Art can do a lot of things, but the only thing it has to do is evoke a reaction. In 2013, Kanye West’s Yeezus created a great numbers of conversations regarding misogyny, race, the nature of lyrics, and the proximity of an artist to his creation.
Since 2004’s The College Dropout, the public has been battling for and against West’s affection. The original critique was that his music was great, but he’s full of himself. Over the years, however, a segment of music fans has become ever more vocal with their disdain for West. This mounting vitriol was essential in creating the Frankstein’s monster that is Yeezus.
In many ways, few artists have grappled with their audiences as sincerely as Kanye. He pushed back on expectations with the somber Late Registration before returning to bombast on Graduation. After the faux art-pop experiment of 808s and Heartbreak and his public shaming via Taylor Swift, West begged forgiveness with the crowd-tested/crowd-pleasing My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. He’s since publicly renounced MBDTF (basically) and gone on to shun members of the press, hip-hop radio, and anyone else who disagrees with him. After years of negative attention and publicity, Yeezus feels less like a product and more a byproduct. It’s not the album we wanted, but it’s the album we asked for.
The one thing that remains reassuring about Yeezus is that no matter how much people seem to hate it, they still listened. I personally don’t care about Pearl Jam, but I also don’t feel a need to announce how little I care about them on Twitter (I’ll do that here). The conversation that’s happened around Yeezus is a great reminder that the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference.
2013 was a tale of two boats: Robert Redford’s broken vessel floating aimlessly in the Indian Ocean in All Is Lost and Larry Ellison’s sleek, foiling catamaran zigzagging across the San Francisco Bay in this summer’s America’s Cup. It was a tale of anonymity — Redford’s character is known simply as “Our Man” — and a tale of megalomania, Ellison’s company’s name emblazoned all over the marina. We witnessed an isolated man’s stoic acceptance of catastrophe and a group working to achieve a near-perfect harmony between man and machine.
For reasons still not entirely clear to me, I watched every race in Oracle Team USA’s comeback win over Emirates Team New Zealand. It was a bloated spectacle not without its longueurs and farcical elements. Ellison spent close to $100 million to defeat just three other teams, then ditched his company’s convention to watch the race. In one agonizing heat bereft of wind, the boats inched along at a glacial pace until, with the finish line in sight, the judges called it off for exceeding the 40-minute time limit. But as the U.S. team navigated the same five-leg course over fifteen days and tacked its way back from an 8-1 deficit, an exquisite tension arose from the very repetitiveness of the competition.
All Is Lost provided a different thrill. It is a quiet tragedy — extremely quiet. The movie’s spareness calls out for an allegorical reading, but allegorical meanings are the least interesting thing about allegories. Rather, the best such works seduce you with their particular rhythms and small mysteries: Our Man’s patient application of epoxy and fabric to the damaged boat, his ritualistic, mid-crisis shave, his letter-cum-confession to unnamed recipients, a bobbing mass of sneakers, forlorn and eerie, and those towering container ships, Our Man’s best hope of salvation, as menacing as the circling fish below.
In a year when he co-wrote the two frontrunners for Song of the Summer honors, Pharrell’s best song (yes, by far) was “Happy,” the one featured in Despicable Me 2. It is as catchy as a lump in the throat, and because he apparently wanted to test the limits of its repeat listenability, he released it as a 24-hour music video, featuring him and 400 other dancers and celebrities and regular people dancing along to the song, mostly one by one. And I cannot stop watching it. There is such a genuine release of hope and rapture by the performers in the video that you believe the spirit of the song, every time. Eff Cymbalta; this is the real antidepressant.
In 2013, I liked listening to Sara Petite’s album Circus Comes to Town. It’s alt-country that doesn’t forget the country. Petite dropped the country album of the year and, well, I hope she made rent money off of it at least. (Also earning her rent this year, Mavis Staples covering Low on One True Vine.)
I liked Arrow, a comic book show that is actually plotted like a comic book (unlike Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a comic book show that is plotted like an annual report). I also liked Scandal, which is (probably) plotted by a group of hyper-intelligent Yorkshire Terriers chasing their own tails.
I liked two games where the fourth time was the charm: Saint’s Row IV is a zippy, bizarre, balls-out fun game. Also, it’s not misanthropic and very nearly not all that sexist — especially if you play as a middle-aged man in a dress, which I recommend. For the strategy gamer, Europa Universalis IV finally strikes the right balance between super complex simulation and actually playable game. Playing it will make you completely forget Civilization.
Finally: liberty, equality, Feloche!
As the Bureau’s resident transwoman, it feels a bit predictable of me to recommend a novel with a transgender protagonist (and which was written by a transwoman), but Imogen Binnie’s Nevada spoke to me like no other book, TV show, movie, or song did this year. Although that’s not to say that Nevada is just for non-gender-normative folk; Binnie has written a funnny and relevant novel that articulates the transgender experience in ways that will resonate and illuminate no matter what your identity is. The characters are broken, the outlook is depressing, and the central journey seems ill-advised at best, but this is one of the most hopeful books I’ve read recently. Read it, and you’ll feel something. I promise.
A morning after. A sexy alien boy in briefs, dancing to the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.” A crash of glass, a Skrull attack, and a mission statement issued by Kate Bishop, the other Hawkeye: “I have no powers and not nearly enough training, but I’m doing this anyway. Being a superhero is amazing. Everyone should try it.” With those five pages, Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie brought the Young Avengers back to the Marvel universe, kicking off what has turned out to be the best comic book series of 2013.
Their first issue might’ve been titled “Style > Substance,” but make no mistake: this book has plenty of both. McKelvie’s lean and clean hyperrealism makes everything look so cool it hurts, but it’s backed by Gillen’s easy dialogue, poignant plotting, and thematic depth. These creators honed their skills together on the indie sensation Phonogram, and they bring elements of that series to Young Avengers in a way that feels fresh and, well, decidedly teenaged.
And thus a one-night stand in space becomes a super-powered road trip from hell, as Kate and Noh-Varr are joined by boyfriends (and fan favorites) Wiccan and Hulkling, along with Kid Loki, Miss America Chavez, and former X-Men Prodigy, in a race to save the world from two dangerous groups — their parents and their exes. The series is wrapping up in February of 2014, bittersweet news to fans who love it but know that, like adolescence itself, it can’t last forever.
I’m not exactly sure what prompted me to start reading David Gilbert’s New Yorker short story “From a Farther Room,” but I’m glad I gave it a shot. The story starts off recounting a dreary, boozy night spent by Robert, a liberated-for-the-weekend suburban father. In the opening passage, Gilbert’s Stretch-Armstrong prose kept me reading — how can you not respect a writer who uses the word “kickstand” as a verb? The game changes, however, when, during the course of a fitful sleep, Robert vomits up a living creature that defies all zoological explanation, a “goulash molded into a ghoul.” As Robert attempts to first get rid of and then nurture the thing, it becomes clear that the creature, while likely real and not a figment of his imagination, is a proxy for all the things he’s become and not become in his life.
“From a Farther Room” is one of those stories I found myself cheating on — flipping ahead to see how long it was, trying to do the calculus of how the author was going to pull out the ending. All I will say is that the final passage contains the most tragic usage of second person I’ve ever read. And the last line, when it came, was a gut punch. I dropped the magazine and said, out loud, breathless, “Wow.”
Sometimes art should just make you happy. That’s what Cloud Cult does for me. Their music plucks a certain chord that makes me want to be more earnest, more genuine, say hi to a stranger, shovel someone’s sidewalk — it makes me want to be a better person. This summer, when KEXP released a video of a full Cloud Cult show from the Arts in Nature Festival, it was something special. What really sets this performance apart is the venue. Filmed at Camp Long, a kind of rustic lodge surrounded by trees, it is the perfect setting for Cloud Cult. The band is unamplified, which helps bring out the natural depth in the cello and violin, and leaves more room for their surprising vocal harmonies. In the video, people are standing outside the open windows listening, as if they just happened to be walking by and heard this beautiful sound that made them stop in their tracks. Watching the video makes me feel like such serendipitous moments of beauty are possible.
My literary tastes oscillate between flowery magical realism and clean, stark prose; Karen Russell indulged both in her short story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Her characters are profoundly solitary, living on the forgotten, often bizarre, fringes of society. Few would notice if they were to go missing — and they certainly do, only to wake up, for example, as silkworm-woman hybrids trapped in a sinister factory. Even those seemingly destined for greatness meet similarly dark fates: ex-presidents are reincarnated as horses, wily and ambitious homesteaders are chased down by faceless monsters. In Russell’s deft and capable hands, plot lines that could easily be absurd and showy are transformed into some of the most deliberately worded and moving stories I’ve ever read.
In Geolocation, Nate Larson and Marni Shindelman waded through geo-tagged tweets, selected several, and then traveled to the original scenes of the tweets to take photos. The words are, for the most part, mundane (“Ready for my birthday then the beach. #JustSaying #Happy”), providing an interesting juxtaposition to the desolate landscapes and dilapidated buildings featured in the photographs. So much of Twitter can feel like faceless, pointless yelling into a void — this project is a reminder that (aside from those friggin’ bots) each 140-character-or-less blurb comes from a physical human being with real thoughts and emotions.
The first time I heard Valerie June’s “Somebody to Love,” I didn’t just feel a little tug on my heartstrings — it was like someone was forcibly trying to yank the damn things out. I put it on repeat for the rest of the night, then sent it to nearly everyone I know. Her robust, soulful crooning and charming Tennessee twang still get me every time I listen.
Metahaven’s Islands in the Cloud is to the excesses of our start-up-crazy culture what Andy Warhol was to the celebrity-obsessed 1980s. By designing logos for Wikileaks and Sealand as well as satirical rebranding campaigns for cloud storage, among many other projects, the Dutch graphic design duo is creating a new visual lexicon that takes on technology with equal parts glee and paranoia. In April, they had a small but powerful exhibition at New York’s MoMA PS1, where TV monitors on the floor looped nonsensical PowerPoint presentations and posters on the wall advertised Iceland as a secure data haven.
Throughout the ongoing debate over NSA surveillance, Metahaven’s Vinca Kruk and Daniel van der Velden have been pushing out a steady stream of commentary and critique, supporting Edward Snowden with homemade memes posted on their hyperactive Twitter and Tumblr accounts. Their style edges on incomprehensible noise and requires a certain level of Internet obsession to appreciate, but it’s biting in a way that no other design firm working today approaches in the prevailing web aesthetic of harmless minimalism (I know who I’d bet on in a battle of Metahaven versus Medium).
The duo’s most famous image, which became an Internet meme in its own right, is a tic-tac-toe board that spells out LOL vertically and SOS horizontally. There’s no better slogan for 2013.
For an album with such a relaxed vibe, Wakin on a Pretty Daze by Kurt Vile has some epic-length songs. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it can be dangerous — you’d think it would get a bit dull after a while. That’s not the case here, as each listen you discover something new. A previously unnoticed guitar line comes to the front, a song structure reveals itself, a weird lyric suddenly makes sense. And I never get tired of the sort of aloof, whatever-y tone of the vocals.
The album opens with the nine-and-a-half minute, almost-title-track “Wakin on a Pretty Day,” which, like much of the album, features Vile’s mellow singing and nice noodling guitar lines over a moderately paced drum beat. A circular structure and extended interludes keep things interesting. It doesn’t get any more upbeat from there. Many of the songs happen to match my walking speed when I’m on my way to work in the morning. In other words, they’re in no hurry to get anywhere.
All over this album Vile makes it clear that he won’t be rushed, that things are happening when he wants them to happen. Or you could look to his lyrics in the first song for another reason for the leisurely tempo: “To be frank, I’m fried / But I don’t mind.”
When we left Archer at the end of season three, lead super spy Sterling Archer had just returned to Earth with his fellow agents from the International Secret Intelligence Service after a harrowing two-episode storyline in which rogue astronauts were attempting to colonize Mars using secret agent Lana Kane as breeding stock. Season four, which aired in the first half of 2013, opens with Sterling behind the grill at Bob’s Burgers, a nice bit of cartoon confluence. Seems he’s had a bad case of psychogenic retrograde amnesia and must be reminded of his true identity slowly — as an alcoholic sociopathic trained killer with mother issues — or his mind will reject it completely. Though that wouldn’t be a bad thing.
Like all great secret agent serials, Archer’s plot premises are patently ridiculous, but never eye-rollingly so. The show doesn’t parody the spy thriller genre, it improves on it, with better one-liners, tighter editing and more memorably screwed up heroes and villains. Sterling is a jerk and a bully, his mother and boss Malory is, well, also a jerk and bully, and the other players all have their own flaws and fetishes. Season four allows for a bit of personal growth, but the point of the show isn’t character development, it’s belly laughs. And on that noble mission Archer succeeds like nothing else I’ve seen in a long time.
We’re living in a golden age of adult-oriented animated series, and make no mistake, Archer is less suitable for kids than almost anything else onscreen. Not just because of the offside humor and mature themes, but because young people wouldn’t understand the many allusions and recurring gags, the workplace jokes and Rush references. Season four has brought Archer to that rare place for me: a show I actually don’t want to watch because I dread getting to the end. Good thing season five is on the way.
Hilton Als’ White Girls is the only book I can remember reading this past year. I must have read others but I’ve forgotten about them now. After I finished reading White Girls I held it in my hands for an extra minute and stared at the cover. Fucking Richard Pryor, am I right? There are moments here that are so raw and immediate I involuntarily started shaking my head. What I want to say about White Girls is that it was a mess. Part essay, part memoir, part criticism, part fiction. When I bought it from Barnes & Noble, the guy had to get it from the back of the store. It had no proper place on the shelves. But proper things have gotten boring, and maybe that’s why I can’t remember reading anything else. I want to make messes too. White Girls did whatever it wanted, and that’s the highest compliment I can think to pay to a work of art.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt singing “Good Vibrations” is one of three major reasons Don Jon was my favorite movie this year. Dos: the film brought to light how dysfunctional modern culture can be, but it also offered solutions. Don Jon explored what it means to disconnect from others via vices (ie. pornography, melodramatic chick flicks, texting, and weed). However, instead of tsking at its audience for being products of a screwed-up society, the film evenly assesses each character’s vices. For example, the film wasn’t anti-porn, but it definitely forced the viewer to consider the repercussions of porn. Furthermore, Gordon-Levitt, both directing and starring in the film, didn’t make a cautionary tale, leaving the porn-crazed Jon in a ditch of despair before the credits rolled. Instead, Gordon-Levitt wrote a film about understanding our vices and learning how to balance them healthily.
All too often art shows us an all or nothing approach to self-improvement. Don Jon was a refreshing middle ground. The last reason my heart belongs to Don Jon: the marketing on this flick was uber-smart. People who make art with messages constantly worry if they will be preaching to the choir, and most of the time they are. How would Gordon-Levitt bring dudes who never want to think about their pornography activities into the theater? Oh, he’d make the trailer look like an upbeat movie semi-glorifying the carefree lifestyle and show it on porn sites and during NFL commercials.
I don’t know about you guys, but I couldn’t fight my way through a lot of the haute-bourgeois water-cooler books of the year. I quit reading The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. about the eighth time the phrase “book advance” came up (I think it was around page 60) and I got the idea about Big Food after the “Sugar” section of Salt Sugar Fat. I am not saying that these are ontologically bad books, only that I lacked the right temperament for them this year. It may change in the future, though if I’m missing something about the “Fat” section, please let me know.
Maybe culture is just slipping away from me? Should I be concerned that I felt not a single twinge of enthusiasm to read THE LOST SALINGER STORIES even though they are available for free online? That Homeland appeals to me less than watching an hour of In the Kitchen with David on QVC? That I dragged myself into theaters for exactly two movies this year — Gravity and Star Trek Into Darkness? That even though everyone fell all over themselves to point out how self-absorbed Franzen’s commentaries of Karl Kraus were, I only read them to see if anyone bothered to check whether Franzen actually did a good and accurate translation job? (I think I found one place that mentioned it.)
Guess I’m becoming a crank, or a solipsist, or both. Anyway, the best thing I discovered in the arts this year was the new cookbook from America’s Test Kitchen, The Complete America’s Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook 2001-2014 — a refreshingly comprehensive and no-frills, in the age where cookbooks are really tending towards specialized lifestyle books than useful references. On the poetry front, I also really liked “Misandrist Lullabies” on The Toast. You know how Bobby Flay always says about ancho chiles, “they’re like a spicy raisin”? Well, that’s how I’d describe these.
Start over again, male.
Jon Glaser and I have a history. Last year, in a haze of poor judgment, I went to great lengths to obtain his personal email address, to which I sent a letter written in the voice of a lemon that had been discarded by Frank Langella — long story. Needless to say, it didn’t go well. But that’s not the point. The point is, Jon Glaser is my comedy hero — the kind that makes you write fan letters from fruit — and no performance better demonstrates his genius than the Jon Glaser show I saw on September 29th, 2013.
Glaser’s stand-up sets, if you can call them that, are almost always ephemeral pranks that if they weren’t so perfectly executed, you’d swear he made up on the way. One time, he sat on a stool and talked about his raincoat for twenty minutes. Another time, he sent out a 6” sub in his place and read from a heartfelt condolence letter backstage.
This particular night, he was meant to come out to Van Halen’s “Panama,” chug a Coors Light, spit it into the air like a fountain cherub, and high five the entire audience for the rest of the song. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you look at it, the AV department couldn’t get the audio working, and instead of doing crowd work or telling old jokes, he decided to simply describe his failed plan in lavish detail until he ran out of time. Then, just as he was dejectedly leaving the stage, the audio miraculously kicked in and we got to experience an impassioned version of the grand scheme he had so vividly outlined.
It was the best September 29, 2013 of my life.
I was so bummed out when Mike Mignola stopped drawing Hellboy. He continued to write it, and many fine artists worked in his stead, but without his hand on the page, the series felt wrong. Mignola’s minimal, expressive line work created such a singular world that his absence undermined its integrity. I could no longer lose myself entirely in Hellboy’s adventures after he stopped manifesting them.
So I didn’t know whether to feel annoyed or overjoyed when he announced he would draw a new series, Hellboy in Hell. I mean, yay, new Mignola Hellboy, but seriously, we missed out on like five years of this stuff? But when the work is this good, it’s hard to stay mad for long. I’ll take what I can get.
And Hellboy in Hell does in fact show Mignola in peak form. He makes the most of the story’s supernatural setting, as he creates a bleak and twisted realm of ancient monsters and foreboding landscapes. His underworld is cold, mysterious, and often terrifying. You can feel dark secrets lurking at the bottom of every shadowy staircase.
The narrative, too, demonstrates Mignola’s mastery of the form. Pages will pass with minimal dialogue, giving the setting all the space it needs. He shies away from exposition too, instead allowing Hellboy to drift from place to place with a surreal ease. (Even Scott McCloud would be impressed with how far Mignola pushes the power of closure.) And because he establishes this world and its story with such patience, when he lets the visual and narrative fireworks fly, they really pop. Mignola executes some truly astonishing splash pages in Hellboy in Hell, and the major plot point of the first mini-series could not be more stunning, given the context. I’m still miffed that Mignola stopped drawing for a couple of years, but after reading these comics, I think I can bring myself to forgive him.
In its fifth season, Adventure Time has managed to get even weirder. And with that new strangeness is a renewed sense of imagination, one the show never lost but seems more intent on showcasing now more than ever. There was the aesthetically brilliant “A Glitch is a Glitch” episode, directed by 3D datamosh artist David O’Reilly; and more famously “Simon and Marcy,” which gave some heartfelt background on the Ice King’s relationship with young Marceline, which inspired one writer at Indiewire to declare Adventure Time “the best sci-fi show on TV right now.”
But I think the best episode of the season — and perhaps the entire series — was “The Sky Witch.” While it was a rare episode that sidelined Finn and Jake and instead gave us a story with Princess Bubblegum and Marceline, “The Sky Witch” reminded me of what Adventure Time does best: telling a story about friendship. Whereas Finn and Jake’s relationship has been more or less solidified from the get-go, Bubblegum and Marceline are two characters who are remarkably bad at being vulnerable. PB’s sense of responsibility keeps her at a distance from her friends, and Marceline is cold likely because she is a 1,000-year-old demon. The moments they reveal themselves are short but precious.
By the end of “Sky Witch,” it’s clear that friendship is less about the things we say and more about the gestures we make. Of course, I’m making this episode sound more sentimental than it really is, since the last 30 seconds of “Sky Witch” offers one of the show’s most twisted, funniest jokes ever.
In the early summer, there seemed to be three types of people: those who preferred Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors,” the first single from The 20/20 Experience “Suit and Tie,” and people who did not know how to feel any sort of joy. I’ll admit, at first I was swayed by the faux Sly and the Family Stone-esque funk of “Suit and Tie” (despite it featuring Jay Z’s laziest verse to date, until the entirety of Magna Carta Holy Grail). But as the summer months passed, it became clear that “Mirrors” was the more enduring pop song. It drips with an earnestness from its first notes (is there such thing as a sentimental guitar lick?), as it opens up into six minutes of classic, soulful Timberlake. In an era where pop music is largely fascinated with irony and aggressive hooks, the bleeding heart maturity of “Mirrors” makes everything else on the radio sound hollow and tinny. It feels both familiar and fresh, perhaps just timeless.
Spring Breakers opens on the beach, where half-naked (and in some cases naked-naked) college kids are celebrating in the best way they know how: with booze and drugs and dubstep.
This scene, which grounds the film tonally but doesn’t have a direct link to its four petite criminal protagonists, recurs several times throughout the movie. In the opening, it’s raucous and sexy, but through repetition, the moment begins to feel deliberately monotonous, then grotesque. It’s the brilliance of Harmony Korine’s movie: as the plot (eh, “plot”) escalates from petty crime to full on shootouts, the luster of spring break devolves into a hazy mess. I loved every gross moment of Spring Breakers. I admired its sense of control even while it appeared to be losing it. It’s a brilliant exercise in attraction and revulsion, a darkly comic satire unlike anything else I’ve seen in years.