Each year I set about listening to the year’s records in hopes of discovering the ones that will stand the test of time. Plenty of songs sound great for a summer, but which ones will I return to for years? Here are the 20 songs I plan on carrying with me far into 2014 and beyond. (For a longer list of my favorite songs of the year, check out my playlist on Rdio).
20. “Lean on Me,” Telekinesis. A jangly 90s throwback that stayed on my playlists all year.
19. “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” Lorde. In full-on spooky witch mode, the pride of New Zealand brings lasting menace to the happy-go-lucky original.
18. “Fuckin’ Problems,” A$AP Rocky feat. Drake and Kendrick Lamar. What makes this song one of the year’s best is the way 2 Chainz sounds so upset with himself for his fuckin’ problem. Like, the joke of the title is completely lost on him. It should be said with a devil-may-care smirk; instead, he’s like "you guys I need your attention right now, I have a fucking problem over here." Fortunately the verses come in strong, as twisty libidinal jolts, and just when you’re ready to relax again there Chainz is again having a nervous breakdown. Bad bitches will do that to a fellow, I guess.
17. “Tall Tall Shadow,” Basia Bulat. Hemmed in by your own rotten decisions, you can’t run fast enough to escape their consequences. It’s an old idea sung with wicked sophistication by Basia B., who is easily dismissed as coffeehouse fare but turns in something much fresher and more prickly than we’ve heard from her before.
16. “Mirrors,” Justin Timberlake. In “Mirrors” Timberlake takes a dubious conceit and staggeringly cornball lyrics and somehow makes it transcendent, through sheer force of his sincerity. JT’s voice is a thing of real beauty — particularly when he drops the plaintive, whiny tone of the chorus and just starts going on vocal runs around the edges of the melody. That falsetto is still my Snuggie. (This is probably the closest thing my list has a ‘pity pick’ this year — the less said about the tragic anticipation leading up to The 20/20 Experience and its manifold disappointments, the better — but I do think “Mirrors” will going to hold up over the long haul.)
15. “Blair Witch,” Surfer Blood. The last 50 seconds are the catchiest pop-rock of the whole year — rounds of a chorus breaking against you like waves, in perfect harmony.
14. “Two Weeks Late,” Ashley Monroe. Nashville songwriting at its most down-to-earth. Gorgeously sung, too.
13. “I Blame Myself,” Sky Ferreira. Wrenching, honest, catchy, impressive.
12. “I Don’t Know How,” Best Coast. I love this gorgeously naïve song in about 14 different ways. You’ll guess eight of them on the first listen. The rest will come after you’ve listened 30 or so times. And you will.
11. “Honeymoon Avenue,” Ariana Grande. If I could sing like this I would just stay inside most days and sing everything I could get my hands on, from the telephone book to Nickelback, just to explore the manifold pleasures of my heart-lifting, gravity-defying, dizzy-making vocal prowess. Until such a day arrives we have “Honeymoon Avenue.” It will do.
10. “Default,” Atoms for Peace. News that Thom Yorke’s side project was releasing a full-length this year left me strangely unmoved — I braced myself for the sort of heartless, glitchy piffle found on The King of Limbs and other lesser Radiohead. But Amok is a crowd pleaser from start to finish — most notably on “Default,” the record’s patient, seductive center, where Yorke’s voice plays off the rhythm with spooky grace.
9. “Don’t Be A Stranger,” Blitzen Trapper. In 2007, Wild Mountain Nation introduced most us to Blitzen Trapper, who combined a sincere appreciation for AM Gold with an adventurous embrace of Pavement-style DIY experimentation. Afterward, though, they retreated to a staid classic-rock formalism that abandoned what made them unique. This year’s VII continued in that unfortunate tradition, but buried at the end is this absolute gem. “Don’t Be A Stranger” is a love song made up mostly of clichés, but they are so artfully arranged, and so harmoniously sung, that what should be a trifle is somehow transmuted into country perfection.
8. “Down the Deep River,” Okkervil River. A great galloping pop song that tells the story of best friends separated by a terrible, unnamed act of violence, and a father who comforts his devastated son. There’s much to admire here, starting with the juxtaposition of an ecstatic melody with a deeply disturbing tale, but I’d also point toward Will Sheff’s voice, a limited instrument that he uses here to maximum effect. Sometimes he hugs the melody closely, like a blanket; other times his voice has more of a spoken-word affect, darting in and out of rhythm to dazzling results. The lyrics are intricate, and Sheff knows just where to punch the right word for emphasis. It is a towering song.
7. “Play By Play,” Autre Van Neut. Hands down, the best song ever written about phone sex. Arthur Ashin is a man completely unhinged by his own libido, barely able to enunciate words as he sex-whispers “Make me whole, make me crawl.” He has called his lover up “to get that play by play,” and by the end he is in such ecstasy that we can only imagine his prayers have been answered. A song tht makes you just a bit happier to be alive.
6. “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” Drake. A quiet-storm seduction whose production recalls Diplo’s top-notch work on Usher’s “Climax.” But that was a song about splitting apart — “Hold On” is about coming together. Pitchfork got it exactly right: “What happens when they get home is left unsaid. They might make love, they might fall asleep on the couch. But either way, being together means they can be themselves.”
5. “Retrograde,” James Blake. That keyboard comes on like a migraine — a sudden, blinding intensity, cutting fatally against the ineffable sweetness of James Blake’s coo. It’s the flip side of seduction, the moment when ecstasy turns to worry and doubt. Eventually it passes, though, and you’re left with that killer hook: Blake’s wordless hum. The hum has stayed with me all year, beckoning me to some distant planet of untold pleasure. I keep it close.
4. “Reflektor,” Arcade Fire. There’s something wonderfully quicksilver about "Reflektor," the staggering title track from Arcade Fire's record this year. Over the course of seven and a half minutes, it never stops shifting: in instruments, in vocals, in rhythms. That’s one reason why you can set the song to repeat and enjoy it for an hour or so, as I’ve done now on several occasions. “Reflektor” is a house with many rooms.
Sometimes my favorite part is the Crystal Method squelches around 2:45; other times it’s the horns that come in around minute five; still others it’s David Bowie appearing out of nowhere to jabber about “praying to the resurrector,” only to disappear through a trapdoor. I love the stabbing pianos at minute six; I love Win Butler’s impassioned See you on the other sides; I love his goofy conservatism. (“We fell in love when I was 19 / And now we’re staring at a screen” may be the most Win Butler lyric ever written.)
But mostly the thing just goes, you know? Arcade Fire are best when they’re at their most apocalyptic, and here the batshit Canadian End Times routine hurtles along with unusual force. James Murphy holds it all together with impressive precision, turning Butler’s paranoid desperation into indie rock that is spectacularly danceable. It’s Thomas Pynchon disco, an anthem for the Snowden age. A song hurled into a void, and we follow it all the way down. The rest of that bloated, brittle album — who needs it? See you on the other side, for real.
3. “Step,” Vampire Weekend. A song that conveys Ezra Koenig’s love of language, and through that love of language, a love of life itself. Writing about the lyrical fragments that make up the song, Lindsay Zoladz noted that they “have such a varied vernacular texture that they sound like clipped phrases he overheard on a stroll through Central Park.” I think that’s exactly right. I’ve listened to “Step” dozens of times this year, and when I do I find myself meditating about the way language transports us, from high culture to low culture and back again. All knitted together with rhymes too clever by half, and so much the better for it.
2. “Graceless,” The National. It’s a song about alienation, desperation, and the desire to give up — bleak stuff, but expressed with such power that it becomes, in its own way, affirming. Matt Berninger feels himself slipping away but first wishes to give his partner roses, some symbolic beauty to “brighten the place” even as he vanishes into a fog.
Berninger works in some wicked comedy here — the exasperated sigh of “God loves everybody, don’t remind me” might be my favorite lyric of the year. He also pulls off one of the trickiest feats in all English-language songwriting, pairing “self” with its the only true rhyme in a way that feels authentic to the material.
Mostly, though, what I appreciate here is the band’s resurgent wildness. So many times over the years I have wished the National would loosen up, get sloppy, and sing with the sort of intensity they used to bring to “Abel” and “Mr. November.” After High Violet it was easy to assume they would continue getting softer and sleepier until they were playing solely to the coffeehouse crowd. But the vast darkness inside Matt Berninger has turned out to be an animating force, bitter but alive with poetry, and it works a powerful alchemy here. Trouble Will Find Me is one of the year’s best records, and “Graceless” is its lacerated heart.
1. “Closer,” Tegan and Sara. Taylor Swift is not wrong about this one. Last time I got a head rush like this Phoenix was debuting “1901,” and indeed there’s something Wolfgang Amadeus-like about Tegan and Sara’s world-beating, Heartthrob-opening “Closer.” It’s a song about the thrill of anticipation, the moment just before desire gives way to first contact. The melody is sublime, the optimism irresistible. It is a song about hope in a world that needs it. I can’t remember the last time a song made me so happy.
It’s not just the music, either. I love that I live in a world where lesbian twins from Canada lean into their pop instincts and finally manage, after 18 years of trying, to capture the world’s attention. Finding the universal in the specific. Singing like it’s the last chance they’ll ever get.
Every once in a while in music, a good artist turns momentarily great. They’ve been around for years, earned some positive notices, but stalled out somewhere in the B- range. Spoon, before Kill the Moonlight. Okkervil River, before The Stage Names. And Phoenix, of course, before Wolfgang.
What I try to remind myself is that you never know whether they’ll be this good again. So many times in music, fortune smiles upon an artist only once. So revel in the moment. Turn the volume up. “I’m the type who will get oh so critical,” Tegan sings here. Me too! But not here. Not now. End the year on a happy note — what do you say? Here come the dreams, of you and me …