The Year in Review: The 50 Best Albums of 2014

PHOTO: Sia is pictured in New York City on June 4, 2014, Mary J. Blige is seen in Los Angeles, Calif. on Nov. 23, 2014 and "Weird Al" Yankovic attends a party in Los Angeles, Calif. on Dec. 4, 2014.Getty Images
Sia is pictured in New York City on June 4, 2014, Mary J. Blige is seen in Los Angeles, Calif. on Nov. 23, 2014 and "Weird Al" Yankovic attends a party in Los Angeles, Calif. on Dec. 4, 2014.

As 2014 comes to a close, it's time to take stock in the year. There are several trends that come to light when looking at the best albums of the year. A new form of synth-pop that began bubbling under in 2012 and 2013 has now fully taken over while rock and R&B seem to be disappointingly fading from the mainstream. It’s hard to turn on Top 40 radio and find a song playing that purely adheres to any genre.

This list was carefully culled and there were plenty of surprises this year. There were also many albums I wanted to put on this list, but could not fit. I hope this gives you a well-balanced look at 2014’s musical offerings. This list promises to have plenty of records you know, plus some you don’t but should. This list also aims to urge you to think outside the box. Many years there are great records that don’t receive the coverage they deserve. Hopefully this will introduce you to some great albums.

50. BEVERLY - “Careers” Beverly is a noise-rock and power-pop duo featuring Frankie Rose, who spent time in the Dum Dum Girls, Vivian Girls and the Crystal Stilts. Rose’s bandmate is Drew Citron and together the two make appealing music that should please fans of the previously mentioned bands. Standout “Honey Do” sounds like an answer to Best Coast’s first album “Crazy For You,” while closer “Black And Grey” is a mighty ballad with a minimalist backdrop. This is classic music for summer excursions, thick with harmonies and coated with fuzz. The garage rock, shoegaze and dream-pop influences are evident and yet the songwriting recalls an earlier time. All of these elements make “Careers” a truly inspiring collection.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “Honey Do”
  • “Black And Grey”
  • “Madora”
  • “All The Things”
  • “You Can’t Get It Right”

49. EMA – “The Future’s Void" On her second solo outing, former Gowns front-woman Erika M. Anderson further explores the mixture of electro-clash, art-punk and alt-rock that made her 2011 album “Past Life Martyred Saints” such a refreshing release. If you put the music of Kim Gordon, Patti Smith, Kurt Cobain and Madonna in a blender, you might come up with something like “The Future’s Void.” It’s a very edgy, experimental release with an art-house flare and a punky sense of release, but at the same time this is also on the fringes of pop. You can imagine something like the single “So Blonde” getting wider airplay. A haunted piano ballad like “3Jane,” too proves that Anderson is indeed honing her skills. This album is definitely more streamlined and accessible than her last while still maintaining an experimental undercurrent throughout.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “So Blonde”
  • “3Jane”
  • “Satellites”
  • “Dead Celebrity”
  • “When She Comes”

Read the original review here.

48. JOHNNY MARR – “Playland” After spending time in both Modest Mouse and the Cribs, former Smiths guitarist, Johnny Marr really found his footing on last year’s effort, “The Messenger,” which was in effect his second album under his own name following 2003’s “Boomslang,” which was released as Johnny Marr and the Healers. Marr’s confidence level must’ve been really high and thankfully “Playland” hits the tightly comfortable areas that made its predecessor a winner as well. Marr sets his signature jangly sound over new-wave, alt-rock and power-pop-influenced backdrops and as a front-man delivers the goods to such a degree that you wonder why he hasn’t taken center stage more often. If “Playland” proves anything, it’s that Marr needs to keep up this level of momentum. Hopefully the solo releases will continue. He seems to be in the midst of a career renaissance.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “Dynamo”
  • “This Tension”
  • “Candidate”
  • “The Trap”

Read the original review here.

PHOTO: Album ReviewsAmazon
Album Reviews

47. CORMEGA – “Mega Philosophy” Cormega is probably best known for his associations with Nas in the nineties. Very briefly Cormega was in Nas’ short-lived supergroup The Firm during a time before they recorded their lone release. “Mega Philosophy” is his first album in three years and it shows the Queens MC in top form. This collection may be a tidy 32 minutes, but his mission statement is clear. He’s out to bring back “real hip-hop” and guests like AZ, Redman, Raekwon and Black Rob help him in this mission. With production from Large Professor, it is hard for any classic hip-hop fan to argue this album’s strength as Cormega calls himself the “Rap Basquiat” and spits firmly-planted rhymes over some truly beautifully-crafted beats. If you are a hip-hop fan who thinks the genre has lost its way, this is a really powerful reminder that skill-based lyricism still exists. Cormega’s flow is often dizzying, bringing to mind the peak classics of the nineties. This is what real hip-hop sounds like without the pop flash.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “Industry”
  • “MARS (Dream Team)” (Featuring AZ, Redman and Styles P.)
  • “Honorable” (Featuring Raekwon)
  • “Rap Basquiat”

46. ALVVAYS – “Alvvays” Hitting a nice middle-ground between the sounds of Velocity Girl and Best Coast, Canadian fuzz-pop outfit deliver the kind of indie rock that should please the fans of The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart’s first record. Leader Molly Rankin is the daughter of John Morris Rankin of the famous Celtic-folk group The Rankin Family, and yet her music couldn’t be further from that of her famous relatives. It’s built on the fuzz and power-pop ideals set forth throughout the eighties and nineties, coming to its peak on songs like the wonderfully sweeping, “Archie, Marry Me.” Sweet melodies clash wonderfully with crashing guitars creating a sense of tension. Not only is this a record for every indie rock fan to hear, but it is also one of the year’s most impressive debuts.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “Archie, Marry Me”
  • “Next Of Kin”
  • “Party Police”
  • “Adult Diversion”

Read the original review here.

45. BRAID – “No Coast” For their first album in 16 years, emo-rock legends Braid rock out like it’s 1998 with leaders Bob Nanna and Chris Broach picking right where they left off. Their brand of fuzzy rock remains evergreen and still sounds remarkably refreshing. In comparison to the band’s older work, it seems as if no time has passed at all and the production is kept lovingly raw in order to make you feel like you are in the same room as the band. Every drum hit and bit of amplifier hiss hits you right in the sweet spot of your eardrum and songs like “Bang” and “Damages!” sound especially vital. This is old-school emo of the best variety. (NOTE: If you want a bonus treat, you should also seek out the band’s incredibly inventively punked-up reimagining of T’Pau’s hit “Heart & Soul” that they did for the A.V. Club’s “AV Undercover” series this year. It’s bizarrely amazing.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “Damages!”
  • “Climber New Entry”
  • “Bang”
  • “No Coast”

Read the original review here.

44. COMMON – “Nobody’s Smiling” After making records for more than two decades, Common uses “Nobody’s Smiling” to deliver an ominous collection of street-wise hip-hop. Nothing is sugar-coated. With only one or two exceptions, he keeps the tone dark with tales of inner-city struggle spiked with his own unique “consciousness” bend. This is a record with nods to blues and gospel while keeping a hard-edged hip-hop core. This is also one of Common’s most imaginative albums, production-wise with some of his edgiest and most experimental beat-work to date. This is a far cry from the optimistic soul music on his last effort, “The Dreamer/The Believer.” This is an album about survival at all costs. Usually Common doesn’t pull off tough posing, but he brings such sincerity to this material that you don’t doubt him for a second. It’s a record that gets better with each repeated listen.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “Speak My Piece”
  • “Out On Bond” (Featuring Vince Staples)
  • “Rewind That”
  • “Kingdom” (Featuring Vince Staples)
  • “Blak Majik” (Featuring Jhene Aiko)

Read the original review here.

43. …AND YOU WILL KNOW US BY THE TRAIL OF DEAD – “IX” The Trail Of Dead are one of the few bands floating around since the nineties who are still obviously riding a peak. Like ”Century Of Self,” “Tao Of The Dead” and “Lost Songs” before it, “IX” shows all of the Austin, Texas band’s strengths. They can rock really substantially one moment and deliver something amazingly ethereal and melodic the next. Standout, “The Ghost Within” is one of the most beautiful pieces the band has ever produced and while they may occasionally sound brutal or venture off on prog-rock excursions, leaders Conrad Keely and Jason Reece have always kept the focus on melody. Even the psychedelically hypnotic leanings of the instrumental “How To Avoid Huge Ships” focus the track’s nearly classical sense of tension. “IX” is the latest offering from one of the most consistent and gifted rock bands working today.

(Note: As a bonus, the album is packaged with a nearly 20-minute suite, “Tao Of The Dead Part III” which essentially plays like a third side to their 2011 album.)

Favorite Tracks:
  • “The Ghost Within”
  • “Lie Without A Liar”
  • “How To Avoid Huge Ships”
  • “Bus Lines”
  • “Lost In The Grand Scheme”

Read the original review here.

42. “WEIRD AL” YANKOVIC” – “Mandatory Fun” In 2014, the world figured out what all of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s fans already knew. The man is a genius and a cultural treasure. It helps that “Mandatory Fun,” which is sadly rumored to be his last traditional album, is among the best work he has released over his 30+ year career. It has a sharp bite and really nails modern society for its current flaws from the demise of proper grammar in his Robin Thicke parody “Word Crimes,” to the people who will do anything for notoriety in “Lame Claim To Fame,” to the chronic complainers who don’t know that things could be so much worse in “First-World Problems.” More so than any other record released in the last decade, this album captures the shallowness of our times and Al’s originals are every bit as strong as his parodies. No wonder he ruled the Internet for over a week and earned himself his first number one album on the Billboard Top 200. Yankovic remains one of the most vital cultural figures of our times. For as goofy as his songs can be, the man really deserves respect and I hope one day he gets inducted into “The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame.” He and his longtime band are amazingly versatile. In 2014, he deserved every bit of the attention he received!

Favorite Tracks:
  • “Lame Claim To Fame”
  • “Word Crimes” (Parody of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”)
  • “First World Problems”
  • “Foil” (Parody of Lorde’s “Royals”)
  • “Jackson Park Express”

Read the original review here.

PHOTO: Weird Al Yankovics album cover, Mandatory Fun.Amazon
"Weird Al" Yankovic's album cover, Mandatory Fun.

41. IMOGEN HEAP – “Sparks” (Deluxe Edition) You may have bits of “Sparks” in pieces. Imogen Heap over the last couple of years dropped almost half the tracks on this record as stand-alone singles. Finally this year we got to hear the full album and it also includes her Deadmau5 collaboration “Telemiscommunications.” The record on the whole is the most globally-minded release the British singer and electronic artist has ever released with various Eastern touches. As with her last album, “Ellipse,” Heap chose to release a deluxe version containing an instrumental version of the entire record as well. This version is highly recommended because in their wordless form, you can hear the intricacies of Heap’s musicianship even more clearly, making her a peer to electro-musicians like Four Tet and Prefuse 73. This isn’t her most accessible album, since it is prone to classical-tinged left-turns and fascinating tangents, but it can be endlessly rewarding especially if given close focus. This is the sound of expert musicianship in the electronic age.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “The Listening Chair”
  • “Run-Time”
  • “Entanglement”
  • “Lifeline”
  • “Telemiscommunications” (Featuring Deadmau5)

Read the original review here.

40. MAXIMO PARK – “Too Much Information” In the U.S., Maximo Park’s music is truly under-rated and their five albums prove they deserve more attention over on this side of the pond. “Too Much Information” showcases the band’s eclecticism well from the subtly menacing electro leanings of singles “Leave This Island” and “Brain Cells” to the spiky punk of “Her Name Was Audre,” the sing-along beauty of “Where We’re Going” and the whimsical euphoric nostalgia of “Midnight On The Hill.” If you don’t know this band, you should. If you need to do further research, I suggest you seek out the band’s earlier singles “Apply Some Pressure” from their debut, “A Certain Trigger” and “Books From Boxes” from their sophomore effort, “Our Earthly Pleasures.” “Too Much Information” continues the band’s line of top-notch releases.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “Where We’re Going”
  • “Leave This Island”
  • Lydia, The Ink Will Never Dry”
  • “Brain Cells”
  • “My Bloody Mind”
  • “Her Name Was Audre”

Read the original review here.

39. BANKS – “Goddess” California-bred singer Jillian Rose Banks lives in a chilled middle-ground somewhere between Lorde and Jhene Aiko and “Goddess” which is her full-length debut following last year’s “London” EP showcases her as performer who thrives when surrounded by icy synths. Fans of Evil Needle or Kate Havnevik might find this interesting, even if Banks spikes her often lush ambient backdrops with flecks of R&B. In many ways this also inhabits the same universe that provided sonic backbone to Drake’s “Nothing Was The Same.” The bottom line, this album whispers along with an often serene sound, but listen closely. There is a lot going on and not everything is quite as subtle as it initially seems.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “Drowning”
  • “Waiting Game”
  • “Goddess”
  • “Beggin For Thread”
  • “Alibi”

38. RUN THE JEWELS – “Run The Jewels 2” On what is probably the most lyrically aggressive and authoritative album on this list, ex-Company Flow MC El-P once again joins forces with Atlanta-based rapper Killer Mike for some poignant and gutsy hardcore rap. Sure there’s a lot of bravado but these two are able to stick in enough politically-minded lyrical jabs to make your head spin. Rage Against The Machine’s Zack De La Rocha comes in for a scene-stealing guest appearance on “Close Your Eyes (And Count To F___)” while on “Early,” Killer Mike raps about his fears about being arrested without cause. Given recent events, this track particularly hits to the core. Mike was recently on CNN giving his perspective as someone who is wary of the cops yet holds them to a high standard as the son of a police officer. This record has a lot of bite and bile and it may not be for everyone, but it does have some important things to say. Production-wise, too, it is extremely forward-thinking. Like most of El-P’s work, it proves to be sonically groundbreaking. The good news is that this past week the duo announced that they have already begun work on “Run The Jewels 3.”

Favorite Tracks:
  • “Close Your Eyes (And Count To F___” (Featuring Zack De La Rocha)
  • “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry”
  • “Early” (Featuring Boots)
  • “All Due Respect” (Featuring Travis Barker)

Read the original review here.

PHOTO: Album ReviewAmazon
Album Review

37. SPOON – “They Want My Soul” “They Want My Soul” is Spoon’s eighth full-length and it finds the band infusing their spiky sound with some synths. Sure, the very Stones-ian “Rent I Pay” is typical fare for them, but tracks like the trippy and expansive “Inside Out” showcase a newer side, while the bright “New York Kiss” seems to be headed for brighter club territory. Britt Daniel still maintains his signature snarl but there’s warmth and sunniness in many of these songs. Spoon maintain their buzz-band status by adding yet another distinct winner to their discography.

Favorite Tracks:

  • “Do You”
  • “New York Kiss”
  • “Rent I Pay”
  • “Inside Out”

Read the original review here.

36. ROSANNE CASH – “The River & The Thread” (Deluxe Edition) 35 years since her debut, Rosanne Cash is still effectively following in her father’s footsteps with this often eerie and haunting mix of country and blues. Her voice is beautiful as she sings these swamp-influenced numbers and gives them real grit. If you think the factory-spun country pop being fed to you from Nashville is real country, you need to hear this. Granted, it does sometimes have a slight alt-rock backbone, but it comes from a truly authentic place that would probably make some country purists proud. At the same time, this album deserves a wider audience.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “The Long Way Home”
  • “Modern Blue”
  • “World Of Strange Design”
  • “A Feather’s Not A Bird”
  • “The Sunken Lands”

Read the original review here.

35. PAWS – “Youth Culture Forever” Scottish alt-rockers PAWS follow-up their amazing debut “Cokefloat!” with yet another amazing record, combining a very Cobain-ian sense of volatility with a mighty sense of melody. Yes, this is “loud/quiet/loud” music where the guitar walls threaten to take over during the chorus, but in many ways this is an evergreen formula and it is evident that they were schooled on American grunge from the nineties. Standouts “Tongues” and “Someone New” punch you in the gut while sticking in your head, while the epic, nearly 12-minute closer “War Cry” proves that they can not only jam effectively but pack a significant amount of power. There’s an appealing lo-fi quality to this record that makes it ideal listening for anyone sick of the over-produced pop that gets played on the radio these days. This album is visceral. This album is alive.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “Someone New”
  • “War Cry”
  • “Owls Talons Crushing My Heart”
  • “War Cry”
  • “Narcissist”

Read the original review here.

34. NENEH CHERRY – “Blank Project” 25 years after her single “Buffalo Stance” pushed her into the spotlight, Neneh Cherry is still making records. But if you are expecting a pop record, this isn’t it and you might be disappointed. This is a boundary-pushing left-field trip-hop record with jazzy accents. (What else would you expect from Don Cherry’s step-daughter?) In effect, this album is extremely experimental as Neneh Cherry almost verges into Tricky-esque territory. Pop pixie Robyn shows up for a track, but this is still a very coolly-sheened, darkly lit collection. Not aiming for the charts, Cherry has created something both experimental and soulful.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “Naked”
  • “Spit Three Times”
  • “Weightless”
  • “Out Of The Black” (Featuring Robyn)
  • “Blank Project”

Read the original review here.

33. SWEET APPLE – “The Golden Age Of Glitter” A super-group featuring Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis, as well as Witch’s Dave Sweetapple and Cobra Verde’s John Petkovic and Tim Parnin, Sweet Apple bring us back to the epic power-pop of Big Star and Cheap Trick. If you like this old school approach, this band is for you. With giant choruses, “The Golden Age Of Glitter” is the best kind of throwback. High-profile guests include Mark Lanegan, Rachel Haden and Petkovic’s former bandmate in Guided By Voices, Robert Pollard. This album is wide-eyed and timeless and it further improves on the formula set on the band’s excellent 2010 debut, “Love And Desperation.” Tracks like “Under The Liquor Sign” and “Wish You Could Stay (A Little Longer)” perfectly recapture and encapsulate a feeling of youthful suburban angst. The good news is that the band is supposedly already working on album number three, so hopefully more music on the way. (A couple of notes: If you get the album on vinyl, it’s a beautiful shade of blue. Also, if you are looking for more Mascis, he also released a great acoustic-leaning solo album “Tied To A Star” that just missed the list but is still recommended.)

Favorite Tracks:
  • “Troubled Sleep”
  • “Under The Liquor Sign” (Featuring Robert Pollard)
  • “Let’s Take The Same Plane” (Featuring Rachel Haden)
  • “Wish You Could Stay (A Little Longer)” (Featuring Mark Lanegan)
  • “I Surrender”

Read the original review here.

32. ALT-J – “This Is All Yours” British buzz-band Alt-J return with their second album and their first after going from a quartet to a trio. This is a very likable, succinct record that is more appealing than their debut, “An Awesome Wave.” From the erotically charged “Every Other Freckle” to the mighty blues of “Left Hand Free,” it is evident that they like to explore a wide variety of areas. A lot of the record is filled with quiet acoustically driven numbers with slight electro touches. While their first album seemed to hint at a post-“Kid A” Radiohead influence, this record is closer to the post-Beta Band area, albeit with some hints of acoustic folk thrown into the mix.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “Every Other Freckle”
  • “Left Hand Free”
  • “Warm Foothils”
  • “Lovely Day” (Bill Withers cover. It’s a secret track.)
  • “The Gospel Of John Hurt”

Read the original review here.

31. STEPHEN MALKMUS & THE JICKS - “Wig Out At Jagbags” If you liked Pavement, Stephen Malkmus’ post-Pavement career maintains much of the quirkiness that was that band’s signature. Along the way he has added some classic rock tendencies but he still maintains that wink-and-nod mentality. “Wig Out At Jagbags” came out the first week of the year and it possesses a unique playfulness. Standout single “Lariat” has a classic nostalgic sing-song-y bounciness while oddball “Rumble At The Rainbo” recalls the energetic drive of Pavement’s “Flux = Rad.” In other words, Malkmus knows his strengths and he is very much still the guy who made “Slanted And Enchanted” 22 years ago.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “Lariat”
  • “Scattegories”
  • “J Smoov”
  • “Rumble At The Rainbo”
  • “Chartjunk”

Read the original review here.

30. CIBO MATTO – “HOTEL VALENTINE” Releasing their first album in 15 years, Cibo Matto’s Miho Hatori and Yuka Honda haven’t lost a step and “Hotel Valentine” is a quirky concept album about a ghost living in the confines of a hotel. This is funky, edgy art-house hip-hop which shouldn’t come as a surprise to fans of the duo’s classic albums “Viva La Woman” and “Stereo-Type A.” If you appreciated the glory days of the more experimental releases of the Beastie Boys’ defunct imprint Grand Royal Records, this album’s experimentalism will really appeal to you. At times it can be richly dizzying like on the radically whirling “Emerald Tuesday” but like a more experimental answer to Luscious Jackson Hatori and Honda effectively recall the exciting fringes of the nineties alternative boom. I hope we don’t have to wait another 15 years for a follow-up. I want more! This is a very welcome return!

Favorite Tracks:
  • “Emerald Tuesday”
  • “10th Floor Ghost Girl”
  • “Hotel Valentine”
  • “Housekeeping”
  • “Déjà Vu”

Read the original review here.

PHOTO: Cibo Mattos Hotel Valentine
Cibo Matto's "Hotel Valentine"

29. NEHRUVIAN DOOM – “NehruvianDOOM (Sound Of The Son)” NehruvianDoom is MF Doom with teenage rapper Bishop Nehru. Over this short but sweet set, the two create a record that should please both old-school and underground hip-hop fans alike. Nehru has gotten a lot of attention. Getting DOOM to helm and team up with you for your first major release is no small feat. Mind you, his next proper album is said to be executive-produced by Nas. He has some heavyweights in his corner and on this record he shows himself to be an amiable presence. Together he and DOOM create a record that recalls the playfulness of Prince Paul’s records with De La Soul. At merely a half hour, this is an all-too-short but solid offering.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “Om”
  • “Mean The Most”
  • “Great Things”
  • “Darkness (HBU)”

Read the original review here.

28. SHARON JONES & THE DAP-KINGS – “Give The People What They Want” This album was released at the beginning of the year after being delayed so that leader Sharon Jones could receive treatment for bile-duct cancer. Thankfully, it looks like Jones will be OK and “Give The People What They Want” delivers on its title by offering the same kind of Stax and Motown-flavored grooves that fans have come to expect. Jones and the Dap-Kings effortlessly lift themselves out of 2014 and place themselves firmly with the sixties classics. If these songs were played next to classics of that era, it would be hard to distinguish them as not being from the period. Here’s hoping Jones continues making the path toward recovery. We need her making records like this for decades to come.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “You’ll Be Lonely”
  • “Stranger To My Happiness”
  • “Retreat!”
  • “Long Time, Wrong Time”
  • “Making Up And Breaking Up (And Making Up And Breaking Up Over Again)”

Read the original review here.

27. VARIOUS ARTISTS – “BECK SONG READER” Back at the end of 2012 after not releasing a proper record since “Modern Guilt” in 2008, Beck teamed up with McSweeney’s to release a collection of 20 new songs as sheet music. This frustrated fans who wanted a new record but couldn’t read music. As we found out this year, Beck’s long silence was partly due to a major back injury from which he has now hopefully recovered. Now we get a compilation of various performers interpreting these 20 songs. Beck only handles one, leaving the other 19 to everyone from Louden Wainwright III to Juanes. It makes for an exciting listen and it was worth the wait.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “Sorry” (Laura Marling)
  • “Heaven’s Ladder” (Beck)
  • “Just Noise” (Norah Jones)
  • “Title Of This Song” (Moses Sumney)
  • “America, Here’s My Boy” (Swamp Dogg)

Read the original review here.

26. THE GHOST OF A SABER TOOTH TIGER – “Midnight Sun” The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger is Sean Lennon and his girlfriend Charlotte Kemp Muhl. Together the two make a post-grunge answer to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Lennon’s resemblance here to his father’s music is uncanny, proving that it really is in the genes and while this is the third Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger release, it is also the most significant. Lennon and Kemp Muhl are ideal collaborators and it is evident listening to the record that not only do they bring out the best in each other, but they are having a blast. Highlight, “Poor Paul Getty” tells the story of another famous son, J. Paul Getty III, an oil heir who was kidnapped and had his ear cut off in 1973. (Five months later after a ransom was paid by his grandfather, Getty was returned.) Considering it can’t be easy for Lennon to be another child of someone high profile, the song has some built-in urgency. Not only is this a must-have for any fan of the late-era Beatles, but it is also the strongest record Lennon has put out to date, thus effectively (and ironically given the tone of the record) stepping out of his father’s shadow.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “Poor Paul Getty”
  • “Johannesburg”
  • “Animals”
  • “Golden Earing”
  • “Too Deep”

Read the original review here.

PHOTO: The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger - Midnight
The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger - Midnight Sun

25. JONATHA BROOKE – “My Mother Has 4 Noses” This album is the companion-piece to singer-songwriter Jonatha Brooke’s play of the same name and it is absolutely heartbreaking. These songs chronicle her mother’s last months and decline in the grips of Alzheimer’s. Brooke is probably most famous for her 2004 single “Linger” and as a songwriter, this is some of her most gripping work that would be a fantastic album even if you weren’t aware of its context. But the context does give the material extra depth especially when you listen to songs like “Are You Getting This Down?” and know that it is a question her mother often asked her or “The Wind” when you can imagine how difficult it must be to watch someone you love fade away. This album is a loving tribute and a testament to Brooke’s gifts as a writer.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “Are You Getting This Down?”
  • “The Wind”
  • “Time”
  • “Sleight Of Hand”
  • “Scars”

Read the original review here.

24. RAY LAMONTAGNE – “Supernova” This record is really different from anything else that LaMontagne has ever released. With the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach producing, he issues an epic and psychedelic collection as upbeat as it is woozy. This is ace material and it was a wise move because it keeps him from being pigeon-holed as a mellow singer-songwriter. Artistically speaking this was the best possible move LaMontagne could have made right now because it tosses out all preconceived notions of what a Ray LaMontagne record should sound like and quality-wise it ties his previous high water mark, “Till The Sun Burns Black” from 2006. For LaMontagne this is a funky, retro-minded masterpiece and it is also a very strong argument for him and Auerbach to continue their creative partnership.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “Lavender”
  • “Airwaves”
  • “Pick Up A Gun”
  • “Smashing”
  • “Supernova”

Read the original review here.

23. JESSIE WARE – “Tough Love” (Deluxe) On her second album, gifted British vocalist Jessie Ware expands on the chilled R&B sound of her first record “Devotion.” This album may actually court the mainstream a little more than its predecessor which for Ware is a smart move considering that she is a unique singer who deserves pop success. Her songs remain intelligently written, so the careful angling doesn’t hurt her in any way. In fact both the standout title-track and “You & I (Forever)” capture attention every bit as effectively as “Wildest Moments” did on her previous record. It is clear that Ware is a star just beginning her rise.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “Champagne Kisses”
  • “Tough Love”
  • “Sweetest Song”
  • “You & I (Forever)”
  • “Keep On Lying”

Read the original review here.

22. THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS – “Brill Bruisers” On what may very well be their strongest album since 2005’s “Twin Cinema,” Canadian power-pop superstars The New Pornographers continue to combine their knack for melodies with urgent performances. A.C. Newman and Neko Case continue to both be strong presences giving their all while Dan Bejar and Newman’s niece Kathryn Calder continue to each build their presence. There’s a new-wave pulse behind this record on the whole and it is full of spiky brightness. At the same time, it is rather hard-hitting as well, giving these songs an extra bit of pull. If you’ve ever liked a New Pornographers record, you’ll love this one. The title-track and “Wide Eyes” are both examples of perfect pop songs.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “Brill Bruisers”
  • “Champions Of Red Wine”
  • “Wide Eyes”
  • “Marching Orders”

Read the original review here

21. SOULS OF MISCHIEF – “There Is Only Now” 21 years removed from their indelible debut, “93 ‘Til Infinity,” Oakland, California’s Souls Of Mischief have released their second most important album and it’s a concept album reportedly based on a true incident that happened to them where the group members and their Hieroglyphics cohort Domino almost got killed. It’s a gripping, sometimes scary story and guests Ali Shaheed Muhammed from A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes and Snoop Dogg all help them in this narrative. To make things even more compelling, production duties are handled by Adrian Younge who effectively helmed Ghostface Killah’s “Twelve Reasons To Die” last year. Younge’s instrumentation is tight and he gives the album punch, combining the sounds of a vintage movie score and the classic Native Tongues recordings. (The backing on the Busta-led “Womack’s Revenge” purposely recalls the beat of Tribe’s “Scenario.”) As a bonus the album is packaged with Younge’s instrumentals that play extremely well on their own. In 2014, Souls Of Mischief and Hieroglyphics remain strong.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “There Is Only Now” (Featuring Snoop Dogg)
  • “Panic Struck”
  • “All You Got Is Your Word”
  • “The Synopsis”
  • “Narrow Escape”

20. RYAN ADAMS – “Ryan Adams” Ryan Adams’ 13th album to see wide release is a self-titled, focused effort that hones in on strong rock balladry. This isn’t an alt-country record. This is a collection of ominous lovelorn songs and it serves as one of Adams’ best and most unified collections to date. This album channels strong eighties influence from both the similarly named Bryan Adams and Tom Petty and spins it into late-period AM Radio gold. Adams is at his peak here and a song like “Gimme Something Good” deserves to be remembered for generations to come. Not only is Adams prolific, but the quality of his output remains strong.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “Gimme Something Good”
  • “My Wrecking Ball”
  • “I Just Might”
  • “Kim”

Read the original review here.

19. JESSICA LEA MAYFIELD – “Make My Head Sing…” After making a couple records with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, singer-songwriter Jessica Lea Mayfield has broken off on her own and has essentially made a full-fledged, grungy sludge-rock record. Her soft voice provides the perfect contrast when placed behind menacing guitar riffs. This is an album that revels in sonic crunch and when the amps get turned down the guitars become wonderfully rickety. Mayfield obviously grew up listening to Nirvana, Hole and Smashing Pumpkins and yet she brings a wonderful energy to a track like “Pure Stuff.” Interestingly, she never shouts. She just continues to sing as sweetly as she did on her last album and that makes the sound all the more affecting. It provides an endearing sense of detachment.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “Oblivious”
  • “Pure Stuff”
  • “Standing In The Sun”
  • “Anything You Want”
  • “No Fun”

Read the original review here.

18. JENNY LEWIS – “The Voyager” On her first solo album since 2008, former Rilo Kiley singer Jenny Lewis delivers one of her strongest song-sets to date, combining her alt-country roots with a pop sensibility. With production from Ryan Adams, Mike Viola, Beck and Lewis’ boyfriend Jonathan Rice, this is a singer-songwriter record helmed completely by singer-songwriters and the set itself recalls an earlier vintage time. Lewis also has a strong lyrical sense. “Late Bloomer” and “She’s Not Me” both have strong senses of purpose with the former possessing a particularly intriguing narrative. “Just One Of The Guys” may be the best song ever written about biological clock panic. Lewis’ voice too continues to be a stronger and stronger asset. “The Voyager” is an extremely satisfying offering.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “The Voyager”
  • “Just One Of The Guys”
  • “Slippery Slopes”
  • “Late Bloomer”
  • “She’s Not Me”

Read the original review here.

PHOTO: Jenny Lewis - The VoyagerAmazon
Jenny Lewis - The Voyager

17. CLOUD NOTHINGS – “Here And Nowhere Else” With “Here And Nowhere Else,” Cloud Nothings build on the fuzzy urgency of their last album “Attack On Memory” and make something even more immediate and accessible. This is forceful rock with a catchy core, At only 8 songs and only clocking in at just over a half hour, like many records from this year, it doesn’t quite last long enough, but at the same time, that in effect leaves you wanting more. They may be coated in thick layers of fuzz, but at their core, standouts “I’m Not Part Of Me” and “Quieter Today” are in fact quite strong pop statements. I stated in my original review that the growing number of pop-driven heavy bands could eventually mean we are headed for another possible alternative revolution and I stand by that opinion.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “I’m Not Part Of Me”
  • “Now Here In”
  • “Psychic Trauma”
  • “Pattern Walks”
  • “Quieter Today”

Read the original review here.

16. DAMIEN RICE – “My Favourite Faded Fantasy” On his first album in eight years as well as his first album without singer Lisa Hannigan by his side, Irish troubadour Damien Rice delivers one of his most gently affecting collections to date. In fact, this collection is supremely focused recalling everyone from Nick Drake to the softer, more acoustic side of Radiohead. Songs like “I Don’t Want To Change You,” and “It Takes A Lot To Know A Man” hit you supremely with their nuanced complexity and their emotional heft. You feel like every one of those eight years was spent carefully crafting these eight songs. This album may be Rice’s masterpiece.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “I Don’t Want To Change You”
  • “It Takes A Lot To Know A Man”
  • “Colour Me In”

Read the original review here.

15. BROKEN BELLS – “After The Disco” The second Broken Bells collection reunites the Shins’ James Mercer with Danger Mouse. Together the two make a record that builds on the high points of their debut and in many ways improves on them. As he did with the Shins, with each release, Mercer appears to be getting more confident. His performances over time are getting both more forceful and more melodic. Opener “Perfect World” with its electro-leanings and its perfectly honed synth work may be the finest track these two have ever constructed together. With “After The Disco,” Mercer and Danger Mouse up the stakes. After the first record was a success, it could have been a one-off experiment. Now that lightning has struck twice, I’m hoping for a third offering.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “Perfect World”
  • “Lazy Wonderland”
  • “Medicine”
  • “Holding On For Life”
  • “Control”

Read the original review here.

14. ART SORORITY FOR GIRLS – “Older Boys” Art Sorority For Girls is the brainchild of singer-songwriter Daoud Tyler-Ameen, a Washington D.C.-via New York performer who has spent his career contributing to many projects in the “anti-folk” scene. Tyler-Ameen is a journalist, too, writing for NPR Music’s website, but as a songwriter he has really struck gold. “Older Boys” is his second full-length offering under the Art Sorority band-name after a string of now rare EPs. His knack for telling stories is matched by his ability to craft memorable tunes and his world is a very carefully constructed one full of obscure details. It’s a Wes Anderson-type of world of painstakingly written letters, art projects involving construction paper and various other specific touches. To his credit, it never comes off as precious or twee because you believe every word he sings. Even when he’s delivering a cover, as he does here with a performance of Yoko O.K.’s “All Year, Again,” he brings his own sensibility. This is a well-crafted, very specific album that will stick with you. Daoud Tyler Ameen is a storyteller at his core with each song uniquely unveiling a chapter.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “The Man With The Van”
  • “All Year Again (Yoko O.K.)”
  • “The Cape”
  • “Spaceship”

13. FLYING LOTUS – “You’re Dead!” As Alice and John Coltrane’s grand-nephew, Flying Lotus has been surrounded by adventurous music his entire life and his latest offering, “You’re Dead!” is one of the most experimentally ground-shifting albums you will hear all year, blurring the lines between electronic music, hip-hop and traditional jazz, thus creating a tremendously unpredictable sonic stew. This 19-track audio adventure shows great musical range and often plays like a monumental movie score. This is an album that almost defies genre classification as it seems to be on its own playing field, but like Madlib and the late J Dilla, Flying Lotus is someone who can find gold in just about every sound and texture,. This album is worlds ahead of his still excellent last offering “Until The Quiet Comes.” In some ways this is the closest the hip-hop generation has gotten to free jazz. And yet, nonetheless, every element of this album still remains effectively cohesive. It feels like one, giant, strange, open experiment.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “Never Catch Me” (Featuring Kendrick Lamar)
  • “Turkey Dog Coma”
  • “Eyes Above”
  • “Tesla”

Read the original review here.

12. BOB MOULD – “Beauty & Ruin” After finding multiple ways to explore his songwriting muse, Bob Mould rediscovered his full-fledged rock side on his last album, “Silver Age.” The former Husker Du and Sugar front-man continues his journey back to his hardcore roots on “Beauty & Ruin,” where he crafts quite a few hard-hitting gems, albeit with a striking bit of maturity. A song like the Foo Fighters-esque “Kid With Crooked Face” is the kind of mighty assault you wish Dave Grohl still had in him, while “I Don’t Know You Anymore” is a bright, shiny slice of punk. “Beauty & Ruin” shows that while Bob Mould may be getting older, he definitely is not mellowing. Always a master, Mould is currently in the midst of a string of excellent releases. One would like to think if you’d played this album for Mould in the eighties and told him that this would be the kind of record he’s be making in 30 years, he’d be pleased.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “I Don’t Know You Anymore”
  • “Fix It”
  • “Let The Beauty Be”
  • “Kid With Crooked Face”
  • “The War”
  • “Little Glass Pill”

Read the original review here.

11. THE ROOTS “…And Then You Shoot Your Cousin” This is the shortest, darkest and weirdest Roots album to date and it maintains the energy of a funeral march, but its overwhelming sense of sorrow and menace throughout is strangely alluring. This feels more like an audio art project than anything else they have produced and it plays like a surreal, avant-garde experiment. This is a meditation on death, which may not sound appealing, but it hits a sweet spot somehow because it just wallows in the darkness. Questlove delivers some of the trippiest beat-work he has ever done. To add an interesting wrinkle, this isn’t even completely a Roots record. It opens with an excerpt from Nina Simone’s “Theme From The Middle Of The Night” and uses tracks by Mary Lou Williams and Michel Chion as interludes. Really, this album only offers up eight actual Roots tracks. But those eight songs, are among the group’s best work. This is the kind of great record that can be made when a band makes music strictly for creative purposes.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “Understand” (Featuring Dice Raw & Greg Porn
  • “The Unraveling” (Featuring Raheem DeVaughn)
  • “Black Rock” (Featuring Dice Raw)
  • “Never” (Featuring Patty Crash)

Read the original review here.

10. MARY J. BLIGE – “The London Sessions” Mary J. Blige switched labels and decided to go to England to record with Sam Smith, Disclosure, Emili Sande and others. The change is a welcome one, because Blige effectively alternates between stripped-down soulful numbers and upbeat more electronic ones. It’s a change that suits her well. Essentially, she has made a classic and gotten herself out of her formulaic R&B rut. This is a beautifully moving collection anchored by the spacy, “Long Hard Look” and the forlorn “Whole Damn Year, which should both be huge hits for her. This is a risky album and artistically speaking, the risks definitely paid off. This album really should win her more fans.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “Whole Damn Year”
  • “Long Hard Look”
  • “Therapy”
  • “Doubt”
  • “Worth My Time”

Read the original review here.

PHOTO: Mary J. Bliges The London Sessions album.Amazon
Mary J. Blige's "The London Sessions" album.

9. SHARON VAN ETTEN – “Are We There” In releasing another album as excellent as her last effort, “Tramp,” Sharon Van Etten has pulled off the impossible. This is more of her enveloping indie rock, only this time we get songs like the beautiful “Our Love” and the mysterious “Taking Chances.” Van Etten’s music says so much in her titles alone from “Your Love Is Killing Me” to “Afraid Of Nothing” and “You Know Me Well,” you can tell which ones are going to be all-encompassing builders. Perhaps the real titan of the set is the closing ballad “Every Time The Sun Comes Up,” which has a slight country-tinge. If you love strong singer-songwriter records, look no further than the eclecticism of Sharon Van Etten’s “Are We There.”

Favorite Tracks:
  • “Our Love”
  • “Every Time The Sun Comes Up”
  • “Taking Chances”
  • “You Know Me Well”
  • “Afraid Of Nothing”

Read the original review here.

8. TOVE LO – “Queen Of The Clouds” Swedish singer Tove Lo has delivered one of the best and most infectious pop treats of the year with “Queen Of The Clouds,” a connected concept album following the beginning, middle and end of a relationship. These parts are dubbed, “The Sex,” “The Love” and “The Pain” and each section has its tone-appropriate songs. Single “Habits (Stay High)” is about the self-destruction that occurs in response to the end of a relationship, but really “Talking Body” is the best part of “The Sex” portion of the record and “Not On Drugs” is the most appealing track on “The Love” section. Tove Lo has a true gift for writing songs that are both erotically charged and emotionally gripping. This is one of the best pop albums of the year.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “Talking Body”
  • “Not On Drugs”
  • “Habits (Stay High)”
  • “My Gun”
  • “The Way That I Am”

Read the original review here.

7. PHANTOGRAM - “Voices” Building off of their self-titled teaser-EP from last year, electro-pop duo Phantogram really push themselves forward with “Voices” exploring pop, trip-hop, alt-rock and a touch of soul. This is a varied disc full of potential hits. Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter know exactly what they are doing and this is an effective exploration of their abilities. There’s something unsettling hiding underneath both “Black Out Days” and “Nothing But Trouble,” while humorously-titled “Bill Murray” brings to mind one of the more ethereal scenes from “Lost In Translation.” “Fall In Love” is a slick dance number while the “drum’n’bass” touches on “I Don’t Blame You” show some effective fortitude. The bottom line, this is one of 2014’s best examples of left-field, experimental pop and you should definitely be paying close attention to Phantogram.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “Bill Murray”
  • “Fall In Love”
  • “Black Out Days”
  • “I Don’t Blame You”
  • “Never Going Home”
  • “Bad Dreams”

Read the original review here.

6. GEMMA HAYES – “Bones + Longing” Irish singer Gemma Hayes’ fifth album continues to showcase the acoustic-singer-songwriter-meets-shoegaze-guitar mashup formula that she’s been mining since her 2003 debut. Listening to this spellbinding album, it’s amazing Hayes isn’t a huge star over here. Her music is like an undiscovered treasure and potential hits “Making My Way Back” and “Chasing” offer some of her best work. “Palomino” is gently haunting and affecting while “Iona” is an ace slice of romantic dream pop. After many repeated, addictive listens, I can say with certainty that this is Hayes’ best album so far and it is one that should make her a star. The album is available digitally now and will supposedly be available physically in the U.S in February of 2015.

Favorite Tracks:

  • “Chasing”
  • “Making My Way Back”
  • “Palomino”
  • “Iona”
  • “Laughter”

Read the original review here.

5. KELIS – “Food” For her 2010 album, Kelis switched from making R&B to making dance and club music. For “Food,” she changed career directions once again, choosing to work with TV On The Radio’s David Andrew Sitek whose production gives this album a seamless sense of sophistication. Elements of Afro-beat, acoustic folk and orchestral soul are felt throughout. This is the singer’s best album since her debut, if not her best album of all time. Sitek takes her in many directions and she proves to be game. Tracks like “Floyd” and “Jerk Ribs” are classics that deserve repeated spins. If all you know about Kelis is the song “Milkshake” or “Caught Out There,” you need to hear this album immediately. She’s a truly versatile talent. This is truly an artistically forward-thinking record. She and Sitek should work together again!

Favorite Tracks:
  • “Floyd”
  • “Jerk Ribs”
  • “Hooch”
  • “Bless The Telephone”
  • “Change”
  • “Rumble”

PHOTO: Keliss FoodCourtesy
Kelis's "Food"

4. RUBY – “Waiting For Light” Last year Lesley Rankine, AKA Ruby broke a 13-year silence and released an EP consisting of three songs and what ended up being the title track to this album as a stand-alone track. Those four tracks made my list last year at number 24. This is not so much a rerun as it is the completion of the picture, since eight new songs have been added to the mix. Schooled in punk, Rankine ventured into electronic and trip-hop music in the nineties releasing the albums “Salt Peter” in 1996 (which spawned the hit “Tiny Meat”) and “Short Staffed At The Gene Pool” in 2000, before taking a break until last year. As the EP did last year, the full-length proves that she is a peer to the likes of Portishead, Garbage and Bjork. If you have missed 90’s era trip-hop, this is a wonderful update and a must listen. Her full-fledged comeback has now been cemented.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “Waiting For Light”
  • “Fireweed”
  • “Rain”
  • “Pulling Teeth”
  • “Lush”
  • “Spin”
  • “Note To Self”

Read the original review here.

3. ELBOW – “The Take Off And Landing Of Everything” Elbow is another underappreciated British band in the states and their latest offering continues their pattern of stellar releases. Led by Guy Garvey and his very Peter Gabriel-esque voice, the band this time really focuses on nailing a certain kind of atmosphere and they sound completely like they are playing together live in a giant room. Every piano key echo, every drum thwap, every note Garvey sings possesses an authentic reverberation. This album also boasts two of the best singles of the year, from the semi-drunken nostalgia of “My Sad Captains” to the wistful optimism of the gorgeous “New York Morning.” The band members really let these grooves breathe, too. All but two of the tracks on this album clock in at five minutes or over. “The Take Off And Landing Of Everything” is the kind of masterful work that deserves close listening by a wide audience. Favorite Tracks:

  • “My Sad Captains”
  • “New York Morning”
  • “The Take Off And Landing Of Everything”
  • “This Blue World”
  • “Honey Sun”

Read the original review here.

2. BECK – “Morning Phase” I only gave five stars to two new albums this year. This was the first one. This was Beck’s official return when he released his first proper album since 2008’s “Modern Guilt.” It places him and his band back in the classic, slow, ethereal mode of 2002’s “Sea Change.” The one difference is that this album is a tad sunnier and tracks like “Morning” and “Waking Light” are brimming with positivity. Beck appears to be someone who aces every genre he touches and he also is still making high quality records that generations will be listening to for decades to come. This is truly a stunning and beautifully intricate record.

Favorite Tracks:
  • “Waking Light”
  • “Morning”
  • “Turn Away”
  • “Blue Moon”
  • “Wave”
  • “Say Goodbye”
  • “Heart Is A Drum”

Read the original review here.

1. SIA – “1000 Forms Of Fear” Why did I pick this as the number one album? It is the most gripping and emotional pop album I’ve ever heard. The songs are about real struggles. Sia, once readily seen on television, started getting panic attacks a few years ago that led to her not being able to perform live or appear on camera. She didn’t like the pressure and being hounded by the press, either, so she made a deal with her record company so that her face would never have to appear on camera. If you’ll notice upon this album’s release she kept doing performances with her back to the audience so that she would feel more secure performing. On top of the panic attack issues, this album discusses quite a bit. Hit “Chandelier” is a song about battling alcoholism while “Eye Of The Needle” addresses the pain in remembering her boyfriend who was killed in a freak taxi incident a few years back. All along, even though she’s singing about seriously painful subjects, Sia keeps her composure and sings them with talent, grace, ease and honesty. This album is an endlessly beautiful and heart-wrenching exercise in catharsis. On top of that, it is intelligently written and extremely catchy. I have never heard anything quite like it. It’s the best, most significant album of 2014.

Favorite Tracks:

  • “Chandelier”
  • “Eye Of The Needle”
  • “Big Girls Cry”
  • “Elastic Heart”
  • “Free The Animal”
  • “Burn The Pages”

Read the original review here.

PHOTO: Album ReviewsAmazon
Album Reviews

There you have it! The year is coming to a close, but it has left plenty of excellent music behind in its wake. Let us hope that 2015 has even more gems to offer. Happy holidays and Happy New Year! See you in 2015!