Popular music has always looked to the past in an attempt to reinvent itself; in 2014, despite the delivery method continuing to evolve, the sound remained the same. It’s been a rather unusual year—Lorde’s Pure Heroine, released in late 2013, made her the hottest hit-maker in pop music and her popularity flowed over into twenty-14. She quickly became friends with pop icon Taylor Swift and hip-hop producer Diplo and then, eight months after releasing her award-winning debut record, she was on stage with Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic fronting a re-formed Nirvana.
Even though it was only a momentary return, Nirvana’s reunion helped to define 2014 as a nostalgic year for 90s rock. Across America, big guitars were back in fashion. On the upper East Coast Speedy Ortiz continued to blaze a heavy trail, releasing Real Hair, a four-track EP of late 90s-influenced grunge. In Chicago, Twin Peaks adopted David Lynch’s 1990 TV show as their band name and released their second album. A sixteen-track feast of bouncy, guitar-driven rock, titled Wild Onion.
But 90s rock had its biggest comeback on the West Coast, where Cherry Glazerr produced one of 2014's best debut records. Fronted by 17-year-old Clementine Creevy, the L.A. band injected some adolescence into alternative rock by mixing grunge and garage-pop—a style that contrasted well with the big guitar sound being channeled by Speedy Ortiz and Twin Peaks. Cherry Glazerr’s debut record, Haxel Princess, offered a window into the life of a present-day teen, where hanging out with your friends all day is still the coolest thing ever. Songs like “Sweaty Faces,” “Cry Baby” and “All My Friends” speak directly to a generation of Dirty Girls and Rookie Mag readers, who are often deprived of young female role models.
I’m sure in the late 1970s plenty of people told Lydia Lunch and James Chance to stop “polluting” the world with their music, but their defiance has inspired so many others to continue being rebellious. Along with Cherry Glazerr, Girlpool is another female band driving punk rock’s progression. When they’re not at L.A.’s infamous all-ages venue The Smell, Girlpool’s Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad probably aren’t viewed as typical punks. But as their music tells us, the duo are definitely not like the “typical girls” that The Slits first sang about thirty-five years ago; they definitely are typical punks. They sing about slut shaming, uncomfortable sex and promiscuous boys and project their music using just a bass and a guitar, no drums. It’s a simple but effective way of being confrontational without being overly aggressive.
Ariel Pink sparked controversy in October for criticising Madonna while announcing that he had been asked to compose music for her next record. Some interpreted Pink’s comment’s as a direct attack on Madonna’s artistic integrity—others saw it as an attack on feminism.
If Pink’s comments were malicious, they clearly had no basis. Not only were young female stars emerging, established female musicians were continuing to release brilliant records. St. Vincent’s fourth record, her strongest yet, escalated her to the top of the indie music podium, where she surely now reigns as the queen of guitar pop. She performed on a number of influential American TV shows, dispelling the baseless myth that guitar rock is a man’s domain. On St. Vincent she showcases a frenzied extravagance while exercising restraint, charging from a vivacious song like “Digital Witness” into an ethereal number like “I Prefer Your Love.” Cherry Glazerr’s Clementine Creevey described her aesthetic perfectly, saying “she’s the perfect example of an artist who is creating an experience.”
Sharon Van Etten also released her fourth record, titled Are We There. Van Etten is a classic singer-songwriter who uses music as a vehicle to offload her most intimate feelings. On Are We There, her emotions flood from her music and reveal a truly magnificent songwriter. One that deserves her place among the genre’s glitterati—alongside Fiona Apple and PJ Harvey.
In a recent issue of The New Yorker one of Van Etten’s biggest fans, critic Sasha Frere-Jones, wrote “Sixties nostalgia was in full swing before the seventies ended.” That sentence feels particularly relevant in 2014, as mid-way through the second decade of the twenty-first century, we’re already trying to replicate the first.
Deerhoof, a band who powered out of the 90s with so much energy and fervor, released yet another brilliant record. La Isla Bonita is arguably the band’s best record since 2007's Friend Opportunity, punctuated by a return to the melodic, angular style that made songs like “81+" so lovable.
Interpol and TV on the Radio returned to release records that satisfied their faithful fans, but did little to entice new ones. Julian Casablancas and Karen O went solo, but given the hype created by their illustrious band careers with The Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, they both failed to deliver anything truly remarkable. Craft Spells, a young band from California, appeared to be the most nostalgic, albeit for a style many wore tired of less than a decade ago. Nausea, released by the always-reliable New York label Captured Tracks, possesses a sun-drenched quality that enveloped indie pop throughout the mid-2000s and has recently been revived by numerous bands, including Real Estate and Wild Nothing.
Hip-hop celebrated the 20th anniversary of Nas’ Illmatic. The album was re-issued along with Time Is Illmatic, a pragmatic documentary focusing on Nas’ early-life in the Queensbridge housing projects and the influence this had on his debut record. Questlove wrote a series of six essays for Vulture on “How Hip-hop failed Black America,” highlighting the genre’s failure to connect and relate to its audience. The infamous Roots drummer has written a number of articles praising artists like Nas and Lauryn Hill while condemning their successors’ (notably Jay-Z’s) contribution to black culture.
The strongest hip-hop releases looked to balk this trend, delivering strong social commentary in an attempt to redirect hip-hop’s derivative discourse. Pro Era, a collective of artists in Brooklyn, New York and the Odd Future-affiliated Vince Staples often quote lines from Nas’ ‘94 opus. Staples was the most provocative rapper to break through in 2014. After a series of mixtapes, the 21-year-old from Long Beach, California dropped Hell Can Wait, a 7-track EP that paints a gritty image of urban America, displaying an awareness that Questlove argues many hip-hop artists have abandoned.
“Hands Up,” the most confronting track on Hell Can Wait, comes at a time when America is experiencing the largest civil rights protests since the Rodney King Riots in 1992. Staples states that the track was not written about the well-publicised death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri—a declaration that highlights the wide-spreed racial profiling problem that exists in many parts of America. The song’s line “LAPD, no they ain’t ‘bout shit” could easily be Ferguson’s version of “Fuck tha Police” which defined the public’s outrage during the King riots.
Like Staples, young New York rapper Joey Bada$$ continued to show the type of maturity that’s enabling hip-hop’s renaissance. The Pro Era collective, which Bada$$ formed with friends in 2009, is consistently producing some of the freshest sounding rap music on offer. The group’s success is a testament to its supportive framework, whose members include CJ Fly, Dessy Hinds and Kirk Knight.
Dub underscored Peaking Lights’ new record, Cosmic Logic. The husband and wife duo released another solid album that further alienated the EDM purists. Standout track “Telephone Call” harks back to The B-52s’ style of jibba jabba repetition. Liars also smashed a new hole in the alternative electronic scene, releasing their seventh album, Mess. With a more clubby sound, Mess sees the band moving into territory previously occupied by LCD Soundsystem.
Across the Pacific, Australian post-punk outfit Total Control released Typical System—the perfect companion to Liars’ Mess and HTRK’s Psychic 9–5 Club. From a city still seemingly obsessed with jangly guitar pop, Total Control broke away and produced one 2014's best punk records.
After impressing Savages’ Jehnny Beth and signing to her label Pop Noire, A Dead Forest Index relocated to London and released Cast of Lines. The band’s sound has always been hard to define and has therefore seen them struggle to break through, but in a year defined by nostalgia it was refreshing to hear a band challenging the conventions of modern pop music.
Canada’s Viet Cong challenged similar conventions, experimenting with discordant rhythms and unorthodox melodies. Band members Matt Flegel and Mike Wallace are experts at creating jarring music. They achieved similar success with their previous and equally abrasive band, Women.
Tad Friend, a long-time contributor to The New Yorker, recently mused, “Jazz, once the national vernacular, lingers as a fading dialect.” Friend had just attended a gathering of jazz musicians in New York, along with Quincy Jones. Buried by the rise of disco and then hip-hop in the 1980s, jazz has struggled ever since to keep up with the evolution of popular culture. However, that could be changing. Music streaming services such as Rdio and Spotify contain large catalogues of jazz music, making the genre accessible to a new generation of aficionados.
Otis Brown III is a modern jazz drummer who recently released his debut record, The Thought of You. Like many of the genre’s famous forefathers, Brown spent time bouncing between various ensembles before releasing a record under his own name. The Thought of You is a classic jazz record, referencing the hard-bop style of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, the soulful sound of Nina Simone and the hip-hop production of J Dilla. Brown proves that jazz is still relevant and has something fresh to offer, delivering a record that sounds crisp but steeped in history.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from a year that had few big pop records, it’s that music can survive without relying on the mainstream to produce something truly remarkable. 2014 was a year characterised by a familiar narrative, albeit one that returned after a twenty-year hiatus. Streaming services started to revolutionise the way we listen to music, leaving us with a sense that the evolution of digital sound has only just begun.