By Aaron Wallace
It’s become a tradition for me at the end of each year to look back at the soundtrack of the last twelve months. I spend the year scouting, reviewing, and studying thousands of songs before beginning the painful process of picking just thirty that stand out as the very best. Music’s changed over the last fifteen years or so. The explosion of the Internet has made music more accessible and diverse than ever before, but at the same time, label mergers, radio conglomerations, and plummeting sales have only homogenized what most of us get exposed to. So it’s a double-edged sword: there’s more good music out there, but the burden’s now on us to work hard to find it.
While I expect that you won’t agree with every pick on the list, and I’m certain there’ll be some you haven’t yet heard, I hope you can appreciate all the thought and effort that went into compiling it. Ultimately, I invest so much of myself in these lists because I love music and want to help other people appreciate and/or discover songs that I’ve found to be particularly insightful, inspiring, or — as is the case with #30 — just wonderfully odd…
30. Lorde – “Glory and Gore“
Lorde’s as sassy as she is weird. Case in point: “You’ve been drinking like the world was gonna end. It didn’t.” What’s she sassing here, though? The general consensus is celebrity and violence in the media, but the lyrics are too enigmatic for a definitive reading. The production, meanwhile, is delightfully off the wall.
29. Waters – “Got to My Head”
“Got to My Head” lives up to its title on first listen. The whole song sounds like a celebration, the kind we might have upon finally diagnosing the hangup that’s been holding us back. In this case, it’s getting caught up in somebody else’s life. How very 2014.
28. Pharrell Williams – “Happy”
A song called “Happy” should feel happy, and this one does… despite its midtempo rhythm. Pharrell’s is a chill kind of happiness but a clever one too. He poetically likens bliss to an interstellar hot air balloon and a “room without a roof.” The cascading chorus of background “Happy”s halfway through the song sounds like a free-lover’s “Carol of the Bells” — or a “Carol of Pharrells,” I suppose — a song of good cheer for the rest of the year.
27. “Weird Al” Yankovic – “Word Crimes”
Al kicked off the most successful year of his career with “Tacky,” a brilliant take on #28 above. Even sharper, though, is his riff on Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” Yankovic’s erudite discourse on grammar stands in stark contrast to the undeniably skeevy content in the original (which made my list last year, incidentally). Indeed, Thicke’s thickness gives the parody its punch.
Here again, the “Weird” one demonstrates his supremacy as America’s spoofster laureate. Nobody delivers insightful commentary in perfectly syllabic rhyme like Yankovic, not to mention the dead-ringer recreation of his targets’ styles. Most impressively, he ends the four-minute rant with a grammatical error of his own — a split infinitive. Critics jumped on the apparent got-ya, but they clearly missed the joke. Al follows that gaff with a repeated resignation, you see: “never mind, I give up.” The joke’s on them, then, with Al’s intellect reliably a cut above the rest.
26. Johnny Cash – “She Used to Love Me a Lot”
In his last few years, Johnny Cash enjoyed a resurgence, one defined by deep and contemplative melancholy. This newly uncovered recording from the 80s proves he always had that in him. It isn’t all sad, though. There’s a playfulness to the minor-key honky-tonk and a winsome cocksureness in his strut toward an old flame, even if it ends in lament. The modern production gets everything right — the edgy guitar strums, the key change near the minute mark, and the decision to keep Cash’s surprisingly melodic vocal front and center.
We used to love Johnny a lot. Every now and then, the vaults open up and remind us we still do.
25. Jake Bugg – “Me and You”
In a song that sounds like a road trip, Bugg captivates yet again with his unique and utterly arresting voice — Jaggerish and Dylanesque, youthful and beaming with soul.
24. Sheppard – “Geronimo”
A feel-good song about something that doesn’t always feel so good: forcing oneself out of a comfort zone. Sheppard, an Australian band who hit it big Down Under for the first time this year, have the right approach: “say Geronimo!” (And say it catchily.)
23. Kelley Mickwee – “River Girl”
Kelley Mickwee calls herself a “river girl,” and sure enough, she sounds like her roots run deep downstream — soulful, tender, and yearning. Here’s just a taste of her pen: “I come from the cotton, I come from the mud / I know what this water can do when she floods.” Let’s hope she has more of that writing around the riverbend.
22. St. Vincent – “Digital Witness”
There’s nothing novel in complaining about social media’s obsession with the self anymore. It’s a tired gripe, and probably a slightly overblown one. But St. Vincent doesn’t carp here so much as study and dramatize. Her observations are funny: “People turn the TV on; it looks just like a window” and “What’s the point of even sleeping if I can’t show it?… So I stopped sleeping.” Even the title itself is a pretty clever and useful phrase — we are all digital witnesses to one another’s lives, after all. But the song’s real brilliance is its apocalyptically maniacal composition. It sounds like a Fourth of July parade down Dystopia’s main street, which isn’t a half-bad metaphor for Facebook, quite frankly.
21. fun. – “Sight of the Sun”
If “Sight of the Sun” sounds like a deleted track from Some Nights, that’s because it is.
The lyrics are typically smart and truthful: “You put on new sheets, the white flag of a Saturday night” and “For once there’s nothing up my sleeve, just some scars from a life that used to trouble me.” Very Some Nights indeed, and that’s a good thing.
20. Matt Kearney – “One Black Sheep”
In a hip-hop twist on the Phillip Phillips School of Pop-Rock, Matt Kearney looks back on his young life with irresistible rhythm. Essentially, he argues that you don’t have to be ostracized or disenfranchised to feel like a black sheep. Staying in when everybody else is going out probably qualifies — or, as he puts it, living “in the cities of hippies and angel dust, singing along to Amy Grant.”
19. Maroon 5 – “Sugar”
“Sugar” is technically on deck for “single” status in 2015, but the band’s sure milked it in the preceding calendar year — promotional rotation in Starbucks, a much-hyped cover on “The Voice,” crashing a wedding to film the forthcoming video, etc. Infinitely better than anything else on their otherwise disappointing fifth album, “Sugar” is a surefire hit and a callback to It Won’t Be Soon Before Long‘s 80s vibe. Falsetto and mean-groove funk are, after all, the sugar in the Maroon 5 spice rack. Here, they have the perfect confection for the aftertaste from “Maps.”
18. Mark Ronson, feat. Bruno Mars – “Uptown Funk”
If Michael Jackson had written the Ghostbusters theme, it might have sounded like “Uptown Funk.” With a bigger hook than the Jolly Roger, producer Mark Ronson christens a new highlight in a premature 80s renaissance. Bruno Mars looks impossibly cool in his video, with SPF-worthy lyrics to match: “I’m too hot- hot damn! / Call the police and the fireman / I’m too hot- hot damn! / Make a dragon wanna retire, man.”
17. Glee Cast – “Don’t Sleep in the Subway”
Say what you will about the writing staff on “Glee” (I’ve probably said it myself), but there’s no denying the talent in that cast. Occasionally — a few times a year, at least — the show even manages to tackle a cover with class. Petula Clark’s original “Subway” climbed to #5 in 1967 but has largely fallen by the wayside since then, rarely recalled among the 60s’ greatest. “Glee” more than suitably updates it for an audience that’s likely never heard it before, preserving the innovative from-Beatles-to-Beach-Boys structure but adding tastefully contemporary polish, not to mention the lovely voices of Lea Michele and Kevin McHale.
Also worthy of note: the “Glee” take on Clark’s “Downtown,” featured in the very same episode.
16. Vacationer – “The Wild Life”
This cowabunga rain dance is so catchy and carefree that you find yourself forgetting the day of the week. The piña colada percussion and lurch-shuffle rhythm are a total escape. It’s a sonic Dole Whip.
Order Aaron’s book, The Thinking Fan’s Guide to Walt Disney World: Magic Kingdom, on Amazon now!