The best albums of 2014

Here’s the Guardian music critics’ favourite albums of 2014, topped by St Vincent and her dazzling fourth album

1. St Vincent | St Vincent

What we say: “On St Vincent, Annie Clark sounded suspiciously like an artist reaching the top of their game, currently capable of doing it all. She could write beautiful, crystalline melodies – the woozy swoon of I Prefer Your Love, Prince Johnny’s astonishing octave-leaping chorus, the warped power ballad Severed Crossed Fingers – then arrange them in a way that made them sound more astonishing still.”

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2. War On Drugs | Lost in the Dream

What we say: “‘Balearic Springsteen’ is not, sadly, the defining sound of 2014, but while Lost in the Dream might not be the sort of album that could only have been made this year, the fact that it has placed so highly in this poll means it’s the sort of intimate, empathetic record that really gets under the skin. What was clearly punishing for Granduciel has become cathartic for the rest of us.

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3. FKA twigs | LP1

What we say: “People have said that LP1 is a sparse record. True, there are gaps and pauses all over the place, but the production is fundamentally busy and demanding. There’s an awful lot going on. Choruses swell, beats scatter, the melody can slow mid-song before lurching back to its original tempo. The music pulls off the same trick as the vocals: providing intimacy and distance, all in the same breath: a push and pull of showing and concealing.”

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4. Aphex Twin | Syro

What we say: “Some would grouse that Syro didn’t reinvent music – a rather high bar you had to regard as a compliment, of sorts. But if we don’t get Aphex the innovator here, we get something just as good: Aphex the virtuoso. Much of Syro was rooted in an athletic ‘80s electro funk, typified by the inhumanly fast keytar runs of syro u473t8+e (piezoluminescence mix). But the album’s real hallmark was its generosity of melody.”

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5. Caribou | Our Love

What we say: “Club bangers have long been littered with platitudes about losing yourself to dance or feeling someone up at the end of the night. Our Love, though, runs deeper. Its songs are about the complexities of adult relationships, whether new fatherhood or friends’ divorces – even deaths. And yet despite this bittersweet melancholy, and Snaith’s chilly falsetto, Our Love manages to sound like it’s bathed in a warm, amber glow.”

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6. La Roux | Trouble in Paradise

What we say: “This was an album loaded with potential singles. As for the tinny production that marred La Roux’s excellent debut, that had been replaced with a far more organic 80s sound: groove-laden bass, scratchy funk guitars and a real sense of musical joie de vivre throughout. What you could evidently hear, and what explains at least some of the five year delay, is a sense of perfectionism, of the musicians being given the time and freedom to explore the possibilities around each song.”

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7. Run the Jewels | Run the Jewels 2

What we say: “El-P has been known to talk about the importance of lyricism creeping back into hip-hop, after what he perceived as a period when wordplay and prose took a backseat. On Run the Jewels 2, he and Killer Mike placed their words centre-stage, tackling tough topics, from racial profiling in America to drug dealer guilt and rough sex, with blazing streams of consciousness delivered in their two distinct, rapid-fire styles.”

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8. Beck | Morning Phase

What we say: “For a man heralded as one of music’s most progressive and surreal shapeshifters, there is something reassuringly simple and old fashioned about the way this album sounds. Perhaps this is why, amidst the digital dystopia of 2014, it is one of the year’s best. It’s a record that’s been laboured over and fine-tuned and finds Beck adopting the guise of songwriting greats – the furrowed sensitivity of Nick Drake, the wizened philosophy of Neil Young.”

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9. Flying Lotus | You’re Dead

What we say: “Originally planned as a straight-up jazz record, You’re Dead! slowly morphed into an even more ambitious, wide-ranging album with guest appearances from the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg and Herbie Hancock. This meeting of jazz and hip-hop is what the album excels at exploring – a bold, ambitious statement that truly worked.”

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10. Sleaford Mods | Divide and Exit

What we say: “You could drive yourself mad thinking about what Sleaford Mods “mean”, and why the lyrics of Jason Williamson began to resonate in 2014, after seven albums. The pat response would be to claim that it’s all about austerity Britain. Yet any connection with the state of the country might be more to do with a rising feeling of anger and resentment at the world: Williamson’s lyrics sound less like social commentary than the thoughts that would spill out of us all if only we dared speak them aloud.”

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11. Mac DeMarco | Salad Days

What we said: “DeMarco is incredibly adept at distilling an unlikely selection of influences into something that’s idiosyncratic without being gratingly quirky. On Salad Days, you can hear both the wide-eyed romanticism of Jonathan Richman – he’s big on handing out common-sense relationship advice – and the skewed oddness that ensued when Arthur Russell attempted to write straightforward pop music, but DeMarco is clearly most passionately in love with Walls and Bridges-era John Lennon.”

12. Taylor Swift | 1989

What we said: “The really striking thing about 1989 is how completely Taylor Swift dominates the album. As a songwriter, Swift has a keen grasp both of her audience and of pop history. She avoids the usual hollow platitudes about self-empowerment and meaningless aspirational guff about the VIP area in the club in favour of Springsteenesque narratives of escape and the kind of doomed romantic fatalism in which 60s girl groups dealt.”

13. Kate Tempest | Everybody Down

What we said: “The obvious reference point is the Streets’ second album, A Grand Don’t Come for Free, although Dan Carey’s unsteadying beats leave no room for Mike Skinner’s trademark way with a chorus. Tempest shines, though, through her use of language, which illuminates the subject matter – from boardroom drug deals to vacuous parties where “everybody … has got a hyphenated second name” – to dazzling effect.”

14. Future Islands | Singles

What we said: “Beginning with Seasons (Waiting on You) – a song that already feels like a modern classic in the wake of their Letterman performance – the band whip through chintzy 80s R&B synths and buffed-up AOR guitars with such vigour it feels as if it were their last shot at the big time (considering they formed in 2006 and just got signed to 4AD, perhaps it is). Swaggering sonics aside, it’s very hard to see past the visceral vocals of Samuel T Herring.”

15. Angel Olsen | Burn Your Fire For No Witness

What we said: “There is a lot of heartbreak on Burn Your Fire For No Witness, as well as a lot of pleasing anachronism; a lot of hard-won resignation and what you might call stern vulnerability, a quality that Olsen shares with Joni Mitchell without sounding at all like Mitchell. Her soprano can be a delicate and ghostly thing ... but Olsen’s quaver holds your gaze, using her vibrato for effect, not whining or crumbling.”

16. Wild Beasts | Present Tense

What we said: “Wild Beasts revel in their idiosyncrasies; you can hear it in the duelling vocals and choral layers, the words that shouldn’t fit, the tunes that veer off in unexpected directions. What’s new here is that they have tempered and honed those flourishes. It’s modest in its experiments, never forgoing an accessible ear for the sake of being difficult.”

17. Young Fathers | Dead

What we said: “You could compare Young Fathers’ globalised, magpie borrowing to that of MIA, but their music feels far less frenetic and contrived, less concerned with proving a point. For an album that throws an awful lot of eclectic influences at the listener over the course of 34 minutes, Dead feels remarkably unforced and organic.”

18. Jenny Lewis | The Voyager

What we said: “The Voyager’s finely wrought sketches of mortality and infidelity sound like the product of months of painstaking polishing. The former Rilo Kiley singer is eminently skilled at turning the detritus of relationships into relatable lyrics, caustically writing about ageing, her biological clock and watching an ex-boyfriend move on with undue haste.”

19. Jhene Aiko | Souled Out

What we said: “The R&B pendulum has been swinging back towards women. Jhené Aiko, FKA Twigs and Kelela have different influences and approaches, but what they share is a love of R&B at its most forward-looking and futuristic, the sort that was prevalent between the mid 90s and the mid-noughties, when Timbaland, the Neptunes and Rodney Jerkins were in their heyday.”

20. Owen Pallett | In Conflict

What we said: “Owen Pallett is equally comfortable in the worlds of baroque pop and classical. His fourth album emphasises his fluidity, its complex arrangements and Pallett’s choirboy voice placing him somewhere between Arthur Russell and a less hysterical Rufus Wainwright.”

21. Ratking | So It Goes

What we said: “The New York collective have created a dirty, aggressive, but creatively fecund form of hip-hop that’s steeped in their city’s musical legacy, but still heading in a new direction. Unrelenting and abrasive it may be, but So It Goes turns a new page in New York hip-hop.”

22. Merchandise | After the End

What we said: “After the End is not just an enjoyable record in its own right, but one that feels like a significant step in Merchandise’s journey. You’re left excited about where they might go next, with a real sense that they could improve with age. After the End may only occasionally hit the band’s lofty targets – but sometimes just seeing someone strive can be a thrill in itself.”

23. Hurray for the Riff Raff | Small Town Heroes

What we said: “As the album plays, with barely changing acoustic instrumentation, doo wop and early R&B start to make their presence felt. You might call it a postmodern take on 20th-century American music, but it’s so warm and welcoming that it never feels like an exercise in technique or a mere demonstration of knowledge.”

24. Banks | Goddess

What we said: “When Banks breathes over Lil Silva, Shlohmo and Sohn’s understated synths and basslines on singles Goddess, Brain and Waiting Game, the internet hype humming around her makes sense. She lays her emotions bare, at times almost embarrassingly so, sounding raw and vengeful.”

25. Actress | Ghettoville

What we said: “This fourth album takes inspiration from society’s outcasts – drug addicts, the homeless – although the dystopian vibe does brighten towards the climax, when Darren Cunningham adds soulful vocal samples to his palette of ambient, industrial, techno, avant-electronica, glitch, minimalism and pretty much any other genre he feels like taking apart.”

26. Tinashe | Aquarius

What we said: “This debut from Zimbabwean-American actor/singer Tinashe Kachingwe will undoubtedly be compared to R&B minimalists like Mila J and Jhené Aiko, but her antecedents stretch further back. Janet Jackson’s seductive 1990s incarnation and Aaliyah’s futuristic soul are obvious influences, and while Aquarius doesn’t hit those heights, it sets Tinashe up as a potentially major artist for 2015.”

27. Kindness | Otherness

What we said: “This really is a beautifully crafted album, its sincere homages to Jam & Lewis’s crisp R&B or Womack & Womack’s swish club soul transformed by a distinctly English kind of longing. Adam Bainbridge remains a slightly aloof presence throughout, but zesty vocal cameos from Kelela, Robyn, Tawiah and Ghanaian rapper M.anifest save Otherness from slipping into tasteful self-indulgence.”

28. Damon Albarn | Everyday Robots

What we said: “Beautiful, but subtle, cloudy and elusive, Everyday Robots certainly isn’t the album it’s purported to be. You come out of the other side not much the wiser about the man behind it. Never mind: the music is good enough that a lack of revelation doesn’t really seem to matter while Everyday Robots is playing. Whoever Damon Albarn is, he’s extremely good at what he does.”

29. Ariel Pink | Pom Pom

What we said: “There is substance here, and many styles. The highly moving Picture Me Gone finds Pink in powerful sentimental form. Like Brian Wilson trapped in a tar pit, Pink sings about a dad bequeathing his digital history to his child. However, if this is Pink’s big-push album, in which he becomes the 21st century’s Wayne Coyne, it’s not working. Pink has melody to burn, but the unevenness of Pom Pom is a stumbling block.”

30. East India Youth | Total Strife Forever

What we said:East India Youth’s William Doyle is an artist of two halves. On the one hand he’s an emotional electronic songsmith: think a James Blake you don’t want to grab by the scruff of the neck and pack off to national service. On the other, he’s an inventive composer who can turn his hand to Harold Buddesque soundscapes one minute (Total Strife Forever I-IV) and surprisingly banging techno such as Hinterland the next.”

31. Leonard Cohen | Popular Problems

What we said: “An artist who 10 years ago could make finishing an album seem like a tough call now makes it sound effortless. Nothing here feels laboured: he can deliver songs as beautifully wrought as Samson in New Orleans – a depiction of the aftermath of hurricane Katrina – with a gorgeous understatement that only magnifies its impact: ‘And we who cried for mercy from the bottom of the pit/Was our prayer so damn unworthy that the sun rejected it?’”

32. Shabazz Palaces | Lese Majesty

What we said: “Lese Majesty is a noticeably less forbidding album in practice than it looks on paper. There are certainly moments when it feels like a bunch of weird words and noises thrown together to no real cumulative effect ... but more often, Lese Majesty lures you into its skewed, wildly inventive world.”

33. Scott Walker and Sunn 0))) | Soused

What we said: “Soused is surprisingly melodic, Sunn O))) provide a menacing but rich backdrop to Walker’s distinctive baritone. The sound palette may have changed, but Walker’s lyrics address familiar themes: totalitarian states; humankind’s brutality; and the movies.”

34. Jamie T | Carry on the Grudge

What we said: “As a lyricist, Treays is very good on the weirdness and uncertainty of your late 20s: the shifts in friendships, the galling moment when you realise you’re an adult, whether or not you feel like one. There’s something really affecting and realistic about the way Carry on the Grudge lurches from expansive thoughtfulness to the adolescent he-nicked-my-bird mewling of Peter.”

35. Peggy Seeger | Everything Changes

What we said: “This album is a revelation. Throughout her lengthy career, Peggy Seeger has proved that she is a thoughtful songwriter with an easygoing voice that offsets her often angry lyrics, but here she explores new, pained and personal territory, and does so with delicacy and soul. Listening to her relaxed, often acrobatic vocals, it’s hard to believe she’s 79. And she is still willing to experiment.”

36. Ex Hex | Rips

What we said: “Ex Hex make some of the most endlessly repeat-listenable should-be-hits of recent years. From the hurtling clang of Beast; to How You Got That Girl’s gleaming, twirling chorus; to New Kid, with its whiplashing pickslides and turbo-booster solo – these songs will be echoing in your ears long after Rips’ lean, mean 35 mins are over, and very welcome they will be there, too.”

37. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib | Piñata

What we said: “Freddie Gibbs is a grizzled street rapper with a voice that sounds uncannily like Tupac Shakur’s. Madlib is a producer with a long-established reputation for raiding recorded obscurities for loops with a discernible quirk. It’s an odd couple, but what they share is a fetishisation of independence, a determination not to (to coin an old phrase) ‘sell out’.”

38. Toumani Diabaté and Sidiki Diabaté | Toumani & Sidiki

What we said: “On their debut album of kora duets, the pair of them can be heard driving the music on with attacking, rhythmic playing and flurries of rapid-fire improvisation. It’s a virtuoso, and mostly upbeat collaboration, but the best track is the one new composition, Lampedusa, a gently exquisite lament for African migrants who died trying to reach Europe.”

39. Sharon Van Etten | Are We There

What we said: “The lyrics on Sharon Van Etten’s fourth album don’t always make for easy listening. “He can break me, with one hand,” she falsettos during one chorus, whereas Your Love Is Killing Me features broken legs, cut tongues and burned skin. As with her 2012 breakthrough album Tramp, these revelations feel intimate and shocking, and gain further power when Van Etten appears to fall back under her lover’s spell.”

40. Tricky | Adrian Thaws

What we said: “From opener Sun Down, you’re transported to Tricky’s world. It’s dark, seductive and filled with songs that are linked via his inventive production and bleak worldview. Sonically, it ranges from avant garde soundscapes (My Palestine Girl) to low-slung soul (Silly Games) and reveals an artist who’s still capable of surprising, disturbing and revelling in his own idiosyncracies.”

Which album has topped your own list this year? Tell us in the form below, and we’ll round up your picks in a readers’ choice list.


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