Yeah…I know…another year-end list. You’re going to find lots of Top 20 and Top 50 lists of best albums of 2014 on the Interwebs right about now, but for this list, I wanted to keep it short—narrow it down to five pop/rock albums that aren’t just really, really good (because there are lots of records that could be on that kind of list), but also albums that broke ground artistically or helped define the year in music. Here’s what I came up with: see if you agree.
From the twenty-teens’ quintessential regretful femme fatale came a shift this year from a hip-hop vibe to a more classy diva-pop sound that really demonstrated artistic growth. Not only that, but Del Rey’s sultry low, smoky voice never fails to catch me off guard, no matter how many times I hear it.
Despite all the controversy, complaining and fussing of the public over the audacity of U2 in giving their new album away to every iTunes user—the fact is, Songs of Innocence is a really good album on its own merit, proving that the biggest band in rock music can still push their limits and reinvent their sound, over and over again. This album would have been received much differently had people not gotten their panties in such a wad over how it was delivered. Get over it, hipsters, drop the prejudice, and just listen to it.
Part of me really wanted to keep this off the list, but that wouldn’t have been fair. Despite the flak Swift gets (and even the flak I’ve given her) over her stinging, you-know-who-you-are ex-boyfriend songs, Swift took a huge risk in officially crossing over into pop this year, and the risk paid off, with 1989 being officially the top selling album of 2014. This year, Swift proved once again not only that she can “shake it off,” but that she is a masterful hook-writer.
This album makes this list as much for the making of the album as for the songs themselves. Dave Grohl told us last year that Foo Fighters were making their next record in a whole new way, and he really delivered on that promise. Coming in at only 8 tracks, each song on Sonic Highways was recorded in a different U.S. city, each song written drawing from the musical influences and history of the city in which it was recorded. An ingenious concept that really works—and you really need to watch the accompanying documentary series on HBO (directed by Grohl himself) to get the full immersive experience. This is by far my favorite Foo Fighters record.
Leave it to Jack White to make a groundbreaking rock album by looking backward rather than forward. Leaning on crunchy, lo-fi production and musical elements ranging from White Stripes-ish garage rock to acoustic folk, White managed to deliver an album filled with the kind of raw passion and sizzling performances that made us fall in love with rock & roll in the first place, making us dance, laugh and think reflectively over a beer, all in the space of an hour or less. Best experienced (predictably) on vinyl, Lazaretto is an instant classic that pays homage to the past while setting a high bar that will no doubt influence future musicians for years to come.