A week full of lovely things, really. 22 lovely things.
The year-end lists are coming out, so I was going to spend the week going through the stuff I missed. But then I got waaay more obsessed with this first one than I’d anticipated. It’s nearly embarrassing, but actually no it isn’t at all.
Lin-Manuel Miranda: Hamilton, An American Musical — They made a hip hop musical about the establishment of America’s national bank. Just when you thought Broadway was all superfluous Disney adaptations. This is incredible for so many reasons. It shifts seamlessly from convincing hip hop to straight-ahead showtunes about arcane political processes. And that’s not the only tonal shift it manoeuvres: it’s incredible how this flits back and forth between funny and tragic, arch and sincere, and from straight-ahead storytelling to meta-commentary. It is totally self-aware about its own unlikely subject matter, but it doesn’t let that self-awareness get in the way of its story, which you can get lost in to an extent that you seldom see in works of musical narrative. Unlike most cast albums, this works brilliantly as a bespoke object. As a concept album, it has a narrative thrust that keeps you listening to the words, even when the music threatens to beguile you away from the piece’s themes. And it’s bewilderingly allusive: it’s well worth listening to this with the Genius annotations (some of which come straight from Lin-Manuel Miranda himself) within arm’s reach. Miranda has everything. It’s not just that he can rap and sing and write a catchy hook and verses that lodge in your head, he also has something interesting to say about Alexander Hamilton as a historical figure and about how who tells the stories from history affects how we think about it. There are nothing but good things to say about this. I don’t care if you like musicals or not, listen to Hamilton. Pick of the week.
Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly — If it seems perverse to give pick of the week to a musical rather than what looks increasingly like the consensus best album of 2015, know that it’s only because I’m totally obsessed with Hamilton right now. To Pimp a Butterfly is as good as everybody says it is, and I would imagine that out of the two, it’s what I’ll be coming back to more frequently in 2016. If only to figure out what he’s on about. This is some seriously challenging stuff.
Africa Express/Terry Riley: In C Mali — I’m a huge fan of California minimalism in general, and Terry Riley specifically. But, his most famous piece, In C, was never one that I found myself listening to very much. Until I heard it played on African instruments when this thing came out earlier this year. Then I listened and I listened and I listened. Nice to revisit again after a few months.
CHVRCHES: Every Open Eye — Here’s something I’m not seeing on nearly enough year-end lists. CHVRCHES’ music is pure catharsis and people who don’t like it hate joy. This album is significantly better (or at least more consistent) than their first, which critics were all about. What gives? “Make Them Gold” is a clunker of a single, if we’re being honest, but the rest of the album is perfect pop.
Deadwood: “Reconnoitering the Rim” — I don’t know where this show is going, but damn, Ian McShane can act.
QI: “Marriage and Mating” — Why am I reviewing an episode of QI? Tell you what, I’m not.
BoJack Horseman: “Hank After Dark” — According to my own rules, I’m not technically obligated to review this, since it’s my second time watching it in the course of this blog — and, in fact, in a fairly short span of time. I just felt obligated to pop back in and reiterate that this is one of the best episodes of comedy television I’ve ever seen. Okay? Okay.
Lost: “White Rabbit” — Reasons I don’t understand people who like the first season of Lost best: (1) Shannon and Boone are unwatchable; (2) Sawyer is a prick — and not in a way that any reasonable person should find charming, although the show sure seems to sell him like that; (3) it’s galling to see Jack take such a large role in the story when you know he was supposed to die in the first episode in what would have been the most brilliant bait-and-switch in television history, had the writers followed through. Jack’s story has more “it’s so hard to be a handsome rich hero dude” than I’d like. We wouldn’t have had to sit through that if they’d just done the right thing and killed the handsome rich hero dude. And that cliff dangle is ridiculous. I still basically like this, though. The hallucinatory manifestation of Jack’s daddy issues is properly creepy.
Alejandro Jodorowsky/Moebius: The Incal — A very thoughtful birthday present from some wonderful friends. I think I’m going to enjoy this. So far, Moebius is impressing more than Jodorowsky, whose writing has a lot of sci-fi clichés, and the juxtaposition of text and image sometimes seems arbitrary and lacks clarity. But this is a good yarn with some damn pretty pictures.
China Miéville: “Dreaded Outcome” — Here’s a narrator that Miéville can really sink into: a jargon-dropping therapist. I put this story down right at the point where a massive twist happens, then when I picked it back up, I didn’t even recognize it. This is good.
Lucas Adams: “An Illustrated Account of the Great Maple Syrup Heist” — This short comic about a thing that honest to god actually happened will make you very excited about the Jason Segal movie that Sony Pictures is honest to god going to make about it.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “A Conversation with Trevor Noah” — I haven’t gotten around to watching any of Trevor Noah’s Daily Show, but I think I will now. In this interview with Linda Holmes (who should really do more hour-long podcast interviews; she’s fantastic) he proves to be refreshingly circumspect. There’s an awkward moment near the end when he’s talking about “things you’re not supposed to say,” but at least he’s willing to own up to his mistakes and learn as he goes.
Imaginary Worlds: “Origin Stories” — The superhero origin story imagined as a psychological necessity. Excellent.
Song Exploder: “Wilco – Magnetized” — This is my favourite song on the new Wilco album by a fair margin, so it’s great to hear it exploded. I love that Glenn Kotche’s drum part was inspired by Jeff Tweedy’s son’s drumming. But I still kind of think he’s just imitating Ringo.
On The Media: “Lies, Lies, Lies” — No tragedy this time, except for Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy. On The Media is a really dark show, sometimes. Throughout this episode, you realize gradually that the demonstrable truthfulness of a statement doesn’t really have that much to do with whether or not people are swayed by it. Let us all collectively shudder.
Serial: “DUSTWUN” — Back into the weeds we go. Look, I love Serial, and I love Sarah Koenig’s journalism. But this is one of those situations where it can be difficult to keep the thing itself separate from the phenomenon of the thing. The response to season one of Serial was huge and weird and bad. I remember it being compared to True Detective which is just wrong. Serial is not a fictional detective show; it’s real journalism about people who exist out in the world. The widespread disappointment in the ending of the season was naive and ruthless — you can’t just end a true story however you want. And while I’m a devoted listener to a great many non-fiction podcasts, some of which tell serialized stories, it’s distressing to me that the story of Adnan Syed ended up being fetishized by people in the same way that I fetishize, say, Doctor Who. So, Serial: the breakout podcast phenomenon is a thing I have very mixed feelings about. BUT, Serial: the longform non-fiction storytelling project is a thing I really love. So, this new season is properly exciting — especially given that it’s about a story that got international TV news coverage, and now we’ll get a totally new lens on it. Instead of people filing stories in a day, we’ll get one of the most ruthlessly detail-oriented journalists in the world, plus her team of producers, PLUS screenwriter Mark Boal (of Hurt Locker fame and Zero Dark Thirty infamy) all on the case and making no compromises to time. And if that last line is any indication, the next episode is going to be a corker. Let’s all keep our heads, though. This is actually happening. Pick of the week.
Reply All: “I Love You, I Loathe You” — Reply All is that rare podcast that focuses on fussy, meticulous, reported stories but can also pull off just having its hosts banter with each other for a whole episode. In that sense, it may be the “most podcast” of all podcasts: it combines the pre-taped public radio approach of shows like This American Life and On The Media (where both hosts once worked) with the podcast-native approach of people talking to each other into microphones with little adornment (à la Stop Podcasting Yourself, etc). There’s no reported story in this episode of Reply All, but it was still fantastic and still Reply All. This is Gimlet’s best podcast and it would take something staggering for them to top it. (Jonathan Goldstein, perhaps.)
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Creed, Men Crying At Movies, and Visceral Responses” — I find I seldom have much to say about regular episodes of PCHH, but don’t be fooled: I love this show. It will likely take a slot on my year-end roundup of best podcasts for its sheer reliability in delivering insight and joy. And Gene Demby sounds so happy to be back.
The Moth: “Amir Baghdadchi & Dameon Wilburn: StorySLAM Favourites” — Two outstanding, riotously funny stories about travel, both distinguished more for the quality of the telling than by the story itself.
99% Invisible: “Pagodas and Dragon Gates” — These days, there are good episodes of 99pi, and “fine” episodes of 99pi. This is one of the good ones. It’s about why San Francisco’s Chinatown looks like it does architecturally, in spite of the fact that pagodas and dragon gates were long out of fashion in China when those structures were built in Chinatown. It’s more of a story than you might anticipate.
StartUp: “Pitch Perfect 2” — Alex Blumberg is absolutely pathological about playing that tape of him bombing a pitch over and over. This is super interesting, and I’m so happy that Gimlet has a new partner who shares Blumberg and Matt Lieber’s vision. I can’t wait to hear their new shows — especially Jonathan Goldstein’s. That guy is a master.
Fresh Air: “Historian Mary Beard Tackles Myths about Ancient Rome” — Research about antiquity is catnip to me. This interview (with Dave Davies, filling in ably for Terry Gross) contains such wonderful tidbits as Caligula hating being called Caligula, because it was a diminutive nickname from his childhood — “Bootikins,” essentially.