Drake, “We Made It”
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Rembert Browne: Aubrey Drake Graham released two of 2014’s best anthems between Kwanzaa 2013 and MLK Day. While his triumphant, trumpet-filled “Trophies” is closer to Aaron Copland than to PartyNextDoor, it’s his OVO SoundCloud B-side “We Made It” that will always represent 2014, for better and worse.
It’s the first song I heard when the clock hit midnight. And I’m fairly confident it will be the last song I hear as we, thankfully, graduate out of this stressful year.
The Drake who genuinely believes this beat should be playing when he walks through various halls can convince you, by the end of “We Made It,” that you are part of the “we” who are making it. Or at least that’s how it felt at the beginning of 2014, a year filled with promise. As the next 12 months ran their course, the song has taken on a new meaning. Still anthemic, but more “we made it — to the end.” Finally. An accomplishment regardless, but more a celebration of endurance than status.
A moment of silence, as Aubrey states on the track, for 2014. But only temporarily, because N---- WE MADE IT.
Jamie xx, “All Under One Roof Raving”
Andy Greenwald: I spent the majority of the 1990s reading about British dance parties I would never actually attend. Turns out, it was tough for a teenager to find a credible drum’n’bass club along the Acela corridor during the Clinton administration; Ecstasy wasn’t nearly as plentiful as Fruitopia. But reality wasn’t an impediment to my fandom. In fact, it was the fantasy alone that made it so meaningful. Because I didn’t know what LTJ Bukem or Underworld were banging on about, I was free to imagine something greater. It’s imprecise to say that music can be a form of escape. What music really can be is a window — equally intoxicating whether you jump through it or remain with your nose pressed eagerly against the glass.
“All Under One Roof Raving,” by 25-year-old British soul collagist Jamie xx, is fandom filtered through memory and distilled into euphoria. It reminds me not of the music I loved in the ’90s, but of the way I loved it: from a jealous, eager distance. Tenderly constructed from the yawps of enthusiastic punters, charlied-up snares, and what sounds like Begbie’s preferred hand-to-hand weapon, “Raving” celebrates a vanished scene with the sort of warmth possible only in someone who wasn’t actually there. “Hardcore will never die!” intones one voice, turning history into legend. The track rolls but never crashes. It’s an outsider’s ode to inclusion. It dances like everyone’s watching.
White Lung, “Down It Goes”
Jason Concepcion: I’ve learned there are simply going to be times when I find it necessary to gaze long into the dark water, until the reflection is the one I don’t want to see. At such times, one can either release the banshees or perish. White Lung combines vitally immediate guitar attack — I found myself paying attention to the riffs like they were a broken bottle slashing at my neck — with cryptic lyrics delivered with a stridency that reminds me of someone denouncing an enemy of the state. Turn this up loud; release the banshees.
Rich Gang, “Givenchy”
Alex Pappademas: I raved about a different Young Thug song in this exact spot last year; I’m aware that writing about this one now opens me up to charges of stanhood and/or not getting out much. Fair points both. Still: Around 56 seconds into the first song on the ad hoc supercrew Rich Gang’s Tha Tour Part 1, right after Birdman finishes effusing about the “gold terlets” lifestyle, Thugger materializes and stretches two Auto-Tuned ohhhhhhhhhs across two whole bars, sounding uncannily like Bobby Womack (RIP) finding his way into the Across 110th Street theme song, and time stops. It’s as if the track itself is catching its breath, like the molecules in the room are waiting to see what he’s going to do, because who could guess? This is my favorite moment in American popular singing this year. As great as Young Thug was and is as a purveyor of pharmaceutical-grade astro-black gobbledygook, he might end up being greater as a song stylist, a dramatizer of the word, slipping into each lyric like an ermine cape. Then he raps — for four minutes, about almost nothing, with fervor and dread, like everything is beautiful and everything hurts.
Meghan Trainor, “All About That Bass”
Molly Lambert: In the spirit of the blissfully uncool Meghan Trainor — the booty-bass-bumping doo-wop-styled pop star from Nantucket — I hereby nominate “All About That Bass” for tribute. Trainor belts, she ad-libs, she raps, for LOL’s sake. Look, I’m not gonna pretend the first time I saw a thumbnail still from the video, I didn’t think, What kind of late-pass pastel non-goth Forever 21 discount-section flower-crown a cappella group version of Amy Winehouse madness is this? But as soon as I finally watched the video and heard the song, I was won over by Trainor, especially when I learned she had a connection to world’s greatest bar band NRBQ. Trainor cites Lena Dunham and Taylor Swift as role models, and you can feel their influences in the song’s body-positive message and catchy-as-all-hell hook. Trainor’s breezy insistence on loving herself and her non-size-two body made some people really mad, which just proved that hidden inside the track’s worldwide normcore smash status was a pretty subversive idea: Fuck fashion magazines. Like the girl from your college dorm who seems annoying at first but turns out to just be really, really nice, Meghan Trainor is everyone’s freshman-year roommate. In tandem with “Anaconda,” it was a great year for booty. Go ’head and tell them skinny bitches that.1
OG Maco, “U Guessed It”
Sean Fennessey: No Kanye West. No Jay Z. No Drake. No Kendrick Lamar. The artists capable of creating a rap event mostly sat out 2014, offering stray shots but no albums. So this was a year for the splenetic, the rampager, the insurgent, the unexpected. As emblems go, OG Maco’s “U Guessed It” is more of a lapel pin than a soaring flag, but it sure is eye-catching. The Atlanta rapper chirps, mumbles, drones, and outright hollers in such a visceral way that he sounds as if he might burst his brain stem. Reportedly recorded after a long night of drinking and creative frustration — Maco didn’t recall making the song the morning after — “U Guessed It” gained attention the same way too many rap hits do these days: as a gag on Vine. (See: Shmurda, Bobby.) But “U Guessed It” is weirder and worthier than that. It’s also a kind of bellwether for hits of its kind: the melodic Molly burps of Makonnen, the staccato mania of Migos, the soaring minor-key glimmer of Rae Sremmurd, the lurching loll of O.T. Genasis. This is a Southern rap we haven’t seen before, but which has always been there. (Soulja Boy looks more and more like a prophet as the days pass. I might start calling him Rap Chayefsky.) What to make of it all? U guessed it: succumb.
The New Pornographers, “War on the East Coast”
Ben Lindbergh: In my memory, the year in music is a montage of perfect pop songs from Canadian indie bands (Sloan, Zeus, Alvvays) and pleasant surprises from artists I’d long liked but had never really ridden for (Spoon, Beck). Vancouver collective the New Pornographers qualified in both categories, altering the energy of their earlier records enough that whatever antibodies I’d built up to Electric Version couldn’t fight off the infectiousness of their latest album, Brill Bruisers. “War on the East Coast,” the best of Destroyer frontman Dan Bejar’s Bruisers contributions, is an evolving, four-minute mixture of menace and exuberance, synth and harmonica solo. Bound together by chugging guitars that seal the cracks between chorus and verse, those clashing elements compel consecutive listens as adamantly as anything I’ve heard since “Sprawl II.”
In recent months, footage of actual, unhappy events — heavy on hazmat suits and riot shields — has fused with the fictitious apocalypses on our small and silver screens, turning 2014 into a pitch from The Player: The Purge meets The Strain meets The Situation Room. “War on the East Coast” captures this climate’s seductive, disturbing2 “it’s all falling apart” feeling, and the video completes the package with a single take straight out of True Detective. Few other tracks from 2014 manage such a strong marriage of timely sentiment and timeless tune.
Ryan Adams, “Feels Like Fire”
Chris Ryan: After years of ADHD Americana, dolorous singer-songwriter excursions, and patchouli-scented jamming, Ryan Adams finally got around to building the perfect beast. Adams’s self-titled solo album, released 14 years after his solo debut, is the best version of him. The album’s standout track, “Feels Like Fire,” is dripping with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Bruce Hornsby pianos. Just typing that makes me feel 124 years old, but the final chorus, on which Adams’s voice breaks while singing, “Are you on your way? Someone take me home tonight,” brings on the shaking hands and breaking hearts of being 17.
Blood Orange, “It’s All Over My Face” and “Tower of Meaning”
Kirk Goldsberry: In March of 2013, Zach Lowe and I took in a Knicks-Bobcats tilt at Madison Square Garden. Terrible idea. I mean, the company was good, but the game was dreadful. Big surprise, I know. Afterward, my stepbrother dragged me to see Blood Orange play at the Knitting Factory in Williamsburg. I’ve been in love with this Dev Hynes project ever since. In many ways, Hynes is like the opposite of former Knicks coach Mike Woodson: He’s a mastermind orchestrator who can elevate a roster full of distinct tracks into something much greater than the sum of their individual parts. On this song, Hynes nicely resurrects a pair of old Arthur Russell classics the same way he resurrected that Friday night I almost wasted watching Kemba (6-19) and Carmelo (11-28) turn MSG into the bricking factory.
Danny Chau: I can’t write coherently about “Hard,” so here’s some free association: the clanging of a steel mill; rainbows; oil drums drained, then tossed; percussive slapfights, like in Dragon Ball Z; 2 p.m. sunshine; blown-out, doom bass; blind optimism — all bent to fit a three-minute capsule. In 2014, weirdos inherited the earth, or at least commandeered its ears. Young Thug is on the radio gloriously dibba-dabbling about this here lifestyle; iLoveMakonnen is now Grammy-nominated Makonnen. Then there’s Sophie, quantum high-stepping across the plane. OK, you caught me: This isn’t the best song of 2014. It’s a transmission from 2030.
The Hotelier, “An Introduction to the Album”
Matt Borcas: There is something at stake on the Hotelier’s breakthrough album, Home, Like Noplace Is There, and nowhere is it more palpable than during the record’s aptly titled opening track, “An Introduction to the Album.” It sets a momentous tone immediately, with writhing vocals, exclamatory whoa-ohs, and orchestral instrumentation, which culminate in a bass drop at 3:37 that would make Skrillex proud. While great in its own right, the studio version of the song doesn’t quite do this moment justice — watch a performance of it on YouTube to experience its communal, life-affirming power. (Or better yet, go see the Hotelier live!) In the climactic final verse, singer Christian Holden claims that “I had a chance to construct something beautiful and I choked.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
St. Vincent, “Digital Witness”
Bill Barnwell: It’s hard to talk about “Digital Witness” without thinking about David Byrne. Not because Annie Clark isn’t a talented musician in her own right, of course, but because her scathing-with-a-sly-smile lyrics in “Digital Witness” hit the same emotional beats that her sometime collaborator’s best work often travels past. And just like how Byrne arrangements sound so uniquely his, the music — like a marching band PKZIPPED — is so quintessentially Clark that it’s impossible to imagine anybody besides St. Vincent making it.
Future Islands, “Seasons (Waiting on You)”
Mark Lisanti: Seasons change, but apparently my musical choices don’t, as one of my summer jams lingered on through the fall and snuggled up with me for the winter, burrowing itself so deeply inside my head that it left me no choice but to choose it as my song of the year. There were other just-as-valid options, sure — you could force me to pick from a half-dozen tracks on the new Spoon, War on Drugs, or New Pornographers albums, and I wouldn’t fight you — but why bother evicting a perfectly good earworm when it’s paying its rent on time? I’m singing “Seasons” to myself right now, a little too passionately, an impromptu karaoke show for myself and the dog. And I promise you: The dog is into it. There’s some intense eye contact. An ear raised like an antenna. He wants me to sing it again. So I will. Maybe just three or four more times. We both have other things to do after that. Six times, tops.
Jason Bailey: Words that sound like noises are onomatopoeia. Words that sound like emotions are Sia. Throughout the excellent 1000 Forms of Fear, her warbled and cracked vocals suggest strength, not weakness, because she’s pushed herself to the breaking point and survived to (in)articulate the dangers of that experience. “Chandelier” outlines the metronomic administration (“One, two, three / One, two, three, drink”) of our various forms of self-medication, the soaring arpeggios to the skies, and the uncomfortably long “sha-a-ame” that inevitably follows. If the only intoxication in my life comes from listening to Sia’s modulations, that will be more than enough.
Ingrid Michaelson, “Girls Chase Boys”
Katie Baker: “All the broken hearts in the world still beat” may suffer from a bit of survivorship bias, but it’s pretty good breakup advice nonetheless. Ingrid Michaelson’s “Girls Chase Boys,” the single off her April album, Lights Out, features a music video that plays off Robert Palmer’s 1988 hit “Simply Irresistible” and a refrain that feels like a mantra. The track lacks the righteous fury of “You Oughta Know” or the cutting scorn of “Irreplaceable,” but as post-relationship anthems go, it’s about as levelheaded and ¯\_(ツ)_/¯-y as it gets. And that’s a good thing: It’s healthy to wallow and rage, but we all deserve real-talk advice like “let’s not make it harder than it has to be” at some point in our lovelorn lives.
U2, “Every Breaking Wave”
Josh Wimmer: Pretty sure it’s no coincidence that “Every Breaking Wave,” the second and best track off U2’s much-abused Songs of Innocence, opens with a sped-up variant of the heartbeat bass line from “With or Without You.” This is a sequel, more sleek but with the same blend of bleakness and hope, the same storms and shores. Where the earlier song lamented the struggle, though, the new one is a plea to keep it alive, hard-won testimony to the sheer miracle of any relationship — between lovers, or, say, a band and its audience — lasting in an age when something better might be one swipe away. They’ll probably play the schmaltzy acoustic version live, which is a shame.
Taylor Swift, “Blank Space”
Amos Barshad: A couple of weeks ago, I found myself in a murdered-out SUV circling the block around one of New York’s finest gentlemen’s clubs. (In my defense: A buddy was in town, and someone knew someone who worked there, and we were only gonna have a few drinks. But yes. Technically, I was going to a strip club on a Monday night.) The plan was simple, if out of the ordinary: We’d gotten into this guy’s car as a favor; every time he dropped anyone off in front of the club, he got a kickback. We just had to loop around, pretend he’d brought us there. He asked very politely. Sure!
And so in the spare few minutes of good, clean, totally not potentially sad fun we were about to enjoy, what could we do? Plug in a phone and turn up “Blank Space” as loud as our human ears could handle, of course. From the point of view of at least one important appraisal, Taylor’s meta-career-commentary-sheep in banger-wolf-clothing was our undisputed 2014 champ: It was the one song you just knew everyone in the murdered-out SUV circling the block around one of New York’s finest gentlemen’s clubs was going to scream every word to.
“I Don’t Mind,” Usher
Juliet Litman: “I Don’t Mind” by Usher is working its way into heavy rotation here in Southern California. Based on my anecdotal experience, it’s getting more airplay on Amp 97.1 than on KIIS 102.7. It’s hard to explain the machinations of iHeartRadio, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the necessity of bleeping out the word ho discourages spins. Ursh doesn’t say the word too many times, but the concept suffuses the entire track. The song begins thusly: “Shorty, I don’t mind / If you dance on the pole / That don’t make you a ho.” Every time I listen to the song — which is very often — I think, Wow, Usher is telling a woman he presumably likes that it’s OK for her to be a stripper and that it doesn’t mean she’s a whore. The conceit of this song is the definition of patronizing, and yet it’s Usher’s best since 2012’s “Climax.” He delivers the lyrics with the clarity to remind us, and hopefully himself, that he need not mess around in the dance/EDM scene he seemed so fond of for a year or two. This guy has a great voice! The beat is simple and infectious. I can’t help but sing “monay monay monay” to myself, even though I object to the overall message. That’s the power of a radio hit. You nod along in spite of yourself, and I just can’t stop with this one.
Sun Kil Moon, “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love”
Steven Hyden: I already wrote about my favorite single and most-played track of 2014. So I’m taking this one literally: When I think about a great song (as opposed to a recording or album track expressly marketed for stand-alone consumption), I imagine what it would be like if other people covered it. And no song in 2014 fired up my imagination this way like Sun Kil Moon’s “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love.” There are so many great alternate versions of “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” that exist only in my head. Sam Smith would transform it into an operatic wallow. Taylor Swift should consider posting a cover to SoundCloud when she inevitably pulls her Nebraska move. I bet CeeLo could do for “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” what he did for Band of Horses’ “No One’s Gonna Love You.” But Charles Bradley would give the song the Bill Withers treatment it deserves (unless Withers himself wants to come out of retirement to do it). I sort of wish that Meredith Graves of Perfect Pussy had shredded “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” instead of shredding Mark Kozelek on Pitchfork. And the War on Drugs could’ve indulged their jones for ’80s Dylan by making it sound like an Oh Mercy outtake.
If anyone is into assembling an “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” tribute album, I have more ideas.
Romeo Santos feat. Drake, “Odio”
Ryan O’Hanlon: To be clear, “Odio” is not a good song. But does it contain two Drake verses? Is one of the verses in Spanish? Does that verse include Drake saying, “Soy un pobre diablo”? Is the other verse a rough approximation of a rambling, self-correcting Drake hitting on a non-English-speaking woman by comparing her to a combination of “some girls” he knows from back home named Bernice and Yaris? Did I listen to this song more than any other Drake song this year because the dude is literally everywhere, and I just needed something kinda different? Soy un pobre diablo.
Rae Sremmurd, “No Flex Zone”
Shea Serrano: You are a well-known flexer and not a young trendsetter, and so I wouldn’t expect you to understand this, but the elegant and sophisticated but chaotic and unconcerned energy of “No Flex Zone” is the best rap moment of 2014. When the song come bubbling into existence from the fringes of the shadows behind Saturn or whatever, and Swae Lee sing-raps, “Theeeeyyyyyy knooooow-oh better,” and then follows that with, “Swae Lee, Lee Swae, it’s the same difference / H2O, lean, same thing,” and then they kill all the haters and then bless them, oh wow. I can’t stop crying. I can’t stop crying. #BestOf2014