If anything should be noted about the albums released in 2014, it’s the fact that they seemed to matter way more this year in comparison to recent years. While commercially that may not be the case with sales going down overall, artistically, the album had a bit of a rebirth in the last year. Several of the albums on our list are to thank for that. From Beyoncé’s self-titled all-at-once surprise drop, to Taylor Swift’s refusal to put hers on Spotify, Mariah Carey’s insistence that we “experience the body of work” with hers, and the Beyoncé-like releases by Azealia Banks, J. Cole and D’Angelo, musicians made a concerted effort to place more value on the album this year. Hopefully, this trend continues into 2015 and maybe we’ll see a rise in their sales to match the rise in quality.
At EST. 1997, we chose the 19 “97” albums of 2014, which simply means the 19 best albums of 2014. If you’re familiar with the way we review songs/albums, then you know that “97” is our top score. We love every album on this list, ranked them according to how much, and weighed in with a few thoughts about each. Please feel free to comment with your thoughts, as well! We’d love to hear from you and engage in any discussion.
The 19 “97” Albums of 2014
19. X by Ed Sheeran (June 20th)
The fiery haired crooner doesn’t disappoint with his sophomore effort. With an acoustic guitar still at it’s core, X (pronounced as “Multiply”), does an incredible job at expanding Sheeran’s sound from his typical folk/acoustic tunes with its infusion of hip hop elements. From the quintessential wedding track “Thinking Out Loud”, Pharrell Williams-assisted jam “Sing”, to ode to self-sabotage, “I’m A Mess”, X plays on every one of your heart strings. —Charneil
18. The Pinkprint by Nicki Minaj (December 15th)
After releasing and promoting singles like the minimalistically somber “Pills N Potions,” the heavily “Baby Got Back” sampled Hip Pop “Anaconda,” and the candid feature heavy Hip-Hop number “Only,” the overall sound of Nicki Minaj’s third album was still up in the air. The Pinkprint (a nod to Jay-Z’s The Blueprint trilogy) ends up being a serious R&B influenced sit down with Minaj’s emotional heartbreak and life struggles front and center. Not even a Katy Perry co-penned Ariana Grande track or a Beyoncé feature could bring the much needed high octane Dance Pop to the album which fans have grown accustom to from Minaj (see “Super Bass,” “Starships”). Surprisingly deluxe cuts like “Shanghai” help to at least end the album on a more exciting note. Go to tracks: “The Night Is Still Young,” “Shanghai,” “Win Again” –Keenan
17. The Lyricist’s Opus by Chrisette Michele (November 24th)
Following the release of 2013’s Better, Chrisette Michele embarked on a new career path with the launch of her own website, RichHipster.biz and the release of this EP in November, titled The Lyricists’ Opus. While her path toward artistic and creative freedom truly began with her 2012 mixtape, Audrey Hepburn, this EP marked her first commercially independent release. The Lyricsts’ Opus fits right in with her catalog, yet it is different. Mainly because it really does feel like one, unified… well, opus. Or, as Chrisette describes on the intro, “one long piece, with 5 movements.” The EP flows, one track into the next, with lush orchestration guiding each track along. “Make Us One,” especially, is quite the fitting anthem for our world today. The standout track, however, is “Together,” but every song is truly great. Hopefully, 2015 brings a full length album from Chrisette… no doubt it’ll be on par, or better. –Vincent
16. Platinum by Miranda Lambert (June 3rd)
Miranda Lambert released her fifth album Platinum this past year. It’s an album that manages to make Western swing, 80s arena rock, and honky tonk sound reasonable together. The emotional terrain covered on the album is just as impressive. With a through line about the meaninglessness of going platinum (both in terms of sales and hair color), the album shows Lambert isn’t content to rest on her laurels. Lambert is one of the very few females who can make a real dent on the Country charts, and she’s the Country artist adding the most artistic heft to the industry. –Jason
15. Aquarius by Tinashe (October 7th)
Tinashe’s debut album, Aquarius, was a surprisingly cohesive collection of R&B tunes. It’s equally commercial as it is artistic: you’ve got the sexy and club-ready tracks and the more introspective ones reflecting on love and relationships, all tied together by aptly placed interludes that recall the iconic Janet Jackson, interesting production and solid writing. The album is a mix of new ethereal sounds and past influences reworked to make them relevant in 2014’s musical landscape. Tinashe is someone whose career is going to be interesting to follow. Highlights: “How Many Times,” “Cold Sweat,” “2 On.” –Mario
14. 1989 by Taylor Swift (October 27th)
Following the massive Pop success Taylor Swift’s 2012 album Red achieved (including her first Billboard Hot 100 #1 hit) it was no surprise that her followup album would continue its Pop exploration. 1989 is a departure from her Country Pop roots, and sees Swift attempt to create an 80s influenced Pop album in 2014. Despite being released in October, 1989 became 2014’s biggest selling album, impressive! While not nearly as experimental as the dub step/Pop “I Knew You Were Trouble.” the mid tempo heavy album is certainly adequate music for your Muzak shopping experiences. Expect to hear cuts from the album overplayed on radio well into 2015, because, well, it’s Taylor Swift. Go to tracks: “New Romantics,” “Bad Blood,” “Style” –Keenan
13. Xscape by Michael Jackson (May 13th)
After the disappointing handling of the last posthumous Michael Jackson album, expectations for Xscape were low. Fortunately, things were different for this project and finally we were given “new” Michael Jackson worthy of the hype. The remixes at times were questionably overproduced, and the choice to feature Justin Timberlake was, well, uncomfortable… but the album’s saving grace was Michael himself. L.A. Reid made the wise choice to release the original demos alongside his commissioned remixes. With these demos, we were able to hear the songs in the state that Michael had left them. After all, the only person who can truly bring a Michael Jackson song to completion is Michael Jackson. While his fans undoubtedly will never pass up hearing more unreleased music, it will never be the same as the King of Pop crafting and releasing a truly new album. Regardless, an album of 8 Michael Jackson demos still bests most albums released in the last year… and that’s saying something. Standout tracks include “Blue Gangsta” and of course the lead single, “Love Never Felt So Good,” a posthumous swing-laden disco jam that wouldn’t sound out of place on his landmark Off the Wall album, yet didn’t sound of place in disco-inflected 2014 either. “Love Never Felt So Good” featured a majestic guitar line and is the kind of carefree pop jam the greats make sound effortless. –Vincent and Jason
12. Turn Blue by The Black Keys (May 12th)
The Black Keys’ 2014 release Turn Blue doesn’t rank among their very best albums. It’s still a solid release, though, and that it manages to be one of the best Rock records of 2014 is saying something. It showcases a band in full command of its talent. On Turn Blue the band incorporated elements of 70s psychedelia, Disco, and even Funk into their sound. It also managed to add a few stadium anthems (“Gotta Get Away” in particular) to their already impressive repertoire. –Jason
11. In the Lonely Hour by Sam Smith (May 26th)
If 2014 brought us any album that seemingly had a clear path for Grammy nominations surely it was Sam Smiths debut album In The Lonely Hour. Featuring heartfelt lyrics, vocals and range, and immaculate musical arrangements that may easily stand the test of time -don’t be surprised if February 2015 sees Smith snatch a few of his impressive six nominations!- With radio ready cuts including “Like I Can,” and “Make It To Me,” singer-songwriter-producer Smith is here to stay with us well past his undeniable 2015 Grammy wins. Go to tracks: “Stay With Me,” “Life Support,” “Like I Can” –Keenan
10. Anybody Wanna Buy a Heart? by K. Michelle (December 9th)
On her second album K. Michelle lets her life experiences take the center stage. Reportedly inspired at large by her affair with Idris Elba, Anybody Wanna Buy a Heart? displays a more sensitive and mature side of K. Michelle. Her lyrics and her melodies have become stronger, her vocals have acquired the art of subtlety and the production features a number of old school R&B influences that never feel out of place. A consistent body of work from start to finish that clearly represents an evolution in her discography. Highlights: “Love ‘Em All,” “Maybe I Should Call,” “Something About the Night.” –Mario
09. Ultraviolence by Lana Del Rey (June 13th)
There was a lot of pressure on Lana Del Rey to deliver with the follow up to her 2012 breakthrough album, Born to Die, and she did not disappoint. Her music isn’t for everyone, nor is it for every mood. Her music is slow, deep, conceptual and moody. It requires your full attention to be fully appreciated; or it can just be played in the background to set a mood. Fittingly so, as Lana’s music often feels cinematic with it’s involved and often dramatic production. With Ultraviolence, though, she experimented a bit sonically by enlisting Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys to produce the bulk of the album, which gave it a certain cohesiveness, and also a bit more of a rock feel than her last set. However, both have one thing in common: they seem impersonal. Hopefully, Lana is less theatrical and more personal on her next album. Don’t get me wrong though, it’s a great album. Aside from the flawless lead single, “West Coast,” be sure to check out “Brooklyn Baby,” “Ultraviolence,” “Shades of Cool,” “Pretty When You Cry,” and “The Other Woman.” –Vincent
08. rose ave. by You+Me (October 14th)
Fans of P!nk and City and Colour were pleasantly surprised this year with an unexpected new musical pairing: You+Me. The duo released their debut album, rose ave., in October and it was near perfection. P!nk is famed for her hit pop/rock singles, but on each album, she always had a folksy song or two. With You+Me, she joins Dallas Green to craft this entire album of folksy, bluesy, soulful bliss. While at times it does get a bit same-y, if listened to independently, each song stands out for its individual beauty. The beauty of the songs lies not only in the music and lyrics, but most especially the fantastic vocal performances from both. Their voices blend together is such perfect and complimentary harmonies. No word on whether this album is a one-off collaboration or if the duo will continue to collaborate, but hopefully there is more to come. Standout tracks: “Break the Cycle,” “Capsized,” “You and Me,” “Love Gone Wrong,” and the fantastic cover of Sade’s “No Ordinary Love.”–Vincent
07. Journey to Freedom by Michelle Williams (September 9th)
With Journey to Freedom, Michelle Williams fearlessly delivered. It is an album comprised of uplifting messages, soaring vocals, and impeccable production. The wait indeed was long, but so worth it. The album flows wonderfully both sonically and thematically. For example, “Need Your Help” is the perfect opener, and flows wonderfully into “Yes.” Or, when “Believe In Me” is followed by the optimistic and uplifting “In the Morning” that almost reaffirms the final message of “Believe In Me,” it’s magical. The reflective “If We Had Your Eyes” follows, and “Say Yes” closes the album with a final moment of celebration and praise. With her Destiny’s Child sisters by her side, Michelle comes full circle on the album closer. By ending the album with “Say Yes,” it’s almost as though she’s letting the haters know that Jesus already said yes to this masterpiece – so any hate, any negativity, any no’s, are moot points. However, calling this album anything but a masterful body of work would be a challenge. So, get slain in the spirit as you experience Michelle Williams’ Journey to Freedom. –Vincent
06. Broke With Expensive Taste by Azealia Banks (November 6th)
A long period of struggle with major labels and their politics probably inspired Azealia to make this record as perfect as possible and the mission was definitely accomplished. Broke With Expensive Taste is the proof that perseverance and faith in your own work will pay off. It’s an unconventional Hip-Hop record, built like an extensive DJ set where the songs have no clear structure and the genres (Rap, House, even Salsa) mix effortlessly under Azealia’s sharp flow and lyrical confidence. She carries the entire album by herself, sung portions included, and she doesn’t fail in keeping the listener’s attention level high. Azealia’s not worried with trends and commercial success, all she wants is her music to speak for itself and in that sense she’s won. Highlights: “Gimme a Chance,” “Ice Princess,” “Chasing Time.” –Mario
05. Love, Marriage & Divorce by Toni Braxton and Babyface (February 4th)
We’ll forever have to be grateful for Babyface talking Toni Braxton out of retirement, because otherwise we’d have never got this album. This is the reunion R&B fans had been waiting for and it finally happened. Both coming from divorces, Toni and Kenny decided to put their own experiences into music and wrote an album that chronicles a couple’s journey throughout marital issues, the realization that the love is gone, separation and finally the hope of reuniting again after all the hurt and pain. Their voices blend incredibly well and it’s just a pleasure to listen to them together because there’s a real connection and a palpable chemistry to be felt. This album being rewarded with a Grammy in February would be the icing on the cake to seal this magical collaboration. Highlights: “Sweat,” “I Wish,” “Take It Back.” –Mario
04. Black Messiah by D’Angelo and the Vanguard (December 15th)
Rush released in accordance with protests related to the deaths of black men at the hands of police, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah was 14 years in the making. D’Angelo said he speaks through his music, and with its chaotic instrumentation and socially conscious lyrics, boy did we all get the message. At the same time, Black Messiah is an album that simmers and reveals itself with continued listening; we’ll still be dissecting this album 10 years from now. It’s what we need now, though, and it can easily sit alongside the seminal works of Marvin Gaye and Sly Stone. –Jason
03. 2014 Forest Hills Drive by J. Cole (December 9th)
In speaking of the album, J. Cole said that 2014 Forest Hills Drive had to come out this year. It’s a damn good thing that it did, because this year in music would have indeed been incomplete without. Or, at least, quite lacking. With 22 days to spare, Cole dropped an album with no singles or promotion but a whole a lot of quality. As I mentioned in my review of the album, the album is at this point, his defining album. Not the peak, because his career has only just begun, but a defining turning point. Sonically, lyrically, mentally – Cole feels like he has truly found himself. Or at least, is on the right path. He is an inspiring leader in hip-hop, and while he and the rest of the world may not realize it yet… he very well may be the savior not only of the music, but of the culture it inspires via his mission to send positive, uplifting messages to his listeners. –-Vincent
02. BEYONCÉ by Beyoncé (December 13, 2013; November 25, 2014)
Yes, technically it came out in 2013… but, oh well. It came, but it never went anywhere. BEYONCÉ, the album and the woman, was an ever present force throughout 2014 with the success of singles like “Drunk In Love,” “Partition,” “***Flawless” and “7/11.” Then of course there was the On the Run Tour and HBO specials. “Yoncé” was indeed “all on our mouths like liquor” in 2014. Beyoncé’s self-titled 5th LP dropped on the world unannounced, like a bomb. Each song is accompanied by its own music video that matches its audio counterpart and boosts the overall listening experience. However, BEYONCÉ was more than just a cultural phenomenon. It’s actually a phenomenal album as well. The album represents the growth of Beyoncé as an artist, showing that she is able to challenge herself with each release and improve her work.
While it may seem more commercially viable in sound than its predecessor 4, BEYONCÉ is an unconventional album. The songs have no definite structure, the beats and melodies change midway through. Beyoncé holds back vocally as well, she opts for a subtler and raw approach on most of the tracks and even showcasing her rapping skills. The big vocal performances of her previous work are nowhere to be found, but the arrangements are still tight and enriched by harmonies and layers of background vocals. Musically, as well, she explored landscapes that were completely new to her catalog. Each song on BEYONCÉ is impeccably produced, and often to the credit of Beyoncé’s ingenious decision to collaborate with multiple producers on most of the tracks. By combining some of the best names in contemporary R&B, Hip-Hop and Pop, Beyoncé crafted stunning and unique sounds for each song. She reinvented herself and her sound, subtly and without seeming desperate like some other “rebel hearts” these days.
Lyrically, the album is cocky, vulnerable, mysterious, empowering and socially conscious all at the same time. With its personal lyrics, Beyoncé has never shared so much, so introspectively. She was deep, reflective, and inspiring. She said things of significance with the feminist messages of “***Flawless,” the empowering “Superpower,” the motivational “Pretty Hurts” and the thought-provoking “Ghost.” She chronicled her love for her husband and daughter on “Blue.” Listening to each song is like entering a whole new world, fittingly accentuated by their equally impressive music videos.
It has been said the album draws from Janet Jackson’s 90s work: twenty years ago Miss Jackson similarly declared her sexual liberation on her own iconic self-titled album, but BEYONCÉ has more of The Velvet Rope‘s darker tones, and her “partition” is like her own “velvet rope”. Overall the album is a win artistically and commercially, as well as a much welcomed focus on the album as a body of work instead of a collection of individual tracks. BEYONCÉ is unforgettable, lyrically, sonically and visually. The only thing more exciting than experiencing it over and over again is the anticipation of what she’s going to do next. –Vincent and Mario
01. Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse by Mariah Carey (May 27th )
Mariah Carey’s 14th studio album inserted itself alongside her best work at a time when most thought she was in a creative rut. It is a collection of songs skillfully put together to create a journey through the past 4 years of her life. Me. I Am Mariah is the craft of a woman going through a dissolving relationship, using her writing to tell the story of her disappointment and her reflections, to reminisce on the good moments of the past and to express the anger and resentment towards what the love she felt has now become. The lyrics on this album are Mariah’s most personal and introspective since Charmbracelet (2002) and that’s what makes it all the more special.
This album is also sort of a journey through different eras of R&B music: from the Motown/Stax era of the 60s, through the late 70s and early 80s with Disco and finally the early 90s Hip-Hop and contemporary Urban sounds. Mariah effortlessly mixed the different nuances of the music she’s always loved and nurtured. It’s her own declaration of love and loyalty to a genre that’s been struggling to remain relevant in the mainstream culture.
And finally, 24 years into her career, the Elusive Chanteuse still continues to deliver a masterclass in vocal ability. Her glorious voice carries the entire album with its different registers and textures, from the husky low notes to the shrill highest ones, maintaining incredible power and clarity throughout. Mariah has always been the master of vocal arrangements and this album does not contradict that: layers of harmonies and background vocals embellish each song while keeping a coherence to the melodies and leaving behind new little elements to be found on each listen. After all, she did essentially delay the album a year with endless “finishing touches.”
However, one must never question a musical genius. Her delays made the album what it is. Had she released it when originally planned it would be lacking its features from Stevie Wonder (playing harmonica on “Make It Look Good”), Nas (“Dedicated”), Wale (“You Don’t Know What to Do”) and no doubt probably some of the cutest, more matured vocal contributions from Ms. Monroe and Rocky on “Supernatural,” an ode to her twins. Not to mention the album’s final three songs, including the infectious “Money” (and two covers, “One More Try” and “Heavenly”) would have never been crafted.
Chanteuse shines on nearly every track, though. From our #2 song, “Dedicated,” which perfectly encapsulates the notions of nostalgia we love here at EST. 1997, to the emotionally raw ballads like “Cry.” and “Camouflage” (which, in hindsight, are undoubtedly about her marriage) to the more contemporary Hip-Hop inspired tracks, the album has it all. Cuts like “Thirsty” and “Faded” flawlessly fit in with current trends while also boasting personal, honest and witty lyrics. The shade is ever-present on Me. I Am Mariah, and peaks on the disco-inspired “Meteorite” on which MC likens overly “turnt up” pop starlets to quickly-fading shooting stars. However, she does embrace new talent, notably on the 2013 hit single “#Beautiful” featuring Miguel, one of the album’s highlights because it embodies all that makes Carey great. With “#Beautiful” she proved that not only could she still craft a quality song, but a commercially successful one, too.
Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse was a return to form all around for Mariah, a balanced mix of all of the elements that have contributed to her legacy: relatable writing, strong melodies, incredible vocals. A trifecta that represents the strength of this veteran diva who still continues to amaze fans all over the globe. –Mario and Vincent