More than any year I can recall, 2014 felt like a turning point in my relationship with music. I’d been waiting for it: nearly every person I know, as they transition from their 20s into their mid-30s, begins to lose their grip on the culture. (Those who do not are largely paid to do so.) I listened to as much new music as ever this year, but less of it registered. And what did register seemed to resonate less than usual.
I don’t blame the music. All of us are prisoners of our pasts, and I grew up a guitar-band guy. My musical home base consists of Radiohead and Wilco and the Shins, and to confess this in 2014 feels like nothing so much as an admission of age: I am 34. Those bands are not where music stops for me, of course: thanks to you here on Tumblr and the gang over at Pitchfork, my listening has taken me further afield than it ever would have otherwise. This year you’ve taken me to EDM and R&B and hip-hop, genres that are positively blooming. And yet they have so few intersections with the music that means most to me that I rarely feel like anything but a tourist when I listen to them. (The exception is R&B, which has gotten so dark and experimental and flat-out weird in the past few years that I am unabashedly enthralled.)
As the Shins said this year: So now what? (It’s a little slip of a song, written for a movie soundtrack, and its inclusion on this list is both an indictment of my taste and the thing that makes it mine.) Well, I’m not going anywhere. I used to know a guy in Phoenix who was obsessed with the Beatles: had decorated his office with memorabilia, who knew every bit of trivia, who loved to tell stories about the times he had met them. Needless to say, he was a child of the ’50s. Music had begun for him with Please Please Me and ended with Abbey Road. What if my own record collection became similarly hidebound? What if I became the uncle pressing OK Computer into his nephew’s hands, 40 years after its release, and told him that it contained all he needed to know about the world?
If anything will save me it will be my restlessness: even Radiohead loses its magic for me if I play nothing else. I don’t know how my tastes may change in 2015, but I’m determined to follow where they lead. Music may mean less to me than it did a decade ago, but it still holds the same fundamental promise: that by listening we connect with the world around us, both the known and the unknown. And so I keep listening.
1. "(Seasons) Waiting on You," Future Islands. Sure, there’s the Letterman performance: Samuel T. Herring, 11 years into his career, all but leaping through the screen to make you pay attention. The way he grinds those notes, the way he slithers those hips; the man is on fire to connect, to share this part of himself. Foster E. Kamer captured this quality in his essay on the performance, which also happens to also be my favorite Tumblr post of the year: On the Rapture of Dancing Alive. “The bottom line is that he went with it, went for it, he didn’t water down a single thing about what got him to this moment. In fact, he doubled down on it.”
But spare a moment for the song itself, which I stuck on top of my year-end list in March, and where I’ve kept it all year. It’s a song about realizing the person you’re with isn’t the person for you, no matter how much you both try to meet in the middle. Long after they’re gone you find yourself thinking of them, turning the relationship over in your head, wondering how it might have worked. It is a hurting I have come to know myself. “When people change, they gain a piece but they lose one too,” Herring says. Which feels like as good a summation of 2014 as any.
2. "Repeat Pleasure," How to Dress Well. In the bridge of “Repeat Pleasure,” Tom Krell’s best song by a comfortable margin, he straight-up channels the Titanic soundtrack: “Even broken, my heart will go on!” What saves it is that voice, so light and airy, running up and down the melody like it’s a flight of stairs. The song tracks the way our expectations change after we consummate a new relationship — “once you got it you want something else.” Krell is ready to commit, but his girl has already moved on. The song is an agony, but it’s also a seduction. That’s what I respond to most here — the way Krell, defeated by love, crawls right back up to it. He’s hurting but he hasn’t given up, and using only his voice he tries to build a bridge back to a happier time. Somehow, by the time it finishes, you’re feeling just a bit better. In this sense it’s the opposite of the Weeknd, whose songs always leave me wanting to take a shower. Krell’s music, by contrast, is almost shockingly wholesome. “Repeat Pleasure” has no edges, and it cuts you anyway.
3. "Turn Away," Beck. As many have noted, “Turn Away” — the whispered acoustic centerpiece of this year’s Morning Phase — would have fit very easily on Sea Change 12 years ago. The plaintive strings and strumming evoke the same melancholy that represented a radical turn for Beck in 2002; lyrically, its emphasis on making a break from the past fits entirely with the breakup theme that ran through Sea Change. I can read “Turn Away” as a kiss-off, and I can read it as an encouragement to break with the past. The multi-tracked vocal gives Beck a certain distance from his subject matter; he sounds like a god presiding over a trial. But those cries in the background, and certain bends in the melody, reveal the song as a lament. And that’s enough for me, really. A Beck like this only comes around every dozen years or so, like a comet.
4. "Habits (Stay High) (Hippie Sabotage remix)," Tove Lo. Sasha Frere-Jones put this on his provocative list of “perfect recordings,” one of just two 2014 tracks to make the cut. (The other, FKA Twigs’ “Two Weeks,” is on my long list.) If you’ve heard the original, you may already appreciate the monster chorus, with its sense of genuine abandonment. (When Tove Lo says she’s gotta stay high all the time to forget her former lover, you believe her.) The remix improves it by stripping the song of all but its most essential vocals, then speeding them up and repeating them in ways that are powerfully hypnotic. The result is a mix that sounds authentically druggy, as opposed to merely sad. Hippie Sabotage have captured every bad night you’ve ever had in a club, and somehow made it sublime.
5. "Queen," Perfume Genius. When the first single from Too Bright dropped, Choire Sicha said that if he were a pro wrestler it would be his entrance music. That’s how I hear “Queen,” too — as a swaggering arrival. Mike Hadreas takes whatever he wants from the masculine and feminine and swirls them into a declaration of pure power. I love the way the keyboards give an appreciative nod to George Michael’s “Father Figure,” and that “woof!” sound that precdes chorus. And most of all that sly, self-mocking boast: “No family is safe, when I sashay.” The pairing of rock and drag here was the year’s best gay marriage.
6. "Love Again (Akinyele Back) [feat. Gangsta Boo]," Run the Jewels. The only song that left me legit slack-jawed this year was “Love Again,” the spectacularly filthy centerpiece of Run the Jewels 2. With its dick-in-the-mouth-all-day chorus, the song sounds like boilerplate exploitation until the magnificent arrival of Gangsta Boo, who flips the script with perverted glee. Earlier this month I was with some lady friends and we sat around my Jambox so I could play “Love Again” for them. By the time Gangsta Boo dropped the mic, they were clapping and cheering. It’s the first rap verse I’ve memorized this decade. Let me know when you’d like to hear it.
7. "Bored in the USA," Father John Misty. J. Tillman’s caustic survey of our present condition is so over-the-top you wonder if he might be kidding. “Save me president Jesus” — surely he jests? And yet the song’s steady of accretion of detail feels authentic: the subprime loan, the filled prescriptions, the mounting of debt. It’s a standard critique of American life, but Tillman’s aching falsetto elevates it into something more. The master stroke is that laugh track, arriving at the cruelest possible moment: How callous we are in the face of misery. How callous we have to be.
8. "Johnny and Mary," Todd Terje feat. Bryan Ferry. Unlike most critics, I found Terje’s “It’s Album Time” to be a coked-out sleazeball nightmare, and could barely stomach a single listen. Then one link or another led me to “Johnny and Mary,” and it stopped me cold: a gorgeous cover of a 1980 Robert Palmer song, of all things. In Palmer’s hands, it’s a squelchy little synth-fart with all the gravity of “Pop Goes The Weasel.” Thirty-four years later, Ferry — who is 69 — invests the song with ghostly presence. He sounds like he’s whispering it from a graveyard, a lullaby from the great beyond. Terje, for once, does less than the maximum; the result is a ballad of surprising gravity.
9. "To The Top," Twin Shadow. George Lewis Jr.’s anthem is a spiritual twin with my favorite track of the year. Both are highly sincere, reach-for-the-heavens-style ballads, powered by synths and the desperate earnestness of their singers. But where Future Islands have given up, Lewis is holding on. One to shout along with from inside a moving vehicle. (Bonus clip: listen to how fucking good this shit sounds acoustic!)
10. "Tiny Prayers," Restorations. In a year where most guitar bands sounded bored out of their minds, Restorations recorded an album of total commitment.”Tiny Prayers” is my favorite barn-burner of the year, a monument to giving-a-fuckness that’ll get you right up out of your chair. Jon Loudon’s wildman yell turns my insides out.
11. "Head Underwater," Jenny Lewis. The cool kids prefer “Late Bloomer," but me I’m a sad sack, and my favorite track on The Voyager may be the saddest. It’s a portrait of a disorientation that is seemingly without cause: of taking a nap and waking up in the grass; of sinking into a bathtub with a blanket. And yet somewhere in the madness lies a shred of hope: There’s a little bit of sand left in the hourglass, Lewis croons, perfectly. There’s a little bit of fight left in me yet. In a deeply weird year, this was one of my talismans.
12. "Make You Better," the Decemberists. Every band worsens over time; miraculously, the Decemberists have only gotten better. They’ve left behind their insufferable sea shanties, and now they’re grappling with the realities of adult life. Along the way they’ve evolved into some of our foremost interpreters of American folk rock. “Make You Better,” from a forthcoming album, tackles what happens after the honeymoon — how you live with a person when you are no longer “the perfect paramour you were in your letters.” Colin Meloy’s voice is strong, but backup singer Jenny Conlee’s is stronger: in the final chorus she roars nearly to the foreground, and the way she punches those last few words has kept me going all winter.
13. "War on the East Coast," New Pornographers. International treasure Dan Bejar delivers another surreal chapter of his dream journal for the benefit of all mankind. “The Rites of Spring of a lifetime,” he says. Whatever. Turn it the hell up.
14. "Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone," Lykke Li. It’s the year’s best title, and the song somehow manages to lives up to it. There’s that moment at the end where Li drops a few words, as if she can’t quite bring herself to sing them all: “Even though it hurts, baby … scar … love me when I fall.” It's then that you realize the stone-cold title is actually a lie, or perhaps an aspiration. This girl feels everything, and it’s killing her.
15. "First," Cold War Kids. The world seems to have given up on Cold War Kids, and it baffles me. (Among other things, they turned in a surprising, aching cover of Antony’s “Aeon” this year.) Nathan Willett is an unusually soulful singer, and his band is capable of great guitar-driven pop. “First” is a song about life with an alcoholic: about the fallout, the excuses, the looming dread. Willett sings from a place of real outrage. “How am I the lucky one?” he wants to know. It’s 2014’s “Say It Ain’t So.”
16. "Birth in Reverse," St. Vincent. “Here my report from the edge,” Annie Clark sings. I can’t begin to tell you what Clark’s report is about, but I can tell you it’s a marvel. Few guitarists are as distinctive as Clark; her lines are electric, unpredictable, and occasionally perfect. This is one of those occasions.
17. "Jackson," Cymbals Eat Guitars. After two albums of earnest, meandering, same-sounding indie rock, Cymbals Eat Guitars seemed finished to me, at least as an aesthetic project. But this year’s LOSE managed to sound like an improbable step forward, thanks largely to the widescreen road anthem “Jackson.” Buzzing on prescription pills and headed for Six Flags, these kids are a Hold Steady lyric in the making. Like the heroes of so many Craig Finn jams, they are in desperate pursuit of numbness — waiting, as Joe D’Agostino sings, “on the weightlessness / the delirious kiss / and the feeling of falling in.” A song for the times when it’s all just too much.
18. "New York Kiss," Spoon. Few bands sound as inventive eight albums in as Spoon, a band that seems both universally admired and criminally under-listened to. A profile of the band this year revealed certain songwriting games Britt Daniel plays to get him and his bandmates out of their element, and that helps to explain why They Want My Soul reveals so many tricks up its album sleeve. “New York Kiss,” my favorite song on the record, starts off with an appealingly wobbly synth before resolving into that trademark Spoon precision. Not a note wasted, not a lyric comprehensible. I hope they keep going forever.
19. "So Now What," the Shins. Another soul-cleansing burst of melody from James Mercer's seemingly inexhaustible supply of them. Few songwriters have been so consistent over the past decade; even his tiny one-offs from movie soundtracks are worth collecting. “I guess we’ll just begin again,” he repeats over and over here. Here’s to a fresh start.
20. "My Silver Lining," First Aid Kit. Because these weird Swedish sisters sing like angels born into the wrong bodies — Scandinavians who’d rather be cowgirls, forever pining for the open road. The chorus has my favorite harmony of the year, one of those perfect duets that stops you cold when you hear it. If any year needed a silver lining, it was this one.