We’re only halfway through 2014, but this year is already gloriously overstuffed with great music. Even if nothing else worth hearing comes out until January, it’s still a boom year, just like 2012 and 2013. (Where the hell were all these songs in the grim days of 2008 or 2009?) We’ll all need another six months just to catch up. So here are my 25 favorites so far: punk rockers, glam rappers, cheese-pop divas, dance-floor monsters, songs about hair, songs about love and a couple of songs about underwear. All these songs are guaranteed to make the second half of your year louder.
1. Parquet Courts, “Raw Milk”
All I was hoping was that these Brooklyn guitar twits would knock off the exact same album they made last time. Was that so much to ask? But Parquet Courts had different plans – Sunbathing Animal is so confident, so devious, so funny, so expansive, so loaded with surprises, so smart in places where you’d settle for clever. (And not a single track that sounds like Pavement. Crazy!) “Raw Milk” is their shaggiest guitar buzz: Andrew Savage and Austin Brown serenade the kind of girl who invades your soul and invites all her drunk dogwalker friends to crash in your room but you don’t mind because she’s there. (And then she leaves.) I can’t resist quoting Robert Christgau’s 1981 review of the second Psychedelic Furs LP, because it applies so perfectly to Parquet Courts: “I loved the first Furs album because it seemed so disposable; I love this one because it doesn’t.”
2. Nicki Minaj (featuring Soulja Boy), “Yasss Bish”
A word from Mick Jagger in 1973, commenting in the NME on glam rock: “I think all this posing stuff is going to be tolerated until – let’s say, oh, the middle of 1974 and then it’ll be dead.” Now that it’s the middle of 2014, all hail Nicki for showing why glam posing is alive and well. “I am the queen because I’m a machine,” indeed.
3. Sharon Van Etten, “Your Love Is Killing Me”
When I saw Sharon Van Etten three nights in a row last year, opening for Nick Cave, her new material sounded so intense, she had me jotting down lyrics on my ticket stub to make sure I’d remember later. (As if I could forget.) “Your Love Is Killing Me” is the torch ballad that kills me on Are We There, her powerful (and scary) (and funny) (and sad) (but mostly scary) break-up album, like Elvis Costello‘s “I Want You” stretched to 47 minutes. “Everybody’s knees knocking at the fear of love”? Maybe it’s just the fear of this song.
4. Future, “T-Shirt”
The party in Future’s mind never stops, even when he’s the only one invited. The ATLien hip-hop rocket man’s second album Honest is damn near flawless (the flaw, i.e. the gag-inducing Kanye duet “I Won,” is the radio hit). Much as I love the posse cut “Move That Dope,” Future sounds more himself when he’s by himself, just because it suits his spaced-out solipsism. In “T-Shirt” he rides the Nard&B bass, with AutoTune juice running down his lungs. At first I thought he boasting “we Novoselic,” which I was totally down with – turns out he’s really saying, “like when I was selling rocks.” Whatever, never mind.
5. Perfect Pussy, “Interference Fits”
A noisy destructo-spaz punk mess that somehow feels like an R&B slow jam, raging with emotion. Meredith Graves buries her voice deep in the mix, until the guitars cut dead and she yells, “Since when do we say yes to love?” It’s the closest Perfect Pussy come to a conventional rock song, which isn’t all that close. But the pain threshold of the music is a reminder that love is the most life-wrecking catastrophe you could ever say yes to.
6. Lil Jon & DJ Snake, “Turn Down For What”
All these years after “Get Low,” Lil Jon’s ball sweat has aged like fine wine. The Atlanta crunk king teams up with a French trap DJ to create a brain-eating dance-floor menace for which we should all be grateful. Since when do we say yes to crunk?
7. White Lung, “Face Down”
Feminist aggro from Vancouver, starring Mish Way and her band of punk hellions. The superb new Deep Fantasy is even louder and meaner than their 2012 breakthrough Sorry. In “Face Down,” Way tramples over the syllables like they’re strangers blocking her path to the bar. Get behind her or get run over.
8. Protomartyr, “What The Wall Said”
The Protomartyr album is such a weird mix of elements – it took me 20 listens or so to like it, but then I started craving it all the time. Glad I kept it in the “one more chance” pile so long. These Detroit dudes make the guitars wobble every which way on Under Cover Of Official Right, while misery goat Joe Casey runs the emotional gamut from “I Stare At Floors” to “I’ll Take That Applause.” (He looks and dresses like a boozy young P.J. O’Rourke – when he steps onstage, it looks like he’s there to serve the band a subpoena.) In “What The Wall Said,” Casey moans about sitting alone in his room, playing Alice In Chains on repeat, listening through the wall to eavesdrop on other people’s lives, even though they’re probably as dismal as his. (“You’re always nervous night will come/And you’re laughing out of every hole” – yeesh.) Yet he’s so funny about how screwed up he is, you keep rooting for him to escape that room.
9. 5 Seconds of Summer, “She Looks So Perfect”
“I made a mixtape straight out of ’94/I got your ripped skinny jeans lying on the floor” is the greatest lyric in the universe, more or less. I love how these Australian teen-pop barette-melters cram every single hit from the Total Request Live summer of 1999 into three minutes of girl worship, from Blink 182 to the Backstreet Boys. “She Looks So Perfect” is their answer to LFO’s “Summer Girls,” except 5 Seconds of Summer switch from “I like girls who wear Abercrombie & Fitch” to “You look so perfect standing there in my American Apparel underwear,” tweaking LFO the way LFO tweaked New Kids on the Block. Somewhere, Casey Kasem is smiling.
10. EMA, “So Blonde”
When 5 Seconds of Summer sing about that “mixtape straight out of ’94,” they probably have this EMA song on it – since “So Blonde” echoes practically every second of the summer Live Through This came out.
11. The Hold Steady, “Almost Everything”
Last summer I saw a Japandroids show where they dedicated “The House That Heaven Built” to Craig Finn, saying, “Thanks for letting us steal so much shit from you.” Well put! Nobody’s written as many great songs as the Hold Steady over the past decade – nobody’s even close. My favorite from Teeth Dreams (this week) is the acoustic “Almost Everything,” which you could call a power ballad, except it’s about total exhaustion. Finn could be singing about a road trip, a romance or a band, but either way he’s in a situation where it’s too late to let go. When he sings “The Waffle House waitress asked us if we were Pink Floyd,” you can’t tell whether he thinks it’s funny or pitiful. Both, probably.
12. Ariana Grande & Iggy Azalea, “Problem”
One of my favorite cheese-pop genres is the sound of a wussy girl trying to talk tough. Last year’s winner was Selena Gomez’s “Slow Down,” but this summer it has to be Ariana. My favorite part of the video is how Ariana keeps trying to sing with her fingers in her mouth – not even Mandy Moore tried that move. “Problem” is the least Max Martin-sounding Max Martin record ever, a C&C Music Factory tribute with sax belches, wubba-wubba-wubba breakdancers, and a sub-Freedom Williams klutz-rap interlude from Iggy Azalea, the smoothest Australian MC since Michael “Mediate” Hutchence. Docked a notch or two just because that “less”-vs.-“fewer” grammar issue is one of those things that make me go hmmm.
13. Cloud Nothings, “I’m Not Part of Me”
Another narrowly avoided brush with maturity from Dylan Baldi, and here’s hoping he has many more years’ worth of those. Would Baldi’s songs hit anywhere near this hard without drummer Jayson Gerycz? Glad we’ll never have to know. Baldi sings like he already realizes he’ll lose this girl, just like he’ll lose the girl in his next song. But hold on tight to that drummer, dude.
14. Vic Mensa, “Down on My Luck”
The 21-year-old next-school Chicago MC trips through the inner-city melancholy of 1980s Detroit techno, with hip-hop desperation behind the sleek beats. Good life, good life, good life, good life.
15. Ought, “Gemini”
These Montreal arrivistes spend most of their great debut, More Than Any Other Day, going for wintery postpunk. But they end with this 7-minute heart-of-darkness power-strum guitar rave, which is as close as they get to uplifting. Tim Beeler ends by chanting the words “want it,” and even if he doesn’t get what he wants, he sounds overjoyed that he can muster up enough emotional energy to want something. You probably know that feeling.
16. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, “J Smoov”
Let’s face it – “try to sing like Al Green” is the last advice any sane person would give Stephen Malkmus, but that’s why advice sucks and this song kills. It’s the loosest, warmest moment on his excellent Wig Out At Jagbags, a Memphis-soul lover-man ballad, complete with trombone solo. Malkmus sings the line “end of the season” over and over, but he doesn’t seem sad – more like he’s lounging on the back porch, watching some dark clouds roll away.
17. Priests, “Right Wing”
Priests roll with the proud tradition of politically agitated D.C. bands, as Katie Alice Greer sneers her commands (“Worship me politely”? okay!) with a preacher-brat edge of confrontational humor. It’s the new wave side of Bikini Kill that flourished in Reject All American and carried over to Le Tigre. And “I’m not trying to be anythiiiiing” feels like a powerfully sad line about turning 23.
18. The Old 97s, “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive”
“Love is a marathon, sometimes you puke” is a worthy motto for a band who’ve stuck around this long, finally aging into the grizzled country-punk vets they always wanted to be. The Old 97s started out as Dallas artistes playing grown-up—the charm of a song like “W.I.F.E.” was that it was obviously written by a kid who’d never had one. But for all the stellar records they’ve made—my sentimental fave is 2001’s Satellite Rides – they’ve never sounded stronger than on this twenty-years-of-this-shit celebration. Best line: “Most of our shows we’re a triumph of rock/Though some nights I might have been watching the clock.”
19. Sevyn Streeter feat. Chris Brown, “It Won’t Stop”
I liked this sex-in-the-Jeep R&B jam on the radio, but its greatness did not fully register until it hit my local karaoke bar, where it became a surefire night-ruiner (at least for anyone unfortunate enough to hear me try to sing it). Sevyn rocks the boat like Aaliyah, goes boom like an 808 and sings “When you gimme that thunder, you make my summer rain” like her thunder only happens when it’s raining.
20. The Young, “Metal Flake”
These psychedelic Austin kids are the ticket if you’re in the market for a summer guitar record — nothing that asks you to think deeply or emote, just sun-dazed guitars that coat your soul in industrial-strength reverb dust. “Metal Flake” (from their massive new Chrome Cactus) swerves from the Stooges to Crazy Horse, from Spacemen 3 to the Dream Syndicate, in just four minutes.
21. Toni Braxton & Babyface, “Heart Attack”
I’ve been a BraxFace shipper since the Boomerang soundtrack, so I couldn’t be downer with their duet-comeback ode to love, loss and the persistence of boy-girl solidarity. Bonus points for stealing the vocal hook from the Cure’s “Let’s Go To Bed.” Suffer on in style, B&B.
22. Tacocat, “Crimson Wave”
A surf song, of course, inspired by the cramps as well as the Cramps. From the kickiest grrrl-punk band to cop a palindrome name since Emily’s Sassy Lime.
23. Todd Terje & Bryan Ferry, “Johnny & Mary”
Given Bryan Ferry’s long-running failure to comprehend what is cool about Bryan Ferry, it figures it took this upstart Norwegian disco DJ to help him – by giving him an old Robert Palmer song that was basically a love letter to Bryan Ferry circa 1980. (Palmer would have killed to be Bryan Ferry the way Bryan Ferry would have killed to be Otis Redding.) It’s poignant to hear how raspy and decrepit Ferry lets himself sound here. The glam god sounds as sad and worn-out singing this song as Bill Murray sounded doing Roxy Music karaoke in Lost in Translation.
24. Nothing, “Bent Nail”
Shoegaze feedback overkill from Philadelphia – violently loud, yet cozy and soothing. If you have any clue what the singer is so depressed about, you’re listening way too hard.
25. Morrissey, “Oboe Concerto”
Are we supposed to believe it’s a coincidence that Morrissey gets ill and cancels his U.S. tour right after Miley goes viral with her distinctive Caligula-would-have-blushed rendition of “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”? Please. Morrissey and Miley actually have loads in common (both like to stick out their tongue, both fight the tyranny of shirt-wearing, neither has any sense of shame). I’m still hoping for Moz’s version of “We Can’t Stop.” But “Oboe Concerto,” the show-stopper ballad from his new album, is the saddest, heaviest, realest song he’s recorded in a decade, as Morrissey raises a glass to mourn his absent friends. And he won’t stop, because he can’t stop.