Friday, December 27, 2013

2013 In Review: A Few (well, 50) of My Favorite Things Part 2

For my year in review list, I've combined 50 of my favorite pop-culture things, including albums, songs, movies, TV shows, video games, sports moments and more into one list. This is Part 2 (#25-1). For Part 1 (#50-26) click .

25. Franz Ferdinand at Hammerstein Ballroom

We're gonna burn this city, New York City!

Franz Ferdinand was one of the first bands I ever "discovered" when I was first really getting into music in middle school, but I had never seen them live before this year. "Take Me Out" is probably one of my 20 or 25 favorite songs ever, so I was crazy excited to finally see them in concert. My sky-high expectations were certainly met. The band had a huge amount of energy, and, of course, "Take Me Out" almost took the whole venue down. You can listen to me and my buddy Kevin talk more in depth about the show on the podcast, including our epic tale of how we snuck Kevin onto the GA floor after he accidentally bought seated tickets. Good times.

24. "Tall Tall Shadow" - Basia Bulat

You can't run away

Basia Bulat has such a great voice, and it's really put to good use here with "Tall Tall Shadow." It's soft yet evocative, with a bit of a country twang. When the chorus hits, there's a flood of feelings, and you just want to hear Bulat sing more. In all honesty, "Tall Tall Shadow" feels like a song Taylor Swift might aspire to write. It's way more mature and, you know, better than anything Swift has written, but it feels like an honest country-pop song. Keep at it Tay-tay.

23. The dance sequence in American Horror Story

The Name Game!

American Horror Story seems to pride itself on its ability to be shocking and provocative, but in most cases, it just comes off as silly. However, one scene near the end of the show's second season is so insane that it completely and totally works as thought-provoking television. That scene is a in which Jessica Lange's nun/insane asylum overseer turned insane asylum inmate sings "The Name Game" (you know Josh Josh Bobosh banana fana fo Fosh fee fi mo Mosh, Josh!), and it's amazing. The commitment Lange, as well as fellow actors Sarah Paulson and Evan Peters, demonstrates is what makes this scene really work. It doesn't feel ironic or mean-spirited - it simply feels like a world a very damaged person would try to escape to when they have no place else to go.

22. The Silver Gymnasium - Okkervil River

It's not all right, it's not even close to all right

Okkervil River is one of indie rock's most consistent bands, and The Silver Gymnasium is another very good album from the prolific Will Sheff and co. Songs like "Down Down the Deep River" and "Walking Without Frankie" are fantastic entries in the Okkervil River cannon. For some reason, "Walking Without Frankie" feels like what The Velvet Underground might sound like if they were a band today. It's really odd to me that Okkervil River aren't among the indie rock royalty with Vampire Weekend, The National, and Arcade Fire. Bill Simmons and Wesley Morris have a theory that two similarly styled actors can't be movie stars at the same time (like Tom Hanks and Michael Keaton), and I think that's what's happening with Okkervil River and Arcade Fire. OR sounds a lot like a less theatrical AF. And that's a shame, since Okkervil always delivers solid stuff. Plus, their albums always have great cover art. I mean, look at ! Someone call MoMA.

21. Ask Me About My New God! - Maria Bamford

If you've ever been thinking 'Oh but I'm a waste of space and I'm a burden," remember, that also describes the Grand Canyon

Maria Bamford is utterly fantastic, and there's really no one else like her. No other comedians can talk about things like suicide or mental illness like she does. Her description of anxiety is so spot on it should be in textbooks. But she never preaches, and she never feels overbearing, and she never tries for a cheap joke. Really, Bamford feels more like a friend than a comedian - a friend who's opening up to you and can't help but be funny, because she really, really is.

20. Yeezus - Kanye West

Fucking c'est la vie

Wouldn't it be so much easier if Kanye West sucked? Then we wouldn't have to deal with his shit at all. Instead, the guy is super talented, and so the circus continues. Look, at this point, either Kanye's ridiculous lyrics strike you as amazing, stupid, or amazing in their stupidity. But you can't deny the guy's talent in the studio. From the harsh beats of "Black Skinhead" to the dripping sweetness of "Bound 2," the production here is just astounding. I won't pretend to being anything close to a rap expert, but to me, Kanye West is on a whole different planet, musically and, um, otherwise.

19. Rkives - Rilo Kiley

For the rest of my life, I'm gonna search for someone just like you

I this compilation of b-sides and previously unreleased tracks from Rilo Kiley earlier this year for The Washington Square News. The article basically treats RKives as a cool piece of Rilo Kiley memorabilia, but as I listened to it more, the album stands tall on its own. Songs like "Bury, Bury, Bury Another, "The Frug," and ""Well, You Left" are fantastic in their own right, no matter what package they come in. It physically pains me that I'll probably never get to see the band live again, but I guess more Rilo Kiley is always better.

18. AM - Arctic Monkeys

It's just not as kind on the eyes

In Part 1 of this column, I remarked how interesting The National's career path has been. Well, the Arctic Monkey's career path has been twice as fascinating. They started off as a Myspace band (remember those?) before churning out two fantastic albums. Then, of all people, they turned to Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age to produce their third album, Humbug. Humbug felt a lot like a "testing the water" album to gauge the public's reaction to the new sound without fully committing. Then came Suck It and See which, spoiler alert, sucked. I know Alex Turner isn't exactly a wordsmith, but "Brick By Brick" is a travesty. I was ready to give up on future Arctic Monkeys albums when AM dropped this year, especially when I saw a tracklist containing songs titled "R U Mine?" and "Why'd You Only Call Me When Your High?" And yet, lo and behold, it's pretty freaking great. The melding of the stoner metal elements with the Monkeys' original British rock sound really clicks here, and Turner's voice has never sounded better. Check out the falsetto harmonies on "Do I Wanna Know?" and the vocal confidence on tracks like "Arabella." Simply put, AM has put the Arctic Monkeys back on the map.

17. New Girl

Julius Pepperwood. I'm from Chicago

When I was watching the first season of New Girl, I remember thinking how badly the show wanted us to care about Jess and Nick possibly getting together, and how much I didn't. So it's a credit to the writers that they were able to hook them up at the end of season 2 and into season 3 in an organic and unforced way. Many viewers were displeased with how their relationship has affected the show, but I've enjoyed it. Because New Girl stopped being about Jessica Day this year. This is a show about Nick Miller - a perpetual fuck-up who finally has some stability in his life, and he has no idea how to deal with it. And when Nick Miller has to deal with things, or perhaps confess things, the results are always hilarious. Kudos to Jake Johnson for taking his material up a notch to create one of my favorite characters on TV.

16. Before Midnight

I fucked up my whole life because of the way you sing

Before Midnight could have been a lot easier. It could've been another 90 minutes of Jesse and Celine chatting away about life and existence, and most fans probably would've been happy just to have these two charming and interesting characters back in their lives for a bit. But director Richard Linklater, the most underrated director working today, had something else in mind. For the third installment of his "Before" trilogy, the first two being Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, he decided to dig deep into Jesse and Celine's fairy-tale relationship, and the result is explosive. The last third of the movie, where the two of them lay all their cards on the table, is just plain devastating. The first two "Before" films felt like fairy-tales, but there was definitely a dark undercurrent, especially in the second film. It's not hard to see that Jesse, who cheats on his wife to be with Celine, might not be a great guy. And Celine is might not as stable as it would seem in the first film. All of these things come out in the first time we really see the two of them of fight, and it's certainly tough to watch. But the scene is so expertly acted and written, and everything feels so real. You feel so invested in Jesse and Celine, making the "Before" trilogy the best, and most improbably, franchise in film today.

15. "Unbelievers" - Vampire Weekend

If I'm born again I know that the world will disagree

It's always been clear that the guys in Vampire Weekend are talented musicians. But with their first two albums, it always felt like they were trying to hard to prove how smart they were, instead of just letting that talent do the talking. Their third album, however, does away with frill and delivers a really solid pop record, the highlight being the excellent "Unbelievers." "Unbelievers" doesn't do anything crazy - it's just three and a half minutes of verse and chorus. But it's so self-assured, like this was the kind of song Vampire Weekend had always been trying to write. Honestly, "Unbelievers" feels like it could be a Beatles song. It's smart, tight, and always engaging, and that's what Vampire Weekend should be aiming for.

14. Bob's Burgers

Oh my God, am I your hero?

Here we have a sitcom about a family that actually loves each other. Novel concept, right? More than any family on TV today, the Belchers feel real. Sure, they annoy the hell out of each other, but at the end of the day, they'd rather be with each other than anywhere else. Oh, and it's really funny. Tina, the sexually-obsessed teenager, and Louise, in the devil child "Stewie" role, are never not hilarious. And at the center of it all is Bob and Linda, the most genuine TV married couple since Coach and Tami Taylor. All that makes Bob's Burgers my favorite sitcom of 2013.

13. Like Clockwork - Queens of the Stone Age

I'm in flagrante in every way

QOTSA's newest effort, their first since 2007 s Era Vulgaris, sounds like a combination of their last album and their most acclaimed album Songs of the Deaf. As the only person who thinks Era Vulgaris is the band's best album, I'm a big fan of Like Clockwork's sound. Even still, this record transcends any album loyalty. The songs are sludgy yet tight, heavy yet poppy. As one of the few pure "rock" bands still around, QOTSA continues to push the limits of their sound while staying true to what makes them great: a cool swagger that not many bands can match.

12. Game of Thrones

The Lannisters send their regards

(Spoilers ahead, but if you're still unspoiled, stop reading this and go get yourself a medal). It's funny to think back to the pilot of HBO's epic fantasy series Game of Thrones. Here are the Starks, the series seems to say. Look how happy they are! Here's Papa Stark and Mamma Stark, teenage Stark and baby Stark, girly-girl Stark and tomboy Stark, and, of course, bastard Stark. And look, they all have cute puppies! Great, now that you're all introduced, we're going to KILL THEM ALL! HAHAHAHAHA!Yes, the Red Wedding was crazy, but who couldn't see that wedding ending not-so-peacefully? And, to be honest, I was much more upset that they killed Robb's direwolf than that they pretty much ended the Stark family. But season 3 was much more than the Red Wedding. Dany finally had her Game 6 in Boston moment (the "I will take the throne with blood and fire" proclamations are to Dany what "Not 4, not 5was to LeBron), and we got to meet the King Beyond the Wall. Overall, I would say season 3 might be my least favorite season (season 2 s "Blackwater" is still my favorite episode), but I can't deny how engaging it was. Though I still don't see how Dany loses. I mean, come on. She's got dragons.

11. Soundgarden at Hammerstein Ballroom

I'm gonna break my rusty cage and run

I first saw Soundgarden at Lollapalooza in 2010. At the time, I thought it would be my only opportunity to see one of my favorite bands. Then, over the past three years, I got to see them four more times, culminating in two back-to-back shows in January of this year. And, I've got to say, these concerts were my favorite Soundgarden shows. It might've been because the first one was on my 22nd birthday, it might've been because I got to hear Superunknown, my second favorite album of all time, almost in its entirety over the two nights, including "Mailman" and "Head Down." Mostly, I think it was because these shows were probably, definitely the last time I was going to see Soundgarden live. After a new album and extensive touring, these shows felt a bit like a last hurrah for the band in NYC. I can definitely see them doing a few one-off shows, but I think the full-scale Soundgarden comeback is coming to an end. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed every minute of it. To see Soundgarden once seemed like a pipe-dream at one time, but to see them five times was just unimaginable. So thanks Soundgarden, it's been fun.

10. E3

This is how you share your games on PS4

This year I had the good fortune to attend E3 in LA, the largest industry-only video game conference in the US. For three days I walked around the brightly lit Los Angeles Convention Center pressing buttons on whatever controller I could find. I got to play the PS4 and the Xbox One months before they were available to the public, and I saw demos of the newest games in development. It was a crazy and hazy experience that I'm not entirely sure really happened, but I know I had a great time. Thanks again to my buddy Jonathon for inviting me to tag along.

9. New York Knicks vs Indiana Pacers Game 2

Fuck you Reggie!

This year I also had the good fortune of getting to see at Knicks playoff game at MSG. And, even more fortunately, the Knicks actually won! Seeing a basketball game at MSG is unlike any other experience in sports, and a Knicks win made it even more special. The crowd was amazing - I sat next to an Argentinian guy who didn't understand what fouls were but rooted like hell for Pablo Prigioni. One person in my section bravely wore a Pacers jersey, which led to the aforementioned "Fuck you Reggie!" chant. Plus, I mistook Spike Lee for a child throwing a temper tantrum. All in all, it was an unforgettable experience that totally makes up for the Knick's ineptitude this season. Well, almost.

8. Old 97 s at Brooklyn Bowl

Do you wanna meet up at the Brooklyn Bowl?

The Old 97 s are the best live band on the planet, and for these two shows at the Brooklyn Bowl, they played Too Far to Care and Wreck Your Life, two of my five favorite albums of all time, in full. So yeah, I had a good time. For the Wreck Your Life show, my dad and I stood in front of guitarist Ken Bethea, giving the sound a rockier feel, which was really cool for softer songs like "Old Familiar Steam." Plus, lead singer Rhett Miller name-checked the Brooklyn Bowl during "Rollarskate Skinney," which was really cool, or, as my buddy Kevin puts it, "shameless plugs in you songs for your location." I've seen the Old 97 s over 15 times, and each time they get better and better, and I can't say that for any other band.

7. Orange is the New Black

There's always hope. Tomorrow will be taco night

There was a big chance that Orange is the New Black would really suck. Disregarding the fact that it was a Netflix series, this was a show about a privileged girl going to prison created by Jenji Kohan, who isn't really a master of subtlety. Plus, Jason Biggs was heavily involved. Orange could have easily been Eat Pray Love behind bars. Thankfully, it's not. I was initially intrigued because the trailer used Rilo Kiley's "Better Son/Daughter," so how bad could it be? Soon, Orange became one of my favorite shows, and before I knew it, I had finished the whole season. This show is all about the performances - Red, Crazy Eyes, and Nicki are all fantastic characters, mostly do to the actresses playing them. Additionally, the show, and especially Taylor Schilling, deserves a ton of credit for letting Piper drift into the background and making her more of an observer than a major focal point. Sure, she's still the main character, but she doesn't dominate the story. I cannot wait to spend another weekend next year binging on season 2 of 2013 s best new series.

6. Cerulean Salt - Waxahatchee

I cling to indifference

Cerulean Salt feels less like an album and more like a diary. It has a stream of consciousness that's easy to get lost in. While that made it hard for me to pick out individual songs, I really liked how it felt like one long, emotional entity. Each track flows seamlessly into the next one, and it feels great just to lose yourself in Katie Crutchfield's world for a half hour. "Swan Dive" stands out as a highlight, but the whole album is great as one cohesive listen.

5. The Last of Us

You'd just come after her

Writing in video games is a lot like writing in horror movies - when it's actually solid and feels like it was written by real, professional writers, it's treated as amazing. Then there's the writing in The Last of Us, which was better than the writing in most movies this year. From the makers of the Uncharted series, The Last of Us is an amazing journey from beginning to end, featuring great gameplay, voice-acting, and yes, writing. This all even more impressive given the familiarity of the story: post-apocolyptic, zombie infested America, one last hope for humanity, gruff but sensitive lead, yada yada yada. But everything is handled so well, and with such talent, that it's impossible not to get sucked in. The animation for the zombies, or "infected," is terrifying, and you'll never feel more invested in a video game relationship than you do with Joel and Ellie. Plus, the game finally answers the question "Can you make grown men cry with a giraffe?" The answer is a resounding yes. To hear my thoughts on The Last of Us with full spoilers, listen to me and my buddy Jonathon talk about it on the podcast.

4. Metric at Bowery Ballroom

This one's for Lou

I've had a lot of what I might call "religious experiences" at concerts over the last ten years, but I can't say many of them felt like what happened when Metric played an acoustic version of "Gimme Sympathy" at the Bowery Ballroom a few months ago. Lead singer Emily Haines dedicated the song to the late Lou Reed, with whom the band had collaborated with on Metric's last album, which certainly heightened the emotion of the room. But then the entire band came back stage and led the crowd in a sing-along of the chorus. It's moments like this that you realize why music really matters. For three minutes, everyone stopped caring about the bullshit in their lives, or that one self-centered woman almost ruined the show by pushing through to the front row and filming with her iPad a few songs earlier (seriously, this should be a federal crime). For three minutes, everything was right with the world. If that was the last time I hear "Gimme Sympathy," I would totally be fine with that (I haven't listened to it since). That song was about a time and a place - a time and a place I'll never forget.

3. Her

How would you touch me?

Earlier this year, I directed the for WSN under the theme "sincerity." Her, the new film from director Spike Jonze, would've been perfect for this issue. Underneath all "man falls in love with Siri" stuff, Her is about a relationship between two people, pure and simple. There's a shittier version of this movie, where some Fox News-like anchor decries person-operating system relationships as "unnatural," and Joaquin Phoenix gets fired for his relationship with Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). Thankfully, Her is not at all like that. Jonze uses the futuristic elements to make his love story that much more heartbreaking, and he treats the relationship between Theodore (Phoenix) and Samantha with complete sincerity. The movie is definitely funny (the depiction of future video games is fantastic), but underneath it all, Her is the story of Theodore and Samantha. And what a beautiful story it is.

2. Inside Llewyn Davis

If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it's a folk song

As an unabashed lover of all things Coen brothers and all things folk music, Inside Llewyn Davis was the odds-on favorite to be my favorite movie of the year. But even I didn't think it would be this good. Before I saw the movie, I thought it would be some redemptive story where unfairly struggling folk singer Llewyn Davis finally makes it big, before maybe giving (or getting) advice to a young kid that maybe looks a lot like Robert Zimmerman. Boy, was it not. It is so, so much more. As you watch Llewyn hop from couch to couch and turn a blind eye to those trying to help him, you begin to realize that his state in life may just be his fault. And then, that gut-punching ending proves resoundingly that yes, Llewyn is a major fuck-up. A very talented fuck-up, sure, but a fuck-up nonetheless. I really like Wesley Morris' idea that the film is about a Coen brother's life without the other Coen, which gives it even more weight to an already weighty film. Additionally, Oscar Isaac is fantastic in the title role, both with his singing and acting, and he's the main reason why Llewyn remains a sympathetic character. All that adds up to Inside Llewyn Davis being my favorite movie of 2013.

1. Breaking Bad

I did it for me

The greatest final season of any show, and I say that as someone who unabashedly believes that The Wire is the greatest show of all time, and that nothing even comes close. First of all, I'm going to refer to this year's eight episodes of Breaking Bad as season 6, and not the second-half of season 5. Disregarding the fact that it was divided by AMC as a marketing ploy, these final eight episodes had a pacing and personality different than that in season 5. Second of all, holy hell was season 6 of Breaking Bad amazing (spoilers from this point on). The Walter-Hank showdown, the extended theme song, the entirety of "Ozymandias." Oh my god, "Ozymandias." The fact that they made two episodes after that is just crazy. Look, a ton of ink has been spilled dissecting this show, so I'll wrap this up: Walter White is one of the greatest characters in television history, and Bryan Cranston's portrayal of him is so, so good. Breaking Bad probably could've ended a hundred different ways, but I honestly believe that the final shot of Walter lying in the lab was the perfect way to end things. RIP Breaking Bad, and thank you. You will be missed.
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