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Best Music of 2013

When I look back at my 2012 list, and how great that year in music was, it’s probably not surprising that 2013 seemed to be a year of disappointments. That’s not to say it was a year of bad music. But while making this list, I found myself remembering music I really liked and looking it up only to find out it was from 2012. Or even worse, scrolling down a list of music releases and coming across records I completely forgot about. That phenomenon is the main reason I say it was a year of disappointments, because those records I had completely forgotten about, in many cases, were from artists that I really like, if not love. Kanye, Fuck Buttons, Daft Punk, Nick Cave, Boards of Canada, Mount Kimbie, James Blake, My Bloody Valentine for god’s sake, and on and on. They weren’t bad records, exactly. I just sort of forgot about them. They never dug in. (Okay, some of them were bad records)

The upside is that, all those records were bumped out of my listening attention by a lot of totally out of the blue stuff, which may say something about my tastes shuffling about, or about the ongoing splintering of musical genre and variety. In any event, only 4 of my the 15 favorite records of 2013 were by musicians I had ever listened to before this year. That’s pretty cool. And before I completely write off my standby favorite artists, there were a few that delivered well beyond my wildest hopes.

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Reviews of 15 horror movies I watched this month

I was an easily scared child. When I was really young, like the 4 to 6 range, my family used to go to drive-in movies on the weekends. To keep families happy, each screen usually had a double-feature, with a family friendly early movie and a less family friendly late movie for when the kids went to sleep. But even the family friendly movies scared me. I remember being frightened by The Incredible Shrinking Woman starring Lily Tomlin. E.T., Howard the Duck, Ghostbusters. Ghostbusters scared the shit out of me. Since normal movies scared me so much, I was definitely not allowed to watch horror movies for most of my childhood, nor did I want to watch them. My only exposure to scary movies was to walk through the horror aisles of video stores to catch glimpses of old, trashy VHS covers, but never picking the boxes up.

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Best Music of 2012

This year I made a Top 15 List instead of a Top 10 list, a decision I stand by because of the sheer volume of great music this year. Not only that, the Top 5 was crowded by the same big guns across so many people's year end lists. As a result, the 6-15 for most people are a lot more interesting than the top five. For example, it's impossible to ignore Frank Ocean, but it would also be a shame for me to not mention Neneh Cherry and The Thing. So 15 it is. It was a really great year in music for me, best I can remember since 2007 and 2001 before that. And there are so many that I had to leave off that I’m considering making a second wild card list, because there were about a dozen amazing records that weren’t favorites but were just weird or interesting or thought-provoking in ways the music listed here is not. Dan Deacon, Dirty Projectors, Converge, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Death Grips, Miguel, on and on. But here are my favorites.

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Junot Díaz talks sci-fi, Hollywood and oppression of, and within, the geek community

In a recent interview on the terrific Geek's Guide to the Galaxy podcast, Junot Díaz takes a remarkably clear-eyed look at the state of the geek community and its relation to mainstream entertainment. The Dominican-American author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao goes after Hollywood for its regressive whitewashing, and sticks up for the genre community as he sees it being "strip-mined" for moneymaking ideas by capitalism. But he also takes some well-deserved shots at the sexist and racist behavior that goes on when members of the geek community become the oppressors within their own ranks. I would highly recommend listening to the whole episode, which posted back in September. In fact, I would go back to the start of the podcast and listen to them all, as I did when I first discovered it. Hosts David Barr Kirtley and John Joseph Adams are champions of genre fiction, but they treat the subject matter with an even-handed mix of respect and criticism. Too often, coverage of geek culture either worships its subject or turns it into a childish, cartoon version of what it really is. Geek's Guide and this interview in particular are great examples of avoiding either pitfall.

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LCD Soundsystem makes fans dance and cry one last time

Kerouac was cool because had no idea he was, Dennis Miller once said. That may be true, but James Murphy is painfully aware of how cool he is, and often isn’t, and that somehow makes him about as cool as it gets.

Murphy has become an iconic, unlikely rock star in recent years as the driving force behind the dance-punk act LCD Soundsystem, mixing a unique blend of nostalgia, rock geek obsession, and hyper self-awareness, all set to brilliant electronic beats. Then, right at the band’s peak, he decided to call it quits.

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Can playlists ever replace mixtapes?

From 2001 to 2004, I created one mixtape every two months, compiling the best of the music I had been listening to at the time. The idea, inspired by a Cameron Crowe interview, was to make a diary in music that you can look back on years down the line, and be transported back to the period of your life through the songs you were listening to. And it’s fun listening, and you can share with friends, etc. My rules were pretty basic: I would pull together 10 songs from each month and load them on to one 80 minute CD. I usually started with an audio or comedy clip and bisected the mix with another to mark the start of the second month.

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How my computer crisis was like a predator attack

Having never experienced a true computer emergency, it’s been easy to consider myself immune from them. It’s like how I had never missed a flight until I was almost 30, and thought I had some kind of superpower. But once I did, both miss a flight and have a computer emergency, it was the closest thing I think I’ve ever been to a survival situation. Which isn’t to demean people who face true physical danger in the world, but a statement to how my digital self has become a part of my identity to the point that a threat to my computer is a threat to myself. Earlier in the week, I packed up the corpse of my three-year-old MacBook and took it to the Apple Store in Back Bay around noon. I wrapped my external hard drive, which had everything I have in life, digitally speaking, backed up on it, in an old t-shirt. I entered a three-level store that looks like Spielberg’s Minority Report. All transparent or frosted plastic and glass. Brushed aluminum.

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1960 PopSci offers a glimpse into optimism, darkness of Cold War America

The most immediately notable thing about this 1960 issue of Popular Science I picked up a vintage market is the smell. It smells, heavily, of chlorine. Not just chlorine, it smells like an indoor whirlpool Jacuzzi, like filmy chlorinated water and aqua blue PVC, with a vinyl cover holding down vapors that make the nose and eyes burn.

The smell isn’t relevant to the content, and it’s specific to this one water-damaged copy. But it’s a fitting smell, and it conjures images of spilled martinis, one-piece bathing suits and foamy wet chest hair. Consumer products awash in chemicals and exciting new compounds, promising joy and leisure.

The February issue cost 35 cents on the stand, and is about a half-inch thick, printed black and white with spot color, except for a couple of full-color splash ads. One is for Mercury outboard motor boats (“the world’s number 1 outboard”), and another for Pall Mall cigarettes (“Pall Mall’s famous length of fine, rich-tasting tobacco travels and gentles the smoke — makes it mild”). The front page is a painted representation of a City Under Ice being built by the U.S. Army, and otherwise teases a road test of Ford’s first compact car, how to build a magnetic engine, and “The Truth About Truth Serum.”

Popular Science in 1960 is actually not that far a stretch from the magazine of today (even at that time, it had been around for 88 years). The main issue areas are consumer goods and science news. The biggest difference is the heavier focus on hobby and home projects. When the dominant piece of consumer technology was still the car (and apparently the boat), there must have been something attainable and garage-y about science. Science was still something you did lying down on a flatbed cart in greasy coveralls. Maybe there was a welding torch involved, a drill press, or a c-clamp and some epoxy. There are plenty of ads for homemade helicopters and how-to articles on metalworking.

The issue is incredibly heavy on automobiles, specifically, the launch of a line of compact cars from the Detroit automakers—the Ford Falcon, Chevy Corvair, Chrysler Valiant. Incidentally, the Ford Falcon stationwagon is really cool looking. The Falcon article is the second of three road tests on the Big Three’s compacts. In what can only have been an absolute riot, editors drove the Falcon 10,000 miles, from New York, through the South and Texas, and into northern Mexico, where photos feature the Ford alongside a donkey-pulled wagon on a dirt road. Then they turned back along the border, through New Orleans and Georgia and back up the coast. I picture four men in skinny ties, charging everything to the company, including Mexican hookers and road sodas. And for the record, the Falcon drives just fine.

The cover story, which describes a city burrowed underneath the Greenland icecap by the Army Corps of Engineers, is probably the most fascinating feature of the issue. “Camp Century” was a pretty impressive feat, with rooms connected by tunnels carved out of ice, powered by a portable nuclear generator. It boasted a rec hall and theater, laboratories, a barbershop and a chapel, and would serve as home for a group of Army engineers and scientists experimenting with ice cap samples.

At least that’s what the Danish government was told.

In reality, Camp Century was a cover story for Project Iceworm, an experimental Cold War program to build a system of tunnels under the ice in Greenland that could launch up to 600 ICBM warheads at the USSR in case of nuclear war. Yes, this wonder of modern technology featured in this issue of Popular Science and the Saturday Evening Post was in fact a smokescreen for strategically placed nuclear arms. The project proved impractical, and Project Iceworm and Camp Century were soon abandoned. The rec room, chapel and the rest are still out there somewhere in Greenland, deserted along with a flawed plan to annihilate the Soviet population.

You can actually browse the entire Popular Science archive on their website, which is no doubt fascinating. But this one issue I keep around like a coffee table book is my own personal porthole into Cold War America. Science was a hobby as much as a discipline, and consumer products meant identity. And all the while, there’s an underground of labcoats and safety goggles with a much more sinister purpose — an obliteration that never quite came into being. You get the impression, much as you would expect from a science magazine filled with cigarette ads, that they didn't quite know what they were messing with. It’s a fun old magazine to flip through, but it burns the eyes and nose a little.

Popular Science Archives

Blue Ant > The Rickson's

Buzz Rickson’s Black MA-1 Bomber Jacket Cayce Pollard, brand-phobic coolhunter at the center of Pattern Recognition, adores her Japanese-made replica of a standard issue U.S. Air Force flying jacket.

The Rickson’s is a fanatical museum-grade replica of a U.S. MA-1 flying jacket, as purely functional and iconic a garment as the previous century produced…Cayce’s MA-1 trumps any attempt at minimalism, the Rickson’s having been created by Japanese obsessives driven by passions having nothing at all to do with anything remotely like fashion…It is an imitation more real somehow than that which it emulates.

The Rickson’s is a quite real jacket, emblematic for Gibson of the almost religious craftsmanship of Japanese garment makers. Buzz Rickson’s is, in fact, a Japanese clothing company founded in 1993 that specializes in replica vintage flight jackets, one of which is the MA-1. According to their site:

We carefully research and analyze existing vintage flight jackets. We then make every effort to duplicate the material paying close attention to the woven fabric techniques. Firstly, we clarify the exact time the material was made by examining the structure of the fiber, weaving method and spinning technology. For instance, in the case of nylon, we examine the existing nylons to confirm the melting point and conduct an infrared ray spectrum analysis to determine the change in infrared rays and temperature…

And so on. You can find out more about their process, including microscopic photos of nylon threads at their website. The MA-1 was one of the first nylon bomber jackets, designed in the 1950s to replace its bulkier predecessors and keep up with the advance of smaller jets traveling at higher altitudes. You can get MA-1 replicas from various sellers, of varying qualities, but it’s hard to imagine anything topping the Rickson’s. They recreate the colors and the fading of the fabric down to the molecular level.

Cayce wears a black MA-1 jacket, in keeping with her all-black minimal style that accommodates her unique condition. In a marketing twist worthy of a Gibson story, the black MA-1 did not actually exist (the USAF only issued green MA-1s), until Pattern Recognition prompted Buzz Rickson’s to create one as part of its “William Gibson Collection.” This would make the black Rickson’s a perfect replica of a fictional garment, modeled after the real-life perfect replica of an actual vintage item. They are, of course, out of stock from Rickson’s and difficult to find.

Buzz Rickson’s catalog

History Preservation Associates

Rickson’s European site, William Gibson Collection

This guy bought one