2014 is halfway done and for music fans, it's been a great one so far. Over the last six months, we've spent countless hours listening to albums from a wide range of musicians that we've loved for years as well as just now discovering. Click through to see our picks for the 25 best albums of the year so far ... and make sure you add these to your listening stacks if you already haven't!
Stand-Out Tracks: "No Rest for the Wicked," "I Never Learn," "Silver Line"
Why It's Great: The Swedish songstress' third album is a dark, deep plunge into a heart-wrenching breakup—but it's not all doom and gloom. While track titles like "Never Gonna Love Again" and "Sleeping Alone" encompass the subject matter, Li's uplifting melodies and moving production give the LP a much-needed sense of hope and optimism. The 28-year-old's vocals also shine, proving she's no longer the squeaky-voiced, shy girl from her debut single "Little Bit," but a wiser, weathered woman; best heard on the acoustic torch ballad "Love Me Like I'm Not Made of Stone."
Fun fact: Following her critically-acclaimed Youth Novels and Wounded Rhymes LPs, Li said I Never Learn is the final installment in her trilogy of album releases chronicling "a woman in her twenties and her search for love and herself." -Jeff Benjamin
Stand Out Tracks: "Digital Witness," "Rattlesnake," "Huey Newton"
Why It's Great: This is the album that finds Annie Clark going from an off-kilter songstress to an indie titan. Like Bowie on the Berlin trilogy, her voice matches the angular guitar work and the icy-yet-buoyant tone of the music. And just like Bowie, she somehow makes carefully premeditated art rock a complete joy to listen to.
Fun Fact: Clark described the album as a "party record you could play at a funeral." We'll keep that in mind. -Joe Lynch
Stand Out Tracks: “She Looks So Perfect,” “Heartache on the Big Screen”
Why It’s Great: The return of rock music just for teens! Unlike their good friends (and overlords) One Direction, Australian teen heartthrobs 5 Seconds Of Summer don’t embrace a boy band identity. Instead, they all play their instruments (a few Blink-182-esq palm-muted power chords here and there, vocals taken straight from All Time Low) and champion a pop-punk personality. Boys with accents and tattoos have never been so swoon-worthy!
Fun Fact: She Looks So Perfect is the boys first stateside EP—and the video for the title track currently has over 37 million plays on YouTube - and still American Apparel has yet to reach out to them about underwear. Bummer! -Maria Sherman
Stand Out Tracks: “Psychic Trauma,” “I’m Not Part of Me”
Why It’s Great: In a world where new guitar bands are seen as pastiche, Cloud Nothings’ unique Midwest poppy post-punk reigns supreme. If your taste veers towards the heavy and melodic, look no further. Sometimes the grizzliest of snares are the most cathartic.
Fun Fact: Cloud Nothings have good luck with producers—last year’s impressive Attack on Memory was worked on by Big Black’s Steve Albini (who frontman Dylan Baldi famously berated for ignoring them in the studio by sitting on his computer playing scrabble all day.) Here and No Where Else was recorded with the help of John Congleton, who's worked with everyone from Modest Mouse to David Byrne. -Maria Sherman
Stand Out Tracks: "Happy," "Marilyn Monroe"
Why It's Great: "Happy" was stuck in our heads long before Pharrell dropped G I R L courtesy of the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack, but that doesn't make the meteoric single any less addictive. The rest of the album brings about plenty of dancey goodness a la "Happy" and serves as a fine addition to the prolific producing, singing and rapping triple-threat's repertoire.
Fun Fact: "Happy" lost to Frozen's "Let It Go" for Best Original Song at the Oscars, and Pharrell's response to losing was pretty much the best. When GQ asked him about it, he replied, "Well, trust me: when they read the results, my face was ... frozen. But then I thought about it, and I just decided just to ... let it go." -Hilary Hughes
Stand Out Tracks: "Breakfast," "Cobbler," "Bless the Telephone"
Why It's Great: A creative 180 from her EDM-inspired Flesh Tone album, Kelis' latest combines Fela Kuti-esque Afrobeat and southern soul with modern-day electronic elements. Peppy horns, funky basslines and real-life conversations with Kelis and friends pepper the album for a new kind of feel-good record. There are elements of Janelle Monae's quirky R&B, but also a bit of Simon & Garfunkel's classic harmony delivery. This isn't "Milkshake," but it's still super tasty.
Fun fact: While promoting Food during release week, the certified cordon-blue chef cooked hearty treats like macaroni and cheese, chocolate doughnuts, grits and jerks ribs for the audience. -Jeff Benjamin
Stand Out Tracks: “Love Never Felt So Good,” “Loving You,” “A Place With No Name (Original Version)”
Why It's Great: If you’re going to listen to the “new” Michael Jackson posthumous album, do yourself a favor and make it the deluxe edition. A handful of the updated tracks are great but the best part of this release is getting the full, high-quality versions of the originals dug out of the Jackson vault. Many of these songs have existed on the web in rough or unfinished forms for years, so getting them in full is a treat for MJ fans. And most of the originals are better than their updated counterparts.
Fun Fact: Mat Maitland, who did the art direction and design for Xscape also did art direction and design for HAIM's debut album Days Are Gone, Lana Del Rey's Ultraviolence album, and Prince's recent single "Fallinlove2nite" with Zooey Deschanel. -Mark Sundstrom
Stand Out Tracks: “Loco De Amor,” “La Verdad,” “Una Flor,” “Delirio”
What It's Great: With a title like Loco De Amor (‘Crazy In Love’), Juanes’ latest album is clearly full of love songs. It's not exactly new territory for the Colombian pop-rocker, but an entire album of it is. Juanes is more known for socially conscious (and super-catchy) hits, but here he softened up and fans seem happy, too - its already out-sold the singer/songwriter’s last studio album, 2010’s P.A.R.C.E., in his native Colombia.
Fun Fact: The album was produced by Steve Lillywhite, who doesn't speak Spanish, but is famous for working with U2, Peter Gabriel and the Rolling Stones. -Mark Sundstrom
Stand-Out Tracks: "Childs Play" ft. Chance the Rapper, "Julia," "Green Mile"
Why It's Great: Silver-throated singer-songwriter SZA has delivered one of the most compelling R&B releases of the year with her 10-song EP, Z, her first release with Top Dawg Entertainment. Although she has only been making music since 2012, SZA sings with a charisma and evocative ease that could make you swear she’s been at it for centuries. The artfully understated production on Z is noteworthy, as are the features from Chance the Rapper and TDE labelmates Kendrick Lamar and Isiah Rashad, but none deters the focus from SZA’s velvety, jazzed-out vocals and lyrical poetry. Z is so smooth and intoxicating you’ll want to drink it. Hell, you’ll want to drown.
Fun Fact: SZA has said that she doesn't write down lyrics before recording, she just freestyles off the top of her head. -Ariel LeBeau
Stand Out Tracks: "Sheezus," "Air Balloon"
Why It's Great: Allen's back, as unapologetic as ever and timely as hell. The title track is enough for a small army of think pieces on feminism in pop and how we view women dominating the charts, and she's the only one who can get away with dropping Bey, Riri and Lorde in two swift verses no matter the context.
Fun Fact: A little nervous about how Kanye would take her album title, Allen eventually laughed it off—and so did Mr. (and Mrs.) West. "I'm a really big fan of Kanye's so it was a little nod to him," Allen told The Today Show. "He hadn't heard it, it came out the day after, but he thought it was funny. And Kim said, 'I'm the real Sheezus.'" -Hilary Hughes
Stand Out Tracks: “Magic,” “Ocean”
Why It’s Great: The world needed a new Coldplay record, one free of shtick. A Rush of Blood to the Head was massive, Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends was almost too over the top, choking on its own size. Mylo Xyolo was quickly forgotten. Ghost Stories is none and all of these things. It will win over the non-believers and continue to secure Coldplay’s place as one of the biggest bands in the world. Why? It knows it know the value of subtly in a ballad, how to embrace melancholy without isolating fans with tales of struggle.
Fun Fact: This might be Coldplay’s most emotionally depressive record to date (have you seen the album artwork? It’s literally angel wings shaped like a broken heart) as it tracks the dissolution of frontman Chris Martin’s marriage with actress Gwyneth Paltrow. Think concept record full of desperation, self-pity, and finally acceptance. Less of a fun fact, we guess! -Maria Sherman
Stand Out Tracks: "Weight of Love," "Fever," "Bullet in the Brain"
Why It's Great: The Black Keys have built a successful formula by using past rock traditions to their advantage; Turn Blue is no different. The band has opted for a more woozy, psychedelic sound this time that sounds great now, but would fit right in during the summer of '69.
Fun Fact: The band wrangled Mike Tyson to announce the album via his Twitter account. -Mike Ayers
Stand Out Tracks: "Heart is a Drum," "Say Goodbye," "Blackbird Chain"
Why It's Great: Seen as a companion piece to Beck's excellent 2002 folk-bummer Sea Change, Morning Phase is his best collection of songs in years. The album's tone is quite melancholy, but the lush arrangements and beautiful melodies make this one of the year's prettiest albums.
Fun Fact: When playing Morning Phase cuts live, Beck has rounded up fellow folkie Father John Misty to play guitar on tour. -Mike Ayers
Stand Out Tracks: "Snow Beach," "So Sick Stories" ft. King Krule
Why It's Great: Aside from rounding up the eclectic, post-genre sounds of the New York hip-hop underground, So It Goes is startlingly and casually inventive. It's also one of the few rap debuts in recent memory that isn't constructed primarily as a means to make the artist rich and famous. These kids made a rap album to make a rap album, not merely to reap the benefits.
Fun Fact: The album's title is a reference to the "so it goes" refrain Kurt Vonnegut uses throughout his classic sci-fi novel Slaughterhouse-Five. -Joe Lynch
Standout Tracks: "Top Notch," "Every Stone” and "Indentions"
Why It’s Great: The only thing better than listening to the guitar-heavy rock of Cope is seeing the band perform the new songs live. It’s like a wall of sound hitting you right in the chest.
Fun fact: Frontman Andy Hull claimed he "didn’t know where all the guitar went" on rock radio – so the band made a concerted effort to deliver a loud, guitar-heavy album. -Thomas Nassiff
Stand Out Tracks: “Faded,” “Dedicated” ft. Nas, “#Beautiful” ft. Miguel, “Make It Look Good,” “Camouflage"
Why It's Great: Mariah Carey may have rose to fame singing pop ballads and is still a "pop star" nearly three decades into her career, but let’s be clear: Mariah's been making R&B albums since her '97 classic Butterfly. Her sales may have declined in recent years yet she refuses to trendhop, for example Top 40’s recent preoccupation with dance music. For fans, Me. I Am Mariah is a near-perfect mix of classic Mariah ballads and modern R&B jams she nails, courtesy of producers like Mike WiLL Made It and Hit-Boy. Forget charts and numbers – if there’s one thing Mariah does extremely well, it’s give her Lambs exactly what they want.
Fun Fact: The final song on the standard edition of the album is gospel track "Heavenly (No Ways Tired/Can't Give Up Now)" is a dedication to iconic gospel musician Reverend James Cleveland, who died in 1991. Mariah even samples one of his sermons on the track. -Mark Sundstrom
Stand Out Tracks: "Bomb" ft. Raekwon, "Scarface"
Why It's Great: There are A+ guest spots from Danny Brown, Raekwon, Ab-Soul and Scarface, but this album succeeds wildly because Freddie Gibbs turns in his best work yet, and Madlib delivers some of his most inspired production work. It's an instant cult classic, and its reputation will only increase over the years.
Fun Fact: The album's original title was Cocaine Pinata, inspired by a dream Freddie Gibbs had where he envisioned having a child and watching them whack a piñata apart at their birthday party until cocaine started streaming out instead of candy. -Joe Lynch
Stand Out Tracks: “The Scope of All This Rebuilding,” “Your Deep Rest," "Dendron”
Why It’s Great: A lot of fuss has been made about the “emo revival” this year, but the show has been completely stolen by Home, Like Noplace Is There. Nothing short of an instant classic in its genre, this is the type of record that seems like it’ll be looked back upon fondly for years to come. Vocalist Christian Holden writes uber-catchy melodies, yet it’s one of the saddest, intimate albums released this year.
Fun fact: Home, Like Noplace Is There is the Hotelier’s first release under that moniker and serves as a leap in sound for the act formerly known as the Hotel Year (when they released their 2011 full-length It Never Goes Out). -Thomas Nassiff
Stand Out Tracks: "Your Graduation,” “Rock Bottom," "Charlie Black"
Why It’s Great: Blending the teenage angst of early-2000s emo with the unabashed honesty and energy of modern pop-punk, Modern Baseball stumbled upon something full of promise with You’re Gonna Miss It All. The winter release date set them up for an enormous 2014 and they’ve already taken advantage – the Philly quartet opened for the Wonder Years on their U.S. headlining tour and embarked on their own string of sold-out headlining dates this summer. Time should only be kinder to MoBo if they can keep up the quality work.
Fun fact: With only their sophomore LP, Modern Baseball managed to top the Billboard Vinyl Sales chart when You’re Gonna Miss It All debuted. -Thomas Nassiff
Stand Out Tracks: "Come Back Home," "Baby I Miss You," "Gotta Be You"
Why It's Great: After keeping fans waiting nearly four years for their second full-length album, the K-pop phenoms did not disappoint with a slew of forward-thinking, wholly-accessible tracks. Crush proves 2NE1's knack for genre-melding from the start, opening with the title track that blends Indian tabla drums and switchboard-button buzzing, followed by the reggae/trap-hybrid single "Come Back Home." Group leader and head rapper CL even takes center stage on incredible solo track "MTBD," that sounds like an upgraded version of DJ Snake's "Turn Down for What."
Fun fact: Crush broke the record for the biggest first-week sales for a K-pop album in America. The set hit No. 61 on the Billboard 200—also breaking the record for the highest-charting K-pop release. -Jeff Benjamin
Stand Out Tracks: “It’s You,” “NRG," “Goody Two Shoes”
Why It’s Great: While self-serious EDM anthems continue to enthrall the masses, veteran DJ-producers Armand Van Helden and A-Trak released an album that proves the best dance music has a healthy sense of humor. The club-ubiquitous (and years-old) “aNYthing” and “Barbra Streisand” are right at home in Quack!’s masterful patchwork of disco house bangers, obscure movie samples and surprisingly funny skits. An absolute must for fans of Daft Punk and Remedy-era Basement Jaxx.
Fun fact: The vocals on “Everyone” are credited to Teddy Toothpick, a pseudonym for Chromeo vocalist Dave 1—who happens to be A-Trak’s brother. -Samantha Vincenty
Stand Out Tracks: "Collard Greens," "Studio"
Why It's Great: Kendrick Lamar associate Schoolboy Q has released a steady stream of mixtapes over the years and his major label debut makes good on the promise of those - it's a gritty, dark, authentic sounding portrait of a guy growing up in L.A., just trying to cut through the noise of life and rap.
Fun Fact: The album hit number one off pre-orders alone! -Mike Ayers
Stand Out Tracks: "Mr. Tembo," "You & Me," "The Selfish Giant"
Why It's Great: After spending several decades with Blur and Gorillaz, Albarn finally released his first solo album and it's some of the best material he's produced in years. The songs are mostly intricate, weird ballads that feature some of Albarn at his wry best.
Fun Fact: The song "Mr. Tembo" is about a baby elephant that Albarn recently met. -Mike Ayers
Stand Out Tracks: "F--KMYLIFE666," "Transgender Dysphoria Blues"
Why It's Great: This is Laura Jane Grace's transformative opus, a record that details and is inspired by what she went through when she came out as transgender. It's a solid rock 'n' roll work of art, but the raw, revealing lyrics make this a commendable feat.
Fun Fact: Against Me! continue to deliver adrenaline-soaked performances, but the songs of Transgender Dysphoria Blues make for one of their most satisfying and energetic live shows yet. -Hilary Hughes
Stand Out Tracks: “Lost on the Way Home,” “Jealous (I Ain’t With It)”
Why It’s Great: Chromeo’s fourth album isn’t a grand departure from the kitschy '80s synth sound they’re known for, but it IS an evolution. Between Dave 1’s signature electro-Lothario pleas to leave your man behind so he can wine and dine you on a beach, there’s real emotional depth in “Lost on the Way Home” with Solange and “Ezra’s Interlude” featuring Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig. White Women is the first Chromeo album to mix funk with feelings, and the result is their strongest release yet.
Fun fact: P-Thugg and Dave 1 told Fuse
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