The 25 Best Albums of 2014 (So Far)

Music Lists

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

12. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There
In the last song on her new album, Sharon Van Etten sings, “People say I’m a one-hit wonder, but what happens when I have two?” It’s only a matter of time until we find out. Van Etten’s latest is a masterpiece, an album of extraordinary depth and sophistication that finds the New York singer and songwriter in full command of her considerable talent. Are We There is the first of her four LPs that Van Etten produced herself, and her clarity of vision is breathtaking. Like her previous work, these songs are confessional in tone, but with a new emotional richness, as if she has learned to focus the power of her heart instead of unleashing it in a torrent. From the quavering piano ballad “I Love You But I’m Lost” to the muscular rhythm pushing “Break Me” to the rawboned swagger in her voice on the Springsteenian album closer “Every Time the Sun Comes Up,&#8221 she’s never sounded more confident.—Eric R. Danton

11. Cloud Nothings – Here and Nowhere Else
Up until recently, Cleveland’s Cloud Nothings always had enough space for its brand of batshit pop-punk to flash its fangs without much regard for hype or expectation. But after Attack On Memory made the band a breakthrough act, the anticipation for the next release has been significantly heightened, and the band now faces its truest test yet: the much-anticipated follow-up. The entirety of Here and Nowhere Else is spent in the fast lane—each track contains a powerful level of immediacy, hurling forward as if shot out of a cannon. With Dyaln Baldi’s ferocious, throat-shredding vocals, Jayson Gerycz’s spastic and sophisticated drumming and TJ Duke’s hammering bass lines anchoring Baldi’s frantic, uncoiling guitarwork, Cloud Nothings chug through songs as though their lives depended on it.The result is a fast-paced, convulsive collection that has all the intensity of its predecessor.—Michael Danaher

10. Beck – Morning Phase
As promised by the singer, Morning Phase follows in the footsteps of the classic Sea Change, with Beck embracing heartache and emotional stakes, this time with the light at the end of the tunnel much brighter, much more road-worn. It’s a look that suits him. Morning Phase is that comeback story, that emergence from the water and that first breath taken with the gusto of someone knowing they are truly alive. It is a beautiful record, and maybe a little over-simplified at its weakest moments, straddling that line between clean and bare. But mostly simplicity works in his favor. These songs are sad; Beck is sad, and listening should probably make you sad, except when the sun shines in some hope.—Philip Cosores

9. Sun Kil Moon – Benji
Because if Benji and its predecessor Among The Leaves are any indication, the 47-year-old songwriter and master guitarist has found a comfortable place where he’s expressing every last thought in his head. The 11 songs here are an unfiltered id-spilling talking blues, set to the familiar sounds of Kozelek’s plaintive guitar playing and his softly emotive voice. And what he’s most interested in rambling about is his relationship with death and tragedy. He doesn’t pine over mortality. He picks apart the unfortunate passing of people in his family and outside of it: his second cousin Carissa, former Sopranos star James Gandolfini, the victims of Newtown. Though each reference appears in separate songs, the sentiment is consistent: hold on tightly to those you love before they’re not around anymore.—Robert Ham

8. Mac DeMarco – Salad Days
He’s been pigeon-holed for serving up “slacker rock,” but Salad Days proves to be Mac Demarco’s most personal recording yet. The album is filled with synth-pop, psych-rock and just plain old vintage guitar-rock. The gap-toothed smiley dude clearly does not care about his image, but listen closely—Demarco took his easy going attitude here and crafted a much deeper album than its predecessors. Lyrically, topics range from a focus on his girlfriend, Kiera McNally, on “Let My Baby Stay” and “Go Easy,” to giving life advice to others on “Blue Boy.” It’s good to know that when he’s determined, he can churn out a thoughtful and serious musical experience.—Trevor Conley

7. Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal
Even if you’ve yet to hear Sunbathing Animal, the fantastic sophomore LP from Brooklyn-via-Texas garage punks Parquet Courts, you’ve undoubtedly read about the significant hype the band has been riding since the album’s launch in June. Many are wary, and rightfully so, of journalists christening a band saviors of guitar rock (whatever that is) or touting the return of vintage, New York cool. But after one listen to Sunbathing Animal, determining whether or not Parquet Courts live up to the collective critical euphoria seems irrelevant. At times brash and impetuous, the album is crafted with such calculated purpose that the “slacker rock” tag that has often been applied to the band feels like a severe misnomer. Sunbathing Animal is frenzied, dangerous and, most importantly, fun. After all, that’s what rock ‘n’ roll is all about, right?—Chris Powers

6. The Antlers – Familiars
“Sad” is a catch-all we use to describe music that turns inward, reflects and exists without concern for how its audience is going to feel about what they hear. It is about expression, relating and both comforting and being comforted. The Antlers’ fifth LP, Familiars, fits neatly in this conversation, which is no surprise considering their most beloved album takes place in a cancer ward and their last LP ended with a song called “Putting the Dog to Sleep.” But, to simply label these nine songs as “sad” is getting stuck in some of the sonic cues (down-tempo rhythms, beautiful whining trumpets from Darby Cicci); the album is ultimately the most cathartic and uplifting that songwriter Peter Silberman has crafted, indicating the demons he has long wrestled with may be tiring, if not nearing defeat. Though the songs may seem to be mourning loss of connection to the past, there is the implication of survival throughout, that being able to lose connection to the past is a privilege afforded to those who make it.—Philip Cosores

5. Future Islands – Singles
The status of “next big thing” is a coveted position, and most bands never get there. Future Islands have been there three times, with three consecutive albums. But Singles, the audaciously titled fourth LP from Future Islands, is upfront about its ambitions, beginning with the strongest stand-alone the band has made yet. “Seasons (Waiting on You)” sees a universal experience portrayed with respect for the human condition, and Samuel Herring showcases an even-handed distribution of youthful longing and frustration with mature wisdom and perspective. Future Islands are direct in their influences, with ‘80s pop music and contemporary synth-pop both pretty obvious touchstones. But trying to pinpoint the sound of the band ignores the originality that is at play. No one sounds like Future Islands, nor have they for several albums. Maybe they are a band whose breakthrough isn’t possible on album but will be found in relentless touring. Or maybe the fourth time will be the charm.—Philip Cosores

4. St. Vincent – St. Vincent
That Annie Clark’s new album as St. Vincent is self-titled is no aberration, no cop-out in the face of vacant inspiration. Just look at the eponymous collection’s Willo Perron-designed, Memphis Movement-inspired cover. Clark, perched high atop her modernist throne, exudes the sort of confidence and wit reserved only for those who’ve mastered a craft. Otherwise she’d just look ridiculous, tossing off another rococo selfie like so many of the characters Clark brings to life on songs like “Huey Newton” and “Digital Witness,” “entombed” by “the 0s and 1s.” No, though St. Vincent is the adventurous songwriter’s fourth album, posterity and its fickle memory may find a way to boil it down to Clark’s true ascension point. Because this is the first time we’ve seen and heard her so completely fearless, so completely tapped into her potential and so completely set apart from her peers. And she knows that as well as us.—Ryan Burleson

3. Sylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso
Mountain Man’s Amelia Meath and Megafaun/Made of Oak’s Nick Sanborn represent a study of contrasts. Together as Sylvan Esso, they create synthy pop songs falling somewhere between Poliça, tUnE-yArDs and Autre Ne Veut. Starting off as part of the Appalachian-inspired trio Mountain Man, Meath brings a strong folk influence to Sylvan Esso. Her melodies are unwavering; she conjures a new one in each song using her soft and soothing voice against Sanborn’s beats and production. And Sanborn, who played bass with Megafaun and recently started experimenting with electronic music and producing under the name Made of Oak, juxtaposes her vocal purity with deep dubstep, jarring counter-rhythms and the kind of buzzing that household electronic devices seem to emit before they explode and sizzle in defeat. Under Sanborn’s direction, her voice becomes malleable—sometimes an echo of itself and other times a wordless source of harmonic veneer. As a result, Sylvan Esso is as cerebral as it is sexy. The whole album feels like jigsaw puzzle of disparate genres fitting together in strange and lovely ways. In fact, it might just be the greatest crossover sleeper success of the year so far.—Hilary Saunders

2. Real Estate – Atlas
In our current Ableton-fueled epoch, Real Estate’s unassuming commitment to craft seems almost deliriously uncool. Sure, the values that have come to define the New Jersey quintet—an eye for refinement and an unerring awareness of their own strengths—wouldn’t have been considered flashy during any period. But in an era where critical praise for indie-rock bands is usually qualified by some kind of statement about the waning relevance of guitar-based music, Real Estate’s ethos feels vitally contrarian. Their third LP, Atlas, recorded with immense care at Wilco’s Chicago studio, marks the point where they transcend the trappings of their former lo-fi niche. On the strength of these 10 new songs, they’ll most likely begin finding themselves placed near the top of festival bills. Their evolution mirrors Pavement’s mid-’90s mellowing, or even R.E.M.’s gradual amble towards clarity a decade prior to that, but Real Estate’s progression is unique in just how offhanded and unpremeditated it sounds.—Michael Wojtas

1. The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream
As its title suggests, Lost in the Dream often trades in gaseous, impressionistic hues, and a cavalry of affected guitar, synth, lap steel, sax, harmonica and piano tracks gel into luminescent aural sunsets at several points throughout the album. These ambient drifts bookend Adam Granduciel’s tender songs, the lyrics of which also tend to reveal themselves in refracted ways. Indeed, it can be difficult to discern more than a handful of lines in succession—Granduciel’s feathery, mostly reserved delivery sees to this, as well as the tonnage of reverb baked into the mix—but listeners can’t miss the sense of melancholy and anxiety woven into nearly every second of Lost’s hour-plus run-time. “Am I alone here, living in darkness?” he asks on “Eyes to the Wind,” his questioning telling all in a handful of words.—Ryan Burleson

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