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“Flawless,” Beyonce & Nicki Minaj
If a NASA committee wanted to send another golden Voyager record into space to teach extraterrestrial life about 2014, no song would capture the zeitgeist quite like the “Flawless” remix. Like last year’s original, the remix reminded listeners of Beyoncé’s innovative spirit (the song, like her 2013 self-titled album, arrived with little warning); it further infiltrated our lexicon (find the American youth who hasn’t posted an “I woke up like this!” selfie); and it had some choice words about celebrity (see: Beyoncé’s last laugh on the Solange-Jay Z elevator dust-up). In a year that saw a number of high-profile female pop collaborations, “Flawless” never topped the charts like “Fancy,” but what it lacked in radio domination it made up for with sheer star power.
"Blank Space," Taylor Swift
“Blank Space” hit No. 1 at radio on the strength of its hook — a euphoric singalong chorus so dulcet, it could only have been concocted by a Swede — but the song’s true genius is in its lyrics. This is songwriting at its most brilliantly conceptual: “Blank Space” gives Swift a frame to riff on her man-eating public persona and simultaneously tell a story that feels intimately relatable — after all, who doesn’t feel like a rose garden filled with thorns from time to time? Swift has never been so playful or self-aware.
“Move That Dope,” Future, Pharrell Williams, Pusha T, Casino
You don’t need to have a firm grasp of cocaine economics to appreciate what some of rap’s most notable names cooked up on this star-studded, six-minute collaboration. Pharrell’s dextrous guest appearance is an olive branch for anyone sick of hearing “Happy,” but the track’s crown jewel isn’t its slurred, repetitive hook or tongue-twisting contributions from Future and the Clipse alumnus Pusha T. Rather, it’s Miley Cyrus’ producer of choice, Mike Will Made It, who was relatively quiet this year given his massive 2013. Here, his croaking beat can provoke a physical reaction in just about any listener, whether that means choreographing a tight dance routine (as plenty have on YouTube) or flopping around like a frat boy in a sweaty basement — “Move That Dope” doesn’t discriminate.
“Inside Out,” Spoon
Who says you can’t teach an old band new tricks? On this stunner from They Want My Soul, their eighth studio album, the Texas veterans eschew their usual taut rhythms and snarling wit for gossamer synth patterns and swooning romanticism. When lead singer Britt Daniel asks the listener to, “Break out of character for me,” the tenderness is almost shocking. It’s the perfect request from a band that’s doggedly pursued the raw and real for almost two decades.
"2 On," Tinashe & Schoolboy Q
Surely one of the year’s more menacing hits, with that creeping DJ Mustard beat, a minxish vocal delivery from R&B singer-songwriter Tinashe, and an outrageously nasty rap from Schoolboy Q, “2 On” is an ode to intoxication — gluttonous, shameless. That’s why it’s special: infectious chorus aside, rarely has a young woman sounded so pleased with her ability to get faded and turn up in the club. This is a ratchet empowerment anthem that’s sui generis.
“Red Eyes,” The War on Drugs
The bastard offspring of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” and The Cure’s “Lovesong” was the year’s most enigmatic rock single. With the production drenched in reverb, echo and ringing guitars, it’s nearly impossible to understand anything frontman Adam Granduciel is singing about — but that hardly matters. He makes it clear he’s on a spirit journey, and if his girlfriend’s up for a starry-night road trip, they’ll reach their destination transformed and together.
“Blockbuster Night Part 1,” Run the Jewels
The hip-hop veterans who make up Run the Jewels — that’s NYC rapper/producer El-P and ferocious Atlanta rapper Killer Mike — fit together like lock and key, amplifying each other’s righteous anger about the state of our world and diving into each verse in the spirit of good-natured oneupmanship. Run the Jewels 2 improved on their 2013 debut in every way, more furious and focused, more ambitious and hilarious; “Blockbuster Night Part 1” is the perfect distillation of their work together, drunk on alliteration and thoroughly disillusioned.
“In the House of Yes,” Mr Twin Sister
Long Island fivesome Mr Twin Sister underwent a startling reinvention in recent years, one capped off by their impressive September self-titled record. Leaving the buoyant dream-pop of their infancy behind for a more sensual, luxurious sound, the band summoned the adventurous spirit and sexual fluidity of early Björk with vital, charged songs like “Sensitive” and hilarious anti-predator funk jam “Rude Boy.” But “In the House of Yes” is their best song yet, a sweeping, love-drunk odyssey that turns a humble bedroom into fodder for all kinds of delirious fantasies.
“Talking Backwards,” Real Estate
Long-distance relationships are quite possibly the worst thing the love gods ever invented, and this standout track from Real Estate’s third and best album, Atlas, captures the awful loneliness and heartbreak of being unable to connect with a lover who’s too far away to hold in your arms. Despite a bright, chiming guitar melody that recalls the West African riffs of Vampire Weekend, singer Martin Courtney delivers a plaintive, melancholy lament of an intimate conversation gone completely wrong.
If Tinashe’s “2 On” was the year’s paean to substance abuse, “Chandelier” is the converse: an elegy for an alcoholic past and a battle cry for personal demons wrapped up in a soaring, clanging 3-minute pop song. Sia, an in-demand Top 40 songwriter, has an unusual gift for confessional lyrics, which she makes tremendous work of here. And yet, it’s her vocals — unhinged, gripping, rippling with feeling — that make “Chandelier” so extraordinary.