20 Best Songs of 2014 (So Far)

Why not 14 songs again? Because 14 songs is never enough when you’re trying to capture the best music bringing sonic joy to the people! And that 20 sitting next to the 14 looked way to appetizing. Bear with me: Contained within this slightly longer list is more musical pleasure than you can probably handle in one sitting, let alone the first quarter of a year.

“Completely Not Me” Jenny Lewis

“We Belong” by RAC ft. Katie Herzig

“Hundreds of Ways” by Conor Oberst

“My Silver Lining” by First Aid Kit

“Truck Stop Gospel” by Parker Millsap

“Coffee” by Sylvan Esso

“Water Fountain” by tUnE-yArDs

“Before” by Wye Oak

“Take Me To Church” by Hozier

“Seasons (Waiting On You)” by Future Islands

“Iota” by Angel Olsen

“Your Love Is Killing Me” by Sharon Van Etten

“Philosophize In It! Chemicalize With It!” by Kishi Bashi

“Unconditional Love” by Against Me!

“Leave Your Lover” by Sam Smith

This is it: your last possible chance to jump on the Sam Smith bandwagon before saying “I’m a fan of Sam Smith” is the same as saying “I’m a fan of puppies” or “I’m a fan of cake.” Today, Sam Smith is still our little secret. Tomorroe he’ll be… Well have you heard of Adele? (Stop answering! There’s never been a more rhetorical question.)

“I’m Torn Up” by St. Paul and the Broken Bones

“I know that you love me/ And I can love you too/ You just gotta step on up, step on up/ You just got to pull it through/ I’m torn up/ You know that I’m torn up”

The phone rings. You pick it up. It’s your grandfather. He died when you were a kid, twenty some-odd years ago. “Grandpa,” you whimper, “how?”

That’s what it feels like to hear the primordial wail of Paul Janeway, the sort of banshee scream that comes out of nowhere – both in the context of this slow jam and in the context of MAN this is the whitest kid in town! That wail shatters the relative calm of this plea that seems like a docile pond, maybe a ripple here or there, until the tidal wave is unleashed. This song gets down on it’s knees and begs for a second chance. When it drops to it’s knees, you feel the thud.

Janeway appears to be a young master – of shouts and grunts, and also, as if he weren’t a lucky enough bastard already, of soft entreaties and of subtlety. His opening “Hello sweetheart,” is an opiate. Are there still Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in this world? Otis Reddings? Sam Cookes? If there are, would they merely be legacy acts? Judging from the rapture you see in videos of live performances (like the one above) of St. Paul and the Broken Bones (whose horn section look like they just got pulled in from a high school jazz band festival and sound like they just time traveled from a Motown recording session), the answer is “Ha!” This band feels vital. Not to 1965. To 2014.

“Really Wanna See You” by Lydia Loveless

“So I went to a party someone gave me some blow/ Tears came right to my eyes and the phone was right there/ So I just thought I would call”

For those of you who don’t think you like country (I thought I was one of you): this totally isn’t a country song! This is a headbanger, a sick punk song with a mild twang. Country could never kick this much drum-filling, guitar-thrashin’ ass. Right?!? Right. Move on to the next song…

For those of you who love country: this is absolutely country! Country at its dagger-through-your-heart best. Our protagonist has realized she wasn’t exactly the best girlfriend in her previous relationship, and now that the guy is married, she wants to atone. And maybe rekindle something (“I was cleaning up my room, found a magic 8 ball/ asked if I’d ever get to kiss your lips again/ it said ‘I better not tell you right now.’/ So I had to call.“). Oh, and she just did some blow. It’s incredibly sad. But it doesn’t sound sad. It sounds like the party she went to. And if this is the music that was playing when she took that blow, it must have been an incredible party. Blow notwithstanding.

“You Go Down Smooth” by Lake Street Drive

“And I am too sober not to know/ That you may be my problem, not my love/ ‘Cause you go down smooth”

This rollicking track calls to mind most easily that moment in the Disney classic-only-to-those-of-a-certain-age, Oliver and Company, when Dodger, effortlessly cool in his sunglasses, rockets away from young Oliver on a piano, wondering why he, the ultimate charmer of all people, should ever worry. Imagine the dog that might be fortunate/unfortunate enough to fall for a slick animal like that responsing in kind (meaning over a shuffling beat that was built for swing dancing [or, short of that, shaking your butt in a jaunty fashion]): here’s why I should worry! You are way too easy to fall for, you scaliwag, and this infatuation might turn out to be an issue!

In December, I watched the HBO concert special that accompanied the Coen Brothers folk music movie Inside Llewyn Davis (yeah, I’m that kind of nerd; I’d reccomend it if you can find it, truthfully), and while I admired the collection of artists (including Marcus Mumford) doing their thing, it frequently felt like a museum piece. One moment woke me from my reverie: Rachael Price, flanked by an upright bassist and a drummer, broke into an incredibly fun, jazzy number with airtight harmonies that couldn’t have seemed farther from the Greenwich Village Americana the night was supposed to celebrate. I looked up Lake Street Drive immediately afterwards and am happy to report that their 2014 LP debut is a must-listen, just as fun all the way through as that first song I heard, the one that made me think of Dodger getting the whole New York canine scene to dance along.

  1. “Q&A” by Kishi Bashi

“You are the answer to my question/ You are my accomplice in a crime/ You are my wing woman and did I mention/ We were together in a life/ In that dreaming you probably were my wife”

Another Kishi Bashi song in the Top 10?!? How much more clear can I be: I love what Kaoru Ishibahi is doing with his music and couldn’t recommend any single record from 2014 more highly. It’s shimmering, psychadelic pop, looped so that it is saturated to the point of delirium with incredible violin licks, fascinating compositional ideas, and, of course, Kishibashi’s indelible falsetto. But for one song on Ligght, Kishibashi puts all that away – the loop pedals and virtuosic violin playing and high register cooing – pulling out a ukelele and a calming chest voice with a warmth and lilt that calls to mind nothing less than balladeer supreme Paul McCartney.

In the wrong frame of mind, you could totally dismiss this song as a twee trifle, an uncomplicated love song with nonsense words for a chorus. And because of that easy-listening quality, yes, you’re going to hear this song in commercials from here to eternity. But those nonsense choruses aren’t nonsense at all; they’re Japanese, and they (“with a pinch we’ll be awoken from the night of fireflies”), as well as later verses, hint at something a little more uneasy about the dreaming that seems so pleasant in the opening verse. Modern angels broke their wings, man and time flayed their minds, and they prayed for pain. How many love songs this gorgeous also bring up flaying? Very few.

  1. “Don’t Wait” by Mapei

“A friend indeed/ come build me up/ come share your light/ it makes me shine”

Click that play button above and imagine an alternate reality with me.

Instead of being dropped on Soundcloud in October of 2013 by Mapei (you don’t know who Mapei is, which is okay, no one outside Sweden does), imagine this song was released, with those 14 other Beyonce songs, on that random December night. The world would have lost its Bey-loving mind! I mean, it did anyway, but, with all the weight that a Queen Bey release carries, this song would absolutely conquer the world. (“Who run the world? ‘Don’t Wait'”) It would redefine how we think about the pop superstar. A song this perfectly conceived could redefine how we think about the career of any artist – it just so happened that it was the opening salvo in the burgeoning career of a young hip-hop artist, so it’s had a lower profile than it deserves.

There’s a line in here that gets me every time, “I respect you with my all.” In these days where every Jason Derulo song is about the mythic proportions of the butt of an anonymous woman-as-object, and every song like that is a certain Top 10 hit, it reassures me each time I listen to this song (which has easily been hundreds of times) that it is so sweetly sentimental about what it is that staves off loneliness, keeping us connected to those we love and care for. As elementally simple, as quietly (to the point of being almost melancholy) and resolutely strong, as powerful, and as singable as James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” Mapei’s “Don’t Wait” is a friendship anthem for the ages, the one song making the rounds this year that I’d happily preserve in a time capsule so future music listeners could listen in and hear, autotuned backing vocals and all, “Oh, they really did know what they were doing in 2014.”

14 HONORABLE MENTIONS

What?!? (Heh. Heh.)

“Real Estate” by Atlas

“Better Than It Could Ever Be” by The Preatures

“Stranger To My Happiness” by Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings

“Turtles All The Way Down” by Sturgill Simpson

“Every Girl” by Allah-Las

“Morning” by Beck

“Collard Greens” by Schoolboy Q ft. Kendrick Lamar

“Love’s On Fire” by Nikki Lane

“Love Never Felt So Good” by Michael Jackson ft. Justin Timberlake

“Banks of the Ohio” by Dolly Parton

“Gone” by Supreme Cuts ft. Mahaut Mondino

“Divisionary (Do The Right Thing)” by Ages and Ages

“Thunder Clatter” by Wild Club