The 50 Best Albums of 2014
With the Salad Days of 2014 long gone, we're looking back on the music that defined the past 12 months. We've already counted down the year's 101 Best Songs, and now we've rounded up the 50 Best Albums. Expect to find our favorite Nikki Nacks and Brill Bruisers; a two-stepping, fire-spitting MC from Harlem; Los Angeles' principal lo-fi auteur; a bird-flipping British upstart; a number of literary post-punks; and the most bankable '80s baby. Brace yourselves: We're going 50 to 1, real quick.
1. The 50 Best Albums of 2014
2. ScHoolboy Q, Oxymoron (Interscope/Top Dawg)
For his major-label debut, ScHoolboy Q delivers a panoramic but finely sketched portrait of addiction. Top Dawg's perennial underdog colors Oxymoron with pupil-dilating synths (admire the Mike WiLL Made It-produced "What They Want"), then fills in the shadows via a pair of six-minute-plus tracks that stretch like long, crooked hallways lit by flickering fluorescents (spot the cockroach-filled cereal on "Hoover Street," note when Q dodges his daughter's phone calls on "Prescription/Oxymoron"). To close, the Los Angeleno floats past sleazeball sexual encounters, chasing a release that never quite fulfills its promise (see the EDM-tinted, drop-averse tease that is "Hell of a Night"). If the devil really is in the details, he's not alone. KYLE MCGOVERN
3. Tacocat, NVM (Hardly Art)
Only this bold'n'brassy Seattle outfit could write a hair-flipping, mashed-potato-dancing song about how badly periods suck and not end up lumped into some joke-band genre with Take Off Your Pants-era Blink-182. For their second satire-coated disc, the fervently feminist Tacocat (who get their name from an Internet meme) wail about seasonal affective disorder, sweaty guys catcalling, and how "there are communists in the summer house." With help from producer Conrad Uno (Mudhoney, Sonic Youth), the foursome have slapped together a highly memorable, in-your-face first effort that layers winning wisecracks with surf-rock melodies. Grab the boogie board and a box of tampons — Tacocat are ready to hit the beach. RACHEL BRODSKY
4. Ben Frost, A U R O R A (Mute/Bedroom Community)
Listening to A U R O R A is like driving through a blizzard at night — cold, surreal, gorgeously serene, and abjectly terrifying all at once. You can feel your fingers sweating nervously on the steering wheel listening to the tapping drums, hissing static, and slowly enveloping feedback of rattling highlights "Nolan" and "Venter," stressed to the breaking point by the creeping dread, yet utterly transfixed by the cacophony. But befitting an album whose title is stylized with spaces separating each of the letters, the extended silences in the middle of the white noise might be the most arresting moments of all, giving just enough pause to make you wonder what awaits around that next dark, foreboding turn. ANDREW UNTERBERGER
5. TV on the Radio, Seeds (Harvest)
No longer making albums that diagnose the State of Our Union, TV on the Radio instead address their own well-being with Seeds. On their first full-length since the death of bassist Gerard Smith — who succumbed to lung cancer just days after the release of 2011's Nine Types of Light — the (sm)art rock stalwarts grapple with loss and hope to rise above. Remarkably, TVOTR never fall prey to the macabre: The bicoastal band fights heartbreak with the new wave-streaked, ignorance-is-bliss anthem "Happy Idiot"; longs to live in the moment and achieve "peace of mind beyond the self" on the side-two beauty "Right Now"; and answers "Trouble" by insisting "Everything's gonna be OK." Big on acceptance and accessibility, the record closes with a level-headed love plea, an almost Swift-ian request to slow dance in the rain as you wait for the seeds to take root and the flowers to bloom. K.M.
6. Hundred Waters, The Moon Rang Like a Bell (OWSLA)
Sometimes the quietest albums chime the loudest — e.g., the sublime hybrid that is The Moon Rang Like a Bell. Written and recorded on the road over a span of years (and released via Skrillex's vanity imprint), the successor to Hundred Waters' self-titled 2012 debut draws attention slowly. Blending the soothing vocals of singer/pianist/flutist Nicole Miglis with wispy melodies and shapeshifting synths, the nocturnal collection transfixes and — eventually, gently — devastates with its marriage of campfire intimacy and electronic catharsis, as tender whispers swirl and songs morph from one to the next. But while Moon reveals itself over time and with care, the Florida-formed foursome's second LP also makes the price-of-admission clear in its opening track, issuing the simplest and most demanding of requests: "Show me love." K.M.
7. Eric Church, The Outsiders (EMI Nashville)
"They're the in crowd, we're the other ones, it's a different kind of cloth we're cut from." An ironic-in-retrospect claim to introduce the best-selling country record of 2014, but The Outsiders was indeed among the year's most mold-breaking albums: dabbling in thrashy guitars, woozy brass, demonic bass, and other sounds that you just don't hear on mainstream country LPs, and boasting a survivor's perspective ("Dark Side" and "A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young") that makes the winking boys-will-be-boys irresponsibility of most bro-country seem downright embarrassing. Not just country Church outshines here, either — the soon-as-I-get-home ballad "Like a Wrecking Ball" is about as sexy as any R&B jam this year, and "Give Me Back My Hometown" is a couple of MOR tweaks away from being a ballad Ryan Tedder would kill for. The in crowd may not like having to make room at the table, but they'll get over it. A.U.
8. Shabazz Palaces, Lese Majesty (Sub Pop)
In which Shabazz Palaces best Christopher Nolan by crafting 2014's most compelling space odyssey. Spanning 18 tracks divvied up into seven suites, Lese Majesty (basic translation: treason) values starlit sonics, contortionist rhythms, and cosmic curiosity. A futuristic epic that bends the confines of its genre, the psych-rap soothsayers' second album is also rich in fortune-cookie-worthy non-sequiturs ("Strategy, the only way to cry / Keep it 'do or die' and always think in terms of 'I'"). The leaps in logic here flourish under scrutiny, unlike in Interstellar, but what the two projects do share is a thirst for discovery and the hope that we can achieve more. By looking skyward, Shabazz look inward. K.M.
9. Charli XCX, Sucker (Neon Gold/Atlantic)
This was the year Charli XCX became the star she always deserved to be. She landed on magazine covers, brought "Fancy" living to the masses with Iggy Azalea, and even got called up to the big leagues to write for upcoming projects by Gwen Stefani and Rihanna. Not one to lose momentum, the 22-year-old Brit capped off her life-changing 2014 with her second studio album, Sucker. Brash and bubbly, the True Romance follow-up mixes Charli's punk-lite and poppier predilections — a vivid, pink-washed tantrum from a Ramones fan who tosses off hooks as easily as she ashes cigarettes. The title track is squealing and bratty; "Break the Rules" might've started as a rebel yell in some Swedish studio before it became a guitar-driven gum-snapper. Better yet are "Famous" and "Doing It," sneering and opulent takes on exactly what their titles suggest. Three cheers for the newest British invasion. BRENNAN CARLEY
10. Mac DeMarco, Salad Days (Captured Tracks)
Goofballs get old too, ya know. Over the course of his sophomore full-length, guitar-toting prankster (and bizarro dreamboat) Mac DeMarco imbues his shimmering ballads with quarter-life crises: bidding goodbye to his weekends, ruminating on wilted romance, and smiling when required. On Salad Days, the 24-year-old singer-songwriter is more likely to let out a weary sigh than a Cheeto-dusted belch. Behind that gap-toothed, shit-eating grin lies a heavy heart. K.M.
11. Lana Del Rey, Ultraviolence (Polydor/Interscope)
No longer auditioning for Fifty Shades of Grey, Lana Del Rey ditches the last album's opening dope who liked his girls "insane" in a seven-minute realization that she's no longer the "fucking crazy" one. "Shared my body and my mind with you / That's all over now," the emancipated chanteuse could be telling a manipulative ex, the media, Axl Rose, whomever. She ditches Lolita, trades Nancy Sinatra for Nina Simone, and stops romanticizing being his "bonny on the side." Here's hoping that as the world's premier cult artist twirls one step closer to artistic maturity, she brings her audience with her. DAN WEISS
12. Real Estate, Atlas (Domino)
The typically nonchalant Real Estate actually sound tighter, less hazy, and uncharacteristically direct on Atlas. But even though the Garden State-grown band sounds more assured than ever, a close reading of their third album reveals an undercurrent of conflict. On "Crime," singer-guitarist Martin Courtney sounds like he could use a kale shake and soothing foot rub ("Toss and turn all night / Don't how to make it right / Crippling anxiety"), while the echoing "Past Lives" distills the I've-Changed-But-My-Town-Hasn't sensation of returning home for the holidays ("I cannot come back to this neighborhood / Without feeling my own age"). Navel-gazing, forever-young fantasies can only last so long before you're yanked awake by the unwelcome lines on your face. R.B.
13. Afghan Whigs, Do to the Beast (Sub Pop)
The Afghan Whigs didn't lose their fastball in the 16 years between 1998's 1965 and this spring's Do to the Beast — the first 30 seconds of barnstorming opener "Parked Outside" makes damn sure to dissuade potential detractors of any such notions — but like most aging flamethrowers, they're relying much more on their veteran guile these days. The productions and songcraft of dusty single "Algiers" and majestic centerpiece "Lost in the Woods" are among the richest of the band's three-decade career, and though frontman Greg Dulli's lyrics no longer howl from the speakers and grab you by the throat, now they float out and hover over you like a bad omen. Older and wiser, but no less vital. A.U.
14. Azealia Banks, Broke With Expensive Taste (Prospect Park)
Finally. After years of delays, beefs, and Twitter gaffes, Azealia Banks' fabled debut album dropped with no warning in early November. Even more surprising: Broke With Expensive Taste was actually worth the wait. Thought-to-be-lost gems like "Ice Princess," "Soda," and "Miss Amor" spent years in limbo as little more than fan-forum fodder, but now they prowl and bite with walloping beats and hop-scotching flow. Broke thumps and bumps in the dark; it purrs from the depths of the moonlit uptown subway, beckoning only those brave enough to stare down its shit-stirring, hard-edged experimentation. With one disc, the Harlem rapper shifted the conversation from her messy public persona — defending the use of "faggot" won't ever be a pretty look — back to her art. Hopefully, that lasts. B.C.
15. Cymbals Eat Guitars, LOSE (Barsuk)
The best review of Cymbals Eat Guitars' third album came from the band's own frontman, Joseph D'Agostino: "It's about being in mourning for your long-held belief that music could literally change the world." LOSE is D'Agostino attempting to rebuke his own disillusionment by making a record panoramic and wondrous enough to inspire himself to believe again, and hell if it doesn't work. The nine-track LP sounds like it was made in a universe where confessional rock is the dominant stadium-filling genre, the eternally ringing guitars of "Warning" and "Chambers" echoing to the back rows of the Meadowlands, the grief-stricken lyrics of "Jackson" and "Child Bride" devastating 80,000 lighter-waving acolytes. For those of us unsure why Jimmy Eat World never became the Bon Jovi of the 21st century, it's not a bad place to visit. A.U.
16. Young Thug & Bloody Jay, Black Portland (Self-Released)
In which two stoned amigos somehow duct-tape together the most outrageous rap bootleg of 2014, consisting of almost nothing but snake-like synths and tag-team voice effects, inventive attractions in and of themselves. Marvel at the cartoon-feeble old-man voice Thugga squishes a verse through in "Movin'," or Bloody Jay's clipped hook, "I don't give no fuh!" on "No Fucks," the only appropriate title for a tune that includes the line, "We ain't Ku Klux Klan but that jet hold three K's." It’s not all aural sketch comedy, though, with world-beating anthems in "4 Eva Bloody" and the epochal "Danny Glover," where a three-dimensional melody plays off of the usual menacing strings and snapping drums. No one else in the world sounds like this, and if Thug keeps rolling out more expensive productions like T.I.'s "About the Money" and the Freddie Gibbs/A$AP Ferg huddle "Old English," he won't anymore either. Not a bad thing, but when he makes a physical full-length we'll play this to remember him at his most brilliantly bizarre. D.W.
17. Homeboy Sandman, Hallways (Stones Throw)
Boom-bap-style indie rap doesn't just stop getting smarter because it's out of fashion. Thirty-four-year-old Queens minor legend Angel Del Villar II raps with the conversational offhandedness and subtle sharpness of a lawyer (which he almost became) with no signs of softening, a whole five full-lengths and seven EPs into his career. "We are the 99 percent locally / We are the one percent globally" from "America, the Beautiful" might be the smartest line Sandman's ever constructed, punctuated with "It's sobering!" Lest you assume he's Immortal Technique, the conversational rapper changes modes for the weekend-ready "Personal Ad" ("We will have all sorts of other options from the Kama Sutra and other doctrines") and the incredibly sobering meditation "Problems," which is neither satire nor completely straight: "I'm surrounded by hipsters / What does that say about me / Maybe I'm not being honest with myself." If every one-percenter was this honest the world might be a better place. D.W.
18. Taylor Swift, 1989 (Big Machine)
On 1989, Taylor Swift's diaristic confessionals turn pure pop. No more strings, lose the ukulele, put away the acoustic guitar — Taylor's done dropping her "g"s. This time, she'll knit, bake, hang with Lena Dunham and Lorde, talk about cats, and bail on Spotify. She's also going to dance (no matter how awkwardly), and knowingly wink at the camera, fully owning her jerky struts. Save for the occasional misstep (the have-not blinders on "Welcome to New York"), Swift breezes through horn and synth-soaked juggernauts like "Shake It Off," "Out of the Woods," and "Blank Space" with all the panache and grace her two left feet lack. If pop is where mid-twenties Taylor wants to go, and New York is where she'd rather live, then let's join her in hailing a double-decker tour bus and hugging off-brand Elmos. And once she's grown tougher NYC roots, we'll happily meet our girl in Midtown for an after-work drink any day of the week. R.B.
19. Andy Stott, Faith in Strangers (Modern Love)
For a producer who primarily traffics in bleak, industrial-tinged ambient soundscapes, at factory closing time, Andy Stott seems like a pretty optimistic guy. Faith in Strangers sees Stott spend seven songs painting his cold-world viewpoint in deep swaths of metallic gray, with grinding synths, tinny drums, and titles like "Violence" and "Damage," only to pull back at the near-last-minute for the lush, glowing title track, coming to his Blanche DuBois-like conclusion in a stunningly roundabout way. It's a heartwarming thing to listen to an artist conjure a cloud so black and foreboding, and still keep the focus on the silver lining. A.U.
20. Joyce Manor, Never Hungover Again (Epitaph)
With ten songs in 19 minutes, Never Hungover Again doesn't feel short, it just makes every other LP released this year feel long. Each pop-punk blast on here, from the mixed-up mash note of "Falling in Love Again" to the seasons-change friendship ballad "Heated Swimming Pool," is so fully formed and satisfying that you have to wonder why bands other than Torrance, California's best end up wasting so much of your time. Yeah, you could listen to London Calling, or you could listen to Never Hungover Again three times. You could listen to The White Album, or you could listen to Never Hungover Again five times. You know, if you put it on now, it'd probably be over by the time you're done reading this list. Just sayin'. A.U.
21. Sylvan Esso, Sylvan Esso (Partisan)
Sylvan Esso's fusion of Appalachian folk and digi-rhythms might not seem like an obvious pairing at first, but judging by the drop in their self-titled debut's pulsating lead track, "Hey Mami," they've proven a laptop is a fine alternative to a fiddle. Amelia Meath's almost saccharine vocals are tempered slightly with a hint of darkness, and flow effortlessly through Nick Sanborn's booming bass and off-kilter synths. Sylvan Esso manages to be strange and familiar all at once — and if nothing else, it's worth listening to for the most intense version of "Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes" ("H.S.K.T.") you've ever heard. JAMES GREBEY
22. Ariel Pink, pom pom (4AD)
Ariel Pink makes it easy to hate him — guy overshares about his sexual experiences, responds to charges of misogyny by making more inflammatory remarks to The New Yorker, and writes off everything Madonna's done since 1983. (No love for "Like a Prayer," really?) Ariel Pink also makes it easy to love him — the 36-year-old oddball brews jokey but gratifying tunes that simultaneously mock and revel in pop's simplest pleasures. For pom pom, the aloof mad scientist concocts his most potent batch yet, scoring imaginary, vintage spy flicks ("Lipstick," "Not Enough Violence"); enlisting rock'n'roll lifer Kim Fowley to ad-lib some sugary surrealism ("Plastic Raincoats in the Pig Parade," "Nude Beach A Go-Go"); and coating the bulk of the 17-track set in cobwebs ("Four Shadows," "Picture Me Gone") or cotton candy (pretty much every other song). One of music's most vexing personalities, fully realized with vibrant, dizzying vision. K.M.
23. Flight Facilities, Down to Earth (Future Classic/Win Music/Glassnote)
"We ask that you move about the cabin as much as possible," an airline captain announces at the top of Flight Facilities' five-years-in-the-making debut. Down to Earth takes full advantage of this request, floating through hazy synths and, at times, a bit of dance-floor turbulence. There's a certain lackadaisical quality to the record, but every song brings us closer to our Heaven-That-House-Built destination as the Australian duo of Hugo Gruzman and James Lyell navigate with input from Kylie Minogue, Reggie Watts, and several other first-class guests. By the time the album touches down with the now familiar and sublimely smooth "Crave You," it really feels like an arrival. J.G.
24. Ryan Adams, Ryan Adams (Pax-Am)
Ryan Adams, once the sad-sack golden boy of alt-country, hasn't been that guy for a few years. In 2014 alone, the onetime Cardinals leader flitted to a bunch of rando projects: producing for Jenny Lewis and the Lemonheads, releasing sci-fi metal cuts as Werewolph, and forming a punk band called Pornography (to name just a few). But on the simply titled Ryan Adams, the renaissance ruffian is vulnerable without his backup birds. Open-hearted, pain-meets-pleasure melodies introduce this record via bluesy opener "Gimme Something Good," while "Am I Safe?" and "Stay With Me" signal a soaring return to 2005's Cold Roses. Even the cover art implies that Adams is literally ready for his close-up: His face is half-hidden by a shaggy swath of chestnut hair, but the one eye looks resolute and focused — the mark of a man at peace with his craft and himself. R.B.
25. Pallbearer, Foundations of Burden (Profound Lore)
The only really tough thing about listening to Foundations of Burden, even for a non-metal fan, is training yourself not to get too attached to any one hypnotically lurching groove. The record's ten-minute-plus tracks are filled enough with gorgeous harmonies, crunching drums, and absolutely soaring guitar interplay to make you forget their generous run times, but they refuse to stay in one place: You might get hooked on a half-dozen different mini-songs contained within the seismic opener "Worlds Apart" or the majestic centerpiece "Watcher in the Dark," only to see them dissolve into the next movement, never to return. Blame primary influence Black Sabbath, who set the precedent early on, or just learn to keep things casual. A.U.
26. St. Vincent, St. Vincent (Loma Vista/Republic)
Where Annie Clark embodies her art-rock persona with clinical aplomb. Where St. Vincent follows what will very likely go down as her masterpiece — 2011's justly adored Strange Mercy — with a statement that's every bit as singular and self-possessed as its predecessor. Where an all-time great guitarist invokes Prince and complements her six-string histrionics with fuzz-addled funk. Where our narrator sings of cutthroats and psychopaths, toys with religious imagery, and isn't afraid to work blue ("What an ordinary day / Take out the garbage, masturbate / I'm still holding for the laugh"). Where the ruler rightly assumes the throne. K.M.
27. Freddie Gibbs and Madlib, Piñata (Madlib Invazion)
For a couple of West Coast guys, Freddie Gibbs (originally from Indiana) and Madlib somehow made the '90s East Coast rap album of the year with Piñata. The 17-track subway ride, based around the eureka pairing of Freddie's street-lifer rhapsodies ("Pants gonna be saggin' till I'm 40," "Promise I done seen everything but old age") with Madlib's sweetly sentimental soul and jazz cut-ups (Freda Payne, Rose Royce, "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy"), hits that sweet spot of Gang Starr-era hip-hop, to the point where you expect the L.A.-based kindred spirits to start shouting out Queensbridge or Staten Island every time the strings hit. Don't worry about a defection anytime soon, though, Cali People — Gibbs pleads devotion to the Sunshine State on "Lakers," then burns his New York bridges by bringing up MJ and LeBron dropping 50-plus at the Garden on "Knicks." A.U.
28. Protomartyr, Under Color of Official Right (Hardly Art)
Four of Detroit's finest put their penchant for black humor and tense melodies to good use, recording the year's most enjoyable 35-minute diatribe. Suffused with Catholic guilt and post-punk nihilism, Under Color of Official Right offers a visceral, lived-in look at the Motor City from one of its life-long residents, deadpanning frontman Joe Casey. It's a broken-window view of Casey's day-to-day, where dead moods are common, "smug urban settlers" are just as distasteful as "most bands ever," and Judge Mathis holds court. No other rock album released in 2014 has as much blood in its veins — or bile in its throat. K.M.
29. Aphex Twin, Syro (Warp)
What a heartwarming story: a hermetic, kinda-sadistic pioneer of "intelligent dance music" takes 13 years off from his most famous guise to enjoy life as a househusband and hoard maddening amounts of analog equipment. His fans cue up a Kickstarter to get him to properly release a 1994 cult item (the not-too-shabby-itself Caustic Window), and he's so touched that he decides to unload new material as well. With the promise of more to come, Richard D. James claims this warmly puzzling, fusion-tinged hodgepodge contains the most accessible picks from the stockpile. With scrambled cameos from his wife and kin, and named after a non-word one of his kids spoke, this unexpected comeback is a family affair with little precedent in electronic music history. Who knew a song called "4 bit 9d api+e+6" could be so cuddly? D.W.
30. Cloud Nothings, Here and Nowhere Else (Carpark/Mom & Pop)
Cloud Nothings originally began in 2009 as the one-boy bedroom project of Dylan Baldi, then a scraggly haired, barely bearded 18-year-old from Cleveland. Now 22 and leading a fully staffed trio, the onetime-ragamuffin is far more soft-spoken and unassuming than his band's latest album would lead you to believe. Here and Nowhere Else is the stuff of rock-crit wet dreams, which is to say, it exhibits growth, cohesiveness, humility, and hooks. But even though the follow-up to 2012's Attack on Memory is Cloud Nothings' most mature disc to date, it's also filled with age-appropriate angst. See closing track "I'm Not Part of Me," when Baldi considers how to live in the moment and tucks his heart away a bit: "I'm learning how to be here and nowhere else / How to focus on what I can do myself… I feel fine." The frontman might idealize a buttoned-up version of himself, but his howling will always betray a deeper need to emote. R.B.
31. FKA Twigs, LP1 (Young Turks)
The defining quality of the debut album from singer/songwriter FKA Twigs — call her "alternative-R&B" at your own peril — is the omnipresent element of fear, which makes LP1 unnerving, even at its sexiest. For a woman confident enough to declare "I can fuck you better than her," worry and insecurity permeate Twigs' singing with every breathy coo, whether she's hesitating to do it with the lights on, fretting about not recognizing herself, or asking any of the record's recurrent, unanswered questions: "What do I do when you're not here?," "Was I just a number to you?," "Was she the girl that's from the video?" Rather than undercut the album's seductiveness, the anxiety actually heightens the connection, making LP1 a peerlessly personal and revealing listen, one of the rare albums to grasp just how scary true intimacy can be. A.U.
32. ASTR, Varsity EP (Neon Gold)
Signed to the powerhouse record label Neon Gold, this synth-wielding duo — consisting of New York vocalist Zoe Silverman and producer/programmer Adam Pallin — already know how to turn heads and move feet. ASTR's six-song debut EP, Varsity, neatly lays out everything they do better than most electro-pop automatons: There's limited but intelligent interpolations (Black Box's 1990 diva house classic, "Everybody Everybody" shows up on the chorus of the skittering, island-ready "Blue Hawaii"). There's Silverman's vocal control, with a range that bolts from EDM chanteuse to gritty soul like it's no sweat. There's the cover of Drake's emo-rap anthem "Hold On, We're Going Home," which would teeter into kitsch were it not for Pallin's restrained production and the pair's dedication to remaking the track with their gargantuan, hollowed-out sound. Though they're only one project in, ASTR deploy their thoughtful dance-hop with seasoned ease. B.C.
33. Miranda Lambert, Platinum (RCA Nashville)
"Love her all you want / She was never yours," is just one of many distinctions that country's brightest bulb can teach men. Now half of one of those "power couple" things, with no more abusive exes to shoot, Miranda Lambert identifies with Priscilla Presley in the dressing room and her fans at the bathroom sink, pines occasionally for a time "before everything became automatic" and shares a classic Aerosmith riff (with Carrie Underwood as her Joe Perry). The 30-year-old collaborates with a group called the Time Jumpers because she loves old shit, but that won't stop her from renewing her hair dye to match her record sales. "Pretentiously I bitch and buck, but you bought it!" Lambert grins. Joke's on her — for the fifth consecutive time, we got our money's worth. D.W.
34. YG, My Krazy Life (Def Jam)
YG's debut album might strut over the same territory the Compton rapper covered on earlier releases (and neighbor Kendrick Lamar's epic good kid, m.A.A.d city), but it also brings the mumble-mouthed MC's present into sharp contrast with his upbringing. Most of the record's 14 songs offer a sneering, searing juxtaposition of his hometown obligations (his family, friends, and hangers-on require a lot of work) and his fast-track to fame. On "I Just Wanna Party," the 24-year-old born Keenon Jackson raps, "Can't die / I got too much to live for / I'm getting money / That's what niggas rob and kill for." That's the kind of world-weary outlook that comes from a man who knows life on the other side of Spruce Street. Fitted with rubbery club tracks, My Krazy Life flows on a torrent of irony, strung together by skits (his mother and girlfriends cast as omnipresent nags) that ground Young Gangsta's street-wise, sardonic spin on things. Big-name guests make cameo appearances — Drake co-stars on "Who Do You Love?," K-Dot graces "Really Be (Smokin N Drinkin)" — but Krazy remains YG's wild, confounding story to tell. B.C.
35. Swans, To Be Kind (Mute/Young God)
No-Wave evangelist Michael Gira continues his flagship band's hellfire-and-brimstone hot-streak with To Be Kind, the double-disc, two-hour sequel to 2012's similarly inviting The Seer. For all its impediments — the length, the dead-eyed chanting, the chest-crushing weight of its relentless rhythms, the insistence that none of this means anything — Swans' 13th studio album (and third since ending their 13-year hiatus in 2010) remains a captivating and rewarding endurance test. Gira and Co. strip away sensation after sensation ("No pain, no death, no fear, no hate… No wound, no waste, no lust"), warp gravity's center (the 17-minute, intermission-obliterating "She Loves Us"), and close their blood-curdling, end-of-days sermon with the year's most punishing, unnerving sex jam (the title track, natch). But at the end of it all, you're still here: the same but different, intact but not quite whole. To Be Kind — what a concept. K.M.
36. Todd Terje, It's Album Time (Olsen)
For an artist as important as Todd Terje to wait until his mid-30s to release an album, then call it It's Album Time, and have the intro be one long "Al-bum time / It's al-bum time" chant — one might think the project was more of a contractual obligation than a labor of love. Luckily, the Norwegian house legend doesn't do sarcasm, and he's too brilliant to ever get bored, even by the LP format. Rather than functioning as a compilation spanning his last half-decade of hits (or ten-plus years of remixes), Album Time is your favorite producer's favorite producer at his most playfully gonzo, installing some of his more iconic space-disco singles as train stops but allowing the journey in between to be the crux of the adventure, whether shuttling through exotica ("Leisure Suit Preben"), lounge-y bossa nova ("Alfonso Muskedunder"), or starry-eyed sophisti-pop (the Robert Palmer cover "Johnny and Mary"). "Touch" is absolutely Todd Terje's favorite song off Random Access Memories, and that's why he's the greatest. A.U.
37. Sia, 1000 Forms of Fear (RCA/Monkey Puzzle)
Winning every game she bothers to play (and several that she doesn't), Sia Furler infiltrated and reshaped pop in her reticent image in the 2010s, granting hits to Britney, Flo Rida and Beyoncé, to name the 38-year-old Aussie's most notable collaborators, and these only after she already had a best-of under her belt. Her music circa 2014 has familiar curlicues of Rihanna, Shakira, David Guetta, even Eminem's dramatic marches — all major artists she has both helped and learned from. With high-concept '80s Wall of Synth productions and virtuosic vocal leaps — and her signature hook on standouts like the SNL-parodied smash "Chandelier" and "Eye of the Needle" — this is a reluctant pop star who cares deeply about one thing, or as she sings on the latter: "The melody's an art." D.W.
38. Against Me!, Transgender Dysphoria Blues (Total Treble)
"There will always be a difference between me and you!" shouts Laura Jane Grace on the most gut-wrenching punk album since you can remember, and the most visible transgender rock'n'roll since, um, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Elsewhere she's less diplomatic: "I want to piss on the walls of your house," and "You're gonna hang like Benito from the Esso rafters" are two suggested fates for those who've prolonged the album's titular struggle for two-to-five percent of the world. She's a "True Trans Soul Rebel" who's sick of "Drinking with the Jocks" so sometimes her difference is celebrated. She also misses her "Dead Friends" so it's often lamented. But even at her most defeated, she belts anthem after anthem like her fans' unconditional love might actually save her after all. D.W.
39. How to Dress Well, "What Is This Heart?" (Domino/Weird World)
"What Is This Heart?" is a concept album without a story, seemingly making the ultimate statement about ticker-related matters while really saying nothing definitive at all. Nearly every song on "Heart" is both a romance and a breakup, both "Love Will Keep Us Together" and "Love Will Tear Us Apart" — even the exultant "Repeat Pleasure" is at least half about how even the most exciting relationships can't keep our bodies from eventually straying. Ultimately, "Heart" is unified by its unbelievable depth of production and even greater reserve of raw feeling, with How to Dress Well (a.k.a. Tom Krell) owning up to his contradictions ("Everything must change, and everything must stay the same," "The future is older than the past") and accepting that in the end, he's just screaming into the ether with words he can't remember. He doesn't come close to answering the titular question, but the asking is the important thing. A.U.
40. Spoon, They Want My Soul (Loma Vista)
A "return to form," but not formulaic. Covered in the fingerprints of co-producers Dave Fridmann and Joe Chiccarelli, but still very much Spoon. Foggy, but sharp-sounding. Rain-slicked, but not maudlin. Fussy, but winningly so. Self-aware, but not self-conscious. Slender, but lush. Romantic, but cautious. Grown up, but still at odds with Jonathon Fisk. Reinvigorated, but just weary enough to know better. They want my soul, but they never got you. K.M.
41. Betty Who, Take Me When You Go (RCA)
In a year lacking in excitement on the Billboard charts (we're looking at you, Meghan Trainor), Betty Who (born Jessica Newham) turned in a sparkling debut album that sent a bold blast of bright-eyed energy up Top 40's feeble spine. The sprightly record's bouncing lead single — "Somebody Loves You," originally on 2013's four-track The Movement EP — is a mere toe dip into the expansive pool of the 23-year-old Australian's talent, because Take Me When You Go builds an entire world on that sprightly song's foundation. "You're my best bad kind of habit / I'm your backseat movie star," she whispers on the achingly retro "Runaways," infused with Betty's snappy, no-bullshit lyrics that speak to her preternaturally thought-out songwriting. It'd be a shock if the radio didn't soon start sounding more like Betty's frank, glitter-bombed dream. B.C.
42. The New Pornographers, Brill Bruisers (Matador/Last Gang)
Six albums in, and the New Pornographers have earned the right to keep the "new" in their name. Brill Bruisers is anything but stale, thanks to an alluring mix of futuristic production flourishes and the alternating vocal dynamism of the septet's four main singers (Dan Bejar, Kathryn Calder, Neko Case, and Carl Newman). There's a barrage of excitement throughout Bruisers that could have easily ended up a hectic mess, but the group deploys their explosive, colorful energy with the messy precision of a Jackson Pollock painting — witness the new wavy drive of "War on the East Coast" or the oddball bombast within "Dancehall Domine." Any of the criticism leveled against their last few albums — too reserved, too leisurely, too complacent — won't fly here. Need proof? Consult the record's opening, titular track: a celebratory call to action, showcasing these brilliant bruisers' renewed sense of enthusiasm. Their name remains the same, but the New Pornographers are veterans, and all the better with experience. J.G.
43. tUnE-yArDs, Nikki Nack (4AD)
A white woman electronically transmogrifying Haitian rhythms, who wants it out front that she's not the "real thing," Merrill Garbus received more pushback for her third album because it's her most brutal — "I come from a land of slaves / Let's go Redskins, let's go Braves!" is risky sarcasm for someone who paints her face for the stage. But unless your idea of "cultural tourism" includes pillaging Macbeth on an anti-colonialist lead single, her thoughtful messages have something for everyone, with the George Zimmerman-baiting "Stop That Man" and the perfectly titled no-means-no anthem "Manchild" serving as especially vital PSAs against racist vigilantes and rape culture, respectively. But they'd be flat on the page without her rhythms, heart, and humor: "Why Must We Dine on the Tots?" is a cannibal caricature that plays off Jonathan Swift rather than Idi Amin. It's based on a one-woman puppet show from before her mUsIc cArEeR, wherein the hero escaped via weaponized farts. Now that's real. D.W.
44. Tinashe, Aquarius (RCA)
Here's something we wouldn't have called in January: The year's best R&B album being made by a 22-year-old Two and a Half Men alumna. Tinashe rode mixtape success (2013's Black Water) into a major-label deal and a proper debut LP featuring a who's-who of contemporary producers. And that brings us to Aquarius, one of 2014's most beguiling listens. It was recorded mostly in the singer's bedroom, and sounds like it, with a close-quarters familiarity and intoxicatingly hushed, nocturnal vibe to it — when the spiky synths perk up on "All Hands on Deck," you want to shush them for talking too loudly. Tinashe isn't a show-stopping vocalist, but she hits her marks when needed, she can coo with the best of them, and she's clever enough with her writing to turn "2 On" into a catchphrase without any exposition, and to reclaim a tired gangsta phrase like "Thug Cry" for her own sexual prowess. Janet Jackson — sampled, referenced, and invoked throughout — would be so proud. A.U.
45. Future Islands, Singles (4AD)
Future Islands have been steadily building a cult following since their self-released debut (2006's Little Advances), but in 2014, frontman Samuel T. Herring table-flipped his group's underdog status with his hip-swiveling, Gumby-like swagger on David Letterman. Thanks to that meme-ified performance (which prompted the agog late-night host to blurt, "BUDDY, come on!"), an upgraded studio, a bigger record label, and a fresh batch of volcanic, synth-lined songs — spot the imploring "Spirit," and the beautifully baritone "Light House" — the Baltimore trio have assumed their rightful place as indie-rock royalty. And even without the promotional build-up, the band's fourth LP would still earn a blue ribbon: Calling on his Sam Cooke-meets-Tom Jones growl, Herring charges into every song, roaring with impassioned heart and soul. Folded in with doleful minor-chord arrangements and sweetly pensive lyrics, calling Singles just "an album" is too simple — it's more of a Your-Day-Will-Come-Too opus for unjustly underrated acts everywhere. R.B.
46. Sun Kil Moon, Benji (Caldo Verde)
A sentence few confessional singer-songwriter albums inspire: "I've never heard anything like this before in my life." Enter Mark Kozelek's sixth full-length as Sun Kil Moon. The Ohio native assembled a heart-wrenching autobiography with Benji, an 11-track document heavy on acoustic finger-picking and hyper-specific semi-rhymes that bleed past the limits of meter and into one another. Lyrically, the record is a tome, stuffed with more than 5,000 words, many of them death-obsessed anecdotes that mourn the loss of family and friends (the teary "Carissa," the striking "Micheline") and sift through tragedies on the news (the self-explanatory "Pray for Newtown," the serial-killer-focused "Richard Ramirez Died Today Of Natural Causes"). When he's not haunted by ghosts, our middle-aged raconteur recounts every major sexual conquest of his first 46 years (the HR violation that is "Dogs") and bitches about his prostate ("Ramirez," again). But somehow, the LP ends up feeling as rewarding as it does demanding. A deeply personal and largely empathetic work, Benji longs to share its most intimate secrets and insights as it details the life of a man "feeling somewhere between happy and sad." K.M.
47. Caribou, Our Love (Merge/City Slang)
Caribou's sixth studio outing excavates a woozy-sounding wormhole. Our Love lets you draw your own conclusions by pairing its sweeping, multi-layered melodies with lyrical repetition from one-man band Dan Snaith. On the spiraling opening track "Can't Do Without You," the songwriter/producer whispers the title phrase, pulverizing it until it becomes purely instrumental. Lush and moody, the slow-burning album works like a Choose Your Own Adventure of synthesized proportions: Do you want to head directly to the warehouse disco moments before sunrise on "Dive," or would you rather reevaluate your romantic choices on "Back Home"? Here, more than on his earlier work, Caribou gives you endless options. The tear-stained "Second Chance" teeters between heartbreak and obsession ("Tell me if you really want it / Cause boy you know I do," guest vocalist Jessy Lanza laments), depending on how closely the listener chooses to read. In that regard, Our Love rewards repeated, deep-dive listening and late-night rooftop jam-outs alike. B.C.
48. Jenny Lewis, The Voyager (Warner Bros.)
For 15 years, Jenny Lewis has demanded attention that rabid fans gave her more than distracted critics, and even now it's a little cringe-worthy that it took Beck and Ryan Adams to boost her to the major leagues with her most commercial album ever. But it's also her best since Rilo Kiley. Not one of the classic-rock warhorses who sounds like this album — not Bonnie Raitt, Tom Petty or Fleetwood Mac — has ever been so long on self-knowledge, so clever, so light, yet The Voyager is anything but watered-down. Even on a major label, she observes a hand job on the balcony below, enjoys slippery slopes with mushrooms and coke, and admits to cheating on someone temperamental enough to leave a hole in the drywall. But she's not just one of the guys. Adams and Beck, to name but two, have never penned a stroke as penetrating as "Love U Forever," which knows the trappings of marriage are "hell in a hallway." And they've been married. Lewis hasn't. D.W.
49. Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2 (Mass Appeal)
In a year when artful-and-confrontational hip-hop seemed to hit the snooze button, Run the Jewels greeted us with a "Top of the morning" and fist to the face (fuckin' Folgers). Killer Mike played pundit on CNN and in the op-ed pages, presenting a thoughtful and heartfelt perspective on the Michael Brown case, then dropped the caveat that "I love Dr. King but violence might be necessary" in song. His partner in rhyme, El-P, led the charge in cooking up a gurgling, noise-rap morass for the duo to claim as their own. Guests were welcome, of course — Zach De La Rocha, Gangsta Boo, Travis Barker, BOOTS, and Diane Coffee all contribute to Run the Jewels 2 — but the starring role on this blockbuster night belongs to the never-better rapport between its two key players. The chemistry and affection that Mike and El have with and for each other is palpable onstage and on record, and helps their second co-headlined release surpass its forerunner. They're the type to greet the preacher with a grin and a gun — 2014's Public Enemies. K.M.
50. Parquet Courts, Sunbathing Animal (What's Your Rupture?/Mom & Pop)
Parquet Courts are scientist rock, the way the Minutemen once intended: a molecular distillation of all the best parts of rock history, ultimately resulting in a totally organic and unique compound. The New York-via-Texas quartet's 2012 breakthrough, Light Up Gold, mostly started the titration with the angular, deadpan likes of Wire and Pavement, and while there's still plenty of that on Sunbathing Animal, the album opens up their lab to Bob Dylan and Neil Young on highlights like the quasi-love-song "Dear Ramona" and the anxiety-rippled "Instant Disassembly." The singer-songwriter influence isn't the only new ingredient for the band here: There's also inspiration taken from tensely rumbling Nuggets-era garage rock ("Ducking and Dodging"), blistering CBGB's one-chord punk monotony (the title track), and even droll, Faustian Krautrock ("She's Rolling").
Playing spot-the-influence with Parquet Courts is a fun and inevitable part of the experience, but it does tend to undersell just how great they're becoming in their own right. The lyrics to "Disassembly" and "Ramona" are affecting in ways you might not have known the group capable, and the growth in their songcraft —the jarring but lovely key change into the chorus of "Dear Ramona," the title phrase to "Instant Disassembly" finally appearing as its own sing-along mini-chorus halfway in, surprisingly satisfying for its delay — is exponential. They've fully developed their own voice as a band, one that's snide but not patronizing, hardly earnest but not totally insincere, literary but solidly grounded. Sunbathing Animal is the sound of one of the country's best rock outfits swirling their historically derived formula to the point where the original elements are becoming less and less distinct, and more and more just Parquet Courts. Now more than ever, their band could be your life. A.U.
51. The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream (Secretly Canadian)
Beer-commercial rock? Maybe, but that's part of the appeal. On his third War on Drugs album, mastermind Adam Granduciel honors the spirit (and synth washes) of increasingly classic-feeling '80s heartland rock, saluting peak Tom Petty, solo Don Henley, and Bruce "Born in the U.S.A." Springsteen. But the Philadelphia singer-guitarist filters his earnest, salt-of-the-earth songwriting through a psychedelic, painterly prism, injecting Krautrock pulse and applying brushes of saxophone or harmonica fills wherever appropriate. Despite the confidence of its vision, Lost in the Dream was born during a period of personal and psychological turmoil for its creator; Granduciel's 2013 was wrought with crippling panic attacks, numbing depression, a compulsion to withdraw from the outside world and shut himself inside his house. What he emerged with is a masterwork — a thrilling but stately rock record, a new entry in the indie canon.
Lost certainly didn't sell the most copies of any album released this year — though its sales dwarf those of 2011's Slave Ambient — but it did yield the greatest returns. As the months wore on and the seasons melted into each other, the War on Drugs' wide-screen wander remained a consistent comfort. Wading into the aptly named instrumental "The Haunting Idle," savoring the slow-burn despair of "Suffering," marveling at the lightning-flash guitar streaks of "Disappearing" — this album creates, lives in, and explores its own realm. It's an expansive study of what it means to be locked inside your head, a hard-won triumph, an antidote to screen fatigue and information overload. And, most impressively, even after dozens of listens, Dream still feels brimming with possibilities. K.M.