Tough times call for tough music: music that challenges, surprises, enlightens and delights. Whether it came from young upstarts or old lions roaring once more, a lot of this kind of music came out last year. Here are 14 of the best albums of 2014.
Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires, Dereconstructed (Sub-Pop)
The Clash is alive and well and jamming with Lynyrd Skynyrd in Birmingham, Ala. As unlikely as this description may seem, it's what Dereconstructed really does sound like.
Birmingham-raised, NYU-educated Lee Bains proclaims his undying love for the South while railing against some of its—and America's—many ills: racism, homophobia, thieving businessmen, regressive politics, blind consumerism. He and The Glory Fires back up these fighting words with snarling guitars and a rhythm section that can handle sludgy stomp, mid-tempo boogie and full-throttle blitzkrieg.
The Bitter Southerner declared that this punk-Southern rock hybrid "may be the most important record about the South ever released." It may also be the best rock album of 2014.
Jenny Lewis, The Voyager (Warner Bros.)
Many reviews of The Voyager reference the rough patch that Jenny Lewis went through over the past few years. These experiences—the death of her father, the breakup of her band Rilo Kiley, struggles with insomnia—may have influenced the album, but focusing on them can distract you from the wit, empathy and complexity of her songwriting.
With production help from Ryan Adams and Beck, Lewis depicts women making their own mistakes, learning lessons and speaking their minds. These concise tales of sexual and chemical experimentation feature some of the sharpest melodies and slyest vocals of her career, making The Voyager an almost perfect pop-rock album.
Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2 (Mass Appeal Records)
At Treefort 2014, Run the Jewels' Killer Mike got a crowd of Idahoans to shout, "Fuck Ronald Reagan!" With their second album, he and partner El-P pull off something equally audacious.
Run the Jewels 2 mixes social protest, trash talk and blunt-and-booze glorification without shortchanging any of them. Killer Mike and El-P deliver it all with slamming beats, razor-sharp rhymes and quicksilver flow. Add it up and you have an album that can support cameos from both ex-Rage Against the Machine frontman Zach de la Rocha and ex-Three 6 Mafia rapper Gangsta Boo. The latter, incidentally, comes on a sex rap that practices equal opportunity while piling on raunchy details.
Seun Kuti & Egypt 80, A Long Way to the Beginning (Knitting Factory Records)
Making music in the shadow of a legendary parent isn't easy. As the youngest son of Afrobeat creator and political firebrand Fela Kuti, Seun Kuti's cross would seem especially hard to bear. He's managing just fine, though, in part because he inherited Fela's band. He's also absorbed his dad's vision and, in some ways, improved on it: "Black Woman," the soulful closing track on Beginning, helps clean out the bad taste left by Fela's condescending "Lady."
Seun's taste in producers helps, too. While From Africa with Fury: Rise (2011) featured production from Brian Eno, the Nigerian musician turned to jazz-hip-hop cross-pollinator Robert Glasper for his latest album. Together, they concoct a denser, faster and more abrasive take on the elder Kuti's meld of funk, jazz and Highlife.
Angaleena Presley, American Middle Class (Slate Creek Records)
Sturgill Simpson may sound like Waylon Jennings, but his hit record Metamodern Sounds in Country Music has more in common with Youth Lagoon's The Year of Hibernation. Both albums let listeners indulge a fantasy of escaping from this mean old world.
With Angaleena Presley's American Middle Class, such opiates for the masses aren't on the menu. Instead, you get 12 songs that combine the down-home feminist sass of Loretta Lynn (or Presley's Pistol Annies cohort, Miranda Lambert) with the tough-minded yet compassionate class-consciousness of Merle Haggard. Presley may have sweeter tunes and vocals, but she hits just as hard as Lee Bains III or the Drive-By Truckers.
St. Vincent, St. Vincent (Loma Vista/Republic)
Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent, has been dropping so many jaws lately that her music and videos should carry a warning label from the American Dental Association. She stunned viewers and critics with her cover of Nirvana's "Lithium" at the 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Last February, she released her most accomplished and accessible album to date.
On St. Vincent, Clark wraps her idiosyncratic lyrics and alluring vocals in bumptious beats, mind-warping textures and loads of irresistible hooks. It's too bad Lady Gaga already used the title Artpop: This album embodies the concept better than almost any in recent memory.