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20 Biggest, Boldest Comebacks of 2014

From Aphex Twin to ‘The Walking Dead,’ these were the artists, athletes, TV shows and political players who rose from the ashes over the last year

Beck, Weird Al, Dave Chappelle

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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.

Kansas City Royals

The Kansas City Royals rush the field to celebrate after the final out in a series-clinching 2-1 win against the Baltimore Orioles in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series on Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2014, at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. (David Eulitt/Kansas City Star/MCT via Getty Images)

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The Kansas City Royals

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.

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Michael Keaton

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.

Prince

Prince

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.

Mitch McConnell

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The Republican Party

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.)

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Chris Rock’s Film Career

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."

Derrick Rose

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 10: Derrick Rose #1 of the Chicago Bulls brings the ball up court against the Brooklyn Nets on December 10, 2014 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

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Derrick Rose

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.

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Sleater-Kinney

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.

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Slipknot

"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.

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The Soundtrack Album

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. 

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‘Veronica Mars’

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.

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‘The Walking Dead’

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?

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Reese Witherspoon

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.

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‘Weird Al’ Yankovic

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."

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