The Best of 2013


Oh yes. It’s that time again, and the gloves are off, and the wisdom teeth are out. First up, some epigraphs.

Most people who survive a devastating disaster want the opposite of a clean slate: they want to salvage whatever they can and begin repairing what was not destroyed; they want to reaffirm their relatedness to the places that formed them. “When I rebuild the city I feel like I’m rebuilding myself,” said Cassandra Andrews, a resident of New Orleans’ heavily damaged Lower Ninth Ward, as she cleared away debris after the storm. But disaster capitalists have no interest in repairing what was. In Iraq, Sri Lanka and New Orleans, the process deceptively called “reconstruction” began with finishing the job of the original disaster by erasing what was left of the public sphere and rooted communities, then quickly moving to replace them with a kind of corporate New Jerusalem —all before the victims of war or natural disaster were able to regroup and stake their claims to what was theirs. Mike Battles puts it best: “For us, the fear and disorder offered real promise.”

-Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine

Summer weather patterns during 2013 were very different from those seen in 2007 to 2012. Overall it was considerably cooler. There was little evidence of the summer dipole pattern seen in recent years. Relatively cool conditions also characterized the Greenland Ice Sheet, and surface melt was much less extensive than for 2012. The year 2013 reminds us that natural climate variability is very strong in the Arctic.
-National Snow & Ice Data Center

On each soft side- coincident with the parted swell, that but once leaving him then flowed so wide away- on each bright side, the whale shed off enticings. No wonder there had been some among the hunters who, namelessly transported and allured by all this serenity, had ventured to assail it; but had fatally found that quietude but the vesture of tornadoes. Yet calm, enticing calm, oh, whale! thou glidest on, to all who for the first time eye thee, no matter how many in that same way thou mayst have bejuggled and destroyed before.

-Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

Ye have said, It is vain to serve God: and what profit is it that we have kept his ordinance, and that we have walked mournfully before the Lord of hosts? And now we call the proud happy; yea, they that work wickedness are set up; yea, they that tempt God are even delivered.
-Malachi 3:14-15

All this seriousness doesn’t mean I’m not going to include animated television shows in this post. I definitely am going to include a cartoon, but what I’m saying is this: the cartoon I’ve included begins with two people, in a spaceship, one of whom has just created a bomb that will kill everyone on Earth. How can I put this? Well…to understate things, like they do on True Detective, you might say, folks are anxious.

With that, The Kugelmass Episodes proudly presents…


1. Lorde, Pure Heroine

Somebody had to turn the humblebrag into a song cycle. It’s even a bit weird how consistent Lorde is about everything. The T-shirt she’s wearing in that photo, and her “Hi, it’s me!” music videos, and her refusal to tour with Katy Perry, are all as refreshing as her album, and in exactly the same way. She sounds like she could be someone you know, at least on Facebook. Unlike most “bedroom pop,” Lorde actually sounds good through headphones, and doesn’t bother trying to signify genius. It’s like…the smartest easy-listening album, ever. Smarter than Sarah McLachlan’s Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. Smarter than Steely Dan’s entire catalog.

2. The Wolf of Wall Street and La Grande Bellezza

Both of these movies are very long, and you know what? They’re still not as fucking long as a season of anything, including, I don’t know, Scrubs. Scorsese’s film is a classic American film about a huckster who gets very rich, and then, in a horrifying and tragic turn of events, becomes only well-to-do. La Grande Bellezza is a classic Italian film about an artist who is prevented from writing his second novel by a sinister conspiracy of women, champagne, really good meals, and wildly glamorous parties. (The soundtrack is also one of the best things about 2013.) Sexy, sad, and full of adrenaline, these films were both better than anything on television.

This is the next big thing, which (thanks in part to these two triumphs) is already here: the pleasure principle. All the taboo-breaking that seemed like it should have happened ten years ago, is going to happen over the next few years, in a glittering explosion of hedonism. Neither of these films have unhappy endings. Being wry is as serious as they feel compelled to be. It’s the IDGAF attitude implicit in This Is The End, Now You See Me, and Spring Breakers, without any of the unnecessary dumbing-down. Obviously, this trend is not exactly where my head’s at — cf. my epigraphs — but you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. And it’s kind of overdue.

Also, NB: Italy apparently has exactly one male actor. I’m not saying he’s not good. He’s fantastic. It’s just surprising, is all.

3. Rick and Morty and True Detective

Television isn’t going to just roll over and die. It will die slowly, agonizingly, before finally reinventing itself. So, you know, here they are: the two good new shows. Rick and Morty was created by Dan Harmon, is scripted like Aqua Teen Hunger Force, features Dr. Spaceman/Cyril, and has already had guest spots from John Oliver and David Cross. It’s basically comedy’s version of The Traveling Wilburys.

It’s so nice seeing McConaughey and Harrelson working together. They’ve stolen many, many scenes over the past few years, including in various new “important” movies — McConaughey was just incredible in The Wolf of Wall Street, as everyone knows. Harrelson was great in No Country For Old Men. Really, though, Harrelson was equally good in Friends With Benefits and Now You See Me. McConaughey has been lightning in a bottle since forever, including in Magic Mike and even Surfer, Dude. The show, itself, is nothing special. It’s just a successful remix: The Silence of the Lambs meets Homicide: Life On The Street and Justified. It’s given credit for atmospherics already perfected by Low Winter Sun, which failed, and Banshee, which nobody watches. These are the facts, but thanks to the men playing the detectives, they don’t matter one bit.

4. MIA, Matangi

After Kala, the perfect album for MIA to make. Has anyone else ever succeeded in convincing The Colbert Show to put a photo-negative psychedelic filter over everything, for three minutes straight? OR DID SHE ACTUALLY TURN THE STUDIO AIR MAGENTA? These are questions we cannot answer. Certainly, though, this is the best version, since Prince, of an artist creating her own personal sexed-up freakzone, and doing so in such an authentic way that everyone goes along with it. The music video for “Bad Girls” is objectively very short, but every time those cars stand up on their hind legs, one second lasts forever.

(MIA made some pretty bad music after Kala, of course. She had to do that to get one idea out of her system, namely the idea that noise makes music automatically better. I bet when somebody played Yeezus for her, she told the truth: “His next album will be better.”)

5. Philipp Meyer, The Son

Thank God for this book. It is a sprawling Western; beyond that, it is a miraculous study in piling style upon style, in an attempt to understand the things that dominate sprawling Westerns, including family, land, and violence. The idea that bad people do bad things for no reason, which is Cormac McCarthy’s Westernization of original sin, happens to be a very, very, very stupid idea. The Son is all about why, in fact, people create certain legacies, for better or worse. As a result of this basic willingness to think, when The Son is funny, it’s funny in a way that lasts. Something on every page is funny and poignant, and there is enough plot here for thousands of lesser books.

The audiobook is read by Will Patton, along with Kate Mulgrew, and another actor whose name I forget. Patton is a diamond in the rough, like the guys on True Detective used to be. (He’s currently trapped on Falling Skies, which is our world’s version of The Phantom Zone.) His salty, haunting performance of Meyer’s novel is a work of art in its own right.

6. Modern Vampires Of The City, by Vampire Weekend, and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

These two works of art are separated by medium, by genre, and by length. They have so many differences, yet one thing brings them together. They come from bad stock.

Tartt is one of the most irritating authors on the planet. The Secret History was everything these new hedonistic movies are not: moralistic, speechifying, apocalyptic. It was one long dishonest tease. The college students run around playing at classically-inspired orgies for about ten pages before things go all Dostoevsky. Tartt intrudes constantly, meanwhile, so that we don’t miss any chances to read untranslated ancient Greek. She does so in The Goldfinch too, because she wants you to know that she knows a lot. A lot. More than you.

At the same time, The Goldfinch is the best piece of (reasonably) experimental fiction to be published in ages. The prose warps, expires, or goes soft and shimmers, according to the demands of each separate scene. It’s a beautiful testament to the bizarro possibilities that can exist comfortably within a realistic storyline. In fact, I think we should have reserved the term “magical realism” for books like this.

As for Vampire Weekend — well, I don’t need to explain what’s wrong with them. What isn’t wrong with them? They seem like, and are, the epitome of privilege trying confusedly to be cool. Sometimes I don’t know what Ezra Koenig means, and I’m not really sure he knows what he means either. Take “Hannah Hunt,” for example. It seems like he was at a back room, at a party, writing a song about Hannah. Some stoned friend walks in and goes, “We are all living on the US dollar. Do you realize that? We are all living on the fucking US dollar!” Boom, it goes into the song, which is really a shame, yet doesn’t prevent “Hannah Hunt” (along with “Step” and numerous others) from being ethereal, beautiful, and mostly coherent.

It’s comforting, in a way. Art can be great all by itself. It keeps our imperfections, but exceeds their sum. I don’t know what Ezra means, but despite everything, I understand him.

7. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories, and Janelle Monae, The Electric Lady

“My kid loves [the Daft Punk album]. Which I find a little troubling, because it’s all about sex.”
-my friend Jessica Ehlers

That album should be called Keep On Dancing ‘Til The World Ends. Also, those dudes should do something with Britney.

It could be scripted by Janelle Monae, and she’d be the hero: a human with robot legs (or robot something, I don’t care what, robot elbows) known only as The Electric Lady. Britney plays the ArchAndroid — another character from Monae’s universe, which is even vaster and more specifically hallucinated than MIA’s paisley Matangi.

It would include all the good moments from Tron: Legacy that Tron: Legacy wasn’t really using. Britney has a moving death scene, because Monae couldn’t save her from the villain, who would be played by the voice of Joaquin Phoenix, in a surprising, critically-acclaimed performance. Not that I’ve thought much about this. At the end, Daft Punk would give an unplugged concert. Not over the credits. There would be no credits. You’d just know who was in the movie, because, like, it would be super obvious, since they’re all famous.

8. Chuck Klosterman, I Wear The Black Hat

Klosterman Does Theory. In a better world, graduate students would be seasoning their seminar papers with quotes from this book, instead of using Frederic Jameson. This is the most ambitious book Klosterman has ever written. It’s up-to-the-second, for one thing. It’s current with all of pop culture, and it’s current with Klosterman. It asks questions he can’t answer. He says as much in the foreword, where he claims to not even know why he wrote I Wear The Black Hat, itself, in the first place.

He doesn’t know that; in fact, lately, he doesn’t even know why he likes some bands more than others. He constantly describes himself, and everyone around him, as biased, conditioned, and locked into prisons of language and habit. He tosses off razor-sharp, totally accurate observations about The Eagles and Machiavelli — it’s particularly touching to watch Chuck Klosterman tackle Renaissance Italy — not because he wants to, exactly, but (as far as I can tell) because he can’t help himself.

We need more books like this, written by people who want something more than they know how to describe. Michel Foucault was like that. We need someone else to fill his shoes, now, in calling for epistemic change, for what is radical — for social transformations that might count as both welcome and as truly new. Here’s hoping Klosterman’s up for it.

9. Linux

Along with Wikipedia, this is the most monumental accomplishment that open-source structures have, as yet, produced. The Linux community is so globalized, idealistic, and effective, that it makes the wilder hopes of the futurists (i.e. Kurzweil’s “Singularity”) seem plausible. At a moment when companies like Microsoft are trying to turn computers into massively proprietary walled gardens, in order to monetize everything that should be included free…Linux is not only impressive, but necessary. Some flavors of it are every bit as slick as Windows or MacOS, and most “distros” run much faster than either of those. It also fuels all kinds of other open-source software, such as VLC — and I don’t even want to think about a world without VLC.

My friend Aaron Hildebrandt objected to me, on Facebook, that Linux isn’t very pretty. That can be true. Sometimes it looks like Pac-Man. On the other hand, considering how far it has come already, it’s obvious that Linux will eventually look gorgeous, and will be able to accomodate many different aesthetics. I hope it will. There must be alternatives to the iOS 7/Windows 8/Samsung Galaxy aesthetic, which is turning every device into “Baby’s First Computer!”

10. Edward Snowden

I cannot overstate my admiration for Edward Snowden. He has slowed the progress of indiscriminate, totalitarian, covert government surveillance to a crawl (here in the States, at least). He has proven, again, the genuine historical importance of individual acts.

Jeffrey Toobin’s theory that nothing justifies Snowden’s violation of national security will be laughable ten years from now; it will seem as silly as the Kennedy Administration’s justifications for going to war in Vietnam. The only way to prove that Snowden endangered national security — as opposed to acting in the best interest of the American people and the American government — is to show us Pandora’s box. It’s been nine months. This isn’t like global warming. The other shoe hasn’t dropped, and it’s not going to drop. Snowden didn’t expose us to terror. He saved us from it.