2014: Favorite 50 Songs of 2014

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music and films that helped define the year. More from this series


White Suns
“Clairvoyant”

[The Flenser]

That drum beat is a knock at your door. Open it wide. Let them in. A swarm of insects with legs of shivered glass. Feel them moving over you. Feel them moving into you. Hear the white-hot agony singing up and down your spine until it all goes still, until you could almost believe you’ve blacked out, except for the wet, heavy sounds of something breathing in the darkness. It appears before your bleary eyes, your father’s face reflected in every facet of its mirrored visage, and you realize this ordeal is not meant to kill you. You realize you’ve been dying all along, dying of a poison coursing through your veins since birth. When the pain begins again, you no longer try to fight.

Scott Walker + Sunn O)))
“Herod 2014”

[4AD]

“Herod 2014” was Soused in microcosm. Its lyrics were acute, specific. They referenced baroque painters (Poussin and Rubens), German secret police (Stasi), Rodgers & Hammerstein (an abbreviated verse from “My Favorite Things”). But if one just managed to snatch a thread of them, out of context, they were terrifying, alien, and absurd. The hoarse braying incorporated with Sunn O)))’s oppressive guitar textures sounded elephantine, and yet the imagination of the listener could slip out of space, time, and the corporeal to allow the subconscious to suggest something horrific instead. “I gaze up at the night, at the asterisk’s blazing,” intoned Walker, as the thick smudgy guitars gave way to a spacious and shivering tonal clarity that mimicked his words.

Ian William Craig
“Before Meaning Comes”

[Recital]

Like Michelangelo’s quartet of unfinished slaves, “Before Meaning Comes” was an illustration of struggle, a concrete expression of beauty fighting for realization. Here, a lone female voice flickered like a dimming candle. With each utterance, she became more solid, more constant. In time, she was joined by others, and for two glorious minutes, they sang together in unearthly harmony. Then the voices began to stutter. Bit by bit, they were obscured by blossoms of negative space before lapsing into silence altogether. It was here where Ian William Craig was most poignant. In that sublime threshold, that razor-thin instant between voice and no voice, we were hearing ourselves, our own ache for all we could have been echoing back upon us.

Nmesh
“KΞΞP/////THIS/////”

[AMDISCS]

1. Growing up in Bolivia, some of my earliest musical memories involve Selena, yet I was unaware she had recorded any songs in English. “I Could Fall in Love,” an R&B ballad, was supposed to be her crossover hit, but it ended eulogizing her, released a few weeks after she was murdered. Despite my obliviousness and the fact that it sounded like a young black man singing, there was an unsettling familiarity to this sample. The complete surrender the voice sung about no longer involved a romantic capitulation, nor commented on the nature of extracorporeal vocals looped and deformed until all sense was lost. It was something else.

2. Nmesh trades in memories, not cheeky/nostalgic samples. He did not find Selena that way, though. His alarm clock was tuned to a local Latin radio, and he picked up these sounds there, half-awake. When I was in college, I loved listening to AM radios in the wee hours, usually when I pulled an all-nighter. You’d pick live DJ sets from plebeian parties, broadcasts for people about to start working the fields, fevered evangelists amid apocalyptic rants. I once even found the replay of a qualification match for the USA 1994 World Cup between Bolivia and Brazil. I used to record brief bits and put them online. Some might still be out there.

3. In his final days, Marconi believed that a fine enough filter would let him hear Jesus himself, as sound reverberated around us for eternity. I attested to that conviction when Selena’s voice, in a slumbered Spanish that sounded like an otherworldly occurrence or a robot unfamiliar with the language, broke into the middle of this track. Then I realized that Nmesh had found a way to make Marconi’s reverie possible, just changing regular ether for the internet, that realm where memory and imagination, specters and constructs, coexist, bleeding into one another.

E+E
“Big-Fire”

[Self-Released]

“Big-Fire” emerged as the cataclysmic centerpiece of E+E’s hallucinatory phronesis. The track evolved from being a celebratory paean of difference sung out in the darkness of historical evisceration, to a trial-by-fire cauterizing the past of its narrator. Of course, there was the opulent use of sonic triggers; their proximity towithin historical oppression helped sketch out a personal process of fear and trembling. As such, the references to cultural heritage we were hearing so vividly — the unification and courtship dances of cumbia and saya — found cadence and equilibrium in divine existential struggle, specifically the prophetic vision of the biblical burning bush. The symbol revealed itself as a sacred light: illumination, a burning heart of purity and potential love — a moment of clarity. Yet, the divine flame’s miraculous energy still carried with it a ruinous connotation: the pain of identification, the weight of history, narratives of oppression. Both salvation and struggle burned brightly in “Big-Fire” — a musical spark that signifies an actual light Elysia (E+E) gave us to see her.

Dean Blunt
“Forever”

[Rough Trade]

Dean Blunt’s talent for producing infectious music out of thin air, without the artifice of a musical “identity,” makes hell of busywork for PR people and critics, but his refreshingly amateur approach to art-making reaffirmed an essential adage of the creative spirit: Don’t Try. Or in Blunt’s case: Just Do It. “Forever,” like the album it centerpieced, was a monument to Blunt’s fuckless life force flow: too curious to categorize, all soft moans and saxophones and beats slashed apart with vague and endless desire. Uncompromising but unfolding with intuitive grace, it was a reassuring creation, a conduit of an everlasting art within.

Swans
“Screen Shot”

[Young God]

From now until the end of time, high school music classes that are learning compositional techniques will be sat down and made to listen to “Screen Shot,” the students’ minds slowly being crushed by the building layers of instrumentation, squeezing them tighter and tighter like a slowly-closing vice over the course of the seven-minute build-up, until the final wailing guitars kick in and the drums double up and the head of each kid in the class explodes while the teacher looks on joyously at the chaos and declares: “that’s the definition of a crescendo, you little punks!”

Lorenzo Senni
“Forever Headline”

[Boomkat Editions]

“Pointillistic trance” was the phrase used by a press release to describe Lorenzo Senni’s 2014 album, Superimpositions, and while the release more than exuded “pointillism” in the form of sharp synths, frequently stabbing, there was one track in particular that excelled at sending listeners off into pure mental whirlwind. “Forever Headline” was the longest track on the album, and with that, you might say that its potential for human envelopment exceeded that of the others. But in this respect, track length was secondary to the song itself, which was thoroughly disruptive by virtue of how brimming, uptempo, and relentless it was. Try focusing on a component for its duration. Try and have a wonderfully difficult time at it.

Peder Mannerfelt
“Evening Redness in the West”

[Digitalis]

As the only “vocal” cut on Peder Mannerfelt’s heavy-as-hell Lines Describing Circles, “Evening Redness in the West” certainly carried its fair share of the weight. Verbally, the lead-up was cinematic, a post-digital Leone: BARREN… HORIZON… FILTH… MESA… BOWIE KNIFE… and of course, the infinitely repeated BLOOD. Dirty West in Spirit, “Evening” read like the psychoanalysis session of a sideman who slipped through the cracks, away from the gunfire, only to see open wastelands filled with trash and flesh, the flash of knives and pounding of hearts echoed by buzzing, dusty synths.

Ben Frost
“Venter”

[Mute/Bedroom Community]

Choosing a standout track from Ben Frost’s unimpeachable A U R O R A is a bit like trying to grab a handful of dry ice: the album is there — you can see it, you can hear it — but it’s so damn hard to place into a wider context. “Venter,” however, did find a way to discern itself from the record on account of the surging, overlapping drum beats that formed a centerpiece around which the glassy synths and mind-blurring noises orbited, perfectly encapsulating the paranoid-and-on-the-run-in-some-future-dystopia vibe of A U R O R A.

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music and films that helped define the year. More from this series


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