Monday, March 30, 2015

Best Music of 2014: Top 30 Songs

And now, to conclude our much-delayed celebration of the best music of 2014, here's my top 30 songs of the year that was. Why a top 30, you ask? It seemed like a reasonable number, given what I listen to, without the potential to neither have to stretch to fill in spots (if I had gone to 40 or 50) nor have to make too many tough decisions on who to include (if I had with just 20 or even 10). So 30 is the nice round number.

Anyway, here's your next favorite playlist (maybe).

30. "Sleeping With A Friend," Neon Trees

Neon Trees have touched pop greatness before with their neo-new wave sound, and "Sleeping With A Friend" is no exception. Over a snazzy synth groove, lead singer Tyler Glenn sings of the perils of falling in love with a close friend, though it sounds like an imminently danceable proposition. It's a terrific slice of 80s-influenced power pop.

29. "High Ball Stepper," Jack White

White's latest album, Lazaretto, featured plenty of his trademark scattershot influences, ranging from howling blues to skittering rock. The instrumental "High Ball Stepper," however, is easily the highlight, a scorching garage-blues rave-up that blends White's virtuosic riffs with a stomping beat, with just a little bit of Ennio Morricone-like vocal howls thrown in to boot. It's a prime example of White's guitar-heroics and skill as a genre-masher.

28. "You Know Me Well," Sharon Van Etten

Van Etten's music is most often marked by her lyrics, often painfully heartfelt or just plain painful. "You Know Me Well," from her stellar album Are We There, is both. Over a haunting strum and distant drums, Van Etten whispers, then wails, a tale of an abusive relationship: "you know me well, you show me hell when I'm looking / and here you are, looking." Her voice cracks, and the emotional force lands. You'd be hard-pressed to find another song this emotionally blunt this year.

27. "Sanctified," Rick Ross featuring Kanye West, Big Sean, and Betty Wright

Rick Ross may not be the most gifted lyricist, and his verse on "Sanctified" is more or less par for course for him (oral sex, money, more money). But the song stands out for several reasons: an ascendent Betty Wright sample married to a million-dollar beat is key, providing a sense of sonic grandeur. But it's Kanye West's contribution that makes it a classic. West takes us to church, preaching the gospel of Yeezus and giving us the line of the year ("when Ali turn up and beat Ali you can't never take that ***** back to Cassius"). Hallelujahs are earned.

26. "Dearly Departed Friend," Old Crow Medicine Show

OCMS have long been fixtures of the folk scene, but only recently found widespread fame when country star Darius Rucker covered their Bob Dylan-influenced "Wagon Wheel" two years ago. Their latest album, Remedy, sticks to their longstanding formula, and "Dearly Departed Friend" shows what they do best. A gentle ode to a fallen soldier, the lyrics are specific enough to bring the characters to beautifully-observed life, while low-key banjos and twangy guitars blend perfectly with the group's vocal harmonies. It's sweet without ever tipping into saccharine.

Songs #25-1 after the jump.

25. "What Did I Do? / God As My Witness," Foo Fighters

The central conceit of Foo Fighters' new album, Sonic Highways, was that the band would record each song in a different city, with that city's sound influencing the song as well. "What Did I Do? / God As My Witness," recorded in Austin, Texas, at once sounds like a typical Foo Fighters song and something completely different. Structured in different movements, the hard-rocking "What Did I Do?" chugs along nicely, with a helping hand from blues-guitar virtuoso/Austin native Gary Clark Jr. But then it shifts into "God As My Witness," a transcendent mid-tempo number that turns everything up to eleven. It's a fantastic song that proves that, even if they don't stray often from their core sound, the Foos can work rock wonders.

24. "Go," Grimes featuring Blood Diamonds

Grimes has been well-known in the blogosphere for several years now, more often for her non-musical antics than her goth-pop songs. But with "Go," a single dropped out of nowhere last year, she seemed headed for mainstream pop territory. The lyrics offer some darker notions than most mainstream pop seems interested in, but then producer Blood Diamonds' massive beat drops, and it transforms into a club-rattling monster. It's impossible to resist.

23. "Head," Lydia Loveless

Lydia Loveless brought plenty of wry observations to her latest album, Somewhere Else. The standout track, though, is "Head," an alt-country rocker that is exactly about what it sounds like. But in Loveless' hands, the receipt of oral sex is at once a sexy come-on and a way to escape her troubled life, as the act sounds at once relaxing and miserable. It's a terrifically subversive song from an artist who's talented in the art of subversion.

22. "Wild Heart," Bleachers

Bleachers, the side project of fun. bassist Jack Antonoff, retains much of the sound as his main gig. That's evident on "Wild Heart," which opens on 80s-style synths before moving into a thundering beat. Antonoff's lyrics seem reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen, had Springsteen been a Brooklyn millennial, and his vocals soar. Not a bad way to introduce yourself, though hopefully Bleachers won't take away from the future of fun.

21. "Raised By Wolves," U2

For all of frontman Bono's work as a humanitarian and the band's reputation for sonically-vast rock and an image of self-importance, it's easy to forget how hard early U2 rocked. The band revisits that sound on "Raised By Wolves," a post-punk stomper sung from the perspective of a young man in the IRA. The song burns, with crunchy guitars and lyrics that are at once boldly violent and desperately introspective ("I don't believe anymore"). It's a solid reminder that above all else, U2 is still a rock band, and they can prove it anytime they like.

20. "Give Me Back My Hometown," Eric Church

In an era of bro-country ruling the airwaves, Eric Church stands out for both playing into the trend and proving himself better than it. He does the latter with the Springsteen-esque "Give Me Back My Hometown," in which Church reminisces of the time spent at home and the failed relationship that still haunts those streets. His details paint a very specific picture, but when he launches into the "yeah-yeahs" of the chorus, it's impossible for anyone to think of anything but their hometown. It's country that looks beyond spring break and into true heartbreak.

19. "Wiggle," Jason Derulo featuring Snoop Dogg

I'll say this much: there was perhaps no song as giddily, obnoxiously stupid as "Wiggle" last year. Jason Derulo puts forward his best R. Kelly impression, with lyrics like "patty cake, patty cake with no hands / got me in the club makin' wedding plans" over a low-end bass beat and what sounds like a fourth-grader on a recorder. Snoop Dogg's verse is classic late-period casual laziness, but his relaxed delivery feels right at home. I make it sound like none of it works, but just the opposite is true: this is music that aims directly for the pleasure center and nails it every time. Perfect pop alchemy at its finest.

18. "Midnight," Coldplay

Over their last few albums, Coldplay has abandoned the piano-rock sound that made them one of the biggest bands in the world in favor of sonic exploration, a quest that has resulted in some of their best work to date. Among them is "Midnight," a song that's reminiscent of Bon Iver as a simple metronomic beat lays the groundwork for singer Chris Martin's heavily-layered and Auto-Tuned vocals. It's a chilly work, until a bass beat comes in and synths squiggle in a mini-disco freakout. Here's hoping the band's time in the sonic wilderness continues to yield such excellent results.

17. "i," Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick Lamar's 2012 debut, g.o.o.d. kid, m.a.a.d. city, was one of the best debut rap albums in nearly a decade, a cinematic glimpse of adolescence in a world of gangbanging and hustling. So it surprised many when, unexpectedly, he dropped "i" in late 2014: built on a peppy Isley Brothers sample, the song found Lamar in a place of self-love, positivity, and exuberance. A closer listen shows that all is not as it seems: there's still trouble brewing under the surface, but Lamar's lyrics reflect the power of confidence and self-esteem. It's a joyful blast of empowering rap.

16. "Song For Someone," U2

"Song For Someone" is a more traditional U2 song, but that doesn't make it any less great. The song finds Bono reflecting on his marriage to Ali Hewson, and his vocals are beautiful as he sings of his love. It especially stands out among the other songs on the Songs of Innocence album, a brief burst of happiness in an otherwise-reflective work. That it strums along on The Edge's skillful guitar makes it all the better.

15. "Uptown Funk!," Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars

Do you remember a time when "Uptown Funk!" wasn't on the radio every five seconds? Believe it or not, it wasn't all that long ago when the song first dropped last November. But it's taken over for good reason: cribbing liberally from The Time, producer Mark Ronson's funky bass and brassy horns are the perfect backdrop for Bruno Mars' strutting vocals. Basically, it's nothing short of a throwback dance party, an irresistible slice of funk-pop. And, despite the risk of oversaturation, it'll stand the test of time as a classic dance track. Don't believe me? Just watch.

14. "American Skin (41 Shots)," Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen first wrote and performed "American Skin (41 Shots)" in 2000, in response to the killing of Amadou Diallo by NYPD. It soon became a frequent live staple, yet he never laid down a studio recording until he put it on his latest album, High Hopes. Unfortunately, the song is still as relevant as other: the second verse finds a mother instructing a young boy how to behave around the police in order to avoid a violent confrontation, while the chorus hammers the point home ("you can get killed just for living in your American skin"). It's a powerful recording, heightened by Tom Morello's soaring guitar. And its message desperately needs to be heard.

13. "Out of the Woods," Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift's full-blown immersion into pop was long in the making, and it produced some of her best work to date. Chief among them is "Out of the Woods," a bubbly synth-pop number that feels influenced by acts such as CHVRCHES. Riding skittering drum loops and pounding synths, Swift sings of a romance on the brink, wondering "are we in the clear yet?" as her beau drifts away. It's classic Swift, but she's never sounded more at home than she does in her one-woman dance party. We're all happy to join her.

12. "Cool Kids," Echosmith

Right off the bat, "Cool Kids" brings to mind both Fleetwood Mac and The Shins (especially with that surf guitar refrain). Echosmith tilts far more toward the former though, in this spacey ditty about wanting to join the popular crowd. Sydney Sierota's calm, flowing vocals are reminiscent of Stevie Nicks', but she sets herself apart with her too-cool-for-school attitude and the band's terrific use of aural space. The song may lament wanting to join the cool kids, but I'd say they're the cool ones.

11. "In the Clear," Foo Fighters

No song better embodied the core idea behind Sonic Highways than "In the Clear." Recorded in New Orleans with Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the song is a driving rocker with a distinctive Nawlins feel, courtesy of those wailing horns in the background. It takes what would have been a fine Foo Fighters song and elevates it into something even better, easily making it the best track on the album. Here's hoping it gets chosen to be their next single.

10. "Monument," Robyn & Royksopp

A colossal, slow-burning slice of trance, "Monument" sees Robyn & Royksopp operating at the peaks of their creative powers. Over nearly ten minutes, Royksopp's production glides on ambient noise and a relaxed beat, while Robyn coos like a soulful android zoned out. Around the halfway mark, saxophones come in, chilling the vibe even more and setting up a nicely jazzy feel as the beat marches on. It's the perfect track for after the after-party, as everything just winds down.

9. "Blue Moon," Beck

"I'm so tired of being alone," Beck cries in the opening lines of "Blue Moon." The song's alt-folk feel, more organic than most of Beck's work yet not at all estranged from his aesthetic. A twirling mix of guitars, drums, piano, and ukulele, the song has a rustic feel to it, yet feels like it was beamed in from another planet with its electronic flourishes. Tying it all together, though, is Beck's soulful vocals, perhaps the best he's ever laid down. It's an easy-going sing-a-long from a man who's always defied categorization.

8. "Bad News," Sleeper Agent

Sleeper Agent made a name for themselves on their first record with their crunchy guitars and singer Alex Kandel's scathing vocals, but for their second album, they added some other flourishes to their sound. "Bad News" is the best mix of these elements, as Kandel and Tony Smith trade pugnacious vocals over clapping drums, buzzsaw guitars, and hammering synths. "Who would want to stay in love with you," they chant at each other, but if the band can keep churning out songs this good, the answer will be "everyone."

7. "This Could Be Us," Prince

Leave it to Prince to turn a dumb Internet meme into a slinky jam for the ages. Riding a rubbery bass line, the Purple One seductively sings about the virtues of being in a relationship, telling the object of his affection "this could be us, but you keep on fooling around." It's all pretty ridiculous, and Prince's lyrics can border on creepy, but his delivery is so suave and the music so sexy that it's easy to miss and loose yourself in the groove. Only Prince could pull it off, and naturally he does so with aplomb.

6. "Wildest Dreams," Taylor Swift

The best track from Taylor Swift's 1989 is also the one that sounds most indebted to another artist: Lana Del Rey. Over a burbling beat and a wash of sound, Swift reminisces on a failing relationship and hopes that her memory doesn't fade from his mind. She practically does Del Rey better than Del Rey, her airy vocals conveying more emotion than Del Rey's detached coos and the swell of the strings making a far bigger impact. But most importantly, it feels appropriately dreamy, a demonstration of Swift's skills that proves she's not to be underestimated as both performer and songwriter.

5. "Lay Me Down," Sam Smith

Sam Smith made huge waves last year, thanks to his huge pop hits "Stay With Me" and "I Know I'm Not the Only One." But "Lay Me Down" is his best work: a soulful gospel-tinged number, it begins with just him and a piano, his pleading vocals begging for someone to stay by his side (Smith has said the song was written for his dying grandfather). When he hits the higher registers, he fills the room with emotion, and when the gospel choir and martial snares and swirling strings come in, the whole thing crescendos into catharsis. It's a gutting and graceful musical accomplishment.

4. "Chandelier," Sia

For years, Sia has been a pop alchemist behind the scenes, penning songs for everyone from Rihanna to Christina Aguilera to Beyonce. She finally landed a pop hit of her own last year with "Chandelier," and what a remarkable hit it was. Built on the same sonic blueprint as numerous other pop sensations, the song subverted the party-all-night vibe of modern pop with lyrics from the perspective of a former party girl desperately trying to stay in the moment. "'Cause I'm just holding on for tonight, help me, I'm holding on for dear life," she sings, and suddenly the exuberance of the chorus turns to desperation. It's an inspired song that makes for an even better pop hit.

3. "True Trans Soul Rebel," Against Me!

Much has been made about Against Me! singer Laura Jane Grace's transition from male to female, and perhaps none so much as Grace herself, who based nearly the band's entire latest album to the material. But the result has been some of the punk band's greatest work to date, with "True Trans Soul Rebel" the best of the bunch. It's certainly the most accessible, with shredding guitars and Grace's wailing vocals as she sings "God bless your transsexual heart." She acknowledges the darkness that comes from hiding your true self and not fitting in, but the song itself feels like a celebration of owning your identity. It's a pure punk blast.

2. "Take Me To Church," Hozier

We all know the song by now: Irish singer-songwriter Hozier's bloozy-gospel ode to a lover who everyone agrees is bad news, though he finds rapture in her sin. From the moody instrumentation to Hozier's rough vocals, it's a woozy sinner's prayer that finds holiness in the profane. That it reached as high as #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 easily makes it the year's most unexpected pop hit, but with a song this well-done, who can really be that surprised? Here's hoping for more from Hozier in the future.

1. "Get Away," CHVRCHES

Last year, Scottish pop outfit CHVRCHES topped my top-ten albums list with their debut, The Bones of What You Believe. This year, they're topping the songs list with non-album single "Get Away," an instantly danceable synth-pop gem. The band is in full-blown dance mode here, with a thumping beat and striking synths that immediately conjure images of strobe lights and smoke machines. Singer Lauren Mayberry weaves a tale of a relationship that has to end, even if she doesn't want it to, and that energy translates through her impeccable delivery. It's not often that heartbreak is this catchy, but when you're down, why wouldn't you want to dance the night away like this?

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