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The top 20 albums of 2014

Unpick the puzzle and discover the year's best, from Azealia Banks and Aphex Twin to Lana Del Rey and FKA twigs

Liz Harris (aka Grouper) has always dragged the listener into her world, but Ruins is her most intimate invitation yet. You can hear every breath, every creak as she tells stories from her piano. “Call Across Rooms”, a love song to someone she lost, evokes the heartbroken pleas of Elliott Smith, and on “Clearing” her voice is barely there and it’s hard to make out the words – but at no point on Ruins does it ever feel like Harris is hiding. There is a nakedness that becomes so engrossing on repeat listens that it makes a listener feel as though there an infinite number of stories within the album, tangled spools just waiting to be unravelled. (Thomas Gorton)

The real beauty of Todd Terje’s decade-in-the-making debut album is its humour and humanity. The Norwegian artist’s cosmic disco froths and spumes with endless bubbles of mawkish glee, like the cop-show kitsch of “Leisure Suit Preben” and “Preben Goes to Acapulco,” while slipping into yacht shoes, knocking back maraschino cherries and painting thick, louche strokes of Esquivel-flavoured lounge. But it’s still a record spiked by that climatic dancefloor rush. Terje is a dab hand at stirring limbs into action, and with classic disco cuts like the piano-powered “Strandbar”, the pummeling synth odyssey that is “Delorean Dynamite,” and “Inspector Norse” (finally moored after drifting for years), he’s made a dance record to impress even the hardest of cynics. (April Clare Welsh)

After a live debut at CMJ 2013 (under the name Agatha Dimm), Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek found her “pastoral electronic” solo vision this year as Ramona Lisa. Like Judee Sill armed with a laptop, the airy-yet-pointed pop of Arcadia shows a dynamism and depth of vision beyond most of her peers, with her emotive musical leanings fuelled by skill and agility – after all, this is a woman who kicked off the year by singing a Handel aria in a lake. “Getaway Ride” glissades and jingles with hypnotising poise, and “Izzit True What They Tell Me” trills and clips as it strolls along the promenade, castanets in hand, regal beyond measure. Let’s just call Arcadia grace incarnate. (Parker Bruce)

Acolytes of Iceage’s ragged, angrily discordant album You’re Nothing (2013) probably did a double-take after they put the needle on the first single from this year’s follow-up. “The Lord’s Favorite” sounded like Bright Eyes via Johnny Cash and The Pogues, and featured lyrics like “I do believe in heaven and I do believe it’s real.” It turned out to be a revealing glimpse of the full LP, which finds its experimental edge by blending post-punk with twisted country-rock, producing a more mainstream, yet still dissonant sound. It’s the sound of evolution, shifting the band from angry upstarts to potentially the next Sonic Youth. (Sam Ashurst)

Broke With Expensive Taste was the album that Azealia Banks had the promise to make since she leapt straight out of Harlem with her poetically filthy hit “212”. It’s an album you want on loop at your party, crammed with NYC-dunked tracks aimed squarely at the dancefloor. From the neatly chaotic, Caribbean-style beats of “Idle Delilah” to the dizzying, late-night garage loops in “Desperado” and the acidic, nostalgia-tripping “Miss Camaraderie”, Banks’s long-awaited debut is smart, sassy and overflowing with her fierce, spiky talent. (Daisy Jones)

Adam Granduciel’s magnum opus, the third full-length from The War On Drugs was the year’s most stately, reverential release. Nothing less than a modern Americana classic, it summoned the spirits of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and Don Henley, catapulting them into 2014 on the back of gorgeous cliff-top solos and yearning sunrise riffs. The album’s best tracks – “Under the Pressure”, “Burning”, “An Ocean in Between the Waves” – were all well over five minutes, but never once outstayed their welcome. Grandiciel toured the record exhaustively, winning himself legions of fans and propelling him into the major leagues in the process. (Leonie Cooper)

Every track on RTJ2 feels like a single; every beat’s a head-nodder. Killer Mike and El-P have crafted a multi-dimensional rap record, combining muscular bravado and heartfelt honesty on the speaker-shattering first half of the double-vinyl LP, transitioning into a more melody-led experience on the latter tracks. And “Early”, with its detailed description of stop-and-search harassment, hits harder than most. “Every day I’m in a fight for my soul”, Killer Mike says in verse one, a line written before Ferguson trial results found America struggling to find its conscience. In the second verse, El-P follows up: “They’ll watch you walk to the store / they’re recording / but didn’t record cop when he shot / no warning". (Sam Ashurst)

On his second album proper, Mac DeMarco matures with the fond disengagement of an Adam Sandler blockbuster, exploring existential funks like you and I sing pop songs in the shower. But while Salad Days stays afloat with crisp beats and perky basslines, it’s that maudlin croon, theatrical yet low-key, that keeps the Canadian songwriter in our hearts. Cunningly blending goofball wit and self-consciousness to open a treasure trove of emotion, the record leaves you reassured that, for all his woes, Mac will always be a man with more stories than scars. (Jazz Monroe)

Twenty years after the release of Doggystyle, west coast hip hop finally rediscovered its gangsta swagger in 2014 with the likes of YG, Tyga and DJ Mustard all releasing standout albums. But if you had to choose one record that rose above the kush smoke and crip-walked its way into our hearts, it would have to be Oxymoron, ScHoolboy Q’s follow up to 2012’s Habits & Contradictions. Over the course of 69 minutes, Compton’s balaclava-loving bogeyman details the dark history of LA Crip life and his addiction to prescription pills with uncompromising honesty. Sure, it’s brutal and aggressive, but Q’s diverse flow and selection of innovative beats elevate it to much more than the mad ravings of an inner-city nihilist. From the Chromatics-sampling “Man of the Year” and Pharrell’s oppressive synth stabber “Los Awesome” to Alchemist’s throwback boom-bap banger “Break the Bank” and Swiff D’s thug love anthem “Studio”, Oxymoron has kept our heads bobbing and our lighters working overtime since February. A stone-cold Cali classic. (Tim Noakes)

Jessie Ware lets her sweet and and sometimes-sad grooves loose on Tough Love. It’s an album that abounds with more personality and charisma than Devotion, helped by her deft curation of like-minded contributors. Miguel, Dev Hynes, Julio Bashmore and BenZel set the bar, but Ware tempers the tone, matching her voice to the warmth of the music. Here, the stomping “Cruel” and spindly “Kind Of... Sometimes... Maybe” add new facets to the silken and soulful blanket of her sound. Tough Love draws you in with a naturalism that’s close to being effortless. (Parker Bruce)

Casual listeners might mistake Angel Olsen’s crushed hope for indifference, but what levels the spirit of Burn Your Fire for No Witness is something warmer; a joyful compromise between wisdom and urgency. “I’ve wasted my time making up my mind / I don’t know anything but I love you”, she sings fiercely on “Forgiven/Forgotten”, and her sense of purpose rings true even in self-doubt. The Missouri songwriter pinballs from sorrow to conviction, and her songs, full of reverb fog and glistening undercurrents, take care never to labour a point. Olsen respects her blues but knows better than to dwell; instead, she pinpoints the fleeting glimmers that make them worthwhile. (Jazz Monroe)

The exquisite vocal stylings from 21-year-old Tinashe were a welcome shift of pace on Aquarius. While the year has been heavy with future-R&B, this is a return to classic form, and is the reason that tracks like “Pretend” and “2 On” have been so captivating. Working with the likes of A$AP Rocky, ScHoolboy Q and Dev Hynes, Tinashe brings a production ear that’s a world away from the chopped-and-screwed electronic R&B we’ve heard so much of lately, merging raw, carnal energy with sweet, honeyed lilts. It’s precisely this quality that allowa her to hit the R&B vocal trifecta of working on a rap, in the club, and on a slow jam. (Kieran Yates)

With his third album, Too Bright, Mike Hadreas AKA Perfume Genius adds heavy electronics and vocal distortions to his usual tender sound to create something more ambitious, provocative and fiercely abrasive. The experimentation suits him – tracks like the demonic “Grid”, the roiling “Queen” and the otherworldly “I’m a Mother” demonstrate a newfound confidence, both musically and personally. While Hadreas is still divulging secrets, his fist is up in defiance. Having initially struggled with writing for the record, it took fully reevaluating his life and his music for him to start experimenting sonically, and the results flirt with the fringes of accessibility. Too Bright is an album centered on fragility and strength, and one to get your teeth into. (Alim Kheraj)

Born in the ashes of a destroyed relationship, I Never Learn not only feels a million miles from Li’s cutesy 2008 debut, Youth Novels, but its wanton melancholia makes even 2011’s bleak follow-up Wounded Rhymes seem like a David Guetta album. The use of the first person in the title is key: this is an album of unstinting self-flagellation, with Li the perpetrator of a litany of emotional crimes. “I let my good one down / I let my true love die / I had his heart but I broke it every time”, she sighs on the blown-out beauty of “No Rest for the Wicked”; admonishing herself throughout the yearning “Never Gonna Love Again” and drawing parallels between love and brutal death on the album’s most glorious pop moment, “Gunshot”. Brutal, barren but unreservedly beautiful, I Never Learn is the perfect 2am-in-the-rain album. (Michael Cragg)

When Richard D James released Syro, his first record in 13 years, this September in a blaze of blimps, some reviews unfairly made the point that it ‘just sounds like Aphex’. But so what? That means Syro is full of incredible compositions, bizarre scales, a unique sense of melody, wonderful arrangements (and a Dazed shoutout on the artwork). Oh, and it sounds brilliant too, expertly mixed by the Cornish master. Mid-album track “CIRCLONT6A (Syrobonkus mix)” is pure Aphex: from the name to the acid squelches and synth melody that arrives towards the end of the track, it’s a short summation of the sound that he’s pioneered since the 80s. Syro is one of his most complete works and seems strangely final, in that it takes all of the facets of Aphex’s sound and places them in one record, even throwing in “Aisatsana”, a piano-led heartstring tugger, something he's always had an ear for. If it does prove to be his last album, it’s a fabulous final hurrah. (Thomas Gorton)

Sia’s wsork has taken many forms before; off-kilter art-pop, piano balladsjazzy improvisation and angry visual art among them. This year, after a four-year hiatus from her solo career during which she penned fearsome hits for Beyoncé, Rihanna and David Guetta, she took on her most controversial form of all in the shape of arena-filling pop music. No one writes a stadium chorus better than Sia: see the guttural triumph of “Chandelier”, the glitchy breakdown of “Free the Animal”, the Hunger Games-approved “Elastic Heart” and the brutal assualt of “Fire Meet Gasoline”. As robust as 1000 Forms of Fear sounds, though, it’s ruled by anxiety and heartbreak. This is pop at its most urgent and human, as the multiple fears of Sia take their final, world-dominating form. (Aimee Cliff)

Fatima Al Qadiri creates music that makes the world smaller, fuller and weirder. At the heart of New York’s most extraordinary art-fashion-music renaissance for two decades, she collaborates with Telfar and Shanzhai Biennial and produces vital art with her MoMA-exhibiting, gulf-futurist collective GCC. She also finds time to record deliciously spare grime epics about the west’s eternally fraught relationship with an imagined China that tell you more about the flows of capital and culture in this multipolar world than a decade’s worth of Economist issues. Asiatisch is a masterpiece of sound design, a masterpiece of conceptual art and, perhaps most importantly of all, it’s full of totally invincible bangers. (Charlie Jones)

Del Rey’s self-aware second act cracked through pop pomp and into the dark heart of her American fantasia. The Born to Die drama queen isn’t exactly dead and buried – more tattered and torn – with her earlier hip hop beats replaced by dollar-store mics and narced-out riffs on Ultraviolence. As ever, her vocals are syrupy and strange, sketching a pre-flat whites ’n’ fixies vision of NY in the tender “Brooklyn Baby”, creeping through the fuzzy “Cruel World” like Nico on a John Cale instrumental, or as masterful at manipulation as the protagonist of A Clockwork Orange in the tumultuous title track, scattering red herrings as strings swell. After all, the record takes its name from a line in that insane novella. All those interviews add shade to her spectre, but it’s the rich and oh-so-wrong music of Ultraviolence that places Del Rey’s stake in the dirt: with it, she becomes one of the most fascinating musicians today. (Owen Myers)

Arca’s debut record is a deathly ballet, with Xen the pan-gender dancer at the heart of it. The foundation of the Venezuelan producer’s music – the beats that underpin the swirling myriad layers of synths – are industrial, feverish and pained. On top of that sonic substructure, delicate melodies dance over the disintegration to form a paradoxical world that flies you far, far away and simultaneously draws you in. There is stillness and loss to be found on the elegiac “Held Apart”, just as there is aggressive breakbeat and thunder on the defiant “Thievery”. Xen is a mixture of worlds that creates a universe, and a powerful statement from one of electronic music’s most original voices. (Thomas Gorton)

This year, no one redefined the parameters of modern pop and R&B quite like FKA twigs. Fusing avant-garde electronica, trip hop, grime and choral operatics, her marvellously melancholic debut album made us dance and cry – often at the same time. During the course of Dazed’s collaboration with her for our summer issue, I was fortunate enough to witness LP1 evolve as she sculpted the early demos of “Pendulum”, “Lights On”, “Hours” and “Kicks”. As talented a producer as she is a snake-hipped live performer, throughout the process she constantly reworked and stripped tracks back to their DNA, with songs like “Kicks” undergoing a huge transformation. Collaborators Tic, Cy An, Arca, Emile Haynie, Inc., Clams CasinoDev Hynes and Paul Epworth contributed innovative instrumentation and production – but Ms Barnett was firmly in control at all times. I initially thought the tinkering was perhaps first-album nerves, or the fear of following up her two critically acclaimed EPs. She was also creating it with a lawsuit hanging over her head, one that threatened to take away her name. But when LP1 came out in August, complete with Jesse Kanda’s disquieting bruised doll cover art, I realised nerves had nothing to do with it. The 26-year-old was just blocking out the noise and listening to her heart. She’d been through a lot to get here, and every element had to be in total sync with the overall vision, right down to the last sub-bass boom. After all, when you bare your soul for the judgement of others, nothing less than perfection will do. And this album came closer to perfection than any other in 2014. (Tim Noakes)