I usually learn about the music that has been released any given year via the end-of-year music lists. It’s not just that I find it harder to keep abreast of new music than I did in college, it’s also that I find older music more consistently rewarding. Much of it is better than what happens to have been put out this year, and even that which isn’t allows me to borrow nostalgia for decades unremembered. Here, then, is a list of my favorite music of 2014: the songs that weren’t released but that I first heardor got intoin 2014.
“Tripping Out,” Curtis Mayfield
I owe a great deal to box of “breaks and beats” LPs at A-1 Records on Sixth Street. Beginning in the ’80s, crate diggers like limo driver Lenny Rogers began putting out records that gathered hard-to-find, highly sampleable snippets (“breaks and beats”) for hip-hop producers. For anyone whose pop ears have been trained by hip-hop, there’s great delight in discovering the source of so many familiar sounds. One track I can’t believe I didn’t recognize is Curtis Mayfield’s “Tripping Out.” This was the song that I danced to with friends this year, perhaps because its great tight loosenesseach bar slightly distinctsuggests that humans can be just a little more perfect than drum machines, or any other kind.
“Stoned Love,” The Supremes
I found myself crate-digging for old hip-hop samples in part to get Kanye-type pop delights without the bafflingly foul lyrics that are too often their cost. (The only apology I will offer for my puritanism is of the Pro Vita kind.) This same impulse led me to dig deeper into the oft forgotten tradition of equivocally righteous musictunes that would delight David and embarrass Michal. The Supremes’ “Stoned Love” shows that it wasn’t just Sam Cooke who sang best when he sang of his Lord.
I’m allowed to put this song on my list because it was released just before 2014 began, in December 2013. It’s the one song that became a hit this year that I’ll want to remember. At some point between “Crazy in Love” and “Bow Down,” I grew tired of Beyoncé’s smug success as businesswoman, lover, mother. XO is different. In the video, Bey lunges for youthful gleeriding the Coney Island coaster with the ubiquitous gay best friend, making out on the dance floor. But the music is full of a more adult sadness. Here “experience” seems less like a synonym for the fun of our twenties and more like one for loss.
“Let’s Do It Again,” The Staple Singers
This was not a good year for Bill Cosby. Nonetheless, I found myself falling in love with the eponymous song from his forgettable 1975 film with Sidney Poitier. Written by Curtis Mayfield, performed by the Staple Singers: this is perfection. Put on this LP and let it slowly spin while dancing with a few friends . . . aah.
“Black Pearl,” Sonny Charles and the Checkmates, Ltd.
The Checkmates Limited? Not on this eternal Phil Spector production. The song, about one man’s desire to give a working woman a life of dignity and leisure, shows that America is monarchist in its own democratic way: “You’ve been working so hard your whole life through / Tending other peoples houses raising up their children too / Hey how bout something for me and you / Here in my arms you’re gonna reign supreme / No more serving baby, they’re gonna serve my queen.” As anthems go, I far prefer this to God Save the Queen.
“A Woman Will Do Wrong,” Helene Smith
Helene Smith reading cattle futures would make a grown man cry. I remember this song, my favorite of hers, playing during one of the lowest moments of my year. It’s simple enough to turn the dial, but I had somehow forgotten how. At one point or another, most of us will be where Helene is. May we be there only briefly.
“Girl You Need a Change of Mind,” Eddie Kendricks
Mansplaining is much disparaged, and not always justly. Mansplaining can be beautiful, irresistible, danceablethat is, if it’s done by Eddie Kendricks. “Girl . . . ,” the greatest mansplain ever, first found favor at the Loft, David Mancuso’s ’70s private party space. Released today, it would be the perfect chum for the circling Twitter sharks. Kendricks sings: “Baby, let me tell you, girl, you need a change of mind / Why march in picket lines? Burn bras and carry signs? Now I’m for women’s rights / I just want equal nights . . . / . . . All men don’t discriminate / this man emancipates.” I suppose that every political movement must make its concessions to enjoyment.
“Sign Song,” Buddy Baker
This is a song about traveling between Jane Street in the West Village and First Avenue on New York’s east side. It’s all about roads and sign, stops and turns (its connection with the New York streets was further confirmed when the Beatnuts sampled it for “Off the Books”). I’ve lived on First since I moved to New York, but I only discovered “Sign Song” this year. Around the same time, I fell in love with a woman living on Jane Street. I go by foot and train instead of car, but this is nonetheless the most biographical song of my year.
“I’ll Keep a Light in My Window,” New York Community Choir
I remember riding the A train up to Harlem and listening to this song in the living room of a couple I know. The song, a ’70s gospel number that became an underground disco hit, is one of encouragementto those who need help and those who need to be helping. The couple I was with that evening models the hope the song expresses: the husband is a young Christian historian, the wife a businesswoman who doesn’t exclude witness to the gospel from her gift for friendship. If I have one resolution for 2015, it’s to keep a light in my window.
Matthew Schmitz is deputy editor of First Things.