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The Best Albums of 2014

From Polish black metal to mind-blowing progressive R&B and electronic music, 2014's best albums certainly have something for everyone.

From Polish black metal to mind-blowing progressive R&B and electronic music, 2014's best albums certainly have something for everyone.

Artist: Weezer

Album: Everything Will Be Alright in the End

Label: Universal Republic

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/w/weezer2014cd.jpg

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List number: 80

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Everything Will Be Alright in the End

Before Weezer's ninth album Everything Will Be Alright in the End was released, frontman Rivers Cuomo swore up and down to any publication that would have him that he had learned from his past mistakes and had worked extra hard to make the new album a great one. Fans could be forgiven for being skeptical about this, since Cuomo had made similar statements about Weezer albums five through eight that turned out not to hold much water. But lo and behold, this time Cuomo was telling the truth. This is the first Weezer album since its unfairly maligned early ‘00s duo of the "Green album" (Weezer) and Maladroit to effectively combine the band's crunchy hooks, gift for melody, and Cuomo's lovable loser lyrics. It's that last part that's been a sticking point on so many latter-era Weezer songs; Cuomo's persona so often has tilted into tone deaf self-parody. Here, though, Cuomo's words are on point. Dumb without being stupid, frustrated without self-pity, and yet somehow unselfconscious. Musically, there are very few frills here. By and large, it's Weezer's core quartet playing its original instruments and playing them well, and song after song manages to be sticky in the best way. Nearly any track on the album could conceivably be a single. Cuomo has stopped trying so hard to write pop hits and seems to have found the best version of his musical self in the process. Chris Conaton

Artist: Behemoth

Album: The Satanist

Label: Metal Blade

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/b/behemoth-thesatanist.jpg

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List number: 79

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The Satanist

The Satanist is a definitive statement for the individual and for renewed strength resulting from waging war against adversity, and it is by far the most focused, ruthless and powerful album of the band's 23-year existence. For a band perched at the precipice of total metal domination, The Satanist is also an extremely uncompromising and uncommercial album that sees Behemoth draw heavily from the black metal side of its sound while maintaining the imperial death metal that began to take shape around the time of 1999's Satanica. This album's grandiose expanse recalls 2009's Evangelion but with the added viciousness that has being missing from Behemoth since the triumphant Demigod conquered all back in 2004. Yet, most noticeably, there is a tangible air of defiance that exudes tremendous strength throughout each of the nine songs, both thematically and musically, that no other Behemoth album holds so emphatically from beginning to end. Dean Brown

Artist: Jessie Ware

Album: Tough Love

Label: Interscope

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/j/jessie_ware_-_tough_love.jpg

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List number: 78

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Jessie Ware
Tough Love

With Jessie Ware's debut album being one of the strongest debuts from a woman in the R&B genre within the last few years, critics were definitely not going to let Ware off easy if she slipped and ended up with a sophomore slump. However, Ware managed to create an album that, at the very least, matches the greatest moments of her debut. Recruiting producers that prefer the alt-R&B scene (Emile Haynie, Sampha), Tough Love is a masterpiece in its own right, due to Jessie Ware's human touch to the electronic, pop and soul influences that rappear on the album. From the post-disco on "Want Your Feeling" to the folk-pop of "Say You Love Me", this album is very well-rounded, helping Ware best her debut without making her sound like a puppet or overshadowed by everyone else. Without a doubt, Tough Love is easily one of the most enjoyable listens this year. Devone Jones

Artist: David Krakauer

Album: The Big Picture

Label: Table Pounding

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/k/krakauer.jpg

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List number: 77

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David Krakauer
The Big Picture

David Krakauer is to klezmer what Eddie Palmieri is to salsa: a virtuoso grounded in -- and deeply committed to -- a musical genre that is an expression of his own cultural background, and an innovator who takes the genre places it has never been. With his new release, The Big Picture, he's crafted his most successful and boundary-smashing work to date. Krakauer and his terrific sextet interpret 12 songs from soundtracks by a diverse bunch of movie music composers -- Marvin Hamlisch, Kander and Ebb, Randy Newman, Bob Merrill and Jules Styne, Wojciech Kilar, Sergei Prokofiev, Ralph Burns, Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, and Mel Brooks. Krakauer picked these pieces because all were heard in movies that had a Jewish connection, whether thematic or because of the identity of the filmmaker or composer. "I've taken themes from iconic films with Jewish content and re-imagined them with a band of world-class musicians," Krakauer has said. George de Stefano

Artist: Schoolboy Q

Album: Oxymoron

Label: Top Dawg / Interscope

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/s/schoolboy_q-oxymoron.jpg

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List number: 76

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Schoolboy Q

You know when you're up late working on a project, long after all sane people have gone to sleep, and at some point your inhibitions loosen, and you decide to see what weird shit you can get away with? Schoolboy Q has been there. More specifically, Schoolboy Q has been inside a recording studio, horny and baked, laying down late night jams when he'd rather be laying with you, eschewing metaphor. This drives him to inventive highs. For his third album, his first on a major label, Mr. Q landed 12 great, hooky beats, including Pharrell's hottest track in ages. "Los Awesome" is an overdriven organ jam, different rhythms stacked one on top of another, with Q's voice -- both rapping and sampled -- adding to the joyful confusion. Well, not really confusion, because everything's subsumed into one big head nod. Other highlights: the disembodied voices hovering over the boom-bap storytelling of "Hoover Street"; the title song's chilling rock bottom drug tale; the tense, almost danceable electrogroove in "Hell of a Night". Q is magnetic throughout; he turns throwaway syllables into beats and stray transgressions into hooks. Josh Langhoff

Artist: Sloan

Album: Commonwealth

Label: Yep Roc

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/c/commonwealth1.jpg

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List number: 75

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Even when Sloan changes things up, it doesn't really change things up. It's always the same four guys making the same great power-pop they've always made. Last time around, 2011's The Double Cross celebrated the band's 20th anniversary with a straight-ahead record that was its best of the 21st century. So for Commonwealth, the wrinkle was the each member would get their own side of a double-vinyl album. The results were close to tremendous. Jay Ferguson and Chris Murphy used their sections to lay down five-song mini-albums that stand toe to toe with each of their best material. Ferguson's "You've Got a Lot on Your Mind" and "Cleopatra" are all-time Sloan greats, while Murphy's "Misty's Beside Herself" joins his long line of excellent three-minute character studies. Murphy's "Carried Away" flips the perspective of his classic "The Other Man" on its head, singing from the point of view of the cheated-upon husband. Meanwhile, Patrick Pentland rips off a pair of tracks that are the closest to punk the band has ever played. Then, Andrew Scott closes the album out with an 18-minute epic that still plays like a medley of about seven strong pop songs. It sometimes seems like Sloan is underappreciated because it's so consistently great, but if anything it deserves more recognition for that consistency. Chris Conaton

Artist: Grouper

Album: Ruins

Label: Kranky

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/g/grouper-ruins-200x200.jpg

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List number: 74

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Ambient artists know best how to exploit atmospheric sound and silence, especially when making music that isn't strictly "ambient" music. Liz Harris, aka Grouper, stripped her signature sound of its most definitive components on her latest record, the moving and evocative Ruins, down to its barest elements: piano, timid vocals and the sounds of open spaces. For the first time, Harris' sparse songwriting is centerstage, soaked in the pastoral sounds of rain storms, croaking frogs and singing insects. The simple piano ballads revel in their naturalness, featuring few studio effects and even less editing as Harris leaves the incidental clicking, clattering and beeping background noises of her environment in the mix. Ruins is an example of raw, organic recording at its best, an approach that's perhaps at odds with the tender, delicate music that it captures. But the music never betrays the album's central truth: minimalism is beautiful. Colin Fitzgerald

Artist: Lana Del Rey

Album: Ultraviolence

Label: Interscope

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List number: 73

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Lana Del Rey

Both perpetually maligned and adored, Lana Del Rey's entrance into the music world gave critics, new fans, and know-it-all hipster naysayers something to discuss and debate ever since "Video Games" saturated the blogosphere. Her latest studio album Ultraviolence reignited the debate and once again; both her relevance and artistry were placed underneath the blade of the critical scalpel. She left the war zone relatively unscathed. The record sold more than a million copies worldwide and critics praised it for being a confident, cohesive effort, even if the lyrical content hadn't evolved past tales of "bad bitch" hookers, broken heroines and calculated temptresses. Stripped of the overwrought, orchestral dramatics and hip-hop aesthetic so prevalent on past outings, Dan Auerbach's gritty production work perfectly complements Del Rey's sultry contralto. From the haunting, reverb-drenched chorus of "Shades of Cool" and the indie rock, reggae-tinged "West Coast", to the tongue-in-cheek "Money Power Glory", there is no grand metamorphosis or stark reinvention to be found here, just brilliantly realized, mature songwriting. Ultraviolence is a beautiful argument for her relevance and her potential longevity. Ryan Lathan

Artist: School of Language

Album: Old Fears

Label: Memphis Industries

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List number: 72

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School of Language
Old Fears

Old Fears doesn't waste a second of sound. David Brewis's second album under the alias School of Language is a spare, fussy affair, of angular guitars and anxious malismas divvied out over music school time signatures. Knowing that Brewis and his brother Peter were consistently destitute during their time in their old band Field Music lends poignancy to "Distance Between" and "A Smile Cracks", the one-two punch of lean funk in which Brewis refuses to "regret trying too hard [or] being naïve", as if this KORG bassline is the last he'll be able to afford for a while. Brewis's minimalist tack lets the multi-instrumentalist get close to the mic in a way that's usually deterred by the intricacy and flamboyant eclecticism of likeminded art-damaged pop. On the meticulous, disarming Old Fears, even the snare hits sound confessional. Benjamin Aspray

Artist: Parquet Courts

Album: Sunbathing Animal

Label: What's Your Rupture? / Mom+Pop

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/p/pqcrts.jpg

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List number: 71

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Parquet Courts
Sunbathing Animal

After the Strokes' output waned over the past decade, the New York garage rock scene seemed content with lo-fi and synth-heavy indie explorations coming out of Brooklyn. But then Parquet Courts' 2012 release Light Up Gold had both critics and fans alike buzzing with its ramshackle-meets-punk feel that was both fresh yet familiar. After touring extensively and releasing a solid tweener EP, Tally All the Things That You Broke, Parquet Courts dropped their full-length follow-up, Sunbathing Animal, late last spring. On Sunbathing Animal, the band builds upon the rambunctious guitar licks of its debut. This time around, however, Parquet Courts also emit a new found confidence within their sarcastic NYC rock 'n' roll approach. The songs, while at times quite noisy, still find room to breathe and never feel calculated. From the unnerving single chord attack of the title-track "Sunbathing Animal" to the arty Velvet Underground introspectiveness of "Raw Milk", Sunbathing Animal finds Parquet Courts hitting their stride. Richard Giraldi

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