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The Essential proudly presents our look back at the year in popular culture. This page is divided by contributor, click on a name in the list below to jump to their selections for the best of 2013.

Listen to Ash, Simon and Bradley discuss their lists at length in the yearly round-up episodes of The Essential Music Podcast and The Essential Film Podcast.

Ash Beks

MUSIC

  1. My Bloody Valentine – mbv
  2. Kanye West – Yeezus
  3. Kurt Vile – Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze
  4. The Knife – Shaking the Habitual
  5. Danny Brown – Old
  6. Dirty Beaches – Drifters/Love is the Devil
  7. Death Grips – Government Plates
  8. Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap
  9. Forest Swords – Engravings
  10. Julia Holter – Loud City Song
  11. Factory Floor – Factory Floor
  12. Fuck Buttons – Slow Focus
  13. The Field – Cupid’s Head
  14. Deerhunter – Monomania
  15. Darkside – Psychic
  16. Sigur Ros – Kveikur
  17. Earl Sweatshirt – Doris
  18. Jon Hopkins – Immunity
  19. Tim Hecker – Virgins
  20. Phosphorescent – Muchacho

FILM

  1. Spring Breakers
  2. Frances Ha
  3. The Act of Killing
  4. Amour
  5. Computer Chess
  6. To the Wonder
  7. Before Midnight
  8. Upstream Color
  9. Zero Dark Thirty
  10. No
  11. Only God Forgives
  12. Gravity
  13. Short Term 12
  14. Beyond the Hills
  15. Mud
  16. This is the End
  17. The Loneliest Planet
  18. A Hijacking
  19. Stories We Tell
  20. Fruitvale Station

Jemima Bucknell

I regret that I did not have time to revisit Upstream Colour, To the Wonder or Computer Chess a second time, as I’m sure they would find their places higher on this list, but alas my year was busy with work, writing, taking over Screen Sect, and returning to study. Spring Breakers reigned supreme for a long time this year, but recent notes that I’d made on Kiarostami’s Like Someone In Love and the surprise (almost) unnoticed release of Mark Abiston and Louis Sutherland’s Shopping direct to DVD shifted the order. 
There were also some notable releases that I did not find time to watch in 2013. With still more regret — or perhaps none, I can’t be sure — I cannot participate in conversation about The World’s End, Pacific Rim, Short Term 12, Wadjdja, Captain Phillips, The Paperboy or Much Ado About Nothing. I have no regret in writing that Cloud Atlas, Gravity, Blancanieves and Laurence Anyways were either agonising or empty experiences for me.
To the festival films possibly lost to the ether of erratic Australian release schedules, I’d like to remember A River Changes Course, In Bloom, The Spirit of ’45 and The Dance of Reality.

Here’s to 2013:

  1. Like Someone in Love
  2. Shopping
  3. Spring Breakers
  4. To the Wonder
  5. Upstream Colour
  6. Behind the Candelabra
  7. Beyond the Hills
  8. Computer Chess
  9. Frances Ha
  10. Drinking Buddies
  11. This is 40
  12. Blue Jasmine
  13. Pain and Gain

Simon Di Berardino

MUSIC

  1. The Knife – Shaking the Habitual
  2. Kanye West – Yeezus
  3. Chance The Rapper – Acid Rap
  4. Tim Hecker – Virgins
  5. Danny Brown – Old
  6. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
  7. Iceage – You’re Nothing
  8. Deafheaven – Sunbather
  9. Kurt Vile – Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze
  10. Death Grips – Government Plates
  11. Sigur Rós – Kveikur
  12. Hookworms – Pearl Mystic
  13. My Bloody Valentine – mbv
  14. Savages – Silence Yourself
  15. Blood Orange – Cupid Deluxe
  16. Jon Hopkins – Immunity
  17. Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest
  18. Earl Sweatshirt – Doris
  19. Deerhunter – Monomania
  20. Autechre – Exai

FILM

  1. The Act of Killing
  2. To the Wonder
  3. Spring Breakers
  4. Upstream Color
  5. Beyond the Hills
  6. Django Unchained
  7. No
  8. Amour
  9. Short Term 12
  10. Frances Ha
  11. Gravity
  12. Zero Dark Thirty
  13. Only God Forgives
  14. A Hijacking
  15. Pacific Rim
  16. Stranger by the Lake
  17. Pain and Gain
  18. Stories We Tell
  19. The World’s End
  20. Behind the Candelabra

Bradley J. Dixon

MUSIC

  1. Kanye West – Yeezus
  2. My Bloody Valentine – mbv
  3. Danny Brown – Old
  4. Haim – Days Are Gone
  5. Janelle Monáe – The Electric Lady
  6. Deafheaven – Sunbather
  7. Arcade Fire – Reflektor
  8. Sigur Rós – Kveikur
  9. Lorde – Pure Heroine
  10. Fuck Buttons – Slow Focus
  11. Eleventh He Reaches London – Bānhūs
  12. The Drones – I See Seaweed
  13. The Men – New Moon
  14. Kurt Vile – Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze
  15. Tim Hecker – Virgins
  16. Arctic Monkeys – AM
  17. Savages – Silence Yourself
  18. Parquet Courts – Light Up Gold
  19. Death Grips – Government Plates
  20. David Bowie – The Next Day

Honourable mentions: Iceage – You’re Nothing, Earl Sweatshirt – Doris, Touché Amoré – Is Survived By, The Flaming Lips – The Terror, Blood Orange – Cupid Deluxe, Youth Lagoon – Wondrous Bughouse.

FILM

  1. Gravity
  2. Spring Breakers
  3. Frances Ha
  4. Amour
  5. Only God Forgives
  6. Beyond the Hills
  7. The Act of Killing
  8. A Hijacking
  9. Django Unchained
  10. Short Term 12
  11. Mud
  12. Sleepwalk With Me
  13. Stories We Tell
  14. The Spectacular Now
  15. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
  16. Philomena
  17. Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa
  18. Drinking Buddies
  19. The Hunt
  20. Upstream Color

Honourable mentions: The World’s End, Stoker, Zero Dark Thirty, The Great Gatsby, Before Midnight, Fruitvale Station.

Richard S. He

Blurred Lines: A 2013 Best Of

2013 was, more than ever, a frustrating, fascinating year for pop culture as art. Presented in vague order, each of my choices pushed boundaries in their own way, whether provocatively, subtlely, or without you even realising at all. Enjoy.

1. Spring Breakers

partying like an idiot is spiritual when you hate where you are. the escapism of getting fucked up is everything. even when you know it’s kind of stupid it’s still everything.

Don’t try to evaluate Spring Breakers "objectively" — you might end up looking for a cold, satirical exploitation film that doesn’t exist. Spring Breakers was, for me, a near-religious experience; not just seeing it in the cinema three times, but turning it over constantly in my head for weeks. If I contain multitudes, sometimes it felt like Spring Breakers contained me. If you’re particularly sensitive about Britney Spears, teen pop, southern rap, low culture, gender performativity, or feminism and the male gaze, you’ll ruminate on it endlessly; if you’ve ever looked down upon them, Harmony Korine might be indicting you more than any of his characters. The soon-to-be iconic “Everytime” montage, James Franco deepthroating a pistol, Selena Gomez’s character walking out of her own narrative in disgust; every scene is filled with enough emotion and subtext for a lifetime. Franco’s “gangster mystic” Alien is the saddest clown in recent cinema history; his only joke is that there is none. Spring Breakers embodies 2013 in every seductive, intoxicating sense.

2. Kanye West – Yeezus

It’s entirely fitting that Kanye’s angriest album coincides with what should be his greatest personal successes — what’s better than the birth of your firstborn at highlighting how racial inequalities still exist at every level? Yeezus is Kanye, more lucid than he’s ever been, staring you down from the wrong side of the glass ceiling, willing everyone else to catch up. A rare truly punk rock move from a superstar at their height, he’s compared it to Bruce Springsteen’s equally bleak, greyscale Nebraska. If that’s true — and “Bound 2” certainly feels like the calm after the storm — then his uniting, celebratory Born in the U.S.A. is just around the corner.

3. Black Mirror

The titular “black mirror” of Charlie Brooker’s Twilight Zone-esque series is every single computer, phone, or TV screen around us; itself inanimate and unjudging, but reflecting and enabling all our worst, most instinctively human impulses. Each of Black Mirror’s six episodes envisions a different technological reality - some distant, some only a few Google Glass generations away. For me, the most horrifying is “Fifteen Million Merits”, a vision of a consumerist dystopia; “Fitter Happier” as enforced by screens upon screens of Candy Crush-coloured avatars, instant reward systems and unskippable commercials. It’s about the desire for something other than the inoccuously oppressive mainstream; a punk rock primal scream in a world where none of those words have ever existed. Grantland’s Emily Yoshida compares the protagonist’s struggles to Kanye’s; Black Mirror takes what could well be that second verse of “New Slaves”, at once both articulate and ineloquent as only a rant can be, and greets it with a fate far worse than apathy. The absolute highest ideal of “satire”, Black Mirror rings absolutely true, so black its comedy is barely visible.

4. Enlightened

“Zombies”, “chemistry teacher cooks meth” — those are easy pitches. “Idealistic, fundamentally annoying woman tries to change the world and everyone around her”? Enlightened, much tougher to market — not even a clear-cut comedy or drama — was the definition of too beautiful to last. Laura Dern’s Amy Jellicoe tries to see the good in everyone; the episode “Follow Me” frames something as simple as joining Twitter as a spiritual experience, connecting with like-minded people like a thousand points of light beaming across the world. Television’s fascination with nihilistic male antiheroes has finally peaked, yet Enlightened’s desperate, vicegrip hold on optimism was too out of step for its own good. One of HBO’s lowest-rated shows, it was finally cancelled in January, following one of the most note-perfect finales in recent memory. Enlightened was television as poetry; long may it live. Best show of the year.

5. Gone Home

The best video game of 2013 played with your decades-long conditioning; despite openly boasting about its “nonviolent” quality, its dark, abandoned house feels insuppressibly ominous, the site of some dark transgression that’s done away with your character’s family. But that’s all a fake-out - the hints at horror merely heighten your emotional state for the extraordinarily warm coming-of-age story at its core. Games are hardly the only medium that could tell this particular story, but they’re the only medium that can do so by immersing you entirely in its characters’ absence, haunting not levels, but rooms in a house that truly feels lived-in. Though Gone Home is set in 1995, evoking nostalgia for both the pre-digital era and early point-and-click adventures, it spawned an entire cottage industry of responses from the now-thriving field of video game criticism. Many of those pieces acknowledge how Gone Home feels like it was made for everyone who’s adored gaming despite, not because of, its fixations on machismo and violence. Gone Home deconstructs what the entire medium’s capable of, a sign that gaming’s long adolescence might finally be coming to an end.

6. Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black at first seems to follow Taylor Schilling’s Piper, a bourgeois, thirty-something white woman, as she turns her prison sentence into a culture-shock learning experience, until the show sneakily inverts its own premise. It turns out the lens through which you saw the kindly male prison administrator or the scary black lesbian was merely Piper’s all along; every prisoner in Orange is the New Black is a flawed, complex person, unwillingly defined through their crimes by themselves, everyone around them, and the system itself. The way it dismantles both Piper’s and the audience’s privilege is sublime; the ease with which it depicts an entire community of sexually and racially diverse female characters puts television’s wider representation issues to shame. Whether Netflix’s entire-season-at-once distribution model is good for the cultural conversation remains to be seen; either way, the show’s buzz lasted all year. The only prison you’d ever want to come back to, Orange is the New Black was easily the best new show of 2013.

7. Before Midnight

The third entry in Richard Linklater’s Before series might be the best of the three; it takes all the sadness and existential doubt at the fringes of Before Sunrise, that Before Sunset constantly tries to push away, and revels in the tension. On-screen love stories so rarely depict the long afterlives of first attraction; watching Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s Jesse and Celine over the years truly feels like a relationship. Before Midnight’s not an unattainable ideal, but a bitter pill that suggests that in the end, everything might just be okay.

8. Top of the Lake

Jane Campion’s Sundance Channel miniseries anticipated a year full of TV serial killer mysteries by immediately dropping all pretenses that its answers were more interesting than its questions. An openly feminist meditation on gender dynamics, violence, and the deep roots of abuse, watching Top of the Lake was like being dipped in ice; even its moments of great beauty, including an emotionally shattering Björk cover, never quite thawed you out. You get the sense that Elisabeth Moss’ police detective Robin leaves Top of the Lake’s glacially still New Zealand with less than which she came. In a year where television entertained more superficial comparisons to film than ever, Top of the Lake transcended genre in what felt like both at once.

9. HAIM - Days Are Gone

What dark Californian magic spawned the Haim sisters? Their debut album Days Are Gone is so immediately joyous an experience you can overlook how casually it transcends genre. Alongside most visibly Lorde’s Pure Heroine, it’s the start of a distinct generational shift — where the increased meaninglessness of “indie” and the guilty pleasure lead ’90s kids who grew up on chart pop, hip-hop and R&B to freely cross-pollinate it with everything. Alternatively, but equally true, NPR’s Ann Powers describes HAIM as sounding like the entire 1987 Billboard singles chart at once. Their songs are about being inarticulate in love; where words fail them, they channel their energy into their hyper-specific arrangements instead. HAIM’s megastardom is so inevitable, their songs, personalities and facial tics so immediately familiar, that it feels like they’ve already been around forever.

10. Miley Cyrus – “We Can’t Stop”

Full circle: like it or not, “We Can’t Stop” is the song of 2013. In a year where everything was problematic, Miley deservedly copped accusations of racial appropriation, but, futile as it might be to try and separate the issues, at least her song stood for something new. Where the seemingly innocuous “Get Lucky” somewhat insidiously rewrote disco’s history in the image of straight dudes, “We Can’t Stop” gave hip-hop producer Mike WiLL Made-It his first true crossover moment. The result, half ballad, half banger, doesn’t sound quite like anything else on the radio. Like Spring Breakers, it’s less a joyous soundtrack to hedonism than a mournful ode to its inherent wistfulness, all present-tense nostalgia for a youth that’s yet to pass. If the definition of pop stardom is whoever pisses the most people off — some justifiably, some for the wrong reasons — then Miley wins 2013 simply for never having left the conversation. Four years ago, she’d never heard a Jay Z song; now, he’s calling her “an old world’s worst nightmare”. To be passionate enough about hip-hop culture to genuinely attempt to engage with it, however problematic the side effects, at least proves her sincerity; her music is unquestionably “authentic”, in that it inarguably represents her personal vision for how pop music should sound. Here is the future as I see it: messy but rarely “Accidental Racist” terrible, hopefully quick to call out whitewashing, but rife for moments of genuine cultural weirdness and cross-pollination. There’s something truly countercultural about a former America’s-sweetheart Disney star going through all this in public. It’s not a rhetorical question: can the white girl twerk?

Anthony Kellaris

MUSIC

Albums:

  1. Kanye West – Yeezus
  2. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
  3. Charli XCX – True Romance
  4. Kirin J Callinan – Embracism
  5. Autre Ne Veut – Anxiety
  6. Chvrches – The Bones of What You Believe
  7. Drake – Nothing Was the Same
  8. Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience
  9. The National – Trouble Will Find Me
  10. Savages – Silence Yourself

Songs:

  1. Shlohmo feat. Jeremih – “Bo Peep (Do U Right)”
  2. Kanye West – “Black Skinhead”
  3. Vampire Weekend – “Diane Young”
  4. Thundercat – “Heartbreaks + Setbacks”
  5. TNGHT – “Acrylics”
  6. Ciara – “Body Party”
  7. Daft Punk feat. Panda Bear – “Doin’ It Right”
  8. Justin Timberlake – “Mirrors”
  9. Kirin J Callinan – “Love Delay”
  10. The Knife – “Full of Fire”

FILM

  1. Silver Linings Playbook
  2. Amour
  3. Frances Ha
  4. Gravity
  5. Before Midnight
  6. Zero Dark Thirty
  7. Furious 6
  8. The Act of Killing
  9. American Hustle
  10. Django Unchained

Best Villain: The pillow in Amour.

Best Butt: Tie - Natalie Dormer in Rush, Chris Hemsworth in Rush.

Best Shot:

Top Ten Exclusion That Broke My Heart But There Are Only So Many Slots On These Things: Behind the Candelabra.

Best Hairpiece: Michael Douglas in Behind The Candelabra (apologies to Christian Bale).

Worst Sequel: Star Trek Into Darkness.

Most Blatant Rip-Off of Every Science Fiction Film That Preceded It: Elysium.

Best CGI Flowers: The Great Gatsby.

Worst Channing Tatum Fedora: Side Effects.

Most Likely To Change the World: Blackfish.

Most I-need-to-see-this-as-many-times-as-I-can-in-cinemas-preferably-in-IMAX-or-it-will-haunt-me-for-the-rest-of-my-life Film: Gravity.

Best Fight Scene: The Battle of Hong Kong, Pacific Rim.

Best Dance Routine: Greta Gerwig running down the street in Frances Ha.

Best Scene: Anne’s death in Amour.

Best Scene in a non-Best-of-2013 film: Detective Loki speeding to the hospital in Prisoners. And for that matter…

Best Character: Detective Loki in Prisoners. The blinking, the tattoos, the thanksgiving dinner – from the moment we meet him, alone in a diner, Gyllenhaal’s enigmatic Loki stands at odds with the film he’s in. Gyllenhaal goes above and beyond in what could have just been a paycheck and in turn elevates the simplistic thriller he’s in. If I had just one wish it would be for a spinoff series of Detective Loki films (starring Jake Gyllenhaal and shot by Roger Deakins, of course).

MVP: David O. Russell. Try telling post-Huckabees, six years between drinks David O. Russell about the guy with two critically acclaimed films out within 12 months of each other. Actually, don’t — it’s not worth the abuse.

Burn Book: Spring Breakers, Mud, The Place Beyond the Pines, Upstream Color, Computer Chess, The Spectacular Now, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Tim Winton’s The Turning.

Luke Lewis

Luke’s top ten albums (in a rough order that he’s happy with):

  1. Dirty Beaches – Drifters/Love is the Devil
  2. The Arcade Fire – Reflektor
  3. Darkside – Psychic
  4. Chance The Rapper – Acid Rap
  5. Kanye West – Yeezus
  6. The National – Trouble Will Find Me
  7. Deerhunter – Monomania
  8. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – II
  9. My Bloody Valentine – mbv
  10. King Krule – Six Feet Beneath the Moon

James Zarucky

MUSIC

  1. Janelle Monáe – The Electric Lady
  2. King Gizzard and The Lizard Wizard – Float Along - Fill Your Lungs
  3. Rhye – Woman
  4. Dick Diver – Calendar Days
  5. Foxygen – We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic
  6. Julia Holter – Loud City Song
  7. Queens of the Stone Age – Like Clockwork
  8. My Bloody Valentine – mbv
  9. No Joy – Wait to Pleasure
  10. Blood Orange – Cupid Deluxe

Honourable mentions: Kurt Vile – Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze, Surfer Blood – Pythons, CHVRCHES – The Bones of What You Believe

FILM

  1. Amour
  2. The Act of Killing
  3. Spring Breakers
  4. Gravity
  5. Stories We Tell
  6. Upstream Color
  7. The Hunt
  8. The Place Beyond the Pines
  9. Prisoners
  10. Only God Forgives

Honourable mentions: Frances Ha, To the Wonder, American Hustle

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