FEATURE: The Best Songs of 2014, Part 2

Songs 2014

FEATURE: The Best Songs of 2014, Part 2

by Chad Jewett

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10.) Saintseneca “Passionate Kisses

It can’t be considered a cop out to put a cover on your “Best Of…” list when the cover is this good. Whether you’re familiar with the Lucinda Williams original (1988) or the more popular Mary Chapin-Carpenter version (1993) you know it to be a song built on simplicity, both lyrically and musically, as well as a vessel for an impossibly catchy chorus. Saintseneca absolutely nailed their interpretation. The band has never afraid of infusing quiet, ambient space into their writing. But what they’ve proven on “Passionate Kisses” is that they can absolutely soar when the moment is right. On the heels of 2014s wonderful Dark Arc — and especially lead single “Happy Alone” — Saintseneca showed that when they dial up their own intensity they leave little to be desired and deliver so much to enjoy. Both strengths collide here, as the verses float like the smoke off a wick, Zach Little warbling and cooing through small desires, and build fiercely around the “Shouldn’t I have this?” refrain of the pre-chorus. No one is asking Saintseneca to abandon what they’ve already done so well. It is, however, pretty apparent how comfortable they sound with pounding drums and distortion. – Trevor Johnson

 

Jazz June

9.) The Jazz June – “Ain’t It Strange”

In what has been something of a down year for pop songs, the power of a singular melody has become a seriously valuable resource. Which is why “Ain’t It Strange” — one of several excellent power-pop gems from The Jazz June’s great return LP, After The Earthquake — stands out so saliently in one of the best years for emo releases since the mid ‘90s. It knows how an honest-to-god song works. Built according to the specifications of the Nirvana/Weezer/Pixies school of melodic punk, “Ain’t It Strange” figures out one great progression, one undeniable melody (again, 2014 was short on those), and keeps plugging away at both for three minutes or so. Like the best of these sorts of songs, you can’t tell which is the chorus and which is the verse – it’s all just catchy and compelling. Guitars bend and warp between verses, each drum fill is Nevermind precise, and the whole thing adds up to a nimble, thrilling few minutes of power-pop economy. – Chad Jewett

 

Somos

8.) Somos “Dead Wrong”

2014 was too awful of a year for this track to be considered a widespread rallying cry. That designation would have to go to Vince Staples. But as Millennials plunge deeper into student debt, weather a weakened economy and face a cratering music and entertainment industry, there will be a subset that looks to Mike Fiorentino to speak for them. That sense of empathy and engagement defines Somosgreat debut LP, Temple of Plenty, never better then on “Dead Wrong”. Call it the Elizabeth Warren side of things. “I don’t belong,” he bellows, almost as if trying to talk his way from a bad dream. As the year wore on, that refrain became a motto of its own: a signal of empathy to anyone in their 20s struggling to find a suitable, living wage or live with the discontent of a 9 to 5. “Dead Wrong” isn’t about rejecting the world around you out of selfishness or tunnel vision. It’s about finding true opportunity for change and compassion in a world where everything is supposed to be at your fingertips. – Trevor Johnson

 

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7.) Ryn Weaver – “OctaHate”

The chorus of the year, plain and simple: a tenacious, soaring, radiant, supercharged pop marvel that Ryn Weaver – a 22-year-old singer-songwriter-producer who has captured early on what a lot of artists search out for years – absolutely crushes, moving from staccato sharpness to gossamer breathiness, all while stadium-rock drums pound punctuation as accompaniment. The best that can be said about 2014 is that genre is officially meaningless, and thank god for it. “OctaHate” might as well be a banner example of that kind of sonic expansiveness. The few live videos that exist of “OctaHate” turn it into something approaching cinematic pop-punk; Weaver’s guitarist digs into those choruses jabs with aplomb. On the recorded version (co-produced by Passion Pit frontman Michael Angelakos, who knows his way around a damn electro-pop hit) the artisanal studio tics of Bon Iver and St. Vincent spin and sparkle amongst the kind of muscular poignancy that (realistically) made Beyoncé’s self-titled LP the album of the year for two years in a row. Along the way the lyrics are smart, the melodies are flexible and unique, with some of Kate Bush’s fearlessness and sense of freedom. But again: chorus of the year. – Chad Jewett

 

Beyoncé

6.) Beyoncé “7/11”

Over the past 52 weeks Beyoncé has gone from a mega-star with a few undeniably great wedding songs to the beating pulse of pop and R&B. After releasing her self-titled multimedia album, 2014 was essentially just a victory parade of sold-out shows, award show performances, and accolades. While Taylor Swift tried like hell to create the equivalent of electro-pop Bud Light, Beyoncé reveled in her ability to take everyone’s sound and simultaneously make it her own, and make it significantly better. “7/11” is an outtake from the aforementioned album, the most obvious reason for its exclusion being that it almost seems too easy. It would have never really had a home against the manicured, monumental, painstakingly layered gems of Beyoncé. But what it does have is a place in every club in America from here until Memorial Day. Its lyrics are a little bit free association, its melody is a lot bit genius, and it all merges into the type of track that brief careers are built on in today’s world of Spotify and FM radio. Instead, it was a respite for Queen Bey; a fun, danceable take on one of the endless sides of her creativity. – Trevor Johnson

 

Vince Staples Hell Can WAit

5.) Vince Staples – “Fire”

Few things are as transcendent as a good opening song. Think of “London Calling” or “Running Up That Hill” or “The Boy In The Bubble” or “Liquid Swords”. Those songs feel like tickets of admission. They feel like passports. “Fire”, the dense, dark, two minutes of post-punk-laced rap from California emcee Vince Staples is that kind of song, kicking off his brilliant major-label debut, Hell Can Wait. In and out in 137 seconds, the song lays a dystopian blanket of wobbling, atonal bass, blown out, clattering drums, and chilly, abandoned warehouse echoes, all as mood-music for Staples’ incredible sense of space, tunefulness, and the subtle intricacies of the pocket. A song as barbed and explosively tense as “Fire” (seriously, it sounds like an early Suicide track with the bass turned to 11) would theoretically be the furthest thing from a “pop” song, and yet Staples excels at shaping the insightful socio-political critiques and plumbed interiority of his bars into quicksilver hooks that pop into your head at random and stop you in your tracks (in that way Kendrick Lamar might be the closest comp). Hell Can Wait was the best rap release of 2014, and “Fire” is its grandly unnerving opening suite. – Chad Jewett

 

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4.) Tokyo Police Club – “Argentina”

Maybe it’s cheating to give “Best of the Year” consideration to a song that gives itself eight minutes to cycle through every melody, chorus, and power-pop recipe in its book. Or maybe we should just celebrate Tokyo Police Club for figuring out how to top the still-incredible heights of 2010’s essential Champ by packing all of them into one song. Either way, there’s no denying the dizzying imagination and sheer melodic heights scaled by “Argentina.” Knitted together by David Monks’ warm, conversational croak of a tenor and his talent for perfect phrases pitched just left of center (“How many kinds of people do you think there really are for me? Enough to fill a room? Enough to fill a mall?”, “I want to see you in the bright bright bright bright bright bright bright bright morning”), “Argentina” is essentially an indie-pop “Bohemian Rhapsody”. The song sprints through fleet emo with Microkorg icing in its early passages, spends some of its middle in the kind of svelte, post-punk jitters that Phoenix have more or less trademarked, and ends by leaning into a big, warm, crowd-pleasing finish. Along the way Tokyo Police Club cycle through about four or five different varieties of chorus, pick up then cast off hooks that other bands would kill for, and ply just about every possible version of their charming, ultra-bright aesthetic – all while managing that harder-than-it-looks balance of translucent keyboard and scuffed guitar, stretching, inverting, and exploding their sound with nimble grace. As is always the case with really transcendent songs, you could spend an afternoon debating the song’s finer points — which of its stacked-deck of choruses really nails it, which of Monks’ lyrics best captures his fluid sense of everyday wonder and goofily funny non sequitur. “Argentina” was 2014’s most generous offering – a many-splendored guitar-pop masterwork that just keeps on giving. – Chad Jewett

 

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2-3.) St. Vincent “Digital Witness”/”Birth in Reverse”

I’ve spent the better part of the year trying to decide which of these songs is greater than the other and I’ve finally concluded that it’s futile. For years now, Annie Clark has been one of indie rock’s most interesting and impressive songwriters – but it was mostly shown in flashes. Let’s call this year’s St. Vincent the definitive indicator of Annie Clark making “The Leap” (for further explanation of “The Leap”, see Cousins, DeMarcus, pre-meningitis). To carry the basketball reference a bit further, consider 2012’s David Byrne collaboration Love This Giant her stint on the US Olympic team: a chance to study from a master and take a few things back to her own game. Both tracks take on the digital bubble that has formed around the social world. In “Birth in Reverse,” it comes across as a combination of conceding liberties (birth = freedom, I think?) and privacy in both a political and social way. There’s a chicken/egg situation here with the sort of pop voyeurism the internet has created. We saw the disgusting drama of NSA spying play out all spring, but Clark winds it around the fact that we make it easier than ever to be “followed”. The mundane minutia of “Take out the garbage/Masturbate” is, as she points out, practically a headline not to mention a digression. It all gets cloaked in a wash of AM radio static and sharp soloing in the breakdown. In an age where so much time is spent creating white noise, Annie Clark made it a high point. Let’s all take note of that.

“Digital Witness” sounds slightly less like a beautiful malfunction and more like a robot that can move like Michael Jackson in his prime. The refrains of “I want all of your mind” and “People turn the TV on/It looks just like a window,” need very little explaining. It’s the throwaway lines that are so damn impressive. “Get back to your seat,” the track begins. It’s forceful, immediately demanding, and unpleasant. “Get back to your stare/I care but I don’t care,” can make almost anyone reconsider their content consumption. And finally, Clark closes with “Won’t somebody sell me back to me?” If you’re going to rail against the patterns the masses have eased into, you’d better make it sound as sweet and compelling as your opposition. This is why Annie Clark owned such a huge swath of 2014. – Trevor Johnson

 

Chance

1.) Chance the Rapper & The Social Experiment – “Wonderful Everyday”

Chance the Rapper could sing-rap the return policy in a Sears catalogue, and as long as it had those Technicolor horns, that rubbery sense of rhythm, that beautiful blend of the gospel and the profane, I would buy two copies. Of course, Chance the Rapper has yet to charge for a note of his music: a gesture of benevolence, warmth, and subtle activism that also happens to define his brilliant  “Wonderful Everyday” – a reworking of the theme song from the beloved PBS cartoon, Arthur, written and performed by Ziggy Marley. Beginning as a gorgeous, swirling nebulae of voices – young and old, male and female, smooth as silk and rasping like David Ruffin – and spare piano that offer spare glimpses of the source material, occasionally swelling into harmonies that still give me chills (the song dropped months ago), the song eventually zooms in: “Everyday when you’re walking down the street / Everybody that you meet / Has an original point of view”. Then another burst of harmonies – as expansive and radiant as a city mural – and another reminder of the moving thoughtfulness of the original (“It’s a simple message and it comes from the heart / Believe in yourself, for that’s the place to start”). And then we’ve arrived, as an absolutely enormous beat enters, as those harmonies turn into one grand symphony, as the song ebbs and flows, quiets down for another verse from Chance (dotted glowingly with lacing horns), as candy-colored synthesizers bend and pop like Cherry Coke bubbles around the song’s triumphant hopefulness: “I’m gonna get by when the going get’s rough / I’m gonna love life ‘til I’m done growing up / And when I go down I’m gonna go down swinging / My eyes still smiling and my heart’s still swinging.” The song is a perfect match for Chance the Rapper’s humanism, for what increasingly seems like a very real mission by the Chicago rapper to make people feel better, to make the world a better place. But “Wonderful Everyday” is also a showcase for the sonic imagination of The Social Experiment, turning the pop reggae of the original into something approaching a futurized revision of Gerwshin or Brian Wilson. For its grasp of the sheer artistic flexibility of music as well as its ability to make you feel things, I can’t think of a better song this year than “Wonderful Everyday.” – Chad Jewett

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4 Responses

  1. March 11, 2015

    […] it still comes as a wonderful surprise to hear the slinky climbing-vine riffs and bass-y twitch of “Birth In Reverse” turned into strident, stomping post-punk, the song’s cutting, Devo-esque chorus leaned into with […]

  2. April 11, 2015

    […] electro-pop singer-songwriter Ryn Weaver released one of the best singles of 2014 with the effusive, thrilling “OctaHate”. Now we’re getting our first glimpse of […]

  3. July 3, 2015

    […] the irrepressibly imaginative collective fronted by Chicago rapper Chance the Rapper, came up with the best song of 2014 by taking an unexpected gem (“Wonderful Everyday”, the theme song from the PBS cartoon Arthur) […]

  4. December 21, 2015

    […] sing Staples’ lyrics back to him but would by no means step foot in the spaces and places that Staples paints with such marked precision (“Wonder if they know I know they won’t go where we kick it […]

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