The Best Music of 2014 (So Far!)

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2014 has had it’s ups and downs, but as we hit the year’s halfway point, what songs and albums are we going to be remembering?

Let’s face it, 2014 started out slow. Through the first three months of the year, the only major releases came from Beck, Broken Bells, St. Vincent and a Springsteen collection of B-sides and re-recordings. And I’ll be honest – this lack of music killed my motivation to review stuff and now I’m way behind (my running list of the year’s albums remains 85% unlistened to). But since then, there’s been some real hits and misses, and we’ve hit the time of year to look back and the highs and lows. There have been indie stalwarts – Broken Bells treaded water, and the Black Keys’ “Turn Blue” easily won their dispute over Jack White’s cringeworthy “Lazaretto.”  Pop releases have run the gambit, from Shakira’s excellent self-titled and Lana Del Ray’s superb “Ultraviolence”, to Mariah Carey’s passable release, to Jason Derulo’s dumb, shameless fun. Coldplay turned things down, and St. Vincent turned things way, way up. Lily Allen and the Pixies bungled their comebacks, Beck scored with his, and Johnny Cash and ‘Michael Jackson’ really came back, with insulting albums that they couldn’t give their permission to release. Iggy Azalea proved to be as polarizing and racist as we expected, while Future continues to slip under the radar with great hip-hop. Pharrell made us “Happy,” then irrationally mad, then subconsciously craving Arby’s, all before releasing his strong, feminist and cohesive “G I R L” album. And punk has dominated – White Lung, the Menzingers, You Blew It!, Against Me!, Andrew Jackson Jihad, Parquet Courts, Modern Baseball and Perfect Pussy have all released some of the best punk albums in years. With the rest of the year filled with big releases, let’s look back on the last six months before they become a distant memory.

Best songs of 2014 (so far):

2014 has had a weird lack of noteworthy songs, with the charts seemingly dominated instead by “Happy” and “Let It Go.” Songs from children’s movies. Just pointing out. And we’ve gotten really, really sick of both. It’s 87 degrees right now and I heard a song from “Frozen” twice today at work. But there have been a few great songs released, a mix of haunting indie rock tracks and club bangers that aren’t as frustrating to get stuck in your head.

#5. Future – “Move That Dope (feat. Pharrell Williams, Pusha T, Casino)”

Aside from stretching into almost a six minute territory, Future’s hit defines his whole persona – darkly catchy and unpredictable. The song’s lyrics are about weirdly responsible drug dealing, like it’s some sort of PSA about the proper way to deal. Pharrell, Pusha T and Casino all provide strong guest spots, but the song is actually better appreciated in the shortened radio edit, which cuts Casino out. Highlight: Pharrell rapping about his “Gandalf hat” and drug dealing, smack dab in the middle of the chart run of his own song from a kids movie, Despicable Me 2.

#4. Bleachers – “I Wanna Get Better”

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As someone who’s never been a fan of fun., when I heard Jack Antonoff had a new project, I just cupped my ears and moved on like it was a new episode of a show I don’t care about. But this is a song that just grows and grows on you – it can get stuck in your head for hours without you even noticing. It’s gleeful music and optimistic chorus are deceiving, thinly hiding the song’s more self-deprecating verses. It’s a pop-rock song, not really much different than what fun. does. But it isn’t out to prove any points, it’s just a song that feels like it was written as personally, regardless if anyone hears it or not. Luckily for us, we’ve heard it.

#3. Beck – “Wave”

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“Time heals all wounds” is the central theme of Beck’s acoustic “Morning Phase” album. The album is a sequel to his 2002 break-up album “Sea Change,” where we finally see Beck realizing that he’s gotten over that relationship and is turning a new leaf. But, right at the album’s midpoint, he sneaks in this haunting string song that strikes every nerve in your body. It consists solely of a string section and Beck’s echoing vocals, barely has a melody, and lyrics about some sort of impending battle (probably a mental one). It’s a bump in the road to Beck’s recovery, and already stands up as one of the best and most experimental songs he’s ever done.

#2. Shakira – “Can’t Remember to Forget You (feat. Rihanna)”

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It’s always nervous to have someone more recognizable than you guest on one of your songs – but Rihanna is almost an afterthought on this raging pop song. So much so that Shakira recorded a solo version in Spanish that’s just as good. Typical of Shakira, it mixes reggae, latin and rock influences into a fast, loud track. The song might have lyrics centering around leaving a toxic person behind, but the song has an abrupt energy, driven a little by a guitar-heavy chorus, and a lot by Shakira’s overpowering vocals. She makes the song hers, and one of her best ones. And really, with both Shakira and Rihanna on a track, can it really be bad?

#1. DJ Snake and Lil’ Jon – “Turn Down For What”

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I struggled over this decision. This isn’t a #1 song. This is trap music 101, heralded by an unknown DJ and a rapper that hasn’t had a big hit in a decade. But I’ve never listened to this song at anything less than 75% volume in my car’s stereo. My windows are going to blow out because of this song. It’s ubiquitous but not yet overplayed, and one of the only hits of the year that doesn’t get tired fast. It’s extremely simple but that’s the whole thing about it – it’s just a song to blare in your cars, in your clubs. DJ Snake brings some strobe-ready climaxes and Lil’ Jon brings energy in his theatric-less lyrics. It’s a dumb song, but it makes me want to turn up every time I hear it, so it’s a job well-done. It’s certainly not the best or most crafted song, but it’s the most energetic song of the year so far, so it’s taking the crown for now. And because I was struggling with this. So, uh, the end.

(Runners-up, in a relative order: My favorite of the year – “Birth in Reverse” – St. Vincent, “Problem” – Ariana Grande, Iggy Azalea, “Fall in Love” – Phantogram, “Fever” – the Black Keys, “URL Badman” – Lily Allen

Best albums of the year (so far):

If 2014 has been light on great songs, it’s been heavy on great albums. In an internet age, the album format is making a comeback, both in accessibility of a band’s catalog, and in actual physical record sales increasing. And as it has been for decades, rock, punk and alternative bands are making stronger albums and leaving singles to their pop and hip-hop peers. The year has seen it’s fair share of great albums in all genres, so here’s a collection of some of the best.

#5. White Lung – “Deep Fantasy”

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Perfect Pussy’s “Say Yes to Love” was expected to be the most ferocious punk album of the year. And for a few months, it was. But then White Lung dropped their third full-length, “Deep Fantasy.” At 22 minutes, it’s a relentless blast of vicious and scathing energy. While Perfect Pussy use well-timed breaks, reverb and silence to emphasize their energy, White Lung choose instead to put their music on full blast for every second. Indeed, from the opening beat to the final note, there isn’t a moment on the album that lets up. Though a punk band, they straddle along thrash metal and hardcore, keeping themselves distinctive. Adding to the mix is singer Mish Way’s surprisingly realistic and reasonable lyrics on sexual assault and harassment, mixed in among otherwise furious and furiously delivered lyrics. If the album were any longer, you might need a cold shower after it. Best track: “Drown With the Monster.”

#4. Future – Honest

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A slated release after last year’s tour-de-force trio of releases from Drake, Beyonce and Kanye, and before releases from Jason Derulo, 50 Cent and Iggy Azalea, Future’s “Honest” seems to have slipped a little under the radar, even with it’s excellent chart performance. “Honest” is a cohesive and complete hip-hop album, with some songs about deep relationships, others just about dealing (like the aforementioned “Move That Dope”). Heavyweights Pharrell, Drake, Kanye, Wiz Khalifa and Andre 3000 all show up to give the album weight and bolster it’s credit. And musically, Future doesn’t give club jams – what we get is gloomy and complex music that are dripping as much in depressing 80’s new-wave as they are in rap beats. It’s intriguing and engagingly unique, while remaining definably hip-hop. Best track: “Benz Friendz (Whatchutola),” largely because Andre 3000 changes the diapers of everyone else on the album, including Future himself.

#3. Parquet Courts – “Sunbathing Animal”

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Another punk release, this one sees the guys of Parquet Courts growing out, but not growing up. Their first accessible release, “Light Up Gold,” was a bizarre album of tracks blending garage punk and country rock, with tongue-in-cheek lyrics and youthful energy. That’s all present on follow-up “Sunbathing Animal,” but it’s more varied. The lyrics are sometimes more nonsensical, and the music is more diverse. “Ducking & Dodging” and the title track and relentlessly fast punk jams, but other songs switch the tempo and dive into six- or seven-minute ranges. The band hails from both Brooklyn and Texas, and that influences their music. This album flows remarkable well, and every song holds a new surprise. Parquet Courts are young, smart and brilliant, and they’re in total control, even if the music suggests otherwise. Best track: “Sunbathing Animal”

#2. Lana Del Ray – “Ultraviolence”

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The main criticism of Lana Del Ray’s debut, “Born to Die,” is that although it had a constant gloominess to it, it wasn’t consistent in it’s genres or it’s references. She took the feedback to heart with her sophomore album, narrowing down her focus to a dense, sultry pop that’s equal parts glamorous and existential. She often sings of unfulfilled dreams, in a narrative arc about a woman seeking fame but never being anything more than some man’s side woman. And Del Ray, maybe a little surprisingly, lets her voice flourish occasionally. She might give a feeling of total apathy, but there are moments where she’s engaged and in complete control. And with song titles like “Fucked My Way to the Top,” it’s clear that she’s already found her own style. “Ultraviolence” is a polarizing album of old style avant-pop, but it has some stories to tell. Best track: “Cruel World”

#1. St. Vincent – “St. Vincent”

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I didn’t have to labor over this one at all. This is my favorite album of the year, this is one of my favorite albums, ever. Before this album, people sometimes thought of St. Vincent as an indie-folk singer with some eccentric flares for noise. But for this album, she’s adapted a new look, a futuristic persona, and an arsenal of lyrics about technology. This album is distinctly art-rock – from the faux-horns and social media takedown of “Digital Witness,” to the hyper-kinetic energy of “Birth in Reverse” (aided by her brilliant SNL performance), to the borderline-carnival rhythm of “Bring Me Your Loves,” to “Huey Newton,” which starts out as an ordinary filler, before erupting into a sludgy menace that’s easily the loudest song in her discography. Even fans couldn’t have predicted an album like this, more dense and defiant than anything she’s done before. St. Vincent proves herself as one of the most unique and confident voices we have right now. To the rest of 2014, it’s your game to lose. Best track: “Birth in Reverse”

Runners-up, in relative order: Pharrell’s “G I R L,” the Menzingers’ “Rented World,” Against Me!’s “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” the Black Keys’ “Turn Blue,” Owen Pallett’s “In Conflict.”

Thank you all for reading as I stumbled my way through this softball assignment. For a more biased and subjective list, check out my personal blog sometime in the near future. Here is a list of some upcoming noteworthy releases:

Robin Thicke – “Paula” – 7/1. Notable because it serves as a reminder for people not to forgive Thicke for Blurred Lines. He is a bad man and he is making himself out as the victim.

Morrissey – World Peace is None of Your Business – 7/14 – I’ve always been pretty apathetic towards Morrissey so expect an “ironic” review or something.

Maroon 5 – V – 9/2

Weezer – Everything Will Be Alright in the End – TBA – Produced by Rick Ocasek, who did the Blue and Green albums.

Chris Brown – X – TBA – Notable because he said it will be his last.

Artists said to be releasing albums despite not having dates or titles: Foo Fighters, Adele, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga & Tony Bennett (????), Kanye, Frank Ocean, Red Hot Chili Peppers, U2

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