Just in case you've never checked out the Junk Mail feature at Music Times, understand that staff disagreements on the quality of albums ranges from age-based immaturity to outright violence. If selecting the best records at the midyear point was this dramatic, we can only imagine what will happen at the end of 2014.

Staff writers Ryan Book, Caitlin Carter, Joey DeGroot, Kyle Downing and Carolyn Menyes brought forth a few of their favorite titles from the first half of the year and all entered them into a battle royale for the title of 2014's best. Heads were scratched in confusion and bodies were scratched in combat. Heads nodded in agreement for a great nomination and heads nodded into a stupor out of boredom. Fists pumped and fists flew.

Following a process that George R.R. Martin may consider adapting into an epic fantasy series, a proverbial and literal Top 10 was forged. Read on below to find out what we deemed to be the best bets thus far for 2014 and view each writer champion their choices.

10) Salad Days (by Mac DeMarco)

 
Mac DeMarco is known for being a gap-tooth prankster who walks the line between fun and danger. Salad Days plays off that slacker vibe but feels more refined.

With his second full-length, DeMarco enriches the sounds of his previous efforts but doesn't depart from his brand of wonky, guitar-driven dream-pop. However, there is a more mature sensibility to the record with his lyrics balancing between wise and wiseass this time around.

Salad Days is simply a wonderfully weird album. -Caitlin Carter

09) Benji (by Sun Kil Moon)


 There's something so beautiful about an album so full of earnest lyrics and death, which is what Sun Kil Moon's masterful album Benji is full of.

In nearly each of the record's 11 tracks, songwriter Mark Kozelek explores personal tragedy, from his second cousin's death in "Carissa" to exploring and losing love in "Dogs" to learning life lessons from his father in "I Love My Dad." Rooted strongly in Northeast Ohio, this album feels almost painfully personal but not in a way where Kozelek gives away too much, he's just plainly earnest.

When people with different life experiences can connect to a single songwriter, you know a musician has done his job. And all the critical acclaim for Benji proves Sun Kil Moon can transcend basic emotions. -Carolyn Menyes

08) Do It Again (by Röyksopp & Robyn)

After giving the world one of the best pop albums of the last ten years with 2010's Body Talk, Robyn could have easily continued along that same path and followed it up with another stellar LP full of electropop classics.Instead, she teamed up with Norwegian duo Röyksopp, who she previously worked with on Body Talk's strangest song, "None of Dem," to create a mini-album of dark, abstract dance music.

It's certainly a daring move, but one that paid off tremendously, as Do It Again has proven to be one of the year's most fascinating releases. Each of the album's five songs showcases a different facet of what this trio is capable of: "Monument" is a dramatic yet confidently paced epic; "Sayit" is a tense house jam; "Do It Again" harkens back to Body Talk's tightly focused techno pop; "Every Little Thing" is reminiscent of a Depeche Mode synth ballad; "Inside the Idle Hour Club" is a relaxed piece of ambient electronica. Fans of all types of electronic music can find something they enjoy and possibly even discover something new. -Joey DeGroot

07) Beauty & Ruin (by Bob Mould)

Seeing as this year has already welcomed the 25th anniversary reissue of Bob Mould's solo debut, Workbook, from 1989, I was very excited for Beauty & Ruin. And thankfully, my excitement was justified in discovering that nothing but authentic Bob Mould comes through on this record.

Sitting as his eleventh studio album—which dropped on June 3—the former Hüsker Dü and Sugar rocker has proved to have lost no enthusiasm over the years. Each track on Beauty & Ruin is stellar in its own right, whether it be due to the prodigious rhythm sections or the phenomenal hooks. The catchy "I Don't Know You Anymore," which Mould impeccably performed on CONAN, easily sits as my pick for the top.

On this album, the musician has somehow managed to crunch a mass amount of originality into songs that don't exceed four minutes, with the exception of the album's opener, "Low Season," which stands at 4:08. -Kyle Downing

06) Burn Your Fire for No Witness (by Angel Olsen)

Angel Olsen escaped the singular guitar approach of her 2012 debut Half Way Home not by hiding behind an amplified backing band, but by building an altar for herself out of it for Burn Your Fire for No Witness. There may be more to distract from her vocals, but Olsen's voice has never been more audible.

The psychedelic shades of "High & Wild" and Sun Records twang of "Hi-Five" amplify the moods of Olsen's meanings, as well as the instruments translating them. The songwriter sings with subtle imperfections that blend into their surroundings in a way they couldn't on her previous effort. The theme of imperfections runs its course throughout her work, as "Forgiven/Forgotten" details a love with unhealthy returns or the lengthy "White Fire," which traumatizes with its struggles to find an answer.

Perhaps the depressive element expressed quietly across the record makes closing track "Windows" that much more beautiful when it rises, like the sun after a dark night. Truly, "what's so wrong with the light?" Olsen learned songwriting well at the side of longtime running mate Bonnie "Prince" Billy, but this track shines a light out of the folk gloom he so popularized. We imagine the darkness will call back, however. -Ryan Book

05) Morning Phase (by Beck)

When Beck first announced a spiritual successor to his 2002 album Sea Change, it was easy to be skeptical: how could a married, happy man relive the tones of one of the classic alternative rock breakup albums?

Somehow, however, the 43-year-old musician could do it. More in tune with the sound of Sea Change than its heartbreaking lyrical themes, Morning Phase keeps the downtrodden spirit of Beck's earlier efforts but lyrically explores living in a bleak world.

With slick instrumentation and musical influences from country, alternative rock, acoustic singer-songwriters and the blues, Beck blended together the best of every musical world and made his best album in years. -CM

04) Everyday Robots (by Damon Albarn)

 
Damon Albarn has been making music for 25 years, most notably with Blur and Gorillaz, but Everyday Robots is his first proper solo release.

The effort as a whole is akin to a journal. Some scribblings are observations (such as his critique of technology in the opener "Everyday Robots"), some are autobiographical (such as "You & Me") and others tell tales of his worldly encounters ("Mr. Tembo"). The result is a very personal, intimate, and fluid album that is sonically diverse, not necessarily in tone but in detail. Albarn also enlisted Bat For Lashes/Natasha Khan and Brian Eno, who are welcome additions on any record.

This is a album I keep coming back to even months later and Albarn's live versions are just as spectacular. -CC

03) Lost in the Dream (by The War on Drugs)

The greatest examples of the American story won't be found in the biographies of Presidents and billionaires. I bring this up partially because this list will be published on July 4 but also because the greatest songwriters in our history—the Dylans and the Springsteens—have built true epics out of the tales of the low men, the bums on trains and the New Jersey industrial worker soon to be jobless.

The epic nature of The War on Drugs' Lost in The Dream doesn't derive from the lengthy tracks, which can approach up to nine minutes, nor from the echoes that suggest the album was recorded in a massive performance space. The epic nature derives from the narratives of the characters present in frontman Adam Granduciel's tales, the "little people."

Springsteen and the few acts that deserve comparison have remained relevant because they've never forgotten that they were once those little people. The well-publicized depression that Granduciel suffered from while recording Dream gave him sympathy for his protagonists, and his lyrics—complemented by his band's grand accompaniment—bring the stories of those characters, from the slighted lover on "Red Eye" to the midlife crisis of "An Ocean in Between the Waves," to a higher purpose.

People, like waves, are many and seem not to differentiate. But truly there are oceans between them, waiting to be recognized by bands like The War on Drugs. -RB

02) St. Vincent (by St. Vincent)

Fresh off her work with David Byrne, Annie Clark reintroduces us to St. Vincent with her self-titled release.

It is her most musically ambitious album to date. She is provocative, witty, confident, and strange but clearly very self-aware, making sense of why she decided to name the album after herself at this particular time.

The sounds are eclectic and challenging while still accessible, showing that it's possible to make experimental music that is still pop music. -CC

01) Lazaretto (by Jack White)


Jack White's second studio album Lazaretto stands strong as a tremendous piece of artistic delivery. The former White Stripe has truly stepped into his own with this album, which dropped on June 10.

Whether it be the blazing guitar riffs on "Lazaretto," the completely badass release of "That Black Bat Licorice" or the quiet, charming tone and lyrics of "Alone In My Home," each of the album's 11 tracks are unique in their own way, which is particularly what separates White from the other acts of 2014.

Some would have argued that his last album Blunderbuss was merely a minute sidestep from The White Stripes. Lazaretto, however, proves that White can stand strong on his own as a solo artist.

His guitar is raw yet perfect for his style, his lyrics are captivating and his look and approach to music is original...all of which make him the stand out for having the Best Album of 2014 (so far). -KD