Thursday, December 25, 2014

Great 2014 songs from albums that won't make my top 20 list

On December 29th, my "20 Favorite Albums of 2014" list drops, but there's so much good music out there that one list couldn't fully represent what the year had to offer.  It's hard to make an album that's consistently great from start to finish, especially in an age where individual songs are given more and more importance.  So this list is intended to pay lip service to some great standalone songs.  All of these come from albums that won't be on my top 20 list, either because it's a great song on a mediocre album, or one on an album that's good but not quite good enough to crack the top tier.  So, without further ado, here's a list of thirty standalone songs, listed in alphabetical order:

Adult Jazz - "Spook"
Even aside from the unfortunate name, Adult Jazz is a mockable band.  They make a very outdated form of indie rock, the kind that would vaguely be considered "experimental" in the mid-2000s.  Too tame to be Animal Collective, but not tuneful enough to be Grizzly Bear.  The one big exception on their debut album, Gist Is, is the towering 9-minute behemoth that is "Spook," which builds and shifts with an effortless grace.

Allo Darlin' - "We Come From the Same Place"
Allo Darlin' have now made three good albums in a row, but the problem with each of them is that they always have one or two songs that are so fantastic that they make the others seem mild in comparison.  Without fail, it creates a scenario where I only return to the best songs and never listen to the merely good ones.  We Come From the Same Place's title track is another one of those cases.  It's an example of the band at their peak loveliness, delivering a wrecking ball of a chorus and a shimmering guitar solo near the end.

Chumped - "Name That Thing"
Chumped's debut album Teenage Retirement is a wonderful ode to waning youth, and the album's entire sentiment is wrapped up in the chorus of "Name That Thing."  Above the 90s alt-revival guitars, lead singer Anika Pyle sings, "And we drank and we talked shit and I felt happy / Tried so desperately to hold on to the feeling / Of being young, of being sure, of being lucky / Cuz I get down, and it's so easy to feel nothing."  Like all the band's songs, "Name That Thing" is catchy, but with a pocket of genuine feeling.

Cloud Nothings - "Now Hear In"

"Now Hear In" is one of my favorite album openers of the year.  It's just a fierce, blistering, onslaught of drums and power chords, perfectly setting the no-nonsense tone of Here and Nowhere Else, the third and best Cloud Nothings album.

Death From Above 1979 - "White is Red"
Death From Above 1979 will always be a sentimental favorite of mine, because I played their first album endlessly when I was in middle school.  Since then, I've outgrown their music and their comeback second album didn't land much with me.  But "White Is Red" is the closest they get to that sweaty, sleazy sound that made them so memorable in the first place.  In the 10 years since they went on hiatus, rock music has decidedly "rocked" less, so this song is a nice breath of fresh air.

DJ Quik - "Pet Semetary"
Rap is a young man's genre, so it's a marvel that DJ Quik, who's the same age as my mom, is still putting out solid albums.  "Pet Semetary" is the centerpiece of The Midnight Life, and it's a luxurious piece of breezy West Coast rap, featuring his lush production and conversational rap style in top form.

FKA twigs - "Pendulum"
I don't really get the hype around FKA twigs, to be honest.  LP1 is chock full of intellectually stimulating, but emotionally cold songs.  "Pendulum" is a welcome exception, a heaving track that actually breaks through her icy veneer.  It's so perfectly calibrated: those money counter snares, that plucky guitar line that faintly appears in the chorus, those cascading vocals.  If only every other song was as moving.

Future - "Move That Dope (Feat. Pusha T, Pharrell, and Casino)"
When did you know that "Move That Dope" was going to be the best rap song of the year?  Was it immediately, when that ice cold beat started?  Was it when Future began bouncing and bobbing over said beat?  Was it when Pusha T said "Fishcale in the two door that I fishtail / fiberglass, Ferrari leather, in designer shit that misspell"?  Was it when Pharrell, on the most vital verse of his lifetime, started rapping in triple time?  Was it when Casino closed it out as effectively as Mariano Rivera in his prime?  Either way, this song is an undeniable classic.

Hospitality - "Sunship"
Hospitality's second album, Trouble, is the epitome of a sophomore slump.  Their self-titled debut was one of my favorite albums of 2012, a rejuvenating splash of literate indie pop.  It's hard to even pinpoint where the band went wrong on this new album, but it's disappointingly hit-or-miss.  One of its biggest hits, however, is the gorgeous "Sunship," which never stops spreading open until the four minutes and 16 second runtime is up.

The Hotelier - "Your Deep Rest"
One of the top comments for the YouTube video of this song is, "This would've been huge in 2004."  And you know what?  That anonymous internet commenter ain't lying!  This is the kind of whiny emo rock that I successfully avoided in middle school, but something about "Your Deep Rest" just works.  Those guitars will transport you.

Hundred Waters - "Out Alee"
At times, "Out Alee" sounds like it could soundtrack the water level of a Nintendo 64 game, and I mean that in the best way possible.  That aqueous looping harp/piano the song centers around is simply breathtaking; there's something delicate, but tangible to it.

Kitty - "Last Minute"
It's hard to classify Kitty solely as a rapper anymore, as she's gradually moved into a dance-pop sound to deliver her lyrics over.  But whatever it is that she's doing, I'm still completely digging it.  People got so caught up on novelty nature of her first few songs that they didn't pay attention to her genuine gift for language.  The chorus of "Last Minute" is a great example of that, centering on the twisty repetition of "You're all poised and I'm made of poison."  Rap game Taylor Swift, indeed.

Lakutis - "Jesus Piece"
(This music video is stupid, but it's the only version of the song on YouTube)
I was always a big fan of Lakutis' verses on the various Das Racist mixtapes, as he blended in perfectly with their mixture of whip-smart pop culture references and irreverent meandering.  His solo work feels like an extension of that, exhibiting the same kind of rapping from his guest appearances but leaning harder into his gleeful hedonism.  "Jesus Piece" doesn't make alot of sense at first, but it repeats itself and circles into some sort of weird logic.  And even if the bars don't work for you, there's always that brain-warping beat, which sounds like a nuclear power plant initiating lockdown.

Modern Baseball - "Apartment"
If I were to list my top five favorite hyper-specific music genres, Dorky Indie Rock With Nasally Lead Singers would be up there.  Modern Baseball joins the ranks of The Decemberists and The Weakerthans when it comes to dweeby earnestness, and I love some of the songs on their second album to pieces.  My favorite is "Apartment," which dishes out so much anxiety and uncertainty in less than three minutes.  "I'll walk home with my eyes low, dreaming of conversations we'll have tomorrow," the chorus begins.  You don't get more endearing than that.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - "Kelly"
"Kelly" is like a coming out party for the band's new secondary vocalist, Jen Goma, and it's a bold introduction.  Sounding like a brighter, female-fronted Smiths song, it is easily the best on Days of Abandon.

PUP - "Dark Days"
I first caught wind of PUP from their rip-roaring AV Club Undercover rendition of a Buzzcocks song, and their original material brings just as much vigor.  "Dark Days" sounds a bit like The Hives in their heyday, blasting out catchy hooks and razor-sharp riffs like there's no tomorrow. 

Radiator Hospital - "Fireworks"
Radiator Hospital's Torch Song is a pretty collaborative album, and on the devastating micro-gem "Fireworks," the reins get completely handed over to All Dogs lead singer Maryn Jones.  It's a sparse, short song, just a simple guitar chord progression and Jones' plaintive voice, but it packs quite a punch, telling the story of an ephemeral affair in only two minutes.  (And stick around for a reprise of the song near the end of the album, which tells the other side of the story.) 

Radiator Hospital - "Midnight Nothing"
I came into this list with a general rule that I'd only include one song per album, but Torch Song is so loaded with winners that I had to double dip.  "Midnight Nothing" is more vibrant than the mournful "Fireworks," and it works as a perfect closer to the album.  The sing-talky verse from Sam Cook-Parrott lulls you into thinking you're familiar with where the song is going, and the chorus smacks you in the face second Alison Crutchfield (lead singer of Swearin', one of my favorite bands) belts "and I always wondered!"  That dynamic gets me every time.

Real Estate - "April's Song"
Atlas has some great chill-out tunes, but the greatest, chillest one is the instrumental "April's Song."  It's so relaxing that it made me use the word "chillest."  Real Estate is known for their thin, clean guitar lines and this song pairs a bright background riff with a fantastic, wobbly lead that never gets tiresome, no matter how much it repeats.

Rich Gang - "War Ready"
Rich Gang consists of Young Thug, Birdman, and Rich Homie Quan, and out of the three, I'd say I care the least about Rich Homie Quan.  So it's a huge surprise that my favorite song on their mixtape, Tha Tour Part 1, is one of his solo songs.  This song is incredible, there's no equivocating needed.  Quan completely owns the track, sing-songing his way through the verses and tossing out a perfect hook like it's nothing.

Schoolboy Q - "Los Awesome (Feat. Jay Rock)"
The rap game needs to stop trying to make Schoolboy Q happen, but I'm all for hyping up the veritable "Los Awesome."  Pharrell's characteristically busy production sounds like a four-minute fiesta, and Schoolboy Q wisely stays out of the way before handing it off to Jay Rock for a gravelly, workmanlike verse.

Shabazz Palaces - "Forerunner Foray"
Lese Majesty is a difficult album to get into.  (So difficult, that I haven't found a way to get into it.)  But there's nothing inaccessible about the spacey, wiggling "Forerunner Foray."  It's one of the few songs that reaches the heights of 2011's astounding Black Up.  The beat is top-notch, and every time that little blinking keyboard repeats, it feels like travelling to the future.  Palaceer's intoxicated word soup is at its best too, giving us chewy nonsense like "Punk potion, pimp pirate pushin' plush prose in."  A little more of that, a little less of whatever else the rest of the album is doing, please.

Sun Kil Moon - "Ben's My Friend"
Benji is a lyrical powerhouse of an album, a revolving rumination on death and aging, but it's a little lacking musically.  So while Mark Kozelek's sobering poetry might take your breath away the first time around, there isn't much to hold on to for subsequent listens.  That's why closer "Ben's My Friend" is the highlight of the album, because it at least attempts to be engaging, pairing pretty instrumentation with a story about him going to see an old friend (Ben Gibbard, of Death Cab For Cutie fame) and reflecting on the fact that he's older and much less successful.  It's a lovely, quietly moving song.  Plus, I just find it funny that a grump like Mark Kozelek is good friends with Ben Gibbard.

Tacocat - "Crimson Wave"
Sometimes we all just want to sit back and listen to a surf rock song about getting your period.  And this right here is an A+ period jam.

Tinashe - "Thug Cry"
It's easy to see why Tinashe gets so many comparisons to Aaliyah, because there's something very 90s about "Thug Cry."  It's a mixture of Mike Will Made-It's twinkling production and the way Tinashe jukes over the beat that gets my nostalgia bubbles popping.  Best of all, "Thug Cry" doesn't overstay it's welcome -- it gets in, grooves, and gets out while you're still wanting more.

Tink - "Don't Tell Nobody (Feat. Jeremih)"
As of a few weeks ago, Tink has officially blown up, getting features from Andre 3000, Jay-Z, Rick Ross, and Timbaland, but I've been on her train since this song dropped early in the summer.  So you could say that I discovered Tink.  Go ahead, I don't mind accepting that praise.  Jokes aside, this song is an unquestionable jam.  Tink's flow rests in a nice middle ground -- it's so melodic that it feels like singing, but so dexterous that it has to be considered rapping.  And she utilizes it well on this kiss-off song, excoriating a two-bit man and calling in Jeremih to clean up the remains with his chorus.  Seven months later, and this song still feels as fresh as the first time.

Todd Terje - "Preben Goes to Acapulco"
I won't for a second try to pretend I know what I'm talking about with Todd Terje's music.  (I'm too scared to even give it a genre label, lest I get ridiculed by people more in the know.)  All I know is that I love "Preben Goes to Acapulco," a neon-tinted track that hits the ground running and never stops.  One look at the album's cover will give you a good idea of what this music sounds like, which is basically the score to a midnight lounge act scene in a sleazy 80s movie.  It's cheesy, but unabashedly so, and all the more tuneful as a result.

Tune-Yards - "Water Fountain"
It's funny that so many critics who were previously against Tune-Yards came around to her with this latest album, because it was the first one to make me think, "Wow, this is really annoying music," and not want to continue past my first taste.  The one song that stuck in my teeth is "Water Fountain," a joint that could subsist on that rubbery bassline alone.  Like her best songs, this one will steamroll you with how much is going on.  She yelps, she sputters, she loops, there's that "ting" of a triangle here and there.  It's dizzying, but in the best way possible.

TV On the Radio - "Test Pilot"
This is like a flipside of my experience with Tune-Yards.  People don't seem to be as into Seeds, the latest album from blog darlings TV on the Radio.  Meanwhile, I've never really been fully able to engage with their music, and this might be my favorite album from them.  "Test Pilot" is beautifully produced by Dave Sitek, who gives it enough room to breathe while also having those guitars bump up perfectly against Tunde Adebimpe's pristine falsetto.  (Also, shoutout to the sneering "Winter," another great song on this album.)

Vince Staples - "65 Hunnid"
Is "You're alone / Car full of niggas, but you're alone" the realest lyric of 2014?  Vince Staples seems to think so, as he's said that the evocative second verse of "65 Hunnid" is the best thing he's ever done, and I'm inclined to agree.  It's nice to get some head-knocking back in West Coast rap.

The War on Drugs - "Red Eyes"
It's a testament to the quality of this song that I can still listen to it after it was hilariously and somewhat accurately described as "beer commercial guitar."  Some of the songs on this album are too long and limp for me, so "Red Eyes" is a perfect distillation of the strengths of The War on Drugs in a soaring five-minute blaze.  White dads rejoice, this was made for you!

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