In light of the year’s end, I’ve put together my annual “Favorites List” of songs that were released in 2014. Whether they’re singles, non-singles, or just random audio snippets, these tracks are what I enjoyed listening to the most. I’ve compiled this list as a personal retrospective of what I was into musically the most and less of a critique of what deserves the highest honor. I’ve also taken the liberty to give a brief explanation of each song and provided a link for you to stream the song via Spotify right then, and there.
This here list contains songs: #25 – 1
Richard Spaven has been one of my favorite drummers since he first surfaced with Jazzre:freshed collaborates Spaven’s 5ive and Mark de-Clive Lowe. His style is casual, yet sophisticated. In the song “SideIISide”, Spaven uses the smooth deep bass synths to juxtapose his syncopated drumming. It’s almost like he’s talking in syntax through dynamic pushing and pulling riffs on his percussive kit. Spaven’s work on the track “SideIISide” is arguably his greatest effort towards hip-hop drumming thus far, and that’s saying a lot.
24. “Return To Air”
“Return To Air” is the third and final track off Bonobo’s newest release, the Flashlight EP, and is worth every second of listening. The song incorporates Bonobo’s trademark world music percussion beats with airy synths and samples of distant female vocals. It really is a treat, especially considering it was released at the tail end of the year.
I had no idea what to expect when I put my headphones on to listen to Badbadnotgood’s III for the first time. It was their first album comprised of all original compositions, and unlike the two previous records, III was released through an official record label. So all cards were on the table, but nonetheless, I hit play, and heard an intro that gave me a harsh punch. Smacked in the face and sort of dizzy, the band laid off a bit to let me breathe and then came right back in with a progression of rumbling arpeggio bass lines. Then, they quieted down a bit into a Radiohead-esque bridge that ultimately ended with a fantastic lyrical piano solo. I thought the song was over, but no, it’s a prog-rock song, silly, so all three members came back in to finish with a coda that left me breathless and with the understanding that these guys are here to stay for a long time coming.
SNS – Single
The first time I had heard of Sonnymoon was when a friend suggested the song “Nothing Thought”. It was during a dark time in my life, but that shit was so dope, and the band hadn’t released anything else like it. So I waited a good two years where things started to look up, and what’d you know, Sonnymoon released the “SNS” single. So of course I listen to it, but I had forgotten all of the emotions I had felt when I first heard “Nothing Thought”. However, “SNS” immediately pulled me into a trance. That funky drumbeat and whispery vocals that sounded like Jeff Buckley resurrected from the dead. All of it, was so good.
21. “200 Press”
200 Press EP
“200 Press” is James Blake’s most groovy tune thus far, and that’s saying a lot considering most of his music incorporates dark dub samples and soulful vocal melodies. But what makes “200 Press” so special is that it shows Blake’s continuing growth as a producer. The song follows a simple four-on-the-floor drumbeat, but really finds its flow with industrial synths and repetitive samples of vocals from Al Green’s “Could This Be Love” and Devin the Dude’s “What a Job”. Overall, “200 Press” wouldn’t have fit well on Blake’s last album Overgrown, but rather is a telling sign of the direction Blake might be taking for future releases, and that, I’m perfectly okay with.
The lo-fi ogle of Wild Beasts’ song “Wanderlust” couldn’t come off more on point. Hayden Thorpe introduces the first song in nearly three years by cooing, “We’re decadent beyond our means”, as if the group had spent ample time rendering self-confidence as a band that incorporates human sexual tension through lyrics of coy curiosity and boyish-like vocals. Musically, the song is as confident as the lyrics themselves. The band rid themselves of their guitars and figuratively cut strings with a mantra of bristling minimalism: “Don’t confuse me with someone who gives a fuck”.
19. “Down from the Rafters”
The Moon Rang Like a Bell
“Down from the Rafters” is this year’s crowning musical achievement by any band. Hundred Waters have gone from their extroverted live show sounds to creating a song so beautiful, so haunting, there’s no denial about the skilled musicianship involved. In “Down from the Rafters”, Nicole Miglis’ vocals remain lovely and limber, but unlike Hundred Waters’ florid poetics, the lyrics provide a deeper knowable sense of ache. And musically, the inventiveness of textures and restraint from the quartet in such a minimal setting provides an anxiety of not knowing what will come next, and that, is true craft.
18. “Add the Bassline”
[Soul Has No Tempo]
If you were doubtful, the bass is definitely audible in Jordan Rakei’s “Add the Baseline”. The song is a slow, sexy jam that revolves around a funky bass line that is reminiscent of 90s hip-hop grooves. Rake’s vocals are also impressive. It’s smooth and distinct. He even plays with the line, “She told me add the baseline”, throughout the song and most notably when the bass and beat rumble in exactly at the same moment Rakei starts singing the word “bass”. It’s fun because at that moment, the groove kicks in and you know that everything will be fine.
My Little Ghost
“Inakunaru” is a very pretty song. Its lush soundscape is dense, yet moves like a bird flying in air. There’s not much emotional connection to “Inakunaru” except for that it seems to always put me in a mood where I close my eyes and remember the most amazing thing that has ever happened to me. That to me is a pretty good explanation to favor the song.
The anticipation to hear more music from the Bay Area group The Seshen couldn’t have been more frustrating after the sextet released its first full-length record. They’ve been able to create a sound unlike any other band in the market today and that’s an exhilarating bonus for music lovers like me. Luckily, the group released the Unravel EP towards the end of the summer and it couldn’t have been packed with more solid tracks. Unfortunately, the only track that had never surfaced on the internet before was the title track “Unravel”.
The song, however, is a thrilling thickset jam that doesn’t ever let go. Like the band’s previous single “Oblivion”, “Unravel” uses sparse fuzzed-out bass lines to carry the backbone of the song while vocalist Akasha Orr sings incredibly catchy hooks like, “I can see it in your eye what was here is no longer”, as if she is grieving some loss between a relationship or lost hope in humanity(?). The open end faction of the song provides even more tension for the listener, but regardless, the song takes you on a journey and it’s something worth experiencing.
By Fire EP
Like the Seshen, anticipation couldn’t have been greater to hear new music from Melbourne’s future soul quartet Hiatus Kaiyote (and that’s an extreme understatement). The band had a remarkable year after the release of their debut record Tawk Tomahawk by garnering international headlining gigs and a Grammy nomination for their song “Nakamarra” done in collaboration with Q-Tip. So, it would make sense that after months of touring, the band would take a break from playing music. But to everyone’s surprise, the group bounced back tirelessly to release the By Fire EP.
The By Fire EP includes two songs that the band performed during their last tour and one brand spanking new track. One of the former of the two songs is called “Molasses”. I remember hearing the track for the first time in 2013 at the band’s show at the Independent in San Francisco. It was different; more sophisticated, and required more attention than their previous tracks like “Nakamara”. At that time though, it seemed like Hiatus was just just getting used to the complex musicality of the song and finding comfort in playing it, so consequently, it was one of the less desirable moments of that show. But a year has gone by and the band recorded the track in proper fashion.
“Molasses” is a product of Hiatus Kaiyote at its current creative peak. It’s a soulful joint that showcases the group’s utmost musicianship that really makes them a band that doesn’t fear anything about what they’re doing. The recorded version is full with syncopated hip-hop beats, funky bass lines, and keys that are Jazzy and straight on point. But let’s not forget Nai Palm’s vocals: She’s more fierce and confident than ever. In “Molasses”, she experiments with gospel like harmonies and carefully crafted vocals lines. The song is pretty much perfect, but if there is any negative feedback to say about the song, it would be that it’s incredibly dense and tough to really grab a true grip of what’s happening. However, that’s the beauty of Hiatus Kaiyote: The members are so tightly knitted to each other that they can create out-of-this-world ideas and still sound like it was intentional.
Distance – Single
Emily King has one of the best voices of today, at least in my opinion. It’s raspy but still so innocent sounding, and “Distance” really showcases just that. King sings contemplatively by thinking about being away to make her love stronger while her lover has “been sleeping too long”. But it’s not a bad thing. Instead, it’s healthy. And while King’s music usually somber sounding, the music in “Distance” fits the mood perfectly. It’s melancholy, yet jolly. If it were a music video, you could picture King walking through Central Park on a cold day or having a pillow fight with her lover in just underwear, but that’s only because she’s singing about both scenes, and the imagery is endless.
13. “The Suburbs”
Mr. Little Jeans
It’s funny to me how the second decade of the new millennium has relied heavily on recreating old things. Whether it’s fashion, film, music, or whatever, the ‘old is new’ formula is getting old quick. But once in a while, a silvery needle pops out of the haystack for us to grab and reimagine in a completely different way – By that, I mean a good way.
Norwegian dance pop artist Monica Birkenes (aka Mr. Little Jeans) created just that with her rendition of Arcade Fire’s song “The Suburbs”. Birkenes’ version is slower and much more dreamy-like, which in turn creates a completely different feel (and meaning) from the original. The suburban teenage angst felt in Arcade Fire’s version is swapped with that of something deeper – something more sensual. Birkenes sings the lines “So you can you understand? Why I want a daughter while I’m still young? I wanna hold her hand and show her some beauty” pleadingly as if she has taken it to heart. Whether or not she did is up for us to determine, but she ironically created art that is golden, and it speaks more than words.
12. “Fall In Love”
“Fall In Love” was an instant winner for 2014. There’s no denial that the duo went from interesting trip-hop to full-blown headliners with this song. It features heavy synths that emulate that of superstar rappers like Big Boi and vocals that are as pronounced as anything that Beyoncé has put out. And don’t forget, Phantogram is a duo consisting of junior high school friends Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel, which with history like that, it’s not a surprise the two found a way to create a huge pop song with chemistry involved.
11. “Passing Out Pieces”
Nine tracks into Mac Demarco’s incredible Salad Days and you get to “Passing Out Pieces”. Not what you expected, right? Same for Mac. Sounds like he’s going to share his darkest secrets with you, but then he orders another round of drinks and the story’s done.
10. “Bullet Train”
Gardens & Villa
Christopher Lynch’s vocals are pretty damn unique, but so is Gardens & Villa. as a whole, the band creates interesting music that really, only Lynch could sing on, and it’s well documented on the band’s single “Bullet Train”. The dance-y indie pop song has a cool early 90s Cali vibe that reeks neon colored clothes and fancy convertible cars. But what makes the song so memorable to me is the playful use of using a flute to sound off melodies that emulate Lynch’s distinct lyrical structure. Try being an indie rock band and have its main member blow the shit out of a steel pipe on stage. Just, you go ahead.
“Gooey” is the first song I heard from newcomers Glass Animals and it still remains my favorite off of their debut record Zaba. It’s chill, yet haunting. The vibe is right and sounds exactly like what the album cover art looks like. It’s a super cool feat to accomplish – especially when a band can make lines like “peanut butter vibes” and “tipsy topsy slurs” catchy as all hell.
8. “I Got U”
Sure “Blurred Lines” and “Get Lucky” were huge two-word summer hits last year, but 2014 saw a slew of one-worded trend-setting bangers like “Problem”, “Fancy”, “Rude”, “Wiggle”, and “Hideway”. So, eat shit 2013. But the real winner of 2014 was a song with a longer title with more words than any of those listed songs called “I Got U” by English producer Duke Dumont. It was on every single one of my friends’ playlists at parties, BBQs, et al. It’s a jam that makes you feel so good whether your rolling or not. It’s a low steady beat song with Whitney Houston-inspired vocals by Kelli-Leigh over a smart and playful mix between piano and steel drums. And if you haven’t seen the music video, you’re missing out because the entire package will make you want to book a one-way ticket to the Bahamas. Guess three really is better than two (or one).
7. “Shuga Daddy”
D’Angelo rocked the music world off its fucking socks when he surprisingly released Black Messiah, a record that breaks his 14-year solo career hiatus, yesterday. And more importantly, “Shuga Daddy”, the record’s first single arrived. Now, you might have heard the track before if you saw D’Angelo co-headline gigs in Europe with Mary J. Blige in 2013, but you’ve never heard the track properly recorded. The feel good song is indescribable in the highest regard. It’s a funky, dance-y tune that sounds like only trumpeter Roy Hargrove and drummer ?uestlove might have helped co-create it. But maybe it was inspired by Ray Charles’ “I’ve Got a Woman” or Pino Palladino’s ever classic and coherent baby making bass lines, but what-the fuck-ever, D’Angelo has it all, and he isn’t afraid to show it nor are we afraid to embrace it.
6. “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” (feat. Jose James)
Roy Ayers was one of Jazz’s greatest ambassadors to the modern mainstream world because he brought the funk in Jazz and the Jazz in funk. And to emulate Ayer’s work is like trying to recreate Herbie Hancock’s legendary album Headhunters with a cowbell alone. But if you’re going to try that on your debut album when the record label you’re playing for isn’t even a company that speaks the same language as your native tongue, you’re fucking crazy.
Some musicians might think they have the cajones to try such an act, but only a few come out with family making organs alive. Well, Takuya Kuroda, a Japanese trumpeter who attended Berklee College of Music, is one of the handful of lucky ones to make it. As a member of José Jame’s band, the trumpeter released his Blue Note Records debut with an immense amount of praise and support. It’s not a surprise when you hear Kuroda’s take on Ayer’s “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” though. The song is smooth and accessible – A gem to this generation’s ears. Here, Kuroda takes a quazi-Jazz tune and makes it a neo-soul phenomenon. With James’ vocals and Kuroda’s lyrical trumpet riffs leading the way, “Everybody” is an instant classic and puts Kuroda on the level of a major voice on the 21st century modern jazz-funk scene.
I feel like 2014 was a year that gave the top players in music a break from working and the underdogs to prove they’re worth everyone’s time. Not to say that Yumi Zouma is either great or worth my time, they’re right in between. They’re a group with a distinct enough sound that is captivating and worthy of listening over and over. It’s a particular effect with their newest single “Alena” as it cascades through dance-y 80s piano house modules and squeaky vocal hooks. And though the band prefers their pop to remain unabashedly nostalgic, Yumi Zouma’s keen sensibilities make finding their own niche in the past as effortless as the music itself.
Improvisational legend Bobby McFerrin’s son Taylor released his debut album Early Riser right before summer and boy did I put the song “Decisions” on repeat for weeks because it spoke truth to me. You see, guest vocalist Emily King (see my ramble about King’s “Distance” earlier on this same list) sings about not being able to “forget you” and that she wants to “spend my life with you.” Whether it’s a candid emotional song about something she’s gone through herself or what is in question. But one thing I know is that it not only spoke to me greatly with what I was going through at the time, but also a metaphor to that of the life that McFerrin might have been experiencing at the time. With the release of Early Riser, Taylor probably saw a spacious glimpse of what it’s like to be famous and have women saying “I think I see the sun” when they get close to him.
3. “Do You”
They Want My Soul
Spoon returned in 2014 and they did it in gentleman style. As one of the few lasting rock bands of contemporary times, Britt Daniels commandingly asks us, “Do you wanna get understood?”, as if he’s a prophet asking us if we want to be saved. It’s a song that can stand alongside “I Want My Camera” You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” or whatever your favorite Spoon song is. Daniel’s said that They Want My Soul was about the band getting back to what is comfortable and as difficult as that can be to believe about Spoon, “Do You” simply does it so right with just a few doo-doo-doo’s on the bridge to soulful mmm-mmm-mmm’s on the coda.
2. “Coronus, The Terminator”
There is a particular amount of irony to Steven Ellison’s (aka Flying Lotus), work. The experimental producer’s fifth studio album You’re Dead! is both his most prolific and impressive work thus far, yet it’s his darkest – The entire album is based around the idea of exploring death.
You’re Dead! as a whole, is an album that’s filled with huge, complex sounds of acid Jazz and psychedelic hip-hop created by Ellison and some top-notch musicians like Jazz legend Herbie Hancock, rappers Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg, vocalists Niki Randa and Dirty Projectors’ Angel Deradoorian, bassist Stephen Bruner (aka Thundercat), and Deantoni Parks, to name a few. And at its core, You’re Dead! is a compilation of songs about death, but despite the celebrity appearances and ancillary artwork regarding the record’s release, the song “Coronus, the Terminator” is the zenith of Flying Lotus’ existence.
Coronus is a lugubrious character in Greek mythology. He is a son of a god and somehow loses those closest to him in the most tragic of incidences. Ellison is indeed not the son of a god, but ironically is the nephew of Jazz god John Coltrane, who has left an incredibly high standard for the contemporary geniuses of Jazz, respectively. Also, Ellison has recently lost close friends like J Dilla and Austin Peralta, which experiences ultimately made him exclaim “I have so much loss in my life that I might be an authority on the fucking subject”. Thus, the man writes “Coronus” as a hymn and as his ultimate surrendering to the destiny Ellison has to live up to.
“Coronus” is an angelic vocal piece featuring the captivating Niki Randa and Thundercat’s whompy bass lines. It’s the most accessible song on the album, yet is the most important. The spiritual feeling you get with Randa’s high-pitched ‘awws’ sounds choir-like, which enables lines like “cause I’d like to save you” and “The days of men are coming to an end so come with me, if you want to live” to sound like legit ‘savior-like’ pleads. And when you put the entire message of the song into perspective, “Coronus” is really just the saddest, most captivating number to have come out of 2014.
1. “Can’t Do Without You”
Canadian producer Dan Snaith is well into his career as a prolific musician who has gone from solo act to full-blown psychedelic rock band to house DJ in just over six albums. Snaith’s last album Our Love is not only great, it’s remarkably memorable on so many different levels. The most prime and excellent example of this is his lead off single “Can’t Do Without You”. Fueled by a sample from Marin Gaye’s 1965 hit “Ain’t That Particular”, “Can’t Do” is a call and response anthem. The song features a bouncy beat that supports a five-word lyrical structure throughout until Snaith sings in smitten: “And you’re the only thing I think about / It’s all that I can still do.” That kind of repetitive adult/childish interdependence only makes being on the dance floor that much better and well, endless.