Omnireviewer (week of Feb. 12, 2017)

19 reviews, mostly podcasts.

Literature, etc.

Amanda Hess: “How a Fractious Women’s Movement Came to Lead the Left” — This isn’t just an account of the women’s march on Washington and its various internal controversies; it is also a brief history of conflicts within feminism since the days of the women’s suffrage movement. Extremely edifying.

Movies

13th — This is an intensely powerful film with such a tremendous roster of eloquent interviewees that its lack of narration hardly seems like a stunt. Together, the guests gathered by Ava DuVernay (including Angela Davis and Cory Booker) tell a long, fucked up story about the political processes that led to the staggering rise in incarceration of black people at the end of the 20th century. It leads with the racist myth-making of D.W. Griffith, and traces those myths through the increasingly covert dog whistle rhetoric of “law and order” presidents: Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr., and Clinton. It isn’t just powerful argumentation, it is deft and irresistible storytelling, even as it becomes increasingly horrifying as it nears the present day. Every talking head is beautifully framed (DuVernay isn’t just a documentarian, after all) and the soundtrack is a brilliant mix of the likes of Nina Simone, Killer Mike and Lawrence Brownlee. (Look him up. Do it.) If the Academy chafes at the nomination of what is definitely a TV show and not a movie for its Documentary Feature award, this would be a stellar alternative to my preferred nominee, O.J.: Made in AmericaPick of the week. 

Television

Battlestar Galactica: Season 2, episodes 18-20 — Oh, and they pulled the season together. “Downloaded” is a classic, and the premise of having Caprica Six have her own “Head Baltar” as a reversal of Baltar’s situation with his own hallucinated (?) Six is the best addition to the show since Pegasus. Watching Tricia Helfer and James Callis play the opposite of their usual roles is a delight and demonstrates just how much they’re the best pairing in the show, and two of the most skilled actors it possesses. Grace Park… less so. The finale is a stunner, far exceeding the season one finale with its clever time jump mechanism, but also with one of the most compelling political plotlines the show has done so far. BSG season two is intensely patchy, but when it’s good, it’s staggering.

Music

Philip Glass Ensemble: Einstein on the Beach (1993 recording) — I don’t know why it took me so long to listen to this in its entirety. I have known a few of its more substantial chunks like the back of my hand for a lot of years, but had never made my way through the entire opera. It took Laurie Anderson to make me finally do it. (And hoo boy, does “O Superman” ever borrow liberally from this. In the best way.) This week, Einstein on the Beach accompanied my bus commutes, my writing, my running and my IKEA furniture assembly. (Einstein on the Beach plus IKEA furniture might not be your idea of a Saturday afternoon well spent, but I was happy as a clam.) I think if you’re going to listen to all of Einstein on the Beach, the way to do it is to take it in bits and be otherwise occupied for at least some of it. I can imagine that it would be mentally exhausting to listen to the entire recording — even though it runs a solid hour shorter than actual productions do. But what may be tedious taken all at once is often euphoric when heard in pieces. Some sections are more enticing that others, and since the sections are so long and so repetitive, that means that the lesser ones tend to outstay their welcome. (The “Night Train” scene, with its dated electric piano sound is a particular offender. Why is it that sound gets on my nerves but I’m completely fine with the omnipresent Farfisa organ? We’ll never know.) But the best scenes in this are actually curiously moving, in spite of having virtually no content. The opening and closing “Knee Plays,” where poetry is recited repeatedly alongside a chorus that’s just counting out loud is, I dare say, beautiful. But I’ll be damned if I know why. I’ll be damned if I can figure out what any of this means at all. I’d love to see it, though I halfway think it might be insufferable. The best bits of this are possibly Philip Glass’s finest achievements. Certainly I prefer it to anything he’s written for conventional ensembles of acoustic instruments. I intend to check out the 1978 recording as well, though it is less complete than this second one. Actually, come to think of it, that might be more of a feature than a bug.

Podcasts

Reply All: “Second Language” — Sruthi’s cyborg interview isn’t the real anchor of this episode, which is mostly notable for a Yes Yes No in which I was proud to be a yes while Alex Goldman was a no. But it was about Norm Kelly and I’m Canadian, so it almost doesn’t count.

On the Media: “See You In Court” — This features a useful primer on what exactly a constitutional crisis constitutes, another primer on the differences between conventional liberal values and anti-fascist tactics, and a news consumer’s handbook on coverage of protests. So, it’s meat-and-potatoes On the Media of the sort that I suspect Brooke Gladstone is most in favour of. And, as much as I enjoy Bob Garfield’s impassioned editorials, I confess I’m really still in it for the analysis. This is great. Pick of the week. 

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The LEGO Batman Movie and MasterChef Junior” — I’m inclined to check out both of these things. Hearing Glen Weldon enthuse about The LEGO Batman Movie feels like the culmination of an entire thread of discourse that’s existed in this podcast for years. And MasterChef Junior sounds like just what I need to make myself feel inadequate just as I’m upping my own cooking game. You can’t be too humble.

Radiolab: “Radiolab Presents: Ponzi Supernova” — I’m not sold enough on this to listen to Ponzi Supernova itself, but I’m happy to have heard a bit of this story with interjections from Jad and Robert.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: The Grammys” — The Grammys are a joke. That is all.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Philip Pullman To Follow-Up ‘His Dark Materials’ Trilogy” — I don’t know if I’m happier about the fact that Pullman is writing more His Dark Materials or the fact that Glen Weldon got to talk to the guy who is indirectly responsible for him meeting his husband. Regardless, they are both lovely things.

The Gist: “David Frum Beseeches You To Focus” — The interview with David Frum is well worth your while to hear somebody talk who is smart and involved with supposedly elitist coastal media, but is also Republican. I can’t ever quite like him, but I’m glad that he exists. If only all Republicans were like him.

Chapo Trap House: “The Devil in Mother Jones” — It would have been great to hear them talk to Bauer a bit about his piece on private prisons, but I’ll take right-wing militia infiltration too.

Love and Radio: “How to Argue” — A follow-up to “The Silver Dollar,” a back episode I’m fairly fond of. I’m honestly a bit conflicted on Daryl Davis’s advice about how to talk to horrible people. One of his premises is that everybody deserves to be heard, even if they’re wrong or hateful. Much of the time I’m not convinced of this. But honestly, the thing that I’ve been praising Love and Radio for over the past several months is its ability to present people with whom I disagree in all of their complexity. I’d never say that this show should stop featuring guests that I don’t agree with. So, why do I find Daryl Davis’s radical acceptance of hateful people so hard to accept? I can’t easily answer this. But how like Love and Radio to be troubling, even in a basic, utilitarian discussion of tactics.

On the Media: “Out Like Flynn” — I think the idea that General Flynn’s resignation might have actually thrown the Trump spin machine off kilter is ludicrously optimistic, but that’s just me.

99% Invisible: “Usonia the Beautiful” — I preferred the first part of this story, that detailed the actual development and history of the Usonian homes. But this is interesting for the details about how those homes succeeded and how they failed to live up to their promise, a generation later.

Arts and Ideas: “Rude Valentines. Neil Gaiman, Translating China’s Arts” — Yeah, I can get behind this. This is BBC’s major arts and culture podcast, and it’s as fun and smart as you’d expect. I understand there are Brits who think the BBC is severely wanting, and maybe if I lived there and was more inundated by it (and if I watched their news), maybe I’d see some of the problems. But I more or less think that it’s the platonic ideal of media and that we should all have a licence fee model to pay for a public broadcaster.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Legion and Planet Earth II” — I feel that Glen Weldon is overstating the extent to which Planet Earth II anthropomorphizes the animals it features by a smidgen. Linda Holmes is right to point out that it mostly portrays them as wanting to find food and reproduce. I’d add that the farthest David Attenborough goes in his anthropomorphic writing is to portray an animal as making a choice. Which, of course, they do. To what extent is the baby lizard in the now viral clip with the racer snakes anthropomorphized? The film is showing something that is true: the lizard’s life is at risk, and it has to either outrun some snakes or stay perfectly still. Tension can and should be allowed to rest on the decision that the lizard has to make, because it’s a real decision, even if not a conscious one, and it is legitimately high-stakes. I have little to no interest in Legion.

On The Media: “Leak State” — The highlights of this are the segments on why we should be careful with our use of the word “treason,” and why we should be careful when comparing Donald Trump to various other strongman leaders. Basically, the thing to take from this is that the stuff you say means things — specific things, if you’re using language right — so if you’re on TV or writing in a newspaper, you should be aware of the specific things that the stuff you say means. Has this become less than self-evident?

Beef and Dairy Network: “Dr David Pin” — Okay, we’ll see where this goes. I’m aware that this is semi-serialized, so I’m hoping that they can build on the continuity they establish without relying on it too heavily. Because this tiny episode would in itself be a fairly excellent longer segment in a sketch show. But I’m optimistic about this — it is actually produced like the thing it purports to be, thus eliminating the largest problem with the other serialized comedy podcast I listen to (Welcome to Night Vale).

Omnireviewer (week of Feb. 5, 2017)

24 reviews!

Live events

Run the Jewels: Live at the PNE Forum — In the middle of what was, by Vancouver standards, a snowstorm, Run the Jewels played a show in basically a huge barn. I honestly couldn’t be bothered to make the metaphor subtler. Near the end of the show, El-P assured us all that we weren’t crazy to believe that the world outside that room was batshit insane. But Killer Mike reminded us that there’s a community of people, some of whom were gathered in that huge barn, with whom we can at least commiserate. The latest Run the Jewels record is angry and resistant, which is the only thing that a Trump era Run the Jewels record could possibly be. But I can think of worse things for a Run the Jewels live show to be in 2017 than a locus of understanding and warmth.

Music

Danish String Quartet: Adès/Nørgard/Abrahamsen — A stunning disc, with music by one modern composer I knew I loved (Abrahamsen), one that I wasn’t sure I loved (Adès) and one that I’d never heard (Nørgard). Adès’s Arcadiana is my favourite work here, and in particular the sixth movement, inspired by Elgar. Abrahamsen’s preludes are trifles in themselves, but they add up to a lot when combined. The neoclassical finale is a hoot. The Danes play all of this with extreme subtlety and seeming ease. Between this and their folk album, they’ve basically confirmed themselves as my favourite string quartet of their generation.

William Basinski: The Disintegration Loops —This five-hour long set of pieces is maybe the most depressing music I’ve ever heard. Half ambient music, half concept art, The Disintegration Loops depends on you knowing at least something about the method by which the music was produced to get the full effect: this music is the sound of tape loops playing over and over until they’re so decrepit that they barely produce sound anymore. There’s no good way to put the effect of it into words. It’s like death, rot, wasting diseases and the collapse of civilization made into music. Particularly affecting is loop 2.2, on the second volume of the collection, which starts off as a moodily stagnant snippet of what can barely be called melody and disintegrates to an extent that every repetition contains near-silences. The continual rotation of the tape in spite of its degradation sounds like failure in spite of effort. The fact that the tapes were finished on September 11, 2001 has become a crucial part of this music’s paratext, but its effect goes well beyond the events of that day. The Disintegration Loops manages to evoke just about every negative, undesirable abstraction ever conceived by a human, and it does so by almost prosaically simple means. Its elegance is as undeniable as it is dreadful, and I will likely listen to it many more times in spite of it making me feel sick. Pick of the week.

Jethro Tull: Aqualung — I’m doing a bit of remedial listening for my upcoming week on Jethro Tull for One Week // One Band. I say “remedial” because this album is the one classic Tull album that I haven’t really given its due in terms of listening time over the years. Ironic, perhaps, since it’s their most popular by a mile. The thing that always kept me at arm’s length was the recording quality. If I remember the story correctly, this was recorded in the sanctuary of a big church that had been converted into a studio (and Led Zeppelin were in the nicer studio in the basement), so the whole record sounds sort of distant and hazy. Well, I just listened to Steven Wilson’s 40th anniversary remix, and it definitely goes some distance towards correcting this. It’ll never sound as perfect as Thick as a Brick, or even the three earlier albums, but it’s nice to have a version of the album that allows the material on it to be shown in the best light. And every time I listen to this, the material is a lot better than I remember.

Laurie Anderson: Big Science — One of my favourite discoveries of the year. Laurie Anderson has always been on my radar as “that performance artist who also made pop albums.” Given that resoundingly positive impression, what took me so long to actually listen to this? We’ll never know. Big Science is funny, scary, and addictive. Anderson is a captivating presence, chilly and affectless to the point of coming off like a deadpan comedian at times. Anderson’s spoken word pieces are just that: spoken word pieces. They’re performance-dependent, and the drama comes from the hearing of them. In “From the Air”: listen to how she times the lines “We are going down; we are all going down… together.” Instant pathos, only to be undercut by “And I said, uh oh. This is gonna be some day,” and the refrain: “Stand by.” The best tracks on this album make me remember how much I love language. Just, in general. “Your eyes. It’s a day’s work just looking into them.” I mean, it’s a miracle that we have an infrastructure like language to express meaning in that way. Obviously, “O Superman” is the highlight. The way that it manages to bring together its two main themes in the end is outstanding. To crib ever so slightly from Isaac Butler’s understanding of this song (see below), somebody is sitting alone, listening to the phone ring. It’s their mom. She leaves a concerned message. It rings again. And then things really get going. It’s unclear to both the listener and the protagonist of the song who is actually speaking. (“And I said okay: who is this really?”) But it’s clear that this is a person who knows something very frightening and is trying to deliver a warning. (The use of a vocoder even makes it sound like a deliberately disguised phone voice.) And at the end, the most chilling part of the song, the protagonist is alone once more, nostalgic for home and mother — except that the language and sentiment of the mysterious caller has infected the nostalgia so that the protagonist is wishing to be held in her mother’s “military arms.” There’s almost no better expression of anxiety in all of music: the kind of generalized, non-specific anxiety that something very bad is going to happen, and even a retreat into the past won’t save you. I can’t wait to dive deeper into this.

Literature, etc.

Isaac Butler: “Here Come the Planes” — This is an outstanding essay that uses a piece of pop culture to help understand the cultural magnitude of a major world event, namely the attacks on the World Trade Centres. The fact that the cultural artifact in question, Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” predates that event by twenty years only makes the argumentation more interesting. Thought processes like this are the reason I’m a pop culture obsessive. I just wish I could express mine so eloquently.

Television

Battlestar Galactica: Season 2, episodes 9-17 — Within this set of nine episodes, this show rises to one of its highest points and sinks into meandering nonsense remarkably quickly. “Pegasus” is one of the best single episodes of the series, managing to totally alter the status quo (albeit briefly), and the “Resurrection Ship” two-parter is completely thrilling. And then, in short order, we get “Black Market” and “Sacrifice,” which feature some of the most ludicrous and unmotivated character developments we’ve seen so far, and bespoke plotlines that feel like they belong in some other show (CSI and 24 respectively). I confess, I’m concerned. I was ready to be one of the weirdos who thought that the back half of BSG is actually good. But I don’t think this is even the point where most fans feel it drops off. Here’s hoping it picks up in the next few. Also, R.I.P. Richard Hatch.

Games

The Silent Age — First off, if the title is a Bowie reference, it isn’t noticeably borne out in the game itself. Which is fine. Secondly, it’s always fun to see that there are devs out there intent on continuing the legacy of Hugo’s House of Horrors. It’s incredible how similar an experience this is to that 1990 title, at least in the fundamentals. That isn’t a slight — I always loved that game as a kid. Long live point-and-clicks. (Or, well, I guess Hugo was parser-based, but it’s functionally the same.) The Silent Age is admirable as much for its straightforwardness as anything. Narratively, it’s an unabashed cookie-cutter time travel potboiler, and it doesn’t try to play with or deconstruct the tropes, aside from a quick throwaway line about a certain plot twist that “reads like bad science fiction.” It’s interesting to play a game that’s basically sincere after having been through so many super-meta adventure games. This is one of those games where the story is essentially a mode of conveyance for puzzles. And the puzzles themselves are reminiscent of ones from early adventure games as well, given that they’re largely sets of obstacles placed between you and a fairly obvious goal. Turn this valve, and that formerly flooded room drains, revealing a handgun that you can use to shoot out the power of a huge fan, allowing you to pass through and rummage around in the tool kit on the other side for a pair of wire cutters that will allow you to cut the power supply to some poor welder’s torch, thus distracting him so that you can grab his wrench, which will help you unbolt a trapdoor. That sort of thing. The one thing that sets it pleasantly apart is that its protagonist, Joe, is an unassuming janitor whose inner monologue puts him constantly two steps behind the player. Thus he always seems surprised when a puzzle solution that he ostensibly devised works out. This was routinely amusing to me. It’s a fun game, seemingly devised to cater more to those of us who crave the familiar rhythms of these sorts of games than to anybody looking for something especially preoccupying or innovative. Nothing wrong with that.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Super Bowl Thoughts, From ‘Overdog’ Tom Brady To Sparkly Lady Gaga” — For the third year running, I seem to have watched the Super Bowl. I still do not understand the rules of football or how you win or what they’re doing. But I enjoy cooking and eating decadent food and being in the presence of people in an enthusiastic frame of mind. However, I actually do understand enough to know what Stephen Thompson, Gene Demby and Linda Holmes are talking about in this episode, and I know enough to be distinctly unpleased with this Super Bowl’s outcome. But at least there was Lady Gaga. And nachos. Nachos make everything better.

The Gist: “The Business of Corporate Protest” — I was making an omelette while I listened to this, so I wasn’t giving it my full attention. But Pesca’s spiel about why niceties are a good thing to definitely not ignore in national politics caught my attention and is therefore probably worth your time. My omelette turned out great, by the way.

Crimetown: “A Deal With the Devil” — A great instalment, with a rather pleasing parallel narrative that contrasts three different ways to get out of the mob: to take witness protection, to gradually go straight, or to go to jail. Of course, the fourth one is to get killed, and there’s a bit of that in there too. This is probably my favourite episode of this show so far, which is interesting given that I’ve generally been more inclined towards the ones that deal with the office of the mayor. But this is just so beautifully self-contained. It almost works as a narrative on its own.

The Memory Palace: “The Rose of Long Island” — Nate DiMeo has a large back catalogue of episodes about women who lived their lives running counter to the expectations and strictures of their time. This is one of the most complex of those stories, because it ends with its protagonist doing something that is about as anti-anti-establishment as it gets. The complexity makes it more beautiful, and DiMeo’s writing is profoundly sensitive and lovely.

On the Media: “The Ties That Bind” — Brooke Gladstone is away, but this is quite good for an all-Bob Garfield episode. Highlights include Garfield’s boss (politely) chastising him on the show, and Garfield’s piece on the present state of media concentration (which is much, much worse in today’s supposedly post-fragmentation world than it ever was before the internet). It’s lovely to hear my favourite media criticism source tackle my favourite media-related issue. And I’m grateful to Garfield for pointing me towards Jonathan Taplin’s upcoming book Move Fast and Break Things, about how Facebook, Google and Amazon are ruining everything. Sounds like my kind of book.

Reply All: “Storming the Castle” — Alex Goldman’s interview with Longmont Potion Castle sheds a bit of light on him, the same way that “Shine On You Crazy Goldman” did on P.J. Vogt. But it’s not especially entertaining. Longmont is funny in the right context, but he clearly hasn’t thought through his reasons for doing what he does enough to actually talk meaningfully about it.

99% Invisible: “The Eponymist” — This is a set of two stories by The Allusionist’s Helen Zaltzman, with guest appearances by Roman Mars, both dealing with eponyms. I, like Roman, would also listen to a podcast that was just this every week. This reminded me that I like The Allusionist. I should listen to it more.

On the Media: “#PresidentBannon” — I do not understand Steve Bannon at all. I know I hate him, but I definitely do not understand him. “Facts get shares; opinions get shrugs?” Can a top aide in the Trump administration seriously believe this?

Chapo Trap House: “Our Values Are Under Attack” — Bit of a limp one. Tim Heidecker operates on a similar level of insincerity and insideriness as the Chapos, but he’s politically not super informed. The Chapos need to be able to talk politics without explaining things. That’s why Matt Taibbi and Adam Curtis were better guests than Heidecker.

Longform: “Ezra Edelman” — Edelman is admirably eloquent for a person who so obviously doesn’t want to talk about O.J. anymore, or himself, ever. But there’s nothing here that you don’t get from watching the film itself. O.J.: Made in America is one of those creations that just lays it all out on the table. After eight hours of that, what else is there to say?

The Heart: “The Beloved” — A lovely personal narrative produced by the person whose narrative it is. This is at once an exploration of a unique gender identity, a guided meditation, and a bit of total smut. It’s The Heart.

You Must Remember This: “Dead Blondes” Parts 1 & 2 — Mostly it’s just nice to be listening to this again. These two stories of, what else, dead blondes are relatively slight in themselves, but I have confidence that Karina Longworth will gradually build to something close to a grand theory of blondeness in old Hollywood. Even if she doesn’t though, it’s fun to hear her tell sleazy gossipy stories.

Theory of Everything: “Doomed to Repeat” — Once again, the preparation of eggs prevented me from paying full attention to a show. But this time, it was Chinese-style eggs and tomatoes with sesame oil and Shaoxing rice wine served on steamed rice. No mere omelette. But Benjamen Walker will always manage to cut through my attention to another task, and this exploration of how targeted advertizing changed drastically over the last few years (and yes, may have contributed to Trump winning the election) is fascinating stuff. But slightly less fascinating than the tangy sauce and scallions that I finished off the dish with.

In Our Time: “Hannah Arendt” — A really fantastic hour of radio, offering an introduction to a figure so complex that it’s not even clear exactly what discipline she belongs to. Melvyn Bragg and his panel spend their allotted time summarizing the salient points of Arendt’s most important books, particularly The Origins of Totalitarianism, and they push straight past the reductive mischaracterizations of Arendt that resulted from the misunderstanding of some of her pithier slogans. They also discuss the opposition that she faced for things like her ironic treatment of the Eichmann trial, and they’re willing to entertain the notion that she may in fact have been wrong to take that approach as a writer. It’s lovely stuff, and I’ll certainly be seeking out Arendt’s work myself, like every panicked liberal seems to be doing right now. Pick of the week.

Code Switch: “Oscars So Black… At Least, In Documentaries” — Ava DuVernay is the best. This just reinforces the extent to which I need to watch 13th, and also I Am Not Your Negro. I’m still in the tank for O.J.: Made in America, but this seems like a pretty stacked category.

99% Invisible: “Usonia 1” — Ah, I love a good meaty architecture story on this show. This is about the moment in Frank Lloyd Wright’s career when he switched for a moment from making big, beautiful extravagant homes for rich people to designing a home that would cost the equivalent of $85,000 today. Could somebody please start thinking like this again?

Omnireviewer (week of Jan. 20, 2017)

At long last, I’ve decided to trade in my long serving podcatcher, Stitcher, for something a little shinier, namely Overcast. I just figured I’d try it out because I’m deeply sympathetic to the developer’s commitment to an open, RSS-based future for podcasting, which would ensure that my beloved medium doesn’t have to start competing in the attention economy and grubbing for clicks on Facebook and similar cesspools of deviance and decrepitude. But before I made this decision, I made sure to check my final listening stats on Stitcher. Since first downloading the app on September 19, 2014, my total listening time is the rather pleasing sum of 1,000 hours. Less roundly, 1,000 hours and 29 minutes. That’s an average of about 52 minutes a day. Not bad.

17 reviews.

Movies

Sicario — This confirms that Denis Villeneuve is a director that I definitely want to see more from. This is a crazily tense movie with great performances from Emily Blunt and Benicio del Toro in particular, but also Josh Brolin. It’s definitely most notable for being a) a great thriller, and b) a really interesting take on the “strong female lead” trope. This is a movie that doesn’t just mindlessly let its protagonist kick ass, but rather sees her face intense negation and danger at the hands of her male superiors — but without ever leaving Blunt’s character’s perspective or denying her interiority. This strikes me as rare and interesting. (See the AV Club review for more.) It’s no Arrival, but I’m happy to have seen it, and excited to be moving backwards through Villeneuve’s catalogue. Next stop: Prisoners.

Television

Battlestar Galactica: Season 2, episodes 1-8 —  Well, they’re expanding the uses of their made-up cursing. In the second episode, we get “mutherfracker” and “godsdamn” in the same conversation. So far, this season has more or less kept pace with the first. I’m beginning to feel that the show is copping out by having all of the military’s most dubious moves happen on Colonel Tighe’s watch. He’s an innately unlikable character, so this seems like a way for the show to motion towards a nuanced portrayal of its military-aligned protagonists without compromising the integrity of its central figure, Commander Adama. Part of me feels that this would be more interesting if it were Adama, with all of his moral posturing, who was making the shitty calls. Still, I’m very much enjoying this and as early 2000s political genre television goes, this is well ahead of 24 in terms of nuance. Not that that’s a high bar.

Music

Chvrches: Every Open Eye — I spent a bunch of this week listening to Bleachers’ “I Wanna Get Better” on repeat. But I can’t seem to get through that full album. Chvrches is the antidote to this. The first record had monstrously good singles and a couple of prime album cuts, but this second record is great from start to finish. It’s 45 minutes of pure pop catharsis. Only “Make Them Gold” lets down the side. Where most of the album is openly making the best of negative experiences, “Make Them Gold” is like a self-help book rendered in verse. That aside, though, I find new highlights on this every time I listen to it. This time around, it was the elegant chorus of “Keep You On My Side” that hit me hardest. Check out how it glides through the first two lines, before hitting hard only on the third. This has turned out to be the album from 2015 that I’ve continued to listen through. Pick of the week. 

Games

Replica — During the Steam winter sale, I can never resist a two dollar 8-bit indie game. But good lord is this one ever ersatz. The idea is clever on its face: you’ve been imprisoned by the security arm of an authoritarian government, and all you have in your possession is somebody else’s cellphone. Periodically, you’re contacted by an agent of the state who nudges you to begin collecting data on the person who owns the cellphone. You have to crack codes, scan text messages and so forth to find evidence that this person is a terrorist — though, of course, they may not be. But once you’re past the premise, everything falls apart. The character who serves as the primary voice of the authoritarian regime is horrendously overcooked and says things along the lines of “Knowing who Che Guevara is DEFINITELY means you’re a communist.” It’s fictional totalitarianism in the highest possible register. And while modern authoritarianism does seem to be getting more and more overt, I’m still always going to be interested in fiction that depicts more realistic (i.e. surreptitious) systems of control. Like Papers, Please, for instance. This game is aping that one right down to its 8-bit aesthetic. But where Replica features a rabid ideologue talking shit at you throughout the whole game, Papers, Please tells a story of oppression by way of a border patrol and the people who pass through it — who generally decline to monologue at you. Much cleverer. Also, there are generally a few things in this that display an unsophisticated understanding of the politics the game is dealing with. The words “terrorism” and “revolution” are used effectively interchangeably, which could be clever — if the writer (or, to be fair, possibly the translator) didn’t have the perpetrator of these acts also use the words interchangeably. And most of the game’s multiple endings (yeah, this guy really just wanted to make Papers, Please) conclude with the famous Mussolini quote that starts “All within the state…” It’s a nice touch, but the developer also uses that quote at the end of the game’s credits, missing an opportunity to use an opposing quote. It really feels like the place where you’d put an anti-authoritarian quote from Orwell, or Thoreau, maybe. As if that’s not enough, the game contains at least two blatant references to superior indie games (The Stanley Parable and, yes, Papers, Please) that have no function within the story, but serve simply as a way for the developer to say “look at me, I’m making a game!” Replica is one of those games that still occasionally passes muster in the indie games community, in spite of being pretty far below the average level of sophistication of political art in more established media. I daresay even the film adaptation of V for Vendetta has a more nuanced outlook on authoritarianism, and that is not something one wants to say about anything, ever. Perhaps it seems bellicose to pick on a game by a solo, part-time developer whose passion project this is. But there’s very little to recommend it. Even in these unsubtle times, this game is not subtle enough.

Podcasts

The Bugle: “How bad can it get in a week?” — Fairly laugh-light, this, except for a couple of moments near the end, some of which come from listener mail, and one of which comes from Andy Zaltzman’s ten-year-old daughter. You know it’s bad out there when even Andy Zaltzman can’t convert his abyss gazing into jokes.

Chapo Trap House: “No Country For Gorilla Men” — Oh man, it’s great to hear Matt Taibbi on this show. He’s basically a Chapo who can write magazine features. I have already decided that Taibbi’s new book, Insane Clown President, which I have not read and only found out about through this podcast, is a modern classic and the sort of journalism that will save the world. But also, this is the funniest Chapo Trap House since I’ve started listening. This is one of relatively few shows that became essential listening for me almost immediately.  

All Songs Considered: “How Laurie Anderson And Philip Glass Were About To Change The World” — Somebody should give Tom Huizenga his own podcast. This interview with Laurie Anderson is certainly better than what Boilen and HIlton usually muster, and it’s fun to hear Anderson talk about the days when she and Glass traveled in the same bohemian circles. Also, hearing Anderson talk over Philip Glass music really made me want to listen to “O Superman.” Man, does that ever sound like Philip Glass.

In Our Time: “Parasitism” — Is it weird that I found this comforting? It’s an hour of scientists talking about parasites. But it turns out we need parasites! So, things are looking up.

The Heart: “Ultraslut” — This “Pansy” season is already super promising. The first episode was an exploration of what it’s like to be a feminine straight, cis man. And now this one chips away at the orthodoxy that gay men are universally accepting of femininity. Good work, right here. And beautifully mixed, as always.

Love and Radio: “Snakes!!!!!!!!” — Once again, Love and Radio makes it impossible to write off a difficult person. This guest is a challenging listen right from the start, because the producers decided to begin this episode with him refusing to answer a question. In some circumstances, I’d think that was mean. But in this case, I think it’s an entirely reasonable response to his manners. If somebody treats you unpleasantly, you need not treat them unpleasantly in return. But when put in a position where you have to accurately portray that person to somebody else, you’re within your rights at that point to make them seem like a bit of a jerk. This guy claims that immunization is the key to treating snake bites, rather than antivenom. He immunized himself against the bite of the Black Mamba by gradually introducing venom into his system. All well and good, but when confronted with the idea that this isn’t actual science, which it obviously isn’t, he goes on a rabid, resentful, anti-intellectual rant in which he claims to be better than any normal scientist because can they withstand the bit of the Black Mamba? No, they don’t have the balls! It’s a kind of bullshit that I find particularly hard to stomach in today’s, erm, climate. But we also learn that this guy is really, really good at the specific thing he’s devoted himself to. It isn’t science, but it is definitely impressive. He’s capable of both extreme meticulousness and crazy bravery. And it’s worth noting that he’s managed to immunize himself against the bites of several of the world’s most venomous snakes without a degree in immunology. Also he’s a Tool fan, which earns him, like, two points in my book. The point is, I wanted to say this guy is an asshole and wash my hands of him, but the show didn’t let me. Again, the value of this show is that it proves it’s better to listen to people than not to. People may be wrong, but they are seldom (never?) actually worthless. Pick of the week. 

Code Switch: “So, What Are You Afraid Of Now?” — Everything. I’m afraid of everything.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Rachel Bloom on Mary Tyler Moore” — I have never actually seen The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but hearing the creator of a contemporary show about a single woman (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) talk about how Moore’s show paved the way makes me want to investigate.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: The Oscar Nominations” — I share Stephen Thompson’s enthusiasm for Arrival’s nine nominations, and Glen Weldon’s for The Lobster’s screenplay. But the category I’m most excited for didn’t get a mention: the documentary feature category. Of the nominees, there’s only one I’ve seen (and at least two that I will be seeking out prior to the ceremony) but that one is O.J.: Made in America, which is the best documentary I’ve ever seen. I don’t care that it isn’t a movie. It deserves an Oscar. Frankly, the category looks like it’s got an embarrassment of riches, with Ava DuVernay nominated for 13th, along with the extremely buzzy I Am Not Your Negro. But Ezra Edelman’s O.J. Simpson documentary is a thing of history-making heft.

Radiolab: “Stranger in Paradise” — A somewhat ineffectual little story about how the raccoon became the national animal of Guadalupe, in spite of not actually being native to that island. On another show I might praise this, but it’s mostly just another episode that made me miss the old Radiolab.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Riverdale and Other Teen Soaps” — Wow, I haven’t heard them hate something this much for ages. Riverdale sounds tragically misbegotten, but it’s always nice to hear Linda Holmes and Sarah D. Bunting talk about television.

Desert Island Discs: “Desert Island Discs at 75” — This gigantic, three-hour celebration of 75 years of one of the most absurdly specific programmes in public radio is well worth a listen. I’m not sure if Desert Island Discs actually invented the concept of the “desert island disc,” but regardless, this is a pretty unbelievable archive of interviews with notable people the world over. Where else will you get to hear Jacqueline Du Pre request Daniel Barenboim as the one “luxury” she’d take with her to a desert island? Obviously, it’s spotty. Even within these three hours, it’s easy to see that they show’s original host Roy Plomley was a bit of a lightweight. An interview with Margaret Thatcher is almost entirely apolitical, and thus almost entirely uninteresting. But still: the fact that this show is still going, and with such a similar format as the one it started with, demonstrates its value.

The Gist: “The Case of the Frozen Trucker” — Emily Bazelon is the person you need to explain Trump’s Supreme Court pick to you. He’s bad. But he’s not stupid. So, there’s that.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Oscar Documentary Roundup and a Foreign Language Film We Love” — I wrote too soon. Lovely of them to do a whole segment on the documentaries. Mostly, this just confirmed that I don’t need to see Fire at Sea or Life, Animated, and that I should just stick to the three frontrunners. (Wow, it’s only a really stacked category that you say that about.) It also confirmed that I need to see The Salesman, and also that I need to see The Past, because I loved A Separation enough to warrant watching this guy’s life’s work, basically.

Omnireviewer (week of Jan. 22, 2017)

If things seem a bit scant this week, well, I’ve been busy with my annual wrap-up, which I posted yesterday, and from which some of this is repurposed. 21 reviews.

Movies

Arrival — I came out of this genuinely feeling that it’s the best movie of the year. One gradual process I’ve been through this year is that I’ve come to see how spoilers are an actual thing that’s worth avoiding. And it’s really hard to talk about Arrival without dealing with the twist. This is one of those movies that becomes an entirely different film from start to finish once you know the whole of the story. I suspect that’s probably why everything I’ve seen written about it seems more effusively positive than it can actually back up with analysis. To talk about what makes this movie extraordinary as opposed to great is to spoil it. This movie’s ending is a narrative rug pull of Steven Moffat proportions. Still, for the bulk of Arrival’s running time, we don’t know the big secret, and it’s still an excellent movie. Amy Adams gives one of the best performances of the year (again, a performance that is elevated by knowledge of the ending) as the person that the military brings in to help them communicate. Specifically, with aliens. Couching a first contact story in terms of understanding language is a winning premise, especially when the story introduces the idea (a real idea in linguistics) that language actually fundamentally affects the way that a person thinks. That makes it critical to any understanding of another culture, yet alone another species. As far as I can tell all of this comes straight from the Ted Chiang story that Arrival’s excellent screenplay is based on. But if the movie were only a brute force expression of some clever ideas, it wouldn’t be my favourite of the year. Director Denis Villeneuve imparts an element of profound lyricism to the story by allowing us to see small moments, and letting our eyes linger on images that one assumes the citizens of this movie’s world are being fed through a much more frenetic TV news approach. Villeneuve is a director that I’ve been aware of since he made Incendies in 2010, but this is the first of his movies that I’ve seen. It’s clear that he’s a major talent, and one hopes that he’ll continue making movies like this, even after he’s made his franchise juggernaut debut later this year with the new Blade Runner.  Pick of the week.

Mad Max — I saw Fury Road when it was in theatres, because it was essential viewing. And oh my god am I ever glad I did. But I hadn’t seen any of the previous Mad Max movies. Now I’m rectifying that. This is astonishing for having been made for $2.3 million, adjusted for inflation. So much is communicated by implication here, with cuts made in opportune places so that major events are left to the imagination. It’s both dramatically effective, and a great way to cut expenses. Considering how far off from Fury Road this movie is — in terms of time, budget and the series not having yet built its cultural legacy — it’s incredible how many of the ingredients are already in place. The deranged gang of predatory biker dudes in this are so over the top that they don’t even need makeup. But, when you throw a bit of magic character design juice over that same basic formula, you get Fury Road’s war boys. And of course, their leader is the same guy, just younger and with more of his face visible. Neither of the Mad Max movies I’ve seen have especially involved stories, but of course this isn’t a problem. It’s more of a problem in Mad Max, though. Because, in Fury Road, the chase scenes are so detailed that plot can occur at a micro level: every chase and fight scene has dozens of tiny plot events. A character gets plucked from a friendly vehicle into an unfriendly one; a man being pursued spies the promise of sunlight through a grate; the unconscious guy chained to Max as he’s fighting wakes up. That’s what $150 million well-spent buys you. In the 1979 rendition, you have to be content with a slightly blunter instrument. Still, well worth the hour and a half.

Television

Downton Abbey: Season 3, episodes 6-9 — At its best, this season is like a less thoughtful, more conservative, British Horace and Pete. More than either of the previous seasons of Downton Abbey, it foregrounds the series’ central tension, which is that things can’t remain as they are. Lord Grantham is the most interesting character, at least symbolically, because he is the primary representative of the old guard, and we see him undermined again and again: regarding how his estate is to be run, the church in which his granddaughter will be Christened, whether his middle daughter should be allowed to write a newspaper column, and most compellingly which doctor to listen to when there’s a life at risk. The fact that he makes his every decision based on a crumbling value system that will only lead to his own ruin is a tremendously interesting throughline that also serves to explain at a granular level why the big houses like Downton fell, historically. It really comes down to people like Grantham being entirely out of touch with any traditions and ways of life save their own. (A personal favourite moment: Grantham’s valet is released from prison and his chummy advice for how to spend his first day of freedom is: “Stay in bed! Read books!” Honest to god.) However, that’s where the positives stop. This is the first season where the upstairs plotline has struck me as substantially more interesting than the downstairs plot, which in this season is completely insufferable. It revolves around O’Brien trying to take brutal revenge on Thomas for something I don’t remember, and a messy, dull love pentagon between Thomas, two new footmen, Daisy and the kitchenmaid. Good lord, kill me now. And then, off in their own tangentially connected world, are Matthew and Mary, who have been highlights of previous seasons, but who are actually worse in this season than the love pentagon. Even if the huge twist at the end of the season is incredibly contrived (and Jesus Christ, the writing around it could not be more hamfisted), I’m quite happy that it’s removed a relationship from this show that has become a source of aggravation. Actually, the entire final episode of this, a Christmas special, is awful. The worst episode of the show so far. At some point during its running time, Lord Grantham bids his fellow toffs “good hunting,” which only reminded me of that other show I’m much more enthusiastic about getting back to.

Literature, etc.

Emily Nussbaum: “How Jokes Won the Election” — This feature is a good corollary to HyperNormalisation. It argues that the rapidly thinning line between “joke” and “not a joke” is a clear contributor to Trump’s victory. It also contains an excellent assessment of Trump, Obama and Clinton as varying comedic personalities.

Michiko Kakutani: “Why ‘1984’ Is a 2017 Must-Read” — Here is a confession. I have never read 1984. Here is another confession. I have been lying about having read 1984 for years. In fact, I think I’ve been lying about having read 1984 for so long that this isn’t the first time I’ve gone public about not having read 1984. It may actually be the third. But nonetheless I feel another confession is necessary, because it’s a lie I’ve repeated as recently as a couple of weeks ago. And it’s such an easy one to keep up, given how familiar the central tenets of 1984 are in our culture. But perhaps I should take this opportunity, while this whole American fascism thing is going on, to see for myself why it is so enduring. I’ll add it to the list.

Olivia Laing: “The Lonely City” — The very act of writing a book about one’s own loneliness is an act of bravery. If this book were simply Olivia Laing’s account of the period in her own life when she felt the most alienated, it would still be worth reading, and not at all self-indulgent. Nothing could be less self-indulgent than proclaiming loneliness, because we all intuitively know that such a proclamation will have the counterintuitive effect of worsening one’s own isolation. But Laing only uses her own narrative as a spine: a framing device that she uses to string together her readings of the lives and works of several definitively lonely American artists. Though it is often conflated with depression, Laing considers loneliness as a unique affliction: an undesirable one by definition, but one without which the human experience is incomplete and possibly less inspired. The chapter that focuses on Andy Warhol’s outsiderness, his alienation through not having a firm grasp of language, is shattering and actually makes Warhol’s famous repeated images take on a bittersweet quality that I had never detected in them before. Laing is sensitive to the alienating tendencies of patriarchy and heteronormativity, and offers compelling portraits of people who lived lonely lives due to a society-wide lack of understanding. A substantial amount of the chapter that begins by focussing on Warhol veers off to consider Valerie Solanas, an early radical feminist of some genius who has since become known for only one thing: shooting Andy Warhol. The Lonely City is a beautiful book: equal parts sad and validating. It made me want to jump on a plane to New York to go look at art. By myself.

Music

The Tragically Hip: Live Between Us — I’ve been into live albums lately, and it occurred to me that maybe I could start to understand the Hip a little better if I heard a full live show from them in their prime. I think it worked. Gord Downie has always been the part of the band that I liked: his lyrics, his whimsical character as a frontman, his conscience. It’s the rest of them, with their almost aggressively generic sound that always posed a problem. But live, that sound is almost a virtue, because there’s no more semiotically rich sound than two guitars, a bass, drums and a screaming crowd. This is straightforward rock and roll, with a very non-straightforward frontman. I’m sold.

Podcasts

Reply All: “Man of the People” — This is another story from the annals of American demagoguery — and one that played out on a similarly massive scale to the current one, relative to its time. It’s about John Brinkley: a fake doctor who patented a raft of fake medicines and marketed them to a nation of credulous customers on a radio station that he owned. (This was the earliest days of commercial radio, and it already sucked.) It’s gratifying to hear that flimflam was always a thing. It’s depressing that it’s still just as much of a thing in an era where we’re each equipped with far more of the facts than we were in the 20s.

99% Invisible: “Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle” — The story of the taser is as fraught as you’d think it would be. Framing this as a design story is a great idea, because then it becomes the story of whether the design of the taser is a fitting design or a catastrophic one — and that depends, of course, on whether you’re talking to a police officer.

Crimetown: “Power Street” — Ohhhh, it’s back. This show is catnip to me. It’s basically everything that Criminal isn’t, which isn’t a slight to either of them. Criminal is a show that demonstrates the multifacetedness of criminality, and thrives on telling stories of all sorts of different characters. Crimetown is True Crime, note the capitals. It’s got charismatic gangsters, fisticuffs, mob hits, and corruption that goes right up to the top. It’s a yarn that you can just get lost in the grisly details of. It’s the best. I’m just as much looking forward to hearing what city their next season will focus on as I am to how they deal with the rest of this one.

Welcome to Night Vale: “[Best Of?]” — This basically proves that it’s the structure of Night Vale that annoys me most. Every time they break from the structure, I love it. This episode responds to Cecil taking a bit of time off by installing a mysterious new host in his seat. It features a clip from Cecil’s early career (but not as early as you’d think, considering) where he reports on the invention of radio, which of course begs the question… how was he reporting it? This is clearly one of the classics, and has an absolutely haunting twist at the end. If I can expect periodic episodes like this one, I’ll happily groan my way through a few potboilers. Pick of the week. 

Chapo Trap House: “Mr. Chapo Goes To Washington” — An incredibly edifying hour of the Chapos and their guests bitching about the inauguration, which is clearly the worst thing that ever happened. Just as good: general bitching about Washington, D.C., which is clearly the worst place that ever happened.

On the Media: “Future Tense” — This is an hour on the future of the White House press corps in the Donald Trump administration. The usefulness of that institution isn’t universally agreed upon, even in the media. So this is a contentious hour with no easy answers. But easy answers are not what you come to On the Media for in the age of Donald Trump. You come to it for the BIG WIDE 70MM SUPER CINEMASCOPE view of how fucked we are.

The Gist: “Don’t Mind Us, We’re Just Collapsing” — Ahhh, lovely. This features an interview with an archeologist who’s actually calling from the jungle to talk about the warning signs before the fall of a civilization. I love that they thought to talk to somebody like this. Pesca’s spiel about reconsidering #oscarssowhite is less convincing to me — last year’s Oscars were so white.

Twenty Thousand Hertz: “What Makes up a Movie Soundtrack?” — This isn’t that interesting, story-wise. A big segment of it is given to the great sound designer Ann Kroeber. She’s a good talker, but the stories she tells about getting animal sounds for movies don’t really go anywhere. (This is something that 99% Invisible does too — where it just throws stuff at you rather than telling a linear story. But I think you’ve really got to be a radio grandmaster to pull that off.) The most interesting bit is where they take apart the layers of sound in a movie explosion. I could have listened to more like that: an entire episode of deconstructing sound effects would have been great. (Explosion Exploder?) Anyway, this show has mostly been really good in its short life so far. It’s allowed an off week here and there.

The Gist: “Deregulation Nation” — I think I need to read this guy’s book. Jacob Hacker argues that it was the effective use of government that made America prosper in the first place, and that Republicans have fundamentally misunderstood the history of policy-making. Really interesting.

The Gist: “Yeah, We’re Scared Too” — Oh, good. Here’s an interview with a Bush appointee about how establishment Republicans are still as terrified of Trump as during the primaries. Excellent. Flippancy aside, Eliot Cohen is a reasonable person, and it’s good to know they exist in Trump’s party, even if they have no hope in hell of actually swaying him to the centre.

On the Media: “New Reality” — Bob Garfield visits the flailing White House press corps, and commiserates and berates in equal measure. That’s something we needed. Also, there’s an interview with Jay Rosen, who’s always great to hear on this show, on the question of why the hell anybody would even bother interviewing Kellyanne Conway.

99% Invisible: “The Revolutionary Post” — The post office invented America. That’s a hell of a premise, and with evidence found at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and in the life story of Benjamin Franklin, it doesn’t seem absurd.

On the Media: “Week One” — Sean Spicer is a piece of shit. Honest to god, there are no decent people among Trump’s staff at all. The most powerful country in the world is being run by goblins. The only thing that makes him seem a little less noxious is that Steve fucking Bannon is even worse.

Imaginary Worlds: “Winning the Larp” — I love the idea of LARPing. I just love it. The part of me that used to do improv and also the part of me that admires Wagner for fusing a bunch of art forms together are both complicit in this. But I don’t think I’ll ever do it, because there are lines that even I won’t cross.

30 things I loved in 2016

It has become customary for me to post my best-of list for any given year at the end of the following January. I do this partly to give myself a bit more time to digest everything, including albums or movies that might have come out in December, and books I haven’t finished. But mostly I do it as a perverse act of protest against modern “EVERYTHING NOW” culture. I won’t have that. I think we can afford to take a bit more time.

But this year, I’ve put myself at a disadvantage. Faced with the task of belatedly summing up the most recently completed planetary rotation period, I find myself with little to say — since there simply are no more clichés available to describe it. The media, social and otherwise, exhausted them all. With no clichés to rely on, how is one to describe 2016? We’re in uncharted territory.

So, I’ll simply introduce this list by telling one of my own personal 2016 stories. It is not an especially consequential story, nor does it necessarily define the year in any profound way. But it’s a story that I’m fairly confident didn’t happen to anybody else. At least, not in the details.

I was working late the night of the American election. I’d been tasked with writing a short piece on Leonard Cohen for a year-end feature. Cohen, as far as I knew, was still alive. So, I wrote a piece that tried to reconcile the morbidity and resignation of his recent album You Want It Darker with the inherent triumph of creating a great work of art in a state of unwellness.

I was just about through it when Trump won Florida. I watched the New York Times’ probability meter zoom up into the red. The ground slipped, etc. I finished off the last few sentences of my Cohen piece. They went like this: “2016 has saddled us with the deaths and diagnoses of many artists we hold dear. Leonard Cohen persists. That is a straw to clutch at.”

The next day, Hillary Clinton conceded the election to Donald Trump. Two days after that, news broke that Leonard Cohen had died. And moreover, that he had died on Monday. Little did I know while I was writing those final, celebratory lines that Leonard Cohen was already dead. Probably he died regretting that he wouldn’t get to see the seemingly inevitable victory of the first female president.

I edited the Cohen piece. I managed to keep the last sentence, but it wasn’t as good in the new context.

You Want It Darker isn’t on this list. Neither is Chance the Rapper’s Colouring Book, which was the album I reached for to ring in 2017 on New Year’s Eve (specifically “Finish Line”). Both of those albums seem to have a lot to say about this past year, but so does everything. That’s because we let 2016 get under our skin, even though it was just a year — a semi-arbitrary way of measuring reasonably-sized blocks of time.

All the same, I can’t help but think that this list reflects the extent to which I let 2016 get under my skin as well. Many of its entries are here because they seem to resonate intensely in the here and now. For the first time, this seems to be a more important criterion for me than whether or not I can see myself revisiting a particular entry in the future. The world has become dangerously interesting of late.

Oh, and another thing: the list is ranked. I find the exercise of comparing apples to oranges to beach balls to crows to Chevrolets to be inconceivably satisfying, so that is what I’ve done here. Take it for what it’s worth.

Honourable mention: 887

It seemed weird to include a piece of theatre in the proper list, given that there is currently no way for most people to see it, and that the cities that saw it this year may not ever see it again. But Robert Lepage’s one-man show about memory would be very close to the top of this list if it didn’t seem so perverse to do that. Any footage or promo text that you’re likely to find about this show online will likely make it seem like a spectacle: a technical marvel. And it is that, to be sure. But it’s spectacle on an incredibly intimate scale. Most of the show is composed of Robert Lepage simply talking to the audience, directly, casually and out of character. It’s a testament to the strength of the material that even with its rotating set, video screens, live cameras, and various tricks of light, 887 would still work as a radio drama, and it would be only marginally less awesome. It’s like a TED Talk inside of a magical realist diorama. The subject is memory, in nearly every sense of the word: the neurological phenomenon of memory, Lepage’s own childhood memories of his family and of major national events, the process of memorization. Along the way, he explores the origins of theatre, he remembers his father, and he reflects on Quebec nationalism and the FLQ. These are themes that may not seem on the surface like they should connect. But Lepage keeps the balls in the air seemingly effortlessly, and never makes a forced attempt to draw an unnatural thematic link. It’s a deft, haunting and cathartic experience, and if you find yourself able to see it, I could not urge you to see it in strong enough terms.

No. 30: The Nice Guys

This is the year’s most inevitably underrated movie. It’s a big, rompy action comedy that just allows itself to just be that thing. Like all halfway convincing modern comedy, it is trope aware. But unlike most modern comedy, the humour in this mostly doesn’t come from undercutting the tropes: it comes from great, great iterations of those tropes. There’s a bit near the end with a luxury car on one of those rotating drums you see at big fancy car shows, and it is such a perfectly intuitive physical comedy setpiece that you wonder why you’ve never seen it done before. Speaking of physical comedy, it says something about both director Shane Black and leading man Ryan Gosling that the movie can get laughs from pratfalls in 2016. The Nice Guys relies on that kind of humour more than any contemporary movie not made by Wes Anderson, and it gets away with it without being compulsively stylized. At various points during this list, it may seem like I don’t actually consume media for fun, but for some other misguided, principled reason. The Nice Guys is pure fun. No other movie entertained me so uncomplicatedly this year. But since everything is political, it’s worth noting that this movie corrected a problem that’s always bothered me in movies: mostly Coen Brothers movies. It’s got dumb comedy liberals in it, who stage vacuous protests about social ills they don’t adequately understand — but it also has comedy conservatives who monologue villainously about American exceptionalism. Politically, this movie traffics exclusively in caricature, and can thus be read as essentially disinterested in politics altogether. If this were a Coen Brothers movie, the monologuing villain would have been subbed out for some variant of the plainspoken cowboy, who espouses moderate views and good old-fashioned common sense — as if that’s what the liberals are fighting against. If it were South Park, the script would have attempted to make a sincere reading of its own caricatures, and come out with some sort of false equivalency that suggests there’s right and wrong on both sides of every issue. The Nice Guys does none of this: rather, it explicitly invites us to completely ignore the politics that may or may not underpin the film. I, for one, was happy to do so.

No. 29: The Lonely City

lonely-cityThe very act of writing a book about one’s own loneliness is an act of bravery. If this book were simply Olivia Laing’s account of the period in her own life when she felt the most alienated, it would still be worth reading, and not at all self-indulgent. Nothing could be less self-indulgent than proclaiming loneliness, because we all intuitively know that such a proclamation will have the counterintuitive effect of worsening one’s own isolation. But Laing only uses her own narrative as a spine: a framing device that she uses to string together her readings of the lives and works of several definitively lonely American artists. Though it is often conflated with depression, Laing considers loneliness as a unique affliction: an undesirable one by definition, but one without which the human experience is incomplete and possibly less inspired. The chapter that focuses on Andy Warhol’s outsiderness, his alienation through not having a firm grasp of language, is shattering and actually makes Warhol’s famous repeated images take on a bittersweet quality that I had never detected in them before. Laing is sensitive to the alienating tendencies of patriarchy and heteronormativity, and offers compelling portraits of people who lived lonely lives due to a society-wide lack of understanding. A substantial amount of the chapter that begins by focussing on Warhol veers off to consider Valerie Solanas, an early radical feminist of some genius who has since become known for only one thing: shooting Andy Warhol. The Lonely City is a beautiful book: equal parts sad and validating. It made me want to jump on a plane to New York to go look at art. By myself.

No. 28: We Are The Halluci Nation

This is the album that finds A Tribe Called Red well past the proof-of-concept phase: the brilliance of their fusion of powwow music and EDM has already been established and accepted. As of this year, ATCR is as much an albums band as a live act, and they have thus secured their legacy. We Are The Halluci Nation is a mind movie. It uses a rich sonic palette of synths, beats, hand drums and throat singing. It layers that palette with the words of some like-minded collaborators including Saul Williams, Yasiin Bey and Leonard Sumner. And from that alchemy emerges a story, impressionistically told, of oppression and resistance. It is the most forceful music on this list by miles. And when it isn’t, it’s tense, coiled up and ready to do battle. It naturally feels like music of the present moment, but of course it is more than that: it’s music of a brutal historical moment that is ongoing and five centuries old. (“500 years and still drumming,” says the album cover.) I saw ATCR live this year as well, and they’re magnificent in that setting. But given a full album’s length to work with plus your undivided, sober attention, they are both infectiously righteous and some of today’s finest musical architects.

No. 27: Love and Radio

After the election, Nick van der Kolk did what many people in the media did, i.e. he had a muted existential flail in public. He expressed his doubts that anything he could do on his show would have any impact on the world at all, and asked the audience for feedback as to what they’d like to hear on the show. I sent him an email to this approximate effect: listening to Love and Radio, it’s always struck me that the show feels like it belongs to somebody different every episode. I don’t know that there’s any other show that’s so willing to surrender the story to its guest. It requires an active investment of empathy from the listener. I believe that people can come away from art and media compelled to act differently in the world. And if that’s true, then this is among the most important work that anybody’s currently doing on a podcast — even and especially after this past election. It seems likely that we could be entering an era that’s even more defined by fear and hatred of the ‘other’ than the present one. This is a podcast that starts from the contention that it’s better to listen to people than not to. I can’t imagine anything more powerful.

No. 26: Love Streams

I’ve spent more time listening to ambient music this year than any other. It has come to serve a particular purpose in my life: to quiet and focus me, and occasionally to provide a sustained moment of catharsis. I don’t tend to think of Tim Hecker’s recent music as ambient, for the very specific and personal reason that it doesn’t serve that purpose for me. Since 2013, Hecker has been making bracing, heterogenous electronic music that is not content to simply drift: it very nearly seems to be trying to speak. On Love Streams, this becomes almost literal, as Hecker bases the entire project on recordings of choirs, processed and warped into unrecognizable shapes and semblances. The presence of voices and the absence of words combine to offer the impression of direct, emotional communion: bypassing logic and reasoning. It was another esteemed instrumental musician who bid Goodbye to Language this year, but it’s Love Streams that best demonstrates how music can be disquieting and moving for reasons that exist beyond the reach of words. There’s a sweetness in this album that is new to Hecker, and is basically the polar opposite of the music on his acclaimed previous record Virgins, which remains the darkest and strangest album of Hecker’s career — and thus also, the best received. But the fact that Love Streams hasn’t been a mainstay of the music press’s year-end lists is unfortunate evidence that he’s not the sort of musician who gets to become a “major artist.” He can have his one watershed album, but no more. And that is a shame, because Tim Hecker is only now demonstrating his tremendous capacity to surprise. This album is every bit Virgins’ equal, and thus among the very greatest abstract electronic musical works.

No. 25: Captain America: Civil War

It’s safe to say this is the first superhero movie that reminded me of The Rules of the Game. That movie details the foibles of pre-war French aristocrats rather than quippy costumed vigilantes, true. But Captain America: Civil War is one of very few movies that shares one crucial element with it: everybody does what they think is right. Consequences arise regardless. Unlike in The Rules of the Game, there is a bad guy in Civil War. This is a Marvel movie, after all: not a French drama from 1939. But, the villain here is essentially a MacGuffin. He even conceives of himself as a MacGuffin: he’s just trying to start a process that he himself will not have much to do with. That structural decision makes this the closest thing I’ve seen to a juggernaut franchise blockbuster that doesn’t rely on the idea of evil. It’s almost immaterial whether you align yourself with “Team Cap” or “Team Stark”: the important thing is that they both think they’re doing what’s right, and violence ensues regardless. Even after all that’s happened this year, I’m still fairly convinced that this isn’t misguided. Evil’s not the enemy. Ignorance is. In any case, a lack of evil is almost unprecedented in this kind of movie, and marks it as something really special in contemporary genre fiction. The fact that it won me over in spite of my prejudices marks it as a miracle.

No. 24: Dolls of Highland

I listened to “Lady of the Ark” more times than any other song this year. There’s something about it that is more purely cathartic than anything else I heard in 2016, and it’s all in the performance. Craft’s lyrics are a blend of non-specific mysticism and a sense of romance seemingly derived mostly from Blood on the Tracks. And for the most part, I’m not entirely certain what he means by any of it. But most of my favourite lyricists are similarly obtuse, and the secret to it all is this: some words and phrases just sound great coming out of certain throats. It’s really that simple. When Craft sings “Swing low, low sweet heathen / Swing for the wretch and the rock and roll kids / Who roam this earth repeating / All this sin until this wicked world makes sense in time,” it sounds like a sermon delivered by a fire alarm. Surely, he’s got one of the most bracing voices to emerge so far this decade. And musically, welcome to the concept of glam country. He’s halfway between the Band and the Spiders from Mars, and the fact that it was all recorded in a laundry room just makes it sound bigger. I have been obsessed with every song on this album at some point during the year. That’s an auspicious debut.

No. 23: More Perfect

moreperfect_1400x1400_nownycstudiosI wouldn’t have thought that a Radiolab spinoff about the Supreme Court was a good idea before I heard it. But in the second episode, “The Political Thicket,” I realized why it makes sense: Jad Abumrad is better than almost anybody at breaking down byzantine concepts and processes. “The Political Thicket” is about how a decision about something seemingly mundane — redistricting — led to a precedent that completely changed the way the Supreme Court works in the U.S., and subsequently to a raft of social changes. It was a decision that broke one of the justices at the time. It was a decision that allowed the Supreme Court to wade into what were previously thought of as “political” questions, or legislative affairs. It’s the decision that, decades later, allowed the Supreme Court to determine the outcome of the 2000 presidential election. And most crucially, it’s a decision that will likely have staggering effects in the near future, depending on how many justices Donald Trump gets to appoint during his administration. “The Political Thicket” is just my personal favourite episode of More Perfect. The entire series is among the best journalism of the year. It is the best argument for long-view journalism that I’ve heard in a long time. The world today will make more sense once you listen to this, even though many of its stories happened decades ago.

No. 22: I, Gemini

I have a soft spot for very deranged music. And since I didn’t listen to Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition until late in the year and haven’t quite come around to it, my deranged record of choice for 2016 comes courtesy of a pair of teenagers. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising. There’s nobody more deranged than teenagers. Let’s Eat Grandma’s debut record is a worthy application to join the annals of England’s great musical eccentrics, from Brian Eno to Genesis P-Orridge. But it is also fabulously self-assured. There’s an almost shocking sense of self-knowledge in this record, as if Jenny Hollingworth and Rosa Walton are five times their age and have long since stopped giving a shit what anybody thinks. It’s sludgy psychedelia that doesn’t sound like anything else, and whose basic ethos seems to be, “why not?” Recorder solo? Why not? Rap verse? Why not? Glockenspiel recorded too hot on a super-close mic? Why not? There are a few tracks that stand out as comparatively immediate (“Deep Six Textbook,” “Eat Shiitake Mushrooms,” and especially “Rapunzel”), but it’s the kind of album whose deep cuts creep up on you until you’ve had a half-dozen or more favourite tracks at various times. I’m partial to “Chocolate Sludge Cake,” these days. This is one of a few debut albums included on this list, and it’s not the highest-placed one. But it’s probably the one that leaves me most curious about what the second record will sound like.

No. 21: Kentucky Route Zero: Act IV

When the fifth and final act of Kentucky Route Zero finally comes out and we have the whole thing in front of us for evaluation, it may well be the single most profound computer game ever made. The developers at Cardboard Computer are taking the simple story of an old man making his last delivery of antiques and crafting it into a complex exploration of post-recession anxieties. It ties together more thematic strands than any other currently ongoing serialized narrative in any medium. What other game/show/film series/comic can you think of that deals with the history of computers, the malignancy of debt, the process of creating art, the reasons behind the impulse to travel, and the pull of addiction, all while establishing three-dimensional characters and dreaming up beautiful, impossible spaces for them to inhabit? The series as a whole is a modern creative miracle. Judging this year’s fourth act as a thing in itself is a bit more challenging. Certainly, it’s a different beast than any of the three prior acts, being substantially more linear and less exploratory in terms of gameplay, and being substantially more bittersweet and elegiac in tone. Rather than presenting the player with a map to explore at their leisure and a variety of mysterious locales to uncover and explore, Cardboard Computer gave us a set of discrete vignettes this year: an excursion to a tacky bar on an underground beach; breakfast at a fish shop that serves catches from the deepest most mysterious depths of a secret river; a theremin recital on the bow of a tugboat. Most astonishingly, it allows the player to control a character in security footage, with events narrated in past tense. It almost reminds me of The Animatrix, in the sense that it consists of a bunch of small stories that take place in a world with bigger stories. But each of these vignettes is so resonant that it’s impossible to object to the relative lack of control. It’s an even more lovely choice, when you consider that our protagonist, Conway, is at the turning point of his story here. We know there’s something tragic happening to him, but our focus is turned elsewhere, on these little stories of unusual lives going on regardless, until it actually happens. And when it does, it’s shattering. It’ll likely be a long wait until we get to see how the story ends. But that’s fine, because the world of Kentucky Route Zero is rich enough that no amount of playthroughs can really serve to fully reveal it.

No. 20: Blackstar

We’ve finally reached the first item on the list that might be too ubiquitous to write meaningfully about anymore. Bowie has found himself at the centre of far too many Grand Unified Theories of 2016 Celebrity Deaths already, so I’ll just offer a couple of thoughts about this album, which still hits me just as hard as when it came out. David Bowie died less than a week apart from the great French avant-garde composer/conductor Pierre Boulez. To attempt to draw general connections between the two of them would be facile (though it didn’t stop many from trying), but there’s a line on Blackstar that haunted me from the beginning, especially given that when I first heard it, I’d been thinking about Boulez for a few days: “Something happened on the day he died / Spirit rose a meter, then stepped aside / Somebody else took his place and bravely cried / I’m a blackstar.” Since Bowie is first and foremost rock and roll’s greatest purveyor of riddles and enigmas, we can and should speculate wildly about what (or who) he meant by “blackstar.” But even without knowing, the sentiment here is clear. On a track that’s demonstrably about Bowie’s death, he’s not singing about his legacy: he’s singing about the artists who will replace him — the artists he’s stepping aside for. Those lines are positioned almost like a thesis statement. They recur throughout the opening song, with different musical settings. I think I know what this is: Bowie is using his last musical breath to admonish future generations who may revere him above the artists of their own time. This, by a wonderful coincidence, was the cornerstone of Boulez’s artistic philosophy. Boulez considered music history a “great burden,” and claimed that “we must get rid of it once and for all” in favour of the art of the present day. Whatever Boulez might have thought about Bowie, there’s no doubt that he helped to build popular music into an idiom that values innovation and novelty more than traditions and dubious notions of timelessness. So, if you occasionally hear somebody make that well-meaning claim that one day we’ll remember David Bowie (or, conceivably, Pierre Boulez) the way we now remember Mozart, take a moment to consider that he might not have wanted us to. Not that he can help it.

No. 19: Swiss Army Man

Known on the internet primarily as “The Daniel Radcliffe Farting Corpse Movie,” this is a movie that was exactly as bonkers as I thought it would be, but also much much better. In spite, or more likely because of its relentless devotion to its own ridiculous premise, Swiss Army Man is never less than riveting for a single second. It is essentially a feature-length two-hander, with Paul Dano and Radcliffe together in almost every frame of the movie. The fact that the whole thing doesn’t come crashing down under the weight of its own childishness is largely due to the fact that Dano and Radcliffe both offer grounded, emotionally realistic performances within an absurd context. Even Radcliffe, who plays a talking (farting) corpse, gives his character a believable emotional arc. To the credit of directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the movie never gets bogged down in the mechanics of what’s real and what isn’t. Instead, the Daniels just allow the story to be a visual fantasia that proceeds entirely according to the logic of pacing and character. They bring their expertise as music video directors to bear, allowing the score to interact freely with the story — at times reflecting what’s going on in the character’s heads, and at times actually being sung by the characters themselves. Swiss Army Man’s hallucinatory dream sequences also double as Rube Goldberg machines, with sets built largely of found objects. It’s dazzling, in a jerry-rigged sort of way. It’s hard to say what, if anything, the themes of this movie are. But that seems almost beside the point. It is realistic character drama that takes place within a high-concept, gross-out, borderline trolling indie comedy that gets laughs out of subjecting a corpse to untold indignities. It almost seems like a deliberate response to assholes like me who complain ad nauseum about how there are no new ideas in the movies. But honest to god, I would take an endless stream of movies like this to inevitable Christmas Star Wars forever.

No. 18: Jerusalem: The Burroughs

jerusalem-cover-600x899Yes, technically, this is only a ranking of book one of Alan Moore’s magnificent brick of a novel. Because that’s as far as I’ve gotten. Nonetheless, Jerusalem isn’t the kind of book that you need to be finished to know whether you like it. It was quite clear from the very beginning that I did. He’s every bit as engaging as a novelist as he is in his comics. I daresay that in some cases there’s not much difference between the two experiences, given how verbose he is as a comics writer as well. But on the other hand, there’s intrinsic merit to reading a novel by Alan Moore, because it allows him to really occupy the insides of his characters’ heads more than he often can in comics. This is very much a novel in the English modernist tradition of Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses, where characters’ inner selves are revealed by way of their responses to the city streets that they walk through. If you’re a fan of books about people thinking as they walk — and how could you not be? — you will love this. Each chapter in “The Burroughs” focusses on a different character’s inner monologue — every one of them as fully realized and vibrant as Watchmen’s Rorschach or From Hell’s Sir William Gull, but without their seductive danger. This is, after all, a novel about Moore’s home: Northampton, the town where he’s lived for his whole life. And though there is a general, pervading sense of squalor, dilapidation and desperation throughout, Jerusalem is thus far proving to be a remarkably warm novel. Moore’s obsessively detailed descriptions of tiny local landmarks (often seen at different points in history) are obviously acts of love — and acts of preservation. Jerusalem opens with an artist proclaiming that she’ll save Northampton from complete gentrification with a magical ritual involving paintings. That’s transparently Moore’s goal as well. And in transcribing the sights and stories of his beloved surroundings, he’s done a service to his community, as well as to those of us who love his fiction. I’m convinced that the remaining two books will be better still.

No. 17: let me tell you

Let’s start broad and work towards the specifics. Classical recordings like let me tell you offer a fundamentally different value proposition to classical recordings of familiar repertoire: Beethoven; Liszt; whatever. let me tell you contains a single work: the title work, by the Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen. It is a new work, and it has never been recorded before. It was written specifically for the soprano Barbara Hannigan, who performs it here. So, this recording will be the first time that most people will have heard this music. And those for whom it isn’t would have heard it in concert, performed by this same singer — Hannigan is, to my knowledge, the only person who has performed it as of yet. So, this album is offering brand new music, performed by an artist with real ownership over it. It is the music itself that is being offered. This is the same value proposition offered by pop albums. By contrast, a recital disc from a singer doing Verdi and Puccini arias, or Schubert lieder, is specifically offering a performance. The music itself cannot be the primary driving factor of such a recording, since it’s been recorded hundreds of other times, and what would be the point. I’ll be more strident, because who’s going to stop me: what is the point? Unless your recording reaches Glenn Gould levels of idiosyncrasy, isn’t it redundant upon arrival? (I should mention that the one classical musician recording standard rep nowadays who I do feel reaches those heights is the violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who made my second and third-favourite classical recordings of the year.) This is why I’m so glad to see this recording gracing so many of the 2016 classical lists (including one I helped compile). Abrahamsen’s piece is so beautiful and so directly expressive that I feel it can serve as proof-of-concept for modern classical music. My hope would be that listeners would hear this and realize that there isn’t such a fundamental divide between classical music and pop. Not in the sense that this sounds like pop music. It doesn’t, and that’s never the answer. Rather, it bridges the divide in the sense that it offers the same value proposition as pop music, and is also self-evidently brilliant. As for the specifics, which are what’s ultimately important, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra is a truly great ensemble. Conductor Andris Nelsons leads them through this challenging new work like it’s Mozart 40. Barbara Hannigan is quite simply the best singer alive.

No. 16: The Heart

This is the podcast that customarily makes me too bashful to say anything meaningful in my weekly reviews. However, I’m certain that the producers of this show would be extremely disappointed in me for that, so let’s give it a go. The Heart is a show that explores love and sexuality without self-censorship, and with an emphasis on the perspectives of women and queer people. Like Criminal, Reply All, or 99% Invisible, it has the capacity to tell an infinitude of stories through the lens it chooses to focus it. Also, like those shows, it has a house style that tames its variety into a semblance of order. That style is best described by the show’s former title: Audio Smut. 2016 saw the release of three uniquely focussed seasons of episodes. “Ghost,” the first of them, is a series of stories about being haunted by past relationships. It’s possibly their most poetic season so far, with the routinely brilliant mixing often simulating the sensation of having an intimate conversation with yourself in your head. This is likely one of the two or three outright best sounding podcasts being made today, and not in a flashy way. It’s subtle, but always perfect. The second season of the year is the real flagship: “Silent Evidence” tells the rather difficult-to-hear but important story of a woman who decides to confront her childhood sexual abuser years later. It’s brave, it’s beautifully written, and it is very much its protagonist’s own story. The next full season, “Diaries,” is simpler, less ambitious, and does essentially what it says on the tin. But somewhere in the midst of all this was a standalone episode that ranks as maybe the most gutwrenching, affecting single podcast episode of the year. “Mariya” is the first-person story of a woman dealing with the fallout from female genital mutilation. It is heavy listening, but I’m not sure I’ve heard a more nuanced exploration of trauma before. The Heart expanded what it’s capable of this year, and it was already one of the best shows being made.

No. 15: Firewatch

The thing that initially impressed me most about Firewatch is that it solves the problems with two kinds of games by just stacking them on top of each other. This game is a walking simulator of the Dear Esther or Gone Home persuasion, with a branching narrative à la the Telltale Walking Dead games worked into it. That offers all of the freedom to explore that the walking sims offer, but tempers the aimlessness of some of those games by forcing you to make choices consistently. And, it offers the narrative propulsion of Telltale’s method, but combats the sense that you’re being driven through the game on linear tracks. I could see this exact set of mechanics working brilliantly for just about any story, and I imagine we will see that happen in the coming years. But none of this would have impressed if the story hadn’t been up to snuff. I slightly resent that this game has occasionally been characterized as a perverse attempt to make being a fire lookout fun (a whiff of Papers, Please, perhaps). This isn’t that. Nobody would bat an eye about a movie being made about a fire lookout, so why not a game? Besides, the idea that a guy takes a job as a fire lookout after a damaging experience in his personal life is an obvious setup for a proper adventure story. And it’s also a perfect setup for a great character drama. The best part of playing Firewatch is in hearing the interactions of its two main characters: Harry, the player character (voiced brilliantly by Mad Men’s Rich Sommer), and Delilah, his boss in another lookout tower who is available only by radio (voiced equally brilliantly by Cissy Jones). You get to shape their relationship through the dialogue choices that you make, which would be a game enough in itself. And wandering around in a beautifully-rendered forest would be nearly enough in itself as well. But again, it’s the combination of the two that makes this game unique. Firewatch is a rare thing: a fun, straightforward, not especially arty video game that nonetheless feels like it’s for grown-ups. Hopefully it’s a harbinger of more.

No. 14: Planet Earth II

The best that can be said of Planet Earth II is that it lives up to Planet Earth I. These two series both feature the most beautiful and virtuosic cinematography that’s ever been done, and it is beautiful in spite of the fact that the events it documents are as unscripted as it’s possible to be. Komodo dragons don’t take direction well. Mind you, I’m sure that the editing proved equally virtuosic: you don’t get sequences this perfect without a bit of fakery. There’s a sequence in the grasslands episode that keeps coming back to mind: a mouse climbs to the top of a blade of tall grass, has to dodge an approaching barn owl, and falls off of the blade of grass, into the frame of another shot. The whole thing is seen from several different angles. Who’s to say if all of those shots are even of the same mouse? But even if there is a certain amount of fudging going on, it’s hard to think of this as cheating. The amount of (quality, beautiful) footage that they must have had to shoot to tell complete, engaging stories must be gigantic. The BBC Natural History Unit’s secret weapon is the “personal narrative”: rather than showing us the generalities of things that happen in nature, the filmmakers introduce us to one specific sloth, or a particular pair of snow leopards, and show us their story. David Attenborough’s voiceover is as beautifully written and delivered as ever (contrived segues aside), but it’s also an infinitesimally small part of the undertaking of Planet Earth II. Credit belongs to the camera operators and producers who went out into the field and managed the most impossible of logistics to obtain the most stupefying footage ever seen. As ever, the behind-the-scenes segments at the end of each episode are as compelling as the footage itself. The season finale, which focusses anomalously on cities and the animals who have adapted to thrive there, is different from anything that this show has done before. But it’s also the unquestionable highlight. A rooftop conflict between monkeys results in a fight scene straight from a Jackie Chan movie; leopards stalk the streets of Mumbai; Catfish hunt pigeons on the shores of Rome; and birds perform elaborate mating rituals using colourful man-made trinkets. It’s as entertaining and surprising as any episode before, and also serves as a reminder that the boundary between the natural world and the built world is permeable. One hopes that the world is still in a place where Attenborough’s warnings about our responsibility to the rest of the planet don’t fall entirely on deaf ears.

No. 13: Pretentiousness: Why It Matters

dan-foxIf I had the money for grandiose acts of largesse, I would buy a whole case of Dan Fox’s latest and send them out to all of my friends and relatives, my member of parliament, Canada’s minister of heritage, every arts administrator and broadcaster I’m acquainted with, and as many heads of state as I think would actually read it. This monograph is a stunning defense of thinking and behaving in ways that contravene convention — a deeply necessary defence to make in our time. Fox isn’t attempting a whole-hog refutation of populism. Rather, he has composed an eloquent love letter to broad-mindedness. Fox notes the obvious point that the word “pretentious” is generally used in a derogatory fashion: to put somebody back in their place when they’re perceived to have overstepped a social boundary. But he argues persuasively that the act of overstepping social boundaries — which necessitates a certain amount of pretense or pretending (to the throne, even) — is inherently praiseworthy. And he has some choice words for those who prefer the epithet “elitist,” too. He cites a Guardian columnist who literally professed hatred — hatred — for a pair of flashily-dressed young people he saw randomly at a contemporary art exhibit. He tears that columnist apart for what he rightly calls “cheap, them-versus-us populism.” He continues: “It speaks to an ugly intolerance for difference, to an expectation that people must share the same aesthetic tastes and appearances and that if they don’t they must be complicit members of an elitist racket hell-bent on excluding ‘ordinary’ people from its world. Those ‘ordinary’ people, it is assumed, could not possibly be interested in complex ideas and conversant in different forms of visual literacy.” Boom. That quote alone is reason enough for everybody involved in art in any capacity to read this book. There’s a quote near the end that I now consider words to live by: “To fear being accused of pretension is to police oneself out of curiosity about the world.” Open-mindedness is an ideal among ideals. If more people were devoted to the cultivation of a broad base of knowledge, as opposed to fearing or resenting those qualities in others, societies would be stronger, less divided, and make better decisions as an electorate. Pretentiousness is not the enemy. Quite the opposite. This is a short and powerful book that everybody who cares about the legacy of human thought should read immediately, lest that legacy come to an end in the miasma of anti-intellectualism that the Trump administration is already promising to perpetuate.

No. 12: BoJack Horseman

There’s a promo graphic for this year’s season of BoJack Horseman that says “Soprano, Draper, Underwood, Horseman.” It would be easy to construe the point of that graphic as being something to the effect of: “Don’t let the fact that it’s a funny cartoon fool you! BoJack Horseman is a Serious Anti-Hero Television Programme!” If that actually is what the graphic is trying to say, it is a facile misreading of the show that it’s promoting. The third, and so far, best season of the show finds BoJack (a role in which Will Arnett just gets better and better) realizing that success doesn’t fill the emptiness. On its surface, that’s the premise of a standard “difficult man” show of the sort that has defined the last decade or so of prestige television. But BoJack Horseman differs from those sorts of shows in the sense that it focuses relentlessly on the malignant impact that its difficult protagonist has on the characters around him — particularly the women. The twin emotional spines of this season are BoJack’s relationship with his longsuffering, hypercompetent agent Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris keeps getting better, too) and with his former co-star and surrogate daughter Sarah Lynn (likewise for Kristen Schaal). In Princess Carolyn’s case, we see how she has helped BoJack out of countless situations where he’s made terrible errors, but she is not permitted a single mistake. With Sarah Lynn, we see how BoJack’s self-destructive tendencies are not only self-destructive, but also harmful to the most vulnerable people around him. In this sense, BoJack Horseman is the most realistic anti-hero show that’s been made so far. Because in real life, these sorts of people aren’t redeemed by their wit or charisma: they’re just bad. They’re bad for the world. BoJack is a great character because he realizes this and wants to change. But the fact that he doesn’t change means that he continues to cause pain and misfortune to those around him, and the show has no compunction about emphasizing this. In general, I’m not sure there’s another comedy out there that quite so willing to assume that the viewer is passingly conversant in feminist discourse. It’s gratifying to see that in a show that’s also full of silly animal jokes and has a whole episode of sight gags with almost no dialogue.

No. 11: Theory of Everything

Benjamen Walker is more committed than any other public radio refugee in podcasting to making a show that could never work on public radio. Theory of Everything deals with big, difficult, abstract subjects like the mathematics of coincidence. It dives head-on into anxieties about the future of information and labour. It fearlessly dances over the line between fiction and nonfiction. And it does not hold your hand. It trusts you to be smart enough to parse it. This year saw the beginning of a lengthy project exploring surveillance, which has taken Walker in all sorts of directions, and which plays into his anxieties beautifully. (He’s at his best when he’s getting anxious about something.) It also addressed the moment when the CIA weaponized abstract expressionism during the Cold War, and the gentrification of Paris. But the defining moment of Theory of Everything this year came from the episode “Useful Idiots,” in which a guest connects Vladimir Putin to Jeremy Bentham by way of Vladislav Surkov and Grigory Potemkin. That is the kind of thing that regular listeners know to expect from Benjamen Walker. And as the Trump era gets underway, I’m certain that his series on surveillance will only become more relevant and essential.

No. 10: Phonogram vol. 3: The Immaterial Girl

phonogramKieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie had a big year, amping up the action in their blockbuster comic The Wicked and the Divine, but it’s this beautiful conclusion to their longstanding passion project Phonogram that best demonstrates what I love about them. For one thing, it accidentally prefigured the year of celebrity deaths that we’ve had, which is just one example of the crazy synchronicity that surrounds Gillen and McKelvie’s work. The premise of Phonogram is that music is magic: it isn’t only the most useful index of human culture that we possess, but it also exerts force on the world and has the capacity to change it by changing people’s minds. “The Immaterial Girl” finds the characters that we’ve known since way back in the first issue of Phonogram struggling with the consequences of having too thoroughly mediated their interface with the world through music. This arc’s protagonist, Emily, has literally cut her personality in half by surrendering to the seductive pull of a musical icon. It’s a curiously relatable story. But the most affecting moment in this, or any Gillen/McKelvie comic so far, comes courtesy of David Kohl, a protagonist from a bygone story arc. When confronted head-on with the concerns of somebody else’s real life, he has a small epiphany: “I realized that the most important things in the story — the things which really matter — aren’t in this story.” For maybe the first time ever, Kohl finds himself face-to-face with somebody else’s reality: a reality that isn’t mediated entirely by pop records. Music is magic: we know it is because it has the capacity to frame the world and affect the way that we act upon it. But Kohl’s realization provides a profound addendum to that: the world still exists outside of that frame. To a certain extent, “The Immaterial Girl” is about breaking the spells that bind you to a certain way of thinking. For those of us who are single-mindedly pop culture-obsessed enough to be into Phonogram, it’s a hard pill to swallow. But that’s why I love it.

No. 9: HyperNormalisation

Adam Curtis’s latest completely uncompromising, non-hand holding, fearlessly complex, nuanced and lucid documentary came out exclusively on the BBC iPlayer. It’s refreshing to see a public broadcaster look at the internet and say “I suppose this is where we put the stuff that’s too ambitious for broadcast television” instead of “I guess this is where the memes go.” Curtis’s stated aim seems ludicrously grandiose at first: he’s going to demonstrate that we’ve come to live in a world that’s fake. But once you realize what he means by that, you come to realize that his thesis isn’t only demonstrable in theory, it’s almost inarguably true. HyperNormalization begins with stories in New York and Damascus, and continues symmetrically mapping the gradual dissolution of politics into a false narrative-making machine through America and the Middle East. There are quick asides to the U.K. and Russia, but this is mostly a story about the U.S., Syria, and most compellingly, Libya. The figure who is the lynchpin of Curtis’s entire sprawling argument is Muammar Gaddafi: a cartoonish lunatic who wasn’t responsible for much that the U.S. (knowingly wrongly) accused him of, but who was deranged enough to take responsibility anyway. Curtis traces Gaddafi’s transformation from America’s handmade bogeyman that let them conveniently remain allied with Syria through the Gulf War, into a political intellectual and friend of the West after 9/11, and subsequently into an enemy again when the U.S. allied itself with the Libyan rebels. This strand of Curtis’s narrative alone makes it clear that reality hasn’t been tremendously important in American politics for a long time. Throw the internet into the mix and things get really spooky. Curtis demonstrates how some of the most notable revolutionary movements of recent times, the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, fomented on social media — a reductive, simplified simulacrum of reality. Social media is really good at letting people organize and do things, but it’s really bad at fostering the kinds of discourses that produce viable ideas for how to run a country. So, after Occupy and after Tahrir Square, nothing really changed. Because you can’t build a real revolution in a fake version of the world. The documentary was released before the election of Trump, let alone the mainstreaming of the term “alternative facts.” But HyperNormalisation makes our inconceivably confusing and appalling contemporary world look like the inevitable consequence of a gradual, global, decades-long withdrawal from reality.

No. 8: Lemonade

I default to resenting juggernauts. It’s not a matter of principle, and in fact I’d rather approach music, movies, etc. with a more open mind than I do. But there are cases where this natural bias that I have against the ludicrously successful cannot find the slightest toehold. Lemonade, the most talked-about and obsessed over artwork of the year, is also virtually perfect: in both of its forms. The HBO special was the source of the initial buzz more so than the record, but they are equal accomplishments, each complete artworks in themselves. The record is the version that ultimately insinuated its way into my life, soundtracking my year in a way that might have been surprising, given how personal and specific an album Lemonade is. But it is also a demonstration of how the personal is political, as the motto goes. And, it’s a demonstration of how to make an intensely personal work of art within the context of expensive, shiny, commercial, heavily-resourced music. This must be what it felt like when Sgt. Pepper came out. Like that record, Lemonade was made by a massively popular artist. Like Sgt. Pepper, this record is following on the heels of a previous one that had massively intensified its creator’s critical acclaim. And like Sgt. Pepper, Lemonade surpassed virtually all of its near contemporaries in terms of ambition, depth of human understanding, and sheer studio perfection. Lemonade contains the best R&B, rock, hip-hop and country music of the year. A sonically flawless, intensely poetic celebration of black womanhood from Beyoncé was something that needed to happen, and it needed to happen specifically when it did. Thank the goddamn lord.

No. 7: You Must Remember This

Karina Longworth’s podcast about Hollywood’s first century is the best cultural history lesson you can experience on a weekly basis. The world’s podcast obsessives really started to take notice of You Must Remember This during last year’s “Charles Manson’s Hollywood” series. But 2016 found Longworth doing her most ambitious — and timeliest — project so far: a 16-part (21-part, if you count the completely essential re-runs of prior episodes sprinkled throughout for context) series about the Hollywood blacklist. These stories of how some of an era’s most creative people were forced out of their industry and into hard times because of their politics (and just as often, their race) would be fascinating in itself. But during a period where the pendulum has swung decisively back towards the fearmongering and hatred of the other that defined the HUAC era, it takes on the tenor of a warning. A meticulously-researched, hyper-detailed warning. (Remember the scary moment when it looked like Newt Gingrich might get a cabinet post and he said he wanted to reinstate HUAC? The fact that it didn’t happen with Gingrich doesn’t mean it couldn’t ever happen.) And yes, this is a podcast about celebrities and movie moguls. That might make it seem a bit distant from the concerns of the majority of the American electorate. But in focussing on cultural icons, Longworth doesn’t only impart glamour to her history lessons (though she does do that). She also emphasizes how government has always courted celebrity — at the very least, as a source of scandal. These are stories of resistance, cowardice, fear and persecution. They are stories of how governments can influence the culture industry and vice versa. And they will also probably introduce you to some colourful characters from American movie history that you might not know about. (The episode about Dorothy Parker is my personal favourite.) Longworth has even begun incorporating more archival tape into her show, so that it feels less like an audiobook with musical accompaniment. But her writing is still the be-all-and-end-all of the show, demonstrating that research and synthesis are potentially the equals of reporting and interviewing as working methods for making good nonfiction podcasts.

No. 6: Manchester by the Sea

This movie made me have every feeling I’m capable of. I’m not sure that I’ve ever been so pulled in by a movie with so little artifice. This is very much one of those movies that feels like dropping in on a period in somebody’s actual life. There’s nothing stylized about it. I usually like movies that announce their movie-ness as loudly as they can. (Recall that Swiss Army Man is on this list.) So why did Manchester make me respond like this? I think it might be because of the complete absence of emotional manipulation. Short of a bit of maudlin Albinoni music during the climactic scene, this movie declines to be openly expressive, opting instead to just be sad. In that, it is taking a cue from its protagonist. Manchester is basically a character study of Casey Affleck’s Lee. Still, I wonder why a movie so focussed on its main character should be titled after its setting instead? You might think that a film called Manchester by the Sea would focus more on the community around him. But aside from Lee’s nephew and a short but shattering performance from Michelle Williams as his wife, it really doesn’t. Here are my thoughts: I believe that Manchester by the Sea receives its title because this is first and foremost the story of what happens to a man when he’s forced to revisit a place that’s haunted by a past trauma. Manchester-by-the-Sea is the place where an unthinkable thing happened to Lee. The name of the town is as much a metonym for Lee’s personal tragedy as Wall Street is for high finance. So, Manchester by the Sea isn’t titled for its setting, so much as for its central horror: less Philidelphia than Poltergeist. There’s an alternate universe where Manchester is a horror movie: a haunted house story about what happens when you force a person to live in a place that’s full of ghosts. This is a profound film: a paradigm-shifting dissertation on what hides behind the facades of difficult, impenetrable people.

No. 5: Until the Horror Goes

This is the item on this list that I debated and deliberated about the most. I swung from one extreme to the other on this album throughout the course of 2016. When I first heard the singles, and then the full album, I thought it was without a doubt the best music I’d heard in years. Congleton writes huge cathartic anthems in the vein of Arcade Fire, or even U2. Then he twists them into warped shapes, with abrasive dissonances making a near-mockery of the basic material’s natural beauty. And he pairs the music with some of the bleakest lyrics you’re likely to hear outside of metal. The profoundest appeal of Until the Horror Goes is the fact that the latent beauty of Congleton’s anthems still shines through the muck, which to me makes them more poignant than anything on Funeral or The Joshua Tree. That is, when it hits me. Because this album — the one I’m currently proclaiming is my favourite of the year — doesn’t always work for me. It can get particularly dodgy when I pay close attention to the lyrics. In the right mood, Congleton’s nihilism is actually kind of satisfying. But the same part of me that doesn’t understand True Detective season one occasionally recoils at this. At the worst of times, John Congleton comes off like a 14-year-old goth: “If a tree falls in the woods… it doesn’t matter.” These are things you begin to get concerned about when an album captures your attention as completely as this captured mine. I feel more than ever that nihilism (as opposed to existentialism, which isn’t what this is) is an irresponsible philosophy and that the connections that we see and make in the world are actually meaningful. But I’ll confess to finding Congleton’s assurances that everything is meaningless and we might as well make the best of it more comforting these days than I did before November. If there’s a sentiment in music that’s defined 2016 for me, it’s surely “stay with me, stay with me, stay with me, stay with me… until the horror goes.”

No. 4: On the Media

onthemedia-1If there’s one podcast episode from 2016 that I’m likely to remember for the rest of my life, it’s the short segment that On the Media put out in its feed the morning after the election. It starts off as the sound of the two most incisive media critics working in America realizing “oh my god, even we were wrong.” And it spirals from there. At the risk of infantilizing myself, the most contentious moments of this episode felt exactly like being a kid and overhearing my parents fighting. Two people I had come to trust almost implicitly were disagreeing about things I trusted them to inform me about. This, for me, was the moment when it really sunk in how destabilizing this election result actually was. Brooke Gladstone — by my usual estimation, “the smart one” — was most disturbed by the fact that the elements in the media and the political system that they’d been reluctant to engage with had effectively chosen the president. She argued that this might be the time to start broadening the types of people they’re willing to give a platform to, though certainly not to let them get away with saying what they want. Her co-host Bob Garfield, who had spent the year proving his usefulness with a series of beautifully written and argued segments on why the media should cover Trump as an existential threat to democracy rather that as a normal politician. He was more audibly shaken by the election, and wanted to talk about whether or not it’s time to start using Hitler comparisons. It’s almost physically painful to listen to. However, the worst that can be said about On the Media this year is that they missed what everybody missed. In a media criticism show, that may seem like a substantial problem. But the fact remains that every assertion that Gladstone and Garfield made about Trump’s false narratives, media hustling and ongoing normalisation was correct. They’re still correct. And it’s not like it was all Trump all the time: the season’s highlight was Gladstone’s series on America’s poverty myths, and how they affect policy. It’s possible that this show is in the midst of an existential flail at the moment. But I’m confident that it will only become more important as we move into an era with a media-hostile president.

No. 3: Horace and Pete

This was the year when Louis C.K. got to the point where he could do whatever he wanted. Before we even get into the actual content of Horace and Pete, my favourite scripted show of the year, let’s note that it’s a self-financed, independently distributed web series, written and filmed largely on a week-by-week basis — and it has Steve Buscemi, Alan Alda, Edie Falco and Jessica Lange in it, alongside some of the best comedians around… and a theme song by Paul Simon. Oh, to be a person who can make this happen. It’s possible that Louis C.K.’s imperial phase has only just started. But that leads us to what exactly Horace and Pete is, which is to say, political drama. It’s a critique of American values, with characters being split into camps that wish to either maintain traditional power structures or acknowledge that the world is changing. This manifests through the story of a generations-old bar that’s been run by the same family since its inception — always managed by two men named Horace and Pete. Obviously, given the presence of women in the family who are not entitled to the same role in the business as the generations of Horaces and Petes, this raises some questions that need addressing. And thus begins the drama. For the most part, Horace and Pete isn’t openly polemical. The first episode introduces a useful division of labour: supporting characters are allowed to sit at the bar and talk politics explicitly, but the main contest of old values vs. new values takes place symbolically in the A plot, with no explicit references to, for instance, the primaries, which were ongoing at the time. Nothing in this show is a straightforward allegory, thank god. But it captures American anxieties in the year before the election of Donald Trump better than any other work of fiction this year. It is also a simple testament to the power of good writing and good acting presented straightforwardly. The show’s standout episode is its third, which begins with a ten-minute monologue in a single close-up shot of a character who we’ve never seen before. She just tells a story. We don’t even know who she’s telling the story to, or why, because the first reaction shot is ten minutes into the episode. It is electrifying, and the kind of gutsy move that I want more of in television. I haven’t gone back and watched any of this since the election, but I’m curious how the ending would read now in light of Trump’s win. Without spoiling too much, C.K. opted to end his show twice. A happy ending is immediately undercut by staggering bleakness, with an undercurrent of muted hope for change. I’m curious now: clearly the ending we got was a horrifying one, but was the alternative really that happy? Horace and Pete is an audacious and flawed show, with some unnecessary fat in the middle episodes, but I can’t help feeling that its imperfections only enrich it. We’ve always known that Louis C.K. is one of the great contemporary comics, but this reveals him to be the reincarnation of Eugene O’Neill as well.

No. 2: Arrival

It’s possible that recency bias is a factor in this high placement, since I saw Arrival this past week. But I came out of it genuinely feeling that it’s the best movie of the year. One gradual process I’ve been through this year is that I’ve come to see how spoilers are an actual thing that’s worth avoiding. And it’s really hard to talk about Arrival without dealing with the twist. This is one of those movies that becomes an entirely different film from start to finish once you know the whole of the story. I suspect that’s probably why everything I’ve seen written about it seems more effusively positive than it can actually back up with analysis. To talk about what makes this movie extraordinary as opposed to great is to spoil it. This movie’s ending is a narrative rug pull of Steven Moffat proportions. Still, for the bulk of Arrival’s running time, we don’t know the big secret, and it’s still an excellent movie. Amy Adams gives one of the best performances of the year (again, a performance that is elevated by knowledge of the ending) as the person that the military brings in to help them communicate. Specifically, with aliens. Couching a first contact story in terms of understanding language is a winning premise, especially when the story introduces the idea (a real idea in linguistics) that language actually fundamentally affects the way that a person thinks. That makes it critical to any understanding of another culture, yet alone another species. As far as I can tell all of this comes straight from the Ted Chiang story that Arrival’s excellent screenplay is based on. But if the movie were only a brute force expression of some clever ideas, it wouldn’t be my favourite of the year. Director Denis Villeneuve imparts an element of profound lyricism to the story by allowing us to see small moments, and letting our eyes linger on images that one assumes the citizens of this movie’s world are being fed through a much more frenetic TV news approach. Villeneuve is a director that I’ve been aware of since he made Incendies in 2010, but this is the first of his movies that I’ve seen. It’s clear that he’s a major talent, and one hopes that he’ll continue making movies like this, even after he’s made his franchise juggernaut debut later this year with the new Blade Runner.

No. 1: O.J.: Made in America

This is the best documentary I’ve ever seen. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything that’s quite this good at telling the big story and the little story at the same time. This is not just the story of the O.J. Simpson trial. And thank god for that: I would have little to no interest in watching eight hours on a trial so well-known that I’ve become intimately familiar with its finer details simply through osmosis. (I was four when it actually happened.) But director Ezra Edelman takes advantage of the story’s basic familiarity to use it as an illustration of a much larger story. The story starts with a pre-infamy O.J. Simpson making the conscious attempt to distance himself from his race. (“I’m not black; I’m O.J.”) Edelman allows long stretches of the series to unfold with very little mention of Simpson at all, in order to establish the context of race relations in late 20th-century Los Angeles. The story continues through Simpson’s abusive relationship with his wife, Nicole Brown, who is finally afforded the space in this narrative that she always should have had. Only then, a few episodes in, does Edelman get to the trial of the century. This would be a key storytelling challenge in a lesser documentary, because how does one tell this story, again? But, having laid the groundwork, Edelman deconstructs the Simpson trial by mapping the convergence of two narratives: the increasing awareness and preponderance of police violence against black people, and O.J. Simpson’s attempt at a “post-racial” public persona. Edelman deftly demonstrates how Simpson’s defence team commandeered one of the most important cultural discourses of the late 20th (and early 21st) century in defence of a man who had openly worked against that discourse in his prior career. These are the broad strokes, but there are more individual moments in this that will chill your spine than I could possibly enumerate. O.J.: Made in America is nonfiction storytelling of the very highest order. It is the ultimate synthesis of complex ideas by way of narrative. It is modern America, photographed from a helicopter.

***

Well, that was an exertion, wasn’t it? In case you’re interested, here are the lists that I drew from, broken down by genre with several runners-up in each category. You’ll note the preponderance of auditory entertainments, because those are the things I can consume while running or doing the dishes. There were simply more of them in my life last year, and this reflects that. Entries that made the top 30 are in bold.

Television

  1. O.J.: Made in America
  2. Horace and Pete
  3. BoJack Horseman
  4. Planet Earth II
  5. Better Call Saul
  6. Stranger Things
  7. Fleabag
  8. Orange is the New Black

Movies

  1. Arrival
  2. Manchester By The Sea
  3. HyperNormalisation
  4. Swiss Army Man
  5. Captain America: Civil War
  6. The Nice Guys
  7. High Rise
  8. I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House
  9. Moonlight
  10. Doctor Strange

Music

  1. John Congleton and the Nighty Nite: Until the Horror Goes
  2. Beyoncé: Lemonade
  3. Hans Abrahamsen/Barbara Hannigan et al.: let me tell you
  4. David Bowie: Blackstar
  5. Let’s Eat Grandma: I, Gemini
  6. Kyle Craft: Dolls of Highland
  7. Tim Hecker: Love Streams
  8. A Tribe Called Red: We Are The Halluci Nation
  9. Justice: Woman
  10. Chance the Rapper: Colouring Book
  11. Bon Iver: 22, A Million
  12. Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Teodor Currentzis, MusicAeterna, et al.: Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto & Stravinsky Les Noces
  13. Esperanza Spalding: Emily’s D+Evolution
  14. Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial
  15. Margo Price: Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
  16. Solange: A Seat at the Table
  17. Leonard Cohen: You Want it Darker
  18. Daniel Lanois: Goodbye to Language
  19. Danny Brown: Atrocity Exhibition
  20. Patricia Kopatchinskaja: Death and the Maiden

Books

  1. Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie: Phonogram vol. 3: The Immaterial Girl
  2. Dan Fox: Pretentiousness: Why It Matters
  3. Alan Moore: Jerusalem: The Burroughs
  4. Olivia Laing: The Lonely City
  5. Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie: The Wicked and the Divine vol. 4: Rising Action
  6. Jeremy McCarter & Lin Manuel Miranda: Hamilton: The Revolution

Games

  1. Firewatch
  2. Kentucky Route Zero: Act 4
  3. Sorcery!: Part 4
  4. Sunless Sea: Zubmariner
  5. Oxenfree

Podcasts

  1. On the Media
  2. You Must Remember This
  3. Theory of Everything
  4. The Heart
  5. More Perfect
  6. Love and Radio
  7. Imaginary Worlds
  8. Reply All
  9. Code Switch
  10. Pop Culture Happy Hour
  11. Crimetown
  12. The Gist
  13. The Sporkful
  14. In the Dark

Miscellaneous things it seemed weird to include

  1. Robert Lepage: 887
  2. Gideon Lewis-Kraus: “The Great AI Awakening”
  3. Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared: Part 6

And with that, we’re done. Have a great last eleven months of 2017.

Omnireviewer (week of Jan. 15, 2017)

A modest 20 reviews, because I’m binge-watching again. By the way, there’s never been a better time to follow me on Tumblr, because tomorrow marks the start of my customary late-January week of reflection on the stuff I liked from the past year. I’ll be counting back from 30, finishing next Saturday. But if you abstain from Tumblr, never fear, because as usual I will post an omnibus of all 30 on this site.

Television

Sherlock: “The Final Problem” — You know, it wouldn’t be so disappointing if it weren’t probably the last episode. There are good things here, not least of which is an opportunity for Mark Gatiss to play Mycroft at the moment when the condescension finally wears too thin to bother. I never thought I’d say this, but between his performance in this episode and his script for the first one, Gatiss is the best thing about Sherlock season four. But there are other clear weak points here. After two weeks of brilliant directing from a couple of the best in the Mofftiss-adjecent stable, first-timer Benjamin Caron turns in a mixed effort, including a really dumb-looking take on the classic “guys jump out of windows to escape an exploding building” shot, a bit where Sherlock swoops down into the camera like Batman, and a shot of Watson passing out while the camera spirals about. This all feels like it belongs in some other show. It’s worth noting that I’m not one of the people who has been disappointed by the James Bond-esque action in this season. Honestly, I didn’t remember it not being there before. The way the action has been handled is still very much in the visual universe of this show. But there are amateurish moments in this episode, to an extent that we haven’t seen since the first season. Okay, now a plus: Moriarty’s back for a final bow, and he’s dancing to Queen. “Do you like my boys? This one’s got more stamina, but he’s less caring in the afterglow.” That entire scene is sublime. Andrew Scott is brilliantly over the top. Alright, now back to the negatives. This episode worked really hard to show Sherlock having become “a good man.” But in having him act in a conventionally human fashion in pretty much every situation, rather than ever being ethically compromising or cold, the writers seem to have lost track of the fact that we know he’s a good man, and the beauty of this version of the character is that we continue to feel that way even when he makes decisions that we wouldn’t make. If they wanted me to sympathize with Sherlock to the degree that I normally do during the course of an episode, they should have made his evil sister put him in situations that would emphasize the areas where his character is weak, as opposed to ones where he’ll be forced to act honourably. In fact, this was the wrong approach entirely to the villain of this episode. Eurus shouldn’t have been a calculating arch-manipulator who uses humans as lab rats; she should have been somebody who knows Sherlock’s worst attributes and wishes to put them on display. She should have tried to demonstrate to him the extent to which he is fundamentally lacking in empathy, only to have John Watson reaffirm his value. That would have been a character beat to end the show on. I could say more, like how I wish there’d been more jokes, or how bits of this were legitimately scary in a way that Moffat scripts haven’t been for a while, but the details will largely fade into the background with this one, in the face of how bizarrely these two writers misinterpreted the appeal of their protagonist in the final episode of their show. Mary’s closing monologue is an obvious attempt to paper over that (final) problem, but the thing is that in this particular reinterpretation of the Sherlock Holmes corpus, it does matter what kind of people Holmes and Watson are. The adventures themselves account for a certain amount of what’s great about this show, but if the true motivations of the characters really mattered as little as Mofftiss are explicitly trying to tell us in that speech, then I wouldn’t have spent the previous hour and a half being so pissed off about why Sherlock’s being portrayed in this light. I think I’ll leave it there. Sherlock, at its best, was a huge achievement in television storytelling. However, it was infrequently at its best and it unfortunately didn’t end there. I mean, I guess it still could. But after this season, I can’t say I’m that interested in more.

Downton Abbey: Season 3, episodes 1-5 — I’ve been trying to decide what it is about this series that keeps me coming back in spite of literally everything about it. I think part of it is that it’s the only thing with a sense of humour as dry as I require. More shade is thrown and with greater subtlety in this show than basically any other. Only in this show could the line “a great many noses will be out of joint” serve as very nearly a cliffhanger.  This season is more like a straightforward soap opera than the show has ever been. But the presence of Cora’s mother, a truculent American bulldozer with about as little respect for the Edwardian aristocracy as I have, is extremely refreshing. Whether or not it comes off in the end, the idea to have a character in the show to whom it is necessary to justify the function of Downton is a very clever idea. Surely Julian Fellowes is entirely aware that he’s got people in the audience like me. Also, I quite like the organ arrangement of the meditation from Thaïs that’s played right before Edith’s almost-wedding. Wonder where I can find sheet music for that?

Games

Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!: Part 4 — Last we checked in, I was hopelessly stuck and wandering around a part of the map that there was literally no way out of with the items that I had. I was worried that this would be the bit where I stopped enjoying myself, but I’m actually glad that I got to spend a bit of time in that area because it’s one of the best parts of the game so far. Basically, just outside the huge castle that you’re trying to get into is a complex of stone towers that were once a great college of magic. They’ve been left in a state of dilapidation in recent years, but they’ve still got dangerous magic around them. That’s the best concept in this game so far: an abandoned magical college full of traps and impossible rooms. That would be a good game in itself. Anyway, I never did find a proper way out of there. But I did find an elegant way to die, which is the only way that you can really go back and make your choices again. So that turned out not to be an annoyance at all, but rather a lovely excursion away from the main plot. Having gotten back to the main plot, I swiftly realized how much I’m not used to having to think through simple puzzles in order to finish games. I died nine times within the game’s very last section, in the big castle I spent hours trying to get into last week — all because I failed to see one extremely obvious way to solve the problem that kept happening. Anyway, this is just another example of me wanting games not to be games, because I’m bad at them. If you’re not, I think you probably ought to play this. The fourth instalment is good enough to justify the sometimes tedious schlep through the first three.

NORTH — Nothing special. For two bucks and an hour of your time, it’s good value. But while this game is to be commended for its attempt to win the player’s empathy for a refugee, it doesn’t have a lot to say about the specifics of that experience. It sets its narrative in a hazy, purposely abstract city populated by anguished deformed ghouls. And while its visual style is completely wonderful and gets across a sense of loneliness and alienation that befits its theme, NORTH falls flat in that it doesn’t take the extra step and establish more acute consequences for its central character’s decision to flee to this place. NORTH deals in generalities. You learn that your character has moved to a place that distrusts his religion, will only allow him to do the most menial and dangerous work, and doubts that he was even persecuted at all in his home country. This all rings true, but the structure of the game is such that all of these hurdles are jumpable, and there’s no sense here that the character suffers the sort of sustained discrimination and hate from his fellow citizens that are presumably the attitudes this game is trying to combat. Rather, he is simply made to live in a rather stylish dystopian surveillance state. (Perhaps one that surveils him more closely than others, but even that is not entirely clear.) So basically, this game is really good at inspiring empathy for an isolated person who has been forced to move far from home, but its attempts to generalize the refugee experience to the point of abstraction make it substantially less powerful than it wants to be.

Movies

HyperNormalisation — Before we discuss the content of this troubling, mesmerizing masterpiece, let’s take a moment to acknowledge that the BBC has (at least in this instance) figured out what a public broadcaster should do on the internet. For context, this is a three-hour web-exclusive documentary by the BBC’s weirdest longstanding contributor, Adam Curtis. It covers the 40-year story of how the world got to a point where obviously horrible things can happen routinely (suicide bombings, Trump, Putin) while most people continue to think the world is still normal. So basically, it is extremely ambitious and engages in exactly no handholding. Oh, you don’t know who Andrei Tarkovsky is? Fucking Google it. We have the world at our fingertips. We shouldn’t insist that documentarians, broadcasters and journalists fill us in on shit like that. If Curtis took the traditional broadcasting approach, HyperNormalisation would be nineteen tedious hours long. By circumventing basic explanatory parentheticals and trusting his audience’s intelligence and curiosity, Curtis is able to present three hours of pure analysis and evaluation. Less time spent explaining equals more time spent synthesizing. This is easier to do when the documentary is open in one of many browser tabs and easily rewindable than if it’s on BBC Two. Many legacy media outlets, public and not, have looked at the internet primarily as a threat, and of course they’re not wrong. But they are damn well wrong to react to that threat by making themselves more similar to the vapid sorts of web-native operations that command competitively-sized audiences to their broadcast platforms. The internet was once the proud home of the stuff that’s too weird and difficult for what used to be called mainstream media. The BBC’s release of HyperNormalisation exclusively on their iPlayer feels like a beautiful glimpse into an alternate universe where legacy media joined the party where the cool, smart kids were. It’s an acknowledgement that the internet offers the opportunity to do exactly what they’ve always done, except smarter and more niche. Meanwhile, two browser tabs over, there are National Post headlines shouting at me to click on them so that Facebook will see them as profitable and display them more prominently so that more people will click on them and see ads on the National Post website and not learn a damn thing from the article and then do it all again and again until they’ve spent half the running time of HyperNormalisation consuming the media equivalent of marshmallows and feeling a bit sick. So, it’s appropriate that towards the end of its staggering exploration of how everything became fake, HyperNormalisation asserts that we know the world less well than ever because we view it through the simplified, personalized lens of algorithmically-curated social feeds. The Wikipedia synopsis actually sums up the effect of this better than I probably could: “The American Left’s attempt to resist Trump on the internet had no effect. In fact, they were just feeding the social media corporations who valued their many additional clicks.” There’s more on social media in this, particularly as it applies to the fruitless revolutions in Egypt during the Arab Spring and on Wall Street during the Occupy movement. But it’s actually expressed with even more clarity in Curtis’s interview on Chapo Trap House, which I recommend. Putting my usual hobby horse aside for a moment, this documentary is tremendously clever in its structure. It begins with stories in New York and Damascus, and continues symmetrically mapping the gradual dissolution of politics into a false narrative-making machine through America and the Middle East. There are quick asides to the U.K. and Russia, but this is mostly a story about the U.S., Syria, and most compellingly, Libya. The figure who is the lynchpin of Curtis’s entire sprawling argument is Muammar Gaddafi: a cartoonish lunatic who wasn’t responsible for much that the U.S. (knowingly wrongly) accused him of, but who was deranged enough to take responsibility anyway. Curtis traces Gaddafi’s transformation from America’s handmade bogeyman that let them conveniently remain allied with Syria through the Gulf War, into a political intellectual and friend of the West after 9/11, and subsequently into an enemy again when the U.S. allied itself with the Libyan rebels. This strand of Curtis’s narrative alone makes it clear that reality hasn’t been tremendously important in American politics for a long time. The documentary was released before the election of Trump, but this makes that completely unthinkable event look inevitable in retrospect. Pick of the week.

Music

Jethro Tull: Bursting Out — Now, naturally, I would say this. But this is one of the best live albums ever. If you’re trying to convince somebody why live albums are worthwhile, and why they were such a big deal in the ‘70s, this is possibly the very best one. I’d put it at number two on my personal live list, edging out Yessongs and Magma’s Live/Hhaï by a fraction and losing out only to Gentle Giant’s Playing the Fool. By the height of prog rock in the ‘70s, the studio recording had long supplanted the live performance as the platonic ideal of a piece of music. (Think of a Beatles song. You’re thinking of the record, not a live track.) Since then, as music has become increasingly producer driven and recordings have become fussier and fussier and piled with more layers of artifice (by no means a value judgement; it’s just true), live records have become increasingly superlative as live performances inevitably come to resemble the records more and more. But the ‘70s represents an interesting transitional phase, where albums were becoming increasingly elaborate, but they were still basically made by people who played instruments. So, live performances from this period are a hybrid between the profoundly expressive act that music making always is, and the thrill of watching a series of stunts. Jethro Tull is one of the bands that succeeded most consistently in existing at that intersection. The performances on this live record are unique to the studio versions because the studio versions are irreproducibly complex. Instead, they are compelling reinterpretations of the material for a different setting. This is a kind of record that I don’t think we’ll ever see again. And that’s fine. But thank god we have this one.  

Igor Stravinsky/John Eliot Gardiner, Ian Bostridge, Bryn Terfel, etc: The Rake’s Progress — I used to listen to this a bunch back in music school but man, it’s been a while. It came up at work recently, and I figured it was about time to revisit this. This is one of those recordings that seems like the platonic ideal of the opera in question. (Mind you, it’s also the only Rake I’ve listened to more than once. There’s a reason for that, though.) Gardiner treats the material with the unsentimentality that it begs, and that matter-of-factness allows the score itself to express its own natural beauty. And the singing is absolutely peerless. Bostridge and Terfel are two of the best singers of their generation, both at their very best here. Terfel’s Nick Shadow is very much a classic Bryn Terfel characterization: a touch of the clown, but threatening nonetheless. Along with Anne Sofie von Otter’s bearded lady, he breathes life into a story that isn’t always naturally invigorated by Stravinsky’s compulsively austere music. That’s especially relevant in the first act, because this opera famously takes a while to get going. Act two has a lot of great stuff in it, but it’s the third and final act that’s the real masterpiece. Honestly, I’d recommend that any classical music fan take the 55 minutes to listen to act three and the short, brilliant epilogue to hear Stravinsky at the absolute height of his abilities in neoclassical mode. It’s Stravinskian music clothed in Mozartean garb, and the three scenes of act three show three distinctly different takes on that concept. The auction scene is total chaos that must take untold hours of rehearsal. The graveyard scene is creepy and muted, and a magnificent two-hander for the singers in the leading roles (Terfel and Bostridge are unspeakably entertaining together). And the final scene in the madhouse is the best of all. Stravinsky does something really clever here. The Rake has gone insane and believes himself to be Adonis. Stravinsky’s music seems to support that delusion, as it’s suddenly filled with ambrosia, and the distance between the beauty of the music and the reality of the Rake’s madness makes the scene gloriously sad. The epilogue is two and a half minutes of Stravinsky’s most addictive music. I love this. Listen to this.

Podcasts

Welcome to Night Vale: “worms…” — The episodic plot of this episode gradually melted away into the larger story arc, but it’s fine. I do think Hiram McDaniels is played out as a character, but I know he sticks around for at least twenty more episodes, and probably more. One of the most pronounced weak points of Welcome to Night Vale is that they don’t know when things are played out. Their continuity is a crutch that they use in place of new jokes, because they think they can (and perhaps they actually can?) rely on their fan base to be delighted at the mere mention of the Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home, or the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex. Which, granted, are both fun combinations of words. But the novelty wears off when the thing they’re attached to doesn’t actually have anything new to contribute to the story. For a show about the mysterious and unknowable, Night Vale sure does rely an awful lot on familiarity as a positive trait in itself. If I space out my listening enough (and my increasing behindness should indicate that I do), I can tolerate it. But after listening to three episodes last week (even though one of which was “Voicemail,” which is one of the few to break the structural mould) I’m already starting to get sick of this again.

Chapo Trap House: “Better Call Saul Alinsky” — The Chapos are joined by MST3K’s Bill Corbett to talk about the single most hilariously misguided and offensive documentary of recent times: Dinesh D’Souza’s Hillary’s America. I am so happy they watched it so I don’t have to.

Love and Radio: “No Bad News” — This is about a hypnotist who stopped watching the news and ended up treating Uday Hussein because he had no idea what was going on in the world. It is less frustrating (in the good way) than many episodes of Love and Radio but that may just be because of the hypnotist’s soothing voice, which probably made me more amenable to his self-enforced ignorance.

Theory of Everything: “Entrapment” — Excellent, but particularly excellent for the segment from ten years ago, in which a younger, more naïve Benjamen Walker tells a story about his cell phone ruining his relationship. Oh, for the days when the most insidious invasion of privacy that your cell phone could manage was a butt dial.

Theory of Everything: “The Twentieth of January” — Firstly, the novel they’re talking about in this is real. There actually is a spy novel from 1980 about a Republican president who gets elected in spite of having no political experience and an amount of wealth that’s inconsistent with his image as a populist. And then a British intelligence agent reveals a plot by the Russians to influence the election. That much of this episode — the part that describes the plot of the novel — is entirely true. But just finding this book and noting its similarity to our contemporary shit cyclone wouldn’t be enough. So Benjamen Walker and his guest Josh Glenn spin a bizarre conspiracy theory that the book is one of the few that Donald Trump has actually read, and that it was given to him by the KGB. That’s the beauty of this show. It would never squander the knowledge of a weirdly prescient espionage thriller on mere reportage. It takes it several steps further.

Code Switch: “Obama’s Legacy: Did He Remix Race?” — A fine conclusion to the trilogy, with some really excellent tape from the poet Richard Blanco, who read at Obama’s inauguration. The best part is hearing the panel take apart the optimism of Obama’s farewell address, look at it from a few different angles, and not quite be able to come to a decision on it.  

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: DJ Khaled” — So, I listened to this at 1.5X, and I’m not sure I’ve ever been more entertained. But even at regular speed, I’m sure Khaled’s explanation of why it’s important to have a lot of pillows will delight you.

The Sporkful: “The Great Office Coffee Election” — This is fun. WNYC voted on what the new free office coffee was going to be, so Dan Pashman obviously had to make a Sporkful out of it.

Song Exploder: “Solange – Cranes in the Sky” — First off, I’m confused about how Hrishikesh Hirway was able to isolate the drums and bass from this track if the stems went missing. Did they find them after the fact? But in any case, this is really illuminating. Basically, Solange took an instrumental that she couldn’t do much with except loop and built a song on top of it that actually has direction and manages to go somewhere because of her skill with harmony. I love this show because it focusses in on the craftsmanship of music. That’s especially useful with music like this, where it intersects so perfectly with a big social conversation. The vast preponderance of criticism about A Seat at the Table has focussed on Solange’s social message, as well it should. But there’s space to recognise that Solange is both very thoughtful about feminism and race and she is very good at making music. Pick of the week.

The West Wing Weekly: “What’s Next? featuring Lin-Manuel Miranda” — Worth it for the lines about Yo-Yo Ma alone.

The Gist: “The 12-Step Program of Highly Effective People” — Nick Thune is a funny fellow. I saw him live last year, and was pretty impressed. This is a good conversation that gets into the craft of his comedy a bit, and gets to why he resists tightening up his set to just the lines that get the biggest laughs. I respect him for that. I found him entertaining to listen to, even when the punchlines were spread a fair way apart. Mike Birbiglia can get away with this too.

Criminal: “In Plain Sight” — It’s been so long since I listened to Criminal. I really should go back and listen to the whole archive. This is an incredible show. It reminds me as much of Reply All as anything, because it takes a really broad view of its premise. Anything that could ever have been interpreted as criminal is fair game. So, this story of two slaves escaping so that they could have a proper marriage in a church — an escape that involves a pretty insane disguise — is the sort of thing you can rely on this show for. Lovely.

The Memory Palace: “The Presidency of William Henry Harrison, or Back in the Saddle” — One of the really slight ones. It’s nice, and a good tie-in for inauguration day, but not one of the episodes that’ll sell you on this show.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Young Pope & Hell or High Water” — Here’s one of the episodes that makes me want to watch both of the things they’re talking about. The Young Pope in particular sounds exactly weird enough to be just what I want out of life.

Omnireviewer (week of Jan. 8, 2017)

Big week! 31 reviews! I’m working part-time and it feels GREAT. Also, I have some magical new running pants that allow me to run in the cold. So, podcasts! But first, everything else.

Literature, etc.

Ken Doctor: “The Newsonomics of Podcasting” — Doctor’s analysis of the current state of podcasting is probably the most in-depth bespoke piece of journalism out there on the matter at the moment. (I say “bespoke” because the best way to stay informed about the podcast biz remains a subscription to Nick Quah’s weekly newsletter Hot Pod.) There is much here for podcast producers and enthusiasts to be scared about — especially in the fourth of the five parts in this series, which details how dynamic advertising (something that contributed to the web’s current state of dilapidation and skeeziness) will soon be implemented into podcasting at the cost of its current, open RSS-based model of distribution. However, the fifth and final section offers some reasons to be optimistic, as it seems that the people at the heads of the companies responsible for many of the most popular podcasts don’t want to see this industry go the way of commercial radio, or of digital publishing. As long as there are people in powerful positions at big podcasting companies who believe in the primacy of good programming over all other concerns, we’ll be fine. Right? Right??

Jed Gottlieb: “Curtains fall on arts critics at newspapers” — Well, this is intensely discouraging. Still, it’s gratifying to read a quote from a formerly full-time critic that calls the situation for what it is: “It’s all for kids. The papers, the movies and music. There is nowhere to go for smart analysis, beautiful features. Social media means everyone has a voice but what’s lost in the cacophony is that intelligent voice commenting on intelligent art.” Welcome to the abyss.

Olivia Laing: The Lonely City — Another 2016 notable book I’m hurrying through before my end-of-January list. This is unexpectedly cathartic: a study of urban loneliness in American art, and an examination of how that art can help ease loneliness. Halfway between straight art criticism and memoir, Laing’s book sets out exactly the headspace she found herself in when she became obsessed with the art of loneliness. The first chapter focusses on the work of Edward Hopper, whose paintings I have apparently seen plenty of without actually ever knowing who he was. But it also focusses on the way that the experience of loneliness of the acute sort that Laing has experienced, and that I can sympathise with in a much more muted form, has a tendency to further isolate you from the people that you want in your life. Moreover, Laing notes that there’s social science research that details how, once the loneliness subsides, we tend to forget the sensation altogether and fail to recognize and sympathize with it in others. So, for anybody who has experienced what Laing describes and has come out the other side, this is a useful read because it contains a description of the sensation that you may have forced yourself to forget. The appeal of this book lies in the intersection between Laing’s ability to articulate the experience of loneliness and her ability to look at and interpret pictures in interesting ways based on that experience. Familiar Hopper paintings like Nighthawks take on more beauty when seen through the lens that Laing offers. The next chapter’s on Warhol. No idea where she’ll go with that, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

Games

Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!: Part 4 — Not finished yet, but I’m happy to report that this is everything I’d hoped it would be. It incorporates the mechanical improvements of the third instalment into a setting that has more of what appealed to me in the second part: I’ll always prefer a text-based game that takes place in a city to one that takes place in a vast wilderness. Even a vast wilderness with nifty time beacons. So much of what makes me like interactive fiction is getting to interact with NPCs from fictional civilizations. Or fictionalized versions of real civilizations. The other advantage in this game is that the rewind feature is disabled at a crucial point, so that your decisions aren’t reversible and you can’t be tempted to try all of the routes through any given situation: a big part of what sunk the last instalment for me. That said, I’m only just getting to a situation where I wish I could rewind my choices, because I think I might have actually trapped myself somewhere I can’t get out of without rewinding back past the point where the rewind was disabled. My final assessment of this will likely depend on my level of frustration in getting out of this situation. But let’s just bequeath something on this pre-emptively, in case I decide I hate it later for unfair reasons, namely that I’m a terrible and idiosyncratic gamer. Pick of the week.

Television

Battlestar Galactica: Season 1, episodes 5-13 — Okay, so I powered through the rest of this season faster than I’ve watched any show since before I entered the workforce. Here’s a thick slurry of thoughts. There’s something marvellously David Cronenberg about the way that the Cylon spacecraft are semi-organic. I don’t think I’ve seen spaceships that bleed in any other bit of science fiction. Also, those ships’ capacities feel refreshingly analogue: if the humans destroy a fleet of eight Cylon scouts, they’re safe. They haven’t been discovered. For 2004, this feels really pre-internet. What does it say about 2017 that Battlestar Galactica feels like a retreat into a world with less sophisticated surveillance? On the other hand, it’s clear now that Commander Adama has an extremely selective code of ethics. He has previously advocated for leaving behind huge swathes of the remaining human race for the safety of even bigger swathes. But when one of his pilots is stranded on an inhospitable moon, he risks the lives of his entire fleet to save her. It’s a clever decision on the show’s part to make Starbuck that pilot, because she’s far and away the most sympathetic character the show has. It’s the only thing that could make us support Adama in what is increasingly obviously a series of horrible decisions. (Also, it’s telling that Adama gets his way with this in the end — and he also comes damn close to getting his way when the president starts making seemingly awful decisions of her own in the two-part finale. The power of the presidency is dependent on the goodwill of the military.) However, putting Starbuck in that scenario specifically is also a bit of a cop out, because we know that she’s smart enough to find her way out of this situation without Adama’s help. We aren’t genuinely ever faced with a potential consequence, because Starbuck’s survival is never really in serious doubt. Still, “You Can’t Go Home Again” is one of my favourite episodes so far. Ditto for “Six Degrees of Separation,” in which Six appears to have superpowers. I’m generally less invested in worldbuilding and mythology than I am for the actual plotline of a series, but I confess to being fascinated by Cylon spirituality, and I wonder if this will end up being a Game of Thrones situation where one of the religions turns out to be correct and allows its worshippers to do seemingly impossible things. The seemingly prescient nature of President Roslin’s visions only makes the question: which one? Both? Also, intriguingly, given the show’s much vaunted willingness to engage with the ongoing war on terror, the human religion is founded on the belief that time repeats itself. “All of this has happened before and will happen again.” Perhaps the show’s metaphors are meant to be literal recurrences of the early 21st-century sociopolitical events they’re critiquing? (When you consider that there’s a line in “Colonial Day” about how the largest point of speculation at the start of an event regards whether or not two political figures will shake hands, the show seems oddly prescient — and thus backs up its own point.) “Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down” is by miles the stupidest episode in the show thus far. It is only redeemed by Mary McDonnell’s performance of intense suspicion and strained tolerance of Tigh’s wife — about whom, oh my god get this character off of the screen. I think that’s just about all of my thoughts. In any case, it seems like enough. Also, much as I enjoyed Todd VanDerWerff’s Deadwood recaps on the A.V. Club, I halfway think that Sonia Saraiya’s BSG recaps are even better — specifically the one on the Starbuck two-parter. Check that out for sure.

Sherlock: “The Lying Detective” — Bizarrely, I think I liked Mark Gatiss’s episode last week better than this one by Steven Moffat. It’s not that it’s bad, certainly. It’s just that the tension of this episode rests largely on whether Culverton Smith (Toby Jones, at his leering creepiest) is actually a serial killer or if Sherlock is just finally too off his head on drugs to know up from down. That’s not a particularly interesting tension, and it isn’t resolved in an especially interesting way. The huge twist at the end is indeed a huge twist, but it doesn’t have much to do with the actual story of this episode: it’s just laying groundwork for the next one. On the plus side, Amanda Abbington is still in the show, as we all knew she would be. On the down side, Mary is still dead, and seemingly for no good reason.

Music

Hans Abrahamsen/Ensemble MidtVest: Works for Wind Quintet — Abrahamsen is responsible for my favourite newly-recorded classical work of the year, let me tell you, a song cycle for the magnificent Barbara Hannigan. I don’t generally write about the stuff I listen to for work on this blog, to avoid cannibalizing myself. But you can find my remarks about that recording at the top of this list for CBC Music. This recording is the only other music of Abrahamsen’s that I’ve heard. Being wind quintet music, it’ll be of limited accessibility to lots of listeners, I’m sure. But I’ve always loved the explicit heterogeneity of wind music, probably because I grew up playing in wind bands. Abrahamsen uses this format to its greatest possible advantage, allowing the instruments to play independent lines that are meant to diverge as much as they’re meant to blend. It’s interesting to note that the two original pieces featured here predate let me tell you by nearly 40 years, because they sound identifiably like they’re by the same person, even if let me tell you is a lot more satisfying. Abrahamsen took a ten-year hiatus in his compositional career, which the history books will look at as a dividing line the same way as they do with Bob Dylan’s motorcycle crash. But as with Dylan, the two sides of that line aren’t as distinct as all that. The latter half of the disc is devoted to Abrahamsen’s transcriptions of Schumann and Ravel, which if they were by anybody else would be derided as curiosities, or mere necessities to pad the limited repertoire of the wind quintet. That’s unfair, of course. But these transcriptions are genius of the same sort as Schoenberg’s orchestration of Brahms’s G minor piano quartet. Schumann has always been my very least favourite of the major composers, and I confess that I enjoy Kinderszenen more in this formation than the original piano version. At least there’s timbral variety in a wind quintet. Abrahamsen’s transcription of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin is less surprising on account of Ravel’s familiar orchestration, but it is lovely and intimate. The wind players of Ensemble MidtVest comport themselves ably. Nothing’s perfect: especially not wind quintet playing. But this comes acceptably close. I will certainly not be returning to this as often as let me tell you, but it leaves me assured that Hans Abrahamsen is a voice in classical music that I ought to be keeping track of.

Brian Eno: Reflection — This is an excellent alternative to silence. Perhaps that sounds like faint praise, but for anybody who admires John Cage as much as Brian Eno does (and indeed as much as I do), it is among the highest compliments to offer a piece of music. Eno’s ambient music projects fall into two camps. There are the sublime ones like Music for Airports and On Land, which in the midst of their drones and textures contain memorable musical material, spread out judiciously. These records are deeply unobtrusive, as Eno intended, but they still announce their presence in the gentlest ways possible. The melodies on Music for Airports are like supportive friends. Along with Brahms’s German Requiem, it is the most profound musical expression of human compassion that I’ve ever heard. Loving these records so much can tend to make you underestimate the power of the ambient records that fall into Eno’s other camp: records like Thursday Morning and this new one. These records are built differently. They feel like audible spaces as opposed to audible objects. As such, they’re unlikely to be perceived as something so specific as “compassionate,” because they’re seemingly conceived to be neutral. Music for Airports is a record you turn to to lower your heart rate and quiet your mind. Reflection is a record you turn to as an alternative to silence, to bring us back to where we started. Any attempt at finding true silence will inevitably fail. Cage taught us that. But we can substitute what passes for silence for music like this: music that proceeds nearly invisibly, whose musical events possess the seeming uniformity of randomness. Reflection will allow your mind to remain a bit noisy. It can help you get things done. It can help you think in a straight line. It is perhaps a less profound gift than some of Eno’s more intentionally beautiful music, but it is a gift nonetheless.

Daniel Lanois: Goodbye to Language — This construction of ambient sounds with pedal steel is the kind of ambient music that has presence. It feels like a person making sounds with an object, and then making decisions about what to do with those sounds. It isn’t ethereal at all; it’s physical. There are times when this feels like an intentional attempt to bend time. It’s like there’s an early version of Goodbye to Language sitting somewhere that’s a straight line, but the one that got released is full of knots, and swerves and loops. Of the numerous ambient albums from 2016 that I’ve heard, I like this one the best — with the proviso that I don’t consider Tim Hecker’s Love Streams to be ambient.

Esperanza Spalding: Emily’s D+Evolution — Oh, I like this. I really like this. I have nothing against virtuosity. I’m for it. And I do think that it’s a viable end in itself. But personally, I’m more attracted to music with a big plan, these days: an idea. And Emily’s D+Evolution has a plan, and ideas o’plenty. This is virtuosity placed at the service of poetry. And equally, it’s poetry placed at the service of virtuosity. Spalding’s singing and bass playing are both astonishing here, and the lines she writes for herself to deliver with both instruments are worthy of her abilities. That’s not something you come across a lot. This is socially conscious music, delivered through a Bowie/Janelle Monaé-esque constructed persona. And it’s also a record you can listen to for the sheer joy of hearing people play instruments really freaking well. It is equally strong in concept and execution. I’m hard pressed to isolate favourite tracks, because the whole thing is so strong, but I’ll suggest “Good Lava” for its unison lines, “Ebony and Ivy” for its killer lyrics and awesome a capella opening, and also the extended cut of “Unconditional Love” for Matthew Stevens’ shit-hot guitar solo. Truly awesome.

Mitski: Puberty 2 — A good album, but I tend to prefer this kind of messy, grungy indie rock in song-length doses. All the same, there’s plenty of variety here, and the best tracks on the album (“Happy,” “Fireworks,” and especially “Your Best American Girl,” which is staggeringly good) are intensely repeatable. Mitski is a good songwriter and a committed enough rock ‘n roller that she doesn’t let her songwriting skill get in the way of making a gigantic loud noise. I’ll inevitably revisit my favourite tracks more than I’ll revisit the album as a whole, but that’s fine. Not everybody has to be an album artist.

Childish Gambino: Awaken, My Love! — A lovely little divertisment, with some truly impressive range from Donald Glover as a singer. He’s doing something different on nearly every track. The songwriting is a bit whatever, but that’s hardly the point. The point is this beautiful production that’s at once modern and a throwback to the 70s. Miles Davis and Teo Macero would have loved this. I haven’t heard either of the previous Childish Gambino records in their entirety, but what I have heard doesn’t leave me feeling entirely convinced about Glover as a rapper. I can definitely get into him as a person who does weird creative projects like this alongside big things like Atlanta, which I will certainly try to get to eventually. Nice.

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “Viking’s Choice 2016” — Bob Boilen references Tales from Topographic Oceans! Never thought that would happen. I am so excited for more Lars Gotrich on All Songs in 2017. This guy has the most interesting taste at NPR. For every bit of hardcore that doesn’t connect, there’s a piece of weird synth music that I need in my life. He’s not as articulate as Ann Powers or Stephen Thompson, but he’s got such a depth of knowledge about music on what’s generally considered to be “the fringes” that it makes him essential to this operation. This is a great episode. The tracks by Oathbreaker and Zao were the standouts to me. I’ll at least check out the complete tracks, if not the complete albums.

Song Exploder: “Oathbreaker – 10:56 / Second Son of R.” — I actually like this song less upon hearing it in its entirety. I love the juxtaposition between quiet acoustic music and hardcore, but it doesn’t coalesce structurally in the way that I like. Maybe it would be a grower, but I think I’m past the point where I can listen obsessively to heavy music. Ah, well.

Chapo Trap House: “We Live in The Zone Now” — This show hits me where I live. This is their post-election episode, and it is the second-most indicative podcast episode I’ve heard of that destabilizing moment (the first being the On The Media post-election story meeting tape). I do think that in their (justified) zeal to tear down the DNC and the mainstream media for allowing Trump’s rise, the Chapos downplayed the material role of racism in the election, i.e. a segment of America either doesn’t recognize racist attitudes in themselves and their candidates or openly supports those attitudes. And either way, they were profoundly unprepared to prevent overt racism from overtaking the white house. In a decent world, rule number one ought to be “Don’t vote for a racist. Every other quality is secondary.” (You could also easily replace “racist” with “sexual abuser.” That is an equally valid rule number one.) But regardless, the red hot rage that these guys can articulate against the DNC is refreshing. I have been of many minds about the kind of comedy I want in a post-Trump world. And in spite of what I’ve written in the past, it’s not Samantha Bee. This is closer, at least.

Welcome to Night Vale: Episodes 63-65 — “There Is No Part 1: Part 2” is a single joke stretched too thin. But the following two episodes are excellent, and I’m very much enjoying the plot arc about Cecil periodically losing consciousness only to find upon awaking that he’s saved the mayor yet again. I have a suspicion about who purchased Cecil as lot 37 at that auction, which is verifiably either right or wrong, considering how behind I am on this. Nonetheless, here it is: I think Cecil purchased himself. I think he got tired of only reporting on the struggles of his loyal friend and former intern Dana, and decided that he could only get involved if he could do so under the pretense of unconsciousness. This will preserve his journalistic integrity, and also allow him an extra measure of bravery. I’m not clear on the mechanism by which he purchased himself. Maybe it has something to do with time travel. Maybe he’ll go visit Carlos in his desert otherworld, and time will turn out to work differently there in such a way that future Cecil can purchase past Cecil at a bygone auction. Just a guess. Anyway, I’m backed up on podcasts again, so who knows when I’ll actually get back to this and discover whether I’m right.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: The Golden Globes” — This appears to be all of the Golden Globes 2017 that I could possibly need, i.e. eleven minutes of recap on a podcast, plus Meryl Streep’s speech on YouTube. Jimmy Fallon is the worst host on late night, so it stands to reason that he’d be awful here as well. I couldn’t care less about who won or lost, save that I’m disappointed Kenneth Lonergan didn’t win in one of his two categories. But WHATEVER.

The Gist: “The Secret to Meaningful Work” — Not Pesca’s most revelatory interview, but it’s nice to know that there are people doing research on how work does and doesn’t relate to personal self-worth.

Longform: “Terry Gross” — The most revealing moment in this great interview with America’s interviewer-in-chief is the bit where she talks about how she gradually became more willing to do media herself. As recently as a year ago, when she went onstage with Marc Maron, she seemed deeply uncomfortable with the idea of talking about herself. To be fair, that was in front of a live audience, whereas this is an intimate conversation in her Philadelphia office. But there’s something reassuring about hearing Gross talk about her own process and why she does what she does. It makes it clear that she’s not just a disembodied consciousness with above average levels of empathy. I also admire her approach to interviewing politicians. They’re the only group of people who don’t get the option to take back something they say or to refuse to answer a personal question. And hearing that clip from her Hillary Clinton interview again made me remember just why she sets my teeth on edge.

Twenty Thousand Hertz: “From Analogue to Digital” — If Twenty Thousand Hertz’s episodes thus far were compiled into an album, this would be filler. It doesn’t really have much to say about the value of analogue sound technology other than that it’s different from digital sound technology in ways that everybody is entirely aware of: i.e. there are rituals associated with analogue music that have died off. No matter, this show’s batting average is still high.

NPR Politics Podcast: “Obama’s Farewell, Russian Intel Reports, Senate Hearings” — Oh my god there is so much news right now. The real value of podcasts like this is that sometimes you only have time to catch the headlines of things that happen. On days when you’re not inclined to trawl through news articles, you can turn to this show instead and they’ll shove context and analysis directly into your head. It’s nice! It’s a good feeling. Makes things make sense. Well, no it doesn’t. But it allows me to be aware of the nonsensical, inexplicable things that are happening in the world, and also sometimes the reasons for them.

99% Invisible: “Mini-Stories: Volume 2” — I’ve enjoyed these two episodes because it’s nice to hear unscripted conversation on this show. Not as a usual thing, but every so often it’s nice to hear the facade drop away.

The Gist: “How the Onion Remade Joe Biden” — Joe Biden has been the best character on the Onion for a while now. It’s interesting to hear the editor talk about how the character came together, and particularly how they handled the death of Biden’s son. Lovely stuff.

The Heart: “Twirl” — A very promising start to the new season, which I suppose is going to be about femininity in male-identified people? Anyway, this particular episode where Kaitlin Prest interviews her exes (and her current boyfriend) about their feminine aspects is as thoughtful and intimate as the show always is. The high point is the conflict between Prest and her current boyfriend about whether his aversion to being thought of as having feminine traits is masked misogyny or not. It’s much deeper than “yes it is,” “no it isn’t.” Pick of the week.  

Imaginary Worlds: “Atari vs. The Imagination Gap” — I had no idea that the culture at Atari was so intense. I suppose the madness of the videogames industry goes back right to the start. That aside, the most interesting thing about this is the notion that the packaging and promotional materials surrounding janky old Atari games served a purpose beyond marketing: it helped to fill in the gaps left open by the games’ primitive graphics. I happened to flip through the book mentioned in this, The Art Of Atari when I found it at my comics shop the day I listened to this, and it really is some fantastic stuff. Worth checking out.

Fresh Air: “Why More Americans Are Giving Up On Banks” — I came to this thinking that it would be about credit unions and all that: people who are leaving their banks as a protest against their investment in fossil fuels, etc. It’s not that. It’s actually about people who use cheque cashing services and payday lenders. Which is interesting in its own way, but I should have read the description more carefully. Still, one thing about podcasts as opposed to actual radio is that you don’t often hear something by accident. This isn’t the sort of interview I’d normally listen to, and I learned something. Maybe I should institute a further element of randomness to my listening practices.

NPR Politics Podcast: “Trump’s Press Conference, Tillerson’s Hearing” — Once again, there is too much news. Also, has anybody else noticed how dangerously interesting the world is these days? Would I be paying attention to senate approval hearings if Clinton had won? No, I wouldn’t, because they’d be dull. Which, to be clear, I’d definitely prefer. And also, I don’t deny that this speaks to my insufficiency as a citizen. Though I do have an ironclad excuse where American politics is concerned: I’m Canadian. In any case, this is good. I don’t so much recommend this episode as I recommend that you definitely listen to whatever episode of this show is most recent when there’s a lot happening in American politics and you feel the need to make sense of it.

On The Media: “January Surprise” — Brooke Gladstone breaks down the ethics of Buzzfeed’s publishing the unverified Trump dossier with a Slate writer. It is what it is, and what it is is intensely valuable.

Code Switch: “Obama’s Legacy: Callouts and Fallouts” — Part two of maybe Code Switch’s best project yet: their wrapup of the Obama presidency. This one is about the various ways in which he failed people of colour during his administration. Especially interesting is the final interview with the immigration advocate who called him the “deporter-in-chief.” This offers a bit of necessary context to that remark, i.e. she was responding to allegations that Obama wasn’t enforcing the current policies. There’s more. You should listen to this.

Reply All: “The Reversal” — When I heard that Reply All had an ALS-related story, I assumed it would be about the ice bucket challenge, but it is mercifully not. It is actually about a doctor who set up a site by which he found that every so often, there’s a person who seems to recover from ALS. And by the providence of the internet, he may yet be able to find enough people to do a study on why it happens and whether it can be used as a treatment. Fascinating.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Hidden Figures and One Day at a Time” — I love Brittany Luse on this podcast. I hope they bring her back again before she’s utterly consumed by whatever her big new secret Gimlet project is. I never liked Sampler, but that’s because the premise was dumb. She was great on it, and I’m confident that whatever is replacing it will be better. Also, this show is about two broadly admirable things that I don’t have a lot of interest in. Maybe Hidden Figures. We’ll see. But I’ll definitely go to Hell or High Water, given Stephen Thompson’s intense enthusiasm and the fact that Glen Weldon agrees with him. I wouldn’t have thought it would be something that either of them would like. Good sign.