This started as a way for me to prod myself into keeping more on top of new releases, and as a fun gift to my friends and family, and mostly that's still what it is. I don't pretend that this list is even remotely exhaustive - I know I've left off a whole bunch of great songs and artists from 2014, and there are more still that I've simply not yet heard. Feel free to leave your own suggestions for great music from the past year in the comments section. I'm always keen to be introduced to new stuff, or even old stuff I've been missing out on for far too long.
I will say this: Of the music I did find and listen to this year, there was just so much good shit. I'm currently thinking about putting together a second mix composed entirely of local Madison-area bands and/or bands that I played shows with this year, because that can and should fill its own compilation.
For now, here's my list of my favorite music from the year, which ranges in genre from dance, electronic, folk, punk, industrial, R&B, and more. Please note that some songs have explicit lyrics and/or videos and may be NSFW (aww yeah):
Em’s Best of 2014
1. “Let ‘EmSay” – Lizzo & Caroline Smith, single
2. “Feel of Love” – Tensnake, Glow
3. “Busy Earnin’” – Jungle, Jungle
4. “Hideaway” – Kiesza, Sound of a Woman
5. “Could I Be” – Sylvan Esso, Sylvan Esso
6. “Every Little Thing” – Rӧyksopp & Robyn
7. “Cthulu” – EMA, The Future’s Void
8. “Ain’t That Easy” – D’Angelo & The Vanguard, Black Messiah
9. “Gold” – Chet Faker, Built On Glass
10. “Strong” – London Grammar, If You Wait
11. “Before the Words” – My Brightest Diamond, This Is My Hand
12. “Bring Me Simple Men” – Timber Timbre, Hot Dreams
13. “Blue Ridge Mountain” – Hurray for the Riff Raff, Small Town Heroes
14. “Destination” – Nickel Creek, A Dotted Line
15. “Before Too Long (ft. Amanda Palmer)” – Missy Higgins, Oz
16. “10th Floor Ghost Girl” – Cibo Matto, Hotel Valentine
17. “Talking Transgender Dysphoria Blues” – Against Me!, Transgender Dysphoria Blues
18. “Don’t Mess With Me” – Brody Dalle, Diploid Love
19. “Consuming Guilt” – Youth Code, A Place to Stand
20. “Aint Ur Baby” – Thelma and the Sleaze, Heart Like a Fist
"Let 'Em Say" by Lizzo & Caroline Smith
You gotta love a song that's both ridiculously catchy and released with proceeds going to benefit a good cause. You also gotta love Minneapolis-based hip hop artist Lizzo, who I was first turned on to with last year's killer single, "Batches & Cookies." Great flow, great production work, great artist.
"Feel of Love" by Tensnake
This whole album is just so good. No hyperbole, I think it's one of the most listenable (all the way through) of the year, but then I like that twinkly '80s synth pop shit with all my heart.
"Busy Earnin'" by Jungle
I recently heard this track in the background of a Green Bay Packers commercial and had to chuckle--seems to be another instance of someone only listening to the hook and not the rest of the lyrics, but hey, I'm all for wider exposure for this group, who first grabbed my attention with the video for their song, "Platoon," that features the coolest little b-girl on the planet.
"Hideaway" by Kiesza
Look, what can I say, early '90s club music was what first turned me onto house in general, and was pretty damn influential for my wee adolescent brain. It would appear the same was true of Canadian singer-songwriter Kiesza, who emulates that ridiculously fun sound without coming off as stale and totally derivative. Plus, this video is just ridiculously fun. Check out her moody cover of Haddaway's "What Is Love."
"Could I Be" by Sylvan Esso
I had no idea that one half of this electronic duo originally hails from Middleton until I went to see them live at a sold-out concert next door in Madison, and his parents were in the audience. A friend turned me onto Sylvan Esso much earlier this year, and shortly thereafter I began hearing their track "Coffee" on The Current fairly regularly. It's a great album all the way through and I'll be stoked to hear where they take the project next.
"Every Little Thing" by Rӧyksopp & Robyn
So here's the thing: I adore Robyn. And I've loved Rӧyksopp since "What Else Is There" first came across my radar. So when the two began pairing up a handful of years ago, I was in heaven. This EP is masterful from front to back, sandwiching a couple of club bangers in the middle of some seriously lush epics.
"Cthulu" by EMA
You have to dig an artist that's able to mash up '90s grunge, industrial, and modern electro while still maintaining musical soul, and that's basically what EMA does on this record. This track in particular, I think, exemplifies that hybrid sound, and also features one of my favorite, slow building crescendos of any song this year.
"Ain't That Easy" by D'Angelo & The Vanguard
A last-minute entry for the year, D'Angelo took 15 years between his last record and this one, but the album doesn't sound at all piecemeal or scattered. In fact, Black Messiah may be one of the best records of the year, if I do say so myself. It's just gorgeous. It doesn't hurt that he tapped one of my favorite drummers, Questlove, to be part of the backing band.
"Gold" by Chet Faker
It took some sweet rollerskating to draw my attention to the video for this track, which led me to checking out the entire album, which got me into Chet Faker in general. Soulful vocals, solid grooves.
"Strong" by London Grammar
I first came across lead singer Hannah Reid when she provided guest vocals on a Disclosure track, and her haunting, low soprano made me want more. London Grammar walks a fine line of melancholy moodiness and lush musicality without bumping into what I feel like is, say, the main drawback with bands like The xx, where every song sounds the same and I can't imagine any new album every sounding any different. If You Wait feels like an ever-changing narrative, something they can build on in a part two that will still sound like LG without retreading old ground.
"Before the Words" by My Brightest Diamond
Shara Worden's solo project is always filled out with a wide array of extremely talented guest artists, and this record is no different, going so far as to feature an actual marching band at times. I had the good fortune of catching her when she came through town years ago as part of a festival line-up along with backing band Clare & the Reasons, and have loved her work ever since. She's a classically trained opera singer, for goodness sake.
"Bring Me Simple Men" by Timber Timbre
Aside from loving the good wordplay of their name, I also really love the sort of dark, dusty road, Lost Highway sound this band has landed on. A friend introduced them to be just this year and I've been diving into their back catalog ever since.
"Blue Ridge Mountain" by Hurray for the Riff Raff
Modern folk music that sounds as classic as anything Guthrie wrote, with a beautiful and grounded female voice leading the way. They apparently wrote this song based on the life of the Carter family, and I think it's a fitting tribute.
"Destination" by Nickel Creek
They're back! They're back! After taking time off to work on their various solo/other projects, folk powerhouse Nickel Creek reunited for a 2014 release that picks up where they left off without skipping a beat. Superb musicianship coupled with catchy songwriting = win.
"Before Too Long (ft. Amanda Palmer" by Missy Higgins
Two musicians that I like a lot, working together on this really fantastic cover of Paul Kelly's 1986 cut, as part of Higgins' album of Australian cover songs, Oz.
"10th Floor Ghost Girl" by Cibo Matto
Another band that likes to take long periods of time off in between releases, Japanese I-don't-know-how-to-categorize-them act Cibo Matto released this sprawling tale of a haunted hotel that just solidified their reputation for unique/weird/awesome music.
"Talking Transgender Dysphoria Blues" by Against Me!
This record, man, this record. Lead singer Laura Jane Grace kind of just knocked it out of the park when she went into the studio alone to write and record this sucker, before calling in the rest of the band to help flesh out the sound. I'm not sure if this is the first punk rock album to tackle the intensely personal journey of a transgender person (LJG), but it has to be the most guts-out, heart-on-sleeve, no-holds-barred one.
"Don't Mess With Me" by Brody Dalle
I first fell a little in love with Brody Dalle when she fronted the take-no-shit punk act The Distillers, and it's super fascinating to see the transition from that to her solo work on this record--not to mention going from the big, black mohawk spikes to the bleach blonde look she's got now. Not that I'm complaining, of course. It's an interest album with a lot of her characteristic, gravelly voice and guitar grit, but with a little added vulnerability around the edges.
"Consuming Guilt" by Youth Code
I was so freakin' stoked when this EP dropped, because it marks the first time in years that I've listened to an industrial record that sounded like the shit I grew up loving on the mix tapes my older brother used to make for me back in the early and mid '90s. The fun trick is, it also sounds totally new. I don't know how they pull that off, but they do, and I adore it.
"Aint Ur Baby" by Thelma and the Sleaze
You know what the best way to be introduced to a new band is? Live, of course. I went to an underground queer/punk show a few weeks back that had these delightfully skuzzy bitches from Tennessee as the headliners, and I fell in love after the first down and dirty rock and roll song (not to mention their fucking amazing, hard hitting lady drummer).