2014 has been a weird year for music — the old paradigms of “albums” and “radio” are falling to pieces, and sometimes it seemed like not even Beyoncé could save us. Lots of great music appeared this year, though; here’s some of the best.
BEST #1 SINGLE: “Blank Space”
Pretty much everything about the Taylor Swift song that replaced the other Taylor Swift song at the top of the charts is perfect: the jerk and freeze of its melody, Max Martin and Shellback’s production carving out as much negative space as the song can spare, Swift’s murmured spoken line at the end of each verse, the lyric’s sly double-back on her public image, her voice sliding in under the end of the chorus to start the “boys only want love if it’s torture” bridge, the shout-along to “you love the game,” and (maybe most of all) the way that the entire conceit of “Blank Space” is that, as pop, Swift’s work pretends to be emptier than it is.
BEST LIVE ACT: tUnE-yArDs
Their Nikki Nack album is terrific on its own, especially if you like jumprope anthems with lyrics about blood-soaked dollars. But Merrill Garbus’s band really comes alive on stage. She’s scrambled the received wisdom about what rock groups do in front of an audience: tUnE-yArDs’ live presence is based on Garbus sampling and looping her drums, ukulele and ululating voice in real time, with her groove-building anchored by longstanding bassist Nate Brenner and augmented (on her current tour) by three more singer/percussionists.
MOST INESCAPABLE SONG: “Turn Down for What”
DJ Snake’s greatest hit, and the song that broke trap music nationwide, started its life in 2013 as “Bang the Underground,” with a sample of Redman’s voice. But when that version didn’t work out for release, Snake got Lil Jon to come up with the twelve-word lyric heard here, and ended up with a track so spare it’s barely even there and so potent that there was nothing to do but shake ass to it all year long.
BEST LOW-PROFILE SINGER/SONGWRITER: Karen Mantler
Karen Mantler has made five albums since 1989 — slyly elegant stuff with an inventive, Thelonious Monk-ish melodic sense and a peculiar sense of humor. Her first in 14 years, Business Is Bad, is her most delicate and most despairing, and it’s still pretty funny: one typically blunt song is called “I Can’t Afford My Lawyer,” and “My Magic Pencil (Wrote This Melody)” is both a deadpan parody of “One Note Samba” and a terrific little bossa nova in its own right. Recorded as a trio with bassist Kato Hideki and guitarist/bass clarinetist Doug Wieselman, the album lets its dusty spotlight linger on Mantler’s understated piano playing and champagne-dry singing voice.
BEST ALBUM YOU’RE STILL GOING TO BE HEARING IN COFFEE SHOPS IN 2019: St. Vincent.
Annie Clark’s collaboration with David Byrne a couple of years back makes even more sense in the light of this year’s self-titled St. Vincent album — she’s mastered Talking Heads’ old trick of combining the utterly odd with the totally likeable. Her lyrics go places nobody’s quite gone before (“Prince Johnny” begins with a memory of snorting a chunk of the Berlin Wall); she makes familiar instruments sound fresh and alien, like the chintzy horn synths that shove “Digital Witness” onto the dance floor. And even at its most deliberate and eccentric, St. Vincent goes nicely with a latte.
BEST ANTI-POP RECORD BY FAMOUS MUSICIANS: …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin.
The Roots have a sweet gig as Jimmy Fallon’s house band, plenty of name recognition, and all the connections they could ask for; effectively, they’ve been freed from the obligation to make hit records, and their album this year doesn’t even pretend to aim for pop. (Roots records often suggest a wrestling match between the sensibilities of drummer/conceptualist ?uestlove and tireless MC Black Thought, and the latter only shows up for half a dozen verses here.) It’s brief, bitter and discordant, and three of its 11 tracks don’t actually have the Roots on them; in lieu of skits, they’re excerpts of older recordings by Nina Simone, Mary Lou Williams and musique concrète composer Michel Chion. The rest is a series of cold-eyed character sketches — Greg Porn’s hustler in “Understand” is hoping to “pay for my sins on PayPal.”
BIGGEST POWER-UP: Against Me!
The news hook about the punk-pop trio Against Me!’s sixth album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, was that singer Laura Jane Grace had come out as a trans woman. What hasn’t gotten mentioned as much is that that’s done wonders for their music — Grace, always a solid screamer even when she was Tom Gabel, finally sounds like she’s got something to scream about, and her bandmates bash along with renewed gusto. “Your tells are so obvious,” she spits as she struts into the title track, and for the next half hour, she roars like a teenager who’s just figured out what punk rock is for.
MOST IMPRESSIVE PRESENCE WITHOUT AN ACTUAL NEW ALBUM: Kendrick Lamar
Yeah, we’re still waiting on Kendrick to follow up 2012’s mammoth Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. But the chameleon-voiced Compton rapper’s single “i” was a killer, and more evidence that he’s overflowing with raw talent. And his guest appearance on Flying Lotus’ jazz-electronica single “Never Catch Me” was a welcome and unexpected stretch.
BEST LONG-HAULERS: Swans
Bands that have been around for 32 years do not, as a general rule, hit new peaks of power. Fortunately, Swans’ attitude has always been “fuck the rules.” This year’s To Be Kind continues the pattern of their past few records: Michael Gira bellowing like a brimstone prophet, the band playing with pulverizing power even when they’re slow and quiet, songs that go on for a very long time (“Bring the Sun/Toussaint L'Ouverture” is a mammoth 34 minutes). The new element this time is groove — the album’s highlight “Oxygen,” on which Gira howls about struggling to breathe until a horn section puffs gusts of raw noise at him, is the sort of thing they play at the discos in all the best nightmares.
BEST REISSUE OF AN ALBUM THAT NEVER GOT ISSUED IN THE FIRST PLACE: These Are the J.B.’s.
In early 1970, James Brown’s band parted ways with him. He promptly replaced them with a bunch of teenagers from Cincinnati, including bass player William “Bootsy” Collins (promptly, as in “they played their first gig as his band that night”), and molded them into the classic lineup of the J.B.’s. The new group’s first two instrumental singles, “The Grunt” and “These Are the J.B.’s,” were intended to appear on an album they cut over the course of that year, augmented by a long jam on the riff from Marva Whitney’s “It’s My Thing” and a medley of then-recent R&B hits (with a little bit of Jimi Hendrix thrown in). But These are the J.B.’s never made it to the pressing plant until the Bay Area funk label Now-Again dug it up and gave it its first-ever release — on vinyl! — this year.
MOST WELCOME REUNION: Sleater-Kinney
Because they never said they were breaking up, just that they’d decided to stop doing the band for a while and start again if it seemed like a good idea. Because they didn’t want to get back together if they were just going to cash in and play the hits on the festival circuit, so they’re doing it for real, with a forthcoming album, No Cities to Love, and an actual tour. Because they snuck a new single into their retrospective boxed set without announcing it in advance. Because it sounds great.
BEST NOVELTY SONG: “Everything Is Awesome!!!”
If The LEGO Movie were an album, it would be the best Devo album — not just because Mark Mothersbaugh wrote most of its soundtrack, but because it’s got a marvelously subversive sensibility (especially for a feature-length toy ad). Its musical centerpiece is this earworm by The Lonely Island with Tegan & Sara, a way-over-the-top Hi-NRG feel-good jam that comes on like a coked-up drill sergeant screaming in your face that you’re having a wonderful time. It’s a song so aggressively and deliberately annoying that it circles all the way around to being totally enjoyable.
Douglas Wolk is a freelance journalist and critic who writes about music, comic books and other things for TIME, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, and a bunch of other places. He’s also the author of Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean (Da Capo, 2007) and Live at the Apollo (Continuum, 2004). He also wrote the Judge Dredd: Mega City Two comic series, recently collected as a graphic novel.