For my 12th consecutive year of listing and reviewing my favorite music, I’ll be looking back at some of the most memorable singles of each season of 2014, followed by my top 40 albums. Who will claim #1 this year? You’ll have to keep reading to find out. Join me for this signature special feature.
In recent years, great artists like Tegan and Sara, Jack White, Foo Fighters, and Robyn have topped my year-end music reviews. But before I crown this year’s champion, it’s time to take a trip back through the seasons. Just 40 albums can make the cut, so as always, I’ll start with a review of all the other singles that I listened to the most throughout the course of the year.
Clean Bandit f/ Jess Glynne“Rather Be”
Song of the year. That’s right, I saved the best for first. Pure joy in audio form.
Idina Menzel“Let It Go”
What would 2014 be without Adele Dazim and her essential Frozen anthem?
Pure Bathing Culture“Pendulum”
You couldn’t find a more peaceful song. Having a difficult day? Queue this up.
Cage The Elephant“Come A Little Closer”
A perfectly solid track from a band that I used to overlook for no good reason.
Just try not being happy while hearing “Happy”, at least the first 5,000 times.
High-energy whistles and beats from this super-enjoyable band from Sweden.
The singer from last year’s “Clarity” by Zedd had this strong single of her own.
RAC f/ Kele and MNDR“Let Go”
Can’t go wrong with MNDR. Reminds me of a Ronson track a few years back.
Disclosure f/ Sam Smith“Latch”
If you heard this song (and you did), you got that na na na stuck in your head.
That girl is a goddamn problem. You can’t trust Natalia, at least according to her.
Glenn Morrison f/ Islove“Goodbye”
Another of those pleasant DJ-featuring-pop-singer things we see a lot lately.
Lea’s attempt to break out as a pop star had mixed results. Good song though.
N.A.S.A. f/ Karen O“I Shot The Sheriff”
Trippy cover of the classic from a trippy collective with this equally trippy art.
Bruce Springsteen“High Hopes”
The legend of rock showed us all that he’s not hitting the brakes anytime soon.
Shakira f/ Rihanna“Can’t Remember To Forget You”
Apparent lovers Shakira and Rihanna came out with this inexplicably hot song.
One of the better pop songs of the year that replays itself inside your brain.
Tokyo Police Club“Hot Tonight”
The great Canadian rock band kept things rolling in early 2014 with this track.
Spice Girls: The New Class have now moved beyond one-hit-wonder territory.
Ingrid Michaelson“Girls Chase Boys”
Always should be someone you really love. Wait, no, that’s Blur. Close enough.
St. Vincent“Digital Witness”
Lots of love for her self-titled album this year, which barely missed my top 40.
Ferry C. f/ Jenny Wahlström“Many Ways”
A true electronic earworm. There are many ways to, there are many ways to…
Milky Chance“Stolen Dance”
One of 2014’s top tracks. It builds up, chills down, then chills down some more.
Before the whole iTunes mess, everyone loved this Super Bowl single from U2.
Jimmy Fallon f/ The Muppets“The Weight”
The new Tonight Show king ended his Late Night reign with class and grace.
DJ Snake f/ Lil Jon“Turn Down For What”
I was blown away by the genius simplicity of #TD4W. It became a rallying cry.
Self-aware satire of our selfie-obsessed culture. At least I hope it’s self-aware.
Chromeo“Jealous (I Ain’t With It)”
Dancey, and also features the line “back in 2011”, reminding us we’re all old.
With a sound (and name) kind of like Charli XCX, I’m on board the Allie X train.
Betty Who“Somebody Loves You”
The best kind of uplifting power pop. Betty Who slays the competition all day.
Sam Smith“Stay With Me”
Talk about a direct emotional appeal. Sam Smith lays it all out on the table.
Living up to its title, Halsey’s debut “Ghost” is sufficiently gritty and haunting.
Disclosure f/ Eliza Doolittle“You & Me”
The “Skinny Genes” singer teamed up with the UK’s new darlings of garage.
Sam Roberts Band“Shapeshifters”
Followup to “We’re All In This Together” from some of my favourite Canadians.
I gotta give props to Kelis for actually coming out with an album titled Food.
Arctic Monkeys“Do I Wanna Know?”
Dark in all the best ways. For best results, pair with “Afterlife” by Arcade Fire.
Karmin“I Want It All”
Ever the crowdpleasers, it’s hard to be mad at Karmin. This is how they do.
I’ll be honest, “Magic” barely held my attention enough to make it on this list.
Oh Honey“Be Okay”
An affirmation of a song that reassures its listeners, yes, I believe we’ll be okay.
Bleachers“I Wanna Get Better”
Hey, it’s that other guy from fun. doing a thing with his other not-fun. band.
Look at what a great time Natalie is having there. Let’s all dance with Cascada.
Sarah McLachlan“In Your Shoes”
My favorite Sarah single in a decade. She hit it out of the park with this one.
The masters of indie folk rock noise dream pop — whatever you wanna call it.
The Black Keys“Fever”
Best summarized as The Black Keys continuing to do their Black Keys thing.
Hyper-melodic and properly raucous, to borrow words from Pitchfork’s review.
Kongos“Come With Me Now”
This song is actually a couple of years old, but a commercial will do wonders.
Lana Del Rey“West Coast”
Without the buzz and mystery of her debut, this was merely a decent single.
Rita Ora“I Will Never Let You Down”
Rita Ora kind of happened in the U.S. this year. She’ll be back later with Iggy.
Pop in its purest form. Becky G is an up-and-coming talent to keep watching.
Demi Lovato f/ Cher Lloyd“Really Don’t Care”
Demi transformed her own breakup anthem into a pride & self-worth anthem.
Katy Perry“This Is How We Do”
It wouldn’t be summer without a Katy Perry jam. This one fit the bill perfectly.
Lindsey Stirling f/ Lzzy Hale“Shatter Me”
The violinist teamed up with the Halestorm singer, and the combo? Awesome.
Grimes is still reworking her next album but treated us to this single anyway.
The War On Drugs“Red Eyes”
One of the best rock songs in a while. Hard not to get excited about this one.
Not the same summer song you used to know; Jack left Diane 30 years ago. Brilliant.
Owl Eyes“Jewels & Sapphires”
This original and unique singer from Australia registered on my radar this year.
Peter Thomas f/ Betty Who“All Of You”
Betty Who times two! Her polished pop packs a powerful punch. Alliteration!
La Roux“Uptight Downtown”
The apparent daughter of Conan O’Brien returned again with this great single.
With a crossover sound I love and guest stars like these, we’ve got a winner.
Lo-fi garage rock from Spain with an infusion of ’60s-ish girl group style vocals.
Take a hypnotic song, add a mesmerizing music video to it, and you get… this!
Young The Giant“Mind Over Matter”
Here’s another band I didn’t pay enough attention to prior to 2014. They’re legit!
This dreamy track broke Echosmith into the pop consciousness. Well deserved.
Icona Pop“Get Lost”
Was this a one-off thing? Icona Pop ruled 2013; I expected this to be a bigger hit.
Broods“Mother & Father”
Enchanting, instantly addictive lead single from this great New Zealand band.
Sigma f/ Paloma Faith“Changing”
Perfect electro-pop for summer. You’ll have the chorus in your head for days.
The “Same Love” singer, now famously more than just the “Same Love” singer.
DJ Fresh f/ Ellie Goulding“Flashlight”
Strong vocals from Ellie paired with an out-of-this-world beat from DJ Fresh.
Foxygen“How Can You Really”
There’s more going on here than just rock; it’s like psychedelic, and I love it.
He might appear to be a soulful little ginger, but don’t fuck with him. His words.
Jessie J f/ Ariana and Nicki“Bang Bang”
It was nice of Jessie and Nicki to invite their daughter Ariana to sing with them.
Meghan Trainor“All About That Bass”
To quote Big Boi of Outkast (yep), big girls need love too, no discrimination here.
The Madden Brothers“We Are Done”
Benji and Joel as a ’70s wall of sound band with a choir? Sure, why not! It works!
Jasmine Thompson“I See Fire”
Such a mature sound, I was surprised she’s 14. Born in 2000. Yep, it’s over, y’all.
One of the best pop compositions of the year with an insanely clever video.
Death From Above 1979“Trainwreck 1979”
These guys are still going strong with this somewhat self-referential new single.
This one probably circled around in your head for at least a few days, right?
Hilary Duff“All About You”
Hilary put out her first new music in a long time! This one is Taylor Swift-ish.
Jack Ü f/ Kiesza“Take Ü There”
I’m here to rep Kiesza and that’s all I know. I think one of those guys is Skrillex.
For such a seemingly dark song lyrics-wise, that AGORA! chant sure is catchy.
Stella Ella Ola“Hypersleep”
Even more Canadians. This band is weird and frenetic and totally awesome.
Sam Smith“I’m Not The Only One”
God damn, Sam Smith. Stop tearing my heart out with your beautiful voice.
Up-and-coming band that combines synthpop and indie rock. Check ’em out.
Nicole Sabouné“Crazy People”
One of many great artists from Sweden. Kind of a ’70s and ’80s punk sound.
Cold War Kids“All This Could Be Yours”
Great song from one of the most reliable pop-rock bands in the biz right now.
Walk The Moon“Shut Up & Dance”
Ditto for these guys… plus they’re from Cincinnati, O-H-I-O. What up Cincy?!
BBC Music“God Only Knows”
BBC Music assembled “The Impossible Orchestra” for this mind-blowing cover.
Jessie J f/ 2 Chainz“Burnin’ Up”
Worth it for the way Jessie J yells out I’M BURNIN’ UP! Just put that on repeat.
Top-notch West Coast pop. See also: Her acoustic “Seven Nation Army” cover.
Nicki Minaj f/ Skylar Grey“Bed Of Lies”
Skylar Grey, cementing her status as the world’s #1 hip hop chorus singer.
Some kind of project from BBC Radio 1’s Zane Lowe brought us new Chvrches!
Sleater-Kinney“Bury Our Friends”
The riot grrrl legends are BACK. First new song in 9 years, as raucous as ever.
The Decemberists“Make You Better”
These guys always sneak in with new music right before the end of the year.
Purity Ring“Push Pull”
New track from Purity Ring after 2 years! Another album coming soon, I hope.
Lorde“Yellow Flicker Beat”
Lorde curated the Mockingjay, Part 1 soundtrack and tore it up with this single.
Tove Lo“Scream My Name”
My other favorite song from that soundtrack. I’ll have more on Tove Lo later.
Mark Ronson f/ Bruno Mars“Uptown Funk”
Bombastic, funktastic, and brilliant. The perfect way to end 2014. HOT DAMN!
40Weird Al YankovicMandatory Fun
The master of parody went out on top in 2014 as his last-ever LP debuted at #1 on Billboard, a well-deserved honor. His unparalleled “8 videos, 8 days” event for Mandatory Fun brought joy to the masses. Weird Al is a national treasure.
39Brody DalleDiploid Love
You know Brody Dalle from the massively-important-to-my-teen-self band The Distillers as well as Spinnerette. For her first solo album, she brought a synth-infused, proven punk rock sound, collaborating with members of Garbage, The Strokes, Queens of the Stone Age, and Warpaint. Speaking of…
I was enthralled by the haunting, sonically beautiful, mysterious and ambient nature of Warpaint’s 2011 album, The Fool. Their self-titled LP follows it up with even more progressively-building, ominous, immersive jams.
37La SeraHour Of The Dawn
Katy Goodman, formerly of Vivian Girls, returned again this year with her third album for La Sera. This time, she said, “I didn’t want it to be another record of me sad, alone in my room.” Hour Of The Dawn is aggressive and experimental.
For her long-awaited third album, Lily Allen came back with a vengeance and came out swinging. “Hard Out Here” set the biting, satirical tone for this album that deconstructs (and at times obliterates) celebrity and pop culture.
35Sharon Van EttenAre We There
Sharon Van Etten’s previous album Tramp is what propelled her solo career into popular consciousness, but the success of that project didn’t change what we have come to expect from her music. If anything, Are We There is as raw as ever, but even more commanding, earnest, and refreshingly self-aware.
The infinitely creative Beck is like a revolving door of several different artists. For his first new album in six years, he revisited the mellow, emotional, immersive atmosphere of 2002’s Sea Change. But there’s more than sadness and melancholy this time: Added to the mix is mature reflection and a glimmer of hope.
Every so often, a new rock band comes around that makes you think, hey, maybe rock isn’t dead. This year’s entry is the UK’s Royal Blood. I heard their creative and inspired “Figure It Out” and I was on board. It’s solid, creative rock in 2014.
32Lykke LiI Never Learn
I Never Learn is perhaps Lykke Li’s most sophisticated album to date, largely eschewing pop beats and melodies for more introspective ballads, all revolving around a terrible heartbreak that had up-ended her personal life.
31EMAThe Future’s Void
EMA’s last album Past Life Martyred Saints brought an unnerving, stripped-down release of emotional and physical pain. This time around, the aura of agonizing anguish continues but about broader topics that affect all of us as a society. It’s not as personal, but it’s similarly abrasive and thought-provoking.
30Sleeper AgentAbout Last Night
These great Kentucky kids followed up their 2011 debut Celebrasion with About Last Night, an album that sees them stay true to form as one of the preeminent bands helping keep rock alive, as energetic and uninhibited as ever.
I was watching SNL with Bill Hader when a then-unknown-to-me musical guest took the stage. Who was this guy? Turns out he’s great. “Take Me To Church” immediately drew me in, and it deserved to be the massive success that it was. “Angel Of Small Death & The Codeine Scene” is my other favorite.
28Nikki LaneAll Or Nothin’
Nikki Lane is the best artist in country right now, and it’s no coincidence that she stands way, way out from the pack with a more avant-garde, innovative sound that’s been compared to Neko Case (which is one of the greatest compliments a singer can get). “Right Time” is the song that hooked me into this album.
It’s difficult to put FKA Twigs into words, and that’s a good thing. Her music has been described as trip hop, electronic, post-punk, and simply “experimental”, which is certainly the truth. LP1 is a subtly aggressive sonic journey that had no match this year. “Two Weeks” commanded my attention this fall.
26Dum Dum GirlsToo True
The first LP from Dum Dum Girls in three years started 2014 off with a bang. “Rimbaud Eyes” came crashing into my ears with a strong new wave sound that took me back to the late ’80s, kinda like a supercharged Siouxsie.
25WeezerEverything Will Be Alright In The End
Believe it or not, this is Weezer’s first-ever appearance on my top 40 albums. I’ve loved this band practically forever, but everyone knows their recent efforts left something to be desired. Well, no more. They hit all the right notes this time with an LP that’s enjoyable front-to-back. I even love the self-referential “Back To The Shack”, a track that makes me appreciate 20 years of Weezer.
24Cher LloydSorry I’m Late
Cher Lloyd’s first entry on my year-end music review was in 2012 with “Want U Back”, which was fun but juvenile. Sorry I’m Late brings us a more mature-ish version of her with songs like “Sirens”, easily one of the best pop ballads of the year. Still a lot of fun, but also sophisticated. Best of both worlds.
We’ve been waiting a long time for Blondfire to release this LP. “Where The Kids Are”, which is on this album, made my list two years ago. So I’m glad it’s finally here! The Metric-like electronica of Young Heart is right up my alley. Some of my favorite tracks are “Hide And Seek” and “Dear In Your Headlights”.
After sing-talking her way through some pop tracks in 2009, Leighton Meester suddenly put out an album five years later as a legitimately talented singer with music that’s super elegant and even folk-like. Heartstrings flew under the radar, but I couldn’t get enough of it. “Sweet” is the track that I ran into the ground.
This was the year Charli XCX broke into pop superstardom. “I Love It” with Icona Pop did a lot for her in 2012, but “Fancy” with Iggy Azalea was her critical mass moment. Sucker saw Charli XCX go on to achieve some massive hits of her own, “Boom Clap” and “Break The Rules” among them.
20Kyla La GrangeCut Your Teeth
If you want minimalist, bare-bones electronica and synthpop that also haunts your soul a little, this British singer-songwriter fits the bill. Kyla La Grange is a bit Grimes-like, a bit Kate Bush-like. The title track “Cut Your Teeth” (and its more upbeat Kygo remix, not featured on the album) was one of my top played of the year. “The Knife”, “I Don’t Hate You”, and “Cannibals” are other highlights.
19Jenny LewisThe Voyager
Where has the time gone? Somehow it’s been six years since the last solo album from Jenny Lewis. The Voyager skips around between different genres, but it’s all the better for it. It’s never not interesting. “Just One Of The Guys” is, of course, a wry masterpiece, and I love how “Slippery Slopes” is basically exactly “Under The Blacklight” by Jenny’s former band Rilo Kiley.
18Röyksopp and RobynDo It Again
It’s technically an EP with just five tracks, but clocking in at 35 minutes, Robyn’s collaboration with Norwegian electronic duo Röyksopp is longer than some full-length albums. The joining of forces is impressive. Do It Again is loud, pulsating, and a pop force to be reckoned with. The title track is an easy standout, but this EP seems to have been rightly designed for front-to-back listening.
17Christina PerriHead Or Heart
I was really impressed by Christina Perri’s 2011 debut Lovestrong, so I couldn’t wait for her second album Head Or Heart this year. And luckily it delivers: Her brand of no-nonsense pop-rock is endlessly pleasant. “Human” was great as a lead single, but my favorite track “Burning Gold” is straight-up anthemic.
16Ella HendersonChapter One
The number of stars that have come out of The X Factor in the UK is staggering. Now add to the list Ella Henderson, whose strong, soulful voice and sensibility have drawn worthy comparisons to Adele. Ella’s hit single “Ghost” is the perfect example of exactly the kind of powerful pop that resonates with me.
15Iggy AzaleaThe New Classic
Iggy Azalea is probably the hottest new artist of 2014, though not without plenty of tense debate surrounding her merit (or lack thereof) as a rapper. But the way I see it, Iggy isn’t a rapper in the classic sense and doesn’t come from the hip hop community, so I think she’d be better off dropping that pretense and marketing herself as a pop artist like any other. Evaluating her as such, The New Classic is on fire. “Fancy” with Charli XCX is simply brilliant pop. “Black Widow” with Rita Ora is also massive. Tracks like “Work” and “Goddess” are incredible and explosive. The reissue of this LP, Reclassified, adds even more hot collaborations like “Beg For It” with MØ. It’s hit after hit. So what I’m saying is, fuck the controversy. I’m here for the music, and that’s where it begins and ends.
14Courtney BarnettHow To Carve A Carrot Into A Rose
Here we have another EP (this one actually under 30 minutes) that’s impressive and outstanding enough to be included here with my top 40 albums. Courtney Barnett is an Australian singer-songwriter and rock guitarist who is eclectic and truly different. Her songs are more like stories that she rambles through with spectacular wit and deadpan delivery. The one-two punch of “Avant Gardener” and “History Eraser” is the core of this creative, clever EP.
13The Pretty RecklessGoing To Hell
Well, this makes two of my top 40 albums of 2014 from former Gossip Girl stars. But seven years after the premiere of that show, it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to remember Taylor Momsen as Little J, now that she’s totally redefined herself as a credible part of the hard rock scene with The Pretty Reckless. I saw them perform at Rock On The Range and they absolutely killed it. The title track “Going To Hell” and the Alice Cooper/Pink Floyd-ish “Heaven Knows” made rock more interesting this year. My top pick from the album has gotta be “Why’d You Bring A Shotgun To The Party”, an epic takedown of gun culture.
This man is unstoppable. Jack White’s second solo album Lazaretto builds on Blunderbuss (my #1 album of 2012) by adding an even wider variety of musical styles. I have to quote Pitchfork, which called this album the “densest, fullest, craziest, and most indulgent” Jack White has ever been, and that’s saying a lot. The title track “Lazaretto” and the early release “High Ball Stepper” were both tracks that I kept playing over and over again all year.
Mark down Sylvan Esso as one of the best surprises of the year. This electronic indie pop duo just formed a year ago in North Carolina and recently made their debut with this self-titled album. As the simple cover art might suggest, Sylvan Esso has a stripped-down style that nimbly reduces music to its core essentials and focuses in on every individual sound and beat. “Hey Mami”, “Play It Right”, and “Dress” are all great, but this album crashed my list so high because of the incredible musical composition that is “Coffee”, one of my top played songs of 2014 by any artist and the dictionary definition of earworm.
10Ariana GrandeMy Everything
Big leagues now. Top 10. Ariana Grande has been doing her thing in pop for a while, but 2014 was the year she broke out. “Problem” with Iggy Azalea changed the game — a monster collaboration that felt like an event of a song. She could hang up the mic and retire right there, but she followed it up immediately with “Break Free”, which shattered everything all over again. The rest of the album is a definite improvement over Yours Truly as Ariana continues to carve out her identity in pop and refine her signature sound. She might still look like she’s 12, but My Everything, along with her contributions to “Bang Bang” and other truly massive hits, makes it clear that Ariana Grande is playing in the majors.
I opened my review of Red in 2012 by noting that Taylor Swift was going through a “remarkable transformation and evolution from a bright-eyed but feisty young country hopeful to an established, driving force leading the world of pop.” If the past several years have been a somewhat steady evolution, 1989 is the big bang. Taylor blew the doors off and left all things country in the rear-view mirror with this album, surpassing all possible expectations and firmly cementing herself as the preeminent pop star of this generation. Of course, I don’t really need to tell you any of this — hits like “Shake It Off” and “Blank Space” speak for themselves. My other favorite tracks like “Out Of The Woods”, “All You Had To Do Was Stay”, and “I Wish You Would” only make it clearer. She’s been ascending for years, but with 1989, this is Taylor Swift’s moment. She made it. She’s on top of the world.
8Foo FightersSonic Highways
For their first album since Wasting Light (my #1 album of 2011), Foo Fighters decided to do something different with Sonic Highways. More of a fully-realized conceptual project and vision than just an album, the band traveled to eight historic locations across the United States to capture the spirit of each one in a song. The album, by extension, is a companion piece to the band’s HBO series of the same name that documents them as they visit each of the eight cities, speak with local legends, and record the songs. “8” is a recurring theme in this entire project: It’s the Foo Fighters’ eighth LP, they visited eight cities, recorded eight songs, and produced eight episodes of the show. So, fittingly perhaps, I selected it as my #8 album of the year. The book-end tracks “Something From Nothing” and “I Am A River” are my favorites, but Sonic Highways is definitely best experienced as a complete journey.
7KieszaSound Of A Woman
This is getting exciting now. Kiesza launches a block of debut albums by brand new artists that are all amazing enough to land this high on my year-end review, each one absolutely essential to music in 2014. I have to give credit to the Late Show with David Letterman for spearheading the Kiesza movement. Her unique performance of her smash hit “Hideaway”, where she took it to the streets in front of the Hello Deli and a busted fire hydrant, was instantly memorable and made me rush out to get the song. “Hideaway”, of course, is a forward-thinking track at the intersection of deep house, electropop, and dance that pushed the boundaries of pop music this year with a beat and vocals so infectious, I played it more than almost any other song. When Kiesza’s Sound Of A Woman arrived a few months later, I was impressed by similar characteristics on songs like “No Enemiesz”, the title track “Sound Of A Woman”, and her mind-bending cover of “What Is Love” by Haddaway. Kiesza is the new pride of Calgary.
I’m gonna turn to professional reviewers to help me explain Banks, a new artist from California who has been compared to everyone from Fiona Apple and Feist to Aaliyah and Erykah Badu. The Guardian called her voice “raw and vengeful”; Rolling Stone went with “beguiling and diaristic”. DIY called Goddess “bewitching and surprisingly diverse” while The Observer said it was “slow-burning, fidgety, attractively troubled” and “offers up a more conventional take on minimal R&B than Banks’ British counterpart, FKA Twigs”. For my part, I was introduced to her through “Beggin’ For Thread”, a song I found hypnotic and disturbing in all the right ways and couldn’t put down for months. Once I listened to all of Goddess, I was similarly hooked in by the full album. My other top choices from it include “Waiting Game”, “Fuck ‘Em Only We Know”, and “Change”.
5Tove LoQueen Of The Clouds
If there’s any country that exports even more incredible artists than Canada, it’s gotta be Sweden, home of Tove Lo. Crashing onto the scene with “Habits (Stay High)” early in the year, I knew right away that Tove Lo was not your average pop artist. I couldn’t remember ever hearing lyrics so refreshingly direct, honest, and uncompromising in a pop song. Tove Lo expands on those themes throughout Queen Of The Clouds, structuring the album as stages of a relationship in three sections: “The Sex”, “The Love”, and “The Pain”. It’s a concept that works. As you listen to the album through each stage, you feel the passion, thrill, and eventual heartbreak as it progresses. Highlights for me along the way include “Like ‘Em Young”, “Talking Body”, and “Not On Drugs”. With Queen Of The Clouds, Tove Lo has brought a new brand of electropop that feels fresh and futuristic.
Phantogram is an electronic rock duo from upstate New York who have been around for a little while. I liked their single “Mouthful Of Diamonds” a few years ago, but I never knew much about them beyond that song. That changed when they showed up in late 2013 on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to perform “Black Out Days”, the first single from Voices, which would be released in early 2014. I was so struck by the sheer power of the song in that performance that I literally shouted “oh hell yeah!” to the TV while watching it. “Black Out Days” made sure that Phantogram would not fall off of my radar again. They followed it up a few months later with “Fall In Love”, which hit all those chords a second time. Voices remained one of my favorite albums throughout the year with other tracks like “Never Going Home”, “Celebrating Nothing”, and “Bill Murray”, which is a great song made even greater by its title. I love what Voices was able to do: It moved Phantogram from a band I knew of to one of my favorite bands.
3LowellWe Loved Her Dearly
There must be something in the water in Calgary that makes that city produce more uniquely expressive artists and musicians than like a dozen average cities combined. I just got done talking up Kiesza a few albums ago and here we are again with Lowell, a new artist from Calgary who didn’t break into mainstream consciousness in the same way this year, but is bubbling under the surface and more than deserves the success coming her way. I discovered Lowell by way of a few spins on Sirius XMU and a feature in T Magazine. “I like to think my music tastefully blends politics and pop,” she said in that interview. “Balancing those poles creates something special and bold.” Lowell puts those words to the test and comes out swinging in “I Love You Money”, a raucous and wildly subversive song that turns pop squarely on its head and is one of my favorite songs of the year. That spirit of bravery and sincerity is found throughout all of We Loved Her Dearly with tracks like “LGBT”, a progressive and inclusive anthem with a chorus that chants L! G! B! T! L! O! V! E! and makes “Same Love” feel like it happened 20 years ago; and the standout “Words Were The Wars”, a gorgeous, heartfelt self-affirmation she wrote the day she left an abusive relationship, according to an interview with NPR. In their words, We Loved Her Dearly is “expressly feminist — confident, energetic, and good”. I couldn’t agree more.
2Sia1,000 Forms Of Fear
I’ve offered up a handful of superlatives throughout the course of this year-end review, so as we near the end, let me offer one more: Sia is the most innovative artist in music right now. A longtime songwriter of way more massive hits for other pop artists than most people probably realize, Sia’s last album of her own music was We Are Born, my #4 album of 2010. That was the LP that established Sia as one of my favorite musicians, so of course I was excited to hear that her latest album 1,000 Forms Of Fear would be coming this year. But I wasn’t ready for everything she was about to bring. I had no idea what had happened to her in the meantime. After the release of We Are Born, Sia found the ensuing fame overwhelming and developed an addiction problem, nearly committing suicide by overdose before a friend stopped her and helped drag her out of those dark depths. And it is those same dark depths that Sia explores brilliantly on 1,000 Forms Of Fear. This time around, Sia prevented the pressure that comes along with being a pop star by never showing her face, instead outfitting other actors in her signature blonde bob to take the visual spotlight, allowing her to recede into the background to focus on her vocals and artistry. To say the experiment worked is an understatement. “Chandelier” and “Elastic Heart” are much more than just successful and captivating songs, performances, and videos. They’re works of art that are hauntingly beautiful, powerful, and devastating. My other favorite tracks “Big Girls Cry” and “Free The Animal” are right there with them. 1,000 Forms Of Fear is Sia’s deepest emotional expression to date, packaged in her most accessible music to date. It’s the realization of an artistic vision that I know has left a lasting impression on me and countless others.
Lights, the Canadian electropop singer-songwriter, has been one of my favorite musicians since 2008 when I first heard “February Air”. I got to see her live back in 2009 shortly after the release of her first album, The Listening, in what seems like such a quaint era now, when she had like 10,000 Twitter followers and was doing club shows so small that she stuck around afterwards to talk to each fan individually. (I still have my autographed vinyl.) So maybe it was just a matter of time until she topped one of my year-end reviews. But with literally all the other music released this year as competition, that’s not easy for anybody to do. The album has to be truly great — and yes, Little Machines is truly great. Building on the success of 2011’s Siberia, which was grittier and darker than Lights’ previous work, this album sees her emerge from that darkness. In her own words, Little Machines is “a triumph after a hard dry spell”, representing “a complete journey from front to back”. Going for a “timeless electronic sound” with her trademark synthpop style, Lights also drew upon inspiration from “poetry, art, and female songwriting legends” to help her express a message that’s bold, confident, and happy. Those themes are evident throughout the entire album and even in its cover art, in which Lights’ eyes shine brightly as she looks up to the sky, radiant and hopeful, like a living Firefox logo. The uplifting spirit that carries the album resonated with me in its charming, sweet, and powerful songs, like “Up We Go”, “Running With The Boys”, and my favorite “Same Sea”. I can’t think of anything we could’ve possibly needed more this year. Lights is an international treasure. Make no mistake about it, Little Machines is my #1 album of 2014.
Clean Bandit f/ Jess Glynne – “Rather Be”
Idina Menzel – “Let It Go”
Pure Bathing Culture – “Pendulum”
Cage The Elephant – “Come A Little Closer”
Pharrell Williams – “Happy”
NONONO – “Pumpin’ Blood”
Foxes – “Youth”
RAC f/ Kele and MNDR – “Let Go”
Disclosure f/ Sam Smith – “Latch”
Natalia Kills – “Problem”
Glenn Morrison f/ Islove – “Goodbye”
Lea Michele – “Cannonball”
N.A.S.A. f/ Karen O – “I Shot The Sheriff”
Bruce Springsteen – “High Hopes”
Shakira f/ Rihanna – “Can’t Remember To Forget You”
Zendaya – “Replay”
Tokyo Police Club – “Hot Tonight”
Little Mix – “Move”
Ingrid Michaelson – “Girls Chase Boys”
St. Vincent – “Digital Witness”
Ferry Corsten f/ Jenny Wahlström – “Many Ways”
Milky Chance – “Stolen Dance”
U2 – “Invisible”
Jimmy Fallon f/ The Muppets – “The Weight”
DJ Snake f/ Lil Jon – “Turn Down For What”
The Chainsmokers – “Selfie”
Chromeo – “Jealous (I Ain’t With It)”
Allie X – “Prime”
Betty Who – “Somebody Loves You”
Sam Smith – “Stay With Me”
Halsey – “Ghost”
Disclosure f/ Eliza Doolittle – “You & Me”
Sam Roberts Band – “Shapeshifters”
Kelis – “Jerk Ribs”
Arctic Monkeys – “Do I Wanna Know?”
Karmin – “I Want It All”
Coldplay – “Magic”
Oh Honey – “Be Okay”
Bleachers – “I Wanna Get Better”
Cascada – “Blink”
Sarah McLachlan – “In Your Shoes”
Wye Oak – “Shriek”
The Black Keys – “Fever”
Honeyblood – “Killer Bangs”
Kongos – “Come With Me Now”
Lana Del Rey – “West Coast”
Rita Ora – “I Will Never Let You Down”
Becky G – “Shower”
Demi Lovato f/ Cher Lloyd – “Really Don’t Care”
Katy Perry – “This Is How We Do”
Lindsey Stirling f/ Lzzy Hale – “Shatter Me”
Grimes – “Go”
The War On Drugs – “Red Eyes”
MKTO – “American Dream”
Owl Eyes – “Jewels & Sapphires”
Peter Thomas f/ Betty Who – “All Of You”
La Roux – “Uptight Downtown”
Lady Antebellum – “Bartender”
Deers – “Bamboo”
Chet Faker – “Gold”
Young The Giant – “Mind Over Matter”
Echosmith – “Cool Kids”
Icona Pop – “Get Lost”
Broods – “Mother & Father”
Sigma f/ Paloma Faith – “Changing”
Mary Lambert – “Secrets”
DJ Fresh f/ Ellie Goulding – “Flashlight”
Foxygen – “How Can You Really”
Ed Sheeran – “Don’t”
Jessie J f/ Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj – “Bang Bang”
Meghan Trainor – “All About That Bass”
The Madden Brothers – “We Are Done”
Jasmine Thompson – “I See Fire”
Ryn Weaver – “OctaHate”
Death From Above 1979 – “Trainwreck 1979”
Vance Joy – “Riptide”
Hilary Duff – “All About You”
Jack Ü f/ Kiesza – “Take Ü There”
Bear Hands – “Agora”
Stella Ella Ola – “Hypersleep”
Sam Smith – “I’m Not The Only One”
MisterWives – “Reflections”
Nicole Sabouné – “Crazy People”
Cold War Kids – “All This Could Be Yours”
Walk The Moon – “Shut Up & Dance”
BBC Music – “God Only Knows”
Jessie J f/ 2 Chainz – “Burnin’ Up”
Zella Day – “Hypnotic”
Nicki Minaj f/ Skylar Grey – “Bed Of Lies”
Chvrches – “Get Away”
Sleater-Kinney – “Bury Our Friends”
The Decemberists – “Make You Better”
Purity Ring – “Push Pull”
Lorde – “Yellow Flicker Beat”
Tove Lo – “Scream My Name”
Mark Ronson f/ Bruno Mars – “Uptown Funk”
Top 40 albums
40. Weird Al Yankovic – Mandatory Fun
39. Brody Dalle – Diploid Love
38. Warpaint – Warpaint
37. La Sera – Hour Of The Dawn
36. Lily Allen – Sheezus
35. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There
34. Beck – Morning Phase
33. Royal Blood – Royal Blood
32. Lykke Li – I Never Learn
31. EMA – The Future’s Void
30. Sleeper Agent – About Last Night
29. Hozier – Hozier
28. Nikki Lane – All Or Nothin’
27. FKA Twigs – LP1
26. Dum Dum Girls – Too True
25. Weezer – Everything Will Be Alright In The End
24. Cher Lloyd – Sorry I’m Late
23. Blondfire – Young Heart
22. Leighton Meester – Heartstrings
21. Charli XCX – Sucker
20. Kyla La Grange – Cut Your Teeth
19. Jenny Lewis – The Voyager
18. Röyksopp and Robyn – Do It Again
17. Christina Perri – Head Or Heart
16. Ella Henderson – Chapter One
15. Iggy Azalea – The New Classic
14. Courtney Barnett – How To Carve A Carrot Into A Rose
13. The Pretty Reckless – Going To Hell
12. Jack White – Lazaretto
11. Sylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso
10. Ariana Grande – My Everything
9. Taylor Swift – 1989
8. Foo Fighters – Sonic Highways
7. Kiesza – Sound Of A Woman
6. Banks – Goddess
5. Tove Lo – Queen Of The Clouds
4. Phantogram – Voices
3. Lowell – We Loved Her Dearly
2. Sia – 1,000 Forms Of Fear
1. Lights – Little Machines
It’s amazing to think about the sheer amount of music that gets created in just a year. Many of these artists weren’t even on anybody’s radar a year ago, which is even more incredible. But as things change around us so quickly, one thing stays the same: I love discovering, listening to, and writing about all of this music.
I’ve said for a long time that music is life. These aren’t just sounds that we enjoy hearing; this is art that means so much to us on a personal level and shapes our lives. The process of writing these reviews makes me so proud of what these artists have accomplished and excited for what the next year of music will bring us. That’s it for TC’s top 40 albums of 2014. Thanks for reading! [Tumblr]