Best of CH 2014: ListenUp

Spaced-out synth solos, vocal experiments, emoji videos, exciting newcomers, legendary acts and so much more in the year's musical highlights

As we bid adieu to 2014, we take a look back at the hundreds of new songs and albums (and even our own 4/20-themed playlist) we shared with our readers. While we said goodbye this year to a few music legends who have shaped today’s contemporary sound, we also warmly welcomed stellar debuts from emerging talents across all ages and genres—and veterans with long-awaited comebacks. Here are 12 musical highlights to sum up the year. And for more tunes, check out all of the songs we noted throughout the year (that are available on Spotify) in our ListenUp 2014 playlist.


1. Pacman and Peso: Escape to North Korea

Every now and again a story comes along that is truly stranger than fiction. In January 2014, DC’s aspiring rappers Pacman and Peso released their music video for “Escape to North Korea“—which was shot on location in the heavily guarded totalitarian state. The duo funded their project on Kickstarter, which in turn connected them with local fan Ramsey Aburdene who eventually became their manager. Under the guise of a sightseeing tour, the duo shot their video around Pyongyang, flying under the radar. The frigid temperatures, oversized statues of King Jong-un and unsuspecting North Koreans make this a high-def video worth watching. Not to mention that the concept alone is enough for even the most jaded music fan.

2. William Onyeabor: Atomic Bomb

For our #PrivateJam series, Luaka Bop label manager Eric Welles shared his love for the elusive Nigerian singer William Onyeabor. Welles not only worked relentlessly on bringing Onyeabor’s grooves to the US, but was lucky enough to receive a personal performance of “Atomic Bomb.” He explains, “Just like the man himself, this is one of those songs that even after you’ve played it a gazillion times, you still don’t know what the hell it’s about. Is it really about the bomb? Or maybe a woman? Or something else? I think about this each time I hear it, and I kinda love how I never (will?) know. It’s one of those songs that’s so damn long, that whenever it’s over you’ve totally forgotten where you are and what you’re doing—but then you realize you’re listening to this amazing song and you wish it could go on just a little bit longer. A friend of mine once said it was the catchiest song ever. The long spaced-out solos, the synthesizers that are like from another world, and a piano that just kills me every time. I don’t know much more about William Onyeabor then when I started [in 2012]. I’ve visited him in Nigeria three times and every time I go there, it feels like I get a little bit closer. During my last visit, he sang this song for me in his surreal 1970s palace—in the special room called the VIP Room—and it was one of the greatest musical experiences of my life.”

3. Beyoncé feat. Jay-Z: Drunk in Love

Just when you thought a song featuring Beyoncé and her man Jay-Z couldn’t get any better, Austin-based filmmaker Jesse Hill proved the world wrong by creating an unofficial Emoji video for the power couple’s hit song “Drunk In Love.” Rife with everyone’s favorite way to express themselves pictorially, the video is the perfect pop culture complement to Beyoncé’s diary-like dance ballad. From the straightforward symbols like those for “cigars on ice” to the cleverly and intensely animated moments expressing the song’s title, Hill’s use of Emoji is as entertaining as it is spectacularly on point.

4. Todd Terje: It’s Album Time

This year, dance fans finally got their hands on the highly anticipated debut album from the self-dubbed “remaster of the universe,” Todd Terje. The aptly titled LP, It’s Album Time, arrives 10 years after the Norwegian DJ and producer dropped his first 12″ (which includes the brilliant cover of Cloud One’s “Don’t Let My Rainbow Pass Me By”). The new album leaves behind the remixes he’s so known for in favor of original tunes, but Terje still offers listeners a dose of his jazzy sunbeam style with tracks like “Strandbar,” “Preben Goes To Acapulco” and the strung-out version of Robert Palmer’s “Johnny and Mary,” which features vocals by Bryan Ferry.


5. Frankie Knuckles: Baby Wants to Ride

A pioneer of Chicago house music, the legendary Frankie Knuckles passed away in March 2014 but his influence lives through the artists, producers and club-goers he’s inspired through his minimalist dance tracks. Particularly memorable and ground-breaking was 1987’s “Baby Wants to Ride,” a collaboration with producer Jamie Principle. Over the four-on-the-floor drum machine beat, the vocalists don’t sing melodies but speak—almost pant—lyrics tinged with politics, religion and love; like “ride me baby, ride” to “South Africa, let my people go.” Using synths that are almost haunting, Knuckles takes us for a sexed-up, never-ending ride throughout the night.

6. Various Artists: Space Project

Since their launch in 1977, NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 space probes were gathering more than just data and photographs of the heavens. They also recorded electromagnetic radiation fluctuations that planets, asteroids and more were emitting, essentially capturing their “sound.” Thanks to the efforts of Portland-based Lefse Records, 14 different artists—ranging from Beach House, Youth Lagoon, Larry Gus, The Antlers and more—have used the recordings as raw material to create songs and soundscapes, resulting in an out-of-this-world sonic experience. Space Project was released on Record Day, 19 April 2014.

7. Jessie Ware: Tough Love

This year, London’s beloved songstress Jessie Ware released the single “Tough Love,” and—as expected—it’s one for the repeat button. Produced by duo BenZel (who were also behind her saucy Brownstone cover), the song was recorded in New York after a whirlwind tour, which might have played into the inspiration for the lyrics. Ware never disappoints with her vocals, which are at once restrained and full of emotion, but she explained in a statement, “Tough Love” is more of a demonstration of her experimenting and having fun with her voice. She later released her sophomore album of the same name in October 2014.

8. Bobby Womack: That’s How I Feel About Cha

Born in Cleveland in 1944, soul singer Bobby Womack got his start like many from his generation: singing gospel with his family in the church choir. With his exceptional voice and talent on the guitar, it wasn’t long until Sam Cooke took notice, and Womack’s ensuing multi-decade career led him to influence a wide range of artists, including Jimi Hendrix and later Damon Albarn. His passing in June 2014 comes with much sadness, as it seemed with so much emotion and energy, Womack would somehow defy logic and carry on forever. He’s left behind an unfalteringly beautiful legacy that will surely inspire generations of artists to come.


9. Tkay Maidza: U-Huh

Zimbabwe-born, Aussie teen songwriter and rapper Tkay Maidza graced the East Coast with her presence at multiple CMJ showcases in October at Pianos, Santos Party House and more. Her confidence-boosting single “U-Huh” fuses pop, rap and electronic music for a track that’s as catchy as it is fierce—her lyrics reference “shooting” away the haters (metaphorically, of course). While the M.I.A. and Azaelia Banks comparisons have been abundant, it’s clear that Maidza is on track to becoming a star with her own unique flair.

10. Julian Casablancas + The Voidz: Human Sadness

Almost five years after his debut solo album, and a year after the Strokes’ last record, Julian Casablancas released his second solo effort Tyranny on 23 September 2014 (in vinyl, CD, tape and even USB-disguised-as-lighter form). The album’s lead single “Human Sadness” is an epic, 11-minute experimental journey breaking free of the cookie cutter verse-chorus-bridge format. Percussion doesn’t even kick in until after the five minute mark—with virtuosic electric guitar licks, string and organ pads, highly processed vocals and some video game-like flourishes filling up the space—and ups the emotional intensity that Casablancas typically wields.

11. Aphex Twin: Syro

13 years since his last album Drukqs, contemporary electronic music pioneer Aphex Twin officially released the new full-length Syro to the world in September. While the electronic music scene has significantly changed (making its way into the mainstream) since Richard James was last active, he continues to inspire awe with his collage-like compositions which resemble living, breathing organisms that aren’t restricted to four-on-the-floor or bass drops. The album packaging even reveals every single piece of equipment used on the record—a total of 138. Indie and major publications alike hadn’t been that excited since Daft Punk dropped Random Access Memories.

12. Hiatus Kaiyote: By Fire

Grammy-nominated Melbourne neo-soul quartet Hiatus Kaiyote describes their style simply as “multi-dimensional polyrhythmic gangster shit,” but from a listener’s point-of-view, their musicianship and respective talent leaves many speechless. Fans have been waiting feverishly for more music since the group’s debut LP, and they’ve been rewarded with the three-song EP
By Fire, premiering on Red Bull Music along with an interview with vocalist Nai Palm. The highlight is the prog rock-esque single “By Fire,” a burial song for Palm’s father (who tragically died in a house fire). It’s the complete opposite of a slow funeral march, however, with energetic synth lines and shifting tempos.

ListenUp is our filtered look at music, shared daily in Listen and on Twitter, and rounded up every Sunday morning. Hear the year so far via our Spotify playlist.