25. “Kickin’ da Leaves” – Judah & The Lion
Judah & The Lion have slowly but surely been building some indie cred from their home base in Nashville, Tennessee over the past few years. And 2014 was their break through year. After a year of touring the nation and promoting their excellent first LP, it seems like the bluegrass trio is destined for big things. And after listening to tracks like “Kickin’ da Leaves,” it’s easy to understand why. There’s a youthful and excessive joy to the Kids These Days opener that sets the tone for the rest of the album as one full of wonder and exploration of the band’s sound. But don’t get the wrong impression. This is a mature group that knows how to write compelling and thought-provoking music .
24. “Mars” – Caribou
My weak spot in music criticism is electronic music, to be honest. I can’t give you technical terms to digest or analytical phrases to chew on. But what I can say is when a song sounds good and when it doesn’t. And “Mars” is the former. It’s an enthralling piece from Our Love, that rides a delicate and catchy melody through most of the nearly-6-minute song before slowly layering in different voice overs and effects and then quickly pulling them back in. It’s weird. And I don’t know what to say about it. But I like it a whole heck of a lot.
23. “High Ball Stepper” – Jack White
Jack White’s status as a rock legend has long been cemented, even before he ventured off into solo work. His bluesy style and grungy swagger are only outdone by his confidence. It was this confidence that lent room for Lazaretto, his most adventurous and diverse collection of music to date. His hook for the album, “High Ball Stepper”, is about as Jack White of a song as you can get. Riffing guitar, slamming pianos and a steady rhythm are backed by an odd assortment of hollers. But if it’s not eclectic, it’s not Jack White.
22. “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” – U2
No band made bigger headlines in 2014 than U2, who shocked consumers everywhere by releasing their newest full-length album in succession with the iPhone 6, only it cost about $400 less – that’s free, for those of you who weren’t paying attention. And while it wasn’t U2’s best work, the album’s opener is a confident and emotional piece. The fact that U2 can make such quality music so far into their career is a statement about their legacy. What that statement says? We won’t know until they’re finished pulling stunts like this.
21. “Love Never Felt So Good” – Michael Jackson
Some of Michael Jackson’s posthumous releases have been atrocious. Take this year’s Xscape. I love MJ and I love JT, but putting them together on one song was one experiment that should have been left in the lab. But offenses like that make it all the easier to appreciate the moments of brilliance. Take the original recording of the same song, “Love Never Felt So Good.” There’s no fanfare, no bells and whistles. It’s just a piano, some snapping and the King of Pop himself reminding everyone from the grave how truly great he was. I’ll take that over attempts at modernity any day of the week.
20. “Back To The Shack” – Weezer
Rivers Cuomo is one of the most endearing songwriters of our time. That’s it. Period. No discussion. How else could you explain a song like “Back To The Shack”, an apology letter of sorts to Weezer fans for the rabbit hole the band followed over the past decade or so. And it’s so easy to forgive them for every wrong they’ve ever done (even though I’ve still got a soft spot in my heart for “Beverly Hills.”) How can you say no to those nerdy faces? Or those raging guitars and thumping drums? You can’t. You just can’t.
19. “No Rest For The Wicked” – Lykke Li
In retrospect, I Never Learn was the perfect name for Lykke Li’s sophomore album, a wrenching and mournful reflection of heartbreak and love. The almost funeral-like album cover speaks to the bleak nature of the record. But her music is just as gorgeous and rich as ever. “No Rest For The Wicked” is a sprawling, beautiful track born out of pure sadness. Ironically, it births pure elation.
18. “Screen Door” – Vince Staples
“Gangsta rap” is almost a misnomer nowadays. Very few rappers could also be considered “gangstas” with their posh lifestyles. But Vince Staples’ jaw-dropping Hell Can Wait represented a striking return to form for the subgenre. “Screen Door” is reminiscent of the album’s voice as a whole, both confused about the nature of his surroundings and accepting of harsh realities of his life.
17. “Knock Knock Knock” – Spoon
Spoon’s They Want My Soul was a triumphant release for the Austin outfit, marking their status as some of the most creative rock artists alive today. There are so many things going on in “Knock Knock Knock,” it’s hard to put a finger on each and every element (key changes, unconventional instruments, vocal layers, etc.) But instead of being a hodgepodge or a mess, it works cohesively to form one of the year’s best tracks. That’s the brilliance of Spoon, one of indie rock’s saving graces this year.
16. “Easy (Switch Screens)” – Son Lux feat. Lorde
Remember when I mentioned the Midas-like roll Kendrick Lamar was on? Lorde is in a similar position. Earlier in 2014, she joined Son Lux’s Alternating Worlds EP to remix an already excellent track in 2013’s “Easy.” So what does she do? She makes it far better than it already was, which is saying quite a bit. Lorde’s voice is crucial, adding a beautiful, haunting texture that takes the song from “great” to “unforgettable.”
15. “Crown” – Run the Jewels
Killer Mike and El-P have formed a reputation for themselves and Run the Jewels as being harsh and aggressive. But that’s okay; they both have a lot to say. But the duo slowed it down on “Crown,” RTJ2‘s most exploratory track. One of Run the Jewels’ best qualities is the individuality of both voices, and “Crown” almost plays as a discussion between the two. About what is up to the listener. But there’s a lot of heavy material to be digested here. And there’s no better rap group at making its audience think than this one.
14. “Psychosocial” – Brooke Fraser
As her musical background cloaked her in anonymity, Brooke Fraser, former vocalist for Hillsong United, released one of the year’s most creative and daring albums. Unfortunately, nobody seems to be talking about it. And that’s a shame. “Psychosocial” is a leap forward for the singer-songwriter, both in production and creativity. It’s bigger and headier than most of her previous work, with a biting message aimed at social interactions. Hopefully it gets her the recognition she deserves. And even if it doesn’t, it won’t be much longer before it’s far too hard to ignore her.
13. “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes” – Sun Kil Moon
Some of my favorite songs of all time have a sense of urgency to them. Most of the time that’s in a musical sense (see: Godspeed You! Black Emperor), and it’s rare to hear a song that carries the feeling of dread quite like Sun Kil Moon’s “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes.” It’s a rambling mess, but there’s real fear behind each confused and strikingly personal line. It’s a reaction at the core; Richard Ramirez’s death causes Kozelek to face his own mortality, something people don’t do enough given the uncertainty of life and death. Kozelek documents this well over the course of the song. It’s probably the heaviest release this year. It’s also one of the most important.
12. “My Beloved” – Crowder
The end of David Crowder Band was a sad time for “Christian” music. CCM is already one of the least creative areas of music today, and losing its most forward-thinking voice doesn’t help. Luckily, David Crowder has continued making music under his surname. And while Neon Steeple found him exploring the outer limits of his creative mind – sometimes to a fault – he struck gold with “My Beloved,” a bouncy and vibrant bluegrass/dance track that harkens back to his best days with his former band.
11. “Under The Pressure” – The War On Drugs
To be honest, “Under the Pressure” might not have been the best track on The War on Drugs Lost In The Dream. But if not for this track, I wouldn’t have given the album a second chance…or a third. It took me a while to get swept up in the cascading world of Lost In The Dream. After a few listens, I still didn’t get the hype. But one glorious day, I flipped it on, determined to give it one more chance. And the steady drums and drowsy guitars and saxophones carried me away into one of the most immersive music experiences of the year. So thank you “Under the Pressure.” Thank you for being my shining light.
10. “Lazaretto” – Jack White
There’s an existing feeling about Jack White that he’s only excelling when he’s rocking loudest. But on 2012’s excellent Love Interruption, the title track turned out to be one of the best songs of his career. It was relatively tame, but still poetic and grim. On Lazaretto’s title track, White chooses to divert from his typical style once again. Only this time he doesn’t quiet himself. On “Lazaretto”, White gets loud and wild, interjecting raps and riffs into the framework of 3 and a half minute song that would feel like pure lunacy if not for the man behind it. Creative liberties are an artist’s right, and White knows how to use them.
9. “Water Fountain” – tUnE-yArDs
One of the great things about music is that it serves so many purposes. Sometimes it’s for contemplation. Sometimes it gives us inspiration. And sometimes it’s just for having some fun. And was there an artist this year that accomplished that purpose more than tUnE-yArDs? If there was, I missed them. But I can (almost) guarantee there wasn’t a song more fun than “Water Fountain.” The unconventional percussion taps out a ridiculously catchy rhythm while Merrill Garbus raps and hollers her way through the song. It makes absolutely no sense, and you can’t help but scream it out.
8. “Careful You” – TV On The Radio
Sometimes life is just a cluster of questions with no answers, a seemingly one-sided conversation with the universe. But there’s a catharsis in asking questions, in recognizing our own humanity. That may not be the point of TV On The Radio’s massive, anthemic “Careful You”, but that’s what it makes me feel like. The chorus finds Tunde Adebimpe rattling off a list of unanswered questions to an unknown someone. It could be anybody. But the motions of the song are so expressionist and flowing, it’s easy to slide yourself into the narrative. It’s like a big, warm hug waiting to comfort you in your moments of doubt, ready to bathe you in the joy of ignorance. That’s a lot of words that probably don’t make any sense, but sometimes life doesn’t make sense, you know? *walks off stage to snapping crowd*
7. “Jealous (I Ain’t With It)” – Chromeo
In an industry where “Turn Down For What” is considered the premiere party jam, gems like “Jealous (I Ain’t With It)” are bound to go unnoticed. And that’s a shame. Chromeo’s cheeky and classy brand of songwriting has long been an underground favorite and was fully realized in 2014’s White Women. The album’s opener is a suave and ridiculously catchy single. It’s like a Katy Perry song minus the Katy Perry songwriting. Credit Chromeo for finding a formula that works and fitting it to their style.
6. “Shake It Off” – Taylor Swift
For those who have known me for longer than a few months and have ever talked music with me, you’ll know how adamant I was about not liking Taylor Swift. I didn’t just not like her music, I disliked it. With a passion. “She’s one-dimensional,” I said. “She’s silly and immature,” I said. “She’s a sappy, self-obsessed tweener song writer,” I said. And I was perfectly content believing all this, spouting it like musically religious dogma.
And then “Shake It Off” happened this summer.
At first, I wasn’t crazy about it. I thought it was catchy, but not deep. A good summer song at best. But after months of not being able to get the dang thing out of my head, I have to give Taylor Swift the credit she’s due. Maybe something happened in between albums to grow her up. Maybe it’s something I’ve missed all along. But Swift is a pop genius. No one stops talking about her. You have to have an opinion of her. And for the love of all that is holy, I simply cannot stop humming her freaking songs.
Screw it. I’ve never had so much fun being wrong.
5. “Ordinary” – Copeland
Some people I’ve talked to have accused Copeland of being bland. And I can see the rationale behind that thought. They’re nothing if not a bit drab. But I don’t like to think of them as bland or boring. I prefer to think of them as hyper-realistic. “Ordinary,” the first single from Ixora, finds Copeland back in their wheelhouse, creating small-scope masterpieces that capture the air of hopeful melancholy in everyday life and everyday love. See the first verse: “Today was fine. I woke up late like I always do, made work just in the knick of time and thought of you.” In a way, “Ordinary” is the song Copeland was meant to write, their magnum opus of normality and the beauty within.
4. “Hands Up” – Vince Staples
This year’s biggest cultural moment in relation to rap music had to be Killer Mike (of Run the Jewels) delivering a tearful speech to a St. Louis crowd the night of the Ferguson announcement. His impassioned words moved a crowd and brought people to tears. But no statement about the year’s biggest news story stood out like “Hands Up” (indirect as it may be.) Vince Staples’ single from Hell Can Wait is a piece of surrealist horror. Sirens drone in the background while Staples ruthlessly attacks each verse with defined anger and resolution. When so much hurt and reaction was hard to reason, Staples words spoke clearly above the noise: “They expect respect and non-violence; I refuse the right to be silent.”
3. “Digital Witness” – St. Vincent
In a year dominated by strong female voices (Taylor Swift, Lykke Li, Lorde, Steffany Gretzinger, Sharon Van Etten, Angel Olsen, etc.) St. Vincent’s work demanded our attention. Her fierce and harsh self-titled effort is strange, but fun, a daring and supremely confident piece of pop-rock that only grows on you with each listen. “Digital Witness” is like Annie Clark herself; it commands the room with sheer power of will. And you almost have no choice; choosing not to listen would be a horrible mistake.
2. “Out of Hiding” – Steffany Gretzinger
If you don’t mind, I’m about to get a little personal: 2014 wasn’t exactly a banner year for me. It wasn’t bad by any means. But it was a year that saw me go through a lot of growth: physically, emotionally and spiritually. And that growth required pain, uncertainty and struggle. I often turn to music in these times as a source of comfort. And I will always remember my first time listening to “Out Of Hiding.” It was a song I often turned to during hard days and moments. Now I’ve had visceral reactions to many songs in the past, but this is one of the only songs that has literally (yes) stopped me in my tracks and caused me to openly weep. To try and describe any further would be an injustice to Gretzinger’s writing. Listen for yourself, please.
1. “Seasons (Waiting On You)” – Future Islands
I had a really good conversation recently with a friend about end of the year music lists. We talked about list format, how late in the year the lists actually came together and the deciding factors of our favorite music. From that conversation, I gleaned something that’s easy to forget in the face of trying to be a cool and trendy writer.
Sometimes, your favorite music is just the stuff you always find yourself listening to. And I always found myself coming back to this song in 2014.
“Seasons (Waiting On You)” isn’t a groundbreaking track in technical merit. The thematic material is pretty standard. And the style isn’t experimental or artistically significant in a major way. But this song is special, or at least it is to me. As it bounces and glides through three and a half minutes, it transforms from a Future Islands song into a song of belonging, of relation. It’s the apex of an emotional breakdown and the peak of self-acceptance at the same time. Warm and inviting, it lures you into a woozy world of heartbreak, anger and beauty. All the while, Samuel Herring guides you with his voice, a strange siren whose appeal lies in his everyman ability as much as in his evident passion. “Seasons (Waiting On You)” is a spectacular mess and a chaotic metaphor. For love. For change. For life.