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The 20 best albums of 2014

(Illustration: Derrick Sanskrit)
(Illustration: Derrick Sanskrit)

Every year, The A.V. Club invites our regular music writers and staff to pick their favorite albums of the past 12 months. This year, we asked writers to pick their 15 favorite albums, with no. 1 earning 15 points, no. 2 earning 14, and so on. We tallied up the results to arrive at our final best-of list. (In the event that two albums tied for points, the record with the greatest number of votes prevailed.) As you’ll see below, the voting process made for a list that’s both diverse and inspiring.

1. Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire For No Witness (85 points)

More of a slow, warm smolder than an incinerator, Burn Your Fire For No Witness tops this list after creeping into voters’ hearts and minds over the course of 2014. Released in February on Jagjaguwar, Angel Olsen’s second studio LP is an exercise in quiet badassery, solid from front to back with nary a moment of shallow emotion or thin, clichéd “solo female singer-songwriter” sound in sight. Olsen’s Patsy Cline-like coo works with simple but full instrumentation to make songs like “Unfucktheworld” and “Forgiven/Forgotten” statements of both seduction and malice. Olsen is clearly an artist who’s lived through loss, loneliness, and heartbreak, and grown stronger in spite of all the drama, emerging on Burn Your Fire with a passion that’s not only impressive, but downright aspirational. Olsen might not look like a shit-starter, but wrong her or someone she loves, and she’ll harness all her emotion and power to reduce you to ashes with one callous and withering glare. Just because her name is “Angel” doesn’t mean Olsen won’t fuck you up. [Marah Eakin]

2. Run The Jewels, RTJ2 (82 points)

Last year’s Run The Jewels collaboration between Killer Mike and El-P felt like a one-and-done deal, a playful show-off of a record that mostly worked as a footnote to their solo accomplishments, R.A.P. Music and Cancer4Cure. RTJ2 shows that Killer Mike and El-P weren’t kidding around; it’s pure fire, an angry, intelligent, engaged piece of cultural criticism and rap braggadocio. This is Run The Jewels challenging power structures and calling out injustice. No album this year will inspire you to critique the media, cause a prison riot, and call out the lunkheaded misogyny of (in their words) fuckboys everywhere like this one. The album isn’t just a lyrical force, either. El-P’s production has never been better, with wobbly, ethereal beats adding heft to the tales of discrimination and inequality. A devoted stable of guests turning in the performances of their careers doesn’t hurt either. In particular, Rage Against The Machine frontman Zack De La Rocha spits rhymes with a conviction we haven’t heard from him in years on the unhinged “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck).” No need for Killer Mike and El-P to watch the throne when they’re starting a revolution and dismantling the kingdom. [Kyle Fowle]

3. St. Vincent, St. Vincent (80 points)

2014 is the year Annie Clark became a rock god. She’s always been a sharp lyricist and a gifted guitar player, but on St. Vincent she’s outright interstellar. This is her boldest and most inventive creation yet, a sci-fi tinged pop-rock piece of art that explodes outward in every direction, much like the silver curls on Clark’s head. Every track is perfectly measured with layers of relentless drums, propulsive guitars, and synths that zig and zag. Even with its space-age sheen, the heart beating beneath all of the “zeroes and ones” is the album’s secret weapon. The animalistic intensity of “Bring Me Your Loves” is too complex and too human for any sort of artificial intelligence to comprehend. And tracks like “Every Tear Disappears” and “Prince Johnny” reveal a living being looking for any kind of real connection in the noise of the digital age. St. Vincent is a ferocious, singular vision with the potential to convert anyone into a true believer. [Cameron Scheetz]

4. The War On Drugs, Lost In The Dream (71 points)

Lost In The Dream represents Adam Granduciel’s evolution into a theater-setting frontman. He and his band have composed an album that, with each psych-tinted riff’s change in key and with each slight shift of rhythm, threatens to snake off into some dusty jam of epic scope (which the band will regularly follow through with onstage). The sound of ambition, though, is most often tucked deep away in hazy trails of delay and an omnipresent, wanderer-like coolness gleaned from the likes of vintage Petty and Dylan—thus creating a flow that’s as essential an element as any one instrument. “Red Eyes,” the album’s most compacted track, is as relistenable a single as anything that’s been released this year, with a driving beat that grounds the ethereal tone of the synths and a let-loose, flittering guitar lick that might as well act as the standard for how to write a straightforward rock hook with style. [Kevin Warwick]

5. Sharon Van Etten, Are We There (62 points)

Describing Sharon Van Etten’s fourth album as “confident” is accurate but woefully incomplete. Take “Your Love Is Killing Me,” one of her boldest vocal performances yet. It’s backed by martial drums and layers of sound, and she sings out like never before, but it’s still a song about a brutally painful relationship. (“You love me as you torture me,” she reveals, in a line that sums up some of her best songs.) And as much as Are We There feels of a piece with her previous records—including 2012’s Tramp, our number four album of that year—this self-produced set fully feels like the perfect synthesis of her opposing sides. Van Etten is a massively strong songwriter who’s only realized the power of her words and melodies over the course of recording them. So not only does she become more sure of herself with each go-round, she gets better at expressing both that assuredness and the complicated, difficult, timid emotional places that inspire her. It’s a joy to watch her work the pain into something cathartic and beautiful. [Josh Modell]

6. FKA Twigs, LP1 (54 points)

LP1 is a deceptively simple title for FKA Twigs’ gorgeous debut. The British singer formerly known as “twigs” paints the record with a full spectrum of color, offering ethereal R&B that isn’t afraid to go electronic. And she doesn’t shy away from her inclinations toward lust, vulnerability, or self-examination by cloaking them in euphemism. Though this is Twigs’ first official full-length, she is savvy, drawing from her experience as a dancer and producer as well as the success of her self-released debut EP to deliver arresting visuals that often distort her face or body in some way. (See: the carefully crafted single-shot wonder of the “Two Weeks” music video.) Her delicate, breathy vocals almost obscure the blatantly sexual tone of the album, but the presentation isn’t particularly graphic. She’s stripped bare, she’s an enigma, and she even dares to close the album with a low-key masturbation anthem, “Kicks.” While standout track “Two Weeks” is certainly helped along by Emile Haynie’s co-production, when Twigs declares, “Motherfucker, get your mouth open / You know you’re mine,” right before the beat drops, it’s hard to argue with her. She’s not “formerly” anything. She just is. [Andrea Battleground]

7. Protomartyr, Under Color Of Official Right (52 points)

Disconnection—with all irony intended—is one of the building blocks of post-punk, a fact that so many of the genre’s revivalists have failed to grasp. Protomartyr gets it. That’s not to say that Under Color Of Official Right is either fragmented or retro; rather, the Detroit group’s second album has carved much of the fuzzy connective tissue that typified its predecessor, 2013’s No Passion All Technique, leaving gaping voids, horrific vistas, and fog-shrouded chasms. The album hangs together gracefully, but not as a comforting flow. Under Color Of Official Right only offers glimpses of the haunted desperation beneath its atmospheric attack and stark, near-monotone poetry. And when it boils over into borderline catharsis, it holds that energy in check—a clenched-tooth, nerve-shredding denial of what rock music is expected to deliver. [Jason Heller]

8. Cloud Nothings, Here And Nowhere Else (40 points)

While Dave Grohl has spent much of 2014 trying to prove he’s the torchbearer for American rock, it’s Cloud Nothings’ Dylan Baldi who has truly kept the genre afloat. Though the band had its work cut out for it after Attack On Memory was lauded as a modern classic in 2012, Here And Nowhere Else remains self-assured in the face of any outside expectations. Even as Cloud Nothings slims down to a trio after the departure of guitarist Joe Boyer, the band continues to settle into itself without any noticeable gaps in its sound. There’s a wiry aggression that runs throughout the album, evinced by Baldi’s rabidly snarling chord progressions and the rhythm section’s ability to turn every note into an emphatic punch. Whether the band is going into noisy jams (“Pattern Walks”) or writing poppy post-punk that would make Mission Of Burma drool (“I’m Not A Part Of Me”), Cloud Nothings seems content to live in the moment; we’re just lucky to be along for the ride. [David Anthony]

9. Flying Lotus, You’re Dead! (40 points)

The most listenable album of Flying Lotus’ career may also be his most bizarre: You’re Dead! is a thin, sinuous, frequently ambient exploration of pure sonic pleasure. It’s an album of beeps and coos, rather than beats and booms. If that all seems heady, well, this is a concept album about the afterlife from Alice Coltrane’s spacefaring nephew. But it is also the first time Stephen Ellison has unified his spiritual (and at times academic) FlyLo palette with the goofy, whiskey-chugging Waka Flocka drops of his live show. He sounds utterly delighted by this synthesis, blasting through the free-jazz stratosphere and occasionally taking the mic himself rather than outsourcing it to a guest. All of that tension is wrapped up in the title and its all-important exclamation point: This is interdimensional party music, as much about joy as it is about death. [Clayton Purdom]

10. Isaiah Rashad, Cilvia Demo (36 points)

This was supposed to be Top Dawg Entertainment’s year, with big releases from practically the label’s entire roster. But most of those albums came and went without making much of an impression, and star Kendrick Lamar has yet to drop his follow-up to Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. There’s one big silver lining though—Isaiah Rashad’s debut album Cilvia Demo, which has the stealthiest earworms and the most replay value of any rap release this year. Rashad churns up his Southern influences from Outkast to Scarface to make a deeply personal and original statement, one clearly indebted to Lamar’s work but primarily demonstrative of an emerging, independent voice. And for a debut, that voice is remarkably assured—Rashad is at all times secure in his own vulnerability, from the “fake it ’til you make it” swagger of “Brad Jordan” to the spiritual pleading of “Heavenly Father.” It would be hard to overstate how much this album has meant to me personally—in the relatively short time it’s been out, I’ve had six different favorite songs, suggesting a balance and depth that most artists struggle to achieve on their third and fourth LP, let alone their first. Comparing Cilvia to Lamar’s Section.80 is a bit reductive and unfair to Cilvia, but if that is the stage of his career Rashad is in, his Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City equivalent is going to blow up mountains. [Eric Thurm]

11. Strand Of Oaks, Heal (35 points)

For most of his career, Timothy Showalter a.k.a. Strand Of Oaks, has made dark folk music, touching on sounds both fantastical and experimental. With Heal, his fourth album under the moniker, the singer-songwriter leaped from hushed and conceptual acoustic ballads to immediate and cathartic rock. The product of a series of personal tribulations with his relationship and career, along with some serious self-reflection, the LP is a testament to music as a cleansing and renewing force. From the opening shredding leads of “Goshen ’97,” courtesy of Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis, to the lyrics about “singing Pumpkins in the mirror” and the admission “I was lonely but I was having fun,” Showalter is revitalized and inspired. “Shut In,” another album highlight, focuses on the struggle to care when things get rough while “JM,” a heartfelt Jason Molina tribute, dives into the comforting relationship between a young fan and his favorite music. Not only are the lyrics on Heal deeply personal, the musical touchstones of his adolescence are also evident in the ’80s-inspired synths of “Woke Up To The Light” and “Same Emotions.” With its bombastic anthems and touching songwriting, the album is an incredibly revealing statement from a resilient artist. [Josh Terry]

12. Vince Staples, Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2 (35 points)

Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2 is a deeply passionate mixtape, not that you can usually hear it in Vince Staples’ voice. The California rapper rhymes in a disdainful monotone sneer, as if trying to conceal the emotions that his lyrics spell out so vividly. He’s a deep thinker, offering volumes’ worth of insight into the culture of poverty and violence, but on the mixtape’s most potent track, “Nate,” he gets personal, recalling how he idolized his criminal father growing up. “Catch him riding ’round the city with the seat back,” he marvels, though those worshipful memories are soiled by darker recollections: “Hear him screaming for my momma at the backdoor / Sometimes she wouldn’t open it / Sitting on the couch, face emotionless / I don’t think they ever noticed it.” Along with Staples’ fantastic follow-up EP, Hell Can Wait, which militarized Shyne Coldchain’s soulful boom-bap with harder West Coast beats, this was some of the most powerful rap of the year. [Evan Rytlewski]

13. Spoon, They Want My Soul (33 points)

It’s the next phase, new wave, dance craze, anyways, it’s still rock ’n’ roll to Spoon. On its eighth album and first in four years, the Austin indie institution again kicks it 1980-style, doing a kind of raggedy slacker version of the antsy guitar-driven R&B that guys like Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, Graham Parker, and even Billy Joel, were making back in the day. Britt Daniel and the gang didn’t need to update their sound any—it’s been about 15 years since anyone was mad at a Spoon record—and yet working with producers Joe Chiccarelli and Dave Fridmann, they try a few new textures, upping the distortion on “Rainy Taxi” and throwing some shiny synths and a dance beat behind “New York Kiss.” “Outlier” is Seal’s “Crazy” outfitted with a critique of the film Garden State. They Want My Soul is hot funk, cool punk, and old junk made new. It’s also a continuation of rock’s longest winning streak. [Kenneth Partridge]

14. Beck, Morning Phase (32 points)

The oft-repeated party line is that Beck’s Morning Phase is the natural sequel to 2002’s Sea Change. In many ways, this parallel is understandable: Both records feature contributions from the same core group of musicians (e.g., drummer Joey Waronker, keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Roger Joseph Manning Jr., and bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen) and both are driven by acoustic folk signifiers and downtrodden sentiments. However, Morning Phase pairs its starkest moments with rich, resonant instrumentation—droning psychedelic harmonies, cinematic orchestra swells and subtle electronic manipulation—that’s indebted to crackling classic rock, beach-bum California pop, and ghostly country. And lyrically, Morning Phase is far more complex than sad-sack wallowing—for starters, just listen to the cathartic tinges to Beck’s vocals on “Blue Moon,” as he proclaims in a confident voice: “I’m so tired of being alone.” Morning Phase is the sound of taking control after life’s curveballs, and refusing to give in to sluggish emotional ennui. [Annie Zaleski]

15. Taylor Swift, 1989 (32 points)

Never underestimate Taylor Swift’s confidence in her own artistic and creative vision—or her ability to achieve anything she puts her mind to. That’s the takeaway from 1989, whose ultra-pop direction sounded like an effortless progression from both her country past and 2012’s Red. Credit for that goes to the record’s down-to-earth themes: Much like Swift herself, 1989 is a relatable mix of poised self-confidence, Tumblr-fied vulnerable confessions, and charming self-deprecation. The record’s sound also manages to be nostalgic for simpler times—specifically, for ’80s swimming pools and roller-rink jams, and for gooey prom slow dances—and have a sophisticated outlook, between the percolating electronic beats, tissue-paper synth layers, and the stubborn earworm melodies. Best of all, Swift sounds completely comfortable in her skin as she sings these songs, a Top 40 Rosie The Riveter remaining a guiding force for her legions of admirers. Turns out, all of the pre-release handwringing about 1989’s bold new pop direction was needless anxiety: In the end, the album is a reminder that pop music—even glossy, radio-friendly sing-alongs—can also have substance. [Annie Zaleski]

16. Mac DeMarco, Salad Days (27 points)

At 24 years old, Mac DeMarco might seem far too young to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. But while Bed Stuy’s reigning slack-rock laureate still has a certain relaxed air, Salad Days can’t avoid the clouds that hang menacingly over its 11 tracks. That said, it doesn’t run from them either. Recorded at home in the throes of a serious case of tour fatigue, DeMarco scraped together all the creativity he could muster from his burned-out headspace. Lyrically his mind races wildly as he grapples with love, the future, and other quarter-life crisis hallmarks, but that doesn’t mean indie pop’s chief of chill is tightening up on us, at least not too much. Even on his most mature offering, DeMarco creates some healthy ironic distance. Salad Days wraps itself in warm shades of jangly psych pop that counterbalance the weight of DeMarco’s words, and he milks that quirky juxtaposition to great effect. There might be a little bit of an old soul buried somewhere inside his gap-toothed, slacker exterior, but while real life seems to be creeping up on him, Salad Days still makes for one of the most charmingly youthful records of the year. [Ryan Bray]

17. Perfume Genius, Too Bright (26 points)

Playing piano by yourself, it can be hard to get people to pay attention. There is a sense of this on Too Bright, Mike Hadreas’ third album as Perfume Genius. About three minutes in, when “Queen” begins with its throbbing synth groan, Hadreas seems tired of waiting for people to listen; he decides to give them something they can’t ignore. And, in the few months since the album was released, he has lived up to this cannonball of a song. There was his performance on Letterman, his blunt and honest interviews, the unblinking stare of his music videos. But, most importantly, there is the album, which balances the pretty melodies and gentle keys with moments of carnage, fear-inducing screams, and sonic slaps in the face. As the album title suggests, a fire that burns bright enough can’t be ignored, and Perfume Genius went and recorded a supernova. [Philip Cosores]

18. Swans, To Be Kind (25 points)

Michael Gira is aging like a fine gasoline, with every new release under the Swans moniker burning with an acrid intensity that belies the fact that he’s been doing this for more than 30 years now. After the yawing, boiling odyssey of 2012’s The Seer, Gira seemed to have reached the apex of what he could do with his gloriously abrasive noise-rock and sheet-metal drones, but To Be Kind finds new jagged peaks to climb. It’s another two-hour descent into a purgatory swarming with churning industrial rhythm, tangled vipers of guitar, and blasts of Gira’s hydrochloric-acid vocals. But for all its hellishness, the album finds moments of surprising beauty that open up like sudden rays through a thunderhead. It’s unsettling yet mesmerizing, galvanizing yet ruminative, and another masterful expression from an artist who only grows more and more in command of his awesome powers. [Sean O’Neal]

19. White Lung, Deep Fantasy (23 points)

Creating punk rock this exacting and ferocious requires a lot of thought. It’s not knee-jerk anger, the venom coursing through singer Mish Way, and when she’s not fronting White Lung, she’s writing thoughtful pieces about sex and gender issues for outlets like Vice and The Talkhouse. Those same topics inform Deep Fantasy, the Vancouver foursome’s third album. It’s the group’s most digestible and musically accomplished effort, and whereas there wasn’t a single song on 2012’s Sorry longer than two minutes and 15 seconds, half of this disc’s 10 songs blow past that mark. Fortunately, being slightly less unrelenting doesn’t mean actually relenting—something Way and her crew would never do. Opener “Drown With The Monster” sets a frantic pace that never really lets up, and as the rhythm section races along, guitarist Kenny Williams augments his power chords with intricate riffs that zoom past almost too quickly to appreciate. It’s like he’s slicing through sheet metal, building Way the platform she needs to holler about addiction, sexism, body image, and the like. The intensity is mesmerizing. Just wait until they break three minutes. [Kenneth Partridge]

20. Andy Stott, Faith In Strangers (23 points)

After Andy Stott’s 2012 breakthrough third LP, Luxury Problems, it’s easy to say that the stakes were raised for the Manchester electronic songwriter on Faith In Strangers. He spent a year and a half recording it, using the same grab bag of tools: found sounds, distorted electronic glitches, and the voice of his piano teacher, Alison Skidmore. The resulting album works on two levels, as both a next step aimed to meet fan expectations and as a first taste for music fans seeking out something new on, say, a best-of-the-year list. From the droning repetition of brass on lead track “Time Away” to the masterpiece that follows, the almost-Massive Attack-ish, pulsing “Violence,” Stott’s album often feels meticulous and careful, like a puzzle coming together one gently placed piece at a time. And then there is “Damage,” which is frayed, distressed, and, in Stott’s words, “raw.” These juxtaposing forces result in an album of rare and special depth, with real emotions at play. These are not ambiguous; Stott leads the listener to marked locations, sometimes with a held hand, and sometimes with a shove. [Philip Cosores]