The 10 Best Albums of 2014: Taylor Swift, Sia, Run the Jewels, and More

From Taylor Swift’s pop ode to New York to Run the Jewels’ full-frontal rap assault, these are The Daily Beast’s picks for the best music albums of the year.

12.28.14 10:45 AM ET

I’m not going to sugarcoat it: 2014 was a pretty underwhelming year in music.

The best rappers in the game (Drake, Kendrick, Kanye, etc.) were observing from the sidelines, dropping Easter egg singles to whet our respective appetites for 2015, while the one and only Beyoncé set the Internet aflame with rumors of another secret LP, only to tease us with a handful of new tracks. Arcade Fire, Frank Ocean, Vampire Weekend, and Bon Iver are all in the lab, while typically reliable acts like Jack White, Spoon, and The Roots disappointed.

And, whereas last year brought us thrilling debuts by New Zealand prodigy Lorde, the Glaswegian synthpop trio Chvrches, Brooklyn quartet Parquet Courts, and the Haim sisters, there were precious few exciting new artists to break out in ‘14. Oh, and rock? Nothing came close to touching last year’s Queens of the Stone Age record.

But there are always hidden gems lurking amid the scattered debris, including an addictive collection of pop tunes by a newly-minted New York ambassador and another smash courtesy of one of the most exciting rap duos around.

Without further ado, here are The Daily Beast’s picks for the best albums of 2014.

I know what you’re thinking: Kelis, the double entendre-happy siren whose milkshake brought all the boys to the yard? Yes, that Kelis. After splitting from hubby Nas, graduating from Le Cordon Bleu culinary school, and debuting a tasty food truck at this year’s SXSW, the 35-year-old chanteuse teamed up with mega-producer Dave Sitek and cooked up Food, a wonderfully eclectic collection of songs with titles like “Jerk Ribs” and “Biscuits n’ Gravy.” There are so many influences at work here that the album is hard to place, with hints of Motown, neo-soul, Afro-beat, electronica, and good ol’ fashioned R&B. Kelis’ voice has become more sultry and poignant with age, and each song features a surfeit of sounds, from strings and backup choirs to strumming guitars and synths. Like any exciting meal, Food will leave you smiling and satisfied.

Don’t be fooled by their nerdy looks: This noise rock trio from Cleveland, Ohio, can fuckin’ wail. I’m still listening to several tracks (see: “Stay Useless”) off their raucous 2012 album Attack On Memory. The group’s fourth album didn’t disappoint, either. Comprised of just 8 tracks and clocking in at a shade over half an hour, it’s a pedal-to-the-metal punk rock adventure boasting frenetic guitars, incensed vocals, and catchy-as-hell hooks. These fellas are the real deal.

The latest from Philly-based singer-songwriter Timothy Showalter is a bold, passionate album dripping with heartache. It’s colored by the death of Showalter’s good pal, musician Jason Molina (a track “JM” is dedicated to him), as well as a near-death experience suffered by him and his wife when their car skidded along a patch of ice and slammed into two semi trucks last Christmas, leaving Showalter with a bad concussion and several broken ribs. It’s a cathartic folk rock album brimming with emotion, like a moody mélange of early Coldplay and the arena-ready stylings of Boston. It’s a grower. 

A change has, it seems, done Taylor Swift good. The ex-Country goddess swapped Nashville for the Big Apple and in the process completed her transformation into a full-blown pop diva. 1989, named after the year of her birth, kicks off with the groan-worthy “Welcome to New York”—a cruel toll one must pay to unlock the embarrassment of pop riches that follows, from the brilliant lo-fi anthem “Blank Space,” a meta-commentary on her public image, to the infectious pop ditty “Shake It Off.” There are about 5 or 6 home run singles on this surprisingly varied album, featuring ace production courtesy of gurus Max Martin, Jack Antonoff, Ryan Tedder, and Imogen Heap. Truth be told, if she tightened things up a bit—axing “Welcome” and the meandering ballad “All You Had To Do Was Stay” and adding the fun “New Romantics” off the deluxe edition, this would rank even higher. But hey, nobody’s perfect. 

The sixth studio album from Canadian electronic musician/producer Dan Snaith, a.k.a. Caribou, pulses with vibrancy and is quite danceable, while still tackling heady, adult themes like childbirth, parenthood, death, and divorce. These 10 tracks are rich sonic tapestries loaded with layers-upon-layers of sounds, with new ones revealing themselves on each successive listen.

Produced by knob wizard John Congleton, who also shepherded Strand of Oaks’ LP, the fourth studio album from guitar shredder Annie Clark is her most schizophrenic—and intriguing—effort to date. Clark’s described the eponymous LP as “a party record you could play at a funeral,” which does a great job of summing things up. There’s a stream of sadness permeating St. Vincent, yet each track buzzes with urgency and alertness, like a depressed Great Dane on meth. You, too, will be zipping along to the angular guitars and zigzagging, herky-jerky vocals.

This shoegaze six-piece form Philly has only gotten better since the departure of Kurt Vile, and their third album, Lost in the Dream, is a beauteous ode to 1980s Americana. Inspired by singer-songwriter Adam Granduciel’s battle with post-tour depression and recorded over a period of two years—including several rewrites and sanding down—these rich, ambient guitar-filled rock tunes are best played in a car motoring down the freeway, and will induce flashbacks to early Springsteen.

This year saw several acclaimed songwriters emerge from behind-the-scenes to achieve pop stardom, from Kiesza to Meghan “All About That Bass” Trainor. And yes, the Aussie crooner Sia’s been around for quite some time (who can forget her ballad “Breathe Me” during that Six Feet Under finale), but with her sixth studio album 1000 Forms of Fear, she finally married her heartrending pipes with ace pop production in the service of an accessible, star-making record. Sia, who’s cut her teeth co-writing David Guetta’s “Titanium” and Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” among other pop hits, has used her production and songwriting chops to craft an album consisting entirely of bold anthems showcasing her powerful, anguished voice. And good luck getting the song (and music video) to “Chandelier” out of your head.

Brooklyn rapper El-P and Atlanta MC Killer Mike made two of the best albums of 2012. So what did they do? They joined forces to form the rap supergroup Run the Jewels. And their second LP, Run the Jewels 2, is a work reflective of the times we leave in—a relentlessly intense, bleak, dark, twisted paranoid fantasy replete with grimy beats and acidic lyrics. Take Killer Mike’s killer verse on the brilliant “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)”: “Conditions create a villain, the villain is given vision / The vision becomes a vow to seek vengeance on all the vicious / Liars and politicians, profiteers of the prisons / The forehead engravers and slavers of men and women,” he raps. This is angry, urgent music. 

I had my reservations when it came to FKA Twigs, the British singer-songwriter formerly known as Tahliah Barnett—primarily because her rise to musical prominence has coincided with her dating a certain well-coiffed ex-vampire. But wow, this album. The delicate voice tingling with ferocity; the gonzo, K-hole inducing production by Paul Epworth, Sampha, and Dev Hynes; the haunting melodies. FKA Twigs, which translates to “Formerly Known as Twigs” (a childhood nickname for the way her joints cracked), is a singular artist whose elegiac tunes will burrow their way into your subconscious. The most exciting and thrillingly unique artist to surface in 2014. 

Honorable Mention(s):

Brooklyn singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There cemented her status as the female Nick Cave, while fiery-haired electropop queen La Roux returned after a 5-year hiatus and a band break-up with the tight, 9-track road to redemption Trouble in Paradise. A Letterman performance gone viral and a terribly passionate fourth album, Singles, catapulted America’s hardest-working rock band, Future Islands, to fame, while TV on the Radio rebounded from tragedy with a prog rock rebirth in Seeds. Oh, and in addition to vamping it up at Kanye West’s and George Clooney’s weddings, Lana Del Rey cranked out another wonderfully moody and macabre album, Ultraviolence. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t give props to D’Angelo’s Black Messiah. I haven’t spent enough time with the Questlove-produced opus, which was dropped out of the blue on December 15, but two spins indicate there’s plenty of brilliance in play.