#20: Lykke Li – I Never Learn

If there are two things I needed in 2014, it was indie-pop music and songs to help heal my broken heart. Lykke Li delivered both with her third album, I Never Learn. The Swedish singer-songwriter skewed more indie than pop on her latest release, and the album is filled with haunting vocals and emotionally raw tracks, such as “No Rest For The Wicked.” She does offer brief glimpses of hope on I Never Learn, such as with the dance-friendly track “Gunshot,” but when she played The Palladium this fall, audiences were blown away by the album’s intimate, gut-wrenching nature. – Mary Bonney

Listen: “No Rest For The Wicked

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#19: Imogen Heap – Sparks

Over the course of her 15-year career, Imogen Heap has become known for pushing the boundaries of time, sound, and space within her musical domain. Her fourth official solo album, Sparks, took over three years to make, and all the effort has resulted in an LP that tops even her best previous work. It’s a creative marvel that will make you want to laugh, cry, and, of course, dance.

Heap collaborated with her fans, strangers, and filmmakers to create the songs on Sparks, and the eclectic, genre-bending album takes her sound to a whole different level. Tracks like “You Know Where To Find Me” feature an absence of her standard electronic sounds, which allows Heap’s hauntingly beautiful vocals to shine through, while on the other side of the electronic spectrum is “Telemiscommunications,” a collaboration with producer Deadmau5 that shows off her vocals while pushing the boundaries of music technology and creativity. – Twila Grissom

Listen: “You Know Where to Find Me

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#18: Sharon Van Etten – Are We There

If Tramp signaled the arrival of Sharon Van Etten as a fully matured performer of rare power, the extraordinary Are We There confirmed her as one of America’s greatest singer-songwriters. Her self-produced album is intimate and at times a grueling listen, documenting what sounds like a horrendous time in Van Etten’s life, but those sentiments are wrapped in some gorgeous and arresting tunes. The album features several heart-stopping moments, but none more so than “Your Love Is Killing Me,” an absolutely titanic song of elemental power and as devastating a chronicle of an abusive relationship as you’re ever likely to hear. This is a major album from a major artist who continues to blossom, and I still get the sense that there is even better to come. – Jay Chirinos

Listen: “Your Love Is Killing Me

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#17: Bleachers – Strange Desire

Indie-pop group Bleachers, the latest project undertaken by fun.’s Jack Antonoff, was a breakout band worthy of the buzz it got in 2015. At its core, the group’s debut album, Strange Desire, combines the instrumentation and pop sheen of fun. with the indie influences of Antonoff’s former band, Steel Train. The LP is a public display of Antonoff’s personal demons under the guise of upbeat, pop songs (in fact, he plays a therapist in the video for the feel-good debut single “I Wanna Get Better”). The follow-up single, “Rollercoaster,” is a synth-happy summer anthem that will make you smile despite the song being about an up-and-down relationship, and from start to finish, the infectious melodies of Strange Desire with get these songs in your head, while the lyrics get them in your heart. – Mary Bonney

Listen: “I Wanna Get Better

Bleachers Strange Desire

#16: Iceage – Plowing Into The Field Of Love

Iceage didn’t take long to record their follow-up to last year’s dynamite sophomore album, You’re Nothing, but the young Danish punk band hardly tossed off a derivative facsimile. Their third album was a startling U-turn away from nihilistic punk towards a mix of gothic dark romance, Shane McGowan-like vocals, and strange songs that sway and drift with their own gripping logic. With its country vibe and heavily sarcastic lyrics, the lead single “The Lord’s Favorite” was a serious indicator of a change in direction, and the album undoubtedly followed suit. Plowing Into The Field Of Love felt like a coming of age for the Danes, a move from excellent punk act to potentially great rock band, and it proved to be the year’s most unexpectedly pleasant surprise. – Jay Chirinos

Listen: “The Lord’s Favorite

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#15: Sun Kil Moon – Benji

Mark Kozelek’s Benji isn’t particularly different from most of his other records released under the Sun Kil Moon moniker or even as Red House Painters, but its appeal as the most unique and introspective record released this year is what makes it the most captivating effort in his entire discography. Mainly consisting of songs featuring just Kozelek with a guitar and some overdubs, Benji is an album focused on its creator’s songwriting skills, and it puts to wax some of the most beautiful and confessional songs that you’re likely to hear this decade.

The unifying element of Benji’s eleven tracks is a recurring theme of death or just the thought of it, both literally and metaphorically. While the album is wholly appropriate for those experiencing a mid-life crisis, the musical treatment — based around great production and picturesque arrangements — is full of life. The album teeters between emotional highs and lows, and the tracks are utterly relatable even though they are presented as Kozelek’s personal experiences. Whether or not those experiences are true or imagined is for the listener to decide, but that’s just another example of the uniqueness that makes Benji one of the best listening experiences of this or any year. – David Fisch

Listen: “Ben’s My Friend

Sun Kil Moon Benji

#14: Sam Smith – In The Lonely Hour

When I saw Sam Smith at The Greek Theatre this fall, I felt like I was witnessing the beginning of a long, acclaimed career. The Brit singer-songwriter’s debut album, In The Lonely Hour, is an emotional saga, with each song as powerful as the one that came before it. While Disclosure’s “Latch” put Smith on the radar here in the States, it was his velvety voice on the heartbreaking balled “Stay With Me” that really hooked us. The UK singer has already announced a stadium tour for the new year, and I can’t wait to see what this future superstar has in store for us in 2015. – Mary Bonney

Listen: “Stay With Me

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#13: The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream

When our own Sarah Bellman reviewed The War On Drugs’ Lost In The Dream, she called the album “an utterly beautiful psychedelic explosion.” She was right on the money. After releasing two full-lengths and an EP between 2008 and 2011, The War On Drugs took three years to write and release Lost In The Dream, and the result was well worth the wait, exceeding any expectations we could have had for the album.

The delayed hi hat that opens the record is a pretty clear sign that the album is going to throw some interesting sounds at listeners, and the rich textures throughout Lost In The Dream tug at those heartstrings. Highly deserving of its spot amongst the year’s best releases, this is an album that should play at the beginning of every road trip, then be enjoyed again several times throughout. – Gerry Doot

Listen: “Under The Pressure

War On Drugs Lost In The Dream

#12: Swans – To Be Kind

2012’s The Seer proved that the new era of Swans wasn’t a fluke, while this year’s To Be Kind proved that the new era of Swans might just be the greatest gift ever given to the world of modern music. Now we as listeners must bow down to it.

Like a Jackson Pollack painting, this two-hour-long opus is a phenomenal piece of art. It’s just as much a perilous journey into seething experimental rock as The Seer was, but the songs here are tighter in their execution, more expansive in their production, lyrically consistent, thematically sound, and just more everything in the most positive way possible.

With Michael Gira at his most clinically insane while still being creative, focused, and expressive, To Be Kind is the loud, tantalizing, fulfilling, and unforgettable musical experience that fans were hoping to get from the new iteration of Swans, and it will undoubtedly shape the experimental music landscape from here on out. – David Fisch

Listen: “A Little God In My Hands

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#11: Little Dragon – Nabuma Rubberband

For the fourth and latest entry into their discography, Little Dragon didn’t really reinvent themselves as much as they took their signature sound — a magnetic blend of uptempo dance music with more moody and introspective downtempo elements — and refined it. This is a band that has been on their victory lap for quite some time now, but that hasn’t yet resulted in any lazy wheel-spinning.

Vocalist Yukimi Nagano continues to mesmerize with a voice that features both impressive range and startling emotion, while the rest of the band packs a punch that far surpasses what you might imagine from a bunch of Swedish guys hovering around their synthesizer collection. It will be interesting to see if Little Dragon truly does flip their format on their next album, but with a sound this great, can you blame them for wanting to hold onto it for a little bit longer? – Sean Kantrowitz

Listen: “Klapp Klapp

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