Wednesday, December 31, 2014

THE BEST OF 2014 - The Best MOVIES Of The Year


- Well, it's been an interesting year, hasn't it? There were a lot of things I could have talked about with regards to the state of movies in 2014, but ultimately, this was the year that The Interview almost caused an international incident. As I write this, there's still a bit of ambiguity over who, exactly, hacked Sony Pictures and later threatened to retaliate should The Interview be released. But because of our suspicions that North Korea was behind the attack on Sony, major theater chains pulled out of showing The Interview - leading Sony to follow up by cancelling the release of the movie altogether. Soon, an outcry began, and a Seth Rogen / James Franco comedy was the unlikely centerpiece of a movement. Fans, Hollywood insiders, and politicians all wanted the film to be released - not releasing it was an affront to our freedom, a victory for censorship. The President of the United States stated he thought Sony should have gone ahead and released the film, and encouraged Americans to go to the movies over the Christmas holiday. Eventually, as small theater operators rallied and fans protested, Sony relented. The movie ended up releasing in independent movie theaters across the county over Christmas, and also went live on select digital distribution platforms. The Interview could be seen, and freedom won the day.

The entire thing played out like some strange comedy of errors. The movie was cancelled, then suddenly back on again. America spent days worrying about some sort of attack on movie theaters, then began to doubt whether North Korea was even truly the source of the hack that started this whole incident. When Sony finally decided to pull the trigger on okaying a digital release for the film over Christmas, the timing was such that many big distribution platforms were unprepared to go live with the film - this meant that iTunes got the movie late, and Sony's own Playstation Store still, at year's end, doesn't have it available (while their competitors at XBOX do). 

In many ways, it's all already a bit silly in retrospect. But at the same time, it's not at all. If North Korea truly was behind the threat, and truly was willing to use force to keep The Interview from being seen - than that is a legitimate assault on our country and an attack on our freedoms. As surreal as it is to be having this conversation about an over-the-top comedy, we also can't dismiss what happened just because of the movie's genre. In fact, comedy is in many ways the epitome of our freedom of speech. The ability to mock, satirize, and poke fun at people and institutions - that's the very essence of what it means to have that freedom. And as I said in my review, The Interview feels like the kind of silly retort that an absurdly silly regime like Kim Jong Un's deserves. 

In purely pop-cultural terms, all of the discussion about The Interview opened up a debate about how we view comedy. One of the strangest side effects of The Interview becoming a politically-charged issue: scores of people watched it who would not normally be caught dead watching this kind of comedy. Which in turn led to an endless supply of comments trashing it. As a guy who reviews movies, and as a huge comedy nerd, this really frustrated and annoyed me. Suddenly, everyone was an expert, and people were all too happy to declare, definitively, that The Interview sucked. Ugh.

One of the things that got me interested in reviewing movies in the first place was the rise of internet enthusiast sites like Ain't It Cool News, circa the late 90's. As a kid, I remember always feeling frustrated with the movie reviews in the local paper. Comedies were always reviewed poorly, no matter how funny I found them. Action movies were always panned, no matter how badass their fight scenes were. Luckily, the internet gave voice to a new breed of reviewer who actually understood and appreciated genre. If you're going to review comedy, you've got to understand timing, joke construction, delivery, etc. It's why I hate when reviews seem to rag on comedies that aren't "about" some larger issue, instead of actually analyzing how well-constructed the jokes and dialogue are. If we only graded comedies based on what big, important issues they dealt with, then I suppose the works of Mel Brooks and Monty Python would be considered failures. 

This is why you're not going to see They Came Together on many 2014 Best-Of lists. But there was never any doubt in my mind that it would make mine. Watching They Came Together, I laughed more than at any movie I've watched in years. The movie isn't really *about* anything. It's just funny as all hell. Recognize and respect, people. For similar reasons, it was a no-brainer to me that the masterful The Raid 2 would rank high on my list. The movie is an absolute action-movie masterpiece, with some of the most jaw-dropping fight choreography I've ever seen. I understand that it may not be some people's cup of tea. But if you're going to talk about it, you've got to do so in the proper context, and look at what it is and what it's trying to be. 

Luckily, the mainstream seems to be getting increasingly down to get weird and crazy. Almost all of 2014's best and most acclaimed films are actually pretty insane, in their own way. Boyhood is a twelve-year opus from Richard Linklater, a guy who's always been a Hollywood outsider - a rock n' roll auteur. Whiplash, Nightcrawler - both dark and gritty and disturbing and intense as hell. One of this year's biggest fan favorites, Snowpiercer, is also quite possibly one of the strangest movies I've ever seen. And arguably the year's best and inarguably highest-grossing summer blockbuster, Guardians of the Galaxy, brought the weird, trippy, cosmic side of the Marvel universe to the big-screen - making heroes of a talking racoon and an ass-kicking tree-guy who says the same phrase over and over. 

So yeah, I guess 2014 was a pretty great year for movies - in the weirdest, strangest, unlikeliest of ways.


1.) Boyhood

- Richard Linklater has long been one of our best filmmakers, but he outdid himself with the game-changing Boyhood. The way the film was shot - continuously over a twelve-year period - was no mere gimmick. Instead, Linklater created a film that gave us an unprecedented feeling of watching a life unfold before our eyes. Never before has a movie so actively invested us in the well-being of its protagonist. We hope and pray that the kid is alright, that Mason will be okay despite the hard times he goes through. Featuring incredible performances from Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, and from star Ellar Coltrane, Boyhood was the one film from 2014 that struck me as an instant classic, one for the all-timers list. I know, there's always backlash when a movie is proclaimed as being this singularly great. But on this one, believe the hype.

2.) Whiplash

- Whiplash will leave you breathless. When I saw it in the theater, it left the audience in stunned silence, and it had the audience burst out in spontaneous applause. In this film, music is a battle, and Miles Teller's young, would-be drummer extraordinaire is at war. His barking general is JK Simons, in a performance for the ages - a can't-lose shoe-in for Best Supporting Actor. Simons is masterful in this film, and his stern warnings of "not my tempo" are flat-out nightmare inducing. Whiplash, in its own way, is one of the most messed-up movies you'll ever see. It's a dark, bloody, intense-as-hell look at the steep price of perfection.

3.) Interstellar

- Why did some people hate Interstellar? My guess is that whenever you take a story right up to the very edge of existence itself, you're invariably going to end up in some pretty far-out places - and some people would just prefer not to go there. But man, I give Christopher Nolan credit for pushing his film to the absolute narrative and thematic limits. He sends Matthew McConaughey's Cooper on a journey to the edge of space and time, and at some point, he's got to grapple with what happens when you cross over into the great unknown. Call it silly if you want, but I say it's brave. To me, Interstellar was flat-out mind-blowing - a sensory-overload experience that took us to places that no film has gone before. I suppose the film would inevitably be divisive. I say it's a new masterpiece from Nolan that's on par with his best work.

4.) Selma

- Selma was the right film at the right time - a moving, disturbing, deeply affecting look at a seminal moment in our country's history - a moment that feels as relevant today as ever. The brilliance of the movie is that it doesn't paint its characters in black and white. These are flawed, fully-formed people - but that makes what they accomplished that much more impressive. David Oyelowo is fantastic as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Tom Wilkinson kills it as LBJ. But Selma isn't just a slice of history - it's a rallying cry, a reminder that we can do better, that America is imperfect, but that its greatest strength is that it's a place that empowers its people to affect lasting change.

5.) The Raid 2

- The Raid 2 is the Godfather II of action movies. The Raid was a straight-up, no-frills action classic - featuring a simple but effective premise that provided the backdrop for some of the hardest-hitting, most jaw-dropping fight scenes ever seen on film. But The Raid 2 one-ups it by framing the action with a sprawling, crime-saga storyline that, even without the bone-crunching action, would be compelling. But combine the two, and what you get is sheer epicness - and hands-down one of the greatest action films ever made. If you dig action and martial arts films and have somehow not yet seen The Raid and its sequel, get to it.

6.) Nightcrawler

- What a dark, badass, wickedly satirical film. Like some nightmarish mash-up of Taxi Driver and Network, Nightcrawler shows us the dark side of humanity while also offering up a biting commentary on the often predatory nature of the news and entertainment we consume. Jake Gyllenhaal is off-the-charts great here as the psychopathic Lou Bloom, and Renee Russo also impresses as his news-producer enabler. This one stuck with me for a long time after viewing it, in part because it has one of the most uncompromisingly brutal and hard-hitting endings I've ever seen. An unforgettable walk on the wild side.

7.) They Came Together

- For devotees of Wet Hot American Summer, here, finally is the worthy follow-up we've been clamoring for. This is David Wain, free from big-studio restrictions, able to go all-out in order to provide the sort of insane absurdist humor that first put he and his fellow members of The State on the map. Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler destroy as the leads, and they're surrounded by a who's who of funny people, including several fan-favorite State alumni. I've seen people talk about They Came Together as if it's a straight-up parody of romantic comedies. Only sort of. Mostly, it's just an excuse for Wain and co. to provide scene after scene of over-the-top hilarity. Basically, this is a comedy nerd's dream-come-true.

8.) Obvious Child

- It's always exciting to see new comedic voices emerge, and Obvious Child is a highly impressive debut from writer/director Gillian Robespierre. It's also a true coming-out party for star Jenny Slate. After being booted from SNL, Slate bounces back with an incredible performance that's both heartfelt and hilarious. You wouldn't think that a comedy about abortion could work. But Robespierre handles the delicate topic with such humanity and humor that, somehow, the film turns into one of the funniest and surprisingly poignant movies of the year. To me, the film works as more than just a story about abortion. It's a comedy about what it means to be a struggling young adult in 2014 - and I think that's why it spoke to so many people as powerfully as it did.

9.) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

- 2014 had one of the best summer movie seasons ever. Several of the year's big blockbusters were not just great popcorn movies, but great movies in general. My favorite of the pack was the second film in the rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise - a series which I've quickly grown to love as much as the legendary originals. What's amazing about Dawn is that the humans are largely peripheral. This is the apes' story, and it's remarkable that we come to care about Ceaser, and root against his rival Koba, to the extent that we do. Give huge credit to the phenomenal mo-cap performances of Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell. Also give credit to a smart script that creates the rare action-movie scenario where we root more for an end to hostilities than we do for one side to triumph.

10.) Snowpiercer

- Snowpiercer is flat-out insane, but man, is it awesome. The film is a true international production. It's a Korean film that's (mostly) in English, based on a French comic book, adapted by American screenwriter Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead), shot in Prague, and starring a diverse cast that includes big-time talent like Chris Evans, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, Alison Pill, and Octavia Spencer. And it really is unlike anything I've seen before. Visually, it evokes the post-apocalyptic sci-fi stylings of Terry Gilliam. The extreme action brings a Hong Kong martial-arts sensibility to the table. But beneath the out-there aesthetic trappings, there's a pretty potent message about manufactured inequality. Don't write this one off as a mere oddity - there's plenty of substance to accompany the style.


This was a year that was positively overflowing with great films, with perhaps the most films I considered in the "A" range of any year that I can remember. Here are five superb movies that just missed the cut.

11.)  Edge of Tomorrow

- This one was a huge surprise - an expertly-crafted sci-fi action film that made the most of its conceit: that its soldier hero, played by a game Tom Cruise - re-spawns every time he dies, now equipped with the knowledge to stay alive at least a little longer when he re-enters the fray. The way the premise plays out is clever and novel, providing the real viewer with a real sense of videogame-esque trial-and-error and ultimately reward. But aside from all that, this movie is owned by Emily Blunt, who shows never-before-seen action movie chops. Blunt absolutely kicks ass in this film, in an instantly-iconic turn that surely puts her at the top of every female superhero casting call from here on out.

12.) Only Lovers Left Alive

- Jim Jarmusch's gothic vampire film was a real surprise and a true stunner. Dripping with goth-rock atmosphere, the film is a darkly funny tale that is almost like the vampiric version of Before Sunrise. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swindon slay as the two immortal lovers, who now find themselves facing true danger that threatens to uproot their lives. What really struck me about the film is how it uses the vampires' immortality as a way to comment on what's important in life. The two are terminally bored, but it's the discovery of the new - of art and ideas - that keeps them engaged and makes continued immortality a thing worth fighting for. 

13.) Guardians of the Galaxy

- Guardians of the Galaxy is the kind of fun, funny, imagination-filled spectacle that they just don't make anymore. As great as the current cinematic superhero renaissance has been, what's been missing has been the weird, cosmic, trippy stuff that made us all love these comics in the first place. Now, finally, it felt like we were getting to the good stuff - and James Gunn imbued his movie with a personality and quirkiness unique in the superhero genre. It was, indeed, a cosmic mix-tape of awesome.

14.) The LEGO Movie

- Speaking of awesome, who would've thought that this of all movies would be an instant animated classic? Somehow, Phil Lord and Chris Miller made The LEGO Movie into a brilliantly-scripted adventure that served as a commentary on conformity, imagination, and growing up. On one level, the movie was funny and fun and visually-breathtaking. On another level, this was a surprisingly deep and thoughtful and moving film. That, I think, is a minor miracle.

15.) A Most Wanted Man

- A sad but fitting goodbye for the powerhouse that is Philip Seymour-Hoffman, A Most Wanted Man is a slow-burn, ultra-intense story of political intrigue that casts Hoffman as an under-pressure, in-too-deep German official trying desperately to foil a terrorist plot. Adapted from a John le CarrĂ© novel, the film brims with a quiet, methodical intensity, and Hoffman here is at the top of his game. 


16.) The Guest

-From the brilliant, genre-bending minds behind last year's cult-fave horror hit You're Next comes a must-see midnight-movie action/thriller that goes to some very cool, very unexpected places. Riffing on 80's action films, but with a modern twist, this one's a bonafide new cult classic.

17.) Locke

- A movie that takes place entirely in one man's car, with the only dialogue involving his conversations on a speaker phone. That can't possibly work, can it? It does. An unbelievably great performance from Tom Hardy and a crackling script make this one a must-see.

18.) The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies

-A fitting send-off to Peter Jackson's Middle Earth epic, the final Hobbit movie delivers gravitas-filled moments of action, drama, and epic fantasy. Maybe it's not Lord of the Rings, but there's still a magic in Jackson's Hobbit films - especially in this one - that makes them a cut above. The end of an era.

19.) The Skeleton Twins

-My single favorite movie scene of 2014 is in The Skeleton Twins - a hilarious, sad, moving, chill-inducing, fist-pumping lip-sync sing-off involving stars Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig, set to Starship's cheesetastic ballad "Nothin's Gonna Stop Us Now." A showcase for the two SNL alums, who deliver laughs as well as pathos.

20.) Calvary

- Featuring a brilliant, razor-sharp script and picturesque direction from John Michael McDonagh, and an earth-shaking performance from the great Brendan Gleeson, Calvary is a meditative, elegiac, darkly funny story about Ireland's last good priest facing down a would-be murderer.

21.) Noah

- Darren Aranofsky's biblical epic is sort of bat$%&% crazy, but that's why I love it. It's got epic battle scenes, warrior-angels, a stunning animated sequence that depicts the entire history of evolution as filtered through the Book of Genesis, and a Noah who is downright psychotic. Somehow though, it all comes together to form a big, bold, dark, epic that is entirely unforgettable. 

22.) Gone Girl

- David Fincher's adaptation of Gillian Flynn's novel is an engrossing, screwed-up look at the dark side of marriage. Rosamund Pike is fantastic here, showing the true wrath of a woman scorned. Gone Girl is the ultimate bad date movie - a sordid look at the modern relationship that, in its own way, is as much about the darkness within as Fincher's Fight Club or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and as much about who we are today as The Social Network.

23.) Captain America: The Winter Soldier

- A worthy sequel to the original film, this one pays homage to gritty 70's spy-thrillers, smartly adding Robert Redford to the cast as a S.H.I.E.L.D. official with suspect motives. The film plays out like one of those classic paranoid thrillers, pitting cap (Chris Evans still owning the role) against a new threat from a reborn Hydra and an awesomely badass antagonist in the mysterious Winter Soldier. 

24.) Big Hero 6

- Disney's animation studio is on a creative roll of late, and the streak continues with Big Hero 6. It might just be the studio's best CG-animated film yet - a visually-stunning, action packed superhero story that also packs an emotional punch. The movie is just flat-out fun. It one-ups The Incredibles in terms of paying homage to classic superhero and sci-fi tropes, and it delivers a story rich with positive messages that also never lacks for kick-ass action.

25.) TIE: The Imitation Game

- The Imitation Game isn't an experimental game-changer or a boundary-pushing film from a narrative or aesthetic viewpoint. It's a pretty classically-made Hollywood prestige film, no question. But there is also a lot of depth to the narrative and a lot to chew on - this is the rare World War II film that's not about combat, but about strategy and tactics and smart people trying to out-think the opposition. That to me is cool, and if that still doesn't sell you, the all-star cast, led by an Oscar-worthy Benedict Cumberbatch as genius code-breaker Alan Turing, should. 

25.) TIE: Top Five

-  Top Five is Chris Rock's Woody Allen film - a wryly witty, laugh-out-loud funny, emotionally involving story that is, one one level, about one man trying to find himself, but is, on another level, about, well, everything. Few comedians are able to put themselves out there in such a raw fashion, but that's exactly what Rock does here.


26.) Neighbors

- A hilarious comedy in the grand bro's vs. schmoes tradition, Neighbors is funny, but it's also got some real depth and heart. Seth Rogen is funny, but a hilarious Rose Byrne is the film's secret weapon. And Nick Stoller again proves that he is one of the best comedy directors working today.

27.) Unbroken

- An inspiring true-life tale, Unbroken features breakout performances from lead actor Jack O'Connell, and from Takamasa Ishihara as his relentless torturer in a Japanese P.O.W. camp. Featuring some truly chill-inducing moments, Unbroken is a strong effort from director Angelina Jolie.

28.) X-Men: Days of Future Past

- This one really surprised me. I was weary of yet another X-Men movie, but DOFP is a fun movie, plain and simple, and it has just about everything you could ask for in an X-Men/First-Class passing-of-the-torch film. There are nice callbacks to the previous movies, as well as some nice stage-setting for stories yet to come. This is pretty much the ultimate Brian Singer X-Men movie, both keeping what worked about the older films but also addressing some of the issues. This is a film that elevates the franchise as a whole.  

29.) The Book of Life

The Book of Life may not have the blockbuster name-recognition of some of the year's other big animated movies, but it's a fantastic film - on par with the best from Disney and Pixar. Not only that, but it's a crafted-with-love celebration of a culture that we don't often see in film or TV beyond cliches and stereotypes, and it brings a unique sensibility and art-style to the table. There is a 100% universal story here about family and legacy, told in a fun, action-packed, visually-dazzling manner.

30.) TIE: Veronica Mars

- Come on now sugar: bring it on, bring it on - and long live Veronica Mars. Kickstartered back to life by a passionate fanbase, the cult-fave TV show returned in movie form in 2014 - and the result was a great film that served as a satisfying epilogue to the series, and a great example of how to continue and build upon a beloved franchise. The pop-culture universe is stronger with great characters like Veronica Mars in it.

30.) TIE: The Interview

- Oh, how could I not give one final round of props to The Interview, the movie that changed movies forever in 2014. I don't know that the movie is a stone-cold comedy classic. In 2014 alone, I felt that They Came Together, Obvious Child, and Seth Rogen's other big movie, Neighbors, reigned supreme. But The Interview *was* funny. Very funny. And if you disagree, hey, that's your prerogative. But let me know when next we see such an epically ballsy comedic take-down of an evil dictator come 'round the pike. I'll be waiting.


Blue Ruin
Inherent Vice 
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Under the Skin
The Muppets: Most Wanted
The Theory of Everything
John Wick
Get On Up



1.) Jake Gyllenhaal - Nightcrawler
2.) Philip Seymour Hoffman - A Most Wanted Man
3.) Tom Hardy - Locke
4.) Brendan Gleeson - Calvary
5.) Tie: Eddie Redmayne - The Theory of Everything / Benedict Cumberbatch - The Imitation Game / David Oyelowo - Selma


1.) Patricia Arquette - Boyhood
2.) Rosamund Pike - Gone Girl
3.) Kristin Wiig - The Skeleton Twins
4.) Reese Witherspoon - Wild
5.) Jenny Slate - Obvious Child


1.) JK Simons - Whiplash
2.) Ethan Hawke - Boyhood
3.) Tom Wilkinson - Selma
4.) Riz Ahmed - Nightcrawler
5.) Josh Brolin - Inherent Vice


1.) Renee Russo - Nightcrawler
2.) Emily Blunt - Edge of Tomorrow
3.) Jessica Chastain - Interstellar
4.) Tilda Swindon - Snowpiercer
5.) Emma Stone - Birdman


1.) Richard Linklater - Boyhood
2.) Christopher Nolan - Interstellar
3.) Dan Gilroy - Nightcrawler
4.) Damien Chazelle - Whiplash
5.) Gareth Evans - The Raid 2


1.) Nightcrawler
2.) Whiplash
3.) Calvary
4.) Obvious Child
5.) The LEGO Movie
6.) They Came Together
7.) Edge of Tomorrow
8.) Guardians of the Galaxy
9.) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
10.) Locke

- And that's that, another one for the books. 2014 over and done. 2015 is going to be epic.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

THE BEST OF 2014 - The Best GAMES Of The Year


- Man, what a strange year it's been for videogames. It's hard to encapsulate, but I'll try. The videogame industry collapsed under its own weight in 2014. Gaming broke. The good news is: that may ultimately prove a good thing, because now, finally, we can move forward.

The storm has, perhaps, been brewing for a while - but many couldn't see it coming. On one hand, gaming has, for several years now, been moving in a positive direction. As geek culture in general expanded and diversified, so too did the audience for games. With the proliferation of smart phones and tablets, millions of people had an easy, ever-present way to discover or rediscover games. But it wasn't just the casual games that brought in a more diverse audience. More and more female gamers counted themselves as hardcore gamers in 2014. And I don't say that to mean that they preferred a certain genre, or console, or franchise. I simply mean that gaming culture - long a boys-only club - was increasingly filled with genuinely-interested girls and women this year. Not that they hadn't been there before - but this year, it felt more normalized. It didn't feel strange or surprising anymore to meet a girl who dug gaming. The fact is, gaming culture is fun. People who dig gaming tend to be, for the most part, smart, open-minded, cool, creative, and funny. And more and more, gaming culture felt like a place where all were welcome. Some of the women who embraced games had always been there - perhaps just not so open in their love of the medium. Some were newbies. For me though, the thing that sort of paints a picture of gaming, at its best, in 2014 is the Indoor Kids podcast. Hosted by the husband-and-wife team of comedians Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, this to me is the new generational reality, the new ideal: two smart, funny people - male and female - who play games together and share a love for the medium and culture of gaming. As this became the new paradigm, coverage of gaming also evolved. Growing up, the predominant coverage of videogames was from publications aimed at young boys - the Game Pro's and Nintendo Powers of the world. Now, you've got smart sites like Kotaku that mix traditional reviews and previews with all manner of interesting think-pieces about games and gaming culture. Writers are male and female. Coverage includes mainstream games, indie games, and everything in between. For the enlightened - the people who grew up with games being talked about in a certain (juvenile) way, but who were now ready for a more sophisticated conversation, gaming, of late, seemed to be in a really good place. At least from a cultural perspective, gaming seemed like this almost utopian sort of thing - a subculture filled with really smart and cool people doing innovative and creative things.

So what happened?

In parallel to this, there was a counter-movement going on. A movement that spanned across a spectrum that was on one end mostly harmless, on the other end pretty legitimately scary. The thing is, games had indeed grown to appeal to a more diverse audience over the last several years. But with the good comes the bad, and part of the bad was an influx of bro-culture into gaming. This was the segment of gaming that was less Indoor Kids and more virtual militia. These gamers latched on to the Call of Duties of the world and made them into huge sellers. In turn, they made the budding world of online gameplay a world rampant with misogyny and juvenile behavior. A place that seemed to represent the worst of gaming. We saw a subset of games that increasingly catered to this demo. And somehow, this demo claimed the term "gamer." To the public at large, "gamers" were black T-shirt-wearing thugs who lived to frag virtual opponents on their XBOX. I'm not saying that all fans of online shooters fall into this group. Not at all. And certainly, there are plenty of gamers whose tastes span all categories.I'm just saying that a certain segment of gaming was actually becoming *less* evolved, a place where casual misogyny was the norm. I'm saying that while all this positive stuff was going on, and gaming was changing for the better, there was, in turn, something ugly festering.

That something ugly was GamerGate. I won't go into the whole history of GamerGate. I'll just say that what started as attacks against two prominent female members of the gaming community - one a cultural critic, one a developer - spawned a "movement" that claimed to be about legitimate things like "ethics in journalism," but in fact became an excuse for the worst subculture of so-called gamers to lash out against women and women in games. Prominent people - almost all women - who spoke out against GamerGate fell victim to threats of violence and very real incidents of cyber-bullying. Anita Sarkeesian, the cultural critic whose video series "Tropes vs. Women in Video Games" triggered an onslaught of threats and online abuse, became GamerGate's public enemy #1. And why? Because she dared to critique the role of female characters in videogames, and call for more thoughtful representation of women in games. Here's the thing: I don't necessarily agree with every point Sarkeesian makes in her videos, but I'm 100% cool with her making these arguments. More than cool - it's about damn time that someone talked about games in this way - the same way that cultural critics talk about books, movies, and TV. Games have been around long enough, and their narratives are now sophisticated enough, that they've earned the right to be taken seriously as culture and art. And yet the "gamers" of GamerGate don't really even want to engage in these conversations. Instead, they continually fell back on personal attacks. Their whole purpose seemed to be more about trying to discredit women in the gaming community - and in turn forcing them out - than it was about anything else. The whole GamerGate thing also came in a year when we as a country were reeling from multiple incidents of real-world violence, in which the perpetrators subscribed to versions of the "men's rights" ethos. These killers read stuff on various dark corners of the internet that fostered and encouraged their belief that feminism was a nefarious movement meant to stomp all over men, a movement conspiring to ruin everything men liked while denying them everything they wanted. Dangerous stuff, and it's a way of thinking that encourages a toxic mindset - a mindset that men are human, women are inhuman. It all reflects the internet's dangerous ability to serve as an echo chamber. All of these troubled young men found their festering, misogynistic views confirmed by like-minded individuals, and the collective voice grew stronger. The worst manifestation of this voice is in mass-killings. But further down the spectrum, you've got the GamerGaters who became brainwashed into thinking they were fighting a good fight, when they were in fact spouting nonsense. And a finger of shame to prominent people - like actor Adam Baldwin - who encouraged these people via Twitter and other social media. Wrong side of history, dudes.

Luckily, the blight that was GamerGate seems mostly to have subsided as we head into the new year. And videogaming again, mostly, seems awesome. The one positive to have come out of this whole thing is that I think people were genuinely surprised to see how much of a nerve GamerGate touched. Men, women, all kinds of people came out of the woodwork to proclaim their love for games, and their revulsion that this harmful element was trying to lay claim to the "gamer" label. Average joes and celebrities like Joss Whedon alike felt frustration that the GamerGaters seemed to be trying to turn back the clock and make games a less cool, less inclusive, less progressive place. The movement and the backlash to it also came in the midst of a major feminist revival. A growing number of individuals and publications have been looking at pop-culture with a critical feminist slant, and so the internet seemed poised and ready to mobilize against the GamerGaters. Although some may grow tired of "feminist" being such an omnipresent descriptor these days, what's important is an understanding that being a feminist implies wanting equality, not superiority. As that sinks in, and people stop viewing these conversations as "us against them," I think the negativity that people harbor towards the Anita Sarkeesians of the world will subside. That said, it will take a while for games to fully get over this whole thing, but I think positive change will come. Games with more diverse characters, more sophisticated narratives, and designed with more than just a very narrow demo in mind. A gaming culture that is increasingly diverse, sophisticated, and that once again feels like the kind of thing that cool, smart, progressive people want to be a part of.

And of course, that's not to say that games in 2014 weren't awesome in and of themselves. It still felt like a transitional year, with the XBOX One and PS4 still sort of finding their footing. 2015 seems to be the year that the big influx of next-generation games will really begin. But 2014 continued the interesting trend of indie, digital-only games getting as much buzz as their big, blockbuster, franchise-ready counterparts. That trend certainly will continue in 2015, with digital indie games like No Man's Sky seeming to be just as anticipated as the next iterations of Uncharted, etc. I like it. As some of the big franchises become more and more impenetrable with each iteration, it seems like some of the most original, creative, and fresh-feeling development is happening in the indie space.

For me, time for hardcore gaming sessions was rare in the past year. And much of my play time was devoted to wrapping up 2013-and-older titles like The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite. However, I did take the plunge and purchase a PS4, so I've been trying to play catch-up on some of the big games of this year.


I once again did not play anywhere near the number of new games I wanted to in 2014. I've been binging a bit over the holidays playing catch-up, and I will say that there was some really good stuff this year. I think that 2013's The Last of Us was such a monumental game - I spent a lot of time on it in 2014, and there was nothing this year that, for me, was quite on that level.

So my Game of the Year for 2014 is a bit of a cheat:

1.) The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead: Season 2

- I love what Telltale Games is doing these days. Back in the day, I was enamored with point-and-click adventure games. Sure, the gameplay mechanics were simple, but the games were unforgettable. There's a reason why people have been going crazy in recent weeks over the announcements of HD remakes of classics like Grim Fandango and Day of the Tentacle. Those games rocked. And it's great to see adventure games making a comeback, almost entirely because of Telltale. Really though, these guys are raising the bar in general when it comes to storytelling in games. The writing on The Walking Dead series eclipses that of the show. The writing in The Wolf Among Us is every bit as good as Fables, the comic on which it is based. I'm a huge, longtime fan of Fables. In what world is a videogame spin-off giving me one of the best Fables stories I've seen in years? In this world, I guess. Telltale deserves huge kudos for what they are doing. It's come to the point where my first choice for any narrative-driven franchise adaptation is now to have it turned into a Telltale game. Speaking of which, I can't wait to dive into their version of Game of Thrones.

2.) Dragon Age: Inquisition

- I'm still only in the early stages of Dragon Age: Inquisition, but I can already tell that this is a game that, like Skyrim before it, could easily envelop my entire life and that would be that. What was cool about Skyrim was that the narrative happened on the fringes of the game - really, you made your own story. But Dragon Age mixes the massive open world of Skyrim with Bioware's trademark storytelling to create a game that's both expansive and story-driven. I believe the word I'm looking for is "epic."

3.) Infamous: Second Son

- I've been a fan of the Infamous franchise, but something about Second Son really appealed to me. Maybe it was just that the next-gen upgrade made the open-world that much smoother and prettier. Maybe it was that the story was a little better-written and more interesting. Maybe it was that the gameplay seemed just a little tighter. But Second Son is hell of a game that was one of the first of this generation to feel truly next-gen.

4.) Shadows of Mordor

- I didn't anticipate that the Batman: Arkham Asylum games would make a good template for a Lord of the Rings game, but ... they did. Shadows of Mordor is a fun, action-packed adventure that builds on the Batman games with an interesting "nemesis" system in which enemies remember your previous battles, and make tactical adjustments the next time you meet. Very cool stuff. My one complaint is that the story and world doesn't quite feel Lord of the Ring-ish enough for me - the darker tone seems more suited to some other fictional universe.

5.) Broken Age

- Speaking of old-school adventure games, this Kickstartered gem is a return to point-and-click from maestro Tim Schafer, the man who helped bring us the classics like Grim Fandango that I mentioned above. The crowd-funded nature of the game means that Schafer was free to keep the gameplay classic and familiar, while imbuing the graphics with a modern sheen. And man, it looks great. The story and humor is classic Schafer. Hopefully this leads to more games in this vein that don't need Kickstarter to get made.

THE BEST OF 2014 - The Best COMICS Of The Year


- It's amazing how much the world of comics has changed in a short time. Digital comics have opened up the medium to a whole new readership - and the ease of availability of new and classic books - along with the continued proliferation of comics-based movies and TV shows - made this a banner year.

What's amazing now is the sheer diversity of content that's out there. If you look at, say, the 90's, the major publishers all sort of leaned in the same direction. Most of the books from DC, Marvel, Image, and others were all, stylistically, pretty similar. Now, it's a whole new ballgame. I look at Image alone - the way they've become a breeding ground for creator-owned, creator-driven series - and it's amazing. They've come a long, long way from the early days. Many others are now following their lead - IDW, Boom!, Dynamite, etc. Even Marvel and DC have more books now that feel less bound to some giant connected universe, and more accessible to people who are simply fans of those characters. Marvel in particular drew tons of buzz in 2014 by putting out books that felt like they were made less for the fans who'd read every Marvel book since 1973, and more for the influx of new fans who hoped for the sorts of stories and characters that spoke to them, a more modern audience. Case in point is Ms. Marvel - one of the year's most interesting and applause-worthy success stories. The book stars a new character, Kamala Khan, a young Muslim-American teen who gets superhuman powers and becomes an unlikely hero. It's written by G. Willow Wilson, a woman who converted to Islam and who, I might add, is a fellow BU grad. Wilson has been an up-and-coming writer for a while now, and it's great to see her enjoy this sort of success - Ms. Marvel, as it turns out, became an unlikely top seller - something that, I'm guessing, was in large part thanks to the way that digital comics have broadened the traditional audience. But there's something that's just plain cool about this new Ms. Marvel becoming a fan favorite. Comics have always been about celebrating those that are different, but diversity has sadly not always been something that mainstream comics have done well. But Kamala Khan is, in her own unassuming way, breaking down barriers left and right. Here's a character that diverges from the idea that Islam's teachings can only lead to evil. Here's a strong female character who *isn't* the stereotype of what a strong female character should be (i.e., she's not just a guy with boobs). And here is a character that can be a hero to girls, women, Muslims, and everyone else. Hell, I'm a white Jewish male and I think she's pretty damn awesome.

Kamala Khan, to me, represents what's great about comics. Unlike the high-stakes, big-money world of movies, comics are not focus-tested and franchised-out to the nth degree - at least not all of the time. Comics are a place where barriers can be broken, where new, original, and oftentimes crazy ideas can be tried out. Comics are where anything goes and the sky's the limit. I think that's why Guardians of the Galaxy was such an exciting movie in many ways. To date, most superhero films have played it safe, to an extent - giving us more grounded, real-world versions of our favorite characters. But Guardians is one of the first modern superhero movies to fully embrace the sort of cosmic craziness that made me love comics in the first place.

Putting superheroes aside though, I'll take a step back and talk again about the diversity in storytelling in 2014's best comics. One of the year's best books was Sex Criminals, about a couple that can stop time whenever they get busy. Sounds insane, I know. But writer Matt Fraction made it into a book that's at once completely out-there, yet at the same time has some of the most authentic-feeling characters in anything I've read this year. It's a similar story with my favorite new comic of 2014, Alex + Ada. It's a type of story we've seen before: man meets robot, man falls in love with robot, man and robot have to go into hiding because human-like robots that can think and feel are outlawed in this world. But what makes it work so well here are characters that seem authentic, and storytelling that keeps you guessing. That's not to say that I don't also love stuff that's just flat-out out-there. In other words, thank the comic gods for Grant Morrison's continued output. One of my favorite books in 2014 has been Morrison's Multiversity for DC, which is a tripped-out celebration of all the wonderful weirdness of DC's past, present, and future, with a meta twist that only a guy like Morrison could dream up.

Despite everything I've said, I still miss old-fashioned paper-and-ink comics. I miss going to the comic store and coming home with a stack of crisp comics begging to be read. I miss the tactile nature of holding the pages in your hand. When I do buy a new comic or trade paperback and read it in the traditional manner, I can't deny that that, to me, is the superior experience. I think the benefits of digital outweigh the negatives. What's been so cool about the digital experience is how easy it is to discover more material based on an existing favorite. This year, I got hooked on Alex + Ada, and quickly decided I needed to read more from the Luna Bros., whose work I'd somehow not familarized myself with far. Soon enough, I was knee-deep in the series that put them on the map, a Stephen King-like horror/thriller called Girls. Now I'm on to another work of theirs, The Sword - pretty cool. Still, I hope that we don't have to wait long for someone to come out with a better reading alternative than an iPad. Amazon, I'm looking at you. Amazon this year purchased the primary digital comics retailer, Comixology, so I suspect there may be some interesting developments still to come as a result.

But here's to the great year for comics that was 2014. And here's to an even better one in the year ahead.


1.) Locke & Key

- This one is fudging things a little, because technically Locke & Key wrapped up in 2013. However, the collection of the series' final chapters - Alpha & Omega - wasn't released until 2014, and I suspect that many were, as I did, reading this one via the hardcovers and trade paperback collections. In any case, Locke & Key has been one of the seminal works - comics or otherwise - of the last decade, in my view. It's something that, I suspect, will always be a defining work for author Joe Hill, and for artist Gabriel Rodriguez. Hill has the uncanny ability, like his father Stephen King, to write incredibly-realized characters that feel tangible and wholly authentic, and to then place them in absolutely insane situations tinged with horror, fantasy, and the supernatural. As I said in an earlier post praising the series:  in many ways, it feels like vintage King: a rustic New England setting, a distinctly slice-of-Americana vibe, and an existential horror that creeps its way into these characters lives and starts profoundly changing their worlds. I felt a profound sadness as I read the book's concluding chapters, both for the characters and what they'd endured, and also because this was the end of one of the great comic stories. I can't wait to see what Joe Hill does next.

2.) Alex + Ada

- Written by Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn, with art by Luna, Alex + Ada is my current must-read monthly comic. The work of Jonathan Luna (as well as earlier work done with his brother) reminds me a lot of that of Brian K. Vaughan. The characters are so well-realized that all the craziness that happens around them feels plausible. The Lunas, like Vaughan, tend not to write about traditional hero characters. Their protagonists are regular dudes, relatable and not all that extraordinary. Often, these types of sci-fi stories are about a guy who's the best at what he does, etc. Not here. Alex is just a regular, slightly disaffected young adult who's trying to figure out what he's doing with his life. That said, this is riveting storytelling - each issue ends in a cliffhanger that leaves you clamoring for more. Sci-fi stories about robots are a dime a dozen, sure. But this one has the potential to be one for the cannon.

3.) Sex Criminals

- Sex Criminals has such a great voice, and that's thanks to writer Matt Fraction, who has become a real favorite over the last few years. He blends real human drama and pathos with a wicked sense of humor. Sex Criminals shouldn't work, but it does, because it's as much about people trying to figure themselves out as it is anything else. And by the way, best letters page going by a long-shot.

4.) Hawkeye

- More Matt Fraction. I fully caught up on Hawkeye this year, and am now suffering because of the long gap between new installments. But Fraction's Hawkeye is just plain awesome - it's like Coen Bros' doing superheroes - funny, irreverent, moody, and yet oddly insightful about the human condition. In 2014, the book took an extended detour to LA, to follow Kate Bishop, the female Hawkeye, as she delves into a neo-noir mystery. Such great stuff, can't recommend it enough.

5.) Lazarus

- Lazarus continued to wow me in 2014, with some serious world-building going on that continued to fill in the puzzle pieces of the book's post-apocalyptic dystopia. Writer Greg Rucka has been taking his time in putting all of the building blocks in place, but there's a great sense that this is all leading to big things, world-shaking things. As I've said before, imagine a Game of Thrones-esque society where, instead of houses, warring corporations vie for control of a collapsed world.

6.) Multiversity

- As I said above, Multiversity is just a treat for fans of DC, fans of Grant Morrison, and fans of the weirder, sillier, more out-there side of superhero comics. This is Morrison's roadmap to DC's multiverse, with each issue taking place on a different earth. So far, one issue has told a Watchmen-like conspiracy-thriller with the Charlton characters on which that story was based. One issue has told a whimsical Captain Marvel story in the spirit of the original comics. Another imagined the sons and daughters of iconic superheroes in a crime-free world where heroes prefer starring on reality TV to battling evil. Great stuff from the ever-fertile mind of Morrison.

7.) Saga

- Saga's release schedule has been intermittent in 2014, but when it's come out, it remains one of the true must-read ongoing series out today. Brian K. Vaughan is taking us on an adventure here, and I honestly have no idea where things are going month-to-month. As Y: The Last Man was to surviving your 20's, Saga is to the later part of adulthood - a star-spanning tale of two parents drawn together and now, drawn apart. But what's cool about Saga is that this story seems destined to expand well beyond its current scope. Who knows where it's all headed? But in BKV we trust. And man, that Fiona Staples art is as amazing as ever.

8.) Fatale

- Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' Fatale came to a close in 2014, and it will go down as a recent favorite. The book was a unique mix of noir and Lovecraftian horror, and the scope of the narrative just kept expanding and going in interesting directions. The femme-fatale protagonist, Josephine, finally confronted her otherdimensional tormentors in the big finale, and the result was a satisfying conclusion to one of Brubaker's best books to date.

9.) The Walking Dead

- The Walking Dead as a franchise is so ... everywhere ... that praising the comic seems almost unneeded. But I want to give props to Robert Kirkman, because while the Walking Dead TV series' quality fluctuates wildly, the comic is consistently excellent. Following the ultra-intense conclusion to the "All Out War" storyline, the book did a bit of a re-set, time-jumping ahead and introducing a new status quo. It was just what the book needed, and a reminder that what's great is that this is a story that truly keeps evolving. Kirkman is writing the zombie story that never ends, but that's a good thing - especially if it remains this compelling.

10.) Injustice

- How is Injustice possibly as good as it is? The best-selling weekly digital comic is a spin-off of a videogame. That should mean it's crap. But Injustice is actually the best ongoing superhero book that DC is putting out - it's a book that seems downright giddy at getting to play with the toys in the sandbox, pitting the DC characters against each other in ways that are surprising and downright fun. This is the superhero book that most gives me the feeling of being a kid again and discovering the joy of comics. And in bite-sized digital form, it's the perfect quick-read.


11.) Batman

- Scott Snyder continues to do great things with the core Batman book. His "Zero Year" storyline was an unexpected epic, and his current "Endgame" arc is page-turning, blockbuster storytelling at its finest.

12.) Invincible

- Robert Kirkman's other big book is still one of my favorite reads. This is a book in which anything can and will happen, and Kirkman seems to love changing up the tone of the book on a whim, just to throw readers off. If Walking Dead is the zombie story that never ends, Invincible is the superhero story that never ends. And again, that's a good thing.

13.) The Silver Surfer

- Dan Slott's whimsical take on the Surfer has been a treat - especially with the added bonus of stunning Mike Allred art. The book is a trippy, funny, cosmic riff on sci-fi in the vein of Dr. Who, but Slott has made this its own thing - a book that feels wholly unique in the Marvel pantheon.

14.) The Wake

- The Wake was my 2013 book of the year, and it remained strong in 2014 - though the conclusion did not have quite the punch of the first half of the book. Flashing to a future where the world is overrun with water, the book became less horror and more apocalyptic fantasy-adventure. Still fun and intriguing, but not quite as awesome and badass as what preceded.

15.) Ms. Marvel

- See above. But just to add, Ms. Marvel feels like the book we needed in 2014, the book that felt like it was a long time coming, and the book that made us wonder how we did without Kamala Khan and characters like her for so long.

16.) Swamp Thing

- Charles Soule's run on Swamp Thing has been stellar. The book is a strange mix of horror, adventure, and trippiness - very much in the spirit of the classic Alan Moore run. Soule has introduced some intriguing new supporting characters, and expanded the mythology of the Green to include new enemies and allies.

17.) Batman '66

- Batman '66 was a weekly pleasure in 2014, building on the success of the previous year. Writer Jeff Parker so skillfully and so hilariously captures the wry humor of the Adam West TV show, cranking the absurdity up just a notch to make sure we get that he's in on the joke. Visiting with the classic TV Batman - both in the '66 series and in the great Green Hornet crossover - was some of the most fun I had reading comics this year.

18.) Red Lanterns

- Charles Soule again. Even as the Green Lantern franchise struggled to maintain consistent quality in 2014, Red Lanterns was the one book of the bunch that consistently brought its A-game. In 2014, the book told a pretty epic story - showing us the transformation of the formerly-villainous Red Lanterns into a group that was a force for good, albeit in their own unique, rage-filled, blood-spewing way.

19.) The Manhattan Projects

- Jonathan Hickman's monthly dose of insanity is almost always at the top of my must-read list, and this year, the book closed its current run, with the promise of further stories down the line. But man, the stuff that happened in The Manhattan Projects in 2014 ... this story about America's secret cabal of scientists went to even more far-out places than normal. Where else can you see twin Alfred Einsteins hunting aliens, or a gun-toting LBJ kicking ass and taking names? Nowhere, that's where.

20.) The Twilight Zone

- J. Michael Straczynski's update on the classic TV show was a real surprise this year. Over multiple story-arcs, the book told Twilight Zone-style stories that felt true to the issues and concerns of 2014. I enjoyed that the book didn't try to 100% ape the format or the stories of the show, but instead went for something different. All the while, it stayed true to the spirit of the show.


Batman & Robin
Fables / Fairest
All-Star Western
Action Comics
The X-Files: Season 10
Batman: Eternal


- I'd like to give a special shout-out to ALL-STAR WESTERN. Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti wrote the character of Jonah Hex for years and years - since 2005 - both before and after DC's New 52 reboot. Over the years, I always looked forward to the writing duo's gritty, weird, engrossing tales of the Old West, and I loved their take on Hex and DC's other Western heroes (in particular, I really dug their introduction of new character Tallulah Black, a badass female gunslinger who could match Hex's attitude and guts). The series finale of All-Star Western was a fitting closer to this storied run, although I also hope that the pair have a couple more Jonah Hex stories left in the tank.

- I'd also like to mention another long run that came to a close in 2014, that being Gail Simone's tenure writing BATGIRL. Simone, a longtime fan-favorite, was intimately linked to Batgirl and Barbara Gordon, having written her for years - pre-New 52 - as the star of Birds of Prey. When the New 52 reboot began, Simone was in the tough position of having to undue one of the defining traits of the modern Babs Gordon - the fact that she was confined to a wheelchair after having been shot by the Joker. But Simone endeared fans to the re-tooled Barbara Gordon Batgirl, and wrote some fantastic issues of the book. A 2014 highlight was the "Future's End" tie-in that imagined a five-years-later version of the character - it was an epic and emotion-packed issue that felt like the end of an era.


1.) Matt Fraction (Hawkeye, Sex Criminals)
2.) Ed Brubaker (Fatale, Velvet)
3.) Brian K. Vaughan (Saga)
4.) Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead, Invincible)
5.) Greg Rucka (Lazarus)
6.) Tom Taylor (Injustice, Earth 2)
7.) Scott Snyder (Batman, The Wake)
8.) Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn(Alex + Ada)
9.) Joe Hill (Locke & Key)
10.) Charles Soule (Red Lanterns, Swamp Thing)


1.) Chip Zdarsky (Sex Criminals)
2.) Fiona Staples (Saga)
3.) Mike Allred (Silver Surfer)
4.) Michael Lark (Lazarus)
5.) Greg Capullo (Batman)
6.) Jonathan Luna (Alex + Ada)
7.) Sean Phillips (Fatale)
8.) Ryan Ottley (Invincible)
9.) Adrian Alphona (Ms. Marvel)
10.) Gabriel Rodriguez (Locke & Key)

Monday, December 29, 2014

THE BEST OF 2014 - The Best ROCK Of The Year


- 2014 saw a continuation of the previous year's slowed momentum for all things rock. And yet, there were signs of a pulse. Some great new bands emerged from far corners and unexpected places. It was also a year in which some of rock n' roll's biggest titans stood tall - determined to send a message that, as long as they were still alive and kicking, rock yet lived.

If nothing else, 2014 was the year that AC/DC returned. Despite illness and turmoil in the band, the rock legends pulled it together for, perhaps, one final run. And that effort brought us Rock Or Bust, and album that continues AC/DC's uncanny, unflappable streak of delivering great rock music without fail. In these waning days, a new AC/DC album was a true gift from the rock gods - a reminder of what pure rock sounds like from a band that embodies the rock n' roll spirit. In 2014, I bought a new AC/DC album, and that alone makes it a pretty damn good year in my eyes.

Other big rock acts hit back this year with new material, to varying degrees of success. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - prolific in recent years - came out with Hypnotic Eye, which was a solid if not amazing album. What really sold me on its songs though was when I heard them played live. I saw the Heartbreakers play in LA at The Forum, and it was a true show for the ages. Petty was in rare form, and he blazed through hits and rarities and new material. And the tracks he played off his latest album sounded phenomenal on that night. Weezer, The Foo Fighters and Jack White also came out with some great new music, though the biggest news in the rock world may have been U2's iTunes album-drop. I'll admit, something about the spectacle of it all turned me off. But eventually, I warmed up to some of the songs, and felt grateful that U2 was still capable of doing innovative stuff here in 2014. The gifting of the album to everyone though? It may have been a little much.

But really, did anyone have a better year than "Weird" Al Yankovic? One of my musical and comedy heroes since childhood, Weird Al had a true moment in 2014, and it was well-deserved. For a while, Weird Al's offbeat but inherently well-meaning brand of comedy seemed decidedly uncool. Liking Al was the musical equivalent of admitting to playing Dungeons & Dragons. But in 2014, the world finally caught on to the fact that Weird Al is a by-god national treasure - a man whose songs are clever, funny, and the rare sort of pop-cultural treasure that can be equally appreciated by people of all ages. America was loud and proud in its collective love for the Weird One in 2014, and man, it's about damn time. I guess it's just another sign that the nerds have won? But regardless, it was great to be living in a world in which Al is a beloved icon, and even more so, a world where his latest album became a #1 chart-topper. With spot-on parodies of the latest pop music, Al's latest was right up there with his greatest. What a man.

I do think that 2015 has the potential to be a real turnaround year for rock. There are several albums I'm looking forward to in the new year, including new albums from favorites like The Darkness and Scorpions. But my main hope is simply that good new stuff gets played. Every so often I'll hear a great new song, like Volbeat's infectious rocker "Lola Montez," and I'll think "Yes, this. Show me more of this." Or I'll get turned on to a great new band, like Twenty One Pilots, whose 2013 album Vessel was my favorite musical discovery of this year. Hearing songs like "Car Radio," "Semi-Automatic," and "Guns for Hands," I was sort of blown away. This was new, original, different ... but it was 100% rock. I want more new bands - bands that embody rock n' roll (as opposed to the seemingly neverending parade of folky indie bands) - to break through in the coming year. And by the way, I'm going to include both of the above in my 2014 best-of, because neither really hit the mainstream until this year.

I also saw some great live shows in 2014. I saw none other than KISS in concert (with opener Def Leppard), and they completely rocked. Talk smack about them if you like, but they still put on a hell of a show. I last saw KISS circa 2003, so eleven years later, it was great to see 'em one more time. I also saw Motley Crue at the Hollywood Bowl, during their farewell tour. I'm only a casual Crue fan, but it was a great, hugely energetic show - made even better by the fact that the opener was one of my all-time faves, the legendary Alice Cooper. I also saw Tom Petty and the Hartbreakers, as mentioned, and it was a fantastic show at The Forum. An added treat was seeing opener Steve Winwood - not someone I'd see solo, but a definite bonus in this instance. Finally, I was lucky enough to see The Simpsons, live at the Hollywood Bowl. A 25th Anniversary celebration, featuring key voice talent from the show - as well as special guests like Conan O'Brien, Jon Lovitz, and Weird Al - it was a fantastic tribute to the show and all of the great songs and musical numbers it's produced over the years. As a lifelong Simpsons fan, this was a rare treat.

Here's to a rocking 2015. As AC/DC said: it's rock or bust, baby.


1.) Twenty One Pilots - "Car Radio" / "Semi-Automatic"

-  I heard "Car Radio" on the radio one day (ironically enough), and it was one of those "thank god for Shazam" moments. The song was not quite like anything I'd heard before - an escalating descent into madness that evolved from a deliberately spoken rap/emo hybrid into a head-banging rock/EDM rager. Soon after, I caught Twenty One Pilots when they performed on the MTV Movie Awards back in April. These guys were insane. Donning white face masks and stage-diving into the crowd like alien freaks, this was, finally, it seemed to me, a legit rock band for the 2010's. As I dove into their album, "Vessel," I was pretty amazed at how seamlessly they blended rock, rap, and EDM to create something wholly unique. "Car Radio" and "Semi-Automatic" are my favorite examples of their sound - great, catchy songs that go from zero to one-hundred and just plain rock.

2.) AC/DC - "Rock Or Bust" / "Rock the Blues Away"

-When I heard "Rock or Bust," all seemed right with the world. This is just straight-up classic rock, the sort of stuff that AC/DC seems to be able to churn out in their sleep. And yet, with a long gap between albums, and with rumors that this could be their final run, this is not the sort of song we can take for granted. In reality, "Rock or Bust" is a minor miracle - a song that's vintage AC/DC at a point in the band's career when they shouldn't be able to still be making music this good. "Rock or Bust" is yet another mission-statement from a band that is needed now more than ever, digging their heels in the sand and saying "Rock on its deathbed? Not on our watch."

3.) Weezer - "Back to the Shack"

- Weezer gets a lot of undeserved crap, but the one thing that is true is that it was high time that they delivered a kick-ass rock song on the level of their best tunes. Luckily, they did just that with "Back to the Shack," a stand-up-and-clap-your-hands rallying cry that beckons listeners to rock out "like it's '94." This is Weezer at its best - confessional and defiant, funny and flip, rocking confidently while also being self-effacing.

4.) Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - "Shadow People" / "Forgotten Man"

- With each passing year, Tom Petty seems less and less interested in creating a radio-friendly rock anthem in the vein of his greatest hits. But he can still rock a jam like nobody's business, and he's still one of the best lyrics-guys in the biz. "Shadow People" is a mesmerizing, hypnotic jam that sucks you in and doesn't let go. "Forgotten Man" is a more straight-up rocker, a bluesy tune that casts Petty as a man out of time. Like that's news. 

5.) Jack White - "Lazaretto"

- I still miss The White Stripes, but Jack White has been keeping plenty busy, and I can't deny that his solo stuff has been pretty consistently excellent and interesting. His latest album was an eclectic mix of sounds and styles, but "Lazaretto" is the loudest, most badass rocker of the bunch. With White's trademark guitar stylings and rebel-yell vocals, it's the kind of song that makes you appreciative that guys like White are carrying the rock torch loud and proud.

6.) Volbeat - "Lola Montez"

- I noticed this song one day atop the iTunes charts and gave it a listen. What I heard was one of the catchiest rock songs in a long while, the kind that begs you to sing along and jump around. The source is unlikely - Volbeat is a Danish rock band whose songs lean towards the metal side of the spectrum. But Lola Montez is a melodic, anthemic song - with strange lyrics about a legendary Spanish dancer. Whatever it is, it works, and I'm pumped to hear more from this band.

7.) The Pretty Reckless - "Heaven Knows"

- The Pretty Reckless were a band that, until now, has perhaps been better in concept than in execution. Led by Taylor Momsen of TV's The OC, the band's trashy, thrashy aesthetic made me want to like them, but I just never got that into the music. But with "Heaven Knows," I'm converted. The song feels like vintage 80's arena-rock, and it's the kind of fist-pumper that you just don't hear much of anymore. It's a perfect match for Momsen's growling voice, and the whole thing has a Joan Jett-esque flair that I dig.

8.) U2 - "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)"

- This one grated on me a bit at first, but after a few listens I really came around to it. For one thing, I like the premise - the idea of a young Bono being transfixed by the music of Joey Ramone ... that's pretty cool. For another thing, I like the song's mix of heavy, distorted guitar with soulful singing. In a way, it's a departure for U2, but it also quickly feels like a lost classic.

9.) Foo Fighters - "Something From Nothing"

- The Foos seemed to be men on a mission this year. They were everywhere. They saw themselves as the defenders of the holy name of rock, and their new album seems intent on cranking things up a notch and going decidedly heavy. "Something From Nothing" has an almost Sabbath-like feel, grinding away like it's a song with something to prove.

10.) "Weird" Al Yankovic - "First World Problems"

- All hail the Weird One. Al's latest album is rife with spot-on pop parodies, but the man has always been a rock n' roller at heart. First World Problems, a surprisingly rocking original song that pays stylistic homage to the Pixies, shows Al's rock bonafides. It's even got supporting vocals from Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls. And in addition to being a pretty rockin' tune, it's also a typically hilarious example of Al's warped observational humor. Basically, it sort of seals the deal: Weird Al friggin' rocks, dude.


1. Iggy Azalea - "Fancy"
2. Charli XCX - "Break the Rules"
3. Jennifer Lawrence - "The Hanging Tree - Alternative Radio Mix"