Tag Archives: The Walking Dead

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.

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Omnireviewer (week of Jun. 19, 2016)

23 reviews.

Movies

The Nice Guys — Seldom have I been so totally entertained. This is a big, rompy action comedy that just allows itself to be that thing. It’s trope aware, but most of the humour in this doesn’t come from undercutting the tropes: it comes from great, great iterations of those tropes. There are physical comedy setpieces in this that are so beautifully intuitive you wonder why you’ve never seen it done before. Both leads are good; Ryan Gosling is fabulous — and unexpectedly dextrous at physical comedy. We knew he could deliver a joke from The Big Short. But jokes aren’t the primary comedic currency of The Nice Guys. It says something about both Shane Black and Ryan Gosling that the move can get laughs from pratfalls in 2016. Also, this movie corrected a problem I’ve been seeing in a bunch of movies (mostly by the Coen Brothers): it’s got dumb comedy liberals in it, who stage vacuous protests about social ills they don’t adequately understand — but it also has comedy conservatives who monologue villainously about American exceptionalism. In a Coen Brothers movie, the monologuing villain would have been subbed out for some variant of the plainspoken cowboy, who espouses moderate views and good old-fashioned common sense — as if that’s what the liberals are fighting against. And yet it doesn’t feel like South Park-esque false equivalency. It’s nice to see a movie that calls out its comedy liberals for being dumb — because, in this movie, they really are very dumb — without actually siding against them or their cause. Go see this movie! The reviews are lukewarm, but they don’t take into account how much fun it is.

Finding Dory — I was an actual child, or something like it, when Finding Nemo came out. (Though old enough to be mighty annoyed by all of my friends constantly going “Mine! Mine!” like those damned seagulls.) My memories of its details are hazy, so this movie didn’t really have many nostalgia points going in. But it’s really cute (the frequent flashbacks featuring a saucer-eyed baby version of Dory, voiced by a seven-year-old, are almost too adorable) and it’s got some great sight gags. I imagine as soon as the words “camouflaging octopus” were spoken in a meeting, a hundred animators began seizing with joy. Ellen DeGeneres is fantastic, obviously. Also, there is a character in this — Gerald the sea lion — who is not identifiable as a Disney character. He comes straight from the dankest part of the internet. (Oh! And apparently Adrian Belew wrote the music for the opening short! It does not consist entirely of noisy guitar squalls. The man contains multitudes.)

Television

Orange is the New Black: Season 4, episodes 1-4— This season is enormously hyped, but so far it seems to be playing its cards close to its chest. I will withhold judgement until things explode. (Speaking of withholding: going three full episodes without Sophia was a masterstroke. Makes her eventual return feel super momentous.) For now, it’s just great to have these characters around again.

Last Week Tonight: June 19, 2016 — A marvellous episode that breaks Brexit down probably exactly enough for most non-British people to understand. (Were it not for Slate’s Political Gabfest, I would have been clueless going in.) It also boasts an excellent shorter segment on the Dickey Amendment, which lends clarity to how the NRA can be so effective yet so small.

Full Frontal with Samantha Bee: June 20, 2016 — The thing that Full Frontal has that Last Week Tonight doesn’t are Bee’s remote pieces. John Oliver used to be great at those too, on The Daily Show — and I know he’s done a couple on LWT, the Snowden one being especially great — but he’s mostly put them away in favour of just sitting at his desk. He can do a lot from that desk, to be fair. But when Bee visits a Cherokee tribal court to learn about how white people can pretty much do whatever they want on native land and take no responsibility, you’re reminded of why it’s good for satirists to get out in the world a bit.

Game of Thrones: “Battle of the Bastards” — As hour-long episodes of nothing but brutal violence go, this is extremely well deployed. It is essentially a whole episode of wish fulfilment, in the sense that the worst people in the show (the masters, Ramsay) suffer gruesomely at the hands of the most noble (Daenerys, Jon, Sansa). And while my feelings about Ramsey’s demise are more relief than satisfaction, I will confess that his particular battle tactics in this episode were marvelously in keeping with his entire brutal character. As big ‘splody episode nines go, it isn’t “Baelor,” and it certainly isn’t “Blackwater.” But it isn’t bad.

Games

The Walking Dead: Michonne: “In Too Deep” — I don’t think I’ll ever tire of Telltale. To some extent, all of their games are the same, but only in the sense that they share all of their mechanics. Those mechanics can be used to tell dramatically different kinds of stories. In fact, within the Walking Dead universe alone, we’ve seen a bunch of different kinds of stories. I’m not familiar with Michonne’s character having never read the comics and not having made it that far into the show. But this game’s opening does a brilliant job characterizing her efficiently. In fact the fight that starts this episode might be the most ingenious one in the series so far, because of the way it invokes backstory as it proceeds. Looking forward to the two remaining episodes — and really looking forward to season three in the fall.

Literature, etc.

Thomas Ligotti: “My Case for Retributive Action” — Ligotti is really good at tying the stakes of his stories to specific traits of their narrators. He did it brilliantly in “Sideshow,” and here he does it in a more straightforward setting. Our narrator has a nervous condition. He is very clearly unwell. The story wouldn’t be very effective without that little bit of knowledge. But given that, it’s really disconcerting. Loved this.

Thomas Ligotti: “Our Temporary Supervisor” — This actually builds on ideas in the previous story, particularly the mysterious corporation/governing body called the Quine Organization. I tend not to be a fan of world-building and continuity in short-form narratives, but the Quine Organization, being a shadowy company with a stranglehold over the citizens of whatever fictional nation this is set in, offers a particularly interesting set of tropes with which to tell labour-related parables. I understand Ligotti went back to that well in his collection My Work is Not Yet Done, which would also have sufficed as a title for either of these stories. I wonder if Q. Org makes an appearance?

Peter Henderson: “Back to the Drawing Board” — This Maisonneuve feature (which I read because I was, and am, trying to convince myself to subscribe) tells two stories of artistic obsession. One is about the animator Richard Williams, best-known for Who Framed Roger Rabbit? He spent years and years on his would-be masterpiece The Thief and the Cobbler, only to have it taken away from him by a studio who couldn’t handle the blown deadlines any longer. The other is about Garrett Gilchrist, a struggling filmmaker who abandons all potentially lucrative work to try and piece together a complete version of Williams’ film from what scraps remain. It’s a fabulous pair of yarns that also encompasses much of animation history. I may subscribe to Maisonneuve yet.

Music

Yes: Close to the Edge — I don’t think I’ve ever gone longer between listens of this album than just prior to this time through. It really feels like an old friend. For a lot of years, I sort of wore myself out on this Yes album. Even my beloved Tales From Topographic Oceans got less play, because you just don’t have the time to listen to an 81-minute-long record quite so frequently as a 37-minute one. But now that it no longer feels overfamiliar, all of its original impact came roaring back. The title track is one of the most perfect album sides ever made — and not perfect in the meticulous sense that people wrongly associate with Yes. The best moments of “Close to the Edge” are organized chaos — five people making music together in a room, playing fast and loose within a predetermined structure. There are moments here that, in spite of having heard them hundreds of times, made me gasp aloud on the bus, or tear up a bit behind my sunglasses: the first entry of Jon Anderson’s voice, just for a beat, a cappella; the moment at the end of Steve Howe’s opening guitar solo where finishes on nine sixteenth-notes in unison with Bill Bruford’s snare drum; Anderson’s repeated refrain “I get up, I get down,” gradually ascending to a climax just before Rick Wakeman’s church organ solo; Chris Squire’s dissonant bass note, just before the final “seasons will pass you by.” It’s a masterpiece. If there’s anything wrong with this album, it’s just that the first side is so complete in itself that the second side seems superfluous. Which isn’t to say it’s not good — “And You And I” would have been the best track on a couple other great Yes albums. “Siberian Khatru” isn’t a personal favourite, but this lineup of Yes never rocked harder. Close to the Edge is one of the best records of the 70s, in any genre. If prog rock’s not your thing, then you obviously won’t be into this. But any outright malice you may hear expressed towards Close to the Edge can only be born of blind prejudice. Pick of the week.

Peter Gabriel: “I’m Amazing” — Peter Gabriel has never been known for the timeliness of his records. When Up was released in 2002, reviewers pointed out that it had been in development since the early days of industrial music and marked it down as DOA: Dated On Arrival. (Taken in retrospect as an album divorced from history, it works a lot better. It’s one of my favourite records ever, actually.) Yet here’s Gabriel releasing a new track about Muhammed Ali, shortly after his death. It’s decent. Neither a classic, nor an embarrassment. It’s got some African vocal samples near the end that demonstrate how Gabriel still hasn’t quite wrapped his head around the notion of cultural appropriation, in spite of his famously good intentions. But it’s fine. What’s really interesting is that “I’m Amazing” has apparently been in the vault for years, which is why Gabriel was able to get it out so comparatively quickly after Ali died. This suggests that Gabriel may not be the notorious procrastinator, or the anti-prolific elder statesman that some of us have pegged him as. We know that he records a lot more than he releases. This is the first glimpse behind the curtain, and it’s not that bad. What other interesting experiments are locked up in that vault?

Justice: Audio, Video, Disco — I’d say it’s self-evidently better than their debut, if that weren’t obviously untrue on account of how few people agree with it. But I was way more swept up in this than I was in Cross, which I also liked. It’s probably just on account of how proggy it is. But I also think that it has a greater wealth of melodic invention than their debut record, which is important to me in dance music.

Podcasts

The Gist: “Chuck Klosterman is Wrong! (He Says.)” — I had meant to check out The Gist since hearing Brooke Gladstone refer to Mike Pesca as one of the smartest people she’d ever worked with on the Longreads podcast. Now I see why. This is two acclaimed abstract thinkers talking abstractly, and neither one is obviously smarter than the other. Pesca is less insufferable, though.

The Memory Palace: “A White Horse” — A beautiful, timely, sentimental (in the absolutely most tolerable and completely earned way) tribute to gay clubs as safe spaces. DiMeo has the ability to harness the emotional power of language moreso than probably anybody outside of hip hop. This week, he used that power in service of a mourning community. I don’t want to paint him as saintly, or anything like that, because that would be crass. But this is beautiful, and you can definitely spare ten minutes to hear it.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “O.J.: Made in America and a Television Quiz” — Okay, that settles it. I’m watching O.J.: Made in America as soon as I’m done Orange is the New Black. Gene Demby has some really interesting context to offer about Simpson’s troubled relationship with his race. This is one of many times when this show has tipped me over the edge and encouraged me to check out something I was only halfway planning to.

Radio Diaries: “Majd’s Diary: Two Years in the Life of a Saudi Girl” — This is outstanding. It completely proves the value of first-person narratives as journalism. Majd is a fabulous narrator of her own life. It’s really wrenching to hear the conflict she feels between wanting to be a successful scientist and an independent woman and hoping her family (particularly its male members) can accept that decision. Great radio. Pick of the week.

On The Media: “Never Again, Again” — I’ve got to confess, this was kind of noise to me this week. We’ve reached the point in Orlando coverage where it’s just turned into the same depressing stew of narratives that surfaces after every similarly atrocious act of violence. And those narratives tend to be either self-evident or obviously bullshit to me. As for Brexit, that story has me totally lost at this point. Maybe another podcast about it will help…

Slate’s Political Gabfest: “The ‘Brexit Pursued by a Bear’ Edition” — I confess, the episode title had a lot to do with my decision to listen to this. I don’t tune in very often because Emily Bazelon is kind of the only member of the panel I enjoy listening to. And she’s not here this week. So, mm. The Orlando segment provoked a similar reaction from me as OTM’s. The Brexit segment, however, was invaluable. The Economist’s David Rennie is as level-headed a guide through the whole sordid affair as you could ask for. By the time this review is posted, the vote will be in, and you will be depressed. But if you’re still clueless about why it even happened, go back and check this out.

Invisibilia: “The New Norm” — I was mixed on the first season of Invisibilia. On one hand, the stories were really moving in a lot of cases. On the other hand, the show’s voice (not the hosts’ voices, mind you — I’m speaking abstractly, here) can be cloying. This episode displayed both sides, right from the top. The opening segment, about the first McDonald’s in Russia, is spectacularly forced in its attempt to introduce the episode’s theme. But the story of the southern oil rig where employees were encouraged to set aside their macho bullshit and open up to each other is totally compelling. I anticipate another mixed season.

StartUp: “From the Cell to the Sell” — The second part didn’t disappoint. This story of a drug dealer turned startup founder is the high-water mark of StartUp’s third season so far, and given my prior frustrations, I expect it to remain so.

This American Life: “Tell Me I’m Fat” — This is an astonishing and provocative hour of radio that brings up stuff I’ve never even thought about. Lindy West is at the centre of it, reading segments of her new book Shrill, which sounds fantastic. She puts forth the view that fat people (that is her preferred term) shouldn’t be obligated to lose weight, but rather should find a way to be happy as they are. The showstopper, though, is Elna Baker, who tells the story of successfully losing half her body weight, along with a good chunk of her identity. The way she talks about how her relationship to the world changed along with her weight is viscerally distressing, as is the way she talks about the surgery she had to remove her excess skin.

The Gist: “Brexit Stage Right” — I came for Pesca’s take on Team Leave (yeah, they’d already left, but I was still confused) and stayed for his interview with Big Freedia. Pesca is respectful without being deferential, and treats Freedia with engaging irreverence.

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.