Stephen King: It (audiobook) — At last, I’ve gotten through all 45 hours of this behemoth. I’ll start by praising the audiobook. The TV actor Steven Weber does a bang-up job bringing the dozens of characters in King’s sprawling narrative to life: many of whom in both child and grown-up forms. He seems to particularly relish Richie Tozier, who obsessively does voices himself. Frankly, Richie’s variously-offensive stereotyped characters get really annoying after a while, but that’s King’s fault for writing it that way. Weber’s commitment is commendable. As for the book itself, I’m comfortable saying that it’s one of the most extraordinary works of popular fiction I’ve read in a long time. There are elements of it that are dated, offensive, or simply a bit dumb, but they’re drowned out the same way that “Rocky Raccoon” is drowned out on the White Album. It is so sprawling, ambitious and heterogenous that its most flawed moments can easily recede from your mind when you consider the whole. Except one. You may have heard about the controversial child orgy in It? It is just as icky as you think. King has responded to criticism of this scene by saying: “it’s fascinating to me that there has been so much comment about that single sex scene and so little about the multiple child murders.” That only serves to demonstrate that he doesn’t understand the problem. Child murders are terrible, but they are a thing that happens. Fiction is a perfectly good way to try and work through that fact. But that sex scene, which involves eleven-year-old children, is both explicit and completely arbitrary. The whole time it was happening, all I could think was “Man, you didn’t have to do this! Why did you do this?!?” I like Stephen King, and I think he is a decent person. But this one moment is really very bad. Since we’ve gone straight into the negatives, so is his general treatment of his one substantial female character. But all of this is a preface that will allow me to enthuse in more general terms about the rest of the book. In On Writing, King has some very convincing things to say about theme. Basically, he thinks you should write your story, and then figure out what it’s ‘about.’ Once you’ve figured that out, keep it in mind while you edit, and work to emphasize it. It is a strong book because King clearly knows what it is about. It is about memory: about the way we selectively recall our pasts, forgetting things for our own sanity. It’s about how the memories we choose to suppress can continue to subconsciously inform our lives, and how they can come back to hurt us suddenly and unexpectedly. Most of the time when horror is about something in this way, the metaphor is personified by the monster. (See Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s endless cavalcade of beasts, each reflecting an element of high school life.) It doesn’t work that way, though. The shapeshifting Pennywise is a marvellous, terrifying creation, but he is not materially a representation of memory or suppression. Instead of baking his theme into his monster, King bakes his theme into the book’s structure. Throughout the novel, we flash back and forth in time, learning about a group of children’s brave stand against Pennywise in 1958, and simultaneously about their adult selves’ return to Pennywise’s domain to finish what they started in 1985. And as we learn more about the events of 1958, we begin to become wiser than our protagonists’ adult selves, who remember none of this, and are thus walking blindly into a danger they can intuit but cannot understand. King’s metaphor of choice for their amnesia is the phenomenon where you forget your nightmares almost immediately, only recalling them in vague detail much later in the day when they can’t disturb you anymore. Pennywise is aware of all this, but he ties into a different theme in the book: belief. His power, like the power of many childhood story characters, comes from people believing in him and believing him powerful. Still, though: Pennywise knows the importance of memory to this story, and he ties the two key themes together in one of the book’s most powerful lines: “Come on back and we’ll see if you remember the simplest thing of all — how it is to be children, secure in belief and thus afraid of the dark.” Maybe it’s just me, but I feel that the book is most powerful in these moments: the moments where Stephen King indulges in a bit of autocritique. I particularly love one moment with the young Stan Uris: a skeptical, bullied, Jewish boy who later claims that he’s fine with being scared, but can’t abide being dirty. He can’t abide things that present an offense to how he thinks about the world. He can’t find the words to express it to his friends, but the thought crosses his mind: “It’s offense you maybe can’t live with because it opens up a crack inside your thinking, and if you look down into it you see there are evil things down there, and they have little yellow eyes that don’t blink, and there’s a stink down there in that dark and after a while you think maybe there’s a whole other universe where a square moon rises in the sky, and the stars laugh in cold voices, and some of the triangles have four sides, and some have five sides and some have five raised to the fifth power of sides. In this universe there might grow roses which sing. Everything leads to everything, he would have told them if he could. Go to your church and listen to your stories about Jesus walking on the water, but if I saw a guy doing that I’d scream and scream and scream. Because it wouldn’t look like a miracle to me. It would look like an offense.” This passage is what this book is capable of at its best. It sprawls because it goes deep: deep into the history of its setting and characters, deep into the moments that change people’s lives, deep into the parts of our communities and minds that we don’t want to think about. That we’d rather forget.
Alison Bechdel: Fun Home — I have always wanted to write a book like this: a book that approaches real life as a subject for literary criticism. But unlike mine, Alison Bechdel’s early life actually justifies that approach. Fun Home tells the story of her relationship with her distant father, a complicated aesthete living in a tiny Pennsylvania town, who died young in a probable suicide. This is a man who spent his free time obsessively remodelling a dilapidated old mansion to old world splendor: a mansion that served as the family home. Immediately, you know this guy has to be interesting. The other major story element is Bechdel’s coming-of-age story, leaving home and discovering her own sexuality. The two stories entwine with one another and prop each other up. But the real connective tissue in Fun Home is the mutual obsession that Bechdel and her father have with classic literature. Each chapter revolves around a different work of literature that resonates with Bechdel’s story: the myth of Icarus and Daedalus as told by Ovid in Metamorphoses, Camus’s A Happy Death, a side-by-side reading of The Great Gatsby and The Portrait of a Lady, In Search of Lost Time, The Wind in the Willows, The Importance of Being Earnest, and finally — because that’s not enough of a reading list — Ulysses. This is the perfect kind of story to tell as a graphic novel. Again and again, Bechdel allows her expressive, beautiful cartoons to tell the surface-level story of her life with her parents, and reflects on this literature in the text that runs parallel. Never has a book that muses at length about Joyce been so staggeringly moving. It’s easily in my top five comics. Maybe top three. Read it immediately. Pick of the week.
The Old Trout Puppet Workshop: Jabberwocky — I’ve wanted to see a production by the Old Trout Puppet Workshop since way back in high school, when I was a marginal contributor to a puppetry company myself. I dunno why I never did. I now live even farther away from them than I did back then. But this show was a marvellous entrée into their weird world. Jabberwocky is a cheap and janky-looking production that was clearly engineered to show all of its seams, and that’s what makes it so compelling. From the very start, the four members of the on-stage company make you feel like you’re witnessing something that will barely hold together. And then, within the context of that aesthetic, they tell a story that just knocks you flat. It’s a reinterpretation of the famous Lewis Carroll poem — specifically just that poem, and none of the Alice-related material surrounding it. So, it really is working with a bare minimum of source material. Essentially, the story of “Jabberwocky” is: a father warns his young son to beware of a terrifying monster, that young son impetuously goes off to slay that monster, and he succeeds and makes his father happy and proud. The Old Trouts have rethought this elementally simple story as a parable on how we shunt off all of our hopes and dreams for ourselves onto our children. It is a multi-generational retelling of “Jabberwocky” in which nobody gets to slay the Jabberwock. It is brilliant storytelling, brilliant theatre, and a brilliant reinterpretation of a too-familiar story.
The Chris Gethard Show: “Whatever Happens, Happens” & “Bring It Home” — I like this show because I like Chris Gethard, but I sometimes wish he’d spend less time talking about how he wants to break the format of a TV talk show and more time just getting on with it. Still, there are great moments in these episodes: Nick Kroll staring down the camera, a cameo appearance by a goat, and a recurring bit in which Ira Glass wanders around the studio, alone.
Doctor Who: “The Ribos Operation” — The first classic Doctor Who story that I’ve watched a second time. I think there’s an argument to be made that this is not only one of the most brilliant and non-dated episodes of the classic series, but that it is the best possible starting point for new viewers. The writing is solid, of course; this is Robert Holmes we’re talking about. But it’s also one of the most self-aware stories in the classic series, where the comedy lands most successfully. It introduces an awesome new companion who, in spite of the Doctor constantly being a dick to her, holds her own and is a boss. It takes place in a few easily-rendered locales, so the sets aren’t too embarrassing. And most crucially, the acting is great all around. Every actor in this serial knows exactly what kind of story they’re in, namely a silly quasi-medieval space caper with terrible monster puppets, and they seem to appreciate both its ridiculousness and its brilliance. That is everything you can hope for from classic Doctor Who. This is amazing, and if you haven’t ever seen the classic series, watch this. I’m not saying you’ll love it, but if you don’t, I doubt there’ll be anything much for you in the rest of the series.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Season 3, episodes 1-8 — I didn’t love the second season of this because the jokes weren’t landing for me. But they sure are in this season. I’m uncertain about some of the ongoing jokes, like the caricatures of campus leftism who are seemingly the sole denisons of Columbia University. But Maya Rudolph as Dionne Warwick is a thing to behold, and there are jokes in this that I can’t believe anybody could come up with. “You know what yuppies eat? Ice cream that tastes like lavender.” “No! That’s a smell!” Love it. I’ll probably finish it in a couple days.
The Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Deluxe Edition) — The latest instalment in my increasingly tortured attempt to listen to every Stones album up to Tattoo You in order. I like Some Girls, but I feel like those who call it the best post-Exile Stones album undervalue Goats Head Soup. And the bonus material on this deluxe edition that I decided to check out for god knows what reason is fairly strong, but only by the standards of a band that was already on its downward slide.
Bruce Springsteen: Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. — This is maybe the clearest demonstration of “early promise” ever recorded. Compared to its successor, The Wild, The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, which remains one of my favourite Springsteen albums, this is Wordy As Hell. And while Bruce’s best songs will always be a bit hyperverbal, this is a bit much. For the only time in his career, Bruce’s lyrics are more clever than they are meaningful. I still like it, and “Spirit in the Night” is particularly essential. It’ll probably grow on me.
Bruce Springsteen: Born in the U.S.A. — This marks the point where I’ve heard every studio album from the Boss’s heyday. This week, I listened to the records that are commonly thought to bookend that period: this and Asbury Park. I deliberately saved them for last because I had a feeling that they were going to be the ones I liked least, and I was right. That said, neither one of them are outright bad. I find Born in the U.S.A. a bit slick. The title track, regardless of its universal misinterpretation, is a cliché. So is “Glory Days.” But weirdly, I like “Dancing in the Dark.” That chorus has three iconic lines in a row “You can’t start a fire without a spark/this gun’s for hire/even if we’re just dancing in the dark.” That’s skill, right there. And the smaller songs on this are really great, especially “Darlington County” and “My Hometown.” Now I’ll just round this whole binge off with the live set, and commence repeat listening.
Slow Burn — This series from Slate about the weirdest, freakiest details of the Watergate scandal is a great binge listen, and it’s done now, so get to it. The main idea is that it took Watergate a long time to find its way into the public consciousness, no matter how shattering an event it seems now. The show is a reflection on a state of scandal that resembles the current political craziness, but in a pre-internet age. It’s a bit wonky — this is Slate, after all. But listen to the first episode, which is about a woman who was forcibly tranquilized to keep her from talking, and see if you’re not hooked.
Pop Culture Happy Hour catch-up — The Grammys will always disappoint Stephen, an Eagles victory will always delight Gene, and Roxane Gay will always be a fantastic chat. Darkest Hour sounds dire. Over and out.
More Perfect: “One Nation Under Money” — The second season finale keeps up the pace. This, as much as any other episode of More Perfect, made me understand a debate that I didn’t know was happening. Essentially, it is about the legal and ethical knots that America ties itself into when lawyers try to win cases by making everything about money. That is a vast oversimplification, but like all of the best things Jad Abumrad is involved with, it cannot be summarized easily. More Perfect is the best thing he’s done in a long time, and this is a great episode of it. Pick of the week.
I was recently in a room that contained nearly all of the people who read this blog. (Hey guys!) I sometimes reflect that it is an act of madness to continue writing thousands of words per week on a blog whose audience numbers in the low dozens. But here we are.
Philip Pullman: The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage — Having re-read His Dark Materials in its entirety in anticipation for this, along with all of its supplemental novellas, Audible-exclusive short stories etc., I am happy to announce that I am by no means disappointed with La Belle Sauvage. However, I may have approached it with slightly too much enthusiasm, egged on by the good reviews. Surely, I thought, if the critics love it this much, I’ll love it more. But here’s the thing: La Belle Sauvage feels very much like the first book in a trilogy. Specifically, it feels like The Golden Compass. Pullman’s original trilogy of novels about Lyra and company gained steam as they went along. There’s little hint of the cosmic warfare and tragic romance of The Amber Spyglass in the Arctic adventure story of The Golden Compass. And what shreds of it exist in that first book aren’t obvious until you finish the last. It seems to me that Pullman might be pulling something similar in the trilogy that will make up The Book of Dust. This book is a fairly straightforward adventure story, and it takes place in a much smaller geographical space than The Golden Compass did. But there are hints and suggestions here, particularly near the end of the book, that the fantastical multiverse of the first trilogy may have even more facets and mechanics than we’d been led to believe. And there are also seeds being planted about the trilogy’s themes. Where His Dark Materials was about the virtue of human curiosity and progressive values, The Book of Dust looks like it’s going to tackle the nature of consciousness. But it’s not there yet. The closest that La Belle Sauvage comes to Pullman’s acclaimed critique of religion and authority in his previous work comes in a slightly heavy-handed plotline about a government organization that encourages children to narc on their parents and teachers for being inadequately pious. This is an early incarnation of the fearsome theocracy we see in His Dark Materials, which has yet to consolidate its power. All the same, Pullman paints it with a far thicker brush than in his other books and once or twice he comes off as didactic, which he never has before. Still, his powers of description are as sharp as ever, and he leads his characters through one setting after another that comes straight to life the same way that Bolvangar did in The Golden Compass or the land of the dead did in The Amber Spyglass. As a child, I was determined to go to university in large part because of the way Pullman described Oxford in his books. Fifteen years later, La Belle Sauvage made me wonder whether I might like to run a pub in my retirement. Its main characters can’t compete with Lyra and Will, but how could they. It’s a fantastic yarn, and I have no doubt that it’ll balloon outwards into something really special in the next two books. If The Subtle Knife is any indication of where Pullman’s going next, it’ll be terrifying.
Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run — I grew up listening to music from my parents’ generation. I expect this had something to do with my own somewhat perverse interpretation of what it means to be rebellious, which was to act like an alien who arrived in Fort McMurray, Alberta from Jupiter, by way of Edwardian London and subsequently Haight-Ashbury circa 1967. All teenagers have their affectations. Mine were just really specific. As part of my effort to distance myself from my actual circumstances, which were that I came from an upwardly-mobile family in the nice part of a shabby little oil town, I consciously avoided all of the music that my peers enjoyed. After all, they all came from those same sorts of families. Strange, then, that it was the music of the authority figures in my life — parents, music teachers, etc. — that transported me farthest away: classical music, and rock from about 1965-80. Soon enough, I found myself exploring corners of those idioms that my elder gatekeepers hadn’t ever seen. Beethoven and Chopin at age 12 led to Stockhausen and Ligeti at 16. Pink Floyd and the Beatles in middle school led to Van Der Graaf Generator and Captain Beefheart by junior high. This music was the score to my teenage years, which were a long-term piece of bad performance art. (As is this blog. Some of our worst impulses follow us around forever.) It occurred to me at some point during my first full listen through Born to Run this week that Bruce Springsteen’s music is custom made for the purpose I used Stockhausen and Beefheart for back then. Born to Run is a hymnal of anthems about escape. It’s an outlet for youthful energy with nowhere to go. It’s a reasonably accurate portrait of me at age 17. (Only psychologically, though. Even today, I can barely drive. Wendy would not have got to Thunder Road with me behind the wheel.) It is also a record I wouldn’t have been caught dead listening to at that age. If I had, I would have thrown it away in embarrassment if anybody found out. Why have I only come around to this a decade after it was actually relevant to me? I have a theory: the last thing that would have served my need for escape in my Fort Mac days is music about the need to escape. Back then, I didn’t choose music that I could identify with. I listened to music that had as little to do with me as possible: deliberately alienating music like John Cage and Jethro Tull, or music with seemingly cosmic significance like Mahler or Yes. I have only come to listen to music on the basis of its resonance with my own life within the last few years. (Therein lies the basis for my late 2017 obsession with Margo Price, my early 2016 obsession with John Congleton, and my perpetual need to listen to Brian Eno’s Music for Airports. Take from each of these what you will.) It took a long time for me to fully shake off my aversion to any music that reminded me of my own mundane circumstances. And in that time, those circumstances changed. Now, when I listen to Born to Run, I don’t especially sympathize with Springsteen’s characters and their youthful restlessness. But I remember feeling that way. The boundless romanticism of this music makes me realize that my former perversity, the impulse that would have led me to reject Springsteen at the time, was born of the very same romanticism that he’s expressing on this record. Sub out Springsteen’s chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected, velvet-rimmed suicide machines for a carpeted basement floor and a pair of headphones pumping out harpsichord music, and you’ve got a perfect image of me exactly ten years ago. I expect that a similar substitution exists for nearly everybody. Pick of the week.
Bruce Springsteen: Darkness on the Edge of Town — Somewhere in the gap between the release of Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, Bruce Springsteen was the age I am now. Maybe that has something to do with why my initial thoughts on this album are so much less clear than my initial thoughts on Born to Run. Darkness is famously less optimistic than its predecessor, and those who connect with it really connect with it. That’s clear from a cursory look through remarks in various online fan communities. It’s also clear from some of the retrospective reviews in professional outlets. When this album was repackaged with a slew of bonus material as The Promise a few years back, Pitchfork gave it an 8.5 and an actually quite insightful review that characterizes it as an album “about grim acceptance and pressing on in the face of doubt.” That’s very accurate. If Born to Run is a dream of a far-off Utopia, Darkness on the Edge of Town is a diary about making the best of it after you’ve given up on that dream. It isn’t until one album later that Springsteen will ask “is a dream a lie if it don’t come true,” but the spirit of that inquiry is here in spades. I like most, if not all of the songs on this, but the one I find myself revisiting obsessively is the title track, which suggests that even after Utopia has faded from view, it doesn’t stop some of us from lingering in the liminal spaces where we used to catch a glimpse of it. Wanting is a key concept in Springsteen, and he’s never written a verse more eloquent about it than “Lives on the line where dreams are found and lost / I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost / For wanting things that can only be found / In the darkness on the edge of town.” This is going to be a grower.
Bruce Springsteen: The River — This is a hard album to pin down. In spite of their drastically different subject matter, Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town share a relatively consistent aesthetic, thanks to the amazing E Street Band. Their huge sound on those albums, with Clarence Clemons’ saxophone in the fore, and a mix of piano, organ and glockenspiel sitting alongside the guitars in the central texture, is an obvious forerunner of totally over-the-top artists like Meat Loaf and Arcade Fire. And that sound is present on The River, in tracks like “Hungry Heart” and some of the ballads — “I Wanna Marry You” in particular. But the overall impression is like a more polished Exile on Main St.,where the band is willing to experiment in public. It’s a huge album, clearly, at nearly an hour and a half. And it contains a handful of songs that rival the emotional high points of the previous two albums for poignancy: “The River,” “Wreck on the Highway,” and especially “Drive All Night,” which feels a bit like “Darkness on the Edge of Town” stretched out to twice its length and with twice as much regret. But The River is too big of a thing to have even a shadow of a thesis statement about on one listen. I’ll figure it out next time. But first, let’s address the elephant in the room, namely “Cadillac Ranch.” This is a song that I did not know was by Bruce Springsteen. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s cover of this song was the score to an unpleasant episode in my youth wherein my classmates and I were taught, nay, forced to line dance by the physical education curriculum of the province of Alberta. Too bad, because Springsteen’s original would be an irresistibly energetic bit of country rock if it didn’t retraumatize me. What a fine pile of weird memories this Springsteen binge has dredged up.
Code Switch catch-up — I am nearly caught up on this now, after having been backed up by two months. One does not miss an episode of Code Switch, because to do so is to miss an opportunity to be a slightly better, or at least more knowledgeable, person. Their year-end wrap up really puts the final nail in the coffin of 2017 being remembered as anything but a dung heap. It’s great.
The Memory Palace: “On the Shores of Assawompset” & “John C. Calhoun from the Opposite Side of the Line that Divides the Living from the Dead” — Two good ones. “On the Shores of Assawompset” is one of Nate DiMeo’s periodic episodes that pokes holes in colonial narratives. These are always appreciated, and you should listen to this if you’d like some clarity on the truth of the relationship between the pilgrims and the natives of the land they came to. The John C. Calhoun episode is more lighthearted, but still manages to tie in with pre-Civil War slavery narratives. This show really isn’t like anything else.
Crimetown: Three bonus episodes — I remain mixed on this show and uncertain whether I’ll be back for season two. It depends on the city they choose to explore, I suppose. But these bonus episodes tell some good stories. The most eminently recommendable is also the one I’d be most cautious to recommend: “Courtney” is about a woman who fell into an abusive relationship with a powerful predator while she was a minor. It’s harrowing stuff, but she’s allowed to tell her own story and if you’re not concerned about the potential triggers it’s worth hearing. It also stands alone pretty well, so you don’t necessarily need to have heard the whole of season one. And I’m not sure I’d recommend that you do that unless you’re a pathological true crime consumer.
Imaginary Worlds catch-up — The biggest news in the three episodes of this I listened to is that Eric Molinsky will be opening the new year with a series on Doctor Who. I don’t know what to anticipate. I really liked his series on Star Wars and Harry Potter, but those are franchises I have limited engagement with, at least insofar as I have no idea what their respective fandoms are on about these days. But Doctor Who is a thing I love dearly — it’s probably the one franchise that falls under Molinsky’s aegis that I’d call myself obsessed with. I wonder if I’ll still get something out of this show when I’m deeply familiar with the subject matter. In any case, I’ll listen with interest. As for these episodes, two of the ones I listened to deal with The Expanse, which I’ve neither read nor seen and don’t have much interest. But that’s part of the appeal of this show: I can get a sense of what something like The Expanse is on about without spending more than an hour. The update of Molinsky’s episode on The Force Awakens that deals with The Last Jedi is interesting, but once again I’m baffled at why anybody feels it is such a radical departure from the previous films. It is a perfectly adequate, safe, blockbuster with some really great scenes with Luke and some really nonsense scenes with Benicio del Toro. It’s Star Wars. Get over yourselves. Sorry, I have to be a jerk sometimes.
Constellations catch-up — Again, not quite caught up. But there was some good stuff in there: Aleksandra Bragoszewska’s “Coarse and Janky” is a lovely portrait of outsider artists doing what they believe in. Craig Desson’s “06-30-24” is an elegant bit of dreamlike sound art about his MacBook. Apparently he’s a bit Adam Curtis fan. It shows, and that’s good.
More Perfect: “The Architect” & “Justice, Interrupted” — “The Architect” is an updated episode from the previous season and “Justice, Interrupted” is a mini-episode about a thing I’d read about before: the constant interruption of the female Supreme Court justices by the male ones. It’s a good episode, but it’s pretty straightforward by this show’d complicated standards. I can’t wait for the season finale, though.
StartUp: “StartupBus Part 1: Monday” — Insufferable. This show has been on the skids for some time, and while I have tentatively high hopes for the next season, which will be serialized in the vein of this show’s three best seasons, I will not be listening to the remaining four episodes of “StartupBus.” Serialized it may be, but I’ve seldom heard a podcast that reminds me more of the godawful contrivances of reality TV. Basically, one of the show’s producers gets on a bus with a bunch of random strangers who are all on that bus to start companies within the span of a weeklong trip. The StartupBus is a machine built to generate needless conflict, narrative and otherwise. It is full of buzzword spouting delusional people with no calling and no passion. I hate it. I wish it didn’t exist. Do not listen to this.
On the Media: “Outrage Machine” — Worth it for Bob Garfield’s interview with Michael Wolff, the author of Fire and Fury, who defends himself reasonably well against charges of having misled his sources. Also for Brooke Gladstone’s one-year-later follow up interview with Masha Gessen, who was on the show previously to talk about her rules for surviving autocracies. How are we doing at “believing the autocrat,” asks Gladstone? (Not well, but he doesn’t make it easy.)
In Our Time: “Moby-Dick,” “Beethoven” & “Hamlet” — Melvyn Bragg’s final run of the year includes three episodes on huge things. I listened to these one after the other and it’s definitely the most fun I had doing dishes this week. Bragg is clearly enjoying himself in all of these episodes, especially given that the topics at hand are relatively well understood by lots of his listeners, probably. So he can facilitate a discussion that basically asks, “we know how this thing is, but why is it like that?” I’m fondest of the Moby-Dick episode, probably because I’m least familiar with that topic. (I haven’t read Moby-Dick, but I’ve reread the first chapter at least a dozen times. It is one of my favourite things in all of literature. I dunno why I’ve never gotten any farther. Sheer intimidation, probably.) By the same token, the Beethoven episode is the weakest, simply because I can’t accept one of Bragg’s panelists’ take at face value. I’ve listened to Beethoven for hundreds and hundreds of hours. And while I find him deeply inspiring, I cannot accept that his music is fundamentally about overcoming adversity. The idea of instrumental music being about anything at all strikes me as wrong, as it did Leonard Bernstein. But that’s just me, and disagreeing with things is part of what makes this show fun. The Hamlet episode is great, particularly for some of the details about the play’s development from its early versions, which I’ve never read. (Nobody has.) I really love this show. Even when it’s about stuff that I know a little about, I never feel like it’s condescending to me. It is one of a precious handful of public radio shows that always proceeds under the assumption that its audience isn’t dumb. Pick of the week.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A rather sparsely populated instalment, this week. I’ve been out and about, and I’ve been to a few concerts I haven’t written about yet. There’s a big new music festival on in Vancouver and I’m taking in as much of it as I can. I’ll recap that here next weekend, and probably on North by Northwest as well. Look forward to some weird shit.
Meanwhile, there’s a new episode of Mark’s Great American Road Trip, and it’s one that I’ve been looking forward to people hearing since the day we mapped out the main story. It is several things at once, including a critique of the “white saviour” narrative, a Western, and a retelling of a classic folktale. But I’ll leave the explaining at that, because Nick would quite rightly prefer you to see it as a dumb comedy where trucks explode because internet.
Roger Waters: Us + Them Tour, Rogers Arena, October 29, Vancouver — This was a great concert marred by an embarrassing incident midway though. I went to this Roger Waters show (my third) with a friend who shall remain anonymous because of the dishonest behaviour she and I exhibit in this story. This was the second of two dates Waters played at Rogers Arena, and it was nowhere close to a full house. So at intermission, we scarpered from our cramped upper bowl seats to a row of luxurious, unspoken-for seats on the opposite side of the lower bowl. We weren’t the only ones. The lower bowl was mysteriously much fuller throughout the second half. Anyway, the second half of this show starts with one of the coolest effects I’ve seen at any concert that isn’t The Wall. (I feel fine spoiling it since this was the last show of the tour.) Sirens wail, red lights flash, and an apparatus descends from the ceiling right over the middle of the crowd. Gradually, it extends itself upwards until it stands revealed as a set of screens in the familiar shape of the Battersea Power Station from the iconic Animals album cover, complete with diminutive inflatable pig. The band starts playing “Dogs.” “Dogs” is my third-favourite Pink Floyd song, after “Echoes” and “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” neither of which were on this program. Just as the cool ambient midsection was starting, we were approached by one of Rogers Arena’s discourteous miserable jobsworths and told to return to our original seats. (I’d had to shift places to accommodate some of my fellow cheaters, and I suppose it gave us away.) It took us the entire duration of the instrumental to return to our original seats, and the whole affair left a sour taste. I guess we got what we had coming, but about a hundred others didn’t. I have outlined this mostly because I feel like if we’d gotten away with it, I would be OVER THE MOON about this show, as opposed to merely satisfied. Consider it disclosure. The Us + Them tour is a response to the presidency of Donald Trump, delivered largely through the messages of two albums, released four decades apart from each other. One of these is Waters’ latest solo effort, Is This The Life We Really Want?, a not especially strong but very blatant album released earlier this year. The other is Animals, a classic Pink Floyd album that is 40 years old this year. Waters and co. play neither of these in their entirety, and indeed the critique of Trump bleeds through into songs from The Wall and The Dark Side of the Moon (from which the tour takes its name) as well. But that two-album axis makes up the thematic spine of the show. It’s worth pondering why Waters didn’t choose to just do all of Animals, rather than three quarters of it. I have a theory about this which is probably wrong: “Dogs” and “Pigs” are ferocious songs aimed at the powerful. You don’t need to do any twisting or mapping to relate them very straightforwardly to the politics of today. (And indeed the projections during these songs were the show’s most blatant — a double-edged sword in the case of “Pigs,” during which the illustrations of Trump veered into misogyny, transphobia, and fat shaming.) But the other centrepiece track of the album, “Sheep,” is more complicated. It is about the powerless masses, and it envisions a world where they overthrow their oppressors. The question is: who are the powerless masses in this scenario? I’m fairly sure that many of Trump’s voters would place themselves in that category, probably rightly in lots of cases. In in the 2016 election, they did enact a profound upheaval of the status quo — albeit an upheaval that has led to an ass-backwards, reactionary administration. Could it be that Waters sees this parallel between Trump’s base and the “demented avengers” of his song as well? I could see him not wanting to go there. That said, there’s a Trump-era reading of “Sheep” to be had in which it becomes a revenge fantasy — a bit of idle speculation about what could happen in America if wealth continues to buy power. I think something along those lines could have worked. And just think how affecting “Pigs on the Wing 2” would have been in the wake of that rendition of “Sheep”: “You know that I care what happens to you, and I know that you care for me too.” The new material did come off better in concert than on record, which I expected to be the case. But it’s a tough sell to put large chunks of an unfamiliar, middling record in a show largely consisting of massively acclaimed rock classics. This became a particular problem in the encore, during which Waters decided to do a song they hadn’t ever played before, in honour of the tour’s end: “Wait For Her,” which is actually three songs on the album: “Wait For Her,” “Oceans Apart” and “Part of Me Died.” It was nice to hear Waters talk a bit about what these songs mean to him and why he wanted to play them live at least once. But after the slog that was their nine-minute duration, even “Comfortably Numb” struggled to get the crowd’s energy back up. (Again, I’d likely be more charitable if I hadn’t been recently chastised for my seat swapping indiscretion.) But once lead guitarist Dave Kilminster cracked out his album-perfect rendition of the first solo (and a more freewheeling take on the extended second one), all was forgiven. The band in general is fantastic this time around, with Kilminster continuing to be a consummate pro at impersonating David Gilmour, and at knowing when’s the time to cut loose. And having both singers from Lucius as backing vocalists is frankly an embarrassment of riches. I was a bit worried at the outset of their rendition of “The Great Gig In The Sky,” which they started off singing in unison, but it turned out to be a highlight of a musically magnificent show. For all of its problems, the Us + Them tour has a vision and clear thematic raison d’etre, which is more than can be said of 2006’s Dark Side of the Moon tour — and much, much less than can be said of 2010’s fabulous, life-changing Wall. It is an often beautiful, completely unsubtle work of political performance art by a performer who has been the top name in that field for going on fifty years.
The Beatles: Help! — I daresay this is the most underappreciated Beatles album. (There’s no such thing as an underappreciated Beatles album, but it’s relative.) I hear you yelling about With the Beatles, or Please Please Me. And while those are certainly a rung below this in terms of mass appreciation, I think it ought to be obvious to anybody that they’re much poorer. Listening to Help! this week, I realized for the first time how much of the human experience is reflected in these 12 originals and two covers. This is especially remarkable given that all but two of these songs are love songs, and one of those two is “Act Naturally,” which is essentially a love song by omission. The other is of course the title track, which, like many Beatles songs, seems less remarkable than it might if it were less familiar. Considering what a vast preponderance of early Beatles songs, and pop songs in general, are love songs, it’s remarkable in itself that John Lennon would think to compose a song about something else. (I suppose it has a precedent in “I’m A Loser,” but that’s got nothing on this.) Clearly, the ideas in this song were important to him. “Help!” is a song about realizing your need for other people — not a sexual or romantic need, but a general sense of requiring the presence of others for your wellbeing. This is by no means a radical insight on my part; the key virtue of Lennon’s lyrics is their straightforwardness. But once that song is over, we’re catapulted into a succession of 12 love songs and one song about Ringo being a sad, lonely movie star. (I love “Act Naturally.” I daresay it’s the band’s best ever use of Ringo’s thoroughly unremarkable pipes.) And on this listen, it still hit me as remarkably varied and insightful. These songs aren’t specific in the way that, say, Kate Bush songs or Gord Downie songs are. They broadly conform to the standard pop music rule that your listener should be able to map their own experiences onto the lyrics without stretching too much. But each song is specific to a particular facet of a universal experience. “I’ve Just Seen A Face” gives us maybe the best musical expression of the first blush of infatuation. “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” gives us the anguish of secret, unrequited love. “Another Girl” gives us a first-person, aggressor’s eye view of a callous breakup. And “Yesterday” treads on the most fertile territory of all: missing somebody. But what it contributes to the pool of ideas established by eminent forebears like “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” and “I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes)” is the conflation of a lost love with a lost moment in time. “Yesterday” isn’t a song about wanting a person back in your present-day life: it’s explicitly a song about wanting to go back to the point in time when you were together. It’s a subtle difference, but it gestures at a profound truth, which is that a single change in your life can make the difference between everything being fantastic and everything being awful. From the latter vantage point, it’s hard to conceive of a remedy, so we dream of time travel. I could go on. I like every song on this album and love most of them. George Harrison hasn’t come into his own as a songwriter yet, and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” only works in context. (After “Yesterday,” there’s nothing like a silly, happy ‘50s cover.) But the weaker moments are shallow troughs among some of the most satisfying pop music ever. Pick of the week.
Bon Iver: 22, A Million — I have nothing to add to my initial review of this, in which I enthused about it and chastised myself for misunderstanding the first two Bon Iver records (which I still have not revisited). But I’ll say this — I listened to it three times in one day this week. It’s been very autumn in Vancouver, lately. In the best way. Aside from the one day of torrential rain, it has been my favourite kind of weather: chilly, still, bracing. Walking around in that while listening to this was a highlight of my week. I keep having new favourite songs on it.
The Chris Gethard Show: “Fight For The Fish” — Look, I’ve been busy. I can’t commit to anything that threatens to eat up my life nine hours at a stretch. Ergo, Chris Gethard. The longer I watched this episode, the more surprised I was to find I was still watching it. It is essentially a wrestling match, fought for the custody of Gethard’s fictional companion the human fish, who is actually just a guy in swimming goggles. Jon Hamm is there for some reason. It’s very strange, and definitely the episode of this show that treads most fully on the side of weird alt-comedy and there’s comparatively little space for Gethard’s humanity to shine through the weirdness. Chris Gethard is awesome, but I’m mixed on this show.
More Perfect: Three-episode catch-up — Specifically, “The Gun Show,” “The Heist” and “Enemy of Mankind.” The first of these is a history of readings of the second amendment, which is exactly the sort of summary that I’m sure puts a lot of people off this show, but the only thing I can tell you to do is listen and find out for yourself how interesting this stuff is. A member of the New York Times Podcast Club (an awesome Facebook group you should join if you’re a podcast geek) mentioned that it’s kind of wrong to talk about the Black Panthers’ role in gun rights as if it’s a forgotten story. Aside from that, it’s a good episode. “The Heist” is slight but fun: a follow up to this show’s crowning glory, “The Political Thicket,” in which we learn that most of Felix Frankfurter’s papers are missing from the National Library. “Enemy of Mankind” is already looking like this season’s equivalent of “The Political Thicket,” since its subject seems almost unapproachably broad at first. It is about the SCOTUS’s ability to decide cases from outside the United States’ borders. It deals with the history of human rights law, and also pirates. It’s a fantastic episode of radio and I’d recommend it as the second-most worthy starting point in this show. “The Political Thicket” is still their finest hour.
Nocturne: “Interloper” — An episode about a guy who likes trespassing. This is one of those things you should listen to if you’re in the mood for a slice of life, but not necessarily if you’re in the mood for a good story. “This is a thing that happens” is a perfectly okay raison d’etre for a podcast episode, but your mileage may vary.
Fresh Air: “Technology’s ‘Frightful Five’” — Okay, this interview was all well and good until Terry Gross and Farhad Manjoo start talking about the cameras he has running in his house all the time. Sure, Manjoo: you’re an insightful observer of the impact of big tech companies on modern life, BUT YOU’RE RAISING YOUR CHILDREN IN THE FUCKING PANOPTICON. Don’t do that! I’m not even exaggerating. At one point he’s like “I tell my son ‘don’t start a fight with your sister because I’ll know.’” Panopticon! Also, when Gross asks him actually why he does this, he says it’s because he doesn’t have time to spend with his kids, so he wants their childhood to be recorded somewhere. Gross is like “so, you aren’t raising your kids, but you still want to watch them grow up on TV sometime.” Which Manjoo seems to think is a bit uncharitable, but it’s also EXACTLY WHAT HE SAID. This is a hilarious, weird interview.
Radiolab: “Father K” & “Oliver Sacks: A Journey From Where to Where” — “Father K” is one of my least favourite episodes this show has ever done. It’s about a Christian Arab candidate for Brooklyn city council whose key strategic hurdle is convincing Muslim Arabs in the community that he will represent them in a way they’ve never been represented before, while also not alienating the white members of the constituency. It continually raises the false equivalency that by standing up for the politically underrepresented Arabs in his riding, he is doing the same thing as his white opponents are when they play to their base. Aside from that, it’s also just dull. The Oliver Sacks episode is nice, but still nothing special. I’m listening to Radiolab out of sheer inertia right now. The more time Jad spends on More Perfect, the better.
StartUp: “New Money” & “The Grand Challenge” — As I’m writing this, I don’t even remember what “New Money” was about. Oh right, cryptocurrency. Man, I’m looking forward to this getting back to a serialized format. “The Grand Challenge” is fun, though. I’m looking forward to hearing the next instalment of this two-parter on self-driving cars.
Love and Radio: “Photochemical” & “Murdertown, USA” — Two very Love and Radio episodes of Love and Radio. “Photochemical” begins with a remix of itself, and proceeds to tell the story of a person who is sexually attracted to photo booths. And “Murdertown, USA” is about a guy who collects stuff made by serial killers. If you want to know what this show does, these two episodes will tell you. They’re also quite good, though neither is a classic, by this show’s standards.
Theory of Everything: “Iron and Lies (Wisconsin part II)” & “Bad Science” — The second half of Benjamen Walker’s Wisconsin duology isn’t as good as the first (no Mathilde, this time), but it does meander through some fascinating American kitsch. “Bad Science” is a live episode featuring one of my favourite recurring characters in any podcast: Chris the fake Washington insider. Nice stuff.
The Combat Jack Show: “Return Of RZA & Mathematics” — I was always going to check this out, but figured I’d wait until somebody I know and love showed up. RZA it is. Combat Jack is a really good host and RZA and Mathematics are both fascinating individuals, but there’s a certain amount of lifestyle brand hokiness to the modern incarnation of the Wu-Tang Clan that comes out in this. Still worth a listen. Nobody else talks like RZA.
All Songs Considered: Two recent episodes — Specifically, the mix with MGMT and Courtney Barnett, and the feature on Margo Price. The mix has some great tunes, especially the track from A Ghost Story, which I haven’t seen. But I feel the need to check out Susanne Sundfør as well, because that album sounds like madness. And then we get Ann Powers interviewing Margo Price, which was always going to be a good time. Also: there’s a new Margo Price album! I, for one, am enthusiastic about this. Pick of the week.
So, I know y’all are here to read my compulsive ramblings about stuff that other people make, but I’ve recently got off my ass and made something myself. It’s a horror-tinged comedy podcast about a fictionalized version of Mark Zuckerberg, as he traverses all 50 states of America, trying to prevent A VERY BAD THING from happening to Facebook. It is called Mark’s Great American Road Trip, and you can learn more about it here and subscribe to it here.
I’m making this show with Nick Zarzycki, the creator of the tech satire site Gawken and the guy I used to make the Syrup Trap Pod Cast with. He writes, I make sound nice. We have been working on one version of this show or another for a stupidly long time, and I am very happy that it now exists. We’ve got some crazy storylines on deck for the first chunk of this show’s existence, and I really think it’s going to turn out to be one of the strangest and most specific fiction podcasts made thus far. If you think that might be up your street, subscribe. There’s an introduction and a full episode waiting for you in the feed right now. And if does turn out to be up your street, you’d be doing us a huge favour by rating and reviewing it in Apple Podcasts, and also singing its praises wherever praises can be heard.
We now return you to your regularly scheduled babble. It’s one of those instalments where neither pick of the week is a podcast because there are two much more deserving non-podcast choices. Also, there is a surprising amount of Rolling Stones music.
The Thing — This is a great movie to watch in a group. I actually haven’t ever seen it any other way. The last time I watched The Thing was at a double feature in my high school’s theatre. I remember that it underwhelmed me, probably only because we’d watched The Shining immediately before. I liked it a whole lot more this time around. The gore effects are very of their time, but that somehow doesn’t make them any less visceral. Also, having watched both Alien and Blade Runner recently, it’s pretty clear that this owes a massive debt to the former, and is at least on the same wavelength as the latter, which came out the same year. From Alien, it gets its premise of “people are trapped in an incredibly isolated place with a terrifying monster.” But it adds to that a story mechanic that defines Blade Runner, which is uncertainty about who is human and who isn’t. The Thing’s use of this mechanic for suspense more so than theme prefigures another Blade Runner-adjacent franchise: the modern Battlestar Galactica. If you combine the existential questioning of Blade Runner’s Replicants with the uncanniness and subterfuge of the Thing, you’ve basically arrived at Cylons. Definitely a classic.
Blade Runner — This was the second time I’ve watched this in the past few months, because the last time I was super tired and spaced out and couldn’t follow the story. I watched it like a gorgeous moving painting. This time I focussed more, because I’m super excited about the sequel. And it dawned on me, two viewings later than one might expect, that Blade Runner is one of the best movies ever made. Its visual style and production design is the real star — it is maybe the most distinct and immersive visual style in any movie that isn’t made by Terry Gilliam (and I suspect that Brazil owes a conscious debt to this). But the final cut of Blade Runner (presumably the best one) is also a beautifully subtle and assured piece of storytelling. The way the movie twins the stories of Rick Deckard and Roy Batty is a thing of beauty — both of them are essentially the heroes of their own simultaneously-occurring movies. Both of them are searching for something and both are forced to ponder the nature of humanity for different reasons. And that’s what makes their final rooftop confrontation, and Roy’s death, so meaningful. (Well, that and a truly remarkable performance from Rutger Hauer, who makes Roy quite possibly my favourite movie villain. His only competition is Albert Spica from The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. But Michael Gambon makes no attempt to humanize that motherfucker.) The subtlety with which this cut of the movie implies that Deckard is a replicant is also masterful — the fact that the unicorn dream is never explicitly discussed is of course necessary for the plot, but it’s also admirably trusting of the audience to put two and two together. And Vangelis’s music is one of the glories of film scoring. It should feel dated but it doesn’t, because it doesn’t sound like anything else from this period that we can associate it with. It is specific to the hazy, dreamlike world of this movie. A couple of much-needed rewatches in the past couple months have me rethinking the list of my top ten movies that I’ve been carrying around in my head for the last few years. This may yet make the cut. Pick of the week.
Napoleon Dynamite — I spent Thanksgiving with some lovely friends who were aghast at my having never seen this movie. Frankly I’m surprised I hadn’t seen it also. My friends in high school were not so much people as collections of references from this movie. Of course, I didn’t know that then. Napoleon Dynamite is an unlikely hybrid of the first two Wes Anderson movies, except dumb. It takes its lowbrow hucksters plotline from Bottle Rocket and its high school redemption story from Rushmore. Its listless performances and static framing are straight from Anderson’s playbook. So are the characters’ senses of loss and alienation. But the similarities end there. Napoleon Dynamite is a shaggy, deeply weird movie whose jokes all give the uncanny feeling that they’re funny because they’re referencing something, except they’re not. Maybe that’s because I’ve lived the past thirteen years in a world where “Tina, you fat lard, come get some dinner” is a thing people say, and I am only now learning it’s from something. Still, the humour of this movie is extremely difficult to pin down and I don’t know if I liked it or not. I laughed. I can’t tell if I laughed in spite of myself or not.
The Blue Planet: Episodes 1-3 — Firstly. Now that we’ve got that out of the way: The Blue Planet is extraordinary and fascinating, but what’s really remarkable is how far camera technology has come since 2001. This precedes the first Planet Earth, let alone its astonishing 2016 follow-up. And while it is beautiful, it is markedly less beautiful than either of those. I am beyond excited for Blue Planet II, which will be arriving in the next couple of months. I have no doubt that it will be even more astonishing than this is. All that said, this is pretty damn astonishing, and the episode about the deep sea is particularly great. The farther you get from the sun, the more fucked up the lifeforms on this planet get. The anglerfish in particular seems like the creation of a mad god. Without David Attenborough’s authoritative voiceover, the deep sea episode of this series would seem like David Lynch adapting H.P. Lovecraft. It’s awesome.
Anna Weiner: “The Millennial Walt Disney” — This week in “things that made me scream into a pillow,” a story about a young entrepreneur who is opening locations of a strange institution called “The Museum of Ice Cream,” which is neither a museum not an ice cream shop but a place you can go to take good Instagram pictures of yourself. I hate this about people my age. I hate it I hate it I hate it I hate it I hate it I hate it. This is apocalyptic craziness and you’d be best advised to read it the way you’d read a story by Thomas Ligotti. These are bad, bad times.
Stephen King: The Waste Lands — Before I actually picked up my first Stephen King novel a couple of months ago, I didn’t understand the appeal. This, after all, was the author of the Haunted Car Book, and also the Haunted Dog Book. If these premises put me off before, they no longer do. Because the one truly terrifying monster in the Dark Tower series thus far is… a pink monorail. Here is a man who can frighten with any set of tools. The Waste Lands is far and away my favourite Dark Tower novel so far, and probably one of the best adventure page-turners I’ve ever read. Where The Drawing of the Three was essentially a break from the story begun in The Gunslinger — a semi-contrived set of hoops to jump through that introduces some crucial new pieces to the board but doesn’t actually move them anywhere — The Waste Lands really sets our characters off on a journey. It’s the first time in the series where the size of the story is really evident. The Dark Tower is no longer dreamlike and free-associative, but driving and purposeful. And it arrives at this point without sacrificing any of its Wonderland-esque uncanniness. In fact, this volume establishes that the gunslinger’s world, which has famously “moved on,” is several orders of magnitude stranger and more diverse than we could previously have suspected. We only got glimpses of this world before: a desert and a bizarre technological ruin in The Gunslinger; a beach full of monsters in The Drawing of the Three. This book serves us up our first real glimpse of society in this world: a small town of gentle elderly folk, and a raving mad city of brutal killers, haunted by the ghosts of dead machines. The weird wrongness of the world King establishes here reminds me of the deep sea creatures in the nature documentaries I’ve been watching — you get the sense that the place itself, let alone everybody in it, has lost its mind. Without spoiling too much, there’s a moment somewhere in the book’s outstanding final hundred pages where one of its characters contemplates the aforementioned monstrous pink monorail and realizes what a crazy story he’s in. “Welcome to the fantasy version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Even Stephen King thinks this book is nuts. I love it. I’ve never read anything like it. Pick of the week.
The Rolling Stones: Some Girls — The consensus best post-Exile Stones album is in my view better than many pre-Exile Stones albums. I daresay I’d put it ahead of Beggars Banquet. Far from being the sound of the Stones catching up with the times, Some Girls is the sound of the Stones imposing themselves on the times. Nobody’s going to mistake “Miss You” for a track by an actual disco artist, or “Shattered” for a song by a punk band. Because if there’s one thing the Rolling Stones cannot do, it is not sound like the Rolling Stones. Even when they’re cribbing bits from other musical idioms, they still play loose rock and roll, and that’s what makes this album great. It’s the sound of a band challenging themselves to do new things and rediscovering their own identity in the distance between their own idiom and others. I like that Ronnie Wood at least got to play on one classic Stones album. Because he’s a good guitarist with a distinctive sound, and he meshes with Keith Richards better than Mick Taylor, a better instrumentalist, ever did. I particularly love his solos on “Beast of Burden” and the little fills between lines of the title track. Wood’s defining contributions to the band will always be as a live player, since the vast bulk of the band’s classic material predates his time in the band. But Some Girls gives him material that’s worthy of him for the only time on a studio record. (Maybe I shouldn’t say that, since I haven’t actually heard Tattoo You. But judging by other latter-day Stones music I’ve heard, it seems like a safe generalization.) Favourite tracks: “Beast of Burden,” “When the Whip Comes Down,” “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me).”
The Rolling Stones: The Rolling Stones — Ohhhh boy the 10-hour Rolling Stones mono box set is on Apple Music. We’re doing this. My enthusiasm for the Stones comes in waves. I’ve barely listened to them since my last period of intense obsession in grad school, and suddenly I want nothing more out of life than track after track of Mick yelping at me between squalls of loud guitar. I guess I just feel a real need for very analogue music in my life right now. I’m honestly not quite sure which among the pre-Aftermath Stones albums I’ve heard, but I’m certain I haven’t heard any of them more than once. Which is probably unfair to some of them, but this isn’t one. It’s the U.K. version of their debut record. (The U.S. version, titled England’s Newest Hit Makers, is not included in the mono box, presumably because it only contains one track that this doesn’t. “Not Fade Away” is thus relegated to a bonus disc at the end. Still, the box includes both versions of Aftermath, when the U.S. version of that also only has one unique track. Whatever the logic, what matters is that absolutely everything released in mono is here. My most compulsive self rejoices.) It’s amazing to think of how successful this was in its time, given that it has zero tracks that have become Rolling Stones classics. There’s an alternate history where they were also-rans. I imagine that as I progress through this set, it’ll become clear when specifically that alternate history became untenable. I suspect it’s somewhere around Out Of Our Heads, but it might be sooner. I think my favourite track is probably their rendition of “Route 66,” which features a close to fully-formed sounding Keith Richards, and which also emphasizes the interplay between him and Brian Jones that makes the early recordings so great, and that they wouldn’t attain again until Ronnie Wood joined the band. In general, it’s not a classic, but it’s good fun, and if it had one track as good as “Please Please Me” it might stand up to the Beatles debut. Also, it seems like a missed opportunity to put “Now I’ve Got A Witness” before “Can I Get a Witness” in the running order. A minor point.
The Rolling Stones: 12×5 — I don’t know if I think this is an improvement on the first album or not. It has more originals but at this point Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are not anywhere near as good at writing songs as the R&B songwriters they cover. That’s ultimately what separates early Beatles from early Stones: on the early Beatles albums, you kind of wait out the covers in anticipation of the next Lennon/McCartney track. The same can’t be said of Jagger/Richards. Not yet. I’ll keep you posted about when in my perusal of the Stones mono box set I first encounter a classic track. This one almost has one in “Time is on My Side,” but it isn’t the more familiar version. Soon. I’ll take “Under the Boardwalk” as my favourite track, because it cracks open the window to an alternate version of Mick Jagger who honed his voice around an ideal of sweetness rather than grit. His instrument contains both facets, but only one could emerge victorious.
The Rolling Stones: The Rolling Stones No. 2 — Ah! We have a classic track. It’s the second version of “Time is on My Side.” That guitar intro makes it. I’m not sure if it’s just that I’m really starting to get into this mid-sixties shuffley rock feel after three albums, but this sounds like the point where the band really starts to swagger. “Down the Road Apiece” is a fabulous boogie track with the fantastic Ian Stewart on piano. Probably my favourite deep cut so far in the catalogue. Also, hearing the band that hasn’t yet written “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” do a song called “I Can’t Be Satisfied” is delicious. I suppose this is bit of a rarity, given that 12×5 was the “second album” of choice for the CD releases. But this is superior (and, by and large, a totally different album) to its American counterpart, owing to songs that were recorded a few months after the latest track on 12×5, which was rushed out to the American market before the hometown crowd got their second LP. Okay. Now onto the American album that’s got most of these same songs. What a befuddling discography.
The Rolling Stones: The Rolling Stones, Now! — At some point during this marathon, we were always going to have to address Mick Jagger’s fake black blues singer voice. It is very distasteful and it comes out in more explicit form in these early recordings than it does in the late 60s and early 70s classics. The influence is still there at that point, but it’s just that: an influence, not an impression. The spoken intro to “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” is the second-most egregious example of this that I’ve taken note of, aside from in “Goin’ Home” from Aftermath. Anyway. This is basically The Rolling Stones No. 2, but a bit better because it’s got “Heart of Stone” and “Little Red Rooster.” By this time, the Jagger/Richards songwriting team is starting to seem like it might amount to something after all. It’s the first album to have two acknowledged Stones classics on it (those two). At this point, each successive release is becoming increasingly solid and consistent. This is very much a “we’re nearly there” album. Also, it’s hard not to do a double-take hearing Mick Jagger sing the line “here come old flat top” in 1965. (It’s a Chuck Berry song. There was a lawsuit. Berry and Lennon settled out of court.)
The Rolling Stones: Out of Our Heads (U.S. version) — Here we have the most gigantic leap forward in the Stones discography with the possible exception of Satanic Majesties to Beggars Banquet, which wasn’t so much a leap forward as a total refocus. At long last, the originals match the calibre of the covers — mostly because the covers can’t really reflect the changes in contemporary music of the time, whereas Jagger and Richards have definitely been listening to Dylan. The folk influence and the baroque pop of “Play With Fire” (my favourite song in the catalogue up to this point) point forward to Aftermath. And “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” spelled out the death knell for the skiffle-influenced lilting rock and roll that was once the British Invasion’s default feel. There’s not a hint of anything so effete as “swing” in “Satisfaction.” Four to the goddamn floor. I don’t actually like it very much, but when you hear it in the context of the Rolling Stones’ full early discography, there’s no denying it’s a watershed moment. There’ll be hints of that old shuffle feel straight through the catalogue, but “Satisfaction” is the moment when you can hear that this band will eventually do “Brown Sugar” and “Street Fighting Man.” This is such a good album that I’m actually super glad the next thing in this mono box is a different version of it.
The Rolling Stones: Out of Our Heads (U.K. version) — The American labels’ habit of putting more singles on the albums than the British ones didn’t do the Beatles any favours — it just demoted some of their great album cuts. But the American Stones albums up to this point are often better, if only because the inclusion of the singles amps up the ratio of originals to covers, which by this time is a good thing. This British version of Out of Our Heads starts and finishes stronger than its American counterpart, with a blistering cover of “She Said Yeah” and Mick Jagger’s thesis statement “I’m Free.” But it doesn’t have “Play With Fire,” “The Spider and the Fly” or “Satisfaction,” which makes it feel less like a transition to the Stones’ classic period than just more of the same. Also, I always get a kick out of that moment in “I’m Free” where Charlie Watts suddenly loses track of the beat. It’s such a weird moment to make it to record.
The Rolling Stones: December’s Children (And Everybody’s) — Wow, that’s a very 60s title. It’s almost shocking really, from a band who always presented as the slightly chilly, cynical gadflies who wouldn’t follow the hippie trends for the sake of it. (This notion will disintegrate when we get to Satanic Majesties, about which my feelings are complicated.) It’s a mixed bag, containing tracks from a span of two years, and it doesn’t even try to cohere. However, it does contain two hitherto unheard tracks that stand out: the slightly mawkish but irresistible “As Tears Go By,” and the tremendous bolt of energy that is “Get Off of My Cloud.” This latter track is in my view a new high bar for the band. I don’t see the appeal of “The Singer Not the Song,” frankly. A relatively inessential part of the Stones’ rise.
The Rolling Stones: Aftermath (U.K. version) — Here we fucking go. This is so astronomically better than any previous Stones album it’s almost hard to believe. Exile On Main Street is the Stones album that’s most famously exploratory and sprawling, but Aftermath almost feels like a very early rehearsal for that. It’s almost twice as long as Out Of Our Heads, and five times as diverse. Presumably, this is the album that earned Brian Jones his reputation as the band’s sonic explorer: his dulcimer, organ, and koto playing pulls the band at last into the mid-sixties. Plus, this is the first album with no covers. It is the album where the Rolling Stones cement themselves as creators of original music. Alas, it is also the album where they take up the mantle of “massively problematic cultural institution.” (It’s possible that these two phenomena are not unrelated.) Right off the bat, we get “Mother’s Little Helper,” which has a guitar sound the like of which hasn’t been heard from this band before, and a great riff too. Also, it is is both sexist and dismissive of mental illness. Next up is “Stupid Girl,” one of the album’s lesser tracks, so its misogyny isn’t quite so hard to reconcile. Then comes “Under My Thumb,” and we’re three for three in the “dodgy attitudes towards women” category. Even “Lady Jane” presents a shameless cad as a romantic figure — though this last example is richer and more complex than the others. Jagger often reads as a parody of lunkheaded chauvinism from a modern perspective. “Lady Jane” is an unlikely prototype for “Tumbling Dice” in this way. And while it seems unlikely that Jagger is in on his own joke, “Lady Jane” has a barely perceptible whiff of insincerity about it that shields it from being quite as retrograde as “Under My Thumb.” And it isn’t just sexism that rears its head on Aftermath: Jagger’s borderline minstrel show vocal performance in “Goin’ Home” is one of the most embarrassing moments on any classic album. But I’m going to stop this now. The problems on Aftermath should be obvious to anybody with half a brain, and they shouldn’t be glossed over. But they are large flaws on a wonderfully inventive near-masterpiece of a record that is essential listening for anybody remotely interested in 60s rock music. If “Out of Time” doesn’t give you a huge charge, I don’t think there’s any hope that you’ll ever like this band. This is also the point where I can finally comment knowledgeably about the quality of the mono remasters that I’ve been listening to so far, having spun the stereo iTunes master many times. In general, I prefer the mono mixes, as is the case with the Beatles and basically all other music from this period and prior. But there are certain instances where the stereo mixes’ very artificial separation of instruments between the two channels highlights details that fall by the wayside here. Specifically, I like the way the fuzz bass on “Flight 505” comes out in the stereo mix better. There are other minor examples, but I still think the mono is the way to hear these records. I’m really looking forward to seeing how the next few sound in this format.
The Rolling Stones: Aftermath (U.S. version) — I don’t know why this was even included in the mono box. The American version of Aftermath is confounding: eleven minutes shorter, and missing some of its British counterpart’s best tracks. (What is Aftermath without “Out of Time?”) The only track unique to this version is “Paint It, Black,” which is admittedly a much better opening than “Mother’s Little Helper.” I am always surprised at how effective that track is considering the extent of its overexposure. “Paint It, Black” is still haunting. It may be the Rolling Stones track that depends the least on whether you actually like the Rolling Stones. Certainly, I remember loving this song before I acquired the taste. “I see a red door and I want it painted black” is a line so far above Mick Jagger’s statistical average that I don’t even know what to think. This is one of those rare songs where he seems to have gotten outside of himself. It’s a relief to not be listening to him sing about his lack of respect for women. Plus, the arrangement is killer: the sitar is the obvious point of attention, but the seven-note guitar line that comes midway through each verse (e.g. after “I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes) is the touch that really makes it. Aside from “Paint It, Black,” though, this is a hatchet job of the British Aftermath. For one thing, eliminating “Out of Time,” “Take It Or Leave It,” “What to Do” and “Mother’s Little Helper” (a musically outstanding song, in spite of its problems) means that a greater percentage of the album’s running time is taken up by “Goin’ Home.” If you’re going to eliminate eleven minutes of Aftermath, it should be these eleven. On one hand, I admire the Stones and their record labels for committing to a track this long and this formless. It’s a statement of ambition. But listening to a group of not very distinguished musicians jamming on a half-baked blues tune is not fun. Anyway, this version of Aftermath is a weird experience I won’t partake in again.
The Rolling Stones: Between the Buttons (U.K. version) — I might actually like this better than Aftermath. It is less sprawling, less adventurous, and ultimately less important to the band’s development. But it’s charming in a way that other Stones records aren’t. This is the album where the band’s posh side comes out, and is immediately subjected to lacerating satire. “Cool, Calm & Collected” has a music hall element that is more familiar as part of the Beatles’ sound. But where Paul McCartney inhabits that music naturally, Mick Jagger creeps around its edges and only ironically sticks the occasional toe in. Same goes for “Something Happened to Me Yesterday,” a song I don’t entirely understand my own affection for. (Though it might have something to do with Keith Richards’ first lead vocal performance. He is my favourite Stone by a mile, so maybe it’s a Pavlovian response.) Here is a music hall song that is seemingly about a drug trip. What the hell is that about? Anyway, “She Smiled Sweetly” is one of my very favourite Rolling Stones songs, and this album is fantastic. I will say, this is the rare album that I actually prefer the American version of. “Ruby Tuesday” and “Let’s Spend the Night Together” are among the band’s best singles (and their singles during this art pop period are unassailable) and they fit in well on this album and give a hooky jolt. I miss “Back Street Girl” on that version of the album, but “Please Go Home” isn’t much of a loss. Still, should’ve been “Yesterday’s Papers” that got the chopping block. It’s the album’s least exciting song, and the fact that it opens the British version might be the primary strike against that version. Also, this is astronomically better in mono. The stereo mix of Between the Buttons is super hacky.
The Rolling Stones: Flowers — I’d never heard this collection of singles and oddments for the American market before. On one hand, it’s hard to understand the necessity of another American disc containing “Ruby Tuesday” and “Let’s Spend the Night Together” so soon after Between the Buttons brought those same two songs to the States. But that’s a bit moot, because I frankly like this collection of songs better than either of the primary albums associated with the Stones’ art pop phase. (Yes, even better than Aftermath.) If I were to recommend one album from prior to the Stones’ imperial phase, this might well be it. It has everything: gorgeous acoustic ballads (“Ruby Tuesday,” “Back Street Girl”), spirited rock and roll (“Let’s Spend the Night Together”), weird quasi-psychedelia (“Mother’s Little Helper,” and the marvellous single “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing In the Shadow?”), credible R&B (“Out of Time,” a half-decent cover of “My Girl”) and a pair of Aftermath outtakes that would have been album highlights (“Ride On, Baby” and “Sittin’ on a Fence”). These last two were both songs I’d never heard before, and “Sittin’ on a Fence” strikes me as one of the great hidden gems of the Stones catalogue. Flowers is the best collection of songs from my second-favourite phase in this band’s career (after the classic early 70s albums). If only it had “19th Nervous Breakdown.” A note on the mono: “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby” is one of the rare tracks that I prefer in stereo. The mono version is an indiscernible mass of noise. Stereo separation, even too much of it, does it good.
The Rolling Stones: Their Satanic Majesties Request — This is an album that I’d like to be able to mount a more spirited defence of than I’m actually going to. This is the moment in the Rolling Stones’ career where they did outright psychedelia for one album, then immediately reverted to gritty rock and roll. Frankly, I think psychedelia is a fundamentally better kind of music than gritty rock and roll, and I wish the Stones were better at it than they are. But I agree with this album’s harshest critics that this is a moment where it didn’t pay for the Stones to leave their lane. The incremental experimentation of the albums before this did wonders for them. Much later, their flirtation with modern styles on Some Girls would work as well. But this album finds the Stones fundamentally altering their way of doing things. This is a sound collage as much as an album of songs, and that is not something this band excels at. Still, I don’t understand the critics who see this as a post-Pepper bandwagon jump, because this album has as much to do with Sgt. Pepper as it does with Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens. Where Pepper was meticulous, this is loose and jangly. I have a taxonomy of psychedelia that I personally find useful: psychedelic albums are either “Peppers” or “Pipers,” the latter category named for Pink Floyd’s debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Peppers are meticulous, fussy and colourful. Pipers are messy, experimental and spontaneous. This album is very much a Piper. Also, it has some classic songs on it. “She’s a Rainbow” is straight up one of my favourite Stones songs, and “The Lantern” features the arrival of the dirty, simplistic guitar fills that I love Keith Richards for. “2000 Man” is fun too. The rest of the album is deeply unconvincing, but worth a listen just because of what an anomaly it is.
John Congleton and the Nighty Nite: Until the Horror Goes — Turns out this is still awesome. I went so hot and cold on this last year that I remember having a small crisis about whether to put it on my year-end list at all. (I did, and placed it very high.) Sometimes I think it’s a bit adolescent in its worldview, i.e. nothing has meaning. But in a world as horrifying as the one we’re currently living in, it feels more comedic than it used to. I hereby renounce my reservations. This is one of the best albums of the decade.
Reply All: “Is That You, KD?” — After last week’s reported story, they deserve a Yes Yes No double-header. Hearing Alex Blumberg explain something to P.J. Vogt and Alex Goldman for a change is delightful.
On The Media: “After Vegas” & “More Human Than Human” — Brooke Gladstone’s post-crisis reality checks are always appreciated, and this week’s full episode touches on the Las Vegas shooting, country music, and Blade Runner. Terrible weeks are often good weeks to listen to On The Media.
The Daily: Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017 & Friday, Oct. 6, 2017 — I tuned in to catch up on Las Vegas and Harvey Weinstein. The world is bad.
The Outline World Dispatch: “Google’s algorithm & AI’s heritage” — This podcast is good for daily tech news. It’s also really wise not to try and compete with The Daily or NPR’s Up First (which I’ve never heard and don’t feel like I need to hear) by actually covering the major stories. I should listen more, and I may yet do so.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Battle of the Sexes and What’s Making Us Happy,” “The Princess Bride And Remembering Tom Petty” & “Blade Runner 2046” — Three fun episodes. I must say, the transition to a bi-weekly schedule has not at all blunted my love for this show, the dynamic of which is still the most amiable in the pop culture panel show space. The retrospective on The Princess Bride is especially strong.
Twenty Thousand Hertz: “Level Up” — This story about sound design in video games was something I wanted in my life at this specific moment, and it’s good fun. It’s particularly fun to hear the elements of a game’s soundscape isolated into foley, environments, voices and music.
The Gist: “Facebook’s Data Monopoly” — I will be reading Franklin Foer’s book as soon as I damn well can. This interview is a good companion to his piece in the Atlantic adapted from the book, because Mike Pesca asks challenging questions.
Radiolab: “Driverless Dilemma” — At the start of this episode, Jad apologizes for how over-the-top the sound design in the old episode they play is. I like that old version of Radiolab better, honestly. I wish they’d still do that sometimes. This is a quite terrifying update of a story about the trolley problem, in which it seems that self-driving cars will constantly be subjected to the trolley problem and will likely tend to sacrifice the life of the rider rather than the several potential victims outside of the car. Scary stuff, and good stuff too.
More Perfect: Season two, episodes 1-3 — I have consistently been enjoying More Perfect more than Radiolab for the last two years. This season’s opening salvo is powerful stuff, particularly in the second episode, which focusses on a terrible decision just before the Civil War that introduced legal language that continues to define the state of race relations in the United States to this day. Looking forward to more.
Fresh Air: “The Platinum Age of TV” — This interview with Fresh Air’s own TV critic David Bianculli is surprisingly personal, and very good. Bianculli has one of the great critic stories about why this medium means something to him. His mother died when he was very young, and in the worst stages of his illness, she took refuge in the rise of the Kennedys. When J.F.K. was assassinated, she was asleep. Bianculli’s father bade him to remove the TV from her room and take it into his. She couldn’t know the news until the whole family was there to help her deal with it. In the meantime, Bianculli watched news coverage of the Kennedy assassination in his room, alone. The power of this medium made itself clear very early in his life. This is lovely stuff.
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
The 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
I 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
Yes, 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
If 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
Kieron 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
If 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.
O.J.: Made in America
Horace and Pete
Planet Earth II
Better Call Saul
Orange is the New Black
Manchester By The Sea
Swiss Army Man
Captain America: Civil War
The Nice Guys
I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House
John Congleton and the Nighty Nite: Until the Horror Goes
Hans Abrahamsen/Barbara Hannigan et al.: let me tell you
David Bowie: Blackstar
Let’s Eat Grandma: I, Gemini
Kyle Craft: Dolls of Highland
Tim Hecker: Love Streams
A Tribe Called Red: We Are The Halluci Nation
Chance the Rapper: Colouring Book
Bon Iver: 22, A Million
Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Teodor Currentzis, MusicAeterna, et al.: Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto & Stravinsky Les Noces
I was underwhelmed by podcasts this week, so I’ve chosen two non-podcast picks of the week instead. And here they are at the top.
Swiss Army Man — You know this as “The Daniel Radcliffe Farting Corpse Movie.” What you don’t know is the extent to which that is exactly what it is for its entire 97-minute duration. But, in spite of And, because of its relentless devotion to its own ridiculous premise, Swiss Army Man is one of the most entertaining movies I’ve seen all year. 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. The movie’s dreamlike magical realist logic comes to life in the hands of directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who don’t get bogged down in the mechanics of what’s real and what isn’t. Instead, they turn the whole story into a visual fantasia, piling found objects one on top of the other in elaborate hallucinatory montages. 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 weird, unpredictable, probably bad movies with crazy premises like this one to another year of bland superhero blockbusters. Pick of the week.
BoJack Horseman: Season 3, episodes 4-12 — This is now officially my favourite Netflix original. I loved the fourth season of OITNB, but if you take the past two seasons of both of these shows and average them out, BoJack wins by a mile. The fourth episode of this season does a thing that I wish cartoons would do more often and proceeds with almost no dialogue. It is completely virtuosic and manages to be dark and moving in the way that this show always is even while it’s doing silly sight gags for the entirety of its duration. Two episodes later, we get a wonderfully non-hand-wringy story about abortion. Episode eight is one of the most beautiful episodes of TV comedy I’ve seen since last season’s “Hank After Dark.” It addresses one of the strangest elements of storytelling, which is our tendency to root for the protagonist regardless of everything. It’s an episode where everything falls apart for all of the characters we’re supposed to care about, which results in a happy ending for a few characters we don’t. It’s brilliant. This show has everything, including one of the best casts on any current show. I may just be misremembering, but it seems to me that Alison Brie and Paul F. Tompkins have substantially upped their game this time around. Tompkins in particular is bringing out many subtler shades of Mr. Peanutbutter than existed in prior seasons. I think that this is currently my second-favourite scripted program of 2016 so far, next to Horace and Pete. Pending my capriciously changing opinions, it will beat Better Call Saul by a narrow margin. Pick of the week.
Lost: “Solitary” — Ooh, I dunno about this. The love story segment of Sayid’s backstory is maybe the most contrived element of this show’s first season. Even Sawyer, while generally a shit character, has a better backstory than this. On the other hand, Hurley’s plot in this is one of the most beautiful moments of the season. A mixed bag.
Last Week Tonight: July 24, 2016 — This contains one of this show’s greatest moments ever and one of its most lacklustre. (Is it “most lacklustre?” Or just, “least lustrous?”) The good one is a moment where Oliver pulls a distressing if-then formulation from an interview with Newt Gingrich. In the interview — whether out of ignorance, malevolence or whatever arcane combination of the two is currently fueling the GOP — Gingrich asserts that feelings are facts. Or, at least, he fails to understand that this is not the case. Given this, Oliver provides this calculus: if candidates can create feelings, and feelings are facts, then candidates can create facts. “That is the closest thing to an actual magic spell I think I’ve ever seen,” says Oliver, and he is shudderingly correct. The least lustrous bit is the celebrity feature at the end where a bunch of major recording artists sing about how they don’t want candidates to make unauthorized use of their songs, which is a thing that happens constantly. It’s one of those things where the writers obviously just trusted that having a whole bunch of celebrities would be sufficient, so they didn’t write any jokes. (Sorry, they wrote one joke: about Spotify. And they gave it to Josh Groban to sing, because he was the only one who appeared to even care. Josh Groban loves being on TV.) This is fine. But I wish this show wouldn’t do that sort of “event” programming. They don’t need to: no matter what Oliver talks about, he’s going viral the next day.
Laurie Penny: Welcome to the Scream Room — No, this isn’t another of the Lovecraftian horror stories I’ve been so into this year. It’s a series of five posts on Medium about the 2016 Republican and Democratic conventions. Penny is a spectacular writer, almost to the point of showing off, and her existential dread at the implications of both conventions is intensely relatable. She sees the same apocalypse in the Republican convention that every sane person in the world does, but she also decries the horror of the lesser-evilism that was the spirit of the day at the Democratic convention. “Outside,” she writes, “an epic summer storm is breaking over the Democratic Demilitarized Zone like the world’s laziest metaphor.” Nearly every paragraph has a sentence that good. But the cream of the crop, and the most enraging thing I’ve read in awhile is “I’m With the Banned,” a crazy piece of first-person journalism that tells the story of Penny’s experience at the Republican National Convention with the infamous Twitter hate speech geyser Milo Yiannopoulos. Throughout the evening, she also encounters Pamela Geller, Geert Wilders, and most disturbingly, Roosh V, whose relative lack of cynicism marks him as especially dangerous. This series is a quick, engrossing read, but have something calming nearby to serve as a chaser.
John Hermann: The Content Wars — I am finally finished reading this and I am too anxious and confused to have any feelings. I will say that I highly recommend Hermann’s writing. He has a wonderful way of clearly stating what’s happening in cases where most writers would find it hard to even quantify, and rather than directly editorializing, he’ll just lapse into an intentionally glib, irony-laden voice. So, he never comes off as a prophet of doom, in spite of his considerable scepticism about the future of platforms. The sheer imperiousness of his writing makes him much harder to ignore than even highly-regarded but slightly frantic tech-sceptics like Benjamen Walker. One last lengthy quote before I leave this be forever: “Maybe at some point pundits look back at access-based journalism and think, wow, that never made sense, how rude of those weird “publications” to hold readers hostage and blackmail their subjects. The triumphalist pundits will explain this, and why it matters, but also doesn’t, and why basically everything is good and getting better, anyway. Maybe, at the same time, other pundits will lament the media’s lack of interest in certain Important things. This will be dealt with by people who will explain what is actually Important, and what does that even mean, and who, actually, you’re talking about when you accuse the media of doing or not doing something you want them to do (yourself) and why that matters, or doesn’t, and whose fault it all is. (It’s yours.)”
Nils Frahm: Solo — I listened to this while I read Penny’s piece on Milo Yiannopoulos, which is probably why I didn’t claw my eyes out during the course of that. It is immensely calming without feeling cheap. Think Brian Eno and Harold Budd. It is worth hearing simply for the sound of the piano itself, which is an unconventional thing about ten feet tall. It is marvellously sonorous, and well recorded here.
Strawbs: Ghosts — This is far better than I expected this band could be after a few listens of their apparent masterpiece, Hero and Heroine, many years ago. I dare say that this is much better than that album, with even the middling tracks reaching the heights of Hero and Heroine’s best ones (“Autumn,” the title track). Both albums find them a ways from their folk origins, playing a unique sort of laid-back symphonic prog. But this one is lower on treacle. Perhaps the album doesn’t quite belong on the prog 101 syllabus, but anybody who likes that genre ought to hear its best two tracks: “Ghosts” and “The Life Auction.” My favourite ‘70s prog discovery I’ve made in a while.
The Decemberists: Picaresque — Ah, memories. I first heard this album around the time when I first became amenable to music that was made after 1975. It was an easy sell, because Colin Meloy’s theatrical story-songs smacked of Genesis. That’s not the end of their prog connection: it would only be a few years before the Decemberists would go full neo-Tull on The Hazards of Love, which I like far more than most critics did. But Picaresque is their masterpiece. Every song is good, most are excellent. This album hits that perfect mark several times, where both the melody and the lyrics have a hook simultaneously. “16 Military Wives” may be the definitive song of the George W. Bush administration, and “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” is as funny and haunting as ever 11 years later. A classic.
Undertale — I sunk a bunch of free hours into a second playthrough of this, and thank god. Without spoiling anything, all of this game’s endings require you to take drastically different approaches throughout. So, it actually didn’t feel like a second playthrough so much as a totally different game taking place in the same overworld. I saw completely different sides to several of the characters I encountered on my first time through. These new characterizations in no way contradict the old ones; rather they suggest that these pixelated video game characters contain multitudes and respond in drastically different ways to drastically different circumstances. But the real genius of Undertale, I’m realizing, is its capacity for staggering narrative rug-pulls. The one in my first ending was earthshaking; this one less so. But still, the fact that playing the game through once will only yield a third of the story at most is properly impressive. My initial assessment of this game as being overrated is entirely due to how tightly it holds its cards to its chest. It is in fact a marvel. And I’ve still got one ending to go.
Imaginary Worlds: “Ghost in the Shell” — This kind of slipped past me, honestly. I will say this: there is no defence for casting Scarlett Johansson as an Asian woman. None. I won’t see that movie. I’ll just watch the original anime. (Maybe. But probably not.)
99% Invisible: “The Mind of an Architect” — This features never-before-heard tape of several renowned architects participating in a study about human creativity. That alone should make you want to listen.
Code Switch: “Black and Blue” — This is a more structured and thoughtful extension of last week’s extra episode about the most recent spate of violence between police and black people. I’m sure the Code Switch blog always did this kind of thing, but I’m really glad that it comes directly into my podcast feed now, because there’s no way I’m going to ignore it.
Reply All: “Stolen Valor” — The main segment is a really interesting story about people who attempt to shame people who falsely wear military uniforms in public. It’s great, and does a great job of demonstrating why there are people who find this very offensive and others who are taking it way over the line. The attempt to do something, anything, on the police violence of the previous week is as good a take as you can ask for from a show that focusses on how our experiences of the world are mediated by the internet. It’s an angle I hadn’t heard before, even if it is a bit of a paltry response.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “On Endings And Road Trips” — This is a rerun, and awww, they all sound so young! It’s a fun show, and if anything it ought to clear away any notion that they’re treading water these days, because the panel is actually less engaged-sounding here than they are on 2016 episodes.
On The Media: “The Country of the Future” — A bit of appealingly self-conscious parachute journalism from Bob Garfield and Alana Casanova-Burgess. This will be really edifying for anybody who doesn’t know anything about the Brazilian media. Considering that Brazil has a controversial publicly-funded broadcaster, I’d actually like to see more Canadian journalists take these topics on. The implications for our audience would be dramatically different from those for Garfield’s presumed American one.
All Songs Considered: “My Cell Phone Rights At Shows Vs. Yours” — This isn’t a reasoned debate so much as it’s just Boilen’s platitudes vs. Hilton’s curmudgeonliness. Maybe this would connect with me if I went to more concerts.
More Perfect: “Object Anyway” — This is only tangentially related to the Supreme Court, but the history of racism in jury selection, and the ineffective rules put in place to prevent it, is a really interesting story.
Invisibilia: “Flip the Script” — Another pair of stories without distinction. The first finds some Danish cops choosing to treat radicalized young Muslims with respect and discovering that this is an effective way to fight radicalization. Well, who’d have thought. I could have told you that. The second is about a guy with a really dumb idea about how to fix online dating. StartUp did a whole season on people with a good idea about how to fix online dating. I don’t need this story.
NPR Politics Podcast: Democratic National Convention coverage — This podcast was posting daily during both conventions, which is a great thing for a show like this to do. It’s good conversation. Being a politics show, it’s not as appealingly frothy as Pop Culture Happy Hour, but it’s as close as you can come to that show for politics. This was my media of choice throughout the convention because I hate TV (and don’t have one) and Facebook is worse. It was a great way to keep up without feeling like you’re being beaten over the head with messaging. I’ll certainly return to this when the convention’s over and they’re back to regularly scheduled programming. I bet the episodes on the Republican convention would have driven me insane, though.
Fresh Air: “The Rise And Fall Of Fox News CEO Roger Ailes” — This is a somewhat airless discussion, but the topic is fascinating. Roger Ailes is, of course, the scum of the earth. And now it turns out that creating Fox News isn’t even the worst thing he’s done in his life. Check this out for some horrifying context about this mess.
The Heart: “The Understudy” — A lovely piece by Sophie Townsend that was first produced for Love Me, the CBC podcast from the producers of WireTap that I somehow haven’t checked out yet (but which I won’t review for obvious reasons). The premise of having an actor portray her ex, and then using mostly the parts of the sessions where he talks about how he can’t get the lines right is brilliant. It’s a perfect metaphor for the fact that the ex in question wasn’t quite able to play the part of Townsend’s dead husband. Really nice.
99% Invisible: “America’s Last Top Model” — “Knowledge creates wonder.” If there was ever a credo for this show, it’s that. The rest of the episode, about a gigantic ridiculously accurate model of the Mississippi River floodplain that could predict levee failures more accurately than modern computers, is vintage 99pi.
Fresh Air: “Comic Mike Birbiglia” — A fun interview, but it touches on a lot of the same topics that are in Birbigila’s well-known specials and his first movie. It would have been nice to hear more about the new movie.
Code Switch: “46 Stops: The Driving Life and Death of Philando Castile” — This gets far into the weeds of Castile’s driving record. That’s a worthwhile thing to do. It’s not just discrimination in policing that’s the issue, although it’s the main one. It’s also housing discrimination and segregation.
Theory of Everything: “Something will happen, eventually” — Benjamen Walker is the only person who can do a reported piece based on an interview and make it sound like a prose poem. This show begins with the premise that coincidences aren’t as unlikely as they seem and weaves a tight 14 minutes around that idea without ever defaulting to the standard formats and techniques of public radio. If I were giving a podcast pick of the week it would go to this, but I’m not, so consider it a technical victory.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Ghostbusters and Mr. Robot” — I think they’re pretty much spot on about Ghostbusters. It’s a perfectly fine movie, but definitely lesser work from all those involved. Mr. Robot has never particularly drawn me.
WTF with Marc Maron: “Chuck Klosterman” — I think Klosterman slows down for Maron’s benefit here. But a fun chat that offers some insight into culture criticism’s most accomplished dilettante.
O.J.: Made in America: Episodes 1-3 — I think this is the best documentary I’ve ever seen. I haven’t finished it yet, so I’ll save my final assessment for next week.
Banco del Mutuo Soccorso: Io Sono Nato Libero — I’ve been aware of Banco since I was probably about 12. I heard a couple of their songs at that point, but in the absence of streaming services or the willingness to engage in piracy, that was as far as I got. This is the first time I’ve heard an album of theirs all the way through, and it is glorious. It is strange and ambitious and incredibly beautiful at times. Ugly at others, like all of the best prog rock. Francesco di Giacomo had some serious pipes, which is primarily what puts this above PFM for me — though I’m not sure there’s anything on this quite as flawless as “Impressioni di settembre.” I’d like to know what the lyrics are about. Next time through I’ll keep a translation close by.
Harmonium: L’Heptade — A classic. This is my favourite Harmonium album, edging out Si on avait by a tiny smidgen. What I love about this is that the folk and chanson elements are still very present, but they’ve broadened the palette into full-on prog. The addition of drums adds weight, and the fact that they’re used sparingly doesn’t take too much from the effervescence of prior albums. The concept of L’Heptade, a person passes through seven states of consciousness within a day, is certainly similar to the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed, and the orchestral interludes amplify the comparison. But this is far more ambitious and far stranger. Serge Fiori deserves to be spoken of in the same sentences as Robert Fripp and Jon Anderson. Taken together, Harmonium’s three albums are an absolutely crucial body of work in ‘70s prog.
Lucy Dacus: No Burden — An All Songs recommendation. A few songs are great, and a few are a bit dull. I might listen again, or I might not.
Thomas Ligotti: “In a Foreign Town, In a Foreign Land” — All three stories in the second section of Teatro Grotesco (subtitled “Deformations,” as if it applies more to these specific stories than all his other ones) deal with a place across a mysterious border. The Quine Organization doesn’t appear in this one, and it isn’t labour-related. But it does confront the possibility of nearby societies behaving mysteriously. This clearly unsettles Ligotti, but not in a racist way like his weird fiction predecessor H.P. Lovecraft. It’s more a matter of a place that’s similar enough to home to be familiar but different enough to be, well, lethal. This story is actually four stories, all of which take place in the same town and presumably are told by the same narrator. What’s really interesting is the way that they paint a cohesive picture of a place when taken together. Not one of the better stories in Teatro Grottesco so far, but still good.
George Saunders: “Who Are All These Trump Supporters?” — This has supplanted Bob Garfield’s On The Media Trump coverage as my favourite piece of writing about this campaign. Saunders hits all the right notes here, whether comparing Trump to Ralph Kramden (“He’s a man who has just dropped a can opener into his wife’s freshly baked pie. He’s not about to start grovelling about it, and yet he’s sorry — but, come on, it was an accident. He’s sorry, he’s sorry, O.K., but do you expect him to say it? He’s a good guy. Anyway, he didn’t do it.”), directly quoting a man muttering as he leaves a rally (“Hey, I’m not paying for your shit, I’m not paying for your college, so you go to Hell, go to work, go to Hell, suck a dick.”), or using inventive metaphors to express why the right and left in America cannot understand each other (“You and I approach a castle. One of us has watched only ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail,’ the other only ‘Game of Thrones.’ What is the meaning, to the collective ‘we,’ of yon castle? We have no common basis from which to discuss it.”) It becomes less silly and more sad as it goes on, and the final kicker is really something. Go read.Pick of the week.
John Herrman: The Content Wars — “Internet platforms inherently favor their own content; more subtly, they create the conditions for their users to do the same.” This, in a nutshell, is the problem. Facebook and Twitter are naturally self-interested, and also very powerful and popular (at least, Facebook is). So, their progress will tend toward a total monopoly on human attention. And, as that quote implies, they won’t necessarily do it by Machiavellian means — they inherently privilege content that works better on their feeds. This makes them no less twisted.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Game of Thrones” — A nice, but inconsequential discussion of the changing role of women in Game of Thrones. Still a ways to go, it would seem.
More Perfect: “The Imperfect Plaintiffs” — This is the first episode of the constantly fantastic More Perfect to feature more than one story. It’s a dyad of stories that elucidates the odd world of test case lawsuits filed by activists. First off, we learn how an LGBTQ leader had a sodomy law in Texas deemed unconstitutional based on the case of two men who might not have even had sex with each other. Then, we dart over to the loathsome side of the political spectrum to learn how one man is trying to roll back decades of civil rights legislation, including the affirmative action case that was decided a few weeks ago. Fascinating stuff.
99% Invisible: “Remembering Stonewall” — This is a great piece from 1989 featuring the voices of people who were at the Stonewall riots telling the story from their perspective. The narration is minimal, so the story feels like fragments strung together. It’s apparently the first documentary made about Stonewall, so it’s very much worth a listen.
Imaginary Worlds: “Undertale” — Molinsky doesn’t quite get to the heart of what makes Undertale a fascinating and revolutionary game, partially because he hadn’t finished it when he made this, and partially because any adequate discussion would involve spoiling the most shocking moment in any video game ever. And that moment must go unspoilt, even to the spoiler-unconcerned such as myself. What Molinsky does get into is the idea that Undertale deconstructs certain video game tropes. Which is true, of course, and Undertale is an effective metacritique even before its staggering, unspoilable conclusion. But it’s far from the first to deconstruct the idea of choice in video games (The Stanley Parable did it first and does it better), or even the idea of death in video games (Adam Cadre’s parser game Endless, Nameless did it first, though less compellingly). So, this has its weak points, but it did make me really want to go back and play Undertale again. After all, I’ve still got two whole endings to discover.
Code Switch: “I’m Not Black, I’m O.J.” — Ezra Edelstein is disappointingly uninteresting in conversation, but I could listen to Gene Demby talk about this documentary series for days.
All Songs Considered: “Your Favourite New Musicians of 2016 (So Far)” — Not a lot of this music jumped out at me, but this did prompt me to check out Lucy Dacus and Margaret Glaspy.
More Perfect: “Kittens Kick the Giggly Blue Robot All Summer” — Silly mnemonic title aside, this is as wonky as you’d hope a story about the establishment of the Supreme Court’s powers would be. God, was Thomas Jefferson awful.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The State of the Sequel, Independence Day: Resurgence, and a Quiz — This broad discussion of sequels is a lot more interesting than a segment on Independence Day: Resurgence would have been. Quizzes, on the other hand, are not generally my favourite part of this show.
In Our Time: “Sovereignty” — If there is a weakness to In Our Time (and there are many, in spite of my undying affection), it’s that discussions focus almost entirely on European thought and history. It’s very old-guard academia — no critical theory here. So, in this discussion of the concept of sovereignty as extrapolated from Aristotle by Bodin and elaborated upon by Hobbes and Rousseau, I found myself wishing for a discussion of First Nations sovereignty as it relates (or doesn’t relate?) to those principles. Naturally, it never came, because In Our Time is only actually interested in our time in a rather limited way. That’s a serious liability for a radio program that purports to be about the discussions and debates that define our era. On the other hand, where else are you going to hear about this stuff in this much detail? Radiolab? No.
StartUp: “2680 Madison Road” — This starts with a needlessly long and falsely suspenseful trek through a semi-abandoned building. But after that, it gets going. It uses the brilliant premise of charting the rise and fall (or the rise and further rise, in some cases) of businesses that were started on the same lot: 2680 Madison Road, just down the street from Alex Blumberg’s childhood home in Cincinnati, to highlight the fickleness of business. The back half of this season of StartUp has been fantastic. I still hope they go back to serialized stories next season, though.
Invisibilia: “The Problem with the Solution” — Now I remember why I mostly liked the first season of Invisibilia — it occasionally brings stories that are so astonishing you can’t believe you’ve never heard them before. I constantly felt like the first season of this show was pulling my leg: that eventually it would reveal that all the stories had been made up as part of a social experiment to see how far they could stretch their audience’s credulity. This episode, about a Belgian town where families take in boarders with serious mental illnesses and care for them for an average of 28 years, is one of those stories that seems like it can’t be real. It’s great.
The Memory Palace: “Natural Habitat” — This is one of the good ones. Their all good, but this is a really top-shelf episode of The Memory Palace. It tells the story the first American woman to bring a live panda home from China. It manages to be a love story, an adventure story, and a tale of evolving notions about animal captivity at the same time. Plus, it throws some anti-imperialism in there. It’s long by this show’s standards, but completely sustains the length. Again, this is the best writing in radio. Pick of the week.
Invisibilia: “Mr. Kitt” — A fun character piece about a man who lives in the progressive housing development from the week’s full episode. This is a good week for Invisibilia.
WTF with Marc Maron: “Jeff Goldblum” — It turns out that Jeff Goldblum does the Jeff Goldblum thing when he’s not acting as well. He’s a lovely fellow, and less eccentric than you might think. Maron’s a real steamroller for the first third or so of the conversation, but he eases into a rhythm eventually and lets Goldblum talk. You might not expect this podcast to contain an elevated discussion of acting technique, but it does, and it is quite marvellous.
99% Invisible: “Unpleasant Design” — I’ve discovered that I like this show best when it dives into a concept and its implications more than when it tells a story. This is outstanding. Probably the second-best thing I heard this week.
The Punch Brothers: The Phosphorescent Blues — Come to think of it, I listened to this when it first came out, loved it, and never listened to it again. Well, now I’ve listened to it again. It’s more ambitious and more polished than Who’s Feeling Young Now? but it’s also a bit slicker than anything they’ve done before. Drums make their first appearance, and there’s a general sense that when they’re not doing ten-minute prog tracks, they’re trying to be bluegrass Coldplay. Maybe that sounds like a dig, but bluegrass Coldplay sounds like a more appealing proposition to me than regular Coldplay. The lyrics’ obsession with smartphones, and whether or not we’re still capable of connecting, or living in the moment is a bit cliched, and the Punch Brothers don’t really have anything meaningful to add to the discussion (nobody does), but that’s not what anybody wants from any band, or shouldn’t be, at least. I don’t like this as much as Who’s Feeling Young Now? but “Familiarity” and the midsection of “Julep” are selling points for this band in themselves.
IQ: The Seventh House — It’s been a long time since I listened to anything like this. I really only ever listened to neo-prog when I was at my most prog-obsessed, maybe ten years ago. These days, I tend to think of prog as a moment — a moment that lasted from about 1969 to 1977 — and my exploration of it tends to go deep into that time period, rather than broadly across others. It’s not that I think nothing of value has been done in prog since then. But there’s a point where it became a “genre,” with tropes of its own to be imitated, rather than a dispersed music that takes cues from elsewhere. And that point was around the beginning of IQ’s career. Still, I really enjoyed The Seventh House. I remember hearing “The Wrong Side of Weird” on ProgArchives years ago, and loving it, and it totally holds up. Prog may have been a moment, but neo-prog of IQ’s vintage was too. Bands like IQ and Marillion come very much from the same context as new wave, and it’s fun to hear a take on prog that shares that characteristic directness with the Smiths or Joy Division. Yes, I know The Seventh House was made in 2000, but it’s quantifiably different from the nostalgic symphonic prog that younger bands were making at that time. Given the choice between IQ and a band like the Tangent, whose music is far more similar to classic 70s prog, I’ll take this.
Big Big Train: Folklore — Speaking of. Big Big Train is very much on the Tangent side of that line. I won’t say there weren’t parts of Folklore that I liked. I’ll probably listen to parts of it again. (I know there are prog fans out there who’ll tell you that you can’t get a handle on a prog album on the first listen, and I think that’s true for the really good stuff. Certainly, I’m still finding new angles in Relayer hundreds of listens in. But this is not Relayer.) It’s got some great playing, nice orchestrations that aren’t overbearing, good singing, the whole bit. But part of the reason that I like prog better than lots of other kinds of music is that I want to form relationships with the musical personalities involved in the records I listen to. I don’t love Steve Howe for his technical facility; I love him because his playing is weird and singular. I love how he can evoke Wes Montgomery and Carl Perkins within the same phrase, and how he uses the lap steel for symphonic effects with no reference to the country music it’s normally found in. I couldn’t give you that kind of description of any of the instrumentalists in Big Big Train. It mostly feels like prog by numbers to me.
Let’s Eat Grandma: I, Gemini — Holy shit. This is so weird. So, so weird. It’s also one of the best albums I’ve heard this year. If you’d told me last year that the best psychedelic record in years would be made by a pair of teenagers… well, I’d likely have believed you because I’m credulous. But I would have been mighty taken aback. There are parts of this that remind me of early Pink Floyd, other parts that bring Captain Beefheart to mind, a bit of Tom Waitsy sinister calliope music. But for the most part, there are very few reference points that make any sense for this music. It is very much it’s own thing, and the fact that the people who made it are so young is astonishing. Odd that two of my favourite albums of 2016, this and the John Congleton record, should be explicitly tied to horror. Just having that kind of year, I guess. But while Congleton’s horror is thought through and intellectual, Let’s Eat Grandma traffics in a more liminal sort of horror — you can almost tell what it’s about, but the fact that you can’t quite makes it more distressing. This album meanders, and winds and strolls along. It makes no compromises to anything as glum as “focus.” I love it. I can’t even adequately describe it because I can’t really process it fully. Anyway. Pick of the week.
Justice: Cross — It’s loud and lo-fi, but it’s pretty rock and roll. And I like my dance music to be at least a little bit rock and roll. “DVNO” is irresistible; Uffie is insufferable. I suspect I may prefer their less acclaimed second album, but I enjoyed this. We shall see.
The Beatles: Abbey Road — When it comes down to it, I’m a White Album man. But I think Abbey Road is probably objectively the strongest Beatles album. Also, it is possible that I am the only Beatles fan who thinks that “Octopus’s Garden” is the best track on side one. The combination of that childlike vulnerability and that staggeringly good guitar solo gets me every time.
And Then There Were None: episodes 2 & 3 — I wish I’d seen trailers for this, if only to know if they contained Miranda Richardson saying “Trust in God. But perhaps also we should lock our doors.” This is fabulous in a Lord-of-the-Flies-for-grownass-Brits sort of way. Even small details like watching these characters go from eating elaborately prepared lobster hors d’oeuvre to eating tinned meat are somehow satisfying. I had absolutely no idea how this was going to turn out, but there’s a lovely poetry to it. This will end up being one of those bits of television that not a lot of people in this part of the world actually watch, but that is regarded as a treasure by those who do. I don’t know how faithful it is to Agatha Christie’s original, but if it does follow the story at least approximately, I 100% understand why she’s so revered. This is beautiful narrative clockwork. Also, I wasn’t hugely convinced of Burn Gorman’s performance in Torchwood, but I sure love him here. At some point, he emerges as a real standout among the cast. Which is a real trick in this cast. Watch this. It is astonishing in every single scene.
Full Frontal with Samantha Bee: June 13, 2016 — I’ve been meaning to watch Samantha Bee’s show since the beginning, but I only just got around to it. I always liked her on The Daily Show because in the face of insane injustices, you could count on her to be a vessel for righteous anger. John Oliver will never be that. And after the senseless, ludicrous tragedy in Orlando, that is exactly the comedic sensibility that is required. Bee’s merciless attack on Florida’s asshat governor Rick Scott is the most meaningful thing in comedy this week, and I urge everybody to watch it by whatever means necessary.
Last Week Tonight: June 12, 2016 — Oliver may not be capable of the level of sheer rage necessary to properly address the shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, but he is capable of generating pathos, and he did so reasonably well in his opening segment. Still, he loses the week in comedy, because Sam Bee was willing to tackle it head-on (albeit with an extra day to prepare). Which is not to say this isn’t a great episode of Last Week Tonight. They all are. But a show like this has to tap into the national mood, and that mood was basically just being sad and angry about a horrible tragedy. And they kind of missed. To be fair, they owned up to that fact. But it still feels weird.
Game of Thrones: “No One” — Plenty of needless brutality in this one, and not just one but two military strategies that don’t make a lick of sense. Other than that, it’s perfectly fine. I’d put it at about average for the season, which is shaping up to be quite good.
John Herrman: The Content Wars — In Herrman’s post of predictions for 2015, he wrote that “in 2015, notable (choose your definition) publications will declare their intentions to go fully distributed — or some other term that means the same thing — effectively abandoning their websites and becoming content channels within Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest or Vine or Instagram.” Mercifully, that hasn’t happened as of 2016. But it still feels like something that could be in the future and, mark me, it will be the end. On the other hand, there’s also this quite canny prediction: “GamerGate will return under different names in multiple venues. Its agents will not be GamerGaters or even necessarily know what GamerGate is, but they will behave almost indistinguishably.” Hello from the recent past, Hugo fascists! Also, this entire blog features an incredibly amusing selection of robot gifs that become weirdly threatening in context. Also: “There will be a backlash not against podcasts but against the podcasting voice, which is really an extension of Ira Glass voice [30 seconds of post-rock] which is a mutation of NPR voice.” I love Ira and a lot of the other people Herrman’s probably talking about (Alex Blumberg), but that backlash would actually be really nice to see. A bit more idiosyncrasy in public radio-mode podcasting would be great. I nominate P.J. Vogt and Benjamen Walker as potential ways into a new approach. Here is another quote that I like, from a different post: “A new generation of artists and creative people ceding the still-fresh dream of direct compensation and independence to mediated advertising arrangements with accidentally enormous middlemen apps that have no special interest in publishing beyond value extraction through advertising is the early internet utopian’s worst-case scenario.” And yet, it has come to pass. When I get to the end of this blog, I’ll do something more than just copy quotes. But again, if you happen to be an editor of a substantial web content enterprise who is reading my blog for some reason, go read Herrman’s instead.
Matt Fraction/Gabriel Bá: Casanova, Volume 3 “Avaritia” — I feel like I could have used a refresher before I started reading this third volume. But I totally enjoyed it, insofar as I had a clue what was happening. Gabriel Bá’s art is absolutely astounding. Every so often in this book, somebody experiences a time paradox and starts… fluctuating? I don’t even know how to describe it. God knows how Fraction expresses it in his scripts. But the way that Bá devises to illustrate it, a sort of psychedelic cubist freakout where giant lips and eyes protrude from a haze that envelops the character, is genius. Casanova is great fun. And the final chapter of this volume has a fantastic payoff to a story arc that’s been going since the beginning. I’ve got the next volume sitting right here, still in the shrinkwrap. I was going to read more Ligotti before I get going on that, but I hear volume four is sort of a soft reboot of the story and that sounds like something I could really enjoy right now, so…
Matt Fraction, Michael Chabon, Fábio Moon & Gabriel Bá: Casanova: Acedia Volume 1 — This is very much the new Matt Fraction we know from Sex Criminals going back to his old property. Acedia is far and away the most straightforward arc of Casanova, and I would highly recommend it as a starting point for anybody wanting to get into this — certainly moreso than Luxuria, which is both the least satisfying and most confusing arc. It’s called “volume 1” rather than “volume 4” for a reason. The key difference between this and previous arcs is that the story in Acedia takes place entirely in one timeline, which simplifies things immensely. It’s nice to see that this is something that’s possible with Casanova, but I can’t help but miss the craziness of realities converging, like it was in Avaritia. Also, Michael Chabon’s backup stories to each issue are quite perfunctory, and one feels that they were only included in this trade collection for the potential sales value of having his name on the cover. Backup stories don’t belong in trades. I’m with Kieron Gillen on that. Still, this is a good story, and a compelling new direction for the comic. I’m looking forward to the continuation of this arc.
The Heart: “Salt in the Wound” — A quiet denouement to the “Silent Evidence” season. It’s just Tennesee Williams talking over the events of the series with Kaitlin Prest — a format we don’t normally hear in The Heart. It serves its purpose, which is just to unpack the last three episodes, but it also reveals new information about yet another traumatic experience Williams suffered while she was making the story. It’s appalling, as many elements of this series have been. But it never loses that ray of hope, either. Again, I can’t recommend this series highly enough.
Reply All: “On the Inside, Part IV” — I’ve been effusively positive about this series for its entire run thus far but I have to say, while I was listening to this part, I couldn’t help but think… why this story? When Sarah Koenig decided to relitigate Adnan Syed’s case on Serial, that was because there were innumerable serious problems with his trial and and a relatively convincing counternarrative to be unearthed. I don’t know that the same thing applies here. Where in Serial, you heard Koenig become more and more doubtful of Syed’s guilt (if not exactly convinced of his innocence), in this series Sruthi Pinnamaneni seems to become more and more convinced that Paul Modrowski did in fact murder somebody, and thus that justice was carried out properly. So… what’s the story? The farther we’ve gotten from the standard Reply All internet story of an inmate who writes a blog, the more I’ve been forced to wonder what the point even is. I’m looking forward to a new story next week.
StartUp: “Happy Ending” — Winning the Gimlet sweepstakes for the first time in months, StartUp introduces us to a drug dealer every bit as enterprising as the fictional ones in The Wire. This fellow, who is now running a company that means to hire ex-cons as personal trainers, is charisma personified. The story doesn’t brush away the fact that he was involved in an illegal trade that materially hurts a lot of people, but it also doesn’t paint him as a villain. This is far and away the best story of this season, provided next week’s conclusion doesn’t let me down.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and Making Music Funny” — I will likely not see Popstar. But I think it’s about time I watched Spinal Tap.
On the Media: “Sad!” — Bob Garfield’s essay from a few weeks ago on how the press tacitly legitimizes Trump was a masterpiece of media criticism, but I’m not sure I totally agree with him that the press needs to become actively partisan where Trump is concerned. On the other hand, I’m not totally convinced by Paul Waldman’s claim that traditional, old-fashioned shoe leather reporting and fact checking is the best way of dealing with Trump. Trump, as we know, exists outside the concept of truth. But here’s the thing: I don’t think it’s necessarily partisan for a journalist to behave in the way that Garfield suggests they should: by calling Trump out for racism and misogyny. We do possess reasonably stable definitions of those two behaviours, and I believe that people in general think that they are Bad Things (even as many of them fail to acknowledge those behaviours in themselves). So, it ought to be possible to make a factual statement that “Donald Trump is racist,” and to hold him accountable for that. Partisanship need not enter into the conversation. That small semantic quibble aside, Bob Garfield continues to be the public personality with whom I find the most common ground on Trump. Gone are the days when I thought him to be merely an equal horror to Ted Cruz’s theocratic raving. This hour of radio (edited by Brooke Gladstone, but featuring Garfield as the sole host — a canny decision in this instance) demonstrates why.
Code Switch: “Re-Remembering Muhammad Ali” — This is a discussion of what was missing in the coverage of Ali’s death. In being that, it is also an excellent remembrance of Ali.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: 2016 Tony Awards” — God, I wish I’d watched the Tonys. Glen Weldon’s right that we may well see a Hamilton backlash soon, but when it happens it’ll be empty hipsterism, because there’s nothing in the text to justify a backlash. Hamilton remains the most unimpeachable work of art since Abbey Road.
More Perfect: “The Political Thicket” — I am loving this. I dare say it’s my favourite political journalism anybody’s doing right now — insofar as On The Media is a media show rather than a politics show. This second episode is better than the first one. It tells this incredible story of how the Supreme Court completely changed because of one decision, which Jad Abumrad illustrates brilliantly with archival tape. Seriously, it contains his best sound design moment in years, probably. This 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 it tells a story that happened decades ago. Magnificent. Pick of the week.
All Songs Considered: “A Conversation With Paul McCartney” — This is fun, but it also illustrates a problem that I have with arts journalism in general, which is that the people who do it lose track of their opinions when an actual artist is present. I’ve toyed with the idea in the past that we should just stop interviewing artists altogether. Anybody who wants to get into arts writing probably knows enough about it to write compellingly without having to ask an artist what their work means. Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton just take for granted that the listener to this won’t think twice when they imply that McCartney’s career has been wholly worthwhile for six decades. But everybody would think twice when faced with that. Why are interviewers forced to ignore orthodoxies like “Paul McCartney’s solo work is patchy” when they ask their questions?
99% Invisible: “The Blazer Experiment” — This is a great example of how a design angle can be used to tell a really huge story. This is basically the story of the British and American police forces and their respective relationships to the citizens they police. That story naturally includes a lot of branding. It’s not the most direct, incisive journalism about the police that we’ve seen in the past couple of years, but it adds context to the current controversies over policing.
All Songs Considered: “The Tallest Man On Earth, Lisa Hannigan, LP, More” — Nothing leapt out, musically and Bob and Robin are spouting platitudes this week. Oh, well. Sometimes you miss. On the other hand, I’d have never heard Let’s Eat Grandma’s album from this week without this podcast to point me there.
Code Switch: “How LGBTQ People of Color Are Dealing With Orlando” — Well, they had to address it somehow. And it happens that these producers/hosts are tapped into the best American writers about race, so they have plenty of people to call up. More than anything, this emphasizes the extent to which Code Switch is a welcome addition to the NPR podcast offering. They’ve had to deal with both this and Ali, right at the start of their podcast’s run. I do hope that they can double back to doing episodes that aren’t so explicitly news-hooked, but it’s great to see right at the beginning that they’re capable of responding thoughtfully to current events. (I mean, of course they are; they’re NPR journalists. But the show is still demonstrating what it can do, and impressively so.)
Reply All: “Vampire Rules” — Exactly what we all needed after “On the Inside.” A Super Tech Support about a suspicious Tinder photo, followed by a Yes, Yes, No about Hillary Clinton. I love Reply All. I love it as much for this dumb stuff as I do for Sruthi Pinnamaneni’s awesome investigative stuff.
Imaginary Worlds: “The Year Without a Summer” — I’ve heard the story of how Mary Shelley got the idea for Frankenstein over and over, but I hadn’t realized how the climate (literally) of that time links Frankenstein’s ideas to our current early-stage eco-apocalypse. Interesting.
More Perfect: “Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl” — I had heard this story before on Radiolab, and I think it’s one of their better political stories. It sits at that uncomfortable crossroads between a law that’s been really effective on the macro level, and one personal injustice that threatens to overturn the whole thing. I still think that the work this team has been doing on new episodes of More Perfect is better. There’s nothing like processing contemporary issues through the lens of history.
Every week, I tag my Omnireviewer posts with the relevant categories: movies, TV, comedy, books, comics, classical music, popular music, video games and podcasts. This week marks a new milestone: the first time I’ve got all the categories in one post.
*party favour noise*
Here are this week’s 28 reviews.
Captain America: Civil War — I LOVED this movie. But before I praise it to the high heavens, I need to puke up the obligatory caveat that cinematic universes are a bad idea and I want there to be small, self-contained movies again. The trailer for Rogue One at the start of this actually cast a shadow over the opening scenes of the movie. The idea that there are just going to be a million Star Wars movies now appalls me. Back when there were just two trilogies, the batting average may have been low, but at least there wasn’t a saturation problem. That seems inevitable now. On the other hand, Civil War gets maximum mileage out of the advantages that a sprawling canon affords. Every major MCU character save for Thor, Bruce Banner and Nick Fury are here, along with the bulk of their supporting cast. And when they all fight (spoiler: they all fight), their previously established relationships inform the way that fight plays out. The character dynamics in this remind me of two very different movies, both of which are far better than this one, but the fact that I’m even thinking about them speaks highly of Civil War. One of those movies is Mad Max: Fury Road. I wrote about the fight scene between Max and Furiosa in my year-end wrap up for 2015. The huge fight scene that serves as Civil War’s central set piece is far less focussed and less high-concept, but it is similar in the sense that the characters are not just trying to mow each other down and emerge victorious. There are more complicated dynamics at play for everybody here, from Black Widow and Hawkeye not wanting to hit each other too hard to Spider-Man being an obvious newbie and eager to impress. And, just a side note before I continue this line of thought: it looks like the third time’s going to be the charm where Spider-Man movies are concerned. The Tobey Maguire ones have aged very badly and the Andrew Garfield iteration was DOA. But this Tom Holland kid (says the guy who’s five years older than him, but spiritually, forty) has got the goods. If the writing for Peter Parker in the next Spider-Man movie is as sharp as it is here, we’re saved. This is the wisecracking, verbose, overenthusiastic character that I remember from the cartoons of my youth. I am similarly excited for Black Panther, though I don’t actually know the character. Anyway. The other movie that came to mind while I was watching this was, stay with me here, The Rules of the Game. Like I said a couple weeks ago, that’s a movie where everybody does what they think is right, and there are terrible consequences anyway. There’s no bad guy. There is a bad guy in Civil War, obviously. This is a Marvel movie; not a French drama from 1939. But, the villain here is essentially a MacGuffin. He even almost conceives of himself as a MacGuffin: he’s just trying to start a process that he himself will not have much to do with. This is the closest thing I’ve seen to a juggernaut franchise blockbuster that doesn’t have time for the idea of evil. Even Mr. MacGuffin doesn’t turn out to be evil, necessarily, though it takes a certain amount of ruthlessness to respond to his circumstances the way that he does. The point is: 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. That is almost unprecedented in this kind of movie. But, this movie is trying to be a subtly different kind of franchise movie in a few different ways. Let’s return to Mr. MacGuffin for a moment. The big reveal about his character near the end of the movie is the exact opposite of the trick that Star Trek: Into Darkness played with Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, where they reveal some time into the movie that he’s actually been a huge iconic villain from the canon all along. Mr. MacGuffin’s big reveal is that he’s nobody. At this point, that’s more legitimately surprising in the MCU than, say, revealing that he’s the Green Goblin. It’s a willful subversion of a trope that has been established — largely by Marvel — only in the age of cinematic universes. Also, the fact that he’s a previously inconsequential victim of the carnage in Age of Ultron is an apt response to the appalling body count of many of these types of movies. The character Vision is one of the least interesting in the movie, but he has one interesting thing to say. He suggests that the presence of superheroes in the world leads to the inevitable presence of super-threats. What he’s really saying is that the Avengers need to be careful how they act, because their very existence proves that they’re in the kind of story where cities get levelled by monologuing AIs. Tony Stark is ready to not be in that story anymore. So, he tries to turn the story into a political drama. Stark has little to lose, narratively speaking. He can function just fine as a quippy guy in a boardroom. Cap’s not having it, though, because he can only function as a superhero. The fact that all of these themes are demonstrably present in this movie without it ever descending into explicit metafiction (not a given from a pair of directors who worked on Community) marks it as something special. The fact that I’ve written this much about a Marvel movie without saying anything outright negative marks it as something approaching a miracle. Pick of the week.
Last Week Tonight: June 5, 2016 — I never have anything substantial to say about this show, because I feel like it leaves everything pretty much said for itself. This was a fantastic episode that completely transcends its headline-grabbing gimmick of forgiving $15 million dollars of real-world debt. I was thinking as I watched this, I think part of why it’s so good isn’t necessarily because it’s funny from top to bottom. Take note of where the audience laughs versus where they applaud. Part of why this feels so good is that it’s skilful rhetoric. That word has taken on a bit of a ghostly pall these days, and deservedly so. Rhetoric is used by politicians to peddle talking points, and in that service it need not necessarily be reasoned. But John Oliver has a standup comedian’s ability to take you gradually from point A to point B to point C, until you reach clarity. I can’t name a moment where I’ve actually disagreed with John Oliver, and while that might be partially because we are approximately the same species of liberal, I think part of it is simply because of the power of his argumentation. That’s not scary in this instance; it’s laudable. I lump him in as much with people like Bob Garfield and Brooke Gladstone as with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. I haven’t given this show pick of the week very often, and I’m not going to this week either. But as a sustained thing that I check in with each week, it’s absolutely one of my favourite things being made right now.
Archer: “Deadly Velvet, Part 2” — Well, shit. Now I’m definitely watching the next season. This was really funny, and brought the story full-circle in a way that made some jokes pay off after an entire season of waiting. Archer is still capable of intense cleverness, even if it is starting to feel a bit thin in places.
Game of Thrones: “The Broken Man” — Ian McShane! The Hound! Jon and Sansa are building an army! Arya got stabbed! Oh, so much for Ian McShane.
Lost: “Confidence Man” — There are so many characters that don’t work in this first season. Sayid is almost one of them, just due to Naveen Andrews’s atrocious fake accent. But mostly I’m talking about Sawyer because he is noxious. And frankly, even a sympathetic origin story and the considerable writing talents of Damon Lindelof himself cannot paper over that.
And Then There Were None: Episode 1 — If I’m not mistaken, not only have I never read anything by Agatha Christie, but I also have never seen an adaptation of her work. The closest I’ve come is that silly Doctor Who story where she gets attacked by a giant bee. This unfamiliarity makes it interesting to watch a series that perceives itself to be telling a familiar story. And Then There Were None, elegantly retitled from Christie’s original very racist title, introduces its characters with great ceremony, as if they’re all James Bond or Sherlock Holmes. Presumably, they are better known to the average BBC viewer than they are to me — Christie is a nearly unparalleled British cultural touchstone, of course, and I am a mere hayseed from the colonies. But once you get over the feeling that you’re being presented with the phenomenon of Agatha Christie: familiar thing, the story rockets along in this miniseries premiere. The acting is the most obviously phenomenal thing, and the show gets a lot of mileage out of just letting Miranda Richardson be charismatically horrible, Burn Gorman be charismatically skittish, and the rest of them be charismatic variants on other unsavoury traits. But it’s also wonderfully written, shot, paced, etc., and the sets are fantastic. I’m loving this so far, but I’ll leave it there for now because I suspect things are going to go bonkers in the next instalment.
Mitch Hedberg: Comedy Central Presents Mitch Hedberg — This is amazing. It’s like a battle between a man, his sense of self, and an audience that he wrongly perceives as hostile. Actually, listening to the audience only sort of get the jokes is half the fun. There are so many quotable one-liners packed into these 37 minutes, that it’s hard to fathom how long it must have taken him to put together all that material. His whole career, I assume. This is messy and weird and probably still one of the best specials I’ve seen.
Thomas Ligotti: “The Red Tower” — This seemed to me to be the most hyped story in Teatro Grottesco, and I certainly understand why. It is exceedingly unorthodox not just in its subject matter, which is a given for Ligotti, but in its approach. Aside from the narrator, about whom the reader never learns any details, there are no characters in this story. It is simply a description of how an incredibly unsettling supernatural factory operates. It left my skin crawling, because I’m certain that it’s a metaphor for something but I’m not sure what. The operation described in this story has the shape of a vaguely familiar thing, but twisted into a grotesque parody. That feeling of not quite being able to put your finger on the reason you’re upset is, I’m learning, a hallmark of Ligotti’s writing. I’m not sure this is my favourite story in Teatro Grottesco so far — I’m still quite fond of “The Town Manager” — but I suspect it’s objectively the best one.
Alex Clifton: One Week // One Band, Punch Brothers — Having grazed through bits and pieces of this group blog’s back catalogue, I’ve found that there are some weeks that feature solid critical theory worth revisiting long after the fact, and others that take a more companionable approach something like a really smart radio host. This is the first week that I’ve followed as it goes along, and Clifton tends towards the second approach — but boy does it work better when delivered in real time. Every so often, you’ll get another dose, and by the end of the week, you feel like you’ve got a handle on the band. The Punch Brothers are a band I’ve meant to get into for ages, having seen a bunch of Chris Thile related stuff on YouTube. Now I’ve got a bunch of context and I’ve seen a bunch of live stuff that I might not have if I’d just dove in with an album from the start. I think this is what Tumblr is for. This made me not hate social media for a while, which is a real trick in a week where I also read…
John Herrman: The Content Wars — I dunno about you, but I’m feeling more and more like Facebook is leading us all to the brink of an intellectual apocalypse. And I’m starting to feel the backlash coming on. The first inkling of it that I observed outside of my own head was Vox co-founder Joshua Topolsky’s post on Medium a few weeks back. Then, I heard my favourite fellow tech sceptic Benjamen Walker bring it up on Theory of Everything. And that episode led me to John Herrman’s column The Content Wars that ran on the Awl throughout 2014-15. Being me, I decided to read every column, straight from the top. I’ve got a ways to go yet, but so far it is excellent and frightening. The upshot is that social platforms, Facebook in particular, are interested in promoting content (Herrman always stylises it as CONTENT) that makes people use those platforms more. Whether anybody clicks on or engages with a publisher’s CONTENT is essentially irrelevant. Thus (and Herrman doesn’t argue this didactically though he clearly feels it very acutely), publishers who produce content in the hopes of taking advantage of Facebook’s algorithm are not only cheapening their respective brands. They are also helping Facebook cement its monopoly on the sharing of information. Which, in turn will force more publishers to cater to Facebook’s algorithm, and we’re suddenly in a big dumb feedback loop of fail videos, listicles and inane hot takes. Some of Herrman’s posts are newsy and of their time, but the best ones are the most abstracted, and they’re still very relevant a year later. It ought to be required reading for anybody working in any media company because the impact of social media on editorial CONTENT is bad and it is real and it will either end soon and take us all with it or it will lead to the utter nadir of human thought. Unless we stop it. Read this series to know what I’m talking about.
Matt Fraction/Gabriel Bá: Casanova, Volume 3 “Avaritia” — Man, this comic is really hard to follow. I can’t imagine what it’s like to actually follow on an issue-by-issue basis. I can barely keep track of everything when I’m reading the trade collections. But the penny does usually drop at some point, and that moment was pretty awesome in the second volume, so I will hold out hope. Also, Fraction is the only writer who composes an SF story this intricate and still fills it with recurring sight gags.
John Storgårds, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Gerald Finley, Mika Pohjonen et. al: Works by Rautavaara — Einojuhani Rautavaara is one of the best living composers, and probably one of the most revered by people who are inclined to revere people like him. But his name hasn’t quite punctured through into the mainstream classical consciousness in the way that, say, Steve Reich or Arvo Pärt have. I wish it would. Rautavaara’s music sits exactly on that perfect line between Romantic familiarity and postmodernist novelty. Storgårds and his Finnish orchestra are no strangers to this music, and perform it wonderfully. Gerald Finley’s performance on the first work on the disc is typical of his dramatic, unforced approach to concert material and reminded me why he’s one of my favourite baritones — not only can he really, really sing, but he’s also a great champion of new work. (This song cycle was commissioned for Finley specifically by Wigmore Hall.) Tenor Mika Pohjonen is new to me, and honestly not my kind of singer. He’s got that paint thinner vibrato; you know the kind. But he’s tolerable in the fairly small tenor part of the cantata Balada. And the Helsinki Music Centre Choir gets their time in the sun during Four Songs from the Opera Rasputin, an opera which I am now determined to see. Anybody looking for a way into Rautavaara’s music should check this out. (Then high-tail ‘er straight for the Latvian Radio Choir’s amazing recording of his sacred music. That’s also incredible.)
Punch Brothers: Who’s Feeling Young Now? — Alex Clifton’s recommended starting point did not disappoint. The music on this album seems generally more straightforward than some of the stuff on their first two, though that doesn’t stop Chris Thile from pulling out an inscrutable polyrhythm on “Movement and Location.” There are no bad songs on this, and it’s so much more than the novelty you might expect from a bluegrass group fronted by a mandolin virtuoso that does Radiohead covers.
Super Meat Boy — I confess, I played this for a few minutes this week just so that I could finally sweep all of my Omnireviewer categories. But since I’m here, I may as well talk about how this sort of game is the kind of thing that I can appreciate, but never really enjoy. I bought it out of curiosity after watching Indie Game: The Movie, and the beauty of the mechanics was obvious from the start. Still, it is much too “video game” for me, in general. I like my games to be books. This is very much not a book. I will say, though: I beat a few levels I’d been struggling with, and man did it feel good. Mark this down as a potential danger to my health.
More Perfect: “Cruel and Unusual” — This story of the way that lethal injections enter the United States, the first in a miniseries from Radiolab about the SCOTUS, is the best Radiolab-related story I’ve heard in some time. And that’s coming from a staunch Robert Krulwich devotee, and he’s not in this. It contains the most amusing bit of tape I’ve heard in awhile, where a dogged but pathologically good-natured British reporter presses a cartoon villain of a pharma reseller with questions he absolutely does not want to answer. It’s glorious. The whole thing is. Jad’s theme song is the dumbest thing I’ve heard in my damn life, though. Pick of the week.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “X-Men: Apocalypse and Supervillains” — On one hand, I’m not sure why they decided to do this, since none of them seemed to have strong feelings about the movie one way or another, but having Chris Klimek and Daoud Tyler-Ameen in lieu of Glen Weldon’s usual brand of comic book geekdom is refreshing in a topic like this. And I admire Linda Holmes’s tenacity in constantly referring to Apocalypse as “Oscar Isaac Blue God Man.”
On The Media: “When to Believe” — Worth it for the story of a New York Times reporter who changed the way the media covered AIDS. It’s hugely moving, in a way you don’t normally expect from this show.
The Heart: “Hands on the Wheel” — I can’t make it pick of the week every week, but I’m tempted to. The Heart has already found its way into my top podcasts of the year, on account of this series alone. Which is not to say that The Heart isn’t always good — it is. But this series is gut-wrenching and well-made and if you’re not listening to it right now you’re doing podcasts wrong. Or, you don’t want to hear a long, detailed story about a woman grappling with her childhood sexual abuse, which is totally fair. But if you’re open to hearing that kind of story, get on this.
The Bugle: “VIB – Very Important Bugle” — I saw that title and thought, oh, John Oliver must be leaving The Bugle. And I was right. The Bugle is great, but I’ve only been listening for a short time, and even then only occasionally. I can’t help but feel that its best days were prior to my having found it. Maybe the upcoming soft reboot, with a rotating panel of second chairs (Wyatt Cenac! Helen Zaltzman!) will reinvigorate it into a show I feel compelled to listen to when the title isn’t “Very Important Bugle.”
The Memory Palace: “Family Snapshot” — A lovely, slight little thing, but when it comes to moon landing-related episodes of The Memory Palace, there’s only one for me. You know how it is.
All Songs Considered: “Sean Lennon’s Surreal Ode to Michael Jackson’s Pet Chimp, Bubbles” — This is an odd, odd song. I feel somewhat tempted to check out the album, just on account of how odd this song is. Sean Lennon is a strange bird, but can you blame him?
Radiolab: “The Buried Bodies Case” — This is quite basic in its approach, but it’s a super compelling story. It starts with an account of a manhunt that’s totally absorbing, and then it moves into a discussion of the criminal defence lawyers in the case, and the unusual position they found themselves in where they had to disobey their consciences to be good lawyers. Really interesting.
Theory of Everything: “Not Soon Enough” — I had to go back and listen to this whole episode after Roman Mars played the opening on 99pi and Nate DiMeo cited it as his favourite on The Memory Palace. The middle portion didn’t make a lot of sense, I’ll admit, probably because I hadn’t heard the episode where this character (a real person, maybe?) was introduced. See below. But the beginning and end, featuring a pair of monologues from Benjamen Walker about trying to jump into a painting, are glorious. This is that magical thing: a combination of fiction and nonfiction with a bit of art criticism thrown in for good measure. This show is unlike anything else and I love it so much that I’m going to listen to two more episodes now.
Theory of Everything: “Admissions of Defeat” — I listened to this in the hopes that the middle section of “Not Soon Enough” would make more sense. It does, but I’m still not sure how much of it isn’t real. It shouldn’t matter, but today it did for some reason. The rest of this episode is amazing, though. Walker attends (well, no he doesn’t; he just says he does) a post-gentrification, tech bubble psychic, and a correspondent explains an NSA plot to put backdoors in podcasts. This is the only show tied to a major podcast ring that’s got the guts to go this far out. I love it so much.
Theory of Everything: “sudculture (part I of II)” — Okay, this is a bit earnest. I love craft beer, and I am all for any anti-corporate attitude that results in a more flavourful brew. Actually, I am pretty much for any anti-corporate attitude. But this is the first time that Walker’s statement-making felt like rote hipsterism to me. I suspect that the second part, which he’s suggested has something to do with craft beer opposing one corporate monoculture only to impose another, will be more interesting.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: The Black Film Canon” — A useful summary of a Slate piece I’ll likely skim fairly soon.
99% Invisible: “H-Day” — There’s a feeling you sometimes get as a radio producer where you find a piece of tape that is so absurd, so wonderful, and so unexpected that you know it will make everything around it more memorable just by proximity. This episode has a song, funded by the government of Sweden, intended to remind people to drive on the right side of the road. The key lyric, approximately translated: “Keep to the right, Svensson.” That song is going to make this a 99pi I will remember. But it’s also just pretty fantastic in general. Other revelations include the fact that the Swedish government instituted a sweeping infrastructure change in spite of a referendum that showed over 80% of the population opposed it, and that there’s a phone number you can call to be connected to a random Swede.
Code Switch: “Made for You and Me” — This podcast is proving to be a massive reintroduction to the extent of my own whiteness. This is an entire episode about the stereotype that people of colour don’t do outdoorsy things. I didn’t even know that stereotype was a thing.