In a year of genre-bending and blending, noteworthy departures, and pure pop, these were the albums that towered above the rest. They weren't necessarily commercial successes, nor were they all beloved by indie blogs. They're simply excellent records that soundtracked my year.
40. Broods - Evergreen
Sadcore siblings Georgia and Caleb Nott, know as Broods, utilize the same minimal electronica found on much of Lorde’s debut. It makes sense, considering producer Joel Little contributed to the production on both albums. Previously released songs “Bridges”, “LAF”, and “Never Gonna Change” remain the strongest material, but the duo takes enough risks to formulate a well-developed sound.
39. You+Me - rose ave.
While P!nk’s rah-rah “I’m mad!” songs are fun, she shines when she slows it down. That’s what makes her surprise collaboration with Dallas Green (aka City and Colour) such a welcomed release. Calling themselves You+Me, the two master acoustic guitar-based, minimal production to make rose. ave an intimate affair with the harmonies as the highlight.
38. White Sea - In Cold Blood
White Sea is the nom de guerre for Morgan Kirby, also a member of M83. For her first solo outing, she chronicles a tumultuous relationship using her voice as the primary force. The acrobatics she performs throughout the record are pretty awe-inspiring; from forceful belts to Mariah Carey whistle notes, Kirby has the power pipes that deliver the record’s biting honesty with both confidence and vulnerability.
37. SOHN - Tremors
SOHN’s appropriately titled Tremors shakes you with its ice cold synths and heavy beats, then cradles you to safety with delicate, soulful vocals suitable for lullabies. However, there’s a darkness that permeates throughout the record that gives Tremors deliciously eerie undertones.
36. Mr. Little Jeans - Pocketknife
Norwegian pop act Mr. Little Jeans may have the strangest name of anybody you’ll find on a best of 2014 list, but Pocketknife deserves to be on all of them. Perfectly blending girl group harmonies, dance elements, and even a children’s choir on standout song “Oh Sailor,” the record is perfect for sunny days or cold nights.
35. Paloma Faith - A Perfect Contradiction
Paloma Faith wanted to change how her audience experienced her music. She felt that her tendency to focus on melancholy and heartbreak made for boring live shows. Her solution? Paloma connected with dance producer heavyweights like Pharrell and Raphael Saadiq to inject energy into her dramatic pop fused with a lush Motown vibe. The highlight of the throwback set is “Only Love Can Hurt Like This” - a song that is the very definition of power ballad and was even penned by music’s most noteworthy balladeer, Diane Warren.
34. Damien Rice - My Favourite Faded Fantasy
Damien Rice is a master at ripping himself open and exposing the harsh truths of love, in its ugliest and most beautiful forms. His first album in eight years reaffirms this ability, but with an added electric element that brings a storming energy to the short set of songs he’s dubbed My Favourite Faded Fantasy. It’s the perfect companion for when your heart is breaking, but this time around, it’s also great for when you’re feeling a little rage and cynicism towards the person who wronged you.
33. Stevie Nicks - 24 Karat Gold
While this is technically a collection of older songs, Stevie uses her voice, which has aged like fine wine, to give some of these lost gems the attention they deserve. The stunning and stark “Lady” is a reminder of why Stevie is a living legend, while she rocks just as hard on the title track.
32. Sharon Van Etten - Are We There
Sharon Van Etten’s fourth album feels like an artist settling into her favorite chair, about to tell you a compelling story. Are We There yet features the songwriting that’s made Van Etten such a formidable force, but the melodies are a little bigger this time around. It’s a welcomed shift.
31. HAERTS - HAERTS
HAERTS gave a taste of their hazy brand of dream pop with their Hemiplegia EP released a year before their LP arrived. Thankfully, nothing’s really changed in terms of their sound and how instantly placeable they are; the speeding-down-the-freeway rush of “Giving Up” is undeniable, while “Call My Name” could soundtrack a lover’s quarrel scene of any early 90s movie.
30. Lykke Li - I Never Learn
Perhaps the year’s most devastating breakup album, Lykke Li chronicles her heartache with the sparse and folky I Never Learn. Gone are the upbeat Swedish trappings that made her an indie pop mainstay, and in its place are thickly reverberating songs with Lykke’s naked voice conveying a specific sadness.
29. Röyksopp + Robyn - Do It Again
While we await another pop masterpiece from Robyn, this “mini-album” with Röyksopp is a nice appetizer. Building on her ability to sell euphoria married with a dash of sadness, Robyn shines on songs like “Do It Again” and “Every Little Thing.” However, electronica masterminds Röyksopp deliver just as satisfyingly with songs like bubbling “Monument” and sledgehammering “SayIt” have their trademark sound but compliment Robyn’s incomparable pop sensibilities.
28. Mary J. Blige - The London Sessions
Even legends take risks to stay fresh. Mary J. Blige made the trek to London in search of a new sound for her brand of soul. She found help from the likes of Disclosure, Sam Smith, Emeli Sandie and other prominent Brits. The result is being hailed as one of Mary’s best albums, and it’s no wonder with tender moments like “When You’re Gone” that sit perfectly alongside the pulsating “Pick Me Up.” It’s an eclectic mix that proves Mary’s instinct to go abroad was a lovely move.
27. Natalie Merchant - Natalie Merchant
Until 2014, 90s relic Natalie Merchant hadn’t released an album of original material since 2001’s Motherland. Her self-titled album reminds us of Natalie’s gift to capture humanity as its most devastating. Lead single “Giving Up Everything” (and its unsettling music video) is bleak, to say the least, but Merchant has a knack for creating sonic yet cathartic representations of sadness. Sometimes, that’s the best company your misery needs.
26. Angel Olsen - Burn Your Fire For No Witness
The most immediately recognizable difference between Angel Olsen’s debut album and the follow-up, Burn Your Fire For No Witness, is an exhilarating confidence woven through each song. It shows in her voice, Olsen’s essential instrument that cascades over rolling waves of guitar strums and AM radio fuzz. The self-assuredness of her new record is palpable in its words, with the midwest-singer constantly pursuing honesty in the situations of which she sings. The tremendous benefit of Olsen’s newfound poise is an inviting, personal album that encourages subsequent spins and features songs you want to explore.
25. Lydia Loveless - Somewhere Else
A voice like Lydia Loveless’ twangy growl sounds like a 3 am last call at a bar mixed with a drunken phone call to a lover. There’s enough honky tonk for the album to find itself rooted in the country genre, but the rock overtones set it firmly and positively apart. Somewhere Else is confessional without being saccharine, and has a biting honesty that never sounds forced.
24. My Brightest Diamond - This Is My Hand
When your lead single features a marching band, you’re going for it. For her fourth album under the moniker My Brightest Diamond, Shara Worden returns to the dramatic beauty that made her debut so stunning. This Is My Hand sounds like slowly breaking glass with Shara exhibiting restraint in all the right places.
23. Mariah Carey - Me. I Am Mariah...The Elusive Chanteuse
The most important thing to acknowledge with Mariah Carey’s awkwardly titled 13th studio album is how extremely intimate and prophetic it is - and how it's also one of her best. While none of the songs really gripped the public with white knuckles, some of them speak to what was revealed after the album’s release - a failed marriage and a woman trying to piece together her life. In the context of her divorce, songs like “Faded” and the George Michael cover “One More Try” become devastating personal accounts. Aside from the tabloid fodder, Me. I Am Mariah... features some of the best tunes Mariah has put her name to in years.
22. Ariana Grande - My Everything
Ariana Grande’s sophomore album has a clear motive: establish the young artist as one of pop’s biggest names. To assist her, pop’s most in-demand producers such as Max Martin, Ryan Tedder, and David Guetta brought out their big guns. While songs like the inescapable “Problem” and anthemic “Break Free” are the hits people will remember, the full album features must-hear songs like the effortless “Be My Baby” and “Why Try” that show off Ariana’s own big gun; her titanium voice. Put the comparisons aside and recognize a young artist who has incredible potential.
21. BANKS - Goddess
Living in blog buzz purgatory for a couple of years, BANKS finally released her debut in the fall of 2014. While most of the songs previously released ended up making the final tracklist, Goddess offers enough surprises to make the long wait worth it. Opener “Alibi” feels more acoustic than the more brooding songs like “Before I Ever Met You”, while “Someone New” offers a tender contrast the album needs with angry kiss-offs like “Drowning” and “Begging for Thread.” The songwriting could use some finessing, but BANKS created a darkly gorgeous record.
20. Miranda Lambert - Platinum
With her fifth album, Miranda Lambert cements her place as country music’s savior. Before her, the usual tropes of girls and trucks littered airwaves with only a few bright spots of relief. Miranda brings old school storytelling with an explosion of personality. On Platinum, Miranda lays the attitude on thick like on the sassy “Little Red Wagon” but balances it with more emotional cuts like “Holding On To You” and lead single “Automatic.”
19. Kylie Minogue - Kiss Me Once
For her first album under Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, Kylie consciously pursued an American pop sound. While the results were mixed in certain parts (“Sexercize” and “I Was Gonna Cancel” rob Kylie of the spark that makes her so incomparable), the other parts feature Kylie remodeling her brand of emotopop to alongside up-and-coming producers like Ariel Rechtshaid and MNEK. “If Only” and “Feels So Good” in particular evolve Kylie’s sound while staying true to her roots. The real highlight of Kylie’s 2014 music came later via a free EP with pop producer Fernando Garibay and truly take her to the uncharted territory fans hoped Kiss Me Once would conquer.
18. Perfume Genius - Too Bright
Press releases for Perfume Genius’ third album Too Bright framed it as his attempt to morph his sound and reach Kate Bush levels of artistic eccentricity. While he may not have created a Hounds of Love or The Dreaming, Mike Hadreas developed a sound that’s queer and beautiful. You won’t hear a more ambitious song than the album’s lead off “Queen", a sparking yet fuzzy gem that soars and safely lands.
17. Katy B - Little Red
Katy B’s love letter to club culture is an unrelenting record that hammers you with thick bass and cold synths. Over the top of it all, Katy’s soulful voice is your guide under the strobe lights. For maximum effect, the continuous mix of the album is the best way to experience Little Red.
16. Azealia Banks - Broke With Expensive Taste
After what feels like decades, Azealia Banks finally got her debut album out. The sudden November release was met with little fanfare, but may find a larger audience in 2015. Despite her ignorant social media antics, there is a quality album here that spans multiple genres and spotlights Azealia as a rapping and singing powerhouse. “Chasing Time” is one of the the year’s best songs with its blend of 90s camp and Azealia’s unique flow.
15. Tori Amos - Unrepentant Geraldines
Easily her best album since 2002’s Scarlet’s Walk, Tori Amos plays to her greatest strengths as a musician and songwriter on Unrepentant Geraldines. Songs like “Weatherman” and “Oysters” can stand toe-to-toe with some of her best material, which feels great to say after a few albums that made listeners question whether or not we’d lost Tori completely. Thankfully, we were foolish to underestimate her.
14. iamamiwhoami - Blue
Over the course of two albums, Jonna Lee’s iamamiwhoami project has been a thrilling ride. The hyper-focus on the visuals, the alien approach to melody, and even the promotional strategy have gone widely under appreciated but deserve immense praise. With Blue, there’s a feeling of finality to the project, which makes for a gorgeous, nostalgic, record. “The Last Dancer” may be the sonic goodbye we deserve, but one we're certainly not ready to say.
13. Jessie Ware - Tough Love
Following up a debut like Devotion is daunting, but Jessie Ware did the unthinkable and made an even better album. While its predecessor relied on a dreamy haze to surround Jessie’s soulful voice, Tough Love puts it front and center with new flourishes. The production is less claustrophobic, allowing the songs to breathe in ways that reveal surprising beauty. There’s an element of joyfulness that permeates throughout, and the sensuality from Devotion is amplified by Jessie’s newfound confidence.
12. Lera Lynn - The Avenues
As mainstream country music attempts to escape from its mediocrity, artists like Lera Lynn bring credibility and innovation back to a once revered genre of music. Voices like Lera’s are rare no matter what the genre, but hers is perfect for the blue note croon and forlorn country storytelling. The Avenues is a genre-blending affair with Lera’s delicate delivery anchoring every track. The songs dip into folk, rock, and jazz territories but always remain buoyed by perfect restraint and a natural emotion. If country music always sounded like this, perhaps it wouldn’t be so polarizing.
11. Betty Who - Take Me When You Go
After two flawless EPs, Betty Who’s been building up to a debut like Take Me When You Go. It was to-be-expected that a full-length Betty Who record would include swirling 80s synths, anthemic choruses, and sugary songwriting. The unexpected moments come in the form of tunes like “Missing You” and “California Rain”, both of which strip back the on-all-cylinders production in favor of a campfire smolder. They hint at an artist with considerable breadth who could make even bigger waves with her next album.
10. Tove Lo - Queen of the Clouds
Competing with Taylor Swift’s 1989 as one of the best, straightforward pop records of 2014, Tove Lo’s debut Queen of the Clouds is everything right with Swedish-infused pop music. With snappy verses that launch into monster choruses, Queen of the Clouds is a relentless collection of solidly-constructed radio hits. With “Habits (Stay High)” finally getting the radio break it deserves, the rest of the record is loaded with possible follow-ups that could be just as enormous. The way Tove Lo divided the album into phases of a relationship wasn’t necessary, but it does highlight her songwriting as her secret weapon. It’s what separates her songs from the more disposable radio pop. She’s not afraid to go stream-of-consciousness like on “Timebomb”, and she’s not afraid to inject dark humor into her songs, like on “Like ‘Em Young.” Tove Lo has endless potential that should make her a music industry mainstay for the foreseeable future.
09. FKA twigs - LP1
Once in a while, an artist emerges as practically unclassifiable. At a high level, it reveals our tendency and need to label something in order to explain it and be OK with it. But listening to FKA twigs’ music forces you to reconsider your definitions of many genres; from R&B to pop to electronica, traces of accepted classifications of music rise up out of FKA twigs’ songs like waves but then gently crash back into the thick, tar-like ocean she’s created. The songs on LP1 sound like sex, death, and release, with FKA twigs playing with being the protagonist and antagonist almost equally The music suffocates for most of its duration, then suddenly push you to the surface for a breath of fresh air in the form of accessibility and gorgeousness. The album’s central song “Pendulum” is one of the finest pieces of music released this year.
08. Tinashe - Aquarius
Tinashe beckons her listener with a breathy invitation: “Welcome to my world.” Albums that go beyond well-sequenced songs and transcend to bodies of work you can live in are rare. That’s what makes Tinashe’s debut Aquarius so exhilarating. On the second track of the album, a sprawling and haunting song called “Bet”, Tinashe’s voice is restrained until she unleashes its power across a reverberated soundscape. It ends with an unexpected electric guitar that swells and swallows the song whole. Moments like this occur throughout the entire record, linking the more intimate songs with straightforward club anthems like “2 On” and “All Hands on Deck.”
07. Lana Del Rey - Ultraviolence
How do you respond to one of your songs becoming a worldwide phenomenon in its remixed form? If you’re Lana Del Rey, you follow it up with something so uncommercial and dense that you wonder if it’s the same artist. While she came to prominence with the controversial Born to Die, Lana Del Rey hits her stride with her claustrophobic yet beautiful follow-up Ultraviolence. She takes on new lyrical tropes while occasionally leaning on the familiar, but going darker and deeper. “West Coast” is one of the most masterfully produced songs of the year (thanks to Damon Albarn) while “Shades of Cool” takes on bold, Pink Floyd-esque classic rock with seismic results.
06. Charli XCX - Sucker
In many ways, Sucker feels like a debut album compared to Charli XCX’s actual debut, 2013’s True Romance. There’s a juvenile, sugary brand of pop that feels so tongue-in-cheek that it’s easy to hear its carefully constructed aesthetic. The fuzzed-out “Gold Coins” and bratty cheerleader send-off “Breaking Up” are unlike anything on pop radio at the moment. It’d be easy for Charli to pen another “I Love It” or rent-a-rapper to earn extra radio play. However, this is pop done completely on her own terms and it’s refreshing to see someone so dedicated to the genre while also working to evolve it.
05. Imogen Heap - Sparks
The creation and realization of Imogen Heap’s fourth solo album Sparks began in 2011. Any concerns that an album conceptualized three years prior to its release may sound stale are alleviated when listening to Sparks in full. Its surprising cohesion makes Sparks Imogen’s best album since 2005’s Speak For Yourself. She quite literally found the creative spark that makes her one of the most innovative living artists. Sparks continues to surprise and reveal its meticulously crafted layers with every listened, packed with the sounds of dishwashers, foreign countries, and inner turmoil. At the end of it, of course, introspective beauty.
04. Sia - 1000 Forms of Fear
Longtime fans of Sia are screaming a giant “I told you so” to everybody who recognized her jaw-dropping talents in 2014. She’s been building up to a record like this after penning megahits for other pop stars and lending her voice to one of David Guetta’s biggest singles. While 1000 Forms of Fear is easily Sia’s most accessible record to date, it’s also her most intimate. Promotional interviews for the record revealed the artist’s mental health struggles that influenced much of the album's inception. One need only listen to the stripped version of her hit “Chandelier” to understand the true nature of the song, and Sia’s entire strategy behind the creation and promotion of the record itself.
03. Jenny Lewis - The Voyager
Throughout her career as a musician, Jenny Lewis has become one of our greatest storytellers. Whether it’s fronting Rilo Kiley and telling tales of teenage love gone awry and suicidal veterans, or pontificating about her father being a deity, Lewis can tell epics in four minutes or less. On her third solo album The Voyager, the storytelling is more imaginative and the melodies are sunnier. Opening track “Head Underwater” dives right into why Jenny Lewis is such a brilliant singer and songwriter; one line is bluntly expressed while the next projects fantastical imagery, protecting the intimate details of the inspiration behind the song and leaving you to fill in the blanks. Sonically, Lewis finally finds the perfect balance of shimmering, classic folk production with modern rock, making this easily her best album to date.
02. Taylor Swift - 1989
With every album she released prior to 1989, Taylor Swift was building the foundation of what would be the most consistent, brilliantly-constructed pop album of the year. She’s always had the knack for writing catchy choruses. Her songwriting perfectly teetered between diary-readings and universal pontification. The last piece was the music; while her self-titled debut had the trappings of mainstream country, each subsequent release quietly embraced a hybrid of pop and country that expanded her reach into the same territories Shania Twain and Faith Hill conquered. However, neither of those woman abandoned their country roots. Taylor, on the other hand, decided to try something new. That’s what makes 1989 hard to digest for some; constant questions about its authenticity will follow it forever. But if you’re a pop music lover, there’s no denying it. With mastermind Max Martin in the co-pilot’s seat, Taylor navigates the pop airspace like a pro. Every song (even its three bonus tracks) features the biggest hooks of the year all underscored with the smart songwriting we’ve come to expect from Swift. One of the best parts of 1989 is the adlibs; just as you’ve gotten used to singing along with the chorus, Taylor introduces a competing melody that elevates the song into the stratosphere. Already the best selling album of 2014 and Taylor’s best selling album (less than two months after its release), 1989 harkens back to the days when pop albums were not just albums; they were events. 1989 is an event.
01. St. Vincent - St. Vincent
Self-titled albums usually arrive with the tag that it’s the artist’s most personal offering to date; one that takes you deeper into her mind with the expectation you’ll emerge with a better understanding of how she approaches the creative process. With Annie Clark’s fourth St. Vincent record, the listener looks upon the artist as a mad scientist of sorts; thrashing guitar enters unexpectedly, vocals soar to falsetto from lyric to lyric, and even Annie herself teased her hair into a wild grey frenzy. The result is a record that takes Annie’s usual approach, holding a mirror up to herself and ourselves while weaving dark tales with sunny dispositions, and folding in an electronic edge that sets this record apart from her previous efforts. Something seemingly metaphorical like “Rattlesnake” documents an actual encounter in the desert with a rattlesnake, but has the underlying goal of making us consider our connections to nature versus our heavily-wired digital needs (which she explores further on the brass-centric call-to-arms “Digital Witness.”) Still, Annie allows us to get closer to her vulnerable side, the side you’d expect a self-titled record to reveal, with other songs. The most obvious and heartfelt is “I Prefer Your Love,” a song she revealed during promo interviews as being about almost losing her mother to illness. “I prefer your love to Jesus,” she sings. A line that perfectly encapsulates the rawness of being faced with the death of someone you love versus their eternal restfulness. This is where Annie Clark excels; serving humanity in its ugliest states but always garnishing it with exquisite beauty.
Bring on 2015! I expect this list to have albums from Robyn, The Dixie Chicks, Garbage, Britney Spears, Jojo, Madonna, and more...