Here we go again. Since last year’s top lists, I’ve been curious as to how this year would fare out. While a lot of hip hop dominated 2013, this year that genre hasn’t been as strong. We also had a lot of artists trying their hand at this new revival of disco, but not many artists have done that this year. If anything, 2014 wasn’t the year of the genre but the year of the self admittance. We have artists who bore their bones, who tried to capture emotions and who even told the world their darkest thoughts. We have older musicians who looked back and younger musicians who were afraid to look forwards. Singers have heavily examined the world and themselves this year, and perhaps we hit a time when many people were reaching specific points of their lives– whether it be the later years of their careers or the spark of their leap to stardom. While it felt like I was a snoop as I studied these songs, and many others (my long list was at least double in size, and there are too many honorable mentions to place here), I also feel like I have spent a lot of time with these musicians as a result. This was one confrontational year, and I hope it was as rewarding for me as it was for you, as here are my picks for the top 25 songs of 2014.
25. Devin Townsend-Universal Flame
Devin Townsend has been public about his bipolar disorder and how much it affects his music. His production mastery has helped make these manic songs a complete immersion. His latest release is the double disc Z2 that works as both a sequel to his comic metal album Ziltoid: The Omniscient and a continuation of his Devin Townsend Project… project. Before the humorous second album is the shockingly emotional first look at a struggling earth called Sky Blue. It’s most magical moment is when the song A New Reign ends and Universal Flame starts. It is ABBA-esque in structure, very theatrical in tone and yet it still sounds like a submissive cry for help. It’s a final fight and a low end one at that. With a gorgeous wall of sound and a plea of insanity tied in with a plea of surrender, Universal Flame is the kind of song Townsend has been gearing towards writing for his entire career.
24. Arianna Grande ft. Zedd-Break Free
2014 has been a massive year for Arianna Grande: The short yet powerful diva. Her success has only increased, and she has faced her fair share of troubles as well (including that massive internet leak). She’s in a market where every singer is compared by date as if they were cheese at the grocery store. Many things make Grande’s fortunes a result of a tough road for her, but it is her sensational vocals that push her above most of her contemporaries. Break Free is the single that makes so many other things in both Grande’s career worth looking at and all of her burdens completely irrelevant. When she says she’s “stronger than [she’s] ever been before”, you believe it with the notes she can hit. Zedd’s addicting production turns this pop montage hit into a song that Grande dances through as she evaluates how she got to where she is. This mainstream radio self-party is Grande’s “I don’t give a fuck” to the world, and her talent is proof that she doesn’t have to.
23. Mac DeMarco-Passing Out The Pieces
Why not start a song with what sounds like Beatles-esque horn tracks but aren’t really? It’s a clever way to separate songs on Salad Days, as every song there is a serenade by the king of slacking Mac DeMarco. With Passing Out the Pieces featuring such a noticeable synth, it’s one of the many ways that Salad Days is given life and not just brains. It’s also a big reason why it’s one of his best songs yet, as you can see the scope of just how imaginative DeMarco truly is, and that his childishness isn’t just limited to how goofy he is. He has no limits, and thus we get this inspiring zone-out. The snare is a bit military-like in nature, but not enough to command authority. The guitar lines slink but still stay on course. Everything is in (partial) control with DeMarco here. DeMarco is sharing a bit of himself in all of his songs, and here he acknowledges it, as he says “nothing comes free”: Not even fame. It’s a bit of a sad song, but it shrugs its miseries and keeps on going. That’s definitely the DeMarco way, and you can’t help but feel the same way.
22. Quirke-Break A Mirrored Leg
Break a Mirrored Leg is a trance song that really won’t put you in a daze; It’ll just knock you unconscious instead. Once the song starts after its intro of ambient sounds, it will kick like a metal song while shooting out synth sounds that will try to convince the crowd to praise Jesus. There are vocals that are skewed and repeated, and you can’t help but feel like Sepalcure and Burial were being channeled here by a monster from the shadows. That monster is Quirke, and, if this song’s any indication, he has a good sense of how to add a little bit of danger to such a gentle subgenre within the electronic music world. Break A Mirrored Leg will thump on your door begging to come in, and its arrival is a delightful scare. As it keeps going, the pounding becomes easier to get used to, and it will somehow become a song that is more vulnerable than it is frightening. It’s an animal that senses danger but lets its guard down once it feels safe. What we make of it is the moment when we take advantage of this offering or not, but I’d prefer to let it live freely without restrictions. After all, that’s how it becomes exciting and intimidating again the next time it’s on.
21. La Roux-Tropical Chancer
Ben Langmaid’s no longer a part of La Roux, and Elly Jackson, now going solo, took Trouble in Paradise mostly under her own wing. The result is an album that is quite different from the persistent self titled release. It’s far more relaxed and groovy, and Tropical Chancer is the best representation of La Roux’s new sound. Similar in nature to the many disco-funk revival acts that came out last year, La Roux’s neo-reggae jam pops and strums its way into the Californian sunset. With a bit of Grace Jones’ own work being sampled, Jackson has taken notes from her androgynous predecessor when it comes to making club music for all. With all of the layers that encompass so many sounds from a variety of styles (the techno beat, world music percussion, funk guitar and more), Jackson has managed to target her story of an encounter to all, and I think she’ll be okay as a solo artist after this fine result.
20. A Sunny Day in Glasgow-In Love with Useless
Dream pop usually finds a way to make the thoughts in your head enjoyable, and In Love with Useless isn’t an exception. Instead of relying on positive thoughts, the song decides to become a schizophrenic battle of ideas that all feel so pleasant but are a bit unsettling when examined with more care. Discussions about antipsychotics, death and many other ideas that don’t pair up with one another (but often are bunched together anyways). With interruptions of forced laughs (ha) and even scat-provised passages, it’s as if the song isn’t even finished. Musically, it is all over the place as well. Segments start and stop without warning, and yet it all flows together. When you try to follow this song, it’s insanely difficult to catch up. If you let it do its own work, it’s a lovely absent-minded ballad.
You’re Dead! Starts off with manic jazz-fusion tunes, and it’s Never Catch Me that begins to add a voice of reason to the album. When it is separated from the album, it is a super charged sprint to the subway, a fight to the top and a launch to the stars above. It is relentless and it never lets up; It’s hard to legitimately keep up with a song name like that. The instrumentals imply a live jazz setting and we are wowed all the same. Then there’s Kendrick Lamar’s umpteenth piece of evidence that he is one of the best rappers of our time, as he tackles both speed and wordplay as if it was as effortless as brushing his teeth. Flying Lotus’s ear for modern complexity is always challenging (both for him and for us), but it’s always so engaging nonetheless. He hasn’t lost his ability to test our tastes, and he certainly hasn’t forgotten how to entertain just about any listener (old and new).
2014 has been the quietest year for Death Grips since they’ve started (and departed). They released the first half of the promised double album The Powers That B. Niggas On The Moon was a very exciting first listen, yet a troublesome effort after a few spins; It lacked the staying power they were so capable of before. One song that worked on the contrary is Billy Not Really, and this two parter effectively chooses its moments to hit at its hardest. Björk’s cut up vocals are served like a shredded garnish all over the song and is the best possible death of such an angelic voice. MC Ride allows the song itself to attack us the most, as he takes a step back to be an observer and not a warrior for once. The first part of the song is catchy and attainable, but the song kicks into second gear and becomes a chase. We could either be the hunter or the prey during this second half. Does it matter what we are, though? Is anything ever certain with Death Grips, anyways?
This demented ballad is very self aware in nature. Annie Clark is spilling secrets in front of a very judgmental, demonic choir. She is on her knees with her head craned upwards and her guitar clenched in her hands; It is the comfort zone she clings to. She tries to win everyone over by reminding us that “we are all sons of someone’s”. She’s praying to all deities of all religions to save someone who used to care but no longer does (hence why she has to take over his prayers), but it may not be of any use. Prince Johnny is a warning of arrogance and self loathing all in one. It’s a song that fears for the life of another, yet also shows fear of one’s own deterioration. To us, it’s upbeat and dance worthy, until this sickness starts to eat away at us, too.
After last year’s instant metal classic, Deafheaven released the one off From The Kettle Unto The Coil, and it’s as ferocious as being burned by hot water. It’s an instant sting with a resonating rest period towards the end of the song that reminds you that you are lucky enough to have withstood such agony. This single is proof that Deafheaven are capable of including all of the emotions an entire can have into one song, and it is far from their longest (it’s only seven minutes, which is short for them). As it is one of their more straightforwardly metal songs, it covers a lot of ground here: The usual black metal elements, some death metal growls, a post metal outro, a classic 80’s metal guitar solo and then some. Despite the easy-to-name genres, every part of this song does its effort to stay out of being conventional. Even the drumming plays an immensely intricate part that sounds almost like a line of melody rather than rhythm once the song slows down a bit. Deafheaven continue to test metal’s waters, and their quest to explore all corners of the genre is mostly rewarding for us listeners if not the band members themselves.
Move over Steven Seagal, there’s another man with an aviary-sounding last name that’s kicking our asses. Ty Segall hasn’t stopped releasing music consistently since he has started, and it’s puzzling how he still churns out quality music with such a hectic schedule. He is anything but artificial, and the contradictory song The Faker is a rock anthem that will unquestionably be the reason why your speakers are damaged. It’s distorted beyond logical reason (but we like it that way), and it has more catch than a legal document. Segall’s Harrison-like voice compliments the Helter Skelter fuzz here, and it could be the moment where his apparent Beatles love works outstandingly. Instead of the Taxman, we hear about the boss, man, and how your mother can keep “the change” you’ve made. Times have indeed changed, and music from back in the day can still apply to our era. Ty Segall knows this, and he’s not letting up anytime soon.
Noah Lennox’s music as Panda Bear and with Animal Collective has always been quite addictive and relatable, even with the lack of mainstream awareness. Mr. Noah is one of his poppiest songs yet, but it is here that we are almost the furthest from being on the same page as him. We are invested, sure, because that wobbling melody is impossible to ignore. The story here is abstract enough to make this a personal song for Mr. Noah and Mr. Noah alone. It’s an encounter we can still revisit, but we’ll never quite get it. That’s part of the intrigue here. Usually we can understand Lennox’s morals placed in his music; He wants to care for his family, life goes by too quickly and one should appreciate their successes truly. With a lack of any lyrical blueprint, Mr. Noah ends up being one of his most uncomfortable songs, even with that 90’s pumping beat. It eats itself away with its monstrous instrumentals while Lennox sings cheerfully about a distraught dog; It’s just another day in the life of Panda Bear.
Many stars try to keep up with the newer generations once they’ve hit a certain age, and they miss the mark entirely. Marianne Faithfull has stuck to her own guns and we got not just a remarkable album but also one of the year’s most touching songs. Late Victorian Holocaust is terrifying in every way possible. The lyrics are really difficult to listen to (especially with such a haunting vocal), and the piano chords will cut into you (if they don’t, the soundscapes that follow them will). Nick Cave’s contribution helps open the song up into a whole chamber of sorrow. Late Victorian Holocaust reminds us that true artists will never let up as they’ve never relied on anyone other than themselves. When they reach a point in their lives, they’ll send us a gem like this song that only happens once in a very long time. It’s a challenge to listen to at times, but it’s always capable of wringing out every last drop of sympathy from you.
Alcest has officially gone post rock, and it split their audience pretty quickly. Many metalheads were unhappy with Shelter’s sound, while others were blown away by their complete devotion to making gorgeous music. Sure, the harsh dynamics that have made their earlier material so moving are gone, but the odd song ends up being as affecting nonetheless. The closer Déliverence is just over ten minutes, but not a second of it is wasted. It has a handful of movements that all lead up to the final repeating climax that could, frankly, just keep on going. Alcest know how to make gorgeous well, and this song in it’s entirety is a prime example for them. The guitar melodies are nearly pugnacious with how much force they will hit you with. The vocal tracks are angelic and are a key part to helping Déliverence become a song that elevates above the world whilst leaving everything behind. The drums will work like a quickly beating heart for most of the song, and the melodies on top will be pushed with quite an urgency because of this. The song breaks out at the end and all is gone but for a few instruments and the sailing waves of guitar noise that get swallowed by violin passages. It’ll be hard to find a song more gracious than this one this year, even with the song’s need to revisit its own self many a time.
Lykke Li’s had her heart broken, and she released I Never Learn as her version of Joni Mitchell’s Blue. There aren’t any happy moments here, and Never Gonna Love Again is certainly far from being an exception. It does feel like her most certain song on this album, though, and her positive reaction to her abandoning the risk of ever loving again works as a counter active push that further carries this song. She sounds so promising but in the direction away from what we want her to head. This won’t make her happy, but she’s confident in the moment and we must let her be. The structure is very poppy in nature and there aren’t a lot of tricks that sets this apart from your typical radio track apart from Li’s ability to put herself on the line. The music is triumphant and works as the backing piece for a song that’s more about a real victory, not Li’s (hopefully) temporary misery. You’ll end up being more sad than you were before Li promised you some encouraging news, but you’ll be pleased to see that she’s at least standing up for herself here.
For a song that has a statement on the faulty ways that people with power wish to rule the world, it sure has a knack for taking a hold on you. This track from the late coming great hip hop album of 2014 is one of the finest examples as to why El-P and Killer Mike absolutely need to be together. They speak alone for themselves here– one verse each–and their brains, shoved into a blender, still ring under one singular name. The unity is strong here as they comment on greed, adultery, religion, retaliation and the many other forms of medication people use to have the upper hand on others. The beat is fierce and the ravenous music seems to coast through different styles, never fixing on one particular sound to settle with. Both rappers flow better than the actual higher ups’ plans do. Lie Cheat Steal is the kind of song that carries the torch Public Enemy lit decades ago and hands it off to a new, different audience. Let us take a moment to appreciate the power of art that will triumph over the power of success in the end, and let us further congratulate Run The Jewels for achieving this with a large audience.
We’ve seen our fair share of feuds online, especially with sexuality, gender and equality being defended. You have extremists that blow issues above and beyond being solvable. It is possible to be bold and reasonable at the same time, as Beyoncé showed in her song Flawless. Some people saw this song as an attack or as self worship, but the point of it all went over their heads. It starts out with one song where Beyoncé supposedly posts herself on a pedestal above anyone, and it ends with a different track altogether. The two parts are linked by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discussing the pressure women feel whilst also promoting equality and not the need to empower. Lines from this song and parts of its accompanied video became memes online fairly quickly, so Beyoncé’s awareness of culture is ever so prevalent. Flawless’s attention to musical structure, layering, commentary and human essence is even stronger evidence that she may not have even reached her zenith yet (we’re pretty damn close here).
This song truly is something out of a dreamy film. I can hear this being played at the prom Carrie attends before everything goes wrong. I can also imagine this being the kind of music Jeffrey Beaumont would drink a cold Heineken to. It’s surreal in nature but serious in texture. It’s subject matter is serious, and there are questions that need to be answered. There is a back and forth argument as to whether or not a relationship should result in marriage before it possibly dissolves entirely. The song attacks us in a slyly optimistic way, where it feels welcoming despite it’s need for a civil discussion. Will the narrator and her subject ever resolve this feud? The ending of the song consists of happy guitar, so it is possible that it all works out well in the end. In the meantime, we have this manipulatively joyful song to lead us into the night to keep on dancing; It’s a happy/sad song that would make a man like Robert Smith proud.
Todd Terje has brought back the good old days on his release “It’s Album Time”, where you can find sounds from the earliest moments where music could be electronic (but with modern production). He has a lot of fun on this release, but there’s a moment where he gets serious. With a mostly instrumental album, he uses this opportunity to bring in the best singer he could have placed in this spine tingling track: Bryan Ferry. Ferry’s career with Roxy Music ended with the similarily-spacy Avalon, and his voice has matured through the years of self resolution he has faced. He tells a story about the titular characters Johnny and Mary, whose story was originally put together by Robert Palmer. The original doesn’t sound as spooky as this song does, however, and this pairing of old and new is what makes Johnny and Mary more of a song about what has happened in one’s damned past rather than an event that feels recent. It’s a sad song that feels like a moment of time that has acknowledged its own age, but we love it all the same as it still has the capability of hitting us with real empathy.
Her partying ways have been toned down to simply having a good time, and her music has become much more sultry in tone. This is the starlet Lana Del Rey, who has kept fighting against all odds. I don’t know if that alone is noteworthy when it comes to her appeal finally working, but a good indicator of her eventual security on the right path is the song Brooklyn Baby. It’s sexy and smokey throughout; It reminds me of an upper class lounge with a cigar burning and the lights down low. Del Rey’s fascination with love and lust gets mixed with her music tastes and enjoyment of marijuana. The inclusion of a male vocal (sadly, her now-ex boyfriend) at the end completes this fantasy she has in her head, especially with how much he sounds like Lou Reed (the line between idol and sex symbol gets blurred). Del Rey’s study of American pop-culture-worship is now paying off!
Where the hell is that intro guitar line going? It’s a rabbit darting every direction possible mid flight in the deep woods. It’s a jangly song of the 80’s that REM would probably dig, but all of the crisp strums are fuzzed and lost amongst the broken pixels of the old cubic monitor. The song finds a safe area of the forest and slows down to a standard pop tune. Ariel Pink stands from a far and tries to whisper sweet nothings in the ear of a woman he fancies. The key is that he is still cautiously distant, so she is probably not hearing. It’s the moment where the two parts of the song combine that White Freckles truly became a special song in 2014. The fleeting guitar line returns, and Pink connects his compliments to the tail end of the lead. The melody is no longer that of chase: It’s his heart going crazy. It represents the butterflies in our stomach that we cannot contain as they are released so suddenly.
We all read the coming out of Laura Jane Grace in her Rolling Stone article, and many Against Me! fans had questions about the future of the punk rock veterans. When the extremely personal album Transgender Dysphoria Blues came out, the title track opened the album with the absolute ferociousness it deserved to. The song celebrates it’s freedom of choice with how vocal it is, but the words are full of an extreme amount of pain. It depicts how society basically is when it comes to transgender dysphoria: It’s more welcoming of it existing, but the snide remarks still exist. The song is joyful about the first step being overcome, yet it focuses on bringing forth the hatred still present through this open letter. It’s a depressing song, but it carries enough fight to keep itself, and us, going, and thus it becomes an anthem to turn misery into empowerment.
The War On Drugs have had an interesting year. They’ve had to put up with Mark Kozelek’s constant bullying while they crawled their way up the ladder of popularity. This was of course after Kurt Vile’s highly successful album last year that brought a lot of attention to that band he used to be a part of. Either way, Lost in the Dream got its fair share of notice for both good reasons (it’s a top notch release after all) and the shallow (who is this band Kozelek compared to the music from beer commercials?). Red Eyes is, without question, their best song yet, and it shuts up every single thought outside of its own little world instantly; As soon as the drum kicks in, you’re hooked. It is a throwback to the large blue collared songs of the 70s with its arrangements and a staple of the indie music that resonates with us currently. Adam Granduciel’s vocals echo into a distance void, but we are always in the moment with the band. The song explodes into its beautiful chorus, one that has laced most of 2014 with a humbling memory in my head for me. The guitar line cries and the piano damns in ways that Bruce Springsteen himself would be immensely proud of. Any social media notions attached to The War On Drugs make very little difference once Red Eyes is on, but that’s because it makes you forget about mostly anything while it’s on anyways.
Caribou truly bested himself and most other electronic musicians this year with a near-perfect digital album full of technological dreams. These android love songs were all as good as the next, but the one song that chose to fight against the entire year was Can’t Do Without You. This early single ended up being the best pop song of the year, and its awareness of how a song can drive into both your head and your heart in as little time possible is a good reason why. It’s very well produced, catchy, glorious and stunning. It revs up with intensity the longer it lives as if it is celebrating existence (both its own and yours). It is the giddy feeling we get when we are in love and cannot focus on anything else; If that isn’t a great concept for a pop song’s structure, I don’t know what is. The repetitive vocal tracks sound like the persistent thoughts we get when we cannot get someone off of our minds, and they are every bit as pleasant as our conversations with our conscience. When artists on the radio have paraded about relationships through their blurred lines, why they should marry someone anyways and how they’ll give up on someone if they don’t respond, Caribou has studied what the true essence of passion once felt like. He’s captured it, and every listen is as strong as the first.
Eno. Hyde. The two names are heavily linked to the wonders of modern day layering and production. Eno challenged what music could even be back in his youth and Hyde helped shift the pop culture of the 90’s with his group Underworld. When the two English goliaths decided to team up and release an album earlier this year, I can assure that many were excited. Someday World came out, and it was alright. Truly, though, such a pairing could come up with something far more affecting; This was a release by someone who put out Discreet Music and someone whose song Born Slippy .NUXX helped make the ending to Trainspotting all the more devastating. We heard something decent here, but nothing was breath taking.
A second release was dished out, and we got the improvement High Life. With better songs, it may be far from perfect, but we saw something a little bit more like the collaboration we expected from these two. Of course, the very first song on this album Return ended up being the one time that we got far more than we even bargained for. The rest of the album, even when it is great, fights hard to keep up, yet so did every other song this year to be fair. It is apparently nine minutes long but it feels like four. It feels short yet it has the entire spectacle of life and death enclosed inside of it. The repetitive guitar chords Hyde plays are somehow reminiscent of both Bob Dylan and Swans at the same time. There isn’t a poet here, though (whether it have been a dreamer like Dylan or a realist like Michael Gira). Eno softly sings many words that are often hard to even make out, but it’s his voice that sells his point. It oozes with the kind of emotion someone would have had they lost everything in life.
Return repeats its guitar leads but the music around it changes. It’s the world evolving around a scared voice and two stubborn chords. It is born quietly and quickly. Somehow the chords never shift from the same blueprints the entire song, yet they sound different as the song goes on. Eno and Hyde’s attention to how sounds compliment one another is pitch perfect here. The song will travel through uplifting harmonies and tearjerking resolutions; All before stopping fairly abruptly. It all happened so fast. This is a song that these two gentlemen could have only made in the later years of their lives as it is a reflection of how sudden it all is. It may be a return to their past or the hope that we can return to it all once it’s done. We do have the option to replay it, and you may find yourself having it on repeat. It represents the raw grace of human life much like the finale to Six Feet Under did in mere minutes. When people wonder what it’s all about in the end, they question everything they possibly can. I hope my answer is as stunning as this sensational reflection. It is safe to assume that this is one of the best songs both Eno and Hyde have recorded respectively: It absolutely is the best song they made together, and, without question, the song that had the biggest impact on me in 2014 (a great year for songs, too).
Be sure to check in next week when I reveal my top 25 albums of the year!