I completely agree with Nick Sanborn’s dictum about year-end lists, especially where music is concerned. It’s easy enough to make stuff up, or proclaim something a masterwork that you’ve only heard a handful of times. I like to live with music, to wade through it and wallow in it. When a song catches my ear, I listen to it until I’m either sick of it, or the song and I live happily ever after.
Last.fm is a wonderful service, and it’s been collating listening data for me since May 2005. Aside from mix discs in the car, streaming services that don’t scrobble, like Digitally Imported, or the occasional vinyl record, Last.fm has borne faithful witness to everything I’ve listened to on laptops and mp3 players over the last decade. I can’t recommend the service more highly if you’re at all fastidious about such things.
The only further conditions I imposed were: a) one song per artist, b) no big carry-overs from last year, and c) no eternal classics. Holdover status takes Clear Soul Forces’ “Gotham City” featuring Idris Elba (113 plays) and Camera Obscura’s “Troublemaker” (103 plays) out of the list. By the latter, I mean songs that haven’t left heavy rotation in years, which disqualifies Massive Attack’s “Paradise Circus” (173 plays), Murray Gold’s “This is Gallifrey: Our Childhood, Our Home” (122 plays), Mount Moriah’s “Social Wedding Rings” (113 plays), and the Danger Mouse/MF DOOM remix of Zero 7’s “Somersault” (105 plays). Even being that selective, all ten of the following songs are in the overall top 25 for the year. Play counts are accurate as of 21 December.
01. Sia, “Hostage” (249 plays). I love that the crackling fury of Sia Furler’s voice is unrestrained. I love that Sia writes bonkers pop songs that take typical pop-song themes to their most absurd extremes. I love the sound of the xylophone/marimba/glockenspiel tumbling over itself through the bridge, like some kind of mischievous Slinky, ramming home the cartoonish nature of the entire enterprise. There’s nothing I don’t love about Sia’s 1000 Forms of Fear (2014), and I’ll gush about it without reservation.
02. PopUp Chorus, “Paper Planes” (224 plays). The most soul-replenishing thing I did all year was join Durham’s PopUp Chorus. I say “Durham’s,” but people come from every corner of the Triangle to create improvised choral arrangements of classic hits and indie gems. Meeting regularly at Motorco, this community choir experience made Mondays not only tolerable, but even worthy of anticipation and excitement. I had this particular song, a version of MIA’s “Paper Planes,” on repeat into the wee hours of the morning as I rushed to complete an essay for Avidly/LA Review of Books on the confluences between Moral Mondays and attending choir practice.
03. Sylvan Esso, “Coffee” (211 plays). I’m not much of a dancer, but my friend Heather and I danced like maniacs at both the Sylvan Esso record release show at Cat’s Cradle in May and at their Hallowe’en show in Saxapahaw. Nick Sanborn’s energetic beat-crafting and Amelia Meath’s vocals, big enough to fill an arena and delicate enough to feel endearing and intimate, are more than the sum of their parts. Add to this the joy of singing “Coffee” at PopUp Chorus the week before the album dropped, and the glorious video, only enhanced by its final scene taking place at The Pinhook, and the confluence of joys was inescapable.
04. See Gulls, “Don’t Write Me Love Songs” (205 plays). I came to See Gulls through PopUp Chorus, since their former guitarist, Jacki, also created the original run of videos for our community choir. I liked the couple of songs they had up on Bandcamp well enough, but it wasn’t until a day party at Hopscotch in early September that I officially went over the deep end for See Gulls. My head exploding that day was both witnessed and remarked upon.
That enthusiasm has only gained momentum, as I’ve seen them play six times since Hopscotch. In performance, See Gulls seem to convey a mixture of energy, joy, and liberation. There’s a decided impulse to use the disappointments of love as a springboard into the new vistas opening before them. See Gulls’ “Don’t Write Me Love Songs” encapsulates all of this for me. It’s break-up music that is fueled, not by the frustration of loss, but by a nearly-ecstatic fervor to explore all that comes next.
05. Lost in the Trees, “Daunting Friend” (149 plays). Like “Paper Planes” and See Gulls, my first exposure to this song was through PopUp Chorus. We sang “Daunting Friend” in early June at a choir practice in Chapel Hill, and it stayed with me thereafter. There were times — thinking of all the new people I met this year, the few friendships that truly daunt me, deepening affections, and the prospect of being a part of communities that ensure I never have to feel truly alone — that this song would come on and tears would force themselves from my eyes before I could corral the impulse.
06. Tuomas Holopainen, “A Lifetime of Adventure” (106 plays). From the theme tune re-enacted with live ducks to the sultry slow jam version, 2014 was a year when my life-long preoccupation with Duck Tales was amply rewarded. When Tuomas Holopainen’s symphonic metal album about my first childhood idol, Scrooge McDuck, was announced, you can believe I was primed for it. As a kid, I admired Uncle Scrooge’s single-minded drive to be the world’s richest duck. At the same time, I saw how his family, friends, and long-lost love countered and tempered his ambitions. In a 6-minute track, complete with a massive guitar solo, Holopainen manages to involve all those feelings and memories, as well as the wisdom that derives from them. It’s a real achievement as far as I’m concerned.
07. Lykanthea, “Naked” (101 plays). I spend a lot of time trying to focus and write in front of a computer screen, so finding music I can write to is of the utmost importance. Under the Lykanthea banner, Lakshmi Ramgopal put out two really intense, challenging, and beautiful EPs in 2014, “Sundrowned” in January, and “Migration,” which I adore, in July. Both are free to download from Bandcamp, so if you’re looking for reading, writing, relaxation, or meditation music, you cannot go wrong with Lykanthea.
08. Mandolin Orange, “Cavalry” (96 plays). I only created 4 new pieces of art in 2014, so each one took on larger significance to me. A late coda to my 2013 monthly Doctor Who art project, I didn’t complete a piece for Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor until just before Series 8 debuted in late August of 2014. In late May, I attended my first Mandolin Orange show, at Durham’s American Tobacco Campus. “Cavalry,” a song told from the perspective of a horse in The Lord of the Rings, moved me quite profoundly, and while I worked out the design of my Capaldi piece, I happened to have the song on repeat.
09. Hiss Golden Messenger, “Southern Grammar” (92 plays). I was in the midst of a See Gulls obsession when Hiss Golden Messenger’s Lateness of Dancers came out in September, so it took a while for me to get into it. By the time Mike Taylor rolled with a nine-piece crew of heavy hitters onto the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theatre in mid-November, I’d become much more familiar with the record’s brighter and more cheerful sound. The album version of “Southern Grammar” doesn’t come close to the energy and power the HGM clique put on display for David Letterman. I’m still euphoric about this performance.
10. NehruvianDOOM, “Darkness (HBU)” (86 plays). I heard “Darkness” when this video dropped in July, and it was sufficient to make DOOM’s collaboration with Bishop Nehru my most anticipated hip-hop record of the year. When the record finally came out in early October, it more than exceeded my expectations. Not too many hip-hop albums have a principal vocalist who presents himself as an apprentice and an active learner, rather than as a finished product. As for DOOM’s involvement, it’s his most accessible and compulsively listenable full album of material since 2005’s collaboration with Danger Mouse, The Mouse and the Mask.
Special Mention: Koh Ikeda, “Tobe! Gundam” (97 plays). I watched Gurren Lagann on Hulu this summer; probably the first complete anime series I’d seen in several years. A young boy goes from a menial, cringing life of digging holes underground to flinging galaxies from the cockpit of a giant robot over the course of 27 episodes, which is as insane and wonderful as it sounds.
Following that experience, I wanted to go back to the start of the giant robot genre, so I started in on Mobile Suit Gundam (1979). It’s a bleak show, maybe grittier and more realistic, despite its bright color palette, than Battlestar Galactica. The theme tune, “Tobe! Gundam,” is also surprising, bringing together the despair of never-ending conflict with the impulse to persevere, cloaked in horn-flourishes and crowned by Koh Ikeda’s smooth, crooning vocals.