Yes, it was a fairly disappointing year in music—one devoid of Goth teen prodigies, Yeezy, and galvanizing rock anthems. The Daily Beast gave you its picks for the 10 Best Albums of 2014, which included eclectic newcomer FKA Twigs at the top of the list, but now its time to dive into the best individual tracks of the year to populate those New Year’s Eve mixes.
In case you missed it, last year’s No. 1 was Phosphorescent’s “Song For Zula,” a swelling meditation on love and longing, while the list also featured tracks by Vampire Weekend, Lorde, James Blake, and The National.
This year’s edition boasts ditties from the likes of ubiquitous pop princess Taylor Swift, R&B crooner Sam Smith, and a group of journeymen rockers who exploded into the public consciousness after what can only be described as the best damn Letterman performance you’ve ever seen.
Here are our picks for the best songs of 2014:
14. Taylor Swift – “Shake It Off”
No other song this year made people of all colors, shapes, and sizes dance like an over-served white girl at her junior prom—in other words, like newly minted New York ambassador Taylor Swift. A 160 bpm blast of blaring horns, clanging percussions, and Swift’s sassy, tabloid-targeting lyrics, it’s a relentlessly upbeat mélange of Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” and Pharrell’s “Happy,” thanks to ace production by Max Martin and Shellback. It’s so damn catchy that we can forgive Swift for the regrettable spoken word portion. Even rap guru Kendrick Lamar is a massive fan.
13. Jungle – “Busy Earnin’”
Jungle is racially problematic. There’s no denying it. It’s a septet comprised of predominantly white dudes from Shepherds Bush who initially masked their appearance through clouds of smoke during live shows, or music videos featuring ethnic dancers getting down to tunes about hard livin’ in the inner city. Oh, and the first press image they released was a pair of black dudes in tracksuits as a troll of sorts to NME. But damn, the music is catchy—a neo-soul aural assault of horns, electro swirls, yelps, funky basslines, and harmonized vocals.
12. Flying Lotus (Feat. Kendrick Lamar) – “Never Catch Me”
The year 2014 was, sadly, without a new album by Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar. Fortunately for us, he quenched our collective thirst with this absolute gem of a collaboration with experimental music producer Flying Lotus. Shimmering chimes soon give way to shimmering ivories and a ridiculous bassline, with Kendrick rapping a thousand miles per hour over it in his usual introspective, self-analytical way. “Vandalizing these walls only if they could talk / Conversations won’t contemplate to my dark thoughts,” he raps, the lyrics coalescing with the panoply of sounds courtesy of Lotus. From a lyrical standpoint, there are precious few that can catch Kendrick.
11. Lana Del Rey – “West Coast”
“You’ve got the music in you… don’t you.” This sultry ballad about break-ups and make-ups in the City of Angels is haunting stuff. It starts off like any other Lana tune, replete with minor chords and humming, distorted vocals. And then that chorus kicks in, and the young lady formerly known as Lizzy Grant transforms into the princess of darkness. An ethereal ode to the Black Dahlia underbelly of L.A.
10. Lykke Li – “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone”
Taken as a whole, the Swedish chanteuse’s third album, I Never Learn, was a bit too bleak and heartbreaking; a spurned woman’s soul laid bare. But this spare, acoustic guitar-driven ballad, which vaguely resembles Snow Patrol’s “Run,” is dripping with feeling. Anyone who’s been through a gut-wrenching breakup can empathize with Lykke’s heartfelt plea. And if you’re somehow reading this, asshole: Shame on you for doing this to poor Lykke.
9. Drake – “0 to 100/The Catch Up”
If the Canadian soap star formerly known as Wheelchair Jimmy has a weakness—aside from his silly feud with Chris Brown—it’s that he doesn’t save any of his best songs for his actual albums. A big reason why his last LP Nothing Was the Same was something of a disappointment was the absence of bangers like “Jodeci Freestyle” and “5AM in Toronto,” which he dropped randomly online. This companion piece to “Started from the Bottom” features a funky, minimalist beat by regular collaborator Noah “40” Shebib that was sampled by virtually every rapper this year, and swaggering lyrics by Drake like, “I been Steph Curry with the shot / Been cookin’ with the sauce, chef, curry with the pot, boy.” And just when you’re swept up in braggadocio, the bottom drops out halfway through and it morphs into a romantic ballad.
8. Sam Smith – “I’m Not the Only One”
The 22-year-old British crooner made a huge mark in 2014, and while his debut album In the Lonely Hour was a mixed bag, it still contained several towering ballads, including this soulful tune about staying with a philanderer. Smith’s powerful, tender voice—like a more robust Antony Hegarty—is in perfect concert with the piano, strings, and sporadic percussion. In less capable hands, this tune would be a chamber piece, but in Smith’s, it’s a stadium anthem that soars into the stratosphere.
7. FKA Twigs – “Two Weeks”
This is pure, unadulterated sex. Over a transfixing minimalist beat, the 26-year-old Brit’s delicate, cracking voice coquettishly purrs about her powers of seduction. “Motherfucker, get your mouth open, you know you’re mine,” she sings. For a shade past 4 minutes, FKA Twigs will have you completely under her spell. It’s no wonder she bagged Twilight hunk Robert Pattinson. Who could resist these incantations?
6. Grimes – “Go”
Back in 2009, Canadian Claire Boucher—along with her boyfriend—constructed a DIY raft and loaded it up with live chickens and 20 pounds of potatoes for a voyage down the Mississippi. It didn’t go well. Since then, she’s become a wildly inventive recording artist under the stage name Grimes, and her third album, 2012’s Visions, was one of the best of that year. As we eagerly await her follow-up, presumably due sometime next year, she tided us over with this delightfully weird electro tune flaunting seizure-inducing, dubby beats and a much more assured Boucher manning the vocals. More of this, please.
5. Taylor Swift – “Blank Space”
You’ve no doubt seen the batshit crazy, Gone Girl-meets-Gatsby music video, and sang along to it in a car with your girlfriends. The most expertly produced tune on Swift’s first bona fide pop outing, 1989, combines lo-fi, minimalist beats with a massive chorus. It seems her friendship with Lorde has really started to rub off on her in this big, red-lipsticked middle finger to her lovesick media image. Even the most ardent Swift haters have fallen victim to its contagious melodies.
4. Beyoncé (Feat. Nicki Minaj) – “Flawless (Remix)”
Yes, Beyoncé’s feminist anthem “Flawless” gave birth to two of the worst hashtags of the year: #Flawless and #WokeUpLikeThis. But this remix is absolute fire. “Of course some time some shit goes down when there’s a billion dollars on an elevator,” she sneers, addressing little sis’s much-publicized smackdown of hubby Jay Z, in the midst of a rap-singing tirade. Then Nikki pops up halfway through spewing vitriolic, mile-a-minute lyrics like, “It’s every hood nigga dream, fantasizing about Nicki and Bey / Curvalicious, pussy served delicious / Mayday mayday, earth to bitches / Slap these hoes on they ass like we birthing bitches.” This is Bey and Nicki at their most lyrically masochistic, and boy, is it a treat.
3. Bobby Shmurda – “Hot Nigga”
Born Ackquille Jean Pollard to a Jamaican father and Trinidadian mother, and raised on the streets of Brooklyn, Shmurda is currently facing anywhere between 8-25 years for a variety of weapons-related charges, as well as conspiracy to commit murder, which brings up interesting questions of responsibility, and separating the “art” from the “artist.” Over a menacing beat from Lloyd Banks’ 2012 tune “Jackpot,” Shmurda raps about his hard-luck life, from his father’s incarceration to his drug-dealing past. The 20-year-old’s bombastic tune recalls Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones,” and is one of the most exciting gangster rap tunes to hail from New York in quite some time. It’s music video also, of course, inspired the “Shmoney Dance” that has since gone viral.
2. Future Islands – “Seasons (Waiting on You)”
It was the Letterman performance that left everyone, including Dave, speechless, and propelled this journeymen group of North Carolinians to stardom. Led by eccentric frontman Samuel T. Herring, whose herky-jerk dance moves captivated the world, the debut single off the indie rock outfit’s fourth album, Singles, is the best Tom Jones song he never wrote—a swinging, breezy tune about unrequited love, with Herring’s agonized voice, cracking and growling with feeling, lording over the proceedings. What a song, and a performance, and a band. Bravo.
1. Sia – “Chandelier”
The 39-year-old Aussie has written hits for every pop artist under the sun, from Rihanna and Beyoncé to Katy Perry and her unforgettable hook on David Guetta’s “Titanium.” Oh, and who can forget her poignant ballad “Breathe Me” that was memorably featured in the series finale to HBO’s Six Feet Under. The standout track off her sixth album 1000 Forms of Fear sounds like it was meant for Rihanna, opening with Sia adopting a reggae-tinged delivery to relay the story of a wild party girl who is all ‘bout that life. And then the chorus hits, and Sia’s voice goes Apollo 11, reaching heretofore unforeseen heights, before crash-landing back to earth. But this song is now inseparable from the spellbinding music video, which boasts 12-year-old Dance Moms star Maddie Ziegler as a mini-Sia busting out all matter of eye-catching choreography in a dilapidated flat. Hands-down the best music video in years—and one of the best ever.