1. “Lazaretto” – Jack White
Many sobbed inconsolably into their red and white striped flags when they heard the White Stripes would be no more. In hindsight, they needn’t have worried. Fresh off his stellar solo album Blunderbuss, the last standing king of heartland rock and roll returned with the gritty, wooden teeth follow-up Lazaretto. Like its predecessor, the album draws its title from an antiquated term no longer used in our vernacular (in this case, a house for lepers). But that’s entirely the point. Drawing from the old – poorly tuned fiddles, raw drum kit and all – White spins something fresh and addictive. Folk songs for the mp3 generation.
The title track embodies this philosophy perfectly. Starting with a fuzzy hook, he spins a meandering tapestry that recalls his best work from the White Stripes, Raconteurs and even the dripping gloom of the Dead Weather before shooting off into his own untapped American West musings. Everything is raw and untampered, exactly as it should be. But that comes as no surprise. The best of Jack White is always off the cuff and snidely personal.
2. “I Wanna Get Better” – Bleachers
It only takes one listen through Jack Antonoff’s opening statement as a solo artist to know where most of Fun.’s talent lies. Constructed around a simple piano hook, “I Wanna Get Better” builds wildly as Antonoff reveals a frantic personal story of being willing, yet unable to take the plunge into adulthood. It’s a cry the struggling post-grad knows all too well, fumbling to find meaning and stability, while crashing at their parents’ place for the summer and munching through boxes of ramen. At least Antonoff already took his first step to greatness, moving outside the comfort zone that Nate Ruess provided. He wails that he wants to get better, but the track suggests that he’s already in his prime, exes and growing older be damned.
3. Tongues (feat. KOPPS)” – Joywave
The first of two Daniel Armbruster creations to find their way onto this list, “Tongues” is a seedy, unsettling slice of electropop that takes its title very seriously. ”I hear their mouths making foreign sounds / Sometimes I think they’re all just speaking tongues,” dances the chorus atop a an equally foreign vocal loop that drives the song into a danceable, clubworthy spin (a hipster club, but a club all the same).
Like their brother band BIG Data, Joywave leapt out of the New York ether this year with the distinct intention of taking over the music industry as we know it. It’s only a matter of time until we see which one will triumph over the other, but one thing is clear. With the deft vocals and techno savvy of Armbruster at the helm, one is sure to win out.
4. “Stay With Me” – Sam Smith
By the time this article is published, Sam Smith will have probably knocked MAGIC!’s “Rude” from the top of the chart and begun a long, illustrious reign. And I’m not complaining about that.
He’s already being hailed as the male Adele, has taken home Critics’ Choice at the 2014 BRIT Awards, and was named #1 on the BBC’s elite Sound of 2014. There are plenty of reasons to see why. He comes equipped with his own brand of throwback R&B, giving him the luster of a Sam Cooke protégé. With stellar vocal range and an adherence to stripped down, evocative basics (nothing beats a subtle, uncompressed drum kit), it’s not hard to see why. But what gives him his own unique flavor is his constant departure from his comfort zone. Remember that one Disclosure song? Of course you do. But we’re not here to talk about that.
In a world where a sneeze from Katy Perry can and will go #1, it’s refreshing to see that someone with true vocal and stylistic talent can still kill it with a gem like “Stay With Me.” It is a gospel-powered cry for companionship from a man not looking for love, but still seeks to know the touch of another human. We’ve all been there, right? Sam and his chorus know that. And they will cut to the core of you with nothing more than a few piano chords, a kick drum and your own vulnerability.
5. “Beware the Dog” – The Griswolds
We all have that person that we describe in conversation as our “crazy ex.” We can either let the memory of that person get us down, or we can throw a wild beach party and sing to the sky that they’re fucking crazy. The Griswolds – Australia’s answer to Walk the Moon – chose the latter. Never once giving into the dark side of their break-up with a heroin-addicted whatsername, this rainbow-blotched quartet bounces over indie pop licks and island synths inviting everyone to drop their baggage into the bonfire. It’s a difficult invitation to deny. Who has time for the shitty people in their lives anyhow?
6. “Jealous (I Ain’t With It)” – Chromeo
The Canadian disco house duo known as Chromeo have been around for years, but they’ve pretty much failed to make a significant statement – until now that is. “Jealous” is a four-on-the-floor dance number strewn guitar licks so funky you’d swear Nile Rodgers had a hand in them. It’s deft, upbeat and unapologetic in its Saturday Night Fever swagger. Leave it to our neighbors to the north to pinpoint exactly what we’ve been missing since the rollerdiscos shut their doors and bellbottoms went the way of the mullet.
As if to spite this gleeful tune, however, vocalist Dave 1 churns out nervous lyrics about not trusting his lady around the packs of ravenous men that trail her wherever she goes. Maybe if his music wasn’t as catchy, they would leave her alone.
7. “Dangerous” – BIG Data
But wait, Anthony. Didn’t you already cover BIG Data in another article?
What did I say about interrupting? Maybe if you listened as much as you talked, you’d realize that I dole out this much coverage on BIG Data for one reason – they’re really good.
Another project in the Daniel Armbruster collection, BIG Data is helmed with dark wave panache by producer Alan Wilkis. Together, they lay out a web of paranoia over a sinister baseline not out of place in a pulpy, 80s slasher flick. The topic of their music adheres to perils of the modern world though, latching on to our mistrust of the NSA, our disappearing privacy in the internet age and Facebook Messenger blowback. It’s all a vicious, Orwellian nightmare – if 1984 were written by bloggers on Reddit.
8. “FUCKMYLIFE666” – Against Me!
Earlier this year, all the punk rock nation could talk about was the return of Against Me!, and specifically their first album since frontwoman Laura Jane Grace’s coming out as transgender. How befitting then that the album tackles this very topic head on. Transgender Dysphoria Blues paints a vivid mural of the inner lives of a silent, marginalized community. Sure, their work has hinted about this struggle as early as the 2007 masterpiece New Wave, but here it’s on full display. The directionless anger is gone, replaced assuredly by true angst and grappling with identity.
Of course an entire album can’t make this list, which makes “FUCKMYLIFE666” the perfect cross-section for our purposes. Furious and angry, yet soberingly human, this track documents the inner struggle of a trans teen coming to terms with themselves, while trying not to let the lenses of the people around them cloud their vision. It’s less raw than the full punk ragers that surround it, but as a mission statement and slice of poignant songwriting, it takes the cake.
9. “Waves” – Sleeper Agent
Apparently Kentucky indie outfit Sleeper Agent have never heard of the sophomore slump. Riding high from their well-received 2011 debut, Alex Kandel and her band of merry misfits hit back hard with this buoyant cut that loses the punk vigor of Celebrasion in favor of a rhythmic guitar hook that showcases Kandel’s throaty croon. It’s an evacuative ride that ebbs and flows like its titular inspiration, crashing from speakers like the tide against the shore. The band may have spent more on production this time around, but the transition suits them. Plus Alex maintains her rock star attitude through it all.
10. “Come With Me Now” – KONGOS
If you were to tell me last December that my favorite track of 2014 would predominantly feature an accordion, I would have laughed hysterically, thrown my drink in your face and possibly lit your hair on fire. Yet through some kwaito miracle, these South African brothers weaseled their way onto the airwaves and shook up the landscape of alternative music with their blend of tribal beats, folk leanings and tar-soaked southern rock. Slide guitar, thick drums and an accordion hook really shouldn’t add up to a multi-format hit, yet “Come With Me Now” broke through the din and connected with the listening public on a universal, primitive, baser level. The track has recently gone platinum, selling over a million in digital downloads. Such success is almost unheard of in the sphere of rock and roll nowadays and hopefully that means that KONGOS are here to stay. I’d gladly come with them now.