Tag Archives: Horace and Pete

30 things I loved in 2016

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

lonely-cityThe 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

moreperfect_1400x1400_nownycstudiosI 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

jerusalem-cover-600x899Yes, 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

dan-foxIf 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

phonogramKieron 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

onthemedia-1If 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.

Television

  1. O.J.: Made in America
  2. Horace and Pete
  3. BoJack Horseman
  4. Planet Earth II
  5. Better Call Saul
  6. Stranger Things
  7. Fleabag
  8. Orange is the New Black

Movies

  1. Arrival
  2. Manchester By The Sea
  3. HyperNormalisation
  4. Swiss Army Man
  5. Captain America: Civil War
  6. The Nice Guys
  7. High Rise
  8. I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House
  9. Moonlight
  10. Doctor Strange

Music

  1. John Congleton and the Nighty Nite: Until the Horror Goes
  2. Beyoncé: Lemonade
  3. Hans Abrahamsen/Barbara Hannigan et al.: let me tell you
  4. David Bowie: Blackstar
  5. Let’s Eat Grandma: I, Gemini
  6. Kyle Craft: Dolls of Highland
  7. Tim Hecker: Love Streams
  8. A Tribe Called Red: We Are The Halluci Nation
  9. Justice: Woman
  10. Chance the Rapper: Colouring Book
  11. Bon Iver: 22, A Million
  12. Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Teodor Currentzis, MusicAeterna, et al.: Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto & Stravinsky Les Noces
  13. Esperanza Spalding: Emily’s D+Evolution
  14. Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial
  15. Margo Price: Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
  16. Solange: A Seat at the Table
  17. Leonard Cohen: You Want it Darker
  18. Daniel Lanois: Goodbye to Language
  19. Danny Brown: Atrocity Exhibition
  20. Patricia Kopatchinskaja: Death and the Maiden

Books

  1. Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie: Phonogram vol. 3: The Immaterial Girl
  2. Dan Fox: Pretentiousness: Why It Matters
  3. Alan Moore: Jerusalem: The Burroughs
  4. Olivia Laing: The Lonely City
  5. Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie: The Wicked and the Divine vol. 4: Rising Action
  6. Jeremy McCarter & Lin Manuel Miranda: Hamilton: The Revolution

Games

  1. Firewatch
  2. Kentucky Route Zero: Act 4
  3. Sorcery!: Part 4
  4. Sunless Sea: Zubmariner
  5. Oxenfree

Podcasts

  1. On the Media
  2. You Must Remember This
  3. Theory of Everything
  4. The Heart
  5. More Perfect
  6. Love and Radio
  7. Imaginary Worlds
  8. Reply All
  9. Code Switch
  10. Pop Culture Happy Hour
  11. Crimetown
  12. The Gist
  13. The Sporkful
  14. In the Dark

Miscellaneous things it seemed weird to include

  1. Robert Lepage: 887
  2. Gideon Lewis-Kraus: “The Great AI Awakening”
  3. Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared: Part 6

And with that, we’re done. Have a great last eleven months of 2017.

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Omnireviewer (week of Apr. 3)

What a week. I’ve been off work, and getting a bunch of necessary things done: a bunch of cleaning, a bunch of writing — also a bunch of running and a certain amount of riding the bus to pubs, bonfires, etc. So, a lot of music and a lot of podcasts. But there have also been many hours of sitting around, regathering my sanity, and innumerable cups of tea. Thus the television, the game, and the reading.

The result of all that is, I think, my largest Omnireviewer post yet. (I’m not going to take the time to verify that.) There are 35 reviews here, and that’s with me having grouped a number of things together (and still excluding Radiotopia reviews for Podquest reasons). Counting every episode, album etc. as one would give me the shattering total score of 42. (Which is a lovely coincidence, considering that Douglas Adams makes two appearances here.)

In recognition of this large, large number, I have allowed myself to choose three picks of the week: one podcast and two others. But frankly, even if it had been a normal week, I would have been tempted to do the same. The first two picks of the week you’ll come to are things that I believe should be and will be talked about for years. This hasn’t just been a week of cultural gluttony: it’s been a week where I’ve come across a number of really astonishing things in a short period of time. And frankly, for all the time it’s taken, I think it’s also inspired me to get more done.

We’ll begin with something I watched a week ago, which seems like a strangely long time.

Television

Horace and Pete: episodes 9-10 — (I despise the concept of spoiler warnings, but I’m willing to concede that the finale of Horace and Pete is probably best unspoilt. After all, this show was released as a complete surprise for the explicit reason that C.K. didn’t want the hype machine to affect the way that people saw the show. I think that was wise. This is therefore the only spoiler warning you’ll ever see on my blog.) Louis C.K.’s critique of American values ends two ways. In the first way, Pete dies tragically and Horace decides to change his attitude after an encounter with a supernaturally nice woman played by Amy Sedaris. The story fades to black over the strains of Paul Simon’s “America.” We are reminded that regardless of the divisions in American society (divisions that have been shown to date back decades, to when Uncle Pete was vehemently anti-Gerald Ford), and regardless of the tragedies that befall individuals, America soldiers on. This ending has every property of a TV finale, except for the fact that it doesn’t actually end there. The other way that Horace and Pete ends finds Horace killed by Pete, and Pete completely mad. It fades to black over the strains of the now familiar (but suddenly more bitter than sweet) theme song, also by Paul Simon. In this version of the ending, America doesn’t survive — not in any form worth respecting, anyway. Sylvia abandons Horace and Pete’s to be forgotten, and rebuilds her life around something entirely different. She wipes it all out, just like Kurt the nihilist barfly always said should happen to the whole country. I’m not sure there’s any internally consistent metaphor in either of these endings — for all of its speechifying, Horace and Pete isn’t message fiction. It’s subtler than that. But I think that the fact that there are two endings present (and I do think that it’s meant to be read as a double-ending — consider that C.K. has never signposted where reality stops and fantasy begins in this show) basically sums up C.K.’s centrism and his belief that it’s never so simple as the ideologues say it is. Lots of political artists working in pop fields have tried to champion the centre. I’m never convinced. I’m still not. But Horace and Pete is the first interesting piece of explicitly centrist political art that I’ve seen. It succeeds where the Coen Brothers have often failed, and where South Park has actually made me angry. It’s the best TV of the year. I know it’s only April, but I don’t see anything unseating it. Its many imperfections only enrich it. Pick of the week.

Last Week Tonight: April 3, 2016 — Sometimes I play dumb iPhone games while I watch things, and then I don’t have much to say about them. Sorry.

Better Call Saul: “Fifi” — I love that there are no simple relationships in this show. Kim and Chuck, for instance. They’ve always been friendly, and we’ve even seen Chuck be totally supportive of Kim. But she’s not important enough to him that he won’t throw her under the bus to get at Jimmy. In other plotlines, it remains very interesting to see Jimmy’s story continue in low-rent Mad Men mode while Mike’s slowly turns into Breaking Bad. Saul Goodman, dodgy criminal defender, still seems a long way off. But Mike the Cleaner is fast approaching.

Archer: Season 7, episodes 1 & 2 — Archer remains Archer. I think unless this season really breaks new ground midway through, it’ll be my last. Archer is good comfort food: the rhythms of it are that predictable by this point. But it used to make me laugh like a maniac and it doesn’t anymore.

Doctor Who: “Planet of Giants” — A while back, before I was even writing these reviews, I decided to start watching classic Doctor Who from the beginning. Lest you think me completely insane, I’m not doing this because I enjoy badly-written, poorly-paced, obviously low-budget sci-fi television from the 60s. Clearly, it’s been a slow process, since I haven’t watched a single First Doctor serial since Omnireviewer began. The reason I’m doing this, really, is because I’m reading an excellent book by Phil Sandifer on early Doctor Who as a British cultural artifact, which demands a certain amount of familiarity with the show itself. (More on that below.) Yes, I’m watching television to prepare for the higher pleasure of reading scholarly essays about it. I am completely well-adjusted. Anyway, “Planet of Giants” is probably my favourite story up to this point in the series’ run. It’s still pretty bad in a lot of ways. The characters are all meant to be smart but they’re all constantly acting dumb for plot reasons. When the TARDIS lands, it’s immediately obvious to the audience that they’ve all shrunk, but the characters take half an episode to figure out what’s going on. There’s a lot of that. On the other hand, the sets are delightful. Seeing Susan and the Doctor stranded in a sink is hilarious. And the fact that the normal-sized people have their own plotline that has a direct impact on the TARDIS crew’s plotline without the two groups ever meeting is legitimately clever. Don’t misunderstand me: mid-60s Doctor Who is bad TV by modern standards. But it is profoundly interesting, and you can totally see how it would soon grow into a show with lasting value. (The Second Doctor is my personal favourite from the classic series.)

Literature, etc.

Philip Sandifer: TARDIS Eruditorum, Volume One — This is the first collected edition of essays from Sandifer’s incredible TARDIS Eruditorum blog. This volume covers the William Hartnell years of the show. It is idiosyncratic and literary enough to be far more engaging than your standard scholarly article, but it’s also far more thoughtful than what you’ll find on most TV recapping/review sites. I’ll be honest, it’s basically my benchmark for great cultural criticism (along with Chris O’Leary’s Pushing Ahead of the Dame). The book version is substantially expanded, and I’d recommend it specifically to anybody who’s trying to get through the full classic series. At the very least, it will ensure that after the show’s frequent shitty instalments, you will at least be prepared to read something interesting about it. This week, I read the essay on “Planet of Giants,” and the subsequent two essays on relevant book tie-ins that I will never read. Part of the appeal of TARDIS Eruditorum is that it can give you a sense of the vastness of Doctor Who’s extended universe without you actually having to put yourself through any of it. (Though I must say, Sandifer makes a compelling case for The Time Travellers as a solid science fiction novel…)

David Day: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Decoded — Day’s book is exactly what I wanted it to be: a volume of fascinating and not entirely convincing conspiracy theories about hidden meanings in classic children’s literature. First off, there are hidden meanings in Alice; that much is clear upon even the most cursory reading. But some of Day’s most compelling interpretational moments hinge on incredibly thin textual evidence — thus my remark about conspiracy theories. Here’s my personal favourite. Near the beginning of the book, Day gives an actually totally convincing analysis of the specific way in which Alice forgets her multiplication tables at the beginning of the book — she’s just ceased to express them in base 10. This checks out, and it’s amazing. She gradually establishes a pattern which continues as she expresses values in increasing bases, but when she reaches base 42 (in uncanny anticipation of Douglas Adams), the pattern collapses. Day then falls over himself to find examples of the number 42 throughout the text. (The playing-card gardeners Alice meets have a total value of 14, and there are three of them. 14 x 3 = 42. A stretch, certainly.) But, when the end of the book comes around and the Knave of Hearts is on trial for stealing the Queen’s tarts, the King invokes Rule Forty-Two: “the oldest rule in the book.” Day suggests that the book in question is not the King’s book of law — because surely the oldest rule in that book would be number one. Alice even says as much. The book in question is Alice itself, with this being a callback to the logical collapse that resulted from Alice’s attempt at multiplication tables in base 42 at the beginning of her adventure. And, upon invocation of this rule, Alice’s dream collapses upon itself — literally like a house of cards — and she wakes up. I love this. This makes Alice a better book, regardless of whether it’s intentional. And maybe it is. Not all of Day’s notes are this interesting; a lot of it relies on paralleling Wonderland characters with Oxford higher-ups of Carroll’s time. One even suspects that Day really wanted to write a book solely about Wonderland and Oxford, but was coerced into including other elements for the sake of general interest. Perhaps that isn’t fair. Also, Day is quite eager to dismiss the popular accusation that Carroll was a pedophile, though he does offer a compelling (or perhaps just comforting) argument that he would likely not have ever acted on this tendency. Still, I’d totally recommend Day’s book to anybody who wants to re-read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with some significant added value. And Alice is worth re-reading, regardless. This time through I noticed something that evaded me the two or three times I read it as a child: not a single one of Wonderland’s characters are “generic eccentric” in the way they tend to be portrayed in adaptations. Every one of them has their own peculiar way of thinking and speaking. The Hatter is not the Caterpillar is not the Mock Turtle. And Alice herself is a marvellous protagonist: we spend a great deal of time, particularly early in the book, inside her head as she attempts to find reason in Wonderland’s madness. And we become accustomed to her way of thinking, which is unique in itself. This was great.

Music

Killer Mike: R.A.P. Music — In retrospect, this is basically a Run the Jewels album where El-P doesn’t rap (much). The element that I missed most from the more familiar Run the Jewels records when I listened to Fantastic Damage last week was the preponderance of synth leads and basses, which are here in spades. The opening of “Don’t Die” is basically what I love most about El-P. And as much as I love him as a rapper, I found a full album of him a bit much to take. Mike, on the other hand, I could listen to for pretty much any amount of time. I love when he gets conspiratorial. “Reagan” is a hell of a thing. I think I like this as much as the first Run the Jewels album.

John Congleton and the Nighty Nite: Until the Horror Goes — This lived up to all my hopes and nightmares. The lead single, “Until It Goes,” was an immediate favourite a couple of weeks ago — one of those songs I can listen to a dozen times a day and still want more. But, having listened to the album a few times now, I think it’s possible that every other song on the album is as good or better than that one. Congleton writes huge, hooky anthems that wouldn’t be out of place on an Arcade Fire album. But instead of filling those anthems up with the usual lyrical platitudes, he gives us a guided tour of a mind that’s been considering some of modern life’s darker questions and not coming up with any reassuring answers. And he clothes his nihilistic mock anthems in nightmarish sonic garb — moaning, wheezing synths; heavy guitars; incessant drum beats and dissonant, automatic vocal harmonies. The final effect is more Brian Eno than Win Butler. High praise, I know. It’s Here Come the Warm Jets filtered through Videodrome. This anxiety-ridden, jumpy, loud, electronic-y rock and roll is exactly the catharsis I want in 2016. A masterpiece. My favourite album of the year so far, narrowly edging out Bowie. Pick of the week.

Darq E Freaker: ADHD — Purchased on the strength of “Venom,” which floored me in NPR’s Austin 100. I love “Venom” much more than the rest of this EP, for reasons I can’t entirely quantify. Alas, this is far too “dance music” for me. Ah, well. Gotta take risks.

Roxy Music: Roxy Music — Reading David Sheppard’s Eno biography really put a fine point on the extent to which Roxy Music shared a cultural moment with King Crimson. Listening to this now, it almost seems like an alternate version of In the Court of the Crimson King where Robert Fripp and Peter Sinfield were more conventionally “cool.” I suppose their analogues in terms of influence would be Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno. So, I guess that’s actually true. When I hear the dinner party nat sound that starts the album I always picture Ferry — working class, posing — dressed in a white suit just a tad too dazzling, and drinking champagne, trying to fit in. “Oh, by the way, I’ve brought my cross-dressing synthesizer friend.” In any case, it’s gradually dawned on me that this is a really good album — at least as good as For Your Pleasure. It’s really interesting to hear music made by two geniuses who don’t really know anything about music or their instruments, but anchored by a virtuoso guitarist of at least David Gilmour calibre. Phil Manzanera roars out of the gate on this. He must be one of the most underrated musicians in rock. One or the other of this and For Your Pleasure would likely make my top 10 of the 70s.

Henryk Górecki/David Zinman, Dawn Upshaw & the London Sinfonietta: Symphony No. 3 “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” — I think I gave this one listen in my undergrad and decided it was overrated. But now, with the impending release of the adaptation listed below, I figured I’d give it another shot. I’m still lukewarm on much of it. I can understand why it’s so beloved, but the best bits are overexposed in movies, etc., and a lot of the less familiar moments are also less memorable. Not a favourite, but good music.

Colin Stetson: Sorrow — I feel like I need to take this review in steps. (1) Adapting, arranging and remaking classical pieces is a good idea — and indeed, necessary for the tradition’s continued vitality. The thing that the classical music community has the most wrong is their reverence for the composer’s intentions above all else. There’s even a famous conducting textbook called The Composer’s Advocate, as if to suggest that a person who is actually present in the room when the music is made could somehow be less important than the person who wrote the road map. That is bullshit beyond measure. Literally every other “high art” form has moved past that. Shakespeare’s plays are most frequently performed in modern fashions, reflecting the director’s taste rather than the period of their composition. In literary criticism, Barthes proclaimed the death of the author 50 years ago. And yet, classical music circles are still crowded with ass-backward pedants who insist that the composers of the great symphonies must have the final say on their works. Even the notion of listening to a single, isolated movement rather than the whole work is considered sacrilege by some, because these pieces are regarded as holy texts rather than what they are: nothing more or less than indexes of their cultures. If this mothballed philosophy is allowed to continue for long, classical music will slink off to a corner and die, and nobody will miss it. I sure as hell won’t. So, when somebody like Max Richter or Colin Stetson comes along and offers an entirely new take on a work from this world, it is to be welcomed. (2) The works that most require this treatment are the ones held in the highest esteem. There’s plenty of music out there by living composers that hasn’t yet found the audience it deserves in its original form. And there’s plenty of overlooked music from past centuries. That stuff needs its first hearing before it’s given a reevaluation. So: rewrite The Four Seasons. Because I don’t give a fuck about it anymore, and neither should you. I don’t care if it’s a masterpiece; it’s broken. We broke it with overexposure. It’s not good anymore. Max Richter’s rewrite is better than Vivaldi’s original by default, because it’s new. (3) If there is a single work from the notoriously neglected late 20th-century repertoire that needs a similar treatment, it’s the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. This piece became something close to a fad in the early 90s. Zinman’s recording sold a million copies. It’s in every movie. So, reworking Górecki is a solid idea. God’s work, really. (4) Colin Stetson’s adaptation is not very good. The parts that work best are the bits where it’s just him on multitracked saxes and other reeds. But, when the drums and guitars come in, things go off the rails. Stetson is clearly aiming for post-rock, but he hits much closer to “new age.” The third movement even borders on cheesy gothic metal territory, at times. The original symphony didn’t necessarily traffic in restraint, but this turns everything up to 11, and entirely lacks the self-awareness to critique its own kitschiness. The shimmery production doesn’t help matters. I do like bits of the second movement, but by and large this is a pretty damp effort. (5) I want there to be more like this. There are sure to be pedants who will dislike this on principle. I agree with them that it’s bad. But I also think they are idiots. They are boring zombies without insight of their own, mindlessly puking up rote recitations of concert hall orthodoxy. They are eating the necrotic bits off of a body that isn’t even quite dead yet. They are the enemy. It probably seems like I’m setting up a strawman to beat down. I am not. I have talked to these people. They are vile. (6) Colin Stetson, I applaud you. Do more of this. May it appeal to me more next time.

Tim Hecker binge: Virgins, Harmony in Ultraviolet, Mirages and Radio Amor — Tim Hecker’s got a new album out. I haven’t gotten around to it yet, but in anticipation, I figured I’d check out some of the catalogue. Virgins blew me away when it first came out, but it’s taken until now to listen through the other three albums I’ve had sitting on my shelf for some time. None are as good as Virgins, because they’re just not as confrontational. Virgins has some of the characteristics of Eno’s ambient music, but it definitely isn’t that: it’s a huge, commanding presence that dares you to ignore one second of it. That’s in spite of the fact that it has very little in the way of melody, and even less in the way of a beat. It’s also better than the other albums because it is a more seamless hybrid of live and electronic sounds. Virgins sounds present partially because it is largely composed of sounds that happened in a room at some point, rather than imaginary sounds that only ever existed on a computer. Nothing wrong with that, of course. But an album like Harmony in Ultraviolet, while good, pales in comparison to Virgins because the latter is so much more fascinatingly imperfect. Harmony, Radio Amor and Mirages are all generally more “ambient” than Virgins is, but all of them have an abrasiveness that prevents them from ever really fading into the background. Mirages is the best of the three, maintaining a bittersweet mood throughout, with implied harmonies and textures that seem to break apart as they form. Still: it’s homogenous compared to Virgins. I’m really looking forward to hearing Love Streams, because it sounds like Hecker is continuing to explore the electroacoustic direction he went in on Virgins. More on that next week, I’m sure.

Gonzales: Solo Piano — I have a gut response to Chilly Gonzales that I’m not proud of. It goes something like: “he’s not as clever as he thinks he is.” That’s never a good way to think about an artist. An artist is as clever as they are. How clever they think they are shouldn’t enter into the equation, even when they tout it constantly. Whether or not they live up to their own pronouncements is in the eye of the beholder. And, hearing this album for the first time, it’s hard to justify that kind of antipathy. These are intentionally simple, slight little pieces for the passive entertainment of whoever’s around. The recording itself is delightfully idiosyncratic: every imperfection in the specific piano that Gonzales is playing is amped up, from the heavy key click to the weird overtones in the high end. I like this. And I’d wager just about everybody would like it at least a little bit. Give it a shot.

NPR Music: The rest of the Austin 100 — If you didn’t download this when you had the chance, at least go and stream it. You’ll discover at least a few things you’ll like.

Games

EarthBound — Having exhausted my Steam purchases from the Christmas sale, it’s nearly time for me to embark on my second (and inevitably, third) playthrough of Undertale. But first, I figured I’d check out the acclaimed, weird little game that so much of it apparently riffs on. So far it is charming, innocuous, unexpectedly self-aware, and has too much RPG combat in it. I will persist, because enough interesting people seem to love this game that I feel like there must be more to it.

Podcasts

Reply All: “A Simple Question” — P.J. Vogt’s description of the inescapability of Verizon’s Fios advertizing in New York City is one of the best writing moments on this show so far. This show also features some of the best tape from a city council meeting that I’ve ever heard. Basically, Verizon is awful and this story is fantastic.

On the Media: “We Gotta Try Harder” — Those watching American politics in a state of confusion and despair should listen to OTM. It will mitigate against the confusion. The despair, alas, is inevitable. Here, though, Gladstone takes on Ghanaian journalism as well. I wish she’d pushed a bit harder in her conversation with the undercover journalist who has influenced policy and exposed crime in that country. He’s pretty astonishing, but only one ethics question? Come on, Brooke. Give the people what they want.

All Songs Considered: “A Conversation with Explosions In The Sky” — Nah, I’m not going to listen to this album. They say they were trying to make a “love it or hate it” record that nobody will think is only okay, but everything I’ve heard from it so far has been completely middle of the road. Maybe if people are still into it at the end of the year.

Sampler: “Crimble Bramble” — I think I’ve found the appeal of Sampler: when there are guests on the show from my favourite podcasts, and they’re there to talk about their favourite podcasts, it’s going to be interesting. This helped everything fall into place about P.J. Vogt and Alex Goldman. The fact that they listen to so many comedy podcasts says a lot about why Reply All is the way it is.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: The Real Housewives of Potomac” — I really like Brittany Luse. The fact that I listened to this right after an episode of Sampler is just a coincidence, but I think the podcast gods are telling me to listen to For Colored Nerds. I will not, however, be watching The Real Housewives of Potomac.

Serial: “Present for Duty” — This season of Serial has been neither the most valuable radio I’ve heard in the past months, nor among the most interesting. But this episode, which poses the question: “Did American soldiers die searching for Bowe Bergdahl?” is very good. Honestly, I think that the best presentation of this story would have been a two-part (maybe three-part) episode of This American Life. Broadly, it would have focussed on the details in the first and last episodes of the season, with a few of the asides in the intervening episodes incorporated in truncated form. Koenig and her team should have been allowed to do the same amount of investigation and reporting that went into these 11 episodes, but made to tell the story in a more focussed way. Because, the tiny details of this story just aren’t as compelling as the details of season one’s story. Military bureaucracy is not as interesting as investigating possible alibis. By and large, Serial season two is a miss. It told some interesting stories, but it weighed them down with a lot of stuff that I just don’t think is important to know about Bergdahl, and which certainly isn’t interesting. All the same, they’re apparently done a chunk of season three already. Maybe it’ll work better. I’m not not looking forward to it.

On the Media: “Is This Food Racist?” — Having also heard the first episode of The Sporkful’s “Other People’s Food” series at the time of writing this (see below), I’m glad that Brooke Gladstone invited Dan Pashman on, if only to explicitly call bullshit on chef Rick Bayless for his total ignorance of white privilege. Not just his own privilege, mind, but the very concept of it. Disquieting.

The Sporkful: “Other People’s Food” — This is a five-part series that I can’t recommend highly enough. Dan Pashman explores how what we think about people affects how we think about their food. There are things in here that you likely won’t have thought about if you’re white and dumb, like me. Like, Americans aren’t willing to pay more than 30 bucks for Chinese food, and when they do, it’s shitty American-style Chinese food. But, they’ll pay a hundred dollars for great Japanese food. That’s in episode two. In episode three, Pashman eats apple pie with Joe McNeil of the Greensboro Four, who helped spark the movement that desegregated restaurants in the south. You should check this out. This is a few commutes worth of fun, thoughtful radio. Pick of the week.

Desert Island Discs, Archive 1991-1996: “Brian Eno” — Bless the BBC for making this archive available. This is what it says it is: notable people come on and play the records they’d take to a desert island. The podcast edition keeps the talking and shortens the music for rights reasons, which might actually make it better. Eno says he’s avoided choosing any records that he had something to do with, which certainly limits things. But it’s a good insight into just how omnivorous he’s always been.

Welcome to Night Vale: “The List” and “The Monolith” — Generally, I don’t like when Night Vale does continuity, but “The List” is based around one specific continuity reference that is unpredictable enough to be really clever. Really, though, I’m not even close to caught up with this, and I’m already feeling like it’s been on autopilot for a while. I keep listening in the hopes that something new will happen, and sometimes it does — like in the two specials I listened to a few weeks back. But by and large, this is all starting to feel the same.

Desert Island Discs: “Gloria Steinem” — Something a little more contemporary, now. This was weird. The interview was good, but not as good as Terry Gross’s from months ago, and it touches on several of the same topics. And given that this is not an interview with a musician, as the archival Eno episode was, the music really doesn’t seem to fit. I dunno about this. Let’s try one more, from the archive and see how that goes.

Desert Island Discs, Archive 1991-1996: “Douglas Adams” — There’s a moment in this where the interviewer, Sue Lawley, is asking Adams about his enthusiasm for computers. He goes on for a bit, and then she basically says “But do you really think they’ll replace the human brain?” And then you remember what 1994 was like. (I do, barely.) This is fun, but I do wish that rather than doing a straight-ahead biographical interview with interspersed records, they’d really dive into what the records mean to the person, in their life and in their creative work. This show seems like a (surprisingly long-lived) missed opportunity to really dig into music as an index for culture at large. It’s still kind of fun, and I’ll probably listen to more. But basically, meh. Also, Adams references that he was working on a Hitchhiker screenplay at the time. How amazing that it didn’t come out until eleven years later, only once Adams was quite substantially deceased.

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Weezer, The Jayhawks, Colin Stetson, More” — I’ve heard almost no Weezer in my life, and when I heard this Weezer track, even I was like “wow, that’s Weezer.” Both of these hosts like that Colin Stetson thing more than me, but I really am glad they made space for it. It’s certainly interesting, if nothing else.

On the Media: “Behind the Panama Papers” — OTM is so good that first-rate material like this doesn’t even make it into their full shows. The most interesting thing about this is Gerard Ryle’s take on why the Panama Papers weren’t front-page news in America.

Radiolab: “Cellmates” — Ah! The Radiolab of old! For the first time in ages, Robert Krulwich is the key storyteller, with Jad Abumrad just sitting back and leaning into the role of comedically sceptical buzzkill. Plus, the mix is insane and has some great music in it. And crucially, the story is about a scientific insight (okay, theory) with implications so cosmic that no other show would touch it. I’m still going with The Sporkful for my podcast pick of the week, but I’d love to hear more like this.

Surprisingly Awesome: “Circle of Fifths” — Disappointment was inevitable. For all that I’ve railed against this show’s assumption that things are mostly boring, the circle of fifths actually is boring. At least to anybody who’s gone to music school, which, granted, is a small number of people. I really don’t know why I listened to this. But: they seem to have toned down the fake boredom significantly since last I listened. That’s promising, and indicates that I may eventually come to like this show in some form.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Batman V Superman and Pop Culture Objects” and “Best Bad Movies and a Quiz” — Thank you Chris Klimek, for helping me decide to be one of the twelve people who doesn’t see Batman v Superman. And, per the second episode: aww, they’re all so happy to have Trey Graham back. So am I, actually. But that quiz was not very entertaining. Ehh.

All Songs Considered: “What Song Changed Your Life?” — Bob Boilen isn’t the sort of person whose book I’d necessarily read. Basically, he’s a companionable guy with really good taste — the perfect tour guide through new releases. But not a writer. Still, I’m glad to have heard this extract from Your Song Changed My Life, even if it does tread willfully along the standard lines of a late 60s musical coming-of-age. (The song that changed Boilen’s life is “A Day in the Life,” because of course it is.) I fanboyed a little when he told the story of his first time in an NPR studio, at the invitation of a young up-and-coming producer named Ira Glass.  

Omnireviewer (week of Mar. 27)

12 reviews. What? I have a life, lately.

Television

Horace and Pete: episodes 6-8 — I’ve been enjoying the fact that Horace and Pete is unlike anything on actual TV. But in the sixth episode it briefly turns into everything else on TV — namely, a story about an insecure man getting tripped up by his insecurities. Of course, Steve Buscemi is brilliant and his character Pete is more genuinely marginalized than, say, Louis C.K.’s fictionalized self on Louie. Still, the drama in this episode is complicated by America’s divided politics, which remains the key theme of the show, and is explored differently here than anywhere else. The following episode, with its discussion of trans issues, is bound to be flawed from the outset — Louis C.K.’s take on trans issues isn’t really something anybody asked for. But, as a fellow cisgendered straight dude without the lived experience necessary to properly parse this, I do think that C.K. should generally be commended for his willingness to point out the hypocrisy of social liberalism as practiced by many cis straight white dudes. I’m just not sure that this specific instance of that is especially commendable. The eighth one is fine.

Better Call Saul: “Inflatable” — Well, the flashback off the top was a bit hacky, wasn’t it? Still a fine episode, but after the last two I mostly just want to watch Kim’s story play out, and there was less of that here than there has been recently. I do really love those montages with the colourful suits, though.

Games

The Dream Machine: episodes 4 & 5 — First off, I have confirmation from the devs on Twitter that at least one of them is an Eno fan, so the recurring references to “On Some Faraway Beach” can’t be an accident. (I’m already speculating about how the line “given the choice, I’ll die like a baby” will factor into the ending…) Let’s take the fourth episode first. In isolation, it’s one of the best adventure games I’ve ever played. Even if it lacked its headline gimmick — the stop-motion clay and cardboard presentation — it would still be. I’ve played games with stories that appeal more (Kentucky Route Zero springs to mind, but that might just be because it scratches my perpetual itch for clever metafiction), but I’ve never enjoyed solving puzzles as much as the ones in The Dream Machine episode four. These puzzles made me think, and try stuff, and go down blind alleys, but they never felt unfair or counterintuitive, and solving them felt amazing. Episode five doesn’t fare quite as well in this respect. There were a lot of puzzle solutions in there that I happened upon by chance and only understood in retrospect. There was a lot of “maybe if I try using this item with this item,” which isn’t a very satisfying gameplay experience. But at the same time, the fifth episode is far and away the largest of the bunch, and it certainly has the most ambitious premise. There’s a jaw-dropping twist midway through that makes it fundamentally different from the episodes that precede it. And of course, there’s still the fact that somebody made a sprawling adventure game out of clay and found materials. That will never be less than astonishing. Quibbles aside, this is pretty spectacular, and I honestly don’t know what I’m looking forward to more: the next episode of this, or Kentucky Route Zero. Adventure game fans should really try and find time for both.

Music

Joseph Bertolozzi: Tower Music — This is possibly the strangest recording ever to randomly land on my desk. The whole thing is constructed from samples of the Eiffel Tower being struck by mallets. Bertolozzi traversed the entire structure, painstakingly recording the sounds of different parts of the tower being struck by mallets of varying size and firmness, and then used the resultant library of 10,000 samples to compose this piece. It seems like it’s essentially destined for the broad ranks of fascinating musical marginalia, but that’s not to say it isn’t actually pretty good in places. There are moments that are explicitly gamelan inspired, as you’d expect from music made by striking metal repeatedly. Some of it has a dancelike quality, and much of it calls John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano to mind. I can’t say I actually recommend it, but it’s nice that it exists in the world.

Giacomo Puccini/Victor de Sabata, Maria Callas, Tito Gobbi et al: Tosca — Is it bad that I’d never actually heard Tosca from start to finish? In any case, this recording is basically perfect. Callas is one of those rare artists in classical music who sounds like absolutely no one else — like Glenn Gould or, I’m increasingly convinced, Patricia Kopatchinskaja. Tito Gobbi and Giuseppe Di Stefano both sing wonderfully as well, and Gobbi is properly terrifying as Scarpia. The orchestra sounds great, though the recording quality is of its time. If you want to experience recorded opera with its best foot forward, this might be the very best recording you could try out. (Though dramatically, Tosca is completely inane and nonsensical. Just listen to the pretty music.)

Genesis: Foxtrot — I loved this so much when I was 12 that I can’t hope to ever assess it objectively. But, for what it’s worth, I’ve lived with this album (and most of Genesis’s other albums, and Yes’s and Jethro Tull’s and King Crimson’s…) for half of my life, and it still holds up. It isn’t merely comfortable: I get the same rush of endorphins from the end of “Supper’s Ready” now as I ever did. It isn’t all like that: “Time Table” remains a bit of regrettable filler and “Get ‘Em Out By Friday” has moments that don’t charm me like they used to. But “Watcher of the Skies” has actually grown on me, if anything. By and large, Foxtrot has held up over a truly astonishing number of listens. I hope I can say that in 13 years about some of the music I’m discovering now.

El-P: Fantastic Damage — Like this, for instance. I actually have nothing much to say about this, at the moment. I feel like I’ll need to listen to this about ten more times before I even know what’s going on. I hadn’t realized that El-P is exercising  restraint in Run the Jewels. This is madness. 

Literature, etc.

Jia Tolentino: “Is This the End of the Important, Inappropriate Literary Man?” — Just get past that headline and read this piece. It’s a rigorous, reasoned and troubling appraisal of the widespread harassment that happens when men are made so important that they can get away with anything. Actually, that’s a really inadequate summary. It’s also an investigation into mob justice. That’s still an inadequate summary. Here, have a quote: “Our awareness of the prevalence and magnitude of sexual assault has outpaced the systems that expose and adjudicate it.” Still not perfect. But then, if I gave a perfect summary, maybe you’d be less inclined to read it. Read it. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

Radiolab: “Update: 23 Weeks 6 Days” — It’s strange to hear Jad say at the start of this repeat episode that this was the first show where they devoted the whole hour to a single story. I suppose it was the beginning of the decline, in some sense. But nobody could have known it at the time. This is one of the very best episodes of Radiolab, and thus one of the best radio stories ever told. It’s horribly, gut-wrenchingly sad for most of its duration, and it grapples with impossible questions, but it makes no concessions to either the complexity or the sadness. It’s just all there. No attempts to mitigate it were made. And that’s such a wise decision. Marvellous, staggering, superlative. The whole point of radio. Pick of the week.

The John Peel Lecture: Brian Eno — Firstly, I love that the John Peel Lecture is a thing that exists. Secondly, I love that they’re available as podcasts. And thirdly, Brian Eno is really one of the people you’d most want to do one. His lecture isn’t entirely groundbreaking — it’s based around the idea that art has a purpose that can’t quantified, which is a well-established line of thought, albeit not one that has found adequate footing in Western governments. But there are two very interesting things here. One is Eno’s broad definition of art: “everything that you don’t have to do.” That just serves to remind us that there are two things Eno is very, very good at: music and aphorisms. And the second interesting thing is Eno’s notion of “scenius,” rather than genius (also wonderfully extrapolated upon in Sheppard’s Eno biography). The idea is that we place too much emphasis on the accomplishments of individuals, and too little on the community — the scene. Eno extrapolates on this by telling his own early story in terms of community support for his art. He went to art school for free. He went on the dole immediately after graduation so that he could continue developing his art and not get stuck in a job he hated. He got his first national exposure as a member of Roxy Music on the BBC, thanks to Peel himself. The point is clear: art is the result of the circumstances imposed by the artist’s community. So, it shouldn’t necessarily be conceived of in the terms of an industry. Even if it isn’t totally revolutionary, Eno’s argument should be heard loud and clear, preferably by policy makers around the world.

Imaginary Worlds: “When Cthulhu Calls” — This is the best new thing I heard this week. It really is pretty brilliant. For just this one episode, Eric Molinsky assumes a Jonathan Goldsteinian relationship to the truth and tells us about the cultural significance of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, only to get sucked into a Lovecraftian horror story himself. He thus answers the question “Why do people make/buy cutesy Cthulhu tchochkes?” by putting himself in a fictional situation where he needs them. I want to make it pick of the week, but it can’t beat Radiolab at its best.

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Explosions In The Sky, Parquet Courts, Wire, Told Slant, More” — It’s amazing how quickly All Songs went from being a show I’d never considered listening to, to a show that I almost never miss. The highlight here is the new Explosions in the Sky, though I can’t quite tell if I’m interested enough to check out the album or not. We’ll see.

Omnireviewer (week of Mar. 20, 2016)

18 reviews. I’d like to think I’m making up for the comparatively small number with extra thoughtfulness, this week. Or maybe not. It occurs to me that a lot of what I write here is complete nonsense to anybody who doesn’t have near identical cultural touchstones to me. Therefore, to those of you who actually read this: thank you for your substantial feat of empathy.

Television

Horace and Pete: Episodes 2-5 — I think we’d better start with episode three, in which two people have a conversation, and that is all. Horace and Pete was already becoming a testament to the power of good writing and good acting presented straightforwardly, but that episode took it to another level altogether. Laurie Metcalf, an actress that I’ve never seen in anything before, opens the show with a ten-minute monologue in a single close-up shot. And even when Louis C.K.’s character enters the picture, it doesn’t get much more complicated than that. It’s just two people, telling each other captivating stories that they each have personal reasons to be particularly captivated by. It’s electrifying. Metcalf’s performance is completely staggering, in the same way that Alan Alda, Edie Falco and Steve Buscemi’s performances are staggering in other episodes. C.K. himself is a less technically able actor, and it’s occasionally bizarre to see him playing opposite people who are obviously much more accomplished than him, but in general he knows what he can and cannot do. The other episodes aren’t quite as good as the third one. But then, none of them take quite such a big swing. This is a really good show, that expanded its remit from the political theatre of its premiere remarkably quickly. Pick of the week.

Last Week Tonight: March 20, 2016 — This was brilliant, don’t get me wrong. But I’m beginning to become concerned that John Oliver is obsessing over the same ludicrous shit that everybody else is. When his show premiered, I had stopped watching Jon Stewart because I was starting to get tired of Stewart’s particular preoccupations — which is to say, the preoccupations of daily television news. Then Oliver came along and explained net neutrality with dingo metaphors. I’m hoping that version of Last Week Tonight doesn’t get forgotten in favour of being merely the most authoritative source of humourous Trump debunking.

Better Call Saul: “Bali H’ai” — One of my two favourite episodes of Better Call Saul. (The other is “Marco.”) The moment at the beginning where Kim stays home a little later specifically to hear Jimmy sing to her over voicemail is one of the sweetest moments ever to appear on this show. So much is communicated in that scene, about both characters. Rhea Seehorn is becoming one of my favourite supporting players on television right now. It’s really something to watch the longing play out on her face as a partner from a rival firm offers her a job she knows she can’t take. Plus, we have another intrusion of Breaking Bad into the Mike’s Better Call Saul plot. It comes in a gloriously creepy moment that also features some of Jonathan Banks’s best work in his role so far. Even Patrick Fabian impresses this week, with almost no screen time. He’s doing a great job of making Howard not be a cruel, cold bastard, even when he’s acting punitively. If the third episode of Horace and Pete were less brilliant, this would be the pick of the week.

Music

Madvillain: Madvillainy — You know when you love an album so much you try not to listen to it too much so it stays fresh? That’s how this album is with me. It’s absolutely one of my favourite rap albums, but I don’t actually know it that well because I want it to stay surprising. When I listen to this, I get the sense that MadLib and I are essentially the same person, except he’s a talented hip hop producer and I’m a hack radio writer. But this is basically what the inside of my head sounds like, complete with bits of Frank Zappa and Gentle Giant flying around. MF Doom, on the other hand, is very much unlike the inside of my head, because there is literally no other human who thinks like him.

The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — There is no other album about which there is so little left to be said.

The Beatles: Revolver — Except maybe this one. All the same, I think I can say some things. Revolver seems to be the internet’s consensus favourite Beatles album. I have no metric to measure this, but I get the sense that Gen Xers picked this as their Beatles album in opposition to the boomers’ reverence for Sgt. Pepper. And while neither of those are my favourite (I’d pick the White Album, Abbey Road, Rubber Soul, and Magical Mystery Tour over both), I’m going to have to decisively side with the boomers on this one. Revolver has some of the best songs in the Beatles canon (“Eleanor Rigby,” “She Said She Said,” “And Your Bird Can Sing,” “For No One” and “Tomorrow Never Knows”). But for an album that’s consistently touted as maybe the single greatest utterance of a generation, it has a lot of relative duds. “Taxman” is an early iteration of mid-70s fatass popstar syndrome — wherein most of England’s biggest stars were living in tax exile making bland, safe music. “Love You To” is a culturally appropriative misguided experiment that lacks the lyrical and melodic brilliance of Pepper’s similar (but equally problematic) “Within You Without You.” “Here, There And Everywhere” marks the first appearance of the saccharine Paul McCartney that the world would come to resent, post-Beatles. “Yellow Submarine” is fine. Everybody stop hating on “Yellow Submarine.” “Good Day Sunshine” is musical plain yogurt. It’s all subjective, of course. But during four of Revolver’s 14 tracks, I always find myself wondering who crowned this one king.

Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here — More boomer music! This used to be my favourite album from Pink Floyd’s most revered period (Dark Side through The Wall). These days I tend to lean towards Animals. But Wish has a certain appeal for being the most loosely constructed of the post-Dark Side albums. “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is the most obvious illustration of this — that opening goes on for at least one chorus longer than it probably needs to. But economy isn’t the concern here, nor should it have been. It’s the slow burn that makes the song. And the whole album benefits from the feeling that the band has time to kill. It would have been a mistake for Pink Floyd to follow up Dark Side with another ruthlessly focussed album. Wish You Were Here is the final statement from the free, jammy psychedelic band that Pink Floyd was before they hit it big. From here on out, the albums meander less and less. And that is both a gain and a loss.

NPR Music: the Austin 100 — This is a six-hour, 100-song playlist of music from artists playing at this year’s SXSW, compiled by Stephen Thompson, who will not shut up about it on the two podcasts he’s on that I listen to. Having very much enjoyed All Songs’ SXSW coverage, I figured I may as well check out the giant heap of music that they’ve made available for download. And you know what: good decision. There’s a huge range here, much of which falls under the valuable category of “stuff I don’t really want to explore further, but am glad I heard once.” Just when you think it’s going to be a bunch more indie rock and songwritery stuff, alphabetical order gives you back-to-back Chynna Rogers (kickass rap) and CONAN (metal, obvs). You can download all 100 songs for free until the end of March and you should, because why wouldn’t you?

Literature, etc.

David Sheppard: On Some Faraway Beach — I’ve had David Sheppard’s Brian Eno biography on my phone for ages, having only gotten through a couple of chapters. Early this week, the third chapter became my commute entertainment of choice. It’s fantastic, and as much a look into the London experimental music scene — including notables like Cornelius Cardew, Gavin Bryars and Michael Nyman — as it is into Eno’s formative years. It’s fun to see how the approach that made Eno one of my creative heroes — Sheppard summarizes it as “create parameters, set it off, see what happens” — basically originated with John Cage, and was circulating around the experimental circles that Eno stumbled into. The line from Cage to Eno is an obvious one to draw, but what’s cool is seeing how everybody else who caught on to it (including Americans like La Monte Young and Steve Reich) was using it to make a sort of “art music,” and Eno was the only one to realize he could use it to produce pop albums.

Games

SOMA — Finished, at last. This did what I wanted it to, namely: to offer me a detailed world to wander around in as part of a linear story, and to occasionally scare the willickers out of me. SOMA really wants to be a thoughtful game, and sometimes it is. But the existential questions that are its thematic bread and butter are too hypothetical to be especially preoccupying. “Are digital copies of ourselves still ourselves?” Ehh. It’s worth noting that this is close to the same question that animated the first storylines of Swamp Thing, and that comic really started getting good when Alan Moore stopped worrying about it. (It’s also worth noting that there’s a famous philosophical thought experiment colloquially known as “Swampman” that offers almost the same hypothetical as Swamp Thing, but which was apparently conceived some time after Swamp Thing began. In any case, both of these iterations of this idea are more sophisticated that their expression in SOMA.) These days, I’m disinclined to grapple with such abstract notions. Give me Bioshock: Infinite. That game’s hypotheticals are beginning to look like the daily news. Altogether, I’d say SOMA was very much a video game. It was fun while it lasted, but it won’t be lingering with me for long, and I certainly won’t ever play it again.

The Dream Machine: Episodes 1-3 — This is more my speed. First off, it’s amazing that somebody made a stop-motion point-and-click game with clay models. Aesthetically, The Dream Machine is the most distinctive game I’ve played since… I dunno, FEZ? It’s so beautifully presented that the apartment building where most of the game’s real-life segments take place is just as vibrant as its fanciful dream sequences. The puzzles, such as they are, are intuitive and don’t disrupt the flow of the story. The writing is clear and refreshingly non-stylized, and all of the characters have distinct voices — even in the third episode, where they literally all look the same. It’s not quite Kentucky Route Zero, but what is?

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: More SXSW coverage — The tail end of All Songs’ SXSW late night dispatches found Bob Boilen invigorated by an environment that most people, including apparently everybody else involved in NPR Music, would find exhausting. But the team’s tenacity paid off in this week’s proper episode of All Songs, which features some really fantastic discoveries that I’ll probably check out more from. I am so excited for that John Congleton album. Pick of the week.

On the Media: “Party People” — I can’t say I have any better an understanding of who the hell these people who support Trump are after listening to this, but it was certainly interesting to hear more about how ineffective the campaign finance system is — to the point where it’s almost hard to think of it as evil anymore. Just inept.

In Our Time: “Bedlam” — I continue to be equally fascinated by this show’s existence as its content. It’s refreshing — almost shocking, really — to hear Melvyn Bragg respond to a guest’s meandering answer to a question with “that was an excellent survey, but can you just give me the answer?” He’s totally artless and I kind of love him for it. The actual content of this episode is horrifying and fascinating.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Glen Weldon’s ‘The Caped Crusade’” — Fun! I will say, I find that as a culture critic, Weldon can be a bit on the orthodox side for my Phil Sandifer-inclined tastes. He has a tendency to recite the standard narratives of cultural history, rather than offering the sorts of counterintuitive arguments I tend to enjoy. But it sounds like in this book he’s really gone out of his way to put the most toxic parts of nerd culture under a microscope. I fully intend to read Weldon’s Superman book, having enjoyed the Amazon preview some time ago. This new Batman one may have to wait, but I’ll probably get there because Weldon is good company, in podcast and printed form.

On The Media: “Gawker, Hulk Hogan, and the First Amendment” — Bob Garfield is the best. This is a case study in why he and Brooke Gladstone are a great team. This is the sort of straightforward, umbrance-driven story that he would be way more into than her. Meanwhile, she’s probably off thinking about how Marshall McLuhan would have critiqued Twitter. It’s the perfect arrangement.

Reply All: “Good Job, Alex” — You know what’s something you can’t do on public radio? Be the main character in your own story. Thank god there are podcasts, because the Vogt/Goldman double act has never been funnier than in this, where Goldman tries to solve a problem and Vogt makes fun of him mercilessly.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “SXSW Wrap and Songs That Changed Our Lives” — This arrived just in time for me to reach peak NPR SXSW ‘16 coverage. After hearing Bob Boilen and co. geek out about the music at SXSW, it was nice that this offered Stephen Thompson, Katie Presley and Audie Cornish the opportunity to talk about it more broadly, as a phenomenon. And honestly, after hearing about the masses of sweaty people and the pace of it all, I think I might not bother ever going. I’ll just experience it vicariously through NPR.

Omnireviewer (week of Mar. 13, 2016)

19 reviews. Back in normal person territory.

Television

Cucumber/Banana/Tofu: episodes 6-8 of all three, plus “The Screwdriver” — One thing I didn’t bring up in my pick of the week entry for this last time is that while Cucumber is a showcase for Russell T Davies: idiosyncratic stylist, Banana is a showcase for a number of different writers as well. Sue Perkins and especially Charlie Covell do magnificent work as guest writers on this show. So, even when Davies stops writing Cucumber, I really hope that he keeps doing Banana. I touched on this last week, but it bears expanding on: every time there’s a movie about LGBTQ people that manages to capture the attention of a mainstream audience (i.e. one that includes ignorant straight dudes such as myself) it is almost without fail a joyless slog. So, an LGBTQ anthology show with a sense of fun, that tells a different story every week and highlights the work of LGBTQ writers, is just something that needs to exist. I don’t think there’s anybody better to oversee it that Russell T Davies, but Banana could easily have a continued life once he moves on from it. I really love these shows, and I think it’s a dreadful shame that they’ve been so overlooked. I can’t urge you enough to watch them. (Although, since I am ostensibly reviewing things on this blog, I will say that I felt that the much-hyped sixth episode of Cucumber was the weakest of the lot, and the one time when the show crossed the line into self-indulgence and soapy plot contrivance. It’s a minor quibble. Nothing’s perfect.)

Last Week Tonight: March 13, 2016 — Nothing much to say except “yes.” And “ha!” And “yes.” And if you stay until the end of the credits, you get to see Rich Sommer try to eat a computer.

Better Call Saul “Rebecca” — Easily the season’s best episode yet. Jimmy and Mike’s plots are more amusing than substantial, but sidelining those characters gives us a chance to get to know both Chuck and Kim a bit better. Both are wonderful characters played by brilliant actors. What’s really interesting is seeing them explicitly linked in the way that they treat Jimmy. Given that Chuck has so much more experience in this regard and that they’re apparently comparing notes now, I’m fairly certain that Chuck will end up being a key factor in Jimmy and Kim’s inevitable breakup. Come to think of it, that could be an intentional play on Chuck’s part. The opening seems to suggest that Jimmy somehow drove a wedge between Chuck and his former wife. Revenge?

Horace and Pete: Episode 1 — Oh, I’m going to like this. Louis C.K. is explicitly going in for a critique of American values, and that is a ride I want to go on. But he’s not leaping feet-first into Kevin Smith polemical territory — there’s a division of labour here. Supporting characters are allowed to talk politics explicitly, but the main contest of old values vs. new values takes place in the A plot, with no explicit references to parties or primaries or Donald Drumpf. The first episode is structured around mirroring the supporting characters’ political arguments with the main characters’ family struggle. There aren’t any neat A to B comparisons to be made, because Louis C.K. has more subtlety than that. But this is essentially political theatre, and C.K. is setting himself up to be for the centre-left what the Coen brothers are for the centre-right. And I guess he can just work with whoever he wants now? Seriously, Steve Buscemi, Alan Alda, Edie Falco, Jessica Lange and Rebecca Hall in the same show? With a theme song by Paul Simon? On the internet? It’s possibly that C.K.’s imperial phase has only just started. Very excited to catch up on this and see where this goes.

Movies

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot — What the hell was this? Okay, look. Normally, I’m all about that thing where you don’t worry about whether you’re making a comedy or a drama. None of the best TV seems to care, after all. (See three out of four shows listed above.) But I feel like when you’re telling a true story about a recent war, you need to make a decision. There were some good lines in this, and some good performances. Tina Fey is great in this. But holy hell does the script go every which way. Really not very good.

Music

Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Teodor Currentzis, MusicAeterna, et al.: Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto & Stravinsky Les Noces — I don’t give a shit about the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Really, I can’t even tell you how little I’d normally care to hear another recording of this mouldy, overdone repertory warhorse. And it frustrates me to no end that people keep recording it when there are actual living composers writing music (and needing money). And it frustrates me to no end that I basically can’t tell the difference between any of those recordings. So, if you’re going to record this piece, I will almost certainly not care. This recording made me care. It is a totally insane interpretation, with a seat-of-your-pants spontaneity to it such that Currentzis’ orchestra sometimes struggles charmingly to keep up with Kopatchinskaja. I’m sure that there will be many classical fans and critics who will meet it with tut-tuts of disapproval. But to me, this is the standard to which we should hold classical musicians. The question shouldn’t be “how well do these musicians offer us the standard reading of this piece,” but “how do these musicians make this piece new?” Classical musicians should be expected to go back to the score and interpret it afresh every time — like Glenn Gould did, and the late Christopher Hogwood. Every other approach is lazy. This came across my desk a while ago. I wouldn’t have taken it out of the shrink wrap if not for Stravinsky’s Les Noces. But, as fantastic as Currentzis’ Stravinsky is, it’s the Tchaikovsky that sells this. That is something I thought I’d never say. Maybe this whole classical music thing has a future after all. Pick of the week.

Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels — Their second album has been one of my favourites for ages, but I was yet to hear the first. This needed to be rectified. I like this a lot, but there’s nothing on this that hit me quite like “Close Your Eyes,” “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” or “Crown.” But El-P is a hell of a producer, and both he and Killer Mike take some fantastic verses.

Literature, etc.

A week of reading excellent writing on the internet. Also David Day’s Alice annotations, but you know about that already.

Hasit Shah: “Poor Lonely Computer: Prince’s Misunderstood Relationship With The Internet” — A glorious longread from NPR Music, this doubles as a rare inside look into Prince’s exclusive Paisley Park concerts and an exploration of digital copyright law. It’s totally ingenious, and Shah knows exactly who to talk to to make the points he wants to make.

Nitsuh Abebe et al.: “25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music is Going” — This New York Times Magazine feature is a completely over-the-top surfeit of awesome. Instead of limiting their impressive stable of staff and guest writers to the 200ish word blurbs that are standard in these kinds of lists, the NYT lets fly with a collection of op-ed style pieces and full-on reported features. (I realize now that the entire issue of the print edition is devoted to this one feature. Nice.) Of particular note are the long pieces about hip-hop group The Internet and session drummer Matt Chamberlain. And Marlon James’ long analysis of Kendrick’s “The Blacker the Berry” takes the final prize. Plus, my perpetual favourite Caroline Shaw made the list! This is no mere, vapid listicle. This is a proper thing.

Kieron Gillen: “The New Games Journalism” — If these Omnireviewer posts have taught me anything about myself, it’s that I’ll never be a “gamer.” I just don’t have the damn time. But I do love games as a medium, and I’m fascinated (and frequently disgusted and appalled) by gaming culture. And if there’s anybody associated with that culture who I trust to be interesting about it, it’s Kieron Gillen. This is an essay he wrote three years before launching Rock, Paper, Shotgun, which is essentially a manifesto arguing that a writer’s personal experience with a game is more important in writing than the mechanics of the game itself. That makes it basically transferrable to every discipline, and I’d encourage anybody who writes about the arts to check this out. In terms of its specificity to games journalism, though, Gillen manages to coin the wonderful phrase “travel journalism to imaginary places.” (Also, Gillen uses the line “just saying it could even make it happen” from Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting” to justify his enterprise, as if his essay is a sort of incantation. That seems to me like a precursor to the idea that music is magic — the premise of Gillen’s Phonogram.)

Games

SOMA — It’s been ages since I played this, because it got too scary. I can handle jumpscares and things chasing me down dark corridors. But when unknown consciousnesses start trying to talk to me through monitors, the willies come on something fierce. I think I’m close to the end of the game now, but I wanted to check in here a bit in advance to gripe about a truly godawful bug that forced me to do one of the game’s scariest chapters twice. There’s a moment where you need to use an item to unlock a door and it’s supposed to be automatic, but it just… doesn’t happen. After some Googling, I found that others had this same problem, and when they reloaded their save files from the previous chapter, it works. But that entails having to traverse the darkness of the ocean floor, teeming with anglerfish, for a second time. And my nerves have their limits.

Podcasts

I’m suspending Radiotopia reviews in case I decide to enter Podquest.

You Must Remember This: “Charles Manson’s Hollywood” parts 5-12 — This series tells an enormous story with such finesse. I haven’t got much to add to what I said last week, except that it continues as brilliantly as it starts. Longworth makes late 60s Hollywood seem extremely rotten. She emphasizes that Manson was part of a larger counterculture that was becoming poisonous by 1969, but that studios were still falling over themselves to monetize. And her detour into the post-Manson life of Roman Polanski is just as disturbing as the murder narrative. Seriously, what a wretched creep. I have quibbles, as you do. I wish Longworth wouldn’t do silly voices when she reads quotes. She should either get an actor, like she often does, or read the quotes straight. I wish she wouldn’t use the phrase “and/or” so much — and in her tagline, no less. But altogether, this is a unique and wonderful use of the podcast medium to tell really dense, resonant stories. I can’t recommend it enough. Pick of the week.

Radiolab: “Debatable” — Okay, now we’re back in the territory that I like Radiolab to occupy. The question here is basically “How do you engage in debate when the very structure of debate is designed to exclude you?” The answer that this episode’s protagonist Ryan Wash comes up with is “Always debate the structure of debate.” I loved this. As a sidebar, if you want to get really mad, go read the comments on this and “The Cathedral” on the Radiolab site. I agree with some of them that Radiolab isn’t what it used to be, but those aren’t the episodes to gripe about. How typical of the internet that the episodes that prompt so much bullshit are one that engages with systemic racism and another that features an indie game. If there are two things that internet fuckwits hate, it’s challenging racism and indie games.  

On the Media: “Print is Back, Back Again” — This episode gives us the actual, not that pessimistic state of the publishing industry, an inside look at Amazon’s super weird bricks-and-mortar location, and the knowledge that used books are sometimes sold by the foot as decorative objects in particular colours. Really good.

Imaginary Worlds: “Why They Fight” — I probably will not watch Batman v. Superman. But it’s cool to hear Molinsky parse the relationship between those two characters in terms of D&D character alignments. God, but I’m a nerd.

All Songs Considered: SXSW coverage — This encompasses All Songs’ hour-long preview of little-known artists they’re excited to see in Austin and their nightly debriefs after full days of, presumably, sensory overload. It’s fun to hear Bob Boilen and co. in this environment, which is presumably where they would all like to spend their entire lives. They do a great job of capturing the vibe of the place. One of these years, I’ll go.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Hamilton” — At last. I’ve been looking forward to the PCHH panel seeing Hamilton about as much as they were probably looking forward to seeing Hamilton. If you’re in any way remotely skeptical about this universally and justly beloved high-water mark of human creativity this ought to allay any doubts. As Lin-Manuel Miranda himself put it on Twitter, these guys really went in. Linda Holmes reveals how Hamilton calls back to every great Broadway musical ever (though she skips the Jesus Christ Superstar homage, maybe intentionally), and Gene Demby does the same with its references to much of the history of rap. I am so glad that all four of them loved it so much, because this is one of those cases where I’m totally okay with the hive mind. As far as I’m concerned, anybody who doesn’t like Hamilton stands revealed as a charlatan. This episode is also the perfect example of why I like PCHH so much better than Slate’s Culture Gabfest. This is both more analytically incisive than their episode on Hamilton, and also much funnier.

Reply All: “Earth Pony” — This is both named after and most notable for its magisterial “Yes Yes No” segment. The main segment is a fairly unremarkable but basically fun bit about a fictional, but nonetheless successful political prognosticator. But it’s that “Yes Yes No” featuring Jason Mantzoukas in the role of Alex Blumberg that really sells this. It might be the best that segment has ever been.

Serial: “Thorny Politics” — Oh no, now Trump’s involved. Two things I’ve loved in this season have been the actual narrative of Bergdahl’s life, capture and imprisonment; and the political ramifications of his release. This, therefore, is one of the best episodes of the season, focussing as it does on the latter of the two.