2013-12-30

2013 Year In Review

Find my 2012 Year In Review here.

Movies
2013 was not, in my opinion, an excellent year for movies. In fact, I hardly bothered to review any because most of them were not to my liking. The general trend in movies, as with art in general, is to provide more flash for ever-decreasing levels of substance, and especially originality. Like many other people, I, too, am a fan of fancy special effects. A great explosion, however, is only as great as its purpose in the context of the movie itself. So, while we have seen many great explosions this year, the number of truly memorable movies has, in my opinion, dwindled to one.

That one was Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino's revenge epic based loosely on spaghetti westerns and the legend of Brumhilda. This movie barely made it into the cut. My review date says January 2nd, 2013. A star-studded cast of excellent actors, combined with Tarantino's playful storytelling and thrilling violence made this movie the only one not-to-miss this year.

On the Hindi movie side of the table, Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola was a real stand-out. This was another one from January, starring two of my favorite Indian actors: Imran Khan and Anushka Sharma. One of the things that sets it apart from the rest of the Hindi film genre, particularly considering this year's offerings, was the decidedly mature subject matter, which was tackled with a frankness seldom displayed in Bollywood. At the time, I was rather skeptical of the film, but in light of this year's other Hindi movies - Race 2, Chennai Express, and Ram-Leela for example - it proved itself to be a cut above.

The best Hindi film of the year, however, was easily Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. This, along with Without Limits, is one of the only movies about running that actually does justice to the sport. Combine that with the excellent acting of Farhan Akhtar, and you've got yourself a classic of the running movie genre. I do not exaggerate when I say it's the best running movie I've seen since Without Limits, which is maybe the only other really good running movie out there.

Music
If the movie world was a little lack-luster this year, the music world virtually exploded with output from my favorite artists.

The most popular of these was the self-titled debut album from The Winery Dogs. Fueled by praise from music critics like Eddie Trunk, The Winery Dogs exceeded everyone's expectations in terms of sales and success. This was the first actually good album featuring Mike Portnoy since he left Dream Theater (my opinion), and owes its excellence to what might be the best vocal performances of Richie Kotzen's career. The instrumental performances are characteristically virtuosic, but as many reviewers have noted, the real story in this album is Kotzen's singing and the soulful songwriting forming the backbone of all the songs.

Speaking of Dream Theater, their self-titled album was, for my money, the best thing they've done since Falling Into Infinity. Driven by a more aggressive bass sound and some truly stunning vocals, the album seeks - and manages - to capture everything that made the band what it was in the early years. And while it still feels stiff in comparison to the groovier tracks on the early albums, it is a strong offering in the Dream Theater catalog, and well worth its salt.

Haken's The Mountain was a genuine 2013 surprise. While the band's previous albums explored djent and progressive shred, The Mountain toned things down a bit, showcasing the band's knack for complex vocal arrangements and the softer side of prog keyboard work. There simply isn't another progressive band doing what Haken is doing these days, and this the band's third album proves that they are leading the charge of the next generation of progressive music.

Meanwhile, the best of the best of the prog heap - Fates Warning - released their first album in nearly a decade, and it was amazing. Darkness In A Different Light explores lyrical themes of grief, death, and religion, while embarking on a musical display of musicianship the band hasn't really showcased since perhaps Perfect Symmetry. The album is so good that I basically haven't stopped listening to it since it was released, and see no reason to stop listening to it now. Its musical themes are dense, complex, multi-layered, and don't reveal themselves in the first listen. Sit with this album for a month or two, and you will discover that Jim Matheos and company are still the best progressive band actively making music.

The album in fact ties for my favorite album of the year with another pleasant surprise: Greg Howe's new project, Maragold, released a self-titled album this year that offers the perfect contrast to Fates Warning's deep and complex compositional style. Maragold offers radio-ready rock with concise arrangements and some of the smartest songwriting I've ever heard. Add to that some mind-blowing guitar and bass work - truly mind-blowing, better than anything else recorded this year - and the best new rock vocalist to hit the music scene in a decade or longer, and you have yourself a real treat. Maragold was perhaps "my Winery Dogs," considering the power-trio-plus-amazing-vocals-doing-radio-rock format. I personally found the jazz-inflected guitar work and clever guitar-bass interplay to top even what Sheehan and Kotzen managed to do with The Winery Dogs. But the real show-stopper was Meghan Krauss and her jaw-dropping vocals that call to mind memories of, yes, Ann Wilson.

Finally, I was treated to some amazing concerts this year, most notably the one-two punch of The Aristocrats and Joe Satriani, both of whom managed to set a new standard in what I can expect from a live performance. The concerts were different enough that I couldn't really compare them to each other, but it's safe to say that Bryan Beller and Marco Minnemann have become about the best rhythm section in modern music. I count myself fortunate for having seen these concerts.

Books
The only book written in 2013 that I managed to read this year was Susan Cain's Quiet, which offers a little insight into the world of introverts. I found the book only so-so. It could have benefited from more science and less compromise. It was not as fearless a book as I would have preferred. It was not written from the viewpoint of someone who is comfortable being an introvert, although I get the sense that Cain wanted it to be exactly that.

Donald Fagen's semi-memoir, Eminent Hipsters, offers a good look at the world of the cool from the perspective of an aging and obviously depressed Baby Boomer. It is an entertaining read, but it's hard for an optimist like myself to invest too much time in the thoughts of such a grump. I would also liked to have known more about Steely Dan from the inside, but I suppose one can never hope for such a book to ever be written. At the minimum, Eminent Hipsters offers somewhat of an explanation for why we'll never read a real Steely Dan autobiography.

I did read several books this year. More than last year, too. As usual, they were not recent books. The best one was Born To Run, even despite the fact that it is obviously a bit of a marketing pitch for barefoot running. It is a truly inspiring book that made me want to run more.

Fitness
I suppose the big story of 2013 was the eight-week training schedule I developed, and subsequently attempted - successfully. (Find it on the training collection page.) This was a lot of fun to build and to work through. It kept me at the gym all summer long and made me feel about as healthy as I've ever been able to feel.

Prior to that, I gave body-building a try - unsuccessfully. I say "unsuccessfully" because, while I did make it all the way through Jim Stoppani's "Shortcut To Size," I didn't put on much weight. Perhaps this is a function of my diabetes. Because my diet is so heavily regulated for blood sugar management, I cannot really afford to do the kind of eat-eat-eating required for a body-building regimen. On the other hand, maybe body building just isn't for me.

Conclusion
Overall, it was a good year. As I mentioned in previous posts, Stationary Waves is due for a change, and hopefully a change for the better. But it's nice to close off the year by taking stock of some of the things we saw in 2013 before embarking on another exciting year.