A quick note before you start reading this list:
Every year I have an internal struggle when it comes to ranking my favorite songs and records. I listen to some songs/albums more than others, but I appreciate some more than others as well. Finding that balance in criticism is walking a very fine line, something I’m not always interested in doing. That’s why I refrain from calling this “The Best 50 songs of 2014” or “My Favorite 25 albums of 2014,” because neither really captures what I’m going for. It’s a healthy combination of the two, plus it’s ambiguous enough to where I don’t have to debate people on such a subjective topic. Thanks so much for reading. Enjoy the music!
50. “Go” – Grimes
It isn’t exactly the Grimes everyone knows and loves, but it is pretty darn spectacular. The summer jam “Go” was originally written for Rihanna, but instead “fell” to the indie pop star, who gave the milque toast lyrics some spacey kick. She also proved she can get bigger and bolder than her past work.
49. “Simple and Sure” – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
Not sure what to make of that video? Neither am I. The song behind it though is a stunner. It’s refreshing to hear such a retro take on pop music when most pop ranges from sub-par to mediocre. It’s a tried and true style, but, after all, there is nothing new under the sun, right? But I digress. “Simple and Sure” has a 100% success rate in getting my toes tapping.
48. “My Body” – Perfume Genius
A lot of people paid attention to Perfume Genius’ “Queen” this year, but I haven’t seen a lot of love for the subversive and raw “My Body.” The lyrics themselves are grotesque, but the real kicker comes in the form of Mike Hadreas’ perfect delivery. Who knew 2 and a half minutes could pack such a punch?
47. “The Purge” – Schoolboy Q feat. Captain Murphy and Tyler, the Creator
Schoolboy Q is on a solid streak of good music over the past few years, raising the bar on Oxymoron. He definitely benefits from the presence of Murphy and Tyler as the three form a powerful, pure-rap triumvirate on the heavy and aggressive “The Purge.” Collaboration album, please?
46. “Lipstick” – Ariel Pink
When Ariel Pink wasn’t squabbling with Madonna this year, he was releasing more of his weirdly palatable music, except this time he opted for just Ariel Pink (sans Haunted Graffiti.) Dropping his band for an album was a good decision, as his music is more focused than it has been for a while without losing its trademark…um…oddities. “Lipstick” is straight out of a VH1 “One Hit Wonders of the 80’s” television special, but in a really good way.
45. “4 bit 9d api+e+6 [126.26]” – Aphex Twin
Want to hear what the music of the future sounds like? No, it’s not Flight of the Conchord’s “Robots.” It’s Aphex Twin. The twist? He’s been making music like this since the 90’s. And even after a long hiatus, he hasn’t lost a step in keeping five steps ahead.
44. “Anagram” – Young the Giant
Young the Giant felt the sophomore slump on the disappointing Mind Over Matter. But they’re still capable of making excellent music, as shown on “Anagram.” It calls back to tracks like “My Body” and “Cough Syrup” from their debut, excellent works dominated by bright melodies and driving, off-beat rhythms.
43. “Hours” – FKA twigs
FKA twigs released one of the year’s strongest full length debuts and could be heading up the next evolution of R&B. Her voice lingers and floats over a masterful piece of atmospheric swell. It’s the command that she shows over every aspect of a seemingly loose world that makes her so alluring.
42. “Your Love is Killing Me” – Sharon Van Etten
Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There was one of the year’s most sobering releases, lifted up by its outstanding body of work and not by any one track. But “Your Love Is Killing Me” was the album’s standout, combining the record’s most powerful lyrics with some of its loudest instrumentals. If most of Are We There is spent feeling Van Etten’s emotions in a deep and surprising way, “Your Love Is Killing Me” is pure empathy.
41. “Vocal Chords” – Judah Lee
Have yourself a year, man. When he wasn’t heading up the underground outfit Judah & The Lion during their wildly successful 2014, lead singer Judah Lee was releasing his own music in the form of a 5-song EP, Harp & Arrows. It’s decidedly personal and transparent, acting as a beautiful companion piece to his music in J&TL. The production is through the roof and the writing is some of the most honest you’ll find this year.
40. “Never Catch Me” – Flying Lotus feat. Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar is on a Midas-like roll right now; everything he touches is gold. His guest verse on Flying Lotus’ “Never Catch Me” was one of rap music’s highlights in 2014. Lamar’s trademark delivery over some modern free-form jazz from one of the world’s weirdest producers is a bold proposition. But Lamar makes it pay off.
39. “Where the Kids Are” – Blondfire
Let’s be honest: there’s some music out there that is regulated to one season or another. You only listen to certain albums on summer nights or fall afternoons. Blondfire’s Young Heart fits this mold perfectly, but not in a bad way. Erica Driscoll’s voice oozes LA charm and the poppy synths and guitars are straight out of a teenage mixed CD with the words “Summer Nights!” hastily written in black Sharpie. There’s an unwritten nostalgia that Blondfire hits on, one that signifies great pop music.
38. “Crown The Pines” – S. Carey
S. Carey’s Range of Light was one of 2014’s technical marvels, a master work in texture and ambition highlighted by “Crown The Pines.” He makes what I like to call “mountainous” music and it’s easy to see why during sweeping, hilly tracks like this. The orchestral movements are beautiful coupled with layered vocals, creating a rich and vast atmosphere.
37. “Talking Backwards” – Real Estate
No guitar line brought me more joy this year than the one from “Talking Backwards.” It’s simple enough to dance to, but so complex in the way it works with Courtney’s vocals. Real Estate’s Atlas was pure poppy joy, and “Talking Backwards” stood out on an album of dandies.
36. “Multiplied” – needtobreathe
Many of needtobreathe’s fan favorites are their more spiritually focused efforts (“Something Beautiful”, “Lay ‘Em Down”, “Washed By the Water”) and for good reason. There’s an unbridled joy in hearing Bear Rinehart and the gang worship, one that shines through in their music. “Multiplied” shines like “radiant diamonds” on the solid Rivers In the Wasteland, signaling the band’s focus hasn’t wavered.
35. “Delorean Dynamite” – Todd Terje
No track had its tongue more firmly in cheek than Todd Terje’s – well, dynamite – track “Delorean Dynamite” from Its Album Time. Sounding like it traveled with Marty McFly to both the 80’s and the distant future, “Delorean Dynamite” is a space-age disco party. It’s gloriously grounded in its disco influences, but so caught up in spacey atmosphere that it’s hard to tell where Terje was exactly envisioning this track going. But does it really matter when it’s this good?
34. “Building It Still” – James Blake
After last year’s excellent Overgrown, James Blake decided he’d take it easy this year by doing a number of BBC Radio residencies, debuting several new tracks in the process. “Building It Still” was the best of the bunch, but it also signaled a new, experimental direction for Blake’s music. Whereas he’s always used smooth R&B influences, he’s now bending the music (and his voice) to his will. It’s tougher to digest, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less thrilling.
33. “Dead Man’s Tetris” – Flying Lotus
Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead! was widely praised this year for being the most accessible of the enigmatic producer’s records. But that didn’t stop it from being the weirdest release of the year. So for those not yet introduced the spacey world of You’re Dead!, “Dead Man’s Tetris” is the perfect entry level track, a bumping, spacious rap with names like Snoop Dogg for extra assurance. But Flying Lotus’ production remains the highlight.
32. “Face Again” – How To Dress Well
My list last year was topped by Justin Timberlake’s “Pusher Love Girl”, a track that reintroduced JT into the sphere of popular music. Imagine if Timberlake really stripped down his sound and hired Kanye West to produce. That’s “Face Again”, How To Dress Well’s sultry crooner from the lovely What Is This Heart?. It’s a vulnerable track, but also carries a defiant edge that balances out quite nicely. He really brings it home in the chorus using a haunting hook that’s nearly impossible to get out of your head.
31. “Goodbye Weekend” – Mac DeMarco
“Goodbye Weekend” is about as slimy as Mac DeMarco looks. You can almost picture him sitting out on a front porch in an open shirt, socks and a hat with the sweat of three days clinging to his hair plucking away on a guitar. But that’s what makes it appealing. It’s almost too easy-going.
30. “I Love My Dad” – Sun Kil Moon
Sun Kil Moon’s Benji was a bleak affair, a forthright and refreshing look at life and death. But Mark Kozelek opened up in an unprecedented way on this album. No song speaks to this more than “I Love My Dad,” a touching tribute to the man who raised him, including some very personal anecdotes and memories. It almost sounds as if Kozelek makes it up on the spot, but that can be said for most of the record given its off-the-cuff feel and stripped down production. It works especially well here.
29. “Double Life” – Conor Oberst
Hopefully Conor Oberst’s Bright Eyes days aren’t behind him. But it is nice to see him get back to his solo work. “Double Life” is a microcosm of Upside Down Mountain, a heavily Southern, but unmistakably Oberst album that makes me think, “Huh, what if all country music was like this?” Oberst’s unique voice only becomes more charming with time, and while it may be only a formality, it’s nice to think that all the influence in this music is his.
28. “Yellow Flicker Beat” – Lorde
Lorde was 2013’s biggest name in music, a young, brilliant musician who fit the perfect mold of anti-pop star. There wasn’t one person in the music industry who didn’t feel her impact. And now she’s taking her influence to the big screen. The young Kiwi headed up the original soundtrack for Mockingjay by collecting a variation of great artists for the penultimate Hunger Games film. And even in a soundtrack that included Charlie XCX, Chvrches and Bat For Lashes, she stood head and shoulders above her peers. “Yellow Flicker Beat” is your quintessential apocalyptic track, bold and brooding, with enough feminine power to match Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as the girl on fire.
27. “Sexy Socialite” – Chromeo
Chromeo’s most clever work also tends to be their least serious, not that they’re serious that often. This year’s White Women was their tightest work, and “Sexy Socialite” acted as the album’s comic relief. The bass line is downright groovy and Dave 1’s off-hand vocals lend to one of the year’s most infectious tracks.
26. “Blank Space” – Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift haters (including myself for a while) have always pointed to Swift’s unsuccessful string of celebrity romances as proof that she’s not worth looking up to. And while that has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of her music, Swift decided it was about time she addressed this public perception by playing crazy in “Blank Space.” Much of the song is smart satire and warrants a few laughs. But there’s also a universal truth behind “Blank Space”; relationships are messy no matter who’s involved. Taking on her critics seemed to be T-Swift’s modus operandi this year, and “Blank Space” was one of her most effective shots.