What’s the best non-2014 pop culture you discovered this year?
Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Connelly, Kristen Bell, Logan Lerman, Lily Collins, Nat Wolff, Liana Liberato, and Stephen fucking King!? How was I just seeing Stuck In Love, the 2012 directorial debut of Josh Boone (The Fault In Our Stars), this year? According to Jesse Hassenger, I should be slightly embarrassed by my soft spot for the film, but nonetheless, he gave me his press copy of the DVD just in case Netflix ever stops streaming it. Truth be told, besides the amazing casting, Stuck In Love isn’t necessarily groundbreaking, but I liked it well enough that I’ve watched each character struggle through their individual relationships more than a dozen times. It’s the sort of film I can’t blame a critic for snubbing, what with the the woe-is-me writers that run rampant throughout, or the somewhat clichéd love stories, but on that first watch in February I fell for it hard. Because, if you’re honest with yourself, you’ve probably been there—your first poem-inspiring crush in high school; the first time you fell in love during late-night car rides to the soundtrack of sappy songs you’ll never forget; the first sting of heartbreak; and if you’re lucky, a lasting resolution. Take a break from cynicism this holiday season and enjoy it.
If you were to render my record collection as geological strata, the largest, bedrock layer would probably consist of CD-Rs containing early post-punk and synth-pop bands from about 1979 to 1985. So it’s always a surprise when digging into that strip-mined lode yields new finds like Severed Heads, an Australian group whose early efforts Since The Accident and City Slab Horror were just reissued this year. (In the interest of full disclosure, they were put out by a friend of mine who was personally responsible for giving me a lot of those CD-Rs in the first place, and who’s since graduated to doing that for the masses through his label Medical Records.) Proto-industrial drum machines, manipulated tape loops, Kraftwerkian synth lines, and coldly romantic new wave vocal hooks combine for a sound that should pique the interest of anyone who likes the more mellow side of Cabaret Voltaire, the more experimental side of Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, or any side of groups like Fad Gadget and Chris & Cosey, and who similarly still can’t get enough of those sounds.
I had never heard of Jacques Tati before copy-editing the DVD review of the Complete Jacques Tati; mark it down as one of many reasons I’m thankful I work here, because he’s my new favorite filmmaker. My humor preferences tend toward visual gags and physical puns, so watching Tati’s collection for the first time in 2014 made me both thankful I had discovered them and just as upset it’s taken me so long. I especially appreciate seeing many of my favorites alluded to in Tati’s films, reminding myself that, actually, Tati came before the likes of Brazil, Pink Panther, Top Secret, Monty Python, and Wes Anderson’s style of characters moving through set-piece environments. The type of slapstick I hold dear seems to mostly stem from him. He’s a master, too. There’s nothing that compares to the first half of Playtime, with Tati’s Monsieur Hulot trying, and mostly failing, to navigate an ultra-modern office, sitting in weird chairs, examining impossibly minimalist floor plans, and losing the man he’s supposed to be meeting with as they dance around each other through cubicles, walls of glass, and endless hallways. Hulot is a protagonist who’s anything but a hero; all he does is clumsily navigate his ridiculous, surreal surroundings. Yet his unadventurous misadventures make him a brilliant everyman, especially as the rest of the world’s inhabitants appear unfazed by their horribly bureaucratic or confusing environments. For being a half-century old and mostly lacking in plots, Tati’s work is a fantastic addition to 2014.
Mine isn’t so much a specific movie or album as it is a TV channel I never knew existed. Floating around Canadian broadcasting in various forms since 2001, Cottage Life is an entire channel dedicated to vacation homes, cabins, and cottages. Packed with shows about how to fix decks, build gazebos, and find weekend homes in exceptionally rural parts of Alaska, Cottage Life is niche programming at its most Canadian. I stumbled on the channel while on a trip to Nova Scotia and spent the next five days absolutely entranced with shows like Dining Innvasion, about a foodie pair that revamps country inn dining rooms, and Selling Big, which follows the Ritchie Bros. auction company as it sells off farm equipment and large machinery. Ninety-nine percent of what’s on Cottage Life has absolutely no bearing on my actual life, but it’s aspirational in a way. I’m interested in what lots of cattle go for at auctions, just because I am. I’d like to know how to shore up a deck’s crib so it doesn’t float away into some icy Canadian lake, because why wouldn’t I want to know how to do that? Cottage Life sheds light on all that stuff, and more. My only regret is that I don’t actually live in Canada, so I can’t ever watch it. Now I’ll never get that gazebo built.
It’s hard to be a casual fan of hard bop jazz given the sheer volume of material there is to sift through. Producing a record was almost too easy during Blue Note Records’ heyday; a horn player would enlist a few guys to round out a band, they would convene for a day or two to record, and bam, the discography is one line longer. Because those players were so prolific, it can be incredibly daunting to dive into their catalogs, but not a year goes by when I don’t discover a new gem if I put in the effort. This year, I delved into Wayne Shorter’s body of work and discovered “House Of Jade” from 1964’s JuJu, which has officially dethroned “Night Dreamer” as my favorite Shorter composition. Night Dreamer, also released in 1964 roughly three months before JuJu, is among Shorter’s most treasured albums, so JuJu doesn’t get the attention it should. That’s a shame, because “House Of Jade” might be the most beautiful melody he’s ever written, and combining it with a cocktail and a bubble bath yields an out-of-body experience. Yes, I take drunken jazz baths. I deserve happiness.
I had been aware of the existence of Bob’s Burgers since the show began, mostly because of the significant overlap between the show’s voice talent and my knowledge of the hippest underground comedians from five years ago. But I never bothered to watch it (Family Guy and its spin-offs really put me off of Fox’s animation lineup) until this fall, when a friend of mine introduced me to the joy of Bob’s Burgers. Catching up on Netflix, I fell for the Belcher family, which is easy because the show does such a good job of combining the surreal and the relatable with characters that are weird and hilariously perverse and really love each other in a heartwarming, non-schmaltzy kind of way. I even took a “Which Bob’s Burgers Character Are You?” quiz on the Internet, then took it over and over again until I got Tina Belcher, because she’s the best. Keep those Tina memes coming, please, if only for latecomers like me.
This year, Shout! Factory’s DVD releases of Newhart finally got around to the seasons of the show that actually work, years in which the comedy widens its focus to capture the action in and around Dick and Joanna Loudon’s country inn. Like Bob Newhart’s first eponymous sitcom, Newhart doesn’t really cook until there’s a full cast of kooks for the comedian to react to; unlike The Bob Newhart Show, seasons three and four of Newhart manage this task through a sense of community as well as character. There are episodes within Newhart’s third and fourth season where the show’s unnamed Vermont setting matches Springfield, Stars Hollow, or Pawnee in terms of small-town high jinks, as the Loudons and friends are sucked into big-fish/small-pond political struggles or butt heads with a local fraternal organization. (Not coincidentally, many of season four’s best scripts are by future Simpsons showrunner David Mirkin.) It started too shaky and ran too long to become the revered classic that The Bob Newhart Show is, but for a few years in the mid-’80s, Newhart managed to be one of TV’s most entertainingly weird destinations—and I was all too happy to travel there in 2014.
Fantastic, finally a chance to talk about my least-critically relevant obsession of 2014: the 2010-2013 animated TV series Young Justice. (Season one is streaming on Netflix.) I never got hooked into DC Universe animation post Batman: The Animated Series. As much as I love that series’ dark deco/German expressionist look and tight storytelling, there’s been so much Justice League and Batman Beyond and Teen Titans and The Brave And The Bold since then that I gave up on keeping up. But Young Justice has hooked me in where the others failed, partly because the new spins on familiar old characters are so carefully considered—particularly the relationship between Superboy and Superman—and partly because it’s so dedicated to long-arc storytelling and character development, with a sideline in surprise appearances from a deep, deep well of DC Universe back-benchers. There’s enough personal and interpersonal drama to help give the series flavor, but what really keeps me coming back is how creative the series’ team is about integrating these particular heroes’ powers, strengths, and weaknesses into fights with seriously high stakes. It reminds me just a little of what I loved about Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender: the sense that every villain throw-down was a new chance for everyone to evolve their powers and their creativity in using them, rather than pulling the same canned moves over and over again.
You guys, have you heard about this show Mad Men? I haven’t read much about it, but apparently it’s been on the air since 2007, and will be wrapping up its under-the-radar run in 2015. I started catching up this year on Netflix, and I’m currently at the beginning of the fourth season, which aired in 2010. Why didn’t anyone ever tell me how good it was and insist that I absolutely had to watch it? It must not be especially popular or critically beloved, which is understandable, because along with Girls it’s more or less my platonic ideal of how to do episodic television without getting bogged down in serialization; I can’t imagine that appeals to many other people. Without reading a single bit of online analysis—it’s too difficult to find—I assume that everyone in the show’s tiny audience loves Betty Draper, in particular, as much as I do. She’s complex, fascinating, and often boldly unlikable. I mean, maybe that would rub some people the wrong way, but I have to assume anyone watching the series in the first place can tolerate similarly terrible behavior from Don, and would have to admit disliking Betty would represent an appalling double standard. Anyway, the show is great right away; almost every Don-and-Betty subplot from the first season could be written out in prose for an excellent stand-alone short story, and the supporting cast only gets richer, funnier, and sadder as the show goes on. In general, Mad Men reminds me more of short fiction than soap opera, which is about as high a compliment as I can give a television show. Too bad it seems doomed to slip into obscurity after AMC burns off those final few episodes next year!
2014 was the year I finally got around to watching Breaking Bad, but I’m going to assume you may have heard that show mentioned on this site before now. So instead, I’ll talk about Bill James’ 2011 book Popular Crime. James is best known for his series of Bill James Baseball Abstract books, in which he created and then discussed advanced baseball statistics now known as sabermetrics. (The guys in Moneyball were applying James’ ideas to running the A’s.) While James is a towering figure in the world of baseball writing, he’s also had a long-running interest in true crime stories, and turned his analytical mind toward them. Popular Crime is an exhaustive look at murders in American history that captured the public’s imagination, from the Lindbergh Baby to the Zodiac Killer to O.J. Simpson (not to mention dozens of mostly forgotten cases). Rather than simply recounting the details of each, James examines why these particular cases became media sensations, and in many cases why the final verdict got it wrong and why. Lizzie Borden, for example, couldn’t have possibly been the ax murderer history remembers her as, according to James, and he offers the most plausible alternate explanation for JFK’s death I’ve ever heard. James isn’t Truman Capote by any means—the book meanders, points he wants to make often feel shoehorned in, and the book has its fair share of clunky prose. But the subject matter is so compelling, and James’ opinionated analysis so much fun to read, that it doesn’t matter. James paints a fascinating portrait of our fascination with killers, along with how and why the criminal justice system fails and succeeds in stopping them.
My podcast, where guests come on to talk about their favorite series no longer on the air, forces me to set aside time for shows I’ve been meaning to catch up with and usually, I’m grateful for having done so. This year, I have to particularly thank critics Sarah Rodman and Mike Royce for prompting me to finally sit down and watch The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Men Of A Certain Age, my two biggest discoveries of 2014, and two that pair surprisingly well. The Mary Tyler Moore Show exceeded my already high expectations as a hilarious, groundbreaking, and still hugely relevant series. Mary Richards—played with humor, warmth, and grace by Mary Tyler Moore—is a heroine rarely seen on television, and her journey, rebuilding her life and starting over at 30, is one many millennials can identify with. Men Of A Certain Age similarly focuses on underrepresented protagonists, men in their late 40s just trying to live their lives. Television loves antiheroes of a certain age, but regular Joes? Scott Bakula, Andre Braugher, and Ray Romano have all seen career resurgences recently and fans of their work in 2014 should do themselves a favor and discover just how great they are together. The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Men Of A Certain Age are proof that there are plenty of stories to be told about men and women past Hollywood’s typical expiration date.
My boyfriend loves Grey’s Anatomy. Like, can-quote-full-episodes loves it. While he’ll justify his love by saying he no longer watches the current season, it was still a source of mockery in our relationship—until he made me watch it. And now I can’t stop. Granted, I’m still in the show’s early goings, but it’s a shame that Grey’s current ridiculousness (I’ve been caught up by current viewers) overshadows how great this show used to be, especially when it comes to its female characters. There’s an amazing moment in season two where Cristina (Sandra Oh) and Bailey (Chandra Wilson, who does incredible work throughout) are discussing motherhood as if it’s a choice and not an inevitability. It’s this wonderfully feminist moment that made me burst into tears as I was mainlining episodes at 2 a.m. It’s incredible they even let that on TV. While I can see Grey’s already lose some of its magic as I continue through episodes, I’m glad I got to learn what it used to be.
At the beginning of 2014, I started doing some freelance work for Rhino.com, the Rhino Records website, and as a result of creating playlists for an artist’s birthday, paying tribute to the anniversaries of various albums and songs, and writing about a myriad of vinyl and digital reissues, I’ve been introduced to a ton of music I’d never heard before. The one I think I’ve found most enjoyable, though, is UFO: The Complete Studio Albums Collection 1974-1986. Even though I worked for a record store for half a decade and spent a fair while writing CD reviews, I’d never heard a UFO album in its entirety, nor could I even identify a single UFO song by title, so I went into this set completely uninitiated, but I walked away a fan of the band. (I was also reminded that I actually used to like album rock before I realized that most album-rock radio stations aren’t interested in introducing listeners to ’70s and ’80s bands they’ve never heard before.) Granted, I probably like the ’80s albums more than a lot of UFO’s early fans do, if only because I grew up on a steady diet of slick AOR and still love the stuff, but it’s clear that the ’70s albums are the reason why the band found a strong following and has kept it for all these years.