Looking back on the year gone by, it's tempting to celebrate the emerging trends, fresh faces and new ideas that shaped the past 12 months. But for a moment, let's also tip our cap to the old — the wily veterans who had been gone too long or seemingly lost their way, only to resurface triumphantly. As 2014 began, many of the actors, directors, musicians, comedians, athletes and TV shows on this list had been counted out. By year's end, their comebacks had helped to define a memorable year.
Richard D. James hasn't been in hiding since the last Aphex Twin album, but nothing he's made since has been as electrifying as Syro. On one level, the new record — his first as Aphex Twin since 2001 — undeniably feels like a relic of an earlier time, back when "ambient" was all the rage and jungle seemed like the sound of the future. But in our current age, when EDM rules all, Syro comes across as astonishingly old-school, as if James is proudly shooting on 35mm and using practical effects while everybody else has switched to digital and soulless CGI.
After suffering from debilitating back pain — not to mention releasing a string of honorable but un-momentous albums — Beck rebounded with calm beauty. Just like Guero wasn't an Odelay sequel, Morning Phase isn't Sea Change 2; rather, its weathered fragility and Laurel Canyon swoon articulating an extra decade's worth of resignation and reflection since its 2002 predecessor. Morning Phase captures the sleepy-eyed promise and anxiety of a new day, in the process garnering the onetime-wunderkind his best reviews in years, as well as a Grammy nod for Album of the Year.
Where once he was the promising suburban misfit behind Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, director Tim Burton had in recent times become a bland purveyor of packaged "imaginative" dreck like Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows. But his latest, Big Eyes, is a welcome return of the warmer, more personal Burton, chronicling the unhealthy marriage between 1950s painter Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) and her domineering husband Walter (Christoph Waltz), who tricked the world into thinking that he was the artist in the family. Compassionate toward Margaret while ambivalent about the mass-marketing of art, this warped biopic shows Burton cutting deeper than he has in decades. It would make a great double bill with Ed Wood.
The excitement that surrounded Dave Chappelle's Radio City Music Hall performances this summer was akin to the news that Pavement had reunited a few years ago: The thing we always fantasized about happening (but secretly knew never would) actually came true. Eight years since walking away from Chappelle's Show, the masterful comic had seemed content to be the J.D. Salinger of stand-up, ducking the public eye and doing whatever he damn well pleased. But in 2014, the Radio City dates confirmed not only that he was still funny but that his premature retirement might not be permanent. "I'll say it like this … I still got some shit on my bucket list," he said recently in GQ.
The ironies write themselves: A show about a former TV star (starring a former TV star) called The Comeback gets cancelled after one season — only to get its own comeback nine years later. Lisa Kudrow's comedy, which skewers the hollowness of fame, was initially inspired by the reality extremes of Survivor. But in 2014, The Comeback seems less prescient and more grimly reflective of a time in which no celebrity ever dies — she just gets repackaged again and again until we get sick of her.
In 2000, music video director Jonathan Glazer made his feature debut with the British crime film Sexy Beast. Since then, he's taken his time on projects. It's been worth the wait: 2004's Birth was a clinic on how to sustain icy gloom (bolstered by a great Nicole Kidman performance), and this year he finally followed it up with Under the Skin, a terrifically unsettling look at a ravishing alien (Scarlett Johansson) driving around Glasgow picking up unsuspecting male pedestrians. With its seductively minimalist tone, the stylish sci-fi mood piece examines the mystery of locating one's soul — while providing a new chapter in the career of an ever-evolving filmmaker.
The familiar, inaccurate assertion that Hollywood is filled with nothing but immoral, Godless heathens was proved especially untrue in 2014, which saw the Divine One showing up in plenty of high-profile hits. Forget nonsense low-budget films like Kirk Cameron's Saving Christmas: Religious themes dominated works that ranged from period epics (Noah, Exodus: Gods and Kings) to smaller-scale inspirational dramas (God's Not Dead, Heaven Is for Real). The Almighty isn't taking a break next year: Sundance will premiere Last Days in the Desert, which stars Ewan McGregor as — wait for it — Jesus.
This small-market team had suffered decades of futility since their come-from-behind 1985 World Series victory. But after a few years of being sportswriters' hot "team to watch out for" candidate, the Royals finally lived up to their promise, making the playoffs for the first time in 29 years. Producing one of the great Octobers in recent memory, they kicked things off with a wild comeback victory in the Wild Card Game and then knocked off the favored Los Angeles Angels and Baltimore Orioles before falling to the San Francisco Giants in a tense seven-game World Series. Here's hoping it doesn't take another 29 years to return to the postseason.
The Batman and Beetlejuice star has always been cool, but it took this year to remind people just how much they missed him. His performance as the fading Hollywood actor Riggan Thomson in Birdman isn't great because it's art imitating life (a washed-up comic-book star trying to prove his thespian chops) but because Keaton clearly isn't Riggan, demonstrating the soulfulness and wit that his character struggles to find within himself. All we can hope now is that the longtime veteran finally gets his first Oscar nomination — and that he someday gets to reprise his TLC-loving police chief from The Other Guys.
True, just about every four years there's talk of a Prince renaissance, linked to a new tour or a new album that's backed by even a modicum of advertising muscle. Right on schedule, Prince this year delivered two records, the streamlined Art Official Age and the trippy, adventurous PlectrumElectrum. You don't need to be told that neither is as momentous as Sign o' the Times, but at 56 he remains a far more vital, intriguing sonic force than any of his Eighties pop peers. And his inspired, frenzied performance on the Chris Rock-hosted episode of Saturday Night Live reconfirmed his enduring strangeness and greatness.
Live long enough — and be politically engaged enough — and you can start getting nostalgic for past midterms. Remember in 2006 when the Democrats won control over the House and Senate? Felt like a final rebuke to the Bush years, didn't it? Fast-forward to 2014: After years of obstructing the president, the GOP finally wrestled back control of the upper house, no doubt validating in Republicans' minds that the nation had at last repudiated the Obama administration. (Note: Not all the comebacks on this list are happy ones.)
For such a funny, talented guy, Chris Rock has never quite figured out a movie career. (Few would defend Head of State or his performance in What to Expect When You're Expecting.) But in 2014, he finally made the transition from superb stand-up to ace filmmaker: Top Five found the writer-director-star utilizing the same shocking honesty he brought to the stage but with a newfound storytelling confidence. Although a big fan of auteurs like Woody Allen, Wes Anderson and Richard Linklater, Rock told Rolling Stone, "they don't really do those movies with black people that much. So you gotta make your own."
Ever since Michael Jordan left the Chicago Bulls at the end of the 1990s, the Windy City has been hoping someone could fill his large Nikes. The answer seemed to come in the form of Derrick Rose, the team's incredibly gifted point guard who won the MVP trophy in 2011. But since then? A torn ACL, a torn meniscus and whispers that he wasn't tough enough sidelined what seemed like a potential hall-of-fame career. So fingers crossed that the brilliant phenom is back for good as the Bulls compete in the Eastern Conference, even if every minor hamstring injury puts an entire fan base into a panic.
In the nine years since The Woods, the members of Sleater-Kinney got busy doing other things. (Corin Tucker started her own band. Janet Weiss drummed for Stephen Malkmus. Carrie Brownstein teamed up with Weiss for Wild Flag and became an alternative-comedy hero thanks to Portlandia.) In some ways, S-K deciding not to reunite fit perfectly with the tough, principled music they made for a decade. But in bigger and more important ways, the news that the trio were getting back together just felt right. Hopefully January's No Cities to Love further burnishes the legacy they celebrated on their new retrospective, Start Together.
"It was always in my head that this was going to be the story of the last four years," singer Corey Taylor told Rolling Stone about .5: The Gray Chapter, Slipknot's angry, grieving album that focuses on the 2010 accidental overdose death of bandmate Paul Gray. Their first record in six years, .5 sounds like it took every moment of that time off to make, presenting a forceful, impassioned study on loss that went straight to the top of the Billboard charts.
As album sales continue to disappoint, soundtracks remain a bright spot. Boosted by the unstoppable "Let It Go" juggernaut — and the accompanying movie, which made $1.3 billion worldwide — the Frozen soundtrack spent 13 weeks at No. 1 over the course of four months. (More than a year after its release, it's still in the Top 10.) Then this summer, Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1 topped the charts for a couple weeks, introducing old hits from the likes of 10cc and Elvin Bishop to a new generation of Marvel and sci-fi kids.
The TV show ended in 2007, leaving viewers with fond memories of its spunky detective heroine in their hearts and the Dandy Warhols' theme song ("We Used to Be Friends") lodged in their heads. Seven years later, and aided by a Kickstarter campaign, Veronica Mars returned — this time on the big screen. Though hardly a runaway commercial success, the film gave fans one last chance to see Veronica grapple with her complicated feelings about her Neptune hometown. And it served as a testament to the wit and feeling Kristen Bell brought to an iconic role.
What's more disappointing: When a favorite TV show goes bad, or when a favorite show you stopped watching finally starts getting good again? Ever since the end of The Walking Dead's acclaimed first season, the show's characters have had to face off with zombie attacks; meanwhile, the show's writers have had to contend with complaints that they're spinning their wheels creatively, losing the spark of what once made the program so gripping. And then came this season's plot twist: renewed inspiration. In the age of Ebola, The Walking Dead's paranoia suddenly felt relevant again. AMC's show has always been popular — who would have guessed it would be great again?
Her performance in the sensitive, deeply felt Wild is getting all the Oscar attention, but 2014 was a year where Reese Witherspoon showed her range in not one memorable role but three. Yes, her performance as the former addict Cheryl Strayed is one of her finest and grittiest, but she's also just right in a small part in the little seen The Good Lie, about Sudanese immigrants looking for a better life in the U.S. And then there's her very funny turn as Joaquin Phoenix's occasional girlfriend in the druggy Inherent Vice. She's already proven herself as America's Sweetheart. Now she's reminding us what a fine actress she's always been.
Alfred Matthew Yankovic had accomplished plenty in a three-decade career: platinum-selling albums, Grammy wins, a cult film in UHF. But 2014 was a banner year for "Weird Al," as the parodist earned his first No. 1 album. Bolstered by undeniably sharable videos, Mandatory Fun was chock-full of unpretentious, deeply silly, incredibly affectionate knockoffs of ubiquitous radio staples like "Blurred Lines" and "Happy." Yankovic is that rare nice guy who's ended up on top. "I didn't set out to be a family-friendly recording artist but that's sort of the way it happened," the 55-year-old musician told NPR this summer, "and it's a wonderful thing."