Every year has its share of tragedies and darkness, but 2014 has felt particularly tough. On global, national, and community levels, death, devastation, and darkness have plagued the nightly news in a particularly frustrating and seemingly senseless way. Perhaps that feeling is amplified by the omnipresence of technology that has made each and every pain felt by a larger audience and then replayed on an endless loop. It could also be that this has been an especially broken year, a theory supported by the fact that so many of 2014’s best albums are fueled by artists facing harrowing struggles.
The year in music took on issues both massive and personal, whether it’s hip-hop tackling the dangers of gangs and drugs, punk singers fighting against forced identities, or singer-songwriters dealing with the strife of heartbreak and death. Even the big pop songwriters were on that same page; T-Swift’s “Shake It Off” is one way of facing adversity, I suppose. Some tried to power through by holding a mirror up to the minutiae, others tried to find a new path, and each approach showed its strengths.
If you’re going through your own trauma, something on this list should help. In fact, many of the albums come from typically underrepresented voices, lending a particularly inclusive and dynamic feel to the redemptive efforts. So, as we wrap up the music portion of our Annual Report (with the film coverage coming at you next week), we look to offer a helping hand in picking through the thousands of albums released this year, leading you to the powerful, triumphant essentials. Despite the never-ending bad news, these albums will give us a powerful way to remember a rough year and offer some sense of hope for the future.
50. Merchandise – After the End
On their first two albums, Merchandise occupied the nebulous area between shoegaze and post-punk. With their latest album, August’s After the End, the Florida outfit announced they were effectively “starting over,” remaking themselves as “a pop band, but it’ll still be a twisted reality.” It’s hard to argue with the results: lots of brooding ballads spun with equal parts morose theatricality, endlessly killer hooks, and angst-ridden ambiance. It helps that Merchandise‘s idea of “pop” doesn’t simply involve gold records or endorsement deals; in a series of interviews and profile pieces, the band made it clear that they’re more interested in the inherent accessibility and vulnerability of the genre, albeit made more intense and visceral. More than just finally establishing the band’s distinct identity, After the End demonstrates that Merchandise are worth getting to know most intimately. –Chris Coplan
49. Warpaint – Warpaint
Warpaint’s self-titled LP begins with an error and an apology in “Intro”. It’s an unintentional nod to the rollout of musical femme fatales that follows suit in a year of female dominance and reinvention, where gender and its stereotypes were stripped from the usual winning formula. Warpaint‘s muted, minimalist release kick-started it all with a powerful rebuttal that refused to be ignored. It creeps with a brooding sense of revenge. The foursome ditch traditional songwriting on Warpaint in the first nothing-but-net goal of 2014 that should still stir up that same unequivocal excitement in the years to follow. –Nina Corcoran
48. Andy Stott – Faith in Strangers
Andy Stott’s dark, ethereal sound has evolved significantly since his earlier EPs and 2012’s Luxury Problems, a record of windy, otherworldly aesthetic under the influence of deep, deep house. Stott’s “former piano teacher,” Alison Skidmore, provided vocals on that release, notably the repeatedly cooed “touch” on the album’s standout “Numb”. With Faith in Strangers, Stott asks the listener to reconsider faith as a concept; he brings back Skidmore to speak eerie phrases “inside” and “wrap your hands” on the industrial, pinnacling “Violence”. Most tracks here zigzag toward some hot moment, but this strategy results in a dance floor that is much more excavated and jagged than that of yesteryear. The album’s distinguished sounds highlight Stott’s transformation from a dabbler in electronic gloom to an explorer of patterns and ambience as he strengthens the blissfully apocalyptic sound he’s been perfecting since those early releases. –Zander Porter
47. Lower – Seek Warmer Climes
Nervous emotions permeate Seek Warmer Climes, the debut album from Copenhagen outfit Lower. While it arguably occupies a similarly icy and distant territory to that claimed by countrymen Iceage, the album has an immediacy that belies its influences and a complexity that distinguishes itself from the ever-evolving pack of dark and jangly offerings. Out of the cacophonous onslaught of clanging guitars and unrelenting drums comes an at times unhinged performance from lead singer Adrian Toubro. On top of the howls and yelps on songs like “Another Life” and “Bastard Tactics”, he also reveals some biting sarcasm on the disquieting “Lost Weight, Perfect Skin”. Here, he takes down superficiality and pain by singing, “Lost weight, perfect skin/ Will bring the torment to an end/ Put the smile back on my lips.” While lots of acts have been declared the torchbearers of post-punk revival, Lower manage to transcend the pack by being even more uncompromising, more skeletal, and more visceral. –Josh Terry
46. Big K.R.I.T. – Cadillactica
Critics had counted Big K.R.I.T. out after his debut album. Instead of canonizing him as the South’s next big star, people started wondering if he’d peaked during his excellent run of mixtapes before the tepid Live from the Underground. K.R.I.T.’s answer? Not quite. Cadillactica isn’t just a personal triumph, it’s also one of the most fully realized rap albums of the year. Chalk it up to a renewed sense of direction. Big K.R.I.T. mixes his country roots with Afrofuturistic vision to give himself a space to work on his mainstream ambitions with traditionalism. Bedroom burners like “Pay Attention” and triumphant trunk-rattlers like “King of the South” fit perfectly under this atmosphere. Like his forefathers before him, Big K.R.I.T. again proves the South has something to say. –Brian Josephs
45. Alex G – DSU
Alex Giannascoli, a North Philadelphia native and Temple University student, makes low-key but lovely bedroom pop under a shorter version of his name. Quietly prolific, Giannascoli has seamlessly blended the gentle and the off-kilter through releases like 2012’s TRICK and RULES. Now, with DSU, his first ever mastered full-length (and Orchid Tapes debut), he refines his formula while maintaining his charm. The album’s best songs, like “Boy”, “Sorry”, and “After Ur Gone”, feature a simple combination of muted acoustic guitars, droning but heartfelt vocals, bass, a steady drum pattern, and the occasional piano. Even with his rudimentary pieces, Alex G is a deft songwriter, able to pack tons of sugary hooks, emotional resonance, and smart flourishes into such simple compositions. –Josh Terry
44. The Preatures – Blue Planet Eyes
Rock ‘n’ roll this sticky shouldn’t sound so fat-free. Yet that’s the trademark of Australia’s own The Preatures. Produced by Spoon’s Jim Eno, their long-awaited debut, Blue Planet Eyes, bakes a three-layer alt pop cake of melodies, hooks, and harmony. Singer Isabella Manfredi is straight-up addicting, her vocals leading each track with curious nuances and absolute spunk. She can be playful (“Somebody’s Talking”), resourceful (“Is This How You Feel?”), preachy (“Ordinary”), moody (“Rock and Roll Rave”), and funky (“Cruel”). Such character washes over her peers, specifically Jack Moffit’s friendly guitar hooks and Gideon Bensen’s aching harmonies. It’s also a varied record, which is quite reflective of a band that’s been around — and they have (since 2010) — and one that’ll stay around. Eno does suppress some of their sweaty onstage charisma, but hey, all the more reason to catch them live. And you will. –Michael Roffman
43. Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams
Before Ryan Adams got sober, married pop princess Mandy Moore, and built a room of his own (Pax-Am studio in Los Angeles), the singer-songwriter lived fast and ferociously. A well-documented train wreck, nothing he released between 2002 and 2011 — at his trademark breakneck speed — could be described as focused or mature, yet those characterizations surface in nearly every comment on his self-titled 14th solo release. In an interview with BuzzFeed, Adams admits he even finds the transformation a pleasurable one. “I can listen to this record front to back, every track,” he said. “I can’t say that about a lot of my other records. There’s a joviality and a weirdness there.” Now that this punk rock Peter Pan (who successfully moonlighted as an alt country crooner) has officially grown up and exorcised his demons without neutering his agile observations, he’s free to dish out more helpings of smooth, Tom Petty-ready snarl. –Janine Schaults
42. Kool A.D. – Word O.K.
The term “Bay Area weirdo” is applicable to a number of West Coast rappers, but aside from Lil B there isn’t anyone it fits better than Kool A.D. His prolific post-Das Racist solo career continues to show remarkable promise and yield extraordinary results, and his most recent album is his strongest work to date, continuing his nonsensical re-purposing of old lyrics and experimenting with thoroughly Bay Area-tinged production. The rap game equivalent of a free-form jazz musician, Victor Vazquez maintains his aesthetic-heavy personality, but often seems to feel disenfranchised from the genre one minute and the supreme ruler of it the next. He’ll soon need to decide exactly how seriously he wants to take rap. He’s such a talented rapper; here’s hoping he decides to flourish and not vanish. –Pat Levy
41. Ought – More Than Any Other Day
The key lyric on Ought’s debut album isn’t from its official rallying track (“Today More Than Any Other Day”) or its best song (“Habit”), but the very beginning of its closing track, “Gemini”: “I retain the right to be disgusted by life/ I retain the right to be in love with everything in sight.” Tim Beeler sings the line through gritted teeth, snapping his syllables like a threatened dog. Throughout More Than Any Other Day, he barks, yelps, and speaks however he needs to to further the “we’re all in this together” spirit summarized by its cover photograph (a photo that Beeler actually found in a dumpster). From Ought’s point of view, there’s no such thing as a bad time to stop where you are and let yourself be amazed by something — even when grocery shopping. Especially when grocery shopping. –Steven Arroyo
40. Cameron Esposito – Same Sex Symbol
In our comedy roundtable earlier this year, we spent a good amount of time arguing about, looking into, and insisting upon diversity in the voices given attention in the scene. With the sublime Same Sex Symbol, our Comedian of the Year, Cameron Esposito, makes all of that seem unnecessary, as her boundless joy and razor wit make any obstacles and boundaries seem trivial. Whether she’s comparing herself to a Thundercat, identifying her gender as “fighter pilot,” or geeking out about Christina Hendricks, Esposito‘s huge, genuine smile is felt on every single line. Same Sex Symbol opens the door to topics not covered by other comedians and doesn’t shut the door on anybody in the process. –Adam Kivel
39. Modern Baseball – You’re Gonna Miss It All
Modern Baseball is a rocket back to my high school days of listening to The Get Up Kids and The Promise Ring. At the time, though, I didn’t want people to hear just how sad-sappy-sack the music and lyrics were. Modern Baseball’s You’re Gonna Miss It All is the kind of album I actually wanted at that time. The lyrics tell hilariously awkward tales of dealing with whatever the fuck life in your late teens and early twenties is, and the music takes on the catchiness from those early bands, but without every awkward blemish Photoshopped away. The Philadelphia rockers have the realism and wordplay I wanted, using the words I was too ashamed to write. It’s a damn near perfect combination. –Nick Freed
38. SBTRKT – Wonder Where We Land
On his 2011 self-titled debut, Aaron Jerome worked hard to introduce the sound behind his notable, vowel-less nametag, SBTRKT. Three years later, he’s less focused on a mystical introduction and more zoned in on honing his capabilities. The guest vocals on Wonder Where We Land push Jerome to strengthen his low-key allure and mismatched hip-hop beats. Still, he knows when to let artists shine, with Caroline Polachek, Raury, and Sampha mouthing one-liners like they’re breaking all the rules. Jerome doesn’t let them steal the spotlight, though. This is the decisive move many were pining for, validating SBTRKT as a breakthrough artist who exceeds his initial timestamp. –Nina Corcoran
37. PUP – PUP
PUP’s self-titled album is a roller coaster on rickety wood slats: turbulent, unpredictable, and always on the verge of flying off the tracks. Songs like “Mabu”, “Back Against the Wall”, and “Factories” sound like the sparks trailing a runaway railcar, with tandem axes trading razor-sharp riffs that oscillate between cacophonous and crisp. PUP describe their music as dirty, and though that is emphatically true, it still undercuts the heavenly catharsis of their four-part gang harmonies, which deftly bridge the gap between their punk leanings and pop sensibilities. Opener “Guilt Trip” is the perfect intro, its escalating, off-kilter riffs clawing through the placenta of some primordial ooze. It feels like a birth, and considering PUP came forth from the ashes of Topanga, the band members’ previous outfit, it sort of is one. Expect big things. –Randall Colburn
36. YG – My Krazy Life
This was the year for DJ Mustard. Even that one mega-popular Iggy Azalea song was a ripoff of his signature staccato synth riffs. You couldn’t go anywhere without hearing his signature drop. His crown jewel also happened to be his grand reintroduction, the debut album of frequent collaborator YG, My Krazy Life, a cohesive, expertly sequenced journey through West Coast gang life. Few albums were a more seamless listen top-to-bottom. YG is a boisterous personality with a voice to match, and he fills the pockets in Mustard’s minimalist beats with detailed street tales that range from humorous to haunting. –Sheldon Pearce
35. Arca – Xen
Since finding his way aboard the legendary team behind Yeezus, the Venezuelan-born Alejandro Ghersi (currently working as Arca) has joined the upper echelon of club-turned-pop collaborators. However, while many of his young electronic contemporaries are busy assisting marketing campaigns for their next genre-du-jour single, Ghersi has remained truthful to his poetic, experimental beats. For the UK transplant, the 15-track Xen is more than a confident debut; it’s the public reveal of a gender-neutral personality named Xen that the openly gay beatsmith had previously reserved for his closest friends. Without uttering a single intelligible syllable, Ghersi guides this turbulent tale of acceptance. Xen‘s individual components are a challenge for anyone just entering the realm of noise, but Ghersi borrows motifs from the likes of Amon Tobin and Aphex Twin to establish a true sense of character for the project. When so many other young phenoms are reacting to the electronic climate around them, Ghersi is producing from the soul and redefining the boundaries between pop and noise. –Derek Staples
34. The Men – Tomorrow’s Hits
Post-hardcore Brooklynites The Men have followed a curious evolution in their prolific career. Once driven by caustic sludgefests that dripped with post-punk regression, the group changed paths and began tailoring their sound around the bombast of classic rock. This is where The Men greet us with Tomorrow’s Hits: a highly stylized, contemporary opus that pays homage to retro analogues. The campy flair infusing “Another Night” and the heartland blues riffs in “Pearly Gates” position The Men to bask in glam rock revivalism. “Different Days” harnesses the crux of this velocity, erupting in a frenzied buildup of gritty garage rock. As the title implies, Tomorrow’s Hits showcases a confluence of tightly produced rock reinventions that lend ample possibilities to The Men’s trajectory. –Christina Salgado
Danish star MØ, aka Karen Marie Ørsted, has raked in an avalanche of awards and superlatives this year, including a CoSign back in February — and she’s earned every one. MØ is original and highly energetic, using her uncanny musical abilities to translate youthful doldrums and emotional dizziness into some of the danciest sounds of 2014. When No Mythologies to Follow first dropped, many reflexively compared the young singer-songwriter to electropop contemporaries like Grimes. But as the album blossomed, folks realized tracks like “Maiden”, “Don’t Wanna Dance”, and the Diplo-produced “XXX 88” melded a novel Scandinavian style with vocals that are just as comfortable hitting classical modes as they are deconstructing Spice Girls hits from yesteryear. No Mythologies runs the gamut from dreary to inspirational, and it’s guaranteed to keep your body and heart moving. –Dan Pfleegor
32. Future Islands – Singles
Praising the future of Future Islands was probably the most effortless thing I did all year; not only did Singles showcase the synthpop band as a new, singular voice shading another side of indie rock, but contrary to what its title suggests, this fourth album feels as collectively soulful and deep as any indie record made this year. Future Islands plugged into the ley lines of pop, cramming synth sounds into a fleet of freewheeling anthems, driving beats, and heart-wrenching new wave. In other words, Singles sounds like the future: overzealous, immediate, and perhaps a little anxious. Here are three musicians with the goal of sounding like nothing else around by tapping into their emotional vulnerability, despair, and courage. In 2014, that’s relevant.
For 11 years, Future Islands were left to build their own musical universe unfettered, but this year was their lightning in a bottle. It never got more potent than the moment they performed “Seasons (Waiting on You)” on Letterman. Beaming in from a hyper-world a few thousand galaxies away, Future Islands scripted an unparalleled feel-good moment — the arrival-in-the-airport scene of their musical history. “We’ve always been more about moving people physically,” frontman Samuel T. Herring told me earlier this year, “but we realized we’re at our best when we move people emotionally too.” He’s a shock-reaction singer, to be sure, but he shocked in the service of a greater sense of feeling. Praising slow-and-steady bloomers like Future Islands is certainly one way to look forward to the future. –Lior Phillips
31. Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!
Throughout his career, Flying Lotus (aka Steve Ellison) has consistently been on the cutting edge of electronic music production. His fifth album, You’re Dead!, is just another testament to his talent. Except instead of dropping another set of future beats, Ellison embraced his inner Miles Davis to give his own interpretation of a jazz album. He brings onboard an impressive roster as well: Herbie Hancock, Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, Thundercat, and numerous others. You’re Dead! shows that Ellison isn’t content staying within genre confines, but would rather break new ground. A concept album about death that at times feels joyous and inviting does just that. –Dusty Henry