While a British drama about the upper class during Edwardian England and the first world war seems to reek of Downton Abbey, this miniseries actually has substance and things to say. Benedict Cumberbatch fulfills his namesake and plays a stuffy, sexually repressed young lord whose brilliance in finance and bureaucracy do not extend to the politics inherent in the upper class. His wife (Rebecca Hall) is simultaneously overbearing and repressed in her role as a lady, and there’s a whole forbidden love angle with a Michelle Williams look-a-like (Adelaide Clemens). I am mostly including this in the top 10 to put it on the list, but that’s because it actually deals with characters living in history and not just in a historical setting. The war scenes are great, the acting is great across the board, and no one comes across as too villainous or perfect. If you want more Downton but would like it to be less of a Tory wet dream, please check this out.
9. Game Of Thrones
As a fan of the books, I already know what should happen in this show. So I was surprised when the writers went past trimming the text down to actually putting characters in different situations. And I was even more surprised when this made the overall story even better. One of the shows strengths is its dialogue scenes, and Season 2 did not disappoint. Whatever you guys are doing in the writing room, do more of it, please.
8. Mad Men
On merit alone it would be at the top of the list, but that would be unfair to so many other shows. Season 5 keeps on raising the bar for the sheer artistry that is put into each episode by the whole cast and crew. Its comforting to know a modern masterpiece is getting its deserved praise while it it still airing.
7. Boardwalk Empire
This was the year we finally begin to see the Twenties the way we remember them. Lots of guns, Lots of booze, lots of sleeping around. And furthermore Steve Buscemi really does deserve some praise for his portrayal of Nucky Thompson, by the end of the season I don’t think people can say that this won’t be an iconic role. Plus the direction this season has been top notch. Tim Van Patten and Allen Coulter are at the top of their game in this season, creating a show that can dazzle you with both allusive settings and tense action, often within the same scene. The show keeps topping itself and it has no sign of slowing down.
6. The Eric Andre Show
Tim and Eric meets late night. Probably the most acquired taste on the list and not immune from a few dud sketches, but when it shines, it burns your eyes. Hannibal Buress is the perma-blazed linchpin that keeps the show from going too off the rails, and the guests each night seems to get better and better, until Will.I.Am steals the last episode.
A voice of a generation indeed. As a member of the unemployed, early twentysomthing posse, a great deal of the content of the show cuts pretty close to home for me, and that seems to be true for other people my age who I’ve talked to about this show. So many people have been trying to define this new post-adolescence, pre-adulthood mindset that has arisen in the past decade or so, and I think this has gotten the closest. Girls also gets a big boost from me for its cinematography. The DP, Jody Lee Lipes, somehow shoots scenes that look cold and feel warm, embodying a post-collegiate haze where existential dread is like a warm blanket.
4. The Thick of It
As an American, the politics on this show don’t hit quite as close as I imagine they would if I was British, but it’s a true testament to its quality that it doesn’t really matter. With the long-form Goolding Inquiry penultimate episode, the overarching themes of the whole series came to a head in a manner that most other shows could only aspire to. Not only did it showcase the mutually parasitic relationship between the government and the media in a clear cut, almost educational fashion, it did so by taking away all the power from characters we were accustomed to controlling the strings. And since we knew the characters so well at this point, all the fumbling over words and pained faces were even more hilarious and engrossing than if we had caught the footage during the news. It makes me wonder if former political aides who are still “in the loop” find watching Cspan or PMQs this entertaining (probably not).
So much clicks on this show that its almost unfair. The dialogue is quick and snappy and funny without ever seeming quirky(a la Gilmore Girls), the acting is pitch perfect for the setting and tone, and the increasingly serialized storytelling is only becoming more and more compelling. It feels like all the actors were born to play these roles. And impressively, the show has been widening its scope inch by inch to portray South-East Kentucky as an oft overlooked area of the country that is increasingly becoming emblematic of many of the issues America has created for itself in its recent history. Coal miners, Oxycontin, Organized crime, race relations, urban/rural divide, local elections, and the US Marshals in the middle, all treated with enough gravity and levity to make it feel human
2. Danger 5
In a perfect world there would be a whole channel devoted to shows like this (and Adult Swim doesn’t count). A group of international Allied spies sent to kill Hitler? Cool. Set in the 60? Sweet. Full of visual gags and surreal plot-lines? Awesome. And made with the aesthetics of a B television show from the 70’s or 80’s, complete with many sets and creatures (like mind-controlled Nazi dinosaurs) done in miniature? Perfect. If you’re some silly person who’s still skeptical after this description, you must find fun frivolous or something.
1. Sex House
This gets the #1 spot because of how unexpected it was to find such a brilliant show as a web series with 6 minute long episodes. Starts off as satire, quickly takes a pitch black turn, and keeps getting darker and more surreal until you wonder if this should just be a horror series. Reality show parodies now have a standard set so high for them that I am gleefully dreading the next one that even comes close to this.
Breaking Bad By now, everyone should know how good this show is, and the season isn’t over so I’m holding my judgement. Not that it could be bad of course.
Friday Night Dinner Somewhat silly British-Jewish family comedy, worth it for Mark Heap as the weird neighbor and the fairly inventive situations that someone invariably gets themselves into. The second series ramps up the zaniness without feeling forced, which is pretty hard to do. I didn’t think I would like it as much as I did, and now I’ve re-watched it multiple times.
Grandma’s House Somewhat serious British-Jewish family comedy, it can hit dark and personal issues without missing comedy beats. probably has to do with the large amount of talent on the show, and the British are better at that sort of thing anyway
Comedy Bang Bang Another talk show parody that has some Tim and Eric connections, was a toss up between this and Eric Andre. Reggie Watts is the man.
Portlandia Fred and Carrie haven’t lost it, not at all.
Regular Show My preferred cartoon of the year, hurts my brain less than adventure time yet is just as funny.
Veep The Thick of It was superior to this one this year, but I suspect once this show has a few seasons under its belt it will be one of the funniest and most relevant shows stateside. Since there’s no Malcolm like character the whole cast gets to trade in impressive insults and put-downs, which adds some distance and charm.
Twenty Twelve Mockumentary centered on the planning committee of the 2012 London Olympics. Hugh Bonneville shows impressive comedic chops here, who knew Lord Grantham could be so funny. Catchphrasy but the characters are very easy to love(or hate-love)
The Booth At The End The other end of the impressive web-series section, I never would have suspected a show that is only one on one conversations to be so dynamic, dramatic, and compelling. Xander Berkeley is absolutely wonderful here.
So instead of putting off writing and editing a big, formulated post/essay, I figured I’d go for a bunch of disparate thoughts that more accurately represents my thought process and interests. Bear with me, Since I’ll be all over the place.
The Pitchfork Peoples List
If you haven’t checked it out, Pitchfork compiled a user generated list of the top 200 albums from the past 15 years. There were very few surprises on the list; I think it was already obvious that people who read Pitchfork like Radiohead as much as Pitchfork does. In fact, there’s so little to debate about the main list that I almost immediately started thinking about things I wish they had done with the data. I first should mention that they did have some interesting statistics on the location and demographics of their submissions. Like, did you know that Japan is the only country to rate Kid A higher than Ok Computer? But there was so much potential in the data they collected that what is presented seems a bit limited. I would have really liked to see the point total of each album instead of just a ranking, just to see if there were any big jumps in totals as you go down the list. I wanna know by how much which Radiohead album the people preferred. Or maybe more than a top 20 on the detailed demographic lists. Some of those barely had two Radiohead albums in them!
Anyway, I had a lot more fun making my personal list and wasting my time ordering albums in the 80-100 range where there was little to no difference to how much I liked them. I do wish the designers of the list had given us the ability to play around with our lists after the poll closed, they obviously put some time into this project so it seems like a bit of a waste to throw that work away. You would think that Pitchfork would be all for sustainability.
So it’s somewhat gratifying to see an article come out about a new(?) internet(?) genre(?) of lo-fi music(?) that I had been finding here and there on my crawls through similar artist trees on Last.fm; I hadn’t realized how limited the scene was, if you could call it a scene. Admittedly, I often feel out of touch with what’s going on these days. Living away from a major cultural center or people my age means that I only really consume things en masse from download binges without much outside, direct human input. So it’s kinda weird how I have mixed feelings about this article, mostly because I found it almost two months after it was written.
Hmmm, I guess this is more of a comment on the impermanence of internet dialogue. I wish I had a chance to comment on the topic while it was fresh, since I had some ideas bouncing around my head for a few months beforehand but I’ve lost most of them. What I’ve read has now replaced my personal thoughts and now I can’t tell if its all some meta-commentary on how transient ideas are these days and how that is reflected in music that invokes a transient feeling or what. I still like the stuff, you could almost call it Smooth Industrial. Advertwave? Post-Pop?
I should mention that the next article that Adam Harper wrote is about the modern phenomenon of silly genre names, or rather, why do people dismiss and deride any attempts to name a nascent genre. Its another great read, I’m coming to realize how rare it is to find a music critic who writes about current topics with any sense of authority, and doesn’t hide behind a veneer of sarcasm or cynicism.
Sight and Sound and Lists
Earlier this month the new Sight and Sound poll of the ”greatest films of all time” came out. It’s only compiled every ten years, and serves as one of the most venerable guides to what critics think about cinematic history. While its easy to see how biased this list is for “the classics”, it is still a great go-to if you want to see what some of the most influential movies ever made. The big news about this decade’s list is how Vertigo has unseated Citizen Kane for the #1 spot, a position it had held for 50 years. Of course, this may have happened because the amount of critics tapped for this list more than doubled from the 2002 edition, but it still is worth some notice.
Cooler still is how BFI has also released all of the individual lists from the critics and directors that were asked to contribute. I have a feeling that I’m going to spend too much time trying to find the hidden gems, though it not like I’ve seen most of these movies anyway.
Sex House, and the Rise of the Web Series
If you haven’t been watching The Onion’s Sex House, you’ve been missing the best TV show of the summer. Thats right, I’m rating it higher than Breaking Bad (or Louie). It is at once a deconstruction of a Big-Brother style reality show, a satire on the sexulization of popular media, and an example of fantastic absurdist humor that revels in the horrific. The only criticism I can find is how hard it its to convince people to start watching a show called Sex House. You should watch the first two episodes at least, the brilliance of the series really starts to show as the series reveals itself.
And the most surprising and wonderful part is that it’s a web series that only has 6-8 minute episodes that come out once a week. If you told me six months ago that a web series could make it onto my list of “must-watch” shows, I wouldn’t have believed you. But here it is, and its great. It is so impressive that the writers are able to fit such a nuanced, pointed take on this type of show in such a short amount of time. I’m so glad that this series exists, if only for the fact that it showed me how an internet-based series can be a viable alternative to network and cable shows.
Things I’ve Been Re-discovering
I’ve taken some time to go back and try to understand all of the political mob-stuff going on in the background of The Sopranos. Between the New Jersey accent and the unexplained jargon of organized crime, I would suspect that most of the audience had as hard of a time as I did keeping all of the side characters straight and following all of their relationships. It’s surprisingly not too important for the overall picture of the show, but theres so much fictional history contained in each season that its hard to resist the urge to learn it all. If anything, it makes me appreciate how much time the creators spent building up this world.
It seems like Pharrell is more of an influential artist and less of a current creative force these days. Dunno why I have that sense, maybe Kanye takes up too much space in the “black producer/rapper/artist/entrepreneur” realm for the others to stand out like they once did. But I’ve always been a fan of Pharrell’s work, especially N*E*R*D’s 2006 album Fly or Die. There’s a lot of flaws with the album I guess, mostly with how many tracks are actually two songs joined with a bit of silence. That gets really annoying when you only want to hear one, and prevents me from ever using those songs in playlists or mixes. But I’m willing to forgive this oversight for how good much of the album sounds. I used to listen to the album all the time in high school, streaming it from their website in an era when albums were rarely ever streamed in total before being released.
Animal Collective Inspires the Worst Writing
The new Animal Collective album Centipede Hz (streaming here) has generated some of the purplest music writing I’ve ever seen. I’m seriously getting flashbacks to the Pitchfork Kid A review.
“…an album that burned when it should have dissolved, which laughed as the electric thud of childhood’s warm summer blood ran cold, which exploded at the very dead-end of peacefulness, and which at every stage rendered the listener an object inside, looking out.”
Granted, this is about their previous album, Merriweather Post Pavillion, but the stuff later on isn’t much better:
“Whereas before their method of expressing boundless joy - those tumbling-over-themselves structures - was rooted in serenity, here there’s something almost hungry about their quest for bliss. You could describe it as intensity. It’s as if their fractured schemes for the pursuit of pleasure have become destabilized, curdling into volatility”
“Like a Michel Gondry montage it seems to spin, scattering a dizzying array of choruses, bridges, breaks, crescendos and peaks - what could be 10 independent sections but what feels like a hundred. Imagine ‘In The Flowers’ mid-point flash in cubomaniacal battle with The Beatles’ entire back catalogue.”
“He is the ‘Mercury Man’, imprisoned in fizzing digitalism and dreaming of life as a real boy…The pace increases and gradually anguish cedes to a celebration of life; but life as lived in any form, even an artificial one.”
“…it’s all elbow-pads and sandals. Salvation from mundanity arrives with another gorgeous vocal melody and a final act of Mardi Gras delirium, sounding not unlike Ibiza pop filtered through ‘Hounds Of Love’”
I don’t think this is a great way to write about music, since I don’t really get what these esoteric statements mean. I understand the desire to find words that attempt to capture a certain intangible quality of what you are listening to, I may have done it in the past. But it’s too easy to get caught up in your own overwrought metaphors and stop describing the actual music to potential listeners. Writing like this doesn’t help me understand why I should listen to the album or not, it just shows me that you like to write about your thoughts.
“It’s the sense of someone waiting on you without hanging or pestering, this quiet love of custom and comfort that comes from long-acquaintance. And, frankly, that’s exactly what Veckatimest is: this aged, oft-peaceful thing you feel you’ve known since youth. I have a feeling Grizzly Bear will go on to make better records. But Veckatimest might well be the one you return to most fondly. It’s an album with flaws you grow cozy with over time—a gorgeous thing with a tiny cheek-scar whose eyes are all you see anyway. As we all know, those are the ones you keep close.”
It’s rare to find an album review that works as a good piece of writing outside of its inherent utility. I find it almost sad that it has to be attached to an album that immediately anchors it to a point in time, as it’s too easy to lose a review like this in the shuffle.
I took a trip to the Smithsonian to see The Dark Night Rises in one of the original 6-story IMAX theaters (and not one of those converted theaters like the one in King of Prussia). I figured I would trust Mr. Nolan’s assertions that the film was designed to be seen in that particular setting, and now I frankly can’t imagine seeing it in a normal theater again unless I sat in the third row or something. While our seats were a bit close because people started queuing up for a 7 PM show at 5:30 (Really? I didn’t think I’d have to treat this like going to the airport), it only took five minutes until I was totally absorbed. I have little to say yet about the movie itself other than “Sweet!” or “Awesome!” , but I am still struck by how much I had enjoyed making a whole day out of the spectacle. I don’t think this is exactly what they mean when they call a blockbuster an “event movie” but it reminded me of similar situations where I’ve had to travel to a specific theater, one other than the closest or biggest in the area.
The first time I made the effort to find a movie outside a wide release was when I traveled an hour and a half to see A Scanner Darkly. The rotoscoped preview was enough to pique my 17 year old interest, plus Keanu in a Sci-fi dystopia? And Thom York on the soundtrack? It was a bit more depressing than I was expecting, but I am surprised at how high it remains on my ever-changing mental list of favorite movies.
(Visual representation of my favorite people?)
I also have fond memories of seeing sneak previews of both Juno and Slumdog Millionaire in Philadelphia before they had gone into wide release, which added an interesting perspective on the critical and general reactions to those movies. I still have a t-shirt from the Juno showing and Danny Boyle was on hand to answer questions after Slumdog, which consequently led me to stammer something out to him about how I was a Big Fan of all of his work as he was signing a poster even though I really had only seen half of Trainspotting back in high school.
What also made these events fun was the amount of planning and foresight involved in getting everyone registered online and into the city (and at the right theater), which in turn added to the overall spectacle of the movie theater experience. I’m sure I will enjoy watching Batman and Bane fight on my computer screen, but that will partly come from my memory of having to turn my head to follow the action since there was so much screen. It’s going to be a long time until a movie takes up that much physical space for me, at least until Brad Bird decides to top Christopher Nolan’s IMAX obsession for his next movie in some sort of gentlemanly director’s competition.
I should say that while I had hoped not to be away from this project for so long, I realized from the beginning that as long as I started something, barring tumblr’s demise, I would be able to return to it if I ever waned in my resolution to write my thoughts down about what I hear, watch, and play. That it took me so long to get back to it is totally my fault, but I’m glad that there’s been intermittent activity and that no one has posted in a few months so we can start anew-ish. I’ve been gorging myself on media with all my free time anyway, so I should have a lot to say for a while. I just hope I didn’t lose everyone’s interest, though I’m assuming that few people unfollowed the twitter account because I almost never cull my own “following” list. And everyone acts like me, right?
One of the many surprises of this year has been the emergence of The Weeknd, which started off as one of those enigmatic projects without any names attached. The Internet only got to speculate for a few days as the Toronto based group emerged to almost instant attention by almost everyone (just ask this guy down here on the right). The kicker was that the album is really good in an innovative, instantly recognisable, poppy kind of way. There is little separating the neo-soulful vocals from artists like The Dream, Chris Brown, or Ne-Yo, yet The Weeknd has been lumped in with some if their other contemporaries, such as Frank Ocean, Kid Cudi, and their aforementioned benefacetor/collaborator, Drake.
They seem happy.
So anyway, This is all relevant since “Thursday”, their second mixtape of the year, has just hit the tubes and even on first listen people are going to have a lot to talk about.
I’m still forming my opinions about the songs, but the first striking thing is the increased importance given to the vocals. Part of what made House Of Balloons so remarkable was the quality and consistency of the production, which we clearly expect out of them from now on. Instead of sounding same-y, more attention is given to Abel Tesfaye’s voice which gives this album its own edge. Where their debut sketched out the world they created, this album fully inhabits it because of its ties to a more traditional neo-soul sound. I’m mostly just excited to hear how this stands up next to its peers as I spend some time with it.
So even though its still the beginning of August, the summer season is starting to fade away as people get excited for whats coming up in the fall. And by people I mean me, because I guess I can’t speak for the rest of you. I spent about a week and a half going back through music blog posts and forum threads making sure I hadn’t missed too many songs I would like, and now I am finally ready to share them with you, the reader (listener?). You might notice that its mostly electronic music; I guess I got tired of all the indie rock I was listening to from this book
Since this is a track by track thing, I’ve organized it for you guys by artist, and this isn’t exactly a mix so I dont have to follow my self imposed rule of “one artist, one song”. Also, I know that not all of these songs came out this summer, and there might even be a few that didn’t come out this year. It’s about what I’m listening to this summer, don’t get too nitpickey. Sorry about the loading time, and click through to youtube or fullscreen them to hear the songs in higher quality.
Earlier, I was sitting in the kitchen waiting for my food to finish cooking while Sons of Anarchy blared over the speakers of my laptop, adequately drowning out the clattering of the bugs outside. I had thought I had brought it down here to keep me occupied while I made breakfast, but the pan was a more consistent draw for my attention, and I wasn’t just hungry. I have been trying to watch this show for the whole summer, but I can only do it in short spurts, unlike my usual method of binging through a show as fast as possible. I either forget that its a show I’m currently engaged with, or I pass it up for something else. When I do watch, single episodes often get broken up into seperate viewing sessions, or something happens like today and I have to rewatch 10 minutes because I stopped paying attention.
By now, it seems like its obvious that I dont like the show enough to watch it and I should just save my time and energy for something else, like writing more for this blog. But I do like it. It’s interesting and has good action direction, fast and compelling plotting, and a consistent and fleshed out outlaw/small-town universe for our characters to inhabit. Several performances stand out, such as Kathy Segal’s mother lioness of a character, but whats even better is that the ensemble works as a whole, whith enough understated character work to counteract the silly shenanegans the younger members get into.
Aside from the logistical problem of finding the time to watch multiple tv shows (which isn’t an issue this summer), it can be a real hassle to keep track of several simultaneous plotlines involving completely different characters, especially when the characters in the show all share similar qualities (Boardwalk Empire - fat senators, Deadwood - mustaches, The Wire - black people). When you add the common overarching plot structure about a criminal organization and the (damaged) men who run it, you can see how things can get slightly confusing. Sons of Anarchy somehow manages to have all of this and make it fresh enough for it to be good, but it’s not fresh enough for me to want to watch continuously.
And this is fine for me.
My unconscious reaction to a show that doesn’t inspire me to immediately watch the next episode is to spurn it like a second child. The past few years have been filled with shows that I consume in a fraction of the time spent creating them, especially ones that are accessible through the internet. Between Hulu, Megavideo, and…other methods, it hasn’t been easier to watch as many shows as you can, as fast as you can. And the faster you watch a show, generally the more you like it, right?
So you can see why I am so confused. I’m stuck at an impasse, where I like a show that doesn’t make me want to watch it. Yet this is also a blessing in disguise, since it is oddly liberating to realize how small of a commitment the show is (not to marginalize you, Sam Crow). It’s really hard to convince people to watch The Shield even though I think its one of the most addictive shows I’ve watched, and its all because there are seven seasons to take on instead of a measly one or two (or three or four) for any currently running show. The smaller serving size of a show with three seasons is only multiplied by the infrequencey that I watch it, turinng it into the one snack I have this summer that doesn’t go stale in the philly weather. And I dont have to feel guilty about it either.
Hmmm…maybe I should. It is a show about criminals after all.