2014: Elegy For A Disaster

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I don’t need to tell you that 2014 was kind of a crappy year. A year filled with political upheaval, heartbreaking deaths and communities succumbing to fear and selfishness. 2014 was the year of people being whipped for dancing, of civilian planes being shot down by warmongers, of innocent people being decapitated on screen, of massacres, intolerance, religious extremism and neoconservative discourse spreading around the world like a blight. 2014 was the year in which some brave rebels turned out to be even worse than the oppressive dictator they stood up against, in which the police forgot to serve and protect anyone other than themselves and protestors used modern means to advocate dated values. In other words, unless you’re an aspiring fascist dictator or a terrorist, chances are the news this year turned your insides inside out on a regular basis. And then I haven’t even mentioned the nonsense that’s been going on in my own country. Luckily, being the relentless optimist I am, I’m glad to conclude that, at the very least, the year produced some great content that will stick with me for a long time. Here’s the stuff I’ll remember from a year many people would rather forget.

Gaming

Even without an invasive reactionary smear campaign permanently burying the idea of video gaming as a proud part of our culture in an early grave, 2014 still proved to be a depressingly awful year for video gaming. It was the year in which some of the most anticipated and acclaimed productions were rereleases of games made a year ago, in which working properly stopped being a prerequisite for blockbuster video games, in which critics got mocked for addressing perfectly valid complaints and industry fat cats once again got away spot-free with rethreading the same tried and true paths of repetitive mechanics and puerile machismo. If anything, the only step the industry as a whole set in any kind of direction this year is yet another step closer to video games being little more than elaborate schemes to con entitled frat boys out of their money — though many of the venerated ‘personalities’ who generally point out that kind of stuff soon turned out to be just as bad, if not worse. 2014 was the year in which my faith in video games as a legit form of entertainment its consumers can be proud of was mercilessly crushed from both sides, and for that reason there is no game of the year. There is no game I want to blemish with the responsibility of representing this annus horribilis

Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth - A rare highlight in a year of atrocities.

Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth – A rare highlight in a year of atrocities.

Gaming has entered a new, worse era, where not a word can be said without the deluded scrutiny of its deranged gatekeepers. Whether you call it a ‘movement’, a ‘controversy’, or in my opinion most accurately ‘a clusterfuck’, ‘Gamergate’ has infested the video gaming discourse to the point where I cannot even remember what gaming culture looked like without the sophistic fallacies of conservative, misogynistic halfwits twisting any kind of intellectual discussion on the matter into an assault on their poor, vulnerable egos. If you’re not familiar with the matter, consider yourself lucky that you, like me, have the privilege of ignoring it and count your blessings once again that you ended up born a straight, white, cisgender male. Because let’s be honest here: Gamergate has been around for way longer than that godforsaken day when the douchebag from Firefly thought he was being clever by conjuring up a historically misguided name for the systematic harassment and abuse of women in gaming.

Bravely Default - Despite it's almost comically padded-out endgame, still a wonderful throwback to Japanese RPG's of the 90's.

Bravely Default – Despite its almost comically padded-out endgame, still a wonderful classic JRPG.

Gamergate will not die, not only because its adherents have nothing better to do than chasing people from their homes and defending neo-nazis and child abusers for the sake of ‘ethics in gaming journalism’. The Gamergate discourse will remain because most game developers want little more than its proponents to be their audience. For developers, being conservative, patriarchal and entirely dependent on cheap shock is easy. Emancipation, awareness and respect, however, are not, and I’m growing ever more sure that I have no reason to stay part of a culture that seems to do everything in its power to curb any kind of progress. Without progress, there cannot be a game of the year. Bravely Default, Super Smash Bros. for Wii UBayonetta 2, Mario Kart 8 and Persona Q are great games, but they can’t vouch for how video games evolved in the year 2014. Gaming isn’t dead, it’s slipping into a coma, and that might actually be worse.

Wipe The Dew From Your Eyes

It’s rather ironic, then, that the game I enjoyed the most this year was made by the developer that embodies all the problems I just addressed so perfectly. In the deepest corners of Ubisoft’s hypothetical office building, far away from the thousands of people pressured into phoning in their contributions to Watch_Dogs, Assassin’s Creed Unity or The Crew, a small team worked on Child of Light, a beautiful homage to the whimsey of childhood and the magic of the role playing games of yore. No ‘dark’ and ‘mature’ political violence, ham-fisted moral choices or cheesy romantic side-quests in Child of Light, but the heartwarming tale of an innocent girl tasked with carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders in her quest to save her father from a broken heart. Aided by a quirky band of compatriots, ranging from a jester who can’t rhyme to a mysterious demon with a heart of gold, Aurora travels through the gorgeous, mysterious world of Lemuria in order to restore its sun, moon and stars. It’s a simplistic story often artificially inflated with pomp and circumstance — due in part to the game’s somewhat ill-adviced insistence on telling its story entirely in rhyme without any kind of regard for other, more important aspects of poetry — but eventually one that tugs at the heartstrings without the manipulative bombast of most mainstream video games. 

Child Of Light - One of the many beautiful sights you'll witness during Aurora's journey.

Child Of Light – One of the many beautiful sights you’ll witness during Aurora’s journey.

The true charm of Child of Light resides in its gorgeous world, a luscious watercolour landscape of windswept plains and azure oceans filled with nooks and crannies for nosey players to explore. Filled with bite-sized puzzles and hazardous traps, the dungeons in Child of Light are short, but infinitely more rewarding than the endless corridors or procedurally generated labyrinths of the games from whence it draws inspiration. The battle system is equally enjoyable in its simplicity, combining a simple, turn-based game of guess-the-monster’s-elemental-weakness with an ingenious timeline mechanic. It’s quite reminiscent of Final Fantasy X, where manipulating the displayed order of turns with certain attacks and abilities is key. While the game is far from hard, befitting its broad target demographic and easy to understand gameplay, tactical masterminds will get a hoot out of timing their attacks well to obliterate enemies before they even have a chance to attack. Last but not least, the gorgeous soundtrack by French-Canadian singer-songwriter Coeur de Pirate beautifully supplements the game’s mysterious, melancholic vibe with its touching melodies.

Child of Light - The battle system is simplistic, but perfect for a game that never drags or forces you to grind.

Child of Light – The battle system is simplistic, but perfect for a game that never drags or forces you to grind.

Child of Light consistently and continuously colours inside the lines, but it sets a nice precedent I’d love to see more developers follow up on: smaller, humbler games with the polish of a blockbuster, but the heart of an indie game. Blending the best of two worlds is the only way I can see both scenes escape from their respective ruts, whether it’s big name developers favouring cinematic flair over gameplay or the indie sphere continuing to relish in nostalgia to side-scrolling platformers and rogue-likes. Child of Light is getting my praise maybe not necessarily because of what it is, but because of what it represents: beautiful, artistic games for everyone. It’s my favourite game of 2014. But it can’t be the game of the year. Gaming simply doesn’t deserve a game of the year this year.

Television

While I’m a big fan of the serial storytelling format in theory, in truth, I’m generally not a big TV watcher. As someone who’s already intimidated by having to watch the same film for two hours, I generally have more than enough on my plate already to care about big event television series. I got spoiled on Breaking Bad before I even knew what it was, and the general misanthropy and puerile abundance of sex and violence in most connoisseur series nowadays turns me off immensely. I was on the fence about Game of Thrones from the very beginning, but this year, the show finally made good on its promise to have all its sympathetic characters either eliminated or turned reprehensible — following up an tactless rape scene with more senseless brutality and relentless darkness to the point where I simply don’t care anymore which asshole will get to rule over all the other assholes. It’s a good thing that at the very least, all of these assholes are played with such verve.

Transgressive Lesbian Geek Spiral

Aside from Doctor Who, which had a surprisingly fun run this year — thanks in part to Peter Capaldi’s intense performance and some interesting ideas — the only relatively major television drama I am still on board with is Canada’s finest: Orphan Black, a clever and incredibly tense piece of conspiracy television that wrapped up its second season earlier this year. Orphan Black is about streetwise con artist Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany), who to her shock witnesses the suicide of a woman who looks exactly like her. Being the opportunists they are, Sarah and her flamboyant adoptive brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris) conceive of a plan for Sarah to impersonate her dead doppelgänger, a police detective named Beth. While the ploy initially sounds like the best thing that could’ve happened to Sarah, things quickly go haywire when she is approached by another lookalike, Katja, who manages to beg for Sarah’s help before being assassinated on the spot. Without spoiling too much, Sarah and her ‘sisters’ — all wonderfully portrayed by the talented Maslany — quickly finds themselves embroiled in a far-reaching conspiracy involving various shady factions from all over the nation.

Orphan Black - Seeing double

Orphan Black – Seeing double.

Nevertheless, the sprawling web of intrigue Orphan Black spins remains surprisingly focussed, with many a twist organically pushing the plot forward to thrilling new heights. In the end, the show’s musings on the ethical ramifications of the shady experiments Sarah tries to get to the bottom of play second fiddle to the sisters’ troubled personal lives, casting an intriguing and respectful light on their respective shortcomings. Its characters are flawed, but miraculously never not enjoyable to watch — presenting moral ambiguity despite straying far away from the cynicism and bleakness of its contemporaries, thanks in part to its hilarious reliance on mood whiplash and black comedy. Orphan Black is equal parts geeky and genuine – mixing speculative fiction with thrilling action, dorky humour, fascinating effects, strong performances and progressive takes on family, identity and sexuality. Season 2 ended on a massive twist, so I’m looking forward to see if the show can keep up its quality when season 3 hits next spring.

If You Love Something, Set It Free

Speaking of progressive takes on sexuality, Faking It is a show I stumbled upon somewhat haphazardly, because that is honestly the only way I can ever see someone watching MTV in the year 2014. A high school comedy initially very similar to the ones the channel has been churning out for years now, Faking It is about Karma (Katie Stevens) and Amy (Rita Volk), two best friends who are accidentally and wrongly outed as a couple by their comically liberal school’s most popular guy, Shane (Michael J. Willett). Because Karma is an American high school girl and therefore addicted to that invaluable commodity named popularity, she coaxes the meeker Amy into faking along, and the ‘couple’ soon become local celebrities — which Karma uses to her advantage to seduce her crush Liam (Gregg Sulkin). It’s a premise that sounds trite at best and offensive at worst, turning sexuality into a cheap gimmick for an otherwise by-the-numbers teen comedy. Yet around the third episode, something clicks. It’s somewhat hard to explain why the show gets so much better than it sounds without spoiling some of the general (if not predictable) turns the story takes, so feel free to skip this bit in the unlikely case I’ve already convinced you. As you might have guessed, it’s when Amy figures out that she is, in fact, genuinely attracted to Karma, that Faking It becomes one of the most heartwarming and hilarious shows I’ve seen on TV in a whole year. 

Faking It - The King, The Queen and Princess Sarcasm.

Faking It – The King, The Queen and Princess Sarcasm.

Fueled by endearing performances and strong jokes, Faking It drops the ‘fake lesbians’ premise almost entirely upon starting its second season, shifting attention to Amy coping with the fact that Karma won’t ever love her the way she loves Karma, who on her turn has to deal with dating the ‘man of her dreams’ while her best friend is heartbroken and the entire school wants her proverbially dead for making a mockery of the entire LGBT community — a strong example of how listening to criticism can make your show infinitely better. While the status quo usually rules the comedy scene, Faking It‘s cast goes through a hefty dose of character development, as even the initially most unsympathetic characters — namely Liam, the token straight guy who gets in the way of the fans’ one true paring, and Amy’s bigoted stepsister Lauren (Bailey De Young) — turn out to be a lot more than they initially seem. While the show is no stranger to cheesy melodrama — the big ‘shocker’ at the end of season one is so silly, it’s almost parody — it tends to keep its soap opera leanings under the covers in favour of heartfelt character moments and consistently snarky dialogue. As many a show has taught us before, you can only drag out a love dodecahedron for so long, so I hope Faking It will know when it’s time to call it quits. It helps that, for once though, the showrunners and the fans are entirely on the same page when it comes to who should end up with whom.

The Possibilities of a New Reality

Speaking of which, I can hardly mention shippers getting their way without addressing The Legend of Korra‘s amazing resolution, bravely kicking convention to the curb in a way that most author’s saving throws can only dream of being. If you’ve somehow managed to avoid the near Sixth Sense-levels of infamy the ending has already achieved, just know that I thought it was incredibly well-anticipated and perfectly in line with Korra’s development throughout the show’s four seasons, making a bold statement and pleasing loyal fans without letting the inmates take over the asylum. It is the only example I know to date of the shipping fandom making any sort of positive contribution to a show’s legacy, but picking apart what the show did wrong and right with its ending is food for a whole different blog altogether. The spectacular renaissance The Legend of Korra went through in 2014 is about so much more than its ending. 

The Legend of Korra - Yes, I thought the 'Dark Avatar' was really gross, too.

The Legend of Korra – Yes, I thought the ‘Dark Avatar’ was really gross, too.

When I started watching season 3 earlier this year, the show was a corpse to me, the smouldering remains of a thoroughly botched attempt to make lightning strike twice, initially bogged down by unsatisfying twists on the Avatar universe’s established rules and a painfully trite love triangle subplot, and in its second season viciously immolated by childish humour, awful characters, ridiculous twists (the “Dark Avatar” still haunts my nightmares) and retcons up the wazoo. Worst of all, the very first thing The Legend of Korra did this year was giving random characters airbending powers out of nowhere, a feat well established to be impossible up until then. It seemed like yet another entry in the show’s lengthy list of awful decisions, but after a few episodes it became clear why this completely unjustifiable twist may have been justified after all. The Legend of Korra had nothing left to lose. Season 2 had left the franchise’s canon in tatters and its hare-brained, bratty main character despised by the lion’s part on the fandom. By violating its own canon one final time, reintroducing the airbenders, whose absence had long been one of the universe’s fundaments, The Legend of Korra tore itself down completely — only so it could build itself up again, stronger, smarter, and more topical than ever before. 

By giving a bunch of random citizens of its 1920’s-inspired universe the powers of a tribe of conservative monks, therefore forcing them to adopt their cluture, The Legend of Korra provided some interesting perspectives on the values of tradition in the modern world, while the season’s villain Zaheer — an eloquent anarchist played by the one and only Henry Rollins — represented the twisted other edge of the mirror. Korra and her friends sorted out their issues like grown-ups and soon found themselves interacting in ways few other animated series can match, trading in their ham-fisted angst from the previous two seasons for complex, but well-presented musings on duty, talent, envy, family and the overarching conflict between order and chaos, mirroring the larger conflict playing out between Zaheer and the newly-reformed Air Nomads. Always tense and exciting, season 3 of The Legend Of Korra explored political and spiritual themes far more interesting than the ones presented in seasons 1 and 2 respectively — despite said seasons being written specifically with these topics in mind — and took the franchise deeper and deeper down a darker path, eventually leading to the show getting thrown off Nickelodeon entirely.

The Legend of Korra - You know, for kids!

The Legend of Korra – You know, for kids!

It’s in its new incarnation as a webstream that The Legend of Korra fully blossomed, however. As the anti-authoritarian Zaheer plummets half the world into anarchy and makes Korra question whether the universe still needs the Avatar, the show finally hits the subversive stride it aimed for from the very beginning — being not merely The Last Airbender set in more modern times, but a fresh new spin on the formula, with aside from the aesthetics of the 1920’s and 30’s, also their challenges and political upheavals. After exploring the repercussions of anarchy in season 3, leaving Korra victorious, but incapacitated, broken and alone, season 4 skips the action to three years later. It trades in the somewhat philosophical themes of Book 3 for a more political turn, as the lawless state Zaheer’s actions has left the Earth Kingdom in sees the rise of a wholly different breed of antagonist: the ruthless, vaguely fascist ‘Great Uniter’ Kuvira (Zelda Williams). While Kuvira gets all the attention a villain of her caliber deserves, The Legend of Korra once again wisely opts to let its protagonist centre stage, leaving no stone unturned in its attempts to respectfully portray Korra’s PTSD and subsequent recovery. It’s a rousing rise and fall arc in reverse, learning from the mistakes made by similar attempts in seasons 1 and 2 to create a breathtaking narrative exploring themes rarely ever seen in genre television, let alone genre television for kids. While the show remains far from flawless — due in part to the occasional infantile joke and the show’s insistence on acknowledging the idiotic retcons from season 2 — and the martial arts still miss the charm the original The Last Airbender had, the miraculous revival The Legend Of Korra went through this year is nothing short of amazing, and one of the definitive highlights of the year. Due to its low ratings and constant pushing the boundaries of what the channel will allow, I doubt Nickelodeon will give the Avatar franchise another shot. It’ll be a pity to see it go, but on the other hand, I’m glad to have seen it go out on such a high note.

Film

Call it the creeping bitterness of adulthood or the still-lasting aftereffects of watching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in cinema, but I’m growing ever more incapable of enjoying movies. My mind’s been permanently out of a mood to sit in front of a screen for two hours for most of the year, and unless it’s a film I’ve been hyped for for ages, chances are likely I’ll stop caring halfway through and will opt to go read a book while listening to music and refreshing my Facebook feed every five minutes instead, even though nothing ever happens on it. Even when I’m watching a film I truly, genuinely enjoy, I often find myself just waiting for it to be over so I can go do anything else, even if when watching a movie is the only time I ever catch a desire to do anything. It’s probably because of this that I found 2014 to be a rather run-off-the-mill year for film, featuring some highly entertaining blockbusters, but not much outside of the realm of superheroes and space flight that really spoke to me.

This Barbaric Slaughterhouse Once Known as Humanity

A major reason for this is the fact that I haven’t had a chance to even watch most of the year’s most prolific releases yet (Boyhood, Under The Skin, Gone Girl), but aside from that, my favourite film artistique release of the year for now has to be Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, a madcap historical adventure in which every shot looks like a meticulously detailed painting. Anderson’s signature camerawork, only shooting characters or buildings from the front or from the side, gives the impression of his world being one big dollhouse, as The Grand Budapest Hotel hyperactively tumbles from one farce into another.

The nervous, eastern-European inspired soundtrack fits the Fawlty Towers-esque vibe of Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and his buddy Zero (Tony Revolori) barreling halfway across a pastel-coloured 1930’s wonderland solving a series of highly convoluted crimes and getting themselves into trouble with all sorts of fascists, aristocrats and Willem Dafoe. It’s a ridiculous cocktail of absurdity, black comedy, beautiful imagery and a slew of memorable cameos (Tilda Swinton! Bill Murray! Jeff Goldblum!) in grand Wes Anderson tradition, elevated to higher levels of artsy-fartsy quirkiness thanks to some fantastically over-the-top performances. You could accuse Wes Anderson of making the same movie over and over again, but no one makes movies like Wes Anderson makes them, and if there’s anything the world needs in these times of crisis, it’s movies like Wes Anderson makes them.

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Somewhere in between blockbuster and art flick is Interstellar, a movie I have somewhat mixed feelings about. Christopher Nolan’s slick, bombastic style is still a perfect match for a story of Interstellar‘s scope. The retro-inspired art design and murky cinematography — a welcome change from the almost creepily polished look of Inception and The Dark Knight Rises — is breathtaking. Matthew McConaughey and newcomer Mackenzie Foy turn in great performances, but in the end I can’t help but feel that Interstellar feels more like a presentation on quantum physics than like an actual narrative. The ending, which I won’t spoil, is esoteric, oddly presented, predictable even, and feels like it belongs more in a psychedelic character piece than in a hard sci-fi journey into an actually probable future. Yet instead of focusing on the human ramifications of time dilation and space colonialism, Interstellar is almost merciless in its technobabble, making people who opted out of physics throughout their school career feel somewhat locked out of the loop.

It’s astronaut Cooper finding out that his little girl has become a grown woman in what to him were just a few minutes that I care about, or the question whether it’s worth surviving for mankind if that means living in a spaceship on a desolate wasteland, not the fact whether or not all of this is even scientifically plausible. I’m apparently the only person in the universe who thinks this, but I’d say Interstellar shines the brightest, oddly enough, when it’s set on Earth, painting a grizzly picture of an American South forced back to its agrarian roots by worldwide natural disaster. It’s the human element, focusing on Cooper and his family’s struggle for survival in the dust-clad badlands, that constitutes Interstellar‘s strongest bits — which for the usually so clinical Nolan is a pleasant surprise. As is the case here, the man’s incessant ambition doesn’t always pay off, but it always results in memorable, interesting movies. Interstellar is no exception. Whatever “the thinking man’s Michael Bay” tries out next, I’ll be on the front row. Unless it’s another superhero movie.

Enjoy Popular Music

A lot less muddled by any sort of academic pretense was The Lego Movie, a joyous homage to creativity chock full with great gags, artistic flourishes and references to the toy line’s long history of licensed properties. Yet for a film based on one of the biggest brands around, it’s ironically rather staunch in its anti-corporate message. Surprisingly, The Lego Movie uses its standard stick-it-to-the-oppressive-man plot to propose a neat compromise in the argument Lego fans have been waging for decades: Should you stick to the instructions or let your imagination run wild? Touching messages aside, it’s the animation in particular that sets The Lego Movie apart. Though apparently all rendered in CGI, The Lego Movie looks and feels like stop-motion, from the intentionally jittery frame rate and wooden movements of the traditionally rather stiff mini-figures to everything on screen, up to the explosions, being built out of tiny plastic bricks. It’s a unique visual charm that I will only tolerate getting shafted for the Academy’s most blatantly ignored award if Ghibli’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya somehow manages to secure a nomination.

Probably the most impressive thing about The Lego Movie, aside from its animation, is how baffling of dream come true is. A movie starring Batman, C-3PO, Shaquille O’Neill, Abraham Lincoln and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sounds like something straight out of a twelve-year old boy’s diary, but it somehow managed to end up in theatres nonetheless. It’s a small miracle The Lego Movie managed to bring what makes Lego so unique to the big screen with genuine glee. Like many movies of its ilk, it’s a bit too loud and jazz-hands-sing-sang-voice “wacky” for its own good, both with its heart in the right place, it shows that quality and commercial motives shouldn’t always be mutually exclusive. Alongside Marvel’s fantastic double whammy of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, The Lego Movie reasserted my faith in big-budget cinema fun, so here’s hoping the inevitable sequel(s) will manage to make lighting strike twice.

Music

Music is arguably my biggest passion, but also the one that, sadly enough, people tend to care about the least. This year saw the release of a dozens of albums and songs I’d love to write whole paragraphs about, but for the sake of my sanity and yours, I’ll try to narrow it down. The general consensus on the musical year of 2014 seems to be that of many highlights, but little surprises. Bands expected to deliver managed to do so, but no one jumped out to deliver a piece of work opening up new musical horizons and ushering in a new generation. It was a year of many eight out of tens, but little to no nine and tens, so to say, so picking a single standout album or song of the year is a challenge to say the least. I’ve never been a believer in hierarchy anyways, so let me leave the ranking to actual music writers and just ramble a bit. I’m good at rambling.

Come Here And Be Gorgeous For Me

If you’d told me at the beginning of the year that one of my favourite albums of the year would be a record I can’t help but to describe as “neo dad rock”, I’d have laughed at you, but Lost In The Dream by The War On Drugs is exactly that. It’s the kind of record that makes you realize all that classic guitar rock played by long-haired white dudes in hilariously unfashionable linen shirts that your dad listens to is actually pretty cool when your dad doesn’t listen to it. If atmospheric guitar plucking, 80’s synthesizers, epic rock-‘n-roll jams and dudes named “Adam Granduciel” yelling “woo!” just a few times to many to still sound spontaneous are your thing, make sure to check out standout rock-outs like “Red Eyes” or “An Ocean Between The Waves”. Not entirely unrelated to The War On Drugs’ surprising rise to fame was the return of Beck to the songwriting scene. The guy you might know from “Loser” released another 60’s and 70’s-inspired acoustic album this year, Morning Phase, filled with beautiful, emotional songs produced with the same wholesome-sounding flourish and wonderful orchestral arrangements as his 2002 masterpiece Sea Change. It’s a wonderful argument to prove that country and folk aren’t just for hillbillies and tree-huggers, with lead single “Blue Moon” as the song to remember.

Fancy your country a bit less soppy? Iceage, a ridiculously unhinged punk band from Denmark released Plowing Into The Field Of Love this year, a fascinating, deranged album mixing the band’s established noisy punk sound with drunken banjos and spaghetti western trumpet solos. Iceage still sound like they’re intentionally playing out of synch and vocalist Elias Bender Rønnenfelt sings like a stark raving lunatic drunk off his trousers on cheap beer, but their eclectic songwriting is more cathartic than ever. From the fun-tastic swagger of “The Lord’s Favourite” to the lone-ranger eerieness of “Forever”, Plowing Into The Field of Love injects the dusty wild west with some Scandinavian cool.

It’s Hard To Be a Lover When The TV’s On

Moving away from the cold north and into the rainy west of Europe, another musical highlight of the year was the release of Everyday Robots, the debut solo album by Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz fame. Despite having been active in the music business for over 25 years, it’s the first proper solo album Albarn has released in his own name — though in many ways, it sounds a lot like a new Gorillaz album. The subtle electronics, melancholic deadpan vocals and clever use of guest appearances by Bat for Lashes and Brian Eno invoke the spirit of Albarn’s cartoony side project, yet the lyrics tear down the animated guise the singer has hidden himself behind for a good chunk of the last decade, revealing a battle-hardened, matured man speaking honestly about his mistakes from the past and humanity’s prospects for the future. While the poppy gospel singalong “Mr. Tembo” was the most heavily pushed track off the record, it’s the more personal, experimental songs like “The Selfish Giant” or “You and Me” that truly define Everyday Robots. It’s the rare relevant, dignified release by an industry veteran that only comes around once every few years, and an album to be cherished by new and old fans alike.

From old hands to greenhorns: the relentlessly hyped Alt-J released their second album This Is All Yours this year, once again dividing critics. One side praised the Oxford trio for blending together rock, pop, folk and electronica into an experimental, complicated cocktail, the other slamming them as overhyped, pretentious and blessed with the poetic talent of a Mills & Boon novel. I personally can’t get enough of Alt-J’s eclectic songwriting, whether its Joe Newman nose-yodeling over a sampled Miley Cyrus (!) in “Hunger of The Pine” or the tribal thumps of “Every Other Freckle”, a love song cursed with what have to be some of the most awkward lyrics to be ever mumbled into a microphone. Nevertheless, it’s the uncompromising geekiness that constitutes part of Alt-J’s charm, as without it, the band’s sonic shenanigans just wouldn’t sound as genuine. In spite of all their ambitions, Alt-J never lose track of The Song™, having delivered another sleight of catchy, but creative tracks on their path to posh art school student superstardom. Except for “Garden of England”. Fuck those flutes.

Other Cool Things 2014 Gave Us

I can keep talking about music and categorizing things until the cows come home — or you tell me to do some blogging outside of the month of December — but this post is frankly getting so obscenely long the new year might have actually started already when you’re reading this. Here’s some more stuff I’ll remember this year by that doesn’t really fit into any of the above categories:

Serial, by Sarah Koenig, Julie Snyder, Dana Chivvis, Emily Condon and Ira Glass

If there was a word to describe the podcast equivalent of a ‘page turner’, Serial would definitely qualify as one. While it might have eventually turned out to be more of an incredibly elaborate piece of investigative non-fiction than the thrilling murder mystery many expected it to be, Serial remains an incredibly intriguing listen, exploring a web of intrigue against the backdrop of Baltimore in the late 1990’s. Though controversial for its inconclusive ending and rather voyeuristic nature, the podcast is still more than worth your time, if only because of host Sarah Koenig’s dedication and outstanding narrative skill.

Ms.

Ms. Marvel – I want that jacket so much.

Ms. Marvel, by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona

2014 was a great year for Marvel, taking the box office my storm not once, but twice, and introducing a updated, more diverse slew of heroes to critical acclaim. Frontrunner of this new generation — however long it may actually last — is G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona’s Ms. Marvel, a charming, quirky gem that could easily attract a brand new audience of comic book readers. Kamala Khan is more than just a woman and a Muslim, she’s the Peter Parker for the 21st century, an witty, flawed and intensely relatable super-heroine who becomes a vigilante out of admiration for the likes of Iron Man and Captain America. Ms. Marvel combines Kamala’s adventures with a nuanced exploration of the conflicts she faces trying to combine her new life as a shapeshifting superhero with the traditions of her strict family and her faith. Best of all, Ms. Marvel is one of those rare comics anyone can dive into without any prior knowledge of the Marvel Universe, so what are you waiting for?

Kamen Rider Gaim

The best superhero fiction this year didn’t feature gun-toting raccoons, giant teleporting bulldogs or villains speaking in #hashtags, but breakdancing fruit samurai playing Pokémon to settle their beef. It’s also about envy, betrayal, heroism, sacrifice, redemption and doing the right thing in the face of cynicism. What else can still be said on Kamen Rider Gaim? Check out my full impressions over on The Glorio Blog.

Gotham Academy - My second favourite expression of surprise, after "What the God?"

Gotham Academy – My second favourite expression of surprise, after “What the God?”

Gotham Academy by Brenden Fletcher, Becky Cloonan and Karl Kerschl

With another widely beloved book joining Marvel’s ranks in Ms. Marvel, DC seem to have finally realized that their current policies weren’t exactly winning them any new fans. Taking a page out of the House of Ideas’ book, DC revitalized their stagnating New 52 line by, amongst others, rebooting Batgirl into an adorable, lighthearted pseudo-manga and launching Gotham Academy, a Scooby-Doo-esque romp chronicling the misadventures of the students attending Batman’s alma mater. Part high school dramedy, part occult mystery, Gotham Academy invokes the gothic atmosphere of the best Batman tales. It effortlessly weaves the Batman mythos into its adventures, which alongside the loveable characters and strong artwork makes Gotham Academy more than recommendable to anyone with even a marginal interest in the Caped Crusader.

Il Nero e l’Argento (The Black and the Silver), by Paolo Giordano

I’ve fallen out of the habit of reading proper literature a bit this year — mostly due to spending most of it wrestling through Brandon Sanderson’s sprawling Mistborn trilogy — but whenever a new Paolo Giordano novel comes out, it tends to take priority over everything else going on in my undoubtedly very interesting life. Like no other this Italian particle-physicist-turned-author is able to portray the tragicomedy of human existence, which is no different in his latest, semi-autobiographical novel Il Nero e l’Argento. With his trademark warm, empathic style, Giordano describes the impact the deterioration and death of his former housekeeper had on his family, sketching the melancholy and suffering of fundamentally lonely people in ways few other writers can match. Sadly enough, Il Nero e l’Argento has yet to be translated into English, so in the meantime, you might want to check out his earlier works, The Solitude of Prime Numbers, and The Human Body.

This magazine cover of Billy Corgan with his cats

The world is a vampire.

The world is a vampire.

Don’t let that stop you in trying to make the best of next year, however. All of 2014’s problems won’t just magically disappear, but hopefully, a new number at the end of the date can inspire us to try harder, stand stronger and do better with reinvigorated courage, or some other cheesy nonsense like that. Have a great day, night, and year, and I will see you… on the Internet.

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