Outstanding Alternative Songs of 2014
I have been listening to alternative radio longer than it’s been called “alternative radio,” so I believe I can say this with relative authority: 2014 was a stellar year for alternative radio singles.
This is a highly personal list as such lists always are. For the record, I have cast a fairly wide net here to include not just radio singles released in 2014, but also album tracks as well as cuts from last year that got substantial airplay this year. This list is by no means meant to be comprehensive. I tend to think that naming a list of your favorite songs “The Best” or “The Greatest” is pointless and pretentious. My purpose here is simply to draw some light on what I consider the most memorable single song recordings I’ve heard this year and the reasons why I find them memorable.
There are a lot of reasons why I may like a track: A fresh sound and an artful arrangement always draw me into new songs. But as I am a songwriter at heart, song craft is paramount. Great melodies and powerful lyrics float my boat. Compelling production (sometimes of mediocre material) can all make a record memorable, but in the long run, it’s the song itself that matters most. Form follows content and as such; recording, arrangement and performance should serve the material, not act as a mere accompaniment. To paraphrase an old theater expression: “The song’s the thing.”
The choices at the top of my list most reflect this philosophy. I was raised on The Great American Songbook and grew up in the golden age of the 60’s, two periods when content and its expression through form are consistent, creative and expressive. I am adamant in my belief that pop music has the potential to be one of the most powerful art forms in western culture, one that is ever-present, ever-immediate and ever-relative to the daily lives of individuals.
The List: 2014
20. “Dangerous (Featuring Joywave)” – Big Data
Paranoid psychosis is rarely this much fun. A psycho-killer bass-line and sunny chorus belie the tone of the lyrics: “How could they know/What I’ve been thinking?/But they’re right inside my head…They’re right under my bed, they’re in control.” Yeah ok. Take a couple Olanzapine and keep singing sweetheart.
19. “Budapest” – George Ezra
Alternative radio in 2014 had its share of the usual folk inspired, guitar based ditties by ultra cool white boys determined to project the “keeping it real” coffee-shop image that millennial hipsters so crave, most notably “Stolen Dance” by Milky Chance and “Riptide” by Vance Joy. This is the best of the lot.
Concise and economical like the best folk songs, “Budapest’s” simple story of rejection of materialism over love is perfectly suited to the folk format. The verses list the narrator’s considerable possessions: “My house in Budapest/My hidden treasure chest/Golden Grand Piano/My beautiful Castillo…” While the yodel-like refrain proclaims, “For you I’d leave it all.” You can almost hear Jack Johnson eating his heart out.
18. “Pretty Girls” – Little Dragon
In 2014, Little Dragon finally found their sound and surprise…it’s Massive Attack’s. No worries. It’s a great sound that suits them well. Nabuma Rubberband, the album from which this little-heard (and played) single hails, may not be quite as innovative as FKA Twigs or as meticulously crafted as St. Vincent, but its smooth and sexy groove of r&b heavy trip-hop make for one of the year’s most repeatable albums.
17. “Smooth Sailing” – Queens of the Stone Age
The venerable hard rockers, Queens of the Stone Age, are nothing if not consistent. Year after year they produce compelling singles that tend to stay around for years of radio airplay (or overplay). Their hard driving hooks punch you in the stomach and grab on to your gut. Avoiding the lyrical and musical banalities of most pop and metal, the Queens are masters of both genres; Rejecting pageantry and the usual hair shaking set to two chords that is the hallmark of most hard rock, their melodies though simple, linger in the mind like the best pop tunes. Their arrangements have an inventiveness that is rare for any radio-friendly record, but through it all you never ever forget you’re listening to rock and roll.
16. “Flaws” – Bastille
Bastille’s apocalyptic 2013 smash, “Pompeii” surely seemed like the work of a one hit wonder, but this follow up is even better. The spiritual longing here is more straightforward (“There’s a hole in my soul/Can you fill it? Can you fill it?”), but the helplessness is replaced by proaction (“Dig them up; let’s finish what we’ve started/Dig them up, so nothing’s left untouched.”) Lead singer Dan Smith’s delicately nerdy vocal lends just the right counterpoint to the record’s bubbly, percolating electronic flourishes.
15. “Tennis Court” – Lorde
Lorde’s records have a sophistication about them that is rare for songwriters twice her age. In that regard, she recalls a young Kate Bush, but Lorde’s sound is all her own. Poppy and contemporary, with a funky modern hip-hop edge, “Tennis Court” is chock-full of images both wide-eyed (“Pretty soon I’ll be getting on my first plane/I’ll see the veins of my city like they do in space”) and cynical (“It’s a new art form showing people how little we care.”) Like Bush, the young Lorde sees the world through decidedly adult eyes. But however jaundiced her vision may be, it’s tempered with a vibrant creativity.
14. “Lovely Day” – alt-j
For all the violent intensity of many of their best songs, sometimes alt-j wants to relax and simply observe that “ it’s a lovely day!” With its gorgeous melody and mesmerizing sequenced arpeggios, it’s hard to disagree with them. Released as a bonus track on their disappointing sophomore release, This Is All Yours, “Lovely Day” is sublime and ethereal pop music: sweet, unassuming and as refreshing as a gentle spring breeze.
13. “Two Weeks” – FKA Twigs
LP1, by British electronic r&b artist FKA Twigs, was among the years most vaunted, and perhaps overrated albums. Her 2013 release, the four-song EP, EP2 is both more challenging and more satisfying then its full-length follow-up. That’s in no small part due to its shorter length. A little bit of FKA Twigs goes a long way. Maybe that’s why one of this album’s most memorable tracks is one of its most mainstream. It’s the perfect introduction to her spacey, sexy sound. Throbbing with hypnotic electric textures and unrestrained sexuality, “Two Weeks” is good old-fashioned soulful sex music with a trippy modern aura.
12. “White Lies” – Max Frost
The green-eyed monster, that long time stalwart of pop music, rears its insecure little head once again in this electrifying track from Austin, Texas singer/songwriter Max Frost. Bright and poppy on the surface, “White Lies’” plucky rhythm and pulsating blurps and beeps are augmented by a wicked electric-guitar-like keyboard line that provides just the right touch of the sinister to its otherwise standard tale of jealousy and suspicion.
11. “Hunger of the Pine” – alt-j
Alt-j have a way of being precise in their vagueness. Suggestive without being specific (“Sleeplessly embracing/Butterflies and needles line my seamed-up join”), alt-j’s lyrics speak in riddles that often benefit once one knows the story behind them (“Taro,” “Fitzpleasure.”) But sometimes knowing ruins the fun. You may not know what they’re talking about, but you feel it just the same.
Musically, “Hunger of the Pine’s” extended airy patches and goofy Miley Cyrus samples help create a mood that stands as a strong contrast to the poppier sounds of contemporary alternative radio as well as some of their own more flamboyant previous singles.
Slow, meditative and trancelike, “Hunger of the Pine” was reportedly deemed unfit for release as a single by record executives, allegedly inspiring the band to create the jokey, more “commercial” rocker “Left Hand Free.” Thankfully, both songs found a place on American radio.
10. “Everyday Robots” – Damon Albarn
Through various musical guises over the years, most notably as frontman for the “virtual” band Gorillaz, Damon Albarn has earned a reputation for unique, post trip-hop experimentation and a plethora of exhilarating collaborations, largely with American hip-hop artists. But the bottom line is that Albarn is first and foremost a songwriter, one of the best there is. Albarn’s songs have the ability to wrench the gut with achingly beautiful melancholy, the lost possibilities of unrealized love, and even worse, the horrifying possibilities of realized love. On Everyday Robots, his first solo LP, he abandons the busy textures and eclectic styles of Gorillaz for spare arrangements laced with simple but strange digital flourishes by legendary producer Brian Eno.
In the album’s self-titled first single, the drudgery of daily banalities and the various “whips and scorns of time” are pacified by technology. “We are everyday robots on our phone,” he croons, “In the process of getting home…Driving in adjacent cars/’Til you press restart.” Sung with wistful resignation, “Everyday Robots” is an unshakeable elegy for a generation of lost, directionless souls.
9. “Digital Witness” – St. Vincent
If Daman Albarn is resigned with sad introspection to the digitalization of the human soul, Annie Clark embraces it full on, if with a detached irony. “I care but I don’t care, she sings”. In “Digital Witness,” media isn’t just a diversion; it’s a validation of one’s own existence. (“If I can’t show it, you can’t see me.”) Backed with 80’s-style sequenced synth loops that recall Talking Heads and Devo, and packaged beautifully with a slick and funny Dr.-Seuss-meets-big-Brother-video, “Digital Witness” is a record that sells its story with considerable craft and a wry sense of fun.
8. “West Coast” – Lana Del Rey
Lana Del Rey has seemed destined for stardom from the beginning, maybe because she’s so obviously determined to convince us that it’s so. Despite all the silliness about being the “Gangster Nancy Sinatra” There is undeniable talent here.
If her second full-length album, Ultraviolence, accomplished anything it was to bring a consistency of vision to the whole. Credit producer Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys for that. But if consistency has been gained, then the manic highs have been sadly neutered. There are no riveting masterpieces like “Born to Die” or “Video Games”, but no total clunkers either. It’s like a bipolar friend on meds: You’re glad to see them on an even keel, but they’re not near as much fun to be around.
The undeniable exception here is the LP’s lead single, “West Coast.” With a lethal groove that wraps around you like a python and refuses to let go, “West Coast” hints of something dark and mysterious below the surface. (Think “Hotel California” without the sly in-jokes.) Her words, however, are ultimately irrelevant. Lana Del Rey is all about subtext. You don’t know exactly what it is, but deep down inside, you know she’s keeping some kind of horrible, horrible secret.
7. “Klapp Klapp” – Little Dragon
Although most of Nabuma Rubberband follows the aforementioned mellow trip-hop groove, “Klapp Klapp” breaks the mood for a four-minute celebration of the weird. Lead singer, Yukimi Nagano, delivers the barely decipherable scenario (a baptism?) with a feverish vocal that suggests the early, Prince-produced works of Sheila E. Backed by a gripping, fuzzy bass line, a la Bjork’s “Army of Me,” “Klapp Klapp” throws together a bizarre but imminently danceable pastiche of old-school synth patches (One of them sounds suspiciously close to the music of Nintendo’s original Legend of Zelda game) and new-school dissonance. The song’s memorably possessed, crazy-voodoo-girl video is the perfect accompaniment to the madness.
6. “Take it or Leave it” – Cage the Elephant
Bowling Green, Kentucky alternative rockers Cage the Elephant have been hailed as the “next big thing” in Alternative music since they released their first LP in 2008. In 2014, that success finally seemed to arrive. It’s no surprise. “Take It or Leave It” was the year’s most infectious alt-pop single. A deliriously addictive melody is adorned with shimmering and twangy guitar riffs that tempt the ear like sugary confections behind a candy shop window. “Take it Or Leave It” may lack the dramatic meat of the five songs ahead of it on this list, but like an expertly prepared desert, its empty calories satisfy the soul.
5. “We Are Done” – The Madden Brothers
Joel and Benji Madden are best known as the founders of icky alternative lite band, Good Charlotte. But despite their unhip status, you have to give them respect. With “We Are Done,” they’ve given us one of this year’s most powerful songs. Beginning as an apparent breakup song, the chorus quickly expands the scope to something much larger. “We Are Done” is the protest anthem for this generation. Its stirring chorus, “We are done with being the silent many/Every voice rings out and carries/No we won’t just go back home/Without you hearing/The sound of the many saying, ‘We are done,’” echoes both The Occupy Movement and Ferguson. And the lines “You first brought the sun/For everyone here to see/Why does it always change/To guns and chains eventually” is a not so subtle dig at the false promises of President Obama and other sunny-eyed politicians running for election.
Encased like a jewel in an infectious pop melody and lovingly crafted production, “We are Done” is exhilarating, important pop music that proves the format is not limited to trivial, sex-obsessed commercial product, but has the potential, like all great art, to inspire and enrich lives.
4. “Every Other Freckle” – alt-j
Nothing could be more formidable for a young alternative band than having to follow an auspicious debut. The dreaded sophomore curse hasn’t hurt sales for British Indie darlings, alt-j, but their album, This is All Yours, is a mess. Notwithstanding three radio-friendly singles, a charming bonus track and a belated Grammy nod, the album, a hodgepodge of half-written filler and seemingly left over cuts from their Mercury Prize winning An Awesome Wave, is the biggest disappointment in a year of underwhelming albums.
Having said that, alt-j’s status as a singles band was set in cement with the album’s three solid singles. “Every Other Freckle,” the best of the three, is the collection’s only track that captures the staggering originality of previous singles like “Breezeblocks” and “Fitzpleasure.” Filled with startling and vaguely obscene images (“I want to share your mouthful…turn you inside out and lick you like a crisp packet”), “Every Other Freckle” sports the year’s most insanely creative arrangement. Nearly every phrase seems followed by a completely new musical idea.
Breathless and daring, “Every Other Freckle” is the best evidence that one of England’s most promising bands still has a few amazing tricks left up its sleeve.
3. “I Prefer Your Love” – St. Vincent
For all her technical dexterity and ingenuity as a musician, Annie Clark (AKA. St. Vincent), is most powerful when she is most restrained. In this, the prettiest track from one of the year’s most memorable albums, the self-titled St. Vincent, she channels Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.” The ethereal synth pillows behind an achingly beautiful melody express the singer’s love for her mother. When she sings, “I prefer your love to Jesus,” it doesn’t come off as irreverence, but as a declaration of the depth of her affection. Arranged to perfection with simple but highly effective synth riffs and a middle eight that is little more than one note over changing chords, “I Prefer Your Love” doesn’t need the flamboyant arrangements of “Klapp Klapp or “Every Other Freckle”. It subtly, slowly, quietly breaks your heart.
2. “Adelaide” – Meg Myers
This track, from Nashville born rocker Meg Myers, has the urgency and unbridled passion of an argument. Telling of a bitter and abusive relationship: (“Black and Blue dear Adelaide/So many scars to hide”), “Adelaide” is a pop masterpiece of anger and frustration. Bitter and beaten, she proclaims, “Lie to my face/Run away/You’re just that kind of man” and stingingly, “Every moment I surrender/Such a waste of love.” She rebukes her lover, claiming “I don’t want to cry about it/I don’t want to fight about it/ I just gotta let you go.”
From its insistent opening piano arpeggio through its stomping chords and choir-like vocal samples, “Adelaide” surges forward with intense emotion to its thrilling bridge and its ultimate declaration: “You can’t hold me down boy!”
1. “Take Me to Church” – Hozier
Hozier’s vitriolic diatribe against Christianity might not go down so smoothly were its embracing of hedonism not so authentically radiant. Rejecting judgmental doctrine, Hozier wags his own self-righteous finger, singing’ “Take me to church/I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies/Tell you my sins so you can sharpen your knife.” Instead he chooses the religion of his love: “My woman’s got humor…I should have worshipped her sooner…If the heaven’s ever did speak, she’s their last true mouthpiece.”
Framed in gospelesqe chords reminiscent of Elton John, with a glowing choral refrain of “Amen Amen!”, “Take me to Church” is a record that stirs up passion regardless of one’s personal beliefs. In a day when radio friendly pop rarely dares to be dangerous, Hozier’s spiritual balls are against the wall and he offers no apologies.