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.
Jack White makes heavy, turbulent modern-blues records the same way he pursues his other passion, furniture restoration: with a decisive attention to contour, color scheme and cagey, durable detail. In Lazaretto, literally a house of blues (the title is Italian for a lepers' hospital), each room is outfitted according to White's mood and trials: the hip-hop seizure and hog-squeal guitar in "Lazaretto"; the bleak piano and deathangel voices in "Would You Fight for My Love?" as if Queen came from antebellum Mississippi; the crushing voodoo of "That Black Bat Licorice," lined with nervous mandolin and scalding fiddle. He knows how to make pure fun.
"Priscilla," as elsewhere on Miranda Lambert's fifth LP, takes a cheeky view of her ascent to country music Queen Bee. But mostly it shows how Lambert earned her throne: by singing top-shelf songs in the voice of a woman getting real. Listening to her records is like eavesdropping in a hair salon. The title track is near-literally that, a brassy set of punch lines comparing hair color with record sales and declaring, "What doesn't kill you only makes you blonder."
To all the skeptics: Skrillex has heard your complaints. The first full-length release of his six-year solo career shows him fitter, happier and more well-adjusted – it turns out he actually wants to make you dance, not just mosh like a maniac. Compared to the geysers of grinding noise Skrillex used to specialize in, Recess' climaxes are sleek and friendly – more like a playful game of laser tag than the hungry roar of a robot T. rex.
Eric Church branded himself a country-music outlaw of consequence on 2011's platinum-selling Chief. On his fourth studio album, the North Carolina singer-songwriter made a record that's weirder, louder and even more badass. The title track broadcasts Church's intent: "They're the in crowd, we're the other ones/It's a different kind of cloth that we're cut from." Subtle, it ain't: a roughneck-misfit anthem, delivered in a menacing drawl that triangulates singing, speaking and rapping – until the whole thing dives into a prog-metal coda that should remind you Mastodon are a Southern band, too.
Bruce Springsteen's 18th studio album is a portrait of the artist at the top of his 21st-century game: rock-soul dynamite and finely drawn pathos bound by familiar, urgent themes (national crisis, private struggle, the daily striving for more perfect union) and the certain-victor's force in his singing. High Hopes is also a deep look back over Springsteen's past decade, his best onstage and record since the first, with a keen eye turned forward. The cumulative effect of this mass of old, borrowed, blue and renewed – covers, recent outtakes and redefining takes on two classics – is retrospect with a cutting edge, running like one of the singer's epic look-ma-no-set-list gigs: full of surprises, all with a reason for being there.
On his remarkable 2002 album, Sea Change, Beck ditched his signature irony, break beats and jump cuts to vibe on the country-tinged singer-songwriter tradition of his L.A. hometown. Since then, the album's stature has only grown – even as Beck left his fringed-suede jacket tucked away in a closet. He has finally put it back on for Morning Phase, which features many of the same players and themes. The result is a set that feels like an instant folk-rock classic.
Turn Blue is a genuine turning point for the Black Keys – into a decisively original rock, with a deeper shade of blues. You still get the minimalist vigor of the Keys' first records a decade ago. But this is more brazen severity, richer and forward in its hip-hop allusions, super-size-rock dynamics, pictorial studio flourishes and offbeat commercial savvy. The Keys have been working up to this since their first LP with Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton, 2008's Attack & Release. Turn Blue sounds like arrival.
Lots of rappers talk about drugs, but Future is one of the few whose music makes you feel like you're actually on some. When he raps, it's in pulse-racing staccato bursts; when he sings, his Auto-Tuned vowels stretch and melt like alien dreams. Two years after his debut LP, Pluto, sent shock waves through mainstream rap, everyone else is still playing catch-up. Now the Atlanta oddball is vaulting ahead once again with a weirder, grander, dizzier trip.
Stephen Malkmus is one of the last Nineties indie-rock titans who has kept making his own eccentric music, on his own merry terms. Though written while Malkmus was living in Berlin, the excellently titled Wig Out at Jagbags – his sixth album with the Jicks – shows his heart's still in his native California, as he whips up song structures that give him room to indulge his taste for hazy, cosmic jive, sardonic wit and unabashed guitar beauty. Somehow, the joker who sang "Fight This Generation" has ended up as the Eddie Vedder of irony.
The only requirement for getting into this club is admitting your own joy. The 10 songs on G I R L are steeped in sunshine, air and the most natural, universal strains of Seventies and Eighties R&B. The thick, juicy beats are full of hand claps and falsetto sex; the overall vibe is less $300 champagne behind the velvet rope than Miller High Life on the stoop in summertime.
A minute into Willie Nelson's new set of songs – largely self-penned for a change – it's clear the man who wrote Patsy Cline's "Crazy" 50-some years ago has lost neither verve nor cojones. The vocals remain indelibly creaky against stony acoustic guitar, bright steel whines and dusty harmonica whinnies.
With tough-as-nails beats (via Pharrell, Tyler the Creator and more) and boundless energy, Q's major-label debut positions him as the hardened triggerman in Kendrick Lamar's Black Hippy crew. "Fuck rap," he says, "my shit real." Truman Capote-level realness is what made Lamar a critical sensation, and Q is just as deft with detail, whether he's describing ice-cream-truck stickups or selling drugs from a Nissan.
On her second album, Lana Del Rey is still a sad tomato. Ultraviolence is a melancholy crawl through doomed romance, incorrigible addictions, blown American dreams. She has pulled back on nods to hip-hop and hired a new gun: the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, who produced most of the LP at his Nashville studio. Auerbach introduces dashes of bad ass blues and psychedelic guitar, but Del Rey – who co-wrote every song but the closing cover of Jessie Mae Robinson's 1950s hit "The Other Woman" – holds tight to her pouty, cinematic aesthetic: the epic schmaltz of Ennio Morricone, reflected through the haze of a thousand dramatic selfies.
Annie Clark (a.k.a. St. Vincent) isn't just a great songwriter. She's a great song dissector, breaking down pop's essential rhythmic, melodic and emotional components, retooling every impulse. St. Vincent is her tightest, tensest, best set of songs to date, with wry, twisty beats pushing her lovably ornery melodies toward grueling revelations. This album is haunted by isolation, dark hungers, regret and even death. But the playful way these songs contort makes pain feel like a party.
There's a brave new world that's raging inside of me," rages Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace – formerly frontman Tom James Gabel – on the melodic and emotional peak of the band's first LP since Grace came out as transgender. Through the band's established brand of warrior-cry punk metal, its a series of bracing songs about a self-destructive girl in a boy's body.
With its marital arguments, dramatic plot reversals and luxurious exteriors, this collaboration between two accomplished R&B sensualists is like a musical adaptation of Real Housewives of Atlanta. Few records have described marriage with so much honesty and complexity.
All of Blur frontman Damon Albarn's musical obsessions are present on his revealing solo debut: dubby textures á la Gorillaz, Caribbean and African notes, looming classical instrumentation and church choruses that evoke England's past – all wrapped around a singing voice that's become deep and searching where it was once sharp and snarky.
Brutally bleak, shrouded in screwed hues, with a narrator "on my existential grind doing consequential dirt," this 33-minute concept suite is rap's own Downward Spiral. Pianos and strings clash in explosions of third-stream jazz, French electro-acoustic pioneer Michel Chion brings noise, deep-blue tones vibrate like Miles Davis' Porgy and Bess.
Australian powerhouse Sia has written hits for Beyoncé, Katy Perry and Rihanna – the vocal dips and midtempo melancholy of “Diamonds” are Sia’s signatures – and this album will likely be just as ubiquitous. Her knack for heart-swelling choruses shines through on a set of tracks you might play while winning a marathon.
At 34, the former indie-rock prodigy still writes and sings about the high times and bad choices of adolescence, on the way to matured love and responsibility, like the sharpest kid in the room: a florid Midwest Morrissey with Jeff Tweedy's twisted-pop savvy. A sumptuous immersion in Seventies California folk pop, Upside Down Mountains is the most immediately charming album he has ever made.
On her critic-wowing 2011 breakout, Whokill, Merrill Garbus made sexy, kinetic pop out of avant-folk vocal technique and hip-hop flow. Following such head-rush originality ain't easy. But her third LP, cut with bass-minded partner Nate Brenner, suggests an innovator in for the long haul.
Calle 13 have come a long way since their 2005 debut, when they were a smartass pair of twentysomethings from Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico, riding the international reggaeton boom with a club-minded mix of sex talk and political invective. With their fifth disc, frontman Residente and his halfbrother Visitante have made as ambitious a hip-hop album – if that's not too narrow a term – as any in any language.
With her solo debut (and first release after a five-year break), the passionate punk and ex-Distiller experiments with new styles – piano-based power ballads, anyone? There's plenty of chaos and roiling guitars, too, but adulthood has crept in. Clearly, she never really needed an amp to unleash her strength.
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.