2014 was a low year for music. I love all the albums on this list, but a good chunk of them probably wouldn’t have appeared on more competitive years’ Top Ten lists. But that’s okay! Even if the big releases of 2014 were virtually nonexistent (except for a very notable October album, see #5 below), there was plenty of music to love under the radar. Three of my Top Ten are from artists I hadn’t heard of before 2014, which is probably the most since 2010. So, in the spirit of discovery, pick someone on this list (or the fifteen albums below the Top Ten) you haven’t heard of and give them a chance.
[Disclaimer: Links in the album titles are to the album on Spotify. Definitely some profanity in some of these. Links in the artist name are to times I wrote about their album already on the blog. Shouldn’t be much profanity in those.]
10. Propaganda: Crimson Cord
Prop’s brand of rap has always leaned more toward spoken word poetry than straight up hip-hop. Crimson Cord finds Propaganda engaging far more with the kind of bangers you might hear on the radio- that is, if radio party rap had a soul. And yet Prop’s kept his socially conscious vibe fully intact, lashing out rationally against things like the state of hip-hop and the educational system while crafting his best hooks yet.
2015 has been bad for Miranda, so let’s pretend like it hasn’t happened yet. 2014 saw Lambert release her best album of her career, a record so strong from beginning to end that it comes off as a greatest hits collection. We know Lambert’s personal life will be in turmoil for a while, so thankfully we have this perfect slice of country heaven to look back on.
8. First Aid Kit: Stay Gold
Americana’s time has passed- at least, that’s what you might think if you only paid attention to the radio, since Mumford & Sons have gone electric and The Lumineers are nowhere to be found. But First Aid Kit, a sister duo from Sweden, are indicative of how unkillable American roots music really is. If the two of them, ‘90s babies from a Stockholm suburb, can release an album with the simple honesty of Stay Gold, then we can count on Americana retaining its heart long after DJs stop working banjo samples into their sets.
The best rap album of the year might have been the least heard. A poet from St. Louis, she’s signed to Humble Beast, the same record as Propaganda, and while, like him, her style veers toward the spoken-word, she demonstrates such aptitude with many different styles of rap that you forget this is her debut album. A lot of Perry’s ministry revolves around homosexuality, but Art of Joy is much less concerned with that, broadening her scope to forming a detailed definition of joy in God, regardless of your struggles.
6. Liz Vice: There’s a Light
We have certain expectations for what worship music should sound like, but There’s a Light makes a case that we should reevaluate those norms. The old-school R&B & gospel influences on Vice’s debut add new dimensions to praise music, imbuing her songs with a soul often missing from a usually more straightforward genre. With a whole worship album of soul music as a shining example, it might be time for our staid, white churches to embrace new styles of worship.
5. Taylor Swift: 1989
I didn’t really know it till last year, but I’ve grown up with Taylor. It’s not just that we were born in the same year, but that we’ve matured at about the same rate, and we started having paparazzi follow us at about the same age as well. Seriously though, going back to listen to her older records, there’s an obsession with romantic love that I could relate to at the time, even if I wouldn’t have admitted it to you or even to myself. There’s a lot of romantic love on 1989 too, but songs like “Style” and “Wildest Dreams” convey a world-weariness that wasn’t there on Fearless or Red. I’m not saying twenty-six years is enough for Taylor (or me, for that matter) to have a foolproof perspective on the world, but 1989 definitely presents a fully developed perspective, and that’s a start.
4. Strand of Oaks: HEAL
Rock music is dead, supposedly. But the people who say that seem to be speaking mainly about its popularity or its monetization. I get that rock & roll used to have excess as a defining characteristic, but, if you know where to look, you can find honest expressions of rock. Strand of Oaks’s HEAL was the best pure, old-school rock record of 2014, weaving big choruses into verses about the boundless possibilities of youth and disillusionment with access to said possibilities in today’s culture. If you’re looking for rock & roll, look no further.
If HEAL is rock & roll, Lost in the Dream is more rocked & rolled. Adam Granduciel and his band don’t indulge in the excess of traditional rock. Instead they wade into Granduciel’s recent breakup with a stoner’s conviction, touching on themes and ideas, but rarely truly committing to getting to the bottom of them, preferring instead to play along the edges of every different kind of emotion, until Granduciel lets out one of his signature whoops- then the band truly plunges in. This is some of the cathartic music in years, continuing that tried and true tradition of the breakup album being an artist’s strongest.
2. Sharon Van Etten: Are We There
Speaking of breakup albums, Are We There is Van Etten’s continued exploration of what seems like the same relationship since 2012’s Tramp. She’s like the opposite of pre-1989 Taylor Swift: every song is about the same person. Or at least that’s how it can feel when listening to Van Etten sing about her inability to remove herself from the same emotional abuse, the same lack of commitment, the same cowardice. For all I know, these songs could all be hypothetical or about different romantic partners altogether. The one constant is that Van Etten is never anything less than self-aware; she’ll have material to mine for years as long as she remains this brutally open and honest about her inner thoughts, and if Are We There is any indication, she’s mining gold.
With Liz Vice’s There’s a Light, John Mark McMillan’s Borderland is redrawing the lines around what worship music can be. David Crowder Band plotted the boundaries and Gungor tilled the land, so it can seem like McMillan is just bearing their standard. In some ways he is; he still subscribes to a lot of the old formulas: repetitive choruses, building instrumentals, simple verses. But more than others in the worship business, McMillan is rewriting the lyrical rules. He does some interesting things with the instruments (saxophone in worship music?), but the real story here is the imagery in his words. He compares irresistible grace to a conquering Napoleon, our exile status in this world to living in a borderland with danger at every turn, and the temptations of this life to monsters in his room. Simplicity is important in worship music, but Borderland is a prime example of the idea that simplicity shouldn’t hamper creativity.
Ariana Grande: My Everything
Charli XCX: Sucker
Crowder: Neon Steeple
D’Angelo and the Vanguard: Black Messiah
Diamond District: March on Washington
FKA twigs: LP1
Hiss Golden Messenger: Lateness of Dancers
Joan Shelley: Electric Ursa
Parquet Courts: Sunbathing Animal
Sturgill Simpson: Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
Sun Kil Moon: Benji
Trip Lee: Rise
Twin Peaks: Wild Onion
Past Top Tens
Jason Isbell: Southeastern
Laura Marling: Once I Was an Eagle
Patty Griffin: American Kid
Sandra McCracken: Desire Like Dynamite
Justin Timberlake: The 20/20 Experience
Beautiful Eulogy: Instruments of Mercy
Kanye West: Yeezus
KaiL Baxley: Heatstroke / The Wind and the War
Andrew Peterson: Light for the Lost Boy
Frank Ocean: channel ORANGE
Japandroids: Celebration Rock
David Crowder*Band: Give Us Rest or (A Requiem Mass in C [The Happiest of All Keys])
Bruce Springsteen: Wrecking Ball
Fiona Apple: The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do
The Olive Tree: Our Desert Ways
Benjamin Dunn & the Animal Orchestra: Fable
Kendrick Lamar: good kid, m.A.A.d. city
Gungor: Ghosts upon the Earth
Over the Rhine: The Long Surrender
Bon Iver: Bon Iver
The War on Drugs: Slave Ambient
Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues
Drake: Take Care
Raphael Saadiq: Stone Rollin’
Matt Papa: This Changes Everything
Titus Andronicus: The Monitor
Arcade Fire: The Suburbs
Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
The Black Keys: Brothers
Andrew Peterson: Counting Stars
Gungor: Beautiful Things
Surfer Blood: Astro Coast
Jamey Johnson: The Guitar Song
The National: High Violet
The Tallest Man on Earth: The Wild Hunt