This past year was a slow for great records. There were pop albums I adored, but those were fewer this year than usual. That said, the albums I really liked rose above the rest and wormed their way into my heart.
Suzanne Vega's Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles
I got to Vega's new studio album a bit late, but I'm very glad I finally snagged a copy because it is impressive work. I'm a big fan of the singer/songwriter's approach to folk pop; in fact, I think her album Beauty and Crime is the model for the perfect pop album. Tales continues to show Vega as one of the best musicians working today, and her songs tackle such topics as meditation, aesthetics, philosophy, and love. My favorite tracks include the rocking "I Never White" (a dynamite single) and "Fool's Complaint," but the whole album is delightful and delivered with Vega's signature directness.
Royksopp and Robyn's Do It Again
When I heard Royksopp and Robyn were collaborating on a new record, I was excited to hear Robyn tackle darker material, her voice providing an emotional backbone for Royksopp's more experimental tendencies. Though only five tracks, the album clocks in at a robust 35 minutes and traverses lots of sonic territory, including the contemplative trance of "Monument," the hooky title track, and the moving instrumental "Inside the Idle Hour." It's interesting that in just five tracks, Royksopp and Robyn take the listener on emotional and spiritual journey through what sounds like a chilly sonic landscape, full of concrete and beats. Do It Again is a stellar mood piece.
Betty Who's Slow Dancing EP
Speaking of five song releases, Betty Who's short, delicious, and sweet EP, Slow Dancing, is a fine nod to 80s pop confections. Though Who released a full length album later in the year, my heart is stuck on this EP because it packs quite a hooky punch. My favorite tracks include the single "Heartbreak Dream" and "Alive Again," but, like Suzanne Vega's album, this whole release charmed me.
Sia's 1000 Forms of Fear
Sia released her break through record in the summer, and when I heard 1000 Forms of Fear on release day, I instantly claimed it was the best pop record of the year. While the next album I'm going to write about complicates that claim, I still think 1000 Forms of Fear is impeccable pop music, in part because it dares to be dark, handles difficult subjects like depression and substance abuse, and presents those songs in Sia's raw style. It's an unusual pop record not only because Sia is an unusual pop star, but also because it is emotionally complicated and extremely accessible. If you haven't heard any of the album tracks beyond "Chandelier," be sure to check out "Big Girls Cry," "Hostage," and "Elastic Heart." This whole record (and especially those tunes) soundtracked many of my walks around Ithaca this summer.
Taylor Swift's 1989
Little did I know that Taylor Swift would release my favorite album of 2014. Sure, I really liked her 2012 release, Red, even if it is overstuffed, and I would defend Swift's craftsmanship any day, but this album's hold on came as a surprise. With 1989, Swift has produced a genuine masterpiece. While the record is characteristically long, it improves on her earlier output because it manages to present what may be personal experiences in even more relatable and universal pop tunes. The album oozes catchy choruses, nicely observed lyrics about youth and love, and good production choices that wink at the 80s without over-indulging. The key tunes are "Welcome to New York," "Blank Space," "Out of the Woods," "How You Get the Girl," and the lovely Imogen Heap collab, "Clean."
So it was slower year for the album but not a bad one. I mean, I'll be listening to these five records for many years to come.