Music writing has changed. The business surrounding criticism, op-eds, and reviews has become tighter than ever, as heightened analytics prove what types of pieces people actually click and read. And while it would be easy to dismiss many a listicle or meme as the Idiocracy-ization (Clickhole-ization?) of the art form, the quality of writing from around the spectrum of music publications in 2014—both large and small—is nothing short of inspiring. Of course, we see this on a daily basis from our amazing contributors, but we would be remiss if we didn’t point out some of the incredible writing we’ve read in other outlets this year as it pertains to music, or in some cases, musicians writing about topics we sometimes find difficult to put into words. That is why we’ve put together this list—to celebrate those people whose words make us think and react on a daily basis. (And in case you’re wondering, we’ll unveil our best features of 2014 over the last two weeks of December.)
The Best Music Writing of 2014
Dear Arca by Mike Sugarman for Ad Hoc
Arca, dear Alejandro, here we stand next to the diving board, watching you cannonball and backflip and sometimes just plain old dive– it is a spry, graceful dive– into the deep end, getting us all positively soaked in the process. There are people, Alejandro, who do not want you getting them wet. People sunbathing next to this pool who want their magazines to stay crisp. They ask, “Why do you do this, Alejandro? Why can’t you be like MikeWillMadeIt and stick to playing Marco Polo with the popular boys? Why can’t you just keep it simple and soulful like Dev Hynes?” Arca, you are killing them, don’t you know?
The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie by John Jeremiah Sullivan for the New York Times
In the world of early-20th-century African-American music and people obsessed by it, who can appear from one angle like a clique of pale and misanthropic scholar-gatherers and from another like a sizable chunk of the human population, there exist no ghosts more vexing than a couple of women identified on three ultrarare records made in 1930 and ’31 as Elvie Thomas and Geeshie Wiley.
ODB as a Microcosm of American Inequality by Shaun Ossei-Owusu for Huffington Post
Examining ODB, a fascinating personage in and of himself, also offers insights into institutions and logics that help shape black sociopolitical life—specifically, the welfare state and the criminal justice system on the one hand and, not unrelated, distrust of government and racial suspicion on the other. Although Dirt’s drug use and suspected mental illness obscured these insights, a critical inquiry into his life and archive highlights some of the unpleasant features of American race relations; it also illustrates the point that some of the most elucidating case studies are of those that we commonly dismiss as eccentric or “crazy.”
Sun Kil Moon Yells At Cloud: “War On Drugs: Suck My Cock” and the Language of Male Violence by Meredith Graves for Pitchfork
It seems this is most people’s opinion of the one-sided beef: Kozelek, a notorious curmudgeon, isn’t doing anything harmful by harassing these guys. In fact, he’s just doing what he’s always done—being a grumpy ass who doesn’t seem to care what people think of him. These same people insist that ignoring him and letting him continue to do this kind of stuff is the best option moving forward. To speak up about this kind of behavior from artists and performers is to inevitably be met with, “Lighten up, not everything has to be political, it’s just for entertainment.”
Run the Jewels: How 2014’s Brashest Rap Duo Came Back From Oblivion by Chris Weingarten for Rolling Stone
There was a time when such a partnership seemed all but inconceivable. In 2003, Atlanta human megaphone Killer Mike had multiple verses on what the RIAA considers the best-selling rap album of all time, Outkast’s 11-times-platinum Speakerboxx/The Love Below. In Brooklyn, El-P was pouring sweat into Definitive Jux, a critically adored subterranean record label where success meant the high five figures. They were separated by nearly 900 miles of Interstate and the incalculable hurdles of the hip-hop culture wars — Internet turf battles about North vs. South, mainstream vs. independent.
On Ferguson: To be relevant is to be powerful by Victoria Ruiz for The Media
We must look at Ferguson as another battle of resistance to make People of Color relevant to the redistribution of power in the United States. The 13th Amendment was a work in progress from when the first person was abducted from Africa and deposited as property, and not as a person, in the eyes of the United States of America. The implementation of the 13th amendment to end slavery is still in process. We need to recognize the difference between a true end to slavery and the mutations of slavery that we currently live in.
Legend in the Making: How Bob Marley Was Sold to the Suburbs by Chris Kornelis for LA Weekly
The result of that coolly pragmatic vision was Legend: The Best of Bob Marley and the Wailers, which became one of the top-selling records of all time, far exceeding even the ambitious goals Robinson had set for it. Unlike the Backstreet Boys’ Millennium, ‘N Sync’s No Strings Attached and many other best-selling albums in recent decades, Legend isn’t a time capsule of a passing musical fad. Selling roughly 250,000 units annually in the United States alone, it has become a rite of passage in pop-music puberty. It’s no wonder that, on July 1, Universal will release yet another deluxe reissue, this time celebrating the album’s 30th anniversary.
His City of Ruins by David Bevan for Spin.
When Joe Casey was twelve years old, he heard one woman murder another on the front lawn next to his. “It sounded like somebody was getting slapped,” he says. “But it was the sound of somebody getting stabbed, 60, 70, 80 times. Slap. Slap. Slap-slap-slap-slap.” A domestic dispute had started and ended outside in the summer heat while Casey, now 37, was watching television on the couch. As his older brother ran to the screen door and then to call the police, Casey remained seated, just as he was on a cold morning in early March, 25 years later, in the same living room. “No effect,” he said, flatly, when asked if the event had one. “Other than that I remember it.”
Pretty When You Cry by Lindsay Zoladz for Pitchfork
In the eight long years since lonelygirl15 catfished millions of people, “feminine sadness” has developed into a full-fledged internet phenomenon. The writer and artist Kate Durbin has called this the “Tumblr teen-girl aesthetic.” “[Girls] can teach us something about what it’s like to always be seen as a thing, as less or other than all that you are, and what you can do with that position of abjection if you are brave,” she writes. The aesthetic is at once purposefully campy and disarmingly earnest; artifice and vulnerability bleed together until you can’t tell the two apart. The quintessential example is perhaps one of my favorite Twitter accounts, the dryly hilarious @sosadtoday.
DJ Rashad is gone, but his influence on footwork lives on by Leor Galil for the Chicago Reader
Chicago footwork producer Morris Harper, better known as DJ Spinn, had the best set at this summer’s Pitchfork festival. His early-evening slot on the fest’s last day overlapped with performances by reunited British shoegaze band Slowdive and electro-pop darling Grimes, but his turnout didn’t seem to suffer for it. The tree-shaded Blue Stage felt like a family reunion; dozens of friends and collaborators joined in, including Mano’s Treated Crew and hyperactive footwork dancers the Era. Cheered on by members of the Teklife collective, which he’d cofounded as GhettoTeknitianz in 2004, Spinn dove into a euphoric, high-energy mix—but hanging over the set was the melancholy awareness that DJ Rashad was supposed to be up there with him.
The Greatest Music Producer You’ve Never Heard Of by Michael Hall for Texas Monthly
Without this producer, Bob Dylan would not have broken through like he did—effectively bringing on the swinging sixties and changing music forever. Without this producer, Simon and Garfunkel might have quit before they ever got started, the Velvet Underground might have stayed underground, Frank Zappa might have spent his career recording on hapless independent labels, and jazz greats Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor would definitely have labored longer in obscurity than they already did. This producer helped them all find their voices and realize their visions, revolutionizing American music. He was a Harvard graduate. He was a Republican. He was a black guy from Waco, Texas.
Pharmakon’s Violent Healing by Andrew Parks for Wondering Sound
Margaret Chardiet isn’t sure how to describe the crippling pain that flooded her body last fall, but she says that if you can imagine being stabbed in the side repeatedly by a butcher’s knife, you’re about halfway there. Chardiet didn’t pass out when shock set in. The Brooklyn artist—better known as noise architect Pharmakon—called her mom back home in Pennsylvania, who issued the following advice: “Go to the hospital.”
Wu-Tang, Atomically by Amos Barshad for Grantland
As with most tales of great American fortitude, the Wu-Tang Clan’s starts at the bottom. Robert Diggs spent his early life in poverty, shuttling between two-bedroom project apartments in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and Stapleton, Staten Island, that were bursting with his sprawling family. “Your bed was whatever spot you could grab on the floor,” he’d later write in The Tao of Wu. “Your blankets were those gray wool mats that movers used to protect furniture.” His world was defined by hardship, not opportunity. Which is why he decided to create his own.
Sleater-Kinney: Start Together reviewed by Jenn Pelly for Pitchfork
Sleater-Kinney turned the machismo of hippie-blooded ’60s and ’70s rock on its head: covers of Springsteen and CCR, homages to Kinks and the Clash, Brownstein’s Pete Townshend windmills and shin-kicking swagger, Tucker’s defiant declaration that “I make rock’n’roll!” A life-or-death seriousness is omnipresent with Sleater-Kinney, but they never rejected rock’s base desires—sex, dancing, proverbial milkshakes—although sometimes they vaguely mocked them. Sleater-Kinney stole from men what men had in turn stolen from the margins: electrified blues that all still made girls scream.
Dear Charlie by Joe Hagan for Oxford American
In August of 1974, a teenaged girl, named Tara after the plantation in her mother’s favorite movie, wrote a three-page letter to a forty-one-year-old man. Alone in her bedroom in Ludowici, Georgia, she traced careful floral cursive letters with a blue pen on lined notebook paper. An LP spun on her record player. Hey, the man said to her, did you happen to see the most beautiful girl in the world?
The man looked out from the record cover: silver-white hair flowing to his shoulders, sturdy jaw with sideburns, large-brimmed hat shading his deep-set eyes against a lowering sun. He was pensive, mysterious, vulnerable. He was Charlie Rich—P.O. Box 3510, Hollywood, California, 90028.