Best Of 2014
As the sun sets on another eventful year in music, we consider the songwriters, songs and moments that made 2014
n the eve of a new year, thoughts turn naturally to the musical delights that lie in wait in the 12 months to come. But before we do that, let’s take just a few minutes to consider the songwriters, the artists and the songs that made 2014 their own. After much heated (and mostly pub-based) debate, then, below you’ll find the official Songwriting selection of the very best that the past year had to offer. You might not agree with all our choices, but then it would be a boring old world if we all felt the same about everything – what we can hopefully all agree on is that 2014 was a year which offered up plenty of great new music to get excited about…
As if 2011’s debut album + hadn’t already cemented Ed Sheeran’s reputation as an adept recording artist, Suffolk’s guitar-toting troubadour took the music world by the scruff of its neck yet again in 2014 and hammered home the point in style. Following a confident solo performance on the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury Festival in June, Ed underlined his status as a masterful songwriter and genuine superstar, releasing another immaculate collection of pop gems with X. Ed’s sophomore album has already topped the US and UK album charts, spawned three smash hit singles and earned him a clutch of Grammy award nominations. All this, and he still finds time to write another song for One Direction. A class act.
As well as being the frontman and driving force behind US stadium rockers OneRepublic – who had a huge hit in 2014 with Counting Stars – Ryan Tedder plies his trade as a highly successful songwriter-for-hire, getting cuts on some of the best-selling singles of all time. Writing the UK No 1 hit Ghost for Ella Henderson is a great example of Tedder’s work, along with co-writes for Maroon 5 and Taylor Swift, that inspired Billboard to call him “The Undercover King Of Pop”.
Pop songwriting’s perennial stalwart claims yet another spot in our year’s top songwriters. After a decade of helping the likes of Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Kelly Clarkson and Pink conquer the charts, 2014 saw the prolific Swede sprinkle his magic dust on mammoth hits Shake It Off for Swift again and Bang Bang for Jessie J, to name a few.
After announcing his split from Hollywood wife Gwyneth Paltrow earlier this year, 2014 will no doubt have been a painful year for the Coldplay frontman. However, his band’s latest studio album Ghost Stories, with emotive singles Magic and A Sky Full Of Stars, proved that Martin’s relationship with his songwriting muse shows no sign of breaking down.
Worthy of a place in any top songwriter list, Dolly Parton entered 2014 with nothing left to prove – Beyoncé is the only other woman to match her 46 Grammy nominations. However, after composing over 3,000 songs, including I Will Always Love You, Jolene and 9 To 5, this year Dolly released her 42nd studio album, Blue Smoke, to widespread critical acclaim, with lead single Home proving she’s still got the magic.
An American songwriting legend for over 30 years, Diane Warren also could’ve hung up her songwriting boots long ago, with numerous awards and hit records to her name. But 2014 gave us yet another Warren classic in the shape of Paloma Faith’s Only Love Can Hurt Like This – a soaring, melodramatic ballad that shows budding songwriters exactly how it should be done.
ST VINCENT – ST VINCENT
Despite having released four superb albums already, St Vincent’s self-titled fifth record was the one that saw her develop the fearlessness that great songwriters must. It was while recording Love This Giant with the famed art-rocker David Byrne that this trust came, and art-rock is the foundation on which St Vincent is built, giving her a platform to experiment and succeed. Whether it’s the oozing slide guitar of Rattlesnake, the temperate croon of Prince Johnny or the weeping synths of Huey Newton, everything that Clark tries seethes with confidence and has the sense of a writer striding towards the peak of their powers.
RYAN ADAMS – RYAN ADAMS
Ryan Adams’ self-titled record saw the alt-country legend returning after a gap of three years – a near-eternity for such a prolific songwriter. Melding Adams’ rockier impulses with his skill for acoustic solemnity, it’s an album that combines the best of his songwriting. It’s also, quite simply, one of his finest records to date.
ED SHEERAN – X
+ turned Ed Sheeran from a skilled songwriter with a ferocious work rate, into a global megastar. Album two, then, had to be good – and it was. Featuring Sheeran’s first UK No 1 single, X was the most streamed album of 2014, taking his star into a new galaxy.
THE WAR ON DRUGS – LOST IN THE DREAM
Each year there’s a record that appears out of the ether to secure universal acclaim. In 2014 that was Lost In The Dream. Having seen former founding member Kurt Vile showered with praise, on album three Philadelphia’s The War On Drugs refined their ambient indie-rock to a razor’s edge.
FKA TWIGS – LP1
The end of 2013 had FKA Twigs marked as one to watch by every publication worth their salt. Consequently, LP1 was awaited by every music fan with clear ears, and it didn’t disappoint. Replete with moody, triphop-inflected R&B, FKA Twigs debut was included on 2014’s Mercury Prize shortlist.
LEONARD COHEN – POPULAR PROBLEMS
Leonard Cohen is a member of songwriting royalty. However, unlike state-ruling monarchs his exalted position has been earned, and Popular Problems was an example of the Canadian legend’s enduring genius. Making the Top 5 in the UK and peaking at 15 in the US, album 13 was another gem.
MARK RONSON FEAT. BRUNO MARS – UPTOWN FUNK
A slab of funk-pop so damn catchy that no-one would accuse you of being wacko if you mistook it for Jacko himself, Uptown Funk melds the king of pop’s style with the squeal of Rick James, and looks set to grab and shake the hips long into 2015. Once again Ronson shows his golden touch, while Mars cements his place at pop’s top table. Indeed, Mars is making a teasing play for the title of pop’s finest writer at present, with the air of excellence imbuing his work starting to look abundant enough to fill a field of hot air balloons.
ED SHEERAN – SING
You don’t win Songwriting’s songwriter of the year title by filling your album with trite singles. Sing was Sheeran’s first UK No 1 and showed the Lego House singer to be a writer of depth, skill and courage. If you claim not to know the chorus, you’re probably lying.
PAPERWHITE – TAKE ME BACK
Glacial, synth-driven dreampop duo Paperwhite are one act that any fan of the ongoing 80s renaissance should take note of, and this superb track is a perfect example of why. It’s so catchy you’d imagine it had a vaccine, but so good you’ll be delighted that it doesn’t.
ALT-J – LEFT HAND FREE
Indie-rock act Alt-J released one of 2014’s most eagerly awaited albums in This Is All Yours, and Left Hand Free is the most recognisable song from that album. Rockier than much of their work, it’s the band’s most immediate song to date and has an anthemic feel.
FIRST AID KIT – MY SILVER LINING
The Swedish indie-folk duo’s following has been slowly building since 2010’s debut album The Black & The Blue. My Silver Lining was the first single from their third LP Stay Gold and epitomises the development in their songwriting, with orchestral touches and country tinges adding another level to their sound.
MARTHA – 1967, I MISS YOU, I’M LONELY
They hail from a Durham village called Pity Me, but pity you if this song passed your ears by on its release. A furiously addictive slice of Buzzcocks/Wedding Present-inspired noise-pop heaven underpinned by some of the smartest, driest lyrics you’ll hear this side of Hatful Of Hollow.
Best pop song
SAM SMITH – STAY WITH ME
A great pop song doesn’t have to be happy, nor does it have to make you want to dance. It can also soundtrack heartache and longing, as Sam Smith showed everyone to devastating effect on Stay With Me. This gospel-tinged ballad struck a chord on both sides of the Atlantic, reaching No 1 in the UK Singles chart and selling over three million copies in the US. Illustrating Smith’s fragility, it also helped cement his position as a giant in the contemporary pop world. With potential Grammy success just round the corner, the sky is the limit.
TAYLOR SWIFT – SHAKE IT OFF
The lead single from Swift’s fifth album 1989 saw her moving even further away from her country roots. A ridiculously catchy flipping of the bird to all the detractors she’s picked up along the way, Shake It Off confirmed her position as 2014’s leading pop princess.
COLDPLAY – MAGIC
Simple and stripped back, Magic proved what Coldplay are still capable of when not reaching for the back of a sold-out stadium. A sparse drum beat, bass riff and synth accompanied Chris Martin’s relaxed vocal on the year’s best slow burner and Coldplay’s most interesting song in years.
PALOMA FAITH – ONLY LOVE CAN HURT LIKE THIS
Written by songwriting giant Diane Warren, this power ballad once again showcased Faith’s talent as a singer and went on to become her most successful single to date. A backing track that could have been lifted from Jimmy Ruffin’s What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted gave this song a timeless quality and Faith’s voice did the rest.
GEORGE EZRA – BUDAPEST
One of many highlights on Ezra’s debut album Wanted On Voyage, this single highlighted everything that made the Bristol-based troubadour one of 2014’s biggest success stories. Instantly recognisable from its “where did that come from” vocals, the song was inspired by a planned trip to Budapest which didn’t quite happen and suggests Ezra is a singer-songwriter with a big future.
MARK RONSON FEAT. BRUNO MARS – UPTOWN FUNK
Making a last minute dash for song of the year, Uptown Funk, featuring guest vocals by Bruno Mars, just can’t be ignored. The classic Prince bassline, Nile Rogers guitar riff and all-round funkiness make it the current good time track du jour and no doubt the soundtrack to everybody’s festive merriment.
Best rock song
ROYAL BLOOD – FIGURE IT OUT
Brightoners Royal Blood came almost out of nowhere this year to join the hallowed tradition of blues-rock inspired duos started by The White Stripes and perhaps exemplified by The Black Keys. They’d released the excellent single Out Of The Black in 2013,which saw them make the BBC’s Sound Of 2014, but surely no-one expected that to translate into a No 1 album quite so quickly! Figure It Out is a microcosm of what made the duo such an unexpected delight, mixing the scuzz of The Black Keys, the filth of Queens Of The Stone Age and the classic stylings of Led Zeppelin into a fresh breath of filthy air.
JACK WHITE – LAZARETTO
A perennial Songwriting interest, and arguably the most influential rock guitarist of the last 15 years, Lazaretto was the title track from White’s second solo album, and saw the gifted blues man retaining his high water mark: filthy from the outset yet effortlessly catchy.
WILKO JOHNSON & ROGER DALTREY – GOING BACK HOME
*Going Back Home draws together the unique songwriting talent of former Dr Feelgood guitarist Johnson and the evergreen frontman of The Who. Its countrified blues-rock riffery sounds more at home in the bars and bayous of the deep south than in London’s concrete jungle.
JOANNA GRUESOME – PSYKICK ESPIONAGE
Indie-pop five piece Joanna Gruesome are punk’s most vital act at present. Coming on the heels of their fine debut album, Psykick Espionage gave a taste of its follow-up: sugary melodies, thrashing riffs, pounding drums and throbbing bass underpinned by a glimmering pop soul.
RIVAL SONS – ELECTRIC MAN
2014 saw the Californian rockers release their fourth album Great Western Valkyrie, with Electric Man opening the record to brilliant effect. A blues-rock number which pays faithful homage to the likes of Led Zeppelin, but that would make a suitably seedy bedfellow for Jack White.
WILD SMILES – FOOL FOR YOU
We love Wild Smiles here at Songwriting – so much so that picking just one track from their C86-charged punk-pop debut LP was tricky, but Fool For You just won out, its supercharged pop the sound of The Soup Dragons blowing kisses at The Buzzcocks.
It’s been a big year for the 21-year-old singer-songwriter with the huge voice. His debut album Wanted On Voyage has remained in the UK Top 10 since its June release and the single Budapest has been a ubiquitous presence on the radio for months. It’s not just the scale of Ezra’s success that has impressed, but also the manner in which he has achieved it. Combining elements of traditional folk, blues and skiffle, Ezra is an authentic talent whose booming singing style is inspired by Howlin’ Wolf. With a sold-out UK tour to look forward to in 2015, its fair to say the future looks bright.
There’s still plenty of space in the music world for loud rock music done properly, and English duo Royal Blood demanded their seat at the devil’s table this year. A No 1 debut album and a blistering Reading set were just the start for Mike Kerr and Ben Thatcher, who now have a slot supporting Foo Fighters to look forward to.
Having previously written songs for artists such as Rascal Flatts and Sabrina Carpenter, this was the year that the Nantucket-born 21-year-old became a star in her own right with the release of the infectious booty anthem All About That Bass. Topping the charts in 58 countries, it proved that Trainor had made the correct decision to go it alone.
Only with the release of his third album Islander did the wider world wake up to what his native country of Norway had known all along: namely, that this blue-eyed soul singer is a serious talent. A nomination for Best R&B Album at the 2015 Grammys suggests Jarle Bernhoft is finally about to get the recognition he deserves.
Her debut album, LP1, garnered universal acclaim and a Mercury Nomination, but more than that, her brand of futuristic R&B gave listeners a glimpse of a unique talent for the Google Glass generation.
2013’s Raise Your Love EP hinted at a genuine new contender and Rhodes has followed this up with two more expertly written EPs this year, Morning and Home. The indie balladeer had a stellar 2014, with crowd-pleasing performances at both the Radio 1 Big Weekend and Glastonbury, and with a debut album out next year this is the just the start.
Most Overlooked Artist
With the release of his fourth album Distance, Daniel Michaelson received glowing reviews and little in the way of sales. It’s a pattern the former Absentee frontman should be familiar with this far into his career, but that’s not to say it’s one he deserves: he’s an outstanding lyricist with a unique vocal style and, far from being niche or cult, his music has universal appeal. Distance was a poignant heartbreak album which didn’t ever feel mushy and, as always, left Michaelson’s creaking croon ample room to steal the show. If we had our way, he’d have the audience his music merits.
The ex-Portico Quartet man released his debut solo album First Mind in 2014, and received a Mercury Prize nomination for his troubles. But commercial sales are, so far, yet to catch up with critical acclaim… a situation that will hopefully be rectified in 2015.
Songwriting recently caught a startling live performance by Mancunian singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Alan Roberts, AKA Jim Noir, at Bristol’s Louisiana… and were left wondering why, five albums deep, he’s playing such small venues. Wake up, Britain!
Chuck a brick up any UK high street in 2014 and likely as not you’d hit a member of some psych revival band or other. Brighton’s The Wytches are, along with Velvet Morning, one of Songwriting’s fave such bands, yet Tame Impala levels of success have so far just eluded them…
STRAND OF OAKS
2014 saw the release of HEAL, the fourth album by long-haired US folk-rocker Timothy Showalter, AKA Strand Of Oaks. And a fine album it is too – but still, as Morrissey once put it, the world won’t listen…
A new wave of high-octane guitar combos churning out melodically ferocious punk/indie-pop in the finest Buzzcocks/Ramones/C86 tradition have produced endless musical delights this year. Joanna Gruesome and Wild Smiles are honoured elsewhere, but don’t sleep on the excellent Tyrannosaurus Dead, either.
Moment Of 2014
THE U2/ITUNES FIASCO
You’d think that one of the world’s biggest bands giving away their new album for free would be a good thing. But when 500 million iTunes users awoke one day in September to find Songs Of Innocence installed on their devices, many were not amused – particularly when they found there was no easy way to delete it. After much furore, Apple issued instructions on how to get rid of the offending album, and Bono issued an apology, saying “We kind of got carried away with ourselves”. But you can see how it probably seemed like a great idea at the time.
DOLLY PARTON AT GLASTONBURY
In 2013 Kenny Rogers proved that, counterintuitively, golden-age country could rock a huge UK festival crowd. Following in his footsteps, this year the inimitable Ms Parton put on a bravura performance that had the Glasto crowd eating out of the palm of her hand.
BAND AID 30
First there was Band Aid. Then there was Band Aid II… then Band Aid 20. And in 2014, Bob Geldof once more donned his charity hat to raise funds to fight the Ebola epidemic in west Africa. Carp about the lyrics or Geldof’s tax affairs all you want… how much money did YOU raise?
KATE BUSH LIVE
A handful of one-offs aside, dreampop goddess Kate Bush pretty much hadn’t performed live since touring to support her debut album in 1979. So a 22-date tour in 2014 was major news – and those fans lucky enough to get tickets weren’t disappointed.
THE FIGHT TO SAVE UK LIVE VENUES
One downside of urban renewal/gentrification has been the closure of countless live venues, as entitled incomers complained that the nightspots they’d moved in next door to turned out to be – shock! – quite loud. In 2014, venues and music lovers fought back, with a petition organised by Frank Turner and calling for an urgent revision of noise abatement laws leading the charge.
SONGWRITING APP LAUNCHED
After 2.5 years of existing purely online, your favourite songwriting magazine became available in ‘digimag’ form for iOS, Android, Kindle and Windows devices, and it was certainly a big moment for us! Look out for issue 2, coming in late January 2015…
Words: Russell Deeks, Damien Girling, Duncan Haskell, Aaron Slater