50 Best Albums of 2014

U2 unleashed a brilliant surprise, Bruce Springsteen hit a new peak, St. Vincent made deliciously weird noise and more

Bruce Springsteen, 'High Hopes'
2/50

2. Bruce Springsteen, 'High Hopes'

This new peak in Springsteen's 21st-century hot streak is his most gloriously loose, vibrant album in years. In the past, Springsteen would never have allowed himself to release an album that includes two covers and reworked versions of his own older tunes, let alone give Tom Morello license to splatter virtuoso wah-wah'ed madness over much of it – but Springsteen was so much older then. Now he's more unpredictable than ever, and it's working: Despite the varied origins of the songs, High Hopes hangs together with striking sonic and thematic consistency, finding fresh angles on his central concern: the fault lines in the American dream. Springsteen worked on much of the album during his year-and-a-half-long Wrecking Ball world tour, and the expansiveness of that tour's 19-piece incarnation of the E Street Band – featuring a horn section, backup singers and a percussionist – carries over to the big, bold arrangements of tracks like "High Hopes" (first recorded in the early 1990s by an obscure L.A. punk crew called the Havalinas), the bar-band romp "Frankie Fell in Love" and the gangster's portrait "Harry's Place." The revamped version of "American Skin (41 Shots)" – a song about police shooting a young black man, originally echoing the killing of Amadou Diallo in 1999 – proved to be a tragically prescient choice for the year of Ferguson. But the album's high point is the Morello-Springsteen duet on "The Ghost of Tom Joad," where Morello's rage-filled, celestial solo is a song in itself. The whole thing runs together like a marathon gig, united by a hard eye on the national condition and the fire in Springsteen's voice.

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