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LP1, FKA twigs
After spending a few years working as a backup dancer for the likes of Kylie Minogue, Jessie J and Ed Sheeran, FKA twigs — the stage name of British recording artist Tahliah Barnett — stepped into the spotlight herself. She followed up two critically acclaimed EPs with her first full-length, LP1, but unlike the stars she’s danced for, Barnett’s debut album was anything but easy pop listening. Equal parts delicate and disorienting as Barnett moved between high-pitched whispers to digitally distorted moans, LP1 stood out as one of the year’s most impressive debuts for its mercurial, genre-agnostic instrumentation and provocative lyrics about seizing control of her sexuality. No wonder Google recruited her to star in a Google Glass advertisement — LP1 isn’t just an album, it’s an immersive sensory experience.
Read next: Top 10 Best Songs of 2014
St. Vincent, St. Vincent
With an uncanny knack for odd melodies and off-kilter lyrics, St. Vincent’s Annie Clark had always been a master of delicate, understated songwriting. But with this self-titled leap forward, she shifted into overdrive, producing tracks with with angular rhythms, edgy synthesizers and brittle guitar work. It’s one of the year’s most adventurous albums, melding robotic electronica and distorted rock with the romantic sweep of her nuanced, sweetly inviting voice.
Alt-J, This Is All Yours
England’s Alt-J won the coveted 2012 Mercury Prize for its debut album, An Awesome Wave. This Is All Yours follows that moody, mostly electronic collection with a harder-driving sound that loads gritty guitars and funk beats into its sonic arsenal. And yes, there’s also that fantastic and utterly unexpected Miley Cyrus sample on “Hunger of the Pine,” a stunningly evocative track that builds from a quiet digital pulse into a fully realized meditation on our visceral need to be in the company of those we love.
1989, Taylor Swift
Forget the record-shattering sales, relentless promotional appearances, and Spotify squabbles — it’s all just background noise. Taylor Swift’s 1989 is the best mainstream pop album of the year, packing more hooks and thrills pound for pound than anything else on the charts. A longtime master of heartbreaking lyrics, Swift proves on 1989 that she’s just as nimble with sound, working with top-shelf collaborators to craft a bright, bold LP that’s deliriously strange but still slick enough for Top 40. Country’s premiere princess is now pop’s heir apparent.
Too Bright, Perfume Genius
Mike Hadreas’ third album under the moniker Perfume Genius is a devastating document of contemporary gay life: its subliminal rage and isolation, its relationship to femininity, its moments of salvation. Hadreas strikes down gay panic by embracing the monster strangers project onto him (“Queen”), lampoons the thinly veiled minstrelsy of the “gay best friend” (“Fool”), and succumbs to the weight of every small daily defense on “Don’t Let Them In.” When he transcends the pressure of the world in moments of dreamlike reverie, the sense of release is staggering.
Ultraviolence, Lana Del Rey
After the success of her debut Born to Die, it stood to reason that Lana Del Rey would court radio once more with her sophomore LP Ultraviolence. Instead, she hit the studio with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach for a dreamy, melancholic and unexpectedly lo-fi record that swapped out the pummeling drums but didn’t sacrifice soaring melodies, proving once more that nobody does bruised better than Del Rey.
Transgender Dysphoria Blues, Against Me!
The sixth studio album from Florida punks Against Me!—and the band’s first since frontwoman Laura Jane Grace came out as a transgender woman—was a victory from the get-go. “By the time the ball dropped, it was already over / No resolutions for the New Year beginning tomorrow” Grace sings on “Paralytic States,” the heartbreaking penultimate track of an album that spends much of its lean half-hour running time contemplating suicide amid gender-identity struggles. But it wasn’t over. In fact, when Transgender Dysphoria Blues lived to see the New Year and arrived in January, it not only set a high and early bar for subsequent rock releases to clear, it also kicked off a year that would see new rights and recognition for transgender people.
The Voyager, Jenny Lewis
If last year’s ’70s folk-rock renaissance belonged to Haim, nobody made use of those soft harmonies and spunky guitar riffs in 2014 better than former Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis, who nailed that vibe on The Voyager. On full display were her always-fine qualities — a sweet, dewy voice and a knack for smartly observed, self-excavating lyrics — but here, they showed a newfound depth and maturity.
Ryan Adams, Ryan Adams
This self-produced, self-titled collection finds Adams turning to a host of rock-oriented influences, most notably Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (as evidenced by the presence of Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench in the backing band). The result is his most accessible, muscular work since 2001’s Gold, without a hint of watering down the challenging themes and emotional distress that have informed his music for the past decade. It’s Adams at his most direct and least self-conscious, a refreshing shift from this chameleon of country-inflected rock.
Broke With Expensive Taste, Azealia Banks
Tortuous is a good word to describe Harlem rapper Azealia Banks’ ambitious debut album, both in terms of its arrival (the long-delayed record had a rocky route to an official release) and its sound (numerous twists and turns that span Latin rhythms, trance beats and even surf-rock). But when Broke With Expensive Taste unceremoniously hit iTunes in early November—nearly three years after Banks first broke through with the pop-friendly “212”—the rapper showed that, despite how unpalatable her Twitter personality can be, her chameleon vocals and diverse influences are pleasant surprises precisely because they’re unconcerned with being easy to swallow.