“Shake It Off”
Label: Big Machine Records
“Four years ago I put out a song called ‘Mean’ from the perspective of ‘Why are you picking on me?’ ” Taylor Swift told Billboard earlier this year. ” ‘Shake It Off’ is like, ‘You know what? If you’re upset and irritated that I’m just being myself, I’m going to be myself more, and I’m having more fun than you so it doesn’t matter.'” With “Shake It Off,” the 24-year-old singer-songwriter’s declaration of independence came through loud and clear: Stand up for yourself even when the haters gonna hate, hate, hate. An instant Hot 100 No. 1, “Shake It Off” helped make its parent album, 1989, the top-selling LP released in 2014. The album came too late for Grammy consideration, but it’s no surprise that its first single (Swift’s only eligible release) picked up three nominations.
“All Of Me” (Live)
Label: Columbia Records
It was the 56th annual Grammy Awards that kicked John Legend’s piano ballad, “All of Me,” into overdrive. After he performed the song during the 2014 telecast, sales of the single almost tripled. Released in August 2013 “All of Me” took a full nine months to reach No. 1, the first time Legend, 36, has ever topped the Billboard Hot 100. (The studio recording was submitted for nomination last year, so this live version is eligible this year.) Dedicated to model Chrissy Teigen, whom he married a month after the song came out, and inspired by Billy Joel‘s “She’s Always a Woman,” Legend knew that the slow, stripped-down track wasn’t typical radio fare: “People are used to music that makes them dance,” he says. “But every once in a while, you want to hear something that pierces your heart.”
From: 1000 Forms of Fear
Label: RCA Records/Monkey Puzzle Records
Iggy Azalea wasn’t the only woman from Australia to make an impact on music in 2014. But at age 39, Sia Furler — best-known as a songwriting hit factory for Rihanna and others — took a more circuitous path to the top. Azalea’s celebrations of pure hedonism were classic pop fantasy, but when Sia sang “I’m gonna swing from the chandelier/I’m gonna live like tomorrow doesn’t exist,” it was the pain and despair in her voice that made “Chandelier” so powerful. The tone was also in keeping with Sia’s reluctant approach to promotion: She doesn’t appear in the music video, didn’t do any interviews, and when she performed the song on TV, she kept her back to the camera and never showed her face.
“Stay With Me” (Darkchild Version)
From: In the Lonely Hour
Label: Capitol Records
“I just feel like it’s not a radio song,” says Sam Smith, 22, of his biggest solo hit. “Well, it is now, but it’s a very odd song to be a radio hit. It’s gospel-influenced, and it’s not the certain speed that a song should be in the summer.” When a track is powerful enough, of course, such rules are meant to be broken — especially when the anticipation is as high as it was ahead of Smith’s debut. His featured spots on memorable uptempo hits by British beatmakers Disclosure (“Latch”) and Naughty Boy (“La La La”), and the buzzy response to a four-song EP released in the United Kingdom, led to Smith’s appearance on Saturday Night Live even before his Grammy-nominated first full-length, In the Lonely Hour, was released. And after his slow-burning performance of “Stay With Me” on that legendary stage, there was no stopping the year’s biggest new artist.
Inspired by Curtis Mayfield and originally intended for Cee Lo Green, “Happy” was first released in June 2013 on the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack. But that was before a groundbreaking “24-hour music video,” an Oscar nomination and Billboard chart domination this year turned the song into an undeniable phenomenon. With the studio track submitted for nomination in 2013, this live version is in contention for the 57th annual Grammy Awards. Built on a hook that took over your brain the first time you heard it, “Happy” ruled the world all spring and summer, spending 10 weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100 and topping the charts in two dozen countries. ” ‘Happy’ doesn’t have the word ‘sweat’ in it or girls booty-shaking,” says Williams. “It was pure emotion.”
This story first appeared in the Dec. 26 issue of Billboard.