This list isn't meant to be definitive. Instead, it's an alphabetically ordered grab-bag of what some of The Atlantic's editors and writers listened to over and over again in 2014, from chart-topping singalongs to 20-minute metal dirges.
Tracks that aren't embedded on this page can be heard by clicking the link in the song title, or, for most, by heading over to our Spotify playlist.
“Anaconda,” Nicki Minaj
Nicki Minaj wrote some beautiful, moving songs for her newest album. “Anaconda,” meanwhile, is ostensibly a song about her butt. Minaj, though, is one of the best rappers out there at dropping knowledge when you're not paying attention. This song has layers. The beat, built around Sir Mix-a-Lot's classic ode to fat bottoms, "Baby Got Back," is secondary to the crazy-braggy lyrics, which are pretty well summarized by the song's last line: “Yeah, I got a big, fat ass—come on!” See, Minaj has built an empire on that butt—and only partly by owning her sexuality in ways just as unapologetic as her male counterparts. The video for “Anaconda” is a raunchy celebration of butts, with some Drake lapdance torture thrown in to make her point: This butt is power. It sits in the driver's seat of expensive sports cars. This is the butt Minaj busted for years to get where she is, and it is coming for you. Who's the anaconda now?
“Podcast theme songs” is not exactly a crowded genre, but Nick Thorburn’s Serial opener would have an impact no matter what it was scoring. The delicate plink-plink-plink as the podcast begins has become one of the more iconic sounds of 2014, just as its accompanying project has taken the cultural spotlight. In fact, part of Serial’s success can be attributed to Thorburn’s work—it helps build the suspense. But even independent of its popular context, “Bad Dream” remains a gorgeous, provocative piece of music.
Mark Kozelek famously started indie-rock beef this year for speaking his mind a little too freely on stage. But speaking his mind freely, seemingly unedited, is what makes him such a compelling artist. On “Ben’s My Friend,” he turns a quotidian stream of thoughts into a wrenching anthem of folk and quiet storm (a.k.a. acoustic guitars + smooth sax). It’s not that he says anything particularly profound, but it’s that his weary voice conveys the deep ennui he feels about, well, everything: trying to come up with a new song for his album, brunch at a restaurant crammed with “sports-bar shit,” a Postal Service concert where he’s overcome by fatigue and jealousy. At that aforementioned brunch, he tells his girlfriend that he can’t explain his melancholy—“it’s a middle-aged thing.” The truth, though, is that he explains it perfectly.
Sure, Annie Clark’s got a lovely voice—like that of a jaded and sometimes distressed angel—but she always seems most like herself when her guitar is squealing out weird and discordant riffs. On her self-titled record, particularly on one of the standout tracks “Bring Me Your Loves,” she took a step forward from the gentle-abrasive juxtaposition on Strange Mercy and injected a bit of the brassy wildness from Love This Giant into her guitar wizardry. Gone are all traces of softness; in their place, there’s yelping, wailing, robotic chant-singing, scratchy and bleating shredding—all of which makes for some messy, transfixing fun.
Sleater-Kinney may always trail the “riot grrrl” banner behind it. The band was, after all, part of a movement that finally killed forever the idea that rock and roll was a boy's game. But seven records and almost two decades on, Sleater-Kinney are a group of grown women, one that rivals The Who for sheer heaviness. Its first new song since 2005's The Woods, “Bury Our Friends” is driving and relentless, recalling the band's early, punk-indebted sound but also grounded in the heavy-rock technicality its members developed in later records. The vocals (a classic interplay of both Corin Tucker's and Carrie Brownstein's) are urgent, and the lyrics a cryptic fight song: “Exhume our idols and bury our friends/ We're wild and weary but we won't give in.” Rock badly needs sense of urgency and a sense of meaning right now, and it is lucky to have Sleater-Kinney back with an anthem for just that.
Here may be the most therapeutic song of 2014, whose effectiveness comes from the fact that the track isn’t merely preaching its title phrase—it, itself, is struggling to calm down. The rapper Serengeti seeks serenity but gets more and more agitated as the verses progress, essentially aping Dr. Seuss in the process: “When your grips don't got (OK, calm it down) / When your twerps don't tweak (You gotta calm it down) / When your perps don't peep (All right, calm it down).” The mantra-like chorus soothes a bit, but the real stress relief comes when the famously Xanaxic voice of one Sufjan Stevens appears. Now, can you tell me how you feel?
If “Chandelier” had gone to Beyoncé or Rihanna as was originally intended, it probably would been just another ice-themed party ballad. But with the capable vocal talents of Sia, the husky-voiced Australian powerhouse who’s long written pop-princess anthems but never quite been so successful singing them, the single’s a cathartic scream of frustration and release. It’s a radio favorite meant to be shrieked out in the car while banging the wheel (scream responsibly). And it heralds the arrival of a heretofore faceless, blonde-wigged queen, one who’ll have you swinging from the chande-li-er, the chande-li-HI-er.
Maybe it’s the brass section, maybe it’s the fact that the first 10 seconds feel as anticipatory and suspenseful as the theme tune to Mission Impossible, maybe it’s because the second guitar solo is the most ebullient thing Malkmus has ever done (watch it live). I don’t know. This is my favorite song of 2014. This is maybe my favorite song of the decade. “Chartjunk” was apparently written about conflict between basketball player Brandon Jennings and Milwaukee Bucks coach Scott Skiles, but I listened to it approximately 4,000 times before I ever knew that about it and lost nothing in the process. Regardless, “Buddy, you’re just connected bones” is a pretty sweet putdown in any context.
The Portland band Nux Vomica are, reportedly, “crust punk,” and I have no idea what that means. All I know is that their songs seem to contain all of heavy music’s history within them, and listening to them makes you feel like a very angry and powerful god. “Choked at the Roots” would have been fabulous at a mere four minutes long, just on the strength of the shockingly groovy intro jam. But then, in perhaps the most frightening soft-to-loud moment ever recorded, the screaming begins. In the next 15 minutes the band mutates repeatedly, from Opeth to Metallica to, like, Modest Mouse. As a bonus: On the few occasions that you can discern the lyrics, they speak to a very 2014 idea— “WE ARE SPINNING OUT OF CONTROL!”
If you tried to go to a Sylvan Esso show in 2014 but couldn’t see the band past all the iPhone-toting millennials, blame NPR, who’ve aggressively touted the Durham electropop duo all year (or as aggressively as NPR gets, anyway). “Sylvan” comes from the Latin word for “forest.” “Esso” is the international name for ExxonMobil. Together, these things make no sense. But “Coffee,” an edgy, immersive track with a slightly off beat and what sound like classroom instruments punctuating the angsty bass, is weirdly irresistible nevertheless.
Is that a drum set being drummed upon or a falling down a flight of stairs? No matter. The opening, irrepressible clatter of “Daddy’s Car” soon makes sense in context: Brian Eno and Karl Hyde, two elder statesmen of electronic music, have gone part-analog to approximate the feeling of being a kid in a backseat, staring out as the world rushes by. With the track’s triumphant brass section, mischievous bass line, and Hyde’s croon—once so gloomy on Underworld’s dance epics but earnestly joyful here—they succeed almost too well. When the song’s over, you’re unfortunately back to observing the speed limit as an adult.
Someone frets over a decision, worrying it again and again.
“If I don’t, I might—if I don’t, I might—if I don’t, I might die.”
“But always,” answers an exuberant Katie Alice Greer halfway through this track, “you are going to die.”
She repeats that four times. It’s a happy assurance—a punk recitation of Yasiin Bey’s “fear not of men because men must die.”
Is human mortality an odd choice for this noisy song, named, as it is, after a brushed-metal-loving anchor of gentrification? Hardly. Not for Priests, a DC outfit who sings about Y2K, yuppies, and the dashed hopes of the Obama era. In their short, powerful 17-minute EP, they captured the weirdness and anxiety and delight of having a body (that machine which makes “identity politics” existential) and trying to act justly in 2014 (which makes the having worth it in the first place). For me, they made it livable.
“There was a time, dark and divine, exciting and new, shameful and true,” is how Royksopp’s “Sordid Affair” opens on the 2014 album The Inevitable End, describing how an illicit liaison fades into black. “Do It Again,” from the 35-minute EP the duo released with fellow Scandinavian Robyn this year, is a more aggressive interpretation of the same impulse. “We. Should. Not. Be. Friends,” Robyn sings over the bridge, as if her teeth are gritted. “We’ll. Just. Do. It. Again.” Then the synthpop layers explode, and it’s obvious just how futile resistance is for everyone involved.
It’s tempting to say that hitmaking producer DJ Mustard shook up hip-hop this year by stripping it down to a spare, swaggering beat. In truth, what he did was smuggle simple, irresistible hooks into each and every measure. On “Don’t Tell ‘Em,” there’s an extra dose of catchiness from the chorus’s interpolation early-‘90s cheese classic “Rhythm Is a Dancer,” and Jeremih’s sensuality as a vocalist sells the conspiratorial-lover lyrics nicely. It’s a testament to all the above elements that the pleasure trip isn’t ruined when YG shows up to rap the seven digits of a telephone number.
Haters gonna hate when it comes to Iggy Azalea’s boastful electro hop single, which was controversially named Billboard’s song of the summer in July, but even the “Fancy” naysayers can’t deny—Iggy made good on her boasts. From the first few seconds of spare synth beats (spare because she’s the realest), to the masterful powers of enunciation exhibited throughout (try saying “So get my money on time, if they not money, decline,” five times fast) the Australian artist’s swagger for a few minutes almost approaches Missy Elliott-level. Each of these lines would by annoying on a bumper sticker, but channeled through the loudmouthed I-G-G-Y they’re pure feminist appropriation. If it’s arrogance, at least she’s reclaiming it for the ladies.
The series of battered, greedy, and scheming women Lana Del Rey plays throughout this year’s Ultraviolence would be vaguely unsettling were it not for the album’s humor, which reaches its hilarious peak in “Fucked My Way to the Top.” The chef d’oeuvre of del Rey’s torch-singing satire has her embodying a misogynist’s nightmare, a woman who has literally attained lots of power by having sex. But it totally takes you out of the moment as the steamy arrangement juxtaposes with her girly, obviously sarcastic come-ons (come get her in her linen and curls, diamonds and pearls!). Midway through the song del Rey drops the pretense, admitting “mimickin’ me’s a fuckin’ bore.” At least the song isn’t—it makes me laugh every time.
If pop music were a person, it would be a creepy one: close-talking, lusty, fake, straining to please each and every human it encounters. This observation animates the work of UK producer Sophie, who specializes in spazzy sonic workouts with helium vocals that both parody Top 40 and match it in terms of entertainment. “Hard” is like Timbaland producing an Aqua track as heard by a methed-out Dance Dance Revolution player, which is to say, at the very least, memorable.
It would have been easy for Kendrick Lamar to hew closely to the visceral heaviness that pervaded 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, a rap bildungsroman filled with devastating imagery and self-doubt. And even though (or perhaps because) Lamar admits that he struggled with depression as a teen, his first release from his new record exudes joy and—gasp—self-love. Isley Brothers sample and jangly instrumentation aside, the message he screams is just an extension of the ethos he expressed in the uplifting, fist-in-the-air “Hiiipower” off Section.80 and “Real” off his sophomore record, in which he raps, “But what love got to do with it when you don’t love yourself?” Your average hip-hop artist—or musician—couldn’t quite get away with screaming “I love myself!” as part of a chorus. But Kendrick Lamar isn’t average.
Dylan Baldi took Cloud Nothings from the lo-fi indie rock of Turning On to the pure pop rock of Cloud Nothings, before flexing his punk muscles on 2012’s fantastically brooding Attack on Memory. And so on Here and Nowhere Else, Baldi transforms again but doesn’t exactly shed all his old skin; in fact, each layer of his former musical selves shines through, most strongly on the album closer “I’m Not Part of Me.” It’s got the exuberance and hopefulness of the last album’s “Stay Useless,” but this time with a more conviction, as he sings, “I’m learning how to be here and nowhere else…I’m not telling you all I’m going through, I feel fine.”
Swans has been around for some time, but the experimental rock group’s most recent releases The Seer and To Be Kind (the band’s twelfth and thirteenth records) have likely garnered a new generation of eager fans. Listening to Swans takes a bit of investment that offers a high return. “A Little God in My Hands” has all the raw, festering hypnotism of the opening track “Screen Shot” with the addition of frontman Michael Gira’s delightfully disturbing vocal theatrics. At just over seven minutes, it’s also a less-trying entry point to the record, and it sets up the 34-minute long “Bring The Sun/Toussaint L'Ouverture.” As with the record itself, it’s best to crank “A Little God in My Hands” up as loud as you can stand, and let the divine squall wash over you.
The great wave of outsize Swedish influence continues to wash over popular music, but sisters Johanna and Klara Soderberg are to Max Martin and Abba like Joni Mitchell is to Justin Bieber. “Master Pretender” is indie-folk that tries to be cynical and then concedes to its own sweetness, even though the song’s lone use of profanity scored the otherwise squeaky clean Stay Gold a Parental Advisory sticker. But between the nostalgic twang of the slide guitar and the ‘60s-style Cher outfits the girls reliably rock, this is throwback eclecticism at its most endearing.
Cole's December release 2014 Forest Hills Drive closes with this track, which is emblematic of the album in its mellow horn/piano jazziness. Cole is typically introspective and uplifting here, but this jam just kind of capitulates in that he spends the last 10 minutes of the 14-minute track doing an audio version of liner notes because he “didn't have time to turn in [his] thank you's for the artwork, so.” This is the credits, he says, and if you don't like it, turn it off. But don't! He's not the first person to do this, but it's still a novel approach, and one more effective than just printing names someplace no one will read. I'd love for this to become the norm. Cole goes on to thank an inordinate number of people, at least a hundred individual names, in such an emphatic and genuine way, including obviously his producers and publishers and family, but also the sales team and marketing team and the people who drove him around in a van. And also the people in Ferguson (for whom he wrote an instant-release track back in August), and even the horn players. “I don't know y'all's names, but you killed that shit.” They did.
El-P and Killer Mike may be the best hip-hop duo making music at the moment, so it’s no surprise that their second record as Run the Jewels delivers another welcome dose of aggressive lyrical slickness (or sickness) alongside demented, claustrophobic beats that rivals (and bests) their first terrific album. The slimy, slow-burn bass and frenetic drum machines that kick off “Oh My Darling, Don’t Cry” escalate into noisy techno jumble as El-P and Killer Mike volley verses back and forth with effortless panache. The track works well as an introduction to the album, to the duo, and to either artist; it’s also a hell of a standalone. I envy the person who has yet to get lost in one of Killer Mike’s Moebius-strip verses (“Cardiac arrested, I’m so invested, I’m self-invented, that no illusion, there’s no confusion, you see the future, you fear the future, I’ve seen the truth and I’m so deluded”).
“Pretend” trades the let’s-get-wrecked abandon of Tinashe’s hit “2 On” for a more R&B-laced, meditative wistfulness. It also trades the ScHoolboy Q guest verse for one by A$AP Rocky, who for all his successful club bangers (“Wild for the Night” and “Fuckin’ Problems”) also has a soft side that tends to shine in collaborations with female artists; think Florence Welch in “I Come Apart” and Santigold in “Hell.” If “2 On” gives a better taste of Tinashe’s sense for catchy, danceable songs, then “Pretend” is kin to more ethereal, slow-groove tracks of “Cold Sweat” that round out her promising debut Aquarius.
Who in the hitmaking world thought it would be a good idea to mash up a squealing sax, unfashionable R&B bounce, Iggy Azalea, and a chorus that apes … the Ying Yang Twins? The answer: someone—presumably Max Martin—who’s lived through the absolute insanity of trying to get over someone thrilling. On “Problem,” Ariana Grande’s big vocal range finds its perfect use narrating the minute-to-minute mood swings of the insufficiently requited, with her scampering up and down the diatonic scale to express the song’s central, relatable, maddening quandary: “I know you're never gonna wake up / I gotta give up / but it's you!”
Pop music, by its very nature, is trying to inspire something in its audience. That something can be as surface-level as “I wanna dance,” and it can be as weighty as “I’m bawling on my keyboard at work.” The weightier reaction is what Jessie Ware triggers on “Say You Love Me” for me. It’s a gorgeous song, both in vocal and in production. But Ware’s heart is in the lyrics—an aching lament to a lover who won’t say the words to commit. “Just say you love me,” she gasps as the chorus ends. “Just for today.” It never fails to make me sob—and more than anything else this year, it stays with me.
In order to get “7/11,” one must remember Beyoncé’s thesis statement for her visual album Beyoncé: Imagery can be important as the music. So while “7/11” initially seemed like an incoherent jumble of sounds when it leaked onto the web, we only needed to wait for the video to understand exactly what Queen Bey had created. It’s something akin to a 2014 Electric Slide—”wave your hands side to side, put them in the air,” she commands. It’s not meant to make sense; this is the kind of music you feel on the dance floor after a few drinks. And, it must be said, "Nefertiti / Edges kinky" is one of the best lines of the year.
We are, thanks to some combination of feminism and cynicism and a good economy and a terrible one, living in the golden age of the Defiance Anthem. Tracks like Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone," Beyonce's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)," and, of course, Ce-Lo Green's "Fuck You" all take music's traditional focus on the romance industrial complex and say to it … well, what Ce-Lo said.
"Shake It Off," as infectious as it is ubiquitous, doubles as 2014's best—and most singable, and most shakeable—new entry into the defiance genre. It's a musical shimmy, basically, pulsing with percussion and brass, but it's something else, too: a guilty pleasure that rejects the notion of the guilty pleasure in the first place. "Haters gonna hate (hate, hate, hate, hate)," Taylor sings, and "fakers gonna fake (fake, fake, fake, fake)," and those truths become, in the song's universe, not just inevitable, but empowering. "Shake It Off" is a pop-confectional ode to joy, and joy is not something that takes well to haters. The song may be cheesy; it may be over-produced; it may talk about "cruisin'" without any sense of irony or shame. But go ahead and mock it. It will not care. It will, in fact, be energized by your side-eye. "Shake It Off" is the stuff of peppy tautology—Taytology, you could say—and that makes it unshakeable.
National Cover Song Queen may not be an established position, but that hasn’t stopped Kelly Clarkson from taking the crown anyway. In the years since she won a reality show all about being the best at singing others’ songs, she has impressed the Internet over and over with her tour covers (from Coldplay to Carly Rae). She hit a stellar double play at the end of this year, making tons of headlines for covering Taylor Swift, and giving Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” an even more exciting treatment. As opposed to Smith’s quieter warble, Clarkson brought gravitas to his signature song. It’s a cliché to say she did it better than the original, but in this case, why deny the obvious truth?
It dropped on a Sunday night, late, and for a while people forgot they had to go to work the next day. New D’Angelo after 15 years. A mythic event. Doubly so as the album was finally finished as a response to the Ferguson protests. But if Black Messiah’s about the transcendent, it’s about what two people—or a community—can do. “It’s not about praising one charismatic leader but celebrating thousands of them,” D’Angelo writes. “Black Messiah is not one man. It’s a feeling that, collectively, we are all that leader.”
As if in a nod to that cultural democracy, the album never wears out a single voice. Sweet choirs hover into being on phrases and then disappear. Synths rumble once and drop away. It’s sexy, smooth, and above all, playful: I’m pretty sure that buzzy serenade in the closing section of Sugah Daddy is a trumpeter playing their horn’s mouthpiece without the, you know, horn part.
How do you score one of the great fictional rants of our time? For Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who accompanied Gillian Flynn’s infamous “Cool Girl” speech in David Fincher’s adaptation with a savage ’80s-style electro-rock tune, the answer was making the music just as venomous and satisfying as the words themselves. It would have been only too easy to go overboard with sound in this scene, which carries the weight of both the film’s biggest surprise and its most quotable dialogue, but the duo went for subtlety over strength. The slow build, from dissonant but calm beats to an angry hard-rock reminiscent of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, makes this an angry anthem fit for one of the most diabolical females ever to grace the screen. This girl’s not Cool, but her music is.
There’s a manic energy to Sleigh Bells frontwoman Alexis Krauss and Chicago rapper Tink’s collaboration that makes you think the entire thing could derail any second. There’s no blending of genres here; hip-hop and noise pop and crash against each other in this pitch-perfect blast of girl power. It’s one of 2014’s catchiest songs, just short enough to keep the chaos of the divergent styles from becoming too much. “That Did It” is also just plain fun. You’ll find yourself mumbling “that did it, that did it” in Tink’s memorably quick cadence in no time.
“Thuggin’” typifies a kind of moody weariness that rapper Freddie Gibbs sometimes expresses about the hard, “gangsta” life. Madlib’s shimmering, nostalgic production on the track softens the simultaneous anger and pride Gibbs feels about his life coming up on the streets of Akron, Ohio. He waxes ambivalent about his reputation: “I’m tryin’ to feed my family, give a fuck about your feedback/ Critically acclaimed, but that shit don’t mean a thang.” Gibbs is a storyteller who tiptoes into sermonizing at time. “I live on borrowed time, my expiration date I passed it. So lock me up forever, but this shit is everlastin’.”
It was historically significant enough for Thomas James Gabel to become Laura Jean Grace and keep making music in a band originating from the uber-masculine hardcore scene. But even if you set aside the backstory, Against Me!’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues is a landmark—a fiery, catchy, and true look at struggles rarely sung about in popular music. The second track tells of the profound loneliness experienced by a woman whose embrace of her gender identity has cut her off from human companionship—a tale that’s ultra-resonant given the rates of depression, suicide, and homelessness among young trans Americans. So why does the galloping punk arrangement sound so triumphant? Perhaps because it’s a victory this story’s being heard at all.
The voices chanting in the intro to “Two Weeks” sounds like a cross between Gregorian monks and Satan. This isn’t out of keeping with twigs herself, who somehow channels the smooth jazz seductiveness of Sade and the raw uneasiness of ‘90s trip-hop in her debut album, LP1, all without it sounding insane. The lyrics are unabashedly filthy, but the 26-year-old’s whispery vocals are so angelic, soaring over a pendulous beat, that you might think you’re imagining it. You’re not.
While his labelmate Aphex Twin returned from hibernation this year to show how playful that abstract electronica can be, Clark’s self-titled album was serious, scary, and visceral—basically a Christopher Nolan soundtrack you can dance to. One highlight is “Unfurla,” which begins as chipper set of synthetic loops but then gets downright Wagnerian as it layers on thunder rumbles, brass booms, and ever-more-dramatic digitized whooshing. The tempo remains consistent, but there’s an undeniable sense of acceleration, and at one point, the bustle peels away as a braying noise recalls a primitive army blowing on a conch shell. The meaning’s clear: Danger ahead.
Beyoncé’s original recording of “XO” technically came out in December of 2013, and it's a great song for sure. What made it a song of the year for me, though, is its pairing with John Mayer's acoustic cover, released as a single in May of 2014. Beyoncé’s version has been well described as a “club-friendly power pop ballad.” Mayer's is a slow, harmonica-driven, manipulative, saccharine interpretation that sounds like a parody of what John Mayer's take on a Beyoncé song would be. I laughed, hard, the first time I heard it. And then, weirdly, it got stuck in my head. The song works for him because it's a blues progression and involves lyrics that literally implore listeners to kiss him. People who I'd initially shared the track with so we could make fun of it started calling me out for listening to it too much, and too earnestly. Now I have to say I like both versions in equal but very different ways. You win again, John Mayer.
If music is art, then it’s art partly about the limits of language. After all, why sing a song when you can write a poem? One answer, as Tom Krell shows via devastating electro-soul ballad, is that you need sound to communicate the power of its absence. In verse one, over a vast expanse of synth waves and finger snaps, he summarizes the entire point of romance: “What is love, except for anything you wanted, babe?” For the chorus, clipped snippets of his voice cohere to stutter, “I love you.” But in the second verse, complications appear. “What is trust but letting you have your silence?” he asks. You wait for the famous three words from before to reappear, but they never do.