Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Top 50 Songs of 2014 (40-31)

Part 1 of the "Top 50 Songs of 2014" ranged from bubblegum boom-bap to landlocked surf-pop and this second act is no less unwieldy. But before we dive further into the best of what the year had to offer, let's look back at what we've seen so far.

50. "Picture Me Gone"- Ariel Pink (pom pom)
49. "Blank Space"- Taylor Swift (1989)
48. "I'm Coming Home"- Lil Boosie (Life After Deathrow)
47. "Say You Love Me"- Jessie Ware (Tough Love
46. "Man of the Year"- ScHoolboy Q (Oxymoron)
45. "New York Kiss"- Spoon (They Want My Soul)
44. "I Love You All"- The Soronprfbs (Frank soundtrack)
43. "Interference Fits"- Perfect Pussy (Say Yes to Love)
42. "Webbie Flow (U Like)"- Isaiah Rashad (Cilvia Demo)
41. "And I Am Nervous"- Shy Boys (Shy Boys)

40. "Never Catch Me" ft. Kendrick Lamar- Flying Lotus (You're Dead)

"To me death is not a fearful thing," Jim Jones once proclaimed. The end he brought for himself and 912 of his followers in Guyana showed the ugliest of that statement. On the brighter side of the coin Steven Ellison's fifth album as Flying Lotus, You're Dead!, shows us that we all pay death far too much respect. Instead of saying someone "died" we dance around the word like Michael Palin and John Cleese in the immortal Monty Python sketch. "I wanted it to be playful, because it's the one experience we have in common. I wanted to make something that captures death from different angles," Ellison declared in an interview.

Nothing on You're Dead! captures all 360 degrees of our ultimate end quite like propulsive jazz-rap cut "Never Catch Me." Boosted by a lightning bolt verse from "King" Kendrick Lamar, "Never Catch Me" captures "curiosity, animosity, high velocity" and is quite amazing in the way it does it. Hobbling synthesizers are lapped by amphetamine dosed drum machines. Basslines wildly flail like captured salmon on their last breaths. Piano hopscotches in and out of frame. The way it all coalesces is "wrong and right" as Lamar puts it. It's simultaneously messy and well-made. Like death, there are hundreds of words you can use to describe "Never Catch Me," but one will do... triumphant.

39. "Tearing Down Posters"- Jawbreaker Reunion (Lutheran Sisterhood Gun Club)

If I handed out album of year awards based solely on the nebulous idea of "fun," the teasingly named Jawbreaker Reunion's first album of "slumber party punk" would win in a landslide. For example a. skip to "Tearing Down Posters," the third and best track from Lutheran Sisterhood Gun Club (a title I never get tired of typing). Sure it starts with Lily Mastrodimos somberly admitting obsession: "my name never wants to leave your mouth, I think that it just doesn't want to come out," but it explodes into something far too catchy to realistically be called "emo." Andrea Maszak's drums bounce. Bella Mazzetti and Mastrodimos carve enough riffs off of the bone to feed 20 people. Thom Delaney plays his bass like he's trying out for the Beach Boys. It'll drive you "crazy," like Mastrodimos is as she struggles to win someone over. "
I don't wanna sit around and mope," she projects. Mission accomplished.

38. "Try Me"- DeJ Loaf (single)

Rap thug types hear DeJ Loaf's breakout single "Try Me" and quietly sigh to themselves. Hip hop knuckleheads press play and raise the white flag before the last waves of crystalline synth fall off a cliff. They give up because they've spent years trading in stock threats and seen no dividends. Loaf? Well she raps "let a n**** try me, Imma get his whole mothaf***in' family," and becomes the biggest thing in Detroit rap.

It's all in the delivery. Loaf promising to "turn a b**** to some macaroni" with a Mac or 40 is funny enough, capable of eliciting brief smirk. Done in that chirrupy, Auto-tuned voice though it's a kneeslapper that knocks harder than DDS' bass. And when Loaf circles around to how this kind of mindless violence has claimed lives close to her, "I been out my mind since they killed my cousin," her voice doesn't change. She can't afford for it to. No matter how much it hurts, you don't change course when you're staking your reputation on something.

37. "Queen"- Perfume Genius (Too Bright)

Perfume Genius' Michael Hadreas is on the record as saying his breakthrough experimental pop track "Queen" is "inspired by gay panic" and once you know that it's hard to hear the song in any other way. "No family is safe when I sashay" he unreservedly declares in the chorus of echoing drums and rippling electric guitar, voice supported by gruff "ooohs" on either side. If he's going to be seen as some sort of "gay villain," then he's going to take it to the extreme. He's going to proclaim himself royalty. 

Of course there's more to the story, every "villain" has a story to tell and Hadreas is no different. He may be defiantly sashaying, but he's doing it with skin "cracked, peeling, riddled with disease." In the 1980s the panic wasn't necessarily a concern that LGBTQ-individuals would convert unsuspecting straight Americans, but that they would pass on their Gay-related immune deficiency (GRID). With "Queen"'s jagged orchestral arrangement Hadreas taps into that all-important time for LGBTQ rights, when it wasn't just a struggle for equality it was a struggle to survive. Then as now, the majority had nothing to be afraid of. Those in the minority were the ones living in fear. Earlier in his life that may very well have been Hadreas, but it isn't any more. Now he's the one standing in the spotlight helping others step out of the darkness.

36. "No More"- Jeremih & Shlohmo (No More)


Seeing that Jeremih is still hanging around and making relevant music, I can't help but pull a Tom Haverford and ask myself: Jeremih? Jeremih? ...Jeremih? The dude that wanted to "riiiide out" on "Birthday Sex" six years ago? Yes, the very same. But where that Jeremih was making relatively tame loverman R&B, the Jeremih of 2014 is a much bigger risk-taker. "No More," with Shlohmo's punishing synthesizer swipes doesn't happen in the late-2000s. That was a time for schmaltzy pickups. Since the advent of the Weeknd in 2011, we're in the era of emotional detachment. Riding out's been replaced by "I won't let it out." "Feenin'" still exists though it's much more dire. Sweet melodies have turned sour; Auto-tuned voices sound writhe on the floor. There's urgency to everything.
"I don't wanna wait," Jeremih repeatedly cries. Don't be astounded if he's back on the Billboard charts in 2015. He refuses to settle and that's his biggest asset.

35. "Jackson"- Cymbals Eat Guitars (LOSE)

Only now do all past comparisons of Cymbals Eat Guitars to Built to Spill or Modest Mouse seem so silly. With "Jackson," the lead track to junior release LOSE, they cross over the New York state-line into Jersey, home state of emo heroes the Wrens. "Jackson" is a tad showier than anything the Meadowlands band would produce, blazing solos and punishing drums, but it has the same soaring quality that made a track like "Happy" so compelling. 

Initial bits of keyboard ebb into a wall of guitar noise that recedes and lets singer Joseph D'Agostino come up for air. "We're riding, through Jackson pines, towards Six Flags to wait in lines, and have our spines shook," D'Agostino half growls/half stutters. That line in particular is far more literal than anything BTS or Modest Mouse would attempt, intended to pay tribute to former collaborator Ben High who died in 2011. Instead of giving some cryptic eulogy, D'Agostino dials into the "mundane," because that's where some of our greatest memories lie. You pay tribute to someone by recalling them at their most human. And rocking out in every way imaginable.

34. "Fancy" ft. Charli XCX- Iggy Azalea (The New Classic)

Forget the pitiful freestyling.
Throw out the Eminem controversy. If it's possible ignore the entire Iggy/Azealia Banks feud, which had people chiming in that just didn't need to. And by that I mean: Q-Tip. As a member of A Tribe Called Quest Tip contributed to the heinously homophobic "Georgie Porgie," so it's the height of hypocrisy when he lectures someone else on how hip hop has always been a voice for the voiceless.

All of this comes up with Iggy Azalea's DJ Mustard jacking "Fancy" because cultural appropriation is always going to be an issue when white people perform hip hop. It was when the Beastie Boys started. Slim Shady was Elvis in the worst way possible when he kicked in doors with "My Name Is." Macklemore has to field similar questions. Tip was right when he intimated that hip hop, particularly the conscious kind, is a means to fight back against the oppressive majority. Which is why it's problematic when Slim or Macklemore or Iggy raps, they'll never be a part of the oppressed. 

One failing though of Tip's Twitter diatribe, besides the aforementioned hypocrisy, is that he doesn't mention that the track that broke hip hop, "Rapper's Delight," was a party song. When he wasn't watching Knick games on a color TV, Big Bank Hank was driving slow in a sunroof Cadillac. He and the rest of the Sugarhill Gang was F-L-Y and so it is with Iggy Azalea's "Fancy." She's going to rock high heels and guzzle cups of "Grey Goose" while the bass snaps like a rubber band. She and Charli XCX, who crafts one of the year's most indestructible pop hooks, are going to trash hotels and they'll look good doing it. Iggy was asking people to "drop it" from verse one, so leave all your baggage at the door. It'll still be there when the song ends.

33. "Holding on for Life"- Broken Bells (After the Disco)

As Broken Bells the Shins' James Mercer and Danger Mouse fail disco. Disco's supposed to be about an emotional release, not conveying the kind of existential dread that "Holding on for Life" is comprised of. The extraterrestrial Theremin creeping into the song is one kind of eerie, hearing Mercer struggle to understand what's going on around him is quite another. His confusion is only amplified when an acoustic guitar shuffles as he burns cigarettes in the bone-numbing cold. Nothing in "Holding on for Life" makes sense. Neither the Beegees voice Mercer adapts in the chorus, nor the keys that float in midair and heighten the suspense. The
hairs on the back of your neck will stand up when you hearing them and your feet will stop tapping. When Broken Bells fail disco they do it in the best way possible.

32. "Who Do You Love?" ft. Drake- YG (My Krazy Life)

When's the last time we got full-blown a-hole Drake? The Drake that's hanging out with strippers, making people kiss his pinky ring and reminding everyone that'll listen how he's running the game. That's the one that's the most fascinating of all of Drizzy's personalities, if only because the manufactured toxicity is such a far cry from reality. 
We get his unadulterated a-holishness with YG collabo "Who Do You Love?" and we're better for it. YG and DJ Mustard tag-team the lead for the My Krazy Life track, YG icily warning folks to "sprint like athletes" when he pulls out his fat heat and Mustard supplying one of his springiest, most burbling tracks. The way YG's grizzled raps blend with Mustard's mint condition keys is a thing of beauty. As incredible as their alchemy is it's a well-placed single compared to the home-run Drake hits. It's not enough to say he's enjoying some fine-dining; Drake's going to tell you he's "eating crab out in Malibu at Nobu." He's flying across the country to film music videos. When he needs to pay someone off, he'll do it. Drake was overly indulgent in 2014 and "Who Do Love?" was the start of the spending spree.

31. "Have a Party"- MBE (DJ Moondawg's: We Invented the Bop 2)

Enjoy the bop while you can. The Chicago-born scene that borrows from drill, juke, footwork and 808s and Heartbreak rap is unsustainable. The drum machines clap way too fast. Keyboards and synthesizers are sweet enough to cause audible diabetes. Auto-tune is slathered on so thick that performers sound like they're suffocating. Bop is meant for the here and now. 
Bop is crafted to soundtrack the kind of party MBE have and then bail when cleanup time comes. Zoning off of molly dosed drum programming; the Southsiders throw money up and stomp around the dancefloor. The keyboard is clearly drunk and so are they as their Auto-tuned crooning stumbles all over the beat. A great party is one that can't be duplicated. So it is with MBE's introductory track. 

(Look for Part 3 to pop up right above this one. And if you love the songs included, say so in the comments. If you hate them and have nothing but righteous indignation for the countdown, express that to.)

Top 50 Songs of 2014 (50-41)

Trying to chart any one trend from a year's worth of songs can drive you crazy and 2014 was no different. There was the hushed, autobiographical folk of Sun Kil Moon; Nicki Minaj's rap domination and whatever the hell you want to file away FKA Twigs' work from LP1 as. And that doesn't even scratch the surface of the Britpop brilliance, Apocalyptic post-rock and emo love that 2014 treated us to. What I'm saying then is that no one list, no matter how massive, could do the year justice. This list tries by factoring in: commercial success, critical reception, replayability and listener resonance. Hopefully it succeeds.

50. "Picture Me Gone"- Ariel Pink (pom pom)

Ariel Marcus Rosenberg, better known to us as Ariel Pink, specializes in subterfuge. For all of the pop mastery he displays on a song like "Round and Round," he hides with ridiculous titles like "Butthouse Blondies" or "Plastic Raincoats in the Pig Parade" from this year's pom pom. In interviews he can't wait to touch on the taboo: suicide, misogyny, BDSM and genocide. There's nothing that's off topic for indie music's John Waters and that's lead to more than a few skirmishes

That said, no amount of self-destruction can paper over something like "Picture Me Gone," pom pom's standout track. Sure Pink tries. He reconfigures a past of flipping through a family photo album into a future of swiping left on an iCloud, but how he's relating to his fictional child is oddly poignant. "Let's make a toast to glory days, when you were 8 and I was only 41," he warbles as woozy background music pushes to the forefront. Pink's parent is the last one of a dying breed, the last to put the smartphone down. It's a crystal clear vision, one that's untainted by the electronic age.

49. "Blank Space"- Taylor Swift (1989)

If T-Swift made one mistake with the otherwise unimpeachable 1989 it was rolling out "Shake It Off" as the first single instead of lead track "Blank Space." One is a cloying piece of forgettable pop with a culture-appropriating video; the other is blissfully ascendant, bubblegum boom-bap that gently skewers critics of her journalistic approach to romance writing. If I have to tell you which is which, you've heard neither.

"Blank Space" isn't a success though just for its smart blend of the strong and sugary, it's a home-run because it flips through Swift's Rolodex of themes without calling on one for too long. "Magic, madness, heaven, sin," jealous lovers and tortured romantics, they all shuffle around in the ample room "Blank Space"'s cavernous booms provide. Swift will always have her detractors and won't ever be all things to all people, but she comes close on "Blank Space."

48. "I'm Coming Home"- Lil Boosie (Life After Deathrow)

By any measure, 2014 was a victory year for the Baton Rouge-bred Lil Boosie. He sprang from Louisiana State Penitentiary in March after serving five years for drug and gun charges and then went on a year-long tear, popping up on everything from 2 Chainz tracks to Rick Ross cuts. Boosie made his name on euphoric, springy songs like "Zoom" and damn if he wasn't going to celebrate now that he had his life back.

Oddly Boosie's greatest win in 2014, the November mixtape Life After Deathrow, is an intensely dark piece of minimalist country rap and "I'm Coming Home" is its pitch-black center. Boosie Bad Azz's squawk is swapped out for a weary mumble in the chorus. Cheery little keys have been strangled by menacing synth lines. What should be celebratory turns accusatory when Boosie recalls: "3 or 4 b****es, (What they did?) they told me lies I told them I was coming home, they rolled their eyes." No ever really leaves prison and "I'm Coming Home" makes that painfully clear.

47. "Say You Love Me"- Jessie Ware (Tough Love)


2014 was another terrific year for emotionally mature R&B which is both a blessing and curse. Of course that means we get Tinashe or FKA Twigs, but we also lose sight of someone like London's Jessie Ware, whose slow-burning "Say You Love Me" is one of the unquestionable successes in a crowded R&B year. 

Few things can be more frustrating in a relationship than realizing there's an unequal distribution of effort. That one person just doesn't seem to be trying. On "Say You Love Me" Ware rides that frustration to incredible heights, nearly screaming: "want to feel burning flames when you say my name" over a metronomic drum beat and rippling guitar. Sometimes actions just don't speak loud enough; you need to verbalize what you feel. "Say You Love Me" is that clarification shouted from a mountaintop. 

46. "Man of the Year"- ScHoolboy Q (Oxymoron)

"Shake it for the man of the year." Shake it for one of the coolest dudes to ever rock a bucket hat. Shake it for the unflappable confidence that oozes out of this former Hoover Street Crip's voice. Shake it for those expertly placed drum machine strikes and hi-hat skitters. Shake it for that Chromatics sample, so good it's hard to believe that no rapper beat Q to the punch on using it. Shake it to sweat the drugs and alcohol out of your system. Shake it to forget the bills piling up on your busted coffee table. Shake it any way you please. There's no wrong way. "Man of the Year" is all-inclusive.

45. "New York Kiss"- Spoon (They Want My Soul)

When I reviewed
Spoon's constantly blooming eighth album, They Want My Soul, in August I wrote that closer "New York Kiss" is "
the final memory, its Jim Carrey walking around the decayed beach house with Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." To the raspy-voiced Britt Daniel it's "another place to place your memory on," a locale encircled by rattling xylophone and synthesizer washes where you first made contact. 

"New York Kiss" is the sort of time-specific memory that never disappears; it can't be beaten out by heavyweight drums or deflated mantras ("there ain't a thing I miss"). Arguably the worst thing about a break-up is that you lose a person to share with. You now have to keep all of the intimate moments to yourself. Eventually they'll be nothing left but a blurring "neon sign," a "New York Kiss" that stands outside of any person or place.

44. "I Love You All"- The Soronprfbs (Frank soundtrack)

The music-dramedy Frank isn't an easy film to sit through. Michael Fassbender plays the enigmatic leader of an experimental outfit and what begins as a commanding performance turns to a sympathetic portrayal of someone whose mind has betrayed them.
The idea that only suffering can bring "true art" slips away when the audience sees Fassbender as Frank, sans mask, struggling to put words together in his parents' home. Mental health disorders aren't artistic fountains or credibility boosters, they're cruel impediments.

Which is what makes the film's final song, "I Love You All," so remarkable. In one shining moment, Frank bests his disease. "Cowpoke sequined mountain ladies...fiddly digits, itchy britches," it's all nonsense, made crazier by the Theremin that's wailing off in the corner of a dusty old bar. But Frank sounds so sure of himself you're forced to hum along. "I love you all" he informs us; his voice stretching further out to the corners each time. We should love him for making something so endearing.

43. "Interference Fits"- Perfect Pussy (Say Yes to Love

BeyoncĂ© and the aforementioned Taylor Swift received gobs of credit for boldly pronouncing themselves feminists in 2014, moves that deserve praise using any parameter, but neither felt innately risky or political. The kind of experiments you attempt can only push so far when you're two of the biggest pop stars in the world. Which is why in Queen Bey's glitchy earworm "Flawless" you hear a TedTalk from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and not Valerie Solanas reading from the Scum Manifesto 

On Perfect Pussy's flawless debut Say Yes to Love Meredith Graves, the lead-singer of the Syracuse dream-punk quintet, captures the spirit of an entire movement without once uttering the word "feminist." She crashes through the topics of work, religion and marriage like a battering ram. With "Interference Fits," the album's blistering focal point, Graves essentially douses a white lace dress in lighter fluid and sets it ablaze. "I never wanted any children, just a nice apartment with open air," she yawps under waves of distorted guitars and churning bass. Marriage is an institution and institutions inevitably fall apart or become corrupt. It breaks you down, takes your money and forces you to compensate as Graves puts it. Great as they are, BeyoncĂ© and Swift won't ever have to settle; making them intensely unrelatable to most girls and young women out there looking for an idol. Like Sleater-Kinney before them, Perfect Pussy is a "female group" that succeeds because they know they don't always have to preach. Sometimes it’s enough just to mosh.

42. "Webbie Flow (U Like)"- Isaiah Rashad (Cilvia Demo)

The most nakedly honest moment for hip hop in 2014 remarkably has nothing to do with Drake. It's delivered by Chattanooga, Tennessee's Isaiah Rashad, a 23-year-old son of the South who now counts ScHoolboy Q and Kendrick Lamar as labelmates on TDE. It's a simple line and one that goes against the shtick of Southern rapper Webbie, who Rashad pays tribute to in the title. "And I'm gon' testify girl and I'm gonna touch your thighs girl" Rashad shyly croons in the song's hook. In the verses Rashad hides behind turning up, chugging Bombay and twinkling Fender Rhodes. With that first half of the hook he's alone in a bedroom, hands shaking as he talks to the woman he wants to do right by. Rashad's not the dude who strutted to "So Fresh and So Clean," he's the thoughtful guy who put "Ms. Jackson" on repeated and vowed to do better. If Rashad is standing on equal footing with OutKast somewhere down the road, know that work like this put him them.

41. "And I Am Nervous"- Shy Boys (Shy Boys)

Jitteriness isn't something that should be appealing. It's a feeling no one wants to have. Though when you listen to "And I Am Nervous," a slice of landlocked surf pop from Kansas City, MO's Shy Boys its hard not to ask: "could it be so bad?" Collin Rausch's voice is syrupy sweet, even when it's fraying. His brother Kyle's bassline is the kind of trotting thing that makes Peter Hook and Joy Division so hypnotic. Konnor Ervin mostly avoids drum fills, which only prolongs the feeling of being suspended in animation. The lyrics primarily consist of the song's uneasy title and serve to draw you. "What's he nervous about?" you wonder. By the time you figure it out, you're stuck in the dark with him.

(Look for Part 2 to pop up right above this one. And if you love the songs included, say so in the comments. If you hate them and have nothing but righteous indignation for the countdown, express that to.)