Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Top Ten: Best Hit Songs of 2014

As they say, the night is darkest before the dawn.  And such is the case on this very blog, where I do my bottom-ten list of the year's hit songs before tackling the top-ten.  With the former out of the way, the latter's time is nigh.  And yet, I found 2014 a very... meh year for music, even more so than last year.  Over the past few years, there were certain albums that generated critical acclaim, strong revenues, and boatloads of awesome singles; for example, 21, The Heist, and Random Access Memories.  But I can't think of a single such source of joy from 2014.  But it's not all bad; instead of one awesome moment, the music scene of 2014 had a lot of little worthwhile moments, so it wasn't a total washout.  After all, if that weren't the case, I wouldn't be able to bring you the list you are about to read!  Also, without wishing to spoil, you can expect 2014's top-ten list to be my most personal yet.

10) "Timber"
by Pitbull & Ke$ha
from Meltdown [EP]
Year-end position: #11

Dear Kevin of 2011: You’ll never believe this, but one of Pitbull’s songs has shown up in my best-of lists.  Maybe it’s time, or outside forces, which have softened me.  You remember Pitbull for rapping about nothing but his success and his propensity for partying, and that has not exactly changed, but he’s starting to endear himself to me for just those reasons, since there’s something innocent about it -- at least, innocent compared to other rappers.  He just wants to have fun, and he manages to do so.  Even the beat does so, keeping the momentum up throughout the song’s short-but-sweet 3-minute-24-second runtime, which has been a problem of pop and dance songs as of late, including Pitbull's own works such as "Feel This Moment".  However, it turns out that “Timber” and “Feel This Moment” have entirely different stables of producers and writers (with the exception of Pitbull himself, to whatever degree he contributed), so I won’t exactly label “Timber” as a positive trend in someone perfecting their craft.  But it worked, dangit!

9) "Problem"
by Ariana Grande & Iggy Azalea
from My Everything
Year-end position: #9

Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea are both new talents which I want so desperately to include in one of my top-ten lists.  Ariana sings like the re-incarnation of Mariah Carey, vocal gymnastics and all, and Iggy Azalea is one of the most exciting rappers to come out in a long time, white female or otherwise.  But for some reason, none of their songs ever clicked for me; they either had serious problems countering their strengths, or were just “meh”.  So I might as well give props to the one song which combines their forces.  The beat's rather funky, using a saxophone riff which is not only better than the one from "Thrift Shop" (and yet, my only complaint about that song), but is used just enough to stay not annoying.  As a breakup song, it's also kind of forceful, especially the title line, "I've got one less problem without you".  Nothing's more important in this equation than your mental health, so you might as well be upfront in that regard.  And, what’s this?  A rap verse which actually ties into the theme of the song?  Now there’s something you don’t see everyday!

8) "Sing" / "Don't"
by Ed Sheeran
from X
Year-end position: #56 / #52

Somehow I have a greater tolerance than most people for the "white guy with acoustic guitar" sub-genre than certain other critics, so I was mildly intrigued by Ed Sheeran, whose 2012 hit "The A Team" married this mellow sound to some dark lyrics.  But this sort of thing doesn't have a long shelf life, so I'm glad he decided to switch up his style for these two singles.  Both appear to take influence from certain white-male-led, semi-rapped pop songs from 2002 or so, namely the stuff Justin Timberlake or John Mayer was doing at the time.  Although I shouldn't be surprised, given that the songs were produced by Pharell Williams ("Blurred Lines") and Rick Rubin ("Baby Got Back", "99 Problems") respectively.  And it is by fusing all these influences that Ed Sheeran and company create pure audio fun.  Oh yeah, and both songs do that thing again, where they pretend to censor a bad word but there's no uncensored version of the track.  Now, I like my music clean, but what's the point of pulling a stunt like that?

7) "The Man"
by Aloe Blacc
from Lift Your Spirit
Year-end position: #48

Last year, Katy Perry gave us "Roar", a self-esteem anthem which a lot of people liked and I didn't.  And now, Aloe Blacc (the guy who sang on Avicii's "Wake Me Up") has a song with exactly the same message.  In both songs, the main character has been fed up with being so submissive in the past, being taken advantage of by just about everyone, but no longer!  It's time for the singer to live up to his name and face FULL LIFE CONSEQUENCES!  (lol.)  But whereas "Roar" floundered about with cliches and a weak beat, "The Man" just gets it.  The horn and drum tracks provide a soulful swagger, and if you're going to repeat something for the chorus, it might as well be an assertive statement like "Go ahead and tell everybody / I'm the man, I'm the man, I'm the man".  Apart from "Roar", the song this reminds me of most is "The World's Greatest" by R. Kelly, albeit with much more confidence, both in the music and the singer's performance.  If "Eye of the Tiger" just isn't working for you anymore, and by its overuse in popular culture it shouldn't by now, give this a try.

6) "Something Bad"
by Miranda Lambert & Carrie Underwood
from Platinum
Year-end position: #99

What little country music I can claim to have, in the loosest sense of the word, liked, is the frequently-female-led adult-contemporary style of country, courtesy of such artists as Carrie Underwood, the Dixie Chicks, Lady Antebellum, and Taylor Swift, at least before she went full-pop on us.  So for the sake of completion and a willingness to come to terms with the genre, in more or less the eleventh hour I checked out "Something Bad" -- that's the name of the song, not an indicator of its quality -- by Miranda Lambert, and I was pleasantly surprised. "Something Bad" is, in a word, "bada**".  I find it almost cute that Miranda Lambert's idea of breaking the rules is skipping church, but maybe that's just a cultural disconnect.  More serving the topic of the song, the beat's got this deep chug to it that I haven't seen since the heyday of hair-metal.  Perhaps there's more to country music than I've given it credit for, since it's more like traditional rock-and-roll than anything else on the charts these days.  So thank you, "Something Bad", for teaching me to love again.

5) "Habits (Stay High)"
by Tove Lo
from Truth Serum [EP] / Queen of the Clouds
Year-end position: #32

You know what I’ve noticed about today’s music?  No one writes songs about drugs anymore.  Well, that changed this year with “Habits (Stay High)”, by the Swedish singer Ebba “Tove Lo” Nilsson.  In the song, she engages in all manner of self-destructive behaviours, because they let her forget about a messy breakup.  And I have to say, this song speaks to me on a personal level.  You see, I’ve dealt with my fair share of disappointments over the past couple of years.  And being unable to fix these things directly, my options are as follows: either obsess over, or ignore, them.  Following the logic that ignoring the problem will not fix it, I ended up keeping them in my mind ever since.  Which not only does not solve them, but keeps my mood in a depression.  A depression which is for all intents and purposes never-ending, as the factors which initiated my troubles and could, if willing, end them are beyond my control.  So I guess just forgetting about them sounds like the more appealing course of action.  Not that I’m going to resort to such drastic actions as Tove Lo or anything, but I’ll find some way to cope.  I mean, who wants to eat gruel in Zion when one could have steak in the Matrix?

4) "The Monster"
by Eminem & Rihanna
from The Marshall Mathers LP 2
Year-end position: #16

It’s funny.  The last time Eminem and Rihanna teamed up, it was for 2010’s “Love The Way You Lie”, a song about an abusive love-hate relationship.  Not the smartest decision when one of the parties concerned is the victim of a literal, physical assault.  But now they’re back with “The Monster”, and this time, for whatever reason, it works.  If Rihanna has developed any personality over the past couple of years, it's at the darker end of the pop-princess spectrum, so her singing that she's friends with the monster in her head or whatever plays to her strengths.  And then there's Eminem himself, whose rapping is the most intense he's managed in years.  He talks about the stresses of fame and whether or not he's stuck to the same goals he had when he first set out on his career, but despite all the doubt, if he's made a connection with even one listener, it will all have been worth it.  And wouldn't you know it, I've felt the exact same way about my own projects, including the SDP.

3) "Rather Be"
by Clean Bandit feat. Jess Glynne
from New Eyes
Year-end position: #41

Pop-song production these days tends to fall into one of two unfortunate categories: either lay on so much synth noise so as to render all its musical elements indistinguishable from one another, or the increasingly popular option of stripping it down so much as to come across as unfinished.  But there is a third way: incorporate a fair variety of instruments, but keep them distinct.  Sounds crazy, right?  Well, that's the way dance-pop newcomers Clean Bandit roll.  It may just be a "mushy love song", as one critic put it, but it certainly does make a suitable soundtrack for falling in love.

2) "Pompeii"
by Bastille
from Bad Blood
Year-end position: #12

Before I begin, I’d like to tell you the tale of another indie band’s single which started out interesting but just got killed by overexposure.  Back in 2011, there was Of Monsters and Men, this folky band from Iceland, whose song "Little Talks" got big on my local alt-rock radio station.  And it was, in a good way, quirky.  It’s a little hard to describe, but let’s just say adding the sound effect of creaking wood, as on a ship, really set a unique tone for the song.  So anyway, I listened to this station -- a lot -- as they played this song -- a lot -- and I grew bored of it really quickly.  Such was my lack of regard for "Little Talks" that by the time it had a chance to bubble up to the mainstream level and make it on Billboard’s year-end chart of 2013, I completely forgot about it when compiling my top-ten list for that year.

I will not make that same mistake again.  "Pompeii" may have grown boring over the course of its many spins on the radio, but this time around, I have the good impression it left on me the first time around fresh in my mind.  Musically, it has an epic production style suitable for its namesake, with echoing chants in the background and one of the greatest drum fills since "In The Air Tonight" -- an honour I do not bestow lightly.  And lyrically, it seems to juxtapose a personal disaster against the context of something more literal, namely the eruption of Mount Vesuvius over two thousand years ago.  The metaphor does flail around a bit, so it's hard to have a grasp on how literal to take this song.  But hey -- I like a song that’s open to interpretation.

1) "Let It Go"
by Idina Menzel
from Frozen [OST]
Year-end position: #21

Well, this is awkward.  A song from a Disney musical got some real chart success.  I’ve got to say, this isn’t exactly within my comfort zone, but there is honestly a lot working in favour of “Let It Go”.  Now, I’ve sat through a lot of self-esteem anthems over the past couple of years, and I approve of most of them -- it’s not exactly the worst subject to write a song about.  But does “Let It Go” stand apart from the rest of them?  Well... yes.  For some reason, the version that got more popular was not the “pop” version by Demi Lovato, but the original recording by the actress who sang it in the movie itself.  And the difference is clear -- miss Idina Menzel’s performance sells this song.  On a lyrical level, this song has a clear point -- the protagonist has kept some aspect of herself hidden from others thus far in her life, but is now willing to throw her self-imposed restraints to the wind.  This setup, certainly, could apply to many real-life scenarios for many people.  Heck, it could even apply to me, with all the emotional baggage I've admitted to a few paragraphs ago.  However, a good chunk of the lyrics are a little too specific to the song’s scene in the movie, so its utility as a personal anthem for those going through the same struggles as Elsa does in the movie suffers a bit.

So with all that said, could I still find it in my heart to award my top honours of the year to a Disney song, specifically, this one?

Well… no.

I’m still bitter about Frozen eating all the money in the world and snubbing The Wind Rises back at the Oscars.  It’s been my primary source of depression pretty much throughout the whole year.  But every so often, when my head is clear enough, I remind myself: it’s not Frozen’s fault for what happened.  It’s society’s fault for focusing its attention on one thing instead of another.  It’s like if one were to blame the Jews for World War II.  The problem wasn’t that they existed, but that somebody reacted poorly to their presence.  But touchy metaphors aside, as a sign of protest, I have decided to ban “Let It Go” from my top-ten list for 2014.  See that “1)” in front of its title?  That is a lie.  Instead, it shall occupy the Wildcard slot in this countdown.  Again, this has nothing to do with the movie in and of itself.  Sorry Frozen, it’s not you, it’s the Academy.

And now for my real #1 song of 2014:

1) "Am I Wrong"
by Nico & Vinz
from Black Star Elephant
Year-end position: #14

Congratulations to Nico & Vinz for being the first act from Norway to have an international hit since a-Ha in the ‘80s.  (In case you think I’ve forgotten Ylvis of “The Fox” fame, I haven’t; I’ve mentally quarantined my memories of that song to halt the risk of infection.  Also, thanks a lot, you enabling klutz.)  Their breakthrough hit, “Am I Wrong”, reminds me of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know”, which I gave high honours back in 2012.  There are many distinct musical elements going on here.  Unlike the stripped-down Gotye song, “Am I Wrong” ventures closer to EDM territory, giving it some more pop appeal, but stays just far enough away to be different from everything else on the radio.  And given the duo's African ethnicity, they also laid on some tribal drums and chanting which are kind of subdued.  It's probably not enough for the listener to make the connection that this is "world music", but again, it's not like anyone else in the top 40 did this sort of thing.  Am I wrong for giving my top spot to this song instead of "Let It Go"?  Well tough.  That's just how I feel.

I shall close out this article by listing a bunch of songs I discovered this year which didn't make the Billboard list, but I nonetheless still liked and/or thought were good.

Arctic Monkeys -- "Do I Wanna Know?"
Capital Cities -- "Stayin' Alive"
Childish Gambino -- "3005"
CHVRCHES -- "The Mother We Share"
Coldplay -- "Magic"
Disclosure -- "White Noise"
Foo Fighters -- "Something From Nothing"
Foster the People -- "Coming of Age"
Hozier -- "Take Me to Church"
Kate Boy -- "The Way We Are"
Kiesza -- "Hideaway"
Lorde -- "Tennis Court"
Mark Ronson & Bruno Mars -- "Uptown Funk"
MisterWives -- "Reflections"
Mr. Probz -- "Waves"
Neon Trees -- "Sleeping With a Friend"
Steve Aoki & Kid Ink -- "Delirious (Boneless)"
U2 -- "The Miracle of Joey Ramone"
Vance Joy -- "Riptide"
Walk the Moon -- "Shut Up and Dance"
"Weird Al" Yankovic -- "Word Crimes"
The 1975 -- "Chocolate"

I'd have done the same for my bottom-ten list, but it would've all been DJ Mustard productions, so it would have been otherwise pointless.  So, thank you all and have a happy 2015!!

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