A fancy year for pop music
New stars emerged. Established stars got even bigger. And everyone, it seems, had something to say about booties.
That was the year in pop music, 2014. It was far from a radical year — it was a transitional year, as the marketplace continues to find its footing in a rapidly changing landscape. But even as the industry falters — music sales are as glum as ever, and even bright spots like Spotify were dealt heavy blows — the machine keeps grinding, pumping out hits and churning out stars the way it always has.
At the Pop Music Nightclub of 2014, it was a Ladies Night kind of year. Female pop singers ruled the charts, at one point locking down the Top 5 of Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart for seven straight weeks. And it wasn't just perennial hitmakers like Katy Perry and Taylor Swift who were scoring big on the charts; it was also newbies like Iggy Azalea, Charli XCX (their hit "Fancy" was No. 1 for seven weeks over the summer) and Meghan Trainor (her "All About That Bass" ruled the pop chart for eight weeks this fall), while artists like Ariana Grande, Tove Lo, Nicki Minaj and Jessie J got a taste of the good life. Many of these names were new to the masses in 2014.
Several huge stars sat on the sidelines this year — there were no new albums from Drake, Kanye West or Jay Z — letting others step up. Meanwhile, some superstars probably wish they had taken the year off. (Glaring at you, U2.)
Looking back at the year, as always, it was easy to fill my list of Top Songs of the Year, but tougher to list my Top Albums. It's a singles driven world, and I spend the vast majority of my time listening to singles, while deep dives into albums are increasingly rare.
These are the songs and albums that stood out to me the most in 2014. I call them the "Top" songs and albums of the year because they're my top choices in each field. Using the word "best" implies there are right and wrong answers here, and there aren't any rules in pop music. These are my favorites, you have your own favorites, and we all look forward to seeing what lies ahead in 2015 and beyond.
Top Songs of the Year
1. Iggy Azalea featuring Charli XCX, "Fancy": Don't run from it. Yes, Iggy's Australia-by-way-of-Atlanta drawl is cringe inducing, but the beat drops like a sledgehammer and Charli XCX's hook is so undeniable it made her a star. "Fancy" did its job. Bow down.
2. Lana Del Rey, "Cruel World": The druggy, dreamy opener of Lana Del Rey's second album is tense, swirling and suspenseful, an encapsulation of "Ultraviolence's" dark-side-of-Hollywood sound.
3. Rick Ross featuring Kanye West and Big Sean, "Sanctified": Kanye and Ross have teamed up for several memorable collaborations over the years, and this joyful slice of gospel rap — featuring an assist from Big Sean and an even bigger one from soul singer Betty Wright — is the hip-hop equivalent of going to church.
4. The Orwells, "Who Needs You": There's no chorus and no hook, yet the Chicago rockers' Strokes-like barn burner is one of the year's catchiest anthems, a punch in the face to the stale state of alt-rock.
5. Drake, "0-100/ The Catch Up": Even while essentially sitting on the sidelines, Drake ran rap in 2014, and this tossed-off status update hit harder and made more of an impression than many of his peers' entire albums.
6. Jeezy featuring Jay Z, "Seen It All": Jeezy never deviates from his formula but he tweaks it enough to keep things fresh, and this banger throws a hypnotic flute sample into the mix — voila, innovation.
7. Michael Jackson, "Love Never Felt So Good": This holdover from the "Thriller" sessions is a long-lost gem and showed how simple and pure MJ could be when he was locked in his zone. Magical.
8. Charli XCX, "Boom Clap": The Brit bombshell made good on her "Fancy" buzz with this bubbly prom theme that whizzes and spins like the dizzying feeling of a first kiss.
9. Foo Fighters, "Something From Nothing": Dismiss them as Dad Rock all you want, but Dave Grohl and company still have plenty of gas left in their tank, and this slow-burner builds from a whisper to a scream and pays off like the band's best singles do.
10. Taylor Swift, "Shake It Off": Haters gonna hate, sure, but not even they could deny this smash from pop's reigning princess, which turned several of those haters into quivering piles of mush.
Top Albums of the Year
1. Lana Del Rey, "Ultraviolence": The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach cooks up a dark, stormy soundscape that hangs over the album like thunderclouds, the perfect foil for Del Rey's tales of California dreams gone cold case. The result is the moodiest, most engrossing listen of the year.
2. Against Me!, "Transgender Dysphoria Blues": Against Me! has always made gnash-your-teeth punk rock rallying cries; singer Laura Jane Grace coming out as transgender only made them tougher and more badass.
3. Run the Jewels, "Run the Jewels 2": The hard-as-nails second album from hip-hop journeymen El-P and Killer Mike delivers the equivalent of a hip-hop choke slam.
4. Miranda Lambert, "Platinum": Miranda Lambert tells it like it is, and her latest album — her fifth — is like pulling up a chair and sitting with her on her front porch on a hot summer's night while she dishes about everything going on in her life.
5. Charli XCX, "Sucker": A pop bombshell with a punk attitude, Charli XCX's "Sucker" is a racecar in the red and she never lets off the gas.
6. Eric Church, "The Outsiders": The country outsider delivers songs about rock and roll, hometowns and lost loves in songs that would sound great blasted out in a stadium or on the speakers of a jukebox in a dingy dive bar.
7. Jeezy, "Seen It All: The Documentary": Hard-worn gangsta tales told with panache over sterling beats: This is what Jeezy does, and he delivers yet again on the best mainstream rap album of the year.
8. D'Angelo and the Vanguard, "Black Messiah": D'Angelo returns from a 14-year hiatus with an album of off-kilter funk and fiery soul like only he can. A deep, meditative album that rewards repeated listens.
9. Damon Albarn, "Everyday Robots": The Blur and Gorillaz frontman goes it alone on his first solo album, a melancholy effort that proves that for Albarn, modern life is still rubbish.
10. Taylor Swift, "1989": She was plenty pop before "1989," but Swift shows off her dance pop propers on an album that, even five albums into her career, feels like an awakening.
The 2014 Grahammy Awards
Concert of the Year: Jack White, July 30 at the Masonic Temple. The smaller theater in the building bares his name, but White made an argument that the main auditorium should be named after him, too with this nearly three-hour, career-spanning set that left many fans' jaws hanging agape.
Concert of the Year, Runner-Up: Miley Cyrus, April 12 at the Palace of Auburn Hills. An explosion of Cyrus' wild id, a lampooning of the media's portrayal of sexuality and a celebration of internet-addled ADD, Cyrus' completely nuts "Bangerz" tour stop was the most fun you could have at a pop show this year.
Misheard Lyric of the Year: No, you're not the only one who thought Taylor Swift was singing about "lonely Starbucks lovers" in "Blank Space."
Correctly Heard But Nonetheless Still Baffling Lyric of the Year: Ariana Grande, who in "Break Free" says, "I only wanna die alive, never by the hands of a broken heart/ don't wanna hear you lie tonight now that I've become who I really are." Hey Ariana, say what??!
Botched Album Release of the Year: U2. When U2 announced it was delivering their new album "Songs of Innocence" for free to everyone's iTunes accounts, I texted a friend and told him what I considered to be the exciting news. His response: "Best day ever!" Turns out we were the only two that were stoked; everyone else viewed the move as a massive invasion of privacy, Apple had to release a software update to remove the album from users' accounts, and Bono admitted it was a boneheaded move. All over a free album from one of the world's most popular rock bands — if nothing else, it's evidence of the power and rapidity of popular internet opinion.
Debacle of the Year: Artists vs. Spotify. Just when the music business seemed to have something to cheer about — the rise of streaming service Spotify in the face of declining downloads and nearly flatlined album sales — Taylor Swift yanked her entire catalog from the service over royalty concerns and ignited a hot debate about the service and its place in the culture. It remains to be seen how things will shake out, but for consumers who only listen to music on Spotify — of which there are millions, myself included — pulling one's music from the service only ensures those fans will no longer listen to that artist's music. So now what?
Day of the Year: "Tuesday." Thanks to ILOVEMAKONNEN's hit, the most nondescript day of the week — previously marked only by elections and new music releases — became the hottest day of the week. Why didn't anyone else think of that first?
Detroit Snub of the Year: Foo Fighters. The alt-rock vets visited eight storied American music cities for their new album (and accompanying TV show) "Sonic Highways" and somehow skipped Detroit. Explanations are needed.
TV Performance of the Year: The Orwells, "Who Needs You" on "The Late Show With David Letterman." Future Islands' revelatory performance of "Seasons" and Charli XCX's babydoll slow jam "Need Ur Luv," both from "Letterman," come close. But the Orwells' shambly performance ended in such disarray that Paul Shaffer ended up on the ground, dry humping the air, in an impersonation of Orwells frontman Mario Cuomo. YouTube it right now.
Intro of the Year: "Mustard on the beat, ho." The intro to every DJ Mustard song was so omnipresent in 2014 (heard on hits by Big Sean, YG, Wiz Khalifa, T.I. and many more) that it often felt like the intro to every song on the radio, period.
Music Video of the Year: Iggy Azalea and Charli XCX, "Fancy." With '90s nostalgia in full swing, Iggy and Charli parodied "Clueless" in this ultra-bright video — and were rewarded handsomely with 400 million views.
Subject of the Year: Booty. This year, booty was everywhere. Songs by Jason Derulo ("Wiggle"), Nicki Minaj (the previously mentioned catastrophe "Anaconda"), Meghan Trainor ("All About That Bass") and the tandem of Jennifer Lopez and Iggy Azalea (the unsurprisingly titled "Booty") made this the undisputed Year of the Butt. The question is, can we get any lower?
Best Song of the Year (About a Detroit Piston): Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, "Chartjunk." The former Pavement singer and ardent NBA fan wrote this indie rock alley-oop (sample line: "dropping dimes, laying sweet feeds on my homies") about Brandon Jennings and his contentious relationship with his former coach Scott Skiles. In a lowly year for the Pistons, this was a highlight.
Worst Song of the Year: Nicki Minaj, "Anaconda." A grating endurance test that dares you to listen more than once and shows how far Minaj, once one of rap's most exciting talents, has fallen.