While this is usually my favorite end-of-year list to put together, this year I’ve been struggling with it. I’ve enjoyed a ton of music this year, but personally, I feel like there haven’t been enough solid albums I’ve really enjoyed. Maybe it’s a sign of the digital, single-centric times. Because of this, I’m switching up the way this usually works and instead of albums, I’ll be naming my favorite artists I’ve listened to this year. Enjoy! (Quotes are from previous reviews/LC Recommends.

10. Alex Clare. As far as I can tell, this British crooner is criminally under-appreciated. You probably don’t realize you know him, but you do– from his awesome dubstep-crossover single Too Close, which blew up a few years ago. This year, he swept under the radar with a solid new album, Three Hearts. There are some terrific songs on this record that meshing his soulful voice with his rock vibe. Lyrically, these songs often transport the mind of the listener to somewhere other than the ordinary.

Favorite Tracks: Never Let You Go; The Story; Sparks, War Rages On.

 

9. The Fray. The Fray has been one of my favorite bands since I first heard How to Save a Life back in high school. While their work since has been great, I’ve felt they’ve only been able to create the same magic as they had with that debut album on a few tracks. This year, they dropped their fourth studio album, Helios. To me, “the up-tempo return to their rock roots is a welcome change of pace. There is an energy throughout this album that I only felt from a few of the songs from their previous two offerings. One of the best things about The Fray is their ability to tell a stories in their songs, but also to open up the meaning enough so that listeners can insert their own stories. Replete with themes of love, longing, family, moving on from the past, regrets, and future hopes, Helios is a great record.”

Favorite Tracks: Wherever This Goes; Hold My Hand; Shadow and a Dancer; Keep On Wanting; Hurricane.

 

8. Taylor Swift. I’m ‘fessing up. Laugh all you want. You know you secretly like her music, too. I had to at least give her new album 1989 a listen, since it is the year all the best people were born (that’s a scientific fact). I’ve enjoyed Taylor in the past, and even though I’m not a country fan, I was a little worried how leaving that genre behind would affect her songwriting, since I feel that her ability to tell stories is her strongest attribute. And I was pleasantly surprised. She proved to the world that she’s no longer a country-pop princess. She’s a freaking music queen. For someone like me, who doesn’t listen to many female voices to begin with, she is miles above any other female pop singer, musically and lyrically. And darn it, we can’t help but sing along.

Favorite Tracks: I Know Places; Blank Space; Style; Bad Blood.

 

7. Built By Titan. I’ve only ever heard four songs from Built By Titan. But those four songs have been played enough by me this year to land him the seventh spot on the list. Fred Williams, the guy behind Built By Titan, produces dance-worthy electronic jams that I just can’t get enough of. I’m talking on repeat all day. And he collaborates with people whose awesome voices bring out the soulful lyrics perfectly. His EP comes out soon and I am pumped.

Favorite Tracks: Collide; The Darkness; Heart & Soul; Blind.

 

6. NF. There have been several tracks from the Christian hip-hop scene that I’ve loved this year, from Andy Mineo, Tedashii, KB, Lecrae, and the like. But this guy I’d never heard of before satisfied my musical appetite more than any one hip-hop artist this year, with only an EP. “Every track from Nate Feuerstein on this record is excellent, musically and lyrically. Some might liken him to a Christian rap version of Eminem, and though the stylistic influence is clear, there’s also no denying that NF is 100% NF. He’s not afraid to be transparent.”

Favorite Tracks: Only One; Hands Up; Wake Up; All I Have.

 

5. Hozier. Hozier’s single Take Me To Church rocketed to the tops of the charts in a short time. To be honest, I’m not sure how to feel about this song. On the one hand, I love it. It’s a vocal and musical masterpiece. On the other hand, the message of its lyrics is about as troubling as it could be. It uses the church and similar terms to refer to a (pretty unhealthy) relationship. However, at the same time, when I listen to this song, the metaphors drive me to think of the weight and contention of sin and temptation. (Edit: I liked how Jon Acuff put it in a tweet during the GRAMMYs: “Hozier’s ‘Take me to Church’ is a mournful, beautiful, heartbreaking reminder that we are created to worship, but not each other.”) Beyond the emotional confusion of this and a few other songs, Hozier’s debut album is excellent. The soulful indie rock tone is often somber, but not quite melancholy, and Hozier offers some upbeat (but still passion-laden) numbers as well. 

Favorite Tracks: Take Me To Church; Work Song; Sedated; Someone New; Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene.

 

4. Rend Collective. This year, I had the privilege of attending a Rend Collective concert and meeting the band! They are gracious, humble, awesome people. They also dropped another excellent worship album this year– The Art of Celebration. “Their folksy, energetic, thoughtful, creative, refreshing style is just as wonderful as ever on this album, full of lyrics that ping my heartstrings. The theme of this album is one of– you guessed it– celebration. The songs tell of our struggle with brokenness, but focusing more on the victory we have in Christ, and the joy that should accompany that victory. We can celebrate being more than conquerers in Christ, having access to the throne of God, being made new by God, being able to trust God, finding love and life and security in Him, and so much more. Ultimately, our greatest joy is God Himself.”

Favorite Tracks: My Lighthouse; All That I Am; Create in Me; Boldly I Approach.

 

3. Pentatonix. If you know me at all, you know how much I love this incredible, odds-defying a cappella group. I’ve adored them since I saw them on the Sing-Off in 2011, and it has been such a fun journey watching them rise to musical and digital prominence. They’ve produced several incredible music videos this year, and delivered their third EP (and a platinum-selling Christmas album). Their incredible ability to fuse their vocal talents with innovative sounds and awesome pop arrangements is finally getting the attention it deserves.

Favorite Tracks: On My Way Home; Standing By; Say Something; Rather Be; La La Latch.

 

2. twenty one pilots. There is some amazing music on this list up to this point, but to be honest, my 2014 was most defined by these top two bands. Though they didn’t release new music this year, I discovered twenty one pilots this year and became obsessed with their music, primarily their 2013 album, Vessel (full-length review here). It’s not like anything you’ve ever heard. Their music is “hard to describe, definitely difficult to box into a genre. Hip hop, rock, pop, dance, electronic, alternative—they’re spread across the board. Comprised simply of Tyler Joseph (vocals, keys, etc.) and Josh Dun (drums), most of the songs start off as Tyler’s erratic but brilliant poetry. Not to be outdone, Josh’s energy and chops on the drums are the engine for their driving sound… Above all else, twenty one pilots is brazenly creative and refreshingly real.”

Favorite Tracks: Holding On To You; Trees; Migraine; Lovely; Ode to Sleep.[/highlight]

 

1. NEEDTOBREATHE. Ok, this was kind of a no-brainer. They’re my favorite band and they dropped an awesome new album, Rivers in the Wasteland, this year (read my full-length review here). Of course they’re going to take the top spot. “With their refreshing hybrid of alternative and Southern rock tinged with bluegrass, NEEDTOBREATHE has the energy, style, and coolness of a full-fledged rock n’ roll band. Bear Rinehart’s trademark edgy-but-inviting vocals soar through beautiful, soul-searching, honest lyrics. Their songs vary in subject, tempo, and style, but not in quality… Rivers is NEEDTOBREATHE in style, heart, and vulnerability, but the band’s not afraid to try new things both musically and lyrically. It’s stripped down and far less produced than the last couple of albums, and it feels even more intimate and honest because of that. The lyrics are both clever and simple; they tell stories, confess failures, express longing, and display hope.”

Favorite Tracks: Brother; Feet, Don’t Fail Me Now; The Heart; Multiplied.

  • Honorable Mentions: Kingsfoil, Avicii, Andy MineoBleachers, Tedashii, Barcelona, American Authors, Home Free.

JOIN THE CONVERSATION: Who were your favorite artists this year?