Cracked 30 for the first time in a while! Only by one, though. Here are this week’s 31 reviews.
Looper — I watched this during a rare case of “oh, I’ll just put on whatever’s on Netflix,” and it led me into a weekend-long Rian Johnson binge. Looper unexpectedly scratched the itch that Arrival left me with, for thinky science fiction with all of the filmmaking basics in high gear. This is a brilliantly written, brilliantly shot, brilliantly acted movie based on a brilliant premise that it knows not to take too seriously. It’s a time travel movie where the mechanics of the time travel are both important and deeply inconsistent, but which is constructed expertly enough that the story never stops making sense. Everything else about the movie is meticulous — from the comparative advantages of the characters’ various firearms to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s prosthetic nose. Like Arrival, Looper uses its sci-fi premise to achieve its emotional payoff. But also like Arrival, it would all be for nought without performances that invest the characters with our sympathies. In this regard, Emily Blunt is particularly excellent, as is the extremely promising Pierce Gagnon, who plays her precocious 10-year-old son with magnificent superciliousness. Of the main duo, Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis as the former’s older self, Willis stands out for his ability to convey a similar ruthlessness to Gordon-Levitt, but with the world-weariness of 30 extra years. To be honest, I’ve never really been that excited for a new Star Wars movie. But after seeing this, I’m extremely psyched to see what Rian Johnson does in that universe. Because Looper is at least twice as good as The Empire Strikes Back. That’s a quantifiable thing. I measured it, and it’s definitely true. Pick of the week.
Brick — An astonishing debut from Rian Johnson, with some of the tendencies that make Looper great already in place. Like Looper, this is a movie built on deep awareness of genre tropes — from action/sci-fi movies in Looper’s case, and from hard-boiled crime and noir in Brick’s. But both of those movies cast the tropes of their respective genres in slightly new and different lights, without actually crossing the line into parody. Brick comes closer, given that it’s a proper crime movie about drug dealers with actual life-and-death stakes, and it also takes place in a high school. But Johnson almost elides that last part entirely, only pointing out the absurdity of his own premise in the few scenes that have adults in them. Aside from that, this is played almost entirely straight and the high school setting is basically aesthetic. It’s kind of great to see so many of these classically noirish scenes play out in broad daylight. And speaking of classical noirishness, this movie goes a step or five beyond it in its writing. The dialogue in Brick is entirely its own beast and it’s beautiful. A young Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivers the movie’s best lines with total commitment. I really enjoyed this, and it makes me hope that Johnson doesn’t rule out doing smaller budget movies in the post-Star Wars period of his career.
The Brothers Bloom — Without a doubt the weakest film in Rian Johnson’s oeuvre so far, but still worthwhile for the wonderful performances by Adrien Brody, Rachel Weisz, Mark Ruffalo and Rinko Kikuchi. All four bring a totally different energy to the movie: Brody is romantic and brooding, Weisz childlike, Ruffalo charming, and Kikuchi brings the snark while hardly saying a word. It’s the kind of comedy I’d like to see more of but there are times when it feels like a slightly less committed film by Wes Anderson. (Maybe it’s just the presence of Brody.) The movie is at its best when it’s at its least subtle: it’s a movie about storytelling, with its themes applied to con men. Ruffalo’s character writes elaborate cons for his younger brother (Brody) to play the lead role in. The key tension is that Brody’s character is afraid that he won’t be able to tell fact from fiction much longer. The ideas of lies that tell the truth, or cons where everybody gets what they want are everywhere in this movie, to an almost Steven Moffat level of obsessiveness. Particularly striking is a sequence in which Weisz’s character demonstrates her pinhole camera to Brody’s, explaining how it distorts images in interesting ways that show you things not as they are, but as they could be. More compelling is the extent to which she doesn’t know why this resonates with the person she’s talking to. As with Brick, the writing is where this movie shines. Everybody constantly means two things at once, both being equally true. But it all feels a bit less than the sum of its parts. Still worth a watch. But I can see this being considered the Hudsucker Proxy of Johnson’s catalogue a little bit farther down the line.
Last Week Tonight: March 12, 2017 — Best episode in a very long time. Just watching Oliver get upset about Trump’s whole “who knew healthcare was this complicated?” thing is worth the time.
Ways of Seeing: Episodes 3 & 4 — What a marvellous series. These latter two episodes focus on the ways in which oil painting was primarily a tool for the self-aggrandizement of the wealthy and the ways in which modern (read as: 1970s) advertising uses the same techniques to reflect a fantasy of wealth at a population that does not, but might be persuaded that they can enjoy it. I understand now why a segment of my social media circle was so saddened by his death. His television programmes are the sorts of things that simply aren’t being made anymore: no frills, non-pandering, direct intellectual arguments accompanied by clever and knowledgeable juxtapositions of images. Well actually, I suppose there’s Adam Curtis. Still, this would be focus-grouped out of pre-production today.
Alex Ross: “The Fate of the Critic in the Clickbait Age” — Oh man, it’s nice to see that the writer who made me want to go to journalism school still thinks the same way as me about everything, except better. Ross argues cogently that slavish devotion to analytics is unconscionable: “The trouble is, once you accept the proposition that popularity corresponds to value, the game is over for the performing arts. There is no longer any justification for giving space to classical music, jazz, dance, or any other artistic activity that fails to ignite mass enthusiasm. In a cultural-Darwinist world where only the buzziest survive, the arts section would consist solely of superhero-movie reviews, TV-show recaps, and instant-reaction think pieces about pop superstars. Never mind that such entities hardly need the publicity, having achieved market saturation through social media. It’s the intellectual equivalent of a tax cut for the super-rich.” Brilliant. But if you’re really going to champion the little guy, Alex, is the New Yorker really the place to do it??? I mean, wouldn’t it be more consistent with your argument to, I dunno, express the same outlook in the form of obscure essays about Jethro Tull on Tumblr? Or something? It’s a minor quibble though. All I’m saying is I’m coming for your job. Don’t worry about it, just let it happen. You’ll land on your feet.
Louis Menand: “Karl Marx, Yesterday and Today” — Super interesting. Manand contends that while biographical efforts to put Marx back in his 19th-century context are noble enough, we ought to push back against the notion that a figure from the increasingly distant past can’t have any practical use in the modern world. It’s got some biographical info on Marx that’s new to me, but then most things to do with Marx are relatively new to me. One of these days I’ll get off my ass and read Capital. Just lemme get through this stack of comics first.
“25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music Is Going” (2017) — I do hope this becomes an annual thing for the NYT Mag, because both editions have featured some top-shelf music writing. The short-form podcast version of this feature is even better, but this is worth reading for a few of the longer segments. Amos Barshad’s feature on the ever-elusive Future and Jenny Zhang’s heartbreaking essay on “Your Best American Girl” by Mitski are particularly worth reading.
Ta-Nehisi Coates & Brian Stelfreeze: Black Panther vol. 1: “A Nation Under Our Feet” — I wanted to like this so much more. Obviously, Coates is a brilliant prose writer, but his first foray into comics relies much too heavily on the repeated juxtapositions of portentous inner monologues with straightforward fight scenes. There are only a handful of scenes in these first four issues where I really got a sense of character, and it suffers from the perpetual superhero comic problem that the worldbuilding is basically taken as read — when for most of the people who’ll probably pick this up, it’s definitely not read. Did anybody read this book before Coates took over??? Anyway, I’m happy that Marvel was interested in working with Coates. That bodes well for the future. But this book just isn’t that good.
J. Kenji Lopez-Alt: The Food Lab — I picked this up a month or so ago and I’ve been picking through it gradually, rather than reading it cover to cover. Mind you, it definitely is the kind of cookbook that you can read cover to cover, and ultimately I think I’ll do that. Because Lopez-Alt’s entire focus is to make you pay attention to the small details in technique and process that affect the end result of the food you prepare. Reading the lengthy preambles to each recipe and his accounts of his rigorous applications of the scientific method to cooking is ultimately what helps you avoid the mistakes that make your food sub-par. It also helps to clarify why Lopez-Alt is so specific in his directions in the recipes. An example: one of the first recipes that I tried from the book was Lopez-Alt’s buttermilk biscuits. Altogether, they turned out much better than any of my previous, tepid attempts at this seemingly simple American staple. Lopez-Alt’s method of folding and rolling the dough multiple times as you would in a French pastry helps form stacks of flaky layers, and his advice to pulse the butter and dry ingredients in a food processor before adding the buttermilk leaves just enough big chunks of butter in the dough that the layers are separated from each other during baking. But the one instruction that I failed to follow was to place the raw biscuits on parchment paper over the baking sheet. I didn’t have any, so I substituted aluminum foil and thought nothing of it. In retrospect, it should have been obvious that this would cause the bottoms to burn. But I thought of that too late. Later, upon reading a bit more of Lopez-Alt’s introduction, I learned the science words to frame what went wrong. The bottoms of my biscuits cooked by way of heat conduction: they were in direct contact with the hot aluminum foil, and that was the primary source of the energy transfer that caused them to cook. By contrast, the tops and edges of my biscuits cooked by way of heat radiation from the elements of the oven. This is a less efficient way of transferring energy to food, so those parts of my biscuits didn’t overcook. So, the purpose of the parchment paper in Lopez-Alt’s recipe was to reduce the efficiency of the heat conduction onto the bottoms of the biscuits, ensuring a more consistent outer texture. Now I know. I think it says something about the kind of book this is that the most impressed I’ve been with any recipe has been a recipe for scrambled eggs. Yes, The Food Lab contains an actual recipe for the most basic undergraduate food you can prepare from scratch. Actually, it contains two: one light and fluffy and one creamy and custard-like. I’m a light and fluffy eggs kind of guy, so that’s the one I’ve been using. The key revelation is an astonishingly simple thing: if you salt your whisked eggs and let them sit for 10 or 15 minutes before cooking, rather than whisking, salting and then cooking them immediately, the eggs retain their moisture and don’t weep onto the plate. The difference completely blew me away. I will never not do this when I make eggs, now. Those are just two examples of how my initial explorations of this book have improved my cooking already. Other recipes have introduced useful new techniques to me, even if Lopez-Alt is not especially innovative or bold with flavours. Yotam Ottolenghi he is not. But he clearly has no interest in being Yotam Ottolenghi, and it takes all types. The Food Lab and my two editions of The Flavour Bible (vegetarian and not) have made me a measurably better home cook over the last few months, and I’d encourage anybody with a passion for food and a bit of time on their hands to check them out.
Sxip Shirey: A Bottle of Whiskey and a Handful of Bees — The title is a line seemingly taken straight from the Tom Waits playbook, and this whole album by electroacoustic new music dude Sxip Shirey is brimming with the sort of scuzzy Americana that is the near-exclusive province of Waits and his imitators. Much in the same way as it’s fun to hear roots music collide with glam on Kyle Craft’s debut, it’s fun to hear a New York composer’s take on folk in the O Brother, Where Art Thou? vein. (It’s even got a genderswapped adaptation of “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” with Rhiannon Giddens singing.) The other strand running through the album is a sort of avant-garde electronica, which is generally more successful when Shirey steers clear of dance music conventions. In general, I’ve found that people who get called “composers” aren’t great dance music producers. The album would have been better if it wasn’t so gigantically long. But then, there’s virtue in throwing everything at the wall. If you’re willing to skip (pun?) tracks that don’t take your fancy, this may yield more fascination. Many tracks are worth seeking out: the fantastically freaky harmonica jam “Grandpa Charlie” is great. Also, the electronic thing “The Land Whale Choir Sinks the Albert Hall” lives up to its title, if such a thing is possible. And the Neil Gaiman-inspired “Palms” is the closest Shirey gets to a really good pop song, with a touch of Belle and Sebastian to it. It’s better still when sung by Puddles Pity Party, as in the music video. These are not the only good tracks, to be clear. But I will definitely not listen to the album straight through again.
The Flaming Lips: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots — After all of the Jethro Tull I listened to last week, I needed to find a new favourite. I’ve always meant to check out the Flaming Lips. I don’t know why it took me so long. Honestly I’m… not overwhelmed. I liked this enough to probably check out at least one more Flaming Lips album, but I generally find myself wishing that the fun spacey sounds and weird beats would occasionally also yield to a nice melody or a good lyric? But I do love that cut up acoustic guitar at the beginning of the title track. I’m not giving up. It’s just not quite as easy a sell as I thought it would be.
Beyoncé: Beyoncé — Man, I love this album, and I don’t think I’ve listened to it start to finish since it first came out. It’s far less cohesive than Lemonade, and maybe a bit less ambitious. But it’s every bit as perfectly crafted. It feels like Revolver to Lemonade’s Sgt. Pepper. So basically, I’m expecting a White Album from Beyoncé within the next couple of years: something sprawling and weird and awesome.
Love and Radio: “Understood as to Understand” — A classic sort of episode of Love and Radio where a person who is likely to be controversial to different people for different reasons is allowed to state their case. It’s not the best of the season, or anything, but this show hasn’t set a foot wrong in a long time.
The Memory Palace: “Amok” — Nate DiMeo tackles fake news. That’s almost a spoiler, except that if you believe the story in the opening of this episode, you are concerningly credulous — as was, apparently, most of New York City.
99% Invisible: “Sanctuary, Parts 1 & 2” — This isn’t a design story in any way that I can detect, but it’s a good one, about the movement among churches to harbour migrants who the government was turning away. If this is 99pi doing a legal story, maybe they should spin off like Radiolab did with More Perfect. I’d listen to that.
Code Switch: “Safety-Pin Solidarity: With Allies, Who Benefits?” — This is the most essential Code Switch episode for privileged people to listen to. That means everybody should hear it, because as argued in the episode, almost everybody has some form of privilege they ought to recognize. Consider me edified and a little chastened.
Reply All: “Matt Lieber Goes to Dinner” — I can’t wait to learn what P.J. finds out from hacking Alex’s phone. Also, I’m 100% on board with Cory Doctorow’s concern about this new black box DRM bullshit. That’s end of days nonsense, there.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Get Out and The Americans” — More than anything, I’m glad that nobody disapproved of the final act of Get Out. I don’t know why, but I had a strong suspicion that someone would do a “the movie could have just kept doing what it was doing!” thing. And I’m still in the frame of mind where I can’t acknowledge anything wrong with Get Out. I’m probably not going to catch up with The Americans. I’m intrigued, but not intrigued enough to watch four seasons.
Code Switch: “In Search of Puerto Rican Identity In Small-Town America” — Here we have an honest-to-god reporting trip, tape-driven story about the complicated attitudes of the Puerto Rican diaspora. I’ve always liked Shereen Marisol Meraji as a host, but I love hearing her work as a reporter. The school shutdown story was fantastic, and so is this. The tape is really compelling, and takes you right inside the conflicts occurring in each character’s head. It’s for sure one of the strongest episodes of this podcast in terms of narrative and emotional punch.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Big Little Lies and Feud” — Won’t be watching either of these, but I’ll certainly be trawling through Stephen Thompson’s Austin 100 again. That was awesome last year. And I appreciate his only mentioning it this once, as opposed to at every opportunity last time around.
The EP — 45 minutes of fantastic audio-rich music criticism from the New York Times. It’s drawn from conversations with the writers of their second gigantic music feature about 25 current songs. And while it clearly lacks the amount of detail and analysis of the written feature, these thirteen tiny snippets do what every music podcaster should be doing, which is to use the techniques of radio editing to unspool the various meanings of the songs in question, and to illustrate points made by the interviewees. It sounds absolutely great, and it’s definitely a sort of thing I want to hear more of. Pick of the week.
All Songs Considered: “SXSW Late-Night Dispatch: Tuesday” — Think I’ll sit the rest of these out. I’ve got a lot of podcasts to get through and while I’m always happy to let these folks be my proxies at a festival that sounds to me like a panic attack waiting to happen, I just can’t justify the time expenditure if they’re not going to play the music. Still, it’s really gratifying to hear that Let’s Eat Grandma were popular in Austin. I still think they’re the most promising new act in ages.
Love and Radio: “La Retirada, Parts 1-2” — A fascinating start to a three-part series about how a family got into and out of the drug trafficking business. I’ll reserve final judgements until the conclusion next week.
Crimetown: Episodes 11 & 12 — I’m ready for this season of Crimetown to be over now. It started off pretty focussed on a couple of key stories, but it’s been meandering for a while. Still, the episode about Raymond Patriarca’s doctor is the best standalone story that this show has done so far. I do think that in future seasons, though, these guys will need to figure out whether they want to be serialized or episodic. Because mixing and matching doesn’t work.
You Must Remember This: “Marilyn Monroe (Dead Blondes Parts 6 & 7)” — The highlight of this season so far, by far. The first episode of this is a repeat, and a good one, but the second part does something a little different from what Karina Longworth has done before on this show, which is: it focusses specifically on Monroe’s persona and public perception and the decisions that went into it. It’s less narrative than it is analytical. I like this. I’m very much looking forward to next week’s conclusion.
Imaginary Worlds: “The Spirit of Will Eisner” — A live show from Eric Molinsky, on the comic writer who represents the greatest gap in my comics reading career. This is a fascinating look at Eisner’s relationship with later generations of comics creators. Maybe it’ll inspire me to finally pick up A Contract With God.
Theory of Everything: “Nothing to Hide” — Benjamen Walker’s surveillance series gets a shaggy dog ending, but it does confirm that he and I share a favourite apocalyptic movie: Brazil. This series has been intermittently among the best of what Walker’s done on this show. But I’m still left uncertain about what to do about any of this.
Fresh Air: “‘Get Out’ Director Jordan Peele” — Peele is funny and thoughtful, but that’s no surprise. The best parts of this are hearing him talk about horror movies. Guess I should watch The Stepford Wives.
Arts and Ideas: “Thinking – Neil Jordan, Flat Time House, Teletubbies” — This begins with an insufferable debate over whether Teletubbies is any good as children’s programming, continues with a Neil Jordan interview that I had higher hopes for than I probably should have (The Company of Wolves is one of my favourite movies, but I don’t know his work outside of that) and finishes with an out piece on John Latham, a conceptual artist who I’d never heard of. I came for Neil Jordan, but this Latham thing is ultimately what saved an otherwise deeply underwhelming show. I do like the fact that this podcast pairs pop culture with art that isn’t “pop.”
Serial: “Preview of S-Town, Our New Show” — Oh, this is exciting. If Sarah Koenig says it’s weird, I’m in. I love this preview. I love how it starts with an account of clock repair that’s obviously a metaphor, but then the penny doesn’t drop. I won’t spoil it. Just listen to this. I’m much more psyched about S-Town than about season three of Serial.
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
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.
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
I 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
Yes, 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
If 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
Kieron 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
If 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.
O.J.: Made in America
Horace and Pete
Planet Earth II
Better Call Saul
Orange is the New Black
Manchester By The Sea
Swiss Army Man
Captain America: Civil War
The Nice Guys
I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House
John Congleton and the Nighty Nite: Until the Horror Goes
Hans Abrahamsen/Barbara Hannigan et al.: let me tell you
David Bowie: Blackstar
Let’s Eat Grandma: I, Gemini
Kyle Craft: Dolls of Highland
Tim Hecker: Love Streams
A Tribe Called Red: We Are The Halluci Nation
Chance the Rapper: Colouring Book
Bon Iver: 22, A Million
Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Teodor Currentzis, MusicAeterna, et al.: Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto & Stravinsky Les Noces
Ex Machina — Fearsomely good. I’m detecting a recent trend in screen-based entertainment that indicates people are beginning to hanker for the theatrical rather than just the cinematic. We saw it in Horace and Pete, clearly. Also The Hateful Eight. And while Ex Machina is a film about robots, with an Oscar for visual effects, I could totally see it produced as a stage play. It’s directed by a writer, and it shows. This is a movie that is about three things: writing, acting, and sets. The writing deals with big contemporary questions, like all of the best plays of any given time. The acting is top-shelf — Alicia Vikander and Oscar Isaac are my two favourite newly-minted A-listers — but the bulk of it is performed by only four people, giving it the intimacy of theatre. And the sets, if you eliminate the gorgeous natural scenery outside of the vast panes of glass, are designed in a similarly symbolic way to the sets of good theatre pieces: the glass that separates Ava and Caleb, the cameras that stand in for Nathan even when he’s not present, and the mirrored, casket-shaped cases holding [insert spoiler here] are just a few examples. (And yes, that’s the second acknowledgement of spoilers on this blog. Like Horace and Pete, this is best if you’re allowed to process information as it is presented to you, without prejudice.) But, theatrical tendencies aside, Ex Machina is cinematically glorious as well. It lets the camera linger on magnificent natural vistas, to emphasize what Ava’s missing, locked away in her glass cage. It uses effects to communicate the idea that everybody’s being surveilled constantly for reasons they couldn’t possibly know. And it makes Ava look really, really cool. This is what I want genre movies to be like. If even half of the money that is currently being budgeted to franchise juggernauts could be routed into smaller films like this, contemporary cinema would be a hundred times more interesting than it is. Pick of the week.
Game of Thrones: “Oathbreaker” — Things are getting interesting on a few fronts and continuing to bore me on others. So far, this season’s unforgivable sin is its forced writing for Tyrion and Varys — two characters who should always be at the apex of wit. Also, much as I admire what Emilia Clarke can do with her face alone, it would be nice to see her get more lines, and possibly a story where she isn’t totally helpless. Daenerys is at her most interesting when she’s powerful, but making mistakes. Taking away her agency is problemsy for many reasons, but significant among them is that it makes her storyline boring. Such a waste of a great character and a great actress.
Last Week Tonight: May 8, 2016 — Marvellous. John Oliver’s takedown of science reporting on morning shows isn’t as incisive as Brooke Gladstone’s, but it’s got jokes. And H. John Benjamin.
Cunk on Shakespeare — Philomena Cunk made me realize how much I miss The Colbert Report. This is a complete idiot’s take on Shakespeare, presented in a format that makes it feel authoritative. There are reaction shots in this that are funnier than most American sitcom one-liners.
Archer: “Bel Panto: Part 2” — Like the ones in this, for instance. But it’s Archer. It’s fine. I laughed.
Brian Eno: Ambient 1/Music for Airports — This is the moment where Eno mastered ambient music. He would devise a number of additional, quite different, and perhaps equal variants on it over the next twenty-odd years. But I’m not sure he’s ever substantially improved on Music for Airports. It is simultaneously unobtrusive and totally memorable. When I haven’t listened to it for a while, I tend to forget what it sounds like. But as soon as I play it, it comes right back. It is so simple it barely seems like something a human could have made, which makes it all the more profound — it’s as if it has been made by nature. Any reasonable list of Eno’s great accomplishments would be at least twenty or thirty entries long, but this should be near the top, up with the first three solo albums, the first two instalments of the Berlin Trilogy, and Remain in Light.
Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool — Lack of hyphen notwithstanding, this is quite good. I suspect we may be into the part of Radiohead’s career where they don’t blow anybody’s minds anymore. Of their last four albums, only In Rainbows has been a masterpiece on the level of their early 2000s work. But A Moon Shaped Pool is a really solid album. It has plenty of variety, and it feels like a new direction — two things you couldn’t say about The King of Limbs. I suspect it’ll be a grower. Years from now, after the band’s officially done, maybe we’ll see A Moon Shaped Pool as Radiohead’s Some Girls: the good album they made a few years after their heyday that’s the last thing in the discography that’s really worth a look. Or maybe not. This is a band with near-infinite capacity to surprise, after all.
Beyoncé: Lemonade (audio-only version) — Yeah, it works just as well without the visuals. This is mighty powerful stuff. The visual album is very much its own wonderful thing, but the songs aren’t given their full expression. On this version, “Freedom” stands out as the best track, thanks in part to Kendrick Lamar’s characteristically virtuosic verse (cut from the video for pacing, I assume). I still think “Formation” is a bit ersatz, but it’s also inessential to the album. Everything before that final track is gold. This isn’t my favourite album of the year so far, but I think it’s probably the most accomplished.
Kanye West: Yeezus — I had to give this another listen after being so disappointed by The Life of Pablo, just to make sure it was as good as I remembered. It is. Maybe better. When I think of this album now, I generally have three tracks in mind: “Black Skinhead,” “New Slaves,” and especially “On Sight.” But this listen reminded me that “I Am A God,” “Blood On The Leaves,” and “Hold My Liquor” are also great songs. I suppose Pablo really is just the first bad Kanye album. “Bound 2” is still stupid, though.
David Auerbach: “The Most Terrifying Thought Experiment of All Time” — I’ve got a copy of Phil Sandifer’s new Kickstarter-funded work of theoretical madness, Neoreaction a Basilisk, coming in the mail sometime this summer. So, I figured I’d better do a bit of reading on its central metaphor written by someone a little less idiosyncratic. (Also, this ties in with Ex Machina in ways I didn’t expect.) I won’t summarize this here because I am just enough of a crackpot to find it terrifying. I will, however, link it. Read at your own risk.
Sarah Boxer: “The Exemplary Narcissism of Snoopy” — Fantagraphics finished its heroic 25-volume reprinting of Peanuts recently, and the internet went into Schulzmania mode. I stumbled upon this at some point in a Google wormhole while looking for a specific strip. If you need to have this comic’s brilliance explained to you, this is where to go. The defence of Snoopy that forms the core of the argument may not seem necessary to many, but it is extremely successful.
All Songs Considered: “The Season Of Surprise Albums, From Beyoncé To James Blake” — Honestly, it was nice just to hear a snippet of Lemonade again. It was also revealing to hear about the completely bogus way that record companies are calculating streaming metrics. The idea that Drake’s album could have accumulated hundreds of millions of listens on its first day, just because of the advance plays of “Hotline Bling” is absurd. The world is bad. But there is a lot of good music in it. I’m not sure how much of it is made by Drake.
This American Life: “Who Do We Think We Are?” — Sean Cole is a really good host. Somebody should give him a show. The fact that he also produced the second half of the show only adds to this episode’s consistency. The story in the first half, about a woman dealing with the consequences of female genital mutilation, is one of the best radio stories I’ve heard so far this year. It’s worth noting that I’ve also heard the version that went out on The Heart, which I’m not reviewing these days for Podquest reasons. (It was staggeringly good.) But the two versions of the story are sufficiently different that both are basically essential. Pick of the week.
Radiolab: “Bigger than Bacon” — A good but rather slight story about how an unassuming species of shrimp makes bubbles as hot as the sun. Yeah, bubbles as hot as the sun. Robert Krulwich can’t believe it either.
Welcome to Night Vale: “Water Failure” — One of the best episodes of Night Vale. They break the format without relying on continuity, and the jokes feel fresher for being told in a new way. This is an episode of the show that I would point newcomers toward to demonstrate what it’s like at its best.
Code Switch: “The Code Switch Podcast Is Coming!” — The title of this three-minute trailer says it all. I would personally add a few more exclamation points to express my joy, but that is basically all I have to say.
Reply All: “On The Inside” — I was wondering why it had been so long since Sruthi Pinnamaneni had done a story. This is worth the wait. It’s going to inevitably remind you of Serial season one, because it’s full of phone calls to a prison. But it’s not really about crime: it’s basically a character sketch of this guy who’s spent his entire adult life in prison. It’s super. And next week’s part two promises to be even more interesting.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Captain America: Civil War” — Linda Holmes’s interview with the Russos made me more interested in them than I was before. I have briefly suspended my distaste for cinematic universes in general. I guess I’ll see how this Civil War thing is.
StartUp: “Dear Music Fans…” — The sordid, and strangely moving tale of Grooveshark, a company that everybody knew was bad, but that still had a bunch of committed employees. This is almost a crime thriller.
All Songs Considered: “This Week’s Number 1 Song” — NPR Music listeners selected “I Need A Forest Fire” from the new James Blake album as their favourite song of the week. That record was released on May 6, and announced three days prior on May 3. That day, a wildfire burned down a substantial chunk of my hometown. Careful what you wish for, James. Somebody else might get it instead.
24 reviews, mostly of the audio persuasion, as I’ve been doing things and need things I can do at the same time as those things. The music takes it, this week. Of the five things I reviewed in that category, four blew my mind.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Season 2, episodes 2-6 — Okay, it’s picking up. There’s a moment in the second episode where Jane Krakowski and Anna Camp’s characters accidentally foreground their own passive aggression, and it is one of the funniest things this show has ever done. It’s all in the performances, too. This cast is so good that it can even prop up episodes where the writing isn’t up to par. Also, the concept of being excommunicated from the Apple Store made me laugh very hard.
Last Week Tonight: April 24, 2016 — The best they’ve done in a while. The presence of Lin-Manuel Miranda was always going to make me like it more, but the entire Puerto Rico segment is masterful.
Game of Thrones: “The Red Lady” — Oh, look what’s back. I wasn’t excited for this premiere, having outright loathed all but one (okay, maybe two) episodes of the (inexplicably Emmy-winning) fifth season. And the opening was not auspicious. Starting at the Wall was inevitable, but that plotline has been boring me for what feels like several seasons at this point. And having Ramsay Bolton, the most unwatchable character in prestige television, in the second segment felt like death. And when Brienne shows up to give a much needed infusion of characters I like into an otherwise plodding first third of the episode, it mostly seemed to indicate the extent to which Gwendoline Christie is a class act in a show that doesn’t deserve her anymore. Same goes for Lena Headey, Peter Dinklage, Iain Glen, Jonathan Pryce, Liam Cunningham and Emilia Clarke. Really, I’m in this for two reasons now: most prominently because I’m deeply susceptible to the sunk costs fallacy, but also because the cast remains mostly incredible and fun to watch. Hopefully that’ll get me through to the end of this interminable, bleak, dull, self-serious, water-cooler-moment-manufacturing, needlessly brutal, pedestrian drama.
Archer: Season 7, episodes 4 & 5 — Robo-Barry is always funny, Malory got her first solo plotline, and Krieger has facemasks (and hand replicas) of all of the other characters. So, episode four was great. Episode five, also great, but it’s the first of a two-parter, so I’m withholding judgement.
Anomalisa — This is going to take some time to process. It’s definitely very good. But, it’s also fairly unlike the other Charlie Kaufman movies that I love. There’s one moment of metafictional awareness here, and it is really something. But mostly, this movie is interested in telling a story that travels in a straight line. It’s a good enough story that the main character seems real and comprehensible, even as he behaves in completely unacceptable ways. Really, though, the reason to see this is the animation. It’s amazing to me that this was originally made for radio. It’s easy to see how that would have worked. The central conceit — the main character hears everybody (including Dame Joan Sutherland) as having the same voice except for one woman — is a radio conceit. But in this movie, the stop-motion animation dazzles as much as the script. I constantly found myself wondering how certain shots were done. I’m sure that’s not what the filmmakers intended me to be thinking, but it does go to show what an accomplishment this is on a purely technical level.
Super Troopers — The same person who I saw Anomalisa with this week also wanted to watch Super Troopers, which leaves me confused about his character. This movie makes 2002 look like a really long time ago. For one thing, that was apparently a time when comedies could have the premise “X, but funny!” Today, comedies aren’t defined by jokes; they’re built on premises and they happen to have jokes in them. All comedy is high-concept, and all comedy is working on some level of irony. But Super Troopers isn’t at all. And it’s not aping the style of anything in particular. It’s not a cop movie parody. It’s just a movie about some funny cops. In 2016, post Hot Fuzz (which was made all the way back in 2007, somehow), this is comedy from another planet. It is not a good movie.
Prince: Sign ‘O the Times — I was unaware that Prince invented Quasimoto. And yet, there’s Prince, pitched up into an alter-ego, right there on “Housequake.” I read this described somewhere (the AV Club, I think) as a “one-man White Album.” I can’t put it any better than that. It’s even got clear Lennon moments (the title track) and McCartney moments (“Starfish and Coffee”) This doesn’t have the massive hooks that Purple Rain does, but it’s a way better album. Purple Rain’s dated drum sound and synths are nowhere to be heard. It’s kind of amazing that an album so obviously intended to be an index of its own cultural moment (a sign of the times), could have dated so much better than other music of its time. This is almost an hour and a half long and there is nothing on it that isn’t good. Many tracks are basically perfect. “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” is one of the most infectious things I’ve ever heard.
Beyoncé: Lemonade (visual album) — Music videos have always been a place for weird, avant-garde, non-linear, symbolic filmmaking to break the mainstream. To some extent, that’s why Alan Parker’s The Wall is ultimately a less compelling work of art than the album it’s based on: it’s too devoted to fleshing out a story that’s told in brief tableaus on the album. You want meaning to be suggested, rather than stated outright. That’s why the animated segments work best. It’s also why Lemonade is something very close to a masterpiece. And while it may seem a bizarre choice, The Wall isn’t the worst point of comparison for Lemonade — at least for somebody with my specific, limited set of reference points. They’re both personal conceptual opuses apparently created to help deal with an emotional wound. They’re both works that are likely to be called “self-indulgent” by uncharitable critics. They both channel personal narratives in the service of broader social insights. And both have visual elements that attempt to expand the forms and styles of music videos in their respective times to (near) feature length. But while The Wall is ham-fisted (hammer-fisted?) Lemonade leaves space for interpretation, possibly out of conflicting needs for privacy and self-expression. Even if some of it is pretty direct (Beyoncé flinging her wedding ring at the camera and singing “you’ll lose your wife” could really only be directed at one person), it mostly operates according to song logic, rather than movie logic. Which makes it strange that, in the end, Lemonade still gives you a better sense of the wound it was constructed to help heal than The Wall does. I imagine I’ll get a better sense of the music itself once I listen to the album in audio-only form, but this is really something. Pick of the week.
Moon Hooch: NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert — I haven’t been so unexpectedly bowled over by a group since I heard the Motion Trio play Michael Nyman music on three accordions. These guys have energy to burn. It is essentially EDM played on two saxophones and a drum kit. It must be seen and heard to be believed.
Kyle Craft: Dolls of Highland — Welcome to the concept of glam country. Lyrically, Craft is a blend of southern mysticism and Dylanesque oblique romanticism. Musically, he’s halfway between the Band and the Spiders from Mars. He has a way with a melodic hook, and holy smokes, that voice is like a fire alarm. I love it. “Lady of the Ark” and “Pentecost” have had a few weeks to grow on me, and those singles are, predictably, the most immediate songs on the album. But this is going to be one I’ll come back to. Between this and Until the Horror Goes, it’s turning out to be a good year for rock debuts.
The Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground — Spun in preparation for the new Brian Eno album, which has a cover of “I’m Set Free.” I’ve loved the first two Velvet Underground albums for years, but never got around to checking out this or Loaded. Apparently, Eno loves this album so much that he’s never owned a copy for fear of becoming overfamiliar. I do see the appeal, though I definitely prefer the debut. I love the first album as much for its noisy sonic adventures as for its songwriting, and that element sort of left the band with John Cale. Still good.
Imaginary Worlds: “Economics of Thrones and Starships” — THIS is the reason I’m into genre fiction. The fact that the paratext of a show like Game of Thrones or Battlestar Galactica can be this interesting — i.e. their worlds can serve as hypotheticals for economic thought experiments — almost makes the question of whether the shows are any good moot. This might be my favourite episode of Imaginary Worlds aside from the Cthulhu one, which doesn’t really bear comparison to other episodes.
All Songs Considered: “Remembering Prince, The Utopian” — While I was listening to Ann Powers exposit on why she loves Prince, I thought of something. She talked about how his live shows were rituals, rather than just spectacles. That made me think of how incredible the opening of the Purple Rain album is. The start of “Let’s Go Crazy” is a secularization, and a humanization of the traditional funeral mass: “Dearly beloved, we have gathered here today to get through this thing called life.” First off, what a way to start an album. But also, I’ve been reflecting on how extraordinary it was to hear that for the first time on the day Prince died. And not only that, but to hear it on the radio, along with a community of people who were hearing it at the same time, albeit in many different places. It’s still a gathering of sorts, to get through this thing called life. When Bowie died, he left us an album that was meant to play like a message from beyond the grave. (“Look up here, man, I’m in heaven,” etc.) Prince did the same thing by accident, thirty years in advance.
Reply All: “Decoders” — I don’t know any other show that so fearlessly oscillates between very serious and very silly. First, Goldman and Vogt take the time to demonstrate how the debate over cracking the San Bernardino’s shooter’s iPhone is founded on false pretences. Then, they talk to Adam West. Love it.
Radiolab: “On the Edge” — Listening to figure skating is more compelling than you’d think. This is an interesting story with a great main character, figure skating iconoclast Surya Bonaly. It turns out to be a bit of a shaggy dog joke in the end. But hey: I listened to half and hour of radio about figure skating. Didn’t see that coming.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Summer Movie Preview” — My god, what a dire wasteland of a few months it’s going to be for movies. Thank god for Swiss Army Man.
WTF with Marc Maron: “Julia Louis-Dreyfus/Louis CK” — Maron’s two-part 700th episode extravaganza is a good distillation of why he’s earned his place in the pantheon of podcasting. He’s audibly nervous in his conversation with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, but as with many great Maron interviews, the nervousness comes from a place of reverence — justified reverence. And while it’s not one of his best — Louis-Dreyfus seems perplexed that she’s found herself on a podcast, having a somewhat dubious understanding of what they are — it’s still an entertaining hour and a half. The second part with Louis CK, on the other hand, is totally essential, because it’s the most in-depth he’s gone on the making of Horace and Pete. Maron and CK have a compelling dynamic to begin with, but when CK is this excited to talk about something, it really adds something. This was released as two separate episodes. Both are worthwhile, but at least go listen to the Louis CK interview. Unless you haven’t watched Horace and Pete. In which case, plop down your 30 bucks for that, watch it, and then double back here. Maron talks about how Horace and Pete forced CK to listen more. On that note, I’ve never heard Maron listen to anybody so intently without interjecting. Normally, that wouldn’t be an asset on this podcast, but this is electrifying. Pick of the week.
StartUp: “Gaming the System” — Now I get why they did this as a two-episode slow burn. The company turned out to be something that everybody’s heard of. I love that. Now I’m really excited for this season. And the look-ahead to next week’s show is a great teaser.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’” — A slight, effective little segment on a thing that you cannot avoid hearing everybody’s thoughts on this week. These are thoughts you might be glad you heard.
This American Life: “In Defence of Ignorance” — Aw man, Ira’s so sick. But he soldiers through! This is a really good episode of This American Life. Sean Cole is one of my favourite radio producers. He’s the only person who could do a piece on psychological research and have it be hilarious. But the other two segments, both about people who suffer for knowing things that others don’t, are equally wonderful. Also, there’s Vulfpeck in this! Yay, Vulfpeck!
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Another Round’s Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton” — Linda Holmes really should have started this by telling us what Another Round is all about. Because, speaking as a large podcast nerd (see above, see below), I did not know this show. It does sound wonderful, though.
The Sporkful: “Comic Maria Bamford Risked Her Life For Ice Cream” — God, I love Maria Bamford. Probably one of my top three current comedians. Also, this is the first time I listened to The Sporkful while eating, and I think that is the way I will continue to do it, because this show makes me so hungry. I think if I ever met Dan Pashman, my stomach would immediately start growling as soon as he started talking. I’m becoming conditioned that way.
All Songs Considered: “Moon Hooch, Summer Cannibals, PUP, More” — Oh my god, Moon Hooch. If I ever get to be involved in a live show of any kind, with musical guests, I want to bring in Moon Hooch and the Motion Trio, and then have them play together. That is my new goal in life.
Reply All: “1000 Brimes” — An Email Debt Forgiveness day special that doesn’t match last year for volume, but has some very uncanny stories.