Year-end best of lists, without the consensus of an entire staff of writers covering the same medium, are nothing more than personal favorite lists.
As the lone Breitbart editor who follows the hipster underbelly of music, that’s all you’re getting here—the songs that I heard (and it’s truly impossible to hear them all, much less give them the time they deserve) and enjoyed the most. The silver lining, however, is that you can be sure these all come from personal discovery rather than publicist hype. My tastes lean toward pop and electronic music, so hardcore fans of country, metal, or hip-hop will surely be disappointed.
These are, in no particular order, songs that have stuck with me through the year, that still deliver strong feelings after listening to them hundreds of times—songs that have proven some level of longevity already.
In addition to this list, I keep a running Spotify collection of noteworthy songs through the year, which you can find here. This year, it ballooned to over 9 hours of music.
La Roux–”Let Me Down Gently”
As I described it back in July:
A breakup song stuck at the bargaining phase of grief. Elly Jackson pleads with an erstwhile lover: he (or she) is clearly moving on, but can’t it wait for just a little while? The synth-drenched arrangement doesn’t pound your subs quite like most Top 40, but its satisfying build is sultry and widescreen, even delivering a sexy sax solo.
After spending much more time with it, I’ve wondered what makes it work so well, as I’ve been underwhelmed by much of the rest of La Roux’s catalog. The key here, I think, is how understated Jackson’s vocals are, her vulnerability only slipping out on peak notes. This choice lets us know the character is preparing herself for a “no” or for her old flame to ignore her completely. The breakup-centric lyrics are already pretty universal, but the subtext from the impassive delivery cements it. When we get rejected so totally by someone we admire, our begging is futile but still absolutely necessary. It makes such a difference knowing we’ve spoken our peace, even if the words reach no one’s ears but our own.
Sisyphus–”Rhythm of Devotion”
Everything Sufjan Stevens touches turns to gold, which would explain the uneven quality of the self-titled album from indie supergroup Sisyphus; for the most part, Sufj and Son Lux’s talent for moody electronic arrangement makes it a good time, but some portions are dragged down far too much by their odder impulses, handed off to Serengeti—a rapper best known for a novelty character. Of the record’s 12 tracks, “Rhythm of Devotion” gets the heart beating hardest. The simple theme goes from a scraping metallic synth line to orchestra stabs to a pulse-pounding breakdown, Sufjan’s voice breaking like we haven’t heard since “Vesuvius.” Somehow the beat goes from goofy funk to bombastic drama, yet the shift comes naturally and powerfully. The lyrics speak of love freely given, of commitment without a guaranteed return, and just how bold one must be to make such a terrifying proposition in the modern world.
The Knocks (ft. X Ambassadors)–”Comfortable”
Pure swagger balanced by playfulness, oozing cool and earnest insecurity at once. These bouncing, superbly danceable four minutes tell the story of a man with game encountering a woman he can read instantly—one who’s truly bad news. She’s still toying with exes; she owns every room she walks into, and yet she’s enticing enough to make him approach. This song could have been a cornball banger, but the simmering, patient kick-snare beat gives it a spirit that’s rare in dance-floor pop tracks.
Tobacco (ft. Notrabel)–”Streaker”
Tom Fec has a lot of different names for his various music projects, but “Tobacco” is his stage name on all of them. 2014 was, luckily, a year for a new solo album from Tobacco, those special releases where Fec doesn’t feel any pressure to please or include his bandmates and can be as weird or aggressive as he wants to be. And on “Streaker,” man, does he deliver on weird and aggressive. He keeps finding ways to make his vocoder vocals deeper and more sinister, and when that gnarly chainsaw synth kicks in—goosebumps every single time. The first horror movie trailer to use this song will stand out from the pack in a way we haven’t seen in decades.
Porter Robinson–”Hear the Bells”
Too many cover songs take something already great and try to sponge off its popularity, but young Porter Robinson knows that a real satisfying cover takes a flawed song with some morsel of inspiration and molds it into perfection. That’s exactly what Robinson does on “Hear the Bells,” a reworking of Imaginary Cities’ “Bells of Cologne.” Gone are the too-busy live drum loop and the rockabilly guitar solo, and the instrumental punctuation on the chorus has become an earth-shattering anthemic moment crafted with actual dynamics to its buildup.
Britain’s Lucy Taylor evokes a roller disco dream world a la Olivia Newton-John, updating it for today’s Miami-centric portrait of night life. Neon color splashes all over the track, descending arpeggios anchored by synth bells lifting Taylor’s breathy coos, achieving a euphoric weightlessness. I can’t wait to see what she’ll deliver with a full-length record.
Though Trust’s Robert Alfons hails from Canada, “Rescue, Mister” sounds like it came from the darkest nook of Eastern Europe–with its gender-bending vocals floating over subterranean, detuned synths, the production is equal parts The Knife and Depeche Mode. It’s creepy, it’s unsettling, and yet it soars once it hits the chorus.
Mac DeMarco–”Passing Out Pieces”
I have no idea whether the background instrument in this is some sort of whacked-out harpsichord or what, but from the instant this song begins, it hits that sweet spot in the brain that great psychedelia always does. “Passing Out Pieces” doesn’t overstay its welcome or indulge itself in extraneous weirdness—instead balancing out its kaleidoscope sound with grounded ennui.
Vashti Bunyan–”Across the Water”
This is reportedly the final album from folk legend Vashti Bunyan (and actual descendant of Pilgrim’s Progress author John Bunyan), and what a tremendous start it has in this track. Her haunting voice, always hovering just above a whisper, floats on a breeze of solemn finger picking on an electric guitar. As the chorus fades, gentle xylophone chords wash over the arrangement—a surprisingly appropriate touch. If this is really the last we’ll hear from Bunyan, she has made very sweet sorrow of this parting.
Basement Jaxx–”We Are Not Alone”
Basement Jaxx struck SEO gold this year when they premiered a music video setting their single “Never Say Never” over a story of scientists struggling to create a twerking robot torso. The rest of their album Junto contained similarly pleasant dance tracks, but the real standout is “We Are Not Alone,” an earnest and worthy entry in the First Contact With Aliens So Peace On Earth genre. The soaring vocals and reserved beat are heavenly, like watching the stars—our distant perspective only hinting at their grandeur while still displaying a conspicuous beauty.
Royksopp & Robin–”Do It Again”
At once the hardest-hitting and most emotionally exhausting dance track of the year, it runs for 5 minutes and still leaves you wanting more. Two great pop artists are in top form here; it shouldn’t be missed.
Jessie Ware–”Want Your Feeling”
This British R&B singer is pure class—delivering soul over sentiment, sensuality over sex. On this choice track from her sophomore album Tough Love, we find a similar them to “Let Me Down Gently”—trying and failing to reverse a lover’s abandonment. However, whereas La Roux’s song isn’t quite gender-specific, in keeping with her androgynous image, Ware’s performance is womanly and delicate. She alternates from a low chest voice delivery to a high head voice, skipping an octave until the highs and lows literally duel each other and she croons over them in her best range.
Historically, when I have soured on music with live drums and guitars, either Deerhoof or Jack White would do something amazing to break my cynicism. However, White’s solo career has been a dud and Deerhoof’s new album La Isla Bonita was solid but forgettable. This year, my wake-up call came not from thrashy distorted riffs but from treacly Canadian indie rock. Alvvays hops from one moment of melodic brilliance to the next—all of it pure joy—and there’s hardly a synth to be heard!
Caribou (ft. Jessy Lanza)–”Second Chance”
I wasn’t as enamored by the whole of Caribou’s Our Love as many other critics were; the first half abandons accessible melodies much too often. However, starting with “Second Chance,” the album’s second half is magnificent. This pulsing synth line, detuning and oscillating to a near-incomprehensible blur, as Jessy Lanza’s tight vocals (with a delightful Grimes-esque lisp) bind the production together.
The Drums–”Wild Geese”
The Drums’ Portamento was one of 2011’s best albums, and while this year’s Encyclopedia falters in places, its closer “Wild Geese” is on par with the band’s best material. With mournful synth voices taking the spotlight from the live instruments, Jonny Pierce wails about being an outcast and how he needs one particular girl to get through life—as he often does. The classically-tinged chord progression, warbling lead synths, and slow build make the song compelling, staying with you much longer than expected.
Favorite Top 40 Song: Charli XCX–”Boom Clap”
Favorite Country/Bluegrass Song: Trampled by Turtles, “Western World”
Favorite Rap Song: Riff Raff, “Versace Python”
Favorite Comedy Song (Tie): Prince, “THIS COULD BE US” / Riff Raff, “Versace Python”