It’s time once again for my list of my most memorable pop culture experiences of 2013. As you may recall from last year this is not a top pop culture list. I’m not ranking anything nor even saying these are necessarily the best pieces of pop culture from any given category. They simply are the one or two things in each category that have stuck with me the most from the past year for whatever reason. You can argue artistic merit until the cows come home on your top 10/20/whatever lists. I’ll be here writing about the things that touched me enough in some way that I want to share them with you.
Movie I Saw in a Theatre
There are still a few movies I’m hoping to see in the theatre before the end of the year if time allows, so maybe I’ll have to amend my choice here before all is said and done. This is the problem with posting these things before the year is completely over I guess. Up to this point though I was going back and forth between 20 Feet From Stardom and Before Midnight, two movies I saw this summer that I absolutely loved. Since one is a documentary and one is a film I feel like I can easily include both without violating any non-existent rules about choosing only one item for each category. 20 Feet From Stardom, which I wrote about earlier in the year, is a delightful documentary about backup singers. I really can’t recommend it highly enough especially if you are a fellow lover of music. Of course I still recommend watching it even if you don’t consider yourself a music aficionado because it is a great film in its own right.
I don’t think I anticipated the release of any movie this year as much as I did the movie Before Midnight. It’s the third in a series of films, the first two being Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. The first two films were so beautiful and lovely in letting us spend a few hours with these characters at certain points in their lives just popping in and out to see where they are and what kind of relationship if any they still have. This film had a slightly different sensibility than the first two expanding the universe of characters slightly such that we spent more time with them in a group setting as opposed to the previous films in which for the most part they were the only two characters. It felt completely perfect for where these characters would be 9 years after the end of Before Sunset. As with each previous film was happy with the time we got to spend with them and don’t necessarily feel like they need another film in 9 years, but I certainly wouldn’t be opposed to it if they decide to add a fourth movie to the series.
Movie I Watched at Home
I either didn’t watch very many movies at home this year or none of the ones I watched were very memorable as I had really hard time coming up with a single movie to list in this category. I finally remembered that I watched Pitch Perfect on the plane home from ALA Midwinter. I remember being extremely delighted by that movie and grinning a whole bunch while watching it. So even though it really is literally the only movie I can remember watching outside of a movie theatre at this point I feel strongly that it is probably also the one I would put on this list even if I could remember any other ones. I wrote a full review of the movie after watching it that you can read if you want.
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell was an easy pick for my favorite fiction book of the year. Going back through the list of books I read this year I realized I actually read a lot of really good books in 2013. I can’t always say that. I adored Fangirl though and distinctly remember literally not being able to put it down. I was reading it the same day as my annual Preakness Party and instead of getting ready for the party like I should have been I was sitting on the couch glued to this book. I know everyone is citing Eleanor and Park also by Rainbow Rowell as one of their favorite books of the year, and even though I did enjoy that as well there was something about Fangirl that I liked even more. You can read my full review here if you want.
Teaching the Cat to Sit by Michelle Theall was the non-fiction book I read this year that I loved the most. I’ve become disenchanted with memoirs in recent years, but this one was fantastic. The writing was some of the best and most engaging I’ve read in a long time. It’s not something you often find in memoirs, which if you’re lucky have halfway decent writing to along with what is hopefully a compelling story. In this case the story itself kept me interested and the writing was superb and left me unable to put the book down. I had a galley of this book, so perhaps it’s cheating a little bit to include it here since it’s actual publication date isn’t until February 25 of 2014. I did read it in 2013 though, so I’m including. Just go ahead and pre-order yourself a copy and get a nice surprise when it shows up for you in a couple months.
2013 was the year of excellent shows with the word black in the title. I was unable to choose between Orange is the New Black and Orphan Black. Of the Netflix original programming that I’ve watched, which also includes House of Cards and the new episodes of Arrested Development, Orange is the New Black is by far the best show. Based loosely on the memoir by the same name it begins with a focus on Piper, who is a well off white woman sent to prison on a drug trafficking charge from long ago in her past. The early episodes are about her adjustment to prison, but they quickly shift to focus more on the other characters in the show providing stories for them in prison as well as providing glimpses of their back stories. I flew through the 13 episodes of season 1 and am now eagerly awaiting whenever they release season 2.
Orphan Black was another delightful surprise of a television show. Its first season aired after Doctor Who in the spring. I figured it was at least worth checking out, but little did I suspect how much I would love this show. It revolves around a series of clones all played brilliantly by Tatiana Maslany. The characters have all recently figured out that they are clones and are trying to find out who created them and who is potentially trying to kill them off. The first season was excellent from start to finish. I hope that they manage to keep it up in the second season. I always worry a little with shows like this because plotlines start to get convoluted as writers continue to try and keep of suspense and play out the story. I will give them the benefit of the doubt at this point though and look forward to what will hopefully be an equally as excellent season 2.
My pick for most memorable TV episode of the year is far and away from anything that would probably ever be considered the best TV episode of the year. If I was going on artistic merit and all out brilliantness I would probably like every other person in the world choose “Ozymandius” from Breaking Bad. Unlike everyone else on the planet I didn’t really care much for that show, but even I recognize how amazing that episode was and would count it as the best of the series. However, I am not a television critic and I don’t have to judge the things I like based on artistic merit or how brilliant they were in the grand scheme of the television landscape. Instead I can choose things that I enjoyed watching, made me happy, and that I’m inclined to rewatch. Based on that criteria I’m choosing “In the Wind”, White Collar Season 4 Episode 16. This episode is still sitting on my DVR and I’ve watched it more than once. I admit of all of Neal’s love interests over the years Sara was my favorite so I love the proposal scene in this episode even though it wasn’t really for real. Or was it? At any rate this episode presumably saw the last of Hilarie Burton playing Sara Ellis, which makes me sad because I liked that character and her relationship with Neal so much. I am not sold on Rebecca his new love interest for this season. So I’ll just keep rewatching this episode and think about what could have been.
A few weeks ago I did a list of my top 10 songs of 2013. If I was forced to choose one song from the list to put here I would probably have to go with “Can’t Hold Us” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. Unlike the rest of the songs on my list “Can’t Hold Us” was the one pop song and thus the one song that got played over and over again on commercial radio not to mention the advertising and television shows it was used in. For a song to get so much play such that you can’t escape hearing it usually means even if I once liked it I eventually get so tired of hearing it I can’t stand it anymore. So far that has not happened with this song, which means it has great staying power. Because they are so ubiquitous I can more easily identify pop songs with certain years and events that were going on in my life at the time. When I hear this song down the road in future years it will be the song that reminds me of 2013 for sure.
I knew back in the summer when this album came out that Southeastern by Jason Isbell was going to be my album of the year. Many wonderful albums that I loved have come out since then, but I was right that nothing was able to unseat Southeastern as the album I loved the most this year. I have definitely listened to it more times than any other album I purchased during 2013. Isbell sings what I would probably categorize as alt-country, but musical categories get very fuzzy to me so I could be wrong. He was the lead singer of the Drive-By-Truckers for awhile and has also released some previous solo albums, but none of those are as poignant and as wonderful as this album. Many of the reviews I’ve read of this album over the year say things like Isbell has finally grown up with this album or something to that effect. This is the first album he has written since recently becoming sober and it shows. There is an openness and clarity to it that don’t exist in his previous albums. The songs are beautiful stories that make me well up when I hear them. The whole album is nothing short of a masterpiece in my view. Often even on albums I really like there is a song or two that I don’t care for that much. Not so with this album. Every song is brilliant. I would be hard pressed to choose a favorite song off it, but if I had to I would probably pick “Traveling Alone”, which includes vocals and fiddle by his now wife Amanda Shires. I got to see them play together at the Newport Folk Festival, which was lovely. I doubt she’ll be backing him in January when I see him at the 9:30 Club because she’s touring for herself right now so I’m glad I got to see them play together earlier this year. If you have yet to listen to this album I can not encourage you enough to do so now.
I included this category last year because I had a musical artist that I felt like I need to mention, but who wasn’t behind either my choice of song, album, or concert of the year. I wasn’t really sure who to include here at first, but wanted to stay consistent with the categories I included last year. After thinking about it though The Lone Bellow seemed the obvious choice. They are a Brooklyn based folk rock band that I first became aware of when the Newport Folk Festival started rolling out their lineup one by one towards the beginning of the year. They were either the first or second band announced so I immediately checked them out on Spotify and fell in love with their music. Shortly after that WXPN named them their Artist to Watch for the month just doubling up on the fact that this was a band I should be paying attention to. Then I kept hearing about them on NPR’s All Songs Considered. Soon it seemed they were being talked about in all the places I turn to for new music.
This actually leads perfectly into my next category of most memorable concert of the year. The Lone Bellow is amazing in concert. They are by far the band I saw the most live in 2013 having seen them 4 times over the course of the year. The first time was at WTMD’s First Thursdays concert, the second time they were opening for Brandi Carlile at Wolf Trap, the third time was at the Newport Folk Festival, and finally at Baltimore Soundstage.
I saw a lot of amazing live music this year and of course could easily list either Firefly or the Newport Folk Festival as my most memorable concert since they encompass lots of acts, but that feels disingenuous. Thus I limited myself to thinking about those festivals in terms of individual sets. Once I did that there was no doubt that my most memorable concert was The Lone Bellow at the Newport Folk Festival. Their set was everything I love about live music. They had the crowd completely into it. Parts of it seemed spontaneous. They were obviously extremely excited to be up on the stage. They played some fun covers as well as all of their own music that I love. I wrote a lot more about it at the time, which you can read if you want. There’s really no way to adequately describe the powerful feelings evoked by an amazing live show in words, so just know that it was the best experience I had in live music all year.
Broadway Theatre Production
I really thought that I saw more shows on Broadway than I actually did this year. Partly I guess because one of the times I normally would have seen a Broadway show we saw Sutton Foster do cabaret at Cafe Carlyle instead. Even though its a Broadway actress singing mostly show tunes in New York, I don’t think it really counts. I did love it though. Thus I was limited to choosing between First Date and Pippin. Now I know the easy choice here should be the much acclaimed production of Pippin and while I did love it I’m going to go with First Date here. I went in to that show with very low expectations. The reviews had all panned it, and even before that I wasn’t really expecting it to be anything great. I enjoyed it so very much though. It definitely isn’t high art, but it delighted me throughout. I think it got somewhat of a bum rap so I am here to defend it even though it’s closing so I’m far too late for that I guess. Besides it was great fun seeing my TV boyfriend Zachary Levi in his Broadway debut. Hopefully he’ll do more theatre in the future.
Baltimore Theatre Production
This was an easy one. In the spring of last year Centerstage produced what they called The Raisin Cycle, which were productions of Bruce Norris’ play Clybourne Park and Kwame Kwei-Armah’s Beneatha’s Place playing in repertory. The Tony Award winning Clybourne Park is a response to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. In response to both of these plays Centerstage’s artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah wrote Beneatha’s Place. Both plays were wonderful and in combination extremely poignant. PBS even did a documentary film based on the production as part of their Fall Arts Festival. Centerstage always puts on great productions, but in large part to the Raisin Cycle I thought last season was one of the strongest I’ve experienced (the only show I didn’t really care for was the one about Edgar Allen Poe).
Picking my most memorable podcast episode was easy as well. Hands down it was the return of Extra Hot Great. I loved this podcast and was super sad when they ended it when Dave and Tara moved from New York to LA. They said at the time they didn’t envision a great podcast experience if they tried to do something with Joe remotely. Fast forward a little over a year and despite what the previously said they rebooted the podcast in support of their new website Previously.tv. They added a fourth host in Sarah D. Bunting who guested frequently on the original podcast and who is one of the fellow Previously.tv editors. In addition to adding Bunting to the roster the focus of the podcast shifted slightly from covering all of pop culture, which was mostly movies and television, to strictly focusing on television as a tie in to their television based website. That was actually a welcome change to me in some respects given that I just don’t make it to see that many movies, so often in the original version of the podcast they were discussing movies I either hadn’t seen yet or was unlikely to see. I am much more of a television junkie so this shift suited me nicely. The podcast has already changed a little bit with the loss of Joe as a regular member of the podcast team. I’m happy for him in that he now has a regular day job and isn’t piecing together a living doing freelance work, but I miss his regular presence on the podcast. I still love it though, and am super happy that it’s back.
I also feel like I need to mention Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance on the Nerdist podcast as well. I don’t care that much about My Chemical Romance, but there was just something about this conversation with Gerard Way that I loved. I remember listening to it and thinking this is one of the best podcast episodes I can remember. I can’t even really pinpoint why, but I wasn’t the only one. My friend Lindsey, who also listens to the Nerdist podcast, asked me if I had heard it yet shortly after it came out because she too loved it so much.