These aren’t necessarily my favorite songs of 2014. They’re my favorite singles. There’s a difference; you can look it up. Don’t argue with me.
Before we begin, as with my Top 20 Albums of 2014 list, I have to name ten great singles that didn’t make the cut.
Behemoth — “Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel” (warning: video contains disturbing imagery)
- Tune-Yards — “Water Fountain”
I love how bare-bones this is. It’s a lot of percussion, from manic drumming to basic clapping, and there are some punchy synth noises in the background as well. It’s one of those songs that lyrically doesn’t quite match up with the instrumentals; it’s an indictment of white colonialism, but the beat is so damn fun, and the way it’s sung is reminiscent of the kinds of rhymes schoolgirls might chant while jumping rope.
- The Roots — “When the People Cheer”
As a whole, I found …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin to be a bit of disappointment, especially considering how cohesive and great How I Got Over and especially Undun were. Still, I can’t deny that “When the People Cheer” is an exceptional song. It’s a song about trying to find meaning in existence, and the downtrodden nature of the lyrics in Greg Porn and Black Thought’s verses is perfectly juxtaposed by the chorus, sung entirely by children, the picture of innocence.
- La Roux — “Uptight Downtown”
This is an incredibly solid, energetic, and breezy piece of dance pop from one of the best pop acts of the last ten years or so. It’s less punchy than previous La Roux singles like the immortal “Bulletproof,” but it has a nostalgic synth sound to it, reminiscent of 1980s dance pop fused with a dash of electric funk.
- FKA twigs — “Two Weeks”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have “Two Weeks,” a less dance-friendly but far sexier and almost epic piece of art pop. Her entire album, LP1, is quite an oddity, and while “Two Weeks” may be one of the most commercial tracks on the album, it’s still miles ahead of what’s playing on the radio these days.
- Run the Jewels — “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)”
I’m a huge Rage Against the Machine fan, and I hadn’t heard anything from Zack de la Rocha since One Day as a Lion, an EP he did in 2008 with drummer Jon Theodore of The Mars Volta and Queens of the Stone Age. Imagine my gleeful surprise when I heard him kill the last verse of the track. Admittedly, it’s weird not hearing him belt his verse out in anger, but I’m just glad to hear more from Zack de la Rocha. The repetitive beat took a little while to grow on me, but I think this track ultimately amounts to being the best banger on the album.
- Flying Lotus — “Never Catch Me”
Kendrick Lamar is running hip-hop right now as far as I’m concerned. He does an outstanding job here, proving that he’s not one to simply go through the motions when it comes to guest verses. What he does here is every bit as thought-provoking, interesting, and personal as anything you’d find on Section.80 or Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. All of this is backed by a psychedelic, bass-heavy instrumental that eventually breaks down into a synthy, acid-soaked instrumental solo.
- Sa-Roc — “The Who?”
An incredibly pretty piano-laced beat accompanies an incredibly intelligent hip-hop song that works on two levels. David Banner’s opening verse discusses white colonialism and global racism, while Sa-Roc’s verse tends to focus more on her identity as a Black woman. Hip-hop has always had a dearth of female rappers in the mainstream, and unfortunately, between Iggy Azalea’s The New Classic (might want to make an album that’s not terrible before you call it a classic, Iggy) and Nicki Minaj’s The Pinkprint, we are getting absolutely zero quality hip-hop from women in the mainstream. Then you have an artist like Sa-Roc, bold and poetic, and she remains underground. Sa-Roc is the kind of female emcee that hip-hop needs.
- Beck — “Waking Light”
I mentioned this already in my countdown of the best albums of 2014, but much of Beck’s Morning Phase is reminiscent of Coldplay’s A Rush of Blood to the Head, an outstanding piece of soft alternative rock from a time when Coldplay wasn’t writing generic pop music. There’s something kind of epic when the drums kick in right before the chorus of this track, and I love the backing strings. The piano intro isn’t too shabby, either.
- Death Grips — “Inanimate Sensation”
Death Grips is still in the process of growing on me, admittedly. I don’t love them quite yet, but hard-hitting tracks like “Inanimate Sensation” make it really difficult not to like them if you’re into mind-meltingly aggressive noise-hop. The track opens and sporadically returns to this really odd vocal droning, amidst powerful drums and some scratchy synths in the background. It also occasionally gets really quiet for a few seconds, making the return to the “thrash-hop” beat even more of a punch to the face (and I mean that in a good way). If you’re not bleeding out of your ears by the end of this track, you’re just not listening to it correctly.
- Kendrick Lamar — “i”
Kendrick Lamar returns to this list, because he’s just that good. “i” is the first single off of his as-of-now untitled third studio album. It’ll be interesting to hear the song in the context of the album, since Kendrick Lamar is one of modern hip-hop’s great storytellers, and songs of his tend to have more meaning when listened to as a part of the entire album. This track uses an excellent sample of “That Lady” by The Isley Brothers, infusing it with some much-needed soul that perfectly accompanies the uplifting message of the song. After all of the depressing lyrical content of Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (arguably one of the best hip-hop albums of the century so far), it’s nice to see Kendrick Lamar showing some positivity. Between this track and the untitled one he debuted on The Colbert Report last month, it’s hard not to buy into the hype for a third album.
- Swans — “Oxygen”
This track features a lot of hollering by Michael Gira, a repetitive and aggressive guitar groove, and building intensity. By the end, we get nothing but guitar, and for whatever reason, I’m reminded of the “BAM” and “POW” sounds from the old 1960s Batman series with each blast of the guitar.
- Liars — “Mess on a Mission”
“Mess on a Mission” is, without a doubt, the best track off of Liars’s incredibly solid experimental electronic rock album Mess. The deadpan vocals are excellent, accompanied by the strange falsetto chorus and backing. It’s got some really strange chiptune-esque synth sounds in it as well. The track is messy as hell, and all the better for it.
- Open Mike Eagle — “Dark Comedy Late Show”
You may recall that Open Mike Eagle’s album Dark Comedy was an honorable mention in my top twenty albums of 2014 list. “Dark Comedy Late Show” isn’t on the album; it’s sort of an alternate take on the album’s opening track, “Dark Comedy Morning Show,” with bigger production and more trap-inspired percussion. It reminds me of what Aesop Rock did on his EP Daylight, with the track “Daylight” being followed by a darker contradiction to the track in “Night Light.” Open Mike Eagle is as clever as ever in this track, and actually comes with more fire and charisma than he did on any of the tracks on Dark Comedy (which, in fairness to the album, was intentionally more laid-back).
- Perfume Genius — “Queen”
“Queen” is Mike Hadreas taking on the role of the homosexual as viewed by conservative Christian America. “No family is safe when I sashay,” he belts, essentially claiming that his openness about his sexuality will destroy family values and he’s perfectly content with that. There’s a lot you can analyze about the video as well, but as a song, it’s an energetic romp about openly being whoever you want to be. Slate Magazine described it as the “gay anthem of the year,” and I’m not entirely sure I disagree.
- St. Vincent — “Prince Johnny”
I could’ve easily gone with “Birth in Reverse” or “Digital Witness” off of St. Vincent, but “Prince Johnny,” while not exactly jiving musically with the rest of the album’s glitchy, jagged vibe, is my favorite song off of the album. It’s atmospheric and haunting, punctuated by Annie Clark’s gorgeous and impassioned voice. It’s a somber track about living on the fringe of society in a self-destructive manner and lamenting on the nature of the storyteller’s companion’s exploits during all of this time. Perhaps Annie Clark found what she was looking for, but her companion did not, and he continues to indulge in vice while Clark can only watch hopelessly from the sidelines, ultimately unable to judge. It’s about frustration made even worse by fear of hypocrisy.
- BADBADNOTGOOD — “Can’t Leave the Night”
I discussed this track when praising BADBADNOTGOOD’s new album III in my albums list. “Can’t Leave the Night” starts with a very rapid buildup that plateaus with some snappy drums, before returning to a status quo of sorts and building up again to an absolutely kick-ass booming finish, complete with a thumping, penetrative bassline. It’s somewhat eerie, particularly the keyboard, but it’s hard not to feel this track worming its way through every inch of your body. It’s the kind of track that needs to be felt as much as it needs to be heard, so speakers or headphones with excellent bass are a must.
- Future Islands — “Seasons (Waiting On You)”
“Seasons (Waiting On You)” is being hailed as the best pop song of 2014, and while there is one more pop song that I have higher on my list, it’s hard to argue with the fans. This song isn’t just catchy, it’s actually quite beautiful. The song details a breakup in which both parties try to change for their significant other before realizing that perhaps they just aren’t compatible (at least, that’s how I’ve come to interpret the lyrics), or perhaps it’s a general condemnation of the stubborn and unchanging nature of people around them. The bittersweet nature of the song is further amplified by Samuel T. Herring’s emotional vocal delivery. As a bonus, check out their amazingly weird live performance of this song on Letterman (complete with dancing and death metal Cookie Monster impressions).
- Timber Timbre — “Hot Dreams”
Timber Timbre’s album Hot Dreams encompasses all sorts of moods, but the title track is nothing if not sensual as hell. Singer Taylor Kirk talks about wanting to “rise up beside you,” “be a champion in your eyes,” and “wake up from hot dreams of you,” describing an all-consuming passion that’s either incredibly sexy or incredibly creepy, or perhaps both. My gut tells me it’s the former, but maybe I’m way off base here. The song closes out with a buttery-smooth saxophone, teasing the ending of the song, but never quite getting there when you expect it to.
- Wild Beasts — “Mecca”
This. This is it. This is the pop song of 2014. The smooth, beautiful backing synth, the perfect vocal delivery (especially the descending vocals in the chorus), and the ambient noise giving dimension to this track all make “Mecca” the catchiest, prettiest, and overall most memorable pop song of 2014. It’s not overproduced, nor is it underproduced. It’s the perfect balance of electronics and human emotion. Admittedly, I had a tough time deciding between this, “Wanderlust,” and “A Simple Beautiful Truth,” but given how much I listen to “Mecca,” it would’ve been a mistake not to have this track represent the brilliance of Present Tense and Wild Beasts as a whole.
- The Antlers — “Hotel”
It’s almost unfair to put The Antlers in my number one spot again. Can they have the best album and the best single of the year? Apparently so. In discussing Familiars on my other list, I did mention that “Hotel” was my favorite single of the year, so perhaps I ruined the element of surprise. “Hotel” is a remarkable blend of alternative rock, synthpop, and blues, creating a vibrant, lush, and echoey rumination on spirituality. As I said before, “Hotel” is about the fleeting nature of life, and the continued existence of the soul beyond the borders of what is mortal and tangible. Frontman Peter Silberman sings with haunting delicacy, “When I check out, it won’t matter how my name’s spelled.” The human form, like a hotel, is only meant to be stayed in temporarily. I don’t necessarily agree with the song’s sense of spirituality, as I am perhaps the least spiritual person on the planet, but I find this sort of poetry to be immensely beautiful, especially when put against such ethereal musical backing.
I made a Spotify playlist of these singles, which you can find here. The list contains both honorable mentions and actual list items, but the lack of availability of some of these tracks on Spotify means that it’s an incomplete list.