Sorry Guys, Women Won Music (Again) in 2014

Man, us men really spent the year treading water. As 2014 comes to a (well-deserved) close, and we discuss the best and worst in music, one thing in evident – women really lead the way. Women released better songs, better albums and had more progressive things to say than men did. So although men can boast, dick around and talk big, it was women that paved every path this year. Aloe Blacc was the man? Well Beyonce was Flawless. From Laura Jane Grace to Ariel Pink, Wiz Khalifa to Mish Way, both men and women helped women become the beacons of music in 2014.

2013 was an exceptional year for women in music, too. I almost wrote this article last year, but I was then too devoted to keeping this blog strictly reviews. It’s amazing to think it was only last year that unknown teenager Lorde nearly overtook Robin Thicke for biggest song of the year. But where 2013 was all about new acts establishing themselves in new niches of music (like one Crutchfield sister in Swearin’ and the other in Waxahatchee, both redefining punk), 2014 was all about the big names taking sides and taking stances.

2014 began on December 13th of last year, when “Beyonce” dropped unexpectedly. Not even the album’s guest stars knew there was an album coming out. Only Beyonce could have a release that huge, that unannounced and that coherent. It would go on to champion a year full of feminism and sexuality where women dominated, with only minimal exceptions.

Women Dominated Albums

“Beyonce” may have been the year’s best album (if you count it), but it was one of just many great albums from women. Charli XCX and Nicki Minaj followed in Beyonce’s path and released December albums – a month usually reserved for contractual-obligation Christmas albums. Tinashe and FKA twigs released two of the year’s best debuts, two R&B albums that establish each singer’s other-worldly confidence. And speaking of other-worldly confidence, the year’s best album unabashedly went to St. Vincent. Annie Clark’s guitar-drenched songs of surveillance and snakes were nothing else we heard all year, in both scope and confidence.

Taylor Swift did something usually disastrous for musicians and switched genres (Remember “Forever“?). But she went passive, attacking armchair critics on “Shake it Off,” not coincidentally one of the year’s best/biggest songs. “1989” was a big mess of a pop album that convinced many people (myself) that there really is more there than angry break-up songs.

Another one of the year’s best albums came from Lana Del Ray, who listened to criticisms and improved her music in every way. “Ultraviolence” was dark, brooding and seductive – a 60’s minimalist pop work that’s ready to defend itself from Youtube comments. With songs like “Fucked My Way to the Top,” Lana owned her identity, to the chagrin of many. In comparison, Sam Smith provided one of the year’s best songs – “Stay With Me” – but struggled to find his own musical identity, with a lackluster debut and less of a personality than his minimalist pop peers.

And this brings us back to last year’s minimalist dear, Lorde. Lorde didn’t release any music in 2014 save one song, “Yellow Flicker Beat.” But the song came from the soundtrack to the recent Hunger Games movie, a soundtrack she was assigned to curate. That, itself, is a huge deal for anyone – especially someone still in their teenage years. And, she chose people of a like mind – CHVRCHES, Tove Lo, Tinashe, HAIM, Bat For Lashes, Charli XCX and Grace Jones (!!!) all make appearances.

Women Dominated Songs

“I got one more problem with you, girl”

“I go on too many dates / at least that’s what people say”

“Fuck the skinny bitches in the motherfucking club”

Women seemed to rule the radio this year, too. The year’s best songs and most provocative lyrics belonged to women. Let’s look at these three examples – Ariana Grande dominated the charts this year, with no bigger song than “Problem,” with Iggy Azalea. It was a horn-blasting, bombastic pop song influenced by DJ Mustard’s production but without any unnecessary DJ attachment. Taylor Swift tossed critics askew in a side of her we’ve never seen before, and Nicki Minaj rallied against pro-look pro-anti-feminists. “Anaconda” was one of the year’s best songs – she took a comedically remembered hit from ’92 about the male gaze and repurposed it into a song about female body positivity. What’s better than that?

Elsewhere, there was the female talent showcase of Jessie J/Grande/Minaj on the excellent “Bang Bang,” a song that’s just about bangin,’ and it’s great. It’s just a fun, upbeat pop song that shows off some talent. Grimes’ only contribution to 2014 was “Go,” a crazy, pseudo-steampunk song that reflects your every mood when you listen to it. Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” might not be one of the year’s most revered songs, but it tied Janet Jackson for most weeks at #1, and it’s just another notch in her book.

Women Owned Feminism & Sexuality

So let’s talk about the most important woman of the year, alright? Laura Jane Grace, of Against Me! In 2012, after Against Me!’s miserably regressive “White Crosses” album, Tom Gabel announced that he was going to start living as a woman, Laura Jane Grace. Grace joined Janet Mock and Laverne Cox, among others, in a year where the transgender movement finally came to a public eye. So Against Me!’s 2014 album, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” opened a wide audience to a previously closed movement. And while the album had some weak points, tracks like “True Trans Soul Rebel,” “Unconditional Love” and “Drinking With the Jocks” illustrate Grace’s struggles with gender identity in the way of some of Against Me!’s most abrasive lyrics yet.

And while we’re on punk, two of the year’s best feminists were Mish Way and Meredith Graves. Mish Way’s band, White Lung, released one of the year’s best albums in “Deep Fantasy.” The album is heavy and real from start to finish, but it’s centered around its second best song, “I Believe You,” a song that’s written from the POV of a surprisingly understanding friend of someone who’s admitting they’ve been sexually assaulted. The song is both musically and lyrically the heaviest thing they’ve done, and it’s one of the year’s most important minute and 42 seconds.

Meredith Graves, of Perfect Pussy, had a busy year. Perfect Pussy’s debut, “Say Yes to Love,” was secretly modeled off the line, “Why do we say yes to love?” The album has a feminist tone throughout, with Graves frequently taking on the established male punk precedent (if you can hear the vocals). Punk music needs a reason to be energetic; Graves and co. don’t hold back about that reason.

Outside of the band, Graves published essays on being a woman in the music industry, comparing Andrew W.K. to Lana Del Ray, and on male pattern violence after Mark Kozelek made an unnecessary, public feud with the War on Drugs.

On the sexuality side, it’s easy to say that sexuality in music as all about confidence – whether it’s outward, like Beyonce’s “Drunk in Love,”  Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” – or sultry and subversive – FKA twigs “Video Girl,” Tinashe’s “2 On,” this year was full of strong, confident women, and it’s been a joy of a ride. Keep it up, 2015.

There Are Always Exceptions

Of course there’s exceptions. With Azealea Banks finally getting to release her excellent debut, “Broke With Expensive Taste,” came some harassing, homophobic Twitter rants that diminished credibility. (I won’t link to them – know that they’re out there).

She also started an ongoing feud with 2014’s most problematic female, Iggy Azalea. For those of you reading this, by now you’re surely at least familiar with the name – she had a number of huge hits in the summer – “Problem,” with Ariana Grande, “No Mediocre,” with T.I., and her own songs “Fancy” with Charli XCX and “Black Widow” with Rita Ora. I have to admit, from a music standpoint, I think they’re all great songs. But I wish I didn’t know anything about her when I listen to them. Azalea is Australian by birth, British by upbringing, and whiter than a jar of Hellmann’s. But she raps in a fake, black Southern accent (see: Atlanta) to mimic those who “influence” her. She’s trying way too damn hard and yes, it’s really racist. And yes, she has dropped the N-word.

Lana Del Ray also sparked some controversy by saying she would rather talk about space travel than feminism. The degree to which it’s just to fit in with her old-money, Gatsby-befriending persona is debatable, but it’s something that was said and can’t be forgotten.

Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus also made trouble with some serious, continuous cultural appropriation, done for their own “artistic benefits.” Both artists have remained silent when asked by fans to stand up for actual black issues like Ferguson.

But Here’s What Men Did This Year

Men accomplished little this year, in terms of music (and most other things). As always – exceptions. Pharrell’s “G I R L” album was a great, feminist work (and acted as an unintentional apology for “Blurred Lines”). Perfume Genius’ song “Queen” was one of the most honest, heartbreakingly rattling songs of the year. Patrick Carney, of the Black Keys, had a year spent on the offensive where he called out people like Jack White for their actions. And, artists like John Legend and J. Cole led the movement to recognize the need to acknowledge Ferguson, with ?uestlove adding that we need more Bob Dylans and Rage Against the Machines – artists with political motivations. But for every Run the Jewels, there’s at least one Eminem, so let’s look at men being men:

Eminem. Eminem released a song where he threatens to punch Lana Del Ray. Why? To what purpose? Eminem is 42 years old, and his fight for relevance includes threatening the most passive, pacifistic singer you can think of? That’s not intimidating. If Eminem wanted to stay popular, he’d retire and let his record speak for itself. Or, he could actually focus on the quality of his music, since he hasn’t had a good song since “Lose Yourself” (arms spaghetti) and his 2014 contribution was a Shady greatest hits compilation no one asked for.

Mark Kozelek. Sun Kil Moon’s 2014 album “Benji” was remarkable, but the 47 year old singer is also fighting a losing battle with aging, as he started a one-sided, unnecessary feud with the War on Drugs, a band that has looked up to him, and has taken no part in this imaginary feud. It all culminated with the admittedly silly and meta but still homophobic single, “The War on Drugs Can Suck My Cock.” The fact that these attacks are unresponded to amounts to nothing more than Kozelek trying to prove his manliness and yelling at a crowd that isn’t listening.

Ariel Pink. Human clickbait Ariel Pink’s 2014 album, “pom pom” made a lot of year-end lists. I didn’t listen to it. Ariel Pink called out Grimes, for some reason, calling her “stupid and retarded,” insults I never realized people used after the age of 12. Pink said he was contacted by Madonna to record for her new album only to say she’s been on a big downward spiral. Madonna’s publicist said he was lying, that she had never heard of him. Downward spiral? Meet Ariel Pink.

Robin Thicke. Thicke! Thicke was quiet in 2014, but he wasn’t trying to be. Black metal bands be damned, the creepiest album of 2014 went to “Paula,” Thicke’s in-depth, hyper-specific public apology to his ex-wife. First week sales counts: USA – 24,000. UK – 530. Australia – 158. 158 copies in Australia didn’t crack the Top 200.

Phil Rudd. For a band that sings constantly about manly stuff like rocking and violence, AC/DC’s first controversy didn’t come until this year, when drummer Phil Rudd was arrested for trying to hire a hitman to kill his wife. The band was as shocked as it’s fans, where was this rock and roll stuff in 1977?

Future killed the good fortune he’d set up with one of the best albums of the year, “Honest,” by admitting he cheated on Ciara and by guesting on the atrocious “Pussy Overrated” with Wiz Khalifa. Jack White did interviews where he groomed his image by verbally attacking respected artists like Adele, the Black Keys, and even Meg. Chris Brown got arrested a few more times, and had the gall to release a song about disloyal girlfriends. I could keep going on about men in music, but these are the biggest examples. Most of the best music of the year was done by women, and women made the bigger stories. They’ve had to, because to be anything less than extraordinary is going to get them shelved under male musicians. Let’s keep this going. 2015 should be the return of Adele, and Beyonce might even give us another album. We’re starting on the right foot.

-By Andrew McNally. Inevitable responses can be directed to amcnal817@gmail.com. Article can be reprinted or referenced, with citation. Feel free to remove links if ya do.

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Prince’s “Art Official Age” and 3RDEYEGIRL’s “Plectrumelectrum” – A Review From the Uninitiated

Grades: Art Official Age: B+

Plectrumelectrum: D+

As a music critic, there’s been plenty of times where I’ve faked knowledge of an artist to give some insight into the recording of an album. I’ll admit it, I can’t say I’m on an equal playing field when I talk about both Ariana Grande and Foxygen, I have to look up information on someone like Grande because I’m much more inclined to listen to Foxygen in my own time. But I can’t fake Prince. Not admitting that I don’t know the first thing about Prince’s back catalog and topsy-turvy history would be unfair to him. Prince is a legend; a hero of pop music, and trying to fake my way through a review would not do him any justice. I know that he and Warner Bros. got into a bitter, bitter feud in the ’90’s, partially the reason for him to change his name to a symbol – so Warner would have to find a way to market it. And I know that he’s both feminine and seductive, yet legendary and encompassing enough for the NFL to pick him to play a Super Bowl halftime show (and one of the better ones). What I do know about Prince is that his music has jumped all around, and that’s exactly what his solo album, “Art Official Age,” does. So if you’re not familiar with his music, know that the album is inconsistent but often fun and honest. And if you are familiar, then you probably made up your mind before it even came out. Okay? Okay.

“Art Official Age” starts with a track titled “Art Official Cage,” and it’s a song that would have never existed in the “Purple Rain” years. It couldn’t have. It’s ripped from hip-hop and EDM, with big beats and air horns. It’s fun, and there’s way too much going on, but that’s part of the joy. The album jumps across fun, funky songs and big ballads, all of which are distinctly Prince and neither of which are aligned with any other pop artist. It’s the album’s best and worst quality, that it jumps so frequently and unexpectedly. Luckily, it’s good far more often than it’s bad.

The ballads come early, with the third track “Breakdown.” Prince hits some cringingly high notes, and pulls them off, obviously. “U Know” is a pseudo-ballad two tracks later, but one that has Prince rapping a bit. The hip-hop element is palpable on “U Know,” and is throughout the album. Prince constantly feeds off of genres that fed off him thirty years ago. Ballads aside, the album is a lot of fun, and Prince sounds like he’s truly enjoying it. Late album track “Funknroll” is exactly what it sounds like, a huge disco bash that’s a ton of fun and could easily be thrown on repeat for an hour without getting old. Second track “Clouds” is a strange track, with a strong spoken word that sets up the album’s loose premise of waking up in a world without gender pronouns. And leadoff single “Breakfast Can Wait” is an oddly specific, sexual song that’s exactly what you’d expect from Prince.

“Art Official Age” isn’t all great. The theme of waking up without gender pronouns are neat (and Prince to the max), but it never shows up outside of spoken word bits that are great on “Clouds” and finale “affirmation iii,” but are weak on the other tracks. And Prince seems to be borrowing just a tad too heavily from Daft Punk’s disco playbook – in that he tries lengthy, funky songs, but doesn’t pull them off as well as the duo. There are two tracks, “The Gold Standard,” and “Time,” that are far too long. The former is almost six minutes, the latter almost seven, and there isn’t much of a reason. They just inflate the album’s 53 minute runtime. But it starts strong and it ends strong, and it’s fun in between. People hanging out under rocks like myself should find a lot to groove to on this record, and find a lot of originality in it’s melting of both genres and themes.

On the inverse of that is the debut album from Prince’s backing band, 3RDEYEGIRL. Their album, “Plectrumelectrum,” flows through different genres and influences just as “Art Official Age,” but does so in a much more murkier and standard way. The band, who Prince is proudly touting as being all-female, gets off on the wrong foot with the lackluster “Wow,” a song that lacks the energy to be a true leadoff song, but has enough energy to not be a cop-out slow intro. After that, the album is a topsy-turvy ride, hitting high highs and low lows.

A low low is “Boytrouble,” an overlong and inane pop song that’s stylistically similar to far too many songs that have come before. Another low low is that the album appears to start off with a classic rock vibe for the first four or five songs, before slowly diverging into funk and hip-hop, without seeming to have any real reason. It flows well at the beginning, but the longer it goes on, the more it becomes a collection of songs instead of a fluid album. The album never seems to come to having any point, other than Prince showing off his (talented) backing band. Likewise, on “Fixurlifeup,” he sings lead, and he sings about misogyny in music and how bands shouldn’t be called “female” bands, yet he prides himself on showcasing his handpicked female backing band, contributing to the problem himself. (Not that he shouldn’t have an all-female band, just that he’s being pretty hypocritical about it).

The album isn’t all bad, though. There’s some great, exploratory songs. The title track (and longest on the album) is an instrumental classic rock jam that shows just how talented the band is. And the follow-up, “Whitecaps,” is a pleasant vocal-based pseudo-ballad. And the album has a better pacing, clocking in at a tighter 42 minutes, with some fat trimmed. The album certainly has it’s moments, it’s just very inconsistent and never has a sense of purpose. Perhaps the thing that summarizes it best is that the album’s final track is a different version of “Funknroll,” from “Art Official Age.” It’s a slightly different version that’s still good, but just not as much.

Not knowing anything about Prince didn’t harm me in listening to 3RDEYEGIRL. Their album is more direct, even if it hits different genres. It isn’t a great album and I give only a reserved recommendation for Prince fans only, but it still has some fun moments. And, they’re talented. they’re extremely talented. Non-Prince people like myself can at least enjoy it just as much (probably more) than Prince fans. As for “Art Official Age,” it’s also inconsistent, but it’s fun and energetic, and it might be a refresher for his fans. Or at least that’s what it sounded like to me.

-By Andrew McNally

Ariana Grande – “My Everything”

Grade: C-

Key Tracks: “Problem” “Bang Bang”

There are certain singers and rappers that, when they show up on a track, are automatically going to outshine the star – Beyonce, Andre 3000, Nicki Minaj. The problem with Ariana Grande is that she’s shown up by everyone. Iggy Azalea, Big Sean, Zedd, Cashmere Cat, Childish Gambino, The Weeknd, A$ap Ferg and, in an excellent Deluxe Edition-only song, Juicy J and Minaj all make appearances and they all help otherwise mediocre songs excel. On the four songs where Grande stands alone (not counting an intro), she sounds like an empty copy of a different singer.

“My Everything” does have its moments, most of which being the quicker, more EDM-embracing songs. Despite my best efforts, local rap radio has forced me to love “Problem,” a song with beats bigger than Grande’s whole first album combined.  “Break Free,” with Zedd, “Hands On Me,” with A$ap Ferg and “Bang Bang,” with Juicy J and Nicki Minaj are in the same boat. They’re great, fun songs with crushing beats but inoffensive mission statements. When Grande lets loose and has some fun, the album does too. These four songs are well-positioned, too, saving bursts of energy to come up every few tracks instead of using it all up early. Of the ballads, and there are plenty, the most noteworthy one is “Love Me Harder,” collaboration with The Weeknd, which matches some great vocals with catchy beats.

The rest of the album isn’t bad – it doesn’t ask you to form any kind of opinion. Much of the album, even the better songs, goes in one ear and out the other; cheap entertainment that’s forgotten as soon as it’s over. Grande’s voice shines throughout, and it stays as bouncy and inoffensive as it can, which results in a generally fun listen. The real issue lies in Grande’s lack of identity. She can really sing, maybe even better than most other pop singers out there right now (saving you, Adele), but her ‘carefree, bubblegum’ identity was unfortunately worn out in the early-00′s. Pop singers nowadays have to establish their own, unique beings – Adele is a soulful, 60′s throwback, Lorde is a hip-hop inspired, minimalistic hip-hop basher, Lady Gaga is a theatrical and newsmaking shock. Grande is trying to establish herself as a straight pop singer, but to do that, she’s going to have to compete with the current queen – Katy Perry. And frankly, in this current music world, only one is going to be allowed continued success.

So “My Everything” isn’t bad, just forgettable and bland, and it is never sure of where it wants to be placed. Grande is still (very) young, and she’s still finding her place. Working with big names like Zedd and Minaj could still shape her place in a crowded music scene. But for now, she’s standing as a successful but unexciting singer, and her second album provides a safe, somewhat bland listen.

-By Andrew McNally