1.1989 — Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift killed it in 2014. She moved from Nashville to New York, performed at the VMAs, openly embraced her feminist label and hosted an A-list birthday party. Somehow between all of that she managed to drop the best-selling album of the year: her pop debut, 1989.
Taylor’s takeover of 2014 began with “Shake It Off,” a Swiftified-back-off-haters pop anthem. Backed by saxophone, it had everyone (haters included) getting down to that sick beat for about two months straight. It held the charts over just long enough for the rest of 1989 to take them over. Each track runs on a different level, leaving listeners with a well-rounded, and completely satisfying pop experience. “Welcome to New York” demands to be played in Times Square at least once daily. The groove behind “Style” has a Bee Gee-esque beat and an unbelievably catchy chorus. “I Know Places” throws the hunter/hunted metaphor through a loop producing one of the album’s most unique tracks. Lastly, there is not enough praise for “Blank Space” that speaks to its tongue-in-cheek awesomeness. Every track has a new angle; every track delivers.
What is more astonishing than the tracks themselves is the overall style of the album. It is masterful pop music without any of the bullshit that floods mainstream music. There’s no profanity, no molly references and it doesn’t make a spectacle out of itself by striving for shock or controversy. Even without shock, it still leaves listeners in awe.
1989 is groundbreaking by being regressive instead of progressive. It is pop music at its core. It is about life and love and the battles people face within themselves every day. It is timeless. 1989 would’ve rocked it back in its title year, it is rocking it today and it will be rocking it in 30 years.
2. Sucker – Charli XCX
Since the rise of Icona Pop’s “I Love It,” Charlotte Aitchison has been hopping from track to track on fellow artists’ radio hits, and in the final chapter of 2014, Charli XCX brought about a glitz-and-glam pop-punk record that seamlessly weaves its aggressions into the threads of its live-like-crazy preachings.
And while the heightened reality of Aitchison’s “London Queen” lifestyle can appear out of touch at times, the pop singer’s Gwen-Stefani-esque cheerleader chants will pull anyone along for the ride — even if on the “wrong side of the road.”
Sucker growls in the face of every female power-pop singer of 2014, and has the sonic distortion and lyrical brutality to back up its third degree heat.
“You had an ugly tattoo and fucking cheap perfume.”
Don’t end up being the guy on the other end of a Charli XCX lyric.
3. In The Lonely Hour — Sam Smith
For someone who seemed nothing more than a one-hit wonder plastered on a series of lucky hits, Sam Smith has risen to the ranks of the some of the worlds most consistent artists. With that, it’s hard to believe that In the Lonely Hour is only Smith’s debut.
Smith is technical, but doesn’t let that get in the way of raw emotion. He’s dramatic, but earnest. His lyrics are relatable, each packaged in a painfully honest storybook form. In some ways, it’s repetitive, really. In The Lonely Hour tells the same perplexity of unrequited love in 10 different colors through each of his tracks.
Mustering three top 10 tracks in the United States and six whooping Grammy nominations this year alone, Smith has broken through the realm of contemporary adult pop, bringing the voice of contemporary-classics in the likes of Michael Bublé and Adele back into mainstream media. While each track narrates love’s downfalls and the ultimate triumphs of heartbreak, Smith’s voice tells another story of strain and mental ache. Through his music, Smith acquiesces to his fate, and tells his story in stream-of-consciousness fashion, replicating the exactness of every sting and stitch he felt through his experiences.
In The Lonely Hour is perfect. It conjoins single-worthy melodies with a voice that truly knows how to capture emotion. Yet, when perfection repeats itself, it no longer is perfect. Show us something else extraordinary, Smith. That’s how you’ll stay.
4. RTJ2 – Run the Jewels
In 1988, a group from Long Island called Public Enemy released It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Though the album can be categorized as early hip hop, it’s more of a study in noise rap, and it synthesized various elements of rock, punk and jazz into a single mortar shell that shattered the history of street music and street politics.
Fast forward four years. The year is 1992 and Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth have just released their debut album Mecca and the Soul Brother. Rock and Smooth met at the helm of the “Golden Age” in hip hop, where they took center stage and gave East Coast rap an album of finely tuned jazz and soul. They shared a unique telepathic communication and operated very much on the same frequency, adding the word ‘synergy’ to the definition of duo.
In 2014, El-P and Killer Mike, one of hip hop’s newest and most overlooked duos, produced an idealized fusion of Public Enemy’s noise art with Rock and Smooth’s symbiotic rap. The result is RTJ2, a work born of fire and brimstone, one that channels anger and confusion into red-hot chrysalises, one that teems with vitality and bursts with napalm. Killer Mike and El-P take their burning fury and shape it into verse that hits the jugular again and again. In the opener “Jeopardy,” the duo spares no blow: “I spit with the diction of Malcolm or say a Bun B / Prevail through Hell, so Satan get thee behind me,” Mike sings at the end of his verse. El-P adds to the attack, “I live to spit on your grave, my existence is to disgrace you / The kitten became a lion that looks to your face like great food.” All 39 minutes run something like this. Two talented, middle-aged rappers harmonizing one perfect verbal assault after the other.
Above all, these are sturdy songs with highly intelligent production beats, bars and brushstrokes. Take, for example, the subtle but devastating internal rhyme scheme Killer Mike delivers in “Blockbuster Night Part 1”: “I Jake the Snake ‘em, DDT ‘em in mausoleums / Macabre massacres killing cunts in my coliseum.” Like the album as a whole, these two lines seamlessly perpetuate the collective momentum while also polishing the interior like clockwork. Even the structure of RTJ2 achieves harmony, as the second side injects some air into a first side consumed with gunsmoke. It’s this kind of precision that makes RTJ2 an album of staggering energy, one that doesn’t join the ranks of history so much as it does break them to bits.
5. The Pinkprint — Nicki Minaj
In a year where most of hip hop’s major stars did not release an album, The Pinkprint stands practically alone as a sprawling classic filled with emotion, experimentation and pure talent. On her third album, Nicki Minaj mixes deeply personal lyrics befitting of a classic break-up album with the more familiar unhinged hip-hop swagger that made her a star. She forms a perfect dream trio with Beyoncé and Hit-Boy on “Feeling Myself” — a bouncy, focused burst of energy that was one of the most exciting songs of the year — and she brings out a surprising, beautiful singing voice on tracks like “Pills N Potions” and “Grand Piano.” On top of that, The Pinkprint spotlights the unpredictable, maniac Minaj on “Anaconda,” a song that was part novelty, sure, but also a subversive, empowering party-starter. How many break-up records proudly declare, “I got a big fat ass?”
6. LP1 — FKA twigs
“I can fuck you better than her,” Tahliah Barnett, better known as FKA twigs, promises her assumed lover in her hit song “Two Weeks.” That line alone demands your attention. Her debut album, LP1 , having reached critical success, as well as a most-played spot on my Spotify account, holds this attention with the contrast between the purity of her vocals and the explicit content on her tracks.
Barnett’s voice dances between melodic bursts and low coos, jumps from soft moans to high-pitched cries, slips in and out of speech and song. We never know what we’re going to get. It feels raw and authentic and fresh. Despite the intentional traces of auto-tune, it’s apparent that her voice can stand strongly on its own. And because of the strength of twigs’ voice, the production of the album doesn’t seem overwhelming — just electronic, euphoric and a bit baffling. The sounds are unlike anything else we heard in 2014.
The content is also rather revolutionary. Rarely are female artists so lyrically explicit about their sexual desires. Sure, we’ve got artists such as Nicki Minaj and Azealia Banks, who aren’t afraid to get vulgar (have you heard “Anaconda” or “212?”). But twigs approaches lyricism with a sort of grace the former artists lack. She depicts a story of love and lust in LP1 , one that involves battling with her carnal instincts. It details her role as a seductress in songs such as “Two Weeks” and “Hours” — “I could kiss you for hours … ” But later unearths her woes with tracks like “Numbers” — “Was I just a number to you?” Dispersed throughout the album are ballads of self-loathing and identity crisis, but also confidence and power. We get to clearly see twigs’s conflicting desires: she craves dominance, but caters to pleasure.
There’s a sort of beauty in listening as she works out this conflict within herself. We see her struggle, and sometimes suffer, but also grow. On the final track “Kicks,” twigs pleas with her lover, “Tell me, what do I do when you’re not here?” But after some contemplation, she concludes LP1 : “I’ll make my own damn way.”
7. St. Vincent — St. Vincent
Inventive and ambitious, intricate and lovely, St. Vincent’s eponymous fourth album has bulldozed its place on the shelf of 2014’s best music.
Raw, emotional vocals supported by zany synths and digital galore mark the core strengths of the album — each song is a mini symphony of weird, convoluted rock energy and truly melodic lines. “Rattlesnake” and “Birth In Reverse” bring the vigor, with upbeat tempos, deliciously manic lyrics and St. Vincent’s signature, revved-up guitar. Quite oppositely, slow jams like “Prince Johnny” and “I Prefer Your Love” bring the album’s vibes down to a chill, retrospective level, but they don’t sacrifice any musicality — a difficult task that proves no match for St. Vincent’s seasoned greatness.
More unconventional songs like “Huey Newton” are still listenable and quite pretty, underneath it all. The album’s first single, “Digital Witness,” is downright funk shielding a deeper warning message of the world’s obsession with technology. “Bring Me Your Loves” is equally as funky but also freaky — yet, in true St. Vincent fashion, it’s down-to-earth at the same time, dealing with the timeless concept of infatuation and appropriately leading into the rocking “Psychopath.”
The album reaches its lyrical zenith at the very end, though, with “Severed Crossed Fingers” — a passionate, moving last breath that St. Vincent sang in one take. You can feel her catharsis and her hope as the song ends and sets a beautifully mighty tone for the whole record. St. Vincent was fearless in 2014 — lavender hair and all — and she’s floating in the most peculiar way.
8. Broke With Expensive Taste — Azealia Banks
Broke With Expensive Taste is a bold representation of musical innovation. The album draws from heavier electronic and reggae influences, which are seamlessly combined with Banks’ strong hip-hop roots. Not only is the music dynamic, but Banks’s vocal delivery, and the lyrics themselves, also keep listeners on their toes. She switches easily from a smoother flow, to much harder rap, and even to Spanish on some tracks. The entire album — all 16 songs — is cohesive, with tracks flowing effortlessly from one to the next. Banks holds her own on this album, making huge musical strides and providing listeners with a complexly entertaining work.
9. Ultraviolence — Lana Del Rey
Lana Del Rey isn’t for everyone. She never really has been. Ever since Lizzie Grant presented her newly crafted, highly affected persona to the world and cited old-school acts as influences for her 2012 debut Born to Die, her work and image have received mixed reviews (a lot of which came in the form of anonymous Internet trolling and think pieces that questioned her merit). But on Born to Die’s standout tracks, it was clear there was something there behind the chambray, the red lipstick and the melancholy crooning. But she needed to find it.
On her 2014 sophomore effort, that something became her everything. For Ultraviolence, Del Rey brought The Black Keys’ frontman Dan Auerbach onboard to handle much of the album’s production, and his influence is clear. With the help of Auerbach, Del Rey picked out the most effective moments from Born to Die and brought them to fruition in the form of bluesy rock ‘n’ roll littered with beautiful imagery and wistful lyrics. On tracks like “Brooklyn Baby” and “Shades of Cool,” she still loves the leather jacket-wearing, Bushwick-dwelling bad boys, but she’s more aware of what that love means and how it should sound.
Instead of trying to play too many characters, then, Lana Del Rey takes one of those characters and crafts for it a clear point of view. Sure, the character is a bit of a damsel in ripped-jean distress, but her feelings — dreary, lonesome, retrospective — soar from deep in her heart into our ears in a way that feels oddly relatable and vivid considering how detached her singing is. “Ultraviolence” was a standout album in 2014 because it gave us what we wanted — a less convoluted, clearer idea of who Lana Del Rey is and what she can be — but still left us straining for more.
10. Lost in the Dream — The War on Drugs
It’s a common and slightly sickening paradox, isn’t it, that the greatest art emerges from deepest and most dark forms of human sadness. In rock music, the positive correlation existing between a broken heart and a fantastic album is an excessively common fixture. Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, or Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love are just a few of this rock music commonality: love sucks, and heartache even more, but it sure does help in making an excellent album.
Enter Adam Granduciel, the lead singer of The War on Drugs, following a breakup with his long-time girlfriend. His perfectionist tendencies and immense musical talent entered the studio for a year and emerged with a nearly perfect album. Bouncing between Americana and indie rock, each song to emerge is a hazy, electrified brainchild of Mr. Granduciel’s broken-hearted mind.
The mumbled, angst-ridden lyrics illustrate Granduciel’s motivation for the album: his burying internal struggle. The specific and direct lyrics are there to help the heartbroken through the pain. Without flowery metaphors and vague narratives, the lyrics deepen the initially pleasing gut-reaction provided by the album’s heavy electric guitar usage. The music is the album’s most powerful, noticeable entity. At the core of each song is a symphonious marriage of an electric guitar and strong drum that, once electrically strung out, moves in and out from each song’s hard and slow haze. It is a pity, truly, the amount of sadness that was required for the production of this album. But, proving once again that depth is synonymous with the dire, Lost in the Dream rightfully holds its place in the finest music of 2014.