My final favorite 15 albums of 2014 are below and a re-listen of these greats made me realize how 2015 has a lot to live up to. Let me know what I missed and stream the entire top albums playlist on Spotify.
15. Sylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso
For being a side hustle for Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn, Sylvan Esso turned out to be a pretty great supplemental duo. As members of Mountain Man and Megafaun the duo’s electropop sounds couldn’t be more different from their other projects, but Sylvan Esso showcased how talent is applicable to more than one genre. The synth-heavy experiment more than succeeded on buzzy tracks like the cat-call anthem “Hey Mami”, whirring rhythms of “Coffee” and hazy melody of “Dreamy Bruises”.
Top Songs: “Coffee”, “Hey Mami”, “Play It Right”
14. Jack White – Lazeretto
The variety of sounds that Jack White is able to emit from his guitar consistently amazes me and the string-work on Lazaretto is particularly enthralling. The title track is a blistering 3:39 that is like an audio workout with enough fuzz, keys and percussion to test even the strongest stereo. In making Lazaretto, White was inspired by poetry he wrote when he was 19 and perhaps that is why the diverse album sounds so diverse. White’s second solo effort hit a full spectrum of influences from blues and garage rock (“High Ball Stepper) to alt country (“Just One Drink”, “Entitlement”) and folk rock (“Three Women”, “Alone In My Home”). “Temporary Ground” excels with alt country influence featuring fiddle/mandolin and endearing male/female duets. The sinister heights of “Would You Fight For My Love” feels almost like a rock opera melody with dramatic vocals and eerie organ. Maybe elder Jack White should channel 19 year old Jack White more often?
Top Songs: “Just One Drink”, “Lazaretto”, “Temporary Ground”
13. Jessie Ware – Tough Love
I had cautious optimism when I saw Jessie Ware’s sophomore effort, Tough Love, would feature everyone from Ed Sheeran to Miguel in songwriting and production capacity. In 2012, I felt Devotion should have been lauded more in the US and enjoyed the experimental nature mixed with quiet storm R&B beauty. Passionate hits like the title track and “Say You Love Me” showcased love songwriting excellence and gave Ware even more ammo to supplant her soaring vocals.
Top Songs: “Say You Love Me”, “You & I (Forever)”, “Kind Of…Sometimes…Maybe”
12. Interpol – El Pintor
As far as reunions go, the return of Interpol was highest on my “anticipated list” of 2014 (even if their last album was in 2010). Album opener “All The Rage Back Home” instantly took me back to Turn On The Bright Lights with Paul Banks’ harrowing baritone over subtle strings, before a classic driving guitar and pulsing percussion took over. That furious soundscape fueled other standouts like “Ancient Ways” and “Anywhere” and put Interpol back in rock’s good graces. El Pintor may not surpass their best work, but the album was well-balanced and as close as Interpol fans could hope for.
Top Songs: “All The Rage Back Home”, “Anywhere”, “Same Town, New Story”
11. St. Paul and the Broken Bones – Half The City
Any review of a St. Paul and the Broken Bones record has to mention “soul”. There is no other way to describe the sounds lead singer Paul Janeway emits from his body. The band’s debut EP in 2013 was just a preview for the greatness of their full effort, Half The City. The Southern rock and bluesy backdrop on songs like “Like A Mighty River” and the title track feel like gospel once Janeway engulfed each note with spirit-shaking psalms.
Top Songs: “I’m Tore Up”, “Call Me”, “Like A Mighty River”
10. Hurray For The Riff Raff – Small Town Heroes
Part of the draw was the earnest way Alynda Lee Segarra outlined the characters of Small Town Heroes as though they are people anyone can relate to. The other attraction was Segarra’s enchanting vocals mixed with the sparse, but charming folk/alt country revival sound. Songs like “Blue Ridge Mountain” and “End Of The Line” would aptly rock a barn party, while other stories like “St. Roch Blues” and “Crash On The Highway” made for intimate replays.
Top Songs: “Blue Ridge Mountain”, “End Of The Line”, “The Body Electric”
9. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds In Country Music
Buzzworthy country & western singer Sturgill Simpson brought back nostalgic feelings of the genre’s yesteryear with a voice like Waylon. However, the spacey, reflective and hallucinogenic subjects set Simpson apart from country storytellers of any era. “Turtles All The Way Down” set the tone with questions of life and theology before settling on love and “It Ain’t All Flowers” touched on psychedelic topics. Simpson also wasn’t afraid to look outside country music for inspiration as he covered When In Rome’s new wave hit “The Promise” and turned it into a bluegrass ballad. Even his takes on dusty saloon guitar anthems like “Life of Sin” and “Living The Dream” feel fresh and hopefully Nashville paid attention.
Top Songs: “Turtles All The Way Down”, “Long White Line”, “Life Of Sin”
8. Wye Oak – Shriek
Shriek, the fourth studio album from Baltimore’s Wye Oak, marked a shift in sound for the duo by pulling back on the guitar in favor of more synthesizer and keys. “Glory” and “Tower” are perhaps the best examples as bursts of synth pair with Andy Stack’s percussion to evoke every bit of singer Jenn Wasner’s many emotions. Sure, bass guitar still frames many of Wasner’s lovelorn narratives “, but the reinvention worked swimmingly on hazy cuts like “I Know The Law” and the title track.
Top Songs: “Glory”, “Tower”, “School Of Eyes”
7. Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence
Lana Del Rey has that polarizing effect on people that naturally makes her more interesting. To be fair, I was on the negative side until I heard The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach was recruited to produce Lana’s third studio album. I was still prepared to push the album aside, but Auerbach’s hazy, dream pop production melded perfectly with Rey’s dry and dramatic storytelling on cuts like “Brooklyn Baby” and “West Coast”. Lyrically, Lana is self-deprecating (“Sad Girl”), comical (“F***ed My Way To The Top”), scary (“Pretty When You Cry”) and with the public profile she’s attained, you wonder if these narratives could actually be true. “Shades of Cool” almost epitomises her vibe with gorgeous balladry mixed with sexual bravado amid classy strings before a sense of destruction takes over with guitar riffs careening out of control.
Top Songs: “Brooklyn Baby”, “West Coast”, “Shades Of Cool”
6. Hozier – Hozier
Sam Smith and Hozier could probably battle for the “most recognizable newish voice of 2014”, but I ended up listening to Hozier’s final product more than Smith’s. The self-titled debut from the Irish musician was a mixture of new songs and tracks taken from previous EP’s but the blues and soul-infused rock record worked as a cohesive collection. “Take Me To Church” garnered most of the initial praise, but I’m betting songs like “Jackie and Wilson”, “Sedated” and “From Eden” will have a longer shelf-life.
Top Songs: “From Eden”, “Sedated”, “Jackie and Wilson”
5. The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream
Post rock/shoe-gazers The War On Drugs instantly grabbed my ears with their 2011 album, Slave Ambient. I didn’t come around to this year’s Lost In The Dream until the fourth quarter, but the ‘80s rock and Americana inspired album will likely stick with me longer. Adam Granduciel’s pained tales of loneliness are painted with hazy soundscapes that conjure images of hope despite murky feelings. “Burning” and “Red Eyes” were road-ready anthems that echoed of Petty and Springsteen, while slow burners “Suffering” and the title track gave listeners moments to reflect. Lost In The Dream was an album that seemed like it was from another era and I was surprised at how often I hit the replay button on in 2014.
Top Tracks: “Red Eyes”, “Burning”, “Under The Pressure”
4. Beyonce – Beyonce
Queen B’s album dropped out of nowhere with music videos in tow last December after my list was made. Hence, Beyonce’s album qualifies for 2014’s rankings (my list, so I make the rules). I thoroughly enjoyed 4, but Mrs. Carter’s fifth album feels bigger and doesn’t sacrifice quality for a larger impression. Big name guests and producers (Hov, Frank Ocean, Drake, Timbaland, Pharrell) come together and emit their best efforts but I still got the sense Beyonce is happily leading the charge. Beyonce shows off previously hidden sexual boasts and marriage pride (“Partition”, “Drunk In Love”, “Jealous”), feminine freedom (“Flawless”, “Pretty Hurts”) and dynamic duets (“Superpower”, “Mine”). There is plenty of experimentation in even splitting tracks into two different ideas, but B especially excels at a traditional, gut-wrenching ballads on “Heaven”.
Top Songs: “Partition”, “Superpower”, “XO”
3. Spoon – They Want My Soul
I’m not sure Austin-based indie rock veterans Spoon could ever make an album as bright and poppy as they did on Ga Ga Ga. Not that they need to when they sound so good making equally smart and catch music like they did on They Want My Soul. The band’s eighth album (!) was tonally a tad darker (“Inside Out”) than earlier efforts, but still featured plenty of home run hooks that Spoon fans initially fell in love with (“Do You”, “Knock Knock Knock”). Even fans of Spoons younger days could appreciate the confidence of “I Just Don’t Understand” and “Rent I Pay” and applaud the band’s growth.
Top Songs: “Inside Out”, “Do You”, “Rent I Pay”
2. Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2
If Yeezus was meant to slap hip-hop and music in the face with jarring and questioning effect, Run The Jewels 2 is the equivalent to taking a 2×4 to the dome. Killer Mike and El-P brought the ruckus on tracks like the alliteration-filled gem “Blockbuster Night Part 1” and guttural sounds of “Oh My Darling”. The brash and bruising nature of El-P’s production is such a perfect soundscape for Killer Mike and El-P’s own rhymes that it seems impossible that these two had ever worked separately. Even when guests like Zach De La Rocha (“Close Your Eyes & Count To F***”), Boots (“Lie, Cheat, Steal”) and Gangsta Boo (“Love Again”) arrive at the riot, they compliment the group’s agenda. Not only was the record a breathtaking evolution in hip-hop, but a feat that should go down as one of the performances by a duo in music history.
Top Songs: “Close Your Eyes & Count To F***”, “Blockbuster Night Part 1”, “Oh My Darling”
1. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
Spoiler alert: My number one album of 2014 was essentially decided in June. St. Vincent’s eponymous album was a fun and interesting journey through the mind of Ms. Annie Clark (and was even more enthralling live at the Majestic Theater). Clark had a way of sounding authoritative (“Digital Witness”), charming (“Birth In Reverse”), sexy (“Prince Johnny”) and curious (“Rattlesnake”) depending on the moment and often all in the same song (“Regret”). The fact that one of the best guitarists in music right now made a record that utilized guitars to sound like entirely different instruments was a creative and daring feat only St. Vincent could achieve.