Which artist had The Best Year Ever™?

An examination of the superhumanly prolific years of a few musicians and actors.

Hello and welcome to REPLY ALT, the best and only newsletter about music. Hey, The Armed’s A+ new album, ULTRAPOP, is finally out today. Did you listen to it yet? And did you check out my interview with them? Do both! At the same time!

As someone who has an unhealthy compulsion to stay as prolific as possible, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about people who have had famously fruitful years, whether they are musicians, actors, artists, etc. So, in an effort to determine who had the definitive Best Year Ever, I’m going to start a list. Here is the first edition of The Best Year Ever™, featuring the truly impressive outputs of a few notable people…

Jim Carrey (1994, age 32)

Let’s start by looking back at the wildly batshit year Jim Carrey had in 1994. 

February: The unproven In Living Color cast member makes his first real foray into movies (yes, I’m discounting Earth Girls Are Easy, sorry) with Ace Ventura: Pet Detective in February of ‘94. Critics hate it. Roger Ebert calls it “a long, unfunny slog.” (It’s only 87 minutes.) But who cares. The movie becomes a surprise hit, raking in over $100 million worldwide at the box office. Kids across the nation are saying “allllriiighty then” and talking out of their butts. Jim Carrey becomes a household name.

July: Given the surprise success of Ace Ventura, Warner Bros. prioritizes the release of The Mask and it pays off. The Mask performs even better at the box office, raking in more than $350 million worldwide (and features the acting debut of Cameron Diaz). Even Roger Ebert comes around, calling Carrey’s work “a joyful performance.” Kids are still talking out of their butts but now they’re also saying “smmooookin’!”

December: But wait, but Jim Carrey is not done with 1994 yet! He gets one more movie in before the buzzer. (When did he have time to film all these fucking movies?? An honorable mention should be given to cocaine.) Since he signed on to do The Mask before the breakout success of Ace Ventura, he only ended up taking in $450,000 for the high-grossing movie. But then he gets a salary bump and inks a deal for $7 million to do his next film, Dumb & Dumber. The movie hits screens in December and by this point Carrey is unstoppable. He’s now the second highest-grossing box office star behind Tom Hanks (star of Forrest Gump and noted father of Chet Hanx), with an annual total of $550 million. Ebert has mixed feelings about the movie, but notes that he absolutely lost his shit at the dead parakeet scene. Kids are talking out of their butts, saying “smmoookin’!,” and asking if you want to hear the most annoying sound in the world eeeeeeeeeeeeiiiiighhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

So, in the span of one year, the dude created three iconic characters, brought in half a billion dollars, and got kids talking out of their butts. He might’ve flown too high though, since the next year is a step back for him, making the regrettable sequel Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls and starring as the Riddler in the famously nipple-heavy Schumacher superhero flick, Batman Forever. Carrey and co-star Tommy Lee Jones famously do not get along on set, leading to this absolutely wonderful piece of movie lore:

“I went over and I said, ‘Hey Tommy, how you doin’?’ and the blood just drained from his face like he had been thinking about me for 24 hours a day,” Carrey recalls.

“He started shaking and he got up, he must have been in mid-kill-me fantasy or something like that. He went to hug me and he said, ‘I hate you. I really don’t like you.’ And I said, ‘Gee, man, what’s the problem?’ And I pulled up a chair, which probably wasn’t smart, and he said, ‘I cannot sanction your buffoonery.’”

“I cannot sanction your buffoonery” is an all-time devastating own.

Ben Gibbard (2003, age 27)

In a 2003 interview, everyone’s favorite indie rock sweetheart Ben Gibbard mentioned that he switched from being vegan to pescatarian. I don’t know if the addition of fish into his diet played any significant role in his songwriting, but it seems mighty coincidental that it also happened to spark his Best Year Ever…

February: Following a few years of cult-hit albums with Death Cab for Cutie, including their best work to date with 2001’s The Photo Album, Gibbard decides to try something new with The Postal Service. He and his producer buddy Jimmy Tamborello (not to be confused with The Adventures of Pete & Pete star Danny Tamberelli), send each other song ideas back and forth on CD-Rs through the postal service [Leonardo DiCaprio pointing at the TV meme] and eventually amass enough songs to make a record, Give Up, their sole LP. It’s arguably Gibbard’s best and most original work to date. The songwriting is so sweet and enjoyable, made even more so by the addition of Jenny Lewis. It inspires a huge wave of bedroom indie pop and paves the way for Garden State-core. Give Up becomes a crossover hit and goes gold after two years and platinum after nine.

August: The Postal Service gets a cease and desist from the actual postal service, the USPS. The two postal services reach an agreement though. The band is allowed to keep the name in exchange for lending their songs to a few of the USPS’s promotional efforts. The band also gets roped into playing their annual mail conference. (If anyone has video of USPS execs dancing to “Such Great Heights” in the executive conference room of the D.C. Hilton Garden Inn, by all means, drop your boy a link.):

“The group also agreed to perform at the postmaster general's annual National Executive Conference in Washington on Nov. 17. The attendees might not realize what a rare treat they are in for since the Postal Service does not play many gigs. Mr. Tamborello and Mr. Gibbard are busy with their regular bands: Dntel, with its atmospheric electronic dance music, and Death Cab for Cutie, which has become a college rock favorite for its heartfelt, jangly punk rock known as emo.”

This whole USPS run-in wasn’t really a career achievement, per se, but I had to imagine a bunch of mailmen jamming “We Will Become Silhouettes” and now so do you. Anyway…

October: Fresh off the inadvertent publicity around his new band’s name, Gibbard releases another hit album with his original band, Death Cab’s Transatlanticism. Looking back in an interview with an extremely respected and successful music writer, Gibbard later cites it as his favorite Death Cab album. The music writer, who is very handsome and also single and vaccinated, asks this remarkably incisive question:

What was going on in your life that you were able to churn out two albums that are some of the most beloved indie rock records? Two in one year, that’s insane.

I was 25, 26 at that point. I was finally able to just do music. Jimmy [Tamborello] would send me a song for the Postal Service on a Monday, I would knock it out like it was no big deal and send it back to him on Tuesday, and then write “We Looked Like Giants” the next day. Everything was just flowing so quickly. Looking back on that time, I would kill to have another year where things are flowing that effortlessly, but it just takes more work now. But I’m willing to do the work, and I think our new record is one of our top five we’ve made. I think the songs are great, I feel like I’m finally in a place lyrically that I’ve been trying to get back to.

It’s hard to quantify the impact of the back-to-back releases of the two best works in Gibbard’s catalog. For Death Cab, it meant that the band got the opportunity to jump from indie label Barsuk to major Atlantic. (Hey, is there a book about indie bands going to majors coming out soon? Oh you bet your sweet talkin’ ass there is, and it’s available for pre-order at sellout.biz.) It also pushed Gibbard out of the narrow emo corner he’d been painted into, and legitimized him as indie rock’s golden boy. For indie rock itself, the bar had been upped. One could argue that it resulted in lame subsequent years in mid-aughts music that were a bit too twee, but Gibbard also kept us entertained throughout the first several weeks of quarantine with his free livestreams, so let’s give him a pass. 

Nic Cage (1987-1988, age 24)

Nic Cage has never been shy about the fact that he just likes to work. He makes like 40 movies a year. Most of them are forgettable dogshit, some are brilliant, and a rare few are a combination of both. It’s a very throw-it-all-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks career strategy. But he wasn’t always the Hollywood workhorse he is today. In the early 80s, the young Cage didn’t have much to show for himself aside from a small role in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and a lead role in the delightful, Bouncing Souls-sampled Valley Girl. But with a little persistence and the tiny benefit of being the nephew of one of the most celebrated directors in movie history, Cage caught some big breaks in 1987.

April, 1987: Cage teams up with the also relatively unproven Coen brothers on their second film, the low-budget Raising Arizona. The Coens are somehow able to reign in the famously unhinged Cage. In turn, Cage knocks it out of the park as the iconic H.I. McDunnough, and helps give the Coens one of their best movies.

January, 1988: Nine months after Arizona, Cage has a Golden Globe-nominated starring role in Moonstruck, an iconic film despite his character being the absolute goofiest part of it. Sorry, but the missing hand storyline is incredibly silly and should’ve been rewritten. He is also not believably Italian, nor is he even believably attractive. I’m not here to kink-shame, so ayyy no disrespect if you find this sexy, but this look has big time down-voted Pornhub Community vibes to me:

June, 1988 (Let’s spot him an eight-week extension on his Best “Year” Ever.): Cage stars in Vampire’s Kiss. I’ve watched a lot of Nic Cage movies, so I don’t say this lightly: This might be the most batshit film in his entire catalog. In a GQ interview, he said it was “my favorite movie I made.” He eats a live cockroach in it, he stumbles around with fake vampire teeth, he dons some weird, pretentious, vaguely British accent. In the director’s commentary version of the DVD, he likens his outlandish acting choices to a Picasso painting. In the same way a viewer understands that Picasso’s figures are more representational than literal, so too is Cage’s acting supposed to be interpreted as an exaggerated version of normal human behavior. Here’s the film’s most famous scene:

So, in the span of roughly a year, Cage mapped out the blueprint for his whole schtick—great performances in brilliant movies, dopey performances in otherwise great movies, and wildly out-there Cagean performances that completely overshadow the rest of the movie. A great year for Cage. But wait! What about…

Nic Cage (1996-1997, age 33)

June, 1996: After kicking off 1996 by winning an Oscar and a Golden Globe for best actor (in Leaving Las Vegas), Nic Cage teams up with director Michael Bay (a dream pairing of smart-dumb guys, honestly) to make The Rock. Want to see what the movie would look like if no other characters except Nic Cage spoke? You’re in luck:

June, 1997: For an entire year after the release of The Rock, Cage is suspiciously quiet, very uncharacteristic for him. Oh no! Perhaps Nic Cage has taken some time off to recalibrate his acting career? But then BAM. Motherfucker stars in Con Air AND Face/Off, two summer blockbuster shoot-em-ups which are released within three weeks of each other and together gross just shy of $500 million worldwide. Half a bil in a single month. Never again doubt The Power of Cage.

Hot Water Music (1997)

Speaking of productive 1997s, let’s talk about Hot Water Music. While exact release dates in late 90s punk history tend to be a bit fuzzy, it stands to reason that the Florida band put forth their first two albums in the same calendar year.

February: Hot Water Music drops their debut album, Fuel for the Hate Game, and everything about it immediately distinguishes them from anyone else out there—Chuck’s gravel-pit vocal delivery, Jason Black’s wild basslines, the breaks that hit like hammers. Their sound was so new and fresh that the punk scene probably could’ve used some time to catch up to it. But then…

October: Just eight months later, the band releases a follow-up album that, impossibly, hits even harder than the last one and is full of songs that would become their biggest crowd-pleasers. So, in the span of just a few months, Hot Water Music released what would end up being the strongest material of their career and pretty much singlehandedly inspired a new wave of beardo gruff punk that would last for several decades (which I would argue is a bad thing). And in between, you could walk into a movie theater and watch either of TWO Nic Cage movies. I wish we knew in ‘97 that we were living through a golden age of music and cinema.

Conor Oberst (2005, age 25)

January: It has been documented (including once by the aforementioned beloved music writer) that there was a bit of friendly artistic rivalry among the three primary artists on Saddle Creek Records in the early 2000s—Cursive, The Faint, and Bright Eyes. With each new release, the songwriters were prone to one-upping their labelmates. Cursive put forth their masterpiece, The Ugly Organ, in 2003, then The Faint dropped Wet From Birth in 2004. So Conor Oberst had to go big in 2005, and he did, with the simultaneous releases of Bright Eyes’ Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. The two albums were well received, with both cracking into the Top 20 on the Billboard Albums chart and Oberst frequently being likened to Bob Dylan. He and his band spend most of the year touring on both records, including a tour with R.E.M.

May: Oberst dresses like a cowboy to perform “When the President Talks to God” on The Tonight Show. The protest song ends up being one of the most memorable moments of his career as well as an important addition to the canon of anti-war/anti-Bush 2000s pop culture. Thankfully, the Iraq war has a swift resolution and America never again elects a catastrophically incompetent Republican president.

November: Bright Eyes releases their third album of 2005, which features live versions of Wide Awake songs like “We Are Nowhere and It’s Now” (as featured in the hit Judd Apatow comedy, Knocked Up!) plus covers of Feist and Elliott Smith. (The prolific Oberst also tells Rolling Stone around this time that he has 20 new songs banked.) Granted, a live album isn’t exactly a breakthrough release, but I like to think Oberst was trying to run up the score on 2005, just in case some very successful music writer one day compiled a newsletter of people who had The Best Year Ever™.

OK, I’ve made my cases but am not here to be the ultimate judge. That’s on you. So who do you think had The Best Year Ever? Someone here? Or someone else entirely? Sound off in da freakin’ comments, ya heard?


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