NPR Music’s Favorite Albums Of 2014 (So Far)

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BY Colin Marshal | NPR

At the year’s halfway point, with summer just about to flip the calendar over to side B, it’s a challenge to get a satisfying picture of the year in music, even if you’re just looking at a single genre. Consider the voices of the couple dozen obsessive listeners from NPR Music and our public radio partners who made this list, and the only thing that remains undeniably true is that great albums come out of every genre, from every corner of the world.

What links them together? 2014 has, in its first six months, been a wonderful year for musicians who go deep. The albums on this list (presented alphabetically) all start with a sound, a vibe, a concept or crucial idea. After that, they flower in different ways. One might display the range of sounds a band leader can pull out of a few fellow musicians or the depth of emotion a singer can plumb while mapping the course of desire and heartbreak. Others offer history lessons, looking back over 20 years in the life of an American city or 200 years in the life of an instrument.

All pull you in with both hands. All of them connect us as listeners to the work done by musicians who ask for more than three minutes of our time. These ones deserve it. These are our favorite albums of the year so far.

Advisory: Some of the songs on this page contain profanity.


NPR Music’s 25 Favorite Albums Of 2014 (So Far)


ANA TIJOUX
VENGO

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Over the last few years, Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux has released one flawless record after another, making her one of Latin America’s most beloved rappers. Her most recent album, Vengo, is no exception. It’s musically exhilarating while lyrically poignant, a difficult equilibrium that Latin hip-hop — a genre that tends to be very political — sometimes has trouble achieving. Tijoux walks the thin line that separates thoughtful from preachy with confidence: She’s at that sweet spot of being joyously combative, relaxed but resistant. Musically Vengo is also quite breathtaking. While some of her colleagues wallow in derivative beats, she proves why she’s at the top of her class with a unique blend of jazz, funk and Andean rhythms. For those who don’t know her work, this is a good time to catch up. — Jasmine Garsd


ANGEL OLSEN
BURN YOUR FIRE FOR NO WITNESS

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The word “confessional” tends to get tossed around to describe singer-songwriters who reveal — and even revel in — raw, sticky emotions. But there’s a kind of submissiveness, even apology, implied by that word that doesn’t suit Angel Olsen. Whether she’s huddled over a single acoustic guitar or backed by a muscular rock band, Olsen’s voice grabs you by the collar and looks straight through you. As commanding and assertive as its title suggests, especially in naked and foreboding songs like the seven-minute “White Fire,” Burn Your Fire for No Witness doesn’t waste a motion or a breath. Olsen’s subtle, commanding voice is the embodiment of coiled intensity: The more she seems to hold still, the harder her punches land. — Stephen Thompson


ARTURO O’FARRILL & THE AFRO LATIN ORCHESTRA
THE OFFENSE OF THE DRUM

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There’s no doubt that the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, led by pianist Arturo O’Farrill, is well versed in clave and swing. But here’s a list of other things that appear on its new album: Colombian country harp; “Iko Iko” featuring a Mardi Gras Indian chief; an mesmerizing beat pattern from Vijay Iyer; an arrangement of a work by French Romantic composer Erik Satie; Nuyorican slam poetry with scratching turntables; djembe, taiko drum and at least 26 other percussion instruments. Musical hybridity is at the heart of this band; here, it assimilates any remezcla thrown at it with furious conviction. — Patrick Jarenwattananon


BECK
MORNING PHASE

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If we needed any proof that albums still matter in this short-attention-span world, Beck‘s flawless twelfth album, Morning Phase, is a triumphant testimony. From the soft swells of the orchestral opener, “Cycle,” and the first strum of his guitar, the transportive effect of this slow and beautiful sonic journey begins. Made with Beck’s composer father, David Richard Campbell, and many of the same musicians behind 2002’s Sea Change (Beck’s beloved ode to heartbreak), Morning Phase could be called a companion piece, but is better described as a grown-up sequel. The songs pull at the heartstrings, and instead of pulling us downward, they are ultimately about finding the light when one lets go. Whether it is in the glow of early morning or under a blue moon, Morning Phase provides a bittersweet reminder of the temporary nature of all things, and a wiser Beck right there with us. — Carmel Holt, WFUV


BRIAN BLADE & THE FELLOWSHIP BAND
LANDMARKS

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This album is led by an all-world jazz drummer but there aren’t really drum solos. It’s pastoral and tranquil when its peers are often urbane and frenetic. It feels simple — rhythmically, harmonically, structurally — in an age of complexity. So when a melody emerges, it cuts like a knife. When a saxophone reaches for that high note, the sincerity is palpable. And when the constantly simmering tension erupts, or even just hits a rolling boil, there’s a joyousness, an instant renewal of 20-year friendships, a velocity of celebration. —Patrick Jarenwattananon


Discover more of NPR’s favorite albums of 2014 at NPR Music.