Tag Archives: John Congleton

Omnibus (week of Oct. 1, 2017)

So, I know y’all are here to read my compulsive ramblings about stuff that other people make, but I’ve recently got off my ass and made something myself. It’s a horror-tinged comedy podcast about a fictionalized version of Mark Zuckerberg, as he traverses all 50 states of America, trying to prevent A VERY BAD THING from happening to Facebook. It is called Mark’s Great American Road Trip, and you can learn more about it here and subscribe to it here.

I’m making this show with Nick Zarzycki, the creator of the tech satire site Gawken and the guy I used to make the Syrup Trap Pod Cast with. He writes, I make sound nice. We have been working on one version of this show or another for a stupidly long time, and I am very happy that it now exists. We’ve got some crazy storylines on deck for the first chunk of this show’s existence, and I really think it’s going to turn out to be one of the strangest and most specific fiction podcasts made thus far. If you think that might be up your street, subscribe. There’s an introduction and a full episode waiting for you in the feed right now. And if does turn out to be up your street, you’d be doing us a huge favour by rating and reviewing it in Apple Podcasts, and also singing its praises wherever praises can be heard.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled babble. It’s one of those instalments where neither pick of the week is a podcast because there are two much more deserving non-podcast choices. Also, there is a surprising amount of Rolling Stones music. 

30 reviews.

Movies

The Thing — This is a great movie to watch in a group. I actually haven’t ever seen it any other way. The last time I watched The Thing was at a double feature in my high school’s theatre. I remember that it underwhelmed me, probably only because we’d watched The Shining immediately before. I liked it a whole lot more this time around. The gore effects are very of their time, but that somehow doesn’t make them any less visceral. Also, having watched both Alien and Blade Runner recently, it’s pretty clear that this owes a massive debt to the former, and is at least on the same wavelength as the latter, which came out the same year. From Alien, it gets its premise of “people are trapped in an incredibly isolated place with a terrifying monster.” But it adds to that a story mechanic that defines Blade Runner, which is uncertainty about who is human and who isn’t. The Thing’s use of this mechanic for suspense more so than theme prefigures another Blade Runner-adjacent franchise: the modern Battlestar Galactica. If you combine the existential questioning of Blade Runner’s Replicants with the uncanniness and subterfuge of the Thing, you’ve basically arrived at Cylons. Definitely a classic.

Blade Runner — This was the second time I’ve watched this in the past few months, because the last time I was super tired and spaced out and couldn’t follow the story. I watched it like a gorgeous moving painting. This time I focussed more, because I’m super excited about the sequel. And it dawned on me, two viewings later than one might expect, that Blade Runner is one of the best movies ever made. Its visual style and production design is the real star — it is maybe the most distinct and immersive visual style in any movie that isn’t made by Terry Gilliam (and I suspect that Brazil owes a conscious debt to this). But the final cut of Blade Runner (presumably the best one) is also a beautifully subtle and assured piece of storytelling. The way the movie twins the stories of Rick Deckard and Roy Batty is a thing of beauty — both of them are essentially the heroes of their own simultaneously-occurring movies. Both of them are searching for something and both are forced to ponder the nature of humanity for different reasons. And that’s what makes their final rooftop confrontation, and Roy’s death, so meaningful. (Well, that and a truly remarkable performance from Rutger Hauer, who makes Roy quite possibly my favourite movie villain. His only competition is Albert Spica from The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. But Michael Gambon makes no attempt to humanize that motherfucker.) The subtlety with which this cut of the movie implies that Deckard is a replicant is also masterful — the fact that the unicorn dream is never explicitly discussed is of course necessary for the plot, but it’s also admirably trusting of the audience to put two and two together. And Vangelis’s music is one of the glories of film scoring. It should feel dated but it doesn’t, because it doesn’t sound like anything else from this period that we can associate it with. It is specific to the hazy, dreamlike world of this movie. A couple of much-needed rewatches in the past couple months have me rethinking the list of my top ten movies that I’ve been carrying around in my head for the last few years. This may yet make the cut. Pick of the week.

Napoleon Dynamite — I spent Thanksgiving with some lovely friends who were aghast at my having never seen this movie. Frankly I’m surprised I hadn’t seen it also. My friends in high school were not so much people as collections of references from this movie. Of course, I didn’t know that then. Napoleon Dynamite is an unlikely hybrid of the first two Wes Anderson movies, except dumb. It takes its lowbrow hucksters plotline from Bottle Rocket and its high school redemption story from Rushmore. Its listless performances and static framing are straight from Anderson’s playbook. So are the characters’ senses of loss and alienation. But the similarities end there. Napoleon Dynamite is a shaggy, deeply weird movie whose jokes all give the uncanny feeling that they’re funny because they’re referencing something, except they’re not. Maybe that’s because I’ve lived the past thirteen years in a world where “Tina, you fat lard, come get some dinner” is a thing people say, and I am only now learning it’s from something. Still, the humour of this movie is extremely difficult to pin down and I don’t know if I liked it or not. I laughed. I can’t tell if I laughed in spite of myself or not.

Television

The Blue Planet: Episodes 1-3 — Firstly. Now that we’ve got that out of the way: The Blue Planet is extraordinary and fascinating, but what’s really remarkable is how far camera technology has come since 2001. This precedes the first Planet Earth, let alone its astonishing 2016 follow-up. And while it is beautiful, it is markedly less beautiful than either of those. I am beyond excited for Blue Planet II, which will be arriving in the next couple of months. I have no doubt that it will be even more astonishing than this is. All that said, this is pretty damn astonishing, and the episode about the deep sea is particularly great. The farther you get from the sun, the more fucked up the lifeforms on this planet get. The anglerfish in particular seems like the creation of a mad god. Without David Attenborough’s authoritative voiceover, the deep sea episode of this series would seem like David Lynch adapting H.P. Lovecraft. It’s awesome.

Literature, etc.

Anna Weiner: “The Millennial Walt Disney” — This week in “things that made me scream into a pillow,” a story about a young entrepreneur who is opening locations of a strange institution called “The Museum of Ice Cream,” which is neither a museum not an ice cream shop but a place you can go to take good Instagram pictures of yourself. I hate this about people my age. I hate it I hate it I hate it I hate it I hate it I hate it. This is apocalyptic craziness and you’d be best advised to read it the way you’d read a story by Thomas Ligotti. These are bad, bad times.

Stephen King: The Waste Lands — Before I actually picked up my first Stephen King novel a couple of months ago, I didn’t understand the appeal. This, after all, was the author of the Haunted Car Book, and also the Haunted Dog Book. If these premises put me off before, they no longer do. Because the one truly terrifying monster in the Dark Tower series thus far is… a pink monorail. Here is a man who can frighten with any set of tools. The Waste Lands is far and away my favourite Dark Tower novel so far, and probably one of the best adventure page-turners I’ve ever read. Where The Drawing of the Three was essentially a break from the story begun in The Gunslinger — a semi-contrived set of hoops to jump through that introduces some crucial new pieces to the board but doesn’t actually move them anywhere — The Waste Lands really sets our characters off on a journey. It’s the first time in the series where the size of the story is really evident. The Dark Tower is no longer dreamlike and free-associative, but driving and purposeful. And it arrives at this point without sacrificing any of its Wonderland-esque uncanniness. In fact, this volume establishes that the gunslinger’s world, which has famously “moved on,” is several orders of magnitude stranger and more diverse than we could previously have suspected. We only got glimpses of this world before: a desert and a bizarre technological ruin in The Gunslinger; a beach full of monsters in The Drawing of the Three. This book serves us up our first real glimpse of society in this world: a small town of gentle elderly folk, and a raving mad city of brutal killers, haunted by the ghosts of dead machines. The weird wrongness of the world King establishes here reminds me of the deep sea creatures in the nature documentaries I’ve been watching — you get the sense that the place itself, let alone everybody in it, has lost its mind. Without spoiling too much, there’s a moment somewhere in the book’s outstanding final hundred pages where one of its characters contemplates the aforementioned monstrous pink monorail and realizes what a crazy story he’s in. “Welcome to the fantasy version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Even Stephen King thinks this book is nuts. I love it. I’ve never read anything like it. Pick of the week.

Music

The Rolling Stones: Some Girls — The consensus best post-Exile Stones album is in my view better than many pre-Exile Stones albums. I daresay I’d put it ahead of Beggars Banquet. Far from being the sound of the Stones catching up with the times, Some Girls is the sound of the Stones imposing themselves on the times. Nobody’s going to mistake “Miss You” for a track by an actual disco artist, or “Shattered” for a song by a punk band. Because if there’s one thing the Rolling Stones cannot do, it is not sound like the Rolling Stones. Even when they’re cribbing bits from other musical idioms, they still play loose rock and roll, and that’s what makes this album great. It’s the sound of a band challenging themselves to do new things and rediscovering their own identity in the distance between their own idiom and others. I like that Ronnie Wood at least got to play on one classic Stones album. Because he’s a good guitarist with a distinctive sound, and he meshes with Keith Richards better than Mick Taylor, a better instrumentalist, ever did. I particularly love his solos on “Beast of Burden” and the little fills between lines of the title track. Wood’s defining contributions to the band will always be as a live player, since the vast bulk of the band’s classic material predates his time in the band. But Some Girls gives him material that’s worthy of him for the only time on a studio record. (Maybe I shouldn’t say that, since I haven’t actually heard Tattoo You. But judging by other latter-day Stones music I’ve heard, it seems like a safe generalization.) Favourite tracks: “Beast of Burden,” “When the Whip Comes Down,” “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me).”

The Rolling Stones: The Rolling Stones — Ohhhh boy the 10-hour Rolling Stones mono box set is on Apple Music. We’re doing this. My enthusiasm for the Stones comes in waves. I’ve barely listened to them since my last period of intense obsession in grad school, and suddenly I want nothing more out of life than track after track of Mick yelping at me between squalls of loud guitar. I guess I just feel a real need for very analogue music in my life right now. I’m honestly not quite sure which among the pre-Aftermath Stones albums I’ve heard, but I’m certain I haven’t heard any of them more than once. Which is probably unfair to some of them, but this isn’t one. It’s the U.K. version of their debut record. (The U.S. version, titled England’s Newest Hit Makers, is not included in the mono box, presumably because it only contains one track that this doesn’t. “Not Fade Away” is thus relegated to a bonus disc at the end. Still, the box includes both versions of Aftermath, when the U.S. version of that also only has one unique track. Whatever the logic, what matters is that absolutely everything released in mono is here. My most compulsive self rejoices.) It’s amazing to think of how successful this was in its time, given that it has zero tracks that have become Rolling Stones classics. There’s an alternate history where they were also-rans. I imagine that as I progress through this set, it’ll become clear when specifically that alternate history became untenable. I suspect it’s somewhere around Out Of Our Heads, but it might be sooner. I think my favourite track is probably their rendition of “Route 66,” which features a close to fully-formed sounding Keith Richards, and which also emphasizes the interplay between him and Brian Jones that makes the early recordings so great, and that they wouldn’t attain again until Ronnie Wood joined the band. In general, it’s not a classic, but it’s good fun, and if it had one track as good as “Please Please Me” it might stand up to the Beatles debut. Also, it seems like a missed opportunity to put “Now I’ve Got A Witness” before “Can I Get a Witness” in the running order. A minor point.

The Rolling Stones: 12×5 — I don’t know if I think this is an improvement on the first album or not. It has more originals but at this point Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are not anywhere near as good at writing songs as the R&B songwriters they cover. That’s ultimately what separates early Beatles from early Stones: on the early Beatles albums, you kind of wait out the covers in anticipation of the next Lennon/McCartney track. The same can’t be said of Jagger/Richards. Not yet. I’ll keep you posted about when in my perusal of the Stones mono box set I first encounter a classic track. This one almost has one in “Time is on My Side,” but it isn’t the more familiar version. Soon. I’ll take “Under the Boardwalk” as my favourite track, because it cracks open the window to an alternate version of Mick Jagger who honed his voice around an ideal of sweetness rather than grit. His instrument contains both facets, but only one could emerge victorious.

The Rolling Stones: The Rolling Stones No. 2 — Ah! We have a classic track. It’s the second version of “Time is on My Side.” That guitar intro makes it. I’m not sure if it’s just that I’m really starting to get into this mid-sixties shuffley rock feel after three albums, but this sounds like the point where the band really starts to swagger. “Down the Road Apiece” is a fabulous boogie track with the fantastic Ian Stewart on piano. Probably my favourite deep cut so far in the catalogue. Also, hearing the band that hasn’t yet written “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” do a song called “I Can’t Be Satisfied” is delicious. I suppose this is bit of a rarity, given that 12×5 was the “second album” of choice for the CD releases. But this is superior (and, by and large, a totally different album) to its American counterpart, owing to songs that were recorded a few months after the latest track on 12×5, which was rushed out to the American market before the hometown crowd got their second LP. Okay. Now onto the American album that’s got most of these same songs. What a befuddling discography.

The Rolling Stones: The Rolling Stones, Now! — At some point during this marathon, we were always going to have to address Mick Jagger’s fake black blues singer voice. It is very distasteful and it comes out in more explicit form in these early recordings than it does in the late 60s and early 70s classics. The influence is still there at that point, but it’s just that: an influence, not an impression. The spoken intro to “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” is the second-most egregious example of this that I’ve taken note of, aside from in “Goin’ Home” from Aftermath. Anyway. This is basically The Rolling Stones No. 2, but a bit better because it’s got “Heart of Stone” and “Little Red Rooster.” By this time, the Jagger/Richards songwriting team is starting to seem like it might amount to something after all. It’s the first album to have two acknowledged Stones classics on it (those two). At this point, each successive release is becoming increasingly solid and consistent. This is very much a “we’re nearly there” album. Also, it’s hard not to do a double-take hearing Mick Jagger sing the line “here come old flat top” in 1965. (It’s a Chuck Berry song. There was a lawsuit. Berry and Lennon settled out of court.)

The Rolling Stones: Out of Our Heads (U.S. version) — Here we have the most gigantic leap forward in the Stones discography with the possible exception of Satanic Majesties to Beggars Banquet, which wasn’t so much a leap forward as a total refocus. At long last, the originals match the calibre of the covers — mostly because the covers can’t really reflect the changes in contemporary music of the time, whereas Jagger and Richards have definitely been listening to Dylan. The folk influence and the baroque pop of “Play With Fire” (my favourite song in the catalogue up to this point) point forward to Aftermath. And “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” spelled out the death knell for the skiffle-influenced lilting rock and roll that was once the British Invasion’s default feel. There’s not a hint of anything so effete as “swing” in “Satisfaction.” Four to the goddamn floor. I don’t actually like it very much, but when you hear it in the context of the Rolling Stones’ full early discography, there’s no denying it’s a watershed moment. There’ll be hints of that old shuffle feel straight through the catalogue, but “Satisfaction” is the moment when you can hear that this band will eventually do “Brown Sugar” and “Street Fighting Man.” This is such a good album that I’m actually super glad the next thing in this mono box is a different version of it.

The Rolling Stones: Out of Our Heads (U.K. version) — The American labels’ habit of putting more singles on the albums than the British ones didn’t do the Beatles any favours — it just demoted some of their great album cuts. But the American Stones albums up to this point are often better, if only because the inclusion of the singles amps up the ratio of originals to covers, which by this time is a good thing. This British version of Out of Our Heads starts and finishes stronger than its American counterpart, with a blistering cover of “She Said Yeah” and Mick Jagger’s thesis statement “I’m Free.” But it doesn’t have “Play With Fire,” “The Spider and the Fly” or “Satisfaction,” which makes it feel less like a transition to the Stones’ classic period than just more of the same. Also, I always get a kick out of that moment in “I’m Free” where Charlie Watts suddenly loses track of the beat. It’s such a weird moment to make it to record.

The Rolling Stones: December’s Children (And Everybody’s) — Wow, that’s a very 60s title. It’s almost shocking really, from a band who always presented as the slightly chilly, cynical gadflies who wouldn’t follow the hippie trends for the sake of it. (This notion will disintegrate when we get to Satanic Majesties, about which my feelings are complicated.) It’s a mixed bag, containing tracks from a span of two years, and it doesn’t even try to cohere. However, it does contain two hitherto unheard tracks that stand out: the slightly mawkish but irresistible “As Tears Go By,” and the tremendous bolt of energy that is “Get Off of My Cloud.” This latter track is in my view a new high bar for the band. I don’t see the appeal of “The Singer Not the Song,” frankly. A relatively inessential part of the Stones’ rise.

The Rolling Stones: Aftermath (U.K. version) — Here we fucking go. This is so astronomically better than any previous Stones album it’s almost hard to believe. Exile On Main Street is the Stones album that’s most famously exploratory and sprawling, but Aftermath almost feels like a very early rehearsal for that. It’s almost twice as long as Out Of Our Heads, and five times as diverse. Presumably, this is the album that earned Brian Jones his reputation as the band’s sonic explorer: his dulcimer, organ, and koto playing pulls the band at last into the mid-sixties. Plus, this is the first album with no covers. It is the album where the Rolling Stones cement themselves as creators of original music. Alas, it is also the album where they take up the mantle of “massively problematic cultural institution.” (It’s possible that these two phenomena are not unrelated.) Right off the bat, we get “Mother’s Little Helper,” which has a guitar sound the like of which hasn’t been heard from this band before, and a great riff too. Also, it is is both sexist and dismissive of mental illness. Next up is “Stupid Girl,” one of the album’s lesser tracks, so its misogyny isn’t quite so hard to reconcile. Then comes “Under My Thumb,” and we’re three for three in the “dodgy attitudes towards women” category. Even “Lady Jane” presents a shameless cad as a romantic figure — though this last example is richer and more complex than the others. Jagger often reads as a parody of lunkheaded chauvinism from a modern perspective. “Lady Jane” is an unlikely prototype for “Tumbling Dice” in this way. And while it seems unlikely that Jagger is in on his own joke, “Lady Jane” has a barely perceptible whiff of insincerity about it that shields it from being quite as retrograde as “Under My Thumb.” And it isn’t just sexism that rears its head on Aftermath: Jagger’s borderline minstrel show vocal performance in “Goin’ Home” is one of the most embarrassing moments on any classic album. But I’m going to stop this now. The problems on Aftermath should be obvious to anybody with half a brain, and they shouldn’t be glossed over. But they are large flaws on a wonderfully inventive near-masterpiece of a record that is essential listening for anybody remotely interested in 60s rock music. If “Out of Time” doesn’t give you a huge charge, I don’t think there’s any hope that you’ll ever like this band. This is also the point where I can finally comment knowledgeably about the quality of the mono remasters that I’ve been listening to so far, having spun the stereo iTunes master many times. In general, I prefer the mono mixes, as is the case with the Beatles and basically all other music from this period and prior. But there are certain instances where the stereo mixes’ very artificial separation of instruments between the two channels highlights details that fall by the wayside here. Specifically, I like the way the fuzz bass on “Flight 505” comes out in the stereo mix better. There are other minor examples, but I still think the mono is the way to hear these records. I’m really looking forward to seeing how the next few sound in this format.

The Rolling Stones: Aftermath (U.S. version) — I don’t know why this was even included in the mono box. The American version of Aftermath is confounding: eleven minutes shorter, and missing some of its British counterpart’s best tracks. (What is Aftermath without “Out of Time?”) The only track unique to this version is “Paint It, Black,” which is admittedly a much better opening than “Mother’s Little Helper.” I am always surprised at how effective that track is considering the extent of its overexposure. “Paint It, Black” is still haunting. It may be the Rolling Stones track that depends the least on whether you actually like the Rolling Stones. Certainly, I remember loving this song before I acquired the taste. “I see a red door and I want it painted black” is a line so far above Mick Jagger’s statistical average that I don’t even know what to think. This is one of those rare songs where he seems to have gotten outside of himself. It’s a relief to not be listening to him sing about his lack of respect for women. Plus, the arrangement is killer: the sitar is the obvious point of attention, but the seven-note guitar line that comes midway through each verse (e.g. after “I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes) is the touch that really makes it. Aside from “Paint It, Black,” though, this is a hatchet job of the British Aftermath. For one thing, eliminating “Out of Time,” “Take It Or Leave It,” “What to Do” and “Mother’s Little Helper” (a musically outstanding song, in spite of its problems) means that a greater percentage of the album’s running time is taken up by “Goin’ Home.” If you’re going to eliminate eleven minutes of Aftermath, it should be these eleven. On one hand, I admire the Stones and their record labels for committing to a track this long and this formless. It’s a statement of ambition. But listening to a group of not very distinguished musicians jamming on a half-baked blues tune is not fun. Anyway, this version of Aftermath is a weird experience I won’t partake in again.

The Rolling Stones: Between the Buttons (U.K. version) — I might actually like this better than Aftermath. It is less sprawling, less adventurous, and ultimately less important to the band’s development. But it’s charming in a way that other Stones records aren’t. This is the album where the band’s posh side comes out, and is immediately subjected to lacerating satire. “Cool, Calm & Collected” has a music hall element that is more familiar as part of the Beatles’ sound. But where Paul McCartney inhabits that music naturally, Mick Jagger creeps around its edges and only ironically sticks the occasional toe in. Same goes for “Something Happened to Me Yesterday,” a song I don’t entirely understand my own affection for. (Though it might have something to do with Keith Richards’ first lead vocal performance. He is my favourite Stone by a mile, so maybe it’s a Pavlovian response.) Here is a music hall song that is seemingly about a drug trip. What the hell is that about? Anyway, “She Smiled Sweetly” is one of my very favourite Rolling Stones songs, and this album is fantastic. I will say, this is the rare album that I actually prefer the American version of. “Ruby Tuesday” and “Let’s Spend the Night Together” are among the band’s best singles (and their singles during this art pop period are unassailable) and they fit in well on this album and give a hooky jolt. I miss “Back Street Girl” on that version of the album, but “Please Go Home” isn’t much of a loss. Still, should’ve been “Yesterday’s Papers” that got the chopping block. It’s the album’s least exciting song, and the fact that it opens the British version might be the primary strike against that version. Also, this is astronomically better in mono. The stereo mix of Between the Buttons is super hacky.

The Rolling Stones: Flowers — I’d never heard this collection of singles and oddments for the American market before. On one hand, it’s hard to understand the necessity of another American disc containing “Ruby Tuesday” and “Let’s Spend the Night Together” so soon after Between the Buttons brought those same two songs to the States. But that’s a bit moot, because I frankly like this collection of songs better than either of the primary albums associated with the Stones’ art pop phase. (Yes, even better than Aftermath.) If I were to recommend one album from prior to the Stones’ imperial phase, this might well be it. It has everything: gorgeous acoustic ballads (“Ruby Tuesday,” “Back Street Girl”), spirited rock and roll (“Let’s Spend the Night Together”), weird quasi-psychedelia (“Mother’s Little Helper,” and the marvellous single “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing In the Shadow?”), credible R&B (“Out of Time,” a half-decent cover of “My Girl”) and a pair of Aftermath outtakes that would have been album highlights (“Ride On, Baby” and “Sittin’ on a Fence”). These last two were both songs I’d never heard before, and “Sittin’ on a Fence” strikes me as one of the great hidden gems of the Stones catalogue. Flowers is the best collection of songs from my second-favourite phase in this band’s career (after the classic early 70s albums). If only it had “19th Nervous Breakdown.” A note on the mono: “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby” is one of the rare tracks that I prefer in stereo. The mono version is an indiscernible mass of noise. Stereo separation, even too much of it, does it good.

The Rolling Stones: Their Satanic Majesties Request — This is an album that I’d like to be able to mount a more spirited defence of than I’m actually going to. This is the moment in the Rolling Stones’ career where they did outright psychedelia for one album, then immediately reverted to gritty rock and roll. Frankly, I think psychedelia is a fundamentally better kind of music than gritty rock and roll, and I wish the Stones were better at it than they are. But I agree with this album’s harshest critics that this is a moment where it didn’t pay for the Stones to leave their lane. The incremental experimentation of the albums before this did wonders for them. Much later, their flirtation with modern styles on Some Girls would work as well. But this album finds the Stones fundamentally altering their way of doing things. This is a sound collage as much as an album of songs, and that is not something this band excels at. Still, I don’t understand the critics who see this as a post-Pepper bandwagon jump, because this album has as much to do with Sgt. Pepper as it does with Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens. Where Pepper was meticulous, this is loose and jangly. I have a taxonomy of psychedelia that I personally find useful: psychedelic albums are either “Peppers” or “Pipers,” the latter category named for Pink Floyd’s debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Peppers are meticulous, fussy and colourful. Pipers are messy, experimental and spontaneous. This album is very much a Piper. Also, it has some classic songs on it. “She’s a Rainbow” is straight up one of my favourite Stones songs, and “The Lantern” features the arrival of the dirty, simplistic guitar fills that I love Keith Richards for. “2000 Man” is fun too. The rest of the album is deeply unconvincing, but worth a listen just because of what an anomaly it is.

John Congleton and the Nighty Nite: Until the Horror Goes — Turns out this is still awesome. I went so hot and cold on this last year that I remember having a small crisis about whether to put it on my year-end list at all. (I did, and placed it very high.) Sometimes I think it’s a bit adolescent in its worldview, i.e. nothing has meaning. But in a world as horrifying as the one we’re currently living in, it feels more comedic than it used to. I hereby renounce my reservations. This is one of the best albums of the decade.

Podcasts

Reply All: “Is That You, KD?” — After last week’s reported story, they deserve a Yes Yes No double-header. Hearing Alex Blumberg explain something to P.J. Vogt and Alex Goldman for a change is delightful.

On The Media: “After Vegas” & “More Human Than Human” — Brooke Gladstone’s post-crisis reality checks are always appreciated, and this week’s full episode touches on the Las Vegas shooting, country music, and Blade Runner. Terrible weeks are often good weeks to listen to On The Media.

The Daily: Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017 & Friday, Oct. 6, 2017 — I tuned in to catch up on Las Vegas and Harvey Weinstein. The world is bad.

The Outline World Dispatch: “Google’s algorithm & AI’s heritage” — This podcast is good for daily tech news. It’s also really wise not to try and compete with The Daily or NPR’s Up First (which I’ve never heard and don’t feel like I need to hear) by actually covering the major stories. I should listen more, and I may yet do so.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Battle of the Sexes and What’s Making Us Happy,” “The Princess Bride And Remembering Tom Petty” & “Blade Runner 2046” — Three fun episodes. I must say, the transition to a bi-weekly schedule has not at all blunted my love for this show, the dynamic of which is still the most amiable in the pop culture panel show space. The retrospective on The Princess Bride is especially strong.

Twenty Thousand Hertz: “Level Up” — This story about sound design in video games was something I wanted in my life at this specific moment, and it’s good fun. It’s particularly fun to hear the elements of a game’s soundscape isolated into foley, environments, voices and music.

The Gist: “Facebook’s Data Monopoly” — I will be reading Franklin Foer’s book as soon as I damn well can. This interview is a good companion to his piece in the Atlantic adapted from the book, because Mike Pesca asks challenging questions.

Radiolab: “Driverless Dilemma” — At the start of this episode, Jad apologizes for how over-the-top the sound design in the old episode they play is. I like that old version of Radiolab better, honestly. I wish they’d still do that sometimes. This is a quite terrifying update of a story about the trolley problem, in which it seems that self-driving cars will constantly be subjected to the trolley problem and will likely tend to sacrifice the life of the rider rather than the several potential victims outside of the car. Scary stuff, and good stuff too.

More Perfect: Season two, episodes 1-3 — I have consistently been enjoying More Perfect more than Radiolab for the last two years. This season’s opening salvo is powerful stuff, particularly in the second episode, which focusses on a terrible decision just before the Civil War that introduced legal language that continues to define the state of race relations in the United States to this day. Looking forward to more.

Fresh Air: “The Platinum Age of TV” — This interview with Fresh Air’s own TV critic David Bianculli is surprisingly personal, and very good. Bianculli has one of the great critic stories about why this medium means something to him. His mother died when he was very young, and in the worst stages of his illness, she took refuge in the rise of the Kennedys. When J.F.K. was assassinated, she was asleep. Bianculli’s father bade him to remove the TV from her room and take it into his. She couldn’t know the news until the whole family was there to help her deal with it. In the meantime, Bianculli watched news coverage of the Kennedy assassination in his room, alone. The power of this medium made itself clear very early in his life. This is lovely stuff.

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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.

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.