Sunday, January 4, 2015

Top 50 Songs of 2014 (20-11)

Round 3 of the "Top 50 Songs of 2014" ping-ponged from apocalyptic funk to skeletal piano rock and world conquering hip hop. Round 4 is no different in its far-flung nature, but before we get to it let's see where we've been 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!)
39. "Tearing Down Posters"- Jawbreaker Reunion (Lutheran Sisterhood Gun Club)
38. "Try Me"- DeJ Loaf (single)
37. "Queen"- Perfume Genius (Too Bright)
36. "No More"- Jeremih & Shlohmo (No More EP)
35. "Jackson"- Cymbals Eat Guitars (LOSE)
34. "Fancy" ft. Charli XCX- Iggy Azalea (The New Classic)
33. "Holding on for Life"- Broken Bells (After the Disco)
32. "Who Do You Love?" ft. Drake- YG (My Krazy Life)
31. "Have a Party"- MBE (DJ Moondawg's: We Invented the Bop 2)

30. "Call Across Rooms"- Grouper (Ruins)
29. "A Little God in My Hands"- Swans (To Be Kind)
28. "One Time For"- Rome Fortune (Prod. Four Tet) (Small VVorld)
27. "Magic"- Coldplay (Ghost Stories)
26. "Benz Friendz (Whatchutola)" ft. André 3000- Future (Honest)
25. "Silver Line"- Lykke Li (I Never Learn)
24. "Attachment"- Hannah Diamond (single)
23. "i"- Kendrick Lamar (single)
22. "Unf***theworld"- Angel Olsen (Burn Your Fire for No Witness)
21. "Digital Witness"- St. Vincent (St. Vincent)  

20. "Lookin Ass N****"- Nicki Minaj (Young Money: Rise of an Empire)


Call the fight now for anyone who keeps insisting Nicki Minaj can't actually rap, that "Monster" was a fluke. Put a towel over the lifeless corpses of all the "not havin' game ass n*****" that Minaj eviscerates during "Lookin Ass N****"'s slowly moving electro-storm. Once the faded drum machine sounds, anyone that's said a mumbling word about Nicki going to be buried in that barren wasteland. There's nothing you can do to stop the onslaught. 2 Chainz isn't coming in as comic relief. BeyoncĂ© can't be bothered. No amount of crooning from Drake can suture these wounds. Forget "Mixtape Nicki," this is Minaj out for blood and no one is safe.  

19. "Kitchen Song"- Oscar (single)

One of the biggest takeaways from a conversation I had with the mononymous British pop artist Oscar was that the self-described "musical schizophrenic" was "quite late with guitar music."
His earliest songs were cheesy teenage pop ballads that reflected a steady diet of Alicia Keys.
Until he hit 17, it was mostly R&B, hip hop, and whatever he could swipe from his sister or listen to on the mixes his mom gave him for school. The hushed guitar intimacy of shoegaze was light years from his mind.

Which is amazing then when you hear how carefully structured "Kitchen Song" is as a piece of guitar-driven music. The sweet din of a guitar kicks off the track and continues throughout the song's scant 2:29 runtime. When it needs to, it fades into the background to clear space for noisier chords and thumping drums, but it never stops humming.

In that interview
Oscar mentioned his mom showed him some Buddy Holly on guitar, something that makes total sense. Holly could rock with the best of them, but was more at home singing tender love songs. So it is with Oscar. Guitar is ever present in "Kitchen Song," but so is nervous "love," the kind you have after forming an instant connection with someone at a party. "I know I will find you maybe now or one day soon," Oscar insists in the chorus. Come to think of it, those "cheesy pop songs" haven't disappeared either. They've grown up.

18. "Can't Do Without You"- Caribou (Our Love)

For all intents and purposes there's nothing to the desperate, muted-disco of Caribou's "Can't Do Without You." A chopped up, not slopped up, sample of Marvin Gaye's "Ain't That Peculiar" plays ad infinitum. Caribou's Dan Snaith completes Gaye's cries of "I can't do with," in an echoing falsetto. Drum machines clap from both sides. A synthesizer sounds like its slowly being liquefied. Eventually the song mutates into a muscular psych-groove. Snaith admits "
You’re the only thing I think about/ It’s all that I can still do," as the song surges one final time and that's it; noting more to be seen.

"Can't Do Without You" is greater than the sum of its "meager" parts though. Snaith finishing Gaye's lines is heart-wrenching, a tacit admission that the loneliness Gaye could describe on record wasn't contained to him. Those dancefloor deluges of sound bring welcome relief. Snaith's final admission is something that makes me softly exhale and wish for the best. Listing off all of this song's ingredients is easy, explaining why it's so impactful isn't.

17. "0 to 100/The Catch Up"- Drake (single)

Hip hop villainy will have been rewarded if
Drake wins a Grammy in February for the bifurcated "0 to 100/The Catch Up." I'm not even considering his chest-puffing in the song's rumbling first half, which elevates douchebaggery to an art form when he mentions "I'm on some Raptors pay my bills s***." Forget that. I'm talking about the fact that he dusted his hands off and uploaded "0 to 100" to Soundcloud free of charge. Burgeoning rappers everywhere would kill to make a song like "0 to 100," and if they did you can bet they wouldn't release it with no strings attached. It'd be their livelihood, to Drizzy Drake it's another song to toss off. He's the cinematic bad-guy who would off someone out of boredom. 

Continuing the villain analogy, everyone has an origin story and so it is with Drake. In his case, he's a kid from Toronto who spent countless nights in the studio, worrying he was overworking his producer friend with multiple sclerosis. He's a son with a father who would float in and out of his childhood, forced to grow up when his dad didn't show.

With that painful memory, the song goes from 100 to a dead halt. Crisp drum strikes dial down to quiet sizzles and jittery guitars come unplugged. In their place comes the "The Catch Up," a slice of ethereal dream-rap which sees Drake shifting in his chair at the idea of "unconditional love." When he parses the idea out, it sounds alien to him; not surprising for someone who spends a majority of their time separated from the world at large. Considering "0 to 100/The Catch Up" and "knowing" Drake, it's impossible to pin him as hero or villain. He's forever floating in the muddy middle

16. "Words I Don't Remember"- How to Dress Well (What Is This Heart?)

Testimonial time: How to Dress Well's R&B abstraction "Words I Don't Remember" means more to me than any other song in 2014. Without getting too personal, Tom Krell's shivering line
"So what is trust but knowing when to let you have your silence?" is something I had to repeatedly ask myself in 2014. Any time I asked myself that question or heard Krell posing it over that sproingy synthesizer; I struggled to find an answer. Truth be told I still do, because there's no easy answer. No harmonious balance exists between giving someone their space and smothering them. It's a line you learn how to toe over time, with constant communication. Finding the right answer becomes more difficult when those connecting lines fray. Krell's resolves "I won't tell you how to live out your life" before everything crests into a soulful cacophony. It's unclear though if he can keep his promise. "Words I Don't Remember" doesn't answer tough questions, it only poses them. 

15. "Talking Backwards"- Real Estate (Atlas)

The painfully shy and communication challenged in 2014 had something resembling an anthem
with Real Estate's chiming pop cut "Talking Backwards." The first single from the more mature Atlas, "Talking Backwards" finds Martin Courtney struggling to make sense while chatting with a long-distance girlfriend. For Courtney a walk home verges on the terrifying because it forces him to make small talk. Like his and Matt Mondanile's guitars, every memory is crystal clear; his dumb mouth is just obscuring them. Then with wonderfully sad irony, he manages to get one lyric out with no stammer: "the only thing that really matters is the one thing I can't seem to do." Identifying with that line isn't necessary to enjoy the band's melancholy-tinged approach, but it does help.

14. "Close Your Eyes (And Count to F***)" ft. Zack de la Rocha- Run the Jewels (Run the Jewels 2)


Find me bars in hip hop from 2014 that better summed up a tragic year than: "where the f*** the warden? When you find him, we don't kill him, we just waterboard him. We killin' them for freedom cause they tortured us for boredom, and even if some good ones die f*** it the Lord'll sort 'em." No matter how hard you look, those bars don't exist. What Killer Mike snarls in a dystopian hellscape perfectly paints the picture of a year that saw the nation take a tragic step backwards in race relations.  

In at least four separate cities, African American deaths caused by police officers had more people than ever wondering if law enforcement could appropriately protect the rights of minorities. Some endlessly debated this on television; others took to the streets to exercise their civil rights. In one chillingly tragic case, a desperate man with depression (and possible "political motivations") killed two officers on the same New York City streets that Eric Garner died. What had been bubbling up for years boiled over into abject violence.

It would be easy to say "f*** it" with everything that happened, that's not what Killer Mike, El-P and a reinvigorated Zack de la Rocha do. They dare to challenge the entire court system and question how the church is helping solve any of this. De la Rocha traces a line from urban decay to corporate greed, "the only thing closing faster than the coffins be the factories." With the anvil percussion and staticky programming it sounds deeply cynical, it's not. Mike's impassioned speech to RTJ fans in St. Louis the day of the Michael Brown decision confirms as much. What you're hearing are three men who care. Human beings that want all of this to "stop today."

13. "Water Fountain"- tUnE-yArDs (Nikki Nack)

Gather Busta Rhymes, Pee-wee Herman and "Iko Iko" artists the Dixie Cups together. Trade in those hard-earned pennies and bloodstained bills for a warm cherry pie and a two-pound chicken. Go through your Rolodex and call up everyone you know for a rally. Perfect your handclaps and learn how to clang away on the drums. Soak in the warm rays of bass guitar. Strut your stuff even if there's "no side on the sidewalk, no water in the water fountain." Belt along with Merrill Garbus' incomparable voice. Whatever you do be ready to celebrate. tUnE-yArDs are throwing the world's biggest party and everyone from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe is invited.

12. "Eyes to the Wind"- The War on Drugs (Lost in the Dream)


Unless they're the true originator of a genre
some artists are never going to escape the comparison game, their peer will always be out there as a point of reference. So it is with Philly shoegaze/psych-pop outfit the War on Drugs. As long as Adam Granduciel and company keep making music, names like: Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Big Star, My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth. In fact, I think any writer that hears Granduciel's nasally whine is contractually obligated to namecheck Petty. 
The War on Drugs won't ever escape comparisons to their influences and that doesn't matter. What matters is how they amalgamate what they've heard into something original and in that respect, "Eyes to the Wind" and the entire Lost in the Dream album was one of 2014's most unique efforts. Saxophone's nothing new to this style of music, its almost expected that a sax will roar awake from the song's suspended animation. It doesn't though. It quietly bleats away in the background, buried under mountains of fragmented piano, drifting synthesizer, swirling Wurlitzer and post-rock guitar angling. Like Granduciel singing about his depression in the musical haze, it is one element among many that's "living in darkness," sounding "a bit run down here at the moment." While Granduciel spends much of Lost in the Dream struggling to find himself, his band has clearly found its sound. 

11. "Aisatsana"- Aphex Twin (Syro)

Is there a more important popular music figure that we know less about than Richard D. James, the trickster genius behind Aphex Twin? In the 90s when his ambient albums and self-titled IDM masterpiece were changing the way people perceived electronic music, a new rumor about him seemed to spring up daily. Bits of his first album, the landmark Selected Ambient Works 85-92, were recorded when he was 14 years young. He was writing sound programs for computers at age 11. The "Twin" in the moniker references a stillborn older brother.He drove around a tank and lived in a bank. He'd play you're wedding if you were in London. There was an industry for Aphex myths and more than enough suckers to support it.

In the 13 years since the last Aphex album, not much seems to have changed and Syro closer "Aisatsana" offers the ultimate proof of James' enduring enigma. Initial reviews of the comeback record bought into the idea that the tribute to his wife Anastasia was a sparse piece recorded "on a creaky upright with birds chirping away in the background." And why not? When you listen to the track that's exactly what it sounds like, a restless innovator calming himself and crafting a serene number. You picture James pressing record and then getting lost in the sustained piano chords.

That couldn't be further from the truth though. For all of its domestic beauty, "Aisatsana" was made at the Barbican in London in 2012 where music was "produced from a suspended, swinging piano." Those lovely bird songs were added in later to create the natural effect. Which shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who's kept tabs on Richard D. James. Even when he's at his most relaxed, he's working harder than everyone else.

(To finally close out 2014 look for the conclusion of the "Top 50 Songs of 2014" to pop up right above this one tomorrow. 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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