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Music Times 25 Best Songs of 2014: Taylor Swift, Kendrick Lamar, Hozier, St. Vincent & More

 

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2014 was the year of a thousand controversies: Taylor Swift pulled all of her music from Spotify, Sun Kil Moon started a feud with The War On Drugs, Jack White accused The Black Keys of ripping him off (again), and almost nobody went platinum. When you put all of that aside, however, what you're left with is a bunch of incredible songs, which is really what it's all about. Here are the 25 best songs from 2014, as determined by Music Times writers Ryan Book, Caitlin Carter, Joey DeGroot, Kyle Dowling, and Carolyn Menyes.

25. A$AP Rocky feat. Gesaffelstein - "In Distress"

French producer Gesaffelstein's name has usually come with the follow-up association to Kanye West's "Black Skinhead," but we music writers might want to consider linking him with this gem from the Divergent soundtrack instead. Nothing about the industrial thump of "In Distress" suggests it makes any sense on soundtracks aimed at Top 40 listeners but—again, like Yeezy—A$AP Rocky has both enough studio smarts and street cred to make his hustle fit the dystopian world of the film. The Mockingjay soundtrack may be the best teen-lit-gone-Hollywood album of the year, but this track takes the song's trophy. Our only complaint: No uncensored version to be found on iTunes. —RB

24. The War On Drugs - "Under The Pressure"

Though many have noted (and even criticized) the War On Drugs' deep debt to American classic rock, they're arguably one of our country's most progressive and inventive rock bands. Just listen to “Under The Pressure”; sure, Adam Granduciel plays soaring guitar solos and sings like Tom Petty, but this is all buried in a dense, psychedelic haze where the lines between each instrument are totally blurred, backed by an unflinching, hypnotic, and almost krautrock-tinged groove. Tom Petty’s a great songwriter, but he’d never dream of doing something like this. JD

23. Future - "Move That Dope"

Although Future’s name fell into the background this year following the release of Honest, “Move That Dope” has managed to power through. Mike WiLL Made-It’s production incorporates some otherworldly wobbles and twitches that continue to keep me intrigued for some reason, and with Pusha T, Pharrell and Casino on deck, this song goes (semi) hard while still managing to throw in a dorky Lord of the Rings reference. —CC

22. Bleachers - "Shadow"

Jack Antonoff received, perhaps, more attention during 2014 merely for being friends with Taylor Swift than for his band Bleachers and its excellent debut album Strange Desire. Despite his pal's admitted conversion to pure pop, Swift couldn't touch the bubbly sensation that Bleachers left with its listeners. Nor, we'd argue, could any pop performer this year. Leading the charge among fellow spirit-raising singles "I Wanna Get Better" and "Rollercoaster" was "Shadow," a track mired in typical cynicism throughout its verses before delivering a pounding of positivity during its anthemic hook. Antonoff, a New Jersey native, may not be Bon Jovi yet, but at least he's giving love a good name. —RB

21. Interpol - "All The Rage Back Home"

It was nice to know that in 2014, Interpol was back. After releasing two sub-par albums Our Love to Admire and Interpol, the New York indie rock band’s 2014 offering El Pintor was a true return to form. The album’s opening track and lead single “All The Rage Back Home” brings out the best in Interpol: a slow, steady build, a gloomy and pensive verse and then a grooving chorus, on par with some of Interpol’s best upbeat tracks (see: “Slow Hands,” “PDA”). This song was a bona fide hit with the band and its fans, quickly giving Interpol back a bit of its glory days and a wonderful 2014. —CM

20. Taylor Swift - "Out of the Woods"

Taylor Swift has totally redefined herself with her latest album 1989, which depending on who you ask, is either a good or bad thing. Whichever way you find yourself swaying, the truth is that “Out of the Woods” is a stellar track and a stunning achievement in songwriting for the young 25-year-old songwriter … despite whether or not she wrote this track completely by herself. The song holds a verse that is wrought with emotional struggle and a chorus that is made for those looking to let everything out — of the woods. —KD

(Editor's Note: the studio version of this song is unavailable on both Spotify and Youtube, so here's a live performance instead!)

19. Sturgill Simpson - "The Promise"

An Americana/roots country cover of “The Promise” by When in Rome should just not work on principle. How does a songwriter blend together New Wave with a twangy voice and acoustic guitar? But not every musician is Sturgill Simpson. On his glowing new album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Simpson tackled “The Promise,” giving the glitzy 1980s hit a heartfelt, personal make-under. Simpson’s pensive, beautiful vocals are deep and concentrated, giving a renewed emphasis to the track’s loving, heartbreaking lyrics. The crescendo near the end of this song is where Simpson truly shines, making this song one of country’s best offerings of the year. —CM

18. Sam Smith - "Money On My Mind"

Sam Smith is one of the year’s breakout artists. His debut album In The Lonely Hour was brimming with emotion. However, “Money On My Mind” seemed to show him at his least vulnerable, which is why out of all the songs, this one stands out. Instead of being the victim of unrequited love, he makes a bold statement about something he can control: his craft. “I don’t have money on my mind,” he proclaims. “I do it for the love.” By now, we all know the UK crooner can sing like an angel skating on butter. Although songs like “Stay With Me” and “I’m Not The Only One” hit us right in the feels, “Money on My Mind” gives us that same passion without the sadness, proving that Smith can write a song without having to be dumped first. —CC

17. Jack White - "Just One Drink"

Though Jack White’s second studio solo album Lazaretto is full of bluesy rock nuggets, including the title track, “Would You Fight for My Love” and “High Ball Stepper,” there’s just something about a rootsy, classically influenced basic rock song that really resonated with us in 2014. “Just One Drink” perfectly captures the evolution of White’s music: the piano, the pounding rhythms and a mild Southern influence are all new White, while maintaining his basic rock and garage roots. Throw in some lyrics about a doomed, opposites-attract couple, and you have just another hit in White’s ever-expansive discography. —CM

16. Cloud Nothings - "Psychic Trauma"

For about 45 seconds, “Psychic Trauma” promises to be the closest thing that Cloud Nothings has ever come to a ballad, with its relatively leisurely tempo and relaxed beat, but then on a dime, the track comes roaring to life, as if someone suddenly flicked the RPM switch from 33 to 45. From that point on, the song is absolutely blistering, played with such intensity that it threatens to collapse under its own weight at any moment. —JD

15. Sun Kil Moon - "Dogs"

If “Dogs” proves anything about Mark Kozelek, it’s that he doesn’t at all care about the “proper” ways to write a song. Here we have a song that takes its name from a different song (Pink Floyd’s “Dogs”) and runs through 11 verses in five-and-a-half minutes, but never once goes to a chorus or even an instrumental break. It should be incredibly boring, but Kozelek writes with such brutal honesty that he could drag you along for twice as long with his shockingly explicit and heartbreaking vignettes. —JD

14. The Black Keys - "Weight of Love"

Going into The Black Keys’ new album Turn Blue having only heard the singles, I was skeptical, but "Weight of Love" sold me. This is really the first time Dan Auerbach has gone for the extended guitar solo, and it was badass. Clocking it at almost seven-minutes, the song starts off with a sultry western twang and wanders for a while before vocals, drums, and bass even kick in, and by some miracle, the song doesn’t feel tired by the time he launches into his solo. The lyrics also seem more personal than anything else I’ve heard from Auerbach. He seems crushed from the weight of his divorce, and this song acts as his therapy. —CC

13. Jenny Lewis - "Just One of the Guys"

“There’s only one difference between you and me / When I look at myself all I can see / Is just another lady without a baby,” Jenny Lewis sings on the lead single from her second solo album The Voyager. And there lies the true key of “Just One of the Guys” and this album as a whole: Lewis is brutally honest in her lyrics. Words aside, the melody to this song moves along at a crawling pace, but it still is able to retain that singsong essence that makes for a good earworm. Throw some guest vocals from producer Beck into the mix, and you have one of the best tracks from not only the album but Lewis’s career. —CM

12. Ty Segall - "Feel"

Whenever an old hack like Gene Simmons laments the death of rock ‘n’ roll, I always want to grab him by his head and shout, “How can rock be dead when Ty Segall is alive?!!” How can anyone hear a song like “Feel,” with its elastic bass line, Earth-scorching fuzz, and heavenly falsettos, and say that rock is a dying art form? The only plausible explanation is that they haven’t heard a song like “Feel.” —JD

11. Sia - "Chandelier"

Before “Uptown Funk” hit the radio, Sia’s “Chandelier” was the true pop gem of 2014 – though it still ranks high on Music Times’s list. What truly helps “Chandelier” glisten is the layered meanings of Sia’s lyricism. The repeated phrase “1, 2, 3, drink,” is a popular chant at college parties, but it hides a darker meaning in Sia’s single: the protagonist is popular at parties but is alone at the end of the day, so she keeps drinking “till morning light.” As if the message of the song wasn’t enough to make it a standout of the year, Sia’s vocals in “Chandelier” are as on-point as ever, with her high notes swinging just like the song’s title phrase. “Chandelier” also helped to break Sia into her first major solo success, launching her album 1000 Forms of Fear to No. 1 in the U.S. —CM

10. Ryan Adams - "My Wrecking Ball"

‘80s new wave and synthpop will pretty much always be in vogue in the indie rock world, but between The War On Drugs and Ryan Adams, 2014 will be known as the year when mainstream ‘80s rock (or “heartland rock”) came back in style. In particular, Ryan Adams’s incredible “My Wrecking Ball” sounds like the missing link between Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska and Born in the USA, a heartbreaking acoustic ballad submerged in reverb with some mournful synths to back it up. You can call it “dad rock” all you want, but keep in mind that dads sometimes listen to pretty great music. —JD

9. Run The Jewels - "Blockbuster Night, Part 1"

El-P, despite garnering years of adoration from independent hip-hop fans, never reached full mainstream appreciation until he met Killer Mike, another icon of the underground. The latter emcee deals bars in a straightforward, brutal manner opposite of the former's more Faulknerian jabs. El, also the primary producer behind Run The Jewels, still raps the same but found his cohort's approach handy when crafting beats. Where once his music pushed the borders of progressive rock in terms of density and influence, now tracks such as "Blockbuster Night Part 1" follow a simple, crushing bass line, stomping on the Emerald City of hip-hop rather than swarming it as he might have on his solo releases in the past. Mike, for his part, does what he's always done best: His line "top of the morning / my fist in your face is f-----g Folgers" gets our vote for best alliteration of the year. —RB

8. The Roots - "When The People Cheer"

The lead single off their latest album …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, “When The People Cheer” begins with the familiar, childhood sound of a music box before taking listeners out of that comfort zone and exposing them to some truths courtesy of Black Thought, Greg Porn and Modesty Lycan. Using satire, they tear into what has become the stereotype of hip-hop culture. The protagonist is drawn in by fame, drugs, money and beautiful woman but is ultimately taken down by the lies that come along with those vices. Life has lost its value, and “god” has abandoned them, so they try to find peace by getting high and getting ass. Out of all the hip-hop that has come out this year, The Roots remain one of the biggest players in conscious rap, and it doesn’t hurt that their instrumentals continue to push boundaries as well. —CC

7. Father John Misty - "Bored in the USA"

A harsh take Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The USA,” the first single off his upcoming album I Love You Honeybear is a takedown of American materialism. The song takes on capitalism, pharmaceutical addiction, organized religion, white privilege, the separation of church and state, greed, vanity, disappointment, apathy, and the false promise of the American dream. "Save me, White Jesus," he sings. "They gave me a useless education / A subprime loan and Craftsman home / Keep my prescriptions filled / Now I can't get off / But I can kind of deal / Oh, with being Bored in the USA." The ballad is at once tragic and comedic, so it’s no wonder it came from the pen of J. Tillman. —CC

6. Hozier - "Take Me To Church"

Each year brings that unexpected sleeper alt-rock hit, and following Passenger’s “Let Her Go” and Bastille’s “Pompeii,” Irish singer-songwriter Hozier’s “Take Me to Church” ruled the charts. Eventually peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, “Take Me to Church” is getting some well-deserved successes. Hozier’s lovelorn lyrics, pure vocal passion and the rich, layered production, the loud and beautiful instrumentation and production helped this track to truly resonate with audiences, putting Hozier in the same house as some of today’s biggest music megastars. —CM

5. Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars - "Uptown Funk"

Leave it to Bruno Mars to drop one of the hottest pop songs of 2014. Almost two years after the release of his sophomore effort Unorthodox Jukebox, Mars teamed up with Mark Ronson to release the lead single from the throwback album Uptown Special, the fittingly titled “Uptown Funk.” Although the two previously worked together on “Gorilla” and “Locked Out of Heaven,” “Uptown Funk” brings the retro-tastic vibes of the ‘60s together with modern production, giving this song a new and old school flavor. Moreover, Mars’s cockiness and sass makes “Uptown Funk” a true braggarts anthem for the rest of us. —CM

4. TV On The Radio - "Happy Idiot"

Tunde Adebimpe, the vocalist for alt-rock stalwarts TV On The Radio, could double as a splendid R&B solo performer should the band call it quits. Due in part to his role on bedroom jams such as "Will Do," we can't imagine what an angry Adebimpe might sound like. This also makes "Happy Idiot" one of the more frightening songs of 2014 (coming from your correspondent, a noted metal fan). Whereas some might cry over love lost (Banks) and some might threaten murder over a heart broken (Eminem), TV's frontman can only flatly tell us that he's committed mental suicide to shake lingering memories. The emotionless tone behind lines such as "I'm gonna bang my head to the wall 'til I feel like nothing at all" serves as an uncomfortable reminder that those who suffer quietly spread the wealth more often in the long run. If, however, you'd rather ignore our psychological analysis of the protagonist, no problem: "Happy Idiot" serves as a quick blast of dance rock if you ignore the underlying narrative. —RB

3. Lana Del Rey - "West Coast"

With the release of “West Coast,” Lana Del Rey’s music finally converged with the complexity and intensity of her persona, and it was glorious. The surf rock guitar, the reggae drums, the gothic atmosphere; say what you will about Lana Del Rey, but there’s nobody else in American pop music that sounds quite like her. Plenty of artists these days love to coat their songs in reverb, but rarely is the effect used as brilliantly as it is here, evoking images of a glamorous yet sinister California that probably doesn’t even exist anymore. —JD

2. Kendrick Lamar - "i"

Kendrick Lamar is one of the most exciting players in hip-hop today, and the first taste of his upcoming sophomore album continues to push the envelope. Just when fans thought they had the Compton rapper figured out, he released an outlier song about self-love and perseverance with a groovy Isley Brothers sample to bring it all home. Lamar is becoming the voice of a generation, and he is building his legacy on the power of positivity. —CC

1. St. Vincent - "Birth in Reverse"

The music of our era is defined by “revivals”— emo revival, nu-disco, ‘80s and ‘90s throwbacks — which is why St. Vincent stands out so distinctly. “Birth in Reverse” isn’t a throwback to anything, but rather a glimpse into the future, with its mechanical synth rumblings and breathless drums, but despite its technical idiosyncrasies, this is still a pop song at heart, and it's catchy as all hell. Annie Clark is the David Bowie of our generation, realizing that if you have a great song to back yourself up with, you can be as avant-garde and bizarre as you want to be. You might even find yourself performing on Saturday Night Live one day (but whether or not people will understand you is a different story entirely). —JD

What were your favorite songs of 2014? Let us know down in the comments section!

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