The best of 2013: An un-list

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Was it something we said?

What the world needs now is not another best-of-the-year list. You’re sick of them, I’m sick of them and for all the agonizing shuffling and re-shuffling that goes into them, they have the shelf life of tinsel. So how about we just have a conversation instead? Here are a few thoughts — THIS IS NOT A LIST — about some music and TV that I liked this year. It would be really great if you used the comments section to tell me about something you liked (or hated). OK?

MUSIC

Lorde, Pure Heroine.  The nearly a cappella breakout hit “Royals,” a defiant shrug of the shoulders to  pop’s materialistic excess, is only the beginning. Ella Yelich-O’Connor’s confident debut album is bubbling over with smart, mature coming-of-age lyrics and beat-heavy pop;  this New Zealand teenager has her head on straight and ambitions that go beyond boyfriends and partying. “I’m little but I’m coming for the crown”, she sings in “Still Sane,” and you best believe she means business. Read my “Royals” post here.

Daft Punk (ft. Pharrell Williams), “Get Lucky”.  Sheer bliss. Chic-meets-Earth, Wind & Fire-meets-Michael Jackson in the song of the year. Plus, vocoders! Disco lives, part one.

Franz Ferdinand, Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action. Disco lives, part two. Radiant Euro-dance art-rock from a band that isn’t as appreciated in the U.S. as they deserve to be. I have more to say in this review.

Arcade Fire, Reflektor. Disco lives, part three. I’m not sure why Arcade Fire is getting so much shit lately. A Washington Post critic wrote a particularly nasty takedown, calling them “gigantic dorks with boring sex lives.” Whatever. I have an unprovable theory that the Arcade Fire backlash has something to do with the fact that baby-voiced, heavily accented Regine sounds a lot like Yoko Ono, subliminally freaking out Yoko haters. Anyway, Reflektor could well be Arcade Fire’s Sandinista!:  a big, electronic, multi-genre sprawl that was also dissed by a lot of people when it was released. Those same people will now tell you that they always thought Sandinista! was genius, GENIUS, even the dub side. They are liars. As for Reflektor, the undulating, David Bowie-sprinkled title track is as shiny and sharp as a disco-ball, and the double disc has dance pleasures to spare. I concede that Win Butler’s whiny misfit lyrics are played out, his Michael Stipe eye mask is unfortunate and the videos with the giant paper-mache heads are a wee bit theater-major for my taste. But when I hit replay on Reflektor and let the percolating rhythms, plush melodies and unapologetically resplendent arrangements carry me away, I don’t really care about a few minor affectations.

HAIM, “The Wire”. It took me a while, but I finally stopped hearing an angry Wilson Phillips singing the Eagles’ “Heartache Tonight” and just succumbed to the pop perfection of this ka-chunky ear worm. I still have no idea what they’re saying, but that doesn’t stop me from ka-chunking along.

Richard Thompson, Electric. The most British of British folk-rockers goes to Nashville and makes the most country of country albums. This is what “roots music” is all about. Review here.

Elvis Costello and The Roots, “Walk Us Uptown”. I have yet to warm up to the dense, almost impenetrable, Wise Up Ghost as a whole. But the sinister, bass-heavy single cuts through everything else like a jackhammer on concrete. Angry ska-infused funk with lyrics that Costello hefts like grenades, “Walk Us Uptown” hits me as being about Trayvon Martin and the lethal American blend of racism and guns. In a handful of promo concerts for the album, Costello and The Roots smartly resurrected the Specials’ chilling “Ghost Town,” which seems like a twin to “Walk Us Uptown” in its urban-apocalyptic intensity.

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, “Thrift Shop”. Yes, I know the hit-laden The Heist came out in October of 2012. Yes, I know that all the cool kids were already hip to it way before the rest of us discovered it via Spotify, You Tube and iTunes and made 2013 the year of Macklemore. Yes, I know that by admitting that I love Macklemore in general and “Thrift Shop” in particular is admitting that I am a middle-aged white person. But you know what?  I don’t care, because this song is fucking awesome. See what I did there?

WORST SONG OF THE YEAR (AND POSSIBLY EVER)

Robin Thicke, “Blurred Lines”. Live from Planet Douchebag comes this date-rapey anthem, sure to turn up soon on the soundtrack to the Fifty Shades of Grey movie. Smirky Thicke and co-conspirators Pharrell and T.I. lift grooves from Marvin Gaye and Prince, yet their skin-crawly lyrics (a lot of “I know you want it” and T.I.’s lovely “I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two”) completely miss Gaye’s suavity and Prince’s playfulness. The video, in which the trio leer at the derrieres of barely-clad, infantilized models, is exactly as creepy, humorless and flat-out misogynistic as you’d expect. And Thicke looks stupid in those striped skinny jeans, so there.

TV

Orphan Black (BBCAmerica). This Canadian import, a sci-fi thriller with heart and humor, gives me the old Buffy tingle. Cockney punk Sarah Manning finds out she’s the result of a mysterious cloning procedure and sets out, with the help of her ragtag family of sister-clones and gay best friend, to find out who made her and for what purpose. Tatiana Maslany is remarkable as Sarah and her half-dozen clones, who each have distinct personalities and upbringings. You will forget that you’re watching one actress refracted, interacting with herself.

The Americans (FX). Fabulously faithful 1980’s atmosphere in this thriller about Cold War Soviet spies posing as an average American suburban husband and wife. Sweetheart-faced Keri Russell is having the time of her life playing the icy, ruthless Elizabeth.

Mad Men (AMC). I am not over this show. I will never be over this show.

“The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders” (Saturday Night Live). A full complement of Wes Anderson quirks, tropes and character-types turn up in this hilarious, perfectly shot- and art-directed parody of a trailer for a non-existent Anderson horror movie. Edward Norton does an eerily perfect Owen Wilson as a genial dad beset by knife-wielding murderers in matching track suits. Extra points for the whimsically eclectic Anderson-ready soundtrack music. Extra-extra points for the divine Kate McKinnon’s Tilda Swinton cameo.

Top of the Lake (Sundance). Jane Campion’s miniseries about a New Zealand police detective with a traumatic past starred a ridiculously well-cast Elisabeth Moss and was as visually lush and sensual as Campion’s The Piano. And the story flowed with familiar Campion cross-currents: female sexual power and independence up against bottled male rage and explosive violence. A strange, haunting trip.

The Bridge (FX). I almost gave up on this murder mystery after a couple of episodes, thanks to the tragically miscast Diane Kruger as a Texas cop with Asperger’s syndrome. But the soft-spoken machismo of co-star Demian Bichir as her conflicted Mexican police counterpart kept me coming back. I also liked the secondary storyline involving Annabeth Gish’s badass cocktail hostess turned society heiress/drug runner. The twists were genuinely surprising and Bichir’s emotional unraveling was heartbreaking. I’m not sure the show can sustain a second season, but I’m curious to see where it goes.

Getting On (HBO). A late entry but becoming a favorite. Big Love creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer adapted this half-hour comedy from a British sitcom about the staff of a geriatric care ward. The tone is dark, the actors are filmed with no makeup under realistic hospital lighting and, somehow, it manages to not be a complete downer. Laurie Metcalf is amazing as paranoid, tightly-wound administrator Dr. Jenna James;  unable to connect on a human level with patients or subordinates, she’s obsessed with collecting fecal samples for a study she’s convinced will bring her the prestige she’s been denied. When she laughs, she bares her teeth like a trapped feral animal. The counterweight to this clearly unhinged authority figure is Niecy Nash’s tired but empathetic Nurse Didi, trying to bring some dignity to elderly patients at the end of sanity and life. Getting On mines the same territory as Ricky Gervais’s sweetly earnest Netflix comedy Derek, but without the slapstick interludes.

Key & Peele (Comedy Central). For the Obamas’ his-and-hers anger translators, for the return of the Substitute Teacher, for the East/West College Bowl II, for the intergalactic-funk band, but most of all, for this:

WORST PLOT DEVELOPMENT OF THE YEAR

Downton Abbey. Matthew goes for a drive. I know some people would vote for the Red Wedding from Game of Thrones, but GOT was being faithful to the book. Downton Abbey, on the other hand, was just screwing with us. We are not amused.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2013

3 thoughts on “The best of 2013: An un-list

  1. Anne Haines (@annehaines) December 10, 2013 / 10:38 am

    I’ve been hearing a lot of Lorde backlash lately, and I will admit I avoided “Royals” for ages assuming it was just another teeny-bopper-bubble-gum-smash-hit that I would hate. Then I heard it and despite myself fell head over heels. LOVE her voice, love the arrangement. The album has become my go-to workday soundtrack for this month. If I believed in “guilty pleasures” Pure Heroine would be mine, but I refuse to feel guilty for liking what I like! Glad to see it on your list.

    Fully agreed on that horrible Robin Thicke piece of junk, too. Ugh ugh ugh.

    • Joyce Millman December 10, 2013 / 11:08 am

      I’m so glad you discovered “Pure Heroine”! Not a guilty pleasure at all, and I agree with you about that. You know what? The older I get, the less I give a fig about backlashes and biases against big pop hits. I’ve gotten so much pleasure out of Lorde, Daft Punk, Macklemore etc. this year. Screw the labels, listen to what makes your heart sing, I say!

  2. milomiles December 10, 2013 / 3:20 pm

    Awright, I’m properly chastised — I have GOT to start watching “Orphan Black”. I love the Philip K. Dick theme of “protagonist who discovers he/she is not a regular human being,” and this is about as audacious a casting of it as you could imagine. Technology now in place to make it seamless, too.

    To the On Demand!

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