Each year, I compile my own personal, inevitably idiosyncratic list of my favourite things from that year. This year, congratulations are owed to me for actually getting it out in the actual calendar year I’m writing about. So what if I haven’t seen all the movies I meant to see and barely read any of this year’s acclaimed books? In the end, a year is what it is. This is the best art and entertainment I personally experienced in my version of 2017.
The list is ranked. That means I’m comparing the relative virtues of music and stand-up comedy, movies and podcasts, novels and video games. It’s not so much that it’s like comparing apples to oranges; it’s more that it’s like comparing apples to oranges to avocados to pork tenderloins to fine china to used hatchbacks to racoons to sand. Therein lies the fun.
Let’s skip the tired remarks on what a trying year it’s been and get straight to the honourable mentions, shall we?
In podcasting: my perennial favourites Reply All and Theory of Everything stayed the course and made some of the year’s best individual podcast episodes. Two shows whose first seasons I liked but didn’t love, More Perfect and Homecoming, returned with far stronger second seasons that made me certain I’ll be back for the third. Jesse Thorn’s limited series of interviews with interviewers, The Turnaround, entertained me far more than a show with that premise ought to. The Museum of Modern Art and WNYC had the extremely good idea to cut Abbi Jacobson loose in the MoMA with a microphone in A Piece of Work. And The Daily arrived to show us how to cover the news on a podcast. It is frankly the most significant innovation in the form since the first season of Serial, and it would surely be in the upper echelons of this list if I’d actually had the wherewithal to listen to it more than a handful of times. The news is stressful.
In games: my most neglected medium of 2017, Detention scared the bejesus out of me while also illustrating what it’s like to live under the yoke of totalitarianism. And the sixth and final chapter of The Dream Machine brought that story to a deeply ambiguous conclusion, but not before sending the player through a wild, rhapsodical odyssey through the deepest realms of the collective human unconscious.
In comedy: Mike Birbiglia, Patton Oswalt, and Marc Maron all delivered intermittently brilliant specials that proved (by both positive and negative example) that the way forward for stand-up comedy in a bewildering political age is to get personal.
In film: two drastically different Marvel movies proved that solid storytelling can transcend the doldrums of the increasingly exhausting superhero genre: Spider-Man: Homecoming and Logan.
In television: two of Netflix’s most acclaimed juggernauts lived up to high expectations: BoJack Horseman and Stranger Things. And Game of Thrones, freed from the expectation to conform to George R.R. Martin’s plotting and pace, delivered far and away its strongest season yet.
In comics: The Wicked and the Divine remains the coolest, smartest thing in the world. And Bitch Planet’s long-awaited second trade collection amped up the action and intrigue while remaining awesomely blatant about feminism.
In books: I deeply regret the non-inclusion of Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage on this list. It is a worthy expansion of a fictional world that was very dear to me as a child. If I were more than halfway through it by my self-imposed drop deadline, it would surely be here.
In music: “classical” and “experimental” won the day for me this year. Highlights included Brian Eno’s Reflection, William Basinski’s A Shadow in Time, Marc-Andre Hamelin’s recording of For Bunita Marcus by Morton Feldman, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s brilliantly straightforward recordings of the complete Mendelssohn symphonies. In popular music, two things that don’t quite count as “music from 2017” bear mentioning: Neil Young’s long-unreleased 1976 recording Hitchhiker and Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell Live: a concert film that I nearly awarded a very high spot on the list before deciding it wasn’t really eligible.
Finally, in stuff that doesn’t fall under any of the above categories, Bill Wurtz’s history of the entire world i guess is one of those things that occasionally manages to make me not hate the internet.
And now the list. An observation: there are only three honourees here who have been on one of my previous lists. This wasn’t by design. I suppose I was just in the mood for new things this year. Onwards.
No. 25: Blade Runner 2049
We didn’t need a new Blade Runner. And the one we got has its problems. But like its predecessor, one of my ten or twelve all-time favourite movies, Denis Villeneuve’s sequel operates at the very highest level of cinematic spectacle. The way Roger Deakins’ camera hangs and drifts across the film’s incredible sets makes the world feel grandiose in a way that many other CGI extravaganzas fail at. The shockingly aggressive, kickass score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch helps. They respect the legacy of Vangelis’s marvellous, rhapsodical score for the original movie, but aren’t afraid to get a hell of a lot louder.
Although Blade Runner 2049 is not as good a film as Blade Runner, it is one of the best examples of respecting the source without replicating it in this era of endless rehashes. It would have been simple to remake the original film beat for beat, like in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (which I like). But Blade Runner is a different kind of film from Star Wars and calls for a different kind of sequel. Blade Runner is slow, thinky, painterly, and not culturally ubiquitous. In keeping with that, Blade Runner 2049 is a slow, thinky, painterly film that relies as much on its director’s unique vision as on the canon it inherits from the nostalgia object that begat it. If there is anybody who can make Dune into a movie that’s actually good, it’s probably Villeneuve. I’m on tenterhooks.
No. 24: Code Switch
Code Switch became NPR’s best podcast awfully fast. 2017 found the Code Switch team reflecting at length on the legacy of Barack Obama, exploring racial identity in the Puerto Rican diaspora, and exploring the increasingly pressing questions surrounding hate, police violence, and deportation in year one of the Trump era. They’ve also put out some of the best pop culture journalism of the year.
But the show’s crown jewel is the four-part series “Raising Kings,” based on a full year of reporting on a new school where a faculty made up mostly of black men teaches a student body made up mostly of black young men. It’s a sensitive, insightful, and frequently challenging piece of documentary radio that everybody should hear. Code Switch is a show you shouldn’t ever skip an episode of. It’ll help you get through life in a more practical way than just about any other show.
No. 23: Barbara Hannigan & Ludwig Orchestra: Crazy Girl Crazy
There are several levels of “why bother being this good” at play here. Barbara Hannigan could easily have settled for being merely one of the great sopranos of our time. But no: she has to also be a trailblazer for contemporary music, daring to learn the heretofore unlearned scores of composers who write vocal challenges few but her could rise to. (This is the version of Hannigan that brought us last year’s best classical recording: let me tell you by Hans Abrahamsen.) But even that isn’t enough for her. She’s also got to be a brilliant conductor. And since she can both conduct and sing, she clearly has to do them both at the same time. In music that’s crazy hard to begin with.
Crazy Girl Crazy is Hannigan’s first disc as a conductor, and indeed her first disc as a conductor/singer. It contains a selection of music from the 20th century that all feels like it’s at the core of Hannigan. At the centre of it all is a lush, romantic reading of Alban Berg’s beautiful Lulu Suite. Hannigan has been the soprano of choice for the role of Lulu for years now. Hearing her take on the orchestral music from that opera just confirms that she owns that piece as thoroughly as any musician owns any piece of music. The Ludwig Orchestra, a young ensemble that makes its recording debut here, plays skillfully, and with all of the intensity of an orchestra that’s not sick of making music yet. And Hannigan proves again that she’s one of the most multifaceted artists working in classical music today.
No. 22: Chris Gethard: Career Suicide
I got a lot out of Chris Gethard’s various projects this year. Whether he’s being exceptionally silly on The Chris Gethard Show, turning listening into a high art on Beautiful Conversations with Anonymous People, or telling the story of his own struggle with suicidal depression in this comedy special/one-man show, Gethard’s objective is simple: he just wants you to feel a bit better.
He’s a useful fellow to have around, even if your low points are a heck of a lot less dire than his. Gethard’s comedy and storytelling is something close to a public service. He’s working to normalize talking about mental illness, and he’s working against the stigmas surrounding medication for mental illnesses. But he’s also super funny, and this 90-minute HBO special is the best distillation of everything he’s been working towards. Where other comedians tend to address their own traumas with a facade of glibness or with the aid of characters, Gethard is not afraid to simply put punchlines aside for lengthy stretches and tell a story. And it’s a really good story with amazing characters including Morrissey and a therapist called Barb who thinks that the human brain was manufactured by aliens.
No. 21: Mogul
I feel like I’ve been waiting for this podcast. I didn’t know it would come from Gimlet and I didn’t know it would be about the life and death of a hip hop businessperson. But I knew that at some point, somebody would make a rich sounding, story-driven music documentary that would prove there’s a hunger for music-focussed radio that doesn’t play full tracks. Mogul is the future.
It is also a second breakthrough for Reggie Ossé, AKA Combat Jack of The Combat Jack Show. Ossé’s approach to hosting this show isn’t quite like anything I’ve heard before. He comes to the story of Chris Lighty with a nearly complete knowledge of the musical culture that he sprang from and helped to shape. But that knowledge is secondary to the warmth and sensitivity with which he handles the story. Mogul is, among other things, a story about mental illness and domestic violence in the hip hop culture. It’s clear that, apart from the music, this is what compelled Ossé to tell the story in the first place. There is a second season forthcoming, and with the allegations against Russell Simmons that have come to light since season one wrapped, there are still plenty of thorny questions for Ossé and company to address. (Edit: I was unaware when I wrote this that Reggie Ossé passed away recently. It’s a terrible loss for podcasting. Mogul will stand as the high-water mark for music-related audio storytelling for a while to come.)
No. 20: Tacoma
The Fullbright Company’s second game stands in a very long shadow for me. Their debut, Gone Home, was the game that re-introduced me to games after a decade’s absence. It demonstrated to me that the medium had grown and changed. Now, there were games specifically for those of us who appreciate the exploratory and narrative elements of games, but would rather not have to demonstrate sophisticated hand-eye coordination or work through complicated puzzles to get to the next bit of story.
When footage from Tacoma surfaced, two things were clear. First, this would be a more directly interactive experience than Gone Home, with more to actually do. Secondly, it was going to take place in that most “video games” of video game settings: a space station. Both of these concerned me. You may well conclude from my concerns that I essentially don’t like video games. And you may be right. But I liked Gone Home, and I held up hope for Tacoma. My hope was not misplaced. Tacoma’s approach to story is a cut above Gone Home, thanks to an innovative system of interactive cutscenes you can actually move around in. I still prefer the ambience of Gone Home’s creepy, empty mansion to the cramped quarters of the Tacoma space station. But my faith in the storytelling of the team at Fullbright is even stronger now.
No. 19: Lady Bird
I always love a movie with a good sense of place. Often, that place is New York City. Hollywood has provided a huge variety of takes on what it’s like to live in New York, from West Side Story to Rosemary’s Baby. It’s a setting that has been so well developed in movies that a) it no longer lives up to itself, and b) it’s almost shocking to see another American city painted with the same detail on the screen. With the release of Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s Sacramento joins Vince Gilligan’s Albuquerque and the Coens’ Fargo/Brainerd among the great cinematic depictions of Places People Don’t Ever Think About.
There are plenty of reasons why Lady Bird is one of the year’s best movies, including two of the year’s best performances by Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, and a screenplay that handles even the smallest characters with finesse and warmth. It’s a lovely depiction of a relationship between a mother and a daughter. It’s admirably aware of the realities of class in America and the ways it plays into raising a family. But my favourite reason to love Lady Bird is that it paints a portrait of an unloved place, lovingly.
No. 18: Kendrick Lamar: DAMN.
I slept on To Pimp a Butterfly in 2015. I missed the whole conversation. It’s not a mistake I ever intend to repeat.
I suspect that in the future, we’ll still think of Butterfly as Lamar’s breakthrough moment — his Are You Experienced. (Lamar once said he’d like to be talked about like Dylan, Hendrix and the Beatles. Happy to oblige.) But DAMN. feels like the sort of record you make when you’re out to prove you’re not interested in replicating past successes and following formulas — Lamar’s Band of Gypsies, maybe. It’s the kind of album that, if you pull it off, makes you not just accomplished but vital: an artist who is brilliant regardless of the idiom in which they choose to work. Kendrick Lamar is vital.
No. 17: The Beguiled
This coiled snake is the year’s most underrated movie. The subject of The Beguiled is propriety — particularly Southern propriety — and how it’s just one tool in the patriarchy’s huge, indulgent workshop. But like all good storytellers, Sofia Coppola doesn’t start from the theme and build outward. In fact, it starts from a source that has different themes entirely: the 1971 Clint Eastwood vehicle of the same name. (Or, perhaps more accurately, the novel that it’s based on. But it was the original film’s liabilities that prompted Coppola to remake it.)
The premise of both films is the same: a seminary school full of women loyal to the south is shaken by the arrival of a rather dashing but grievously injured Union soldier at their doorstep. Coppola’s masterstrokes are all in the telling of the story, rather than the story itself. Her film is as mannered and meticulously composed as the Southern ladies who inhabit it. And as the story’s potential for violence rises steadily, the tension comes from the discrepancy between the increasingly ugly atmosphere at the seminary and the film’s continuing insistence on pretty-as-a-picture decorum in its visual style. I haven’t seen filmmaking simultaneously so beautiful and savage since Hannibal got cancelled.
No. 16: Everything
I have a friend who likes to joke that my problem with video games is that I want them to be books. Fair enough. But that’s only half the story. What I really want is for a video game to be either a book or a theme park. In either case, I should ideally not have to shoot or jump over anything. The point is, I don’t need games to expect skill from me. I don’t need them to be things I can win or lose. I just want them to be experiences. For me, a great game is like Disneyland (but without the creepy half-reality that keeps you from fully suspending your disbelief). It’s a constructed reality for you to explore at your leisure. You can’t win or lose Disneyland. And yet it is still (ostensibly) fun. This is what I want from a game.
Enter Everything, my favourite game of 2017. Everything has no goals or trials to overcome. It has no traditional story. It is simply an interactive exploration of a single idea: that everything is connected. This runs the risk of getting cod-philosophical, and indeed it includes narration by the proto-hippie philosopher Alan Watts that can be hard to take seriously. But developer David OReilly undercuts his game’s potential for ham-fistedness by making everything else about it absolutely raving crazy. This is a game that offers the opportunity to be everything in it: to move around as anything from a bighorn sheep to a tiny elementary particle to a sentient hovering tea kettle the size of the sun. Everything is a fully-realized pocket universe full of planet-sized cows and trombones that travel in herds. I have never seen anything like it.
No. 15: Dunkirk
Seeing Christopher Nolan’s latest, best film in an IMAX screening sits very near the top of my list of great moviegoing experiences. Take note that this list is distinct from my list of favourite movies, and even from my list of favourite movies I’ve seen in theatres. A movie need not be a masterpiece to be an incredible experience in a theatre. Dunkirk is a truly great film, but my opinion of it is entirely contingent on the experience of seeing it in film projection, on an IMAX screen.
The beauty of IMAX is that it nearly fills your field of vision, encouraging you to forget everything that lies beyond the edges of the screen. So, when Nolan puts his camera in the galley of a ship, and it gets hit by a torpedo and fills instantly with water, you feel like you’re going to die. That, in a nutshell, is why Dunkirk is a great film: Nolan understands that cinema is an experience as much as a narrative art form, and he uses his mastery of the craft to put the audience inside of one of the most traumatic and unprecedented chapters in the history of warfare. And at the end, maybe we understand it a bit better.
14: Twin Peaks: The Return
While I was watching Twin Peaks: The Return on a week-by-week basis, I was uncertain whether I felt it was rising to the level of Twin Peaks’ original two seasons. Now that I’m not watching it week by week, I am quite certain that it altogether surpassed them. The Return was frustrating for its relative lack of familiar characters and story beats — particularly the almost complete lack of participation by the original protagonist, agent Dale Cooper, in any recognizable form. But now that the thing is complete, we can see that this series wasn’t supposed to be about Coop, and in fact that it wasn’t supposed to be about very many of the same things the original series was at all. If you can accept that and watch the show on its own terms, it reveals itself to be maybe the strangest and most ambitious season of television ever transmitted.
The eighth episode is a case in point. Much of its duration consists of abstract, non-figurative images in the vein of Stan Brakhage. Nonetheless, it does tell a recognizable story — an origin story, in fact. An origin story for the totemic evil that has haunted this show’s characters since its first episode. This could have turned out like Hannibal Rising: an unnecessary and disappointing wad of backstory that cheapens the previous instalments in the narrative. But by telling the story through lyrical, abstract, largely wordless filmmaking, David Lynch short circuits our rational brains and manages instead to convey a feeling of profound wrongness, and to convey it at length. This is how the whole of Twin Peaks: The Return worked, to a certain extent: by bypassing rationality entirely and speaking to something more primal in us. This is not something you’re supposed to be able to do on television. But it happened. There are seasons of television in higher slots on this list. But I doubt I’ll rewatch any of them. I will rewatch this.
No. 13: Offa Rex: The Queen of Hearts
I fell down a Decemberists hole in April. That’s when I bought my ticket for their show at the Orpheum in August. I have never been so excited for a show. But by the time the concert actually rolled around, I was more psyched for the opening act. Olivia Chaney is one of my favourite discoveries of the year. Her solo record The Longest River has now soundtracked many a walk home in the Vancouver rain. And I owe that discovery to this record, a collaboration between Chaney and the Decemberists that rises to the standard of Chaney’s solo work and far surpasses the most recent music by the Decemberists.
The Queen of Hearts is a revival of a revival. It consists of English folk songs arranged in the style of electrified British revivalists like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. This is a legacy that both halves of the collaboration have dealt with before. Chaney draws the folk component of her repertoire from the same pool as these bands, and the Decemberists’ trilogy of masterpieces — Picaresque, The Crane Wife, and The Hazards of Love — all crib liberally from the sound of the British folk revival. Together, they prove not only that the songs still have power, but that the style does. And Chaney’s solo rendition of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” will melt you.
No. 12: mother!
About three seconds after the house lights came up at the end of mother!, the friend I saw it with burst out into hysterical laughter and couldn’t stop for several minutes. That is the most appropriate review I can imagine for this aggressively fucked up, semi-trolling movie by Darren Aronofsky: one of modern Hollywood’s strangest auteurs. The only reaction to mother! that I may treasure more is from the New York Times commenter who wrote: “It’s been a long time since I overheard Ma and Pa Kettle talking about a film on the way out of the theater. Art above all else should be misunderstood loudly.”
From the moment that the exclamation point appears in the title card, mother! is arch and theatrical. Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem give completely committed and sincere performances, but nothing else in the movie is sincere in the slightest. There are those who feel mother! can only be dealt with as a Biblical allegory — and they’ve certainly got Aronofsky’s distressingly specific remarks in interviews to back them up. He seems to be doing everything he can to reduce his creation, which offers a whole world of abstract possibility, into one tidy interpretation. But Aronofsky’s movie is too big to be held to a fixed meaning. I’m increasingly convinced that Aronofsky’s insistence on explaining away the movie’s contradictions is part of the performance: he’s casting himself as an extension of Bardem’s theological poet character, demanding dogmatic devotion to a specific meaning of his holy text. Perhaps only a critic as myopic as myself could possibly see this movie as a critique of the slipperiness of interpretation. But I do see it that way. Anyway, the real truth is just that I enjoyed the hell out of this movie, and I want it to be more than a banal Biblical allegory. Mother! is completely bonkers crazy and you’ll probably feel a little cracked at the end. Good enough for me.
No. 11: George Saunders: Lincoln in the Bardo (audiobook)
Lincoln in the Bardo isn’t even really about Lincoln. It’s about the processes of death and grieving that affect us all, presidents or not. Abraham Lincoln and his son Willie, who died at the age of 11, are in this story only to give it the profound specificity that all very moving stories require. They set the story in a time and a place, and give it the context of a particular personal tragedy with which we are all familiar. But the emotional heft of Lincoln in the Bardo actually stems from characters that George Saunders made up out of whole cloth: a kind old fool who died moments before consummating his marriage, and an effusive young man who regrets his suicide. These two reside in an uneasy state of quasi-friendship in a not-quite-afterlife like no other fantasy realm in fiction. Every line they speak is enthralling.
And speaking of speaking, Lincoln in the Bardo also represents the moment when the audiobook really came into its own. The cover art brags of 166 narrators, but the ones you really need to know about are Nick Offerman and David Sedaris, who play the two central characters. They are brilliant, and even Sedaris, who is not an actor, inhabits the text like a good coat. Offerman audibly delights in his character’s tendency to coin phrases that allow himself to remain in denial of his own passing: phrases like “sick box” in lieu of coffin, or “sick form” in lieu of corpse. And both are heartbreaking in their final scene together. I can’t say whether the audiobook is the definitive format, having not read the printed book. But try it. The performances measure up to the material.
No. 10: Margo Price: All American Made
Sometimes you have a year when you just feel like you’ve accomplished nothing. Like you’ve gone backwards. Everybody has those years. It can’t be helped. And if 2017 was a year like that for you, I’d like to suggest you listen to some country music. Margo Price’s second album cements her as the queen of modern Nashville. Lots of it is rollicking fun country music with a band that sounds like it comes straight from a Jerry Lee Lewis record. (Indeed, it was recorded at the Sam C. Phillips Recording Studio, where many a country and early rock and roll icon cut acetates.) “A Little Pain” is probably the pump-up jam you need. But it’s the ballads that keep me coming back, and particularly “Learning to Lose,” Price’s duet with the great Willie Nelson. “I’m so far away from where I started,” Price sings in the opening verse, “but no closer to where I belong.” Oof.
It’s important to have songs like “Learning to Lose” in your life. Songs about the moments when life disappoints us, and humanity disappoints us and we disappoint ourselves. Because songs like this reassure us that disappointment, loss, rejection, loneliness, failure, acrimony, and strife are normal facets of the human experience that everybody goes through. And we now live in a world where everybody has their whole life on display on Facebook and Instagram, except that all of that stuff gets airbrushed out. So where do you turn for a quick hit of catharsis when it seems like everybody else is busy following their bliss? Turn to country music. Turn to Margo Price. And hope that next year, we’ll learn to win.
No. 9: Baby Driver
I have a friend who tells a story about how Brian Eno saved his life. “I suffer from tinnitus,” he wrote. “These days I’m mostly able to ignore it, but when I first noticed it, it was terrifying. I couldn’t sleep through the night without having this track (“Music for Airports 1/1”) on repeat in the background, just loud enough to distract me from the buzzing in my own head, just quiet enough to allow me to sleep.” He went on to coin a phrase I like: “societal tinnitus”: the terrifying sensation that the world is inescapably noisy. Music for Airports can drown out this kind of tinnitus, too. So can essentially any other sound recording. Music can offer a near-complete respite from the obligation to be present in the world. When you put in earbuds, you are doing two things in equal measure: connecting yourself to an imaginary reality that exists in a recording, and disconnecting yourself from the auditory portion of the empirical reality around you. It’s wrong to view the latter phenomenon as a byproduct of the former. Your inability to connect with the world around you when you’re wearing earbuds is a feature, not a bug. The world is so loud. To escape, simply superimpose a louder one. Disengage.
Baby Driver is a movie about a person suffering from tinnituses both literal and symbolic. (Well really, Baby’s literal tinnitus is a symbol in itself, for his emotional trauma.) It is a movie about music’s ability to subsume the empirical reality around you and replace it with a different reality that you can cope with, until you’re ready to cope with the real one. The movie’s relationship with music is different from that of lesser films like Garden State or even High Fidelity, both of which are about how a person’s relationship with specific genres, songs and artists help to inform that person’s identity. Baby Driver isn’t about any music in particular. It is about the act of listening itself. For Baby, music is neither indulgence nor signifier, but a basic necessity to drown out the constant ringing in his ears, to function in his job, to empathize with the girl he loves, and to drown out the noise of a dysfunctional household. (So this is what the volume knob’s for…) Baby Driver is not a music nerd movie. It is not a movie about listening to music. It’s a movie about not having to listen to the rest of the world, which is loud and confusing and stressful. It also has the best chase scenes ever. It is large. It contains multitudes.
No. 8: Better Call Saul
This scene, which you should not watch if you’re not caught up on the show, is everything I love about Better Call Saul in a nutshell. This show’s most dramatic moments take place in ordinary rooms and draw their strength from well-established relationships. When we think back to its esteemed predecessor Breaking Bad, it’s easy to recall it as a show full of train robberies and shootouts. But think of how many earthshaking moments in that show were actually really quiet. Hank finding Leaves of Grass. Walt lying to his doctor about his fugue state by telling the truth. Even “I am the one who knocks” is a quiet moment in the most literal sense. Better Call Saul is any one of those moments stretched out into a whole show. It’s a show where nearly every episode has a scene that feels like a set piece, but those set pieces seldom involve action. Jimmy’s trick with the phone battery in the scene above is a case in point. It’s not easy to write stories about con men, because you’ve got to be able to come up with cons. Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have proven themselves equal to the task.
The third season of Better Call Saul is its best by miles. By reintroducing yet another beloved character from Breaking Bad, Gus Fring, the writers risked treading needlessly far into that show’s shadow. Instead, they doubled down on the relationships that have always been at the core of this show. The constant risk to Jimmy’s romantic-ish relationship with the intensely sympathetic workaholic Kim Wexler is one of the season’s key tension generators. And his relationship with his cruel, doctrinaire brother Chuck finally deteriorates past the point of no return. Better Call Saul is the best character drama on television. Every year, I seem to forget how much I love it until the new season starts. Not this time.
No. 7: Jon Bois: 17776
The greatest literary masterpiece I read this year was published on the sports news website SB Nation and it’s about three sentient space probes in the massively distant future watching humans play increasingly Dadaist games of football because they stopped dying and aging in the 21st century. I slightly regret that I have now spoiled the surprise of the story’s very opening. But if there were no more to 17776 than its bonkers premise, it would hardly be a literary masterpiece, would it? Come for the gonzo, unclassifiable, mixed media craziness. Stay for the beautiful prose about humanity’s place in the universe and the dialogue that elevates the game of football to a form of sublime performance art.
I can immediately think of at least four moments in 17776 when I got choked up — this in spite of the fact that it is a silly story rendered in Web 1.0 style, and that I have no grasp of how football works. It moves me because it forces me to consider, as Jon Bois has evidently considered at length, the actual importance of my particular passions. The humans of 17776 have unlimited time to spend on football and presumably other sports and pastimes. I do not. And yet I write a blog where I regularly review more than 20 things I watched, read and listened to during the course of a single week. No wonder 17776’s take on human ambition and the purpose of play resonated with me. I think a lot about something Bois wrote in a sort of afterword to the piece: “I think 17776 might get one thing right about the future: we’re never gonna leave the solar system… Too much distance, too much radiation, and too little incentive. If that ends up being the case, we’ll have nothing to do but solve our problems on Earth. I’m being really optimistic when I guess that we might someday. After we do that, we’re gonna want our games, our art, and each other. One day, we might see those as the only reasons we’re here.” Is it wrong that I feel a little better because of that statement?
No. 6: American Gods
Bryan Fuller’s last show, Hannibal, was one of the greatest screen adaptations of a familiar property ever made. American Gods is maybe better. The Neil Gaiman novel from which it is adapted is a grand old romp through various mythologies, with deeply affecting narratives of the American immigrant experience woven throughout. But that novel was written before 9/11, let alone before Trump. Let alone before Facebook. The show is a substantially different thing for a bogglingly different America.
American Gods rethinks Gaiman’s take on Anansi, the kindly African spider god of storytelling, as a ruthless pragmatist who finds his way to America on the remains of a slave ship he entreated the captives to burn. It suggests that our protagonist’s wife may be the reincarnation of an Irish immigrant who brought the leprechaun Mad Sweeney to the new world, where he wastes away from lack of belief. (“A Prayer for Mad Sweeney” is my favourite episode of the year, save possibly for Part 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return.) And it gives us a terrifying contingent of “new gods.” Media, a shapeshifting Gillian Anderson, distorts and distracts in equal measure. The Technical Boy is no longer a truculent fat kid surrounded by wires as he was in the novel, but a sleek, hollow Instagram star of a villain. Television’s American Gods enacts a battle for the life of an America with a more immediately threatening kind of cancer than the slow-acting one Gaiman detected in the late 90s. It is the best show I watched this year.
No. 5: Maria Bamford: Old Baby
Maria Bamford is my favourite comedian. She’s a better writer than anybody else doing comedy right now. See: her husband’s column in her “emotional sudoku” bit: “Your great-grandfather was a violent alcoholic in the army who beat his son, who was a violent alcoholic in the army who beat his son, who was a violent alcoholic in the marines who beat you. You’re not in the armed services at all. You don’t drink. But you have PTSD so bad that you think you can clench your buttocks and fly the plane.” All written out like that it almost seems like something Joseph Heller would write.
She’s also a better performer than anybody else doing comedy right now. She can flip from character to character as cleanly as Robin Williams. (“Hello! Is the beef fresh? … This is so powerful if you act it out… Is the beef fresh?”) Her material still lives in dark places: her experience and her family’s experiences with mental illness are at the centre of everything. But she is such a skillful comic that laughing never feels uncomfortable. Bamford has the rare gift of being able to make you realize that the same event can be both intensely traumatic and hysterically funny — that there’s no contradiction there. “Anybody been in a psych ward?” Bamford once said in another context. “It’s really funny in retrospect.” That’s a perfect joke. The humour comes from both the darkness and the construction. That’s why Maria Bamford is so funny: she insists on applying an extremely rigorous sort of structure to completely chaotic subject matter. Bamford proves that comedy about mental illness doesn’t need to be a sort of public therapy. I have not laughed harder at anything in recent memory.
No. 4: The Heart
The Heart is over. At least, for now. I’m as choked about this, if not more, than I was when Gimlet cancelled Mystery Show. This show has been in a league of its own since it rebranded from the earlier Audio Smut and joined up with the Radiotopia network. No other podcast discusses sexuality with the same combination of frankness, diversity, and beauty. This last quality is especially crucial. It’s possible to talk about The Heart as if it is merely noble: a sex-positive, intersectional feminist institution that Gets Important Conversations Started. But that is a drastically inadequate characterization of this show. It is also consistently the most beautiful sounding, atmospheric and subtle show in the podcast space. More than Radiolab. More than Love and Radio. The Heart is a show about the most intimate relationships between humans. In keeping with this, it uses its sound art aesthetic to forge an intimacy with the listener that is stronger than anything else I’ve ever heard.
2017 found The Heart offering two mini-seasons and a smattering of one-off episodes. It’s the second of the two mini-seasons, “No,” that makes this The Heart’s strongest year. It is a complicated, fair, and fearless sexual memoir by Kaitlin Prest, the show’s host. She interrogates her own past, from childhood through to the present day, and charts her own sexual boundaries over that time. Her story becomes a springboard for a nuanced discussion of consent that I can imagine being useful for every listener in a different way. The series also finds Prest at her best as a sound designer, going so far as to apply filters to tape of her own sexual experiences so she can assess the tone of her voice without hearing the words she’s saying. There is nothing else like The Heart. Whatever the team behind this show are planning next, its end is a tremendous loss.
No. 3: Ted Hearne/The Crossing: Sound from the Bench
Sometimes I like to just type out a sentence that describes a thing. It’s only fun when the thing you’re describing has lots of unexpected moving parts. I’m going to do that now. Here, look: My favourite music of the year is a cantata for mixed chorus, drums and two electric guitars with words drawn from ventriloquism textbooks and the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case. See? Wasn’t that fun?
Ted Hearne is one of the great contemporary composers for the human voice. I first discovered him through his oratorio The Source, which features an auto-tuned chorus called “We Called for Illumination at 1630” that floored me — it is the sound of humans trying to escape from a digital hellscape. This is what Hearne does with the voice: he uses it as a sympathetic force to latch onto in a world controlled by bewildering and absurd systems. Sound from the Bench is a semi-comedic piece that gets a lot of mileage out of the perversity of hearing a brilliant choir sing lines like “these corporations have a lot of money” and “you are not talking about the railroad barons and the rapacious trusts.” But the actual comedy of Sound from the Bench is a sad comedy. Citizens United, you may recall, is the Supreme Court decision that ruled that money is speech because corporations are people: two of the most patently absurd things that body has ever asserted. Sound from the Bench is a comedy about people doing their best to laugh at the absurdity of a world whose crazy rules they have to live with in spite of the fact that it makes their lives worse. It’s Twelfth Night as a contemporary cantata. It is unaccountably moving, hysterical, and vibrant. It is brilliantly performed by the Crossing, a magnificent choir based in Philadelphia. It is everything I want out of music.
No. 2: S-Town
“I did nothing good today,” reads an inscription on a sundial in S-Town. “I have lost a day.” Depending on your mood, it’s a sentiment that can reflect a profound resignation to the brevity of life, or a desperate mania to accomplish something in spite of it. S-Town’s hero, John B. McLemore, embodies both facets. He is a man alternately consumed by depression and ablaze with fascination for whatever project he’s putting his time into now: repairing antique clocks, growing a hedge maze in his yard, building a swing set for his adult protegé’s edification — or, most crucially, living his life as a story worthy of attention from an acclaimed This American Life producer.
S-Town is a story so full of pat, obvious metaphors that it would be insufferable if it were fiction. But producer and host Brian Reed didn’t actually devise any of these metaphors himself. His main character, McLemore, deliberately surrounded himself in metaphors. He’s a man who lived his life as a story, and then actually found somebody to tell the story. He is Hamlet, exerting a pull on the narrative that exceeds that of the storyteller. There are those in the blogosphere who disapprove of elements in Reed’s telling of the story. But as I listened to S-Town, I couldn’t help feeling McLemore’s hands on the strings of the story, even when it would have been impossible for him to affect it in real time. Woodstock, Alabama is a stranger-than-fiction town with implicit metaphors baked in. John B. McLemore is a stranger-than-fiction man who saw the metaphors, and cast himself as the tragic protagonist amidst them. Brian Reed knew to hit record, and made the best radio of the year.
No. 1: Get Out
One thing I discovered about myself in 2017 is that I am a bottomless fountain of slightly facile theories about the horror genre. Here is one of my facile theories: horror and comedy are the two most intimately related genres of fiction. This is because laughter and fear, at their root, are both ways of responding to the absurd. If you encounter something absurd, something that challenges your sense of what’s “normal,” you’re likely to either laugh or feel fear, depending on the framing of the event. The genius of Jordan Peele’s directorial debut Get Out is that the comedy and the horror are derived from the same central absurdity: a black man’s sense that there is racism all around him, even though he is being constantly told there is not.
This movie is the most brilliant social commentary that’s been in movie theatres for years, but this is me writing here, so let’s think about from it a structural, movie nerd perspective. There are plenty of comedy-horror movies out there. Scream comes to mind. If you squint a bit, Scary Movie fits. It’s a long tradition, dating back at least to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Probably earlier. But these movies are parodies. The jokes are at the expense of horror movie tropes. Get Out is a horror comedy that is not a parody. It is a comedy-horror movie in which both the comedy and the horror arise from the same source, and neither undermines the other. It is a new approach to this particular fusion of genres that walks a delicate balance without ever putting a foot wrong. And in finding a way to negotiate this balance, Jordan Peele has devised a new mode of social critique — one that works particularly well in a world where every single thing that happens is both hysterical and terrifying. Smile into the void, children. Smile into the void.
And that’s the list! When I started writing this, I confess I was a bit on the fence about it. Looking back through my list from last year, I couldn’t help thinking that 2016 was a way better year for pop culture. I still think I may be right about that. But writing this took me way longer than I expected because I kept going back to these things, remembering what I loved about them, and spending more time with each of them than I could afford. (I am looking specifically at you, Jon Bois and Maria Bamford.)
This stuff matters to me. It helps me understand the world and the people around me. I apply the lessons from each entry on this list to my life, every day. It has been a good year.
I’m going to go outside.