire Hansi Kursch-ian vibes from his passion filled approach, particularly towards the end of the song where the chorus swells in grandeur, and his lead guitar tone and phrasing on the accompanying solo blend together both aching melancholy and empowering triumph.
7. Theocracy – “Mosaic” (from the album Mosaic)
Theocracy’s latest effort, Mosaic, was a bounce back after the uneven Ghost Ship seven(!) years ago, and that’s notable because this is their longest gap between releases and their first without longtime lead guitarist Van Allen Wood who left in 2020. It’s a testament to songwriter/vocalist Matt Smith’s talents then that he can rebound with ease and deliver some of the band’s best material despite these challenges that might trip up other bands, and the title track here is a killer example of that trait. Leaning more classic American power metal than the proggy tinges awash on the last album, things kick off with the dramatic entry of a galloping riff after a gentle vocal led intro. That the articulate leads and speedy riffs capture my interest just as much as Smith’s titanic, call and response chorus vocal sequence is credit to new guitarist Taylor Washington and old hand Jonathan Hinds. The aforementioned chorus is the kind of monumental, towering stuff that characterized so much of their first three albums and thus a nod towards early millennium power metal classics such as Edguy’s Mandrake. That layered harmony vocal on the lyric “We are mosaic!” results in a soaring, spirit lifting moment that is emblematic of what makes Theocracy such an incredible and still underrated talent in power metal.
8. Spiritbox – “Jaded” (from the The Fear of Fear EP)
I didn’t know who Spiritbox were before this year’s release of “Jaded” as a music video, whereupon the YouTube algorithm arranged for me to stumble upon it during a moment of not paying attention to autoplay’s shenanigans. It was playing in another tab while I worked on something else, and by the time vocalist Courtney LaPlante sang the opening lines of the chorus, I was clicking over to see who in the hell this was that was impressing me so much. Fusing the futuristic, synth-ian sounds of electro-pop such as Chvrches (replete with LaPlante’s clean vocal tone a close cousin to Lauren Mayberry) with a fusion of progressive metal and metalcore guitars. LaPlante also performs the screaming vocals on this track, impressively so, which made me curious enough to dig into her bio a bit only to realize oh yeah, I had heard her sing before in Iwrestledabearonce. The transition into this still relatively new but rocketing in popularity project in Spiritbox is clearly one of the biggest leaps to success we’ve seen a metal vocalist make since Floor Jansen joined Nightwish. But back to the song, which is just undeniable, even if you don’t enjoy metalcore in general, its footprint is so light here that it enhances the beautiful, dark velvety vocal melody driving things forward. I just realized upon writing this that “Jaded” was nominated for the Best Metal Performance Grammy to be chosen in 2024, but don’t let that air of music industry approval sway you from not listening to this song, I’m telling you its worth all the apparent hype.
9. Therion – “Ruler of Tamag” (from the album Leviathan III)
Therion snuck in late here in December with the finale of their Leviathan trilogy, and Christofer Johnsson has long touted it as the more “experimental” of the three albums, and man he wasn’t kidding around about that. So “Ruler of Tamag” stands out from the complexity of the entirety of Leviathan III by being an achingly beautiful, understated and yet grandiose ballad sung largely by the wonderful Taida Nazraic who sang most of my favorite songs on the other two Leviathan albums. I just love the casually strummed acoustic intro here, its what I can only best describe as old-world sounding, which is a broad adjective I know but hopefully you get what I mean. Nazraic once again steals the show with her nightingale’s vocals, just another excellent vocal performance from the most overlooked vocalist in symphonic metal today (thank you Therion for giving her a wide platform). The beefy 80s riff that follows with deep toned choirs over the top really reminds me of 2000’s eternal classic Secret of the Runes, and gods, the expansive, cinematic strings that reveal themselves at the 3:00 minute mark are so glorious. This whole piece reminds me of the starry eyed exploring the band did during the Sirius B/Lemuria twin albums, with grandeur and adventure the most apt descriptors for the approach they were going for in the songwriting. This is yet another example of why Therion is one my favorite bands of all time.
10. Beyond the Black – “Free Me” (from the album Beyond the Black)
I’m not too plugged in on what opinions are surrounding Beyond the Black, a German based symphonic metal band closer to Within Temptation in style and tone than say… well, Therion, but I can imagine there’s as many cynics out there towards them as there are supporters. The band is popular in Germany (four top ten albums there) and throughout Europe, having the sway to co-headline a Euro jaunt with Amaranthe despite being in existence for half the time. It is essentially a vehicle for vocalist Jennifer Haben, who I first became familiar with for her truly great guest performance on Kamelot’s “In Twilight Hours”, although its worth noting that Serenity guitarist Christian Hermsdörfer also pulls double duty with his role in this band. Look the band is as a whole very accomplished, but these songs are built around Haben’s considerable talent as a vocalist and she has definitely aimed for Beyond the Black’s music to cater to her strengths as a vocalist. So there’s no helium register stuff ala “Mother Earth” here, Haben instead utilizing her power to conjure up deeper tones and a smoother version of hard rock styled belting that is satisfying in an easy to listen to kinda way. This song was the standout on their strong 2023 self-titled album for me, it’s ascending dramatic chorus got lodged in my brain early in the year and I’d get the urge to replay it every so often.