BoJack Horseman: Season 4 — There are four ongoing Netflix original series that I watch. Of those, I am a season behind on two of them: Orange is the New Black and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. When seasons five and three of those series respectively dropped earlier this year, I decided I didn’t have time for them right that moment. But I dropped everything for BoJack Horseman. The last two seasons of this show have both been flawless. Each of them contains one or more episodes that I consider among the best television ever made. New BoJack is a run-don’t-walk cultural event. This season is extraordinary, but it does strike me as the first one to be slightly less enthralling than the last. Seasons two and three were blazingly effective because they presented one new set of circumstances after another for BoJack, gradually making it clear that no set of circumstances is sufficient to repair him. Season four takes a break from throwing new shit at BoJack to instead examine the old shit that got him to this place. It’s a logical move for a show that’s always been fascinated with the convergence of unlikely causes to produce unlikely effects. (Recall that this is the show that ended its last season by throwing all of its B-stories together into a bizarre culmination in which Mr. Peanutbutter saves an aquatic city from a huge mound of spaghetti.) But this new focus on the past also leaves open the question of whether there’s actually anywhere left for BoJack Horseman to go. But let’s look beyond the big-picture narrative stuff. What about the jokes? In that respect this season is at least as strong as any of its predecessors, with its language-based humour at a particular apex. The show’s linguistic pot runneth over to such an extent that one of its best gags gets relegated to a news ticker: “Kathmandu Cat, Man, Doe Man Canoe to Timbuktu.” Anything to do with the assonance-prone Courtney Portnoy is equally marvellous. The outright funniest stuff in the season generally revolves around Mr. Peanutbutter’s extremely ill-advised gubernatorial run, which brings him back into contact with his ex-wives Katrina Peanutbutter and Jessica Biel. (Biel plays herself with hilarious disregard for her real-life personal brand.) BoJack’s best episodes are often its most conceptual, and this season carries that on, with one standout being an episode in which the Peanutbutter residence collapses into the ground, burying a bunch of wealthy showbiz and politics types. Things go Lord of the Flies as quickly as you might expect. The other best episode in the season is as heartbreaking as “Underground” is jokey. As much as BoJack’s character arc decelerates this season, the supporting cast gets some devastating stuff, especially Princess Carolyn. The frame narrative of “Ruthie,” in which PC’s distant descendent in a far-off future tells the story of her esteemed ancestor’s worst day ever, turns out to be one of the most adventurous and saddest things the show has ever done. I dare say it’s more effective than the main tragedy that the show wants us to get invested in this season, which is the life story of Beatrice Horseman, née Sugarman. Previously, we’ve seen Beatrice almost entirely as a monster — a destructive presence in her son’s life. This season doesn’t so much humanize her as show how she’s a product of her circumstances: specifically, the oppressive upper-crust society of post-war America. We see this story play out in two episodes, the more effective of which is the season’s second episode, “The Old Sugarman House,” in which past and present are shown to play out simultaneously through the wonders of animation. It’s an almost theatrical effect: we repeatedly see our present-day cast in the same frame as characters from two generations previously, with only the story to differentiate between the two layers of reality that we’re seeing simultaneously. It’s a canny technique for illustrating the chains of cause and effect that so obsess this show. The show’s penultimate episode, “Time’s Arrow,” doesn’t fare so well. This one seems to be a particular hit with the critics, but I’m not convinced. The decision to show the episode’s events through the lens of the deteriorating mind of the now-senile Beatrice is a good one, but unlike in “Ruthie,” the mode of storytelling entirely outpaces the content of the story, which is rote and predictable in a way that this show usually isn’t. It doesn’t help that the season’s denouement revolves around Hollyhock, the season’s newcomer. Hollyhock is brilliantly performed by Aparna Nancherla, but she is more clearly a plot device than any other character in this show so far. She is the motivating factor for the show’s journey into BoJack’s family past. Given the comparative thinness of her characterization (thinner than the comparatively brief role of Penny, I’d wager), I found the central plot reveal at the season’s end a bit underwhelming. Still, this is only lacking by comparison to the two perfect seasons that precede it. At its most brilliant (“The Old Sugarman House,” “Ruthie,” “Underground” and “Hooray! Todd Episode!” which I somehow didn’t even get to in this wall of text) it is still among the best television being made today. At its least brilliant it’s only excellent. I halfway hope that season five will be the end for BoJack. I want a proper ending for this show, but I never want to see it lose steam. This remains my favourite thing Netflix has ever brought into existence. We’ll see if it maintains the title once Stranger Things season two comes out.
The Kid — Every so often I get a hankering for silent comedy. I haven’t seen The Kid since my film studies class in the third year of my undergrad. So I figured, why not revisit the Charlie Chaplin movie that I recall being my favourite during that brief period where I watched a ton of Charlie Chaplin movies? The reason I love The Kid is that it demonstrates how even canonized masters like Chaplin can make a very “first movie” kind of first movie. Chaplin had directed some classic shorts prior to this, but The Kid is his first feature. (Though, at under an hour, it barely qualifies by today’s standards.) This is the movie where Chaplin’s aspirations to be not just the greatest comedic entertainer of his generation, but also the new Charles Dickens are most obvious. It tells the story of a single mother who is forced to abandon her child, which unexpectedly ends up in the care of a wily tramp — Chaplin’s famous hatted, moustached character. And while the non-comedic scenes with the mother land with a thud compared to Chaplin’s own plotline, the genuine bond between the tramp and the kid is an undercurrent of genuine drama that fits remarkably well into a film that is also full of Chaplin’s famous physical comedy. I’ve heard Buster Keaton referred to as silent comedy’s resident modernist. His detachment certainly feels less of-its-time than Chaplin’s pathos. Still, for all his Dickensian tendencies, the tramp prefigures modern comedy in a remarkable way. We live in an era of comedy when comedic characters are expected to have the depth and internal consistency to function in dramatic settings as well. (Think of BoJack Horseman for half a dozen examples.) For all of his broad clowning, the tramp is one of the most subtle creations in all of comedy. And I daresay The Kid provides his defining moment: when the child he’s come to love is taken from him, his impulse is to escape his aggressors by taking to the city’s rooftops — a typically counterintuitive, and openly comical, move. But as he traverses the skyline in pursuit of the truck that’s taking his son away, he exudes desperation. It’s one of the most beautiful scenes ever. Take an hour and watch this. It’s ageless.
Rosemary’s Baby — Well, I’m going to see mother! We’ll see how that goes. (Ed. see below for how that went.) In the meantime I figured I should prepare by watching the classic movie that it supposedly draws heavily from. Polanski’s a creep and that has deterred me from really diving into his filmography. But this is a damned good movie. Mia Farrow’s performance is a welcome departure from the screaming hysterics of many classic female horror leads, though that’s partially down to the kind of horror movie this is — a slow-burning psychological one. It’s certainly a step up from Repulsion, the other Polanski apartment building horror movie I’ve seen. That movie’s portrait of sexual repression seems banal by comparison to this movie’s assertion that all of the men in its protagonist’s life actually are conspiring against her. Oh, and also a couple of fabulously batty old women. Ruth Gordon’s performance as the forcefully friendly senior citizen Minnie Castevet is maybe the best part of Rosemary’s Baby.Also, the ending is incredible. For a second I was a bit let down that the ambiguity of the film was washed away by a surge of “Hail Satans,” but that final shot of Mia Farrow rocking the crib of her demon child introduces an entirely new kind of ambiguity that wasn’t there before. Marvellous stuff. I might even swallow my distaste and rewatch Chinatown, now.
mother! — I saw this with my friend Sachi. Her immediate response at the end of the movie is the most appropriate review I can imagine of this, and that was to laugh hysterically for several minutes. Mother! is an aggressively fucked up movie. It begins as an Edward Albee-reminiscent black comedy of manners, and then it descends precipitously into a nightmare scenario so over-the-top that it’s impossible to take seriously. This, I am certain, is by design. From the moment that the exclamation point appears in the title card, mother! is arch and theatrical. Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem give completely committed and sincere performances, but nothing else in the movie is like that. Once Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer show up as a pair of oddly childlike uninvited guests, the movie crosses a Rubicon, and there’s no hope of dealing with it as character drama anymore. Interestingly, director Darren Aronofsky has essentially taken to the internet to explain the movie. A couple key remarks on Reddit have basically confirmed that Bardem = God, Lawrence = Mother Earth, Harris and Pfeiffer = Adam and Eve and the brothers Gleeson = Cain and Abel. I say “interestingly” because this doesn’t seem to me like the sort of thing you’d want to directly point out to your audience. Allegories are bland. They reduce stories that offer a whole world of possibility into one tidy interpretation. Suddenly, the disquieting scene where Bardem comforts a vomiting Harris while ostentatiously hiding a wound in Harris’s side can only represent the creation of Eve, stolen rib and all. Why would Aronofsky want this for his movie? Surely he’d rather see us puzzle through it, arriving at many disparate interpretations, the way we do with Eraserhead — a movie that this one evokes from time to time. I think the answer lies in the movie’s archness — in that anomalous exclamation point in the title. One of our key characters is an artist (the God one, obviously) and every single time the movie addresses his creativity, or the reception of his work, it devolves into clichés. We see him sit bolt upright in bed with inspiration exclaiming “Pen! Pen!” We hear a fan proclaim “I feel like these words were written… for me!” The movie goes out of its way to make God’s work appear ridiculous, and by extension his followers. To me, it seems like the movie is primarily commenting on the slipperiness of interpretation, particularly the sort of interpretation that attempts to reconcile the vastly complex into one internally consistent narrative (If you’ve been following Twin Peaks fandom this year, you’ll be familiar with this.) Mother! comments on the most high-stakes version of that practice: theology, and particularly the dunderheaded literalist sort. Fittingly, it culminates in a huge, gaudy apocalypse, tempting us to read it in dunderheadedly literalist fashion. That’s my take. I mean, I could be wrong. It’s entirely possible that I’ve gone too far down the rabbit hole in my attempts to justify the ways of Aronofsky to man. The real truth is just that I enjoyed the hell out of this movie, and I want it to be more than a banal Biblical allegory. In any case, mother! is completely bonkers crazy and you’ll probably feel a little cracked at the end. Good enough for me. Pick of the week.
Everything — I played this for a frustrating half hour a few weeks ago, but it was only this week when I decided to actually get the settings adjusted so it works on my janky laptop. Once I got that sorted, I found this completely immersive. If you don’t know what this is, it is a game in which there is no specific objective, but which allows you to explore a vast world (many worlds, in fact), while playing as every object in the game, from animals to bacteria to inanimate objects to stars to planetary systems. Its basic contention is a simplistic one, familiar to anybody who’s ever heard a psychedelic rock album: everything is connected, and the whole universe is contained within its each and every component. The game expresses this partway through narration by the philosopher Alan Watts, something of a proto-hippie figure, though he might chafe at that characterization. Still, the actual experience of playing the game mitigates its potential heavy-handedness with a pleasant absurdity. Most of its playable characters aren’t actually animated. Rather, they move around by doing somersaults like a misshapen bicycle wheel tossed down a hill. It’s hard to accuse a game of ponderousness when you’re playing as a wooly mammoth and it’s flipping head over heels through a grove of palm trees. And that’s a conservative example. I spent a fair bit of time playing this as a pair of rubber boots. Because of the game’s mechanics, it is possible and encouraged to make these rubber boots dance around like any living creature would. And as a result of this dancing, they reproduce and make little baby rubber boots. It’s a lovely construction, worth far more than the hour or so I’ve spent on it, and I do hope I make it back to really unravel its secrets. Because it’s also incredibly relaxing, and I need something like that in my life right now.
Sigur Rós: Takk… — I have a theory that Sigur Rós are Coldplay for snobs. Take a good listen to “Hoppípolla.” I don’t necessarily mean that as a dig, though. This is the Sigur Rós album where the memories live, for me. It’s the only one I heard when it first came out, and I listened to “Mílanó” obsessively. It’s a lusher album than either of the ones that precedes it and a more generous one — fitting for an album titled “Thanks.” A beautiful record, and a lovely trip down memory lane.
Wes Anderson’s short films and commercials — After last week’s marathon of (most of) the features, I figured I may as well be a completist about it. It is not at all jarring to see Anderson’s distinctive style in advertisements. Lavish set decoration and obsessively disciplined framing are advertising standbys anyway. His best ad is the Christmas-themed Darjeeling Limited riff starring Adrien Brody that he made for H&M last year. But that only holds if you don’t count the Prada-financed short Castello Cavalcanti, which is my favourite of his short films. It stars Jason Schwartzman as a racecar driver who fails dismally at his sport (“the steering wheel was screwed on backwards,” he whines) and coincidentally crashes in his ancestral Italian village, among a bunch of distant relations he’s never heard of. There’s a hint of that old story about the Sicilian village that waited in vain for the homecoming of Joe DiMaggio in this. It’s nice. I prefer it to Hotel Chevalier, which is a direct prequel to The Darjeeling Limited, so it’s probably better in context. But that leaves Bottle Rocket, the black and white short that Anderson’s debut feature was based on. It’s a fun artifact, with a slightly different and equally funny take on the scene where Bob won’t stop fooling around with the gun. But most of its scenes also appear in the feature, in substantially refined form. Anyway, this is a fun deep dive, if you’re in the mood for the untapped depths of the Wes Anderson barrel. That sounds pejorative. And I guess it kind of is, because Moonrise Kingdom these are not. But they’re fun.
Imaginary Worlds: “Technobabble” — Helen Zaltzman sounds slightly half-hearted about this collaboration. But she’s the right person to bring in for a discussion about made-up words.
Mogul: “Behind the Beats” Parts 1 & 2 — Jeez, Mogul’s really taking a victory lap. Still, these episodes are a fun look into the nuts and bolts of making a big, glossy Gimlet show.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Outlander,” “People We’re Pulling For” & “The Deuce and What’s Us Happy” — Outlander is clearly not for me, but this conversation about it is goooood fun. Also, I think I’m going to watch The Deuce, but man oh man I bet it’ll be a slog.
Showcase from Radiotopia: “Ways of Seeing #5 – POWER” — This has been a mixed bag of a series for me so far. The first episode, about how digital recording has shaped our perception of time, was ingenious. Much of what has come after is obvious to anybody who’s thought about digital media distribution for any amount of time at all. This episode in particular is about algorithms, and the way that powerful companies hook us into filter bubbles for their own financial gain. This is all correct, but it seems banal when it’s stated outright in a polemical fashion. Because it’s something we all know.
StartUp: “Sex Dot Con” & “Sell the Apartment, Keep the Startup” — The CEO whisperer makes me really uneasy. I feel like this guy is a snake oil salesman who found his mark with Gimlet. Also, the episode about sex.com is kind of unsatisfying.
The Kitchen Sisters Present: “The Galveston Hurricane of 1900: No Tongue Can Tell” — There’s nothing like archival tape. One of these days I’m going to listen to the whole Kitchen Sisters archive, but that is a daunting task. This timely rerun of an episode about the most deadly natural disaster in American history is really moving. It’s nice just to know that somebody captured the voices of people who lived through it.
Radiolab: “Radiolab Presents: Anna in Somalia” — This promo of Rough Translation is a lot more convincing than its marketing campaign, which makes it sound noble and dull. This is the story of men who stayed sane in prison by inventing an alphabet of taps — like Morse code, but not that — and tapping the whole of Anna Karenina on the walls. It’s a remarkable story. Pick of the week.
99% Invisible: “Coal Hogs Work Safe” — This is a story about coal miners who love stickers. Take it or leave it.
Code Switch: “It’s Getting (Dangerously) Hot in Herre” — This podcast is doing the good work again, with stories that demonstrate why “Mother Nature doesn’t discriminate” isn’t actually true.
On the Media: “Look What You Made Me Do” — Just Brooke Gladstone this week, and it’s a fun one. Particular highlights include segments on the alt right’s appropriation of medieval imagery, and Taylor Swift’s uncertain political allegiances.
The Memory Palace: “Sometimes the Rain Just Doesn’t Stop” — A flood-themed episode for a stormy week. I like that Nate DiMeo does episodes like this, that tie into devastating events, from time to time. Generally, I appreciate The Memory Palace as an escape from the ruthless churn of current events, into the world of historical context. Still, most episodes of The Memory Palace resonate strongly with contemporary discourses, even if they aren’t hooked to contemporary stories. That’s what DiMeo does, even in the episodes that are obviously responses to a specific event. This is in a category with his episode after the Pulse Nightclub shootings. And although it isn’t as beautiful a piece of writing as that, it’s as beautiful a gesture.
Love and Radio: “Seventy Weeks” — An old episode, but one I hadn’t heard before. This is about a pimp’s son who became a preacher who became a pimp who became a life coach. He’s a thorny figure, as are most people who appear on Love and Radio. You get the sense that he has equal potential to bust some harmful myths about prostitution, but also obscure some important and unpleasant truths.
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
I was underwhelmed by podcasts this week, so I’ve chosen two non-podcast picks of the week instead. And here they are at the top.
Swiss Army Man — You know this as “The Daniel Radcliffe Farting Corpse Movie.” What you don’t know is the extent to which that is exactly what it is for its entire 97-minute duration. But, in spite of And, because of its relentless devotion to its own ridiculous premise, Swiss Army Man is one of the most entertaining movies I’ve seen all year. 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. The movie’s dreamlike magical realist logic comes to life in the hands of directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who don’t get bogged down in the mechanics of what’s real and what isn’t. Instead, they turn the whole story into a visual fantasia, piling found objects one on top of the other in elaborate hallucinatory montages. 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 weird, unpredictable, probably bad movies with crazy premises like this one to another year of bland superhero blockbusters. Pick of the week.
BoJack Horseman: Season 3, episodes 4-12 — This is now officially my favourite Netflix original. I loved the fourth season of OITNB, but if you take the past two seasons of both of these shows and average them out, BoJack wins by a mile. The fourth episode of this season does a thing that I wish cartoons would do more often and proceeds with almost no dialogue. It is completely virtuosic and manages to be dark and moving in the way that this show always is even while it’s doing silly sight gags for the entirety of its duration. Two episodes later, we get a wonderfully non-hand-wringy story about abortion. Episode eight is one of the most beautiful episodes of TV comedy I’ve seen since last season’s “Hank After Dark.” It addresses one of the strangest elements of storytelling, which is our tendency to root for the protagonist regardless of everything. It’s an episode where everything falls apart for all of the characters we’re supposed to care about, which results in a happy ending for a few characters we don’t. It’s brilliant. This show has everything, including one of the best casts on any current show. I may just be misremembering, but it seems to me that Alison Brie and Paul F. Tompkins have substantially upped their game this time around. Tompkins in particular is bringing out many subtler shades of Mr. Peanutbutter than existed in prior seasons. I think that this is currently my second-favourite scripted program of 2016 so far, next to Horace and Pete. Pending my capriciously changing opinions, it will beat Better Call Saul by a narrow margin. Pick of the week.
Lost: “Solitary” — Ooh, I dunno about this. The love story segment of Sayid’s backstory is maybe the most contrived element of this show’s first season. Even Sawyer, while generally a shit character, has a better backstory than this. On the other hand, Hurley’s plot in this is one of the most beautiful moments of the season. A mixed bag.
Last Week Tonight: July 24, 2016 — This contains one of this show’s greatest moments ever and one of its most lacklustre. (Is it “most lacklustre?” Or just, “least lustrous?”) The good one is a moment where Oliver pulls a distressing if-then formulation from an interview with Newt Gingrich. In the interview — whether out of ignorance, malevolence or whatever arcane combination of the two is currently fueling the GOP — Gingrich asserts that feelings are facts. Or, at least, he fails to understand that this is not the case. Given this, Oliver provides this calculus: if candidates can create feelings, and feelings are facts, then candidates can create facts. “That is the closest thing to an actual magic spell I think I’ve ever seen,” says Oliver, and he is shudderingly correct. The least lustrous bit is the celebrity feature at the end where a bunch of major recording artists sing about how they don’t want candidates to make unauthorized use of their songs, which is a thing that happens constantly. It’s one of those things where the writers obviously just trusted that having a whole bunch of celebrities would be sufficient, so they didn’t write any jokes. (Sorry, they wrote one joke: about Spotify. And they gave it to Josh Groban to sing, because he was the only one who appeared to even care. Josh Groban loves being on TV.) This is fine. But I wish this show wouldn’t do that sort of “event” programming. They don’t need to: no matter what Oliver talks about, he’s going viral the next day.
Laurie Penny: Welcome to the Scream Room — No, this isn’t another of the Lovecraftian horror stories I’ve been so into this year. It’s a series of five posts on Medium about the 2016 Republican and Democratic conventions. Penny is a spectacular writer, almost to the point of showing off, and her existential dread at the implications of both conventions is intensely relatable. She sees the same apocalypse in the Republican convention that every sane person in the world does, but she also decries the horror of the lesser-evilism that was the spirit of the day at the Democratic convention. “Outside,” she writes, “an epic summer storm is breaking over the Democratic Demilitarized Zone like the world’s laziest metaphor.” Nearly every paragraph has a sentence that good. But the cream of the crop, and the most enraging thing I’ve read in awhile is “I’m With the Banned,” a crazy piece of first-person journalism that tells the story of Penny’s experience at the Republican National Convention with the infamous Twitter hate speech geyser Milo Yiannopoulos. Throughout the evening, she also encounters Pamela Geller, Geert Wilders, and most disturbingly, Roosh V, whose relative lack of cynicism marks him as especially dangerous. This series is a quick, engrossing read, but have something calming nearby to serve as a chaser.
John Hermann: The Content Wars — I am finally finished reading this and I am too anxious and confused to have any feelings. I will say that I highly recommend Hermann’s writing. He has a wonderful way of clearly stating what’s happening in cases where most writers would find it hard to even quantify, and rather than directly editorializing, he’ll just lapse into an intentionally glib, irony-laden voice. So, he never comes off as a prophet of doom, in spite of his considerable scepticism about the future of platforms. The sheer imperiousness of his writing makes him much harder to ignore than even highly-regarded but slightly frantic tech-sceptics like Benjamen Walker. One last lengthy quote before I leave this be forever: “Maybe at some point pundits look back at access-based journalism and think, wow, that never made sense, how rude of those weird “publications” to hold readers hostage and blackmail their subjects. The triumphalist pundits will explain this, and why it matters, but also doesn’t, and why basically everything is good and getting better, anyway. Maybe, at the same time, other pundits will lament the media’s lack of interest in certain Important things. This will be dealt with by people who will explain what is actually Important, and what does that even mean, and who, actually, you’re talking about when you accuse the media of doing or not doing something you want them to do (yourself) and why that matters, or doesn’t, and whose fault it all is. (It’s yours.)”
Nils Frahm: Solo — I listened to this while I read Penny’s piece on Milo Yiannopoulos, which is probably why I didn’t claw my eyes out during the course of that. It is immensely calming without feeling cheap. Think Brian Eno and Harold Budd. It is worth hearing simply for the sound of the piano itself, which is an unconventional thing about ten feet tall. It is marvellously sonorous, and well recorded here.
Strawbs: Ghosts — This is far better than I expected this band could be after a few listens of their apparent masterpiece, Hero and Heroine, many years ago. I dare say that this is much better than that album, with even the middling tracks reaching the heights of Hero and Heroine’s best ones (“Autumn,” the title track). Both albums find them a ways from their folk origins, playing a unique sort of laid-back symphonic prog. But this one is lower on treacle. Perhaps the album doesn’t quite belong on the prog 101 syllabus, but anybody who likes that genre ought to hear its best two tracks: “Ghosts” and “The Life Auction.” My favourite ‘70s prog discovery I’ve made in a while.
The Decemberists: Picaresque — Ah, memories. I first heard this album around the time when I first became amenable to music that was made after 1975. It was an easy sell, because Colin Meloy’s theatrical story-songs smacked of Genesis. That’s not the end of their prog connection: it would only be a few years before the Decemberists would go full neo-Tull on The Hazards of Love, which I like far more than most critics did. But Picaresque is their masterpiece. Every song is good, most are excellent. This album hits that perfect mark several times, where both the melody and the lyrics have a hook simultaneously. “16 Military Wives” may be the definitive song of the George W. Bush administration, and “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” is as funny and haunting as ever 11 years later. A classic.
Undertale — I sunk a bunch of free hours into a second playthrough of this, and thank god. Without spoiling anything, all of this game’s endings require you to take drastically different approaches throughout. So, it actually didn’t feel like a second playthrough so much as a totally different game taking place in the same overworld. I saw completely different sides to several of the characters I encountered on my first time through. These new characterizations in no way contradict the old ones; rather they suggest that these pixelated video game characters contain multitudes and respond in drastically different ways to drastically different circumstances. But the real genius of Undertale, I’m realizing, is its capacity for staggering narrative rug-pulls. The one in my first ending was earthshaking; this one less so. But still, the fact that playing the game through once will only yield a third of the story at most is properly impressive. My initial assessment of this game as being overrated is entirely due to how tightly it holds its cards to its chest. It is in fact a marvel. And I’ve still got one ending to go.
Imaginary Worlds: “Ghost in the Shell” — This kind of slipped past me, honestly. I will say this: there is no defence for casting Scarlett Johansson as an Asian woman. None. I won’t see that movie. I’ll just watch the original anime. (Maybe. But probably not.)
99% Invisible: “The Mind of an Architect” — This features never-before-heard tape of several renowned architects participating in a study about human creativity. That alone should make you want to listen.
Code Switch: “Black and Blue” — This is a more structured and thoughtful extension of last week’s extra episode about the most recent spate of violence between police and black people. I’m sure the Code Switch blog always did this kind of thing, but I’m really glad that it comes directly into my podcast feed now, because there’s no way I’m going to ignore it.
Reply All: “Stolen Valor” — The main segment is a really interesting story about people who attempt to shame people who falsely wear military uniforms in public. It’s great, and does a great job of demonstrating why there are people who find this very offensive and others who are taking it way over the line. The attempt to do something, anything, on the police violence of the previous week is as good a take as you can ask for from a show that focusses on how our experiences of the world are mediated by the internet. It’s an angle I hadn’t heard before, even if it is a bit of a paltry response.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “On Endings And Road Trips” — This is a rerun, and awww, they all sound so young! It’s a fun show, and if anything it ought to clear away any notion that they’re treading water these days, because the panel is actually less engaged-sounding here than they are on 2016 episodes.
On The Media: “The Country of the Future” — A bit of appealingly self-conscious parachute journalism from Bob Garfield and Alana Casanova-Burgess. This will be really edifying for anybody who doesn’t know anything about the Brazilian media. Considering that Brazil has a controversial publicly-funded broadcaster, I’d actually like to see more Canadian journalists take these topics on. The implications for our audience would be dramatically different from those for Garfield’s presumed American one.
All Songs Considered: “My Cell Phone Rights At Shows Vs. Yours” — This isn’t a reasoned debate so much as it’s just Boilen’s platitudes vs. Hilton’s curmudgeonliness. Maybe this would connect with me if I went to more concerts.
More Perfect: “Object Anyway” — This is only tangentially related to the Supreme Court, but the history of racism in jury selection, and the ineffective rules put in place to prevent it, is a really interesting story.
Invisibilia: “Flip the Script” — Another pair of stories without distinction. The first finds some Danish cops choosing to treat radicalized young Muslims with respect and discovering that this is an effective way to fight radicalization. Well, who’d have thought. I could have told you that. The second is about a guy with a really dumb idea about how to fix online dating. StartUp did a whole season on people with a good idea about how to fix online dating. I don’t need this story.
NPR Politics Podcast: Democratic National Convention coverage — This podcast was posting daily during both conventions, which is a great thing for a show like this to do. It’s good conversation. Being a politics show, it’s not as appealingly frothy as Pop Culture Happy Hour, but it’s as close as you can come to that show for politics. This was my media of choice throughout the convention because I hate TV (and don’t have one) and Facebook is worse. It was a great way to keep up without feeling like you’re being beaten over the head with messaging. I’ll certainly return to this when the convention’s over and they’re back to regularly scheduled programming. I bet the episodes on the Republican convention would have driven me insane, though.
Fresh Air: “The Rise And Fall Of Fox News CEO Roger Ailes” — This is a somewhat airless discussion, but the topic is fascinating. Roger Ailes is, of course, the scum of the earth. And now it turns out that creating Fox News isn’t even the worst thing he’s done in his life. Check this out for some horrifying context about this mess.
The Heart: “The Understudy” — A lovely piece by Sophie Townsend that was first produced for Love Me, the CBC podcast from the producers of WireTap that I somehow haven’t checked out yet (but which I won’t review for obvious reasons). The premise of having an actor portray her ex, and then using mostly the parts of the sessions where he talks about how he can’t get the lines right is brilliant. It’s a perfect metaphor for the fact that the ex in question wasn’t quite able to play the part of Townsend’s dead husband. Really nice.
99% Invisible: “America’s Last Top Model” — “Knowledge creates wonder.” If there was ever a credo for this show, it’s that. The rest of the episode, about a gigantic ridiculously accurate model of the Mississippi River floodplain that could predict levee failures more accurately than modern computers, is vintage 99pi.
Fresh Air: “Comic Mike Birbiglia” — A fun interview, but it touches on a lot of the same topics that are in Birbigila’s well-known specials and his first movie. It would have been nice to hear more about the new movie.
Code Switch: “46 Stops: The Driving Life and Death of Philando Castile” — This gets far into the weeds of Castile’s driving record. That’s a worthwhile thing to do. It’s not just discrimination in policing that’s the issue, although it’s the main one. It’s also housing discrimination and segregation.
Theory of Everything: “Something will happen, eventually” — Benjamen Walker is the only person who can do a reported piece based on an interview and make it sound like a prose poem. This show begins with the premise that coincidences aren’t as unlikely as they seem and weaves a tight 14 minutes around that idea without ever defaulting to the standard formats and techniques of public radio. If I were giving a podcast pick of the week it would go to this, but I’m not, so consider it a technical victory.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Ghostbusters and Mr. Robot” — I think they’re pretty much spot on about Ghostbusters. It’s a perfectly fine movie, but definitely lesser work from all those involved. Mr. Robot has never particularly drawn me.
WTF with Marc Maron: “Chuck Klosterman” — I think Klosterman slows down for Maron’s benefit here. But a fun chat that offers some insight into culture criticism’s most accomplished dilettante.
15 reviews. These small numbers are making me feel so well-adjusted.
O.J.: Made in America: Episodes 4 & 5 — I’ll double down on what I said last time: 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. It is the story of the fraught relationship between police and African Americans (yes, this series comes at an appropriate time). It is the story of how a pre-infamy O.J. Simpson made the conscious attempt to distance himself from his race. And most fascinatingly of all, it is the story of how the former narrative, about police brutality, was cynically co-opted by Simpson’s defence team in spite of the latter narrative in which O.J. preferred not to be seen as black. This series also makes a lot of time for Nicole Brown, which is extremely important given that this is as much a story about domestic violence as it is about race. If I go on any longer, I’ll go on much longer, so I’ll leave it there. But suffice it to say that this is head, shoulders and torso above every other new thing I’ve reviewed on this blog in 2016. I will certainly be writing more on at some point. Pick of the week.
BoJack Horseman: Season 3, episodes 1-3 — Oh man, I love this show. So far, this season is relatively light (very relatively) but I’m sure that will change. For now, it’s fun to just reacclimate to the density of visual humour in this show. (The titles on Princess Carolyn’s bookshelf are all bad cat puns, etc.) This is certainly my favourite of the current crop of adult cartoons.
Ghostbusters — It’s great! It is essentially a delivery system for hilarious jokes and a quartet of excellent performances. The story isn’t much. But, that’s not the point. This is a marvellous update of a franchise that was always more memorable than good. The fact that it stars four women and has a red pill shitsack as its villain certainly adds to the appeal. But mostly, this is great because Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones and especially Kate McKinnon are extremely funny and likable screen presences.
Nonkeen: The Gamble/Oddments of the Gamble — I’m reviewing them together, because their titles make it seem like they’re meant to be taken together. That said, they’re no much alike. The Gamble itself is a dark, moody thing that I can’t see myself returning to that often. But Oddments of the Gamble, in spite of having a name that explicitly marks it as the subordinate one in the pair, is enthralling and far more energetic. (It may help that I listened to the latter while watching fireworks, but I don’t think that necessarily kills my objectivity.) Taken together, The Gamble and its Oddments are lovely ambient music. They’re slight, but nice.
Peter Gabriel: Peter Gabriel (2) — Gabriel’s least-appreciated album has always been an idiosyncratic favourite of mine. It was produced by Robert Fripp, whose primary function seems to have been making Gabriel work quickly. That’s not necessarily as utilitarian an approach as it may seem. Gabriel is an infamous slowpoke, and possibly the easiest way to get him working outside of his comfort zone is to speed the process up. The result is the only Peter Gabriel studio album where it sounds like there may be such a thing as “The Peter Gabriel Band.” It all sounds fairly live, and there’s a consistency across the album, because it was primarily played by the same people. Roy Bittan from Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band gives particularly evocative performances on piano. It’s true that there are some weak moments — “Home Sweet Home” is the ghastliest track in Gabriel’s catalogue, vying only with his awful cover of “Street Spirit (Fade Out).” (And for some reason, he put both of them at the end of their respective albums. Self-sabotage? His early album covers suggest he has a taste for it.) “Perspective” hasn’t aged well. And “A Wonderful Day In A One-Way World,” much as I love it in spite of myself, is too clever by half. But, they’re more than counterbalanced by, in my estimation, five classics: “On the Air,” “Mother of Violence” (astonishing), “Animal Magic,” “Exposure” (better here than on Fripp’s solo album of the same name), and “Flotsam and Jetsam.” Throw in “D.I.Y.,” which isn’t quite the “Solsbury Hill” cash-in that some have accused it of being, the pleasantly elaborate “White Shadow,” and “Indigo,” which I love when I’m in my least cynical mood, and you’ve got an album nearly worthy of the two acclaimed classics on either side of it in the discography. I shall sit and wait for the global reappraisal.
Peter Gabriel: Live in Athens 1987 — Having exhausted my Tidal trial (and the second month that I accidentally paid for), I’ve moved on to a free trial with Apple Music. They’ve got a Peter Gabriel collection on there that’s got all of the non-soundtrack studio albums, plus a bunch of live stuff. This was the only live album in there that I hadn’t heard before, and it 100% trumps both Plays Live and Secret World Live. By a lot. Gabriel is at his vocal prime, having built up substantial grit since his Genesis days, but still with every ounce of his flexibility intact. His live band has not yet started to sprawl: it’s a tight four-piece of his long-term collaborators David Rhodes on guitar and Tony “best bassist alive” Levin, plus David Sancious on keys and the completely astonishing Manu Katche on drums. The setlist is heavy on material from the then-recent commercial breakthrough So, but that’s not a complaint. While I prefer other Peter Gabriel albums to that juggernaut, listening to him perform these songs while they’re new is really something. It’s the first and last time in Gabriel’s career that he’s managed to write songs with this kind of directness, and he’s audibly delighting in the extent that he’s connecting with his audience. Two years before Say Anything, “In Your Eyes” is an anthem of white-hot spiritual euphoria. This 11-minute rendition, containing the introductory verse that got lopped off the studio album, is the definitive one. The same could be said for a bunch of the earlier stuff, too — in front of a crowd, “Solsbury Hill” releases all of the latent joy that’s reined in on the studio version. This is incredible, and a great argument for live albums in general.
Chance the Rapper: Colouring Book — This is the album that I wish The Life of Pablo was: big shimmery gospel hip hop with great beats and without Kanye’s 2016 full-time troll persona mucking up the works. In fact, Chance is so likeable that it almost seems like an overcorrection of Pablo. This is the most overtly joyful album I’ve heard this year. It is the only one of my favourite albums of 2016 that isn’t extremely dark. That counts for a lot.
In Our Time: “The Invention of Photography” — Melvyn’s in an odd mood, this time around. At one point he feels compelled to urge his guests to move forward with the story more rapidly. But that made me realize something: some of Melvyn Bragg’s idiosyncrasies come down to his having to preside over a rounded conversation on a complex issue that must fit exactly into a timeslot. What you’re hearing on the podcast has presumably not been altered from what I occasionally forget is a live broadcast. If Bragg seems a bit brusque at times, it likely has something to do with that. The actual content of this episode is enthralling as ever, with Simon Schafer proving an especially compelling guest. The early history of photography is full of personalities, and they’re brought to life here. Nice.
Invisibilia: “Frame of Reference” — At one point in this, Hanna Rosin describes “a science fiction story she once read” that actually sounds like it might just be Plato’s cave allegory. That aside, this is a strong episode. The first story, about a woman with Asperger’s who is momentarily afforded a glimpse of a world seen without Asperger’s is moving as a character-driven narrative, even if the themes don’t hit as hard as the producers probably want them to. But the second, an interview with comedian Hasan Minhaj about how his father’s reference points for suffering hindered their mutual understanding, is really lovely. It helps that Alix Spiegel has a similar relationship with her mom. This season is yet to produce an earth shattering story in the vein of the first season’s locked-in syndrome story. But it is now reliably satisfying me.
Code Switch: “No Words” — This was the first time I heard the tape of Philando Castile’s girlfriend after he was shot. I am glad I have not seen the video. It is appalling and unbelievably sad. Code Switch has had a lot of news to react to since its inception, and it tends to be the kind of news that there’s almost nothing to say about, thus the title of this extra episode. But they’ve comported themselves admirably.
On The Media: “Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook: Bearing Witness” — I don’t tend to find myself in situations where I’ve got to film horrible things on my phone, and also I am not American, so different laws apply. But this was interesting in a more abstract way than it was possibly meant to be.
Radiolab: “David and the Wire” — This is a borderline non-story, and consciously so. But I was riveted. It’s a personal narrative, related by a man who records everything in the hopes that he will someday become Scott Carrier. Radio about radio will always appeal to me. I’m interested to see what else happens on Radiolab while Jad’s away on other business.
The Memory Palace: “Oil, Water” — A slight episode, but nice. It’s good to know that the river doesn’t catch fire in Cleveland anymore. It’s distressing to know how frequently it once did.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Pokemon Go” — Glen Weldon is so often a real curmudgeon that it’s nice to hear him being so wonderfully enthusiastic about something that so many people are being curmudgeons about. I will be checking out Pokémon Go when my life has space for it.
The Allusionist: “Generation What?” — I think this maybe gives a bit too much credit to Strauss and Howe. They’re the guys who devised the generational theory that says the characteristics of generations are predictable in advance, and therefore history is a relatively tight cycle. Their system always read like horoscopes to me. But when Zaltzman focusses on the language, this is great. Also, this has Megan Tan on it from the Millennial podcast, which I’m intending to check out. She is not super insightful here, and anybody who tries to own the label “millennial” is inherently suspect to me. But I won’t write her off until I’ve heard her show. Possibly not even then!
So far, we’ve celebrated gigantic-sounding candy pop, long takes of bear attacks, space eyebrows, journalistic integrity, and the quality of empathy as expressed through radio. We soldier on. Here’s more excellence in sound and screen, and also this list’s first instance of excellence in panels:
No. 20 — Kelly Sue DeConnick/Valentine De Landro: Bitch Planet, vol. 1
This comic is badass feminism 101. If I could force everybody I know to read it, I would, because for most of them it would be validating and triumphant, and for the rest it might disavow them of some dodgy notions.
Kelly Sue DeConnick’s brand of dystopian satire is a wonderfully blunt instrument. Aside from the literal existence of a prison planet where non-compliant women are sent for various crimes against the patriarchy, the world of Bitch Planet is essentially no different from our own. Its power comes from the fact that most of its characters’ struggles are stories you might actually have heard somebody tell from personal experience.
But aside from being merely (ha) progressive, Bitch Planet is also exquisitely crafted and detailed, right down to the zine-inspired design and 90s comics-style joke classifieds in every issue. As a trade-waiter on principle, the wait for the next volume is going to drive me insane.
No. 19 — BoJack Horseman
Has there ever been a more compelling unsympathetic loser on television than BoJack Horseman? In its far-superior second season, BoJack becomes the cartoon animal version of Don Draper: attaining his dreams, alienating everybody he loves, gradually self-destructing, and trying and failing and trying and failing to put himself back together. And everybody around him seems to be coming apart at the seams for their own particular reasons, as well.
But the fact that these plotlines are embedded in a show that’s this joke-dense and whimsical allows BoJack Horseman to do what lots of these trendy shows full of terrible people fail at: it can take for granted that people are often horrible and don’t deserve their good fortune, while still being compulsively watchable.
And on top of everything, this season gave us “Hank After Dark,” one of the most visually dense, funniest and also most chilling episodes of television of the year. As a response to the Cosby spectacle, it’s as powerful as anything. If the season has one weakness, it’s that “Hank After Dark” thoroughly eclipses even the second-best episode.
No. 18 — Africa Express: In C Mali
Even as a confirmed minimalism devotee, I couldn’t get into Terry Riley’s classic In C until I heard it performed by West African musicians.
Africa Express is a project started by the distinctly non-African Damon Albarn, with the participation of a couple other notably non-African people including Brian Eno, who is required by British law to be involved in everything.
The idea behind Africa Express was to forge meaningful connections between European and African musicians. Given that, you may well wonder whether it’s a tad suspect that Albarn’s second recording with these musicians is entirely focussed on a piece of Western classical music. But, just listen to the record.
The thing that’s immediately clear is that In C Mali is more than just another recording of In C. The music on this recording does not belong to Terry Riley nearly as much as it belongs to Africa Express. In C is freely structured to the point where every performance is slightly different, but this performance is entirely its own thing. The musicians own this music. Riley fades into the background.
I doubt I’ll listen to any other recordings of this piece for several years, at least.
No. 17 — Better Call Saul
Sometimes you see critics say things like “it was better than it needed to be” when a show or movie has a built-in audience from a beloved related property.
Better Call Saul was massively better than it needed to be.
The important thing that Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould realized is that they couldn’t, shouldn’t, and were under no obligation to replicate the successes of Breaking Bad. So, they made a show that fans of Breaking Bad would be sure to enjoy — it’s got that signature dialogue and all the stunning sights of Albuquerque, N.M. — but that is a fundamentally different show in terms of content and pacing.
Better CallSaul lacks its predecessor’s explosive plotline, allowing it toluxuriate in its characters and themes the way that Mad Men does, and the way that Breaking Bad didn’t. The greatest side effect of this is that it gives Bob Odenkirk and Jonathan Banks more space for multifaceted performances as Jimmy McGill and Mike Ehrmantraut, respectively.
This show didn’t just overcame the impossible expectations associated with being a Breaking Bad spinoff: it also staked out its own territory immediately. I suspect it’ll only get better.
No. 16 — The Hateful Eight
To some extent, Quentin Tarantino is a substance. Each of his movies is an additional quantity of that substance to be consumed. If you didn’t enjoy the last jar of Tarantino you ate, you’re not likely to enjoy any other ones either.
That said, there are things he does that I love, and things he does that I don’t. I could take or leave his action scenes and the more conspicuous exploitation movie tropes (I have zero time for Death Proof or Kill Bill: Vol. 1). But when he’s in talky mode, there’s nobody I like better.
The Hateful Eight is an entire movie’s worth of the Mexican standoff in Pulp Fiction, the barroom scene in Inglorious Basterds, or the final confrontation in Kill Bill: Vol. 2. It has an amazing cast full of people who clearly delight in saying the sorts of things that people say in Tarantino scripts. And, if you live in an opportune place, you can see it (as I did) in glorious 70mm projection, complete with the novelty of an overture and an intermission.
At this moment, it is my second-favourite jar of Tarantino.
Tomorrow, we’ll pick up from no. 15, with our most whiplash-inducing set of five yet: an album, a movie, a comic, a show and a podcast.
A week full of lovely things, really. 22 lovely things.
The year-end lists are coming out, so I was going to spend the week going through the stuff I missed. But then I got waaay more obsessed with this first one than I’d anticipated. It’s nearly embarrassing, but actually no it isn’t at all.
Lin-Manuel Miranda: Hamilton, An American Musical — They made a hip hop musical about the establishment of America’s national bank. Just when you thought Broadway was all superfluous Disney adaptations. This is incredible for so many reasons. It shifts seamlessly from convincing hip hop to straight-ahead showtunes about arcane political processes. And that’s not the only tonal shift it manoeuvres: it’s incredible how this flits back and forth between funny and tragic, arch and sincere, and from straight-ahead storytelling to meta-commentary. It is totally self-aware about its own unlikely subject matter, but it doesn’t let that self-awareness get in the way of its story, which you can get lost in to an extent that you seldom see in works of musical narrative. Unlike most cast albums, this works brilliantly as a bespoke object. As a concept album, it has a narrative thrust that keeps you listening to the words, even when the music threatens to beguile you away from the piece’s themes. And it’s bewilderingly allusive: it’s well worth listening to this with the Genius annotations (some of which come straight from Lin-Manuel Miranda himself) within arm’s reach. Miranda has everything. It’s not just that he can rap and sing and write a catchy hook and verses that lodge in your head, he also has something interesting to say about Alexander Hamilton as a historical figure and about how who tells the stories from history affects how we think about it. There are nothing but good things to say about this. I don’t care if you like musicals or not, listen to Hamilton. Pick of the week.
Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly — If it seems perverse to give pick of the week to a musical rather than what looks increasingly like the consensus best album of 2015, know that it’s only because I’m totally obsessed with Hamilton right now. To Pimp a Butterfly is as good as everybody says it is, and I would imagine that out of the two, it’s what I’ll be coming back to more frequently in 2016. If only to figure out what he’s on about. This is some seriously challenging stuff.
Africa Express/Terry Riley: In C Mali — I’m a huge fan of California minimalism in general, and Terry Riley specifically. But, his most famous piece, In C, was never one that I found myself listening to very much. Until I heard it played on African instruments when this thing came out earlier this year. Then I listened and I listened and I listened. Nice to revisit again after a few months.
CHVRCHES: Every Open Eye — Here’s something I’m not seeing on nearly enough year-end lists. CHVRCHES’ music is pure catharsis and people who don’t like it hate joy. This album is significantly better (or at least more consistent) than their first, which critics were all about. What gives? “Make Them Gold” is a clunker of a single, if we’re being honest, but the rest of the album is perfect pop.
Deadwood: “Reconnoitering the Rim” — I don’t know where this show is going, but damn, Ian McShane can act.
QI: “Marriage and Mating” — Why am I reviewing an episode of QI? Tell you what, I’m not.
BoJack Horseman: “Hank After Dark” — According to my own rules, I’m not technically obligated to review this, since it’s my second time watching it in the course of this blog — and, in fact, in a fairly short span of time. I just felt obligated to pop back in and reiterate that this is one of the best episodes of comedy television I’ve ever seen. Okay? Okay.
Lost: “White Rabbit” — Reasons I don’t understand people who like the first season of Lost best: (1) Shannon and Boone are unwatchable; (2) Sawyer is a prick — and not in a way that any reasonable person should find charming, although the show sure seems to sell him like that; (3) it’s galling to see Jack take such a large role in the story when you know he was supposed to die in the first episode in what would have been the most brilliant bait-and-switch in television history, had the writers followed through. Jack’s story has more “it’s so hard to be a handsome rich hero dude” than I’d like. We wouldn’t have had to sit through that if they’d just done the right thing and killed the handsome rich hero dude. And that cliff dangle is ridiculous. I still basically like this, though. The hallucinatory manifestation of Jack’s daddy issues is properly creepy.
Alejandro Jodorowsky/Moebius: The Incal — A very thoughtful birthday present from some wonderful friends. I think I’m going to enjoy this. So far, Moebius is impressing more than Jodorowsky, whose writing has a lot of sci-fi clichés, and the juxtaposition of text and image sometimes seems arbitrary and lacks clarity. But this is a good yarn with some damn pretty pictures.
China Miéville: “Dreaded Outcome” — Here’s a narrator that Miéville can really sink into: a jargon-dropping therapist. I put this story down right at the point where a massive twist happens, then when I picked it back up, I didn’t even recognize it. This is good.
Lucas Adams: “An Illustrated Account of the Great Maple Syrup Heist” — This short comic about a thing that honest to god actually happened will make you very excited about the Jason Segal movie that Sony Pictures is honest to god going to make about it.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “A Conversation with Trevor Noah” — I haven’t gotten around to watching any of Trevor Noah’s Daily Show, but I think I will now. In this interview with Linda Holmes (who should really do more hour-long podcast interviews; she’s fantastic) he proves to be refreshingly circumspect. There’s an awkward moment near the end when he’s talking about “things you’re not supposed to say,” but at least he’s willing to own up to his mistakes and learn as he goes.
Imaginary Worlds: “Origin Stories” — The superhero origin story imagined as a psychological necessity. Excellent.
Song Exploder: “Wilco – Magnetized” — This is my favourite song on the new Wilco album by a fair margin, so it’s great to hear it exploded. I love that Glenn Kotche’s drum part was inspired by Jeff Tweedy’s son’s drumming. But I still kind of think he’s just imitating Ringo.
On The Media: “Lies, Lies, Lies” — No tragedy this time, except for Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy. On The Media is a really dark show, sometimes. Throughout this episode, you realize gradually that the demonstrable truthfulness of a statement doesn’t really have that much to do with whether or not people are swayed by it. Let us all collectively shudder.
Serial: “DUSTWUN” — Back into the weeds we go. Look, I love Serial, and I love Sarah Koenig’s journalism. But this is one of those situations where it can be difficult to keep the thing itself separate from the phenomenon of the thing. The response to season one of Serial was huge and weird and bad. I remember it being compared to True Detective which is just wrong. Serial is not a fictional detective show; it’s real journalism about people who exist out in the world. The widespread disappointment in the ending of the season was naive and ruthless — you can’t just end a true story however you want. And while I’m a devoted listener to a great many non-fiction podcasts, some of which tell serialized stories, it’s distressing to me that the story of Adnan Syed ended up being fetishized by people in the same way that I fetishize, say, Doctor Who. So, Serial: the breakout podcast phenomenon is a thing I have very mixed feelings about. BUT, Serial: the longform non-fiction storytelling project is a thing I really love. So, this new season is properly exciting — especially given that it’s about a story that got international TV news coverage, and now we’ll get a totally new lens on it. Instead of people filing stories in a day, we’ll get one of the most ruthlessly detail-oriented journalists in the world, plus her team of producers, PLUS screenwriter Mark Boal (of Hurt Locker fame and Zero Dark Thirty infamy) all on the case and making no compromises to time. And if that last line is any indication, the next episode is going to be a corker. Let’s all keep our heads, though. This is actually happening. Pick of the week.
Reply All: “I Love You, I Loathe You” — Reply All is that rare podcast that focuses on fussy, meticulous, reported stories but can also pull off just having its hosts banter with each other for a whole episode. In that sense, it may be the “most podcast” of all podcasts: it combines the pre-taped public radio approach of shows like This American Life and On The Media (where both hosts once worked) with the podcast-native approach of people talking to each other into microphones with little adornment (à la Stop Podcasting Yourself, etc). There’s no reported story in this episode of Reply All, but it was still fantastic and still Reply All. This is Gimlet’s best podcast and it would take something staggering for them to top it. (Jonathan Goldstein, perhaps.)
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Creed, Men Crying At Movies, and Visceral Responses” — I find I seldom have much to say about regular episodes of PCHH, but don’t be fooled: I love this show. It will likely take a slot on my year-end roundup of best podcasts for its sheer reliability in delivering insight and joy. And Gene Demby sounds so happy to be back.
The Moth: “Amir Baghdadchi & Dameon Wilburn: StorySLAM Favourites” — Two outstanding, riotously funny stories about travel, both distinguished more for the quality of the telling than by the story itself.
99% Invisible: “Pagodas and Dragon Gates” — These days, there are good episodes of 99pi, and “fine” episodes of 99pi. This is one of the good ones. It’s about why San Francisco’s Chinatown looks like it does architecturally, in spite of the fact that pagodas and dragon gates were long out of fashion in China when those structures were built in Chinatown. It’s more of a story than you might anticipate.
StartUp: “Pitch Perfect 2” — Alex Blumberg is absolutely pathological about playing that tape of him bombing a pitch over and over. This is super interesting, and I’m so happy that Gimlet has a new partner who shares Blumberg and Matt Lieber’s vision. I can’t wait to hear their new shows — especially Jonathan Goldstein’s. That guy is a master.
Fresh Air: “Historian Mary Beard Tackles Myths about Ancient Rome” — Research about antiquity is catnip to me. This interview (with Dave Davies, filling in ably for Terry Gross) contains such wonderful tidbits as Caligula hating being called Caligula, because it was a diminutive nickname from his childhood — “Bootikins,” essentially.
I realize I’m usually pretty effusive in these things, but this was such an effusive week that I’ve elected to award three picks of the week, rather than the usual two. This will be a rare occurrence, I promise. But this week, it was honestly difficult to give only three. I honestly could have given about six.
Reza Aslan: No God But God — If I could force everybody I knew to read one book, I’d have to think hard about which one. This would make the shortlist in any given year, but in 2015 I expect it might find its way to the top. This is a riveting, brilliantly argued history of Islam. Aslan’s prologue to the latest edition does a fantastic job articulating the extent to which Islam is misunderstood and misrepresented in Western media, and the extent to which the distrust and hate levelled at Muslims just keeps getting worse. So basically, we need Aslan’s expertise to offer context. Pick of the week.
Karen Weise: “The CEO paying everyone $70,000 salaries has something to hide” — This Bloomberg feature feels like the first rumblings of a gigantic storm.
Inside Out — Watching a Pixar movie at home isn’t a thing I would normally do, but I’ve got a monstrous cold that I just cannot handle right now and I’m marooned at home wearing pyjamas and eating mostly cereal. So, basically reverting to childhood. What better time to see this massively acclaimed movie that I didn’t make it to in theatres? I expected it to be brilliant; I’m not sure I expected it to be so dark. I mean, it’s basically watching a young girl’s personality gradually disintegrate through symbols. But it might well be the most inventive, and one of the most moving coming of age stories I’ve ever seen.
The Smiths: Rank — Pitchfork thinks this live album is filler in the complete edition of the Smiths. Pitchfork is very hip and modern and therefore doesn’t understand live albums. This is a lot of fun, and should be in anybody’s Smiths collection who actually has a Smiths collection.
The Smiths: Every non-album track by the Smiths — All of the tracks that aren’t on any of the proper studio albums or Hatful of Hollow are distributed between a number of compilations of varying degrees of redundancy. So, I just set all of the distinct tracks up and listened through. It’s not an ideal approach, and there’s plenty that isn’t great. Still, listeners who stop at the four key albums are missing out.
National Brass Ensemble: Gabrieli — Generally, I think that Gabrieli’s music needs to be played on period instruments to be satisfying. I tend not to like the bombast that modern brass instruments (and modern brass players) bring to this 16th-century music, which predates the invention of all of those instruments. It was written for the slight reediness of an ensemble of cornetts and sackbuts — a totally different texture to symphonic brass. And, while I have no fundamental objection to great musicians taking literally any music at all and playing it literally however they want, it’s always a risk. All of which is a giant throat-clear before I say that I actually really enjoyed this. It’s a tribute to an earlier modern brass recording of Gabrieli, featuring members of three great American orchestras. I never really warmed to that album, despite its classic status among brass players. (I played the trumpet, once upon a time.) But this new one, boasting modern recording fidelity and a generally higher standard of playing has won me over. It’s a big steamroller of a thing, where period instrument recordings are smart cars, but hey. Don’t fault an envelope for not being a treehouse, right?
BoJack Horseman: Season 2, episodes 7-12 — “Hank After Dark” is a classic episode. It’s got an entire plotline that takes place mostly in the news tickers at the bottom of the screen. The density of visual jokes approaches Terry Gilliam territory. Also, many excellent puns and a Bill Cosby riff with teeth. And fantastic character beats for all of the main cast. And the line “That woman can knock a drink back like a Kennedy at a wake for one of the other Kennedys, but damn if she doesn’t get shit done!” And a great kicker at the end. It almost doesn’t matter that the last five episodes of the season (the second-last in particular) are also fantastic, because this one eclipses the entire series.
Deadwood: Season 1, episodes 1 & 2 — It was time I watched Deadwood. The black sheep of HBO’s trinity of David-helmed prestige shows, it might be the most acclaimed show of its time that I haven’t seen. These first two episodes are pretty damn good — I’m especially enjoying any scene with Ian McShane in it. I’m pretty sure I’ll love this eventually, but it might take a while for me to acclimate.
Doctor Who: “Hell Bent” — What “Heaven Sent” was for experimental, minimalist, self-contained Doctor Who, this is for sprawling, continuity-heavy, epic fantasy Doctor Who. And while I’ll generally take the former approach (Blink and Listen come to mind) over the latter (The End of Time and Day of the Doctor), there are times when I’m happy to see Doctor Who go really, really big. Taken together, the astonishing two-parter of “Heaven Sent/Hell Bent” is basically an inversion of my other favourite game-changing season finale: “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang.” Where that one started with an hour of threats from every bad guy in Doctor Who and closed with a personal story about Amy Pond’s wedding, this one opens with a chamber piece about the Doctor alone with his darkest thoughts and closes with an hour that includes Gallifrey and Rassilon and the Sisterhood of Karn and the diner from “The Impossible Astronaut” and Maisie Williams and a proper send-off for a major character. And taken together, they work brilliantly. On first viewing, I’m tempted to say that this is just as good as the end of Season 5. Pick of the week. (Happy, Sachi?)
Oh man, when I get over this cold, I’m totally going to start running again. Because I’m so behind on my podcast listening. Seriously, I have 20 unlistened episodes on my phone right now. Sad state of affairs.
Mortified: “Jason: King of Scotland” — I don’t listen to Mortified very much, but the premise of this one, where a teenage misfit imagines himself as a Shakespearean Scottish king in his diary, was too good to pass up. It basically lived up to expectations, except that the guy consistently mispronounces the word “exeunt.”
Imaginary Worlds: “1977” — This has shot straight onto my “Religious Listens” playlist. (Those are the podcasts where I listen to every episode.) Imaginary Worlds tells well-written, well-produced stories about the cultural impact of geeky fiction. So… made for me. This is the first of a five-part series about Star Wars. I’ve always found that people talking about Star Wars is more interesting than Star Wars itself, so I’ll be listening to all five parts, for sure. Pick of the week.
Welcome to Night Vale: “A Carnival Comes to Town” — I wonder if I’ll get more invested in this show once I catch up and hear episodes the same time as everybody else? The ending of this is great, though. The thought of normal people stumbling on Night Vale and being totally baffled is wonderful.
Criminal: “American Dream” — I love stories of bank robberies. I absolutely see the romance in it. So, I had a certain amount of sympathy for the protagonist of this story from the start. Phoebe Judge doesn’t let you totally side with him, because that would be ridiculous. But, listening to this, you can imagine the thrill of standing in the queue for the tellers, knowing what you’re about to do — and knowing that nobody’s going to get hurt. This guy’s bank robberies were fairly mundane, as these things go. But when get to hear the stories as they play out in his head, it’s a rush.
Imaginary Worlds: “Empire vs Rebels” — An exploration of Star Wars’ central conflict as a sports and politics metaphor. It’s as good as that sounds, but the previous episode about the context for the first movie’s release is better.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Shonda Rhimes on her ‘Year of Yes’” — I’ve never seen anything that Shonda Rhimes has ever been responsible for, and this is kind of a “meh” interview anyway.
Surprisingly Awesome: “Concrete” — Look, I already knew that concrete was interesting thanks to… guess which podcast… 99% Invisible. I don’t think I like Surprisingly Awesome. The exclamations of breathless wonder from whoever isn’t hosting on a given week are so unnecessary and so irksome. I expect I’ll listen to this again sometime, but I’m dropping it for now. Oh well, Gimlet. Three out of four ain’t bad.
All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Missy Elliot, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, PWR BTTM and more” — My list of artists I heard on All Songs that I need to check out properly is getting really long. This week’s key addition is the arty-rocky band Public Service Broadcasting. But for me, All Songs isn’t just useful for introducing me to music I’ll like; it’s equally worthwhile for playing stuff that I don’t like, but that I do find interesting. The kind of music that I don’t really ever want to hear again, but that I’m glad I at least heard once. (Urm, Macklemore.) In 2015, that’s kind of the ideal function of a music programme, I’d argue.
99% Invisible: “Worst Smell in the World” — This is fine. Not a standout episode, but fine. I have nothing to say about this perfectly fine episode.
Imaginary Worlds: “The Canon” — I seriously love this podcast. This is an early episode about the concept of SC/fantasy “canons:” the stories that are acknowledged to have happened “in-universe.” Eric Molinsky talks to a rabbi about how fandom’s relationship to canons are similar to religious scholars’ interpretations of sacred texts. It’s a genius approach. I wish I’d come up with it.
Reply All: “Quit Already!” — A collaboration between Reply All and Radio Ambulante. I love when my favourite English language shows collaborate with Radio Ambulante. It always makes me wish I spoke Spanish, so I could listen to Radio Ambulante.
All Songs Considered: “The Year In Music 2015” — If, like me, you spent a lot of the year continuing to obsess over old obsessions and missed a lot of the new music, just listen to this. Everything played on here is fantastic and will set you on track to hear the rest of 2015’s really great music. I can feel an obsession with the Hamilton cast album coming on. Watch this space.
The Moth: “The Moth StorySLAM” — These StorySLAM episodes can be dodgy, since literally anybody can get up onstage at a StorySLAM event. But they do tend to broadcast the best of them, and some of these stories are really fun.
On The Media: “On San Bernadino” — Another instalment in my recent trend of listening to On The Media after a crisis. The segment on gun control research being hamstrung by legislation alone is worth the time.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Good Dinosaur, Pixar and Second Thoughts” — Well, now I will certainly not be seeing The Good Dinosaur. Especially not after Inside Out left me with such tremendous goodwill towards Pixar. But I likely would not have seen The Good Dinosaur anyway.
Imaginary Worlds: “Slave Leia” — I’m not sure I buy the redemptive readings of Leia’s plotline in Return of the Jedi. I’m more inclined to side with the critic in this podcast who feels that Leia is just really badly served in this movie, compared with the previous two. But it’s interesting to hear counter-arguments, and I’ll definitely be bearing them in mind when I re-watch Jedi before the new one comes out.
Surprisingly Awesome: “Tubthumping” — Okay, I’m dropping it after this one. I had to see how this episode came together in the end, after hearing the drafts of it on StartUp. Look: the topic of this episode is so obviously not boring that even Adam Davison — whose role it is here to act bored — can’t entirely sell it. I could definitely see these two guys making a great podcast together, but the seams of this format are showing already. Which is not to say that the content of this is bad; I’m inclined to think it’s the best episode they’ve made so far. But I’m still done with Surprisingly Awesome for now.
Only 20 reviews, this time. A slow week. To be fair, I’ve got a brand new digital piano and that seems to be taking up a lot of my time. Also, down below the podcasts you’ll find a review of thing that required more words than usual. So, look forward to that.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 — This oscillated wildly. At its best, I thought it was pretty brilliant and lived up to the rest of the franchise, which I generally like. At its worst, it was slow, laboured, and a considerable waste of Julianne Moore. But the fantastic cast sees this through. Seriously, it’s like the casting director for these movies just raided my brain for the kind of actors I like: Donald Sutherland, Natalie Dormer, Jeffrey Wright (also underutilized, but twas ever thus), Stanley Tucci, Philip Seymour Hoffman (nice to see him, one last time), Elizabeth Banks… I could go on. Even Gwendoline Christie shows up for a scene. (Somebody needs to make a movie starring Gwendoline Christie and Jeffrey Wright.) Jennifer Lawrence continues to be wonderful. And, honestly, even Moore is so amazing that she manages to elevate her somewhat bungled character into the realm of watchability. With a cast like this, it’s easier to forgive weaknesses.
Star Wars — I watched a fan edit of Episode IV that aims to reconstruct as much of the original movie as possible — without special editionification — in high def. It was great. Star Wars remains a movie that I don’t especially admire, but I sure love putting it on when there are other people around, and talking through it. And I also learned that my childhood role model, C-3PO, remains my favourite character in the Star Wars universe.
The Empire Strikes Back — I also watched this in the despecialized edition, and it really is something. These edits are really worth checking out. And this movie is wonderful, in a way that the first one sort of isn’t. From Hoth to Cloud City, it’s enthralling. But this time through, it was especially clear that the best part of the movie (and the franchise) by a mile is the sequence of Luke training with Yoda on Dagobah. That senile little weirdo is the best thing in Star Wars (aside from C-3PO, obviously). Frank Oz is a wonder, and the Yoda puppet is more expressive than any of his Muppet characters. But more than that, Yoda is a plausible representation of what it might be like if the sharpest mind in the galaxy were forced into isolation for decades. He might be the most believable character in the series.
Last Week Tonight: November 22 — If the first half of this episode were all that John Oliver had ever done in his career, he’d still be awesome. Not only is this segment — on the needlessly thorny topic of Syrian refugees — amusing somehow, it is also beautifully argued. It is a thing you can send to people who think differently to you and say “This! Look! Reasoning!” The other segment, on pennies, is fantastic because we Canadians have been through this. Pick of the week.
BoJack Horseman: Christmas Special + Season 2, episodes 1-6 — “Hoo-ray! Begrudging acquiescence!” Okay, I’m properly loving this now. It’s sad, and dark, and the humour is incredibly writerly — full of wordplay and incredibly structured exchanges of dialogue. And the voice acting is universally wonderful. This must be one of the best things Netflix has produced.
Doctor Who: “Heaven Sent” — The best episode of the season, and possibly of Capaldi’s tenure as the Doctor. It’s really fantastic to see the Doctor get to be the main character in his own story, which surprisingly isn’t the default for this show, considering that it’s named after him. It takes considerable guts to do an hour of TV with basically only one character, but Capaldi carries it easily. The reveal towards the end (re: where all of the skulls came from) is something that only Steven Moffat could have come up with, and it’s why I love his version of Doctor Who in a nutshell. All that said, I’m going to try to avoid making the same show pick of the week twice in a row. So, it goes to another televisual Brit, this time around.
I dove back into No God But God this week. There will be remarks to be written on that very soon.
China Miéville: “Säcken” — Certainly the most frightening story in Three Moments so far. Apparently there are people who think that Miéville’s characterization is weak? No. The entire reason this story is terrifying is because we’re able to see through the protagonist’s eyes so easily. And because Miéville is very good at grotesque descriptions. The story doubles as an acute examination of the impact of loss.
China Miéville: “Syllabus” — Not so much a story as a whimsical joke. But it’s a whimsical joke that makes my brain hurt. Typical Miéville.
The Smiths: Strangeways, Here We Come — This is about on par with the debut, to me. So, a magnificent album, better than Meat is Murder, but not quite as good as The Queen is Dead. Morrissey’s voice is remarkable on this. In fact, all four members of the band give their best performances on record here. It’s nice to hear Johnny Marr take a proper guitar solo on “Paint a Vulgar Picture.” Lately, I’ve been thinking about how one of my old favourite bands (but no longer), Marillion, are basically what the Smiths would sound like if they’d been huge Genesis fans. In addition to that, the Smiths’ four studio albums map neatly onto the first four Marillion albums, prior to their first breakup: there’s the promising debut, the problematic sophomore effort, the masterpiece third album, and the ever-so-slightly compromised final album. Strangeways is very much the Smiths’ Clutching at Straws, insofar as it’s remotely useful to compare one of the most esteemed bands of the ‘80s to a niche interest neo-prog band who weren’t even very good.
The Smiths: Hatful of Hollow — There’s a reason this singles/odds-and-sods collection is considered as essential as the studio albums. This is incredible. That guitar on “How Soon Is Now!”
Chelsea Peretti: One of the Greats — Just as funny the second time. The bit about how to eat a banana in public is one of my favourite bits of stand-up. The gimmicky audience cutaways, on the other hand, are less effective. Would have been better if this were a straight-ahead film of her show.
The Heart: “Desiree+Aaron” — This is a story about a woman who is deeply invested in Aaron Carter fandom. As you might expect, it’s an awkward listen. It lacks the humour and the slight remove of Mystery Show’s Britney episode, and you kind of don’t know whether to be sad or not. I do like the premise of this season of The Heart, though: following unusual relationships through their make or break moments. I intend to keep listening.
Reply All: “Yik Yak Returns” — One of Reply All’s best episodes gets an update. Alex Goldman’s story about how campus racism went especially bonkers on one particular mobile app, on one particular campus was fantastic journalism when it came out months ago. This expanded version covers a spate of similar violence on campuses across the USA. Pretty much essential. Pick of the week.
Fresh Air: “ Music Writer Peter Guralnick on ‘The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll’” — This and Good Night And Good Riddance are apparently part of my recent obsession with the people behind the success of iconic musicians. Sam Phillips — the founder of Sun Records, and discoverer of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Howlin’ Wolf, and countless others — was fascinating. I’m sure Guralnick’s book is also fascinating, and I’d love to read it. But I’ll have to space it out from Good Night and Good Riddance, because that might be a bit too much rock and roll reading material in too little time. But you can count on Terry Gross to curate a fascinating conversation, so this podcast will hold me over until I’ve actually got an appetite to read this book.
StartUp: “Words About Words From Our Sponsors” — As an episode of StartUp this is as good as usual. As a status update on Gimlet Media, it’s perplexing. Apparently, the plan is to introduce a new revenue stream by making branded podcasts in collaboration with companies. It seems clear that Gimlet will handle that without treading into any ethical murky areas, but I just don’t understand the idea of branded podcasts. I mean, you can listen to anything you want. So who’s going to listen to half-hour ads? I fully expect to be proven wrong in short order, but I don’t think I could ever enjoy a branded podcast. It’s not a matter of principle — I just think that when there are so many great podcasts out there, I’m always going to choose the ones that are passion projects, not ads.
Radiolab: “Birthstory” — Radiolab is always at its best when covering really complex stories. When stories are simple, they always end up trying too hard to imbue them with universal themes. This story is massively complex and has hundreds of moving parts. It starts off dealing with the circumstances that convene to prevent gay couples in Israel from having children via surrogacy, and it ends up detailing the circumstances that lead women in Nepal to become surrogates for pay. This episode, produced by Molly Webster, is extraordinary not just for its fascinating and important story, but also for its clarity and organization. Most shows would make a total hash of this. I was all set to make this pick of the week, until the end music faded down and Jad Abumrad came roaring back in with one of his superfluous thinky closing monologues. “In a way, this story is about dreams.” Oh, give me a break. If you stop listening to this when the actual produced story ends, it is 100% awesome.
99% Invisible: “Fixing the Hobo Suit” — Once again, Roman Mars introduces me to another podcast that I feel compelled to add to my rotation. Eric Molinsky’s Imaginary Worlds seems right up my street. This story about how and why superhero costumes have gotten so much less cringeworthy is fantastic, and apparently he does similarly nerdy things on a bi-weekly basis. We’ll see if I can fit it in.
On The Media: “The Language of Terror” — After international tragedies, the media people I most want to hear from are Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield. You can trust them and their producers to keep their heads and present clear lines of reasoning while TV gets totally histrionic and people start shouting tirades of bigotry at each other on Facebook. This show is really, really not just for news junkies and media types. It’s useful to anybody who wants to be able to parse news coverage in a way that keeps them more informed.
Fugitive Waves: “Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake” — This is a decent way to passively spend 20 minutes. There’s nothing here that provides more insight into Nick Drake than even the most casual fan would already have. But there are some nice remembrances of him, and a few (scrappily recorded) extracts from a live covers project that sounds like it might have been good. Anyway, this vapourized upon impact.
King Crimson: Live at the Vogue — *breathes deeply*
I nearly didn’t go to this concert. It was a matter of principle. The whole idea of a version of King Crimson that exists specifically to play the back catalogue is anathema to the basic concept of King Crimson, to me. I’m all for playing the old favourites, but every version of King Crimson should focus on developing its own music, and until now all of them have. Still, when it came down to crunch time, I just couldn’t not buy a ticket. It’s King Crimson.
Here’s how that went down.
When I entered the Vogue, I was told very sternly by the bouncer not to take any photos whatsoever — before, during or after the show. Which is a shame, because the setup — with three drum kits across the front of the stage and a Long & McQuade’s worth of guitars, basses, pedals, reed instruments and miscellany on a riser across the back — was the most #prog thing I’ve seen in my life.
On either side of the stage were giant white signs again entreating the audience to take absolutely no photographs at all from this point forward. I sat in the hall for nearly an hour before the show, because I’m like that. A soundtrack of placid Frippertronics burbled along as dudes in Magma t-shirts name-dropped Kevin Ayers and Robert Wyatt. This is a room full of older versions of me.
Just as the show was about to start, Fripp’s familiar voice rang out over the PA, with just one more reminder: no photography. Ah, Fripp, you curmudgeonly so-and-so. Never change.
Never change. What an odd thing to say to the most volatile and restless rock musician this side of David Bowie. But is he still? What shall we make of this new, seven-person King Crimson repertory company?
The most compelling new feature of this lineup is not actually the three drummers (though that’s certainly novel), it’s the absence of Adrian Belew. I adore Belew, lest anybody misunderstand. I saw his trio play in Edmonton a few years back and it’s still one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to (much better than this one, as it turns out). But Belew had been a major creative force in King Crimson for longer than anybody who isn’t Robert Fripp deserves to be, and it was threatening to force the band into stagnation.
Still, even with Belew gone, the only members of this lineup who haven’t been in at least one previous lineup of King Crimson are Bill Rieflin and Jakko Jakszyk — the latter of whom has been involved in Crimson side-projects (and projeKcts) for so long that he may as well have been. There is no way around it: for the first time ever, King Crimson is touring as a nostalgia act.
This isn’t in itself a bad thing. I’ve seen legacy tours that have knocked me flat. But this version of King Crimson has some issues. Firstly, you can’t hear anything through the drums. Fripp’s playing in particular was so obscured that there were times when I caught myself wondering “is he playing a solo right now?” Same goes for Tony Levin.
But the larger problem is that this band plays like consummate professionals who don’t give a shit. (Except for Pat Mastelotto. He gives all the shits, and was by far the most interesting musician onstage to listen to.) There’s no commitment to the big moments in songs like “Epitaph,” and “Level Five.” This King Crimson sounds bored, a lot of the time. I’m tempted to blame the mix, but there were moments that came off gorgeously: I’m thinking mainly of “Starless” and “21st Century Schizoid Man.” So, it seems like the problem is just that they were on autopilot for most of the show.
A lot of the time, I found myself missing Belew in spite of myself. His real value to the band was his ability to play the wild card. He’s a disciplined musician, but he also knew how to keep the band on their toes: keep them from becoming complacent.
Complacent. What an unfortunate word to resort to when describing the most volatile and restless rock band this side of Radiohead. But there you go.
On the other hand, Mel Collins was actually wearing crimson suspenders. Well played, Mel Collins.
I’m adding a new feature, this time around. Each week, I will choose two things I particularly loved as my “picks of the week.” Due to the preponderance of podcasts in these reviews, one will always be a podcast, and the other will be something else. I won’t prioritize new things for my picks of the week, necessarily. It’s just a matter of what hit home the most on a particular day. So, it’s totally possible (and indeed, very likely) for a pick of the week to be a 40-year-old rock album. 29 reviews, this week:
Van Der Graaf Generator: The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other — You know how sometimes you’re listening to a song and you ask yourself, “Is this a good song?” and the answer is “no, it really isn’t.” But then you ask yourself “am I enjoying myself, though?” and the answer is “yeah I think I am!” That happens a lot on this album.
John Luther Adams/Glenn Kotche: Ilimaq — Adams is probably my favourite living composer. Become Ocean floored me; the subsequent recording of chamber strings music didn’t. This piece of percussion music, brilliantly performed by Wilco’s Glenn Kotche, falls somewhere in between. It’s not a masterpiece on the order of Become Ocean, Four Thousand Holes, or The Light that Fills the World, but it’s lovely, evocative, tense, etc.
Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot — Listening to Glenn Kotche play John Luther Adams made me want to listen back to Wilco’s masterpiece. This is still a basically perfect album. It sounds chaotic in places, but when you listen to the details you realize that it’s actually a meticulous approximation of chaos. In fact, I’m not sure I can name a rock album that’s more detail-obsessed in its production. The way that “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” gradually coagulates from noise into a song is genius. And Kotche’s playing is outstanding. I was listening.
Max Richter/Antonio Vivaldi: The Four Seasons, Recomposed — At the risk of appearing heretical (oh, who am I kidding; I love appearing heretical) Richter’s remake of The Four Seasons is better than the original. These Vivaldi concertos are possibly the most moth-eaten body of work in the repertory, and for all of their objective virtues, I do not understand how anybody could legitimately prefer them to Richter’s clever, gorgeous, modern interpretations. I know it doesn’t have to be a competition. But I’m making it one. And Vivaldi’s lying knocked out at the edge of the ring.
Yes: Drama — This is comfort food to me. It’s one of those albums that I know every contour of so well that when I listen to it, it just snaps into the grooves in my head. It tends to get overlooked by Yes fans because Jon Anderson isn’t on it. And while that becomes a worthwhile critique when it happens again in 2011, in 1980 Anderson’s absence was exactly what Howe, Squire and White needed to go in the direction that felt natural. Also, I love that Yes and the Buggles basically made an album together. There aren’t many less likely collaborations out there, let alone ones that result in good music.
Hey Rosetta! Seeds — This comes recommended by the guy I went to the concert with last week. While I confess that I liked them better live (not a given for me; I tend to like most bands better on record), this has decent songs and great performances. And fantastic bass playing.
Crimson Peak — Sometimes I like my horror lavish, gothic and Victorian. This scratched that itch, but I’ve essentially forgotten it already.
Spectre — Fabulous. Christoph Waltz is no Javier Bardem and Ralph Fiennes is certainly no Judi Dench. And overall, this isn’t as good as Skyfall. But the Daniel Craig era of James Bond movies is still pretty much the bar for contemporary action franchises to clear. Marvel Studios can only aspire. A significant quibble: the entire London-based plotline with M and Moriarty is crap. This movie uses the threat of government surveillance (how am I already sick of this trope when it’s still a real-world problem?) to paper over the fact that the same ethical questions that have been posed about Jack Bauer apply equally to James Bond. But these days, I’m trying not to let things like this ruin my moviegoing experience. I believe I’m succeeding admirably.
In the event of binge-watching, I won’t hold myself to writing reviews of every episode. Because, who wants that? We’ll just check in every week, like with books.
BoJack Horseman: Season 1 — As with Hannibal a while back, I endured the rough patches early in the first season because I’ve heard it gets way better. It already has, actually. At first, I laughed most at the dumb, cartoony sight gags. Which is fine, because why else would one watch cartoons? But as the characters got fleshed out (as much as they ever do — they’re resolutely stock characters, albeit well-played ones) I started to get invested in the ongoing story as well. Then, the last two episodes totally sold me. Also, Ira Glass jokes are never not funny.
Lost: Season 1, Episodes 1-4 — I’ve decided to start rewatching Lost alongside a fabulous new essay series called Lost Exegesis by Jane Campbell of Eruditorum Press (a group blog I read religiously but don’t review because that would be insane). I have several observations, re. the show. Firstly, I remember thinking that the pilot was overrated, and that is not in fact the case. I persist in the contrarian belief that the show got more interesting as it got more complicated, but this is so well made that I don’t care that none of my beloved mythology is in place yet. Secondly, the first episode (if not necessarily the show as a whole) would have been better if Jack had died at the end as originally planned. I mean, what a bait and switch. Third, at this stage, Sawyer is basically a very bad first draft of Rustin Cohle. Fourth, “Walkabout” is still one of the finest episodes of television ever made. And finally, Shannon and Boone are still stupid, stupid characters.
Doctor Who: “Sleep No More” — Mark Gatiss is not one of my favourite Doctor Who writers, but this is one of his better scripts. If I’m not mistaken, this is the first time that Doctor Who has done a found-footage horror story. And, to be clear, found-footage horror is a tired genre that should go slump off into a corner and never be heard from again. But Doctor Who has a unique ability to revitalize the genres it collides with — usually with metafiction, as it is here. As to the premise of the episode: the idea of a treatment that substitutes for sleep is something I’ve always dreamed of. Daydreamed of. Whatever. And the idea that this treatment would inevitably create monsters seems to follow. But the fact that those monsters are literally made of the stuff that collects in the corner of your eye when you sleep is super dumb. This is still probably my… fourth favourite episode of this season. Also, both this and Stasis (which I’m still playing, for some reason) take place in space stations orbiting Neptune. Funny how I’ve never seen “orbiting Neptune” as a story setting before and then it comes up twice in a few weeks.
Bit of a comics-heavy week, reading-wise. Still loving Good Night and Good Riddance, but I needed a diversion from that unwieldy tome.
Matt Fraction/Fábio Moon: Casanova, Volume 2 “Gula” — Along with Kieron Gillen, Fraction is my favourite writer in comics right now. I wasn’t 100% sold by the first trade collection of Casanova, but as ever, I was pulled in by the compulsive belief that it would get better. And it did. This second volume is a really solid bit of science fiction. It’s got a staggering twist ending that isn’t just played for the shock of it: it has serious consequences for the characters. I hope Fraction and DeConnick’s television production company at least considers adapting this.
Roger Stern/Tom Lyle: Starman #6 — My trivia team won at that nerd bar, again. We got a big ol’ stack of ‘80s comics, two apiece. The exciting one was a first printing of an issue of V for Vendetta. I didn’t take that. After all, I got the Klingon phrasebook last time. Fair is fair. Anyway, I picked this one because its Bowie-esque title made me favourably disposed to it. And, oh my god am I ever glad I did. It’s a DC comic about a hapless, reluctant superhero with fairly indistinct powers. (Wikipedia tells me he got them when he was hit by a bolt of energy from a satellite. OF COURSE.) The villains in this are a shadowy cabal that’s actually known as “the Power Elite.” It’s advertised as a crossover with several other heroes, including Green Lantern and several I’ve never heard of, but their appearances all basically boil down to Starman saying “Hey look! It’s that superhero! Okay, bye!” The story starts with the Sydney Opera House falling down, and Starman musing “How do you… hold up… a building?!” So, that gives you the jist of the actual comic, but what I really enjoyed were the ads. There’s an Atari ad in this, and one for Nintendo’s Bubble Bobble. Also, there’s an ad for something called a telephone role-playing game, which is a thing I didn’t know ever existed. And the classifieds page has an ad with the headline “BE TALLER,” another that promises to help you make your own stink bombs with household items if you send them two dollars, and ads for two separate companies that purport to sell real shark teeth. The letters page contains a fan letter entreating the writers to “keep thinking about those little things, like going to the bathroom.” This comic is terrible, obviously. But I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Charles Schulz: Peanuts (October/November 1964) — Throughout October of 1964, Charles Schulz wrote a series of Peanuts strips where Lucy convinces Linus to run for school president. In the end, he blows it because he uses his last speaking opportunity to raise awareness of the Great Pumpkin. What’s really amazing about this is how much better it works as a whole than as separate four-panel strips. Some Peanuts strips barely have jokes, let alone punchlines. But when you piece it together into a full narrative, the character beats make it start to feel like a sitcom. This is great. I love Peanuts. And it’s all online.
Jonathan Franklin: “Lost at sea: the man who vanished for 14 months” — I went into this Guardian feature half expecting an adventure story about a man showing nature who’s boss. Needless to say, that is not what it is. Being marooned for more than a year is not fun. The Martian is not a realistic movie. But this is still a hell of a story.
Javier Grillo-Marxauch: “The Lost Will and Testament of Javier Grillo-Marxauch” — This is a massive post on Grillo-Marxauch’s blog about the experience of working on the first two seasons of Lost. I remember meaning to read it when he first published it in March, but now that I’m re-watching the show, I have to. It’s a fascinating story, but here is what I really love: “While a lot of the accounts of Lost’s creation hinge on the question of whether we knew what the island was… few people ever ask if we knew the characters or had their stories worked out in advance. I find that curious.” Also, learning that David Fury was initially against the twist in “Walkabout” (which I resolutely refuse to spoil) is really something.
Kelly Sue DeConnick/Valentine De Landro: Bitch Planet, Volume 1 “Extraordinary Machine” — Kieron Gillen’s The Wicked and the Divine and Phonogram are among my favourite ongoing comics because they seem like they’re being made with me specifically in mind. I love Bitch Planet for the exact opposite reason: it doesn’t give a shit about pandering to me. Which, great. I’m over-served by the culture anyway. Pick of the week.
Mike Grell/Hannibal King/Elliot S. Maggin/John Koch: Secret Origins #38 — This is the other comic I won at the nerd bar. It’s from 1989 and it’s got two stories: one about Green Arrow, and the other about his sidekick, Speedy, who I’d never heard of. I have no opinions about either of them. Bog standard pulpy nonsense. Though there is a moment where Green Arrow takes down a couple of marijuana farming hippies. Took me a while to realize that they were actually supposed to be bad guys. The ads in this one are just as wonderful as in Starman #6. There’s one for Campbell’s soup with a variety of puzzles, like connecting the dots to find “the first thing you need for making a bowl of soup” — a can opener. There’s an ad for a Nintendo football game featuring an actual NFL quarterback playing the game on a couch with a gap-toothed child wearing Coke bottle glasses. These craven ad agencies and their shameless wish-fulfilment fantasies. Oh, and the back of the issue has an ad for this.
StartUp: “The Secret Formula” — Oh boy! Gimlet Media’s giving us a peek behind the curtain again. This is an inside look at the production of the new Gimlet show, Surprisingly Awesome. I was rough on Surprisingly Awesome last week, and I’ll probably keep being rough on it. But hoo boy, did it ever improve from the initial pass. This is a fascinating listen — possibly even for people who aren’t radio producers.
The Allusionist: “Spill Your Guts” — I wonder if Zaltzman is really going to co-host with all 12 of the other Radiotopians before getting back to regular, scheduled Allusionist episodes? (This was fine.)
Planet Money: “OMG TPP” — It says something about the team on Planet Money that they were able to put together a coherent episode about the TPP in a day. I now know something about it, whereas I didn’t before.
The Moth: “Jon Ronson & Mica Truran” — Jon Ronson is an autolisten. I’d actually heard the story he tells here before, on This American Life, but it was different hearing him tell it in a live audience situation. Plus, we learned that his wife says things to him at parties like “Make your smalltalk more… general.” Come for Ronson, stay for Mica Truran’s actually much more personal and meaningful story.
99% Invisible: “Fountain Drinks” — See? Even drinking fountains are interesting. And nobody had to claim they weren’t to help me through this. Also, Radiotopia being what it is right now, there was an episode of Song Exploder tacked onto the end of this (the one on tUnE-yArDs’ “Water Fountain”). And it was an excellent episode of Song Exploder about an excellent song that I am going to listen to again right now. (I’m back. Holy crap, that video.)
This American Life: “Transformers” — Sean Cole is one of my favourite TAL producers. His story about a young man coming out to his parents, and then that man’s mom coming out to him is worth listening in itself. The rest is fine.
In Our Time: “P vs. NP” — Look at me, listening to more of this. This episode is about an almost incomprehensibly complicated mathematical problem that nobody’s ever solved. It is a totally fascinating topic, and absolutely the kind of thing that almost every radio show in the world would toss aside immediately because confusing and because boring. I admire the sheer audacity with which In Our Time tackles this — not that it’s entirely successful. One sometimes wishes Robert Krulwich were around to lend clarity. Still, this may be the first show I’ve ever listened to where the host asks the guests for clarification not because he fears the listeners won’t understand, but because he himself is having trouble. I love that. I could get used to Melvyn Bragg, though I still think he could use a Red Bull or six before going to studio. All the same, there are moments of dour wit, here. When a guest explains to Bragg that “broadly speaking, exponential means hopelessly impractical,” Bragg replies: “Yes, broadly hopeless, right.” I’m beginning to delight in this, but it remains a somewhat knowingly perverse delight.
WTF with Marc Maron: “Lorne Michaels” — Michaels is astonishingly patient with Maron as he obsesses over a misbegotten SNL audition in 1995. That’s not an observation; that’s just a summary of this podcast. This is what we know to expect from Maron, but not necessarily what you’d expect from Michaels. If you’ve never heard WTF, this will show you what it’s all about, and why it’s so great on its best days.Pick of the week.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Live at the Howard Theatre” — Audie Cornish’s thoughts on horror movies are identical to my own. Glen Weldon’s thoughts on sports are similar to, though more dramatic than, my own. Linda Holmes’s delight in people getting trivia questions wrong resembles my own. Stephen Thompson’s rage at never getting trivia questions right himself is exactly my own. Also, Fred Armisen’s there.
The Memory Palace: “Artist in Landscape” — Gorgeous. Gorgeous and longer than usual. And sad. So sad. Listen to The Memory Palace. Just, listen to all of it.
Reply All: “The Rainbow Pug” — There was a time when StartUp and 99pi were undoubtedly my favourite podcasts. I think that recently, it’s shifted to The Memory Palace and Reply All. On the latter of which, this week, P.J. Vogt gets angry about a woman not being able to get her dog back from a shelter, and Alex Goldman tries to solve the problem. Reply All is possibly the most playful journalism outlet, full stop.