Looking back on 2014’s top albums

2014 saw several releases from big-name artists and bands — some that lived up to expectations and some that didn’t. New groups and individuals exploded onto the scene. Some albums were released to much anticipation, and some were quietly dropped in everyone’s iTunes account. There was so much music that it is nearly impossible for one person to compile an educated comparative ranking. So consider this an uneducated ranking, one that could appropriately be labeled as “The Best Albums I Listened to This Year.” And let’s just get this out of the way: no, Taylor Swift’s “1989” is not on here. Let the pandemonium commence.

  1. “Hozier,” Hozier

The debut full-length album from the Irish blues-rocker is equal parts grungy and soulful. In truth, not enough musical variation exists from track to track to fully hold one’s interest throughout the whole record. Still, the unfiltered sound and often poetic lyricism make “Hozier” a worthwhile listen.

Standout track: “Take Me To Church.” It seems unoriginal to just fall back on the big radio hit, but there’s a reason this single reached No. 2 on the Billboard charts. In his leadoff track, Hozier combines a rock-orchestral, even gospel-inspired, sound with lyrical imagery in a profound declaration of his own “religion.”

  1.  “Lazaretto,” Jack White

The former White Stripes frontman is back with the same blazing guitar and wailing vocals that launched him to the forefront of the current rock scene. What is notable about “Lazaretto,” however, is how many different genres White incorporates into his rock ‘n’ roll: elements of country, blues and punk all make an appearance. The risk of this variety is that some tracks just flat-out rock, others simply do not. Despite that discrepancy, White’s musical genius is on display throughout the album.

Standout track: “High Ball Stepper.” The only instrumental song on the entire record plays as a sort of call-and-response: a simple piano segment is answered by a high-pitched yowl and a roaring guitar. This is the kind of tune that makes you want to turn your volume up, roll your car windows down and just nod your head.

  1.  “Ultraviolence,” Lana Del Rey

Del Rey is somewhat of a one-trick pony, but she performs that one trick so well. Song after song on “Ultraviolence” puts her old-school, husky vocals to good use, pairing them with lyrical themes of heartbreak, as well as brutal honesty about emotional and physical intimacy. Though the content of “Ultraviolence” does not differ wildly from Del Rey’s previous work, the sweeping, majestic musical scores that back her are notably terrific, and the result is an album that sounds equal parts film-score and 60s-Americana.

Standout track: “Old Money.” Ironically, this song doesn’t really “stand out” in that it’s less musically complex than most others. Simply put, it’s pretty. When she sings, “The power of youth is on my mind / Sunsets, small town, I’m out of time. / Will you still love me when I shine, / From words but not from beauty?” and the orchestra strikes up behind her, we are reminded of why she was a natural choice for the soundtrack of “The Great Gatsby.”

  1.  “Ghost Stories,” Coldplay

This is a difficult album to review, mostly because a lot of its content differs from anything Coldplay has ever done. The most obvious aspect of the record is its level of production. Most fans think “Ghost Stories” suffered from overproduction, and I would concur. While its inauthentic “cleanliness” denies any one song from being truly great, I would argue that it also prevents any track from being a stinker. Therefore, though the quality may be less than what Coldplay fans have come to expect, “Ghost Stories” has its moments of pure creativity and is still one of the most pleasant listens of 2014.

Standout track: “Midnight.” Here’s one example of an effectively high level of production. Employing the likes of a vocoder (to multiply Chris Martin’s voice) and a laser harp (among other things) “Midnight” is a simple but hauntingly pretty track that fits in nicely with the mold of the whole album.

  1.  “St. Vincent,” St. Vincent

The eccentric guitarist’s eponymous second album was actually many critics’ choice for Album of the Year. St.Vincent (real name: Annie Clark) has always been hailed for her musical ingenuity, and that is no different this time around. Always weird and wonderful, her musical experimentation reaches new heights on this record, with vocal effects and distorted instrumentation galore. Occasionally, this experimentation wanders into the area of “so bizarre that it makes for a difficult listen,” but you are missing out if you have not familiarized yourself with this album.

Standout track: “Prince Johnny.” This track provides a nice change-of-pace from the rest of the tracklist. Instead of a fast-moving explosion of sound, Clark shows off her subtly beautiful vocals and (as usual) her guitar aptitude in a slower, simpler love song.

  1.  “Songs of Innocence,” U2

Much of what I wrote about Coldplay’s album could be said about the newest venture from U2 as well, with one key difference: where the result of the former was a consistently decent record, the amount of production involved in the latter created some refreshingly great tracks, as well as some uncharacteristically bad ones. However, with songs reminiscent of The Ramones, The Clash, Radiohead, and yes, even Coldplay, the good music easily trumps the bad in this case; “Joshua Tree” it is not, but “Songs of Innocence” is a clear upgrade from their last release.

Standout track: “Iris (Hold Me Close).” With all the new musical styles the band tries on this record, this song sounds the most like the U2 everyone has come to know. Bono’s beautiful ode to his deceased mother plays against musical buildups that hearken back to great tracks like “City of Blinding Lights.”

  1.  “Mind Over Matter,” Young the Giant

Young the Giant’s sophomore album sees the alt-rock band greatly expand musically. Where their first record was entertaining but monotonous, “Mind Over Matter” contains some tracks that sound like The Strokes, some that sound like Imagine Dragons, some that seem influenced by Tears For Fears and some reminiscent of Green Day. Though the band’s lyrics remain rather unimpressive (read: strange), through two albums, they have proved they have the musical chops to break into the upper tier of current rock groups.

Standout track: “Firelight.” Yet again, this is a standout track mostly for how different it is from the rest of the album. Tucked in amidst arena-rock anthems, this slow, acoustic song is an absolute beauty and, true to its name, evokes the feeling of sitting around calm firelight.

  1.  “After the Disco,” Broken Bells

I am convinced that if Broken Bells, which serves as a sort of side-venture for its two members (famous producer Danger Mouse and James Mercer, frontman of The Shins), keeps making music, they could be one of the bands of our generation. Their sound is that good and that refreshing. Through the first half of “After The Disco,” I was ready to call it the best of the year. Unfortunately, it does lose momentum about halfway through. Still, the funky, sleek tunes are absolutely infectious and play out almost as a duel between The Bee Gees and The Black Keys.

Standout track: “After the Disco.” The album’s namesake is undoubtedly its hit song. Crying “How did we get in this winding maze of love?”, the track transports you to the late 1970s disco hall era of music, meaning that this is a song that necessitates dancing while listening.

  1.  “Supermodel,” Foster the People

I must admit, I was quite surprised by the general critical consensus of “meh” that this album received. To me, “Supermodel” is this year’s “Modern Vampires Of The City.” Much like Vampire Weekend did in their critically-acclaimed record of 2013, Foster the People combined their niche appeal with extremely mature lyricism. Questions of and struggles with faith, relationships, direction, self-confidence and cultural norms pervade the entire record, all to the unmistakable voice of Mark Foster and the hallmark creative sounds of his band.

Standout track: “Are You What You Wanna Be.” This leadoff track sets the tone for the whole album, musically and lyrically. Foster the People’s usual upbeat guitar is featured in the intro, then quickly fades into an unexpected Afro-Latin style for the verse before returning in the chorus to help the narrator ask, “The biggest question to me: are you what you wanna be?” Bonus points to this song for having my favorite lyric of the year: “Well, I’m afraid of saying too much and ending a martyr / But even more so, I’m afraid to face God and say I was a coward.”

  1.  “Turn Blue,” The Black Keys

Let’s get this out of the way first: this is not a typical No. 1 album, at least not in my eyes. I say this for a few reasons: it is not consistently great top-to-bottom; it does not necessarily jump out and scream, “I’m a great record!” Finally, it drew the ire of many Keys fans, who claim the rock band has “sold out” and lost their way. All that being said, the two things that have been largely missing from the Black Keys’ impressive repertoire were A. much musical experimentation, and B. hard-hitting lyrics; at long last, “Turn Blue” offered both these things. The album is fairly trippy musically, often utilizing distortion on guitars and bass. Less obvious, but more notable, is the fact that lead singer Dan Auerbach’s emotional pain (as a result of his recent divorce) clearly inspires some of the most raw, even biting lyrics we’ve ever seen from the band. The sum of these different elements is a record that may not be any fan’s “favorite,” but one that demands multiple listenings. In terms of musical inventiveness and lyrical meaningfulness, this might just be the best album by one of the best bands around today.

Standout track: “Weight of Love.” It’s hard to pick just one. I could go with the sad funk of “10 Lovers,” the slow groove of “Turn Blue” or the incredibly creative Beatles-esque sound of “In Our Prime.” However, the opening song of this album is unlike any single The Black Keys have ever released. Departing from their usual short and spunky opener, the more pained, mellow lyrics make their first appearance and the slow, gradual swell in the seven-minute tune culminating in a guitar outro one might expect from Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin. Simply a great rock song.