Although I spent more time watching live music in 2014 than any previous year (110 shows and counting), I still found the time to slip on my headphones and keep track of many of (and by no means all) the songs released over the past year. With the growing demise of the “Music Industry” and the transformation of listening patterns, it is difficult to make any sort of grandiloquent statement about a dominant theme or sound. Of course there were certain genres that dominated my listening habits because of mood and predilections and others that I didn’t spend as much time with. [HINT: To my friends that listen to hip hop and rap, please tell me what I missed, aside from the Run the Jewels album and the return of D’Angelo.] One thing I’ve loved about the rise of the musician driven industry (as opposed to large record label driven industry) of the streaming generation is the how musical genres have become porous and meaningless. When I was growing up, it seemed every artist had to fit into a category (e.g., rock, pop, country, hip-hop, etc.) to succeed. Being outside the “known” made your music difficult to sell or program. Nowadays, I think there is a far more democratic process: the quality of the music or word supersedes outdated notions of “genre”. But, in all fairness, this has always been part of music. It is just that now we can appreciate the cutting edge in the moment as opposed to after the fact (i.e., The Velvet Underground or Television, who sold less records then the amount of musicians they inspired).
Okay off the soapbox…
So, when you ask me, what did you listen to in 2014? Simple answer: a lot of excellent and moving music. The playlist below represents the songs that most impressed me in the past year, not simply for their musical creativity but also for their lyrical ingenuity. Many of these songs tell stories about the trials and tribulations of the human condition (e.g., growing up, growing old, looking back, fighting on, love, death, shattered dreams, relationships, epiphanies, etc.). The songs on this list resonated with my thoughts and experiences or sometimes they just made me want to dance (ok too!) or both. Hopefully, you’ll find some of that too. But regardless enjoy. Listen (by clicking) here: TopTrax2014: You’ll Get Better With Age
What follows is a “concise” explanation for why the songs are here. As in years past, I try not to repeat artists on this list to increase the amount of folks on this list. However, I’d be lying if there weren’t certain artists that could have made multiple appearances. Well I added the extra ones at the end. It was my compromise. (p.s. all typos are intentional, except in the few instances in which they are not. Also if you enjoy, please share, don’t hide a playlist away from the rest of the world!) – a.a.
- “Seasons (Waiting on You)” by Future Islands – From the moment I heard this song, I knew it would be on constant repeat for the foreseeable future. I think this about as close as you get to the platonic ideal of a pop song. From the slow soothing opening to the gradual build and the explosive pop catharsis, Future Islands absolutely found musical magic on this one. … And the bittersweet lover’s pleading and remorse. What more do you want?
- “Windows” by Angel Olsen – At times we can get so lost in our spiraling isolated thoughts, which can often be unpleasant. We become convinced of our perceived reality and our way of looking at the world and we close ourselves off. For me sadly that often leads to darker places. This song found me at one of these extended junctures and reminded me with its very simple yet poignant refrain that sometimes we need to shift our perspective and seek the light (in whatever literal or figurative form it takes). Music has the ability to heal our wounds and inspire. As Tweedy once said “I was saved by rock and roll”. There are many who have been.
- “Inside Out” by Spoon – Shifting gears. Gosh, this song is so sensual and soothing. Britt Daniel has one of the most unique, infectious voices in music and this song gets me every time. It’s got that raucous soulful energy of 70s Stones.
- “Your Love Is Killing Me” by Sharon Van Etten – Another singer that absolutely enthralls and impresses me with her unabashed openness. SVE lays her soul bare for the listener and makes us see that we all feel the intense and all-encompassing roller coaster of emotions of love. But, in this song, the musical accompaniment is grandiose and epic, a self-contained drama. You feel spent after listening. Seeing her perform this live at Pitchfork was one of my favorite moments of live music all year.
- “Coffee” by Sylvan Esso — All I can say is this song feels like home. Or the home and nook I want to crawl into with the titular beverage and watch the world go by, gleefully reminiscing on all the wondrous moments of days and years past, and getting up to groove in in its rhythms.
- “Chris Issak” by Lydia Loveless – If you have discussed music with me in 2014, you have probably heard me extol the virtues of Lydia Loveless as one of the finest young songwriters of her generation. Sure Lorde and Taylor Swift are more well-known but neither has yet to write a song with the depth of understanding, heartache, and perspective of this young woman. At 24 years of age, she betrays a lyrical wisdom beyond her years. This song perfectly captures what I adore about her songwriting: the romantic longing that fuels love juxtaposed with self-flagellating remorse of desiring against the odds. And she does this by identifying these specific, yet universal moments (which many of us can relate to) such driving aimlessly around all night listening to a song that reminds of you of a lover.
- “Red Eyes” by The War on Drugs – Some folks say Rock n Roll is dead. I think their declarations are premature. “Red Eyes” is a reminder that anthemic guitar rock will always inspire us to burn like firecrackers into the night. This song is pure unbridled awesomeness. (Yeah, it is a word.)
- “Heart Is a Drum” by Beck – Beck doing his best Nick Drake impersonation and finding all sorts of bittersweet hippie-tinged melodic 70s rock.
- “Asleep” by Makthaverskan – These punkish Swedes capture the energy and euphoria of New Wave with such perfect precision. I sway and bop to this song every time. Do you hear hints of 80s Cure? I do and it makes me giddy.
- “Digital Witness” by St. Vincent – Annie Clark is unquestionably a musical genius. And, here she also demonstrates her acute sense of cultural critique/observation sandwiched between Talking Heads percussive pop. The mantra of the Insta-generation: “What’s the point of even sleeping? If I can’t show it, you can’t see me. What’s the point of doing anything?”
- “Trouble is My Name” by the Dum Dum Girls – Dreamy female-fronted indie rock? I am and have always been a sucker for this. The Dum Dums always capture nihilistic romantic ruminations with Lynchian-like haunting beauty.
- “Just Like A Dream” by Lykke Li – Hey look, another Swede with an amazing pop song? Pundits described Lykke’s music as dark and depressing. I only see a keen observer of the tumultuous emotional roller-coaster of existence dressed in lush, baroque pop accoutrements. Her voice melts me every time.
- “Precious Love” by How To Dress Well – Tom Krell’s last record was filled with sober reflections of loss. On his most recent effort, he brings back his smooth, sparse R&B styling with angelic falsetto to provide odes to the amorous side of life.
- “Murmurs” by Hundred Waters – When I went to see Julia Holter some time back, this band from Gainesville opened and I totally fell in love with them at the first note. They melds otherworldly vocals reminiscent of the 4AD 80s sound (aka Cocteau Twins) with a wall of atmospheric electronics beats.
- “Two Weeks” by FKA Twigs – . . . another sultry and sexy R&B saturated electronic Downtempo track for a chill evening.
- “Say You Love Me” by Jessie Ware – Dialing it back to the R&B pop of the late 80s, Jessie Ware has the ability to heal all wounds of love even as she pines for its fleeting nature. (In case you are wondering, yes, I am a hopeless romantic.) But, the choral breakdown at minute 3 is yet another example of that perfect pop crescendo.
- “Hot Dad Calendar” by Cayetana – Start your engines and get ready to pump your fists in the air. The teenager in me will always be drawn to energy of lo-fi punk-tinged rock filled with youthful cries of optimism. The title to this year’s mix serves as reminder to all of us that settling isn’t really an option: “Kid you’ll be okay, you’ll get better with age!”
- “Heart Tattoo” by Joyce Manor – The title says all you need to know about the song and the band: sincere honest rock from sensitive boys. Why would anyone dislike this stuff? Perhaps because your soul is dark and you dislike awesome things? (Just kidding… sort of.)
- “I’m Not Part of Me” by Cloud Nothing – Following on theme of youthful punk observations of the world, another facet.
- “Ambassador Hotel (3400 Wilshire Blvd)” by Gabriel Kahane – Full disclosure, Gabe and I are friends. But, this doesn’t limit my ability to be critically appreciative of his music. From his concept record about various famous and infamous locales across Los Angeles, the “Ambassador Hotel” is perhaps the most poignant and heartbreaking piece of all. A sweet melody (that evokes 70s era Paul Simon) hides the underlying sadness of the track’s narrative: the decline and fall of a memorable “home” to Hollywood’s film stars of yore in the wake of Robert Kennedy’s shooting. Whether the closure is the cause or not, Gabe tells the story of the end of American innocence in the shuttering of a once-venerated building. How can we gleefully recall the frolicking of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford and (the twilight of) American Exceptionalism when many of our leading lights of progress, hope, and equality lie, fallen cold and dead?
- “Interference Fits” by Perfect Pussy – Meredith Graves is one of the most charismatic performers and an amazingly articulate writer. Aside from an unrelenting and furiously dynamic stage presence, she writes with such thoughtfulness about the still prevailing and under-the-surface misogyny and homophobia in music today. See her response to Mark Kozelak’s disgusting song and remarks regarding the War on Drugs.
- “Not Mine to Love” by Slow Club – A torch song masterpiece.
- “Time to Dance” by the Jezabels – I discovered this band thanks to my friend Gaby, who shares my penchant for dance-infused 80s pop-rock (think: Go Go’s, Bananarama). This song is all about the power of music and dance to rouse one out of a funk. If the Jezabels don’t get you grooving, I can’t do anything for you.
- “Gimme Something Good” by Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams is one of my favorite songwriters of all time. Between his Whiskeytown work and Heartbreaker, he could close up shop and I’d be good. Over the years, I’ve paid less attention to his music as it didn’t resonate with me as much. But on his eponymously titled record, he once again totally captivated me. Perhaps being in your late 30s and starting to reminisce about where your life has been (and is going?), this track has particular significance. Or, maybe it continues a common theme of these songs, seeking something else, something more, something greater.
- “Beggin’ for Thread” by Banks – An intoxicating voice, a clever metaphor, a sultry dance beat. I’m sold on this track and on this young LA chanteuse to continue to win new admirers.
- “Dangerous Days” by Zola Jesus – I am starting to run out of words to explain how much I adore entrancing female vocals backed by a dance beat. I just want to dance to this song every time it comes on.
- “Can’t Do without You” by Caribou – I am reminded of sweaty late 90s dance floors: a pounding dance beat and a slow build towards a late and subtle release. I am over those EDM bass drops. Let’s go back to some real dance music.
- “She’s Not Me” by Jenny Lewis – Usually songs told from an ex-lover are filled with longing, regret, and confusion, but here the narrator recognizes why it is over and that there will be no second act: there was passion and intensity but the ex wants something entirely different.
- “Your Deep Rest” by The Hotelier – This might be one of the most Emo lines ever (and I kind of love it): “I called in sick from your funeral, the sight of your body made me feel uncomfortable”.
- “Tell Me” by S – Jenn Ghetto’s Cool Choices was introduced to me late in the 2014 game and it has been the soundtrack of my winter. With the journal-like lyricism of Tegan and Sara, a sparse neo-folk rock mixed with electronic samples her music cuts to the core: “Tell me that it’s over. Was it ever really worth it? We can’t always be in love.”
- “Call Me” by St Paul & the Broken Bones – Brining back that soulful big band style. Oh it’s good in every fiber of your being.
- “Evil” by PHOX – Wisconsin-based troubadours that evoke a timeless blend of folk and big band flourish. These guys are immensely talented and inspiring set of performers, whose shows are also amazingly life-affirming. See them in person, you’ll be pleased.
- “Party Police” by Alvvays – I think I’ve mentioned how I enjoy dream, whimsical pop. Well here’s more.
- “MTLOV (Minor Keys)” by A Sunny Day in Glasgow – Seven years ago these guys put out an album Scribble Mural Comic Journal that I thought was a revelation of experimental found-sound, textural genius that combined pleasantly weird qualities of the The Books and art rock of Broken Social Scene. I think this track (along with album) bring their sound to a more accessible and pleasant pop aesthetic.
- “How You Got That Girl” by Ex Hex – These ladies were possibly the most rocking group I saw all year. On this track, Mary Timony (of Helium and Wild Flag) blends a Ramones-like austere punk rock with the sweet pop of the Cars.
- “Same Emotions” by Strand of Oaks – It is as if I turned on the radio to lost transmissions from the AM dial of the 1970s.
- “Dearly Departed” by Shakey Graves – You wouldn’t think a singer named Alejandro Rose-Garcia could produce such gritty, earth-worn folk-y Americana, but it makes me feel less alone for my love of this genre. This is a sit-around-the-campfire sing-a-long for long summer nights. But should keep you warm by the winter fire too.
- “Pas Les Saisons” by Mina Tindle – I’ll admit I don’t know what Mina is saying because I don’t speak French and didn’t seek out a translation, but boy do I love the breathiness of her voice juxtaposed against the upbeat dance-pop of this song. (She reminds me of Autor De Lucie for those who have a thing for French pop.)
- “Day To Day” by The Casket Girls – Both trance and dirge-like with lots of fuzz and minimal percussion, these ladies and drummer (from Black Moth Super Rainbow) cast a captivating stage and aural presence. Imagine if Sleigh Bells met the Shangri-La’s. Yes, an odd combination but so perfect.
- “School” by Frankie Cosmos – A whimsical reverie about being sad, young, and anxious. Sign me up!
- “Fall In Place” by La Sera — Katie Goodman (formerly of the Vivian Girls) has found the recipe for melding new wave sounds with 80s indie guitar rock reminiscent of Dinosaur Jr.
- “My Silver Lining” by First Aid Kit – The Swedish Empire strikes again with their amazing ability to replicate American pop music. Before they worked through a blend of country folk, on this track they get all cosmic and trippy invoking Gram Parsons and 70s mystical rock. Keep on, keepin’ on, my sisters.
- “Lights Out” by Angel Olsen – The first repeat artist on this list. Another song about persevering through the challenges that life throws at us. I think this a beautifully concise description of the challenges of language and communication: “No one’s gonna hear it the same as it’s said/ No one is gonna listen to it straight from your head.”
- “History Eraser” by Courtney Barnett – A latter-day version of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kublai Khan”? Courtney fell asleep and wrote a great song in her dream but forgot it. This is what she came up with instead. If only all our attempts and recapturing our lost thoughts were this brilliant.
- “How Can You Really” by Foxygen – The gents of Foxygen are prone to audacious artistic statements (and self-destructive performances), but when they find the right formula, they make you fall into a gorgeous time warp of peace signs and free love daydreams.
- “White Sheet” by Bellows – Not sure how I discovered this song (and record) but I become kind of obsessed by Bellows entrancing voice and scattershot lo-fi experimental folk reminiscent of the Moldy Peaches. I want to envelop myself in this song.
- “Real Thing” by Tune-Yards – Merrill Garbus is a joy to watch on stage. She exudes enthusiasm and love for her work and audience. When she sings she can be both playful and scathing, criticizing our cultural hypocrisies. I like thinking this song is response to the really obnoxious piece Chuck Klosterman wrote about her some years past.
- “Happy Alone” by Saintseneca – A pleasant song about accepting solitary wandering. Perhaps I can just relate.
- “Bored in the USA” by Father John Misty – I am. Aren’t you? Josh Tillman’s stage moniker is part folk prophet and part parody of a rock star. A mystical wander that observes the world for both its hypocrisies and reality, all the while recognizing that he as person, artist, and thinker is complicit in perpetuating the illusions and delusions sold to him as part of the “American Dream”. On this track, he does his best Harry Nilsson impression while questioning (and indicting) what we’ve come to accept in 21st Century America. Are we really just playing parts in a syndicated reality TV show? Cue canned offstage laughter. It isn’t upbeat folk, but it’s honest. We could use more of that.
- “Burning” by The War on Drugs – “I’m just a burning man trying to keep the ship from turning over.”
If you’ve gotten this far, I’m impressed.
- “Madman” by Sean Rowe – As an urban discontent I revel in this line: “In the City there is a way just to make you forget about half the things that you love and stuff you don’t know yet, about the space that is left where nobody talks… “
- “real” by Wild Moccasins – A little Spanish indie rock about questioning what is real. In life. In love.
- “American Horror” by Speedy Ortiz – Punk goodness
- “Gouge” by Eternal Summers – Guitar jamming goodness
- “Good Man” by Nikki Lane – Country goodness
Baroque pop goodness follows
- “Volunteers of America” by The Both
- “Talking Backwards” by Real Estate
- “Philosophize In It! Chemicalize With It.” by Kishi Bashi
- “Lgbt” by Lowell – A track about celebrating love in all its forms and celebrating that the cultural paradigm shift is on. To quote Dylan, “your old road is rapidly agin’, please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand.”
- “Parade” by The Antlers – This NY trio always makes spellbinding, shimmering, sumptuous tracks to ease the weary mind.
- “Snow in Newark” by Ryan Hemsworth – Two years back, Ryan played an amazing DJ set at Pitchfork filled with the perfect blend of chill Downtempo and groovy dance. On this track, he captures that spirit to perfection.
- “Sony” by The Range – Last year the Range dropped an album from out of nowhere and totally has been a constant part of my late night chill sessions. Following in the vein of making layered, intoxicating Downtempo beats, this track is another one for the late night list.
- “The Mission” by The Jepettos – A song about the constant searching and the joy of community. (Contrary to popular belief I’m not a curmudgeon . . . just difficult.)
The next three are all about atmosphere, texture, and otherworldly vocals
- “Red Dust” by James Vincent McMorrow
- “Daunting Friend” by Lost In the Trees
- “September Fields” by Frazey Ford
- “Body” by Karen O – Lo-fi acoustic story about longing? Smitten at the first chord.
- “No Time” by Dub Thompson – Did I just walk into a psych-rock band playing a mix of the Doors and the Wailers? Yes.
Who says the indie rock kids can’t dance and have fun? Not the next three
- “Time Pirate” by Tacocat
- “Tongues” by Paws
- “Award of the Year Award” by You Blew It! (also great song title)
- “Hunger of the Pine” by alt-J – Pitchfork knocked them because they weren’t the next Radiohead. So what they are the only alt-J and there music is otherworldly good.
- “Fall In Love” by Phantogram – I skipped Arctic Monkeys at Lollapalooza to see these guys. My soul and feet were very thankful. Yours will be too.
- “Today and a Lonely Night” by Justin Townes Earle – Always a place in my heart for a wistful country song. Few do them better than JTE.
- “Be Mine” by Alice Boman – Dreamy.
- “Don’t Wanna Dance” by Elle Varner – Have to love a song about disliking the songs a DJ is playing.
- “Bury Our Friends” by Sleater-Kinney –Oh how I’ve missed Corin Tucker’s piercing vocals and the aggressive staccato punk that exemplifies the SK sound. So glad they are back!
- “Shriek” by Wye Oak – More dreamy pop.
- “Start Again” by Bishop Allen – Remember when indie rock was poppy and upbeat and inspired foolish carefree dancing? Yeah I miss the early 00s. Bishop Allen brings it back.
Three sumptuous Downtempo tracks follow. What can I say, a boy needs to groove.
- “Form by Firelight” by Jon Hopkins
- “Talk Is Cheap” by Chet Faker
- “Trust in You” by Tourist
Okay get up and dance for the next couple of tracks.
- “Do It Again” by Royksopp & Robyn
- “Divinity” by Porter Robinson (with Amy Milan)
- “Somebody Loves You” by Betty
- “Colour” by Wild Club
- “Boom Clap” by Charli XCX – the Goth-y dance queen is ready to take America by storm.
- “But” by Dads – Remember how I mentioned my love of sincere, emotional boys singing about relationship? Well here is more of that. Deal with it.
- “You” by Alison Crutchfield – Former PS Eliot and current Swearin band member, Alison C. really weaves a spell on me here.
- “I’m Not Like You” by Nude Beach –Good old roots rock.
- “1000 Seasons” by The Rentals – Matt Sharp gets some help from Jess and Holly of Lucius to spin a web of nostalgic 90s indie rock. You CAN go home again.
- “Waterfall” by Fear of Men – Luscious, lullaby-like pop.
- “Killer in the Streets” by The Raveonettes – In many ways, these Danes are responsible for bringing back the blend of 60s girl-group pop with a dreamy-shoegazer soundscapes. After all these years, they are still making beautiful, dark, twisted masterpieces. (Kanye, not so much.)
- “Love is to Die” by Warpaint – Often a lot of post-rock is simply spartan and cavernous; these ladies infuse a sumptuous groove into the mix.
- “Fall Forever” by Honeyblood – Lovely dream pop.
- “Jackson” by Cymbals Eat Guitars – Emo-punk rock isn’t known for being epic and brash, but this song has the sort of dramatic, expansive feel of a “Bohemian Rhapsody” of emo.
- “Scum, Rise!” by Protomartyr – A wonderful upbeat post-punk number that feels like an unearthed track from the early 80s.
- “Forgive” by Porches featuring Greta Kline –Did the Human League reunite?
- “push pull” by Purity Ring – … is a new record on the way? The rise of indie-electornic music has made this boy quite happy and these Canadians make tracks I want to crawl inside for all eternity.
- “Shining” by Woods – Not enough hippie-jams in our world. I’ll get some sunflowers and we can frolic in the fields.
Those that just missed the cut but I couldn’t leave off.
- “Not Enough Violence” by Ariel Pink
- “Lifsins Olgusjor” by Samaris (if Manu Chao and Bjork collaborated)
- “Talk To God” by Goat (super trippy, avoid the use of drugs when listening to this)
- “Little Killer” by Merchandise
- “Sing to Me” by Walter Martin with Karen O
- “Summer Jorts” by Lockah
- “New Wave” by Varsity (local Chicago band check them out!)
- “Blah Blah Blah” by Girlpool (these guys are going to blow up)
Other tracks that would have made it but for my “do not repeat rule”.
- “Tarifa” by Sharon Van Etten
- “Head” by Lydia Loveless
- “Losers” by S
- “Repeat Pleasure” by How To Dress Well
- “Champagne Kisses” by Jessie Ware
- “Cavity” by Hundred Waters
- “Look of Love” by The Jezabels
- “Back in the Tall Grass” by Future Islands
- “No Mercy” by Makthaverskan
Au Revoir! Until the next 2014 year end list. Shows? Albums?