These are the songs I would pick as the best tracks of 2014 if I had an ounce of courage.
They all say something fascinating about the state of music in 2014. They are masterpieces of production, vocal ability, and lyricism. They are also not typical choices for the best track of 2014 — they are in the wrong genre, or not unanimously loved, or even almost unanimously disliked.
There are some songs I could pick for the best of 2014 that would fill me with slightly less shame, but it's important to earn all our pleasures, guilty and otherwise. So here are five songs that I could have picked as the best of the year, but was just too embarrassed to admit I loved. (Please ignore that I am doing so right now.)
"Girl in a Country Song" by Maddie & Tae
Maddie & Tae's subversive, catchy as hell commentary on the state of bro-country didn't top any charts this year, but it was one of the best country songs out there. It's a melodic jam that lulls you into complacency with all of the easy chord changes and twangy guitars of typical country — and it has a great twist.
"We used to get a little respect," Maddie & Tae sing, "now we're lucky if we even get to climb up in your truck, keep our mouths shut, and ride along, and be a girl in a country song." It's a direct hit on songs like "Cruise" by Florida Georgia Line that turn women into just another decoration for a pickup truck with lines like, "this brand new Chevy with a lift kit/Would look a hell of a lot better with you up in it."
The singers put out their first EP this year, but "Girl in a Country Song" made its home among plenty of other feminist country music anthems this year, including my personal runner-up in the ultra-specific category of "feminist country anthem," "Quarterback" by Kira Isabella, a song about high-school rape and its repercussions. But "Girl in a Country Song" takes the title because it's so fitting for 2014, a year when so many women raised their voices as loud as they could.
"Fancy" by Iggy Azalea, feat. Charli XCX
Yeah, you've heard of this one. You probably hate this one. But hear me out!
Hating the song of the summer because it's overplayed ("Call Me Maybe") or terrible ("Blurred Lines") is a year-end tradition. This year's Song of Summer, "Fancy," is perhaps one of the most criticized of all time. Is Iggy Azalea appropriating a culture that's not hers? Almost definitely. Is this song still catchy as hell? Absolutely.
Part of the reason "Fancy" can be just catchy enough to overcome those accusations of Azaelea's appropriation is that it's incredibly self-aware, almost in spite of itself. The opening statement,"First things first I'm the realest" is, as Chris Molanphy wrote for Slate, "a statement laced with either unwitting irony or sardonic self-commentary — probably both."
In fact, the best parts of Azalea's "Fancy" — the chorus and bridge — aren't even sung by her; they're sung by pop star of the future Charli XCX, whose next album comes out Monday. The hook on this song is so catchy that those first three beats became one of the most recognizable lead-ins of the year. "Fancy" is catchy, fun, and really well-produced. It could easily be the Song of the Year.
"Inside Out" by Spoon
Spoon's 2014 album They Want My Soul was lauded by lovers of traditional rock everywhere. The groovy, guitar-heavy tracks are easy to listen to, but sadly just as easy to forget. On the whole, They Want My Soul is an album with songs that are mostly passable not because they are great songs, or even good songs, but because they were released on an album that said SPOON at the top of it. But, yeah, the album got fantastic reviews. Picking a track from this album as best of the year wouldn't be controversial; admitting that it's one of the few off the album I even like would.
Still, it's true. By far the standout off They Want My Soul is "Inside Out," a mellow, dreamy rock song where lead singer Britt Daniels multi-tracks his voice into layers of calming, grooving jams, instead of the catchy, lyric-heavy, piano-backed songs Spoon is famous for. (Think "The Way We Get By.")
But I could only go so far as to place this song on this list. Picking a Spoon song for its production in a year where we had incredible productions from rappers like FKA Twigs and new pop stars like Rita Ora would be a step too far.
"Flawless Remix" by Beyonce feat Nicki Minaj
It's almost heresy to pick a remix of Beyoncé over the original Beyoncé, but here we are. Despite my deep and abiding love for the spoken word portion of last year's "***Flawless," where Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reads from her now-famous TED Talk about feminism, those words are even more powerful when placed at the start of the song, as they are in the remix.
So, yeah, I'll take Beyoncé's do-over, instead of her first take. This song is more varied and interesting than the original, and the bridge, instead of Ngozi Adiche's spoken word, is Nicki Minaj rapping, "The queen of rap slayin' with queen B. If you ain't on the team, you playin for team D."
But this one's also worth considering because of what this artist meant to 2014. Beyoncé had some moments this year. She performed "Drunk in Love" with Jay-Z at the Grammys, and stood in front of a full wall display of the word "FEMINIST" at the VMAs. Amazingly, she feels like an even bigger star than when she dropped Beyoncé, the album the original "Flawless" featured on, around this time last year.
"Good Kisser" by Usher
"Good Kisser" came out to a slew of mixed reviews, but I loved it. The full album that backs up this track has yet to appear, but "Good Kisser," released in May, is a knock-out of a song. When I relistened to all (64) of the songs I thought could be picked as the best of the year, I stopped on "Good Kisser" every time, because it's so diverse, musically and technically, and so shimmeringly smooth that it's an easy song to fall in love with.
The uptempo R&B song pairs Usher's soulful, well-ranged vocals with the backing beats of EDM. It feels like equal parts retro vinyl-pop hit and '80s smash hit. It's a feel-good song in a year where those were often far too hard to come by. But the song's timelessness also might be an argument against it. The best song of the year should have some sort of ineffable 2014-ness to it, and "Good Kisser" lacks that.
Plus, come on, picking an Usher song is a 2004 move. This is 2014, an era when we must stand boldly for the songs we loved that others hated.
Come back every day of December for Vox's picks of some of our favorite pop culture of 2014.