Yes, little fruitcakes, it’s that time again. With 2014 drawing to a close, we find ourselves looking back on all of the amazing music that soundtracked our lives these past 12 months. And the only thing better than revisiting all those amazing tunes is sharing them with you. So I've made a Spotify playlist of 50 songs I loved this year. That’s right, 50. Consider me a more generous Madonna—minus the bondage and flowery gag ball, and with more of an eggnog buzz.
So what happened in music in 2014? Well, for one, we welcomed the return of rock and electro royalty. Leonard Cohen, Brian Eno, Bryan Ferry, and Aphex Twin all released new albums, and they all have songs on this list (#42, #41, #8, and #39, respectively). I’d also dare say that a few new icons were made. Perfume Genius defiantly celebrated his queerness with the glam-laced, sashaying gay anthem “Queen” (#13), while art-pop eccentric St. Vincent (a.k.a. Annie Clark) edged a few steps closer to becoming the Bowie for a new generation (hear her at #19). If there was a prevailing trend this year, it would be that artists were thinking and feeling big. Emotions—lust, love, longing, the thrill of a debauched night—were cranked up to 11. And a lot of kids were marching to the beat of their own drums, making bold choices. Electronic producer Sophie continued to explore a frenetic, super-sugary strain of meta-pop (hear it at #25). Meanwhile, I would never have imagined that my go-to song of the summer would be a glitchy trip-hop remake of an Italian torch song (#30).
Below you’ll find videos for my top 10 songs of 2014 as well as a few kind words on each. But for the whole experience, listen to this nearly four-hour playlist, which counts down my top 50 tracks of the year in descending order, starting with #50, Jamie xx’s killer cut “All Under One Roof Raving.” Now get listening!
10. Sia, “Chandelier”
The Aussie songwriter has made it quite clear she’s not interested in celebrity, giving away her best material to top 40’s reigning divas (see: Rihanna, Katy, Britney, and Bey) and even hiding her head under a paper bag for a recent Billboard cover story. So when she returned this summer with her own album and this hurricane of a single, her charming little mug was nowhere to be found. Lena Dunham and Dance Moms
9. Father John Misty, “Bored in the USA”
Over a plaintive, lonely piano, former Fleet Foxes member Josh Tillman tackles the emptiness of materialism, mounting debt, existentialism, religion, his fading good looks, love after the spark has worn off, and the way adulthood always seems to let us down. Yeah, it’s a bummer. But the saving grace of what could have been a self-indulgent sap-fest comes just after the three-minute mark, when Tillman pulls the rug out from under us, backing up his vocals and the song’s weepy strings with a laugh track. Whether he’s mocking his own cynicism and white privilege, or asserting that a sense of humor is still the best remedy for life’s inevitable ennui, calamity, and bullshit, the result is a tragicomical stunner.
8. Todd Terje (feat. Bryan Ferry), “Johnny and Mary”
Norwegian DJ-producer Todd Terje has built a reputation as an inventive, impish electro wizard, and the dance epics on his long-awaited, winkingly titled debut, It’s Album Time, are warm, fizzy experiments in everything from neo-disco to bossa nova to Vegas-lounge schmaltz. Then there’s “Johnny and Mary.” Tucked away in the middle of the record, this slowed-down, elegiac, six-and-a-half-minute remake of a 1980 Robert Palmer song is the sonic equivalent to a melting glacier. Bryan Ferry, giving what is easily his best performance in two-plus decades, sounds tired, defeated, and at least three drinks in as he recounts the chilly tale of a playboy who can’t let go of the past and the woman who couldn’t leave him if she tried. Floating along frosty arpeggios and lush melodies that swell and then blow away like flurries into the night, the track is enough to take your breath away. We can only hope Terje has more tricks like this up his sleeve.
7. Lykke Li, “Just Like a Dream”
Back in 2008, quirky newcomer Lykke Li was demurely singing about being “a little bit” in love. Now, on the Swedish siren’s immaculately produced third LP, I Never Learn—one of my favorite pop albums of 2014—it’s as if the floodgates have opened and she’s drowning in the stuff. “You're making my heart bleed, honey,” she sings on this standout track, the song’s pummeling, cinematic percussion and swirling, reverb-laden wall of sound echoing her anguish and desperation. “Just Like a Dream” is an astonishing update of Spector-esque melodrama, a story of passion and despair writ large, and a pitch-perfect torch song for the 21st century.
6. iLoveMakonnen (feat. Drake), “Tuesday”
To be honest, the rising Atlanta rapper’s breakout single sounds as woozy, sloppy, and borderline annoying as its narrator must be when he’s finally able to let loose on… well, what way be the least exciting day of the week. And yet, much like the stiff drinks that get pounded in the song, Sonny Digital and Metro Boomin’s beats and Makonnen’s warped vocals start to work their way into your system and take hold of you. You can’t deny them. And you start to feel for this guy. Dude’s been slogging his way through graveyard shifts and working overtime and dealing on the streets and missing his friends all weekend. Dude now just wants to get hammered and make this night his. If you gotta work tomorrow, go on home, but you’d be wise to stay. After all, Drake just showed up, and he sings real pretty these days. Where did Makonnen come from? And where will this weirdo go from here? Who knows. But Tuesdays will never be the same again.
5. Beyoncé, “XO”
We could all rhapsodize about the many priceless moments on Mrs. Carter’s surprise fifth album, Beyoncé. But atop its embarrassment of riches sat this precious gem. Massive and unstoppable, “XO” takes you on the giddy, euphoric roller coaster ride of its Coney Island–set video, climbing, swooping, soaring, and ultimately leaving you with a rush that you wish could last forever. Is being in love always this exhilarating? Of course not. But this is the sort of grand-gesture, gut-punching pop anthem that makes you want to hold on tight to those fleeting moments when it can be.
4. Caribou, “Can’t Do Without You”
If you break it down, 2014’s best dance song is really just three and a half minutes of five words playing endlessly on loop. Mind you, those are some very powerful words, and when they’re in the hands of Caribou mastermind Dan Snaith, they become downright revelatory. The cut begins with a Marvin Gaye vocal sample backed by a simple shuffling disco beat and whirring synthesizers, but then it quickly works itself into a tangled emotional tizzy. Snaith has a knack for crafting haunting, enigmatic house music, but here he really taps into that genre’s origins. “Can’t Do Without You” is, at its core, a soul track, an intoxicating, earnest account of a love affair in all its phases: the butterflies, the obsession, the messiness, the undeniable bliss.
3. The War on Drugs, “Red Eyes”
“Red Eyes” calls to mind numerous gravelly-voiced rock stars in their 1980s heydays: Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Don Henley, even Bryan goddamn Adams. More than anything, though, it conjures images of desert landscapes, dust-and-tumbleweed covered highways, and a blazing sun that always seems to be setting. Form trumps content here: The lyrics are bathed in a thick, foggy reverb that makes them mostly indistinguishable. Yet this only reinforces the song’s theme of getting the hell outta dodge and making one’s past mistakes, failures, and disasters a blur, a distant bad dream. Besides, the most powerful lyric isn’t really a word at all. It’s that high-pitched “whoo!” that frontman Adam Granduciel lets out two minutes in, just before the track explodes into a glorious mix of blistering guitars and shimmering synths. That’s when “Red Eyes” swerves from mournful to triumphant, and a modern road-trip classic is born.
2. FKA twigs, “Two Weeks”
Yes, the comparisons to Aaliyah are warranted, but they also do twigs (born Tahliah Barnett) a bit of a disservice. So much of “Two Weeks” seems wholly original, as if the U.K. upstart and producer Emile Haynie are trying to redefine contemporary pop music. First come those distorted, wraithlike opening vocals, which emerge as if from some murky, primordial ooze. Then there’s the way the verses lean on negative space only to give way to a chorus that blasts through the song like a spaceship through a night sky, its thunderous bass and creep-show synths engulfing you in their force field. And what about the way Barnett, competing to win over her lover, veers from heartfelt and vulnerable in the first verse (“I can treat you better”) to vulgar and domineering in the second (“I can fuck you better”)? There’s even a little bit of dark humor: Note how the violent, sexual lyrics in the bridge are tempered by a melody that awesomely riffs on Air Supply’s 1980 cheese-rock ballad “All Out of Love.”
I’ve listened to this track a million times and discover some clever, arresting little sound or nuance every time I do. Nicki Minaj may have struck gold this summer with “Anaconda,” but that would have been the perfect title for this song. “Two Weeks” bursts wide open, sucks you in, and swallows you whole.
>>>CLICK NEXT FOR the No. 1 Song of 2014
1. Future Islands, “Seasons (Waiting On You)”
“Buddy, come on. I’ll take all of that ya got!” That was David Letterman’s uncharacteristically jubilant reaction after Future Islands frontman Samuel Herring concluded what will be remembered as one of the most captivating live performances of the year. The Baltimore synthpop band’s network TV debut on the Late Show in March marked the first time many viewers had even heard of them. Yet with Herring’s riveting, at times baffling, rendition of “Seasons (Waiting On You)”—the opening track of their fourth and most assured album, Singles—the group became an overnight sensation (the Letterman video has racked up more than three million views). Of course, much of the buzz revolved around Herring’s curious stage antics: his goofy Carlton Banks dance moves, manic chest beating, and the way he suddenly started to growl like a Gremlin thrust under bright lights. But it’s the song itself that continues to resonate months later.
“Seasons” works because all of its elements complement each other so beautifully, and at just the right moments. Gerrit Welmers’s sad, gorgeous ’80s keyboards kick things off, but they’re quickly lifted by a bracing disco beat. Herring spends his verses lamenting a failed relationship, but his wistful vocals in the refrain are bolstered by William Cashion’s grinding, New Order–style bass guitar, a familiar, jagged sound that gives the heartfelt track a necessary bite. The singer’s lyrics are simple and few, which keeps the melodrama in check, and yet Herring has still managed to write one of the pithiest, most potent lines of any recent pop song: “People change/They gain a piece, but they lose one, too.” It’d just be a tired cliché if he didn’t deliver it with such hardened authority and sincerity. And seeing the wild, pained look in his eyes as he swings back and forth in his basic black tee and pleated black pants, looking as unremarkable as can be, those words have never felt truer. Here, Herring becomes the everyman singing about the universal. And that’s what makes “Seasons”—a thrilling, bittersweet reflection on the vicissitudes of life—not only the best song of 2014, but quite possibly the best song so far this decade.