Tag Archives: Ted Hearne

25 things I loved in 2017

Each year, I compile my own personal, inevitably idiosyncratic list of my favourite things from that year. This year, congratulations are owed to me for actually getting it out in the actual calendar year I’m writing about. So what if I haven’t seen all the movies I meant to see and barely read any of this year’s acclaimed books? In the end, a year is what it is. This is the best art and entertainment I personally experienced in my version of 2017.

The list is ranked. That means I’m comparing the relative virtues of music and stand-up comedy, movies and podcasts, novels and video games. It’s not so much that it’s like comparing apples to oranges; it’s more that it’s like comparing apples to oranges to avocados to pork tenderloins to fine china to used hatchbacks to racoons to sand. Therein lies the fun.

Let’s skip the tired remarks on what a trying year it’s been and get straight to the honourable mentions, shall we?

In podcasting: my perennial favourites Reply All and Theory of Everything stayed the course and made some of the year’s best individual podcast episodes. Two shows whose first seasons I liked but didn’t love, More Perfect and Homecoming, returned with far stronger second seasons that made me certain I’ll be back for the third. Jesse Thorn’s limited series of interviews with interviewers, The Turnaround, entertained me far more than a show with that premise ought to. The Museum of Modern Art and WNYC had the extremely good idea to cut Abbi Jacobson loose in the MoMA with a microphone in A Piece of Work. And The Daily arrived to show us how to cover the news on a podcast. It is frankly the most significant innovation in the form since the first season of Serial, and it would surely be in the upper echelons of this list if I’d actually had the wherewithal to listen to it more than a handful of times. The news is stressful.

In games: my most neglected medium of 2017, Detention scared the bejesus out of me while also illustrating what it’s like to live under the yoke of totalitarianism. And the sixth and final chapter of The Dream Machine brought that story to a deeply ambiguous conclusion, but not before sending the player through a wild, rhapsodical odyssey through the deepest realms of the collective human unconscious.

In comedy: Mike Birbiglia, Patton Oswalt, and Marc Maron all delivered intermittently brilliant specials that proved (by both positive and negative example) that the way forward for stand-up comedy in a bewildering political age is to get personal.

In film: two drastically different Marvel movies proved that solid storytelling can transcend the doldrums of the increasingly exhausting superhero genre: Spider-Man: Homecoming and Logan

In television: two of Netflix’s most acclaimed juggernauts lived up to high expectations: BoJack Horseman and Stranger Things. And Game of Thrones, freed from the expectation to conform to George R.R. Martin’s plotting and pace, delivered far and away its strongest season yet.

In comics: The Wicked and the Divine remains the coolest, smartest thing in the world. And Bitch Planet’s long-awaited second trade collection amped up the action and intrigue while remaining awesomely blatant about feminism.

In books: I deeply regret the non-inclusion of Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage on this list. It is a worthy expansion of a fictional world that was very dear to me as a child. If I were more than halfway through it by my self-imposed drop deadline, it would surely be here.

In music: “classical” and “experimental” won the day for me this year. Highlights included Brian Eno’s Reflection, William Basinski’s A Shadow in Time, Marc-Andre Hamelin’s recording of For Bunita Marcus by Morton Feldman, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s brilliantly straightforward recordings of the complete Mendelssohn symphonies. In popular music, two things that don’t quite count as “music from 2017” bear mentioning: Neil Young’s long-unreleased 1976 recording Hitchhiker and Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell Live: a concert film that I nearly awarded a very high spot on the list before deciding it wasn’t really eligible.

Finally, in stuff that doesn’t fall under any of the above categories, Bill Wurtz’s history of the entire world i guess is one of those things that occasionally manages to make me not hate the internet.

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And now the list. An observation: there are only three honourees here who have been on one of my previous lists. This wasn’t by design. I suppose I was just in the mood for new things this year. Onwards.

No. 25: Blade Runner 2049

We didn’t need a new Blade Runner. And the one we got has its problems. But like its predecessor, one of my ten or twelve all-time favourite movies, Denis Villeneuve’s sequel operates at the very highest level of cinematic spectacle. The way Roger Deakins’ camera hangs and drifts across the film’s incredible sets makes the world feel grandiose in a way that many other CGI extravaganzas fail at. The shockingly aggressive, kickass score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch helps. They respect the legacy of Vangelis’s marvellous, rhapsodical score for the original movie, but aren’t afraid to get a hell of a lot louder.

Although Blade Runner 2049 is not as good a film as Blade Runner, it is one of the best examples of respecting the source without replicating it in this era of endless rehashes. It would have been simple to remake the original film beat for beat, like in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (which I like). But Blade Runner is a different kind of film from Star Wars and calls for a different kind of sequel. Blade Runner is slow, thinky, painterly, and not culturally ubiquitous. In keeping with that, Blade Runner 2049 is a slow, thinky, painterly film that relies as much on its director’s unique vision as on the canon it inherits from the nostalgia object that begat it. If there is anybody who can make Dune into a movie that’s actually good, it’s probably Villeneuve. I’m on tenterhooks.

No. 24: Code Switch

codeswitch_itunes2_sq-cc90dbc5dcdff7b93734f2a1a29864cb77742948-s300-c85Code Switch became NPR’s best podcast awfully fast. 2017 found the Code Switch team reflecting at length on the legacy of Barack Obama, exploring racial identity in the Puerto Rican diaspora, and exploring the increasingly pressing questions surrounding hate, police violence, and deportation in year one of the Trump era. They’ve also put out some of the best pop culture journalism of the year.

But the show’s crown jewel is the four-part series “Raising Kings,” based on a full year of reporting on a new school where a faculty made up mostly of black men teaches a student body made up mostly of black young men. It’s a sensitive, insightful, and frequently challenging piece of documentary radio that everybody should hear. Code Switch is a show you shouldn’t ever skip an episode of. It’ll help you get through life in a more practical way than just about any other show.

No. 23: Barbara Hannigan & Ludwig Orchestra: Crazy Girl Crazy

There are several levels of “why bother being this good” at play here. Barbara Hannigan could easily have settled for being merely one of the great sopranos of our time. But no: she has to also be a trailblazer for contemporary music, daring to learn the heretofore unlearned scores of composers who write vocal challenges few but her could rise to. (This is the version of Hannigan that brought us last year’s best classical recording: let me tell you by Hans Abrahamsen.) But even that isn’t enough for her. She’s also got to be a brilliant conductor. And since she can both conduct and sing, she clearly has to do them both at the same time. In music that’s crazy hard to begin with.

Crazy Girl Crazy is Hannigan’s first disc as a conductor, and indeed her first disc as a conductor/singer. It contains a selection of music from the 20th century that all feels like it’s at the core of Hannigan. At the centre of it all is a lush, romantic reading of Alban Berg’s beautiful Lulu Suite. Hannigan has been the soprano of choice for the role of Lulu for years now. Hearing her take on the orchestral music from that opera just confirms that she owns that piece as thoroughly as any musician owns any piece of music. The Ludwig Orchestra, a young ensemble that makes its recording debut here, plays skillfully, and with all of the intensity of an orchestra that’s not sick of making music yet. And Hannigan proves again that she’s one of the most multifaceted artists working in classical music today.

No. 22: Chris Gethard: Career Suicide

I got a lot out of Chris Gethard’s various projects this year. Whether he’s being exceptionally silly on The Chris Gethard Show, turning listening into a high art on Beautiful Conversations with Anonymous People, or telling the story of his own struggle with suicidal depression in this comedy special/one-man show, Gethard’s objective is simple: he just wants you to feel a bit better.

He’s a useful fellow to have around, even if your low points are a heck of a lot less dire than his. Gethard’s comedy and storytelling is something close to a public service. He’s working to normalize talking about mental illness, and he’s working against the stigmas surrounding medication for mental illnesses. But he’s also super funny, and this 90-minute HBO special is the best distillation of everything he’s been working towards. Where other comedians tend to address their own traumas with a facade of glibness or with the aid of characters, Gethard is not afraid to simply put punchlines aside for lengthy stretches and tell a story. And it’s a really good story with amazing characters including Morrissey and a therapist called Barb who thinks that the human brain was manufactured by aliens. 

No. 21: Mogul

I feel like I’ve been waiting for this podcast. I didn’t know it would come from Gimlet and I didn’t know it would be about the life and death of a hip hop businessperson. But I knew that at some point, somebody would make a rich sounding, story-driven music documentary that would prove there’s a hunger for music-focussed radio that doesn’t play full tracks. Mogul is the future.

It is also a second breakthrough for Reggie Ossé, AKA Combat Jack of The Combat Jack Show. Ossé’s approach to hosting this show isn’t quite like anything I’ve heard before. He comes to the story of Chris Lighty with a nearly complete knowledge of the musical culture that he sprang from and helped to shape. But that knowledge is secondary to the warmth and sensitivity with which he handles the story. Mogul is, among other things, a story about mental illness and domestic violence in the hip hop culture. It’s clear that, apart from the music, this is what compelled Ossé to tell the story in the first place. There is a second season forthcoming, and with the allegations against Russell Simmons that have come to light since season one wrapped, there are still plenty of thorny questions for Ossé and company to address. (Edit: I was unaware when I wrote this that Reggie Ossé passed away recently. It’s a terrible loss for podcasting. Mogul will stand as the high-water mark for music-related audio storytelling for a while to come.) 

No. 20: Tacoma

The Fullbright Company’s second game stands in a very long shadow for me. Their debut, Gone Home, was the game that re-introduced me to games after a decade’s absence. It demonstrated to me that the medium had grown and changed. Now, there were games specifically for those of us who appreciate the exploratory and narrative elements of games, but would rather not have to demonstrate sophisticated hand-eye coordination or work through complicated puzzles to get to the next bit of story.

When footage from Tacoma surfaced, two things were clear. First, this would be a more directly interactive experience than Gone Home, with more to actually do. Secondly, it was going to take place in that most “video games” of video game settings: a space station. Both of these concerned me. You may well conclude from my concerns that I essentially don’t like video games. And you may be right. But I liked Gone Home, and I held up hope for Tacoma. My hope was not misplaced. Tacoma’s approach to story is a cut above Gone Home, thanks to an innovative system of interactive cutscenes you can actually move around in. I still prefer the ambience of Gone Home’s creepy, empty mansion to the cramped quarters of the Tacoma space station. But my faith in the storytelling of the team at Fullbright is even stronger now.

No. 19: Lady Bird

I always love a movie with a good sense of place. Often, that place is New York City. Hollywood has provided a huge variety of takes on what it’s like to live in New York, from West Side Story to Rosemary’s Baby. It’s a setting that has been so well developed in movies that a) it no longer lives up to itself, and b) it’s almost shocking to see another American city painted with the same detail on the screen. With the release of Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s Sacramento joins Vince Gilligan’s Albuquerque and the Coens’ Fargo/Brainerd among the great cinematic depictions of Places People Don’t Ever Think About.

There are plenty of reasons why Lady Bird is one of the year’s best movies, including two of the year’s best performances by Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, and a screenplay that handles even the smallest characters with finesse and warmth. It’s a lovely depiction of a relationship between a mother and a daughter. It’s admirably aware of the realities of class in America and the ways it plays into raising a family. But my favourite reason to love Lady Bird is that it paints a portrait of an unloved place, lovingly.

No. 18: Kendrick Lamar: DAMN.

I slept on To Pimp a Butterfly in 2015. I missed the whole conversation. It’s not a mistake I ever intend to repeat.

I suspect that in the future, we’ll still think of Butterfly as Lamar’s breakthrough moment — his Are You Experienced. (Lamar once said he’d like to be talked about like Dylan, Hendrix and the Beatles. Happy to oblige.) But DAMN. feels like the sort of record you make when you’re out to prove you’re not interested in replicating past successes and following formulas — Lamar’s Band of Gypsies, maybe. It’s the kind of album that, if you pull it off, makes you not just accomplished but vital: an artist who is brilliant regardless of the idiom in which they choose to work. Kendrick Lamar is vital.

No. 17: The Beguiled

This coiled snake is the year’s most underrated movie. The subject of The Beguiled is propriety — particularly Southern propriety — and how it’s just one tool in the patriarchy’s huge, indulgent workshop. But like all good storytellers, Sofia Coppola doesn’t start from the theme and build outward. In fact, it starts from a source that has different themes entirely: the 1971 Clint Eastwood vehicle of the same name. (Or, perhaps more accurately, the novel that it’s based on. But it was the original film’s liabilities that prompted Coppola to remake it.)

The premise of both films is the same: a seminary school full of women loyal to the south is shaken by the arrival of a rather dashing but grievously injured Union soldier at their doorstep. Coppola’s masterstrokes are all in the telling of the story, rather than the story itself. Her film is as mannered and meticulously composed as the Southern ladies who inhabit it. And as the story’s potential for violence rises steadily, the tension comes from the discrepancy between the increasingly ugly atmosphere at the seminary and the film’s continuing insistence on pretty-as-a-picture decorum in its visual style. I haven’t seen filmmaking simultaneously so beautiful and savage since Hannibal got cancelled.

No. 16: Everything

I have a friend who likes to joke that my problem with video games is that I want them to be books. Fair enough. But that’s only half the story. What I really want is for a video game to be either a book or a theme park. In either case, I should ideally not have to shoot or jump over anything. The point is, I don’t need games to expect skill from me. I don’t need them to be things I can win or lose. I just want them to be experiences. For me, a great game is like Disneyland (but without the creepy half-reality that keeps you from fully suspending your disbelief). It’s a constructed reality for you to explore at your leisure. You can’t win or lose Disneyland. And yet it is still (ostensibly) fun. This is what I want from a game.

Enter Everything, my favourite game of 2017. Everything has no goals or trials to overcome. It has no traditional story. It is simply an interactive exploration of a single idea: that everything is connected. This runs the risk of getting cod-philosophical, and indeed it includes narration by the proto-hippie philosopher Alan Watts that can be hard to take seriously. But developer David OReilly undercuts his game’s potential for ham-fistedness by making everything else about it absolutely raving crazy. This is a game that offers the opportunity to be everything in it: to move around as anything from a bighorn sheep to a tiny elementary particle to a sentient hovering tea kettle the size of the sun. Everything is a fully-realized pocket universe full of planet-sized cows and trombones that travel in herds. I have never seen anything like it.

No. 15: Dunkirk

Seeing Christopher Nolan’s latest, best film in an IMAX screening sits very near the top of my list of great moviegoing experiences. Take note that this list is distinct from my list of favourite movies, and even from my list of favourite movies I’ve seen in theatres. A movie need not be a masterpiece to be an incredible experience in a theatre. Dunkirk is a truly great film, but my opinion of it is entirely contingent on the experience of seeing it in film projection, on an IMAX screen.

The beauty of IMAX is that it nearly fills your field of vision, encouraging you to forget everything that lies beyond the edges of the screen. So, when Nolan puts his camera in the galley of a ship, and it gets hit by a torpedo and fills instantly with water, you feel like you’re going to die. That, in a nutshell, is why Dunkirk is a great film: Nolan understands that cinema is an experience as much as a narrative art form, and he uses his mastery of the craft to put the audience inside of one of the most traumatic and unprecedented chapters in the history of warfare. And at the end, maybe we understand it a bit better.

14: Twin Peaks: The Return

While I was watching Twin Peaks: The Return on a week-by-week basis, I was uncertain whether I felt it was rising to the level of Twin Peaks’ original two seasons. Now that I’m not watching it week by week, I am quite certain that it altogether surpassed them. The Return was frustrating for its relative lack of familiar characters and story beats — particularly the almost complete lack of participation by the original protagonist, agent Dale Cooper, in any recognizable form. But now that the thing is complete, we can see that this series wasn’t supposed to be about Coop, and in fact that it wasn’t supposed to be about very many of the same things the original series was at all. If you can accept that and watch the show on its own terms, it reveals itself to be maybe the strangest and most ambitious season of television ever transmitted.

The eighth episode is a case in point. Much of its duration consists of abstract, non-figurative images in the vein of Stan Brakhage. Nonetheless, it does tell a recognizable story — an origin story, in fact. An origin story for the totemic evil that has haunted this show’s characters since its first episode. This could have turned out like Hannibal Rising: an unnecessary and disappointing wad of backstory that cheapens the previous instalments in the narrative. But by telling the story through lyrical, abstract, largely wordless filmmaking, David Lynch short circuits our rational brains and manages instead to convey a feeling of profound wrongness, and to convey it at length. This is how the whole of Twin Peaks: The Return worked, to a certain extent: by bypassing rationality entirely and speaking to something more primal in us. This is not something you’re supposed to be able to do on television. But it happened. There are seasons of television in higher slots on this list. But I doubt I’ll rewatch any of them. I will rewatch this.

No. 13: Offa Rex: The Queen of Hearts

I fell down a Decemberists hole in April. That’s when I bought my ticket for their show at the Orpheum in August. I have never been so excited for a show. But by the time the concert actually rolled around, I was more psyched for the opening act. Olivia Chaney is one of my favourite discoveries of the year. Her solo record The Longest River has now soundtracked many a walk home in the Vancouver rain. And I owe that discovery to this record, a collaboration between Chaney and the Decemberists that rises to the standard of Chaney’s solo work and far surpasses the most recent music by the Decemberists.

The Queen of Hearts is a revival of a revival. It consists of English folk songs arranged in the style of electrified British revivalists like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. This is a legacy that both halves of the collaboration have dealt with before. Chaney draws the folk component of her repertoire from the same pool as these bands, and the Decemberists’ trilogy of masterpieces — Picaresque, The Crane Wife, and The Hazards of Love — all crib liberally from the sound of the British folk revival. Together, they prove not only that the songs still have power, but that the style does. And Chaney’s solo rendition of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” will melt you.

No. 12: mother!

About three seconds after the house lights came up at the end of mother!, the friend I saw it with burst out into hysterical laughter and couldn’t stop for several minutes. That is the most appropriate review I can imagine for this aggressively fucked up, semi-trolling movie by Darren Aronofsky: one of modern Hollywood’s strangest auteurs. The only reaction to mother! that I may treasure more is from the New York Times commenter who wrote: “It’s been a long time since I overheard Ma and Pa Kettle talking about a film on the way out of the theater. Art above all else should be misunderstood loudly.”

From the moment that the exclamation point appears in the title card, mother! is arch and theatrical. Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem give completely committed and sincere performances, but nothing else in the movie is sincere in the slightest. There are those who feel mother! can only be dealt with as a Biblical allegory — and they’ve certainly got Aronofsky’s distressingly specific remarks in interviews to back them up. He seems to be doing everything he can to reduce his creation, which offers a whole world of abstract possibility, into one tidy interpretation. But Aronofsky’s movie is too big to be held to a fixed meaning. I’m increasingly convinced that Aronofsky’s insistence on explaining away the movie’s contradictions is part of the performance: he’s casting himself as an extension of Bardem’s theological poet character, demanding dogmatic devotion to a specific meaning of his holy text. Perhaps only a critic as myopic as myself could possibly see this movie as a critique of the slipperiness of interpretation. But I do see it that way. Anyway, the real truth is just that I enjoyed the hell out of this movie, and I want it to be more than a banal Biblical allegory. Mother! is completely bonkers crazy and you’ll probably feel a little cracked at the end. Good enough for me.

No. 11: George Saunders: Lincoln in the Bardo (audiobook)

Lincoln in the Bardo isn’t even really about Lincoln. It’s about the processes of death and grieving that affect us all, presidents or not. Abraham Lincoln and his son Willie, who died at the age of 11, are in this story only to give it the profound specificity that all very moving stories require. They set the story in a time and a place, and give it the context of a particular personal tragedy with which we are all familiar. But the emotional heft of Lincoln in the Bardo actually stems from characters that George Saunders made up out of whole cloth: a kind old fool who died moments before consummating his marriage, and an effusive young man who regrets his suicide. These two reside in an uneasy state of quasi-friendship in a not-quite-afterlife like no other fantasy realm in fiction. Every line they speak is enthralling.

And speaking of speaking, Lincoln in the Bardo also represents the moment when the audiobook really came into its own. The cover art brags of 166 narrators, but the ones you really need to know about are Nick Offerman and David Sedaris, who play the two central characters. They are brilliant, and even Sedaris, who is not an actor, inhabits the text like a good coat. Offerman audibly delights in his character’s tendency to coin phrases that allow himself to remain in denial of his own passing: phrases like “sick box” in lieu of coffin, or “sick form” in lieu of corpse. And both are heartbreaking in their final scene together. I can’t say whether the audiobook is the definitive format, having not read the printed book. But try it. The performances measure up to the material.

No. 10: Margo Price: All American Made

Sometimes you have a year when you just feel like you’ve accomplished nothing. Like you’ve gone backwards. Everybody has those years. It can’t be helped. And if 2017 was a year like that for you, I’d like to suggest you listen to some country music. Margo Price’s second album cements her as the queen of modern Nashville. Lots of it is rollicking fun country music with a band that sounds like it comes straight from a Jerry Lee Lewis record. (Indeed, it was recorded at the Sam C. Phillips Recording Studio, where many a country and early rock and roll icon cut acetates.) “A Little Pain” is probably the pump-up jam you need. But it’s the ballads that keep me coming back, and particularly “Learning to Lose,” Price’s duet with the great Willie Nelson. “I’m so far away from where I started,” Price sings in the opening verse, “but no closer to where I belong.” Oof.

It’s important to have songs like “Learning to Lose” in your life. Songs about the moments when life disappoints us, and humanity disappoints us and we disappoint ourselves. Because songs like this reassure us that disappointment, loss, rejection, loneliness, failure, acrimony, and strife are normal facets of the human experience that everybody goes through. And we now live in a world where everybody has their whole life on display on Facebook and Instagram, except that all of that stuff gets airbrushed out. So where do you turn for a quick hit of catharsis when it seems like everybody else is busy following their bliss? Turn to country music. Turn to Margo Price. And hope that next year, we’ll learn to win.

No. 9: Baby Driver

I have a friend who tells a story about how Brian Eno saved his life. “I suffer from tinnitus,” he wrote. “These days I’m mostly able to ignore it, but when I first noticed it, it was terrifying. I couldn’t sleep through the night without having this track (“Music for Airports 1/1”) on repeat in the background, just loud enough to distract me from the buzzing in my own head, just quiet enough to allow me to sleep.” He went on to coin a phrase I like: “societal tinnitus”: the terrifying sensation that the world is inescapably noisy. Music for Airports can drown out this kind of tinnitus, too. So can essentially any other sound recording. Music can offer a near-complete respite from the obligation to be present in the world. When you put in earbuds, you are doing two things in equal measure: connecting yourself to an imaginary reality that exists in a recording, and disconnecting yourself from the auditory portion of the empirical reality around you. It’s wrong to view the latter phenomenon as a byproduct of the former. Your inability to connect with the world around you when you’re wearing earbuds is a feature, not a bug. The world is so loud. To escape, simply superimpose a louder one. Disengage.

Baby Driver is a movie about a person suffering from tinnituses both literal and symbolic. (Well really, Baby’s literal tinnitus is a symbol in itself, for his emotional trauma.) It is a movie about music’s ability to subsume the empirical reality around you and replace it with a different reality that you can cope with, until you’re ready to cope with the real one. The movie’s relationship with music is different from that of lesser films like Garden State or even High Fidelity, both of which are about how a person’s relationship with specific genres, songs and artists help to inform that person’s identity. Baby Driver isn’t about any music in particular. It is about the act of listening itself. For Baby, music is neither indulgence nor signifier, but a basic necessity to drown out the constant ringing in his ears, to function in his job, to empathize with the girl he loves, and to drown out the noise of a dysfunctional household. (So this is what the volume knob’s for…) Baby Driver is not a music nerd movie. It is not a movie about listening to music. It’s a movie about not having to listen to the rest of the world, which is loud and confusing and stressful. It also has the best chase scenes ever. It is large. It contains multitudes.

No. 8: Better Call Saul

This scene, which you should not watch if you’re not caught up on the show, is everything I love about Better Call Saul in a nutshell. This show’s most dramatic moments take place in ordinary rooms and draw their strength from well-established relationships. When we think back to its esteemed predecessor Breaking Bad, it’s easy to recall it as a show full of train robberies and shootouts. But think of how many earthshaking moments in that show were actually really quiet. Hank finding Leaves of Grass. Walt lying to his doctor about his fugue state by telling the truth. Even “I am the one who knocks” is a quiet moment in the most literal sense. Better Call Saul is any one of those moments stretched out into a whole show. It’s a show where nearly every episode has a scene that feels like a set piece, but those set pieces seldom involve action. Jimmy’s trick with the phone battery in the scene above is a case in point. It’s not easy to write stories about con men, because you’ve got to be able to come up with cons. Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have proven themselves equal to the task.

The third season of Better Call Saul is its best by miles. By reintroducing yet another beloved character from Breaking Bad, Gus Fring, the writers risked treading needlessly far into that show’s shadow. Instead, they doubled down on the relationships that have always been at the core of this show. The constant risk to Jimmy’s romantic-ish relationship with the intensely sympathetic workaholic Kim Wexler is one of the season’s key tension generators. And his relationship with his cruel, doctrinaire brother Chuck finally deteriorates past the point of no return. Better Call Saul is the best character drama on television. Every year, I seem to forget how much I love it until the new season starts. Not this time.

No. 7: Jon Bois: 17776

The greatest literary masterpiece I read this year was published on the sports news website SB Nation and it’s about three sentient space probes in the massively distant future watching humans play increasingly Dadaist games of football because they stopped dying and aging in the 21st century. I slightly regret that I have now spoiled the surprise of the story’s very opening. But if there were no more to 17776 than its bonkers premise, it would hardly be a literary masterpiece, would it? Come for the gonzo, unclassifiable, mixed media craziness. Stay for the beautiful prose about humanity’s place in the universe and the dialogue that elevates the game of football to a form of sublime performance art.

I can immediately think of at least four moments in 17776 when I got choked up — this in spite of the fact that it is a silly story rendered in Web 1.0 style, and that I have no grasp of how football works. It moves me because it forces me to consider, as Jon Bois has evidently considered at length, the actual importance of my particular passions. The humans of 17776 have unlimited time to spend on football and presumably other sports and pastimes. I do not. And yet I write a blog where I regularly review more than 20 things I watched, read and listened to during the course of a single week. No wonder 17776’s take on human ambition and the purpose of play resonated with me. I think a lot about something Bois wrote in a sort of afterword to the piece: “I think 17776 might get one thing right about the future: we’re never gonna leave the solar system… Too much distance, too much radiation, and too little incentive. If that ends up being the case, we’ll have nothing to do but solve our problems on Earth. I’m being really optimistic when I guess that we might someday. After we do that, we’re gonna want our games, our art, and each other. One day, we might see those as the only reasons we’re here.” Is it wrong that I feel a little better because of that statement?

No. 6: American Gods

Bryan Fuller’s last show, Hannibal, was one of the greatest screen adaptations of a familiar property ever made. American Gods is maybe better. The Neil Gaiman novel from which it is adapted is a grand old romp through various mythologies, with deeply affecting narratives of the American immigrant experience woven throughout. But that novel was written before 9/11, let alone before Trump. Let alone before Facebook. The show is a substantially different thing for a bogglingly different America.

American Gods rethinks Gaiman’s take on Anansi, the kindly African spider god of storytelling, as a ruthless pragmatist who finds his way to America on the remains of a slave ship he entreated the captives to burn. It suggests that our protagonist’s wife may be the reincarnation of an Irish immigrant who brought the leprechaun Mad Sweeney to the new world, where he wastes away from lack of belief. (“A Prayer for Mad Sweeney” is my favourite episode of the year, save possibly for Part 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return.) And it gives us a terrifying contingent of “new gods.” Media, a shapeshifting Gillian Anderson, distorts and distracts in equal measure. The Technical Boy is no longer a truculent fat kid surrounded by wires as he was in the novel, but a sleek, hollow Instagram star of a villain. Television’s American Gods enacts a battle for the life of an America with a more immediately threatening kind of cancer than the slow-acting one Gaiman detected in the late 90s. It is the best show I watched this year.

No. 5: Maria Bamford: Old Baby

Maria Bamford is my favourite comedian. She’s a better writer than anybody else doing comedy right now. See: her husband’s column in her “emotional sudoku” bit: “Your great-grandfather was a violent alcoholic in the army who beat his son, who was a violent alcoholic in the army who beat his son, who was a violent alcoholic in the marines who beat you. You’re not in the armed services at all. You don’t drink. But you have PTSD so bad that you think you can clench your buttocks and fly the plane.” All written out like that it almost seems like something Joseph Heller would write.

She’s also a better performer than anybody else doing comedy right now. She can flip from character to character as cleanly as Robin Williams. (“Hello! Is the beef fresh? … This is so powerful if you act it out… Is the beef fresh?”) Her material still lives in dark places: her experience and her family’s experiences with mental illness are at the centre of everything. But she is such a skillful comic that laughing never feels uncomfortable. Bamford has the rare gift of being able to make you realize that the same event can be both intensely traumatic and hysterically funny — that there’s no contradiction there. “Anybody been in a psych ward?” Bamford once said in another context. “It’s really funny in retrospect.” That’s a perfect joke. The humour comes from both the darkness and the construction. That’s why Maria Bamford is so funny: she insists on applying an extremely rigorous sort of structure to completely chaotic subject matter. Bamford proves that comedy about mental illness doesn’t need to be a sort of public therapy. I have not laughed harder at anything in recent memory.

No. 4: The Heart

The Heart is over. At least, for now. I’m as choked about this, if not more, than I was when Gimlet cancelled Mystery Show. This show has been in a league of its own since it rebranded from the earlier Audio Smut and joined up with the Radiotopia network. No other podcast discusses sexuality with the same combination of frankness, diversity, and beauty. This last quality is especially crucial. It’s possible to talk about The Heart as if it is merely noble: a sex-positive, intersectional feminist institution that Gets Important Conversations Started. But that is a drastically inadequate characterization of this show. It is also consistently the most beautiful sounding, atmospheric and subtle show in the podcast space. More than Radiolab. More than Love and Radio. The Heart is a show about the most intimate relationships between humans. In keeping with this, it uses its sound art aesthetic to forge an intimacy with the listener that is stronger than anything else I’ve ever heard.

2017 found The Heart offering two mini-seasons and a smattering of one-off episodes. It’s the second of the two mini-seasons, “No,” that makes this The Heart’s strongest year. It is a complicated, fair, and fearless sexual memoir by Kaitlin Prest, the show’s host. She interrogates her own past, from childhood through to the present day, and charts her own sexual boundaries over that time. Her story becomes a springboard for a nuanced discussion of consent that I can imagine being useful for every listener in a different way. The series also finds Prest at her best as a sound designer, going so far as to apply filters to tape of her own sexual experiences so she can assess the tone of her voice without hearing the words she’s saying. There is nothing else like The Heart. Whatever the team behind this show are planning next, its end is a tremendous loss.

No. 3: Ted Hearne/The Crossing: Sound from the Bench

Sometimes I like to just type out a sentence that describes a thing. It’s only fun when the thing you’re describing has lots of unexpected moving parts. I’m going to do that now. Here, look: My favourite music of the year is a cantata for mixed chorus, drums and two electric guitars with words drawn from ventriloquism textbooks and the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case. See? Wasn’t that fun?

Ted Hearne is one of the great contemporary composers for the human voice. I first discovered him through his oratorio The Source, which features an auto-tuned chorus called “We Called for Illumination at 1630” that floored me — it is the sound of humans trying to escape from a digital hellscape. This is what Hearne does with the voice: he uses it as a sympathetic force to latch onto in a world controlled by bewildering and absurd systems. Sound from the Bench is a semi-comedic piece that gets a lot of mileage out of the perversity of hearing a brilliant choir sing lines like “these corporations have a lot of money” and “you are not talking about the railroad barons and the rapacious trusts.” But the actual comedy of Sound from the Bench is a sad comedy. Citizens United, you may recall, is the Supreme Court decision that ruled that money is speech because corporations are people: two of the most patently absurd things that body has ever asserted. Sound from the Bench is a comedy about people doing their best to laugh at the absurdity of a world whose crazy rules they have to live with in spite of the fact that it makes their lives worse. It’s Twelfth Night as a contemporary cantata. It is unaccountably moving, hysterical, and vibrant. It is brilliantly performed by the Crossing, a magnificent choir based in Philadelphia. It is everything I want out of music.

No. 2: S-Town

“I did nothing good today,” reads an inscription on a sundial in S-Town. “I have lost a day.” Depending on your mood, it’s a sentiment that can reflect a profound resignation to the brevity of life, or a desperate mania to accomplish something in spite of it. S-Town’s hero, John B. McLemore, embodies both facets. He is a man alternately consumed by depression and ablaze with fascination for whatever project he’s putting his time into now: repairing antique clocks, growing a hedge maze in his yard, building a swing set for his adult protegé’s edification — or, most crucially, living his life as a story worthy of attention from an acclaimed This American Life producer.

S-Town is a story so full of pat, obvious metaphors that it would be insufferable if it were fiction. But producer and host Brian Reed didn’t actually devise any of these metaphors himself. His main character, McLemore, deliberately surrounded himself in metaphors. He’s a man who lived his life as a story, and then actually found somebody to tell the story. He is Hamlet, exerting a pull on the narrative that exceeds that of the storyteller. There are those in the blogosphere who disapprove of elements in Reed’s telling of the story. But as I listened to S-Town, I couldn’t help feeling McLemore’s hands on the strings of the story, even when it would have been impossible for him to affect it in real time. Woodstock, Alabama is a stranger-than-fiction town with implicit metaphors baked in. John B. McLemore is a stranger-than-fiction man who saw the metaphors, and cast himself as the tragic protagonist amidst them. Brian Reed knew to hit record, and made the best radio of the year.

No. 1: Get Out

One thing I discovered about myself in 2017 is that I am a bottomless fountain of slightly facile theories about the horror genre. Here is one of my facile theories: horror and comedy are the two most intimately related genres of fiction. This is because laughter and fear, at their root, are both ways of responding to the absurd. If you encounter something absurd, something that challenges your sense of what’s “normal,” you’re likely to either laugh or feel fear, depending on the framing of the event. The genius of Jordan Peele’s directorial debut Get Out is that the comedy and the horror are derived from the same central absurdity: a black man’s sense that there is racism all around him, even though he is being constantly told there is not.

This movie is the most brilliant social commentary that’s been in movie theatres for years, but this is me writing here, so let’s think about from it a structural, movie nerd perspective. There are plenty of comedy-horror movies out there. Scream comes to mind. If you squint a bit, Scary Movie fits. It’s a long tradition, dating back at least to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Probably earlier. But these movies are parodies. The jokes are at the expense of horror movie tropes. Get Out is a horror comedy that is not a parody. It is a comedy-horror movie in which both the comedy and the horror arise from the same source, and neither undermines the other. It is a new approach to this particular fusion of genres that walks a delicate balance without ever putting a foot wrong. And in finding a way to negotiate this balance, Jordan Peele has devised a new mode of social critique — one that works particularly well in a world where every single thing that happens is both hysterical and terrifying. Smile into the void, children. Smile into the void.

***

And that’s the list! When I started writing this, I confess I was a bit on the fence about it. Looking back through my list from last year, I couldn’t help thinking that 2016 was a way better year for pop culture. I still think I may be right about that. But writing this took me way longer than I expected because I kept going back to these things, remembering what I loved about them, and spending more time with each of them than I could afford. (I am looking specifically at you, Jon Bois and Maria Bamford.)

This stuff matters to me. It helps me understand the world and the people around me. I apply the lessons from each entry on this list to my life, every day. It has been a good year.

I’m going to go outside.

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Omnireviewer (week of Apr. 16)

Lots of good stuff this week. Also one very bad thing that I enjoyed regardless. 22 reviews.

Movies

The Wicker Man (2006) — Oh, good lord. Firstly, be warned (BEE warned) that the infamous “NOT THE BEEEES” scene is actually not in the theatrical release of this movie. It’s in an alternate ending only on the DVD. I guess when they were editing the movie they found the line they couldn’t cross, and that was it. If you haven’t seen this, you should definitely watch it. Watch it with some people around. Nicholas Cage’s scenery chewing results in one of the most compellingly terrible performances I’ve ever witnessed. Everything about this movie is so crazily off the mark that I have trouble believing any actor attached to it (maybe Cage more than anybody) took it seriously as they were making it. It’s laden down with severely inept writing (“Of course. Another plant!”), weirdly benign jump scares (that bit where he wakes up twice) and badly-directed child extras (“Phall-ic sym-bol, phall-ic sym-bol”). I must confess, I never saw the appeal of the original, acclaimed version of The Wicker Man. But seeing some of the stuff that this version gets wrong makes me appreciate it a little more. For one thing, the remake de-emphasizes the protagonist’s religion. We do see a crucifix in Cage’s house early in the film, but that’s about the extent of it. In the original, the detective’s religiosity is what compels him to investigate the missing girl’s disappearance with such vigor: he inherently distrusts the Hebridean islanders because of their paganism. And that’s really what the original film is primarily about. Its horror derives from Christian anxiety over lingering paganism in rural places. This is substituted out in the remake for two ill-advised alterations: making the missing girl the detective’s daughter (“there has to be stakes” says American cinema) and making the island not merely pagan but also a matriarchy. Because to secular, urbane, 21st-century Americans, paganism isn’t scary. But women running society? Heaven fucking forfend. And then there’s the fucking bees, which are somehow both ham-fistedly symbolic and a seemingly arbitrary addition to the story. But all of this is just me wilfully missing the point of watching this movie. I said before that I didn’t really enjoy the original Wicker Man all that much. I think it has a good story with interesting implications about religious anxiety. But it also has tonally jarring musical numbers and Christopher Lee at, frankly, not his best. On the other hand, I completely enjoyed the Nic Cage remake. This is the rare case where I’ll happily recommend a ridicule-watch of a bad movie over a sincere screening of an objectively more accomplished one. Seriously. Watch this.

Television

Battlestar Galactica: Season 3, episodes 14-20 — Let’s make this a full-on appraisal of the complete season, shall we? Okay. Starting at the beginning. The New Caprica arc is outstanding, if far shorter-lived than I’d expected. It’s remarkable how close to the season two status quo (and in fact, the pre-”Pegasus” status quo) we end up in, a mere four episodes after everything changes. Still, the decision not to belabour the point of New Caprica is probably a good one, and it allows for a remarkably brisk start to the season. The “Exodus” two-parter is up there with the season two finale, the first episode of the miniseries and “33” among my favourites in this series. Once we’re past that arc, the show returns to something like business as usual, but with the extremely satisfying addition of a plotline that takes place on a Cylon baseship. I brought this up last week, but it bears repeating: the set alone is one of the best things this show has ever done. The way that the editing is deliberately disorienting in the baseship scenes is brilliant. And every new glimpse we get of Cylon society — of the ways that they interact with their surroundings and each other in ways that are both human and alien — adds depth to the show. It’s in the small choices: like the way that red characters are projected over the Cylons whenever they’re in their control room and the water-filled interfaces with the consoles. The Cylons aren’t creepy because they’re mechanical. They’re creepy because they’re weirdly organic, and yet they live like this. I’m particularly enamoured with the Hybrid: a Cronenbergian horror that puts the interior of the Cylon raiders to shame. Number Three getting her own honest-to-god(s?) plotline is a welcome development. At this point in the show, nearly half of the known Cylon models (Three, Six and Eight — the women, not coincidentally I imagine) have at least certain sympathetic aspects. I love that we’re seeing more from that side of the conflict. The Galactica-based plotlines of the mid-season are more hit and miss. Starbuck, my favourite character in the first two seasons save possibly for Roslin, gets particularly short shrift. She’s jammed into an inelegant love quadrangle in which neither of the inconvenient marriages involved makes a lick of sense. (There’s still satisfaction in seeing her at her triumphant moments, though. Every time she triumphs I get this warm fuzzy feeling like I’ve just punched Dirk Benedict in the face.) Still, one episode takes these flawed storylines and makes them sing, and that is “Unfinished Business.” Weaving together a recreational boxing tournament onboard the Galactica and flashbacks from the almost good times of early New Caprica, it establishes that the characters in this show don’t need to be dogfighting, fomenting revolution or barking commands to be compelling. It leaves out everything I love most about this season — the Cylon baseship, Baltar’s plotline aboard said baseship, weird spirituality — and still manages to be the best episode of the season. However, like season two, this has some serious clunkers in its second half. “The Woman King” is a shitty would-be conspiracy thriller with Helo in the lead. Even so, while the actual crimes that Helo’s investigating are deeply unconvincing plotting, it does develop his character in an interesting way that I wouldn’t have thought to observe: he’s the character on the ship who is constantly on the wrong side of everything. Among the crew, he’s possibly the most liberal. Speaking of politics, another disappointment in this season is the transformation of Tom Zarek from a revolutionary freedom fighter to an abuser of executive power. That’s dispiriting. But then, it has happened frequently enough throughout history. What’s really bizarre is how the show suddenly recast Baltar as a farmer’s son and he was briefly the fleet’s primary voice of radical politics. So, effectively, both of Battlestar Galactica’s far-left figures are compromised: Zarek because he eventually perpetrates the abuses he once professed to hate, and Baltar because he’s using leftist rhetoric for cynical, personal means. At least there’s kickass union boss Chief Tyrell. (I also love that this entire plotline is scored with a sort of quasi-bluegrass from space.) And I do like that the show is willing to have its two broadly sympathetic leadership figures, Adama and Roslin, be completely and committedly wrong and insensitive about labour organizing and issues of class in general. That rings true. But back to the negatives for a moment. “A Day in the Life” is an Adama feature episode that’s not worthy of the character. It finds him wilfully hallucinating his own dead wife, whose line readings are bizarrely terse and suck the energy out of every scene she’s in. That takes us to the season’s endgame, I suppose. In general, I approve of the plot developments in these episodes as broad strokes — Starbuck dies and returns enlightened, Baltar is found not guilty, everyone is a Cylon, etc. — but I don’t think they make especially good television on a micro level. It’s little choices that let them down, not big ones. I understand that there’s a twist in this show somewhere that people disapproved of. I can’t figure out what it is. But there are little things creeping in that make it seem a little bit less sure-handed than it once was. The whole contrived thing of Apollo being called as a witness at Baltar’s trial to deliver his speech, for instance. That speech needed to happen, but why go about it in such a weird way? And really, the whole decision to focus such a big chunk of the season finale on something as relatively low-stakes as Baltar’s trial. Or the “All Along the Watchtower” thing in the finale. That was a little overcooked. (Though I’m curious about how a song from contemporary Earth ended up in this show, given what we’ve been made to understand about when in human history it takes place. I have an obvious theory. Don’t tell me if I’m right.) The final shot of the season, with all of the cosmic zooms finishing on the reveal of Earth feels like it’s from a completely different show, aesthetically: a much more 2001 sort of science fiction show. Could it be that we’re hurdling headlong into crazy for season four? (That much I know.) And finally. Fat Apollo. Fat fucking Apollo. This is a good season of television. The highs are super high, and the lows aren’t much lower than previously.

Doctor Who: “The Pilot” — Ohhhh yes. Oh, I’m so glad it’s back. The title flags the most interesting thing about this episode, which is that it is functionally a new start. Doctor Who isn’t the first show to make a pun on the word “pilot” in an episode title. Lost comes to mind immediately, and there must be others. But I don’t know of another that does one 10 seasons into its run (or, indeed, 36 seasons in). This feels like Steven Moffat challenging himself to restate the premise of the show and express its fundamental romantic joy without too much reference to continuity. It is enormously successful in that, and I found myself as overwhelmed as ever by the reveal of the TARDIS interior. I’ve written before about a concept I call “wonder surrogacy,” where a show or movie establishes a character inside of its narrative whose specific role is to marvel at what’s going on around them in the hopes that their wonder will rub off on an audience who may be skeptical. I first noticed this in Jurassic World, and I’ve been extra cognizant of it ever since. It nearly never works. Certainly, Doctor Who is the sort of text you may expect wonder surrogacy to rear its head in. It’s been around for over 50 years, and the key elements (the TARDIS, Daleks, regeneration, etc.) are part of the public consciousness. And yet, every time a new companion is introduced, we’re treated to the phenomenon of a person being surprised and aghast and overjoyed to find the TARDIS “bigger on the inside,” as if this is not common knowledge. So, why does the elongated “bigger on the inside” sequence with Bill work so well? Why does this seeming example of wonder surrogacy (like all of the “bigger on the inside” scenes in the new series) give me chills while the rest leave me rolling my eyes? The best answer I can come up with is that the TARDIS is a genuine wonder. A CGI dinosaur is not a genuine wonder. It’s just an image, and an increasingly banal one. The TARDIS is the entry point to an entirely new understanding of the cosmos. Crossing the threshold from its outside to its inside requires an entirely new concept of how physical space works, and when you cross the threshold again to the outside, everything may well have changed completely. As an image, the TARDIS is purposely banal. As a concept, it is the perfect metaphor for imagination itself. There is no wonder surrogacy required for such a thing. Only wonder. Love him or hate him (and I believe there are reasons for both), Steven Moffat understands this better than anybody else who has ever written for this show. That’s why I’m excited for this season, and why I’ll be fairly disconsolate about his departure.

Doctor Who: “Smile” — Still the most interesting thing about this season so far (and I am quite favourably disposed to this season so far) is the way that it is reiterating certain basic elements of the appeal of Doctor Who. The moment that really stands out in this episode for me is a small one right after Bill asks the Doctor why it has to be him that saves the people of the planet they’re on. Naturally, being Twelve, he doesn’t give a satisfactory answer. But Bill, being cleverer even than the people who initially dreamed up this show, sees the notice on the outside of the TARDIS that proclaims, in the manner of even the most non-bigger-on-the-inside police boxes, “advice and assistance obtainable immediately.” Why does the Doctor keep the TARDIS in its police box form? Because he lives by that notice on the door like a code. This is fundamental to the show, and it squares with Steven Moffat’s view of the Doctor as a different, worthier kind of hero. So far, it looks like Moffat has decided to use his final season on the show to revisit the first principles of the show, and compose a love letter to the glorious legacy of Doctor Who, which he recognizes that he’s an infinitesimally small part of. A good part, though. A really good part. The rest of this, with a script written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce (whose “In the Forest of the Night” is an idiosyncratic favourite of mine), is a fun Doctor Who romp that allows Bill and the Doctor plenty of time alone to get to know each other. The Emojibots are deeply scary in a way that conventionally terrifying monsters are not. They throw our own vapidity back in our faces and then kill us. I love that. This series is two-for-two. If Sarah Dollard delivers next week like I think she will, it’ll be off to a massively better start than its predecessor.  

Literature, etc.

David A. Banks: “Podcast Out” — An interesting critical look at the limitations and potential consequences of NPR’s major podcasts. Broadly I agree with Banks’s assessment, though to me the biggest problem with Radiolab and its ilk is not their reliance on the sciences to explain the world, but on the stories of individuals to explain science. There’s no room in most public radio-derived podcasts for any huge, world-defining story that can’t be localised into a personal narrative told by, like, a single dad in Newark or whatever. It’s a weirdly closed-minded approach to curiosity. Note that I still listen to a boatload of these kinds of podcasts, but I increasingly appreciate the ones like Theory of Everything and Love and Radio that break from the structure and challenge rather than confirm the listener’s assumptions.

Neil Gaiman: American Gods (The Tenth Anniversary Edition audiobook) — Okay. Enough podcasters have told me to check out Audible that I’m doing it. This edition of the audiobook features a full cast, including a really brilliant fellow (Ron McLarty) doing the role of Mr. Wednesday, and it features Neil Gaiman himself reading certain interstitial chapters. As a listening experience I’m pretty sold on full-cast audiobooks. Gaiman’s presence is much appreciated as well, as he’s always an engaging reader of his own work and he’s got a wonderful and distinctive voice. I also appreciate that he’s deployed sparingly. Makes you really lean in when you hear him. The only issue with the audiobook so far is a sex scene that becomes distinctly unsexy when read aloud. These actors can only act so much. It’s not a play, after all, and we listeners have lives to get on with. But hearing a sex scene read aloud in a fashion somewhere between matter-of-fact and actually dramatic is, well, awkward. As for American Gods itself, I’ve been meaning to get around to this since I read and adored The Sandman a few years back. With the show coming up soon, with both Bryan Fuller and Ian McShane attached, I figure I’d best do it now. I’m three chapters in and I love it already. The idea of ancient gods finding their place in America is outstanding, and I’m already very curious about who this youngster is who wants them gone. I know enough of Norse mythology to know that Odin won’t live forever, so the stakes are already high. As for Shadow, he’s a compelling enough protagonist. His relationship with his dead wife is proving to be the most interesting thing about him. But so far, I’m really in it for the lore. I’m enjoying this enough that I’m actually rushing through writing this so I can get back to it. More next week, I’m sure.

Music

Ted Hearne/The Crossing: Sound from the Bench — This is my favourite music of the year so far. Admittedly, it hasn’t been a busy year for me in terms of discovering new music. But this is really, really good. I was familiar with Hearne from his oratorio The Source, which has moments of staggering brilliance (especially the chorus “We called for illumination at 1630”) but which I generally found a bit literal and earnest. The choral music on this collection has no such problem. The title work is the centrepiece and the highlight, featuring guitars and drums backing up the chorus. The text is drawn from both Supreme Court decisions and ventriloquism textbooks. This unorthodox and rich choice of texts helps to combat the earnestness that I found slightly offputting in The Source. Sound from the Bench is a genuinely funny piece of music. Its primary subject is the Citizens United decision that deemed corporate campaign spending to be a form of free speech protected under the first amendment. This is patently absurd and implicitly hilarious. Of course, it has some rather dire connotations, but unlike the war-adjacent texts of The Source, it isn’t directly a matter of life and death. But holy crap is it ever musically powerful. The other three works on the disc are nearly as good as the main event, but the short piece “Consent” stands out. It gets dark partway through, but the opening — is simply a mixed chorus singing the words “I want you, I want to” — is absolutely staggering. Hearne is one of the most explicitly socially-conscious composers working right now, and while I wasn’t certain whether it was working when I heard The Source, I have no doubt now that it absolutely can. And the recording itself is fantastic as well. None of the fuzziness that you sometimes hear around the edges of choral recordings. This isn’t pretending to be a live concert. It’s music that happens right in your head. The Crossing is a miraculous ensemble with a distinctive sound that ranges from symphonic choir to glee club. I can’t wait to hear more from them. This is beautiful. I desperately want an opera from Ted Hearne. Not the usual kind with arias and duets and things, but an Einstein on the Beach sort of opera that takes advantage of his facility with found texts and choral writing. If someone could please commission that from him (I’m looking at you, Opera Philadelphia) it would be epochal. Pick of the week.

Kendrick Lamar: Damn. — Ah man, this is going to make me work, isn’t it? Kendrick Lamar’s music always takes a gigantic amount of listening to sink in for me. It’s entirely possible that he’s my favourite rapper around right now, but I’ll never connect with him as directly as, say, Run the Jewels, because the beats are so raw and spare that my mind wanders. And you can’t let your mind wander with this guy. Here’s what I love: “DNA,” with its Fox News samples. “DUCKWORTH,” with its (maybe specious?) storytelling. “FEAR,” with its tripartite structure and uncharacteristic repetition. And “LOYALTY” with Rihanna rapping. This is approximately the same number of high points I detected on my first listen of To Pimp a Butterfly. If things proceed similarly, I will like and understand this better many many months from now.

Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial — Here’s an album that took a while to creep up on me. I’m still not convinced it’s the second coming that some claim it is, but I enjoy a larger percentage of the many many tracks on this than I did when I first heard it. “Vincent,” “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” and “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” are still the highlights, but I’ve come to love “Fill in the Blank,” “Cosmic Hero” and “Drugs With Friends” as well. In general, this is music that occupies the same space as the Smiths and Belle and Sebastian: you listen to it for a catharsis. It’s at its best when your life isn’t. But for all its structural ingenuity, Will Toledo’s songwriting doesn’t have the wit of Stuart Murdoch, let alone Morrissey. So I’m not sure this can transcend those moments of needing catharsis the same way that other sad guy music can. This isn’t every day music the way that Strangeways, Here We Come is, for instance. No shame.

Podcasts

Containers: “Welcome to Global Capitalism” — The episode on 99pi convinced me to check this out, but I’m not going to make it through. There’s some good tape in this, but there’s also tape of the host literally flipping through archives. An eight-part series on how shipping containers changed the world was always going to be a maybe/maybe not proposition. At another time, in another state of mind, I would love this. But I think I’d prefer it if it didn’t take such a public radio approach of insisting that its subject matter is interesting every step of the way. Maybe I don’t need all these personal narratives to keep me involved. Maybe I can just hear you out and be interested in your thesis for its own merits. Anyway, I tried.

Love and Radio: “The Secrets Hotline” — This has been a truly great season of Love and Radio. As a final episode, this is a nice capper, though it’s insubstantial compared to, say, “A Girl of Ivory,” “Doing the No No” or “Blink Once For Yes,” which are three of my favourite episodes the show has ever done. The original scoring in this is a nice touch, and some of the secrets proffered here by anonymous callers are truly juicy. The feeling of sanctioned voyeurism is a good one. If you’re reading this, do listen to this episode, but seek out the three I’ve mentioned first if you’ve never heard this show. It is one of the miracles of podcasting.

Home of the Brave: “Trump’s Wall: Part 1” — My god, the tape in this is so beautiful. It’s just nature sounds from a riverside, recorded beautifully. More broadly, I’m very happy that Scott Carrier is doing a larger piece on Trump’s wall. That promises to be some of the best radio of recent years. And doing short updates like this is a good way to keep us sated.

Radiolab: “Nukes” — For everything I said about Radiolab earlier, they can make straightforwardly compelling radio. This episode poses the question, who gets to call the President’s decision to use nuclear weapons into question? The answer: it has differed from one administration to another. But the specifics are really fascinating.

Criminal: “420” — Ah, hilarious. This episode tells the story of how three teenagers’ tongue-in-cheek codeword for pot became universally acknowledged, with a substantial assist from the Grateful Dead. It also broaches the hilarious subject of Colorado’s 420 mile-marker signs getting stolen so consistently that they had to be replaced with 419.99 mile-marker signs. This is why Criminal is the best true crime podcast.  

Crimetown: “Family Ties” & “Bonus Episode: Gangster’s Daughter” — I have nothing more to say about this season of Crimetown. These are both adequate standalone episodes of this season. But I’m basically still in this solely because I’m susceptible to the sunk costs fallacy. Good thing it’ll soon be done.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Tony Schwartz: 30,000 Recordings Later” — This may be the third time I’ve heard this, but it’s good every time. The story of a guy who devoted his life to going out into the world and preserving sounds with a microphone, only to succumb to agoraphobia late in life. There’s a doc like this to made about R. Murray Schafer, but don’t tell anybody I said that or they’ll beat me to it.

99% Invisible: “The Architect of Hollywood” — A new classic from this old standby. It’s the story of Paul Revere Williams, the architect who single-handedly conceived the Hollywood style of architecture. This story reveals how that  intensely hybridized style grew out of this one architect who learned to do every style out of necessity, because he was a black man working almost exclusively for white people whose instincts were not to trust him. This is super. I’ve missed Avery Trufelman’s stories. Is it just me, or has it been a while?

Code Switch: “The Beef Over Native American Hunting Rights” — I dunno, there’s a major source in this who kind of sounds like a bigoted fool to me. Maybe I’m wrong, but this is the first time I’ve felt the bad kind of uncomfortable while listening to this show. Also, there’s some super ham-fisted writing at the end. An off week.

The Gist: “The Handmaid’s Fail” — Alexandra Petri is a fantastic guest host, though I do wonder if she’s just doing a Mike Pesca impression here. She really is a lot like Mike Pesca in her questions and her delivery. Also, this reminded me that I really need to read The Handmaid’s Tale. I don’t know how I’ve read four Margaret Atwood novels and that isn’t one of them.

This American Life: “The Other Mr. President” — The best part of this Sean Cole’s segment on Vladislav Surkov, and that’s not nearly as good as Benjamen Walker’s.

Slate’s Political Gabfest: “Bill Comes Due Edition” — I had forgotten how dull I find this. There’s been some stuff happening that compelled me to return to it — I mean, North Korea, Bill O’Reilly… this is fascinating, disgusting stuff — and I still couldn’t help myself from getting bored.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Fate of the Furious Plus Clapbacks and Feuds” — I hadn’t realized how funny Sam Sanders is. Now I’m extra excited for whatever the hell he’s developing. This is really good episode of this show, by the way. If you want to know why it is my preferred example of this format, this is a good episode to go with. Pick of the week.

Omnireviewer (week of Nov. 1, 2015)

If for some reason you make a habit of reading these, you’ll quickly realize that I like everything. You’re unlikely to see any real hatchet jobs here. I just like to enthuse about things, mostly. Here are your 32 reviews for the week:

Music

Vulfpeck: Thrill of the Arts — It’s funk produced with the minimalist precision of Krautrock. The arrangements are one unconventional decision after another. The choice to minimize the role of the drum kit at times is a weirdly good one. And the lyrics are brilliantly nonsensical. One of those unexpected pleasures.

David Bowie: Young Americans — In his book on John Peel, David Cavanagh refers to this as “the sound of [Bowie] cruising through black America in a limousine, occasionally slowing down to shed a few more parts of himself by the roadside.” I can’t do any better than that.

David Bowie: Station to StationYoung Americans was an only-half-successful experiment, but if it led to the insight that produced Station to Station, it was entirely worthwhile. This is my favourite Bowie album save for Low, and some days Hunky Dory. On the other hand, after listening to this and Young Americans in direct succession, my headphones are now coughing out thick clouds of cocaine. So, that’s inconvenient.

The Beatles: Rubber Soul — I just realized that my listening today has included soul of both plastic and rubber persuasions. Aside from that, what’s there to say about this? For years, it was the earliest Beatles album I cared to listen to. I’ve since developed a taste for the early stuff. But I still think this marks the point where they went from being a good little band to being the Best Band Ever. Not my favourite band, mind. But if you want to say to me that the Beatles are objectively the greatest band in history, I’ll tend not to argue with you.

Ted Hearne: The Source — First off, the track “We called for illumination at 1630” is one of the most staggering things I’ve heard recently. It’s an instant classic that everybody should hear. Most of the rest of this deeply unorthodox oratorio is less excellent than that. I sure respect Hearne’s political engagement (the oratorio’s text is drawn from the Manning leaks, among other primary sources). But it all feels a bit earnest to me: a bit austere and serious, as if to say, “This is important! DO NOT SMILE.” Still, it feels wrong to dismiss this on one listen. Accusing a work that deals with Chelsea Manning and the war in Afghanistan of being overly serious is admittedly somewhat perverse. I do wish more composers would try stuff like this. And that one track. Holy smokes. Listen to it now.

Eve Egoyan/Linda Catlin Smith: Thought and Desire — This is the first I’ve heard of Linda Catlin Smith’s music. It’s quite static, and at times there isn’t much to latch onto as a listener. Each of the nocturnes, chorales and miscellaneous compositions on this disc of piano music is essentially a sequence of slow moving but very rich chords without melodies stringing them together. Shades of Satie and Brian Eno. I listened while I worked, and eventually found myself really getting into it. I find the last twenty minutes boring, but the first forty are lovely. Egoyan’s releases are always worth hearing, because she plays music that nobody else does, and plays it well. Even if this isn’t quite as enthralling as some of her previous discs, these are still world premiere recordings and I value that inherently.

Mr. McFall’s Chamber: Solitudes — Who knew there was such a thing as Finnish tango? In any case, this is an album that takes that style as its jumping off point, and proceeds to do my favourite thing for contemporary classical albums to do: be completely enthralling while containing music written almost entirely by people I’ve never heard of. There’s nearly an hour of music by composers I don’t know, compared with less than ten minutes of music by composers I do. That seems about the right ratio. Olli Mustonen’s Toccata and Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Dedication are particular highlights. And the playing!

The Chemical Brothers: Further — I’ve already written at length about how happy this album makes me on Two Matts, the blog I co-write with Matt Meuse. It was one he assigned me, knowing full well I’d be into it. But he might not have guessed that I’d still be listening to it semi-obsessively several weeks later.

Live events

Hey Rosetta! Live at the Vogue — I’ve only done this a couple of times: that thing where you go to a concert by an artist you’ve barely heard of. But the friend I went with has seen them eight or nine times, so he was well-prepared to give me the lowdown on these folks beforehand. Plus, the concert turned out to be a good way in. Hey Rosetta! is a great live band for a couple of reasons. First, they play and sing brilliantly. Not a given, as we know. It’s the bands whose execution is solid that you want to see live. Secondly, their songs can get a bit anthemic. You want to be in a crowd of people, listening to some of those songs. I’m especially glad to have been at this specific show because Yukon Blonde was the opening act, and the two bands did their 2015 election anthem “Land You Love” for the first time live as an encore. Lovely moment, there. Plus, the lighting design was clever: twenty-or-so incandescent bulbs were distributed across the stage on stands. At times, the stage lights would go off completely, leaving the band lit solely by those bulbs. Wonderful. Time to listen to some Hey Rosetta! albums.

Movies

The Zero Theorem — You know you’re truly in love with an artist when you even enjoy the works of theirs that you can objectively identify as bad. This is how I am with Terry Gilliam. I’m on record stating that my favourite movie is Brazil, and that remains true on all the days when it is not Mulholland Drive or Velvet Goldmine. Then there are the Gilliam movies that are basically accepted as good, which I believe are masterpieces: 12 Monkeys, The Fisher King, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. There are the misunderstood gems, Tideland and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, both brilliant. And so it goes, on down to Brothers Grimm and Jabberwocky, neither of them any good at all, both of which I like in spite of myself. The question with The Zero Theorem was never “will I like it,” but rather “which of those categories will it fit into?” Turns out, it’s the one with Tideland and Parnassus. Nobody likes this, but it’s great. Gilliam’s satire continues to be a hilariously blunt instrument, and his gender politics are extremely suspect, but this is an enthralling movie. It probably helps that it’s the most similar thing he’s done to Brazil. It’s full of signs and boxes and advertisements you should read but can’t, because everything goes by too fast. It’s got David Thewlis as a cut-rate Michael Palin and Christoph Waltz as a big-budget Jonathan Pryce. It’s got women wearing outlandish things on their heads. I was never not going to like this.

Television

Doctor Who: “The Zygon Invasion/Inversion” — Well, the season got off to a slow start, but we’re sure as hell into the thick of it now. This two-parter was completely magnificent. Still not quite as good as last season’s high points (which were, incidentally, also written by the two writers credited here), but damn good. Between his Doctor Who work and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, Peter Harness is quickly becoming my second-favourite writer associated with Doctor Who. And if “space ISIS” isn’t quite as good a premise as “the moon’s an egg,” at least we got Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman both giving their best-ever performances on the show.

Last Week Tonight: November 1, 2015 — Nothing here that will set the world ablaze. No dingo babysitters. But it’s always nice to hear somebody say “hey, maybe we should focus on actual present-day news instead of talking about an election that’s a year away” and then doing that thing.

Literature, etc.

David Cavanagh: Good Night and Good Riddance — This continues to be fantastic, and really lent some clarity to the rise of punk rock. While I’ve become considerably more amenable to punk in recent years, I still have some lingering skepticism. But, when you see on a show-for-show basis how boring music was in 1975-76 (LOTS of Eagles and other Eaglesy bands on the radio), you begin to understand. Also, Cavanagh cleverly notes how many of the artists on certain Peel shows from this period were living in tax exile. Sort of puts a nice fine point on things, doesn’t it?

China Miéville: “The Buzzard’s Egg” — This is one of the best stories I’ve gotten to in this collection so far. Miéville’s stories live and die on the novelty of their premises, and this premise is really something: an army of ruthless imperialists conquer peoples and take their land by stealing their idols, thus rendering their prayers useless. Piquant, no? And Miéville’s chosen just the right narrator to offer a window into that world.

Alex Bilmes: Noel Gallagher interview for Esquire — I don’t really like Oasis. I’ve never listened to a full Oasis album. But I love interviews with Noel Gallagher. And this one is gigantic. Bilmes has the restraint to say his piece at the beginning, and then just give the people what they want, which is 6,500 words of Noel being garrulous and abrasive. Sample: “Hard work and a fucking filthy tongue, that’s what I inherited from my mum. She taught the Nineties how to swear. And what’s the word, stoicism? Yeah, she was hardcore. She didn’t give a fuck.”

Ben Grossblatt/Alex Fine: How to Speak Klingon — A few friends and I have been going to pub trivia around Vancouver for a year or so. There’s a nerd bar here called the Storm Crow that’s becoming a favourite for its fairly challenging questions and its Cthulhu altar. This was a first place prize, and it is frankly ridiculous that I’m even reviewing it. It is a children’s board book with buttons that make sounds. It is not a serious thing. That said, it is better than it needs to be. Wookiepedia tells me that in addition to this most minor of Star Trek credits, Grossblatt has also written peripheral fiction pertaining to Star Wars. And the illustrator, Alex Fine, did covers for Newsweek when Newsweek still had covers. So, they’re not hacks. This provides useful phrases for various contexts in Klingon society. Like, on public transportation, it teaches you the phrase for “I don’t have exact change and await my just and devastating punishment.” Or, at the office: “There are no bad ideas, only ideas meriting death.” Or, at karaoke: “Hold me closer, tiny dancer.”

Games

Stasis: Howlongtobeat.com tells me it should take me about five hours to beat this game. Reviewers imply that they played it in an afternoon. I’ve played for nine hours over the course of two weeks, and I don’t feel like I’m nearly done. I’m really bad at this, aren’t I?

Podcasts

The Allusionist: “Criminallusionist” — Radiotopia cross-promotion continues. I’m beginning to wonder if this is a straightforwardly good thing or not. The bulk of this is just a full episode of Criminal, and while that’s nothing to complain about, I did actually tune in for The Allusionist. Maybe this is how Marvel Comics fans feel when they complain about big crossover events?

This American Life: “The Heart Wants What It Wants” — The major highlight of this is Shankar Vedantum’s story about men who were conned into paying for love letters from fictional women. The key takeaway is that I should probably start listening to Vedantum’s Hidden Brain, although do I really have time for another podcast? (Evidently yes, as we shall see.)

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “A Conversation with Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling)” — I will likely not read Career of Evil, but the structural gimmick sounds fun (much of the novel is narrated by the murderer, but you don’t actually know which of the suspects is doing the narrating). This is one of my favourite things about listening to tons of podcasts: it helps me keep track of what’s going on in the cultural world without my having to actually take in ALL of it. (Though you can see I’m trying.)

Surprisingly Awesome: “Mold” — I’ve expressed ambivalence towards “wonder surrogacy” before, in other media. That’s where there’s a person in the text itself whose role it is to express wonder, interest or enthusiasm in the hopes that the audience will join in. This new podcast has wonder surrogacy baked into its premise. Provided that the topics covered continue to have the same hidden depths as they find in mold, there will always be one host whose job boils down to saying “isn’t that interesting?” At the worst of times, this approach strikes me as desperate. Surely it’s better to just say interesting things and get on with it than to be constantly trumpeting your own appeal. In this premiere episode, it’s fine. But I will remain vigilant.

In Our Time: “Utilitarianism” — This is BBC Radio 4. This is a very austere production with no music, no tape, seemingly no editing, and no obvious enthusiasm. This is a man mumbling disinterestedly into a microphone, trying to coax the history of a major branch of philosophy from a panel of sleepy professors. This condescends not a whit to its audience, and makes no compromises. In fact, it seems to be ignoring its audience altogether. I will probably listen to more of this.

Reply All: “Shine On You Crazy Goldman” — P.J. Vogt drops acid at work. P.J. Vogt is quickly becoming the most interesting podcast host. Matt Lieber is a Pink Floyd reference.

The Memory Palace: “no. 116,842” — The Memory Palace always makes me get all watery at inopportune moments. DiMeo has this uncanny ability to wrest meaning out of a phrase by repeating it: in this case, “let her mind wander.” See also, “Mary Walker would wear what she wanted.”

The Memory Palace: “Craning” — Every time I hear a really good episode of The Memory Palace, it makes me want to go back and listen to this one again. I must have heard it ten or twelve times, now. It is my favourite nine minutes of audio I’ve heard this year. It’s a landscape of Cape Canaveral on the morning Apollo 11 launched, wrought with incredibly fine brushstrokes — right down to the spectators camping out in station wagons, overnight, with the tailgates open for the feet of tall children in sleeping bags. There are more perfect turns of phrase here than I’ve ever heard in a radio piece. Throw in some meditative music, and this is a total sucker punch. I can’t account for why this has such an effect on me. That’s probably why I love it so much.

99% Invisible: “Butterfly Effects” — An original, Sam Greenspan-produced story about how bad design might have decided a federal election. This is what this podcast is for. 99pi is a continuous act of validation for Roman’s “beautiful nerds.” Because, when everything in the world is so inherently interesting, how can you not want to learn everything about it? How can you not be a nerd? In a sense, the premise of 99pi is the opposite of the premise for the new Gimlet podcast, Surprisingly Awesome. Where the latter takes for granted that some things are boring, 99pi is interested in everything, and trusts that you are too. No wonder surrogacy, here.

The Moth: “Hand Transplant, DNA, and a Backwards Heart” — And, we’re back. Janna Levin’s story of love and astrophysics is structurally a thing of beauty. I’m a sucker for recurring motifs that develop thematically through the course of a narrative. (See: The Memory Palace, and also most everything by Beethoven.) The other two stories are less interesting, but not by much.

The Heart: “Kaitlyn+Mitra” — This two-parter about the intimate business partnership of The Heart’s two founders could have been a little inside baseball, but they invited their audience in by literally inviting the audience to a big event — a wedding, of sorts. The Heart is so good. For one thing, it’s one of the best-sounding podcasts on Radiotopia, along with The Truth and 99pi. For another, it cares not a whit about taboos. And was that Brian Eno’s slowed-down Pachelbel I heard in there? Clever.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ and Things We Meant to Do” — And now, a proper episode of PCHH. Pop culture panel shows are a dime a dozen, but this is far and away the best of the major ones. Every episode sounds like what it hopefully actually is, which is four people who really like talking to each other talking about stuff they like. I generally find this panel more insightful than Slate’s, and it’s actually funnier than the less structured and less censored Pop Rocket from Maximum Fun. This episode is a pretty standard instalment. And that is just fine. This is a podcast I almost always listen to the day it comes out, because I can rely on it to be good company on a commute or a run, even when the topics at hand aren’t that interesting to me.

Radiolab: “Staph Retreat” — You know you listen to too many podcasts when you hear two separate accounts of Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in the same week, entirely by coincidence. This is the better one, by the way. As you’d expect. Honestly, Radiolab lost me for a while. Between the reduced presence of Robert Krulwich, the less ambitious sound design and the increased focus on the sort of current affairs stories that other shows like This American Life already do, I felt like this show had somewhat lost its distinctiveness. But between this and “The Rhino Hunter” from September, it looks like they’re back on top.

Surprisingly Awesome: “Free Throws” — More wonder surrogacy, but this time, Adam Davidson is essentially a perfect surrogate for me, because this is a sports story, and neither he nor I could care less about sports. But, even given this optimal situation, in which both Davidson and I come around to the interest of free throws in the end, they cap it off with an ending in which Davidson’s wonder far exceeds my own, and the perfect surrogacy is broken. This is the key risk of this kind of storytelling: if the audience isn’t completely analogous to the surrogate, they need to engage their empathy in order to feel the intended effect. And people are (or at least, I am) bad at engaging their empathy when the stakes are zero. I’ll keep tuning in to this, because it really is entertaining on a moment-for-moment basis. But I distrust this structure.

Welcome to Night Vale: “The September Monologues” — I do like it when Night Vale plays with the format. I suppose some of what I said last week might make it sound like I don’t. But the real problem is when there’s too much focus on long-term storytelling and worldbuilding, and not enough on just making the episode at hand work. This is one of the best episodes I’ve heard, if only for the brilliant monologue by Steve Carlsburg. I always figured Cecil was just being a jerk about him. And that weather gag is genius.