2014′s Best Albums: Idolator Editors Pick Their Favorite 10
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… Okay, scratch that, because no one is ever going to declare that 2014 was a bang-up year as far as pop music is concerned.
Sure, there were some big releases over the past 12 months. But nothing, save for maybe Taylor Swift‘s 1989, felt like a real moment. Oh, by the way, sorry Swifties — didn’t mean to get your hopes up just now. 1989 didn’t make the cut for our own Best Albums roundup.
What you will find are 10 albums that Idolator’s editors selected from artists who make up both pop’s new crop of talent and well-seasoned veterans. Our tastes proved to be eclectic this year: R&B, house, pop, rock, electro and soul are all represented here, underscoring the fact that while Beyonce and Justin Timberlake and Katy Perry and Rihanna skipped 2014 as far as releasing new LPs goes, there were still some great sounds worth hearing.
So let’s get to them…
10. Tove Lo, Queen Of The Clouds
Released: September 30
Quality pop music was undoubtedly in short supply this year, but luckily, an up-and-coming pop starlet was here to save the day. Swedish songbird Tove Lo supplied the kind of soaring hooks, earworm melodies and high-quality production value that pop music is truly all about in 2014. Her long-awaited debut LP is broken into three parts (The Sex, The Pain and The Love), providing us with everything from the sex-starved cheekiness of “Like ‘Em Young” to the love-drunk giddiness of “Not On Drugs” to the utter devastation of the album’s runaway lead single, “Habits (Stay High).” Truth be told, it took a newcomer to show us how far the heavyweights have fallen. Luckily, Tove’s helping to lead the way. — BRADLEY STERN
9. Vance Joy, Dream Your Life Away
Released: September 9
In a year defined by excess (publicity stunts, endless features and lazy samples), Vance Joy stood out by doing less. The Australian singer-songwriter landed a global smash with simple ukulele-pop anthem “Riptide” in 2013 and, almost inevitably, repeated that success stateside. His quasi-lullaby is still climbing iTunes and received the ultimate seal of approval when Taylor Swift deigned to cover it. (She was so smitten with the curly-haired hit-maker’s music that she invited him to open her 1989 Tour).
Composing one unforgettable song is hard enough, but backing it up with an equally impressive album is an altogether different task. Vance, it turns out, was up to the challenge. Dream Your Life Away is a winning collection of understated tunes about the minutiae of humanity. He sings about lost love (God Loves You When You’re Dancing EP highlight “From Afar”), personal fulfillment (“My Kind Of Man”) and acceptance (“Mess Is Mine”) with unwavering honesty. — MIKE WASS
8. Kiesza, Sound Of A Woman
Released: October 21
With worn-out EDM hopefully (finally?) coming to a halt, pop music has been begging for a new sound. Enter a wave of new international artists who rushed in at the top of the year to revive ’90s house, a tried-and-true sound that has never failed to get people on the dance floor.
Out of the musical troupe (which included the likes of Gorgon City, Clean Bandit and Duke Dumont) there was one artist who carved out her place just a little bit deeper. Kiesza, a Canadian-bred singer/dancer, refreshed the music scene with her debut LP Sound Of A Woman thanks to the LP’s ability to be nostalgic enough to rehash lovely ’90s memories while still maintaining a modern edge with glossy vocals, warm synths and a hip hop flair. The album has a variation of themes and sounds, from bouncy strobelight smash “Hideaway” to the chilled “So Deep,” that can be enjoyed by many generations, which is the true beauty of music. — BIANCA GRACIE
7. Mariah Carey, Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse
Released: May 27
Spare us the over-the-top grief about Mimi’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” performance: She’s been using those golden pipes for over 20 years, and she’s still supplying greatness today. Case in point? Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse, her most insanely-titled record to date, and certainly one of her most true to her artistry.
From throwback R&B (“Dedicated”) for the nostalgia to breezy summer jams (“#Beautiful”) to breakdown balladry (“Cry.”) to oh-so-shady, technologically savvy kiss-offs (“Thirsty”) to the rare disco moment or two (“You Don’t Know What To Do”), the LP is a surprisingly varied and rich experience. As with the album’s oft-delayed campaign, Mariah takes her time through her 14th studio album, allowing her mature pipes time to warm up and really blow. Mariah is the very definition of a true diva, and she’s got nothing to prove considering her historic career — and yet, she still does. This is real, quality R&B at its finest in 2014. — BRADLEY STERN
6. Mary J. Blige, The London Sessions
Released: December 2
The first words we hear out of Mary J. Blige’s mouth on this, her 13th studio album are these: “Why would I spend the rest of my days unhappy? Why would I spend the rest of this year alone? / When I can go to therapy, when I can go to therapy, when I can go to therapy two times a day.” It turns out, for Blige, therapy was time spent in the studio during a career-renaissance jaunt to London to write and record with the likes of Sam Smith, Naughty Boy, Emeli Sande, James Napier and Disclosure — key players in a bulk of hits that came out of the UK over the past couple years.
One would have expected The London Sessions to be a stomping house music throwdown, given the pop output from the UK in 2014. Yet in the lead-up to the album’s release, Blige teased us with slow, pensive R&B numbers like “Therapy,” “Whole Damn Year” and “Not Loving You.” Don’t let that fool you, though; The London Sessions is a well-orchestrated balance of balladry (“When You’re Gone”) and beats (“Right Now”), with the glorious centerpiece being balls-to-the-wall deep house jam “My Loving.” Welcome to Mary, reinvented. — ROBBIE DAW
5. Lana Del Rey, Ultraviolence
Released: June 17
If you were expecting a by-the-numbers sequel to Born To Die, Lana Del Rey’s sophomore set must have come as a bitter disappointment. Ultraviolence excised the pop sensibility of her debut (no radio hits here!) and opted for fuzzier, lo-fi production. It sounds like a career-killing misstep, but the quality of the 29-year-old’s songwriting and the clarity of her artistic vision resulted in one the most cohesive, ambitious and uniformly excellent LPs of 2014.
Ultraviolence is a concept album of sorts. It’s an anthology of tales about strong, desperate and often nihilistic women. Take the title track. Lana documents her lover’s abusive behavior (“he hit me and it felt like a kiss”) on the year’s most sinister ballad. That’s followed by “Shades Of Cool,” a lush, cinematic ode to being in love with a drug addict. Titles like “Sad Girl” and “Pretty When You Cry” speak for themselves, while “Old Money” is told from the perspective of an elderly socialite looking back on her empty life.
It’s not exactly party music but the perennially-depressed diva’s ability to bring these characters to life makes Ultraviolence a uniquely affecting listening experience. — MIKE WASS
4. Tinashe, Aquarius
Released: October 7
Tinashe is undoubtedly a star, and surely one of the most exciting things to happen in 2014. Riding high off the slow-burning success of her club-bumping debut single “2 On,” the talented songstress soon proved herself with blazing hot live performances on late night TV and award shows, whether she was breaking it down like a baby Britney on Jimmy Fallon or getting sexy with Nick Jonas on 106 & Park. But it’s the music that really solidifies her craft: Her debut LP, Aquarius, is a forward-thinking blend of late night R&B, electronica, trap and hip-hop, tantalizing Top 40 radio while remaining thoroughly left lane, from her collaboration with Dev Hynes (“Bet”), complicated feelings (“Pretend”) and dark dance floor alarm calls (“All Hands On Deck”).
Filled with interludes Janet Jackson-style, the record is a complete body of work as opposed to a lazy slew of singles and fillers, and it truly feels the beginning of the journey in a superstar-in-the-making’s lengthy career. — BRADLEY STERN
3. Leighton Meester, Heartstrings
Released: October 28
How strange and wonderful for onetime Gossip Girl minx Leighton Meester to emerge from the shadows and, without warning, offer up twangy folk-pop debut album Heartstrings. The record is a short one, clocking in with a mere nine songs. The impression it leaves, however, is stunning.
Heartstrings plays like a hazy West Coast dream, conjuring images of midnight convertible drives down magnolia-lined avenues, up dusty hills and into the dry heat of the desert, and it’s best experienced as a whole. Part of the album’s charm — and perhaps what makes it stand apart from the rest of what 2014 had to offer — is that it sounds oddly out of its time; in fact, it feels like the best album Aimee Mann never recorded in the 1990s.
“I’m living in L.A., won’t you come sometime,” Leighton sings on knockout track “L.A.” It might as well be an invitation to visit Heartstrings…an offer you won’t regret taking up. — ROBBIE DAW
2. Jessie Ware, Tough Love
Released: October 24
Jessie Ware’s debut LP Devotion was a stunning display of sophisticated pop music. Two years on, for her sophomore effort, the UK singer elevated her sound to an even more elegant level.
Titled Tough Love, this album showcases Ware’s strength as both a singer and songwriter. The project was an obvious reflection of her relationship with now-husband Sam Burrows, but not once does it veer toward becoming too trite or in-your-face with its blatant themes. The singer covers different levels of love that are relateable to many: “Give it to me now” seduction fuels “Kind of…Sometimes…Maybe,” while “You & I (Forever)” is filled with gooey newlywed mushiness and a heartbreaking nature surrounds the title track.
Tough Love is an altogether fresh take on jazzy soul, the kind made famous by one of Ware’s influences, Sade. — BIANCA GRACIE
1. BANKS, Goddess
Released: September 9
The new wave of alt-R&B (or whatever correct way critics would like to refer it as) began a few years back, and it carried on through 2014 with an undeniable fervor. The faces of this sub-genre were The Weeknd, Drake, Frank Ocean and Miguel, to name a few.
This year, the women took over and made a name for themselves apart from their male counterparts. There were artists like FKA twigs, SZA and Kelela — yet one artist who kick-started the new era was BANKS. This Los Angeles native’s voice may seem delicate, but the commanding nature of her music is not something to fuck with. The singer’s 2013 London EP caught the ears of underground fans, and her debut LP shook up the mainstream arena.
Titled Goddess, the project was empowering enough to show that females could be just as cold and unforgiving as their opposite sex — yet it still had a streak of vulnerability that only us women could evoke. Songs like the torturous “Waiting Game,” the ’90s R&B-inspired love tune “Fuck Em Only We Know” and the bombastic “Brain” show just why BANKS was on everyone’s radar throughout 2014. — BIANCA GRACIE
Agree with our picks for the year’s best albums? Let us know below, and be sure to vote for your own favorite LPs in our 2014 readers’ poll!