2014 albums of the year: The best of the best-of lists
The December flood of year-end lists is probably a dream for Excel spreadsheet fanatics and people who enjoy averaging critics' scores. But if you're the type whose eyes glaze over at the mere mention of another list, how do you figure out which albums are overrated and which are hidden gems? We waded through the deluge of year-end lists to bring you a guide to the most notable albums of the year:
The near-universal favorite: The War On Drugs, Lost in the Dream
Much has been made of The War On Drugs' Adam Granduciel's affinity for all-American rockers like Bruce Springsteen and his undeniably Bob Dylan-esque lyrics. But while those comparisons are apt, they're far from the whole story. The chugging rhythms and reverb-drenched drones that stretch into anthemic guitar lines on The War On Drugs' best album to date sound like Granduciel exorcising his personal demons (a painful breakup, severe depression) in the most triumphant and heartfelt way possible. Lost in the Dream eschews the sad-sack "breakup record" label because it's emancipated by loss instead of fixated on it.
Best album you probably shouldn't play in front of your parents: Run The Jewels, Run The Jewels 2
Killer Mike and El-P, together known as Run The Jewels, traffic in boisterous vulgarity, inventive smack talk, and subversive social commentary.Their aggressive battle rap is buddy comedy with relentlessly brutal lyrical blows (we'd quote some here, but they're not exactly fit to print). Getting the sh-t verbally kicked out of you for 39 minutes never sounded so fun.
Who liked it: Stereogum (#1), SPIN (#3), A.V. Club (#2)
Listen: "Close Your Eyes (and Count To F--k) feat. Zack de la Rocha"
Best debut album: FKA twigs, LP1
Alternative R&B is a genre that is decidedly of-the-moment. But none of that matters to FKA twigs, who seems to inhabit her music with a confidence that defies the whole concept of genre. Twigs' debut album exudes sexuality, but not in the traditional way: her wisp of a voice sometimes shakes with longing, but other times it shakes with desperation, even menace. After all, this is the artist who made a music video that featured her gyrating over a prisoner being lethally injected. Twigs' uncompromising artistic vision has given us many surprises so far (don't forget this deliciously bizarre Google Glass ad) — and if the LP1 is any indication, we should trust that twigs has plenty in store for us in the years to come.
Best folk-rock album: Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire For No Witness
On her third LP, Angel Olsen is a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll. While she takes sonic cues from everyone from Hank Williams to Leonard Cohen to even '90s grunge bands, Olsen's distinctive warble and piercingly direct lyrics keep the album tightly focused as she recounts tales of heartbreak, loneliness, and loss.
Best album that will be considered a career high point: St. Vincent, St. Vincent
On the cover of her eponymous fourth album, St. Vincent (née Annie Clark) sits on a powder-pink throne, staring defiantly at the camera. As its cover suggests, St. Vincent is a strikingly confident and wildly imaginative album, full of spiky digital textures and staccato guitar solos. Clark's meticulously sharp live choreography and unwavering dedication to her onstage persona complete the package, resoundingly proving that St. Vincent is a fully realized project both in the studio and onstage.
Best electronic album: Caribou, Our Love
Caribou is a primarily electronic project, but don't let that deter you from Our Love. As the title suggests, Canadian Dan Snaith's sixth album under his antlered moniker is deeply anchored in emotional pursuits. Unlike confessional songwriters, though, some of Caribou's best tracks, like the album opener "Can't Do Without You," succeed because they don't try to fully articulate emotions, and rely instead on giving the listener a sonic palette to soundtrack his own life. Our Love provides a few words and rich electronic textures, and you let your feelings do the rest.
Most underrated major-label debut: Tinashe, Aquarius
Tinashe's radio-friendly single "2 On" features minimalist beats from one of the year's hottest producers and a choreography-heavy music video that harkens back to early 2000s R&B. But while that single may be part of Tinashe's appeal, her sprawling debut album, Aquarius, more fully represents her broad command of genres. She can do straight up baby-making R&B ("How Many Times"), breathy, oozing whispers ("Aquarius"), and darker party songs in the style of Drake and The Weeknd ("Feels Like Vegas").
Most impressive concept album: Flying Lotus, You're Dead!
For his fifth studio album as Flying Lotus, the multitalented producer-rapper-musician Steven Ellison leapt into the unknown, creating a concept album that's "partly jazz fusion, partly hip-hop fantasia that envisions death as an everlasting psychedelic trip." It's a heady concept, to be sure, and one that doesn't exactly scream "accessible." But Ellison's restless ambition pays off: You're Dead! is a frenetic swirl of bebop and hip-hop that demands repeated listens.
Also of note...
Sharon Van Etten, Are We There: Singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten's latest album is tender, painful, and contemplative. All of those emotions come to a head on album centerpiece "Your Love Is Killing Me," a song whose power is "knee-buckling."
Aphex Twin, Syro: The first album in 13 years by the reclusive British electronic experimentalist was greeted with resounding praise. It also turned out to be his most accessible work to date.