It’s been a strange year for music.
After 2013, when we saw albums from the biggest names in music — Kanye West, Jay Z and Beyoncé, to name a few — not many stars gave us new music this year. Still, there have been fantastic albums from the likes of Cloud Nothings, TV on the Radio and Run the Jewels.
The best album, though, might have come from a classic rock-influenced indie band out of Philadelphia, which is where this list starts. Presenting: the essential tracks from 2014.
“Red Eyes” — The War on Drugs
The War on Drugs’ third record, “Lost in the Dream,” came out of a period of depression and anxiety that plagued the band’s singer, songwriter and guitarist, Adam Granduciel. Granduciel essentially became a hermit during its recording, putting all of his essence into this one incredible record. “Red Eyes” sounds like Tom Petty if he had been influenced by The Jesus and Mary Chain, a Don Henley-esque rocker slathered in guitar effects and vocal reverb. There might not be a better musical moment this year than Granduciel’s “Woo!” that sends the song into a triumphant guitar solo.
“Chandelier” — Sia
Before “Chandelier,” Sia was a somewhat anonymous figure who had written songs for the likes of Rihanna and Britney Spears. After this song, she burst into the public eye, even while the song itself remains far better known than the singer. Starting with an understated verse, it explodes into one of the best choruses of the past few years. Her vocal strain is magical and more emotional than any other pop song this year.
“True Love” — Tobias Jesso Jr.
It would be too easy to call this song Beatles-esque, but it would not be inaccurate. The relatively unknown Jesso appeared out of nowhere with this lo-fi piano and voice recording early this year that captured the attention of some of the biggest music blogs. The background hiss makes this song all the more poignant — it feels intimate, like Jesso is singing directly to the listener. His tale of true love is simple, beautiful and timeless.
“About the Money” — T.I. featuring Young Thug
The father of the Atlanta rap scene teams up with its newest (and weirdest) star to craft one of the most intriguing rap songs released this year. Young Thug is no more intelligible than he usually is, but is backed by the southern drawl of T.I. and the Muzak-style beat by London on da Track. He is finally able to step out from the underground. The duo’s performance of the song with the Roots on Jimmy Fallon was truly a sight to behold.
“Attak” — Rustie featuring Danny Brown
Brown has consistently been the best feature rapper over the past few years, along the way releasing a couple killer albums of his own and maintaining the most unusual style of any rapper in the game. He hopped on this beat from Rustie’s album “Green Language” and tore it to shreds — Brown’s Jekyll and Hyde personas are split in this song, with his yappy voice at its most threatening and unhinged. A note to all electric dance music producers — whatever Brown’s price is for a guest verse, it is worth it.
“Digital Witness” — St. Vincent
Annie Clark has long been the darling of the indie rock scene, but the experimental guitarist and singer caught the most attention of her career with her fourth, self-titled record. A song that captures the world we live in now, Clark gives her take on the technology-consumed people we have become — a look at the song’s video proves that it is probably not positive.
“I Wanna Get Better” — Bleachers
Jack Antonoff, best known as the guitarist for Fun., has branched out from his band during his career, but no song of his has been as successful as the lead single from his first album as the singer and guitarist of Bleachers. When Fun. returns, they will go right back to being one of the biggest bands in the world, but Antonoff can rest easy at night knowing that he can write a song with Fun.-level appeal.
“Move that Dope” — Future featuring Pusha T, Pharrell and Casino
Future’s “Honest” was hit-and-miss, but this posse cut definitely made the mark. Over a wobbly beat by Mike Will Made It, the four rappers take their turns extolling the upside of “whippin’ the yams.” Pusha T never misses a chance to remind us of his drug slinging past, and he is still “Young enough to still sell dope / But Old enough that I knows better.” The real treat of the song, though, is Pharrell’s casual flow that reminds us that he does not just belong behind the producer’s mixing board.
“Seasons (Waiting for You)” — Future Islands
Singer Samuel Herring’s meme-generating dance moves during his band’s performance on the “Late Show with David Letterman” overshadowed the song, but it gave the band the attention it deserved — even if for the wrong reasons. The throwback synthesizer intro and Herring’s fantastic voice made this song one of the most powerful of the year. It is heartbreakingly beautiful, the type of song to listen to on the last night of summer or the day you move out of your hometown.
“Trophies” — Drake
A year after his fantastic “Nothing was the Same,” this Canadian superstar released a few one-off tracks throughout the year, none better than this Hit-Boy and 40-produced song. Blaring horns back him up in the verse, where Drizzy reminds us that he lives a fantastic life, before the chorus, where we once again see the sensitive side of Drake. This song leaked at the end of 2013 and was officially released as a single in February, but it is easy to see it as a victory lap for a year that saw Drake reach a level of success that very few do.