1. The War On Drugs, "Lost in the Dream" (Secretly Canadian). The year saw no better argument than this for the power and potential of the album as a musically cohesive piece of work. Adam Granduciel’s ebbing and flowing tour de force expertly moves from interior turmoil to the adrenaline release of the open road, drawing equally on classic-rock touchstones such as Dylan and Dire Straits and the trancey motorik beat of German bands like Kraftwerk and Neu! Album of the year.
2. Miranda Lambert, "Platinum" (RCA). Sixteen songs deep, Miranda Lambert’s fifth studio album doesn’t quit, from the backyard boasts of “Platinum” and “Little Red Wagon” to the western swing of “All That’s Left” to the unsentimental nostalgia of “Smokin’ and Drinkin’ “ to the unforgiving look in the mirror of “Bathroom Sink.” Platinum is the best country album of 2014 and Lost in the Dream’s closest competition for overall No. 1.
3. Angel Olsen, "Burn Your Fire for No Witness" (Jagjaguwar). “I’m so lonesome I could cry,” Angel Olsen sings, not idly quoting Hank Williams on “Hi-Fire,” one of the 11 emotionally riveting songs on the smoldering "Burn Your Fire for No Witness," which leaves folkie minimalism behind for a full-bodied, rocked-out sound. Olsen specializes in writing searing songs of not-so-fragile beauty that don’t let go. She outdoes herself here.
4. Run the Jewels, "RTJ 2" (Mass Appeal). On their urgent follow-up to their 2013 debut, the interracial duo of Michael “Killer Mike” Render and Jaime “El-P” Meline beat out Azealia Banks’ "Broke With Expensive Taste" for rap album of the year. El-P’s grimy, dynamic production is alternately spooky and slamming, and Mike’s combative rhymes, in particular, are keenly intelligent, no surprise to anyone who has heard him emerge as a voice of reasoned indignation in the wake of unrest in Ferguson, Mo.
5. Sun Kil Moon, "Benji" (Caldo Verde). Mark Kozolek has been a sad-core sad sack for decades now, recording under his own name and as Red House Painters, as well as using the Sun Kil Moon rubric. But he has never turned in work of such transfixing beauty. A deeply felt album about love and sex and death named after a cute dog in a series of hit 1970s movies.
6. Lykke Li, "I Never Learn" (Atlantic). Dressed in black and singing “power ballads for the broken,” Swedish singer Lykke Li’s third album seems born of an Ingmar Bergman binge. In fact, it’s steeped in ‘60s girl-group pop and sustains a sad, stately heartache vibe, from “No Rest for the Wicked” to “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone.” For extra credit, Li also dueted with Bono on “The Troubles,” the best thing on U2’s Songs of Innocence, an album not as good as this one.
7. Parquet Courts, "Sunbathing Animal" (What’s Your Rupture?). Parquet Courts are heirs to the independent spirit of 1980s post-punk. Front men Austin Brown and Andrew Savage have gone to school on Velvet Underground guitar churn and Lou Reed half-sung vocals. They continue to grow musically at an impressive rate, apparent on both this early 2014 release and "Content Nausea," the almost-as-good album that came out this month with a slightly different lineup, amusingly credited to Parkay Quarts.
8. St. Vincent, "St. Vincent" (Loma Vista/Republic). Annie Clark, a.k.a. the guitarist who performs as St. Vincent, honed her robot moves on her 2013 tour with her "Love This Giant" collaborator David Byrne. On her self-titled fourth album, she fashions herself a silver-haired, note-shredding android on the lookout for the soul in the machine, commanding her digital witnesses to put down the Twitter and only connect, face to face.
9. Flying Lotus, "You’re Dead!" (Warp). The mind-blowing head trip of the year. Impending mortality is the unifying concept of the fifth album by Los Angeles DJ/producer Stephen Ellison. He connects with his lineage (he’s the grandnephew of Alice Coltrane) by melding free jazz with electronic beats and hip-hop, rhyming funnily under the name Captain Murphy. and putting funk bassist Thundercat and rappers Snoop Dogg and particularly Kendrick Lamar to excellent use.
10. Taylor Swift, "1989" (Big Machine). What Taylor Swift wants, Taylor Swift gets, and one doesn’t get to be a world-dominating “global superstar” — as the Wyomissing native’s messaging calls her — by limiting yourself to a “country” audience. So 1989, naturally, made the transition to pure, unabashed pop seamlessly while moving product like it really was 1989. It earns its way on this list with a surfeit of all-but-irresistible hooks — “Wildest Dreams,” “Blank Space,” “How You Get the Girl” — that don’t sacrifice a smidgen of Swift’s Everygirl identity.
Aphex Twin, "Syro" (Warp); Azealia Banks, "Broke With Expensive Taste" (Prospect Park); Leonard Cohen, "Popular Problems" (Columbia); Lana Del Rey, "Ultraviolence" (Interscope); Steve Gunn, "Way Out Weather" (Paradise of Bachelors); Sturgill Simpson, "Metamodern Sounds in Country Music" (High Top Mountain); Spoon, "They Want My Soul" (Loma Vista); Sharon Van Etten, "Are We There" (Jagjaguwar); Lucinda Williams, "Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone" (Highway 20); Wussy, "Attica!"(Damnably).