Unfortunately, 2014 has offered pretty slim pickings as far as big releases. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t new music to be had. In fact, six albums in particular jumped out as early-in-the-year favorites, all of them released between the months of December and March. Below, sift through the six LPs we’ve been using like a heating blanket to warm our super-frosty souls.
Beyonce, Beyonce (released December 13)
If you haven’t bought, heard or seen Beyonce’s all-conquering visual album by now, chances are you just woke up from a coma. Since dropping in the middle of the night this past December, Queen Bey’s fifth LP has broken all kinds of sales records and won rave reviews across the board. At this point, a couple of months down the road, the question arises as to whether the frenzied response was due to ingenious marketing (dropping your much-anticipated/delayed opus in the middle of the night qualifies) or sheer quality. One listen to the sleek and sexy “Partition” or sparse and emotional “Heaven” confirms that it is, indeed, the latter.
The genius of ‘Beyonce’ lies in the detail. The little hooks that worm their way under your skin, the lyrics that reveal hidden depth with multiple listens and subtle bleeps and beeps that come to life over time. You start to realize the enormity of the project and just how intimate it is. Bey’s visual album is a multi-media scrapbook of her life over the past two years. She deals with marriage, motherhood and death in her lyrics and invites her dancers, friends and family to appear in the glorious videos. I suspect this LP will be on high rotation for months to come. — MIKE WASS
Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Wanderlust (released January 20)
Sophie’s previous two albums, 2007′s Trip The Light Fantastic and 2011′s Make A Scene, were full of decent dance-pop moments (the Richard X-produced “Starlight” off the latter was a glittering highlight), but, alas, the public in her home country of England never really latched on to either. And so the singer did what anyone in her situation would do for a bit of a career boost: Strictly Come Dancing. Laugh all you want, but EB’s stint on the reality dance series paid off.
Wanderlust, Sophie’s fifth album, was co-written and produced entirely by fellow singer-songwriter Ed Harcourt. It’s an altogether stripped down, at times orchestral and somewhat retro affair, dwelling more in Adele-cum-swinging-London territory than Kylie-at-the disco — and it strangely works. The LP debuted in the UK Top 10 and stayed there for several weeks, and suddenly we had the mellow mood music we didn’t realize we’d need for all those days and nights spent shut in from the cold. — ROBBIE DAW
Toni Braxton & Babyface, Love, Marriage & Divorce (released February 4)
The polar vortex might have kept us all locked indoors for weeks (if not months) at a time, but at least Babyface and Toni Braxton’s sensual Valentine’s Day release Love, Marriage & Divorce, kept us…um, busy. The gorgeous collection of love songs, heart-wrenching break-up anthems and feeling-some-type-of-way tracks provided just the right touch of slinky, classic R&B to supply some spice to an otherwise frigid season. Uptempo jams like “Sweat” and “Heart Attack” kept the fire blazing in the bedroom, while smoothly crooned songs like “Hurt You” and “Roller Coaster” supplied a Sade-like warmth for cuddling up next to the fireplace (or the stove top). And even when the talented crooners brought on the heartbreak, the chemistry between the two continued to provide the (much needed) heat. — BRADLEY STERN