I realize I’m usually pretty effusive in these things, but this was such an effusive week that I’ve elected to award three picks of the week, rather than the usual two. This will be a rare occurrence, I promise. But this week, it was honestly difficult to give only three. I honestly could have given about six.
Reza Aslan: No God But God — If I could force everybody I knew to read one book, I’d have to think hard about which one. This would make the shortlist in any given year, but in 2015 I expect it might find its way to the top. This is a riveting, brilliantly argued history of Islam. Aslan’s prologue to the latest edition does a fantastic job articulating the extent to which Islam is misunderstood and misrepresented in Western media, and the extent to which the distrust and hate levelled at Muslims just keeps getting worse. So basically, we need Aslan’s expertise to offer context. Pick of the week.
Karen Weise: “The CEO paying everyone $70,000 salaries has something to hide” — This Bloomberg feature feels like the first rumblings of a gigantic storm.
Inside Out — Watching a Pixar movie at home isn’t a thing I would normally do, but I’ve got a monstrous cold that I just cannot handle right now and I’m marooned at home wearing pyjamas and eating mostly cereal. So, basically reverting to childhood. What better time to see this massively acclaimed movie that I didn’t make it to in theatres? I expected it to be brilliant; I’m not sure I expected it to be so dark. I mean, it’s basically watching a young girl’s personality gradually disintegrate through symbols. But it might well be the most inventive, and one of the most moving coming of age stories I’ve ever seen.
The Smiths: Rank — Pitchfork thinks this live album is filler in the complete edition of the Smiths. Pitchfork is very hip and modern and therefore doesn’t understand live albums. This is a lot of fun, and should be in anybody’s Smiths collection who actually has a Smiths collection.
The Smiths: Every non-album track by the Smiths — All of the tracks that aren’t on any of the proper studio albums or Hatful of Hollow are distributed between a number of compilations of varying degrees of redundancy. So, I just set all of the distinct tracks up and listened through. It’s not an ideal approach, and there’s plenty that isn’t great. Still, listeners who stop at the four key albums are missing out.
National Brass Ensemble: Gabrieli — Generally, I think that Gabrieli’s music needs to be played on period instruments to be satisfying. I tend not to like the bombast that modern brass instruments (and modern brass players) bring to this 16th-century music, which predates the invention of all of those instruments. It was written for the slight reediness of an ensemble of cornetts and sackbuts — a totally different texture to symphonic brass. And, while I have no fundamental objection to great musicians taking literally any music at all and playing it literally however they want, it’s always a risk. All of which is a giant throat-clear before I say that I actually really enjoyed this. It’s a tribute to an earlier modern brass recording of Gabrieli, featuring members of three great American orchestras. I never really warmed to that album, despite its classic status among brass players. (I played the trumpet, once upon a time.) But this new one, boasting modern recording fidelity and a generally higher standard of playing has won me over. It’s a big steamroller of a thing, where period instrument recordings are smart cars, but hey. Don’t fault an envelope for not being a treehouse, right?
BoJack Horseman: Season 2, episodes 7-12 — “Hank After Dark” is a classic episode. It’s got an entire plotline that takes place mostly in the news tickers at the bottom of the screen. The density of visual jokes approaches Terry Gilliam territory. Also, many excellent puns and a Bill Cosby riff with teeth. And fantastic character beats for all of the main cast. And the line “That woman can knock a drink back like a Kennedy at a wake for one of the other Kennedys, but damn if she doesn’t get shit done!” And a great kicker at the end. It almost doesn’t matter that the last five episodes of the season (the second-last in particular) are also fantastic, because this one eclipses the entire series.
Deadwood: Season 1, episodes 1 & 2 — It was time I watched Deadwood. The black sheep of HBO’s trinity of David-helmed prestige shows, it might be the most acclaimed show of its time that I haven’t seen. These first two episodes are pretty damn good — I’m especially enjoying any scene with Ian McShane in it. I’m pretty sure I’ll love this eventually, but it might take a while for me to acclimate.
Doctor Who: “Hell Bent” — What “Heaven Sent” was for experimental, minimalist, self-contained Doctor Who, this is for sprawling, continuity-heavy, epic fantasy Doctor Who. And while I’ll generally take the former approach (Blink and Listen come to mind) over the latter (The End of Time and Day of the Doctor), there are times when I’m happy to see Doctor Who go really, really big. Taken together, the astonishing two-parter of “Heaven Sent/Hell Bent” is basically an inversion of my other favourite game-changing season finale: “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang.” Where that one started with an hour of threats from every bad guy in Doctor Who and closed with a personal story about Amy Pond’s wedding, this one opens with a chamber piece about the Doctor alone with his darkest thoughts and closes with an hour that includes Gallifrey and Rassilon and the Sisterhood of Karn and the diner from “The Impossible Astronaut” and Maisie Williams and a proper send-off for a major character. And taken together, they work brilliantly. On first viewing, I’m tempted to say that this is just as good as the end of Season 5. Pick of the week. (Happy, Sachi?)
Oh man, when I get over this cold, I’m totally going to start running again. Because I’m so behind on my podcast listening. Seriously, I have 20 unlistened episodes on my phone right now. Sad state of affairs.
Mortified: “Jason: King of Scotland” — I don’t listen to Mortified very much, but the premise of this one, where a teenage misfit imagines himself as a Shakespearean Scottish king in his diary, was too good to pass up. It basically lived up to expectations, except that the guy consistently mispronounces the word “exeunt.”
Imaginary Worlds: “1977” — This has shot straight onto my “Religious Listens” playlist. (Those are the podcasts where I listen to every episode.) Imaginary Worlds tells well-written, well-produced stories about the cultural impact of geeky fiction. So… made for me. This is the first of a five-part series about Star Wars. I’ve always found that people talking about Star Wars is more interesting than Star Wars itself, so I’ll be listening to all five parts, for sure. Pick of the week.
Welcome to Night Vale: “A Carnival Comes to Town” — I wonder if I’ll get more invested in this show once I catch up and hear episodes the same time as everybody else? The ending of this is great, though. The thought of normal people stumbling on Night Vale and being totally baffled is wonderful.
Criminal: “American Dream” — I love stories of bank robberies. I absolutely see the romance in it. So, I had a certain amount of sympathy for the protagonist of this story from the start. Phoebe Judge doesn’t let you totally side with him, because that would be ridiculous. But, listening to this, you can imagine the thrill of standing in the queue for the tellers, knowing what you’re about to do — and knowing that nobody’s going to get hurt. This guy’s bank robberies were fairly mundane, as these things go. But when get to hear the stories as they play out in his head, it’s a rush.
Imaginary Worlds: “Empire vs Rebels” — An exploration of Star Wars’ central conflict as a sports and politics metaphor. It’s as good as that sounds, but the previous episode about the context for the first movie’s release is better.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Shonda Rhimes on her ‘Year of Yes’” — I’ve never seen anything that Shonda Rhimes has ever been responsible for, and this is kind of a “meh” interview anyway.
Surprisingly Awesome: “Concrete” — Look, I already knew that concrete was interesting thanks to… guess which podcast… 99% Invisible. I don’t think I like Surprisingly Awesome. The exclamations of breathless wonder from whoever isn’t hosting on a given week are so unnecessary and so irksome. I expect I’ll listen to this again sometime, but I’m dropping it for now. Oh well, Gimlet. Three out of four ain’t bad.
All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Missy Elliot, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, PWR BTTM and more” — My list of artists I heard on All Songs that I need to check out properly is getting really long. This week’s key addition is the arty-rocky band Public Service Broadcasting. But for me, All Songs isn’t just useful for introducing me to music I’ll like; it’s equally worthwhile for playing stuff that I don’t like, but that I do find interesting. The kind of music that I don’t really ever want to hear again, but that I’m glad I at least heard once. (Urm, Macklemore.) In 2015, that’s kind of the ideal function of a music programme, I’d argue.
99% Invisible: “Worst Smell in the World” — This is fine. Not a standout episode, but fine. I have nothing to say about this perfectly fine episode.
Imaginary Worlds: “The Canon” — I seriously love this podcast. This is an early episode about the concept of SC/fantasy “canons:” the stories that are acknowledged to have happened “in-universe.” Eric Molinsky talks to a rabbi about how fandom’s relationship to canons are similar to religious scholars’ interpretations of sacred texts. It’s a genius approach. I wish I’d come up with it.
Reply All: “Quit Already!” — A collaboration between Reply All and Radio Ambulante. I love when my favourite English language shows collaborate with Radio Ambulante. It always makes me wish I spoke Spanish, so I could listen to Radio Ambulante.
All Songs Considered: “The Year In Music 2015” — If, like me, you spent a lot of the year continuing to obsess over old obsessions and missed a lot of the new music, just listen to this. Everything played on here is fantastic and will set you on track to hear the rest of 2015’s really great music. I can feel an obsession with the Hamilton cast album coming on. Watch this space.
The Moth: “The Moth StorySLAM” — These StorySLAM episodes can be dodgy, since literally anybody can get up onstage at a StorySLAM event. But they do tend to broadcast the best of them, and some of these stories are really fun.
On The Media: “On San Bernadino” — Another instalment in my recent trend of listening to On The Media after a crisis. The segment on gun control research being hamstrung by legislation alone is worth the time.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Good Dinosaur, Pixar and Second Thoughts” — Well, now I will certainly not be seeing The Good Dinosaur. Especially not after Inside Out left me with such tremendous goodwill towards Pixar. But I likely would not have seen The Good Dinosaur anyway.
Imaginary Worlds: “Slave Leia” — I’m not sure I buy the redemptive readings of Leia’s plotline in Return of the Jedi. I’m more inclined to side with the critic in this podcast who feels that Leia is just really badly served in this movie, compared with the previous two. But it’s interesting to hear counter-arguments, and I’ll definitely be bearing them in mind when I re-watch Jedi before the new one comes out.
Surprisingly Awesome: “Tubthumping” — Okay, I’m dropping it after this one. I had to see how this episode came together in the end, after hearing the drafts of it on StartUp. Look: the topic of this episode is so obviously not boring that even Adam Davison — whose role it is here to act bored — can’t entirely sell it. I could definitely see these two guys making a great podcast together, but the seams of this format are showing already. Which is not to say that the content of this is bad; I’m inclined to think it’s the best episode they’ve made so far. But I’m still done with Surprisingly Awesome for now.