Ten years ago, I didn’t think the album stood a chance. Music was shifting to an online, pay-per-download model and MP3 players like Winamp and iTunes were leading a playlist revolution. The LP (as the record collectors like to call ’em), was an outmoded sales tool devised by labels to sell records and CDs. Surely it would disappear, just like record stores and CD mail-order clubs.
But the LP survived. Hit singles are still attached to albums, packaged in a bundle with less popular songs and hidden gems, weaving together a larger story than any lone single can tell. Albums still matter. They capture the mood of the time, both for the artist and the listener. In the music industry, singles are commodities. Albums are collections, released on a set date and denoted visually by a cover image.
Listening to an album from beginning to end is still the best way to enjoy an artist, and below are the 20 albums from 2014 we think sound great front to back. For some of our picks, we wrote the traditional end-of-year review. For others, we posted screen grabs from our Facebook page to highlight which music industry folks are digging the same artists that we are. And in a few instances, we simply posted the entire album from Spotify, so you can hear it and decide for yourself. And if you want to hear all the songs through Spotify, just click here and you can copy our Best of 2014 playlist to your account. (And as bonus, Bandit the Dog weighs in on a few of the albums too.)
I finally saw these guys at this year’s Hopscotch Fest in Raleigh. They played this small club called the Lincoln Theatre, and despite the packed house, I thought they seemed a little withdrawn. Like they were skeptical that so many folks had come to see them. Their latest is a rare brainy album for the psych rock genre, and its earned plenty of mainstream press, including a March premiere on NPR’s First Listen.
What Stereogum says: It sounds very much like the Pennsylvania in which it was created, with all the state’s crumbling factories and formerly-grand-now-decrepit stone buildings: some strange psychedelic portrait of Americana and memory. This is what a hundred rides down a highway sound like when you’re loaded down with the perceptual mess of decades of highway mythology.
“Let Me Down Easy” is a haunting, soulful track with an addictive hook that’s getting a lot of play on Sirius XM. Paolo is Scotland’s contribution to Neo-Soul, and while his songs are more rooted in Bob Marley than Marvin Gaye, he holds his place with contemporaries like Sharon Jones and Fitz and the Tantrums.
What Consequence of Sound says: “One listen to Nutini’s music, especially his latest release, and you’ll have further proof that you can’t judge an artist on anything other than the music. Sunny Side Up sounds like the work of a comfortable artist who’s found his niche, not like the sophomore release of a 22 year-old.”
18. Future Islands, Singles
For fans of Flock of Seagulls, The Cure and The National
Bandit says: Future Islands sound like they come from a different era….like before gluten free dog food.
What does Swedish vintage country sound like? Kind of like Dolly Parton. The sibling duo that is First Aid Kit has released its second country album and we can’t get enough of that classic Nashville sound. A great pickup for fans longing for a little Euro with their Grand Ole Opry.
What Rolling Stone says: “Seven years ago, when Swedish sister duo Johanna and Klara Söderberg appeared on YouTube singing a Fleet Foxes song in a forest, they seemed like an adorable one-view wonder. Instead, they’ve blossomed into an excellent indie-country act, like the Carter Family if they’d grown up on Lee Hazlewood’s Cowboy in Sweden and Emmylou Harris.
16. Jenny Lewis, The Voyager
For fans of Patsy Cline, The Pixies and Little Big Town
Bandit says: I’ve been listening to her for years…and I’m just NOW discovering she ISN’T Zooey Deschanel
15. Sam Smith, In The Lonely Hour
For fans of John Legend, Bobby Womack and Adele
I just discovered this album during my year-end round-up research. Dan Steinberg tipped me off to Sturgill, and I was immediately drawn to his classic outlaw country sound, a mix of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, but on much better drugs. Whether it’s heart broken ballads or rocking bar fight anthems, Sturgill breathes new life into a genre that’s been stuck in niche mode for years.
What Rolling Stone says: “Marijuana, LSD, psilocybin, DMT, they all changed the way I see/But love’s the only thing that ever saved my life,” sings Simpson. The Kentucky-born singer-songwriter’s breakthrough album features plenty more folk wisdom, delivered in a singular barrel-aged baritone.
Alt-J’s “Fitzpleasure” was the soundtrack for Amplify’s first video — we were attracted to its self-assuredness, its subtle anger and its extreme strangeness. Alt-J’s second outing is just as strange and scary — “Left Hand Free” is the anthem of carefree badasses and excellent spellers. The English band reminds me of 90s weird-rockers Ween, but with more of a rock and electronic focus and a lead singer that occasionally sounds like Kermit the Frog.
What Rolling Stone says: “The English prog-folk rockers grew to arena scale without losing their weirdness …Joe Newman’s Bilbo Baggins warble wanders through monkish choirs, electronic squelches and woodland chirping, with a Miley Cyrus sample representing the world outside the band’s cozy hideaway.”
12. Lana Del Rey, Ultraviolence
For fans of Amy Winehouse, Mary J Blige and Bright Eyes
What Stereogum says: Now that she’s had a couple of years to figure out her character, LDR is on fire, turning sex into power and danger into glamor, going hard on old-Hollywood stereotypes and making them new.
Our little Hunter is finally growing up. Hunter Hayes’ second album was his first collaborative effort, written with other musicians during his two-year break out tour. In 2015, he’ll start to get his new material in front of larger audiences with the help of The Messina Group’s Ali Harnell.
What the LA Times says: “At a moment when Nashville is busy churning out bro after party-hearty bro, Hayes is an anomaly: a fresh-faced guitar prodigy who writes about his feelings and looks like he’s never cracked a beer, let alone downed one while kicking back on a rusty tailgate.”
10. Beck, Morning Phase
For fans of Wilco, Morrissey and Patti Smith.
9. Ryan Adams, Ryan Adams
For fans of Gram Parsons, Counting Crows and Neil Young.
Bandit say: If I ever met Ryan Adams, I wouldn’t try to sniff his butt. You know. Just out of respect.
It’s only five glorious tracks, but Robyn’s dance-heavy EP with Röyksopp is the result of two of Sweden’s biggest dance acts finally combining their creative forces into a smart, beat-driven record. “Do It Again” is one of Robyn’s best songs — I saw the pair perform the song live at the Hollywood Bowl this summer and it was one of the most energetic concerts I saw in 2014.
What Pitchfork says: “Though technically an EP, the 35-minute Do It Again has the epic sweep of a proper album, with contemplative instrumental passages helping frame the more conventional songwriting.”
The only rap album on our Top 20 chart (and the only one issued for free download) is this sophomore record from El-P and Killer Mike of Outkast. With so many hip hop acts relying on auto-tune and SoundForge to tweek their vocal range, Run the Jewels 2 is the rare raw rap record that sounds like it was written with live performances in mind. It’s a mix of clever aggression and lyrical stomach jabs, spun at a dizzyingly fast tempo. Run the Jewels 2 is heavy on violence and misogyny — for some reason rappers still get a pass on this stuff — and while a lot of the material might feel familiar to hip hop fans, casual listeners should be aware that Run the Jewels 2’s lyrics and message are very hardcore.
What Pitchfork El and Mike deliver both blows to the sternum and elbow-jabs to the ribs; there are hours worth of instantly quotable, clever ignorance, as in El-P’s already much-loved request that haters, “Can all run naked backwards through a field of dicks.”
6. Jack White, Lazerreto
For fans of The White Stripes, The Dead Weather and The Raconteurs.
Bandit says: I once hung out with Jack White. Cool guy. Kind of weird. Kept talking about eating beef jerky out of a coffin. I was like, “you had me at beef jerky.”
Part rock, part country, Eric Church’s latest is the rare concept album designed for a beginning-to-end listening experience, yet still radio friendly for programming directors, with great singles like “The Outsiders” and “Cold One.” Its heavy guitars, boisterous hooks and rebel lyrics make “The Outsiders” an appropriate battle anthem for America’s small-town roughnecks.
What Rolling Stone says: “In an era teeming with bro-country, Church made a great record by following his rock & roll rebel heart. Prog riffs, bourbon-drawl raps and stoner funk sit straight-faced next to radio-friendly takes on NASCAR good times and broken hearts – styles and subjects that connect because Church obviously loves every one of them.”
One of the most overlooked albums of the year, Pharrell’s ground-breaking album is more than just the LP home for his mega-hit single “Happy.” Tracks like “Marilyn Monroe,” “Hunter” and “Come Get It Bae” are smart, funk-driven dance tracks with touches of MJ, JT and Usher. G I R L is upbeat, fast-moving, addictively catchy and meticulously arranged and produced. It really should be listened to through high-end headphones, but sounds great full-blast in your car. And Pharrell’s concerts are entertaining as hell — while his first set at Coachella was disrupted by a wind storm, his performance the following weekend was 50 minutes of pure soul-driven adrenaline.
What Pitchfork says: The appeal of Pharrell’s production has long been a push-and-pull between elegance and agitation. He’s capable of sounds that can blow your eardrums and gently caress them into submission.
My wife, Kristen, might disagree, but I thought the best show we saw in 2014 was Spoon at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. In a near pitch-black environment, Spoon effortlessly went from the new, airy material on “They Want My Soul” to the more disparate and clanky guitar sounds of albums like “Transference” and “Gimme Fiction.” Their eighth studio album is more polished and introspective than past Spoon records, but songs like “Do You” and “Rent I Pay” solidify the group as one of the best rock bands of the modern era.
What Stereogum says: “Spoon’s shiniest, grooviest, most nocturnal release yet…this is Spoon at the height of their powers but injecting a few new colors into the mix — mostly a range of luminescent blues that work as well on a humid night walk through Manhattan as they do on a humid night drive through Florida.”
What’s not to like about the Foo Fighters right now? Their new album is 42 minutes of roaring guitar solos, teeming melodies and rock and roll yelled at the top of Dave Grohl’s lungs. When listened from end to end, it’s hard to believe the album contacts only eight individual tracks. The Foo Fighters are everywhere — on HBO, on a mega-stadium and arena tour next summer, and on the T-shirts of the tens of thousands of fans who queued for hours during their Beat the Box walkup ticket sales promotion. Here at Amplify, we can’t get enough Dave Grohl…Nirvana, Queens of the Stone Age, Them Crooked Vultures, and of course, Foo Fighters. And next year with be the 20th anniversary of their first self-titled album and its raucous single “This Is A Call.” Grohl hasn’t only shaped modern rock music, he’s steadfastly remained dedicated to the genre. Now stop reading this and listen to “In The Clear” at full blast.
What Rolling Stone says: “Whether they’re celebrating Buddy Guy in Chicago or getting in touch with their punk-rock roots in D.C., the bedrock force remains their anthemic guitar charge. By now, that’s a classic American sound in its own right.”
Before the million-dollar Diet Coke, the marathon radio rotation for “Shake It Off,” and the serial dating of teenage heartthrobs, Taylor Swift was just a nice girl from Pennsylvania with a guitar and a dream. She moved to Nashville at the age of 14 and accomplished more before she hit 20 than most country stars will in a lifetime. Her new album, “1989,” solidifies what many believed when they first heard her “Red” album — that Taylor is surprisingly better at pop than country. The second single, “Blank Space,” is as much a declaration of creative freedom as it a boy-crazy ode to the players and cool guys Taylor’s fans obsess over. Her music wisely borrows from other female performers, whether it’s Robyn on “Blank Space,” Lana Del Rey on “Wildest Dreams,” or Gwen Stefani on “I Know Places.” Plenty of her tracks, however, are uniquely Taylor. “This Love” and “Clean” are reminiscent of her early country ballads, and with a slightly different arrangement would have fit perfectly on “Fearless.” If you even remotely enjoyed the single “Shake It Off,” then give this album a couple spins. And if you haven’t forked over the $14 yet to download it from iTunes, buy the album from Target so you get the extra three tracks. In fact, this is the only album on our Top 20 list that you actually have to pay for — we’re here to tell you it’s worth the money.
What Stereogum says: “She’s created something that feels closer to the “true” Taylor Swift…and she’s done it by borrowing heavily and smartly from her contemporaries.”