Wednesday, December 31, 2014

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.)

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