What’s in a song? From three minute pop singles to acoustic ballads clocking in over eight minutes, there are innumerable criteria to making a good tune, and an even vaster multitude of paths available to any artist to convey their message through music. Here we recognize those who got it right in 2014.
40. Qui – “Whateryadoin?”
Qui have always played happily with the lines between organized chaos and artful whimsy. On “Whateryadoin?” they play comedic, hinting that one band member might be spending more time making unwanted advances than rehearsing the music.
39. Dum Dum Girls – “Rimbaud Eyes”
Keeping with the theme of poets off the album, Too True, “Rimbaud Eyes” references poet Arthur Rimbaud. The smart, poetic lyrics and almost psychedelic rock aesthetic on “Rimbaud Eyes” hits it out of the park.
38. Charli XCX – “Boom Clap”
Charli XCX had a huge year in 2014, and “Boom Clap” is a pop song that forces you onto the dancefloor. Grind and shake to its bubblegum melody.
37. Wu-Tang Clan – “Keep Watch”
Funky and soulful, the Wu-Tang Clan certainly gave us something to “Keep Watch” for. Featuring Brooklyn singer, Nathaniel, the song delivers solid rap and smooth beats worthy of celebrating the group’s 20th anniversary.
Janelle De La Cruz
36. Brody Dalle – “Meet the Foetus / Oh the Joy”
A thumping, driving bass and a trashcan beat births an optimistic chorus that shines light through the decay before erupting into the triumphant two-minute punk climax of the second half, living up the title and then some.
35. The Melvins – “Sesame Street Mea”t
The Melvins! King Buzzo and the boys returned this year and released “Hold It in”. The I guess you would call it a single? “Sesame Street Meat” is another heavy jam from these longtime greats. After almost thirty years and endless albums, tours and collaborations, its exciting to hear that the Melvins are still putting out great records and still keeping it heavy.
34. Anamanaguchi – “Pop”
“Pop it” is all candy and neon. With most saccharine track all year, Anamanaguchi have created the soundtrack to your next caffeine fueled video game binge (just in time for winter).
33. Kimbra – “Miracle”
From her album, The Golden Echo, Kimbra’s “Miracle” might just be an echo of a 1980’s Madonna tune. Complete with a disco vibe, “Miracle” is catchy and fun, perfect for dancing along to.
32. The Kooks – “Bad Habit”
The quartet of frizzy-haired Aussies have taken their jovial pop rock to soulful new heights with the latest single from their 2014 effort Listen. Thudding toms and biting stabs of spidery, post-punk guitar bestow upon “Bad Habit” the driving nigh-punk edge for which the jangling balladry that dominated Inside/Out and Konk so bitterly yearned. This is the sweet spot The Kooks have spent their entire career searching for.
31.TEEN – “Not For Long”
The Lieberson sister’s voices combine seamlessly on this track, and provide a bright and soulful sound throughout the song. It perfectly demonstrates the indie pop sound they’ve developed throughout their musical career.
30. Bonobo – “Kong/Ketto”
By conjoining “Kong/Ketto” on his recent live album, Bonobo shows how even when his songs are written years apart, they can fit together like puzzle pieces all those years later.
29. Anna Calvi – “Eliza”
“Eliza” is one of the many songs that shows off Anna Calvi’s immaculate and powerful voice. And all that while elegantly shredding on her guitar.
28. St. Vincent – “Digital Witness”
“Digital Witness” is simultaneously lazy and energetic. The lyrics and dry production suggest a couch potato, but the music, with its horn stabs and pounding beat, bounces around the room. Combining the better elements of her collaboration with David Byrne with the unique sound that she’s been cultivating for years, this is among St. Vincent’s finest.
27. The Dead Weather – “Buzzkiller”
Jack White and Allison Mosshart of The Kills are the ringleaders for The Dead Weather, and their newest single “Buzzkill(er)” packs a punch that fans – of the Dead Weather, or of the artists themselves – have been waiting for. The muffled voice of Mosshart and the Blue Orchid-esque riffs power through speakers in controlled rage, just about to break free from the chains.
26. Santigold – “Kicking Down Doors”
Santigold’s contribution to the Pepsi Beats of the Beautiful Game compilation, essentially a soundtrack for the 2014 World Cup, seems tailor-made for such a spectacle. It’s bouncy, catchy, and packs more energy than a dozen car batteries. Off-kilter mash-up production and criss-crossed reggae dub make “Kicking Down Doors” one to remember.
25. Mariachi el Bronx – “Wildfires”
From their exceptional mariachi-rock album Mariachi El Bronx (III),”Wildfires” by Mariachi El Bronx, the name for the Bronx’s unique mariachi project, is a perfect example of their ability to combine so many genres. Catchy and upbeat but with a somewhat bittersweet, beautifully sung chorus complimented by a stunning horn section, “Wildfires” stands out among so many other songs released this year.
24. Simian Mobile Disco – “Dervish”
UK production duo Simian Mobile Disco have piloted their fighter plane of drum machines and Roland synthesizers through contemporary electronic skies for nearly a decade now, and it seems James Ford and Jas Shawn are finally settling into something resembling a groove. Though the insistent technologic clatter of SMD’s UK garage influences are front and center, there’s not a single beat of their beloved dub stylings to be heard on “Dervish”, the first single from their 2014 release Whorl. In its place, the two throw a bit of Talking Heads-through-LCD Soundystem skitter into their house beats.
23. Nicole Atkins – “Girl You Look Amazing”
Nicole Atkins “Girl You Look Amazing” opens with a funky bass line and dance vibe. The song proceeds with her powerful voice accompanied by her frisky attitude. Her voice is carried throughout the song by a 70s disco rock feel. It’s pretty hard not to want to dance to this!
22. Tobacco – “Streaker”
Jarringly hard, absurdly threatening, and impossibly loud, “Streaker” blows open Tobacco’s Ultima II Massage with the sonic equivalent of a punch in the face. Bizarre synth melodies pulse erratically while screaming robotic vocals warn you to run and a drum set is repeated thrown down an elevator shaft. By the time it’s over, you’re either confused, sweaty, addicted, or all three.
21. Rabbit Rabbit featuring Jon Evans – “All Over Again”
In a completely different style than their iconic Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Carla Kihlstedt and Matthias Bossi have released their song “All Over Again” under the moniker of Rabbit Rabbit. The song features Jon Evans, it brings upon a depth that’s sorely lacking in today’s rock folks world and is a story that brings tears to the eyes. This song truly demonstrates their versatility.
20. Death from Above 1979 – “Government Trash”
This year saw the return of one of the greatest punk acts of all time, and “Government Trash” has all of the fervor of the duo’s early days. Its noisy, distorted guitar riffs and spastic drumming make it a high-energy jam that lives up to the group’s status as legends.
19. Black Moth – “Room 13”
British garage-metal five-piece Black Moth have hit their stride with their sophomore release, Condemned to Hope, smoothing out their natural rawness with moments of debilitating darkness. “Room 13” is a prime example of this. The monotonous delivery of singer Harriet Bevan conveys the message of madness and solitude perfectly, as though she is unwilling to betray her true emotions. The music does the rest of the talking – deep, booming chords, rich layering, precise pounding. The end result is haunting and gravitational. It pulls you in, and against your will, keeps you in its clutches. When it releases you, you slightly less sure of yourself than you were three minutes before.
18. Lana Del Rey – “Ultraviolence”
The second and title track of Lana Del Rey’s third album burrows a term from Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. Not only does it burrow its title, but its dystopian themes: It describes a love that it is less then perfect. Dark and stark piano chords begun the sullen song and as the chorus kicks in, so does the bass. There is also a single, delayed and distorted guitar note that makes it seems little off kilter. She uses her upper range, which adds to the strangeness. When listening to this song, you feel like you’re not sure it’s a horrible dream or a beautiful nightmare.
17. Karen O – “Rapt”
Karen O’s “Rapt,” sounds so casual and raw that you wonder if she ever meant to release it. The only thing accompanying is an acoustic guitar, which recalls her Oscar nominated, “Moon Song”. Lyrically, it sounds like a diary entry from when she was sixteen and is experiencing her first love. But there is nothing innocent about these lyrics, as she states that “love’s a fucking bitch” and wonder’s if she “really needs another habit like you.” It is so casual in its hatred for love that it could make you fall in love with her. She may not need another habit like you, but music needs more songs like this.
16. Banks – “Someone New”
It wasn’t until “Beggin’ For Thread” hit that listeners associated BANKS with a grungey sound, but that’s definitely not all she is. “Someone New” is delicate and light— accompanied by an acoustic guitar. Her vocals are equally amazing without effects and the quiet ballad is a heartbreaking plea for an ex to wait and not move on. The vulnerability of BANKS’ lyrics rivals the relationship ballads of the past and never reflects anger or loses control, but instead carries regret and sadness in such a controlled manner that you can’t help but hope someone has heard the message.
15. Flying Lotus ft. Kendrick Lamar – “Never Catch Me”
Carrying around Coltrane DNA as he does, Steven Ellison can’t help but be a jazzbo. The LA producer brings a loose, improvisational feel to the electronic rap of his latest Flying Lotus album, You’re Dead! “Never Catch Me” is the first cut on the album with proper vocals, as Kendrick Lamar invokes the album’s morbid themes by taunting them. He invites listeners to face what ails them head on: death of course, but also fear, inner demons, even other competing rappers. He keeps pace with FlyLo’s instrumentation that is a microcosm of the album—suggesting Europe’s wild jazz orchestras and ensembles—and supplemented by Thundercat programming that hints at jungle
14. Marketa Irglova – “The Leading Bird”
Marketa Irglova has been a darling of the music scene ever since what can now be safely called her Once period. The Leading Bird marks a new period of her musical career inspired by major changes in her life including a baby, a home in Iceland, and a clear evolution in her life experience. The song itself is melodic, intense, emotional, pensive, and ethereal all at once. The song has many movements that make use of strings and piano to great effect. But it is her voice spinning poetic metaphors that unifies the
piece. Inspiring music from an inspired soul.
13. Cross My Heart Hope to Die – “Tears of God”
The genius behind Cross My Heart Hope to Die is the way they a is the way DJ Muggs and Andrew Kline arrange each song, layering them with sounds and samples like the random ringing of a bell that may only be heard for a split second though its sound is essential to serve the greater whole. Evidence of these arrangements are heard on the sinister sounding “Tears of God.” The track is built around a slow, interspersed tom and snare arrangement, a buzzing and muffled electric guitar riff, and Brevi’s sing-speak vocals which are as luscious as they are foreboding.
12. Jack White – “Would You Fight For My Love”
Songwriters, take note: do not shy away from familiar chord structures and repetition out of fear of appearing unoriginal. Decades of rock and roll have proven that you can wrap a heart’s worth of art and emotion nicely inside of three chords. Jack White’s “Would You Fight For My Love,” a standout track off of Lazaretto, is four minutes of G minor-F-C played with exquisite fervor and cliffhanging drama. It’s not enough that the lyrics clearly identify doubting another’s love; the music drives the point home unquestionably. The beats change to match the message, but the consistency makes it clear that White ain’t fooling around.
11. FKA twigs – “Pendulum”
There aren’t many artists this year that have made as great an appearance as FKA Twigs this year. The second single off her LP1 album, “Pendulum” is stuttering and subtle. It’s the epitome of what FKA Twigs image is and utilizes her own visionary status. The production on the track is intricate— stuttering and space are used deliberately, FKA Twigs’ vocals are controlled and delicate and only lightly layered. “Pendulum” literally blooms in your ears with its soft opening and expansion as even lighter and more obscure synth sounds are introduced. It’s something to listen to again and again.
10. Got a Girl – “There’s a Revolution”
“There’s a Revolution” is a delicate piece of indie pop bliss. Flaunting an apparent respect to sugar-pop crooners of the 50’s and 60’s, it simultaneously commands a backbeat of 21st century stock. Front woman Mary Elizabeth Winstead – Of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World fame- sings with muted playfulness against the buoyant backdrop produced by Dan the Automator. While still remaining distinctly electro-poppy, “There’s a Revolution” avoids the bland pitfalls of the overly constructed, overly glossed, and overly sought out melodies that flourish in great abundance on synth pop airwaves. Perhaps it’s due to the duo’s conscientiousness or perhaps it’s due to a welcome blend of musicians; whatever the case maybe it seems best not to question it. There is no need to mess with a good thing.
9. The New Basement Tapes – “When I Get My Hands on You”
In order to truly appreciate the talent of a songwriter or the talent of a performer, sometimes it is necessary to strip away all the trappings, all the artifice, and take everything down to the absolute minimum. This is definitely the case with the New Basement Tapes’ rendition of “When I Get My Hands on You.” There’s not much to the arrangement: a simple drum line to keep time, a simple plucked riff and bass line to move things along, intermittent chords strummed on electric guitar to add some color, a handful of barely present electric organ notes to make the chorus stand out, and just enough reverb to fill in some of the gaps. This leaves ample space for Marcus Mumford’s voice to shine through, parsing out Dylan’s lyrics sparingly, giving the listener enough time to let the words sink in, enough time to digest their meaning and intent. Each note is a delicious morsel, every word a delicate amuse-bouche, something small and flavorful to savor.
8. Run the Jewels featuring Zack de la Rocha – “Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck)”
On “Close your Eyes (and Count to Fuck),” by Run the Jewels featuring Zach de la Rocha El-P has created on of the most amped up instrumentals of the year. A simple beat focus on a sample of Zach de la Rocha’s voice looped and chopped up. The three also drop some of their best verses today. It’s been a while since we’ve heard from La Rocha but is evident he is still at the top of his game and still is disenfranchised by the government.. EL-P drops lines like “I’m trained in vagina whisper,” while Mike brings his rage sounding like a young Ice Cube.” “Close Your Eyes” is one of those songs that automatically hypes you up, like streamlining Mountain Dew. Mike and EL-P has confirmed that they are still working with Rocha and with RTJ3 definitely a thing maybe this duo will become a threesome.
7. Angel Olsen – “Hi Five”
What happens when you pair shimmering psychedelic surf guitars (drenched in Fender Deluxe spring reverb) playing country changes with a voice that soars somewhere between Loretta Lynne and Nancy Sinatra? Absolute magic, that’s what. The production has a decidedly low fidelity feel; if it weren’t for the addition of surf guitar to the country musical bed, it would be easy enough to mistake this track for one that could have been found in the back of a honky tonk’s jukebox, circa 1961. That said, the different flavors complement and accentuate each other beautifully. The lyrical matter is pure vintage country: being so lonesome one could cry and looking for another lonely heart to help ease the pain, even if only for a moment. It’s easy to imagine the words having been penned by the likes of Patsy Cline or Johnny Cash or Hank Williams Sr. The end result of this heady combination is a sultry concoction, saturated with the auditory equivalent of pheromones.
6. Warpaint – “Disco/Very”
“Disco/Very” from Warpaint is a four minute long glare. It’s quietly defiant, even violent. The group talk sings over a sparse, pulsing groove with the volume barely elevating above a combustible hush (aside from some suppressed squealing towards the end of the song). The group is able to create an explosively tense atmosphere without the use of dynamics, heavy orchestration or overt dissonance. Indeed, the song is able to remain so taut because of its simplicity. Warpaint never gives you a chance to look away. They never give you any distractions. “Disco/very” grabs you by the face and, in small imperceptible increments, tightens its grip until its almost too much. Just when you start to feel as if you’re going to get crushed under that bass line, the song lets up; leaving you wondering what the hell just happened.
5. Killer Be Killed – “Wings of Feather and Wax”
It’s almost unfair, really. How do you compete with a band that has Troy from Mastodon, Greg from the Dillinger Escape Plan, Dave Elitch (ex Mars Volta) and Max Cavelera? You can’t. The super Group Killer Be Killed finally released it’s debut this year and the release was just flat out beastly. The lead single, landing at 5 on our list, “Wings of Feather and Wax” is pretty unreal.
Having a super-group like this is a tough thing to pull off. With the rumors swirling around this project, the anticipation was at a fever pitch and when “Wings of Feather and Wax” was released it was like getting exactly what you wanted for Christmas. It will take a minute to release another record and there are no touring plans, but at least we have a fantastic song coupled with the vocals of three incredible vocalists. What more can you ask for?
4. St. Vincent -” Birth in Reverse”
The second track on St. Vincent’s new self-titled album “Birth in Reverse” works as much as playful romp as it does explosive manifesto. Like the best of the songs on her new record, ebbs and tides with multiple interlocking parts. It starts with machines sounds before pulsing forth with a heavily distorted low-end frequency. She starts the song right off with the already infamous lyrics, “Oh what an ordinary day. Take out the garbage, masturbate.” She contemplates on the nature of things, “the dogs will bark, let them bark. The birds will cry I let them cry.” She stands on the edge to see full understanding, taking things for exactly what they are (or perhaps just herself). The chorus delves deeper into this notion, “Like a birth in reverse / what I saw through the blinds,” against a half melody guitar chord. The opening melody returns only for four 4 short bars before returning to the chorus. A small segue allows for the shift into the songs excellent outro, a dance of bass and guitar snaking around one another until everything comes to a complete halt. It’s no wonder it’s become a beloved staple of her live show and also the figurehead of this new, brilliant chapter of her career.
3. Antemasque – “4AM”
In the wake of The Mars Volta’s breakup, and Cedric Bixler-Zavala quietly got together to form Antemasque, managing to snag the talent of Chilli Peppers bassist Flea in the process. The first thing to understand about Antemasque is that it is not Mars Volta- the band is much too straightforward to considered as such. Antemasque draws its sound from a different well than it predecessor, coming off as a speedier, punkier incarnation. Antemasque’s debut single “4 Am” leans heavily on a pop-punk foundation, forgoing much of the progressiveness endemic to both members’ previous ventures, The Mars Volta and At The Drive In.
Lyrically the song sounds nearly like an Antemasque manifesto: “Sharp shock, yeah I’m gonna put on, never looking back, never looking back.” Packaged within its thickly wound groove and harrowing drive is a taste of a new beginning; a distinct pathway free from the shadow of any previous group. It’s a bold turn of events, especially for Mars Volta fans, who might have to grow past their own preconceptions to appreciate the triumph of Antemasque’s sound. After all, if Antemasque is proof of anything, it’s that change is a good thing.
2. Damon Albarn – “Everyday Robots”
Damon Albarn’s zeitgeist of the iPhone age is dominated by melancholy synths, light piano, a hip-hop style of production and bleak lyrics acting as a cultural commentary of our current technological era. His opening lyrics proclaim that “we are everyday robots on our phones” with a biting cynicism, hopeless of our own agency to change our addiction to technology. Albarn continues to describe his own lonely navigation of adult life, in addition to the listlessness of humanity, trapped within our own individual worlds, communicating through text. Despite this, Albarn’s philosophy on “Robots” is both peaceful and absurdist, acknowledging that while there is little we can do as human beings to change our tech-ridden era, there is a remaining pensive beauty in our lives. One might be quick to challenge the former Blur frontman as a Neo-Luddite, but his critical view of the Information Age is not without evidence, and through this opening track Albarn seems to challenge us all to reject our smartphones in favor of real, organic human interaction. This lyricism accompanied by Albarn’s minimal yet beautiful electronica sound creates a track that elegantly captures the uneasy, optimistic spirit of our time.
1. Alt-J – “Hunger of the Pine”
Alt-J knock it out of the park this year dropping their new album This Is All Yours in September. The highly anticipated sophomore record has come at the best time. The year is winding up with a variance of eclectic comebacks; but Alt-J has a struck gold for a second time having jumped to the UK charts number one slot as the album hits. They further perpetuate their audial bliss magic with our pick for 2014’s top song, “Hunger of the Pine.” For five minutes, they take you on an ethereal familiar journey. Lyrically, the “hunger” aspect refers to the yearning for a loving physical companionship. We all know the feeling of missing someone. In short, it epitomizes a pining heart’s emotions in language and melody.
The album starts off with a mystical psychedelic “Intro” that sets the pace for an utterly entrancing musical experience. Upon diving deeper into the sultry waters of This Is All Yours, the album’s palpable emotions culminate with “Hunger of the Pine.” The song starts with a harmonious build of simple repetitive chords layered with an airy sax, creating an anticipatory feel. It is then punctuated by the surprising interjection of Miley Cyrus’s voice singing, “I’m a female rebel,” a sample from her song “4×4” on her most recent album Bangerz. Adding a female element is an unexpected choice, but it fits ever so nicely in the song’s hooks. The change of pace from Cyrus’s heavily pop-infused sound taps into a darker melody that hits hard.
“Hunger’s” bridge climaxes in density as lead vocalist serenades in French in the breakdown, “Une immense espérance a traversé la terre/Une immense espérance a traversé ma peur,” leaving the listener with a sense of hope. Undoubtedly, England’s gem of an experimental indie rock band Alt-J is pleasing the masses with their new music. If anything, “Hunger of the Pine,” is just a taste of the delectable confections set forth in This Is All Yours.