Right now we in the content world trot out our year-end best lists. Food! Trends! Restaurants! New ways to say “Hello!” Then we get the music critic to come out and tell us that everything we listened to this year—the soundtrack of our lives and the twelve months of lessons learned—was wrong.
Luckily, we don’t have one of those guys. We have me. I make actual music for a living. So let’s look at the year in music, the music we actually listened to more than anything else. It was a surprising year on the charts, which were fed by popularity, streaming algorithms and a few surprising entries.
Lorde, Aloe Blacc, Nicki Minaj, Sam Smith
The reign of 80BPM
In the beginning of this year, I did a commercial for Bloomingdale’s. There was a menacing fella with a neck tattoo who was in charge of security; his ringtone was Pharrell’s “Happy.” The models walked down the runway to “Happy.” When the shoot wrapped, the Japanese director asked if I could put together a band that could do a song like “Happy.” No other song this year reached that sort of “Hey Ya!” or Gnarls Barkley ubiquity.
“Happy” is in a tempo of 80BPM. Several months later, just as “Happy” fell off the charts, Taylor Swift came out with “Shake it Off” (also at 80BPM). Honestly, I wouldn’t hold it against Taylor if she’d walked into the studio and asked someone to make her that beat.
There were, at year’s beginning, few current hit songs in that tempo. But by mid-year a person could go from Lorde’s “Royals” (85BPM) to Nicki Minaj’s “Pills N Potions” to Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me” to Aloe Blacc’s “The Man.” Not only without changing tempo, but without playing a single off-key note.
You could have moved up the tempo spectrum and gone to the much-chiller melancholy of “Magic” by Coldplay at 93BPM. Then also not played a single off-key note and gone into song-of-the-summer “Fancy.” (95 BPM, roughly the same as most Snoop Dogg songs).
Key and tempo are important, even though they seem arbitrary. Remember “#Selfie” by Chainsmokers? Martin Garrix’s “Animals”, the unkillable “Party Rock Anthem” or “Shots” by LMFAO, the jock-jam “In the Ayer” or chiller “Wild Ones”, both by Flo Rida? Those filled floors for plenty of summers. All in the same key and tempo. They all hit the charts in the dour-but-tense F Flat Minor.
Songs that wouldn’t die
Now that Billboard keeps streaming data in mind, 2013’s “Blurred Lines” still made it as a top 100 song of 2014. As did “Hold on We’re Going Home,” Drake’s second entry in the top 100 and one of six songs he placed on that chart this year. (Although the only one on his own record was “0 to 100/The Catch Up.”)
“Come and Get Your Love,” the 1974 gem by Native American rock band Redbone, charted thanks to its inclusion in Guardians of the Galaxy’s “Awesome Mix Vol 1.” At 105 BPM, it made surprise appearances by DJs in the middle of “Sleeping with a Friend” by Neon Trees and followed the country-crossover hit “Beat of the Music” by Brett Eldridge.
Meghan Trainor’s “All About the Bass” was a Carribbean-inspired gem akin to Duffy’s “Mercy” or a major-key of “Stand by Me” by Ben E. King. At 134 BPM: Trainor’s fun-chill “Bass” is eight degrees more amped than Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” (126BPM). And just 3 degrees shy of the bombastic Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive.”
Just as Bluetooth replaced the CD player in many cars in 2014, music recommendations from friends and Shazam results have come to replace the ubiquity of radio and the way it reinforces the sameness of the charts. That’s made music exciting again, and that’s what music should be.