My year in pop culture

We’ll always have the music.
And movies. And TV shows. And podcasts.
I didn’t love 2013, but at least we had good entertainment and art.
Here’s my favorite stuff from this year – and actually, from the last few years, because yes, I’m gonna cheat.
I don’t know that this is a “Best of” list.
This is just the stuff I enjoyed this year. These albums, shows, movies and podcasts made me feel feelings or distracted me from feelings I didn’t want to feel. And isn’t that what art and entertainment are supposed to do?

(ps. I included links to either videos or websites – beware saucy language on a few of these – so feel free to investigate what sounds interesting to you)

MUSIC

ElectricLady_610x0“The Electric Lady,” Janelle Monae – Y’all.  Y’allllll.
Janelle Monae is perfection. Her soaring voice is so beautiful and her swag is unstoppable, and “The Electric Lady” is a force.
She duets with Prince on the flawless “Givin Em What They Love. “They want me locked up in the system/Cause I’m on a mission/Blame it on my youth… I ain’t never been afraid to die, look a man in the eye,” she sings.
If your hips need an excuse to move, listen to the flawless “Q.U.E.E.N.” or the fabulous “Dance Apocalyptic.”
“Primetime,” her duet with Miguel, is a gorgeous, sexy slow jam that’s become one of my favorite songs released this year.
This is one of the best albums released this year. This woman will change the world – wait and see.

“Pushin’ Against a Stone,” Valerie June – Another woman with an incredible voice is Valerie June. Her website says she creates “organic moonshine roots music,” and that’s exactly it. She blends blues and country with ease.
She lays out the truth from the first track, “Working Woman Blues”: “I ain’t fit to be no mother/I ain’t fit to be no wife/I’ve been working like a man, y’all/I’ve been working all my life.”
Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach puts a shine to her rusty sound on excellent tracks like the title song and “You Can’t Be Told,” but she also shines on more stripped-down songs like “Somebody to Love” and “Twined & Twisted.”
From start to finish, “Pushin’ Against a Stone” is one of the sturdiest albums out this year. And, p.s., she’s from Memphis.

“Beyonce,” Beyonce – Heyyyyyyy, Mrs. Carter.
Beyonce didn’t just drop an album; she dropped an experience.
Where were you when you heard Beyonce had released a new, secret album?
Not only was the album secret, but it’s probably the best album she’s ever made, start to finish. She’s painfully honest on the opening track, “Pretty Hurts,” turns flirty and dirty on “Blow,” and stands up for women everywhere with “Flawless.” “Partition” is a dirty, dirty song, but it’s also one of the best songs released this year. My favorite song on the album changes by the day; right now it’s “XO.”
Bow down before the queen.

“Days Are Gone,” Haim – This was definitely the year I read way fewer music blogs and reviews than I used to. I didn’t worry so much with what was critically acclaimed; I just followed my ears. But I’ve seen enough “Best of 2013” lists to know this album made a lot of those lists, even if there are a lot of, um, controversies or something about this album. Don’t ask me. All I know much about this band or this album is that it makes my ears totally happy. The Haim sisters have created a sleek rock-pop album. I love the toe-tappy “The Wire” (if you like The Eagles’ “Heartache Tonight,” you’ll adore “The Wire”), the dramatic “My Song 5” and the truthful “Don’t Save Me.” “Days Are Gone” is a super catchy album, and I’ve listened to it non-stop for weeks now.

“Devotion,” Jessie Ware – I’m waiting for the inevitable Jessie-Ware-is-everywhere culture. It’s easy to say she’s kind of like Adele – she’s British, has an incredible voice and sings incredibly soulful, beautiful pop songs. Her music’s a bit more R&B flavored than Adele’s, and definitely more dramatic.
Still, “Wildest Moments” is one of the most stunning songs I’ve heard. I love “Running” and “Night Light,” too.

“Lizzobangers,” Lizzo – I don’t believe it’s possible for there to be “another” Missy Elliott, but Lizzo’s definitely taken notes during Missy’s excellent career. Her debut record hits hard from the first track, “Lizzie Borden,” and never lets up for all 13 tracks.
Sophia Eris steals the spotlight for a fantastic feature in the super-catchy “Batches & Cookies,” but otherwise, Lizzo shines. What a great debut.

“Southeastern” – Jason Isbell – If you really want to tick me off (like a lot of music writers have done this year), you say Jason Isbell’s previous albums can’t begin to compare to “Southeastern.”
I adore this album, but then again, I’ve absolutely loved all of his albums. I think it’s impossible for him to make a bad one. And so I find that “Southeastern” is a gem.
“Elephant” will break your heart, and “Super 8” is fun. “Stockholm” and “Traveling Alone” are beautiful.
But it’s “Live Oak” where he really shows off. His voice sounds better than ever, and the story he tells is chilling. He’s a master storyteller.
“Southeastern” proves Isbell is only getting better and better.

“Wyoming,” Water Liars – It’s not like I doubted this band; I just couldn’t imagine anything better.
I adored the Water Valley-based duo’s first album, “Phantom Limb,” and wasn’t sure they could top it. The band’s follow-up, “Wyoming,” exceeds it.
The band creates gorgeous melodies and even more beautiful harmonies. I love the heartbreaking title track, as well as “Backbone,” “You Work Days I Work Nights” and “Bird of Song.” Some songs are rocking toe-tappers, while others make you feel like swaying like a weeping willow in a warm summer breeze. What a magical band.

“The Hurry and The Harm,” City and Colour – Dallas Green, aka City and Colour, cannot disappoint.
He’s filled out his singer-songwriter sound with each album. “The Hurry and The Harm” is lush and warm compared to his more simple debut record. Whether it’s just Green and his guitar or Green, his guitar and an orchestra, he sounds amazing, and his emotions shine through.
I especially love “Two Coins,” “The Lonely Life” and “Death’s Song.”

“Like I Used To,” Lucy Rose – I actually saw this British songstress when she opened for City and Colour in Nashville in October.
She has a gorgeous voice, but her band is what makes her music stand out. Each song takes its own little journeys apart from the lyrics. Just when you think a song is going a certain way, it turns a corner. She makes beautiful confessional songs, too.
Listen for “Lines,” “Red Face,” “Middle of the Road,” “Bikes” and “Shiver.”

“Annie Up,” Pistol Annies – I don’t need any other country album made this year except this one. There isn’t an album as emotional, funny or true-to-life as this one.
One of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard is “Trading One Heartbreak for Another” – it’s “I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry” level of pure sadness.
The trio calls life’s dramas for exactly what they are on tracks like “Blues, You’re a Buzzkill” and “Unhappily Married” (which starts with one of the best opening lines of all time: “You must be mistaking me for the maid we don’t have”).
“I Feel a Sin Comin’ On,” “Damn Thing” and “Hush Hush” are so much fun.
The women make a “There’s a Tear in My Beer”-style lament with “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty.” You could say it’s funny, but any woman can relate to the lyrics: “I fought it off for a while, but I went out of style again…The red on my nails keeps chippin’ off/The pink on my lips just adds to the flaws/I ain’t good at fake lashes/Every time I wear high heels I fall.”
Amen, ladies.

“Can’t Talk Medicine,” Pickwick – For a kinda nerdy-looking band, they’re awfully soulful.
Pickwick’s debut blends garage rock with R&B grooves, making for one seriously hip-shaking album. Lead singer Galen Disston’s voice is one of the best I’ve heard lately. (here’s the video for “Lady Luck”)

“Conventional Weapons” set, My Chemical Romance – I’m probably cheating here, because I’m slightly sure I mentioned this at last year’s list. Whatever. This was the album the band made in-between “The Black Parade” and what would be its final record, “Danger Days.” Instead, the band released “Conventional Weapons” as a singles series that spanned late 12-early 13. I’m unapologetic about this, but MCR is my favorite band, so I love this set.
There are a few songs I don’t just absolutely love (I find “The Light Behind Your Eyes” a little paint-by-number), but the remaining album makes up for it. It’s some of the most exciting and thrilling music the band’s ever made, and it makes MCR’s break-up that much more of a tragedy. “Kiss the Ring” is the best rock song released in YEARS; it makes me want to wear a cape and kick bad-guy butt. A cool thing is that, because these were the early songs for “Danger Days,” you can hear some of the lyrics and themes in this set, too – like “everybody wants to change the world/but no one wants to die” in “Make Room!!!!” which shows up later in “Danger Days.”
Celebrate one of rock’s best bands with this exciting set. It’s fantastic.

“Burials,” AFI – If your life is lacking in drama, that’s OK – AFI has plenty of it to go around.
No matter the emotion, AFI turns it up to 11, and they sound wonderful doing it. Davey Havok’s voice has never sounded better. “I Hope You Suffer” is a a devastating send off to someone who’s destroyed your life. I love the super-sexy “The Conductor.” “17 Crimes” reminds me of teen movies, and I love the opening line: “If you had a day/would you give me a moment?” And the melodramatic “Heart Stops” is definitely a favorite.

“Matangi,” MIA – MIA’s first few albums changed how I heard music. I’m not sure that this album holds up as much, but it’s still fantastic. “Bad Girls” is one of the rapper’s most accessible and catchiest songs – try not to chant “Live fast, die young/Bad girls do it well” after you hear it.
“YALA” lights up the album, totally killing the ridiculous “YOLO.”
“Come Walk With Me” is a sweet love song, a fun surprise on the album that has a cool retro sound.
I love the dizzying title track – MIA can still transport you all over the world in just five minutes.
Like with all of MIA’s albums, there are a billion sounds, and they’re all interesting.

“The Night is Good Phoenix Brother,” The Amber – We didn’t get a ton of locally-made albums, but that’s OK, because The Amber’s album is just about all you need.
This Tupelo-based husband-and-wife team have fun playing with various genres, from garage rock to punk to blues.
Their tunes are super-catchy, too. A favorite is “My God We’re Gonna Die,” – if you don’t start singing along about half-way through, your soul is broken.

Check out these albums/songs, too:
“I’m Out” and “Livin’ It Up,” Ciara f/ Nicki Minaj
“LONG.LIVE.A$AP,” A$AP Rocky
“Fade Away,” Best Coast
“A Constant Sea,” Heliotropes
“Lady, You Shot Me,” Har Mar Superstar
“Oh Come On,” The Julie Ruin
“All You’re Waiting For,” Classixx
“Closer,” Tegan and Sara

BOOKS

“The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow,” Rita Leganski – Hands down, one of the most magical stories I’ve ever read. It’s about a young mute boy who can hear everything, from his dead father’s whispers to colors to flowers growing in the ground. There’s voodoo and family secrets, love and grief, heartache and joy. It’s now one of my favorite books of all time.

“NOS4A2,” Joe Hill – I’m a huge, huge Joe Hill fan; I’ve never read a bad thing he’s ever written. His villain, Charlie Manx, is especially scary: he’s a serial killer who takes kids to his “Christmasland,” where kids are changed forever. He tried to take our heroine Vic there when she was a kid, but she escaped, and she spends the rest of her life battling Manx as he tries to bring her, and her son, down. Hill can do no wrong, and this is a truly scary, and entertaining, read.

“Banjo’s Dream,” Marshall Ramsey – Banjo’s everything – a weatherperson, a quarterback, a violinist, a baker, an investigator. Mississippi cartoonist and storyteller Marshall Ramsey’s A-Z book featuring his late, beloved pup Banjo is a sweet, funny and educational salute to man’s best friend.

MOVIES

“Thor: The Dark World” – I’m biased: Thor is my favorite Avenger. I loved the first “Thor” film and I loved the follow-up. Asgard looked as stunning as it did in the first film (and it was still pretty even as the Dark Elves wreaked havoc on it). I love Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, and of course, Tom Hiddleston is perfect as the mischievous Loki. I adore Heimdall (and Idris Elba), so I was happy to see his character join in the fight for Asgard. I heard a lot of folks complain about Kat Dennings’ Darcy, but I actually found her less annoying in this one than in the first. This movie was super-fun escapism, and it’s probably my favorite movie I saw this year. And please, folks – every time I saw it, everyone left the theater before even the first egg (there were two in this one). If you’re seeing a Marvel movie, stay all the way to the end. Seriously. Not kidding. It’s worth your time.

“You’re Next” – I see just about any horror movie that comes to the big screen, but I almost decided against this one. I lean more toward the supernatural, and “You’re Next” looked like a typical home invasion/cat-and-mouse movie. I’m so glad I gave it a shot, because yeah, that’s the basic premise, but it’s so much more than that. It’s scary and funny (sometimes, maybe a bit unintentionally, but that’s life, right?). A superb heroine makes it all worthwhile.

“Pacific Rim” – It’s giant robots battling aliens.
Do I really have to say more?
OK, fine – there’s also an awesome woman who kicks so much kaiju butt, and there’s Idris Elba.
If you need more reasons than those to watch this fun movie, just go watch something else.

TV

130917094129-sleepy-hollow-fox-2013-cast-story-top“Sleepy Hollow” – Meet my latest obsession. I’m a sucker for anything with history (even if it’s not the most incredibly accurate) and the supernatural, so I love, love, love this show. I was hooked from the first episode I watched, which was actually the third one, about the mythical Sandman. I won’t even lie, that one episode of TV scared me more than any horror movie I’ve seen in years. The diverse and talented cast are wonderful. The writing is smart and funny. I can’t wait to see how it continues to take conventional horror and turn it on its, um, head.

PODCASTS
OK, neither of these podcasts actually started this year, but this was the year that I discovered them, so…

“Welcome to Night Vale” – Think NPR meets “Twilight Zone.”
This twice-a-month show, almost never more than 30 minutes or so long, provides news updates from the fictional town of Night Vale. The town’s news may include updates from the Sheriff’s Secret Police, the glow cloud (now a member of the school board), the Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home (who’s now running for mayor against Hiriam McDaniel, a 5-headed dragon) or warnings to stay away from librarians, the dog park or wheat and wheat by-products. It’s funny, smart and scary, and sometimes eerily truthful. Listen from the beginning, and be sure to listen all the way til the end of each episode for a proverb.

“Stuff You Missed in History Class” – I love history, but I also love weird and/or little-known info, too. This is where this podcast comes into play. This podcast is from the site HowStuffWorks.com, and it’s about cool stories from history you may have never heard about in class. For example, recent episodes focused on the Axman of New Orleans (inspired by an episode of “American Horror Story”), Elsa Lanchester, who starred as the Bride of Frankenstein (her life was incredibly fascinating); the history of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion; and the Hessians (inspired by “Sleepy Hollow”).
It’s also fun to go back and listen to older episodes (with different but still great hosts) and find episodes on topics I’m interested in. The show covers history from all over the world, and all topics, and it’s always interesting. This show is a few years old, so you have hundreds of episodes to catch up on, as I’m doing now.

 

Alright, what about you? What were your favorite books, movies, music or anything else from 2013?