The BIG List: 46 Albums From 2014 That Are Actually Worth Your Money
December 2, 2014 - 7:19 pm
46. R. Kelly, Black Panties
R. Kelly's 12th studio album Black Panties sounds less like parroting his younger peers (who are already parroting him) and more like Kells just being Kells. That means a generous mix of his classic silly raunch on records designed to lead to pregnancy (“Lick it till she's shivering,” etc.), slow jams, inspirational records in the way only R. Kelly can be inspirational, and, of course, an ode to genitals (“Marry the Pussy”). It's not as sticky an album as, say, Chocolate Factory, but satisfying nonetheless. —Clover Hope
45. Future, Honest
On Honest, the musicality is there, making Future arguably the most talented non-singing singer in music. —Paul Cantor
44. Asher Roth, RetroHash
A stoner's special, Asher Roth's proper second studio album is perfect for zoning out and enjoying life's highs, whether natural or THC-induced.
43. Mariah Carey, Me. I Am Mariah...The Elusive Chanteuse
Me. I Am Mariah...The Elusive Chanteuse (which should count as a self-titled album) finds Mimi owning her multiple personalities, minus the caricature. It’s a successful merger of her opposing images: the forever-young R&B star known to skate at a theme park in daisy dukes and the balladeer who finger-wags behind a mic in a gown. —Clover Hope
42. Robin Thicke, Paula
Robin’s being clowned for going so hard on this album to get his wife back, but musically Paula is a tour de force. Not a classic. But considering the narrowness of the subject matter, it will go down as one of his best albums. Critics are dismissing it because the subject matter is repetitive—and it is. But taken song by song, many of the compositions are masterful. —Aliya S. King
41. Luke James, Luke James
Luke can sing ballads 'til he's blue in the face (see: his modern classic "I Want You"). But on his long-awaited debut solo album, the New Orleans crooner uses sweet falsettos to make you dance. And he succeeds on the moody affair, with midtempos like "Dancing in the Dark" and "Trouble" that made hearts flutter and feet shuffle.
40. Kid Cudi, Satellite Flight: The Journey to Mother Moon
There will come a day when we stop referring to surprise albums as "pulling a Beyonce." But that day is not today. So Kid Cudi went ahead and dropped this one out of the blue, bridging the gap between last year's Indicud and the upcoming Man On The Moon III. The spacey, atmospheric project brilliantly took us to a galaxy far away with synth blasts, Cudi croons and pummeling drums.
39. Kid Ink, My Own Lane
Kid Ink proved himself to be a bonafide hitmaker on My Own Lane, with twin dynamite stick singles "Main Chick" and "Show Me." Pure party-starter music.
38. Ab-Soul, These Days...
Ab-Soul's Control System follow-up is at times overwhelming, but never disappoints lyrically (especially for the grand finale, a sparring session with battle rapper Daylyt that makes us miss SMACK DVDs). A bit more focus on Soul's next work will lift it over the hump.
37. Shady Records, Shady XV
Eminem carries this hodgepodge of lyrical offerings, characteristically leaving shiners on your favorite pop stars with his direct lyrical jabs (even his own (fictional) 8 Mile mom, Kim Basinger caught a light swipe). Slaughterhouse and Yelawolf rep for the fam, and D-12 doesn't embarrass. Good team effort, guys.
36. Stalley, Ohio
Longtime Stalley supporters will agree that the Cleveland rapper's debut MMG album is his strongest work to date. Reclaiming the soulful sound birthed in the Midwest and coopted by Cali's '90s G-Funk reps, Stalley is aggressive, lyrical and assured (see: "Problems"). He even pulls off an organic 1 a.m. club track ("One More Shot" feat. Rick Ross and August Alsina), a hefty task for any blue-collar lyricist.
35. Prince, Art Official Age
Art Official Age is not in the same weight class as Prince's career-defining work. But it does something just as impressive. It proves that Mr. Nelson can grow old with both grace and thrill-seeking ingenuity. This is a Prince album for our times, mining the emo, atmospheric, new wave rhythm & blues and urbanized pop of the day while reaching back to his own much welcomed musical hallmarks. It's a thoroughly realized work featuring songs that deserve a place on commercial radio and beyond. —Keith Murphy
34. SZA, Z
In person, SZA may appear withdrawn, timid even, peeking out from beneath the brim of her TDE cap. But on Z she is a confident songstress with a lot to get off her chest, roping you into her otherworld one hovering note at a time.
Solana Rowe’s music exists in a vacuum, and in the most literal sense of the word. On Z, sounds are sucked from her lyrics as they progress. Dripping, dragging, floating, whizzing by. Everything but standing still, graspable. SZA prefers it that way. TDE’s lone estrogen hub doesn’t drift far from the ethereal nature of Z‘s predecessors, S and See.SZA.Run. Her longing warbles and bleats dance around cinematic production, seldom sticking to anything. —Stacy-Ann Ellis
33. Bas, Last Winter
Be alert, be alert! Dreamville's No. 1 draft pick distinguishes himself with a shrewd sense of wit and creative concepts ("Donk of the Day" is a gleeful recollection of the most glorious backside spottings on tour). Bas is lyrically and creatively growing quickly, and will only continue to expand his reach and rap ability.
Bonus: Last Winter possesses the best song titles of any project on this list, and it's not even close ("My Nigga Just Made Bail," "Fiji Water In My Iron" and "Nigga On The Dos Equis, The Most Interesting Man In The World" all live here).
32. PARTYNEXTDOOR, PartyNextDoor Two
With his rough-around-the-edges writing, PartyNextDoor's music sounds like August Alsina’s might if he were trapped in a basement with DJ Screw, the Eurythmics and a two-month supply of cough syrup.He puts wonderful melody to his pain, but there is a harshness here. By turns horny and tripping, hopeful and resentful, PartyNextDoor is in no rush to turn the lights out, content to drink in his pain until the wee hours. There is an unsettling wooziness that pervades the molasses beats, often muddied by scratches or static or cuss words or blame. —Luke Fox
31. MIchael Jackson, Xscape
Xscape wins because Michael Jackson’s quivering voice remains foremost in the mix, and the beats, for the most part, smack that sweet spot between what could jolt in the club today and what Jackson himself would green-light. Of course, it helps that disco rhythms are weaseling their way back in vogue and that the mere sound of Jackson’s voice in its prime—the sure-thing lead-off “Love Never Felt So Good” was plucked from 1983(!) and written with Paul Anka, who’s now 72—warms us to the core. —Luke Fox
30. Ariana Grande, My Everything
For her second effort, My Everything (Republic Records), Ariana Grande serves up her signature breathy vocal work and whistle-register pitch while seamlessly swerving on tempos in both the pop and R&B lanes. —Adelle Platon
29. Isaiah Rashad, Cilvia Demo
Get over the Kendrick Lamar comparisons. Sure the TDE compadres resemble each other, but on Cilvia Demo Rashad separates himself with a sound and style that's unique to him. Here we find the musings of a curious young man from Chattanooga who is still making sense of the world around him. Lyrical exercises like "Soliloquy" or "Webbie Flow" show tremendous promise for the rookie spitter.
28. Ed Sheeran, x
Where x really works is when its stripped to its bare essentials. Backed by just a spare guitar, Ed Sheeran’s airy falsetto brings “One” to life, wistfully singing: “All my senses come to life/While I’m stumbling home as drunk as I/Have ever been, and I’ll never leave again/‘Cause you are the only one…” When he doubles down on what he’s good at—strumming a guitar while singing folky tunes about love and despair—he reminds us why we were charmed by him in the first place. It’s not a perfect LP, but x is certainly pretty damn good. —Paul Cantor
27. Flying Lotus, You're Dead!
You're Dead! occasionally sounds like jazz on acid, with it's funky saxophones and gnarly guitars ("Cold Dead"). But once Kendrick Lamar saddled up on the swift percussion and soulful piano of "Never Catch Me," it became clear that both Flying Lotus and K Dot are musical geniuses.
26. Trey Songz, Trigga
Being cocky and hypersexual has become Trey Songz’s trademark. That old trick persists on his sixth album, Trigga, which indulges in uncouth moments. It’s a culmination of all the egotastic drunk-texting anthems that have made Trey a radio staple. “Disrespectful,” a Mila J duet about mutual cheaters, may be the most unapologetic one on here. Trey starts off weighing the risks of each other’s infidelity: “If my girl found out you was wearing her robe, I’d probably go missing/If ya man found out I was wearing his slippers…” But then he catches himself, before sounding too considerate: “Wait... I don’t care about none of these niggas!” —Clover Hope
25. Teyana Taylor, VII
Teyana taps into her '90s FM dial to set the mood to baby-making. Her nod to Ginuwine's "Ain't None of Your Friend's Business" ("Business") is a refreshing update, while the reggae tinge of "Put Your Love On Me" makes you wish VII had hit NYC in time for the West Indian Day parade.
24. Jessie Ware, Tough Love
Perfect. Emo. Hour. Soundtrack. Trust us. Just press play.
23. Rick Ross, Mastermind
Mastermind does not have the colorful, glitzy feel of an album executive produced by Sean Combs. It’s a gritty, street LP. The beats are gloomier, hooks less John Legendary than previous albums. Occasionally our bearded, shade-wearing hero sounds monotonous. But there are a few experimental vibes that keep things interesting. Like the emo The Weeknd contribution “In Vein” or the reggae tinge that Movado, Sizzla and producer Bink! provide on “Mafia Music III.”
The album is a dark exploration into the cerebrum of one of rap's most important voices. Rozay seems less concerned with obvious, saccharine radio records—and perhaps that’s a reflection of his mindstate while recording this album. Guess surviving a drive-by shooting could do that to you, eh? —John Kennedy
22. Madlib and Freddie Gibbs, Piñata
If you haven’t heard about the new Freddie Gibbs album, you’re on the wrong part of the Internet. Together with L.A. music wizard Madlib, Gibbs has finally dropped Cocaine Piñata, and we can confidently say its one of hardest gangsta rap albums of 2014. —Max Weinstein
21. Kevin Gates, By Any Means
The outstanding highlight of By Any Means is "Movie," with a beat by Beewirks that thankfully departs from the stale production that wears thin over 16 tracks. Gates employs a delivery akin to stream of consciousness as he details witnessing the birth of his daughter via FaceTime before darker circumstances keep a second child from coming into the world. "Movie" is everything we want from Gates—manic expression, painful recollection, and the strength to not only carry on, but to depict it all on a record. Gates’ best trait is his honesty. —Max Weinstein
20. fka Twigs, LP1
LP1 is a record of and for its time. There are synth spirals, gusts of reverb, jogging breakbeats and dubstep wobbles gone frantically medieval. But it also bucks existing trends. Women in R&B usually have to play by bifurcated rules; we prefer for them to sing about lasting, monogamous love. (Leave the debauched kiss-and-tells to the Weeknd.) Barnett is the wrong woman to consult about that. LP1 ushers us through a world of incomplete cognition where lasting, monogamous love isn’t on the table. —M.T. Richards
19. Tinashe, Aquarius
Aquarius is Tinashe’s coming-of-age-moment. Striking a delicate balance of cocky and vulnerable, she’s sassy and suggestive without overly-sexualizing herself. She’s an ingénue shedding her innocence and inhibition to claim her independence. We’ve witnessed the same metamorphosis with TLC, Aaliyah, and more recently, Ciara and Cassie.
Astrology won’t predict what’s to come—but this is only the beginning for Tinashe. Consider her trajectory into mainstream. Chew on the fact that she wrote and self-produced her first three mixtapes. Then Google “Xylaphone,” the haunting track she released with TV On The Radio-producer Dave Sitek. It’s not a question of which direction she’ll go from here, but just how high is that trajectory? Only time will tell. —Shanel Odum
18. T.I., Paperwork: The Motion Picture
Tip's unofficial sequel to Paper Trail finds his pen just as sharp, especially when reflecting on lost homies ("On Doe, On Phil") and race relations in the U.S. ("New National Anthem"). Don't think he can't still turn up the clubs, though. "About The Money" with Young Thug still goes the opposite of soft.
17. Childish Gambino, Because The Internet
Fans have gotten to see where he's been with his debut Camp, but that maiden LP was littered with scattered, anxious thoughts. With Because The Internet, Gambino is more sure and aware of himself.
At first, Because The Internet can be seen as an outpouring of emotions. Then you see it for what it really is: A conceptual project portraying everything the Internet has become. Life happens and carelessness ensues (i.e. "The Library," 'Worldstar," "Playing Around Before The Party") but it still rounds out how entertaining moments like #thatbackfliptho, the latest Drake meme and Black Twitter can be. —Desire Thompson
16. The Roots, ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin
Are you surprised? The Roots do this. Building on the brilliant concept album undun, ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin is a musically rich, short and sweet look at violence in America, offering various perspectives.
15. Chris Brown, X
When Chris lets down his guard a bit, the results are freakishly good. The sensitivity chip that’s absent in “Loyal” is found in “Autumn Leaves,” which is solemn, calming and reflective and features a knock-out verse from Kendrick Lamar that’s full of pent-up poetic rage. Here’s where Chris admits the comfort of Her pain: “I been bleeding in your silence/I feel safer in your violence,” a line that feels meant to make you uncomfortable. He’s still blaming Her, but he’s willing to be weak and this honesty suits him well. “If you leave this time, I feel that you’ll be gone for good,” he sings. “So I hold on like leaves and fall to what is left.” —Clover Hope
14. Common, Nobody's Smiling
Common’s 10th disc, completely produced by No I.D., is easily his most focused and best effort since 2005’s Be, almost completely produced by Kanye West (J Dilla snuck a couple tracks on that one), leading credence to the theory that the one-MC-one-producer formula results in a superior LP. —Luke Fox
13. Sam Smith, In the Lonely Hour
Smith is only 22 years old, and In the Lonely Hour is just his debut LP, but there’s maturity in the music—the songwriting, the production and most importantly, the voice—that is wise beyond its years. It feels like something you’ve heard before, but perhaps not quite in a while, and not quite this good. Occasionally, Smith falls back on clichés—the LP’s first single, “Money In My Mind,” sounds derivative, at least vocally—but there’s enough originality here to to make him more than just another posturing blue-eyed soul singer. And overall the LP is largely somber and reflective. It’s obvious that it’s about someone who hurt Smith deeply. It’s his loss but, thankfully, our gain, because In the Lonely Hour is one extremely good album. —Paul Cantor
12. Jeezy, Seen It All
The heart of Seen It All can be found in “Holy Ghost.” It’s as if Tupac’s hologram wrote the hook for Jeezy on this one: “Please, Lord, forgive him/You know he got that thug in him/We lust for alcohol and we love women/And nobody gave us nothin’, so we drug dealin’.” This is a fantastic, visceral slice of honesty that sees Jeezy dealing with betrayal, butchered friendships and absolution. —Luke Fox
11. August Alsina, Testimony
August's veracity can be harsh, like a filter-free Newport, but his candor comes from a place of honesty, not disrespect. He strikes the perfect balance of hard and soft—a badass who strips naked to bare his secrets. He may have sex appeal, but the real allure is his vulnerability. August is a gifted ghetto griot. His heart is too big to sling rock, but it’s perfect for singing the blues. —Shanel Odum
10. Azealia Banks, Broke With Expensive Taste
With all of Azealia Banks' thumb sparring on Twitter over these past two years, we'd forgot how talented this 23-year-old chick from Harlem is. That is until she attempted to break the Internet by suddenly dropping her long-thirsted debut album. Bar for bar, Miss Banks can still hold her own against hip-hop's best. But what's most impressive is Azealia's tackling of love and sexuality while playing genre hopscotch ("Gimme A Chance" evolves into a Salsa track—who knew Azealia could rhyme in Spanish?!). —John Kennedy
9. ScHoolboy Q, Oxymoron
Habits & Contradictions, Oxymoron's predecessor, had a schizo quality that works for Q—there are zany and hazy interludes, intense gangster anthems and humble offerings (“Blessed”). It’s a dissociation that showcased all the complexities of ScHoolboy’s many aspects as an artist. Here, Q is more focused, more polished. Oxymoron is a couple songs shy of flawless, but it’s another powerful statement from the TDE camp. Perfectly imperfect. How’s that for an oxymoron? —John Kennedy
8. Justin Bieber, Journals
Justin's compilation album Journals was criminally slept on while headlines focused on his arrests and bratty behavior. But this is an R&B gem, steeped in '90s soul. "Recovery" breathes new life into Craig David's 2000 hit "Fill Me In," and cameos by Chance The Rapper, Lil Wayne, R. Kelly and Big Sean solidified the Music Mondays compilation project as one of the best to close out 2013.
7. Jhene Aiko, Souled Out
After stacking her profile by adding her seductive trills to your favorite rappers’ tracks, it’s surprising to see just one hip-hop feature on Jhené Aiko’s debut studio album. Yet once Souled Out’s run time is finito, it makes complete sense. This is no battle-of-the-sexes affair; it’s an exploration of Jhené’s lows and lows of love, propelled by chilled-out acoustics and badass drum machines. And while it may not make believers of those who favor powerhouse vocalists, the honest, direct poetry, soothing vibes and did-she-just-say-that tongue make this a must-listen. Dudes may gain some empathy, while women will just close their eyes and nod along, like, I feel you, girl. Let’s all just hope Jhené doesn’t set sail with Mr. Right any time soon. —John Kennedy
6. Logic, Under Pressure
Logic's Def Jam debut is lyrically and sonically one of the best albums of 2014. Hands down. The Maryland MC delivers honest, true-to-life tales about his drug-abusing dad and the mysterious lover Nikki. In fact, only one factor hinders this LP from invading the top five: Logic's flows too often recall Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole or Drake. But as he continues crafting a rhyme style of his own, please believe the aforementioned lyrical trinity will be peeking over their shoulders for the biracial wordsmith.
5. Big K.R.I.T., Cadillactica
Whatever got into Big K.R.I.T., we like it! The Mississippi rapper came out swinging with his conceptual, intergalactic sophomore Def Jam effort, crowning himself King of the South and backing it up with his strongest, most cohesive project to date.
4. Pharrell, G I R L
Feminist album or not, Pharrell's first solo album in eight years is smoother than black ice. While "Happy" vibes carried over from 2013, collaborations with Alicia Keys ("I Know Who You Are") and Daft Punk ("Gust of Wind") kept that positive energy flowing. We'll never say "bye" to Pharrell's G I R L. ::rimshot::
3. YG, My Krazy Life
Powered by Mustard’s bouncy 808s and familiar-yet-fresh Cali funk, the narrative-driven album is the most vivid, moviesque portrayal of life in gang-ruled Los Angeles since Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city. —John Kennedy
2. Run The Jewels, Run The Jewels 2
It’s not at all an insult to call acclaimed hip-hop group Run the Jewels one of the most unlikely success stories in popular music folklore. In fact, the duo of hardboiled lyricist Michael “Killer Mike” Render and left-field producer/rapper Jaime “El-P” Meline would be the first to tell you that they have been completely taken aback by the enormous buzz that has surrounded the mismatch tandem. Their latest release, Run the Jewels 2, a fist-pounding follow-up to their universally hailed 2013 debut Run the Jewels, is proof that all the talk of the charismatic tag-team being the best hip-hop group since OutKast called it quits in the studio is not unwarranted. —Keith Murphy
1. Beyonce, Beyonce
Beyonce’s best album is also her most well-rounded. There are the grown-up ballads of 4, trendiness and turn-up tunes a la B’Day, and all-girl-power-everything. All hail the Queen Bey!