Pop Album of the Year
Taylor Swift — 1989
In her own words, 1989 is Taylor Swift’s first official pop album, and it leaves her country roots behind. So far it’s the only album released in 2014 to go platinum, and 1989 reached that million-mark in just one week. The key question from most pop fans was, “Is it really that good?”
For the most part, the answer is, “Yes.” Working with Swedish pop mastermind Max Martin, his American counterpart Ryan Tedder, and rising star Jack Antonoff of fun. and Bleachers, 1989 is a blast of self-assured contemporary pop, that retains Swift’s knack for highly personal lyrics.
Swift’s songs on 1989 occasionally stray from that formula (in “Bad Blood,” about her feud with Katy Perry, she especially goes for the jugular). But she’s at her best, as always, when singing about herself, especially on hit singles “Shake It Off” and “Blank Space.” Both are two of the catchiest pop melodies of the year; the first tells us all to ignore the “haters” as we move forward in life, and the second is an incisive exploration of her notorious romantic failures. 1989 is not only a distillation of the latest in contemporary hit music, it is the idiosyncratic work of today’s most successful pop artist.
Honorable mentions go to two British singer-songwriters: Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith.
On his second full-length album, x, Sheeran has matured into a consistently likable pop artist, able to stretch in different musical directions while still maintaining his own distinctive voice. He dives into funky R&B with Pharrell Williams on “Sing,” and shows off his ingratiating sing-speak styling on “Don’t.” It’s his intimate ballad “Thinking Out Loud” that will have most mainstream pop fans swooning though.
Smith kicked off the year as the BBC’s choice for the top new artist of 2014. He first hit pop radio in the U.S. as the featured vocalist on Naughty Boy’s catchy dance-pop hit “La La La.” But audiences didn’t really understand what the BBC saw until Smith’s debut album In the Midnight Hour hit physical and virtual shelves. The LP is a beautifully melancholic collection of songs that focus on his haunting voice, best epitomized in his first solo hit, “Stay With Me.”
Rock Album of the Year
u2 — Songs Of Innocence
It may have generated huge controversy with its free rollout to all iTunes customers, turning off many of the band’s otherwise devoted fans, but Songs of Innocence is U2 at the top of their game.
The world’s greatest rock band took William Blake’s 18th century collection of poems about childhood, Songs of Innocence, as inspiration to create some of their most personal music. That doesn’t mean the songs are inaccessible. This is U2 after all, and the album is bursting with rock ‘n’ roll hooks.
Honorable mentions in this category go to the arresting St. Vincent and punk’s Against Me!.
On St. Vincent’s self-titled album, frontwoman Annie Clark anoints herself the quirkiest of rock superstars. She can shred with the best on guitar, but her song sensibility, while ultra-catchy, lies firmly outside the mainstream.
Punk rockers Against Me! turned in one of the bravest albums of the year: Transgender Dysphoria Blues. In 2012, the band’s lead vocalist came out as transgender, changing her name from Tom Gabel to Laura Jane Grace. Transgender Dysphoria Blues is a concept album inspired by Grace’s transition, about the emotional journey of self-discovery and evolution. Notably, it sacrifices none of the band’s trademark energy and in-your-face punk attitude.
R&B Album of the Year
Mary J. Blige — The London Sessions
Few would dispute Mary J. Blige’s status as a reigning queen of R&B. With a string of chart-topping albums released over the course of two decades, she doesn’t have to prove anything as an artist. Yet The London Sessions is her most consistently engaging work in nearly a decade, and perhaps some of the most adventurous in her career altogether.
The album got its start back in July, when Blige moved to London to work with some of the hottest young British songwriters and producers. Among her more memorable collaborations: the Naughty Boy-produced “Whole Damn Year,” Disclosure’s uptempo dance work on “Follow,” and “Therapy,” co-written with Sam Smith.
Honorable mentions go to living legend Prince and rising talent Jhene Aiko.
This year, Prince made up with Warner Brothers after nearly 20 years and released two new albums on the same day. The standout is the supremely funky Art Official Age. Some fans may see this as the long-delayed true successor to his glory days in the 1980s.
26-year-old Jhene Aiko very quietly heads into refreshingly fresh directions while respecting the past on her album Souled Out. The overall feel is a chilled, new age-influenced style of soul, but the intimate words are often frustrated and even angry in speaking about interpersonal relationships. This is an album for repeat listening, after which its many riches slowly emerge.