14. Lana Del Rey, Ultraviolence
The best way for a pop artist to silence the haters and prove his or her longevity is still to release a really, really good album. With the help of the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, Lana Del Rey established herself as a singular voice unable to be easily dismissed with the hazy, luxurious Ultraviolence.
13. Ed Sheeran, X
Ed Sheeran has proven himself capable of delivering the sticky-sweet wedding songs like “Thinking Out Loud” and “Tenerife Sea,” but who knew he could toss out legitimate jams like “Sing” and “Don’t” as well? Sheeran’s sophomore effort was the most ambitious mainstream pop effort of the year, and while not quite everything amazes, much more than expected does.
12. PAWWS, Sugar EP
Pawws is a U.K. singer-songwriter who transitioned from classical flute performances and backing up artists like Bloc Party’s Kele to making effortless indie-pop. Songs like “Outside” on her Sugar EP stun in their simplicity: bouncing synth lines, breathy vocals and uncluttered emotion that cuts deep.
11. Bleachers, Strange Desire
We needed Jack Antonoff’s bleeding-heart 80’s revival this year more than we knew: with a drought of fist-pumping pop-rock anthems currently in effect and no new Fun. music in 2014, the guitarist provided us with an array of jittery harmonies, gigantic hooks and honest-to-goodness surprises (hey, Yoko Ono!) on the first Bleachers album.
10. Ryn Weaver, Promises EP
The songs on Promises contain a pedigree that most aspiring pop artists would kill to acquire — Benny Blanco, Passion Pit’s Michael Angelakos, Cashmere Cat and Charli XCX all contributed to the four-song set — but tracks like “OctaHate” and “Promises” would be passable at best without the wild-eyed, magnetic presence of Ryn Weaver, a sure bet to break out in 2015.
9. Jessie Ware, Tough Love
Tough Love is a tougher nut to crack than Jessie Ware’s 2012 debut Devotion: while that first batch of songs was squarely focused on chewable refrains, its follow-up is a more patient songwriting showcase, with songs like “Say You Love Me” and “Want Your Feeling” winding their ways toward big payoffs. Ware’s sophomore LP is a more adult affair, and ultimately a more satisfying one.
8. Broods, Broods EP
New Zealand brother-sister duo Broods released its solid debut album Evergreen in October, but its preceding self-titled EP bottled the group’s smoky appeal in six spellbinding tracks. “Bridges” is the obvious standout, but producer Joel Little (who helmed the entirety of Lorde’s debut album) fills songs like “Pretty Thing” and “Coattails” with sonic details that never fail to entrance.
7. White Sea, In Cold Blood
Best known for her contributions to M83’s last two albums, Morgan Kibby emerged in 2014 with a solo album that — dare I say it? — out-epics the critically beloved Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. From the opening yelps of “They Don’t Know” to the closing disco strut of “It Will End In Disaster,” In Cold Blood is a maximalist thrill that deserves to be blasted across festival fields in 2015.
6. Röyksopp & Robyn, Do It Again EP
As the world yearns for Robyn’s proper follow-up to her Body Talk series, the Swedish pop princess and her Scandinavian pals in Röyksopp dropped a five-song experiment that combined the electronic duo’s expansive arrangements with Robyn’s keen pop sensibility. “Monument” offered 10 minutes of untainted cool, while “Do It Again” was the Robyn banger we had been waiting to hear since “Dancing On My Own” dropped at the beginning of the decade.
5. Taylor Swift, 1989
Is 1989 as striking as Taylor Swift’s breakout album Fearless, as immaculate as her career peak Speak Now or as far-reaching as her ambitious fourth LP Red? No, no, and no. But Swift is still operating on a plane no other popular artist can touch, commercially and creatively. Not everything works on her “official” pop debut 1989, but when she sticks the landing on songs like the hater-slaying “Shake It Off,” mall-brat anthem “Bad Blood,” or the 80’s fantasia “Out Of The Woods,” Taylor hints at an understanding of pop that even genre longtime artists usually fail to grasp.
4. Betty Who, Take Me When You Go
“If you’ve got a broken heart/Then you’re just like me,” Betty Who cries on “Just Like Me,” the opening song on her sparkling major label debut. It’s a line that could have been delivered dejectedly, but the Australian singer-songwriter bleeds energy, packing every word and sound into a kinetic atmosphere that even the ballads on her first album feel like they could explode into parties at any moment. Making good on the promise of debut single “Somebody Loves You,” Who has created a record that is fiercely personal but lovingly universal, just like that highlighted line.
3. Tove Lo, Queen of the Clouds
Here’s a deep-dark secret: “Habits (Stay High),” Tove Lo’s breakout U.S. hit, is actually one of the weaker tracks on the Swedish artist’s opulent debut, Queen of the Clouds. I much prefer getting lost in the bold-faced confessions of “Moments,” the playful sexuality of “Like Em Young” or the militant struggle of “Thousand Miles” — each taken from one of the album’s three suites, dubbed The Sex, The Love and The Pain. Although Queen of the Clouds is divided into three sub-sections, each category is loaded with such juicy melodies — and tied together by a mesmerizing personality — that Tove Lo’s first attempt at pop stardom never feels disjointed.
2. Charli XCX, Sucker
“To all the people who think I ‘sold out’ on this record or whatever - you totally just DON’T GET IT,” Charli XCX tweeted two weeks prior to Sucker’s release. The thing is, how could anyone listen to the U.K. songwriting star’s sophomore album and think of it as anything less than a defiant takedown of pop-star expectations? After engineering Top 10 hits for other artists (Iggy Azalea's "Fancy," Icona Pop's "I Love It") and scoring one of her own (“Boom Clap”), Charli has dropped an album that slices the heads off of anyone or anything trying to bottle her in or deny her artistic integrity. Charli XCX wants to be a star, but she also wants to work with Rivers Cuomo and Rostam Batmanglij, evoke Marilyn Manson in her awards show performances and bellow “Fuck you, sucker!” in her album intro. Charli wants pop to meet her demands, and with Sucker, she proves that she has the attitude and song craft to make it happen.
1. Lykke Li, I Never Learn
Lykke Li was never going to make an upbeat third album: coming off of the likable but commercially unsuccessful Wounded Rhymes, as well as a devastating breakup, the Swedish songstress embraced the hurt but she had no other choice. I Never Learn is the sound of an artist in deep despair but finding comfort in catharsis, as the singer-songwriter pleads to “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone” and vows that she’s “Never Gonna Love Again” while slowly gaining her footing with each passing song. By the album’s last two tracks, “Heart of Steel” and “Sleeping Alone,” the pain is still there but it’s joined by acceptance, as if Li has stopped crying because her body cannot produce any more tears. I Never Learn is a bold move by a bruised, brilliant artist, and one that will haunt the headphones of the heartbroken long after 2014 concludes.
Favorite 25 Albums of 2014:
25. Taylor Swift, 1989
24. Real Estate, Atlas
23. Jenny Gillespie, Chamma
22. Candy Hearts, All The Ways You Let Me Down
21. Alvvays, Alvvays
20. Hundred Waters, The Moon Rang Like a Bell
19. Betty Who, Take Me When You Go
18. The War On Drugs, Lost In The Dream
17. Todd Terje, It’s Album Time
16. Future, Honest
15. Spoon, They Want My Soul
14. Tove Lo, Queen of the Clouds
13. Johnny Foreigner, You Can Do Better
12. Wye Oak, Shriek
11. Wild Beasts, Present Tense
10. MIGOS, No Label II
9. Charli XCX, Sucker
8. Future Islands, Singles
7. Run The Jewels, Run The Jewels 2
6. Caribou, Our Love
5. Perfume Genius, Too Bright
4. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib, Piñata
3. Lykke Li, I Never Learn
2. D’Angelo, Black Messiah
1. Against Me!, Transgender Dysphoria Blues