The Highlighter’s Top 10 Albums of 2014

By WSN Arts Staff
Via Idolator

As for music that was released throughout 2014, a colossal amount of people would quickly label it as ‘The Year of Taylor Swift.’ Unequivocally, the “1989” chart-topper’s success makes a strong argument for naming it the year of Swift: she revealed her newly born pop-centric self; removed her music catalog from Spotify, and had the first and only platinum record of the year.

However, as the music industry shifts towards a predominately digital world, Swift was not the only one making changes throughout 2014. The digital landscape, in conjunction with key partnerships, permitted U2 to essentially ‘force’ music on listeners, by placing their release, “Songs of Innocence” on iPhone users’ phones. For music distribution, 2014 marked a significant change. Many thought of Spotify and other streaming platforms as the resolution for declining music sales, but as 2014 pointed out, music can still sell — if you’re at the superstar level as Taylor Swift, or if you can just form a partnership with Apple, and automatically place your music on iPhones.

Aside from the focus on Swift and digital platforms, 2014 was undoubtedly the year of women. Whether it was mainstream newcomers such as Charli XCX and Meghan Trainor, or recognized popular acts, such as Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande — whose popularity increased enormously in 2014 — females dominated the music charts in 2014. Right now, women are at the forefront of the music industry, as evinced by 2014’s successes.

Via Pitchfork

10. Iceage – “Plowing Into the Field of Love”

Starting off our top 10 list is Iceage’s third studio album, entitled “Plowing Into the Field of Love.” Though Iceage has always had a unique, eclectic sound, “Plowing Into the Field of Love” proved to be a transitory album, in the sense that it hinted at a more mature sound, though still Iceage, at the band’s core. Throughout their earlier full-lengths of “New Brigade” and 2013’s “You’re Nothing,” progression was audible, making it seem as though evolving is consistently considered with every new release. However, while those releases hinted at progression, “Plowing Into the Field of Love” marked significant exploration, particularly as Iceage experimented with slower music, emphasized by frequent melancholy sounding piano performances. What proves impressive about “Plowing Into the Field of Love” is not solely the level of progression, but also the band’s ability to remain true to its original sound, while still greatly experimenting and progressing, illuminating that, at the end of the day, Iceage is aware of the band’s sound and intends to stay true to such.

Read our review of “Plowing Into the Field of Love” here.

Via Amazon

9. Beck – “Morning Phase”

A seasoned veteran, Beck impressively released his 12th studio album, with 2014’s “Morning Phase.” The album stands out for its vehemently nostalgic tones, particularly as a throwback to Beck’s earlier releases, where folk-rock was his predominant sound. While he’s ditched the sound over the past handful of years, Beck returns to his roots with “Morning Phase,” masterfully creating a California-sounding, folk record. Sonically, the album is strongly reminiscent of Beck’s 2002 release, “Sea Change,” which marks the last album by which Beck greatly utilized and applied his folk influences. The slower, California-vibe album is heightened by its impeccable production, showing that Beck hasn’t lost his touch, in the folk genre, even after being slightly removed from the scene. “Morning Phase” has proven to be critically acclaimed, as it’s, interestingly, been announced as one of 2015 GRAMMY nominees for Album of the Year.

Via Pitchfork

8. Real Estate – “Atlas”

“Atlas,” the third album from the New Jersey-natives Real Estate, ended up being a commercial success for 2014, debuting at #34 on the Billboard Top 200 charts, in conjunction with its positive reception. Much like Real Estate’s previous releases, “Atlas” continues to highlight the band’s laid-back, relaxed sound, but what’s notable is a change in the band’s psyche, presented and conveyed through the duration of “Atlas.” The laid-back, folk nature is still heavily emphasized in the band’s music, but on “Atlas,” Real Estate tries to look forward, as the band grasps maturation. With the album’s strong 10 songs, Real Estate progresses; evolves, with more ominous tones and more complex arrangements. Real Estate’s impressive evolution that’s audible throughout “Atlas” has been recognized, as Pitchfork listed the album as a part of “The 100 Best Albums of the Decade So Far.”

Via Rolling Stone

7. Lana Del Rey – “Ultraviolence”

Lana Del Rey’s release of “Ultraviolence” marked a shift in her career, as she had previously dismissed the idea of releasing a follow-up to her 2012 album, “Born to Die,” claiming that she had “already said everything [she] wanted to say.” Yet, a year later, Del Rey was already working on “Ultraviolence,” particularly with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, and the album eventually released on June 13. “Ultraviolence” proved to be a commercial success, with its dream pop sound, that Del Rey is frequently associated with, after debuting at the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 charts, with the album selling 182,000 copies in its first week.

Via XXL

6. J. Cole – “2014 Forest Hills Drive”

During a moderately slow year for hip-hop, J. Cole resurrected the genre with his album, “2014 Forest Hills Drive.” With his follow-up release to 2012’s “Born Sinner,” J. Cole recognized that the stakes were high for “2014 Forest Hills Drive,” and immensely succeeded. The 13-track album depicts J. Cole’s journey throughout his career, encompassing the struggles he’s faced as he moved away from his hometown of Fayetteville, NC to battling the pressures that correlate with Hollywood, as he finds success. After achieving success, finding enjoyment in tangible ‘gifts’ such as money and women and through combatting and challenging Hollywood, as seen through tracks like “G.O.M.D.,” J. Cole soon realizes what matters most in life, urging listeners to find the same, especially on the track “Love Yourz.” Ultimately, what matters most, as determined by J. Cole, is the intangible fortunes, such as love, family, and friendship.

Read our review of “2014 Forest Hills Drive” here.

Via Pitchfork

5. Perfume Genius – “Too Bright”

The third album from Perfume Genius, “Too Bright” marks the midpoint of our top 10 list, for its ambitious efforts, particularly audible through the heartbreakingly honest lyricism, and compelling sound. As with a majority of releases in 2014, Perfume Genius’ “Too Bright” signified an experimental evolution, highlighted by the shift towards more ominous, hauntingly beautiful production. The songs on “Too Bright” spoke with a newfound confidence, without Perfume Genius losing the juxtaposition with quieter, more piano-heavy tracks. “Too Bright” demonstrated how Perfume Genius holds the power to project extreme confidence, but can also continue to portray and capture vulnerability. As well, “Too Bright” holds a certain semblance of connectivity, permitting anyone who’s ever felt excluded to find something audible to relate to.

Via Brooklyn Vegan

4. St. Vincent – “St. Vincent”

The early 2014 release, St. Vincent’s self-titled, fourth album burgeoned Annie Clark’s (her stage name is “St. Vincent”) popularity enormously, with her most pop-centric release, to date. Though Clark’s popularity, as St. Vincent, has increased throughout the years, with her self-titled release, Clark made several changes that ensured her popularity would rise: it was released via Loma Vista/Republic Records, she worked with producer John Congleton (Mozella, The Roots, R. Kelly, etc.), and contributed stronger songwriting. Clark previously described the album as “a party record you could play at a funeral,” which accurately depicts the release’s sound, fueled by confidence and connectivity. The sonic confidence has helped earn “St. Vincent” a nomination for the 57th GRAMMY Awards for Best Alternative Music Album.

Via Pitchfork

3. FKA Twigs – “LP1”

Following the pattern set by her previous releases of “EP1” and “EP2,” FKA Twigs decided on naming her debut full-length “LP1.” Of the album’s 10 tracks, thus far, FKA Twigs has selected “Two Weeks, “Pendulum,” and “Video Girl” as her debut’s designated singles, all of which feature intricately layered production, all of slower tempos. Similarly to The Weeknd, FKA Twigs draws upon finding a balance between contemporary electronic sounds and R&B music, while also remaining moderately euphoric. In terms of all contemporary music, “LP1” may not be anything substantially revolutionary, but for the R&B genre, FKA Twigs has created an album truly unlike anything else currently out there. The experimental sound behind FKA Twigs’ debut full-length is daring, but she unequivocally makes her mark, demanding her differentiating sound be heard; making it known that no one else is producing music similar to hers. The album’s constantly featured distorted, warped vocals are frequently combined with layers of synthesizers, which makes for an interesting debut for FKA Twigs, with “LP1.”

Via Rolling Stone

2. Mac DeMarco – “Salad Days”

Eccentric in quality, Mac DeMarco’s “Salad Days” has earned itself a spot on our top 10 albums of 2014 list. The album, which marks DeMarco’s second full-length studio album, was recorded in his apartment in Brooklyn, NY and proved to be a more personal album in comparison to his earlier release of “2.” By most publications, “Salad Days” was met with critical approval, as DeMarco made his presence known. As well, “Salad Days” marked progression for DeMarco, standing as a more mature release, in a way that slacker rock, as it’s nearly impossible to encounter DeMarco’s name without the term being thrown away, serves a purpose and has a message.

Via Pitchfork

1. Run the Jewels “Run the Jewels 2”

Topping the list is Run the Jewels’ follow-up to “Run the Jewels,” with “Run the Jewels 2.” The partnership of Killer Mike and El-P, known as Run the Jewels, proved to be a force to be reckoned with, on their 2014 release. The album hones in on Run the Jewels’ key development over the course of 2014, including highlighting the duo’s progression in production and in creating even more versatile, diverse music. For the album, Run the Jewels made the pivotal decision to not have Killer Mike and El-P control the majority of production, but instead, worked with the likes of Boots, Wilder Zoby, Zack de la Rocha, Travis Barker, Gangsta Boo and Diane Coffee as producers, permitting the more experimental, powerful sound crafted by “Run the Jewels 2.”

Read our review of “Run the Jewels 2” here.

Alexa Spieler is music editor. Email her at music@nyunews.com

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