Top Ten Things of 2013

You guys, I finally have a year-end list!

I know you all had yours by the first week of December and had first dibs on 2013's pop culture buffet, but let me be clear about one thing right away: this list is all about me. I would feel weird about this if the internet’s whole existence weren’t already based on the solipsism of people who live in it. Year-end lists are never about the year or artform they cover, anyway. They are about the people who put them together. They all carry the same message, which is basically some version of: “this is what we think is cool, which we hope makes us look smart, unpredictable, contrarian, advanced, ahead of the game, etc.”

I honestly don’t know what this list says about me. I only hope that it makes me sound like someone who loves movies, TV shows, basketball, music, and honesty. And lists. I just love making lists.

10. Alpaca Sports

Alpaca Sports only released three singles the entire year. It felt more like six. I think this is because the band basically has one music video for all of their songs, and it’s all grass, and gardens, and flowers, and dainty furniture, and walking, and dogs, and a lot of pouting. After releasing the fantastic song/video combos of "She’ll Come Back For Indian Summer" and "A Million Times" last year, the duo came out with another one for the pantheon: the song and music video showcase that is "Telephone."

Not only is Alpaca Sports one of the best-sounding indie pop groups of the last couple of years, they have also perfected what 21st century indie pop looks like. The indie pop of my fabricated memory is filled with abandoned warehouses, desolate lots, tight blue jeans, t-shirts with rolled-up sleeves, and anoraks. The new iteration looks more like GQ meets Etsy set in a house owned by a very rich matrona in the 80s.

And you know what? I want to live in an Alpaca Sports music video. I’m too old to pretend to be twee in post-punk England; I want to have lots of money, wear brown wingtips, and walk around Scandanavian fields with a girl who’s too cool to sing her own songs.

9. Frances Ha

Since the mid-90s, I’ve always believed Noah Baumbach is the best friend I’ve never had. I always imagine him as an amalgam of Grover and Max from Kicking and Screaming, inflicted by the former’s perpetual melancholy and insecurity while buoyed by the latter’s wit, sarcasm, and general nihilism. I also seriously believe that Jesse Eisenberg’s character in The Squid in the Whale was a 90% depiction of Baumbach’s adolescence, which meant that he would be armed with some awesome amount of wisdom as an adult. Greenberg, on the other hand, is something that I still pretend never happened.

Frances Ha is a co-creation of Greta Gerwig, who uttered one of my all-time favorite movie lines in Hannah Takes The Stairs: “I get frustrated because I love things so much and I feel like what I do is so trite and small.” In Frances Ha, she is once again the owner of the best line of a movie that she’s in:

Greta Gerwig has a knack of expressing exactly what I feel in exact moments of my life. I know it’s not her – it’s her characters, one of which she specifically wrote. And it feels weird because I’m supposed to feel like she can be the best female friend I can have after I watched her movie about female friendship, and that, by virtue of a handful of video clips, I have assigned her as my prophetess of human connection, when all that connects us is a handful of video clips that can never talk back at me.

I am an amalgam of every movie that has ever touched me deeply.

8. The New York Knicks

In a year full of 90s revivals, my beloved Knicks inspired the most nostalgia. For every milestone they reached during the last half of their 2012-2013 season, a deadened part of my soul reawakened.

The Knicks won 50 games for the first time since I took a few months off after college graduation, renting VHS tapes and watching The New Radicals’ “You Only Get What You Give” music video on MTV almost every day, completely believing that my writing career will somehow take off on our couch as I watch The Pallbearer for a 10th time, just to listen to Gwyneth Paltrow’s lovely fake New Yawk accent.

The Knicks won the Atlantic Division for the first time since that summer I spent listening to that Tori Amos Under The Pink CD I ordered from Groove Nation, the same summer when Kurt Cobain killed himself and I couldn’t bring myself to care, and when my bad poetry started to get a little less horrible.

The Knicks won a playoff series for the first time since I spent my third post-graduation month writing a Sarah Polley tribute that I knew would never get published, because there were no blogs yet to make my solipsism public.

The Knicks had the NBA’s scoring champion for the first time since that summer when my mom wouldn’t let me out of the house as Depeche Mode’s “Black Celebration” blared from a mobile party around the block. Okay, that was actually in the 80s, and I wasn’t a Knicks fan yet, but still.

It goes without saying that this citation excludes the Knicks’ ongoing disaster of a 2013-2014 season. All it reminds me of are the days of Stephon Marbury, Othella Harrington, Mike Sweetney, and the myriad ways in which I disappointed my adolescent self during the early aughts.

7. Mad Men Season 6, Episode 8 – “The Crash”

This episode was lauded by critics for its David Lynchian surrealism and its wink-wink nod to all Mad Men recappers who bend over backwards trying to scour every single detail for deconstruction (oh, that delicious final line by Don Draper: “every time we get a car, this place turns into a whorehouse,” Matt Weiner’s “I already fucking stole your line in your next columns, you fucks” to critics) and was panned for its flashbacks that allegedly too conveniently explain Don Draper’s womanizing.

I love those flashbacks. They don’t conveniently explain Don Draper’s womanizing – they deftly “explain” why no woman will ever satisfy him. His sexual awakening came in the first and only moment he felt motherly love. It’s also the basis of his confusion and his advertising bullshit: that happiness is somewhere between the warmth of a mother figure and the soft breasts of a lover. It’s elusive, impossible to contain, and possibly sick – a lot like consumerism.

Mad Men’s sixth season clearly isn’t one of its best, but it may be its most impressive. You’re not supposed to produce fresh insight on the 73rd episode of a peculiarly time-bound TV series. But “The Crash” did that and more: it explored the hallucinatory possibilities of editing and storytelling (that black woman that made every critic cry “racist!” as if people like that didn’t exist in an era when African Americans were systemically marginalized), it gave us some of the greatest visuals on TV this year (That Ken Cosgrove tap dancing scene! Don Draper smoking outside Lindsay Weir’s back door!), and it managed to make fun of itself and its over-thinking fan base all at the same time.

6. My Luddite Heroes

There are very few things in this world more uncool than an aversion towards technology. It’s right up there in the hipster smirk list along with a non-devotion to rap and r&b, being a couple of months behind on something they really love, and wearing comfortable shoes. If you mock Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Snapchat,, or Reddit, then you just don’t get it, man, or however the fuck young people talk these days. But there was a period this year – the week Louis CK went on a non-comedic, completely earnest rant against smart phones on Conan, to be exact – when technophobia became cool again.

Jonathan Franzen’s similar tirades against technology: not so cool. In fact, hating on Jonathan Franzen became a pretty enduring trend all year round, and was even good for a few dozen think-pieces by writers who were so eager to remind everyone that Franzen’s out of touch while they’re not, and how that fact felt so good, they almost came. But I will never forget this quote from him, which is every bit as beautiful as Louis CK’s soliloquy:

“The Internet in general—and social media in particular—fosters this notion that everything should be shared, everything is communal…Good novels aren’t written by committee. Good novels aren’t collaborated on. Good novels are produced by people who voluntarily isolate themselves, and go deep, and report from the depths on what they find.”

To be clear, Franzen’s depiction of Twitter as the bane of literature is borderline ignorant. Horse_ebooks coming out as a conscious and successful attempt at random poetry – along with a host of uncelebrated Twitter users who do the same minus the conceit of formal performance art – is not only proof that literature is possible on social media; it also shows how literature is evolving within it. But this is also Franzen “reporting from the depths.” His ignorance is a necessary consequence of his quest for individualism in an increasingly crowd-centric world. He’s putting his phone down so he can cry to “Jungleland.” And like Louis CK, he’s not kidding either. His humorlessness is just more obvious.

5. Before Midnight

I wrote a piece for a daily broadsheet on Before Midnight that I’m not fully satisfied with. It’s a bit of a mess, largely because I wrote it a day after I saw the movie, when my emotions were still a mess. I don’t want to read it again. I don’t want to watch the movie again, either. Not yet, anyway.

Before Midnight is a highly intelligent, fully-realized, and jaw-droppingly gorgeous movie. But Before Sunrise and Before Sunset weren’t really movies to me – they were semi-realistic fantasies. Like any Hollywood romcom, they operate within the belief in the possibility of “real love.” They, too, were about finding “the one,” fostering the notion that she’s just out there somewhere if you happen to ride the right train or pick the perfect city for the last stop of your book tour.

But these movies were also by Richard Linklater, with his unadorned, ultra-chatty, French New Wave looseness providing the veneer of realism. Because Jesse and Celine made it up as they went along, because they walked and talked aimlessly outside traditional plot movements, because they never even kissed in Before Sunset, because Celine went on a non-sequitur riff on Nina Simone – it must be real. They were random enough to vaguely resemble my life. I loved how those two movies existed in their own universe where the magic of celluloid romance seemed within reach. The illusion was always there. But Before Midnight’s actual, no-frills cinema verité has killed it forever.

That it caused so much pain is a testament to its genius. It showed that the most effective way to approximate the heartbreaking deterioration of a real-life relationship is to do so in real time – to let the promise of love blossom in youth, to have it lost, rekindled, and finally see it all crumble in mid-life. Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are now irrevocably altered in my mind, no longer documents of a previous aspiration, only a prelude to inevitable disillusionment. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I hate Before Midnight. It leaves me disappointed and impressed. It diminishes my faith in love and bolsters my faith in art. I know that I’d rather live without the latter, but I can’t imagine how.

It’s clear I still don’t know how to write about Before Midnight.

4. Gilas Pilipinas

“Pinoy Pride” is a phrase that kills its supposed meaning. It is desperation naming itself, dressing up as defiance, barely concealing denial.

There is no room for defiance or denial in sincere sports fandom. There is, however, plenty of room for desperation. You take sports seriously enough, it becomes an extension of your actual life. You begin rooting for your favorite sports teams like you root for yourself, your survival instincts kick in while you’re slouched in front of your TV, helplessly watching a bunch of athletes decide the fate of your soul.

On August, members of The Philippine National Basketball team won my redemption by beating mighty Korea in the FIBA Asia tournament. Yes, it was my victory as much as theirs. It was my reward for sticking with them after all those painful defeats I’ve watched throughout my life. I was heartbroken when Olsen Racela missed those two free throws that could’ve iced a silver medal in the 2002 Asian Games. I believed in the Smart Gilas reboot of the Philippine Team because nothing else prior to it worked and I had no choice. I have to root for them to win – not because I’m Filipino – but because I’m a basketball fan who’s invested too much time and emotion.

So when Marc Pingris fell to his knees and cried after finally beating Korea, the same Marc Pingris who took over at center when we lost Marcus Douthit to an injury, and 60% of our defense along with it, it wasn’t Pinoy Pride that was gushing through my throat – it was fan pride. It’s purer, more satisfying, and more impossible to fabricate.

3. Enlightened

Enlightened’s beloved first season was a television masterpiece in character study. It was also in danger of being the series’ last. To keep it going for another season, creator Mike White made a concession with HBO: make the series more plot-driven and less character-driven, put more suspense and less introspection. The series didn’t suffer one bit.

The few times Enlightened went deep into its characters in its final season, it happened to produce timeless TV classics. That episode on Levi felt real, even though I’ve never been addicted to any drugs, let alone rehabbed from any of them. That episode on Tyler was real, and I know this because I once lived that episode. Those two episodes on Amy’s two dilemmas (Jeff vs. Levi, Idealism vs. Compromise) were so rich with painful truths. Enlightened’s real strength lies not in its earnest optimism, but in the acceptance that legitimizes it: marriages can’t be magically fixed, addictions can’t be magically cured, unethical CEOs aren’t one-dimensional villains, and doing the right thing comes at a huge cost. This is the part where I’m supposed to say that I miss Enlightened, but I really don’t. I can watch it any time I want. And the fact that it was over so soon makes it beautiful forever.

2. The Dream of the 90s

The second decade of the 21st century is one long 20th anniversary of my favorite era in music. The 90s is now officially as distant as the 70s were in my teenage years, which felt weird for a time until a few bands from the era – My Bloody Valentine, Mazzy Star, The Pastels, The Pixies, among others – released comeback albums this year that served to remind me how long it’s really been. From the second My Bloody Valentine’s “She Found Now” descended from the heavens like a pent-up deluge of 90s white noise, the gap that the internet has concealed for so long suddenly emerged from the haze, reminding us that whatever “blah-gaze” genre exists today bears little resemblance to the band they all love to invoke. Then The Pastels came out with “Check My Heart,” which took us back to the anorak days of indie, when it was still a secret club and not a fashion statement. Months later, it was Mazzy Star’s turn to wake up from its coma and pretend that 20 years hadn’t passed, which is the only way to explain how on earth Hope Sandoval’s voice can somehow not age and how the band can produce songs of oblivious beauty after such a long absence.

Calling it a “90s revival” actually sells these artists’ work short. They didn’t just get the band back together for one last run at the big bucks: My Bloody Valentine and Mazzy Star released albums at par with their all-time best. MBV and Seasons of Your Day aren’t trips down memory lane; they are among the best music that exists today. I know it’s boring and tired to say that our era’s artists were better, but these two albums are practically begging me to say it. And I guess I just did.

1. “Unreal” by Hebronix

But in a year that seemed like an extension of the early 90s, the most nostalgic album of them all was a debut. Daniel Blumberg left Yuck and basically took its early 90s soul with him to produce the real great lost album of 1993. I love everything about Hebronix’s Unreal – the spaciousness of the songs, the ghostly guitar sounds, the languid airiness. It sounds exactly like the sort of record people used to make before the internet made us all hyper-aware of everything. It sounds secluded, bored, lonely. It sounds like my youth.

I thoroughly loved and enjoyed 2013. That my number one thing from this year is a sad record doesn’t strike me as ironic at all. Unreal is a nostalgia record. Its music is a spot-on throwback, and so are the feelings they recall. I tend to glorify the melancholic music of my past and burden them with the importance and function of psychoanalysis, but this year – with this album, in particular – I am starting to see my previous sadness as something curated, something placed behind a piece of glass, something that isn’t meant for anything anymore apart from appreciation. I am (for now) a happy man who still loves listening to sad sounds. I had no idea how much more beautiful they would be when echoed across the vast distance of time. They finally feel old. And so do I.




I write essays on pop culture and sports for various publications, yet remain an outsider, forever marooned in this blog I call home.

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