Many of the world’s biggest pop stars sat on the sidelines for 2014. Frank Ocean, Adele, Kanye West, and Rihanna all delayed their heavily anticipated albums into at least 2015.
That left plenty of room for upstarts to make their marks. Nearly every person on this list is a truly fresh voice—the obvious exception being Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift, although 1989 and The Pinkprint could both be viewed as rebirths in their own right. Here, in no particular order, we present our list of the albums of the year.
Perfume Genius, Too Bright
Something about singer-songwriter Perfume Genius’s Too Bright struck a chord with listeners in a way that the artist (also known as Mike Hadreas) had been unable to do with his previous two albums. The music on Too Bright quivers between big, symphonic songs and quieter, piano-driven ones, while the lyrics deal with gay life and heartbreak. The result is a masterful album that somehow feels intimate and loud at almost the same time.
FKA twigs, LP1
In 2012 and 2013, FKA twigs surprised the Internet with a series of music videos that radiated an electronic weirdness not seen since Björk. This year, the British singer became a favorite among the fashion set—as much for her variegated braids as her celebrity boyfriend—and finally released a proper full-length debut album, LP1. Carving out a niche between avant-garde and accessible, she captured art kids and pop fans alike with slinky songs about love and sex that felt experimental and accessible all at once.
The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream
Sometimes the best kind of new band is one that sounds convincingly old. The War on Drugs seemingly found inspiration for Lost in the Dream from great mid-career records by performers like Tom Petty, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan. But this Philadelphia indie band never lets nostalgia lead them into a kitschy sonic glue trap. Instead, bandleader Adam Granduciel uses these tried-and-true song styles to sneak in personal, at times heavy, lyrics that touch on his recent bout of depression.
Nicki Minaj, The Pinkprint
The unfair reality of being the world’s most visible female rapper is that Nicki Minaj has had to be all things to all people: pop-friendly for her youngest fans, tough as nails for the rap diehards, clever and innovative for music nerds, and club-ready for the scores of millennials who are just looking for songs to dance to. And while her first album, Pink Friday, suffered a sort of stylistic splintering from the pressures of pleasing everybody, she proves on her latest album, The Pinkprint, that she can quiet the chatter and make an album that’s as artistically great as it is commercially viable. This is the Minaj we’ve been waiting for all along.
Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
Fresh off of the release this year of his sophomore album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Sturgill Simpson is being heralded as a completely distinctive voice in the country genre. While the former Navy man harks back to the outlaw movement of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, he also has his own idiosyncratic style, filled with earnest sounds and beguilingly philosophical lyrics. His cover of eighties New Wave classic “The Promise” was the unlikeliest, and best, Nashville re-do of 2014.
Lana Del Rey, Ultraviolence
No one has had a harder time getting onto “Best Of” lists than Lana Del Rey, whose second album Born to Die left her with a mile-long list of critical detractors. But her mega-fans, of which she has many, probably don’t care—controversy about Del Rey is almost as important to an appreciation of her as her actual music. That said, Ultraviolence has a little bit of something for everybody: her worshippers, yes, her haters, certainly, but also people in search of a really good all-around pop-rock record. In a year in which the news was filled with a seemingly never-ending string of disturbing events, the self-destructive lyrics and psychedelic sounds on Ultraviolence made Del Rey the culture’s high priestess of hostility, a contemporary chanteuse of beautiful songs about troubling and terrifying things.
Alex G, DSU
Alex G might be the name on this list you are least familiar with, but you should change that immediately: With an honesty that nods at emo, he made DSU one of the most touching albums of the year. The Philadelphia artist is something of a figurehead for Orchid Tapes, a DIY Brooklyn label that’s become home for a new generation of indie rock kids who specialize in confessional lyrics and musical frankness.
Caribou, Our Love
Caribou’s Dan Snaith has been at the electronic music game for a long time. Back in the early aughts, when he went by the name Manitoba, he specialized in IDM, or intelligent dance music. That experience has made him nimble with synths and digital melodies in a way that few others are. On this year’s Our Love, his fourth album under the name Caribou—if you haven’t guessed, Snaith is Canadian— he carefully crafted an album that proves just how warm and loving computerized sounds can be when the right person is manipulating them.
Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire for No Witness
Angel Olsen is hard to pin down. The North Carolina singer-songwriter is a little bit country, a little bit rock ’n’ roll, and even a little bit folk. She started her career with smaller, hazier acoustic songs but has found her footing with music that hinges on passion. Her 2014 album, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, is piercing the entire way through.