When I was a freshman/sophomore in college, I insisted that my “best albums of the year” lists were unequivocally correct. Whichever top 25 albums I listed were, by all measures, the absolute “best” of the year, no questions asked. With a little perspective, I now know that that was completely ridiculous. The 25 albums represented here are the “best” to me, according to my limited world view. I try to keep that world view as open as possible so that all albums are welcome here. I also try to take into account an album’s importance, reach, and influence on a larger scale. But ultimately, these 25 albums are the ones I loved listening to the most. I immensely enjoyed them, and I hope you did/will too.
We were provided with an embarrassment of riches in 2015. Beloved artists returned with flawless albums (Sufjan Stevens, Sleater-Kinney), artists in their peak pushed the boundaries into completely new territory (Kendrick Lamar, Grimes, Tame Impala), and newcomers hearkened back to classics from days past (Leon Bridges, Natalie Prass, Tobias Jesso Jr.). This was my favorite year for music since 2012 — there were so many songs that would have qualified for this list if they had come out any other year, but the competition was just too much in 2015.
Also, special thanks to Taylor for the awesome cover art.
Before we get to the top 50, here are 15 honorable mentions that it killed me to exclude.
I hate to start it off like this, but 2014 wasn’t a great year for albums. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of solid releases, but it wasn’t like 2009 or 2011 or 2012, when we were knee-deep in near-classics. Before coming to this realization though, I thought I was going crazy, wondering if music just didn’t provide me with the same enjoyment. Luckily for my sanity’s sake, other music critics also thought 2014 was kind of an off-year.
Here’s Matthew Perpetua, music writer for Buzzfeed:
But just because there weren’t as many excellent albums as years past, that doesn’t mean there weren’t some transcendent pieces of music. To my ears, there were five records in particular that stood out among the rest. Without further ado, my top five albums of the year:
It’s sometimes difficult to unearth an overall narrative that can encapsulate all of the diverse music that comes out in any given year, but here’s what I noticed: 2014 was the year of rock n’ roll.
People could make a case against me, citing the dominance of Taylor Swift and other chart-topping pop or R&B–but it was rock’s year. We had the throwback 80’s anthem rock of the War on Drugs and Ryan Adams, the triumphant return of peak Weezer at their 90’s best, taut indie rock offerings from Spoon and Interpol, gleaming pop rock from Rilo Kiley alum Jenny Lewis, blistering garage rock from Twin Peaks, nostalgic breezy rock from Real Estate, meandering roots rock from Courtney Barnett and Tweedy, and…well, you get the drift.
Whether you prefer Spotify or YouTube to consume your music, I’ve got you covered.
Choosing just 50 tracks is a difficult task. Let’s start with the ones that almost made it.
2012 is long gone, but the music lives on. Relive it right here. Luckily for us, music never gets old. Well, okay, when you hear Rihanna telling you to shine bright like a diamond YET AGAIN, then it does get old. But I promise, you’re going to like this stuff.
Singles have taken over for albums as the most important musical medium, with our download-heavy culture now, but there will always be something special about the ‘album.’ The cover, the track order, the high points and low points all contribute to its character.
Notice that each entry has a Spotify link, along with YouTube links to three key tracks from the album. Kick back and enjoy.
25. First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar
Key Tracks: Emmylou | The Lion’s Roar | Blue
This Swedish female duo hit it big after covering Fleet Foxes’ Tiger Mountain Peasant Song, quickly showing the world their innate knack for bone-chilling harmonies. The Lion’s Roar is full of mountainous, pastoral folk rock for your next jaunt in the wilderness.
24. Jack White – Blunderbuss
Key Tracks: Freedom at 21 | Sixteen Saltines | Love Interruption
The mastermind behind the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, and the Dead Weather finally released his first solo album. Some of it rocked, some of it burned slow, but overall, it was a solid effort.
23. Melody’s Echo Chamber – Melody’s Echo Chamber
Key Tracks: I Will Follow You | Mount Hopeless | Quand Vas Tu Rentrer?
Everything about this album, from the cover to the sound effects, scream 1967. The Summer of Love vibe is thick on this debut album from French singer Melody Prochet, produced by Tame Impala mastermind Kevin Parker. Personal favorite: “Mount Hopeless.”
22. Titus Andronicus – Local Business
Key Tracks: In A Big City | Still Life With Hot Deuce and Silver Platter | My Eating Disorder
Despite what many perceive as a failure to live up to their previous album, The Monitor, Titus Andronicus rocks hard on Local Business. My personal favorite track is “My Eating Disorder,” an 8-minute epic with harmonizing guitars that hearken back to Judas Priest.
21. Kishi Bashi – 151A
Key Tracks: Bright Whites | Manchester | I Am the Antichrist to You
Kishi Bashi wins the award for most underrated album of the year. It didn’t get a lot of attention, but it won the hearts of those that listened to it. You may have heard his single “Bright Whites,” but check out the whole album, beautifully orchestrated and carefully crafted. If anything, I encourage you to check out “Manchester”: “Will you be mine? I haven’t felt this alive in a long time.”
20. Ty Segall – Twins
Spotify | YouTube
Key Tracks: The Hill | Thank God for the Sinners | Gold On the Shore
Ty Segall, the garage rock hero from San Francisco via Laguna Beach, is a workaholic. He released three albums this year. Yeah, three. His solo effort, Twins, is a consistent and worthy addition to his catalog, full of blistering riffs mixed with more subdued melodies.
19. Lotus Plaza – Spooky Action At a Distance
Key Tracks: Strangers | Eveningness | Remember Our Days
Lockett Pundt, the brainchild behind Lotus Plaza and guitarist for Deerhunter, kind of slipped this album in under the radar, but it won me over with its subtle beauty. Every track is hypnotic, understated, and downright appealing. “Remember Our Days” is one of my favorite songs of the year, perfect accompaniment for introspective. The shimmering guitar riff of “Eveningness” and looping guitars and snare drums of “Strangers” are highlights.
18. Divine Fits – A Thing Called Divine Fits
Key Tracks: My Love is Real | Would That Not Be Nice | Like Ice Cream
Britt Daniel of Spoon is a beast. Everything he does is gold. His voice is pure rock n’ roll. That’s why everything about his new project Divine Fits, along with members of Wolf Parade and New Bomb Turks, was a shot of swagger and awesomeness. This is what a rock record should sound like. Just listen to that slinking bass line in “Would That Not Be Nice.”
17. Allah-Las – Allah-Las
Key Tracks: Tell Me (What’s On Your Mind) | Catamaran | Busman’s Holiday
Allah-Las conjure images of breezy beaches and good times with the greatest of ease. Many bands strive to capture the beach aura, but few are as effective and chill as these guys.
16. The Tallest Man On Earth – There’s No Leaving Now
Key Tracks: Revelation Blues | Wind and Walls | To Just Grow Away
Kristian Matsson, the Swede known as the Tallest Man on Earth, is the master of acoustic ballads, complete with nasally Bob Dylan-esque voice. On his third album, There’s No Leaving Now, Matsson continues his consistent run of excellent albums, adding a bit of unique production techniques on this one.
15. Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself
Key Tracks: Give it Away | Desperation Breeds | Lusitania
Andrew Bird takes the cake for the smartest and most talented guy on this list. A violoin virtuoso with a perfect singing voice, Bird captivates with his poignant songwriting. Personal favorite: “Sifters”, in which he wonders what would happen if he and his lover were born in different eras. “What if we hadn’t been born at the same time / What if you were 75 and I were 9?”
14. Ty Segall Band – Slaughterhouse
Key Tracks: Tell Me What’s Inside Your Heart | I Bought My Eyes | Wave Goodbye
Remember how I was talking about that workaholic kid from Laguna? This is him, again. Complete with backing band. The hardest garage rock out there.
13. Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream
Key Tracks: Do You… | Adorn | Use Me
Miguel rode the wave of an invigorated R&B scene (see: Frank Ocean, How to Dress Well, “Climax” by Usher, etc.). Although Miguel didn’t reach the popular heights of Frank Ocean, Miguel’s burst onto the scene was in many ways, just as good. “Adorn” is as sexy as it gets. “Do You…” is as catchy as it gets. Not a bad track on this whole album.
12. Chromatics – Kill For Love
Spotify | Soundcloud
Key Tracks: Kill For Love | Lady | Back From the Grave
Chromatics was originally slated to score the movie Drive with Ryan Gosling. Although that didn’t work out, their 2012 album Kill For Love caught me by surprise. I’ve said this a million times before, but it’s perfect for a night drive. Perfect. The mild electronic beats and melodies come in waves, breaking you away from the hypnotic calm moments.
11. Beach House – Bloom
Key Tracks: Lazuli | Myth | Other People
Bloom picks up where Teen Dream left off in 2010, improving upon Beach House’s excellent formula. The climactic moments of Bloom, such as at the end of “Lazuli,” are breathtaking. Every chorus on every song brings a huge payoff – you can’t wait to hear it and you never want it to end.
10. The xx – Coexist
Key Tracks: Chained | Angels | Sunset
It would have been a supremely daunting task to improve upon xx, the group’s 2009 debut. Instead of building on that album, the xx decided to take a step back and create an even more minimalistic album. Many saw the album as boring, disappointing, a “sophomore slump.” Those assessments are simply incorrect. Coexist is not as exciting as xx, but it is just as beautiful, if not more so. Melodies meander by, simply but impressively. The production shimmers as the two lead singers breathily sing tales of despair. Just check out this stripped down live version of “Fiction”. Amazing.
9. The Walkmen – Heaven
Key Tracks: We Can’t Be Beat | Heaven | Line By Line
The boys of the Walkmen have toned it down considerably since their marquee single from 10 years ago, “The Rat”. They’ve grown up and had kids, and their sound reflects it. There is so much introspection and beauty on this one record. “We Can’t Be Beat” contain a pensive acoustic guitar, along with harmonies from Fleet Foxes’ frontman Robin Pecknold. And “Line by Line” is perfect soundtrack for a sunrise (or sunset) over the trees.
8. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
Key Tracks: Gun Has No Trigger | Offspring Are Blank | Dance For You
I’ve always thought of Dirty Projectors’ music as excellent accompaniment for a modern art museum. It’s weird and abstract, but still appeals to your emotions. Swing Lo Magellan is the most normal record they’ve ever made though. There’s more meaning and feeling then ever before. Crazy sound effects and unbelievable random bouts of harmony still color the album, but there’s something there under it: heart.
7. Grizzly Bear – Shields
Key Tracks: Sleeping Ute | Yet Again | Gun-Shy
“It remains difficult to relate to Grizzly Bear’s lyrics, but Shields’ skillful display of studio wizardry more than makes up for it. Grizzly Bear expertly combine the cerebral, technically tricky art-rock of Dirty Projectors with the pleasant folk harmonies and lush arrangements of Fleet Foxes. We get the best of both worlds — a psychedelic mish-mash of unique song structures, intricate ornamentation and beautiful vocals. Finding this terrain where abstract experimentalism meets catchy melodies can often be elusive, but Grizzly Bear roam across it with confidence. Opener “Sleeping Ute” epitomizes this convergence, featuring varying time signatures and stop-and-go tempos, providing a backdrop to a meandering but captivating melody. Fascinating instrumental flourishes abound — the bass tone on “Gun-Shy” or the flutelike synth line on “A Simple Answer.” And “Yet Again” could very well be the best song the band has ever written, with its swirling, ornate production and founding member Ed Droste’s impeccable melody.” –Daily Californian Review
6. The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth
Key Tracks: White Cedar | Lakeside View Apartments Suite | The Diaz Brothers
I’ll be honest, John Darnielle and the Mountain Goats blew me away with this record. I’ve always been interested in Darnielle and his incredible ability to churn out copious amounts of amazing songs, but this is the first album by him that really, truly connected with me. I’ll start saying this about every remaining album on the list, because that’s what happens as we approach #1, but dude: every song is good. The chorus and bass line on “Lakeside View Apartments Suite” is catchy, “Cry For Judas” is amazing, and the powerful refrain of “Amy a.k.a. Spent Gladiator” reverberates: “JUST STAY ALIVE.”
5. Japandroids – Celebration Rock
Key Tracks: The House That Heaven Built | Younger Us | Fire’s Highway
When Japandroids are firing on all cylinders, there’s no stopping them. Their heart-thumping, fist-pumping brand of rock and roll makes you feel alive. I can’t even begin to describe the excitement that results from listening to “The Nights of Wine and Roses” in the car on a Friday night with endless possibilities ahead. The formula for Japandroids is simple but potent. Give way to your inhibitions and “give me younger us.”
4. Cloud Nothings – Attack On Memory
Key Tracks: Stay Useless | Cut You | Separation
Attack On Memory came out of nowhere. Cloud Nothings were a pop punk band with nothing very unique to offer on their debut, but then came blistering through the music scene with their sophomore album, completely changing their sound (thanks in part to longtime Nirvana producer Steve Albini). This was by far one of the most consistent releases of the year. Every track is awesome. “Wasted Days” is incredible, “Stay Useless” is catchy, and “No Future / No Past” is absolutely punishing. The intersection of grunge, punk, pop, and garage thrashing never sounded so invigorating.
3. Tame Impala – Lonerism
Key Tracks: Elephant | Feels Like We Only Go Backwards | Mind Mischief
“Do not listen to Lonerism on your Macbook’s weak speakers. It will be like viewing a Van Gogh through a screen door. No, you need some headphones — or even better, some car speakers, so Tame Impala can soundtrack your modern-day magical mystery tour. On the second album from Kevin Parker’s psych throwback band Tame Impala, released in October, John Lennon is present in the vocals, Led Zeppelin in the riffs and Pink Floyd in the trippy wordplay. But no band has combined those elements as effectively as these Australian phenoms. Lonerism is heavy on reverb, fat bass tones and wobbly synths. Listen to it a few times so the swirling nuances can wash over you. When it sinks in, it doesn’t leave.” –Daily Californian Review.
2. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d. city
Key Tracks: Swimming Pools (Drank) | Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst | The Art of Peer Pressure
good kid, m.A.A.d. city is undeniably the best hip-hop album since Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It’s a masterpiece. The production is smooth and varied, Kendrick’s flow is infectious, and the lyrics paint a vivid picture of growing up in Compton. Every single track has something to offer, whether it be the ominous foreboding beat of “Swimming Pools (Drank),” the silky verse from Drake on “Poetic Justice,” the tales of youthful indiscretion on “The Art of Peer Pressure,” the epic closing to “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” or that Beach House sample on “Money Trees.” Ya bish.
1. Frank Ocean – Channel ORANGE
Key Tracks: Thinkin’ Bout You | Forrest Gump | Pyramids
The year 2012 will be remembered as the year of Frank Ocean. He made a splash in a huge way. But here’s the thing: when you strip away all the backstory and the narrative associated with Ocean’s character, you’re still left with a stunning album in Channel ORANGE. Even if Ocean was the most boring and conventional dude on the planet, Channel ORANGE would still dazzle with its range, production, content, depth, and ambition.
Here’s what I said in my Daily Californian review: As Ocean’s perfect croon soaks into the soul on “Thinkin’ Bout You,” it is impossible not to reflect on all of Ocean’s qualities. He’s an immensely talented, creative, good-looking, up-and-coming pop star, but out of all the things going for him, his greatest asset is still his voice. Honestly, those vocal chords could be the eighth wonder of the world. Channel ORANGE is like a swim through a vast sea of swirling currents and serene beauty. With every gorgeous vocal flourish, Ocean’s tales of isolation and lost love burrow into your being. His soothing, pitch-perfect voice is enough to elevate him to stardom, but it’s his ear for sonic beauty and mind for lyrical boldness that carry him to greatness.
For some reason, Facebook decided by Best Albums of 2011 post broke some kind of copyright, so it (and all of its HTML) got deleted. For those who are interested, here was my list (with a little less pizazz unfortunately).
25. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
24. Yuck – Yuck
23. Black Lips – Arabia Mountain
22. The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck
21. Atlas Sound – Parallax
20. Ty Segall – Goodbye Bread
19. Real Estate – Days
18. Generationals – Actorcaster
17. Adele – 21
16. The Strokes – Angles
15. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
14. Radiohead – The King of Limbs
13. Cults – Cults
12. Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch the Throne
11. tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l
10. The Roots – undun
9. Wilco – The Whole Love
8. The Antlers – Burst Apart
7. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring For My Halo
6. Beirut – The Rip Tide
5. Drake – Take Care
4. The Black Keys – El Camino
3. The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
2. Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost
1. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues