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45 Best Albums of 2014 So Far

The best rock, hip-hop, EDM and country of this year’s first half

Skrillex, Recess

Skrillex, "Recess" album cover, 2014.

Courtesy of Big Beat Records, Asylum Records, and Atlantic Records.

From Skrillex's massive drops to Beck's sensitive simmer, from Miranda Lambert's rustic bite to Future's robotic croon, 2014's proving to have no shortage of excellent music across all genres. Here's an unranked list of the year's best so far.

Lykke Li, I Never Learn

Courtesy of LL Recordings and Atlantic Records.

Lykke Li, ‘I Never Learn’

This follow-up to 2011's Wounded Rhymes confronts a more deliberate truth, with melancholy songs full of heartbreak, disillusion and redemption. The simplest songs here are the most affecting. If this Swedish singer-songwriter keeps refining her voice, she'll soon rank as an A-list pop heart-crusher.

Read our full review.

Duck Sauce, Quack

Courtesy of Fool's Gold.

Duck Sauce, ‘Quack’

The sample-storming full-length debut from turntablist-turned-label honcho A-Trak and filterhouse master chef Armand Van Helden is undeniable – squarely in the tradition of stoned dance-floor hitmakers from decades past like Deee-Lite, Fatboy Slim and M|A|R|R|S.

Read our full review.

YG, My Krazy Life

Courtesy of Pu$haz Ink, CTE World and Def Jam Recordings.

YG, ‘My Krazy Life’

A 46-minute tale of celebrations and regrets, the debut album from West Coast hot property YG is the most ambitious hip-hop concept LP in a minute: a 24-hour ride where he gives detailed instruction on how to rob a home – then gives even more details about the consequences. The beats are the sproinging trampoline bounce of ratchet mastermind DJ Mustard, sounding like a lowrider fueled by Four Loko.

Read our full review.

Tinariwen, Emmaar

Courtesy of Anti.

Tinariwen, ‘Emmaar’

An undiluted LP from the group of veteran Saharan guitar slingers that's all circular Afro-Berber riffs, hypnotic hand claps, sun, sky and sand. With Tinariwen's members effectively refugees thanks to regional conflicts back home in North Africa, their blues are as deep as ever.

Read our full review.

Parquet Courts, Sunbathing Animal

Courtesy of What's Your Rupture?.

Parquet Courts, ‘Sunbathing Animal’

These Brooklyn dudes have outgrown the Pavement comparisons – these songs make you wonder if you're hearing early Wire jam with Creedence while Thurston Moore brews the tea

Read our full review.

Old 97’s, Most Messed Up

Courtesy of ATO.

Old 97’s, ‘Most Messed Up’

On this most Old 97's-ish of Old 97's LPs, the hard-partying twang-punk quartet throw a 20th-birthday bash for themselves. It's yet another round of airtight songs celebrating life-as-sublime-train-wreck amid music that conjures the British Invasion landing in a Texas barroom.

Read our full review.

Katy B, Little Red

Courtesy of Rinse, Columbia Records and Sony Music.

Katy B, ‘Little Red’

Little Red showcases Katy B's vivid R&B songwriting over chic, chilly electro beats, from the aching "Jolene" reboot "Aaliyah" (co-starring fellow U.K. sensation Jessie Ware) to the tense smolder of "I Like You" to the head-over-heels endorphin rush of "Tumbling Down." She's still the sharpest storyteller on the dance floor.

Read our full review.

Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

Courtesy of High Top Mountain.

Sturgill Simpson, ‘Metamodern Sounds in Country Music’

Picture what Waylon would have sounded like if he had taken Willie's drugs: Kentucky's Sturgill Simpson made a is a record that is equal parts haunted, tender and trippy.

Read our full review.

Freddie Gibbs, Madlib, Pinata

Courtesy of Madlib Invazion.

Freddie Gibbs and Madlib, ‘Pinata’

Gibbs is a brusque street-rap purist with "an icemaker for a heart," Madlib a crate-digging cult hero with a taste for deep psychedelia and free jazz. The MC and the producer click in surprisingly satisfying ways on their first full-length album together, Madlib's beats add a druggy, unpredictable edge to Gibbs' hard-boiled grudges and regrets.

Read our full review.

Courtesy Jagjaguwar

Sharon Van Etten, ‘Are We There’

The magnificent fourth LP from Brooklyn singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten grows her trademark examinations of romantic decay to cathedral-like scale. Like her tourmate Nick Cave, her darkness contains multitudes.

Read our full review.

Courtesy Matador Records

EMA, ‘The Future’s Void’

Erika Anderson's excellent second album builds on the stark confessional style of her low-fi 2011 debut, Past Life Martyred Saints, exploring piano ballads ("3Jane") and industrial rants ("Neuromancer") about social-media paranoia. ("Making a living off of taking selfies" is bad, TBH.) But the Hole-style "When She Comes" really sums up EMA's sinister charisma. Meet the new Miss World.

Read our full review.

Courtesy 4AD

Future Islands, ‘Singles’

Baltimore's Future Islands could be just one more band of Eighties-y synth romantics. The difference is singer Samuel T. Herring, whose intense rasp evokes Broken English-era Marianne Faithfull if she came down with a serious case of Ian Curtis. He pours out sad-ballad syrup like he's using it to clog a fresh wound.

Read our full review.

Courtesy Captured Tracks

Perfect Pussy, ‘Say Yes to Love’

These Syracuse art-punk kids hail rage with an emotional urgency that recalls Hüsker Dü or early Sleater-Kinney. Say Yes to Love is a heart-punch of an album – eight songs, 23 minutes – where the words are mostly buried under guitar feedback and synth squeals. Yet the raw passion comes across loud and clear.

Read our full review.

Lake Street Dive, Bad Self Portraits

Courtesy of Signature Sounds Recordings.

Lake Street Dive, ‘Bad Self Portraits’

Lake Street Dive's initials may spell "LSD," but the Massachusetts-bred quartet are mostly tripping on Motown-meets-Muscle Shoals soul nostalgia, while frontwoman Rachael Price's big voice triggers flashbacks of Amy Winehouse and her forebears. Their breakout LP shows a band so in command of its style that it rarely feels like shtick – and even when it does, it's tight, fun and feisty.

Read our full review.

Swans, To Be Kind

Courtesy of Young God Records.

Swans, ‘To Be Kind’

Experimental rockers Swans have only ever had one goal: to overwhelm. Their latest offers two straight hours of spook-house drones, battering-ram guitar blasts and Michael Gira's howled imperatives about love, sex and death. These days, they don't just crush – they hypnotize.

Read our full review.

Hurray for the Riff Raff small Town Heroes

Courtesy of ATO Records

Hurray for the Riff Raff, ‘Small Town Heroes’

Alynda Lee Segarra's folk-roots music feels both ancient and modern, from the title track's drug-damaged characters to the gunslinging young thugs in "St. Roch Blues" and the heroine of "The Body Electric," a feminist rejoinder to lady-killing murder ballads. Her supple, intimate vocals are about more than conjuring a musical past – she clearly wants to shape the future, too.

Read our full review.

Triptykon, Melana Chasmata

Courtesy of Century Media Records.

Triptykon, ‘Melana Chasmata’

Three decades after Thomas Fischer helped lay extreme metal's foundation on Celtic Frost's 1984 LP Morbid Tales, he has again redefined what the genre can do on the second album by his dark-metal group Triptykon. He and his bandmates juxtapose doomy death-metal riffs with gothic guitar textures and ethereal female voices that could have been culled from the 4AD catalog. Between Triptykon's brutal pummel and animal growls lies a delicate, fragile core that might be too scary for other metal bands to fathom.

Todd Terje it's Album Time

Courtesy of Olsen Records

Todd Terje, ‘It’s Album Time’

While the biggest names in dance music are raging on the blacktop, delivering hard beats to parking lots filled with sweaty festival-goers, Todd Terje is poolside, offering a cabana-ready combination of Patrick Cowley disco synths and Herb Alpert's Tijuana kitsch. Though the Norwegian remix champ has a few proven dancefloor fillers like "Inspector Norse" and "Strandbar," his debut's most affecting moment is "Johnny and Mary," a half-time Robert Palmer cover on which a weary Bryan Ferry sings of two people treading water in life's deep end.

 

Young Thug, Bloody Jay, Black Portland

Courtesy of Propane Media.

Young Thug and Bloody Jay, ‘Black Portland’

22-year-old Atlanta lunatic Young Thug gets over on pure, giddy eccentricity – breathlessly braying, cackling, even drunkenly crooning rhymes like "Foreign car outside, that bitch got two digits/Money stand like eight feet, just like two midgets." On this mixtape with his bud Bloody Jay, Young Thug also pushes at the sonic possibilities of his wild style.

Read our full review.

Ought, 'More Than Any Other Day'

Courtesy of Constellation

Ought, ‘More Than Any Other Day’

These Montreal punk upstarts establish their own sound right on their debut album – they're young men in love with their own misery, taking out all their frustrations on their instruments, until every guitar strum feels like a full-blown emotional breakdown. Lead yelper Tim Beeler commands your attention all through the six minutes of "Habit," sounding like David Byrne staring at his own reflection in the bottom of a glass, wondering how it all went so wrong so fast.

Read our full review.

White Lung, Deep Fantasy

Courtesy of Domino Recording Co.

White Lung, ‘Deep Fantasy’

Vancouver's White Lung are as furiously formidable as ever on their third LP. Mish Way's damning yowls offer profound ruminations on sex and body image, while guitarist Kenneth William's swift, discordant lashes resurrect the finer aspects of 2000s-era post-hardcore; drummer Anne-Marie Vassiliou holds down a steady velocity, pelting listeners with relentless rounds of thrash.

Read our full review.

Ben Frost Aurora

Courtesy of Mute Records/Bedroom Community

Ben Frost, ‘Aurora’

Unrelentingly menacing, Iceland-dwelling composer Ben Frost has created a 40-minute suite of VHS grinding, wistful Blade Runner synths, howling white noise and broken Detroit techno. The human attempts to fight the robots are provided by the junkyard clang of Swans percussion abuser Thor Harris.

Read our full review.

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