Top 10 Songs of the Year

2014 had an uncountable number of intriguing and memorable songs – what did we think were the best?

In a year without “Blurred Lines,” there weren’t really any songs released that we could get mad about. The closest we could all come was getting angry at the total over-reliance on “Let it Go” and “Happy” (also Pharrell, in a very different context – but he’s on this list), and those were harmless songs. Indeed, there were great singles all throughout the year. Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me,” The Black Keys’ “Fever,” Kendrick Lamar’s “i” and Drake’s “0 to 100/The Catch Up” might have made the list in other years, but didn’t even make the honorable mentions here. It was a woman’s game this year (again), but there were worthwhile contributions across all of music. My running 2014 playlist on Spotify currently sits at 80 songs and just over five hours; that’s without a number of albums I never got to (and without T. Swift). So there were a ton of great songs – but here’s the ten (well, eleven) that we thought were the very best:

#10. Grimes – “Go (feat. Blood Diamonds)”

After audiences reacted negatively to some song skeletons, Grimes scrapped the album she was working on and vowed to start from scratch. But she kept this single, unsure if it was ever going to be a part of the album or not. It’s borderline-steampunk opening sounds like machinery in a factory plugging away, like something constant. But Grimes’ soft vocals singing about going away burst the music away from the constant and into the unpredictable, dominating beats of a world gone wild. It’s an engrossing track, one that reflects your emotions – if your feeling good, it’s a club song. If you’re out of it, it’s a scary, dreamy mess where nothing will stay the same. Equally abrasive and transparent, it’s one of the best surprises of the year.

#9. Jessie J, Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj – “Bang Bang”

This, meanwhile, is just a song about bangin’. This is the first of two songs on this list that serves as just a showcase of talents, with Jessie J and Ariana Grande trading off cute, meaningless vignettes (“She mighta let you hold her hand in school, but I’mma show you how to graduate”) before Nicki’s explosive hand-clapping verse (where she calls out Jessie and Grande). It’s nothing but a big, fun song, and it doesn’t try to be. It’s just three big entertainers at their biggest, and the result is a hot, catchy blowout banger. My only complaint is that, as someone that hasn’t gotten on board the Ariana Grande train, her verse in the middle just isn’t as strong as Jessie’s (and I don’t understand how she put it on her album when it’s Jessie’s song), but it doesn’t take away from the track at all.

#8. Bruce Springsteen – “The Ghost of Tom Joad”

I know what you’re thinking right now – “Andrew, didn’t that song come out in 1995?” Springsteen’s song, originally a folk song, has had a weird history – in ’95, Springsteen debuted it, to some questioning fans, as it was both a musical and lyrical departure to his signature sound. Five years later, Rage Against the Machine covered it. Now, fourteen years after that, RATM guitarist Tom Morello has joined the E Street Band full-time. So, as part of a collection of B-sides and re-recorded songs, the new amped-up version of a Springsteen classic comes courtesy of a ripping Morello solo that gives the song a whole new level of depth. Plus, with the police-on-civilian violence that erupted later in the year, it made the song more timely that anyone could’ve imagined. I’ll admit that, as a non-single, this is a pretty personal pick, but this song hits a level of intensity that Springsteen wouldn’t have dreamed of even just a few years ago.

#7. Lil’ Jon & DJ Snake – “Turn Down For What”

Easily the year’s best club banger, this track from an unknown DJ and a rapper who hadn’t had a hit in a decade is little more than a trap beat over a repeated phrase. But it’s been one of the most energetic songs in an energetic scene of music. Listening to it at a medium volume just isn’t possible – all can be fine when it first comes on, but by it’s end you’ve crashed your car and lit everything on fire. It’s a rare trap song that just never gets old the more times it plays. “Turn Down For What” should be laughably bad, and it kind of is, but it’s one of those songs that will come on a “2010’s” station when we’re 50 and we’ll still be excited, as we destroy all the beds in the retirement home, messed up on cough syrup.

#6. Tinashe – “2 On (feat. ScHoolboy Q)”

(mustardonabeathoe) The hip-hop station I was listening to in my car this summer wasn’t quite sure what to do with “2 On” at first – it was a debut single, from an unknown female artist who mixed R&B and rap solo, and with a guest appearance from someone with a lack of radio hits himself. But they quickly embraced it and played it in heavy rotation, because there’s been few songs this year with more confidence. It’s Tinashe’s world, we’re just abiding in it. This sultry song isn’t overly complicated, it’s just catchy and brimming with a confident seduction normally reserved for a marquee listing like Beyonce. Tinashe’s wispy voice blends right in with the breezy music, and ScHoolboy Q’s jarring guest spot – one of the year’s best – comes in just before things start to get repetitive. If Tinashe can put out tracks (and an album) this good this soon, watch out.

#5. Sia – “Chandelier”

I’ll quickly own up and say that I thought Sia was still in the camp of quirky, folksy indie singers that people only kind of tolerated. It’s been a few years since her name’s been on my radar, so to hear this intense, often unnerving song was a surprise to me. “Chandelier” chronicles her own struggles with alcoholism, and it comes through in this spine-tingling track. It’s a vocal song, and what makes it so strong is that distinct moment in the chorus where the song goes from catchy to unsettling on just one vocal note. It’s a musical-ized form of the terrors of admitting you have a problem, and to be let into that scene is cautiously scary. I really thought that pop music had nothing truly “new” left to show me, but “Chandelier” tells otherwise.

#4. Beck – “Wave”

Also a non-single, although used as a promotional song and performed on “SNL,” Beck’s “Wave” is easily one of the eeriest songs of the year. On an album of otherwise optimistic songs, “Wave” sits directly in the middle, a song comprised solely of strings and Beck’s voice. Both are minimalist, Beck’s voice droning over the low strings. There’s no chorus, no melody, and barely gets above a whisper. It’s a haunting track that reminds us Beck is still capable of being all-out insane.

#3. Taylor Swift – “Shake It Off”

Taylor Swift has made a career off of being passive-aggressive, but “Shake It Off” falls sharply in the latter. A song aimed directly at her critics, professional and not, she takes on the double standards of how male singers can get away with singing about sexual conquests but she gets criticized for singing about so many relationships. And it came as the first single to her unexpectedly full-pop album, so it heralded a new sound for her. It’s a little corny at times, sure, but it’s supremely catchy and convincing. It’s likely the song that swayed people like me that were on the fence about her one way or the other. For me, I couldn’t help but love it.

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

(MikeWiLLMadeIt) From it’s unexpected, random ode to Salt N’ Pepa to it’s street-teaching lessons, “Move That Dope” is this list’s other talent showcase song. Spotify told me that the song I listened to the most this year was a 14 year old mclusky song, but I think it was this track. The chorus is just a placemarker, and it goes on for almost six minutes – not exactly radio material, but the song scratched the charts and became Future’s biggest hit. Each man gets a verse, in order of credit. Future’s verse is practically lost in the midst of the three that follow. Pusha (37 years old) and Pharrell (41) offer advice to younger dealers just starting out – “If you got two hoes, you need to let one go / Two Lambos, you need to let one go” Pharrell raps. It’s a bizarre song, in it’s hyper-specific lesson that’s not exactly school-smarts. But it’s such an energetic song and demands to be played many, many times. Skip the radio edit – Casino’s insanely crazy verse gets cut for time, as does the 68 N-bombs throughout the song. It also helps to remember that Pharrell’s verse – which has 12 – came out right when “Happy” was on it’s dominant run.

#1. Beyonce – “Drunk in Love (feat. Jay-Z)

Teeeeechnically, “Drunk in Love” came out in 2013, as we remember. But it entered the charts on December 28th, so I feel like it’s close enough to call it 2014 (last year’s list was published by then, and I’m not too into revisions). A pseudo-sequel to “Crazy in Love,” but in an entirely different tone, “Drunk in Love” personifies the wild, luxurious sex that we all know the couple has. The song has a real sultry tone to it, that’s almost unsettling at times. The music doesn’t always match the lyrics, and it’s an unexpected listen. But it’s Bey’s vocals that really propel the song. She sings as if Jay isn’t even there, as she does all throughout the album (it is called “Beyonce,” after all). She’s dominant, and although 2014 was a year in which tons and tons of female musicians did incredible and progressive stuff, Bey was around to remind us all that she’s still the queen. I call “Drunk in Love” the song of the year, even in spite of Jay’s awful line about spousal abuse (“Eat the cake/anime”), and in spite of Jay using the word “breasteses,” and in spite of especially because of “serfbort.” “Drunk in Love” might be one of those “Hey Ya”‘s, one of the “Smells Like Teen Spirit”‘s – the best song off an incredible album that we’re fondly remembering generations later.

As mentioned at the head, eleven songs were chosen for the Top 10 because Andrew is an English major and big numbers scare him. I’d also likely to briefly acknowledge #11, “Anaconda,” because I love that song so damn much. Nicki Minaj takes an ironically-glorified song from 1992 about the male gaze and repurposes it into a song about female body positivity. Say what you will about it – it’s what 2014 needed. Okay. Runners-up now:

#11. Nicki Minaj – “Anaconda.” #12. St. Vincent – “Birth in Reverse.” #13. Ariana Grande/Iggy Azalea – “Problem.” #14. Phantogram – “Black Out Days.” #15. Jeremih/YG – “Don’t Tell ‘Em.” #16. Interpol – “All the Rage Back Home”

-By Andrew McNally

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