Tag Archives: John Peel

Things I loved in 2015: Nos. 5-1

After much suspense, here are my top five things of 2015, including what I recognize is a hopelessly idiosyncratic number one that nobody who reads this will ever check out. But I’ve tried to be honest with myself about what I got the most enjoyment out of this year, and there’s really nothing that compares. Here are five incredible things:

No. 5 — Mad Max: Fury Road

Here is how fight scenes in movies generally work: there are two sides, the two sides fight, and one of them wins.

In Mad Max: Fury Road, there’s a scene where Max and Furiosa fight over a truck. They don’t know each other, and neither one necessarily wants to kill the other, but they both need the truck and they’ll do what they have to do.

There are a few complications. Firstly, Max is chained to Nux: an unconscious man who wants both combatants dead. There are five women standing by, who have nothing against Max, and who Max is not attempting to harm. Nonetheless, they need Furiosa to win. They aren’t trained fighters, so if they’re going to contribute they need to work together and be crafty. Also, Furiosa has one arm, though it’s doubtful whether this is actually an encumbrance for her.

Midway through the fight, the hostile unconscious man wakes up.

There are so many moving parts, here. Eight people, two gradations of combat expertise (Max, Furiosa and Nux as opposed to the other five), three separate allegiances (Max to himself, Furiosa and the five women to their own cause, and Nux against them all), and a chain holding two key combatants together.

The entire movie’s like that. Plots and motivations occur in miniature over the course of the extended chase scene that the whole movie basically is. I’ve never seen anything like it.

When I started writing this, I told myself I wouldn’t use this movie as a stick to beat other action movies with, but screw it. The reason Mad Max: Fury Road is the first proper action movie to get nominated for Best Picture in my lifetime is that it’s the only one that’s remotely deserved it. The entire genre seems lazy and vapid by comparison.

Self-evidently the best movie of the year.

No. 4 — Sunless Sea

Since this is the only game on the list, indulge me in a few extra words.

If 2014 was the year when I rediscovered video games, 2015 was the year when I realized the limits of my own tastes. Of 2015’s most notable games, there were many that I either had no interest in, didn’t love, or couldn’t runFortunately, the one game that I really adored this year is so vast that you can (and I did) spend a tremendous amount of time with it and be consistently enthralled. Sunless Sea, for the unfamiliar, is a game that’s approximately equal parts text adventure and roguelike. (I am now the kind of person who knows what that sentence means.)

In the game, you’re the captain of a vessel on a vast underground ocean. You’re living in a version of the 19th century where London was sold to a consortium of devils, fell far beneath Earth’s surface, and became a hilarious Lovecraftian parody of itself. As a captain hailing from this Fallen London, you spend the game making journeys of various lengths from home to a huge number of other creepy, surreal ports, and back. Your journeys from place to place allow you to freely explore the “Unterzee” in your craft, in a beautifully designed top-down view. But when you make port, the story is told entirely through text, aside from a few very expressive illustrations.

This ingenious design choice means that the game’s many stories can take some incredible turns. In Sunless Sea, it’s possible for the writers to include an island where time collapses: they just need to write all of their sentences in different tenses.

Sunless Sea has gotten a lot of well-deserved attention for its inclusiveness: there are characters of all races, genders and sexualities, and the game makes no impositions on your own character’s particular traits or background, or with whom you seek out relationships. (I play as a genderfluid poet, though I am neither of those things.)

It’s also gotten well-deserved attention for the superlative quality of its writing. Oftentimes, when we say that a game’s well-written, we’re grading on a very steep curve. Not here. Sunless Sea boasts top-flight comedic prose, and when the story turns dark or frightening, the writing shifts to adapt. The game speaks in a consistent, stylized voice, right down to the format of the names of characters: the Alarming Scholar; the Irrepressible Cannoneer; the Tireless Mechanic. It’s that attention to detail that makes Sunless Sea so convincing.

But, its real genius is that, rather than allowing itself to be governed by a single narrative throughline, Sunless Sea sets up hundreds of intertwined story threads for you to pull on depending on what interests you at any given time. I can see myself returning to this game for years to come. In a year where there was almost nothing in this medium of interest to me, Sunless Sea made me glad to live in a time when people can make a thing like this.

(If you’re considering shelling out for this, try the browser-based game Fallen London first. It’s not as immersive, but it’s free and features the same style of storytelling.)

No. 3 — Lin-Manuel Miranda: Hamilton: An American Musical

I once made the mistake of trying to sell a friend on Hamilton by calling it “a hip hop musical about America’s first treasury secretary.”

To be fair, that is how Hamilton tends to be sold. They hook you with the novelty of “history through rap.” But that one-liner does Hamilton a tremendous disservice. This isn’t a novelty; it’s the greatest work of musical theatre since Sondheim was at his peak.

There’s a point to telling the story of Alexander Hamilton by way of hip hop — I mean, as opposed to choosing some other story. First off, Lin-Manuel Miranda (the MacArthur genius who built this thing from the ground up) saw a classic hip hop narrative in the story of Hamilton: an immigrant who made it to George Washington’s inner circle through sheer grit and ingenuity.

But also, by telling this story by these means — and, crucially, with a multi-racial cast — Miranda is able to drive home one of the most important ideas in modern America: that the content of history depends entirely on who gets to tell the story.

Hamilton isn’t just a great musical. It’s also a more insightful historical narrative than the film and television industries have been able to muster for some time.

No. 2 — The Memory Palace

memory-palace

My favourite song of the year isn’t even a song; it’s an episode of The Memory Palace.

I can listen to “Craning” over and over, and it never loses its impact. It has specific turns of phrase that get lodged in my head for days. I take notice of a new detail every time. I can’t listen to it when there are people around because I can’t be sure I won’t cry.

“Craning” is about the launch of Apollo 11, but that doesn’t begin to cover what it does. No summary of any episode of this show can actually reflect the experience of listening to it. Nate DiMeo, the guy who made this podcast with no assistance until a couple of weeks ago, is the best writer in podcasting. Nobody can match his ear for an effective phrase, or his ability to imagine details in tiny moments in history. At the launch of Apollo 11, L.B.J. isn’t just there; he’s there in a blue suit and no sunglasses, “just that Hill Country squint.”

I’m going on about this one episode, but that’s just the one that hit me specifically. Nearly all of them are brilliant. You might enjoy the story about the first American woman to file a patent. Or, the one about the turbulent relationship between an ornithologist and his aristocratic wife. Or, the one about men who went mad from inhaling toxic gasses in the factories where they worked.

Something from The Memory Palace will hit you, and it won’t stop spinning around in your head for a while.

No. 1 — David Cavanagh: Good Night and Good Riddance: How Thirty-Five Years of John Peel Helped to Shape Modern Life

good night good riddance

My favourite kind of non-fiction tells a huge story through a narrow lens. David Cavanagh’s second book is the best example of that I’ve ever seen.

The story he’s telling is the story of counterculture in England between the late ’60s and the early ’00s. Hippies, punks, indie kids, goths, rappers. It’s a story of political radicalism and incremental social change. It’s the story of how modern Britain came to be a place whose margins are strangely intertwined with its mainstream.

The lens that he tells it through is the BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel.

It is impossible to communicate what a masterstroke this approach is without throwing up your hands and saying “just read it.” The various incarnations of Peel’s radio show were all kaleidoscopic showrooms for the deepest, strangest music from out of England and elsewhere. So, Cavanagh just picked 265 of Peel’s shows from across more than three decades, and used them as a map to trace the path of British culture.

Cavanagh is as compelling a tour guide as you could hope for, tying each show in with the day’s news, the politics of the BBC, Peel’s personal life, and the state of the music industry.

I’m not selling this. I couldn’t possibly. Go to Amazon and read the free excerpt right now. They give you the whole introduction. No music geek — no person interested in culture in any capacity — will not love this.

Nothing else I consumed this year inspired, informed and entertained me like Good Night and Good Riddance. I feel like I need to find something else like this immediately, but I also know that it doesn’t exist.

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Omnireviewer (week of Dec. 27)

My best of 2015 list will be ready by, oh let’s say the end of January. That’ll give me time to finish Three Moments of an Explosion and see Star Wars. In the meantime, I took advantage of the holidays to take in all sorts of fun stuff. And since podcasts make up a comparatively small amount of it, I’ve taken the liberty of awarding my picks of the week to two non-podcasts. Here are this week’s 27 reviews.

Television

Doctor Who: “The Husbands of River Song” — Well. In two consecutive episodes, my two favourite supporting characters in Doctor Who get marvellous sendoffs. The comedy in this plays wonderfully, but it’s the character drama between the Doctor and River that really sells this. That scene at the dinner table midway through really got me, though I’m not sure if it was the script and performances or just Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll playing in the background. Even if the resolution is a bit of a deus ex meteors and everybody ends up a bit in meteors res, it’s still a delightful romp. My only regret is that this is the first and last time we’ll see Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston in these roles together. Because they are every bit the pair that Kingston and Matt Smith were. Lovely.

Deadwood: Season 1, episodes 11-12 — Firstly, I’ve really been enjoying Todd VanDerWerff’s essays on Deadwood from his days at the AV Club. In spite of being bundled up into sets of three episodes, they’re among his best writing: up there with his Sopranos reviews and the few seasons of Mad Men that he covered. Anyway, these last two episodes of Deadwood’s first season are outstanding. If the second season keeps the pace of these last three episodes, I’ll be a happy viewer. But I’m going to take a break from this before diving into that season, to watch Mildred Pierce as part of an ongoing Todd Haynes pilgrimage. But I’m really looking forward to seeing how the second season manages to be more acclaimed than the first.

QI: “Merriment” — Bill Bailey is dressed like Paul McCartney on the Sgt. Pepper’s cover!

The Graham Norton Show: “David Beckham, Carrie Fisher, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega & Kylie Minogue” — I could not love Carrie Fisher more. Also, why don’t more late night talk shows have multiple guests at once? Not many shows could give us David Beckham and John Boyega fighting with toy lightsabers and narrowly missing Kylie Minogue’s head.

Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee: “President Barack Obama” — Certain parts of this are a bit stagey, as you’d expect. But I’m always quite impressed by Obama’s ability to play himself in stuff. Really, though, you should watch this to see a president in a frame of mind where he doesn’t feel the need to pitch messages all the time. It’s not the Marc Maron interview, but it’s in the same vein and it’s got some funny moments.

Doctor Who: “The Eleventh Hour” — This was the first piece of media I consumed in 2016. It’s a great start, really. To my year, and to the Steven Moffat era of Doctor Who. By the end of this episode, any attentive viewer has Moffat’s game pegged, at least on a metafictional level: Amy is introduced as a diegetic insert of a Doctor Who fan, so we can assume even at this point that her story will be about what it means to love Doctor Who. As fresh starts go, this is one of the greats.

Sherlock: “The Abominable Bride” — And so would this be, if it hadn’t turned out to be something else entirely. I shall say no more, because spoilers. I will say this: I love that Benedict Cumberbatch plays a substantially different Sherlock in Victorian garb than he does in the modern stories. The other characters in Sherlock have always been fairly consistent with their portrayals in Conan Doyle. But the moody sociopathy of Cumberbatch’s modern Holmes is straight out of contemporary anti-hero television. It was a canny choice by Cumberbatch (and by Moffat and Gatiss) to strip back that element of his character and allow this Holmes to be the dour Victorian eccentric that he started off as. I had as much fun watching this as I’ve ever had watching Sherlock, no doubt partially because Moffat and Gatiss write Victorian witticisms with spectacular aplomb. But somehow, I’m left wondering if the fun that I had actually reflects the quality of the episode. There’s a sort of messy gratuitousness to this that almost matches that insane wedding episode from the last season. Still, there are enough bon mots and meta-critiques in this that I remain quite positively disposed to it.

Music

Frank Sinatra: Nothing But The Best — This is a compilation of Sinatra’s best singles for Reprise, which is not where he did his best work. His earlier Capitol recordings are the real reason he’s a legend. But still, there something about this more relaxed version of Sinatra that’s just better for putting on and pottering about doing other things. You can’t do that with In The Wee Small Hours, because it’ll make you cry all over your laundry.

Hawkwind: Hall of the Mountain Grill — I’ve never actually gotten around to listening to a full Hawkwind album, but the recent death of Lemmy seemed like it necessitated a spin of this. It took me back to a time when I was discovering music like this regularly. In spite of never having heard it, this fits right into the established grooves in my brain. “You’d Better Believe It” is a serious jam. More Hawkwind to follow, probably.

Caroline Shaw/Roomful of Teeth: Partita for 8 Voices — There’s something about vocal music that has the capacity to inspire sheer, giddy joy more easily than other idioms. I’d heard the Passacaglia from this spectacular piece many times, but I figured it was time I checked out the other three movements. They’re playful and emotive and hold the hell out of your attention. Roomful of Teeth is a vocal ensemble unlike any other and Shaw, being a member, knows what they’re capable of. She takes full advantage of the group’s technical capacities to the point where listening to the music becomes both an emotional experience and something like watching a really impressive high-wire act. A Pulitzer is not praise enough. Pick of the week.

Lou Harrison/Dennis Russell Davies et al: Symphony No. 3 & Grand Duo for Violin and Piano — Why Lou Harrison’s music isn’t at the centre of the repertory by this point is a mystery to me. His third symphony is one of the loveliest and most accessible pieces from late 20th-century America. If the classical music world made sense, conductors would be scrambling to put out full Harrison cycles rather than more goddamned Mozart.

Rush: Grace Under Pressure — I tend to make a lot of the first music I listen to in a given year. This time, I finished 2015 off with what was once the first side of this (with “Headlong Flight” thrown in for good measure — the perfect song to end a great year). On the walk home after midnight, side two rang in 2016. Given that this is one of the darkest Rush albums, I’m choosing to interpret my choice as a cautionary tale: I’d best not initiate any nuclear wars this year.

Rush: Permanent Waves — A perennial favourite. I love Permanent Waves so much that I have trouble listening to any other Rush album without immediately following it up with this.

The Chemical Brothers: Surrender — This really feels like Daft Punk in places. Which certainly isn’t a bad thing, but given the choice between psychedelia throwbacks (more prominent on both Dig Your Own Hole and Further) and French house, I’ll go with the former every time. “The Sunshine Underground” is a jam, though.

Literature, etc.

David Cavanagh: Good Night and Good Riddance — Finished! God, I loved this. Maybe it ended a little abruptly, but it’s such a minor problem in the face of everything that comes before that I don’t actually care at all. More shall be said about this in my year-end list, I’m sure. (Fated to be more of a “year-beginning list,” it would seem.)

China Miéville: “The Dusty Hat” — Do you ever read something, or see something that you don’t understand and that makes you like it more? It sort of pulls you in by its sheer incomprehensibility? That doesn’t happen to me all that much, but when it does, the thing in question often becomes an all-time favourite. It happened with Mulholland Drive, At Swim-Two-Birds, Trout Mask Replica, and a bunch more I’m forgetting. On first read, “The Dusty Hat” is very much like those things were. It has far and away the most adventurous and best prose of the stories in Three Moments of an Explosion so far and is immensely imaginative in its details. (A particular favourite: “I was glad I didn’t have a cat or a dog because I thought they’d die from being in the room with him.”) Overall, I kind of don’t know what even happened in this story. But I definitely enjoyed it more than any of the others in this collection, with the possible exception of “The Buzzard’s Egg” — which was immediately comprehensible and thus in a strange way less promising. If I remember, I plan to read this again right when I finish the book. Pick of the week.

China Miéville: “Escapee” — One of the pleasures of Three Moments of an Explosion is these little tiny stories of fewer than five pages, which often follow the larger stories like “The Dusty Hat.” This one’s an outline for a movie trailer — the second one of those in the book — for a movie about a man with a large hook embedded in his back. I actually wouldn’t mind seeing that movie, provided it were written by Miéville and directed by Robert Rodriguez.

Movies

Captain Phillips — My impression from the reviews was that this was only okay and mostly notable for being super Oscary and having a great performance by Barkhad Abdi. Both of those things are true, but I thought this was terrific overall. Paul Greengrass is a meat and potatoes director, who just gets out of the way of the story. That approach makes this totally gripping. The screenplay flags in scenes that aren’t ruthlessly procedural and full of people making decisions, i.e. the very beginning of the movie, where we meet Phillips’s family, and the quick pep talk he gives to his crew about a half-hour in. It would have been a better film with those two scenes removed altogether. But once the action starts, there are no weak points. Near the end of the movie, Tom Hanks’s performance is so good that I almost understand why he’s so esteemed.

The Hunting Ground — I watched this at a New Year’s Eve gathering. Yeah, I say “gathering” advisedly, because this is not a documentary you watch at a “party.” It is appalling, and not especially surprising to anybody who pays attention to these things. It is worth seeing. There are moments in this where a simple fact will appear onscreen as an intertitle, with seven or eight studies cited as sources for that fact. Those moments are surprisingly powerful, and bolster the personal narratives related by survivors of campus sexual assault, which are really difficult to take.

Vertigo — Yeah, I’d never seen Vertigo. It’s great, obviously. Maybe a little dated. It has a particular sort of expository writing that you don’t see much of anymore. Plus, Jimmy Stewart is definitely an actor from the 50s. And his character is probably the most conspicuous private eye in cinema history. Seriously dude, there’s no way she doesn’t see you there behind that pillar. It’s stuff like that that kept me at arm’s length, a bit. I suppose you’ve got to approach these old masterpieces on their own terms, but there are plenty of movies older than this that I find completely fresh and immediate even today: The General, Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game, Sunset, tons more. On first viewing, the fact that this has now surpassed Kane in the estimation of the world’s critics (as per the last Sight and Sound poll) seems totally ridiculous to me. But I certainly wouldn’t argue with anybody who claims that Bernard Hermann’s score is the best in film history. Favourite line: “I’ve been right here all the time putting olive oil on my rubber plant leaves.”

Games

Undertale — Okay. So, if my last note on this made it seem like I’d finished the game… I hadn’t. I assumed I was close enough that I could basically offer a final assessment, but at the very last minute, Undertale turns into something dramatically different from and stranger that what it sets you up to think it is. I won’t spoil it, but I will say that the ending of Undertale is a complex metafiction of the sort that never fails to pull me in. I’ve seen these themes explored more effectively in other games (to say which ones would almost be a spoiler), but this is going to stick with me for a bit. Last week, I had this pegged as “worthwhile.” Now, I daresay it’s closer to essential. I had it pegged for a pick of the week until I got blown away by “The Dusty Hat.” Interestingly, they’re both things I don’t entirely understand.

Kairo — There are basically two things I’m looking for in a video game: a great story, and/or an interesting world that I can explore freely. If a game doesn’t have at least one of those things, I’m unlikely to be that interested. Steam has been recommending Kairo to me for ages, but I’ve been hesitant because it seemed like a game with no discernable story and a very minimal sort of environment with lots of puzzles. (I’m queasy about puzzles.) But it was on sale for a dollar this week, so why not. Turns out, it’s kind of the platonic ideal of a game. By that, I don’t mean that I’m blown away. More “pleasantly satisfied,” really. But you could easily point to Kairo to demonstrate what’s valuable about video games, and why they’re unique from every other medium. Kairo has nothing in it that could be done in a movie or a novel or a radio play. It’s purely the experience of “play” that makes up the content of Kairo. You explore and interact with your surroundings, and if you see something that suggests a story might have taken place here at some point (and you do) you can certainly surmise about it, but you’re not actually part of it. Kairo doesn’t require narrative conventions to make you feel stuff. Instead, it keeps a firm hold on its pacing and mood to make you feel by turns placid, proud and creeped out. Considering that it’s the most abstract game I’ve ever played aside from possibly Tetris (or SPL-T, I guess), it’s enormously effective. If you like this sort of thing, grab it while it’s still a dollar and spend a pleasant afternoon.

Kentucky Route Zero: Act 1 — Yeah, there’ll be more games than usual in the near future, since I can’t control myself during the Steam holiday sale. I’ve been meaning to play this for ages, but I’ve been waiting for the much-delayed Acts 4 and 5 to come out so I can down it in one big gulp. But then, you know, Steam sale. Kentucky Route Zero is the kind of game that I’m obviously going to like, in exactly the way that Kairo wasn’t that. It’s text-based to the point that it’s basically a Twine story with graphics — gorgeous, moody graphics. It’s mysterious and uncanny without being outright scary (which will almost certainly make it more preoccupyingly frightening to me in the end). And it wears its structural gimmicks on its sleeve. This was made for me. My favourite moment so far was something I stumbled upon by accident: an area where you can’t actually do anything except watch two men push a broken airplane down a road. It’s like something out of Beckett. Seems to bear no relation to anything, but it’s been sticking with me. I can tell already that this is going to be one of those games where the actual gameplay is only half of the interactive experience and the other half is trying to work out what the hell it all means. To be fair, we shouldn’t hold a game in higher esteem for being this way: this is a kind of interaction that comes attached to every medium. There’s a quote I heard once but can’t quite place — I think it might be Hitchcock — something like “the most important act in a movie is the fourth one, where you’re talking about it on the drive home from the cinema.” In that sense, all fiction is interactive fiction, Kentucky Route Zero is not significantly more interactive than Vertigo, and is thus fundamentally different from Kairo. I don’t know where this game is going. But I’m super excited about it.

Podcasts

Mortified: “Boys DO Cry (w/ special guest CHVRCHES)” — It was the “special guest CHVRCHES” bit that sold me, but the two stories of sensitive teenage boyhood are worth the price of admission. (What a strange expression to use about a free podcast. Never mind, I’m done with this.)

99% Invisible: “Bone Music” — In the Soviet Union, western pop records were bootlegged on exposed x-rays. They sound ghostly and ethereal. This podcast tells the story (which includes an interview with Nikita Khrushchev’s son) and also plays sound from some of the records. It’s produced in collaboration with the Kitchen Sisters. So basically, everything about this makes it worth a listen.

Serial: “Escaping” — The first really interesting episode of this season. And, it’s interesting because of the tape of Beau telling his own story. Looks like we’ll have less of Koenig explaining stuff from here on out, which in general is a good thing.

Radiolab: “The Fix” — Stories about addiction can get a bit heavy, and Radiolab can sometimes take heavy stories and make them oppressively bleak. But this isn’t like that. It’s interested in the personal stories of addicts, but it’s more interested in the story of how our perception of addiction has prevented us from taking known medical steps that can help some addicts recover.

Omnireviewer (week of Dec. 20)

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

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

Television

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

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

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

Music

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

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

Literature, etc.

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

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

Games

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

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

Movies

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

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

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omnireviewer (week of Nov. 15)

Only 23 reviews, this week. Dear me, what could I have been up to? No, I’m seriously asking. I don’t remember anything I did in the past seven days that I didn’t write down.

Games

It’ll surely be a rare week that I write about four games. But hey, I had a free Sunday.

Stasis — Finished, at long last. This was not at all worth the time or money. It’s laden down with bad writing, bad acting, one-dimensional characters, a hackneyed “science gone wrong” plot, needless brutality, an uninteresting atmosphere, and the most predictable last-minute twist imaginable. The bulk of the story is told through diaries lying scattered haphazardly around the ship, each of them containing secrets that these characters would never have dared to write down, let alone just leave out in the open for anybody to find. I would have been willing to suspend my disbelief in this, if only the story told by the diaries were compelling, the characters were believable, or — at the very least — the prose were written competently. Maybe it’s petty to pick on an indie title that was apparently made by, like fifteen people. But that’s exactly the kind of game out of which I would expect something unique. Instead, this is a stew of familiar genre tropes out of which nothing new or interesting emerges. The fact that this is accruing significant acclaim demonstrates the extent to which I don’t understand video games. Fine. I’m happy to remain a dilettante in this particular field.

Sunless Sea — Oh, but then there’s this. I’ve been playing Sunless Sea on and off for the better part of a year. It’s the sort of game where you can do that, because it’s not linear; it’s a giant web of stories that you can explore as you like. And it is so vast and fascinating and nuanced and beautifully written that I never tire of it and it makes me thankful to live in a time when things like this can exist. If you somehow don’t know about this, read up on it, play its free cousin Fallen London, and then if you’re still not convinced, just buy it anyway because it’s that good. A lovely palate cleanser after a sub-par gaming experience.

SPL-T — This is the sort of thing I normally wouldn’t even bother reviewing. It’s not a game like the above-listed entries here are games. It’s a game like Angry Birds is a game. Or, more relevantly, Tetris. It’s not a discrete unit of cultural experience. It’s a pastime. Which is just fine, but that makes it the sort of thing I’m not usually into. But, the reason I’m interested is that it was made by the Swedish game developers Simogo. And, since we’re in a games-heavy week, I may as well take this opportunity to nail my colours to the mast — Simogo are the best game developers in the world. They do interesting, outside-the-box things with mobile devices, such that three of my favourite mobile games ever (favourite games, period, really) are made by Simogo: Year Walk, The Sailor’s Dream, and especially Device 6. SPL-T has nothing to do with any of those narrative-rich, immersive experiences. It has more in common with their early, casual games like Bumpy Road, except that it’s far more minimalistic. Like, Space Invaders minimalistic. It’s fun. But I’m not sure what they’re driving at here. I used to think that Device 6 was Simogo’s Sgt. Pepper, and The Sailor’s Dream was their White Album. But maybe this is their White Album. Maybe this is the inscrutable piece of concept art that will keep people talking about Simogo for decades to come. Or maybe I’m overthinking this, as ever, and it’s just a fun, retro little puzzle game. Either way, lovely.

Papa Sangre — What with me being a radio geek who sometimes plays games, I was inevitably going to play Papa Sangre at some point. This is a game with no graphics — only sound. Given what I like sound to do, I would certainly prefer there to be more story in this. But I must say, that game where you try to find something while blindfolded as somebody says “warmer… colder” is a lot more tense when there’s a carnivorous hog sleeping fitfully in the room. And that is unlikely to happen in real life.

Television

Last Week Tonight: November 8 and 15 — The thing that stands out most to me in either of these episodes (aside from John Oliver’s bizarrely cathartic profanity-laden response to the Paris attacks) is Mike Birbiglia playing a guy who’s strangely proud of having lost all his money playing fantasy football.

Doctor Who: “Face the Raven” — Oh, god, I just. Okay. Let’s just make a simple comment, because if I talk about my feelings I’ll make an ass of myself. Over the course of the past two seasons, Steven Moffat has brought in two writers that I wouldn’t mind seeing as showrunner when he departs: Peter Harness (still my frontrunner) and now Sarah Dollard. This is outstanding. Pick of the week.

Music

Musically, it was a week of work-related classical listening. So, I’m either not reviewing those or will subsequently be writing them up elsewhere. Here is what remains:

Kid Koala: Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: Kid Koala is astonishing. Listening to this, I can hardly quite understand how it was made. He’s a virtuoso turntablist, no doubt. But I still feel an echo of an old complaint: this feels like “a very attractive coat that nobody’s wearing.”

NoMeansNo: Wrong — Another revisitation of a Two Matts assignment. This is one of those albums where my favourite songs keep changing. That’s a good sign. At first, I liked “The End of All Things” and “It’s Catching Up” best. These days, I seem to prefer “Rags and Bones” and “All Lies.” It occurred to me listening to this recently that the verse in “All Lies” is nearly an Indian classical pastiche — minus the obligatory sitar and tablas. There’s a clever juxtaposition: a key trope of Flower Power music — which even today is conceived as a plausible moment zero for “pop as art” — keeps getting interrupted by Rob Wright shouting “all lies!”

The Smiths: The Smiths — I love The Queen is Dead so much that I can’t believe I’ve never heard any other Smiths albums. It was time that changed. This isn’t as good as that that album, but it’s only a hair’s breadth behind it. I do wish Morrissey would just never ever sing in falsetto, though. Not a good look on him.

The Smiths: The Queen is Dead — This was bound to happen. When I hear a new thing by an artist I like, I always end up going back to the old favourites. There are very few albums I’ve discovered in the years since, oh, let’s say my 22nd birthday, that really matter to me. This is one.

The Smiths: Meat is Murder — Okay, if we’re going to do this, let’s do this. Can’t say this one quite works for me as well as the debut or The Queen is Dead, but the Smiths are a band that I can listen to almost regardless of what songs they’re playing because I just love the noise they make. Though I do prefer Morrissey once he’s learned to sing more-or-less in tune. He’s getting there on this, but there’s a ways to go. We will continue our survey of the discography (including relevant ephemera) in the coming week.

Comedy

John Mulaney: The Comeback Kid — It’s amazing that anybody could still have funny things to say about marriage. Or kids. Or pets. Or minivans. Or Bill Clinton. But this made me laugh out loud about all of those topics. I never laugh out loud watching stand-up. This is really, really funny.

Literature, etc.

Jonas Tarestad/Simon Flesser: Year Walk: Bedtime Stories for Awful Children — The other thing I love about Simogo is that they have versatile enough talents at their disposal to just take a break from video games and put out an illustrated e-book instead. Or a podcast the caliber of professional radio drama. Or whatever The Sensational December Machine is. And it all turns out good. I’m sure this was basically intended as an ad for the new(ish) Wii version of Year Walk. But, a collection of horrifying Swedish folktales told similarly to the Grimm fairy tales constitutes a pretty fantastic ad. The last one in particular is spectacularly, arbitrarily brutal.

David Cavanagh: Good Night and Good Riddance — Apparently the Smiths owe their early success to Peel and his producer John Walters. Imagine. Also, there’s so much music covered in this book that sounds interesting, and I don’t have remotely enough time to investigate all of it. One day, I’ll just skim through the chapters covering the years after 1977 and listen to as much of what Peel played as I can.

Kelly Sue DeConnick/Valentine De Landro: Bitch Planet, Volume 1 “Extraordinary Machine” — This is mighty powerful stuff that I would force everybody in my life to read if I could. It’s a rare and wonderful thing when fiction has the power to incite righteous anger even in people who aren’t specifically afflicted by the injustices it illustrates. This might have been pick of the week, but it was last week’s, so Doctor Who takes it.

Podcasts

I rolled my ankle a while back and haven’t been running much, lately. That’s put me behind on my podcasts, of which there are only eight this week. Shocking, I know. How will I ever catch up?

Love and Radio: “Points Unknown” — The approach of this podcast makes each episode essential almost by default. Love and Radio finds people with stories and perspectives that fall outside most people’s experience and then says, “we’re just going to listen to this person for a while.” The interviewers are present, but off-mic, which gives the impression that every time out, the show belongs to a different person — a monthly guest host. It totally changes the power dynamic of the radio interview. Sometimes, people say horrifying things on this podcast, which can be troubling given that atypical power dynamic, where the interviewer’s voice is secondary. But the underlying philosophy is that it’s better to listen to people than not to, and I agree. There’s nothing objectionable in this episode, but there’s plenty that’s shocking. It isn’t a standout episode of Love and Radio, but it’s still outstanding.

The Moth: “Wedding Dress, Prison Choir, and a Hotdog” — The first story is by a producer on Amy Schumer’s show and is predictably hilarious. It dives from there. The second story in particular is rough listening, and not in the good way that The Moth sometimes is. It’s trite. There are clichés o’plenty. And maybe I just wasn’t in the mood, but I didn’t find the show ever recovered after that.

99% Invisible: “The Landlord’s Game” — The board game Monopoly originated as an interactive parable on the ills of capitalism. I will be bringing this up in conversation at my own earliest convenience.

The Truth: “Where Have You Been?” — I love the sound of this podcast, every time. But there’s often something in the writing that doesn’t click for me. Sometimes it’s jokes that fall flat. But usually, it’s a sort of furrowed brow seriousness that’s just totally unrelenting. It can get a bit like that scene in Life’s Too Short where Liam Neeson is just too serious to function. Except not played for laughs. This story is clever and well acted, but there’s a bit of brow-furrowiness in there. The Song Exploder episode tacked onto this is great, though. It breaks apart the Radiotopia station ID, which was made by the producer of The Truth. It’s amazing how much can go into a couple seconds of audio.

The Allusionist: “Toki Pona” — Okay, this justified all of the cross promotion. Nate DiMeo and Helen Zaltzman learn the smallest language in the world. It’s wonderful, and at some point Zaltzman expresses perfectly what I fear and despise about learning new languages: “I’m just going to be a nothing in other languages. Everything that I consider to be myself will just be nullified by my inability to speak properly.”

All Songs Considered: “Music for Healing” — An elegiac instalment of All Songs, with the Paris attacks in mind. Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton’s choices of “comfort music” are heavy on spare, drifting post-Eno instrumental music, with a bit of pensive indie rock thrown in as colour. Actually, it’s a spectacular playlist for any day — not just the day after an international tragedy. I’ll be checking out more music from Nils Frahm and Goldmund, for sure. Pick of the week.

The Memory Palace: “Shore Leave” — An average episode of The Memory Palace, which still makes it one of the best podcasts of the week. It uses music more playfully than usual, which is nice. I’m almost glad that this show is on hiatus until January, because it’ll give me time to listen through the entire list of back episodes. There must be about 60 that I haven’t heard.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Master of None and Neal Shusterman’s Challenger Deep” — If this podcast has a weakness, it’s that there’s seldom very much dissent among the ranks. This time around, Glen Weldon disagrees with the rest of the panel on Master of None, which is refreshing. Having not seen the show, it doesn’t seem like his critique is especially worthwhile — it seems like just another instance of Weldon being allergic to anything that vaguely flirts with earnestness. But it’s nice to hear the others debate him.

Omnireviewer (week of Nov. 1, 2015)

If for some reason you make a habit of reading these, you’ll quickly realize that I like everything. You’re unlikely to see any real hatchet jobs here. I just like to enthuse about things, mostly. Here are your 32 reviews for the week:

Music

Vulfpeck: Thrill of the Arts — It’s funk produced with the minimalist precision of Krautrock. The arrangements are one unconventional decision after another. The choice to minimize the role of the drum kit at times is a weirdly good one. And the lyrics are brilliantly nonsensical. One of those unexpected pleasures.

David Bowie: Young Americans — In his book on John Peel, David Cavanagh refers to this as “the sound of [Bowie] cruising through black America in a limousine, occasionally slowing down to shed a few more parts of himself by the roadside.” I can’t do any better than that.

David Bowie: Station to StationYoung Americans was an only-half-successful experiment, but if it led to the insight that produced Station to Station, it was entirely worthwhile. This is my favourite Bowie album save for Low, and some days Hunky Dory. On the other hand, after listening to this and Young Americans in direct succession, my headphones are now coughing out thick clouds of cocaine. So, that’s inconvenient.

The Beatles: Rubber Soul — I just realized that my listening today has included soul of both plastic and rubber persuasions. Aside from that, what’s there to say about this? For years, it was the earliest Beatles album I cared to listen to. I’ve since developed a taste for the early stuff. But I still think this marks the point where they went from being a good little band to being the Best Band Ever. Not my favourite band, mind. But if you want to say to me that the Beatles are objectively the greatest band in history, I’ll tend not to argue with you.

Ted Hearne: The Source — First off, the track “We called for illumination at 1630” is one of the most staggering things I’ve heard recently. It’s an instant classic that everybody should hear. Most of the rest of this deeply unorthodox oratorio is less excellent than that. I sure respect Hearne’s political engagement (the oratorio’s text is drawn from the Manning leaks, among other primary sources). But it all feels a bit earnest to me: a bit austere and serious, as if to say, “This is important! DO NOT SMILE.” Still, it feels wrong to dismiss this on one listen. Accusing a work that deals with Chelsea Manning and the war in Afghanistan of being overly serious is admittedly somewhat perverse. I do wish more composers would try stuff like this. And that one track. Holy smokes. Listen to it now.

Eve Egoyan/Linda Catlin Smith: Thought and Desire — This is the first I’ve heard of Linda Catlin Smith’s music. It’s quite static, and at times there isn’t much to latch onto as a listener. Each of the nocturnes, chorales and miscellaneous compositions on this disc of piano music is essentially a sequence of slow moving but very rich chords without melodies stringing them together. Shades of Satie and Brian Eno. I listened while I worked, and eventually found myself really getting into it. I find the last twenty minutes boring, but the first forty are lovely. Egoyan’s releases are always worth hearing, because she plays music that nobody else does, and plays it well. Even if this isn’t quite as enthralling as some of her previous discs, these are still world premiere recordings and I value that inherently.

Mr. McFall’s Chamber: Solitudes — Who knew there was such a thing as Finnish tango? In any case, this is an album that takes that style as its jumping off point, and proceeds to do my favourite thing for contemporary classical albums to do: be completely enthralling while containing music written almost entirely by people I’ve never heard of. There’s nearly an hour of music by composers I don’t know, compared with less than ten minutes of music by composers I do. That seems about the right ratio. Olli Mustonen’s Toccata and Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Dedication are particular highlights. And the playing!

The Chemical Brothers: Further — I’ve already written at length about how happy this album makes me on Two Matts, the blog I co-write with Matt Meuse. It was one he assigned me, knowing full well I’d be into it. But he might not have guessed that I’d still be listening to it semi-obsessively several weeks later.

Live events

Hey Rosetta! Live at the Vogue — I’ve only done this a couple of times: that thing where you go to a concert by an artist you’ve barely heard of. But the friend I went with has seen them eight or nine times, so he was well-prepared to give me the lowdown on these folks beforehand. Plus, the concert turned out to be a good way in. Hey Rosetta! is a great live band for a couple of reasons. First, they play and sing brilliantly. Not a given, as we know. It’s the bands whose execution is solid that you want to see live. Secondly, their songs can get a bit anthemic. You want to be in a crowd of people, listening to some of those songs. I’m especially glad to have been at this specific show because Yukon Blonde was the opening act, and the two bands did their 2015 election anthem “Land You Love” for the first time live as an encore. Lovely moment, there. Plus, the lighting design was clever: twenty-or-so incandescent bulbs were distributed across the stage on stands. At times, the stage lights would go off completely, leaving the band lit solely by those bulbs. Wonderful. Time to listen to some Hey Rosetta! albums.

Movies

The Zero Theorem — You know you’re truly in love with an artist when you even enjoy the works of theirs that you can objectively identify as bad. This is how I am with Terry Gilliam. I’m on record stating that my favourite movie is Brazil, and that remains true on all the days when it is not Mulholland Drive or Velvet Goldmine. Then there are the Gilliam movies that are basically accepted as good, which I believe are masterpieces: 12 Monkeys, The Fisher King, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. There are the misunderstood gems, Tideland and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, both brilliant. And so it goes, on down to Brothers Grimm and Jabberwocky, neither of them any good at all, both of which I like in spite of myself. The question with The Zero Theorem was never “will I like it,” but rather “which of those categories will it fit into?” Turns out, it’s the one with Tideland and Parnassus. Nobody likes this, but it’s great. Gilliam’s satire continues to be a hilariously blunt instrument, and his gender politics are extremely suspect, but this is an enthralling movie. It probably helps that it’s the most similar thing he’s done to Brazil. It’s full of signs and boxes and advertisements you should read but can’t, because everything goes by too fast. It’s got David Thewlis as a cut-rate Michael Palin and Christoph Waltz as a big-budget Jonathan Pryce. It’s got women wearing outlandish things on their heads. I was never not going to like this.

Television

Doctor Who: “The Zygon Invasion/Inversion” — Well, the season got off to a slow start, but we’re sure as hell into the thick of it now. This two-parter was completely magnificent. Still not quite as good as last season’s high points (which were, incidentally, also written by the two writers credited here), but damn good. Between his Doctor Who work and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, Peter Harness is quickly becoming my second-favourite writer associated with Doctor Who. And if “space ISIS” isn’t quite as good a premise as “the moon’s an egg,” at least we got Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman both giving their best-ever performances on the show.

Last Week Tonight: November 1, 2015 — Nothing here that will set the world ablaze. No dingo babysitters. But it’s always nice to hear somebody say “hey, maybe we should focus on actual present-day news instead of talking about an election that’s a year away” and then doing that thing.

Literature, etc.

David Cavanagh: Good Night and Good Riddance — This continues to be fantastic, and really lent some clarity to the rise of punk rock. While I’ve become considerably more amenable to punk in recent years, I still have some lingering skepticism. But, when you see on a show-for-show basis how boring music was in 1975-76 (LOTS of Eagles and other Eaglesy bands on the radio), you begin to understand. Also, Cavanagh cleverly notes how many of the artists on certain Peel shows from this period were living in tax exile. Sort of puts a nice fine point on things, doesn’t it?

China Miéville: “The Buzzard’s Egg” — This is one of the best stories I’ve gotten to in this collection so far. Miéville’s stories live and die on the novelty of their premises, and this premise is really something: an army of ruthless imperialists conquer peoples and take their land by stealing their idols, thus rendering their prayers useless. Piquant, no? And Miéville’s chosen just the right narrator to offer a window into that world.

Alex Bilmes: Noel Gallagher interview for Esquire — I don’t really like Oasis. I’ve never listened to a full Oasis album. But I love interviews with Noel Gallagher. And this one is gigantic. Bilmes has the restraint to say his piece at the beginning, and then just give the people what they want, which is 6,500 words of Noel being garrulous and abrasive. Sample: “Hard work and a fucking filthy tongue, that’s what I inherited from my mum. She taught the Nineties how to swear. And what’s the word, stoicism? Yeah, she was hardcore. She didn’t give a fuck.”

Ben Grossblatt/Alex Fine: How to Speak Klingon — A few friends and I have been going to pub trivia around Vancouver for a year or so. There’s a nerd bar here called the Storm Crow that’s becoming a favourite for its fairly challenging questions and its Cthulhu altar. This was a first place prize, and it is frankly ridiculous that I’m even reviewing it. It is a children’s board book with buttons that make sounds. It is not a serious thing. That said, it is better than it needs to be. Wookiepedia tells me that in addition to this most minor of Star Trek credits, Grossblatt has also written peripheral fiction pertaining to Star Wars. And the illustrator, Alex Fine, did covers for Newsweek when Newsweek still had covers. So, they’re not hacks. This provides useful phrases for various contexts in Klingon society. Like, on public transportation, it teaches you the phrase for “I don’t have exact change and await my just and devastating punishment.” Or, at the office: “There are no bad ideas, only ideas meriting death.” Or, at karaoke: “Hold me closer, tiny dancer.”

Games

Stasis: Howlongtobeat.com tells me it should take me about five hours to beat this game. Reviewers imply that they played it in an afternoon. I’ve played for nine hours over the course of two weeks, and I don’t feel like I’m nearly done. I’m really bad at this, aren’t I?

Podcasts

The Allusionist: “Criminallusionist” — Radiotopia cross-promotion continues. I’m beginning to wonder if this is a straightforwardly good thing or not. The bulk of this is just a full episode of Criminal, and while that’s nothing to complain about, I did actually tune in for The Allusionist. Maybe this is how Marvel Comics fans feel when they complain about big crossover events?

This American Life: “The Heart Wants What It Wants” — The major highlight of this is Shankar Vedantum’s story about men who were conned into paying for love letters from fictional women. The key takeaway is that I should probably start listening to Vedantum’s Hidden Brain, although do I really have time for another podcast? (Evidently yes, as we shall see.)

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “A Conversation with Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling)” — I will likely not read Career of Evil, but the structural gimmick sounds fun (much of the novel is narrated by the murderer, but you don’t actually know which of the suspects is doing the narrating). This is one of my favourite things about listening to tons of podcasts: it helps me keep track of what’s going on in the cultural world without my having to actually take in ALL of it. (Though you can see I’m trying.)

Surprisingly Awesome: “Mold” — I’ve expressed ambivalence towards “wonder surrogacy” before, in other media. That’s where there’s a person in the text itself whose role it is to express wonder, interest or enthusiasm in the hopes that the audience will join in. This new podcast has wonder surrogacy baked into its premise. Provided that the topics covered continue to have the same hidden depths as they find in mold, there will always be one host whose job boils down to saying “isn’t that interesting?” At the worst of times, this approach strikes me as desperate. Surely it’s better to just say interesting things and get on with it than to be constantly trumpeting your own appeal. In this premiere episode, it’s fine. But I will remain vigilant.

In Our Time: “Utilitarianism” — This is BBC Radio 4. This is a very austere production with no music, no tape, seemingly no editing, and no obvious enthusiasm. This is a man mumbling disinterestedly into a microphone, trying to coax the history of a major branch of philosophy from a panel of sleepy professors. This condescends not a whit to its audience, and makes no compromises. In fact, it seems to be ignoring its audience altogether. I will probably listen to more of this.

Reply All: “Shine On You Crazy Goldman” — P.J. Vogt drops acid at work. P.J. Vogt is quickly becoming the most interesting podcast host. Matt Lieber is a Pink Floyd reference.

The Memory Palace: “no. 116,842” — The Memory Palace always makes me get all watery at inopportune moments. DiMeo has this uncanny ability to wrest meaning out of a phrase by repeating it: in this case, “let her mind wander.” See also, “Mary Walker would wear what she wanted.”

The Memory Palace: “Craning” — Every time I hear a really good episode of The Memory Palace, it makes me want to go back and listen to this one again. I must have heard it ten or twelve times, now. It is my favourite nine minutes of audio I’ve heard this year. It’s a landscape of Cape Canaveral on the morning Apollo 11 launched, wrought with incredibly fine brushstrokes — right down to the spectators camping out in station wagons, overnight, with the tailgates open for the feet of tall children in sleeping bags. There are more perfect turns of phrase here than I’ve ever heard in a radio piece. Throw in some meditative music, and this is a total sucker punch. I can’t account for why this has such an effect on me. That’s probably why I love it so much.

99% Invisible: “Butterfly Effects” — An original, Sam Greenspan-produced story about how bad design might have decided a federal election. This is what this podcast is for. 99pi is a continuous act of validation for Roman’s “beautiful nerds.” Because, when everything in the world is so inherently interesting, how can you not want to learn everything about it? How can you not be a nerd? In a sense, the premise of 99pi is the opposite of the premise for the new Gimlet podcast, Surprisingly Awesome. Where the latter takes for granted that some things are boring, 99pi is interested in everything, and trusts that you are too. No wonder surrogacy, here.

The Moth: “Hand Transplant, DNA, and a Backwards Heart” — And, we’re back. Janna Levin’s story of love and astrophysics is structurally a thing of beauty. I’m a sucker for recurring motifs that develop thematically through the course of a narrative. (See: The Memory Palace, and also most everything by Beethoven.) The other two stories are less interesting, but not by much.

The Heart: “Kaitlyn+Mitra” — This two-parter about the intimate business partnership of The Heart’s two founders could have been a little inside baseball, but they invited their audience in by literally inviting the audience to a big event — a wedding, of sorts. The Heart is so good. For one thing, it’s one of the best-sounding podcasts on Radiotopia, along with The Truth and 99pi. For another, it cares not a whit about taboos. And was that Brian Eno’s slowed-down Pachelbel I heard in there? Clever.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ and Things We Meant to Do” — And now, a proper episode of PCHH. Pop culture panel shows are a dime a dozen, but this is far and away the best of the major ones. Every episode sounds like what it hopefully actually is, which is four people who really like talking to each other talking about stuff they like. I generally find this panel more insightful than Slate’s, and it’s actually funnier than the less structured and less censored Pop Rocket from Maximum Fun. This episode is a pretty standard instalment. And that is just fine. This is a podcast I almost always listen to the day it comes out, because I can rely on it to be good company on a commute or a run, even when the topics at hand aren’t that interesting to me.

Radiolab: “Staph Retreat” — You know you listen to too many podcasts when you hear two separate accounts of Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in the same week, entirely by coincidence. This is the better one, by the way. As you’d expect. Honestly, Radiolab lost me for a while. Between the reduced presence of Robert Krulwich, the less ambitious sound design and the increased focus on the sort of current affairs stories that other shows like This American Life already do, I felt like this show had somewhat lost its distinctiveness. But between this and “The Rhino Hunter” from September, it looks like they’re back on top.

Surprisingly Awesome: “Free Throws” — More wonder surrogacy, but this time, Adam Davidson is essentially a perfect surrogate for me, because this is a sports story, and neither he nor I could care less about sports. But, even given this optimal situation, in which both Davidson and I come around to the interest of free throws in the end, they cap it off with an ending in which Davidson’s wonder far exceeds my own, and the perfect surrogacy is broken. This is the key risk of this kind of storytelling: if the audience isn’t completely analogous to the surrogate, they need to engage their empathy in order to feel the intended effect. And people are (or at least, I am) bad at engaging their empathy when the stakes are zero. I’ll keep tuning in to this, because it really is entertaining on a moment-for-moment basis. But I distrust this structure.

Welcome to Night Vale: “The September Monologues” — I do like it when Night Vale plays with the format. I suppose some of what I said last week might make it sound like I don’t. But the real problem is when there’s too much focus on long-term storytelling and worldbuilding, and not enough on just making the episode at hand work. This is one of the best episodes I’ve heard, if only for the brilliant monologue by Steve Carlsburg. I always figured Cecil was just being a jerk about him. And that weather gag is genius.

Omnireviewer (Week of Oct. 25, 2015)

I read, watch and listen to a whole lot of stuff. Usually, I have thoughts on that stuff. Oftentimes, those thoughts are not substantial enough to justify a proper essay, and I don’t have time for that anyway. To wit, here is the premise of Omnireviewer: if I read, watch or listen to it, I will review it in a few sentences. Every Sunday, I will compile the previous week’s reviews in a post like this one.

Before we begin, a few guidelines. Here are some things I generally won’t review:

  • Stuff made by people I know, or people who people I know know. I’m doing this for fun, not to make my life awkward.
  • Every bit of music I listen to for work. My job involves listening to a LOT of music. I’ll review it if it’s especially interesting or new, but I won’t hold myself to this.
  • Fragments. If I listen to a single song on the way to the grocery store, no. If I listen to a whole album walking home from work, yes. If I watch a John Oliver segment on YouTube, no. If I watch a full episode of Last Week Tonight, yes.
  • Blog posts/articles/essays etc. This accounts for a lot of what I read in any given week. But actually reviewing that stuff seems needlessly far down the rabbit hole, even for me.

For things that will take me more than a week to get through (i.e. books and games), I’ll give them a mention when I start them, review them when I’m finished them, and give updates periodically in between. That’s unless the book or game breaks down logically, like episodic games or collections of short stories. In that case, I’ll review each part.

Not everything I review will be new, nor will it all even be new to me. I revisit old favourites as frequently or more than I seek out new favourites — especially where music’s concerned. But I’ll only review something in an Omnireviewer post once. Subsequent revisitations will occur anonymously. In general, if I don’t mention that I’ve seen/read/heard something before, I probably haven’t.

Finally, none of what I’ve said above constitutes “rules.” By which I mean: I reserve the right to break them at my convenience. And now, here are my reviews of the 28 things I read, watched or listened to since Sunday, October 25:

Movies

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night — I’m not one of those people who gorges on horror movies around Halloween, because most of my favourite horror movies aren’t the Halloween kind of horror movies. I don’t scare easy, so I tend to prefer horror of a more existential persuasion — the kind that finds its way into your dreams and changes you for a while. (See especially Davids Lynch and Cronenberg.) This is not that kind of movie. This is a vampire movie, totally Halloween-ready. But totally, totally unconventional. Best to go into it knowing as little as possible. But, if you’ve seen it: that scene with the disco ball? Seriously.

Television

Doctor Who: “The Woman Who Lived” — This season of Doctor Who hasn’t been hitting it out of the park for me. I adored the last season, and I think Peter Capaldi is as good an actor as ever played the Doctor. But the scripts so far this year have been bland: even Steven Moffat’s, and to me he’s the best writer in all the land. Strange then, that Catherine Treganna — best known for her work on Torchwood, which I don’t especially like — should write the first really good episode of the season. It’s no “Listen,” or “Kill the Moon,” but Maisie Williams playing a jaded immortal was always going to be a winning concept.

QI: “A Medley of Maladies” — The brilliance of QI is that the humour often veers into territory that you’d be embarrassed to enjoy if it were stand-up, but it’s packaged alongside fascinating obscure trivia to make you feel less dumb. Any episode with Ross Noble is bound to be a gem.

Music

Peter Hammill: Nadir’s Big Chance — I’ve been meaning to listen to this for years, and somehow didn’t get around to it until now. This is the album where the lead singer of Van Der Graaf Generator allegedly invented punk rock in 1974. If that sounds a bit outlandish to you, you’re right. But there are places where he comes surprisingly close. More importantly, this is fantastic. Possibly second only to In Camera in Hammill’s solo catalogue.

Philip Glass: Solo Piano — This is a collection of three separate pieces of music that all feature a two-note repeating pattern in the left hand. One might think it would get old, but it’s actually hypnotic in the way that Glass is at his best. His piano playing is pretty scrappy in places, but it’s always nice to hear recordings where that feels beside the point.

Wilhelm Kempff: Brahms Klavierstücke, Op. 116-119 — It was about time I sat down and listened to Brahms’s final piano pieces all the way through. The famous Eb-major intermezzo was always a favourite, but all of these pieces are gems. It’s perfect mood music — a mellow old scotch in harmony and counterpoint. I can see this joining my other favourite solo piano music (Debussy’s preludes, Beethoven’s late sonatas, Bach’s partitas) within a few listens. Kempff’s 1963 recording is deservedly a classic. I’ll be checking out his Beethoven next, for contrast.

Jethro Tull: Peel Sessions, 1968-69 — A revisit, inspired by a book I’ve been reading (see below). These recordings really highlight what Mick Abrahams brought to the table. For all that Martin Barre added to the band, Abrahams plays most of these early songs better. Ian Anderson’s vocal performance on “Stormy Weather” is borderline minstrelsy, though. This is not a pun; this is an allegation of casual racism, lest anybody misunderstand. These things happen with white blues bands. I still love this, though.

Neil Young: Time Fades Away — An old favourite of mine. It’s hard to reckon why Young still hates this album and refuses to reissue it. Is he even listening? He may have been out of his head at the time, but his band has never sounded better. “Last Dance” is not one of Young’s best songs, but it is one of his very best tracks. It’s all in the performance. The fakeout at the end is one of my favourite moments on a rock live album. Also, how is this not in every list of best album covers ever?

Literature, etc.

China Miéville: “The Rope is the World” — This is from his short story collection Three Moments of an Explosion, which I’ve been really enjoying. Miéville’s writing sometimes borders on poetry in its density. In this story about elevators into the atmosphere, he coins words on the fly with no explanation. It forces you to think through their likely etymology, lest you lose the plot entirely. I can see how some readers might be frustrated by that, but I find it fun.

Reza Aslan: No God But God — I’m about two-thirds of the way through, and already recommending it to everyone I know. I was always amazed by Aslan’s eloquence in interviews. He could basically talk into a microphone for several hours, transcribe it, and that would be a decent book. But he’s way more of a craftsman than that. He structures his chapters around an introductory anecdote or parable, told in prose worthy of the best living novelists. Each of these stories helps situate you before he transitions into his always-lucid argumentation. It’s an ingenious structure. I’ll have more to say about the content itself when I’m finished the book.

David Cavanagh: Good Night and Good Riddance — I bought this as soon as I finished the Kindle sample. Good God, is this ever exactly what I want to read right now. In case you haven’t read the Guardian’s shimmering platinum review, this book is a deep dive into the life’s work of the BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel, with whom I am not directly familiar, being 25 and Canadian. But his show was clearly a force in a number of consecutive countercultures. And Cavanagh’s a dazzling writer. I’ll be putting a couple of other books down for a while, to tuck into this.

Games

Stasis — After reading so many rave reviews, I confess to being a little disappointed. There are bright spots in this: parts of it are genuinely terrifying, and exploring a post-catastrophe civilization riddled with biological horrors is never not going to be fun. But, the voice acting leaves much to be desired, the writing is weak at best, the villain is of the moustache-twirling variety, and the backstory just introduced a hackneyed love quadrangle that I assume was supposed to make me feel something but didn’t. By the time I finish this, I may like it better.

Podcasts

(These will always come at the end, because I listen to a lot of them — commutes, runs and dishes, you know — and I listen to several of the same ones every week. It may get dull for you, even if it never does for me.)

Welcome to Night Vale: “Rumbling” — My general opinion of Night Vale is that it’s a great idea with some great writing and some great jokes, but it has structural issues. This instalment foregrounds some of those issues. Cecil Baldwin, who I generally like a lot as a character and slightly less as a host, oscillates back and forth between phoning it in and overselling every joke. The choices of background music seem arbitrary. Still, this is tying up threads of a major plot arc, and I can forgive a bit of sluggishness while the show adjusts to a new status quo.

The Allusionist: “Vocables” — I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts from the Radiotopia network, lately. They’ve got a fundraising campaign on, and they’re going big. This is apparently the first of several planned crossover events where Helen Zaltzman will collaborate with hosts of other Radiotopia shows, which is satisfying in itself for podcast geeks like me. This week, it’s Hrishikesh Hirway from Song Exploder. So, language geekiness collides with music geekiness and I couldn’t be happier.

The Truth: “Starburst” — I loved this. I won’t spoil it by describing it too much. It’s a radio play about a jerk magazine writer at a comic con, but it quickly veers off in a truly unpredictable direction. The really notable thing about it is how The Truth’s pristine, elaborate sound design feeds into the story to become a structural element. I’ve never heard that before in the episodes of this show that I’ve listened to. It’s only fifteen minutes long. It’s well worth your time. Also, people who are interested in nominating things for Hugos should nominate this for a Hugo.

This American Life: “The Night in Question” — I love a good conspiracy theory. And here’s one with political implications, to boot. This is about how most of Israel questions the official narrative about the assassination of their prime minister 25 years ago. It’s gripping in exactly the way that Serial gets too much credit for being.

On The Media: “Truth(ish)” — Where Jon Stewart was always a comedian who also happened to be a media critic, Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield are media critics who also happen to be funny. If you were one of the people who watched Stewart’s Daily Show as much for the sanity as for the humour, you need to be listening to this. If the West Wing pastiche that opens this episode doesn’t sell you on the entire show, you’re unlikely to be into it at all.

Fugitive Waves: “WHER: 1000 Beautiful Watts” — The Kitchen Sisters’ radio storytelling can be a bit on the slow, meditative side for my taste, but they have a great ear for interesting characters. In this two-parter, they interview the women (and a couple of the men) who kept the first all-woman radio station in the United States running. It also contains an infuriating yet funny clip of one of the first female radio announcers trying to ward off the explicit advances of her male guest while maintaining on-air decorum. Worth a listen.

This American Life: “The Call Was Coming from the Basement” — The story of a woman getting attacked by a rabid raccoon is perhaps not Alex Blumberg’s very best work. But David Sedaris’s story about hanging out in a morgue makes up the difference.

The Memory Palace: “Butterflies” — This podcast might just have the best writing for the ear that I’ve ever heard. Nate DiMeo is basically a spoken word artist for history nuts. This is a particularly sweeping and ambitious story, at more than twice the normal length (it’s 20 minutes long). It’s a story about humans screwing themselves. Those stories are always relevant.

Fresh Air: “Gloria Steinem” — Steinem is a hero and has some great stories. Hearing her talk about the circumstances she encountered in media at the beginning of the women’s movement is fascinating: editors feeling that one editorial saying “women are equal” needed to be counterbalanced by another saying “no they’re not,” etc. Terry Gross asks some unexpected questions and gets some truly wonderful moments of radio out of it. There’s a reason Marc Maron calls her the “industry standard.”

Meet the Composer: “Ingram Marshall” — This is the first episode of Meet the Composer that I’ve listened to that’s about a composer I’d never heard of. And, I’ll certainly be looking into Ingram Marshall’s music further. So, mission accomplished, there. But the great thing about this show is that every episode incorporates at least one tangential discussion of an element of music history for context. This time around, we hear about the legacy of gamelan in Western music: from Debussy to the Canadian composer Colin McPhee, who transcribed gamelan music for two pianos and performed it with Benjamin Britten. That you’ve got to hear.

99% Invisible: “War and Pizza” — Most of what’s in our grocery aisles started off as military technology. That is a tidbit I can now file away and impress somebody with later. This is why I love 99% Invisible.

Reply All: “The Law That Sticks” — A somewhat procedural episode of Reply All. You should listen to it, because the law it’s about is properly disturbing. But it feels like that’s the main reason the producers think you should listen to this episode, also. Basically, not one of their most fun episodes, but worth hearing.

The Moth: “Kimya Dawson & Kevin Haas” — It’s fine. Kept me amused during my run. Sometimes The Moth knocks me flat. Not this time.

Theory of Everything: “The Things We Do For Money” — ToE’s cross-promotion game has been strong since the start of the Radiotopia fundraising campaign. Last time, Roman Mars helped tell the long-view story of podcasting, and this time Jonathan Mitchell from The Truth reconstructed a radio play by Walter Benjamin. (I know.) I don’t mind people asking for money when they do it in a way that’s this clever.

Welcome to Night Vale: “The Retirement of Pamela Winchell” — Oh, look, it’s picking up already.

Live events

Welcome to Night Vale: Live at the Chan Centre — I waffled on whether to go to this. Night Vale is scrappy at the best of times: their live episodes even more so. Plus, I’m about twenty episodes behind. But then I thought, eh, what are the chances of the most popular comedy/horror podcast coming through your town on Halloween? And I bit the bullet, ditched my plans and went. (I tried to convince my friends to come with, but it went down kind of like this.)

Gosh, but this was a whimsical experience. The story was a fluffy, whimsical romp. The musical guest was a whimsical sort of musical guest, of the harmonium/glockenspiel/ukulele-playing variety. And the audience sure was whimsical. I mean, it was Halloween, to be fair. But one gets the feeling that some of those people might dress like that year-round. Good on ‘em.

This live show lacks the bloat of some of the others I’ve heard. Cecil carried the bulk of the story, with a brief appearance from Carlos being the only significant guest spot. The story was mercifully continuity-light, considering how much listening I have to do before I’m caught up. It just told a story and got done with it, which is what I wish Night Vale would do more often. Cecil was in top form. Everything was in its right place and made me glad I decided to go. Plus: kidding aside, that whimsical musician, Eliza Rickman, is completely fantastic.

But even in a live setting, Disparition’s background music still doesn’t make a lick of narrative sense.