At the year's halfway point, with summer just about to flip the calendar over to Side B, it's a challenge to get a satisfying picture of the year in music, even if you're just looking at a single genre. Consider the voices of the couple dozen obsessive listeners from NPR Music and our public radio partners who made this list, and the only thing that remains undeniably true is that great albums come out of every genre, from every corner of the world.
What links them together? 2014 has, in its first six months, been a wonderful year for musicians who go deep. The 25 albums on this list (presented alphabetically) all start with a sound, a vibe, a concept or crucial idea. After that, they flower in different ways. One might display the range of sounds a band leader can pull out of a few fellow musicians or the depth of emotion a singer can plumb while mapping the course of desire and heartbreak. Others offer history lessons, looking back over 20 years in the life of an American city or 200 years in the life of an instrument.
All pull you in with both hands. All of them connect us as listeners to the work done by musicians who ask for more than three minutes of our time. These ones deserve it. These are our favorite albums of the year so far.
Advisory: Some of the songs on this page contain profanity.
NPR Music's 25 Favorite Albums Of 2014 (So Far)
Over the last few years, Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux has released one flawless record after another, making her one of Latin America's most beloved rappers. Her most recent album, Vengo, is no exception. It's musically exhilarating while lyrically poignant, a difficult equilibrium that Latin hip-hop — a genre that tends to be very political — sometimes has trouble achieving. Tijoux walks the thin line that separates thoughtful from preachy with confidence: She's at that sweet spot of being joyously combative, relaxed but resistant. Musically Vengo is also quite breathtaking. While some of her colleagues wallow in derivative beats, she proves why she's at the top of her class with a unique blend of jazz, funk and Andean rhythms. For those who don't know her work, this is a good time to catch up. — Jasmine Garsd
BURN YOUR FIRE FOR NO WITNESS
The word "confessional" tends to get tossed around to describe singer-songwriters who reveal — and even revel in — raw, sticky emotions. But there's a kind of submissiveness, even apology, implied by that word that doesn't suit Angel Olsen. Whether she's huddled over a single acoustic guitar or backed by a muscular rock band, Olsen's voice grabs you by the collar and looks straight through you. As commanding and assertive as its title suggests, especially in naked and foreboding songs like the seven-minute "White Fire," Burn Your Fire for No Witness doesn't waste a motion or a breath. Olsen's subtle, commanding voice is the embodiment of coiled intensity: The more she seems to hold still, the harder her punches land. -- Stephen Thompson
ARTURO O'FARRILL & THE AFRO LATIN ORCHESTRA
THE OFFENSE OF THE DRUM
There's no doubt that the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, led by pianist Arturo O'Farrill, is well-versed in clave and swing. But here's a list of other things that appear on its new album: Colombian country harp; "Iko Iko" featuring a Mardi Gras Indian chief; a mesmerizing beat pattern from Vijay Iyer; an arrangement of a work by French Romantic composer Erik Satie; Nuyorican slam poetry with scratching turntables; djembe, taiko drum and at least 26 other percussion instruments. Musical hybridity is at the heart of this band; here, it assimilates any remix thrown at it with furious conviction. -- Patrick Jarenwattananon
If we needed any proof that albums still matter in this short-attention-span world, Beck's flawless 12th album, Morning Phase, is a triumphant testimony. From the soft swells of the orchestral opener, "Cycle," and the first strum of his guitar, the transportive effect of this slow and beautiful sonic journey begins. Made with Beck's composer father, David Richard Campbell, and many of the same musicians behind 2002's Sea Change (Beck's beloved ode to heartbreak), Morning Phase could be called a companion piece, but it is better described as a grown-up sequel. The songs pull at the heartstrings, and instead of pulling us downward, they are ultimately about finding the light when one lets go. Whether it is in the glow of early morning or under a blue moon, Morning Phase provides a bittersweet reminder of the temporary nature of all things, and a wiser Beck right there with us. — Carmel Holt, WFUV
BRIAN BLADE & THE FELLOWSHIP BAND
This album is led by an all-world jazz drummer, but there aren't really drum solos. It's pastoral and tranquil when its peers are often urbane and frenetic. It feels simple — rhythmically, harmonically, structurally — in an age of complexity. So when a melody emerges, it cuts like a knife. When a saxophone reaches for that high note, the sincerity is palpable. And when the constantly simmering tension erupts, or even just hits a rolling boil, there's a joyousness, an instant renewal of 20-year friendships, a velocity of celebration. -- Patrick Jarenwattananon
SCARLATTI & CAGE SONATAS
Like a crafty DJ, David Greilsammer has a knack for surprising musical juxtapositions. On the pianist's album Baroque Conversations, from 2012, 18th century masters like Jean-Philippe Rameau sit cheek-by-jowl with modernists like Morton Feldman. Now Greilsammer's back at it, swapping sonatas written 200 years apart by Domenico Scarlatti and John Cage. For Greilsammer the two composers are kindred spirits, both "inventors of sound" — Scarlatti with his radical harmonies and rhythms inspired by flamenco, and Cage with his prepared piano (into which he inserted nuts, bolts and rubber thingamabobs to create a percussion orchestra). His performance of Scarlatti's Sonata in D minor, K.213 exquisitely dovetails into Cage's Sonatas XIV & XV, creating a third entity — the fascinating bridge connecting the daring and the delicate in each piece (you can listen to an excerpt here). To the "inventors" Scarlatti and Cage we can add and third name — Greilsammer, whose spunk and imagination are most welcome. -- Tom Huizenga
FREDDIE GIBBS & MADLIB
Rapper Freddie Gibbs, born and raised in Gary, Ind., met venerable producer Madlib in Los Angeles, and the album they made together is a complete work that straddles generations and sensibilities. The pair's conception of gangster music sounds more like crushed velvet than velour, dramatizing the turmoil of a narrator who could be Sincere's older son, or the grandchild of Youngblood Priest. On one song, "Robes," Gibbs quotes 1987 Babyface and invites two '90s babies to jump on. Throughout, his eye is unsparing, never more so than when it's turned on himself. On "Broken" he begins with the Basmala and later, talking about his inherited infidelity, says "Honestly, I know I'm out here f- - -ing up." Gibbs' phrasing is virtuosic; his words sound like they've levitated. No guest — not Scarface, not Raekwon, not Earl, not Danny Brown — outshines Gibbs over beats that are glassine and big-bodied and as real as can be. — Frannie Kelley
Like Frankenstein's monster, BAD ÉTUDES is stitched together, alive and breathing by the hand of its master, Bronx musician Gordon Voidwell. Oozing funk, pop, R&B and otherworldly inspiration, the record is filled to the brim with thoughtfully constructed modulations and manipulations — imagine a Prince from the future who says, "To hell with all these instruments. Let me see how far I can freak a keyboard." With his production serving as a constantly tilting landscape of audacity, Voidwell takes it a step further by altering his vocals, veering them toward femininity then back again. He throws us off and turns us on; winds us up and breaks it all down. As a whole or piece-by-piece, this album is a funky sci-fi experiment gone right. — Kiana Fitzgerald
Bad Études is available for purchase on Bandcamp.
HURRAY FOR THE RIFF RAFF
SMALL TOWN HEROES
Considering the songs that populate Hurray for the Riff Raff's latest release, it makes sense that they titled the disc Small Town Heroes. Here are the voices of battered women taking their power back; defiantly hopeful lovers; neighborhoods keeping their pride amid surging crime waves; the outlaw with the yearning heart; and of course the band on the road, longing for home. They're songs about a city revitalizing itself, people coming into their own. Its rhythms and melodies call to mind everything from Appalachian tradition to the Mississippi Delta and the old folk-blues. Frontwoman and songwriter Alynda Lee Segarra sings every lyric with a haunting, raw honesty. Where her voice doesn't tremble like it's shaking the rain out, it soars and bops like a determined bird flying against a breeze. Small Town Heroes is an arresting, memorable disc from a band that's only just getting started. -- Kim Ruehl, Folk Alley
JEFF BALLARD TRIO
Drummer Jeff Ballard had never led a recording before this one, which is amazing considering how many recordings he's been a part of. His debut album reflects most of his divergent impulses toward the worldly and the familiar, the knotted bundles of odd-meter asymmetry and the silky-smooth groove — and does so with only three guys. It works because while his two collaborators play guitar (Lionel Loueke, from Benin) and sax (Miguel Zenón, from Puerto Rico), everyone's a percussionist at heart. That rapid fire rhythmic dialogue, and some nifty guitar noises, enables a skeleton crew to throw a street parade. -- Patrick Jarenwattananon
On a string of singles released over the better part of a decade, Leipzig's Kassem Mosse has found the sweet spot between stripped-down production and melody-driven songwriting. Making music that's warmer than much of the techno coming out of Germany and sparser than much of the house music coming from the States, Mosse is hailed again and again for blazing his own trail, and sucking in others under his wake. An auteur to the bone, Mosse's debut LP showcases the flexibility of his sound. It's murky and melancholic, ambient at times, but also made to get people up out of their seats. Once again, Mosse finds the space between expected and inaccessible. -- Sami Yenigun
MUSIC FOR THE UNINVITED
Remember what it felt like to listen to your parents' cassettes when you were a young child? Kind of, but not really, right? We recall snippets of songs, the stack of plastic cases below the car stereo, maybe the auto-reverse click between "Darling Nikki" and "When Doves Cry." For many of us, it's an impressionist painting in our mind of the moment we first fell in love with music. British dance producer Leon Vynehall called on his fuzzy memories of low fidelity while writing his debut album, Music For The Uninvited, a sample-fueled fusion of house, disco, funk and soul. He even ends each "side" of the record with that unmistakable *snap* of a play button popping back into place. It's an old-school labor of love by one of the most promising young minds in dance music, nostalgic and next-level at the same time. -- Otis Hart
SI SE PUEDE!: LOS LOBOS AND FRIENDS
Over 40 years ago music played a crucial role in one of this country's most important civil rights struggles: not in the Jim Crow South but in the agricultural fields of California, where the United Farm Workers was organizing laborers into a union for the first time ever. Traditional Mexican corridos were reworked to call people to march, picket and strike. The music was made by some of the workers themselves, as well as members of the UFW, and you pretty much had to be out in the fields to hear it — until 1976 when the album Si Se Puede was released as a fundraiser for the UFW. Herb Albert donated his A&M Records studios to a group of young Chicano musicians who called themselves Los Lobos del Este de los Angeles and who gathered some of their friends to record some of the music that had become part of the farmworker movement.
The band shortened its name and eventually made a big noise of its own, and 38 years later, long after it had gone out of print, the music was finally digitally rereleased this spring to coincide with the release of a biopic about Cesar Chavez. The themes of social justice are timeless but more so is the notion that music can indeed help change the world. We seem to have forgotten that. That's why this music, now nearly four decades old, still matters. -- Felix Contreras
Al Qantara ("The Bridge") is a fitting title for the new album by Majid Bekkas. The native Moroccan's home country has long been a nexus of African, Eastern and Western cultures. Bekkas is steeped in Gnawa, an ancient Moroccan spiritual trance music, but on Al Qantara he adroitly fuses the tradition with jazz and African styles. His principal tools are the oud and the guembri, a three-stringed guitar-sized instrument covered in camel skin that produces the low notes of a double bass. With his Afro-Oriental Jazz Trio, Bekkas guides a journey through traditional Moroccan tunes ("Bania"), jazz staples (Don Cherry's "Guinea") and his own mesmerizing creations. "Choroq," after an extended oud introduction, gives way to Manuel Hermia's evocative basuri (bamboo flute). When Khalid Kouhen's Indian tabla drums kick in, the piece takes flight with a melody of sublime beauty. Hopefully Al Qantara will bridge yet one more gap — the one between the notoriety Bekkas enjoys in Morocco and that which we hope he finds far beyond. -- Tom Huizenga
Miranda Lambert likes to say in interviews that she's no role model. And thank goodness. On her fifth studio album, country's longtime self-aware bad girl offers something more powerful than craziness and kerosene: a deliberately holistic portrait of 21st century femininity, with room for vulnerability, regret, gentle nostalgia, hope and plenty of humor. Lambert speaks through characters who are married and independent, sexually confident and anxious about their looks, longing for home comforts and eager for the wide open road. The music ranges just as widely as Lambert's worldview, from traditional bluegrass to honky-tonk rock to the well-burnished country that radio requires. Lambert herself always retains her individualistic edge. "You don't know nothin' about girls," she sings, confronting stereotypes in the album's lead track. Don't worry; Miranda will school you. -- Ann Powers
Once the golden boy of Canada's now decade-long indie invasion, Owen Pallett made his best album by tracking the growing pains of becoming an adult: solitude, self-destruction, depression and regret cut with a confidence born of the realization that you, you grown human person, have survived long enough to build a life made out of your own accumulated choices. Everything that made Pallett's name is here on In Conflict: the lonely, looped violin; lyrical details that weave soul-baring into mundane; the tense/triumphant orchestration that won him a spot as Arcade Fire's resident classical guy (not to mention an Oscar nomination for scoring Her last year). Any one of these would make him a tremendous talent. All of them, knit together with new authority and purpose, make him singular. -- Jacob Ganz
ST. LOUIS SYMPHONY/DAVID ROBERTSON, CONDUCTOR
ADAMS: CITY NOIR/SAXOPHONE CONCERTO
Composer John Adams wrote City Noir as a homage to the City of Angels — and it is at once a cinematically scaled nod to 1940s and '50s film scores and, especially in the first movement, an intricate bundle full of knotted melodies climbing inside each other. The saxophone concerto that accompanies City Noir carries bebop in its DNA, and soloist Timothy McAllister is simply outstanding. Meanwhile, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and conductor David Robertson are born naturals for this music, turning in fresh, dynamic and invigorating performances. -- Anastasia Tsioulcas
I've always thought Annie Clark's music and guitar-playing was pretty damn good — then she released her fourth St. Vincent record and I was floored. All of the qualities I've come to love in her music — the quirky lyrics, songs with hairpin turns and her idiosyncratic guitar-playing — are here, sharper than ever. There are songs about her Jesus and her mother, about political activist Huey Newton, about running naked in the desert and the meaning of it all in this digital age. The songs are fun, sometimes funny and sonically a treat for the ears. -- Bob Boilen
It's hard to pin the Belgian artist Stromae down, and that's just how he likes it: a little EDM, a little hip-hop, a little R&B, a little Eurodance, a little Congolese rumba, a little tango ... and yet it all works, beautifully. One of the smartest songwriters around, Stromae navigates the shoals of modern life — from relationships and race to the financial crisis and existential concerns — with grace, humor, a wink and a teeny bit of swagger. There are so many tracks to fall in love with here — "Formidable," "Tous Les Mêmes," "Ave Cesaria," "Ta Fête," "Humain A L'Eau," the global smash "Papaoutai" — that the whole album is an unmitigated, heavy-repeat pleasure. And his live show is, improbably, even better. -- Anastasia Tsioulcas
METAMODERN SOUNDS IN COUNTRY MUSIC
There are people who fret about the health and purity of country music and there are those who just keep the damn stuff alive. On his second solo album, Sturgill Simpson pumps oxygen into familiar forms — the honky-tonk all-night drunk, the philosophical road song, the country-politan ballad, the gospel singalong, the trucker anthem — with the no-fuss creativity of a rebel with a cause, and a plan. The Kentucky native, now living in Nashville, set out to make songs that honored tradition but rejected easy associations: Instead of odes to girls with painted-on jeans, Simpson applies his majestic baritone to sometimes psychedelic ruminations about fate, personal agency and the Zen interconnectedness of all things. His muscular touring band keeps Simpson grounded while letting him range wide. The result is hard country with no edges made for people with big sky minds. -- Ann Powers
An unexpected, intoxicating left-field debut, Sylvan Esso captures the sound of two equally unlikely musicians: singer Amelia Meath, known for singing folk a cappella in Mountain Man, and producer Nick Sanborn, known for playing bass in the psychedelic roots-rock band Megafaun. Neither had hinted at anything that sounds quite like this batch of intricately crafted, emotionally resonant, strikingly catchy electro-pop songs. Music this sturdy and remix-ready doesn't generally come from such a distinct and powerful lyrical point of view: Meath's often hauntingly ambivalent words seize just as much attention as the multidimensional sound beds on which they're placed. "Coffee" is the most unstoppably great song here — maybe the most unstoppably great song of the year, period — but everything else on Sylvan Esso grabs hard, too, from the playful provocation of "Hey Mami" to the wobbly anthemic rush of "Play It Right." -- Stephen Thompson
TONI BRAXTON & BABYFACE
LOVE, MARRIAGE & DIVORCE
Rich doesn't come close to describing Toni Braxton's voice. More than 20 years after her first duet with Babyface, with the mic capturing every little thing that comes out of her mouth — every catch, every low-key run, even the bitten off end of a word — she sounds at once impossible and exactly like your friend did the last time her heart got broken. There are overblown moments on Love, Marriage & Divorce, but most of the album feels personal, and all that reverb helps to make it feel interior, even private. Babyface's voice is tangy and refined. On "Roller Coaster" he's punchy, using his voice like a rhythm instrument. Braxton takes liberties with the beat. Her two solo turns, "I Wish," which is too real, and "I'd Rather Be Broke" aren't occasions to show off; they further the narrative. The album sticks to its story, and in the process delivers a set of mature songs masterfully detailed. — Frannie Kelley
In his third band in three decades, Tom Warrior continues to be one of metal's most thoughtful innovators. As visionary as Warrior has been in Hellhammer and Celtic Frost, Warrior works best in tandem with a band that locks into his dark world. Triptykon's second album, Melana Chasmata, is a bottomless pit where nocturnal creatures breed and kill, uncovering atmospheres and riffs still unknown. -- Lars Gotrich
THE WAR ON DRUGS
LOST IN THE DREAM
The War On Drugs' Lost In The Dream is the sound of tomorrow's greatest classic rock today. Lead singer and guitarist Adam Granduciel's epic guitar playing and songwriting on album tracks like "Under The Pressure," "In Reverse" and the seven-minute "An Ocean In Between The Waves" are infused with mesmerizing Springsteen-Petty-Velvet Underground influences. He's got a vocal style that brings to mind Dylan circa Blood On The Tracks. It's possible to deduce the themes of the album by the names of the songs. "Eyes To The Wind," "The Haunting Idle," the title song and the slow burning "Suffering," express matters of the heart and soul. There are plenty of searching, longing and questioning, set to a soundtrack of a psychedelic heartland. Lost In The Dream is a triumphant, transcendent, classic rock album — whether or not you hear the Springsteenisms that subtly inform the record. --Bruce Warren, WXPN
MY KRAZY LIFE
After the success of his platinum selling single "My Hitta" and Drake-flavored "Who Do You Love," YG released his debut album, My Krazy Life, earlier this year. My Krazy Life has the feeling of a traditional West Coast album (skits included): You can hear Dr. Dre bass lines and some Bay Area bounce slips in thanks to the production of DJ Mustard. YG is a '90s baby straight outta Compton, the storied neighborhood that brought us rap icons N.W.A. When the good kid from the maad city himself, Kendrick Lamar, meets up with his bad a$$ neighbor YG on "Really Be (Smoking N Drinking)" they sound vulnerable exposing the harsh realities of inner-city life and their coping mechanisms (Kush and alcohol). My Krazy Life is his cautionary tale about the trappings of street life — the highs, the lows and eventually redemption. -- Cedric Shine
All album photos by Sarah Tilotta/NPR
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