Below is a roundup of exactly what the headline of this post states from various members of the Gawker editorial staff.
Ariana Grande (feat. Zedd) “Break Free” - Ariana Grande is the pop star with the best (reputed) bad attitude—she’s a real diva-in-training, I hear. This song, co-written by Swedish uber producer Max Martin, is lyrically impenetrable (“now that I become who I really are”), sonically dense, and if you hear it exactly twice, totally consuming.
The War on Drugs Lost in the Dream - God. I feel like such a fucking nerd for enjoying his album. Honestly, I had never heard of the band until one of my co-workers (Max? Andy? Jordan?) played some of the songs over the Gawker Media office’s sound system. Since then, Lost in the Dream has been on regular rotation and it’s really an album fit for all occasions: writing, walking, sitting on the subway, lying down and doing nothing. Give it a spin.
Spoon They Want My Soul - Spoon’s eighth album has made its way onto many 2014 year-end lists, usually in the better part of the middle. “Another great album from rock’s most consistent band,” all of the accompanying blurbs say. “How rude!” I think, every time I read it. This album is truly great and deserves to be highlighted, not thrown onto lists simply because Spoon is the greatest band on Earth and nearly everything they release is flawless, removing the element of surprise. Give me a break! It rules.
St. Vincent Saint Vincent - St. Vincent has gotten weirder on every album since her first, and, I’ll tell you what, she didn’t stop getting weirder for her self-titled. Weirder than ever! It’s wonderful to watch her evolve as a performer and it’s wonderful to listen to her carefully piece together a brilliant new sound, a sound all her own. Wonderful. “Regret”? Give me a break, it’s so good. “Bring Me Your Loves”? Come on. “Birth in Reverse”? This album rules.
Angel Olsen Burn Your Fire for No Witness - The kinds of words that usually get used to describe Angel Olsen’s music—direct, honest, raw, unflinching—are all true: Burn Your Fire for No Witness contains a seven-minute dirge that opens with the irony-free lyric, “Everything is tragic/It all just falls apart,” after all. But those words also do her music a disservice. In concert, Olsen is charismatic and kinetic, and her second album of folk- and country-inflected indie rock aims for both sides of Hank Williams, the forebear she quotes from on the record’s most well-known song: the guy who’s so lonesome he could cry and the one who wants only to dance, play cards, and drink a jug of wine.
Future Islands Singles - Samuel Herring of Future Islands has always had enormous ambition as a performer: the stage-devouring energy he displayed in the band’s career-making Letterman performance this year has been there in force since the band was playing small stages and DIY spaces in their Baltimore hometown. Four albums in, that ambition is fully realized. The band, channeling classic dance-pop, is precise and restrained for much of the record, and Herring uses the space it affords him to contort his titanic voice in all sorts of ways, from yacht rock crooning to black metal howls. Lots of bands working this mold get compared to New Order, but Future Islands—in its chops, its songs, and its frontman’s outsized sense of romance—actually earns the comparison.
Young Thug and Bloody Jay Black Portland - I listened to lots of inventive, surprising music this year, and returned to none more often than Black Portland. In 2014, that Young Thug gives a revelatory performance is almost a given; what keeps me coming back are the unexpected moments of brilliance from ostensible second banana Bloody Jay: the sedated, nearly incomprehensible mumbling on “Florida Water”; the life-or-death screams on the first verse of “Signs”; the baffling way his ad-libs are mixed louder than his actual rapping on “Movin.” Black Portland also contains my single favorite song of 2014: the soaring “4 Eva Bloody.”
GRRRL PRTY TNGHT Mixtape - “I ain’t seen no ceilings / we came in through the top floor.” This mixtape is the girlgang mixtape of my dreams and features Lizzo, a Minneapolis-by-way-of-Houston rapper who is bound to blow up in three . . . two . . . one . . .
GUNWASH Cock God - The infamous GUNWASH podcast, which I wrote about earlier this year, has released a compilation of live performances from their show that are *mostly* about cock. If you’re familiar with the bizarro and beloved show, this comp will only sound like part one of a greatest hits album. Really gratifying in-studio music to round out a fucked up 2014.
Pinchy and Friends mixes - Every single one of these lush and unpredictable mixes gets me through the year when I’m flailing to find something I want to listen to. They fill the gaps very nicely and go along with most everything. The new stuff is really good.
Strangulated Beatoffs The Beatoffs - This is a weird one. It’s a reissue of the St Louis duo’s 1989 album, The Beatoffs a.k.a. The White Album. On paper, it is a cover album of Beatles songs. But if you are listening closer (or while high), it is a weird, compulsively listenable album of artistic and hilarious renditions of classics. Crude and captivating and glad to be not lost to the ether.
LIZ Just Like You - When I heard the intro of Mad Decent singer Liz’s “Y2K” in February, I flipped out, it’s so good. “Y2K” is the standout track on her Just Like You EP, but honestly, all the songs are fun and danceable. It’s Britney meets Aaliyah, and even though I know it’s being marketed to me as a millennial who appreciates “90s nostalgia,” it’s still exactly what I want to hear.
R&B - When various critics and FKA twigs herself argued that labeling the artist’s music as R&B was wrong-headed, they did so in defense of twigs (don’t box her in!). At the same time, they underrated the elasticity of the genre. R&B is always the music story of the year because it is the most forward-thinking commercial genre of music. It sets the tone of pop. It is perpetually appropriated and diluted by pop artists, but more importantly, those pop artists never catch up to it. R&B’s burden is staying ahead of those who dumb it down. R&B turns that burden into joy.
R&B needs weirdos like twigs, as much as it needs those who can translate the weirdos’ left-field tendencies into something that speaks to the masses, like Tinashe. It needs people who further obliterate the boundary between hip-hop and soul, artists who don’t just sing and rap but who sing and rap simultaneously (think Tink, Future, Makkonen). It needs its foundation, as we know it, to be reiterated and reintroduced to young people via albums like J. Cole’s soul-sample happy 2014 Forest Hills Drive. It needs Mary J. Blige to cross the Atlantic and to re-baptize her soul in house music. It needs a giant personality like K. Michelle. It needs guys who make music explicitly for fucking, deep and bass-heavy electronic ballads that you can feel down in your pulsating blood (August Alsina, Trey Songz, Omarion). It needs a daring superstar like Beyonce, whose self-titled fifth album stopped the world late in 2013 and then set its pace for much of the following year. In terms of invention, cultural significance, variation, and sheer accessibility, there has been no album like BEYONCÉ since Thriller.
And then R&B needed to explode, to have everything we understood about its commercial appeal be blown away by the dirty bomb that is D’Angelo & the Vanguard’s Black Messiah. The music industry changes constantly, but music is as exciting as it always has been, if you know where to look. If you’re not looking at R&B for a thrill, you’re doing it wrong.
Ghostface Killah 36 Seasons - At one point in the several hours it took to put together and edit this post, “Double Cross,” a track from Ghostface’s 11th solo album shuffled on my iPod. I heard Ghostface rap the following lyrics:
I seen the police pull up, and rides hopped out:
“Put your hand behind your back, you’re guilty without a doubt
What you mean, son? We built on this
Illegal chokeholds, slap cuffs on my wrist
I don’t know what you talking about, boy,
I’m the authority I’m just here to question up minority
A thug drug pusher, violent man of deception
And you just happen to fit the description.”
It was an unfortunately perfect moment.
Dance pop that isn’t EDM - Even if it’s only for a few moments in a drug store or a pizza parlor or a gym, it’s nice that Top 40 radio has opened up its sonic palate to include dance music that doesn’t smother you like Axe Body Spray at a club in Jersey. Welcome examples of dance crossovers that weren’t much concerned with making you feel the drops included Disclosure’s “Latch” and Clean Bandit’s “Rather Be.”
Rich Homie Quan’s voice - He’s got the most soulful voice in hip-hop, or the roughest voice in soul, or he’s the best blues singer who gets played on Hot 97. Or maybe he’s all of those things. Cash Money’s Quan sounds like he studied at Future’s School of Warble, but unlike Future, he sounds like he means every craggy syllable that comes out of his mouth. The guy’s impassioned wailing elevates everything his voice touches: his own material, collaborative work, and Mariah Carey flop singles alike.
Kwabs - With Vienna-based producer SOHN at his side, Ghanaian-born soul singer Kwabs has proven himself a singular and absolute force. His baritone is all power: unflinching, commanding, but wholly and wonderfully vulnerable. The three EPs he’s released this year—Wrong or Right, Pray for Love, and Walk—suggest the possibility of an artist who doesn’t plan to decelerate in the coming months. By my estimation, he’s one of the year’s best breakout singers.
SBTRKT ft. Raury “Higher” - The song’s dark pulse begins simply: a man wanders the dead of night and is greeted by an unknowable, alien energy. A voice enters the void. “Got this feeling going higher.” The song then rises, ascending into the ether. “Higher, higher, higher.” Once in orbit, there’s no opportunity to disembark, the light now all-consuming. “I could live my life aloud and I wouldn’t give a fuck/ Ride with me, ride with me, I don’t really give a damn/ Jesus piece above my head, nigga you know who I am.” This is a destiny foretold—and I never want to come down.
Five Mixes I Loved This Year:
My favorite songs to hear in the grocery store:
1. Ariana Grande: “Break Free”
2. Clean Bandit: “Rather Be” (ft. Jess Glynne)
3. Mr. Probz: “Waves (Robin Schulz Radio Edit)“
4. Demi Lovato: “Really Don’t Care” (ft. Cher Lloyd)
5. Nico & Vinz: “Am I Wrong”
My favorite songs to hear with friends:
1. DJ Snake: “Turn Down For What” (ft. Lil Jon)
2. Rich Gang: “Lifestyle”
3. Big Sean: “I Don’t Fuck With You” (ft. E-40)
4. Iggy Azalea: “Fancy” (ft. Charli XCX)
5. Magic!: “Rude”
My favorite songs to hear alone:
1. War on Drugs: “An Ocean in Between the Waves”
2. Mariah Carey: “Dedicated” (ft. Nas)
3. Perfume Genius: “Fool”
4. One Direction: “Night Changes”
5. FKA Twigs: “Pendulum”
Musicians I’m happy existed in 2014:
Charli XCX: A blue raspberry Warhead of a person.
DJ Mustard: If you are not wired to enjoy minimal, danceable rap beats: we are not the same, you are a martian.
Jessie Ware: Something that says a lot about you as a person is when you realize adult contemporary is cool.
Young Thug: Atlanta produces more socially impactful geniuses than Harvard.
Zedd: With each drop comes every color of the rainbow.
A Spotify playlist of notable tracks
[Image by Sam Woolley]