Kenny Chesney's "Don't Blink" on a drive upstate
I got engaged and bought a house this year. Our house is small, isolated, and rural—this is our town. We go there on weekends and paint the walls; we're halfway done constructing a huge garden to start planting in the spring. It's not exactly relaxing, yet. In the rare moments I'm just sitting around up there, I weigh alternative futures. I think about investing time, then, like following branches that split into more branches, imagine other, better futures that only those investments can produce.
And then I worry about dying. My marriage and my mortgage are scheduled to last longer than I've been alive. I imagine what I would finish and what I wouldn't if something happened and I was left alone, and how those things would change if it was me that was gone. One weekend early this fall, my fiancée had to work in the city, so I drove up by myself. This song came on the radio. It was released in 2007, but I'd never heard it till I turned on this one road by our house to face an overwhelming, white sun. It's dumb for being so literal, but it was the most grounding musical experience I had all year, like everything I felt already existed outside my body, distributed in everything, the ideal effect for a song.
Teen Suicide's live cover of Sky Ferreira's "I Blame Myself"
This February, in a homely basement called Suburbia in Bushwick, a bunch of teens from the city and Long Island and New Jersey huddled together, hanging on Sam Ray's every word. Ray was on a short reunion tour with his band, Teen Suicide, the one of his many musical projects with the most obsessive fanbase. It had been over a year since the lo-fi rock group's publicly mourned breakup, and for one reason or another Ray decided to get them back together for a couple of East Coast shows. Near the end of the set, the four-piece played a ramshackle cover of Sky Ferreira's "I Blame Myself," an explosive single from the singer's 2013 debut that sounds like Kelly Clarkson in a good way. As Teen Suicide very well knows, the song has become an immediate anthem for anybody that's ever felt like a fuck-up, a demographic that likely includes every single human crammed into Suburbia—including Sam Ray, including me. While seemingly everyone in the room was losing their shit and shouting the words—How could you know what it feels like?—my eyes landed on a skinny kid of 16, or maybe 17, standing alone by the wall. He was wearing an XXL tee that said "I Hate Homework" on the front, and at first I thought he looked real sad, but then the cover ended, and people stopped jumping around so I could see his face better. There was a big goofy grin on it.
PartyNextDoor in Toronto
In November, I visited Toronto and saw PartyNextDoor play for an insanely happy crowd. Everyone knew all the words, and I had a really nice spot on the balcony until T.I. arrived and commandeered it. The best part was watching everyone sing "Wus Good / Curious." That song is more than a year old but it was still overwhelming to watch a bunch of dudes and women bring it to life, all screaming: Girl tonight I won't be selfish/ It is all for you and Ride me, till I'm, bout to, cum. I like listening to songs like K Camp's "Cut Her Off" and Chris Brown's "Loyal," but when I do I work twice as hard as a man—flipping and reversing the bullshit lyrics, making them my weapons and not ones aimed against me—before I can enjoy myself. So this PartyNextDoor show was kind of a revelation, or at least a luxury. Imagine a better world, where men are broadcasting how roused they are by woman-on-top pleasure, just across the border.
Other times that were good: When Brenmar played "Lookin Ass" in Miami during our girls trip. Crying when Justin Bieber's "Baby" came on at the doctor's office. Marc Anthony doing "Vivir Mi Vida" at Yankee Stadium during the Romeo Santos show. Being wasted at a wedding in Baltimore when the "Flawless" remix came out and knowing it was okay because someone else would blog it. Watching bride and groom dance to "No Flex Zone" at that same wedding. Moving my car in the winter while 105.1's reggae mix show played that mashup of Kranium's "Nobody Has to Know" and Kid Ink's "Show Me." Playing YG's Just Re'd Up 2 on the way to Summer Jam. Eavesdropping on teens talking about why they like Disclosure at Bonnaroo. Atlanta in August, when I watched Metro Boomin and Jeremih record a song and danced alone to "About the Money" at an empty club in Stone Mountain that had an indoor pool. The first time I heard "Try Me." Finding "Struggle" at the end of the Migos tape like it was a cereal box prize.
Transcendental musical moments at SoulCycle
I had an unusual number of hours to myself this year, and so I got pretty into going to group exercise classes. The habit provided structure, assured human interaction during the daylight hours, and made my body feel tired. Plus, even SoulCycle (at $34 a pop) is cheaper than therapy in New York. So I dragged myself to classes and listened passively to the instructors' Zedd-heavy playlists because I knew all the sweating would be good for me. Healthy was the goal, but as I came to hone a routine that included Drake-themed yoga classes and a spin teacher who likes Migos, I found that with the right soundtrack, working out can be pretty spiritually uplifting, too. So here, in no particular order, are some of the most transcendent musical moments I experienced during spin classes in 2014:
—The horns from the intro to "Trophies" blaring the day after the song dropped, with the teacher boasting to the class, "You might not know this yet, but you will!"
—Each time "XO" came on to "take us home" at the end of a class.
—Taylor Swift when Harry Styles was sitting on the bike behind me.
—A power-surge "No Flex Zone (remix)" to "Anaconda" transition, played during an ass-strengthening sequence, as it should be.
—Walking into an 8AM spin class on a Tuesday and hearing iLoveMakonnen on blast.
—Literally riding the beat to Ciara's "Ride."
—"7/11" on a Sunday afternoon, after a weekend of repeat viewings of the brand new video.
—DJ Mustard, any song and every time.
Oasis at Göteborg Landvetter Airport
Three months ago, I was in Sweden, and lonely. I was in Gothenburg for the Way Out West festival, and although I ended up running into some industry colleagues near the trip's end, I spent the majority of my time as a stranger in a foreign country: no one to talk to, watching cashiers flash a sly, knowing grin of condescension when they heard my very American voice. Still, I tried to find some escape, and I found it when I saw Swedish EDM-pop duo Icona Pop do their big, bold thing on a dusky, slightly chilly Friday night. Watching a group of happy people jump around and hug their friends to "All Night" gave me a terminal case of the warm fuzzies—but it also increased my loneliness. Ironically, I found solace in the strangest location of all: the airport, waiting for my flight back to the U.S., listening to Oasis' Definitely Maybe on repeat. Maybe it was the jet lag, or the fact that the Gallaghers' inflated, hilarious sense of self-importance produces the illusion of having one's headphones plugged into an arena of screaming fans. No matter, I found peace in loudness.
An improv session on Damian Marley's Jamrock Reggae Cruise
I attended Damian Marley's Welcome to Jamrock Reggae Cruise this fall, a five-day trip to Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, Jamaica. I'm a diehard soca lover, and while I enjoy reggae, I hadn't fully grasped that I'd be listening to it exclusively for five days straight: Buju Banton over breakfast, Sizzla on tap for tanning on the top deck and a full-on concert each night with three performers. By day three, I started to feel like I was being held hostage on a non-stop party.
It wasn't until the last night when all my interviews were done—coordinating with publicists and tracking down artists on a massive ocean liner with no wifi or cell phone reception is no easy feat—that I decided to cut loose. As luck would have it the night's outdoor concert was forced to relocate indoors because of rain, and its headliner, Stephen "Ragga" Marley, had to trade in his full six-piece band, including a sultry saxophonist, for a DJ setup. Thankfully, he rolled with the punches and invited the rest of the cruise's artists—Cham, Sean Paul, Morgan Heritage, Shinehead, and Damian Marley—on stage to freestyle and sing their favorite jams.
The improv session, which went on well past four o'clock in the morning, was easily the highlight of the entire cruise, besting choreographed and rehearsed performances with the easy, unrefined energy that flowed with every passing of the mic. The night culminated with the DJ pulling up a series of Bob Marley songs, from "Redemption Song" to "Forever Loving Jah," that the entire audience sang along with as Damian, Stephen, and Rohan Marley held hands and honored their father's legacy in middle of the sea, coasting purely off vibes.
A skate video with the perfect soundtrack
This August, the T-shirt brand Quartersnacks teamed up with Nike for the first pair of SB Dunks I'd been hype about in some time. To promote the drop, the crew released a two-minute clip of after-hours sessions with skaters Andre Page, Josh Velez, and Black Dave tearing through Tompkins and Union Square in New York City. Titled "Afters," it also featured every song I loved this summer: Bobby Shmurda's "Hot Nigga" pouring out of nearby Jeeps, Meek Mill's "Off The Corner" soundtracking Citi Bike hippy-jumps and skid-marked bails, and iLoveMakonnen's icy "Down 4 So Long" for the come down. It was some of the strongest music supervision I'd seen this year, right up there with "Jesus Walks" and "Bad Boy for Life" popping up on ABC's Black-ish. I still haven't copped a pair, but looking back makes me wish I did.
Jam City's musical evolution
I have always admired the people you read about in weekend supplements who make drastic life changes in their 50s, like this guy who quit his job in England to devote his life to exploring the caves of Vietnam. To deviate from something you're used to is one of the scariest things you can do. Especially if you're good at it.
While he still has a long ways to go before he enters his 50s, this year Jam City pulled a U-turn that no-one familiar with his era-defining, 2012 album Classical Curves could've predicted. I'd heard whispers that it was coming: a mutual friend had played me a sliver of a double-take-inducing track, and a journalist I admire had told me he'd cleared the room at Unsound. Later, "Unhappy" provided confirmation: it was out with the scythed sonics of the avant-garde club space, and in with the heavily distorted, ecstasy-flecked post-punk.
I pulled a U-turn this year, too. After 10 years of living in London and five years playing the freelance game, I moved to New York to join the team at FADER. It wasn't the easiest of transitions—I'll always love London and I miss my friends—but stuff like driving around in my boyfriend's car and soaking up NYC's streets with Jam City's Earthly III mix blasting out the speakers got me back on track. Change is good. It's how you know you're alive.
Tobias Jesso Jr. in New York
The first time my friend played me a Tobias Jesso Jr. song, I felt like I'd been slugged really hard in the stomach. His voice and the sparse piano hung together in a way that made me feel like I was 13 again, driving around in the backseat of a rented dark green minivan with my parents on a trip somewhere in Massachusetts, listening to Desire on repeat. Last week, he played three shows in an expansive loft apartment in Williamsburg, seated at a keyboard in front of maybe 150 craning necks, inches away from an Ikea kitchen cabinet with a tangled iron cord hanging off of it.
The whole scene struck me as funny, and I suppressed the urge to side-talk and giggle. But then he started in on "Without You." You could see the tension in his neck as he sang, and his voice was plaintive and clear. A tremendous wave of pain and nostalgia came over me, and I started to cry, in front of all my friends. I was crying for a year of numbness, and drinking in someone's backyard in high school, and the innocence of 10 years ago, and the innocence of 5 years ago. I could feel the snot and tears running down my face, and I sipped my warmish white wine from a paper cup and waited for it to break. And then it did, like a sky turning a bright, winking blue immediately after a storm. The song was over, and Tobias Jesso Jr. was bantering about a dream he'd had. I wiped my nose on my sleeve, and listened.
Matthew Barney's film, River of Fundament
Near the middle of Matthew Barney's River of Fundament, a mammoth art film inspired by Norman Mailer's Egyptian novel Ancient Evenings, there is a scene that gave me raw, unfiltered cinematic joy. It takes place in Mailer's reconstructed office, during a wake for the author himself attended by celebrities, friends, and Egyptian gods. At one point, R&B singer Terrell Howard appears on screen, his voice soaring above a diegetic sound collage of circuit-bent toys, beatboxing, singing, chanting, and Jonathan Bepler's original score. The scene acts as one of the film's many release valves during its five-hour-plus run time. While Howard is singing, bodily fluids flow during activities mined from the same decadent galaxy from which Fellini and Pasolini drew inspiration: masturbation, sexual intercourse, bowel movements. It was an overwhelming experience that proved the still-limitless possibilities of sound and image. Or at least I think that's what happened.
Björk at a Brooklyn metal bar
I ushered in the summer with Björk at a Brooklyn metal bar. It was the end of May, just as the nights were nearing their longest and the days their warmest, and the manic Icelandic pixie was DJing at St. Vitus on a Saturday night, alongside Oneohtrix Point Never and Pitchfork's Brandon Stosuy. I was nearing my drunkest—and happiest—when she dropped Nicki Minaj, Migos, Ariana Grande and Beyoncé, among others, dancing with half-strangers and new friends. The blacked-out venue felt full of light when she dropped "Drunk in Love," and I realized that maybe we all were. That's when the summer was ripe with promise. Or maybe just my gut with gin.
Speaking of Beyoncé, the best two seconds in music this year come two minutes and 16 seconds into her "***Flawless (Remix)" with Nicki Minaj, right when Queen B coos "Onika," and just before Nicki steps in. It's a sexy and knowing set-up for a Minaj barrage of sucker punches and lines on lines on lines, interrupted only by a growl from Mrs. Carter-Knowles that's fierce enough to exorcise demons. Beyoncé released the remix on a Saturday night, proving again that she doesn't give a fuck about anyone's sleep schedule. Go Bey or go home.
Footwork crew The Era's tribute to DJ Rashad
If I go back about half a year on my friend Ric's Instagram, there's a video of the night that Lit City Trax and a bunch of Teklifers took over West Way, a beguilingly seedy, sometimes-strip club right off the West Side Highway in Manhattan. It was one of a month-long series of shows that Red Bull Music Academy put on in New York this spring, and as far as I could tell, the first footwork-related related show in this city to prominently feature the frenetic style of dancing from which the Chicago-born genre takes its name. Teklife isn't just a crew of musicians—it's also closely affiliated with a team of battle dancers called The Era—and that night, dancers Litebulb, Steelo and DJ Manny (who's also a Teklife producer) had flown in for a special headlining presentation commemorating DJ Rashad.
Rashad had passed away only a month and a few days before, and while I'd never had the honor of meeting him, I'd spent much of that time listening to "Let It Go" on repeat, trying to wrap my mind around the untimely, senseless loss of a man I truly believed to be one of music's greatest innovators. That night, though, the mood in the room didn't feel so much mournful as celebratory, and I think I'll always remember climbing up onto a bench next to a friend to try to get a good look at Litebulb and Steelo and Manny as they darted and ducked around the stage, their legs seeming to blur as their feet tapped out an inscrutable geometry. At one point, they turned to show off the backs of some custom t-shirts they'd made—"RIP Rashad"—and I don't think I ever knew what "dancing the pain away" really meant until that moment. I tried to capture a video of them all but my phone died, just another reminder that sometimes the most inspiring things in the world are also the most fleeting ones.