the best of 2011

There is an ancient Chinese curse that reads, “May you always live in 2011.” Honestly, I don’t totally understand why it became such a popular curse, but I do know this: 2011 was an immensely difficult year. It was personally difficult. It was difficult for the nation. I experienced, to an overwhelming degree, the unbearable lightness of being: almost everything I’d write down about me (plans, marital status, current residence, employment, hobbies) changed in 12 months. My family and friends were solid as oaks, and as beguiling as ever, but I still found myself with the unexpected gift of a great deal of solitude. That solitude was filled with the best and worst culture of the year.

I should admit, right off, that Breaking Bad is absent from this list. I had those episodes downloaded in iTunes, ready to watch, but I never made time for them. I was hungry for something new. Also, I know that I’m missing out on the chance to praise Bon Iver, but that’s OK. Bon Iver doesn’t need my praise, and neither does his alter ego, playboy millionaire Justin Vernon. Actually, that album was sort of weird in retrospect. He’s so talented, but it’s like listening to all that talent flailing around, doing karaoke, unsure of how to communicate or even what the message is supposed to be.

THE BEST OF 2011

1. e-readers

Even for somebody who loves reading, the technology for playing music and movies advanced so quickly, leading to such magnificent little devices, that books were at a loss to keep up. Paperbacks were as overpriced as CDs, and significantly harder to find, if you wanted to read the good stuff. Now there’s this terrific price and features war going on between the Kindle, the Nook, iBooks (sort of), and Google Books, and as a result books have become effortless. It finally makes sense to be reading four different books at a time. It is possible to buy books on weekends without praying that Barnes & Noble has what you need. Magazines don’t pile up unless you want them to. There are a lot of rough edges (e.g. no resale), but it still feels like part of a renaissance.

2. Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad

This was a nearly perfect novel. I hope, over the years, it is passed around and consumed as often and as greedily as This Side of Paradise. It was impossible not to think of Fitzgerald, moving through Egan’s clumsily interwoven stories about people frantic to stave off time and death. In fact, those words should be capitalized — Time and Death — because this was definitely Egan taking a shot at the Great American Novel, but doing so beneath so many layers of casual glamour that none of it felt didactic. This is how you capture the truth of middle-class America: by first soaking yourself in the last-gasp music (the “important albums”) of the past decade, and then asking what it leaves unsaid.

3. Jamie XX

Sure, I could have just nominated Drake instead, but this guy is the one with a future. We know what’s going to happen to Drake: like Eminem, he’s going to lose his way when he runs out of things to say about his ambivalent reaction to fame. No, the real story was the guy who produced “Take Care,” with those glacial piano chords and the gloomiest tribal beat I have ever heard on tape. That beat makes Drake sound like he’s stuck at some blacklit party, trying all the doors, realizing he’s locked in. Drake and Rihanna don’t even sound like they are thinking about each other; they sound like the actors lip-synching to Aimee Mann in Magnolia, all in different corners of the city. Obviously, the XX album Jamie did previously was the most intimate, romantic, compelling album to rise from the ashes of the Cure. The Gil-Scott Heron remixes, while not too much fun, were just crammed with interesting ideas. I don’t even like the single that Jamie released solo, which made Pitchfork’s best of the year list, but I know he’s right to be sampling those steel drums. One day, when Thom Yorke is dying, he’s going to prophesy th’ election lights on Jamie.

4. Louis C.K.

Seriously, I can’t even remember the first season of Louie, having watched the second. To paraphrase Diane Keaton, laughing at Louie’s jokes is truly a Kafkaesque experience. He’s a full grown man, but he moves through every episode like a freshman in college, eager to find somebody who can explain life to him in the right existential terms and cure him of despair. He’ll try anything once, including going on a date with an anti-masturbation activist. He’ll walk into a casino seemingly just in order to get fired. I didn’t totally enjoy watching Louie be in unrequited love with a peripheral character from Californication, but hey, unrequited love is part of that whole Camus phase too. Maybe it shouldn’t be merely a phase, or anyway one that ended so soon. There will always be buskers making beautiful music right alongside human beings on the verge of collapse, but only Louie would want to film that in the noir style of Casablanca.

5. Katy B, On A Mission

A lot of people ask me why I insist on comparing Katy B to the Bee Gees, which somehow manages to insult everyone, no matter which artist they prefer. Well, you know how “Stayin’ Alive” creates that weird, fluid rhythmic space where no matter how you dance, you seem to be on the beat? Which was pretty much the best thing ever for people with my dancing skills? That same trick works over and over again on the Katy B album. Katy slows it down to a purr where the beat skitters and freaks out, and then she sings her lungs out while the beat stalls and fills with bass. The result is bigger than the space it is given, bigger than headphones, bigger than a warehouse.

6. Ryan Gosling

Wha’ happened? Where did he come from? One second, he’s on a cannonball run through the worst movie ideas ever (haha! leftist teachers on hard drugs! storytime for amnesiac lovers! a Jewish Nazi! love it!) and then, having gotten Ari Gold to be his new agent or something, he’s showing up in all these really terrific movies. There was so much wrong with Stupid Crazy Love and Drive, and yet Gosling seemed to know exactly how to modulate his wistfulness so that it seemed genuine in the fake romantic comedy, and profound in the shallow revenge flick. The guy just looms over everything, waiting for the inevitable. But, at least the way he’s getting cast nowadays, he *is* the inevitable. He accosts Steve Carrell and shoves a mirror up to Carrell’s surprisingly ravaged face. He stages a robbery to help his girlfriend reunite with her husband. This is the guy who stole a bit from PATRICK SWAYZE. Gosling’s a goddamn one-man revolution.

7. The actual occupation of parts of New York by “Occupy Wall Street”

Yep, it was only one idea. It didn’t evolve. It didn’t insert itself into the electoral process. Anybody who donated money to the movement was probably wasting it. I guess I’m sort of saying, by putting it at No. 7, that it was less important to me than Ryan Gosling. But still, OWS triumphed. It completely reshaped our experience of the recession, and rekindled a great deal of real hope. OWS, at its peak, showed that protesting is still relevant, and still viewed as dangerous, in the US of A.

8. Rob Delaney

This guy just totally owned Twitter, and this wasn’t even a good year for Twitter. He came up with about ten thousand ideas, and all of them were hilarious. He’s the master of pretending somebody tweeted something, especially Barack Obama, when they didn’t. The people he recommended were also funny. He’ll go off on political tangents, but unlike Patton Oswalt, dude is just chilling. He’s unflappable. You could be like “Rob, what if Obama isn’t re-elected?” and he’d be all, “Don’t worry about it, doood.” And just when you think it would be possible to program a DelaneyMachine by inputting his sexual fixations and his dirty-Proust obsession with smells, he’ll come out with some totally G-rated piece of Groucho Marx absurdism. If I see a guy about to jump off a bridge or tall building, I’m not going to say “you have a lot to live for.” I’m going to read a string of Rob Delaney’s tweets out loud. Ten bucks says the guy backs away from the edge.

9. 3rd party social apps

Oh hey, speaking of Twitter, Google could really learn something from them about LETTING DEVELOPERS INCORPORATE YOUR NETWORK. Twitter wisely bought out TweetDeck, which is immeasurably better than any of the websites it pulls from, and lets you see everything at once, mixed and scrambled just the way you like it. Meanwhile, timely.is created a pretty extraordinary engine for releasing tweets in delayed bursts, so that you don’t overwhelm your friends with six tweets just because you happen to have inhaled a lot of coffee. Flipboard converts social networks into magazines, and is beautiful. No matter what device you were using, you could find plugins and shortcuts that made it really simple to create new content (emails, chat, status updates, whatever). Smushing all the networks together in multi-function apps made each individual network less annoying and less distracting.

10 (tie). Limitless and Thinking Fast and Slow

These three little gems (one movie, two books) spoke volumes about the shallowest, most manipulative aspects of modern life. That has a lot of sex appeal — don’t underestimate smooth and shallow. But beneath the instant gratification was a gold mine of assumptions that we live with every single day, such as the belief, so expertly dramatized in Limitless, that creativity has been replaced by synthesis. Morra doesn’t write a novel or compose a symphony; he learns to play Bach on the piano, and he writes a cultural history in a matter of days. I initially ridiculed Kahneman for making some really obvious pronouncements about well-known human tendencies (like the “halo effect”), but his book is full of provocative set pieces, such as the study that showed people who are exposed to images of wealth (literally, dollar bill screensavers) offer less help to other people and ask for less assistance themselves, short-term. Kahneman is a huge nerd, and his attempts to create anti-viral rationalist memes are complete failures, but he shines a flashlight into all sorts of deep and troubling abysses.

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