The top 20 tracks of 2014

The wildest winning tracks of the last 12 months, from Nicki to Bobby Shmurda and A. G. Cook to ‘Chandelier’

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Tracks of 2014

Atlantic-hopping Swedish singer Mapei snapped her way into our hearts and ears with her seven layer-dip vocals on single “Don’t Wait”. Following from her party-rapping on early tracks on 2009's The Cocoa Butter Diaries, she perfectly blends sweet soul with a slow burn seduction, like a pitch-shifted “That's the Way Love Goes”. No wonder her husky, raw sensuality was reworked six ways till sunday for a contraceptive commercial. (Trey Taylor)

Around the beginning of “Look At Wrist”, a voice off camera tells a seated Father, ringleader of Awful Records, the Atlanta rap collective that king’d 2014, “play the damn song.” Father, shrugs at his team-mate Archie Slim, rolls around in his wheeled chair and hits play on the peerlessly spacy beat he produced, and chants a hook while wandering through his room, with Dazed 100er iLoveMakonnen and Key! sliding through for their verse. Father said that he had to hit record there and then, because he didn’t know when he’d next have a chance: allow the co-sign by Drake, it’s a reminder that rap’s most seismic moments always happen in real time, with the tape rolling, by kids with nothing better to do than make tomorrow happen. (Charlie Jones)

Las Vegas kid Shamir Bailey’s Northtown EP was an eclectic affair, tackling DFA-style house, heartfelt power ballads and lo-fi country in a single, heroic bound. On the brilliant lead track, “If It Wasn’t True”, Bailey rides a compulsive piano-house line in his diva croak before things get truly psychedelic around the halfway mark. His subsequent single for XL, “On the Regular”, proved he could turn his hand to cartoonishly addictive party-rap as well, but it’s his debut that best encapsulates his wide-ranging talent. (Alex Denney)

Drake feature placed the spotlight on ATL’s most broad-minded new rapper iLoveMakonnen, but it never matched the wild-out vibe of the original. Catching feelings on autotune like T-Pain crossed with Arthur Russell over Metro Boomin’s too-buzzed beat, iLoveMakonnen's getting fucked up sounds kinda fucked up – for when the club lasers start to feel like darts. With this track and the EP from which it’s lifted, he becomes one of most original voices to emerge this year in American music, period, and the shape of hip hop to come. (Owen Myers)

Tiga obviously hasn’t left behind the sleaze and sex of the early 2000s, and “Bugatti” is a pitch-shifting throwback to the heady days of electro’s opulent glamour. Just listening to the Kraftwerk-ish cut feels hedonistic, with its lyrical motif “Girl comes up to me, says what you driving? I said ‘Bugatti’” a direct nod to the glorious excess and luxury so entwined with electro – while the track's menacing drones and sinister synths feel more like the grimy neons in small inner-city nightclubs. The Canadian producer and DJ isn’t exactly prolific as a solo artist; the release of “Bugatti” marked his first solo release since 2012, but with a sound this wholly his own he can afford to take his time. (Thomas Gorton)

Herndon’s love affair with technology turned slightly sour on “Chorus”, inspired by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about who’s been looking at our laptops. The ghost of Aphex past looms large over this avant-techno epic, which retains a visceral kick despite the sleeve-worn intellect – but it’s the virtuoso vocal splicing, here reaching new heights of eerie complexity, which marks it as the work of a singular talent. Adding to its ghostly power was a Akihiko Taniguchi’s glitch video treatment, starring a sinister cloud of household goods seemingly purchased from the Uncanny Valley’s 7/11. (Alex Denney)

To coin a term from his beloved Pokémon, “Boom” finds Le1f evolving into his final form: a snarling pack leader of a tribe that could only exist in 2014 (or as he puts it: "new world order / LGBT cuties all over the world".) Propelled by dark clubby beats, the Dubbel Dutch-produced Hey single is the kind of song you imagine soundtracking your entrance into a club that is soooo beneath you. But “Boom” isn't just three-and-a-half minutes of body-rolling brilliance; it's also Le1f at his most direct and political. It's hard to think of any other rapper who would turn the question “how many batty boys can you fit in the jeep?” into a come-one-come-all for dirty hotbox fun. “Boom” is party politics, sincere emphasis on the 'party'. (Zing Tsjeng)

Perfume Genius’ Too Bright was one of the most original albums to come out of this year, and “Queen” led its charge, like the gilded figurehead on the bow of a warship. “No family is safe, when I sashay”, Mike Hadreas sings with relish amid throbbing reverb that's both lustrous and ornate. It's a song that deconstructs gay panic and is rich with the power of making others uncomfortable through sheer force of being. “I sometimes see faces of blank fear when I walk by” he has said. “If these fucking people want to give me some power – if they see me as some sea witch with penis tentacles that are always prodding and poking and seeking to convert the muggles – well, here she comes.” (Daisy Jones)

If the sound of ratchet was defined by DJ Mustard this year, then Mike Will got just as turnt while halving the BPM for ATL rap oddballs Rae Sremmurd's sliding slow-bop. The fully-fleshed follow-up to their viral smash “No Flex Zone” (which everyone from Nicki to Solange got into), “No Type” pairs a dragging minimal low-end with the rap brothers' spiky double-time verses – an unusual and addictive combo that does neat justice to their moniker, “ear drummers” in reverse. (Owen Myers)

While “I Love It” and “Fancy” placed Charli XCX in the top 40 big-league, “Boom Clap” proved she could climb pop’s totem pole unaccompanied. Amongst lashings of acoustic guitars, pounding drums and bass-heavy synths, XCX serves up a high intensity of teen emotions (minus the clichés) before hitting you round the head with that massive chorus. With its effortless charm, humour and punchy attitude, the TFIOS track showee that XCX isn’t just a popstar who gets it, but one who doesn’t take herself too seriously. (Alim Kheraj)

If commercial R&B in 2014 belonged to pop maximalists like Beyoncé, Tinashe slid in under the radar with “2 On”, the slow-burning turnt-up anthem that went on to become her first Top 40 hit. With coy, slinky vocals gliding across the surface of DJ Mustard's sub-dermal trap beats, the track places her squarely in the tradition of too-cool-for-you R&B sirens like Aaliyah and Janet Jackson, whose half-whispered lines promise a lifetime of seduction but leave you hanging on the dancefloor. While #sosadtoday boys like The Weeknd and Drake have tried to monopolise ennui in alt R&B, “2 On” shows that there's far more interesting female kicks to be had. (Zing Tsjeng)

A distorted vocal sample loops, seemingly endlessly, with simple drums and synths provide backing. Then, the sample fades and a new vocal line builds. “I can’t do without you. I can’t do without you.” Suddenly, a minute and a half in; drum clatter and dirty-bass, the vocal lifts and sharpens, and we realise how low in the mix everything’s been. Then, back to the build, until a rave-rousing beat hits with a minute left to go. With this raise-and-release uplift, Caribou's comeback track is a pretty intense emotional experience – and a welcome change from some of the cold distancing seeping into the electronic scene in 2014. (Sam Ashurst)

Top Dawg rapper Q’s rhymes often cling to the shadows on his collab packed album of self-medicated catharsis, Oxymoron. But then he goes over all soft… or rather hard, for this smooth, deft one about a girl. “See, your heart ain’t meant for breaking / Cupid’s never been mistaken”, charms Kendrick Lamar’s former hype man, showing off the pliability of his voice on this bumping, good-tempered sex jam. With this effortless flip from Oxymoron’s hard-bitten beats to the feel-good “Studio”, he cements his own place in the spotlight. (April Clare Welsh)

SOPHIE only officially released two tracks this year, and the tightly wound first few seconds of each tell you all you need to know about their textures: “Lemonade” is the carbonated fizz of tiny bubbles bursting, and its B-side “Hard” is the screech of rubbing against latex. Both are man-made feelings – like SOPHIE’s entirely synthesised sounds – but “Hard” is the one that steals the show, with a beat that hits the dancefloor as heavily as a pair of platform shoes. “Do I make you proud? I tried so hard!” effuses a tinny voice, but you almost miss its pain as it’s bandaged in PVC and bounced along on EDM synths. SOPHIE’s genius is in his manipulation of materials, but also in the way he uses those materials to disguise or control a deeper chaos. “Hard” is one of his simplest, most bodily missives to date, and yet you could spend another year peeling back its layers. (Aimee Cliff)

Her Minajesty may have gone harder on freestyles this year like “Yasss Bish!!” and “Chi-Raq”, but with her fun-dumb reptile room anthem, she fused good times with knowing rhymes, and reclaimed her spot as hip hop’s most omnipotent performer. From censored artwork to Drake lapdance, the campaign was immaculately tailored to our viral age, playing with her image and sexuality with lip-licking relish. And if rap’s big hitters are always bragging about the size of their packet, Nicki sweetly shaded them all with the Kendrick-baiting line “dick bigger than a tower / I ain’t talking bout Eiffels”. What better riposte to his “Control” verse, which failed to acknowledge any females? Minaj isn’t about playing the hip hop bosses’ games, she’s got enough tricks up her sleeve on her own. (Owen Myers)

Young Thug got famous for his insurgent assault on hip-hop orthodoxy. His voice squeaks, yelps and erupts more than raps, double-timing words, half-spitting syllables, dropping and climbing octaves. He’s defiantly DIY, rumoured to exist solely on Haribo and lean, and Instagrams himself wearing pink berets and dresses. He also, with reckless abandon, combines bubblegum-bright pop rap with actually-quite-unnerving street rap and Weezy-brand English-is-Silly-Putty-to-me weirdo eloquence. Thugger has put out a dizzying number of collabs, mixtapes, videos and tracks in 2014, but “Danny Glover” is more than a great indicator of his talent: it’s quite simply the most out-of-the-box rap tune of the year. (Charlie Jones)

While FKA twigs has travelled the world this year performing her sultry lead single, “Two Weeks”, for late night American TV shows and primetime radio slots, it’s been baffling to see networks continuously censor her use of the word “thighs” (from the line “my thighs are apart / for when you’re ready to breathe in”). Joke’s on them and their female-body-shaming attitudes, though, because the word “thighs” is far from the most subversive part of this song: it’s subversive in the way twigs nourishes herself in the track’s video, the way she breathily tip-toes through its lyrics and gauzy synths to express raw sexual power in soft brushstrokes, the way it takes power from the act of withholding (“You say you want me / I say you’ll live without it”). And most shocking of all? All these subversions are expressed in the year’s most captivating pop song, by the year’s most captivating performer. (Aimee Cliff)

When it comes to big party tracks in rap, it doesn’t get much bigger than “Hot N*gga”. From the opening pulsating stabs (which you can’t listen to without contorting the top half of your body, thanks to the popularity of the Shmoney dance) to the contagious drone, if there was ever a track to save a dwindling DJ set then this is it. Documenting his life in the trap in the most thrilling way possible, Bobby Shmurda’s charisma is so much that he can get a club rapturously joining in as he declares that someone was shot about a week ago. It's the realest anthem of 2014, and one that you can’t help but sing along to. (Kieran Yates)

“Keri Baby” is what having a crush will feel like in the year 2045. As A. G. Cook and Hannah Diamond’s bounciest collaboration, its pop and squeak is emblematic of the “cute” scene that dominated 2014, led by PC Music. More than that, though, it’s a masterful screenshot of 00s-era canned pop tropes skipping hand-in-hand with the glitchy voice of the future, where romance is as much URL as IRL, and where bae lures you in with lines like “Tell me if you want to see me play with my hair on a TV.” (Aimee Cliff)

Fresh from writing for the likes of Rihanna and Beyoncé, 2014 saw Sia Furler shift focus back to herself, at least musically (visually, she spent most of the year facing a wall or with a paper bag on her head). Having overcome drug abuse and alcoholism, the self-lacerating “Chandelier” – taken from the album 1000 Forms Of Fear – is, as Sia told us in an exclusive interview, about “the desperation of the avoidance of uncomfortable feelings”, all wrapped up in the year's most gloriously raw yet universally relatable pop song. Who hasn't felt self-destructive on a night out and regretted it the next morning?

While most of her pop peers sing abstractly or generically about the broad spectrum of emotions, on “Chandelier” she seems completely unselfconscious, offering up direct, chest-thumping emotion in spades, and creating something simultaneously life-affirming and uncompromisingly brutal. Coiled tightly like a spring in the verses, the song careens into its free-wheeling, soul cry of a chorus, itself as if slightly drunk, vomiting pure emotion up the walls before coming suddenly to rest with the final, slumped-in-a-corner repeated mantra of “I'm just holding on for tonight”. To cement its brilliance, it was also accompanied by 2014's best video, with child dancer Maddie Ziegler becoming the physical embodiment of the song's spray-paint emotions. (Michael Cragg)

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