Every year sees the debut of new things -- new actors on the scene, new gadgets, new websites, etc. -- that define an otherwise arbitary date. Sometimes they so quickly become part of the firmament of our lives that they stop seeming new and simply feel like they've always been just there. With some of those, and a few wilder choices, here are our picks for the things that 2011 has given us. 


Jessica Chastain & Nina Arianda 

Two young actresses who roared onto the scene this year, Chastain and Arianda are already receiving accolades usually reserved for far more mature actresses. Chastain seems like a lock for an Academy Award nomination, and really would deserve one for any of the many movies she was in this year, whether it be Take Shelter, Tree of Life, The Debt, or The Help. Meanwhile Arianda has received raves for two Broadway performances in Born Yesterday and Venus in Fur, with The New Yorker's John Lahr calling her "Broadway's new star." Both are terrific young actresses who have so far blessedly avoided boring ingenue roles. Welcome, ladies!


Gays Can Openly Serve in the Military 

Yeah, did you hear about that? The bizarre, two-decades-old "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy was repealed this year, meaning good soldiers (and bad ones too, obviously) can no longer be kicked out of the military if someone discovers that they're gay. That is a pretty cool new thing! Sort of in that same spirit, military lib dubs were a great addition to our ever weirdening (queering?) internet culture. 


iPad Apps We'd Actually Use

Though tablet apps have been out longer than a year, 2011 was when we really felt like we might actually want to start using them. Specifically magazine apps, as publishers unveiled spiffy new tablet versions that made us think, hey, maybe we want to buy one of those tablet things. Mind you we haven't yet, but now that we know that we can get some good magazines on the thing, sometimes included in the cost of a regular subscription, we just might take the plunge in 2012. 



The Wirecutter

A gadget site for people who don't know that much about gadgets, The Wirecutter carefully and helpfully recommends while not delving too much into specs. Former Gizmodo editor Brian Lam teamed up with The Awl to create the site, and his excellent holiday gift guide alone proves the site well worth the investment. Lam is thoughtful enough to make it easy to trust his recommendations -- he's never too sneering, or so effusive that it seems over-hyped. A good, smart new site. 


Cheap, Legal Music

This year the Swedish music listening service came to US worker-bees. It's not that streaming music services didn't already exist in the US, Spotify just did it bigger and better and free-er (for now). None of that Pandora radio shackle crap. For those of us who sit at our computers for 8-12 hour blocks, having playlists, albums and radio right there, sans commercial interruption (unless you're cheapskates, like us), helps make the day tolerable. Even for those who don't listen to Spotify, the music player's entree onto the scene has forced competitors to up their ante: Rdio now has a gratis option, for example. Cheers for Spotify. 


American Horror Story

We didn't put this FX show on our Best Television of the Year list because it's so deeply, deeply silly, but man if it isn't also highly entertaining. What's fun and new about this show is that it's the first horror series in a long while that actually maintains the scares. Sure most of it is arch camp -- Jessica Lange's presence is like a hurricane made of perfume and cigarette smoke -- but certainly something in each episode is actually scary, spooky, creepy, etc. It's been fun to have horror on TV this year -- and no, True Blood never counted. 


The New High Line Section

In June of this year, a new section of the High Line park opened, extending the marvelous converted railroad track on Manhattan's west side up to 30th Street. The section is narrower and winds between buildings in interesting ways and is as fluidly done as the older section to the south. The High Line is such a nice testament to public works actually, y'know, working, and that the city successfully followed through on the new segment (with a third opening to come) was a heartening signifier that people are still invested in the totally cool project. 


Beyoncé's Baby

So technically this thing isn't born yet, but there's a good chance it will be before the year ends, which basically means that the second coming will have arrived. When Beyoncé announced her pregnancy at the MTV Video Music Awards in September, it felt like we were all pregnant. (In a good way.) Really, is there any way that the product of musical superstars like Beyoncé and Jay-Z, America's non-political First Couple, could be anything but a magical starling child sent from the glittery heavens to save us all? It's just very exciting. Plus it gave us lots of weird conspiracy theories about a fake pregnancy, which were fun in their own right.


Other Planets We'd Actually Want to Visit 

Up until 2011, discoveries of new planets usually involved the words "gas giants." They were planets, yes, but nothing like the sort of places we saw on Star Trek. Then scientists announced that they'd found a planet, 4,000 light years away, that they believe to be made entirely of diamond. So, while it may be faraway and be orbiting very close to a neutron star, it at least gives us some hope that one day (soon, maybe!) we might build a spaceship, fly out there, and then all our economic woes will be solved. Oh, and, for when climate change makes living on this planet an impossibility (so, like, by 2014?), there's always another Earth to go to, a recently discovered place only 600 measly light years away that might have a habitable climate for life. So, no worries! Run those air conditioners all you want! We're going to live on Kepler-22b.


Google Interior VIew

Sick of going to Google Street View and staring longingly at shops and other businesses, wishing you could take a peek inside? Well, 2011 heard your prayers and gave us interior view, taking us into various places of business to satisfy, really, even more of our voyeuristic curiosity. No, no, tin foil hat wearers. Interior view doesn't go inside your house. Well, yet. It will someday, but by then we'll be long gone to Kepler-22b, so it won't even matter.