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Best Ever Lists

50 Best Albums of 2014

U2 unleashed a brilliant surprise, Bruce Springsteen hit a new peak, St. Vincent made deliciously weird noise and more

Rolling Stone
Rolling Stone Dec 09, 2014
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2014 was another phenomenal year for music, illuminating darkness when it often seemed that the only light was from buildings burning in Ferguson, Missouri. Veterans like U2, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Jackson Browne and Leonard Cohen were showing the youngsters how it’s done, but classic rock was being revived in more unlikely ways too: the Eighties impressionist guitar choogle of the War on Drugs, Ought’s word-drunk post-punk, Perfume Genius’ arty glam rock and Eric Church’s country arena-rock.

The year was dominated on nearly every other front by young women: Charli XCX’s reinvention of punk-pop, Miranda Lambert’s Nashville platinum-blonde ambition, St. Vincent’s indie-rock apotheosis, FKA Twigs’ haunting avant-R&B and, above all, Taylor Swift’s unstoppable pop juggernaut. The politically charged hip-hop of Public Enemy found a new-school parallel in Run the Jewels, the storytelling Los Angeles breeze of Dr. Dre found new life in YG and Flying Lotus took rhymes and beats into spectacularly abstract territory. Here’s 50 albums that we wouldn’t turn down.

50.Yob, ‘Clearing the Path to Ascend’

Yob, Clearing the Path to Ascend

With their seventh album ”“ four sumptuous, sludgy tracks delivered across an hour ”“ Yob staked their claim on doom metal’s throne. Lumbering Sabbathian riffage and Neurosis’ build-to-burn dynamics abound, but what sets the record apart are its gorgeous moments of peace and introspection, which shimmer like moonlight on a tar pit.

49.Tinariwen, ‘Emmaar’

Tinariwen, Emmaar

The veteran Saharan guitar mystics, in exile due to regional conflicts, relocate to another desert ”“ the Mojave ”“ to make electric music with American friends like Josh Klinghoffer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It’s a subtle shading of the band’s magnificent sound, a hypnotic landscape of reverb, handclaps and Afro-Berber riffs circling like buzzards in the sun.

48.Coldplay, ‘Ghost Stories’

Coldplay

A major disruption in Chris Martin’s personal life led to a fruitful change of direction in his creative one: with the ghost of Gwyneth haunting his soul, Martin led Coldplay through a set of stripped-back songs that blend the band’s interest in EDM with aching melodies and truly raw emotions.

47.Gary Clark Jr., ‘Gary Clark Jr. Live’

Gary Clark Jr. Live

The future-of-the-blues hype that’s followed Texas guitar prodigy Gary Clark Jr. is more than affirmed on this staggering live double album. Clark puts his stamp on decades of music with incisive covers of songs like the Delta standard “Catfish Blues,” casually seething solos and lysergic-lava distortion that’s so rich and bruising it would make Kurt Cobain smile. The sound of huge talent tilting towards defined brilliance.

46. Tweedy, ‘Sukierae’

Tweedy, Sukierae

A great singer-songwriter goes deep: Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy enlisted his teenage son Spencer on drums for a double album of gently psychedelic folk-rock reflections. Rolling through hope, sorrow, anger and humor over 20 songs, it was one of the year’s most richly detailed inner-space trips, and a semi-solo album that stands up next to the best work Tweedy has done with his main gig as of late.

Interpol, El Pintor

Interpol helped define the darkly glammy New York post-punk scene of the early ’00s, and their first album in four years shows they still know how to bring the black-clad damage. Singer Paul Banks gives us a guided tour of his stylishly appointed pain cave as the guitars pierce and wail like bipolar hyenas amidst torrid drum swirls.

43. Future, ‘Honest’

Future, Honest

Future’s free-wheeling lothario sing-rap set the stage for Atlanta space cadets like Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan ”” but his much-anticipated second album blasted off into a universe all its own: Amadou and Mariam samples, trunk-melting bass and the year’s most triumphant started-from-the-bottom hip-hop album closer.

42. Perfume Genius, ‘Too Bright’

Perfume Genius

On his third album, piano-playing art-gallery balladeer Mike Hadreas emerges as a potent glam rocker, with assistance from the Portishead and PJ Harvey camps. It’s noisy, sexy, twisted and fierce; with Hadreas declaring, “No family is safe when I sashay.”

41. Aphex Twin, ‘Syro’

Aphex Twin

Richard D. James has digested decades worth of electronic music trends and follows none. On this magnificent comeback there are flashes of soul-jazz fusion, stadium EDM, jungle, dubstep and a neo-classical piano coda delivered like a story in a mysterious tongue that still makes sense.

40. Jack White, ‘Lazaretto’

Jack White

White’s second solo album is a paranoid palace of earth-shaking blues riffs and weird vibes ”“ the long, high howl of a lone wolf. Whether he’s hulking out on the unstrung instrumental “High Ball Stepper” or laughing to himself on the honky-tonky lark “Alone in My Home,” this is an album only one man could have made.

39. Caribou, ‘Our Love’

Caribou, Our Love

Dan Snaith’s psychedelic dance grooves have always had a deep emotional core. This year, the Canadian producer super-sized both sides of his music: The beats on Our Love are his biggest, shiniest, rave-iest creations ever, backing a heady set of songs about the mind-expanding possibilities of long-term partnership.

38. Hurray for the Riff Raff, ‘Small Town Heroes’

Hurray For The Riff Raff, Small Town Heroes

Alynda Lee Segarra was raised on the New York punk scene before finding her folk-rock muse in New Orleans. Her band’s breakthrough flips the script on woman-hating murder ballads and ponders the romance of dangerous behavior, over fingerpicking and fiddling. Somewhere, Pete Seeger is smiling.

37. Benjamin Booker, ‘Benjamin Booker’

Benjamin Booker

This 25-year-old punk-blues guitar hero bowled over future tourmate Jack White, and you can see why. Booker’s raw-throated boogie blues proves rock & roll can still function as crazy-ass party music ”“ when he confesses to wasting time on “a five-year bender” in the midst of “Violent Shiver,” you may be tempted to join him.

36. Alvvays, ‘Alvvays’

Alvvays

The lyrics on this Toronto band’s accomplished debut read like a great short-story collection, full of wild romance, quarter-life confusion and sly humor. Set to exquisitely yearning melodies and pitch-perfect guitar jangle and fuzz, songs like “Party Police,” “Next of Kin” and “Archie, Marry Me” are as catchy as they are clever.

35.Lenny Kravitz, ‘Strut’

Lenny Kravitz, Strut

He may keep homes in Paris and the Bahamas, but Kravitz has never stopped being a New Yorker. Strut looks back on the 1970s metropolis of his youth with funky after-hours grooves and soulful hooks. “New York City” is the best tune Mick Jagger didn’t get around to writing in his Studio 54 days.

34.Prince, ‘Art Official Age’

Prince, Art Official Age

Prince proved himself as brilliant and confounding as ever in 2014, releasing this fantastic old-school funk record in tandem with a weird, flat album recorded with his new group, 3rdEyeGirl. Art Official Age recalls the plush swagger and pop mastery of his Eighties classics ”“ all psychedelic pimp style and spectacular balladry.

33.The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, ‘Midnight Sun’

Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger

Sean Lennon finally found his own voice as a singer-songwriter in late-Sixties British psychedelia. His second full LP with partner Charlotte Kemp Muhl has disarming emotional intimacy (inherited from Lennon’s parents) draped in the bright, surrealist magnetism of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd.

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32.Damon Albarn, ‘Everyday Robots’

Damon Albarn

Modern British pop’s most obsessive explorer turned his curiosity inward on this intimate solo triumph. There are hints of his bands Blur and Gorillaz and of his African forays in the hooks and rhythms. But Albarn mostly evokes Brian Eno and that Brit-pop ideal, the Kinks’ Ray Davies, in Everyday Robots‘ stark grace.

31.Young Thug and Bloody Jay, ‘Black Portland’

Young Thug and Bloody Jay, Black Portland

Young Thug was 2014’s most exciting new weirdo, an ATL star-child who stretches his Lil Wayne yelp like Silly Putty until you’re hanging on every mangled syllable. This mixtape (with buddy Bloody Jay) is his finest hour: catchy, woozy, idea-stuffed songs about sex, gangs and not giving a damn whether what he says bothers you.

 

30. Thom Yorke, ‘Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes’

Thom Yorke, Tomorrow's Modern Boxes

The Radiohead man’s second proper solo album got oddly slept on, but these are his most intense songs since In Rainbows. Yorke puts on the chill in “Truth Ray” and “Nose Grows Some” ”“ even when he sings about a dystopian future, the anxious yearning in his voice is all too immediate.

29. Spoon, ‘They Want My Soul’

Spoon

Vintage ooh-las, art-brut rhythm guitar and head-crack drum beats fit together like idealized Ikea furniture on the latest jewel from Britt Daniel’s crew; it’s all clean lines and formal balance. And co-producer Dave Fridmann’s discreet splashes of color and texture add new flavor to the minimalist feng shui.

28. Parquet Courts, ‘Sunbathing Animal’

Parquet Courts, Sunbathing Animal

These Brooklyn jokers stepped up their game something fierce, romping from the twin-guitar heroics of “She’s Rolling” to the psychedelic love buzz of “Raw Milk.” They make it all sound so easy, you wonder why there aren’t a dozen bands this great in every town. But these guys are in a league of their own.

27. Alt-J, ‘This Is All Yours’

Alt-J

The English prog-folk rockers grew to arena scale without losing their weirdness ”“ like the Incredible String Band via Kid A, Joe Newman’s Bilbo Baggins warble wanders through monkish choirs, electronic squelches and woodland chirping, with a Miley Cyrus sample representing the world outside the band’s cozy hideaway.

26. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, ‘Hypnotic Eye’

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Hypnotic Eye

Petty and Co. made their first Number One album by tightening their Sixties-punk clang and firing it through flinty songs about a nation on the ropes and Petty’s determination not to take it lying down. “I got a dream,” he sings in “American Dream Plan B.” “I’m gonna fight till I get it right.”

25. YG, ‘My Krazy Life’

YG, My Crazy Life

Most rap fans probably didn’t expect the Cali guy behind 2010’s goofy minor hit “Toot It and Boot It” to make a debut album this rich and ambitious. My Krazy Life is a detailed day-in-the-life tale of robbery and regrets, with YG’s charming flow set against DJ Mustard’s new-school bounce like a long-lost sequel to The Chronic.

24. Leonard Cohen, ‘Popular Problems’

Leonard Cohen, Popular Problems

What a year for footloose eightysomethings: Yoko Ono topped the club charts, Robert Morse stole Mad Men, and Cohen danced to the end of love. He whispers a dusky farewell on “Almost Like the Blues.” Yet in the sensual sway of “Slow,” he’s got time for one more round: “A weekend on your lips/A lifetime in your eyes.”

23. War on Drugs, ‘Lost in the Dream’

War on Drugs, Lost In The Dream

These Philly dudes broke through by tripping out on a classic-rock vibe, Eighties style: “Boys of Summer” melodies, Nebraska harmonica, Brothers in Arms guitar shimmer. But the album’s pleasant aimlessness ”“ as songs choogle past the five-minute mark and lead lines curlicue across the sky ”“ says plenty about right now.

22. Skrillex, ‘Recess’

Skrillex, Recess

Skrillex’s whirling neon knife-storm was the album of the year for modern EDM ”“ a genre that can currently fill arenas without albums at all. After a four-year run of killer singles, the drop-aholic DJ made a surprisingly varied full-length packed with mind-blowing experiments with two-step, jungle, vintage techno and more.

 

21.Eric Church, ‘The Outsiders’

Eric Church, The Outsiders

In an era teeming with bro-country, Church made a great record by following his rock & roll rebel heart. Prog riffs, bourbon-drawl raps and stoner funk sit straight-faced next to radio-friendly takes on NASCAR good times and broken hearts ”“ styles and subjects that connect because Church obviously loves every one of them.

 

20. Sharon Van Etten, ‘Are We There’

Sharon Van Etten, Are We There

On her fourth album, the New Jersey-native singer-songwriter took the heartbreak she’d explored on past records and blew it up to massive scale. Bringing chilly synth beats into her mix for the first time, Van Etten gives songs like “Your Love Is Killing Me” a morbid grandness, all the better to complement her passionate vocals.

19. Jackson Browne, ‘Standing in the Breach’

Jackson Browne Standing in the Breach

Browne confirmed his place as an essential voice in the wilds of the 21st century with this powerful set of songs about love and progressive ideals ”“ forces that a corrupt world can never truly defeat. Songs like “The Long Way Around” are the most eloquent protests against apathy you’ll hear this year.

18. Sturgill Simpson, ‘Metamodern Sounds in Country Music’

Sturgill Simpson Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

“Marijuana, LSD, psilocybin, DMT, they all changed the way I see/But love’s the only thing that ever saved my life,” sings Simpson. The Kentucky-born singer-songwriter’s breakthrough album features plenty more folk wisdom, delivered in a singular barrel-aged baritone.

17. Jenny Lewis, ‘The Voyager’

Jenny Lewis

It took the ex-Rilo Kiley frontwoman six years, but Lewis finally returned to the studio to make the kind of sweetly biting solo record that earned her a permanent place in the indie canon. Blending Laurel Canyon sensibilities with modern wit, The Voyager shows she’s stronger and wiser ”“ and can still draw blood.”‹

16. FKA Twigs, ‘LP1’

FKA

For many, there was no sexier pop listen in 2014 than FKA Twigs’ full-length debut. It’s a feminist take on the Weeknd’s druggy avant-R&B, with self-loathing and sleaze replaced by self-possession and hunger. The haunting mix of pop and EDM weirdness takes a while to kick in ”“ which only makes it more delicious when it does.

15. Against Me!, ‘Transgender Dysphoria Blues’

Against Me Transgender Dysphoria Blues

Transgender frontwoman Laura Jane Grace poured all of her own deep pain and hard-won pride into a bold new start for one of America’s greatest punk-rock bands. It’s a roiling attack with a fragile, beating heart ”“ few albums this year were as relentlessly heavy and fiercely melodic.

14. Weezer, ‘Everything Will Be Alright in the End’

Weezer Everything Will Be Alright In The End

After a few hit-or-miss records, Weezer fans needed some reassurance from Rivers Cuomo. He delivered big-time on the band’s cheeky, ambitious ninth LP ”“ rediscovering the art of the three-minute girl jam (“Lonely Girl”) but stretching out in fruitful new ways, too.

13. Ought, ‘More Than Any Other Day’

Ought More Than Any Other Day

“I feel a habit forming,” sings frontman Tim Beeler, and so did we. On the year’s most irrefutable rock debut, you can hear Talking Heads in the vocals and Voidoids in the guitars. But this Montreal crew’s post-punk panic attacks have a doomed optimism that feels utterly of the moment.

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12. Foo Fighters, ‘Sonic Highways’

Foo Fighters Sonic Highways

This multifaceted travelogue is the most ambitious album Foo Fighters have made in their 20-year career. Whether they’re celebrating Buddy Guy in Chicago or getting in touch with their punk-rock roots in D.C., the bedrock force remains their anthemic guitar charge. By now, that’s a classic American sound in its own right.

11. Flying Lotus, ‘You’re Dead!’

Flying Lotus

“Step inside of my mind and you’ll find/Curiosity, animosity, high philosophy.” It’s a guest rap from Kendrick Lamar, but it could also be a mission statement for Flying Lotus. The tripped-out producer’s latest is an LP about mortality that explodes with life ”“ jazz that respects no dogma, and pop that reveals more with each listen.

 

10. Taylor Swift, ‘1989’

Taylor Swift 1989

America’s sweetheart has been writing perfect pop tunes since the day she hit Nashville. Yet it’s still a delectable shock to hear her ditch the banjos for an album of expert Top 40 gloss ”“ like Dylan going electric, except with more songs about Harry Styles. She sounds right at home over these Max Martin beats, sick and otherwise.

9. Mac DeMarco, ‘Salad Days’

Mac DeMarco Salad Days

The 24-year-old Canadian singer-guitarist’s second album ”“ a warm, polished set of sun-drenched folk-rock jams ”“ feels like it could have been a lost used-vinyl-bin treasure from the Seventies. DeMarco channels Harry Nilsson, the Beach Boys, Steely Dan and the Beatles, but the offbeat stoner vibes are all him.

8. Run the Jewels, ‘Run the Jewels 2’

Run The Jewels 2

El-P and Killer Mike made 2014’s greatest hip-hop record. Guest shots flare in the avant-noise darkness: Zack de la Rocha riffs on Philip K. Dick; Gangsta Boo flips a porn-rap script. But it’s the chemistry between Mike’s on-the-ground Dirty South flow and El’s big-picture indictments that lights this up like a Brooklyn bridge.

7. Lana Del Rey, ‘Ultraviolence’

Lana Del Rey Ultraviolence

Del Rey silenced her detractors with an intoxicating collection of indie-noir anthems. With more live instrumentation in her smoky glam grooves, she plays enough characters to fill a Raymond Chandler novel: On “Sad Girl,” she’s a sultry mistress; on “Brooklyn Baby,” she’s a snarky kid. Most of all, she’s a pop voice like no other.

6. Charli XCX, ‘SUCKER’

Charli XCX Sucker

Charli XCX is the pop star 2014 was waiting for: a badass songwriting savant who’s the most fun girl in any room she steps into. The 22-year-old Brit came into her own with SUCKER, a middle-finger-waving teenage riot packed into 13 punky gems. It’s a dance party, a mosh pit and a feminist rally ”“ Charli’s definitely in charge.

5. Miranda Lambert, ‘Platinum’

Miranda Lambert Platinum

Lambert began as a mainstream-country bad girl. This year, she became an institution. Platinum smoothly balances solo-act introspection with A-list ring grabs, co-starring the likes of Carrie Underwood and Little Big Town. Notably absent, though, is superstar hubby Blake Shelton ”“ sister’s doin’ it for herself.

4. St. Vincent, ‘St. Vincent’

St. Vincent

After her string of increasingly excellent records, indie guitar heroine Annie Clark’s fourth solo album felt like a coronation: a masterful set of skewed but sticky pop hooks, subtly sexy electro-funk grooves and Dada poetry that aches for real. And her fiery guitar solos are sharper and more surprising than ever. Bow down.

3. The Black Keys, ‘Turn Blue’

The Black Keys Turn Blue

The Keys and Danger Mouse spool out everything from Seventies funk to disco throb to drive-time guitar grind, making music that could evoke lonely late nights or burnt-rubber desert highways, jittery paranoia and boundless possibility. It’s the sound of America’s most innovative arena rockers in full command.

2. Bruce Springsteen, ‘High Hopes’

Bruce Springsteen High Hopes

This new peak in Springsteen’s 21st-century hot streak is his most gloriously loose, vibrant album in years. In the past, Springsteen would never have allowed himself to release an album that includes two covers and reworked versions of his own older tunes, let alone give Tom Morello license to splatter virtuoso wah-wah’ed madness over much of it ”“ but Springsteen was so much older then. Now he’s more unpredictable than ever, and it’s working: Despite the varied origins of the songs, High Hopes hangs together with striking sonic and thematic consistency, finding fresh angles on his central concern: the fault lines in the American dream. Springsteen worked on much of the album during his year-and-a-half-long Wrecking Ball world tour, and the expansiveness of that tour’s 19-piece incarnation of the E Street Band ”“ featuring a horn section, backup singers and a percussionist ”“ carries over to the big, bold arrangements of tracks like “High Hopes” (first recorded in the early 1990s by an obscure L.A. punk crew called the Havalinas), the bar-band romp “Frankie Fell in Love” and the gangster’s portrait “Harry’s Place.” The revamped version of “American Skin (41 Shots)” ”“ a song about police shooting a young black man, originally echoing the killing of Amadou Diallo in 1999 ”“ proved to be a tragically prescient choice for the year of Ferguson. But the album’s high point is the Morello-Springsteen duet on “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” where Morello’s rage-filled, celestial solo is a song in itself. The whole thing runs together like a marathon gig, united by a hard eye on the national condition and the fire in Springsteen’s voice.

1. U2, ‘Songs of Innocence’

U2 Songs of Innocence

There was no bigger album of 2014 ”“ in terms of surprise, generosity and controversy. Songs of Innocence is also the rebirth of the year. Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. put their lives on the line: giving away 11 songs of guitar rapture and frank, emotional tales of how they became a band out of the rough streets and spiritual ferment of Seventies Dublin. This is personal history with details. In the furiously brooding “Cedarwood Road,” named after Bono’s home address as a boy, he recalls the fear and rage that drove him to punk rock. “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” is a glam-stomp homage to the misfit voice that inspired Bono to sing. And that’s his mother, who died when Bono was 14, still guiding and comforting him in the chorus of “Iris (Hold Me Close).”

This is a record full of the band’s stories and triumph, memory and confession detonated with adventure and poise. In its range of sounds, there may be no more complete U2 album: The band bonded its founding post-punk values with dance momentum in “Volcano” and the raw, jagged “Raised by Wolves,” and humanized the digital pathos of “Every Breaking Wave” and the harrowing “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight” with the vocal folk-soul warmth of The Joshua Tree. “I have a will for survival,” Bono sings in the closing track, “The Troubles.” Songs of Innocence is the proof ”“ and the emotionally raw rock album of the year, at any price.

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