2014 is nearly over. (Thank God.)
Accordingly, it is now that special time of year when we take a look back at some of the best, most #blessed records released in the past eleven and a half-ish months and then proceed to hem and haw over the exact order of their perceived greatness.
As always, this is a reflection of my own personal taste, not that of the general public. There is, I think, a healthy balance of artsy, trashy and good ol’ fashioned pop scattered throughout this list. That being said, please feel free to weigh in with your own list in the comments below. (As always, any and all outrage about the ranking and/or the inevitable snubbed LP or three will be met with chilly, deafening silence, because zero fooks given.)
And now, the Top 20 Albums of 2014 — that is, unless someone decides to pull a Beyoncé before the month’s over. Rihanna, Madonna…I’m watching, you #UnapologeticBitches.
You can stream the full set (spoiler alert: minus TayTay Moneybags McSwift) on Spotify. And away we go!
20. Leighton Meester, Heartstrings
Surprise! When Leighton Meester announced that she was ditching the electro-pop scene and heading down the folk road, there was plenty of grumbling about the transition. (I mean, hello…“Body Control”!) As it turned out, she made the right choice. Heartstrings is a thoroughly lush, breezy collection of dreamy guitar melodies and earworm hooks best served on a Sunday afternoon. The lead single and title track alone, “Heartstrings,” is one of the year’s best singles, and the smoothest transition into a twangy, organic pop that Hilary Duff never recorded. The Gossip Girl actress-turned-singer-songbird seriously delivered this year…much more than anyone else probably anticipated.
19. Jennifer Lopez, A.K.A. (Original Review)
When it comes to camp, we can always depend on Jennifer Lopez AKA J.Lo AKA Lola AKA Jenny From The Block to bring the glitter. While her ass-tastic ode with Pitbull surely did help to usher in the Apocalypse, there was still plenty of deliciously over-the-top goodness and genuinely good pop to love from La Lopez’s latest set, including her sorely unappreciated, Max Martin-produced “First Love,” the queer-baiting “Tens,” a #fierce moment of voguing hilarity poised to win her a cameo on RuPaul’s Drag Race, the Sia-penned “Expertease” (which is secretly Sia’s greatest sex jam ever) and “So Good” which is, well, exactly that. Honestly, where would we even be as a people without “I Luh Ya Papi”? SlayLo forever, through good times and booty.
18. Ariana Grande, My Everything (Original Review)
While her debut was a nostalgic trip into ’90’s R&B that caused some members of the Lambily to serve side-eye, #leftsideonly mini-diva Ariana Grande suffered an insane identity crisis on her follow-up. On My Everything, she dabbled in EDM with Zedd with her unintelligible-yet-undeniable “Break Free,” served lush synth-pop with The Weeknd (still such a weird feature!) on “Love Me Harder,” got down on the floor to corny beats with A$AP Ferg on “Hands Free” and, of course, hit those horns hard with I-G-G-Y on “Problem.” Everything is too much of everything, but then again, between seeing demons, terrorizing her fans and coping with her fame-thirsty brother, she’s got enough on her plate. Whatever: She’s young, she’s cute, and she’s got the pipes to deliver anything she likes. Live your best #blessed, Ari!
17. Betty Who, Take Me When You Go
A knack for smart songcraft and a nerd-like appreciation for pop aren’t what you’ll likely find in your average pop star, but that’s the very essence of one of this year’s most promising new acts, Miss Betty Who. After picking up speed (and a record deal!) with her euphoric, Whitney Houston-esque anthem “Somebody Loves You” which went viral last year, the Aussie-born singer-songwriter delivered a sparkling collection of pop gems full of heart and soul with her debut, crafted by an artist who genuinely feels all the feels. Everything is romantic and nothing hurts in Betty’s world — well, aside from a few broken hearts along the way. Still, she shines brightest when she’s conjuring a sweet, saccharine teenage nostalgia, as with the glittering “High Society” and “All Of You.” Go on, relive those glory days.
16. Nick Jonas, Nick Jonas
Let’s hear it for the boy: Nick Jonas‘ album campaign might have been oddly queer-centric (which gay outlet didn’t he speak to?), and the photoshoots were just one pube away from a Butt Magazine spread (no one’s complaining), but impressively, the music justified the thirst spree. Inspired by Prince and Justin Timberlake, the boy band member-turned-solo star delivered fresh ‘n funky sounds, including the oh-so-sexy “Teacher” and his first-ever Top 10 hit, “Jealous,” which was made all the better (and hotter) with a feature from Tinashe. At the same time, the former Brother Jonas dipped into chilly R&B, including “Chains” and his Angel Haze-assisted “Numb.” A hot straight dude making hot music and frequently projecting positive opinions about the gay community into the world? Yeah, I’ll take all of that.
15. Azealia Banks, Broke With Expensive Taste (Original Review)
You know, it’s a shame she keeps torpedoing her career for a few social media outbursts, because Azealia Banks dropped one of the better records of 2014. Broke is an enjoyably eclectic assault of mile-a-minute verses, electronica, heavy metal and ’90’s House pulsations. One minute she’s covering Ariel Pink (“Nude Beach A-Go-Go”), the next, she’s wailing en Espańol in an ode to Spanish Harlem on “Gimme A Chance.” While nothing trumps the greatness of her sole hit “212” and her flow can often sound same-y without the variety of beats, the controversy-baiting rap princess does still serve plenty of heat, including “Chasing Time,” “Soda” and the Morgan Page-sampling “Ice Princess.” A suggestion? Get off Twitter and let the music make the most noise.
14. Charli XCX, Sucker
From goth-pop goddess to Jawbreaker-inspired ’90’s punk prom queen, mega-babe Charli XCX wasn’t afraid to put together a fierce girl band and try out some new, grittier sounds on her next go-around. While True Romance is still the superior effort of the two, Sucker provided a much-needed jolt of youthful, cocky “fuck off” attitude and crunchy power pop at the tail-end of 2014, including her bratty “Break The Rules,” 2014’s other summer anthem “Boom Clap” and the superb throwback, “Doing It.” the too-cool-for-school popstress is surely on her way to carving out a legendary (and shape-shifting) career, but don’t get too comfortable with the crashing guitars and yelping rawk grrrl sounds Charli’s serving up at the moment: She’s already thinking of moving into J-Pop for Album #3. Keep on doing it, Charli.
13. Nicki Minaj, The Pinkprint
She never fucked Wayne. She never fucked Drake. Sure, Nicki Minaj might not always be taken seriously, but her position on the throne is justified. Despite the misleadingly A$$-tastic lead single, The Pinkprint is an unexpectedly introspective set, dealing with death, abortion and drug abuse — and that’s just the opening number. She’s dropped the characters (sorry, Roman!) and shed the clown wigs, toeing the line between pop and rap while opening up like never before. She hasn’t lost sight of her fun side either, feeling her oats alongside Beyoncé and Ariana Grande. Through it all she remains a boss, taking pride in her achievements (“Want Some More”!) while subtly shifting the conversation about male dominance. Hear how desperate she makes Drake and Wayne sound on “Only”? Grasp the symbolism behind slicing up a banana in the “Anaconda” video? She’s trailblazing…no ifs, ands or butts about it.
12. Kylie Minogue, Kiss Me Once (Original Review)
In retrospect, Kiss Me Once is probably Kylie’s weakest record, but not because of the material: Blame it on her shift in management or her run on The Voice (it’s easier to blame things on will.i.am), but there was simply no commitment…or a real theme. (“Uh…lips!”) While the record kicked off nicely enough with her lush “Into The Blue” (“bah-loo-oo!“), it all came to a thud with her Pharrell-produced inspirational anthem, “I Was Gonna Cancel.” (To make matters worse, it came with her worst video to date. Oof.) In a parallel universe, there was still plenty more to be squeezed from the LP: “Les Sex” serves X era flirty fun, “Sexy Love” is the Katy Perry-esque summer smash that never was, and “If Only” and “Feels So Good” are heaven-sent moments in electro-balladry. But hey, at least she revolutionized the (s)exercise ball industry.
11. Banks, Goddess
Where 2014 mostly failed in delivering massive pop records, it made up in supplying us with mood music-makers aplenty. When Banks arrived on the scene last year with her unique brand of alterna-R&B-electronic-whatever-you-wanna-call-it, we already knew her debut record would be something special. And that it most certainly is: Layering her fragile vocals against creeping textures woven by the likes of Lil Silva and Sohn, the brooding beauty gave us the downtempo goods time and time again this year, resulting in something like a R&B-minded Fiona Apple as produced by Portishead. From the snarling “Brain” to “Drowning” to “Begging For Thread,” the songstress delivered slow simmered, atmospheric alterna-pop all year long.
10. FKA twigs, LP1 (Original Review)
FKA twigs truly made it through the wilderness, having gone from dancing in the background of videos for Jessie J (yeesh) to becoming a voguing, spooky otherworldly work of art. Her debut record, a skeletal production held together just barely by breathy coos and creeping beats, is a sexual and strange thing of beauty — as is the singer herself. (Just watch her channel her inner Queen Of The Damned in this year’s unmissable “Two Weeks” video.) Her sound is alien, without being too obtuse, and her aesthetic is so intriguing, even Google Glass got in on the action early into her career. While forward-thinking, LP1 isn’t Twigs’ masterpiece quite yet, but rather an impressive first step (and/or death drop) toward what promises to be an incredible career to come.
9. Jhene Aiko, Souled Out (Original Review)
Jhene Aiko makes musical medicine. That’s the only way to describe the sound that comes through on the honey-voiced songstress’ transportive debut. Floating across tranquil guitar melodies, ambient sounds and tripping hip-hop loops, Aiko takes us from the darkness into the light with her unbelievably soothing voice…and even more soothing words. The incredibly emotional “W.A.Y.S.” (“Why Aren’t You Smiling?”), for instance, inspired by the last phrase her late brother tweeted before his death, is the definition of a self-empowerment anthem mercifully free from cliché, rooted in Buddhist thought: “There’s really no fail, there’s really no winning/’Cause nothing really isn’t, everything really isn’t.” Think about it. Souled Out provides solace when the seas get rough — and this year, the escape was never needed more.
8. Sia, 1000 Forms Of Fear (Original Review)
Sia‘s been penning hits for just about every icon ever, including Rihanna, Beyoncé and Britney. Isn’t it nice that she took the time to do something for herself? 1000 Forms Of Fear is, as the name implies, a dark and vulnerable body of work. But then, Sia’s always been an open book, and the album continues in that therapeutic storytelling, from the way too real “Big Girls Cry” to her Grammy-nominated cautionary tale, “Chandelier.” At the same time, Fear‘s sound reflects her success since We Are Born. The hooks are huge, the production is thunderous. Yet in the end, that quirky songwriter from Adelaide is still the one behind the music. Emphasis on behind: Sia’s refusal to show her face to keep the focus on her music resulted in one of the year’s most memorable campaigns…and the best video of the year. Viva la wig!
7. Lykke Li, I Never Learn (Original Review)
Lykke Li is one sad, sad girl. Perhaps even sadder than Lana! But she’s bottled those teardrops beautifully on her third go-around, which happens to be the Swedish songbird’s strongest, tightest and certainly most teary-eyed set to date. This isn’t the girl who gave us such twee delights as “Little Bit” — nay, she’s long gone now. In the few years since her debut, the singer’s improved substantially upon her melody-making, resulting in massive heartbreak anthems like “No Rest For The Wicked,” “Just Like A Dream” and “Gunshot,” which is absolutely the year’s most overlooked single. Haunting, lonely and utterly devastating the whole way through, the record feels like a long lost, very depressing Fleetwood Mac record — just hang on until your next break-up for maximum impact.
6. Jessie Ware, Tough Love (Original Review)
With Tough Love, Jessie Ware managed to achieve the near impossible: Trumping her critically acclaimed debut, Devotion. This time around, the soulful songstress dove into richer, more ambitious sound, enlisting Benny Blanco, Two Inch Punch and Miguel to accompany her on the smooth-sailing journey. Throughout the LP, Jessie wraps her vocals around sensual, Sade-like production, from the intimate electronica of “Tough Love,” to the blissful daydream of “Kind of…Sometimes…Maybe,” to the utterly euphoric “Champagne Kisses.” She’s more assured this time around, both vocally and romantically speaking: Watch her canoodle with her bae in that video for “You & I.” And while her songs can sometimes contain an underlying sadness (“Want Your Feeling”), Jessie always knows how to kiss the pain away.
5. Mariah Carey, Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse (Original Review)
You can trash her live performances. You can tear apart her over-the-top diva theatrics. (Why would you want to?) But the thing is, Mariah Carey is still one of the most iconic voices of our generation — and she just happens to have made one of the year’s best records, too. While the industry vet’s album campaign was undoubtedly the messiest, Mimi secretly had a #beautiful album up her festive sleeves. In many ways, Me. I Am Mariah feels like a victory lap: She gives us classic, feel-good R&B on “Make It Look Good” and “Dedicated” (for the nostalgia!), urban heartbreak (“Faded”), disco moments (“You Don’t Know What To Do”) and loads o’ shade thrown in the direction of fame-seekers, including the year’s best, if not most literal thirst anthem, “Thirsty.” For the album’s insane title alone, this one was already destined to be a standout. Got something to say about her ability to hit a high note after 20 years in the industry? Keep trying it. This record is the sound of a true artist at work, daaaaahling.
4. Lana Del Rey, Ultraviolence (Original Review)
Lana Del Rey delivered the best record of the year in 2012 with Born To Die. In the time since, she’s been publicly mocked and ridiculed only to then, naturally, be adored. Ultraviolence, however, documents the time spent in between: It is a dark and deeply sarcastic work, in which Lana lashes out against those critical of her success (“Fucked My Way Up To The Top”) and her intentions (“Money Power & Glory”) while inciting controversy with her fetishism of a very physical kind of love and eternal side chick status. (Hey, everybody’s got their something.) Gone were the hip-hop beats of her debut. Instead, swirling guitars, pounding drums and hydroponic weed poured through the speakers as demonstrated by her bold, psychedelic lead single, “West Coast.” Ultraviolence is more divisive and less accessible than her debut, but no less of a stellar offering from one of the industry’s most fascinating and fucking crazy enigmas.
3. Taylor Swift, 1989 (Original Review)
If you’d told me I’d be listening to Taylor Swift in my spare time a year ago, I’d slap you right across the mouth — let alone that I’d be listing her in my Top 5. But lo and behold, she’s won the war. (For now, anyway.) The squeaky-clean, filthy-rich country pop-turned-regular-pop darling ate the world with 1989, her “official” transition into twang-less pop. To be fair, with production from the likes of Max Martin, Ryan Tedder and even Imogen Heap, there was little doubt that Swift would come out strong. But, make no mistake: It was the singer-songwriter’s own knack for crafting sharp hooks and oh-so-relatable dorky dreamer lyricism that made this record a win from start to finish, from the triumphant “Out Of The Woods” to the slick ’80’s sheen of “Style” to her wink-wink “meta” reflection on her dating life, “Blank Space.” And yes, even the eye roll-inducing “Shake It Off” sounds better in context. Thanks, Tay. Sincerely, a former hate-hate-hater.
2. Tove Lo, Queen Of The Clouds (Original Review)
Before Taylor swooped in, pop music needed some serious saving in 2014. Weighted down by godawful, horn-heavy breakdowns (thanks a lot, Jason Derulo!) and reductive regurgitations of mediocre Katy Perry hits (hello, “Black Widow”!), the landscape was missing a dose of ingenuity. Enter Tove Lo, the Swedish savior. Riding high (all the time) with her killer lead single, a cautionary tale about a girl lost in a haze of substance abuse in the same camp as Sia’s “Chandelier,” the frank Scandi-pop diva reminded us all that, at its core, it all comes down to melody. Mercifully (and miraculously), “Habits” became a hit stateside, giving her some visibility to drop her highly anticipated debut. And the record was worth the wait: Each song bursts with huge choruses, from the aggressively sexual “Talking Body” (“If you love me ri-i-ight, we fuck for li-i-fe“!) to the soaring “Got Love.” As with Robyn, Lykke Li and so many Swedish queens before her, Tove’s got the gift.
1. Tinashe, Aquarius (Original Review)
Look, I said it before and I’ll say it again: Tinashe is the future.
Haven’t done your research yet? Look her up. The pop princess on the rise has come a long way, having gone from becoming a member of a short-lived girl group, to crafting independent mixtapes in her bedroom, to inking a major label record deal, to dropping her debut LP and bopping around on stage with Nick Jonas on 106 & Park. And 2014 was only an opening chapter in her success story.
For a debut record, Aquarius is surprisingly self-assured and uncompromising. This is a body of work by an artist who took her time to get it just right, from slow-burning guitar solos by Dev Hynes to lengthy interludes, a nod to Janet‘s well-sequenced LPs. Speaking of Miss Jackson, Tinashe’s clearly a good student: The Janet-interpolating “How Many Times?”, one of the many highlights, is an example of homage done right.
Her signature sound, perfected to a science after 3 years of mixtape-making, is a genre-blurring blend of late night R&B, hip-hop and super-sensual soul, evoking everyone from Aaliyah to FKA twigs to The Weeknd. But when she wants, she knows how to loose, get faded and go dumb — then go more dumb: Her DJ Mustard-produced breakout “2 On (feat. Schoolboy Q)” slowly crept its way up the charts over the summer, subtly shaping the sound at radio. (Does Fergie‘s new single sound familiar to anyone else?)
She oozes sexuality throughout her late night cosmic journey, from the shiver-inducing “Cold Sweat,” to the flashing lights of “Feels Like Vegas,” to the cocky, Mike Will Made It-helmed “Thug Cry.” But the record isn’t just boasts and breathy come-ons: Her emotionally complex electro-ballad “Pretend” showcased an unexpected depth that one might not have seen coming from the “2 On” songbird. And, with a call-to-arms like “All Hands On Deck” still locked and loaded, there’s no stopping her from dominating the clubs for another round in 2015.
Yet as great as Tinashe sounds on this record, the music is taken to a whole new level once she hits the stage: From her debut appearance on Jimmy Kimmel to her show-stealing medley on the Soul Train Music Awards, Tinashe turns out breakneck choreography with ease, bringing peak-era Britney to mind while reminding us all what a pop performer truly looks like. Simply put: No new artist devours the stage the way Tinashe does.
While she might not have made the biggest noise, she did deliver the greatest promise this year. “I’mma be around forever, always…you can bet on it.” A star is born.