In no world is U2's Songs of Innocence the best album of 2014.
Yet, when Rolling Stone — music magazine and America's foremost defender of dad rock — named the Top 50 albums of 2014 on Monday, Songs of Innocence topped the list. Given far too many points for nostalgia, Bono, and magically appearing in everyone's iTunes, Songs of Innocence was placed above dozens of better crafted, better sounding, and significantly more memorable albums. (The second best album was by Bruce Springsteen, certainly a great artist but probably not producing his best work in 2014, by any estimation.)
These might not be the top nine albums of 2014, but they are all, certainly, better — or at least more vital and interesting — than Songs of Innocence, an album that people are literally creating software to remove from their computer.
Ultraviolence by Lana Del Rey
People love to hate Lana Del Rey for her ingenuity, her weird hair, and her sad girl aesthetic, but Ultraviolence is a truly great album. Del Rey is the forerunner of the sad-pop genre that's seeing a resurgence at the moment, and on Ultraviolence, she varies her emotions dramatically across the songs. On "Sad Girl," she's miserable. On "Ultraviolence," she's dramatic. On "Pretty When You Cry," she's subtly angry. This album is good enough to quiet her haters and make Del Rey the creator of my favorite album — in a year positively filled with good pop albums.
Listen to: "Cruel World," the lead track for Ultraviolence, exemplifies exactly what Del Rey is great at: emotional sad-girl pop that still manages to hook its listeners. It's an almost 7-minute song that doesn't feel half that long.
Run the Jewels 2 by Run the Jewels
An unlucky release date meant that Run the Jewels 2 came out the same day that Taylor Swift's 1989 leaked. That unfortunate timing meant the rap duo Run the Jewels's truly amazing second album didn't get nearly the amount of publicity or hype that it deserved. Hands down, El-P and Killer Mike made the best hip-hop album of 2014 and maybe even of the last few years, and songs like "Lie, Cheat, Steal" have an energy unlike few others released this year.
Listen to: "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)" is undeniably groovy. El-P and Killer Mike have a synchronized vocal ability that shines in both the lyricism and the production of this song.
Too Bright by Perfume Genius
Mike Hadreas's third album, Too Bright, is a mystical, almost religious experience. When he slur-sings "wrapped in golden leaveeees," on the song "Queen," the beautiful piano backing feels like it's spinning golden webs all around you. Hadreas, who performs under the name Perfume Genius, uses his sweeping voice to build songs that are as frantic and strange as they are beautiful. It's one of the most perfectly mixed albums of the year layering fast-paced songs and slow ballads, so the hour ebbs and flows smoothly.
Listen to: "Grid" is a great introduction to an album that's as mesmerizing as it is weird. It's also a little more emotional than the rest of the album.
Teeth Dreams by the Hold Steady
Teeth Dreams is not the best album made this year, but it might be the best return to form of 2014. One thing Rolling Stone praised Songs of Innocence for was being a "complete U2 album," but the best U2 albums feel very holistic, where Songs of Innocence feels scattered. Teeth Dreams, in contrast, shines because it brings back the distinctive sound of a Hold Steady production. Produced by Nick Raskulinecz (who produced Rush and Evanescence), Teeth Dreams sounds muddy and poorly equalized at times. But that's what an album by The Hold Steady is supposed to sound like. This is a post-Replacements, six-stringed guitar-laden, straight-ahead rock album full of charged-up songs that call back to the band's great early albums and long Midwestern summer evenings.
Listen to: "Big Cig" is probably the best song on Teeth Dreams. The guitar is anthemic and from the first line ("She said she always smoked cigarettes/ ever since she was seven) it's grungy and mean and fun.
Are We There by Sharon Van Etten
Van Etten's Are We There is a morbidly honest exploration of the depths of heartbreak and the difficulty of finding oneself in a world of confusion and difficulty. "At the bottom of a well/ I'm reliving my own hell/ Someone throws the ladder down/ Still don't know what I have found," Van Etten sings on "Our Love." The singer-songwriter's three albums were all solid Americana, but on Are We There, Van Etten is more soulful, more powerful, and even more exciting to listen to than ever before.
Listen to: On an album of lost love songs, "Our Love" is the saddest of them all. It's a perfect backing-track for a cry session.
1989 by Taylor Swift
Nothing so far in 2014 has managed the snark, energy, and pure pop sounds of Taylor Swift's 1989. The forthcoming Charli XCX's Sucker (out December 15) could hit that mark, but for now and probably for the year, Swift is the queen of pop. Sure, 1989 sold a metric shit-ton of albums and had a wildly entertaining publicity tour, but it's also a catchy, fun album to listen to. Swift is at her most brilliant when she makes fun of herself, and 1989 is filled with her self-deprecation.
Listen to: "Blank Space" is about as self-reflective of a song as any artist could make. It makes fun of Swift's love life perfectly and is hella-catchy.
St. Vincent by St. Vincent
It's easy to forget St. Vincent because it came out so early in 2014 (February 24), but it held its own throughout the year because it doesn't sound like anything else out there. Singer Annie Clark's mesmerizing voice hurdles and flips throughout the album. From the chant-like beginnings of "Rattlesnake" through the soulful "Severed Crossed Fingers," Clark maintains a steady emotive grasp over each of her songs, filling them with electronic, thumping basses that stick hours after the album finishes.
Listen to: Everything that was great about St. Vincent's first 3 albums—her weird voice, the breathy lyrics, the dancing bass— comes together to make "Digital Witness," one of the best songs on the album.
LP1 by FKA Twigs
FKA Twigs produced the best R&B album this year, with her first full-length studio album, LP1. The most popular songs on the album use layers of sound to create tunes that simultaneously sound both like nothing else on the market and like '70s R&B. The album follows suit, favoring texture over melodies. The dynamic quality of the background layers makes it as easy to get lost in the sound of the album. Those layers of sound, jarring at first, eventually create 1000 entrances back into the album, making repeated listens a must.
Listen to: The brilliant "Two Weeks," which is a great example of those layers of sound. The chorus is just repetitive enough to stick without becoming cloying.
Sonic Highways by The Foo Fighters
And, hey, sometimes you just want a solid rock album. But you don't have to turn to U2 to find one. The Black Keys' Turn Blue would be an excellent choice, but those old stalwarts, the Foo Fighters, also produced a great rock album this year in Sonic Highways. It's an American rock album through and through — the guitars play melodic anthems, the drums keep a steady pace, and Dave Grohl's vocals meld the sounds of grunge with go-ahead rock-and-roll melodies. All the way through, Sonic Highways maintains a momentum that Songs of Innocence never manages to find.
Listen to: "Something from Nothing" has one of the best walking bass lines of the year and even some yelling.
Come back every day of December for Vox's picks of some of our favorite pop culture of 2014.