I think it’s safe to say that I listened to more music in 2014 than any other year to date. Part of that was due to me finally compromising my ideals, giving in to the dark side, and subscribing to a music streaming service (Rdio, if you must know). Yes, a streaming service is just about as cool as everyone says it is. And as a result, this is probably my longest year-end song list so far, but there were just so many good songs out there.
This year, I’m doing something a little different: I’m listing my songs in alphabetical order by artist, just to make it easy on me so that I don’t have to pick a favorite song.
“Clearing” by Grouper
There are intimate songs that make you feel deeply self-conscious — as if, by listening to them, you’re invading the artist’s most private moments. And then there’s Grouper’s “Clearing.” Recorded in Portugal where Liz Harris was living in near-solitude after completing 2011’s A I A, “Clearing” is a haunted look back on a broken relationship. Harris’ voice just barely rises above the gentle, melancholy piano melodies, forcing you to strain to hear her words — and when you do, their emotional naked-ness is striking. “Can’t you see us fading?/Soon there won’t be anyone there/It’s funny when you fuck up/Noone really has to care,” she sings before finally concluding that “maybe you were right when you said I’d never been in love.” Devastating.
“Tú hevur tær dýrastu perlur” by Guðrið Hansdóttir
On her previous albums, Guðrið Hansdóttir played and sang lush, ornate folk/rock. With 2014’s Taking Ship, however, she opted for a more electronic-oriented route… but her music is no less lush or ornate. Much of this is due to her rich voice, which imbues whatever song she’s singing with warmth and humanity, regardless of whether she’s accompanied with acoustic guitar or laptops, sequencers, and drum machines. On “Tú hevur tær dýrastu perlur,” she sings in her native Faorese, and the resulting song is not unlike something you might hear from Saint Etienne or Riki Michele, i.e., dreamy, breezy electronic pop of the highest order.
“Your Deep Rest” by The Hotelier
At some point in the ’00s, emo became as vilified as disco was back in the ’80s. I guess people just got real tired of screaming kids with distorted guitars being all earnest and stuff. But then along comes a song like “Your Deep Rest,” which features all of the usual emo stuff (including screaming vocals galore) but injects them with enough raw emotion (npi) to make them all feel exciting once again. And the gut-punching lyrics about coming to terms with a friend’s suicide and one’s role in it (e.g., “I called in sick from your funeral/The sight of your family made me feel responsible”)? They just further solidify the song as an example of what emo can do when it’s done right and proper.
“The Body You Deserve” by Htrk
HTRK inhabit a strange corner of the musical universe. There, time slows to a crawl, it’s perpetually dark, and menace seems to lurk around every corner. When I listen to Jonnine Standish sing, or maybe “intone” is a more accurate description, “You can now get the body you deserve, the body of your dreams,” I’m never sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. But that ambiguity is why I keep coming back to the duo’s music and find it so captivating… especially when I listen to it well past bedtime. In that bleary space where I should be asleep but sleep proves elusive, HTRK’s music proves equal parts soulful, relaxing, and ominous.
“Plains to Crash” by Damien Jurado
For Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son, Damien Jurado reunited with producer Richard Swift, who had turned 2012’s Maraqopa into a beguiling, psychedelic listen. Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son is more of the same. But on “Plains to Crash,” the duo strip down the atmospherics and turn in a haunting ballad and, by all indications, a confession of reborn faith. Backed by the haunting “Sisters of the Eternal Son” choir, Jurado sings “Help me Lord to see the road ahead of me/May you always be the light beneath my feet.” And while Jurado concludes the song by reverently intoning “Show me the way,” it’s quite clear that he’s on the right path.
“This is All We Know” by Le Cassette
“This is All We Know”? More like, “This is All I Wanted To Slow-Jam To This Summer.” Le Cassette’s synth-pop hearkens back to the glory days of Human League, Yazoo, et al., when folks with actual voices crooned heartfelt ballads over cold, chilly synthesizers and dance‑y beats. Frontman Adam McNab has that sort of rich, deep baritone, and when paired with James Nalepa and Joe Wood’s music (including an oh-so-sensual saxophone solo), the result is the sort of soulful electronic pop that would’ve been a mix-tape staple circa 1982.
“Kelly” by The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart
An utterly delightful slice of breezy pop, “Kelly” finds The Pains of Being Pure at Heart operating at the top of their game. From the sprightly drumming to the Johnny Marr-esque guitars, from the twinkling synths to Jessica Weiss’ yearning vocals, “Kelly” is just pure pop perfection — especially if you were ever a fan of The Field Mice, Trembling Blue Stars, and other similarly twee-ish groups. Oh, and the lyrics? Well, they’re just the right mix of clever, twisted, and bittersweet (e.g., “ ‘Cuz I know you’re violent, and I know you’re true/And there’s a thousand lives you’d like to try but never do/But if you come with me, we could find just two”).
“Hard Wired” by Perturbator
Perturbator’s music has always had a kitsch‑y aspect to it, from the post-apocalyptic sci-fi concepts to the dark, throbbing synths that bring to mind all manner of cheesy ’80s movies. However, “Hard Wired” reveals a heart beating somewhere beneath all of that cyberpunk attitude. Much of that is due to Isabella Goloversic’s haunting, world-weary vocals, but James Kent’s synthesizers also take on a soulful grandeur that serves as a nice contrast to the rest of Dangerous Days.
“The Wings of the Dawn” by Remedy Drive
With pounding piano, a denouement that builds to a crescendo, straining vocals, and a children’s choir to boot, there’s really no subtlety or restraint at all in Remedy Drive’s “The Wings of the Dawn.” However, if you’re trying to draw attention to the horror that is child slavery and sex trafficking, subtlety and restraint aren’t really the best tactic. This is the sort of message-filled rock n’ roll that, like classic U2, really deserves to be heard in stadiums, with thousands singing along to that children’s choir.
“Tomorrow” by The Roots
The Roots may be The Tonight Show’s house band, but their association with — and gleeful participation in — Jimmy Fallon’s goofy antics have done nothing to diminish their status as one of hip-hop’s most celebrated outfits. On …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, Black Thought, Questlove, et al. deconstruct hip-hop clichés to reveal the corruption beneath the genre’s often materialistic exterior. The album culminates in “Tomorrow,” a soulful track that itself culminates in a piano crescendo that was one of 2014’s most sublime moments.