Best of 2023 – Zeerak's Picks
My criteria for picking these songs is in simple terms that I listen to these songs a lot, and I think other people should too. I also saw the picks from Shahmir and Laila and decided to pull together a somewhat eclectic mix, hoping to touch as many groups of artists as I could.
Talha Khan, Kh44ki
This song was released on the last day of 2022. While it is ostensibly outside the bounds of this exercise, I like it enough that it makes the cut. It is a near-perfect union of an alaapized vocal hook and a new, unique hip hop voice. I’ve enjoyed Kh44ki’s rap quite a bit, because of its disconnection with the hip hop scenes of Karachi and Lahore. As a result, it sounds fresh, and feels like it captures a different angle of Punjabi voice and aesthetic. It’s easy to forget how large Punjab is, how much dialects change, and how the topical concerns relevant to rappers from this gigantic province, and what hence forms their words, vary across it. And to merge all of this with Talha Khan, who is criminally undiscovered and holder of a piercing voice – is *chef’s kiss*.
It was impossible to escape Maanu this year. In a short career, each year has been bigger than the last. It’s a privilege to witness the making of a generational star in front of our very eyes. 4U, is most reminiscent of Maanu’s other solo breakout hit Melancholic. It’s a love anthem, albeit more hopeful than Melancholic, but resonating just as much.Maanu has two unique superpowers. The first is the range of music he can produce. This year alone, he released fast-flowing rap, pop collabs, and then romantic anthems. This is a testament to a unique prowess to switch gears at will. His second superpower is the ability to come up with earworm melodies, which combined with effective production from himself, or Talal Qureshi, become hard to shake off.
Not very secretly, I have been pumping up Jani in all of my Pakistani-music-listening circles. Jani is interesting because while belonging to the hard-rap Young Stunners Universe he instead makes hummable pop-rap more characteristic of Lahore’s elite rap scene. His melodies are simple and effective, but his words are often hard-hitting and paint memorable stories. Pinkman is new territory perhaps for both Jani and producer Umair. It uses a short piano hook, and a cheerfully dense array of TV references. So catchy, so good.
I’m so impressed by the construction of this guitar-based indie-pop song from Mishal Shafi. In an industry almost allergic to guitar music, this song sticks out as being not only relevant, but also refreshingly new and uplifting. The song’s title is familiar to those that have heard Punjabi music. But its contents, while harkening back to a golden age of guitar music, yet feel wonderfully contemporary. What I appreciate most, however, is how well-structured the song is. The use of verses, choruses, and the arrangement, is tight. No lines are unnecessary, no parts of the song where you lose interest. These are the marks of an artist that takes their work incredibly seriously. I hope 2024 gives more reasons to highlight Mishal Shafi’s music – we’d all be lucky to hear more.
Talal Qureshi, Zaw Ali
There are many variations of the “everything is a remix” theory. In short, all creative output borrows from what comes before it. With the amount of creative output now being produced and accessible to audiences, a reasonable question arises: is anything new anymore?. A popular mantra in this stead is the 3% rule popularized by Virgil Abloh, which suggests that every creative output should only change prior work by about 3%.
The main challenge with innovating in Pakistani music is finding that right 3%. And for Western-style musicians, the wholesale borrowing comes from the global Westernized pop market. The easiest 3% accent on top is by pulling in colors from classical and folk traditions of the South Asian region. In common parlance, this is often called fusion. The issue is that even most forms of fusion are no longer new.
I lay down this context to explain why Kali Raat makes me so happy. It pulls in a modern singer with classical training. However, the music created is not classical; instead, it's pop music that brings in a familiar color and tradition. The production accentuates this sentiment. The voice is syncopated and artificially broken and repeated, the beat is electronic – the pain of staying up all night is the same as it ever was.