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2014 In Review: Albums Of The Year

U2 unleashed a brilliant surprise, Bruce Springsteen hit a new peak, St. Vincent made deliciously weird noise and Taylor Swift went full pop.

U2 unleashed a brilliant surprise, Bruce Springsteen hit a new peak, St. Vincent made deliciously weird noise and Taylor Swift went full pop.

40. Jack White ‘Lazaretto’

White’s second solo album is a paranoid palace of earth-shaking blues riffs and weird vibes – the long, high howl of a lone wolf. Whether he’s hulking out on the unstrung instrumental “High Ball Stepper” or laughing to himself on the honky-tonky lark “Alone in My Home”, this is an album only one man could have made.

Related: ‘Lazaretto’ Review

39. Caribou ‘Our Love’

Dan Snaith’s psychedelic dance grooves have always had a deep emotional core. This year, the Canadian producer super-sized both sides of his music: The beats on Our Love are his biggest, shiniest, rave-iest creations ever, backing a heady set of songs about the mind-expanding possibilities of long-term partnership.

38. Hurray For The Riff Raff ‘Small Town Heroes’

Alynda Lee Segarra was raised on the New York punk scene before finding her folk-rock muse in New Orleans. Her band’s breakthrough flips the script on woman-hating murder ballads and ponders the romance of dangerous behaviour, over fingerpicking and fiddling. Somewhere, Pete Seeger is smiling.

37. Benjamin Booker ‘Benjamin Booker’

This 25-year-old punk-blues guitar hero bowled over future tourmate Jack White, and you can see why. Booker’s raw-throated boogie blues proves rock & roll can still function as crazy-ass party music – when he confesses to wasting time on “a five-year bender” in the midst of “Violent Shiver”, you may be tempted to join him.

36. Alvvays ‘Alvvays’

The lyrics on this Toronto band’s debut read like a great short-story collection, full of wild romance, quarter-life confusion and sly humour. Set to exquisitely yearning melodies and pitch-perfect guitar jangle and fuzz, songs like “Party Police”, “Next of Kin” and “Archie, Marry Me” are as catchy as they are clever.

35. Total Control ‘Typical System’

The Melbourne post-punks maintained the snarling directness of their 2011 debut Henge Beat, yet broadened their abrasive attitude with a greater reliance on spacious synths and experimental details. The result is an album that’s both forthright and patient, freely unpredictable yet invitingly accessible.

34. Prince ‘Art Official Age’

Prince proved himself as brilliant and confounding as ever in 2014, releasing this fantastic old-school funk record in tandem with a weird, flat album recorded with his new group, 3rdEyeGirl. Art Official Age recalls the plush swagger and pop mastery of his Eighties classics – all psychedelic pimp style and spectacular balladry.

33. Shihad ‘FVEY’

Twenty-one years after they first worked with Jaz Coleman, the Killing Joke frontman returned to helm this, arguably Shihad’s angriest album to date. The only thing fiercer and more uncompromising than the riffs are Jon Toogood’s lyrics, which rally against societal ills such as the divide between rich and poor. Brutal.

Related: ‘FVEY’ Review

32. Damon Albarn ‘Everyday Robots’

Modern British pop’s most obsessive explorer turned his curiosity inward on this intimate solo triumph. There are hints of his bands Blur and Gorillaz and of his African forays in the hooks and rhythms. But Albarn mostly evokes Brian Eno and that Brit-pop ideal, the Kinks’ Ray Davies, in Everyday Robots’ stark grace.

31. Remi ‘Raw X Infinity’

With cosy beats designed to enhance summer moods, Melbourne MC Remi Kolawole deserves his next-big-thing status. Adding underground determination to major-league delivery, dig beyond frothy tracks like “Sangria” and you’ll find an album with enough genuine warmth to keep you grooving through winter as well.

Related: ‘Livin’ (Live at Live Lodge 2014)

30. Thom Yorke ‘Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes’

The Radiohead man’s second proper solo album got oddly slept on, but these are his most intense songs since In Rainbows. Yorke puts on the chill in “Truth Ray” and “Nose Grows Some” – even when he sings about a dystopian future, the anxious yearning in his voice is all too immediate.

29. Spoon ‘They Want My Soul’

Vintage ooh-las, art-brut rhythm guitar and head-crack drum beats fit together like idealised Ikea furniture on the latest jewel from Britt Daniel’s crew; it’s all clean lines and formal balance. And co-producer­ Dave Fridmann’s discreet splashes of colour and texture add new flavour to the minimalist feng shui.

28. Parquet Courts ‘Sunbathing Animal’

These Brooklyn jokers stepped up their game something fierce, romping from the twin-guitar heroics of “She’s Rolling” to the psychedelic love buzz of “Raw Milk”. They make it all sound so easy, you wonder why there aren’t a dozen bands this great in every town. But these guys are in a league of their own.

27. Alt-J ‘This Is All Yours’

The English prog-folk rockers grew to arena scale without losing their weirdness – like the Incredible String Band via Kid A, Joe Newman’s Bilbo Baggins warble wanders through monkish choirs, electronic squelches and woodland chirping, with a Miley Cyrus sample representing the world outside the band’s cozy hideaway.

Related: Alt-J – Still Embracing The Odd

26. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers ‘Hypnotic Eye’

Petty and Co. made their first U.S. Number One LP by tightening their Sixties-punk clang and firing it through flinty songs about a nation on the ropes and Petty’s determination not to take it lying down. “I got a dream,” he sings in “American Dream Plan B”. “I’m gonna fight till I get it right.”

25. YG ‘My Krazy Life’

Most rap fans probably didn’t expect the Cali guy behind 2010’s goofy minor hit “Toot It and Boot It” to make a debut album this rich and ambitious. My Krazy Life is a detailed day-in-the-life tale of robbery and regrets, with YG’s charming flow set against DJ Mustard’s new-school bounce like a long-lost sequel to The Chronic.

24. Leonard Cohen ‘Popular Problems’

What a year for footloose eightysomethings: Yoko Ono topped the club charts, Robert Morse stole Mad Men, and Cohen danced to the end of love. He whispers a dusky farewell on “Almost Like the Blues”. Yet in the sensual sway of “Slow”, he’s got time for one more round: “A weekend on your lips/A lifetime in your eyes.”

23. War On Drugs ‘Lost In The Dreams’

These Philly dudes broke through by tripping out on a classic-rock vibe, Eighties style: “Boys of Summer” melodies, Nebraska harmonica, Brothers in Arms guitar shimmer. But the album’s pleasant aimlessness – as songs choogle past the five-minute mark and lead lines curlicue across the sky – says plenty about right now.

22. Skrillex ‘Recess’

Skrillex’s whirling neon knife-storm was the album of the year for modern EDM – a genre that can currently fill arenas without albums at all. After a four-year run of killer singles, the drop-aholic DJ made a surprisingly varied full-length packed with mind-blowing experiments with two-step, jungle, vintage techno and more.

21. The Delta Riggs ‘Dipz Zebazios’

Tongue-twisting album title aside, the half-Sydney-half-Melbourne quartet truly found their sound on their second full-length, incorporating influences as diverse as swirling psychedelia and hip-hop into their rock & roll arsenal. Hell, even Jimmy Page was impressed with single “Supersonic Casualties”.

Related: The Delta Riggs Photo Diary – On Tour With Kasabian

20. Sharon Van Etten ‘Are We There’

On her fourth album, the New Jersey-native singer-songwriter took the heartbreak she’d explored on past records and blew it up to massive scale. Bringing chilly synth beats into her mix for the first time, Van Etten gives songs like “Your Love Is Killing Me” a morbid grandness, all the better to complement her passionate vocals.

19. Briggs ‘Sheplife’

Advancing local hip-hop with an unflinching slice-of-life chronicling of the reality of rural Australia (specifically Shepparton, home to the 28-year-old rapper), Briggs’ second LP is as confronting as it is uplifting, proving that telling the truth is a recipe for success – as long as you team it with solid beats and killer production.

Related: Photo Gallery – Golden Era Records Night at Live Lodge

18. Augie March ‘Havens Dumb’

Frontman Glenn Richards’ Tasmanian exile ended in an abundance of hoarded musical riches. Sprawling in vision and swooning with melody, the LP’s seamless blend of self-satirising whimsy and much darker matter peaked with “Definitive History”, an enraged lament for the prison of privilege and ignorance we’ve girt by sea.

Related: ‘Havens Dumb’ Track By Track

17. Jenny Lewis ‘The Voyager’

It took the ex-Rilo Kiley frontwoman six years, but Lewis finally returned to the studio to make the kind of sweetly biting solo record that earned her a permanent place in the indie canon. Blending Laurel Canyon sensibilities with modern wit, The Voyager shows she’s stronger and wiser – and can still draw blood.​

Related: ‘The Voyager’ Review

16. FKA Twigs ‘LP1’

For many, there was no sexier pop listen in 2014 than FKA Twigs’ full-length debut. It’s a feminist take on the Weeknd’s druggy avant-R&B, with self-loathing and sleaze replaced by self-possession and hunger. The haunting mix of pop and EDM weirdness takes a while to kick in – which only makes it more delicious when it does.

15. Against Me! ‘Transgender Dysphoria Blues’

Transgender frontwoman Laura Jane Grace poured all of her own deep pain and hard-won pride into a bold new start for one of America’s greatest punk-rock bands. It’s a roiling attack with a fragile, beating heart – few albums this year were as relentlessly heavy and fiercely melodic.

14. Weezer ‘Everything Will Be Alright In The End’

After a few hit-or-miss rec­ords, Weezer fans needed some reassurance from Rivers Cuomo. He delivered big-time on the band’s cheeky, ambitious ninth LP – rediscovering the art of the three-minute girl jam (“Lonely Girl”) but stretching out in fruitful new ways, too.

Related: Rivers Cuomo Is Trying To Be Alright

13. C.W. Stoneking ‘Gon’ Boogaloo’

Nobody born this century makes that spooky 78rpm sound like C.W. Stoneking. Here the arcane Aussie bluesman ditched the horns, upped the electricity and hooked up with a squeaky quartet of backing babes. Arrayed around a single mic, they found a new way to jump in the deep dark swamp where gospel meets rock & roll.

Related: ‘Gon’ Boogaloo’ Review

12. Foo Fighters ‘Sonic Highways’

This multifaceted travelogue is the most ambitious album Foo Fighters have made in their 20-year career. Whether they’re celebrating Buddy Guy in Chicago or getting in touch with their punk-rock roots in D.C., the bedrock force remains their anthemic guitar charge. By now, that’s a classic American sound in its own right.

Related: Foo Fighters – Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop

11. Flying Lotus ‘You’re Dead’

“Step inside of my mind and you’ll find/Curiosity, animosity, high philosophy.” It’s a guest rap from Kendrick Lamar, but it could also be a mission statement for Flying Lotus. The tripped-out producer’s latest is an LP about mortality that explodes with life – jazz that respects no dogma, and pop that reveals more with each listen.

Related: ‘You’re Dead’ Review

10. Taylor Swift ‘1989’

America’s sweetheart has been writing perfect pop tunes since the day she hit Nashville. Yet it’s still a delectable shock to hear her ditch the banjos for an album of expert Top 40 gloss – like Dylan going electric, except with more songs about Harry Styles. She sounds right at home over these Max Martin beats, sick and otherwise.

Related: ‘1989’ Review

9. Mac DeMarco ‘Salad Days’

The 24-year-old Canadian singer-guitarist’s second album – a warm, polished set of sun-drenched folk-rock jams – feels like it could have been a lost used-vinyl-bin treasure from the Seventies. DeMarco channels Harry Nilsson, the Beach Boys, Steely Dan and the Beatles, but the offbeat stoner vibes are all him.

8. Run The Jewels ‘Run The Jewels 2’

El-P and Killer Mike made 2014’s greatest hip-hop rec­ord. Guest shots flare in the avant-noise darkness: Zack de la Rocha riffs on Philip K. Dick; Gangsta Boo flips a porn-rap script. But it’s the chemistry between Mike’s on-the-ground Dirty South flow and El’s big-picture indictments that lights this up like a Brooklyn bridge.

7. Lana Del Rey ‘Ultraviolence’

Del Rey silenced her detractors with an intoxicating collection of indie-noir anthems. With more live instrumentation in her smoky glam grooves, she plays enough characters to fill a Raymond Chandler novel: On “Sad Girl”, she’s a sultry mistress; on “Brooklyn Baby”, she’s a snarky kid. Most of all, she’s a pop voice like no other.

Related: ‘Ultraviolence’ Review

6. Charli XCX ‘Sucker’

Charli XCX is the pop star 2014 was waiting for: a bad­ass songwriting savant who’s the most fun girl in any room she steps into. The 22-year-old Brit came into her own with Sucker, a middle-finger-waving teenage riot packed into 13 punky gems. It’s a dance party, a mosh pit and a feminist rally – Charli’s definitely in charge.

5. Sia ‘1000 Forms Of Fear’

Sia Furler may have excelled at keeping her face hidden in 2014, but her breakthrough solo album (her sixth) was everywhere. The year climaxed with four ARIA wins and the same number of Grammy nominations, Furler’s savvy mix of intelligent pop hooks and heartfelt lyrical sentiment striking a chord globally.

4. St. Vincent ‘St. Vincent’

After her string of increasingly excellent records, indie guitar heroine Annie Clark’s fourth solo album felt like a coronation: a masterful set of skewed but sticky pop hooks, subtly sexy electro-funk grooves and Dada poetry that aches for real. And her fiery guitar solos are sharper and more surprising than ever. Bow down.

3. The Black Keys ‘Turn Blue’

The Keys and Danger Mouse spool out everything from Seventies funk to disco throb to drive-time guitar grind, making music that could evoke lonely late nights or burnt-rubber desert highways, jittery paranoia and boundless possibility. It’s the sound of America’s most innovative arena rockers in full command.

2. Bruce Springsteen ‘High Hopes’

This new peak in Springsteen’s 21st-century hot streak is his most gloriously loose, vibrant album in years. In the past, Springsteen would never have allowed himself to release an album that includes two covers and reworked versions of his own older tunes, let alone give Tom Morello license to splatter virtuoso wah-wah’ed madness over much of it – but Springsteen was so much older then. Now he’s more unpredictable than ever, and it’s working: Despite the varied origins of the songs, High Hopes hangs together with striking sonic and thematic consistency, finding fresh angles on his central concern: the fault lines in the American dream. Springsteen worked on much of the album during his year-and-a-half-long Wrecking Ball world tour, and the expansiveness of that tour’s 19-piece incarnation of the E Street Band – featuring a horn section, backup singers and a percussionist – carries over to the big, bold arrangements of tracks like “High Hopes” (first recorded in the early 1990s by an obscure L.A. punk crew called the Havalinas), the bar-band romp “Frankie Fell in Love” and the gangster’s portrait “Harry’s Place”. The revamped version of “American Skin (41 Shots)” ­– a song about police shooting a young black man, originally echoing the killing of Amadou Diallo in 1999 – proved to be a tragically prescient choice for the year of Ferguson. But the album’s high point is the Morello-Springsteen duet on “The Ghost of Tom Joad”, where Morello’s rage-filled, celestial solo is a song in itself. The whole thing runs together like a marathon gig, united by a hard eye on the national condition and the fire in Springsteen’s voice.

1. U2 ‘Songs Of Innocence’

There was no bigger album of 2014 – in terms of surprise, generosity and controversy. Songs of Innocence is also the rebirth of the year. Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. put their lives on the line: giving away 11 songs of guitar rapture and frank, emotional tales of how they became a band out of the rough streets and spiritual ferment of Seventies Dublin. This is personal history with details. In the furiously brooding “Cedarwood Road”, named after Bono’s home address as a boy, he recalls the fear and rage that drove him to punk rock. “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” is a glam-stomp homage to the misfit voice that inspired Bono to sing. And that’s his mother, who died when Bono was 14, still guiding and comforting him in the chorus of “Iris (Hold Me Close)”.

Related: ‘Songs Of Innocence’ Review

This is a record full of the band’s stories and triumph, memory and confession detonated with adventure and poise. In its range of sounds, there may be no more complete U2 album: The band bonded its founding post-punk values with dance momentum in “Volcano” and the raw, jagged “Raised by Wolves”, and humanised the digital pathos of “Every Breaking Wave” and the harrowing “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight” with the vocal folk-soul warmth of The Joshua Tree. “I have a will for survival,” Bono sings in the closing track, “The Troubles”. Songs of Innocence is the proof – and the emotionally raw rock album of the year, at any price.