These are my 100 favourite songs of 2014: songs I love more than ampersands and milkshakes & VIPs.
I follow just one arbitrary rule: that no artist may be listed twice.
The best way to browse this list is to click the little arrow beside each song and then to listen as you read. The things you like you can then download by right- or ctrl-clicking with your mouse.
You can also download the complete 100 songs, in three parts:
- songs 1-33 (157mb)
- songs 34-66 (151mb)
- songs 67-100 (149mb)
(mirror a / mirror b part 1 2 3 / more to come)
Of these 100 songs, approximately 63 are fronted by men, 37 by women. 44 acts are mostly American, 37 are Canadian, 10 are British, 2 are French, and there is one Belgian, one Dane, one German, one Ghanaian, one Nigerian, one South African and one Swede. This is the way it worked out; it certainly ain't perfect.
My favourite songs of the year do not necessarily speak to my favourite albums of the year. Songs and LPs are entirely different creatures. My favourite albums of 2014 were Andy Stott's Faith In Strangers, D'Angelo's Black Messiah, Arlt & Thomas Bonvalet's Arlt & Thomas Bonvalet, Nap Eyes' Whine of the Mystics and Owen Pallett's In Conflict.
Some songs that you heard in 2014 may have been omitted from this tally because I heard them before this year, and included them in my Best of 2013.
Finally, if you enjoy the writing at Said the Gramophone I'd like to invite you to read Us Conductors, my first novel, published this year by Random House/Tin House. It's a book reimagining the story of Lev Sergeyvich Termen, inventor of the theremin, and Clara Rockmore, the theremin's greatest player. It's full of love, electricity, music and espionage - plus a little kung-fu - and it was awarded the 2014 Giller Prize. Order here, buy at your local independent bookshop, or pick it up at the library. Thank you!
- J Cole - "Be Free" [soundcloud]
2014 refuses to go. The world staggers, pleading, through December. Everyone here is shopping and shopping, and crying at the headlines, and waiting for this damn year to be over. Even those of us who have known wild happiness over the past 12 months, we think, Enough already with the disappointments. Because at the end of 2014, the planet seems suffused with disappointments. Violence and unkindness, ambivalence and fanaticism, the failures of our systems, the shortsightedness of our governments, the greed of our neighbours, the wickedness of our heroes. In recent weeks, hundreds of thousands of people have marched to protest the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice. We shout or write or tweet Black lives matter, wrathful and heartbroken that this even needs to be said. For a century, African-American culture has been at the centre of almost all popular music. Throughout that time, African-Americans have continued to be betrayed by the people and institutions which are supposed to protect them. That shapeless word, "people" - it may also encompass me. Explicitly political music is out of fashion in the 21st century. It sucks, who needs it. That was what we said in the era of 9/11 and WTO demos, what we say now in the time of fracking and austerity. But I'll tell you: here, panting, at the end of a fucked year, we need some songs. We need them. I've realized that we need them - rallying-cries and refuges, solaces in the deep night. Others have observed this, too. But protest songs are hard. Slogans make poor lyrics. It will take a while to find new anthems; they will come just one or two at a time. This year, J Cole was the pop artist to most succeed: to make something that feels real and true, angry and earned, like a lesson and a lament. (And I want to also acknowledge the non-pop work of Matana Roberts.) Cole went to Ferguson; he marched in New York. Some of his lines are clumsy but he is trying, he is trying, in a broken voice. (On Letterman, he added lines about Obama and poverty: "In terms of change, I haven't seen any.") In a statement, Cole explained that in everyday life "we become distracted, we become numb". "I became numb," he wrote. "But not anymore."
In 2015 the question might become whether people "take" or "break the chains off". Whichever it is, we'll need songs to sing. Like this one, and all the others.
- Caribou - "Silver" [buy]
A cut-up of lapping love. Or: love, cut up. Dan Snaith makes some dance music that barely dances - just lurches, swoons. The silken reset was invented by a hacker in Yemen. The date isn't clear. One month the resets were as they had always been: crisp, jarring; the next month, some of them were silken. A silken reset on your favourite website, a silken reset on your nearest traffic light. Soon, joked the TV presenters, a silken reset on your life. It was fall, and it was easy to imagine that this could soon be true. Everything crisply divided might soon be softly changing. One thing might become another thing without a tremor or a snap. We walked around our neighbourhoods slipping hands into pockets, hands into pockets, imagining that our futures could be reset, silkenly, with just as little force.
- Tobias Jesso Jr - "True Love" [buy]
Jesso and his keyboard are a multi-million-dollar reminder of what a man can do with just a voice, a heart, an electric piano. A song's nothing more than some words and some notes, an arrangement of points. Yet pay attention to what it can do: to your room, your day, your poor spirit. Pay attention to the way these bare parts reshape a life, a few minutes at a time. Jesso wrote a great one, with the same old notes that all of us have, with the same stale alphabet. Sometimes a triumph is simple as sing.
- Perfume Genius - "Grid" [buy]
A beautiful howl, lithe and strong, flexing like tomorrow's conquest.
- Owen Pallett - "The Riverbed" [buy]
Maybe they once called this genre "chamber pop", but here there is floodwater in the concert hall, electricity in the air ... As much as "The Riverbed" tells a story about collapse and comeback, gin binge and struggle, it doesn't feel like it is performed from that space. Written, maybe (maybe), but not performed. Here Owen seems sober and steady. He seems measured. He has looked into the well and now he can teach us about it. He can keep asking the same questions, the ones he intuited in crisis. Try to admit that you might have it wrong. He has learned something - something small, like a black garnet. (I might have this very wrong.)
- D'Angelo and the Vanguard - "Really Love" [buy]
D'Angelo astonished fairly everyone when he released a surprise album last week. More astonishing still was that his first record in 14 years might even be his best. Strange and seductive at the same time, sweet and bittersweet. So ramshackle, almost drunken - and yet unimaginably precise in its wobble. A band that has been practicing its staggering act for a decade and a half. "Really Love" begins with a little suite - strings, Spanish guitar, stolen voices- - but then up comes the band, like you're coming out of the sunshower, out of the garden, and into the house. D'Angelo's in love, his whole group's in love; and I promise you'll fall in love secondhand, just standing in their song, just breathing it in and out.
- White Hinterland - "Ring The Bell" [buy]
On Baby, White Hinterland's music is crashing and unkind R&B ... She pants like a tide and groans like a pipe-organ. She's noisy cacophony, retching love. This album is a hardship, in a way; it's heavy as hell, unabating. But you listen to the hoarse closing seconds of this title track, Dienel's bare broken breath, and you are reminded of what's at stake with these gestures - this monstrousness is music, this hardship's a singing, these currents of voice and beats, eros and fury, are an artist's bare work.
- Dog Day - "Before Us" [buy]
A jewel I was slow to understand. Such an extraordinary song of old and young, yesterday and tomorrow, blurry fumblings and perfect catches. Close to the perfection of the best by Belle & Sebastian or Lou Reed, and with the quietest cymbal you will ever hear. (Thanks for the reminder, Jeff.)
- A. G. Cook - "Beautiful" [website]
If 2014 had a breakthrough scene, for me, it was the work of London's PC Music record label. All-digital releases, with a sound that blurs together the Knife's pitch-shifted sorcery, Aphex Twin's jabbering dementia, and the best/worst of 90s pop music. Like, say, Aqua. I have to assume that this stuff will age just terribly, but in 2014 it sounds utterly of the moment. The songwriting's good, the production exceptional, and accordingly PC Music artists make several appearances in this year's Best Of. "Beautiful" is a blended banger of sequins, creatine and eyelashes. And it's more than just baby-girl pastiche: that exquisite dropping coin, that closing organ swirl, this is a nonsense that gestures out into other worlds.
- Nap Eyes - "No Fear of Hellfire" [buy]
A band from Halifax with a sound like young caterpillar and old silk, like the Velvet Underground and Electrelane and Destroyer and Guided by Voices. Music as simple as Nap Eyes' seems adaptable to many metaphors. Like a towel, like a gun, like a US treasury bond - you could use this in lots of different ways. They are a rock band just so faintly tripping. They are priests of Shaolin and the Holy See, with electric guitars in their hands.
- E-40 - "Choices (Yup)" [buy]
Time will tell if this new discovery keeps its shine, but right now it's just about my favourite thing going. E-40 & friends came up with a dead simple, dead brilliant production conceit: a catalogue of statements, blunt and elegant, with an alternating chorus of "yep" or "nope". His timing is impeccable, hilarious - "Choices" could be on a comedy record - but I'm also smitten with the weird genius of E-40's declarations, from the poodle in his blood to his gopher-like sobriety. Just listen, repeat.
- Myriam Gendron - "Threnody" [buy]
On Not so deep as a well, Montreal's Myriam Gendron sets Dorothy Parker's poetry to acoustic guitar and solo voice. With ideas like this, it comes down to execution; Gendron's execution is almost flawless. "Threnody" is so precise, so pointed, that its melancholy transforms into something else: a garden or a meadow, with scents, and weather, and drifting bees.
- Jennifer Lopez ft French Montana - "I Luh Ya Papi" [buy]
I dunno, maybe I was the only person who loved this song. It never broke out onto Canadian radio, into hipster club nights; haven't seen anyone else sing its praises on their year-end list. But to me it's more beguiling than any other mainstream pop/hip-hop single of the year: Lopez's looping link of a hook, Detail's slithering synths, and the delicate divertimento of the after-chorus. All addicting and, ultimately, kinda sweet.
- Homeboy Sandman ft J-Live and Kurious - "Enough" [buy]
"This boy not for Brandy or Monica ... I don't know Mercedes from Mitsubishi." The trouble with most "conscious" hip-hop is that it's boring. This is not boring: it's beautiful as something by Sandy Denny or the Weather Station, yet with rhymes that feint and fool with the best of Lil Wayne. Sandman spreads peace and love to brothers and sisters, maintain[s] during heatwaves and blizzards; I love that word, maintain, a treasure suspended somehow in air.
- Jessie Ware - "Tough Love" [buy]
Tough Love, the album, was ultimately a disappointment. But "Tough Love", the song, never lost its lustre. It's like a creek in thawing springtime - a rushing ballad, all shimmer. Sensuous, mysterious R&B.
- Melanie De Biasio - "The Flow" [buy]
Few genres inspire as little confidence as vocal jazz. Somehow the genre of Billie Holiday and (occasionally) Nina Simone slipped into utter redundancy. It was as if vocal jazz decided to quit coming up with new modes of interpretation. There are exceptions. And in this case it does not come via the forceful ask of someone like Amy Winehouse: De Biasio, who is Belgian, sings "The Flow" like it is a sensuous hermeneutics, a singing that is trying to understand itself. It evokes Beth Gibbons' solo work, PJ Harvey, maybe even what fans hear in Lana Del Rey. A great singing, sumptuously recorded.
- FKA Twigs - "Pendulum" [buy]
Three gorgeous chords and then, or until, the aching wait for them. A song where every sound evokes Twigs' quickening breath.
- Sia - "Eye of the Needle" [buy]
Of course Sia's "Chandelier" is momentous, its video stupendous, but "Eye of the Needle" is the one that I can't shake from my playlists. Sia's voice is, as ever these days, more tidal wave than confidante - but still this pop ballad is rough with feeling, hoarse as it's cresting. These are earned fireworks.
- Alvvays - "Archie, Marry Me" [buy]
Sun-splashed and twilit, glittering like a wet knife-blade.
- Hannah Diamond - "Every Night" [website]
Another PC Music masterpiece; this time the synths' drug-addled teen-pop is undercut by the singer. Diamond sounds like a real, live girl, from a particular place and time - the contrast adds a fascinator to the Lysol-squeaked, shopping-mall-ready production.
- Mary J Blige - "Whole Damn Year" [buy]
Sometimes we want to take someone's year; borrow it, shoulder it, carry it for a month or two. Sit down. Give me your year. I want to roll their year up, like an old sleeping bag, and bury it in the forest. Somewhere where the leaves will turn and fall; and snow will land, and melt; and where ferns will grow, come spring.
- Astral Swans - "You Carry A Sickness" [buy]
A song of original sin or plain human frailty; the clunk and bloom of everyday activity, of strain and flop, with an organ the same blue-flame shade as on the Doors' "Break On Through". For the purposes of this song, Astral Swans might be God, might be Buddha or Vishnu. Might be a liar with a poet's notebook, or a preacher with a xanax, or just a church worker who's been up for six days, his four-month-old shrieking.
- Kiesza - "Hideaway" [buy]
I didn't think this was a good song until I found it was the only thing I could think of.
- Percussions - "Sext (TEXT029B)" [soundcloud]
Percussions is Four Tet's Kieran Hebden. "Sext (TEXT029b)" is a short film in husky rhythm and synchronized electronics; it's a monorail through Las Vegas and a snake in its tunnel, a Star Trek themesong and a coin-operated ride. It's almost wordless, it'll get you done.
- Miracle Fortress - "Let Me Be The 1" [website]
"Let Me Be The 1" unites all of Graham Van Pelt's recent feints, forays and experiments, from Five Roses' gorgeous romanticism to Inside Touch's sleek dance pulse. Listen to all that space, the way it weirdly winds from Fleetwood Mac to Studio to something that's almost piano house. It's a song with a sharply angled vocal hook & yet also four minutes of wide open space, synths and fingersnaps, a sunsetting fadeout. It's a song with its own mirror-image, its own afterhour denouement; an inhalation and an exhalation, or just a hand in a hand.
- Run the Jewels - "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)" [download]
Conditions create a villain / the villain is given vision. This could be the motto for El-P and Killer Mike's Run the Jewels, joined here by Rage Against The Machine's Zack De La Rocha. (El-P should get that line, not the other one, "tatted on his dick".) For all the duo's successes, this group still feels like they're getting away with something. A song that's fierce and surging, always on the assault, a new front opened up at the side door of your spirit.
- Michael Feuerstack & Associates ft Mathias Kom - "Along the Way" [buy]
Burning Hell's Mathias Kom sings a song written by Feuerstack. Written for him by Feuerstack; and Feuerstack finds his perfect, kind falsetto, just as he finds a perfect, kind french horn part. And together they make a thing that's as handsome as any other thing you'll find today, every steadfast friend you could possibly meet.
- Frankie Cosmos - "Birthday Song" [buy]
69 seconds of deadpan fretting, wry melancholy, a girl who has deliberately cast her cake with a set of trick candles.
- ILoveMakonnen ft Drake - "Tuesday" [buy]
You would be forgiven for assuming that an artist called ILoveMakonnen is not worth your time. It seems like it must be off-brand pop music, poorly made. But Makonnen, from Atlanta, has demonstrated gifts that suggest he is worthy of close attention. An unpredictable cadence, an ear for melody, but more than anything just a slightly strange approach to Drake's brand of urban pop. Do not underestimate the eccentric.
- Ought - "Habit" [buy]
I heard this song last year and then I forgot about it and then by the time I remembered it it had already stuck me full of arrows. It's a rallying cry and a plaint, dance instructions and a manifesto. Nick Cave/David Byrne/Jarvis Cocker/Lou Reed OK OK OK but you may also find that it's a charismatic pocketwatch you will choose to carry with you every day.
- Arlt & Thomas Bonvalet - "Je voudrais être mariée" [buy]
Arlt, a French duo, join with the noisy racketeer Thomas Bonvalet to make a record that's full of the band's woozy chug and Bonvalet's noisy racket. Dissonance and creak just creaking and dissing over nursery-rhyme totter. For fans of Josephine Foster, early Smog, brown summer storms.
- Spooky Black - "Without U" [soundcloud]
Cloudy R&B; a white-out in Minnesota snows.
- Hundred Waters - "Down From the Rafters" [buy]
Weird music, lunar, sour and sweet as wild berries. A magical mingling of high chime and deep thump, voiced folk and drone, a forest of a nightclub. (Thanks Michelle.)
- Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra - "What We Loved Was Not Enough" [buy]
A song from an album that isn't easily broken apart. A song with some of my favourite lyrics released this year. A wracked lullaby, where every declaration feels like it might be a question. Finding hope in new ashes, a promise in hope, a vow in your own heart. Treating punk rock like weather; something that changes.
- La Roux - "Let Me Down Gently" [buy]
La Roux performs this synthpop song with such seriousness. The seriousness itself becomes seductive - why is she so serious? why are the stakes so high? The answers are all there for you, unhidden, in lines about self and others, broken trust. The answer is there, right in the song's centre, as silence stretches on for five complete seconds.
- James Irwin - "Everything Passed Me By" [website]
Seems we're never going to get a record by The Moment, Montreal's best new band of 2013. Now James Irwin has finished "Everything Passed Me By" on his own. A fizz of feelings, vivid and fading and faint, in a story of Californian evenings, summer heat, lying down on a lawn. The day is Polaroid, with flat feet and swollen heart. Some paradises are very specific, too specific to ever find.
- Don Jazzy, Tiwa Savage, Dr SID, D'Prince & The Mavins - "Dorobucci" [more]
"Dorobucci", from Nigeria's Mavin Records, is one of the year's biggest [African] hits. It's a lissom, looping laze. It's a chant of good times, wealth and friendship, sunshine and water and flowing breeze. You can turn it up loud and dance, with all your gang; you can turn it down a little and breathe in/breathe out, among dappled lights. Simple as a good mood, found.
- Nancy Pants - "Happy" [buy]
Sewer somersault, basement splits. Pogo and worm. Found some records in a milk-crate, "Louie Louie" and "Black Hole Sun", remember to wear gloves. Night sky's a black canvas and tossed gravel. Daylight's a flashlight. I traded my dad's Pontiac for a bass guitar. I kissed a girl. I fired an elastic band at the auditor and we'll sparkle til we droop.
- Deerhoof - "Paradise Girls" [buy]
An unimpeachable groove, drums & guitars & voice, solos that spring sensational into the fray, lines about girls with bass guitars and girls and girls, fireworks going off, crash and chug, lose it, lose it, don't lose it, dancing.
- Aunts - "Sunsets" [buy]
Grumble through, thornbush. Rut it sweetly - down grounded. Flick, fuck, fall or horseradish truly. 'Truly' I sez! You'll never get a fez if you wrap it wrong. Un-do. Quick, quick, un-do. Til it might suddenly snap.
- M.O. ft K Koke - "For A Minute" [soundcloud]
Upbeat R&B that seems like a glad ganging-up: bolts of brass, tons of clatter, voices like salted caramel. Made brilliant by its tempo - unrestful, disruptive, an infatuated alarm.
- Weaves - "Shithole" [buy]
Like Reversing Falls' secret 2013 smash, "Curse This Place", "Shithole" is a ragged, rocking tribute to the shithole you can't wait to leave. Weaves build a stage atop records by Eric's Trip, Sleater-Kinney and Weezer, stomp and stomp until all their neighbours move out. Lift my head from my body, loose already like a shard unglued, and rest it slanted in grass. If your fingerprints had on them the names of people you almost were.
- Alt-J - "Lovely Day" [buy]
Alt-J reinterpret Bill Withers' lazy, perfect classic with all kinds of new sounds. A band that's often too silly, too witchy... But here they show real vision - gifts of timbre and lilt, the patience that marks so much of This Is All Yours. A cover that doesn't replace or prostrate itself before the original - one that stands, humbly, at its side.
- GFOTY - "Don't Wanna / Let's Do It" [website]
The most demented of my PC Music picks, "Don't Wanna / Let's Do It" is like the B-52s gone chopped-and-screwed. Or something. A song like an egg: cracked, fried, omelet. As I write this, my partner calls out: "What is that? It's annoying." It is. Annoying and also somehow crucial.
- Bry Webb - "AM Blues" [buy]
A song intended for road-trips, AM radio, Bry's measured wisdom all remade and consecrated by the glory of a guitar solo.
- Nick Jonas - "Jealous" [buy]
You don't have to like Nick Jonas and his perfumed chest. He seems sort of horrible. Nor do you need to admire the past work of Jonas's Hamilton-born co-writer. Somehow, despite its clumsy engineers, "Jealous" lands: like an amazing dancer on a crowded dance-floor, reminding everyone why we still listen to the radio.
- Future Islands - "Seasons (Waiting For You)" [buy]
Future Islands' Samuel Herring made his band's career by cavorting live on the Letterman stage, a little like Tom Jones, a little like Henry Rollins, a little like an orc. But the song they played is great, too: a gradual theme-song for partial fuck-ups, a synthy anthem for what might be possible, perhaps, presumably, eventually. It's just one of those songs that's missing its perfect middle-eight, the panorama from the top of the hill. That part of the song, I suspect, is something they only learned to find live.
- PS I Love You - "Friends Forever" [buy]
5,000 feet of crashing electric guitar, righteous guardians of a private clubhouse.
- Jones - "You" [website]
Clean, reflective pop that's been marvelously mussed - grimed, dented, smeared. There is a mechanic's garage on the corner.
- Lil Wayne - "D'usse" [Carter V due in 2015]
Espresso on espresso, throw a leash around that Learjet.
- Ariel Pink - "Put Your Number In My Phone" [buy]
Sunstroked, orange drunk, a London Bridge that's been soaking all year in Los Angeles. Pink's fuzzy, enfolded guitar pop seems only accidentally of 2014.
- Jennifer Castle - "How Or Why" [buy]
A song like the stuff of Nick Drake or Judy Sill, but without any of those singers' soppy nonsense. A life is what it is; a death, too. Castle sings her exit without any filigree. And Owen Pallett's strings, too: seriousness, patience, no fussiness. Listen for the sound of footsteps around the two-minute mark - the sound of someone literally leaving the scene, disappearing into the end of a chorus.
- Tinashe ft Schoolboy Q - "2 On" [buy]
Steel-grey R&B that, no, won't smile for you, asshole.
- Eric Church - "Give Me Back My Hometown" [buy]
I wish Church's country anthem didn't make it quite all the way from humble number to arena rocker, but I'm happy for the bulk of that journey. It reminds me of what Taylor Swift has done, at her best: this song is so specific in its setting - note the Pizza Hut - but it's even more specific in its emotion. Despite the title, this isn't a banal, barn-burning tribute to the value of a small town - it's a plea to the memories a man has relinquished to his ex. Something we've almost all known; something I don't think I've ever heard sung about. (Thank you Stuart.)
- Wild Beasts - "A Simple Beautiful Truth" [buy]
Wild Beasts' beautiful orderliness, measured as a grid. An equation that is a skating rink, a proof that is a wood.
- QT - "Het QT" [website]
PC Music's flagship energy drink. Ten thousand CDs, boiled in a crucible. The material is opaque, gelatinous, silver; it oozes like sponsored swill. Pour the quivering polymer into a mould. Put the mould in a gyroscope. After seven days of spinning, the mould is ready. The manufacturer pries the two halves apart. A woman is standing there, a mannequin, with black eyelashes and rouged cheeks, a silver minidress. She is a mannequin and yet she moves. And yet she sings, in a voice like Dance Mix 94 and Dance Mix 95 and Mixes 96 through 99. The song is old and new again. It is consolidated, like liver mush. It is the finest product of the season.
- The Barr Brothers - "Even the Darkness Has Arms" [buy]
I wish the Barr Brothers were a little stranger. But that's OK: I'll make do. It's easy to make do when their songs are as well-made as this: sanded, polished, with dovetail grooves and the glint of darkness. The way Brad Barr sings these syllables I wish only to hear him sing them again. Sometimes the bounce of an acoustic bass string can feel like a opening; a keyhole for menaced hearts to sneak through.
- Young Fathers - "Get Up" [buy]
Almost an anthem - a call to arms, marvel and rollick, with knife edge, thick fug. A party song that seems more martial than that, like a war's about to start; and who's going to give you the address? (Did I mention this is indie hip-hop from Scotland? And they won the Mercury Prize?)
- Clap Your Hands Say Yeah - "Coming Down" [buy]
Once exultant, now maligned, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's Alec Ounsworth has built a vast fortress of a song - dark grey brick, spiked turrets, guitars like rows of archers, each arrow fire-tipped. It's a mighty foe, a smoking terror, and the National's Matt Berninger is there on the parapet, holding a flag.
- The War on Drugs - "Red Eyes" [buy]
Splendid, compulsive, blue-skied pastiche. But Bruce Springsteen hasn't been able to whoop like this in years.
- Big Nuz - "Incwadi Yothando" [website]
From South Africa a song that's handsome and gracious. The marvel is in the glow of the rotating house beat; synth and bass-drum, marimba and whistle; when I listen in headphones it is a blur that shifts across the room, across my heart, full of unclear promises.
- Parquet Courts - "Ducking and Dodging" [buy]
A record fight is like a food fight but with records. A 12" in the shoulder, a 78 in the chin. The Fall are playing on the hi-fi, or maybe Malkmus. Each competitor receives a glass of freshly pressed orange juice. The winner gets a jail cell. (Thanks Jesse.)
- Tomas Bardfod ft Nina K - "Pulsing" [buy]
A swirl of high vapours, electronic pop with tiny, tiny engines.
- Kool A.D. ft Talib Kweli & Boots Riley - "Hickory" [buy]
"I love hanging out with flavours. The best party I've ever been to in my life was at Sam's place. A house-party, but I was pretty much the only guest who wasn't a flavour. Just a whole house full of flavours, flavours in every room." (Thanks Casimir.)
- Drive-By Truckers - "Primer Coat" [buy]
Vivid, sun-bleached Southern rock, its wisdom as tall as the swing-set. (Thank you Stuart.)
- Andy Stott - "Faith In Strangers" [buy]
The title track from my favourite album of 2014 - an album that is hard to connect with when it is sectioned into pieces. "Faith In Strangers" is haunted imaginary, a happy and unsettled memory, but examined as a 6:29 standalone I wonder if it seems to spin in circles. Better to hear it embedded in an album, as a meandering visitor. Or maybe not. Maybe you will hear this electronic riddle and understand all the facets of it, the way it uses click and synth and voice as a sort of echolocation, remembering.
- Charli XCX - "Gold Coins" [buy]
A song like dropping down a green pipe into a coin-filled bonus level. Fortune everywhere: that's how Charli must feel, a great songwriter suddenly successful, a great songwriter become a bona fide hitmaker. Riding a low chug and a high-pitched wriggle, this is "My Sharona" strung through a pop juicer, tequila poured into a Saturday lunch.
- Bear In Heaven - "Time Between" [buy]
I guess this was war: every day an inch, an inch, another mile into enemy territory. Bear In Heaven's synth and noise rock lands without explosion, without fire - mortars into earth, boots into clay, time slowly conquered (or else, maybe, lost).
- Doug Paisley - "It's Not Too Late (To Say Goodbye)" [buy]
I would love this song even if only for the reason that it has Mary Margaret O'Hara. Mary Margaret O'Hara singing back-up with black in her hair and youth in her voice, the country belle she never was. But more than Mary it's a song of good chord and perfect verse - the kind of tune you want to get broken in the jukebox, be doomed to repeat. Paisley sings without self-consciousness or ambition - sings just plainly, truly, with a heart of gold.
- Sharon Van Etten - "Our Love" [buy]
I have probably listened to this song 75 times. You can consider me an expert. So after you have listened once, twice, 70 times, what I am going to suggest is that you listen to the moment just after 2:24, when this pretty song sounds an awkward, human beat. The overblown tom drum, or whatever it is, feels less like a beat than like an utterance - a confession from the rhythm section, a plea, a belch, something messily & bodily, less considered than the rest of the song. Less finely wrought. In such a pretty track, the human part is crucial:the sigh of a bending guitar string; the fading strain of Van Etten's voice. The suggestion that "Our Love" isn't just the recollection of feeling but a feeling itself. That it isn't theatre: it's a moment in time, remembered.
- Prince - "U Know" [buy]
Still royal - Prince atop his throne, legs crossed at the knee. Still knows how to make a song simultaneously slow and fast, doubted and inevitable. "U Know" is punctuated by gunshots, slippery as backwardsed guitar; there will be some happy casualties.
- Mr Twin Sister - "Crime Scene" [buy]
All dawn - old moonbeams, new sun, tender notes unveiling the house's vast ruin. (& yet what with the abrupt ending?)
- BRONCHO - "Class Historian" [buy]
Fence-jumping indie pop, a painting full of prairie, a mouth full of marbles. Waterslides through jello into all the desolation of high-school.
- Hurray for the Riff Raff - "The Body Electric" [buy]
New Orleans' hurraying riff-raff play this song in a way that's wakeful and steady, letting its purpose dawn only slowly. A critique of the murder ballad that doesn't feel like a send-up of the form, that doesn't feel like a lecture: that simply looks our old misogynies in the eyes, shakes its head, refuses. (Thank you, Leah.)
- Lily Allen - "Air Balloon" [buy]
Just pop music, light as helium. The boys gathered by the fence, clawing fingers into the chain-link, watching the circus take shape. Plastic cases lowered from trucks, animal cages checked for sturdiness, horses fed and brushed, the giant big-top slowly, almost eminently, unfurled.
- Drake - "0 to 100 / The Catch Up" [website]
He is magnetic. His routine is familiar but he is magnetic: here, with two beats in perfect sympathy, confidence and warning, boast and mitigate, a reason to listen and another, and another and another, I just want to hear him on the microphone.
- Real Estate - "Past Lives" [buy]
You will need a weekend, and a cabin, and a lake. Apply once as needed.
- Jason Derulo ft Snoop Dogg - "Wiggle" [buy]
Certain record labels attempted to market mid-2014 as the summer of the behind. It was not the first season to aspire to that title and - sorry J Lo, sorry Nicki - I wasn't much convinced. "Wiggle" was, by far, my favourite of the booty numbers. Mostly just because it reflected the absurdity of its own conceit. After all, a song about bums should rightly be titled "wiggle". Here there's also a mischievous slide-whistle of a hook, an opening theme like an Old West showdown, and Derulo's cartoonish exclamations. Vis: "Like a ham sandwich." And Snoop Dogg, naturally.
- Bleachers - "I Wanna Get Better" [buy]
A rambunctious parade: 80s pop and 90s rock, 00s crash and boom, with all the whiplashed collagist distortion of radio in the 2010s. I love a pop-song with shouting and "I Wanna Get Better" is full of shout, like Billy Joel and Weezer just shouting their heads off, trapped in the same speedboat with their mom at the tiller.
- LIVINGSTON - "S/He Is Like the Angry Birds" [download free]
LIVINGSTON is a computer program that composes Canadian folk music. Here, his song is performed by Henry Adam Svec. It is shambling dash and leaping shindig. It is rinkytink piano and saxophone. It is a sly lothario's paper airplane with a guitar solo that's basically my favourite kind: frenetic and electric and very slightly dumb, more about letting something loose than expressing a cogent thought.
- Restorations - "Separate Songs" [buy]
This crashing rock song evokes the bygone days of Constantines and the Weakerthans - evokes them with almost explicit reverence, nearly every quiet moment bounded by yelling, roaring heart. (Thanks, Phil!)
- Mark Berube - "Carnival" [buy]
"Carnival" is higher-charged than Serge Gainsbourg's Histoire de Melodie Nelson, less fussy than Sufjan's Illinois, sincerer than Beck's Mutations. There's a little of Stereolab and Pinback. There are fireworks and ferris wheels.
- Goat - "Talk To God" [buy]
If it weren't for their singer, Goat's cycling psychedelic rock might seem borrowed from half a century ago. Guitars like sitars, cymbals like chimes, harmonies like twists of incense smoke. But the singing is flatter than that weird old stuff - flatter, louder, much less eager to please. "Talk to God" suggests that Indian ragas and hardcore punk could descend from the same wheeling tradition, where someone swings a microphone overhead. (Thanks to Michael.)
- Jessica Pratt - "Back, Baby" [pre-order]
Like "Talk To God", in a way - you could convince a random listener that "Back, Baby" comes from deep in the record collection, tucked between Kath Bloom and Bonnie Raitt. Yet Pratt and her classical guitars are from today. The turns and changes of her voice are like light through a prism. This song lis like changing cloud systems: one thing, then another thing, then another. (Thanks to Carly!)
- Jonnie Common - "Better Man" [buy]
What begins as a shaky nod to a club classic reveals itself as something more handsewn and cockeyed. Common lives in Glasgow but as much as he's indebted to his Beta Band countrymates, there's an even stronger kinship to Beck's sunny, gritty dilettantism. I wonder if kids today can ever know the joy we got from those first sample-heavy hip-hop and pop records - that feeling of filleted newspapers, scrambled sequencers, genius emerging from life's modern rubbish/racket.
- TOPS - "Way to Be Loved" [buy]
A dance, or else something that only seems like a dance: dancelike movements, in search of something else. Maybe graceful, maybe functional, maybe full of feeling. But it looks like dancing, what you and TOPS are doing - a dance of guitar and drums, Jane Penny's sailing voice, a short story in 263 lovely gestures.
- Taylor Swift - "Clean" [buy]
As a big fan of Swift's, I was very disappointed in 1989. This string of songs didn't catch on my heart or bring me much joy. The best of them was this: soppy, lyrically unsteady, yet with the kind of pearly songwriting that first brought Swift to my attention. If it were in Italian or Portuguese I'd probably enjoy "Clean" just as much: lay these chords together, paint this verse at this chorus, answer your own voice here, now, loudly or quietly.
- Guru - "Pooley" [more]
Ever since they were invented, dance-clubs have never stopped: every year, every place, there is a discothèque. A training regimen. A parade of many different floats. A decade of variegated boyfriends. A very tall smoothie. A bag of weird 78s. A rave on the steppe. "Pooley", by Ghana's Guru, is all these things to me.
- Two White Cranes - "Acraman's Road" [buy]
From the same school as Emmy the Great or Billy Bragg, a song that tells the story of a precise, particular love. Detailed,
unsentimental, relentlessly inhabiting its domestic present. (As ever, thank you Sebastian.)
- Beck - "Morning" [buy]
Imagine a hotel restaurant, 7am. Beck is rolled out alongside the breakfast buffet.
- Chad VanGaalen - "Weighed Sin" [buy]
Wistfulness bottled like a tonic, like some fancy, handmade bitters. In a way, VanGaalen's sour voice is unchanging. This unmistakeable sound that you want to hear in a thousand different ways: in mess, in order, abstract or sentimental. Here he sings with unexpected directness, with a sighing steel guitar and an unabashed harmonica. It's a message to someone, maybe to himself, without too much concealed. (Thanks Brett.)
- Marianas Trench ft Anami Vice - "Pop 101" [buy]
A silly send-up of contemporary chart-pop from the man who wrote Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe". It's that insideriness that makes it interesting: try to hear "Pop 101" not just as a novelty song, or even as an artifact of trends in 2013-2014, but as Josh Ramsay's masochistic mockery of himself. The tricks mocked in "Pop 101" probably earned its singer a house. Maybe he's bragging, but maybe he's also a little weary of himself. (Thanks Jeff.)
- Natalie Prass - "Why Don't You Believe In Me" [buy]
Is this a song from 1971? It is not. Is Natalie Prass your sister, singing in her bedroom? She is not. Are those flutes? Yes. Are those horns? Yes. How much of this is real and how much is pretend? You would have to ask Natalie. Instead, I suggest you forget such questions: jettison the theory, dump the analysis, just turn up this song and watch Prass's song push against the burlap of your speakers. Feel what it's like to have this song come into a room, like lamplight, like a remedy, a song for your own heart's questions.
- HAERTS - "Giving Up" [buy]
Another HAERTS single that's as precisely measured as the first. A little like U2 and a lot like Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, these Germans have studied at the same songwriting school as the Haim sisters: "Giving Up" is a very good song that gets elevated by its finale, its new rhythms teaching our ears some simple lessons.
- Wye Oak - "Logic of Color" [buy]
Wye Oak don't pour it on. They make an elegant pile: synths, drums, Jenn Wasner's flickering voice. They weigh each addition, measure it for effect and affect, the way it might the feeling to the right or to the left. (Thanks to Michael.)
- Orouni - "Speedball" [buy]
Bashful indie-pop wrought by Frenchmen. Or helium balloons lifted and lowered, carnivals inaugurated and called-off, one disaster after another, one surprise party after another, a train that takes you to paradise or hell, chugchugchug, and Orouni in a caboose with a backpack full of candy, unsure whether he's made your day or ensured a bellyache.
- Lydia Ainsworth - "White Shadows" [buy]
Treat this song as a metaphor for this idea: that before the plains were plains they were a forest; and then they cut all the trees down. Treat the story of plains and forest as a metaphor for this idea: something about the body, the spirit, tragedy. Treat my vagueness about body and calamity as a metaphor for this idea: a song called "White Shadows", told in tumbling synths and braided coo, high low & cut-up.
- Valery Gore - "With The Future" [buy]
In a certain way, "With The Future" is never more than the sum of its parts. I am never able to see past the individual components: polished wheels, shiny gears, metal shavings and crystals. But the best synthpop simply sounds like magic - and even if I can see the mechanism, the interlocking parts, I hear this song's chorus and imagine vast lands, hidden worlds, a paradise that no one person could build. Also: Chandler's music video is marvelous, heartbreaking. (Thanks Emily.)
- Major Lazer ft Ariana Grande - "All My Love" [buy]
A pop song that deploys the sort of high, whirly, wordless hook that is particular to 2014. Descended partly from dubstep, partly from "Drunk In Love"'s distorted, Roma-ganked tongue-twister. Here it's just a twisty setting for Grande's girly intonations, but it elevates the rote into the memorable. (Thanks Kelly.)
- Aphex Twin - "Aisatsana" [buy]
From Syro, Aphex's frenetic, splendiferous comeback, a reminder that he can do beautiful and meditative as well as frenetic and strobing. Not quite ambient - a little more awake than that, with birds whispering out the window. But piano, a wide piano, speaking with itself. Dan wrote: I watched my grandmother look out over the gulf and talk excitedly about birds. "You think you see a seagull, but there are dozens of types of gulls." The sunlight is somehow cold, everything is baked white. "I forgot my bird book," she said, smoking half of a slim cigarette, "and my binoculars."
And that's 2014's century of songs, or the way they seem today. There are so many that didn't make it, that I wish I were pointing you to. Thank you to everyone who sent some favourites in. There will be so many I've missed (there are so many I'm already remembering). Maybe make your own suggestions in the comments.
At Said the Gramophone we spent the year writing about as many wonderful songs as we could, and old songs too, treasures kept in chests. If you're new to the site, please come again (or subscribe). We update almost every weekday, penning tales about the tunes that make us think YES
Thanks for reading, sorry for the broken links, please support these artists with your money. (Invest in things that are important.) Be kind to each other. Be brave in the face of unjust systems. Wishing you all the best this season and winter - hope you find feasts and dazzles, bonfires and fizz, and lots & lots of love.