And here we have our top tracks of the year. We admit we have a very complicated system: in order to cover as many stellar songs as possible, anything from our Top 50 Albums of 2014 list doesn’t qualify here. So you won’t see the likes of Problem, given that Ariana Grande‘s My Everything made our Top 50. You also won’t see Rather Be because it’s been everywhere and, more importantly, it’s cack.
Other than that you’ve got a mixture of releases, songs from EPs and mixtapes, one-offs, internet releases… basically, this contains anything that reached our ears in 2014 in some form or other, and we can’t stop going back to. Confused? Good – pop on this handy Soundcloud or YouTube playlist (also found at the bottom of this page) and read on…
Take the piss all you want, but you know you loved this. Timberlake-raping aside, the original demo of Love Never Felt So Good that appeared on Xscape (still an awful name, well done everyone) was a treat, mainly for hearing Michael Jackson‘s vocals again with such a classic melody. A strong case for posthumous plundering of catalogues.
Mapei had hype that we never understood. Her album fell apart over that hype, a mess of ideas without overt form or structure, and nothing as good as her initial promise. However, one track stood out massively: Things You Know Nothing About is everything she does right, with a bunch of strings that drop in at the right moment. Wonderful business.
48. Hooray For Earth – Say Enough
It’s sad that Hooray For Earth are no more – they’re not dead, mind, just disbanded. They did get one last hooray (sorry) with this track though: Say Enough was one of the finest of their oeuvre, their synth-rock the perfect bed for that surge of a chorus. We’re genuinely quite sad that they won’t be making more records… and yet somehow Paloma Faith still has a career. Whatever.
47. Billie Marten – Unaware
“It’s not air that you’re breathing/ It’s the truth you inhale/ Stretching out, testing reaches like that like that endless open rail,” sings Billie Marten on Unaware over some expertly plucked acoustic guitar. Marten has got that Marling-esque feel, that very British alt-folk vibe that seems to have been lost recently. It’s very much safe in the hands of this girl, that’s for sure.
Right. J-Lo, for all intents and purposes, is done. Her latest album shows that she’s behind the times, has nary a chance of catching up to all the exciting younglings of pop, and pretty much seems content to stay that way. Except for this annoying anomaly called Troubeaux, which keeps hope alive on a woeful album. This is Lopez being her absolute best with pounding Harlem beats and a Nas rap – that middle-eight alone is worth everything, or at the very least a place on this list.
Big chorus alert. Zella Day won us right over with the first we heard of her: this here swelling, soaring pop song Sweet Ophelia. She’s been quite the popular act ever since, with no doubt the strongest of futures ahead of her. If you’re not on the bus yet, cop a load of this: it’ll sweep you right up into it’s massive pop waves.
Icy, glistening synth-pop is one of our favourite things, especially when it comes from Scandinavia. So it’s obvious that Denmark’s Kill J has immediate fans in us with their atmospheric, moody piece, You Have Another Lover. It’s as menacing as you like, subtle, and oh-so-moving as that dramatic instrumentation kicks in over the chorus. A great find.
When we first heard this Holly Walker track, we dismissed it. It had an odd structure, things didn’t quite seem to fit, and we weren’t entirely sold on it. Two days later, we found ourselves compelled to go back on account of how much we were still thinking about it. It’s a slow burner for sure, but the neo-soul of Now That I Am Nothing is this girl’s everything.
Here’s a challenge: try get three seconds into Ekkah‘s Last Chance To Dance without bopping or clicking your fingers. Impossible. But that’s what the duo of Rebekah Pennington and Rebecca Wilson (Ekkah, geddit?) inspire in us, given how instantly funky this is. Who says nothing good can come out of Birmingham? (Well, we still do, but we’ll make an exception here.)
You can always rely on the Scandinavian, eh? Just when we thought it’d be a quiet month from that quarter, along comes Susanne Sundfør (fresh from her mind-bogglingly brilliant Kleerup collab) trailing her forthcoming album with the 80s-leaning Fade Away. It’s a thing of crystalline beauty, complete with a synth solo midway. What’s not to love?
Why not start off with something that needed more attention, eh? From the rather excellent Monki & Friends compilation, this was quite the powerhouse combination: Joe Goddard of The 2 Bears, the ever-reliable Kidnap Kid, and our soul sister Moko (who had a pretty solid year herself). Together they produced an understated carnival jam in Let Go, but a jam nonetheless.
Juce are fun, aren’t they? And they’re as perfectly relevant as a three-piece, all-female throwback-R&B group can be right now. Call You Out was quite the introduction to the Chalin, Georgia, and Cherish, and pretty impossible not to shimmy to. Subsequent releases have maintained that effortlessly funky quality, and there’s no doubt there’ll be more goodness in store for 2015.
While Disclosure have been relatively quiet this year, their collaborators have been slowly coming to the fore. Not that Sasha Keable needed their push – her own EP proved to be a smooth tour through modern R&B-pop, the highlight of which was Living Without You. This was without doubt the rooftop-down moment of the summer though, to be honest, there’s so much sunshine in this song that it’s pretty much making us feel the same in December. Bravo, young’un.
Indiana can be a pop force to be reckoned with, of this there is no doubt (especially after Solo Dancing). Our highlight from the Nottingham lass, however, was this deep electronic ballad Shadow Flash. Besides being the best use of the Mortal Kombat ‘Continue’ sound you’ll ever hear, it also soared with both a chorus and middle-eight that most people would give their PR budget for.
36. Camden Cox – Kinda Like
Little Boots was pretty brilliant last year. And while we’re not so sold on her new change in sound, she’s certainly managing to imbibe her label signings with severe donk potential. One of those is Camden Cox who put forward a glitchy, sultry Kinda Like. There hasn’t been a follow-up to match it just yet, but we’re confident there’s something equally as banging round the corner.
35. Tanika – Fucking With My Heart
Talk about bangers. We were actually spoilt for choice when it came to Tanika, who had the rare privilege of smashing it on several occasions. Bad 4 U was a spiky, caustic kiss-off, and Fucking With My Heart continued those power vibes. An A-grade banger of the highest degree; after this we definitely, definitely do not want to fuck with this lady.
How do you make a good song even better? Add The Night VI, apparently. This year they’ve managed to take upcoming indie outfit Osca‘s already-great Blood and add a layer of profundity. The moment Sophie-Rose Harper sings “always in my blood” we’re done for, and it’s a testament to the radio-friendly potential that her label-mates Osca bring in droves.
Tom Krell has had a great year as a solo artist, but if that Jacques Greene collaboration from last year taught us anything, it’s that he’s pretty shit-hot when it comes to hooking up with other acts. Beatsmith RL Grime is one of those, laying down a steamy vibe for Krell to take How To Dress Well to a more overtly sensual level.. Either way, Reminder cements both of them as quite a force.
Is anyone out there still unaware of Years & Years? That the London trio have managed to become so popular in such a short space of time is an enviable success story for a modern indie band, but to be fair their output deserves recognition. Take Shelter was definitely a breakthrough – for Years & Years as a band, and for all those forgotten louche calypso beats all over the world.
While everyone was (quite rightly) getting high on the Tove Lo school of hedonism, good old Alison Wonderland was doing the same on Cold, and in a similarly banging way. “Now it’s just me and this Grey Goose,” she sings before descending into a lust-filled escapade and remaining wholly indifferent throughout. Our kind of girl, and definitely our kind of song.
30. Chris Malinchak – Stranger (feat. Mikky Ekko)
While actual Michael Jackson turned out an album from beyond the grave and also decided to perform as a hologram, his legacy also lived on from a surprising quarter: pop’s most overrated newcomer, Mikky Ekko. Jumping onto the funkiest of Chris Malinchak‘s beats, the first response you’re bound to have toward Stranger is a double take to check it really isn’t the King of Pop.
Kate Boy have been burgeoning with promise for so long, and a rather hefty portion of that was delivered in one song. Self Control is a tremendous example of what modern synth-driven pop can sound like – pounding, robotic beats, and a chorus (plus post-chorus) that will very much cause you to lose your shit. Can’t really ask for more now, can you?
If last year had Kelela, this year has Tink. We’re talking about pushing the boundaries of traditional R&B into something dark, mature, intelligent – Ashanti this ain’t. Men is her hookup with DJ Dahi (thank God there’s no Mustard on this beat, ho) as Tink opines about the opposite sex: “Talk to me but mentally, I wanna feel that chemistry.”
27. Kitty – 285
A lot of people seem to dismiss Kitty as just another meme-swallowing internet music fad, but the DIY hip-pop star is becoming much more exciting than that. 285 was a homage to a closed down venue in her home of New York, and it’s everything you could want for a club send-off. We don’t know anyone who blends dance and rap as smoothly as she does.
It’s a hard fact that Lia Ices produced a fine first album, very much living up to her name with the crystalline quality of her songwriting. Her second album, Ices, took a more electronic approach and didn’t quite succeed, save for two songs: How We Are, and the utterly addictive Thousand Eyes. Part Bollywood-inflected, part quirky singer-songwriter, it definitely landed on the higher end of the alt-pop scale this year. You’ll be la-la-la-ing by the end, guaranteed.
25. Jenny Hval & Susanna – I Have Walked This Body
Talk about haunting. Fellow Scandinavians Jenny Hval and Susanna merged their offbeat styles for Meshes of Voice this year, the undoubted highlight of which is this freaky, mesmerising wail of a song. I Have Walked This Body feels like it doesn’t belong to this world, a sort of halfway house between this world and a darker plane, getting ever closer with every wave of verse, every screech of guitar, every howl of singer. Scandi-pop this ain’t, and quite rightly ‘n’ all.
We had high hopes for Tennis this year on the strength of their single releases, but sadly their album didn’t quite match the promise before it. And what promise it was, in the form of I’m Callin’. Taking that sun-kissed Californian-pop vibe and sprinting with it, the husband-wife duo managed to create something that instantly transports you to a surf coast. Utter joy.
If you need to understand why Rae Morris is on every Sound of 2015 list, including ours, here you go. Unguarded is a gently moving paean to love, leading the fearful to a place of comfort with ideas of a perfect future. It’s no surprise that the young Blackpool powerhouse has named her album after this track, because it bursts with everything that is brilliant about her.
Sodomise us sideways if the one true saviour of pretty much everything doesn’t feature on this list. Hell, Robyn could shit a Clean Bandit single and we’ll still lap it up because, err hi, she’s Robyn. Not that Royksopp are Clean Bandit, of course – while their joint EP wore us down a little, this number is vintage Scandi-pop on both accords. Do It Again obliterated both us and the dance floor, and made us pine for a new Robyn album all over again.
A lot of hoo-haa was made about this being written for Rihanna – together with rumours of Grimes shelving an entire album as a result of the “you’ve gone too pop” response – but anyone who has anything bad to say about this song deserves to be censured. Truth be told, Rihanna could never pull this off, and would probably over-sing the shit out of it. Grimes keeps it restrained yet airy, and sits back to let that dub-based drop do the talking. What a moment, Ms Boucher.
“All my life/ I’ve been dreaming of you, I’ve been dreaming of you, I’ve been dreaming of you…” – who’d have thought the man responsible for 80% of BEYONCE would turn out something so super-romantic? Dreams is by far the highlight of the Boots album released this year, not least because it features the rhythmic gymnastics of a Queen Bey vocal. As wonderful as R&B duets come, and proof that perhaps Boots is at his best when serving someone else.
No one does beats like Cyril Hahn. More to the point, no one manages to utilise vocalists to perfection in order to take those beats to another level. This time drafting in R&B upstart Rochelle Jordan – who herself had a pretty decent year – Slow pulses with the simplest and catchiest flow (“Do you mind if we take it slow? / Do you mind if we don’t let go?”) and turns out a career best.
There’s something quite exciting about an act coming out of nowhere with one stunning song on Soundcloud, and immediately knocking most of their peers for six. That’s exactly what Iceland’s Lilja K. Jónsdóttir (of Bloodgroup) did as Lily The Kid, channeling the glacial nature of her homestead to make Pedro bubble with raw, natural power.
It’s with very good reason that we plonked Billie Black on our Sound of 2015 list. Classy, soulful neo-R&B is the name of the game here, with Black’s debut EP a beacon to her talent. I Don’t Need Another Lover quietly glistens under immaculate production and a perfectly-pitched vocal performance. Bet it all on Black next year, because this 19 year-old ought to go stratospheric.
16. Yumi Zouma – A Long Walk Home For Parted Lovers
If someone asks you who the best new upcoming band is, you’d need to be a walking disaster to say anyone other than Yumi Zouma. The New Zealanders’ debut EP was a surprsing lo-fi cocktail, which shone on A Long Walk Home For Parted Lovers. “Do you believe that love is impossible? / Do you concede that we were improbable?” they sing with almost knowing cheek, and at once become the band we never knew we needed until now.
It’s no secret that we’re Mononoke‘s biggest fans, but she is keeping us teased with these drip-fed releases. The last of these was Barefoot and Broken, which gathers everything we love about her: doleful, emotive singing and some hella deep words. Dare your heart not to break a little as she utters “let’s just pretend/ There’ll be someone waiting for us in the end.”
We have no shame about how much we love this song. Released in any other year with the right push behind it, it could have been huge. Max Marshall diluted everything we love about dance-pop and threw it all into Be Free, which bristles with so much joy we’re not quite sure what to do with it. If you don’t throw your arms aloft when she yells ‘free’ in the chorus, you’re dead inside.
“Safety is the most unsettling,/ Just waking up at night/ Feeling old…” With just a few words, buzz band Arthur Beatrice manage to encompass the ennui besetting an entire generation. While their debut album was a tad inconsistent for our liking, More Scrapes rose far beyond its fellow album tracks and genre peers to deliver something that was at once both moving and stimulating.
Just when you thought the BEYONCE album campaign couldn’t have gotten any better: an impeccable album, a sell-out husband-wife tour, and a shitload of controversy later, it was already a bit of a whirlwind year for the Carter-Knowles clan. All of it paled, however, when Queen Bey effortlessly decided to address that lift controversy with this Flawless remix, before uttering the word “Onika…” And then? Game over for all your faves, with Nicki Minaj‘s tightest bars in years.
Any other year, this track would probably feature much higher on our list. As it stands, it almost feels like a diluted version of our #1 song of 2014, but that doesn’t make it any less powerful. Emma Ruth Rundle sets the scene with an air of foreboding on Shadows Of My Name, before letting loose a gut-wrenching torrent of guilt: “I lay back in salt/ Please forgive my name/ I won’t speak at all/ Just to sing again.” Devastating stuff, and wholly worth your time.
Sometimes it’s the complete unknowns that pack the biggest surprise. London’s Laura Jae is someone we’ve been tracking for a while, but earlier this year she dropped something so magical in its fragility that it’s hard to share it with the world. Let Go is solitary yearning in the dead of the night, twinkling as if The xx hired an R&B vocalist. In a word? Stunning. In two words? Fucking stunning.
If you mixed The Staves with Haim and add a name that sounds like a Thundercat, Jagaara might be the result. The London sister act came out of pretty much nowhere with a few demos on Soundcloud, one of those being the twinkling beauty of Faultline. Harmonies are synced in a way only a family can and a tale that moves you behind the gentlest of chord progressions.
“If you get my name wrong/ I won’t get pissed off/ ‘Cos I wish I was somebody else,” sings London’s Shura on the electronic melancholia of Just Once. It’s affecting in its disaffection, the story of a forlorn lover seeking solace in unknown arms despite it being tinged as something distinctly out of character. Inspiring both empathy and amazement, it’s a breakout gem for one of the most exciting new acts this year.
7. Majid Jordan – Forever
While you may be familiar with Canadian duo (Hi, I’m Majid – Hi, I’m Jordan – and together we are”) Majid Jordan from human microwave Drake‘s seminal Hold On, We’re Going Home, the fact is they have the chops to go way beyond that. Their EP was a highlight of the year by far, the jewel in it being Forever, which is everything that modern, sun-kissed R&B needs to be. Take notes.
It’s certainly not like us to go doolally over donk-less instrumentals or something without a discernible soaring chorus, but the fact that Jamie xx‘s Girl managed to do that is a testament to how great a track this is. Echoes of “I want you back” dripping in falsetto with a backdrop of perfect electronica, suddenly blooming into a majestic sunrise of a beat. Incredible stuff.
“Erase it and erase me/ It’s a circular faith in living,” sings Hannah Shepherd, aka Airling, on Ouroboros as she allegorically alludes to the eponymous mythical creature. Australia had a pretty great year when it came to new artists, but our favourite of those had to be this one. Gently hypnotic, cooing in all the right places, it’s a beautifully understated meditation on the darker sides of love. Shepherd compounded this debut with more brilliance from her first EP, but Ouroboros feels like her finest moment, haunting you long after it’s done.
Say what you want about Nicole Scherzinger, Your Love, or even us after this. We couldn’t be remotely bothered. While the former Pussycat Doll gets a bad rap for being all about yoghurt and balls these days, this surprising little ditty came out of nowhere and won us right over. As brilliantly bat-shit as the lady behind it, it took a simple yet effective chorus, shamelessly outdated references (MC Hammer and Mike Tyson, anyone?), and a generous dollop of spunk to somehow create one of the most euphoric pop moments of 2014. It may not have got its due in the charts, and the parent album could have been better, but it remains quite spectacular. Scherzy: don’t ever change.
When we interviewed Brooklyn brother-sister duo Ben and Katie Marshall, aka Paperwhite, a couple of months ago, they said that their aim was to create music that would make people happy. They’ve certainly done that this year, with a repertoire so impressive (that too in infancy) that it was difficult to narrow down exactly which track to choose. Magic was resplendent with throwback goodness, Take Me Back was full on Breakfast Club-level 80s power-pop, but their entire sound crystallises perfectly in Pieces. It’s unashamedly joyous: three minutes of how magical pop music can be (with a killer middle-eight), and how we should all be ridiculously excited about Paperwhite.
If there’s one new act that has delivered consistently high output this year, it has to be London’s TĀLĀ. Her blend of glitchy, Grimes-esque electronica and husky vocal reached an absolute apex on Alchemy, which also serves as a lesson to artists trying to blend their ethnic background with contemporary sounds. It’s utterly menacing, the sound of a woman wronged; snatches of a siren punctuate covert threats, before the knockout blow comes out of nowhere: the wail of a different siren, like the call of a lost soul wandering a Middle Eastern desert. It never fails to bring out the goosebumps, and ramps the song up to a completely new level as a brooding synth lurches behind the words “You know that I’ll haunt you.” TĀLĀ, this year you certainly did.
When it came to writing this list, one song remained forever seared into our mind. That song is Sharon Van Etten‘s Your Love Is Killing Me. “Break my legs so I won’t walk to you/ Cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you/ Stab my eyes so I can’t see…” she soon declares to the sound of funereal guitar, the opening chapter to the most gut-wrenching depiction of a relationship we’ve ever heard on song. This is visceral, mutually dysfunctional stuff (“You like it when I let you walk all over me”) to sit uncomfortably with anyone who has had even the most remotely destructive relationship; Van Etten sings her pain with such nakedness that it almost becomes difficult to bear. It’s that surge of raw of emotion that makes this not just the song of the year, but also one of the most devastating this decade.
You can have a listen to all of these tracks via our handy little YouTube and Soundcloud playlist below: