It wouldn’t be the end of the year without an onslaught of top ten lists, and perhaps the least fascinating one is the most obvious: Barbara Walters’ most fascinating people of the year. She announced nine of the ten picks this week, and they’re not too surprising: Miley Cyrus, Kanye and Kim, the guys from Duck Dynasty, Jennifer Lawrence, Prince George. Yes, the baby. Walters’ picks, of course, give us the inspiration to come up with out own favorite pop culture heavyweights of the year. Here’s who we’d choose as the most fascinating — and each one of them can actually articulate thoughts through speech!
From Mad Men to Downton Abbey to Homeland, much of what we think of as “quality television” took a turn for the disappointing in 2013. Not so, though, with Breaking Bad, which kept us rapt and guessing until the very end of its five-season run — and managed to draw in a practically unheard-of-on-cable audience of over ten million viewers for its grand finale. Although the show’s mastermind has received no shortage of accolades, it’s worth noting that Gilligan, by all accounts a great guy to work with, has remained admirably humble throughout his rise to household-name status (unlike some other star showrunners we know). — Judy Berman
Don’t call it a comeback, but the riot grrrl pioneer exploded back on the music scene this year with a new band and record (The Julie Ruin’s Run Fast), as well as a documentary (The Punk Singer) chronicling her rise to fame in Bikini Kill and Le Tigre and her recent struggle with Lyme Disease, which was to blame for her brief hiatus from music. With ’90s nostalgia in full effect, Hanna’s influence on the underground culture of the time has come back in full force, but this is one cultural influencer who doesn’t feel like an artifact from a bygone time. We’re looking forward to hearing her create more progressive and exciting music in the years to come.
Orange Is the New Black, along with House of Cards and Arrested Development, established Netflix as more than just a place to binge-watch the same old TV shows for a second and third time. While OITNB boasts perhaps the most diverse and interesting group of actors in any current television show, it was Laverne Cox who found a breakout role as Sophia Burset, a transgender inmate. It was a bold move to cast Cox rather than a cisgender actor in the role; not only did she have the opportunity to bring a personal touch to the character, but Cox also broke ground for other transgender actors, proving there are more places for those like her within the entertainment industry.
Yes, Lorde is 16; yes, she’s from New Zealand; and yes, that hair is 100% real. But I’m fascinated less by her youth or her national origin than the budding pop star’s ability to take the precocious, cerebral pop on display in Pure Heroine and spin it into a global smash hit. As the author of all her album’s lyrics and the co-writer of its music, Lorde deserves some credit for reaching beyond the indie blogosphere, attracting a fan base so large she’s more Miley Cyrus’ peer than Sky Ferreira’s. The major-label deal she’s had since age 12 probably didn’t hurt, either, but the impressiveness of a #1 single that’s a piece of cultural criticism rather than an ode to boys ‘n’ breakups still stands. — Alison Herman
Had he retired? Was he becoming a recluse? Was David Bowie dying? Almost a decade after a heart attack forced him offstage and out of the spotlight, fans worried that his music career was over. And then, suddenly, he was back. In an era when even the most marginal acts are releasing trailers for music videos and sending press releases about their unremarkable album art, it was a fabulous shock to wake up January 8 (Bowie’s 66th birthday) to a brand-new single, video, and album announcement. The news was proof that, after all those years of silence, he still knows just how to surprise and delight us — and the album, The Next Day, turned out to be rather fantastic. Also, the music video that finally brought Bowie and Swinton into the same frame? Truly the greatest gift either androgynous icon could have given us. — Judy Berman
It’s not every day that one of the greatest, yet least prolific, American authors drops an epic, 800-plus-page novel on bookshelves that you and your friends are desperately racing to read within just a few days — but Donna Tartt has that power over us. The Goldfinch is a very long, beautifully written, meticulously plotted, and heartbreaking novel that goes from the posh Upper East Side of Manhattan to the seedy outskirts of Las Vegas to the European black-market art underground. Are we going to have to wait another decade for a follow-up? Let’s hope not.
The Haim sisters — Este, Danielle, and Alana — have been hustling for years, and all of that work has finally paid off. Their debut album, Falling, received raves from critics and listeners alike, and the throwback sounds populating the album are reminiscent of late ’80s, early ’90s dance-pop. But they are rockers at their core, and Falling is jam-packed with toe-tapping tunes that make rock ‘n’ roll seem actually fun again, rather than a chore to listen to.
McBride is no stranger to being a publishing success: his debut book, The Color of Water, received massive critical acclaim and was a bestseller. While his first book was a memoir about his white, Jewish mother and his own search for identity, his next two books — both fiction — also saw critical and commercial success. But it was his third novel, The Good Lord Bird, that picked up this year’s National Book Award. Following a young slave who passes as a girl and winds up in John Brown’s army of abolitionists, the novel is a hilarious and touching romp through an almost-forgotten era of American history.
Is anyone having more fun than Jessica Lange, whose star turn on three seasons of Ryan Murphy’s psychodrama American Horror Story earned her an Emmy? The only possible competition comes from her cast mates, who get the chance to camp and vamp it up alongside her. On this season, in which Lange plays the leader of a coven of witches in New Orleans, she brings not just the usual campy, bitchy performance of previous seasons; Fiona Goode is seemingly the missing female antihero we’ve been striving for, offering a balance of pathos and evil. AHS: Coven has brought the series out of the trash-TV ghetto, and with Lange leading the cast, it’s as good as any other critically acclaimed drama on television.
McQueen is no stranger to putting uncomfortable imagery on film; his first two features, both starring Michael Fassbender, dealt with IRA prisoners on a hunger strike and sex addiction. Keeping up with his affinity for not-so-cheery subject matter, McQueen turned his lens on the institution of American slavery in 12 Years a Slave. Assembling a stellar ensemble cast (including his usual star, Fassbender), McQueen’s film is an unflinching and emotionally harrowing cinematic experience, and the British director, per usual, holds nothing back.