The 50 Best Albums of 2014

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Three hundred and six different albums. That’s what you get when you poll 35 Paste music writers about the best albums of 2014. We asked our staff and writers for their 25 favorites from the year, and the answers were as varied as you’d expect. In fact, we had 26 different albums get first-place votes and none show up on more than half of the ballots. That’s all to say that you probably won’t like every album on this list and that your own list will of course be very different. But the purpose of this, our first of many “Best of 2014” lists, is to hopefully turn you on to some music you haven’t heard or maybe dismissed prematurely. We’ve now had up to a year to live with most of these records, and these are the 50 that endured. There’s traditional Americana and experimental hip hop; quiet singer/songwriters and noisy post-hardcore; long-time favorites and exciting debuts. Here are the 50 Best Albums of 2014:

50. Hospitality – Trouble

For the record, Hospitality never sounded that much like Belle & Sebastian. Their sweet-eyed sensibility may conjure up the same impressions as those masters of twee, but from the start, their sound was their own. Their debut was declarative in its sensitivity and sensitive with its declarations. From the sound of it, the band has decided if it means something to them, they’ve got to say what they have to say a little bit louder now. Trouble sounds like Hospitality showing how the addition of a little more edge and disparity to their sound makes them no less inhospitable. Their debut’s songs were polo-shirted and bespectacled, and so are these ones, but now they’re sheltering themselves against the cold with Doc Martens and faux-leather jackets.—Mack Hayden

49. La Dispute – Rooms of the House

Hailing from Grand Rapids, Mich., this five-piece has long been praised by those in the know, but ignored by many of the usual taste-making suspects. The reason is likely the tendency to label their music screamo, though it is more accurate to call it post-hardcore, a genre that has long been accepted into the canon, be it Fugazi or Refused or At the Drive-In. This emotionally captivating album makes a case for more “screamo,” or whatever this is, because it is both affecting and challenging. Concept albums can easily drift into self-indulgence or overwrought inflexibility. But Rooms of the House is simpler, connecting the events that happen in a place to the people who currently inhabit that space. It’s all heavy stuff and not for everyone, but the emotions evoked are life-affirming. La Dispute picked a perfect time to make a classic album in the post-hardcore spectrum that might be considered a classic outside of genre, too.—Philip Cosores

48. Justin Townes Earle – Single Mothers

Nashville-based Americana pioneer Justin Townes Earle followed a meandering route of reinvention from classic honky tonk through country, rockabilly and soul to get to 2012’s near perfect Memphis Horns-inspired Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now. And yet, in some ways, Single Mothers feels like a continuation of its predecessor. The mournful pedal steel and smooth production link the two records. But Single Mothers represents a renewal of self for Earle as his first as a sober man and a married man. It’s not an overtly happy record, though, instead illustrating a shift in perspective in how Earle reconciles with his past—from his famous father’s abandonment to his own parallel substance abuse. But Earle also digs back to his youth of listening to Billie Holiday, telling her story in his own heartbroken way on lead single “White Gardenias.” Most surprisingly, Earle seems to transform parts of his past into positive, up-tempo fun on “My Baby Drives.” While the familiar ache still haunts Single Mothers, Earle treats it with new wisdom, choosing instead to ramble forward, rather than perseverate and drift waywardly back.—Hilary Saunders

47. Cloud Nothings – Here And Nowhere Else

Up until recently, Cleveland’s Cloud Nothings always had enough space for its brand of batshit pop-punk to flash its fangs without much regard for hype or expectation. But with Attack On Memory making the band a breakthrough act, the band now faces its truest test yet: the much-anticipated follow-up. Recorded in just a week’s time and produced by John Congleton, Here And Nowhere Else marks the first time the band has recorded together as a three-piece. But hearing Here And Nowhere Else, you’d never know anything had been altered since their last outing. The entirety of the album is spent in the fast lane—perhaps a reflection of Baldi writing the songs while touring relentlessly for a year and a half, penning each song in a different city. The result is a fast-paced, convulsive collection that has all the intensity of its predecessor but with an elevated dose of urgency. In the uphill battle of balancing success, artistic vision and mounting pressures, the trio could’ve fallen flat with a follow-up to a critically acclaimed masterwork—but they didn’t. Instead, with Here And Nowhere Else, they’ve thrown the first punch, and it hits you square in the jaw.—Michael Danaher

46. Rosanne Cash – The River & the Thread

With a voice like good claret or damp moss, Rosanne Cash singing is something to sink into. Surrender to the tones, mostly dark, but marked by the occasional glimmer of light, and let the emotions they contain seep inside. For Cash, the emotions on The River & The Thread are complex and tangled, especially the Grammy-winner’s own difficult relationship with the South, her roots and her own musical journey. What emerges, beyond a woman grappling with a legacy as much in the rich bottom land as her father Johnny’s iconic presence as the voice of America, is a knowing embrace of the conflicts in the things we love. The 11-song cycle is mostly a meditation on the textures and musical forms that emerged South of the Mason Dixon. Finding not just resolve, but acceptance is a gift. Cash, who’s sidestepped her heritage, and eschewed a career as a country star with 11 No. 1s, a marriage to a country writer/producer/artist Rodney Crowell and the city/industry where she found prominence, savored her wandering and the Manhattan life she built. With The River & The Thread, she comes home with the warmth reserved for knowing where we’re from. As powerful a witness for the region—Memphis, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas—as it is a lovely quilt of musicality, braiding blues, folk, Appalachia, rock and old-timey country, this is balm for lost souls, alienated creatures seeking their core truths and intellectuals who love the cool mist of vespers in the hearts of people they may never encounter.—Holly Gleason

45. Damien Rice – My Favourite Faded Fantasy

Beyond the surface of his easy-rolling acoustic numbers, Irish songwriter Damien Rice has always presented a grittier take on gland-driven relationships, often slipped in tongue-in-cheek one-liners or easy-enough metaphors. Maybe wine-driven tales of the depths of love aren’t a new thing, but when you’ve got a pure voice and aim for theatrics like Rice, they’re still deeply affecting. My Favourite Faded Fantasy is the product of a near-decade away from music. In the interim he parted ways with Lisa Hannigan, joined with mega-producer Rick Rubin, found collaborators in Marketa Irglova and Alex Somers, and moved to Iceland. Led by winding guitars, the title track’s slow-churning six minutes guide us through fragile pianos, satisfying string arrangements and reversed guitars. While it’d be unfair to discount Rice’s sparse lyrics, My Favourite Faded Fantasy leans heavily on arrangements to deal an emotional blow—even early gut-punchers like “It Takes a Lot to Know a Man” and “The Greatest Bastard.” It’s a good look for Rice. These are rich songs, meant to be savored and taken in with repeated listens. Fortunately (or not) for long-term fans, his conflicts in love seem to remain fully intact. See: Tracks one through eight. And while eight years could’ve brought about a jarring change, Rice has returned with eight satisfying, hearty tracks.—Tyler Kane

44. Temples – Sun Structures

So often—maybe too often—contemporary psych music is of the garage variety, rough and chaotic and more indebted to punk rock than to the seminal psych bands of the ’60s. Like Australia’s Tame Impala, England’s Temples have managed to rise above the fray by offering a compelling, modern take on Sgt. Peppers-style psych rock. Their debut full-length, Sun Structures, is a delightful, deliciously British collection of psych-pop gems that has had icons like Noel Gallagher and Johnny Marr singing their praises. The album’s most arresting track is its first, “Shelter Song,” a catchy, florid driver that landed them a slot on Jimmy Fallon in July. Add to that gigs opening for the Rolling Stones and The Vaccines, and it’s been about as successful of a year supporting their first LP as the quartet could ask for. With good reason. Standout tracks include “Shelter Song,” “Keep in the Dark” and “Mesmerise.”—Ryan Bort

43. Total Control – Typical System

Aussie five-piece Total Control play a hybrid of rock, New Wave and post-punk that would be a scatterbrained mess in the hands of a lesser band. Their second full-length Typical System is all over the map, to the point where at times you’re not even sure what they’re even going for, or where they’re taking you. Opener “Glass” pulls you in with its synth-y come-on before giving way to the jagged nihilism of “Expensive Dog.” “Systematic Fuck” sounds like a nod to their Aussie punk brethren The Saints. “Hunter” is far more divine than it has any business being, and “The Ferryman” rides a bass line into dark places. By the time you get to closer “Safety Net” you might still be asking yourself what the hell just happened. And so you listen again. And again. —Mark Lore

42. Dum Dum Girls – Too True

There’s a good chance that if Dum Dum Girls had continued on as lo-fi garage dwellers, we might not be talking about them right now. The fact that frontwoman Dee Dee has continued to futurize her ’60s girl-group proclivities has kept things from molding over. And when I say “futurize,” I mean to the year 1981. While Dum Dum Girls began polishing up the fuzz and drawing from other influences on 2011’s He Gets Me High EP, it’s nothing compared to the shimmer and sophistication of the band’s third full-length, Too True. It’s a spotless record production-wise, but it also takes Dee Dee’s songwriting another step forward. This is best represented on “Lost Boys and Girls Club,” which moves slowly and majestically through a wash of synth and processed guitars. It’s a mesmerizing three minutes. Of course, no matter how much reverb or how many layers of guitar threaten to swallow it up, Dee Dee’s voice is what stands out. It’s achingly emotive in its minimal range (not a slag, it’s perfect where it is), especially on songs like “Too True to Be Good” and “Rimbaud Eyes.”—Mark Lore

41. Robert Ellis – The Lights from the Chemical Plant

Like Sam Shepard, Robert Ellis understands the tenderness beneath the untamed’s leathery exterior. Born and raised in Lake Jackson, Texas, recently relocated to nouveau hipster central Nashville, Tenn., Ellis broadens his musical reach beyond deadly accurate classic country to often austere arrangements that reflect his small etchings of real life without aggressive genre-coding. A splash of instruments, tones, textures, well-turned phrases and space, Plant is an architectural triumph for producer Jacquire King (Tom Waits, Kings of Leon), who recognizes the power of the realizations captured in the moment. Whether the numbing downward mobility of escape-in-a-box “The TV Song,” the downy blanket of denial “Lies” or the creeping shuffle of temptation’s lure “Good Intentions,” which melts into an atmospheric breakdown that clouds the resolution, it’s real life with its ragged edges. Murky, gray areas and faltering points make Ellis a compelling writer. Even the beautiful drone of “Chemical Plant,” with its exhaled vocals and stark tableau, shimmers with Springsteen-like desire amongst the harshness: two young lovers’ hunger for each other transforms those lights into stars, their assignations a comfort and refuge in the bleakness, sustaining them as everything else breaks down.—Holly Gleason

40. Jack White – Lazaretto

If the 11 songs on his second solo album Lazaretto are any indication, it’s going to be a long time before White starts running out of steam and ideas. The sexually charged version of “Three Women” that opens the album puts the listener on notice that as far as Jack White’s concerned, no matter whatever else has changed in the world since Blind Willie McTell wrote the song in 1928, the dynamics between men and women haven’t shifted an inch. The howling grooves, sexual swagger and intemperate logic of the updated lyrics set the listener up for the 10 bitter rants that follow. Most of the lyrics on Lazaretto came from notes White wrote at the age of 19, half of his life ago, when he was beginning his career singing at coffee houses. It all makes sense when you listen to the album because—literary cleverness aside—the songs ring with the concerns of a young man, just out of adolescence and swelling with love and its discontents. They have a purity that is impossible to recapture once life has sent you around the block a few times and dulled the edges of the senses. The songs are exciting, effortlessly creative and full of risk-taking, but White taps into the vein of classic rock just enough to filter all of his weird extrapolations so that they’re comprehensible for his audience. Lazaretto is an album only Jack White could make.—Douglas Heselgrave

39. Strand of Oaks – HEAL

By definition, mopesters are raw, damaged goods, and Showalter’s first two albums, Leave Ruin and Pope Kildragon, had their share of woebegone, poetic odes to failed romance and general malaise and despair. HEAL, however, takes it up a notch, both thematically and sonically. Showalter experienced what may have been a nervous breakdown in the fall of 2013, and he and his wife were involved in a nearly fatal head-on car collision at the end of the year. Those traumatic events prompted a round of cathartic songwriting that finds its release on HEAL. The songs are even more agonized, and more transparently autobiographical. And the delivery is decidedly noisier and more raucous. This is an album that rocks in all kinds of unexpected ways. Surprisingly, given Showalter’s rather placid musical past, that’s the music’s strongest asset. “Goshen ’97,” the leadoff track and first single, starts off in impressively noisy fashion, with Showalter harkening back to his teenage years: a lonely, introspective kid finding solace in rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a shopworn theme, but the shredding, courtesy of Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis, transports the sentiments to something grand and majestic. Unfortunately, the rockers fare better than the ballads, usually Showalter’s strong suit.—Andy Whitman

38. Shabazz Palaces – Lese Majesty

Consistently pushing the boundaries of hip-hop to new and cosmic heights, Seattle’s Palaceer Lazaro (aka Ishmael Butler) formally of Digable Planets hasn’t made anything overtly accessible since his radio hit “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” Lese Majesty is no exception. Butler is joined by instrumentalist and producer Tendai Maraire, who together prove listening to their experimental take on hip-hop will be rewarding, but not necessarily easy. Sonically convoluted and lyrically eccentric, Butler resists all notions of narrative, structure and convention to create a set of warped melodies that are at once difficult and brilliant. Named after the French phrase for violating royalty, otherwise known as treason, Lese Majesty is 18 very short tracks divided neatly into seven suites, but made to be digested all at once. Not unlike Shabazz Palaces’ Sub Pop debut Black Up, Lese Majesty deserves several listens and offers new pieces of intricate hip-hop wisdom with each one.—Alexa Carrasco

37. Reigning Sound – Shattered

As de facto ringleader since the band’s inception in 2001, Greg Cartwright has been surrounded by a veritable turnstile committee of agile musicians, cultivating varying muses based on the strengths afforded him. Shattered, Reigning Sound’s first album since 2009’s Love & Curses, is yet another bend in the road, positing soulful rockers, scrappy R&B ballads and rowdy pop numbers in brilliant balance. The album opens with the roadhouse rocker “North Cackalacky Girl,” with warm organs, a threading bass line and smidges of the garage-soul that permeates Cartwright’s songwriting sensibilities. With Cartwright as the one constant in Reigning Sound, despite its disparate output, Shattered is as good a representation of the band as any, showcasing lip-quivering sentimentality on tunes like the eerily bouncy tear-jerker “Never Coming Home,” which features thick textures of strings and rolling drums to Cartwright’s Memphisian drawl. It’s a boldly traditional, and fantastically well-rounded album of rock ‘n’ roll.—Ryan J. Prado

36. Drive-By Truckers – English Oceans

Life is always messy on Drive-By Truckers albums, populated by the endless cast of assorted lowlifes and down-and-outs that spring from the minds of Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. On English Oceans, the songwriters fill their songs with evocative tales of dying ambitions, interpersonal discord, suffocating shame and in an astute pair of politically edged tunes, turn their sights to the cloying misdirection that dirty tricksters use to pave over all that familiar suffering. What distinguishes the Truckers’ 12th album from the rest of their excellent recent pack is two-fold: 1) The band came out firing hot, the batch of lean rock songs presented in their visceral, unadorned rawness, and 2) More than ever before, this is a Cooley album, with six of his compositions shaping the overall tone of the record. The same balance and seamlessness between songwriters that characterizes the entire album shows most vividly on “Til He’s Dead or Rises,” with Cooley taking lead vocals on Hood’s lyrics, a first for the Truckers after nearly 20 years of playing. English Oceans is a triumph for the Drive-By Truckers, one that capitalizes on Hood and Cooley’s strengths as songwriters and also gives them something to sing for that means more than all those colorful characters put together.—Eric Swedlund

35. FKA Twigs – LP1

FKA Twigs’ debut full-length LP1 is a blend of glitchy futuristic R&B we haven’t heard before. A music-video dancer turned singer, FKA Twigs experiments with sound and space, her beats stuttering and stoping like a modern dancer. Although it may not sound like it, FKA Twigs is essentially a singer/songwriter fearless in her approach to experimentation. Her vocal range forces a new take on desire, and puts her own personal signature on a theme we’ve heard before—sex. On LP1 we get all sides of Twigs: She sings to us digitized and Auto-Tuned from far off in space before whispering in our ear, intimate and bare. Beats drop in and out with no warning or obvious structure, and yet it’s catchy. Yes, these 10 disjointed anthems somehow manage to be catchy songs. FKA Twigs released a video for every song on the album, a testament to her clear vision for LP1, a truly unique and noteworthy debut.—Alexa Carrasco

34. Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams’ 14th solo release is more of a rock ’n’ roll album than the rootsy, understated Ashes & Fire. While he includes a handful of the wrenching ballads he does so well, bold electric guitars hold sway on most of these 11 new songs. Adams deploys a distinctive guitar tone on his rock songs, dialing in a carefully calibrated mix of treble, grit and reverb that he has honed over the past dozen or so years. It’s in full force on the punchy riff that kicks off lead track “Gimme Something Good,” rings out like an alarm on “Stay With Me” and tumbles down in cascades on “Feels Like Fire,” a song that sets up brusque verses and then washes them away with a lush, sweeping hook on the chorus. He trades the electric for an acoustic guitar on another ballad, “My Wrecking Ball.” It’s one of those devastating quiet songs that sounds as though Adams is singing from inside the wreckage of a broken heart. Those gutbucket songs are still what Adams does best, though this self-titled album strikes the best balance that he’s found yet.—Eric R. Danton

33. Protomartyr – Under Color of Official Right

Detroit’s Protomartyr seems to wedge itself into some sonic crevice of the Motor City’s storied musical past only by proximity; the band’s residency in a city quickly becoming a metaphor for grimy rebuilding, resilience, some lost relic of the American Dream is an unfortunate sidebar. On Under Color of Official Right, the foursome’s sophomore record, Protomartyr nonchalantly pulls out pretty much every stop available in an effort not to be easily hemmed in to any preconceived corner of the tempting urge to align them, even passingly, with your Stooges, your Dirtbombs, et al. In fact, this album essentially thumbs its nose at the perceived imprint of its predecessors. It emerges as a cunning powder keg of an album, at times so sparse and inviting, only to ignite in fits of fiery rebellion midway through a song with crunching, lush guitars and Casey’s cool-as-a-cucumber vocal delivery, approximating the feeling of the seminal punk of Hüsker Dü or, later, the literary austerity of more experimental post-punk efforts by Cursive. The harder it is to pinpoint its origins and the further you allow yourself to take off your critical monocle, the deeper its creative abandon draws you in.—Ryan J. Prado

32. Foxygen – ...And Star Power

Sam France and Jonathan Rado team up with Star Power, a sort-of-fictional LA rock ensemble, for the group’s proper third album ...And Star Power. The record is indulgent, unhinged, sprawling, funny and sometimes spookily great?all adjectives most observers ought not to be so surprised about. Foxygen’s albums are definitely growers. Much like the palatability required for the labored pace of a lot of the lazy rhythms that drive jangly lo-fi/pot-haze numbers like “I Don’t Have Anything/The Gate,” your patience is required to become fully illumined within their spell. Throughout the entirety of ...And Star Power, the omnipresence of tape hiss permeates the recordings, offering a very stark contrast to the lush, layered and more focused We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic. It’s essentially a return to the grimey, DIY spirit of that first record, buffing the sheen away to expose some rusty, bumbling core. Songs are allowed to fall apart, tones are empowered to free themselves of any continuity song-to-song, revealing vignettes of sometimes profoundly earnest song tidbits, and sometimes simply random rummagings of sounds. The driving pulse of “Talk,” very near the end of this 24-track album, is about as primed an example of the band’s formidability, encroaching on psychedelic swells of jittery sonic explosions like protons fidgeting in an atomic bounce house.—Ryan J. Prado

31. Tweedy – Sukierae

Father-son bonding activities more typically involve things like camping trips or baseball games than recording an album, but Jeff Tweedy is not your typical father, and Spencer Tweedy is not your typical son. The elder Tweedy, of course, has fronted Wilco for the past 20 years, amassing a catalog of quietly gripping songs on eight studio LPs that have expanded from rootsy rock ’n’ roll into something more expansive and frequently more visceral along the way. The younger Tweedy is a preternaturally gifted drummer who has spent the past 11 years playing in Chicago band The Blisters. He also contributed to Mavis Staples’ 2013 album, One True Vine. It bears mentioning that Spencer is 18 and just graduated from high school. Together, the Tweedys are, well, Tweedy. With Spencer on drums and Jeff doing everything else, aside from a handful of keyboard parts and backing vocals, the pair spent much of 2013 making Sukierae, their 20-song debut. The album begins with noisy, lurching guitar and explosive drums then wends its way through buoyant pop songs, drowsy folk numbers and thorny experimental stretches that explore shifting rhythms and hypnotic drones. Depending on your own mood while listening, any one of them is capable of raising chills. The album takes its title from a nickname for Sue Miller Tweedy, Jeff’s wife and Spencer’s mom, who was diagnosed with a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (her prognosis is good). During what has surely been an emotional time, it’s not a radical leap to see making an album together as a way for father and son to take solace in each other’s company while immersed in a medium they love, in tribute to someone central to both their lives. That’s a hell of a bonding experience. That it resulted in such a fine album is just a bonus.—Eric R. Danton

30. Phantogram – Voices

The upstate New York duo Phantogram was made for these times. “Bad dreams never affect me,” Sarah Barthel sings on the titular track. “I’m just a scene in a movie.” It’s a coy trick, this cool indifference, because the wounds of Barthel’s heart peek around nearly every corner on Voices, Phantogram’s major label debut. That duality is omnipresent in the production of nearly every song too: With the exception of a few slower, moodier tracks, Voices would hit just as hard in the club as it would in the bedroom of, say, a misunderstood teenager who gazes deeply at stars in a shroud of anger or melancholy. Voices conveys our era’s lingua franca, with its knowing postures and veiled identities, by puffing its chest first before it reveals any vulnerability. Behind every sly, surgical deadpan on Voices—or, in the passive aggressive, subtweeting world outside it—often lies a bit of hurt or jealousy or confusion. Like Drake or 808s-era Ye, Phantogram have discerned an acute way to emote in front of an increasingly large audience while also seeming like the coolest kids in the room. Voices is emotional, not emo.—Ryan Burleson

29. Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings – Give The People What They Want

Give the People What They Want represents a modern depiction of R&B, soul and a little bit of funk. It highlights Jones’ cool, emotive vocals and the Dap-Kings’ exemplary musical complements. In fact, the band’s brass, notably the baritone horns in the pulsating “Stranger to My Happiness” and haughty “You’ll Be Lonely,” are a defining, filling element of the overall sound. But it’s Jones’ powerful, perfectly vibrato-laden voice that creates just the right of emotion for every break-up, hook-up, fed up and uplifting track on the barely 30-minute record. Even without the emotional backstory of Jones’ battle with cancer, Give the People What They Want is a record for fighters and for victors. It acknowledges hurt and weakness in all facets of life, but values optimism, strength and perseverance by hearkening to the most emotive genre and concept of all—soul.—Hilary Saunders

28. Ages & Ages – Divisionary

Ages and Ages’ debut LP, Alright You Restless, was an ambitious, conceptual piece of sing-along, clap-along, stomp-along pop rock that vaulted the band into elite company. That first record pontificated upon the throes of isolation as a form of revolution, elated choral melodies anchoring shimmery guitars and tight rhythmic interludes throughout. The Portland conglomerate’s second album, Divisionary, is a lot of that, too; there are plenty of goosebump-raising hooks and uplifting crescendos to write home about. Their thematic scope, however, involved the excavation of darker inspirations than they’d previously explored as a band. Forged during a flurry of personal hardships for several members of the band, Divisionary opts not to wallow in the woe, but to present an opportunity for the conceptual collective to disburse their common isolation to working out the painful moments via some of the most hard-wire catchy pop songs put to tape in years (and years). Tim Perry wields wonderfully colorful waves of emotion throughout each song, with church-choir vocals, a la Polyphonic Spree, buoying thoughtful musical terrain despite great tides of introspection. Ages and Ages have undergone lineup changes and lots of peripheral personal battles and have somehow managed to internalize and later deduce how to navigate the avenues of their own lives in triumphant—and insanely memorable—song. In the process, they’ve come out with one of this year’s best all-around albums.—Ryan J. Prado

27. Hurray For The Riff Raff – Small Town Heroes

Much has been made of the fact that Hurray for the Riff Raff leader Alynda Lee Segarra calls New Orleans home, but where she makes music is rather less interesting than when on her new album, Small Town Heroes. Though the Bronx native sings here and there about her adopted hometown, Hurray for the Riff Raff’s songs rarely feel rooted there. Rather, these 12 tracks encompass a broad swath of a timeless America, like old Carter Family tunes existing in the peaks and troughs of AM radio waves rolling endlessly over the miles. Segarra’s music is spare and elegant on songs built around her voice and acoustic guitar, and fleshed out with fiddle, piano, banjo, understated percussion and occasional glimmers of quiet electric guitar. For all their varying accompaniment, though, the songs take their tone from Segarra’s compelling vocals. The only location that matters on Small Town Heroes is the one in which you first encounter Hurray for the Riff Raff.—Eric R. Danton

26. Caribou – Our Love

As early as “Twins,” a track off 2003’s Up in Flames, Caribou hinted at the prospect of pristine pop music. Of course, about a decade back, he was recording as Manitoba. But there surely was an overriding eclecticism that assured listeners of a future that could be anything from synthetic dancehall hits to peaceful moments fit for supine wonderment. Caribou—government name, Dan Snaith—possesses a clear affinity for breakbeats and technological advancement, as evidenced on 2010’s Swim, but wheedles it down to the most exacting electronica of his career for Our Love; gone are the Pink Floyd touches that hued his 2007 Andorra all psychedelic. Instead, the producer extends electronic conceits expressed on 2010’s Swim and efforts like “Kaili,” shorning tunes of his singing, opting for samples and snippets, coming off just left of a Michael Jackson opening act from sometime between Off the Wall and Bad. Snaith’s latest disc further just distills the guy’s most synthetic interests and occasionally winds up sounding like something playing at a club while Tom Cruise, circa 1988, enters the room. Women would swoon—dudes, too—and he’d sidle up to the bar to order some fluorescent-colored drink. Not everyone will be pleased, but those hooked on Swim will be thrilled.—Dave Cantor

25. Future Islands – Singles

The status of “next big thing” is a coveted position, and most bands never get there. Future Islands have been there three times, with three consecutive albums. But where the previous Thrill Jockey releases, In Evening Air and On the Water, were able to nab strong reviews and cult audiences, bolstered by the group’s kinetic performances, the Baltimore-by-way-of-North Carolina outfit never quite broke out in a way that deserves that kind of superlatives being lobbed in its direction. Singles, the audaciously titled fourth LP from Future Islands, is upfront about its ambitions, beginning with the strongest stand-alone the band has made yet. “Seasons (Waiting on You)” sees a universal experience portrayed with respect for the human condition, and Samuel Herring showcases an even-handed distribution of youthful longing and frustration with mature wisdom and perspective. Herring’s deep, husky and often untamable delivery peppers this spread with personality, sounding like an only son of Dracula raised in an ‘80s disco. Future Islands are direct in their influences, with ‘80s pop music and contemporary synth-pop both pretty obvious touchstones. But trying to pinpoint the sound of the band ignores the originality that is at play. No one sounds like Future Islands, nor have they for several albums.—Philip Cosores

24. Lykke Li – I Never Learn

It’s probably known by now what fueled Swedish songstress Lykke Li on her latest full-length, I Never Learn, the final installment in what she considers a trilogy of albums. But even if you hadn’t heard about Li’s tumultuous breakup through interviews, it would take you precisely 30 seconds into the opening title track to figure it out. The song’s gloomy, somewhat familiar-sounding minor chords might tell you a little something, too, but Li’s imagery of fallen stars, blue moons and tears that melt ice are what set the stage for this taut, intense collection of songs. This is the kind of pop music that’s been sadly missing over the past few years, going a little deeper than most. Li may feel like she’s got a lot to learn when it comes to matters of the heart. But when it comes to her music, she’s well on her way.—Mark Lore

23. Sun Kil Moon – Benji

If Benji and its predecessor Among The Leaves are any indication, the 47-year-old songwriter and master guitarist has found his comfortable place. And he’s expressing every last thought in his head. The 11 songs here are an unfiltered id-spilling talking blues, set to the familiar sounds of Kozelek’s plaintive guitar playing and his softly emotive voice. And what he’s most interested in is his relationship with death and tragedy. He doesn’t pine over mortality. He picks apart the unfortunate passing of people in his family and outside of it: his second cousin Carissa, former Sopranos star James Gandolfini, the victims of Newtown. Though each reference appears in separate songs, the sentiment is consistent: hold on tightly to those you love before they’re not around anymore. In its own way, Benji feels almost avant garde in its complete lack of metaphor and its clear, direct language about his bad back and eating crab cakes with his girlfriend. The album is also rather moving at times. “I Saw The Film The Song Remains The Same” is a gorgeous bit of nostalgia that relates his favorite elements of the titular film back to painful memories from his childhood.—Robert Ham

22. Flying Lotus – You’re Dead!

If Cosmogramma—the album in which Flying Lotus forced the world to pay attention to the power he’d realized—was his free jazz odyssey, Until the Quiet Comes his sepulchre erected to IDM, and Duality his hip-hop lark scrawled in loving punchlines by a Rick-Ross-rotund alter ego named after an Adult Swim cartoon, then here be dragons: all of that which came before, a life flashing before our eyes, spiritual words colliding, ice and fire meeting, a grand fusion. So it makes sense Herbie Hancock’s here, surrounding the ineffable core of the album like a sad talking head ringing a hospice bed. The sonic icon is joined by others, old and new, as well as dedicated followers to the FlyLo shrine (Thundercat) or virtuosos who toil away in the shadows (Brendon Small), both bipeds deserving of American standards written to the art of practice and the freedom of digital dexterity. It is all here—You’re Dead! feels like nothing short of everything—a celebration of life, an epochal goof, a chaos of harps, a feather bed of synths, a sinister chasm of blips, and one more thing for Snoop Dogg to lean into, proving that in 2014 he is more texture than human being. Which is fine: we are all like him, gaudy patterns and drapes and carpets limning the cosmos. You’re Dead! captures this sensation perfectly, this grasping at the ultimate unknowable from a point of insignificance, this shooting big but feeling small, this clusterfuck that’s our consciousness as we stare into the void. It’s an album that is at once so pretty it hurts and so dumb it numbs; it’s Steven Ellison giving us his all.—Dom Sinacola

21. St. Paul & The Broken Bones – Half the City

St. Paul & The Broken Bones is not a band that’s easily ignored. The Birmingham-based sextet gets in your face—literally—during shows, and manages to transfer that that intensity to each of the 12 songs on their debut LP Half The City. With strong roots in the Pentecostal church, frontman Paul Janeway seems to deliver entire sermons in three-and-a-half-minute opuses throughout record. He narrates entire parables like “Grass is Greener” and “Like A Mighty River” in his emotive tenor that evokes both preacher and crooner. And the built-in, two-man brass band arrangements add depth, rhythm and soul to Half The City, especially on tracks like “Broken Bones & Pocket Change” and “Sugar Dyed.” Inspired by funk and R&B acts like Prince, Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, St. Paul & The Broken Bones understands the power music has to make you weep, dance and rejoice, sometimes all at the same time; each track on Half The City serves one or more of those roles. So while the band released its first EP, Greetings from St. Paul & The Broken Bones, in 2013, it’s this full-length debut that serves as the ultimate conversion for believers and heretics, alike.—Hilary Saunders

20. Perfume Genius – Too Bright

There’s so much horror strewn across the first two Perfume Genius albums, it’s amazing it took this long for Mike Hadreas to scream. The strangled, faraway shrieks that split the thick synth bass on “Grid,” the second single from Too Bright, come through like the screams you find yourself letting loose when you jolt yourself out of a nightmare. If the first two Perfume Genius albums played something like nightmares—beautiful, full of danger, guided by pristine internal logic—then Too Bright is where Hadreas finally yells himself awake. Too Bright folds its words into startling, varied instrumental textures. The album’s first single “Queen” thundered in earlier this year full of squeals and barks that sounded entirely alien to the Seattle songwriter’s damaged cabaret. It’s Hadreas’ first banger, barbed with lines like “no family is safe when I sashay” as though he were finally accepting a role as menacer rather than menaced. But in the space where a hook should go, Hadreas’ voice dissolves. His words give way to shrill whistles, disembodied echoes and a “woof!” taken straight from Kanye’s reserve. His energy turns wordless, yet loses none of its power. So much of Too Bright seems to reach for a higher life beyond the body, something purer and more permanent than this vessel that ages and rots and shits itself—an “angel just above the grid,” as Hadreas puts it in opener “I Decline.” He doesn’t find his escape, but he does show that both physicality and its decay can be gripped tight like a weapon.—Sasha Geffen

19. Allah-Las – Worship the Sun

The Los Angeles-based Allah-Las’ modernized version of retro rock suited for garages along the coastline came as a welcome surprise in 2012. The band’s self-titled debut encapsulated the fusion of British rock ‘n’ roll and American surf, entrancing audiences with its stoned, vaguely nostalgic tunes. On their newest effort, the band doesn’t mess with this formula. The fuzz and reverb sit atop the Allah-Las’ sophomore release Worship The Sun like the smog over their native city. The not-even-two-minute “501-415” and “Buffalo Nickel” exemplify this musical haze in the best, sing-along ways. Additionally, the Allah-Las show that they don’t fear instrumentals. Jangly guitars burst from “Nothing to Hide,” album closer “Better Than Mine” and bonus track “Every Girl” (which, itself, seems like the antithesis of Allah-Las’s “Don’t You Forget It”). At their best, the Allah-Las still conjure the tones and attitudes of bygone decades.—Hilary Saunders

18. Mac DeMarco – Salad Days

Just like Future Islands, Mac DeMarco is also an artist whose live show becomes impossible to separate from his songs and his persona. In a perfect world, each copy of Salad Days, his sophomore LP, would come with your own portable Mac DeMarco to keep you company while listening to the collection, cracking self-deprecating and just barely-not-creepy jokes about his own songwriting. The rather chilled-out Salad Days will probably sound more muscular than the woozy haze that works for much of the subject matter, with the title track mentioning “rolling through life, to roll over and die.” DeMarco doesn’t say that maturing is giving up explicitly, but in quoting his mom saying “act your age” and moments like the buzz-killing noise blast that ends “Brother,” DeMarco has no interest in fitting in or making things easy on listeners. Or as he says on “Goodbye Weekend,” “Don’t go tellin’ me how this boy should be leaving his own life.”—Philip Cosores

17. The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers

Anyone who has been following the work of the New Pornographers since their 2000 debut LP Mass Romantic has to know what to expect from the Canadian supergroup by this point. Every one of their albums has been sequenced using the same precepts that Nick Hornby set up for mixtapes in the book High Fidelity: they start off with a corker of an opening track, rein it in on the next song and then move forward in incremental steps up or down in terms of energy to keep you (at least upon the first spin) guessing. What you listen closely for are the subtle shifts: the moments when Dan Bejar drops his toothsome power-pop gems into the mix, and how songwriter/leader AC Newman uses Neko Case’s pliable and powerful voice. All of that is in full flower on Brill Bruisers, but what subsequent listens reveal is the startling evolution of Newman’s songwriting. More than ever before, the 46-year-old is emphasizing his love of ‘70s pop and rock. Bejar, on the other hand, peaks early with “West Coast,” a rager that features the kind of lyrical twists only he could get away with (“Blondes, brunettes/paper jets/star power, star power/the king bends over to smell a flower”). You can take in this album in little nibbles or one big bite. Either way, you’ll end up feeling entirely satisfied.—Robert Ham

16. Jenny Lewis – The Voyager

Jenny Lewis’ new album The Voyager is her strongest solo release and best overall effort since Rilo Kiley’s 2004 LP, More Adventurous. The new album came in the wake of an emotionally turbulent period—including the 2010 death of her father—that left Lewis with severe insomnia, a topic she tackles on the sleek, catchy album opener, “Head Underwater.” For all its weight, though, The Voyager has a sly sense of humor, too, in songs measuring the narrator against the standard conception of what adulthood in your late 30s is supposed to look like. For example: try as she might to fit in on the hazy beach jam “Just One of the Guys,” Lewis, 38, can’t help but notice, “There’s a little clock inside that keeps tickin’.” Good luck finding a more tuneful take on anxiety about having children. Lewis recorded that song with Beck, who also sings backing vocals. Most of the rest of the album features production from Ryan Adams, who pushed Lewis past the blockage that had kept her creatively paralyzed for the better part of three years. What Lewis demonstrates on The Voyager is that the unexpected turns are sometimes the most rewarding.—Eric R. Danton

15. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

With the exception of a few artists, modern country has taken a hard left turn for the worse over the past two decades. Ask some people, and they might even say country’s become a shell of its former self. Sturgill Simpson is not one of those people—mostly because he doesn’t seem to care what is happening within the confines of the country music world. Instead the Kentucky-born singer looks to more far-out places on his second full-length, Metamodern Sounds In Country Music. One of the first things you’ll notice is Simpson’s voice, which conjures the ghost of Waylon Jennings. Producer Dave Cobb’s warm production can’t be overstated—it holds the entire thing together and also makes Metamodern Sounds a shelf-worthy addition next to the greats. If you don’t like country music, don’t bother. But if you do have an ear for Waylon and Willie and the boys, then you’ll find plenty to love. Simpson may reside in Nashville these days, but he’s operating on a completely different plane. Here’s hoping his own mind-expanding experiments will expand the minds of listeners as well.—Mark Lore

14. Ty Segall – Manipulator

With Manipulator, the oft-frenetic visionary Ty Segall slows his cadence to a coherent, deliberate pace. He trades chaotic cacophony for clarity. And instruments actually ring out with precision, which, for Ty…is kinda weird. The shift may be a polarizing phenom for longtime fans who fell in love with his motor-oil-soaked backwash-pop. To be clear, that backwash splashed down gloriously. But it sounded, at times, like a glorious accident. Manipulator sounds intentional—and for a dude who is used to burying his soul in a murky ocean of fuzz and reverb, that takes serious balls. “Who’s Producing You?” rides on sharp snares and twisty, wet guitar noodles. Its melody sticks, but not as committed as the viscous vibes in “The Faker.” “Faker” gallops on a tumbling beat, directly to the action. Ty’s vocals lack the visceral, animalistic snarl past releases showcase. Instead, he takes on a sleepy indifference. With Manipulator, Ty takes a chance and tidies up the raucous bedlam. He didn’t lose his edge; he just squired a little antiseptic along the jagged ridges. It’s like the hangover lifted. He’s finally able to remove his sunglasses and nod to the light of true pop accessibility.—Beca Grimm

13. Real Estate – Atlas

In our current Ableton-fueled epoch, Real Estate’s unassuming commitment to craft seems almost deliriously uncool. Sure, the values that have come to define the New Jersey quintet—an eye for refinement and an unerring awareness of their own strengths—wouldn’t have been considered flashy during any period. But in an era where critical praise for indie-rock bands is usually qualified by some kind of statement about the waning relevance of guitar-based music, Real Estate’s ethos feels vitally contrarian. Their third LP, Atlas, recorded with immense care at Wilco’s Chicago studio, marks the point where they transcend the trappings of their former lo-fi niche. On the strength of these 10 new songs, they’ll most likely begin finding themselves placed near the top of festival bills. The album embeds itself in the Americana framework more than any of the band’s prior releases. Atlas’ reverb bath refracts everything from the rusted twang and jingle of late-career Feelies to the mantric hum of Roger McGuinn’s euphoric 12-string scale explorations. It might seem like an obvious career peak were this not the work of a still-young band that, from the start, has been predisposed toward graceful maturation. It’s a quietly sublime work from a group of musicians who have always insisted—via their straight-up goofy music videos, Budweiser references and substitute teacher-like appearances—they’re just average suburbanites.—Michael Wojtas

12. Spoon – They Want My Soul

Even a four-year break between records and side projects including the debut of Britt Daniel’s Divine Fits and a new LP from Rob Pope’s Get Up Kids, can’t slow the roll that Spoon has been on since, well, basically the whole time. The Austin band has remained remarkably consistent for 20 years, honing a sound that is at once unmistakable and just different enough between records to keep things fresh. The band’s latest, their first new album since Transference in 2010, is full of trademark Spoon elements: Daniel’s dry voice with a hint of a rasp, Jim Eno’s rock-solid backbeats and a subtle, shifting mix of guitars and synths, all of which are amplified by Dave Fridmann’s expansive production. “Rent I Pay” emphasizes guitar, opening the album with massive smashes on a snare drum before a pair of crackling six-string parts alternately chase each other and lock into unison. Throughout They Want My Soul, the songs flow into and out of each other with a subtle movement that’s hypnotic and sounds deceptively simple. It’s not as easy as Spoon makes it seem, of course, which is what makes their consistency so impressive. Spoon’s tunes, then and now, are master classes in melody, harmony and dynamics, and the band excels at finding imaginative, unfussy ways of putting them together in song after song, album after album.—Eric R. Danton

11. Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire for No Witness

Angel Olsen’s beautiful, sad and, ultimately, useful sophomore album, Burn Your Fire for No Witness is an experience obsessed with heartbreak, and coming into the record with a heavy heart of your own is excruciating—near-torture. But listening to a collection that hurts to hear, that’s how Angel Olsen deserves to be absorbed, with empathy—knowing her pain and resolve and bravery and using it for your own strength. It’s an album that tells the world that we are not alone. It’s like Olsen was reading the language of heartbeats and sighed breaths and watery eyes. Closing number “Windows” asks “Won’t you open a window sometime? What’s so wrong with the light? Wind in your hair, sun in your eyes.” She desperately wants to love and to be loved, that it’s as plain and simple as an open window and the sun shining in, and it confuses and crushes and torments her that her object of desire in the song doesn’t see the world the same way she does. It’s the tragedy of any love that doesn’t work, and Olsen seems so freely willing to give that your heart can’t help but break for her. Her dry, almost rusty singing voice sounds like pain made audible, like this isn’t her first heartbreak, like she’s endured lifetime after lifetime of them. “Windows” is as good as songs get, the kind that leaves you breathless and wanting desperately not to be as alone as Olsen sounds, or to comfort her, or to somehow receive your own comfort. It’s a useful album, full of comfort and advice, and the very true ache that life leaves too often. Olsen shares graciously in her music, and if you are willing, Burn a Fire for No Witness will change your world. Or, actually, it will change how you see your world.—Philip Cosores

10. Courtney Barnett – The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas

When it comes to storytelling, Courtney Barnett is as clever they come. The Australian singer/songwriter garners her share of giggles and smirks with songs that tackle situations from hilariously unsuccessful amateur gardening (aptly titled “Avant Gardener”) to drunken dreams where artists “made their paint using acid wash and lemonade” (in “History Eraser”). For every whimsically stoney lyric on The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, there are equally as many moments of sheer shred-ability from Barnett’s left-handed tail-spins on the guitar that often feel like she’s channeling Kurt Cobain. The album itself is a collection of two older EPs, which despite getting released in Australia as far back as 2011, only saw their official US release gain widespread distribution in 2014, as this 12-track collection on Mom+Pop Records. Barnett’s musings are catchy and endearing. She finds ways to loop guitar solos into poppy verses, yet she avoids extremes. On “Are You Looking After Yourself” she opens with a twangy guitar into her isolated vocals that then lead to a full-on-folk implosion that’s utterly danceable. She repeats the pattern as it intensifies with the existential proclamation of “I don’t need to 9-to-5, telling me that I’m alive!” Lines and song structures like these render Barnett incredibly likable. There’s a confidence in place that make her American debut one of the most flat-out-fun records of the year.—Adrian Spinelli

9. First Aid Kit – Stay Gold

On their major label debut, Swedish sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg have finally grown into their voices. First Aid Kit’s vocal magic has been undeniable since their cover of Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” became internet-famous in 2008. Six years later, the sisters display a confidence that channels both beauty and pain in songs of bold proclamations and frank confessionals. That emotional growth on Stay Gold manifests itself in the entire songwriting process. First Aid Kit’s take the Americana influences so marked on The Lion’s Roar and continue to integrate them musically through simple acoustic guitar strumming over swishing brushstrokes on a snare drum. However, First Aid Kit’s storytelling now focuses inward. The simple rhymes of past hits like “Emmylou” have been replaced with darker and more introverted poetry of personalities in conflict and dreams unfulfilled. The singular beauty of the sisters’ singing is bolstered only by the album’s strong production. Recorded in Omaha, home of producer (and Bright Eyes founding member) Mike Mogis, Stay Gold features lush arrangements created by Nate Walcott and performed by members of the Omaha Symphony Orchestra. These layered sounds, so intricately woven to complement the sisters’ voices, create a completeness that realizes First Aid Kit’s musical maturity.—Hilary Saunders

8. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There

In the last song on her new album, Sharon Van Etten sings, “People say I’m a one-hit wonder, but what happens when I have two?” It’s only a matter of time until we find out. Van Etten’s latest is a masterpiece, an album of extraordinary depth and sophistication that finds the New York singer/songwriter in full command of her considerable talent. Are We There is the first of her four LPs that Van Etten produced herself, and her clarity of vision is breathtaking. Like her previous work, these songs are confessional in tone, but with a new emotional richness, as if she has learned to focus the power of her heart instead of unleashing it in a torrent. Van Etten strikes a masterful balance here between power and subtlety. Gone is the strummy folk-singer guitar sound of her earlier records, and she smooths out the fuller, if sometimes murky, atmospherics of 2012’s Tramp on arrangements that place greater emphasis on keyboards and the Omnichord, a vintage electronic instrument that flavors several songs on Are We There. Are We There doesn’t lack for superlatives, but perhaps the most impressive thing about the album is that it illustrates the scope of Van Etten’s talent. From the quavering piano ballad “I Love You But I’m Lost” to the muscular rhythm pushing “Break Me” to the rawboned swagger in her voice on the Springsteenian album closer “Every Time the Sun Comes Up,” she has never sounded more confident. Van Etten’s fourth album marks the true arrival of a singer who’s been on her way for a long time, and thinking of her as anything less than a career artist is certainly a vast underestimation.—Eric R. Danton

7. Beck – Morning Phase

No one expected Beck to return from a six-year absence from traditional recording with an album that reflected the time of inactivity. In fact, the word is that Beck has a number of albums ready to go. A single Beck album that reflected six years of work would be a monstrosity, that much creative energy too large to foster. As promised by the singer, Morning Phase follows in the footsteps of the classic Sea Change, with Beck embracing heartache and emotional stakes, this time with the light at the end of the tunnel much brighter, much more road-worn. It’s a look that suits him. Morning Phase is a comeback story, that emergence from the water and that first breath taken with the gusto of someone knowing they are truly alive. It is a beautiful record, straddling that line between clean and bare. Somehow there is a catharsis in sad music that allows us to empathize with the sentiments of the musician and get through our own unrelated bullshit. And we seek this out, so much so that one of the most unrelatable human beings alive, Beck—whose actual life we know little about, except that he is a Scientologist and his dad conducts the LA Phil—still causes our hearts to connect to his sadness and make it our own. Morning Phase guides listeners through choppy waters, well-aware that a lifeboat and fresh clothes will be here in no time.—Philip Cosores

6. Sylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso

Mountain Man’s Amelia Meath and Megafaun/Made of Oak’s Nick Sanborn represent a study of contrasts. Together as Sylvan Esso, they create synthy pop songs falling somewhere between Poliça, tUnE-yArDs and Autre Ne Veut. Starting off as part of the Appalachian-inspired trio Mountain Man, Meath brings a strong folk influence to Sylvan Esso. Her melodies are unwavering; she conjures a new one in each song using her soft and soothing voice against Sanborn’s beats and production. And Sanborn, who played bass with Megafaun and recently started experimenting with electronic music and producing under the name Made of Oak, juxtaposes her vocal purity with deep dubstep, jarring counter-rhythms and the kind of buzzing that household electronic devices seem to emit before they explode and sizzle in defeat. Under Sanborn’s direction, her voice becomes malleable—sometimes an echo of itself and other times a wordless source of harmonic veneer. As a result, Sylvan Esso is as cerebral as it is sexy. “H.S.K.T.,” the most uptempo on the record, works equally well in a club as it does through headphones. The opening “Hey Mami” serves as commentary on neighborhood catcalling; each time Meath adds another verse or repeats a chorus, Sanborn layers on another bubbling rumpus beneath her clear soprano. “Could I Be,” with Meath’s delay-pedal addled voice creating triplets against itself, coyly alternates between soft subtlety and bold advances. And so the whole album feels like jigsaw puzzle of disparate genres fitting together in strange and lovely ways. In fact, it’s one of the greatest crossover sleeper success of the year.—Hilary Saunders

5. Alvvays – Alvvays

Among the many things to love about Alvvays’ self-titled debut album is that the songs are so deceptively rich. Beneath the fuzztone guitars and Molly Rankin’s sadsack vocals on what sound at first like straightforward indie-pop tunes beats a droll heart shot through with a subversive streak. Rankin strikes an impressive balance in her lyrics between lovelorn woe and deadpan wit, tackling 20-something romantic angst with a sly wisdom well beyond her (and, frankly, most people’s) years. She and her band of Toronto transplants draw on the wistful, plaintive sound of mid-’80s British indie-pop—jangling guitars, swirls of atmospheric keyboards—and twist it on songs that hint at the tumult lurking just below seemingly placid surfaces: she spins a full-life fantasy about an enigmatic stranger on “Adult Diversion,” adds to the catalog of dead-boyfriend songs on the yearning, darkly comic “Next of Kin” and makes her best case for a long-term, low-key commitment to a reluctant beau on “Archie, Marry Me,” the supremely catchy centerpiece of the album. Much has been made of the fact that Rankin comes from a celebrated Canadian roots-music family, but her genealogy is rather less noteworthy on Alvvays than her deft lyricism and knack for pairing it with memorable melodies.—Eric R. Danton

4. King Tuff – Black Moon Spell

When Kyle Thomas was writing what would eventually become his first record as King Tuff, he crafted a perfectly catchy debut that achieved cult status by record collectors thanks to its limited pressing and sunshine hooks, and serendipitously would lead him to King Tuff, the band, almost a decade later. A high-voiced hippie punk in a studded jacket and sun medallion who likes positive vibes and screaming guitar solos, he has played stoner metal with J Mascis in Witch, and spent time in bands Feathers and Happy Birthday, but finally found his groove here as the madcap leader of this L.A.-based trio with bassist Magic Jake and drummer Old Gary. For this third release, King Tuff describes Black Moon Spell as a “heavily weird, heavenly dark, hysterically magical Rock & Roll Sexperience,” and the 14 songs are tinged with power-pop riffs and sweet harmonies. The band invites us into its goofy world of weird and infectious garage pop, where songs like “Madness,” with its thumping bass line and sludgy guitar, and “Demon From Hell,” full of handclaps and surfy vibes, seem to sum up the playfulness that makes their live shows—jubilant dance parties where no one takes themselves too seriously—so great.—Corinne Cummings

3. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2

Functional hip-hop duos are a rarity these days. It takes work to balance out strong personalities that have a lot to say. It makes you respect what a group like OutKast accomplished, and it explains the appeal of Killer Mike and El-P on last year’s ambitious Run The Jewels debut album. Hip hop hadn’t been this fun in a long time. Their second album, RTJ2, is a fierce release. The opening track, “Jeopardy,” is the ultimate “LISTEN UP!” moment. And if you didn’t get the message on the first track, then it’s surely chiseled into your core on “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry.” It’s one of the rawest and hardest hip-hop beats to come out in years with Mike and El-P trading bars. The bass is so encapsulating, and Mike’s “oh my” peppered into the background makes it a haunting experience. They test each other’s hip-hop fluency often. It’s almost as if they’re competing to see who can rap faster, better and more articulately. But there’s a darker undertone to this record than the first time around; they’re happy, but they’re also pissed. Run The Jewels borrows from a range of hip-hop techniques, but they always deliver. You can feel the effort with every syllable, that this music is coming from their very core. It’s a comprehensive essay on the style and vernacular of hip hop.—Adrian Spinelli

2. St. Vincent – St. Vincent

That Annie Clark’s new album as St. Vincent is self-titled is no aberration, no cop-out in the face of vacant inspiration. Just look at the eponymous collection’s Willo Perron-designed, Memphis Movement-inspired cover. Clark, perched high atop her modernist throne, exudes the sort of confidence and wit reserved only for those who’ve mastered a craft. Otherwise she’d just look ridiculous, tossing off another rococo selfie like so many of the characters Clark brings to life on the album. No, though St. Vincent is the adventurous songwriter’s fourth album, posterity and its fickle memory may find a way to boil it down to Clark’s true ascension point. Because this is the first time we’ve seen and heard her so completely fearless, so completely tapped into her potential and so completely set apart from her peers. And she knows that as well as us. Ask yourself: Is it purely coincidental that Perron played a significant role in the creative direction for Drake and Kanye West? Given his talent, the designer would be in-demand regardless of those affiliations, but I can’t help but find at least a modicum of overlap between hip hop’s reigning elite and indie rock’s most inventive futurist. In press materials for St. Vincent, Clark stated that she wanted the “groove to be paramount,” and she hit her mark. The opener “Rattlesnake,” lifts off with a lone jittery synth, which gives way to a flange-drenched rhythmic stomp and the warble of fleeting auxiliary noise, ending in a blistering cascade of multi-tracked shredding courtesy of Clark, a self-professed “pedal nerd.” The effect, as with most of the album, is somehow both steely and emotionally rich. Throughout St. Vincent, Clark juggles the two approaches masterfully, teasing the brain with virtuoso acrobatics while glaring straight at the heart with the overall power of the thing. I love that there are two ways of listening to St. Vincent: We can compartmentalize, standing in awe of the production and sheer skill on display, studying each flicker and nuance. Or we can sit back and let it work us over as the cohesive and pummeling statement that it is.—Ryan Burleson

1. The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream

I wasn’t sure I needed an album like Lost in the Dream until I heard it. Even then, it took a few listens before I could articulate why it scans the way it does: Wistful but not resigned, invigorated but not wide-awake. As its title suggests, Lost in the Dream often trades in gaseous, impressionistic hues, and a cavalry of affected guitar, synth, lap steel, sax, harmonica and piano tracks gel into luminescent aural sunsets at several points throughout the album. These ambient drifts bookend Adam Granduciel’s tender songs, the lyrics of which also tend to reveal themselves in refracted ways. Indeed, it can be difficult to discern more than a handful of lines in succession—Granduciel’s feathery, mostly reserved delivery sees to this, as well as the tonnage of reverb baked into the mix—but listeners can’t miss the sense of melancholy and anxiety woven into nearly every second of Lost’s hour-plus run-time. “Am I alone here, living in darkness?” he asks on “Eyes to the Wind,” his questioning telling all in a handful of words.

This sense of need derives from a predicament in which I find myself in 2014, when it’s easier to discover, say, an adventurous R&B artist than a new band of trad-rockers with anything interesting to say, musically or otherwise. Rock isn’t dead, of course. But, at least as far as “indie” is concerned, the landscape has shifted so far in the last two decades that it almost seems like an act of rebellion to hit the stage with only two six-strings, a bass and a drum kit. I suspect that’s due as much to technological innovation as to the discomforting fact that rockers may be running out of ways to be interesting, which might partly explain why indie bands in particular seem so infatuated with the past at this juncture. But The War on Drugs give me hope that the genre isn’t completely picked over, that perhaps the answer doesn’t so much lie in re-treading the past as it does in looking outside rock music entirely for inspiration.

Don’t get me wrong: Only a creature from another planet would miss the iconic rock/pop touchstones which inform much of Lost in the Dream. Nods to heartland troubadours Neil Young, Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen abound, as do faithful takes on Britpop and Americana. But it’s to Granduciel’s credit that the touchstones are minor points in a much vaster narrative that also seems to include left-field inspirations like drone music. (Whether this was intentional or not is beside the point.) And there’s no mistaking that the 34-year-old’s own hard-won vision carries more weight in his work than any aging rocker or laptop wiz-kid’s influence could ever hope to. Lost in the Dream pushes rock music forward—it isn’t the mirror of supposed better times that lesser bands make because they can’t or don’t want to locate their own voice.

The first song most of us heard from Lost was “Red Eyes,” a galloping, wide-eyed romper that somehow manages to float even as it surges forward. This is a tactic Granduciel uses often and effectively, letting the drums and acoustic guitars provide a consistent spine so that he can push and pull the watery, tremolo’d leads, sax, synth and other ambient flourishes with a nuanced grace. It’s all very beautiful, enamoring stuff until the songwriter dispenses with the niceties and throttles everything in the mix to near-peaking levels, as he does toward the end of both “Red Eyes” and its companion “Burning,” which Granduciel himself recently (and rightfully) compared to Rod Stewart’s 1981 hit “Young Turks.” “An Ocean in Between the Waves” is Lost’s other stampede, building incessantly for seven minutes to an abrupt and powerful stop.

The rest of Lost proceeds at a slower clip, oscillating between a sort of drip-drip tenderness (“Suffering”), comforting alt-country (“Eyes to the Wind” and “Lost in the Dream”), and, in a singular turn for the album, a kind of vibe-y, delay-heavy hypnosis (“Disappearing”). (There’s also the meditative instrumental “The Haunting Idle,” which seemed unnecessary until I realized how perfectly it sets up the explosion of “Burning.”) Of these modes, I’m most seduced by the mid-section of “Suffering,” which is one of the most romantic pieces of rock music I’ve heard in years. Granduciel and band drift gently between C and F chords before ambling down to A, a reminder of how one subtle, elegant shift is worth a thousand superfluous runs. He asks, “Will you be here, suffering?” less as a passive-aggressive barb than a tired plea for empathy, the music suggesting neither anger nor supplication. Many times Granduciel is more spirited on Lost, but the M.O. of “Suffering” seems to speak volumes about the powerful undercurrent running throughout the collection. He’s known pain in his time, but losing hope doesn’t appear to be an option. He’s “just a burning man, tryin’ to keep the ship from turning over, again.”Ryan Burleson

We’d love to know your favorite album of 2014 in the comments section below.