Before I issue the final songs on my Top 100 Songs of 2014 list, I’m going to share what are probably my two favourite photos/pictures of 2014.
The first is: of opposition, incendiary, provocative, a stand against the man, and completely, wholly necessary.
The second is: of possibilities, a fusion, of nature and art, of nurture to start. It’s breaths of colour. It’s the exhalation of imagination. It is air.
The music, the words, the feels:
10. Future Islands – Song For Our Grandfathers/Seasons (Waiting On You)/Spirit/Back In The Tall Grass
A couple publications ranked “Seasons (Waiting On You)” as their song of the year. This made me beam.
I don’t think I’ve ever rooted for a band like I’ve rooted for Future Islands. I told whomever I could about this utterly compelling 3-piece, that the way they perform and create music is unlike any other band on the planet. They’re the type of artists who deserve all the accolades, plaudits, and successes that come to them. It’s no secret they’ve worked their asses off to get where they are now.
Which is where? In a pretty good spot, I’d say. A lot more people know about them now than did last year, and that’s an amazing achievement, accomplished in large part due to their jaw-dropping, balls-to-the-wall performance of “Seasons” on Letterman, a performance that was so engaging, it at once had Dave shook, in awe and tatters. “I’ll take all of that you got.” Dave was so smitten he couldn’t even speak properly. (I’ve chosen to include this live performance in lieu of the record version because, well, obviously.)
They also took a leap because of the strength of “Seasons”, the song.
But for as much as I love “Seasons” — it’s an awesome addition to their catalogue, compelling in myriad ways — it wasn’t the hands-down best song on the record like many seem to think it is. There are three other songs from Singles that I think should have a light shone on them just as much. Those tunes are: “Song For Our Grandfathers”, “Spirit”, and “Back In The Tall Grass”.
“Song For Our Grandfathers” is the beating heart of the entire record. It’s quite possibly the most touching song Future Islands have ever done. It’s a brave reflection on growing up, pursuing passions, remembering the importance of family and friends. The sound of crickets that opens the song serves as a notice that this is home. This is the porch. We talk, think, laugh. We’re hopeful. We’re thankful.
“Spirit” is the ghost that teases, prances, and dances with the listener. Williams Cashion’s bass is a fucking marvel here. It also has my favourite lyric on the record, “Don’t cast away, don’t cast away, don’t let them cast a role for you.” Though it’s the second track on Singles (“Seasons” opens), I feel like “Spirit” is the statement of intent. It tells you you’re going to dance, sweat, and sing something new. “Spirit” guides. What an adventure.
“Back In The Tall Grass” is comfort: of the record, of home. It’s country bliss, an ode to the worthwhile things that we miss. William Cashion’s bass is the teflon-strong support. When Gerrit Welmers’ synths’ join the fray, it deliciously accentuates the play. This is one of the best dance-inspiring tracks the boys have done.
“Cause we’re a long way from home,” Sam says. “How did we get here?”
I know exactly how. With these four songs, Sam, Gerrit, and William have given us the map.
9. GRL – Ugly Heart
The song that grew and grew. I played it so much I thought it could be the best pop song of the year. It very well could be. It could also be as good as the triumvirate that follows, but as it stands, I think it’s a pretty big thing for a song to crack my top 10, so I won’t pick nits.
The innumerable hooks and magnificent melody kept me coming back, found me liking the song more and more every time. And fair or not, I gave this song more time after group member Simone Battle committed suicide. Perhaps I saw the song and the group in a different light. However it came to be, there’s no denying what it is: an undeniable earworm, a gorgeous pop song.
8. Taylor Swift – Shake It Off/Lorde – Yellow Flicker Beat/Tove Lo – Habits (Stay High)
I think these are the three best (pure) pop songs of the year. In a year where pop was a truly dominant force, this triptych of brobdingnagian tunes rose above the rest. And though I could’ve given each song its own place on the list, I don’t think I can say which one I like best, so the prudent thing to do is introduce them as bff’s and hope they’re okay with the commitment.
I’ve already mentioned that Taylor Swift’s had an incredible run of hits over the past few years. “Shake It Off” is the best of them I do believe. It’s the most ubiquitous anyway, and that’s saying a lot. I like the other two songs I’ve linked with this one just as much, but if the earth were invaded by an alien race of blood-sucking, destruction-seeking pop ditties, this is the song that’d be asked to defend our planet. And I think it’d help us stand a really good chance of winning.
Lorde’s “Yellow Flicker Beat” was a grower. When that beat drops, I lose so much shit I crop all my tops. It’s not ideal during the winter, but really, the frostbite-inducing affair is out of my control. There’s a call-and-answer synth base here that I absolutely adore (kudos producer Joel Little, you sir are one crafty Kiwi). Another reason I think this song is dope as fuck? If you cut Lorde’s vocals and only the track remains, it reveals a big-brass-balls hip-hop banger.
Oh Sweden. I think I’ve said that at least 63 times in 2014, but it bears repeating, as for my money, Tove Lo’s “Habits” is Sweden’s best musical export of 2014. It’s been overplayed, yes, but I haven’t gotten tired of it. It’s probably the chorus. That immense, addictive, Swedish berry of a chorus. Wooh-ooh-oo-oooh, wooh-ooh-oo-oooh. Forever, to infinity and beyond.
7. Jessie Ware – Tough Love
“Tough Love” is a sensational song. But it’s so much more…
It’s sexy, lovely, deliriously challenging and effortlessly divine.
It’s a disorienting discourse where feelings mingle with action, seduction flirts with regret, anticipation skirts what’s left.
It’s the recognition of what love means and what love has done. The moment when that brutal, punishing truth socks you right in the mouth. Pow. It grips your heart, forcing your ventricles back to back. Fear. Shock. They don’t know what’s gripping them. So tight. Breathing becomes an impossibility. No air. Survival is the only focus. But how?
That’s called tough love.
Bonus: Sam Smith – Nirvana
“Nirvana” was released in 2013, but I didn’t really hear it until 2014. If it was from ’14, this is the area I’d place it in. It’s a mesmeric piece of magic. I think Sam Smith will have a long, distinguished, and possibly legendary career. And I don’t think he’ll ever have a better song than this one.
6. Manchester Orchestra – Trees (Cope)/See It Again (Hope)
“Trees” (from the first record they released in 2014, Cope) is the rock song of the year. I said it when I listed it as my song of the month for May, and I say it again because it’s proven an inescapable truth.
It’s that riff. That fucking wall and plaster and stone and foundation shattering riff. That attention to melody and rock out to the point of felony. Those insurmountable mountains of hooks. Those shadow stealing nooks. And that unexpected, boulder-thrashing part of the chorus at 1:15, ensuring victory for this head-rattling, inertia-repelling champion.
“See It Again” (from the second record they released in 2014, Hope) is a Gregorian chant. Yet it’s a modern, acoustic masterpiece at the same time. It’s those incomparable, inimitable harmonies. It’s unlike anything else on the brilliant re-imagination, Hope. It’s unlike anything else I’ve heard in music.
And it’s Andy Hull’s soul-piercing words. It’s this:
“When you got out of your car, you stopped yourself and thought about, how unreliable my God had turned out. You found a reason while you forced the lock and key, like a reset in your mind, a different human being. And you’re never gonna see it again, no you’re never gonna see it again…
There were drawings on your wall of places nobody could see. And the congregation heard that you had been anointed. Not knowing a single thing, we gathered here to see, are you actually the son of God? Our overdue relief? Are we ever gonna see him again? Are we ever gonna see…
That all the money didn’t matter, man the money’s always plagued. With cautious indecision trying to choose a life to trace. It’s faith that has the price tag, from your face down to your soul. Its cost is in the time you spend just wondering where you’ll go. Are we ever gonna see him again? Are we ever gonna see…”
5. Broods – Bridges/Mother and Father
There are a shit tonne of bands trying to make a mark doing celestial, exquisite synth-pop. Some do a piss poor job of it. Some do a good job of it. And then some make the most ethereal, most sublime synth-pop in the world. Actually, there’s just one band who did that in 2014. They’re called Broods.
Why is “Bridges” special? The chorus. A chorus as beautiful as any other in 2014. And those synthesizers. Those pleading, desperate, coalescing synthesizers. It’s Georgia Nott’s lilting, immaculate, angelic vocals. It’s Caleb Nott’s sky-shaking track. It’s buoyed by bass. It’s the steady, throbbing, pace. All of it, grace.
Why is “Mother and Father” special? The tone. Those lyrics. And those kissing, purring synthesizers. Musically, what I think sets Broods apart from their contemporaries is how their alluring, vivid, siren-like vocals and melodies are juxtaposed with heavy, pounding drums. It’s a neat trick, and one that producer Joel Little (Kiwis taking over!) uses to wonderfully hypnotizing effect. And have I mentioned Georgia Nott’s radiant voice? Yes, I think I have. But it needs to be reiterated. Perhaps then it’ll agree to be the guardian of my musical galaxy. When I revisit this list down the road, #5 might not be high enough for this gorgeous work of art.
“Mother and Father” is an ode to the familial, an appeal to the familiar, a hope to never forget what’s important in this life. A simple message. A resplendent, resounding success.
4. Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues
It’s the preposterously catchy music. The beck-and-call swagger where the bass and drums skip-to-my-lou, dosey doe with the hook-infested guitars. The rhythm section of the song really is a no-sweat triumph.
It’s Laura Jane’s awesome, powerhouse vocal. Her scintillating, sing-yell jabs are a boxer’s delight, a punk prophecy, a listener’s dream.
And those lyrics. Those brilliant, searing, propulsive, love-demanding, heart-on-your-sleeve, storytelling lyrics:
Your tells are so obvious
Shoulders too broad for a girl
Keeps you reminded
Helps you to remember where
You come from
You want them to notice
The ragged ends of your summer dress
You want them to see you
Like they see every other girl
They just see a faggot
They hold their breath not to catch the sick
Rough surf on the coast,
Wish I could have spent the
Whole day alone with you
You’ve got no cunt in your strut
You’ve got no hips to shake
And you know it’s obvious
But we can’t choose how we’re made…
— Laura Jane Grace
3. Maximo Park – Leave This Island
I played this song over and over again in 2014. It might not do to others what it did to me. What it still does to me. What does it do to me?
It exhilarates: my pulse, my feet, my love of music.
It exacerbates: my eyes, my longing, my trove of treasures.
It melts: ice, caverns carved of distance, my beating heart.
I adore the bubbling synthesizer base. Paul Smith’s reserved vocal. The beseeching background vocals.
The song is like a slow, assuring current taking water to where it’s needed most, the island. There is consistency, stability in the rising and receding tide. Water caresses the sand for a moment, and a whooshing, cushioning foam lingers a little longer to promise its return. Nature’s law dictates that water must leave this island. But it also decrees that it will be back.
2. alt-J – Bloodflood Pt. 2
I shed tears when I heard this song.
I could write many, many words describing what the song did to me, what it does to me. I could issue analogues aplenty. I could blah and blah and blah some more.
But I want to let this song speak for itself…
1. Manchester Orchestra – Trees (Hope)
“It’s okay to lose a limb, when they get too heavy.”
The lyric of the year for me. For several reasons, it speaks volumes to me. It soothes me. It checks me. It ignites a fire. And yet more…
“I used to feel some guilt,
now I just feel empty.
I wasn’t supposed to bend,
at least not this quickly.”
— Andy Hull. My fucking god, Andy Hull. I think he might have the most powerful voice in rock music. He’s offered it time and time again. He displayed the gale force dynamism of his talent on Cope. But more eerily, more tenderly, more beautifully, he showed it on Hope.
The music is stunning. I am transfixed by the first second of it until the last. It’s cautious but considered, breathed to life by Andy Hull’s voice, a chilling piano, a guarded, deliberate keyboard, and gloomy, lingering strings.
It’s the most mesmerizing song of the year. The most haunting. The truest.
Yet it demands I consider: what is truth?
Truth hurts. Truth is pain. Truth is revelatory. Truth “feels right.”
Is that it?
Is truth a spider web, where honesty is the spider silk and lies are the holes through which nature circumnavigates?
Is truth a vaccine, where morality is the needle and guilt is the medicine?
Is truth even useful when its definition is inherently arbitrary? It’s a concept willed from an elusive, transient inheritance. It’s a form of payment given automatically by many, many who never think to check how it affects their monthly balance. It’s a code. A flammable construction prone to explode. Haphazardly built, likely to implode.
Truth is all of these things.
A necessity, a part of something bigger.
A limb of a tree or of you or of me.
Is it okay to lose it if it gets too heavy?