Tag Archives: Sex Criminals

Omnibus (week of Oct. 9, 2017)

First off, there’s a second episode of the fiction podcast I’m making with Nick Zarzycki: Mark’s Great American Road Trip. I like it a lot better than the first one. I daresay it’s quite good, actually. But what do I know. Subscribe, if you’re inclined. Rate, if you’re feeling really charitable.

23 reviews.

Movies

Arrival — The twist in this movie is so good that it’s almost hard to watch it a second time and keep track of what you are and aren’t supposed to know. Arrival sets up its own metaphor for its protagonist’s experience: if you watch the movie twice, you know how she feels. Arrival is a masterpiece.

Television

Downton Abbey: Season 6, episodes 1-3 — This show is feeling tired now. It’s still fun to see thee characters but they’re being placed in increasingly outlandish configurations and scenarios, including Mrs. Hughes sending Mrs. Patmore as an emissary to Mr. Carson because she’s uncomfortable talking about sex. But I am liking the general sense of foreboding that covers the early part of this season — a scene in a dilapidated old manor kept by a delusional old aristocrat waiting for “the good times” to return is a bit over the top, writing-wise, but it does its job with its visuals. Seeing a house like Downton in terms of size and style, but which hasn’t been maintained for decades, is enormously impactful. Even to those of us who recognize that these old houses were unequivocally a social blight.

Games

Detention — The highest compliment I can pay it is that it reminds me of Year Walk. Both games derive their undeniable horror from a very specific time and place: in Year Walk the Sweden of mythological memory, and in Detention the White Terror in Taiwan. And while Detention can’t match Year Walk’s innovative presentation or unforced storytelling, it is a similarly immersive experience. Visually, it’s a marvel: particularly in its early and late stages, in which the environments are constructed from a mix of illustrations and photographs, like a creepy moving collage. Narratively, it puts a bit too much weight on a few shabby little shocks and generic bits of character backstory. But the story’s specifics aren’t quite the point. From a distance, Detention is a compelling psychological portrait of a person dealing with intense guilt — the specific sort of guilt that results from collusion with an if-you-see-something-say-something regime. And it’s properly terrifying, too.

Literature, etc.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Funes, His Memory” — Been a while, but I feel I need to get back to Borges in a serious way. This is a very typical story from him, in that it is basically a series of musings on a single extraordinary supposition: in this case that there is a person who remembers everything perfectly and completely. Borges may well be the greatest author of speculative fiction who ever lived, and also maybe the purest example of that style, because in his least narratively driven stories (those that are not, for instance, “The Garden of Forking Paths” or “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”) he does essentially nothing except speculating. In this story, for instance, he gives us the brilliant “the map is not (but nearly is) the territory” notion of a person reconstructing the complete memory of a full day, and having this take exactly the same amount of time as the original experience. I love Borges. I haven’t encountered a writer I connect with so much since I read At Swim-Two Birds, which Borges apparently also loved.

Kelly Sue DeConnick & Valentine De Landro: Bitch Planet, Volumes 1 & 2 — I read volume one when it came out in trade, but that was two years ago (jesus where is my life going). Two issues into the second volume, I realized I really needed a full recap. And even though I recall loving Bitch Planet from the start, I feel like I missed a ton of stuff the first time through. On second reading, it is incredibly kinetic, right off the top. The way it starts with a voiceover actor arriving for a gig and immediately transitions into the use of her tape en route to Bitch Planet is one of the cleverest bits of exposition I’ve ever seen in comics. I also don’t remember the characters coming into their own as fast as they actually do. The surprise reveal of Kam as the protagonist at the end of the issue, following the death of the Piper Chapman-esque white woman is a masterstroke — it’s a rug pull that the writers of Lost were planning to do in their pilot episode, but couldn’t get away with. Here, it’s staggering. I also missed that there’s a sports team called the Florida Men. DeConnick is a technically impeccable storyteller but she’s also super funny. The second volume is narratively much more exciting than the first, which has a lot of worldbuilding business to get through before the story starts in earnest. The addition of Kam’s sister and a new cast of inmates in an entirely different facility brings a new facet to the story, and the arrival of a revenge-seeking Makoto Maki adds forward momentum. It was a long wait, and I’ll probably have to read both of these again when the third volume comes out. But that’s not such a bad thing.

Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky: Sex Criminals, Vol. 4: “Fourgy” — This isn’t up to the ecstatically silly highs of the first two arcs, but it’s a huge improvement over the third. It doubles down on the two things I love most about this comic, which are the enormous density of dumb sex jokes in Chip Zdarsky’s art and the realism of Jon and Suzie’s relationship. I’m not sure there are any characters in comics that I care about more than these two, even in Bitch Planet or The Wicked and the Divine, which I am inclined to think are better comics in general. Also neither of those have a fake magazine article with a bogus oral (lol) history of Matt Fraction’s dumb jingle about “wide wieners.” And that’s their loss.

Music

The Rolling Stones: Beggars Banquet — It’s widely regarded as the beginning of their four-album imperial phase. And while I see a much clearer line between this and the albums that follow it than between this and the albums that immediately precede it, I still feel like this is more of a transitional album than a full-on masterpiece. It doesn’t have the density of huge riffs of later albums, and the arrangements are still pretty bare bones. The most familiar songs are also the best: “Sympathy for the Devil” is one of Mick Jagger’s best moments lyrically, and his “yow!” at the start is just irresistible. And “Street Fighting Man” is a classic of rock star self-awareness — “what else can a poor boy do,” indeed. Of the album tracks, I am fondest of “No Expectations,” on which Brian Jones gives one of his most memorable instrumental performances on slide guitar, and “Jigsaw Puzzle,” which shimmers in a way that anticipates the band’s most open and cathartic moments in songs like “Monkey Man” and “Moonlight Mile.” On the other hand, “Salt of the Earth” is patronizing nonsense that almost makes me dislike Keith Richards, and the acoustic blues numbers still feel like pale imitations of old American icons. By Sticky Fingers, they’ll have finally internalized the blues enough to do it their own way, but they haven’t here. This has never been one of my favourites, and I daresay there are a couple of albums from prior to this that I prefer. Also, listening in mono does not add or detract much from the experience. I understand that aside from “Sympathy,” the mono mix is actually just a fold-down of the stereo, and so we have finally reached the phase where mono is no longer the definitive format for this band.

The Rolling Stones: Let It Bleed — At this point, maybe it’s worth stopping for a moment to consider how strange it is that I have devoted so much time to the Rolling Stones over the past couple of weeks, and indeed in my life generally. They do not remotely fit the profile of music that I tend to like. They’re undisciplined, macho, not terribly skilled, not terribly imaginative, and there are large stretches of their discography that feel produced by formula. I am hard-pressed to articulate why I like them in terms of actual musical qualities. But in a more autobiographical sense, the reason why I like the Rolling Stones is this album. Let It Bleed was the first Stones album I bought — yes, bought, on CD, at the Wal-Mart in my hometown, where they still sold these little shiny discs that I liked to collect even as all of my friends began abandoning them in favour of piracy. I was 16, and my musical taste thus far had been almost entirely dictated by the family orthodoxy. Not only did I listen nearly exclusively to music from my parents’ generation, I also studiously avoided the music that my father had defined himself against in his younger days. And the Stones were a tentpole in that canon. We were a Beatles family, thank you very much. And more to the point, we were a family who liked the sort of music that took after the Beatles: Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes — all of them still bands I like better than the Stones. But at some point I remember hearing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” on satellite radio (remember satellite radio? we had it in our truck) and thinking for the first time that perhaps the family orthodoxy was wrong. I’d been led to believe that the Stones were incapable of producing beauty, or making anything with real ambition. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” put the lie to that. Even if the choral arrangement is awful — and it is: it’s an attempt to get a choir to do what a singer with a guitar does — the multi-part structure of the song is incredibly elegant. One section melts into the next without any fuss. It’s all based on the same verses and choruses, but they take on drastically different aspects as the song transforms from heartfelt ballad to rave-up. The way the piano and organ play off of each other at the ends of the choruses is ingenious. So I bought the album, halfway hoping that the rest of it wouldn’t live up to this standard, because that would complicate my worldview in a most untidy way. But as soon as the guiro came in over Keith Richards’ classic riff in “Gimme Shelter,” I realized I was in for no such luck. This, far more than Beggars Banquet, is the moment where everything coalesces for the Stones. Keith’s listen-close-or-you’ll-miss-it lead playing in the intro to that track is the mark of a band with a newly discovered sense of self. By the time “Monkey Man” came around and I hadn’t disliked any songs yet, I realized that I had some serious re-evaluating to do — of the Rolling Stones, but also of the entire value system that had led me to dismiss them in the first place. I’m not exaggerating for effect when I say that this album was the catalyst for a complete change-up in my way of thinking. In an odd way, this band that has long been the definition of baby boomer cultural dominance became a totem of rebellion for me, in the year 2006. There’s more to the story than I’m prepared to write about on the internet. But suffice it to say that regardless of whether Let It Bleed is the best Stones album, and regardless of whether the Stones are even a good band, I owe them — and this album in particular — a very great deal. Pick of the week.

The Rolling Stones: Stray Cats — We’ve come to the end of the Rolling Stones mono box, with this collection of songs from the 60s that didn’t make it onto an album. Or, at least, none of the albums included in this box. (“Not Fade Away” was on the American version of their debut.) It contains much that is trivial, some that is regrettable (Mick Jagger’s voice is uniquely ill-suited for singing “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” yet he insists) and a smattering of spectacular classics. It’s frankly bizarre that “19th Nervous Breakdown” never appeared on one of the singles-laden American records. It is quite possibly the best song from the Aftermath period that isn’t “Paint It, Black.” Also, this album is the home of the mono versions of “We Love You” and “Child of the Moon,” psychedelic curios that are idiosyncratic favourites of mine. And it is the home of the two essential non-album singles from the band’s imperial phase: “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Honky Tonk Women.” If you want to get to know the Rolling Stones in seven minutes, you could do worse than listening to those two tracks. Okay, so in general I’ve enjoyed hearing all of this stuff in mono. But unlike the Beatles, I am not convinced that the mono versions of this band’s songs are always definitive. The Beatles’ sound had more transparency than the Stones. More lines, fewer crunchy chords. The sheer opacity of the Stones sound is sometimes overwhelming in mono. To paraphrase a later rock and roller, everything seems louder than everything else. I never listen to the Beatles in stereo, where a mono version exists. I don’t think that will be the case with the Stones.

The Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers — After I finished the mono box, I found that I couldn’t stop. Not just when things are getting good. Sticky Fingers is probably the best Rolling Stones album. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to quite proclaim it my favourite (see above, re: Let It Bleed), but it is the moment when this band self-actualized. Sticky Fingers maintains the groovy, dirty rock feel that has been their most successful style since “Satisfaction,” but it explodes that style in a way that no previous album has. Previously, whenever they’ve tried something really new, they’ve done it by distancing themselves from their default aesthetic. That led to some good art pop songs and some tepid psychedelia. But here they give us a mix of flat-out riff rock, blues, and country that nonetheless has a cinematic sweep to it that doesn’t exist anywhere else in their catalogue. It’s not just because of the strings. And I’m not just talking about “Moonlight Mile,” either, though that song is certainly their most grandiose, and also one of their best. This album seeks to transport you to places more than any other Stones album. It brings forth images like a movie screen: images of strung-out desperados in “Sister Morphine,” squalid bedsits in “Dead Flowers,” youthful courtships in “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” — and, yes, slave ships in “Brown Sugar,” which persists in being staggering troublesome. It’s odd that the Stones are still associated with the early days of the British Invasion. Not odd, maybe, but incongruous. Because this is their apex, and it finds them having outlived the Beatles by a year, abandoned every convention of British psychedelia, and settled on a kind of music that has much more to do with guitar-driven music of the early 70s — on both sides of the Atlantic. If you cut the Stones’ discography off after the Beatles broke up, “Beatles vs. Stones” would not even be a question. It’s Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St. that tip the balance and make it so.

The Rolling Stones: Exile On Main St. — There have been times when this has been my favourite Stones album, but not this week. This week it’s my third favourite. Exile is famously sprawling and unfocused, and that is the point of it. Without its shaggier moments it would be merely a less ambitious, poorly engineered Sticky Fingers. A hypothetical track list might look like: “Rocks Off,” “Sweet Virginia,” “Tumbling Dice,” “Loving Cup,” “Happy,” “Ventilator Blues,” “Let It Loose,” “Shine A Light,” “All Down the Line.” These are all classic songs. I dare say “Let It Loose” is the most underappreciated track in the band’s oeuvre. But without tracks like “Torn and Frayed” and “Soul Survivor,” the album would lose its long, gradual descent from partytime ecstasy to morose regretfulness. And I daresay that is what makes this the consensus pick for best Stones album. It’s certainly not the parts that make it a classic of the rock and roll canon. Their sum must therefore exceed them by some distance. Sometime in the not too distant future, I’ll listen to this again during a week when I haven’t been listening exclusively to the Stones. That’ll reignite my interest.

Podcasts

Arts and Ideas: “Thinking – Blade Runner. Ghost Stories” — Okay, so now I’ve got the negative perspective on Blade Runner 2049. At the time of writing, I have not seen it, so I can’t judge the value of these critiques yet. But I do think that both the guests and the host of this discussion have gotten misdirected by Blade Runner’s tenuous status as an adaptation of Philip K. Dick. We didn’t get a Blade Runner sequel because we wanted another Philip K. Dick movie. The original is barely that anyway, as the panelists are quick to point out. We got one because Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is a fabulous classic in its own right, and one which has as much to do with the spectacle that Sarah Dillon so abhors as it does with storytelling — and that’s fine, because it helps to form a vision of a world. (Mind you, it sounds like what Dillon objects to most is the representation of female sexuality through the male gaze as a component of that spectacle. And without even having seen the movie, I know enough to expect that’s a valid critique. But there’s nothing wrong with spectacle in itself.) Also, it always throws me listening to British radio and hearing them say words like “empiricism” without explaining them. I guess they don’t have to because the populus has gotten smart by listening to the radio. What a concept!

Home of the Brave: “We Thought It Was a Movie” — A brief, powerful interview with somebody who was in the thick of the Las Vegas shooting. I have an acquaintance who was there and related a similarly harrowing story. What an awful thing to reckon with.

StartUp: “Make China Cool Again” & “Just Hit Record” — The China episode is baffling for its lack of having anything to do with the premise of this show. “Just Hit Record” has even less to do with that premise, but it does reckon with the show’s legacy as a document of the formation of a business. That makes it more interesting than many of the episodes that have come out lately.

In Our Time: “Constantine the Great” — This is GREAT fun. Sometimes Melvyn Bragg’s attempts to wrest a cursory survey of a subject from his panel takes on an athletic dimension. He careens unknowingly towards obstacles, only to pivot at the last minute so that valuable time won’t be lost. And in this case, he’s practically forced to sprint towards the finish line. If this show were conceived as a podcast rather than a live broadcast show, the time limit might be a gimmick rather than a necessity: “I’m Melvyn Bragg, and this is the show where I have one hour to make three professors explain something comprehensively!” Thank god it isn’t that. But the limitation is an asset, and adds a bit of excitement. If you want to hear a man become hysterically frustrated with how little is known about a topic, this episode is a must-listen. Pick of the week.

Love and Radio: “For Science!” — Here we have a story about a person who makes a living by participating in medical studies. It is funnier than it might have been. I wonder how many people will listen to this and think: “Ah! An option!”

Longform: “Michael Barbaro” — I tend to listen mostly to the episodes of this show that deal with podcasters, because I have a fixation. It is becoming a good source of behind-the-curtain perspectives on the stuff I listen to for hours a day. Barbaro is the voice of one of the most important podcasts in the history of the medium: The Daily, which is more than essential. It’s practically benevolent.

99% Invisible: “The Athletic Brassiere” & “The Containment Plan” — Two very 99pi episodes of 99pi, even though one of them is actually from Outside. You’ve got to respect a show that gives you what you think you’re going to get.

All Songs Considered: “Hallelujah! The Songs We Should Retire” — I love when Stephen Thompson is on this show, and I really love when Tom Huizenga makes an appearance. This is fun. It’s fun to hear people talk about overfamiliar music. It’s a conversation that I’ve had myself. Part of the point of podcasts is hearing people just talk. One of those simple things.

Uncivil: “The Raid” & “The Deed” — A good start to Gimlet’s latest. Neither of these episodes shook me to my core, but I love that they’re doing a whole show, and not just a limited-run series, about the Civil War. There’s plenty of material for years of this, I’m sure.

The Memory Palace: “A Brief Eulogy for a Commercial Radio Station” — One of Nate DiMeo’s best in a while. His favourite alternative radio station is shutting down, so he muses on the entire history of commercial radio as an influencer on the formation of young identities. It’s really beautiful, and it would be my pick of the week if I were in a less capricious mood.

Imaginary Worlds: “Rappers with Arm Cannons” — A story about two rappers who styled themselves after video game characters: specifically Mega Man and Samus. Listen to satisfy your curiosity.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Thad Vogler: A Short History of Spirits” — A slight, nice story on a person who knows a lot about alcohol. Not much more to say.

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Omnireviewer (week of Jun. 26, 2016)

23 reviews. Again!

Literature, etc.

Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky: Sex Criminals, Volume 3 “Three The Hard Way” — I love this comic so, so much. I love how it manages to be deeply insightful about modern sexuality and relationships, while also being hilariously immature. There’s an issue in this collection that pretty much offers a microcosm of the whole comic. The story intercuts a lecture, given in a lecture hall, about feminism and the suppression of female sexuality with a scene where the protagonists fight a character that is honest to god actually referred to as a “semen demon.” It is exactly as head-spinning as it means to be. Also, Jon and Suzie continue to have possibly the most believable relationship in current serialized fiction. The supporting cast is really getting fleshed out now as well. If I have one complaint, it’s that in two subsequent issues, Fraction avoids writing a difficult scene by going meta. The first time it happens, it’s brilliant and contains some top-notch Zdarskyana, but when it happens again one issue later, you can’t help but think that Fraction’s using the jokey tone of the book to avoid specific writing challenges. It’s a minor quibble, though. I love this comic so, so much.

Music

SebastiAn: Total — Having spent a fair bit of time with Justice at this point, I was exceedingly happy to listen to some dance music with less shitty mastering. Which is only halfway a dig — I still love both of those albums. I love this, too. M.I.A.’s guest vocal was always going to be a high point, but I also love “Jack Wire,” “Love in Motion” and of course “Tetra,” because I love anything vaguely Baroque-sounding. There will be more listens in the future.

Yes: Relayer — Another old friend. I spent many years liking this more than Close to the Edge, but I can’t say I did this time. It’s really wonderful, no question. But Jon Anderson’s lyrics on “Gates of Delirium” are, if anything, a little too comprehensible. Almost trite, in places. I love him best at his most obtuse, and his most indifferent to grammar. Which is not to say there’s not great stuff in there: “burn their children’s laughter on to hell” is a compelling line, for instance. And the entire outro — “Soon,” as it’s called in its single edit — is one of the most beautiful moments in the Yes discography. “Gates of Delirium” in its entirety is possibly the farthest point out on the thin peninsula of post-60s Flower Power. Anderson apparently wrote the bulk of it at a piano, but you can imagine most of it strummed on an acoustic guitar, sung to an audience of Vietnam war protesters. I do think Relayer has a better side two than Close to the Edge, though. Patrick Moraz’s playing on “Sound Chaser” might be the best keyboard performance on any Yes recording. And “To Be Over” is pure catharsis. Speaking of catharses, I saw Jon Anderson on a solo tour shortly after he’d been booted out of Yes. He’d been in the hospital the previous night for a resurgence of his respiratory ailment. It was October in Edmonton: not really the best place for a person in delicate health to travel to. But he sang beautifully. He even managed to pull off “Long Distance Runaround” transposed up a couple semitones, because he’d forgotten to take his capo off. He could only last about half an hour, but when the audience gave him an ovation, he came back out and sang “Soon,” which he said is the song he’d written that had been the most helpful to him throughout his life when he needed to heal from something. It was a hell of a moment. I think of it every time I listen to this.

Fiori-Séguin: Deux cents nuits à l’heure — I can’t speak to how this record is remembered in French Canada, but in my neck of the woods, this collaborative record by Harmonium’s Serge Fiori and the songwriter Richard Séguin is entirely forgotten. Which is a shame, because, it’s probably the best Canadian prog album I’ve heard that isn’t by Harmonium or Rush. The pair of them both have great voices: Fiori’s being more strident and Séguin’s being a bit more fragile. And their songwriting style is entirely complementary, and lent cohesiveness by the arrangements, written by Harmonium’s road band. Every track on this is great. It bears a certain resemblance to Harmonium’s L’Heptade, but it’s lighter. I’d highly recommend this to anybody who likes the more pastoral side of prog — early Genesis, Fairport Convention, the Pentangle, or even the Canterbury scene. This is the definition of a buried gem.

Games

The Walking Dead: Michonne: Episodes 2 & 3 — This has everything that the previous seasons of the Walking Dead game has: great characters, fantastic writing, a gripping story and somewhat superfluous combat. Yet it isn’t as successful as it predecessors. The weakest part of this mini-season is the addition of a psychological horror element. Normally, I’d be all for that. And it does illustrate the effects of Michonne’s emotional trauma. But the actual deployment of the psychological horror is the same as in pretty well every game ever, which is that the camera shakes and changes colour to differentiate a hallucination from reality. In its most effective moments, Michonne jumps between reality and somewhat fanciful flashbacks by hard cuts. Whenever other devices are used, it gets a little clichéd. I’d still recommend it if you like the series and can find it on sale.

Jazz Jackrabbit — There are shreds of my childhood that I can’t quite get ahold of as an adult, because they fall outside the narrative of my life that I’ve spun for myself. I recall that as a child, I was not allowed to play games like Jazz Jackrabbit: a PC platformer that shamelessly rips off both Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario Brothers in equal measure. And yet, I clearly did play it. When I was a kid, computer games were a matter of what my mother deemed edifying and what my father deemed affordable. On my mother’s authority, I played mostly Learning Company edutainment games. They ranged from unimaginative (Treasure Cove) to pretty compelling (Gizmos and Gadgets) to treasures of the PC gaming canon (Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego?). An honourable mention ought to go out to Sierra’s The Incredible Machine 3, which remains a game I wish I could find a way to play again. These occasionally limp but well meaning programs are the video gaming experience that I have chosen to define my childhood. Together, they represent a substantial moment in the origin story of the persnickety infosponge that I’ve grown into. But on my father’s side of the equation, there was an entirely different and equally prevalent experience: games like Hugo’s House of Horrors, Heroes: The Tantalizing Trio, and Skunny: Return to the Forest. These were shareware titles, often made by tiny DIY studios, that my dad had no idea were moderately to substantially subversive. What mattered is that they were cheap. They came 50 to a disc, and those discs couldn’t have cost more than a few bucks apiece. Jazz Jackrabbit was one of the better executed and more conventional of those games. Revisiting it now on the Internet Archive brought back a wave of the best kind of nostalgia — nostalgia for something you’d nearly forgotten. Something you’d intentionally forgotten, wrongly. 

Television, etc.

Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared — Oh jeez. Pretty much at a loss, here. This is thoroughly unsettling and mysterious, and I am not likely to put it all together in the near future.

Last Week Tonight: June 26, 2016 — The Brexit debrief outshines the doping scandals feature, but I’m not complaining.

Game of Thrones: “The Winds of Winter” — If not for the first few minutes this would be a typically un-‘splody Game of Thrones finale. But that opening sequence, I tell ‘ya. It unfolds with all the clockwork inexorability of its Philip Glass-inspired score (the reprise of which at Cersei’s coronation is ingenious). The fallout of that opening sequence (pun intended) is brilliantly portrayed. And from there, this episode contents itself with watching the dust settle. And that’s a mode that I especially love in Game of Thrones: people examining the consequences of things. That scene with Daenerys and Tyrion is just a shimmering gem. It feels like the flipside of the famous trial scene from season four, and it can join that scene among Peter Dinklage’s best moments. Taken in combination with the previous scene with Dario, it’s one of Emilia Clarke’s best as well. And Lena Headey, my perpetual favourite cast member, finally gets to revert to evil mode. How gratifying. This is a great finale to a season that turned out shockingly well, considering its weak start and the low calibre of the season that preceded it. Game of Thrones is over for another year (or whatever), yet I’m starting to feel like it’s back.

Orange is the New Black: Season 4, episodes 5-13 — Boy does this season ever hold its cards close to its chest. Nearly everything that happens in the first ten episodes is part of a huge invisible clockwork machine that’s setting up the events of the last three. Like every season of this show, there’s plenty here to shock and appall and move you. There’s an almost unfair number of excellent performances in it. But what sets it apart is the way that the various seemingly unrelated components of its story are all set up to lead inexorably to a conclusion. The way that this season examines consequences of decisions that are made on an institutional level — the macro story feeding into the micro story — reminds me of nothing more than The Wire. That’s maybe most obvious in Sophia’s storyline, which is remarkably the most dramatic that character has ever had, even though Laverne Cox gets substantially less screen time than in any prior season. Having a central character’s season-long arc occur nearly entirely offscreen is a masterstroke, and it’s only one of many. I’m trying to decide whether I like this better than season two. I have rosy memories of that season, but thinking back, it’s mostly just Suzanne’s arc that I’m attached to. Every strand of season four is extraordinary. I’m really happy we’re getting at least a few more seasons of this, because it seems far from tired out. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

WTF with Marc Maron: “Neil Young” — Neil’s in an obliging mood for this one, which is good. Because on an ornery day, he would have eaten Maron alive. As a Neil Young fan, there are a lot of moments where I felt like a great question was staring Maron in the face and he didn’t ask it. But for the most part, this is an engaging conversation that even touches on some of the less well-regarded stuff in Neil Young’s catalogue (Trans, Everybody’s Rockin’). It also made me halfway think I should probably listen to his new album. It sounds ambitious, if nothing else.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch” The Outs with Adam Goldman” — The Outs sounds great, but I will likely not get around to watching it. On the other hand, hearing Glen Weldon interview somebody is fun.

The Gist: “Billboard Hits From 1964” — I’m really getting into this show. This episode is a lot of fun, focussing as it does on the British Invasion in the week of the Brexit. I have an infinite capacity for Beatlemania chart statistics, but I do suspect that many people who don’t might also enjoy this. Also, in Pesca’s post-Brexit breakdown, he makes the single most gratuitous Yes reference I’ve ever heard. (Actually, to be specific, it’s not even a Yes reference — it’s an Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe reference, which is way geekier.) That makes me wonder what references in the other episodes I’ve heard flew past me.

Theory of Everything: “sudculture (part II of II)” — It’s ToE at its most straightforward, but sometimes that’s a good thing. This nicely problematizes elements of the craft beer revolution, like the herd mentality beer bros who will follow delivery trucks from one liquor store to the next so they can stockpile small batch sours and IPAs. The most interesting moment comes near the end when a pair of craft brewers talk about the time their art professor asked them if brewing was art. Which, firstly, fuck anybody who thinks that’s even a worthwhile question. That professor sounds like an insufferable professor. But their response that producing a good flavour can’t be an art because it’s supposed to be straightforwardly pleasant is compelling. And I’m inclined to agree, if only because they’re right to place the power to answer that question in the hands of the audience (the beer drinker) rather than the artist (the brewer). The production of beer may be as subtle and complex as painting or sculpting, but the optimal response is different. And while that prof is still an asshole for bringing it up, at least it gave Benjamen Walker an opportunity to end the episode on a really ToE note.

99% Invisible: “Home on Lagrange” — This is one of the best episodes they’ve done in ages. It’s about Gerry O’Neill, the scientist who made actual designs for human settlements in space. And rather than straightforwardly tell his story, the 99pi crew offers up a kaleidoscopic vision of all of the inspirations and implications of his work, including his intellectual offspring in the modern world. Fascinating.

Code Switch: “I Don’t Know If I Like This, But I Want It To Win” — I hope we get more of Gene Demby and Kat Chow co-hosting this show. I know them both from Pop Culture Happy Hour, and to some extent, this is just that with PCHH’s three regulars excised. It’s good to know that there will be pop culturey episodes of Code Switch, because this is really good. And the thing that sets it apart from other pop culture shows is that it’s a story. Kat Chow takes us through this crazy saga of Asian-American television, wherein an Asian-American critic, Jeff Yang, writes a review that’s credited with the cancellation of All-American Girl, a not-very-good sitcom about an Asian-American family. In the risk-averse television industry, an event like that can have terrible consequences. Namely, there were no more network television shows starring predominantly Asian casts for 20 years. The next one to be greenlit was the currently-running Fresh off the Boat, which in a drastic twist of fate, stars Jeff Yang’s 12-year-old son Hudson. You couldn’t make that up. The interviews with both Yangs are totally compelling and raise interesting questions about how a critic should deal with television that reflects a possible positive change in the industry, but just isn’t very good.

Song Exploder: “CHVRCHES – Clearest Blue” — This isn’t one of the most interesting episodes I’ve heard, but this is a great song, and it was fun to hear CHVRCHES talk about the rules they established for themselves when they were writing this — it should be laid back, and have only two chords — which they swiftly broke.

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Bellows, Cornelius, Keaton Henson, A-WA, The Wild Reeds, More” — This contains a lot of music that I don’t especially care to hear again, but I’m glad I heard once. I think I may have written this exact review before…

In Our Time: “Songs of Innocence and Experience” — I’ve decided I love this show. I’ve decided that because I’ve realized that it’s the only podcast I’ve ever listened to that never condescends to me. Jad Abumrad, Ira Glass, and even more idiosyncratic hosts like Benjamen Walker and the Reply All guys all present stories in a way that assumes limited knowledge in the audience. But in lots of areas, my knowledge is not especially limited. Melvyn Bragg is the opposite of everything that North American media types think of as a good radio host — he interrupts his guests, he opines, he’s not afraid to show off his own knowledge, and he mumbles. In short, he’s an intelligent person first, a radio personality second. (Probably the closest thing to Melvyn Bragg in American media is Mike Pesca, and even he feels the need to throw in dodgy jokes and a dumb signoff phrase.) In Our Time is uncompromisingly smart, and probably really alienating to a lot of people. It’s pretty much my ideal for what public broadcasting should be like. This episode on William Blake demonstrates everything that I find enthralling in this show. It tackles ideas head-on without sugar coating them, and takes for granted that its subject matter is interesting, which of course it is. I hope the BBC recognizes what it has here. This sort of thing is what makes it the best public broadcaster in the world. Pick of the week.

Love and Radio: “The Neighborhood” — I love hearing non-standard, non-narrative approaches to audio production. This collage is the sort of impressionistic thing that I can only take in small doses, but it’s pretty brilliant, actually. Scott Carrier has a great ear for interesting tape, and that’s enough to carry this short piece about the neighborhood where he lives. Maybe I need to start listening to Home of the Brave. Grumble. Another one. Great.

StartUp: “Up in Flames” — This season has picked up rather dramatically. This story is told in a very NPR fashion — interviews, narration, music and basically no field tape — but the story is incredible. It’s about a man whose business decisions drove him out of his mind, so he burned down his yogurt factory. You should listen to this.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Finding Dory and Great Voice Acting” — Stephen Thompson’s 11-year-old daughter is one my favourite minor characters on this show (along with Glen Weldon’s husband Faust, and producer Jessica Reedy). At the start of this episode Thompson refers to her as a “sullen crank,” which is a hilariously aggressive descriptor for one’s own daughter. It’s the little things that make this podcast.

Invisibilia: “The Personality Myth” — This is an hour of radio about how people don’t have fully fixed personalities and how it’s all actually very much more complicated than that. I was unaware of the specifics, but I think that when you listen to a lot of podcasts and just generally consume a lot of media, at some point you become inured to the idea that things are more complicated than they seem. So, when somebody tells you that, you just sort of say “oh, of course,” and get on with your day. I reached that point about seventeen Radiolabs ago. So, unless a given commonly-held belief is oversimplified in a really interesting way, I kind of don’t see why I should listen. And this episode explores the notion of fundamental human change in the most predictable way possible: through the lens of incarcerated criminals. Maybe I’m just Orange is the New Blacked out, but that seems facile to me.

Things I loved in 2015: The rest of them

Well that’s that, then.

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

Movies

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

Television

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

Music

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

Podcasts

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

Books/Comics

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

Games

  1. Sunless Sea
  2. Undertale

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

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

 

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

sex-criminals-vol-01-releases

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.