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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.

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."