Yep, another list of my ten favorite songs of the year. And it’s just that: my ten favorites of the year. While there is an attempt to weave what is clearly a very personal list into some narrative defining the past year, it will most likely not work as much as it should. That said, there were a lot of interesting songs in the past twelve months, and some of my favorite acts went back with some new bits, too. People went quiet; people went retro; people went organic. So there’s that. I don’t know about you, but this is my year in music, sorted in alphabetical order, although you’re likely to guess what I’m biased towards… that’s just the whole nature of it, yes? We’ll be on a two-week holiday break, and we’ll be back with new entries on 5 January. Hopefully. And now, the list. [NB]
“Warm Foothills” by alt-J | The Mercury Award winners took a slightly, yet noticeably, different turn on their second album, This Is All Yours. Sure, it’s still intense without being loud, but then the album went on a folksy direction, which it then interprets many ways. A standout on that album – and I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks this: I hear this on KCRW a lot – is “Warm Foothills”, which teeters closely to the quiet side of things, but with the spliced-in vocals of Lianne La Havas, Conor Oberst, Sivu and Marika Hackman making things a little bit jumpy. There’s a song that’s serene, both in the lyrics and in the sound, yet on edge. Like, no, no, yes, no, yes.
“Morning” by Beck | Beck’s latest release, Morning Phase, is a worthy successor to Sea Change, picking up on the latter’s emotional string-tugging and building on it. Quite a tall order, but he succeeds in part due to a strong first impression: “Morning” (along with the short instrumental that precedes it, “Cycle”) eases you in, tells you what he’s up to, and then just goes the distance. It is a more mournful start than usual, but then again, that’s your mindset when you first get into it. Successor to Sea Change? Oh, yes, indeed.
“Waitress Song” by First Aid Kit | This being a list of my favorites this year, there are inevitable inclusions: along with Kimbra, First Aid Kit were in my first favorites list two years ago. That said, the Swedish sisters’ third full-length record, Stay Gold, saw them move towards a more anthemic take on Americana, as opposed to the lusher approaches of their earlier albums. It might be a bit of a shock, but some of the songs on there toe the balance nicely, which explains why I like “Waitress Song” the most: it’s aspirational storytelling that does not completely yield to optimism, and, again, made completely palatable by the Söderbergs’ proven harmonies.
“She’s Not Me” by Jenny Lewis | The next few picks outline what seemed to be a trend (to me) this past year: my preference for songs that don’t sound out of place in the past. (This is also my admittedly flimsy apology for pretty much overlooking St. Vincent this year.) Yes, there was a glut of records that, while not going towards the edge of analog, wouldn’t sound out of place on an AM station – and that does not have to be twee. Jenny Lewis’ latest, The Voyager, evokes so many stages of 70s rock that it’s such a delight to listen to: they’re not full of anthems, but they’re irresistible nonetheless. I found myself rotating “She’s Not Me” a lot more than the other tracks, though. That’s where my preference for the slightly epic comes in.
“Holy City” by Joan as Police Woman | Here’s another slightly throwback-evoking record, although it’s one that got buried from, again, St. Vincent and the like. Joan as Police Woman’s been chugging along quietly throughout her career, but with “Holy City” – the first single off The Classic – she comes out with a bang, teetering slightly towards soul without betraying her rockier side. Also, this song became quite an earworm for the early part of the year – and, most surprisingly, it was the ending that wriggled its way into my noggin, like an unexpected coda it actually deserved.
“Miracle” by Kimbra | But of course this song would be here. Of course. This was the year Kimbra threatened to make it big: as with most of the artists I declare to be on the verge of breaking out, she ends up returning to the underrated basket again. The Golden Echo, her sophomore effort, is a more cohesive (yet oddly slightly less compelling) affair that synthesizes her wild tendencies towards jazz, funk and R&B. And it’s peppered with a lot of callbacks to music of the past, the most obvious of which is “90s Music” – but then it goes further with “Miracle”, perhaps one of the best pop tunes of the year, channeling some serious 70s disco (with massive thanks to Thundercat’s bass playing) and making solitary walks in city sidewalks a little more dance-y. If only I had the costume.
“Iron Sky” by Paolo Nutini | On the other end of the throwback spectrum is Paolo Nutini, fully embracing his soulful side on his third record, Caustic Love. He’s been on the okay lane all this time, with some good pop songs and some, um, interesting fluff, but then this record came along and suddenly he’s a gritty crooner. “Iron Sky” is a sprawling six-minute rattle in favor of individuality, punctuated by Charlie Chaplin’s monologue in The Great Dictator (now there’s something topical, right, Sony?) and those sweeping horns. Yes, the horns predispose me to liking it, but it’s also a crafty, good song, too.
“Ordinary” by the Preatures | It’s been a pretty good year for the Preatures: they toured the world before releasing their debut, the encyclopedic and evocative Blue Planet Eyes, impressing audiences and critics with their tight sound and not-kitschy handling of rock history. And then there’s frontwoman Isabella Manfredi, who apparently handles a live show with such ease, a female friend of mine who has seen them live was this close to declaring her a crush. So, yes, I envy said friend, and at the same time, I can see why. The Preatures are irresistible; every song is a highlight, but some just bring you places. “Ordinary” is a slow build compared to most of the band’s singles, but it reaches its peak effortlessly and sneakily, and it’s such a good stomper, too.
“From the Night” by Stars | When I first wrote about this song, I never expected it to be among my favorites of the year, but let’s face it – a good disco trip is a good disco trip, and the first single of the Canadian band’s latest record, No One is Lost, is one such trip. And besides, what better way to sing about a quiet desperation than coating it in shimmering guitar drops and a hard-to-not-dance-to beat in the chorus?
“Under the Pressure” by the War on Drugs | And, finally, a nod to the War on Drugs’ sprawling record Lost in the Dream, also toeing that fine line between retro kitsch and modern sensibilities. Early reviews have compared the record to Dire Straits’ ethereal arena rock in the 80s, but I would be amiss to stick with that. The record – best shown on “Under the Pressure”, another sprawling track, at almost nine minutes long – builds up, piece by piece, and then snaps, letting the fallout shimmer gently down. If 2014 is anything, it’s the year of building up on what came before. Well, every year is, but it seemed everybody had a stronger sense of history, and an even stronger sense of what would happen in the future. Or maybe it’s just the things I chose to listen to.