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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Robin Thicke – “Paula”

Grade: D

Acceptable track: “Living in New York City”

Let’s get this out of the way. This isn’t about the music. I don’t yet know if I’m referring to the album, or this review. But it’s a rare occasion when I can review an album where the music plays such an afterthought to the context behind it. Because this is barely an album. It has songs, sure, songs that have choruses and rhythms. But it’s all a thin veil for an attempt at a passionate, public apology. Occasionally, it works. Often, it doesn’t. Thicke dives too deeply into their relationship, even when he’s criticizing himself, giving us information we really didn’t need to know.

So let’s talk about the music a bit. The music does take a backseat, but when he’s prepping a quote-unquote ‘concept’ album like this, it’s not really the focus. Still, it’s all simple R&B, never elevating itself beyond some basic beats and unchanging soul rhythms that sound more in place in 90′s clubs. Sometimes it’s fun :) Sometimes it’s sad :( But from a music standpoint, there’s few highlights. “Living in New York City” has a fun, optimistic beat, and follow-up “Love Can Grow Back” has a big horn section and a jazzy, soulful vibe. But those are rare highlights. The album starts off with two slow-burners that musically are, frankly, boring. And although they set the album’s largely remorseful tone, they also stumble out of the gate with 9 minutes of dull music.

So where does Robin Thicke stand? “Paula” is a love letter, a deep apology for the way he acted as a husband. For the most part, he’s earnest in what he’s singing. In some of the more enthusiastic songs, he sounds like his heart just isn’t in it. (Only exception: “Living in New York,” where he sings about how she’s moved to NY and how pretty all the women there are). Some lines throughout the album I caught are, “All that she needs is another try,” “If you ever need a friend, baby / I can be the one that you want” (vomit emoji) and “There’s something bad in me” (understatement!) His lyrics get pretty intricate, so it’s easy to give him the benefit of the doubt, he’s genuinely grieving and it’s possible he actually feels bad for the stuff he’s done.

But, don’t let that deceive you. Thicke is a singer, it’s what he does, but there’s no reason for this be as public as it is. Even if he believes his own lyrics, this album is a power play. I was watching a World Cup game on ABC the other day and I saw an ad for Thicke on Kimmel’s dumb show and the voiceover said, “Robin Thicke concludes his ABC takeover!” He’s riding a storm of buzz over this album, capitalizing on his own deep emotions. And it’s important not to look at Thicke as some kind of hero here. Everything that happened between him and Paula was his fault, and he’s starting to be made out as a victim. He isn’t. “Paula” is usually pretty creepy, with too many details about their relationship growing more abusive. He just falls short of singing her social security number and where she sleeps at night. It honestly sounds unintentional, a side effect of him baring his true emotions, but it’s weird nonetheless. “Paula” is, at it’s best, forgettable. It is, at it’s worst, gross and shady. It isn’t good. Don’t listen to it and don’t acknowledge it, you’ll just be feeding into the Robin Thicke machine.

Oh also burn in hell for literally always.

(This review was originally posted at thefilteredlens.com, and since the time of publishing it has been released that “Paula” sold a whopping 530 copies in the UK. I wasn’t sure what the public’s perceptio of Thicke was nowadays, but it seems like we’re on the same page)

If you like this album, try: reading a different blog

Robin Thicke – “Blurred Lines”

(Photo Credit: Rolling Stone)

Grade: D+

Key Tracks: “Take It Easy On Me”

“Growing Pains” indeed. “Blurred Lines” comes out as Thicke is 36, with a three year old son. The album is distinctly more pop-based than his previous albums, showing a backwards trend in songwriting, possible an effort to hold onto the immaturity needed to be a successful pop singer. The result is a bland pop album that suffices as a summer party mix, but is lacking in originality, effective lyrics, big beats and really anything to make it memorable.

Thicke’s inspiration for the album came from growing up under the impression that everything was black and white, right and wrong, etc, but realizing how untrue it is once you grow older. This could really be a strong concept for an album, one that could really show growth for a musician. What Thicke delivers, though, is ego-centric songs of love, sex and passion whose only difference from other pop songs of the last thirty years is Thicke forcibly pushing his ego into them, which ultimately just makes him sound like the massive dick he claims to have.

On some of the album’s more subdued moments, Thicke’s voice is pleasantly pretty, something he didn’t eschew for a pop album. And the collaborations, with Pharrell, T.I. and Kendrick Lamar among the guest spots, often work well to make some balanced songs. Every track on the album falls flat because of the overused and sometimes vainly vapid lyrics. Musically, too, the album is boring. Thicke tries to mix R&B, latin and pop influences, but the result is the blandest parts of all three. The album needs a lot more oomph, and maybe some musicians that at least to try to care about the music they’re recording. “Blurred Lines” is an alright summer album, and will surely be played at pool parties for the rest of the summer. It does it’s job on the most fundamental level, nothing beyond that. And by next summer, all people will remember is the title track and it’s racy (read: horribly sexist) video.

In conclusion, a .gif from the “Blurred Lines” video, courtesy of Tumblr. user jhermann. Click on it to see his phenomenal dance moves, ones that sum up the awkward masculinity of the whole album:

If you like this, try: Really can’t help you on this one.

-By Andrew McNally