//

The 25 Best Albums of 2014

Pop culture’s pendulum trajectory swings between outrage and fatigue, but there are still things to celebrate.

The 25 Best Albums of 2014
Photo: Young Turks

While it was happening, 2014 didn’t look like a great year for pop music. It was the loud moments, like the so-called booty war between Nicki Minaj and Jennifer Lopez and the release of U2’s Songs of Innocence as global spam, that dominated. Twerking remains a hot-button issue now that Taylor Swift has taken up the pastime. Pop culture’s pendulum trajectory swings between outrage and fatigue, but there are still things to celebrate. Rumors of the death of the album continue to be greatly exaggerated: Thom Yorke offered an alternative to both U2’s Apple monopoly and standard-label issues when he released Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes as a BitTorrent bundle, and Jack White almost single-handedly caused a full-blown vinyl comeback. The general lack of radio diversity was off-set by a press of provocative, artistically focused, and, yes, enjoyable albums (R&B, mostly by women, in particular ran the table this year), widely available on a rising number of platforms and streaming services like Spotify. We’ve done our best to curate them, selecting music, like FKA twigs’s vertiginous LP1, that consumes its forebears or innovates on the past (the War on Drugs’s gauzy slow jams) or at least chronicles it ironically (Sun Kil Moon’s off-kilter folk). Bass, treble, and St. Vincent’s ridiculously weird noises. We’ve got ‘em all. Caleb Caldwell


The 25 Best Albums of 2014

25. Traumer, Takt

While pop EDM busied itself with sucking the joy out of its parent genre in the most expeditious manner possible, a French producer named Romain Poncet (a.k.a. Traumer) released one of the most sleekly exquisite dance albums of the year. Combining the neo-trance instincts of countrymen like Laurent Garnier and Voyager-era Daft Punk with the cool, relentless thump of late-’90s Underworld, and a soupcon of free-jazz quirk, Takt should be both comforting to long-in-the-tooth ravers weaned on the titans of this earlier era and yet chockablock with the fierce propulsion of wild youth, a soothing but strange uptick in EDM’s mostly uninterrupted yearlong downward trajectory. Blue Sullivan


The 25 Best Albums of 2014

24. The Hold Steady, Teeth Dreams

The Hold Steady has been called “America’s greatest bar band,” and a decade into their career, all the hard partying that goes along with that moniker seems to be taking its toll. That’s evident enough from the way Teeth Dreams sounds, with the band’s former reliance on big, crowd-pleasing riffs ceding to tense, paranoid dual-guitar tangles on growling rockers like “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You” and “On with the Business,” courtesy of Tad Kubler and newcomer Steve Selvidge. But no matter how rough things get, nothing on Earth can kill manic, verbose frontman Craig Finn’s buzz. On “Spinners,” he sounds as convinced as ever in the near spiritual qualities of a great party night, and delivers massive power-pop hooks on “Wait a While.” Jeremy Winograd


The 25 Best Albums of 2014

23. Damien Jurado, Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son

Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son is a fantastic experimentation with the storytelling potential of the album format. Even while long-form television is experiencing a narrative revival, plenty of record labels and musicians have opted for albums that are essentially collections of singles (or failed singles). Across the album, Jurado, perhaps less hampered by any possibility of radio play, tells a strange, nonlinear story of a man on an endless journey for a utopia called Maraquopa. The images are deeply American and cultishly religious, featuring geodesic eyes, aliens, zodiacs, and the promise of a savior. The music, produced by the Shins’s Richard Swift, swerves between spare folk, and lush psychedelia. For an album so deeply concerned with alienation (“Do not disturb me/Let me be,” he sings on “Silver Joy”), Jurado’s ability to manage some levity and grace is one of the album’s true revelations. Caldwell


The 25 Best Albums of 2014

22. Flying Lotus, You’re Dead!

Flying Lotus’s assorted audiophile experiments reach a new peak on You’re Dead!, the Los Angeles DJ’s fifth album and finest to date, a far-ranging collection of crate-digger hip-hop in which the essential elements of the genre are boiled down and merged with those of others, flitting between jazz spontaneity and soul elegance with a distinct ear for fusion. Many albums attempt this sort of sundry radio-dial feel, but few achieve such a consistent, articulate effect in doing so, folding in quiet electronic touches alongside subdued contributions from big-name rappers, never disrupting the warm, delicate flow of vinyl-inspired sound. Jesse Cataldo


The 25 Best Albums of 2014

21. Drive-By Truckers, English Oceans

On English Oceans, Drive-By Truckers sound leaner and meaner than they have in well over a decade; it’s a pretty gritty, by-the-seat-of-their-pants album for a band 18 years and 10 albums into their career. It’s also the first album in the DBT oeuvre on which guitarist Mike Cooley goes from acting as a pivotal sideman to shouldering the songwriting load, penning six of the album’s 13 songs instead of his usual three or four, resulting in gloriously Stones-y chestnuts “Shit Shots Count” (complete with horn section) and “Hearing Jimmy Loud.” Not to be outdone, Patterson Hood contributes “Grand Canyon,” a sublime, sweeping elegy to the band’s dear friend and merch guy, Craig Lieske, who passed away suddenly in 2013. Winograd


The 25 Best Albums of 2014

20. TV on the Radio, Seeds

TV on the Radio’s sixth album, their first since the death of bassist Gerard Smith, saw some normally reverential critics damning the songs with faint praise. The words “accessible” and “mainstream-friendly” have been tossed around with spiky dismissiveness, and they aren’t inapt. This is TOTR’s most sonically welcoming album. The restless energy is still there, leading to more instant sing-alongs like “Quartz” and “Careful You” destined to wow on a future Coachella main stage. But despite the clean gloss of Dave Sitek’s production, the experimentation is still there, like the “Norwegian Wood”-biting psychedelics of “Could You” and the frantic, Guided by Voices-style garage-pop of “Winter” and “Lazerray.” Yet, ultimately, Seeds astonishes as a great electric soul album, still true to the band’s pulsing heart, but with arms held wider than ever. Sullivan


The 25 Best Albums of 2014

19. Sun Kil Moon, Benji

On his sixth album under the Sun Kil Moon moniker, Mark Kozelek has some absolutely heartbreaking things to say on some really heavy topics (death, murder, the fragile nuances of human existence itself), but he does it in such a conversational way that he makes the listener feel comfortable rather than blasted into an existential crisis. On “Carissa,” he sings about a distant cousin who met a sudden demise; on “Pray For Newtown,” he recounts responding to a fan letter he got from a Newtown resident in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting; and on the rambling “I Love My Dad,” one of the most endearing songs you might have heard this year, he just muses about what a cool guy his dad is. But even without those disarmingly blunt tales, Benji would still be entrancing enough on the strength of Kozelek’s gorgeously hypnotic nylon-string-guitar finger-picking. Winograd


The 25 Best Albums of 2014

18. Parquet Courts, Sunbathing Animal

Sunbathing Animal reads like a CBGB obsessive’s wet dream, with Parquet Courts flashing the Ramones’ deadpan scatological humor (“Bodies Made Of”), Television’s bluesy drone (“What Color Is Blood”), and Patti Smith’s beatnik-inspired poetry (“Sunbathing Animal”) in equal measure. This doesn’t mean they’re a retro act: The squalling guitar rave-ups sound too urgent and too unhinged to be mistaken for mere stylistic retreads. Singer Andrew Savage’s lyrical screeds are hyper-literate, painting poignant and often hilarious portraits of ennui over vintage chord progressions that ought to have gotten old by now. By the time Savage is belting out the Stones-biting last-call number “Instant Disassembly,” Parquet Courts’ ability to reanimate classic song forms into something more anxious, prickly and modern becomes undeniable. Rainis


The 25 Best Albums of 2014

17. Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2

Righteous anger is potent fuel for art, and in a year that desperately beckoned for protest music that could stand up to systematic economic and racial oppression, Killer Mike and El-P drew on just that to create Run the Jewels 2, 2014’s finest soundtrack to civil unrest. It’s not a political treatise (there are too many absurdist threats and flights of linguistic fancy to qualify), but tracks like the drug-dealer’s lament “Crown” and the accusatory “Lie, Cheat, Steal” hold a mirror up to society’s blemishes and implore you to get fucking pissed about it to El-P’s punishing, Bomb Squad-reminiscent production. Decades after It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the sonic revolution is still being fought, with brothers-in-arms Killer Mike and El-P as the new ringleaders. Rainis


The 25 Best Albums of 2014

16. Shabazz Palaces, Lese Majesty

Few albums feel as lush as Lese Majesty on which Seattle MC Ishmael Butler and multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire push beyond the already-rich complexity of their first few releases, crafting an expansive magnum opus that sets new standards for hip-hop ambition and overall coherence. Constructed around a dreamy Afrofuturist vibe, with lyrics that encompass outer-space exploration and sand-swept ancient pyramids, the album progresses across an abundant collection of inter-connected suites, joined loosely by a shared fixation on merging past, present, and future in a seamless aural wash. This all builds toward a cumulative effect that transcends ideological concepts, entering a mystical realm of pure sonic textures, somnolent rhymes, and carefully wrought instrumentation. Cataldo


The 25 Best Albums of 2014

15. First Aid Kit, Stay Gold

Given the influence that Swedish musicians have held over American pop of late, it was only a matter of time before a Scandinavian group would step in to redefine contemporary Americana. At 24 and 21 years old, respectively, Johanna and Klara Söderberg are leaving their signature stamp on a style of folk music that their heroes, Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons, perfected decades before the sisters’ birth. The driving, heartsick opener “My Silver Lining” establishes the album’s central theme: the pain of chasing ambition at the expense of security, stability, and at least one promising romantic relationship. With full-voiced, intricately braided harmonies reverberating through deep caverns of pedal steel and strings, Stay Gold is a self-assured masterpiece that balances the wisdom gained from careful study of the classics with the wide-eyed wonder of two young women chasing a lofty, and now fully attainable, dream. Annie Galvin


The 25 Best Albums of 2014

14. alt-J, This Is All Yours

alt-J’s intricate, atmospheric art-rock isn’t for everyone. It’s fussy and complicated, simultaneously goofy (check out this sexy analogy: “I’m gonna bed into you like a cat beds into a beanbag”) and over-serious (This Is All Yours features a trilogy of songs about Nara, an ancient Japanese city). alt-J is one of the few bands that actually deserve the anachronistic descriptor “baroque,” especially on “Garden of England,” a ridiculous flute madrigal. They pay no heed to stuffy genre divisions, sampling Miley Cyrus on “Hunger of the Pine” and Conor Oberst and novelist Iris Murdoch on “Warm Foothills.” That’s the kind of agile, usually shallow, pastiche the Internet encourages, but alt-J manages the shifts gracefully and with glimmers of true depth. Caldwell


The 25 Best Albums of 2014

13. Sia, 1000 Forms of Fear

Though she’s well-respected in the industry as a reliable hitmaker for other artists, and has been featured on hits by the likes of David Guetta and Flo Rida, it wasn’t until this year, at the not-so-radio-friendly age of 38, that Sia Furler officially became a household name. Over the last decade, the Aussie singer-songwriter has displayed a singular talent for composing instantly indelible power-pop, and the songs on her sixth album, 1000 Forms of Fear, are no exception, distilling her various forms of fear—of fame, addiction, death, even love—into 12 deceptively easy-to-swallow pop songs. Sia’s secret weapon is that anyone could sing these songs, and yet no one could sing them like she does, her unique, powerful instrument wavering between a steady belt and weary tremolo as the slowly building backing tracks, courtesy of producer Greg Kurstin, respond in kind. Sal Cinquemani


The 25 Best Albums of 2014

12. Sylvan Esso, Sylvan Esso

Sylvan Esso’s debut achieves a rare and often elusive equilibrium: the confluence of two totally distinct musical styles into a collaboration that feels as though the duo were multiple albums deep into their career. Singer Amelia Meath contributes nuanced vocal inflections that she honed during her stint in the stripped-down folk trio Mountain Man, and her voice, often doubled or tripled in harmonic layers, floats over Nick Sanborn’s synth pulsations and understated percussion. With nimble shifts in tempo, Sylvan Esso pivots from the hip-hop syncopations of “Hey Mami” and “H.S.K.T.” to the fluid, rootsier melodies of “Wolf” and “Play It Right.” It’s deceptively cerebral dance music, inviting you to lose yourself in its buoyant grooves while pausing every now and then to appreciate its intricacies. Galvin


The 25 Best Albums of 2014

11. Aphex Twin, Syro

Few artists could record an album as downright adventurous as Syro. It jumps from eerily funky trip-hop (“produk 29”) to disjointed, robotic acid house (“CIRCLONT6A [141.98]”) and then concludes with a solo piano piece that wouldn’t feel out of place on a recital program alongside Chopin and Satie. But only Aphex Twin could record something this outlandish and appear to be toning down the experimentalism. Syro is a refinement of everything that Aphex Twin has accomplished in his career of genre invention and deconstruction. As a complete work, it’s enveloping, with moments of virtuosic composition (the prog-rock-on-ecstasy of “syro u473t8+e [141.98]”) balanced out by larger, propulsive gestures like rave banger “180db_[130].” While the rest of the electronic music world has been trying to catch up, Aphex Twin is finally taking a breath and, in turn, had released his most accessible—though still profoundly idiosyncratic—album to date. Rainis


The 25 Best Albums of 2014

10. Röyksopp and Robyn, Do It Again

Leave it to these two EDM pioneers to find a blissful, innovative take on electro-house that suggests there’s still some life in this well-trod genre. That impressive feat comes on the title track to this collaborative “mini-album.” The title track manages this by applying some much-needed discipline to the glitter-splattered aimlessness that often gluts would-be club hits. Yes, the cheesy keys are there, but the tactical precision with which they’re employed suggests its creators know how to use shopworn genre tropes to get maximum earworm impact. “Say It” is another rager, warping vintage progressive electro sounds to concoct something Sasha would be proud to crush a dance floor with. The rest of the album is surprisingly gentle, beginning and ending with 10-minute downtempo anthems, the latter of which, “Inside the Idle Hour Club,” sounds like Groove Armada lovingly chopping and remixing the instrumental bits of Dark Side of the Moon. Sullivan


The 25 Best Albums of 2014

9. Hozier, Hozier

Anyone who can fit a chart-topping single and a love song about two corpses decomposing side by side on the same album deserves all the attention that Andrew Hozier-Byrne received this year. The Irish singer’s hit “Take Me to Church” marries gospel bombast, electric-guitar distortion, and clever lyrics reclaiming the sin of lust as an object for worship, both in the bedroom and in church. Taking a similarly counterintuitive approach to everlasting love, the duet “In a Week” fixates on the period of time between two lovers’ deaths and the moment their bodies will be found, “after the insects have made their claim” and “the foxes have known our taste.” Effortlessly sliding between macabre poetry, rhythm-n’-blues swagger, and handclap-laden spirituals, Hozier contains multitudes, while maintaining the consistency imposed by a singular, visionary mind. Galvin


The 25 Best Albums of 2014

8. Banks, Goddess

The alt-pop landscape in 2014 was crowded with sultry female singers backed by über-hip electronic beatscapes, yet Jillian Banks managed to rise above the fray with her debut. Working with seasoned electronic producers Justin Parker and Jamie Woon, Banks nails the form-matching-content sweet spot on tracks like “Alibi,” where interlocking synth drones and skittering snaps complement her falsetto plea to a former lover: “Please, give me something to convince me that I am not a monster.” Banks excels at modulating her delivery to project a range of emotional states, from harried desperation on “Beggin for Thread” to finger-wagging sass on “Fuck Em Only We Know.” On the title track, Banks declares that mistreating women constitutes straight-up sacrilege, and “fucking with a goddess” sounds even less excusable when accentuated by a punch-in-the-gut bass drop. Galvin


The 25 Best Albums of 2014

7. FKA Twigs, LP1

FKA twigs (a.k.a. Tahliah Barnett) makes R&B, I guess, but it’s as menacing, incantatory, and experimental as anything Björk has done. Danceable grooves are arrested, deconstructed, and released again in arrhythmic chaos, surrounded by car alarms, digital sonic sludge, and frosted synths. twigs’s lyrics are equally surreal: On “Two Weeks,” she threatens to “pull out the incisor” and promises that in “two weeks you won’t recognize her.” Her first brush with fame was as a dancer for Ed Sheeran and Jessie J, and the industrial anonymity of the position persists in her own music, especially in “Video Girl,” which repeats the question, “Is she the girls from the video?” and answers, “I can’t recognize me.” For the rest of us, she’s unmistakable. Caldwell


The 25 Best Albums of 2014

6. Jessie Ware, Tough Love

Jessie Ware’s sophomore effort, Tough Love, doesn’t contain the obvious singles and peaks of her debut, but it doesn’t need them. The entire album rides a sinuous groove, from the breezy “Keep on Lying” and the hesitant, softly bubbling “Kind of…Sometimes…Maybe” to the more insistent “Sweetest Song” and the Prince-esque title track. And while Prince’s influence can certainly be felt here, it’s much less pronounced than on Devotion; a more accurate touchstone would be Sade. “Timeless” is a term often affixed to Ware’s music, and it’s an apt one: Tough Love could have been released at any point in the last 30 years and still sound positively fresh, its modern, muted atmospherics and vintage R&B touches swirling around Ware’s supple, emotive voice. Cinquemani


The 25 Best Albums of 2014

5. Mac Demarco, Salad Days

On the surface, Mac DeMarco’s music sounds like consummately crafted beach pop and little more, lightly strummed and frivolously conceived, with hooks so airy they seem in danger of instantly floating away. But repeated listens reveal deeper concerns, and while DeMarco rarely lapses out of his usual sleepy tone, the low-key approach to intelligent pop befits the Canadian singer-songwriter, whose third effort boasts layers of intricacy and skill only hinted at on 2012’s 2. Hopping from genre to genre across the album’s 11 tracks, he demonstrates an instinctive ability to communicate a broad swath of emotions without ever raising his voice. Cataldo


The 25 Best Albums of 2014

4. The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream

The War on Drugs has a clear root in what might be the most mainline brand of American rock. It’s a strain of sleek, swaggering blues refined by the Stones and Springsteen and hordes of less talented adherents, all drawn to the romance of the road and its attendant sorrows, crafting tales of roughly handled dreams whose charging 4/4 thrust is undercut by an essential sense of melancholy. It’s a mode that’s by now largely ceded to parody and creative decay, but an album like Lost in the Dream again shows that influence doesn’t have to be oppressive. It’s energizing to hear the Philadelphia band drain any lingering bravado out of this mythos, locating some essential element of exhaustion and stripping things down to the basic, inherent sadness of the form, on long songs that stretch out helplessly toward some uncertain conclusion. Cataldo


The 25 Best Albums of 2014

3. Lana Del Rey, Ultraviolence

Suburban provocateur Lana Del Rey’s second LP, Ultraviolence, is a kind of millennial noir, all gauzy damsels, bruised cheekbones, and Chevy Malibus. Pop has rarely been this sultry, or masochistic, for that matter. Del Rey, with her melodramatic, sneeringly false narratives, courts both loathing and desire, oscillating between demands for “money, power, and glory” and displays of naked vulnerability. After all, Del Rey reminds us, she’s “pretty when [she cries].” Neither the coolness of her vocal timbre nor the malaise of her delivery can quite disguise the fact that she’s a pop singer almost without peer in her generation, assisted by producer Dan Auerbach’s dreamy minimalism and the ghosts of jazz and ’70s pop. Del Rey chronicles the failure of a kind of American dream that only persists in sepia-toned commercials and Death of a Salesman productions. “I’m a bad girl/I’m a sad girl,” she swoons on “Sad Girl,” with all the self-conscious tragedy of Jay Gatsby staring across the bay at the green light on the end of Daisy’s dock. Our nostalgia might be for a betrayal that never happened, but it still hurts. Caldwell


The 25 Best Albums of 2014

2. Spoon, They Want My Soul

If Spoon’s previous albums cast them as experimentalists rooted firmly in the rock milieu, They Want My Soul is where they twist their classicist and post-punk influences into something stranger and headier. Britt Daniel strikes his “sensitive tough guy” poses, alternately trying to incite street brawls (“Let’s go get out in the street/Somebody’s gotta”) or falling desperately in love (“And if you say ‘run,’ I may run with you/I’ve got nothing else, I’ve got nowhere else”) over Spoon’s expanded textural vocabulary. Every noise is lovingly curated, whether it’s the screeching string figures that lend tension to “Knock, Knock, Knock” or the uncharacteristically wooly keyboards of “Inside Out” and “Outliers.” They Want My Soul is as complete a statement as Spoon has made, a testament to Britt Daniel’s ability to compose Beatles-esque melodies while his band casts them in thrillingly unfamiliar soundscapes. Rainis


The 25 Best Albums of 2014

1. St. Vincent, St. Vincent

On her fifth album, Annie Clark trains her focus on contemporary media culture, critiquing the vapid, self-indulgent aspects of social networking and the alienation and boredom that it produces. Whether singing about selfies or death, Clark probes the existential convergence between humans and their digital devices, as when she laments, “I’m entombed in a shrine of zeroes and ones.” The gorgeously laconic torch song “Prince Johnny” finds Clark imploring, over layered backing vocals and a discretely funky guitar lick, for someone “to make me a real girl,” another nod toward the blurred lines between humans, animals, and machines that she explores throughout the album. Despite its thematic weight, St. Vincent wears its politics lightly, as Clark makes space for her trademark experiments with guitar effects and playful lines like “I prefer your love to Jesus.” She’s an auteur perfectly suited for the age we’re living in: a heretic with her own sense of ethics, an eccentric with a conscience. Galvin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Previous Story

Listen to Slant’s 25 Best Singles of 2014

Next Story

Slant’s Top 25 Films of 2014