The Gibby Fifty: Favorite 50 Songs of 2014

It’s Saturday guys, no heavy reading here. List is arranged alphabetically by artist, limited to one entry per main artist, and nothing from the best hits list qualified because you can already assume it’d be here. Spotify playlist is at the bottom, although you’re on your own if you want to hear Taylor Swift’s “I Wish You Would”.

Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties – “Grapefruit”
Against Me! – “FUCKMYLIFE666″
Allison Weiss – “Giving Up”
Azealia Banks – “Ice Princess”
Beck – “Waking Light”
Beyonce ft. Nicki Minaj – “Flawless (Remix)”
The Black Keys – “Turn Blue”
Bleachers – “I Wanna Get Better”
Bleeding Rainbow – “Time and Place”
Candy Hearts – “Something’s Missing”
Charli XCX – “Break the Rules”
D’Angelo – “Another Life”
Death From Above 1979 – “Government Trash”
5 Seconds of Summer – “She Looks So Perfect”
FKA twigs – “Pendulum”
Flying Lotus ft. Kendrick Lamar – “Never Catch Me”
Foo Fighters – “The Feast and the Famine”
The Gaslight Anthem – “Get Hurt”
Gerard Way – “Millions”
HAERTS – “Call My Name”
Hozier – “Take Me to Church”
Interpol – “All The Rage Back Home”
J.Cole – “’03 Adolescence”
Jack White – “High Ball Stepper”
Joyce Manor – “Heart Tattoo”
The Juan Maclean – “Here I Am”
Julian Cassablancas and the Voidz – “Where No Eagles Fly”
Kendrick Lamar – “i”
Kitty – “285”
Lana Del Rey – “Shades of Cool”
Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars – “Uptown Funk”
Modern Baseball – “Rock Bottom”
Nicki Minaj – “Anaconda”
Paramore – “Tell Me It’s Okay”
Pharrell ft. Justin Timberlake – “Brand New”
Restorations – “Separate Songs”
Run the Jewels ft. Zach de la Rocha – “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)”
Sharon Van Etten – “Your Love Is Killing Me”
The Smashing Pumpkins – “Anti-Hero”
St. Vincent – “Huey Newton”
Taylor Swift – “I Wish You Would” (close enough)
Tinashe ft. Schoolboy Q – “2 On”
Tove Lo – “Thousand Miles”
TV On the Radio – “Happy Idiot”
The War on Drugs – “Red Eyes”
Weezer – “Cleopatra”
Willow ft. SZA – “9”
Xerxes – “A Toast”
YG Ft. Drake – “Who Do You Love?”
Youth Culture – “Grocery Store”

Come back tomorrow for the conclusion, or catch up below!

Listmas 2014
December 16th: Worst Hits of the Year (10-6)
December 17th: Worst Hits of the Year (5-1)
December 18th: Best Hits of the Year (10-6)
December 19th: Best Hits of the Year (5-1)
December 20th: Favorite Albums of the Year
December 21st: The Gibby Fifty–50 Favorite Songs
December 22nd: Odds and Ends

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Top 11 Favorite Albums of 2014

Welcome to Listmas Day Five, where we’re finally leaving the gridlock of the charts and song-by-song analysis for the open territories of entire albums. As with Listmases long, long ago, the albums here had to meet the nebulous qualifier of being my “favorite”, and I realize that label’s subjective as all get out. It’s not meant as an all-inclusive ranking, but I feel like the scope is generous this year. In a field of eleven candidates, we have dense, dreamy R&B, and punks whose best songs clock in under 2 minutes. Steve Hyden, one of my favorite music writers, once commented that his “favorites of the year” meant he had to mean he was a obsessed with each at some point in the last 12 months, and I like that definition. So, here are my eleven obsessions; I’d love to hear yours.

11. Modern Baseball – You’re Gonna Miss It All
The kinda-emo-revival of the last two years has led to a slew of bands coming out swinging, and Modern Baseball’s one of my favorite of the bunch. A poppy emo record with a folk streak, You’re Gonna Miss It All anchors zippy punk tunes like “Broken ATM Machine” and the acoustic meditations of “Potholes” with small-scale anthems like “Charlie Black” and “Your Graduation”. YGMIA‘s fairly typical “20something writing my life” wallflower lyrics get a boost from these guys being pretty insightful and damn funny once you get them talking (see: “Sharp as a tack/but in the sense that you’re not smart/Just a prick”). Sardonic wit and neurotic crush songs are half the fight, but Modern Baseball can write some sad bastard shit to go with it, and You’re Gonna Miss It All is a winning balance of the two. It takes talent to write a song about an asshole while realizing you’re one, too. And being okay with that.

10. D’Angelo – Black Messiah
How dare this motherfucker, right? Here it is, mid-December, and everyone’s already finalizing year-end retrospectives, and he has to drop an album 14 years in the making with barely a week’s notice. And the best/worst part is that Black Messiah actually justifies it’s own sudden madness; it’s an immaculately made R&B album that’s enjoyed best when you can take time, dig deep, and just listen to it. Sure, it has surface thrills (see: “1000 Deaths”, “Really Love”, “Another Life”), but especially in the back half, it shines with time. The thing’s a great listen, but doubles as an encyclopedia of R&B and certain strains of Black consciousness. And, like it needs to be said, D’Angelo sounds phenomenal. I’ve been kicking this one around all week, and it justified creating it’s own place in my favorites. Imagine what would happen with more time.

9. Tove Lo – Queen of the Clouds
“Habits” put Tove Lo on the pop map, but Queen of the Clouds is an impressive record of why she should stay. There’s an enforced narrative about a failed romance (in three arcs: “The Sex”, “The Love”, “The Pain”), and the clubbed up synthpop in each one bubbles over with size and color. It’s expansive and maximalist without being overblown, like Gaga’s earlier albums, and Tove Lo’s personality sometimes outshines the synths in a great way. From chasing all the young dudes to describing herself as “On the good days, I am charming as fuck” to the stoned, Twinky slow dance of “Habits”, she establishes herself as a believable, delightfully vulgar, endearing personality. Queen of the Clouds‘ elevator pitch is basically “1989 on HBO” in concept, and what I desperately wanted the latter to be in execution.

8. The Roots – …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin
The Roots’ latest trip down the rabbit hole of experimental, nihilist, commentary-and-story-heavy hip-hop is their weirdest and darkest yet. Gotta balance a day job of playing under Jimmy Fallon lip-sync battles somehow. Yet still grimer and more abstract that undun, Cousin is art-y and high-concept to an almost unfriendly degree; Black Thought disappears for stretches, it’s heavy on samples and interludes (especially for a 30 minute album), and its longer songs almost drift apart in their own malaise. And I’m still fascinated by it. The record’s able to set atmosphere remarkably well, it’s lively when it wants to be, and Black Thought/Dice Raw/Greg Porn/etc. strike with surgical precision when they step up to the mic. …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin would have probably been better received if it told a little more than it showed, but it’s still solid, and I like an album that trusts its audience.

7. Candy Hearts – All The Ways You Let Me Down
I suppose I’m just a Candy Hearts lifer at this point, but if they keep cracking out records this easy to like, it’s hard not to be. All The Ways You Let Me Down is slightly more candy than heart, but it packs a hell of a compact punch, and it’s had more staying power in the colder months than I thought it would. The first half of it or so is still an impressive run of shiny pop-punk, and the slower numbers play to the band’s sense of melody and likeably clunky lyrics. “Michigan”, “Something’s Missing”, “Coffee With My Friends”, and the title track are not just some of the band’s best work, but some of the year’s brightest pop rock, to boot. Candy Hearts might have been let down, but that doesn’t mean they have to be one, themselves.

6. FKA twigs – LP1
Twigs took all of her EP buzz as a fringe, Art&B singer, and pushed everything forward with LP1. It’s a headphone album in the best way: immersive soundscapes, gymnastic melodies, and vocals that manage to be sighing, anxious, and dreamy at the same time. “Two Weeks” and “Pendulum” are standout exemplars, but LP1 is best as an end-to-end listen, where it is simply one of the year’s best daydreaming albums. Twigs is a compelling performer, and LP1 is a great statement of purpose.

5. Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence
This hasn’t really come up on the site, but I became a reformed Lana hater about a year ago, when she defined herself better. Born to Die‘s biggest weakness was not knowing how to present itself; I couldn’t tell if Lana was fucking with us, or playing her bullshit as truth. With song titles like “Fucked My Way Up To the Top”, “Sad” and “Money Power Glory”, Ultraviolence reveals that Lana is somehow doing both and maybe neither, making the enterprise work much better in the meantime. Of course, it helps that Ultraviolence is a better made album from the word “go”; Lana sounds better over cinematic, psychedelic-tinged California rock songs than she did among 808s and canned strings. Her persona’s better formed, too: her chaotic, cruel fuck-ups are more nuanced than Born To Die‘s paperdoll lolitas. The best song here is “Shades of Cool”, the best James Bond theme Sam Smith can never write. I take it all back, Lana. You can be America’s girl.

4. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There
Are We There is an album that’s felt as much as it’s listened to. In another decade, it would be a confessional folk album, or maybe a slowburning country one, but in 2014, it’s chilly indie rock; a full-band record built on echoing guitars and piano, topped with Etten’s aching singer-songwriter vocals. Even during its sturdiest moments, there’s a fragility to the album, like it could fall apart if pushed. And Etten gets pushed damn hard; almost every note and word communicates some sort of sadness or heartbreak (even when she jokes, it’s like grinning through tears). But she stands resolute. When she sings “Break my legs so I won’t walk to you/Cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you/Burn my skin so I can’t feel you/Stab my eyes so I can’t see you” on “Your Love Is Killing Me”, it’s a focused mantra, not a plea. Are We There could be a bit much in lesser hands, but for Etten, it’s the best and most realized she’s ever sounded.

3. Joyce Manor – Never Hungover Again
How long’s an album have to be to be an album? I’m only asking because Joyce Manor seem to have made Never Hungover Again with a stopwatch in the studio; this thing rips through ten songs in nineteen minutes. And what’s remarkable is that the band stuffs each song to the gills: there’s barely a moment to singalong before the band’s jumped onto a new verse or a surprisingly intricate guitar riff. Your only choice is to pound the table and scream “Again!” as the song screeches to a halt. Epic “In the Army Now” manages two full verses, a chorus, a bridge, an extended guitar jam, and an outro in full in under two and a half minutes, while “Heart Tattoo” is a blink-182 1994-2000 compilation in under two minutes. It’s an addictive little sing-along that pulls some heart strings on the way (see “In the Army Now”‘s dueling epic “Falling In Love Again”–an indulgent 2:28). How long’s an album need to be? Long enough.

2. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
St. Vincent has spent three albums only going up, and her brand of indie rock is in its purest form on her stylized, future-cult leader self-titled record. It’s an assured work that builds on the dead-eyed, clinical but hysteric madness last seen on Strange Mercy, with a dash of synthy paranoia to boot. Even something as smooth as the brassy bounciness of “Digital Witness” is slightly off-kilter and prone to fits of shrieking cacophony, and tender ballad “I Prefer Your Love” has a dark undercurrent hiding beneath a sunny chorus. St. Vincent is willfully obtuse at times, but it’s hard to deny anything as immediate as “Birth in Reverse”, that glorious riff halfway through “Huey Newton”, or the subtle panicking of “Rattlesnake”. Even when the joke is grim and it seems like St. Vincent’s laughing to herself (just imagine “severed crossed fingers”), it feels like not getting it is your fault, not hers. She’s just more advanced.

1. Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues
This album came out in January. It set the bar then, and I wouldn’t feel justified putting anything else here. Laura Jane Grace’s widely publicized transition drives this record, but even stripped of the story, this is a propulsive, captivating, emphatic record that roars with life and kicks the shit out of damn near everything that comes across it. It’s stacked with anthems, from fist in the air “True Trans Soul Rebel” and the gut-wrenching title track to the tear jerker “Paralytic States” and triumphantly defiant closer “Black Me Out”. There’s not a single bum track here, and most of these would be highlights on any other album. It’s already become a personal favorite, and a no-brainer for my favorite album of 2014.

Listmas 2014
December 16th: Worst Hits of the Year (10-6)
December 17th: Worst Hits of the Year (5-1)
December 18th: Best Hits of the Year (10-6)
December 19th: Best Hits of the Year (5-1)
December 20th: Favorite Albums of the Year
December 21st: The Gibby Fifty–50 Favorite Songs
December 22nd: Odds and Ends

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The Best Hits of 2014 (5-1)

Let’s go!

5. Drake – “0 to 100/The Catch Up”
Calling Drake a rapper still feels vaguely misleading. It’s not that he isn’t a rapper, but the Drizzy canon lacks a singular rap performance, and whenever he tries to spit, it sounds competent, but kind of adorable. “0 to 100″ fixes this by meeting him where he’s at; the beat’s a got a laid back vibe that doesn’t push him too hard, and he sounds much better for it. Drake’s talking about his favorite subject–Drake’s story and as many “Oh Lord!”s as he can cram in–without any singing or a defined hook. It’s basically an improved “Started From the Bottom”, and I’m alright with that. “The Catch Up” boils Nothing Was the Same to its base components, and however I felt about the album, it’s a solid 2 and a half minutes. It’s Drake at his Drake-iest, and his finest. Damn shame about that shot, though.

4. Sia – “Chandelier”
The most disarming moment in pop this year occurs thirty three seconds into “Chandelier”, when massive drums and Sia’s howl of “I’m going to swing from the chandelier” blow the hinges off the song. It’s a huge sonic leap, and the production matches massive scope with tension and dread; it’s a subverted twist on pop’s flights of “party like there’s no tomorrow” fancy. We’ve had songs written about wanting to die young, but Sia throws herself into the song with the intensity of someone with a death wish. Swinging from the chandelier sounds almost like a threat. She’s written hits for other people–you can almost hear them channel her in “Diamond” and “Perfume”–but this is a class all of her own. It’s a great listen, and somehow fit the charts while sounding jarring at the same time. Hell of an accomplishment.

3. Charli XCX – “Boom Clap”
Almost year, we get at least one song that perfectly captures that head-over-heels in love feeling in a new way. Last year, my pick was Paramore’s “Still Into You”, which marveled at how you could feel the elation of falling for someone almost every day after seeing them for forever. This year, that dizzy, headstruck, slowly-and-then-all-at-once feeling was summed up in two words: “Boom, clap”. Charli XCX is (hopefully) done playing second string to one hit duos and inept headlines; “Boom Clap” hits the pop sweet spot with its infinitely loopable melody and surprisingly textured production. It’s just a flat out great pop song from a source no one was expecting.

2. Disclosure ft. Sam Smith – “Latch”
Someone tell Sam Smith he doesn’t have to be boring. Do it soon, before the Grammys get ahold of him. Smith has potential as an Adele stop-gap, but as “Latch” shows, he could do so much more. Of course, Disclosure’s incredibly slick production, where dreamy synths, looped effects and samples, and bass swells are grounded by a resolute beat that barely registers as more than a click track, wins half the battle (the risingpre-chorus even, as an instrumental, is gorgeous). The album that houses “Latch”, Settle, came out last year, and it’s pretty great; it’s basically the Daft Punk album everyone wanted that Random Access Memories refused to be. Anyway, both Disclosure and Smith bring their A game here: Disclosure’s beat is top notch, and Smith doesn’t just bring octave skipping vocals, but a human heart as well. He sounds fully comfortable emoting on a dance track, where singers run the risk of being froze by the beat (see: his riffs over the last chorus). C’mon man, ditch that gospel choir for a turntable.

1. Michael Jackson (ft. Justin Timberlake, kinda) – “Love Never Felt So Good”
A song that’s technically 31 years old topped my list. Lemme explain.

When Michael Jackson recorded a piano and vocal demo written with standards singer Paul Anka in 1983, he probably didn’t know he was writing the blueprints to his finest posthumous tribute. First of all, credit to Anka for writing a song that could be a hit by anyone at almost any time. Credit also goes to producers John McClain and Giorgio Tuinfort for producing a “solo” version of “Love Never Felt So Good” that sounds like an Off The Wall outtake, and to J-Roc and Timbaland for producing what sounds like the 2014 approximation of an Off The Wall outtake as a Justin Timberlake duet (if you think I’m getting hero worship-y here, listen to JT). But y’all know it’s Michael that’s the heart and soul of this song. In day to day listening, I prefer the fully produced versions, but please listen to the original demo at least once. Michael puts in a performance only he could; it’s a remarkably pure take, full of his vocal tics and flourishes in all the right spots, and encapsulates everything people love in Jackson.

1983 is an oasis in Michael’s career: he’s already released Thriller, but it hasn’t become THRILLER yet, and he’s at the top of his game. For at least one take, he isn’t Michael Jackson, complicated, conflicted world megastar; he’s a phenomenal singer performing the shit out of a song like it’s the third most important thing he did that day. And that ease translates to every version. It’s the kind of pop song that gets other people singing pop songs, and my pick for best of the year.

Listmas 2014
December 16th: Worst Hits of the Year (10-6)
December 17th: Worst Hits of the Year (5-1)
December 18th: Best Hits of the Year (10-6)
December 19th: Best Hits of the Year (5-1)
December 20th: Favorite Albums of the Year
December 21st: The Gibby Fifty–50 Favorite Songs
December 22nd: Odds and Ends

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The Best Hits of 2014 (10-6)

Hello, and welcome to Day 3 of Listmas 2014. Now that we have the ugliness of the worst of the year behind us, let’s look at the hits we enjoyed, hm?

Honorable Mention: Jeremih ft. YG – “Don’t Tell ‘Em”
Did you listen to any mainstream hip-hop this year? Did you hear someone grunt “Mustaonabeat” in the first ten seconds? Did you then notice said song, even if performed by an utter tool, was a little hypnotizing and pretty catchy? If so, you were probably listening to a beat made by DJ Mustard, 2014’s most prolific producer. Mustard’s 2014 credits include “Royal”, “Show Me”, “I Don’t Fuck With You”, “My Nigga”, “You and Your Friends”, “Nothin Like Me”, “No Mediocre”, “2 On”, and “Don’t Tell ‘Em”. He’s had a style that splits the difference between club-style electronics and G-funk smoothness; if you’ve heard a beat with deep bass pulse, a minimal synth, and “hey”s in the background, you’ve probably heard him. Not only has 2014 been a quantity year for him, it’s been a quality high mark, too: the guy’s gone from “Rack City” to being half the reason YG’s My Krazy Life‘s got the amount of buzz it has.

Anyway, “Don’t Tell ‘Em” gets the honorary nod for a great Mustard beat, a surprisingly melodic hook, and a hilarious YG guest verse (“I GOT A MISSED CALL FROM YO’ BITCH” makes me laugh every time; it’s one of the year’s best delivered punchlines). I honestly went in expecting to hate this one, and while I’m not sure it’s a good song, it’s too well-made to be a bad one. This is my second year with a honorable mention slot, and last year went to “Blurred Lines”, so I guess I should just call it the “Douchebag With a Great Beat” category.

10. Justin Timberlake – “Not a Bad Thing”
I appreciate what Justin Timberlake wanted to do with The 20/20 Experience. He was, probably not pop’s king, but a respected steward of the throne who could have announced his comeback, dashed out an album of dozen four minute crooners, gone on tour, and collected his millions with barely a word against him. But instead, JT wanted to challenge himself, and we got a pair of bloated albums that ran over an hour each, with self-consciously arty songs that frequently pushed the 7 and 8 minute mark. It didn’t go over well.

This is, I think, JT’s ultimate mistake: in trying to win over our brains, he forgot our hearts were here, still checking their dilapidated Razr phones for him to call back. “Not a Bad Thing” is that make-up call, the reassurance that for all the glitz and art pop experiments, he can still sell the shit out of a love song. It’s a sweet, simple song almost to the point of pandering; Justin plays the vocal equivalent of puppy dog eyes for all it’s worth, and Timbaland brings the most Timbaland beat ever to the table. And I can’t resist it. Listening to it now, I’m halfway tempted to hop on AIM, ask the pretty girl in class if she’s going to the mixer this weekend, and plan how I can slow dance with her despite the fact I’m fairly sure that she’s two states away and engaged.

9. Shakira ft. Rihanna – “Can’t Remember To Forget You”
With all respect to the efficient catchiness of “All About That Bass”, “Happy”, and “Bang, Bang”, pop could have afforded to color outside the lines a bit more this year. Shakira’s always cut a distinct figure when she’s on the charts, and “Can’t Remember To Forget You” is a proud continuation of her charmingly “wtf?” pop career. This song’s as odd in practice as it is on paper: overdriven, frantic upstroke guitars push the Latin-tinged verses into ska-punk territory, Shakira doubles down on her throaty vocals, and then the whole thing goes careening into a hard rock chorus. And then Rihanna shows up, sounding looser than she has on the last five club jams she’s done, and after a verse, the two criss-cross vocals for the song’s remaining half. Yet the whole thing actually works pretty well. “Can’t Remember To Forget You” is a sort of doofy pop song that matches its gonzo setup with credible, fun hooks and personality, and for a year in desperate need of the latter, it’s a success. It also gets points for making me realize how much I’m dying for a new Rihanna single.

8. Paramore – “Ain’t It Fun”
“Aint It Fun” could potentially be Paramore’s biggest hit, but it’s already the biggest they’ve ever sounded. I’ve written at length about my joy at Paramore’s transition to a deceptively heavy pop band, and “Ain’t It Fun” is perhaps the clearest demonstration of Paramore 2.0 in action. The song’s built on a surprisingly groovy rhythm section, while Hayley Williams gives one of her most controlled but rewarding vocal performances, and the song refuses to commit to a genre. There’s a lotta rock, synthed up New Wave, a dash of funk, and it ends with a fucking gospel choir, which is 1. immensely satisfying, and 2. purist trolling at its finest. I didn’t pick up on this until I saw “Aint It Fun” played live, but there are guitars all over this thing; that choked riff in the verses is brawny, and the outro is slathered in a Big Rock solo hiding in plain sight. Like most of Paramore’s strongest material, it has a gleeful defiance that makes it a blast to sing along to. And it was still only my like, sixth favorite song from their self-titled.

7. DJ Snake Ft. Lil Jon – “Turn Down For What”
Objectively speaking, I know there has to be an intellectual way to analyze “Turn Down For What”, but anytime I try, I black out, and come to with half my whiskey gone and a small, smoking crater in front of my home. I yield. So enjoy the song, watch the video, and pelvic thrust a rando’s tv. You deserve it.

6. Tove Lo – “Habits”
Would it surprise you to know that Tove Lo attended the same fancy pants music school as dance-pop heavyweight Robyn? Given the two’s shared affinity for synth-pop with excellent songcraft, maybe not, but ToLo’s cloudy electropop is thoroughly human, whereas Robyn tucks her heart away in robotic circuitry. On “Habits”, Love To deals with a break-up in the most relatable way possible: playing it off, going on an “I feel like shit” bender, giving zero fucks…and then admitting she’s a mess. It’d be a bit much if the song didn’t sound kind of spectacular; the sing-song verses where LotSo drops lines about eating in the bathroom and gorging on Twinkies while stoned come across as self-effacing and a little funny, and the cinematic sweep lifts the chorus to a higher place instead of sounding glum. All the melancholy from the lyric sheet creeps in at the edges; the way her voice cracks in the chorus, and being “trapped” in a haze instead of simply “stuck” or “lost” in one. Maybe this isn’t something she has control over. The song’s called “Habits” for a reason. The rest of her album, Queen of Clouds might be this year’s best slept-on pop record.

Also, just as a fun aside, “Habits” has been in circulation since March 2013. My girlfriend’s been stumping for it since at least last fall. I tell you, LeBron is less satisfied after a dunk than she is after it comes on the radio now.

And that’s it for today, come back tomorrow for, well, check the schedule.

Listmas 2014
December 16th: Worst Hits of the Year (10-6)
December 17th: Worst Hits of the Year (5-1)
December 18th: Best Hits of the Year (10-6)
December 19th: Best Hits of the Year (5-1)
December 20th: Favorite Albums of the Year
December 21st: The Gibby Fifty–50 Favorite Songs
December 22nd: Odds and Ends

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The Worst Hits of 2014 (5-1)

Let’s end this.

5. Maroon 5 – “Maps”
Is “Maps” even a real song?

I mean, I know I’ve heard it before, and I could even sing that flimsy guitar riff, but it feels like half the song’s missing. The verse sounds like it’s supposed to be building toward something that never comes, and instead, we get a completely flat-footed chorus. It utterly refuses to commit to a melody, just a few snatches of notes on “following, following, following” that don’t really stick, sung in the most dispassionate way. It fails the bare minimum that the universe asks from Maroon 5; I listen to “Maps”, and I cannot tell if Adam Levine is propositioning someone for sex. I found a live performance of it (Adam, kill that shirt), and “Maps” somehow sounds worse and slighter on real instruments. The chorus is even more ineffectual with live drums, and the band slogs through the song like it’s hour three of an eight hour day. This was a lead single. Little disappointed but relieved we’re not hearing a Yeah Yeah Yeahs cover, though. Heads would roll.

4. Iggy Azalea ft. Rita Ora – “Black Widow”
Iggy Azalea’s fame this year seemed pre-ordained. Not in the sense that she was destined for greatness, but insomuch that “Fancy” appeared, and the music industry basically shrugged and said, “Yep, that’s the one we’re gonna push on everyone this year. Sure, why not?” In his excellent “How Hip-Hop Failed Black America” series, Questlove describes modern hip-hop as being simultaneously everywhere and no where, and that description fits Azalea’s ascension to a tee. She doesn’t have the stacked resume of features like early Nicki, she lacks Lil Wayne’s patented pop weirdness, and she possesses neither Drake’s versatility nor Kendrick’s technical chops. She doesn’t bring anything to the table, and no where is that more apparent than “Black Widow”, her pop filler collaboration with Rita Ora. Everything about the song sounds second rate: the beat’s a mostly unflattering combination of “Fancy” and “Dark Horse”, Ora’s hook tries harder than it could ever pay off, and Azalea’s verses are forgettable with a mucky flow. Azalea might be our new pop rapper, but she doesn’t sound like she wants the title. She doesn’t sound like anything at all.

3. Florida Georgia Line ft. Luke Bryan – “This Is How We Roll”
Is it possible to be influenced by every genre, take the worst parts of each one, and come up with something more unpleasant as a result? Because that’s how Florida Georgia Line rolls. FML FGL takes county at its most shallow, hip-hop at its most lyrically repetitive and disastrous, rock pushed to its absolute dumbest, pop at its most automatic, liquefies it, overprocesses each one’s elements beyond recognition, and then uses the unholy bile to fuel their tour bus. I never thought I’d miss the not-singing the duo did on “Cruise”, but then Georgia here (or Florida, whichever) decides to actually try to rap. It’s bad enough to make me actually long for a Pitbull verse. The production’s a clattering, claustrophobic mess: all clipped drums and guitars mixed like a nightmare. Bless Luke Bryan’s big ol’ heart for trying here, but “This Is How We Roll” is too much of a graceless, lumbering behemoth for even him to smooth over. Invoking Nickelback is the pop music equivalent of Godwin’s Law, but Florida Georgia Line might be the only working group dumb enough, uncreative enough, and just outright unpleasant enough to earn the comparison. No wonder Taylor Swift bailed on country.

2. MAGIC! – “Rude”
If this list was solely about what pissed me off most, “Rude” would be be a clear victor, because I have never not hated this song. From the first upstroke of that GarageBand guitar to the final yelp-y whine of “Why ya gotta be so ruuuuuuude?”, this song was a shit listen in July, and it’s a shit listen in December. I beat this dead horse past the point where Katy Perry would recognize it in an earlier write-up, but I’m still astounded at how fake “Rude” sounds; it’s like a Kidz Bop version of itself. And no one actually thinks the dad is the villain here, right? MAGIC! (gag) lead singer Nasri doesn’t actually say this poor girl wants to marry him, and he conveniently leaves out any reason why the dad should be okay with them getting married. Shit, I wouldn’t be okay if the guy that wrote “Rude” wanted to marry my daughter, either.

I admit I sometimes get nostalgic for ghosts of Listmas past, but that’s definitely not the case with MAGIC; I’m ready for these guys to sound as dated as ebola scares and Brazil World Cup jokes the second that ball drops in Times Square in a few weeks.

1. Jason Derulo ft. Snoop Dogg – “Wiggle”
Vine is probably the defining social media platform of 2014. A Vine is six seconds long. Perhaps not incidentally, six very specific seconds are all you need to argue “Wiggle”‘s status as the worst song of the year. From :045-:051, you get the song’s putrid set up, the pause, the punch line, and that godawful hook all condensed into one abhorrent experience that, if Vined, you could loop for all of eternity. I almost wish the song was just those six seconds for its entire runtime–at least maybe you could block it out eventually–because this entire thing is actively terrible. No one thought Jason Derulo could be any worse than when he tried to be seductive, but then he tried to be seductive while being funny. It somehow goes worse than you’d think. Snoop Dogg’s well aware of his lifetime pass, and that this was easy money, but his verse here makes “California Gurls” look like at least “Drop It Like It’s Hot”. This song’s just bad on every conceivable level; the production adds cartoon effects on Derulo’s failed punchlines, and, as mentioned, the hook would be better if it was replaced with the sound of styrofoam sqeaking. It was Summer of Ass, and leave it to Jason Derulo to make a song that’s complete shit. Why couldn’t this chump’s career be over in six seconds?

And with that unpleasantness behind us, let’s move onto better stuff tomorrow!

Listmas 2014
December 16th: Worst Hits of the Year (10-6)
December 17th: Worst Hits of the Year (5-1)
December 18th: Best Hits of the Year (10-6)
December 19th: Best Hits of the Year (5-1)
December 20th: Favorite Albums of the Year
December 21st: The Gibby Fifty–50 Favorite Songs
December 22nd: Odds and Ends

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The Worst Hits of 2014 (10-6)

Welcome to Listmas, our annual year-end recap week here at Ranting About Music! From today through next Sunday, I’ll have content up each day; check the bottom of this entry for a full schedule. It’s been a good year, and I hope you’ll join me in closing it out! First up, the worst hits of 2014.

No matter what you can say about 2014 overall, it was a weird year on the pop charts. We spent the first half of the year seemingly frozen with the same hits, only to have things shake up every few weeks toward the end of the year. And as opposed to last year, where every star seemed to swing for the fence, it seemed like most established artists didn’t want to take any risks; you didn’t see John Legend or Maroon 5 putting out double albums or promoing records by making flying suits or whatever. Hell, you barely saw any “old guard” members at all; 2014 is decisively a year for newbies. And Taylor Swift.

Quick reminder on the rules: it’s gotta make this list to make my list, most of these were big in 2014 instead of 2013 late bloomers that carried over (example: “Wrecking Ball” is DQ’d for consideration since it’s going to be associated with 2013 historically), and tied into that, it can’t have been a song that made the “best/worst of” year-end list last year.

Anyway, enough with the chit-chat, let’s shake off the worst ten songs of the year.

11. Dishonorable Mention: A Great Big World ft. Christina Aguilera – “Say Something”
I couldn’t quite justify putting “Say Something” on the proper list–it peaked just too early in the year and it’s just not terrible enough to edge out the competition–but damn has this song pissed me off. The syrupy strings and piano arrangement is as faceless as a Hallmark knockoff, and Ian Axel isn’t enough of a vocalist to make his way to a finale of The Voice. There’s no greater testament to “Say Something”‘s yawn-inspiring blandness than the fact that Christina Aguilera, one of our most distinct and well-known over singers, fades entirely into song’s background. But what elevates “Say Something” from simple mediocrity to inspired badness is how overwrought the thing is. There might be a context where “Say something, I’m giving up on you” carries the weight A Great Big World clearly want it to have here, but surrounded by such non-lyrics like “I’m sorry that I couldn’t get to you” and “I’ll be the one if you want me to” make it fall totally flat while the music works overtime to wrangle emotion out of the this Great Beige World. Looks like Christina’s going to have a vicarious career through someone else, instead.

10. Ed Sheeran – “Sing”
I’m getting this out of the way first: I appreciate what Ed Sheeran wanted to do with x. Especially in America, he’s known as “that dude that did ‘The A Team‘”, which is true but a little unfair; Sheeran’s a fairly prolific guy with surprisingly diverse genre sensibility that happened to crossover with one of the straightest Broken Girl Ballads in recent history. I don’t blame him for wanting more from his career.

But good fucking grief, “Sing”. Sheeran and co-writer/producer Pharrell decided to invade territory Justin Timberlake’s held for over a decade, and the end result is an unflattering mess. Sheeran isn’t necessarily dreadful as a falsetto-y crooner, but “Sing” requires a skill set he just doesn’t have. He does alright on the vocals but it’s not enough to bring “Sing” to life, nor is the guy flirty enough to bring the song the edge it thinks it has. It’s serviceable, but completely forgettable. The beat’s honestly a bigger letdown than Sheeran is; it’s Pharrell working in “I was told there’d be a check here” mode. It’s percussive without being remotely groovy, and way too busy between clashing guitars, double tracked vocals, poor mixing, and extraneous sound effects. Not helping is the fact that “Sing” is a blatant, slower rewrite of “Moves Like Jagger”. Sheeran has a live version that’s a little goofier and stripped down that works alright, but this is still a baffling choice.

9. Mike WiLL Made It ft. Miley Cyrus, Wiz Khalifa, and Juciy J – “23
I’m bending my own rules here since “23” was 2013 holdover that made it into this year, but I couldn’t leave something this bad off the list entirely. Mike Will Made It’s done decent beats, but “23” is every Southern hip-hop mixtape beat you can think of; doesn’t really stand out. Juicy cribs his own hook from “Bandz A Make Her Dance”, and barely manages to one-up Miley Cyrus on his eight bars. Wiz mentions Chuck Taylors on a song about Jordans, which is about all you need to know about his verse. 2014 didn’t have a lot of awful rap guest-spots, but they somehow got lifeboated onto this dud.

In a fit of poetic justice, “23” was supposed to be the lead single from Mike WiLL’s debut album, and it’s hard not to imagine he thought 2014 was going to be his year. Here we are, 15 months after the song’s release, and not only is there no album in sight, but Mike pretty much got swept away by another producer who’s 2014 work has even lapped Mike’s 2013 output. When he compared himself to Jordan with “23”, I didn’t think he meant Jordan playing for the Wizards.

8. Calvin Harris – “Summer”
I’ve got nothing against EDM, but I remember being over “Summer” the first time I heard it. It just sounds tired, like something the DJ puts on when the night’s run out of hits. Not even Ellie Goulding showed up for this one. Hooks like the one in “Summer” once sounded euphoric, now they just sound exhausting. We get it, Calvin. Take off the headphones, Calvin. The Uber driver is waiting for us, Calvin. You’ve used that same blown out synth tone over breaks since 2011, I’m a little over it right now, so is Rihanna and it’s time to find another one so she might call you back and we can all move forward with our lives, Calvin.

7. Chris Brown ft. Lil Wayne and Tyga – “Loyal”
Chris Brown whispers “You thought it was over?” tauntingly in the first few seconds of “Loyal”. At first, I thought he was trolling his critics with his continued career, but coming a few seconds after Lil Wayne gleefully shouts “Young Mula, baby!”, I can’t help but think he’s accidentally pointing out how weird it is to hear a Wayne feature in 2014. Or a Chris Brown song, for that matter. Look, it’s a Chris Brown single; it kicks going down like a double of bottom shelf tequila, and feels just about as hateful. Brown boasts himself into the stupidest circles possible here: he brags about being able to turn a broke bitch rich while warning us of the dangers of fucking with broke bitches. Then you get Tyga, who is literally distrustful of any woman who’s too good at sex. If I handle this song one catastrophe at a time, we’d be here all day, so in summary: “Loyal” is just a gross, stupid song that wastes a pretty decent beat. Birthed my favorite Vine this year, though.

6. Ed Sheeran – “Don’t”
Lord, I am not making friends with Ed Sheeran fans on this one.

I’ve seen people compare Sheeran’s x to Taylor Swift’s Red, and the JT credentials go further than just “Sing”, but I see a more prominent, far shittier influence at play here: Maroon 5. While Timberlake leads with “You were my sun, you were my earth” and Swift is tired of your continued bullshit, the subtext for the “Don’t”‘s first two verses is basically “I fucked Ellie Goulding, and I’ma tell ya everything but the hotel room number”. It’s way less “Cry Me a River” or “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and a lot more “One More Night”; Sheeran isn’t crying because it’s over, he’s bragging because it happened. And okay, Goulding cheated on him and that’s terrible, but the song’s set up to make Sheeran look like a dumbass. He gets holier than thou on a chorus of “Don’t fuck with my love/That heart is so cold”…only after the first words of the song are the two of them agreeing not to be too serious. Dude, yeah, she shouldn’t have cheated, but don’t give her the “fuckin’ bitch” tell-off because you fooled around and fell in love.

Maybe if the production was less dorky and flaccid or the chorus was less tuneless, I’d have a better time with “Don’t”, but on top of the shoddy music and self-obsessed lyrics, Sheeran does the song in this obnoxious sing-speaking cadence that makes him sound like a whiny, humorless bro. He doesn’t even sound sad or conflicted that it’s over. The guy’s friends with Taylor Swift, hopefully she can show him how to write this kind of song without being terrible.

And that does it for day one! Catch the rest of the schedule below.

Listmas 2014
December 16th: Worst Hits of the Year (10-6)
December 17th: Worst Hits of the Year (5-1)
December 18th: Best Hits of the Year (10-6)
December 19th: Best Hits of the Year (5-1)
December 20th: Favorite Albums of the Year
December 21st: The Gibby Fifty–50 Favorite Songs
December 22nd: Odds and Ends

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You Should See Them Live: New Politics and Bad Suns (Bogarts, Cincinnati)

Welcome to the first/kinda second installment in a new Ranting About Music! feature “You Should See Them Live.” Simple concept: whenever I see a live show, I’ll do a little write-up. It’s more for fun than anything else, and because hey, why not? First up is an outing from November, when I saw Bad Suns and New Politics.

I have been very hot and very cold over New Politics this year.

I mean that literally. I first saw the Danish (self-described as “Danish as fuck”) band in the sweltering, mid-July heat of Bunbury, and the next time they were in town was one of the coldest days of the year. I was only at one because of the other; toward the end of the band’s ebullient set at Bunbury, frontman David Boyd casually mentioned they’d be back in town not unlike how you’d casually mention a second date on the first one after the other person’s laughed at all your jokes all night. No one would call it a subtle play, but after so many backflips, robot dance moves, and singalongs to songs you’re hearing for the first time, you’re pretty okay with it. At least a friend of mine and I were: we agreed to see them again in November there on the spot.

And thus the pair of us, plus another buddy (and Bunbury attendee) came, rosy cheeked and coated, to be standing toward the back of the crowd in the mid-sized rock club Bogarts in Cincinnati. Good news for those of you who have never been, you can make your very own scale version of Bogarts at home: get a shoebox, put a bottle of Jamison and a tall PBR at one end, an iPod dock at the other, and it’s like you’re there. I’ve heard it also has a balcony.

CardiacArrestAnyway, the show itself. Opener SomeKindaWonderful was taking an understandable night off because one of the band members had a new child, so it was up to Bad Suns to start the night. My friends and I had never heard of Bad Suns, and after two songs, we felt like the only ones; the band got a surprisingly generous response from a deceptively adolescent crowd (sidenote: I never thought I’d feel out of place at a rock show as a gawky 20something, but there you go).

Bad Suns is an alt. rock quartet who cut a debut album this year, and they’re a good little band. Their sound is built from the ground up on vaguely groovy 80s post-punk, and they move on stage with the same twitchy energy present in their radio single “Cardiac Arrest”. Frontman Christo Bowman carried himself with an intellectual, subdued charisma in the vein of Elvis Costello and Robert Smith, while the rest of the band maintained a playful chemistry. They swayed and bounced through the rest of their debut Language and Perspective, a hooky post-punk set with enough big choruses and experimentation (including the disco-aping “Salt”) to convince me to buy a copy at the end of the night.

nouvelle politiqueAnd then came New Politics. At Bunbury, the trio played the main stage, and overcame the larger than they were probably used to venue by playing out as much as possible. David Boyd treated the stage like a playground, and instrumentalist Soren Hansen spent that hot July day virtually running laps while bashing out power chords. It worked, but I suspected New Politics were better suited to a venue they felt they could blow the roof off of. As the band and the crowd leaped into the chorus of second song “Berlin”, my suspicions were confirmed. New Politics’ kinda noisy dance-rock is best when they have something to push against, and the blown-out sound at Bogarts was a great fit.

The biggest change in the band was in confidence. The venue difference certainly helped, but New Politics felt less blustery, more at ease, and like they were having more fun calling the shots in their own show. Boyd and Hansen maybe didn’t run around quite as much, but it felt like they didn’t need to. The set was largely unchanged; the bulk of the material came from 2013’s A Bad Girl in Harlem, but there were a few new additions that made seeing them the second time worth it. New single “Everywhere I Go (Kings and Queens)” from next year’s album came up, as did a few more cuts from the band’s bubble-grunge self-titled debut. A faithful but fun “Sabotage” cover popped up mid-set, and there a dance/jam interlude of “Anaconda”/”Turn Down For What”/”Smells Like Teen Spirit” that led into “Goodbye Copenhagen” to keep the momentum going late in the set (there exists, somewhere in the universe, a SnapChat video of me going Tasmanian Devil during “Goodbye Copenhagen” that I wish I had for posterity).

IMG_1480New Politics’ strongest points came toward the end of the night, where they stacked the fulfilling crowd songs. Punky shout-along “Just Like Me” closed the initial set out on a high point, before the band came back out for “Yeah Yeah Yeah”. After blasting through a pair of rockers, the band closed the night with the overdriven ukulele arms-around-each-other singalong of “Fall Into These Arms”, part of which Boyd sang from within and then on top of the crowd. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who’d call it a transcendental night, but it was one of the most out and out fun shows I’ve ever been to.

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