As with all of my music lists, like my top 14 albums of 2014 and my top 100 songs of 2013, this represents my personal preference. I thought 2013 was a little stronger, but the second half of 2014 brought a slew of very strong albums from veteran acts that boosted the year and made stopping at 100 songs harder than I expected it to be.
If I don’t like a song, it’s not here. That wipes out some critically-acclaimed artists’ 2014 releases entirely, including St. Vincent, FKA Twigs, Run the Jewels, Beck, Mac Demarco, Ariel Pink, Bombay Bicycle Club, and Sharon van Etten. Other folks liked that stuff. I didn’t.
Some songs that were among the last ones I cut from my list, in no particular order, looking just at artists that didn’t make it: Dotan – “Home;” Viet Cong – “Continental Shelf;” Dreamers – “Wolves;” Walk the Moon – “Shut Up and Dance;” Echosmith – “Cool Kids;” Gardens & Villa – “Colony Glen;” Bleachers – “I Wanna Get Better;” Ex Cops – “Black Soap;” The Wytches – “Gravedweller;” Soundgarden – “Storm;” Max Jury – “Black Metal;” Cold War Kids – “All Of This Could Be Yours;” Sir Sly – “Gold;” Knox Hamilton – “Work It Out;” and Arkells – “What Are You Holding On To?” I’ll put together another playlist with those songs and more that “just missed” in a day or two.
The Spotify list includes 98 of the 100 songs. I didn’t take the time to craft amazon and iTunes links because it takes forever; that’s the only real income I derive from this site, so if you already wanted to purchase something, feel free to use the Amazon Link in the header.
100. Kele – Closer. The lead singer of Bloc Party goes trip-hop, which might be a permanent switch given how half-hearted BP’s last album was. The album, Trick, is wildly uneven, but the back-and-forth with the unnamed female vocalist on “Closer” and the musical nods back to ’90s two-step make this the record’s best track.
99. White Lung – Down It Goes. This would be riot grrrl material if it were still 1997, but instead it’s just bright yet angry punk with a female vocalist.
98. Twin Peaks – I Found A New Way. Twin Peaks are a bunch of snotty kids and they sound like it, but I mean that in a good way. Named after a TV show that went off the air before any of its members were born, their music has a raw, old-school feel with more current tweaks like the occasional screamed vocal.
97. Ryan Adams – Gimme Something Good. I know many of you are enormous fans of Adams and his latest album; I don’t quite share that level of enthusiasm, but this song’s sparse roots-rock hooks stood out for me. In the battle of solo albums from guys who led beloved bands, Adams beat Jack White handily in 2014.
96. Midnight Masses – Am I A Nomad? A side project from two members of …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, a band you’ll see twice further up on this list, Midnight Masses have a spacier, more ethereal sound, with pulsating drums and heavy keyboards, with reverb and delay giving the song a chaotic feel despite its simple arrangement.
95. Death From Above 1979 – Always On. Ten years after their debut album, DFA1979 came back with their second record and the same hybrid of rock, dance, and even punk; “Always On” has the best balance, which for me means more rock, including a killer guitar riff.
94. Band Of Skulls – Himalayan. Himalayan was one of my favorite albums of the year, incredibly underrated because (I think) it’s not groundbreaking and quaffs deeply on the 1970s … but Band of Skulls does it so well and the production is so strong that it feels like a fresh record. The band crafts great riffs that really groove without losing the essence of classic rock that informs much of their music. The title track was one of three to make this list, with another (“Toreador”) just missing.
93. Sleeper Agent – Waves. One of a few alt-novelty hits on my list this year, affected in part by which of them my daughter liked the most; I think this was in the middle of her list, but I found it didn’t hold up that well under a hundred or so listens.
92. Opeth – Eternal Rains Will Come. Death-metal icons turned prog-rock revivalists Opeth put out an album, Pale Communion, that has barely a metal element on it (I suppose that makes it a non-metal album) and has half of its ten songs clocking in past the six-minute mark. If you like guitar and keyboard noodling, it has some fantastic passages, although I found the middle of the disc lagged. This song opens the disc and the shorter “Cusp of Eternity” follows, serving as a more accessible intro before they get too proggy with the eleven-minute third track. I also find it fascinating that a band so closely associated with the technical/melodic death metal subgenre could morph so completely into a different genre over the course of just a few albums.
91. The Kooks – Bad Habit. The Kooks are just a goofy, fun British rock band who produce great hooks and often slip over the line into self-parody; their September 2014 album Listen had a handful of great singles, balanced out by a few songs I’ll never listen to again. “Bad Habit” was one of the great ones, the song that I heard most on Sirius XM, not quite as distinctly British as “Down,” with a little more American blues influence instead.
90. Hundred Waters – Innocent. The best album of 2014 for me wasn’t full of great singles – it’s a cohesive, imaginative soundscape that uses Nicole Miglis’s vocals as another instrument on top of the layers of keyboards and drum machines. My two favorite tracks from The Moon Rang Like a Bell are on this list, but Hundred Waters’ genius is much better appreciated on the level of the full album.
89. Colony House – Silhouettes. Another alt-novelty hit, “Silhouettes” has the good sense to get in and out inside of three minutes, which is about how long the chorus’ hook works. There’s actually more nuance in the music behind the verses with off-beat guitar strumming before the traditional chorus (complete with the cute bit of workplay) kicks in.
88. Bestfriends – Lakeshore. Indie-electro-pop with the Passion Pit-type vocals, but with a more electronic and upbeat sound than PP or Foster the People.
87. Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness – Cecilia And The Satellite. Another alt-novelty hit, right down to the name of the song and the band. A friend of mine, upon hearing the name of the then-new band Coldplay, asked, “what the hell kind of name is that? Why don’t you just name a band ‘I Wanna Poke You in the Eye.’” Coincidentally, that’s the name of my new djent-folk side project.
86. Run River North – Beetle. I felt like these guys showed a lot of promise on their debut but didn’t go far enough to creating their own sound independent of their influences, bands like Mumford and Sons and the band they mimic quite well here, Of Monsters & Men.
85. Kaiser Chiefs – Coming Home. The lead single from their Education, Education, Education, and War was their biggest hit in about a decade, and it brings the kind of wit and irony they showcased on their first two albums, but here presented over what’s practically a ballad.
84. Ásgeir – Summer Guest. This Icelandic folk singer/songwriter features lyrics written by his 72-year-old father when singing in his native tongue, but he’s found international success thanks to a reissue of his debut album with new vocals recorded in English. It’s not normally my cup of tea, but his wistful delivery and the combination of melancholy textures and lilting folk melodies is addictive. It deserves a much wider audience than it received here.
83. Future Islands – Seasons (Waiting On You). The feel-good hit of the summer, or the spring, in large part because of that dance the lead singer did on Letterman. I haven’t liked anything else they’ve done, but this is about as great as a pop/rock song can be without a guitar.
82. alt-J – Hunger Of The Pine. Lead singer Joe Newman takes top billing here, but ended up overshadowed a bit by the Miley Cyrus sample in the chorus that just didn’t add enough to the song to make it worthwhile. Of everything on their bizarre sophomore album, This is All Yours, “Hunger” did the best job of recapturing the band’s attempts to play with textures from their debut, although it wasn’t the best song on the disc.
81. Dan Sultan – Under Your Skin. Sultan won Australia’s equivalent to the Album of the Year Grammy for Blackbird, which marries blue-eyed soul with some heavier guitar riffs. If you’re old enough to remember what Little Caesar tried, Sultan does something similar but much more effectively.
80. Animals As Leaders – Tooth and Claw. Highly technical metal – I’d say this is the metal equivalent of set-theoretic topology – with masterful guitarwork from bandleader Tosin Abasi, a fretwork virtuoso who incorporates elements of jazz with speed-metal shredding for an amazing instrumental experience on their 2014 album The Joy of Motion.
79. Broods – Mother & Father. This New Zealand brother-and-sister duo produced an understated album of atmospheric electronica that hid some enormous hooks below Georgia Nutt’s soothing ambrosiac vocals. This second single from the album was its most overtly poppy song, impossible to get out of my head once I heard it. They did not receive any bonus points for the fact that I think the lead singer is really cute.
78. Speedy Ortiz – Doomsday. A one-off track recorded for the Famous Class/LAMC 7” series, which has also featured Parquet Courts and Ty Segall, “Doomsday” reminds me a lot of Helium, the former band of Mary Timony (see #72), with a deliberately dissonant, lugubrious rhythm line beneath Sadie Dupuis’ sweet, melodic vocals. One of only two tracks on this list that’s not on Spotify.
77. Young Rising Sons – High. Yet another alt-novelty hit, one of my true favorites of the year though, even with the trite lyrics, because of the vocal turns and tumbles in the chorus and its unexpected truncation a half-measure too soon. YRS will release their debut album early in 2015 after recently scoring a major-label deal.
76. Interpol – All The Rage Back Home. El Pintor marked a comeback of sorts, although I still think these guys spend every album trying to recreate Joy Division’s solitary LP. My longtime friend Pete, who has similar tastes in music, wants you to know he thinks “My Blue Supreme” was a better Interpol choice for this list.
75. Darlia – Queen Of Hearts. The Nirvana comparisons held for the length of this song, but their remaining releases didn’t have the same hook or urgency as this lead single.
74. Spoon – Knock Knock Knock. Spoon might be the most important American rock band going right now, and They Want My Soul did nothing to hurt that status … but it was a little light on experimentation. “Knock Knock Knock” and the follow-up track “Outlier” saw Britt Daniel et al stretch their legs a little and incorporate different sounds and borrow from other genres, with more electronic influences adding a new dimension to their core roots-rock sound.
73. The Kooks – Forgive & Forget. Don’t let the intro fool you; this song rocks as soon as the drums kick in, and it bursts back into life with every return to the chorus.
72. Ex Hex – Beast. The big comeback album for Mary Timony (ex-Helium and Wild Flag) was a lot of fun, with tight songs full of big hooks, more accessible than her earlier noise-rock endeavors, as if Timony matured and decided to make music that might get played on the radio. Rips has its share of airplay-worthy tracks, with “Beast” the best showcase of Ex Hex’s high-energy approach.
71. Waylayers – Magnets. The best Coldplay song of the year wasn’t actually by Coldplay; this synth-heavy Waylayers track sounds a lot more like material from Parachutes with a drum machine behind it.
70. …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead – Sound Of The Silk. It wasn’t the best song from IX but it was the most interesting; the Trail took their share of risks and pushed some boundaries and other cliches on the album, never more so in this mini-suite of segments that pulls a few hairpin turns before arriving at the giant climax that brings every element together.
69. Young Fathers – Get Up. Surprise winners of the 2014 Mercury Prize, this British alt-hip hop trio comprises one Liberian-born MC and one born in Scotland to Nigerian parents, so it’s not surprising that you hear African influences in their rhymes and portions of the music … but they lack the technical prowess of the old-school rappers I favor. “Get Up” is here because the track itself is strong enough to make up for some deficiencies in the vocals, and both MCs also handle some singing duties. It’s not a hip-hop track; it’s a neo-soul song that happens to have rapped verses.
68. The Creases – Static Lines. A Brisbanite quartet that bears some of the distinctive sounds of the Australian punk-pop icons the Saints, bearing better production qualities and a vocal delivery that’s laconic rather than angry. Based on their EP Gradient, which leads with “Static Lines,” I’m cautiously optimistic about them breaking out in 2015 when they finally drop a full-length album.
67. Stars – This is the Last Time. I was back and forth between this and “Trap Door” for my favorite song from Stars’ latest, but the latter track imitates New Order too closely whereas “Last Time” has Stars showing off a more independent identity within the same shameless poppy sound that their singles always seem to bear.
66. The New Pornographers – Fantasy Fools. Brill Bruisers is such an effusively upbeat experience, with so many talented musicians seemingly subverting their disparate identities to produce this cohesive album that seems like it shouldn’t have been possible. “Fantasy Fools” is a high point, without quite slipping over the edge of pretentiousness the way they do on “Dancehall Domine,” never sacrificing the energy that powers the album to its various peaks.
65. Glass Animals – Pools. I know “Gooey” was the big hit, but I found it cloying and have no interest in discussions of anyone’s peanut butter vibes. “Pools” employs drums filled with water to give it that jungle-percussion effect, and the tempo and mood are much easier on the ears and the part of the brain that handles imagery.
64. alt-J – The Gospel of John Hurt. If your favorite tracks from An Awesome Wave were “Matilda” and “Fitzpleasure,” this is the song from This is All Yours for you, with the gradual, organic buildup of diverse elements (and the harmonies spelling out a key word in the lyrics) to a giant crescendo at the finish, as well as the same allusion to a classic film.
63. Faded Paper Figures – Real Lies. A synth-pop trio from Los Angeles that produces upbeat, electronic tracks heavy on keyboards and drum machines (clap your hands everybody) with mixed results when it comes to memorable hooks. This lead single from their fourth album, Dynamo, has that solid melody in the chorus and the allure of the south Asian-style guitar line in the second half of the track.
62. Superhumanoids – Come Say Hello. A dream-pop acted fronted by Sarah Chernoff, whose powerful voice – I think she gets high enough to be safely called a soprano – stands out even over the curtains of shimmering, reverbed guitars and synths behind her. “Big Bang” is another favorite of mine from them from 2014.
61. Banks – Beggin for Thread. Do her friends call her Banksy? (Probably just once, if they’re smart.) Jillian Banks strikes me a little as the American Lorde, a singer-songwriter with clever lyrics and a distinctive, low-alto delivery.
60. Little Daylight – Overdose. A favorite of my daughter, who latches on to songs based largely on how strong their melodies are and, before I even know she likes it, seems to have the words memorized (not always accurately, but that’s one of the many true joys of parenthood – hearing how your kid fills in the blanks to song lyrics she doesn’t know). Anyway, “Overdose” is a silly alt-pop confection and we’ll probably never hear from Little Daylights again.
59. King Tuff – Black Moon Spell. Love the guitar work here, with giant riffs and stoner distortion that call Marc Bolan to mind, as well as the modulation to a minor chord right in the middle of the main lick. It almost doesn’t matter that there’s anything after the first 45 seconds of the song, although that’s all solid work that refers back to those same ’70s hard rock icons.
58. Band Of Skulls – Asleep at the Wheel. More highly referential hard rock with deep roots in ’70s rock, “Asleep” opened Himalayan in style, with a heavy, deep twist on a traditional blues shuffle before the car hits the skids and the guitars open up for an enormous offbeat riff behind the chorus. Band of Skulls’ music is time out of joint and I love it.
57. The Rentals – Thought Of Sound. The return of the Friends of P fifteen years after their last full-length was a pleasant if totally unexpected development of 2014, and they sound like they never left, with that same similarity to early Weezer (where lead singer Matt Sharp formerly played bass) in a highly pop-inflected form of guitar-and-keyboard indie rock. “Thought of Sound” will probably bring you back to the late ’90s with its music but it’s very tightly produced and less deliberately messy than their first two albums were.
56. The Kooks – Down. The goofiest, most British song on the album probably never stood a chance of airplay over here, and I didn’t even like it that much on first listen, but the more I played it the more I found it sticking with me, as long as you can get past the drunken yodeling that starts the song. Listen didn’t have enough creative moments overall, but this song was their most successful attempt to do something out of the norm, especially in the way the guitar and vocal almost do a call-and-response in the verses, and the way they layer sounds in the final chorus.
55. Gap Dream – Fantastic Sam. Light up a joint and plug in your Moog. The minimal lyrics inspire a few grins, but Gap Dream’s strength is his ability to redraw the boundaries of psycheledic music to create something that doesn’t sound 40 years out of date.
54. Doss – Softpretty. This solo electronic artist breathes her vocals on “Softpretty” rather than singing them, but her voice is just a veneer over the high-voltage drum machine and the (synthesizer) steel drum melody that powers the song.
53. HAERTS – Giving Up. HAERTS was one of my favorite albums of the year, but four of the best songs were released on an EP last fall that I didn’t hear enough until after crafting my top 100 of last year. That means some of their best songs (especially “Wings”) fell through the cracks in my rankings; “Giving Up” is the best of the album’s new songs, putting the power of Nini Fabi’s voice to good use over yet another St. Lucia-produced pop gem.
52. TV On The Radio – Lazerray. When TV on the Radio really rock, they’re great; “Wolf Like Me” and the one-off 2013 single “Mercy” are among my favorite songs of the century so far. Their new album was more mellow than I’d hoped, and more commercial than anything they’ve put out so far, which felt like a bit of a letdown. “Lazerray” is one of the two best tracks because it fucking rocks.
51. Cloud Nothings – I’m Not Part of Me. Another album that fell a bit short of expectations for me; Dylan Baldi’s indie-rock stylings haven’t grown or even changed all that much through three full-lengths, perhaps the inevitable result of how quickly he writes and records all of Cloud Nothings’ material. “I’m Not Part of Me” and “Now Here In” were my favorite tracks from the album, simple, catchy, mostly three-chord rockers … just a lot like what we’ve heard from Baldi before.
50. Radkey – Feed My Brain. This trio of brothers appeared on my list last year with “Cat and Mouse,” and now have two EPs and a few singles to their credit, with a full-length LP expected in 2015 before any of the members turn 20. They’ll get Bad Brains comps because they’re an African-American punk band, but they’re much more accessible (if no less angry), and the lead singer sounds more like the singing brother in British rock duo Drenge than H.R. I’ll be very disappointed if their album next year is anything less than great and commercially successful.
49. Hospitality – I Miss Your Bones. One of the most original singles of the year, “I Miss Your Bones” almost dares you to dislike it with the hard strumming behind the opening verse and a drum pattern of which J.P. (not Stephen) Sousa might approve. It also contains the best expression summing up the deep longing for another person I’ve heard since Everything But the Girl’s “Missing.”
48. Hooray For Earth – Keys. I hadn’t heard of HFE before Racy, their fourth album, appeared in July; their indie-rock formula often includes heavy, distorted guitar lines contrasting with New Wave-style synthesizers and a lot of very upbeat melodies – if they were on a major label, I’m sure I would have heard of them by now by virtue of the airplay they would have received. I found their slower stuff (like the title track) a little overwrought, but “Keys” and “Say Enough” are both great examples of how fresh they can sound when they go uptempo.
47. The Raveonettes – Killer in the Streets. The Raveonettes dropped an album in June with no advance notice whatsoever, which seems like it would be impossible to do in the age of leaked records and social media, but there it was. The Danish indie-rock duo sound like they could be from California with their sunny, fuzzed-out guitars and shimmering reverb throughout Pe’ahi; the sliding guitar riff made “Killer” my favorite track from the disc.
46. CHVRCHES – Get Away. I didn’t expect any new music from CHVRCHES this year with the release of their debut album last September, itself about a year in the making, but the BBC project to re-score the movie Drive brought us this track, which would have fit perfectly on The Bones of What You Believe.
45. Dum Dum Girls – Rimbaud Eyes. The lyrics to this song are all drawn from the poems of French romantic poet Arthur Rimbaud, who was known for his libertine lifestyle and eyes that a childhood friend described as “pale blue irradiated with dark blue—the loveliest eyes I’ve seen. Lead singer/guitarist Dee Dee Penny has an appealing, smoky yet not too-low voice, and the swirling guitar lines here seemed to call back to some of the acts from the early-90s Madchester scene like Inspiral Carpets.
44. Jenny Lewis – Just One Of The Guys. Lewis, formerly part of the indie-rock heros Rilo Kiley, writes and sings seriously precious folk-rock tracks, and some of that threatens to take this song into the abyss … but it never quite goes there, in part because the subject, the pressure a woman in many male-dominated settings feels to conform, is a damn good one.
43. Night Terrors of 1927 – When You Were Mine (feat. Tegan & Sara). NT27 made my list last year with their morbid “Dust and Bones,” but headed in a much poppier direction in this collaboration with Canadian duo Tegan & Sara, sounding more like the Killers than their previous songs. The fact that Blake Sennett, half of NT27, was once in Rilo Kiley with Jenny Lewis, who’s in the previous slot on the list, is a coincidence.
42. Twerps – Heavy Hands. This Melbourne quartet sound a bit like they recorded this entire EP in the back of a bus, but seldom has a band name better described an artist’s music. The song is delightfully annoying, with earworm single-note guitar lines and whisper-song vocals.
41. Cymbals – Erosion. Another band that appears to have worn out their old Joy Division records, Cymbals would have been called “darkwave” when I was younger, with gothic, gloomy, new wave-inflected songs that reflect the sensibilities that existed in the wake of the initial punk movement. They also put out a two-song EP earlier this month called What Eternity that seemed to find them in a happier mood than they showed on the late-2013 album that contained “Erosions.”
40. Wild Beasts – Wanderlust. Wild Beasts’ Present Tense was wildly acclaimed on its release, especially in the U.K., but it’s too eccentric for me and not grounded enough in the kind of pop/rock foundation that I typically enjoy, kind of like Everything Everything without the hooks. “Wanderlust” is the most accessible and ear-friendly song on the album and features the unforgettable line “don’t confuse me with someone who gives a fuck.” I won’t, I promise.
39. Bear In Heaven – Autumn. I liked their single “Sinful Nature” a few years ago, but “Autumn” ratchets up the tension with a driving drum-and-bass line before the walls of noise arrive with the tribal chorus accentuated by reverb on the vocals.
38. Ty Segall – Tall Man, Skinny Lady. So simple, yet so great. The song is built almost entirely around one drum loop and a six-chord guitar pattern, barely even varying when it reaches the bridge and we get another electric guitar noodling around without apparent direction or destination. Not on Spotify.
37. Hundred Waters – Xtalk. The best track on the year’s best album, although it isn’t a collection of singles so much as a single work of art that functions best as a complete record. The little piano line that opens the song is one of the few true pop hooks on the album, but it’s the syncopated drum line and singer Nicole Miglis’s use of her voice as a melodic instrument that makes this song the standout on a standout disc.
36. Courtney Barnett – History Eraser. I love Barnett’s storytelling both on this song and “Avant Gardner” – which has a better story but weaker music – and just wish she wrote better, less languorous music. “History Eraser” is about a night of drinking gone somewhat awry, whereas “Avant Gardner” is the best song ever written about an asthma attack (at least since “The Pop Singer’s Fear of the Pollen Count”).
35. alt-J –Left Hand Free. The story behind this song is already becoming apocryphal, but it seems like the A&R men didn’t hear a single so the band members wrote this song as something of a joke, only to discover afterwards that they actually liked it. So do I, even though it’s kind of dopey in its own way, but it is the most immediately catchy song they’ve written so far.
34. Ben Howard – In Dreams. I loved Howard’s Mercury Prize-nominated 2012 album Every Kingdom, a somewhat traditional yet intelligent and technically sound indie-folk record, but his latest album, I Forget Where We Were, takes a much darker turn; it’s a more ambitious record, with seven songs that stretch past five minutes, and featuers more musical experimentation, but it’s also less melodic and accessible as a result. “In Dreams” has the disc’s best compromise between those darker tones and the beauty of his first album.
33. To Kill A King – Love is Coal. “Love is not like diamonds/love is coal to keep you warm.” A lovely if unexpected metaphor, one which describes both this song as a whole and their Exit, Pursued by a Bear EP as well, marks the chorus of this multifacted song which adds texture with each movement, moving from a stark piano-and-vocal opener to a rock-paced third passage that leads into a traditional guitar solo that shouldn’t even be in the same song – but it all works together because TKaK understand how to build tension and then tear it apart without ever interrupting the flow of a song.
32. Snakehips featuring Sinead Harnett – Days With You. Snakehips are a pair of producers/DJs who were better known for remixes before putting out their own music this year, but the reason this song is on here is the vocal performance by Harnett, who elevates a solid trance/trip-hop backdrop with her sultry delivery.
31. Movie – Mr. Fist. Movie, the second least-googleable band name of 2014 (the first one was Perfect Pussy … seriously, don’t google that), put out a two-sided single earlier this year, “Ads” b/w “Mr. Fist,” both unabashed throwbacks to the early years of Britpop, particularly the first Blur album and its immediate followers, with a distinctly British sense of humour that permeates all of their lyrics. “Ads” and their latest song “Tusk Vegas” are also worth a listen, available on their soundcloud page.
30. Twin Peaks – Flavor. There are a ton of great hooks among the sixteen songs on Twin Peaks’ Wild Onion, an uneven effort but an impressive one for a band whose members are still unable to drink legally. The album shows more influences than you’ll hear on the two Twin Peaks songs I have on this list, but at heart they seem to be a power-pop band with garage-rock tendencies.
29. KONGOS – Come With Me Now. One of the bigger crossover alternative hits of 2014, “Come With Me Now” is actually three years old. First released in KONGOS’ native South Africa in 2011, the song popped up on U.S. alternative stations in the first half of this past year, eventually hitting the pop charts and ending up on Dancing with the Stars (in my daughter’s favorite dance of the season). KONGOS blend rock with kwaito, which Wikipedia describes as a South African variant of house music. None of that explains the accordion, though.
28. Strand of Oaks – Goshen ’97. Easily the best song on Strand of Oaks’ autobiographical Heal, “Goshen ’97” features J. Mascis (of Dinosaur Jr.) on lead guitar, and you can absolutely hear those hints of “Start Choppin” whenever his guitar enters; Mascis’ style of playing is distinctive and provides “Goshen ’97” with an energy that’s lacking on much of the rest of the album, and provides a needed contrast to the wistful lyrics of the song.
27. Band Of Skulls – Nightmares. The Skulls get psychedelic here, a brief respite from the harder sounds throughout Himalayan, producing my favorite song on the album – it grooves rather than rocks, to use the technical terms for the things.
26. …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead – Jaded Apostles. Not that Trail of Dead care about hit singles, but if there was one to be found on their 2014 album IX, I thought this would be it. Coming in with a twelve-note guitar riff that repeats in the background of the entire song, just to end up one of a host of layers of guitars and drums that create the complex, nuanced backdrop to the vocals. In a related story, Keith Law and the Jaded Apostles are currently shopping for a record deal.
25. Ages and Ages – Divisionary (Do The Right Thing). Perhaps the best music video of 2014, although I don’t watch enough to award such an honor to anyone. It’s fantastic, though, and reflects the song’s lyrics and the way the vocals build up over the course of the song, with all eight band members singing at least four different parts.
24. Kaiser Chiefs – Cannons. It seems very Kaiser Chiefs to write an anti-war song that’s rather upbeat, featuring a refrain that mocks one of Tony Blair’s slogans while talking about “smashing regimes between courses.” It’s ambitious by their own standards, but doesn’t lack the pop sensibilities that populated all of Education, Education, Education, and War. The song concludes with a spoken-word performance by actor Bill Nighy, reading a poem written by the Chiefs that fits with the song’s theme.
23. The War On Drugs – Red Eyes. I know for many of you, Lost in the Dream was the best album of the year, but the Bob Dylan references turned derivative for me after just one full listen; there are solid ideas here, but it never carved out its own sound to my ears. The length of the songs – six of the ten tracks clock in at 5:48 and up – didn’t help either. (The only sub-four minute song is a filler instrumental.) “Red Eyes” was the obvious single, one of the album’s shortest tracks so that the central riff doesn’t play itself out, and the Dylan influences sit more in the backdrop rather than front and center as they did on the nine-minute opener “Under the Pressure.”
22. Wye Oak – Glory. I liked Wye Oak’s previous stuff, which was guitar-driven, more than their sparse, synth-and-drum album Shriek released this year, both due to the shift in instrumentation and the presence of a lot of slower, minimalist songs. “Glory” is more uptempo and Jenn Wasner’s voice works better with more music tracks behind it.
21. Yellow Ostrich – Shades. Yellow Ostrich started out as a solo project of lead singer and songwriter Alex Schaaf, who later expanded the band to its current four-piece alignment. (One former member, Jon Natchez, is now part of The War on Drugs … and is also a reader here, so, hi, Jon.) Schaaf’s songwriting took a huge leap forward on their fifth album, Cosmos, which boasts a fuller sound (thanks in part to the addition of a second guitarist) and the highest production quality of any of their discs.
20. Thumpers – Unkinder (A Tougher Love). This British duo create much bigger sounds than any two-person outfit has any right to produce, although obviously they have some help in the studio. “Unkinder” was one of the most enthusiastic songs of the year, with rapid-fire, stuttered lyrics and music that practically begs you to get up and “shake the building into piles.”
19. TV On The Radio – Happy Idiot. Not quite as good as “Mercy,” TVOTR’s one-off 2013 single that was inexplicably omitted from their November album Seeds, “Happy Idiot” still satisfies my personal desire to hear these guys let ‘er rip, even though it’s more of a slow boil this time around, with singer Tunde Adebimpe drily describing the emptiness after a bad breakup over a high-bpm drum loop.
18. Grimes featuring Blood Diamonds – Go. Grimes and her partner-in-crime Blood Diamonds offered this song to Rihanna, who turned it down, which just proves once and for all that Rihanna is a box of rocks, because this would have been by far the best song she’d ever recorded. I didn’t like Grimes’ 2012 album Visions because of her babydoll delivery, but on “Go” she dials her voice down a half-step to the perfect level, and Blood Diamonds submits maybe his best work yet, with an experimental mix of trance, dubstep, and dark electronica.
17. Manchester Orchestra – Top Notch. This song’s opening riff is the Sam Cassell’s “Big Balls” dance of guitar riffs, daring you to come up with something bigger, louder, more testicular than that one sound. It puts the lie to the extreme-metal myth that guitar riffs must be faster to be better. Some other things happen in the middle, and there’s a story here about two brothers making some kind of difficult choice, but this song is about that gigantic riff.
16. La Sera – Losing to the Dark. Ex-Vivian Girl Katy Goodman now records under La Sera, and this anthemic post-punk track marries a classic hard-rock guitar track of which Iron Maiden would approve with a depressing story of dealing with a partner who can’t stop abusing alcohol and drugs.
15. Amplifier – Black Rainbow. When the Astros sign me to be their closer, this will be my entrance music. This Mancunian band draws heavily on ’70s British rock and metal acts, especially Pink Floyd Black Sabbath, but without the slow pacing. Their 2014 album Mystoria was their most successful yet, but the most interesting aspect of the album is the wild effects pedals used on the lead guitar lines.
14. Tove Lo – Habits (Stay High). This unsparing account of Tove Lo (pronounced like the Pacific Island nation of Tuvalu) trying to get over a bad breakup via drug use and casual sex set over a bouncy, R&B-tinged electronic track became a surprise crossover hit, reaching #3 on the Billboard top 100, the highest performance (per Wikipedia) by a Swedish artist in 20 years. I was just surprised the lyrics didn’t prevent pop stations from playing it, but that probably shows my age.
13. Spoon – Rent I Pay. They Want My Soul made my top albums of 2014 with a mix of what I’d call American rock and some more experimental tracks; “Rent I Pay” led the former category, still distinguishing itself with the staccato guitar line and Britt Daniel’s almost equally punctuated delivery.
12. Sleater-Kinney – Bury Our Friends. Nothing says “we’re back” by releasing one of your best songs ever as your first new track in nine years. Their album, No Cities To Love, comes out on January 20th.
11. Jungle – Busy Earnin’. I thought this London R&B collective had a shot to win the Mercury Prize, perhaps co-favorites with critical darling FKA Twigs (whose music and lyrics I find insultingly juvenile), but Young Fathers surprised everyone with their victory. Like most of Jungle, “Busy Earnin’” delivers a faithful rendition of the best soul/disco sounds of the ’70s, for whatever reason reminding me in particular of “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now.”
10. Foster The People – Are You What You Want to Be? Supermodel was a top 20 album for me this year, but I only went to 14 because it’s 2014 and I need something to keep me from making these lists infinitely long. “Coming of Age” and “Best Friend” are solid, but “Are You What You Want to Be?” brings the African beats behind the verses before the big four-chord riff that opens the song comes back for the chorus. I want Mark Foster to do a whole album of experimental pop like this, without the expected moments like “Coming of Age” provided.
9. Broods – Bridges. The song that put Broods on the map, varying from the sweet, balladesque introduction to the trip-hoppy chorus where singer Georgia Nutt dials up to falsetto notes she just barely reaches.
8. Prides – The Seeds You Sow. It’s all about opportunity; this song reminds me quite a bit of Bastille’s massive hit “Pompeii,” certainly enough that “The Seeds You Sow” should have merited some airplay on alternative stations, but this Glaswegian pop trio, who have yet to release a full-length album, garnered just a brief appearance on the British top 100 and no notice whatsoever here in the U.S. This isn’t the ideal test of a song’s merits, but everyone I’ve introduced to this synthpop anthem has raved about it.
7. Milky Chance – Stolen Dance. The vocal style here annoyed me at first, as did the German duo’s ridiculous name, although I guess it’s possible that ridiculous just makes it more memorable. The chorus of “Stolen Dance” gets my earworm of the year award, though, and I love the lo-fi approach to an electronic genre that usually abides by a more-is-more philosophy. Their debut album, Sadnecessary, is just $5 right now on amazon.
6. The Holidays – Tongue Talk. Another obscure one, at least in the U.S., since The Holidays are successful in their home country of Australia, winning the Australia Music Prize award for the best debut album in 2010. Their second album, Real Feel, came out in February, with a few solid singles including “All Time High” and “Simple Pleasures,” as well as the standout “Tongue Talk,” which elevates their normally mellow pop sound with the addition of one fast guitar riff to turn it into a pulsating driving song.
5. Phantogram – Black Out Days. A good electro-pop song that becomes sublime thanks to the soaring vocals of Sarah Barthel, who reminds me of the vocalist from School of Seven Bells but with more power to hang with the gyroscopic synth line in what amounts to the song’s chorus, the strongest track from their second album, February’s Voices.
4. alt-J – Every Other Freckle. This is the alt-J we know and love, a song about obsession that features wild and sometimes inappropriate analogies (“I wanna bed into you like a cat beds into a beanbag/Turn you inside out, and lick you like a crisp packet”), unexpected musical shifts, tempo changes, and layered vocals. It’s looser than anything from their incredible debut album, An Awesome Wave, but the closest link between that album and their 2014 follow-up This Is All Yours.
3. Belle & Sebastian – The Party Line. Raise your hand if you saw this coming: an unapologetic dance track from sardonic Scottish folk-rockers Belle & Sebastian. Well, it’s here and it’s awesome, as if this was the kind of music the group was born to make. (You can’t have “The Boy with the Arab Strap” back, though.) The title of their forthcoming album, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, due January 20th, promises more of the same.
2. The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers. The title track of their 2014 album is the ne plus ultra of the New Pornographers’ sound, that of six musicians fusing all of their individual talents into one ebullient, stomping whole. Brill Bruisers was my #2 album of this year because of how well A.C. Newman, Dan Bejar, Neko Case, et al all melded their sounds, never more fully than on this indie-pop gem.
1. Royal Blood – Out of the Black. My pick for the best song of 2014 is this dark, menacing, bass (with octave pedal) and drum track that would sound equally at home in a doom-metal mix as it does here on a list that’s mostly alternative rock. Their self-titled debut album didn’t quite live up to the expectations of this massive single, especially the four-note lick at 2:37 that brings it back to the chorus one last time, the best guitar riff of the year.