Four of the Top-50-charting songs of 2014 are in my personal top 50. That’s not a totally accurate representation of how much I enjoy popular music, since a couple of those songs are holdovers from 2013 that appeared on that year’s list (like “Royals” and “Drunk in Love”). But while this is just a personal list and is far from objective, it does make me wonder about the quality of pop music that the vast majority of the Billboard Top 100 doesn’t interest me at all.
I don’t subscribe to the theory that things were better in the old days. If you looked up pop music charts from 25 or 50 years ago, you’d find good songs and bad songs, just like 2014. And by many accounts, 2014 was a down year for pop music anyway- not many blockbuster releases by big artists, the domination of streaming services bringing sales down, the appearance of some person named Iggy Azalea. But…only four?
On this list you’ll find pop music from heavyweights like Taylor Swift and One Direction and breakouts like Charli XCX and Sia. There’s alt-country from Drive-By Truckers and rising star Sturgill Simpson. And there’s whatever the heck “NRG” and “Attak” are. My point is, this list has something the Billboard Top 100 never seems to: diversity. Embrace it, and try a song by an artist you’ve never heard of.
[Disclaimer: The links in the song titles are to the songs themselves. They probably contain profanity and/or sexual content. The links in the artist names are to past posts in which I wrote about the song or the album it appeared on.]
Merrill Garbus has been channeling world beats into protest gold for a while now, but this is her most powerful song yet.
24. Rustie: “Attak (feat. Danny Brown)”
This was my alarm for a while, and no song got me woke last year quite like it.
I get why people are upset about the music video, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the song is gorgeous.
The Alabama rockers pen a masterful tribute to their late friend, remembering a poignant trip to the titular world wonder with him.
21. Sturgill Simpson: “Turtles All the Way Down”
The line about Simpson’s breakout song is about how he’s rebelling against country norms by singing about drugs, but I’m more impressed by how well he nails that old-school country sound.
In some ways, this burner is even better than their hit “I Love It”, and it’s made all the more loveable by the fact that this one barely even charted.
It was nice to see a pop genius like Charli XCX get popular recognition for this sunny singalong.
This song didn’t receive a lot of attention, but I enjoyed it more than any other off Black Messiah because of its simple statement of commitment.
17. Propaganda: “Daywalkers (feat. Lecrae)”
A lot of my favorite Propaganda songs are closer to the spoken-word side of things, but Prop branched out more on this album into straight-up bangers, including this celebration of diversity with Lecrae.
Four is full of full-throated hits, but this one might be peak One Direction for its unbeatable chorus.
A fiery plea for your empathy from one of the transgender community’s boldest public faces.
The one time Iggy manages to be charming is also the best song of last summer with the best saxophone part since “Thrift Shop”.
13. Derek Minor: “Stranger (feat. Roz)”
To me, this is the song anyone who disbelieves the veracity of the Black Lives Matter movement needs to hear.
This is the song that solidified My Everything as a great pop album, a genuine hit with lasting power.
honestly this song should be #1 the bummys suck
10. Sharon Van Etten: “Your Love Is Killing Me”
The violent imagery isn’t anything new for a Sharon Van Etten song. The single off her last album, “Serpents”, used snakes as a metaphor for the mental turmoil of an abusive relationship. But “Your Love Is Killing Me” is about needing self-mutilation so that she doesn’t go back to an abusive relationship, which is taking things up a notch.
Courtney Barnett’s waiting in the wings and Patrick Stickles has a case to make, but there’s no one in music better at articulating the punk aesthetic than Parquet Courts’ Andrew Savage. But “Instant Disassembly” is so heartbreaking that it’s barely punk. Savage drunkenly muses to a woman identified only as “Mamasita” about the state of identity, that he feels like he’s falling apart, and begs her to reach for something higher than him.
The best song on 1989 is the one that sounds the least like pre-1989 Taylor. Supposedly written for her relationship with Harry Styles, “Out of the Woods” could have come straight from its album’s titular year. But there’s something about the detail Taylor gives to it that makes it also feel so immediate.
Perry’s story is incredible and informs every facet of her debut album, The Art of Joy. “I Just Wanna Get There” is the album’s climax, a summation of Perry’s life thesis in four minutes. Eight days after getting married, Perry found herself pregnant, and the song details her panic and her ultimate joy in trusting God.
6. Sia: “Chandelier”
Was there a bigger song last year? I know there were certain other songs more dominant on the charts, but what “Fancy” or “Dark Horse” didn’t have was a sense that they were happening in the real world. From the moment Sia begins singing, you know she’s pouring years of her life into every syllable.
5. First Aid Kit: “Waitress Song”
I’m a sucker for any road trip song. “Waitress Song” starts out as a chronicle of one girl’s getaway from a life in tatters, and there’s a lack of certainty about if she’ll be able to put it together. But as the song builds, so does her hope and her comprehension of the possibilities ahead of her.
Worship music is inherently formulaic, utilizing repetition as a method of instilling truth in the heart of the worshiper. McMillan, in “Future / Past”, takes the formula and multiplies it tenfold. There’s the expected repetition, but surrounded by unusual instrumentation and imbued with an appropriately epic chorus.
Not sure if the title is referring to late-night flights, drug use, or the effects of crying, but I am sure that it could be about any of those things and fit into the wide gamut of emotions Adam Granduciel runs through during the course of the song’s 5 minutes. “Big” isn’t necessarily an adjective you associate with The War on Drugs, especially not before “trippy” or “drugged out”, but “Red Eyes” is undeniably big and expansive and full. We’re treated to a breakup song writ large, with room for your problems and yours too and yours and yours and yours.
2. Strand of Oaks: “Goshen ‘97”
Where “Red Eyes” feels expansive, “Goshen ‘97” is the epitome of tight, compact. As he tells the story of how he started his life in music, Timothy Showalter achieves the kind of honesty only present in the best songs rock music has to offer us. “Goshen ‘97” is the kind of song that makes me believe rock isn’t dead, it’s just hiding on the fringes of culture waiting to be discovered, because it knows music sounds better when it has to be found.
Listen, before you press play on “Two Weeks”, it’s going to sound like a really vulgar song. And, admittedly, it’s unashamedly about sex, and not just about sex, but using sex to make your partner forget about someone else. That’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but “Two Weeks” is the most unforgettable song of the year. twigs’s boldness with her sexuality is different from the oversexualization of mainstream pop stars; it belongs fully to her, stemming from her own desires and preferences and not from the male gaze. This is refreshing, not because we live in an age that is too comfortable with sex, but because we live in an age where the proliferation of sex is driven by men, and “Two Weeks” is decidedly for women, by women.
Another Twenty-Five (in alphabetical order)
5 Seconds of Summer: “She Looks So Perfect”
Alvvays: “Archie, Marry Me”
Audrey Assad: “Death, Be Not Proud”
Bizzle: “Hallelujah (Work) (feat. Selah the Corner, B. Angelique & Black Knight)”
Charli XCX: “Break the Rules”
Diamond District: “First Step”
Ed Sheeran: “Thinking Out Loud”
Ellie Holcomb: “Marvelous Light”
Foreknown: “The Never Haves”
Hiss Golden Messenger: “Saturday’s Song”
Joan Shelley: “First of August”
John Mark McMillan: “Heart Runs”
Kendrick Lamar: “i”
Kevin Morby: “Parade”
Lakes: “Hold On”
Lecrae: “All I Need Is You”
Mariah Carey: “Heavenly (No Ways Tired / Can’t Give Up Now)”
Mark Ronson: “Uptown Funk (feat. Bruno Mars)”
Miranda Lambert: “Smokin’ and Drinkin’ (feat. Little Big Down)”
Sharon Van Etten: “Every Time the Sun Comes Up”
Taylor Swift: “Shake It Off”
Tove Lo: “Not on Drugs”
Trip Lee: “Coulda Been Me”
The Weeknd: “Earned It (Fifty Shades of Grey)”
Past Top Tens
Patty Griffin: “Go Wherever You Wanna Go”
Disclosure: “Latch (feat. Sam Smith)”
Jason Isbell: “Elephant”
Sky Ferreira: “I Blame Myself”
Oscar Isaac & Marcus Mumford: “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)”
David Ramirez: “The Bad Days”
Drake: “Hold On, We’re Going Home (feat. Majid Jordan)”
Justin Timberlake: “Mirrors”
Amy Speace: “The Sea & the Shore (feat. John Fullbright)”
Jimmy Needham: “Clear the Stage”
Trip Lee: “One Sixteen (feat. KB & Andy Mineo)”
David Ramirez: “Fire of Time”
Lecrae: “Church Clothes”
Andrew Peterson: “Day by Day”
Benjamin Dunn & the Animal Orchestra: “When We Were Young”
Frank Ocean: “Bad Religion”
Christopher Paul Stelling: “Mourning Train to Memphis”
Alabama Shakes: “Hold On”
Adele: “Someone Like You”
Cut Copy: “Need You Now”
Gungor: “You Are the Beauty”
Fleet Foxes: “Helplessness Blues”
Miranda Lambert: “Oklahoma Sky”
Jay-Z & Kanye West: “Otis”
Matt Papa: “This Changes Everything”
Over the Rhine: “Days Like This”
Gary Clark Jr.: “Bright Lights”
Bon Iver: “Beth/Rest”
Andrew Peterson: “Dancing in the Minefields”
Hot Chip: “Take It In”
Ben Rector: “Dance with Me Baby”
Kanye West: “Runaway (feat. Pusha T)”
Broken Social Scene: “World Sick”
Arcade Fire: “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”
Gungor: “The Earth Is Yours”
Kanye West: “Power”
The National: “Bloodbuzz Ohio”
Surfer Blood: “Swim”