Sunday, December 28, 2014

Discopop Directory: Top 10 singles of 2014

When I sat down and totted up my iTunes play counts for this year's Top 10, I had to double check my numbers. I had fully expected Clean Bandit's Rather Be and Ed Sheeran's Thinking Out Loud to be among my most-listened-to songs of 2014 and, while both came close, the data doesn't lie.

So, the following singles are the ones I've compulsively added to iTunes playlists over the last 12 months and they represent the soundtrack to my year, free of self-censorship, editorialising and Sam Smith.

10) Charli XCX - Boom Clap
It's safe to say Charli XCX had low expectations for Boom Clap. She sent it to Hilary Duff. She bunged it onto a film soundtrack. She wrote the lyric "the beat goes on and on and on" and couldn't be arsed to change it.

But the track sparkles - partly because, for once, Charli isn't trying so hard to come across as a teen rebel. From the masterfully concise intro to the honey-drop "la la las" in the final chorus, it's a great big hug of a song.

Oh, and the lyric "you're the glitter and the darkness in my world" couldn't be a better fit for The Fault In Our Stars and its skewered tale of young love.

9) SBTRKT ft Ezra Koenig - New Dorp, New York
The best-sounding single of the year, throbbing with mystery and possibility - even though it's just a bass drum, an elemental bassline and a few sound effects.

Ezra Koenig delivers a dream-state vocal, listing the sights of Staten Island and "flag slappin' Manhattan", although what he's actually on about is anyone's guess.

It's just a shame the rest of SBTRKT's album didn't live up to this promise.

8) Katy B - Crying For No Reason
AKA Katy B's secret weapon. A Guy Chambers co-write, Crying For No Reason is a "proper" ballad about the damage caused by buried emotions, with a hat-tip to Madonna's Frozen in its clattering drum fills.

Katy's delivery makes the song indispensable. "I never faced all the pain I caused," she sings with tangible anguish. "Now that pain is hitting me full force".

7) Prince - Breakdown
Twelve months ago, I would never have expected a Prince single to feature in this Top 10. But here he is, reinvigorated by those hit-and-run London concerts, delivering his most devastating ballad since The Beautiful Ones.

Apparently an autobiographical account of his former excesses - "I used to throw the party every New Year's Eve / First one intoxicated, last one to leave" - it's also a love letter to the person (higher power?) who set him free.

If Frank Ocean had released this, it would have been everywhere. But Frank Ocean could never have hit those high notes in the coda.

6) Mark Ronson ft Bruno Mars - Uptown Funk
Speaking of Prince, here's a tribute act.

5) Lorde - Yellow Flicker Beat
By Lorde's standards, Yellow Flicker Beat is a minor single but there's something about her performance that draws me in. Maybe it's the killer hook, maybe I'm hypnotised by the frail hum that runs through the entire song - either way, it's murderously addictive.

As with Boom Clap, Lorde's song is a perfect marriage between lyric and source material (in this case, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay). If you can't imagine Katniss Everdeen singing "I made a little prison and I'm locking up everyone who ever laid a finger on me," then you're doing it wrong.

4) The Staves - Blood I Bled
The Staves really raise their game on this Bon Iver-produced song, the immaculate layering of their harmonies matched by the steady build of instrumentation from a single, hand-picked guitar to the soaring, astral strings of the closing moments.

Truly exceptional.

3) Jessie Ware - Tough Love
"Sophisticated" and "tasteful" are dirty words in pop but Jessie Ware proves they don't have to be. Tough Love has a surface layer of calm, but listen closer and you'll hear the strain in Jessie's voice as she confronts a no-good lover - "so you want to be a man about it, do you?" We never find out exactly what he's done, but the cheeky lift from Prince's Little Red Corvette suggests it's not just his eye that's been wandering.

Repressed anger has never sounded so beautiful.

2) Tove Lo - Truth Serum EP
Rarely does a pop act arrive as fully-formed as Tove Lo, whose dispatches from the front line of love are catastrophically honest.

The Truth Serum EP is an X-rated Mills and Boon potboiler, chronicling a relationship from the first heady rush of love to a devastated, drug-fuelled break-up.

Every track hits you like a hurricane - the pop hooks deployed like rock riffs as Tove excavates her darkest secrets. No wonder her mother was worried about her when she heard it.

1) Taylor Swift - Shake It Off
Let's face it, Shake It Off was more calculated than Fermat's Last Theorem. Co-written with not one, but two of Sweden's biggest hitmakers, it was stuffed with heard-it-before hooks, yawnsome self-empowerment clich├ęs ("haters gonna hate") and employed the phrase "this sick beat" without any apparent irony.

But if Taylor's ambition was to write a stone-cold pop classic, she hit the nail on the head. Squarely. With a fucking jackhammer.

The melody is indelible, and the urge to dance like a dork is irresistible, thanks to that infectious drumbeat. Oh, sick beat. I get it now.

PS: The song would still be better if she sang "bakers gonna bake, bake, bake, bake, bake". And that's a fact.

And, because it's been a great year for singles, the next 11 would have been:

11) Banks - Beggin' For Thread
12) Tove Stryke - Even If I'm Loud It Doesn't Mean I'm Talking To You
13) Lana Del Rey - Ultraviolence
14) Gorgon City ft MNEK - Ready For Your Love
15) Clean Bandit - Rather Be
16) Ed Sheeran - Thinking Out Loud
17) Beyonce - Partition
18) Kelis - Rumble
19) Ed Sheeran - Sing
20) Katy Perry - Dark Horse
21) The Veronicas - You Ruin Me

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