Well, it’s been another wild and fascinating year of pop culture. Once again, Brent and I are offering to you our personal top 10 pop culture highlights from the past year. Once again, we are not asserting that the things on these lists are necessarily the best that pop culture had to offer. They’re simply the things we found the most enjoyable, the most memorable, the most resonant, etc. They’re our favorites, and as a whole, they make up an interesting mosaic of the year.
Before we get started, though, a few notes: For the second year in a row, there are no books on my list. I read plenty of books this year, and many of them were worthy of dissection and praise, but very few, if any, were new – so, my apologies to books. Next, there are still a lot of movies from the Oscar season that I haven’t had the chance to see just yet. I blame limited releases, mainly, but alas. Finally, sporting events/phenomenon count, too. These are our lists, so deal with it.
Okay, let’s get to it!
10. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Who, you might be asking, are these guys? Well, they’re only the writing/directing/producing team responsible for two of the most purely fun and enjoyable movies of the year: 22 Jump Street and The Lego Movie. The duo directed the former, and wrote and directed the latter. At first glance, the two movies have very little in common. 22 Jump Street is a raunchy, profane, and extremely silly bromance; The Lego Movie is a humorous action-adventure movie for the whole family. But surprisingly, both movies share similar themes and motives. Each in their own way confronts and sharply critiques the entertainment industry’s blatant lack of creativity and originality, Hollywood’s growing predilection for sameness. That ambition alone makes them heroes in my book, but their movies don’t just take shots; they take shots that land with humor and poignancy.
In The Lego Movie, the heroes are a ragtag team of (Lego) freedom fighters who are attempting to defeat Lord Business, a tyrant hell-bent on stifling creativity and individuality. In 22 Jump Street, the protagonists (repeatedly) directly comment on the fact that the movie in which they’re starring is absurd and unnecessary. Both films are shrewd – and rare – examples of brands/franchises arguing against cheap and unnecessary brand extension. One is, ultimately, more sincere than the other, but they share a worldview that gels perfectly with Lord and Miller’s sense of self-awareness.
9. Chris Pratt
Not only was The Lego Movie a smart, wildly entertaining (anti)blockbuster, but it was also a terrific coming-out party for Chris Pratt as a rising star. The talented and very funny Pratt has been a supporting actor on television for over a decade. Until this year, he was best known for his role as lovable goofball Andy Dwyer, on NBC’s humorous and heartfelt Parks and Recreation. In recent years, though, he has started gobbling up small but memorable roles in notable movies, such as Moneyball, Zero Dark Thirty and Her, often for comic relief purposes. But in 2014, he finally got his chance to shine as a leading man, first in the aforementioned The Lego Movie, and then, in this summer’s blockbuster smash, Guardians of the Galaxy.
In The Lego Movie, Pratt utilized his experience of playing a dimwit with a heart of gold in Parks and Rec, as Emmet, an average construction worker who thinks everything is awesome, without question. Out of all of the recognizable voices in the movie, Pratt’s is the most important, because he’s the undisputed protagonist and the stand-in for the (young) audience. His enthusiasm and child-like wonder, alone, evens out the cynicism of the world around him. In the commercial blockbuster of the summer, Pratt had an even more challenging role as Peter “Star Lord” Quill. Playing clueless and lovable is one thing, playing arrogant and incorrigible is quite another, but Pratt pulled it off with equal amounts of charm.
8. Here and Nowhere Else (Cloud Nothings)
This spring, a little-known indie punk/rock band caught me – and many others – by surprise, with their release of a thrilling and addicting new album. The band is called Cloud Nothings and the album is called Here and Nowhere Else; by year’s end, it’s possible that I listened to it more than anything else in 2014. Consisting of just 8 songs – 31 minutes and 24 seconds, in total –Here and Nowhere Else is a scorching, irrepressible listen. The distinctly rough vocals of lead singer/songwriter/guitarist and band founder Dylan Baldi are passionate and raw, but as are the band’s frenetic drums and driving bass lines. For me, the highlights are the album-opening “Now Hear In,” which sets the blistering pace for the record, the abrupt, tempo-shifting “Psycho Trauma,” and, above all, the closing track, “I’m Not Part of Me”. “I’m Not Part of Me” is an angsty, feel-good anthem that touches on all of themes of the album, of being present, of growing up, of moving on and toward a new idea, even if the protagonist isn’t ready to let the world in just yet.
7. True Detective/ Fargo
The first half of this year featured two distinctly different crime miniseries that centered on crime sagas with a similar set of themes. For that I have grouped them together. True Detective hit the cable airwaves first, premiering on HBO in January with a wave of hype stemming from the magnetic (movie) stars (Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson). It was unquestionably dark, but also original, and even funny, at times. Among its highlights were McConaughey’s pitch-black monologues on the meaning of life (“‘Time is a flat circle.’ Everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again.”), director Cary Fukunaga’ s much praised six-minute tracking shot, and the funky, non-linear way in which the show revealed the scope of the central mystery. Fargo arrived on FX in April, with a quirky sense of humor and an explosive first episode. It unfolded, over the course of 10 enticing episodes, like a particularly high stakes chess game.
Both shows were primarily about good, evil and the nature of man, but, interestingly, they also both touched on institutional rot and the way that people use their appearances to conceal their sinister or self-interested motives. Whereas True Detective was set in rural Louisiana (in 1995, 2002 and 2012, respectively), where the people are seemingly religious, conservative and respectful of the law, Fargo was set in the Coen brothers’ vast, snow-blanketed lands of Minnesota (and North Dakota, in 2006), where the people can’t possibly be that nice, can they?
Between these two series alone, it was a great year for television that looked cinematic and that had the feel of the best crime fiction.
Growing up a Chicago Cubs fan, I could more than sympathize with the plight of a perennial loser like the Kansas City Royals. Except, in my lifetime, the Royals have actually been worse than the team that is occasionally referred to as “the lovable losers”. The Royals were more like the pitiful losers, failing to make the playoffs from 1988-2013, a duration that spanned four presidencies. After a strong-to- respectable stretch from the mid-70s through the 80s, the Royals fell off the baseball map, due to a treacherous combination of small market, low payroll, bad luck and worse management. But in 2014, after several years of rebuilding by way of high draft picks and gutsy trades, the Royals found themselves in contention for the AL Central Division. They fell short, but hung on to a Wild Card berth anyway, earning them a place in baseballs’ cruel winner-take-all Wild Card Game.
The game, against the favored Oakland A’s, was the most wild and exciting of the season. Absolutely nothing went according to plan. Ace starting pitchers James Shields and Jon Lester, the obvious pivotal players of the game, were relegated to supporting roles. Lester gave up six runs; Shields was controversially pulled by manager Ned Yost after just five innings. Instead, it became an unpredictable slugfest. Oakland kept getting the lead, but the Royals just wouldn’t go away. After 12 innings, 4 hours and 45 minutes, Kansas City catcher Salvador Perez hit a walk-off single for a thrilling storybook ending. However, the Royals were just getting started. They rolled through the top seeded Los Angeles Angels and the second seeded Baltimore Orioles to become the first team to boast an 8-0 postseason record in baseball history.
Somewhere along the way, the Royals transformed from the characters of a feel-good story into a team of bona fide badasses. As Kansas City Star writer Sam Mellinger wrote, “this is less an underdog story and more like the kind of movie with nothing but explosions and chase scenes”. Ultimately, they fell in Game 7 to super human postseason baseball god Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants, in the most entertaining World Series in years. Tragically, punny headline writers were denied the chance to call them GIANT KILLERS, but what a ride and what a team this was.
5. They Want My Soul (Spoon)
My favorite album of the year came from one of the best and most consistent American rock ‘n’ roll bands still standing. With They Want My Soul, Spoon brought their trademark swagger and ambition back to music, but they weren’t afraid to experiment with their sound, either. “Rent I Pay” and “Do You” are classic mid-tempo jams that are right in the band’s wheelhouse, but “Inside Out” is an airy, harp-filled wonder unlike any other previous Spoon song. “Outlier” is haunting and keyboard-driven. “Let Me Be Mine” is like an indie rock, blues, soul and pop-flavored smoothie. My personal favorite, though, is “New York Kiss,” a vivid, synth-streaked short story that evokes a specific time, place and mood, and instills it all with an irresistible energy.
Spoon has existed in one form or another for over 20 years. Few bands manage to stick around – and stay on top of their game – for that long, but Spoon’s They Want My Soul provided some of the freshest sounds of the year and was among the best work of the band’s remarkable career.
4. Gone Girl
(Discusses plot, so skip if that concerns you)
Gone Girl was without a doubt one of the most discussed movies of the fall. Just about everyone had an opinion or take on it (including Saying Something’s own Brent Glass). It’s about revenge and control and marriage and privilege, yes, but what does it all mean? Has Amy simply always been a sociopath, or did she develop her masterful manipulation skills as a coping mechanism? Is this the story of a wronged woman fighting for agency in her life for the first time, or is it the story of a man too dull to notice that he’s married to a nut-job? Could all of these things somehow be true?
Gone Girl (both the movie and the 2012 book) features a lot of thought-provoking ideas, and, to be honest, I’m not sure it all coheres. But there’s so much to appreciate that I really don’t care. Chief among them are David Fincher’s exacting direction, the pitch-perfect cast, particularly the amazing Rosamund Pike as Amazing Amy, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score, which gradually consumes the sleepy Missouri town where much of the story takes place. The former communication major in me especially appreciated the way in which it explored how long-term relationships generate their own language of references and insides jokes, and just how wildly different the connotations of those inside jokes can be depending on the context.
The film manages to simultaneously be, among other things, a mind-bending psychological thriller, a dark comedy that satirizes how both the media and the public process and consume tragedy, and a pointed critique of how society treats women. It gives you a lot to chew on, and – depending on which way you look at it – it can be pretty bleak. However, as unsettling as it may be, Gone Girl is an absurdly engrossing mystery and an incredibly entertaining film.
3. Mad Men (Season 7, Part 1)
For six seasons, Mad Men has been the most character-driven shows on television. Plot is not only a secondary concern; it often seems to happen almost by accident. When its season was unwisely bifurcated by the accountants that run AMC, it appeared that compromises would have to be made. The show wouldn’t have the usual amount of time to burn off on inconsequential side stories, flashbacks and the like. Art would be sacrificed for the sake of commerce.
Or so we thought. In reality, Matthew Weiner and his under-compensated team of writers managed to find plenty of time for Betty to go on a field trip, for Roger to visit a hippie commune, and for Peggy to have the world’s worst day. These side stories had little to do with the more obviously pertinent matters at hand – while Mad Men has always boasted an excellent ensemble cast, season seven made it quite clear that its end game would concern Don Draper, first and foremost – but they all tied in with both the development of the characters in question and the deeper themes at work. And speaking of Don, he managed to pick himself up from rock bottom. Though we’d seen him rebound before, never had his position been as dire as it was at the beginning of the season. By the season’s glorious, musical end, Don wasn’t exactly back to the lofty perch where he once comfortably rested – too much damage had been done, too many concessions had been made – but he had made significant personal growth. These ideas, of working to find acceptance and peace in the face of great loss, of taking a step forward by fully and truly humbling yourself, have continued to resonate with me, even into the new year.
2. Jack White at Auditorium Theatre/Black Keys at Joe Louis Arena
They may not get along, but Jack White and Dan Auerbach/Patrick Carney are the undeniable faces of a genre and an era. They’ve been cranking out quality material for forever and they’ve been meticulously compared and contrasted for nearly as long. As for which band/artist is better, more talented, or more authentic? I’m not particularly interested in that. What matters to me, however, is that both The Black Keys, the workman-like blues rockers from Akron, and Jack White, the eccentric guitar virtuoso from Detroit, released interesting new albums this year, and I was fortunate enough to hear them played in concert.
In July, I went to Chicago’s historic Auditorium Theatre and saw Jack White play a sensational show that was filled with the country rock influences that White indulged in on Lazaretto. In September, I visited Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena and saw The Black Keys play a groovy, moody set made up of the soulful, albeit melancholy sounds of Turn Blue mixed in with a host of anthemic crowd-pleasers from their previous albums. Both shows had their share of memorable moments (White’s ridiculous 10-song encore; The Black Keys’ rousing performance of “Your Touch”; The Black Key’s cover of Bob Seger’s “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” as a Detroit tribute; Jack White’s improvised guitar solo during “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” etc.). Both shows were excellent reflections of what makes these performers so appealing. And both shows left me with a huge smile on my face.
1. 2014 FIFA World Cup
In many ways, 2014 was a rough year.
It’s telling that there’s a dark undercurrent to even, far and away, my favorite thing about it. Perhaps it’s unfair to make an event of this magnitude a thing on this list. But I can’t help it. Neither logic nor morality can prevent me from putting the 2014 FIFA World Cup at the top. The World Cup is a euphoric, month-long marathon that comes along every four years and stops the world. (Seriously, the World Cup has stopped war before. War!) This year’s was one of the most exciting and, in America, by far the most accessible. This was the year when America embraced its national team and made their games into national events. It was also the year that non-USA marquee matchups garnered high ratings, too. (The USA-Belgium match drew 16.5 million viewers. Germany’s World Cup final win over Argentina drew 26.5 million!) This tournament featured so many unforgettable images, thrilling games and goals –holy shit, were there a lot of goals. (At one point, the World Cup was averaging more goals per hour than the NFL did touchdowns in the 2013 season!)
The list could go on and on, but I’d be remiss not to mention: Clint Dempsey’s goal in the opening seconds of the Ghana match, John Brooks’ miraculous header, Cristiano Ronaldo’s brilliant, heartbreaking cross against the US, the TIM HOWARD GAME, defending champion Spain getting bounced in group play, Robin van Persie’s flying header, Messi doing Messi things, James Rodriguez doing THIS, that exhilarating Brazil-Mexico game, all the times Brazil almost got knocked out, the time that Brazil got annihilated by Germany, Costa Rica being the surprise of the tournament, the unbelievable motor of Arjen Robben, the Suarez incident, every time Manuel Neur wandered fearlessly out of the box, every Miguel Herrea celebration, Miroslav Klose surpassing Ronaldo to become the all-time World Cup goal leader – and, of course, Mario Götze’s game-winning goal in extra time of the World Cup final.
For an entire month, I was in a little better mood simply because I knew world-class soccer would be on and that anything could happen. For all of the films, the shows, the albums, the concerts and the sporting events that exist in the world of pop culture, it doesn’t get any better than that.
Due to technical difficulties, Brent was unable to contribute, in full, this year, but these are his top 10 highlights from the past year of pop culture. (A lot of this is going to look familiar.)
10. True Detective (Season 1)
9. Fargo (Season 1)
8. Yes Please by Amy Poehler
7. Chris Pratt
6. Mad Men (Season 7, Part 1)
5. Gary Clark Jr. Live – Gary Clark Jr.
4. Live Music (Jack White, The Black Keys, Spoon, alt-J, Fitz & the Tantrums, Modern Baseball, Say Anything – in that order)
2. Benedict Cumberbatch
It’s been a year and a half since Brent and I originally set out to entertain and engage the masses (or, you know, whoever stumbles upon our site) with Saying Something. Thanks for sticking with us, and happy New Year.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently writes travel-related articles for Continental Driftings, and previously covered the Carolina Panthers for Football.com during the 2013 season, as well as college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. Additionally, he’s written about sports, pop culture and politics for Yahoo Sports, Yahoo Voices, The College Fix, and Voice of TV, among other places. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time in the near future.