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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.

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.

Against Me Transgender Dysphoria Blues
15

Against Me!, ‘Transgender Dysphoria Blues’

Transgender frontwoman Laura Jane Grace poured all of her own deep pain and hard-won pride into a bold new start for one of America's greatest punk-rock bands. It's a roiling attack with a fragile, beating heart – few albums this year were as relentlessly heavy and fiercely melodic.

Weezer Everything Will Be Alright In The End
14

Weezer, ‘Everything Will Be Alright in the End’

After a few hit-or-miss records, Weezer fans needed some reassurance from Rivers Cuomo. He delivered big-time on the band's cheeky, ambitious ninth LP – rediscovering the art of the three-minute girl jam ("Lonely Girl") but stretching out in fruitful new ways, too.

Ought More Than Any Other Day
13

Ought, ‘More Than Any Other Day’

"I feel a habit forming," sings frontman Tim Beeler, and so did we. On the year's most irrefutable rock debut, you can hear Talking Heads in the vocals and Voidoids in the guitars. But this Montreal crew's post-punk panic attacks have a doomed optimism that feels utterly of the moment.

Foo Fighters Sonic Highways
12

Foo Fighters, ‘Sonic Highways’

This multifaceted travelogue is the most ambitious album Foo Fighters have made in their 20-year career. Whether they're celebrating Buddy Guy in Chicago or getting in touch with their punk-rock roots in D.C., the bedrock force remains their anthemic guitar charge. By now, that's a classic American sound in its own right.

Flying Lotus
11

Flying Lotus, ‘You’re Dead!’

"Step inside of my mind and you'll find/Curiosity, animosity, high philosophy." It's a guest rap from Kendrick Lamar, but it could also be a mission statement for Flying Lotus. The tripped-out producer's latest is an LP about mortality that explodes with life – jazz that respects no dogma, and pop that reveals more with each listen.

Taylor Swift 1989
10

Taylor Swift, ‘1989’

America's sweetheart has been writing perfect pop tunes since the day she hit Nashville. Yet it's still a delectable shock to hear her ditch the banjos for an album of expert Top 40 gloss – like Dylan going electric, except with more songs about Harry Styles. She sounds right at home over these Max Martin beats, sick and otherwise.

Mac DeMarco Salad Days
9

Mac DeMarco, ‘Salad Days’

The 24-year-old Canadian singer-guitarist's second album – a warm, polished set of sun-drenched folk-rock jams – feels like it could have been a lost used-vinyl-bin treasure from the Seventies. DeMarco channels Harry Nilsson, the Beach Boys, Steely Dan and the Beatles, but the offbeat stoner vibes are all him.

Run The Jewels 2
8

Run the Jewels, ‘Run the Jewels 2’

El-P and Killer Mike made 2014's greatest hip-hop record. Guest shots flare in the avant-noise darkness: Zack de la Rocha riffs on Philip K. Dick; Gangsta Boo flips a porn-rap script. But it's the chemistry between Mike's on-the-ground Dirty South flow and El's big-picture indictments that lights this up like a Brooklyn bridge.

Lana Del Rey Ultraviolence
7

Lana Del Rey, ‘Ultraviolence’

Del Rey silenced her detractors with an intoxicating collection of indie-noir anthems. With more live instrumentation in her smoky glam grooves, she plays enough characters to fill a Raymond Chandler novel: On "Sad Girl," she's a sultry mistress; on "Brooklyn Baby," she's a snarky kid. Most of all, she's a pop voice like no other.

Charli XCX Sucker
6

Charli XCX, ‘SUCKER’

Charli XCX is the pop star 2014 was waiting for: a badass songwriting savant who's the most fun girl in any room she steps into. The 22-year-old Brit came into her own with SUCKER, a middle-finger-waving teenage riot packed into 13 punky gems. It's a dance party, a mosh pit and a feminist rally – Charli's definitely in charge.

Miranda Lambert Platinum
5

Miranda Lambert, ‘Platinum’

Lambert began as a mainstream-country bad girl. This year, she became an institution. Platinum smoothly balances solo-act introspection with A-list ring grabs, co-starring the likes of Carrie Underwood and Little Big Town. Notably absent, though, is superstar hubby Blake Shelton – sister's doin' it for herself.

St. Vincent
4

St. Vincent, ‘St. Vincent’

After her string of increasingly excellent records, indie guitar heroine Annie Clark's fourth solo album felt like a coronation: a masterful set of skewed but sticky pop hooks, subtly sexy electro-funk grooves and Dada poetry that aches for real. And her fiery guitar solos are sharper and more surprising than ever. Bow down.

The Black Keys Turn Blue
3

The Black Keys, ‘Turn Blue’

The Keys and Danger Mouse spool out everything from Seventies funk to disco throb to drive-time guitar grind, making music that could evoke lonely late nights or burnt-rubber desert highways, jittery paranoia and boundless possibility. It's the sound of America's most innovative arena rockers in full command.

Bruce Springsteen High Hopes
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.

U2 Songs of Innocence
1

U2, ‘Songs of Innocence’

There was no bigger album of 2014 – in terms of surprise, generosity and controversy. Songs of Innocence is also the rebirth of the year. Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. put their lives on the line: giving away 11 songs of guitar rapture and frank, emotional tales of how they became a band out of the rough streets and spiritual ferment of Seventies Dublin. This is personal history with details. In the furiously brooding "Cedarwood Road," named after Bono's home address as a boy, he recalls the fear and rage that drove him to punk rock. "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)" is a glam-stomp homage to the misfit voice that inspired Bono to sing. And that's his mother, who died when Bono was 14, still guiding and comforting him in the chorus of "Iris (Hold Me Close)."

This is a record full of the band's stories and triumph, memory and confession detonated with adventure and poise. In its range of sounds, there may be no more complete U2 album: The band bonded its founding post-punk values with dance momentum in "Volcano" and the raw, jagged "Raised by Wolves," and humanized the digital pathos of "Every Breaking Wave" and the harrowing "Sleep Like a Baby Tonight" with the vocal folk-soul warmth of The Joshua Tree. "I have a will for survival," Bono sings in the closing track, "The Troubles." Songs of Innocence is the proof – and the emotionally raw rock album of the year, at any price.

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