What We Talk About When We Talk About Songs in 2014

The best pop song of the year is not my favorite song of the year and my favorite song of the year is not the most “important” song of the year.

So see if you can wrap your brain around that.

There’s been a bit of an unrest growing within me regarding making a “Best of 2014” list—specifically with my favorite albums of the year. It’s the same problem I run into every year, really. And that problem is you have three or four that you are completely sold on, and will put your stamp of approval next to them, but then everything else is just kind of like, “eh, this was a record that I thought was okay.”

And then you try to make a list of those records. Sometimes 20. Sometimes 10. And then another year passes and you look back at your best of list and you think, “Jesus, why did I think that was good?” Specifically I’m looking back at my own embarrassing 2010 list that included Spoon’s Transference and Forgiveness Rock Record by Broken Social Scene—two records I doubt I listened to after 2011 started.

As a “music critic” on the Internet, I feel compelled to make a best of list, but at the same time, my heart is not in it this year. I listened to roughly 120 albums this year. Some of them were new for 2014. Some of them were reissues. And of that 120, I can’t even name 10 that I liked enough to put on a stupid list.

The same goes for songs too.

Of those 120 or whatever albums, that’s a lot of songs, huh? You’d think that out of that many songs, there are some that would stand out more than others and I could put them in a list and feel smug about how my musical tastes are probably better than yours.

And maybe I could. Maybe I could sit down and thoughtlessly rattle of 10 or so songs. Maybe even more than 10. But then I’d have to arduously cut ones from the team until I got to that all holy even number.

But what’s the point? What makes my 10th favorite song of the year just slightly less good than the 9th? What is the point of ranking things numerically?

But what is the point of anything at all, really?

So I realized that out of all the songs I heard in 2014, the best pop song of the year is not my favorite song. And that my favorite song is not the most important song. If any of that makes any sense at all.

Last year, I some how found myself entrenched in pop music—whole-heartedly listening to and in some cases enjoying music by the likes of Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry. This year, however, that was not the case. Two of the big name pop albums of the year, Taylor Swift’s 1989 and Ariana Grande’s My Everything fell short of containing anything really noteworthy; while it was honestly tough for me to remember that an artist like Mariah Carey actually released a record this year.

No really she did. I listened to it and everything.

If you were looking for really good pop music this year, it wasn’t on the radio. It sure as shit wasn’t by someone named Igloo Australia. One of the better pop songs I heard this year technically came out within the final few moments of 2013, from an Internet famous artist named Chippy Nonstop.

I don’t even know how to describe Chippy Nonstop. She has some kind of loose connection to MIA, hangs around with Kreyshawn, is associated with the HAM on Everything collective, and is primarily known as a rapper—but late last year, she released “Alone,” an incredible slice of digi-pop music.

Coming off like a lo-fi, bedroom equivalent to Zedd’s “Clarity,” Chippy glitches and slinks her way through the track, heavily processed and cooing lyrics like “I didn’t mean to be the girl of your dreams,” delivered with a deadpan seriousness. The whole thing is catchy, fast paced, and incredibly effortless in execution, which is what makes it so successful and exponentially more enjoyable than Grande’s attempt at an EDM/pop hit with “Break Free,” which never can reach the heights it so desperately wants to.

In a similar vein is the hearty double shot of the dreamy electro-pop from mystery producer Doss’ EP—with both “Here Tonight” and “The Way I Feel” arriving as standouts.

If you are looking for pop music from an artist you may have actually heard of, there was some corpse exhumery this year in the form of the posthumous odds and ends Michael Jackson collection—inessential at best, save for the breathtaking, timeless sounds of “Love Never Felt So Good.” Recorded as a demo in 1983 and never finished, the song was given modern flourishes, yet it remains true to the post-disco, Off The Wall-era style of Jackson.  The result was a reminder (as if we needed one) of why Michael Jackson will always remain an incredibly important artist, even in death, and even as his record company continues to mine the vault of unfinished or unreleased songs that were probably never completed for a reason.

But hey, none of these songs are the best pop song of the year. But that Jackson song comes pretty damn close.

The best pop song of the year arrives in the form of a song written by the guy who wrote the Expedia dot com jingle. Yes, that was something actually written by a human being. And that man’s name is Matt Mahaffey. After spending over a decade writing jingles and scoring children’s television programs, Mahaffey’s beloved, cult band from the 90s, Self, returned with the Super Fake Nice EP, powered by the straight up slice of pop music bliss, “Runaway.”

It helps, of course, that “Runaway” comes complete with a video featuring cats—cats in slow motion, cats playing instruments, cats just bein’ cats—I think in our modern society, that automatically makes it better, since people like cats. But outside of cute videos that will rack up views on the You Tubes, “Runaway” is the best pop song of the year because it’s smart pop songwriting at its finest. It’s not cloying; it’s clever. It’s infectious but not annoying. It’s precious but not pretentious. It’s triumphant sounding. And most importantly, it’s fun. It is just a fun song to listen to. And for three minutes and change, Mahaffey has you in the palm of his hand, stringing you along with the “beep boop bop” keyboard sequences and an easy to follow, sing-a-long refrain.

But just because “Runaway” is the best pop song of the year—that doesn’t mean that it’s my favorite song of the year.

What makes something your favorite? Is it how many times you’ve played it in your iTunes library? What makes one song stand out from all the others where you can say, safely, “yes, this is my favorite thing to have happened in 2014?”

There were a lot of songs I liked in 2014—long drone or experimental pieces like “Yesterday This Would Have Meant So Much” by Tape Loop Orchestra, or the charmingly titled “Variations on A Theme by St-Dipshit” by Kyle Bobby Dunn. And then you look at songs from albums you really liked—like How to Dress Well, Wye Oak, or Ryan Adams; but then how do you pick just one?

Or there’s a late in the game song like “The Charade” by D’Angelo and The Vanguard.

Of all the songs I heard in 2014, the one that stuck with me the most, was one that I heard early on in the year. It seems worth noting that a song from January has to be pretty good to make it all the way through until December to still be in the runnings to be your “favorite.”

That song is the stark, contemplative “Heavenly Father” by Isaiah Rashad.

Taken from Rashad’s debut effort, the Cilvia Demo—which, in and of itself, was one of the few hip-hop albums in 2014 that was listenable from start to finish—“Heavenly Father” is nothing short of an incredibly accomplishment. For people who say that they don’t like rap music, or don’t get rap music, just play them this song. Yes, there’s profanity (lots) but god damn, there is so much heart in this song it actually hurts. Rarely do you hear an artist in any genre lay it all on the line like Rashad does in this song.

It’s reserved and calculated; incredibly honest and serious with very few glimmers of hope. “They don’t know my issues as a child, ‘cause I was busy cutting on myself,” he says. “Hanging from the playground wasn’t wrong—until you got a rope around your neck.” It stops short of being a “cry for help,” and it’s more of a cry of frustration with the world—with deadbeat fathers, with substance abuse, with women.

The line that gets me, and that has stuck with me since January is the one that hits the closest to home—“These people think I really give a fuck about the shit they give a fuck about.” Eloquent? No. Way too applicable to my own life? Of course. When you reach a certain anhedonic low, there’s almost no way to climb back out of it—no amount of therapy, no amount of prescription drugs, no amount of “positive thinking” can make you care about things again. And it’s hard. It becomes an incredibly taxing and painful chore to feign interest in something for the slight appeasement of someone else.

Am I misrepresented by people that claim trill but their souls were never in it? Maybe. Am I doomed to die young addicted to dry plum? No. is pussy my greatest vice? Certainly not. It doesn’t matter. In “Heavenly Father” I saw a reflection of myself.

But just because “Heavenly Father” is what I am deeming my “favorite” song of the year—is it the most important song of 2014?

Well what makes a song “important,” anyway?

How to Dress Well had a banner year in 2014. Tom Krell released his most fully developed album to date in the form of  What is this heart?,” powered by excellent singles like “Repeat Pleasure” and “Words I Don’t Remember.” In October, he issued a remix EP of select tracks from the record, including the mind-blowingly good Cyril Hahn reworking of “Precious Love.” The song already was incredible, simply because it sampled on-hold music from a telephone system, but Hahn strips all that way, making it an incredibly somber, yet surprisingly hopeful, slowburning jam.

To me, the most important song of 2014 arrived in the form of a cover/reinterpretation, courtesy of the bonus material on the special edition of “What is This Heart?

Originally performed by the experimental French artist oFF Love, the How to Dress Well version of “Let U Know” breaks the song down to a devastating core, and adds what seems like an improvised bridge section that gives new, deeper meaning to the song and to the album it didn’t even make the cut to be on—incidentally, the title phrase, “What is this heart?” is taken from this moment.

See boy, nothing you know has changed
And yet there's differences, Nothing feels quite the same
Yeah, will it be strange for me to say that I don't miss yesterday
That I don't feel no past standing in my way.
But what is this love, this love, this love, this love
And what is this heart, this heart, this heart, this heart
And what is this truth, this truth, this truth, this truth,
Say I don't feel no past standing in my way

In an album full of brutal honesty, from an incredibly emotional artist, it’s a moment when time stands still and all you can do is listen. It’s also a contradictory moment. Since it didn’t make the cut for the album and only arrives on its own, the big “statement” of “The future is older than the past. Every new day carries the weight of the last,” that is found in the album’s closing track “House Inside,” is the lasting message you are left with. And yet here, Krell seems to have a change of heart, or a discovery and reversal, by saying “I don’t miss yesterday. I don’t feel no past standing in my way.”

But this is life, though, isn’t it? Full of contradictions and moments where we think we’ve outrun something that we are consistently haunted by, only to realize it was always one step ahead of us anyway. Sometimes you can feel that weight that the past has on you; other times you feel like you have grown strong enough and can say that you don’t feel that the past is standing in your way. This is the struggle of the human condition, and this is why “Let U Know” became the most important song I heard in 2014.