The 50 Best Albums Of 2014

The 50 Best Albums Of 2014

Music is a messy thing. There’s too much of it, too many genres, too many ideas, for anyone to make sense out of all of it — or even to hear all of it. The idea of imposing a narrative on 365 days of music, of making sense of a whole year, is a fool’s errand. Still, some years, stories and patterns and commonalities emerge. Trends cut across genre lines and become movements. New voices rise up and reshape the landscape in their image. Some years, you can start to feel like you’re making sense out of all of it. This isn’t one of those years.

Looking at Stereogum’s list of the year’s best albums, you won’t find a whole lot of common threads or shared ideas. There’s not one genre or aesthetic or feeling that dominates the whole thing. Instead, we’ve got a list that seesaws wildly between explosive joy and wizened self-aware depression and staring-out-windows indolence and feverish all-consuming rage. It’s a list where the world’s biggest pop star sits sandwiched between a pair of insurgent Atlanta rap bugout kings and a sharper-than-ice queer singer-songwriter expressionist, where a mob of previously-unknown crust-metal demons snuck into the top 10 ahead of many of the year’s most acclaimed albums. Stereogum is a site that’s known for covering indie rock, and you’ll find plenty of down-the-middle guitar-driven indie on our list. But you’ll also find elephantine stoner metal and slick Nashville country and disorienting future-R&B and brutishly minimal West Coast rap and splintered punk rock and shimmering retro-maniacal dance music. What I’m saying is: This list doesn’t make sense. And that’s a good thing. It shouldn’t.

Looking for common threads, only one thing jumped out at me: There are a lot of old motherfuckers on this list. Across genres and economic strata, crusty veterans had a good year. You’ll only find a small handful of debut albums on the entire top-50 list, but you will find plenty of artists who made their greatest impact a decade or more ago. For the most part, these veterans, whether we’re talking about scorched-earth storyteller Sun Kil Moon or studio-pop pro Jenny Lewis or Swiss metal boundary-smasher Thomas Gabriel Fischer (of Triptykon), these veterans have found new ways to get at the heart of what everyone liked about them in the first place. In an increasingly decentralized music business, maybe there are fewer people now standing between these people and the things they want to say. These musicians are evolving, but they’re also straying true to the selves we’ve known for a long time.

The Stereogum staff who put this list together is different from the one that put together last year’s list, which was different from the one the year before. This time around, we’ve got Gabriela Tully Claymore and James Rettig, both champions of new strains of DIY pop, and Ryan Leas, the young classic rocker who’s written so many great features for us. The list is as much about Stereogum’s staff as it is about the year in music itself. These are our favorite albums, not the ones that are objectively the best. (There is no objective best in something as personal as music.) And together, we’ve assembled a list that’s just as messy as the year it represents. We hope you find things that you haven’t heard, things that move you like they moved us. Start the countdown here. –Tom Breihan

50 Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal (What’s Your Rupture?)


Parquet Courts are the kind of chronically chill band that has been exhaustingly compared to Pavement, but on the apathy barometer, Sunbathing Animal should be regarded in the shadow of bands like Television. Songs like “Dear Ramona” and “Always Back In Town” display the same kind of structural rigidity found on Marquee Moon. Parquet Courts are smart, sure, but their new record isn’t as smarmy as Light Up Gold, and its lyrics are more pointed. There are a lot of questions to be found on Sunbathing Animal, many of which are rhetorical and go unanswered. “How is agency built in a life unfulfilled?” Andrew Savage sings on “What Color Is Blood,” before circling around to the choral line, “Excuse me as I slip on out.” These aren’t lessons on living, but rather tales of evasion — displacing the question in favor of never finding an answer. –Gabriela [LISTEN]

49 St. Vincent – St. Vincent (Loma Vista)


Sometimes self-titling a record several LPs into a discography is meant to signal a new phase of old things, a mid-career back-to-basics. Other times, it’s something like St. Vincent’s newest offering: an announcement, an arrival. Though St. Vincent wasn’t as shocking a step forward as Strange Mercy had been from Actor, it still feels like a destination toward which each of Annie Clark’s albums had been incrementally building. We couldn’t see it with the sinisterly sweet Actor or even with the sweetly sinister Strange Mercy, but this version of St. Vincent was always what was meant to be — this version, of colorless hair and sci-fi aesthetics and guitar and synth layers ranging from melted to glassy but always, always remaining sterile and ethereally chilly. Clark had steadily been on her way to becoming one of the luminaries of this era of indie, and this album — with mutated grooves like “Digital Witness” or reflections as moving as “I Prefer Your Love” — feels like the official coronation. –Ryan [LISTEN]

48 TOPS – Picture You Staring (Arbutus)


TOPS make the kind of music that should soundtrack the wind-down of the best day of your life. It’s impossible to listen to a record like Picture You Staring and not feel the corners of your mouth begin to curl upward. There’s something atmospheric and intimate about the record that recalls other Arbutus releases, but TOPS have a definitive pop streak that is toned down by Jane Penny’s vocals. Penny’s voice creeps into empty spaces, like slow-released vapor, intertwining with bold synth lines to create something simultaneously haunting and easy to listen to. –Gabriela [LISTEN]

47 Thou – Heathen (Gilead Media)


New Orleans produces sludge bands the way University Of Kentucky produces NBA-ready talent: with remarkable consistency and an unusually high standard of quality. NOLA sludge has been a premium product since 1988, when Eyehategod formed, but even among such a peer group, Thou stand out. The Louisiana band’s fourth full-length album, Heathen, layers grinding, industrial assault with explosive bursts and expansive webs of melody, and balances its gnarliest, hardest moments with passages of pastoral ambience. Pure sludge is cathartic noise, violence made sound, but in the hands of Thou, it feels like high art. Heathen is an album of tremendous sorrow, wonder, ugliness, and beauty — am inspiring thing to behold and even perhaps a masterpiece. –Michael [LISTEN]

46 Spoon – They Want My Soul (Loma Vista)


When you crank out great music as consistently as Spoon does, it can become story-less. You might find people trying to impose a narrative where there’s only an inhumanly unerring band with a seemingly infinite selection of hooks. The story attached to They Want My Soul was that it was the long-awaited “return to form” after the first moderately disappointing album of their reign, 2010’s Transference. See, this is crazy, because Transference is a gem in the catalog — a dusty and shambolic take on the typically well-oiled Spoon mechanism. Bogus narrative aside, it does make for a fine symbiosis with They Want My Soul, an album that’s perhaps Spoon’s shiniest, grooviest, most nocturnal release yet, and feels all the more so for its comparison point with Transference. Whether in the impeccable pop of “Do You” or the shimmery synths of “Inside Out” and “New York Kiss,” this is Spoon at the height of their powers but injecting a few new colors into the mix — mostly a range of luminescent blues that work as well on a humid night walk through Manhattan as they do on a humid night drive through Florida. –Ryan [LISTEN]

45 You Blew It! – Keep Doing What You’re Doing (Topshelf)


Keep Doing What You’re Doing reminds me of almost every song that I loved in middle school for adhering to what I would have deemed, “raw, unapologetic emotion.” The record is undeniably kind of sad, it’s maybe even a little angsty, but if we revoke the “Emo Revival” labeling from You Blew It!’s sophomore album, we’re left with a the kind of glaring honesty that feels uncomfortable, or at least jarring upon first listen. Regardless, Keep Doing What You’re Doing is a pop record built on bulletproof melodies and defiant one-liners that burrow their way into your subconscious, “You’ve made the list/ of people I won’t miss,” Tanner Jones sings on “Rock Spring.” Keep Doing What You’re Doing is so confessional that its specificity becomes relatable once you’re able to admit it. –Gabriela [LISTEN]

44 Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds In Country Music (High Top Mountain)


It’s not every day you come across a country album with a title like Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, or a country album that talks about hallucinogenics and, uh, “reptile aliens made of light.” The music on Sturgill Simpson’s sophomore outing isn’t always as idiosyncratic as its thematic eccentricities might suggest — Simpson’s also been praised for the way his music recalls the outlaw country tradition. Of course, on the other side of things you’ve got the warped psychedelic outro of “It Ain’t All Flowers.” In either case, Simpson brings a whole lot of gravity to his music; he’s one of those guys you just assume has seen some things, especially given the drugs he’s singing about. Bonus points for the fact that Simpson worked up a slow, yearning cover of When In Rome’s “The Promise,” where he plays it quiet until one big, powerful reading of the chorus toward the end, maybe the album’s most beautiful moment. –Ryan [LISTEN]

43 LVL Up – Hoodwink’d (Double Double Whammy/Exploding In Sound)


In my initial review of Hoodwink’d, I talked a lot about the bigger picture: how the album deals with human nature’s enormous capability for self-deception, and how the band uses mysticism and clever turns of phrase to acutely capture the malaise that plagues our entire generation. But what I neglected to talk about is just how fucking fun this record is to listen to. Since I wrote that, I’ve seen the LVL UP boys do their thing live a few times, and each time I come away with the same impression: These dudes know how to write a hook, they know how to inject it with just the right balance of levity and gravitas, and they know how to rock out. They’ve created a living, breathing classic with Hoodwink’d, one that recalls the past but feels urgently modern and deliriously enjoyable. –James [LISTEN]

42 Triptykon – Melana Chasmata (Century Media)


In his own way, Thomas Gabriel Fischer — fka Tom G. Warrior — was sort of a self-sabotaging Kozelek-ian troll this year: First, he slagged off his own new album, Triptykon’s doomy Melana Chasmata, saying, “[It] might be the most deficient post-Celtic Frost reunion album I have been involved in.” Then, he slagged off his tour mates, the very popular (and notoriously nice) At The Gates. Fortunately, Melana Chasmata is powerful enough to overcome such conflicts and doubts. In fact, it’s an album that revels in conflicts and doubts. Melana Chasmata is not a deficient album — it’s a towering, consuming vortex — but it is, in its way, tentative, morose, and wounded. Those are not emotions often displayed in metal, especially not when the music is presented with such a dichotomous roar. In a sense, Fischer’s uncertainty serves to underscore the album’s gravity. He shouldn’t be boastful or even necessarily sure of himself: He’s a serious artist, and Melana Chasmata is a serious work of art. –Michael [LISTEN]

41 Vince Staples – Hell Can Wait (Def Jam)


The major-label rap EP is having a minor resurgence mostly for economic reasons: Labels don’t want to pay a bunch to promote untested artists, so they float unpublicized mini-albums to see whether people react. In Vince Staples’ hands, though, the EP is something else. In seven songs and about 20 minutes, the young Long Beach rapper leaves behind his old Odd Future comrades, sneering dexterously over noisily minimal beats and sounding cool as fuck doing it. And with a song like “Hands Up,” there’s a political resonance to Staples’ intensity that pushes the whole project to another level. –Tom [LISTEN]

40 Tinashe – Aquarius (RCA)


Ever since “2 On” came out in January — and especially since Drake made his own version of the track in May — Tinashe has been rocketing toward urban pop’s A-List. The triumphant Aquarius is proof that she deserves her place in the pantheon. The album involves a who’s who of 2014’s top producers (DJ Mustard, Mike Will Made It, Detail, Dev Hynes, Stargate, Boi-1da, Clams Casino, DJ Dahi) and features guest verses from Future, A$AP Rocky, and Schoolboy Q, yet in contrast to your typically stilted and schizophrenic major-label debut album, Aquarius bends all those voices toward Tinashe’s own exquisite vision. It’s a sleek, sultry, understated take on R&B that draws from decades’ worth of history while still sounding fresh and forward-thinking. If there was any ground left between the so-called “indie R&B” movement and the mainstream, this collection closes that gap for good. –Chris [LISTEN]

39 Caribou – Our Love (Merge)


Caribou’s albums have always been electronic to various extents, but they seemed less like club music than what came to be known for better or worse as IDM — brainy experimental sounds better suited for reflective personal listening than dancefloor excursions. Our Love is not like that. The album sounds great on headphones, sure, and tracks like “Silver” and “Back Home” bloom into brilliant compositions on par with Dan Snaith’s most florid psych-pop and krautrock turns. But first and foremost, you can move to this music. Rhythm and repetition are the drivers, and Snaith being Snaith, they’re as breathtaking as his melodies and textures. He lets his sleek, futuristic loops gather momentum until heart, mind, and body are all aflutter. The few words he does deploy — sentences as simple as “I can’t do without you,” fragments as basic as “our love” — speak volumes. –Chris [LISTEN]

38 Horrendous – Ecdysis (Dark Descent)


The best present-day death metal tends to fall into one of two camps: forward-thinking avant-gardists (Gorguts, Morbus Chron) or old-school gods resurrected (Carcass, At The Gates). Horrendous are neither of those things: They’re a young American band playing in a traditionalist subgenre — they’re revisiting the buzzing, ultra-catchy style of old Swedish greats like Entombed and Dismember — but their second LP, Ecydysis, merely uses that as bedrock on which to build a new city. Actually, “new” is probably the wrong word: Ecydysis feels well-worn, soulful even, but unlike most Swedeath revivalists, it complicates those crushing riffs and that intoxicating guitar tone with textures, structures, dynamics, and melodies that recall nothing so much as Metallica circa Ride The Lightning. Ecydysis doesn’t just raise the stakes and standards for everyone else in the game; it’s a modern classic. –Michael [LISTEN]

37 Mitski – Bury Me At Makeout Creek (Double Double Whammy)


There’s a moment in Bury Me At Makeout Creek’s “Drunk Walk Home Alone” when 23-year-old Mitski Miyawaki’s voice quavers, eventually descending into metallic, contorted howling. That’s just one of many such moments of unbridled exasperation that define Mitski’s third album. Bury Me At Makeout Creek is filled with deafening pauses like these, when all sense of caution and resignation is shed. It isn’t an aggressive record, but there’s something self-aware and almost bitingly melancholic about it that negates the sweeter tendencies found on Mitski’s first two releases. Still, each track contains some sort of ripple, a slight suggestion that things are not as serious as they may seem. It’s easy to compare the lukewarm sentiment of Bury Me At Makeout Creek to the Liz Phair of Exile In Guyville, but it’s more audacious, and more fun, to argue that the album is reminiscent of Hole’s Live Through This. Bury Me At Makeout Creek is deeply personal and in no way instructive, but it might help save you from yourself. –Gabriela [LISTEN]

36 The Men – Tomorrow’s Hits (Sacred Bones)


Some people are starting to take the Men for granted. Or, rather, some people are actually starting to get annoyed with The Men. With the original novelty of “former hardcore band goes classic rock” having worn off by now, the fact that the Men keep churning out a record a year is looking, to some, like diminishing returns. Which is a shame, because Tomorrow’s Hits kills — shaved down to an expertly balanced eight tracks, it might be the tightest distillation of everything these guys are about right now. That means that while there’s all the ragged glory we now expect from them, there are also little modulations the band don’t get quite enough credit for. Tomorrow’s Hits is where the Men most fully commit to a raw, contemporary take on classic rock vibes and tropes, but it also has things like “Different Days,” which could almost be considered “garage krautrock.” The highlight is “Settle Me Down,” a ’60s pop detour that’s also the most gorgeous song the band have yet released. –Ryan [LISTEN]

35 Flying Lotus – You’re Dead (Warp)


For a while there, it seemed Steven Ellison would just keep spinning further and further off the face of the planet. But once he shot into the stars on Cosmogramma, and plunging into dreams and subconsciousness on the slightly more organic Until The Quiet Comes, now Ellison goes full-on space-age prog-jazz on You’re Dead!, an album that gets at all the really big, really mystic, really unanswerable questions about the moments of death and what comes next. More than any of his other work, You’re Dead! leans hardest on Ellison’s jazz interests, at times entirely leaving behind the electronic and hip hop production that first made his name. The result is the Flying Lotus album that perhaps takes the most effort to dig into, based less on any discrete songs and arriving at Ellison’s perennial goal of crafting one continuous piece over the course of an album. It’s a sinewy, strange trip, and as always, Ellison’s succeeded at making art that’s a convincing depiction of the unknowable. –Ryan [LISTEN]

34 How To Dress Well – "What Is This Heart?" (Domino)


Tom Krell started out his career by hiding himself in shrouds of mysticism, muffling his spectral R&B with vocal effects and lo-fi techniques and sending out only out-of-focus photos of himself. So it’s striking that Krell’s newest, best album is so emotionally naked, so exultant in its self-disclosure. On “What Is This Heart?”, Krell strips the effects from his voice and sings, passionately and eloquently, about hidden fears and deep needs, drawing as much psychic inspiration from emo as he ever did from R&B. Musically, the album is grand and majestic, with synths that layer up like sheets of glass. Altogether, it’s a pretty, pretty thing. –Tom [LISTEN]

33 Aphex Twin – SYRO (Warp)


In the decade-plus since the last proper Aphex Twin album, many have tried their hands at approximating the subliminal impact of Richard D. James’ uncanny twitch-float. Nobody has even come close. On SYRO, James clears out his vaults, showing us what he’s been doing during his time as a homebody father in an isolated village. And while his tracks don’t exactly sound like the future anymore, they still yank us out of the slipstream of time in much the same way. And now we get to hear, once again, how a master turns clanks and whirrs and bloops into emotional private symphonies. –Tom [LISTEN]

32 Future Islands – Singles (4AD)


Like the Men with Tomorrow’s Hits, Future Islands were going for some sardonic audacity when titling their fourth LP Singles. You know, this is some idea of pop music, some meta-notion of a singles collection, but not the kind of stuff that’d ever be mainstream today. Well, the joke is on them, or us, or everyone together, I guess: Singles actually did break the band in a big way, riding on the infectiousness of “Seasons (Waiting On You)” and their immediately immortal performance of it on Letterman back in March. While that song’s certainly a highlight, it’s not alone. True to its title, Singles actually feels like a glisteningly catchy but still take-no-prisoners greatest hits collection dropped in from nowhere. –Ryan [LISTEN]

31 Ty Segall – Manipulator (Drag City)


Ty Segall has devoted much of his career to finding the sloppy, fiery magic that can happen when a group of people play loud rock music in a room together. But his greatest triumph to date came when he ditched just about everyone else and made himself sound like a band. Segall recorded almost everything on his massive double album Manipulator himself. Along the way, he learned some new tricks: Conjuring grandeur with walloping choruses, injecting syncopation into his riff-rock onslaught, turning his howl into a potent glam-rock falsetto. And he did all this, miraculously, without losing the go-for-broke live-band immediacy that made him a force in the first place. Stay out of this guy’s way. –Tom [LISTEN]

30 Todd Terje – It’s Album Time (Olsen Records)


It’s Album Time, and not a moment too soon. After a decade of bubbling his way up through the ranks, Todd Terje turned his playful gurgles loose on a full-length project, and holy shit was it worth the wait. The Norwegian disco-house auteur made a dance music odyssey that felt like a cartoon, and not just because the album cover was a colorful doodle. There’s a giddiness in these songs that often gets squashed out in the pursuit of Serious Electronic Music. Yet It’s Album Time isn’t mere kids stuff. It has the air of a spectacular night out, every track fizzing and sloshing its way around the edge of a glass until it spills over into euphoria. They flow into each other expertly, too, playing out with a feel for mood and pacing so that the album never seems to get old. Even without ace 2012 single “Inspector Norse” tacked onto the end as an exclamation point, it’s a wonderful ride. –Chris [LISTEN]

29 Ariel Pink – pom pom (4AD)


It’s unfortunate that Ariel Pink’s 2014 will not be remembered as the year of pom pom, but rather as the year that Pink should have kept his mouth shut. I say this because pom pom really is an exceptional record — it’s difficult to make something as pointedly perverse as this sound both turbulent and sweet at the same time. pom pom is dripping in tongue-in-cheek references to the vapidity of L.A. culture, all the while grounding itself in Pink’s trademarked distressing version of Wonderland. All seventeen tracks boast the same childish buoyancy as Pink’s earlier projects, but there is something sinister about the album’s overall sentiment magnified by his uncompromising, explicit lyrics, that makes pom pom stand out and above. –Gabriela [LISTEN]

28 Fucked Up – Glass Boys (Matador)


“Warm Change,” the fifth song on Glass Boys, ends with a two-minute guitar solo and organ wash that could pass for the Who jamming in a basketball arena. The album is mostly more brutal than that, an onslaught of shimmering melodic guitars, shrill howls, and echo-booming drums that sounds like aging punk scrubbing his filthy conscience with the most majestic Brillo pad. Yet even as they scaled back their operatic ambitions in favor of (relatively) short, (relatively) sweet jolts of behemoth hardcore, there was an unmistakable classic rock swagger to Fucked Up’s latest. The end result suggested that Damian Abraham’s demons look a lot like Monsters Of Rock. –Chris [LISTEN]

27 Cloud Nothings – Here And Nowhere Else (Carpark/Mom + Pop)


Give me a recording of Cloud Nothings’ Jayson Gerycz drumming along to a click-track, and I could listen to it for hours, bare-boned. When Tom elected Here And Nowhere Else as Album Of The Week back in April, he too was fixated on this element of Cloud Nothings’ fourth album. There is something almost grossly ambitious about Gerycz’s technique that illuminates Here And Nowhere Else as an experiment in achieving optimum balance. Lead singer Dylan Baldi’s voice is almost grating, but anything more delicate would make the band’s punctual delivery sound less ferocious, tamer. Lyrically, Here And Nowhere Else could be considered angst-ridden, but all eight songs on the record pocket a kind of intensity that transforms sulking in the corner into an act of rebellion. –Gabriela [LISTEN]

26 Jessie Ware – Tough Love (Universal/Island)


When Jessie Ware debuted with Devotion two years ago, her music was pure understated simmer. Much of Tough Love maintained and even improved upon that aesthetic: the scintillating title track, the suave “Sweetest Song,” the sweaty Miguel bass flirtation “Kind Of… Sometimes… Maybe.” Elsewhere the album went full Adele, and never better than on “Say You Love Me,” a show-stopping torch song that proves Ware can be just as alluring when she lets it all hang out. Everything between those poles, from the Dev Hynes disco excursion “Want Your Feeling” to the surging synth-pop anthem “You & I (Forever),” was pretty sweet too. –Chris [LISTEN]

25 Woods Of Desolation – As The Stars (Northern Silence Productions)


About halfway through Sunbather’s process of running the table in 2013, there were — understandably — predictions 2014 would bring a slew of sound-alikes. But that never really happened. The only notable album that came out this year that might fit that description was As The Stars, from the reclusive Australian band Woods Of Desolation. But WOD aren’t influenced by Deafheaven — if anything, they’re an influence on Deafheaven — and As The Stars isn’t a lesser Sunbather: It’s a rawer, harder, nastier product; less build more climax; street-level crack rather than fine Colombian. But it gets you just as high, and it’s even more addictive. –Michael [LISTEN]

24 Chumped – Teenage Retirement (Anchorless)


Over the past few years, there’s been a reclamation of punk-pop: It’s a pointed inversion of pop-punk — a term that still holds some negative connotations due to a mid-2000s saturation — and it’s allowed bands that would have previously been ignored in the traditional indie rock paradigm to realign themselves and gain some recognition. Chumped is one of the best new bands to come out of the fold, and their debut Teenage Retirement is a sparkling example of the form. It’s all about the tumultuous ups and downs of early adulthood, a time during which “when I hold you, I don’t feel change” can quickly change to “it’s so easy to feel nothing.” There’s a vast difference between the two, and Chumped traverse that gulf with aplomb. The burden to pull it all off rests on the shoulders of lead vocalist Anika Pyle, who is as charismatic a frontperson as they come. Her voice provides the anchor on Teenage Retirement, and everything else flows beautifully around it. –James [LISTEN]

23 Perfume Genius – Too Bright (Matador)


The year’s single most powerful musical moment might be what happens after Mike Hadreas sings “No family’s safe when I sashay” on “Queen.” It’s a “WHOOF,” a sort of thundering grunt, a sound you might expect to hear on a Kanye West anthem. For Hadreas, who used to make delicate and beautiful piano ballads (and who sometimes still does), that’s the sound of power being harnessed. Too Bright is just as much about gay identity as his previous albums, but it’s also about gay power. With Portishead’s Adrian Utley and PJ Harvey’s John Parish as co-conspirators, Hadreas has found a grand, dark, orchestral glamor, and it looks good on him. –Tom [LISTEN]

22 Taylor Swift – 1989 (Big Machine)


On the 1989 deluxe-edition track “You Are In Love,” Taylor Swift provides a justification for all of the songs she’s ever written: “You understand now why they lost their minds and fought the wars/ And why I’ve spent my whole live trying to put it into words.” At the end of the day, Swift is just trying to figure out how to talk about this thing called love and on 1989, she’s erected her largest battlefield to date. Forgoing the pop-country stylings that made her so successful, she opts for big-emotion pop bombast: the winking “Blank Space,” the thinly veiled “Style,” and the dewy-eyed “Wildest Dreams” are among the best songs she’s ever written, and she yields these weapons with a professional incisiveness. Gone are the personalized anecdotes of past highlights like “All Too Well” and “Dear John” — she’s aiming for the big leagues. And somehow by going large, Swift has made her most intimate album experience yet. She’s created something that feels closer to the “true” Taylor Swift — whatever that may mean — and she’s done it by borrowing heavily and smartly from her contemporaries. She’s indebted to artists like HAIM, CHVRCHES, and her BFF Lorde: 1989 is as much a distillation and refinement of current “indie”-pop trends as Yeezus was to the rap scene last year. Love her or hate her, Swift has made the most successful mainstream pop album of the year. She got people talking about and buying music in a climate that seems increasingly averse to either, and she has the skills to back it all up. –James [BUY]

21 Young Thug, Birdman, & Rich Homie Quan – Rich Gang: Tha Tour Part 1 (Cash Money)


Young Thug has been a presence in Atlanta street-rap for years, but with his yammering helium croak and his head-blown stream-of-consciousness lyrics, he always seemed too weird for mainstream consumption. That changed in 2014, when Thug scored a handful of underground hits out of nowhere. And his star went to another level when he linked up with Rich Homie Quan, whose bluesy baritone gurgle turned out to be the perfect complement to Thug’s yip. Under Birdman’s tutelage, the Rich Gang mixtape finds them in an ideal place: Still figuring out how to make hits, still excited enough to make those hits weird. Savor it while it lasts. –Tom [LISTEN]

20 Strand Of Oaks – Heal (Dead Oceans)


With songs like “Goshen ’97,” “Shut In,” and the colossal “JM,” it’d be easy to mistake former folkie Timothy Showalter as having entered his big-screen, cathartic Americana phase in a way that would make Jim James proud. But there are a lot of layers to the pain that necessitated HEAL — everything from adultery to car accidents to house fires — and Showalter takes all those loose, brief glimpses of synthesizers or fuzzed-out guitars from his previous work and explores them more fully, pushing his sound in a surprising number of directions. Synth-y jams like the title track and “Wait For Love” come off like harrowed psychological exorcisms just the same as those volcanic guitar breaks in “JM.” HEAL has one of those great paradoxes in music — it’s an expansive album musically, but is rooted in all those personal and intimate details that keep big music human. It’s one of the year’s breakthrough albums, and a great one at that. –Ryan [LISTEN]

19 Real Estate – Atlas (Domino)


On first blush, Atlas sounded like Real Estate’s sighing pastorals softening past the point of impressionism and into sentimental mush. But the more I peered into those pools of reverb, the clearer I saw my own reflection. My wife and I bought a house this year, and whatever domestic tasks we undertook — painting the living room, weeding the garden, chilling on the deck with friends — this album’s gorgeous nuances proved to be the ideal soundtrack. Is that lame? Maybe. Bourgeois? Almost certainly. It was also beautiful. Anybody paying attention to this fucked-up world has to feel at least a little uncomfortable with a life of peaceful contentment, and it’s definitely an asshole move to wall yourself off from the world’s suffering rather than doing something about it. But let’s not forget that the goal is to help more people feel the bliss that courses through “Navigator,” not less. –Chris [LISTEN]

18 Eric Church – The Outsiders (EMI Nashville)


Over the course of The Outsiders, Eric Church channels “Black Album”-era Metallica, name-drops Satan, and attempts to fuck his wife so hard that their house falls down. Those songs are awesome, and Church — swaggering rock star that he is — stakes his image on them. But his greatest strength might be his ballads, and The Outsiders is stacked with those, too. He marvels that anyone worth a damn would attach herself to “A Man That Was Gonna Die Young.” He revels in the memory of a guys’ getaway to “Talladega” just before full-fledged adulthood swallowed him whole. He fearfully bristles at the thought of his “Dark Side” coming out if his family is ever in danger. And at the album’s triumphant climax, he passionately pleads with a former flame to “Give Me Back My Hometown,” Pizza Hut and all. –Chris [LISTEN]

17 Jenny Lewis – The Voyager (Warner Bros.)


Jenny Lewis has lived fast, but as of yet she has not died young. Thus, she has incredible stories to tell, like the one on “Late Bloomer” where she flies to Paris at age 16 and ends up in a threesome, but she’s also feeling some emotional whiplash, like when she laments on “Just One Of The Guys” that she can only see her thirtysomething self as “just another lady without a baby.” Throughout The Voyager, the indie-rock icon derives tremendous dramatic weight from that tension, from watching the sand sift through the hourglass and asserting, “There’s a little bit of fight left in me yet.” Her years of experience prove valuable here; the album’s sleek California folk-rock sparkles with the studio craft of a time-tested professional. Underneath that sheen, the same vulnerability and fortitude Lewis made her name on remains — wearier, perhaps, but wiser too. –Chris [LISTEN]

16 EMA – The Future’s Void (Matador)


For all the noise made about the technology paranoia of The Future’s Void, at its heart it’s an album about searching for a connection. Whether through a screen or IRL, Erika M. Anderson is struggling to come to terms with her inner demons so that she can allow herself to open up to someone else. The Future’s Void is a dark, oppressive, and at times ugly spiral into depression, marked with self-loathing and pitying; any criticism that Anderson makes about modern society is reflected onto herself tenfold. If Past Life Martyred Saints was about getting out of middle America and finding out that things aren’t much better on the coasts, then Void burrows deep into the crushing realization that you’ll never be able to escape the one thing that will always hold you back: yourself. –James [LISTEN]

15 YG – My Krazy Life (Def Jam)


YG is a brutish, workmanlike, conversational rapper — not who you expect to make a classic his first time out. But My Krazy Life has so much going for it: Songwriting, momentum, unified production, conceptual cohesion, a sense of place, a sense of personality. DJ Mustard, YG’s chief musical collaborator, uses the album as a chance to explore just how far his signature sound can go. And YG, like Kendrick Lamar before him, gets huge mileage from building a complete narrative around the life of an everyday Compton kid, setting the scene with an eye for detail and a complete sense of character. Every once in a while, an otherwise unremarkable rapper can put everything together just right and walk away with something special. This is one of those cases. –Tom [LISTEN]

14 Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues (Total Treble)


It took so much to make Transgender Dysphoria Blues. First, Laura Jane Grace, the leader of one of America’s great punk bands, revealing herself to be trans, becoming the first major rock star ever to do so. Then there were label issues (the band leaving its major-label home), lineup issues (half the band leaving), and whatever issues you go through when you put out an album yourself. It was a fight to make the album happen. But Transgender Dysphoria Blues is a clean and fearsome hook-machine, unburdened by drama or ideas about representation. It’s hard and strummy and impassioned, and if Grace has a point to make about trans personhood, she makes it just by being the best punk rock bandleader in the world. –Tom [LISTEN]

13 Swans – To Be Kind (Young God)


Taken as a whole, the 10 tracks on Swans’ double album To Be Kind sound like what being caught in an obsessive train of thought feels like, when there’s no way of escaping your own silent psychosis. Swans fiddle with contradictions throughout their thirteenth album, as tunnels of noise give way to pensive moments, which then make room for Michael Gira’s echoing voice. At 34 minutes, the massive and initially lethargic “Sun-Touissant” eventually spills open, pursuing a variety of movements while grounding itself in the hushed-room tone of its foundation. To Be Kind confronts a variety of different sonic shapes throughout, but finds a kind of summation in the record’s unapologetically weird closing title track. Violent instrumentation presses up against the repeated final refrain, “There are millions and millions of stars in your eyes,” before the album concludes in a spastic purge. –Gabriela [LISTEN]

12 Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence (Interscope)


A blues-rock doof like lead Black Key Dan Auerbach should not be the person to push downcast pinup queen Lana Del Rey to become her greatest self, and yet here we are. As producer, Auerbach has given LDR’s songs an amber torch-song glow. Now that she’s had a couple of years to figure out her character, LDR is on fire, turning sex into power and danger into glamor, going hard on old-Hollywood stereotypes and making them new. As a writer, she’s pushing buttons we might not have known we had, playing a dark heartbreaker who’s self-destructive and loving it. When she ends things by covering Nina Simone’s “The Other Woman,” she’s sending us a message, casting herself within a proud player-queen tradition. –Tom [LISTEN]

11 YOB – Clearing The Path To Ascend (Neurot)


Even in a year of big albums — To Be Kind, Benji, Lost In The Dream — YOB’s Clearing The Path To Ascend felt HUGE. Of course, that’s nothing new for the Portland, OR doom trio, who’d released six albums of elephantine majesty leading up to the new one, but Clearing The Path To Ascend is massive even by the band’s own standards. That thundering grandeur is evident in the album’s spiritualistic lyrical themes as well as the music, built like a castle using only four component parts — guitar, bass, drums, vocals — each one galloping through the mix with the fury and bombast of the Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse across the sky. That charge is led by frontman/visionary Mike Scheidt, one of modern metal’s truly great artists: a songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist with few if any peers. Clearing The Path To Ascend is YOB at their most frenzied (“Nothing To Win”) as well as their gentlest (“Marrow”), but taken as whole, its four songs feel like the seasons or the elements: powerful, eternal, wondrous, and bigger than all of us. –Michael [LISTEN]

10 Merchandise – After The End (4AD)


Many of us have been expecting Merchandise to come up with something great, but I’m not sure we expected After The End. The first listen through this thing is an overwhelming, leveling experience, the kind to leave you wondering aloud: Where did this come from? The “this” in question is the sharper, grander, more melodramatic sound Merchandise have adopted. I hesitate to say “overnight”; there are influences flowering here that had long been gestating back in all that messy distortion of their earlier work. But it does have the feeling of a shock to the system, an abrupt experimental turn for the band that, for them, takes the form of pop songcraft. And, damn, they’re good at pop songcraft — “Enemy” is the kind of song that immediately latches onto you and could define a month or two of your life, until you get around to “Green Lady” and that slowly dethrones it. These are songs that sound like they should’ve already been in your life — not because they sound too much like any other artist, but because they sound like long-lost classics. But After The End is also an album that demands to be listened to front to back, over and over, liberally coated in the sort of rich, decadent atmosphere you can get drunk off as a listener. The whole album has a humid grandeur that’s hard to pin down. It sounds rooted in the dense Floridian swamps where it was born, but also indebted to Britain; it sounds nothing like 2014, which makes it belong in the 21st century anyway. What it definitely does sound like is a wildly impressive work by a young band coming into their own, and one of the finest releases of the year. –Ryan [LISTEN]

09 FKA Twigs – LP1 (Young Turks)


In an interview with Rolling Stone, Tahliah Barnett revealed that she creates songs using the same method that Michelangelo supposedly used on marble: “I put in everything I can think of — everything, everything — until it’s just a massive wall, sometimes with no BPM, no structure, nothing. […] Then the next day I’ll go in and just chip away at it and keep on chipping.” Her stripped-down approach to R&B is what makes LP1 so stunning: Artists have done minimalism before, but never quite like this. She captures the breathlessness that comes from never feeling good enough, the intimacy that comes with being physically close with someone but on another plane emotionally. When you listen to FKA Twigs, you feel in touch with every single part of your body: the way a simple flick of the wrists can feel deeply sexual, the way your heartbeat matches up with the expansion and contraction of your lungs, as if it’s trying to wriggle out of its cage. The beats on LP1 are aqueous and malleable: Sometimes you completely drown in them, other times they disperse with just a gentle nudge. In my live review, I talked about how Twigs was a master of restraint: There’s a hit peeking out from underneath every one of these songs — take the Gothic arches of “Closer” or the gut-punching intensity of “Two Weeks” — but she pares it back until we can only grasp at wisps of what could be. Her talents go even deeper than that: Twigs is able to tap into the physicality of love and desire, and it’s simultaneously overwhelming and completely intoxicating. –James [LISTEN]

08 Nux Vomica – Nux Vomica (Relapse)


Grandeur and squalor have a place next to each other. I once saw Wake Up On Fire, a Baltimore crust band, play a local punk house called the Blood Shed. They crammed two drummers and a cellist onto a tiny stage and made a sound vast enough to scare God. I’ve seen precious few arena bands that managed to sound as earthshaking as that band on that night. More than a decade later, many of the same people are now in Nux Vomica, a Portland band whose self-titled album is three sprawling, fiery, majestic 10-minute-plus punk rock symphonies. Nux Vomica pull in black metal majesty and post-punk atmosphere and doom decay. Those things shouldn’t make sense together, but Nux Vomica combine them all into some of the most ambitious, guttural, feverish, powerful basement-punk these ears have ever heard. This is mythic, soul-shaking, world-crumbling thunder, music too huge to belong to any genre or scene. It’s a world of mud, and you can lose yourself in it. –Tom [LISTEN]

07 Sharon Van Etten – Are We There (Jagjaguwar)


While Are We There and Tramp might still be neck and neck for the best SVE record, there’s no question in my mind that Are We There is the clearest, most cohesive image of Van Etten herself and everything she’s about as a musician. There are bits and pieces of everywhere she’s been on this record, coming together in a way that suggests a new way forward. As usual, Van Etten bleeds on this album, but the constant reiterations of how personal and confessional Van Etten’s music is have actually started to strike me as somehow reductive — a bit more attention could be paid to the beautifully strange form her vocal melodies so often take, or that totally soul-rearranging power in her voice. Still, there’s no question that Are We There is a piece of work that captures a lot of personal strife, and that can be a massive catharsis for the listener. The journey undertaken on the first five songs on Are We There alone is unreal, with “Your Love Is Killing Me” right there in the middle, a smoldering colossus of anguish that’s one of the most moving songs I heard in 2014. It’s not something you throw on casually some Saturday afternoon, but it’s the kind of stuff that’s there when you need it. Are We There can take a lot out of you, but it gives back even more. You need to consume this thing, inhale it — but it’s the kind of music that lets you know it’s OK to exhale once more, too. –Ryan [LISTEN]

06 White Lung – Deep Fantasy (Domino)


The opening track of White Lung’s third album is appropriately called “Drown With The Monster.” A spiraling, tinny guitar riff inaugurates the record before Mish Way’s thunderous voice beckons you into Deep Fantasy’s tumult, stabilized by the refrain, “The water looks good on you/ Drown with the monster.” Way is openly critical about her qualms with patriarchal elements of the music industry, about the insecurities that come with being a woman in a band, or a female fan of brash, unapologetic music. These kinds of issues have been discussed at great length this year, and most criticism boils down to a very basic statement: Women in the music industry, regardless of how talented, and regardless of how successful, are often made to feel very small and inconsequential. It’s a privilege to listen to an album like Deep Fantasy and hear Way take her revenge. These are the kinds of songs that reject the very notion of “background music” — they are all dark, fast, and threatening as hell. In just over 20 minutes, White Lung sucks you into their cathartic void. “And I’m not as strong as you are/ But I am everywhere,” Way sings on “Down It Goes.” The theme of pulling someone under, of forcing someone into submission, pervades a good deal of the lyricism on Deep Fantasy, and anyone who has seen White Lung perform understands that particular feeling of resignation, the moment when you have no choice but to give into their total control. Accompanied by guitarist Kenny Williams and drummer Anne-Marie Vassiliou’s sneering precision, what could sound like inundation in absolute chaos becomes a carefully reordered universe, with Way as its absolute commander. –Gabriela [LISTEN]

05 Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness (Jagjaguwar)


“I quit my dreaming the moment that I found you/ I started dancing just to be around you/ Here’s to thinking that it all meant so much more/ I kept my mouth shut and opened up the door.” On the first lines of Burn Your Fire For No Witness, Angel Olsen lays out every theme she’ll explore over the next 45 minutes: finding happiness, hoping it’s more than it really is, and building up the agency and courage to be able to say that what you have isn’t good enough. Here, she discovers the power of her own voice, and her need to be heard burns with a white-hot intensity. “This would be so much easier if I had nothing more to say,” she sings on “High And Wild.” Olsen is through being walked over, and she won’t let herself be unhappy because of things left unsaid. Nowhere is this more apparent than on “White Fire,” the wordy and bone-rattling emotional centerpiece of the album. She blends dusty romanticism — “So I turned on a picture show/ I disappeared the lines” — with a propulsive desire for progress: “But I guess we’re always leaving even when we look the same/ And it eases me somehow to know that even this will change.” Later, she’ll command: “If you don’t feel good about it, then turn around/ If you really mean it, baby, stand your ground.” Olsen stands her ground on Burn Your Fire, refusing to compromise herself for others. It’s a spiritual record, one about finding your inner passion and never letting anyone dampen that. It burns in a satisfying way, like a hot poker that hurts like hell but leaves a lasting impression. –James [LISTEN]

04 Wye Oak – Shriek (Merge)


Wye Oak almost didn’t make it to Shriek. Civilian, their 2011 breakthrough, almost killed the band, mainly because they were on the road non-stop for two years promoting it. Feeling depleted, they had to tear down their sound and start over, resulting in the synth- and groove-dominated Shriek, which sounds like such a different band that, sure, you could probably still say Civilian killed Wye Oak. It was kind of surprising how many people were upset by Wye Oak ditching guitars on this outing; people still care about guitars that much in 2014? That must be partially attributable to the fact that Civilian was one of the most bracing, emotive guitar albums in recent memory, and Wye Oak had announced themselves as artists who could go to new-ish places with the instrument. You could be skeptical of them going synth, I guess, because that seemed like an abandonment of what made them great. Well, turns out they’re still great. Shriek isn’t a case of writing a bunch of new Wye Oak songs with synth lines riding along where the guitar is conspicuously absent. These are songs built up in an entirely different fashion, allowing Jenn Wasner to explore her voice and craft melodies that would’ve been hard to picture in Wye Oak songs in the past. That results in the dreamscapes of the title track, the insistent and triumphant pop of “Glory,” or the beautifully intertwining vocal lines in the chorus of “Schools Of Eyes.” This is the third great Wye Oak record in a row (2009’s The Knot often gets overlooked in Wye Oak conversations). I don’t care if the next Wye Oak is guitar or synth or whatever: If they’ve got more music as gorgeous as Shriek, I just want as many Wye Oak records as they’ll give us. –Ryan [LISTEN]

03 Sun Kil Moon – Benji (Caldo Verde)


Suck on this: The more I dwell on Mark Kozelek’s distasteful 2014 exploits, the more my appreciation for Benji intensifies. The album was already a poignant window into the human condition, its uncomfortably honest character portraits emphasizing the centrality of personal connection, the inevitability of suffering, and the unavoidable truth that we’re all gonna die. The new diaristic approach Kozelek initiated on Among The Leaves came into its own here: his eye for detail, his voice’s weary timbre, his knack for weaving finger-plucked guitar textures to drape over his stories like blankets. No album was realer or rawer than Benji this year, and few were more beautiful.

So how do you process it when that realness and rawness reveals something ugly? What to make of the guy responsible for this vulnerable chronicle of our fragile species using the same stream-of-consciousness balladry to goad another band with unprovoked playground taunts? Kozelek came off like a miserable sneering bully when he launched his one-sided internet war against the War On Drugs. He was the asshole uncle you avoid at Thanksgiving. Even if you consent that he was just playing around, it felt more like a vulgar display of power — “Fucking Hostile,” if you will — and it sullied an otherwise triumphant year for both him and America’s foremost purveyors of beer commercial lead guitar.

That makes Benji all the more remarkable. All that broken-down beauty sprung from the same consciousness as “War On Drugs: Suck My Cock.” It’s easy to listen to Kozelek’s discography and feel sympathy for a weary soul drowning in darkness, but the truth is more complicated. Like all of us, he sometimes contributes to the darkness. And it’s not like he’s been hiding it; Kozelek’s last album included a song about confessing to his girlfriend that he’s come home from tour with an STD. Two of Red House Painters’ best-loved songs (“Katy Song” and “Down Through”) make first-person reference to acts of violence against women, something far graver than cracking jokes about Adam Granduciel giving him fellatio. The unrelenting cruelty has always been a part of his music, impossible to divorce from the tenderness. It’s a miracle he’s able to conjure up anything pretty at all from out of so much pollution, let alone something as staggering as Benji. That accomplishment in itself is not a cure for the kind of despair Kozelek’s been chronicling throughout his career, but maybe it’s a start. –Chris LISTEN

02 The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream (Secretly Canadian)


On first listen, there was something a little disappointing about Lost In The Dream. Don’t get me wrong: Lead single “Red Eyes” was an instant Drugs classic, and “Under The Pressure” is one of the great openers out there — one of those songs that feels like a new world being revealed to you. But the ethereal web of synths and looped interstitials and way-out-there guitars of Slave Ambient had been muted. Lost In The Dream still had traces of that psychedelia, but the whole thing felt more lived-in, road-worn. More earthly, in a sense. It felt more like a classic rock record. Three or four listens in, such concerns fell away. It became clear that the stylistic shift for Lost In The Dream might’ve been the best possible move to make after the fervently received but not-quite-breakthrough of Slave Ambient. It became clear that the War On Drugs had another stunning record on their hands.

In 2014, we watched War On Drugs blow up to a new level of indie fame. (Or, considering Adam Granduciel graced the pages of Us Weekly with his new girlfriend Krysten Ritter, I guess it was a new level of plain old fame.) Unfortunately, that was partially in the form of a one-sided spat with Mark Kozelek. Otherwise, though, it was the band getting a lot of widespread adoration they’d long deserved. Lost In The Dream felt important in a year where there was no real narrative to be found, no overwhelming Yeezus moment leaving carnage in its wake. Lost In The Dream is still here at the end of the year, but it will be with us for much longer, too. It sounds very much like the Pennsylvania in which it was created, with all the state’s crumbling factories and formerly-grand-now-decrepit stone buildings: some strange psychedelic portrait of Americana and memory. This is what a hundred rides down a highway sound like when you’re loaded down with the perceptual mess of decades of highway mythology. This is what a classic American record sounds like in 2014. It’ll stick around. –Ryan [LISTEN]

01 Run The Jewels – RTJ2 (Mass Appeal)


On the night a Ferguson, Missouri grand jury decided not to indict killer cop Darren Wilson, Killer Mike stepped in front of a St. Louis crowd, brave enough to look half-broken. He cried and fumed and gave the sort of speech that bounces around in your chest cavity for days afterward. One minute later, he was doing a goofily berserk full-body fat-guy dance. Both versions of Mike, the incisive speaker and the committed party monster, are on full display on RTJ2, the second album from Mike and El-P’s Run The Jewels duo. RTJ2 opens with Mike in full-blown profane motivational-ranter mode — “I’m finna bang this bitch the fuck out.” It ends with a clangorous, expressive piano solo from a dead man. In between, we get about 40 minutes of frantic, chaotic, merciless, gloriously fun rap music. It never lets up, and yet there are so many ideas and feelings and moods within that storm. It kicks you in the head, and it leaves you with plenty to think about.

The story of Run The Jewels coming together was already a feel-good epic before RTJ2: two underground rap veterans from vastly different scenes coming together, finding common ground, discovering a shared ferocity that jolted both of their careers to a different level, becoming best friends in the process. These two had chemistry from the first moment, and a year and a half on a shared tour bus has only deepened it. On RTJ2, Mike and El sound more like each other. Mike’s delivery is more knifelike, more apt to cut against the flow of the track. El has concentrated his once-cluttered flow into pointed bursts of on-beat double-time. His beats are slower, thicker, more composed — even if they do still sound like a giant angry robot’s death-scream.

Lyrically, both of them are having even more fun on RTJ2, coming up with convoluted and extreme ways to say “fuck you,” sounding like they’re doing whatever they can to impress each other in the studio. But there’s more pathos and feeling in what they’re doing, too: Mike recounting a nightmare arrest on “Early” and lamenting the consequences of his actions on “Crown,” El grinding his noise-synths onto mournful melody on “All My Life” and “Angel Duster.” They’re operating at the tops of their games here, and if you’ve been lucky enough to see them on their recent tour, you know that’s a scarily impressive sight.

RTJ2 dropped, as a free download, at 3AM on a Friday morning in October. If you were still up, or if you happened to wake up and check Twitter in the middle of the night, that was it; you weren’t going back to sleep. This is a hard and physical and immediate album, a blast of musical adrenaline through your ribcage. It has heart and depth and nuance, but it also kicks like an enraged rhino. There’s no album from the past year more likely to make you feel like you could throw a bulldozer through a fourth-story window. And that’s why it’s our favorite album of 2014. –Tom [LISTEN]

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