What 2014 lacked in universally beloved albums, it more than made up in breakthrough artists. Across genres, it became the year of DIY. Major labels did their best work by reissuing and amplifying self-released tracks. Little indies became big things when they captured the feeling of homegrown communities. Co-signs counted for a lot. Eyes and ears were available to anyone with an engaging identity and a signature sound—or in some cases just a signature line, primed for Vine.
By the time that iLoveMakonnen broke through, early this summer, he'd self-released ten full projects and dozens of music videos to virtually zero acclaim. How he was overlooked for so long, in a world of countless music-covering media properties, we'll never know. But it benefited his work: by evolving in obscurity, like a bug on a desert island, Makonnen arrived at a form that was truly original and wholly his own. His phrasing is loosey-goosey, his vocal tone audacious, his ideas coming from odd angles. Shortly after the discovery of his music came the discovery of his accidental role in the death of a childhood friend, and his subsequent five years of house arrest; with that backstory, he attained the status of myth. Even more than a new artist to acknowledge, this was a person to actively root for.
"Wishin You Well" hardly resembles the songs that first won Makonnen attention. No club will ever go up to its ruminating, 30-second sitar intro. The molly business is beside the point. But this weird one, produced by Mike WiLL Made-It, might be the most universal, and its the most undeniably his in a year that was undeniably his. In all of Makonnen's music, he wears his feelings on his sleeve, and the meandering freestyle of "Wishin You Well" is his greatest evocation of love. Recalling time with a woman who spurned him, his details are strange and vivid: they crash a yellow Corolla, meet rattlesnakes that don't bite. By sticking to the idiosyncratic, even at the expense of a coherent plot, he lands on something that's relatable because it feels so real. Like many relationships, and even more like their heartbroken retellings, this song never reaches a climax or conclusion so much as it trails into confusion and nothingness: I moved out to Reno, Arizona/ I mean, it was Reno, Nevada, he stumbles at the end, I've been drinking these things from the bottles/ I can't remember. "Wishin You Well" captures the randomness and richness of being alive, and in the very fact of its release, after Makonnen finally found the footing of a career, it's proof that life's worth soldiering on for. —Duncan Cooper
A year ago, as he tip-toed from Livemixtapes into the mainstream, it was easiest to explain Young Thug in terms of Lil Wayne. These two bend words like no one else can. In his FADER cover story, Thug called Wayne his "idol." But by now, Thug has twisted and stretched himself out of Wayne's shadow. With "Stoner," "Danny Glover," and "About the Money," he proved himself a writer of approachable hits. On their collaborative "Take Kare," it became no longer clear who was setting the tone for whom.
"Lifestyle" is more polished than all of those songs, though Thug sounds as unhinged as ever. Verse one includes the odd line, She can't even get me hard, then verse two gets even more outrageous with 28 floors up, I feel like I could F-L-Y/ Pee on top of these bitches. Descriptions of Thug's music often make him seem out of control, but over a serene, modestly gorgeous beat by London on da Track, he's all power and grace, his ups and downs more like ballet.
Few seem as creatively emboldened by Thug as his partner in Rich Gang, Rich Homie Quan. On "Lifestyle," Quan pronounces skaaaate like it's the sound effect after a wrong guess on a game show and clicks his tongue for the last syllable of I'm in her mouth just like toothpaste. He never apes Thug's offbeat yelps and screeches, but instead seems to take the messages of those noises to heart: that it's not what you say, but how memorably you say it. The very existence of their collaboration—uniting two free agents with unclear places in the major label system—is a victory to celebrate. I've done did a lot of shit just to live this here lifestyle. Say that and look at your phone, say that and look at your favorite shirt, say that and survey your kitchen, and your friends, and feel proud that you've made it. —Naomi Zeichner
Though QT is a collaboration between the British producer Sophie, the PC Music labelhead A.G. Cook, and the eponymous artist who functions as the fully mobile embodiment of the QT "brand," my most memorable experience of the project was during a solo Sophie DJ set inside a fog-filled dim sum restaurant in Manhattan's Chinatown. Well after midnight, he dropped the project's sugar-coated first single, "Hey QT," choosing to loop the dangerously bubbly chorus over and over again: Hey QT! Yeah?/ There's something I'd like to say/ I feel your hands on my body/ Every time you think of me. It was a uniquely dizzying exchange between performer and crowd, song and listener; as everyone pogoed in lopsided unison, the experience started feeling less like a DJ set and more like a mass-brainwashing exercise, meant to instill loyalty in the QT brand (weirdly, QT is also an energy elixir). I was giddy, but also a bit delirious.
Despite the futuristic synths and inhumanly chimpunked vocals, "Hey QT" doesn't sound alien. It's the reverse, actually, its sparkling melody and synthetic production are so cloyingly familiar—immediately recalling turn-of-the-century Eurodance, two-dimensional radio fare, and, like, fake pop songs from movies—that listening feels like looking at a mirror that's only slightly off. Still, even if you've clocked tons of hours with the song, which is easy to do, alone in your bedroom or at a dim sum rave, it's impossible to shake the feeling that something's not quite right. That glossy, digital-age unease is what links all of the tracks emerging from the character-driven, still-sorta-mysterious PC Music universe that took hold of underground dance music this year. While not as straight-up bonkers as a lot of the others, "Hey QT" is the most pristinely packaged, like a plastic-wrapped audio advert for the whole damn PC Music culture, and a pretty perfect pop song in its own right. —Patrick D. McDermott
Tinashe, the Los Angeles singer-songwriter-producer-dancer-actress who rose to stardom on the back of several cult-level mixtapes, has proven herself a worthy vehicle for '90s and early '00s R&B nostalgia. On "2 On," an unfussy song with a transparent, club-oriented objective, her voice sounds like a wisp of smoke, softening the edges of DJ Mustard's beat. Unlike the aggro male self-aggrandizement that usually accompanies his signature combo of bass and 808s, Tinashe's lines make for a gender-neutral, fun-loving call to arms: Get faded, turn up, get ratchet, go dumb, get lit, be on one… The hook is delivered so sweetly that neither Schoolboy Q's generic verse nor OB O'Brien's tepid, Drake-featuring remix could ruin it—a reminder that Tinashe's genuine-seeming steez has been as instrumental to her rise as the material she's crafted. Her hardcore choreography and ever-present hair-blowing fan suggest she has major pop crossover ambitions—though with "2 On," she's already arrived. —Rawiya Kameir
In trying to locate what it is that makes Rae Sremmurd's "No Type" one of the year's best songs, it's easy to get caught up in the extras—the Mike WiLL Made-It associations, the first time you heard it blasting through a car window. The themes that Swae Lee and Slim Jimmy touch on here—that they're making the money on their own, that "No Type" is the soundtrack to living life, regardless of what momma thinks—aren't new, but they don't need to be, and they're conveyed effectively in the duo's sing-song cadence. The spark that brings "No Type" to life, that makes it the duo's greatest song to date, is its simplicity. The hook is obvious, immediate, perfectly calculated in all its brash vitality: just a scant impression of a melody, a quick one-two-three punch that's as memorable NBC chimes. "No Type" revolves around a simple strand of an idea, perfectly framed and executed—the platonic ideal of a hit. —David Drake
When I traveled to London to report this year's FKA Twigs cover story, I had the pleasure of sitting in on a dance rehearsal she did with Aaron Sillis and Brooklyn Sanchez, choreographers for a video she was making for "Kicks," the languorous, throbbing closer to her debut album, LP1. The video hasn't been released yet, and though I lack the vocabulary for describing all the spins and expressive lunges that I witnessed that morning at Pineapple Studios, it was impossible to avoid the impression that she'd one day be seen as one of the most formidable physical performers in music.
At another point in my trip, I overheard her explaining the narrative of "Kicks" to her stylist: "The first part seems really needy, really submissive, like you're sitting around waiting for your man," she said. "But then as the song unravels, it turns into a song about masturbating, and how you can please yourself better than he can please you." Since then, "Kicks" has become synonymous in my mind with the empowered femininity that FKA Twigs embodies for so many of her fans—one that resides in its brazen displays of vulnerability, with a focus on small but important gestures. So while "Kicks" features one of the most acrobatic vocal melodies on LP1, that isn't what makes it so moving. If you listen closely, you'll find something even more beautiful in the synthetic sighs and untethered breakbeats that subtly disrupt that foundation. You can even hear the extra rush of air that seems to skitter across her vocal chords whenever she sings the word "breathe," like a tiny sonic pun that she knows you'll notice. —Emilie Friedlander
"Everything Nice" feels like the trickle of water that gathers in your face before a tear falls. It's got a gentle touch and somber purpose: to reach out to anyone who's having a rough time. Ostensibly, it's about how it's good to be alive, but effectively it's also a celebration of music itself, how a song can suspend hurt and dry it out. When your bills aren't paid, or your work isn't done, or you're going to have to continue on without someone you need, Popcaan's greatest song reminds you to just find a party and let it wash you till the speaker fuck up. Life isn't fair and everything ends, but at least there's the assurance that songs like this will be there to float you for a while. —Naomi Zeichner
As of this writing, the video for DeJ Loaf's "Try Me" has racked up nearly 9 million plays. Not even withstanding the co-signs the song has received from Drake, Wiz Khalifa, and Lil Durk, among others, that's a lot of listens for a breakthrough song, and especially for one with a clip where nothing really special happens. In it, we see the 24-year-old rapper wake up, put on a bathrobe, pour herself a bowl of cereal, then while away the afternoon on and around her front porch as a posse of family members and friends join in, sing-along style. It seems like your typical slow day in a dead-end place like East Detroit, only there are bullets on the kitchen counter and a passage where the pint-sized DeJ starts pointing two pistols at us.
There isn't anything the least bit menacing about her honeyed, mellifluous delivery, but that's what makes "Try Me" so arresting, because DeJ is basically just sing-rapping about all the horrible things she'll do to you should you decide to cross her: Let a nigga try me, try me/ I'ma get his whole muthafuckin' family, goes the song's addicting chorus. But "Try Me" is also an immersive introduction to DeJ's world: she has a cousin who got killed, another one in jail, and an unwanted guy who won't stop calling. She'll turn yo face into a pizza if you're not careful, and she's definitely not signing to any label, because bitch, [she's] independent. Considering she recently signed to Columbia, it seems DeJ is not too strong-headed for an occasional change of heart. Not that I'm about to try her anytime soon. —Emilie Friedlander
It feels contradictory and oddly poetic that "Hot Nigga" blew up in 2014, a year fraught with rampant violence and social upheaval. The death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African-American gunned down in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri by local policeman Darren Wilson, became cause for massive protests and a call to arms against police violence. Meanwhile in New York, 20-year-old Ackquille Pollard, aka Bobby Shmurda, was heating up the city's streets with a bubbling underground track. "Hot Nigga," produced by Jahlil Beats, burst with sirens and maddening energy, and it came with a shimmying dance to match. Chalk it up to the heat or a little mindless summer fun, but no one really questioned why Shmurda had made a boastful ode to drug-slinging, counting stacks of cash, and violence.
At the 2014 BET Hip Hop Awards, the contrasting narratives of this summer made a return, this time on the same stage: Common dedicated his socially conscious performance to Brown's memory, then a newly signed Shmurda closed out the show with his gun-toting banger. The crowd, largely composed of African-American males, rose to its feet for both performances, but people were only swaying their hips and rocking their shoulders to "Hot Nigga." It must've been strangely cathartic for so many grown men to lose themselves to the beat that had soundtracked their hectic, sticky summer, the song seeming to encapsulate both the polarizing agony and ecstasy of rap for the people that make it and live it. —Deidre Dyer
I already feel nostalgic for the untouchable run of singles Nicki Minaj released last winter, prompting even longtime skeptics to reconsider her as a contender for best rapper alive. On the level of sheer technique, the most impressive was her late 2013 remix of PTAF's "Boss Ass Bitch." But "Lookin Ass" sunk its claws deeper, not just into her male competitors but men in general—and specifically, any Boost Mobile-having-ass, no-job-having-ass scrubs with the audacity to make her feel ashamed for taking up space. To frame this song as a snarky broke-boy diss misses the point: "Lookin Ass" is a song for a world where being a girl is comfortable and sexy and badass. As long as Nicki keeps doing that, we need her. —Meaghan Garvey
The flip side of the endless cascade of Lil B's Twitter is that he seems to spend most days physically alone. His music is isolated, too, relegated by his own quirks to self-releases online. It's now been five years since he released his solo debut, I'm Thraxx; that's an eternity in Lil B time, and now it's hard to imagine another way for his career to be. Maybe that entrenched isolation is why his darker songs have been getting even more abject lately—"Child Support Me" and "Murder Rate," in particular, demand from listeners unreasonable mental calisthenics to find a bright side. Bend your based self far enough over backward and you'll stick your head up your own ass.
Considering this context—not to mention the social climate of America in 2014, with wave after crashing wave of wholly bad news—"No Black Person Is Ugly" is even more essential. In sound and in message, it is the definitive positive Lil B song, having earned its upbeat-ness because its creator has stared at the downside and considered an alternative. Lil B has always seemed so honest partly because he's always been so frantically torn, simultaneously seeming to run at full-speed toward opposite poles, the based and debased. The tension between "Murder Rate" and "No Black Person Is Ugly" is what makes Lil B's work powerful, but it's still troubling how dark he's had to go to balance out a song this bright. Troubling, it should be said, just like real life. —Duncan Cooper
While your other favorite rapper was busy either bemoaning 2014's paucity of strong hip-hop releases or contributing to the malady, Drake nearly equaled his genre-dominating 2013 without releasing an album. Each successive loosie offered a glimpse of his myriad motifs—the lover-boy, the chest-puffer, the petty—but "0-100/The Catch Up" towered over them all. The production, a collaboration between Noah "40" Shebib, Boi-1da, and Nineteen85, hit a logical sweet spot between the stargazing melancholia of 2011's Take Care and the mean-mugged tones of last year's Nothing Was the Same. Lyrically, it's as strong as Drake has been since "Worst Behavior," and as with that world-destroying tune, here he lays his complexities bare.
The tonal switch-up midway through is part of the charm, dialing down the volume knob to change the mood from snapping and tough to pillowy and contemplative. But the true revelation comes next, in a run of lines that crystallizes Drake's knack for merging gamma-ray toughness with sensitive introspection: I was ready/ Fuck that, I've been ready/ Since my dad used to tell me he was comin to the house to get me/ He ain't show up/ Valuable lesson, man/ I had to grow up. That Drake would follow up such a revealing admission months later with one of the year's most repugnant guest verses only speaks to the endlessly fascinating complexities that make him one of the most vital artists in any genre today. —Larry Fitzmaurice
People forget that Lil Jon wrote Too $hort's "Blow The Whistle," or that way before that, DJ Screw's mixtapes made a tunnel between Atlanta and Oakland. The Bay and the A have been in dialogue or decades, working together to bring rap out of its lyrics era and into its ass-shaking present, going dumb and getting crunk at the same time. The Bay is also where frequent Migos producer and modern Atlanta cornerstone Zaytoven learned music first. But that doesn't really explain where the young Atlanta beatmaker StackBoyTwuan got the idea for "Fight Night," the most luxurious beat on rap radio this year and Migos' highest charting hit yet. The song's a West Coast clap that swerves dramatically away from the producer's typical artillery-fire drums. Its bass is clean but not sanitized, and even with its barked directions to punch left and right, it makes for a pretty complicated song. Spinning teachers love "Blow The Whistle" because of its clear-cut downbeats. Riding along to "Fight Night" is way harder. —Naomi Zeichner
Xen, Arca's debut album, is hard to wrap your mind around at first. Its melodies teeter endlessly between consonance and dissonance, and any inkling of a regular rhythm never seems to stick around for long. There's one exception to that rule, though, and it's "Wound," a two-minute orchestral passage tucked away in the last third of the album's run-time. Compared with the sensory overload of the first two thirds, it feels kinda like nestling into a bed full of downy pillows, all robust, synthetic strings and elemental perfection. There's even the semblance of a vocal line—albeit one so chopped up and smothered in Auto-Tune that any semblance of a storyline falls to bits. This is Arca flashing us a glimpse of his abilities as a writer of straight-forwardly melodic music, but the fact that he gives us so little of it on Xen as a whole makes "Wound" feel all the more poignant, like that moment when you wake up from a beautiful dream and slowly come to the realization that it never actually happened. —Emilie Friedlander
Tink and Jeremih's summer duet, "Don't Tell Nobody," made a huge impression on my little corner of the internet but never got so much as an iTunes release. But I'm hoping now that the world knows Tink is a 19-year-old who can school Rick Ross and Jay Z without breaking a sweat, it might get another push. It's the best of both worlds: that silky, translucent little beat from Da Internz that could've easily landed on Jeremih's cult classic Late Nights tape tricks you into thinking you're going to hear some of his patented freaky-but-chill fuck jams. But then Tink hops on, in that deceptively sweet way of hers, slipping between rapping and singing almost indistinguishably, just GOING IN on the deadbeat dude she's been seeing, though admitting that she's still down to get it in: You're sorry, pathetic, and far from authentic/ You liar, you fronter, you just like these other niggas, she raps, and then: As much as I hate you, I still wanna date you. There are never enough love songs about how messy and annoying life is. At year's end, Tink and Jeremih have landed on opposite ends of an industry see-saw: Jeremih's sitting on his third platinum single while his debut album remains in Def Jam purgatory. Meanwhile, a major breakthrough single still eludes Tink, but she seems finally on the cusp of becoming a Big Deal, with Timbaland in her corner, telling people she's the next Drake. Fingers crossed someone's got the good sense to re-release this on her debut album. If not, maybe it can be deposited towards Jeremih's major label karma. —Meaghan Garvey
When I first heard news that Lana Del Rey would be covering Nina Simone, I cringed—Del Rey is many things, but an inheritor of Nina's radical, righteous spirit is not one of them. And yet, Del Rey's success in bringing the pitiful, sad core of the song to life is the perfect symbol for why Ultraviolence proves all the naysayers wrong: no matter the surface of things, there is real pathos at the heart of Del Rey's music. You can argue up and down and left and right about how that pathos came to be, but when it pours out of your speakers, the despair in her voice snaking through the air and mixing with your own, the only thing that matters is not how real Del Rey is, but how real you yourself feel when you hear her sing even someone else's song. —Monica Jeffries
If there was a 2014 rap olympics, YG won the relay with his album-capping remix of "My Nigga." At his own sporting event, YG is the lead-off leg. His appearance in the song is brief, but sets the pace for all that's to follow. Many coaches place their strongest runner second, and Lil Wayne accepts the challenge, sounding inspired, eyes red from the kush I blew, white person. Third man Meek Mill is a reliable anchor, keeping the momentum going with a burst of energy. But in relays, the final position goes to the team's most competitive, and in ambition Nicki Minaj has no peer. She effortlessly brings this race home with venomous one-liners—Like an injured Chris Paul, you ain't got no point and Need a nigga with some good neck, ostriches. Riding hard for her bitches, she won this race and gave ladies something to quote all year long. —Briana Younger
"When I first heard [Ratking's] song 'Piece of Shit,' I was like, 'These guys probably don't know because they're from New York, but this shit is grime!'" UK grime MC Skepta told The FADER back in September, making a case for Britain to be recognized as "just another place that raps." He's got a point—and he couldn't have made it better than on this serendipitous union with Ratking's toothless leader. Wiki takes the place of Skepta's brother and fellow MC, JME, on this "US Remix" of "That's Not Me," growling his own additions to the song's list of personal no-nos over a bubbling, heavy-footed beat. While rap's mainstream has long been caught up in the possession obsession, what's refreshing about "That's Not Me" is that it take quite an opposite stance, rejecting things at a time when we're supposed to be compiling our identities with them: I used to wear Gucci/ I put it all in the bin, cause that's not me, spits Skepta. Despite Wiki's assertion that That club shit, that's not me/ Four-pack dutches, that's not me, it gets wild enough to elicit a rewind. The song launched with a video—a neat idea given the long-overdue need for grime's visibility in the States—with cameos from a bunch of dudes, including J-Cush, Visionist and Sporting Life, rolling joints, drinking cans, and leaping around on a Brooklyn rooftop. That's a turn-up wherever you're from. —Ruth Saxelby
This year I read one of the most important books I've ever read. It's called 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, and it details a string of interconnecting historical tidbits that have contributed to capitalism's creation of an endless present. That's the idea that we're all on treadmill of consumerism, repeating the same actions over and over, which renders the possibility of progress—of a future—impossible. Nestled inside is a passage about how, in the late '90s, Dr. Eric Schmidt, the future CEO of Google, declared that "the dominant global corporations would be those that succeed in maximizing the number of 'eyeballs' they could consistently engage and control." It's a pretty gruesome image, literally and figuratively. He was right, though. There is a constant war waging behind our screens, a battle for our likes, our faves, our shares, for our attention; control our attention and you control us.
While Holly Herndon's single "Home" concerns itself primarily with the all-seeing eye of the NSA—I know that you know me better than I know me, she sings—I can't help thinking of the steely gaze of today's corporations when I listen. In observing our online behavior and gathering data on our identity, companies are uncannily able to predict our every need and whim—just think about the increasingly on-point sponsored tweets that pop up in your timeline. It might be a little clumsy right now, but the machines are getting smarter, and we're letting them, all in the name of convenience. In addition to being a highly intuitive reader of our times, Herndon is also one of our most savvy pop scientists. "Home" bristles and burns with the kind of adrenaline-shot tension that fuels Top 40 hits, yet it refuses to provide the climax that her earlier single "Chorus" did; we need to stay alert, she warns, even in the comfort of our own homes. —Ruth Saxelby
Though I'm pretty sure Alex G named "Harvey" after a six-foot-tall rabbit from the 1950s dark comedy of the same name, he could just as easily be singing about a kid: a little brother, a neighbor, a younger version of himself. In the song, Alex does his best to protect Harvey from life's cruel realities. He plays tag, provides comfort after a nightmare, says, "I love you." With its sentiment laid raw over rich acoustic strumming and a quirky synth melody, "Harvey" evokes the Philly songwriter's cloistered back catalog while also exemplifying the poured-over craftsmanship that makes this year's DSU his most impressive full-length to date. As with Alex G's best songs, "Harvey" unfolds like a tuneful, clumsy rehashing of your own small-town memories; you're meant to empathize with the song's narrator and little Harvey at the same time, relating to this idea of longing for grown-up success while still feeling—in a lot of ways—like a kid yourself. How do you tell someone to act like a "big boy" when you get bad dreams sometimes, too? —Patrick D. McDermott
If there's any one lyric that encapsulates 2014, it's I made it on my own, I made my own style. In the link-sharing economy of the present, centuries-old qualifiers like singing ability and songwriting profundity have given way to judging how downright interesting you are as a human being: do I want to look at your Instagrams, and if I do, do I want to hear you? iLoveMakonnen's runaway success laid this shift bare: his ear for melody and track-length freestyles wowed in their own way, but it was his undeniably unique style that made him impossible for you, me, and Drake to ignore. It's hard to compare what he's doing to his straight-ahead hip-hop peers, but this year Makonnen stretched the edges of his genre even further, and rap is better for it. —Matthew Trammell
While EDM reached new heights of economic omnipresence in 2014, one of its youngest, most promising stars was scaling a different mountain. Porter Robinson's debut LP, Worlds, drew from the North Carolina-born producer's starry-eyed, 2013 breakout single, "Language," to explore environments heretofore largely untouched by festival-culture dance music: namely, bighearted electro-pop. "Sad Machine" is one of a few tracks on Worlds to feature Robinson's own vocals, in a clever duet with a Japanese software synth that mimics the human voice, and it's one of the album's most affecting cuts, pulling you close before the massive, chiming chorus arrives with all the subtlety of a giant stomping through a crowded city. In The FADER's feature on Robinson from earlier this year, he claimed video games as an inspiration for his music. Accordingly, the digitized sincerity of "Sad Machine" captures the type of limitless, open-world expanse that couch-bound thrill-seekers constantly chase. —Larry Fitzmaurice
I was once told, teasingly, by a dear friend that I only like music that "sounds like three different songs playing at once." There's some truth in that: one-note songs leave no room to move. Syro, as I scribbled in my notepad on first listen, is a perfect reminder that beauty needs chaos, and that no one understands contrast like Richard D. James. That 2014 was the year James decided to reanimate Aphex Twin makes a brilliant kind of sense: the music biz today is almost stupefyingly image-obsessed, and James' complete lack of seriousness in that arena provides much-needed light relief—not to mention a reminder that it's the music we should be here for. While he provides plenty to get lost in on Syro, it's the ten-and-a-half minute "XMAS_EVET10 [thanaton3 mix]" that finds Aphex at his most delectably contrary. He piles pathos-soaked ambience atop over-caffeinated circuit board tics. He offers a naively celebratory little keyboard jig before coursing toward a static breakdown. He's made a song about Christmas Eve, it appears—that's his son's laughter and jubilantly jumbled words—but it sounds like a hymn from somewhere far, far away. Like Sabres of Paradise's "Smokebelch II," Oni Ayhun's "OAR003-B," and, of course, half of Aphex's own output, "XMAS_EVET10 [thanaton3 mix]" digs out a little time and space for refuge and reflection on its own terms. —Ruth Saxelby
I heard a lot of myself in Father's Young Hot Ebony this year: it was smart-mouthed, nerd-friendly, and more ass-obsessed than Ty Dolla $ign at the AVN Awards. But the first time I heard "Look at Wrist," the hit that preceded that release, I slept. It was during the height of my iLoveMakonnen intoxication, when I'd spend weekends bouncing around my living room to "Hold Up" and "21st Street," and I barely registered anyone else sharing space with him on a beat. But that's exactly what makes Father so special: his flow is so shiftless and light that his verse has started before you even notice it, and it takes four listens before you realize he really said guess that'll be our little secret about his girl's abortion. His comes off as genius disguised as ignorance, as all my favorite art does. —Matthew Trammell
In the first few seconds of "Heaven," Nate Grace, co-vocalist for the psychedelically minded folk-rockers in Pure X, posits that heaven isn't a physical place that you reach postmortem—it's just a state of mind. But even if you can't necessarily go there, Grace says that the feeling is "one [he] can believe in," a surprising sentiment coming after the harrowing emotional turmoil of Pure X's last album, Crawling Up the Stairs. After years of personal strife, marked not the least of which by a devastating breakup and Grace's horrific skateboarding accident that resulted in a severely broken leg, Angel represents Pure X coming out on the other side of a personal hell, and "Heaven" functions as an uplifting centerpiece.
It's Pure X with all the edges smoothed out, each guitar line narcotized and staid, and Grace's typically idiosyncratic vocal tamed by carefully placed dabs of reverb. By the time the first few fluttering slide guitar lines show up, the band's begun forming the weightless sort of instrumental you might associate with the celestial title; so when Grace and Jesse Jenkins launch into a proper solo, "Heaven" turns into the rare track that's actually almost transportive enough to elevate you from your grubby physical state. So even if it isn't a place—not even one where nothing ever happens—Pure X make a good case that "Heaven" might be a worthwhile concept anyway. —Colin Joyce
Jeremih seemed to have a particular interest in keeping things on the low this year. Between his Tink duet "Don't Tell Nobody" and the DJ Mustard and Mick Schultz-produced "Don't Tell 'Em," secrecy was a big theme for the 27-year-old Chicago singer. Sadly, the whereabouts of his wildly anticipated third album have been as mysterious as his romantic dalliances. "Don't Tell 'Em"—one of the year's unlikeliest, but also most inescapable, hits—was billed as the second single from Late Nights, though the Def Jam release has been pushed back more times than we care to count. Months after the YG-featuring track dropped on SoundCloud, it has been remixed a handful of times, served as inspiration for many a YouTube choreographer, and spawned a Lorde cover—all without a video to promote it, the absence of which has been attributed to circumstances Jeremih takes responsibility for but declines to divulge. Other than the shock-and-awe effect of the song's interpolation of "Rhythm Is a Dancer," "Don't Tell 'Em" doesn't offer a particularly original premise: Jeremih woos a partner with promises to fuck you like no other. More than the uninspired lyrics, though, it's his steady, inviting delivery and loose, nimble melodies over Mustard and Schultz's synths and claps that made "Don't Tell 'Em" this summer's body-roll anthem, that rare track that sounds as perfect blaring out of passing cars as it does in the recesses of a late-night dancefloor. —Rawiya Kameir
Halfway through writing these tracks up, I realized that all of my picks were about identity in some form or other. While the aforementioned Holly Herndon highlights a very contemporary concern, Sam Smith is caught up in an act that's as old as the hills: hiding in the wrong person's arms out of the fear of having to face oneself. In The FADER's interview with producer Jimmy Napes, he revealed that it was Smith doing all the vocal parts for the chorus, running into different corners of the studio and singing to build up a choir of voices for the line stay with me. It makes me think of the songwriter's mantra that the most personal things are the most universal. Though "Stay With Me" has been almost nauseatingly everywhere this year, Smith's power lies in his ability to make the words cut like the first time, every time: Deep down I know this never works/ But you can lay with me/ So it doesn't hurt. —Ruth Saxelby
It's tough to dissociate Shamir's "On the Regular" from its playful music video: both are loaded with bright bursts of color and confidence, featuring the Las Vegas goofball acting his age (he just turned 20). On the first single following his excellent, all-over-the-place debut Northtown EP, Shamir squeak-brags Yes, yes, I'm the best/ Fuck what you heard, smugly acknowledges his scrawny build, and details his long-term relationship with music: Ever since I was 8 I was attached to the mic/ Wanted a guitar before I wanted a bike. The uptempo instrumentation, all metallic cowbells and squelching dance punk beats, is the epitome of fun. In the official video, Shamir vividly pulls off tie-dye, suede fringe, and oversized Coke bottle glasses, brandishing both a whip and a rubber band gun—but when the track slows for a sweetly sung bridge, Shamir's only weapon is his unearthly warble. Experienced simultaneously, the song and clip feel like a one-two punch statement of purpose: World, meet Shamir—there's nothing "regular" about him. —Patrick D. McDermott
Flying Lotus' gift is making instrumentals that truly feel like they have lyrics. His use of cadence and space throughout You're Dead! made me sing along to songs with no words through countless morning commutes. On his fifth album, "Turtles" lands dead center, and is regarded among diehards as the album's high point. Before one of his Brooklyn gigs, a fan breathlessly sung its praises to me during small talk over whiskey gingers. Chimes, birds, and distant, playful coos float above a Thundercat bass line that unfurls like the major monologue at a film's climax. A lot of my favorite music this year made me rap loud or dance hard, but FlyLo forced me to listen close, and helped me hear a little clearer. —Matthew Trammell
At the tail end of summer, PARTYNEXTDOOR dished woozy, vice-laden R&B made for car rides behind illegal tints and 3AM hotel post-games. Who do you fuck in the city when I'm not there? Drake asks on "Recognize," and it lands like a lost stray from Take Care, wringing something that sounds like affection out from layers damp with lust. It carried all the way through to winter for good reason. —Matthew Trammell
It's all in the title, really. Boom, boom, boom, clap, Charli XCX shouts, mimicking the body's most vital organ for a soundtrack to a movie that essentially rips out that organ, stomps on it, and seasons it with your tears. "Boom Clap" is, for Charli XCX, mature—a word that, up until this point, few people will have associated with her music, which has run the gamut from new wave electro-gasps to schoolyard-taunt chants to a cut of disjointed boom-bap featuring one of the worst guest rap verses of all time. Against those, "Boom Clap" stands out for its elegant simplicity, using a few soft-padded synths and some hollow, arena-sized drums to create an echo chamber for soft-mic'd verses and a planet-swallowing chorus. "Boom Clap" is a song about falling in love that sounds like what falling in love feels like—dizzying, huge, stupefying, and immediately addictive. —Larry Fitzmaurice
Nakedness was big in 2014, whether you're talking about Scout Willis walking around Manhattan topless, Rihanna appearing on the cover of Lui, or Kim Kardashian "breaking the internet" with her ample derrière. Before any of those things happened, though, a little-known Brooklyn electronic artist called Lafawndah took a certain section of the music internet by storm with a track called "Butter." It was an undeniable jam with a strangely syncopated beat and the sort of cliff-hanger melodic hook that begs for repeat plays. But what really made "Butter" feel like a revelation was its no-holds-barred sexual frankness, sweeping us up into a chaotic whirlwind of crunkin' bones, bangin' teeth, and tenderized flesh, evocative of both pleasure and pain. To top it all off, Lafawndah's voice sounded just as raw and uncontrolled as the intimate pas de deux she was singing about; among other acts of empowered self-exposure this year, "Butter" had the particularity of refusing to be pretty. —Emilie Friedlander
Released on the cusp on Memorial Day weekend this year, Blaze's "Uptown Julie Riddim" primed us for all the fleshly joys of warm weather. The Flatbush, Brooklyn producer and singer built the sun-soaked beat and invited artists from across the Caribbean to draw out its sensual energy. The result was four singles, each enriching the riddim's flavor profile with something new. There was "Endless Summer," with Trinidadian groovy crooner Kes beckoning on non-stop vibes, then "Sell Off," where Zoelah's piercing vocals demanded sexual satisfaction. Too smart to let a good thing pass him by, Blaze jumped on the riddim himself with "All I Need," a sugary ode to proper dance floor grinding. But it was Gyptian's "Stunta" that summoned the most provocative visuals of all, toasting the ladies that love to ride on top. Taken together, the four-song suite helped us get through the summer, one lazy, lusty goal at a time. —Deidre Dyer
Future's "Good Morning" is so similar, in sound and sentiment, to Beyoncé's "Drunk in Love" that it left some wondering if Future had psychically predicted—or at least been a part of the team behind—the runaway Beyoncé hit. Over Detail's fretful production, he brags about the wonders of sex while under the influence of monogamy: We done painted a portrait, we lookin' back at our fortune/ We are love, we are love, are love/ Ain't neither one of us perfect, we just scratchin' the surface, he croons. As Future proved this year, he is definitely not perfect—but the sentiment expressed on this Honest outtake was one that resonated regardless, as Future and Ciara reconciled and the Carters renewed their vows. In a year where Future's official releases too often left something to be desired, "Good Morning" sounded like the return of the bleeding-heart-cyborg-love-song that he does so well. —Zara Golden
"No Flex Zone" wasn't brothers Slim Jimmy and Swae Lee's first track—it's not even the first one Mike WiLL Made-It produced for them—but it still felt like it came out of nowhere. That's in part because of their teenage exuberance: at 19 and 20 years old, they both look and sound not yet fully grown. Fold that into their distinctive, yelping flows and the driving production—full-bodied swing on the bottom end and chiming simplicity floating on top—and you get an earworm with just enough adolescent sweet and sour to make it feel unusually fresh. No wonder it ended up everywhere: cue Tracee Ellis Ross rapping along on Instagram and following that up with a longer YouTube upload examining her fascination with the song; a remix featuring Nicki Minaj and Pusha T; a party-starting appearance by the duo opening up the BET Hip-Hop Awards; and Solange and her 10-year-old son Daniel Juelz sharing a choreographed dance to it at her wedding. With Rae Sremmurd, Mike WiLL maintains his position as hitmaker in masterful possession of his own production sound, but it's clear he feels particularly invested in these two, who he brought down to Atlanta from Tupelo, Mississippi. Rae Sremmurd is even Ear Drummers spelled backwards, the name of Will's label and crew. With the duo's SremmLife LP due early next year, it seems these trendsetters and go getters are just warming up. —Lisa Blanning
What had to happen for OG Maco's "U Guessed It" to get big? Vine, it turns out. Unlike most Vine-based success stories—which thus far have been short-lived and entirely dependent on teens with Justin Bieber's old hair making comedy videos before suddenly becoming recording artists as if it was a pre-established career move—OG Maco took the reverse route, recording a track that seemed destined for cult success but was punchy enough to spawn a legion of skits revolving around his aggro catchphrase, BITCH YOU GUESSED IT—looooooong pause—AND YOU WAS RIGHT. The song's success really comes down to his voice—and, holy shit, that voice! With no obvious vocal manipulation, OG Maco feels out of step with artists like Young Thug; instead of turning his voice into something alien-sounding, Maco yells and mutters in a terrifyingly human way. He says maybe 40 words total, his James Brown bark crushing and re-molding the simple piano plunk until it becomes anthemic. YOU GUESSED IT is not something I have ever yelled before I heard this song, and as a phrase it's a little too sitcom-sarcastic, but now it's become part of my vocabulary. It might not ever reach Austin Powers-level ubiquity, but it doesn't need to. "U Guessed It" is a song that could only work in rap, a brilliant couple of minutes of unchecked aggression and pure charisma. —Sam Hockley-Smith
Over the summer, Chance the Rapper released a sunny, sprawling rendition of the theme song for the beloved 1990s PBS series Arthur after performing it live at Lollapalooza. The original was a fleet riddim performed by Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers; comparatively, Chance's take is blown-out and indulgent, featuring a jazzy instrumental by his live band the Social Experiment as well as a lapping choir of background vocalists, including Jessie Ware, Elle Varner, Wyclef Jean, and Francis and the Lights. "Wonderful Everyday: Arthur" makes too much sense coming from a '90s baby with a particular proclivity for feeding the Internet and a stubborn idealistic streak; you get the sense that, when he sings And when I go down, I'ma go down swinging/ My eyes still smiling, and my heart still singing, he really and truly means it. —Zara Golden
Even in the polyphonic, idiosyncratic musical climate of 2014, Dan Bodan comes across as a bit of a weirdo. He surfaced in 2012 as one of DFA's most promising new talents with the "Aaron" / "DP" single, a pair of tunes that presented him as a nocturnal electro-pop loner (think: a more sexually explicit version of Junior Boys' Jeremy Greenspan). Since then, the Berlin-based Canadian transplant has proved impossible to pin down, folding in jungle motifs, lounge melodies, the drizzling-rain ambience of Pet Shop Boys' more downcast material, the alternate-universe crooning of '70s Scott Walker, and so on. "Soft as Rain" is perhaps the most straightforward song from his debut, this year's fascinating Soft, and in a way, it fits in nicely with the avant-electronic world's current embrace of R&B melodicism. Bodan's own impressive vocal range, however—which effortlessly slides from a dusky baritone to a slippery, mid-level croon—lends the tune its own affecting stamp, his voice doing acrobatic flips over fluttering electronics and and some sneakily catchy bass line ooze. We're about a year away before "experimental artist plays with R&B" becomes totally and utterly passé—maybe we're already there, which would explain why Bodan has flown somewhat under the radar over the past few years—but until then, "Soft as Rain" stands as another indelible, pleasurably offbeat entry in that micro-micro-genre. —Larry Fitzmaurice
When the music critic Jody Rosen coined the disparaging, era-defining term "bro-country" last year ("music by and of the tatted, gym-toned, party-hearty young American white dude"), it was with Florida Georgia Line as prime example. "Country's first boy band," he also called them, after their 2012 song "Cruise" broke a 60-year-old record for most weeks at number one on the genre's singles chart, its buzz bolstered by a rap remix featuring Nelly. On the band's 2014 followup, Anything Goes, not much has changed to Florida Georgia Line's booze-soaked formula, with the exception of one unexpected, brilliant, classic-sounding country song, "Dirt." It's got a trademark-worthy guitar riff and a loping, winding chorus that bolsters the band's funky cadences with rich, down-home images: elm shade, plowed-up ground, a modest 10 percent deposit on a house, rather than the customary 20. It's about time passing, mortality, forces bigger than yourself. That the single that came after "Dirt" contains the lyric I sit you up on a kitchen sink/ Stick the pink umbrella in your drink somehow only increases its charm, a moonshot not likely to be repeated, but perfect just the same. —Duncan Cooper
As skeletal as the piano-and-vocal demo "True Love" is, Vancouver-based singer-songwriter Tobias Jesso Jr. packs a lot of meat on its bones. Jesso Jr.'s voice—reminiscent of past greats Randy Newman and Gilbert O'Sullivan—dresses up the song to make it sound like it could be an early take of an oldie classic. That said, "True Love" isn't about showy gestures; instead, its charm comes from having its heart on its sleeve There's a constant tape hiss in the background, like you'd find on a cassette you might unearth in your parents' attic, maybe a mixtape that your first boyfriend made for you way back when. It's enough to make you wonder what he's up to now: Is he with someone? Is he happy? Does he still think about you? And at once "True Love" becomes personal; no longer do you find yourself eavesdropping on two lovers having a conversation, but you become the one gently pleading, Do ya, do ya, do ya want me? —Kristen Yoonsoo Kim
Many of the pleasures of Ratking's So It Goes are rooted in chaos, which makes the record such a commanding listen—there is simply so much going on—as well as a little impenetrable. The album's relentless restlessness has a lot to do with the fact that it's a record made by a bunch of kids in New York City who want (and need) to somehow include everything in their field of vision, even things that wouldn't necessarily seem to fit. "Puerto Rican Judo" is the closest they've gotten to a love song thus far, a mash-up of vogue-appropriate house beats, Latin rhythms, and lyrics that occasionally drop the young dude bravado and flirt with something approaching sweetness. When Wiki, the group's snaggle-toothed front man, raps, How you look at me like that when I got no teeth?/ Even the folk on my own street look at me phony/ You hold me like you know me, it's clear that nothing is off-limits here—even a little real talk with your girl. —T. Cole Rachel
The opening track on Fatima Al Qadiri's Asiatisch, "Shanzhai" takes its name from the Chinese word for "counterfeit goods," referring to the process whereby brand-name American products are bootlegged for consumers in the East. It's a sprawling cover of Sinead O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U," spun out into a lush, almost meter-less duet by Chinese pop singer Helen Feng and what sounds like a choir of computer generated angels. In other words, it's a Western "export" re-interpreted by the Chinese, the caveat being that Feng, contrary to what most non-Chinese speakers might think, is actually singing in gibberish. Conceptually speaking, it's a gesture that is very much in line with the rest of Al Qadiri's first full-length, which she's described in various interviews as an exploration of contemporary China as seen through the distorted prism of the American collective imaginary. That's not exactly the same as a Chinese person's rendition of a Western "export" like "Nothing Compares 2 U," but maybe we're meant to understand that the process of borrowing (and distorting) goes both ways. Then again, the strange thing about "Shanzhai" is that despite all the levels of cultural appropriation and misunderstanding, the pain of O'Connor's Prince-penned original still comes through loud and clear. —Emilie Friedlander
The first time I heard this remix of Tunji Ige's "Day2Day," even the frailty of laptop speakers couldn't put a damper on my unmistakable thrill. The song starts with dark, echoing dub synths and drum pops that seem to stumble out of a deep sleep, then awakens to Ige's swinging boast about how he's gonna steal your girl, light one up, or fall in love—it's not a thing. His raps have more than a passing resemblance to Kid Cudi, and "Day2Day" has more than a passing resemblance to Cudi's initial hit, "Day and Night," but for a 19-year-old like Ige, that is a comparison to embrace, not run from. Because it's what happens on the rest of the song that gives Ige's future great promise (and what made me find some big-room speakers to bump it over and over again): his drowsy, self-produced beat turning into a house groove; the bubble of Mikey Xmas' morning-wood fantasy getting popped by his mom; Makonnen's effortless ecstasy brag-rap. A jam like this does not come along every day. —Joseph Patel
When I want to get all whoaaaa man about the relationship that rap has with the music industry at large, I think about Vince Staples, a Los Angeles-based rapper who is now on Def Jam and is making intensely angry, well-constructed tracks that are political without being preachy, honest without being cloying. He feels important and not remotely like a commercial success story. Case in point: "Blue Suede" is like a flare being shot from the middle of a riot. It is not an easy listen. There's no good time for a harsh G-funk synth whine, but that's sort of the point. Music doesn't have to be pleasurable, and Staples knows that. Is he going to be the leader of a new movement in rap? Who knows. It's possible, but it's not guaranteed. Whatever does end up happening, "Blue Suede" is a line in the sand. Either you're with him, or you're part of a hostile America. Maybe that's a bit extreme, but maybe that's the point we're at—especially when everything else feels like a dead end. —Sam Hockley-Smith
To share a song with Young Thug and not be made invisible requires charisma and stamina, but most of all, a huge amount of not-just-for-show confidence. T.I. was smart enough to tie his summer success to Thugger, and it's a nice bonus that Thug's so obviously happy to be here. I went from rags to riches to a feature with T-I-P, he says before name checking the King of the South two more times. Tip plays conductor, exclaiming Turn it! as the bass drops, heralding in a cooler Thug, who sings I'm ridin in that gator, my shoes are Giuseppe before slightly upping the intensity with She try make the extras, I told on these bitches, heyyyy. Springing to life with the combined energy of Thug, T.I., and producer London on Tha Track, "About the Money" is a perfect celebration song. Don't worry whether or not you're able to sing along perfectly with every syllable. —Briana Younger
There's an inside joke at the FADER offices about the video for Bunji Garlin's "Truck on D Road." Shot over two Dionysian days at Trinidad's Carnival in the streets of Port of Spain, the clip succinctly captures the carefree vibe and kinetic energy of Trinidad's Carnival—especially during Monday and Tuesday's parade of the masquerader bands. Drinking non-stop for two days? All good! Wearing pasties or glitter in lieu of clothing? No problem! Wanna wiggle your butt in front of an 18-wheeler? The more cheeks, the merrier! If you look closely enough, for a split second, you'll find me (yes, me) doing all of the above. I can testify to you first hand that the soca star's truck did indeed have the wickedest vibes and baddest sound system on the road. It was sheer fate, and drunkenly stumbling across an open field, that landed me at the foot of Bunji's truck, jamming to his massive hit long after all the other trucks had cut off their sound and dimmed the lights. Bless Bunji for actually bringing all the vibes IRL that he boasts about on this frenetic, Jus Now-produced track. And bless the island of Trinidad for not giving a fuck about late-night noise ordinances. —Deidre Dyer
If 2014 reminded us of anything, it's that racism and patriarchy are everywhere, and no more visible than in our streets. How you carry yourself and—terrifyingly—whether you will survive them hinges to an alarming degree on your race and gender. "Advice to Young Girls," from Inga Copeland's debut solo album, Because I'm Worth It, is a pertinently political text, even if she might argue otherwise. In her flat, accented tone, Copeland addresses the titular young girls, telling them that they should sneak out at night, meet up with their friends, and take the streets like they own them: Together you're strong. You walk the streets, face the city, face the night. The city is yours. It feels radical—it's not easy to imagine being a young female with such a healthy degree of entitlement—and it feels alive. It's also a jam, with Actress' stark, cyclical beat providing the perfect framework for Copeland's call to arms. The grinding, metallic sounds recall the giant machines of the industrial era, an eerie echo of a time that gave birth to the social norms that continue to constrain us today. —Ruth Saxelby
2014 was the year that Mat Cothran, a South Carolina artist best known for writing lonely guitar songs about sick days and suicide, said: "No more." His band, Elvis Depressedly, first released "No More Sad Songs (n.m.s.s.)" in wobbly demo form on Brooklyn label Orchid Tapes' Boring Ecstasy compilation, and a slightly more polished version surfaced not long after. The song is a sparse, humming, acoustic pop ode to never losing faith, but it also comes across as a tongue-in-cheek response to anyone who's misunderstood Cothran's songwriting as little more than a soundtrack for wallowing. He writes sad songs, yes—and in some ways this is another one—but there's a bleak kind of comedy to Cothran's art, and as the strung-out optimism of "No More Sad Songs" demonstrates beautifully, there's also a lot of hope. —Patrick D. McDermott
In 2014, pop music turned to moms. Pharrell, riding the wave of 2013's "Blurred Lines" and "Get Lucky," somehow wrote a song even bigger and more mom-friendly than either. John Legend, as mom-approved as Jif, scored the first number one pop hit of his career. Meaghan Trainor shot from obscurity to stardom by turning rap into a sock hop. Taylor Swift revealed a new look with her most momspirational single ever, which nicked the backing vocals of oldies records. Nick Minaj had the most raunchy pop hit of the year, but even that leaned heavily on a song that any Bar Mitzvah DJ knows will draw moms to the dance floor every time. And Sam Smith might have triggered more mom texts than any of them.
But my favorite song for moms of 2014 was "Am I Wrong," which has hung around the top of Billboard's Adult Contemporary chart for half the year. The song has clear roots in Africa's pop-driven Afrobeats movement, but with the tempo slowed down and acoustic guitar plucks pushed forward, it gave me instant nostalgia hits of riding in my mom's car as a kid and hearing Babyface and Eric Clapton's "Change the World" hundreds of times. Unlike some of its aforementioned contemporaries, "Am I Wrong" is not mommified as a marketing tactic. Instead it has an organic momness: wispy guitars, hand drums, and some sweetly sung, passionate vocals. Moms, as they forever will, deserved it. —Jordan Sargent
Adam Bainbridge's second album as Kindness is titled, and concerned with, Otherness. In the YouTube description for the video for album standout "Who Do You Love," The FADER cover star explains that the song is about "how you can identify who you are by those you love." It might be common sense, but it's a rarely tilled idea in pop, and he picked the perfect collaborator for such a deviation from the usual tropes. Robyn's made a career out of drawing outside the lines—refusing to be defined by culturally acceptable ideas of womanhood on "Who's That Girl?" and then defiantly dancing on her own on her 2010 hit—but to hear her minus her usual pumping beat feels like a revelation. Bainbridge's scratchy, patchy funk and ribcage-opening organ tones give Robyn the freedom to place her feet to a different beat, and we get to see another side of her in the process—she is calm, patient, wise. In return, Robyn's easy pop intelligence is the glue that brings the song to life: her vocal licks hug the intentionally raw corners of the song, like she loves it inside out. The chorus gets a little cryptic—Don't let the noise confuse you/ It's just the thing that you're used to—but, as Robyn gently reminds us, there's something else if you listen. It makes me think about all the people who help me listen and grow, and that's a pretty great thing for a song to do. —Ruth Saxelby
When I saw Shy Glizzy listed as one of the few features on Lil Boosie's October Life After Deathrow mixtape, it was a small but reassuring moment, like, "Oh, right, rap is doing just fine": a legend who knows precisely how to use his weird voice is recognizing a younger, fairly obscure guy who wields his own weird voice as a similar weapon. That an introspective DC sing-rapper got played on national radio a lot in 2014 with his confidence-booster "Awwsome" is encouraging on its own. Glizzy has proved himself, over the past couple years, the most promising of DC's new generation of street rappers who talk trap shit over beats that could probably be pegged as "cloud rap," if that term wasn't kind of embarrassing at this point. He's still a moody guy, though, and sometimes his most self-congratulatory lines feel like they're compensating for deeper anxieties. That's part of why "Awwsome" is so captivating: for a song about how great he is, Glizzy sounds weirdly bummed out. But those are the times you need to tell yourself how fucking awesome you are most of all, and Glizzy gets that. No disrespect to Kendrick Lamar, but in a perfect world, this would've been the uncontested choice for the 2014-15 NBA season theme song. Swish. —Meaghan Garvey
A few years back, after the acclaimed studio guitarist and criminally slept-on solo artist Blake Mills started playing this song live, someone said it "might be the best goddamn country song I've ever heard." But the Malibu-born Mills offers neither lap steel nor honky tonk here, just unbridled, everyman's desperation. The studio version of "Don't Tell Our Friends About Me" features on his sophomore effort, Heigh Ho, and was recorded in Frank Sinatra's room at Ocean Way Studios. It captures a feeling and sound that spans generations, committing to record all the subtlety of Mills' instrumentation—no one makes the guitar seem so much like it has a soul as him—and his equally unsubtle plea, repeated a gut-wrenching 16 times: I know I fucked up, I know I fucked up, I know I fucked up… —Duncan Cooper
Through the distorted, genre-subverting laptop music he releases as Ricky Eat Acid, Sam Ray latches onto things we'll inevitably recognize and things we probably won't. "In My Dreams We're Almost Touching" is a prime example of that, carefully sampling the My only wish is I die real line from Drake's "Take Care." But Ray doesn't actually sample the rapper's slick single—instead, he rips it from an amateur singer's soulful YouTube cover. Bolstered by Ray's propulsive, post-everything production wizardry, the track becomes a crazy hybrid of twisty R&B, ambient pop, and something resembling dance music. "I feel like I'm going to die at any second. It's not even totally a health thing … you just have to live with so much urgency," Ray told FADER in an interview this year, and "In My Dreams We're Almost Touching" reflects that jittery existential urgency, through the repetition of that familiar sample and through all the emotions it drudges up. —Patrick D. McDermott
Two of the major narratives in pop music this year are hilariously correlated, though it's a chicken-and-egg question as to which came first. First, women dominated 2014's pop charts: for the first time in the history of the Hot 100, solo female artists filled the top 5 positions for six weeks straight. (It's worth noting that the vast majority of these women were white.) Meanwhile, the overarching theme in male pop (and often, life in general) seemed to be blatant pettiness. And if 2014 was the year of the petty dude, Chris Brown and Big Sean were its poster-boys. In content, "Loyal" and "IDFWU" are both sad and obvious, even more embarrassing than they are contemptible. I'm not sure who Big Sean thinks he is kidding when he assures his ex that he's got a million trillion things I'd rather fucking do—that's right, happily married Naya Rivera, a million trillion!—than, uh, spend his day writing a song about her or whatever. And while it's tempting to try to unpack why Breezy would feel okay whining that these hoes ain't loyal, it's best to just let Keyshia Cole, Mila J, Da Brat, K. Michelle, and Lil Mo speak in his place. But I'd be lying to myself to say I don't delight in that DJ Mustard/Kanye West/DJ Dahi beat, where Ye fills in all the little spaces Mustard would have left empty, or how refreshed Lil Wayne sounds on his "Loyal" verse. If 2014 was the year women thrived and men sulked, at least the latter gave us some bangers to soundtrack our shit-talking sessions. —Meaghan Garvey
In an interview with The FADER at the beginning of this year, London-based artist Benjy Keating, aka Palmistry, elaborated on what he meant by his frequent use of the word "emotional," and it was a lot less emotional than you might expect. He got it from a group of Chilean MCs he'd been collaborating with, he explained, who use the word casually as an intensifier: "They say it in a jokey way. You could have a hole in your trousers and they'd be like, 'That's an emotional hole.'" This seems an apt image for thinking about Palmistry's super emotive, outsider take on dancehall, in particular the sweet "Protector SE5." The track's central narrative is built around an empty word, an emotional hole: something. He repeats various configurations of you give me that something; it's hardly an original sentiment but never more charged than in Palmistry's hands. —Aimee Cliff
All twinkle, swagger, and slap, Snootie Wild's "Made Me" veered just enough from the DJ Mustard template to stand out on the radio this summer. And that's a good thing, because the "Hi, haters" anthem is perfect for late-night, windows-down cruising; feel free to turn the volume up and watch the speedometer creep past 80 MPH before the Memphis rapper really locks into his servin', swervin' go-mode at the end of the first verse—Choppa choppa, a nigga dead and make him percolator/ Real choppin' down the block just like a alligator. "Made Me" launched Snootie Wild into the national spotlight, and now it'll be up to him to see if he can keep his place there. —Zara Golden
The Ugandan singer Eddy Kenzo has gone viral on the English-speaking internet twice, without much support from local or international music press. First with 2013's "Sitya Loss," which was shared by Diddy then syndicated on Vevo, and then again in June with a one-shot video for "Jambole." That clip stars a group of seriously adorable kid dancers; just as the first beat drops, a girl jumps and lands in a split, tossing her Pooh backpack into the air like it's a hat and she's Bobby Shmurda.
In East Africa, Kenzo's success has been met with some criticism—he's an abomination for speaking English poorly, middle-class critics said. After his mother died when he was 5, Kenzo grew up a street kid, out of school and selling soda at soccer matches. "Jambole" means "best of the best" in Swahili, and the song's about how Kenzo's woman is a "super diva," as great as Kim Kardashian. "Jambole" and its video are overwhelming positive reminders: If you're hating Kim Kardashian for having a famous butt, or mocking an entertainer for spelling something wrong, you could be doing anything else instead. Maybe try a jumping split? —Naomi Zeichner
Meridian Dan is a boxer, and you can hear it in his music. His enunciations are like gnarly uppercuts, his flow moving swiftly from verse to verse with a practiced nimbleness that probably works wonders in the ring. The huge success of "German Whip" marked his transition into full-time MC, and rightly so: it's a real monster of a tune, bringing grime's incredulous and oppositional tone to a heavy, seriously contagious trap beat, courtesy of The Heavytrackerz. The track's two guest MCs find totally different ways of approaching the beat, and both their verses kill it: the way JME says not in Berlin; the rhythmic cadence of Big H's assertions. Like the best anthems, "German Whip" captivates in a way that's sort of beyond language; it's just a pure psychological hook—a gift that keeps on giving, even 50 listens later. —Alexander Iadarola
At its cold, brassy heart, Son Lux's minimalist 2013 single "Easy" was all about power—specifically, about finding power in the places and moments you might least expect it to exist. It depicts a hardened person, someone trying to assert with bravado that their loneliness is an active choice, even as their sadness stings through the core image: pull out your heart to make the being alone easy. It seems like a mature choice, then, for an 18-year-old pop star to lend her vocals for its re-incarnation this year, but the words "mature" and "Lorde" are so connected that one practically AutoCompletes the other. This year, as she explained to FADER, Lorde embarked on one of the most ambitious projects available to a musician—let alone to one not yet out of her teens—in curating the soundtrack for the latest installment of the Hunger Games franchise. The names on her call sheet? Kanye West, Diplo, and Ariana Grande. If you want to talk about power, let's talk about Lorde.
On the reworked "Easy (Switch Screens)," her distinctive voice—which, even more than usual, bleeds out of its edges like a watercolor painting—rises above Son Lux's newly insistent beat, and a frantic middle eight gives rise to a demonic, distorted guitar solo. It all amounts to something more knotted than the original, and yet Lorde's stony-faced presence is a blade cutting through. In her willingness to mould herself to new and surprising challenges, this year Lorde proved that "teenage female vocalist" can be one of the most influential positions to hold in the world. —Aimee Cliff
Charisma, I've often thought, has everything to do with contradictions. A person who is prickly on the outside but at the same time unusually generous tends to stand out more than folks of the "what you see is what you get" variety. You just can't wrap your mind around them. Philly rock band Nothing edged into my awareness sometime in the second half of last year, preceded by the disconcerting biographical detail that frontman Dominick "Nicky" Palermo had stabbed a guy once, then started the band after he got out of jail. When I heard this song for the first time—despite that bone-chilling backstory, or maybe because of it—I couldn't get over how sweet it sounded, with that nursery-rhyme-simple melody, and those guitar lines so overloaded with reverb and distortion that listening to them feels kind of like sinking into a cloud. "Dig" is indulgently loud and drugged-out, but ever so slightly sentimental, such that you can't place what the emotional tone of it is, no matter how many times you listen. It's deeper than scary and deeper than sweet. —Emilie Friedlander
The least edifying, least dignified of Toni Braxton's wishes isn't the hyper-specific hope that her ex's new woman cheats on him with a 22-year-old; nor placing the curse of a male child on her, Maleficent-style; nor even the double-take gross-out imagery of I hope she gives you a disease, a line that Braxton had to fight her scandalized collaborator Babyface to keep on the song. The most uncomfortable moment is when she admits at the song's close that all of this is in service of winning the bastard back. "No!" you want to shout, "it's fine to wish pain and humiliation on him in the name of revenge, but don't refract it back on yourself." However, Braxton understands how purging herself of each of these fantasies is a means of clawing back dignity, and she sings every one with a regal hauteur that's a million miles from debasement. She's been bottled up with these thoughts for a long time; releasing them has enabled her to rediscover her old voice. —Alex Macpherson
In our eternally love-obsessed, Bridezilla-watching culture, finding new ways to talk about romantic commitment and the archaic institution of marriage can be a tough task, so Toronto's Alvvays deserve to be commended for making a song about getting hitched sound sweetly romantic without dipping into treacly, sentimental territory. Over three glorious minutes, vocalist Molly Rankin makes a jangly, fuzzed-out pitch to the songs titular Archie on why the two should Forget the invitations, floral arrangements, and bread makers and just run away to sign some marriage papers. It's hard to tell if this bit of effervescent guitar pop is about cutting out all the bullshit and building a life with someone or simply a charmingly desperate plea for commitment, but it doesn't matter—the song is super sweet with just the right amount of sour. —T. Cole Rachel
Two years on from her breakthrough album, Visions, which plowed a line between pop fantasy and industrial reality with a charmingly scrappy sense of poise, Grimes released a song that anyone paying attention should have seen coming. She'd long talked about wanting to produce bangers, but that didn't stop the emoji gasps. "Go" is the anthesis of Visions: it's unashamedly polished rather than DIY, its pace is a towering grind instead of a gentle daydream, and it swaps coyness for sure-footed body-popping. Of course there were going to be haters. First in line was Rihanna, who Grimes said turned down the song, which Grimes and her producer pal Blood Diamonds had originally written for her. But RiRi's loss is Grimes' gain: "Go" wobbles with a fantastically infectious confidence. The melodramatic piano, the silky calls into the void, the tough-as-nails stabs—it has "epic" stitched into every note. Whether the song is an indication of a new direction or just a perfect detour, I for one with be requesting it at every Christmas party ad infinitum. —Ruth Saxelby
Willow Smith has not yet made her best song. To be honest, her cover of King Krule's "Easy, Easy" might be the crown jewel of her 2014 output, a great song in it's own right that gained new depth from her coy, inquisitive tone. But "8" was her coming out party, and it's one I'll remember: she showed the world she could tackle stone-serious R&B with the grace of her influences and the confidence of her established pop peers. She swims through buoyant production with a baby-faced falsetto and talks herself through the big ideas swirling in her head: our consciousness is all there is, she declares, or maybe discovers. I'm excited to watch her grow. —Matthew Trammell
Here are some things that make your eyes red: smoking weed, lack of sleep, and crying at the state of the world we live in, which is something I imagine a lot of people want to do these days. It's hard to pretend that everything isn't rapidly sliding into some kind of hatred-filled pit of selfish decisions. We can ask a lot of questions of the people in charge, of ourselves, of those childhood idols that live long enough to turn out bad—but we probably won't get many answers, because they don't exist. We do have War on Drugs though, who made an album of hazy anthems with this year's Lost in the Dream that long for a simpler world while admitting it doesn't actually exist anymore. None of those songs do it better than "Red Eyes," which is the soundtrack to the road trip you'll never take, to the romantic moment that might not ever happen when you realize you love all America has to offer. "Red Eyes" is the first positive step in rebuilding what's become a pretty shitty place to be. Am I being cynical? Sure. Am I as stressed about it as I sound? Not really—a song like "Red Eyes" does wonders for restorative optimism. —Sam Hockley-Smith
"Bailando" was originally co-written by Iglesias and the Cuban singer Descemer Bueno, but the two didn't like what they'd sketched enough to record it together. Eventually, Bueno recorded it with the Cuban reggaeton duo Gente De Zona and made a video in Havana that found an audience online. So Iglesias reconsidered and recorded his own interpretation, which hit Latin radio in Miami in February. Big Shazam and iTunes numbers followed, signaling that the song, which is in Spanish, could be a global pop hit before it ever reached Top 40 stations. Now there are five versions of the song: Bueno's first version, Iglesias' Spanish take, a Spanglish rendition featuring Sean Paul, and two more versions in Portuguese—one's for Brazil, the other for Portugal.
As detailed in a recent Atlantic story, while labels once ordained then mercilessly pushed hits to listeners, now data from places like Shazam drives the pop market, predicting smashes and shaping radio playlists. Since people like what they already know, the Hot 100's songs now sound more alike than ever and stay in heavy rotation for longer. So the monstrous success of "Bailando"—980 million YouTube views across versions, at the beginning of December—makes clear what American record executives should already know: in a country where a quarter of young people are Latino, a song in Spanish can be as comfort food as Taylor Swift. ("Bailando" wasn't the only big Spanish-language hit on the Hot 100 this year—in February, Romeo Santos' Drake-featuring "Odio" debuted at No. 45 on that chart, the highest-ever debut for a Spanish language song.) The Atlantic article calls out hip-hop and country as genres that, once proven especially popular with Shazamers, were more heavily incorporated into pop. It didn't mentioned Latin music, and if we're paying attention to what "Bailando" signals, that's an oversight. —Naomi Zeichner
I'm not really a film buff, but if Kevin Gates' life is like a movie, it'd be The Notebook—which is also his favorite book, according to "Arms of a Stranger." The description Gates has given in interviews about why he likes the story doubles as a description of his own appeal: "[Noah] didn't do anything incredible, all he did was love a woman … It was simple. It was beautiful." There's plenty of emotional drama in "Movie," which tells the story of the birth of his two children. But the the intimate, mundane details in its narrative are what make it great. Gates is sharing stuff you'd usually only tell someone you really trust, like how your son is about to be born but also you haven't really been sleeping and answering your phone just feels like a lot. At the end of "Movie," it's revealed that the song was intended for an incarcerated friend, to let him know what's been going on. Getting to listen to that conversation? Better than watching a biopic, any day. —Meaghan Garvey
The thing about a chandelier is it's not exactly built to hold the weight of a human. That's the paradox that swings through the center of Sia's pop anthem "Chandelier," as the Australian powerhouse declares I'm gonna swing from the chandelier, then undercuts her own confidence: Help me, I'm holding on for dear life/ Won't look down, won't open my eyes. This delicate intersection between strength and fragility is where Sia finds her magic time and time again. Throughout her career, both as a solo artist and a songwriter to stars like Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Katy Perry, she's penned tunes that stomp with confidence, stuffed with lyrics that belie insecurity. It's "Chandelier," however, that's Sia's most perfect expression of the surge of manic force that is needed to overcome crippling anxieties and addictions. It says, "Hold on, I can't do this—oh God, I'm doing this!" "Chandelier" is a pop song you can listen to at the peak of your night, or for a pep-talk when you get home alone; one whose undeniably solidity comes from the very fact that it's so breakable, built so precariously on its premise of glass. —Aimee Cliff
In 2014, Future dropped his second album, already a veteran. He'd already spent the last five years recasting Atlanta rap in his image, so it makes sense that, in a year dominated by the trap culture he lived firsthand, he flipped the script. On "Move That Dope," he paid homage to the '80s dope boy sound of his direct lineage. Of course Push went crazy on a track this coke-dusted, but it was Pharrell sneaking in a Clones-level verse amidst his happiest 12 months yet that really had us flipping: how is The old Skateboard P that's your favorite, me and 20 girls doing yoga naked not Bar of the Year? —Matthew Trammell
Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, the sophomore album from Sturgill Simpson, arguably makes him the foremost musician working today off his genre's beaten path. Like the outlaws of the '70s, Simpson makes brilliant and emotive music with traditional instruments, though not always traditional themes. On the album opener, "Turtles All the Way Down," he recounts a psychedelic drug trip that, for him, makes a mockery of conventional religion. "The Promise" makes an even bigger statement. Lately, mainstream country has been trying to expand its chart dominance by incorporating drum machines, EDM drops, and halfway raps—by becoming pop. Simpson's throaty cover of When in Rome's '80s hit does the opposite, better: with an un-improvable combination of raw sounds and raw feelings, he makes pop sound better off country. —Duncan Cooper
Technophobes? Maybe. Unapologetic stoners? Sure seems like it. But for their third LP, Sunbathing Animal, Brooklyn indie rock quartet Parquet Courts decided they weren't going to be slackers anymore. Just look to title track "Sunbathing Animal," where the rickety Pavement-isms of the band's past have been replaced by steamrolling guitar lines and an Adderall-addled motorik beat from drummer Max Savage. After four minutes of over-caffeinated art-punk, it's clear that band has left spliffs and sweatpants lifestyle firmly in the past. —Colin Joyce
Liz Harris wears her pain like a blanket around her shoulders, pulling it close enough to breathe through. Time and time again, the Portland-based artist has demonstrated the healing possibilities of song— of sound—to the soul. Listen in a dark moment and Harris will light a path through: she's been there, she knows the way. Ruins, her tenth album as Grouper, was recorded in isolation in Portugal's coastal Aljezur region, where Harris did an artist residency in 2011. "Holding" is the album's lullaby, one sung to herself but offering comfort to any and all. Her words are barely audible—more like a breeze over her piano keys, than a voice—but it's not difficult to understand what she's trying to communicate. Like any lullaby, it's akin to hearing a loved one say, "It's okay," over and over. By the end of the song only the rain remains, filling in the quiet. —Ruth Saxelby
At some point before the release of his latest LP, Black Metal, Dean Blunt became uncharacteristically transparent. Suddenly, the once-enigmatic artist was willing to appear on magazine covers and straightforwardly speak about the themes of his music; it was clear that, this time around, he wanted to be understood, and the record's eerie closer, "Grade," speaks to that notion. Over an instrumental that somehow calls to mind both Angelo Badalamenti's scores and the bleak monochromatic workouts of early grime records, Blunt gruffly intones Look at me, look at me, inviting careful exploration of his uniquely warped musical endeavors rather than holding his listeners at arms length. Blunt has said that Black Metal is focused on rejecting the trope of "the American black male using existing white images" as a means of personal and artistic empowerment, underscored both through "Grade"'s clangorous, confrontational sound and Blunt's boisterous lyrics. Think of it as a shadowy reflection of the radical self-love Kendrick Lamar has been preaching of late. —Colin Joyce
Some of Drake's best songs have arrived in between albums. Perhaps there's a freedom that comes when he's looking back at accomplishments like huge first-week sales and sold-out arena tours. Or when he's spending time at home, absorbing the rising energy of the Toronto streets of which he's king. Or when he's looking to the future, making plans for new lanes to carve and different swaths of industry to dominate. That much is clear on "Draft Day," a clear-eyed manifesto whose first verse opens with the bold line, Sometimes I laugh with god about how you can't stop me. As he has done on much of his post-Take Care output, Drake veers away from the sensitive thug routine on this SoundCloud-delivered loosie, instead leaning heavily into witty, convincing bravado best suited for yelling along at the club with your arm around your best friend. The song, produced by longtime collaborator Boi-1da and Atlanta duo The Fam, loops Lauryn Hill's voice from "Doo Wop (That Thing)" and transmutes her love-borne exhortation to look out, look out into an almost-menacing warning aimed at a coterie of vague, unidentified disbelievers (thought by the rumor mill to include Jay Z). Despite literal references to NFL and NBA draftees Johnny Manziel and Andrew Wiggins, "Draft Day" will likely outlive its sports and pop culture shoutouts and be remembered by history as a prescient synthesis of Drake's career: How the game turn into the Drake show? —Rawiya Kameir
I don't know what Ryn Weaver yells on the chorus of her debut single, "OctaHate," but I really identify with how mad she's able to get just moments after there's a cute marimba. You try to surround yourself with the pleasant things, but sometimes the world just blows your gasket. Much has been made of this song's surefire provenance—star co-producers (Benny Blanco, Cashmere Cat, and Michael Angelakos of Passion Pit), a star co-writer (Charli XCX), and star Twitter supporters (Jessie Ware, Hayley Williams)—but more than any of that, I think it owes its success to that little marimba, seemingly sampled from the iPhone's default ringtone, like some Pavlovian trick to grab your attention. All credit goes to Ryn, after that initial pull, for holding it. —Duncan Cooper
Crunch the numbers and tell me that Run the Jewels isn't one the most consistently potent duos in hip-hop right now. Three years in a row, Killer Mike and El-P have delivered some of the fiercest, most energizing stuff the genre's had to offer as of late: there was Mike's incendiary 2012 album, R.A.P. Music, followed by their highly entertaining collaborative debut last year with Run the Jewels. 2014 brought Run the Jewels 2, a record packed with battle rap, cybernetic production, and 11 sonic arguments that sequels don't always suck. "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)" is one of the album's most revelatory cuts, employing a louder-than-"Bombtrack" hook from erstwhile Rage Against the Machine frontman Zack De La Rocha, along with a guest verse that re-announces the firebrand vocalist as an impressive, effortlessly capable MC. Really, though, Mike and El are the ones on display here, and they trade bars like clairvoyant twins, the one anticipating where the other will enter with unparalleled precision. Together, they pack a metric ton of social commentary and gallows humor into a single, tag-team epitaph, which pretty much epitomizes Run the Jewels 2's burning-tire, never-look-back mindset: A wise man said/ "We all dead, fuck it." —Larry Fitzmaurice
2014 has been dubbed the year of the booty, a time when we couldn't get enough of Beyoncé, Iggy, J.Lo, Kim Kardashian, and their ample backends. On "Anaconda," Minaj flips through her Rolodex of dudes that would do anything—namely, toss her salad and eat her pussy with their grills on—just to get close to her backside. And between the single art and accompanying video, Nicki Minaj threw us more butt visuals than we could possibly digest in one sitting. The true triumph of the "Anaconda" clip though, was the behind-the-scenes video that appeared on Nicki's YouTube page. Backstage, we see Minaj prepping like a champ—downing shots of booze, chatting shit in a heavy Jamaican patois, and getting gassed up by her crew of girls. Minaj knows that she's going to war—fighting the world's obsession with her body while simultaneously recognizing her reliance on it as a gimmick—and she brings her A-game as she accosts Drake with her derrière. Even for the ass-obsessed, the video is probably a minute-and-a-half too long. But Drake's frustrated face during Minaj's lap dance is well worth wading through the tides of butt cheeks, bananas, and whipped cream along the way. —Deidre Dyer
Given Mike Hadreas' track record of painfully intimate narratives about childhood trauma and drug addiction, few could have expected that the third Perfume Genius album, the phenomenal Too Bright, would be such an emboldened, electrified, statement of domination. "Queen" is the album's beating heart, a pile of fuzzed-out bass lines and grandiose synths that take on the notion of gay panic and essentially tear it to shreds. Don't you know your queen? he inquires, Ripped, heaving/ Flowers bloom at my feet/ Don't you know your queen? It's an unapologetic declaration of identity—particularly coming from someone who has been described so often in terms of his delicateness—but it wouldn't mean half as much were it not embedded in a song so ominously catchy. When Hadreas sings No family is safe when I sashay, it's both a statement of fact and (one hopes) a promise. —T. Cole Rachel
Wiz Khalifa's live show is as good as his guest verses are bad. If this comes as a surprise, maybe it shouldn't—he's toured amphitheaters for the past three summers running, playing host to rappers that otherwise wouldn't get in front of paying crowds that size. Wiz has learned to manhandle the mic like Mick Jagger, pass joints to his bassist like a stand-up comedian, and spout affirmations like a yoga teacher. I saw Wiz on big stages twice this summer, at Hot 97's Summer Jam and then at Bonnaroo, and both times "We Dem Boyz" was a highlight. For a large audience, it's less a song than a guided chant. Holuhholuhholuhholuh, boys! A line like white girls give me becky disappears in the shadow of the ayyyyyyyee that comes before it. You can hang your brain on a peg and sing it with your eyes closed—like Drake did this past spring, when he and Rihanna were actively dating or something, and got caught attending Wiz church on video. —Naomi Zeichner
Being vulnerable is tough, which is why Jessie Ware sings a song called "Tough Love" in a tremulous falsetto that she's said she's unsure she can even pull off. Ware pushes herself into new territory—further up, further out—and discovers tenderness in the uncertainty; "Tough Love" is a fragile tightrope walk that both singer and listener need to learn to sink into to find a payoff. The song pivots around the moment Ware finds it comfortable enough to reach her hand out to a new lover. So you wanna be a man about it—do you have to?I she asks, correcting her earlier phrasing of the question. No, you don't have to be manly, the song gently suggests—it's a social performance, antithetical to everything Ware's come to realize in the song. Instead, the timid invocation of seduction archetypes becomes an invitation to join her in a state of vulnerability—as tough as it might be. —Alex Macpherson
Davido is one of his continent's biggest names, if not the biggest. The Nigerian pop star's international breakthrough singles—like 2012's euphoric "Dami Duro," and 2013's compulsive viral dance record, "Skelewu"'—were uptempo anthems, yet this year's "Aye" (pronounced "ah-yay") would seem, at first blush, to lack the urgency of its predecessors. Its pulse is evasive, with a complex mesh of cross-rhythms. This intricacy provides a nest for some gorgeous high-pitched guitar tones, which cut through the noise like birds chirping a love song. At the song's heart, though, is Davido's vocal performance, which communicates sincerity with a complete lack of self-consciousness or duplicity, a feeling of confident optimism bubbling over with certainty: Nobody can love you like I do/ No one can touch you like I do. This is the idealization of devotion, rendered in full color. —David Drake
Behind all the critical acclaim for Quik's latter-day albums, there's a lingering sadness. The West Coast rapper's creative well is far from dry—and arguably more sonically adventurous than ever—yet the world at large still shrugs with indifference. Still, while lesser artists might fall down a rabbit hole of self-doubt, Quik's best work now—and particularly "Fuck All Night," the last track on this year's The Midnight Life—steadfastly faces outward rather than inward, embracing hip-hop's most populist impulses. On that song, blunt expressions of desire, low-brow humor (It's not time to smash/ Get some ointment, go and fix that rash), and a big, fun funk riff cohere into a complex intersection of emotions: wistful, anxious, prurient, reassuring. That last quality is key—"Fuck All Night"'s dominant mood is a friendly pat on the back, nudging you on to enjoy the show—but the song isn't simple escapism. Instead, it's a reminder that even though we don't have Soul Train anymore, the party is universal, and however many Facebook likes he does or doesn't get, Quik will fill floors for generations to come. —David Drake
On a surface level, The Innocents, singer/songwriter Natalie Mering's latest record under her Flannery O'Connor-nodding moniker Weyes Blood, doesn't bear the hallmarks of her experimentalist career to date. But peel the layers back on a track like "Hang On," and the counterintuitive and challenging aspects of her music become apparent. Guitar lines stutter and spurt while vocal parts dip and dive from fluttering romanticisms to dead-eyed melancholy, sometimes collapsing two disparate viewpoints into the same line; all the while, a flute-like synth part flitters far in the background. "Hang On" marks a true artistic emergence for Mering, though, when the experimentation is pushed to the background in favor of clear melodic hooks and a dramatic call for perseverance. The proto-prog stylings of 1960s British folk have rarely seemed like a spoonful of sugar, but a little bit of structure does wonders for balancing the piercing bitterness of Mering's adventurous music. —Colin Joyce
Trinidad Carnival is an endless buffet of drinking and dancing. As with any buffet worth its biscuits, chances are your eyes will be bigger than belly, and you'll probably pile on more than you can eat, signing up for more breakfast fêtes, all-night parties, and cooler limes than any reasonable person should. This annual festival isn't about reason—just partying. At some point, though, your body will stop being able to keep up with the bacchanalian spirit that is beckoning it on. "Ministry of Road (M.O.R.)" by Machel Montano, the winner of this year's Power Soca Monarch and Road March titles, was specifically crafted for the moment when you're feeling like you can't chip, jump, or wine another inch. It's a four-minute shot of pure adrenaline, charging forth at a breakneck pace with crazy crescendos, endlessly layered percussion, and chants galore. Montano's created a well-oiled machine, designed to extend party stamina and give you exactly what it takes to survive Carnival and come back for more next year. —Deidre Dyer
For a small but cultish few, the unveiling and near-immediate release of a long-lost second album from Lewis was 2014's closest thing to a Beyoncé moment. The man who recorded it remains a total mystery: a tiny run of his mumble-crooning debut, L'Amour, was self-released in the '80s and became a collector's oddity when it was rediscovered a few years ago; after Light in the Attic repressed L'amour this year, someone discovered a copy of Romantic Times in a warehouse in Calgary; the label eventually tracked Lewis down, but he asked for his anonymity to be preserved and whereabouts kept secret. Anyway, Romantic Times sounds nothing like its title suggests; the opening track, "We Danced All Night," is the most existentially terrifying song featuring a saxophone I've ever heard. Lewis is ostensibly doing love songs, but he sings from so deep within his own head that he sounds like he's transmitting messages from beyond the grave, a fittingly haunting sound for an album that itself arrives as if back from the dead. —Duncan Cooper
R&B singers rarely grow old gracefully. Sadly, there is no real retirement package in place for the barrel-chested body-rollers and thick-thighed hip-swingers of the genre. After a certain number of years in the game, even the smoothest crooners begin to crack and wear as they enter into their grown-and-sexy years, sputtering along into irrelevance, singing of midlife crises. By hopping over to the other side of the Atlantic for her 13th album, The London Sessions, and partnering up with the some of the city's top producers and vocalists, Mary J. Blige has reached for new sounds and seemingly escaped this fate. On standout track "Nobody But You," which features background vocals from Sam Smith, the current face of UK blue-eyed soul, she's tapped into the rich heritage of early '80s house jams that reared her musical ear. Over pulsing synths and joyful strings, Blige declares her unwavering devotion, offering occasional flashes of trademark grittiness she's known for. It's this modern take on diva house music that ultimately keeps her sounding fresher than ever, beating back against R&B's merciless clock. —Deidre Dyer
I constantly alternate between thinking Chief Keef's recent work is misunderstood genius or total bullshit. (For now, for the record, I'm calling Back From the Dead 2 the former, Bang 2 the latter.) Likewise, it's hard to say for sure whether Chief Keef, a street artist that went major and is now again unsigned, is a cautionary tale or a testament to doing things your way, whatever the cost. It's probably a bit of both. Still, it's a little bittersweet to look back on "How It Go," a song which teases a parallel universe in which Keef actually wants to be a famous rapper. With the right push, the song could have been a hit. The Keef who can MacGyver any old jumble of words into a melody that sticks in your head for days is on one here. And in the video, he's literally on top of Chicago, glowing against the skyline in his custom velour. When the scene is interrupted by a bunch of his friends, all swooping in from the cosmos, it's a reminder, once and for all, that Keef does whatever the hell he wants to. —Meaghan Garvey
Although Felicita isn't technically part of the PC Music crew, he was playing gigs with them way before they received much attention and, musically, he fits right in with the label's mix of underground electronics and playfully mangled pop. His debut EP, Frenemies, released this past autumn on the new label Gum Artefacts, is one of the finest examples of the British-kawaii sound, balancing a surprisingly sophisticated level of experimentalism with sparkling modernism. "Doves", the EP's lead track, has a lurching rhythm and tumbling melody, evoking nursery rhyme earnestness and innocence, while the comprehensible bits of the layered vocal phrases and fragments conjure up teenaged girls at the mall—as one exclaims, Duh! Felicita—who is in real life a gangly, but otherwise inconspicuous-looking, young man—may be an alter-ego, or perhaps merely a cute and intriguing digital world to escape to, but increasingly he looks set to become an artist who may just transcend the scene he's associated with. —Lisa Blanning
How does Doss feel on "The Way I Feel"? The lyrics, sung like air leaking from an inflatable mattress, aren't easy to make out—but on close listen, it seems like she's singing about moving on from a toxic relationship. So I let go, cause it's bad you know, she hisses over frothy synth mist and the sort of weightless production that immediately conjures images of raves, beach parties, and bargain-bin CD compilations that have names like Trance Summer or Disco of Heaven. It's a song made for chemically-altered, wee-hours dancing, but it never reaches the heights of total ecstasy, nor are there obvious traces of melancholy. The song is determined to exist somewhere in between, suggesting that the specific, tangible emotions Doss feels here aren't important, and that "The Way I Feel" is a bubbly, ethereal celebration of feeling anything at all. —Patrick D. McDermott
If "Everything Nice" was the bittersweet, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps anthem that ended up becoming one of the year's biggest turn-up tracks, "Waiting So Long" was the more intimate cut in Popcaan's discography that made a lot of us fall for him. At first, it was the soaring melody that hooked me, but then a friend of mine pointed out that she thought it was "the most romantic song in the world," and I started paying more attention to the lyrics. In the chorus, The FADER cover star and Vybz Kartel mentee sings about how he's been waiting so long for his lady friend's sexy body, and how he can't wait to be able to have sex with her again, even to become her baby daddy someday. It's oozing with blunt, uninhibited lust from start to finish, but it also seems to draw absolutely no line whatsoever between sex and romantic love—to the point where his desire to merge with her physically becomes synonymous with a desire to commit, maybe even put the ring pon [her] finger some day. In an age where many young women have come to expect so little from relationships that they'll swoon over a guy who sings about sleeping with them and chucking them out in the morning, "Waiting So Long" feels like a beautiful reality check. —Emilie Friedlander
"Center" was recorded on a discount four-track, maybe under the covers. The tape hiss is almost as loud as the muffled vocals and acoustic guitar; it's soft and direct. The cute, homemade music video premiered on Rookie, fittingly. Zach Braff would weep to this, justifiably. The song's first line is Saw your bike on your front porch, and the last one's a whopper: As I get older, I recognize that love is mostly situational. For some, the overwhelming tweeness will be a turnoff, but it's precisely Quarterbacks' commitment to sentimentality—or so it seems—that makes the bleak conclusion to "Center" so surprising and so totally lonely. —Duncan Cooper
Isaiah Rashad's Cilvia Demo had the unfortunate task of competing with a flood of TDE-related releases this year (not to mention the seemingly endless hype cycle surrounding Kendrick Lamar's next album), but the record is a revelation in itself, as Rashad matches his contemporaries in terms of quality control and skill. He's got Lamar's knack for somber storytelling, and, as the crew's adopted Southern member, laid-back production redolent of the hip-hop he grew up on. "Heavenly Father" is vivid with despair, as thoughts of suicide and gripes with the game are muttered from a close distance. But there's one hope: If I give my story to the world, I wonder if they'll book me for a show. —Zara Golden
"New Flame" is the latest entry in the semi-annual tradition of Chris Brown Songs That Are Actually Good, and this highlight from Brown's overstuffed, simultaneously-better-and-worse-than-you-think X succeeds despite him. Brown is capable and present on "New Flame," which is slightly more than can be said about Rick Ross' clock-punching appearance, but neither approach Usher, here, who swoops in during the song's middle third and delivers a resplendent vocal take reminiscent of R. Kelly's swagger-jacking re-imagination of T-Pain's "Chopped & Screwed." Over producer Count Justice's starry-eyed twinkles, Usher completely blacks out, exhibiting a perfect understanding of how to ride a beat like this. Every vocal embellishment soars with remarkable stridency, and his syllable-crammed take is perhaps the closest we'll ever get to R&B adopting the Migos flow. That Usher would absolutely dominate "New Flame" is no surprise—it's basically a thematic rip of his "Love in This Club"—but his guest spot is so overpowering, so spot-on in hitting every pleasure point, that you wish the song was his to sing and his alone. —Larry Fitzmaurice
2014 was a pretty great year for instrumental grime, thanks to a new wave of producers with incredibly voracious appetites for tunes that can often be described as baffling in their experimentation. When one listens to this stuff it's obvious it's grime, but what's different is that the genre's stylistic parameters have mostly been shed, allowing for producers to borrow sounds and structures from wherever they want. Mumdance and Rabit's "Square Wave Shell Down" was arguably the biggest tune to do that this year: taking the bilious, serrated bass of something like Throbbing Gristle and throwing it against a conglomeration of slippery synth gestures that sound like they're trying to break out of linear time by going backwards and forwards simultaneously. It's the kind of banger you never knew you needed, and when those claps come in and take the Sunn O))) dread to the rave, the deal is sealed. —Alexander Iadarola
Spooky Black is an engaging singer with an intriguing image: scrawny pale kid from the woods with a long stare and subversive taste for menswear accessories. But if solo output like "Without U" and "DJ Khaled Is My Father" provided potent soil, work with his frequent collaborators thestand4rd is where Spook blossomed. It's harder to accuse him of culture biting and internet baiting when he's making songs like "decisions" alongside Allan Kingdom, Bobby Raps and Psymun: gummy, borderless, boyband R&B, delivered with way more refined dignity than the packaging may suggest. —Matthew Trammell
TOPS' affinity for AM Gold's silky strains isn't unprecedented in the realm of art-pop weirdos. But whereas artists like Mac DeMarco and Ariel Pink use such predilections as a springboard for kitschy kiss-offs, the Montreal-based quartet is unapologetically heartfelt. On "Way to Be Loved," the band surrounds vocalist Jane Penny's tale of romantic confusion with rubbery guitar leads and airy synth lines that wouldn't sound out place if they popped up in the middle of a Fleetwood Mac record. "Way to Be Loved" is a refreshing moment of earnestness in a style that so often winds up steeping itself in bitter irony. —Colin Joyce
Trey Songz' Trigga is the album form of a summer blockbuster, most immediately notable for it's slick production, sticky hooks, and sex. Not every album needs to be a Kurosawa, and Trey is top of his mass-market R&B game here. "Touchin, Lovin," for example, employs that pregnant, Mustard-style minimalism and a subtle interpolation of Biggie's "Fuck You Tonight," as well as a swaggering and aggressively forward hook: I'm touchin' you tonight, I'm lovin you tonight—wait, nope, I'm fucking you tonight. It also benefits from a guest appearance from his Nicki Minaj, who delivers one of her most satisfying (and unapologetically naughty) performances of the year. —Zara Golden
PC Worship's Justin Frye is pretty much the perfect example of the "artist's artist." He's a former jazz conservatory kid who's been playing scuzzy rock shows on the Brooklyn warehouse circuit for years, and by contrast with his current roomies at the Bushwick DIY mainstay The Wallet—including the indie rock heartthrob Mac DeMarco, for one, but also the brothers Andy and Edwin White from Tonstartssbandht—he's cultivated the kind of low-key notoriety that's often spoken of in hushed tones among more die-hard fans of left-field music. If you've got a soft spot for the sort of shadowy, improv-heavy psychedelia that tends to bloom on the fringes of indie rock, you'll probably fall hard for Social Rust, which Frye's band released this year via Northern Spy and the Parquet Courts-affiliated Dull Tools. It's probably their most melodically accessible effort to date, though what's cool about "Paper Song" is precisely how untethered it sounds, like a bruising power chord anthem that's perpetually on the verge of collapsing under its own weight. —Emilie Friedlander
Back in January 2012 the FADER wrote of the then-anonymous Evian Christ, "We've got hard(ish)-earned dollars just waiting to bankroll EC's PayPal, whenever they want to sell us something." Two years and a Yeezus producer credit later, we were still waiting—until April's Waterfall EP on Tri Angle finally gave us the chance to part with some cash. There's something very rare about the record's title track: there's the crashing, black-hearted opening; that glitchy, weaving refrain; and the sad, barely-audible strands of plaintive piano buried in its belly. Embracing its titular theme, the song alternates between hard and ethereal, the familiar and alien, until its heart-stilling conclusion. It's a lot tougher than Christ's past output, but it's immaculately crafted and could still rip a dance floor apart (or the radio, if the world were just). Stay heavy, beautiful and true in 2015, Evian Christ. —Liz Raiss
"Mama Needs a Margarita," from Zoe Muth's underrated third album, World of Strangers, is a terrifically bittersweet song delivered with a painfully straight face. Over barroom piano and slide guitar, Zoe Muth sings in a calm, modest midrange about putting her baby to bed and imagining something else: what the child's absent father is up to, the fun she used to have, other lives she could've led. Mama needs a margarita, a slow song, and two strong arms to lead… A long straight highway, no cops to get in my way. Perhaps it's owing in part to the acclaim that Muth deserves but hasn't yet widely received, but never has staying put and acting like you're fine sounded so heartbreaking. —Duncan Cooper
Picture it: You're out drinking after the millionth pointless fight with your soon-to-be-ex-lover, and you catch a stranger's eye. For a fraction of a second, you imagine what it would be like to go home with them. The scenario unravels in your head frame-by-frame like some bummer movie and you momentarily forget that your heart is hopelessly tangled in a separate mess. On "Just Once," 23-year-old pop newcomer Shura sings of that specific scenario in lucid detail. She probably won't act on that impulse, and you likely wouldn't either, but her song's snappy, 1980s-radio drums and humid production sure makes the proposition sound nice. —Patrick D. McDermott
Like many dance-focused artists, Norwegian space-disco don Todd Terje could've retained the singular reputation he's amassed without ever releasing a full-length; the singles he's dropped over the past four years have more than enough for his growing cult of devotees to chew on. Defying all odds, then, Terje blessed the world this year with It's Album Time, his debut LP. It was one of the strongest dance records of 2014, defying the genre at every turn with lounge excursions, tropical-jazz freakouts, and some of the best synthesizer arpeggios since Ryan Gosling threw on that fucking jacket. At the record's center sits the subtle, beautifully blooming "Johnny and Mary," a cover of late 1980s pop-rock moneyman Robert Palmer's single that features ex-Roxy Music vocalist Bryan Ferry doing his decaying-idol thing all over it. Terje's gained a reputation for patient builds and ecstasy-inducing zeniths, and on "Johnny and Mary," he travels headlong into excess by way of schmaltzy piano, gently throbbing synths, and Ferry's deathless croak, the latter of which hasn't sounded this affecting—this sad, this achingly gorgeous—in many years. —Larry Fitzmaurice
Part of what makes M.E.S.H.'s track "Scythians" so cool is that it offers a very specific kind of use-value as a piece of music, one that's characterized a lot of great music this year—the work by Felicita, Rabit, Lotic, Total Freedom, and Kablam, in particular. It offers the listener a different way of existing for three and a half minutes. The architecture of the track's different sections and tonal motions seem to exist in 4D. It's really not unlike a roller coaster: you pay the toll and you get on the ride of whatever the fuck "Scythians" is, with the effect that your thoughts and feelings are suddenly swinging like hydraulics, and organized according to the track's discontinuous, cyborgian logic. Then you get on the ride again. —Alexander Iadarola
"All Under One Roof Raving" is perhaps Jamie xx's most explicitly floor-ready cut yet. Chamber-music strings are plucked in the background, and that steel drum returns yet again, but the heavy patter of the track's rhythmic backbone congeals with its surrounding elements to make something that sounds perfect in the middle third of an ecstatic, sweaty DJ set. (To wit: I saw him drop this in a peerless session for Sweden's Way Out West festival this year, and the crowd absolutely lost their collective mind.) Ever the brainy one, though, even as Jamie xx heads closer to techno nirvana, the tune nicks samples from Mark Leckey's found-footage decay-of-rave-culture opus "Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore," cementing "All Under One Roof Raving" as a bold burst of nostalgia for an era in which its creator was likely still wearing diapers. —Larry Fitzmaurice
You know that influx of deep house-indebted UK pop songs that have been dominating the airwaves for the past couple of years? Well, MNEK wrote them. I'm almost not really exaggerating: he had a hand in this monster hit from Duke Dumont (not limited to the mmmms you can hear him making in the background), this one from Gorgon City (which he also sang), and this heater from Karen Harding. This year, he began working on his own star status with tracks like "Wrote a Song About You," in which the 19-year-old—oh yeah, he's 19—not only turned the spotlight on himself, but did it by writing the most meta song of his career to date. It showcases just how easily songwriting must come to the British-Nigerian artist: over those stripped-back opening bars, he blurts out a melody as if he were breathing. The phrasing is all askew and yet somehow, woven in his silken vocal, it makes perfect sense. It's enough to make MNEK the UK's cutest heartthrob. I mean, who wouldn't want him to be doodling songs like this about them late at night? —Aimee Cliff
Yung Lean isn't really talking about anything on "Leanworld." When he raps, Thinking about what once was and how I should have done it better/ Smoking drugs till I'm reckless, he's barely evoking a narrative, despite filling each run-on verse with enough words that he loses his breath at the end. In a year where "normcore" was important, Yung Lean made normcore music in the original sense of the term: tracks rooted in a fluidity of experience and noncommittal identification. While it might frustrate people overly concerned with old-fashioned ideas about "meaning," it is undeniable that this track cuts deep. —Alexander Iadarola
fun.'s 2012 LP, Some Nights, was a work of expressive, expansive pop-rock that was often awesomely, and almost embarrassingly, referential. But this cut from Strange Desire, the debut from fun. vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Jack Antonoff's Bleachers project, takes it one step further: It was summer when I saw your face/ Looked like a teenage runaway, Antonoff sings in the song's opening bars—and it's certainly a bold move to use such a couplet to kick off a song that sounds like souped-up Springsteen. Later, he mentions a "killer queen," which, again, is quite the reference to drop when your main band earned a few "Bohemian Rhapsody" comparisons the last go-round. By the time the song's rocket ship of a chorus hits, Antonoff ties off this perfect rock-history-hybrid of a single with a vocal delivery that sounds like the New Pornographers' A.C. Newman fronting a peak-era version of the Killers. Antonoff had more high-profile songwriting opportunities in 2014, so the pleasure of "Rollercoaster" and, by extension, Strange Desire, went slightly overlooked this year. If you haven't heard it yet, it's been waiting for you. —Larry Fitzmaurice
In Iamsu!'s self-produced "I Love My Squad," his ascendent HBK Gang has an anthem perfectly representative of their particular brand of crew love. It's a staunch "no new friends" proclamation built with sounds from their general crossroads—West Coast ratchet and swagger, as well as internet-native cloud rap synths. Most of all, it's a showcase for the tight-knit crew's unofficial ringleader—who is, as it turns out, a team player first and foremost. This the Heartbreak army, I'm a soldier, raps Su, and as a result, he and his whole squad—Sage the Gemini, P-Lo, Kool John, Skipper, and so on—shared in the shine this year. —Zara Golden
On the cover of "Otis" that got her discovered by mega-producer Dr. Luke, the now 17-year-old rapper/singer Becky G, aka Rebecca Gomez, detailed the struggles that saw her feeling like a prisoner. She had first been signed in the sixth grade, making music that she didn't love singing at the expense of money my family didn't have. Having long broken away from that toxic deal, this summer she released the first single from her upcoming debut album and scored her first Top 20 hit. Her firecracker raps are absent this time around, but in their place is as perfect a pop ode to first romance as you could ask for: the bass is weighty but fast, turning your stomach upside down as Becky sweetly trills a lovesick la da di, la da da. There's just something undefinable about Becky G, like the unnamed crush she's singing to: something that's totally silly, something that's a little bit "don't fuck with me." She's one of the most instantly likable stars to break through YouTube in a minute, and now she's proven she can knock out summer-stealing, puppy-love tunes, too. —Aimee Cliff
One of the very few Kanye West verses we got in 2014 was also one of his best in recent memory, most likely because he knuckled up on detractors from the first bar: When Ali turn up and be Ali you can't never change that nigga back to Cassius. DJ Mustard's synths banged in every club worth getting walked into this year, but on "Sanctified" they get stretched out into cinematic choir fodder, primed for Rick Ross to preach dope boy psalms. Ross might've done a little too much this year, but some of it he did quite right. —Matthew Trammell
For their debut album, Lacuna, Nottingham indie band Childhood tried on a few different sonic guises—most often, the type of swirling studio pop-psychedelia that Tame Impala's made a name on—but the album's strongest song found them dropping all affectations and letting their guitars roam free. The warm, dewy lines of "As I Am" sound comfortable and effortless, like an across-the-pond take on Real Estate's cozy suburban rock. That group broke out of its own nostalgic trappings this year with the stately, mature Atlas, and Childhood similarly turns its gaze away from the past and toward the ever-pressing present moment. There's no time at all/ Why won't you tell me that I need you, Ben Romans-Hopcraft sings duskily, later breaking into an affecting high register for the chorus. "As I Am" is a moony-eyed love song that is—like all love songs—a little selfish. But it's also so unabashedly romantic that any emotional transgressions ultimately become forgivable. —Larry Fitzmaurice
While R&B extended its 2000s trend of getting weird with it for another year in 2014, one of the most quietly powerful releases in the genre was—imagine the odds—staunchly traditionalist. Mariah Carey's immaculately titled Me. I Am…Mariah. The Elusive Chanteuse was the pop legend's worst-selling album in quite a while. It was a shame, but also unsurprising—partly because of the music industry's continuously precipitous decline, and partly because a record as patient, mature, and sterling in its craft doesn't exactly scream to be noticed in today's pop climate. No matter, though: despite its refusal to play the relevance game, The Elusive Chanteuse is an impressive argument for Mariah's vitality as a pop presence. Situated in the record's back half, her cover of George Michael's classic slow-burning anthem, "One More Try," is practically a victory lap. Mariah's take on Michael's totem torch song can't possibly match up to the original or improve on its powerful, holistic nature—but it doesn't try to, either. Instead, Mariah plays it straight, hitting every note just right and riding the chill-inducing falsetto on the chorus without overselling it. It scans as homage without suffocating reverence, replication without disingenuous mimicry, and a class act from one of pop's solid-gold talents, who still sparkles in any light. —Larry Fitzmaurice
Ryan Hemsworth is basically the internet's version of the high school cool guy who drifts effortlessly between cliques in the cafeteria, and he has a well-established habit for linking with interesting collaborators. He's worked with Tinashe, Baths, Sinead Harnett, Tink, and his moody 2014 full-length—Alone for the First Time—features internet-friendly vocalists like Lontalius and Alex G. His most unshakable MP3 from this year isn't on that record, but it still showcases the Canadian artist's knack for spotlighting raw talent, as well as his visible interest in Japanese music and culture. "Every Square Inch," a self-released missive, calls on a Sapporo-based teenager named Qrion, whose brand of stylish electronica fits snugly alongside Hemsworth's own skittery productions. The resulting union is a patchwork of Candyland synths and 8-bit bedroom whimsy, all hinged on a crucial vocal courtesy of Qrion; the processed loop, which chimes like a cartoon clock, might be 2014's catchiest gibberish. —Patrick D. McDermott
For a while now, it's been easy to write off Lupe Fiasco as his own worst enemy, engaged in a near-constant struggle to balance his creative indulgences with his instincts as a businessman. Every record began to feel simultaneously grossly over-calculated and undercooked. His only out was his under-recognized capacity for empathy, an ability to render people's stories with tremendous detail. But this year, Ty Dolla $ign saw something else in him. A skilled producer and studio instrumentalist, Ty is the sort of artist whose greatest talent isn't his voice, chops, or punchline, but his instinctive ability to reconcile the commercial and the artistic, creatively navigating between the smart/dumb poles of popular music. And so, rather than taking Lupe out of his usual context, Ty and his co-producer Shafiq Husayn of Sa-Ra Creative Partners doubled down. Supported by a chipped trumpet sample, Lupe's lines are both technically precise and poetic, humorous one moment and poignant the next. Bringing it all together is Ty's hook, where the beat is suddenly flush with color and the song rewards the listener's patience with an unexpected melodic turn. —David Drake
The thing about "scenes" is that the "scene" is more often than not the product of wishful thinking on the behalf of others—journalists, industry types, musicians, whatever. It would be great if every artist surrounded themselves with a bunch of likeminded, super-talented peers, but it's rare that it actually happens. Maybe that's why the releases from Washington, D.C.-based 1432 R Records are so appealing. So far, they've put out music from a guy named Ethiopian Records, another guy named Dawit Eklund, and another named Mikael Seifu. All of them are Ethiopian, and all of them use sounds from their culture in unexpected ways to create brilliantly forward thinking electronic music. Seifu's "Tuff Ruff" is thus far the absolute standout: Ethopian vocals are weaved over a moody shuffle and a busy nest of strings to create a piece of music that feels like a mission statement. Electronic music is going to keep moving in unexpected directions—we're all going to continue to feel overwhelmed and left behind—but "Tuff Ruff" is so calming and accomplished it feels good to have no clue what's going on. —Sam Hockley-Smith
Ariel Pink is a jerk—the type of jerk who makes offensive statements to get a rise out of people, makes more offensive statements when confronted with his previous verbal indiscretions, and eventually marvels at the attention he's grabbed by tricking journalists into forming a human centipede that endlessly regurgitates his useless, nonsensical attempts at trolling. He is, whether we like it or not, a reflection of some of the worst tendencies of the internet (and society) in 2014, a distinction that gives him an impossible-to-shake relevance. If all of this sounds sad, that's okay—below the layers of commercial-jingle goofiness and slimy sexual innuendo, Pink's music is often pretty sad-sounding too, imbued with a sense of drug-sick emptiness.
"Picture Me Gone," a stunning epic that appears near the end of Pink's latest double-album, pom pom, is his latest and perhaps most potent dose of melancholia. Aided by instrumental contributions from Spacemen 3/Spiritualized journeyman Jason Pierce, the childless Pink sighs about father-child fondness and present-day technological woes—I backed up all my pictures on my iCloud so you can't see me when I die—before hitting the song's cascading, titular chorus with a high-pitched cry. The guitars and synths that swirl around him sound like depth charges set off in outer space; there's a high-pitched series of tones that could easily be a theremin, or someone whistling into a microphone. Close your eyes and forget who's behind all of this, and it almost sounds romantically tragic. —Larry Fitzmaurice