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10 Best Cassettes of 2014

R.I.P. to the iPod — long live the boombox!

Rob's Top Cassettes

10 Best Cassettes of 2014

R.I.P. to the iPod — long live the boombox! Twenty-fourteen was a mighty year for the cassette, as these humble yet sturdy little sonic contraptions just kept rolling along. Who knew the cassette would outlive the iPod, just as it's outlived so many other pricey gadgets invented to replace it? But tapes are so hot right now, maybe because they remain an obscenely cheap and easy and fun way to pass music around.

The cassette had a weirdly high profile everywhere you looked in 2014. The summer blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy chronicled a mixtape in outer space — Chris Pratt's Walkman was his light saber, while that "Awesome Mix" from his mom was his version of the Force. 5 Seconds of Summer scored one of the year's chewiest pop hits, "She Looks So Perfect," singing about "a mixtape straight out of '94." 5SOS even proved their good faith by releasing it as a cassingle.

It's easy to see why — the cassette is the most hands-on and intimate format. You can't speed-click through the files, because there are no files. You have to resist your urge to control and quantify music; you have to just let it roll. The DIY cassette tells you something about the artists, their personality (or lack thereof), their visual sensibility (or lack thereof), how much free time they have to kill. Or how many brain cells they killed making it.

It's also something the band can sell at the merch table for five bucks a pop, a low-risk way for curious punters to dabble. (The year's strangest tape trend: bands charging $7 or $8. Tragic but true: if you're selling your cassette for more than five bucks, not even I'm buying it, and I wore a Walkman to the show.)

These were the cassettes that kept my boombox buzzing in 2014. Most of them I purchased at live shows, though I'm not sure where or when they came out. Some are lovingly crafted art objects from specialty cassette labels; others are flimsy quickies. Some come from bands I love; others from bands I suspect don't even exist. But that's part of the cassette mystery — you don't know what you're getting into when you press play. In the words of a tape-deck aficionado named Hunter S. Thompson: buy the ticket, take the ride.

Acid Fast
5

Acid Fast, ‘Rabid Moon’

Sometimes tapes are like bruises — you notice one and ask, "How did this get here?" then realize it's probably a shameful story. So I'm not sure how Acid Fast snuck into my boombox. Did I buy this tape? When? Why? But I put it on one night while cleaning the bathtub and had one of the top five tub-cleaning experiences of my life. Politically raging punk from Oakland, with a great song called "Tangle" that ends in a soundbite of a Grace Slick/Frank Zappa TV interview from the Eighties. Grace: "If I suddenly had to throw up and I left the room, would you stay here and do jokes? Or would you leave too?" Frank: "I'd leave." Hippies, man.

Adult Mom
4

Adult Mom, ‘Sometimes Bad Happens’

A young woman explores her feelings (band motto: "Sad With a Purpose") for six songs in 10 minutes. Highlights include "I Make Boys Cry," "I Think I'm Old Enough" and "Ode to One Night Stands," which takes the "Proud Mary" guitar riff places it hasn't gone before. Liner notes: "This tape is for everyone who has had to deal. Appreciate sadness and its temporary quality." Deal on, Adult Mom. Deal on.

Great Thunder
3

Great Thunder, ‘Groovy Kinda Love’

Yet another ragtag collection from Swearin's Keith Spencer and Waxahatchee's Katie Crutchfield. It begins quite badly with a long psychedelic horror-show interlude, then segues into well over an hour of songs, sketches, folkie strums, metallic diddles, plucked tennis rackets. "Singer's No Star" is a wistful piano revamp of Whitney Houson's "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)." "Chapel of Pines" might be the world's saddest ukelele-and-organ ballad. The a cappella "Jackson Browne" is about wanting to write your own JB song, with the graceful chorus: "Just another song/Consider it sung." Funniest title: "I Love You So Much I Could Kill Myself Because I Hate My Parents."

Friendless Bummer
2

Friendless Bummer, ‘Militia’

The excellently named Friendless Bummer know how to do the cassette thing right, lavishly decorating each individual copy as an art object in itself. They recycle used tapes by artists from Diana Ross to Britny Fox, painting the covers for a personalized effect. (For some reason I own this Britny Fox album on cassette. "Girlschool," bitches!) Their Hüsker Dü-style hyper-emotional mega-caffeinated power-trio tales go perfectly with the homemade packaging. Friendless Bummer also recycle last year's tape by their Syracuse pals Perfect Pussy, crossing out the title I Have Lost All Desire for Feeling and writing "same."

Mannequin Pussy
1

Mannequin Pussy, ‘Gypsy Pervert’

A perfect example of how cassettes function and why they're excellent. I randomly saw this band last year at Death By Audio (R.I.P.), just a screamer-guitarist and her drummer, never heard of them but liked the songs enough to scoop up the tape. If they'd been selling a CD or LP I probably wouldn't have bothered, to be honest, but it turned out to be a hugely replayable 18-minute bang. The songs run the emotional gamut from "Squeaky Nips" to "Clit Eastwood." Plus two different love songs with the tenderly romantic title "Meat Slave." One of the most dependable ways to jumpstart a day in 2014 was to hit play on this tape and feel 90 percent more awake.

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