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The 10 songs of 2014 that kept our ears open

When it comes to music, year-end best-of lists mostly come in two flavors.

There's the classic Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly formula, which is frontloaded with well-known rock and pop icons who still remain near-and-dear to their core demographic's heart. This year's top Rolling Stone honors, for instance, went to U2, Springsteen and The Black Keys.

And then there are the online heirs to the Pitchfork legacy — Drowned in Sound, The Line of Best Fit, Stereogum — who gravitate toward more recent buzzed-about artists like Alvvays, FKA twigs, and Perfume Genius. Although those three also found their way onto this year's Rolling Stone list, they were well outside the Top 10.

The problem, in both cases, is that no one's come up with a standardized test for what actually makes any given year's recording the "best." And even if there were such a thing, the avalanche of music constantly being released guarantees that the very best of the best will likely go unheard by most critics. Factor in the need to build critical consensus that's consistent with a publication's self-image, and it's not surprising that so many best-of lists look and sound alike.

So instead of another entry in the annual race to rewrite the Western pop canon, think of the following as more of a mixtape shared among open-minded friends. Three of this year's artists hail from Colorado Springs, one of them made Rolling Stone's list (Damon Albarn at No. 32), and all 10 are embedded below. With any luck, you'll find a couple new favorites here to carry you into the new year.

1. Die Antwoord, "Strunk"

Forget everything you thought you knew about Die Antwoord. After causing a stir with songs like "Enter the Ninja" and "I Fink U Freeky" — both of which made this Top 10 list in years past — the South African rap-rave duo has defied expectations by releasing what may be its most radical recording ever.

"Strunk" is an actual love song, in waltz time, that doesn't show a trace of irony, at least not after Yo-Landi Visser finishes her intro. ("Ah, love, lovey love, love-love-love-love, love makes you feel so TRIPPY!" she coos in what Spin once described as her "Rosemary's Baby-talk falsetto." "Like you're stoned and drunk at the same time — STRUNK! 24-7, baba.") But from there, rather than launch into the charged-up, semi-deranged techno-pop that's its stock in trade, the pair instead trade off verses in a down-tempo ballad that's as atmospheric as Air, complete with a delicately arpeggiated electric-guitar progression strangely reminiscent of Skeeter Davis' "The End of the World."

Sure, there are f-words here and there, but the lilting harmonies on the choruses are hauntingly beautiful, and the lyrics suggest an unprecedented emotional vulnerability. Yo-Landi and Ninja have proven in the past that they can break their own boundaries — "Doos Dronk" from their first album was like an Afrikaner take on Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht — but never with anything like this. Whether you love them or hate them, Die Antwoord are a force to contend with.

2. A Black Day, "Letter to the Non-Believer"

Back in March, four local emcees with impeccable pedigrees — Jayoin (Mad Trees), Kevin Mitchell (Fidel RedStar, Accumen), Hott (Audible) and Milogic (Sound Powered Engine) — released Undercast, a debut album that is, with the possible exception of the ReMINDers' latest, the most fully realized hip-hop album to come out of Colorado Springs. "Letter to the Non-Believer" serves as a perfect letter of introduction, setting aside swagger for a powerful track that showcases the four emcees' direct, distinctive and complementary styles.

3. Damon Albarn, "Mr Tembo"

Part of me wants to dismiss this track as an act of cultural appropriation nearly as blatant as Paul Simon's Graceland album, but there's something just so endearing about it that I can't. While most of the cuts on Damon Albarn's Everyday Robots are at least vaguely depressing, this one is wistfully upbeat, like a more laid-back version of his catchiest Blur and Gorillaz singles. There are also the trademark touches of oddity: a spoken-word sample of Lord Buckley, Albarn's recitation of seemingly unrelated images at the end, and elliptical lyrics that I assumed, on first listen, to be about John Tembo, controversial former leader of the Malawi Congress Party. Albarn claims it's about a baby elephant. Not sure I trust him on that, but it works just fine either way.

4. Chauncy Crandall, "Breakdown"

When Chauncy Crandall sings, "Shut your mouth, stop to listen," on the chorus of "Breakdown," it's hard not to do both. The singer-songwriter, who recently relocated to Florida, has a commanding voice that suggests Van Morrison, Levon Helm and comparatively cult artist Kevin Coyne. His melodies are catchy, his lyrics heart-wrenching but never maudlin. "What We Might Have Become" and a few other tracks from Crandall's sophomore album are no less compelling, but this is the one that, in a just world, would be an instant hit.

5. Vince Staples, "Hands Up"

Decades of emcee exhortations to put your hands in the air have trained listeners that the next step is to party like you just don't care. But 21-year-old Long Beach rapper Vince Staples has other ideas on this bass-heavy track from his bracing debut album Hell Can Wait. After three repetitions of "put your hands in the air," he tacks on a "Nigga, freeze, put your hands in the air," after which the mood grows a whole lot darker. Timely, if not timeless.

6. Joseph Lamar, "About Love: Concerning the Discrepancies Between Expectations and Reality"

"Love is lemonade and cyanide," sings Joseph Lamar, accompanying himself with Strawberry Fields-style synth flutes, looped handclaps, and a distinctly '80s New Wave aesthetic. Add in a smooth vocal that suggests Raphael Saadiq in his more introspective moments, and the Colorado Springs native's potential for widespread success is undeniable.

7. The Knife, "Pass This On" (Shaken Up Version)

In which the Swedish duo remakes its signature song in the more stripped-down vein of their most recent tour, complete with Latin disco beats that recall house music in its earliest incarnations. The synthesized steel drums and pop melody are still accessible and compelling, but when Karin Dreijer Andersson's vocal kicks in, a couple octaves lower and way more unhinged than the original, it will scare the shit out of you. In a good way.

8. Half Man Half Biscuit, "Old Age Killed My Teenage Bride"

This Merseyside group's parodic but strangely poignant songs were so beloved by John Peel that he famously said he wanted the band to be buried with him. But while the BBC radio legend went underground a decade ago, Half Man Half Biscuit has unexpectedly lived on.

On "Old Age Killed My Teenage Bride," the musical components sound vaguely familiar: Think Neil Young guitar thrash, Psychedelic Furs' exceedingly English vocals, Swell Maps' sonic shabbiness. But lyrically, Nigel Blackwell's sentiments are as offbeat as ever, starting off whimsical — "She didn't care for adrenaline sports / Never learned any difficult chords / Did she ever have a scrap with a bear? / If she did, I wasn't there" and gradually winding up wicked: "No armed response team stood outside / No torso washed up on the tide / It could not be more cut and dried / Old age killed my teenage bride."

9. Azealia Banks featuring Ariel Pink, "Nude Beach A-Go-Go"

One of the most critically lauded new hip-hop artists of the decade, Azealia Banks can do just about anything, including part ways with her major label and release a hit debut album on her own. "Nude Beach A-Go-Go" is an even more unusual turn, as Banks ventures into Katy Perry terrain with a nostalgic party song straight out of the hip-shaking early '60s. What makes this weirder still is that it's a collaboration with eccentric no-fidelity indie artist Ariel Pink, who included a lesser version of the same song on his own album. In the realm of novelty songs, this one definitely holds its own.

10. Eno • Hyde, "Daddy's Car"

Brian Eno and Karl Hyde have been hard-pressed to come up with anything truly great on their own for years. Thankfully, this unlikely but entirely sensible team-up brings them back up to speed, with Eno revisiting the dense, tranced-out production he brought to Talking Heads' Remain in Light, while Hyde delivers the kind of sublimely poetic ambiguity that characterized his best work with Underworld. Only hardcore fans would contend that the collaboration merited the release of two full albums this year, but this track definitely does justice to the two pop pioneers' rightfully acclaimed legacies.

  • The 10 songs of 2014 that kept our ears open

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