I don’t want this to be a big deal or the last word or anything — even my superficial lists are super-official — but there was a lot of great work out there last year and I want to give some credit. My reading has largely shifted over from personal blogs to more professional sites lately, for better or worse, and I’ve been pleased to find great piece after great piece by people who are able, I hope, to do this for a living.
The Internet Content Farm at large often delivers a bitter and disappointing harvest, yes, but no doubt the same is true for the subjects of sports and politics and business and medicine and film and everything else that passes into public URL discourse. For those worried about the state of music journalism: read more of it, and if you find yourself clicking a Rihanna Instagram headline for the fifteenth time, your jaw already clenching in righteous fury, read something else.
I wish the Best Music Writing series was still going in printed, bound form (it is not) but here, on a blog, I offer my lowly homage. Full disclosure: I have worked with a few of these people and probably follow all of them on Twitter.
Spoon, the Molecular Gastronomists of Rock by Dan Kois
Kois, a terrific writer who once did the definitive story on Portland karaoke but doesn’t often grace the music beat with his presence, cuts deep into the sausage-making of one of the best and sturdiest bands in rock. Related: Mike Powell’s Accidents Happen: Britt Daniel on the Songs of Spoon.
The Bulletproof Altar of St. Vincent by Devon Maloney
The definitive album-cycle piece on one of the most intriguing and potent figures in rock, a musician who plays guitar like Thurston and reinvents herself like Bowie. Maloney discovers details both comic and profound.
Run the Jewels: How 2014’s Brashest Rap Duo Came Back From Oblivion by Christopher R. Weingarten
Another definitive album-cycle piece (there’s one more below) from a writer who brings an expert hip-hop knowledge and draws candid interviews in this piece, which is a buddy comedy that swerves occasionally into drama.
At Home, Kinda, With Ryan Adams by Bob Mehr
This is the article I wanted to write this year: “Welcome to Pax-Am,” says Ryan Adams. “This is where we make records.” Enter, and you’ll find rock ‘n’ roll alive and well.
It’s Hip to Be Swift by Molly Lambert
I thought hard about Taylor Swift’s 1989, but no matter how deep I get into any pop culture tunnel, Lambert’s already found some new corner and dug onward. Her work at Grantland is usually my favorite on the site, and that’s no low bar.
Let’s Be Real: The Grammys Have Always Relegated Beyoncé to the R&B Category by Jillian Mapes
In the evolving economy of hot takes, briefly considered essays on why a particular news event matters beyond its initial headlines, we are lucky to have a thinker as agile and empathetic as Jillian Mapes. Her takes are never rushed, never mean, never about preaching to her internal choir. While I tend to agree with her, I’d like to think that’s because her arguments are so good. Here she is in fine form, explaining why the Album of the Year’s not quite a Grammy darling.
A Chat with Dionne Osborne, the Vocal Coach Who Changed Drake’s Style by Jia Tolentino
The best thing I read all year: an article with a fascinating and previously unconsidered personality who has transformed the performance and work of one of our most popular, influential talents. It is funny, honest and made me feel a little awkward whenever Osborne, a child of North Carolina, talks about Jews. Like I said, honest.
50 Cent is My Life Coach by Zach Baron
The second-best thing I read all year. Emotional and personal in a way you might not expect from a 50 Cent profile, which is exactly the point.
Jason Molina’s Long Dark Blues by Max Blau
Blau clearly spent a long time working on this piece, which chronicles the awful end of a great songwriter’s life. It was worth every hour.
A Conversation with Aphex Twin by Philip Sherburne
A meeting of the minds between an electronic guru — that’s Sherburne — and arguably the medium’s most mysterious, influential figure of the last two decades.
Health Goth: When Darkness and Gym Rats Meet by Meirav Devash
The strange tale of how a talented Portland band may have started a cultural movement that’s exploded far beyond their womb.
Thirty-Three Hit Wonder by Nick Paumgarten
If it was shocking when Sasha Frere-Jones left The New Yorker after an extensive, exhaustive run as pop critic, it is because there is no publication that routinely features such perfectly crafted journalism, from its prose to its form to its details to, in this one, about the great and maligned Billy Joel, its personal plot twists. If you want to learn how to write profiles, everything you need is here.
The oral* history of Music Tumblr, 2008-2014 by Casey Newton
Some generations get CBGB. We got a social blogging website for teenagers. I don’t know if there’s an Oral History of Blogger Blogs, 2003-2007, but that should be the prologue to this.
Azealia Banks – Broke With Expensive Taste by Craig Jenkins
An iconoclastic figure, a tricky album, a complicated city: Jenkins captures all of them in this review, an easy fumble in lesser hands.
These Are The Songs Teens Actually Want To Hear At Prom by Naomi Zeichner
Imagine, instead of pretending we knew what teenagers were thinking about pop music, trends and coolness, we just talked to them.
Super Heroine: An Interview With Lorde by Tavi Gevinson
The best part of this long and freewheeling conversation is Lorde is absolutely trying to impress Tavi.
Three weeks into 2015, I’m already thinking about this year’s highlights. Feel free to send me yours from either calendar.
Photo: St. Vincent in 2014 / David Greenwald