All of Me, John Legend
Sensitivity, John Legend owns you. He’s a loner at a piano with a needy voice. He sounds like he’s down on his knees pleading, “You’re my end and my beginning.” There’s the obligatory slow build to a soaring chorus, before Legend leaps into a falsetto and crushes all quibbles. It’s that rare power ballad that doesn’t overpower, but puts its faith in making more out of less.
Happy, Pharrell Williams
It would be easy to dismiss Pharrell’s little goof of a song as nothing but a goof of a song, but it would be wrong. It’s tough to make ‘happy’ sound substantive or deep, but Williams transcended all such concerns by ignoring them. The handclaps, the bass line, the falsetto vocal – it all sounds as buoyant as balloons in a park on a summer Saturday. Underrate that if you will, but Stevie Wonder made joyful hits that endured for decades, and now Pharrell has made at least one.
Stay With Me, Sam Smith
Since the emergence of Amy Winehouse nearly a decade ago, the Brits have been on a soul binge that combines old-school sounds with new-school twists. Smith, who came to prominence by singing the hook in Disclosure’s breakthrough single Latch in 2013, hit a home run this year with this secular hymn to a love that’s deeper and longer-lasting than a one-night stand. You can practically hear his fans swooning, can’t you? It doesn’t hurt that Smith could sing about the geraniums in his grandmother’s garden and make it sound like his heart’s being torn to pieces.
Therapy, Mary J Blige
Here’s some payback. Blige influenced the UK soul revival. She was remixed by Disclosure. Now she’s working with Sam Smith, Disclosure and other fresh British talent on a new album, The London Sessions, to create her most vital music in years. The opening track, Therapy, can be heard as a sly nod to Amy Winehouse’s Rehab, with Blige playing against her serious image with some wry humour – but with a fierce gospel-soul groove that peaks with a hand-clapping breakdown.
Transgender Dysphoria Blues, Against Me!
Singer Laura Jane Grace sings about her personal transformation with crushing immediacy. The song sounds like a punked-up hootenanny, but the words cut with anxiety, anger, then disappointment, all within a few lines. The narrator seeks acceptance – “you want them to see you like they see any other girl” – but finds only harsh disapproval. The list of mainstream songs that deal so directly with the pain of the transgender experience is a small one, but Grace takes the subject head on and ennobles it.
Verlaine Shot Rimbaud, Lydia Loveless
Love can drive you nuts. It can even make some people pick up a gun and do harm to the person they love the most. That’s a tricky area for any songwriter to negotiate, but Loveless does it brilliantly on a song that invokes the real-life blood-spilling that defined the toxic love between two 19th Century poets. The singer doesn’t overplay the drama, and her deadpan delivery perfectly suits a song that tightropes between rapture and violence. Also worth noting: it’s been a great year for French symbolist poets in rock songs – Loveless’ tune is at least the second to reference Arthur Rimbaud this year, joined by Dum Dum Girls’ Rimbaud Eyes.
Shake It Off, Taylor Swift
The singer still sells albums like it’s the ‘90s, a true pop superstar in a league with Beyoncé and few others. She made her transformation from country-pop into full-on rule-the-world mega-pop with a self-empowerment jingle jacked up with an aerobics-class beat and a chorus that she pounded with relentless enthusiasm into everyone’s skull.
Cradle Your Device, Tom Brosseau
“Something has come between us, and, no, it ain’t what you think,” Brosseau sings with a sly wink on a song that will ring true for just about anybody enslaved by their, or someone else’s, smartphone. The singer-songwriter has always had a gift for illuminating the everyday, and here he zeroes in on a couple sharing a bed but little else. It’s some kind of sick joke that a product designed to bring people together actually defeats intimacy, and Brosseau nails that queasy contradiction with poetic concision.
No-one does dead-end, mid-life blues like this Cincinnati band, with Chuck Cleaver singing from the bottom of another nameless, empty apartment. The gorgeous acoustic finger-picking, shadowed by Lisa Walker’s lovely harmony vocals, accentuates the winter melancholy. Then a wash of electric-guitar feedback shrouds everything in a blanket of snow.
Have You Seen My Son?, Benjamin Booker
A mother prays for her wayward boy, lost on the road in a world “full of venom”. Booker and drummer Max Norton play with youthful bravado, oblivious to their mother’s tears, until a pair of solos, one caustic, the next wrenching, bridge the emotional chasm.
Greg Kot is the music critic at the Chicago Tribune. His work can be found here.