Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Top 20 Songs of 2014

Great albums would be nothing without great songs so before I reveal my Top 10 Albums of 2014, I'd like to share some of the best songs I've heard this year. Some you will know, some you may have missed, but all of them are excellent and that's an Album Wall guarantee.

Just to clarify, any song is eligible as long as its parent album was released in 2014. That stonking new Modest Mouse song, for example, is not on the list; even though we're listening to it here and now in 2014, the new album won't be out until March 2015, and so as far as I'm concerned it's not a 'Song of 2014'.

Also, I'd finished compiling this list before Lampshades on Fire was made available to hear, so there we are. Now, without further ado, here are my Top 20 Songs of 2014!

20) Did I Ever Love You by Leonard Cohen
This song attracted a lot of criticism for its "bouncy country" section that "sounds like Mumford & Sons", but whatever - I still love it, and the contrast between those sad, achy verses and that abruptly upbeat chorus is one of the best things about it.

19) Walk Into The Wilderness by Gruff Rhys
American Interior has a lot of good tracks to choose from, but as it happens, my favourite is a slowish piece of piano-led AOR. The way it all builds towards that final, tragic title drop appeals to me in a way that jollier tracks like 100 Unread Messages and Liberty (Is Where We'll Be) don't.

18) The Greatest Bastard by Damien Rice
I realised while making this list that My Favourite Faded Fantasy is one of those albums that I like because of how well it works as a whole, rather than because it's packed with loads of great songs. No individual track quite conveys the true immensity of this album's excellence, but The Greatest Bastard is certainly one of the better offering - it doesn't sound like much to begin with, but when that big, lovely chorus rises up out of the uncertainty, you'll see exactly what I mean.

17) Shake It Off by Taylor Swift
I suppose this song defined 2014 for more than a few people, but as much as I love the sassy verses and the race-to-the-finish ending, there's actually a Taylor Swift song that impressed me even more this year. You'll have to wait and see which one it was.

16) To The Veterans Committee  by The Baseball Project
3rd is like a baseball-themed Wiki walk that's been set to music, although - as I mentioned in my Honourable Mentions blog on Monday - my enjoyment of that music does rather ebb and flow over the course of the album. However, there's at least one track that always knocks me out of the park, and that's To The Veterans Committee, a summer-tastic anthem with lead vocals from former R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills. Perfection.

15) Out of the Woods by Taylor Swift
Yes, this is the song that is, in my opinion, even better than Shake It Off. I love Taylor's shouty segue into each chorus, I love that driving mid-section (would that it went on longer!) and I even love the dumb, repetitive vocal sample that kicks everything off and keeps coming back throughout the whole track.

14) Beautiful You by The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
I must admit that, initially, Beautiful You kind of bugged me. At more than six minutes, it's easily the longest track on Days of Abandon, and as far as I was concerned, it just got in the way, boring up an otherwise brilliant pop album

But tastes can change, and this song now sounds heavenly to my ears. If anything, I wish it were even longer.

13) Samson in New Orleans by Leonard Cohen
Even more so than Did I Ever Love You (see number 20), Samson in New Orleans is the beating heart of Popular Problems. It's a wonderfully-delivered message to a friend who has been betrayed by his beau, accompanied by a sparse, warm backing and some beautiful violin work.

12) The Box by Damien Rice
After much deliberation, I have decided that this dramatic slice of romangst is my favourite song from My Favourite Faded Fantasy. I particularly admire its structure, and the way it moves from heartfelt verse to minor chorus to grand, sweeping climax.

11) Every Time the Sun Comes Up by Sharon Van Etten
I suspect that some people's 'Songs of the Year' lists will simply consist of all 11 tracks from Are We There, the latest Sharon Van Etten album and one that was exceptionally well-received by pretty much everybody. For my part, I'm only including two AWT tracks in my list: the first is Every Time the Sun Comes Up, an emotive yet oddly humorous addition to the list of excellent songs that are built around that Be My Baby beat (kick...kick-kick, snare).

10) False Start by Wooden Arms
We're into the Top 10 now, chaps! Including this stunning song in my Best of 2014 list feels slightly counter-intuitive - I first heard it a couple of years ago, when Wooden Arms played here in Cardiff. Still, their debut album came out this year, and False Start was the (impeccably chosen) closer, so by my own rules, it counts.

9) I Was a Goalkeeper by John Mouse
When John Mouse announced that his new album, The Death of John Mouse, would feature a duet with Gareth from Los Campesinos!, I suspect that the entire Welsh music scene wet itself a little. With such a smashing pair of local heroes at the mic, this wonderful indie-rock gem came as no surprise; it's a triumph of wordplay and nostalgia and awesome songwriting.

8) You & Me by Benjamin Shaw
Goodbye, Cagoule World is a creaky, sickly-sounding affair for the most part, but the first few perfect notes of You & Me sound all the sweeter for the desperation that precedes them. This song is a true diamond in the rough; it still isn't a particularly cheery listen, but then it wouldn't be anywhere near as effective if it were.

7) Gin & Listerine by Martha
Like Beautiful You (see number 14), Gin & Listerine is one of those tracks that sounds like three-star filler at first but slowly, surely becomes your favourite song on the record. I'm particularly fond of the 'X but not Y' bit in the second verse, and obviously I love the part where they sing the chorus again but take it up the octave for emotive effect. Vincenzio!

6) All the Rage Back Home by Interpol
This is the song that made everything else on El Pintor - actually a pretty solid Interpol album - look rubbish by comparison. It sounds slightly murky and naff to begin with, but wait. Wait until it all kicks in. You'll eat those words I just put in your mouth.

5) Revisited by The Antlers
I love songs that lock into a melody - preferably a really, really lovely melody - and then just stay with it for, y'know, a long time. That's what Revisited does, and it does it with aplomb, alternating between the lead vocal, the horns, and seriously sumptuous guitar solos.

4) Life After Life by The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
TPoBPaH did the right thing with Days of Abandon: they kept their best material until towards the end, ensuring that the album wouldn't run out of steam before full time. Life After Life is an insistent, epic-sounding pop song with a spectacular arrangement and an even more spectacular chorus, and its late-in-the-game placement on the album only adds to its climactic awesomeness.

3) Can Rova by The Afghan Whigs
I've no idea what 'can rova' means, and I don't especially want to find out: frankly, I like it this way. The title's elegant gibberish lends added mystery to an already pretty engimatic track, but no matter how vague your grasp on what's going on, that final "you don't need me" - sung as the song peaks and spirals into its stomping finale - hits hard.

2) Tarifa by Sharon Van Etten
Well, I did mention that there would be two tracks from Are We There in this list. Some may prefer the sparse emotion of I Know or the visceral bombast of Your Love is Killing Me, but for me, Tarifa is the best song on Sharon Van Etten's most recent record (and another prime example of how potent a seemingly meaningless title can be). The woodwind section, so hesitant to begin with, eventually grows into a force to be reckoned with, and the whole track envelopes you like a womb or a onesie or something.

1) Jim Wise by Sun Kil Moon
The best song of the year is also the simplest. Jim Wise consists of nothing more than Mark Kozelek's voice, an unrefined electric piano line, and some anonymous female backing vocals, but in spite - or possibly because - of this limited arsenal, it still hits harder than anything else I've heard in 2014. It's funny, actually; most of the other songs in my Top 5 (Tarifa, Revisited, Can Rova) trade on a sort of non-specific, one-size-fits-all emotion that works precisely because it's rather vague; Jim Wise, in stark contrast, gives us every little detail.

And that's why it's so extremely affecting when Mark Kozelek tells us what happened:

"Jim Wise killed his wife out of love for her at her bedside / Then he put the gun to his head, but he failed at suicide"

I doubt I'll hear a sadder lyric in the next decade.

So what do you think? Do you agree with my choices? What have been YOUR favourite tracks of 2014? Leave it all in the comments.

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