Top 89 Staff Picks: Cecilia Johnson, college contributor

Top 89 of 2014: Staff Picks
Here's what The Current staff thought of the year in music for 2014. (MPR Graphic)

Cecilia Johnson, a student at Hamline University, is one of the college contributors to our Local Current blog.

This year, I've gotten into the habit of listening to albums from beginning to end, taking the time to hear each song in its intended setting. In honor of that new tradition, I've elected to share ten of 2014's best albums here. Great all the way through, these discs range from R&B to electronica; every one of them is highly recommended.

Tycho: Awake

As an overly busy college student, I am always on the lookout for great songs to work to. Enter Tycho's latest album; driving, creative, yet still ambient, Awake is brilliant in its ability to inspire productivity through understated songs. It's the coffee of music, really: relaxing and energizing at the same time. Though the album is a bit short, its eight tracks barely clearing thirty minutes of running time, the glimmering production and gentle guitar melodies make it easy to hit the replay button.

Kimbra: The Golden Echo

Wildly colorful from choruses to cover art, Kimbra's The Golden Echo is probably my favorite album of the year. Suited to fans of St. Vincent and Janelle Monae alike, The Golden Echo slinks, plunges, and grooves in a vibrant exposition of what Kimbra can really do — and it is absolutely an album that should be played from start to finish. Highlight tracks include "Goldmine" and "Nobody But You," but the entire disc is packed with gems.

Lindsey Stirling: Shatter Me

Lindsey Stirling is perhaps the only performer to mix violin, dubstep, and fierce dancing into one musical style; you may have seen her on America's Got Talent back in 2010, but even since then, she's evolved as a musician. Her new album Shatter Me (named for this dynamic song) is the definitive proof. I had the chance to go to Stirling's show at Myth back in June, and I stood, dazzled, as she charmed the audience. (Also: props to the kind crowd, who made sure my 12-year-old sister could see the stage and waited patiently at the understaffed merch tables.) Stirling's enthusiasm shines through on her album, too, as she nails technically brutal violin passages and infuses a thumping tracklist with playful energy.

Dessa: Parts of Speech, Re-Edited

A preface: I've been a Dessa fan for what feels like a long time, but my enthusiasm for her projects and life philosophy never cools off. So when Parts of Speech (Re-Edited) came out, it was a gift; the first time "Skeleton Key (Youngblood Brass Remix)" rang out from my speakers, the song's brassy twists thrilled me in a way I didn't know the song could. And my favorite tracks, like "Fighting Fish (Dustin Kiel Remix)" and Cecil Otter's take on "Warsaw," made me fall in love with the originals all over again. So, regarding its placement in my top ten list, it's true that Dessa's 2014 release isn't a full-length album. But it inspired me, thrilled me, and unlocked Parts of Speech for me in a way that I'll forever appreciate — and for that, it deserves this place.

Lights: Little Machines

Upon hearing her newest album, it's impossible to doubt that Canadian singer Lights has grown, as an artist and a person, since she last released music. The Listening was glossy, Siberia was gritty, and Little Machines is almost surprisingly even-keeled — however, that does not mean that it's boring. On the contrary: as the album plays, great hooks (see: "Muscle Memory" and "From All Sides") and gorgeous vocals ("Speeding" and "Don't Go Home Without Me") combine to create a soundscape where Lights sounds right at home. Sometimes pensive, sometimes joyful, Little Machines is a true highlight of the year.

alt-J: This Is All Yours

This Is All Yours was the first album that came to mind as a "best" of 2014, actually. It's the one on this list that is probably most suited to listening from beginning to end, and its creative departures from genre norms make it unforgettable compared to many other albums of this year. "Every Other Freckle" is a song I'll associate with 2014 for years to come, and the instrumental segments of the album are beautiful. Throughout This Is All Yours, alt-J create a patient, rhythmic atmosphere that feels almost cinematic, the listeners following the album's journey as it twists through the city of Nara and beyond.

MO: No Mythologies to Follow

"Pilgrim" was the first MO song to catch my attention, but it was so good that I wasted no time in finding the rest of her album and sitting down to listen to it. And I'm so glad I did: No Mythologies to Follow is an amazing record. The Danish singer brings the brass, beats, and sass to this debut album, and there's a musical harder edge lurking behind the pop veneer that demands attention. Further releases from MO will be highly anticipated.

Sims: Field Notes

Sims performed "Uh Huh" at Doomtree's Blowout IX last year, and following the show, I couldn't wait for him to release an album featuring the song. Soon enough, Field Notes was announced, and when it came out on Sept. 2, six other songs joined "Uh Huh" on the tracklist. Months later, I keep going back to this record, most recently for venomous banger "They Don't Work For Us" (which calls out abusive law enforcement officers and the system they operate in). The second Doomtree member to show up on this list, Sims is the only rapper I've ever heard use the word "ephemeral" over a blazing riff ("L'audace"), and that's exactly why I'm a fan. His verses have long been honest, smart, and loud with a purpose; without a doubt, his newest material follows suit.

David Guetta: Listen

As I've spent my fall studying abroad in Spain, I've heard fewer Ariana Grande or Iggy Azalea hits than smashes from European electronic producers. As examples, Calvin Harris, AlunaGeorge, and Robin Schulz come to mind, but David Guetta is the reigning king of the discoteca; just like 2011's Nothing but the Beat, his new album Listen has spawned many hit singles (for example, "Dangerous" and "Lovers on the Sun," both featuring Sam Martin). Powerful melodies, star collaborators (including Sia and John Legend), and a wealth of synthesizer samples come together here to make a great party album.

Tinashe: Aquarius

Aquarius is one of the newest albums on this list; released in October, it's an R&B disc certainly influenced by Jhene Aiko and even Danity Kane. Tracks like "Bet" and the hit single "2 On" (featuring rapper Schoolboy Q) boast intense, gripping beats, while "Wildfire" and the more delicate "Bated Breath" showcase Tinashe's icy voice. Really, it's fascinating to hear her powerful vocals set against delicate piano and throbbing bass alike, as the production complements the singer's voice either way. For those interested in the present and future states of R&B, Aquarius is definitely worth a listen.

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