I usually stick to the number twenty because I like the number twenty. Biblically, twenty is the perfect number for waiting, a complete waiting cycle. It’s the atomic number of calcium, which I have never gotten enough of, the jersey number of Luc Robitaille when he was on the Kings, and is a magic number in physics ( so Wikipedia tells me). Lincoln used it as a measuring device in the Gettysburg address, but to know that you need to know that a score is twenty years. Mostly, I picked twenty arbitrarily, because I can and usually I can only find twenty songs worth liking enough to write about.
2014 just said “To hell with that!”
I began with sixty-seven (!) songs on my year-end favourites list, which I eventually whittled down to 28. It has taken me six days to decide which three I was going to dump. I’m still not happy about it. But the thought of eliminating another five made me physically ill ( I swear I am not just hung over). So twenty-five this list shall be. As for the albums list, well, let us just say twenty is proving to be difficult as well. 2014 turned out to be a great year musically.
Damn you, 2014….
25.”Slow Motion” PHOX
Neo-soul from Wisconsin? Yes, please. With whistles and hand claps, Monica Martin’s wispy and wistful voice settles into the syncopated groove, lulling you into a sense of peace. What else would you expect from Cheeseheads?
24.”You Can Be So Cruel” Royal Bloods
Future openers for the Foo Fighters on the latter’s 2015 tour, the British rock duo take the term drum and bass into a different direction. Mike Kerr’s bass groans and grinds over Ben Thatcher’s explosive beats, creating cacophonic waves that sound complete, never lacking in both style and substance.
23.”Stay With Me” Sam Smith
Smith’s voice is a U.K. treasure, and it lifts this simple and elegant soul song to another level. Thematically the diametric opposite of the other grand soul ballad of the year, John Legend’s gorgeous and rich “All Of Me”, never has a one night stand sounded so needed.
22.”Can’t Do Without You” Caribou
Caribou, Polaris Prize winner and EDM legend, returns with a song full of cascading, shimmering music, handclap noises, spritely cymbals, and alternating deep, slightly demonic vocals and a sweet falsetto. Immensely danceable.
21.”Habits (Stay High)” Tove Lo
The Swedish chanteuse smashed into the psyche with this track, an ode to the need to self-medicate bad break-ups ( we’ve all done it, and if you haven’t you are a liar). Dance pop gloriously constructed to make you feel high.
20.”Go” Grimes f. Blood Diamonds
A stunningly pretty EDM track, with sweet vocals, Vancouver’s Claire Boucher continues to bend, expand, and shatter what it means to be electronic dance music.
19.”Left Hand Free” Alt-J
The continuing development of the U.K. band is fascinating to me. This song is a bluesy, Southern rock diversion from the more proggy folkie inclinations on This Is All Yours. Joe Newman’s reedy voice fills in just wonderfully in the swampy stomp.
18.”Scream (Funk Up My Life)” Paolo Nutini
The Scottish singer-songwriter with the voice of a 60-year-old homeless alcoholic dazzles on the opening track of his long-awaited third album, where he claims his place as the heir of Rod Stewart and Joe Cocker. The song is dirty, funky, and all soul all the time.
17.”Turtles All The Way Down” Sturgill Simpson
All country songs should be about drinking and drugging. Especially if they are sung by Simpson, who modernizes classic, hard-core country music, making Johnny, Waylon, and Merle so very proud in the process. Also, go buy this record. There is a cover of the 80s one hit wonder “The Promise” that is totally kick ass. But this metaphysical meandering song about… turtles…. and aging… living life… I don’t care, it’s one of the best country songs I’ve heard in years, and I am certain it’s about a fantastic trip on something or other.
16.”Two Weeks” FKA Twigs
Airy vocals over trippy beats, FKA Twgs is one of the major stories in 2014 music. I usually avoid the anointed ones that other music critic vaunt, because the chosen ones rarely live up to the hype for long. Twigs, aka Tahliah Barnett, may just succeed where many have fail. Over silky smooth R&B beats, Twigs’ vocals hiccup, soar, and slithers through the empty spaces, filling them with sex and sensuality. She’s going places, this one. Warning- NSFW lyrics. Very much so.
15.”Rainy Taxi” Spoon
Spoon, twenty (!) years into an excellent and consistent career, remains a band I love without ever being obsessed with. I appreciate Britt Daniel tremendously as a songwriter, and “Don’t Make Me A Target” off of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is one of my favourite songs. “Rainy Taxi” is a highlight off a truly excellent album, a galloping rocker (well, as rock as Spoon gets) full of fantastic drumming by the other heart and soul of Spoon, Jim Eno.
14. “Easy Money” Johnny Marr
He is Johnny Marr. He was the guitarist for the Smiths. He is awesome. And this song is the most awesome on a petty great record. Also, electrifying live show.
13.”No Rest For The Wicked” Lykke Li
Scandinavian melancholy permeates Li’s vocal style, and this single plays up the sad tones. A break-up fuelled I Never Learn‘s writing, and this song is filled with the langauge of self loathing and broken-hearted recriminations.
12.”Ghost” Ella Henderson
Henderson was on The X-Factor U.K. a couple of years ago, where she dazzled with her youth, huge soul voice, and budding songwriting skills. Her début single pulls from gospel and pop, and it announces her fully as a talent to watch.
11.”Every Girl” Allah-las
Allah-las could become my new favourite band if they aren’t careful. They pull from the best of the sixties- the Kinks, Love, the Zombies. A Cali band, there is sunshine in the guitars. It’s also frickin’ catchy as hell. All of a sudden, in the middle of the supermarket, my brain start’s going “yeah yeah yeah yeah” and that bass line kicks in. They may become my new favourite band, but like R.E.M. at their finest, I might hate them a lot for it.
10.”Jerk Ribs” Kelis
Kelis has an instantly recognizable though limited voice that works well in the alt-soul genre. “Milkshake” may be her major hit, and the food theme seems to work well for her. I love this record as a whole, but the horns on “Jerk Ribs” make me so happy. I love soul, I love soul food, I love Kelis. Love.
9. “White Is Red” Death From Above 1979
I was of the camp that figured that DFA 1979 would never be heard from again. There 2011 reunion delighted me, but the lull afterwards that saw no album forthcoming was frustrating as all hell out. But as my mother would have told me, patience is a virtue, and wait I did. The Physical World was a welcome return, and “White is Red” is a much more poppy song than one would expect from the band that gave us this magical moment, but the band always had a bit of the pop maestro in them. But it’s grungy pop of the highest calibre.
8. “Gimme Something Good” Ryan Adams
A return to form for everyone’s favourite wayward troubadour, as he plugs back in and writes amazing songs. His best record in years, with a alt-country vibe running through, and this album opener sets you up for everything that comes after. Full of guitars and organ chords, it is retro roots rock done Ryan Adams style. He even sounds a little like Tom Petty, and in a year where Petty released a really good record himself, it’s saying something when i think it’s the best tom Petty song I’ve heard all year, sung by a far better singer ( sorry Tom, but Ryan has ALL of the feels).
7. “Archie. Marry Me” Alvvays
It begins with chirping birds before launching into alt rock guitar with nineties power pop vocals by Molly Rankin (yes, she is one of THOSE Rankins, Canada- daughter of late and totally missed John Morris Rankin). It’s indie pop shimmering and bright, and it’s wonderful to hear.
6. “Hideaway” Kiesza
I am a sucker for a local girl done good story, and Calgary native Keisza wowed with her breakthrough single, matched with a great dance video that showed her classically trained ability. The song was a slow burner, both musically and culturally, but it’s one of the better dance tracks of the year by far, and it’s not dreary nor is it dull. It soars and whips around, giving you memorable hooks.
5. “Seasons (Waiting For You)” Future Islands
Legendary Letterman appearance aside (and it is a thing of beauty), there is something wonderfully comforting about this Future Islands track. The first time I heard it, I was wondering why some band was using the 70s schlock classic “Love is In The Air” as a musical template. The answer is simply because “Love is In the Air” is actually awesome if you get past the ridiculously over the top lyrics and vocals, and Future Islands are smart enough to team it with some modern-day grit. There is a sweetness in the synth pop produced by this band. But the performance given by singer Samuel T. Herring on the song is absolutely life altering. That is how you sing a song, John Paul Young!
4. “Get Up” Young Fathers
This year’s Mercury Prize winners are worth your attention. This uplifting call to arms has a glorious soulful hook, a song that draws not just from hip hop and soul but gospel and the streets of Scotland. They are unique in the world, at times buried by the music, at times soaring beyond it. This song just helps you appreciate what else they bring.
3. “Prince Johnny” St. Vincent
Annie Clark had a banner year this year with her breakthrough album, and this track, a pop gem from someone who has written some pretty jarring songs. Her vocals are breathtakingly beautiful, the melody is elegant, and the lyrics slightly baffling. I’m a longtime fan, and rather than whine about how I hate that everyone now loves St. Vincent, I am going to celebrate that she is now getting the recognition and love she deserves.
2. “Chandelier” Sia
Longtime Sia fans are no stranger to her glorious quirky voice, which can reach heights unknown. On this surprising international hit, she sacrifices none of her skill nor her style, and gets rewarded for it with genuine fame and Grammy nominations. Rarely have I been so pleased that one of my favourites succeed so spectacularly. At the same time, it tears your heart to pieces, as anyone who has battled addiction or mental illness can attest to ( as she wryly proclaims at the opening of the track, “Party girls don’t get hurt”). A memorable exorcism of a song.
1. “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” Against Me! I have tended to sneer at the most recent crop of punk bands. They never seemed to be really punk, just really loud emo. There are exceptions ( Rise Against, Billy Talent), but generally there is a lack of substance that I find irritating. Against Me! was almost to melodic and anthemic for me to take seriously. But the powerful story of Laura Jane Grace was too much for me too ignore, and “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” is a song everybody needs to hear. While sacrificing none of their melodic sensibility, they up their bile and rage. This time, it’s personal. And they will make you feel it. (Warning… strong language. Words that can offend. Be careful if you outrage.)