While 2014, in my opinion, resulted in a lot of albums that amounted to nothing all that special the same can fortunately not be said for the individual tracks. From one-off singles, to that album-centering track, to even the exceptional b-side, 2014 was a year of welcome surprises in terms of singular musical output. It was a year of anticipation (whispers of Joanna Newsom finally releasing the follow up to 2010's Have One on Me intensified this year in particular) and managed expectations that ultimately delivered if you just stopped the guesswork and let everything unfold how it was meant to. There were a lot of stand along songs released this year but here's some of my favorite songs to come out this year - the one's I found myself returning to again and again.
Julie Byrne - "Prism Song", Rooms With Walls And Windows
I'm always on the lookout for new singer/songwriter and folk music in general so when not only one but two of my friends suggest I give Julie Byrne's album a spin I took to it with an almost abnormal sense of propriety considering it usually takes me months if not years to heed musical advice. What I found in Julie Byrne's music - specifically "Prism Song" was a charming simplicity and an engaging sense of sincerity. Byrne's vocals are beautiful but more importantly her lyrics sound with a beguiling honesty. Byrne manages to draw out all of emotion effectiveness from her "I never would've known what you could have meant to me" with not a ounce of drama; a simple heartfelt reflection.
Mimicking Birds - "Owl Hoots", Eons
I've said it before and I've said it again but I am totally terrible at listening to suggestions from friends. When I went to SXSW earlier this year, Dave Greenwald from Rawkblog suggested I hit up a Portland music showcase - firstly because I like a lot of bands from Portland. Secondly for one band in particular - Mimicking Birds. I told him I'd think about it and then got carried away on the deluge of other music, tacos, and BBQ that I totally forgot to give it a second thought. And then a number of publications started writing about Mimicking Birds as one of the festival's standouts. I had missed a prime opportunity to be a part of history. When I finally sat down to listen to Mimicking Birds it was exactly the kind of thing I knew I would've enjoyed live. On Eons, I was immediately taken with frontman Nate Lacy's lyrical specificity. It was similar but not congruent to that of The Heligoats' Chris Otepka and relies on a similar slow build. "Owl Hoot" is easily the Eons' standout track, not surprisingly chosen as the album's first single, is a perfect showcase of what exactly Mimicking Birds have to offer. The trio play their cards close to their chest - gently unfurling the song's rich textural tapestry in manner belying the specter of insistence that threatens to catapult everything into greater action. And yet, "Owl Hoots" manages to keep everything firmly restrained, steadily building energy and urgency while damming those very things that would undo them. The band take their cues from Lacy's vocals but even as his vocals rise both in volume and fervor, there's an admirable sense of control that is never quite lost.
Ólöf Arnalds - "Half Steady", Palme
While the Icelandic singer/songwriter pushes her boundaries and standard practices on all of Palme, there's no greater display of Arnalds stepping out of her comfort zone than "Half Steady". Working with Gunnar Örn Tynes of múm Arnalds essentially distorts her sound like that of a fun house mirror. While Arnalds still sings with a very human cadence, there's hints of her going for more clipped, inorganic imitation of the track's more electronic elements. It's the most dramatic display of Arnalds pushing her sound when the rest of Palme aims for a subtler balance of synth and Arnalds more traditional folk oriented sound.
Damien Jurado - "Magic Number", Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son
There probably isn't a more pitch perfect way to kick off Damien Jurado and Richard Swift's second collaboration Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son than "Magic Number" - immediate but mysterious; it's a proper bit of musical world building for an album that relies almost purely on a world of Jurado's creative imagination that also demonstrate just what Swift's been able to draw out of Jurado during their shared time together. Jurado's intricacy of lyrics carries over to the song composition - like the entrance of the booming brass and swelling strings central in establish, before Jurado's first words are even uttered, an intriguing sense of uneasiness.
Olivia Quillio - "Easy Killer", The Bomb
The road to Albany based singer/songwriter Olivia Quillio's debut studio album seems like a far longer one than it's been. But while it's only been three years since I stumbled upon her while attending a show of mutual acquaintance, the lack of a true album from Quillio stung purely because she's such a consummate live performer she is - her blend of jazz, soul and folk giving her a distinct voice on top of her electric live presence. No one sound be able to draw so much sensuality from the ukulele and yet, Quillio does so. The Bomb leans a little harder into Quillio's jazz background than any of her previous efforts or she generally gets live due in part to the her talented musicians but the record isn't without it's eclectic tendencies and "Easy Killer" is perfect display of what Quillio brings to the table in addition to being a favorite live staple.
Salt Cathedral - "Rainy Days"
Why Salt Cathedral considered a song as great a "Rainy Days" to be a b-side I don't know. While it's true that it doesn't fit with the retooled vibe of their OOM VELT EP, "Rainy Days" is a jam and the first taste many listeners got to their shifting electronic setup. "Rainy Days" was a happy medium between the intricate tropical-infused rhythms of Salt Cathedral's il Abanico days and the self-titled EP they released last year and the paired down sample-laden synth-pop of OOM VELT and it was for all intents and purposes their best song (before the OOM VELT EP streeted and "Tease" could be sampled). If Salt Cathedral considers a song like "Rainy Days" to be a throwaway track, then every band needs to worry because some bands would kill to have a song as effortlessly dynamic, so obsession-inducing catchy as this one. It would be the keystone of an entire album but Salt Cathedral believed they could achieve better but also saw enough of it's greatness to at least let it out into the world to be enjoyed instead of shelving it. And for that we owe Salt Cathedral the most sincerest gratitude.
Milagres - "Terrifying Sea", Violent Light
It's an achievement for the Brooklyn experimental pop quartet Milagres that on Violent Light, they were not only able to power up their sounds - leaning far more heavily into synth pop and glam rock influences but also retain quite a bit of heart. Kyle Wilson's vocals have always had the ability to be affecting regardless of if he was singing about sherpas or terrifying beasts so when he turns his lyrics inward toward feelings of love and validation like in "Terrifying Sea", they pack an extra wallop. There's grandiose pop moment packaged around the sincerest of intentions at its core and it resonates deeply in a way that's beyond the purely enjoyable majestic delights of Violent Light.
Slow Club - "Complete Surrender", Complete Surrender
Sheffield duo Slow Club have certainly come a long way from the cute folk-pop days of Yeah So. Complete Surrender, their third album, find the twosome growing up and growing into a sleeker and more blatantly pop sound that's definitely rooted in the retro pop aesthetic without allowing it to be just that. The title track is perhaps the best encapsulation of the band's flirtations with decadence, building off Rebecca Taylor's drum loops and blending her and Charlie Watson's voices in a way they haven't really allowed themselves to in bit. It's raw emotion with polished pop sensibilities. "Complete Surrender" is a vocal showpiece even despite the orchestral flourishes, with Taylor going in on a dramatic, big voiced delivery befitting of a true pop star. The arrangements simple but effective, "Complete Surrender" establishes the take-no-prisoners emotive power that the band (now expanded into four piece) go for with the album's ballads and tales of woe. It's definitely one of the album's standout moments of opulence but classically so - like a cocktail dress or eye-drawing piece of flair rather than a full on spectacle.
Skrillex - "Coast Is Clear" ft Chance the Rapper &The Social Experiment, Recess
Well, this is a surprising development. So often we respond with a knee jerk reaction to certain pop culture trends that we aren't totally aware we might be shutting down something valid. I hadn't listened to Skrillex before but somehow got swept up in the collective opinion (at least of non-club kids) that his music wasn't worth paying any attention to. It wasn't until blog faves Hundred Waters signed to his label OWSLA that I realized there was some sort of superficial cognitive dissonance at play here and so with Hundred Waters' in my mind I set out to at least give Skrillex's first full length effort Recess a shot. It was a record I found myself unexpectedly enjoying despite a wary suspicion of dance music. There were moments on the album where I knew if I was in a club or bar I would've started outright dancing to, if not simply tapping my foot. One of the album's not-so-hidden treasures is a collaboration between Sonny Moore and Chance the Rapper. It's a track that eschews the social politics Chance dips into for a much more beguilingly silly romp as Chance plans his escape from the club for a potential one-night stand. On the production end - there's a fairly balanced blend of the electronic and the other all happening at rather impressive gallop. Consistently rapid beats and trumpets swells give way to a break down where everything is pulled back to rebuild everything bit by bit from just beatboxing and a solo piano line. There's all sorts of little tics in the song's construction but it's almost immaculate how the whole thing proceeds at a sprint. It's as much of a testament to Moore's skills as a producer as to the musicianship of all involved - Chance and The Social Experiment included.
Emily Reo - "Peach" (Yalls Remix), Olive Juice Remixes
I'll be honest, whenever I see the word remix I immediately roll my eyes and move on. It's not about seeing the remix as a less valid form of music but rather that I'm almost always unimpressed with the results. It takes a really really good remix to make me take notice and congruently one that is seemingly forced on me. The fact that I heard Yalls update on what's arguably my favorite track from Emily Reo's full length debut was pure coincidence. It played during a between set DJ session from Yalls at this past SXSW and it was enough to make me stop in my tracks. While friends used the set switch over to catch up and make plans for later during the day/week and make notes, I focused my energy on getting closer to the DJ booth so I could ask: "What is this?" A part of a larger effort put together by Reo to remix several of her album tracks, I found myself returning to this remix over and over despite the multitude of options on the remix album. I was fascinated by Yalls ability to manipulate Reo's voice in a way not unlike she does herself. It was a pitch perfect amount of give and take - Reo's fluid melodies endured while Casey clipped and glitched up her vocals.
The Antlers - "Surrender", Familiars
From the ruthlessly heartbreaking Hospice, to the art-pop experimentalism of Undersea, The Antlers have made it a point to challenge themselves both lyrically and aesthetically on every release. Though Hospice was their breakout record, the seeds of their innovation were planted as far as 2006's Uprooted - Peter Silberman's folky solo jaunt under the Antlers moniker. Familiars works well as the summation of all of The Antlers' work so far - combining the strengths of each album with the band's desire to push forward. The Antlers' open up their sound, enlisting the aid of more brass than Darby Cicci's trumpet and cello. Familiars proceeds at glacial thaw, somber instead of just outright sad. "Surrender" however is a notable bright spot. It features less of the album's ethereal sprawl and functions more as a full band showcase - there's a borderline jazzy undercurrent; a nascent groove accompanying Silberman's gentle vocals that swells up during the instrumental breaks. The Antlers have always excelled not only at full album concepts but smaller scale narratives but "Surrender" appeals to those that just like the band being a band. It has the right amount of pop momentum, bringing in the album's new additions while building them around the core trio.
Jessica Pratt - "Back, Baby", On Your Own Love Again (forthcoming)
At the very start of this year every music lover worth worth their salt was a buzz with anticipation and delight when out of the blue a new tune by the name of "Game That I Play" popped up from San Francisco singer/songwriter Jessica Pratt. It was the first signs for many of Pratt making any moves to follow up her enchanting 2012 self-titled debut. It was a tune that disappeared almost as mysteriously as it appeared however with the most recent announcement of her sophomore record On Your Own Love Again, we got a consolation prize of sorts in the form of the surprisingly lush "Back, Baby". It, with it's slight tease of a poppier direction, hinted that the new album would not just be more of the same from Pratt without completely upending the delicate simplicity of Pratt's songs. While we've got to wait until next year to see how that actual pans out, "Back, Baby" does fit into the effortless timelessness Pratt conjures up so well.
Panda Bear - "Mr Noah", Mr Noah EP/Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper (forthcoming)
It's hard to imagine that there was once a time when I didn't listen to Panda Bear but that time was actually not that long ago when it was strongly recommended I give Person Pitch a dedicate listen. One of the exciting things about Panda Bear (and the Animal Collective crew in general) is that he's constantly making tweaks and adjustments to his own music making process. No two songs sound similar despite the similar method of construction and the differences between albums is magnitudinous. Whether or not you liked Tomboy, there's no denying that on "Mr. Noah", Lennox is putting his best foot forward. It's a delightfully poppy jaunt that doesn't trade in any of Lennox's trademark textural play. My favorite thing about Panda Bear is the ease in which he appears to arrange a track's multitude of layers and there's no shortage of that on "Mr. Noah" - our first peek at his upcoming full length return. It's a track strong enough to singlehandedly sell me on the record and one that Lennox feels strongly enough about to anchor a whole other set of songs with.
Tiny Ruins - "Me at the Museum, You at the Wintergardens", Brightly Painted One
It's almost unfair how good of a songwriter Tiny Ruins' Hollie Fullbrook is. Take "Me at the Museum, You at the Wintergardens" - instead of an elaborate conceit it's sole driving force gestates from a desire for togetherness. It's a love song but one so effortless in its pining, so breezy in its delivery; so uncomplicated in its presentation. The track's simplicity suits Fullbrook and elevate "Me at the Museum, You at the Wintergardens" not only to one of Brightly Painted One's tracks but one of those songs you can't help but go back to again and again once you've heard it. It helps that it's a brief 2 minutes and change - offering just the right amount of narrative closer and giving you more bang from your obsession-based repeat buck.
Sondre Lerche - "Bad Law", Please
While my favorite song on Norwegian singer/songwriter/guitarist extraordinaire Sondre Lerche's seventh studio album pretty much changes depending on the day, there's a special place both in my heart and my ears for "Bad Law". The lead single from the mercurial dance party that is Please, it's so dramatically unlike anything Lerche had previously done that it has an almost jarring appeal. Ear-catching and infectious have always been a hallmark of some of Lerche's most popular jams but he's never allowed himself to go as downright dance-y as he does on "Bad Law" to it's great strength. It's a stylistic shift that fits both the renaissance spirit of Please and Lerche's own songwriting that expands his textural palette in a way listeners wouldn't ever have expected. A rebellious swagger and a frenetic energy combine in a passionate blend that finally captures Lerche's electric live performance for the first time on a studio record that's incredibly exciting and endearingly refreshing.