The 40 Best Albums of 2014 So Far

July 1, 2014

For those of you who haven’t checked the calendar today, it is indeed July 1. That means we’re halfway through the year (crazy, right?) and it’s time to reflect on the first half of 2014 in the only way we know how–by ranking albums. This year has already seen a wide variety of worthwhile releases, from the stellar Medeski Martin and Wood collaborative record with Nels Cline to Jack White’s record setting Lazaretto. We’ve also seen a few triumphant returns, most notably String Cheese Incident and Beck, both of whom released their first albums after several years out of the studio.

All in all, we can only hope the back half of 2014 is as good as the front half was. In honor of our 40th anniversary, here are our top 40 albums of the first half of the year.

40. Sonny Rollins | Road Shows, Volume Three

39. Hard Working Americans | Hard Working Americans

38. Phantogram | Voices

37. Old & In The Way | Live at the Boarding House

36. Chris Robinson Brotherhood | Phosphorescent Harvest

35. Railroad Earth | Last of the Outlaws

34. Bruce Springsteen | High Hopes

33. The Hold Steady | Teeth Dreams

32. John Butler Trio | Flesh & Blood

31. The Infamous Stringdusters | Let It Go

30. tUnE-yArDs | Nikki Nack

29. G. Love & Special Sauce | Sugar

28. Medeski, Martin and Wood + Nels Cline | Woodstock Sessions

27. Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band | Landmarks

26. Nickel Creek | A Dotted Line

25. Mike Gordon | Overstep

24. The New Mastersounds | Therapy

23. Nicole Atkins | Slow Phaser

22. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings | Give the People What They Want

21. Broken Bells | After the Disco

20. The Roots | …and then you shoot your cousin

19. Quilt | Held in Splendor

18. St. Paul & the Broken Bones | Half the City

17. Swans | To Be Kind

16. Hurray for the Riff Raff | Small Town Heroes

15. The Black Keys | Turn Blue

14. Phish | Fuego

13. Conor Oberst | Upside Down Mountain

12. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks | Wig Out at Jagbags

11. Tycho | Awake

10. Temples | Sun Structures

For the top ten, an explanation seems necessary, so coming in at number ten is the debut effort from the newest English psych rockers, Temples. Released back in February, Sun Structures harkens back to The Beatles’ Revolver-era with a psychedelic sound rooted in classic rock and roll songwriting.

Essential Tracks: “Shelter Song,” “Keep in the Dark,” “Mesmerize”

9. Woods | With Light and With Love

Woods’ most polished album in their nearly ten-year career cracks the top ten. With Light and With Love finds a band maturing far beyond their years as the group exudes a certain confidence with their craft as they work through their eighth record. Surely, things still get weird, particularly on the nine-minute title track, so fear not. Full review.

Essential Tracks: “Shepherd,” “New Light,” “Moving to the Left”

8. Warpaint | Warpaint

Warpaint’s second studio effort comes in at number eight as one of the very best of the first half of the year. Throughout the 12-track album, the quartet dabbles in the ethereal world of indie rock while exploring the outer boundaries of the psychedelic world. Read our full review here.

Essential Tracks: “Disco//Very,” “Drive,” “Love is to Die”

7. The String Cheese Incident | Song In My Head

String Cheese certainly came out swinging with their first album in nine years. Pairing up with Talking Heads’ Jerry Harrison, the band delivered a collection of tunes they had road-tested over the years.

Song in My Head runs the emotional and stylistic gamut from the joyful, rolling newgrass of Bill Nershi’s “Colorado Bluebird Sky” to the urgency and searching of Michael Kang’s Latin-dosed “Betray The Dark” to the nimble energy of “Rosie.” Here’s the full review.

Essential Tracks: “Colorado Bluebird Sky,” “Let’s Go Outside,” “Rosie”

6. Jack White | Lazaretto

After the more delicate Blunderbuss, rock’s guitar god opted for an album that displayed just that. From the instrumental “High Ball Stepper” to “Would You Fight For My Love?” which could’ve easily found itself on a White Stripes record, White is on a tear with his equally-talented band. Clocking in at just under 40-minutes, Lazaretto gets right to the point and maintains its aggressiveness from the very first note.

Essential Tracks: “Lazaretto,” “Would You Fight For My Love?,” “Just One Drink”

5. Cloud Nothings | Here and Nowhere Else

Easily the most pleasant surprise of the year, Cloud Nothings’ fourth album is quite possibly the most powerful of the year in the world of (indie) rock. The Cleveland rockers generate the same type of power as a trio that Cobain, Novoselic and Grohl used to as grunge was on the rise. With Cloud Nothings, that sound is alive and very, very well.

Essential Tracks: “Now Hear In,” “Quieter Today,” “I’m Not Part of Me”

4. Umphrey’s McGee | Similar Skin

It’s ironic that a bunch of guys who grew up worshipping Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls would make a record that their rival Detroit Pistons (nicknamed “The Bad Boys”) would have loved. That’s what Umphrey’s McGee have here with their eighth studio album. A heavy, unapologetic, rock-and-roll exhibition from start to finish that will have speakers everywhere trembling in fear for what is the Chicago sextet’s strongest work to date.

Full review.

Essential Tracks: “Cut the Cable,” “Puppet String,” “Hourglass”

3. The War on Drugs | Lost In The Dream

On their third LP Lost in the Dream, War on Drugs frontman Adam Granduciel may as well have locked himself in the studio withDarkness on the Edge of Town and a bag of pot. Call it Daydream Springsteen: under that cloud of hazy, effected guitar, clattering piano and buzzing saxophone, there’s Granduciel searching for truth, his speech-singing delivery every bit as percussive as the steady beat.

Read the full Lost in the Dream review here.

Essential Tracks: “Red Eyes,” “Under the Pressure,” “An Ocean in Between the Waves”

2. Real Estate | Atlas

Recorded in the studio that birthed some of Wilco’s finest works, Real Estate’s Atlas finds the band once again straddling the line between a buttoned-up indie rock band and a free-willing jamband in the best ways imaginable. Melodic, gorgeous and never once directionless, this album will get plenty of spins from the months of October-February.

Real Estate chatted with us about the origins of Atlas prior to the release of the record. Read the full interview here.

Essential Tracks: “Had to Hear,” “Talking Backwards,” “Crime”

1. Beck | Morning Phase

Beck’s first album in six years ranks as our best of 2014 thus far. Few albums released this year rival the storytelling the singer/songwriter accomplished with this thirteen-track effort. He very well may have the song of the year in “Blue Moon” as well.

For a guy who built his reputation on the self-deprecating “Loser” and “Where It’s At,” the shift to a more delicate mood was a high risk high reward decision. And here he is, reaping the reward. Read our review here.

Essential Tracks: “Morning,” “Blue Moon,” “Blackbird Chain”