What a year for songs — songs about love and underwear and mixtapes and lipstick. There were more killer songs this year than anyone could absorb, more than this list can hold. (Some gems are over on my albums list, to avoid duplicating all the same artists.) These are my 25 favorites of 2014, including but not limited to: hits, obscurities, punk rockers, glam rappers, cheese-pop divas, slow jams, karaoke disasters, disco infernos. And “Turn Down For What,” obviously.
1. 5 Seconds of Summer, “She Looks So Perfect”
One of the weirdest things about music, besides “everything,” is you never know where your next favorite song is coming from. Case in point: in 2014 it’s these four Australian teen-pop punk boys yelling, “You look so perfect standing there in my American Apparel underwear.” Their breakthrough hit is a blast of big-hearted girl worship, all guitars and pheromones: “I made a mixtape straight out of ’94/I got your ripped skinny jeans lying on my floor.” 5SoS played this at MetLife in August when they were opening for One Direction, in front of 80,000 screaming girls, the drummer wearing a Sonic Youth Confusion Is Sex T-shirt under a MIXTAPE ’94 backdrop. Not a thing about that moment or this song makes sense. It’s real punk because it’s real pop, it’s real pop because it’s real punk, yet it’s real anything only because it’s faux everything. Underwear song of the year. Mixtape song of the century. Underwear-and-mixtape combo of all time. And I know now that I’m so down.
2. Taylor Swift, “New Romantics”
“We show off our different scarlet letters/Trust me, mine is better” is the sharpest couplet Taylor has ever written, except maybe the others in this song. I have no idea why she left a song this urgent and glittery and perfect off her album (it’s a bonus track), but geniuses are weird. “New Romantics” is where she really indulges all that Eighties synth-pop she warned us about, with a mascara-smudged nod to the New Romantic scene that gave us Duran Duran and Adam Ant. (Does Tay own Visage records? She can have mine.) It’s the best song the Pet Shop Boys never wrote — it could have been the fourth-best song on Actually, or third-best on Behavior. She plays it cool vocally — she even sings “We’re all bored,” when boredom is maybe the least Tay of emotions. But then that chorus hits and she’s inside the mirror ball, on a floor where the lights and boys are blinding and playing cool won’t cut it anymore. I thought I was Taylor’s hugest fan, but I never imagined she had a tune like this in her.
3. Vic Mensa, “Down On My Luck”
The 21-year-old Chicago rapper skates over the glossy beats of vintage Detroit techno, prowling the city in search of that good life. Along with producer Stefan Ponce, Mensa really hits a sense of spaced-out metropolitan loneliness, like when you’re face to face with glass buildings that reflect how empty you feel, so you just hide behind your eyes. “I can take you with me wandering if you wanna go there,” wherever there is.
4. Cloud Nothings, “I’m Not Part of Me”
This year’s most durable “today sucked until I put this song on” song. Dylan Baldi gives himself a good talking-to, gulping, “I focus on what I can do myself,” even if all he can do himself is write songs about how he can’t get a damn thing done. The drummer races him to the finish line. Over the course of the year I’ve been amazed at this song’s power to turn a rotten day into one with a fighting chance. What more could you ask from a song?
5. Nicki Minaj and Ariana Grande, “Get on Your Knees”
Nyquil Minaj grabs America’s most doe-eyed pop moppet by the ponytail and drags her into an ode to getting brain. I love how when Ariana gets sensitive and sings about her feelings, you can’t understand a word she says (“the hands of a broken heart”? “become who I really are”?) but when it comes to this topic, she has no trouble getting to the point. Nicki rhymes merkin, twerkin’ and Jane Birkin, just because she can.
6. Lana Del Ray, “Pretty When You Cry”
You know who won’t be so pretty when he cries? Don Henley, after he hears how Lana turned “Hotel California” into this pretty hate machine.
7. Sharon Van Etten, “Your Love Is Killing Me”
This torch ballad is such an immediate attention-grabber, you might expect the impact to fade after a few dozen listens. Yet it just gets creepier with time, mostly because Sharon Van Etten doesn’t depend on the lyrics to tell the story. It’s in her voice, the way she twists a casual cliché like “turn of events.” She does my absolute least favorite thing rock singers do — stretches out the vowels waaay too looong — and makes me feel it, as if her voice is dragging around chains. By the end of the song, I’m sucked into this demon romance and I’m as trapped as Van Etten is.
8. Kendrick Lamar, “I”
K-Dot walks through the valley of despair, both political and emotional. That Ernie Isley guitar solo keeps his bare feet moving.
9. Rad Stewart, “Insane Parties”
Ludicrously pretentious Welsh guitar nitwits who sound like Pavement, with the year’s dodgiest band name? What’s not to love? (Full disclozh: I also enjoyed songs this year by Joanna Gruesome, Elvis Depressedly and T. Rexstasy, though I draw the line at Trances Farmer.) They have a song about Mithraic cults, which I had to look up, but the one that kills me is this bizarrely moving ballad about their miserable boho social lives.
10. Drake, “0 to 100/The Catch Up”
The “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” of the Drake era. It’s like he wants to prove he can hit send on any experiment (like a six-minute track with two utterly disconnected songs) and kill the charts. He’s headed where nobody took it. Who’s meeting him there?
11. Lil Jon and DJ Snake, “Turn Down for What”
Remember when Lil Jon used to show up at award galas wearing his CRUNK AIN’T DEAD necklace? And we were all like, “I want to believe, Lil Jon. I want to believe. Can you make that ball sweat flow one more time?” It took a minute, but Lil Jon made it happen. Result: Crunk ain’t dead. Always bet on ball sweat. Always.
12. Girlpool, “American Beauty”
A two-girl guitar duo from the West Coast chant about punk rock romance: “It’s not enough to watch a movie/Eat me out to American Beauty.”
13. Leonard Cohen, “Slow”
“All your moves are swift,” purrs the man who published his first book of poetry before Taylor’s mama was born. “Slow” is how the 80-year-old sage wants to dance, in sync with the universe, though he probably just wants to press up close: “A weekend on your lips/A lifetime in your eyes.”
14. Iceage, “The Lord’s Favorite”
Punk boys discover the existence of girls, question everything they ever believed in. I loved Iceage when they were Danish hardcore teens, the kind of band that sold knives at the merch table. (The sign said, “No Stabbing” — right.) But I love them even more doing this fractured black-leather humpabilly, as puffy-lipped naif Elias Bender Ronnenfelt learns too late that knives are nothing compared to a pair of heels.
15. Migos, “Fight Night”
If you’re a dude, the words “Fight Night” mean you’re stuck at home alone watching TV on a Saturday night. So it’s an ironically poignant metaphor for the massive amounts of sex you’re supposedly having. Word: “R.I.P. to Nate Dogg, I had to regulate.”
16. The Hold Steady, “Almost Everything”
Nobody’s written anywhere near as many great rock & roll songs over the past decade as the Hold Steady. With “Almost Everything,” this livest of live bands does their turn-the-page tour ballad — the road goes on forever, ashes to ashes, dust in the spotlight. When Craig Finn sings “The Waffle House waitress asked us if we were Pink Floyd,” it sounds like that might have been the highlight of his day.
17. Ariana Grande, “Break Free”
In karaoke terms, the “Flagpole Sitta” of 2014. Strange note: The karaoke machine at Sing Sing corrects the line “become who I really are” to “become who I really am.” This censorship shall not stand!
18. Merchandise, “Green Lady”
The last remaining unchecked square on your Eighties-revival bingo card? The one marked “Heaven 17/Glass Tiger fusion”? Merchandise zero right in on that shit. Could there be a more 1985 sounding song? It definitely tops Future Islands in this year’s 1985 sweepstakes. (If you went back to 1985 and told people someday indie bands would try to sound like this, trust me, not a soul would believe you.) No idea what the lyrics are — I assume they’re terrible, since this is a song called “Green Lady.” Yet the ache in Carson Cox’s careless-whisper croon gets me, and so do those swelling synths, not to mention that damn woodblock. Any band who can write such a gorgeous song with a title as dubious as “Green Lady” is definitely onto something.
19. Deafheaven, “From the Kettle Unto the Coil”
One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2015 was to get up to date with metal so I wouldn’t be just another one of those annoying dilettante fucks who loves Deafheaven yet knows nothing else about metal. I failed at that. Sorry. So I can in no way do justice to this knee-weakeningly, lip-tremblingly, earlobe-stiffeningly beautiful massacre of a song. But I love it. (My other resolution for 2015 was to brush my hair every day, except nobody noticed but my mom, so I am breaking up with resolutions.)
20. EMA, “So Blonde”
Erika M. Anderson picks up her guitar to burn away some twenty-something angst with a live-through-this rock anthem. As Lil Jon would say, grunge ain’t dead!
21. Future featuring Pusha T, Pharrell and Casino, “Move That Dope”
Push it real good.
22. Great Thunder, “Singer’s No Star”
Halfway through one of the cassettes by her side band Great Thunder, Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield sits down at the piano and sads out because nobody understands her sorrow except Whitney Houston. She broods about how hearts work (or don’t) and sings “shoop shoop shoop be doop.” Not since Whitney herself have so many shoops sounded like teardrops.
23. Spray Paint, “Do Less Things”
Austin noise dudes stretch out their jagged postpunk groove with just two chords and a bag full of non-motivational slogans to shout at each other. Statement of purpose: “Another great moment ruined by a saxophone.”
24. Angaleena Presley, “Life of the Party”
The saddest country song about waking up in the wrongest place (“is it 10 or two?” always means it’s two), from the coal miner’s daughter in the Pistol Annies. Remember the wise words from You’re The Worst: It’s only a walk of shame if you’re capable of feeling shame.
25. One Direction, “No Control”
So Rick Springfield and Jessie’s girl had a baby, and it was this song, and they named it after an Eddie Money album (the one with “Shakin'” on it) and gave it to Louis to sing, with lyrical metaphors maybe a few degrees dippier than they needed to be (“waking up beside you I’m a loaded gun,” puh luh luh lease) but brilliant nonetheless. This long distance dedication goes out to the late great Casey Kasem, patron saint to pop fiends everywhere. R.I.P. Casey — keep your feet in the stars, and keep reaching for the ground.