Tag Archives: Björk

Omnibus (week of Nov. 5, 2017)

Here’s a bit of an unusual instalment of Omnibus, because I recently went to six concerts in as many days. This was all part of the blandly-named-but-actually very-exciting International Society for Contemporary Music World New Music Days 2017. Standard talking points include but are not limited to: major annual event featuring music by composers from all over the world, premiered the Berg violin concerto in 1936, only held in Canada once before, music from more than 50 countries, hosted this year by Vancouver’s own Music on Main, etc.

I’ll be doing a more focussed dive into some of my personal highlights on North by Northwest next weekend (that’s on CBC Radio 1, if you’re new here). But here, we like to go broad. I’m starting this week’s instalment off with six notes-to-self about the concerts I saw at ISCM 2017. (Here, for interested parties, is the deluxe Tumblr edition.) Business-as-usual resumes below. I do hope you’ll stick around for the review of Paul and Linda McCartney’s RAM because I’m rather proud of it, actually.

19 reviews.

ISCM World New Music Days 2017

National Arts Centre Orchestra: Life Reflected — I had heard some of the music performed on this opening concert before on a recording NACO released earlier this year. In that context, it mostly left me cold. Live, it worked. Funny how being there makes you focus. The premise is this: four pieces, by four Canadian composers, focussing on the stories of four Canadian women. I hear your scepticism. I too am slightly repulsed by the sickly-sweet maple fragrance of events like this. And in the year of Canada 150, I wasn’t sure how much more I could take. The answer turned out to be: this much. I was not surprised at all to find myself particularly enamoured of the pieces by Jocelyn Morlock and Nicole Lizée, who are (with apologies to everybody I’ve forgotten I like) my favourite composers in the country right now. Morlock’s My Name Is Amanda Todd is a musical character study of Todd that starts off with the darkness you’d expect from a piece on that subject, but which eventually shoves the clouds of fear and desperation aside to allow something more vibrant and positive to come into view. That approach may cause cognitive dissonance for some, given the circumstances in which Todd came to the national consciousness. But I expect that’s the point. There’s more to any one life etc. Jocelyn Morlock writes gorgeous music. There’s some brass writing near the end that just kills me. You should check out the recording. I’ve revisited it, and this is well worth hearing, in whatever form you can. Nicole Lizée’s Bondarsphere, about the marvellous Dr. Roberta Bondar, is altogether sillier and completely wonderful. True to form, Lizée smooshes the orchestra up against meticulously manipulated tape from Bondar’s career as an astronaut. Thus, we are treated to the spectacle of a choir of Peter Mansbridges and Knowlton Nashes singing backup. I should say, each piece on the program came paired with elaborate projections which were generally a mixed bag. Morlock’s piece would have fared as well or better without them. In Lizée’s, they are essential: she manipulates video and audio alike. The audio recording represents half the piece. I’m really happy I saw it live. I don’t have much to say about the other two works on the program. Zosha Di Castri’s Alice Munro tribute Dear Life has some marvellous orchestral effects (and a vocal solo by Erin Wall, which nobody will complain about) but outstays its welcome by a good seven or eight minutes. John Estacio’s I Lost My Talk sets the moving and insightful poem by Mi’kmaq poet Rita Joe, but the musical material strikes me as having little or nothing to do with the words themselves, and is in itself rather bland. Still, two out of four ain’t as bad as it sounds. And honestly I liked the Di Castri too. I just would have liked it more if there were less of it.

Lori Freedman & The Hard Rubber Riot Ensemble: RIOT — One of my favourite things about the festival was that it had late-night concerts beginning at 10:15 — just the time of night when I usually start to stare into the void. Bass clarinetist Lori Freedman is undoubtedly a fabulous musician, but the semi-improvised, vocalization-heavy piece she performed here was a bit much for me. RIOT, on the other hand, lived up to the name. The Hard Rubber Riot Ensemble is a permutation of the Hard Rubber Orchestra, a very loud jazz-inclined new music ensemble led by John Korsrud. RIOT is a piece for percussion, guitar, bass, strings and keyboard — but really mostly percussion. It is a bracing, draining, extremely loud piece about Vancouver’s super dumb 2011 Stanley Cup riot. Hard Rubber’s incessant crashing and banging was backed up by video from the riot, and interviews with social psychologists, rioters, etc. The combined effect of the music (which is great fun) with the video (which is infuriating) is that you can’t quite decide how much fun you should be having. I had a whole bunch, halfway in spite of myself.

Leo Correia de Verdier & Gabriel Dharmoo: Question Notions — Another late night concert, and my personal highlight of the festival, narrowly edging out the closing concert. Leo Correia de Verdier is billed as “one of the world’s foremost sewing machine players.” (“One of.” I love it.) Naturally, I was more excited about her than just about any other performer in the festival. (Yes, there’s video.) She didn’t disappoint, though I will say that sewing machine music might actually be better suited for headphone listening than live performance. Live and learn. But here is where things get awesome. Gabriel Dharmoo’s Anthropologies Imaginaires is the cleverest bit of theatre I’ve seen since Robert Lepage was last in town. I halfway feel compelled to issue a spoiler warning here, even though it’s entirely possible that nobody who reads this will actually have the opportunity to see it for themselves. It’s a piece that is served well by going in completely cold. Those willing to put that aside, read on. In Anthropologies Imaginaires, Dharmoo gives a virtuoso vocal performance of strange, silly noises while a panel of fake professors talk shit on a screen above him. If that sounds a bit esoteric, well yes. But I’ve never heard a crowd laugh harder at weird art before. Everybody involved in this is totally committed to the bit, nobody more so than Dharmoo himself. But the actors who play our bogus academics channel the blithe condescension of so many of their real-life counterparts with nary a wink or a gurn in sight. Chris Morris would be proud. The issue at stake in Anthropologies Imaginaires is colonialism: Dharmoo presents one invented indigenous vocal tradition after another, ranging from mouth noises to faux-pop songs, and the profs make asses of themselves again and again, for different reasons each time. It’s near impossible to convey the effect of this without simply urging you to take any opportunity to see this thing. Sure, check out the promotional materials, but be aware that they don’t and can’t do justice to the show. Pick of the week.

Powell Street Festival at the Annex — This tried my patience a bit. More than most of the other concerts I saw, this one put the more esoteric and difficult side of new music front and centre. There are people who begrudge that music its very existence. I am not one of them. But now that my own musical studies are far behind me, I don’t feel especially inclined toward it. There were a couple of highlights, though. I very much enjoyed Murat Çolak’s NEFES.PAS.ÇIRA.IŞI, which dives deep into the combinations of a few key sounds, like crotales and piccolo. (I like Çolak even better because of this tweet.) And Yasunoshin Morita’s ReincarnatiOn Ring II for Sho, U and iPods is a bit gimmicky, but it introduced me to the existence of the sho, which is a beautiful thing.

Victoria Symphony at the Roundhouse — The only concert I wish I hadn’t bothered with. I was playing new music cliché bingo by the end of it. Mouthpiece pops, breath attacks, tinfoil, endless harmonics, repeated patterns on mallet percussion instruments, they were all here. I don’t mean to be catty, but unlike every other concert I attended at ISCM 2017, this one showed me nothing new. Jared Miller’s Concerto Corto was the most promising piece on the program, but even that was let down by scrappy playing. Alas.

Vicky Chow, Eve Egoyan, Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa & Megumi Masaki: A Kind of Magic — One thing I haven’t mentioned is that each of the concerts I’ve discussed so far was short. About an hour a piece, no intermissions. NOT SO FOR THIS ONE. This one was FOUR HOURS LONG. I’m not complaining; it was brilliant. Had it been shorter, it would have been less of an event. The “muchness” of it eventually became part of the appeal. Naturally, given what a massive spread of music this was, not all of it hit the target. And I suspect the performers knew this would be the case for a substantial chunk of the audience. The most obscure and difficult music was mostly saved for later in the program, by which time the packed house had understandably thinned out. Mind you, the early bedtime set did miss Rodney Sharman’s beautiful transcription of the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, which manages the neat trick of making it sound almost entirely different without actually changing any of the notes. It was surely the most nostalgic piece I heard at the festival, but we’ll allow them one. They deserve that much. I’ll touch on three other highlights, because more would be madness. My very favourite piece on the program was Hildegard Westerkamp’s Klavierklang for piano and stereo soundtrack. True to Westerkamp’s predispositions, the piece is nearly a radio documentary, with Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa doubling as musician and narrator. (And a quite good one, too.) The subject is Westerkamp’s musical upbringing: the sounds of her childhood, the teachers who led her to love and hate the piano, and the role of a hopelessly broken instrument she found in an abandoned house in helping her realize the kind of music she wanted to make. More than just being a good story set to good music, it is a straightforward explanation of why a person might like to make a particular sort of music. That’s a useful thing to have in the mix at a concert, and a festival, where the artists’ intentions might not always be immediately clear. The evening’s other two highlights were extended performances by Vicky Chow. David Brynjar Franzson’s The Cartography of Time is a beautiful, very spare piece of music with only three or four unique bits of musical material over its 26-minute duration. It never feels stagnant, but it also gives a rather pleasant sense of not really moving. It was apparently composed as a lullaby, which makes perfect sense. I wonder if I’d respond the same way to a recording. Maybe. In any case, it’s lovely stuff. And if it is indeed a lullaby, then it is the polar opposite of Chow’s other featured performance: Remy Siu’s Foxconn Frequency No. 2 for one visibly Chinese performer. I’ve had panic attacks that were less stressful than watching this piece. Basically, Chow sits at a keyboard, playing exceedingly difficult exercises that we don’t actually hear. Instead, her accuracy percentage is displayed on a huge screen behind her, alongside a constantly counting down timer. If she doesn’t play a given exercise with a certain degree of accuracy within a given time frame, a buzzer goes off and she has to try again. Failure is baked into the premise of the piece. So, naturally, is Foxconn: the terribly abusive company whose labour practices are satirically dramatized here as a sort of perverse, nightmarish musical video game. Foxconn Frequency No. 2 wasn’t the best thing I heard at ISCM 2017, but it was no doubt the most viscerally affecting. Also, I can’t not mention Eve Egoyan. I didn’t find her rep as memorable as Chow’s, or some of Iwassa’s. But she’s an extraordinary musician with a marvellous sense of musical colour. I’ve loved her recordings for years, especially Simple Lines of Enquiry by Canada’s best-ever composer (fight me) Ann Southam. I’m very happy to have finally heard her live. Much the same can be said of Megumi Mesaki, though I do find some of her rep a bit frustrating. This magnificent concert serves as an apt microcosm for my entire experience with ISCM 2017: I loved it, I feel my horizons were widened, and have an odd sense that its mixed effectiveness only adds to how memorable and compelling it was. A final point before I leave this be: I heard 34 pieces (I think) at the festival altogether. I am unsure of the specific number, but only a modest handful of them were by white men. This is enormously refreshing, given how notoriously backwards our major “classical” music institutions are in this way. As of 2017, people who call themselves composers — thereby, however unintentionally, placing themselves in the tradition of Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms — come from everywhere and are everyone. Now, if we could just staple that sentence to every music director’s forehead, we’d be in business. ISCM 2017 is one of precious few experiences I’ve had that left me feeling that this musical tradition, such as it is, might not only be relevant in a modern, progressive society, but could actually serve as a vital force in one.

Music

Björk: Biophilia — I listened to this in preparation for an installation at ISCM 2017 that I arrived at three days after it closed. So much for that. Anyway. This is certainly one of the lesser Björk albums, which is not to say it’s bad. But it doesn’t have much that reaches out and grabs you the way that her best stuff does. I do love “Crystalline,” which is certainly the most immediate track. I shouldn’t dismiss this out of hand: I could see it being a grower, and Björk is one of those artists who deserves the benefit of a doubt. I do see why Vespertine was regarded as a return to form, though. Frankly I still think that album is as good as anything she’s done.

Tom Waits: Swordfishtrombones — I’ve been listening to a podcast about Tom Waits — specifically about Rain Dogs, and I realized that I hadn’t actually heard the album that began the stylistic transition that brought him to that point. This is not as good as Rain Dogs. It has the requisite creepy freakouts, but it is lacking the tracks like “Time,” “Downtown Train” and “Hang Down Your Head” to counterbalance them. It is certainly not as good as Frank’s Wild Years, which seems likely to remain my favourite for all time. But it is an obvious watershed. It’s a strange thing: Rain Dogs seems totally plausible when you know that it was preceded by an album with similar stylistic tics. But this album was preceded by Heartattack and Vine, which I have heard many a time, and it has nothing to do with this. Nothing. There are several tracks that I love, particularly the title track and “In The Neighbourhood,” which is a less beautiful but more self-sufficient prototype for “Anywhere I Lay My Head”: one of the most gorgeous things ever.

Paul and Linda McCartney: RAM — I would like to present an extremely specious breakdown of Paul McCartney’s psychology. Lingering in the bit of Paul’s brain where most of us keep our secret hunger and despair, there is instead a delirious, unsettling happiness: a happiness that would, if left unchecked, force him to run constant laps around buildings with his tongue lolling out, climb trees and laugh maniacally from the highest branch he could reach, hug strange dogs, do jumping jacks always, build enormous sandcastles, throw confetti at strangers, complement snowmen on their hats, develop consuming enthusiasms for idiosyncratic hobbies such as bottlecap collecting or leathercraft, kick footballs off the roofs of tall buildings, convert his living room into a ball pit, and aggressively yell his appreciation for the good weather at all passing motorists, pedestrians, cyclists, and pets. This being an untenable way to live one’s life, Paul’s subconscious mania must be held in balance by an ego and superego with the soporific strength of several dozen tranq darts. This is how we get songs like “I’ve Just Seen A Face” and “Martha My Dear”: expressions of unalloyed joy that nonetheless fall within the acceptable confines of normal human behaviour. But on RAM, the one album Paul made with his wife Linda as a co-billed collaborator, the tranq darts have failed to gain purchase. This album is a deranged expression of Paul McCartney’s aggressively euphoric id. Even the dim shadows that occasionally appear — the open condescension of “Dear Boy,” for instance, or the “don’t know how to do that” backing vocals on “Smile Away” — are couched in a general mood of “MAN OH MAN CAN YOU EVEN BELIEVE THIS CRAZY LIFE.” From his first yelping vocal on “Too Many People,” to the final squalls of “The Back Seat of My Car,” Paul is out of control on this record. He cannot shut up. Even when there are no words for him to sing, he’s content to exclaim, squeal and coo abstractly. His vocal performances here make “Hey Bulldog” and “Oh! Darling” look like models of restraint. And in terms of songwriting, he seems to have entirely given up on the notion of cohesion within a song. Even the most “together” track on the album, “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” is fractured by ludicrous play-acting and a two-part structure wherein the two parts have nothing to do with each other. And “The Back Seat of My Car” loses track of where it’s going about a minute in, at which point the thin veneer of narrative that drives the opening verses gives way to a succession of would-be climaxes that each seem to be trying to outdo the “better better better” bit from “Hey Jude.” It is completely exhausting, totally undisciplined and I absolutely love it. That’s basically the album summed up, right there. RAM is my favourite Beatles solo album by a mile, with even the sublime All Things Must Pass trailing substantially. No other Beatle ever made an album so gloriously inconsequential. While George was composing spiritual koans on All Things, John was publicly working through his deepest psychoses on Plastic Ono Band, and Ringo was doing his best, Paul was content to just run around in circles in a studio, occasionally colliding with instruments and trusting that glorious sounds will result because he’s Paul McCartney. The Beatles trained a generation of music listeners to think that pop music can and should be “important.” John and George worked to honour that legacy on their early solo albums. Paul just turned himself inside out, and made a dumber, weirder, better solo record than either of them ever did.

Literature, etc.

Philip Pullman: The Golden Compass — My favourite book from when I was ten definitely holds up. (To clarify, by the time I was eleven, it had been usurped by The Amber Spyglass.) What really satisfied me about this re-read, 17 years later, is that the bits that are meant to be disturbing still are. It’s remarkable how thoroughly Pullman normalizes daemons in this book. He does such a job of it that when Lyra first discovers Tony Makarios, the severed child, it is horrifying for the reader. Here we have a person who is by all appearances more realistic than any of the other characters in the book, because he does not possess an external manifestation of his soul, and yet we feel Lyra’s repulsion. The form he takes, which is our own form, is a grotesque deformation. That’s just one of many reactions I remember having as a child reading this for the first time that I had a second time when I read it as an adult. Another is incredible anger at Lord Asriel’s callous treatment of Lyra. This, I think I experienced even more acutely this time. I don’t quite remember how things turn out with Lord Asriel in the end, but the way he talks to Lyra at the end of this novel is unforgivable. It’s also a refreshing break from the trope of absentee fathers being humanized and forgiven by the text. (See: Blade Runner 2049.) Pullman wants us to hate Asriel, because he is a terrible man. Certainly, there’s a legitimate reason that he wasn’t able to raise Lyra himself. But he also didn’t want to and doesn’t like her. (Equally unforgivable. If he knew her like we do, he surely would.) We aren’t treated to the disgusting spectacle of a father justifying himself for abandoning his child. Instead, Pullman just writes Asriel as being flat-out horrible. And we don’t see Lyra pining for his affection, either. Instead, we become invested in her genuine, intense and earned love for Iorek Byrnison and the gyptians. Pullman’s first priority is clearly to tell a good story. His second is probably to set up an analogy about organized religion as it exists in our own world. But another clear intention of his that he doesn’t get enough credit for is demonstrating healthy, rational familial relationships. In practice, that means rebelling against a callous and ruthless pair of biological parents while embracing an adopted family of people who care for you the way a family should. That’s remarkable. Pullman is a remarkable writer. This is a remarkable book. I can’t wait to re-read The Subtle Knife.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Shape of the Sword” — Probably the least remarkable story I’ve read by this author. At less than five pages, it is focussed on a single twist that is entirely predictable. Even the greatest ever have their off days, I suppose.

Games

Tacoma — Finally got around to this. I was super excited for it, because Gone Home was and is one of my favourite games ever. It almost single-handedly reinvigorated my interest in the medium after about a decade of not playing games at all. I was worried that Tacoma would fall flat purely because of its setting: one of the things about Gone Home that made me think there’s hope for this art form yet was the simple fact that it takes place in a realistic, domestic space. It’s a divergence from what I then perceived to be the entirety of the gaming world: fantasy and wish fulfilment. So, the news that Fullbright’s follow-up was to take place on a space station was concerning. But I should have had more faith: the Tacoma is as domestic a setting as Gone Home’s Pacific Northwest mansion. It’s just bigger and more… in space. Truthfully, I find the overall story a bit hackneyed: a big corporation is revealed to be increasingly evil, and the goals of a scrappy insurgency are elucidated piece by piece. I’ve seen this before. (I’ve written this before; fairly recently. But mine has a twist!) But focussing on the linear story of Tacoma is missing the point. The point of both of Fullbright’s games is learning about people by examining the places where they live. I often think about how a person who had never met me would perceive me if they wandered into my apartment randomly. I often wonder what it would be like to wander randomly into somebody else’s apartment. The places we spend our time are littered with the weird ephemera of a life in process, and each piece can serve as evidence of who we are. That’s the phenomenon Fulbright exploits. Even without the extremely clever interactive cutscene-type things, Tacoma would tell us a lot about its characters purely by way of the rooms they inhabit. And that’s why the “not a game” people are idiots. Both this and Gone Home set up experiences that are unique to this medium, and the fact that the endings of both are entirely prescribed and any player’s completion of the game is virtually a foregone conclusion is a feature, not a bug. I liked Tacoma a lot. Wonder what Fullbright will do next. They said they almost made this game on a ship in the middle of the ocean. God, what I wouldn’t do to play that.

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “Pearls Before Swine’s ‘Underground’ Classic Reissued 50 Years Later” — Quite content to pass this reissue by, I think. This is the kind of psychedelia that grinds my gears these days. But Bob Boilen still facilitates a good conversation here, even if the music isn’t to my taste.

Song by Song: First four episodes on Rain Dogs — I don’t get much out of this podcast’s regular episodes, but I had to drop in for the live ones on the first three songs on Rain Dogs, featuring John Hodgman and Helen Zaltzman. Those are fabulous episodes that are both funny and insightful into the music. I’m particularly gratified to hear the panel acknowledging Tom Waits’s awkward and offensive ableism and his tendency to exoticize whole countries. That hasn’t aged at all well. But the fourth episode, with the two main hosts back in the studio, isn’t nearly as fun. I think I’m opting out now.

Code Switch: “Raising Kings” (four parter) — This series of episodes is one of the crowning glories of Code Switch so far. It’s a deep dive into a unique new school where the vast majority of the students are young black men, and the teachers are also mostly black men. The school’s focus on restorative justice and its attention to the root causes of students’ misbehavior is apparently totally alien to the American public school system (I am Canadian and have limited knowledge about these things). And as admirable as the mission statement is, there are some bugs in the system that keep the school from getting the results its staff hope for. This is great journalism. Check this out. Pick of the week.

Reply All catchup — Sruthi Pinnamaneni’s two-parter on a Mexican-American skip chaser who’s hunting for a Mexican undocumented person is a crazy story with an actual satisfying ending. And the episode about whether or not Facebook is spying on us through the microphones of our smartphones features P.J. Vogt laughing uncontrollably at Alex Goldman’s inability to do something. So, altogether, a pretty strong run.

The Memory Palace: “Hoover” & “Elizabeth” — Two of the best episodes of this show in a long time. “Elizabeth” is particularly heartbreaking, moreso because Nate DiMeo is straightforward about how the story makes him feel, specifically. I am reminded of why this was my favourite podcast for so long. Sometimes it still is.

99% Invisible catchup — It’s fundraising time, and the Radiotopia flagship is pulling out all the stops. The most recent three episodes of this show have all been outstanding. The one on La Sagrada Familia is the best architecture episode they’ve done in ages. They followed it up with a story about how oysters could save New York from sea level rise. And then they did an episode about how houses in St. Louis are literally being stolen brick by brick. It’s three episodes of classic 99pi. And when this show is on, there’s nothing better.

Fresh Air: “Humorist John Hodgman” — I’ve heard a few interviews with Hodgman in the wake of his book release, but this is unsurprisingly the best by far. Terry Gross talks with him about his journey from ostentatiously weird only child in high school (I feel as though I have known a person like this) to professionally dissatisfied twentysomething (I feel as though I may currently know a person like this) to famous writer and weird dad (who can even say). It’s lovely stuff. He’s a treasure.

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Omnireviewer (week of Sept. 4, 2016)

First off, a few things from the category of “things I don’t review” that I would like to recommend regardless. Firstly, the A.V. Club has a food section now, called Supper Club, which already has a bunch of good reads up. It promises to be as fearlessly catholic in its purview as The Sporkful, but with the A.V. Club’s brand of casually obsessive geekiness. This will soon become my entire internet, I imagine. Also, Jesse Brown’s Canadaland podcast put out an episode this week where he talks with Michael Enright, Robyn Doolittle and Jeet Heer about movies that deal with journalism. It is quite excellent. I’ve also been listening to and enjoying Love Me, which is a CBC podcast, and thus doesn’t get its own reviews, but it is produced by two of the key producers of the late, lamented Wiretap. Speaking of, that show’s host announced his new Gimlet show this week, which I am very excited for, but will not be reviewing on account of an upcoming episode of the Syrup Trap Pod Cast.

Now. On to our 15 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Ian Parker: “Pete Wells Has His Knives Out” — This New Yorker profile of the New York Times’s restaurant critic is one of the best pieces of journalism I’ve read this year. It is perhaps most interesting for its small observations into the details of this job, like the strange unwritten code that dictates that critics must not be acknowledged by restaurant staff, nor acknowledge themselves in restaurants. Everybody must simply act as if everything is normal, even when the head chef shows up halfway through the evening to ensure a full-capacity performance. Parker illustrates this with an anecdote about Wells and Jimmy Fallon coincidentally sitting next to each other at a sushi bar. Both were recognized, but only Fallon was acknowledged, and Wells was served more fussily prepared food. Or, there’s this: Wells sometimes shies away from restaurants before he hits the Times’s three-dinner minimum because he can’t think up a review that will be interesting to read. Declining to review for “literary reasons,” as Parker puts it, rather than anything to do with the food. Restaurant reviews are for reading, after all. (Speaking as a person who has forced himself to review every episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour since last October, I sympathize.) But Parker’s piece is also a fascinating portrait of a person who is carefully considering how best to wield a very specific kind of power. Wells can break fine dining establishments with a single snide remark in an otherwise positive review. The costs and benefits of that must be weighed attentively. Jobs are on the line, and not just those of people who’ve made fortunes in reality TV. Parker portrays Wells as intensely cognizant of how needless a pan can seem, even as David Chang derides him as old-fashioned and a bully. Also, in the “things I have to mention because I am me” category, apparently Wells uses Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies to combat writer’s block.

Thomas Ligotti: “Severini” — It’s in pieces like this where you can most clearly see Ligotti’s influence on China Miéville. Both of them are obsessed with horrors conjured by the act of human creation. They’re obsessed with art, but morbidly. Miéville is the more dazzling writer, and the more interesting accidental art critic. But Ligotti’s comparative directness and obsessive paranoia conjures a mood of dread more consistently.

Television

Stranger Things: Season one, episodes 4-8 — This show finally captured me in the opening moments of its fifth episode, where the children figure out what’s going on because of their awareness of the tropes of the kind of story they’re in. It’s not the first time this has been done, certainly. Parts of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and nearly the whole of Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who use the same trick. But it signalled a moment where the show ceased to be a genre homage and started to become a genuine postmodern pastiche. By the end of the episode, Stranger Things is invoking Under the Skin and courting our modern paranoia about surveillance. How brilliant to have the villains of a piece be people who listen. Villains are usually acting; scheming; talking; monologuing. But our key villain in this show says very little — his power is in what he hears. How contemporary. But it also fits perfectly into the show’s Cold War setting. Then, in the next episode, another character figures out the monster (there’s a monster; that’s not a spoiler) with knowledge of predators that she gleaned from her nerdy childhood obsession with animals. This is a show where power comes from knowing things. I love that. I can’t say I was totally satisfied with the ending, but the second season renewal was announced just after I started watching, so I don’t have to be. Well-made television that scratches an itch.

Music

Björk: Debut & Post — You know how sometimes you listen to an early album by an artist you admire, mostly out of curiosity, thinking that it’ll at least shed some light into their later masterpieces? That’s not what listening to Debut is like at all. This album completely stands up on its own merits even today. Honestly, I’m inclined to say that however much Björk’s songwriting had matured by the time of Homogenic, this album has actually aged better, sonically. “Human Behaviour” is a totally nutty single on which Björk undercuts a great pop hook by singing in what first seems to be a different key. And the album starts as it means to go on. Every track on this is surprising, and never in the ostentatious way that art pop people can sometimes be on their debuts. This can stand alongside Björk’s best work, and thus alongside the best music of the ‘90s. Post starts off even stronger, with “Army of Me” and “Hyper-Ballad,” two of her best songs. But it meanders a bit from there. It seems like the sort of album that will be a grower in the same way that Vespertine is, and that Debut and Homogenic are not. Will revisit frequently.

Brian Eno: Ambient 1/Music for Airports — No need to review this a second time, but I feel I should at least express gratitude for it. It’s been a frazzling week. But when I put this on, I could feel my heart rate slowing practically from the first second. This isn’t just good music, it’s good-spirited music — an applicable boon to all humanity.

Brian Eno: Ambient 4/On Land — I have adopted the two outer portions of Eno’s Ambient quadrilogy as true ambient music this week. But where Music for Airports soothes, On Land maintains an air of slight discomfort. It is the lesser album, but when fed through overworked iPhone speakers and placed on the dresser, it makes a grand soundtrack for reading Ligotti.

Stephen Sondheim: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Original Broadway Cast Recording) — There are no operas, not even Wagner’s, that can be considered great works of literature as well as great pieces of music. There are few musicals that this can be said of, but this is self-evidently one of them. For all of its typical unlikely plot elements (Todd’s seafaring companion just happens to fall in love with his daughter by sheer coincidence?) and less than plausible romances (Mrs. Lovett, what were you thinking?), Sweeney contains a dozen sublime verses ranging from the devastatingly simple (“You are young. Life has been kind to you. You will learn.”) to the magnificently virtuosic (“There’s a whole in the world like a great black pit” etc.). And even if their would-be love story is a tad undercooked, Todd and Lovett are two of musical theatre’s most fully-realized characters. This piece feels strangely ahead of its time, given how inundated we currently are with antihero narratives. But the highest compliment that can be paid to such a story is that its protagonist’s actions are genuinely sympathetic, even as they are unconscionable. And Todd’s actions are certainly unconscionable. The fact that this story exists at the emotionally heightened level of reality where musicals live means that Sondheim can throw a philosophy directly into Todd’s mouth and not have it feel hackneyed: “They all deserve to die. Tell you why, Mrs. Lovett, tell you why: because the lives of the wicked should be made brief. For the rest of us, death would be a relief.” Todd is not merely an avenger for his ruined family. He is avenging the entire world for having been ruined by itself. This is a kind of person that exists. Sweeney Todd is every disillusioned nihilist who’s ever shot up a public place. He is also every religious fundamentalist who has committed atrocities. He is everybody who has ever ended a life in the name of a philosophy. And yet. It is difficult to despise Todd completely. This has less to do with his tragic history (angry-man-avenges-wronged-woman plotlines are a dime a dozen and they are sexist and bad) than it does with the fact that, like his fellow bloodstained musical theatre villain Aaron Burr (and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s model for Burr, the far less effective Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar), Todd has a legitimate grievance. “The history of the world, my love, is those below serving those up above.” Todd is an elegant enough thinker to see the poetry in baking unsuspecting Londoners into pies. For Todd, mass murder is the only true social equalizer. Todd is unforgivable. He is damned, even within the confines of his own play. But anybody who is aware of our civilization’s various systemic inequities may find it hard not to lick their lips as Sweeney slits throats.

Jon Anderson: Olias of Sunhillow — Parts of it feel like something that might be played in a spa. But all in all, I absolutely adore this and have since I first heard it. This is essentially Anderson doing what he always does, but without the rest of Yes to help him realize his vision. Working within those constraints, he makes something that is entirely unlike Yes music, but which is maybe the most fully realized iteration of his mystical vision that we have on record. It isn’t a masterpiece, but it is an exceptionally good solo album that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend even to people who hate Yes.

Games

Lethophobia — I’ve barely begun, but I’m quite enjoying this. It’s a free browser game made with Failbetter Games’ StoryNexus tool. So, basically, the mechanics are the same as Fallen London and the text-based portions of my beloved Sunless Sea. This is the first game I’ve played on this platform that isn’t actually developed by Failbetter, though I have had a bash at making one. (Didn’t get far.) Lethophobia starts in a familiar adventure game place: amnesia. Also, you’re by a house in a clearing. Rings a bell. But so far, it’s distinguishing itself with excellent, funny writing and by making interesting use of StoryNexus’s quality-based story progression. The real test of this is whether I return to it after my initial session. Never a guarantee with games I didn’t spend money on.

Firewatch — Yeah, this is what I want games to be like. I mean, not the only thing I want games to be like, but if this could be the default that would be fine by me. Firewatch is a walking sim with a branching narrative stacked on top of it. It gives you the freedom to explore a compelling place that Gone Home offered, but with the addition of the sort of choice-based dialogue that Telltale’s Walking Dead games are known for. Mechanically, this is a perfect union. It fixes potential problems with both of those pre-existing models for gaming (loathe as I am to entertain the notion of problems with Gone Home). It adds choices and agency to the Gone Home model, which really just basically throws you into a space and says “walk around!” And, it combats the ruthless constraints of the Telltale model, which allows for choice but confines you to exploring one small area of space at a time. 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 the story we have here is pretty magnificent in itself. The premise of a video game where you’re a fire lookout may seem to hold a whiff of Papers Please-esque perversity, but that’s not what’s happening here. There is no “look what I can make fun!” in this game. The fact that your character takes a job as a fire lookout in a huge, gorgeously-rendered national park is straightforwardly and obviously a setup for a proper adventure story. Of course, that story does turn out to be only about a quarter of the point, tops. The real beauty 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). These two both have some shit to work through. You don’t voluntarily isolate yourself in the brush if you don’t. And it’s the relationship that forms between them (which can presumably be very different depending on your choices) that forms the core of the game. Firewatch is a rare thing: a fun, unpretentious video game that nonetheless feels like it’s for grown-ups. I love it. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

WTF with Marc Maron: “Joseph Arthur/Peter Bebergal” — A great episode featuring two guests I’m interested in but whose work I’ve never gotten around to. Bebergal’s book about rock music and the occult, The Season of the Witch, has been on my list for ages. He’s not a great interview, but he seems like the sort of person who might write a good book. Also, Maron is curiously comfortable talking about magic without caveats and provisos. At no point did he say something like “but you know this is all bullshit, right?” Maybe he understands that magic is only ever a metaphor, which indicates that it has meaning, which means that it has power regardless of its ontological status. Or maybe he just remembers what it was like to be on coke. Either way. Also, the conversation with Joseph Arthur is interesting as a peek into the career of somebody who had votes of confidence from Peter Gabriel and Lou Reed but never quite made it. I’ve known who he is since Gabriel’s Big Blue Ball came out belatedly in 2008: a dubious, messy record made from three weeks of sessions at Real World Studios in the 90s. I liked Arthur’s contribution. But I never checked out his records. Perhaps I should. He sounds like what Marc Maron would be if he were a musician.

Love and Radio: Season 5 preview — Not the most exciting preview that came out this week (Again, I’m recusing myself from reviewing Heavyweight) but I’m definitely excited to hear stories about transgenic humans.

99% Invisible: “Public Works” — Roman Mars remarked on Twitter that this would be the nerdiest episode of 99pi ever. It kind of is, and it is also one of the best of recent times. It’s just a flat-out discussion (not a story, mind you) of the history of the notion of “infrastructure,” a word so new that the Washington Post put it in quotation marks like I just did as recently as the ‘80s.

The Gist: “A GOP Apostate Explains Her Vote for Hillary” — The best Gist I’ve heard since picking it up. Firstly, it contains a reasonable interview with a reasonable Republican, which is the unicorn of this election season’s press coverage. Secondly, it contains the most delightfully discursive and amusing spiel I’ve heard. It’s about the notion that sophistication does not necessarily equal excellence, but that’s an oversimplification. Pesca takes his time getting to his point, and he wheels through a whole bunch of implications without warning you it’ll happen. Radio doesn’t have to proceed in a straight line. Pesca’s success as a podcaster is proof that listeners are smart enough to follow along with a train of thought, even when the tracks have corners. Pick of the week.

All Songs Considered: “New Sylvan Esso, Sharon Van Etten, R.E.M. Acoustic, More” — Stephen Thompson’s presence is always appreciated. I recognize the value of Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton and I’ve come to love both of them as inviting presences on this podcast. But Thompson is smarter than either of them. As for the music, the Kate Tempest track eclipses all of them handily. I’ll definitely be checking out that record.

Things I loved in 2015: Nos. 15-11

How do you follow up prison planets, drunk horses, West African minimalism, Jonathan Banks in a tollbooth, and BIG WIDE 70MM SUPER CINEMASCOPE? Like this:

No. 15 — Mystery Show

The twin notions that everything is connected and that there must be a conspiracy are classic engines for genre fiction, from Lovecraft to From Hell to Welcome to Night Vale. But I’m not sure that it’s ever been taken up in non-fiction with such total aplomb as on this podcast.

Mystery Show is ostensibly about actual, real-world mysteries with actual real-world solutions. But each story is told according to the semi-ironic non-logic of real-world Dirk Gently, Starlee Kine. So, the plotline of Must Love Dogs becomes crucially important to finding a forgotten video store. The life story of a guy who works for Ticketmaster customer service could yield crucial clues to discovering Britney Spears’ reading habits. And the members of the Phoenix Culinary Association could (and do) prove invaluable in the quest to find the owner of long-discarded belt buckle.

Mystery Show is funny, sure. And it’s presented with one eyebrow at least halfway raised. But, it also makes you feel like we all live in a world where there are amazing stories beneath every rock — as long as you take for granted that it’s the most important rock in the universe.

No. 14 — Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt 

If you’re not completely sold on this show on the basis of its theme song, we cannot be friends.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is on this list primarily because it made me laugh and laugh like a big dumb idiot. It’s like Tina Fey and Robert Carlock decided that 30 Rock just wasn’t quite packed-full-o’jokes enough, and they’d have to do better next time.

But what I really remember most fondly about my embarrassingly fast binge of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the first two minutes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show establish its premise and characterize its lead quite so efficiently before. That theme song certainly does a lot of the heavy lifting, but really watch Ellie Kemper’s performance as she emerges from the bunker where Kimmy’s been kept for 15 years. There’s not a shred of anger or resentment about what she’s missed out on — just overwhelming joy that the world outside still exists.

I’m not saying it’s psychologically realistic, but in that moment you realize that this is a character you want to spend a lot of time with.

Even if Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt hadn’t given us the profound gift that is “Peeno Noir,” it would still be my favourite new comedy in ages.

No. 13 — Kieron Gillen/Jamie McKelvie: The Wicked and the Divine, vol. 2

WicDiv2

Do you ever get the feeling that the intended audience for a thing is specifically you, and nobody else? It probably happens to me more than a lot of people, to be fair. But I’m not sure there has ever been a narrative premise that is such obvious Parsonsbait as “a pantheon of gods from various mythologies are periodically incarnated as rock stars.”

The first volume of The Wicked and the Divine bowled me over, but this second one, “Fandemonium,” is where things really seem to be picking up. We learn more about the history of the pantheon, our protagonist’s story takes some completely unexpected twists and turns, and — best of all — we meet a genderfluid incarnation of the Sumerian love god(dess) Inanna who dresses like Prince.

Also people trip out at a rave hosted by Dionysus.

This comic is bonkers and beautiful and I’m more invested in it than almost any other ongoing serial narrative. I’m picking up the third trade collection later this week, and will devour it immediately.

No. 12 — Inside Out

I tend not to watch kids’ movies — not out of a lack of respect for them, or out of self-consciousness; it’s just that my reaction is usually something like “Boy, I wish I could have seen this when I was ten.”

Not Inside Out. This movie hit me straight in the 25-year-old feels. First off, the premise of exploring the changing psyche of a young girl by way of personified emotions is brilliant. And the casting is spot-on. But it’s specifically the exploration of sadness’s role in maturity that makes Inside Out one of the most thoughtful children’s movies I’ve ever seen.

No. 11 — Björk: Vulnicura

Björk’s creative peak is lasting a ludicrously long time. Vulnicura is, to my ears, as good an album as she’s ever made. It’s certainly a mode we haven’t seen her in before. And with an artist like Björk, the best you can possibly hope for is yet another new direction.

Sonically, Vulnicura could be seen as a retreat to the barren, strings-and-drum-machines-only timbres of her acclaimed Homogenic. But this time, that timbre doesn’t make her seem tough: it leaves her exposed. Which is apropos, since this is Björk’s breakup album. I think it’s destined to become both a classic of that minor genre and of her discography.

“Stonemilker” is pure catharsis, and one of my favourite songs of the year.

More whiplash tomorrow, as we enter the top ten with a beautiful movie, a beloved show, a kaleidoscopic podcast, a disappointingly overlooked album, and the list’s first non-comic book.

Omnireviewer (week of Dec. 20)

Merry Christmas! I’ve been compiling my favourite things of the year for a list that I’ll have up soon. But as usual, a lot of the stuff I spent my time on this year wasn’t from this year. I sometimes wonder what the major year-end top music lists would look like if they included everything that the critics were actually listening to, regardless of release date. It wouldn’t be an effective way to assess the year’s music, obviously. But it would make for a sort of index of continuing relevance. That could be fun.

Anyway, a couple of the major things I discovered this year that weren’t new are discussed here. Here are your 24 reviews for the week.

Television

Deadwood: Season 1, episodes 9-10 — “Mister Wu” is probably my favourite episode so far, which is inevitable, given that it focusses more on Al Swearengen’s machinations than any other episode, and when it comes down to it that’s sort of what I’m in it for. But it also has a great plotline for the increasingly ill and increasingly interesting Reverend Nickelback.

QI: “Middle Muddle” — Much ado about unfair medieval sports.

South Park: “Margaritaville” — I have trouble with South Park because of its tendency to pay too much respect to both sides of any given issue. But this is pretty brilliant, because for the most part it’s too caught up in the inherent bafflement of the crashing economy to take a side other than “how does this make sense?” It even manages to juggle two separate, unrelated ongoing analogies side-by-side without getting bogged down. I see why this is regarded as a classic, even if I don’t generally like this show.

Music

Björk: Vulnicura — I’ve already nailed my colours to the mast by putting this in my top five albums of the year. But I don’t think there’s any understating this: Vulnicura is not just a return to form for Björk, it’s as good an album as she’s ever made. I’d take this over Homogenic, and it would be a legitimately difficult choice between this and Vespertine. It’s less immediate than either of those. There’s no “Jöga” or “Pagan Poetry” to offer respite from the album’s more out-there moments. (“Stonemilker” comes close, but it’s the first track of the album, so…) But in all of its lugubriousness, Vulnicura still manages to be an impressively kaleidoscopic musical response to the end of a relationship. As breakup albums go, this is as good as In The Wee Small Hours and within shouting distance of Blood on the Tracks. Though naturally, it sounds no more like either of those than they sound like each other.

Brian Eno: Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) — Before 2015, I knew and loved Another Green World, and to a lesser extent (No Pussyfooting), and much of Eno’s work as a producer. But this was the year when I listened to the rest of his gigantic discography. All of it is interesting, most of it is good; but the albums I keep coming back to are the four rock records he made before dedicating himself to ambient music. Of those, Another Green World is still my favourite, and one of the best albums of the ‘70s. But there’s a sense in which that album’s flawlessness keeps it at arm’s length. Think about this: what would be the point of hearing Another Green World performed live? It’s a bespoke object: those songs aren’t things that can or should exist elsewhere in the world. They are the recordings that were made of them. (In a sense, literally: Eno wrote almost nothing ahead of time for the Another Green World sessions. It’s all just what happened in the studio.) Everything that is good about “Spirits Drifting” is good because of the way it turned out on the album. Performing it would be beside the point. The two records that precede Another Green World, on the other hand, are totally different. (So is Before And After Science, but it just isn’t quite as good.) When I listen to Taking Tiger Mountain or Here Come the Warm Jets, I can imagine myself playing that music, which sometimes makes those albums more enjoyable. I tend to prefer whichever of the two I’ve listened to most recently, but they really are totally different albums. Here Come the Warm Jets is a record like Robert Fripp’s Exposure or the first Peter Gabriel album: a rotating drum of disparate sounds and personalities, guided into some semblance of cohesiveness by a strong central creative sensibility. Taking Tiger Mountain is a band record. It’s mostly the same people playing on each track, so cohesiveness arises naturally (as on the second Peter Gabriel album). This is not my pick of the week, but along with the rest of Eno’s catalogue, it’s probably my discovery of the year.

Literature, etc.

China Miéville: “After the Festival” — Well, that was gross. This is a story about a person whose best friend starts acting strangely. The interesting part is that rather than being confident that she’s the one person who can get through to him, as would often be the case in a narrative like this, she knows him well enough and sees the situation clearly enough to realize how unlikely that actually is. It’s a really good story, and also totally disgusting.

David Cavanagh: Good Night and Good Riddance — Picked this up again. I’m into the early ‘90s now, at which point Peel was playing Nirvana in England over a year before they broke into mainstream American success and recognizing the brilliance of Aphex Twin well into his 50s. This guy.

Games

Undertale — I warmed to this immensely. About halfway into the game, the fight sequences start getting esoteric and character-driven and start telling stories in themselves. The writing is patchy, but there are great moments, and the whole thing has a lot of heart. No masterpiece, but I’m certainly glad I played this.

80 Days — This, on the other hand is a masterpiece. I’ve played it about six times through, and I’ve seldom seen any of the same stories twice. This would have been my favourite game (and probably my single favourite thing) of last year, if I’d actually played it that year. There’s so much to admire, but the real clincher is that it takes on the task of adapting Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days as a game and ends up being a far superior work than its source. Meg Jayanth’s prose is superior to Verne’s in translation, and she even goes out of her way to challenge the notions of colonialism that Verne’s original novel propped up. She pushes the fantastical elements of the original even further, so that there are armies of automata to contend with, and cities atop giant walking machines. This offers what’s probably a more emotionally true perception of what the 19th century’s technological marvels must have felt like at the time than Verne’s novel would to contemporary readers. And, of course, there’s the fact that Jayanth’s rendition is a gigantic branching narrative with a 750,000 word script that you see about three percent of on any given playthrough. So, there’s just more of it. I’m actually struggling to be adequately effusive about this truly magnificent marvel of modern storytelling, so here’s this: 80 Days is easily in my top three games ever, and it is the only game that I would comfortably recommend to anybody, regardless of their interests. It is magic and wonder incarnated as an iOS app. I just dipped in for a quick jaunt this time, so this isn’t my pick of the week. But, as with Eno, you may rest assured that it is one of my most treasured discoveries of the year.

Movies

The Danish Girl — I’m mixed on this. Both lead performances are good, though Alicia Vikander manages to steal the movie from Eddie Redmayne’s stunt performance. The story is worth knowing, but it’s badly served by the movie’s script, which is laden with obvious metaphors and clunky dialogue. It’s got some nicely composed shots, but Tom Hooper is still basically a purveyor of blandness, to me. At least The King’s Speech had a great screenplay.

Inside Llewyn Davis — Not one of the Coens’ best, but it’s got lots of those wonderful understated comedic moments like they’re so good at. Plus, excellent performances by Oscar Isaac, John Goodman and Carey Mulligan.

Carol — This is as obsessive a throwback to an earlier style of cinema as The Artist was. But, like The Artist, it is very much a contemporary film dressed in the trappings of the era in which it is set: everything from the beautifully grainy 16mm filmstock to Cate Blanchett’s exceptionally mannered performance is from another era, but the narrative sensibility is from our own. I adored this as much as I knew I would, Todd Haynes being probably one of my top three directors. (Now that I’ve written that, I really ought to go watch all the stuff he’s done that I haven’t seen.) There’s a line near the beginning of this that rings especially true, something like: “I have a friend who says I should take more of an interest in humans.” Haynes’s movies have always been as much about the film conventions that they employ as they are about the stories they tell and the people in them. Velvet Goldmine is about glam rock and David Bowie, but it’s just as much about what happens when you nick the frame narrative of Citizen Kane in the service of a totally different story. Carol is about an affair between two interesting women, but it’s just as much about those flawlessly decorated period-accurate sets, and about how you can’t quite make out the details behind a fogged-up car window when it’s shot on 16mm. Haynes is a stylist. You can imagine that his brain is basically a movie camera, and that movies work as his interface with the real world around him. He’s a filmmaker for people who marinate themselves in pop culture and assay their own lives primarily in relation to what they consume. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Frank Sinatra with Sonari Glinton” — 14 minutes really isn’t long enough for a Sinatra primer, and as engaging as Glinton is, Stephen Thompson doesn’t sound that convinced. Eminently skippable.

StartUp: “Diversity Report” — The white boss of a super white company talks to the few employees he has who aren’t white about what he’s doing wrong. This is a great listen.

Slate’s Culture Gabfest: “The Room Where it Happens Edition” — This is to me a lesser podcast than NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour because it sounds so distinctly like a bunch of people who are in the same room together because it’s their job to say smart things into microphones, rather than a group of people who would and probably do have those conversations anyway. But this was about Hamilton, so I just had to. Stephen Metcalf’s analysis of why the musical is great is basically the same as my own. But, I do wish somebody had dove in a little more when the point “I’m 40 and white and don’t like hip hop and even I loved this hip hop musical” came up. On the face of it, that sounds like a way into a legitimate critique of Hamilton, which is otherwise being rightly marvelled at by all and sundry. On the other hand, I do appreciate that this podcast will discuss people like Judith Butler, who wouldn’t necessarily fit with the general tone of PCHH.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Movie Merchandise” — OKAY FOR GOD’S SAKE I’LL GO SEE STAR WARS. (I was always going to see Star Wars.) My opinion about Star Wars is roughly coextensive with Stephen Thompson’s, so this may be instructive to those of you who are curious about my opinions on things. (…) Also, this is 100% worth a (spoiler-free) listen JUST to hear about Thompson’s insane collection of whimsical movie merchandise.

This American Life: “Sinatra’s 100th Birthday” — You wouldn’t especially expect This American Life to dedicate a full hour to the Chairman of the Board, but who better to assess what he means as part of American culture? The critique of “My Way” as Sinatra’s funeral song in act two is genuinely brilliant music criticism.

The Moth: “Eve Plumb and the Pittsburgh StorySLAM” — Eve Plumb is a former child actress known for her role on The Brady Bunch. The story she tells here is barely a story at all, actually. It’s basically a summary of her whole relationship with her mother. This is uncharacteristically unfocused for The Moth. Maybe it’s like Celebrity Jeopardy: expectations are just lower for famous people.

On The Media: “Politically Correct” — Gladstone and Garfield tackle a bunch of rage-making topics, from the GOP’s war on political correctness to the (lack of) reporting on the Paris climate summit. This podcast keeps me sane.

Radiolab: “The Cold War” — Two ice cream vendors go to war and the joy returns to Radiolab. Pick of the week.

The Heart: “Mr. Claus+Mrs. Claus” — Nope.

All Songs Considered: “Holiday Spectacular, 2015” — Apparently, every year All Songs breaks from their roundtable format and makes a grandiose radio drama with musical guests for Christmas. I can hardly believe I made it through this. You’d think that no amount of Amy Mann can make me stomach a half-hour of Christmas music. But it’s a wonderful production, and more than anything I just love that they do this. Bob Boilen is a totally convincing Scrooge, and the amount of sheer joy that Stephen Thompson brings to his cameo makes this worthwhile in itself. (Two out of three for Thompson, this week. Not bad.)

WTF with Marc Maron: “Gloria Steinem/Kliph Nesteroff” — Maron talks too much in the conversation with Gloria Steinem. It had good moments, but Terry Gross is the place to go to hear Steinem on this particular book. On the other hand, the segment with Nesteroff is gold. He knows every story in the history of showbiz and his book sounds amazing and I will probably read it.

Welcome to Night Vale: “The University Of What It Is” — This has a couple of familiar-seeming jokes, but also a really good story and some interesting background on Carlos, who is my favourite non-Cecil character. Lovely.