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50 Best Albums of 2014

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

Some of the 50 best albums of 2014

2014 was another phenomenal year for music, illuminating darkness when it often seemed that the only light was from buildings burning in Ferguson, Missouri. Veterans like U2, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Jackson Browne and Leonard Cohen were showing the youngsters how it's done, but classic rock was being revived in more unlikely ways too: the Eighties impressionist guitar choogle of the War on Drugs, Ought's word-drunk post-punk, Perfume Genius' arty glam rock and Eric Church's country arena-rock.

The year was dominated on nearly every other front by young women: Charli XCX's reinvention of punk-pop, Miranda Lambert's Nashville platinum-blonde ambition, St. Vincent's indie-rock apotheosis, FKA Twigs' haunting avant-R&B and, above all, Taylor Swift's unstoppable pop juggernaut. The politically charged hip-hop of Public Enemy found a new-school parallel in Run the Jewels, the storytelling Los Angeles breeze of Dr. Dre found new life in YG and Flying Lotus took rhymes and beats into spectacularly abstract territory. Here's 50 albums that we wouldn't turn down.

Prince, Art Official Age
34

Prince, ‘Art Official Age’

Prince proved himself as brilliant and confounding as ever in 2014, releasing this fantastic old-school funk record in tandem with a weird, flat album recorded with his new group, 3rdEyeGirl. Art Official Age recalls the plush swagger and pop mastery of his Eighties classics – all psychedelic pimp style and spectacular balladry.

Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger
33

The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, ‘Midnight Sun’

Sean Lennon finally found his own voice as a singer-songwriter in late-Sixties British psychedelia. His second full LP with partner Charlotte Kemp Muhl has disarming emotional intimacy (inherited from Lennon's parents) draped in the bright, surrealist magnetism of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd.

Damon Albarn
32

Damon Albarn, ‘Everyday Robots’

Modern British pop's most obsessive explorer turned his curiosity inward on this intimate solo triumph. There are hints of his bands Blur and Gorillaz and of his African forays in the hooks and rhythms. But Albarn mostly evokes Brian Eno and that Brit-pop ideal, the Kinks' Ray Davies, in Everyday Robots' stark grace.

Young Thug and Bloody Jay, Black Portland
31

Young Thug and Bloody Jay, ‘Black Portland’

Young Thug was 2014's most exciting new weirdo, an ATL star-child who stretches his Lil Wayne yelp like Silly Putty until you're hanging on every mangled syllable. This mixtape (with buddy Bloody Jay) is his finest hour: catchy, woozy, idea-stuffed songs about sex, gangs and not giving a damn whether what he says bothers you.

Thom Yorke, Tomorrow's Modern Boxes
30

Thom Yorke, ‘Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes’

The Radiohead man's second proper solo album got oddly slept on, but these are his most intense songs since In Rainbows. Yorke puts on the chill in "Truth Ray" and "Nose Grows Some" – even when he sings about a dystopian future, the anxious yearning in his voice is all too immediate.

Spoon
29

Spoon, ‘They Want My Soul’

Vintage ooh-las, art-brut rhythm guitar and head-crack drum beats fit together like idealized Ikea furniture on the latest jewel from Britt Daniel's crew; it's all clean lines and formal balance. And co-producer Dave Fridmann's discreet splashes of color and texture add new flavor to the minimalist feng shui.

Parquet Courts, Sunbathing Animal
28

Parquet Courts, ‘Sunbathing Animal’

These Brooklyn jokers stepped up their game something fierce, romping from the twin-guitar heroics of "She's Rolling" to the psychedelic love buzz of "Raw Milk." They make it all sound so easy, you wonder why there aren't a dozen bands this great in every town. But these guys are in a league of their own.

Alt-J
27

Alt-J, ‘This Is All Yours’

The English prog-folk rockers grew to arena scale without losing their weirdness – like the Incredible String Band via Kid A, Joe Newman's Bilbo Baggins warble wanders through monkish choirs, electronic squelches and woodland chirping, with a Miley Cyrus sample representing the world outside the band's cozy hideaway.

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Hypnotic Eye
26

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, ‘Hypnotic Eye’

Petty and Co. made their first Number One album by tightening their Sixties-punk clang and firing it through flinty songs about a nation on the ropes and Petty's determination not to take it lying down. "I got a dream," he sings in "American Dream Plan B." "I'm gonna fight till I get it right."

YG, My Crazy Life
25

YG, ‘My Krazy Life’

Most rap fans probably didn't expect the Cali guy behind 2010's goofy minor hit "Toot It and Boot It" to make a debut album this rich and ambitious. My Krazy Life is a detailed day-in-the-life tale of robbery and regrets, with YG's charming flow set against DJ Mustard's new-school bounce like a long-lost sequel to The Chronic.

Leonard Cohen, Popular Problems
24

Leonard Cohen, ‘Popular Problems’

What a year for footloose eightysomethings: Yoko Ono topped the club charts, Robert Morse stole Mad Men, and Cohen danced to the end of love. He whispers a dusky farewell on "Almost Like the Blues." Yet in the sensual sway of "Slow," he's got time for one more round: "A weekend on your lips/A lifetime in your eyes."

War on Drugs, Lost In The Dream
23

War on Drugs, ‘Lost in the Dream’

These Philly dudes broke through by tripping out on a classic-rock vibe, Eighties style: "Boys of Summer" melodies, Nebraska harmonica, Brothers in Arms guitar shimmer. But the album's pleasant aimlessness – as songs choogle past the five-minute mark and lead lines curlicue across the sky – says plenty about right now.

Skrillex, Recess
22

Skrillex, ‘Recess’

Skrillex's whirling neon knife-storm was the album of the year for modern EDM – a genre that can currently fill arenas without albums at all. After a four-year run of killer singles, the drop-aholic DJ made a surprisingly varied full-length packed with mind-blowing experiments with two-step, jungle, vintage techno and more.

Eric Church, The Outsiders
21

Eric Church, ‘The Outsiders’

In an era teeming with bro-country, Church made a great record by following his rock & roll rebel heart. Prog riffs, bourbon-drawl raps and stoner funk sit straight-faced next to radio-friendly takes on NASCAR good times and broken hearts – styles and subjects that connect because Church obviously loves every one of them.

Sharon Van Etten, Are We There
20

Sharon Van Etten, ‘Are We There’

On her fourth album, the New Jersey-native singer-songwriter took the heartbreak she'd explored on past records and blew it up to massive scale. Bringing chilly synth beats into her mix for the first time, Van Etten gives songs like "Your Love Is Killing Me" a morbid grandness, all the better to complement her passionate vocals.

Jackson Browne Standing in the Breach
19

Jackson Browne, ‘Standing in the Breach’

Browne confirmed his place as an essential voice in the wilds of the 21st century with this powerful set of songs about love and progressive ideals – forces that a corrupt world can never truly defeat. Songs like "The Long Way Around" are the most eloquent protests against apathy you'll hear this year.

Sturgill Simpson Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
18

Sturgill Simpson, ‘Metamodern Sounds in Country Music’

"Marijuana, LSD, psilocybin, DMT, they all changed the way I see/But love's the only thing that ever saved my life," sings Simpson. The Kentucky-born singer-songwriter's breakthrough album features plenty more folk wisdom, delivered in a singular barrel-aged baritone.

Jenny Lewis
17

Jenny Lewis, ‘The Voyager’

It took the ex-Rilo Kiley frontwoman six years, but Lewis finally returned to the studio to make the kind of sweetly biting solo record that earned her a permanent place in the indie canon. Blending Laurel Canyon sensibilities with modern wit, The Voyager shows she's stronger and wiser – and can still draw blood.​

FKA
16

FKA Twigs, ‘LP1’

For many, there was no sexier pop listen in 2014 than FKA Twigs' full-length debut. It's a feminist take on the Weeknd's druggy avant-R&B, with self-loathing and sleaze replaced by self-possession and hunger. The haunting mix of pop and EDM weirdness takes a while to kick in – which only makes it more delicious when it does.