In 2014, I have been out of the loop on music. So much has been going on in my life that I simply haven’t been keeping my finger half as firmly on the pulse as is usual for me. And that’s fine, because I’ll still discover the good stuff sooner or later. In the meantime, however, one result of my lack of attention is that for the first time in many many years, I honestly have no idea what songs are going to show up on the critics’ “Best of 2014” lists. The album lists I can predict, because even when you’re out of the loop it’s hard to miss the year’s big albums. But the songs I cannot say. I don’t expect I’ll even have heard of most of them. I find this quite exciting: I get to consult the songs-of-the-year countdowns from the critics I respect and be genuinely surprised at what I encounter.
So for this article I’m going to do something fun. I’m going to work my way through the top twenty of Pitchfork’s “100 Best Tracks of 2014” countdown, not looking ahead but simply listening to each song as I come to it, and writing it a little assessment. Why Pitchfork, you ask? Well, ideally I would use the aggregate ranking assembled by the folks over at Acclaimed Music, but the final version of that list usually doesn’t come out till the middle of the next year. So I must pick a single individual publication, and I’m sorry, but in that case it has to be Pitchfork. Whether we like it or not – and I have a great many problems with the site myself – no other music publication in the world is as influential as Pitchfork. No other publication has the power to make or break musical careers like Pitchfork. For better and for worse, Pitchfork doesn’t just reflect musical tastes; in a very real and far-reaching sense, it creates them. So the song list published by Pitchfork is the first and foremost list I must pay attention to.
Alright then. I haven’t even looked at songs 100-21, so as not to bias myself. I’m just starting with number twenty, and counting down. I think I’m going to enjoy this. A lot.
- Nicki Minaj – “Boss Ass Bitch” (Remix)
Well, Nicki Minaj can definitely rap, and rap better than most other rappers alive. And it’s great to hear her lending her brutally tight flow to a beat and a backdrop that sound stark enough and punishing enough to make a fitting complement to her lyrics. “Super Bass” aside, she’s never sounded right to me doing straight-up pop music, so I’m glad she’s going hardcore hip-hop on this one. And the rap itself is awesomely obnoxious. It’s not an instant earworm, but I won’t be surprised if this one grows on me.
- Sun Kil Moon – “Carissa”
With this kind of intensely and specifically personal confessional song, you simply either connect with it and feel moved by it, or you don’t. Mark Kozelek recounts, in painstaking detail, how a second cousin of his met her death in a freak accident. He’s undoubtedly deeply sincere; all credit to him for baring himself so completely. But the personal does not become the universal in this song, and there are other songwriters who can include just as much mundane detail when they tell stories like this (Sufjan Stevens’ “Casimir Pulaski Day” comes to mind), and yet still make those stories transcend their own situation and speak to others.
- Panda Bear – “Mr Noah”
Ah, now this one I do know. In fact I’ve been listening to it quite a lot since it came out. It’s an addictively dense and weird and demented soundscape that simultaneously unsettles and excites me. I think it’s brilliant that Panda Bear can still produce music that sounds completely fresh and unprecedented – after all, he’s almost a veteran by this point. This is a very good song.
- Tinashe – “2 On”
Never even heard of her. Okay, let’s see what she can do … … Four minutes later, the verdict: nice enough, but fluffy and inconsequential; would not listen a second time. This is slinky, classic R&B that wouldn’t sound out of place on a playlist from 2003. It’s very smoothly produced and Tinashe sings well (though I could do without Schoolboy Q’s rap). But it’s not nearly hooky enough or interesting enough to make me want to spend any more time with it.
- Young Thug – “Stoner”
This is some freaky rap music right here, and I’m not using that word in a good way. It’s minimalist, structurally unstable, skitting-all-over-the-place hip-hop, and as a mood piece it’s effective in its way (I guess it makes you feel like you are, in fact, stoned); but I wouldn’t listen to it for pleasure. Forgettable.
- Lil B – “No Black Person is Ugly”
Enough with the rap, already – and I say that as a serious rap fan. At this point I want to hear some first-rate rock and pop. That said, this one is a good song. As far as compassionate, socially conscious hip-hop goes, I’ll still take Macklemore over this, but it’s an effective enough statement and it has a catchy enough beat to carry the message.
- QT – “Hey QT”
Now this is fun pop music. It’s completely campy and ridiculous, but I’m pretty sure that’s the point. And it’s catchy, which after all is the only thing that matters with this kind of thing. Is it catchy to the point of being annoying? It definitely walks a very fine line; it could easily have tipped over into being just an irritating jingle. But it is grounded, I think, by its cleverness: those verses are self-aware and self-mocking, but they are not cynical, and that allows the song to become genuinely celebratory. I’m now listening to it again, and the chorus keeps getting better.
- Todd Terje and Bryan Ferry – “Johnny and Mary”
So this is a Robert Palmer cover with Bryan Ferry doing the vocal and Todd Terje producing. The very idea of that combination was enough to get me interested, and I’m so happy to say I am not disappointed. It’s a haunting, slow-burn ballad that carries a serious emotional load. Ferry delivers the kind of wounded, romantic vocal that he always does best, and Terje surrounds it with sultry, synthy, torchy electronics. The result is understated but suffused with vulnerability. Excellent.
- Drake – “0 to 100/The Catch Up”
I like Drake; he’s a fine rapper. But having said that, this track is ordinarily good, but nothing special. It does capture his essence in a nutshell: the “0 to 100” half is dextrous, catchy, conventionally aggressive rap, while “The Catch Up” is one of his R&B-styled ballads – so we have the two main components of his oeuvre sitting next to each in the one piece. “0 to 100” is better; “The Catch Up” sounds just like any number of other slow tracks he’s done in the past few years, many of which were rather more memorable.
- Shamir – “On the Regular”
Instant favourite. Best song in this countdown so far. And I have to say, I listened to this one while watching the video, and that is one hell of a cool clip. I love the way he can show self-confidence and panache without drawing on any of rap’s self-aggrandizing clichés. I love his humour, his sass, his willingness to be uncool. I love his cheerful youthfulness. I love the way his flow is matched to the music so utterly, effortlessly perfectly. Most of all I just love how much fun this is. The most original and inspiring new rap I’ve heard since Azealia Banks dropped “212” three years ago.
- Michael Jackson – “Love Never Felt So Good” (Original version)
Hmm. Posthumous material released by the studio after a major artist dies is almost always disappointing, and from what I’ve heard, the new Michael Jackson music is no exception. I imagine this one does indeed stand out from the rest of it, because it is a genuinely solid song. It’s a relaxing, easy piano tune, with an old-school MJ vocal (apparently it was recorded all the way back in ’83, at the height of his superstardom). But it’s hard to escape the feeling that if this had been anyone other than Michael Jackson, nobody would have noticed it.
- Future – “Move That Dope”
Oh here we go, the obligatory “serious,” “authentic,” and “dark” rap track that always seems to find its way onto this list. Future and guests Pharrell, Pusha T and Casino all turn in some averagely accomplished but ultimately quite predictable verses. The beat is based on Salt N’ Pepa’s “Push It” – one of the most exciting pop-rap songs ever – and actually still manages to be boring. Skip this.
- Perfume Genius – “Queen”
The reductive way to describe this one would obviously be that it’s a “gay anthem”. And it delivers as exactly that. But it’s also a fine slice of glam pop, Bowie-style. It has a smoky-yet-glittery flavour that fits the bold, erotic lyrics. I’m not sure how potent it really is as a piece of music, but as a personal (and social) statement, it’s effective.
- Beyoncé – “***Flawless”
You’ve got to hand it to Beyoncé: she can put together an anthem. I’m not sure how I’ve missed hearing this song, because I now realise I’ve been seeing it quoted all over the internet. There’s something inimitable in the way she tosses out the punchline: “Bow down, bitches.” But despite that, the most powerful section of this song is actually the long spoken extract from what Pitchfork tells me is a TED talk – by writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I haven’t come across this writer, but she is cogent, persuasive, and speaks very well. She sounds like she belongs in a take-no-prisoners Beyoncé song. And that’s a compliment.
- Run the Jewels – “Close Your Eyes and Count to Fuck”
YES. FINALLY! When I began this countdown there were just two songs I was hoping would show up, and now here is one of them. The best track on what is undoubtedly the best album out of the few I’ve heard this year – the fantastic sophomore record RTJ2 from rap duo Run the Jewels. This is full-on protest music – not socially conscious music, protest music – and it deserves comparison to Public Enemy. It’s breakneck-paced, thrillingly intense rap, fuelled by fierce righteousness, and irresistibly listenable. I feel much happier now.
- The War on Drugs – “Red Eyes”
Lost in the Dream by the War on Drugs is easily the year’s most widely acclaimed album. I’ve listened to it twice, and I just don’t hear what’s so special. But this is not the place to go into that; what I will say instead is that this track, “Red Eyes,” is definitely the strongest song on the album. If the whole thing were as good as this, I’d be into it. The blend of Springsteen-esque stadium bombast with hazy, dreamy sonics is, here if nowhere else, very seductive.
- Caribou – “Can’t Do Without You”
And here’s the other one I wanted to see on this list. Look a few posts back in this blog and you’ll see that I am ambivalent about the new Caribou album. But I am not ambivalent about this, its opening track. “Can’t Do Without You” is a gorgeous, perfect, mysterious, warm, wonderful dance-pop song. As a declaration of love, it is simple but completely sufficient. It moves from understated to euphoric. It’s glorious.
- FKA Twigs – “Two Weeks”
Wow. This is the kind of thing I want to discover when reading these lists. I’ve just spent four minutes being almost overwhelmed by a deeply strange, sexy, intimate piece of soul music, and I can’t wait to listen to it again. This music clearly owes a lot to the James Blake-dominated tradition of syrupy electronic music that has been slowly burgeoning over the last few years – that intriguing subgenre of barely distinguishable vocals gliding over chopped up, woozy, smoky R&B soundscapes. But I can say on the basis of this one song that FKA Twigs has made that style her own. What a striking song.
- iLoveMakonnen with Drake – “Club Goin’ Up on a Tuesday”
Okay … to say this comes out of left field for me would be putting it mildly. Apparently iLoveMakonnen is a guy from Atlanta who spent years putting out music on Tumblr before shooting to success when Drake did this remix of his song “Tuesday”. And it has become a big hit, says Pitchfork (though I suspect this is a “hit” only in the sense that people who read Pitchfork are likely to hear it in the kind of bars they already hang out in). I’ve now listened to it several times, and it is adequately listenable. That is all. How does a song this ordinary make it over any of the previous four songs in this countdown?
- Future Islands – “Seasons (Waiting on You)”
Alright. I’ve listened to it twice, and I am satisfied with this number one. I wouldn’t have given it first place myself, but it is definitely a good song. It’s a big-hearted epic arena rock tune, with synths. (Apparently the War on Drugs is not the only artist this year to be heavily influenced by Don Henley.) “Seasons” goes straight for the big, life-embracing themes. And it’s stirring. I can be content with this.
… And I’m done. Now to go listen to “On the Regular” several more times, and then purchase the full album from FKA Twigs. Cheers for reading.