FEATURE: The Best Songs of 2014, Part 1

Kendrick Lamar

FEATURE: The Best Songs of 2014, Part 1

by Trevor Johnson and Chad Jewett



20.) Clean Bandit featuring Jess Glynn “Rather Be”

This song probably isn’t very cool but what it is is damn near perfect. Just as mid-90s fashion a la The Craft snuck into the mainstream, and the lines between pioneering indie rock and grunge were mined with Ph.D level precision, “Rather Be” took a different route to the same era. Theirs was a point when pop and house music collided across the radio and acts like La Bousche and Ace of Base became household names. But Clean Bandit took advantage of nearly 20 years of pop development and used it to smooth the edges of its influences. The legacy of “Rather Be” will quite hopefully be that when the flash drive-wielding electronic overlords finally come to own it all, they won’t be able to do so exclusively with womp-womps and Hypno Toad like repetition. For all of us to follow semi-willingly, DJs will have to do it with some semblance of verse-chorus-verse-chorus execution. Classixx and Blood Orange made this real need for capital “S” SONGS fairly apparent in 2013, and the undeniable success of “Rather Be” only serves as reinforcement. Moreover, the song had moments. The infectious trickle of the opening riff and the peaking, almost euphoric “N-n-n-no, no no no place I’d rather be,” are undeniable. Where electronic music has so often tried to drone the listener into submission, this track, hell even the title, was a welcomed, well-crafted brain washing. – Trevor Johnson



19.) Drake “0 to 100”

A few years ago the basketball blogosphere treated us fans to the concept of “The Kobe Assist”, essentially a shot missed in a way, perfected by the Mamba, that still seems to spin off the rim perfectly to a Laker teammate for a rebound and an easy put-back. It sounds like total bullshit, but smarter men than I have defended or at least entertained, the theory. So allow me to try my hand at a new term, “The Kanye Single”. For reference, please see “Clique”: tracks that featured just enough of Kanye’s effort to maintain steady radio play without revealing much of anything from the album that the public will no doubt wait close to another year for. Such tracks have also received more airplay than any song on either of Kanye’s last two full lengths. Well, in 2014 Drake released a whole bunch of Kanye Singles. He also helped out a few friends and possibly got beat up by someone who’s an octogenarian in rap years, but above all else, he released “0 to 100”. Despite being more or less a run back of “Started From the Bottom,” “0 to 100” reinforced Drake’s recent trend: convince people you’re hard and can rap in between albums, lure them in and then croon your way through the majority of an official studio release. Extra points for acknowledging the most exciting player in the NBA, Aub. Keep feeding us these club-fodder curveballs in between albums; it’s a great way to do everything you want to do without ever having to mince mindsets when it comes time to make an actual product. – Trevor Johnson



18.) Runaway Brother “Xeric”

Goddamn; there’s something to be said for a band that just sounds like they’re having a blast playing their own songs. This constitutes Runaway Brother’s greatest asset. “Xeric” is three minutes of gorgeous emo-pop that borrows as much from “Mr. Jones” as it does from circa-‘03 Motion City Soundtrack. Lyrically, “Xeric” seems to bounce back and forth between one bad relationship and one good, referencing a period of dry eyes (hence the title) and an abundance of time to spend with someone new. Things end on the positive side, and how couldn’t they for a song that just makes you want to plow through town with the windows down, reveling in summer break. – Trevor Johnson



17.) The Pains of Being Pure At Heart – “Poison Touch”

Days of Abandon, the third album from The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, was more or less a clinic on a certain kind of hyper-literary, charmingly-rumpled 80s alt-pop. But the band’s best take on that sort of fizzy-yet-sheepish indie melodicism arrived as a bonus track (!!!): the gorgeous, perfectly-crafted “Poison Touch.” Helmed by A Sunny Day In Glasgow’s Jen Goma, who coos and croons through the song’s sugary major chords with dazzling elan, “Poison Touch” borrows a little from George Michael’s “Faith,” a pinch of The Cure’s “Close To Me”, and a whole lot of golden-age Motown’s sense of sparkling pop transcendence. Rife with hooks, carried away with its own sense of stylish joy, there were few songs in 2014 as compulsively listenable as “Poison Touch.” – Chad Jewett



16.) You Blew It! “Better to Best”

Back in June you may recall listening to a little thing called the Half Cloth Podcast. (Oh you do? Well then maybe go ahead and subscribe to said podcast, because there will be more to enjoy in the New Year! K thanks.) On Episode 4 of said podcast, You Blew It! frontman Tanner Jones revealed that this song was sort of an admission that life was pretty good. He was in love, he was out of college, and he was touring the world playing music. It wasn’t a particularly “emo” concept, this conceding that life was pretty damn good. But “Better to Best” didn’t end up being much of an emo song, either. Jones and his band mates had the fortitude to practically go arena rock without ditching any of what makes them great – crisp, thoughtful indie rock. In the end, “Better to Best” is a great example of how it’s fine to strive for more, and hopefully You Blew It! will continue to do so. But it’s also counterproductive to ignore when you’ve got it pretty good already. – Trevor Johnson



15.) The Hotelier – “Among the Wildfowers”

The Hotelier’s already-classic Home, Like No Place Is There offered an embarrassment of riches, from the sweepingly cinematic “An Introduction” to grandly melodic pop-punk of “The Scope of All This Rebuilding” to the moving suburban drama of “Housebroken.” Yet it’s “Among the Wildflowers” — centered at the literal core of Home — that also ending up feeling like the album’s conceptual center. Moving through crisp, autumnal indie-rock, enormous, poignant choruses, and a sudden, jagged hardcore denouement, “Among the Wildflowers” is likely the album’s most salient sonic marvel, offering Christian Holden’s finest vocal performance – conversational yet athletic — and the band’s spriest grip on their flexible, magisterial sound. But the song is also notable for its narrative, which pivots effortlessly from subtle wordplay (“You we born on a leap year, Fill in the gaps”) to cerebral critique (“Projected map of the body / It’s crass, abject, colonial”). Home, Like No Place Is There was a deeply capacious album, and “Among the Wildflowers” was its most stirring passage. – Chad Jewett



14.) Jessie Ware “Say You Love Me”

All relationships have a tipping point: you’re either in or you’re not. One of the cruelest fates in life is to be the one giving the ultimatum. That’s where this track from Ware’s second studio album lives – out on the limb collecting splinters waiting for that someone to go all in. The chorus is a wonderful wave, coming to shore as Ware pleads “Cuz I don’t want to fall in love/If you don’t want to try,” and concludes with her reneging on that firm stance “Baby it looks as though we’re running out of words to say/And love’s floating away/Won’t you stay?” Ware and co-writer/pop tomato Ed Sheeran had to have Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” in mind the entire time, as the verses are a barely composed demand: “Say you love me/To my face.” There’s a world that exists beyond “I love you,” but it’s not a place anyone gets to enjoy alone. “Someone told me love controls everything/But only if you know.” It’s really that simple sometimes, “Are you in?”. “Say You Love Me” inhabits that moment perfectly, even as the moment feels light years from perfect. – Trevor Johnson



13.) Beyoncé “Ring Off”

“Ring Off” or “7/11”? “7/11” or “Ring Off”? I’ll allow my co-editor to try to convince you (on Monday) that the delirious party-starting of “7/11” was the better of Beyoncé’s two excellent 2014 bonus offerings. But consider the subtle skill it takes to write a pitch-perfect Motown update that is also a poignant statement of feminist and intergenerational empathy. Listen to that exquisitely sharp guitar jangle, or those burbling vocal samples, or just how fluid and affecting Beyoncé’s voice has truly gotten. Perhaps ruminate on the fact that we all would have been fine with the song sticking with that Smokey-Robinson-&-the-Miracles-circa-1965 groove, but then that chorus comes along (“Now the fun begins / Dust yourself off, then you love again”). Flawless. – Chad Jewett



12.) Shabazz Palaces “#CAKE”

Hip hop’s answer to Sun Ra, the Seattle-based experimental rap duo Shabazz Palaces (Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire) went full-out intergalactic on this year’s amazing Lese Majesty. Consisting of suites and fractured mini-songs that work better as long movements than discrete tracks, Lese Majesty did yield one incredible stand-alone track — the rubbery, left-field marvel that is “#CAKE.” Built from sculpted noise, handclaps, Reagan-era synths and a perfectly odd refrain (“Eating cake”), “#CAKE” features 2014’s best groove: a spry, bending stomp that I’ve yet to listen to without at least tapping a foot. All the while Butler and Maraire trade bars of pure post-modern surrealism. The song still trades in all the abstraction, futurism, and studio ingenuity that make Shabazz Palaces the most exciting hip-hop group of the last few years, but manages the mystical (or should I say “inter-dimensional”?) of turning all of that stuff into one hell of a single. – Chad Jewett


Kendrick Lamar

11.) Kendrick Lamar – “I”

In an interview with New York’s Hot 97, Kendrick Lamar stated about the poignant, ecstatic “i”: “I wrote a record for the homies that’s in the penitentiary right now, and I also wrote a record for these kids that come up to my shows with these slashes on they wrists, saying they don’t want to live no more.” In a year as painful as 2014 has often been, the triumphant empathy of “i” further underlines the ways in which Kendrick Lamar might be not only one of the finest artists of the past decade, but might in fact be a transcendent cultural figure – a young man set on making art that truly engages with the world around him, the likes of which we haven’t seen since Marvin Gaye and Joe Strummer. The song itself is gorgeous, pivoting away from the dense claustrophobic moods of good kid, m.A.A.D city, to a brightly energetic, Isley Brothers-sampling groove. But as a celebration of self-worth, gritty survivalism, and a stirring gesture of support to those who suffer, “i” is powerful and essential. – Chad Jewett


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2 Responses

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