The 25 Best Albums of 2014 (So Far)

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The 25 Best Albums of 2014 (So Far)

Finding the best new music. That’s really the foundation on which this whole Paste enterprise was built—a music-discovery tool. And stepping back at the halfway point of 2014 to see what our writers and editors are digging has helped me catch up with the albums I missed the first time around, like Angel Olsen’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness or Total Control’s Typical System. Our year-end list will no doubt look a little different. But this is what we’re loving right now, and what we think you might might love too. Here are the 25 Best Albums of 2014 (so far).

25. Circulatory System – Mosaics Within Mosaics
The anticipated follow-up to 2009’s Signal Morning, Circulatory System’s Mosaics Within Mosaics was well worth the wait. The third album from Athens’ psych-rock leaders, it’s an assemblage of 31 wonderfully interlocking tracks from recordings made over the past 12 years. The songs build and evolve through the sincere lyrics of frontman Will Cullen Hart, in the end falling together to create an album that is strong yet delicate. “There’s just so much love / There’s just so much hate / There’s just so much mixed-up conclusions,” Hart sings on “Conclusions.” And it seems that the Circulatory System cast has again conjured up a stunning album to get listeners through all those emotions.—Brittany Joyce

24. Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread
Like a good claret or damp moss, Rosanne Cash’s singing is something to sink into. Surrender to the tones—mostly dark, but marked by the occasional glimmer of light—and let the emotions they contain seep inside. For Cash, the emotions on The River & The Thread are complex and tangled. Beyond what she sings about—the ghost of Emmett Till on the haunting “Money Road,” the widow of The Tennessee Three’s bassist Marshall Grant on the acoustic-picked “Etta’s Tune,”—there is the Grammy-winner’s own difficult relationship with the South, her roots and her own musical journey. What emerges, beyond a woman grappling with a legacy, as much in the rich bottomland as her father Johnny’s iconic presence as the voice of America, is a knowing embrace of the conflicts in the things we love. Cash savored her wandering the Manhattan life she built. With The River & The Thread, she comes home with the warmth reserved for knowing where we’re from.—Holly Gleason

23. Hurray for the Riff Raff – Small Town Heroes
Much has been made of the fact that Hurray for the Riff Raff leader Alynda Lee Segarra calls New Orleans home, but where she makes music is rather less interesting than when on her new album, Small Town Heroes. Though the Bronx native sings here and there about her adopted hometown, Hurray for the Riff Raff’s songs rarely feel rooted there. Rather, these 12 tracks encompass a broad swath of a timeless America, like old Carter Family tunes existing in the peaks and troughs of AM radio waves rolling endlessly over the miles. Whether she’s in her living room, rambling downhearted through the fingerpicked guitar of “The New SF Bay Blues” or camped under the stars in some saguaro-strewn desert on the lonesome cowboy song “Forever Is Just A Day”—or just lost in her own thoughts on the aching tribute “Levon’s Dream”—the only location that matters on Small Town Heroes is the one in which you first encounter Hurray for the Riff Raff.—Eric R. Danton

22. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings – Give the People What They Want
Give the People What They Want represents a modern depiction of R&B, soul and a little bit of funk. It follows in logical, albeit a bit comfortable, succession with 2010’s I Learned the Hard Way and 2007’s 100 Days, 100 Nights, highlighting Jones’ cool, emotive vocals and the Dap-Kings’ exemplary musical complements. In fact, the band’s brass, notably the baritone horns in the pulsating “Stranger to My Happiness” and haughty “You’ll Be Lonely,” are a defining, filling element of the overall sound on the album. But it’s Jones’ powerful, perfectly vibrato-laden voice that creates just the right emotion for every break-up, hook-up, fed up and uplifting track on the barely 30-minute record. With or without the backstory of Jones’ battle with cancer, Give the People What They Want is a record for fighters and for victors. It acknowledges hurt and weakness in all facets of life, but values optimism, strength and perseverance by hearkening to the most emotive genre and concept of all—soul.—Hilary Saunders

21. Dum Dum Girls – Too True
There’s a good chance that if Dum Dum Girls had continued on as lo-fi garage dwellers, we might not be talking about them right now. The fact that frontwoman Dee Dee has continued to futurize her ’60s girl-group proclivities has kept things from molding over. And when I say “futurize,” I mean to the year 1981. While Dum Dum Girls began polishing up the fuzz and drawing from other influences on 2011’s He Gets Me High EP, it’s nothing compared to the shimmer and sophistication of the band’s third full-length, Too True. It’s a spotless record production-wise, but it also takes Dee Dee’s songwriting another step forward.—Mark Lore

20. Damon Albarn – Everyday Robots
Everyday Robots is—technically—Damon Albarn’s solo debut, a set of intimate tunes made almost entirely on his own, reflecting inward on his personal life. But it’s not really a change of pace. No matter the stylistic dalliance, whether Brit-pop (Blur), electro-pop (Gorillaz), art-rock (The Good, the Bad, & the Queen), opera (Dr. Dee), or Afro-funk (Rocket Juice & the Moon), all of the man’s projects share the obvious thread of Albarnism—an affinity for nagging melody and a spirit of melancholy that wraps you up like a warm blanket. Everyday Robots is no exception, regardless of semantics. Within, Albarn explores the more reflective side of his songwriting, stripping away all excess. But ultimately, Everyday Robots just sounds like another great album from one of pop music’s most fearless sonic chameleons.—Ryan Reed

19. St. Paul & The Broken Bones – Half the City
Though the horn section ambles into “I’m Torn Up,” St. Paul & the Broken Bones’ debut album is anything but slow. The seven-piece has ushered in something of a soul revival, bringing emphatic vocalist Paul Janeway’s pleading, and at times growling tones to festivals and clubs across the country. Their single “Call Me,” is possibly the best example of what the band has to offer: guitar and bass perfectly meshed with trumpet and trombone. This is an album of push and pull, swell and relax. The result is a stripped-down feel, with songs so well composed, they almost sound improvised. It doesn’t hurt that producer Ben Tanner placed a subtle reverb on Janeway, making the album sound like they snuck into a warehouse—or cathedral—to record it. Listening gives you a rush like first love—huge, heavy and meaningful, even if you’re not sure why.—Julia Cook

18. Strand of Oaks – HEAL
Strand of Oaks  latest album is like the happiest scar I’ve ever heard. HEAL, his fourth full-length under the moniker Strand Of Oaks, follows Philly-based singer/songwriter Timothy Showalter on a 15-year reconnaissance mission with 10 songs raking out all the baggage, both emotional and psychological, that had cluttered up his life since the pure and naïve teenage-days, those first eureka-moments that put him on the path to music. He shifts to a fuller, more rock-oriented song that employs driving rhythms and even some catchy hooks from some sleek synthesizers—a notable departure from his previous work’s more cloudy, experimental folk aesthetic. While the music shifts from brood to burst, the lyrics are the most frank that he’s ever written; the melodies are dazzling; the choruses are catchy. It turns out the soundtrack of one’s soul being bared to the more brutal of truths doesn’t have to be a downer.—Jeff Milo

17. Drive-By Truckers – English Oceans
Life is always messy on Drive-By Truckers albums, populated by the endless cast of assorted lowlifes and down-and-outs that spring from the minds of Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. On English Oceans, the songwriters fill their songs with evocative tales of dying ambitions, interpersonal discord, suffocating shame and in an astute pair of politically edged tunes, turn their sights to the cloying misdirection that dirty tricksters use to pave over all that familiar suffering. What distinguishes the Truckers’ 12th album from the rest of their excellent recent pack is two-fold: 1) The band came out firing hot, the batch of lean rock songs presented in their visceral, unadorned rawness, and 2) More than ever before, this is a Cooley album, with six of his compositions shaping the overall tone of the record. It’s a triumph for the Drive-By Truckers, one that capitalizes on Hood and Cooley’s strengths as songwriters and also gives them something to sing for that means more than all their colorful characters put together.—Eric Swedlund

16. Total Control – Typical System
On their second album the Australian rock band Total Control continues to mull modern-day applications of the postpunk ethos. Learning much from Wire’s second two records, Typical System preserves the tenor of postpunk (smart but vague, distant yet passionate, a little bit assholish), offering up lumbering, repetitive rock with cold war synths and monotone vocals. From the minimal Kraftwerkian electronics of opener “Glass” to the pseudo punk swing of “Systematic Fuck” (whose chorus sounds like a particularly raucous early Go-Betweens homage), Typical System is a vital and diverse rock record that pays tribute to the past without forgetting what year it is.—Garrett Martin

15. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Piñata
Freddie Gibbs and Madlib was not a collaboration that necessarily made sense on paper. But on Piñata, the duo created a sharp hip-hop album focused on vivid storytelling and reminiscent of some of the most formative ‘90s rab albums. Gibbs and Madlib had both previously collaborated on three separate EPs. Madlib’s ear for outside-the-box jazzy/soulful samples couple beautifully with Gibbs’ diverse, pitched-down streetwise lyricism, and the two create a special kind of sound. Hip-hop heads should feel a certain nostalgic element when the album sounds so close to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, which is particularly special when Raekwon the Chef shows up on “Bomb.” Sure, 17 tracks may leave some to feel as if the album is bursting at its seams. But it stand out above any other hip-hop release in 2014.—Trevor Conley

14. Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness
Angel Olsen’s beautiful, sad and, ultimately, useful sophomore album, Burn Your Fire for No Witness is not something to be objective about. It’s an experience obsessed with heartbreak, and coming into the record with a heavy heart of your own is excruciating—near-torture—and had I not been assigned to review it, I might have said “no thank you.” But listening to a collection that hurts to hear, that’s how Angel Olsen deserves to be absorbed, with empathy—knowing her pain and resolve and bravery and using it for your own strength. It’s an album that tells the world that we are not alone. Will this mean a lot to everyone? Probably not, but it means a lot to me and it’s a useful album, full of comfort and advice, and the very true ache that life leaves too often. Olsen shares graciously in her music, and if you are willing, Burn a Fire for No Witness will change your world. Or, actually, it will change how you see your world.—Philip Cosores

13. Ages & Ages – Divisionary
Ages and Ages’ debut LP, Alright You Restless, was an ambitious, conceptual piece of sing-along, clap-along, stomp-along pop rock that vaulted the band into elite company. That first record pontificated upon the throes of isolation as a form of revolution, elated choral melodies anchoring shimmery guitars and tight rhythmic interludes throughout. The Portland conglomerate’s second album, Divisionary, is a lot of that, too; there are plenty of goosebump-raising hooks and uplifting crescendos to write home about. Their thematic scope, however, involved the excavation of darker inspirations than they’d previously explored as a band. Ages and Ages have undergone lineup changes and lots of peripheral personal battles and have somehow managed to internalize and later deduce how to navigate the avenues of their own lives in triumphant—and insanely memorable—song. In the process, they’ve come out with one of this year’s best all-around albums.—Ryan J. Prado

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