Music

The Best Music of 2014

Arnold Pan

More than ever in 2014, the music industry as we know it was in need of saving. Any imminent doomsday scenarios may have been put off for the time being thanks to Taylor Swift.

More than ever in 2014, the music industry as we know it was in need of saving. Any imminent doomsday scenarios may have been put off for the time being thanks to Taylor Swift, who delivered 2014's first and only million-selling album and came as close as possible to being a galvanizing figure in a balkanized musical landscape, as someone who more than a handful of fans, critics, and suits could reach some kind of positive consensus on. But Swift bailing out the music business begs the question of whether she's the last megastar of the Billboard era or the first of whatever's yet to come, whether her calculated empire-building acts, like pulling her music from Spotify, are ultimately futile attempts at fighting the future or actually part of a more forward-looking plan to create a better, more equitable system for artists.

Whichever path she's on, Swift herself will be fine -- as pop-chart historian Chris Molanphy explains in a perceptive article in Slate, she's in a tier all her own among the music's one percent. To extend this analogy to income inequality further, another way to look at things might be to consider how capital and clout have become concentrated and consolidated in fewer and more powerful hands, which, in this monopoly stage of the music industry, belong to the strata of your Taylor Swifts, Beyoncés, and U2s -- the last being paid a reported $100 million for creating an album that was basically an iTunes commercial and had the staying power of one. It's a structural condition where someone like Swift can forego a half-million in Spotify royalties at the same time even name indie acts are scraping by earning pennies on the bitcoin and Apple can buy Beats for billions (with a "b"!) just to strip it for parts to cherry-pick the best components for a prospective iTunes relaunch.

While music's one percent builds its gilded branding on a big old pile of money that's growing larger and larger, you could say the 99 percent might be venturing into subprime territory and making ends meet on illusory wealth, leveraging whatever capital they have in the virtual currency of views and plays, likes and shares that no one's been able figure out how to monetize effectively. So even at a time when more artists are flourishing creatively and there's increased access to them, the pot of money seems to be shrinking and it makes sense to presume that the bigger acts are taking a proportionately bigger cut: As the New York Times reported, sales were down five percent for the first half of 2014, with streaming pulling closer to downloads (40/60) in generating digital revenues. The economic gap in the music industry suggests that some kind of massive restructuring is inevitable, if not already in motion, but it's an open question whether that means there'll be a leveling of the playing field or if wealth will just be increasingly accumulated by an upper class of artists turned moguls.

Ironically, though, it feels like there's less of a hierarchy among artists than before when it comes to what they're producing and how it's received. That's something you notice in the breadth and depth of quality releases across genres and subcultures, which makes the idea of reaching a consensus at year-end less likely -- and arguably less crucial. There are more and more vital listens these days, which knocks down the pecking order that best-of lists imply, as you'll see in our 2014 coverage. That means there's more disorder and chaos, but, in the case of 2014, that's part of the thrill. Whether you're digging deep into our specific genre lists or our overlooked albums rundown or our picks for this year's -- and next year's -- most promising new acts, you get the feeling that the best music you've only imagined hearing in your head is out there to be found on SoundCloud and Bandcamp.

Such acts of discovery are why it's important to not just think about the supply-side of the business -- as thinkpieces about the state of music tend to obsess over -- but also to consider demand, to puzzle over how the behaviors and motivations of the audience may actually have a bigger say in how the market shakes out. Indeed, it's rather one-sided to simply assume that consumers just want more, faster, and cheaper, the wrong-headed implication being that the interaction between the artist and the listener is almost a parasitic one. But in fact, there's probably a greater desire for closer and more intense engagement on both sides of the relationship, which might explain why live music is a thriving sector, why a more expensive, seemingly obsolete medium like vinyl is selling, and why fans are happily investing directly in artists they believe in via crowdfunding.

In 2014, social media has only amplified these connections. When Killer Mike delivered his trenchant social commentary and poignantly personal statements on race relations in the wake of Ferguson, social media had a multiplier effect in spreading his important message far and wide. With sexism being one of the flashpoints in music this year, a new generation of savvy female artists used networks of blogs to circulate old-school essay writing that demystified stereotypes and unflinchingly took on sexism, while Against Me!'s Laura Jane Grace took her own experiences as a springboard to document the transgender community in an AOL webseries. Of course, the blogosphere could still too often read like an indie-rock gossip rag, with breaking news of Mark Kozelek's absurd beef with the War on Drugs, Ariel Pink trolling good taste and reeling in Grimes, and Grimes herself blemishing her otherwise strong brand by making a scene about refusing the ALS bucket challenge. As with the economic challenges facing the industry at a macro level, it's a matter of striking the right balance when it comes to social media.

The year-in-music, 2014 edition, then, only goes to show that we're still in beta testing for whatever the whole machinery for making, promoting, and distributing music is going to be like sooner rather than later. But with the system we're accustomed to in supposed demise, the future being up for grabs shouldn't be a sign of impending doom, but rather a condition of possibility. That sense of opportunity is what the most compelling and memorable music of 2014 represents, a year when even the best of the best ended up being more like the first among equals.

Owls, Aliens, and Others

Essayist Brian Phillips is no staunch empiricist, nor does he want to shatter delusions or expose machinations. In Impossible Owls, he is content to remain in a wide-eyed and owl-ier place.

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