Dear Ann and Lindsay,
So glad you’ve agreed to join me (and our rotation of special guests) to pick over the bones of this year, which was as strange and eventful in music as in so many other senses. I’m sure we’ll deal with all kinds of sounds this week, but since our guest in this round is Slate’s pop-chart analyst Chris Molanphy, I’ll begin with the year in mainstream pop. Then I’ll offer up for sacrifice my own lists of my favorite albums and songs of the year.
In many ways you can look at pop in 2014 as a kind of answer song, or what a Marxist dialectician might call an antithesis, to pop in 2013. One vector is generational: In the latter half of last year, the previous regime of pop divas was faltering, with albums by Britney Spears, Katy Perry, and Lady Gaga, for instance, all underperforming. (Perry would rebound this year, while Gaga made a standards album with Tony Bennett, as if she had retired to Florida.)
Come the summer of 2014, however, the charts would be summited by young women with unfamiliar names, such as Iggy Azalea, Ariana Grande, Charli XCX, and Meghan Trainor. And instead of concocting catfights to entertain the press like their predecessors, they hopped aboard one another’s tracks as if they were trading tweets or Instagram pics.
Meanwhile, the queen of the final quarter of 2014, Taylor Swift, formed her own consciousness-raising group with friends Lorde (who ruled the rock charts and masterminded the imaginative new Hunger Games soundtrack) and Lena Dunham (whose boyfriend Jack Antonoff of Fun collaborated on Swift’s super “Out of the Woods”)—all linked as well to “oracle of girl world” Tavi Gevinson, the multitalented editor of Rookie, one of the leading online venues of young feminist exchange.
There’s no boy-world equivalent of Rookie, and probably couldn’t be, unless One Direction and 5 Seconds of Summer suddenly applied for those newly open positions at the New Republic. So in honor of this pattern of millennial and post-millennial female ascent, I say we dub 2014 the “Year of the Rookie.” (It would probably seem even more so if I were capable of tracking the swelling ranks of musical YouTube stars, who draw millions of followers but so far operate on a level that, like certain high-pitched frequencies, only teenagers can hear.)
Pop in 2014 was also a rebuttal of 2013 as the year of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and the Miley Cyrus awards-show butt-grinding scandal associated with that (debatably) “rapey” mega-hit. It’s not just the domination of the charts by young women, to a degree unmatched since the late 1990s, but that they were often singing about female power—although, perhaps thanks to Cyrus, in pop’s roundabout way, often it was an engine led by the caboose. The year’s many backdoor-bumping hits (“All About That Bass,” “Anaconda,” “Booty”) seemed like sorties to reclaim the twerk from skinny, white Miley.
Even 2014’s male chart leader (for the 2013-released “Happy”), Pharrell Williams, did penance for his role in “Blurred Lines” by attempting to present himself as a feminist ally with his album Girl, to mixed reactions. Meanwhile the public spat Robin Thicke’s follow-up, his new album Paula, right back at him, likely due to its stalkerish vibe toward his estranged wife.
I think the tone was set with the mid-December 2013 record-scratch effect of Beyoncé’s surprise album drop. Yes, Bey herself rose to yet another sphere of pop divinity (the Sephora-phim?), as confirmed months later when the VMAs were pre-empted so she could perform her holy scriptures in full (or at least in Reader’s Digest form). But most importantly Beyoncé declared that womanist concerns—oh, wait, we actually can say feminist ones—would stand tall in pop in 2014. No wonder the great feminist rock band of the mid-1990s to mid-2000s, Sleater-Kinney, thought it was the moment to mount a comeback.
Of course, in the real world this was also a year in which gender issues around sexual and domestic abuse, campus rape, a misogynistic shooting, and more loomed large. What are your thoughts about the role musical culture has played in these realms—not to mention the cops-and-race crisis that has been going on for months (years, decades)—for better or worse?
Gender wasn’t the only area in which this year was shaken up by Beyoncé, though: For one, experimental release strategies exploded from a trend into an industry obsession—to U2’s ultimate cost, when their magnanimous gesture in September of “giving” all iTunes users their new album got received like an Ebola contamination.
Beyoncé also seemed to foreshadow a resurgence of the album-qua-album. Almost all the longplayers on my list (Swift’s included) have some thematic coherence and implore listeners to hear the work as a whole. Yet pop listening habits are going the opposite route, as reflected in Billboard’s recent revision of its album-chart formula to incorporate individual song streams. (Chris can enlighten us further.) Maybe we’ll get back to this notion as we address specific recordings.
On that note, I’ll close with my top 14 albums for 2014, as well as my top 24 singles/songs. They’re in alphabetical order, not ranked (because, as one of the artists on the tracks list would argue, that’s a mug’s game). They mainly indicate what stuck with me, on all sorts of registers of significance. To maximize variety, I haven’t repeated any artists across the two lists.
My Top 14 Albums of 2014
Against Me, Transgender Dysphoria Blues
Rosanne Cash, The River & the Thread
Jennifer Castle, Pink City
Miranda Lambert, Platinum
Jenny Lewis, The Voyager
Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire for No Witness
Owen Pallett, In Conflict
Perfume Genius, Too Bright
Reigning Sound, Shattered
Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2
Taylor Swift, 1989
Tanya Tagaq, Animism
Tune-yards, Nikki Nack
My Top 24 Songs of 2014
Fiona Apple, “Container” (theme to Showtime’s The Affair)
Mary J. Blige, “Therapy”
Charli XCX, “Boom Clap”
Kenny Chesney, “American Kids”
Leonard Cohen, “Almost Like the Blues”
J. Cole, “Be Free”
FKA Twigs, “Two Weeks”
Flying Lotus ft. Kendrick Lamar, “Never Catch Me”
Future Islands, “Seasons (Waiting on You)”
Kira Isabella, “Quarterback”
Maddie & Tae, “Girl in a Country Song”
New Pornographers, “War on the East Coast”
Perfect Pussy, “Driver”
Angaleena Presley, “Pain Pills”
Pusha T, “Lunch Money”
Isaiah Rashad, “Heavenly Father”
The Soft Pink Truth, “Black Metal”
St. Vincent, “Birth in Reverse”
Todd Terje ft. Bryan Ferry, “Johnny and Mary”
Tinashe ft. Schoolboy Q, “2 On”
Tove Lo, “Habits (Stay High)”
Loudon Wainwright III, “I Knew Your Mother”
“Weird Al” Yankovic, “Tacky”
See all of Slate’s coverage of the best culture of 2014 here.