2014 in review, a personal reflection
4 Reasons Taylor Swift Is Our Greatest Living Songwriter, Or, The Best Songs of 2014
Pop music so potent it’s weaponised. Every second of “Shake It Off” is its own individual, overlapping hook, each absolutely essential to the whole. “Happy”, “Call Me Maybe”, “Gangnam Style” - every so often, a song’s appeal is so instantly obvious it has the power to possess the minds of children, those eternally honest critics. “Shake It Off”, though, is so structurally and emotionally refined it’s a walking songwriting manual. You could listen to it a hundred times, learn its tricks inside out, but still never be able to replicate it. Country singers used to speak of “three chords and the truth”; Taylor Swift doesn’t need them or their guitars. “Shake It Off” is Taylor Swift’s essence distilled. It’s polarising because it’s completely undeniable.
To paraphrase Tony Soprano, “I remember” is the lowest form of conversation. Taylor Swift turns it into a fucking symphony. “Out of the Woods” constructs a more vivid emotional arc in a two-line chorus than most films do in two hours.
are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods
are we in the clear yet are we in the clear yet are we in the clear yet in the clear yet GOOD
It gradually crescendos every time she sings it, from desperation to hope to relief to a mantra. If “Fifteen”, the wisest song ever written by a teenager, is Taylor Swift’s Girlhood, “Out of the Woods” is her Before Sunrise. It’s just one night, and it means nothing and everything all at once.
There are certain Madonna-level stunts you can only pull as a popstar at the height of your powers, your imperial phase. But Madonna never deconstructed her image, lyrical content, exes, the media and the ravenous public with quite such elegance, all at the same time. The David Fincher who directed Madonna’s greatest music videos would be proud; so would Gone Girl’s Amazing Amy. Turns out this reformed hopeless romantic does murderous irony better than you, too.
Boys only want love if it’s torture
Don’t say I didn’t, say I didn’t warn ya
In 2013, “Beyoncé” became a verb. Those looking to make a comeback already talk of “pulling a Beyoncé”. Soon the overexposed, in desperate need of image reform, will talk of “pulling a ‘Blank Space’”. Let them try.
The biggest single of 2015 is just biding its time, waiting to be released. “Style” beats CHVRCHES and the entire Drive/Miami Vice soundtrack revival at their own game. The verses pulse with self-doubt, spitting seething accusations, conjuring a million lost highways. But oh my god, that chorus. For all we know, Taylor Swift travelled back in time and invented wind, long hair, car stereos and convertibles just so you could correctly experience such joy. It could part clouds through sheer force of will. Yet I’ve listened to “Style“ 50+ times, and I still can’t decide if the bridge is her liberation, or a desperate escape.
“Style” hops on the 80s synthpop trend to tell you a doomed relationship is more than a passing fad. The highs are eternal. It’s the most straightforward of these four songs, and it’s still fucking weird.
Some songwriters are deathlessly covered because they’re so adaptable - Leonard Cohen, Lennon/McCartney. Taylor Swift is the opposite. Like Madonna or No Doubt, her vocal interpretations, her arrangements, are such intuitive realisations of a song’s emotional space that no one else can possibly reinterpret them. Most modern popstars, too, are a cult of personality. You can’t divorce Beyoncé’s songs from her innate Beyoncé-ness - and nor would you want to, because that’s 90% of what they’re about. But Taylor’s songs remain personal and universal. It’s the end goal of every pop-leaning songwriter since Fleetwood Mac, Bruce Springsteen, U2 - and it’s infinitely easier said than done.
Here’s a thought: sell a million records in a week in this day and age, and you’re at least significant. Do it with three albums in a row, selling more copies of 1989 in one week than any other 2014 album sold during the whole year, and you’re a glitch in the Matrix. A broken system shouldn’t be able to bend to your will… and yet.
Two objectively false myths about pop music: “sex sells”, and “it all sounds the same”. In 2014, pop was ruled by individuals. Cut off the Taylor Swift head of the hydra, and another one will not take its place. You can’t reverse-engineer her commercial success because you can’t write her songs. As the greatest lowbrow art form, pop doesn’t care if you take it seriously. But at 25, Taylor Swift is already a verifiable all-timer. Everyone else is still trying to catch up.
Top 20 Films
1. Inside Llewyn Davis
“The cumulative effect of Boyhood feels oddly unlike cinema. Moments that feel underwhelming as they happen suddenly mean everything in hindsight. It’s not more affecting, or more transcendent, just inscrutably different. You could spend another decade dissecting what it means, but in the same time, Richard Linklater will have made another nine movies. We call classics timeless, but Boyhood’s twelve years have already come and gone. Will it stand the test of time? Why even worry? The most vivid memories never leave you.”
“Few films have ever been so obsessed with their muse. This one practically begs you to fall in love with her yourself… It’s as vivid a portrait of love, queer or otherwise, as has ever existed.”
4. The Wolf of Wall Street
6. 12 Years a Slave
7. Gone Girl
“It’s mind-boggling to think that corporate synergy on The LEGO Movie’s $60 million scale even works, let alone that it actively critiques mass consumerism, or that it’s as ludicrously funny as it is.The LEGO Movie has joie de vivre enough for several films, so much that it instantly demolishes any hint of cynicism… Bring your inner child. See it twice.”
9. Under the Skin
“Interstellar is Christopher Nolan’s tribute to cinematic and scientific visionaries alike – and hopefully, not a premature wake for their deaths. That anyone can still get $165m original films made is its own miracle, let alone Nolan’s three-hour space-prog cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine”. At the very least, it’s the opposite of Marvel’s spoonfed approach to blockbuster entertainment. Guardians of the Galaxy? Please.”
Where Louis C.K. casually drops what’s effectively a six-part, two-hour feature film in the middle of a now-classic season of television. He could recut it and subtitle all the Hungarian, but why stoop to a medium he doesn’t need?
“Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent is a revelation, the kind of singular movie-star performance that reminds you why the whole celebrity gossip industry exists in the first place… It almost doesn’t matter that it’s so underwritten… Feminine strength takes on many forms. At once menacing, compassionate, tragic and majestic, no one is worthy of Jolie’s Maleficent – not even the film itself.”
16. Only Lovers Left Alive
“How do you will a dream into existence? How do you induce an LSD trip through cinema alone? How can you not bring yourself to at least try? Jodorowsky’s Dune documents a film so absurd it could never have been made, but so supposedly visionary it might have changed the course of cinema anyway. It might be the most crowd-pleasing documentary ever made about a maddeningly uncompromising director.”
19. The Immigrant
20. Life Itself
Top 20 Albums/EPs
“Ultraviolence has no real mainstream precedent. It’s a tortured, achingly beautiful, often alarmingly submissive record – and that’s the point. No one hates Lana Del Rey more than Lana Del Rey herself… To love this record requires total emotional submission. But the more its beauty draws you in, the more you realise how troubling it was all along.”
“For all her classic LA noir mystique, Banks’ willingness to play the villain doesn’t make her any less relatable. But a fully realised popstar is so much more than a singer. Music, make-up, styling, movement; they’re all performing the same fierceness. Deep down, she doesn’t entirely believe her own invulnerability, but take one look at her, and you should know better than to fuck with a goddess.”
3. Jenny Lewis - The Voyager
“Pop is inherently romanticist, all life-or-death emotion, but more than anything, LIZ embodies the uncertainty of youth. Her voice is equally coy and weary, her lyrics the breakup and first date at the same time. Like being gently smothered to death by marshmallow, Just Like You is the perfect soundtrack for every kind of quarter-life existential crisis.”
5. The War on Drugs - Lost in the Dream
“Kitty songs come in two modes: self-deprecating yet totally sincere, like she’s rolling her eyes to keep from crying; and the sassy kiss-offs, where she just straight-up rolls her eyes at you… One way to shake off the stigma of being a white rapper is to do it really fucking well. The other way is to not do it at all.”
7. Taylor Swift - 1989
8. Katy B - Little Red
9. Ryn Weaver - Promises
10. Against Me! - Transgender Dysphoria Blues
11. Lykke Li - I Never Learn
12. St. Vincent - St. Vincent
13. EMA - The Future’s Void
14. Neil Cicierega - Mouth Sounds
15. Charli XCX - Sucker
More pop and more punk than any band of the Green Day school, Sucker does for Blur and the Spice Girls what Blondie did for 70s punk and disco.
“In Jessie Ware’s hands, the ballad is an art form with nearly infinite variations… In no one else’s world is risking adult contemporary blandness a genuinely brave artistic move. It’s ‘mainstream’ not as commercial pandering, but as an act of emotional generosity, withholding nothing from the listener, whoever they may be.”
17. Wye Oak - Shriek
18. Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels 2
19. Tinashe - Aquarius
20. FKA twigs - LP1
Top 10 TV Shows
Like a vicious, surrealist opera, Hannibal runs circles around every 2014 horror film combined. It might actively be undoing Anthony Hopkins’ legacy. The fact that airs alongside NBC’s typical network TV inoffensiveness is the most mind-boggling thing since, well, Twin Peaks aired on ABC 25 years ago.
2. True Detective
3. Mad Men
6. Game of Thrones
7. The Americans
10. Orange Is the New Black