It’s sometimes difficult to unearth an overall narrative that can encapsulate all of the diverse music that comes out in any given year, but here’s what I noticed: 2014 was the year of rock n’ roll.
People could make a case against me, citing the dominance of Taylor Swift and other chart-topping pop or R&B–but it was rock’s year. We had the throwback 80’s anthem rock of the War on Drugs and Ryan Adams, the triumphant return of peak Weezer at their 90’s best, taut indie rock offerings from Spoon and Interpol, gleaming pop rock from Rilo Kiley alum Jenny Lewis, blistering garage rock from Twin Peaks, nostalgic breezy rock from Real Estate, meandering roots rock from Courtney Barnett and Tweedy, and…well, you get the drift.
Whether you prefer Spotify or YouTube to consume your music, I’ve got you covered.
Best Songs of 2014 Spotify Playlist
Best Songs of 2014 YouTube Playlist
Choosing just 50 tracks is a difficult task. Let’s start with the ones that almost made it.
Michael Jackson: Loving You
The Rural Alberta Advantage: The Build
First Aid Kit: My Silver Lining
Clean Bandit ft. Jess Glynne: Rather Be
Ryan Adams: Gimme Something Good
The Raveonettes: Killer in the Streets
St. Vincent: Digital Witness
Broken Bells: Holding On for Life
Wild Cub: Thunder Clatter
Ariana Grande ft. Iggy Azalea: Problem
Damon Albarn: Lonely Press Play
Death from Above 1979: White is Red
Aphex Twin: produk 29 
SOHN: The Wheel
And now, for the top 50.
50. Phantogram: Fall in Love
Trippy, spazzy beats with hypnotic vocals.
49. Hiss Golden Messenger: Saturday’s Song
Hiss Golden Messenger has a certain spark that separates him from his contemporaries. “Saturday’s Song” has a wholesome energy to it.
48. Alvvays: Next of Kin
Alvvays, carrying on the tradition of Chvrches with random V’s in their name, provided one of the few great debut albums this year. Their hazy summer sound came out best on “Next of Kin.”
47. Jack White: Lazaretto
Lazaretto, Jack White’s second solo album, wasn’t as consistently good as 2012’s Blunderbuss, but the title track was another great entry into White’s canon of blazing rock and roll.
46. Mac Demarco: Chamber of Reflection
I’m not personally sure what a drugged-out haze would feel like, but I imagine this track comes close. I mean, if Wiz Khalifa rapped over it then chances are good.
45. White Reaper: Ohh (Yeah)
I’ll never get tired of fast, loud garage rock like this. The pulsating keyboard and bass line make it even better.
44. Foxygen: How Can You Really
No one captures the late-60’s/early-70’s sound with as much precision and accuracy as Foxygen.
43. Death From Above 1979: Trainwreck 1979
These guys released a ferocious debut back in 2004 and didn’t record another album until this year. Lead single “Trainwreck 1979” displays their knack for exhilarating rock.
42. Allah-Las: Every Girl
Chill, beach rock at its best.
41. The Black Keys: Gotta Get Away
Turn Blue, the Black Keys’ eighth studio album, was underwhelming as a whole, but their album-closer, the glam-rocker “Gotta Get Away” stood out from the pack.
40. Weezer: Cleopatra
I keep wanting to call Weezer’s new album Everything Will Be Alright in the End a comeback even though it’s only been 4 years since their previous release. But come on, we all know it was a comeback of sorts. It was a huge return to form for the 90’s darlings. “Cleopatra” is the best example.
39. Lana Del Rey: West Coast
She’s been a controversial figure since she came on the scene, but Lana Del Rey quieted some of her doubters with this year’s Ultraviolence. “West Coast,” produced by Black Keys’ frontman Dan Auerbach, adds just the right dose of grit to go with her swooning vocals.
38. Lorde: Yellow Flicker Beat
Lorde curated the Mockingjay soundtrack and contributed her own tune. She does a perfect job reflecting the ominous energy of the movie.
37. Taylor Swift: Shake it Off
Honestly, I was not a fan of “Shake It Off” when it came out. I thought the pop was too generic and uninteresting, but I have completely changed my mind. The production is actually excellent (you can’t beat those trombones and the way the bass comes in and out). I’m just saying, you could have been getting down to this. sick. beat.
36. Honeyblood: Super Rat
I love the grungy, 90’s style guitar.
35. Jenny Lewis: Head Underwater
I really don’t think Jenny Lewis can write a bad song. The whole album is full of great tunes, but my personal favorite is the opener, “Head Underwater.”
34. Future ft. Pharrell, Pusha T & Casino: Move That Dope
Reminds me of Kanye West’s “Mercy” – both have three featured rappers, one of which is Pusha T, and the beats are similarly hard and infectious. Also, did you know Pharrell could rap like this? I didn’t.
33. Tweedy: Low Key
Jeff Tweedy, of Wilco fame, teamed up with his 17-year-old son Spencer to record Sukierae. Far from being some vanity project, it was actually a really great album, and Spencer is no joke on the drum set. “Low Key” shows off another great Jeff Tweedy melody.
32. Sylvan Esso: Coffee
I never thought computerized sounds could sound organic, but Sylvan Esso strikes the balance with ease.
31. Theophilus London ft. Kanye West: Can’t Stop
Kanye produced Theophilus London’s album and imbued his College Dropout style in the beats. It’s nice to hear him rapping over those melodic beats again.
30. Real Estate: Primitive
The opening guitar line is so wistful and beautiful.
29. Drake: 0 to 100/The Catch Up
Apparently the beat is so good that Drake and Diddy/Puff Daddy got in a fight over it. Even in years when Drake doesn’t release an album, he still dominates the conversation and makes one of the best rap tracks of the year.
28. Grimes: Go
Grimes, as weird and quirky and awesome as her music is, is a huge worshipper of pop. She produced “Go” and offered it to Rihanna, but her team turned it down. Too bad for her — Grimes took it and released it herself, polarizing her fans into the “this is too mainstream, what were you thinking?!” camp and the “oh shut up, this is awesome” camp. I fall in the latter. “Go” is huge, commanding, slightly odd, and incredibly catchy.
27. Ryan Adams: My Wrecking Ball
Ryan Adams made a booming, Springsteen-style album, but the highlight is the unassuming acoustic “My Wrecking Ball” (no relation to Miley Cyrus). It’s evocative and powerful, in a similar vein as a quiet Gaslight Anthem song.
26. Mac Demarco: Let Her Go
Mac Demarco’s label asked him to include an upbeat single, ready for late-night TV performances, on his new album, which ticked him off. But I’m glad they did because it’s awesome. The surf guitar steals the show, but don’t sleep on the moving bass line.
25. Twin Peaks: I Found a New Way
Just great, energetic garage rock. I love when the double-speed hi-hat kicks in at 0:45.
24. Charli XCX: SuperLove
I never really understood why this song didn’t get more play. You may have heard Charli XCX featured on Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”, Icona Pop’s “I Love It”, or her own smash single “Boom Clap”, which was featured in the movie The Fault In Our Stars. She just released her album Sucker this month and it’s really good, but for some reason “SuperLove” was left off it. I think it’s the best thing she did all year. This is the best dance pop you could ask for.
23. Adult Jazz: Spook
It’s like if Local Natives and Alt-J had a baby. Very intricate and lovely.
22. How to Dress Well: Words I Don’t Remember
Tom Krell of How to Dress Well grew up a lot since his last album. “Words I Don’t Remember” is some epic R&B. “What is trust but knowing when to let you have your silence, baby? To let you have the peaceful, private corners of your mind.”
21. Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars: Uptown Funk
I’ll be honest, the first time I heard this, I thought it was too derivative of 70’s George Clinton style funk. But then the thing got stuck in my head and I just can’t deny it. “Up-town, funk it up. Uptown funk it up.” My dad would love this song.
——-The Top 20——-
20. Kendrick Lamar: i
Kendrick took an Isley Brothers sample and recorded the happiest song he’s ever done — that is, until the halfway point. In Kanye terms, the first half sounds like Late Registration and the second half sounds like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. We’re still waiting for Kendrick’s full-length follow-up to the legendary good kid, m.A.A.d city, but this will definitely tie us over.
19. Owen Pallett: In Conflict
This is the guy who collaborated with Arcade Fire on the soundtrack for Her. His voice reminds me of Ra Ra Riot, but his sound is wholly his own and completely unique.
18. Lykke Li: No Rest For the Wicked
“I let my good one down, I let my true love die, I had his heart but I broke it every time.” Lykke Li, hailing from Sweden, is a master at writing cold, frigid, honest ballads. This is a powerful one about lost love with a refreshing dose of self-analysis.
17. Ariana Grande ft. The Weeknd: Love Me Harder
Live on SNL
I never expected to like any songs from this Nickelodeon pop star, but when I saw her do this song with the Weeknd on Saturday Night Live, I was hooked. The beat is great, and the Weeknd’s voice is always compelling.
16. Schoolboy Q ft. Kendrick Lamar: Collard Greens
Try not to bounce up and down to this beat. It’s impossible.
15. Pharrell Williams: Marilyn Monroe
Much like Justin Timberlake last year, I think we collectively got kind of tired of Pharrell. His ubiquitousness was a little grating after hearing “Happy” for the 86th time. That’s too bad, because his solo album GIRL was really solid – a 10-song album with great production, catchy hooks, and no filler. The opening track, “Marilyn Monroe,” expertly showcases Pharrell’s many strengths.
14. Chris Staples: Dark Side of the Moon
Thank you to NPR for pointing this song out to me. The soft acoustic number poignantly alludes to a father’s desire to love and know his son — “I want to love you, I want to pass it on, I want to give and give ’till it’s all gone. I want to know you while we have the time, because that’s all I got to leave behind.”
13. Future Islands: Seasons (Waiting On You)
This is the definition of triumphant. Future Islands grabbed online headlines after their Letterman appearance due to Samuel Herring’s impassioned performance, complete with guttural vocals and head-bob dancing. It’s good to see these indie veterans making an imprint.
12. Courtney Barnett: Avant Gardener
Where Future Islands’ vocals were impassioned, Barnett’s are the opposite, but it works just as well. The music sounds like a stoned Rolling Stones Aftermath outtake, providing the backdrop for Barnett to sing about ridiculous and humorous situations, such as when the “paramedic thinks I’m clever cos I play guitar, I think she’s clever cos she stops people dying.”
11. Spoon: Do You
Somehow this was only the second best song on the album. Spoon is amazing. Punchy indie rock at its finest.
10. Taylor Swift: Blank Space
Expertly-crafted pop, self-aware lyrics, and a larger-than-life sound befitting the pop star behind it. I love when the madness steps up a notch at 1:50, with the “screaming, crying, perfect storm.” Some of you know of my obsession with vocal harmonies — the middle-eight, a.k.a. the “Boys only want love if it’s torture” section, is so lyrically dumb, but so harmonically amazing.
9. Jamie xx: Sleep Sound
DO NOT listen to this song without proper headphones or speakers. If you listen to it on your crappy MacBook, the power will be lost on you. The sound of this track is incredible — the drum machine beat, the wobbly bass, the syncopated vocal-sounding chimes.
8. The War on Drugs: Under the Pressure
Adam Granduciel, the brains behind the War on Drugs, is an expert at taking cues from 1980’s style Springsteen/Petty/Bryan Adams anthem rock, complete with driving heavy-snare drum beats, warped guitars, and synth ornamentation. But he then strips this 80’s rock sound of any excess cheesiness, and instead makes it even more vital, desperate, and alive. “Under the Pressure” really comes into it’s own starting at the 3:08 mark when the drums fall out. The simple two-chord progression goes on with some melodic guitar on top. Anticipation grows — it’s clearly amping up. Then the drums come back in strong at 4:05, it’s a perfect moment. Try it out, see if you like it.
7. Mina Tindle: Taranta
Another shout out to NPR for playing this song on their All Songs Considered show, which I highly recommend. I don’t understand any of the words, but the music is so introspective and evocative that it doesn’t matter. It makes you feel things.
6. Real Estate: Had to Hear
I’ve said it over and over again, so I apologize, but no band does “nostalgia” better than Real Estate. Something about their songs provide perfect background music for daydreams. “Had to Hear,” the opener off their latest album Atlas, is no different.
5. Interpol: All the Rage Back Home
For fans of: Good choruses
I thought Interpol was done. Their peak came at the very beginning of their career a decade ago, when their brand of “doom-ridden” indie rock stood next to the likes of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Franz Ferdinand, the Strokes during the early-2000’s renaissance of tightly-wound rock, coming into finally replace the worst of grunge excess. Since that time, Interpol hadn’t really offered anything as exciting as those glory days… until the exhilarating “All the Rage Back Home” dropped this year. As I told some friends this year, “you should like this because it’s good.”
4. Coldplay: Magic
It’s easy to ridicule Coldplay — too soft, too bland, too mainstream, too derivative. While that is often true, they still manage to come out with singles that I think are unequivocally good. “A Sky Full of Stars”, which was co-written and produced by Avicii, rode the EDM wave to get more attention and radio play, but don’t pay attention to that song. “A Sky Full of Stars” is why you should hate Coldplay. “Magic” is why you should love them. It’s got such a groove.
3. The War on Drugs: An Ocean in Between the Waves
Another great example of the War on Drugs taking the 1980’s rock template and improving on it to create something truly epic.
2. Sun Kil Moon: I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love
On his last two albums (2012’s Among the Leaves and this year’s Benji) Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek has adapted a more stream-of-consciousness style. His expertly-crafted songs of the past (see “Carry Me Ohio” and “Blue Orchids”, which are both amazing by the way) have given way to a more meandering style. “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” stands at the sweet spot midway between these two poles of “conventional structured song” and “long and winding road.” It features gorgeously picked acoustic guitar accompanying Kozelek’s poignant vocal exploration of how he would handle the future death of his mother.
1. Spoon: Inside Out
“Break out of character for me.” It’s amazing how a little six-word refrain could pack in so much meaning. There actually aren’t many lyrics to this song — frontman Britt Daniel allows the music to breathe. The heavy beat and pulsating piano were apparently influenced by Dr. Dre, which explains the insane catchiness. No song got my heart pumping with excitement as much as “Inside Out” by one of the most consistent and supremely talented bands out there: Spoon.
3 thoughts on “Best Songs of 2014”