Eric Church, "The Outsiders"
The quintessential outlaw pushed himself into unknown territory with his fourth studio album, offering nuance and tenderness alongside stomping anthems and pushing Eric Church into a new class of country superstardom.
Lykke Li, "I Never Learn"
The lonely woman at the center of Lykke Li's third album may not look anything like the flirtatious pixie from 2008 debut "Youth Novels," but the Swedish singer-songwriter is still pumping out massive hooks and powerful turns-of-phrase -- it's just that the shades are much darker now.
The Black Keys, "Turn Blue"
The long-awaited follow-up to the Black Keys' breakthrough album "El Camino" found Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney exploring seductive psych-rock with a degree of self-assuredness that the duo has always sported when stowing another genre into its bag of tricks.
Pharrell Williams, "G I R L"
Pharrell sounds re-invigorated on "G I R L" compared to his flat solo debut "In My Mind," placing the rhymes aside and instead operating as a funky master of ceremonies alongside Miley Cyrus, Justin Timberlake, Alicia Keys and Daft Punk.
The War on Drugs, "Lost In The Dream"
The Philadelphia rockers created something wholly unique with "Lost In The Dream," their towering follow-up to 2011's "Slave Ambient" that expertly mixed long, luxurious song structures with compact hooks straight out of your favorite 70s radio block.
Freddie Gibbs + Madlib, "Pinata"
The Indiana rapper and oddball producer teamed up for a devastating combination of rhymes and beats reminiscent of Madlib's career highlight, 2004's "Madvillainy."
Sam Smith, "In The Lonely Hour"
The velvety voice of Sam Smith was earning plenty of buzz before "In The Lonely Hour" arrived in June, but the U.K. singer's debut album met all expectations, as Smith showcased his various vulnerabilities over sumptuous production and with a magnetic vocal presence.
Sylvan Esso, "Sylvan Esso"
The folk-pop musings of Sylvan Esso have been 2014's best slow-grower so far -- the weight of each song on this self-titled album sneaks up on the listener, masked in technicolor beats and guitar whispers, with Amelia Meath's lilting voice often provoking a heartfelt response.
Lana Del Rey, "Ultraviolence"
No longer a joke for the Tumblr generation, Lana Del Rey defiantly proved her artistic merit by releasing one of the most hypnotic pop albums of the year, a balled-up collection of contradictions that one can't help but try to unravel.
Damon Albarn, "Everyday Robots"
After years of steering Blur, Gorillaz and various other projects, Damon Albarn decided to finally shine the spotlight on himself and produced an album's worth of playful ideas, unexpected introspection and fascinating reflections, with the help of his pals Brian Eno and Richard Russell.
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