Why do we love certain songs? Why do specific songs have the power to take us back to a moment or a year in time?
The reasons are varied, complex and are probably covered in a book I have been slowly reading for years, but here at OTM, I stick to what I know best: on a primal, organic level, some songs simply connect. Connection is the theme of many of this year’s top songs — be it love, friendship or with one’s own needs and wants. In a world that is increasingly and so easily connected, I find that many of us feel paradoxically alone. I hope these songs bring you joy, comfort or that feeling of belonging that art can provide.
The Top Songs list is my favourite to compile annually, and the resulting iTunes playlist is a great companion. Many indies release singles over full-length releases. Stellar songs lurk on albums that wouldn’t quite make a top ten albums roster. Here is where those compositions come out to play. Whereas our Top Albums list is based on a matrix of criteria, these songs are here for no other reason save my love of them. My only stipulation: one track per band/artist.
Contrary to last year, I’m keeping my commentary minimal. The art speaks for itself. Take a listen and share your thoughts with us on Twitter or Facebook.
OTM’s Top 25 Songs Of 2014
25. “Word Crimes” – “Weird Al” Yankovic
There’s a reasons “Weird Al” is still making music and earning laughs. His 2014 release Mandatory Fun is his most bang-on album in years. With “Word Crimes” he not only transforms a rape-y, annoying song (Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”) into something enjoyable, he subtly reminds us that he’s incredibly intelligent (check out his scholarly history). Grammar is love. Bonus point: when called out on using the word ‘spaz’, he immediately checked his privilege and apologized.
24. “Capsized” – You + Me
The pairing of Dallas Green (City and Colour) and P!nk (Alecia Moore) may have surprised some, but I wasn’t surprised at how well they blended on their album Rose Ave. While the songs themselves were average at time, “Capsized” is one of the reasons why the collaboration was worthwhile. A powerful duet on the destructive nature of love.
23. “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” – U2
I won’t tell you that the forced downloading of U2’sSongs Of Innocence was wise marketing, nor will I claim the album on the whole is a great U2 album. But this song is fantastic. Remember the first time you listened to music and felt a catharsis? The first time a song or album moved you, altered your worldview, or perhaps convinced you to live through a hellish experience? That’s what “The Miracle” is about, and that’s why I love it. It captures the passion I have for music itself.
22. “Dearly Departed” – Shakey Graves
The ending of a relationship may often feel like a haunting — the one we’ve parted ways with may seem a looming specter in our lives for days or months to come — but what if that person isn’t physically gone at all? In keeping with the ‘after the war’ themes loosely threading through Shakey Graves’ album And The War Came, this song evokes for me how our veterans struggle once home again to reintegrate — and how their families cope with the seeming loss of the person who left for that tour of duty. It can also reflect personal wars with self (depression) and their toll on relationships.
21. “Livealie” – Polarheart
Australian duo Polarheart stormed onto my radar with their track “Paralyse” and then slid into an endless loop with the dark electronic sound of “Livealie”. A tale of a toxic relationship that leaves one compromising everything herself, it radiates with raw talent and evokes an early Imogen Heap emotionality with the layered experimentation of Data Romance. The flourishes of UK Garage sound are perfection.
20. “Rainy Taxi” – Spoon
Spoon returned this year with their critically lauded album They Want My Soul, which finds the band still contemplating life, love and religion with their trademark cynical lens. “Rainy Taxi” is easily an album highlight, with its impossibly catchy riffs and its all-or-nothing reflection on a whirlwind love affair: consuming joy at one moment, but a foreboding warning label attached: “If you leave, you better run away for good.”
Toronto’s Goodnight, Sunrise continue to playfully explore the sandbox of sonic influences on their EP release D/V 2: Bridgeburner to great success. “Liar Liar” is unabashedly a Doors-meets-Zeppelin love of keys and synth thread through a delicious kiss-off to a mindscrew of a lover. Caution: you may end up singing “Liar Liar, multiplier!” in your cubicle, much to the confusion of coworkers.
18. “Head Underwater” – Jenny Lewis
Indie queen Jenny Lewis (who has held a place in my heart all the way back to her acting days in Troop Beverly Hills and Foxfire) has gone back to what has made her music so resonant with a generation: wry, sardonic glimpses at life and love; sincere snapshots of the human experience; and a dash of California optimism. “Head Underwater” alternates from a lowest of the low depression to the freedom in letting go, all with a deceptively sunny sound.
17. “Possibility Days” – Counting Crows
Counting Crows have always created their best music when Adam Duritz delves into the confessional while sticking with his trademark storytelling lyricism — that sense of a tale unfolding almost against his will, spilling out of him more than being sung. “Possibility Days” resonates with the heartbreaking isolation of “Round Here” or “A Long December” but yet, there’s a glimmer of hope within reach — if only you reach for it. There’s a self-forgiveness that belies the maturity of a long career.
Toronto’s The Honeyrunners have got it all under control: the sweet, soulful blues has found perfect harmony with their rock sound, and their songcraft demonstrates a keen insight on hooks and heartfelt messages that connect. While “Under Control” depicts a chaotic clash of the demands and negativity of others with a dreamer looking to rise above, its calculated Chicago blues undercurrent gives it a grounded, timeless feel.
15. “What Would Tom Petty Do?” – Emma-Lee
Toronto singer-songwriter Emma-Lee not only possesses a gorgeous voice, she clearly has an awesome sense of humour. From her Glee-style break-up in “Figure It Out” to her zombie-riffic “Shadow Of A Ghost”, Emma-Lee has fun with her music, even when writing of sadness or anger. This song, however, was a fun project with a mission: fulfill a dream to write with Tom Petty. Not only a catchy pop song about making it in the music biz, it’s filled with endless references to Petty’s work, making it a music aficionado’s paradise.
(Tom actually heard the song and referenced it in an interview, by the way. If you somehow end up on my humble blog, give Emma-Lee a call. I think you’d have a blast.)
14. “Mug Shot” – MAX
Utterly infectious, MAX‘s lead single from his EP is made for the dance floor. Breakdowns that remind one of classic James Brown and a fusion of hip-hop and pop that belies a songwriting wisdom akin to Justin Timberlake, “Mug Shot” captures the celebratory spirit of music and how it moves us. If Footloose had been conceived of in 2014 instead of the 80’s, I can’t imagine leaving this off the soundtrack.
13. “Tikka” – Scott Helman
Scott Helman‘s debut EP Augusta is full of great songs, but “Tikka” is my personal favourite. Blending a folk-blues foundation with almost tribal percussive elements and backing vocals, this tale of love from afar captures a shyness and optimism most of us have felt. What makes it more special, at least for locals, is that it manages to capture the feel of Toronto itself in between its sonic lines: brimming energy; hope; and many cultures thriving within its limits.
12. “Hit and Run” – LOLO
Dear LOLO: release a new album already, please? I’m begging here.
“Hit and Run” swaggers with an urban rhythm and a snarling rock viciousness, punctuated by LOLO‘s powerhouse voice. And while it seems a theme song for a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde, the feminist vigilante motif of the music video suggests that we should look deeper, perhaps thinking more of an empowered modern-day Robin Hood and Maid Marian instead. Chilling in a good way, “Hit and Run” makes me want to get dressed up and move.
The title track from the latest by Ottawa’s Amos The Transparent perhaps best captures the conflicted feelings creators must struggle with. Passion collides with stark reality on a daily basis in a world where lucky breaks are few and far between — and may end up short-lived in the end. The lonely sense of sitting on a porch of a cabin by the lake, staring at choppy waters, comes through in Jonathan Chandler’s voice and the visuals he creates.
10. “Something From Nothing” – Foo Fighters
Most of us don’t have things handed to us in life. Most of us begin with dreams and ambitions, often seeing them stomped on, crushed or cast aside as life challenges us. Who we become is defined by our response to challenges, to pain, to the hand we’re dealt. In “Something From Nothing”, Foo Fighters capture the spirit of those among us who struggle, who fight back against injustice and personal demons, only to rise above and shine. It’s the perfect anthem for a day of self-doubt, of depression or confusion. It’s also refreshingly different from much of their catalogue staples, yet undeniably Dave Grohl.
9. “Morning Dies Here” – Moist
Canadian rockers Moist have always had a gift for creating powerful imagery without complication, allowing complex emotions to radiate from the music itself. “Morning Dies Here”, a standout from their new album Glory Under Dangerous Skies, cuts to the core of the human experience with deceptively sparse lyrics. A call to awaken, to find hope and connection in trying times, it’s a fitting song to capture 2014 and an increasing refusal to tolerate oppression.
8. “Chandelier” – Sia
It doesn’t take a struggle with substance abuse to relate to the desperation and “living hour to hour” feel of Sia’s “Chandelier”. All it takes is remembering a time when life overwhelmed to where the only way to cope seemed to be living in the moment, disregarding consequences and the notion of facing difficulties head-on. Digging into her troubled childhood and resulting alcoholism, Sia‘s soaring, pained vocals strike to the core like a punch to the gut. Deceptive in its club-ready sound, this is perhaps one of Sia’s lyrical masterpieces.
7. “Don’t Mess With Me” – Brody Dalle
Ever feel like you have an enormous target on your back? For all those who find the courage to face down every naysayer, every obstacle, every setback and do so with fierce confidence, I dedicate Brody Dalle’s rocker to you. Proving that with a little love and support behind us, we can take on even the threat of death, she’s crafted a crossover punk-rock track that’s best blasted at high volume.
6. “Tie Me Up” – Animal Talk
The catchiest dance track of the entire year, Animal Talk‘s “Tie Me Up” literally revs up and explodes in an 80’s-loving shower of glitter and post-disco. Its sassy theme of love perhaps unrequited but certainly aloof and restrained is perfectly crafted pop, the kind that makes you sing along with abandon. Sonic sunshine, distilled into three-and-a-half blissful minutes, it doesn’t waste a single second on the mediocre; every second, every chord, is right on the money.
5. “Yellow Flicker Beat” – Lorde
Called upon for the soundtrack for the latest Hunger Games film, Lorde delivers a sinister anthem for protagonist Katniss Everdeen, although it connects with the misunderstood person in all of us. As with her own critically lauded debut Pure Heroine, the New Zealand artist taps into not only the reluctant heroine heart of the character, but the palpable pain of growing up under the best of circumstances as well. Pulsing and almost symphonic in its employ of synthesizer, it perfectly sets the mood for the first part of the series’ finale: wounded, but not weak; fortified, not shut down.
4. “Cynical Bastards” – Arkells
It was a real toss-up between this one and “Leather Jacket” (remember the rules: one song per artist!), but in the end, the suburban gal in me who transplanted to Toronto in her twenties simply couldn’t resist this buoyant celebration of Arkells’ Hamilton hometown and its reality versus outer perceptions. Capturing the heart of a city struck by shifting economic prosperity and indomitable in spirit, “Cynical Bastards” cheekily pokes at the surrounding area and merrily invites listeners to take the city as it is, or get lost.
3. “The End” – The Jezabels
Australian band The Jezabels have a way of capturing the depths of lows while pulling you back into the light with their lyrics. “The End” is deceptively airy with a sonic shimmer, a reflection upon a dark pool. With shades of new wave pinned beneath a beckoning percussive line, vocalist Hayley Mary is at turns reflective and cautiously optimistic, her voice swelling to a precipice and gliding to the earth anew. Classic rock chords add an edge and maturity that makes the track memorable and irresistible.
2. “The Listening Chair” – Imogen Heap
“Who am I now?” Heap asks in the autobiographical and haunting “The Listening Chair” — a track born from the usage of a literal ‘listening chair’ that recorded hours of video from people of all ages, responding to the deceptively simple question of what topic needs a song written about it. Within the divergent replies, Heap found cohesion within stages of life and conversely, understood what was missing: herself. With each minute composed to explore a 7-year period of her life, the music shifts from the bubbling promise of youth to the paralyzing confusion of the thirty-something. Perhaps the most personal of all my choices for this list, my heart stops every time I hear Imogen shout-sing, “It was a cover-up operation all along!/…I’ve got to toughen up because I’m breaking it all apart!” I can’t be the only one who understand exactly what she means.
1. “Canyon Moon” – Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness
“Canyon Moon” is easily one of the strongest songs McMahon has ever written, epitomizing the best of his songwriting style. A foreboding tale that evokes the mood of Mulholland Drive, “Moon” employs vocal harmonies, hand-clap percussive play and heavy synths to tell the story of a woman lost beneath a blanket of darkness, both within and without. It’s a song that captures not only a time and place, but a desperate need to disconnect from the past and find a future. In my mind, I’m transported to the 101, hands tapping on the wheel while desperately looking to outrun the inescapable self.
And there you have it: OTM’s favourite songs of 2014! Is your favourite missing? Think we nailed it? Come share your musical loves on Twitter (@OTMidnight) or Facebook.