124 Songs You Need to Hear Before 2014 Ends

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Music is personal. It’s something that I’m never more aware of than I am at the end of every year, when best-of lists dominate the coverage at cultural publications. A wide-ranging voting body can help to suss out what many professional music lovers agree is worth a listen, but the idea of “best” is one that I’ve never quite been comfortable with. It seems too objective to take into account personal taste, not to mention the reality that there’s too much music out there for even the most ambitious listener to have heard everything, or even close to everything. At times, these lists can favor ubiquitous music, or buck against it in an aspirational effort to highlight acts people should be listening to. So let’s not use the word “best.”

Here are 124 songs released in 2014 that I would recommend to any music lover, and that together, paint a picture of what music was and where it went this year. The goal is to highlight not only the year’s biggest hits both commercially and critically (besides “Fancy,” which we know you heard on repeat all summer), but also songs that commented on what happened in our world this year, and songs you may not have heard but that you’ll hopefully love as much as we do. Click through for selective blurbs on our favorites, plus a Spotify playlist of the list.

Future Islands — “Seasons (Waiting on You)”
“Baltimore indie rockers Future Islands danced like no one was watching right into the mainstream with ‘Seasons (Waiting on You)’ — and for good reason,” Flavorwire wrote in our list of mid-year music highlights. “Singer Samuel Herring’s frustrated romantic pleas find equally hefty foils in a bassline that chugs forward like a Mack Truck and a sweet-yet-sour synth line.”

Angel Olsen — “Lights Out”
Jennifer Lopez – I Luh Ya Papi”
Eric Church – “Give Me Back My Hometown”

Against Me! — “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”
All the rage and despair and hope and bitter romance of Transgender Dysphoria Blues the album, distilled into a three-minute blast of rock ‘n’ roll. “Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace sheds light on her gender transition by juxtaposing melodic punk with bold vulnerabilities like, ‘You’ve got no cunt in your strut,'” Flavorwire wrote in our mid-year list. “It’s weird to want to thrash around merrily to the truth-bombs Grace throws about the discrimination she’s faced, but that’s the beauty of ‘Transgender Dysphoria Blues.'”

Kindness — “World Restart” feat. Kelela and Ade
Grouper — “Call Across Rooms”
Nikki Lane — “All or Nothin’”
FKA twigs — “Video Girl”

St. Vincent — “Digital Witness”
“‘Birth in Reverse’ stood out from the rest of St. Vincent’s self-titled LP, an album about the inverse proportionality of technology and human activity,” Flavorwire wrote in our mid-year music best-of. “While songs like ‘Prince Johnny,’ ‘I Prefer Your Love,’ and ‘Severed Crossed Fingers’ lulled us with meandering vocals and cozy glitches, “Birth in Reverse” was at least a physical call to action. Its genius is that, while we dance, the song lyrically takes us through a ‘birth in reverse in America,’ a regression back to a fetal, immobile state. We can keep dancing, but Annie Clark wonders if – politically, existentially, whateverly – we’re dancing backward.”

Clean Bandit – “Rather Be” feat. Jess Glynne)
Kendrick Lamar — “i”
Swans — “A Little God in My Hands”
Spoon — “Do You”
Vince Staples — “Hands Up”

Ms. Lauryn Hill — “Black Rage”
It’s depressingly rare that we hear anything new from Hill, still one of the most talented rappers of her generation, but it’s easy to imagine why she felt compelled to resurface in August. In the aftermath of unarmed black teenager Mike Brown’s murder at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson, the former Fugee released what she called a “sketch” of the song “Black Rage.” To the tune of The Sound of Music‘s “My Favorite Things,” she evocatively enumerates all the oppressions that fuel black Americans’ anger. It’s among the year’s most timely and necessary tracks, and one that couldn’t come from a more welcome source. — Judy Berman

Tove Lo — “Habits”
Mac DeMarco — “Passing Out Pieces”
Röyksopp and Robyn — “Do It Again”

Alvvays — “Archie, Marry Me”
With their self-titled debut, Toronto’s Alvvays proved to be one of 2014’s most promising new bands. Their smart brand of indie-pop recalls various eras and styles simultaneously — all with a healthy dose of self-deprecation and fluttering vocals from Molly Rankin — but it’s Alvvays’ calling card track, “Archie, Marry Me,” that blends ’60s pop and ’90s alternative most seamlessly. It’s one of those songs you find yourself wondering how you lived without for so long. — Jillian Mapes

YG — “Who Do You Love?”
Hamilton Leithauser “I Retired”
One Direction “Clouds”
Hurray for the Riff Raff — “Blue Ridge Mountain”
BenZel — “Touch” feat. Ryn Weaver

Run the Jewels — “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)”
Run them jewels fast! This is pretty much the El-P/Killer Mike theme song, and it’s a perfect evocation of their relationship — alternately endearingly goofy (“I’m a New Yorkian, I’m fucked from the jump/ I wear my Yankee so tilted I actually walk with a hunch”) and razor-sharp (“Liars and politicians, profiteers of the prisons”). And that hook will stick in your head all damn day. — Tom Hawking

Sophie — “Lemonade”
Foo Fighters — “Something From Nothing”
Nicki Minaj — “Anaconda”
Arca — “Thievery”

Blake Mills — “Don’t Tell Our Friends About Me”
“I first started hearing about Blake Mills in 2012 when he played on Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel…, but it wasn’t until I heard ‘Don’t Tell All Our Friends About Me’ that I really understood the fuss,” Jillian Mapes wrote in our staff picks back in September. “He’s a session pro in Nashville’s more sophisticated corners, but his sophomore album, Heigh Ho, shows off his strengths as a songwriter. Mills bridges the gap between alt-country like Sturgill Simpson, Justin Townes Earl, and Christopher Owens and traditional indie rock. Deer Tick if they spent their spare time writing poetry instead of rabble-rousing.”

Michael Jackson — “Love Never Felt So Good” (Original Version)
Future — “Move That Dope”
Yacht — “Terminal Beach”
Usher — “Good Kisser”

The New Pornographers — “War on the East Coast”
The first time I heard “War on the East Coast,” the second single from Brill Bruisers, I found myself thinking, “Wait, wasn’t this on Challengers? Or was it Electric Version?” My belief that the New Pornos had simply released a recut of a song from five or ten years ago is further proof that they’re one of indie rock’s most delightfully consistent acts. — Jillian Mapes

Sharon Van Etten — “Your Love Is Killing Me”
Kelis — “Jerk Ribs”
Jenny Lewis — “She’s Not Me”
TV on the Radio — “Lazerray”
Jeremih — “Don’t Tell Em”

EMA — “3Jane”
Taking its title from William Gibson’s Neuromancer, this song explores the idea of existing in cyberspace in the 21st century, with all the disconnection and ambivalence that brings: “Feel like I blew my soul out across the interwebs and streams,” sings EMA, “It was a million pieces of silver, and I watched them gleam/ It left a hole so big inside of me/ And I get terrified that I will never get it back to me.” There’s a whole lot more about the song and its themes in EMA’s New Hive zine “Back to the Void,” which is really worth reading. — Tom Hawking

Tobias Jesso Jr. — “True Love”
Cymbals Eat Guitars — “Jackson”
Lone — “Airglow Fires”
Drake — “0 to 100/The Catch Up”

Shamir — “I Know It’s a Good Thing”
“The Vegas-bred 19-year-old’s voice bridges the gap between the ways we perceive masculine and feminine longing in pop music,” Flavorwire wrote in our mid-year music best-of. “The song starts with some trepidation — just as, within it, Shamir questions a love that only makes him blue. But as he resolves not to ‘stay away,’ the moody disco-house track becomes a rapturous march, with the singer crying, ‘Oh I know it’s a good thing!'”

White Lung — “Drown With the Monster”
Hozier — “Take Me To Church”
White Sea — “Prague”

Beyoncé — “Flawless” remix feat. Nicki Minaj
Why hold a press conference when you can respond to a controversy via remix? “Of course shit goes down when there’s a billion dollars on an elevator,” Beyoncé tells us, dismissively, in this reimagined version of the song that launched a million feminist awakenings. But don’t let that sound bite distract you from what this track really is: the year’s best opportunity to hear two of pop’s baddest bitches have a whole lot of fun together. — Judy Berman

Beck — “Blue Moon”
Chromeo — “Jealous (I Ain’t With It)”
Hospitality — “I Miss Your Bones”
Lykke Li — “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone”

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Mitski — “Townie”
A messy noise-pop jam with the velocity of a party where everyone’s hurtling towards oblivion together, “Townie” is an irresistible introduction to my favorite new act of the year. Here’s the sing-along chorus: “I want a love that falls as fast / As a body from the balcony, and / I want a kiss like my heart is hitting the ground / I’m holding my breath with a baseball bat / Though I don’t know what I’m waiting for / I am not gonna be what my daddy wants me to be.” You can imagine a girl chanting those words as she climbs out her bedroom window to the thrilling and perilous freedom of a friend’s rusted ’80s sedan, and as they scream down a highway straight out of a David Lynch movie. — Judy Berman

Shabazz Palaces — “They Come in Gold”
Joanna Gruesome — “Sugarcrush”
La Roux — “Uptight Downtown”

Miranda Lambert — “Automatic”
The big lead single off Miranda Lambert’s excellent fifth album, Platinum, managed to make a strong point about societal changes without alienating an audience more accustomed to bro-country. On an album full of quasi-feminist, body-positive country anthems, “Automatic” made a subtler point: put down your damn phone and live in the moment. The nostalgia inherent in this message feels like a natural fit for a big arena-rock chorus. — Jillian Mapes

Coldplay — “Magic”
Popcaan — “Everything Nice”
Flying Lotus — “Never Catch Me”  feat. Kendrick Lamar
Kylie Minogue – “Into The Blue”

Tinashé — “2 On” feat. Schoolboy Q
Swiftly rising star Tinashé contains multitudes, but the one that’s most instantly infectious is the way she merges R&B and teen pop, not unlike Aaliyah at her peak crossover phase or Rihanna as her most inventive. “2 On” lives in that world, where a catchy chorus and finger snaps merge with fresh-as-hell production. — Jillian Mapes

Beverly – “Honey Do”
Weezer — “Eulogy for a Rock Band”
Sam Smith — “How Will I Know” (Whitney Houston cover)
Priests — “Right Wing”

QT —”Hey QT”
“‘Hey QT’ represents a new form of trash and camp; it acknowledges the pop game and warps it to new extremes,” Jillian Mapes wrote in her weekly best new music column, back in August. “Without the contextual wink towards experimentation, we’d be unsure if this is — screw ‘good’ or ‘bad’ — even interesting. But it also functions in a conventional, K-Pop-ish kind of way while you’re listening.”

Jessie Ware — “Keep On Lying”
Steve Gunn — “Way Out Weather”
Mary J. Blige — “Right Now”
Ought — “Habit”

Perfume Genius — “Queen”
In which Mike Hadreas steps out from behind the piano, dons a gold lamé top and some fantastic shoes, and proceeds to slay his haters. As Hadreas himself said, “If these fucking people want to give me some power — if they see me as some sea witch with penis tentacles that are always prodding and poking and seeking to convert the muggles — well, here she comes.” Bow down, bitches. — Tom Hawking

Pharrell — “Come Get It Bae”
Ariana Grande — “Problem”
Tony Molina — “Change My Ways”
Nick Jonas — “Jealous”

Todd Terje — “Inspector Norse”
“Norwegian producer/DJ Todd Terje’s debut, Album Time, was worth the 15-year wait, and boy does he know how to end it,” Flavorwire wrote in our mid-year music best-of. “After a wide variety of disco, house, techno, funk, and tropical music, Terje finishes off his instant classic LP off with ‘Inspector Norse,’ a light-as-air seven-minute jam that sounds like Studio 54 in 2054.”

Chumped — “Hot 97 Summer Jam”
Charli XCX — “Boom Clap”
Strand of Oaks — “Shut In”
Sun Kil Moon — “Carissa”

J. Cole — “Be Free”
“As far as reactionary art in realtime goes, J. Cole’s response to the Michael Brown shooting is as poignant as it gets,” Jillian Mapes wrote in her weekly best new music column, in August. “As the shitshow in Ferguson continues to deteriorate, Cole funnels his anger into a numbingly desperate search for answers atop a midtempo piano and organ track that recalls Stevie Wonder and trip-hop simultaneously. Heartbreaking.”

Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra — “What We Loved Was Not Enough”
Lana Del Rey – “Brooklyn Baby”
Perfect Pussy — “Interference Fits”

Angaleena Presley — “Ain’t No Man”
Angaleena Presley, the last of the Pistol Annies to release a solo album, clearly took her time making a few big points about class and the South on this year’s American Middle Class. Opening track “Ain’t No Man” is as pro-female as anything Presley’s Pistol Annies bandmate Miranda Lambert has offered up, but it’s also as musically ambitious and alt-country-leaning as anything on her other bandmate Ashley Monroe’s excellent Like a Rose. A must-listen if Kacey Musgraves was your jam last year. — Jillian Mapes

Basement Jaxx — “Unicorn”
Katy B — “Crying for No Reason”
Woods — “Moving to the Left”
Ed Sheeran — “Don’t”
Caribou — “Our Love”

Father John Misty — “Bored in the U.S.A.”
“On Monday night, Josh Tillman went on Letterman and astounded a public unfamiliar with his Father John Misty project,” Jillian Mapes wrote in her weekly best new music column on Flavorwire last month. “Tillman’s excellent 2012 album, Fear Fun, made waves among those who follow modern folk-rock, but never had Tillman appeared as a Randy Newman-esque piano troubadour expressly offering up big-picture societal critique. ‘Bored in the USA,’ the new single he premiered on Letterman, does just that, in a way that’s lacking in our current mainstream music offerings. So many poetic quotables from this song (‘Save me, White Jesus!’), but perhaps my favorite thing about ‘Bored in the USA’ is that Tillman turns it back on his own failings in a twist of “the personal is political.”

Azealia Banks — “Heavy Metal and Reflective”
Lydia Ainsworth — “Hologram”
The Hotelier — “Your Deep Rest”
Ex Hex — “You Fell Apart”

Taylor Swift — “Out of the Woods”
“I’m reminded of the cult-favorite soundtrack to 2011’s Drive, specifically the slightly sinister retro-futurism of its main theme, ‘A Real Hero,’ by French electronic producer College and Toronto duo Electric Youth,” Flavorwire wrote of “Out of the Woods” upon its release in October. “The chilly yet nostalgic sound of M83’s brilliant sixth album, 2011’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, is somewhere in this equation as well. And it’s not a crazy approach for mainstream pop, considering how Daft Punk’s retro-futurism has made them more ubiquitous than ever in recent years.”

tUnE-yArDs — “Water Fountain”
Ryn Weaver — “OctaHate”
The War on Drugs — “Red Eyes”
Owen Pallett — “I Am Not Afraid”

Mr Twin Sister — “In the House of Yes”
“The band known formerly as Twin Sister has been on a roll lately, with singles to serve as a re-introduction,” Jillian Mapes wrote in her weekly best new music column on Flavorwire, in September. “A third off their forthcoming self-titled album, out September 23, arrives this week with just as confident a strut. ‘Tasteful’ is the word I keep coming back to, yet I keep thinking of Chaka Khan’s ‘I’m Every Woman as well. I like my disco-house on the classy side, so this does the trick.”

Damon Albarn — “Everyday Robots”
Couch Slut — “Lust Chamber”
Lydia Loveless — “Chris Isaak”
David Bowie — “Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”

Meghan Trainor — “All About That Bass”
“Not all junior high girls are going to be interested in Kathleen Hanna or read Rookie, let alone begin to understand what feminism is,” Jillian Mapes wrote of “All About That Bass” back in September. “Not all of them are even going to sit through the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoken-word intro to Beyoncé’s ‘***Flawless.’ But if they listen to Top 40 radio, they will hear ‘All About That Bass.’ If one young girl musters confidence because of Meghan Trainor, I can’t — for the sake of my younger self — despise her outright.”

Panda Bear — “Mr Noah”
HTRK — “Give it Up”
Lorde — “Yellow Flicker Beat” (Kanye West Rework)
Parquet Courts — “Black and White”

SBTRKT — “NEW DORP, NEW YORK” feat. Ezra Koenig
“I have attempted to talk about this song with a couple of people IRL, and as soon as the phrase ‘New Dorp’ leaves my lips, I receive a look or a laugh in return,” we wrote in our staff picks back in September. “New Dorp is a neighborhood in Staten Island, thank you very much, and it makes sense in the context of what Vampire Weekend leader Ezra Koenig is talking about here: the class and power divide of New York City… and possibly a hooker? In the context of wiggly, bass-heavy dance music, Koenig’s voice-manipulated dispatches sound positively absurd — and that’s half the fun.”

Allie X — “Catch”
Sylvan Esso — “Coffee”
Jessica Lea Mayfield — “Seein* Starz”
Black Portland — “Florida Water” feat. Young Thug and Bloody Jay

Bleachers — “I Wanna Get Better”
“Jack Antonoff (fun., Steel Train) made his solo debut as Bleachers this winter with this downright dance-y first single — about mental illness,” Flavorwire wrote in our mid-year music best-of. “The topic is a refreshing change from pop-rock love songs, but then again, so is Antonoff’s mix of ’80s drum beats, a choir-led chorus, and stuntin’ on the fretboard for a proper solo.”

I LOVE MAKONNEN — “Tuesday” (feat. Drake)
SQÜRL — “Funnel of Love” feat. Madeline Follin (from Only Lovers Left Alive)
A Sunny Day in Glasgow — “In Love With Useless”
The Black Keys — “Gotta Get Away”
Ariel Pink — “Put Your Number in My Phone”