Best of 2014: 20 – 11
20. Never Hungover Again – Joyce Manor [Music]
Joyce Manor’s latest, and longest, full length album is nineteen minutes. With ten songs, that is less than two minutes a song on average. For some, that may not seem like a lot. But the brilliance of Joyce Manor is that they do not pad their music with any bullshit. You get short, concise gems filled with moments of musical brilliance. Never Hungover Again is full of indie rock laced punk songs that are not afraid to be exactly what they are. If you are looking for no nonsense, straight forward, kick ass music, then Joyce Manor is the band for you. The songs are catchy as hell, and when the full length clocks in under twenty minutes, you can listen to it over and over without feeling like it wears out its welcome.
19. One Night Ultimate Werewolf – Bézier Games [Tabletop Game]
Not all games need to be large and complex to be good. Some are great as quick ice breakers or a way to get a large group of people together. One Night Ultimate Werewolf takes a simple, quick concept and delivers it in an incredible way. Dealing a card to each player assigns them a role. The werewolves attempt to stay alive, while everyone else tries to find and kill at least one of the werewolves. The game splits into two phases, the night and the day. At night, all the players go to sleep. Then each player takes turns performing a specific task denoted by their role. In the day, everyone wakes up. They can talk among themselves and decide together on who to kill. The werewolves must work together to bluff their way out of becoming the target. Players can swap the roles used in each game. This adds to the strategy of those involved. Some roles allow players to see another person’s role. Others allow them to swap two players’ roles without those players knowing. Some roles, like the drunk, keep the player from knowing who they are at all. It can get hectic. With the right players, One Night Ultimate Werewolf is excellent. The strategy and bluffing is intense. There is an immense satisfaction when you end up on the winning team. If you are too good at the game, other players start distrusting you even when you are on their side. It can be frustrating, but also a bit flattering. Perhaps the best part about the game is the free companion smartphone app. With the app, players can select the active roles for the current game. The phone will then act as the announcer in the night. This frees up a player from having to do it while playing, and guarantees the announcer does not forget a role or play them out of order. It is excellent. If you are looking for some quick fun with three to ten players, then One Night Ultimate Werewolf is a must play.
18. Mario Kart 8 – Nintendo [Video Game]
I played a ton of Mario Kart 64 in college. The guys on my floor were intense about it, even resulting in a physical fight once. Fight aside, it was awesome. I had the same experience playing Mario Kart DS with friends at work. Heated races and competitive trash talking filled our lunch hours. It was some of the most memorable gaming in my life. Since then, I have played each Mario Kart game upon release, but none grabbed me in the same way. Then Mario Kart 8 came along on the Wii U. This game is killer. The visuals look incredible. The tracks and racers are polished and slick. The gameplay is smooth and precise. The music is catchy and fits perfect to the mood of the races. The use of anti-gravity makes tracks feel fresh and fun while adding some new twists to classics. On top of all that, Nintendo put out DLC that is both inexpensive and expansive. With lots of new characters and tracks, the small cost of the content puts other companies and their DLC policies to shame. The common complaint about Mario Kart 8 is the battle mode. Instead of the smaller confined tracks used in previous incarnations, the game uses full race tracks as the battle grounds. It is a weird choice that makes for drawn out and less climactic battles. With that said, my girlfriend and I still have fun playing the mode. Mario Kart 8 might not be a perfect game, but it has a hell of a lot going for it. The game is a lot of fun with tons of stuff to unlock and keep players coming back for more. In the end, it is what makes the Mario Kart 8 experience such a large success.
17. The Flash – Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg & Geoff Johns [Television]
Several years ago, the CW took a chance on Arrow, a television series based on the non-super powered hero, Green Arrow. The show had a tone that was unlike most other comic book adaptations on the small screen. It was dark and filled with street level violence. The show was a hit and is now on its third season. With its success, the creators of the series were able to bring a new show, The Flash, to the same world. Unlike Arrow, the new series features a hero who has super powers and fights enemies with similar abilities. Though both shows feel like they belong together, The Flash has a different tone to it that makes it stand on its own. Grant Gustin is excellent in the role of Barry Allen. He exudes the right mix of awkward and heroic, making The Flash a more likable and positive hero than Arrow. Where audiences find themselves frustrated at the pig headed brooding of Stephen Amell in Arrow, they will be rooting for Grant Gustin as he struggles to be the hero that his city needs. It is a great dichotomy. Apart from the terrific lead role, The Flash has a strong supporting cast to help the scarlet speedster along his path. Plus the villains are cool, the dorkiest elements of their comic counterparts stripped away for a modern, mainstream audience. Comic fans will find tons of easter eggs packed throughout the episodes to keep their interest and help them feel smarter than the rest of the audience. It is a strong mix of storytelling showcasing the talents of Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg’s additional showrunner, Geoff Johns. As a comic writer, Johns has proven time and again that he can take years of convoluted characters and plots and make them feel cohesive, fresh and interesting. It shows in The Flash. Fans of comic based properties or good television will not want to miss one of the best new television series from 2014.
16. Guardians of the Galaxy – James Gunn [Movie]
I might be one of the few people that were already familiar with Marvel’s cosmic output before Guardians of the Galaxy. Years ago, the publisher did a cosmic event called Annihilation. The series focused on Marvel’s space centered characters. It was awesome and contained many of the characters featured in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie. The movie announcement pumped me up, though many viewed it as a risk for Marvel. Would a movie that contained characters no one was familiar with be as successful as their other output? Marvel stepped up, and proved that a good story and great acting could make any of their properties successful. It was a quick flip from people balking at a team with a tree and a rodent to everyone celebrating the awesomeness of Groot and Rocket Raccoon. Guardians of the Galaxy made a lot of right moves to ensure its success. From the first humor filled trailer to the excellent casting, the film wanted to show that it could stand on its own. And it did. The movie contains cool action, bad ass characters and funny moments. It fires on all cylinders. James Gunn does an excellent job of allowing the property to find its own feet while weaving in ties to the larger Marvel cinematic universe. It is refreshing after feeling so bogged down in the same characters for years. Though it makes me worry about the future of the series and its larger context. 2014 was the year where I grew tired of the bigger Marvel picture. I do not want to keep up with everything they release in order to understand all the pieces that tie together, especially when that includes shit like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I think Marvel is hitting its breaking point for market saturation and connected story lines. It was a new way of doing things for the movie world and easy to see why audiences would get swept up in the grandiose of it all. Following one set of characters that come together into a single team is one thing. Introducing a bunch of side properties that all tie together presents the same problem Marvel and DC face with comics. The general population does not have the attention span and desire to keep track of so many strands over extended amounts of time. It is not appealing. As a comic fan, I am feeling burnt out by Marvel’s non-comic work. I imagine many others will soon feel the same way. Whether or not that comes to be, Guardians of the Galaxy came at the right time, avoiding being too steeped in continuity and external plot devices. It is great movie that provides pure enjoyment when watching it.
15. Same Sex Marriage in the United States [Current Event]
As a proponent of equal rights for everyone when it comes to marriage, I was happy to see that 2014 was a banner year for the United States. The work is not done, but there were many steps forward for our country. It is easier to read the list of events that happened throughout the year on Wikipedia than to list them all here. District courts overturned many of the laws banning same sex marriage in states, a ruling that would be upheld after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to take action against them. This legalized same sex marriage in many states that had previously banned it. Other rulings helped cement equal rights for same sex partners forcing states to recognize their marriage despite the laws of the individual state. In a year that was filled with a lot of fucked up current events, it is great to see positive momentum in an area like same sex marriage. It is awesome to see public opinion continually shifting in favor of it as well. In a time where it seems like more and more hope is lost, these victories are a lesson to all that they should not give up on the fight for equal rights for everyone.
14. Deathwish Inc. [Music]
If someone were to ask me my favorite record label right now, the answer would be Deathwish without hesitation. No other label has such a consistent output of content, great customer service, awesome distro and cool staff. Deathwish is home to some of the best bands in the heavier side of music. Their packaging and vinyl colors are excellent. Their prices are great, and their shipping costs are reasonable. In 2014, I ordered everything that Deathwish released. I also picked up all the releases from Secret Voice and Harm Reduction, smaller labels run by members of Deathwish bands and exclusively distributed through the label. The year brought releases from Code Orange, Young and in the Way, Cult Leader, Self Defense Family, Touché Amoré, Converge, Bossk, New Lows, Death of Lovers, Wovenhand, Cold World and Punch. The label also had a beautiful reissue from Coliseum. On top of their own releases, Secret Voice and Harm Reduction released great content from Dangers, Newmoon, No Limbs, Torn, Unit 731, Purge and Drown. It is a crazy, solid line up of releases with high quality and care put into each. If that is not enough, the label also rebranded its podcasts into the Deathwish Radio Network. The network hosts a variety of shows including Death Talk, where staff members talk about upcoming releases, tours, distro items and stuff they love in general. The podcast is insightful and funny, fans of the label will appreciate the inside look. The network also hosts a podcast called Dialogues where J. Bannon, co-founder of the label, talks with friends from the music industry. It is both strange and enthralling. For anyone that is into heavy music, do not pass up Deathwish. They are the kind of label that showcases integrity and quality in an industry that often fails to make those attributes a priority.
13. Parasyte -the maxim- – Madhouse [Anime]
I wrote up an article a few months back talking about my attempt to start watching anime. Since then, I have been keeping up with a few series as they are simulcast from Japan. Much like television content delivered each season in the United States, not every show is a win, but with enough determination, you can find some great shows out there. Parasyte -the maxim- is a story of Izumi Shinichi, an awkward high school kid who gets infected with a worm-like alien parasite. The parasite attempts to take over Shinichi’s brain as he sleeps, but is only able to take over his right hand. Shinichi and his parasite must learn to survive together while other parasites who have taken over their host’s brains start killing off humans for sustenance. The basic premise is strong, and the season has unfolded new twists and complexities that add to the quality of the show. The animation is great, especially when the parasites use their host’s bodies to deform and transform into killing machines. The visuals are disturbing but cool. The show contains a healthy dose of violence and gore, but does not rely on it for its appeal. Instead, the character development and relationships shine, making each act of violence feel impactful and essential for the story. Watching Shinichi, and the people around him, deal with the events as they unfold is intriguing and keeps me coming back each week. There is also a cool musical motif used during impactful scenes throughout the episodes. It is haunting and catchy. The opening and closing theme music is also great. Neither are in a style that I would normally like, but for some reason I cannot wait to hear them from week to week. Parasyte -the maxim- is a solid package. You can check it out on Crunchyroll.
12. The Legend of Korra – Michael Dante DiMartino & Bryan Konietzko [Television]
In an unexpected move, Nickelodeon chose to air the final two seasons of The Legend of Korra in 2014. Halfway through season three, the network moved the remaining episodes to air online only. It was a worrying change of events, but the creators assured everyone that a fourth season was coming. A few months later, the fourth and final season began airing exclusively online too. Putting the weird circumstances of distribution aside, The Legend of Korra finished its final two seasons with a bang. Like its predecessor, Avatar: The Last Airbender, the show has an amazing cast, great humor and some of the best action scenes in television or movies. It is incredible. Each season focuses on a different world event and set of villains, offering up compelling stories that fit into the world and help shape the character development in ways that most shows, animated or not, fail to accomplish. There is not a single negative thing that I can say about the series. The level of detail and quality throughout makes The Legend of Korra shine as one of the best series ever created. I know these sound like big, exaggerated statements, but I say them with complete sincerity. If you have not seen the series, I urge you to check it out. From the first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender to the final scene of The Legend of Korra, DiMartino and Konietzko construct an awesome world that never falters in its style and intention. It is a treat to watch.
11. Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation – Blake J. Harris [Book]
I have talked a lot about Console Wars already. I am a huge fan of the book. It is a great look at the battle between Sega and Nintendo during the era of the Genesis and SNES, offering cool insight and new information on a subject that is decades old. I have read complaints about the book being too one sided or difficult to differentiate the fact from the oft clunky narrative style of the book. I do not buy into any of that. Sure, the book leans toward the side of Sega, but that makes sense considering much of Harris’ sources worked for Sega of America during the time. That does not make the content any less valuable. Other books have focused on specific companies without receiving the same flack. As for the narrative style chosen for the book, I agree that it feels awkward at first. However, as you get more into the book, the style becomes less important than the interesting story. It is not hard to differentiate between the presented facts and the license taken to tell a story instead of write an encyclopedia article. To me, it works. I have written about the book before on this site, so you can check that out to read more of my thoughts on the subject.