Year of the Double Rainbow

Year of the Double Rainbow

Set your sight back about ten years ago…

The effects of the GFC are still being felt, but the worst has passed. Julia Gillard is elected and sworn in as the first female Prime Minister. Barack Obama is in the second year of his first term. David Cameron (a literal pig fucker) ushers in a Conservative Party leadership in the UK that has been held to this day. Yes: it’s 2010, the year that Donald Trump makes the decision to stop donating to Democrats.

In mid-January, the tenth most deadly earthquake of all time rocks Haiti, resulting in a total of 360,000 fatalities. Six days later, a 15-year-old Justin Bieber releases the smash hit “Baby”; six months after that, the iPhone 4 comes out, all during the hottest year on record at the time (it’s now the sixth). Michael Jackson has been dead for half a year and Billie Eilish is just about to turn 9. A large Big Mac meal will cost you about $7 (AUD). Planking, post-country Taylor Swift and the TV adaptation of Game of Thrones still lie just over the horizon, but Auto-Tuned news, Minions and brostep have fucking arrived.

It’s been three years since the last Harry Potter book release, as Mockingjay – the third and final part of the Hunger Games saga – is published. Facebook is six years old, Reddit and YouTube are each five, Twitter is four and MySpace’s funeral is basically wrapping up, right as Netflix quietly launches its own streaming service and an unheralded photo app called Instagram kicks off. Avatar, the new highest-grossing film of all time, has been out less than a month and will hold that record for almost the entire decade to come.

People are either just starting or just finishing up with saying “lel”, though “fuck my life” is going strong. For now, memes are all pretty scrutable.

Alright, let’s get into it…

Best Song

(Click titles for music videos)

Though not released as a single for more than a year and a half after the album on which it appeared, “Sprawl II” is the premier moment of Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs. Uplifting yet devastating, the track is strewn with stomping piano chords and insistent synth lines that rocket skyward. Every lyric and sonic punch is a rebellion against the constraints of an uncreative life, a simmer of self-doubt and repression brought to boil, bubbling over spectacularly and making a right mess of everyone’s best laid plans. Like so much latter-day arena rock, it’s hard to sort the despair from the triumph.

Runner Up

Katy Perry’s enduring love anthem is so good that Owen Pallett – an accomplished multi-instrumentalist and music theorist – took the time to explain why, eloquently as fuck. I can’t improve on his assessment, but only add to the sentiment: it is a pulsating, geometrically imposing, goddamn victory of a song.

The Rest

A manic whir of cold digital wash that would do precisely nothing to help predict Blake’s eventual singer-songwriter career arc.

An artillery back-beat peppered over impassioned pleas and Monáe’s irrepressible spirit makes for a thermonuclear track.

The best version of what coked-out Muppet Babies would sound like if they broke into a haberdashery in the middle of a heat wave.

The most joyful breakup anthem ever recorded, CeeLo’s sassy yet angelic voice makes heartbreak seem like so much fun.

Just try fuckin’ listening to Minaj’s verse without experiencing the weirdly bracing sensation of your own deepening inferiority.

A jam so buzzing with life, it’s easy to overlook the sadness at its core: a giddy groove bemoaning the pull of addiction and stasis of sobriety.

A preposterously earnest declaration of love that only works if you and your beloved are equally waylaid by your own lameness.

From those first tumultuous strums and battle-cries, Adele takes a mallet to low-key balladry and sets fire to the fucking rain, forevermore.

An inseparable R&B two-parter, featuring both sleazy-sexy come-ons and then an inevitably woozy, almost cheeky beat switch-up.

Music for picking up speed, as the propulsive refrain (OVERLOAD!) and Damon Albarn’s soft croon are cut through by Womack’s wounded howl.

A looped guitar figure and whispery vocal line send “Teenage Crime” stratospheric, even as it makes being Earth-bound all the more heavenly.

A forgetful RiRi romps luxuriantly all over a muffled banger, while Drake makes a 69 joke too convoluted to work, but still worth a polite snort.

Years before Nick Kroll immortalised “Wait, wut?!“, Girl Unit pulverised it, scattering the remnants over this skittery, tranced-out extravaganza.

Surrounded by industrial wallops, Mathangi trades off between a creepy, deadpan drawl and tinny banshee screech, a war-party onto herself.

Strings plucked steady as the wind, crescendos natural as cresting waves, and an auburn, goodly warmth on your closed eyelids.

Best Movie

(Click titles for trailers)

There’s something blue about The Social Network. I don’t mean that it’s melancholic or glum; it’s the opposite, actually, so alive and charged with this electric aura that it’s like a laser beam emitting a constant stream of information right into your skull. It’s that deep, pulsating blue that stands out so vividly against empty space. What I’m saying is that this (largely fictionalised) retelling of the founding of Facebook reflects the scattered, seemingly aimless, multiple-open-tabs vibe of the internet better than any film of the decade… and it was released right at the very start of it.

Every element slides into place with the almost-audible click and whir of an android’s operating system. David Fincher’s direction is skin-tight, never letting up, always boxing the characters in so we can watch them fight their way out. Or, more accurately, so we can listen to the way Aaron Sorkin’s script allows them to pile on sentences, clauses and callbacks to show how frantically the online landscape skewers IRL discourse. Here are some sample lines (from ten years ago) that still hold up:

“You write your snide bullshit from a dark room because that’s what the angry do nowadays.”

“Please: arrive at the point.”

“Wow. You would do that for me?” (used twice)

Meanwhile, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score tightens the straps: sometimes it’s a radial pulse of bass and percussive clicks that thrum inside your bones; other moments involve a sparse snatch of keys and drones to reflect the ratcheting tension of slowly ascending The Giant Drop. Finally, the cast is perfect, with Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield and Justin Timberlake — three fairly narrow actors — being expertly deployed as the smug intellectual, the amiable wet blanket and the smooth operator with hidden edges, respectively. Elsewhere, Rooney Mara (the only significant female presence in the film) turns about ten minutes of screentime into a tour de force. And Armie Hammer emerges as the obvious MVP, taking on the unforgiving task of a dual role in service of two obscenely privileged “gentlemen of Harvard”, yet somehow managing to make them sympathetically engaging in the process.

It all becomes a little Clockwork Orange-y: something that you don’t watch so much as mainline through your eyeballs. But the significance of Facebook in 2019, while technically unrelated to the film, remains fascinating. As the platform has grown into a behemoth of data, lacking context but drowning in content, the controlled sporadicity of The Social Network still provides a fascinating insight into the impulses that drive our constant need to live in public.

Runner Up

The Coen brothers’ fourth film in four years (following No Country For Old Men, Burn After Reading and A Serious Man) is a summation of their most recent output at the time. A blackly comedic yarn that challenges gender roles, True Grit is carried by the Coens’ quirky energy, an indelible neo-western atmosphere and a truly remarkable performance by the 13-year-old Hailee Steinfeld. Honour, justice and fortune are all subject to the wringer of modernity in this John Wayne remake, seen through the eyes of audiences who aren’t satisfied with simple hat colours distinguishing the good guys from the bad.

The Rest

The best Australian crime drama in years, featuring Ben Mendelsohn as a plain-spoken sociopath and Jacki Weaver as… the same, basically.

Darren Aronofsky fuses obsession with body horror as Natalie Portman sinks her teeth into this balletic mind-fuck to achieve Oscar glory.

Emma Stone’s post-Superbad breakout re-imagines The Scarlet Letter as a funny but thoughtful dissection of US high schools, sans mass shootings.

An amusingly fearless take on mass panic surrounding Islamic terrorism, Morris’ satire remains the high-water mark for irreverent commentary.

Technically dazzling and logically fractured, Christopher Nolan’s headlong dive into dreamscape reality feels like little else in the decade’s action fare.

Lisa Cholodenko’s meditation on modern families retains a sharp sense of fun while exposing the hollowness of closure and monogamous bliss.

(Read the full review here)

The Best Picture winner hits all the expected notes tuned to perfection, with Firth as the most relatable royal in years.

One of the best comic book adaptations of the decade also provided Cera with his ideal leading man role, as a willing yet oblivious douche nozzle.

Are you yet living? Does blood pump through the arid veins you once shared with your child self? You know that it’s fucking amazing.

The 2010s’ love affair with Jennifer Lawrence began here, in Debra Granik’s barren breakdown of resilience in the face of poverty.

(Read the full review here)

Best New TV Show

(Click titles for episodes or highlights)

Yes, I know: what Louis CK did was wrong. Even if (as some have tirelessly insisted) his acts may not have quite crossed into the realm of illegality, they remain – as Laura Silverman put it – “rude and gross”, as well as deeply emblematic of the imbalance between men and women within almost all major industries that resulted in the long-overdue #MeToo movement. CK utilised his fame and power to manipulate women around him into either viewing or listening to him masturbate many, many times. These acts are despicable, and advocating for any of his material in the light of those revelations is (to say the least) not an awesome idea. If you want to skip this bit, or assume that I’m a shitty person for choosing to write about CK’s work in any sort of positive manner, I totally get it. No counter, no caveat: it sucks, and I’m truly sorry about it.

If you’re still reading, here’s the main reason Louie – and especially its first season – is so difficult to ignore within the landscape of television during the 2010s: few other shows were as directly influential as Louie on many of the other great series that came out this decade. It was one of the first half-hour programs to prioritise aesthetic as much as content, a modern-day Seinfeld with even less plot, a cinéma vérité lean and more interest in mining pathos than scoring laughs.

On this level, the impact is hard to overstate. From Lena Dunham’s embrace of the mundanity of big city living in Girls to Donald Glover’s surreal and endlessly tangential take on black America in Atlanta, the DNA of Louie is easy to spot. CK himself would then go on to produce several shows – including Better Things, Baskets and One Mississippi – that embraced its irreverent style. All of these series (and many others) traffic in a tilted approach to the frankness of life, and are often as devastating as they are hilarious.

As you’ll notice, I’ve barely talked about the content of Louie. Begs the question: do I think you should watch it? Not necessarily, but I’m certain that retroactively dismissing its significance does a disservice to the narrative of TV as an artform throughout the 2010s. Which, again, if that’s not particularly important to you then this entire topic is a moot point, leaving us stranded in the semi-tragic realm of people (i.e. me) who are deeply invested in a discipline to the point where holistic appraisals of objectively bad human beings can become unavoidable.

So, there it is. Louie remains a deeply important part of the pop cultural experience this decade, made by a pretty shitty guy.

(For those interested, Vox’s Emily VanDerWerff has a great take on how strange it is re-assessing the show’s legacy at the end of the decade.)

Runner Up

What, your little go-kart battery?” From his first line, Sterling Archer is a glorious, haughty dickhead. A spoof on James Bond voiced to perfection by the schlubby-yet-luminous H. Jon Benjamin, Archer (who, in the early seasons, works for an agency named ISISyikes) traffics in smart-arse quips and a tinnitus-inducing lack of self-control when it comes to weaponry. In its first season, Archer established itself as the dumbest smart show on TV, utilising its stellar voice cast – including Aisha Tyler, Chris Parnell and Jessica Walter – to blurt out inscrutable pop culture references and slippery innuendo. Are we still doing “phrasing?

The Rest

Adorable yet strangely real as fuck, this Cartoon Network oddity became a powerhouse of animation this decade, no matter your age.

A madcap Adult Swim quickie, with 10 minute episodes full of medical-drama piss-takes and all manner of absurdity running rampant.

Post-Deadwood, pre-Santa Clarita Diet Timothy Olyphant plays lawman Raylan Givens, quick with his wit, women and (in particular) his firearms.

It got reeeallly shit, but there was some early promise in the show’s visuals, breakneck pace and the scene-salvaging work of Martin Freeman.

A one season wonder, following two affable P.I.s embroiled in a labyrinthine plot, sending them on dovetailing pursuits of redemption.

Best Album

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2010 was the year Kanye went from perennial nuisance to cultural mainstay. At this stage, six years into his mainstream career, he had released three critically acclaimed hip hop albums and one so-so received ode to Auto-Tuned emotionality (which was eventually heralded as the chief harbinger of the 2010s’ affinity for sad rap and its poster boy, Drake). In September of 2005, West proclaimed that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”; almost exactly four years later, he stormed the stage of the VMAs to interrupt Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech, earning the ire of Obama in the process.

This was all Kanye establishing a formula for success that, by now, is easily recognisable: get us listening by any means necessary, then deliver (usually on a Friday). The diminishing returns of this approach are up for debate, but it’s difficult to deny how well it worked for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. This album resides smack bang in the intersection of perfectionism and maximalism, the nexus between genius and self-indulgence, the street corner that separates the art gallery from the strip-club.

From Nicki Minaj’s tragic British accent in its opening seconds to Gil Scott-Heron’s unanswered pleas in its final ones, MBDTF showcases itself as a grand statement, risking ridicule for a chance at immortality. “POWER” soars atop hand claps, impassioned chants and prog-rock vocal snatches before wading into the chaotic swirl of drunk driving and petty swipes at everyone, from the entire cast of SNL to (yep) Obama. “All of the Lights” mourns MJ and decries the pressures of domesticity with all the subtly you’d expect from a horn section bolstering Fergie’s admission that she “was about to do that line” (with Elton John’s feature being only, like, the fifth weirdest aspect of the song). And “Blame Game” re-purposes a rare analogue track from Aphex Twin into a tragic meditation on toxic relationships, before daring to trash every shred of goodwill with Chris Rock’s infamous “Yeezy taught me” dialogue as its coda.

That last example is probably the most accurate microcosm of Kanye’s vibe on Twisted Fantasy, and one reflected perfectly by George Condo’s various cover arts: beauty and refined craft marred by the ugliness of impulsive destruction (kind of like shredding a painting immediately after it’s auctioned off for millions of dollars). Every track – including “Monster”, “Runaway” and even the middling posse cut “So Appalled” – is torn between the desire to get it right and the irrepressible instinct to say whatever you want out loud, just to see how it feels.

Runner Up

Hot Chip are a musical novelty, a primarily electronic act that also revel in piano-led ballads and R&B jams. Following 2008’s eclectic Made in the Dark, One Life Stand refined the band’s ambitious breadth into the sound of settling, displaying a romantic contentment that would steer all of their following releases. The opening salvo of “Thieves in the Night” and “Hand Me Down Your Love” melds dance-floor grooves with Alexis Taylor’s earnest falsetto, the title track bounces and shimmers like an inflated disco ball and the record’s back half locates the sweet spot between uncut treacle and spacey sincerity.

The Rest

Our first exposure to Monáe’s ambitious grooves and sci-fi aesthetic cemented her as one of the decade’s most audacious enfant terribles.

Every bit as quaint as their debut, though slightly less immediate, VW’s second album is all squeak-pitches and enchanting lockstep rhythms.

Summer in a can, as Bethany Costello’s sunshine singing and the 10mm grain of the soundscape crest outward into endless horizons.

Earl Sweatshirt’s first mixtape is nasty, full of reprehensible content, lo-fi gunk and the earliest technical showcase for the 2010s’ best rapper.

The sound of indie rock bliss blooming in an oil-stained garage, littered with ash and mason jars full of somethin’ sweet.

The trip begins, as Kevin Parker guides us down the rabbit hole of his signature psych-pop, where the walls breathe in technicolour.

One of the least classifiable bands to hit the mainstream take their trip-hip-hop-tronic-rock stylings on vacation, beach-balling us to and fro.

The slinky soulman to Andre 3K’s pitter-patter poet emerges with his post-OutKast debut, sounding energised by the possibility of flying solo.

With their third excursion into suburban malaise, Arcade Fire pray for our yet-to-be-born daughters while storming the streets of your neighbourhood.

Beach House are that all too rare band whose sublime dream-pop sound demands words too awkward for the everyday: truly diaphanous.

Best Returning TV Show

(Click titles for episodes or highlights)

It’s strange to look back now and register that, at the very beginning of this deeply divisive decade, a lot of new media was drawing from a newfound sense of unity. The wave of optimism that Obama rode into his first term set the scene for an America and, in many ways, a wider world more willing to accept differences and forge bonds across all barriers. And not only is there no better example of this trend than Community’s early seasons, there’s also no other program from this era anywhere near as consistently innovative and downright hilarious.

Following its first dozen episodes in 2009, the second half of Community Season 1 doubled down on fleshing out its cast of characters, a group of outcasts at a community college who band together out of necessity and mutual dissatisfaction. Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), a proud, sarcastic loner, began to soften slightly, revealing new avenues of insecurity in his shitty aptitude for pottery and crippling God complex. Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), the religious matriarch, remained the go-to side-plot character, but she always infused scenes with extra warmth or bite whenever needed. And Troy (Donald Glover) began to bloom into the livewire comedic force that made Glover a breakout star and eventual icon.

This was all well and good for a first season, investing deeper in the specific brands of crazy that afflicts each character while strengthening their connections. But then, something else started to happen as Community moved into its second season: the creative stakes of each instalment became life and death. The legendary slew of episodes that ran throughout 2010 – from the Goodfellas-esque chicken fingers caper to a self-contained zombie attack – re-aligned fan’s expectations of the show’s quality and capabilities. In a few short months, Community went from quirky and endearing to unmissable, a series in the process of pillaring its own greatness.

By the time Abed’s (secret weapon Danny Pudi) uncontrollable claymation Christmas ended with season one of Lost being used as a metaphor for a lack of payoff, Community had entered God mode. The show became a meta-comic dream, helmed by the irascible genius of Dan Harmon, a man whose mind is primed to skewer every genre trope ever conceived while still delivering considerable pathos in his naked affection for the characters. It’s right there in, amongst an avalanche of deviously funny parodies, the episode “Mixology Certification”, where the group deals with the perils of ageing, the inescapable blemishes of the past and the solace of being one fuck up in a crew of ’em.

Runner Up

Rock bottom never looked so goddamn smooth. In its fourth season, the mysterious ‘60s ad-man known as Don Draper (an iconic Jon Hamm) is divorced, crapulent and morose. Having jumped ship from his previous agency, he’s become so unmoored that his sex life – usually the most glamorous of his myriad endeavours – has been reduced to a currency of cash, alcohol and an assortment of slaps to the face. For most of the season, he and his colleagues strive once more to divine happiness from their work, an industry that saps their desire to manufacture the fading horizon of the American Dream.

The Rest

The most naturally gifted sitcom at coasting, 30 Rock kept its middle seasons afloat with constant jokes and wall-to-wall tomfoolery.

It’s like watching someone lightly tap a small hammer against a thin sheet of ice, waiting with bated breath for the whole thing to shatter.

The friendliest (unless you’re Gerry) show on TV fleshes out the grand mishap that is Pawnee, Indiana and its batshit residents.

One of the decade’s first sitcoms to focus on low-paying service work, Party Down‘s second season cemented the show’s hilarious unpredictability.

If you know, you know: the winner was one of RuPaul herstory’s biggest blunders, but the season itself helped solidify an empire.

The Only Book I Read, And So I’m Gonna Tell You About It

Note – I don’t read a lot of books. Three or four a year would be pretty standard, and it’s usually older stuff I’m catching up on because I’ve been pretending to have already read it and my students are getting wise to it. If there’s one book I always try to read every year, though, it’s the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, because books are long and if I’m really putting the effort all the way in then it better be backed up by a trio of pretentious af literary critics.

So, there you go…

(Click title for excerpt)

Final Note (promise) – Although it was published in 2009, Paul Harding’s Tinkers – a meditation on memory, meticulousness and death – was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2010. So, in order to keep this all squared around the whole “10 years, 10 entrants” conceit, we’re just gonna start here.

Don’t @ me.

An old man lays dying, and we’re invited to read as he thinks over his entire life. So far, so Western Canon. But Tinkers transcends its potentially stale and overdone framing device by attempting something magnificent, if sometimes murky: tracing the scale of human experience as it slowly gets funneled into impending nothingness. Which sounds, like, tremendously depressing, making the sublime end result all the more striking.

The story follows the scattered recollections of George Washington Crosby, a terminally ill old man surrounded by his family in the parlour of a house that he built and maintained for decades. He will die in this room, and little that happens in real time can be relied upon due to his diminished faculties. But as Crosby slowly subsides, his stream-of-consciousness musings congeal into a wealth of stories that place us right within the stuff of his life, even as life itself begins to leave him.

To be clear: of the Pulitzer Prize winners for fiction throughout this decade, Tinkers is far from the strongest. Harding’s poeticism – while gorgeously crafted – can become a little weightless at times, especially during the daydreamy sections. Also, his inclusion of sections from an elliptical book on the topics of light, water and miniature engineering soon wear out their novelty. But the book is at its best when taken as a series of dreamy vignettes that hang loosely together, snatches of life pinched from thin air and just as quickly dispelled into dust. 

What’s stayed with me the longest are the sections on George’s father, Howard, the original “tinker” (or itinerant salesman) who suffered from epilepsy in a time when such attacks were rarely taken in charity. One of the novel’s loveliest chapters details a handful of moments in Howard’s tale, where he was called upon to “shoot a rabid dog, deliver a baby, put out a fire, pull a rotten tooth, cut a man’s hair, sell five gallons of home-made whiskey for a backwoods bootlegger named Potts, [and] fish a drowned child from a creek.” In particular, the story of the pulled tooth and the hermit named Gilbert remains one of the most evocative, moving and weirdly hilarious passages of the novel, emblematic of both its soft quirks and long agonies.

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