Here are some songs and albums that I loved this year. The usual caveats for my lists remain. You might notice, as I did after I unknowingly put my albums list together, that nearly every record I really cared about in 2014 came out of some personal trauma in the band or artist’s life. The music that touched me the most was born out of romantic strife, political unrest, depression, extended professional inactivity, and the never-ending struggle to assert one’s true identity. I guess I’m just into drama. Or maybe I like it when there’s something at stake. At any rate, here’s what I liked. Hopefully I’ll point you toward something that you like, too.
Top 10 Singles of 2014
I know every song can be a single these days, but I tried to limit this to songs that were formally released in some way outside of albums. I also didn’t include any songs from albums in my top 10, just to keep things interesting. (I suppose if you like an album enough to put it in your top 10, then your songs list should be songs from only those albums. But I’d rather spread the wealth.)
10. Echosmith, “Cool Kids”
9. Michael Jackson, “Love Never Felt So Good”
8. Eric Church, “Give Me Back My Hometown”
7. Alvvays, “Archie, Marry Me”
6. Tobias Jesso Jr., “True Love”
5. Hozier, “Take Me to Church”
4. Ryan Adams, “Jacksonville”
3. Calvin Harris ft. Haim, “Pray to God”
2. Charli XCX, “Boom Clap”
1. Run the Jewels ft. Zack de la Rocha, “Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck)”
Top 30 Runners-up for the Albums List
40. Alvvays, Alvvays
39. Gerard Way, Hesitant Alien
38. You Blew It!, Keep Doing What You’re Doing
37. Sinkane, Mean Love
36. Lana Del Rey, Ultraviolence
35. White Laces, Trance
34. Joyce Manor, Never Hungover Again
33. Real Estate, Atlas
32. Charli XCX, Sucker
31. Gary Clark Jr., Live
30. Hiss Golden Messenger, The Lateness of Dancers
29. Ryan Adams, Ryan Adams
28. Doug Paisley, Strong Feelings
27. Beach Slang, Who Would Ever Want Anything So Broken?
26. The Hotelier, Home, Like Noplace Is There
25. Protomartyr, Under Color of Official Right
24. Eric Church, The Outsiders
23. Pallbearer, Foundations of Burden
22. Flying Lotus, You’re Dead!
21. Ex Hex, Rips
20. Modern Baseball, You’re Gonna Miss It All
19. Lydia Loveless, Somewhere Else
18. Sun Kil Moon, Benji
17. Steve Gunn, Way Out Weather
16. Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2
15. Tony Molina, Dissed and Dismissed
14. Natural Child, Dancin’ With Wolves
13. Parquet Courts, Sunbathing Animal
12. Opeth, Pale Communion
11. Jenny Lewis, The Voyager
The Top 10
10. Tinariwen, Emmaar
The baddest guitar band on the planet. These Tuareg rebels — I mean that literally; they fought against the Malian government in the early ’90s — had to flee their home country in 2012 due to the threat of Islamist militias. Emmaar was made in the U.S., but it sounds like the desert: vast, indefatigable, serene, and quietly lethal.
9. Restorations, LP3
My new favorite punk group, and by punk I mean “like if Catherine Wheel covered the first Constantines album.”
8. Lykke Li, I Never Learn
Power balladry didn’t get any more luminous than it did on this stunning breakup record. When Swedish pop singers cry, even the tears come out looking perfectly crafted.
7. D’Angelo and the Vanguard, Black Messiah
Apologies to Jenny Lewis’s wonderful comeback record, The Voyager, which got bumped out of the top 10 by the late Black Messiah push. I haven’t lived with this record for even 24 hours yet, but I suspect that I’ll wish I ranked it higher in retrospect.
6. Cymbals Eat Guitars, LOSE
An excellent quarter-life-crisis album by a New Jersey outfit whose heart matches its considerable braininess. Singer-songwriter Joseph D’Agostino assesses what has mattered in his life thus far — a dead dog, observing drug addiction, Jersey underground legends the Wrens — and whips up the year’s most gloriously grandiose indie-rock record.
5. YG, My Krazy Life
Parties and pathos are united by DJ Mustard’s brilliantly spartan symphony of icy synth lines and gently creeping beats. Not just one of the year’s great hip-hop records, but the most cohesive album I heard in any genre this year.
High Top Mountain
4. Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
A traditionalist with contrarian tendencies, Sturgill Simpson was greeted as a savior by wizened Waylon Jennings fans and responded by name-checking Skrillex in interviews. Metamodern Sounds in Country Music similarly chucks the rule book, marrying pedal-steel-accented laments with heady lyrics about intergalactic turtles coming to Earth in order to spread enlightenment.
3. Strand of Oaks, Heal
Timothy Showalter is a bighearted dude whose gregariousness belies some serious battle scars on his soul. Heal documents a dark period in his marriage, though the lyrics never weigh down the music, which is full-on, heart-on-sleeve vison-quest rock in the style of Showalter’s beloved Smashing Pumpkins, with a sprinkle of humility courtesy of the late Jason Molina.
2. Against Me!, Transgender Dysphoria Blues
A lot has been written about Laura Jane Grace’s bravery. But Transgender Dysphoria Blues is all about putting fear in the hearts of her enemies — she howls at tormentors real and imagined, and smashes them with hook after pissed-off hook. No record came anywhere close to feeling as primal for me this year.
1. The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream
Adam Granduciel and I apparently enjoy a lot of the same musical comfort food: Born in the U.S.A., harmonica solos, the sound of Mike Campbell’s guitar, somber synths that hang in the air like tumbleweeds. But the main reason why Lost in the Dream is my favorite record of 2014 is that it moved me the most. It sounds like how I feel when I’m alone, and points a way out of that loneliness. Even if you don’t know the album’s origin story, the themes of emotional confusion and spiritual deliverance are embedded in the music. People of a certain disposition will connect with Lost in the Dream because it might be the only thing in their lives that gets them.
This post has been updated to make a correction; the Calvin Harris song featuring Haim is titled “Pray to God,” not “Honest to God.”