Oh 2014, you’ve been a strange beast. Here we are, the end of a year in which even Leighton Meester managed to deliver a pretty decent album while some mightier names fumbled (cough, Calvin Harris). We’ve given you a run-down of our Sound of 2015, so here comes part one of the main event – our Top 50 Albums of 2014.
Note that any artist featured here isn’t eligible for our Top 50 Tracks list (because, let’s face it, otherwise it’d pretty much be the same list twice), and we’re trying to give as much traction as possible to the lesser-known gems that outshone AAA releases but never got the credit. Long story short: if you haven’t heard any of these then you should do right now – or hop on over to our handy Soundcloud and Youtube playlists at the bottom of this page.
Key track: Glass
Mixing art and music never really ends well (just ask Lady Gaga, if you can sift through the detritus she’s chosen to wear that day). But Dutch artist Nick van Hofwegen had more than reasonable success doing so with Young & Sick, which adopted a fresh take on modern R&B on tracks like Gloom and Glass and won us right the hell over.
Key track: Hideaway
Most people didn’t seem to like Kiesza‘s debut album. These people have had their sense of fun lobotomised and therefore should not be trusted. Sound of a Woman is throwback ecstasy – sure, it can get a bit monotonous, but put Hideaway on again, remind yourself that she only burst through in January, and marvel at the ascension of a new pop diva.
Key track: Stay With Me
Another person whose success dominated 2014 was Sam Smith. You couldn’t move for all the moisture over “the male Adele” – unsurprising, given how In The Lonely Hour is loaded with smooth, soulful jams. It may sit on the blander end of the spectrum this year, but there’s no denying that this boy is here to stay.
47. SOHN – Tremors
Key track: Tempest
Any tightly-produced electronic-soul track you’ve loved in the last couple of years, chances are SOHN has had a hand in it. Which makes it quite the relief that he actually saved some good stuff for himself on Tremors, a record that pulses with creativity and more heart than you’d normally find behind such immaculate production.
Key track: Runaways
Betty Who needs a push. Because, when it comes down to it, Take Me When You Go is the album Katy Perry should have made. Balancing bangers with straight-up pop ballads, Who cements herself as a versatile new talent who, quite frankly, deserves to be a huge success. With any luck, she won’t need another viral proposal video to make that happen.
45. Banks – Goddess
Key track: This Is What It Feels Like
We had a lot of problems with Banks this year, given half of Goddess had been heard before and her live performance could do with a generous chunk of personality. But looking back at the album now, it’s hard not to accept that it’s a pretty great leap for dark, atmospheric pop. It might err on the side of soulless at times, but when she gets it right she soars.
Key track: Put Your Number In My Phone
Ariel Pink is a misanthrope. A good, old-fashioned, walking clickbait, hipster misanthrope. But by the Christ he has some good ideas, and occasionally turns them into ridiculously listenable (and spaced-out) jams. pom pom is, of course, an exercise in indulgence, but it also feels like the musical version of Meryl Streep’s speech about cerulean blue in The Devil Wears Prada. Sooner or later, it’ll filter down to the mainstream.
Key track: Up In Arms
An unknown band from Manchester, an album drip fed on Soundcloud, and a refined collection of songs. Gymnast‘s Wild Fleet is the first of our sleeper favourites this year. Verdant melodies give way to some of the finest alternative electronica this country has to offer – a song like Up In Arms is a testament to maturity way beyond their years. Start championing them now.
Key track: Feather Tongue
“Hold that feather tongue/ Don’t make a scene/ No war of words up my sleeve…” That’s the sort of muted defeat Lyla Foy delivers on songs like Feather Tongue. In fact, Mirrors The Sky is very much a less-is-more record, with Foy taking the path of understatement to express herself. The result? A rich, almost tactile take on the pastoral, and something wholly intimate.
Key track: Nature Boy
When we reviewed Present Tense earlier in the year, we described some of the Wild Beasts sound as “Guy Garvey colliding with Antony Hegarty”. Of course, the Kendal lot have proven themselves to be so much more than that, but there’s definitely a sense of the ethereal mixed with a texture far more deep-rooted. One of the more fascinating records of the year, that’s for sure.
Key track: Tough Love
Look, you’ll find more edge on a squash ball, but this is a really lovely album, ok? The sort of album that you can cosy up to under a blanket on a winter Sunday. It’s pretty much Radio 2 fodder throughout, but Jessie Ware does modern soul so bloody well. Tough Love has maturity, refinement, and a warmth that’s missing among all the efforts to be cool these days.
Key track: Colours To Life
It’s easy to dismiss Temples as ‘that band wot Noel Gallagher likes’, but thankfully they’re much more than that. In a year that’s been a bit light on rock – not the shite Royal Blood sort – this psych-leaning band got us a bit excited again. Equal parts Tame Impala and The Horrors, Sun Structures transported us to a drug-addled field in 70s Glasto and, as a result, became a debut to admire while frolicking in the heather.
38. Kelis – Food
Key track: Jerk Ribs
Ah yes, the year in which Kelis made good on her promises of Milkshake and went the full Worrall Thompson on us. Food might have been one of the more bizarre campaigns of the year (Food Network just paid off all its debts), but it was made palatable by some deep-fried soul and Kelis herself at her raspy best on tracks like Breakfast and Rumble. A career highlight, without doubt.
Key track: Jealous
Before you start thinking we’ve been brainwashed by the teeny-bop parade, give Nick Jonas a chance. His self-titled album is one of the strongest offerings from a male popstar this year, and stands out even more so due to the absence of mainstays like Usher. Jonas isn’t too far off that level already, to be fair – he displays an incredible amount of control over that smooth falsetto to deliver some truly wonderful R&B-pop.
Key track: Insincerely Yours
Most people would be surprised to find Lily Allen on a list like this, most of all Lily Allen herself. She’s made no secret of the fact that Sheezus didn’t really go the way she wanted, but that does it a massive disservice. Of course it’s not a perfect album but it’s still laced with the sort of pop culture potshots that Allen has always specialised in: acerbic, headline-grabbing, and 100% more interesting than all the docile crap out there.
Key track: Problem (feat. Iggy Azalea)
Off-stage, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that Ariana Grande might be a precocious little thundercunt. But that probably fits quite well with her neo-Mariah breakthrough on My Everything. It’s the spectacular coming-of-age we never expected, eschewing bubblegum pop for mature R&B. Oh, and she also dropped the greatest pop song of the year in the form of Problem so, ya know, there’s that too.
34. Haerts – Haerts
Key track: Wings
Brooklyn’s Haerts could be big. At least that’s what their self-titled debut indicated, what with it’s stadium-sized hooks and melodies. The band are perhaps the best of the indie-pop wave that’s become increasingly prevalent from t’other side of the Atlantic – one listen to Wings and you’ll find it rather difficult not to clap along, arms in the air. What more do you need, eh?
Key track: Out of the Black (feat. Robyn)
Neneh Cherry‘s return was always going to be interesting, if only to see how she’d stand up as a contemporary artist. There’s literally nothing to worry about, as it happens, as Blank Project shows that she’s lost none of her fire. It’s an intense record, the production mainly percussive and at times tribal, but it proves that even decades after Buffalo Stance, this Cherry is very much still on top (sorry).
Key track: Unfucktheworld
Hot on the heels of folk like Marissa Nadler is a similar occupant of that musical space, Missouri’s Angel Olsen. Given a few more albums (Burn Your Fire For No Witness is only her second) and she could well join that hallowed singer-songwriter canon; songs like Unfucktheworld unfurl with simmering passion, while Hi-Five struts out like a trucker leaving a roadside diner in the Midwest. She might still be a bit rough in places, but there’s much talent to admire here.
Key track: Don’t Wanna Dance
We were nervous that our new favourite Dane might crumble under the weight of expectation from her debut. Mercifully, No Mythologies To Follow sees MØ having a rollicking good time through a variety of moods: Don’t Wanna Dance is super-commercial Scandi-pop, while Never Wanna Know makes some Wounded Rhymes-type balladry her own. An album with which to dance the night away.
30. Alpines – Oasis
Key track: Blind
Another album that went a little bit under the radar due to the fledgling nature of the band behind it. Kingston’s Alpines properly laid it down on Oasis, which is essentially a non-stop dance-pop party. Picking up where AlunaGeorge left off, this duo managed to impress us with some fresh-to-death, immaculately produced tunes like Blind, Zero, and Oasis. A sultry, sun-soaked treat.
Key track: Superfly (feat. Vancouver Sleep Clinic)
There’s a reason that Raury‘s name on everyone’s lips these days. “We are forever/ We are the youth” is how the album/mixtape starts, War Pt 1 an unnerving call-to-arms and a beacon of this teenager’s talent. And it’s no surprise he’s earned the approval of people like Kanye West, given his ability to blitz together genres with relative ease and have something alarmingly pertinent to say through them. Indigo Child is teeming with ideas, some half-formed but exciting nonetheless. Give this kid a budget and he’ll go stratospheric.
Key track: Follow
Where does Mary J Blige stand on the diva scale? It’s hard to tell, given her career hasn’t exactly been consistent. But we’ve got to applaud her for being hella perceptive – London’s selling these days, whether it’s Disclosure or Sam Smith, and Blige knows it. She enlists the help of this lot (and others) on The London Sessions to create songs that might be wholesale templates, but ones that are dripping with lived-in soul. She does the piano ballads well, but it’s the club joints that properly set the record on fire with a very of-the-moment sound. Quite an achievement from someone who isn’t even from this city.
Key tracks: Two Tone Melody, Better Than It Ever Could Be
The following statement could go one of two ways regarding your perception of The Preatures: they opened for The Rolling Stones in their native Australia. Not that there are many similarities, mind – Isabella Manfredi and co are definitely more the rollicking, coastal, sun-soaked surf-rock kinda band. Better Than It Ever Could Be (renamed It Gets Better for the album, but whatever) is by far the most fun you’ll have with this genre in 2014, though their crowning moment comes with a much slower number: Two Tone Melody is a pure revelation, and one of the most incredible songs you’ll hear from any band this year.
26. Jungle – Jungle
Key track: Busy Earnin’
Picture the scene: you’re sauntering down the street with peak confidence, shades on, having just got laid or scored a massive freebie from KFC. Now imagine the ideal soundtrack playing in your head for that moment. That sound belongs to Jungle, who channelled retro-funk to the highest degree on their debut album. There’s a danger that they’ve just got one trick up their collective sleeve, so it’ll be interesting to see how they evolve from here, but for now we’re fine to accept all the effortless cool Jungle want to fling our way. Especially if it sounds like Busy Earnin’.
Key track: Maia
Forgetting about Kyla La Grange would be a mistake. For starters, there was literally no one else this year (or in recent memory, for that matter) who could take something as annoying as the steel drum and turn into a pop wonder like The Knife. The rest of the album is filled with similar such pop experiments, all under the blanket of Kyla’s icy vocal style. Commercially it may have disappeared into the ether, but for us Cut Your Teeth was an album with proper bite.
Key track: Courts
We’re still trying to pinpoint what exactly makes Snowmine so wonderful. It could be the detailed and delicate orchestration of each song (as in the fluttery flutes of To Hold An Ocean), the vocal layers of Rome, or their general Grizzly Bear-inspired tunes. Dialects is one of the alt-rock albums of the year, and deserves a generous amount of time from everyone out there.
Key track: Stay Gold
We swore to ourselves we wouldn’t mention the whole YouTube thing again when it came to First Aid Kit, but bloody hell, this is how you use it as a springboard. First Aid Kit have become one of the finest alt-folk acts out there, and because of absolute gems like Stay Gold. It’s spot-on Americana from the heart of Scandinavia, a record for the road, and the tightest harmonies you’ll hear from any act in 2014. Stupendous behaviour.
Key track: Shadow’s Song
And now for a bit of melancholic dream-pop. Warren Hildebrand stopped us in our tracks as Foxes in Fiction, writing Ontario Gothic after the death of his brother. It’s a record that yanks our heart out, that’s for sure: “No strength to fight back the waves / crashing tide’s warm embrace,” he sings on Shadow’s Song, and suddenly you feel his his helplessness in the face of loss. As far as memorials go, there was none more affecting than this one.
Key track: In The House Of Yes
It’s seriously hard to find fault in Mr Twin Sister, and at just eight tracks it’s one of those rare modern records that leaves us aching for more. Quite when they became this good eludes us, but this is a record for all shades of the night: In The House of Yes is an undeniable nocturnal indie-funk jam, and Blush (with its devastating “Have you ever felt like you will always be alone?” refrain) qualifies for both a last slow-dance and some wistful staring over metropolis. A stunning piece of work.
Key track: Queen
Right, we don’t often put our hands up to say we got it wrong, but with Perfume Genius we did. Too Bright seemed exactly that when we first heard it – apart from the year’s feistiest anthem of individuality, Queen, we were somewhat blinded by the sheer volume of ideas and eccentric production Mike Hadreas had to offer. But, weeks later, what seemed impenetrable revealed itself as an emotional record, by turns vulnerable and formidable. In short? A luminescent work of, well, Genius.
Key track: Words I Don’t Remember
The more How To Dress Well albums we get, the more confident Tom Krell seems to become. It’s no secret that HTDW is one of our all-time favourite artists, so to see him emerge from the obfuscated R&B of Love Remains to the self-assuredness of “What Is This Heart?” is quite a joy. With that strength comes the ability to take more risks, be more open to the realms of crossover-pop, but still remain the searing presence and ever-evolving game-changer he’s always been.
Key track: Digital Witness
What a woman Annie Clark is. You can see it on the album sleeve: there she sits, regal, beautiful, with a knowing expression. If we had to guess what it meant, we’d probably say “I’m a mu’fuggin’ badass” because that’s exactly what St Vincent feels like. As with her previous work, Clark shreds her guitar to create eccentric melodies and songs that slice into the core of modern culture without ever being preachy. In fact, following on from Strange Mercy, she sounds like she’s having a rollicking time putting the world to rights – Birth in Reverse (“Oh what an ordinary day / take out the garbage, masturbate”) is just one example in an album that’s so damn rich we don’t quite know what to do except gush.
Key track: Way To Be Loved
A surprise entry for us here, but TOPS just kept us coming back for more. It’s hard not to be charmed by the winning combination of Jane Penny’s voice atop some effervescent 80s licks. Picture You Staring is DIY, bedroom alt-pop, full of perfectly-timed throwback melodies, and it also turns out to be the indie breakthrough of the year. Oh, and it’s bloody good fun ‘n’ all. Which is never a bad thing.
Key track: How Many Times (feat. Future)
If you’ve even managed to get Lena Dunham to gush over you (steady) on Twitter, you know you’re tearing through the mainstream. Just a year ago we were rapt by Tinashe‘s mixtapes and collaborations with the likes of Jacques Greene, so it’s a delight to see her make good on all that promise and smash it with Aquarius. It’s an array of classic R&B hooks with some dark, predominantly trap-like production on a host of chart-busting singles – Pretend, Bet, 2 On– and some hella deep cuts like How Many Times. Up sum: this girl’s got a future.
Key track: Medicine
We never thought we’d like Evergreen as much as that beloved Will Young song, and yet here we are with Broods. The New Zealand brother and sister duo came with a lot of fanfare and hype, but by the Haka they lived up to it. Theirs was synthpop that shimmered with on-point single potential, and then added kilos of emotional weight to it. You’ll be hard-pressed to find someone doing this as well as they do – a cloistered, dramatic gem like Medicine is something their peers can only dream of.
Key track: Everything is New
Where Broods took on the electronic side of duo life, Slow Club turned it down a notch in accordance with their name. Complete Surrender has matured beautifully over the last few months to become a surprisingly essential album of the year. The ebb and flow of romance is a joy to hear about in the Sheffield duo’s hands – they sum up the post-breakup despondence beautifully on the string-backed Dependable People And Things That I Am Sure of (“And I’m so much older than I want to be”), but their career highlight undoubtedly comes on Everything Is New and its searing, cracked chorus. We have no choice but to surrender.
Key track: Hunger of the Pine
Here’s the thing: we thought alt-J were overrated. Apart from Tessellate, we’re not entirely sure how they managed to get where they are on the back of some lacklustre alt-rock. Which is probably why we became completely enamoured with This Is All Yours. The band surprised everyone first of all with the stellar Hunger of the Pine, sampling Miley‘s 4×4 to quite haunting effect. But gimmickry aside, this is a masterful, textured record – pastoral melodies and harmonies are favoured over stadium choruses to the point that, yep, we’ll forgive the line on Every Other Freckle that says “Turn you inside out and lick you like a crisp packet.” Quite.
12. Foxes – Glorious
Key tracks: Talking to Ghosts, Night Glo
We’re going to be squarely dismissed for placing this so high. We know that. And we don’t care. Because Grammy-winning Foxes can be a star if she stopped faffing around with Doctor Who and shit. Glorious socked us out of nowhere, and was somehow more affecting than an overtly pop record had any right to be. Moreover, Louisa Allen’s voice has star quality: whether it’s the frantic pop of Talking to Ghosts or the twinkling balladry of Night Glo, this is an album that rests squarely on her shoulders and she never lets it, or herself, down.
Key tracks: Boom Clap, Sucker
Whoever said youth is wasted on the young clearly never heard of Charli XCX. Hers is the sound of teen-pop rebellion, with choruses that will echo for years to come (“You say you wanna bang? / Well, fuck you… sucker,” she sings on the electric title track). Sucker proves not only that pop doesn’t need to be patronising, but also that people should be clamouring to write with the most exciting voice in the business today. A late entry, but a massively deserving one to sit at the edge of our Top 10. Which it probably would have done even if it contained 12 iterations of Boom Clap, to be quite honest.
Key track: Say Goodbye
Anyone without cranial damage knows for a fact that Beck’s Sea Change is one of the best albums of the last decade. So it’s lovely to hear the opening strains of the similarly-veined Morning Phase herald a dawn, swiftly followed by the gently arresting Morning and Heart is a Drum, which radiate warmth. That’s the key word for Beck this time round – we’re away from the clunky experimental phase, instead rewarded with beauties like Say Goodbye and Blue Moon. While most of us might associate a Morning Phase with a snooze button or a quickie, Beck chooses to bask in the sunshine of a new day. And it’s wonderful.
Key tracks: Teen Heat, 90s Music
When Janelle Monae announced that she was going to do a tour with Kimbra – yep, that Kimbra from that horrendous Gotye song – we let out quite the hearty scoff. Turns out Ms Monae knew exactly what she was doing, as the New Zealander seems to very much channel the same Prince-esque future pop on The Golden Echo, and does it with finesse and aplomb. Songs careen through leftfield checkpoints and wonderfully unpredictable bends, which Kimbra manages to turn into a memorable, entirely funky album that is well worth your time.
Key tracks: Cruel World, Ultraviolence
The queen of melancholy returned, and at once a thousand detractors wound their mouths shut. That’s the power of Ultraviolence, which musically took a divergent step from Born To Die, but continued to illustrate Lana Del Rey as that gritty gangster’s moll figure. Sure, all the staples are there – red dress, white shirt, etc – but there’s nothing quite like that warbling on Cruel World to understand that this girl is more than just a market-constructed success.
Key tracks: Habits, Not on Drugs, Moments
Moving on from gritty to what is essentially gravel-in-your-knees kinda filthy, Tove Lo was one pop star who grabbed pop missiles and straddled them in a way most blasé. That’s what makes Queen of the Clouds such a naughty joy – while other female artists are talking about being flawless or shaking off haters, Tove Lo embraces all her shortcomings on songs like Moments (with brilliantly disarming lines like “I can get a little drunk, I get into all the don’ts/ But on good days I am charming as fuck”). More to the point, she’s also been responsible for creating two huge pop moments of the year: Habits and Not On Drugs are air-punch brilliant, and the crown for an album that celebrates so much hedonism you’ll feel like you need a good wash afterwards.
Key tracks: Beautiful You, Eurydice, Kelly
There’s a moment in the coda of Beautiful You – the standout track from Days of Abandon – where the chords repeat so much that you’re not quite sure when the song will end. It’s also the moment you realise you don’t want it to end, because The Pains of Being Pure At Heart seem to have stumbled upon the melody of happiness, even through words of longing. It’s the encapsulation of joy and (lost) youth – also found on Kelly, Eurydice, and Until The Sun Explodes – that echoes the album title, and the sort of sun-soaked music that makes you wish you could find a first love all over again.
Key tracks: Yellow Flicker Beat, Scream My Name, Meltdown
That’s right, we’ve gone and put a soundtrack here (again). But this isn’t just any old cobbled-together “inspired by the movie” bollocks, no no – our old pal Lorde was given the task of curating a collection to reflect one of the year’s biggest films, and in turn ended up reinventing that entire wheel. Granted, the Twilight series started off the trend, but Lorde brings her own sensibilities to the dark tale. On one side she’s recruiting Grace Jones at her barmy best, while at the same time grabbing Kanye to do a remix, teaming Charli XCX with Simon Le Bon, and even producing her own career best with Yellow Flicker Beat. It’s an undeniably cohesive record, full of surprises and free of the fear that would normally dominate the chart-fearing artists that feature on it. Roll on Part II.
Key tracks: Two Weeks, Pendulum, Video Girl
Tahliah Barnett is an artist, in absolutely every sense of the word. Nothing seems like an accident with FKA Twigs – each video is a whirlwind of hypnotic visuals, each live performance matched with on-point choreography. Even that album cover is a transfixing wonder. So it’s no surprise that LP1 lived up to the massive promise Twigs has been showing with her previous EPs – songs like Video Girl and Pendulum grab R&B tropes and contort them into something breathy, sweaty, and wholly exciting. More importantly: album highlight Two Weeks, the video for which shows Barnett nonchalantly owning a throne, is the closest thing we’ve ever had to anyone channelling Aaliyah. That should tell you all you need to know about how important a voice Twigs could end up being for this generation.
Key tracks: Shake It Off, Out of The Woods, Style
We’re a bit shit at maths, but here’s an infallible formula: 1989 x 2014 = Taylor Swift becoming pop’s #1. Which other performer out there can cannily chop down all the column inches devoted to them in the form of a Shake It Off? Or take a knowing lick at the love life speculation with a Blank Space? But it’s not just that self-awareness that made Tay-Tay such a treat. Abandoning the country in country-pop could have gone horrendously wrong, but there’s production here so fresh that, eyes closed, it could belong to some upcoming buzz band. Sure, in content it might sounds like one almighty wink emoji, but Swift’s songs end up being much more than that: layered, intelligent, and ridiculously fun to dance to. Favourite tracks still change day by day, and new, knockout lines still reveal themselves with every listen. Through it all, Taylor Swift emerges as the voice of popular music in 2014.
Key tracks: Just One Of The Guys, Head Underwater, She’s Not Me
“There’s only one difference between you and me/ When I look at myself, all I can see/ I’m just another lady without a baby.” In a year where feminism has been more important than ever, Jenny Lewis took a swipe in a single line from Just One Of The Guys and summed up an entire generation’s problem. That’s always been the beauty of her writing though – all the way from Rilo Kiley through to Rabbit Fur Coat, Lewis is the commander of pithy indictments on modern society. That’s what makes The Voyager so special. Whether it’s the social malaise on You Can’t Outrun Em, or even the bitterness of She’s Not Me (whose fellow-woman shade is more an expression of insecurity than anything), Lewis not only marks herself out as one of her country’s leading songwriters, but seems to be having a bloody good time doing it (as her live show will testify). Call it dad-rock if you want – Best Coast certainly did – but this was the year that Jenny Lewis presented herself as a modern treasure. Garish jacket included.
Key tracks: Never Gonna Love Again, No Rest For The Wicked… hell, all of it.
As soon as that spaghetti western guitar opens the title track to Lykke Li‘s third album, there’s an immediate feeling of something sweeping, cinematic, and – loathe as we are to use the word – epic. It’s hard to describe I Never Learn as anything else, though, given how much drama she adds to her particular brand of shoo-wop torch songs. Gunshot resonates with a thunderous chorus, while No Rest For The Wicked aches with regret (“I let my good one down/ I let my true love die”). If Heart of Steel uses a choir to convey its pain, Love Me Like I’m Not Made Of Stone essentially puts forward an acoustic, lo-fi demo and remains more gut-wrenching than most immaculately-produced songs this year. It all comes to head with a four-minute paean of devastation: Never Gonna Love Again is up there with Li’s best, in all of its emotional self-flagellation. As the sleeve suggests, these are unflinching, maudlin songs essentially in monochrome. But it can only take a talent like Lykke Li to show how many different shades there are to her very singular pain.
You can now see what all the fuss is about by listening to these handy little Youtube and Soundcloud playlists: