Tag Archives: Run the Jewels

Omnireviewer (week of Feb. 5, 2017)

24 reviews!

Live events

Run the Jewels: Live at the PNE Forum — In the middle of what was, by Vancouver standards, a snowstorm, Run the Jewels played a show in basically a huge barn. I honestly couldn’t be bothered to make the metaphor subtler. Near the end of the show, El-P assured us all that we weren’t crazy to believe that the world outside that room was batshit insane. But Killer Mike reminded us that there’s a community of people, some of whom were gathered in that huge barn, with whom we can at least commiserate. The latest Run the Jewels record is angry and resistant, which is the only thing that a Trump era Run the Jewels record could possibly be. But I can think of worse things for a Run the Jewels live show to be in 2017 than a locus of understanding and warmth.

Music

Danish String Quartet: Adès/Nørgard/Abrahamsen — A stunning disc, with music by one modern composer I knew I loved (Abrahamsen), one that I wasn’t sure I loved (Adès) and one that I’d never heard (Nørgard). Adès’s Arcadiana is my favourite work here, and in particular the sixth movement, inspired by Elgar. Abrahamsen’s preludes are trifles in themselves, but they add up to a lot when combined. The neoclassical finale is a hoot. The Danes play all of this with extreme subtlety and seeming ease. Between this and their folk album, they’ve basically confirmed themselves as my favourite string quartet of their generation.

William Basinski: The Disintegration Loops —This five-hour long set of pieces is maybe the most depressing music I’ve ever heard. Half ambient music, half concept art, The Disintegration Loops depends on you knowing at least something about the method by which the music was produced to get the full effect: this music is the sound of tape loops playing over and over until they’re so decrepit that they barely produce sound anymore. There’s no good way to put the effect of it into words. It’s like death, rot, wasting diseases and the collapse of civilization made into music. Particularly affecting is loop 2.2, on the second volume of the collection, which starts off as a moodily stagnant snippet of what can barely be called melody and disintegrates to an extent that every repetition contains near-silences. The continual rotation of the tape in spite of its degradation sounds like failure in spite of effort. The fact that the tapes were finished on September 11, 2001 has become a crucial part of this music’s paratext, but its effect goes well beyond the events of that day. The Disintegration Loops manages to evoke just about every negative, undesirable abstraction ever conceived by a human, and it does so by almost prosaically simple means. Its elegance is as undeniable as it is dreadful, and I will likely listen to it many more times in spite of it making me feel sick. Pick of the week.

Jethro Tull: Aqualung — I’m doing a bit of remedial listening for my upcoming week on Jethro Tull for One Week // One Band. I say “remedial” because this album is the one classic Tull album that I haven’t really given its due in terms of listening time over the years. Ironic, perhaps, since it’s their most popular by a mile. The thing that always kept me at arm’s length was the recording quality. If I remember the story correctly, this was recorded in the sanctuary of a big church that had been converted into a studio (and Led Zeppelin were in the nicer studio in the basement), so the whole record sounds sort of distant and hazy. Well, I just listened to Steven Wilson’s 40th anniversary remix, and it definitely goes some distance towards correcting this. It’ll never sound as perfect as Thick as a Brick, or even the three earlier albums, but it’s nice to have a version of the album that allows the material on it to be shown in the best light. And every time I listen to this, the material is a lot better than I remember.

Laurie Anderson: Big Science — One of my favourite discoveries of the year. Laurie Anderson has always been on my radar as “that performance artist who also made pop albums.” Given that resoundingly positive impression, what took me so long to actually listen to this? We’ll never know. Big Science is funny, scary, and addictive. Anderson is a captivating presence, chilly and affectless to the point of coming off like a deadpan comedian at times. Anderson’s spoken word pieces are just that: spoken word pieces. They’re performance-dependent, and the drama comes from the hearing of them. In “From the Air”: listen to how she times the lines “We are going down; we are all going down… together.” Instant pathos, only to be undercut by “And I said, uh oh. This is gonna be some day,” and the refrain: “Stand by.” The best tracks on this album make me remember how much I love language. Just, in general. “Your eyes. It’s a day’s work just looking into them.” I mean, it’s a miracle that we have an infrastructure like language to express meaning in that way. Obviously, “O Superman” is the highlight. The way that it manages to bring together its two main themes in the end is outstanding. To crib ever so slightly from Isaac Butler’s understanding of this song (see below), somebody is sitting alone, listening to the phone ring. It’s their mom. She leaves a concerned message. It rings again. And then things really get going. It’s unclear to both the listener and the protagonist of the song who is actually speaking. (“And I said okay: who is this really?”) But it’s clear that this is a person who knows something very frightening and is trying to deliver a warning. (The use of a vocoder even makes it sound like a deliberately disguised phone voice.) And at the end, the most chilling part of the song, the protagonist is alone once more, nostalgic for home and mother — except that the language and sentiment of the mysterious caller has infected the nostalgia so that the protagonist is wishing to be held in her mother’s “military arms.” There’s almost no better expression of anxiety in all of music: the kind of generalized, non-specific anxiety that something very bad is going to happen, and even a retreat into the past won’t save you. I can’t wait to dive deeper into this.

Literature, etc.

Isaac Butler: “Here Come the Planes” — This is an outstanding essay that uses a piece of pop culture to help understand the cultural magnitude of a major world event, namely the attacks on the World Trade Centres. The fact that the cultural artifact in question, Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” predates that event by twenty years only makes the argumentation more interesting. Thought processes like this are the reason I’m a pop culture obsessive. I just wish I could express mine so eloquently.

Television

Battlestar Galactica: Season 2, episodes 9-17 — Within this set of nine episodes, this show rises to one of its highest points and sinks into meandering nonsense remarkably quickly. “Pegasus” is one of the best single episodes of the series, managing to totally alter the status quo (albeit briefly), and the “Resurrection Ship” two-parter is completely thrilling. And then, in short order, we get “Black Market” and “Sacrifice,” which feature some of the most ludicrous and unmotivated character developments we’ve seen so far, and bespoke plotlines that feel like they belong in some other show (CSI and 24 respectively). I confess, I’m concerned. I was ready to be one of the weirdos who thought that the back half of BSG is actually good. But I don’t think this is even the point where most fans feel it drops off. Here’s hoping it picks up in the next few. Also, R.I.P. Richard Hatch.

Games

The Silent Age — First off, if the title is a Bowie reference, it isn’t noticeably borne out in the game itself. Which is fine. Secondly, it’s always fun to see that there are devs out there intent on continuing the legacy of Hugo’s House of Horrors. It’s incredible how similar an experience this is to that 1990 title, at least in the fundamentals. That isn’t a slight — I always loved that game as a kid. Long live point-and-clicks. (Or, well, I guess Hugo was parser-based, but it’s functionally the same.) The Silent Age is admirable as much for its straightforwardness as anything. Narratively, it’s an unabashed cookie-cutter time travel potboiler, and it doesn’t try to play with or deconstruct the tropes, aside from a quick throwaway line about a certain plot twist that “reads like bad science fiction.” It’s interesting to play a game that’s basically sincere after having been through so many super-meta adventure games. This is one of those games where the story is essentially a mode of conveyance for puzzles. And the puzzles themselves are reminiscent of ones from early adventure games as well, given that they’re largely sets of obstacles placed between you and a fairly obvious goal. Turn this valve, and that formerly flooded room drains, revealing a handgun that you can use to shoot out the power of a huge fan, allowing you to pass through and rummage around in the tool kit on the other side for a pair of wire cutters that will allow you to cut the power supply to some poor welder’s torch, thus distracting him so that you can grab his wrench, which will help you unbolt a trapdoor. That sort of thing. The one thing that sets it pleasantly apart is that its protagonist, Joe, is an unassuming janitor whose inner monologue puts him constantly two steps behind the player. Thus he always seems surprised when a puzzle solution that he ostensibly devised works out. This was routinely amusing to me. It’s a fun game, seemingly devised to cater more to those of us who crave the familiar rhythms of these sorts of games than to anybody looking for something especially preoccupying or innovative. Nothing wrong with that.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Super Bowl Thoughts, From ‘Overdog’ Tom Brady To Sparkly Lady Gaga” — For the third year running, I seem to have watched the Super Bowl. I still do not understand the rules of football or how you win or what they’re doing. But I enjoy cooking and eating decadent food and being in the presence of people in an enthusiastic frame of mind. However, I actually do understand enough to know what Stephen Thompson, Gene Demby and Linda Holmes are talking about in this episode, and I know enough to be distinctly unpleased with this Super Bowl’s outcome. But at least there was Lady Gaga. And nachos. Nachos make everything better.

The Gist: “The Business of Corporate Protest” — I was making an omelette while I listened to this, so I wasn’t giving it my full attention. But Pesca’s spiel about why niceties are a good thing to definitely not ignore in national politics caught my attention and is therefore probably worth your time. My omelette turned out great, by the way.

Crimetown: “A Deal With the Devil” — A great instalment, with a rather pleasing parallel narrative that contrasts three different ways to get out of the mob: to take witness protection, to gradually go straight, or to go to jail. Of course, the fourth one is to get killed, and there’s a bit of that in there too. This is probably my favourite episode of this show so far, which is interesting given that I’ve generally been more inclined towards the ones that deal with the office of the mayor. But this is just so beautifully self-contained. It almost works as a narrative on its own.

The Memory Palace: “The Rose of Long Island” — Nate DiMeo has a large back catalogue of episodes about women who lived their lives running counter to the expectations and strictures of their time. This is one of the most complex of those stories, because it ends with its protagonist doing something that is about as anti-anti-establishment as it gets. The complexity makes it more beautiful, and DiMeo’s writing is profoundly sensitive and lovely.

On the Media: “The Ties That Bind” — Brooke Gladstone is away, but this is quite good for an all-Bob Garfield episode. Highlights include Garfield’s boss (politely) chastising him on the show, and Garfield’s piece on the present state of media concentration (which is much, much worse in today’s supposedly post-fragmentation world than it ever was before the internet). It’s lovely to hear my favourite media criticism source tackle my favourite media-related issue. And I’m grateful to Garfield for pointing me towards Jonathan Taplin’s upcoming book Move Fast and Break Things, about how Facebook, Google and Amazon are ruining everything. Sounds like my kind of book.

Reply All: “Storming the Castle” — Alex Goldman’s interview with Longmont Potion Castle sheds a bit of light on him, the same way that “Shine On You Crazy Goldman” did on P.J. Vogt. But it’s not especially entertaining. Longmont is funny in the right context, but he clearly hasn’t thought through his reasons for doing what he does enough to actually talk meaningfully about it.

99% Invisible: “The Eponymist” — This is a set of two stories by The Allusionist’s Helen Zaltzman, with guest appearances by Roman Mars, both dealing with eponyms. I, like Roman, would also listen to a podcast that was just this every week. This reminded me that I like The Allusionist. I should listen to it more.

On the Media: “#PresidentBannon” — I do not understand Steve Bannon at all. I know I hate him, but I definitely do not understand him. “Facts get shares; opinions get shrugs?” Can a top aide in the Trump administration seriously believe this?

Chapo Trap House: “Our Values Are Under Attack” — Bit of a limp one. Tim Heidecker operates on a similar level of insincerity and insideriness as the Chapos, but he’s politically not super informed. The Chapos need to be able to talk politics without explaining things. That’s why Matt Taibbi and Adam Curtis were better guests than Heidecker.

Longform: “Ezra Edelman” — Edelman is admirably eloquent for a person who so obviously doesn’t want to talk about O.J. anymore, or himself, ever. But there’s nothing here that you don’t get from watching the film itself. O.J.: Made in America is one of those creations that just lays it all out on the table. After eight hours of that, what else is there to say?

The Heart: “The Beloved” — A lovely personal narrative produced by the person whose narrative it is. This is at once an exploration of a unique gender identity, a guided meditation, and a bit of total smut. It’s The Heart.

You Must Remember This: “Dead Blondes” Parts 1 & 2 — Mostly it’s just nice to be listening to this again. These two stories of, what else, dead blondes are relatively slight in themselves, but I have confidence that Karina Longworth will gradually build to something close to a grand theory of blondeness in old Hollywood. Even if she doesn’t though, it’s fun to hear her tell sleazy gossipy stories.

Theory of Everything: “Doomed to Repeat” — Once again, the preparation of eggs prevented me from paying full attention to a show. But this time, it was Chinese-style eggs and tomatoes with sesame oil and Shaoxing rice wine served on steamed rice. No mere omelette. But Benjamen Walker will always manage to cut through my attention to another task, and this exploration of how targeted advertizing changed drastically over the last few years (and yes, may have contributed to Trump winning the election) is fascinating stuff. But slightly less fascinating than the tangy sauce and scallions that I finished off the dish with.

In Our Time: “Hannah Arendt” — A really fantastic hour of radio, offering an introduction to a figure so complex that it’s not even clear exactly what discipline she belongs to. Melvyn Bragg and his panel spend their allotted time summarizing the salient points of Arendt’s most important books, particularly The Origins of Totalitarianism, and they push straight past the reductive mischaracterizations of Arendt that resulted from the misunderstanding of some of her pithier slogans. They also discuss the opposition that she faced for things like her ironic treatment of the Eichmann trial, and they’re willing to entertain the notion that she may in fact have been wrong to take that approach as a writer. It’s lovely stuff, and I’ll certainly be seeking out Arendt’s work myself, like every panicked liberal seems to be doing right now. Pick of the week.

Code Switch: “Oscars So Black… At Least, In Documentaries” — Ava DuVernay is the best. This just reinforces the extent to which I need to watch 13th, and also I Am Not Your Negro. I’m still in the tank for O.J.: Made in America, but this seems like a pretty stacked category.

99% Invisible: “Usonia 1” — Ah, I love a good meaty architecture story on this show. This is about the moment in Frank Lloyd Wright’s career when he switched for a moment from making big, beautiful extravagant homes for rich people to designing a home that would cost the equivalent of $85,000 today. Could somebody please start thinking like this again?

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Omnireviewer (week of Jan. 1, 2017)

I’m beginning to put together my belated year-end list, as per tradition. Part of that involves going through a bunch of stuff I meant to get to when it actually still was 2016 that I didn’t. So, a bit of that here. Not sure any of it will make the list. But there’s a fair bit of good music here. And lots of other things. 29 reviews.

Television

Doctor Who: “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” — More than anything, this demonstrates how Steven Moffat writing Doctor Who is pure joy in basically any configuration. This is a purposefully slight, silly romp with virtually no consequences either held over from or contributing to past and future episodes of the show, and yet it kind of made my week. It’s a bittersweet reminder that this show, under this writer, is still pretty damn good even when it’s spinning its wheels. I say bittersweet because this is the last year when we’ll get to see it. Anyway, Moffat’s take on the Superman/Lois Lane situation is exactly what you’d think it would be, in the sense that it cranks the farce up to eleven (Twelve? Joke credit Sachi Wickramasinghe). And that’s basically what this is: a farcical reinterpretation of Superman. The story belongs to the new characters, Grant (our Clark Kent) and Lucy (our Lois Lane). The Doctor just sort of gets to be there — which is basically the only way to do a standalone Doctor Who story at this point. The Doctor’s plotline is too continuity-heavy for anybody to be able to just jump on board at Christmas. But there are some Easter eggs (Christmas eggs?) that I think are worth noting. Think about this: Moffat’s final season will surely clue up some lingering Twelfth Doctor plotlines, even if Capaldi stays on. The last line spoken before his era properly began was Eleven’s final line: “I will always remember when the Doctor was me.” I’ve always thought that was a bit of a limp exit. But the Doctor seems to be keeping his promise: not only is he mourning River Song (primarily an Eleventh Doctor companion), but he seems to be trying to cope with his grief by attempting to contact Amy and Rory with his huge New York time antenna. Maybe series ten will focus on legacy and remembrance in some way. That would be a good theme for Moffat to go out on. For most writers it would be bombastic. But I think if anybody’s earned it, it’s this guy.

Sherlock: “The Six Thatchers” — I never thought that one of the best episodes of Sherlock would be one solely credited to Mark Gatiss. And I never thought that Mark Gatiss would produce my favourite episode of television in a week also featuring a new episode written by Steven Moffat. Yet here we are. This is a marvellous, tightly-wound episode that manages a huge amount of business with remarkable grace and poetry. This story continues (and supposedly concludes) Mary’s story from last season, at first in the guise of a new and self-contained case for Sherlock to solve regarding the smashing of Margaret Thatcher busts (satisfying in itself). And it does this while never forgetting about the show’s new status quo, in which Sherlock is primarily motivated by Moriarty’s final plot. It incorporates a wonderfully obtuse pairing of a man who meets death in Baghdad with footage of sharks, which comes full circle in the episode’s climactic scene. That will be the brainworm of this episode: the thing that sticks for the longest. It contains typically wonderful performances from its leads (and I’m including Amanda Abbington in that: she’s the best part of this) and an absolutely stunning series debut from director Rachel Talalay, who seems to have become Steven Moffat’s virtuoso of choice: the person he goes to when he needs something really complicated taken care of (i.e. the last two season finales of Doctor Who). Sherlock has always been a deliberately stylized sort of show, but Talalay gives this an artful elegance that it has occasionally lacked in the hands of other directors. The scene in the aquarium, and all of the visual references to it that play out subtly in other scenes are brilliantly deployed. There’s one moment where it’s done with just a hint of shimmery blue light on Sherlock’s face. Another director might have cut away to a shot of the shark tank, which would have been fine, but this is so much less intrusive. It’s a non-hamfisted way to portray the looming spectre of death. And that’s a difficult thing to pull off. So, incidentally, is killing off your best supporting character, and the one female character to have ever held any real purchase over the show’s major story arcs. And they don’t pull it off, because there’s no real way to do that because it’s both a bullshit trope and an obvious net loss for the show. But I won’t cry foul just yet because if they can keep finding ways to bring back Andrew Scott’s Moriarty, I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of Mary yet. Even if she is actually dead. Which, I repeat, would be a bad thing. But let’s think about that a bit more when the season’s over. If I have one other complaint about this, it’s that for the second season premiere in a row, Gatiss has glossed over what was supposedly a game-changing plot twist in the preceding season finale. In “The Empty Hearse,” he blithely declined to reveal the true means by which Sherlock survived the events of “The Reichenbach Fall.” And now, he allows Sherlock’s status as the murderer of Charles Augustus Magnussen in “His Last Vow” to be brushed away in the cold open (though, who’s to say how permanent that will turn out to be). There’s an argument to be made that Magnussen’s death was rendered essentially moot by the return (in some form) of Moriarty and the events of “The Abominable Bride.” And certainly that’s the argument that Mycroft would make. But this is becoming a concerning pattern, and if this season ends with a huge twist like the last two, I might find myself a bit sceptical of this show’s ability to solve its own puzzles. Still, none of that seems especially important given what a fabulous story “The Six Thatchers” is in itself.

All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace: Episodes 2 & 3 — This three-part documentary on the way that ideas from computer science won an unwarranted psychic victory over humankind is one of the most astonishing pieces of documentary filmmaking I’ve ever seen. The third episode is especially haunting. The filmmaker, Adam Curtis, is both a lucid guide through some fairly complex ideas, and a spectacular aesthete. The documentary is effectively a work of collage, with lengthy clips from news footage, satire programming and previous documentaries all given entirely new meaning by way of clever juxtaposition with Curtis’s voiceover and musical choices. And the actual story in the third episode, where a computer scientist and a geneticist collaborate to justify a concept of humans as machines — all while horrible violence is playing out in the African nations where the materials for computer technology are mined — is a thing of intense power. I would almost recommend the third episode as a standalone television masterpiece to anybody who feels they only have an hour to spare. But I’d much sooner suggest watching all three parts of this. It will change the way you think about the legacy of modern technology. I will say, though, that there’s something almost unacceptably perverse about using music from West Side Story over footage of the Rwandan genocide. I’m sure that to most people it slipped right past. But I find that slightly tasteless. It’s a vanishingly minor point. Pick of the week.

Charlie Brooker’s 2016 Wipe — I think I’m over my Charlie Brooker phase. There are maybe about three good lines in this (aside from those given to Philomena Cunk who, as usual, is the funniest thing in the world), and aside from that there’s just a whole lot of rote reiterations of how awful 2016 was, without any attempt to offer a new take. However, it is a good way of recalling some of the smaller bits of weirdness that happened this year, like The Great British Bake Off leaving the BBC. And, the Trump rap that concludes this is strangely cathartic. Also, apparently Jeremy Corbyn supporters have their knickers in a twist about this? Seriously? He comes off better than any other politician in the country in this. Or maybe I’m just naturally attracted to leftist political figures with absolutely no clue how to court an electorate.

Cunk on Christmas — “Scientists now believe that 80% of all burps occur at Christmas, threatening to put a hole in the Oz-wan layer at precisely the moment the sky is full of vulnerable reindeer.” Philomena Cunk is an amazing character because she’s not just a generic buffoon, she’s a very specific type of buffoon, whose buffoonery has a sort of fanciful logic to it.This isn’t one of her best specials, but I did plenty of laughing, and it isn’t even Christmas anymore. “Merry Christmas. And a very new year.”

Battlestar Galactica: “Act of Contrition” — There are some bits of this where the televisual language hasn’t aged well, i.e. the rocket’s eye view in the first scene where all the pilots get killed. That’s a shot that should only be used for comedy. But that sort of thing is made up for with things like the way that Starbuck’s attempts to suppress painful memories is conveyed through editing. Story wise, this focusses on one of my favourite threads in the show so far: Starbuck’s grief and guilt. She even throws a bit of heat on what’s going on with the two Adamas, who are among my least favourite characters — at least when they’re in scenes together. 

Games

Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!: Part 3 — I so badly wanted to love this, but I confess that I found it tedious in a way that I didn’t find the first two parts, in spite of the substantial mechanical improvements made for this third part. Let me spoil just a bit of the game in order to demonstrate why I find it simultaneously brilliant and frustrating. Sorcery 3’s key mechanic is a set of beacons distributed throughout the map that you can shine anywhere in a 360 degree radius, and all of the area within the beacon’s beam is cast back in time by hundreds of years. Basically, there are two layers to the game’s map, one of which can only be exposed in fragments. One thing that you can use a beacon to do is reconstruct a little seaport town that’s been gone for presumably centuries. That allows you to hitch a ride across the lake with some fishermen from a bygone time. But if you happen to steer the boat outside the beam of the beacon, it vanishes into the mists of time along with its crew, leaving you to struggle in the cold water. Here’s what I love about this: it’s not just that any given point on the map can take two possible forms, one past and one present. It’s that the act of crossing the threshold has consequences in itself. This is soooo complex, and I admire Inkle very much for attempting it. On the other hand, this mechanic means that you might not discover the consequences of a choice you make on one edge of the map (namely, where to shine a beacon) until you’re already halfway across the map from that beacon. And without the benefit of foresight, you’re likely to have things happen like boats disappearing from under you quite a lot when you mess with the beacons a lot. This led me to rewind my game and replay the same sequences of events a lot more that I would consider optimal, just to find a particular outcome that would allow me to accomplish the game’s key task: killing seven serpents before you find your way to the map’s exit. The open-world concept of this game seems to indicate that Inkle learned some stuff from making 80 Days and incorporated it here. But where 80 Days’ story moves you relentlessly into new territory, even when you’re purposely biding your time, Sorcery 3 forces you to traverse the same parts of its open world again and again. It is immensely tiresome, and at some point I started looking forward to finishing the game. Never a good sign. I still hold out hope that the fourth part might synthesize the strongest points of the second and third parts. We’ll see soon enough.

Music

Kate Bush: The Kick Inside: — The fact that this is a) one of the most auspicious debuts in pop history and b) definitely not one of the best Kate Bush albums speaks volumes. Bush would really come into her own when she started producing her own albums, in the period when she’s stopped playing live and her label started ignoring her. The Kick Inside finds her instead filling the not entirely befitting role of ingénue: a bona fide pop phenomenon, coming off of the success of a masterful, chart-topping debut single, and having been graciously ushered into “the system.” The result is a good album, but one that doesn’t yet have Bush’s creative DNA in every note, the way that The Dreaming does. The Kick Inside is very much a rock album, in the same way that the second Peter Gabriel album is a rock album. Both of those solo records have the feel of being a band record, because a lot of the same musicians are present throughout. I think that’s kind of a defining trait of rock albums: “made by bands.” Whereas both Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush would gravitate towards more of a revolving door sort of approach to sessions on their artier, poppier records: using what musicians seem necessary at any given time. That doesn’t preclude frequent collaborators on both of their parts, but the sense that there’s such a thing as a Kate Bush Band vanished after Lionheart and didn’t really return until her live shows with the KT Fellowship. That makes the first two Kate Bush albums (and particularly this one, because Lionheart just isn’t very good) really compelling period pieces. And if you focus in on the songwriting specifically, regardless of arrangements, performances and all of the other territory that’s often occupied by producers, it’s incredible the extent to which Bush started as she meant to go on. Her songs are already defined by incredible specificity: “James and the Cold Gun” comes to mind immediately. As does “Wuthering Heights,” which is of course one of the best songs ever, period. Though for my money, the remixed and extended version with the alternate vocal on the compilation The Whole Story is better than the version that appears on the album. You can hear the guitar solo a little better, it goes on for a little longer, and Bush’s voice has gotten a little fuller by that time. (It comes from around the time of Hounds of Love, I believe.) Still, the strengths of the song lie in the song itself, and that doesn’t change from version to version. It’s a fun game to try and decide where the phrases begin and end. Is the chorus three repeating measures in four? Or is there a measure in two on the lyric “…home, I’m so…” and then a measure in six before it repeats? I wrote recently about Syd Barrett’s intuitive mode of songwriting, which is also characterized by odd phrasing. But frankly, the sheer naturalness of Bush’s oddly-phrased debut single puts “Arnold Layne” to shame. Also, consider the lyric in the chorus: “Heathcliff, it’s me, Cathy; I’ve come home! Let me in your window!” That is the entire chorus of a hit song. How is it possible to turn that into the chorus of a hit song? Anyway, this album is great. And it’s unbelieveable that Bush was 19 when it came out. And still, it feels like she’s being held back by everybody else in the room.

Bon Iver: 22, A Million — I’ve always kind of hated Bon Iver. His first album — the one that every beard-having, flannel-inclined person thinks is the best thing ever — inspired more intense resentment in me than any other album not made by Arcade Fire. As far as I can remember, not having heard it since it came out, For Emma, Forever Ago is mawkish and sentimental, and it’s slathered in an affected lo-fi aesthetic that calls more attention to its log-cabin origin story than to the mediocre music that it doesn’t quite manage to hide. Bon Iver, Bon Iver was not so much a step in the right direction as a massive overcorrection: a grandiose, fussy record of the type that I’m generally inclined towards, but the meticulous production seemed to be attempting to mask the same thing that For Emma’s self-mythologizing was: a lack of basic musical material. So, I wasn’t planning to listen to this at all, until “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” unexpectedly knocked me flat on All Songs Considered. And having listened to this third album in its entirety, I’m wondering if I haven’t gotten Justin Vernon completely wrong from the very beginning. I can’t quite put my finger on why I like this so much more than his first two albums, and naturally I resent myself slightly for having confessed this to myself. It’s strangely important to me to hate Bon Iver. But this album is so delicate, and so concerned with its fragile surfaces, which always threaten to come apart at any moment, that it offers the immediate impression that those surfaces are the whole product. Nothing is being disguised here. Vernon is simply offering a thin film of gorgeous sounding music: more a sound collage than a collection of songs. And this observation, laid on top of my specific objections to Vernon’s first two albums (namely that he uses aesthetics to mask a lack, rather than as an end in themselves) makes me think that I’d best go back and reconsider his earlier work as well. It’s possible that my entire distaste for the first two Bon Iver albums came about because I was mistaking a painter of frescoes for an architect. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the songs must be the point for an artist with roots in acoustic folk. But that’s an assumption, and possibly a wrong one. In any case, regardless of whether my opinions of the first two records change, 22, A Million is absolutely brilliant.

Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 3 — I don’t want to say I’m underwhelmed by this. I do think it has a fairly sizable mid-album slump, from “Stay Gold” (probably the weakest track they’ve ever done) through “Everybody Stay Calm.” But the five tracks prior to that run and the three tracks after are up to RTJ2 standards, more or less. It’s going to take more than one listen to sink in, clearly. What’s important is that there’s more Run the Jewels. We’ve heard enough from this duo to know how they work, and know what we should expect from them. But that doesn’t mean that they’re anything close to played out. It means they’ve hit their stride. I’ll report back when I figure this out a bit more.

Huerco S: For Those of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have) — This kind of thing is the reason I like Pitchfork’s year-end list. I didn’t hear this mentioned anywhere else this year, yet here it is. It’s a nice bit of ambient music that I’m happy to have heard, though I can’t say it captured my attention to the same extent as some of the year’s other ambient releases by, for instance, Nonkeen, and especially Tim Hecker. I do admire Huerco S for having the guts to just cut his tracks off at the end rather than always fading. It almost makes the music come off more like a work of art you’d see in a museum than something performative. It’s like he’s saying, “Here, look at this for a while.” And then he opens a cupboard, and the thing exists in front of your eyes for a duration of time. Then he closes the cupboard. The music doesn’t have anywhere to go, it just is a thing, and it could conceivably keep being that thing for any arbitrary amount of time. Nice.

Danny Brown: Atrocity Exhibition — Oh god I don’t know what I think of this. Brown’s lyrics are great, and the production is the exact kind of unhinged that I find compelling. But that voice is just nails on a chalkboard. When Danny Brown raps in his lower, more human sounding register, like in “Tell Me What I Don’t Know,” I’m totally onboard. And I think that his high register could work as excellent seasoning, like in his guest verse on RTJ3. But he uses it on most of this album, and I kind of find it a bit much. When it works, it really works, though. “Ain’t it Funny” is probably my favourite track, and that’s got Brown’s helium voice all over it. Anyway, this is well worth hearing, but I don’t think anybody is necessarily guaranteed to like it. That’s a good thing.

Podcasts

Fresh Air: “Best of: 2016 Pop Culture Wrap-Up” — This TV critic really likes Better Call Saul. So do I, to be clear, but he’s made it his best show of the year two years running. That seems a little much. This is interesting, overall, but it’s also a reminder that pop culture podcasts are better at pop culture discussion than public radio interview juggernauts. This is neither as fun, nor as thoughtful as Pop Culture Happy Hour’s year end episodes. Still fine.

99% Invisible: “Mini-Stories: Volume 1” — This is a lot of fun, and also notable for containing the sound of Roman Mars laughing, which is disorienting. I’m always happy to listen to these “peek behind the curtain” sorts of podcast episodes. I think the highlight is Sam Greenspan’s mini-story about a place called Circleville, which was laid out on a circular pattern rather than a grid, making everybody miserable and resulting in a process of “squaring” that resulted in presumably a billion puns. (Roman picks the low-hanging fruit by gleefully proclaiming the city “Squaresville.”) Looking forward to volume 2. Also, groovy handpan music at the end. Nice.

This American Life: “Kid Logic 2016” — Marvellous. The great thing about This American Life’s structure is that the specificity of their themes. These are all stories about kids using comprehensible logic to arrive at the exact wrong conclusions. And it is hilarious. It starts with Jonathan Goldstein asking children what they think the tooth fairy does with all the teeth, continues with a reading by Michael Chabon, and also contains contributions by Howard Chackowicz (unmediated, for once, by Goldstein) and Alex Blumberg. I laughed more times during this than during most comedy podcasts.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Casey Affleck” — So, the sexual harassment allegations (which warrant a Google for those unconcerned about triggers) cast a pall over this otherwise engaging conversation. I didn’t actually know about any of that until Maron mentioned it at the start of this interview. In any case, Affleck is clearly a smart, grounded person with a level of devotion to his craft that isn’t surprising, given his incredible performance in Manchester by the Sea. I continue to love that movie, but Affleck’s past is distasteful enough that I think this is the last interview with him that I’ll listen to.

In Our Time: “The Gin Craze” — One of the most fun, least consequential episodes of this show that I’ve heard. Melvyn Bragg has a surprising amount of fun talking about drunkenness. The best stuff in the podcast comes after the actual radio show ended, however. And it’s always amusing to hear Bragg wheedle his guests about why they did or didn’t bring up such a thing during the actual show. Delicacy isn’t his strong point. That’s why I love him.

Twenty Thousand Hertz: “8-bit Sounds” — Twenty Thousand Hertz is a welcome addition to the “about ten minutes” club: miniature stories about a very specific topic. This particular one is about how a set of extremely stringent limitations resulted in the production of some of the most iconic sounds of all time. If they heard this, Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel would both be proud of the sound designers and composers responsible for the sounds of early video games.

All Songs Considered: “Poll Results: All Songs Considered Listeners’ Favourite 100 Albums of 2016” — I have been generally amenable to all of the massively hyped albums of 2016 except for the Radiohead record. I like “Burn the Witch” and “Sleepwalking” well enough, but I imagine that twenty years from now we’ll look at A Moon Shaped Pool as Radiohead’s Goat’s Head Soup: the moment we knew they didn’t have much fight left in them. And yet, NPR Music’s listeners rated it the number one album of the year, so what do I know. This is a fun listen with a ton of great music, but it’s better to just stick with the end that’s got Ann Powers and Stephen Thompson on it, because their taste is way more interesting than a horde of randoms (one of whom was me).

Twenty Thousand Hertz: “The Mystery Hum and its Government Coverup” — This episode about a mysterious, ever-present hum in Windsor, Ontario really only needs to mention that such a thing exists to be good. But now I really want to hear the whole season of Serial that discovers what it actually is.

The Gist: “Bob Boilen: Tiny Desk, Big Effect” — The Bob Boilen interview is nothing much, but Pesca’s spiel about confirmation bias implicit in the universal dubbing of 2016 as the Worst Year Ever is essential. (Starts at 19:40.) Bits of 2016 were intractably awful, sure. And tons of people that everybody loves did in fact die. But Pesca thinks rationally: we just don’t hear about all of the people who could have died but didn’t, because they didn’t die. We didn’t hear about the relative lack of ebola, because a lack isn’t a story. It’s a good way to go into 2017: knowing that there are certain things that happened in 2016 that will make the world materially worse, but also not pretending that only bad things ever happen.

A Point of View: “The Shape Of Our Time” — A somewhat lightweight essay from Adam Gopnik about the difference between nationalism and patriotism. Still, not unworthy of ten of your Earth minutes.

Twenty Thousand Hertz: “The Sound of Extinction” — This episode about the sounds that we lose over time focusses on modern sounds, like the sound of dial-up internet, or Big Ben. And that’s lovely. But I’m reminded of the composer and acoustic ecologist R. Murray Schafer, who has devoted his life to the preservation of what he calls the natural soundscape. It would be interesting to hear a second part of this that deals more with the concerns of acoustic ecology. But I really liked this.

Radiolab: “Lose Lose” — I can deal with sports stories when it’s Radiolab, plus Mike Pesca, plus Chuck Klosterman. That’s just about the only permutation that works. This is fine, but not a season highlight by any stretch.

Code Switch: “Obama’s Legacy: Diss-ent or Diss-respect?” — If this first part is any indication, this three-part series on President Obama’s legacy might be one of the best things Code Switch has ever done. Just hearing a lowlight reel of the racist bullshit that Obama had to put up with from his professional colleagues, let alone the right-wing media, is enough to make a powerful point about specifically why he has become a divisive figure. But it’s also interesting to hear a take on how Obama was so different from previous visions of a Jesse Jacksonesque possible first black president. Looking forward to parts two and three.

Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men: “The Strangest Podcast Of Them All” — Oh, this is a very good thing. I don’t know if it’s specifically the kind of very good thing that I need in my life, since I am really not that invested in the X-Men. But I’m clearly invested enough to have read two of Jay and Miles’s favourite story arcs, namely those by Grant Morrison and Joss Whedon. Whether I return to this or not is entirely down to how fatigued I become with my usual selection of podcasts, and how in need of new stuff I am.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Sherlock, Carrie Fisher, George Michael, and Debbie Reynolds” — I mutedly disagree with Glen Weldon on Steven Moffat’s supposed tendency to use women as plot devices in his shows, buuuuut the episode of Sherlock that they’re actually discussing here doesn’t really help me back up my opposition. I also disagree that Sherlock’s 90-minute episodes are too much. It seems to me like the only way to fit in all of the plotline that’s necessary and also have the very necessary scenes that are mostly just banter. The banter is crucial, and it wouldn’t survive if these episodes were cut down to an hour. The in memoriam segment is lovely, especially where Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds are concerned. Maybe I should watch Postcards from the Edge? Definitely I should watch Singing in the Rain.

Fresh Air: “Lin-Manuel Miranda” — It’s nice to hear Miranda talk in a bit more detail than in other interviews about the impact of Stephen Sondheim on him as an influence and a mentor. As far as I’m concerned, they are not just the two best musical theatre songwriters of their respective generations, they’re also the two best songwriters ever to have emerged from Broadway. Also cool to hear him apparently reference Code Switch. I suppose he’s not necessarily referring to the podcast specifically, but it kind of seems like he is. Somewhere, Gene Demby squealed with delight.

Chapo Trap House: “No Future feat. Adam Curtis” — This focusses on Adam Curtis’s latest documentary, HyperNormalization, which I haven’t seen yet. There is a mindblowingly subtle moment in this where Curtis is explaining what Ayn Rand meant when she said that she wouldn’t die, but rather that the world will die. He explains that when you’re a nutjob individualist narcissist of Rand’s capacity, the world seems to actually be inside your head. So, death actually means the end of the world. At this point in the interview, which has thus far been a pretty standard, lo-fi conversation between three people, the producer edits in a snippet of “Don’t Stop Believing.” Because (spoiler for the most infamous television finale ever ahead) this is what happens, probably, at the end of The Sopranos. Tony dies, and the world ends. Journey is silenced mid-phrase. The Sopranos didn’t actually come up in conversation here, mind you. It’s just a lovely little illustration of the idea, for the benefit of the people who will be able to discern what’s going on. Very clever. Plus, Curtis has a brilliant critique of modern liberal activism that is tied up in the inadequacies of social media. It goes something like this: social media is great at organizing people and allowing them to do things, but it’s terrible at fostering the kinds of complex discourse that leads to viable ideas for how to run a country. So, when Mubarak was overthrown (a wonderful idea in principle), the populace that did the overthrowing was left without a clear idea of what was to happen next. But, as usual, the reactionary right had an idea. And in this case, it came in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood, and soon enough we’re back at square one. Silicon Valley has constructed social media platforms not in accordance with any way that ideas have traditionally flowered, but with contemporary, vapid notions of management. Mark Zuckerberg wants to “connect people.” He assumes, like many managers I’ve known, that if the infrastructure is in place for people to talk to each other, that’s enough to bring change in the world. It’s not. Change requires ideas. Ideas aren’t born out of platforms that privilege the simple. I’ll be watching HyperNormalization very soon. And I’ll definitely be listening to more Chapo Trap House. I will not, however, be following them on Twitter. Pick of the week.

Omnireviewer (week of Mar. 13, 2016)

19 reviews. Back in normal person territory.

Television

Cucumber/Banana/Tofu: episodes 6-8 of all three, plus “The Screwdriver” — One thing I didn’t bring up in my pick of the week entry for this last time is that while Cucumber is a showcase for Russell T Davies: idiosyncratic stylist, Banana is a showcase for a number of different writers as well. Sue Perkins and especially Charlie Covell do magnificent work as guest writers on this show. So, even when Davies stops writing Cucumber, I really hope that he keeps doing Banana. I touched on this last week, but it bears expanding on: every time there’s a movie about LGBTQ people that manages to capture the attention of a mainstream audience (i.e. one that includes ignorant straight dudes such as myself) it is almost without fail a joyless slog. So, an LGBTQ anthology show with a sense of fun, that tells a different story every week and highlights the work of LGBTQ writers, is just something that needs to exist. I don’t think there’s anybody better to oversee it that Russell T Davies, but Banana could easily have a continued life once he moves on from it. I really love these shows, and I think it’s a dreadful shame that they’ve been so overlooked. I can’t urge you enough to watch them. (Although, since I am ostensibly reviewing things on this blog, I will say that I felt that the much-hyped sixth episode of Cucumber was the weakest of the lot, and the one time when the show crossed the line into self-indulgence and soapy plot contrivance. It’s a minor quibble. Nothing’s perfect.)

Last Week Tonight: March 13, 2016 — Nothing much to say except “yes.” And “ha!” And “yes.” And if you stay until the end of the credits, you get to see Rich Sommer try to eat a computer.

Better Call Saul “Rebecca” — Easily the season’s best episode yet. Jimmy and Mike’s plots are more amusing than substantial, but sidelining those characters gives us a chance to get to know both Chuck and Kim a bit better. Both are wonderful characters played by brilliant actors. What’s really interesting is seeing them explicitly linked in the way that they treat Jimmy. Given that Chuck has so much more experience in this regard and that they’re apparently comparing notes now, I’m fairly certain that Chuck will end up being a key factor in Jimmy and Kim’s inevitable breakup. Come to think of it, that could be an intentional play on Chuck’s part. The opening seems to suggest that Jimmy somehow drove a wedge between Chuck and his former wife. Revenge?

Horace and Pete: Episode 1 — Oh, I’m going to like this. Louis C.K. is explicitly going in for a critique of American values, and that is a ride I want to go on. But he’s not leaping feet-first into Kevin Smith polemical territory — there’s a division of labour here. Supporting characters are allowed to talk politics explicitly, but the main contest of old values vs. new values takes place in the A plot, with no explicit references to parties or primaries or Donald Drumpf. The first episode is structured around mirroring the supporting characters’ political arguments with the main characters’ family struggle. There aren’t any neat A to B comparisons to be made, because Louis C.K. has more subtlety than that. But this is essentially political theatre, and C.K. is setting himself up to be for the centre-left what the Coen brothers are for the centre-right. And I guess he can just work with whoever he wants now? Seriously, Steve Buscemi, Alan Alda, Edie Falco, Jessica Lange and Rebecca Hall in the same show? With a theme song by Paul Simon? On the internet? It’s possibly that C.K.’s imperial phase has only just started. Very excited to catch up on this and see where this goes.

Movies

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot — What the hell was this? Okay, look. Normally, I’m all about that thing where you don’t worry about whether you’re making a comedy or a drama. None of the best TV seems to care, after all. (See three out of four shows listed above.) But I feel like when you’re telling a true story about a recent war, you need to make a decision. There were some good lines in this, and some good performances. Tina Fey is great in this. But holy hell does the script go every which way. Really not very good.

Music

Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Teodor Currentzis, MusicAeterna, et al.: Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto & Stravinsky Les Noces — I don’t give a shit about the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Really, I can’t even tell you how little I’d normally care to hear another recording of this mouldy, overdone repertory warhorse. And it frustrates me to no end that people keep recording it when there are actual living composers writing music (and needing money). And it frustrates me to no end that I basically can’t tell the difference between any of those recordings. So, if you’re going to record this piece, I will almost certainly not care. This recording made me care. It is a totally insane interpretation, with a seat-of-your-pants spontaneity to it such that Currentzis’ orchestra sometimes struggles charmingly to keep up with Kopatchinskaja. I’m sure that there will be many classical fans and critics who will meet it with tut-tuts of disapproval. But to me, this is the standard to which we should hold classical musicians. The question shouldn’t be “how well do these musicians offer us the standard reading of this piece,” but “how do these musicians make this piece new?” Classical musicians should be expected to go back to the score and interpret it afresh every time — like Glenn Gould did, and the late Christopher Hogwood. Every other approach is lazy. This came across my desk a while ago. I wouldn’t have taken it out of the shrink wrap if not for Stravinsky’s Les Noces. But, as fantastic as Currentzis’ Stravinsky is, it’s the Tchaikovsky that sells this. That is something I thought I’d never say. Maybe this whole classical music thing has a future after all. Pick of the week.

Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels — Their second album has been one of my favourites for ages, but I was yet to hear the first. This needed to be rectified. I like this a lot, but there’s nothing on this that hit me quite like “Close Your Eyes,” “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” or “Crown.” But El-P is a hell of a producer, and both he and Killer Mike take some fantastic verses.

Literature, etc.

A week of reading excellent writing on the internet. Also David Day’s Alice annotations, but you know about that already.

Hasit Shah: “Poor Lonely Computer: Prince’s Misunderstood Relationship With The Internet” — A glorious longread from NPR Music, this doubles as a rare inside look into Prince’s exclusive Paisley Park concerts and an exploration of digital copyright law. It’s totally ingenious, and Shah knows exactly who to talk to to make the points he wants to make.

Nitsuh Abebe et al.: “25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music is Going” — This New York Times Magazine feature is a completely over-the-top surfeit of awesome. Instead of limiting their impressive stable of staff and guest writers to the 200ish word blurbs that are standard in these kinds of lists, the NYT lets fly with a collection of op-ed style pieces and full-on reported features. (I realize now that the entire issue of the print edition is devoted to this one feature. Nice.) Of particular note are the long pieces about hip-hop group The Internet and session drummer Matt Chamberlain. And Marlon James’ long analysis of Kendrick’s “The Blacker the Berry” takes the final prize. Plus, my perpetual favourite Caroline Shaw made the list! This is no mere, vapid listicle. This is a proper thing.

Kieron Gillen: “The New Games Journalism” — If these Omnireviewer posts have taught me anything about myself, it’s that I’ll never be a “gamer.” I just don’t have the damn time. But I do love games as a medium, and I’m fascinated (and frequently disgusted and appalled) by gaming culture. And if there’s anybody associated with that culture who I trust to be interesting about it, it’s Kieron Gillen. This is an essay he wrote three years before launching Rock, Paper, Shotgun, which is essentially a manifesto arguing that a writer’s personal experience with a game is more important in writing than the mechanics of the game itself. That makes it basically transferrable to every discipline, and I’d encourage anybody who writes about the arts to check this out. In terms of its specificity to games journalism, though, Gillen manages to coin the wonderful phrase “travel journalism to imaginary places.” (Also, Gillen uses the line “just saying it could even make it happen” from Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting” to justify his enterprise, as if his essay is a sort of incantation. That seems to me like a precursor to the idea that music is magic — the premise of Gillen’s Phonogram.)

Games

SOMA — It’s been ages since I played this, because it got too scary. I can handle jumpscares and things chasing me down dark corridors. But when unknown consciousnesses start trying to talk to me through monitors, the willies come on something fierce. I think I’m close to the end of the game now, but I wanted to check in here a bit in advance to gripe about a truly godawful bug that forced me to do one of the game’s scariest chapters twice. There’s a moment where you need to use an item to unlock a door and it’s supposed to be automatic, but it just… doesn’t happen. After some Googling, I found that others had this same problem, and when they reloaded their save files from the previous chapter, it works. But that entails having to traverse the darkness of the ocean floor, teeming with anglerfish, for a second time. And my nerves have their limits.

Podcasts

I’m suspending Radiotopia reviews in case I decide to enter Podquest.

You Must Remember This: “Charles Manson’s Hollywood” parts 5-12 — This series tells an enormous story with such finesse. I haven’t got much to add to what I said last week, except that it continues as brilliantly as it starts. Longworth makes late 60s Hollywood seem extremely rotten. She emphasizes that Manson was part of a larger counterculture that was becoming poisonous by 1969, but that studios were still falling over themselves to monetize. And her detour into the post-Manson life of Roman Polanski is just as disturbing as the murder narrative. Seriously, what a wretched creep. I have quibbles, as you do. I wish Longworth wouldn’t do silly voices when she reads quotes. She should either get an actor, like she often does, or read the quotes straight. I wish she wouldn’t use the phrase “and/or” so much — and in her tagline, no less. But altogether, this is a unique and wonderful use of the podcast medium to tell really dense, resonant stories. I can’t recommend it enough. Pick of the week.

Radiolab: “Debatable” — Okay, now we’re back in the territory that I like Radiolab to occupy. The question here is basically “How do you engage in debate when the very structure of debate is designed to exclude you?” The answer that this episode’s protagonist Ryan Wash comes up with is “Always debate the structure of debate.” I loved this. As a sidebar, if you want to get really mad, go read the comments on this and “The Cathedral” on the Radiolab site. I agree with some of them that Radiolab isn’t what it used to be, but those aren’t the episodes to gripe about. How typical of the internet that the episodes that prompt so much bullshit are one that engages with systemic racism and another that features an indie game. If there are two things that internet fuckwits hate, it’s challenging racism and indie games.  

On the Media: “Print is Back, Back Again” — This episode gives us the actual, not that pessimistic state of the publishing industry, an inside look at Amazon’s super weird bricks-and-mortar location, and the knowledge that used books are sometimes sold by the foot as decorative objects in particular colours. Really good.

Imaginary Worlds: “Why They Fight” — I probably will not watch Batman v. Superman. But it’s cool to hear Molinsky parse the relationship between those two characters in terms of D&D character alignments. God, but I’m a nerd.

All Songs Considered: SXSW coverage — This encompasses All Songs’ hour-long preview of little-known artists they’re excited to see in Austin and their nightly debriefs after full days of, presumably, sensory overload. It’s fun to hear Bob Boilen and co. in this environment, which is presumably where they would all like to spend their entire lives. They do a great job of capturing the vibe of the place. One of these years, I’ll go.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Hamilton” — At last. I’ve been looking forward to the PCHH panel seeing Hamilton about as much as they were probably looking forward to seeing Hamilton. If you’re in any way remotely skeptical about this universally and justly beloved high-water mark of human creativity this ought to allay any doubts. As Lin-Manuel Miranda himself put it on Twitter, these guys really went in. Linda Holmes reveals how Hamilton calls back to every great Broadway musical ever (though she skips the Jesus Christ Superstar homage, maybe intentionally), and Gene Demby does the same with its references to much of the history of rap. I am so glad that all four of them loved it so much, because this is one of those cases where I’m totally okay with the hive mind. As far as I’m concerned, anybody who doesn’t like Hamilton stands revealed as a charlatan. This episode is also the perfect example of why I like PCHH so much better than Slate’s Culture Gabfest. This is both more analytically incisive than their episode on Hamilton, and also much funnier.

Reply All: “Earth Pony” — This is both named after and most notable for its magisterial “Yes Yes No” segment. The main segment is a fairly unremarkable but basically fun bit about a fictional, but nonetheless successful political prognosticator. But it’s that “Yes Yes No” featuring Jason Mantzoukas in the role of Alex Blumberg that really sells this. It might be the best that segment has ever been.

Serial: “Thorny Politics” — Oh no, now Trump’s involved. Two things I’ve loved in this season have been the actual narrative of Bergdahl’s life, capture and imprisonment; and the political ramifications of his release. This, therefore, is one of the best episodes of the season, focussing as it does on the latter of the two.

Things I loved in 2014

So, 2014 had its ups and downs, hey? All the same, the year’s movies, music, TV, games, comics and podcasts helped keep me happy, provided necessary diversion, and helped put my puny problems in perspective.

Here then, in as random an order as I could meticulously devise, are twenty things that I loved in 2014. I should note that, for other-people’s-interest reasons, this list is limited to stuff that actually came out in 2014. However, if I’m being honest, the thing that made me happiest this year was probably the Zombies, the thing that diverted me most ably was probably Bioshock, and the thing that best helped me put my problems in perspective was, as ever, Mahler 9.

Still, it’s a pretty killer list.

Birdman

To me, this is what filmmaking looks like when everybody does everything right. By maintaining the illusion — and it is an illusion — that the bulk of the film is one continuous take, Alejandro Iñárritu and his cinematographer, the always astonishing Emmanuel Lubezki, have devised a premise by which the wonder of live theatre is translated to film. Because, in the theatre world, it’s always one take. And then, by taking that wonder and incorporating illusions only possible in contemporary film, he reprocesses it through the entirely different wonder of movie making. All kinds of wonder, all at once.

And, on a smaller level, every aesthetic choice that was made here, from the jazz drum score, to the set dressing worked for me. Plus, it’s super funny. Plus, it’s got at least three of the best performances of the year (Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton). Plus, everything.

Wood Works — Danish String Quartet

Back in 2011, I fell utterly in love with the movie Hugo. To me, it seemed to reaffirm in the clearest terms possible why movies are something we need. It’s an odd comparison, I know, but this album by the fantastic Danish String Quartet came closer than anything since Hugo to giving me that same feeling of renewed appreciation for a particular medium.

Wood Works features heart-melting arrangements of Scandinavian folk music. The miracle of the album is that these arrangements are always idiomatic to the string quartet, without ever feeling “classical.” Because these are fiddle tunes and that would just be wrong.

The quartet is confident that these folk tunes are not mere kitsch, and that confidence allows them to veer perilously close to that, but they know where the line is and they stop short of crossing it. Instead, they land right in the elusive sweet spot where music can be sentimental but not mawkish. The ensemble’s rich tone and togetherness shine through especially well in these clear and simple tunes.

This album is a reaffirmation of the fact that string quartets are a good idea. It’s my favourite chamber music release of the year.

Also, you’ve got to check out their NPR tiny desk concert.

Louie, season four

Season four of Louie was barely even a comedy. Louis C.K. has reached a level of confidence as a writer/director/actor where he doesn’t have to do jokes all the time. And, this was still the funniest season of TV I watched this year.

The scene above is maybe not the most talked-about scene of the season, but it typifies what I love most about it. Louie and Janet’s argument about whether or not to send their daughter to private school is as much of a slice-of-life as you get on TV, but without any of the self-conscious mundanity that cliché usually implies. The turn that the scene takes around the two-minute mark is just flat out one of the best things that C.K. has ever written.

StartUp

So, podcasts had a Matthew McConaughey-like 2014. It probably seems perverse not to include Serial on this list, so let me assure everybody that I did in fact enjoy Serial, and will surely gulp down the second season with unbridled delight.

That said, I don’t feel it was a standout among the many podcasts I followed this year. In fact, it wasn’t even my favourite serialized podcast, created by a This American Life producer, that starts with the letter “S.”

StartUp, Alex Blumberg’s podcast about starting a podcasting company, is just so much fun. This is a high-stakes personal story about a guy who dropped everything to pursue a dream, and wants to tell you about it in real-time. From the cringe-inducing botched pitch to a major potential investor in the first episode, to the moment when Serial rudely intrudes on StartUp‘s narrative in the tenth, this is essential. And, the recent announcement that the show will continue to use the serialized format — focussing on a different startup each season — bodes incredibly well for the future.

Catch up now, so you can follow the story as it unfolds.

Under the Skin

(Okay, it got a wide release in 2014, so it counts.)

You know who I really miss? David Lynch. I know he’s been making music, or whatever, but the fact that there hasn’t been a David Lynch movie since 2006 is just absurd. So, it stands to reason that two of the things that made me happiest this past year were the announcement that Twin Peaks would be returning with Lynch in the director’s chair for every episode, and Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin.

The standard comparison to draw when discussing Under the Skin seems to be Kubrick rather than Lynch. But, while it’s certainly true that it’s more linear and far less symbolic than Lynch’s finest moviesUnder the Skin is the first movie since Inland Empire that conjures the otherworldly dread that I so crave in films.

Plus, Mica Levi’s electro-Penderecki-with-drum-machines score is my pick for best of the year. Reznor and Ross are mere pretenders.

Mahler Lieder — Christian Gerhaher & Kent Nagano

Of all of the “classical” albums on this list, this is the only one that features conventional, straight-ahead readings of fairly standard repertoire. (Although, you’ll find a very honourable mention of Joyce DiDonato’s Stella di Napoli, below.) Honestly, not many recordings like this hold my interest, these days. The way I see it, if you’re going to record music that’s already been recorded more times than anyone can keep track of, you damn well better give an 11 out of 10 performance.

And Christian Gerhaher absolutely does, here. Until this year, I was fervently devoted to Thomas Hampson, where Mahler’s concerned. Now, I can’t imagine anybody singing the Wayfarer songs as well as Gerhaher. It feels effortless. That’s a hell of a trick.

Note: The video above isn’t from this specific recording and features the Berlin Philharmonic with Simon Rattle, rather than the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal with Nagano, but it’s enough to illustrate the point, which is that holy crap can this guy sing.

Sex Criminals, volume one — Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky

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This, if you haven’t heard of it, is a comic about a young couple that literally freezes time when they have sex. And, as the back-cover copy of this first trade collection puts it: “they do what any new young couple having sex and freezing time might do: they rob banks.”

Frankly, that premise ought to be enough to sell this. If it isn’t, how’s this: it’s explicitly about the sex lives of young people without being a lurid, misogynistic mess.

Read this.

Interstellar

I am willing to forgive a lot if a movie shows me something I’ve never seen before. Sure, Interstellar‘s pacing is a bit dodgy and the female characters aren’t especially fleshed out. (Okay, yeah, that bothers me. Still, hear me out.) But, ultimately, this is a movie that adopts the logic of contemporary astrophysics as the basis for its storytelling. It demonstrates how time travel might be possible and the toll it could take. It conceives a visual representation of a tesseract. It’s got the most gloriously naff robot since the creation of the Daleks.

To me, those sorts of stunts make a movie automatically worthwhile. As such, Interstellar narrowly edges out Boyhood from my top five movies of 2014. That film’s got a different kind of ambition, admittedly. But I’ll take “a realistic depiction of the cosmos” over “twelve years of suburban white people” any day. (I still love Boyhood.)

Polonium — Motion Trio

This was the year’s most unexpected pleasure. I was aware of Poland’s Motion accordion trio because of their fantastic 2009 album with Michael Nyman. But, if you’d asked me what kind of Polish music they were most likely to tackle, I probably wouldn’t have said Penderecki.

Nonetheless, here we are with Polonium, an album of 20th-century Polish classical music by some of the most revered and challenging composers in recent memory. Their rendition of Gorecki’s Concerto for Harpsichord and String Orchestra, adapted for piano and three accordions, practically renders the original superfluous. They make similarly convincing essays of Penderecki’s Chaconne In Memorium John Paul II and Lutosławski’s Bucolics.

But the real stunner is an original work co-composed by Motion Trio founder Janusz Wojtarowicz and fellow accordionist Jacek Hołubowski: Sounds of War. You won’t believe those are accordions.

The Walking Dead, the game, season two

2014 marked my rediscovery of video games. I hadn’t played much of anything since the days of Majora’s Mask, but after several friends eloquently enthused at me about the amazing things that were happening in the video game world nowadays, I had to check it out.

It’s incredible how far that rabbit hole went.

There aren’t going to be many games on this list, because most of the games I played this year were the highlights of the past two or three years: Bioshock: Infinite, The Stanley Parable, Gone Home, FEZ, and of course the first season of the video game iteration of The Walking Dead. I was bowled over by how involved I became with this game’s characters, and the original story far outpaces the one season of the television show that I’ve watched.

I gulped down the game’s second season as soon as all five episodes were available, and contrary to popular opinion, I think that the strongest moments of season two are even more harrowing and involving than the first season. Perhaps it’s a tad less consistent, but come on: this is a game that forces you to make choices on behalf of an eleven-year-old girl that inform not only whether she survives the zombie apocalypse, but also what form her evolving moral code takes. Considering the ambition of that, all stumbles are forgiven.

The Wicked and the Divine, volume one — Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie

The_Wicked_and_The_Divine_Promotional_Picture_from_January_2014

It seems like having a great premise is everything when it comes to new comics, nowadays. In the case of this one — possibly the most acclaimed comic of the year — it’s “gods getting reincarnated as young pop stars.”

Again, that premise ought to sell this outright. If not, I’ll elaborate: one of the pop stars is Kate Bush (well, basically). Go forth and buy this trade collection.

For the time being, Sex Criminals is my favourite ongoing comic. But, I feel like this has the potential to become a major work on the level of The Sandman or Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing.

Run the Jewels 2 — Run the Jewels

I have very little to say about this album that everybody else hasn’t already observed. Suffice it to say that I love it as much as everybody else seems to.

Animism — Tanya Tagaq

My favourite non-classical album of the year. The lion’s share of the attention that’s been devoted to Animism since its well-deserved Polaris win has focussed on Tagaq herself. Which, fair enough. She’s probably the most extraordinary musician in Canada, right now. The breadth of unexpected sounds she can conjure from her throat is shocking. Plus, she’s got a lot of important things to say.

But, to me, this album succeeds the same way that great jazz albums succeed: as a collaboration between musicians who know how to make fascinating sounds at the spur of the moment. The album’s core trio consists of Tagaq, violinist/producer Jesse Zubot, and drummer Jean Martin — who gives one of the great instrumental performances of the year. Listening to the telepathy happening between those three provides moments of joy on an album that deliberately resists being loved.

Well, I love it anyway. Animism is difficult, alienating, troubling and spiky. I wish more music were like it.

Note: The Pixies cover above is emphatically not the best track on the album (that would be “Damp Animal Spirits”), but it deserves to go down in history as one of the most revelatory covers ever.

Gone Girl

At the Parsons Oscars, David Fincher would have been nominated for best director, Gillian Flynn would have been nominated for best adapted screenplay, Ben Affleck would have been nominated for best actor, Jeff Cronenweth would have been nominated for best cinematography, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross would have been nominated for best score. (Sure, they’re not as good as Mica Levi, but they’re still great.)

Oh, and Rosamund Pike would still be nominated for best actress.

99% Invisible

Before Serial, the biggest podcasting success story of 2014 was 99% Invisible. This was their first full year of weekly episodes — a feat made possible by a pretty impressive Kickstarter campaign. We got a new, surprising, audio-rich story every week; we were introduced to a new regular producer in Katie Mingle; and host Roman Mars’s warm bonhomie got even warmer for the gratitude he evidently feels for his generous listeners.

And then, as a result of an even more impressive Kickstarter campaign, we got Radiotopia: a constellation of other intricately-produced podcasts that share funding and cross-promote. Before podcasts were suddenly a thing, these people were working really hard at making podcasts a thing.

99pi is still the highlight of the bunch, though. It’s a show about design, in the broadest sense possible. The entire human-constructed world is grist for the mill. This year, they tackled everything from Ouija boards to Penn Station to tunnels for cows. They made me laugh; they made me cry. They reinvigorated my love for audio storytelling once a week. This, for me, was the podcast of the year.

Orange is the New Black, season two

So, remember what I said about Interstellar and how I love stories that I’ve never seen before? Orange is the New Black does that exact thing, one episode after another — probably in a more profound way than Interstellar.

I’ve never seen a show with so many fully-realized characters. From Vee (*grr) to Red (*punches the air) to Miss Rosa (*sobs), I became massively invested in all of their stories, this season. Taylor Schilling’s performance continued to be wonderful — and continued to be not even the highlight of the show.

Side note: that Zombies song I linked to at the beginning (this one) is totally going to close out this show’s series finale. I’m absurdly confident in this.

Become Ocean — John Luther Adams

John Luther Adams’s Pulitzer win for Become Ocean seemed a long time coming. I fell in love with Adams’s mesmerizing, textural compositions after reading Alex Ross’s profile of him in his book Listen to This. But, Become Ocean really does feel like a new peak for this composer. A 42-minute sound tapestry of gradually rising and falling tension, this piece uses the massive sonic palate of a symphony orchestra more completely than anything I’ve heard in a long time.

Adams sums up the piece’s thematic premise in a short, beautifully crafted statement in the CDs liner notes: “Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. Today, as the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans face the prospect that we may once again, quite literally, become ocean.”

The statement reminds me of another strangely moving pronouncement of doom, accompanied by arhythmic droning: the tape that precedes the rendition of Peter Gabriel’s “Here Comes the Flood” on Robert Fripp’s Exposure album. Both pieces of music deal — however obliquely — with ecological disaster, and both of them remind us that we will never have enough power over the natural world to keep it from killing us all when things get bad enough.

Become Ocean, to me, is the album of the year. No matter what you normally listen to, you should hear this.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

It’s like Buster Keaton, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Terry Gilliam made a movie together. And that movie is my favourite of 2014. It’s a tough pick between this and Birdman, but ultimately, I’ll go for the one that I could not keep myself from seeing in theatres a second time.

This is the movie that once-and-for-all puts the lie to the notion that Wes Anderson’s artificiality gets in the way of the feels. It’s true: everything in this movie is ostentatiously crafted and adjusted by Anderson, from the highly choreographed jaunts through the titular hotel to the aesthetically pleasing single tear that was carefully applied to F. Murray Abraham’s face in the dining room scene. But none of this prevents the movie from having the intended effect, be it laughter or a bit of a twinge, at every turn. Because it’s not a filmmaker’s job to feel things. It’s the audience’s. And I don’t see why a movie presided over by an aloof, aesthete’s eye should affect me less directly than one produced with a more improvisatory approach. As I said on Twitter at the time, sincerity be damned. Give me craftsmanship any day.

Also, nothing in movies or on TV made me laugh harder this year than “She’s been murdered. And you think I did it.” *runs*

Doctor Who, series eight

This second year of my Doctor Who obsession was slightly more sedate than the first. The frenzy of discovery that led me to gulp down the first seven series of the rebooted show and a pretty significant chunk of the classic one in a matter of months seems to have abated, now. So, it is with a rational and balanced mind that I can proclaim OMG TWELVE IS TOTALLY MY DOCTOR.

This series has certainly been the most consistent one since Doctor Who rebooted. Its highlights (“Listen,” “Dark Water/Death in Heaven,” “Kill the Moon”) don’t quite reach the heights of previous series (there’s no “Human Nature/The Family of Blood” or “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang”), but “Listen” comes awfully close.

And, more crucially, there are no clunkers here. Every episode feels like it’s building to the themes that showrunner Steven Moffat would pay off in his spectacular two-part finale. But every episode is still allowed to be its own self-contained story — which is really important, because what’s the point of a show about a magical box that can take you anywhere if all of the stories are the same?

We saw a different, more ruthless and conflicted Doctor in Peter Capaldi. We saw new dimensions in Jenna-Louise Coleman’s performance as Clara (although, as blogger Caitlin Smith convincingly argues, they were probably there before and we just didn’t notice). We saw Nick Frost as Santa Claus.

We are waiting in agony for more.

Blood and Laurels — Emily Short

Since the storied elder times of Zork, text-based gaming has been on something of a low simmer. Plenty of fantastic hobbyists have been making absolutely stellar works of interactive fiction in that tradition — the one where you type commands and the computer responds, when it understands — for more than twenty years, now. But, it was a niche community, to say the least.

Now, with games like Device 6 and A Dark Room making a stir in mobile gaming, it seems like the world may be ready for more word games. After all, what do we spend all of our time doing, nowadays? We spend it reading text on screens.

2014 saw the release of one of the most promising platforms for interactive fiction, going forward. Versu is a massively more flexible new version of the Choose Your Own Adventure. Basically, you read text and make choices at critical points (or, for that matter, whenever you’d rather intervene than stand idly by). Choices can be as simple as making one gesture instead of another, or as sweeping as siding with one character in an argument over another. Versu’s artificially intelligent non-player characters react in kind.

The platform’s launch title, Blood and Laurels is by one of the most acclaimed authors of interactive fiction in recent years: Emily Short. It’s a story of intrigue in Ancient Rome. I don’t even want to think about how many endings it probably has. It’s a fantastic story, but what’s most exciting is the potential of this format. My prediction for 2015: this will be big, soon.

Honourable mentions: Salad Days — Mac DeMarco; The Ambassador — Gabriel Kahane; Stella di Napoli — Joyce DiDonato; Lamento — Romina Basso; Mad Men, season seven, part one; Last Week Tonight, season one; Game of Thrones, season four; Serial; Radiolab; Philip Sandifer’s blog; Boyhood.