The list continues, accelerating in perceived significance until its final and much-desired conclusion.
50. Strand of Oaks // Goshen ‘97
Nostalgia drips from every inch of ‘Goshen ’97’. The keys are chiselled from 80s power ballads, the drums and guitars somehow sound like a distillation of every great grunge, pop punk and Springsteen song ever written and the lyrics look back on the past whilst staring at the ground in the present with equal parts joy and despair. As an encapsulation of millennial angst: “I was lonely, but I was having fun. I don’t want to start all over again”, fulfils purpose and then some.
49. Eagulls // Possessed
A dissonant, visceral, angry, anxious, simultaneously introspective and triumphant slab of post-punk from Yorkshire’s finest.
48. Glass Animals // Gooey
A twinkling, gloopy, sensuous refined mess that simultaneous feels like making sweet, sweaty love and sticking your hands into cake mixture.
47. Kwabs // Wrong or Right
It’s hard to contain my excitement at what Kwabs could potentially become in 2015 and beyond. If I describe him simply as an electrically charismatic stage presence and possessor of a mellifluous, melancholy, soulful voice, I am honestly trying to do my best to restrain my praise. The challenge facing him is perhaps inadvertently outlined best in the opening line of this track: “I don’t wanna be a leader, I don’t wanna let you down. Watch this space.
46. Shellac // Dude Incredible
To an extent, everything you need to know about Shellac’s ‘Dude Incredible’ is in those glorious first 25 seconds – that rattling, unfurling, circuitous opening riff which guides your thought process throughout the full 6 minutes. It’s an aural encapsulation of the lyrical breakdown/metaphor hooked around Steve Albini’s one-word explanation of the track: “monkeys”. The wild tension it contains is as much a manifestation of the patterns of animal group dynamics, violence, leadership, survival of the fittest and sexual dominance – which of course echo into fucked-up human behaviour patterns – as that which the lyrics pointedly discuss. And it whales.
45. Warpaint // Love Is To Die
‘Love is to Die’ is a beauteous, mesmerising, tranquil and tense nugget of all that is so potentially wonderful about Warpaint. It feels like a tribal bathing in warm water as Kokal and Wayman’s euphoric vocal delivery meet bang-on halfway with Lindberg and Mozgawa’s enthralling rhythm-section. ‘Love Is To Die’ is both the strongest cut from their sadly half-baked second record and easily their most instantaneous, urgent and progressive release since 2009’s exquisite ‘Elephants’.
44. Iggy Azalea // Fancy
So we come to the hardest track to justify inclusion for on the entire list. Guided by a year’s worth of criticism of Azalea and fears that The New Classic will follow in Macklemore’s footsteps to winning a commercially-focused Grammy and thus aptly piss off the entire critically and arguably racially-conscious music listening population, let’s do just that eh?
The core to the debate, at least for me, is how seriously Azalea takes herself, or more accurately how seriously we should take her. For every indicator that she does, like say: “I take everything I do serious”, these are counter-balanced to a quite extraordinary extent by this veritable lightning-rod-cum-calling-card of a song.
Sonically, it’s an absolute banger complete lacking in subtlety, despite – and because of – having one of the cheesiest, laziest and cheapest sounding synths of the year as its bedrock. It’s almost tailor-made for the shitty speakers of your first car. No one should take this song seriously.
Lyrically, it’s ludicrous to the extent of being genius. “First things first I’m the realest” opens proceedings, a line imbued with such a sense of braggadocio no-shit Sherlock by now that, no matter the confidence with which it’s delivered, it can’t help but contain the kind of desperation to be taken seriously of a teenager storming up to their bedroom. More to the point, it doesn’t take an MA in Hip-Hop Puritanism, to determine that Iggy is not the “realest” despite having once been 16 in the middle of Miami. No one should take this song seriously.
Nevertheless, in an attempt to overcome that Madames Azalea and XCX between them manage to tick off every cliché and obsession expected of “youth culture” both in the contemporary moment and since time immemorial. As each reference to flagrant commercialism, self-centredness, promotion of violence, twerking, violence, mental health insensitivity, drinking, dissing the haters – in short, the bloody lot – piles up, so does the level of irony required by all involved. No one should take this song seriously.
Finally: fancy. Specifically, “I’m so fancy”. Fancy? That’s the word we’re going with? Fancy? To paraphrase: stop trying to make fancy happen, it’s not going to happen. No one should take this song seriously.
43. Perfect Pussy // Driver
Perfect Pussy is the sound of a protestor endlessly picking themselves up and driving forward against the torrent of a water cannon. Nowhere is that a more pertinent description than on ‘Driver’ the exhilarating opening track to their debut. Against a whirl of relentless noise, pausing only for momentary intake of oxygen twice, Meredith Graves purges a dark, exhilarating, intelligent personal as political tirade that you fight to hear as much as she is fighting to be heard amidst the mix. When those two align, the effect is to achieve a searing honest, shared realisation amidst the noise: “I have a history of surrender / Part of a certain set of choices / Found among the many paths / Forged by lies I told myself / Lies like ‘I will be protected’”.
42. Spoon // Do You
On ‘Do You’ melody and motifs as catchy as drug-resistant tuberculosis attempt to sail through untouched by the worldly, battered vocals and lyrics of Britt Daniel. Instead, even these moments of apparently casual contentment get caught up in the detritus of a life’s internal narrative that are encapsulated by the track’s song-as-subject surrounding atmospherics: mistakes, moments of fleeting happiness, self-absorption, commitment-fears, mediocrity-awareness, missed opportunities and nostalgia borrowed or otherwise. Fittingly, by the end, those enrapturing doo-doos have been turned to the poignant mmms of bitter pills swallowed and an acceptance of time gone by.
41. Mac DeMarco // Salad Days
If Strand of Oaks ‘Goshen 97’ serves purpose as a distillation of millennial frustration, millennial ennui doesn’t come much more blithely, charmingly, truthfully delivered than DeMarco’s title-track. As youth slips through his fingers, the loss of old friends weighs increasingly heavy and life’s meaning or lack-of weighs even heavier, even his mother’s answers are shot through with an ironic assessment of time that betrays the lack of answers available – “oh dear, act your age and try another year”.
40. Damien Rice// Long, Long Way
Whilst not quite as keenly felt an absence as Richard D. James’ 13 years away from Aphex Twin, as a similar master of his genre Damien Rice’s return after 8 years of comparative radio silence is no less welcome. Indeed, in the wake of a legion of contenders ranging from the abysmal to the astonishing aspiring to his throne, devastating and delicate, tantalising and traumatic, intricate and incisive cuts such as this allow Rice’s return to feel positively redemptive.
39. Kelis// Jerk Ribs
Timeless, buoyant waves of energy and heart tide over ‘Jerk Ribs’, the soundtrack to Kelis falling back in love with music all over again. Here, she looks back to her past – to “Harlem, where I started to breathe” – forging her own origin narrative and manifesto (“Look for melody in everything”). Amidst all that nostalgic rapture mirrored by romantic strings though, where the track’s real vitality pours from though is channelled through those rasping vocals and horns that deliver: “Don’t miss this, this is what it looks like”. After a career full of superstardom near-misses, such a diva-ish declaration of authentic attention-seeking in the now is fully-deserved.
38. Metronomy// I’m Aquarius
A lo-fi moment of heartbroken, claustrophobic transcendence from Joseph Mount & co’s underrated fourth album wherein horoscopes and nonsense scat backing-vocals act as both a metaphor for – and manifestation of – all the incomprehensible terribleness of the reasons people break up and fall apart.
Dull synth rattles and throbs undulate under a nigh-on spoken word Mount flatly picking over the collapse of an engagement. His protagonist descends into the depths as he proceeds to blame everyone but himself, the lyrics fixating on she said, they said fragments of conversation and in particular with his fixation on his ex’s attribution of the quirks of human nature and hearts to the cosmos – “because you’re a Taurus and I’m Aquarius” – rather than say his pointed self-absorption: “never knew how much you thought I meant to me”.
By the end he’s ceaselessly repeating “I’m Aquarius”, vainly attempting to convince himself of her viewpoint in order to move on, channelling this sense of cosmic entrapment into justification for both of them to be free to ignore their flaws laid-bare and instead focus on their wounds and hold onto their shoulder-chips, the apparent pre-destination of their unsuitability for one another leaving them free to hurtle like comets into other planets, free to hurt themselves and others all over again.
37. Cymbals Eat Guitars// 2 Hip Soul
The closing track of Lose takes fragments of small-town late-teen memories and minute details such as the brand of a burn victim’s hat or the titular BMX bike and transposes them into something epic, with the track’s poetic rise-and-fall of quiet to loud, light to dark eventually culminating in an instrumental raging against the dying light.
36. Jamie T// Don’t You Find
‘Don’t You Find’ is a darkly sexy shard of a broken mirror, a nexus of love, death and unconscious desire that manages to feel distinctly “new” whilst stilling feeling so distinctively Jamie T after far too many moons away.
35. EMA //Satellites – HD
A wider cultural trend this year found roost in music via artists like Holly Herndon and St. Vincent, creators of music that explored humankind’s increasingly bound position within our world wide web. In a similar vein, EMA turned her focus to The Future’s Void, no one better than on this agitated, enerverated and bristling opening track. She draws a thread from the Cold War space race through to our present day situation: milling about staring into screens and unknowingly in debt and subservience to our new gods, these floating unwatched watchers built from future scrap metal orbiting around us. And it’s terrifying
34. The Twilight Sad // It Never Was the Same
This is the spooked, desolate, toweringly beautiful high-point amongst a bounty of sky-piercing peaks on The Twilight Sad’s latest: a record coursing with renewed vigour, even if that vigour is built of the same stuff as the relentless force of icy tides against grey skies. Amongst all the gloom though, ‘It Never Was The Same’ has a singular gravitas, a heavy grace that allows its lyrics of a failed relationship to stand for everything from quiet romance, to provincial deterioration, to Scottish devolution and a species ongoing falling out of love with God:
We fall apart.”
33. Chance The Rapper// Wonderful Everyday: Arthur
What the world needed in 2014, not quite more than anything but perhaps close enough especially amidst the intensely shitty shitstorm of shit that was last year, was three minutes or so of Chance the Rapper and friends signing a cover of the Arthur theme tune. The fact that it came this beautiful, inventive, ascendant and powerful is the best kind of bonus.
32. Katie Gately// Pivot
‘Pivot’ manages to feel both sprawlingly cinematic and bracingly intimate over the course of its 14 minutes, an alien experience full of unpindownable familiarity that creates a listening sensation akin to conscious hypnosis, undeniably happening to you but incapable of being altered or grasped in any kind of totality. I dig it.
31.Angel Olsen// Enemy
‘Enemy’ is that feeling of shattered numbness at the moment where you’ve finally cried yourself to sleep, your body tacitly accepting your heart’s pain and finally allowing you to move on:
“I wish it were the same
As it is in my mind
I am lighter on my feet
When I’ve left some things behind”
To hear Angel Olsen perform this sparsely is to listen to the human soul express itself in all its rawness and fragility.
30. Aphex Twin // minipops 67 [120.2]
As any self-respecting music enthusiast ought to, I’d attempted to delve into Aphex Twin, reputation alone propelling me to dip my toes into a variety of sonic pools. Strangely though, that experience never grew into anything more than an inches deep appreciation, with the overwhelming feeling that I was having a removed experience, positioned on the outside looking in without my own contemporary appreciation of the Richard D. James express. A green blimp was the symbol that became a salve to all those qualms. This was Syro, far from earth-shattering but undeniably my very own Aphex Twin experience, full of tangible energy and independent discovery rather than the received wisdom of a gazillion best-of lists.
29. Jessie Ware // Tough Love
Jessie Ware is not the popstar we deserve – nor the kind we seem to want if the charts are to be believed – but she’s certainly the kind we need. ‘Tough Love’, the title-track of the follow-up to 2012’s Devotion is lyrically sparse, but sonorous with meaning: an intelligent, delicate ode to the unrecognisable, undefinable and uncontrollable feeling of love; to daydreams of heavenly “clouds of glory” structured in direct contrast to the human – here cast as patriarchal – desire to do the exact opposite: to ground and define. This consciousness in her craft is matched by her keen ear for collaboration, these sentiments matched in spades by BenZel’s alternately meditative and ecstatic, constantly expanding and collapsing production, a stream of bubbles that captures and melds these thoughts and candid breaths together.
28. Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars // Uptown Funk
An absolute barnstormer, channeling everything Mark Ronson knows about Parliament/Funkadelic/Chic/Trammps-era funk – which one would barter is a veritable shitload – and channelling it into a retro-futuristic burst of shamelessly repeatable, endlessly itchy feet satisfying pop brilliance.
27. Against Me! // Black Me Out
A furious, euphoric, enraged and enraptured close to an album and a chapter of Laura Jane Grace’s life that challenged all others to equal it as a vital, purging expression of music as a means for expression and empowerment.
26. Kindness // This Is Not About Us
There’s a sparse dissonance at the heart of ‘This Is Not About Us’. It’s there in that weird compelling mixture of tropical, old school hip-hop sounding percussion with the melancholy of the core piano loop and Adam Bainbridge’s vocals. It’s there in the resulting awkward danceability which is captured in the video: a half-choreographed, half-freestyle mess of a routine. It’s the sound of a man getting oil and vinegar to meld, as he channels the simultaneously overwhelming and underwhelming feeling of release you get as you admit to the truth of a relationship gone sour, of repentant positivity in a moment of outright negativity.
25. Caribou // Can’t Do Without You
Slice ‘Can’t Do Without You’ in half at its close and you’ll see laid bare what feels so complex as it runs its course. Steadily pooling oxymoronic layers construct this quiet belter, each ridden with warmth, resplendent with bleakness. It’s a slow-burning chemical reaction which cuts out at the moment it reaches its peak, a perfect sonic encapsulation of its titular sentiment: that feeling of helplessness which matches the longing.
24. Arthur Beatrice // Ornament and Safeguard
A sensuous, lushly performed and produced distillation of everything that this band do so wonderfully. The first draw is that satisfying tension between the pop and the operatic, but what holds you in place are the vocals and the thoughts they’re expressing. Where the two are either supportive of one another or pointedly kept apart elsewhere on Working Out, here Orlando Leopard’s phlegmatic, reserved vocals and Ella Girardot’s delicate but lithe vocals are fully allowed to soar together in duet, an egalitarian, elegant picking through of human discontent and the desire to be heard and found.
23. tUnE-yArDs // Water Fountain
tUnE-yArDs, making social consciousness fun since 2010. Merril Garbus’ polemic about climate change – whether it be to your local neighbourhood or the planet itself – is witty, earnest, acerbic, bizarre and unwavering in its purpose, using all her available and sustainable resources in order for it to worm its way into your head. Irritatingly catchy are the hopscotch handclaps and schoolyard sing-song, the superficial innocence of which rendering like “nothing feels like dying like the drying of my skin and lungs” – all the more cutting, these childlike voices a reminder of who the real victims of the coming apocalypse will be.
22. Sun Kil Moon // Ben’s My Friend
In our desire to vehemently praise Mark Kozelek – or indeed anyone – for his/their capacity for raw, emotional, public earnesty and honesty of the display of the thoughts in his/their head in the names of artistry, perhaps the whole undignified War On Drugs saga is merely a par-for-course sub-pop-cultural serving of just deserts we get in exchange for the other side of the coin.
The main shared wealth in that transaction of course is ‘Ben’s My Friend’, the track seemingly responsible for everything Kozelek composed in 2014 and which translates the source of the frustrated, all-too-human lashing out seen elsewhere. Its beauty in every musical layer both frames and provides release from the acerbically self-analytical, sarcastic wit at the heart of its narrative: a meltdown brought on by writer’s block and middle-aged mediocrity, naturally resolved by the quiet eruption of professional jealousy that results from seeing Ben Gibbard busting moves at a Postal Service concert.
21. FKA Twigs // Two Weeks
Almost every aspect of FKA Twigs is unsettling. Which is entirely the point. ‘Two Weeks’ is the nexus of the tension that plays out over the course of LP1, tying together the overcompensating assertiveness of “motherfucker, get your mouth open you know you’re mine” with the sense of submission that lies elsewhere (“you know I’d put you first”; “My thighs are apart for when you’re ready to breathe in”). Here the darkly sexy is dark for a reason, not for mere provocation, instead highlighting the uncomfortable gender politics at play. This is where the intimidation lies, in her very un-intimidated positioning: the intrepid, incorrigible, intimacy of her sound and vision, and the power that gives her. Tahliah Barnett is awkward and authentic, an outlier who forced her way to the centre in 2014 in order to be heard loud and clear.