Ten years after Madlib recorded one of the most imaginative rap LPs of the century as the duo Madvillain with MF DOOM, the producer’s soulful soundscapes provided the perfect fodder for Indiana MC Freddie Gibbs’ bruising imagery. Guest spots from Raekwon and Danny Brown impress, but not as much as Gibbs, on his most cohesive project to date.
9. The War On Drugs, Lost In The Dream
2011’s Slave Ambient served as a breakthrough moment for Philly indie rockers the War on Drugs, but this year’s Lost In The Dream was something altogether bigger, an ambitious tour of classic rock that begins with the nine-minute epic “Under The Pressure” and rarely lets up.
8. Aphex Twin, Syro
Thirteen years after Richard D. James’ last album, the U.K. electronic pioneer triumphantly returned as Aphex Twin this year with little warning and a sublime new set of songs. Syro is a difficult work to wrap one’s head around, but each listen unearths pockets of beauty behind every beat, synth riff and warped vocal.
7. Lykke Li, I Never Learn
Lykke Li’s 2008 debut album, Youth Novels, showcased a soft-voiced, flirtatious pop artist from Sweden; six years later, that persona has vanished, chased away by a devastating breakup at the heart of I Never Learn. The nine songs here carry immense power, from the gospel-tinged “Heart of Steel” to the aching plea “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone.”
6. Bleachers, Strange Desire
From the moment Jack Antonoff announced his new solo project in early 2014, the Fun. guitarist stressed that Bleachers was not a side project, but an exciting new creative outlet. Indeed, Strange Desire sounds nothing like a Fun. album, as Antonoff traded in his band’s alt-rock anthems for colorfully quirky indie-pop with a bleeding New Jersey heart.
5. Ed Sheeran, X
At the moment Ed Sheeran could have retreated into radio-approved pop-folk and churned out an album full of “A Team’s,” the U.K. wunderkind dared to dream bigger, working with Pharrell Williams, Benny Blanco and Rick Rubin on his zealous sophomore effort. Sheeran scored more hits with X, but more importantly, he proved that he’s capable of much more than the typical folk artist.
4. Jenny Lewis, The Voyager
“No matter how hard I try to have an open mind/There’s a little clock inside that keeps tickin’,” Jenny Lewis sings on “Just One Of The Guys,” a single that confirms that the former Rilo Kiley singer can’t stop thinking about getting older. The Voyager is the work of a veteran artist acknowledging her veteran status and represents Lewis’ most confident statement to date, with each expertly crafted song painting the portrait of a regular person unafraid to discuss her strengths and insecurities.
3. Sam Smith, In The Lonely Hour
Before he was a radio regular and Grammy darling, Sam Smith was writing songs about his heartache that left no emotional stone unturned. Highlighted by hit singles “Stay With Me” and “I’m Not The Only One,” In The Lonely Hour not only featured a once-in-a-generation voice but a slew of killer singles that captured Smith’s songwriting brilliance.
2. Run The Jewels, Run The Jewels 2
When Killer Mike and El-P started Run The Jewels last year, their collaborative album felt like an enjoyable victory lap following their excellent 2012 solo albums, R.A.P. Music and Cancer 4 Cure. Run The Jewels 2 is no victory lap — the album is a punishing display of technical skill, with each song bleeding into the next and Mike trading lines with El so nimbly that it seems like the two MCs possess two halves of one brain. 2014 had some pretty good rap albums, but when RTJ2 was released in October, it laid waste to all of them.
1. Taylor Swift, 1989
Abandoning your tried-and-true genre for the one with the shortest memory of success? Not a problem for Taylor Swift, who set country music aside on 1989 and proceeded to conquer the pop world with effortless hooks and an overabundance of charisma. What makes 1989 so special in Swift’s ever-impressive discography is its mastery of music that the biggest artist had left untouched on her first four albums; Swift doesn’t just stuff “Shake It Off” with horn riffs, she makes sure that the horn riffs are immaculate so that she can successfully shrug off the haters. Many artists have attempted the sea change that Swift accomplished on 1989, but few have rendered that vision as successfully.