The best songs I listened to this year, that I hadn’t heard before (in most cases).
Redlight – “Gold Teeth” (2014)
Not having followed electronic music too closely over the last many years (oh, who am I kidding, I never have — who has the fricking time?), I can’t vouch for how “unique” this track sounds, but sometimes you just know what you like and you don’t need to justify it by comparing that thing with its contemporaries. In this case I’m content in my ignorance; this is just a really sinister, groovy house track that gets stuck in my head with hardly any effort at all. It has a grimy sheen to it that I love; maybe I should keep up with the EDM scene if this is the kind of stuff that’s being put out right now.
Carly Rae Jepsen – “Call Me Maybe” (2012)
Okay, no, this is not the first year I heard this song, but this was the year I realized that this is possibly the greatest pop song ever written. I don’t know if that’s the case, but I’m hard pressed to think of a better, more generation-defining song from this millennium. Its ubiquity is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before — there was literally no one you could talk to that hadn’t heard this song, or one of its many parodies. It’s clean, cute, fun and a little bit stupid. It’s perhaps the last great pop song that will focus on using the phone for it’s original intended purpose. It’s pure crystallized sucrose, and even after these last two and a half years of hearing it everywhere, I’m not sick of it. That, to me, is the most telling sign that it’s great — it’s a modern pop song that’s still on my radar years later. Come on, that never happens.
Underworld – “Cups” (1999)
If you had asked me a year ago what my favorite electronic song was, I probably would have barely hesitated before telling you it was “Yeah (Crass Version)” by LCD Soundsystem. The way that song progresses and builds and builds until it implodes into screeching, amplitude-cutoff incoherence is still one of the greatest things in music. It’s complete, gorgeous deconstructionism.
However, this year I discovered “Cups”, and everything changed. In their typically theatrical and perfectly justified zeal, Underworld crafted what is undoubtedly one of the all-time great electronic masterpieces; over the course of almost 12 minutes, they introduce a rolling, subterranean, intestine-shaking bassline that serves as the deep-rooted foundation for the rest of the song’s dancefloor acrobatics. Even the last quarter of the song, which spins off its axis into rave territory, never loses its bass-heavy tendencies. It’s a gut-churning, endorphin-loosening epic of a song. Ten years before people became obsessed with The Drop, Underworld were conducting a full-scale air raid.
At The Drive-In – “Invalid Litter Dept.” (2000)
This is the crown jewel in the diadem of Relationship of Command; a perfect reflection of everything that makes At The Drive-In who they are. If you listen to this song and you don’t like it, throw in the towel, there’s nothing to be done. ATDI aren’t for you. But for the rest of us, “Invalid Litter Dept.” is one of those suitably weird and affective songs that creates the oppressive, distinct mood which is so common in ATDI’s work, only this one somehow does it better than the rest. Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s spoken-word verses are punctuated by a melodious sing-along, “Dancing on the corpses’ ashes!” before the song disintegrates into the screams and aggression that are so characteristic of this band at their best. It’s a picture of social dystopia and political hopelessness, a six-minute tour of browns and greys and smokestacks that leaves you winded and reflective, and hopefully sold on ATDI as one of the best post-hardcore bands of the 2000s.
Sarah Brightman – “By Now” (1993)
There are certain types of music where, no matter how someone tries to dress it up with eloquent descriptions and praise, you just won’t like. I feel like Sarah Brightman’s take on pop music is one such example — you love it or hate it, and no angle I take on the subject will ever change that. This could be passed off as very hokey music, and I can appreciate the sentiment, but for me it’s emotional and beautiful in its own way, rising and falling like the tides in its three and a half minutes (and I’m sure, given the context of Dive, Brightman would appreciate that description). In fact, I don’t have much else to say about this other than if you like this type of music, this song is miles above its contemporaries, and if you don’t, well, on to the next song on the list.
Coheed and Cambria – “Key Entity Extraction V: Sentry the Defiant” (2013)
Say what you will about C&C’s pretension — believe me, as a long-time fan I’ve heard and read it all. They’re just showoffs, some say. They take themselves too seriously, others say. The music is too long and too nerdy and too much of a compromise between metal and pop. Whatever. It’s hard to deny that Claudio Sanchez is a pretty creative dude, and that he’s relentlessly sure of his ideas. The Afterman albums, released within a few months of each other, exhibit this in explosive fashion. They do little to address the complaints of C&C’s detractors, but then C&C never seemed to care that much.
Smack-dab in the middle of this two-album masterpiece is “Sentry The Defiant”, which is as signature a C&C song as it’s possible to get. Really, when you look at it objectively, it’s not all that different from their other kickoff anthems: “In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3”, “No World For Tomorrow”, and “The Broken” all fall neatly alongside this song as a hard-hitting fission bomb in C&C’s impressive arsenal. Something about “Sentry”, though, is just better; maybe it’s the song’s placement in the Afterman lineup, maybe it’s Claudio’s breathless delivery, or maybe it’s the fact that this song represents C&C as they are now: still alive, still swinging, still ready and able to tear a hole in your cochlea and fill it with excellent music.
Mae – “The Fisherman Song (We All Need Love)” (2009)
Writing a song about writing a song could very easily qualify as “low art”, and in most cases I’d probably agree (or, at least I’d call it lazy). But leave it to Mae, the boys behind a sprawling, overambitious emo-pop concept album to take such a simple premise and stretch it out over almost nine minutes, taking the listener through writer’s block to the ocean to something about learning how to love. Yeah, it’s a little weird, but Mae make it work in characteristically emotional and melodramatic fashion, with all the highs and lows that such a journey would necessitate. It’s classic Mae done better, just like everything else off of the EP from which it originates.
Frank Ocean – “Strawberry Swing” (2011)
I’m not terribly impressed with Frank Ocean. It’s a shame, too, because of all the OFWGKTA spinoffs, I had the highest hopes for him. But, oh well; maybe it’s just inevitable, contemporary R&B just really isn’t my thing, no matter how much I’ve tried to “get” it. That said, “Strawberry Swing” is a lovely little piece and probably my takeaway song from the whole trying-to-get-into-Frank-Ocean phase I went through briefly this summer. It comes off his nostalgia, ULTRA mixtape and ends up being the perfect song to kick off a release with that title; the song is steeped in contemplative memories and and a dreamy, vague apocalypse. It’s soft and blurry around the edges, at least until the end when the blaring alarm clock brings everything back into the sharp focus of reality. It’s a song that would, admittedly, probably not work in any other context besides Ocean’s silky voice, but give credit where it’s due: The man can sing, and he can force you to summon up memories that aren’t even yours.
Taylor Swift – “The Story of Us” (2010)
Taylor Swift gets a lot of flack for being a bad songwriter, as if her style of telling short, romanticized vignettes is somehow less valuable or valid than “real” songwriting. All I can do is sigh and point out that the same people who criticize Swift for this are likely huge Belle and Sebastian fans, and…well, I’m not going to bother pointing out the irony. Because as any Belle and Sebastian fan will tell you, there’s something to be said for imagery in lyric writing, and “The Story of Us” could be the perfect example from Swift’s extensive catalog. It’s not terribly deep but it’s all the more accessible for it, and the music backing Swift’s best break-up story to date is fun and energetic, providing a biting counterpoint to the anxiety and desperation that permeates the rest of the song. Pop music shouldn’t do anything more or less than provide the most intense expression of our most relatable emotions in under five minutes, and “The Story of Us” is Swift giving us an omnidirectional deluge of the feelings we all feel.
John Mayer – “Slow Dancing In A Burning Room” (2006)
Cotinuum is a joy to listen to from start to finish, and it has many peaks, but the tallest of them all is also the one that hits the hardest and brings you the lowest. “Slow Dancing In A Burning Room” is a song about a relationship that was doomed from the start, full of salvage attempts and “making the most of all the sadness”. As someone who has been through this, I’ve never related to Mayer more than I do with this song. It’s a poignant slow-fade on two lovers grasping at straws, burning as they do. If you’ve never been in this situation, Mayer will take you close enough to smell the smoke, and trust me when I say that that’s as close as you’ll ever want to get.
Bomb The Music Industry! – “The First Time I Met Sanowan” (2010)
As guy in my mid-20s, I feel a lot of pressure from the world to live my life a certain way. Society says that by a certain age I should have reached specific landmarks — marriage, kids, a mortgage, etc. Thank God I have a girlfriend who could care less about those expectations, but it’s still hard to shake off the feeling that I’m not doing something right. Friends have moved on, gotten married, some even have kids and they’re younger than me. Scary stuff! I’m not ready for that! I can’t even cook myself a non-packaged dinner, how the heck do you expect me to have a family?
I know I’m not alone in this. “These days, we’re both getting old / And while you’re buying a house / I’m losing sight of my goals” Jeff Rosenstock sings in “The First Time I Met Sanowan”, a ska punk sound-off for the millennials like me who have no idea how their friends are managing to thrive in the 2010s. Like pretty much all of BTMI’s other songs, it wraps its cynicism in loud energy and raw melodicism. Rosenstock even manages to match wits with the most snide of our generation: “I’m tired of complaining”, he complains, and even though sooner or later everyone my age is going to have to figure this whole thing out, “The First Time I Met Sanowan” is a welcome reminder that there doesn’t have to be a timetable for it.
Taylor Swift – “Welcome To New York” (2014)
Placed right at the beginning of Taylor Swift’s best release to date, “Welcome To New York” could potentially take the throne as her best song, although 1989 has a slew of contenders. This album kicks down the door with a bass-heavy synthesizer that places the listener squarely into one of two camps: Either you start liking the ’80s right now, or get off the Swift train. A driving sawtooth cadence is the canvas for a song about starting over in a new city; for an album that uproots Swift’s pop country roots and places them in a clinical new electronics-ridden studio, “Welcome To New York” is its flag-waving anthem. Nothing will be the same.
Fountains of Wayne – “Hung Up On You” (2003)
Welcome Interstate Managers sounds like every kind of guitar music that you can think of at one point or another (okay — almost), so it’s no surprise that Fountains of Wayne decided to throw in their take on country in the form of “Hung Up On You”. What is surprising is that this ended up being probably my favorite song off the album, given that I’m not usually prone to liking country music, but there’s just something so eloquent and clever about this song. It feels like a caricature of all the country tropes that people talk about when they decide to paint the genre with a roller rather than a small brush — it has the twang, the melodrama, the beer and the bars, but it’s all done in such a pointed, precise way. I don’t know what it is about the cornerstone lyric, “Ever since you hung up on me / I’m hung up on you”, but when I hear it I can see Chris Collingwood’s puppy dog eyes and downcast face and all I want to do is buy him a beer and help him forget all about his troubles.
Chicane – “Autumn Tactics” (2000)
As it turns out, Chicane’s Behind The Sun was my breaking point with trance; it’s a pleasant enough album, but with some genres, “pleasant” is equivalent to “boring”, and boring music is a waste of my time. “Autumn Tactics” is the album’s one saving grace, a euphorically relaxed Balearic ode to summer that is lighter than air and as warm as Ibiza. It’s an uncompromisingly uplifting track, a last fond look at the carefree days of summer that summons deep nostalgia for simpler times, even while it prepares you for the dark, cold days that lie ahead. After all, summer will come again.
Everything But The Girl – “Tears All Over Town” (1988)
Unfamiliar with the sophsti-pop genre of music? Don’t be ashamed, it’s a stupid name for a genre, and no one really calls it that in actual conversation. I think it’s just something us music geeks use to describe loungy ’80s pop, but if you want to know exactly what it sounds like, give “Tears All Over Town” a listen. You’ll know right away. This is quintessential, perfect, wispy lost love in music form. It has everything — the echoy drum machine, the female vocalist who sounds like she’s about to burst into tears, even a saxophone at the end. It’s for a certain type of person, perhaps, but if that person happens to be me then Everything But The Girl hit this one out of the park.
They Might Be Giants – “We Want A Rock” (1990)
Honestly, I could have chosen almost any song off of Flood to put here, as they all share the same straight-faced goofball humor and proto-power-pop sound (and if we’re going to be honest, “Birdhouse In Your Soul” is the unquestionable best song off the album), but “We Want A Rock” is the one I chose based solely on the fact that it’s among the most hilarious songs from the album. The lyrics are offbeat, drug-induced madness: “If I were a carpenter I’d / Hammer on my piglet, I’d / Collect the seven dollars and I’d / Buy a big prosthetic forehead / And wear it on my real head.” If you can crack that one, you’re probably doing some drugs yourself; all I know is that “We Want A Rock” never fails to leave me in a fit of confused giggles.
Paper Route – “Letting You Let Go” (2012)
If any modern band could fill arenas, Paper Route could, and I’m not sure what they’re doing (or not doing) that’s keeping this from happening. “Letting You Let Go” is a huge song, gloriously abundant in its alt-synth indulgence, sounding like it would be more at home blasting out of 50-foot high speakers than the pitiful things in my Nissan Sentra. It’s maybe not the most thought-provoking or “challenging” song out there, but that’s not what it was made for — it was made to move your soul with sound waves, not introspection.
Lucy Rose – “Shiver” (2013)
A horde of anime fans were introduced to Lucy Rose due to “Shiver” being used as the opening song for the brilliantly sublime series Mushishi Zoku Shou, which aired earlier this year, and no song could have fit better. It’s an airy, forlorn piece; only Rose’s defeated and heavy voice, laden with regret, anchors the song and keeps it from dissipating on the breeze. It’s a song full of could-have-beens and things-that-never-were, and Rose softly, delicately breaks your heart in that way that only a girl with a guitar can.
Cut Copy – “We Are Explorers” (2013)
For Cut Copy, this is a well-trodden path — “We Are Explorers” continues the arm raising, effortlessly danceable sound that they had perfected from day one. But there’s nothing wrong with doing what you’re good at, and even if it’s not particularly innovative, it still manages to sound like the best Cut Copy song you’ve ever heard, just like all the other dancefloor-filling warheads they’ve dropped over the last 10 years.
Goo Goo Dolls – “Never Take The Place of Your Man” (1990)
Don’t read into this too much — this song is both a cover of a Prince song, and features a guest singer (Lance Diamond), so it’s a “Goo Goo Dolls song” in almost no meaningful way, but it’s far and away the high point from Hold Me Up. It’s the Goo Goo Dolls sounding like the best garage band you’ve ever heard, and in fact has a certain impromptu quality to it — almost like the Dolls were recording Hold Me Up and Lance Diamond happened to be in the studio and asked if he could jam with them and then BAM this song was recorded in one inspired, all-stars-aligned kind of take. This is just pure, fun rock ‘n’ roll with no expectations and a lot of heart — exactly what garage rock is supposed to be.
If you made it through all this, thank you for reading. Hopefully you discovered something new that you had never heard before, or thought about things in a different way, or maybe just enjoyed reading my summary of 2014 in music. Whatever possessed you to see it through to the end, I am grateful. I’ll hopefully be doing this again next year, so stick around. In the meantime, I have one more end-of-2014 list to write up and post…stay tuned!