The best tunes weren’t all on the radio.
1. Kimbra, “Miracle”
Kimbra, the New Zealand singer best known for duetting with Gotye on the smash hit “Somebody That I Used to Know,” released a bold, funky album called The Golden Echo this summer, but for whatever reason, it hasn’t really taken off. This is a shame, as it’s a huge step forward for her as a songwriter and as a performer. “Miracle” is the second single from that record, and it’s the kind of extraordinarily joyful pop song that can nudge any mood a bit closer to ecstasy.
2. MNEK, “Every Little Word”
The British musician Uzoechi Emenike is only 19, but he sings and produces his songs with an impressive degree of sophistication. “Every Little Word” is essentially an R&B song, but Emenike’s production is extremely energetic — it’s not quite EDM, but when he belts out the chorus, it packs the emotional punch of a great house track.
3. Tink featuring Jeremih, “Don’t Tell Nobody”
There’s a light, breezy feeling to the R&B side of this track — everything feels a bit weightless when Jeremih sings the hook, and the keyboard tones indicate a chill vibe even if the vocals are all about conflict. Tink’s performance goes against all that — her rapped verses sounds anxious and angry, but never so much that seems like she’s freaking out. There’s a nice sense of emotional scale here, so while she genuinely seems hurt by this dude who’s sleeping around on her, she also comes off as strong and unwilling to put up with his shit. Or, she is until their fights turn into sex and they get sucked into the cycle all over again.
4. Hyuna, “Red”
The South Korean rapper Hyuna is obviously heavily inspired by American hip-hop, but as much as she approximates the cadences and lyrical forms of U.S. rap, everything she does is filtered through the bold, hyperactive aesthetic of K-pop and comes out sounding like something entirely fresh and new. It’s totally unnecessary to understand Korean to enjoy a song like “Red,” which is so full of overwhelming hooks and badass attitude that words are besides the point.
5. A.G. Cook featuring Hannah Diamond, “Keri Baby”
PC Music, an enigmatic crew of experimental pop producers, singers, and rappers from London, have created some of 2014’s most exciting and surreal pop music. “Keri Baby,” a song produced by PC Music ringleader A.G. Cook and featuring vocalist Hannah Diamond, is PC Music at its very best — insanely catchy and gleefully childlike, but also willfully strange and disorienting.
6. Sophie, “Lemonade”
Sophie is another artist connected to the PC Music scene, though it’s unclear on whether or not he’s a member, per se. His single “Lemonade” alternates between two ridiculously catchy hooks – one slow and sexy, the other fast and manic – but it’s all held together by his trademark sped-up androgynous vocals.
7. QT, “Hey QT”
PC Music’s A.G. Cook and Sophie joined forces to produce “Hey QT,” a single that’s so cheerful and adorable that it’s easy to ignore that the vocals are so processed they barely seem like they were ever sung by an actual human being.
8. Saint Pepsi, “Fiona Coyne”
Ryan DeRobertis, the musician known as Saint Pepsi, stepped up his game in 2014 by adding his voice to his glossy, kitschy-yet-classy disco tunes. As it turns out, he’s a pretty good singer, and very good at writing a vocal hook. “Fiona Coyne,” a single released over the summer, is a lovelorn jam that may be the only notable song about falling in love with a character from Degrassi.
9. Pearls Negras, “Pensando em Voce”
This track by the Brazilian girl group Pearls Negras isn’t completely out of the ordinary in terms of trap and Baile funk, but the way it all snaps together with that very Destiny’s Child-ish melody is just incredibly exciting. The level of energy and enthusiasm here is just off the charts, to the point that it’s very hard to imagine a language barrier being a problem for anyone who hears this thing.
10. Bernhoft, “One Way Track”
The Norwegian singer Jarle Bernhoft’s third album has been mostly ignored in the United States since it came out this summer, which is a real shame, as it really should be on the radio alongside like-minded R&B singers like Bruno Mars and Sam Smith. “One Way Track” isn’t a single, but it’s the one that really ought to be a hit, or at least something you’d regularly hear at a Starbucks or something.
11. Shamir, “On the Regular”
Shamir’s first single for the XL label is a ridiculously catchy bubblegum rap tune with a bouncy electro-pop beat and a vaguely androgynous vocal performance. The song is great on its own, but Shamir’s goofy and charismatic presence in the video makes it even more fun.
12. Kate Tempest, “Marshall Law”
Kate Tempest is an award-winning poet in addition to being a rapper, and so it should come as no surprise that she’s penned some of the most vivid lyrics to come out on any record this year. “Marshall Law,” the opening track on her debut albumEverybody Down, is essentially a densely written short story about a bored party girl meeting a desperate, delusional drug dealer at a bar. The detail is incredible, but her empathy for both of these very flawed characters is even more impressive.
13. Slow Club, “Suffering Me, Suffering You”
The British indie duo Slow Club have been making great music for half a decade, but really hit their stride this year with Complete Surrender, an album full of songs that fully embrace the style and raw emotion of R&B music. “Suffering Me, Suffering You,” a song written and sung by Rebecca Taylor, is a stunning single that starts off as a fragile soul ballad, but shifts into a full-on Motown tribute by the second verse.