Tag Archives: Max Richter

Omnibus (week of Nov. 26, 2017)

You know, I think this is actually a pretty strong instalment. Usually this blog just sort of is what it is. God knows nobody reads it. At least, not on days when I’m not on the radio. And obviously I don’t care, or I wouldn’t have been doing it every week for two years. But sometimes I think maybe it’s pretty good. This is one of those. For what it’s worth.

Three picks of the week, since I only did one last time. 15 reviews.

Music

Margo Price: All American Made — I think I speak for every single human on the planet when I say that 2017 suuuuuuuuuucked. Like, on a universal level, and also seemingly on a personal level for a whole bunch of people I know. I mean, lots of great things happened this year. But big chunks of it were confusing and disappointing, and perhaps some of us have been wishing we’d made different choices. It is what it is. We all end up there sometimes. Never fear. Margo Price has a new album, and it’s even better than the first one. All American Made isn’t a Sad, Dark, Personal Album in the vein of Blood on the Tracks, Tonight’s the Night or Blue. Hell, Price wrote these songs after breaking a 15-year losing streak in the music industry. And she co-wrote a bunch of them with her husband, who she seems rather fond of. This isn’t an exorcism. Musically, it’s even pretty peppy, aside from the ballads. But Price realizes the same thing that all of the greatest country songwriters have realized, which is that there is no catharsis in the world like a straightforward description of a bad thing happening. Or, a straightforward description of a shitty state of mind you’ve found yourself in — see the outstanding heartstring tugger “Learning to Lose,” featuring a very 84-year-old-sounding Willie Nelson. I believe (here begins the hot take segment of the review) that bleak, doleful country music is more relevant today than ever. The social role of songs like “Learning to Lose” is to reassure you that disappointment, rejection, loneliness and failure are normal facets of the human experience that everybody goes through. That they aren’t specific to you. This is crucial now that we live in a world where everybody can so easily airbrush the worst bits of their lives out of their public identities on Facebook and Instagram. These platforms have caused us to perceive life as a game that can be won or lost on an ongoing basis. And they have also made it really easy — and socially necessary — to lie and cheat at that game. We must always be winning, even when we are not. So, where do you turn for a quick hit of catharsis when it seems like everybody else is busy following their bliss? You turn to lonesome, dejected country music, soaked in whiskey and regret. On the day before the day before the new year, many of us will be looking back on a dubious 363 days. Margo gets it. She’s the most honest songwriter to emerge in the last couple years, and she’s exactly the one we need. Pick of the week.

Margo Price: Weakness (EP) — Since the title track is also on All American Made, this is mostly worth it for “Paper Cowboy,” the rare Margo Price recording where the focus is squarely on the band, which is amazing. Seriously, Luke Schneider’s pedal steel playing is next-level.

Queen: Sheer Heart Attack — I rewatched Baby Driver last week (conveniently forgetting at the start that it’s got Kevin Spacey in it) and I was plunged into a world of “Brighton Rock” on repeat. Seldom has a song that only has one repetition of its chorus been more addictive. (Is it really a chorus if it only happens once? Yes it is. Because it sounds like one. “Oh rock of ages, do not crumble” are not words you just throw into a verse or a bridge.) The clear next phase in this obsession was to revisit this album, which remains my most neglected classic Queen album, mostly as a consequence of how I experienced Queen at first. As a prog-obsessed teenager, Queen II was my go-to, with A Night at the Opera getting the secondary nod almost by default, just because it’s “the classic.” But with a few more years behind me, I’m willing to entertain the notion that Sheer Heart Attack is stronger than either. Sure, it’s got an uneven second half. The run of “Misfire,” “Bring Back That Leroy Brown” and “She Makes Me (Stormtroopers in Stilettos)” is markedly less magnificent than the rest of the disc, with the second of those being virtually the only Freddie Mercury novelty song that fails to amuse me. But I’m not sure Queen ever made an album that didn’t have a couple dogs on it. In retrospect, Queen II has more lacklustre tracks than that. And for all that album’s musical intricacy and wonderment, it is couched in a high-fantasy aesthetic that I find less compelling at 27 than I did at 15. Sheer Heart Attack’s greatest improvement over its predecessor is its adoption of surrealism and introspection in place of Queen II’s ogres and fairy fellers. I still love those songs, but Sheer Heart Attack keeps you at arm’s length just a little bit less. Aside from “Brighton Rock,” which belongs in everybody’s top five Queen songs, my highlight is the three-parter formed by “Tenement Funster,” “Flick of the Wrist” and “Lily of the Valley.” The middle part of the trilogy is what really holds it up: “Flick of the Wrist” is Queen’s entire ethos in three minutes. The way Mercury’s piano (absent throughout “Tenement Funster”) arrives suddenly, elegantly tossing off a bit of filigree before the vocal begins, is a masterstroke. And the moment when the Queen choir kicks on on “Don’t look back! Don’t look back!” is as dramatic and satisfying as they get. But the other two bits should get their due as well: “Tenement Funster” may be my favourite Roger Taylor track, simply because it is the most Roger Taylor track. And “Lily of the Valley” is a sort of refinement of “Nevermore” from Queen II, which has a lovely melody but very overwrought lyrics. To my ears this still leaves three classics in “Killer Queen,” “Now I’m Here” and “Stone Cold Crazy,” the latter of which sounds about four years ahead of its time. Bottom line, Queen is everything that’s good about rock music from the ‘70s, and this is maybe their best album.

Morton Feldman/Marc-André Hamelin: For Bunita Marcus — One of my favourite “classical” (terrible word) releases of the year. Every time Hamelin records something that isn’t stupidly technical — like his amazing Haydn recordings — the classical music chattersphere makes that the lede. And, fair enough. But in the case of this beautiful late piece by Morton Feldman, the set of demands placed on the performer are no less extraordinary than those of Alkan or Godowsky, though the piece is technically simple even by ordinary standards. The performer of For Bunita Marcus must play extremely sparsely populated music, very quietly, for well over an hour. I can hardly conceive of the presence of mind it must take to maintain the atmosphere. Hamelin is both an artist and a stuntman, and this is as much a stunt as anything he’s ever played. It’s also as much of an artistic accomplishment as he’s ever put to record. Also: in his liner notes, which I ignored the first time I heard this and only just read this week, Hamelin compares this music to Borges’s story “The Library of Babel,” which is an irresistible germ of a thought, given that I coincidentally finished the Ficciones last week. I’m not entirely sure what he’s on about, but certainly both Borges and Feldman are offering two attempts to visualize and quantify the infinite — or, in Borges’ case the finite but inconceivably vast. Maybe in Feldman’s case as well. This is great music for when you need to leave the small things behind.

Max Richter: The Blue Notebooks — Richter is either a genius or a charlatan, except he’s definitely a genius. I don’t like everything he’s done, but his best music (this, the Vivaldi recompositions, parts of Sleep) are modern classics that deserve to stand alongside the music of William Basinski and Tim Hecker. Mind, he’s a lot less spiny than either of them. If you felt emotionally manipulated at the beginning or end of Arrival, it’s Richter’s fault. “On the Nature of Daylight” is one of his simplest, most direct and (dare I say) poppiest pieces of music, so it makes sense that it should find a home in the movies. That track is a highlight of The Blue Notebooks, but it isn’t the highlight: that’s “Shadow Journal,” a dark, slow-moving piece with trancey electronics and reverb-laden harp and strings. You can’t quite call it ambient; it’s too structured for that. But it is spectacular mood music. So is the rest of this. It’s definitely the place to start if you’re looking for an introduction.

Movies

Andy and Jim: The Great Beyond — This is a magnificent documentary about a terrible man who was massively acclaimed for doing a thing badly. Andy and Jim confirms my theory that Jim Carrey’s performance as Andy Kaufman is horseshit. It is 100% based on the front-of-camera Andy Kaufman, with no attention paid or insight sought out into Kaufman’s actual character. Regardless of how deeply Jim Carrey descended into method acting hell to play Kaufman, his interpretation of the character is fundamentally misguided and has a lot more to do with the neuroses and tics of Jim Carrey than those of Andy Kaufman. Carrey’s Kaufman, for instance, simply can’t accept that Jerry Lawler is a person worth befriending. Where the real Kaufman (as illustrated in one presumably difficult to film segment of Man on the Moon) was a firm friend of the wrestler in real life and only condescended to him for show, Carrey’s Kaufman is a dick to him even when the cameras aren’t on. This is borderline emotional abuse, given that Jerry Lawler played himself in Man on the Moon and was therefore subjected to ruthless taunting by a cheap facsimile of his deceased friend. It’s no wonder he punched Carrey for real. Who among us hasn’t wanted to do the same? The reason Andy and Jim is a great documentary is that it lays bare the extent to which Jim Carrey’s performance was a semi-conscious attempt to outrun his own pathologies. He expresses a need to be “absent” from himself. That’s what acting really is to him: an escape from being a person he doesn’t like. And Man on the Moon seemed to offer a unique opportunity to up the ante on this escape by playing a real person who famously didn’t break character (even though this is untrue and exaggerated in the film). I don’t know what Jim Carrey thinks of this documentary. I don’t know what the director of this documentary thinks of Jim Carrey. Regardless, it’s a fascinating portrait of a violently needy person letting his worst impulses lead him by the nose.

Literature, etc.

Philip Pullman: The Subtle Knife — I vaguely recall liking this better than The Golden Compass as a kid. And I was right. Smart little fucker, I was. The Golden Compass is a sublime adventure story with one of the best protagonists in children’s literature. But The Subtle Knife is where Philip Pullman starts to tip his hand that what he’s really writing is an epic on a cosmic scale. This is where the elements of His Dark Materials that I really love start to come out: the multiple universes, the questions of free will and destiny, the rumblings of a great war to come. If there’s a weak point, it’s simply that Pullman has to introduce and develop the character of Will, which means we get less Lyra per page than in The Golden Compass. But Will is a more than acceptable secondary protagonist, and a great foil for Lyra. The early scenes of the two of them trying to cooperate in spite of their drastically different upbringing are fabulous. Also, The Subtle Knife turns up the horror by several degrees. The Golden Compass contained some truly horrifying scenes, particularly the reveal of the first severed child Lyra encounters. (Wonderful how Pullman normalizes the fact that people have daemons so successfully that when she finds something that would look to us like a normal child, it’s appalling.) But The Subtle Knife’s spectre attacks and the general atmosphere of Cittàgazze wouldn’t be out of place in The Dark Tower. Speaking of King, one thing Pullman doesn’t get enough credit for is the way he writes action. I’ve been reading King as well, so it sticks out to me that Pullman and King are equally adept at writing tense action sequences. The one where Lee Scoresby and Hester die is a) heartbreaking, but also b) a hell of a gunfight. Anyway, I’ve been finished this for a few days now and I just got The Amber Spyglass out of the library. I am as excited to crack it open as I was when I was 11 and finishing The Subtle Knife for the first time. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

In Our Time: “Picasso’s Guernica” & “The Picts” — These are two episodes that together illustrate why this weird, unvarnished, slightly stuffy talk radio show is one of my favourite podcasts. The Guernica episode is just a full-on, firing-on-all-cylinders episode of this show, where every professor on the panel has something different to offer and Melvyn Bragg organizes the discussion so you see the subject from multiple sides in only an hour. He gets into not only Picasso’s painting itself, but also the actual bombing of Guernica itself and the political situation that let Picasso to make the painting at all. He gets into the impact of reportage from Guernica on Picasso’s approach. He even manages to fit in a bit of the continuing story of Guernica in more recent times, i.e. its presence at the United Nations. The episode about the Picts is an entirely different sort of affair, because it is live in front of an audience, and it is a celebration of the show’s 20th anniversary. It is so demonstrative of this show’s sensibility that when faced with celebrating a milestone, they obviously just decided to do what they were going to do anyway, which was talk about the Picts. I love that. I also love how transparent Bragg gets in this episode, where he doesn’t even try to hide the fact that he’s attempting to lead his panelists into saying a specific thing. At one point Bragg explains about a general in a decisive battle: “Completely unexpectedly, after winning battles for 30 years, he was not only defeated but killed, and that changed everything.” And then he turns to a member of his panel: “Can you say that more elaborately than I did please. With more scholarship.” And his panelist proceeds to do so, brilliantly. Why mask the process, when forthrightness yields both results and punchlines?  

Fresh Air: “Margo Price” & “Comic Patton Oswalt” — Two fantastic interviews with people who make brilliant, vulnerable art. Also, Margo brought her guitar. So, listen to that one.

On the Media: “About that Nazi Next Door” — A good interview about a distressing reaction to a distressing New York Times story about a white nationalist. What this show is for.

More Perfect catchup — This is shaping up to be one of the best shows of the year, with a second season that eclipses the first by a fair margin. The fearless complexity that’s been missing lately in Radiolab is here in spades, and so is the musical sound design. And the stories themselves are the sort of thing that’ll make you stop doing the dishes from time to time and just stand in the middle of your kitchen. Of the three episodes I listened to this week, the one about Citizens United stands out. Go listen.

Beautiful Conversations with Anonymous People: “Black Cloud of a Husband” — The best episode of this show that I’ve heard so far, and a truly enthralling story. This time, Chris Gethard’s anonymous caller is a newly single mother who has been through what sounds like a hellish marriage and lived to tell the tale. She’s in therapy and seems to be moving past her trauma, which makes this feel less exploitative than it otherwise could. (Though I’ve never actually felt this show is exploitative, really. The anonymity helps, but mostly I feel that Chris Gethard always keeps his callers’ best interest in mind, or tries to as best he can.) But the story of this woman’s relationship with her husband, which she now sees with 20-20 hindsight, is an incredible thing to listen to. Gethard hardly has to do anything. She just has a story to tell and wants to get it out. This is a good starting place for this show. If you don’t like this, you’ll never be won over. Pick of the week.

Constellations: “ellie gordon-moershel – anatomy of the road” & “janet rogers – broken english” — “Anatomy of the road” is a dull, predictable bit of drama in itself, but I can imagine it going somewhere interesting in its continuation. Apparently that will happen. “Broken english” is more fun, on account of its basically being music. I’m all for the line between music and talk radio being blurred.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “Right to Dissent” & “Criminal Justice and the POTUS” — Two great, disquieting episodes of a forever disquieting show about how everything is changing for the worse because the most powerful man in the world is a baby with no understanding of the system he’s at the head of. The criminal justice episode is particularly good, because it references Trump’s response to the Central Park Five to help understand his current stance on criminal justice, which is deplorable.

StartUp: “The Race for a Driverless Future” — It’s been a long time since I listened to the first part of this two-parter, but I remember it was more fun than this. If this show were continuing with this episodic approach, it would be gone from my feed.

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Omnireviewer (week of Feb. 19, 2017)

Oh, jeez, for the first time since I’ve been doing this I didn’t get it out on Sunday. Not that you care, of course, but I have standards. Usually. This week, I just completely forgot. Anyway, here it is. Also, I am happy that Moonlight won.

Movies

Manchester by the Sea — Yeah, I saw Manchester by the Sea again. It’s worth seeing a second time if you can handle it. On a repeat viewing, I found myself focussing much more on what a beautifully made clock it is. The pivotal scene that flashes back to Lee’s tragedy is particularly well directed and edited so that we simultaneously come to know what happened to him and understand why his present-day situation is so challenging. Also, I had forgotten about the actual best character in this movie: Otto the drummer. Keep at it, buddy. They’ll realize it’s the bassist’s fault soon enough.

Dream of a Rarebit Fiend — Funny how sometimes silent shorts from 1906 just come up in conversation, isn’t it? Anyway, I watched this again for the first time since undergrad film studies, and it totally holds up. Holds up since my undergrad, holds up since 1906. Watching super early film is like watching a magic show. It really reconnects you with the basic miracle of the medium as equal parts art form and technological marvel. It’s easy to take that for granted these days. Interestingly, another movie that came up randomly in conversation on the same night was Hugo, which I love primarily because it is the only modern movie (when seen in 3D, at least) that has ever been able to reconnect me with the basic wonder that movies exist like early film does. I wish it would return to theatres. I’d love to see it there again.

I Am Not Your Negro — As good as I expected, and another outstanding entry in the most interesting category at this year’s Oscars. Since Life, Animated and Fire at Sea look to have no chance, Best Documentary Feature is a win-win-win situation. I Am Not Your Negro takes an approach that I am increasingly drawn to in documentary, which is that it takes a spoken text (in this case, not an original one, but one drawn from the writing of James Baldwin) and lays it over archival footage. There is no reporting in this documentary, as there is in 13th and especially O.J.: Made in America. But its goals are different: namely to illustrate and gloss the argument and storytelling of James Baldwin: one of the most powerful of all American writers. The film’s greatest asset is Baldwin’s unparalleled command of language, both in his written work (read here by Samuel L. Jackson) and in his extemporaneous speech in interviews and assorted television appearances. It’s second-greatest asset is director Raoul Peck’s Adam Curtis-like facility for pairing Baldwin’s outpourings of language with striking and often counterintuitive images. When you think about what Baldwin’s much-planned, never written book Remember This House could have been like — a critical account of America told through the stories of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. — it’s gutting that the book doesn’t exist. But this film fills the gap as well as anybody could manage. Pick of the week.

La La Land — I’m writing this just after this movie lost Best Picture to the much nobler and more interesting Moonlight. And while I’m mostly feeling sorry for Warren Beatty for having to deal with that whole situation, I’m sort of sad for the people involved with this movie as well. Not super sad, though. La La Land is a virtuosic piece of filmmaking, with plenty of the sort of showy, ostentatious cinematography that made me fall in love with Emmanuel Lubezki, who apparently didn’t do anything this year, because it is now the law that he must always win the Oscar for cinematography. However, it is also incredibly boring for most of its duration, and it somehow made me hate both Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling who are both actors that I really like. It starts strong, with an incredible opening number that occurs before either of the leads make an onscreen appearance, and it ends strong with a virtuosic fantasy sequence. But the entire middle of the movie is pablum with weak songs, shitty dancing and poorly drawn characters. Basically, I didn’t like this. But don’t interpret that as a refutation of nostalgia or romance, because I’m in favour of both of those things. They just need to be more subtly employed than they are here.

Games

Half-Life  — I got this as part of a bundle of all of the Half-Life games and DLC during the Steam Winter sale. I bought it purely out of love for the Portal games, and general curiosity about the other franchise that Valve is known for. So far, the game possesses the same dour sense of humour, but without the same emphasis on writing. I am generally optimistic about liking this, in spite of it being basically just a standard first-person shooter, which isn’t the sort of thing I tend to enjoy. It is also insufferably buggy, though, so I may well switch to Half-Life: Source before I next check in. I was bound and determined to play through the most authentic Half-Life experience, but if I’m going to constantly get stuck at the tops of ladders, unable to move at all, I’d rather sacrifice period accuracy for a bit of convenience.

Music

Max Richter: Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Works — Max Richter’s strongest music is among my favourite of recent years. I’m particularly fond of his album The Blue Notebooks and his recomposition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, which I still submit is superior in every way to the original. I know it isn’t a contest, but I’m just saying. It’s true. But Richter is by no means a sure bet. At his worst, he makes ersatz movie music passed off as self-sufficient art. This album of music from his ballet score Woolf Works contains more of that that I’d like. It’s broken into three sections, inspired by three separate Virginia Woolf novels: Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, and The Waves. Of these, the Dalloway music is the worst by far, consisting almost entirely of grandiose crescendi. The Waves is more subdued, but still veers off into crass emotional manipulativeness toward the end. Fortunately, Richter’s modular synth-based music for Orlando is in itself worth the price of admission. Using the classic form of a theme and variations, Richter reflects the transformations of Woolf’s protean novel through the gradual development of a single theme — and by processing recordings of acoustic instruments into something else entirely. Woolf Works contains both poles of Richter’s work: the very worst and best that he’s capable of. It isn’t a modern masterpiece, but you should definitely check out the Orlando section because that, at least, is fantastic.

Jethro Tull: Stand Up — More research for a bunch of upcoming writing. This isn’t a Tull album I revisit frequently, and I can’t honestly say that I agree with the consensus that it’s one of their best. I see the appeal: it’s tremendously heterogeneous and experimental while still hewing largely towards the general shape and sound of heavy late-60s rock. But it feels immature to me in a way that the following record, Benefit, doesn’t — even though I have to say I like Benefit less. “A New Day Yesterday” defines the problem. The titular line, “it was a new day yesterday but it’s an old day now” is one of those pleasantly meaningless koan-like lyrics that the 60s are so good for. But for the rest of the song, it feels like Anderson is just using words to fill space, which is something that the Ian Anderson of Aqualung, let along the Ian Anderson of Thick as a Brick or Minstrel in the Gallery, would never do. And for what purpose is the space being filled? Essentially, a blues jam. Granted, it’s a blues jam with a magnificent riff and a flute solo, which distinguishes it from other blues jams. But it’s nothing special in a way that later Tull would never be nothing special. There are moments that strike me this way throughout the album. Essentially all of the heavy stuff is better on live albums. But there’s also plenty to love. “Fat Man” isn’t the most body-positive song in the Tull canon, but it is melodically irresistible, and I love that there are balalaikas in it. “Jeffrey Goes to Leicester Square” points the way towards similarly whimsical bits of nicely arranged fluff like “Mother Goose” and “Ladies.” And “Reasons for Waiting” proves that even with a deep familiarity of the Tull canon, your expectations of Ian Anderson can still be confounded. It’s just a simple, pretty love song, and it actually works. Imagine. Not a favourite, but I do understand why it is venerated by many.

Jethro Tull: Songs from the Wood — This is a classic. I’ll say no more because I have far too many words coming up shortly on One Week // One Band. But this is in my top five Tull albums, for sure, which means it’s probably also in my top 20 albums ever.

Literature, etc.

George Saunders: “Escape from Spiderhead” — Upon reading the raves about Saunders’ new novel, I figured I should check out a short story to see if it might be my sort of thing. It is. This is a pretty standard sci-fi set up: something a young Vonnegut might have come up with. But it is distinguished by the brutality of its conclusion and the florid brilliance of its language. I still like his Trump rally thing better, but this is great and he’s obviously a writer I’m going to be into.

Podcasts

Fresh Air: “James Baldwin/I Am Not Your Negro” — I would have been just as happy to hear a full rerun of Terry Gross’s interview with Baldwin, but Raoul Peck is really insightful about how Baldwin reframed a generation’s thinking. I can’t wait to see I Am Not Your Negro.

You Must Remember This: “Jean Harlow Flashback (Dead Blondes Part 3)” — This is You Must Remember This at its most You Must Remember This. Karina Longworth’s love for Hollywood doesn’t just stem from a love of movies: it’s also a love of the sort of lurid gossip that it inspires. She’s really good at capturing the tone of that gossip while also being careful to contextualize it as dubious or outright false. Jean Harlow’s life story is dramatic as all hell, and gives Longworth the opportunity to say something like “But if they could see beneath the glamorous exterior, they’d have known that Harlow was slowly going to seed.” (I’m paraphrasing out of laziness, but it’s something like that.) This is the kind of extremely dramatic writing that keeps me coming back. Pick of the week. 

The Memory Palace: “Met Residency #4 (A Portrait)” — Easily the best of Nate DiMeo’s pieces for the Met so far. At first, it feels like it might be too specific to his Met residency to really have resonance for the rest of us who just found it in our feeds this week. But there’s a flip part way through where the story turns into something else, and it suddenly becomes much more compelling.

Chapo Trap House: “President Wario” — This may be the first episode I’ve heard with only the original three Chapos. It feels a bit like nothing new, at this point. There is a certain amount of gasping, head-in-hands incredulity at the continuing awfulness of Donald Trump, but I can get that anywhere. But there’s at least a wonderful reading series at the end, about a conservative who stands up for everything that’s good in the world by telling two uncouth twenty-somethings not to say “fuck” on a plane.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Our Oscars Preview” — No “should wins” for Manchester by the Sea? Alriiiiight. Anyway, these Oscars are going to be a fiasco.

A Point of View: “The Spectre of Populism” — I agree with John Gray insofar as I believe that the ineffectiveness of political centrism is the cause for the current swing to the far right that is overtaking Europe and North America. I’m not sure I agree with him on much else.

Things I loved in 2015: The rest of them

Well that’s that, then.

Except, I have a whole bunch of genre-specific lists of things I loved sitting in a Google doc, and I can’t resist posting them here, so the honourable mentions get their honourable mention. These are “top x” lists: just however many entries I could think of that I liked, ranked. The ones that made the top 25 are in bold.

Movies

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road
  2. Carol
  3. Inside Out
  4. The Hateful Eight
  5. Spotlight
  6. The Revenant
  7. It Follows
  8. What Happened, Miss Simone?
  9. The Lobster (saw it at VIFF; look out for the upcoming wide release)
  10. The Martian
  11. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  12. Amy
  13. A Most Violent Year

Television

  1. Mad Men
  2. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
  3. Better Call Saul
  4. BoJack Horseman
  5. Doctor Who
  6. Last Week Tonight
  7. Hannibal
  8. The Jinx
  9. Parks and Recreation
  10. Louie

Music

  1. Lin-Manuel Miranda: Hamilton: An American Musical
  2. Vulfpeck: Thrill of the Arts
  3. Björk: Vulnicura
  4. Africa Express: In C Mali
  5. CHVRCHES: Every Open Eye
  6. Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly
  7. Roomful of Teeth: Render
  8. Afiara Quartet and Skratch Bastid: Spin Cycle
  9. Max Richter: From Sleep
  10. Bryce Dessner: Music for Wood and Strings

Podcasts

  1. The Memory Palace
  2. Reply All
  3. Mystery Show
  4. Love and Radio
  5. Pop Culture Happy Hour
  6. Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything
  7. StartUp
  8. Radiolab

Books/Comics

  1. David Cavanagh: Good Night and Good Riddance: How Thirty-Five Years of John Peel Helped Shape Modern Life
  2. China Miéville: Three Moments of an Explosion
  3. Kieron Gillen/Jamie McKelvie: The Wicked and the Divine, vol. 2
  4. Kelly Sue DeConnick/Valentine De Landro: Bitch Planet, vol. 1
  5. Matt Fraction/Chip Zdarsky: Sex Criminals, vol. 2

Games

  1. Sunless Sea
  2. Undertale

(I played a couple of others but did not enjoy them.)

There you go. 48 wonderful things. A good year, by any standard.

 

Omnireviewer (week of Nov. 8, 2015)

I’m adding a new feature, this time around. Each week, I will choose two things I particularly loved as my “picks of the week.” Due to the preponderance of podcasts in these reviews, one will always be a podcast, and the other will be something else. I won’t prioritize new things for my picks of the week, necessarily. It’s just a matter of what hit home the most on a particular day. So, it’s totally possible (and indeed, very likely) for a pick of the week to be a 40-year-old rock album. 29 reviews, this week:

Music

Van Der Graaf Generator: The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other — You know how sometimes you’re listening to a song and you ask yourself, “Is this a good song?” and the answer is “no, it really isn’t.” But then you ask yourself “am I enjoying myself, though?” and the answer is “yeah I think I am!” That happens a lot on this album.

John Luther Adams/Glenn Kotche: Ilimaq — Adams is probably my favourite living composer. Become Ocean floored me; the subsequent recording of chamber strings music didn’t. This piece of percussion music, brilliantly performed by Wilco’s Glenn Kotche, falls somewhere in between. It’s not a masterpiece on the order of Become Ocean, Four Thousand Holes, or The Light that Fills the World, but it’s lovely, evocative, tense, etc.

Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot — Listening to Glenn Kotche play John Luther Adams made me want to listen back to Wilco’s masterpiece. This is still a basically perfect album. It sounds chaotic in places, but when you listen to the details you realize that it’s actually a meticulous approximation of chaos. In fact, I’m not sure I can name a rock album that’s more detail-obsessed in its production. The way that “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” gradually coagulates from noise into a song is genius. And Kotche’s playing is outstanding. I was listening.

Max Richter/Antonio Vivaldi: The Four Seasons, Recomposed — At the risk of appearing heretical (oh, who am I kidding; I love appearing heretical) Richter’s remake of The Four Seasons is better than the original. These Vivaldi concertos are possibly the most moth-eaten body of work in the repertory, and for all of their objective virtues, I do not understand how anybody could legitimately prefer them to Richter’s clever, gorgeous, modern interpretations. I know it doesn’t have to be a competition. But I’m making it one. And Vivaldi’s lying knocked out at the edge of the ring.

Yes: Drama — This is comfort food to me. It’s one of those albums that I know every contour of so well that when I listen to it, it just snaps into the grooves in my head. It tends to get overlooked by Yes fans because Jon Anderson isn’t on it. And while that becomes a worthwhile critique when it happens again in 2011, in 1980 Anderson’s absence was exactly what Howe, Squire and White needed to go in the direction that felt natural. Also, I love that Yes and the Buggles basically made an album together. There aren’t many less likely collaborations out there, let alone ones that result in good music.

Hey Rosetta! Seeds — This comes recommended by the guy I went to the concert with last week. While I confess that I liked them better live (not a given for me; I tend to like most bands better on record), this has decent songs and great performances. And fantastic bass playing.

Movies

Crimson Peak — Sometimes I like my horror lavish, gothic and Victorian. This scratched that itch, but I’ve essentially forgotten it already.

Spectre — Fabulous. Christoph Waltz is no Javier Bardem and Ralph Fiennes is certainly no Judi Dench. And overall, this isn’t as good as Skyfall. But the Daniel Craig era of James Bond movies is still pretty much the bar for contemporary action franchises to clear. Marvel Studios can only aspire. A significant quibble: the entire London-based plotline with M and Moriarty is crap. This movie uses the threat of government surveillance (how am I already sick of this trope when it’s still a real-world problem?) to paper over the fact that the same ethical questions that have been posed about Jack Bauer apply equally to James Bond. But these days, I’m trying not to let things like this ruin my moviegoing experience. I believe I’m succeeding admirably.

Television

In the event of binge-watching, I won’t hold myself to writing reviews of every episode. Because, who wants that? We’ll just check in every week, like with books.

BoJack Horseman: Season 1 — As with Hannibal a while back, I endured the rough patches early in the first season because I’ve heard it gets way better. It already has, actually. At first, I laughed most at the dumb, cartoony sight gags. Which is fine, because why else would one watch cartoons? But as the characters got fleshed out (as much as they ever do — they’re resolutely stock characters, albeit well-played ones) I started to get invested in the ongoing story as well. Then, the last two episodes totally sold me. Also, Ira Glass jokes are never not funny.

Lost: Season 1, Episodes 1-4 — I’ve decided to start rewatching Lost alongside a fabulous new essay series called Lost Exegesis by Jane Campbell of Eruditorum Press (a group blog I read religiously but don’t review because that would be insane). I have several observations, re. the show. Firstly, I remember thinking that the pilot was overrated, and that is not in fact the case. I persist in the contrarian belief that the show got more interesting as it got more complicated, but this is so well made that I don’t care that none of my beloved mythology is in place yet. Secondly, the first episode (if not necessarily the show as a whole) would have been better if Jack had died at the end as originally planned. I mean, what a bait and switch. Third, at this stage, Sawyer is basically a very bad first draft of Rustin Cohle. Fourth, “Walkabout” is still one of the finest episodes of television ever made. And finally, Shannon and Boone are still stupid, stupid characters.

Doctor Who: “Sleep No More” — Mark Gatiss is not one of my favourite Doctor Who writers, but this is one of his better scripts. If I’m not mistaken, this is the first time that Doctor Who has done a found-footage horror story. And, to be clear, found-footage horror is a tired genre that should go slump off into a corner and never be heard from again. But Doctor Who has a unique ability to revitalize the genres it collides with — usually with metafiction, as it is here. As to the premise of the episode: the idea of a treatment that substitutes for sleep is something I’ve always dreamed of. Daydreamed of. Whatever. And the idea that this treatment would inevitably create monsters seems to follow. But the fact that those monsters are literally made of the stuff that collects in the corner of your eye when you sleep is super dumb. This is still probably my… fourth favourite episode of this season. Also, both this and Stasis (which I’m still playing, for some reason) take place in space stations orbiting Neptune. Funny how I’ve never seen “orbiting Neptune” as a story setting before and then it comes up twice in a few weeks.

Literature, etc.

Bit of a comics-heavy week, reading-wise. Still loving Good Night and Good Riddance, but I needed a diversion from that unwieldy tome.

Matt Fraction/Fábio Moon: Casanova, Volume 2 “Gula” — Along with Kieron Gillen, Fraction is my favourite writer in comics right now. I wasn’t 100% sold by the first trade collection of Casanova, but as ever, I was pulled in by the compulsive belief that it would get better. And it did. This second volume is a really solid bit of science fiction. It’s got a staggering twist ending that isn’t just played for the shock of it: it has serious consequences for the characters. I hope Fraction and DeConnick’s television production company at least considers adapting this.

Roger Stern/Tom Lyle: Starman #6 — My trivia team won at that nerd bar, again. We got a big ol’ stack of ‘80s comics, two apiece. The exciting one was a first printing of an issue of V for Vendetta. I didn’t take that. After all, I got the Klingon phrasebook last time. Fair is fair. Anyway, I picked this one because its Bowie-esque title made me favourably disposed to it. And, oh my god am I ever glad I did. It’s a DC comic about a hapless, reluctant superhero with fairly indistinct powers. (Wikipedia tells me he got them when he was hit by a bolt of energy from a satellite. OF COURSE.) The villains in this are a shadowy cabal that’s actually known as “the Power Elite.” It’s advertised as a crossover with several other heroes, including Green Lantern and several I’ve never heard of, but their appearances all basically boil down to Starman saying “Hey look! It’s that superhero! Okay, bye!” The story starts with the Sydney Opera House falling down, and Starman musing “How do you… hold up… a building?!” So, that gives you the jist of the actual comic, but what I really enjoyed were the ads. There’s an Atari ad in this, and one for Nintendo’s Bubble Bobble. Also, there’s an ad for something called a telephone role-playing game, which is a thing I didn’t know ever existed. And the classifieds page has an ad with the headline “BE TALLER,” another that promises to help you make your own stink bombs with household items if you send them two dollars, and ads for two separate companies that purport to sell real shark teeth. The letters page contains a fan letter entreating the writers to “keep thinking about those little things, like going to the bathroom.” This comic is terrible, obviously. But I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Charles Schulz: Peanuts (October/November 1964) — Throughout October of 1964, Charles Schulz wrote a series of Peanuts strips where Lucy convinces Linus to run for school president. In the end, he blows it because he uses his last speaking opportunity to raise awareness of the Great Pumpkin. What’s really amazing about this is how much better it works as a whole than as separate four-panel strips. Some Peanuts strips barely have jokes, let alone punchlines. But when you piece it together into a full narrative, the character beats make it start to feel like a sitcom. This is great. I love Peanuts. And it’s all online.

Jonathan Franklin: “Lost at sea: the man who vanished for 14 months” — I went into this Guardian feature half expecting an adventure story about a man showing nature who’s boss. Needless to say, that is not what it is. Being marooned for more than a year is not fun. The Martian is not a realistic movie. But this is still a hell of a story.

Javier Grillo-Marxauch: “The Lost Will and Testament of Javier Grillo-Marxauch” — This is a massive post on Grillo-Marxauch’s blog about the experience of working on the first two seasons of Lost. I remember meaning to read it when he first published it in March, but now that I’m re-watching the show, I have to. It’s a fascinating story, but here is what I really love: “While a lot of the accounts of Lost’s creation hinge on the question of whether we knew what the island was… few people ever ask if we knew the characters or had their stories worked out in advance. I find that curious.” Also, learning that David Fury was initially against the twist in “Walkabout” (which I resolutely refuse to spoil) is really something.

Kelly Sue DeConnick/Valentine De Landro: Bitch Planet, Volume 1 “Extraordinary Machine” — Kieron Gillen’s The Wicked and the Divine and Phonogram are among my favourite ongoing comics because they seem like they’re being made with me specifically in mind. I love Bitch Planet for the exact opposite reason: it doesn’t give a shit about pandering to me. Which, great. I’m over-served by the culture anyway. Pick of the week.

Mike Grell/Hannibal King/Elliot S. Maggin/John Koch: Secret Origins #38 — This is the other comic I won at the nerd bar. It’s from 1989 and it’s got two stories: one about Green Arrow, and the other about his sidekick, Speedy, who I’d never heard of. I have no opinions about either of them. Bog standard pulpy nonsense. Though there is a moment where Green Arrow takes down a couple of marijuana farming hippies. Took me a while to realize that they were actually supposed to be bad guys. The ads in this one are just as wonderful as in Starman #6. There’s one for Campbell’s soup with a variety of puzzles, like connecting the dots to find “the first thing you need for making a bowl of soup” — a can opener. There’s an ad for a Nintendo football game featuring an actual NFL quarterback playing the game on a couch with a gap-toothed child wearing Coke bottle glasses. These craven ad agencies and their shameless wish-fulfilment fantasies. Oh, and the back of the issue has an ad for this.

Podcasts

StartUp: “The Secret Formula” — Oh boy! Gimlet Media’s giving us a peek behind the curtain again. This is an inside look at the production of the new Gimlet show, Surprisingly Awesome. I was rough on Surprisingly Awesome last week, and I’ll probably keep being rough on it. But hoo boy, did it ever improve from the initial pass. This is a fascinating listen — possibly even for people who aren’t radio producers.

The Allusionist: “Spill Your Guts” — I wonder if Zaltzman is really going to co-host with all 12 of the other Radiotopians before getting back to regular, scheduled Allusionist episodes? (This was fine.)

Planet Money: “OMG TPP” — It says something about the team on Planet Money that they were able to put together a coherent episode about the TPP in a day. I now know something about it, whereas I didn’t before.

The Moth: “Jon Ronson & Mica Truran” — Jon Ronson is an autolisten. I’d actually heard the story he tells here before, on This American Life, but it was different hearing him tell it in a live audience situation. Plus, we learned that his wife says things to him at parties like “Make your smalltalk more… general.” Come for Ronson, stay for Mica Truran’s actually much more personal and meaningful story.

99% Invisible: “Fountain Drinks” — See? Even drinking fountains are interesting. And nobody had to claim they weren’t to help me through this. Also, Radiotopia being what it is right now, there was an episode of Song Exploder tacked onto the end of this (the one on tUnE-yArDs’ “Water Fountain”). And it was an excellent episode of Song Exploder about an excellent song that I am going to listen to again right now. (I’m back. Holy crap, that video.)

This American Life: “Transformers” — Sean Cole is one of my favourite TAL producers. His story about a young man coming out to his parents, and then that man’s mom coming out to him is worth listening in itself. The rest is fine.

In Our Time: “P vs. NP” — Look at me, listening to more of this. This episode is about an almost incomprehensibly complicated mathematical problem that nobody’s ever solved. It is a totally fascinating topic, and absolutely the kind of thing that almost every radio show in the world would toss aside immediately because confusing and because boring. I admire the sheer audacity with which In Our Time tackles this — not that it’s entirely successful. One sometimes wishes Robert Krulwich were around to lend clarity. Still, this may be the first show I’ve ever listened to where the host asks the guests for clarification not because he fears the listeners won’t understand, but because he himself is having trouble. I love that. I could get used to Melvyn Bragg, though I still think he could use a Red Bull or six before going to studio. All the same, there are moments of dour wit, here. When a guest explains to Bragg that “broadly speaking, exponential means hopelessly impractical,” Bragg replies: “Yes, broadly hopeless, right.” I’m beginning to delight in this, but it remains a somewhat knowingly perverse delight.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Lorne Michaels” — Michaels is astonishingly patient with Maron as he obsesses over a misbegotten SNL audition in 1995. That’s not an observation; that’s just a summary of this podcast. This is what we know to expect from Maron, but not necessarily what you’d expect from Michaels. If you’ve never heard WTF, this will show you what it’s all about, and why it’s so great on its best days. Pick of the week.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Live at the Howard Theatre” — Audie Cornish’s thoughts on horror movies are identical to my own. Glen Weldon’s thoughts on sports are similar to, though more dramatic than, my own. Linda Holmes’s delight in people getting trivia questions wrong resembles my own. Stephen Thompson’s rage at never getting trivia questions right himself is exactly my own. Also, Fred Armisen’s there.

The Memory Palace: “Artist in Landscape” — Gorgeous. Gorgeous and longer than usual. And sad. So sad. Listen to The Memory Palace. Just, listen to all of it.

Reply All: “The Rainbow Pug” — There was a time when StartUp and 99pi were undoubtedly my favourite podcasts. I think that recently, it’s shifted to The Memory Palace and Reply All. On the latter of which, this week, P.J. Vogt gets angry about a woman not being able to get her dog back from a shelter, and Alex Goldman tries to solve the problem. Reply All is possibly the most playful journalism outlet, full stop.