10. Against Me!, ‘Transgender Dysphoria Blues’
Breaking from the aggressive rock roar of Against Me!’s sixth LP is “Two Coffins,” a whisper among the glorious chaos of “Transgender Dysphoria Blues.” Its simplicity might standout sonically, but it shares a familiar characteristic: It’s emotionally exposed. The complex “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” is a powerful breakthrough not just personally for front-woman Laura Jane Grace, but for the entire band.
9. Lucinda Williams, ‘Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone’
Demonstrating a rare knack for pulling off a double album, Lucinda Williams treats every note like it’s her last on “Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone.” Her songwriting is vivid and life-affirming (see the optimistic “When I Look at the World”); the Americana sound is pure and authentic. This, one of Williams’ greatest, is music that meets the bone, the heart and everything in between.
8. Lana Del Rey, ‘Ultraviolence’
“If you don’t like it, you can beat it, baby” isn’t just a line from Lana Del Rey’s “Brooklyn Baby,” a song off her third album – it’s a career motto. Withdrawing from the commercialized sound of “Born to Die,” Del Rey shed the hip-hop image and traded it in for the cinematic elegance heard on songs like “Fucked My Way Up to the Top” and “Old Money,” a cinematic daydream.
7. Miranda Lambert, ‘Platinum’
There’s no big move to NYC in Miranda Lambert’s future. On the country singer’s latest, “Platinum,” her cowboy boots are pressed firmly in Nashville soil. Twanging her way through a clever set of outrageous Dolly-influenced ditties about boobs, illegitimate babies and blonde ambition, and pairing them with sweet moments of quiet reflection (“Holding on to You”), Lambert lathers on another layer of veteran polish.
6. Lee Ann Womack, ‘The Way I’m Livin”
After a seven-year hiatus, the honeyed twang of Lee Ann Womack returned with “The Way I’m Livin’,” one of the singer’s finest to date. Sticking to the purist form of yesteryear country, the “I Hope You Dance” vocalist taps into the complexities of the human spirit via some of the best-written songs on Music Row. “Send It on Down,” for instance, is a first-person narrative also serving as an affecting prayer for the masses.
5. Perfume Genius, ‘Too Bright’
Shattering the perception that he’s merely a sonic softie, Seattle’s Mike Hadreas summoned his strut for this celebration of life, liberty and the pursuit of homo happiness. Hadreas’ most self-assured release thus far, which has him proclaiming “no family is safe when I sashay,” “Too Bright” is a musically potent manifesto split between two people: himself, and the person he strives to be.
4. Mariah Carey, ‘Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse’
In a just world, “Elusive Chanteuse” would have emancipated Mariah Carey back to the top of the charts. Not just because her voice soars higher with every awe-inspiring key change on the gospel stunner “Heavenly (No Ways Tired / Can’t Give Up Now),” but, altogether, the diva hasn’t made an album this consistently sublime in years. The hit-worthy “Fantasy” redux “You Don’t Know What to Do” and old-school ballad “Cry.” evoked classic Carey vibes, and even her emotional “One More Try” remake impressed. Nostalgia has rarely sounded so divine.
3. Lykke Li, ‘I Never Learn’
Swedish songstress Lykke Li’s personal low produced a professional high as she let sadness lead her through a ceaseless parade of crestfallen sentiments: forlorn “Never Gonna Love Again,” the ethereal guitar-driven title track, and the chilly “Silverline.” Cathartic in its own right, Li’s intimate “I Never Learn” was the year’s greatest outpouring of breakup woe.
2. Beyonce, ‘Beyonce’
Bey’s impromptu opus just missed last year’s rankings when it descended from the music gods without warning at the arrival of 2014. From the moralistic “Pretty Hurts” to the bootylicious “Partition,” onto the heartfelt ballad “Heaven,” the icon’s latest creation is the best of her career, a vision so grandiose and avant-garde it evaded radio altogether. A rare evolution for such a megastar, the collection wasn’t just sexually and sonically uninhibited – it was bold on all levels.
1. Taylor Swift, ‘1989’
For her fifth album, Taylor Swift put down the guitar, moved to the Big Apple and decided to own the world. Cut to “1989,” a sophisticated smack of irresistibility that broke records for all the right reasons, but mostly because no one could shake, shake, shake it off. Self-aware (“Blank Space”), experimental (that’s Imogen Heap working her magic on “Clean”) and uncharacteristically confrontational (“Bad Blood”), the Swift behemoth set a new precedent for pop.