PMA's Albums of 2014

Featuring sixty of our favorite albums of the last twelve months.
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Featuring sixty of our favorite albums of the last twelve months.
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By now, many of you reading this have probably seen your fair share of year-end "Best Of" lists, so thank you for hanging out with us and giving us a chance to break through the cacophony with our take on music in 2014. Thanks for hanging out and listening to music with us at all. This year, like every year, was a blast. But as any music nerd with ears to the ground would tell you, music doesn't have many connective threads these days. Trends emerge, there's no doubt about that, but it's rare that distinctive moods capture the zeitgeist anymore. For every revelatory, death-obsessed Benji, we had a bizarre and sexy St. Vincent; for every indignant and seething Too Bright, we had a party-starting and life-affirming It's Album Time!; when the emotional and brutal honesty of Plowing Into A Field of Love would begin to overwhelm, we had the glorious hands-in-the-air freedom of 1989 to turn to. There's never been a better time to be an omnivorous music fan.

Still, the consensus is that 2014 wasn't an, ahem, amazing year for music. Brendan Frank briefly touches on this a bit later, and he's absolutely right, but while this year didn't give us a complicated and ambitious album like Yeezus or Channel Orange to point to as the pinnacle of what the year's musical gifts had to offer, it did give us a swath of superb albums, triumphs of genre and experimentation, albums of exquisite, incremental improvements from artists readying their masterpieces, and, of course BEYONCÉ, an album that was equally concerned with the industry and medium it was released in as it was with how it sounded, and yes, looked.

So, no, I don't believe 2014 was a down year for music. This list is essentially sixty reasons why it wasn't. We try not to take these lists too seriously, but always fail. Nevertheless, scaling down our year-long listening habits to a single blog post is a fun and exhaustive exercise. It helps satisfy our very stupid human need to arrange, quantify and reassess some of our favorite things, but it's also strangely permanent, unlike, say, an opinion. Still, against our better judgment, we did it (again). We ranked sixty of our favorite albums onto a list for you and for posterity. No need to thank us. By the time you read this, we'll probably be second-guessing ourselves and wishing we included Hookworms or Jenny Lewis or something. Naturally, you can direct all flack to @pmablog, though ultimately we hope you will find something on this list that you'll enjoy and maybe something that'll stay with you for some time.

The countdown starts below with ScHoolboy Q. We're glad you stayed, see you again next year.

Oh wait, what am I saying? We still have the Songs of the Year list coming next week.


60 ScHoolboy Q, OxyMoron
59 Chromeo, White Women
58 Trust, Joyland
57 Lykke Li, I Never Learn
56 Ariana Grande, My Everything
55 Death From Above 1979, The Physical World
54 Perfect Pussy, Say Yes To Love
53 YG, My Krazy Life
52 Liars, Mess
51 Ratking, So It Goes

50 Sia, 1000 Forms of Fear
49 Ariel Pink, pom pom
48 , No Mythologies to Follow
47 The New Pornographers, Brill Bruisers
46 Shamir, Northtown
45 Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra, Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything
44 Hundred Waters, The Moon Rang Like A Bell
43 Real Estate, Atlas
42 White Lung, Deep Fantasy
41 Röyksopp & Robyn, Do It Again

40 Against Me!, Transgender Dysphoria Blues
39 BADBADNOTGOOD, III
38 Azealia Banks, Broke With Expensive Taste
37 Caribou, Our Love
36 Grouper, Ruins
35 Parquet Courts, Sunbathing Animal
34 How To Dress Well, “What Is This Heart?”
33 Ben Frost, A U R O R A
32 Owen Pallet, In Conflict
31 Strand of Oaks, HEAL
30 Beck, Morning Phase

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29 Neneh Cherry, Blank Project

28 Ought, More Than Any Other Day

27 Ty Segall, Manipulator

26 The Antlers, Familiars

25 Mr Twin Sister, Mr Twin Sister

24 tUnE-yArDs, nikki nack

23 Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire For No Witness

22 Cloud Nothings, Here and Nowhere

21 Future Islands, Singles

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...and onto the Top 20 →

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20 Wild Beasts
Present Tense
Tom Fleming’s rich baritones duel with Hayden Thorpe’s higher register creating a beautiful misbalance their album strives to highlight; that although we feel rage in one point or another, throughout life we find some twisted, distorted view of hope.

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In a constant battle, a dystopian stronghold on life, spattering “don’t confuse me with someone who gives a fuck,” the four membered Wild Beasts discover that they “may be savage and raw but at the core [they’ve] higher needs.”

Reveling in the band’s idiosyncrasies, Thorpe’s soft falsetto, layered over veering bass lines and wavering synths, leaves one to wonder how Wild Beasts’ Present Tense, cloaked in despair, actually ends in self-actualization and, dare I say, peace. As the album progresses we feel less tense and our fragmented emotions begin to find the light. It straddles the silver lining of a dehumanized society by focusing on the reality that sometimes, just maybe, it’s okay to actually feel.

Present Tense highlights what Wild Beasts do best: illustrating a diverse, yet realistic, universe, polarizing chaotic melodies, transforming words that shouldn’t fit into a work of creative joy. But it’s what the album doesn’t do that makes for an emotionally moving piece: apologize. Unapologetically, every sonic, every vocal, every moment of unity and despair is carefully constructed and articulated into a cohesive work, easily making Present Tense the band’s best album yet. — Christian Ikner

19 Iceage
Plowing Into A Field of Love
Lord knows what the early rehearsals sounded like (my guess: LOUD), but Iceage emerged into the global pop consciousness fully-formed and on fire. From the get-go, they synthesized gothy post-punk and militant post-hardcore into something so thoroughly scorched and brutal it sounded closer in spirit (if not technique) to black metal. Some of the members were teenagers, but they didn’t need to grow up: I’m pretty sure the world would have accepted record after record of the stuff, so sophisticated, visceral, and singular was it.

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Yet grow up they did, by which I mean not that Iceage “matured” (they already sounded like they’d seen a lifetime’s worth of bullshit and pain) but that they grew dissatisfied with that easy ratio, punk rock:rebellion. We heard it on last year’s stunning “Morals,” and we hear it throughout third full-length Plowing Into The Field Of Love: an exploration of new sonic possibilities coupled with even stricter political and emotional standards. The new songs still sound unmistakably like Iceage, but they’ve opened up. The strings, horns, keys, and dusty Americana (Gun Club, Bad Seeds, Ennio Morricone) heard throughout Plowing Into The Field Of Love aren’t window-dressing, they’re woven into the very core of the band’s sound. It’s a huge risk for a band qwith such a defined aesthetic sensibility, a risk that (of course) Iceage pull off like the precocious pros they are. They’re talented and exciting: I haven’t the faintest idea what we’ll hear next from Iceage, and I have no problem with that. I trust them completely. — Samuel Tolzmann


18 Shabazz Palaces
Lese Majesty
Unlike most hip-hop outings in its peer group, Lese Majesty doesn’t waste time with introductory niceties. No emcee announcing the arrival of Shabazz Palaces onto an unidentified planet. No overblown orchestral prelude. No air horn. No explosion. Nothing of the sort.

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Instead, we get “Dawn In Luxor,” a swift, meaty, guttural reminder of the focus and precision that Shabazz Palaces inject in to everything they do. These guys almost always require a learning curve, but they also just so happen not to care about anyone who might hear their music and stare confusingly at the speaker box. From their point of view, it’s nothing more than the Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire Show in there, and Lese Majesty is just one more delightfully fucked up world they have created for themselves. This is the appeal—the off-kilter, unnerving, always surprising appeal—of Shabazz Palaces. An explanation would be nice, but their unwillingness to give one up makes them that much more interesting.

Lese Majesty, from top to bottom, is a ferocious deep dive into unkempt rhythmic matriculation, unorthodox melodic structure and Butler’s inimitable lyrical timbre. There’s nothing quite like it, and when you pair it with Maraire’s straight-from-space production, tracks like “Luxor,” “Forerunner Foray,” “They Come In Gold,” and “#CAKE,” become non-negotiable additions to the soundtrack of hip-hop’s new era. — Austin Reed

17 Taylor Swift
1989
The first track on Swift’s 2006 debut was entitled “Tim McGraw.” In 2014, Swift opens her magnum opus with “Welcome to New York,” the oppositional force that suits Taylor so incredibly better than her America’s Sweetheart persona. Over the course of five albums, caterpillar Taylor—that twang-loving, frizzy-haired, cowboy-hat-donning teen that posed on top of car hoods—has blossomed into one of pop’s most dynamic forces.

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Granted, we must give credit where credit is due and first praise the dynamic duo of Max Martin and Shellback, who clearly saved the tricks up their sleeve for this album. It is a feat in it of itself for a mainstream album to not be hit-oriented (i.e. not contain 5-8 filler tracks). Not only does 1989 lack filler, it assures you that every thirty seconds, some glistening hook will deny your pressing pause. The first nine tracks (yes, as in more than 2/3 of the whole album) comprise the particular powerhouse, a seamless quilt of various Taylors, belting over dance-pop that rivals the catchiness of Robyn and Gaga.

From her tricks of insanity on “Blank Space” to her sassy acceptance on “All You Had To Do Was Stay” and her unwavering termination of friendship on “Bad Blood,” Taylor masters her own relationships with a newfound confidence that reinforces her sophistication tenfold. Like sister-feminist Beyoncé, Taylor is bored with whining over losers, and rather takes the opportunity to tell them “Fuck you” once and for all. Robust and pristine, 1989 reminds us that diamonds in the rough persist on the Billboard Charts. — Matthew Malone


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16 Freddie Gibbs / Madlib
Piñata
Promised new albums from Our Saints Kanye and Kendrick remain on the horizon, but disappointed expectations aside, 2014 was a great year for rap. But in between obvious blockbusting highlights like avant visionaries Shabazz Palaces, merciless bulldozer act Run The Jewels, and DJ Mustard’s go-to vox-vehicle YG, there was Piñata, a collaborative work by legendary producer Madlib and the increasingly reliable Freddie Gibbs. “Reliable” can sometimes sound like a backhanded compliment (see: Real Estate, Atlas) but that’s not how I mean it here. Piñata is less showy than some of the year’s other highlights, because it doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel – instead, it’s a knockout exercise in the conventional forms of gangsta rap.

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Madlib continues to do the thing that made him famous, bending jazz, R&B, funk, prog, and a whole range of beat inflections from the last three decades or so into woozy contraptions that scan as chilled-out ‘90s throwback material but prove, upon closer inspection, to actually be weird as hell. The production’s easy on the ears but labyrinthine – the sort of work only a gifted vocalist could navigate. That’s Gibbs, though, an exceptionally bright student of 2Pac and other gangsta icons from both coasts (Gibbs is, after all, a Midwesterner) who combines masterfully controlled cadence, raw charisma, and content into a playful, mesmerizing flow. Neither artist draws much attention to himself, but together they put an adage into action: If it ain’t broke, why fix it? — Samuel Tolzmann

15 Todd Terje
It’s Album Time
After spending the 2000s as a Norwegian king of disco who pumped out remixes for acts of similar neo-throwback aesthetics and put out a few well-received singles in 2012 and 2013, the combination of Terje’s talent and the lack of a full-length recording from him have led to the truth that is the title of his debut LP. The loftiest echelons of It’s Album Time were previously released on the 2012 EP It’s The Arps: “Inspector Norse” demands head-bobbing incessant to the point where your melon might detach from overexerted neck muscles, and both parts of “Swing Star” evoke a similar sensation, albeit in more anticipatory way, like unceasingly whining “Moooom, are we theeeere yeeet?” on the way to the water park.

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That’s not to say the new songs on the block are inferior to their predecessors, since that’s not true. It’s not about which tracks are strongest — although “Delorean Dynamite” and “Preben Goes to Acapulco” could present a strong case — but about how well all 12 tracks work as a unit. It’s Album Time is a forceful effort, from the Jock-Jams-meets-Phoenix build-up of “Intro (It's Album Time)” to the concluding applause of the aforementioned “Inspector Norse.”

Like Lord Farquaad in Shrek, perhaps Terje realized it wasn’t right to be called king without an absent prerequisite, but unlike the diminutive poser, Terje succeeded in getting his Princess Fiona: a killer debut LP that legitimizes his kingdom. — Derrick Rossignol


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14 Mac DeMarco
Salad Days
From practically the first second, it’s clear that Mac DeMarco was determined to gear Salad Days as a deeply personal record that is also reasonably relatable. And for the most part, that determination pays off. Higher-level themes include exhaustion from constant touring, reticence in the face of the press and a general contempt for the prospect of never getting back the days that have come and gone. Mac, in short, has grown up, and Salad Days asserts that growing up, no matter the circumstance, kind of sucks.

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Growth is a good look for DeMarco, though, and it sounds even better. “Blue Boy,” illustrates how pointless certain arguments tend to be in hindsight. “Let Her Go,” posits honesty as the key ingredient in successful relationships. And “Chamber of Reflection,” the album’s most pivotal and graceful number, is exactly that: A beautiful melodic moment in Mac’s universe where he willingly dives headlong into the enveloping chill of loneliness and just sits for a minute. It’s appalling and admirable—a track that arrests your comfort zone because of how true-to-form it feels. It’s hard not to appreciate this kind of realism.

In short, the subject matter on Salad Days is surprisingly deep given DeMarco’s somewhat surface-level background. But again: This is a new Mac DeMarco we’re dealing with—one who uses his own past as a lesson plan for his own future. Not bad for a guy who used to shove drumsticks up his ass. — Austin Reed

13 Spoon
They Want My Soul
The term “elder statesmen” usually connotes some degree of growing irrelevance or fading vigor, but evidently no one told the members of Spoon – the Austin-bred quintet’s eighth (!) album, They Want My Soul, swaggers, crunches, and jangles as hard as anything they released during the heyday of The O.C.

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The band’s experimental streak from its last few releases is a persistent presence, as evidenced by the shimmering atmospherics and vocal distortions of “Outlier” and “Inside Out.” However welcome these detours, They Want My Soul is still at its best when the members of Spoon bang away at their instruments like a group of Liverpool youths transplanted into a dusty Texas garage. The fuzzed-out guitars on opener “Rent I Pay” and the title track, the urgently racing drum rhythm on “Rainy Taxi,” the boozy barroom piano on a surprise cover of Ann-Margaret’s “I Just Don’t Understand” – this is fun, youthful rock and roll presided over indie rock’s most casually paranoid and perpetually nasal frontman. Just try to resist “Do You,” a pitch-perfect summer song, complete with breezy falsetto and off-kilter guitar strumming practically dripping from the humidity.

For an album so lyrically preoccupied with the retention of one’s soul, Britt Daniel should hardly be worried. The ten tight tracks of They Want My Soul demonstrate that the band's soul is very much intact – all twenty-one grams burst forth from the spaces between joyous instrumental cacophony and Daniel’s impassioned rasping and howling. For all radio rock bands and indie upstarts, this is how it’s done. — Zach Bernstein


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12 Flying Lotus
You’re Dead!
Some have called You’re Dead! one of the year’s best hip-hop albums, while others have cited it as an eclectic electronic triumph, and others still a refreshing experiment in rhythmically adventurous jazz. All of these labels apply, and that’s both an outstanding achievement and an expectation for Flying Lotus. Known also for contributing much of the music that plays during Adult Swim’s smart-ass bumpers, FlyLo’s latest is a kindred spirit to the network’s programming. Like Mike Tyson Mysteries, which is essentially modernized Scooby Doo with gentle, post-scary Tyson, it’s new but strongly rooted in the past. Like The Eric André Show, it’s apparent chaos controlled by a mastermind who, despite how it seems, knows what he’s doing. Like Metalocalypse, it’s a tribute to the genre that spawned it while realizing you don’t have to be so serious in paying homage to forefathers.

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The strength of the record masks this fact, but there are few fully formed songs here. This doesn’t hold anything back, unless it’s the barred door that once imprisoned the caged bird, now free to soar and sing as it may please. Aside from the chill-but-frenetic, Kendrick Lamar-featuring single “Never Catch Me,” most tracks are more transitional, but not in the traditional sense, not as found in a traditional album, because instead of leading into or out of a more conventional composition, they ebb into each other. This might be jarring on first listen, but Flying Lotus has never strived for accessibility. Or, if that’s what he’s actually been aiming for, he’s inadvertently fared much better at presenting challenges. It might take a couple spins to get, but once you got it, You’re Dead! is infinitely fulfilling and delightfully subversive. — Derrick Rossignol

11 Sharon Van Etten
Are We There
I don’t think any other artist this year gave themselves over to their music as exhaustively, or channeled their inner monologue as fluently as Sharon Van Etten. Though her fourth album explores what it means to lose, it’s an acknowledgement that what you find along the way is just as important. Are We There isn’t a question; it’s a proclamation, a triumph of self-expression, and a vital line of communication into the mind of one of the most talented singer-songerwriters of her era. If 2012’s Tramp was the five-finger exercise, this is the full opus, the sound of an artist with tremendous promise pulling it all together. Van Etten opens herself up like she would to an old, old friend. Even when the music is heavy enough to capsize a cruise liner, it’s liberating, poetic and deeply involving.

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The songs of Are We There are far-reaching, capable of uplifting and devastating in equal measure. “Your Love Is Killing Me” manages to both better than any, and remains as ineffable as it was back in April. For all of its exterior beauty, “Tarifa” is the net equivalent of someone screaming inside of their own head. “Every Time The Sun Comes Up” is the lone shaft of sunlight, a well-earned moment of lightheartedness of the other side of the turmoil. It appeals to the compassion in us all, exploring a place we’ve all been to with uncommon eloquence. If, as Van Etten has suggested, Are We There ends up being her last solo work, she’s going out at her absolute best. — Brendan Frank


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10 Lana Del Rey
Ultraviolence
In retrospect, it is strange that we accepted Born To Die with such open arms back in 2012. Lana Del Rey’s follow-up to the sudden success of “Video Games,” was more generic than revolutionary, built on waves of hype that far exaggerated reality. Ultraviolence only hammers that point home. Gone is the coquettish coo, the limp canned strings, the forced flower-child imagery. While the Tumblr kids may have lamented the loss of Born To Die-era Lana, the rest of the world became acquainted with the next step of her evolving aesthetic.

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For Ultraviolence, Del Rey ventured into the “freedom land of the 70s,” adopting a new sonic palette courtesy of Dan Auerbach. It was an unlikely pairing, but the finished product, where licks of electric guitar mingle with real, forceful percussion, speaks for itself. Ultraviolence has the cohesion and finesse that its predecessor lacked, and because of that, it finally gives Del Rey a platform to project the Americana indie queen image she has attempted to encapsulate. However, behind the melodic shift, Del Rey changed very little. The songwriting certainly became tighter, but the subjects remain very much the same: men, drugs, opulence. Yet, instead of coming off as ungainly, Del Rey blends into her new surroundings with aplomb. Psychedelic rock suits her just fine.

Ultraviolence again depicts Del Rey as a glamorized, narcotized, scandalous, and elegant ideal of America. This time around though, that assertion has teeth. She is part-fiction, part-reality, and part-dream: a corrupted take on the American Dream. It is a portrayal bound to stir up some controversy, but mostly, it serves as a testament that Del Rey is no fluke. Love her or hate her, Del Rey is finally in her element, making her a force to reckon with. And contrary to one of the tracks on Ultraviolence, she didn’t even have to fuck her way up to the top to get where she is now. — Jean-Luc Marsh

09 Aphex Twin
SYRO
After several not-so-subtle indications that Aphex Twin would be releasing a new album this year (cue giant green blimp with the Aphex Twin logo floating over London), we were finally treated with the widely-welcomed SYRO last September, his first album under the Aphex Twin moniker since 2001. It wouldn’t be quite fair to call SYRO the most listener-friendly album in the world, with its bleepy blends of warped robo-noises and dizzying track names (um…“4 bit 9d api+e+6,” for example), but relatively, it’s really accessible, as far as Aphex Twin albums go.

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There’s something comfortable about SYRO—something decidedly familiar. Of course, part of this familiarity stems from the fact that we actually have heard some of it before. “minipops 67 [120.2](source field mix),” “XMAS_EVET10 [120] (thenaton3 mix),” and “Aisatsana” have been available for listening on Youtube for years now after having been recorded during live performances. In a way, SYRO is more of a reminder than a revelation.

SYRO features plenty of fresh tracks as well, but there’s nothing too shocking or challenging on this album; rather, James has created something more solid and even, at times, laid-back. Even the more aggressive tracks like “180db_ [130]” are reassuring in their repetition, soothing in their precision.

As mechanical as SYRO is, there’s a personal quality to this album. “Syro,” a sleek, vaguely futuristic name, is actually a made-up word created by of one of James’ sons (it’s short for “syrobonkus,” of course). The final track, “Aisatsana” — a haunting piano piece with birds chirping softly in the background—is careful, fragile, human (“Aisatsana” is the name of James’ wife spelled backward). While most of SYRO keeps a feverish pace, it’s careful to never leave the listener behind, and finally at the end, allows us forget about the BPM for a second and just breathe. — Katie Steen


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08 Swans
To Be Kind
To say that 60-year-old Michael Gira is making albums again wouldn’t be entirely accurate. Michael Gira is writing operas, colossal, deeply challenging operas that force you to confront edges of the sonic spectrum that you are likely uncomfortable with. He steals the oxygen, and then the heat, and then the light. Swans are outliers, that much is certain. But it’s really quite difficult to describe the extent to which Swans are outliers. Few albums we heard this year approached even half of the length of To Be Kind, and even fewer came close to approaching its scope, ambition, or dynamic range. Gira asks a lot of his listeners, but he rewards them as well. Both a logical extension of and a distinctive development on The Seer, the craftsmanship here is as unique as it is meticulous. The word ‘drone’ feels almost pejorative in context.

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It’s not often that you hear a band feeding off of its own influence, but since coming out of hibernation, Swans have expanded on their original vision with aplomb, creating works that are essentially genreless while retaining Gira’s gaunt musical essence. To Be Kind is a wizened, hardened record from a man who learned the ropes, walked away, and returned with a blazing sense of purpose. Where many other albums on this list are beautiful in the classic sense of the word, To Be Kind is sublime, in the philosophical sense of the word. Swans are indeed freaks of nature: the unstoppable force, and the immovable object. In a musical landscape where it seems like nothing would ever want to grow, Gira has proven once again how fertile the earth really is. — Brendan Frank

07 Perfume Genius
Too Bright
When “Queen” first hit my eardrums midsummer with its propulsive guitar riffs and choral flourishes, it contradicted everything I thought I knew about Mike Hadreas. Its acute, calculated message bucked the image I had previously held of the mind behind Perfume Genius: a maudlin man behind a piano. To be fair, Hadreas was never a milquetoast; his method of address just had never been so damn direct. On Put Your Back N 2 It and Learning, he wove devastating realizations and confessions into pared-down ballads over moody ivories, twisting tales with a turn of phrase, but on “Queen,” Hadreas was coming out, exposing himself like never before.

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The album that followed, Too Bright, is the defiant “fuck you” he was storing up for all these years. Even the album artwork, featuring Hadreas throwing some vicious side-eye in a studded flesh-colored vest, screams—forgive the cliché—fierceness. Hadreas is on a warpath here, with a message to spread and prisoners to take. “I don’t need your love / I don’t need you to understand / I need you to listen,” he cries on album closer, “All Along.” It is a mandate that Hadreas enforces, arresting the listener with the constant alternation between eerie and seething. At times, his anger spouts into tight, soaring melodies (“Queen” and “Grid”), where fury melds with aggression to spectacular effect. Elsewhere, Hadreas’ penchant for quiet devastation returns on uncluttered ballads (“Don’t Let Them In” and “Too Bright”) that place his lyrics front and center, riding on an undercurrent of boiling rage. The end result is that Too Bright becomes a sort of odyssey into the mind of a man with a point to prove, a place where the screams of a banshee and the cavernous space of rumination coexist with little conflict.

Aside from spawning the best lyric of the year, in the form of “No family is safe when I sashay” (Ru Paul is surely beating himself up for not having come up with it), Too Bright gave rise to a new perspective and voice the world was in desperate need of. Now, we know our queen. — Jean-Luc Marsh


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06 FKA twigs
LP1
With each release, twigs grew. She started out by aching, chanting her woes into a field of glitchy echoes. On the Arca-produced EP2, twigs became FKA, but lost no momentum with four killer tracks that converged her definitions of pain and pleasure. The songs became creatures that could breathe, linger, and fester inside any listener. And then came the album.

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What best defined LP1 was Tahliah Barnett’s tendency to utilize few elements (paper-thin coos and robust beats, namely) to create such vigorous songs. But twigs’ minimalism ought never be mistaken for simplicity. Sonically mercurial and lyrically opaque, LP1 will take ages to unravel, and can never become truly candid. Turgid with lines like “I love another and thus I hate myself” (granted, taken from a Renaissance poet), the album invokes myriad interpretations. Is twigs unfaithful? Suicidal? Insane? In some sense, LP1 responds yes, but all while shaping the most distinctly human identity in contemporary pop.

LP1 cracks and moans with ingenuity, as Barnett decomposes into her crudest elements: lust and sorrow. She remains amorphous in the most natural sense, actively combatting superficiality. She’s simultaneously “your sweet little love maker” and “master of all of your needs”, but never a victim. LP1 is thus socially crucial; no matter how frequently others belittle her, twigs never succumbs to gender-oriented submission. When someone won’t reciprocate her love on “Two Weeks”, she instantaneously conquers him, demanding, “Motherfucker, get your mouth open, you know you’re mine”.

Combining the songwriting of a precocious poet with the production of a Top-40s album, LP1 is an excellent—even flawless—depiction of desire that appears so extraterrestrial, but is, at its core, so human. — Matthew Malone

05 Run The Jewels
Run The Jewels 2
Kim Kardashian’s plump, bare and oiled backside as it (in)famously appeared on the cover of Paper may or may not have broken the Internet in November, but the previous month, the duo of El-P and Killer Mike definitely fractured the tarmac of the information superhighway before, during and after the release of their second album together. A ganja-inspired slew of absurd, not likely to be honored preorder options lead to the creation of Meow The Jewels, a reimagining of the pair’s sophomore album made entirely with cat noises in collaboration with notable producers like Just Blaze, Dan The Automator and others, which was funded via a fan-made Kickstarter campaign and is likely to be released in 2015.

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This buzz erupted into a full-blown billion-bee attack when, at 2:31 a.m. on October 24, El-P unexpectedly tweeted that the album “DROPS NOW!!!!,” and boy did that hit land. Prior to its early release, we had heard “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry,” an abrasive thesis statement that features slams like, “You can all run naked backwards through a field of dicks.” Although Death Grips has received the lion’s share of credit for the minimalistic, bass-heavy production methodology seen on albums like Kanye’s Yeezus and this one, evidence of El-P’s adoption of the “new” style can be found as far back as on his 2002 debut album.

Like its predecessor, Run The Jewels 2 goes light on the guest spots, but utilizes their friends’ strengths as effectively as possible, most notably with Zach da la Rocha’s chopped up, beat-carrying vocals on “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck),” and Gangsta Boo, whose verse on “Love Again (Akinyele Back)” cunnilinguistically subverts the previous verses about female-performed oral sex. Now that the contender for 2014 hip-hop supremacy has been released, the best piece of recent Run The Jewels news is that a third album has already been confirmed. While Kim K works on her ass, RTJ works their asses off, and in both cases, everybody is better off for the effort. — Derrick Rossignol


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04 Sun Kil Moon
Benji
Although some of you may disagree, I don’t think I’m going out on much of a limb when I say that no album in 2014 stood head and shoulders above everything else. No release had that definitive "AOTY" feel. Notwithstanding the bottomless wellspring of disappointment that was waiting for Kanye, Kendrick or Frank to step up, 2014 lacked an MVP, a game changer, a career-maker, a consensus no. 1. The album that tops the aggregator’s lists will probably end up being a superb, polite effort that offended sweet no one.

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Which is precisely why it won’t be Benji. Easy listening it is not. But, before Mark Kozelek single-handedly shifted the conversation by starting his bizarre war on War, it was almost inarguable that he had just made the finest record of his 25-year career. Emotionally, Benji was the loudest album of 2014, sifting through a vast collection of memories, arranging them into a staggeringly powerful and stunningly honest narrative. With little more than his nylon strings and a dour backing band, Kozelek’s intensely autobiographical effort twiddled with transcendence. Tracing its author’s life all the way from childhood to August 3rd, 2013, Benji confronted death head on, its characters living and breathing (and then not), seemingly as deep and physical as people you know in real life. Kozelek’s portrayed his friends and family for everything that they are, and in doing so said more about himself than you’d ever think possible. A self-portrait by proxy, if you will. You can find the best and worst in all of us on Benji, but you’ll find nothing but the best of Mark Kozelek. — Brendan Frank

03 St. Vincent
St. Vincent
It was almost a year ago to the day that “Birth in Reverse” landed in our inboxes. A tightly wrapped package of short, sharp bursts, the lead single from St. Vincent tickled our pop dendrites while leaving us wholly unprepared for what was to come. Carefully scrubbing out the line between beauty and ugliness – and calling into question what those terms really mean to begin with – St. Vincent was a culmination and augmentation of everything Annie Clark had previously put her stamp on. The stylistic tunnel vision of Love This Giant had caved in, the rubble blown outwards, pulling funk, pop classicism, new wave, and Clark’s singular guitar aerobics into its strange, sexy universe. It was everything you wanted and everything you never knew you wanted from a St. Vincent record.

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Setting aside the bizarre stories of nude encounters with wildlife and unsettling observations on urban malaise – incisive and entertaining though they are – Clark has an uncanny ability to maintain the impression of precision. Even when she is taking an axe to the messy morality that lies at the heart of her music, there is poise in every note. It’s what makes tracks like “Rattlesnake” or “Psychopath” sound both gleefully unhinged and obsessively streamlined. Like David Byrne, Clark is fascinated with texture, and the granularity of her work here is astonishing. This album would make our list on style points alone. But beyond sounding like a million bucks, the songs on St. Vincent have beating hearts. They bristle and breathe and grow, entirely different creatures by the time they’re reached their endpoint. They're dense, but not overwhelmingly so, and it belies the level of detail that's packed into them. With the likes of Clark in the fold, we doubt guitar music will run out of places to go. — Brendan Frank


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02 War on Drugs
Lost in the Dream
When Kurt Vile left The War on Drugs, the band he co-founded with Adam Granduciel in 2005, both parties lost great assets, but what’s most interesting about the split is how Vile and his former band have each been better off ever since it happened. As Vile has gone on to prove with his fruitful solo career, he’s a productive songsmith who has busted out five albums since 2008 and had the gall to open his most recent, 2013’s Wakin On A Pretty Daze, with a 9-and-a-half minute song whose enchanting lazy afternoon haziness rendered the decision to lead the record with it inaudacious.

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It’s tough and inaccurate to say The War on Drugs was oppressed with Vile around, as they were a pleasingly functioning unit with him as part of the gang, but they’ve certainly broken through some sort of barrier following his departure. Describing the sound of Lost in the Dream as throwback is not unfair, but the stigma of soulless hacks trying too earnestly to emulate their musical forefathers is not applicable here. Rather, aside from the obvious but not derivative footing in the best of Tom Petty and similar peers, the connection can instead be made through the level of understanding of what made classic rock great that The War on Drugs has found its way onto. The methods of mixing instrumentation traditional but immortal, vocals idiosyncratic but accessible, and songcraft familiar but exciting was known both to yesteryear’s troubadours and to Granduciel.

The difference is that Lost in the Dream could not have been made in 1978 because while drawing from a time when vinyl was the primary option instead of the niche one, it is unmistakably of its own era. Granduciel’s vocals on 9-minute opener “Under The Pressure” are Dylanesque with greater melody and “An Ocean Between The Waves” could almost be a Springsteen arena anthem, but in all, Lost in the Dream is less your father telling you about nobody will ever measure up the The Boss and more you realizing that of course “Dancing In The Dark” still holds up. — Derrick Rossignol


01 Beyoncé
BEYONCÉ

Though it was unleashed late on a cold December night almost a year ago, BEYONCÉ is the no-brainer choice for 2014’s top album. It has cast such a long shadow over the current (somewhat lackluster) year of music, as an example of creative and logistical audacity, that it’s birthed a concept now common in our cultural lexicon.

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Here, for example, is a typical exchange, often found within chat windows and over social media over the previous twelve months:

Person A: [A prominent artist or group] is reportedly in the studio
Person B: Yeah, I heard. You think [she/he/they] will pull a Beyoncé?
Person A: Sure. It’s possible
Person B: Yeah….
Persons A and B (in unison): Goddamn I fucking hope so!!!!!!1!!!1
Persons A and B (in unison): LOL
Person B: Jinx! Buy me the Platinum Edition of BEYONCÉ
Person A: Why, dummy? It’s streaming for free
Person B:

Or something like that. You get the idea.

Of course, Radiohead pioneered THE BIG SURPRISE back in 2007. But In Rainbows’ legacy remains with its pay-what-you-want distribution model, rather than the suddenness of its announcement and release (a mere ten-day wait). When a photo of an unknown white LP appeared on Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich’s Instagram feeds in September, my first thought was whether Radiohead would mimic Beyoncé and drop a new album out of nowhere. Mrs. Carter has already erased our memories. She has rewritten recent history.

BEYONCÉ lands atop our list not only for the grand coup that brought fourteen new songs, and seventeen music videos, into the world without prior notice. It would’ve been an empty stunt had the material been anything less than superlative. U2’s Songs of Innocence has already become a cautionary tale for how this kind of release can backfire into a spectacular debacle.

What makes BEYONCÉ so special is its continuation of an older tradition: album-oriented pop. For this we can thank Madonna, whose Like a Prayer aimed for and reached artistic greatness, a union of spirit and message, instead of being another collection of hit singles mixed with second-tier filler. BEYONCÉ isn’t a pop record to just dip into or tear apart for playlists. Though it contains my favorite song of the year (“XO”), I’ve listened to this album in the triple digits in the best possible way — almost always from beginning to end. When accepting a career-spanning award at the VMAs earlier this year, Beyoncé eschewed a parade of older favorites and rightly chose to condense her newest songs into a singular, and remarkable, performance. Knowles, always canny, knows she’s currently at her prime, even if she hasn’t conquered Billboard’s Hot 100 since “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It),” more than half a decade ago.

On her self-titled masterwork, Beyoncé synthesizes Madonna’s trajectory through the 1990s (thanks again, Madge!). BEYONCÉ is an album obsessed with disparate joys, both carnal (see Erotica) and maternal (see Ray of Light). But most of all it is an album that celebrates a stage of life mostly ignored on the pop charts — the period of time when the wheeling isn’t so free but has not yet come to a halt. Beyoncé sings about marriage (and parenthood) as a stage of adulthood but also a partnership in (figurative) crime. The party isn’t yet over (“Drunk in Love,” “Partition”) but the diapers still have to be changed (“Blue”). And in the end, the lights go out for us all (“XO”). BEYONCÉ is a call to seize the day, relish what we have, and fuck like bunnies all the while. It’s a downright wholesome sentiment. But what else would you expect from America’s Sweetheart?  — Peter Tabakis