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Best of 2014

40 Best Albums of 2014

Major breakthroughs (5SOS, Sam Smith), career milestones (Taylor Swift, Foo Fighters) and "Happy" hits (hi Pharrell!) ran wild in 2014, so here's our final tally on the best releases

    1 / 40

    Against Me!, 'Transgender Dysphoria Blues'

    Transgender issues are a groundbreaking subject for any band, but it seems especially suited for Against Me!’s brand of assaulting punk. A lot of Transgender Dysphoria Blues is thematically about the gender struggles of lead singer Laura Jane Grace, and her journey coming out as trans. But this genre has always been about identity angst, whether you’re venting about sexuality, class or race. So when Grace levels a crowd with a line like, “I want to piss on the walls of your house,” you know it’s coming from an honest place. — Jonathan Stern

    2 / 40

    Ariana Grande, 'My Everything'

    On her debut Yours TrulyAriana Grande had an ambitious plan to sell old-school R&B to her tween-y demographic, and it landed her a No. 1 album. She challenged herself further on her sophomore effort with a more expansive set that included throwback sounds (lead single "Problem" and the excellent "Break Your Heart Right Back"), but also dove into unexplored territory alongside unexpected collaborators like The Weeknd (on their sensual, synth-pop single "Love Me Harder"), A$AP Ferg (on raunchy club banger "Hands on Me") and more. The disc feels like Ariana went for a moment similar to Christina Aguilera's sophomore release Stripped, which was an exploration of genres, but all centered around one thing: That voice. — Jeff Benjamin

    3 / 40

    Azealia Banks, 'Broke With Expensive Taste'

    Back in Q3 2011, 20-year-old Harlem rapper/Mickey sweater fan Azealia Banks became a major shaper of the '90s rap kid aesthetic. "212" was viral fun, half-rapped/half-sung and Biggie-level foul. Since then, Azealia has torn the internet apart with Twitter beefs, a too-short 2012 EP, 1991, and a too-long mixtape that same year, Fantasea. FINALLY, Broke with Expensive Taste showed up on the internet one November day not long after Azealia split with Universal. Featuring more than a dozen drastically different producers and about 500 different styles—Azealia's beloved club-friendly "witch-hop," long sets of Spanish bars, vintage rap sounds, that delightful "212" flow—Broke with Expensive Taste was worth the wait and then some. — Zach Dionne

    4 / 40

    The Black Keys, 'Turn Blue'

    On their eighth album, The Black Keys returned to the studio with Danger Mouse and brought a flight case full of moodiness with them. The brash arena-ready rock is dialed down, and the wavy ‘60s synths are turned up, as Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney opted to make a record that is psychedelic in tone, but bluesy at heart. Auerbach was going through a divorce when he wrote the album's material, and that probably has something to do with his bummer lyrics. But hey, that’s why you have your good pal, former boxer and one-man-show star Mike Tyson help announce the album. See, everything’s happy again! — Jonathan Stern

    5 / 40

    Bleachers, 'Strange Desire'

    fun. taught us that lead guitarist Jack Antonoff was capable of wonderful things, but Bleachers set it in stone. Antonoff launched his solo act with the posi-rock anthem "I Wanna Get Better" in February, then served up an album, Strange Desire, that matched the single's sweaty brilliance while adding a bunch of earnest love-lettering on the side. At a tight 38 minutes, Strange Desire's the type of album you've gotta hear again as soon as it's done—and the type that'll have us all counting the seconds 'til Bleachers comes back with new stuff. — Zach Dionne

    6 / 40

    Broods, 'Evergreen'

    All due respect to Lorde, but we're a little miffed fellow Kiwis Caleb and Georgia Nott—a.k.a. brother-sister duo Broods—didn't break out in a similar style a la the "Royals" singer. Evergreen sounds like what the The xx could be creating if they strived to go a little more pop. That's not to say the disc is chewy bubblegum: There's pangs of nostalgia (best heard on "Mother & Father"), longing ("Killing You") and other melancholy themes centered around Georgia's airy vocals. — Jeff Benjamin

    7 / 40

    Childish Gambino, 'STN MTN / Kauai'

    Rapper/actor Donald Glover released his best set yet, Because the Internet, at the tail end of 2013. While he could've taken a year or two to let the sophomore Childish Gambino album sink in, Glover opted instead to surprise the internet with STN MTN / Kauai, a free mix tape and digital EP that comprised two parts of the same extended dream. STN MTN finds Bino imagining what it'd be like to run his hometown of Atlanta. He effortlessly, quirkily raps on original tracks as well as staples by Ludacris, Future and Lil Wayne. (There's also a gorgeous rework of Usher's "U Don't Have to Call.") On Kauai, Gambino flexes his Michael Jackson muscles with seven nearly rap-less confections—luscious, beachy stuff that boasts plenty of originality (and a little Jaden Smith). STN MTN / Kauai doesn't just stoke excitement for the next Bino record. It stands strong on its own two legs. — Zach Dionne

    8 / 40

    Coldplay, 'Ghost Stories'

    Coldplay finally managed to find the middle ground between what they sounded like Back Then and what they sound like Right Now. Throbbing, make-you-feel-all-the-feels tracks like "Magic," "Ink" and "Another's Arms" resonate like "Fix You" and "Yellow," but they also play nice with the Beyoncés and the Taylor Swifts of the world. (Theory: "A Sky Full of Stars" is secretly a Rihanna dubstep song with Chris Martin playing an acoustic guitar quietly.) Ghost Stories was such a success that the band has already announced the follow-up, A Head Full of Dreams, which is being hyped as the band's swan song— Zach Dionne

    9 / 40

    Ed Sheeran, 'X'

    It’s not hyperbole to say there is no artist like Ed Sheeran. He’s the sensitive singer/songwriter who will rap just as soon as sing, collaborate with hip-hop heavyweights like Game and Rick Ross and hang out with Taylor Swift, Pharrell and Elton John on the regular. Hell, the kid can even dance. In Sheeran’s magical musical world, X brims with both R&B hooks and earnest ballads, and both brought the album to the No. 1 spot in 12 countries. He's created a place where a white kid from Suffolk is praised for his eclectic tastes, rather than mocked for his “ginger flow.” And if the rents are reasonable, we’re moving there. — Jonathan Stern

    10 / 40

    Eels, 'The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett'

    The eleventh Eels studio album, The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett, wasn't just the first to feature the frontman/only-real-band-member's actual name and face on the cover. It also ranked with 1998's Electro-Shock Blues and the 2005 double-LP Blinking Lights and Other Revelations as one of the most achingly beautiful personal documents Everett has ever released. Even divorced from the overall arc—loss, redemption, heartbreak, hard-earned wisdom—songs like "Parallels," "Mistakes of My Youth" and "A Swallow in the Sun" were strong enough to elate longtime Eels fans and to welcome newbies at the same time.  Zach Dionne

    11 / 40

    Eminem, 'Shady XV'

    We’re going to put a controversial statement out there: Eminem is pretty good at rapping. And we think that Slim Shady should continue spitting into a mic long after Shady Records' fifteenth anniversary passes. For his label's retrospective Shady XV, Em tapped such talents as Slaughterhouse and Yelawolf to contribute new work. The easy thing would have been to repackage all of the label's past hits. And we get that. But they came accompanied by a whole disc of memorable new material. — Jonathan Stern

    12 / 40

    Eric Church, 'The Outsiders'

    Yes, he is one of country’s biggest acts, but on The OutsidersEric Church is completely comfortable standing outside the bro-country circle and pointing in with two middle fingers. Whether he’s delivering a little swamp-rock sludge on “Cold One” or burning every bridge in Nashville on “Devil, Devil,” Church isn’t writing songs for the dudes going muddin' on the weekends or the scorned ladies left at the alter. As he says in “That’s Damn Rock & Roll,” "It ain’t about the money you make, when a record gets sold / It’s about doin’ it for nothin’, 'cause it lives in your soul." — Jonathan Stern

    13 / 40

    Foo Fighters, 'Sonic Highways'

    On Sonic HighwaysDave Grohl takes a victory lap across America, coming up with a concept album (and HBO series and tour) influenced by the cities that are the musical heart of this country. “Something from Nothing” nods to Chicago’s own Buddy Guy and Cheap Trick. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band backs the Foos on “In the Clear.” Fortunately for fans, Grohl’s musical fact-finding mission didn’t radically alter the Foo Fighters' sound. These are still stadium-filling anthems, but now with dashes of regional spice. — Jonathan Stern

    14 / 40

    Future, 'Honest'

    Future's been around the block, anchoring his own mixtapes and other people's singles with his gravely AutoTune, the one that sounds like nothing else on the radio. On Honest, his second studio album, Future dared to keep the guest stars to a minimum, to carry his own emotional, ravaging project on his own back. Posse cut "Move That Dope" was one of the biggest rap tracks of the year, and "Benz Friendz (Whatchutola)" might've featured the coolest André 3000 verse in years. Still, Future's nuanced solo songs—"I Be U," "Honest," "Blood, Sweat, Tears"—were what helped propel the album into the 2014 pantheon. — Zach Dionne

    15 / 40

    Hozier, 'Hozier'

    Yeah, U2 shook the music industry like a Polaroid picture when they opted to deposit their latest record in the music library of every iTunes user, but they weren't the only rockers making waves out of the Emerald Isle in 2014. Hozier burst forth with a heavy-hitting blend of folk, rock and serious blues chops with his self-titled full-length debut. The single "Take Me To Church" remained ringing in the ears of everyone who heard it long after its thought-provoking lyrics ceased to play. — Hilary Hughes

    16 / 40

    Iggy Azalea, 'The New Classic'

    This year Iggy Azalea was the biggest female rapper in the game. Iggy (and Charlie XCX) made a feast of the single “Fancy,” not only claiming the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100, but holding it longer than any other female MC. Sure, there have been a few critics (like Nicki Minaj) who have have looked sideways at Iggy for her work. But we have to warn you, Nicki: It looks like she's coming for your crown— Jonathan Stern

    17 / 40

    Jack White, 'Lazaretto'

    If you give Jack White a guitar and some acetate, you can pretty much be guaranteed good results. On his sophomore solo record, White turns out his signature freaked-out guitar riffs (“High Ball Stepper”), bluesman bravado (“Three Women”) and even a bit of old-school hip-hop-inspired vocals (“Lazaretto”). And, for an artist who typically eschews anything modern, White even opened up his Macbook and played around with Pro Tools. Then he probably shut the computer, threw it out the window of Third Man Records and went back to pressing an insanely complicated limited-edition vinyl version. — Jonathan Stern

    18 / 40

    Jessie Ware, 'Tough Love'

    We loved Jessie Ware's 2013 debut Devotion, but the South London native outdid herself with her sophomore effort. The singles, including the Prince/Sade-invoking title track, the folky second single "Say You Love Me" and "You & I (Forever)," co-written with Miguel, shine as torches for how to create a perfect modern-day R&B album. There are treats to be found deeper in the album too, via cuts like "Want Your Feeling," "Champagne Kisses" and "Cruel"—all of which boast a throwback feel. — Jeff Benjamin

    19 / 40

    Kelis, 'Food'

    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 Monáe's quirky R&B, but also a bit of Simon & Garfunkel's classic harmony delivery all topped off with Kelis' smoky vocals and better-than-ever songwriting. This isn't "Milkshake," but it's still super tasty. — Jeff Benjamin

    20 / 40

    Kindness, 'Otherness'

    The mysterious British singer created one of the year's most fascinating projects with Otherness. While some acts explore different sounds within their albums, Kindness spans multiple genres, sentiments and vocal deliveries within single tracks. It might seem messy to move from heartfelt warbles to bluesy saxophone blasts to clangy percussion (heard on single "This Is Not About Us") or to end a rap verse with a harp solo (in "8th Wonder"), but Kindness' superb production skills pull it off with ease. Critical faves like Robyn, Dev Hynes and Kelela make guest appearances on the LP, further pushing its fascinating diversity. — Jeff Benjamin

    21 / 40

    Lana Del Rey, 'Ultraviolence'

    Like the sad ingenue of her own black-and-white film, Lana Del Rey continues her disaffected cool vibe on Ultraviolence. But LDR can’t be too sad with a No. 1 debut week in 12 countries. Wait, yes she can! Black Keys frontman and producer Dan Auerbach matches Del Rey’s mellow mood with a well-placed orchestra sweep or distant guitar tremolo. The result is a better put-together album than Born to Die, but it still sounds like a record you’d throw on at David Lynch’s house party. The word on the street is that Lana is already hard at work on her follow-up. Can your heart stand it? — Jonathan Stern

    22 / 40

    Lykke Li, 'I Never Learn'

    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" nail the subject matter, Lykke Li's uplifting melodies and moving production give the LP a sense of hope and optimism. The 28-year-old's vocals also shine, proving she's no longer the squeaky-voiced, shy girl who debuted five years ago, but a wiser, weathered woman best heard on the acoustic torch ballad "Love Me Like I'm Not Made of Stone." — Jeff Benjamin

    23 / 40

    Mary J. Blige, 'The London Sessions'

    Instead of settling into the studio at home, Mary J. Blige decided to completely ditch her comfort zone—both literally and figuratively—and head across the pond to jolly old England in order to record The London Sessions. She tapped the best British talent for the record, namely Sam Smith and Disclosure among other artists and producers. First single "Whole Damn Year" is devastating in its heartbreak and beauty, proving that the journey, and the first effort from Blige it produced, were well worth the wait. — Hilary Hughes

    24 / 40

    Miranda Lambert, 'Platinum'

    It makes sense that a country singer would need to play ball with pop and hip-hop to win today's game, sort of. Taylor Swift just did it and sold 1.3 million albums with 1989. But Miranda Lambert wrote a kick-ass, classically C&W album, one that lets you spend an hour with someone whose company you really enjoy. Or someone who'll warm you up to her company before you're done with the second song, "Platinum," aka the one that explores the benefits of walking the world blonde while laughing at how random and silly that is. Add a couple collaborations with Carrie Underwood and Little Big Town, zero DJ Luke or Stargate cuts, and you get why Platinum stands on 2014's medal platform. — Zach Dionne

    25 / 40

    Nick Jonas, 'Nick Jonas'

    Much has been made about the Jonas Brother's transition from boy-band member to pop's sexiest male star, and we love the fact that more people than ever are listening to Nick, because it's more than warranted. His self-titled solo effort is a slick, R&B and funk-channeling pop album that's got Lionel Richie-inspired moments (the funky "Teacher"), power ballads (Demi Lovato duet "Avalanche") and deep dives in sensual, Weeknd-esque R&B (best heard on "Closer"). Nick J's a grown man and sounding better than ever. — Jeff Benjamin

    26 / 40

    Opeth, 'Pale Communion'

    Where do you go after becoming the world's biggest, most vital modern prog-metal band? You just pile on more prog. Sweden's Opeth have been toggling their death metal/lullaby metal ratio since their 1995 debut, but Pale Communion feels like a final, confident step into a completely new, semi-serene space. Gone are the roaring growls and house-toppling riffs, and there's this weird preponderance of less-than-10-minute songs, but the whole thing's as replayable as anything Opeth's ever done. And don't worry: You can still headbang to it. — Zach Dionne

    27 / 40

    One Direction, 'FOUR'

    While Midnight Memories introduced a more mature One Direction with "Story of My Life," "Through The Dark" and the rest of the scream-inducing tracks from their third album, the aptly titled FOUR hit 2014 and presented the group as young men, not boys. FOUR's big single "Steal My Girl" may be their most ambitious production of a music video yet, complete with high profile cameos and bonkers, carnival-ready stunts, and FOUR would go on to score 1D a new Billboard record, as they're the only group to debut at No. 1 with their first four albums. A momentous occasion for a momentous release—and a sign of even greater things to come for your favorite five lads. — Hilary Hughes

    28 / 40

    Pharrell, 'G I R L'

    After "Blurred Lines" and its notorious video rocked airwaves and the charts in 2013, Pharrell and his penchant for vintage, R&B-hugging beats were set up to take 2014 by storm. "Happy" is up there as one of the most infectious tunes of the year, and the rest of G I R L—from the symphonic and cinematic "Marilyn Monroe" to "Come Get It Bae," his flirty collaboration with Miley Cyrus—holds up just as well as its dominating single. — Hilary Hughes

    29 / 40

    Prince, 'ART OFFICIAL AGE'

    Warner Brothers

    On September 30, Prince released his 33rd studio album, Plectrumelectrum with 3RDEYEGIRL, the hard-rocking trio he's been jamming and performing with this year. It was slick and cool, but it couldn't touch Prince's 34th studio album, Art Official Age, which also landed on September 30. The latter is a screaming chunk of funk, amped up and tricked out to sound not only like Prince in the year 2014, but also like Prince in the year 2050. Added Bonus: English singer-songwriter Lianne La Havas appears on four tracks. — Zach Dionne

    30 / 40

    Run the Jewels, 'RTJ2'

    Both Run the Jewels albums were released online, for free, no questions asked. Don't let that fool you into thinking RTJ2, like its predecessor, isn't worth full price and then some. Atlanta veteran Killer Mike and Brooklyn producer/rapper El-P have tapped into a hip hop vein that's not only special but essential. What shined on Run the Jewels has been buffed to a blinding, grinding luminosity on RTJ2. El-P's undeniable, breakneck beats sound like nothing else in music, and the lyrics are packed with refreshing, take-no-prisoners activism. That doesn't mean tracks like "Close Your Eyes (And Count to F*ck)" and "All Due Respect" won't crack your skull—especially with vigorous guest spots from Zack de la Rocha, Travis Barker and Gangsta Boo. — Zach Dionne

    31 / 40

    Ryan Adams, 'Ryan Adams'

    No, Ryan Adams' "Wrecking Ball" has nothing to do with Miley's massive power ballad, but his song—a simple acoustic wollop of a track that he wrote for his grandmother—is just as powerful and profound. The cut, which comes from his self-titled full-length release and his first record in three years, is one of the more revealing tracks on the album. The fact that he tapped Elvira for the rad video for the straightforward "Gimme Something Good" and supported the record with both intimate acoustic tours and blazing club shows just reiterates how good it is to have him back. — Hilary Hughes

    32 / 40

    Sam Hunt, 'Montevallo'

    Former college football star, current hunk and co-writer of both Kenny Chesney’s “Come Over” and Keith Urban’s “Cop Car” tackles his own solo album. On Montevallo, Hunt takes country production to a different place. Think more drums, less dobro. It makes this record just as at home in your Bentley as a beat-up Ford F-150. The extra attention to detail on his single “Leave the Night On” earned Hunt a No. 1 hit, even in spite of the reference to Train’s “Drops of Jupiter.” — Jonathan Stern

    33 / 40

    Sam Smith, 'In The Lonely Hour'

    This year was a slow burn for Sam Smith, leading up to the June release of his full-length debut In The Lonely Hour. Since then, he's collected a pile of GRAMMY nominations for the "Stay with Me"-wielding smash, turned his huge single into a duet with Mary J. Blige, sat pretty at a few awards shows and befriended Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and a slew of other celebs in the process. Smith's on the up-and-up, and if his first album is any indication, his is a star that'll still be rising in 2015. — Hilary Hughes

    34 / 40

    ScHoolboy Q, 'Oxymoron'

    If Black Hippy were the crew from The Breakfast ClubScHoolboy Q would obviously be stoner rebel Bender. But being the bad kid in a ma.a.d city is exactly why his Interscope debut bowed at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 (and just got a GRAMMY nod for Best Rap Album). When Q raps, you believe his hustle is real, whether he’s being a walking cautionary tale for drug addiction or just an MC who is (sexually) frustrated with the recording process (“Studio”). — Jonathan Stern

    35 / 40

    ​Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, 'Give the People What They Want'

    What else would you title an album that delivers exactly what it promises? Sharon Jones, one of the most inimitable soul singers of our day (and an inspiration in her recent battle with cancer), lays down track after track of the good stuff. In fact it was good enough to get a Grammy nod for “Best R&B Album.” Do you want an instant party? Throw these ten soulful, funky and occasionally heartbreaking songs on the hi-fi (or iPhone…no judgements). Give the People What They Want is as faithful as ever to that late 60s sound, and we wouldn’t want Sharon Jones, or the Dap-Kings, to change a thing. —Jonathan Stern

    36 / 40

    Taylor Swift, '1989'

    Whether she's slinging a guitar or not, Taylor Swift is a pop song sensei. 2012's Red was a delicious LP that served up smashes like "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" alongside O.G. Swiftian country tales. But 1989 showed us what happens when Tay-Tay drops the acoustic and makes an album of "Shake It Off"-es and "Welcome to New York"-es. The result is a 48-minute singalong party; one that might take place on those cotton candy clouds from the Katy Perry album cover. In the first week alone, 1.3 million people joined Taylor's big bash, meaning 1989 sold more copies than any album since The Eminem Show came out 12 freakin' years ago. — Zach Dionne

    37 / 40

    U2, 'Songs of Innocence'

    In almost four decades of U2, we’ve seen a lot of Bonos. Mullet Bono. The Fly Bono. Mephistopheles Bono. Paramilitary Bono. But on Songs of Innocence we get the Bono that started it all, the stripped down, emotionally raw Bono. U2 kick off the album with "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)," an inspirational ode to the Ramones' frontman, which sets the tone for a record that namechecks all the people who made this band what they are, from the Clash to Bono’s late mother Iris. — Jonathan Stern

    38 / 40

    YG, 'My Krazy Life'

    DJ Mustard's low-end piano plinks and catchy hand-claps ruled hip-hop in 2014, and a big chunk of the pop world, too. But it all started with YG's riveting, sneakily conceptual My Krazy Life, produced almost entirely by Mustard. The vividly low-key, hammering Compton stories—with guest spots from Kendrick Lamar, Drake and Jeezy—made something special enough to stay in heavy rotation for a long, long time. — Zach Dionne

    39 / 40

    2NE1, 'Crush'

    After fans waited 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 the incredible solo track "MTBD," which sounds like an upgraded version of DJ Snake's "Turn Down for What." — Jeff Benjamin

    40 / 40

    5 Seconds of Summer, '5 Seconds of Summer'

    They lured you in with their Aussie accents, and then they conquered: The latest pop-punk import from Down Under wowed with their self-titled debut, which earned 5 Seconds of Summer an opening gig on tour with One Direction, a fan convention all their own via DerpCon and the honor of being the first Australian band to hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 since AC/DC did in 2008 with Black Ice. The single "She Looks So Perfect" not only put American Apparel underwear back on the map, but it also served as a catchy as all get-out debut with some of the most approachable riffs out there. In short, 5SOS made a huge, power chord-happy splash in 2014, and their debut album laid a great foundation for the start of their career. — Hilary Hughes

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    Apr 2: Basket-Bros

    Currently on his 'The Man of the Woods' tourJustin Timberlake brought out a special guest for his Cleveland show. LeBron James surprised concertgoers by showing up alongside Timberlake and taking a shot on stage. On Friday, the singer was also seen cheering on LeBron during the Pelicans and Cavaliers game. James gave a shout out on Instagram, "My brother @justintimberlake showed up and showed out last night at the Q! One of the greatest to ever do it in my lifetime and still going strong."