What They Missed: NPR's Best Songs of 2014 (So Far)
Critiquing best-of lists is usually a futile exercise. For one thing, taste is obviously subjective, and for another, writers tend to speak to the tastes of their specific audiences. To top it all off, at the end of the day the person writing the list is getting paid to do what I do for fun, so clearly he or she is doing something right. But when I read NPR’s recent list of their 50 Favorite Songs of 2014 (So Far), I did a double-take.
Sure, NPR’s music team nailed some major highlights — Sylvan Esso’s “Coffee,” Future Islands’ “Seasons” and Vic Mensa’s “Down on My Luck” — and sure, I haven’t heard a number of the songs on their list. But they also missed almost every song I hoped would make the list and a couple I can’t imagine anyone in their right mind leaving off. So call this a correction, call it an addendum, call it what you like—but don’t you dare call these 12 songs “honorable mentions.”
Imagine the laptop-pop confessionals of The Postal Service filtered through the sonic palette of deep house. On debut album “Built on Glass” Chet Faker finds himself caught between the bedroom and the dance floor, but “1998” seems comfortable in either, its deep, bouncing bass line and loping hi-hat rhythm masking the deep sadness in Faker’s lyrics. Betrayal never sounded this good.
2. “Deeper” by Freddie Gibbs and Madlib
It’s an unlikely marriage — the undisputed king of avant-garde instrumental hip-hop and a smooth-talking gangster from the old school of Southern rap — but here Madlib and Freddie Gibbs complement each other perfectly. ’Lib brings his knotty soundscapes down to earth with warm soul strings as Gibbs elevates his rhymes, showing a striking maturity as he casts a critical eye on the reckless bravado of his past.
3. “Repeat Pleasure” By How to Dress Well
DePaul philosophy Ph.D. student Tom Krell has spent his entire career wringing tunes reminiscent of Michael Jackson through the dark, fractured soundscapes of indie R&B. But in coming out into the light, he’s finally made a song you could see the King of Pop himself singing. Krell’s falsetto is delicate but strong here, blasting off into the clouds as “Repeat Pleasure” builds to a sublimely unstoppable crescendo.
I don’t blame NPR for missing this song; if not for a well-timed change of the radio station one day, I might have missed it too. But I’d be remiss to let you do the same. “Be Slowly” is an infectious bit of pop that rides its shoegaze guitars and reverbed vocals straight into the clouds. JAWS never stray too far from their influences, but they hit their marks perfectly, blending The Cure, Ride and Yo La Tengo into an indie earworm.
5. “Let Her Go” by Mac DeMarco
There’s always something sour about Mac DeMarco’s jangly pop songs, whether it’s one funky note or a raunchy line snuck into a seemingly innocent verse. But here, it’s all surprisingly sweet. “Let Her Go” is a love song about falling out of love, its placid, intertwining guitars pulling you close even as DeMarco tells you to (you guessed it) let her go. It’s a remarkably sincere tune, especially for a guy used to delivering his lines through a shit-eating grin.
6. “Talking Backwards” by Real Estate
Since their 2009 self-titled debut, Real Estate have been one of the most consistent bands in indie rock, churning out sun-kissed guitar pop at a dependable pace. What’s remarkable about their new album “Atlas” and its lead single, then, is how different it sounds. In a song about the difficulty of communication, lead-singer Martin Courtney sounds remarkably open on “Talking Backwards,” cutting the arm’s-length distance of previous tracks for a warm, lush production style that gives its instrumental chops (especially Matt Mondanile’s creamy guitar) plenty of room to shine.
I’ll admit right off the bat that I’m a Spoon junkie. But still, I’ll be damned if “Do You” isn’t the best song I’ve heard all year. Spoon have always made their living dealing in negative space, but here the headspace seems fuller, the punchy melody more immediate. Where their earlier work dared you to approach and later hits like “The Underdog” tried to win you over, “Do You” seems content to just be, confident enough to know it doesn’t need to fight for your approval. Look out for a new album later this year – I’ll be first in line.
8. “Turtles All the Way Down” by Sturgill Simpson
If you don’t like country music, give Sturgill Simpson a chance and he just might change your mind. “Turtles All the Way Down,” off the stellar album “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music,” is a vivid meditation on transcendentalism, mind-expanding drugs and the mysterious oneness of the universe, blending country and psychedelia into a striking statement about the power of love.
9. “I Love My Dad” by Sun Kil Moon
Mark Kozelek’s starkly honest lyrics often tell tales of death and destitution. But here he proves he can do sweet and funny too, spinning a surprisingly hilarious love letter to his elderly father. It’s not all roses — life lessons about patience, compassion and self-respect go hand-in-hand with Mike Tyson-level beatdowns — but by acknowledging his father’s flaws and celebrating his humanity, Kozelek shows us all the true meaning of unconditional love.
10. “Inspector Norse” by Todd Terje
“Inspector Norse” is not a disco song —it’s a force of nature. Synths bob and weave like a boxer and layers fade in and drop out, creating incredible shifts in tone with each new filter or small tweak in the melody. As the beat marches on in relentless lockstep, it’s all you can do not to jump up on the nearest table and start grooving.
There’s a strong market these days for what I call “study-tronica” — downtempo, wordless electronic tunes that feel more at home in your living room or through your headphones on FFB than on a mainstage. What separates Tycho, then, from Bibio, Bonobo and everyone else making this type of music is his ear for melody and the insistent warmth of his music. “Awake” is pure bliss, its buttery bass pulling you along as waves of crystalline guitar and synth float wash over you. Background music is no longer an epithet — here, it’s a commendation.
12. “The Wild Life” by Vacationer
Still searching for that sophomore summer anthem? Look no further. Vacationer crafts a bouncy tropical jam out of minimal elements, allowing Kenny Vasoli’s exuberant yelp to shine. Its energy is undeniable, and its message is clear — drop your books, ditch your smartphone and go find yourself an adventure while you’re still young, wild and free. “No point to making plans,” Vasoli sings. “The wild life is human nature.” Amen, brother.