50 always seems like an arbitrary barometer for these year-end lists. Like the democratic contest host always says, ‘we would like to include them all’, but these here words are weapons people, and a cast of 50, that’s an over-filled college elective. Every voice must be able to spar with the professor.
Like the 10 hearts that we thought conquered the album format this year, below in alphabetical order, as always, are the warriors that rose to the occasion track-wise. From Father John Misty‘s disillusioned deconstruction of President Jesus America on “Bored in the USA,” to the neo-feminist hyper-sexual sentiments of FKA Twigs‘ Tahliah Debrett Barnet on “Two Weeks,” Sun Kil Moon‘s 600-word homage to the song as emotional savior, to the racially-charged genius questions on an untitled cut from Kendrick Lamar, this room of 50 is perfectly intense like a good circus should be. Class of 2014, thanks be to y’all.
Angel Olsen – ‘Windows‘
Told from the bottom up, Angel Olsen’s “Windows” shows us that when it comes to redemption there is no formula – that what on the surface seems so bleak is actually the singular point in which things begin to turn around. Her voice is haunting, but as sweet as a Georgia peach. There were others who shared similar styles this year but few can capture a mood like Angel Olsen can. Chalk it up to the Midwest: [LISTEN] – Jeff Min
Beck – ‘Say Goodbye‘
Call it a return to form or a revivalist project, either way it’s a shining example of Beck’s timelessness. The range of acoustics and nostalgic melodies give it a feel that makes it seem like a dream or a lost memory were unfolding right in front of you. There’s a melancholy tone underlining the whole song yet tucked away in some far off crevice is a tinge of hope, one that any honest listener can hitch a ride on: [LISTEN] – J.M.
Big Sean – ‘I Don’t Fuck With You‘ ft. E-40
You’d be hard pressed to find a phrase this year used more than “IDFWU.” This song has the best rap beat put out in a minute. Though the verses are nothing but hatred toward a certain ex, he spits some real good and gracious in the last spot. E-40 makes an excellent bass counterpart to Sean’s somewhat whiny but lovable flow. Wherever you hear this track, it’s guaranteed nobody is fuckin’ with you: [LISTEN] – Yoshimi Brayne
FlyLo’s cool and all, but his alter-ego Captain Murphy gave electronic music a well needed dose of aural color with a slinky, minor-key groove. It maintains today’s de rigueur sparseness, but replaced over-played white boy soul with funky perversion, lazily spat with the most laidback of flows, specially made for the hazy Adult Swim crowd: [LISTEN] – Karl Ernest
CN answer the decade old question – ‘what would The Strokes sound like if they were more introspective, emotional, and had a solid fast-punk drummer?’ – more definitively on this bittersweet breakup track better than anyone ever has before. The answer is ‘pretty effing awesome.’ Fans of punk, garage, or any sort of rock take heed: [LISTEN] – K.E
The stuff of Cleveland rock past, unpretentious squall made for getting up and over whatever adolescent strife you’ve got going on. Except the trauma here is cut so universally raw, the doors it requires to kick could be anything from a parents’ garage, to the corporate cubicle. At some point in your life you made a decision on what catharsis means to you, and how you combat the pressure of that force. For Cloud Nothings, that answer will always simply be a scrappy guitar and an amp: [LISTEN] – Gavin Paul
Oberst’s narrative will forever struggle to find the angst tapped on Lifted, or the Story is in the Soil Keep Your Ear to the Ground. He’s no fool, though. He’s got a ton of “First Day of My Life“s in his back pocket. This is no exception. It’s cute, tactile indie-poster child sensitive candy. But it’s calculated in the same way The Simpsons spun brilliant comedy in a family prime-time heart-tug, at least in those first couple of seasons. There’s always a lesson, and it ain’t cheesy. The motherly love is laid on thick, here, but in the end, the goal is flight, not nest: [LISTEN] – G.P.
Second only to Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon, this continually rising Aussie anti-folk darling ups the talk-sing poetic ante with the millennial question of the era – buying property – bone dry as ever in a wry walkthrough of a “depressing,” Cali “bungalow in a cul-de-sac,” chasing a jangly country punk chorus that, like Barnett, both medicates and instigates with so much lackadaisical charm, she could’ve been a cast member in a Richard Linklater film from 1991: [LISTEN] – G.P.
My “favourite” love song of the year has got to be this dreamily stark ballad. The first listen brings the goosebumps, and there’s simply no weak element to be found. Between the wintry guitar effects, stutter-stop drum shuffle, the bits of “save me from myself,” and the heavy climaxes, these six minutes make for a grand journey: [LISTEN] – K.E.
D’angelo was a ghost, a name for the bylines, a career saddled by what-ifs. Then out of nowhere Black Messiah drops and changes the dialogue, proving that he was light years ahead of his time. His ability to string together soul’s past and present is widely celebrated and the vibe he establishes here is just as fresh today as it was when Brown Sugar blew our minds. 15 years doesn’t seem so long anymore: [LISTEN] – J.M.
Death Grips already called it quits via napkin, but this is the opening single for the posthumous second half of their allegedly final double album The Powers That B. Alleged, because, in typical DG fashion, they’ve (possibly) slipped a little mention of possible future tours. The intro’s “engine revving” asks once again – ‘is this amazing, or terrible?’ It proves the former when Ride whisper-screams about the sexualization of technology, poverty-power balances and originality over-powering copycats (cough, Kanye): [LISTEN] – K.E.
The laugh-track addition still gets under the skin, but watching J. Tillman move from guitar to piano with this melody, and proceed to folk torch song send-up the absurdities of young American citizenship with the humor of Zach Galifianakis and the ethereal songwriting beauty of his former Fleet Foxes crew was the most truthful statement of upper-middle class white existence pervading a gentrifying urban neighborhood near you that wasn’t a Portlandia sketch this year: [LISTEN] – G.P.
These Swedish sisters truly sing beyond their years and should have no trouble staying gold. A kaleidoscope of sanctimonious harmony and an echoing purity, but the sound and content is decidedly a maturing one. The composition is thoughtful, adorned all the way through with harvests of lyrical poetry – an overall presentation that is unpretentiously gifted, in constant crescendo with every progression and as sweetly addicting as the last verse: [LISTEN] – Betony Wenzel
This year saw some music celebrating women in power, especially in sexual situations. Unfortunately, a lot of it was too god-awful for words – most notably anything Nicki Minaj released (which, in addition to its terribleness, was all highly unoriginal). FKA Twigs to the rescue on with this slow, erotic intoxication jam. Robert Pattinson is either a very lucky man or in for some chaos: [LISTEN] – K.E.
Kendrick Lamar blew the lid off with his debut and since then has enjoyed the privileges that come with being a star. He’s spread the wealth equally too, handing the baton off to other TDE members, making them one of the most formidable crews around. His verse on Flying Louts’ You’re Dead proved that you can be a superstar and still maintain your independent roots. His lyrics are metaphysical, and is telling of his experience: [LISTEN] – J.M.
Frank Ocean – ‘Memrise‘
It seems like just yesterday Frank Ocean released Channel Orange and cracked R&B in half. Not a futuristic vision nor a throwback, but rooted rather directly in the present – indicative of the life he was living. His new single unfolds in the same fashion. It’s warm and lofi, and the treated vocals add a layer of intimacy like a soft bullet. He’s living for the moment, and fans couldn’t be luckier: [LISTEN] – J.M.
If there were ever a Tupac reincarnate it would be Gibbs. And that’s not a slight against who he is as an individual simply a testament to his ability to deliver hard knock tales with confidence and poise. Pinata is laced with narratives that are both accessible and engaging. His ode to Harold’s, a Chicago chicken-shack institution, is testament to his love for the Midwest and how even the food has shaped him: [LISTEN] – J.M.
Glam growl, demon pop, whatever the hell you want to call the glory that Samuel T. Herring went viral with on Letterman with, what has lasted is not the man’s meme factor, but the sincerity of the song. There’s a ‘fuck you’ pain in that throaty inflection, that is less pronounced on the wax, but still a testament to the power of vulnerability. If this were 1986, they would have blown the eyeliner off Robert Smith‘s face. And the personification of winter craving summer just makes the breakup track that much more cathartic: [LISTEN] – G.P.
Guerilla Toss brought Rhode Island noise back to the blogosphere’s attention this year with the formidably fresh Gay Disco, a spastic (and phallic-friendly) live show, and surprising catchiness. Not all their tracks were quite as lyrically indecipherable as this one, but the others also didn’t manage to put together Lightning Bolt’s – pardon the pun – electric energy with the city of Miami’s reggaeton beat: [LISTEN] – K.E.
The days of busking are behind Alynda Lee Segarra, as she took this year to take on a more political, scripture-like approach. The humming alto requires little production on “The Body Electric,” and we can clearly hear her personal experiences parlay through a pretty righteous pen, with some bluegrass teases. Timing couldn’t be better as the world is in desperate need for a new peace song: [LISTEN] – B.W.
Jose James has quietly put together a fantastic career. Instead of going pop he stayed true to his roots, steeping himself in the world of soul and R&B. Blue Note has groomed him properly allowing the artist to chart his own path. While a cover of a classic, James’ version is just as smokey and rich as the original, only achievable by understanding the subtle nuances of a song like that – Kuroda being the perfect compliment: [LISTEN] – J.M.
Ex-Strokes frontman Casablancas’ solo effort is an unabashed piece of self-indulgent experimentalism. Labeling it as such doesn’t inherently make it bad, though, despite what some reviews have said. Whether he’s trying to “troll” his audience or not, this 11-minute voyage of 8-bit synths, noise walls, and pop hooks is actually quite easy to stomach for any listener, not to mention quite rewarding for the time: [LISTEN] – K.E.
Centered around a duo simply known as ‘J’ and ‘T,’ little is know about the UK based group called Jungle and perhaps it’s better that way, letting the music speak for itself. As an ensemble Jungle’s sound is thrilling and lively, unpretentious and seasoned better than your mom’s signature dish. It’s a no-gimmicks affair, untethered to fickle trends, and “The Heat” is their way of putting the groove back in dance music: [LISTEN] – J.M.
The literate, wholesome character merits of good kid, m.A.A.d. City aside, “i” was really not all that exciting for the amount of hip-hop future Kendrick showed a firm grasp from the get-go – loving thyself is not a sentiment the genre needs more of. But this second taste is the prime rib – an expression in supergroup jazz (Thundercat on bass, Bilal and Sonnymoon’s Anna Wise on vocals, and Terrace Martin on sax) skewering a kind of Siddharthan parable that asks some new questions about race and happiness, ending in a frothing dive into the psyche of a young black man on a big white label: [LISTEN] – G.P.
Kevin Drew – ‘Good Sex’
As the forever room to write another tune about the finer side of sex goes – until D’Angelo bought up all that real estate quota in the last quarter here and blew our minds – this BSS maestro spins his whirling indie-pop magic upon a hazy throb of an organ fill, serenading a reminder that through love’s greatest pastime, high aside low, that like everything good and human, it’s all about the breath: [LISTEN] – G.P.
Lauryn Hill is a lightening rod, a far cry from her Miseducation of Lauryn Hill days. She has stayed true to her own development and has reinvented herself as she sees fit. Miles ahead of the curve, she’s used her status to discuss things that no one else in her position is willing to do. Fame is nothing to her, truth is and songs like “Black Rage” should be put on a pedestal. Rage on: [LISTEN] – J.M.
The perfect anthem for a categorically dazed version of a Nintendo-tuned generational, it takes effort to cast off DeMarco’s charm, even if it does come off as lackadaisical. Mac’s the liberated kind of timeless cool, like a lazy vacation island of a presence that everyone wants to be permanent residents of – a riff wave-rider able to jam his way out of anything, especially heartache: [LISTEN] – B.W.
Mac DeMarco is a simple man living a complicated life, supremely talented but as reluctant a star as you’ll find. His maturation from his highfalutin days as Makeout Videotape to finally Mac himself has been well documented. “Let My Baby Stay” is his plea to let the one thing that’s kept him alive to remain by his side. He’s teetered on the edge for far too long and wants so desperately to make it last: [LISTEN] – J.M.
Mark Ronson – ‘Uptown Funk‘ ft. Bruno Mars
Ronson has graced mainstream culture with the ultimate pop-funk jam of the year. Finally, a relief for those who loath the vulgarity of frequented radio songs. This sure-to-be classic has the world in dancing shoes, belting it out like Bruno. He takes time from singing to every girl in the room to remind us of his own sex appeal, brought to the table on a silver platter MJ would have eaten from: [LISTEN] – Y.B.
While so many youngsters get the spotlight for essentially doing nothing there are some who actually know the meaning of work. Bishop Nehru is a workhorse and has leapfrogged his peers with one dope jam after another. Part of it can be attributed to his mentor DOOM, but it’s mostly him and his steadfast desire to be the best. He’s mature beyond his years and the way he treats the ladies is a reflection of that: [LISTEN] – J.M.
Perfume Genius – ‘Queen‘
The lead single from one of our year’s top albums shows Seattle singer Mike Hadreas using the “icky” feelings bigots get around him as a weapon. His new kind of “gay anthem” simply kills it, and while the message is specific, anyone who wants to throw a big “fuck you” to adversity can relate. The heaving, two-chord groove certainly doesn’t hurt, either: [LISTEN] – K.E.
An innocent song that would make Foster Sylvers smile in adoration – from the playful percussion and sweet melodies to the tenderhearted lyrics. You can see Prince’s silky fingerprints all over it, yet it’s the pillowy embrace of 3rdEyeGirl that makes it the certified jam that it is. Among the other songs it’s a sleeper jam and one that has the great one talking a backseat to his pupils. The layered vocals adding a sultry touch: – J.M.
If this is the sound of Detroit when millennials keep refusing to repurpose its fall from grace into a piece of art, let there continue to be an exodus. This is the sound of making the best of a shit show, ‘defeated’, but more aware than the lot of the urban mind-frame, a gritty post-punk cruise through the badlands, hanging on to hope like it’s a fight club rather than a religion, vocalist Joe Casey this odd bastard child of Ian Curtis and Iggy Pop, so disillusioned, yet so lustful: [LISTEN] – G.P.
Perhaps driven by an unfortunate bout of ovarian cancer in lyricist Annakalmia Traver, RB took a heavier, more honest approach here than they did on Omega La La. While that too was a good record, this welcome transformation shows a band dealing with real-life hardships more than hipster indie-dance ditties. Still, the chorus’ “carousel ride” shows that they also accept what they cannot change: [LISTEN] – K.E.
What begins as real life’s beckoning to “Lie, cheat, [and] steal” if you want to “win” (because “everybody’s doin’ it”) gets even more real as the track unfolds. Given income inequality annihilating the producing class and the disposable nature of black lives in the eyes of police officers this past year, Killer Mike’s verse is the most hauntingly relevant to get anywhere near as popular as RTJ2 became – all over a sick beat: [LISTEN] – K.E.
Serengeti’s alter ego Kenny Dennis is a blazing hot firecracker, an unhinged madman whose affinity for all things Chicago is immediate and infectious. His state of mind is accessible to all. “Off/On” is Kenny Dennis reminding you that Chicago is more than just violence and wisecracks, that it’s a place full of history and tradition. Don’t let the stache and accent fool you, there are words of wisdom packed in every verse: [LISTEN] – J.M.
When Shabazz Palaces released Black Up they cracked open an egg that has given way to a whole new sound and direction, blurring the boundries of rap even further. Lese Majesty is the next evolution and while Kanye does his best not to bite their style it’s a hard temptation to resist. “Forerunner Foray” is a magic bullet that hits right at the heart of what rap is supposed to be – relentless and on point: [LISTEN] – J.M.
Van Etten would rather maim herself than return to a lover who’s “killing” her in this powerful throwback rocker. Van Etten nods a bit to Grace Slick in her vocal delivery, and the atmospheric guitars just slightly of Dark Side of the Moon–era Pink Floyd, but her material covers life in the real world more so than either of those influences: [LISTEN] – K.E.
Everything the name would indicate but mixed with more stardust than the human brain can imagine. These Memphis boys throw down on psychedelia with grace. It is a naturally occurring phenomenon – evidence lying in their live performance. On top of their unique string and harmonizing capabilities, front man Ingalls layers on a tantalizing sound with equally mystic lyrics. Consider it this year’s scripture for the existentially curious: [LISTEN] – Y.B.
This well-lauded self-titled album showed Clark get weird and funky across the board, during which she skewered our relationship with technology, suburban living, and much more. However, this bouncy opener was simply the most fun track on a great album. The lighthearted tale of Clark’s nude trek through the desert (interrupted by a rattlesnake) helped set this new tone, pleasing new and old fans alike: [LISTEN] – K.E.
Though pretty chill in jangle-Pavement Malkmus geek outs, the Jicks’ sixth LP shot nostalgic with its single greet, hyperbolic babble charm in tender colors here, steady cruising into a glory days jam when “Tennyson and venison” was the staple diet and love was like oxygen – foxy then, terrific now, in that approachable Gen X dialect we’ve come to expect from the indie statesman. A ‘lariat’ is a lasso rope, FYI. Fun with metaphor abounds: [LISTEN] – G.P.
Strand of Oaks – ‘JM’
The wake that rippled from the death of Jason Molina in 2013 ran deep. There were and will continue to be a bevy of tributes to the guttural vulnerability the man dressed in Americana, those evergreen hooks so filthy, so transparent. Strand of Oaks hits the homage out of the park here, titling the track after his hero’s initials, that exists as a kind of dark side of landmark Magnolia Electric Co. opener “Farewell Transmission,” threading his own midwestern misfit narrative into its backbone, a 7:30 thanks be to “sweet tunes:” [LISTEN] – G.P.
Housed on a record that should’ve been a short story collection, Kozelek goes on a 600-word, 10-minute self-deprecating Leonard Cohen-ish mission, tying a minor bully role as a kid into a love for one of the greatest rock films of all time, painting things black with depression and a gremlin memory, all beautifully finger-pick swirling into a cathartic thank-you to the power of the song: [LISTEN] – G.P.
Sylvan Esso – ‘Wolf‘
Combining earthy acoustics and electric synth could potentially be a disaster, too stark in contrast for amateurs to tame. But Sylvan Esso handles it like they had been doing it their whole lives. Meath floats over Sanborn’s beats like she were an angel sent from heaven. The “modern wolf” is an ode to all the players out there, and done in such a way that’ll give you goosebumps from here to eternity. Let Meath howl on: [LISTEN] – J.M.
The Antlers – ‘Parade’
A swift departure from the hush tension of Hospice and Burst Apart, “Parade” is the finest example of life immediately out of the door of the situation room, the streets still burning, the people still screaming, but the light beaming down in the chaos. The horns swell something lush and grand, here, as Peter Silberman smiles, takes cover in a parked car with a lover, and like most of the triumphs on this list, looks forward instead of backward: [LISTEN] – G.P.
Doom Abuse caught more press for being a ‘comeback album’ and its ties to Saddle Creek then any lasting impression on the public, unfortunately. However, this synth-punk lead single, with its sci-fi synesthetic and revolutionary lyrics, bridges the gap between popular music and the likes of aforementioned Guerilla Toss, all with a moshable, driving beat that can’t be ignored: [LISTEN] – K.E.
For the amount of confusing “beer commercial lead-guitar shit“ Adam Granduciel took from the dark side of Marc Kozelek this year, and the depression thwarted with the creation process of Lost in the Dream, “Red Eyes” is like hopping in a flat bed Ford and hugging the concrete of a highway without ever the threat of another car or a cop, riding reverb Bosswaves for days. The yelp at 1:50, paired with the night imagery, no one captured the kind of cast-off momentum like it this year: [LISTEN] – G.P.
Distorted, disappearing hi-hats, spooky pitch-bending, and riffs slapping your face un-apologetically – this is how the likes of Tobacco do aggressive electronic music (while still avoiding the clichés of EDM). It’s blatantly simple, but heavy as hell. I always heard “run, motherfucker, run” but the more commonly accepted lyrics (below) are pretty sweet, too: [LISTEN] – K.E.
Garbus’ anxieties in the face of ennui and writer’s block make for the most emotionally real song she’s made. Her looping, world percussion-infused other music is great, no doubt, as is the rest of this poppy album. Here, however, we see a vulnerable side of her that speaks to us about her fears in plain English with some great imagery: [LISTEN] – K.E.
We featured these guys back when they were Dog Shredder, and they just won’t stop ripping – if it weren’t for this EP being only three songs, it’d be a shoe-in for one of our year’s top albums. Honorable mention goes to the EP’s super-catchy opener “The Wrecking Ball Unchained,” but this destroying metaphor for professional art’s futility (per lyricist Josh Holland’s description) takes the cake. They’re oft-compared to Mastodon, but that’s frankly an undersell: [LISTEN] – K.E.