The 20 (5) Best Songs of Summer 2014

In this special edition of Tracking, we look back to the jams that we’ve had stuck on repeat over the last few months. Out of a really long list, we’ve narrowed it down to 20 songs that, for us, embody summer of 2014.

Read our takes on each of the songs below, then take the Soundcloud playlistwith you.

Caribou, “Can’t Do Without You”

The first three and a half minutes of “Can’t Do Without You,” the lead single from Caribou’s upcoming album, Our Love, function like the mind of a guy pumping himself up to tell his crush he loves her. The lyrics are looped over and over again—Caribou is unable to get his love off his mind. These hazy vocal samples softly echo over plucky, reverbing synths, each time providing deeper understanding to his yearning. A vibrating hum builds in the background, like a rush of blood to his head as he starts to consider actually proclaiming his (nearly obsessive) love.

The volume starts to build, the pace picks up, and about three minutes in, new, muted, uplifting tones mix with electric synths. This lovesick crescendo is the final rush of adrenaline, the “screw it, I’m just gonna go for it, I’m gonna tell her” moment. Then, silence. In the final thirty seconds of the track, instrumentals revert back to their quietest. “You’re the only thing I think about, it’s all that I can still do,” Caribou finally confesses, which you may have already figured it out from him saying “can’t do without you” 88 times in a row earlier in the track.

If the soundscape of the track weren’t so beautifully fragile, the repetition, which suggests a more house-influenced direction for this album, could seem emotionally forceful to the point of creepiness. A press release notes that Our Love will be the Canadian artist’s “most soulful record to date,” and comparing this single to 2010’s Swim hints that the new album will be equally sprawling, less hectic and emotionally deeper. Caribou has revealed his love. We’ll have to wait for the rest of Our Love to drop to find out her response. [Charlie Dulik]

Grimes, “Go (featuring Blood Diamonds)”

Claire Boucher may have just snaked the Sandbagger of the Year Award.

Don’t get me wrong: Visions was one of the few uncontested success stories of 2012. Without breaking a sweat, it posited Grimes as the sole proprietor of an altogether different (and possibly unclaimed) version of dance music. She blended esoteric lyrical ambiance with unconstrained, light-as-air vocals, and she did so as if to prove how much of a no-brainer this combination was in the first place. Like she was surprised it hadn’t been done already.

Which, don’t get me wrong, is remarkable on about a dozen levels. But as of two weeks ago, we now know that it was only the second-most impressive variable to the Grimes equation, and we have the straight-up-ridiculous trap accelerator “Go,” to thank for the admission.

Because above being one of the more wholly enjoyable releases of the summer, “Go,” exposes a lot about Grimes that we didn’t already know. For starters, “Go,” was originally written for Rihanna. Now, why that collaboration never went down will probably be a mystery forever. But it’s a moot point, because no one on the planet could perform it like Boucher does. Her timbre is inimitable, and her conviction borders ferocious. “Go,” might have had Rihanna’s name on it, but it never belonged to anyone but Grimes.

By that same token, “Go,” worries me a little. One could contend that we always sort-of knew Boucher had the stylistic chops needed to write decent R&B tracks, but a) “Go,” is a thousand miles from decent, and b) she performs it even more movingly than she wrote it. The most impressive variable to the Grimes equation is the imminent threat of how deep Grimes’ talent actually goes, and I hope we never know. [Austin Reed]

FKA twigs, “Two Weeks”

The way each of FKA twigs’s songs capitalizes on her breathy coo, spreading it throughout the compositions as a source of sonic texture rather than a mere vehicle for meaning, is a move torn straight out of an R&B playbook written by the late Aaliyah and her producers at the turn of the millennium. Consequently, the apparently unanimous declaration that twigs is the second coming of Aaliyah makes a great deal of sense; certainly, twigs’s music sounds a lot like the kind of forward-thinking pop music Aaliyah might be making today, under the resurgent influence of ‘90s trip-hop and contemporary U.K. bass music. But listening to the sumptuous new single “Two Weeks,” from twigs’s glorious debut album, I think those widespread comparisons to the late R&B great feel inaccurate. Aaliyah’s evasive, subtle musical grammar broke new ground, but her content was never as actively, emphatically weird as the stuff twigs is covering these days. “Two Weeks” luxuriates in its oddness. In more than one figurative sense, it’s a song you can get lost in, and twigs (who seems most comfortable when she’s being evil) plays the siren beckoning us on; she frightens where Aaliyah soothes, because she presents the possibility that once you sink deeply enough into “Two Weeks,” you might never get out.

If the endless comparisons tell us anything, it’s that as much as twigs seems like an original, she has distinct musical heritage, and I’m of the opinion that it lies at least as much with Kate Bush – another singer whose style, like twigs’s and Aaliyah’s, could be described as simultaneously ethereal and vividly physical. “Two Weeks” captures the main quality that makes Bush’s early work some of pop’s most enduring and essential: the sensitive, sensuous exploration of sexual experience. None of Bush’s more obvious acolytes (Patrick Wolf, Bat For Lashes, et. al.) has approached the nuance, complexity, mysticism, and ambiguity that’s always made Bush’s perspective on sex compelling, and not for want of trying. I’ve never heard any pop music that’s quite managed to mimic Bush’s way of interrogating the power dynamics of sex while expressing ecstatic, spiritual, even worshipful delight in the carnal act itself. FKA twigs does all of those things on “Two Weeks.” “Feel your body closing, I can rip it open,” she whispers, and it’s many things at once: threat, boast, promise, offer, request, discovery. Its multivalent quality makes it a very Kate Bush-esque lyric, and if Bush were to sing it, she’d make sure each of those possibilities came through in the execution; twigs can do that, too. Aaliyah, whose thematic sensitivities weren’t as developed as her technique, probably could not have handled it so adroitly. It is astonishing vocal work.

Bush has a distinct aesthetic sensibility, one that was both of its era and unlike that of any of her peers. The same could be said of twigs, who self-produced “Two Weeks.” The song contains all of her very 2010s sonic trademarks: a minimal patter of a drum track, eerie echoes and vocal fragments, muscular synth tones, an undertow of out-of-frequency bass. Note that all of those elements were present in last year’s standout “Water Me,” produced not by twigs but by Kanye West collaborator Arca. Note that all of twigs’s videos are visually arresting and stylistically cohesive, whether directed by herself (the desert-bound “FKA twigs x inc.”) or another (Nabil is responsible for the mindfuck that is the “Two Weeks” video). Note the cohesion between her album artwork. Note that “FKA twigs x inc.” sounded a lot more like “FKA twigs (feat. inc.).” It’s become increasingly clear that this is an artist who’s very willing to collaborate, but always on her own terms, bending others’ voices to suit her objectives rather than the other way around. Given how strong her work is – and make no mistake, “Two Weeks” is the best thing she’s done – it’s no surprise that with LP1, her singularity of vision and effective execution have conspired to make her a star. [Samuel Tolzmann]

Ariana Grande, “Problem (featuring Iggy Azalea)”

Starting with its “99 Problems”-biting lyrical conceit, “Problem” offers very little that’s really new. It’s a post-Le1f-v.-Macklemore world, after all, and raunchy saxophone loops might even qualify as a trend at this point. It’s not like Mariah Carey’s going anywhere soon, so what’s fresh about octave-spanning R&B diva melismatics? Build-it-up-to-break-it-down song structure is everywhere, and so is floor-shuddering bass, and the third-act verse from a guest rapper is a trick nearly as old as rap itself. Ariana Grande already tried and failed to attain success on both sides of the mythical indie-mainstream aisle with 2013′s Yours Truly, and with her own full-length currently running the charts, Iggy Azalea’s hardly news. Hey, you know what’s really not new in pop? Swedish producer Max Martin, the mastermind responsible for basically everything you love, from “…Baby One More Time” to “Since U Been Gone” to “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” to “Teenage Dream.” Well, here’s something else to love. Something new.

What Martin does here is take these elements, some of which were cherry-picked from the sounds of the moment and some of which were selected for their timelessness, and stitch them together so smoothly that the results sound as though they could never have been any other way. What is Ariana Grande’s appealing, technically flawless performance without the tonal and textural counterpoint of massive synth hits and that awesome growling sax? What would the enormous, aching upward swell of that pre-chorus be for, if not to suddenly drop roller-coaster-style all the way down to the floor for the year’s most gloriously badass and eloquently minimal pop refrain? How tedious it would be if those components simply repeated three times through – hence Iggy Azalea, rewriting Jay Z in what might be the cleverest verse of her career (not saying much but still), providing a welcome zig/”Igz” to the rest of the song’s delirious zag. “Problem” is perfect, but it’s delicate, subsisting solely on an internally generated, self-perpetuating compositional pressure. Take any part away from it, and the whole thing falls out of balance.

Yet “Problem” exudes such a surfeit of charisma, confidence, and cool that this would be easy to miss. Grande, Martin, and Azalea transmute negative feelings most listeners can probably identify with all too closely – confusion, disorientation, unrequited desire, loathing, regret, entrapment – into an effervescent fantasy-come-true of independence, empowerment, style, and fun. That is to say, “Problem” does what most would-be pop hits are trying to do, but it achieves that goal more efficiently and entertainingly than most. It’s likely you’ll hear this song a lot in the coming summer months, so you should probably get started on learning the lyrics: “I got one less problem withoutcha” is going to be the new “You’re from the ‘70s, but I’m a ‘90s bitch!” You’ll probably never hear it at any volume other than “LOUD,” though, which is good – you won’t have to strain to hear the sound of a star (or at least a one-hit wonder) being born. [Samuel Tolzmann]

Sia, “Chandelier”

It has been four years since Sia Furler dropped her last album, the fantastic We Are Born, whose pop-oriented slant portended her future. However, just as her career trajectory pointed towards on-the-verge stardom, Sia decided to take a sabbatical from the stage, choosing instead to be the MVP of Top 40 songwriting. And when it seemed that she had settled into her newfound niche comfortably, as ghostwriter for the new crop of pop divas and occasional collaborator with David Guetta (to the dismay of those, who like me, fell in love with the downtempo Sia circa “Breathe Me”), she dropped “Chandelier.”

“Chandelier” requires a disclaimer: Sia has not gone back to basics. This is not a redux of “Breathe Me” or even “I’m In Here.” This is Sia applying every skill within her pop arsenal to her particular emotional brand. As a product of her newfound environment, Sia, naturally, aims her newest effort at the party scene. However, she takes the YOLO-anthem and completely inverts it, exploring the darker, psychological side of the play-all-night lifestyle. Sia comes unhinged, swinging from chandeliers and shit, living a debauched nightmare of booze and insincere attention, partying just to keep the pain at bay, while she knowingly spirals deeper into the vicious cycle. If the Weeknd had a conscience, this is what it would sound like. Her voice, the same emotive rasp that even managed to breathe life into “Titanium,” is at full force here, reaching towards the heavens for the light of the sun, or simply a helping hand. If her performance does not make you want to dance like the girl in the music video, then you might want to check your pulse.

This is Sia the pop star, transcendent siren, patron saint of the lost, running on all cylinders while burning a torch for the aimless. She left her previous, downtrodden singer-songwriter self somewhere in the late-aughts. With “Chandelier,” Sia is reborn, and it seems that she plans to stick around for a while. [Jean-Luc Marsh]