Top 5 unexpected songs of 2014

How many records truly surprise you? Am I getting more cynical with age, or just looking in the wrong places? Has every popular music genre already reached maturity, or is Marvel’s spoon-fed approach to cinema bleeding into music too? More than ever, 2014 seemed like a year of artists ticking the boxes of their chosen genres, rarely swerving too dramatically out of their lanes. And that’s more or less fine. But I long to be proven wrong.

Kimbra - “90s Music”

A (cancelled) Janelle Monáe tour, a murderer’s row of collaborators, her great last single – Kimbra was supposed to put out the craziest jazz fusion, math-rock, neo-soul pop record of the year. What we actually got was oddly tentative, neither weird nor pop enough for either camp. Maybe Kimbra spent a whole record’s worth on “90s Music” alone.

Where do you even start with this thing? Even the title is a feint. It sounds absolutely nothing like the 90s, let alone the artists it namechecks. Like plenty of pop songs, it’s all surface sounds, but it never settles on a single groove, melody, or key. It has three different choruses, none of which are particularly catchy. Is the entire song – especially Matt Bellamy’s dial-up modem guitar – just one big series of absurd, unrelated hooks? It’s like a 1960s, space-age Jetsons vision of Prince’s future “1999”, spliced into our own misremembered recollections of the now-deleted Geocities archives. Our endless craving for 90s nostalgia is lazy at best, empty at worst, but memory – whether it’s human or a 3½ inch floppy disk – is all we have of the past. 

Seven months later, Kimbra’s channelling Frank Zappa’s ghost on Letterman, and I don’t know if “90s Music” makes more sense, or even less. Which record executive let some Kiwi madwoman release this as the follow-up to the biggest single of 2012? I want to kiss both them on the mouth.

Grimes feat. Blood Diamonds - “Go”

“Go” wasn’t meant to be Grimes’ big pop move, and in a way, it still isn’t. Here’s a weird life cycle for a song: Grimes writes “Go” for Rihanna, who rejects it for whatever reason. Grimes decides to release it herself, to decidedly mixed opinion, which may or may not lead to her scrapping her entire album.

Here’s the thing: the distance between Grimes and Rihanna, both Roc Nation-signed artists, is only big in your mind. Sure, there’s pop, and there’s pop, but going big-tent, lose-your-mind EDM without watering yourself down is no easy feat. It’s Grimes (feat. drops), but it’s still Grimes! Fluoro, Jodorowsky-inspired video or not, she’s still wearing her beloved socks and sandals in the club.

“Go” could’ve been the 2014 equivalent of “Bedtime Story”, Björk’s 1994 song for Madonna, which is so inimitably Björk it turned the world’s biggest popstar into her mouthpiece. That song wasn’t exactly a smash either. But having made it entirely on her own terms, Grimes deserves to do whatever the hell she wants. Lighten up!

Magic! - “Rude (Zedd Remix)”

All About That Bass” is a close second, but congratulations, Magic!’s “Rude” wins the 15th annual Smash Mouth award for the lamest song of 2014. Picture this: the slacker frontman of (seriously) a Canadian reggae band knocks on your door, asking for your daughter’s hand in marriage. Obviously, she has no autonomy; two men must decide for her. How quaint! But would you say yes to this? You turn him down, but then he has the cheek to respond with this classic zinger of a non sequitur: “Why you gotta be so rude???” You guys up for some reggae tonight?!?

Two wrongs shouldn’t make a right. Wed the tale of a loser who thinks he’s a good guy to the amoral hedonism of EDM, and you’d typically get a worse remix of an already bad song. But what’s the opposite of musical trolling? It’s using your formidable powers, even sacrificing your good name, to redeem the unworthy. That’s literally what Jesus did, but even he couldn’t craft that Daft Punk-worthy filtered bassline in “Rude”’s second verse. This remix is glorious; it could only be improved with Bono on vocals, and The Edge playing the entire intro to “Where the Streets Have No Name” before and after. Magic!’s mere existence offends us. Only Zedd forgives.

Kitty - “☼ MISS U ☼”

A white-girl rapper drops an early 2000s-style trance-pop single crafted from a My Little Pony remix, and somehow it’s IMMACULATE. What’s the difference between Kitty and Iggy Azalea, Kreayshawn, Macklemore – or worse, Karmin? Kitty’s aesthetic has more or less always been entirely her own. She’s a disarmingly canny rapper when she wants to be, but where others aspire to blackness or major-label pop formulas, the best Kitty songs sound like they’ve never even left her bedroom. Rap game Taylor Swift.

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. “☼ MISS U ☼” is both at once. Kitty turns her delicate vocal range into an advantage – she sounds brave, and a little giddy and overwhelmed by the electronica of it all. “I won’t even miss you” – it’s a middle finger to an ex, her more pop-phobic fans, and (maybe only in my mind) big dumb nostalgic bro-trance alike. 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.

Kendrick Lamar – “i”

Hip-hop fans are notoriously picky, but man, certain corners of the internet act like “i” might as well be Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”. Which thematically, you know, it kind of is. But what’s wrong with a little self-esteem rap if it’s totally earned? It reminds me of Lil B’s ironically titled “I Hate Myself”, but with Kendrick rapping his ass off instead of Lil B’s charming sloppiness, an Isley Brothers sample instead of the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris”. Kendrick’s always been based. good kid, m.A.A.d city didn’t exactly wallow in poverty for fun; nor was it out to teach lessons. Sure, it didn’t need to bluntly tell you to love yourself. But hey, if all mainstream rap materialism is just self-love disguised as narcissism, what’s wrong with telling it like it is?

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