Tuesday, 23 December 2014

25 Best Songs of 2014: #15 to #1

You can read Part 1 of my Best Songs of 2014 list, including tracks by Future Islands, Sam Smith, FKA twigs and Run the Jewels, here. 

15. Hospitality – “I Miss Your Bones”
On “I Miss Your Bones”, Hospitality trades the wistful, NPR-approved pop of their debut for something more angular and aching. One of the year's unlikeliest choruses. 

14. Jenny Lewis – “Head Underwater”
Sublime backing vocals and instantly memorable guitar help make “Head Underwater” one of the most vibrant, and vital, songs Jenny Lewis has ever made.

13. Lana Del Rey – “West Coast”
Del Rey’s decision to swap her synths and beats for live guitar and drums ensures that even in its more languid moments, “West Coast” never drags. Del Rey truly comes into her own on this hypnotic, smouldering song. 

12. Nicole Atkins – “Girl You Look Amazing”
A playful Talking Heads homage, cautionary tale, and killer pop chorus all together in one undeniably hooky package.

11. Angel Olsen – “Forgiven/Forgotten”
"Forgiven/Forgotten" is an album's worth of conflict packed into two potent minutes, and demonstrates Angel Olsen's brilliant use of contrasts more than any other song on Burn Your Fire for No Witness.

Head below the fold for songs #10 to #1. 

10. Yann Tiersen ft. Aidan Moffat - "Meteorites" 
“Meteorites”’ unlikely marriage of harmonium and musical saws shouldn’t work, but it does. Aidan Moffat’s voice, with its rich Scottish burr, is grand, dour, wistful and grounded. The song's mesmerizing video, starring Clemence Poesy, is the perfect accompaniment.

9. The New Pornographers – War on the East Coast
Apocalyptic imagery, frenetic drums and guitar, and blazing harmonica riffs (!) meet a no-holds-barred vocal performance by Dan Bejar with thrilling, exultant results. 

8. St. Vincent – Rattlesnake
I can still remember hearing “Rattlesnake” for the first time, and being completely enthralled by Annie Clark’s virtuosic guitar and frantic vocals. When I saw Clark perform the song live months later, I was reminded of its greatness.

7. Wye Oak – "Glory"
Disorienting at first, “Glory” quietly became one of my favorite songs this year. Confusion rarely sounds this attractive.

6. Taylor Swift – "Blank Space"
After 1989's tone-setting opener, “Blank Space” is the first indication that Swift has a more meticulous and self-aware approach to her songwriting on 1989. The lyrical content may be nothing new, but the production is appealingly clean and crisp, and Swift's delivery contains a tiny, essential wink that’s the key to the entire track. It's one of my favourite songs this year, for the "lonely Starbucks lovers" mondegreen if nothing else.

5. Leonard Cohen – "Did I Ever Love You"
“Did I Ever Love You” begins with one of Cohen’s rawest, most powerful vocal performances ever, then takes a hairpin turn into a warm, sighing, violin-led chorus. Some called the transition jarring and unnecessary – I think it’s brilliant, a crucial salve for Cohen's aching performance. 

4. Tori Amos – “Trouble’s Lament”
Going by title alone, one might assume “Trouble’s Lament” is a callback to the confessional, piano-dominated music of Tori Amos’s earliest work, so it comes as a pleasant surprise to discover that the song is rich, expansive Americana – and playful too, with a genuinely inspired use of triangle as both mood-setter and punchline. What surprises most, however, is the flamenco guitar that kicks in during the chorus, turning an easygoing drive into a thrillingly dangerous detour.

3. Foxes – “Youth”
“Youth” works in part because Foxes starts from a place of subtraction, not addition; there are no extraneous elements, but it also works because of Louise Allen's singular vocals, as "Youth"'s exuberant acoustic version - which may now be my favourite incarnation of the song - proves. It's earnest, unselfconscious, and virtually none of it rhymes, and I love it for that. When the song bursts into vibrant life midway through, I always think, "Yes, this is what big, celebratory, stadium-filling dance music should sound like," and always with a ridiculous grin on my face. 

2. Charli XCX – “Boom Clap”
Pop perfection. Sleek and effortlessly cool, but with a heart beating beneath the surface. Bonus points for making 'na na na' sound like anything but filler. 

1. Sleater-Kinney - "Bury Our Friends" /  Slow Club – “Complete Surrender”
My best song of 2014 ultimately ended up being a tie; looking back, both of these songs were so indelible, and played such a significant role in how I listened to music this year, that it seemed unfair to deny either one the top spot. 

What surprised me most about "Bury Our Friends", and surprises me still, is how danceable it is. The song roars out of the gate with a monstrous guitar riff that, in another genre, could have been a killer synth line; then Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Tucker make it clear that this song could only have come from Sleater-Kinney. Tucker and Brownstein both give some of the best vocal and musical performances of their careers; in particular, Brownstein has become identified so much with her upbeat music on Portlandia that it’s thrilling to be reminded of her full range here. Tucker

Intertextuality was 2014's biggest musical trend -- consider how, of the five nominees for Record of the Year at the Grammys, only one, "Stay With Me", wasn't primarily defined by its accompanying music video -- and "Bury Our Friends" recognizes this while also suggesting something might be lost in the process.

I probably listened to “Complete Surrender” more than any other song this year. At first, I wasn’t blown away by the track, but on subsequent plays I fell in love with every element, many of which "Complete Surrender" shares with "Bury Our Friends" - a striking start; ideal blend of voices, here Charles Watson's tenor and Rebecca Taylor's soaring soprano; propulsive, instantly memorable drumming; and a dramatic finale. Taylor becomes the focal point in both the song and its music video, but Watson is just as crucial to the song's success - the duo makes a compelling argument for how a boy-girl duo can exist without one half being relegated to backup vocalist. 

Every aspect of the song has clearly been finessed, but what elevates "Complete Surrender" above such songs as "Boom Clap" or "Blank Space", as great as they are, is its sense of urgency; there's an immediacy the track shares with "Bury Our Friends" that much of pop music this year seemed to lack. With intertextuality, there's the danger of detachment, and both these songs manage to exist in the moment while being musically sophisticated enough to withstand repeat listens.

No songs exist without context, but "Complete Surrender"and "Bury Our Friends" simultaneously acknowledge this fact and rise above it, and that's an impressive feat – especially when many of this year’s most popular songs seemed to depend on their accompanying visuals -- and, most notably, each other -- for relevance and support.

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