Friday, 20 February 2015


Welcome to a brief departure to my usual fare; an evaluation on the current condition of pop and rock music, as well as the best and most accomplished singles and songs released in the 2014 calender year. Whereas with film music and film in general we were gifted with some of the most exemplary work in recent memory, the visual medium especially amassing an impressive collation of genuinely formidable content, general mainstream pop and rock artists suffered in terms of compositional finesse and general accessibility. Whilst 2013 was a rather abysmal year within these same forms, 2014 upped the ante, as the bad was worse and the good wasn't as good. When Sia is underwhelming in a year of atrocities, you know you have a problem. Fortunately, I have managed to collate eleven songs to present to you that are respectable displays of the ability of modern songwriters and producers. Allow me to begin!

11. Geronimo - Sheppard

In another list, this would perhaps be considered an honourable mention, whereas here, I'm just going to extend the list to award Sheppard the commendation they are rightfully due for providing such an impressive lead single for their debut album Bombs Away. The loud and forceful kit work drives what could be a conventional pop song in a positive direction, and the chorus is a bombast and entertaining romp full of vocal excellence. It's catchy, but this isn't solely due to the simplicity of the central melodies; it's just hard not to sing along whilst the band belts out "Say Geronimo" with gusto! It's certainly the least advanced on this list in terms of instrumental grandeur, and whilst it isn't as bold, smooth or addictive as the rest of the inclusions here, it is most certainly worthy of appraisal.

10. Painkiller - Three Days Grace

After five years without a major release, the acclaimed rock group Three Days Grace released 'Painkiller' to mixed reactions, some finding it utterly conventional and lacking discernibility, others finding it a refreshing return to form for the rock genre. I lean further towards the latter side of the argument (by a large margin). The new lead singer Matt Walst, taking over from the responsibilities of Adam Gontier, handles the vocal component of the track with appropriate aggression, his work commendable. The heavy bass work is fantastic, and the entire chorus has a rhythmic approach which proves completely captivating. Whilst some may be underwhelmed by this song in comparison to their next single, released later on last year, 'I Am Machine', I find this more lyrically and instrumentally competent. I believe it features one of the better rock performances of the year. Exceptional work from one of my favourite rock bands.

9. Big Eyes - Lana Del Ray

Del Ray is perhaps one of the most grand, awe-inspiring and beautiful vocalists of the modern era; she composes captivating, large and beautiful works that are both instantaneously catchy but never lacking in complexity. 'Big Eyes' is one of her finest releases and one of the only truly magnificent pieces available on Danny Elfman's score album to Tim Burton's latest major feature. Gorgeous piano riffs, a great quantity of reverb that adds depth and size to the recording and a wonderful chorus which features some delightfully subdued trumpet phrases ultimately form 'Big Eyes' into a track which is difficult to ignore when coming to the end of year. The only detractor (to my ears) is the mix places slightly too much emphasis on the percussion of the track, which partially overpowers the strings. All the same, one of the most impeccable releases from Del Ray.

8. Strong - London Grammar

I actually reviewed the album this was released on, If You Wait, and I acclaimed it to the heavens and back. It's a gorgeous collation of music that I over-hyped substantially, but nevertheless champion as one of the best albums of 2014. And the best single from the release, 'Strong', was always bound to find a place on this list, as its wistful and soulful mood and execution proves for an absolutely harrowing listen. London Grammar exploded out onto the scene with haste within 2014 and for good reason; whilst their compositional skill is not overtly profound and they aren't as lyrically accessible nor unexpected as other groups who work within the same kind of moods and genres as they do, they do have a serene quality about them that makes listening to their works admirably easy. 'Strong' tackles reasonably effective themes with grace and humility, and Hannah Reid's vocals drive home the solemn and beautiful ambiance for maximum effect.

7. I'm Not The Only One - Sam Smith

Whilst everyone was raging on about how incredible 'Stay With Me' supposedly was, I was more impressed with this far more stylish and emotional single. 'I'm Not The Only One' features a lavish, restrained performance from the lead singer, as well as direct but well-conceived lyrical content. Whilst the central piano phrase may seem a little repetitive as it maintains consistent use all throughout the entire duration of the song, the rest of the composition is impressive enough to maintain a listener's interest. Unlike 'Stay With Me', there appears to be more than just blatant depression on offer here, a vindictive undercurrent of vocal and lyrical aggression that mixes well with Smith's easily employed graver tones. Its got a fantastic hook and features depth in its meaning, and that's enough to propel it onto the list (as well as some wicked choir work).

6. Earned It - The Weeknd

Released but a week before the end of the year, 'Earned It' was just eligible for this list, and thankfully so; The Weeknd's astonishing contribution to the soundtrack for the cinematic adaptation of E.L James' Fifty Shades of Grey is one of the most sublime, smooth and enjoyable tracks from the past year. The measured string, piano and percussion progressions prove utterly compelling, the song an easily digestible but engaging effort. The Weeknd's approach to his vocals has always fascinated me, and his ability to be able to traverse such a varied range is consistently applaudable, his abilities showcased here perfectly. This shan't be the final time you see this man on the list.

5. The Rains of Castamere - Sigur Ros

Even in years where they aren't releasing albums, Sigur Ros still manage to capture my attention, and that is exactly what they did when they performed a cover of The Rains of Castamere; a song written by George RR Martin for his literary series, A Song of Ice And Fire, and subsequently the television adaptation, Game of Thrones. Whilst the song has been provided before as an end-credits song, performed by The Nationals in the previous instance for Season 2 of the show, Sigur Ros' interpretation captures the gloomy nature of the lyrics and its subject matter, that being Tywin Lannister's destruction of two houses (lore that is a part of the Westeros universe). The various sound effects applied give a larger feel to the song and lead singer Jonsi's vocals are stark and dangerous, his higher register employed here for incredible results. It's great to see such a talented rock group receiving exposure on such a platform as Game of Thrones, especially considering how damn awesome this song is.

4. Yellow Flicker Beat - Lorde

I've always managed to derive some level of enjoyment out of The Hunger Games soundtracks, Catching Fire's in particular a fantastic collection of tracks that suit the tone and themes of the visual counterpart. Lorde, a singer and songwriter who didn't seem to possess an ounce of personality throughout much of 2013, her hit singles from that year 'Royals', 'Tennis Court' and 'Team' all sounding like each other and containing little discernibility, was brought to the forefront of my attention after she covered Tears for Fears' 'Everybody Wants To Rule The World' for the Catching Fire soundtrack, to exceptional results. The darker quality of the track suited her vocal capabilities better, and it was a far better produced song than anything out of her debut album Pure Heroine. For 'Yellow Flicker Beat', she was asked to provide the end-credits song to 2014's The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1, and she did so with style. 'Yellow Flicker Beat' features a restrained blend of synthetic pulses and effects alongside heavy percussion and light keyboard work which provides wonders. Lorde sounds fantastic, her dark and dreary approach preferable to the light tone of the majority of her previous endeavors. It is ornate and cumulative; a wonderful antithesis to the disappointing quantity of music she released a couple of years ago.

3. Happy Little Pill - Troye Sivan

My latest claim as to being a hipster comes with my early discovery of now mega-Youtube star Troye Sivan. When I found him in early 2013, he had little more than ten thousand subscribers; his count now reaches up into the millions. Whilst I appreciated his wit and easy presence, his compositional and vocal abilities were not as refined as I'd desire. He would upload both comedic videos and covers/original songs which he would perform on video. He has since grown from the amateurish performances he once would deliver, and now has gifted us one of the most accomplished, brilliant, fantastic and atmospheric singles from the year. Many find 'Habits (Stay High)' and 'Chandelier' to be the two most commendable drug/alcohol anthem hits of the year, but 'Happy Little Pill' contains far more compositional intricacy, darker thematic material and a wider array of variation. It also features some of my favourite moments in pop music of the year; from the bridge's "Sipping life from a bottle" line, to the chorus' unexpected rise in pitch with "Bring colour to my skies", there are some wonderful highlights to be explored all throughout. Much like 'Yellow Flicker Beat', the synthetics are prominent but never irritating nor overpowering, and Troye's vocals are restrained but never lazy-sounding. His desolate mood captures that of the instrumentation; an electronic, otherworldly soundscape that is entrancing from beginning to end.

2. Uptown Funk - Mark Rosnon feat. Bruno Mars        
These two highest placed songs are interchangeable with each other to be honest, because they're both perfection. One of them is the more catchier of the two; the other is a song which I find more addictive and plainly engrossing. This is the catchier one. 'Uptown Funk' is composed, written and produced by Mark Rosnon, a man who has worked and produced albums with Amy Winehouse, Adele, Paul McCartney and Lana Del Ray, and his work for this here single reflects that kind of a quality musician. The song is tight in terms of melody and instrumentation, varied enough so that no one piece of the puzzle ever becomes boring or derivative, fun, dynamic and above all, worthy of dancing to! So many "dance tunes" nowadays really aren't that good to dance to. They're either far too repetitive, overtly aggressive to the point where it's actually discouraging, or boring. 'Uptown Funk' is neither of those. From the opening verse, to "Hot damn!", to "Don't believe me just watch!", to "Dance; jump on it! If you sexy than flaunt it!", there's literally nothing to fault. It's got everything required of a funk track to get the body moving, as the beat is infectious, the mix without fault, and the different stages of the track distinct and memorable. Bruno Mars continues to excel in everything he does, his vocals lending themselves to the 80's funk/R&B vibe Rosnon was obviously going for. Put simply, 'Uptown Funk' is the epitome of pop perfection, and one of the best songs of 2014.

1. Love Me Harder - Ariana Grande feat. The Weeknd

Out of nowhere! Ariana Grande had perhaps one of the best years she's ever likely to have, with her tracks 'Problem' and 'Break Free' receiving extensive coverage on radio stations and music video channels alike, as well as her collaboration with Jessie J. and Nicki Minaj, 'Bang Bang', achieving some of the highest sales of the year. Despite both 'Break Free' and 'Bang Bang' being two of the more underwhelming singles she's released recently, it's hard to deny that she's killing it in the charts. But the one release that startled me most of all was 'Love Me Harder', a passionate, sensual, powerful confection that blew my mind and left my brains on the seat. I love everything about this song. Ariana Grande's vocals are, as is a a big thing with my tastes, restrained but still powerful and evocative. The instrumentation features initially either an organ or a celesta (or a keyboard imitating either of them), and provides an almost child-like sense of inquisition and softness. It then explodes into mesmerising but never overstated electronic pulses, rocking alongside Grande's enthralling voice, and then the chorus spreads its wings and erupts with grandeur and size. The mixing is absolutely wonderful, the reverb just enough to give magnitude to all the instrumentation involved but not overtly distracting so as to undermine the value of the rest of the work. And then The Weeknd pops up, and much as he did with Sia's 'Elastic Heart' back in 2013 (here's another Catching Fire soundtrack reference; 'Elastic Heart' was released on that soundtrack alongside the aforementioned Lorde output), he elevates the vocal component of the entire piece and provides another effective feature. The lyrical content is blatant, or is it? Ariana and The Weeknd both sing about their desire for a more forceful, sexual relationship, but the title and lyrics also hint towards a dissatisfaction with the amount of dedication put towards the relationship as a whole. They want to be loved harder. Either way, from every angle, I find this song absolute perfection.

Did you enjoy this little feature? Were you irritated by me placing importance over uploading this instead of a review for Jupiter Ascending? Inform me!

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