NPR

NPR Music's 50 Favorite Albums Of 2014

Was the music of 2014 heavier than usual, or is it just us? When the staff of NPR Music and our member station partners gather to collect our favorite albums of the year, we don't start out with a theme. We don't intend to come to an absolute consensus. We begin with questions: What do you hold close, and what do you want to share?

Out of the thousands of albums we listened to in 2014, many of the ones that made this list seemed to satisfy a particular need. Some of them are aggressive; some of them are soothing. Sometimes we wanted them to ask hard questions — about rising oceans, global inequality, alienation and systemic injustice — that reflected the events around us. Sometimes we just needed them to show us something new. Exceptions abound, of course: There is lightness and melodrama, confidence and expertise, music composed decades ago and music that could have been beamed in from the future. Old needs surface in the midst of heavier times, too. We like to dance.

These 50 albums helped define 2014 for us. (They are presented alphabetically, because how do you begin to rank amazing work from a dozen different genres?) They are how we'll remember the year. They're the ones we love well enough to share.

Advisory: Some of the songs on this page contain profanity.


ALT-J
This Is All Yours

Following up a breakout, Mercury Prize-winning debut album (and the amicable departure of a founding guitarist) can be a difficult task, but alt-J's This Is All Yours successfully builds upon the distinctive sound of An Awesome Wave (Amazon / iTunes). The arrangements are just as intricate and unpredictable this time out, resulting in the atmospheric yet strongly melodic "Every Other Freckle" and "Hunger of the Pine," with its Massive Attack vibe and undisputed prize for best-use-of-a-Miley-Cyrus-sample in 2014. The band shows an ability to craft an infectious pop song in "Left Hand Free," which, despite its simplicity, still sounds just like alt-J, thanks to Joe Newman's unique vocals. A performance on KEXP earlier this year showed that despite the complex nature of much of the album, these songs can be captivating in a live setting. --Kevin Cole, KEXP


ANA TIJOUX
Vengo

In recent years Latin hip-hop has split into two equally appealing directions. There are the new kids having a conspicuous good time (nothing wrong with that) and there are the inheritors of the socially conscious nueva trova movement. Among the latter, Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux is the reigning queen. Vengo (Amazon / iTunes) is a lesson to the youngsters on how to make a rap album that is poignant without sounding preachy, introspective without being insufferably narcissistic and that, at the end of the day, knows how to have some fun. All of those elements appear in the title track, where Tijoux raps about indigenous pride over Andean flutes and a go-go-like band. That could've been a hot mess, but it's one of the best songs we've heard this year. --Jasmine Garsd


ANGALEENA PRESLEY
American Middle Class

Three hundred miles and a world of difference separate Beauty, Ky., from Nashville, Tenn. Angaleena Presley grew up in the small coal-mining town and became an artist in the country capitol. On her masterful, self-produced solo debut, American Middle Class (Amazon / iTunes), which features some of her adopted hometown's finest country and Americana musicians, the Pistol Annies member lays out in plain, evocative language how one American life — her own — has been shaped by the conflicts and common concerns that connect the rural and the urban, the Southern and the cosmopolitan, the traditional and the forgetfully contemporary. She lets her miner father speak, and she talks back to him. In the middle of the conversations she shapes into songs, much is revealed. --Ann Powers


ANGEL OLSEN
Burn Your Fire For No Witness

Few records go from calm to combustible the way this album does. Twenty-seven-year-old Angel Olsen writes songs that shake, sadden and lift me. Burn Your Fire For No Witness (Amazon / iTunes) was produced by the talented John Congleton, who recorded Olsen with microphones costing less than $150, keeping it homegrown while at the same time showing the strong foundation of her songs. --Bob Boilen


APHEX TWIN
Syro

If I'm being honest, I'm not sure I've ever really gotten Aphex Twin. Does Richard D. James make music to dance to? To pull an all-nighter by? To smoke to while you really should be studying but your friends came by and it's Sunday night, which still counts as the weekend, right? Syro (Amazon / iTunes), full of new sounds, doesn't demystify the most famous of James' musical aliases, but it is immediately identifiable as a product of absolutely nobody but Aphex Twin, which makes the 13-year gap following 2001's Drukqs seem like proof that planet Aphex is just on an irregular orbit, picking up new sounds and drum patterns like space debris. Some moments jog déjà vu: synth passages that sound like pianos or aah-ing vocals warped into metallic drone layered under clapping or shuffling drumbeats, all coming at you from a slightly implausible angle, any of which could have been pilfered and reconfigured from a previously released Aphex Twin album or rebuilt from dust. But with that familiar palette James still needles out emotion. Joy and terror. And awe, most of all. Getting it is overrated. --Jacob Ganz


AUGUSTIN HADELICH
Adès/Sibelius: Violin Concertos

The 30-year-old Augustin Hadelich may be the best violinist you've never heard of. His album pairing two seemingly dissimilar concertos — one classic, one contemporary — by Jean Sibelius and Thomas Adès (Amazon / iTunes) puts his shimmering tone and laser-like intonation on magnificent display. Hadelich is increasingly viewed as one of today's top violinists — remarkable considering that after an accident at age 15 he was told he may never play again. Hadelich circles and swoops stratospherically high above a turbulent orchestra in the opening of Adès' concerto "Concentric Paths," from 2005. It's a thrilling tightrope act danced by a young master. --Tom Huizenga


BRIAN BLADE & THE FELLOWSHIP BAND
Landmarks

This is a record from a great drummer, but it's not really a "drummer record." It's not a showcase for chops; there isn't a drum solo to be heard. Not that Brian Blade doesn't supply tasty beats and "my god!" fills, because he does — Landmarks (Amazon / iTunes) is just more about a language evolved over 15-odd years as a band. It admits twang and simplicity, strong melodic ideas and relaxed paces. So even when saxophonists Melvin Butler or Myron Walden reach fever pitch, there's a devotional, serene energy. Perhaps it's because Blade and co-conspirator Jon Cowherd (keyboards) don't draw clear lines between church and state in their music; praise be to that. --Patrick Jarenwattananon

Listen to "Ark.La.Tex." on YouTube


BROWNOUT
Brownout Presents Brown Sabbath

What started as a gig's worth of material for a residency for Austin-based Latin funk band Brownout — a set of Black Sabbath covers — became an album and another identity for these vatos (Amazon / iTunes). And before you get all "Wha'? Ozzie and congas??" on me, let me tell you that there is an entire generation of Latinos who grew up with both crunchy heavy metal guitars and cumbias. Brownout channels that unlikely combo, which immediately moves your hips and makes you want to do that heavy metal head bang. There is a ton of cross-cultural theory behind this, but ultimately it just friggin' rocks!! And that's enough, verdad? --Felix Contreras


CECI BASTIDA
La Edad De La Violencia

My colleague Jasmine Garsd is always pointing out that Latin music is full of the seemingly contradictory technique of using bouncy, catchy Latin rhythms to address heady and thought provoking subjects. La Edad De La Violencia (Amazon / iTunes) is another example of that: musical ruminations for a then-unborn daughter on what kind of world awaited her, told with powerful lyrics couched in a collection of beats and rhythms that must have the baby dancing in utero. The album is a high-water mark for Bastida, an artist I am fascinated to watch develop. --Felix Contreras


FKA TWIGS
LP1

In the futuristic present, desire is always filtered, refracted, swathed in artifice. But it still sinks into skin and causes the blood to rush. On her debut album, LP1 (Amazon / iTunes), Tahliah Barnett, the 26-year-old dancer and sonic experimentalist behind FKA twigs, explores those portals connecting imagination and the flesh within sound sequences that bubble, swoosh and click in rhythm with her pleas and pleasuring assertions. Her voice is like irradiated honey; her words, fragments of fantasies still being realized. Turn the screens down low and get it on. --Ann Powers


FRED HERSCH TRIO
Floating

This isn't a radically different jazz record: It's a piano trio doing a few standards, a Thelonious Monk tune, tuneful originals with pleasant beats. But within seconds of the first track, an ambidextrous counterpoint on "You And The Night And The Music" over a delicate lattice of rimshots, it becomes a rather distinctive one. This is clearly a band that has performed together extensively, one which deliberately crafts its grooves as one, fronted by a pianist whose perfectly-weighted lines are little joys. This is music often with lightness and grace about it, whether on pretty ballads or spirited hoedowns — Floating (Amazon / iTunes) is a good title. In jazz parlance, though, what goes on here is so, so heavy. --Patrick Jarenwattananon


FREDDIE GIBBS & MADLIB
Piñata

Earlier this year Freddie Gibbs and Madlib quietly released their first collaborative album, Piñata (Amazon / iTunes). The musical marriage found Gibbs laying modern-day gangster raps over Madlib's '70s soul samples. Piñata's fluidity and storytelling recall the kind of Blaxploitation film soundtrack Willie Hutch made for The Mack in 1973. Gibbs' vulnerability shines through on "Deeper" and "Broken." He's extremely transparent; no stone is left unturned, from his family woes to his inner turmoil about selling drugs and being homeless on the streets of L.A. while chasing his rap career. Alongside veteran guest stars Raekwon and Scarface, Gibbs holds his own, proving that he's one of the nicest his generation has to offer. --Cedric Shine


THE GLOAMING
The Gloaming

Irish melodies can be the most plaintive melodies, especially when some of the most expressive Irish musicians come together in one band. The Gloaming is Thomas Bartlett (a.k.a. Doveman) on piano, Chicago guitarist Dennis Cahill, (my favorite) Irish fiddler Martin Hayes, drone based fiddler Caoimhin Ó Raghallaigh and Irish singer Iarla Ó Lionaird. There has never been an album quite like this, spare and textured, representing past and future as well as transcending all you may think you know about Irish music (Amazon / iTunes). --Bob Boilen


GROUPER
Ruins

When played in the background, Liz Harris' music washes by cleanly: With eight ambient pieces built out of piano, a few samples and Harris' own drowsy voice, Ruins (Amazon / iTunes) sounds starkly lovely in what can seem like simple ways. But the album, Harris' latest under the name Grouper, sneaks in subtleties and harrowing phrases that reward closer inspection. Alternately isolating and transporting, opaque and revealing, this is headphone music of the highest order. Listen again and again, because it never quite registers the same way twice. --Stephen Thompson


HURRAY FOR THE RIFF RAFF
Small Town Heroes

Alynda Lee Segarra sings beautifully without flashiness, and writes protest music without losing sight of the poetry at its heart. She's an eternal wanderer whose songs capture both the allure of rootlessness and the comforts of home. And she knows how and when to hit hard — as in "The Body Electric," a seething powerhouse in which she burrows under the misogyny of murder ballads and reclaims an art form for herself and women like her. Segarra has led Hurray For The Riff Raff for six albums now, but Small Town Heroes (Amazon / iTunes) helped announce her once and for all as a crucial, major force. --Stephen Thompson


ISAIAH RASHAD
Cilvia Demo

2014 XXL Freshman Isaiah Rashad pays homage to the southern rap that raised him on Cilvia Demo, most notably Master P's No Limit Records and OutKast. (R.I.P. Kevin Miller & West Savannah.) Rashad is admittedly influenced by NYC greats Nas and Jay Z; you can hear it in his flow and knack for storytelling. Prior to this release he stood in the shadows of Top Dawg Entertainment labelmate Kendrick Lamar, but his crafty pen game and solid production allow Rashad to shine on his own merit. Cilvia (Amazon / iTunes) is TDE's best project of 2014. --Cedric Shine


JEFF BALLARD TRIO
Time's Tales

Jeff Ballard, the drummer of choice for plenty of major jazz figures, waited many years to release a true solo album. What he delivered (Amazon) impresses with its range, but truly astounds with its execution. With only guitarist Lionel Loueke and alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón — no true bass instrument — Ballard summons parades, ballads, intricate rhythmic games, free improv, West African and Latin American colors, even a distorted-guitar Queens of the Stone Age cover ("Hangin' Tree," in 5/4). But everyone here can staff multiple positions on the court, so the three-man team never lacks for players. It's a spare band with a full sound, pickpocketing ideas from far and wide and sprinting away with them. --Patrick Jarenwattananon


JENNY LEWIS
The Voyager

"I can read your fortune, just lay out your palm," longtime Los Angeles indie-pop treasure Jenny Lewis intones to a drifting intimate on "The New You," one of the 10 studio-rock gems on her third and most musically adventurous solo album. Fate, especially women's fate, is the subject of these songs: how it can feel random but is really constructed within a lifetime of decisions to act or let things slide; how it gets you in the end, no matter how free you feel. Lewis casts her vignettes in the fool's gold of Southern California crossover pop, playing with shiny surfaces to better reflect the sharp realities her lyrics communicate. "There's a new you every day," she sings to her lost lover in a voice that's like a half-smile. The Voyager (Amazon / iTunes) makes us think about where all of our new yous come from. --Ann Powers


JORGE DREXLER
Bailar En La Cueva

Recently on Alt.Latino we were discussing a musical sweet spot in which a musician manages to capture the very essence of where he's from, be it a town, city, country or even a single block, without sounding totally cliché. I hate to say it, but a lot of what's coming out of my neck of the woods (Argentina and Uruguay) has been sounding the same for years. With that in mind, I hesitantly gave Uruguayan musician Jorge Drexler's album (Amazon / iTunes) a listen recently and was pleasantly surprised. It has recognizable elements of candombe music and vocal styles that are distinctly of the River Plate region, but also plays with rhythm and percussion in a refreshing way. It's an album that feels familiar and comfortable, but also new and exciting. --Jasmine Garsd

• Listen to "Universos Paralelos" on YouTube


JOYCE DIDONATO
Stella di Napoli

This American mezzo-soprano has a cheery, girl-next-door demeanor, but there's no denying that her singing skills have lifted her straight into the stratosphere, making her one of the world's most widely-idolized opera singers. On Stella di Napoli (Amazon / iTunes), a program of dazzling 19th-century Italian arias twist and turn between bel canto arias by familiar composers like Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti to some very rare gems indeed. (Pacini or Carafa, anyone?) Vocally, Joyce DiDonato is at her peak, glowing in thrilling runs and aching tenderness alike. It's glorious fun to take this ride along with her. --Anastasia Tsioulcas


KASSEM MOSSE
Workshop 19

Don't be fooled by the generic title: there's nothing boilerplate about this brilliant electronic record. Kassem Mosse (the moniker of German producer Gunnar Wendel) prefers subtlety to bombast when it comes to dance music, so on first listen, his understated, untitled songs have the potential to slide into the background. But the more time we spent with Workshop 19 (Amazon / iTunes) in 2014, the louder it grew. And even as we came to memorize the myriad intricacies of each of these nine tracks, there's something about the experience that remains stubbornly alien. No matter how many times we revisit Workshop 19, we find more shadows to explore. --Otis Hart


LEON FLEISHER
All The Things You Are

Now in his mid-80s, one wouldn't blame pianist Leon Fleisher for resting on his considerable accomplishments. Instead, he's still playing with a grand master's touch. At 15, Fleisher was hailed as "the pianistic find of the century." Even after he lost the use of his right hand in the 1960s, Fleisher triumphed as a conductor, a thoughtful teacher and a keen interpreter of the repertoire written for the left hand only. At almost any point on his latest album (Amazon / iTunes) — especially in the searching, dramatic Bach Chaconne or the multi-layered arrangement of Gershwin's "The Man I Love" — you might swear you hear 10 fingers. --Tom Huizenga


LOS LOBOS
Si Se Puede: Los Lobo And Friends

The recordings on this reissue are almost 40 years old, but make no mistake: The themes and messages are just as relevant now was they were back when it was first recorded. The political and cultural landscape has changed lots since then ... and it hasn't. Songs about the dignity of hard work, the glories of education and the need to speak up for the unrepresented still ring true. And I'm just referring to the struggling working class who were born and raised in this country. Si Se Puede (Amazon / iTunes) was made as a fundraiser for the United Farmworkers Union when the plight of farmworkers caught the attention of mainstream U.S. through their effective grape boycott. It was recorded by a group of Chicano hippies who set aside their love for Neil Young and Cream to explore traditional Mexican folk music. But more than a dusty look back at a more politically active time, the album is a reinvigorating shot in the arm to remind us that music can still inspire. --Felix Contreras


LULUC
Passerby

I've listened to this record by Australia's Luluc more than any other this year. These songs feel like they've always been; the simple beauty in Zoë Randall's voice and the underlying tension and support offered by guitarist Steve Hassett create a perfect vehicle for storytelling. Passerby (Amazon / iTunes), co-produced with The National's Aaron Dessner in Brooklyn (where the duo live for half the year), is a quiet album filled with gentle surprises and a beautiful aura of calm. --Bob Boilen


MARC RIBOT TRIO
Live At The Village Vanguard

There's history framing this recording led by the multi-talented guitarist Marc Ribot. It was made in concert at one of jazz's sacred spaces, the triangular New York basement known as the Village Vanguard (Amazon). Much of the repertoire comes from the 1960s "new thing" of saxophonists Albert Ayler and John Coltrane, both of whom famously played said chapel. The two saxophonists have been deeply inspirational to Ribot, and he's clearly transmuted their most exploratory language to the electric guitar. His trio is right there with him: Even in a program of ostensibly "free jazz," Ribot can call two standards at ballad tempo, and the band makes them feel like a natural outpouring of the ghosts in the room. --Patrick Jarenwattananon


MARTHA
Courting Strong

Martha's Courting Strong (Amazon / iTunes) is like that kid with the cracked grin jamming square pegs into round roles. Nothing quite fits on the English pop-punk band's debut album, but it's a raucous and jangly 33 minutes about running after love and growing up weird. --Lars Gotrich


MARY J. BLIGE
The London Sessions

Fed up of being relegated to a dwindling adult contemporary market in the United States, R&B's most durable 43-year-old icon smartly assessed that the planetary retromania for U.K. soul warblers like Amy Winehouse and Adele and British-produced '90s deep house was not just a passing commercial fad. So Mary packed her suitcase, crossed the pond to London, and inserted herself into the heart of the U.K. Top 40 scene, collaborating with top-shelf producers and songwriters and performers like Emeli Sandé, Sam Smith and Disclosure. The results are, as the Brits would say, smashing: The London Sessions (Amazon / iTunes) is half classic Mary odes to self-empowerment ("Therapy") and half thumping club grooves designed to ignite the nervous system ("Right Now"). --Jason King

• Listen to "Right Now" on Youtube


MIRANDA LAMBERT
Platinum

A year after Kacey, Brandy and their gang of up-and-comers expanded the stage for country music's mainstream, Miranda Lambert steps back into her place in the middle of the Nashville spotlight with Platinum (Amazon / iTunes). It's an album about all the work behind well-tended facades, made up of songs that embody that same process: products of the world's best collaborative songwriting industry that Lambert wears like perfectly-tailored couture, like there's no chance they'd ever fit anyone else. Country music's current gold-standard, her reedy twang serves the songs as well as they serve her. She knows the company she keeps – Marilyn Monroe and Priscilla Presley, women who had to deal with larger-than-life expectations, are both name-checked – but she has learned country's central tenet, that revealing truth about hard times can win hearts and minds. "If you think you're the only one she'll want in this world, then you don't know nothin' 'bout girls," she sings on album's opening track. There's no use arguing. Just sit back and learn a thing or two. --Jacob Ganz

• Listen to "Bathroom Sink" on YouTube


MOODYMANN
Moodymann

There isn't a more fickle genre out there than the variety known awkwardly as electronic/dance. That's largely due to the pressure embraced by many producers to take full advantage of a wellspring without equal in other forms of music — the digital audio workstation. But every so often, an auteur emerges from the scrum of one-upmanship and comes to define a specific sound. Detroit icon Kenny Dixon Jr., a.k.a. Moodymann, is renowned for his singular strand of funk-inspired house music, which has remained fresh for more than 20 years. His self-titled album, Moodymann (Amazon / iTunes), is as salacious as the album art would have you believe, but Dixon is practically daring you to judge this book by its cover. Look inside, and you'll find a complex master at work, especially on the closing 12-minute spiritual, "Sloppy Cosmic." --Otis Hart


NOURA MINT SEYMALI
Tzenni

This Mauritanian artist's powerhouse voice cuts indelible layers of burning passion into the swirling, psychedelic guitar played by her husband, Jeiche Ould Chighaly, both layered by grooves provided by West African harp, lute and percussion as well as bass and drums. Seymali is still very much an up-and-comer to American audiences, but she's found herself a place as one of the most exhilarating new musicians on the scene. Brimming with crackle and verve, Tzenni (Amazon / iTunes) rocks along in a fantastic marriage of desert grit and otherworldly haze. --Anastasia Tsioulcas


PALLBEARER
Foundation of Burden

Foundations of Burden (Amazon / iTunes) is doom metal made for concert halls, a massive-sounding release that significantly improves upon Pallbearer's heartbreaking debut album just two years later. In it, hooks are carved deep into walls, two bandmates join Brett Campbell's majestic voice in a contrast that's nearly punk, and the songwriting comes into dynamic, contemplatively heavy focus. --Lars Gotrich


PERFUME GENIUS
Too Bright

Mike Hadreas is a slight, soft-spoken soul from Seattle who's built his career on a bed of beautiful little songs meant to showcase his delicate tenor and intimate poetry more than any soaring production. But on Too Bright, his third full-length as Perfume Genius, Hadreas seems to say he's had enough and won't be taking your guff anymore. It's a fearless, often-angry assault from the singer as he takes on gender stereotypes, bigotry, suicide and homicide, various forms of self-loathing, lying, cheating and his overall disillusionment with the state of the world. There are still plenty of musical moments that tremble with breathtaking beauty on this record ("I Decline," "Don't Let Them In," and the title track in particular). But check out the anguished wailing in "Grid," the massive punch-in-the-face of "Queen" or the dark and sultry grit of "My Body." Too Bright (Amazon / iTunes) is a bold arrival from an artist who, until now, seemed content to keep it quiet, but, apparently, was just waiting for his moment to strike. --Robin Hilton


POPCAAN
Where We Come From

Dancehall reggae experienced an inglorious start to 2014 when its biggest name, Vybz Kartel, was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. But those who looked past the gruesome headlines witnessed a new star ascending to the genre's throne. Andre Jay Sutherland, a protégé of Kartel known as Popcaan, had Jamaica swaying all winter to his crossover anthem "Everything Nice," and followed it up with a debut album in June, Where We Come From (Amazon / iTunes), that proudly and poignantly depicts the dualities of the Kingston grind. Tales of true love double as sexual escapades and the Portmore ghetto that Sutherland survived as a child is in turns exulted and condemned. Everything isn't nice on Where We Come From, and that's precisely why it's a compelling album. --Otis Hart


PRAGUE RADIO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA/PRAGUE PHILHARMONIC CHOIR
Leoš Janáček, Glagolitic Mass

Leoš Janáček's Glagolitic Mass is an idiosyncratic, life-affirming twist on the traditional Catholic Church mass. Writer Milan Kundera, a fellow Czech, called it "more of an orgy than a mass." The music swerves from ravishing melody to jagged discord, even more conspicuous in this new recording which uses an early version of the score before Janáček smoothed out numerous rough edges. That makes the music leaner, even feral, especially in this performance of agile abandon by the Prague musicians. As a much-welcomed bonus, the Mass is paired with The Eternal Gospel (Amazon / iTunes), an earlier, more contemplative choral work that's rarely heard. --Tom Huizenga


ROBERT ELLIS
The Lights From The Chemical Plant

There's an amber-hued Nashville skyline to Robert Ellis' third album even if the Houstonian is still new to town. The Lights from the Chemical Plant (Amazon / iTunes) knows country and Americana's past — Willie, Merle, Rodney — but Ellis' honeyed tenor, his lyrical penchant for painful redemption and his light experimentation with noise guitar make the album's gears click into place. --Lars Gotrich


ROBERT PLANT
lullaby and... The Ceaseless Roar

Having departed his recent habitation of Americana music for the boggy landscapes of his native England, rock's Aslan reconnects with old mythologies and chases new sounds on this sophisticated yet beautifully grounded and emotional set. Playing mostly with old friends — with the important new addition of West African riti player Juldeh Camara — Plant relaxes into expansive arrangements that connect the folk and blues of his youth with the world-spanning sounds that have inspired him in more recent year (Amazon / iTunes). His lyrics are personal and wise; his famous wail has mellowed into a vocal approach that's curious and effortlessly intuitive. Artists half his age could envy the life still in the old cat. --Ann Powers


RUN THE JEWELS
RTJ2

A sequel to last year's mid-career mind-meld between two rappers who had separately tired of throwing shoulders against the door to mainstream success without seeing it budge. El-P makes grinding beats that rise up through your chest like approaching sirens. He and Killer Mike rap about anger, lust and injustice, all of which serve as motivation for the rawest, most invigorating 43 minutes of the year (and an improvement in almost every way on the duo's excellent first album). Their unexpected roster of guests all rise to the challenge — Gangsta Boo takes what could be a supporting role on "Love Again" and holds the song down until it submits; hearing Zack de la Rocha's voice on "Close Your Eyes" makes you wonder how it ever disappeared from the radio. But what comes across most forcefully is the feeling of invincibility that comes with artistic alignment this pure. RTJ2 (Amazon / iTunes) rides the line where aggression and joy meet, a thrusters-on album that can afford to feel sloppy and all-over-the-place because the underlying machinery is so tightly calibrated. --Jacob Ganz


SEATTLE SYMPHONY
John Luther Adams, Become Ocean

Majestic, awe-inspiring, often frightening and finally all-subsuming waters: That is the daunting theme of John Luther Adams' Pulitzer Prize-winning orchestral work. It's an enormous piece, scored for three separate mini-orchestras that usher you in and then swallow you up in briny sounds and textures, with delicate harp and piano arpeggios leaping out pointillistically against lush and darkly beautiful washes of brass and strings. Gorgeously shaped by conductor Ludovic Morlot and passionately realized by the Seattle Symphony (who commissioned this piece), Become Ocean (Amazon / iTunes)is simply haunting and a total triumph. --Anastasia Tsioulcas


SEUN KUTI & EGYPT 80
A Long Way To The Beginning

Fela Kuti's exhilarating fusion of funk, jazz and African polyrhythms shines on brilliantly in his son Seun Kuti. Fronting the band his famous father led when he died in 1997, Seun Kuti says A Long Way to the Beginning (Amazon / iTunes) is "the soundtrack for the mindset of most young people in Africa today." Kuti's music, like his father's, targets social issues, jabbing at politicians, bankers and greed mongers with pointed lyrics ("The President take the money and hide it!"), blasts of alto sax, and the well-oiled machine that is the band Egypt 80. A cast of guest artists like jazz keyboardist and co-producer Robert Glasper and rapper M-1 help make the album's grooves shake and burn. --Tom Huizenga


SPOON
They Want My Soul

Looking over the output of this Austin, Texas, band since it first formed in 1993, it's fair to call them one of the most consistently rewarding rock groups of the past two decades. They're a band whose music is remarkable not for its wildly experimental sonic explorations, but for how perfectly it's been crafted and honed. This is largely due to frontman Britt Daniel's meticulous attention to detail and the impeccably nuanced beats of drummer Jim Eno. This year, after taking a four-year hiatus, Spoon returned with a relatively looser sound on They Want My Soul (Amazon / iTunes), one made possible with the addition of keyboardist Alex Fischel, and by working with outside producers for the first time (Joe Chiccarelli and Dave Fridmann). The band hasn't come unhinged here. They Want My Soul, like Spoon's previous albums, is still controlled chaos — rock and roll with a certain decorum. --Robin Hilton


ST. VINCENT
St. Vincent

I've always thought Annie Clark's music and guitar playing were pretty damn good; then she released her fourth St. Vincent record and I was floored (Amazon / iTunes). All of the qualities I've come to love in her music — the quirky lyrics, songs with hair-pin turns and her idiosyncratic guitar playing — were 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 a treat for the ears. --Bob Boilen


STROMAE
Racine Carrée

His bracing, mesmerizing and innovative videos made him a worldwide star, but Belgium's Paul Van Haver, a.k.a. Stromae, hits it on all cylinders on his second full-length album (in English, Square Root). He strides from track to track — and style to style — with wit, humor and grace to spare. From the wordplay of his biggest hit, the EDM-soaked "Papaoutai" (Papa, où-t'es? – "Dad, where are you?"), to the drunken break-up ballad "Formidable," Racine Carrée (Amazon / iTunes) is a perfectly constructed confection glazed with pop sheen, but one with daunting brains and a melancholy heart. --Anastasia Tsioulcas

Listen to "Papaoutai" on YouTube.


STURGILL SIMPSON
Metamodern Sounds In Country Music

When you first hear Sturgill Simpson's twangy croon and chicken-pickin' guitar licks, it's easy to place him among Nashville's country music establishment. But Simpson is more likely to be seen in sneakers than cowboy boots. And his songs are more like existential meditations (along with a lot of drinking and doing drugs) than the typical blue-collar ballad. After writing and recording for much of the past decade, Simpson debuted at the Opry this year, bringing him closer to the genre's upper echelon than ever before. But his remarkable Metamodern Sounds In Country Music (Amazon / iTunes)remains a fiercely independent, outsider album that embraces the classic sounds of outlaw country (Cash, Jennings, Haggard) while forging a path entirely its own — a path where, as Simpson sings on "Turtles All The Way Down," "reptile aliens made of light cut you open and pull out all your pain." So strange. And yet, it was one of the few albums in 2014 that nearly everyone on the NPR Music team agreed was pure genius. --Robin Hilton


SYLVAN ESSO
Sylvan Esso

Amelia Meath has sung plaintive but vibrant a cappella folk music in Mountain Man. Nick Sanborn, also of the band Megafaun, has cobbled together springy electronic sounds under the name Made Of Oak. Recording together as Sylvan Esso, they fuse the two styles in glorious, frequently danceable, often intoxicating ways. Each song on the duo's debut album (Amazon / iTunes) has something intriguing to impart — from "Hey Mami," which playfully picks at the nature of catcalls while dishing out a few of its own, to the tremendous and alluring "Coffee," which stretches a search for love across many fruitless seasons. --Stephen Thompson


T.I.
Paperwork

"I know radio probably ain't gonna play this," says T.I. at the start of "New National Anthem," an overlooked declamation from his 13th album in which he takes aim at gun culture, police brutality and injustice in America, and issue with people who blame him and people like him for creating our sorry state of affairs. "It was like this before I got here, baby." Some people struggle with his Southern accent, or can't keep up when he hits the breakneck speed his virtuosity allows for. But T.I. is very clear, whether he's talking about money or sex or the death of his friend. He is plainspoken while oratorical, saying more with his inflection on an ad-lib than some rappers say in a whole 16. What Pharrell produced on Paperwork (Amazon / iTunes) is music bright and warm like the sun bouncing off a fender. The songs are made meaty by T.I.'s playful intellect and aggressively expressed code of conduct. A couple sag, but there's no reason an album this well-crafted and thought through should be slept on. It's varied in style and subject matter and flavor and nobody else could make it. --Frannie Kelley


TAYLOR SWIFT
1989

Taylor Swift became all the things she is — commercial juggernaut, artists' rights crusader, social-media wizard, celebrity heartbreaker, publicity-machine comedienne — for a simple reason: People (especially, but not only, young women) hear their own voices echoed within her songs. With 1989 (Amazon / iTunes) she expanded her vocabulary exponentially by exploring how sound, not just conversational lyrics and an accessible voice, can articulate all kind of feelings. Working with platinum hitmakers like Max Martin, Swift is fully present in every track. She's playing, pushing herself, showing up her peers in the pop star game. But most of all, she's still saying what her millions of fans need her to say: that the everyday feelings of an imperfect person — famous or not — have weight. --Ann Powers

• Listen to "Blank Space" on YouTube


TEYANA TAYLOR
VII

Teyana Taylor has been floating around the music scene since 2008. This November, she finally released her major label debut, VII (Amazon / iTunes)— a record six years in the making that stands firmly in the realm of rhythm & blues. From cover to cover, Teyana illustrates through lyrics, production and homage that she's proud to be an R&B singer. You can hear the influence of the R&B princesses and queens of the '90s woven throughout the album: Brandy here, Janet Jackson there, Aaliyah everywhere. The result is a project that reaches longingly back a decade or two, when R&B was head over heels in love with what it could be when twisted into the snares, and acceptance, of a culture dominated by hip-hop and Black love. --Kiana Fitzgerald

• Listen to "Maybe" on YouTube


TY DOLLA $IGN
Sign Language

You can be offended by Ty Dolla Sign, if you want. That's kind of what he wants. Or you could take some type of stand and ignore his words but still luxuriate in his terraced harmonies and hypnotizing melodies. A third option would be listening long enough until you hear his music for what it is, keeping in mind the other work he's put out this year, "Loyal" and YG's "Really Be (Smokin and Drankin)," in particular. It moves, it knocks, it works. And he's sly, sure. But there's also a hangdog quality to his sound. Many of his songs that are ostensibly about luring women away from other men sleepwalk around a specific kind of loneliness people who live in L.A. warn the East Coast about. "You text me 'I miss your face,'" he sings on "Stretch." But "you" is running game. Ty's her side man and he can't seem to change positions, even though, according to him, the man she's going home to doesn't ask her how she feels, doesn't appreciate her. The song feels like a goodbye, and the prurient doesn't overwhelm the wistful. For Sign Language, Ty called in everybody from T.I. to Yo Gotti and dropped interludes from Ed Sheeran and Mike Posner. It still sounds like he's all on his own. --Frannie Kelley


THE WAR ON DRUGS
Lost In The Dream

When a band makes the sudden leap in recognition that Adam Granduceil's The War On Drugs has with Lost In The Dream, longtime fans tend to scratch their head. "Where was everybody before?" In his case while, the Dylan-esque debut Wagonwheel Blues and Slave Ambient have the body and structure of Granduciel's current work and have thrilling moments themselves, one listen to Lost in The Dream (Amazon / iTunes) and you can tell that the year the band spent refining the album in the studio was worth it. The album is relentless. The driving beat (in both propulsive and road-trip terms) may have been borrowed from the dad-rock past of Dire Straits, but the anxious swirl and haze is pure present. You hang on to the palpable anxiety and ride these songs. Be honest: How many albums from last winter still hold their initial charm? --David Dye, WXPN


YG
My Krazy Life

We heard a lot of DJ Mustard this year. We didn't need all of it; what of it we did had YG rapping over it. Mustard produced most of My Krazy Life, a creative partnership based on a similar understanding of how a party functions, what works on the highway, what's needed to release the stress of the grind. It's obviously of L.A., focused and pared down, relying on a limited range of frequencies and meant to serve a honed point of view. YG has an ear for the visual and a way of nonchalantly dropping authorial detail wherever — "All my homies gangbangers. / They dry they clothes on hangers," he singsongs on "I Just Wanna Party." "Me and My B----" is like being a fly on the wall in a roomful of everymen: "And they ask me why I trust no b----. Cause my ex had me feeling all embarrassed and s---." The album begins with YG's mom yelling at him and ends (on the non-deluxe edition) with the son apologizing for falling asleep in church, for stealing money out of her purse, "cause you birthed me and I was acting like I couldn't understand." My Krazy Life (Amazon / iTunes) isn't afraid of itself, and it succeeds because it knows exactly what it's doing here. --Frannie Kelley

• Listen to "Who Do You Love" on YouTube


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