Another year down, another 12 months of awesome music. It would be pretty easy to say that 2014 was the year of Darude – Sandstorm (and hasn’t its revival given us a great deal of joy) but once again there was a metric shit-ton of good music released. These were my 10 favourite songs of the year, plus a few honourable mentions. What do you think? What were your favourites?
- Flying Lotus – Never Catch Me (ft. Kendrick Lamar)
I first got a snippet of this track when I saw Flying Lotus play at the Forum in late February. It was a hell of a show, easily the most entertaining set I have seen from a producer/live DJ. Towards the end of the set he teased a collaboration he had been working on with hip-hop superstar Kendrick Lamar, and though it was still in demo form (and slightly obscured by the live acoustics, crowd noise and FlyLo’s hilariously drunken state) it sounded incredible. When You’re Dead! finally dropped, “Never Catch Me” was not only the early album highlight, but one of most exciting, refreshing tracks in recent memory. The piano line that opens the track and runs throughout the first part is head-spinningly addictive, particularly when combined with FlyLo’s jazzy beat work and Thundercat’s typically wormy bass.
It would be easy to call Kendrick the star – and he delivers a thrilling verse that hits not unlike Muhammad Ali in his heyday – but truth be told his cameo feels as essential to the tune as the other components mentioned above. It’s a testament to the brilliance of FlyLo as a producer – his best songs are greater than the sum of its parts, and even when working with high-profile guests (Thom Yorke, Snoop Dogg and Erykah Badu have been others) their additions are simply another element to weave into to FlyLo’s pattern+grid world.
To understand the full, astonishing brilliance of “Never Catch Me”, it is best to listen to You’re Dead! from the start. The four tracks that precede it, “Theme”, “Tesla”, “Cold Dead” and “Fkn Dead”, run only five-and-a-half minutes in total, but those 332 seconds do an incredible job establishing mood, running the gamut from free jazz to jazz fusion to avant-garde rock to spacey ambient and everything in between. And then that piano line begins, “Never Catch Me” kicks in, Kendrick crams an entire manifesto on death, mortality and immortality into about 70 seconds, and then the song moves through two more movements in the space of just two minutes. The first nine-and-a-half minutes of You’re Dead! effectively work as a suite, and once it is over you feel as if you have been taken on a movie-length journey through time and space. Rarely has 10 minutes of music achieved so much. It is a truly incredible feat, one of which Steven Ellison’s jazz forefathers would be extremely proud. (The video is also top-fucking-notch.)
- Interpol – All the Rage Back Home
I’ll remember July 26 of this year fondly for some time. I was at Splendour at the Grass, and was walking back to my campsite around 9pm. I had just seen a great set from The Jezabels in light rain, but my memories of that night center around Interpol, who I had seen the night prior. Their set was terrific and included some personal favourites, “NYC” and “Narc” among them. But the highlight was “All the Rage Back Home”, the lead track from their then-unreleased fifth album El Pintor. It contains everything that makes Interpol great – an urgent guitar riff, a fast-paced rhythm section, Paul Banks’ anxious delivery, down-but-not-out lyrics. It feels like there is something at stake. “All the Rage Back Home” details well that heart-pumping feeling when “she went ‘hey love come over’” – “My head abounds, oh the feeling…” but all is not as it seems. “You won’t leave me shaking.” “You have been mistaken.”
It’s the final crescendo of the song, an elongated chorus, that sums up why I love “All the Rage Back Home” so much. On last year’s Wakin on a Pretty Daze Kurt Vile sang about “feeling bad / in the best way” and that’s what Interpol hit on here. Rarely has feeling down sounded so good. “I keep falling.” “Maybe half the time.” “But it’s all the rage back home.” That night at Splendour I walked back to my campsite feeling a little glum, for no real reason, but as “All the Rage Back Home” played over and over in my head I found myself enjoying the moment.
Second best song of the year? Probably not. It follows a well-worn Interpol formula and does not offer as much as some of 2014’s more innovative tracks. But sometimes you just want something that fits warm and snug. And that’s okay. It’s all the rage back home.
- The Antlers – “Palace”
Music did not get much more beautiful in 2014 than the stately opening track to The Antlers’ Familiars. It takes time to unfold, The Antlers spending the opening minute setting a gorgeous scene, one filled with light, distant drumming, doleful piano and melancholy trumpet before vocalist Peter Silberman softly enters the track at one minute and 10 seconds in. “Palace” is desolate look at look at the transformation one goes through in becoming an adult – “beautifully oblivious before you were hid / inside a stranger you grew into as you learned to disconnect”, and also how much bile can build up when befallen by hardship – “he left the tallest peak of your paradise buried in the bottom of a canyon of hell”.
In the second verse I see comparisons with two of my favourite songs of recent years – U2’s “The Troubles” and Bat for Lashes’ “All Your Gold” – this idea of someone, or something, eroding your soul from the inside. But the reason I fell in love with “Palace” at first was that it reminded me so strongly of The National at their best – the song moves at a glacial pace, never wasting a second, gradually adding new elements to the mix until it reaches a stunning, thoroughly moving climax.
On “Mistaken for Strangers” The National too discussed the strange feeling of disconnect upon growing older, but by the end of “Palace” The Antlers have achieved something even greater – a grand hope when all seems lost, “carve a palace from within”.
- Sun Kil Moon – “Ben’s My Friend”
Benji might be my favourite album of 2014. True to form I had never listened to Sun Kil Moon prior to the latest record, but I was absolutely hooked from the opening notes of Mark Kozelek’s 11-track, hour-long ode to death and deep introspection. “Ben’s My Friend” is about the only song on the album in which someone doesn’t die, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting or moving. It follows a similar pattern to Benji’s other songs, hyper-specific retellings of things that have happened in Kozelek’s life. It is named for Ben Gibbard, lead singer of Death Cab for Cutie and The Postal Service, the latter of whom Kozelek goes to see in the third verse.
On paper, it’s quite mundane – the drive in is a pain in the arse, everyone in the crowd is young and watching the gig through their mobiles, Kozelek strains from a long way back to get a good view and his legs hurt. The other verses are just as ordinary; a ho-hum lunch with the girlfriend, writer’s block, minor family squabbles. But therein lies the brilliance of Benji; through Kozelek’s world-weary, anxious, reflective vocals the listener is ensnared, and somehow, with each listen, one goes from sympathy for Kozelek’s words to feeling a strange sort of empathy, despite never having eaten blue crab cakes at Perry’s.
“Ben’s My Friend” is not only the album highlight for its extra musical flourishes – the mournful saxophone, bass, drums, flamenco guitar – but for the striking emotion to be found in lines as prosaic as “I looked at the walls cluttered with sports bar shit / sports bar shit…”
- Spoon – “Do You”
This could have gone to any one of a number of songs from Spoon’s excellent eighth album, They Want My Soul. “Inside Out”, “Knock Knock Knock”, “Outlier”, “They Want My Soul” and “New York Kiss” all have claims (and the other tracks are pretty great too!) but in the end “Do You” was the song that won me over the most. Much like the rest of the album, it hits immediately, and hits well. Falsetto scatting, acoustic guitar and drums set it up before lead singer Britt Daniel drunkenly spots a girl of his affections – “I was on 45th, I was half out of a bag / I knew that you saw me, you laughed when you looked back”.
It inspires some soul-searching, a look inwards, questions about how the protagonist has handled previous relationships. The questioning is extremely honest, particularly in the chorus – “do you / run when it’s just getting good?” “don’t you know / that’s the way love comes?” and there is no answer, just a drunken man on the street eating popsicles in the heat.
But what makes the song so remarkable is how Spoon strike a balance between making a joyous, fun upbeat rock song and also pass comment on the constant to-and-fro of relationships in a way that doesn’t seem forced, uninspired or laboured. Just try to get it out of your head.
- Eno ● Hyde – “Return”
At the outset of 2014, if you had told me chameleon Brian Eno would release new music that would further strengthen my already mighty lofty opinion of him, I might have cried from excitement. Throughout his career, both directly and indirectly, he has had a hand in so much music that I love (though he nearly wiped the tapes of my favourite song of all time) that it is hard to imagine it would continue well into his seventh decade. But it did; his two collaborations with Underworld frontman Karl Hyde, Someday World and High Life, proved the man still has much to give.
“Return” is the opening track to High Life, and features Hyde playing relentless, uplifting guitar as Eno weaves his gentle vocals throughout. Despite its length the track never outstays its welcome, and as layers of synths, extra guitars and high-pitched Eno warbling are added to the mix it reaches a truly inspiring crescendo that touches on many of the elements that have made Eno’s music so vital for so long.
- ScHoolboy Q – “Man of the Year”
If Kendrick Lamar dominated 2013 – still running on the hype of his magnum opus good kid, m.A.A.d city and his show-stealing verse on Big Sean’s “Control” – then it was Black Hippy cohort ScHoolboy Q who took on the spotlight in 2014. He was already on the radar thanks to 2012’s excellent Habits & Contradictions and a handful of guest verses but it was 2014’s Oxymoron which saw him break through. Our first taste of the album was the hazy “Collard Greens” but the highlight was late-album track (and second single) “Man of the Year”.
It isn’t a great deal more than an awesome party tune, but it stands up with the best of them thanks to two things – Q’s joyous vocals and the sample of Chromatics’ sultry, heady “Cherry”, taken from the After Dark 2 compilation, which makes up the backbone of the song. (Credit must be given to Nez & Rio for that. More indie/hip-hop crossover, please.) Combined, the two make a killer combination and it is impossible not to smile and dance when this tune hits the speakers. (And the video is another addition to a familiar hip-hop canon.)
- The War on Drugs – “Under the Pressure”
I was never enamoured with Lost in the Dream as most of the world seemed to be. If only every song on the album was as brilliant as the effortless opening track, “Under the Pressure”. It is expertly crafted; the opening sounds as if the protagonist is waking up, forcing open their eyes and reflecting on a night’s sleep before “the arrival of a new day”. At nine minutes, it’s the longest track on an overlong album, but strangely it feels the shortest – the persistent yet gentle drumming, beautiful piano line and gazey guitar and synths envelop you, giving the track a timeless quality.
Adam Granduciel’s breezy vocals suit the song perfectly, promoting optimism but belying a rather dark picture, recalling some of Bruce Springsteen’s “let’s-get-the-hell-out-of-here-babe” epics. It’s hard not to smile, and as the sun set at Meredith Music Festival this year I was grinning ear to ear as The War on Drugs delivered a passionate rendition. Lying on my back, loosening my grip…
- U2 ft. Lykke Li – “The Troubles”
My record of coming to U2’s defence is well-documented, and while I will continue to be bemused by the backlash to the release of their latest album Songs of Innocence, I can’t say too much good about the music itself. Its offerings are few and far between, and I can’t imagine I will go back to it in the future. However, it was worth it for the stunning closing track “The Troubles” alone. Where most of the rest of the album sounds like a band trying far too hard to stay in the public eye, “The Troubles” shows that if U2 simply dropped the pretentions of trying to remain relevant they can still make brilliant music.
A slow-burning song built on subtle guitar, beguiling rhythm work and poignant strings, it mines some of the best of the band’s past in a modern way. Adam’s murky bass and Bono’s introspective lyrics about a problematic relationship make it reminiscent of their 1991 masterpiece Achtung Baby, and the addition of Lykke Li for the chorus is one of the most inspired decisions the band has made in years. Her lilting vocals fit the mood of the track perfectly – her delivery of the lines “somebody stepped inside your soul / little by little they robbed and stole / til someone else was in control” is heartbreakingly beautiful.
On an album littered with clunkers, it was a surprise, even the title – who else went into this track expecting a tired take on conflict in Northern Ireland only to be moved by the allegory?
- St. Vincent – “Huey Newton”
If you aren’t already following the career of Annie Clark, do yourself a goddamn favour. She followed up her 2011 masterpiece Strange Mercy with a self-titled album this year, one that proves she is among the most interesting, challenging and fierce artists in the game. “Huey Newton” is perhaps the best of the lot on a very consistent album, opening with a head-spinning synth and soft drumming before devolving into a vicious distorted stomp about halfway through as Clark takes the song to a growling conclusion. The song takes on another element live as well, as Clark shreds her guitar to pieces and owns the stage like few frontmen or women ever have.
David Bowie – “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)”
One of two brilliant new tracks released by Bowie as part of his expansive Nothing Has Changed collection, “Sue” finds the 67-year-old continuing to push the boundaries well into his seventh decade. The claustrophobic track is full of nervous horns, skittery drumming and follows on from the darker themes found on his 2013 comeback album The Next Day.
Kendrick Lamar – i
I was not sold on “i” at first. It seemed quite poppy and upbeat, bereft of the hard-hitting verses Kendrick has become so well known for. But it is just these qualities that make it a memorable track, and show off Kendrick’s versatility. Built on a sample of the Isley Brothers’ “That Lady”, it sends a message of self-love. With “i” and the untitled track Kendrick debuted on the Colbert Report recently, hype for his next album is growing rapidly.
Run the Jewels – “Close Your Eyes and Count to Fuck (ft. Zack De La Rocha)”
It’s an extremely exciting time to be a hip-hop fan, and a large part of that is Run the Jewels, a combination El-P and Killer Mike. Their second album was released this year to overwhelming critical acclaim and “Close Your Eyes” was possibly the record’s biggest banger. It has all their hallmarks – a hard, heavy beat, chopped-up vocals and quick-fire, trading verses from the two MCs. And the former Rage Against the Machine frontman gives an impressive fly-by at the end.
Thom Yorke – “Guess Again”
By now it is obvious in which way Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke sees his music heading – his love for electronica has grown exponentially since the release of Kid A. Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, released via BitTorrent (of course) is hit-and-miss, but contains several moments of understated beauty. “Guess Again” has Yorke in a pensive mood over a crunching drum clap and some distant, watery piano work reminiscent of “Pyramid Song”.
Beck – “Morning”
I recall listening to Beck’s latest album, Morning Phase, as I was overtired on early-morning flights on two separate occasions this year. Both times it provided a lovely antidote to heavy eyes and cluttered head. On “Morning” Beck sounds as if he has had enough of fighting himself, seeking solace elsewhere. “This morning / won’t you show me the way it used to be?” Rest your head as the vocals and beautifully crisp instrumentation lull you to a better place.
Aphex Twin – “minipops 67 [120.2]
Richard D. James has never really been away from music, but his most well-known alias, Aphex Twin, made a triumphant return this year with Syro, a record packed to the hilt with refreshing, interesting and just damn good electronic music. Our first taste was “minipops” and it remains a highlight, its glitchy twists and turns always making you come back for more.