Thursday, December 26, 2013

2013 In Review: A Few (well, 50) of My Favorite Things Part 1

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 1 (#50-26).

50. "Giorgio by Moroder" - Daft Punk

My name is Giovanni Giorgio, but everybody calls me Giorgio

Randmom Access Memories, the newest album from the enigmatic French electronic duo Daft Punk was celebrated mostly through the insanely popular hit "Get Lucky," featuring the suddenly resurgent Pharrell Williams, who has a pretty legitimate claim to "Winner of 2013." But my favorite track on Memories is "Giorgio by Moroder." For most of the nine-minute song, a simple beat plays underneath a monologue from dance music pioneer Giovanni Giorgio Moroder. Then, at around the eight-minute mark, the beat explodes and the song really comes together. Daft Punk clearly holds Giorgio in high esteem, and that, combined with the song's climax, is what makes this track so cool.

49. "It's Never Over (Hey Orpheus)" - Arcade Fire

Seems like a big deal now

Overall, I'm not a fan of Arcade Fire's 2013 effort, Reflektor. I find it to be overlong, bloated, and self-indulgent. I am, however, quite fond of "It's Never Over (Hey Orpheus)," I've always viewed Arcade Fire as an immensely happy band, and it wasn't until I heard the chants of "Hey Orpheus!" that I felt that happiness again on this album.

48. Happy Endings

I'm not as dumb as I am

Happy Endings did get canceled in May, but the back-half of its third seasons demonstrated a show, and a cast, at the peak of its game. All six characters (well, 5 1/2, because Dave) had fantastic chemistry and were consistently hilarious. Elisha Cuthbert! Who knew! It's a shame this show had to spend its first season dealing with a contrived introductory plot-line, as our time with this amazing hang-out comedy was way too short as is.

47. The Honk Kong Sequence in Pacific Rim

Today, we are canceling the apocalypse!

Pacific Rim had a lot going for it: Charlie, Stringer Bell, and, of course, giant robots fighting giant monsters. As a whole, the film never really comes together into anything particularly noteworthy (although it is the only film I saw twice in a theater this year), but the fight sequence that takes place in Hong Kong about halfway through the film is pretty spectacular. Almost everything you could imagine from the phrase "giant robots fighting giant monsters" is present in this sequence, culminating with said robot slicing said monster with a spontaneously released sword while falling back to earth from outer freaking space. And it's all set to one of the coolest guitar riffs of the year.

46. The BS Report with Bill Simmons and guest Cousin Sal

Good job by you!

There's no denying that the quality of Bill Simmons' writing has slipped a bit in recent years, but that's understandable given the sheer amount of projects he's taken on, including the excellent Grantland (it's hard to blame the guy for giving us Zach Lowe, my current favorite sports writer). Still, I can always expect 45 minutes of entertainment each week during the NFL season from his guess-the-lines podcasts with Cousin Sal (Jimmy Kimmel Live). Basically, it's like listening to two of your buddies talk each other into making dumb bets, and it's fantastic. Sal's impression of Simmons and his love for Russell "Hustle, Bustle, Man Muscle" Wilson is always a highlight. Plus, thanks to them, I finally figured out how to do a three-team-teaser, although I'm not sure if that's a good or bad thing.

45. Veep

What are you laughing about, jolly green jizz-face?

On a joke for joke basis, Veep was probably the funniest show on TV this year. From Julia Louis-Dreyfus' foul mouth to Matt Walsh's goal to to accomplish as little real work as possible (his disappointment that he actually won the favor of one his superiors was one of my favorite moments), everyone brings their A-game. With its great cast and very sharp writing, Veep feels a lot like in-its-prime Arrested Development.

44. Drenge - Drenge

Everybody thinks I've got new ideas

Few records nowadays really kick your ass, but this is one of them. Drenge is made up two members - a guitarist and a drummer. They're like Japandroids' cousins, only while Japandroids are celebrating at some awesome party, Drenge are outside smoking in the rain. Drenge didn't get invited to the celebration. Instead, with songs like "Bloodsports," "Fuckabout," and I Want to Break You in Half," their self-titled debut sounds like 35-minutes of pent-up frustration. The only weak spot on Drenge is "I Don't Want to Make Love to You," a bizzaro cover of that Foghat song. Otherwise, this album is 2013 s best "Fuck, I'm pissed" remedy.

43. "Pusher Love Girl" - Justin Timberlake

My hydroponic, candy jelly bean

There's no getting around that JT is a talented dude, but I've never really been impressed with him musically. However, I will say that "Pusher Love Girl," the opening track off Timberlake's largely mediocre comeback record, really grabbed me. There are many songs that compare being in love to being high, but there's an earnestness here that makes "Pusher Love Girl" kind of, well, sweet. Plus, it's pretty cool when, halfway through the song, Timberlake just decides, "Screw it, I'll remix this song myself," resulting in eight-minute song about getting high and getting laid. He's just a j-j-j-j-junkie for her love. Aw.

42. Peter Russo of House of Cards

I don't believe in God. Heaven, hell, none of it

House of Cards is an extremely cynical show. It represents American politics as dirty, back-stabbing, and just plain mean, and with what's going on in the real world, it is hard to blame them for that depiction. Even still, that amount of cynicism can drag a viewer, and a show, down too far. Thankfully, House of Cards also had Peter Russo, a Pennsylvania Congressman played by Corey Stoll. In a scene where Peter visits his constituents, you get a sense of why someone would want to be a politician in the first place. He is genuinely interested in the lives of other people, and he wants to help them as best he can. Even though he's supposed to be a fuck-up, Peter is the most real person on the show. Sure, it's fun watching Kevin Spacey connive his way to the White House with complicated plans and even more complicated metaphors, but Peter Russo was the glimmer of light in House of Cards' dark heart. And the fact that he won't be around for Season 2 is the number one reason I'm nervous about the series going forward.

41. "No Diggity" - JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound

I like the way you work it

The AV Club's "Undercover" series, in which bands come in to cover songs chosen by readers and editors of the site, is a great idea in theory, but often falls short in execution. The performances are usually solid, but are never really that interesting (it also hurts that I'm not a GWAR fan, who, according to the commentariat, are apparently the greatest band to ever grace the "Undercover" stage). Enter Chicago's JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound, who performed a creative and energetic of Blackstreet's "No Diggity" that's better than the original and the Pitch Perfect versions put together. A cool arrangement, some fantastic guitar work, and a bassist who looked like Heisenberg made this installment not only my favorite "Undercover" of 2013, but my favorite "Undercover" ever.

40. 12 Years a Slave

I apologize for my appearance, but I have had a difficult time these past several years

12 Years a Slave is one hell of a movie. As a film, it's expertly acted and very well directed (the long shot of Solomon hanging from that tree is going to stick with me for a long time). As a movie-going experience, it's absolutely brutal. 12 Years is now number one on the "Fantastic movies I never want to see again" list. Even Brad Pitt's inability to speak in a non-modern dialect can't shake you from this film's intense grip. Chiwetel Ejiofor's masterful performance as Solomon Northrup is as haunting as they come, and, even with the film's immense cruelty, is what gives 12 Years its power.

39. Oh My God - Louis CK

If murder was legal there'd be so much murder!

I had the good fortune of seeing Louis CK's newest act last October before he aired the special this year. And even though I knew every joke that was coming, I still laughed like hell, because Louis CK is the best stand-up comedian working today. If you're only going to listen to one stand-up routine this year, make it CK's thoughts on the legalization of murder. It starts off one place, then ends on an entirely different planet, and it's wonderful.

38. Trouble Will Find Me - The National

I'm going through an awkward phase

The National are a really fascinating band to me because, after a decade of great reviews, they really hit it big with Trouble Will Find Me, which is an album about a guy in his forties. Rock n roll, baby! The definition of "rock star" has undoubtedly changed, which is obvious by the fact that might be one of the 10 biggest rock stars today. Even still, Trouble is a really interesting album, highlighted by songs like "Humiliation," "Demons," and "I Need My Girl." The National are stone cold professionals, and while this album might be the band's stoniest and coldest, it's also probably their best.

37. Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

By the hymen of Olivia Newton-John!

I know, right? I'm surprised too! I fully expected the sequel to one of the best comedies of the new millennium to be a lazy retread, and, frankly, just downright terrible. But Anchorman 2 is a legitimately funny movie in its own right. While not as quotable as its predecessor, the sequel is densely packed with sight-gags, satire, and, most importantly, Ron freaking Burgundy. And while the inevitable fight scene reprise seems groan-worthy at first, it quickly evolves (or devolves) into one of the craziest and funniest things I've seen at the movies this year. If you haven't seen it, I won't spoil the cameos for you, but I will say the ghost of Stonewall Jackson is involved.

36. Ray Allen's 3-Point Shot in Game 6 of the NBA Finals

Back out to Allen his three-pointer BANG!

I say this as a certified Heat hater: this was the greatest shot I have ever seen. So while I hated the fact that it went in, as a basketball fan, I absolutely loved it. The greatest shooter in the history of the NBA attempting the most important shot of his career, and it's a swish? You got to love it.

35. Torres - Torres

Heavy are you on my mind

I saw Torres once described as "blues-grunge." Um, yes. I want that. And Torres did not disappoint. Opening track "Mother Earth, Father God" feels like the spiritual successor to Danzig's "Mother" (the king of "blues-grunge" as far as I'm concerned), and album highlight "Honey" starts off dreamy before taking a hard turn into distortion-ville. Torres is bluesy, grungey, and, most importantly, really freaking good.

34. Gravity

Well, it reminds me of a story

Visually, Gravity is the most impressive film I've ever seen. It also might be the year's scariest film. I did not have any plans to go to outer space before seeing Gravity, but now, I'm definitely not going to outer space. The film has such a tense atmosphere, it's impossible not to get sucked in, despite some rather, um, campier elements. I guess the idea of Sandra Bullock drifting off into space in an oversized astronaut suit is kind of funny. Still, with those jaw-dropping visuals, Gravity takes first place in the "Most Impressive Use of Technology in Film" standings, and it's not even close. Take that, Avatar.

33. Pokemon X

Lucario has Mega Evolved into Mega Lucario!

The sixth generation of the Pokemon series feels like the culmination of the previous five generations. The graphics are vastly improved, battling has never been smoother, and the new EXP Share eliminates tedious grinding. Most importantly, however, is the sheer amount of Pokemon you can catch and raise in-game. Much was made of the lack of new Pokemon added this generation, but Pokemon X more than makes up for it, giving players ample opportunity to catch Pokemon from all generations. Now, if only we could get more than one save file.

32. "The Woodpile" - Frightened Rabbit

Come find me now

I've always stayed away from Frightened Rabbit because of how much they've been compared to U2, aka history's most overrated band. But after their newest album got very positive reviews, I took a listen and was pleasantly surprised. Most impressive was the song "The Woodpile," which, while similar to U2 in its bombast, feels more grounded in real earnestness. It's an arena rock song for the humble and sincere.

31. "Royals" - Lorde

Let me live that fantasy

Look at that. One of 2013 s most popular songs is also one of its best. Who woulda thunk. Anyway, "Royals" thrives on its simplicity. The beat is steady and the message is clear. Oh, and the girl can really sing. Like, really sing. Lorde's career path is going to be really interesting, given her age and the legitimacy of her first hit. If she's anything like the protagonist in "Royals," she won't get caught up in her imminent superstardom.

30. American Hustle

I told you not to put metal in the science oven!

American Hustle is less of a movie and more of an excuse for a few really talented people to wear 70 s inspired costumes and say ridiculous things in ridiculous accents. The film's tone is a bit jarring given the way it was marketed, and, to be honest, I'm not really sure what exactly happens in it. Something about political corruption, the FBI, and Robert De Niro. So what puts American Hustle on this list? I've got one, hyphenated word for you: J-Law. Everything that Jennifer Lawrence says in this movie is pure gold, and, amazingly, always fits with her character. In a movie about what an insane, messed up world it is, Lawrence is completely insane and messed up, but still feels like a real person. That, combined with Bradley Cooper, Louis CK, and Bradley Cooper's impression of Louis CK, is what makes American Hustle such a fun movie.

29. "Cover Me Up"- Jason Isbell

It's cold in this house and I ain't goin' out to chop wood

As I will tell anyone who will listen, I vastly prefer women's singing voices to men's. I think that the best female singer will always sound better than the best male singer. However, Jason Isbell, formerly of the Drive By Truckers, challenges this thesis. This is a man who made me wish I was from the South with his singing on "Outfit." Isbell has a soul in his voice that is rare in male singers today, and it's on full display on "Cover Me Up," the opening track on his newest solo record. Like most country songs, it's pretty simple - there's a man, a woman, and an alcohol problem. But the way Isbell's voice soars at the beginning of chorus before landing softly at the end of it is simply moving. Men, there's hope for us yet.

28. Bioshock Infinite

You just complicate the narrative

I've discussed Bioshock Infinite in depth on the podcast, and at the time, I was enamored with the ending. As I've had a chance to distance myself from it, combined with a video game ending to another game coming up on this list, the ending seems a bit more, well, silly. I still love what ends up happening the Booker at the baptism scene, but I have soured a bit on the whole "infinite universes" thing. Even still, Infinite is such a cool experience. The setting is so interesting to me, and to just play through the story is worth the time of anyone interested in storytelling. Bioshock Infinite made me think a lot more than most video game endings combined, and that in and of itself is an accomplishment.

27. Sunbather - Deafheaven

26. Upstream Color

The water before you is somehow special

Here we have two works that, looking back at them, I'm not even sure I liked. After all, Sunbather is an hour of a guy incomprehensibly screaming over metal music, and Upstream Color is a film essentially about magical pigs. But damn, both of these works really stuck with me. Even after I was initially put-off by Deafheaven's harshness, I kept coming back to it. After each listen, the record became more and more beautiful. While I was immediately taken with the instrumentation, the vocals finally clicked for me in a way I wasn't expecting. As someone who is more lyrically-focused, I was frustrated with George Clarke unintelligible screaming, but I came to realize that Sunbather is about creating a feeling that maybe can't be expressed with words. Similarly, I kept thinking of Upstream Color, even if I wasn't sure why or if I liked it. To understand the plot isn't really to understand the movie. This is a film about loss, hopelessness, and, finally, peace. Both Sunbather and Upstream Color make you feel, well, different. And if that's not the purpose of art, I'm not sure what is.
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