Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week’s question is inspired by our Best Of Music 2014 list: Simply put, what’s your favorite song of 2014?
Man, I’ve got to go with “Lessons” by Sohn, which I claimed as my favorite song of the year so far back in April. You can read that Hear This piece right here, but if clicking is too hard, I’ll try to come up with some different words: It’s simple, beautiful, and hypnotic. And though I almost never do this with any song, I found myself listening to it over and over at various times in 2014. If that’s not an endorsement, I don’t know what is. (Though I’ve been known to do that with “No Rain,” too, and I don’t even like that song.)
At the year’s midpoint I declared Speedy Ortiz’s “American Horror” to be my favorite song for the first half of the year. While I still think it’s great, there’s nothing new I can say about it aside from, “Yep, still awesome.” So, for the sake of not repeating myself I’ll pick Little Big League’s “Year Of The Sunhouse,” the song with my favorite lyric of the year. The Philly band’s sophomore full-length Tropical Jinx is great, but “Sunhouse”–the first of two tracks from the band’s split with Ovlov–sees Little Big League offer up the best song of its career. Atop dreamy riffs, Michelle Zauner gives a middle finger to those asking backhanded questions about her being entrenched in the DIY music scene: “They ask are you still playing basement shows with the band? / Doing the music thing? / Well yes I fucking am!” For two minutes Zauner takes pride in the things other people judge her for, making “Year Of The Sunhouse” a rallying cry for all the likeminded folks unwilling to let their idealism die.
The buzz around Kendrick Lamar is becoming deafening in the run-up to his new album. But his most electrifying work of the year wasn’t one of his singles, it was “Never Catch Me,” his brilliant collaboration with Flying Lotus. Lamar is one of the few rappers nimble enough to keep up with a FlyLo track this frenetic, and somehow, he makes it sound like it wasn’t even the hardest thing he did that day. “Never Catch Me” is the rare collaboration with two artists working at the peak of their talents, featuring an instrumental bliss-out in the last half as captivating as Lamar’s flow in the first half. It doesn’t hurt that the video, directed by Hiro Murai, is also the year’s best. FlyLo’s You’re Dead! is a record I admire more than I actually enjoy, but “Never Catch Me” is the exception, as anyone who’s watched me play it dozens of consecutive times on Spotify can attest.
Sharon Van Etten’s “Tarifa” has been my Saturday morning wake-up jam all year and FKA Twigs’ “Pendulum” continues to give me chills, but, ultimately, I’m a sucker for the funhouse charms of “Little Fang” by Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks. The song is ridiculously catchy and decidedly more straightforward than the rest of Enter The Slasher House, a frenetic and psychedelic LP from the “supergroup” constructed from members of Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors, and Ponytail. The track, which combines “Monster Mash” sensibilities with a feel-good, keep-your-chin-up message, would be right at home in the kiddie fantasy-horror world of Coraline. “Little Fang” is driven by its ambling guitar, but makes use of some well-placed “spooky” sound effects and layered vocals, making it sound like you’re being serenaded by a pleasantly supportive demon. With lyrics like “You’re something special / Want you to know are / Your makers must have kissed in cosmic dust,” it’s hard not to feel exhilarated by the song. It’s almost absurdly sweet, but “Little Fang” is completely sincere and my go-to track for an instant good mood.
When we checked in on this earlier in the year, I described my adoration for anything resembling an ’80s track worthy of a movie montage and went with Twin Shadow’s “To The Top.” Not much has changed since then. So, when a friend recommended I listen to Bleachers, I was elated to find that the ’80s remained alive and well throughout 2014. The band’s debut album, Strange Desire provided the single “I Wanna Get Better,” and it’s indicative of what lead singer Jack Antonoff (Fun., Steel Train) has publicly compared to ’80s pop-rock. The lyrics resonate well enough and the shout-along chorus is infectious. Unfortunately, it gets broken up by the bridge, which is unnecessarily falsetto-filled even for me. But then I heard a stripped-down version from Chicago’s JBTV studios and it all made sense again. It might not be montage ready, but this slower version would make a great fit for the last kiss of the film à la John Hughes. Seriously, I just played it over this clip from Some Kind Of Wonderful and it held up remarkably well.
Look, I could say Strand Of Oaks’ “Goshen ’97,” but let’s be real: I’ve listened to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” about 20 times more. I’m still not in absolute love with the breakdown where Swift talks about the song’s “sick beat,” but every single other millisecond of “Shake It Off” is pop perfection. It’s infectious, upbeat, and practically mandates fevered wiggling in response. It’s just fun, and while there are certainly other more “serious” songs I’ve liked just as much this year, “Shake It Off” probably occupies more of my brain space and will for a long time.
I am terrible at keeping up with music in a timely manner (I just bought Blunderbuss last week; I think this Jack White guy might be going places!) but what I do have is a reliable daily commute where I’m glued to the radio, both local stations and satellite. Luckily Nashville has a great independent radio station in Lightning 100, but the station I spent the most time on this year was Sirius XM’s Alt Nation. Not because I particularly like the format—it’s a bit too generic “alternative” for my taste—but because I randomly heard The Gaslight Anthem’s “Get Hurt” on it before it was released and then literally couldn’t turn the station, because I might miss hearing it again. Since then I actually purchased the song instead of acting like a crazy teenager from 1994, and I’ve listened to it at least a hundred times since. I haven’t paid close attention to The Gaslight Anthem since the great The ‘59 Sound, but “Get Hurt” grabbed me in a way my head doesn’t even understand, only my gut. And my gut says, “Thank you.”
Like Carrie, I’m awful at keeping up with current music, a problem that’s plagued me ever since I was in fourth grade, trying to talk about Billy Joel with the cool kids who were listening to Green Day. But, like all deeply nerdy kids consistently out of step with music culture, I had a secret weapon to keep my tastes at least vaguely contemporary: “Weird Al” Yankovic. Besides his deft parodies like “White And Nerdy” or “Perform This Way,” Yankovic has done God’s work over the decades by cramming dozens of Top 40 hits into his fast-paced polka medleys, the ultimate cheat sheets for anyone trying to fake cultural literacy. So I’m nominating “Now That’s What I Call Polka!” the medley from Yankovic’s 2014 album, Mandatory Fun, as my song of the year. It’s not just that the song is a checklist of the hot songs—“Gangnam Style,” “Get Lucky,” “Somebody That I Used To Know,” and more—it’s that Yankovic’s versions are consistently livelier and better than the artists he’s covering. There’s nothing especially wrong with, say, Miley Cyrus’ version of “Wrecking Ball,” but that doesn’t mean I don’t miss Yankovic’s energetic delivery or deft employment of the noble tuba when I hear it.
Speaking of the midpoint check-in: Back in July, my choice for favorite song of the year so far was Slow Club’s “Complete Surrender,” off the band’s album of the same name, which had just been released. For the sake of variety, I wish I had a wildly different choice at year’s end; the best I can do is say that after lots of time with the whole album, “Complete Surrender” has been supplanted by Slow Club’s “The Queen’s Nose”—the song that directly precedes it, and kicks off side two of the LP if you’re vinyl-inclined. I did listen to other albums besides Complete Surrender this year (St. Vincent and Jenny Lewis both did career-best work), but I give “The Queen’s Nose” a lot of credit for making me obsessed with the kind of song I’m not often obsessed with: a torchy, big-voiced ballad. The key, I think, is that it starts off slow, almost plaintive, with singer Rebecca Taylor letting the languid slow-dance guitar and expanding horn section coax her along. Repeatedly, she sings up the edge of bombast and retreats until her final, initially quiet admission—”I can’t go on / Living these songs”—explodes into orchestral retro-pop bliss, and Taylor’s voice goes for broke. Turns out, powerhouse vocals deployed in the right way can give me chills. I saw the band do it in September, and even without the horns, Slow Club killed it.
This might be a bit of a cheat, but nothing got my blood pumping this year like the opening suite on King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard’s I’m In Your Mind Fuzz. It’s technically split into four tracks, but I can’t see myself ever listening to just a single isolated movement of this 12-minute psychedelic freakout. The decision to split it up is odd, as the whole thing plays out like a long, frenzied jam session. In practice, the track titles act as signposts, marking a major turn in the band’s journey. “I’m In Your Mind” refers to the presence of singer Stu Mackenzie, who disappears after we transition into the instrumental “I’m Not In Your Mind.” (I never said anything about it being subtle.) It’s a wacky odyssey full of recurring riffs, distorted harmonica, and rubbery surf-rock guitar solos that invoke that classic “There’s A Place In France” snake-charming melody. Now, if only they’d restock that limited edition vinyl.
My music taste can be embarrassingly mainstream at times. I love to sing along with Top 40s radio in my car. And by far the best song to belt this year was “Bang Bang,” the explosive collaboration between Jessie J, Ariana Grande, and Nicki Minaj. This song has everything: rapping, clapping, generically seductive lyrics, and crazy high belting. I’m tickled by the fact that Minaj nicknames Grande “Ari” even though the ladies didn’t meet until the video shoot. Admittedly, there’s something artificial about the whole thing—the music video is essentially a commercial for Beats By Dre. But considering all three performers have crafted slightly artificial stage personas it all kind of works. And there’s really nothing better than seeing these three incredible female entertainers come together to perform the song live.