Narrowing down the best songs of any year is painful, but 2014 has been a year full of many, many highs. Established artists like Sia and Aphex Twin delivered some personal bests, and younger artists like FKA twigs and Arca broke new ground. To pick only five from such a crop of songs feels almost criminal; mercilessly slashing away at some truly great tracks to arrive at what I hope are the five most perfect nuggets of music that 2014 has yielded.
"Pendulum" captures everything that is special about the young woman who calls herself FKA twigs. The song is hopelessly romantic; "I'm a sweet little love maker," she sings, and the song's intimate atmosphere makes it sound more like a confession. The song congeals out of disembodied mechanical sounds before blossoming into what sounds like one of Prince's lushest love songs on the verge of falling apart. The arrangement is full of light and space - it's barely there - and the chorus hits even harder because of it. Drums don't really provide rhythm or momentum, but like everything else, they circle in the orbit of some of the year's most angelic vocals. There are so many moving parts to the song that it seems like it shouldn't work, but, like a beautiful piece of clockwork, everything fits together perfectly.
Vince Staples' incredible single "Hands Up" deserves to be here not only because its social and political commentary about police violence is so timely (even the reclusive Lauryn Hill released a song after the shooting of Ferguson, Missouri man Michael Brown), but because of the way it showcases the up-and-coming rapper's amazing skill. "I guess the pigs split wigs for the greater good / 'cos I ain't seen 'em lock a swine up yet," Staples raps with confidence, playing with internal rhyme and extended metaphor in a way that one would expect from a much older, more experienced artist. In the song, Staples never name-checks Michael Brown, or any other victims of police brutality, but it's clear what has inspired the song's pointed fear and anger. He's telling the grizzly truth and he refuses the right to be silent.
The music on The War on Drugs' latest album Lost in the Dream is a total anomaly. It's a recreation of the heartland rock that Bruce Springsteen and John "Cougar" Mellencamp made popular in the 80's, but instead of soaring, the saxophones drone like wind through old ruins, and synthesizers hover in the background like lost ghosts, caught up in the slipstream of the band's relentless, pounding rhythm. "Red Eyes" is the perfect driving song on the perfect driving record, its forward momentum and its incredible riff make it lyrics irrelevant - soaked in reverb and low in the mix, they are largely unintelligible anyway. Its most sublime moment comes at the point where singer Adam Granduciel lets out a celebratory "woo!" before the main riff that fills in for a chorus crashes in. I dare you to listen to that and not leap out of your seat with excitement.
Ariana Grande's "Problem" may have gotten more airplay, and guest appearances from two high-profile rappers, but "Break Free" is one of the most perfect pieces of pop of the decade so far. Ariana Grande still hasn't entirely escaped the mini-Mariah Carey label that has plagued her since the beginning of her singing career, but the former Nickelodeon star's incredible pipes are no novelty. Over a sugar-rush of a house beat provided by German producer Zedd, Grande lets loose with everything she has. She still can't enunciate very well (is she singing "fart on your body" and "it was liver" in the bridge?) but really all that matters is when she belts out the chorus and the song zooms off into the stratosphere. It's not coming down anytime soon.
"Can't Do Without You" isn't so much a song as it is a series of moments. Its beguiling opening is little more than a simple drum beat, a vocal loop caught in purgatory, and four chords, soft and watery, lapping against the bare framework. Featuring only three or four lines of lyrics, depending on how you count, "Can't Do Without You," is the aural representation of someone working themself into a frenzy. The mantra-like vocals build, along with a swarm of synthesizers and the gently insistent beat before everything comes to a head in the most beautiful way. The music of Caribou is nominally dance music, but not for the club and not for a party. "Can't Do Without You" feels so intimate and personal that you could only dance to it alone when no one is watching. Give it a try.