Without a ton of big-ticket album releases or other notable debuts from most of our favorite artists, the top 40 songs of the first quarter of 2014 has felt more like an extended recovery period from the end of last year than anything else.
Still, there has been no shortage of excellent songs making their impact on the radio, on the internet and on iTunes and Spotify accounts worldwide for the first few months of the year--just that a large percentage of them might technically say "2013" on their official copyright date.
Here's the top 40 songs of the year thusfar, and when we check back in a couple months, we fully expect 2014 to have developed more of its own personal character, rather than reheating some quality leftovers from the year that was. (You can listen to a Spotify playlist of all of the songs on the list available on the service at the end of the article.)
#40. ANNIE, "RUSSIAN KISS"
Whatever the official song of the 2014 Winter Olympics ended up being, guaranteed it wasn't half as badass as Swedish pop diva Annie's excellent acid-house protest anthem Russian Kiss. Fighting host country Russia's anti-gay laws with the power of endless synth squelches and drum claps--and even a "French Kiss"-homaging slow-down, speed-up midsection--Annie turns "Shake a fist for the Russian kiss" into a rallying cry Johnny Rotten would have been proud of.
#39. TONI BRAXTON & BABYFACE, "THE D WORD"
Toni Braxton and Babyface's Love, Marriage & Divorce was about as Real Adult Shit as R&B gets, as mature, thoughtful and occasionally brutal as you'd expect from two stars who've been doing this thing for about a combined half-century. "The D Word" is perhaps the album's greatest accomplishment, with a sensual, Sade-like groove that celebrates separation rather than seduction, turning divorce into just about the most intimate experience two grown-ups can share.
#38. SCHOOLBOY Q, "MAN OF THE YEAR"
One of the more charismatic rappers of recent years, Schoolboy Q's singles are nevertheless usually only as interesting as their beats. Good for Q that Oxymoron leader "Man of the Year" rides a gorgeous, chilling Chormatics sample as the basis for his modern day G-Funk blazer, giving the TDE lieutenant all he needs to turn the hook phrase "Titty ass hands" into something vaguely resembling a catchphrase.
#37. KELIS, "RUMBLE"
Another year, another singularly funky, soulful, off-kilter Kelis jam that will invariably get ignored because it doesn't challenge listeners to figure out what sexual thing some vague food metaphor might be a potential stand-in for. We got you, though, K.
#36. MAJOR LAZER FEAT. PHARRELL, "AEROSOL CAN"
Well-timed Eek-A-Mouse and Mario Kart references courtesy of that guy from the Neptunes (whatever happened to him?) over a cleverly minimal beat make this one of the year's most fun, unassuming club jams. But the primary takeaway here is that the sound of the rattling title item is an extremely underrated rhythmic secret weapon, and should probably be the new cowbell or something.
#35. BETTY WHO, "HEARTBREAK DREAM"
We don't really still need to be preaching to you about how great Betty Who is, do we? Just pencil her into this list anytime she releases a new lush, emotionally surging synth-pop jam, really. Hell, use pen if that's all you've got.
#34. RICK ROSS FEAT. BIG SEAN & KANYE WEST, "SANCTIFIED"
An absolute powerhouse of a classic soul sample courtesy of Betty Wright, turned into an absolutely stunning, downright spooky procession on the verse by Kanye, Mike Dean and DJ Mustard, sounding almost too stately to be rapped over. It's enough to forgive Big Sean showing up to nearly ruin the whole thing with his braying chorus hook.
#33. FITZ AND THE TANTRUMS, "THE WALKER"
Fitz and the Tantrums have been so close and yet so far to landing a crossover hit their entire career with their invigorating, soul-tinged pop/rock, that they had to wonder what they could have possibly been missing. Then along comes "The Walker," and with it the super-obvious answer: A stupid-catchy whistle hook. So simple, Fitz and company are probably kicking themselves it took them this long to figure it out.
#32. RICO LOVE, "THEY DON'T KNOW"
A grower of an R&B slow jam from producer-turned-balladeer Rico Love. He doesn't have the most show-stopping voice, and this isn't the most show-stopping song, but there's something kind of inscrutably seductive about the deliberate pace and steady, even-keeled emotions and vocal performance that makes the song addictive. You can even ignore the ridiculous misogyny contained in every brain-burrowing "They donnnnn-they donnnnn't know..." utterance.
#31. REAL ESTATE, "TALKING BACKWARDS"
Turns out, Real Estate are not capable of bringing about the spring singlehandedly by virtue of their breezy, chipper-through-melancholy indie pop head-boppers. Talking Backwards was a real, real good attempt, though. Almost had us convinced there for a second.
For songs #30-21, click NEXT.
#30. 50 CENT, "HOLD ON"
In which 50 stops chasing trends and images and just makes it a priority to own the coldest beat he's rapped on in years, like it's 2003 again. It won't bring him back to '03 levels of popularity anytime soon, but it makes him something close to likeable again, and who can remember the last time we could say that about Curtis Jackson?
#29. MIGUEL, "SIMPLETHINGS"
Yes, Miguel can give away a song to the Girls, Vol. 2 soundtrack that may well have just been a leftover cut from the Kaleidoscope Dream sessions, and yes, that will be enough for him to make our Top 40 songs of the First Quarter list. What can we say? When Miguel says "Smoke," we say "How much?"
#28. COLDPLAY, "MAGIC"
Not sure if it's bad or brilliant timing for Coldplay to release their simplest, sweetest love song in ages just a couple weeks in advance of lead singer Chris Martin's recently announced split with longtime wife Gwyneth Paltrow. But the fact that Magic can weather the association with the most famous conscious uncoupling of the 21st century and live on to warm hearts just the same is a pretty impressive feat for a lead single.
#27. SOMO, "RIDE"
Can't say we know a ton about new R&B singer on the scene Joseph Somers-Morales, but we do know this: Nobody makes seduction music this epic anymore. Even Miguel probably gets to the minute-long piano outro and thinks to himself "Damn son, pull it back a notch."
#26. NICKI MINAJ, "LOOKIN' ASS NIGGA"
In which after an extended absence--and before a likely final extended absence before her official return--Nicki Minaj salts the rap earth one more time, just to be on the safe side. "Bitch I'm me / Hundred on the wrist, I ski." Point taken, Nicki. See you again in a couple months.
#25. THE BLEACHERS, "I WANNA GET BETTER"
Nate Ruess might be on a number of hits already as a solo artist, but the honors for being the first fun. member to come out with a gem of his own have to go to Jack Antonoff and his Bleachers project's burst of a debut single "I Wanna Get Better." It's the new power pop, basically--bursting at the seams with vocal effects, chopped-up piano and guitar hooks and, of course, sing-along choruses. Your move, Nate.
#24. AGAINST ME!, "UNCONDITIONAL LOVE"
"Even if your love was unconditional / It still wouldn't be enough to save me." If you could sum up the new album from Against Me!, led by recently transgendered singer Laura Bell Grace, in one lyric--and you can't--this wouldn't be a bad one, especially laid over a defiantly jaunty swing, with backing vocals to turn it into an anthem. "You make me wanna smoke cigarettes, you make me wanna drink whiskey" isn't bad, either.
#23. CLAPTONE, "CONTROL"
Of all the Lou Reed tributes to emerge after the alt-rock legend's death, none was really more effective than Claptone's Control, an ecstatic house jam built around a sample of Lou's Walk on the Wild Side, which preaches the universally acceptable message of "letting the music take control" in the face of adversity. Lou probably would've hated it, of course, but that's kind of a compliment in its own way.
#22. BECK, "MORNING"
Generally speaking, we're way more into Beck the genre-melding ironist than we are Beck the folksy, acoustic-plucking troubadour. But when he breaks out a melody this unspeakably gorgeous, with singing and production this immaculate, it's hard to get too picky about his self-branding. Perfect music to wake up to, appropriately enough, as long as you don't have anything too ambitious planned for the day.
#21. JOHN LEGEND, "ALL OF ME"
Not perfect by any means--the "smart mouth" opener is just a bizarre way to start a love song, and the "cards on the table, we're both showing hearts" line in the bridge is a groaner every time out. But it's hard to argue too much with a piano-and-vocal song powerful enough to cross over to just about every platform imaginable, and still be affecting with its "All of me / Loves all of you" chorus the ten millionth time out. John Legend is Lionel Richie now, which is a little weird for a guy who came up on Kanye's GOOD Music, but is still far from the worst fate one can have as a pop artist.
For songs #20-11, click NEXT.
#20. THE BLACK KEYS, "FEVER"
Did it really take this long for the Black Keys to introduce a little disco to their already quite strutting blues-rock? Whatever the reason for the delay, Fever proves it was worth the wait, with its sticky organ riff and propulsive bass chug and, as usual with the best Keys songs, just the right touch of falsetto. "Miss You" was one of the best Rolling Stones singles too, you know.
#19. NAUGHTY BOY FEAT. SAM SMITH, "LA LA LA"
With Sam Smith well on his way to being one of the deserved breakout stars of 2014, it's most welcome to hear his unique voice propel British garage musician Naughty Boy all the way to the US Top 40. La La La doesn't have the feel of a big crossover smash, but it goes down as smooth as anything on radio, and once Sam Smith can find a single of his own with a sample as addictive as that hiccuping title hook, there won't be much left stopping him from being the next Bruno Mars (check out FrontRowTickets.com to see Bruno live in concert.)
#18. AMERICAN AUTHORS, "BEST DAY OF MY LIFE"
Yes, it's basically an Imagine Dragons ripoff, and a pretty shameless one at that. But the more you hear American Authors' Best Day of My Life, the harder it is to really hold that against it--the song has such an inherent sweetness and earnestness to its pro-today messaging that its hard to really do anything in response to it but smile and yelp along. If it's still hanging around by the time of this year's baseball playoffs though, then maybe the haters will start to have a point again.
#17. CALVIN HARRIS, "SUMMER"
Calvin Harris back behind the microphone is reason enough for celebration on its own--he doesn't have a great voice, but the everyman kind of quality of it gave his music a humanity that most of his (and other celebrity prouder peers') celebrity cameo-strewn pop always seems to lack. But even with another, showier singer, Summer would be a winner for its no doubt purposefully sunny-sounding synth hook, stomping beat and gently wistful melody, as close as we've gotten yet in EDM to a worthwhile soundtracking of teenage summer-camp romances. (No, Summertime Sadness doesn't count. Not even the remix.)
#16. ERIC CHURCH, "A MAN WHO WAS GONNA DIE YOUNG"
There's a lot of impressive moments over the course of Eric Church's blockbuster crossover album The Outsiders, most of them of the barnstorming, back-row-rocking variety like the metal-tinged title track. Perhaps the album's most stunning moment, however, is its quietest, the ballad A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young, in which Church expresses fairly sincere-sounding surprise that his woman stuck with him through his death-wish days and got both him and herself to the other side in one piece. It's a touching and heartfelt sentiment that you don't hear very often in country or any other genre, and it demonstrates why Church is one of the singer/songwriting talents to watch in all of popular music today.
#15. LORDE, "TEAM"
It's not Royals, but it's a very good followup: A second single that now assumes a little familiarity with the artist, making it all the more resounding when she lays down an "I'm kind of tired of throwing my hands up in the air / So there." And for our money, the best first 30 seconds of any song so far this year, when the a capella intro loops on the "send the call out" line and the song's Billy Squier-esque beat--produced by the eternally underappreciated Joel Little--kicks things into gear. No wonder Lorde was able to keep the Royals momentum going into a second top-ten hit.
#14. PITBULL FEAT. KE$HA, "TIMBER"
It's been so overplayed in the handful of months it's been out that you might not believe that it actually peaked on the charts this calendar year. But don't forget that the first hundred or so times you heard Timber, it was an absolute blast, its hoedown of a harmonica hook blending perfectly with Pitbull and K-Money's normal brand of effusively party-starting turbo-pop and creating one of the most instantly unforgettable (for better and occasionally worse) pop jams of the whole decade. It'll sound great again in a decade's time, trust.
#13. DISCLOSURE FEAT. MARY J. BLIGE, "F FOR YOU"
We didn't even know that we had been missing a 2010's version of Funky Green Dogs' Fired Up! in our lives until UK dance duo Disclosure teamed up with Mary J. Blige for a hypnotic deep house anthem worthy of comparison to that '90s Hi-NRG staple. And Mary--where the hell has this been?? No more collabs with Drake and Rick Ross for you, young lady: From now on, whenever you plan on recording, you're to report to the nearest Mercury Prize-nominated DJ and prepare to tap into your inner Thelma Houston.
#12. JHENE AIKO, "THE WORST"
In which R&B's best new supporting actress of the last year or so (Drake's From Time, Big Sean's Beware, J. Cole's Sparks Will Fly) gets to make her star turn, and the results do not disappoint. The Worst clearly sees her taking her Nothing Was the Same appearance to heart--hell, it even has "Worst" in the title--and following in that album's pattern of twinkling, heart-plucking pianos, moody minor chords and deeply felt lyrics and vocals. Her repeated, out-of-time "I don't need you, I don't need you" exhortations on the chorus are about as affecting as young-person R&B gets in 2014.
#11. THE CHAINSMOKERS, "#SELFIE"
It's not an easy thing to do to capture the zeitgeist, and it becomes about 20 times harder when it's something you're actually consciously trying to do. But occasionally, you just hit that cultural sweet spot in such a brilliant and undeniable way that it's not even worth talking about how cynical or calculated it might be in intention. It's here. It's coming. And soon enough, it will consume us all. And we won't even mind that much, either.
For our top ten songs, click NEXT.
#10. DJ SNAKE & LIL JON, "TURN DOWN FOR WHAT"
If Harlem Shake taught us anything--and it didn't, not really--it's that if you have a hook that's sick/dirty/ratchet enough to make listeners instantly red out every time it drops, you can get a crossover hit out of it even if it has verses, choruses or structure beyond the sporadically exhorted hook. And Turn Down for What has that thing in spades, that hook that just makes you want to put your fist through the nearest window and then laugh at the cops when they come by to ask you "What the fuck??" The video is mostly unnecessary, but it does drive the point home pretty effectively, doesn't it?
#9. YG FEAT. DRAKE, "WHO DO YOU LOVE?"
Truth told, the whole YG movement isn't doing that much for us--the guy just sounds like some ordinary West Coast dude who lucked into a whole bunch of awesome beats and more famous, more-talented friends. But man, has he got some singles out of it. My Nigga was pretty good, but it's not nearly the killer Who Do You Love is, its too-simple piano hook, Rack City bass rumble (courtesy of DJ Mustard, natch) and typically excellent Drizzy guest appearance congealing into a single fun and funky enough to be worthy of YG's G-Funk forefathers. Bo Diddley and George Thorogood would probably dig it, too.
#8. ERIC PASLAY, "FRIDAY NIGHT"
Calling it the country Call Me Maybe would probably be going too far, but not that much—Friday Night has that kind of breezy rush to it, with a similar-sounding string hook and a singalong chorus that combine it to make the most endlessly replayable country song of the year by a safe distance. (Even Florida Georgia Line's Cruise seems a little inaccessible by comparison.) The entire Eric Paslay album is pretty great, but this song will certainly endure as his first and biggest impression, and its one that most veteran country artists would all but kill to make.
#7. SOKO, "WE MIGHT BE DEAD TOMORROW"
By far the year's most unlikely top ten hit, French singer/songwriter Soko hit the viral video jackpot with her two-year-old song We Might Be Dead Tomorrow being included in the YouTube sensation that was First Kiss (76 million views and counting). But as much as Tomorrow was buoyed by First Kiss, so was the video buoyed by the song, a stark ballad that attempts to pack all the urgency, drama and terror of a love on the rocks into a minimal, 160-second ballad, and comes closer than anyone we can remember to succeeding. When you put death as the stakes right there in the title, you better come correct, but one listen to Tomorrow and you'll be too busy bawling to question Soko's sincerity in the matter.
#6. SHAKIRA FEAT. RIHANNA, "CAN'T REMEMBER TO FORGET YOU"
Shakira's last collaboration with a super-hot English-language pop superstar, the Beyonce duet Beautiful Liar, has a sort of spotty legacy to it, and after stalling on the pop charts following its high-profile rollout and video debut, it's possible the same fate will befall the Rihanna-featuring Can't Remember to Forget You. But damn, is this thing fun! The skanking beat, the "follow-follow" pre-chorus hook, the surprisingly rocking chorus, Rihanna and Shakira hammily flirting it up in the video..if the public gave it enough of a chance to properly grow on them, this could (or at least should) have been the biggest single either artist had in years. But then again, Beautiful Liar is kind of underrated in retrospect as well. Sigh.
#5. TY DOLLA $IGN FEAT. B.O.B., "PARANOID"
Of all of the nocturnal-sounding, Show Me Love-indebted DJ Mustard productions currently littering the hip-hop airwaves, none are quite as insidious as Ty Dolla $ign's Paranoid. The song's lush vocal production (with bizarrely gorgeous multi-Dolla harmonies) and hauntingly skeletal main hook contrast with the songs' near-downright vile lyrics in such an unexpected way that it ends up being one of the most fascinating hip-hop singles in ages. "Both of my bitches look good as fuck / You bitch look like a boogawulf." Yes, this song is pretty breathtaking, though you'd have to actually hear it a couple dozen times to believe it.
#4. DRAKE FEAT. SOULJA BOY, "WE MADE IT"
Soulja Boy: Who knew? Obviously DeAndre needed Drake's presence to take his mixtape cut to the next level, but man, that horn fanfare and thundering beat are the best thing Drake's had to stunt on in recent memory. And does Drake ever take the ball and run with it, with classic id-projecting lines dropping in every verse and the title phrase showing up at the end of every stanza to tie it all together--it'd feel like a Kenny Powers anthem even if he didn't pop in for a couple self-promotional interludes. "When I walk through this hall man, this beat should be playing." We should all be so lucky, Aubrey.
#3. FUTURE FEAT. PHARRELL WILLIAMS, PUSHA T & CASINO
DJ Mustard might be the producer of the year for the first quarter, but Mike WiLL Made It made damn sure you didn't forget that he straight-up owned all of last year with his most notable '14 production thusfar, Move That Dope. An absolute juggernaut of a beat, with an ominously creaking faux-bass line, dramatic synth stabs providing atmosphere, and everyone chipping in on vocal hooks—Future providing the assembly line-like title chorus, Pharrell excitedly yawping "FROM AAAAASHY TO CLAASSSY!!!" and who even knows who's providing that Salt-n-Pepa-aping "AHH...PUSH IT..." background chant. Does it matter that there are four good-to-great rappers bringing their A games on this one? Yes, but it didn't have to.
#2. PHARRELL, "HAPPY"
Not since Hey Ya! has there been a pop crossover smash this universally agreeable. Grandmas, construction workers, Tea Party members, LGBT activists, infomercial hosts, astronauts, 12-year-olds just starting to go through puberty, Star Trek villains, paleolithic dieters, real estate novelists--every single one of them loves Happy, and if they didn't, you'd be like c'mon, man. The only thing keeping it from absolute perfection (and from #1 on this list) is the fact that it's exactly one bridge and one chorus too long—Fast Car syndrome striking again--and on about the 274th time you hear it, that really begins to be a problem. That's why we usually tend to go decades between Hey Ya!s, we suppose.
#1. BEYONCE FEAT. JAY Z, "DRUNK IN LOVE"
Catchphrase-spawning, meme-inspiring, soundboard-generating—Drunk in Love has only been with us a couple months, and it's already a part of our national cultural vocabulary for all-time. Nobody since Madonna has had the power to do that with a big single like Beyonce has, but it's worth remembering that it's been about a half decade since Queen Bey had a single anywhere near this big to begin with. It's a testament to the song's relateable passion, lustiness and feeling of celebration that it seemed to strike such a chord with people, even through Mr. Knowles' questionable Clint Eastwood and Ike Turner references. Beyonce might have sneak-attacked us with her video-album and its accompanying singles, but really, Drunk in Love was the song we've been waiting for from her since Single Ladies, and it's just awesome to have it in our lives at last.
Agree with our choices? Think Pharrell should be above Beyonce? Wondering why we snubbed Passenger and Jason Derulo for yet another quarter? Let us know about it in the comments section.