Tag Archives: Kyle Craft

Omnibus (week of April 1, 2018)

“Get it together, Parsons,” I said to myself. “Clean your damn apartment and get your 5K back under a non-embarrassing time.” That is why I listened to 34 podcast episodes this week. (That’s a conservative number — there are a few shows I don’t review, and I frankly can’t remember which of those I listened to this week.) Below, you’ll find them nicely compressed into a manageable 21 reviews, plus an additional three for the things I got through this week that aren’t podcasts.

Also, if you would like to hear me blindside Sheryl MacKay with a whack-a-doo theory that even I don’t completely subscribe to, you’ll find that at 1:21:58.

24 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Scott McCloud: Making Comics — I just turned in my final assignment in that comics class I’ve been taking, and I figured I may as well finish the course reading. Better late than never. We weren’t obliged to read Making Comics in its entirety, but I did because why the hell not. Scott McCloud is not only a good teacher and a perceptive analyst of the medium in which he works. He’s also one of the funnest media critics out there. In case you’re unfamiliar: this is a guy who makes works of serious, penetrating comics criticism — that are themselves comics. His ability to demonstrate concepts by example is unmatched, and his books of comics criticism are themselves among the most formally innovative comics I’ve encountered. Understanding Comics remains his masterpiece, because its focus is broad enough that it doesn’t really age. Making Comics contains some stuff about webcomics that feels ancient now. But when he sticks to the basics of the comics form, regardless of medium, McCloud is a fountain of practical advice here. If you’ve ever wondered what fundamentals you should keep in mind when working simultaneously with words and pictures, this is the book for you. Pick of the week.

Music

John Luther Adams/JACK Quartet: Everything That Rises — John Luther Adams either captivates me or leaves me cold. (No Alaska pun intended.) This did the latter. It is one of his more high-concept works, based on just intonation. It is also one of his more dissonant pieces, which isn’t something I look to him for. Don’t get me wrong, he can do what he wants: but I’ve always enjoyed the side of JLA that puts you in a trance, then takes you somewhere. This piece definitely takes you somewhere — up, in keeping with the title. But it foregoes the trance in favour of a calculating raised eyebrow. Not for me, I’m afraid.

Kyle Craft: Full Circle Nightmare — I loved Dolls of Highland. I had some concerns about its consistent portrayal of women as evil magic temptresses, but there was enough self-effacing humour throughout that I could give him the benefit of a doubt. It also helps that Kyle Craft’s music scratches a huge itch for me: huge sounding rock with bombastic vocals and a turn of phrase you can sink your teeth into. And that itch is almost equally scratched on this new record. But at this point I’m thinking he needs to find something new to sing about. This whole “women: can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em” thing is not sustainable. Still, when it’s good it’s good. I’m particularly fond of the new direction on the semi-psychedelic “Belmont (One Trick Pony).” This feels like one of those albums that may or may not be the second-last one by its artist that I ever hear. Stay tuned.

Podcasts

It’s Been A Minute: “Momofuku Chef David Chang’s ‘Ugly Delicious’ Food” & “Zach Braff and Alex Blumberg on ‘Alex, Inc.’” — I’m finding that I get a lot more out of this show’s Tuesday edition, where Sam Sanders talks with an interesting person, than I do out of its Friday wraps. Maybe it’s just that I don’t feel the need for any more “making sense of the news” in my life, because that is a thing that the entire media is trying to do now. But the Tuesday shows are really good, because Sanders is fun to listen to and seemingly fun to talk to as well. The David Chang interview is great fun, as they usually are. Sanders is good at talking about intersections of race and culture, and Chang is a thoughtful guy on that subject. The episode focussing on Alex, Inc. is really something — mostly because it’s great fun hearing Alex Blumberg pretend that he likes the milquetoast sitcom that ABC made out of his game-changing podcast. To Sanders’ credit, he manages to have an interesting conversation with Blumberg and Zach Braff that touches on both of their wheelhouses without the whole thing coming off the rails.  

Code Switch catch-up — Of the last four episodes, the two most recent are the most essential. “The Road to the Promised Land, 50 Years Later” is a bit jarring because it consists largely of news reports for actual NPR — like the radio. You don’t realize how different that tone is from NPR podcasts until you hear it on an NPR podcast. But the story of how Martin Luther King’s assassination reverberates half a century later is fascinating and well told here. For something a bit more podcast-native, the Amara La Negra interview is an energetic discussion of Afro-Latinx identity

Reply All: “A Pirate In Search of a Judge” — A lesser instalment of “Super Tech Support,” which nonetheless includes some amusing banter. Also: has anybody compiled the Breakmaster Cylinder bits into a supercut? Please somebody do that. I think there’s an argument to be made that whoever they are, they’re doing the most innovative audio storytelling in the podcast space — and they’re doing it in the last two minutes of somebody else’s show. (Unless, of course, P.J. Vogt is Breakmaster Cylinder, which I find quite plausible.)

In Our Time: “Augustine’s Confessions,” “Hildegard of Bingen” & Roman Slavery” — Melvyn Bragg is in his glory when he gets to talk about Christianity. The Augustine episode is accordingly excellent. The episode on Roman slavery is a good summation of a thing that you probably don’t think about very much. But it’s the repeat episode about Hildegard that’s the real standout in this run. Being a music person, I have always mostly thought of her as the composer of the most beautiful music from the Middle Ages. And I’ve always been passingly aware of her status as a great polymath, contributing to theology, literature, medical research and brewing techniques. (She penned the earliest surviving writings on the use of hops in beer. She didn’t like them. Fair enough.) But this episode focuses on her role in the church of her time: a woman who was respected not so much because she was a genius, though she clearly was, as because she claimed to receive visions from God. It’s tempting for us now to look at Hildegard as a woman who overcame the social stigmas of her time by being exceptional and working hard, but really even that wasn’t enough. She was allowed to give sermons not because she was a good sermonizer, but because the church saw her as a direct channel to God, so they made an exception. A sad thing. That’s a great episode. You should listen to it.

Fresh Air: “The Evolution of Artificial Intelligence” & “Madeleine Albright” — Two interviews about big important things, one of which features a big important person. Listen to the Madeleine Albright one. When she talks about the problems with Trump’s foreign policy, it’s probably worth considering what she has to say.

Radiolab: “Rippin’ the Rainbow an Even Newer One,” “Border Trilogy” parts 1 & 2 — The update to the mantis shrimp story is good for my sense of nostalgia about the old Radiolab, but the first two instalments of their series on the border are both challenging my general sense that this show’s best days are behind it. Every so often they pull out a classic, and so far this is one. Basically, it poses the question of how well-meaning policies can result in migrants dying in the desert, possibly by the thousands. It is the new Radiolab — the au current, political Radiolab — at its best.

The Gist: “Clinging to Guns Is Our Religion” — This is a gun control debate between a moderate liberal and a moderate conservative. It is as scintillating as that sounds.

Bullseye: “Andrew W.K. & Bill Hader” — Here are two people I’m not super interested in, having conversations I enormously enjoyed. Andrew W.K. in particular is a person who you just know will have a good chat with Jesse Thorn. And he did. Note that this is also the episode with Thorn’s review of It’s Too Late to Stop Now by Van Morrison, which led me to make one of the weirdest pieces of radio that I personally have ever made. (See top of page.)

Desert Island Discs: “David Byrne” — Wow, he’s in a good mood. Like, a suspiciously good mood. But as we all know, he’s got great taste in music and he’s an interesting guy. I really need to read his book. Good listening.

The Daily: “Wednesday, Apr. 4, 2018” & “Friday, Apr. 6, 2018” — Oddly, I find myself more inclined to listen to news shows when they are meta-stories about the media. These are two episodes of The Daily that examine TV news in different ways. One demonstrates how Fox News played a role in the revitalization of Trump’s anti-immigration policies, and the other examines how the takeover of local media by larger corporations leads to a lack of editorial freedom. Both are great, the latter is likely the one that will remain relevant by the time you read this. Damn, the world is cray.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Love, Simon” & “Roseanne and What’s Making Us Happy” — I will watch neither of these things, but I did enjoy the chats. Linda Holmes and Stephen Thompson had an interesting exchange about Roseanne. That is my review of this week’s Pop Culture Happy Hour episodes; I hope you have enjoyed it.

The World According to Sound: “Idea of North” — I intend to go back and hear this show’s full archives at some point, which shouldn’t be hard since the episodes are a minute and a half long. But for now I will follow their series on great radio they think I should hear. I have never heard Glenn Gould’s “The Idea of North,” which is a travesty because I work at CBC Radio and I am literally looking at a three-CD set of Gould’s radio work right now. It’s right there on my shelf. Maybe this is the week.

Song by Song: “Hang On St. Christopher” — I’m looking forward to hearing these two give their take on Frank’s Wild Years, because I know from previously that it isn’t either of their favourite. On the other hand, it has always been my favourite. I think it is a masterpiece that stands head and shoulders above its two immediate predecessors. It is simultaneously weirder and more polished than Rain Dogs, and it contains Waits’ most theatrical music. That’s the mode I like him best in. This episode gives a good summation of why it’s so theatrical and why it’s necessary nonetheless to consider it as an album rather than the soundtrack to a misbegotten live show.

Imaginary Worlds: “Visions of Philip K. Dick” — I actually didn’t know that Philip K. Dick spent his final years having either religious experiences or a form of paranoid psychosis. That is interesting. This is interesting. The audio of Dick talking in Paris during that time is captivating. Listen at least for that. It’s right at the start.

Constellations: “anna friz – air can break your heart” — Okay, time to get frank about this show. The thing that’s good about it is that it highlights audio makers who are working largely outside the confines of what’s considered “radio.” Much of what’s featured here falls more easily under the category of “sound art.” This is good. I want this sort of thing to find its way into my podcast feed, between all the NPR and roundtable chat shows. But the fact is that a lot of this material is fairly obscure and alienating, and in presenting it without comment at the start of the episode, and only offering a bare minimum of context from the artist afterwards (the audio equivalent of a brief “artist’s statement” on a website or brochure) doesn’t necessarily present it in its best light. As a listener, I want to hear work like this week’s piece — an abstract mix of ambient sound and muted speech — addressed in a way that’s slightly more playful. Because however much I enjoy it on its aesthetic merits, it still leaves me with questions like “what?” and “why?” And I’d like to hear those questions answered conversationally, with frankness and humour. I want to hear the hosts engage these artists on the level that their listeners are coming into this at: with respect and curiosity, but also occasional good-natured bewilderment. I want a proxy — somebody to step in and have a human conversation in this art world’s rarified air. The fact that this show doesn’t do this strikes me as a missed opportunity. TL;DR: Constellations is doing good work, but I wish it were less precious about the good work it’s doing.

99% Invisible: “Airships and the Future that Never Was” & “Making it Rain” — 99pi is 300 episodes old. (Well, 301, actually. But I’m only just getting to both of those episodes.) It seems appropriate to me that in spite of the show’s substantial growth in terms of both audience and staff, the 300th episode should be a return to the early days, when it was just Roman Mars making elegant, miniature stories about design. Even the subject matter, airships, is nostalgic. It’s a good episode. “Making it Rain” is good too, but less singular. While I have come to really enjoy all of the producers on this show, their presence has the effect of making 99pi sound more like public radio and less like the trailblazing independent podcast that it started off as. That’s how I’d summarize the trajectory of this show: as it’s gotten bigger, it has become less distinctive — even as its stories have become more ambitious. I’m not likely to stop listening anytime soon, not when this show pulls off stuff like the recent two-parter about the Bijlmer. But ultimately, I think Roman Mars’s greatest accomplishment hasn’t been 99pi itself, but leveraging its success into the formation of Radiotopia, which remains the most consistent, satisfying and surprising podcast collective out there. Quite a throne to maintain in these times. On that note, here are the rest of the Radiotopia shows I listened to this week. This next one is something I never would have heard if not for 99pi, which would be unconscionable.  

Theory of Everything: “This Is Not A Drill (False Alarm! part i)” — This new mini-season from Benjamen Walker is justly receiving heavy promotion across the Radiotopia stable of podcasts, and if you haven’t checked it out yet, you must. It begins with a straightforward account of what it was like to be in Hawaii during the cruise missile false alarm, then continues into a scrambled retelling of both “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Then it gets straight into the question at the heart of the series: how can Benjamen Walker continue making a show that’s neither fully fact nor fully fiction in the era of Fake News? I know people who have been vexed by this show’s blend of real and fake. I’ve never been one of them. I tend to think that the people who are the angriest about stuff like this, the Onion and so forth, are actually mostly angry at themselves for their own credulousness. For my part, I am delighted that podcasting’s most protean paranoiac is about to dive into the nature of reality itself in 2018. Hear this. Pick of the week.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti — Celebrating 99 Years” — This story about the great counterculture icon and champion of the Beat poets, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, seems like it’ll be a good warmup for the Kitchen Sisters’ “The Keepers” series about archivists. I’m really looking forward to that. This is nice, though I confess that Ferlinghetti’s own poetry doesn’t do much for me.

This is Love: “A Private Life” & “What Are We Going To Do” — This is Love is proving to be a lovely show, though rather cute. These have thus far been rather positive stories. Even when they flirt with heartbreak, each episode manages to spin the story into something uplifting. That’s fine, but I hope (he says, realizing what a sadist he sounds like) that this show finds its way to the darker side of its subject matter at some point as well.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “Deadly Force” — This is a slighter but more direct exploration of a topic that Radiolab went in depth about a few months back. I think I prefer this version.

The Memory Palace: “Junk Room” — This feels like a throwback to the episodes Nate DiMeo made for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which I really enjoyed in spite of not having been to any of those exhibits. This episode is about one of the weirdest collections of art in Washington D.C.: a room where the states all sent statues of two of their greatest figures. That’s subject matter that allows DiMeo to do what he’s great at: writing beautifully about figures who have been left out of popular history, and asking why Confederate leaders keep getting included instead.

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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 Aug. 7, 2016)

23 reviews. That seems to be my upper limit, these days. But I’m slowly and surely catching up with my podcast backlog. Relatedly, my average running pace is getting gradually quicker.

Television

Last Week Tonight: August 7, 2016 — Jason Sudeikis’s role in the final kicker of Oliver’s journalism segment is the villain of our times. He is shiny and dumb, utterly clueless and convinced of his own rightness, and he values the new more than the good. I have met this person a number of times and so have you. Individually, they are an embuggerance. Collectively, they are an intellectual apocalypse lying in wait. Thank you, John Oliver, for leading the charge against the shiny dummies.

Deadwood: Season three, episodes 1-6 — Thus far, season three of Deadwood is scarcely less excellent than season two. Its reputation and my knowledge of its hasty cancellation leads me to expect disappointment within the next six episodes, but so far I’m just enjoying being back in this richly-drawn setting with these characters and their gutter-Shakespearean dialogue. Brian Cox is a very welcome addition to the cast, even if his character isn’t involved in anything much resembling a story at this point. George Hearst is proving a more fearsome monster even than Francis Wolcott was last season. On that note, the most interesting thing about this season so far is the vastly different power dynamic that takes hold when Al Swearengen and Cy Tolliver are no longer vying for dominance under the watchful eye of Sheriff Bullock. Such trifling matters must be put aside when an individual as powerful and ruthless as Hearst threatens this entire civilization that’s been so miraculously built from nothing. (It may not be “civil,” but Deadwood represents a civilization nonetheless.) The AV Club’s Todd VanDerWerff had a great line of argument about the first season of the show: you can tell who Deadwood’s “gods” are because they assay their domain from on high. Al and Cy have their respective verandas, and the very wealthy (if comparatively retiring) Alma Garrett has her high window. Telling, then, that the first thing Hearst does when he gets into town is roughly tear a hole in the second-story outer wall of his newly-purchased hotel to fashion a crude veranda. I have no idea how the town is going to get out of Hearst’s grasp. Given the slapdash end of Deadwood’s production, I suspect they may not.

Literature, etc.

Michael Lind: “Intellectuals are Freaks” — A very valuable essay about how the life experiences of the chattering set tend to blind them (us?) to certain realities. I know many people whose life experiences have placed them in an intellectual bubble wherein there are no ideologically-opposed people to them. And look, I’m as horrified about Trump and Brexit as anybody. But I think that a certain amount of exposure to a variety of viewpoints within my own family has made me slightly less incredulous about how these things can happen. I’m still massively blinkered, I’m sure. But I know lots of people who could do to read this. I will say that Lind’s conclusion that all opinion writers and professors should spend a year working in a shopping mall or warehouse seems a bit facile to me. Surely, that’s hardly enough to counter the rest of their lives?

Bernd Brunner: “Encyclopedia Blue” — Lind’s article appeared on a site called The Smart Set, which I hadn’t heard of and decided to give a shot. I went with the article most prominently displayed on their homepage, which was this disappointingly brief article on the colour blue. It cites two full books on the topic that sound like they would be interesting. But if you’re going to do the whole “thinkpiece about a colour” thing, I think I deserve at least a couple thousand words in return for the click. Come on, now.

Music

Simon Rattle & Berlin Philharmonic: Schoenberg Orchestral Works — This is perhaps an atypical recording to be in my most listened-to classical discs ever. But, according to my iTunes play count, so it appears to be. To be fair, that stems mostly from the recording of Schoenberg’s brilliant orchestration of Brahms’ G minor piano quintet that starts the disc off. Being Brahms, it’s a long way off from the dissonant, bizarre music that Schoenberg is best known for. But it’s also got more than a little of Schoenberg’s taste for the grotesque in it. The rapid string passages and loud percussion of the first movement conjure similarly nightmarish images to Schoenberg’s own early works, Erwartung in particular. Given that this is the only recording of this orchestration that I’ve heard, it’s hard to say how much of this is there in the score and how much of it is Simon Rattle leaning hard into the Schoenberg side of the Brahms-Schoenberg collaboration. But it’s exciting music, marvellously played. I listen to it more than any recording of an actual Brahms symphony. The Schoenberg originals that follow it keep the pace admirably, though I find myself listening to them less. Accompanying Music to a Film Scene is the one piece here that casual listeners might find distressing. In the absence of memorable melodic material, Schoenberg’s virtuosic orchestrations hold the attention. He really doesn’t get enough credit for his talents in that area. This recording of the Chamber Symphony No. 1 isn’t my preferred one — I do tend to like it it best in its original chamber orchestra scoring. The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s recording is the real classic, I think. This music calls out for a one-per-part approach. There’s something about that feeling that you’re dealing with individuals rather than sections that makes the music easier to keep track of, somehow. But it’s hard to complain when it’s played as well as the Berlin Phil plays it here. An idiosyncratic favourite, I suppose. But I’d recommend it unreservedly to anybody who’s interested at all in classical music.

Kyle Craft: “Before the Wall” — A beautifully-timed old-school folky protest song about Trump’s wall. Given that you can record and release songs so easily now, I don’t know why social isn’t being constantly flooded with latter-day Woody Guthries and Pete Seegers, having their say about The Big Thing, and following in step with the news cycle. The kinds of contemporary, time-hooked songs you could write in a day and perform at a club that evening in the ‘60s are now the kinds of songs that you can write and record in one, two days and throw online to a potentially much bigger audience. Is this happening? Am I just in an echo chamber? Are we all? In any case, this song is tremendously moving at this specific moment in time. It will inevitably mean less next year, but that’s not the point. Kyle Craft now has his album — his big statement of arrival that I’ll probably be listening to for years — and this single, which in an equitable world would introduce him to a much larger audience, if only for a short time. “If the wall it goes up and your Jesus comes back/And he knocks on the door will you stand to attack/If he don’t have his papers and he don’t have much cash/Would you take him in, jail him, or just send him back?” Pick of the week.

Games

Sunless Sea — This remains my favourite game to return to. I played a fair bit this week, and I actually chose to end the story of my longtime character, when he finished a particular matter that led him through a vast gate to the far north of the game’s world, and onward to his poetic death. That is the sort of thing that can happen in Sunless Sea. I confess to being slightly disappointed with the sendoff that Captain Webern got. (Yes, I name my video game characters after avant-garde composers. Are you really surprised?) But my new character, Captain Alban (yeah, I know, Alban Berg died before Anton Webern; but who’s counting?) will certainly find his way to the corners of the game that Webern never managed to survey. If it seems like I’m strangely invested in this, I am. Sunless Sea is one of the great works of fiction of our time. I urge anybody with any inclination towards games at all to check it out.

Podcasts

Invisibilia: “Outside In” — Hanna Rosin has been a good addition to this team, but this season has still been weaker, all-in-all, than the first. It’s unfortunate that this final episode of the season is one of its strongest, with two major segments produced by outsiders. I’ll likely switch this over to an occasional listen, rather than a commitment next season.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: MTV Classic” — I’m so glad that Stephen Thompson works at NPR. His Onion roots show through frequently, and that’s a nice thing to have on current affairs radio.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Match Game” — This is seven minutes of Glen Weldon being extremely funny and Stephen Thompson delighting in how funny Glen Weldon’s being. You’ll notice that my responses to this show are as much about the people on it as the things they talk about. That’s the mark of a good panel show, I think. The people who actually make this show may disagree, who knows.

The Heart: “BFF” — This diary series is going to be great. This opening episode is everything you want from The Heart: it’s intimate, irreverent, beautifully produced, and yeah, kind of hot. Also, it’s got great music. I feel like I never have anything substantive to say about The Heart, but it really is one of my favourite podcasts.

99% Invisible: “The Magic Bureaucrat” — Welfare is a sticky topic, and I do not personally have any time for arguments against it. But this story about how the Bill Clinton-era welfare reforms (which I think were a travesty) were designed is really interesting because it folds a policy-making process story into the rhetoric that’s spouted by some of the sources here. It also contains horrific anti-welfare propaganda music. Worth a listen.

Reply All: “Dead is Paul” — This entire episode is devoted to a recurring segment, which is kind of the journalism equivalent of a bottle episode. But I have never been disinterested in P.J. Vogt and Alexes Goldman and Blumberg together in a studio. This is good fun, and very much the sort of thing that I look to podcasts to contribute to my life.

Code Switch: “What Does ‘Objectivity’ Mean to Journalists of Color?” — It’s great to hear some journalists of colour talking specifically about how they deal with reporting on Trump, given that he has been so outspoken in his racism. Pilar Marrero from La Opinion is particularly trenchant: her paper has no problem calling Donald Trump racist, because there is a preponderance of evidence that this is the case. There’s a bit of debate about this point in this episode, and it’s interesting, but nobody ever really quite eclipses Marrero’s analysis.

Theory of Everything: “The art of the deal” — This is just a flat-out conspiracy theory, which is exactly the sort of thing I want from this show. It starts off reasonably enough, but it ends with Donald Trump’s sons fighting ISIS on reality TV. Lovely.

All Songs Considered: “A Conversation With Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood” — Greenwood is a reticent fellow, and not a very good interview. But there are gems littered throughout this, like the fact that “Burn the Witch” is the first Radiohead song that’s been built on strings, rather than having strings added after the fact. I should probably listen to A Moon Shaped Pool again. The cuts Bob Boilen plays here are better than I remember.

99% Invisible: A Sea Worth its Salt” — This story about the fraught preservation efforts being put towards the Salton Sea in California is not quite as compelling somehow as the earlier story about the ruins of California’s public baths. It may seem a strange comparison, but they’re both stories about things that have dubious cases for preservation, though the Salton Sea’s dubiousness seems less dubious.

The Memory Palace: “Dreamland” — Another lovely, elegiac prose poem. This one comes from the back catalogue, but I haven’t been listening long enough to have heard it. It hones in on a specific element of Dreamland — a Coney Island theme park that burned down in 1911 — that’s really poignant: at this time, when travel was prohibitively expensive or inconvenient, this was a way for people living nearby to feel like they’d escaped their surroundings. That makes its destruction more tragic.

Code Switch: “Say My Name, Say My Name (Correctly, Please)” — A deep, funny discussion of why it sucks when people say your name wrong. I have never dealt with this, so it’s probably good for me to hear other people’s experiences with it.

All Songs Considered: “Blood Orange, NAO, Joyce Manor, Factory Floor, More” — Daoud Tyler-Ameen and Saidah Blount are always great to hear from, and they play some good tracks here. I was particularly taken by Swet Shop Boys “T5,” which makes me suspect I should probably check out more that Heems has been involved with.

Planet Money: “Oil,” episodes 1 & 2  — Oh, yes. This is what I want to listen to for the next few weeks. The team at Planet Money are learning about the oil business from the inside. By which I mean, they actually bought a hundred barrels of crude oil with cash and they are planning to transport, refine and sell it. Perhaps the gonzo spirit of Alex Blumberg survived his departure from this show. Pick of the week.

The Gist: “Mike Birbiglia and Ira Glass Followed the Fear Here” — Interviewing Birbiglia and Glass together is something you can just expect from Mike Pesca, I suppose. It’s more interesting than the other Birbiglia interviews I’ve heard surrounding Don’t Think Twice. This episode also contains an amusing riff on podcast tropes as pertaining to Hillary Clinton’s new (real) podcast. Also, this contains the second seemingly unmotivated Yes reference I’ve heard in this podcast in the relatively short time I’ve been listening to it — and I’ve only been listening occasionally. I’m impressed.

Imaginary Worlds: “Finding My Voice” — Maybe it’s a bit narcissistic of Molinsky to just bring in his old editor to talk about his development as a producer. But the actual stories here are interesting. And for those of us trying to figure out radio, it’s actually interesting all the way through. 

Omnireviewer (week of Jul. 31, 2016)

It’s been quite the week. I MCed a wedding and then climbed a mountain. Stay tuned for more on that. In the meantime, it’s been a week of mostly doing stuff that people around me were doing. And also listening to podcasts. A rather slight 20 reviews.

Movies

Meru — This is a deeply nerve-wracking documentary about three guys trying to make the first ascent of Mount Meru, a treacherous and technical climb. I watched it with my mountain geek friend with whom I had just done a teeny-tiny (yet quite eventful) climb in Canmore. It’s got some beautiful photography by Jimmy Chin, one of the climbers in the party. And it has been shaped into a narrative with stakes by introducing backstories for all three climbers. What these guys went through on the mountain is extraordinary. And the movie manages to make them seem merely compulsive and not actually insane. It seems for climbers, there’s no glamour in recklessness. These are smart people who want the world to know that they’re not just risk-seekers; they do this sort of thing because they are hyper-competent. I’d love to see this in a theatre.

Games

Mario Kart 64/Star Wars Episode I: Racer/F-1 World Grand Prix — A couple of friends and I spent a relaxing evening playing racing games for the Nintendo 64, a side of that platform that I never really explored when I used to play it. Of these three, Mario Kart 64 is the clear winner, of course. And not only that, but it also handily excels over its more modern iterations. In my limited experience of Mario Kart 8, there’s so much crap all over the screen, and such complicated tracks, that it detracts from the experience. The simpler, the better. And as for the Star Wars podracer, it is certainly better as a racing game than it was as a scene in a movie. It’s still a tad complicated. As hovercraft racing games for N64 go, it’s no F-Zero X. I never really got the hang of F-1 World Grand Prix. It’s obviously the only one of the three that makes any motion towards realism. But that feels strangely beside the point, to me. Give me homing turtle shells and Chain Chomps any day.

Television

Last Week Tonight: July 31, 2016 — This is actually better than his episode on the Republican convention. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen Oliver more genuinely angry than when he refutes Trump’s response to Khizr Khan’s speech. It’s the first time he’s stepped away from glib amusement and occasional pathos and veered towards Jon Stewart’s old territory of righteous indignation. Beautiful stuff.

Music

The Decemberists: The Crane Wife — My Decemberists journey essentially ended with loving Picaresque as much as everybody and checking out The Hazards of Love to see if it’s as bad as they say. (It’s not; it’s brilliant.) It’s time I checked out the rest of the catalogue, I think. This seemed to have been the most egregious gap in my experience, since it’s about equal to Picaresque in terms of fan acclaim. And while on first listen I think that there are a few more middling tracks on this than there are on Picaresque (“Yankee Bayonet” and “Summersong” evaporated upon finishing), it also has some of the most beautiful music I’ve heard from this band. All three parts of the title track, “O Valencia!,” “When the War Came” and “After the Bombs” are all lovely story-songs in the vein of the best tracks on Picaresque. Colin Meloy’s lyrics are more traditionally “lyrical” here than on that album, wherein he wrote almost exclusively “ballads” — not in the sense of slow songs, but in the romantic sense of rhyming stanzas that relate whimsical narratives. Rather than focusing on what happens to a character, as is the case on “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” for instance, the songs on The Crane Wife make more of an attempt to tell the emotional, interior story: especially on the title suite. But the real surprise on this is “The Island,” a prog epic that sounds more like Thick as a Brick than anything from The Hazards of Love. While I’d hesitate to call it a lyrical highlight, the band’s playing on this track is absolutely top-notch, and it’s got some fabulous riffs and a wonderful arrangement. In fact, on this album the band has upped their instrumental performances substantially. To keep our comparisons in the progressive story-song milieu, it’s like the sound transition from Foxtrot to Selling England by the Pound. A beautiful, cathartic album that I will revisit frequently. Pick of the week.

Kyle Craft: Live on KEXP — He’s a little pitchy in “Pentecost,” but altogether, holy smokes he’s great live, too. Plus, he’s got that slightly nervous manner that you want from a rootsy singer who claims to have been living under a pool table. Who can I drag to a Kyle Craft concert?

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Stranger Things and Weddings” — Having listened to this the morning after MCing a wedding (highly recommended experience), the second part of this discussion had extra resonance. I can confirm that weddings are definitely not always boring and shitty, even if the panel is right to point out that they are very much a lazy trope much of pop culture. Stranger Things is very much on my to-do list, though I’ll need to decide whether I’m going to get back to Deadwood first.

Love and Radio: “On The Shore Dimly Seen” — Alright, this is what I’m talking about. Love and Radio has been doing solid public service during its off season by programming inventive features by other producers. Nick van der Kolk introduces this semi-documentary by producer Gregory Whitehead by saying that you can’t find this guy’s work online all that easily. Ironic that some of the most experimental audio productions are still coming out of terrestrial radio operations like the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. I really want there to be more of this kind of experimental radio available in the podcast world. Although there’s a whiff of art school self-seriousness around this piece about torture in Guantanamo, I appreciate it for taking a risk in presenting information in a new way. This is very nearly an oratorio (much of it is sung), taking its text from interview transcripts and government documents. More than any radio I’ve heard, it reminds me of Ted Hearne’s The Source, which is explicitly labelled as an oratorio. Self-seriousness aside, I want to hear more like this. If radio/podcast producers accepted the premise that you can tell stories in a way that has nothing to do with This American Life, there would likely be more noble failures out there, but there would also be more like this.

Invisibilia: “The Secret Emotional Life of Clothes” — There are six stories in this episode and I’d say one of them is great: the very last one, about a Jewish concentration camp prisoner who was able to keep his head down by wearing a Nazi shirt. He went on to become one of the great tailors in America, having dressed three presidents and a vast range of celebrities. The rest of this is forgettable.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Comic-Con Dispatches” — It’s always interesting to hear the work that these panelists do elsewhere at NPR. Glen Weldon’s piece on hard SF offers no new perspective, but Petra Mayer’s Wonder Woman celebration is lovely. It’s especially great that she talks only to women.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Jason Bourne and Suicide Squad” — I’m behind on this, and every other podcast. But I couldn’t resist jumping ahead to hear what they had to say about these two apparently pretty bad movies. Jason Bourne sounds more superfluous than anything, and I think I’ll just stick with the original trilogy, thanks. But Suicide Squad sounds like a complete disaster, and this conversation between Glen Weldon and Chris Klimek about why that is may be the best thing to come out of it. On that note, let us momentarily travel back in time…

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Swiss Army Man” — Weldon is absolutely correct that Klimek is dead wrong about this movie. Swiss Army Man is one of the best films I’ve seen in awhile, and Klimek’s assertion that it’s a short that got wrongly extended to feature length is completely ridiculous. The fact that there is this much of the Daniel Radcliffe farting corpse movie is definitely part of the joke. But that aside, I also agree with Weldon that it absolutely builds as it goes. Still, you’d be best off to heed both Weldon’s advice to see this movie and Klimek’s advice to throw a few bucks at The Nice Guys, because that’s really great too.

The Memory Palace: “Local Channels” — This story of the great swimmer Florence Chadwick is at its best when it gets elegiac near the end. I suppose The Memory Palace is seldom not elegiac. But, when DiMeo really gets to sink into a narrative of diminishment, he’s at his best. I don’t know what it says about me that I think that.

99% Invisible: “Combat Hearing Loss” — Boring and slightly markety. Hearing loss among soldiers is obviously a problem, but the design solution isn’t that clever or interesting.

Code Switch: “A Letter From Young Asian Americans, To Their Parents, About Black Lives Matter” — Kat Chow remains a secret weapon of this podcast. This episode is another of those that sheds light on something that isn’t necessarily hitting the big headlines, but is massively consequential to communities that I don’t belong to. This is why I listen to this show.

Imaginary Worlds: “Legacy of Octavia Butler” — I’m finding that when Molinsky focuses on a specific text or artist in a single episode, he can get a little dull. It’s easy to just explore abstractly in this format, whereas when you take a specific concept that could apply meaningfully to a number of texts, like the relationship of economics to genre fiction, you’ve got to do some real thinking. So, this one’s mixed.

Reply All: “The Picture Taker” — The Super Tech Support that anchors this episode is firmly in the middle of the pack as they go, but P.J. Vogt’s constant interjections make it worthwhile. He has a real knack for taking serious, grown-up problems and phrasing them in terms of man babies living in fantasy worlds. Also, the half-episode of Science Vs that’s tacked on her is very, very promising. About which more promptly.

StartUp: “Introducing Science Vs” — This whole “only put half the episode in the established podcasts’ feeds” strategy is a good one, because now I’m subscribed to Science Vs. And I don’t even feel like I’ve been suckered. This show is great. I’d say it’s starting off strong, but of course it’s been on in Australia for a full year already. The only real reason to listen to this episode of StartUp instead of just heading straight for the new show’s own feed is that you get to hear a bit about the acquisition, which is interesting to those of us who like geeking out about the insider world of podcasting. (Do you subscribe to the Hot Pod newsletter? You should.)

Science Vs: “Attachment Parenting” — There’s a fine line between reasonably assessing problematic assertions based on science and doing whatever Richard Dawkins is up to on Twitter these days. This show is firmly on the right side of that line. It is deeply satisfying to see snake oil salesmen getting debunked, especially when the host is as funny and engaging as Wendy Zukerman. I am going to enjoy this.

Science Vs: “Fracking” — I immediately knew I was going to like this show when Wendy Zukerman and P.J. Vogt were talking in the Reply All preview of this and Vogt said he didn’t like talking about fracking because he didn’t like talking about politics — to which Zukerman immediately replied that it shouldn’t even be about politics. There are facts to be considered, and that’s that. We need this show in a time when we are so inundated by political talking points and marketing that facts are seemingly ignorable. Pick of the week.

Radiolab: “From Tree to Shining Tree” — This is amazing: trees don’t actually absorb the bulk of their own nutrients with their roots: it’s done for them by near-microscopic tube-shaped fungus. This will completely change the way you think about your primary school science classes.

Omnireviewer (week of Apr. 24, 2016)

24 reviews, mostly of the audio persuasion, as I’ve been doing things and need things I can do at the same time as those things. The music takes it, this week. Of the five things I reviewed in that category, four blew my mind.

Television

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Season 2, episodes 2-6 — Okay, it’s picking up. There’s a moment in the second episode where Jane Krakowski and Anna Camp’s characters accidentally foreground their own passive aggression, and it is one of the funniest things this show has ever done. It’s all in the performances, too. This cast is so good that it can even prop up episodes where the writing isn’t up to par. Also, the concept of being excommunicated from the Apple Store made me laugh very hard.

Last Week Tonight: April 24, 2016 — The best they’ve done in a while. The presence of Lin-Manuel Miranda was always going to make me like it more, but the entire Puerto Rico segment is masterful.

Game of Thrones: “The Red Lady” — Oh, look what’s back. I wasn’t excited for this premiere, having outright loathed all but one (okay, maybe two) episodes of the (inexplicably Emmy-winning) fifth season. And the opening was not auspicious. Starting at the Wall was inevitable, but that plotline has been boring me for what feels like several seasons at this point. And having Ramsay Bolton, the most unwatchable character in prestige television, in the second segment felt like death. And when Brienne shows up to give a much needed infusion of characters I like into an otherwise plodding first third of the episode, it mostly seemed to indicate the extent to which Gwendoline Christie is a class act in a show that doesn’t deserve her anymore. Same goes for Lena Headey, Peter Dinklage, Iain Glen, Jonathan Pryce, Liam Cunningham and Emilia Clarke. Really, I’m in this for two reasons now: most prominently because I’m deeply susceptible to the sunk costs fallacy, but also because the cast remains mostly incredible and fun to watch. Hopefully that’ll get me through to the end of this interminable, bleak, dull, self-serious, water-cooler-moment-manufacturing, needlessly brutal, pedestrian drama.

Archer: Season 7, episodes 4 & 5 — Robo-Barry is always funny, Malory got her first solo plotline, and Krieger has facemasks (and hand replicas) of all of the other characters. So, episode four was great. Episode five, also great, but it’s the first of a two-parter, so I’m withholding judgement.

Movies

Anomalisa — This is going to take some time to process. It’s definitely very good. But, it’s also fairly unlike the other Charlie Kaufman movies that I love. There’s one moment of metafictional awareness here, and it is really something. But mostly, this movie is interested in telling a story that travels in a straight line. It’s a good enough story that the main character seems real and comprehensible, even as he behaves in completely unacceptable ways. Really, though, the reason to see this is the animation. It’s amazing to me that this was originally made for radio. It’s easy to see how that would have worked. The central conceit — the main character hears everybody (including Dame Joan Sutherland) as having the same voice except for one woman — is a radio conceit. But in this movie, the stop-motion animation dazzles as much as the script. I constantly found myself wondering how certain shots were done. I’m sure that’s not what the filmmakers intended me to be thinking, but it does go to show what an accomplishment this is on a purely technical level.

Super Troopers — The same person who I saw Anomalisa with this week also wanted to watch Super Troopers, which leaves me confused about his character. This movie makes 2002 look like a really long time ago. For one thing, that was apparently a time when comedies could have the premise “X, but funny!” Today, comedies aren’t defined by jokes; they’re built on premises and they happen to have jokes in them. All comedy is high-concept, and all comedy is working on some level of irony. But Super Troopers isn’t at all. And it’s not aping the style of anything in particular. It’s not a cop movie parody. It’s just a movie about some funny cops. In 2016, post Hot Fuzz (which was made all the way back in 2007, somehow), this is comedy from another planet. It is not a good movie.

Music

Prince: Sign ‘O the Times — I was unaware that Prince invented Quasimoto. And yet, there’s Prince, pitched up into an alter-ego, right there on “Housequake.” I read this described somewhere (the AV Club, I think) as a “one-man White Album.” I can’t put it any better than that. It’s even got clear Lennon moments (the title track) and McCartney moments (“Starfish and Coffee”) This doesn’t have the massive hooks that Purple Rain does, but it’s a way better album. Purple Rain’s dated drum sound and synths are nowhere to be heard. It’s kind of amazing that an album so obviously intended to be an index of its own cultural moment (a sign of the times), could have dated so much better than other music of its time. This is almost an hour and a half long and there is nothing on it that isn’t good. Many tracks are basically perfect. “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” is one of the most infectious things I’ve ever heard.

Beyoncé: Lemonade (visual album) — Music videos have always been a place for weird, avant-garde, non-linear, symbolic filmmaking to break the mainstream. To some extent, that’s why Alan Parker’s The Wall is ultimately a less compelling work of art than the album it’s based on: it’s too devoted to fleshing out a story that’s told in brief tableaus on the album. You want meaning to be suggested, rather than stated outright. That’s why the animated segments work best. It’s also why Lemonade is something very close to a masterpiece. And while it may seem a bizarre choice, The Wall isn’t the worst point of comparison for Lemonade — at least for somebody with my specific, limited set of reference points. They’re both personal conceptual opuses apparently created to help deal with an emotional wound. They’re both works that are likely to be called “self-indulgent” by uncharitable critics. They both channel personal narratives in the service of broader social insights. And both have visual elements that attempt to expand the forms and styles of music videos in their respective times to (near) feature length. But while The Wall is ham-fisted (hammer-fisted?) Lemonade leaves space for interpretation, possibly out of conflicting needs for privacy and self-expression. Even if some of it is pretty direct (Beyoncé flinging her wedding ring at the camera and singing “you’ll lose your wife” could really only be directed at one person), it mostly operates according to song logic, rather than movie logic. Which makes it strange that, in the end, Lemonade still gives you a better sense of the wound it was constructed to help heal than The Wall does. I imagine I’ll get a better sense of the music itself once I listen to the album in audio-only form, but this is really something. Pick of the week.

Moon Hooch: NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert — I haven’t been so unexpectedly bowled over by a group since I heard the Motion Trio play Michael Nyman music on three accordions. These guys have energy to burn. It is essentially EDM played on two saxophones and a drum kit. It must be seen and heard to be believed.

Kyle Craft: Dolls of Highland — Welcome to the concept of glam country. Lyrically, Craft is a blend of southern mysticism and Dylanesque oblique romanticism. Musically, he’s halfway between the Band and the Spiders from Mars. He has a way with a melodic hook, and holy smokes, that voice is like a fire alarm. I love it. “Lady of the Ark” and “Pentecost” have had a few weeks to grow on me, and those singles are, predictably, the most immediate songs on the album. But this is going to be one I’ll come back to. Between this and Until the Horror Goes, it’s turning out to be a good year for rock debuts.

The Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground — Spun in preparation for the new Brian Eno album, which has a cover of “I’m Set Free.” I’ve loved the first two Velvet Underground albums for years, but never got around to checking out this or Loaded. Apparently, Eno loves this album so much that he’s never owned a copy for fear of becoming overfamiliar. I do see the appeal, though I definitely prefer the debut. I love the first album as much for its noisy sonic adventures as for its songwriting, and that element sort of left the band with John Cale. Still good.

Podcasts

Imaginary Worlds: “Economics of Thrones and Starships” — THIS is the reason I’m into genre fiction. The fact that the paratext of a show like Game of Thrones or Battlestar Galactica can be this interesting — i.e. their worlds can serve as hypotheticals for economic thought experiments — almost makes the question of whether the shows are any good moot. This might be my favourite episode of Imaginary Worlds aside from the Cthulhu one, which doesn’t really bear comparison to other episodes.

All Songs Considered: “Remembering Prince, The Utopian” — While I was listening to Ann Powers exposit on why she loves Prince, I thought of something. She talked about how his live shows were rituals, rather than just spectacles. That made me think of how incredible the opening of the Purple Rain album is. The start of “Let’s Go Crazy” is a secularization, and a humanization of the traditional funeral mass: “Dearly beloved, we have gathered here today to get through this thing called life.” First off, what a way to start an album. But also, I’ve been reflecting on how extraordinary it was to hear that for the first time on the day Prince died. And not only that, but to hear it on the radio, along with a community of people who were hearing it at the same time, albeit in many different places. It’s still a gathering of sorts, to get through this thing called life. When Bowie died, he left us an album that was meant to play like a message from beyond the grave. (“Look up here, man, I’m in heaven,” etc.) Prince did the same thing by accident, thirty years in advance.

Reply All: “Decoders” — I don’t know any other show that so fearlessly oscillates between very serious and very silly. First, Goldman and Vogt take the time to demonstrate how the debate over cracking the San Bernardino’s shooter’s iPhone is founded on false pretences. Then, they talk to Adam West. Love it.

Radiolab: “On the Edge” — Listening to figure skating is more compelling than you’d think. This is an interesting story with a great main character, figure skating iconoclast Surya Bonaly. It turns out to be a bit of a shaggy dog joke in the end. But hey: I listened to half and hour of radio about figure skating. Didn’t see that coming.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Summer Movie Preview” — My god, what a dire wasteland of a few months it’s going to be for movies. Thank god for Swiss Army Man.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Julia Louis-Dreyfus/Louis CK” — Maron’s two-part 700th episode extravaganza is a good distillation of why he’s earned his place in the pantheon of podcasting. He’s audibly nervous in his conversation with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, but as with many great Maron interviews, the nervousness comes from a place of reverence — justified reverence. And while it’s not one of his best — Louis-Dreyfus seems perplexed that she’s found herself on a podcast, having a somewhat dubious understanding of what they are — it’s still an entertaining hour and a half. The second part with Louis CK, on the other hand, is totally essential, because it’s the most in-depth he’s gone on the making of Horace and Pete. Maron and CK have a compelling dynamic to begin with, but when CK is this excited to talk about something, it really adds something. This was released as two separate episodes. Both are worthwhile, but at least go listen to the Louis CK interview. Unless you haven’t watched Horace and Pete. In which case, plop down your 30 bucks for that, watch it, and then double back here. Maron talks about how Horace and Pete forced CK to listen more. On that note, I’ve never heard Maron listen to anybody so intently without interjecting. Normally, that wouldn’t be an asset on this podcast, but this is electrifying. Pick of the week.

StartUp: “Gaming the System” — Now I get why they did this as a two-episode slow burn. The company turned out to be something that everybody’s heard of. I love that. Now I’m really excited for this season. And the look-ahead to next week’s show is a great teaser.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’” — A slight, effective little segment on a thing that you cannot avoid hearing everybody’s thoughts on this week. These are thoughts you might be glad you heard.

This American Life: “In Defence of Ignorance” — Aw man, Ira’s so sick. But he soldiers through! This is a really good episode of This American Life. Sean Cole is one of my favourite radio producers. He’s the only person who could do a piece on psychological research and have it be hilarious. But the other two segments, both about people who suffer for knowing things that others don’t, are equally wonderful. Also, there’s Vulfpeck in this! Yay, Vulfpeck!

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Another Round’s Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton” — Linda Holmes really should have started this by telling us what Another Round is all about. Because, speaking as a large podcast nerd (see above, see below), I did not know this show. It does sound wonderful, though.

The Sporkful: “Comic Maria Bamford Risked Her Life For Ice Cream” — God, I love Maria Bamford. Probably one of my top three current comedians. Also, this is the first time I listened to The Sporkful while eating, and I think that is the way I will continue to do it, because this show makes me so hungry. I think if I ever met Dan Pashman, my stomach would immediately start growling as soon as he started talking. I’m becoming conditioned that way.

All Songs Considered: “Moon Hooch, Summer Cannibals, PUP, More” — Oh my god, Moon Hooch. If I ever get to be involved in a live show of any kind, with musical guests, I want to bring in Moon Hooch and the Motion Trio, and then have them play together. That is my new goal in life.

Reply All: “1000 Brimes” — An Email Debt Forgiveness day special that doesn’t match last year for volume, but has some very uncanny stories.