The 30 Best Albums of 2014

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rirhe musical trends of 2014 felt so obvious in the moment: DJ Mustard beats, technophobia, strong female pop duets dominating the charts, polarizing booty-love anthems, a house music revival for the masses, LGBT voices making space for themselves, politicized music that sounded particularly relevant post-Ferguson. But when we look back at 2014, I’m not sure we’ll remember all that. It would be easy to say, “2014 was the year Beyoncé went full feminist, Nicki went borderline misandrist, and Taylor went ‘pop,’ though she’s been it for years,” but that’s just not the whole story.

With that in mind, we tried to tell the whole story in our ranking of the year’s 30 best albums. Some staff favorites — things you may not have heard — are given weight alongside albums that quintessentially capture 2014. — Jillian Mapes

Related: 124 Songs You Need to Hear Before 2014 Ends

30. Shamir — Northtown EP (Godmode)

Las Vegas singer Shamir Bailey made a grand entrance with his debut EP this past June, proving to be one of 2014’s most promising new artists. He’s currently at work on his debut full-length for XL. Released on Brooklyn upstart label Godmode, Northtown mixes the discount disco luxury of a thrifted leisure suit with house music revivalism, the longing of classic R&B, and vintage country to boot. The real centerpiece here, however, is 19-year-old Shamir’s voice, an androgynous nasal croon that sounds both sour and sweet, masculine and feminine. It’s been a minute since a voice like this has come along. — JM

29. Liars — Mess (Mute)

“Otherwise known as the Liars party album! (Admittedly, considering we’re talking about a band who once made a gloriously unlistenable concept album about witches, that’s not saying a great deal, but hey),” Tom Hawking cheered in Flavorwire’s mid-year music feature. “The consistently interesting NYC-based trio continue their excursions into electronic music with Mess, this time with some thunderous beats and distinctly dance floor flavors. You’ve probably never danced to a song that contains the lyric ‘I’ll die before the fire’s out’ before, but shit, there’s always a first time.”

28. Ariana Grande — My Everything (Republic)

“In terms of musical ingenuity, My Everything is a stronger effort than 2013’s Yours Truly, but listeners familiar with Grande’s debut may walk away from her latest thinking they knew who she was — a ’90s R&B-pop revivalist — only to realize they know nothing at all,” Flavorwire’s Jillian Mapes wrote back in August. “Likely feeling pressure from the Major Label Pop Machine, Grande stacked the album with something for everyone, with varying levels of believability. She recruits sidekicks — Iggy Azalea, Childish Gambino, The Weeknd, even Cashmere Cat, who assists on the album’s best song, the Ghost Town DJ’s-esque ‘Be My Baby’ — to help her pull this off, matching their moods in ways I should have expected from a people-pleasing child star. It’s these collaborations that shine the brightest, creating an Ari for every kind of pop fan. When left to her own devices, Grande favors lovesick quasi-ballads — the big, wistful things that you’d expect to show off her vocals the best.”

27. White Sea — In Cold Blood (SONGS/Crush Music)

“On her debut under the moniker White Sea, M83’s Morgan Kibby makes a frantic play at redefining the pop breakup album,” Jillian Mapes wrote in our mid-year best-of. “Neither a pretty/sad ballad album nor a big-voiced redemption, In Cold Blood goes for it all: disco, stylized ‘80s synth-pop, diva pop drama, sci-fi movie soundtracks, dance-punk, lots of falsetto. But with Kibby’s unfiltered mouth and unconventional eye, her menagerie of styles cuts through what would come off as clutter from a lesser artist.”

26. Shabazz Palaces — Lese Majesty (Sub Pop)

“Over the course of 18 tracks organized within seven suites, Seattle’s Shabazz Palaces offer up the future of rap — literally and figuratively — with their sophomore LP,” Flavorwire wrote back in July. “A latticework of beats and abrasively delivered rhymes meld to make the latest entry into intergalactic hip-hop as dense as a star cluster. Still, the Sub Pop collective finds ways to groove, via psychedelic R&B and vocals from labelmates THEEsatisfaction.”

25. The Hotelier — Home Like NoPlace Is There (Tiny Engines)

“Even hinting around the phrase ‘Emo Revival’ will inevitably scare off potential fans of The Hotelier’s stunning sophomore LP, but the lay-it-bare style of late ‘90s emo heroes the Promise Ring and the Get Up Kids cannot be denied here,” Flavorwire wrote in our mid-year best-of. “Also in the mix is mainstream modern punk like Against Me! and a touch of screamo vocals, unfurled over the course of nine unrelenting songs. The Worcester, Massachusetts band builds up a narrative of self-destruction and emotional abuse only to climax midway through with an extreme scene: a funeral. Even on the acoustic tracks, there’s not much room to move: every mouthful of exposition, every ‘whoa-oh’, every nest of power chords is packed full of hurt.”

24. Young Thug & Bloody Jay — Black Portland (Self-Released)

“A pleasantly spaced-out Three Six Mafia-esque album, Black Portland’s chief source of appeal is the eccentricity of MC Young Thug, a man who promises to ‘do home invasions, take all your cookies, go to the block and straight sell ‘em,’” Flavorwire’s Tom Hawking hailed in our mid-year best-of. “To continue the basketball theme of Black Portland’s Trail Blazers cover art, the best moment comes when Bloody Jay rhymes ‘Jenna Jameson’ with ‘Antawn Jamison.’ Round of applause.”

23. Marissa Nadler — July (Sacred Bones)

There are very few musicians who can make it onto year-end lists with mere acoustic guitar and reverb stretching to infinity, but Marissa Nadler has, since 2006, cultivated a totally singular sound by whispering her voice into a microphonic abyss. On July, her sound is at its most assured, with opening track “Drive” leading you on the saddest journey into the folk-mythologized American road trip you’ve ever heard. If it makes any sense at all, this is an album that’ll lull you to sleep, then shake you awake with the realization of the unfettered intimacy you’ve just experienced. — Moze Halperin

22. Mary J. Blige — The London Sessions (Capitol)

“More than 20 years into her career, Mary J. Blige has made one of her most interesting albums to date,” Flavorwire’s Jillian Mapes wrote of The London Sessions last month. “Sometimes an innovative concept doesn’t lead to results that are enjoyable to listen to, but Blige hits the sweet spot between something old and something new. The tried-and-true lyrical themes that built her career — personal strength in the face of adversity and struggles in longterm monogamy — remain intact, but the rest takes cues from where pop has been headed for a few years now (unsurprisingly, it involves a little bit of looking backwards). It would be easy to call The London Sessions the best Mary J. Blige album in a decade because of the risk she took, but it’s worthy of the title.”

21. Against Me! — Transgender Dysphoria Blues (Total Treble Music)

“It’s easy to lose this album in its narrative — the first record Against Me! have made since Tom Gabel became Laura Jane Grace, and an album that addresses the transgender experience with perception, compassion, and at times brutal honesty,” Tom Hawking wrote in Flavorwire’s mid-year music best-of. “But it’s also just a great rock ‘n’ roll record, home to some of the best songs that Grace has ever written, songs that evoke the most universal of human emotions: rage, and sadness, and love.”

20. Fennesz — Bécs (Editions Mego)

Wordless, semi-ambient electronic music like Viennese producer Fennesz’s latest is hard to get at without figuring yourself into the equation. It’s the kind of music that amplifies whatever emotions you may be feeling when you sit down with it; so many of these galactic soundscapes could skew dark or light. In many ways, Bécs was considered the philosophical sequel to Fennesz’s best-known work, 2001’s Endless Summer. The shine has worn a little since then, but there’s a sense in Bécs of taking one’s time. — JM

19. Total Control — Typical System (Iron Lung Records)

“A welcome return for the Australian post-punk quintet, whose debut album Henge Beat was one of the under-appreciated pleasures of the last few years,” Tom Hawking wrote in our mid-year best-of. “This is a more diverse record than its predecessor, delivering flat-out analog synth for the dance floor (lead single ‘Glass,’ in particular) at some moments and harking back to the band’s garage rock roots at others (especially the coruscating ‘Systemic Fuck’). It’s a terse, no-nonsense piece of work, that went straight into this list nearly upon its release.”

18. Owen Pallett — In Conflict (Domino)

“You never really know what to expect from an Owen Pallett record,” Flavorwire’s Tom Hawking pondered back in May. “Titles that end in ‘.exe’? Narratives set in a fake country called Spectrum? Songs named after the circles of magic in Dungeons & Dragons? In Conflict has none of that — indeed, it’s probably the most accessible thing that Pallett has ever done. This isn’t any sort of veiled criticism; In Conflict is a thoroughly enjoyable ride that continues the rise of one of the music world’s more idiosyncratic voices and arrangers.”

17. Blake Mills — Heigh Ho (Verve)

Blake Mills is a session player and touring guitarist, but he’s got ideas like a band leader. On his second solo album, Heigh Ho, Mills mixes guitar prodigiousness with some of alt-country’s most experimental bents. He frequently goes on tears mid-song, manipulating the sound of his electric guitar like he’s trying to get it to scream mercy. Still, the whole thing feels fraught with tension and control, even when it’s trying to be sweet, like on Mills’ vocal harmonies with Fiona Apple. — JM

16. Azealia Banks — Broke With Expensive Taste (Prospect Park)

One minute we were getting ready to include the long-delayed Broke With Expensive Taste alongside “a new Avalanches record” on semi-jokey lists of albums we’d like to see in 2015… and the next minute it was sitting in our laps! The sudden appearance of this record was the best Beyoncé-esque “Hey, I just released an album!” surprise of the year, mainly because it reminded everyone of something that’d almost been forgotten over two years of Twitter beefs and general obnoxiousness: Azealia Banks is a really good rapper! And when she’s given the chance, she makes really good songs! And this is a really good album! Huzzah! — Tom Hawking

15. Sun Kil Moon — Benji (Caldo Verde)

“This may well be the most downbeat and emotionally demanding record Mark Kozelek’s ever made, and that’s saying something considering his history,” Flavorwire wrote in our mid-year best-of. “Among other things, the first-person narratives discuss the singer’s at times tragic family (‘Carissa,’ ‘I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love’), his transition into middle age (‘Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes’), and, um, his relationship with Ben Gibbard (‘Ben’s My Friend’). It’s a beautiful, sparse record — at times, it’s harrowing listening, but always rewarding.”

14. Mac DeMarco — Salad Days (Captured Tracks)

“Mac DeMarco is a dude in the utmost sense of the word, but his music does not sound like what you think it would sound like if you met him (which would probably happen in a scummy Brooklyn bar),” Flavorwire’s Jillian Mapes wrote back in April. “That’s to say, DeMarco’s music is beautiful. I’ve decided to call it Bushwick Schmaltz. Salad Days, his third LP, is a near-flawless collection of easily digestible, guitar-driven jangle-pop about his girlfriend, friends, family, and life. It sounds terribly rudimentary, but there’s this way DeMarco has of turning the basics on their head with one small, discordant tweak.”

13. Todd Terje — It’s Album Time (Olsen)

“The word ‘disco’ also gets tossed around a lot when it comes to Terje, but from the sounds of It’s Album Time, that’s a clear disservice,” we wrote back in April. “He pulls from all genres of dance music and plenty that has little to with electronics (tropical sounds, Robert Palmer covers alongside Bryan Ferry, a cappella), much like Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. But unlike the French robots, Terje aimed for 12 songs to keep you moving all summer long, instead of just the one.”

12. D’Angelo & The Vanguard — Black Messiah (RCA)

“Black Messiah, D’Angelo’s first new album in almost 15 years, doesn’t feel like the tortured manuscript of a man struggling with doubt and questioning his self-worth,” Matthew Ismael Ruiz wrote in Flavorwire this week. “Instead, it sounds like the result of a world-weary artist’s maturation. It’s warm, inviting, smooth — and at times, exceedingly real about the world we live in now. D’Angelo records sound like every soul and jazz record you’ve ever heard filtered through the experience of the black man in America at the turn of the century. Black Messiah is no exception.”

11. Nicki Minaj — The Pinkprint (Young Money/Cash Money/Republic)

“Pop Nicki vs. Rap Nicki is not point of The Pinkprint. In the context of the ‘classic rap album’ conversation, this is neither her Illmatic nor her Tha Carter IV,” Flavorwire’s Jillian Mapes wrote. “Rather, The Pinkprint is her 808s & Heartbreak. Minaj made a Drake album with better jokes and more reasons to be sad. But like her new boo Bey on her self-titled 2013 LP, Nicki remembers to feel herself.”

10. Angaleena Presley — American Middle Class (Slate Creek Records)

Pistol Annies’ Angaleena Presley mixed two country trends in her solo debut: looking back and looking ’round. American Middle Class is a great album in the social-commentary vein most recently favored by Kacey Musgraves, but Presley isn’t afraid of really going there in her lyrics, even if country radio would never play a song featuring spoken word from her coal miner father. Atop crying, swooning guitars, Presley connects the past to our present class struggles by simply chronicling life in the South. There are songs about being a drunk and an addict, about getting knocked up, about boys who look like high-school quarterbacks, about standing in line at the grocery store. Presley’s telling the story of her own uniquely American life. As it turns out, she’s speaking for a lot of folks who never get a voice. — JM

9. Charli XCX — Sucker (Atlantic)

“When Charli XCX began working on Sucker, she said to expect a punk record — a departure from True Romance’s all-electronic tracks,” Flavorwire’s Jillian Mapes wrote earlier this month. “Further recording sessions coupled with her Hot 100 breakthrough this summer left Sucker as a full-on pop album, almost by default. The former punk record peaking through is what sets Aitchison apart from her pop peers, while aiding in the establishment of the youth revolt that defines Sucker. This is the stuff of sassy teenage bedroom dance parties, the sort of pop music that caters to young listeners who’re just starting to dabble in feelings of disenfranchisement and declared boredom, most likely via the internet. Like Charli, they may find it liberating to dance on top of a school bus as ‘School’s Out’ plays on the radio, but they may need a cultural nudge to even consider such a stunt.”

8. Arca — Xen (Mute)

With Xen, Alejandro Ghersi proved that he doesn’t need Kanye, FKA twigs, or Björk — with whom he’s worked as a producer — to provide their vocal dynamism to his soundscapes. On his own, Arca wordlessly soars through a world of glass and metal. This album sounds like the future, and like all visions of the future, it leaves you awestruck and isolated by a perceived human lack — and terrified by the presence of emotional range within this lack. Much of the album, and most notably “Thievery,” will make you feel like a very lonely, cold (but sexily hot), dancing robot. But then tracks like “Held Apart” and “Family Violence” pair the futuristic Ice Capades with startling moments of robo-poignancy. — MH

7. Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra — Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything (Constellation)

We’ve really been spoiled by Godspeed You! Black Emperor-related material over the last couple of years: first the long-awaited Godspeed reunion, and this year a new Thee Silver Mt Zion album. And what an album: a visceral blast of disgust at the state of the world, centered around this year’s single best song (“What We Loved Was Not Enough”) and full of anger and despair and rage. It was the best kind of political music, and given the events of the last few months, it continues to feel all too relevant. — TH

6. Grouper — Ruins (Kranky)

A Grouper record isn’t so much a collection of songs as it is an experience in which to luxuriate, and in this respect, Ruins is perhaps the most complete record she’s made yet. There are no standout tracks like “Heavy Water (I’d Rather Be Sleeping),” which is still her finest moment, but as taken as a single entity, it’s as beautiful and immersive a 40 minutes as you’ll spend on anything this year. — TH

5. St. Vincent — St. Vincent (Loma Vista)

St. Vincent’s career seems to have been leading up to the album St. Vincent, which is perhaps the reason it’s self-titled. Since she debuted with Marry Me, Annie Clark perfected the coupling of furious guitar and jolting melodies with emotionally distant vocals and stone-faced performance. In St. Vincent, which many have deemed her “Internet album,” this style has found its most fitting subject matter. On “Digital Witness,” “Huey Newton,” and “Rattlesnake,” St. Vincent’s sedate fire is at its hottest ever, as it writhes around, trapped in an insomniac digital hallucination. — MH

4. EMA — The Future’s Void (Matador)

Some albums are of their time, but it’s a rare record that becomes more relevant as it ages. Like William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which provided plenty of inspiration for The Future’s Void, this is a work of art on subject matter into which it feels like humanity is still growing: it’s a very 2014 album, but one suspects that its themes of disconnection and alienation will become all the more apposite as our reliance on technology and surveillance continues to increase. And, of course, there are just some really fucking good songs here. We spoke to EMA extensively about the album and its ideas back in April; check out the feature here. — TH

3. Run the Jewels — Run the Jewels 2 (Mass Appeal)

It’s been years since important, political hip-hop has sounded fun without sacrificing some of its power. On their second album as Run the Jewels, Killer Mike and El-P are stronger together than they are apart, and they play to each other’s strengths to get their message out with as much potency as possible. Informed more by electronic experimenters than classic rap, El’s production tricks set a dramatic stage for Killer Mike’s scorched-earth verses about American society, maturity, and love. El makes it easy on him with some of hip-hop’s most innovative beats, but Mike doesn’t need a break. He walks right up the mic, tells us what he’s learned, and it matters. It matters urgently, in fact. — JM

2. Angel Olsen — Burn Your Fire For No Witness (Jagjaguwar)

Angel Olsen’s the type of performer who’ll work in a “bless you” to a sneezing audience member amidst a sparse, sobering song about her own mortality. She’s not above Being A Real Human. On her second album, Burn Your Fire For No Witness, Olsen does it better than most. The St. Louis-bred Bonnie “Prince” Billy associate is at once standing tall and falling apart. She explores a trio of genres — indie rock, folk, and alt-country — to varying degrees of amplification in an attempt to echo her attitude(s). Considering how sharply Olsen writes, it’s clear that she’s complicated and fiercely individual and less-than self-assured and sad and angry and funny, even if she says, like, one funny thing on this whole damn record. She couldn’t hide all that if she tried, but when she just lets it rip — like on the you-don’t-scare-me guitar anthem “High & Wild” — you have every reason to believe that this woman’s emotions could crush you. — JM

1. Perfume Genius — Too Bright (Matador)

In Flavorwire’s profile of Mike Hadreas, the musician known as Perfume Genius said, “People don’t realize that I can still kill you. I’m little and wearing a silken robe, and I can still kill you! Realize that about me! I don’t need to be super muscly or take on a bunch of masculine traits to be fucking dangerous.” This didn’t seem so much a threat to the lives of the masses as much as a declaration that his third album, Too Bright, would be one worth paying close attention.

As he suggests in his hit single “Queen,” Perfume Genius isn’t afraid to musically sashay you into hellish hypnosis. With Too Bright, he expanded on his piano balladry to create an atmosphere of palpable foreboding, occasionally invoking Halloween kitsch to at once jest about his darkness and make it all the more alienating, as in the shrill moans that punctuate “Grid” or the creeping bass of “My Body.” Then there are the transcendently beautiful tracks, like opener “I Decline,” which begins the album with the line, “I can see for miles.” With Perfume Genius’s guidance, so can we — and the view is equal parts breathtaking and horrific. Imagine PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love combined with Portishead’s Third, with some Baudelairian putrescence thrown in. Or don’t imagine it; simply listen to Too Bright.MH