It’s time once again for my annual round up of the pop culture that I have found the most memorable over the past year. As I point out every year this is not a best of list. I don’t necessarily think any of these things are the top in their categories. Instead this is a compilation of the things I most enjoyed this year and that meant the most to me in 2014.
This list was actually little harder than usual for me to put together this year because in many ways it felt like a very meh year in pop culture to me. Not in every category, but particularly in music and books there weren’t any real standouts to me. I definitely am not the only one who felt that way about music. I’ve heard a lot of professional music critics saying the same thing, so I feel justified in that. I’m not sure everyone else felt the same about books. Perhaps I just wasn’t reading the right things, but out out of the 125 books I read in 2014 I only rated 4 of them 5 stars on Goodreads. I felt like I had way more than usual that I gave 2 or 3 stars to. Hopefully 2015 will be a better year for me in these areas.
Movie I Saw in a Theatre
Last year in this category I talked about Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight. This year he gets another mention with his film Boyhood, which was filmed over a period of 12 years following the life of a young boy with all of the actors returning periodically to film scenes so that as the actors aged the characters did as well. It was an impressive piece of filmmaking and deserves every lovely thing that has been said about it. With a project like this it can sometimes feel like you’re supposed to love it because it’s like nothing that has ever been done before, but in this case the movie itself and the story it tells are wonderful and it’s not just the gimmick that is deserving of praise.
I would also be remiss not to mention the Veronica Mars movie in this category. I guess like Boyhood it also has some historic value as the first crowdsourced movie to be released in movie theatres. I loved the show and this movie was everything I hoped it would be. I certainly don’t think every canceled television show should have a movie made from it. In most cases I think it would only result in diminished returns, but in this case I supported it and think it really worked.
Movie I Watched at Home
I so rarely watch movies at home, I almost thought I didn’t have anything to put into this category this year. Then I remembered that we recently rented Chef with some free credits we had from Amazon from deferring 2 day shipping on our Prime account. I had heard lovely things about this movie when it was in theatres, but it just didn’t work out for us to see it at that time. I remember it being out when we were vacationing in Key West last May. There was a little theatre a couple blocks from the place we were staying that was advertising it. Had it actually been playing while we were there we probably would have gone to see it one night, but it didn’t start until the night before we left. When we were looking for something use our credit on, I remembered this movie and decided it’s what we should rent.
It’s a great little movie written by, directed by, and starring Jon Favreau. His character, as the title suggests, is a chef who falls down on his luck and loses his job. In trying to figure out what to do from there and really use his culinary skills in the way he wants to he connects with his young son who he has grown distant from since his divorce from his son’s mother. If you haven’t seen it I definitely recommend checking it out.
As I was mentioning above I didn’t really feel like a read a whole lot of books this year that I really loved. I definitely had to look through my Goodreads list to see what I actually even gave a good rating to because there wasn’t anything that was jumping to the top of my memory. I rated 3 fiction books with five stars and of those the one I feel like I should write about here is the book Someone by Alice McDermott. This was my pick for one of my book clubs this past year. I don’t think everyone enjoyed it as much as I did, but that’s okay because I thought it was beautiful. It’s a simple book that just follows Marie, an Irish-American living in Brooklyn, throughout her life. The story itself isn’t particularly compelling. There’s not much of a plot to speak of, but McDermott has such a way with words that reading the way she describes things is a great treat. There were so many wonderful little morsels in this book that I loved, so it’s the book I’m going to go with in this category.
Looking back at the non-fiction books I read over the past year listed in Goodreads there was only one that I gave five stars to, and it’s actually not the one I want to write about in this category. For the record that book was You Are the Music: How Music Reveals What It Means to Be Human by Victoria Williamson. I still think that was a great book, and as someone who loves music it really resonated with me. However the one book both fiction and non-fiction that has really stuck with me from this year is The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs. For some reason I only gave it 4 stars when I rated it, but it’s the one book I really haven’t stopped thinking about since I read it. It’s the true story of a brilliant boy who grew up in a horrible neighborhood in Newark. He was surrounded by violence and drugs, his father was in prison for murder, and yet he managed to make it out for awhile. He attended Yale and had a bright future ahead of him before he wound up pulled back into his old life in Newark. The book is written by his friend and former roommate at Yale, who unapologetically recounts Robert Peace’s life and examines the reasons that his life was cut short and why it isn’t as simple to walk away from what you know for a supposedly better life.
There is a lot of good television these days. Between what I watch on network television, cable tv, pay cable like HBO and Showtime, and then what Amazon and Netflix are now putting out I can barely keep up with what I’ve chosen to watch and I still feel like there is a ton that I’m missing. There is just no way to keep up with all of the excellent television shows that are being made these days. However, the television show that I’m most interested in right now is probably not one that is making any television critic’s best of list. Over the summer my friend Sarah convinced me that we should both start watching Arrow. It was something that I had heard good things about and did have interest in watching at some point, so it didn’t take much arm twisting. She never wound up watching it all, which I say is her loss because I plowed through the first two seasons and was anxiously awaiting the third when it started this fall. I don’t think the third season has actually been as good, but I’m still enjoying it and it’s probably currently the television show I most look forward to getting to watch every week. There’s probably a bit of a recency bias with this choice as well, but I only get to pick one show so this is the one I’m going with.
Luckily for me I also given myself the TV episode category, so I can talk about more than one tv show. Parenthood is now in it’s final season and we’re getting ready to hit the last four episodes. This show has been wildly uneven over it’s six years, but when it is firing on all cylinders it will gut you. That is why this show is the perfect fit for this category. Many storylines the show chooses concentrate on just don’t work and when you hit episodes that strongly focus on those plots it’s not great, though the love of the characters often pulls it through in those cases. However, when this show focuses on the smaller, more realistic moments it is amazing. Season 5, Episode 19 “Fraud Alert” was one of those episodes that just about killed me. It was especially heart wrenching with two stories going with the younger kids. It was the episode where kids peed in Max’s canteen on a field trip and Sydney and Victor are having a really hard time with their Julia and Joel splitting up. Both Max and Victor have very understandable breakdowns during this episode and they broke my heart. It was so good. I am really going to miss this show when it is gone. I will be sad to no longer be sharing life with the Braverman family when it ends.
As I have already mentioned there wasn’t really a whole lot that stood out to me in music this year. Honestly if I could I would like to write about Jason Isbell’s Southeastern again as that album from last year still resonates with me more than any new album I’ve listened to this year. Looking through the albums I bought this past year I want to give special mention to Nickel Creek’s A Dotted Line because I do love them, I do like this album, and I love that they got back together to put this out for the 25th anniversary of them playing together. I also thought about Jessie Ware’s Tough Love because I listened it on repeat a ton of times. However, ultimately decided to go with Ryan Adams’ self titled album. I have probably listened to it more times than any other album I bought this year, and it was one of those albums where when I was listening to it I would think this is my favorite song on this album, then the next one would come on and I would think no this is actually my favorite song from this album all the way through. This album came out three years after his last release, which is unprecedented for him. He usually turns out material crazy fast, which can sometimes show. In this case the extra time was well worth it and resulted in a fantastic album.
In some ways I want to spread the love around a little and pick a song by a different artist, but if I’m being honest with myself here I really have to go with Ryan Adams again and the song “Gimme Something Good”, which I obviously listened to a lot on the album, but was also very happy to hear every time it came on the radio and of course was very happy to hear him play live at the Newport Folk Festival this past summer.
You would think having given Ryan Adams both the song and album categories that he would be the only choice for artist, but you would be wrong. Thanks to the way I put this together I can actually pick a musical group that actually didn’t put anything out in 2014, but 2014 is the year I became aware of their existence so I get to write about them now. That honor goes to The Oh Hellos. They were one of the first artists that The Newport Folk Festival announced for their 2014 lineup. I immediately fell in love with their music. It is so joyful it makes my heart swell with happiness every time I listen to it. They have a short 4 song Christmas album that I listened to on repeat at work one day during December, and it made me so happy.
Even better than just the music itself is their stage presence. They are a large band. I think there’s something like 12 of them and they just get up there and play their hearts out. I got to see them twice this year, once at Newport and then opening for needtobreathe at the Fillmore in Silver Spring. Both times the audience was composed largely of people who had never heard of them before and both times I got to watch as they completely bowled everyone there over and made them instant fans. It’s been a few years since they’ve put out any new music and I hope that 2015 will provide some.
Obviously The Oh Hellos are at the top of my list as far as the best concerts I saw this year. I also have a special love for Jason Isbell concert at the 9:30 Club this past January with Holly Williams opening for him. They put out two of my favorite albums from 2013, so getting to see them play together at the beginning of 2014 was a real treat. Holly Williams playing “Waiting on June” was the first time I have ever been at a concert where everyone around me was in tears, which was a very special moment. My biggest regret of 2015 so far is that I won’t be seeing Jason Isbell when he comes back to DC to play the Lincoln Theatre in a few weeks. I don’t know anyone who wanted to go with me, so I didn’t buy tickets but then once they sold out I really regretted not getting any.
The concert I’m actually going with here though is Mavis Staples at 2014’s Newport Folk Festival. This year’s festival was a celebration of her 75th birthday. She was obviously the closing headliner, but she also popped up throughout the weekend to sing songs with during other artist’s sets. It was so awesome to hear her singing with so many other great musicians. Her set was amazing. It was so great to be able to see a musical legend like Mavis Staples sing live and because of the venue to be able to have so many other artists I love join her on stage to sing with and celebrate her.
Broadway Theatre Production
Of the four Broadway shows I saw this year it’s really hard to choose which one I should write about here. I loved seeing Sutton Foster live again in the beautiful show Violet. Seeing Neil Patrick Harris as Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch was an amazing experience. Aladdin was everything I had hoped it would be and more. Ultimately though I’m going with Cabaret starring Emma Stone and Alan Cumming. I have always loved Cabaret. I love the show itself and the music. Finally getting to see Alan Cumming as the Emcee after all these years was fantastic, and I really thought Emma Stone was great as Sally Bowles. I’m very happy I got to see her in her Broadway debut.
Baltimore Theatre Production
This year I’m going to go with one of the touring Broadway shows at the Hippodrome for my choice of most memorable Baltimore Theatre Production. I’m picking Sister Act because I really enjoyed the show a lot, but more so because it surpassed my expectations exponentially. I was not really looking forward to the show very much and figured it was going to be yet another awful musical stage adaptation of a movie. I was kind of blown away by how much I liked it. It was a lot of fun, and was probably my favorite show of our season last year. I definitely wasn’t expecting that at all.
I often wind up picking one of the Nerdist podcast episodes for this category because of the podcasts I listen to it is the only one that features guests in almost every episode making it very easy to remember them. The other podcasts I listen to are just the hosts talking about things, so it is often hard for me to distinguish one episode from another at the end of the year. This year though I specifically remember the Extra Hot Great episode that Alan Sepinwall guest hosted on. With Joe Reid leaving as one of the regular podcast hosts at the end of 2013, they decided to continue with 4 hosts every week but with the fourth chair being filled by a guest host every week. Alan Sepinwall is my favorite television writer. We agree on a lot of, though not all, television shows. If I’m watching a new show you can usually bet it’s because Alan told me to. If I’m wondering if I should try out a new show that’s coming on he is the first person I turn to in order to find out. Thus I was very excited to see that he was going to be appearing on one of my favorite podcasts. As expected his episode was a lot of fun. In one of their segments they talked about The Knick, which I never watched, but was amused by Alan’s constant rubbing in that he had received more screeners than Tara, Sarah, and Dave had. The Game Time was one of the television theme song ones, and I remember laughing out loud at the gym while listening to them have so much fun playing it. It was an excellently fun episode. I demand more episodes with Alan Sepinwall!