Forgive the linkbait headline. What I want to tell you is that 2013 was an excellent year in culture. Sure we started with the “Harlem Shake.” But we ended with Matthew McConaughey giving the best performance of his career, a downbeat Beyonce album, and so many revelations about art and film, it was enough to make you wish for a time machine just to do it all over again. Based on no scientific algorithm other than the quickening of my pulse, here’s what made my 2013 worthwhile.

Dallas Buyer’s Club
Where to start with this painful and heart-rending film? Jared Leto is brilliant. Matthew McConaughey more so. And it’s all just so utterly gripping. For every think piece claiming Hollywood’s turned its back on serious drama, this movie, about a Texan hick battling AIDS at the height of the epidemic, proves them wrong on every level. It’s moviemaking at its finest, all grit and bared soul.

Tenth of December
If you haven’t already, go purchase this book. (But not before reading The Times‘ breathless feature on its author.) George Saunder’s mastery of voice is uncanny and the stories he tells, with deft precision and caustic wit, grab hold of you and never let go. His skewering of yuppie culture left me shaking my head laughing for days.

Beyonce
Yes, Queen Bey made this list. What of it? As a Houstonian, this woman represents. And as a fellow 30-something just trying to grind out work and figure out where my place is in life, it’s refreshing to hear a diva put these feelings to sound, and rather bootylicious sounds at that.

Legendary Lovers” by Katy Perry
Something about this just grabs me and I find I’m content to allow it. “Say my name like a scripture, keep my heart beating like a drum,” Perry coos on the track, which was about as good as it got for mainstream music this year. The jungle theme, her powerful pipes and the “ah-ooh” refrain are the stuff pop confections are made of.

Demons” by The National
“When I think of you in the city, the site of you among the skies/I get this sudden sinking feeling of a man about to fly.” It’s The National at their gloomiest and I’m lapping it up like a Park Slope terrier. Depressive Jill gives this (and the album) an A.

Cutie and the Boxer
A candid exploration of a 40-year-old romance, this is a tale only New York City could tell. The two artists, drunk Ushio Shinohara and his repressed wife Noriko, feels more like a film, and pleasantly so. The diving scene and ensuing confrontations between husband and wife are sure to move you to tears.

The Place Beyond the Pines
No, this isn’t on here because I have a thing for The Gos (although I do). Derek Cianfrance just knows the way to keep an audience glued to their seats is by tapping a riveting songsmith–in this case Mike Patton–and a certain hunk to play Handsome Luke, a deadbeat dad who finds solace in robbing banks. The film goes off the rails by the third act, but the first two parts more than make up for that.

I’m So Excited
Pedro Almodovar is known for serious fare such as Talk To Her, The Skin I Live In and All About My Mother. But he also has a penchant for camp and the proudly absurd. If gay humor makes you quiver, and not in a good way, this film isn’t for you. But if the thought of gay stewards vamping it up makes you crack a smile, buckle your seatbelt. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

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Image via SoulStrut.com

“All the songs have that classic Motown beat,” says Dad with his eyes trained on Don Corneulius. “1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4 … “

He beats it on the wooden credenza, pounding out 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, over and over again.

And stomp-stomp-stomp goes the beat in my head. And stomp-stomp-stomp goes the beat to Diana Ross’ shimmering vocals as xylophone, gospel hums and that life-affirming Motown beat conspire to create the Supremes’ catchiest hit, “Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart.”

“Just like the factories,” Dad says a little wistfully. “Pumping out the cars, one-by-one in Detroit.”

Dad is from Cleveland, so he knows what he’s talking about. He used to play those songs for me whenever he got sick of indulging my Beatles and Doors obsession, or playing the mixtapes I used to store under my bed in a busted-up Nike shoebox.

Now we’re watching a “Soul Train” episode from 1974, the one where Johnny Mathis attempts to inflate his career with disco-flavored ditties about picking yourself up, dusting off and starting over, while The Dells do a little song and dance to “My Pretending Days Are Over” and “Give Your Baby a Standing Ovation,” a personal favorite thanks to the dubbed-in ovations and harmony.

“I’m 38, ancient!” Mathis cries at one point to Cornelius, as he admires the young dancers surrounding him. “You weren’t even born when I sang my first hit!”

Cornelius gives a knowing “m-hm,” and looks away from the camera.

And then the Motown beat goes stomp-stomp-stomp, and the dancers lose themselves once more.

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Image via NME

I know you find it hard to reason with me
But this time it’s different, darling, you’ll see

An artist on Spotify was playing a cover of “Tell Me,” the Rolling Stones’ hit, by a girl group called the Termites. Their take was earnest, as most girl groups were, but I much prefer Mick and that scraggly voice of his.

Listen to the Stones play Tell Me.

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December 27, 2011

Sunday Will Never Be The Same

For about five months before graduating high school I worked as a clerk at one of Houston’s original (and only) organic supermarkets, A Moveable Feast. The place was named after a lesser-known short story by Hemmingway that the owners, a boomer couple, adored. I thought the name was a nice touch, although I did spend a lot of my time there explaining what it meant to baffled customers over the phone.

I’d taken on the job to help pay back my dad after totaling his car. But despite the lousy circumstances that had led me to this point, being employed at A Moveable Feast wasn’t such a bad deal. I always got free lunch, the silly customers made for good stories and the satellite radio, which pumped bebop, classical and early 60s pop, fed my appetite for new music.

On a good day, I’d hear Spanky & Our Gang harmonizing about love on a Sunday, and on a bad day it was The Seekers’ “Georgie Girl or “I’m Telling You Now.” I worshiped those songs the way I worshiped the moment the clock struck 6 p.m., and I could finally punch out for the day.

The store was small, with only four or six aisles to speak of, and there was a restaurant off to the side that served nothing but healthy food. It was there that I developed my love for soba noodles, first tried seasoned tofu and learned what a kale chip was. It was what I imagined all the food in California would taste like, except all the people who’d made it weren’t from Santa Cruz, they were from Texas.

I fell in love with the restaurant and even moreso with their shakes. I began having one with a meal almost regularly, which I doubt did any favors for my figure. One of the protein shakes was named after Dr. Bob, the bewildering creature who shared my weekend shift and had been a fixture at A Moveable Feast for several years.

Dr. Bob was a curly-haired, bow-tied relic from God-knows-when. He certainly wasn’t from Texas, and he wasn’t comfortable being around young people. He always seemed to have a perpetual cold, even in August, a sad fact that led me and my boyfriend to do some pretty harsh imitations of him in our off-time.

Unfortunately, the little store hardly drew any customers, so time passed very slowly. It also meant yours truly was privy to Dr. Bob’s tell alls, not all of which were amusing or really worth listening to.

Play Sunday Morning, one of Spanky & Our Gang’s biggest hits.

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Image by Matador Records via Washington Post

I have a hard time finding people to go to shows with, so the moment I received that email from S. asking, “You interested in going to this?” I was in. The show: Kurt Vile and the Violators at Webster Hall.

Vile might sing in a breathy way that makes him sound burdened by life, but apathy hasn’t sounded this interesting since the mid- 90s. “My whole life has been one long running gag,” he sighs on “Runner ups,” a track about losing, then losing some more.

He sounds detached at times, like he’s not trying at all, but the weight of his lyrics speaks differently: “My best friend’s long gone, but I got runner ups. I don’t know if it’s real, but it’s how I feel.”

I know what he means.

Listen to Kurt Vile perform Runner Ups from his album, Smoke Ring for My Halo.

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November 3, 2011

Plastic Bird

New York City and the Ivy League always seem to go hand in hand. I meet so many kids here who attended those colleges, then came to the city to ride the waves of young adulthood and turn their heady dreams into reality.

Some of them make it; some of them don’t. It’s always interesting to see who the city sifts out. The good and the reckless lumped together like ground coffee in a filter.

Listen to Galaxie 500 play Plastic Bird off their album, On Fire.

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Yesterday an opera singer was belting it out in Union Square. Something Italian in a warm, expansive voice that seemed to soar across the tunnel, into the subway. I imagined his voice coming through on the intercom.

Old, scraggly men in knit beanies and beat-up jackets gathered around to hear him sing. Stupid smiles spread across their faces as the music rolled on. For a moment we were together in this, sharing this rare New York moment. It occurred to me that everyone passing by was on the way to someplace else, missing this. What would they had felt if they had stopped to listen?

I believe they would have yearned for the place that reminds them of home.

Listen to Simon and Garfunkel perform Homeward Bound.

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Cloudy
My thoughts are scattered and they’re cloudy,
They have no borders, no boundaries.
They echo and they swell
From Tolstoy to Tinker Bell.
Down from Berkeley to Carmel.
Got some pictures in my pocket and a lot of time to kill.

I’ve often felt like living in New York was living in a permanent midnight. My memories of the city are staged at night, and the looming gray buildings seem to cover the sky like a doorman protecting his tenants.

Simon and Garfunkel entered my life the way most music has, by radio. In Houston, there was Sunny 99.1, the “soft rock” station that was really just a front for Phil Collins all the damned time, with occasional stand-ins by Carley Simon and her ex James Taylor, plus yacht rock “hits” that made me think of creepy men playing an organ in a singles lounge. The station was basically what you got when you had to wait in a dentist office or fill your prescription at Randall’s.

“Every time I hear that soft rock crap, I’m looking for the next fork to stab my eyes out,” said the gutter punk.

I was skeptical. All he listened to was Korn.

“So you’re saying Simon and Garfunkel suck?”

“No,” he said backtracking. “I would never say that.”

Truth be told, there’s a spot in my heart for the shittiest of yacht rock. But Simon and Garfunkel were something else entirely. They were dreamers. Poets. Guys who’d seen a lot and had a delicate way of conveying it.

Their songs were like poems, set to swinging 60s cheese at worst (“59th Street Bridge Song”) and folksy acoustic guitar at best.

Listen to them perform Cloudy on the Smothers Brothers show.

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October 29, 2011

You’re not rid of me

Think I need to get my hands on Kate Schatz’s music novella, Rid of Me. It was published by 33 1/3, so I’m certain it’s going to be a page-turner. Harvey’s fierce and moaning masterpiece was a seminal work in the 90s.

Read on for an excerpt of what music means to Schatz, a fiction writer:

“A great album tells a story, whether explicit and linear or subtle and discrete. And when you love that album, when it’s gotten inside and you know the characters, landscapes, lyrics, and rhythms, there’s another thing that happens: it becomes yours. You own it, you have a relationship with it. You know each other. It’s your music, they’re your stories—you become free to put meaning here, add interpretation there, decide exactly what it’s all about, then change your mind with each listen.

Growing up, I was a restless daydreamer. It got me into trouble at school and with guys, but when the world is constantly nudging you with nasty things you don’t want to hear, there’s no better place to escape than behind your headphones and the tall four walls of your mind. It’s how I learned about music and came to know what makes me light up when I hear the right melody, beat, and words.

Listen to PJ Harvey perform Rid of Me.

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And this one’s about the time I loved and lost.

His name was M. and we’d been introduced in choir, around the time senior year of high school kicked off. Somehow we got to knowing each other, and soon enough we were glued at the hip.

“You been through stuff?” he asked on our first date at the football homecoming game.

“Yeah,” I said, staring into his watery blue eyes and sensing something that might last forever.

All my life I’d been waiting for someone to notice. I had been waiting for 17 years.

We were from different worlds, M. and I, but that seemed to make us stronger. He brought the crazy, unfurling all my hangups, and I brought the logic, a breathless deference to all his rebellion. I made him straight; he drove me wild.

When we decided it was certain, we arranged the perfect Ferris Bueller exploit. On a Friday, we both played sick knowing our parents would head off to work and wouldn’t get home till around 3 o’ clock. At about 8 in the morning, I picked him up. I think we had Denny’s for breakfast.

As he drenched the hotcakes in his tenth round of syrup, we debated what all we would do.

“I wanna see Houston like I haven’t before,” I told him earnestly. “Let’s go downtown, where my parents don’t let me drive. I’ll show you the Tenneco building.”

The Tenneco building was where my father disappeared to work for 27 years. Each morning, he vanished behind revolving glass doors, only to reappear at the dinner table with clenched teeth and a loosened necktie. My father hated M. That made me love him more.

I don’t recall what all happened that day, but I know we took a journey in my green sedan, only pausing to view beautiful art in the contemporary museum and slurp up bowls of linguini at D’Amico’s cafe. Out on I-10, Jim Morrison crooned to endless miles of pavement and a cloudless sky.

After that weekend, I wasn’t so innocent. And like a flower pulling open its petals in a sped up documentary, I felt attuned to the world around me as if the very quiver of its movement was being written on my skin. My heart split open and every sound, sight and meaning was pouring over it like gushing water.

A year later, I left for California and there was this unknown band from the sixties playing in a loop in my head as Dad’s car pulled out of the driveway and M. stood there watching me go, his face frozen in shock.

A few days before he had told me, “I feel like you want me to tell you I love you all the time.”

The insides of my stomach went raw as I realized he was right. “But love makes you feel ten foot tall,” I shrugged.

Love made me feel ten feet tall.

Listen: Love Makes You Feel Ten Feet Tall

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