2014 was an amazing year for music with new and old artists alike releasing some of the best material we’ve heard in a long time. From Winter Jazz Fest, SummerStage, the festivities that surrounded Blue Note’s 75th Anniversary, and the long awaited D’Angelo album, this year will definitely be one for the record books. 2014 will also go down as the year that we released Otis Brown III’s The Thought of You via our partnership with Blue Note Records.

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In commemoration of this great year, we gathered our contributors to select 18 songs that blasted through their speakers and headphones. The list is not ordered in any particular manner nor are we implying that songs, albums, and artists that aren’t included here aren’t worth checking out. Scroll down to check out the Top 15 Songs of 2014 Part I. For Part II, click here.

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“Shofukan” – We Like It Here by Snarky Puppy 

After winning an unexpected Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance (with Lalah Hathaway) in 2014 (“Something” from Family Dinner, Vol. 1), what does a band like Snarky Puppy do for an encore? Rather than capitalizing on the success of your first album to feature lead vocals and cash in, the Brooklyn-based collective dropped We Like It Here, another mind-bending collection of instrumentals that die-hards were waiting for. The album’s opener, “Shofukan,” sets the intense tone of the experience, expanding on the Axelrod-esque grandiose-funk from 2012’s groundUP with a more worldly undercurrent. The combination of horns and moog bass is as brooding as it is triumphant and empowering. It was hard to listen to the rest of the album after constant repeats. Band leader Michael League has now asserted himself and his band as a major force in music as a whole.

“Another Life” – Black Messiah by D’Angelo & The Vanguard

When I first heard this song, it was two years ago when the enigmatic D’Angelo resurfaced for a European tour after a decade of silence. Thanks in large part to the power of YouTube and camera phones, I was able to discover this soaring ballad peppered among his fan favorites. It immediately stood out to me; it had the bubbling, bass driven pace of the Ohio Players, piercing Delfonics/Stylistics-style guitars, and the ethereal backing vocals of the Beach Boys. And those lyrics, oh those lyrics: “I’m not surprised to find that angels compete for the chance to lay down at your feet.” Not only did I yearn to hear the recorded version someday, but prayed that it would end the eventual album because it had that same spiritual atmosphere that Brown Sugar and Voodoo closers “Higher” and “Africa” had respectively. Both prayers were answered. Black Messiah slowly gets better with each listen but “Another Life” was perfect after five seconds.

“Distance” – Emily King

The New York-based singer/songwriter was the not-so-silent hero of Jose James’ 2013 album, No Beginning No End,  penning its two most beautiful – and accessible – tracks, “Come To My Door” and “Heaven on the Ground.” Ms. King’s knack for writing beautiful, soul-dripping pop songs has been well documented with songs like “Ordinary Heart” and her brilliant 2012 EP Seven. At the top of 2014, she dropped another gem on the world in the form of “Distance.” It’s an anthem of longing that’s seeping with optimism; “Even when I’m lonely, happy knowing that you’re never far/when we are apart, Distance makes the heart grow.” Part dreamscape, part Brill Building, “Distance” is arguably King’s finest work and one can only hope we can see a proper album’s worth of such amazement.

 

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“WonderLove”  feat. Chris Turner – Heroes + Misfits by Kris Bowers 

As a whole, Heroes + Misfits showcases Kris Bowers’ wide range. From the supercharged “Wake The Neighbors” to the punk-esque quality of “Forget-er” featuring Julia Easterlin, Bowers’ debut album certainly showed audiences why he was able to come away with the top prize at 2011’s Monk Competition. Neatly tucked-in between Bowers’ more adventurous tracks lies “WonderLove” featuring vocalist Chris Turner. “WonderLove” acts like Bowers’ pastiche to Stevie Wonder and also showcases Kenneth Whalum and Casey Benjamin dueling towards the end of the track.

“The Mission” feat. John Robinson – CHURCH  by Mark de Clive-Lowe

When pianist, composer, and producer Mark de Clive-Lowe reached out to John Robinson for a couple of verses for his newest album, CHURCH, he never expected that the emcee would recite a revisionist history on his career. It’s not easy to tell an entire story in 16 bars, but John Robinson gives audiences a masterclass in “The Mission.” Tim Lefebvre’s bass line alongside Nate Smith’s hard hitting beat also doesn’t hurt, adding into the break-neck groove that MdCL’s opening track to CHURCH achieves.

 

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“You’re My Everything” – Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio by Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio

Performing a standard popularized by Miles Davis’ first quintet is a fraught process, to say the least. Yet in 2014, it’s clear that 26-year-old Melissa Aldana (winner of the 2013 Thelonious Monk Competition) is one of the elite few up to the task. In this track off her self-titled third album, Aldana begins by showing off her enviably rich tone with a two-minute a cappella solo, as fluid, sensitive, and self-assured as all the greats who’ve tackled the tune before her. Once Pablo Menares (bass) and Francisco Mela (drums) hit to complete the Crash Trio, the ballad finds its romantic swagger, sounding timeless and sophisticated—but still buoyant enough that you can’t help swaying along. On an album filled with Aldana’s stellar contemporary compositions, this track fits seamlessly as an argument for swing in 2014, and beyond.

“Raghavan” – Vipasanna by Eric Harland’s Voyager

Harland’s album Vipassana is very consciously spiritual. When we spoke to him this fall, he took us through each song, every one seeming almost like a step towards a higher plane. However, the concept is futile without Harland’s truly transcendent musicianship, showcased on “Raghavan” perhaps more than any other track on the album. What starts off as a catchy bass lick quickly moves into a propulsive groove that still leaves space for Harland to go absolutely wild on the kit. At one point, it’s just Taylor Eigsti and Harland, soaring piano against some of the funkiest drums in contemporary jazz—the piece of grit that makes the pearl.

“Waltz From The Women of Tokyo” – Wish The Children Would Come Home by The Westerlies

Even as the genre evolves, certain textures of jazz remain expected—the rhythm section with some horns on top, for example. With the help of staunchly “beyond category” composer Wayne Horvitz, the Westerlies have turned that idea on its head, taking the brass quartet out of the military and baroque, and into that nebulous jazz/compositional space known as “new music.” The four incredible players (two trumpeters and two trombonists) lend Horvitz’s melancholy compositions a gentle, burnished sound, smoothing the edges off dissonance without masking it. “Waltz from Woman of Tokyo” sounds like the score to one of those seemingly pedestrian but ultimately transcendent short films, with its frenetic, contrapuntal center guarded on both sides by a lilting waltz. A beautiful take on what the future might sound like.

This list was compiled by Natalie WeinerMatthew Allen and DanMichael Reyes 

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