Best Music of 2014

Top 50 Albums of 2014

on December 12, 2014, 12:00am
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humming15. Lykke Li – I Never Learn

I Never Learn may or may not be on par with, say, Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks — let’s not get carried away, though Lykke Li’s first breakup album and third overall is pretty undeniable. Though just nine songs in 32 minutes, it swoops you as convincingly as, say, Beck’s Morning Phase, thanks in part to the studio guidance of Greg Kurstin (T-Swift, Lana Del Rey, Sia) and Bjorn Yttling of Peter Bjorn and John. While the album maintains an unmistakable breakup album feel, there’s still variety: see the contrast of the piano plinks and towering drums of lead single “No Rest for the Wicked” (with its hurricane-force lines “I let my good one down/ I let my true love die”); the even more cathartic pop of “Gunshot”, possibly too abrasive in its imagery to be a true hit; the skeletal acoustic strums and intentionally shaky singing of “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone”; and the glorious choir of “Heart of Steel”, the album’s shiniest moment. Thanks to I Never Learn, Lykke Li is now spearheading a movement of women not so much devastated by their man as they are strengthened in an initially brutal way. –Michael Madden 

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Danny Brown Old14. Strand of Oaks – HEAL

Confession: Prior to this year, I hardly knew anything about Strand of Oaks. I’d heard Timothy Showalter’s name mentioned by fellow critics and thought the medieval plague doctor on the front of Pope Killdragon was pretty cool, but that was about it. I had no idea what the music itself sounded like. So, when I saw Showalter’s ponderous, heavily bearded visage on the front of HEAL, I took it for a metal record, probably a relatively non-threatening one given the absence of skulls, sickles, and star-beasts. While HEAL is heavy, it’s definitely not metal.

And that’s the point. It’s an album concerned with nothing except honesty, a safe haven where a former schoolteacher can grow out his beard, get tattoos, cry over the death of Jason Molina, sing Smashing Pumpkins songs in the mirror, and talk about infidelity (and, more importantly, true love) in unflinching detail, regardless of how lame or contradictory any of those things may be to some folks. Because, in Showalter’s world, there are no contradictions. There are no genres. You just are who you are. So much fuss has been made over the album’s backstory — the self-loathing, the marital darkness, the redemption — but at the end of the day, HEAL has a much simpler message that shines through all of its shadows, one that makes it the most life-affirming album of 2014: Be yourself. —Dan Caffrey

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nick cave bad seeds push the sky away13. Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence

It’s genuinely satisfying when musicians not only meet expectations on the album following their break into fame but exceed them. It’s a difficult feat that only the most self-aware artists can achieve, and that’s why it was pulled off with ease by Lana Del Rey. Kissed by the vintage production touch of The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, Ultraviolence languidly drifts from the pop inklings of Born to Die to a darker, more sedated place.

It’s easy to mistake Ultraviolence as an ode to the past when Del Rey references ’60s icons and styles while lamenting her broken relationships, but Ultraviolence is one of the most millennial efforts of the year. By adapting music styles of old while identifying with the new generation, she captures the conflicting essence of millennials: tired of being patronized by older generations but obsessed with the vintage because age seems to warrant authenticity. To those who don’t understand her sentiment towards the newer generation: “If you don’t get it, then forget it/ So I don’t have to fucking explain it.” —Danielle Janota

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JuliaHolter_LoudCitySong12. Owen Pallett – In Conflict

This was an apex year for Owen Pallett. Arcade Fire’s most reliable five-tool collaborator received an Academy Award nomination for the Her soundtrack. He also bared hidden turmoils across In Conflict. The album entertains apathy but still gets excited about venturing into parts unknown. “Song for Five & Six” and “Soldier’s Rock” reinforce the notion that it’s time to pick up the pieces and move on. But move on where? And to what end?

Tracks like “The Sky Behind the Flag” also offer up Pallett’s bittersweet composition with a bunting of tones that unfurl into a vast aural tapestry. The music is ripe with all manner of blips, blorps, and impassioned introspection. The latter half of In Conflict then races toward an anxious albeit encouraging end, with high intensity cuts like “The Riverbed” and “Infernal Fantasy” upping both the tempo and the stakes.

The biggest highlight is Pallett’s enchanted vocals, which pair incredibly well with his meditations. They’re like a siren song of contrition warning others to avoid the emotional rocks and hazards that scuttled a life once sweet. In 2003, The Postal Service hurried down a similar route with Give Up. Now, in 2014, these poignant barbs arrive with more complexity, like forlorn packages dropped off by a guided quadrocopter. –Dan Pfleegor

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HAIM Days Are Gone11. Sun Kil Moon – Benji

Sun Kil Moon’s sixth album (not counting the records Mark Kozelek has released under his own name and as Red House Painters) received a remarkable amount of attention for something so seemingly simple: a middle-aged man playing spare songs on guitar that tell highly detailed personal accounts of tragedy, all deeply embedded with the fear of mortality. Okay, maybe it’s not that simple. The style isn’t anything completely new for Kozelek, but if the last decade or so of his career has been building to anything, it’s this album.

And then Kozelek’s lack of a filter went and turned bystanders against him when he lashed out at The War on Drugs and women at his concerts. But it’s a testament to the power of the record that it can still stand tall on its own. Eighteen years after he released the classic Songs for a Blue Guitar, Kozelek has returned to top form on Benji. Hopefully, he does nothing further to tarnish his reputation between now and the next masterpiece.  –Philip Cosores

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