Disclaimer: I probably listened to "Perfume" by Britney more than any other track this year. I know it's a shit-song, but I consume the most music in the gym, so my Spotify history is a little skewed.
"Perfume," it hardly needs to be said, was not my favorite song—and anyway not even from 2014. I'm a musical philistine, but not as bad as that. While I can't say much intelligently about what I listen to, I can list and rank it. So, here's what I loved last year:
10. Hey, Le1f
Technically this is an EP. I don't really care. I love queer hip-hop, and in a year when we got new (good) stuff from Cakes Da Killa, Big Freedia, and Mykki Blanco, it was these five tracks I returned to most. He's not quite as hilariously vulgar as some of his peers, but Le1f can write a smooth lyric. My favorite—and this just might be the way he raps it: "I'm a man's man, literally."
9. Too Bright, Perfume Genius
I've liked Perfume Genius since Put Your Back N 2 It and still listen to stuff from that album about once a month. I know his critics say he's morose and talks about abuse too much, but his old songs are always just right for melancholy moods. This new material revealed a completely different Mike Hadreas that resonated with me just as much. "Queen" was immediately and remained one of my favorite singles of the year. It's nice to watch an artist—any artist—become empowered. It's even nicer when he can write a good song and play a good chord.
8. Do It Again, Röyksopp & Robyn
Röyksopp & Robyn's full album collaboration grew on me. I didn't care for it at first, which might've just been from the anticipation of anything resembling a follow-up to Body Talk. This can't compare, and I don't know how many times I'll actually listen to "Inside The Idle Hour Club" again, but the other four tracks are good, occasionally great. "SayIt" has 18 words, four of which are the delightfully paired: "Pleasure Machine / Fuck Mechanic." That's fun Robyn. That's the Robyn I missed.
7. They Want My Soul, Spoon
I can't put a finger on why Spoon always grated on me. I listened to their old stuff dutifully in college when everyone else did, but within weeks of release, every track on Gimme Fiction and later Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga wore me out. After a few years, I hated whenever those songs played at parties. They Want My Soul hooked me from "Rent I Pay," and the whole things has had enough staying power to keep a precious spot among the "Offline mode" albums on my phone.
6. My Everything, Ariana Grande
I've said on Twitter I could be an Arianator, though I'm not sure Grande still uses that term for the fans she ignores. I declared that after she first hit the whistle register on "The Way." Gosh, this girl can sing. She's so cute too, and this album was more fun than her debut. There's a 40-year-old mom trapped in my body, which gives me mixed emotions about Little Ariana turning into a sexy lady with high boots, no pants, and space cannons for breasts. Basic feminism tells me she can do whatever she wants, even if she may not be old enough to claim her sexuality for herself. She's smart and sassy, so I think she'll figure it out. It's worth noting how terrible the accompanying music videos are, but some of these jams are the best of pop right now.
5. St. Vincent, St. Vincent
St. Vincent can't make a record without me loving it—or at least admiring it, even when I compare it to Strange Mercy, a record I doubt she'll ever top. I even liked a lot of her work with David Byrne, but fortunately this self-titled album was much better. "Rattlesnake" is the best opening track she's made, and the momentum continues until "I Prefer Your Love." That's a fine song, but too reminiscent of her tracks from Marry Me, and she doesn't pull off coy as well as she did pre-Indie fame. Still, it's great album. Like with "Just the Same But Brand New" on Actor, I think she should've stopped a track earlier here with "Every Tear Disappears," but I should never complain when an artist gives us more. Minaj's bonus tracks on The Pinkprint redeemed the whole thing for me.
4. Shriek, Wye Oak
I don't know how I found Wye Oak. If I heard their name before this year, it never registered with me. Even the release buzz of this album passed by me unnoticed. I found this album months later and probably looped it 10x in the first week. That's the most I want out of an album: uniformity in tone, so every track bleeds into the next and can magically circulate back to the beginning. If that's not your style, the whole thing is beautiful once through and ends so perfectly, hopefully with "Logic of Color." Looking back at reviews, I found some quibbles about the band abandoning their earlier form, but I've since fallen in love with Civilian too. Shriek was a fine place to start.
3. Run the Jewels 2, Run the Jewels
If you restricted my music library to one broad genre for eternity, I'd choose country—which by my reckoning includes Waylon Jennings, Patty Griffin, and the pop glory of Shania Twain. I can't get enough of it, even if I didn't include a single solid country album on this list. (Lambert's Platinum narrowly missed the mark.) I don't know that hip-hop would be second on the list, but albums like RTJ2 tempt me. This is the best I've heard in years—and I was fully in support of Yeezus securing the 2nd spot on Pitchfork's Best of 2013 list. I'm in more support of this winning #1, which it did. "The gates of hell I'm pugnaciously pacin' / Waitin' / I give a fuck if I'm late, tell Satan be patient/ But I ain't here for durations, / I'm just taking vacations / And tell him fuck him, I never loved him and salutations." Does writing, producing, or rapping get any better? I really don't think so.
2. Benji, Sun Kil Moon
Damn this songwriting is good. The album is basically a short story collection, the kind of book you discover in high school as you're realizing your capacity to appraise the world, and you understand that art can feel important. I began to cherish Benji before the first track ended, and every subsequent song felt truer than the last. By the time "Dogs" picks up, just before the first minute passes, you feel like it's speaking only to you—even if you never were a straight kid who bumbled around with girls' bras in middle school. Sure, it's dark. The album focuses on death and tries, in its declared intention from the start, "to find some poetry to make sense of this." On paper that's a simple ambition, making grief lyrical, which might explain the album's profundity. A lot of art examines mortality, but rarely this candidly.
1. Lost in the Dream, The War on Drugs
The real disclaimer to my list should've been that nothing else had a shot at the top spot. Benji and St. Vincent preceded its release, but even those I re-scrutinized in the wake of hearing Lost in the Dream the first time. I loved this album immediately, and no critique or superior record could shake me of my adoration. The War on Drugs have their detractors, most famously Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon, whose complaints are myriad but seem to focus on the band's resuscitation of the synth-rock of the early 80s. I can't see what the problem is. A throwback or not, Lost in the Dream is pretty near flawless. It's like something out of nature. Each song mutates, but subtly, the kind of change you only see in stop-motion photography of plants growing and dead animals disintegrating. There's always something hopeful about that evolution. Even if you know the harrowing backstory, even if you pay any attention to the lyrics to know all is not well in the world, you feel the momentum, you hear the testament—which is every individual song and their collective presence—to the fact that a severely anxious man can barrel forward enough to examine himself and make something great.
Discovered Too Late: These might've bumped a few off the list if they came out when I discovered them—not 1, 11, 18, and 43 years ago.
- Aventine, Agnes Obel
- The Magnolia Electric Company, Songs: Ohia
- Charity of the Night, Bruce Cockburn
- Judee Sill, Judee Sill