In most weeks, any of the top 3, maybe top 4 songs on this list could have made a valid claim for the No. 1 spot. But the song that did take home the gold did so with authority: “Rap song of 2014 thus far, easily,” says Tom. So what made the list, what didn’t, and where did everyone place? Read on.
Fear Of Men are tricky. The UK group certainly brings to mind the shoegaze and dream-pop bands of the past, but their sound has a crispness that’s anything but dreamlike. There’s a waking energy to the band, in the way their guitars cut, the drums snap, and most of all, their gorgeous, clear vocals, which bring to mind the late and dearly missed Trish Keenan of Broadcast. Fear Of Men establish this immediately with the vocal clarity of “Alta,” before seamlessly bursting into the breathy melodic rush that makes up the first minute of “Waterfall,” only to pull it back into the minimal nearly a cappella section that brings a romantic lyrical directness, too: “Trust in me completely/ show me there’s no world outside our own.” It’s a risky, heartfelt sentiment laid bare, unobscured by distortion or pedals or anything that might lessen the impact. And it’s a breakthrough for a new band that has only gotten more promising. –Miles
It begins with a heartbeat rumble with just the right amount of buzz. Just slow enough to keep things cool, just enough to set the pace. That beat stays consistent through Kelela’s new stunner — the most recent in a long line of them that culminated with her incredible mixtape last year. It’s a sex jam, but one that only goes as far as kisses on the neck and hands on the waist. “The High” is all prelude and anticipation, overwhelmingly minimal but blessed with a singer confident enough to hold your attention for its luxurious six minutes. Hell — it could have been twice that and still made this list. It’s the perfect evocation of that moment when you just get back home with someone and you both know there’s no need to rush anything — you have all night, after all. –Miles
Musically, “Prince Johnny” is probably about as straightforward as St. Vincent gets — a trip-hop torch song with a subdued arrangement and a somber melody that builds to breathtaking heights. But Annie Clark’s unique talents make the thing a straight stunner. First, those lyrics: elliptical, haunting, a mysterious and mournful narrative dotted with striking details (“You traced the Andes with your index/ And bragged when and where and who you’re gonna bed next”). Then, that goddamn voice; Clarke sways gently in her middle register and gains power as she slowly scales heavenward. When she hits that fluttery falsetto on the chorus, the entire tone of the song changes — it cracks wide open and spills outward, and behind her narrator’s hardened, hard-bitten sadness, Clark finds something much rarer and harder to capture, something that sounds, for a glowing moment, like hope. –Michael
Beck is two decades deep into a career full of amazing songs, but has he ever written one that builds like this? The strings and drums and bells and psych-flare guitars pile on and pile on until the surging orchestral crescendo, the sort of thing that would’ve done Ladies And Gentlemen-era Spiritualized proud, before the sudden scrape of an amp unplugging ends it all. Those cinematic effects all work in service of a simple song about seeing a sunrise and feeling a memory dropping away from you, and the lush instrumentation never overwhelms the simplicity of the feeling or the melody. It’s a soft, bummed, knowing song, but it’s put together with the sort of smooth assurance that announces Beck as an old master, not just a survivor. “Waking Light” is the last song on the forthcoming album Morning Phase, and it’s as grand a finale as an album could possibly want. –Tom
Future, putting the singing aside and keeping his couplets hard and percussive: “Beating that china, Kunta Kinte / Whipping and whipping that dope, drinking on syrup and rolling up haze.” Pusha, haughty and imperious: “Whoo! Fishscale in the two-door that I fishtail / Fiberglass, Ferrari leather, in designer shit that I misspell.” Pharrell, dizzily triple-timing and high-stepping his way through the single best rap verse of his entire career: “The Gandalf hat and the weird-ass clothes / That’s Commes Des Garcons and the Buffalo.” Future’s brother Casino, grabbing his biggest spotlight ever and huffing harder than anyone else: “COCAINE, GRAAAH!” (I’m paraphrasing there.) Mike Will Made It’s beat: “I AM COMING TO YOUR HOUSE TO MURDER YOU WITH FUTURISTIC ALIEN TECHNOLOGY WHILE I WHISPER THE HOOK TO SALT-N-PEPA’S “PUSH IT” IN YOUR EAR.” Rap song of 2014 thus far, easily. –Tom