Tag Archives: QI

Omnireviewer (week of Dec. 27)

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

Television

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Literature, etc.

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

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

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

Movies

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

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

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

Games

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

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

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

Omnireviewer (week of Dec. 20)

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

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

Television

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

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

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

Music

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

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

Literature, etc.

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

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

Games

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

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

Movies

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

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

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omnireviewer (week of Dec. 13)

It’s been the kind of week where I spend a lot of time with a small amount of things — most of which I’ve reviewed already in recent weeks. (Yeah, I’ve still got Hamilton on repeat.) So, only 16 reviews this time, and only one pick of the week since they’re mostly podcasts.

Television

Deadwood: Season 1, episodes 4-8 — Well, now I’m hooked, aren’t I? There’s been so much to love in these five episodes. The end of episode four is a hell of a bait-and-switch for those like me, who know absolutely nothing about the actual history of the real town of Deadwood, from which that twist is 100% taken. Al Swearengen continues to steal scenes, but the rest of the characters in the town are getting fleshed out nicely, from Seth Bullock and Alma Garrett, to E.B. Farnum and right on down to Reverend Nickelback. Still though, even most of the way through the first season, I feel like the show is still clearing its throat before it really says what it means.

QI: “Miscellany” — Noel Fielding is still alive!

Games

Undertale: Once again, I’m underwhelmed by a critically acclaimed indie game from 2015. I haven’t gotten very far, so perhaps that’s a premature judgement. But the default tone for this is self-aware bad jokes, which I find very trying. I get that it’s a genre pastiche, but can’t a game have something to say about a subject other that “what games are like?” I could see this growing on me as it progresses. But then, I said that about Stasis, too.

Podcasts

Theory of Everything: “New York After Rent (post prop f director’s cut)” — This is a one-part compilation/update of a three-part series that I’ve already heard, but I honestly relished a second listen. If you want to jump on board with ToE, this is the way. It demonstrates everything that Benjamen Walker is great at: clever turns of phrase, a Jonathan Goldstein-esque ability to weave together fact and (probable) fiction, and backing up giant intellectual pronouncements with great storytelling. In this case, the giant intellectual pronouncement is that Airbnb has resulted in the total commodification of New York City — not just its housing, but its art and the very thoughts of its citizens as well. It’s one of the most ambitious pieces of radio I’ve heard this year, and one of the funniest. Pick of the week.  

Criminal: “It Looked Like Fire” — This is one of those “two people with intertwined destinies” kinds of stories. The two people are a protester in Ferguson and a newspaper photographer, neither of whom could have quite grasped the future effects of their actions. Fascinating, and elegantly told.

This American Life: “Status Update” — A guy who knows Ta-nehisi Coates gets jealous, debt collectors keep suing entire neighborhoods, and Ira Glass tries to understand teenage girls. Sometimes you can just summarize something and that sells it.

Planet Money: “Frank Sinatra’s Mug” — Sometimes in radio, it really sounds like people are reading a script. I’m fine with that — except when they try and make it seem like candid conversation. Planet Money is worse for that than any other popular podcast. This is a fun story, though.

The Heart: “Idiot+Dummy” — A simple, well-told, bittersweet little love story that’s not sentimental or cloying. The Heart does radio drama better than The Truth, here.

Imaginary Worlds: “Han Shot Solo” — Maybe it’s just because I’ve already seen The People vs. George Lucas, but this seems like the least interesting episode of Molinsky’s Star Wars series. But if you’re not familiar with the slogan “Han shot first,” and the nerd debate nerdraging nerdily around it, definitely listen to this.

99% Invisible: “Tube Benders” — Neon! How has 99pi not done an episode about neon already? This is one of the “fine” episodes of 99pi.

Serial: “The Golden Chicken” — Okay, now my head’s starting to hurt. So many details! I’m not complaining. Still, if I have one gripe about this season of Serial so far, it’s that there seems to be less tape than I remember in the first. There’s an awful lot of Sarah Koenig explaining things. Maybe that’ll change as we get further into the thick of things?

The Memory Palace: “Gallery 742” — My idea to listen to the whole back catalogue before the next new episode went precisely nowhere, but I’ll get through them one of these days. At the beginning of this episode, DiMeo tells you to consider not listening to it. Apparently, it was made to accompany a walk through a new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and he claims it only kind of makes sense without that context. Don’t listen to him. In fact, I’m fairly certain that the richness of his storytelling would only cause the actual exhibit to disappoint me if I saw it. I’ll stop before my fawning embarrases me further.

All Songs Considered: “Poll Results: Listeners Pick Their Favourite Albums of 2015” — Inevitably, the episode featuring the critics’ picks was more interesting that the one with the listeners’ picks. But there’s still a heck of a lot of variety here, and it’s good listening. I really need to sit down with that Sufjan Stevens record. I’ve heard “Blue Bucket of Gold” on this podcast a couple of times now, and god what a gorgeous track.

Song Exploder: “Björk – Stonemilker” — As episodes of Song Exploder go, this one doesn’t offer a huge amount of insight into the track. But you get to listen to an isolated Björk vocal from one of her best songs, so that makes this essential.

All Songs Considered: “David Bowie Fulfils His Jazz Dream” — A preview of the upcoming Bowie album, guided by the bandleader, Donny McCaslin, and the Most Legendary Producer In All The Land: Tony Visconti. How can you go wrong? Bob Boilen isn’t the greatest interviewer, but he doesn’t really have to be. And the new music sounds fantastic.

Reply All: “Past, Present, Future” — This is a bunch of updates on what happened after the end of several Reply All stories from the past year. So, it’s basically an episode of Reply All that would make no sense to anybody who hasn’t heard pretty much every prior episode of Reply All. Which is fine, because who listens to one episode of Reply All and doesn’t go back and listen to the whole back catalogue? I was particularly taken by the update to the story where the P.J. and Alex broke into an abandoned building and found a goat. Mostly, because when I heard that the first time I kind of didn’t believe it. That’s the thing about radio. You can say you see something and nobody’s any the wiser. But this update has an interview with a listener who has a plausible explanation for why there was a goat in that building. Good enough for me.

Omnireviewer (week of Dec. 6)

A week full of lovely things, really. 22 lovely things.

Music

The year-end lists are coming out, so I was going to spend the week going through the stuff I missed. But then I got waaay more obsessed with this first one than I’d anticipated. It’s nearly embarrassing, but actually no it isn’t at all.

Lin-Manuel Miranda: Hamilton, An American Musical — They made a hip hop musical about the establishment of America’s national bank. Just when you thought Broadway was all superfluous Disney adaptations. This is incredible for so many reasons. It shifts seamlessly from convincing hip hop to straight-ahead showtunes about arcane political processes. And that’s not the only tonal shift it manoeuvres: it’s incredible how this flits back and forth between funny and tragic, arch and sincere, and from straight-ahead storytelling to meta-commentary. It is totally self-aware about its own unlikely subject matter, but it doesn’t let that self-awareness get in the way of its story, which you can get lost in to an extent that you seldom see in works of musical narrative. Unlike most cast albums, this works brilliantly as a bespoke object. As a concept album, it has a narrative thrust that keeps you listening to the words, even when the music threatens to beguile you away from the piece’s themes. And it’s bewilderingly allusive: it’s well worth listening to this with the Genius annotations (some of which come straight from Lin-Manuel Miranda himself) within arm’s reach. Miranda has everything. It’s not just that he can rap and sing and write a catchy hook and verses that lodge in your head, he also has something interesting to say about Alexander Hamilton as a historical figure and about how who tells the stories from history affects how we think about it. There are nothing but good things to say about this. I don’t care if you like musicals or not, listen to Hamilton. Pick of the week.

Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly — If it seems perverse to give pick of the week to a musical rather than what looks increasingly like the consensus best album of 2015, know that it’s only because I’m totally obsessed with Hamilton right now. To Pimp a Butterfly is as good as everybody says it is, and I would imagine that out of the two, it’s what I’ll be coming back to more frequently in 2016. If only to figure out what he’s on about. This is some seriously challenging stuff.

Africa Express/Terry Riley: In C Mali — I’m a huge fan of California minimalism in general, and Terry Riley specifically. But, his most famous piece, In C, was never one that I found myself listening to very much. Until I heard it played on African instruments when this thing came out earlier this year. Then I listened and I listened and I listened. Nice to revisit again after a few months.

CHVRCHES: Every Open Eye — Here’s something I’m not seeing on nearly enough year-end lists. CHVRCHES’ music is pure catharsis and people who don’t like it hate joy. This album is significantly better (or at least more consistent) than their first, which critics were all about. What gives? “Make Them Gold” is a clunker of a single, if we’re being honest, but the rest of the album is perfect pop.

Television

Deadwood: “Reconnoitering the Rim” — I don’t know where this show is going, but damn, Ian McShane can act.

QI: “Marriage and Mating” — Why am I reviewing an episode of QI? Tell you what, I’m not.

BoJack Horseman: “Hank After Dark” — According to my own rules, I’m not technically obligated to review this, since it’s my second time watching it in the course of this blog — and, in fact, in a fairly short span of time. I just felt obligated to pop back in and reiterate that this is one of the best episodes of comedy television I’ve ever seen. Okay? Okay.

Lost: “White Rabbit” — Reasons I don’t understand people who like the first season of Lost best: (1) Shannon and Boone are unwatchable; (2) Sawyer is a prick — and not in a way that any reasonable person should find charming, although the show sure seems to sell him like that; (3) it’s galling to see Jack take such a large role in the story when you know he was supposed to die in the first episode in what would have been the most brilliant bait-and-switch in television history, had the writers followed through. Jack’s story has more “it’s so hard to be a handsome rich hero dude” than I’d like. We wouldn’t have had to sit through that if they’d just done the right thing and killed the handsome rich hero dude. And that cliff dangle is ridiculous. I still basically like this, though. The hallucinatory manifestation of Jack’s daddy issues is properly creepy.

Literature, etc.

Alejandro Jodorowsky/Moebius: The Incal — A very thoughtful birthday present from some wonderful friends. I think I’m going to enjoy this. So far, Moebius is impressing more than Jodorowsky, whose writing has a lot of sci-fi clichés, and the juxtaposition of text and image sometimes seems arbitrary and lacks clarity. But this is a good yarn with some damn pretty pictures.

China Miéville: “Dreaded Outcome” — Here’s a narrator that Miéville can really sink into: a jargon-dropping therapist. I put this story down right at the point where a massive twist happens, then when I picked it back up, I didn’t even recognize it. This is good.

Lucas Adams: “An Illustrated Account of the Great Maple Syrup Heist” — This short comic about a thing that honest to god actually happened will make you very excited about the Jason Segal movie that Sony Pictures is honest to god going to make about it.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “A Conversation with Trevor Noah” — I haven’t gotten around to watching any of Trevor Noah’s Daily Show, but I think I will now. In this interview with Linda Holmes (who should really do more hour-long podcast interviews; she’s fantastic) he proves to be refreshingly circumspect. There’s an awkward moment near the end when he’s talking about “things you’re not supposed to say,” but at least he’s willing to own up to his mistakes and learn as he goes.

Imaginary Worlds: “Origin Stories” — The superhero origin story imagined as a psychological necessity. Excellent.

Song Exploder: “Wilco – Magnetized” — This is my favourite song on the new Wilco album by a fair margin, so it’s great to hear it exploded. I love that Glenn Kotche’s drum part was inspired by Jeff Tweedy’s son’s drumming. But I still kind of think he’s just imitating Ringo.

On The Media: “Lies, Lies, Lies” — No tragedy this time, except for Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy. On The Media is a really dark show, sometimes. Throughout this episode, you realize gradually that the demonstrable truthfulness of a statement doesn’t really have that much to do with whether or not people are swayed by it. Let us all collectively shudder.

Serial: “DUSTWUN” — Back into the weeds we go. Look, I love Serial, and I love Sarah Koenig’s journalism. But this is one of those situations where it can be difficult to keep the thing itself separate from the phenomenon of the thing. The response to season one of Serial was huge and weird and bad. I remember it being compared to True Detective which is just wrong. Serial is not a fictional detective show; it’s real journalism about people who exist out in the world. The widespread disappointment in the ending of the season was naive and ruthless — you can’t just end a true story however you want. And while I’m a devoted listener to a great many non-fiction podcasts, some of which tell serialized stories, it’s distressing to me that the story of Adnan Syed ended up being fetishized by people in the same way that I fetishize, say, Doctor Who. So, Serial: the breakout podcast phenomenon is a thing I have very mixed feelings about. BUT, Serial: the longform non-fiction storytelling project is a thing I really love. So, this new season is properly exciting — especially given that it’s about a story that got international TV news coverage, and now we’ll get a totally new lens on it. Instead of people filing stories in a day, we’ll get one of the most ruthlessly detail-oriented journalists in the world, plus her team of producers, PLUS screenwriter Mark Boal (of Hurt Locker fame and Zero Dark Thirty infamy) all on the case and making no compromises to time. And if that last line is any indication, the next episode is going to be a corker. Let’s all keep our heads, though. This is actually happening. Pick of the week.

Reply All: “I Love You, I Loathe You” — Reply All is that rare podcast that focuses on fussy, meticulous, reported stories but can also pull off just having its hosts banter with each other for a whole episode. In that sense, it may be the “most podcast” of all podcasts: it combines the pre-taped public radio approach of shows like This American Life and On The Media (where both hosts once worked) with the podcast-native approach of people talking to each other into microphones with little adornment (à la Stop Podcasting Yourself, etc). There’s no reported story in this episode of Reply All, but it was still fantastic and still Reply All. This is Gimlet’s best podcast and it would take something staggering for them to top it. (Jonathan Goldstein, perhaps.)

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Creed, Men Crying At Movies, and Visceral Responses” — I find I seldom have much to say about regular episodes of PCHH, but don’t be fooled: I love this show. It will likely take a slot on my year-end roundup of best podcasts for its sheer reliability in delivering insight and joy. And Gene Demby sounds so happy to be back.

The Moth: “Amir Baghdadchi & Dameon Wilburn: StorySLAM Favourites” — Two outstanding, riotously funny stories about travel, both distinguished more for the quality of the telling than by the story itself.

99% Invisible: “Pagodas and Dragon Gates” — These days, there are good episodes of 99pi, and “fine” episodes of 99pi. This is one of the good ones. It’s about why San Francisco’s Chinatown looks like it does architecturally, in spite of the fact that pagodas and dragon gates were long out of fashion in China when those structures were built in Chinatown. It’s more of a story than you might anticipate.

StartUp: “Pitch Perfect 2” — Alex Blumberg is absolutely pathological about playing that tape of him bombing a pitch over and over. This is super interesting, and I’m so happy that Gimlet has a new partner who shares Blumberg and Matt Lieber’s vision. I can’t wait to hear their new shows — especially Jonathan Goldstein’s. That guy is a master.

Fresh Air: “Historian Mary Beard Tackles Myths about Ancient Rome” — Research about antiquity is catnip to me. This interview (with Dave Davies, filling in ably for Terry Gross) contains such wonderful tidbits as Caligula hating being called Caligula, because it was a diminutive nickname from his childhood — “Bootikins,” essentially.

Omnireviewer (Week of Oct. 25, 2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movies

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

Television

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

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

Music

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

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

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

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

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

Literature, etc.

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

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

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

Games

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Live events

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

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

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

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