James Shotwell’s look back on 2014 and the songs that had a profound impact on his life.
We’re getting fairly deep into December at this point, which means every publication and internet personality who considers themselves someone of influence are doing their best to craft clickbait worthy lists of the best things 2014 had to offer. Most of these features are crafted by a team of people pouring over scores and arguing over personal preferences, all of which is something I’ve taken part in many times over the last six years of my writing career. I won’t be doing too much debating this year, or at least I don’t expect to, but I have been asked by several websites to submit my own top 5s and top 10s on various topics across the world of entertainment. I oblige, of course, but I couldn’t help feeling in recent week that I wanted to do something a bit more personal with my ‘Best Of’ list. This is my attempt to do just that.
2014 was a crazy year for me in many ways. I guess every year has its highs and lows, but this one felt like every high was a bit higher and every low a bit deeper. Through it all music was there, keeping me company in the best and worst of times as it had done so many countless times in the past. The staples that fill my iPhone hard drive received a lot of play, but being an entertainment writer I also found myself inundated with a persistent flood of new music from a wide variety of artists. I’m not going to act like a lot of it was great. It wasn’t. 98% of the music I took a chance on this year proved to be something I never wanted to listen to again, and of that I’d say probably 45% was material I wished I had never heard in the first place. Every so often, however, something amazing poured through my headphones while I plucked away at my macbook keyboard. Those songs became the soundtrack to my year, and I’m going to try and highlight some of the most meaningful ones for your now. If I get too wordy with some explanations, feel free to listen to the song and move along. I won’t mind. All I ask is that you give the music a chance, and if you like something support the people behind it.
The Hotelier – Your Deep Rest
If you had asked me during any month prior to November to create this list I probably would have chosen another track off The Hotelier’s near-perfect 2014 album, but last month everything changed when my best friend, Justin Proper, passed away following a four-year battle with a vicious disease. He fought with everything he had in him for as long as he possibly could, but as time wore on the sickness slowly got the best of him. The last eight months of his life were spent in a hospital several hundred miles from the town he called home, and though he did everything in his power to stay as long as he could things eventually turned from bad to worse. At one point I went to visit, and immediately I could see the toll his battle had taken on him. Not just physically either, but emotionally as well, and I knew he was growing tired.
Each night during that visit, Justin and I ventured to the roof of his hospital and stared at the stars as they danced over the city of Cleveland. He hated that city, and in a way I did too. It is the place where my best friend fought the greatest fight of his life and though neither of us were willing to admit it at that point we knew he had begun to lose the war. We didn’t talk about that, however, nor did we talk about any of things I had been dealing with in my own life. Those nights we just sat and talked about the journeys we had, the people we met along the way, and the songs that served as the soundtrack to our entire relationship. I had fallen in love with The Hotelier already, but their music was not something Justin would have enjoyed. So, instead of trying to enjoy something new, we spun the classics. Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” ended up being the one song we put on repeat, and while I sat there watching my best friend sing-a-long to a song I had heard a thousand times prior in a thousand different situations it took on yet another meaning to me. A far more meaningful one at that.
When Justin passed in November I purposely avoided The Hotelier like the plague. The first time I did spin Home, Like No Place There Is, I wept. The second time, I wept again. The third time things got a bit easier, but “Your Deep Rest” cut to the bone still and it continues to today. I loved this song when I first heard it in early February, but now it means so much to me that I’m not sure I will ever be able to properly convey, how it moves me, in writing. I might try, but for now this will have to suffice.
Young Thug 2 B – Danny Glover
The first track I added to iTunes this in 2014 was this ridiculous banger from Atlanta native Young Thug. His star had been on the rise throughout 2013, and as soon as this track hit the net I knew he was going to be everywhere in the new year. What I could not have anticipated, however, is just how much learning to appreciate his twist on hip-hop would open my mind about other areas of music. There are plenty of artists in this world you can introduce people to without giving them any explanation whatsoever, but Young Thug — or as a prefer to call him, Thugga Thugga — falls outside that list of talent. Young Thug is a unique voice in a genre where the vast majority of artists try their best to do whatever the next most popular artist is doing, but because it’s so outside the norm he’s had a hard time breaking through on a national level.
This is going to sound crazy, but I relate to Young Thug. Being a writer, I thought for a long time that I had to do what everyone else was doing in order to be or create something people would want. When I finally realized that maintaining my individuality was the only way to stand out, let alone enjoy living life, I also had to accept the fact that being myself might not make me an overnight success. Hell, I may never reach the heights of popularity I want my work to achieve. There is a part of me that hates to admit that is the truth, but at the same time I’m finally comfortable with who I am and how I see the world around me. Listening to Young Thug you get the feeling he’s making music for himself, and that whether or not you enjoy what he’s doing matters very little to him in the grand scheme of things. He creates because it’s what he wants to do, and “Danny Glover” is the perfect example of doing exactly what you want to do whether or not the world agrees. Blogs grabbed this song right away, but the rest of rap culture took a bit more convincing to come around. Now Young Thug is everywhere, and it seems people finally realized his talent is worthy of support. I hope the same can be said for my work moving forward.
Nostalgia is a double edged sword, offering good times and the knowledge of just how much time has passed since they occurred. Some people grow up and move on, or at least that is what I have been told. My experiences with nostalgia have always been far more akin to a lusty getaway with wine and fine chocolates than something I wish to forget, but the older I get the harder it becomes to justify clinging to certain memories as firmly as I have up to this point. I’m sure “Your Graduation” was written with a specific person in mind, but when it plays I am transported to dozens of great college nights spent wondering if life would ever get better than it was in that moment. It did, eventually, but not a day goes by when I’m not distracted with memories of the journeys once had, the epic nights that feel blurrier by the year, and all the people I thought I would know forever. The truth is, most things and people fall to the wayside as time goes on, and over the years you realize that is for the best.
All that said, I’d be lying if I tried to hide the fact that in the back of your mind there will always be those roads left untraveled and things left unsaid. The girls or boys you should have said something to, the trips you should have taken, the classes that could have been skipped, and the numerous times you did or said the wrong thing because you didn’t take a few brief moments to think about your actions. That shit can haunt you for the rest of your life if you let it, and you can it from me that allowing it to fester is only going to make matters worse. You can court nostalgia all you want, but making her your full time lover will only result in ruin. “Your Graduation” is a reminder that letting go is not only good, but necessary. You can say things should be different, but eventually you have to accept that there is no reverse in this existence and find the strength to move forward.
There was a time in my life when I did my best to listen to every new artist submission that came through my inbox. This was around the time MySpace was starting to lose steam and PureVolume was still amongst the biggest destinations for new music discovery. These days, it’s hard for me to make it through any weekday without receiving upwards of 250 emails, if not more, and of those at least 33% are submissions from artists and representatives of artists I have never heard of. I do my best to explore as much of this content as possible, but after the fifth or sixth terrible song my enthusiasm for discovery pretty much bottoms out. The bands that I do gravitate towards, which account for about 1% of the total unsolicited submissions I receive, offer something that grabs me in the first minute of listening to their music. They have that intangible ‘wow’ factor that grabs you by the collar and demands you cancel whatever plans you had for the immediate future so that you can give their art your undivided attention. After all, such work deserves proper respect and adoration.
I can count on one hand the number of artists who had this impact on me in 2014, and the one I ended up comparing all others to is SideOneDummy rockers Pup. I’m not sure I knew what I was getting into when I downloaded the advance of their self-titled debut album, but what I found was a ferocious and infectious collection of raucous indie punk that isn’t afraid to be rigorously honest with the listener. It’s not about deep metaphors and lyrics that double as poetry worthy of a museum showcase, but rather making you feel something with a direct approach to storytelling that paints gorgeous, albeit grunge-laden portraits of modern youth. No track personifies this idea more than “Reservoir,” which finds the group talking about a place where you can abandon all care and concern for the world around you. Subjectivity aside, it plays to me like a song about finding that place where you can be yourself and feel whatever needs to be felt without worry about how others will react. It’s not about hiding or running, but rather finding your center and doing what needs to be done to ensure your own longterm health and happiness.
I may live in Boston now, but the majority of my life has been spent in the midwest. New England may feel like home most days, but whenever someone captures the realities of life in the midwest through song or film I cannot help feeling an instant connection. Everyone likes to see their reality projected on screen or laid to tape, and for me that reality often exists in the words and music woven together by Detroit pop rock outfit Fireworks. Every album in their decade-long career has offered visions of the midwest that could only be conveyed by those who have lived it, and it certainly helps that the members of the band are about the same age as me. We recall the same VFW hall concerts, as well as the way the stars shine just a bit brighter where the city ends and the cornfields begin. They get what it’s like to grow up in a place where it doesn’t seem like anyone in either influential coastal city knows you exist, and as far as I am concerned they never captured this idea more perfectly than on their 2014 album Oh, Common Life.
Anyone familiar with my work will know I have already written many paragraphs about the power of Common Life, but I cannot help bringing it up once again to discuss the awesome power of “One More Creature Dizzy With Love.” It’s the kind of song you never expect to be a single, be it due to its slow pace or the fact its hook is not at the focus of the lyrics, but for whatever reason it’s the one song you cannot skip every time the album plays. The first few times I head “Dizzy” I am not sure I felt anything, but I knew what I was hearing was special. There are always one or two tracks on each record that let you know where the band or artist may head in the future, and “Dizzy” seems to be that effort on Common Life. That wasn’t what compelled me to keep playing it, however, at least not after the first day or two. What kept me coming back again and again was the fact that I couldn’t shake the notion that vocalist Dave Mackinder had written a song based on my own life. The opening lines touch on a car ride through country roads and cities streets that I too have driven countless times in the past, often whenever I was trying to understand the complexities of existence. I also know what it’s like to find an anchor in the love of someone else. To cling to the belief that you, as well as life itself, cannot be all that bad if someone so wonderful is a part of your brief time on this planet. I need that belief to make it through the day, and when this song plays I know once and for all that I am not alone.
This may or may not come as a surprise, but I have made a lot of mistakes in my life. Name a scenario and a way it could go wrong this side of death or getting arrested and there is a decent chance I’ve done it, or that I have been present when someone else did. The fact I have been able to accomplish as much as I have in life is as much due to a few incredibly strokes of good luck as it is the millions upon millions of millions of words typed while refining my abilities as a writer. I try to never take that for granted, but I know I do. When I see someone react positively to something I’ve done, or even simply share it with others in their networks, I cannot help feeling that I’ve done something of value with my life. It’s a sign to me that, all nonsense aside, I’ve done something right. Something that mattered to someone other than myself, and I didn’t have to push it upon them or pay them to consider it. That’s incredible. It’s unbelievable, in fact, and it’s just one example of the ways life reminds me that amidst all my mistakes there is still a good person trying his best to get ahead.
I’m not sure if Microwave had a specific girl in mind when writing “Something Right,” but the fictional tale of life and love that plays out over the course of their Stovall demi-ballad is one that fits perfectly with what I am trying to convey in the paragraph above. It’s a song about how the best things sometimes arise from what can be perceived as a worst case scenario. The car wreck at the top leads to love, and everything that follows plays like the ups and downs of really any relationship, but what sets it apart is the internal monologue provided by vocalist Nathan Hardy. His words give you insight into the mind of a man who constantly questions everything in his life, and that is something I relate to in a big way.
I’ve known vocalist Bradley Walden for two or three years at this point, and in that timeI’ve been legitimately impressed by his abilities as a songwriter and vocalist at least three times. The latest, and the first during his time with Emarosa, is on the power-ballad “I’ll Just Wait.” I guess every year there are one or two love songs that cut me to the core, and every time this track comes on I can feel my bones beginning to crack under the weight of the emotions each line stirs up in my soul. This is helped by Walden’s voice, which finds a perfect balance between heartache and hope that conveys a sense of desperation that is as palpable as music can be, but it goes beyond that. Like the rest of this list, I cannot help feeling like this song is as much about me and my life as whatever experiences inspired Walden to first lay pen to paper.
I got engaged in early 2014, and even now I find myself feeling like the wonderful woman who has chosen to spend her life with me is worthy of much more than anything I could hope to become in a single lifetime. She’s kind, sweet, funny, honest, and above all else patient. It’s not easy to date a writer, let alone live with one, and even during the darkest hours she has been there for me. I, unfortunately, cannot always say the same. I’ve become scared or otherwise absent in the past, and it’s put a lot of tension on our relationship. We’ve had epic highs and unbelievable lows, but through it all we knew we needed one another. The universe was pulling us together before we even knew one another existed, and whenever times got rough one of us (usually my lady) would wait for the other to come around. She can see the forest when I can only see the trees, and because of that she’s saved me more times than I can count. When I hear Bradley belt the hook to this song I’m taken back to all the nights of tension and uncertainty that ultimately made us stronger as a couple. They were hard, and at times it seemed like everything might collapse, but in the end all the fights and trouble meant very little compared to how we felt about one another.
Sometimes the message of a song fits your own outlook on life, even if the actual lyrics have almost nothing in common with your daily reality. Such is the case with “No Flex Zone,” the breakout hit from fast-rising rap duo Rae Sremmurd. I learned about this song not from the group themselves, but rather the swarm of freestyles and remixes the Mike Will Made It produced track inspired in the weeks following its initial release. After writing three or four news articles relating to acts like Juicy J and Nicki Minaj making the song their own, I decided one day that I had probably familiarize myself with the track people could not stop talking about. What I discovered was the kind of urban anthem that no one can stop. A boastful, bass-driven track that warns any and all haters to steer clear because Rae Sremmurd’s world, as well as the personal universe of anyone who enjoys the song, is no place for those who are full of shit.
If my mother reads that last sentence, and knowing my luck she definitely will, I may have to apologize for the use of the word ‘shit,’ but that’s the only word that fits in this situation. Our culture has become driven by people’s love of tearing things down, and a lot of that is owed to social media. People have been given a platform to reach the world, and many seem to believe that also gives them the right to tear down any piece of pop culture or entertainment they believe is wrong, false, or just plain stupid. Whether or not this is in fact the case matters very little, as retweets, likes, and favorites have become currency by which we judge what is and is not in poor taste.
As a writer, I deal with a lot of hate. Whether it’s because I slammed a band someone loved or praised a group others find repulsive, there is always someone who has something negative to say about my words. I’ve come to accept this as a part of life, but I also do my best to block out anything that goes beyond constructive criticism. I have no need for people who only want to tear me down, especially if they’re not willing to take the time and properly explain why they feel so different, and when I’m listening to “No Flex Zone” I know there are others who feel the same.
After years spent climbing the alternative and adult contemporary rock charts, NEEDTOBREATHE surprised recent adopters by releasing an album fueled mainly by their faith and a need to reconnect with their roots. I was among those who were initially taken back by the change of pace, as the group’s last record set them up for a larger-the-life rock album, but over the year I learned to appreciate the message NEEDTOBREATHE were attempting to convey. I’m not the most religious of people, but I do believe it’s possible for music professionals like me to get so lost in our pursuit of a sustainable career that we forget the reasons we fell in love with music in the first place. This idea is never clearer than it is on “The State I’m In,” and it’s one of the tracks the drove me to create this list in the first place.
I haven’t told many people this fact, but the site I created in college, Under The Gun Review, has been struggling a bit in 2014. We lost a good portion of our most talented staff to other positions within the industry, which is great news for them, but ultimately left us unable to cover everything as well as we had throughout 2013 and the years prior. We recruited new writers, some of whom were very talented, and have done our best to reclaim the heights of popularity we once had. For a while I became so addicted to the analytics that I stopped caring so much about the editorial direction and became far more focused on the quantity of posts being created. It wasn’t until I was standing in the back of a sold out House Of Blues in late September watching NEEDTOBREATHE perform this very song that it finally dawned on me that my pursuit of higher traffic had driven me so far from my original goal of creating the best content possible that it had begun to effect my relationship with my staff, as well as people in the industry. I realized then that I was never going to be happy with the site or its traffic unless I was first happy with the content being created. I’m still finding my way back to the place where I started, but I’ve learned to stop looking at traffic and pay more attention to what we’re doing and what we plan on doing in the future. I’m not where I want to be, but I’m getting there, and each time I listen to this song I know I’m back on the right path.