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The 27 Best Songs of 2014 (So Far)

April 28, 2014  |  3:32pm
The 27 Best Songs of 2014 (So Far)

Each of the past four springs, we’ve taken the opportunity to gather some of the best songs of Q1—a quick, unscientific snapshot of what’s caught everyone’s attention so far. Unlike our year-end lists, there’s no real method to the madness other than me spending a week listening to the suggestions of our staff and writers and picking the ones I like best. It’s really just a way for me to discover—and share—some great new music.

This year new bands seem to dominate the picks, though several established artists like Beck, Conor Oberst, St. Vincent and Drive-By Truckers had no problem getting our attention. The surprises for me were how much I liked a couple of songs by artists outside my usual playlists, namely Rick Ross and Against Me!. There are also a couple of noteworthy collaborations—Mountain Man’s Amelia Meath joins Megafaun’s Nick Sanborn in Sylvan Esso (I really wish they’d gone with MegaMountainMan), and Ted Leo and Aimee Mann form The Both.

I’m sure our opinions will change greatly by the end of 2014, but for now here are my 27 favorites songs so far.

27. MØ – “Pilgrim”
Scandinavia has long been a major musical player, but the three countries that make up the region are having a particularly strong 2014, especially from their ladies. While Lykke Li, Little Dragon, and First Aid Kit held down the Swedish domination of the music landscape, Norwegian Mr. Little Jeans and Danish MØ offered up strong debuts in the first quarter of the year, with MØ’s “Pilgrim” being not a particularly accurate representation of the region’s sound, but maybe a glimpse of the possibilities. The song is very organic sounding and lacks busy-ness or excessive production gloss, with just plain horns leading the charge to pop success. All of these artists do their best when emphasizing that which makes them unique, and “Pilgrim” is an ace example.—Philip Cosores

26. Gardens & Villa – “Domino”
When I was in middle school, I played the flute. It was an instrument that was maybe not the coolest in the band (the drummers nabbed that title) or the biggest (hey, tubas) but it was easy because most of the notes were the same as the recorder, which we all learned when they taught us to read music. Had I known you could make a flute sound as utterly danceable as Gardens & Villa does in the opening to “Dominos,” maybe I’d have stuck with it: beyond the earworm of a melody the instrument introduces, the track’s ambient vocals and pulsing beats will probably keep this song bouncing around in my head (and blasting through my car speakers) all summer long.—Dacey Orr

NSFW Video:

25. Beck – “Blue Moon”
Beck might have returned with some familiar folky tones on Morning Phase, but he still hadn’t abused too much of a good thing. A prime example, the down-tempo “Blue Moon,” which is unclear whether it was inspired by the crafty brew of the same name. What we do know: this lush, hummable (and great) tune and will have you headed back for seconds before the lunar cycle restarts.—Tyler Kane

24. Robert Ellis – “Still Crazy After All These Years”
Let’s file this one under “Great Achievements in Song Choice.” Robert Ellis’ tenor is perfectly suited to Paul Simon’s 1975 classic, and he manages to do the original justice while also making it his own, turning it into a nostalgic country lament and adding some fantastic guitar work. A lot of people who haven’t seen him live don’t realize that Ellis can truly shred, and his solo on this track is one step towards rectifying that, but ultimately it’s that voice that cleanly cuts through everything else and holds our attention on this gorgeous cover that should do Simon proud.—Bonnie Stiernberg

23. Conor Oberst – “Hundreds of Ways”
After years of silence from the frontman of Bright Eyes, Conor Oberst returned with a grab bag of ways for his fans to cope on Upside Down Mountain’s first single, “Hundreds of Ways.” Featuring beautiful, booming (and unexpected) production twists and turns from Jonathan Wilson, the single was a reminder of how good a great Oberst tune can be.—Tyler Kane

22. Hospitality – “It’s Not Serious”
Admittedly, my relationship with Hospitality’s latest full length Trouble, is getting, well, kind of serious. The first single, “I Miss Your Bones,” is designed to lure you in, but “It’s Not Serious” is a little more low-key, with understated instrumentals and a refreshingly blasé attitude toward romance. And honestly? On its most basic level, I love that this song’s got a dude walking me home and folding my laundry, but then immediately reminds him that doesn’t mean it’s serious. High five, Hospitality.—Dacey Orr

21. Nick Waterhouse – “It No. 3”
On his rendition of his old pal Ty Segall’s “It No. 3,” Nick Waterhouse smoothes out any garage-rock rough edges and adds the kind of slick instrumentation that…well, that makes it sound like a Nick Waterhouse song. But the heart of the song remains, with Waterhouse sounding positively menacing, especially on those “woh oh ohhhhh”s.—Bonnie Stiernberg

20. Lake Street Dive – “Bad Self Portraits”
This year is shaping up to be a big one for Lake Street Dive. A sophomore record that dropped in February, a headlining world tour, a few dates with Josh Ritter—hell, lead singer Rachael Price even had a cameo on House of Cards. It’s all deserved, too. “Bad Self Portraits” is a knockout made to be played loud and often. Price’s voice is the driving force. Immensely powerful, it could fill an amphitheater (and will a few times this summer) with air to spare. A record full of great cuts like “Stop Your Crying,” “You Go Down Smooth,” “Seventeen,” and “Just Ask,” it was hard to choose just one. But, with records this good, you always have to start at the top.—Eric Walters

19. Schoolboy Q/Kendrick Lamar – “Collard Greens”
There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about the verses on this collaboration between Black Hippy members Schoolboy Q and Kendrick Lamar; it’s all still weed, girls, and riches. But it’s the way the two play off the jazzy, popping beat (courtesy of Gwen Bunn) that gives this track such a delirious energy. Kendrick especially gets downright weird on his spotlight—dancing over the syllables of “I’m more than a man, I’m God / bitch touche en garde” or going into a stage whisper a few bars as he comes on to some unnamed lady. It serves to push Schoolboy to lay even deeper into the pocket, and come out swinging. The rest of album tries gamely to keep up with this raw shot of adrenalin but nothing on Oxymoron can compete.—Robert Ham

18. St. Paul & The Broken Bones – “I’m Torn Up”
Just a little low-end guitar and subdued horns kick off the first track of the debut of Alabama’s St. Paul & The Broken Bones. Frontman Paul Janeway evens holds back on his vocals until about two minutes in, just offering hints of the Muscle Shoals-inspired soul that they’re about to unleash like its their birthright. This is a band that’s meant to be experienced live, but since they don’t all fit in your car, the recorded version will do just fine.—Josh Jackson

17. La Dispute – “Woman (Reading)”
Music writers talk about La Dispute the same way a high school quarterback might tell his friends that he plays Magic: The Gathering. Some of them have spent the better half of 2014 opening pieces on La Dispute by justifying their love for the band’s very smart, very good Rooms of the House. But I’ve got no qualms saying this is my most-listened-to record of 2014 so far. While the album might recall a different time—one where At the Drive-In or Refused’s post-hardcore wails weren’t taboo in the mainstream—this Grand Rapids, Mich., five-piece has been building a thoughtful, highly conceptual catalog that range from hard meditations on faith and humanity (Wildlife) to their latest musing on Midwest complacency. One of Rooms of the House’s centerpieces is “Woman (Reading),” which rings in the final act of a tale of two discontent homemakers in the Midwest falling apart at the seams. Part character study, part catharsis, “Woman (Reading)” is a vital part of a hardcore concept album that swings for the fences.—Tyler Kane

16. Wild Cub – “Thunder Clatter”
Wild Cub’s entire debut album Youth is lovely, but “Thunder Clatter” still stands out. As a solo artist, Keegan DeWitt proved himself a gifted songwriter, but this track captures a level of energy he never had before. The electronic music and danceable beat fill his sentimental verses with joy.—Kristen Hill

15. Dum Dum Girls – “Rimbaud Eyes”
Dee Dee and company pay tribute to the late 19th-century poet Arthur Rimbaud on this driving goth-pop number. Like the rest of Too True, there’s a darkness to “Rimbaud Eyes” that marks a shift away from the Dum Dum Girls’ ‘60s girl group influences and a step closer to the likes of Siouxie and the Banshees, The Cure and The Jesus and Mary Chain. This is the song you play as you put on a bunch of shimmery makeup, maybe stomp on a rotting pumpkin and howl at the moon on Halloween—although as Dee Dee reminds us, “every moon is atrocious, every sun bitter.”—Bonnie Stiernberg

14. The Both – “Milwaukee”
While Ted Leo and Aimee Mann both leave their fingerprints on the collaborative tracks that comprise their first album as The Both, “Milwaukee” leans on the Leo side of the fence hard, with its bluesy guitar leads and hand-clap-demanding tempo. The song commemorates the band becoming a band in Milwaukee, all while hinging the chorus on the word “nucleus” without sounding too ridiculous, and clearly plants the duo in the light they have always felt most comfortable—that of celebration and confidence.—Philip Cosores

13. Drive-By Truckers – “Made Up English Oceans”
Drive-By Truckers have been through their fair share of changes—read Geoffrey Himes’ Paste cover story for more on that—but one thing remains the same: This Athens-based outfit can still turn out instant classics album after album. With “Made Up English Oceans,” where the Truckers’ latest gets its title, we’ve got a Mike Cooley-led tale of tough love that brings all the grit you’d expect from the Truckers with a side of tear-summoning beauty.—Tyler Kane

12. Rick Ross – “Sanctified” (feat. Kanye West & Big Sean)
From “Mercy” to “Control,” Big Sean’s association with the most important songs in rap seems so arbitrarily coincidental, mainly because he is usually the most forgettable part of those songs. So, Sean is smart to get on this destined to be mega-hit from Rick Ross, who himself is the predictably most forgettable part of “Sanctified.” The gospel coming from Betty Wright is a welcome change away from the pop hook, but really the song belongs to Yeezy. In just a single verse he manages multiple unforgettable moments, the last of which being tops: “Really!? Me!? Too aggressive?”—Philip Cosores

11. St. Vincent – “Birth in Reverse”
“Birth in Reverse” is Annie Clark’s stand against regression and banality in American society. Our protagonist seems to be starring in some bizarre sitcom, trapped in an ordinary existence where she takes out the garbage, masturbates and is “still holding for the laugh.” But Clark urges us to break out of our own four walls and reach for something bigger. “Laugh all you want but I want more,” she sings. “And what I’m swearing I’ve never sworn before.”—Bonnie Stiernberg

10. Sharon Jones – “Stranger to My Happiness”
A bout with cancer delayed the release of Sharon Jones’ Give the People What They Want, but when she made her return in January (just weeks after her last chemo session), she didn’t miss a beat. “Stranger to My Happiness” is a deceptively upbeat tale of jilted lovers, with Jones playing narrator and offering bemused warnings (“now if you think that’s a thing that only evil men can bring, let me skin this cat another way”). Despite the song’s title and subject matter, like anything Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings do, it’ll leave you grinning and feeling pretty great.—Bonnie Stiernberg

9. Parker Millsap – “Truck Stop Gospel”
It seems that every year a new, young voice emerges in music that demands our attention. For the Americana world, that voice in 2014 is Parker Millsap. Only 21, Millsap is already on his second record, a self-titled collection of ten songs that sounds like something an artist years his senior should have put out. Not a kid that was just given the privilege to sit at a bar. “Truck Stop Gospel” is one of many gems on the album, but easily the most fun with a consistent groove that drives forward and Millsap’s voice that absolutely burns.—Eric Walters

8. Temples – “Shelter Song”
Kettering, Northamptonshire. It sounds like the perfect place for two lads named James Edward Bagshaw and Thomas Edison Warmsley to start a home-studio project channeling the psychadelic prog-rock of ages past. But the band’s buzz didn’t come out of nowhere—Bagshaw had a modest hit in 2006 with his former band Sukie. “Shelter Song” was released as a single in 2012, but it’s new to us, a perfect little swirling love song to kick off the band’s 2014 debut, Sun Structures. East Midlands never sounded so good.—Josh Jackson

7. Saintseneca – “Blood Bath”
Columbus folk upstarts Saintseneca hinted at greatness with 2011’s Last, a disarming cascade of finger-plucked Appalachian hymns anchored by Zac Little’s singular croons, but new LP Dark Arc surpasses any and all expectations. Opener “Blood Bath” paints a manifesto of the ornate, challenging journey ahead as Little remarks the “flesh of god is flayed for you to eat.” This promise peaks a verse later as multi-instrumentalist Maryn Jones and Little volley into a pulsing chorus laced with a tribal snare beat and hook that could mobilize an army. The track shows that folk has a weirder, wider future than the shiny confections of Mumford & Sons or The Lumineers, and it’s about damn time.—Sean Edgar

6. Lydia Loveless – “Really Want To See You”
Lydia Loveless straddles a tightrope of vintage honky-tonk nostalgia with modern grrrl power, and new album Somewhere Else adds a new level of polish to the bottom-shelf heartbreak she’s refined with each album. Opener “Really Want To See You” lives up to the artist’s namesake, as Loveless pines after a former flame who’s recently tied the knot. Loveless may actually be married to bassist Ben Lamb IRL, but she’s a master storyteller with a voice that goes down like honey and lyrics that bite like a hangover. With tones of Loretta Lynn and early Neko Case, the track turns the most tragic of circumstances into a delicious, upbeat confession worthy of infinite listens.—Sean Edgar

5. Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues
The title track of Against Me!’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues cuts right to the chase after Laura Jane Grace’s highly publicized tale of coming out as transgendered in 2012. Here, the songwriter gives every bit of grit she’s been known for with heartbreaking line after line: “You want them to notice/ The ragged ends of your summer dress/ You want them to see you like they see any other girl/ They just see a faggot/ They hold their breath not to catch the sick.” With an inbox stacked with albums retelling tales of lost love, sometimes recorded in cabins; or musings on the human condition; or on weirder days, food, Grace’s gutting honesty on this not-so-universal experience is the realest thing I’ve heard in…I really couldn’t tell you how long.—Tyler Kane

4. Sylvan Esso – “Hey Mami”
If anything has the capability of getting my folk-friendly, pop-loving ears to perk up to something a little bit synthier, it’s Amelia Meath’s ethereal vocals. Marrying the harmony she honed with vocal group Mountain Man to the innovative instrumentals of Megafaun’s Nick Sanborn, Sylvan Esso is poised to be all over the place with their forthcoming self-titled album. “Hey Mami” a cat-call on loop, but rather than admonishing the caller or objectifying the woman, it empowers: I love the way lyrics like “she owns the eyes” are matched up with dance beats and the sweeping repetition of the catcall itself.This song has the potential to be my favorite of the year. —Dacey Orr

3. Allah-Las – “Every Girl”
The first time I heard this Allah-Las single (which will hopefully be included on their second LP later this year), my ears instantly perked up at the opening bass riff. By the time the tambourine kicked in a few seconds later, I was sold, and when I reached the chorus, I knew I had found my favorite song of the year. “Every Girl” isn’t rocket science, but the best rock songs never are. It’s about being girl-crazy (“every girl’s the one for me”), and it spits out the names of potential beaus like it’s garage rock’s answer to Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5.” And oh my god, it’s catchy. Since that fateful first listen, I’ve cruised around with the windows down blasting this song more times than I can remember. I’ve brushed my teeth to it. I’ve danced solo to it in my apartment like I was starring in a Risky Business reboot or something. I’ve become completely evangelical about it, recommending it to anyone who’ll listen and some who won’t. In short, I’m obsessed and probably need help. But I don’t want your help, because I heard this song and I knew. I knew the way you know about a good melon. —Bonnie Stiernberg

2. The War on Drugs – “Under the Pressure”
There’s so much to explore in the eight minutes and 50 seconds of “Under the Pressure,” the opening track on The War on Drugs’ excellent Lost in the Dream, but what hooked me the first time, in my car, came at the 4:08 mark. I was listening at the insistence (and persistence) of a Twitter follower, and though I could tell almost immediately that I wouldn’t be wasting my time—that this song was really, really good, and with it probably the entire album—it wasn’t until the halfway point that I really understood why. The lyrics are mostly expressionistic, and when you consider that even after multiple listens the Internet can’t decipher them all, you can imagine how well I understood Adam Granduciel on my maiden voyage. The melody was strong, though there was no chorus, and the energy had a pulsing, Sprinsteen-like urgency that I loved. What changed and clarified at the 4:08 mark, when the song seemed like it might be winding down, was as simple as a heavier drumbeat; on its face, nothing revolutionary. But what it did was expand the song into its true form, as something that wasn’t yet halfway over, and had life to spare. It made complete sense—this song had to be eight minutes long, had to to unfurl into controlled chaos, and had to grab you by the shoulders, like a mad genius, and make you see exactly what the fuck it was talking about. I love it, and I think when you look at the lyrics, you get closest to the theme when Granduciel sings, “You were raised on a promise / To find out over time / Better come around to the new way / Or watch as it all breaks down here.” The greatness, though, is in the driving impetus, the unspoken vitality and anger and exuberance and defiance that brings you to a visceral crest and lets you ride it just as long as you’ve got the spirit and the spine.—Shane Ryan

1. Ages and Ages – “Divisionary (Do the Right Thing)”
I’m usually not an obsessive person. Okay, my wife and I did blow through Friday Night Lights pretty quickly. And I am currently on three soccer teams. Then there was that five-pound bag of gummy bears I bought on Amazon a couple of weeks back… But needing to hear a song daily—okay, maybe more than daily—only happens to me about once a year (my officemates can provide you with a list). This year’s musical addiction is “Divisionary (Do the Right Thing).” Even my kids know all the words. And hey, there are worse choruses to teach them than “Do the right thing, do the right thing / Do it all the time, do it all the time / Make yourself right, never mind them / Don’t you know you’re not the only one suffering.” Every song on Divisionary sounds like a bunch of friends having fun making noise—like Edward Sharpe without the cult-y vibe. But it’s the title track that you won’t want to get out of your head.—Josh Jackson

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