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


Steve Gunn
“Way Out Weather”

[Paradise of Bachelors]

With the motley din that passes from my desk through my ears, sometimes it’s old comfort from familiars that causes the biggest splash. Yet “Way Out Weather” may have been the most far-out song of the year, considering Gunn’s previous guitar meltdowns and how constructed — and dare I say poppy? — the eponymous lead seemed. That didn’t preclude a few psychedelic washes and spontaneous moments, but the warm cuddle of what one may deem traditional was more of a gamble on the pop-experimental spectrum than synth oscillations or ass gyrations. The soulful voice, breezy twang, and sincerity… it made me flush.

Jenny Hval and Susanna
“Black Lake”

[SusannaSonata]

When I last wrote about Jenny Hval and Susanna’s burnished sound tapestry Meshes of Voice, I focused on its form and structure, positing that how it moved through space with weight and grace begged some kind of external response (in my case, a 5/5 review). When I actually immerse myself in “Black Lake,” though (volume so loud it floods my senses), I realize it was my own lack of meaningful words and even noises (ah!) that strike me. Irrupting from its unfathomable yet innate source, “Black Lake” was at once arresting, beautiful, awful, and awesome, its sheer emotional resonance — sent into perpetual vibration by a mesh of voices — evidence that our deepest, darkest, blackest feelings were our most ineffable, unqualifiable, unimaginable. Vast as it may have been, then, perhaps its greatest advocate was that sensation Sir James Frazer called “trembling,” a physicality truer and older than those words caught in our throats.

Amen Dunes
“Splits Are Parted”

[Sacred Bones]

Sometimes it can be this simple: “Splits Are Parted,” from Amen Dunes’s spectacular Love, made ragged, breathtaking music with precious few adornments, simple music offering a simple promise: “I could love you/ I could make it easy.” With two guitar chords rolling out waves of murky ambience, two golden notes of a hook, and one well-placed cymbal crash, Damon McMahon concocted a spiritual experience of unsparing sentimentality. It was a poetic invoking of pained sympathy, forlorn but unpossessive, and even though its shape was familiar and its motions inevitable, it was altogether a new sensation, like falling in love again.

Future Islands
“Seasons (Waiting on You)”

[4AD]

I’m confused about Future Islands’ Twitter bio: “too noisy for new wave, too pussy for punk.” On the one hand, the band’s late-night talk-show brand of adult alternative isn’t “too noisy” for anything, really. On the other, what does it even mean to be “too pussy for punk?” Frontman Samuel T. Herring’s total emotional and physical investment in this essential dad jam (see the Late Show version) was one of the most “punk” things I’ve experienced in the Year of Our Lord, 2014, in which “punk” meant less than ever before. Considering the limited mobility of punk music proper as of late, I think Herring might’ve been the most Perfect Pussy of all.

Ai Aso
“Date”

[Ideologic Organ]

The fragile and microscopic ecosystem of “Date,” inhabited only by toy-keyboard arpeggios and Ai Aso’s wistful voice, was so precisely adapted that it didn’t matter in the slightest that this was at least the third time the song has appeared on one of her releases. This performance from Lone stripped away the textures and resonances of the original studio version and the guitar-led crescendo of an earlier live version to leave only a perfectly-formed skeletal remainder, replacing depth and dynamics with a sparseness that couldn’t help but draw attention to each sonic detail, each wavering note, each breath or hesitation. Every nuance of the performance mattered immeasurably. On “Date,” the most profound complexities emerged blinking from the simplest elements.

Vashti Bunyan
“Across the Water”

[FatCat]

Just in time for winter, a new Vashti Bunyan album arrived, complete with a new hibernal anthem to help us survive the cold and the warmth alike. “Every day is every day/ Can’t tell one from the other,” Bunyan sang on Heartleap’s opener “Across the Water,” managing to fill what might otherwise be a dreary lyric with a sense of childlike adventure and wondrous promise. Yet Bunyan’s songs weren’t just the experience of looking back on childhood; they were the sound of an adult re-becoming a child. “Across the Water’s” virginal snowfall didn’t try to erase the world-wearied background it was falling upon. Instead, it was told by someone who “lived on wit, got away with it” before finally “learn[ing] to fall with the grace of it all.” It was the sound of a childhood built upon a long adulthood, a new-fallen snow that covered all the brushy detritus and let us believe momentarily that things might stay this new forever.

Pure X
“Valley of Tears”

[Fat Possum]

I dunno if it’s because I’ll one day die listening to Pure X’s “Valley of Tears,” but every time I listen to it, I want to cry all the water out my body. Or that it reminds me of… Sun Araw drunk in Chinatown. Dual TKO. Fumes of the night circulating toxins of spirit: windows drawn, rivers on cheeks, and strained singing. Kneeling in Atlantic City sands. Holodeck Rex always representing. Alex Gray and homies. Geddes’s pup Murphy. Tapes on Burger Records. It’s been a good fucking year, y’all!

EMA
“3Jane”

[Matador]

There are many reasons why “3Jane” shouldn’t have worked: its anachronistic topicality; the fact that other musicians dealt with the issue in superior ways this year, integrating the medium into the message; its use of stale tropes (the “Be my baby” beat, the dissonant piano, etc.). Nevertheless, “3Jane” was The Future’s Void’s centerpiece. While in her solo debut album, Erika Anderson adopted folk songwriting as a grand idiom with which to articulate her persona, grasping a force comparable to mythmaking, in this song, she goes for a transparently confessional register. But just how it happened with her suburban adolescence tribulations in Past Life Martyred Saints, the experiences and emotions she invoked here are cleverly rendered universal. On the surface, this might be just one more track about our constant exposure via social networks, digital surveillance, and the blurring of the real and the virtual; yet, it was also a song about the naked vulnerability of the creative act, that vertigo one endures when putting an intimate portion of oneself on display — a process that today inexcusably took place through the digital and, hence, an anxiety we have all experienced with diverse intensities.

Sun Kil Moon
“I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same”

[Caldo Verde]

The long-form epicenter of Benji’s constant emotional outpour, “I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same,” weaved its rubato guitar progression through a free-associative series of reveries from Mark Kozelek’s life weighted with enough formative musical memories, paeans to melancholy, and deaths of loved ones to comprise its own decades-spanning filmic montage. Sigh-sung in a recurring cadence conformed to his dense strings of syllables, each verse sketched a standalone narrative capable of swiftly ransacking your defenses — especially Kozelek’s keened apology to an unnamed child he punched on the playground, charged in hindsight with a cyclical life-imitates-life significance after his subsequent spats of intra-industry, headline-fodder bullying.

Grouper
“Clearing”

[Kranky]

“Have you ever been in love?” I can’t say I have. What does that even mean? To be in love? I don’t know. I can’t know. It’s as alien to me as physics is to you. I know it exists, I know people get it and have it, but that doesn’t make it understandable. What is clear is this: Everyone I know, I care for; they just disappear and become someone else when it happens. I lose them. It never seemed right to me. In the end, it’s always the same: I end up alone, and the world turns inward. But maybe it’s better this way. Otherwise, I’d lose me and just end up hurting someone the wrong way. You don’t want that. Nobody does.

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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