Best of 2014: 100 Tracks (40–21)
We are almost done with the countdown. Here are numbers 40–21 of my favorite songs of 2014.
40. “Hoop Life”
Ultimate Bitch may have the beautiful reflection “No Black Person Is Ugly,” but Hoop Life was the biggest triumph out of all Lil B’s projects this year. While the tape is stuffed with excess (as all #based mixtapes), B brilliantly channeled his life-long message of perseverance and maintaining a strong worth ethic into one exciting concept-led mixtape about him training for the NBA. The title track is the theme song which finds the Based God working everyday just to get better, searching for loyalty in life’s teammates, and feeling himself as the rookie of the year. In the end “Hoop Life” is simply another manifesto of the #based philosophy. Coming after a year of underwhelming B projects, though, it’s so satisfying to hear him sound so inspired to just become a better human being.
39. “A Sky Full of Stars”
Ghost Stories holds out a soft electronic hum for the majority of its run, and then “A Sky Full of Stars” lights up one magnificent firework as the album’s grand finale. With both Chris Martin’s weeping lyrics and the AVICII-assisted production, it’s incredibly bold and shameless in sentiment and inherently cheesy at its core — so it’s pretty much a certified Coldplay anthem. I also like to think of “A Sky of Full of Stars” as the final moment Martin has with his partner before he splits for good. He fakes it, horribly, that he’s going to be alright: when he sings “I don’t care / if you tear me apart,” you certainly know he does. He tries to keep himself together, but he just lets out this streaming cry instead. What a beautiful mess.
38. “Johnny and Mary”
Todd Terje (ft. Bryan Ferry)[Olsen]
Since his return with the Ragysh EP, Todd Terje has been one reliable producer for some timeless grooves. He can dish out indestructible house beats — but can he produce an actual song? With a singer at its center? Lyrics and all? Though not an original material, “Johnny and Mary” is proof Terje can create a spectacular, fully formed song left by his own devices. He turns Robert Palmer’s fast-feet new wave into a grand, languid epic, with Bryan Ferry gracing his silver voice. Emotions are drawn out to its full potential, both by Ferry and Terje. And when that piano breakdown rolls around, he pulls you straight into his own sublime world — just like his house tracks.
Cymbals Eat Guitars
Cymbals Eat Guitars opens up the curtains of LOSE with one dramatic start with “Jackson.” Joseph D’Agostino sings about a buddy from his past and painfully reminiscing about a better time spent. Memory of a trip to Six Flags and drive to his fond home street written inside the lyric sheet share a lost innocence. “Not a goddamn thing we could have said to convince you,” he laments, maybe about a relationship gone sour or directly reference his lost band member. His words may be crushed, but D’Agostino spends the allotted six minutes turning tragedy into triumph, screaming out his pain as the pianos and guitars crash like waves. This is the intro after all. Here’s to getting better.
36. “Money Power Glory”
Lana Del Rey
A moment in “Money Power Glory” clicked in which made me fall deep into the world of Ultraviolence. The slow, somber ballad feels like an ordinary Lana Del Rey song upon first listen as the singer still insists on playing the woman on the side. But with “Money Power Glory,” she soon gave light to the unbreakable ceiling of her dark world. Burning rage rises from her: “that’s not what this bitch wants,” she cries, “that’s not what I want at all.” In the chorus, she demands not just any possession and status, she wants all of his money, power and glory. She sees his man getting all that she wants, things she probably can never acquire, and she wants a taste of what he’s got, bad.
Mr Twin Sister
[Infinite Best / Twin Group]
Mr Twin Sister tried on a few different throwback outfits for their new self-titled record, and promo track “Blush” and its thick incense smoke filled the room with such a familiar yet far away vibe. Andres Estrella similarly sings a ballad about one so close yet so distant to touch and feel. She chalks up a potent need for comfort and someone to hear her out, alongside such a deep, sensuous groove. “Have you ever felt like you would always be alone?” she nonchalantly asks as she continues on the casual conversation with heavy, burning questions. After she’s done, Estrella goes back to gazing out into the night and lets the sax line take it away, but deep inside, she’s hoping for a reply some time soon.
Underneath all those goofy retro-cool references, Chromeo sings about some real deal problems. Take “Jealous (I Ain’t With It).” That clean-cut riff is all dumb for the sake of fun, as all Chromeo classics. And, yes, even Chromeo admits it sounding like it’s straight out of Katy Perry’s playbook. The flashy flair proves to be only a put-on for the real matter behind it all. Dave 1 confesses his jealousy problems that gets in the way of being a level-headed partner — but not before writing said issue into one hell of a hook. His rhyme schemes may be camp — pairing “jealous” with “fellas” like the R&B worshipper he is — yet it does the job delivering the man’s flaw while maintaining that cheesy cool Chromeo is known for.
Holly Herndon’s exploration of the relationship between human and technology has felt more of a cerebral appreciation until the more tactile and percussive single “Chorus.” Like her past works in Movement, clipped vocals make up majority of Herndon’s musical universe in the single — hence the title. But she builds more upon her keen admiration of techno, letting a crisp four-on-the-floor drum beat guide the track’s intriguing web of digital textures. Her new fragmented techno evolves her synthetic world into something more paranoid and inviting at the same time. Both foreign and eerily familiar in sound, her warped, hyper-contemporary dance track presents an abstract yet resonant theme of modern-day life.
32. “You & I (Forever)”
[PMR / Island / Interscope]
Jessie Ware played one hell of a tease in the singles of Devotion, but she calls an end to the chase and charades once and for all in “You & I (Forever).” The music, too, backs up her desire to get serious, with its bass line and backbone sturdier in build than the lush beds of her previous album. Instead, she thinks far, far ahead after there’s nothing left but her and who she set her burning heart on. “I only want to team with you / we can dream it all,” she assures in the chorus. The idea of forever is one burdening thought. In Ware’s hands, it’s one powerful fantasy where a couple live like kings and queens.
[LL / Atlantic]
Are you ever completely over love? Lykke Li makes the case in “Gunshot” that, no, you’re never through no matter how well you think you are passed it all. All it takes is one small thing and, like a gunshot, both the burning love and immediately right after the fleeting pain come rushing back. Likewise, the booming chorus shoots up high speed, while Li firmly delivers one crushing centerpiece of a performance. Though it holds a thin quality, her voice lands powerfully carries the demanding weight of the maudlin ballad. Her final repeats of “never get you back” punch bruising shots like the titular blow, each hitting more painful and shattering than the last.
30. “Ben’s My Friend”
Sun Kil Moon
Like any Sun Kil Moon song, “Ben’s My Friend” is a slice of life of Mark Kozelek. He goes out to eat lunch, then heads to see the Postal Service and his friend Ben Gibbard, only to bail out last minute because of jealousy. And like any SKM song, the big emotional thud passes by as a matter-of-fact, because that’s how life works. But what’s different about “Ben’s My Friend” than anything on Benji is its placement as the final track on the album. When you reach it after a crushing listen of Kozelek’s great album, the small yet crucial details in the song — small as a mention of Red Lobster and Panera Bread, crucial as his talk with mom and dad — all clicks like a grand design. Kozelek said he recorded the song much on the fly as he needed a song to conclude the album. Maybe it’s coincidence, maybe his subconscious drew it all out without him knowing. You never know.
29. “I’m Not Part of Me”
Dylan Baldi has his eyes set for here and nowhere else in “I’m Not Part of Me” — just his eyes ahead on his straight-shot punk ride. Unfortunately, that leaves no room for baggage, and Baldi cuts ties with anything and anyone dragging him behind. “I’m moving toward a new idea, you’re not what I really needed,” he puts it bluntly,” now you could just leave me on my own.” From the pummeling charge of his voice and music, he sounds dead sure to leave it all behind. However, he’s also certain the weight will follow him wherever he goes like a phantom limb, whether he likes it or not. It’s a constant struggle but that’s what makes it exciting.
You can’t get more on-the-nose with an intro to an album than one titled “An Introduction to the Album.” The Hoteliers acknowledges this as they start off the track with the most appropriate curtain-call lyric and spend the majority of the song building it into anthem that seems to climb and climb for a big payoff. However, this is more of a farewell address as much as it is a grand entrance. After the curtain opens, Christian Holden yearns to escape his old, self-destructive past in search of a better life and self. “An Introduction” is the first step of acceptance to the road of recovery, and Holden continues on the rest of Home, Like No Place Is There to find a new place he can call home.
27. “Head Underwater”
Jenny Lewis searches for the light at the end of the tunnel in “Head Underwater.” Underneath the golden blues, she struggles with physically grappling grief and depression; at one point she contemplates her own mortality, perhaps thinking about suicide. It’s a black mess for one warm breeze of a track, but she gradually finds the strength go on as she begins to look at her life as a blessing. When Lewis finally gets to gasp for air above the surface, it’s one memorable moment and a uplifting reminder that everything will eventually get better. Take it from Jenny Lewis: she survived, and so can you.
26. “Dangerous Days”
As “Fall Back” from Versions suggested, Nika Danilova’s planet-sized heart outgrew the pristine beats of Conatus, so she had to make due and build a large enough vessel to contain it all in Taiga. “Dangerous Days” marked this shift at time of release as she blew up her Zola Jesus music stadium status, from its Herculean thump to the arena-filling surge of electronics. Not to be overpowered by the revamped setup, the singer doubled down her performance to great success: Her pre-chorus hook glides very dynamic, and its explosive center stands as a spectacular firework that lives up to its showy ambition. While the risks run at an all time high for Danilova — both in her lyrical narrative and the success of her new sound— she stuck her landing like a champion.
25. “Go Easy”
Salad Days had Mac DeMarco writing not just for the sake of playing good tunes; he had a lot more heartfelt things to say than a shout out to his smoking habits. Many songs in Salad Days seem to address a close love of his, perhaps his real-life girlfriend, and “Go Easy” hit me big out of all. It’s a bittersweet farewell song with DeMarco giving his last words before a long indefinite absence. “And though we may be leaving, I’ll be right besides you,” he comforts, “To pick you up when I come around.” And the real goodbye comes in the chorus to let that sadness hit for good: “So pleaaase, go easy with my baby,” he pleads, and his extension of the word “please” goes on to deliver such a lingering pain.
“I wish you’d see what I see,” opens Nicole Miglis in “Murmurs” with none other than a hushed whisper. The grand intro conjures infinite amounts of beautiful scenes that possibly could be the one she could be seeing. While rich, silver piano keys and a chorus of Miglis’ voice brings about a vast patch of green land, electronic whirrs and a distance police siren hold down the dreamer down to earth into more of an urban confinement of solitude. Whether transported to the clouds or the gritty underground, Hundred Waters present a blissful escapism that resides solely in the ears of the beholder. Miglis, too, wonders what beauty you see and feel, trying her best to meet you at the middle of both worlds.
23. “Never Catch Me”
Flying Lotus (ft. Kendrick Lamar
It’s amazing enough that Steven Ellison managed to cram a lifetime’s worth of contemplation about the afterlife in an half-hour’s time in You’re Dead! But he somehow outdoes himself, with the incredible assistance of Kendrick Lamar, and crystallizes the essence of the new Flying Lotus record in the lead single “Never Catch Me.” The frenzied beat encapsulates both the fear of the unknown and the excitement of what may lie ahead. Meanwhile, K. Dot grapples with the present as he remains in purgatory until further notice, overwhelmed by not knowing what’s next but faces his fear with a towering confidence. “You’ll never catch me,” the Compton rapper teases, and underneath the verses, you can feel Ellison grinning like an idiot, giddy to explore further into the abyss.
22. “Blank Space”
Why “Blank Space” was not the first single of 1989 will forever bother me. It’s a much more stinging kiss-off to haters than “Shake It Off,” and more bound to its own universe, too. The burn comes from Taylor Swift’s self-awareness of her faults, which she uses to turn the tables upon the people who hold up the crazy ex-girlfriend persona as an avatar of her music. She relishes in the caricature, cackling while in costume of a nightmare dressed like a daydream. In the end, though, “Blank Space” echoes bittersweet and cynical. This is Taylor laughing at herself after all, about how she never seems to make relationships last. She’s already used to the snarky remarks because she already told herself the same exact disses. I guess you are your own worst enemy.
2014 was a great year for self-love singles to boost up that self-esteem, and Miranda Lambert’s bye-haters anthem “Platinum” reigned supreme out of the crop. Lambert’s esteem is practically bulletproof from social ideals and influences, while her inner compass point to a direction none other than her own. However, “Platinum” provides power not only through preaching self-importance but also self-redemption and rising above missteps; the chorus after all goes “what doesn’t kill you / only makes you blonder.” She admits she, too, fails and falls flat on her face along the way but strives for the platinum-certified perfection anyway. And hey, if you don’t succeed, you can go back to the salon to start anew.