188623-the-75-best-songs-of-2014

The 75 Best Songs of 2014

From electro to Americana... from R&B to metal... from hip-hop to rockin' and poppin' indie... 2014 had something great for everyone.

From electro to Americana… from R&B to metal… from hip-hop to rockin’ and poppin’ indie… 2014 had something great for everyone.

 

Artist: Future ft. Pharrell, Pusha T, & Casino

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Future ft. Pharrell, Pusha T, & Casino
“Move That Dope”

Driven by the sleek muscle of Mike WiLL’s beat and a sinister recast of Salt-n-Pepa’s “Push It”, rap radio’s most exciting five and a half minutes featured four verses so strong, nobody could agree on their favorite, let alone their favorite line. Even better, the verses spoke to one another across the choruses, like when Academy Award nominee Pharrell — sounding more energized than “Happy” — tipped his Gandalf hat to Pusha, then namechecked the fancy clothes Pusha claimed he couldn’t spell. Leave it to lucky s.o.b. Casino to crack wide the song’s implications in the last few seconds — “The J’s in my hood smoke that crack, say it give ‘em hope” — before turning his attention back to his wallet. Few aesthetic modes endure like a raised middle finger. img-845 Josh Langhoff

 

Artist: Warpaint

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Warpaint
Disco/very

There’s not a lot of rhyme or reason to what Warpaint’s Theresa Wayman, Emily Kokal, Jenny Lee Lindburg, or Stella Mozgawa are saying here, but they sure bring some rhythm to the affair. An eminently danceable tune, the four-minute track serves as a buoyant highlight of the band’s ambient self-titled album. Whereas a good portion of the album’s dozen tracks lull you along with a foreboding sense of release, “Disco/very” instead goes straight for the payoff, bubbling forth with a danceable groove and an infectious energy from the get-go. It’s not much of a practical endeavor to decipher the deeper meaning; it’s much more preferable to simply make like the band members do in the video and just rock this tune out instead. img-845 Jeff Strowe

 

Artist: Meghan Trainor

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Meghan Trainor
“All About That Bass”

Isn’t it just so damn refreshing to hear a great pop song? Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” came out of nowhere with its vaguely doo-wop structure, subliminally Caribbean undertones and a healthy dose of positive reassurance, making it the 2014 step-sister of “Call Me Maybe”. Youthful whimsy? Check. Intelligent commentary masked by sugar-filled innocence? Check. Cheeky metaphors? Check. Utterly unavoidable? Double check. In a world where the female end of the mainstream pop spectrum is bogged down by broken hearts and blank spaces, Meghan Trainor is far more than a mere breath of fresh air; she’s nearly a revelation. No television show background. No tabloid-worthy escapades. No celebrity dating games. Just a pocketful of song-writing credits and the ability to write an undeniable hook. If nothing else, “All About That Bass” is sonic proof that simple pop will forever find ways to shine through any popular culture trend, any changing business landscape, and any type of apathy that forces snobs to turn their nose to such blatantly fun music. Taylor Swift might have released a record about hating her haters in 2014; it took Trainor only one song to get her point across. No silicone Barbie dolls needed here — turns out that just some good, old-fashioned pop principles work just fine. img-845 Colin McGuire

 

Artist: The War on Drugs

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The War on Drugs
“Red Eyes”

Sometimes, the only way to work through any of your problems is through a long, lonely stretch of highway with the windows down, preferably just before a massive thunderstorm hits. Adam Granduciel of the War on Drugs must know this, because “Red Eyes” was the best song for driving anywhere in 2014. Granduciel doesn’t necessarily imitate as much as embody an early ’80s Jackson Browne as a steady percussion drives a song where each chorus sounds like someone desperately grasping for something bigger in their life. “Surrounded by the night / And you don’t go home,” Granduciel sings. With a track like “Red Eyes”, home is the last place you’ll want to visit. The only challenge is not wanting to hit repeat because the rest of the tracks on Lost in the Dream are almost this good. img-845 Sean McCarthy

 

Artist: Timber Timbre

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Timber Timbre
“Hot Dreams”

If Isaac Hayes, David Lynch, and Elvis had walked into a hazy, smoke-filled bar in the middle of a red light district and written a song, it might have ended up sounding something like “Hot Dreams”, the title track from the Canadian band Timber Timbre’s fifth album. Slow, soulful, and cinematic, the song came closer to the hot-buttered soul of Hayes’ landmark ’60s to ’70s work than anything in a long time. But where Hayes took his sensuality over the top, Timbre Timbre’s Taylor Kirk took it underground, crooning with a restraint that barely belied the beads of sweat on his forehead. img-845 John Bergstrom

 

Artist: Swans

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Swans
“She Loves Us!”

The best tracks on To Be Kind, Swans’ vast, frightening behemoth of a follow-up to 2012’s already vast and frightening The Seer, are those that zero in on a particularly punishing staccato groove and then just let it settle for five, ten, or, hell, 17 minutes. “She Loves Us” epitomizes that approach, except no, no, “settle” is all too passive and innocuous of a verb. This groove — seven clipped, menacing grunts set on repeat — mutates into a sort of grimacing military march as a sly “Hallelujah” chant emerges somewhere in the left channel and frontman Michael Gira barks incomprehensible evil over the cacophony of it all. img-845 Zach Schonfeld

 

Artist: Sharon Van Etten

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Sharon Van Etten
“Every time the Sun Comes Up”

After an album as searing as Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There, a closer like “Every Time The Sun Comes Up” risks feeling like an after-thought. The song sets off at an easy enough pace, but its reveal of Van Etten’s wry humor edges her ever closer to her song-writing inspirations, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave among them. Few songwriters today could treat lines like “People say I’m a one-hit wonder / but what happens when I have two?” in a way that seems at once utterly simple and highly profound, let alone follow it with something as bold as Van Etten does here. Others may highlight Are We There’s “Your Love Is Killing Me” for its extreme confessionalism, but “Every Time The Sun Comes Up” has just as much boldness and bite, and in more unexpected ways. img-845 Maria Schurr

 

Artist: Shabazz Palaces

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Shabazz Palaces
“Forerunner Foray”

On Run the Jewel’s “Oh My Darling, Don’t Cry”, El-P may have claimed “I’m not from earth,” but no hip-hop track solidified extraterrestrial theories like Shabazz Palace’s “Forerunner Foray”. The synth lines spiral like a UFO coming in for a landing, and Ishmael Butler warps his voice like a more regal version of Madlib’s Quasimodo. When Butler spits, “time travel fast and far to the last ocean”, there’s no doubt he’s got the technology to do it. One part Tribe Called Quest, and one part Sun Ra, “Forerunner Foray” will sound like it’s from the future for decades to come. img-845 Nathan Stevens

 

Artist: Lykke Li

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Lykke Li
“No Rest for the Wicked”

On an album comprised solely of devastating, downbeat, minimalist exercises in misery, Lykke Li’s “No Rest For the Wicked” is the centerpiece, the one track that ropes the listener in the quickest. Built around a simple, plaintive six-note piano melody, Lykke Li and her longtime collaborator Bjorn Yttling create a lush sound from as few instruments as possible, utilizing thudding, Phil Spector-style tom beats, tambourine, and bass as the foundation for a track that wisely puts her vocals front and center. “I had his heart but I broke it every time,” she sings, that gutwrenching piano melody echoing through listeners’ heads long after. img-845 Adrien Begrand

 

Artist: Leonard Cohen

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Leonard Cohen
“Did I Ever Love You”

Essentially two Leonard Cohen songs for the price of one, “Did I Ever Love You” offers a blend of scorched-earth gospel and misty folk release. First, Cohen growls over a Tom Waitsy piano ballad; next, female singers echo Cohen’s lines over a rolling Paul Simon-esque guitar figure and a shuffling rhythm. All the while, Cohen asks questions about the regrets and uncertainties of a relationship in the rearview mirror. The toggling tones, mournful and bittersweet, speak to popular problems, the mixed blessings of time: “The lemon trees blossom / The almond trees whither.” Elsewhere, Cohen sings, “Was it ever settled?/Was it ever over?”, as the strings swoop in to let his old lover off the hook. Some questions are better left unanswered. img-845 Steve Leftridge

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Artist: Broncho

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Display Width: 200Broncho
“Class Historian”

Oklahoma’s Broncho have delivered what has to be single-handedly the catchiest song of the year on their sophomore album, Just Enough Hip to Be Woman. From its stuttered “dit-dit-dit’s” in the vocals to the turbo-charged guitar riffs, “Class Historian” never leaves your head from the moment you hear it. It is the primo example of what a music journalist friend of mine once coined for these types of songs: Sonic Ebola. (No offense meant to those suffering from the current incarnation of the disease.) Like a virus, this is the type of song that should get passed around from person to person since it is so damn catchy. And there’s much more of that from where it came from on the LP that is culled. “Class Historian” may not be the type of song that gets on year end Best of lists for being innovative or game changing; it’s here because it is so damn good. Go out and hear it. I’ll bet that you’ll find yourself humming this afterwards for days on end. img-846 Zachary Houle

 

Artist: Iamamiwhoami

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Iamamiwhoami
“Chasing Kites”

Three studio albums in, Swedish electro-chanteuse Jonna Lee (aka Iamamiwhoami) has lifted the veil she so carefully hid behind when she arrived on the scene covered in crinkly, clear plastic and surrounded by a multitude of purring black cats. The days of licking seminal tree sap and dancing with wooly creatures are seemingly long gone. On Blue, the mystery has all but dissolved, but the artistry continues to evolve. An audio-visual feast for the senses, her latest record sees the singer-songwriter step into the sunshine, even as storms, darkness and the icy chill of winter all threaten to encroach on her tropical surroundings. While easily the most commercial track she and producer Claes Björklund have offered yet, the album’s glorious seventh single “Chasing Kites” still maintains that marvelously distinctive Iamamiwhoami eccentricity. One of the year’s most gorgeous pop songs, the track delivers a lush chorus as stunning as the panoramic beauty of the video that accompanies it. img-846 Ryan Lathan

 

Artist: Common feat Big Sean

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Common feat Big Sean
“Diamonds”

“Diamonds” exemplifies Common’s magnanimous approach to hip-hop in 2014: to equalize his voice with his collaborators. He sounds sharp, confident yet humble, which suits him well, while the collaborators make the song soar. No I.D. crafted a track that is deceptively simple. Beyond the rappers lies more than you think you’re hearing — a handclap beat, few-note melody loop, a bass tone that keeps creeping forward and a hovering synth. A strange sort of calliope groove. And on an album designed to showcase Chicago talent, a Michigander steals the show. Big Sean, somewhat of a chameleon on the mic, here rap-sings the hook with an awkward swagger that feels improvised, like he’s riffing to embody hustle. He uses his verse to brag, boast and run through rapid-fire memories, in a style that feels loose and simple but is anything but, like the song itself. img-846 Dave Heaton

 

Artist: SOHN

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SOHN
“Artifice”

SOHN’s voice is as powerful and beautifully showcased by his production talent as this psychological grandiloquence implies. It’s not just that his voice is a gorgeous thing in and of itself, or that his range is impressive and his control is as close to clinical as it can be whilst still giving the impression he’s feeling his way into repeated lines; it’s the way he uses the studio to build multiple takes into the song structure themselves, playing the samples as background arpeggios, scattering murmurs and echoes around the main vocal lines and thus blurring the line between the singer and his music (or his mind and his personality). “Artifice”, a single and Tremors‘ most badass groove, mines a very modern dichotomy of desire for, and refusal of, the Other. The video for “Artifice” is great at evoking the suspended-in-a-moment-of-dream feeling that many of the hypnogogic concoctions on Tremors offer. img-846 Stefan Braidwood

 

Artist: Ariel Pink

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Ariel Pink
“Put Your Number in My Phone”

While Ariel Pink clearly has a penchant for flippant, warped jokes, he’s often at his best when he shows off his sensitive side. It’s where his natural melodic gifts are best showcased, and “Put Your Number in My Phone” might be the best of the bunch. Pink coats the song in sugar with a lilting guitar line and harmonized “baby’s” on the chorus, but it’s all a mask for the painful awkwardness in the lyrics, which reveal a meet-cute undone by technology that makes it easier and harder to connect with people. It’s a perfectly sweet love song with a tinge of bitterness, just the way Pink likes it. img-846 Kevin Korber

 

Artist: Wussy

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Wussy
“Teenage Wasteland”

A song about falling in love with rock and roll while listening to the Who, Wussy’s slow-build beauty has all the sweep and punch it needs to hang with the classic it’s named after. Over delay-pedal romance, cinematic fuzz, and Springsteenian piano progressions, Lisa Walker delivers post-coital vocals about rock salvation in the middle of a cornfield. “Teenage Wasteland” is a slice of shimmering nostalgia for that first connection with rock heroes when their misery sounded so much like yours, when Keith Moon’s kick drum was the beat of your heart, and when all those wasted kids with transistor radios had no need to be forgiven. img-846 Steve Leftridge

 

Artist: Brantley Gilbert

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Brantley Gilbert
“Bottoms Up”

Brantley Gilbert sings about as well as my four-cylinder 157-hp microvan hauls kegs uphill — the wheezing! — but he finally wrote the right song for his microrange with “Bottoms Up”. While we shouldn’t overlook its allusions to assplay, the song’s real achievement is using the dingy sadness of midlist ‘80s hair metal to illumine the dark heart of bro-country’s party-down world. “Tonight it’s bottoms up,” Gilbert rasps, and the suffocating guitar chords tell you this isn’t merely a suggestion. Rather, it’s the captivating and repulsive flipside to Kira Isabella’s equally chilling “Quarterback”. If 2014 was the year of dubious injury to the fragile male psyche — see GamerGate, NotAllMen, some narcissistic schmuck shooting up Isla Vista — this could be the psyche’s damn anthem. It’s an ambivalent honor, sure, but it doesn’t diminish the song’s cold power. img-846 Josh Langhoff

 

Artist: We Are Scientists

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We Are Scientists
“Make It Easy”

We Are Scientists have a knack for combining hard-hitting guitars and super-catchy vocal melodies, but “After Hours”, arguably their biggest single, was driven by a relatively easygoing guitar riff. “Make it Easy” manages to combine the laid-back vibe of that single with the buzzing guitars and pounding drums of the bulk of their material. In the track, singer Keith Murray marvels that his significant other makes everything about their relationship easy, while concluding that it should be easy in the next breath. The band balances the push and pull of melody and noise perfectly, with a hooky chorus that you can’t wait to come around again. Also, the goofy slow-motion video featuring the band as astronauts fighting poorly-costumed “aliens” is not to be missed. img-846 Chris Conaton

 

Artist: Melanie de Biasio

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Melanie de Biasio
“Sweet Darling Pain”

It is near impossible to believe “Sweet Darling Pain” wasn’t birthed in a smoky French nightclub late one night in 1959 — or chemically engineered in a lab to sound as such. The song, which serves as the six-and-a-half-minute centerpiece of Belgian vocalist Melanie de Biasio’s No Deal, is a flowing song-form testament to restraint and the aural equivalent of mood lighting. There’s a willfully dragged rhythmic shuffle, a well-spaced fluttering of jazz chords, a wordless and intoxicating hummed refrain — and not too much else. “But a black knight seizes us” repeats a male voice in the mix with increasing fervor, or perhaps he’s singing “black night”, which would be an astute rendering of the mood this astounding track sets. img-846 Zach Schonfeld

 

Artist: Twin Peaks

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Twin Peaks
“Making Breakfast”

That this group is composed of Chicagoans barely out of their teens is astounding, for this tune has debonair character well beyond their years. From the opening vocal “chic-ka”, the song struts with beatnik level coolness. Its midtempo surge carries with it a streetwise swagger worthy of Lou Reed or Mark Knopfler, but with the youthful edge of the Stooges. The timbre in Clay Frankel’s voice delivers that cocky insouciance perfectly, flowing smoothly with the blustery rhythm. Come the chorus, when Frankel’s deeper vocals are augmented by some frayed yawping, the barely-bridled energy comes unleashed. If there’s a progeny of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. in 2014, “Making Breakfast” is it. img-846 Cole Waterman

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Artist: tUnE-yArDs

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Display Width: 200tUnE-yArDs
“Water Fountain”

While not as whimsically satisfying as 2011’s, W H O K I L L, tUnE-yArDs’ most recent LP, nikki nack, does have its moments. One of these moments is the album’s initial single, the rhythmically charged jam “Water Fountain”. Merrill Garbus’ opening hook sets the tone for the playful jungle bass, which slowly reveals the song’s inner groove. After Garbus’ lullaby-esque breakdown of, “He gave me a dollar / A blood-soaked dollar / I cannot get the spot out but / It’s okay it still works in the store”, things tend to pick up a bit. The vocal get a bit pricklier and a bit more empowered, which is reflected in the song’s instrumentation. A barrage of noisy blips slowly encompasses things before reaching a natural conclusion. Like all of tUnE-yArDs’ songs, “Water Fountain” is weird and wild in all the right places, but it’s the captivating refrain that makes it one of their best songs yet. img-847 Richard Giraldi

 

Artist: The Twilight Sad

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The Twilight Sad
“There’s a Girl in the Corner”

With all of the focus at the beginning of the year seemingly being on the April reissue of their debut album, Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters, it was almost easy to overlook that the Twilight Sad had a new album coming out later in 2014 as well. In interviews, the band has been open about difficulties leading up to Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave, but also proud of the results, and rightly so. The record is both a summation and expansion of the Twilight Sad’s skill set, and no single song captures that better than the bracing opener, “There’s a Girl in the Corner”. As singer James Graham cyclically ruminates on how “she” and “you” are “not coming back”, an encapsulating wall of sound gradually builds around him, threatening to collapse inward at any minute. It’s the Twilight Sad in classic form, stepping on new ground. img-847 Ian King

 

Artist: The New Pornographers

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The New Pornographers
“Backstairs”

A.C. Newman has never been shy professing his love for ELO. But it wasn’t until the New Pornographer’s sixth album, Brill Bruisers where he fully gave into his muse. Beginning with a late ’70s style robotic signing, “Backstairs” seemed as if it was designed to hit every musical sweet spot. From the “back and forth” interplay of Neko Case and A.C. Newman to the seemingly tossed off lines that fit in just so, “Backstairs” sounds like it was produced in a factory designed to manufacture pop hits. But no focus group or committee could have designed such a love letter to the synth-rock heroes of our past. img-847 Sean McCarthy

 

Artist: Sondre Lerche

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Sondre Lerche
“Bad Law”

Following the largely stripped-down affair that is his 2011 self-titled album, Sondre Lerche wrote one of 2014’s best jams in the form of “Bad Law”, the opening cut off his masterpiece Please. The song, easily his catchiest since the title track off of 2009’s Heartbeat Radio, is driven by a clipped, slightly jazzy guitar riff. Lerche’s croon is as smooth as ever, but on “Bad Law” he brings a much-needed grit and noise into the mix. Right as the clean verses settle into their groove, the track is violently interrupted by a barrage of off-key distorted riffs and chaotic drum hits. This visceral turn sets the stage for the rest of Please, which abstractly recounts the emotional volleys of Lerche’s recent divorce. While breakup albums are often associated with gloomy introspection, “Bad Law” is a fine example of how the pain of separation can be turned into infectious pop music. The next time you’re feeling lovelorn, give “Bad Law” a spin; even when the hurt is at its worst, there’s real relief to be found in singing along with Lerche: “Baby, it’s a bad, bad law / Geronimo!” img-847 Brice Ezell

 

Artist: Nicki Minaj

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Nicki Minaj
“Anaconda”

During a summer when Taylor Swift and Meghan Trainor were appropriating hip hop tropes in queasy ways, Nicki Minaj’s return-to-form smash “Anaconda” felt necessary. Minaj and producers Polow da Don and Da Internz don’t just sample “Baby Got Back” — a rap song so toothless that it gets played at weddings — they chop it up into something hilariously, defiantly, and indelibly new. Sir Mix-A-Lot’s clunky demands now make way for Minaj’s exquisitely crafted boasts. Those valley girls still say “look at her butt,” but now it’s out of awe instead of disdain. “Anaconda” is a shimmering example of how hip hop can be an endlessly inventive hall of mirrors — the more history it makes, the more fodder it has to make more. I do disagree with Minaj on one thing, though. She is most definitely not “on some dumb shit”. img-847 Joe Sweeney

 

Artist: Lydia Loveless

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Lydia Loveless
“Wine Lips”

In an album (Somewhere Else) filled with spectacularly written songs, “Wine Lips” stands out as one of the very best. It’s a remarkably catchy tune that just burrows its’ way into your consciousness and sticks around awhile, appearing at random times to cause head bobbing and awkward hum-along renditions of the plucky lead guitar line that anchors the 3:42 running time. An ode to risque intentions (“Ain’t there a corner around the corner, I got a bad idea”), Loveless’ lyrics embody the fiery passion and red-hot intensity of a hot and heavy, perhaps illicit relationship. Of course, these passions are usually accelerated with a few drinks, so, hence the narrator’s “wine lips”. There are little echoes of desperation and sadness under the surface here, but Loveless makes the situation sound particularly enticing and enthralling, making for a song that will rack up play counts in the ol’ iTunes library. img-847 Jeff Strowe

 

Artist: Katy B

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Katy B
“Crying for No Reason”

Although it was an admirable top five single in the UK, the shimmering ballad “Crying For No Reason” should have catapulted Katy B to Adele-level heights. Starting off as a standard piano ballad with confessional lyrics (“I never faced all the pain I caused / Now the pain is hitting me full force”) the song launches into a pulsating, gently gliding breakstep beat the rest of the way, just stopping short of morphing into a disco banger, holding back enough to not let the beats overwhelm the emotion. The end result is the best pop single about brutal self-loathing since Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own”. img-847 Adrien Begrand

 

Artist: Julión Álvarez y Su Norteño Banda

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Julión Álvarez y Su Norteño Banda
“Y Así Fue”

If you’re lucky enough to have regional Mexican radio in your megalopolis, turn it on for the day and you’ll hear this song, probably a couple times. It’s the one with the scratchy-voiced singer crowing about getting lucky on the first date, while his brass-and-clarinet band blares a power waltz built on ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll chord changes. That singer, it turns out, may be the best in North America, with timing and phrasing that make every song sound like the spontaneous outpouring of his extremely courtly id. If your local radio market doesn’t have a home for the best singer in North America, you poor sap, take a moment for the video. Thirty-two million people can’t be wrong — well, they could be, but they’re not. img-847 Josh Langhoff

 

Artist: Jessie Ware

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Jessie Ware
“Say You Love Me”

If you didn’t get that “Say You Love Me” is a throwback ballad, there’s a faint vinyl hiss to clue you in. But a more accurate effect would’ve been a slight skip from a dusty CD, because this is the kind of R&B theater we took for granted when Whitney and Mariah were at their peak. Producer BenZel pulls out some old dramatic tricks that we didn’t know we missed — especially a chugging triplet crescendo on the bridge — but it’s Ware who makes it a scorcher, singing with a hint of desperation as she holds an age-old argument between head and heart. As she pleads, “Want to feel burning flames / When you say my name”, everything drops out but the drums, and you can see the chasm that separates the two. img-847 Joe Sweeney

 

Artist: Little Dragon

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Little Dragon
“Klapp Klapp”

“Klapp Klapp” is the surging, high-energy counterpoint to the rest of Little Dragon’s mostly-downtempo 2014 album Nabuma Rubberband. The song is driven by its dark, sugary synthesizers, its dancefloor beat — itself propelled by the intermittent thump of the kick and restlessly bouncing handclaps — and vocalist Yukimi Nagano’s soulful highs in the sing-along chorus that makes for one of the catchiest alternative pop singles of 2014. “Klapp Klapp” revealed its universal appeal later in the year by receiving an excellent Future remix, proving that it just might be the most infectious song they’ve ever written, and that’s saying a lot. img-847 Colin Fitzgerald

45 – 36

Artist: Run the Jewels

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Display Width: 200Run the Jewels
“Early”

“They’ll watch you walk to the store, they’re recording / Didn’t record cop when he shot, no warning.” With those two lines, Run the Jewels perfectly encapsulated 2014 in the collective American consciousness: concerns over NSA snooping, drone surveillance, data insecurity, the increasing militarization of the police, and community distrust of our elected leaders, all crystallized in a couplet written, hauntingly, before #Ferguson was a battle cry. “Early” is a tale told in two parts, a piece of intricate storytelling that begins with Killer Mike detailing police harassment over marijuana — for which 2014 was also a turning point — while El-P’s verse finds him spitting jaded rage about the strings of power in America before ending with the news item of Mike’s wife being shot by that same police officer. El-P ends, “Go home, go to sleep, up again, early”, a final crushing realization of how commonplace these acts are, and how helpless we feel in the face of them. Reinforcing this theme is a repetitive, claustrophobic beat and slurred, hopeless warning on the chorus to “get out, get out, get out.” If only we could. img-848 Adam Finley

 

Artist: Vince Staples

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Vince Staples
“Blue Suede”

Vince Staples is a deadly serious rapper. As such, the hook on “Blue Suede” starts out talking about sneakers might seem out of character. But those kicks, as it turns out, are just a distraction, something to think about instead of how “young graves get[ting] the bouquets”. As the skittering chorus leaps into Staples smooth, propulsive verses, the songs becomes an impressive statement on both the violence hip-hop reveals but also the way the genre gets diverted by materials. The beat recalls the grittiest moments of The Chronic, Public Enemy, and even the J.B.’s. It’s the finest song on a focused, volatile EP, and one of the best rap songs of the year. img-848 Matt Fiander

 

Artist: Hallelujah the Hills

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Hallelujah the Hills
“I Stand Corrected”

Have You Ever Done Something Evil?, the excellent album from Boston’s Hallelujah the Hills, is an album full of documents: films, poems, and on “I Stand Corrected”, a phone call (or, rather, a post-call survey). It’s a perfectly representative song for the album. For one, it’s infectious and rollicking, sprinting in on snare rolls and ringing chords, full to the borders with the refugee howl of the band’s gang vocals. It’s also a song both about communication and about the anxiety over communicating poorly. Lead singer Ryan Walsh suggest, “press three to get on with it / or smash the phone up against the wall.” The song suggests, in all its wild, sweet abandon, the chaotic mindspace between those two choices, between capitulation to protocol and defiance ending in isolation. It’s a heady tune, but it’s real trick is how, for all its intelligent turns, it rumbles so deeply in your chest. img-848 Matt Fiander

 

Artist: Sun Kil Moon

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Sun Kil Moon
“Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes”

Mark Kozelek has had one hell of a year. And that’s not including the ridiculous, highly un-newsworthy stories that have eclipsed him and his music. (Henceforth, I refuse to make mention or reference any more of the silly business that has somehow become clickbait for almost every major music site online.) Somehow, against the fickle nature of the music business, Kozelek has mounted a sort of career resurrection over 20 years since his first release as Red House Painters. And he did it in the most unlikely, unaccepting manner; by writing songs so personal and honest that they make you flinch when listening to them. I can’t listen to much of Benji because of that reason: it’s too naked, too terrifyingly close to listening in on a therapy session. (Plus, the arrangements are a little predictable.) But “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes” is arguably one of the finest songs in Kozelek’s repertoire.

“Richard Ramirez” is a punishing, rambling missive that encompasses objective history and the subjectively personal. Kozelek ruminates on the people from his hometown and the way that the tapestry of significant events creates more than just headlines, it stirs nostalgia in a painful and awkward way. Fittingly, everything culminates in death: actual death (James Gandolfini, Elvis Presley), death experienced (“lost a relative and its eating me up”), and death from a distance that is no less affecting (the murders of serial killer Richard Ramirez). Kozelek pushes his own mortality to the forefront, as well, complaining about bad back, a “nagging prostate”, and a perceived heart attack brought on by sexual intercourse. But Richard Ramirez, the “Nightstalker”, looms large as the pivot point of the song and, tellingly, the guitar chords never change. It’s a constant march that explodes just when you think it’s reached its conclusion. As the drums pound the outro — the same drummer who is the same age as “the Sopranos guy” who died a few verses earlier — we’re only left with the echoes of paranoia and history, the personal and the profound crashing into each other in a bloody mess. History is our teacher, but the humanistic details are always left out. Kozelek resurrects them all before sending them back to their graves to lie silently, until memory conjures them up once more. img-848 Scott Elingburg

 

Artist: Elephant

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Elephant
“Shapeshifter”

The British duo Elephant is the product of a whirlwind love affair between singer Amelia Rivas and instrumentalist Christian Pinchbeck. “Shapeshifter” captures the blissful moment in a relationship before passion succumbs to madness. Opening with a gorgeous orchestral swoon, the track features Rivas’ sensual vocals amidst a chorus of angels and a solid hip-hop beat, with hints of girl-group whimsy. This is music that makes having a secret, candlelit tryst seem like the most high-class thing you could possibly do. The pair’s romance ultimately crashed and burned, but rarely has a musical love-child sounded so good. img-848 John Bergstrom

 

Artist: Sturgill Simpson

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Sturgill Simpson
“Turtles All the Way Down”

“Turtles All the Way Down” is quite possibly the most oddly-titled country song you’ve ever heard. That’s nothing. The big disconnect comes after the verse about meeting Jesus, the devil and Buddha, and finding them all wanting, when Simpson starts going on about “reptile aliens made of light.” We have clearly entered terrain less traveled by the cowboy hat set, and you may even ask whether this guy — equipped with a deep voice and deeper drawl — is just goofing on the narrow (and increasingly outdated) view of country as pop music’s home for conservative Christian values. Quite the contrary. Simpson’s goal for Metamodern Sounds in Country Music is no less than a full-on exploration of consciousness (the reptile aliens are a reference to psychedelics proponent Terence McKenna), and “Turtles” his summary statement, pegging religion and psychedelic experimentation alike as distractions in a universe where meaning is elusive. Compassion and love are all we can offer each other, and if they happen to come in the form of a twangy country song with alien lizards, cosmic turtles and some tasty phasing and delay effects, so be it. img-848 Dave Bloom

 

Artist: Dum Dum Girls

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Dum Dum Girls
“Are You Okay?”

Striking a balance between the cool and torrid has long been Dum Dum Girls’ modus operandi. “Are You Okay?” hits that equilibrium impeccably, taking the sensitivity of a ‘60s girl group ballad and enveloping it in a darkly dreamy haze. The languid guitar strumming and production’s iciness are offset by the aching compassion Dee Dee conveys in her vocals. There is a genuine sweetness and fragility, empathy extended by the simple query of asking another if they’re okay. What is truly effecting is the sense that despite the effort to reach out, there remains a distance between the two characters conversing in the verses and refrain. The song flows as a stream, sweeping the personas apart rather than bringing them together as the sentiment desires. Definitely the most haunting tune on Too True, and possibly the finest in Dum Dum Girls’ repertoire. img-848 Cole Waterman

 

Artist: Cloud Nothings

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Cloud Nothings
“I’m Not Part of Me”

There’s been enough trendpieces on Millennials and aging to fill a very tedious anthology. Suffice it to say, many folks currently in their 20s have a fraught relationship with maturity. Cloud Nothings’ Dylan Baldi is certainly no stranger to the existential running-in-place, as seen on 2013’s “Stay Useless”, but he’s looking to change. Although it’s open to interpretation, I like to read “I’m Not Part of Me” as a breakup song with his old self. “I’m learning how / to be here and nowhere else / and to focus on what I can do myself.” That kind of mindful is the next logical step for a band whose lyrics have spent so much time kicking around at frustratingly loose ends.

“I’m Not Part of Me” is also a musical maturation. Although it still fits within the Cloud Nothings’ quick and dirty pop wheelhouse, the band’s starting to champ at the bit. After blitzing through three verses and two choruses of remarkably compact, punchy guitar rock, they decide to stretch their legs with a repeating meditative bridge that mirrors Here and Nowhere Else‘s ambitious “Pattern Walks”. The mantra-like repetition draws out the themes of both the song and the album and also allows one more go-round for the refreshingly addictive chorus. “I’m Not Part of Me” is not just a a great rock single but also a window into the next step for a captivating band at the top of their powers. img-848 John M. Tryneski

 

Artist: Ariana Grande

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Ariana Grande
“Problem”

The saxophone riff that introduces Ariana Grande’s “Problem” might be one of the catchiest saxophone riffs in any pop song since A Tribe Called Quest’s “Check the Rhime” — thank Max Martin. Big Sean, who is one of the most inconsistent features to constantly be featured, is thankfully delegated to hook duty, menacingly whispering “I got one less problem without you” to juxtapose with Grande’s sweetness. People seem to have a problem with Iggy Azalea’s all-ages rap, but it’s definitely one of her betters (“Small money betting I’ll be better off without you”) and definitely possesses more swagger and arguably possesses more assertiveness than Grande’s vocals. But Grande is the star, and she does well, flaunting the elasticity of her voice without forgetting melody, tip-toeing the line between cute and sexy instead of diving into either pool as she does throughout most of the other songs on her sophomore album. img-848 Marshall Gu

 

Artist: Saint Savior

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Saint Savior
“Nobody Died”

Those who have been following the career of English musician Saint Saviour (née Rebecca Jones) since her days as the front woman for the RGBs and her collaborative work with Groove Armada, might have been shocked to hear the sounds of her latest artistic incarnation. In her evolution from electro-pop diva into folk and chamber pop songstress, Jones somehow found her truest songwriting voice yet and delivered one of the best albums of the year. In the Seams‘s pièce de résistance is nestled in the middle of the record like a beautiful, bright blue egg, full of hope and promise. Featuring the Manchester Camerata Orchestra, “Nobody Died” is a living, breathing bandage for the soul, like a comforting embrace from an old friend in a time of immense pain. Stripped of the strings in a live setting, it is even more heartrending with Jones at the piano. This exquisite track is but one, in an entire album full of them. img-848 Ryan Lathan

35 – 26

Artist: Angel Olsen

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Display Width: 200Angel Olsen
“Forgiven/Forgotten”

Angel Olsen’s “Forgiven/Forgotten” was one of the first songs of 2014 to garner attention, which would make it nearly timeless when counting by internet years. But what really makes “Forgiven/Forgotten” feel like a classic is Olsen’s weathered, old-timey voice, which resonates with a Patsy Cline-like warble, just if it were modulated to a punk romper. In the chemical reaction between Olsen’s vocals and her ragged guitar playing, what’s otherwise a rough-hewn indie ditty transforms into something that has the well-worn familiarity of a standard. When Olsen vows, “I don’t know anything / But I love you / Yes, I do”, she sings it like an eternal verity, even though the timbre of her voice tells you that the real moral of the story is that this kind of love never lasts for long. In the end, it’s by Olsen tapping into such truths of human nature that gives “Forgiven/Forgotten” a chance to stand the test of time. img-849 Arnold Pan

 

Artist: Ambrose Akinmusire

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Ambrose Akinmusire
“Our Basement (Ed)”

You will not find a song in 2014 with a more palpable atmosphere. You just won’t. It’s impossible. The percussive heart that beats like an organ either ready to die or come alive. The movie-soundtrack strings that splice through the chorus with aggression and suggestion. The middle section during which Akinmusire responds to his lyrical counterpart with his stunning trumpet. Addicting is too light a word. Especially when you consider Becca Stevens’ top-shelf vocal performance. “I imagine you / Doing simple things / Like humming / One part of a song that you like,” she sings to begin the hook and you’re equally creeped out and turned on. Better yet is how breathy her delivery continues to be from verse to chorus, an ambiguous facilitator for the obsessively conflicted emotions the song embodies. Turn this on, close your eyes, and feel the sounds paralyze your soul. “Our Basement” the quintessential case of music as therapy, and it’s irresistible. img-849 Colin McGuire

 

Artist: Alvvays

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Alvvays
“Archie, Marry Me”

In the opening moments of Alvvays’ “Archie, Marry Me”, the sounds of birds chirping can be subtly heard. You’ll picture birds from a Disney animation fluttering beside the female protagonist who just met her soul mate. But it is 2014, and lead singer Molly Rankin is a realist. Right out of the gate, washed amidst fuzzy, pulpy feedback, she acknowledges her beau’s pitfalls of a modern romance: he’s stressed about the student loans of today and the likely alimony payments of tomorrow, but don’t fog up her rose colored glasses. And while Betty from the Archie comics was the first and prototype “cool girl”, she always did get a little crazy when Archie made eyes at that dark haired vixen, Veronica. Homegirl needs to relax and not be taken for granted. Besides, Archie is a bit of a clutz and a ginger — just ask Mr. Weatherbee. img-849 Eddie Ciminelli

 

Artist: Kira Isabella

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Kira Isabella
“Quarterback”

Isabella has a storytelling ability that seems immediate and ancient (women attacked by men’s power, now with more internet shaming), or seems to be written by people who are 15 and people who remember the tragedy at 40. That it has musical and textual clues from the Dixie Chicks Traveling Soldier, and that it was in the midst of years of masculine country discussing the advantages of having sex in the back 40, having a work that discusses how non consensual much of that sex is, against brilliant technical skill, seems to be a moral necessity. img-849 Anthony Easton

 

Artist: Ryan Adams

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Ryan Adams
“Gimme Something Good”

In an age where genuinely great, brand new, jukebox slayin’ rock ‘n’ roll 45s are rarer than Rocking Horse poop, “Gimme Something Good” arrived like a six-string saviour sent from the Gods. With ribbons on. Earthlings touch the healing hand of bar chords, vintage Maiden t-shirts and ripped Levi’s!! One killer ‘Fist out of the grave’ riff wonderfully assisted by the Heartbreakers’ Benmont Tench on ‘Uncle Fester’ organs and the supernatural cleavage of Elvira in the Ed Wood-style video, “Gimme Something Good” was Adams rattling the jail guitar doors, howling at the moon, crying for freedom, the real life and basically, “Something Good”. Hearing it blasting from radios during the hazy summer of 2014 was an inspiration, like discovering a letter from the resistance which had been covertly slipped under your door whilst you slept. Its message read loud and clear, “Rumours of Rock N’ Roll’s demise have been greatly exaggerated… so put another dime in the jukebox baby”. img-849 Matt James

 

Artist: Sylvan Esso

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Sylvan Esso
“Coffee”

Sylvan Esso’s striking debut is full of pure pop gems, and “Coffee” is the most bittersweet and gliding of the bunch. It’s got a spare, thumping beat, and a perfectly catchy chorus. But it’s the way the edges blur, the way notes are coated in a nostalgic haze that make the song work. It’s got an immediate pulse, but it’s a song obscured by the past, by heartbreaks old and new. Between Nick Sanborn’s warm, humming composition and Amelia Meath’s soft, emoting vocals, the song earns every emotional moment. But this isn’t just melancholia. The true power of “Coffee” is its sense of playfulness, of resilience, even as the sting of loss lingers. img-849 Matt Fiander

 

Artist: Perfume Genius

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Perfume Genius
“Queen”

On 2012’s Put Your Back N 2 It, Mike Hadreas showcased Perfume Genius as a introspective bedroom mixtape of confessions and mellow ballads. So when his latest album, Too Bright, opens with a similar tenor, nobody batted an eye. That is until the album’s second track, “Queen”. The drones that start at the onset of the song set the stage for what feels like a tense confrontation and Hadreas checkmates when he purrs my favorite lyric of the year: “No family is safe When I sashay.” I imagine Hadreas walking into a high society event decked out in blush and nine inch heels to the aghast expressions of the blue bloods; a proclamation that screams, “I am not going anywhere, so deal with it.” And not only was anyone too timid to ask him to leave, but in my imagination, he was even slipped a couple phone numbers. img-849 Eddie Ciminelli

 

Artist: Sleater-Kinney

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Sleater-Kinney
“Bury Our Friends”

“Patch me up / I’ve got want in my bones,” belts Corin Tucker on this, Sleater-Kinney’s first new track in almost a decade. She sounds like a boxer who’s feeling her second wind, a character in an action movie who the CIA convinces to come out of retirement with guns blazing. It’s tough to imagine the trio ending its nine-year hiatus in a more auspicious way; this song is stuffed with vibrant metaphors for rebirth, and is driven by the kind of snarlingly catchy riffage that would make Jack White eat his vintage pork pie hat. If the band’s new effort No Cities to Love (out January 20) is as exhilarating as this, we’ll be looking at a comeback album for the ages. img-849 Joe Sweeney

 

Artist: Jamestown Revival

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Jamestown Revival
“California (Cast Iron Soul)”

L.A. by way of Texas duo Jamestown Revival can bring down the house as effectively as Shovels & Rope and they did just that with two guitars at the Americana Fest in Nashville this year. These Texans also further prove how powerful a simple duo can sound in Americana. Their debut album Utah is stacked from top to bottom with great songs, which probably inspired Republic Records to pick up this act for their roster in 2014. I could just as easily be spotlighting “Fur Coat Blues”, “Revival” or “Golden Age”, but “California (Cast Iron Soul)” is a masterful anthem of longing and homesickness that’s instantly stadium worthy. One of the toughest songwriting skills is penning instantly memorable tunes that remain in your head for life. Jamestown Revival does this and more. They look to have a very rosy future indeed. img-849 Sarah Zupko

 

Artist: Kendrick Lamar

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Kendrick Lamar
“I”

How do you follow up an album that made you one of the most popular and respected voices in modern hip-hop? You celebrate, of course. At points, “i” is pure, unadulterated joy, the sound of an ebullient Kendrick embracing the fact that he’s made it. But there’s confrontation in his voice, too; Kendrick is emboldened by success, rather than humbled. The refrain of “I love myself” is more than a declaration of confidence; it’s a reminder that pride and self-respect are necessary to thrive in life, and not signs of arrogance. After all, it’s not arrogance if you have the talent and drive to back it up. img-849 Kevin Korber

25 – 16

Artist: Jenny Lewis

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Display Width: 200Jenny Lewis
“She’s Not Me”

“She’s Not Me” fits comfortably within the vision of modern California-style pop that’s expressed on Jenny Lewis’ third solo album The Voyager. Yet isolated from that album, it shines as her version of a soul ballad, one that spells out its story and sentiments plainly, for emotional effect. Its essence is spelled out at the start — “I used to think you could save me / I’ve been wondering lately.” The details make you wonder, just lately she started wondering? The relationship sounds doomed from the start. The tone of the song finds a sweet spot between self-regard and self-disgust. The bridge is the big moment of drama, where she confesses she cheated and he punches through the drywall. “It goes on and on and on and on,” she sings, and you know it’s true. These feelings, these stories, the tradition of songs like this; all are eternal. img-850 Dave Heaton

 

Artist: Nickel Creek

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Nickel Creek
“Destination”

“Destination” finds the reunited Nickel Creek firing on all cylinders. The bluegrass trio fully embraces the pop and rock elements of their sound for a driving song featuring an impassioned lead vocal from Sara Watkins and beautiful backing harmonies from Chris Thile and Sean Watkins. Chris and Sean (and bassist Mark Schatz) manage to make the track hit hard despite the band’s lack of drums, while Sara holds off on playing her violin until joining in on an outro duet with Thile’s mandolin. “Destination” is a joyful, cathartic celebration of making the decision to end a downward spiraling relationship at exactly the right time, and, appropriately, it’s the type of song that gets people singing along the first time they hear it. img-850 Chris Conaton

 

Artist: Charli XCX

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Charli XCX
“Boom Clap”

The Movie Soundtrack Love Anthem seemed like a lost art, a relic from the days of big hair, John Hughes, and Julia Roberts. But there was “Boom Clap” from The Fault in Our Stars, checking all the right boxes. Reliably chugging synthpop beat. Sultry, sincere verse. Über-catchy, emotive chorus. It even went all artsy and Kate Bush for a bit in the middle-eight. There were no cross-marketed “featured artists”, no gimmicks. Just XCX and her Swedish writing/production partners delivering a three-minute bubblegum gem that may never run out of flavor. img-850 John Bergstrom

 

Artist: Schoolboy Q

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Schoolboy Q
“Collard Greens”

At this point I doubt that even casual hip-hop are fans are unaware that Schoolboy Q is a fan of women and the effects of THC. Like fellow SoCal boys Snoop and Dre before them with “Gin and Juice”, Q and his fellow Black Hippy album, Kendrick Lamar created a feel-good jam so infectious it’s fair to call it a song of the last two summers. Built around a g-funk bassline bouncy enough to be classified as flubber and 620-friendly bloopy atmospherics, it’s appeal is immediate and obvious. This is a song you can bop or chill to with equal ease. Q does the yeoman’s work of setting and carry the song’s breezy party cadence and vibe but it’s Kendrick’s verse that takes things to the next level. Starting with a full-stop pause, his flow ebbs and flows with the kind of nimble verbal and rhythmic dexterity that keeps the listener leaning in for the next twist before dropping them hard onto the chorus. And if that weren’t impressive enough, apparently he can talk some pretty impressive shit en Español. By the time Q stops back in for more discussion of weed, liquor and sexual prowess, it’s all gravy, “Collard Greens” has already lodged itself on party playlists for years to come. img-850 John M. Tryneski

 

Artist: Grouper

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Grouper
“Holding”

Grouper’s quiet popularity stands somewhat in contrast to the notion that getting noticed these days requires tireless self-promotion. Though Liz Harris seems to be granting a few more interviews with each new album, first and foremost, she allows her music the space to exist independently and represent itself. She also allows it time: her new album, Ruins was mostly recorded in Portugal in 2011 while on an artist’s residency, except for the last song, “Made of Air”, which dates back to 2004. Before that final track comes the serene, continuous breath of “Holding”. With nothing more than her voice, a piano, and modest means with which to record them, Harris is capable not just of getting inside your head, but also of rewiring your most personal reminisces. img-850 Ian King

 

Artist: Röyksopp & Robyn

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Röyksopp & Robyn
“Do It Again”

Tales of volatile relationships and mind-blowing sexual chemistry have rarely been this deliriously engaging. Following on the heels of their last collaborative efforts “The Girl and the Robot” and “None of Dem”, Norwegian electronic duo Röyksopp and Swedish pop star Robyn united once again this past summer to deliver their extended EP Do It Again. Not only was the title track one of the best club songs of the entire year, its irresistible chorus proved to have commercial life beyond the confines of any dance floor. Little did anyone know that their joint effort would be followed by Röyksopp’s final full length album The Inevitable End, but that disquieting news was accompanied by a firm clarification of their intentions. The duo have no plans on disbanding anytime soon; they are simply evolving beyond the traditional LP format. It will be interesting to see what they deliver next. In the interim, they’ve left behind a stunning collection of songs to revisit, and “Do It Again” is one of the best in their entire catalog. img-850 Ryan Lathan

 

Artist: Old Crow Medicine Show

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Old Crow Medicine Show
“Sweet Amarillo”

However you wish to categorize old-timey string band Old Crow Medicine Show — Americana, country, bluegrass — they stand atop the 2014 album picks in those categories. Remedy is Old Crow’s finest hour and it’s framed by a truly new classic country song, which is only right given that it’s built on a Bob Dylan song fragment that the songwriting god sent to the band. Old Crow did this once before with the superb “Wagon Wheel”, so it’s no surprise that fiddle and accordion laced rolling-like-tumbleweeds melodic lines delight to such a degree. Ketch Secor even draws out his drawl, paying homage to Dylan, while weaving the tale of a lonesome cowboy filled with regret over the loss of a lover. Simple, affecting, suffused with melancholy and just gorgeous. img-850 Sarah Zupko

 

Artist: Big K.R.I.T.

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Big K.R.I.T.
“Cadillactica”

Among Cadillactica‘s 15 excellent tracks, the breakaway highlight is the title track. If there’s one song that could sum up Big K.R.I.T., it just might be “Cadillactica”. The DJ Dahi produced track smells of Cadillacs and wood grain. It feels like Southern hip-hop, from the booming bass to the funky synths with a touch of ATLiens futurism. The simple repetition of “Cadillac lac lac lac, Cadillac lac lac lac” is exactly the kind of hook critics have bashed K.R.I.T. for making in the past and it’s exactly the kind of hook this song needed. There is so much energy behind “Cadillactica”, with K.R.I.T. slaughtering the beat in a similar fashion as he did to “Mt. Olympus”. img-850 Logan Smithson

 

Artist: Caribou

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Caribou
“Can’t Do Without You”

Here’s the thing: every track on Caribou’s quietly triumphant Our Love could happily go on for, oh, ten or 12 minutes past their actual runtime. A 14-minute “Julia Brightly”? Check. Fifteen-minute “Back Home”? Yes, please. But the brevity of the songs here belie Dan Snaith’s intentions—these are pop songs, through and through, perhaps none more than opener “Can’t Do Without You,” the strongest song of the set. Yes, Snaith builds the track like a house miniature (sorry), looping a vocal sample over slowly building synths and a mixture of live and programmed percussion, giving the line “I can’t do without you” the weight of a mantra in its repetition. He gives equal weight to the undeniable groove of the track as to its deep pathos, both exploding in its final moments as Snaith layers countermelodies and emotive drones over his expertly constructed rhythmic foundation. It’s a knockout, give this one an extra 20. img-850 Corey Beasley

 

Artist: St. Vincent

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St. Vincent
“Digital Witness”

Already firmly established as one of the most innovative women musicians of the last decade or more, Annie Clark finally found a way to integrate pop music into her idiosyncratic, amorphous music on her self-titled 2014 album, and nowhere did the formula work better than on “Digital Witness”. Featuring a playful, cozy ‘80s electronic arrangement that immediately brings The Art of Noise to mind, Clark questions today’s selfie-obsessed culture: “If I can’t show it, if you can’t see me / What’s the point of doing anything?” Clark went as far as to politely request concert audiences not shoot cell phone footage at her shows, but in a wonderful bit of irony, as soon as the hit “Digital Witness” started, the phones came out, their bright little screens aimed straight at Clark. img-850 Adrien Begrand

15 – 6

Artist: Owen Pallett

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Display Width: 200Owen Pallett
“The Riverbed”

In 2014, no one has been more at home criss-crossing musical borders than Owen Pallett. While Pallett may have been using his training in music theory to extol the virtues of Katy Perry and Lady Gaga in a series of articles in Slate, it’s really his own album from this year, In Conflict, that makes the best case study for how to blur the boundaries between pop and art. Nowhere else does Pallett put theory into practice so compellingly as his single “The Riverbed”: Marching to the beat of crisp, martial percussion, Pallett layers modern classical strings and lyrics narrating existentialist vignettes over it, though that description makes it seem more highbrow and high concept than it really is. Indeed, “The Riverbed” never gets abstract or over your head, as Pallett is somehow able to wrap everything up in a pop-song package in such a way that all the elements play off each other to heighten the drama. While it would be apt to say that Pallett is doing some of the most exciting work cross-pollinating genres, it might be more accurate to suggest that “The Riverbed” has created its own category to define itself. img-851 Arnold Pan

 

Artist: First Aid Kit

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First Aid Kit
“Stay Gold”

Opening with an ethereal chant and organic picking, “Stay Gold” embodies the halcyon days of youth, their inevitable end, and the bittersweet knowledge that they are gone forever. Its aching, existential chorus is sung with angelic poise: “What if the hard works end in despair? What if the road won’t take me there?” the sisters intone over a swell of cymbals and strings, a gentle patter of drums propelling the track forward to its soaring conclusion. The lyrics are jaded, but the sentiment is not. It touches the raw nerve of uncertainty but plows bravely, inexorably forward despite fear, rising above the doldrums of adulthood and remaining, somehow, wide-eyed and hopeful in a seemingly hopeless world.img-851 Adam Finley

 

Artist: Todd Terje feat. Bryan Ferry

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Todd Terje feat. Bryan Ferry
“Johnny & Mary”

Todd Terje earned his international popularity through a mixture of infectiously-perfect techno singles and bouncy remixes of other artists’ songs. But his greatest release this year came in the form of a ballad. Enlisting the help of an unjustly-forgotten Robert Palmer song and the slowly dying voice of Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry, Terje constructs a heartbreaking synthesized soundscape. Ferry croons out the lyrics in a jaded rasp, matching the confusion and uncertainty of the song’s protagonist. img-851 Logan Austin

 

Artist: Spoon

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Spoon
“Do You”

Upon first listen, “Do You,” is quite the peculiar track. The opening hook can’t seem to find a lane as it oddly ascends and descends through the melodic scale. But by song’s end, that muffled, disjointed hook might have been the most infectious indie rock earworm of this past summer. An obvious highlight from Spoon’s latest, They Want My Soul, and in the running for best Spoon ever, “Do You” finds Britt Daniels’ vocals pushed way out in front, while the backing instrumentation gently transitions between breezy acoustic guitars and tepid piano keys. But what really makes “Do You” such a great song is how it manages to traverse being both eerily hypnotic and melodically pleasing with ease. That’s not an easy thing to do, but Spoon was apparently up to the challenge. img-851 Richard Giraldi

 

Artist: Sia

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Sia
“Chandelier”

In a year where Top 40 pop was ruled by female stars, it’s curious that one of the women at the forefront was barely visible. Australian songwriter Sia Furler forced the attention all on her music and never on photoshopped magazine covers or what designer she was wearing. Driving her point home further, for most of her televised appearances in 2014 she often performed facing away from her audience. The truth is, with a luminous pop confection as inherently explosive as “Chandelier”, she barely needed to promote it at all. As the most anthemic pop moment this year, “Chandelier” elevated us to dizzying heights and made us never want to come back down. img-851 Andy Belt

 

Artist: Azealia Banks

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Azealia Banks
“Chasing Time”

Yeah, we had all written her off. First there was that brilliant, game-changing debut (“212”), the slithering 1991 EP with a few other brilliant songs (“Liquorice”), and then… sadness. The hit-or-miss Fantasea mixtape. The seizure-inducing “Yung Rapunxel” video. The never-ending Twitter feuds and that sleepwalk of a Pharrell collabo. Her goodwill was spent, we were just about to throw in the towel, and then, a few weeks before the surprise drop of her Sisyphusian debut Broke With Expensive Taste, came her most confident song in years: a brilliant dance-rap tell off that was all sass and attitude, reminding us all why we all fell for Azealia in the first place. She remembered that “swagger” — not braggadocio — was her default setting, and her agile singing, smart tell-offs, and that techno earworm of a chorus was all we needed to bow down to the greatness she once was, a ruby-encrusted Lazarus emerging from major label despair to give us the most satisfying verbal bitch slap of the year. img-851 Evan Sawdey

 

Artist: Against Me!

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Against Me!
“Transgender Dysphoria Blues”

Even outside of the courageous and inspiring narrative surrounding this song, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” is just so goddamned good. Everything exciting and alluring about Against Me!’s sound is present here: the rollicking drum lines, the sing a long vocals and punchy riffs all rooted in an honest singer songwriter aesthetic. There was no better way to open a concept album reflecting Laura’s transgender journey than this number, which invites us to be a part of the journey yet lets most of us know that we’re but tourists to this pain. And for what it’s worth, there was no greater punk lyric this year than “You’ve got no cunt in your strut”. Never change, Ms Grace. img-851 Andrew McDonald

 

Artist: Wild Beasts

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Wild Beasts
“Wanderlust”

“With us, the world feels voluptuous,” warbles Hayden Thorpe, his band locked into a stuttering groove, a swirl of synths and snare as unsettling as it is gorgeous. And he’s right. Listening to “Wanderlust”, as with the rest of the band’s stunning Present Tense, one’s surroundings take on a sensual, sultry color—a sexual throb potent in its quiet, insistent aggression. And, as ever with Wild Beasts, things take a turn toward the dark. The song’s climax is a masterclass on building tension, with drummer Chris Talbot never once altering the beat in order to coax you, trancelike, into following Thorpe outside of the light. It also has Thorpe issuing his trademark taunts, half schoolyard and half seedy motel. “Don’t confuse me with someone who gives a fuck,” he sings, “in your mother tongue, what’s the verb ‘to suck’?” The synths drone, the melody bends and never breaks, and you’re in his thrall, with nothing to do but let “Wanderlust” work its spell. img-851 Corey Beasley

 

Artist: Parker Millsap

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Parker Millsap
“Truckstop Gospel”

With Parker Millsap, what hits you first is the voice: soulful, gravelly, whiskey-laced, and wielded like a world-weary prophet. But it’s not just raw talent. He also demonstrates a deep affinity for the Texan school of singer-songwriters like Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen even though he’s an Okie, meaning that the songs are just as impressive as the performances, especially “Forgive Me”, a slice of neo-Memphis soul worthy of Justin Townes Earle, and “Truck Stop Gospel”, a weird trucker manifesto worthy of Lowell George. Personally, I have a soft spot for “Truck Stop Gospel”, on which Millsap walks a fine line between empathy and pity for the narrator, a truck-driving, “God-fearing Christian on fire”, a man so caught up in the power of his belief that he has seemingly lost sight of what it means to be good. img-851 Taylor Coe

 

Artist: Clean Bandit

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Clean Bandit
“Rather Be”

There are few things in this universe as volatile as the UK pop charts, because on a week-by-week basis, the #1 single will change as frequently as the weather on the British coast (… it changes a lot). So when a song stays for two weeks in pole position, it’s because the song has touched people in a way that’s deeper than, say, your run-of-the-mill X-Factor single. Yet when neo-classical dance group Clean Bandit ruled the penthouse for four consecutive weeks with the song “Rather Be”, it was because of one very simple reason: it was a fantastic song. That deceptively simple string intro, the low synth pads, the pounding piano of that chorus hitting you right in that pop music sweet spot — it all makes for a fusion of modern tropes and classic old-school songwriting that surpassed such arbitrary barriers like “genre” and “market”, instead simply becoming that rare kind of global hit that everyone pretty much every just outright loved. Some may call it inoffensive, but most people just call it what it is: one of the best pop songs of this young decade, hands down. img-851 Evan Sawdey

5 – 1

Artist: Mike Farris

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Display Width: 200Mike Farris
“Mercy Now”

Nashville-based neo-soul man Mike Farris has one of the finest voices in R&B since Sam Moore and he lit it up this year with a stellar new album, Shine for All the People. On an LP chock full of stompers, steamers and joy-wringers, the hymn-like “Mercy Now” stands as the most powerful and transcendent song. Written by the incomparable Mary Gauthier, Farris takes these poetic lines and stirring melody and turns the song into an impassioned call for grace and peace for all living things on the planet. It’s an inclusive vision, filled with love and understanding that only a full-on gospel treatment with Beatlesque choruses and Farris’ stirring vocals can rise to the highest of heights. Farris now has his very own “Let It Be”. Take your troubles to “Mercy Now” and feel them melt away. img-852 Sarah Zupko

 

Artist: Taylor Swift

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Taylor Swift
“Shake It Off”

“Shake It Off” is easily one of the best-produced and best-sung pop songs of the decade. Producer Max Martin, who bolstered Ariana Grande’s “Problem” with the indelible saxophone, does it again with sassy horns that compliment but never overtake Taylor Swift. Martin also gives the song a beat that’s simultaneously spacious (allowing Taylor Swift’s harmonies and giggles to be heard very clearly) and hard-hitting (the first measure alone will tell you as much). Swift here is on fire, singing verses that are catchier than their chorus counterparts and choruses that are catchier than ever. The bridge doubles on the spoken word one of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, and momentarily sucks some of the song’s momentous energy, but pay attention when Taylor returns after the silence: an unstoppable blast of harmonic energy. img-852 Marshall Gu

 

Artist: FKA Twigs

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FKA Twigs
“Two Weeks”

“I’m all out of love / I’m so lost without you” are words that FKA twigs doesn’t sing on “Two Weeks”, but these lyrics -— Air Supply from 1980, if you can’t place them —- provide one key in decoding her beguiling single. Unlike many artistic disciplines, pop music welcomes tonal and contextual ambiguity, and “Two Weeks” masterfully works this confusion. Vocals removed, the song’s throb and clatter could just as easily score a thriller as a softcore sex scene. In FKA Twigs’ hands, obsession is insistently seductive, smutty, and possibly violent (see the infamous, ominous “pull out the incisor” line). Is this a spoken, impossibly aggressive come-on? An idle crush half-dreamt into outright obsession? “Two Weeks” is open to all possibilities, although it’s easy to miss a core concern, the one that leads twigs to briefly quote the melody from a 34-year-old Air Supply song. For all its bravado, there’s a vulnerability underlying “Two Weeks” about the possibility of committed, utter devotion — with graphically detailed benefits. img-852 Dave Bloom

 

Artist: Future Islands

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Future Islands
“Seasons (Waiting on You)”

Although Singles may not have been as strong a release as 2011’s On the Water, there is hardly a band more deserving of a breakthrough this year than Future Islands. Relentless tourers from Baltimore with no image to sell, the chances were stacked against them. Then came a network television debut on The Late Show with David Letterman that managed to both soften Letterman’s heart and make singer Samuel T. Herring into someone who has GIFs made of his dance moves. The “Seasons” performance would have come off as vaguely ridiculous if not for the fact that the song itself is such a heartfelt encapsulation of, as Herring says, “love, letting go, learning from your mistakes and always feeling that pull.” “Seasons” is a sincere and soaring hit from a band that didn’t waste its chance to fly. img-852 Maria Schurr

 

Artist: Flying Lotus

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Flying Lotus
“Never Catch Me”

Plenty of albums focus on the ramifications of death (see the entirety of Benji), but few dive into the afterlife itself. Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead! feels like a record that was made in the mysterious moments after the heart stops, and “Never Catch Me” is its centerpiece. The fact that Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus haven’t worked before is a travesty, as their energy entwines in a way that suggests that they are twins separated at birth. Lamar’s flow is rapid and cerebral, magnifying the jazzy motions of Lotus’ production. Despite Lamar dodging and ducking the grim reaper, the mad mix of Thundercat’s manic solo, Lotus’ future jazz blueprint, and Lamar’s unstoppable flow make “Never Catch Me” a strange celebration of hope in the heart of darkness. img-852 Nathan Stevens

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