Let’s ignore for the moment that you could count on both hands the number of posts between the 2013 and 2014 editions of this list. I wrote a book, people!
The last time I drafted my annual list of favourite songs, I was surprised to find that there were actually tracks that I had to leave off to keep it at ten, the first time in recent memory that had happened.
Yeeeeeaaaah. Didn’t really have that problem this year.
While I still ended up with more than ten songs (opting to scrap my self-imposed limit this year), my sense of disconnect and indifference with the current musical landscape returned more ferociously than before, for a few reasons, chief among them my two-footed jump into record collecting.
Devoting so much of my extracurricular efforts to educating myself on what vinyl’s worth my time turned my musical attentions backwards. I refocused on the things I always loved and started self-directed studies in the jazz and soul records that formed the foundations that built hip-hop; it’s an endeavour that’s proven rather labour-intensive. Turns out there’s a shit load of music that’s been produced in the last sixty years, who knew? But I still try to stay out here.
If there’s any thematic unity among 2014’s selections, it would be a sudden surge of female artists onto the list in the year’s latter half and the abrupt end of my brief flirtation with guitars, following Deafheaven’s surprising appearance last year.
I was saying to a friend last weekend, and I’m aware of how arrogant this sounds, but I really feel like after a certain point, you just start to get bored with the sounds that things like six strings through distortion pedals can produce. The kids at my job are getting their lives over Ty Segall and King Tuff, and I just caaaaan’t. Because all that music makes me want to do is listen to Dinosaur Jr or like, I don’t know, The Cave-In. Or Hot Water Music. Or Quicksand. Or any of the dozens of rock bands I was into at their age that they would undoubtedly find wack as hell.
Look at it this way: back when I was playing in the band, our mandate always seemed to be that we were trying to play as loudly as possible to punch through to some sort of transcendent emotion, and personally, I don’t feel like we ever fully pulled it off because we were limited not only by our skill set but by the instruments we were using. I find that synthesizers and software are twanging that note in my soul more lately, and 2014 was the year I fully accepted them into my life.
Not that anyone cares nearly two weeks into the year, but I’ve already come this far, so let’s get this over with, in no particular order.
Run the Jewels f/ Zach de la Rocha – “Close Your Eyes and Count to Fuck”
2014 felt like the best and worst year for hip-hop simultaneously. On the one hand, (deftly pointed out by Fools Gold head A-Trak last week) the lack of releases from major artists like Drake, Jay, Kanye and Wayne left the lanes wide open for all manner of unexpected underground anomaly to break through (ILOVEMAKONNEN, Dej Loaf, Rae Sremmurd), but that doesn’t mean I want to listen to any of it. Which is how it should be, because as I’ve said before, after 40 years hip-hop is a generational game and that music is not for me. I can appreciate what “Coco” might do to kids in the club, but one listen was all I needed of that, because I’m never going to be in the club.
Thankfully, there are enough old men in the game making unapologetically old man rap for old men like me who want to get their skulls cracked in by metallic snares and nimble lyricism with Zach de la Rocha of all people on the hook. El-P and Killer Mike followed up last year’s début collaboration with a ferociously taut sophomore effort that improved on the original in every way and perked my ears in ways they hadn’t been since (no bullshit) I first heard Nations of Millions in ’88.
FKA Twigs – “Two Weeks”
Every year brings a “British Woman who Sings” (see: Adele, Florence and The Machine, Jessie J) but 2014’s entry was easily the most memorable and exciting. “Two Weeks” is a hazy and doom-laden seduction call, Twigs’s breathy falsetto delivering stark declarations more discomforting than exciting, making “Two Weeks” the perfect love song for a damnably frustrating year.
Flying Lotus f/ Kendrick Lamar – “Never Catch Me”
When I was a kid, I used to hear the opening riff to “Touch Me” by The Doors and just feel compelled to run. From one end of the house to the other, again and again. It’s the same feeling this song gives me. The bar seems to raise higher and higher for every FlyLo release, and the unbelievable thing is that he has yet to disappoint. “Never Catch Me” is a flawless blend of drum and bass, two-step, gospel and fusion that feels like we could make it off the ground if we only ran fast enough.
YG f/ Jeezy and Rich Homie Quan – “My N**ga”
I was ready to dismiss this song as another in a growing list of six-second Vine casualties (see: Shmurda, Bobby), and I still think Quan raps like he’s being forced to watch someone kick his puppy while he’s in the booth, but there’s no denying DJ Mustard owned the sound of the year, and he was at his best here [Tinashe’s “2 On” coming a close second]. Mustard’s production gave My Krazy Life an unexpected unity that avoided the bloat of most major rap debuts, and though his minimalist bleeps and bloops can get repetitive, but carving a signature sound for yourself in the span of a year on both the pop and rap charts is no small feat. Between YG and TDE’s continued dominance, the West re-entered the national consciousness in ways not seen since Dre and Snoop were hitting the corners in the lolo.
Schoolboy Q f/ Kendrick Lamar – “Collard Greens”
I said after the release of Habits and Contradictions that Schoolboy Q was poised to take over 2013. It took a year longer than I thought it would, but he still released one of the best rap albums of the year with Oxymoron. If Kendrick is the philosopher king of the TDE Empire, Schoolboy is the world-weary street general, the man who’s seen more than he should but kept his sense of humour despite it all. Plus he manages to make K. Dot crack a couple smiles in the process.
Freddie Gibbs and Madlib – “Harold’s”
If it feels like I’ve been putting a Madgibbs collab on the playlist for the past three years, it’s because I have [“Thuggin'” in 2012 and “Shame” in 2013]. If it takes that long to finish an album the caliber of Piñata, I can live with that. Gibbs might be the most reliable MC working today, packing his bars with dense internal rhymes that impress but never overwhelm, and Madlib is…well, Madlib. A wistful and funky tribute to enjoying life’s simpler pleasures in its most dire environments, and continued proof that a well-executed soul loop can still get the job done.
Beyoncé – “Yoncé”
Heyyyyyyy, Ms. Caaaarter. Real talk: “Partition” as a whole is fine, and I certainly enjoy the reaction it tends to elicit from the young women I know, but I can never forgive it because it keeps “Yoncé” from being great. A buzzed-out throb of Houston handclaps and sizzurped attitude, the prelude to Queen Bey’s paean to vehicular coitus proved again that the foreplay is as essential as the main attraction.
Aphex Twin – “minipops 67 [120.2]”
This year had no shortage of major returns and the sudden emergence of Richard D. James from the deep web last summer was one of the more surprising and welcome ones.
My relationship with Aphex Twin has always been double-sided: on one hand I think he makes some of the most beautiful electronic music I’ve ever heard, but I also think he sometimes goes out of his way to deliberately alienate listeners and admirers, so I didn’t really know what to expect from Syro (full disclosure: still don’t. Haven’t sat with the whole album). But despite his usual divergences out of time, the shuffling stomp of “minipops” couldn’t be derailed, centering the song in its sandy cadence. The emergence of James’s pulled and stretched vocal snippets in the song’s latter movements felt like bumping into that friend from high school you were kind of worried about, only to find out he’s still the same guy you knew in the 90’s, just with a 401K.
Röyksopp and Robyn – “Do it Again”
Bear with me, because I’m not totally sure about the terminology, but I’m pretty certain this is what we call a ‘club banger,’ yes? The irrepressible bounce and wobble flawlessly compliment Robyn’s continued uncanny ability to make the simplest lyrics feel loaded with subtext and meaning. To my mind, the best Robyn tracks (and electronic music in general) encourages surrender, not in the sense of relinquishing control to a greater power, but in giving yourself over to an emotion. She knows what time it is, as do we: no good will come of repeating the same mistakes, but that’s a concern for when the music stops and the fists have long stopped pumping.
TV On the Radio – “Test Pilot”
Bit of an ironic full circle on this one, as one of the first things I ever wrote on PFG was about my begrudging attendance at a TVOTR concert in Toronto, and how it highlighted the schism between my own personal tastes and those of my demographic cohort (though in all fairness, openers The Dirty Projectors were a much sharper highlight of that).
My issue with TVOTR (and a lot of art rock in general) is that I think its own artfulness gets in the way of a good idea, so imagine my delighted surprise to discover this minor-chord meditation on their latest album Seeds. Just a drum machine, some room-filling guitars and a pretty vocal melody. We don’t always need to reinvent the wheel here, people.
Azealia Banks – “Chasing Time”
What to make of Azealia Banks? From apparent 2012 novelty to 2014 Iggy-beefing culture warrior and Twitter gladiator, the release of the long-delayed Broke With Expensive Taste fulfilled on much of the promise seen in her by her longest and most ardent supporters. With the charming “Chasing Time,” Banks reached the clearest expression of her artistry: her singing is better here, the beat’s a curious blend of house and techno, the reflection of neon signs on a rainslicked sidewalk, and it was missing the Mark Romanek-inspired industrial weirdness that sometimes accompanies her visuals.
She’s got the chops, one hopes that going forward she can focus on the work over social media theatrics.
Perfume – “Spending All My Time (DV&LM Remix)
No discussion of my musical preferences this year can conclude without discussing the True Queens (no shade to Bey). A-Chan, Yuka and Nocchi were everything to me this year, and 2014 saw them reach even higher summits, including selling out a pair of shows in LA and NY that had fans in Gotham lined up in freezing November cold for 15 hours (No, I was not there. No, I don’t want to talk about it). In anticipation of the shows, the girls management re-released 2013’s Level3 globally, with two new mixes of “Spending All My Time,” that album’s clear attempt to mimic a Euro club anthem. The “Radio Mix” was a fun little trifle, but the second remix, by renowned DJ duo Dimitri Vegas and Like Mike, smashed, slayed and dragged the original. The remixes were the first time someone besides their longtime producer Yasutaka Nakata tweaked the knobs, and proved that while they’ll always sync well together, it might be time to extend the reach.
Yelle – “Complètement Fou”
Funny thing happens when you get into an electropop group beloved by a sizeable international gay fanbase: they turn you on to other electropop groups beloved by sizeable international gay fanbases. Like Yelle, a trio of French weirdos who rode their corn drills into my heart this year with a deft assist from the American superproducer Dr. Luke. There’s something amateurish about that lead riff, the way it punches and shuffles and hops its way across the landscape, but when the chorus achieves lift-off on airy synths and the mob chant backup vocals, my ticket has been thoroughly punched and I am fully on board.
Plus, I’m always in once you use that Robin S. “Show Me Love” synth.
Drake – “0 to 100/The Catch Up”
I recently read a quote from an interview with one of the Monarchs of Golden Age Hip-Hop, I don’t remember who, but he was discussing how technology has to a large extent done away with the sense of camaraderie that used to accompany rap music in earlier decades. Long before any kid (or 36-year-old, full disclosure) with a laptop and a MIDI keyboard could tap out a beat, crews were renting studio space, often in the same buildings at legendary spots like Chung King or Calliope or D&D. They’d see each other in passing, get invited to sessions or asked to hop on for a verse. That’s why you always heard every New York MC shouting out every other New York MC on their records: because half of them were down the hall in the next studio. The advance of cheap production software and email collabs erased that sense of fun and spontaneity.
So who would have thought the 6 God himself would be the one to single handedly recapture that spirit through Soundcloud. No mistake, “0 to 100” is a fantastic song, and Papi should be applauded for catching a Grammy nom off of a free throwaway, but I’m putting him on the list more for what his contributions to the culture have meant this year. In 2014 Drake emerged as a curatorial bridge between the underground weirdos and the rap establishment. If he liked your shit, he’d drop a verse on it for nothing, throw it on Soundcloud and make your career (See: ILOVEMAKONNEN, “Tuesday”; Migos: “Versace”), keeping himself on everyone’s mind in a year with no commercial releases to his credit. They say there’s levels to this shit, and in 2014 Drizzy invented his own.
D’Angelo – “The Charade”
I’ve switched my Black Messiah selection for this list three times already (“Another Life” and “Sugah Daddy” both held this spot in earlier drafts) but I ultimately had to go with “The Charade” because of the way it packs a metric tonne of soul crushing release into three sitar notes.
Those among us who are so inclined will likely be unpacking Black Messiah for the rest of this year, let alone the last. What’s incredible is how the album feels so politically important, even though, with the exception of “The Charade,” none of the lyrics directly address the social frustrations felt by so many of us in 2014. Somehow this music, its blend of Sly, Prince, Funkadelic (and yes, Dilla too), most of it written years earlier, fell on us like like a baptismal rain, and that is a disgustingly cliched and hackneyed way to describe it, but I’m not lying when I say I will never forget where I was or how I felt when I first listened to this album, and I don’t think I’m the only one who feels that way. And when’s the last time you could say that?!
The Pete Rock and CL Smooth Memorial Award
As always, the PRCLSMA is handed out to a song released before 2014 that I discovered in the preceding calendar year.
Rejjie Snow – “Loveleen”
One of the finer discoveries of the year, in the final dark months before Spotify finally hit Canada was that of DASH Radio, a streaming radio app that is truly radio. Weekly shows, no algorithmic playlists, no skips or reversals, just a return to that sense of experiencing a curated playlist selected by an actual person with good taste. Even something as simple as bumpers made the whole thing seem more human. While a lot of the marquee attractions skew a little “West Coast Hipster” for my taste [Kreayshawn and Odd Future both have feature stations], there are some definite gems in there, including something I’ve never seen before on sites like this: a global hip-hop station.
I’ve long been fascinated with the way other countries and cultures express hip-hop (we miss you, Flight808), so to have something like Global Warfare that I can dip in and out of at my leisure and hear cuts from Europe, Asia and Africa is a godsend, and it was through that station that I discovered a 20-year-old from Ireland named Rejjie Snow.
Rejjie’s got one commercial release to his credit (2013’s Rejovich), sixteen minutes of baritone raps over 92-bpm, piano samples, packed with millennial generational angst unashamed to admit that his fake Versace bleeds dye on him when it rains. It’s like a growing segment young MC’s are listening to old Stretch and Bobbito tapes and trying to emulate ’92-era jazz hop and I have zero problem with that. I can’t wait to see what the kid does in the future.
Album of the Year
Perfume – Level3 (Bonus Edition)
All right, look. It technically wasn’t released this year, and it’s got a stinker on it in the dead center of the album (#prfm knows exactly what I’m talking about) but no record was more important to me this year, and if you want to know why, you can go back and read my 3,000 word dissertation on the Queens.
So that’s that, friends. A weird year, but not an altogether worthless one. The full playlist is over on Spotify if you’re so inclined to know what my work commute sounds like on any given night, and feel free to let me know I should get my head out of my ass.