1. 14. Tinashe “Aquarius”
Tinashe should have had a smash album this year. “Aquarius,” her debut LP, did modestly on the charts. It deserved better than that. On the project, Tinashe merges her talented ear for catchy melodies and hooks with the atmospheric, spacey production that has taken over contemporary R&B. The two merging styles reach their peak on the album standout, “Feels Like Vegas,” which feels like it should have been a single.
2. 13. Trey Songz “Trigga”
Trey Songz creates an album with one intention: to make smash songs. And on “Trigga,” there’s no shortage of hits (the first half of the album is especially murderous). Now, there’s a major flaw with that game plan: at times the album can feel like just a bunch of hit songs rather than a complete piece of work. Still, there’s probably no better R&B album if you just want something that rides.
3. 12. Ed Sheeran “x”
A couple of weeks ago, Spotify announced that “x,” Ed Sheeran’s sophomore LP, was the most streamed album on their platform in 2014. So we don’t need to tell you how great this album is. You most likely already know. And you most likely already heard him hit all the notes, from singing to songwriting to, yes, rapping (his bars on “The Man” are very respectable).
4. 11. Lana Del Rey “Ultraviolence”
For her sophomore album, “Ultraviolence,” Lana Del Rey ditched the producers she worked with on “Born to Die” and went all the way in with Dan Auerbach (from The Black Keys fame). The two made an album that was far less pop and hip-hop-based and more alternative-rock. The cohesion of the project is the major selling point: every song is at the same speed. And every song deals with the same theme (sadness).
5. 10. Teyana Taylor “VII”
Over the years, R&B has sorta been two note: either you’re doing the spacey, whisper voice R&B or the L.A.-based ratchet R&B. Teyana Taylor ignored both of those trends and, at the young age of 23, made the most grown-up-sounding, sexy major R&B album of the year. Ladies: more of this, please.
6. 9. August Alsina “Testimony”
In many ways, “Testimony” is like a rap album. The beats are hard; most of the guests are rappers; there aren’t many love songs; and the content is tough — these are songs about the streets. Alsina’s R&B sensibilities show up in one important way: he has a sensitivity rappers don’t usually show. Almost all of the songs on his great debut have an underlying theme of regret in them.
7. 8. Sia “1000 Forms of Fear”
Sia has spent the last couple of years writing some of pop music’s most memorable songs, like Rihanna’s “Diamonds” and Beyonce’s “Pretty Hurts.” She finally decided to save a couple of hits for herself. We all know “Fear” for “Chandelier,” but there’re hits galore throughout this LP. The album is very accessible, but there is also a touch of Sia’s trademark weirdness throughout — see “Free the Animal.”
8. 7. J. Cole “2014 Forest Hills Drive”
J. Cole doesn’t make bad rap albums. The question coming into this album, his third, is if he could push himself creatively to make a classic one. For large parts of this album, he doesn’t push himself. However, there’s small little pockets where he experiments with new sounds and flows (like on “A Tale of 2 Citiez” and “G.O.M.D.”) Moments like those few push J. Cole’s album from solid to pretty damn good.
9. 6. Common “Nobody’s Smiling”
After a couple of ho-hum affairs, Common returned to old form. And he did it by ditching the fake-deep inspirational shtick of his last couple of years, and making an LP of the times: one that is dark. We also loved that he reached out to up-and-comers like Lil Herb (“The Neighborhood”), Vince Staples (“Kingdom”) and Dreezy (“Hustle Harder”). It’s like he wanted to tell them: this is how you make a great rap album.
10. 5. FKA twigs “LP1”
If you think great pop music is easy, you haven’t heard much FKA twigs. The young UK singer made the most difficult pop album since “Yeezus.” Songs are almost formless: at any given time, the drums will change; things will speed up; things will slow down; and some times things straight up won’t drop. However, like most things that are hard, stick with it and the reward is great once you figure it out.
11. 4. Pharrell “G I R L”
Amazingly, it’s feasible to think that Pharrell still hasn’t peaked…commercially or creatively. The producer/singer/rapper had the biggest hit of his career, “Happy,” in 2014. He also pushed himself musically on “G I R L:” never has P created a project this lush and this dramatic with this many types of different sounds, from the cinematic strings on “Marilyn Monroe” to the jazzy piano on “It Girl.”
12. 3. Taylor Swift “1989”
When Taylor Swift released the video for “Shake it Off,” her first single off “1989,” many thought the singer was pulling a Miley Cyrus by appropriating black culture. They were wrong: turns out Taylor was just clowning. “1989” is — thankfully — hip-hop and R&B free. “1989” is a delightful throwback pop album. Songs like “Blank Space” and “Style” sound like great pop jams from 1992.
13. 2. Sam Smith “In the Lonely Hour”
Countless publications have labeled Sam Smith this year’s Adele. And, honestly…that’s pretty accurate. Vocally, Sam Smith isn’t as powerful as Adele, but the two share strikingly similar stories: UK artist breaks though in the States by releasing a great downbeat, throwback album with songs that are accessible enough to smash radio. Case in point: “Stay With Me” is this year’s “Someone Like You.”
14. 1. YG “My Krazy Life”
In 2014, Compton MC YG made a hip-hop classic. And he did it by keeping things simple. Songs are short; beats, provided mostly by DJ Mustard, are minimalistic; and the hooks and lyrics are blunt, straight to the point. “My Krazy Life” is also the most cohesive LP of the year: the album, which tells a story of YG growing up in LA, is perfectly sequenced. To put it bluntly (or like YG would): it’s “Music to Driveby.”