Part Twenty-One: 20-11
The Top 20. I almost thought I’d never get here. But make it I did, and with the end of this ridiculous list in sight it’s time to quit screwing around and just start banging out the songs that were mainstays on my personal playlist from the first moments I heard them. The “Top 40” makes its presence felt on more than one occasion, such is the power of the pop culture zeitgeist. I make no apologies for it. As much as I like to rock, there’s always room for a little bit of that American radio goodness to find its way into my world. Anyway, let’s do this.
20. Dum Dum Girls – “Rimbaud Eyes”
Steve Hyden covers music for Grantland.com. I’ve been enjoying his stuff for years now, even though he rarely covers acts that I enjoy. Every now and then he’ll do a column of “Songs of the Week” in which he’ll highlight a bunch of new releases, and while most of what he brings to light is outside my interest, on occasion he’ll introduce me to something I really like. Such was the case with the Dum Dum Girls and this single off their Too True album. Combining an 80’s new wave guitar with an echoey 90’s indie rock production quality, this song demanded my attention at first listen and led to me listening to the album on a daily basis for the first month or so of the year. Cool video as well.
19. Strand Of Oaks – “Shut In”
Oddly enough, this is another song/act I specifically remember being directed to thanks to Steve Hyden at Grantland. Also like the Dum Dum Girls, Strand Of Oaks deal in a sort of 80’s new wave distorted by a 90’s alternative fuzztone. There is just something seriously cool about the guitar sound Timothy Showalter achieves on this album and this song. In particular the solo here, which is my third favorite solo of the year (don’t ask me why I kept track of that, I just did) in large part thanks to the glorious effects. Lyrically this also a cool tune about a guy trapped by the inertia of a life without direction. Not that I can relate to that. *cough*
18. Lenny Kravitz – “The Chamber”
I hated Lenny Kravitz when he first hit the scene as Lisa Bonet’s boyfriend, the song “Let Love Rule” in particular annoying me to no end, as did Lenny’s overly crafted hipster image (before such a thing had a name). That turned on a dime when I first heard the riff for “Are You Gonna Go My Way?”, at which point I set aside my preconceived notions and gave his music a chance. Later, his album 5 would become my favorite album of 1998. I’ve lost touch of him musically over the last decade or so, but was happy to give his latest single a spin when it hit my inbox back in the summer. What we get is the third song in a row which owes a bit of a debt to 80’s new wave, which is kind of messed up considering that was a genre I was never fully into. The fwapping bassline totally made me think of Blondie the first time I heard it and the song just kind of took off from there. Lenny and his band lay down a hellacious funk groove bathed in typical Kravitz throwback production values, including the trippy synth on the outro. Killer.
17. Meghan Trainor – “All About That Bass”
Every year there are a couple of Top 40 pop tunes that just permeate the musical ether in such a way as to be unavoidable, and usually with good reason. This song is so shamelessly catchy that it’s hard not to love, and that’s before you get to the part about how it is, in its own weird way, a positive message about being comfortable with your own body. The reason it’s sitting here at #17 though is because of its spot-on 60’s Motown pop song-writing and production. I mean whoever was behind this song (I’m too lazy to look it up) absolutely CRUSHED it, delivering the kind of big beat and swing that Phil Spector would have loved. I’d get bored of this kind of thing after a while, but man, for one song out of 200, I’ll take it.
16. Lonely The Brave – “Backroads”
The fourth and final song from what, at this point, is what I’m willing to declare my favorite album of 2014. I’ve tried and failed miserably up to this point with the other three entries to describe precisely what it is about this band’s sound that stirs me so strongly, so I won’t waste too much space trying again here. If you haven’t got it yet, you won’t get it now. As for why this song above the others has climbed this high, I lay it at the feet of the soaring chorus and one of my absolute favorite lyrics of the year, “If you be the sky then I’ll be the bird”.
15. Anberlin – “Hearing Voices”
Like Lonely The Brave, Anberlin entered my consciousness this year in a big way and I was totally drawn to their sound even though I have a hard time really explaining why. This song was my gateway, as I just found myself clicking repeat on the single pretty much every day for a couple of months while I waited for the full album to hit. It’s another one of those anthemic builders that I love so much, starting pretty clean and stripped of a lot of obvious background instrumentation until the chorus kicks in and things surge to another plain. And man does that chorus ever take off, vocalist Stephen Christian showing great range here, as he does throughout the album (which covers a lot of ground mood-wise). Something about the drums on this track also reel me in, helping to build that bridge upward with their insistent rhythm. I thought for sure this was going to wind up one of my top 10 songs of the year back in the summer, but as it turns out another track off this album climbed ahead of it.
14. Pharrell Williams – “Happy”
First things first, credit where it is due to “Weird Al” Yankovic, already represented elsewhere on this countdown for other tunes, for his “Tacky” parody, which was probably 50% responsible for me loving this song so much. I had heard Pharrell’s original a handful of times and liked it well enough, but it was my repeated viewings of Al’s own video which made me hunt down the original for inclusion on my summer playlist. I’m pretty sure I don’t really need to explain to people why this song is just so shamelessly joyous and fun. As always with R&B/Top 40 stuff, I can’t really listen to a full album of it without getting a little anxious, waiting for a guitar riff to come crashing through my speaker, but the right song comes along and I am totally on board. I mean seriously, if you can’t get on board for four minutes of pure feel good pop candy like this every now and then, you probably have major issues to work out with yourself. Just give in to it, it’s okay.
13. Guano Apes – “Close To The Sun”
Beginning life as a German skatepunk band back in the mid-90’s, Guano Apes have polished up their sound quite a bit in the decades since and, as usual, turned off a lot of their fans along the way (my friend Steve among them). That’s usually where I come in though, my preference for quality production and more melodic song writing almost always trumping the loss of any youthful aggression that accompanies such a career transition. This song slides in nicely alongside Anberlin’s “Hearing Voices” with its slow build into an uplifting chorus, although the guitars here never quite reach the level of that other track. Oddly enough though it’s the very *tease* of such a takeoff that brings this one home for me, including the aborted non-solo at about 2:45. Plus, Sandra Nasić’s vocals are an always welcome sound to my ears.
12. The Civil Wars – “Talking In Your Sleep”
I’ve already lamented the loss of The Civil Wars this year in enough other places so I won’t beat a dead horse here. Instead I’ll focus on how happy I was they at least gave us a little something extra on the way out, releasing the four track Between The Bars EP which included a bunch of covers, the highlight of which was this total reimagining of The Romantics’ 1983 hit. I had always loved the original even though it seems to get lost in the shuffle of 80’s nostalgia and usually overshadowed by the band’s more well-known hit “What I Like About You”. What The Civil Wars did with this track is breathtaking, turning it from a bouncy new wave gem into a haunting and even disturbing heart-wrencher. Just gorgeously rendered on all fronts. John Paul White’s vocal performance here is wonderfully shattered.
11. X Ambassadors (feat. Jamie N Commons) – “Jungle”
The first time I heard this song was last summer when it became the ever-present anthem of both the Beats By Dre World Cup ad campaign (which was all over my TV) and WWE’s incessant Shopzone commercials (incessant if you watch as much wrestling as I do). I fell hook, line, and sinker for its stirring emotional (and percussive) stomp, along with its almost gospel-like vocal presentation. Musically it crosses that weird bridge between black music and white music that it seems only a select few artists are able to manage without completely pandering to one side or the other. Meanwhile its lyrical message of nutting up and facing whatever the world is throwing at you, no matter how grim, makes it a pretty obvious choice to be one of the new generation’s stadium sports anthems for years to come. Get used to that stomp, people, because you’re going to be hearing it for years to come.