Year of Trollface

Year of Trollface

Set your sight back about nine years ago…

January sees the continuation of the worst flooding in Queensland’s recorded history, spreading across 90 towns, killing 33 people and displacing hundreds of thousands. Around the same time, England wins The Ashes, which I’m told is bad. February brings with it the deadliest of the many earthquakes that rocked Christchurch between 2010 and 2012, a 6.3-magnitude event that kills 185 people and levels huge sections of the city. A month later, a 9.0-level earthquake and subsequent tsunami hits Japan, killing almost 16,000.

In May, Barack Obama announces the death of Osama Bin Laden in a succinct nine minutes, without a single “died like a dog”-level embellishment; a few months later, feeling as though it is still somehow a necessity, he releases his goddamn birth certificate to the public. Around the time of the Bin Laden’s demise, Prince William marries Catherine Middleton and in October Queen Elizabeth II makes her most recent (and probably final) visit to Australia.

In August, after almost eight years, they find Daniel Morcombe’s remains; a month later, they find Ned Kelly’s. In real time, we lose a good few: Liz Taylor in Mach; in May, it’s Gil Scott-Heron (and primetime Oprah); Amy Winehouse dies at 27 years old in July; and in October, Steve Jobs succumbs to cancer. As for the bad few: a fortnight after Jobs, Gaddafi is bayoneted to death in the streets of Libya, while December brings the death of Kim Jong-il upon his private train, no doubt surrounded by toadies and affirmations of his avarice.

During all of this, Marine Le Pen gains relevance, Adele becomes inescapable, Charlie Sheen loses his fucking mind, Google learns how to do a barrel role and 50 Shades of Grey is published. There is precisely one non-sequel in the year’s top ten grossing films, and that film is The Smurfs.

Alright, let’s get into it…

Best Song

(Click titles for music videos)

Church bells, a seraphic harp, Disney orchestral swells and Lana Del Fucking Rey(!), all mixed so cleanly you could eat off it. Besides its swole chorus and impressive sonic swagger, this combination of sounds and styles is one of the best encapsulations of a nostalgia-saturated generation. It’s all old-school melodrama paired seamlessly with modernity, the black and white insouciance of Godard remastered to perfection, a rescue puppy in a beret vaping. With this track, Del Rey ( a “gangster Nancy Sinatra”) established her bona fides, the figurehead of a demographic who order vintage Polaroid cameras for next-day delivery on Amazon.

Runner Up

DJ Khaled and the internet are one and the same: a bloated mess that triggers dopamine and cringe in equal measure, a joke that keeps getting old that we can’t stop telling. But this song, though: Young Drake on the hook, a squelchy, MDMA-tinted beat and Rick Ross living his best life, fr.

The Rest

Perhaps the most outspoken rapper of her generation, Banks’ first track channeled her soon-to-be-notorious lack of filter into a nasally slew of bracing vulgarity.

Kendrick’s commentary, even in dustier days, still holds firm: bemoaning addiction culture while invariably serving raw base.

One of the most memed songs of the year swung for the fences, riding high on its cornball repetition to become Jepsen’s giddy, euphoric masterpiece.

A triumph of will (praise Bey), to think that a song using a literal countdown refrain could emerge and be both hot shit and shit hot.

Alex Turner’s inimitable Yorkshire brogue wraps around a wicked tale of distrust, conjuring the immortal line, “Go into business with a grizzly bear!”

Right here is where Lil Pump was birthed, in the shadow of the most mind-numbing Gucci hook this decade that actually used some other words, too.

The need for a drop above all else found an arty, wigged-to-shit counterpart here, with Anthony Gonzalez’ crazed yelps and deft hand with a sax solo.

A sacred wave of shame, as Blake harmonises in an echo chamber, scattering himself to the winds just in time (as always) for the fucking drop.

An unruly decadence of a track, this is what it sounds like when you take pride in pissing people off, then turn that into a lucrative fuckin’ enterprise.

For many, it was the first Frank we heard, the OG sermon packing fundamental Ocean vibes: narcotic regret, melodic crack, just a little taste.

Fully-formed for the decade to come, Charli’s sombre, digipop longing is Chernobylic in its tragedy, capturing idyllic snapshots of irradiated nothing.

Party fumes wafting this way and that, upstairs and down, ’til all crazed possibilities smooth out into the inevitable one, and all that’s left to do is it.

Let’s go to the beach, beach! aside, Ninki Minjudge’s fusion of duppy flows with an anthemic summer bumper of a hook remains a mainstay.

The same year Frank made “Songs For Women“, Drake perfected them, reminding every detractor that it’s only an insult if you’re a creep about it.

He’s since blossomed into less of an antagonist, but Tyler never thumped harder or more laceratively than over this dingy, eight-minute beat.

Four years after “Crank That” and seven years before SouljaGame, Soulja dipped his toes into the emerging zeitgeist of purply dank AutoTune.

Best Movie

(Click titles for trailers or streaming options)

If a story is worth telling, it’s seldom simple. Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation – winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film – recognises this and examines the implications of guilt, culpability and decency better than any movie of the 2010s. It features some of the least varnished and most simply human characters ever committed to film, all attempting to navigate the straight edges and uncompromising pitfalls of the law in a circumstance where every choice and action is riddled with ambiguity.

The film is set in Iran, a theocratic republic where legality and social mores are decreed by the Qur’an. That means if Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to divorce her husband Nader (Peyman Moaadi), she must make her case before a judge and prove that it is in her daughter Termeh’s (Sarina Farhadi) best interests; also, Nader must agree to the divorce. Now, he technically does, but the judge doesn’t buy it, and so sends them on their way without a firm solution. This is the film establishing it’s fascinating rhythm: two opposed parties searching for an answer that the world is not primed to deliver.

The reason for the divorce, by the way, isn’t because Simin no longer lovers Nader, or that he is abusive. Simin simply wants to leave Iran to give Termeh more opportunities, but Nader’s ailing father (suffering from Alzheimer’s) requires so much care and attention from the family that the idea of them all leaving is sheer folly. Still, Nader must work during the day, Termeh must attend school and Simin refuses to continue looking after a man who no longer recognises her.

This all leads to Nader hiring Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to care for his father. Razieh, pregnant and always with her young daughter in tow, feels so uncomfortable in the position that she calls a hotline to ask whether it is a sin for her to bathe and change the ageing man after he has wet himself. Soon, in a manner reflecting the conflict between Simin and Nader, Razieh is forced to decide between her duty and her family, and the consequences are both far-reaching and devastating.

Again and again, A Separation places fundamentally good people in trying situations, not to watch them squirm but in order to elicit sympathy for the unenviable task of simply being alive. Farhadi employs no stylistic flourishes that might detract from the essential truth and stunning revelations of the film. Instead, he simply observes, documentarian in his rigor but generous with his empathy, as the film generates strong, steady bouts of respect for the complexities inherent to doing the right thing.

Runner Up

People who are addicted don’t lack other reasons for living; it’s just that they’ve found a grander one. Or, at least, that’s how it always begins, an allure of immediate gratification that reality pales and wilts in the shadow of. Shame, risking bawdy pretension or accidental pornography, entangles us in the life of Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a sex addict so roughened and impassive to the world that he needs to fuck just to feel something. He and his sister (a wounded Carey Mulligan) have a shared, unspoken history that weighs on them, and we watch in agony as they try to get out from under it unscathed.

The Rest

A jesting, light throwback to the silent era, weightless in its execution and staying power, but still nimble and joyous to behold.

Kristen Wiig’s ingenious response to the crude bounty of The Hangover is funnier, filthier, and thus far unmarred by any diminished sequels.

The good sort of whitewashing, where at least everyone is aware of how weird it is that George Clooney has indigenous claims to Hawaiian land.

Just the most… the most (holy shit) grievously fucking violent film, this is. Goddamn. Kubrickian, strangulatory, and so ready to do bloody murder.

A sobering look at gang violence in Chicago’s South Side, with a tight focus on the CeaseFire interventionists who step in to mediate the mayhem.

One of the most brutal filmmakers of all time sets his devilish eye on depression, inflating it to planetary proportions, watching as it devastates.

An exegetical rendition of humanity, Fricke’s narrativeless, free-association splatter of sound and fury signifies more than you could ever imagine.

I’ve legitimately never experience a more emotional public screening of a film than A Simple Life, a tale of duty, asceticism and quiet dignity.

The world is not enough for Terrence Malick: he commands the cosmos and primordial filaments themselves to lay bare the secret of what we are.

After an impressive trio of films in the 2000s, Reitman’s acidic fourth feature gives Theron her best monstrous role since that other movie.

Best New TV Show

(Click titles for episodes or highlights)

Charlie Brooker doesn’t see the small picture. There’s not a single episode of Black Mirror – his anthology, Twilight Zone 2.0 series originally made for the BBC – that you could call unambitious. In Brooker’s world, the media is compelled to broadcast partisan bestiality, Peloton’s are even more sinister than they appear, and our brains are on a nonstop feedback loop that twists romance into a raspy whisper of its former self.

As with any sci-fi commentary, Brooker’s high concepts and reliance on irony risks making him appear foolish; indeed, the later, more bloated seasons of his show commissioned by Netflix demonstrate the limits of this format. But in its heyday, Black Mirror earned the accolades as much as the memes, articulating an uncertainty that we all have about the rapid pace of modernity. Posing thought problems and then cloaking them in serpentine narratives, the show weaves an insidious web of discomfort through the combined success of its creative spirit, its razor sharp production values and a consistent mythology paired with a unique aesthetic. Not to mention there’s that healthy human streak of melancholia that ruddies up the robotic complexion.

In episode one, “The National Anthem”, Brooker presages the 2010s trend of scandalous quid pro quos by constructing a devious blackmail parable. A beloved princess is kidnapped and held for ransom by a deranged post-modernist, with his demands being that the Prime Minister must fuck a pig on live television to secure the princess’ release. As the story picks up storm within countless media outlets, the push for click-bait becomes the driving force behind public consensus, which swings to and fro with the tug of each breaking news headline.

Meanwhile “Fifteen Million Merits”, the show’s second and perhaps greatest instalment, lives and dies on its astounding central performance by Daniel Kaluuya. First spotted as the excitable Kenneth on Skins, Kaluuya has become one of the most recognisable and vibrant actors of his generation, and he demonstrates every ounce of the depth and ferocity in this episode that he would later bring to Get Out, Black Panther and Widows.

Image result for black mirror daniel kaluuya

Kaluuya’s Bing is one of innumerable stationary bike riders, boxed within a society that is powered by his the riders’ pedaling. Day in and day out, Bing is subjected to despicable programming, either with overweight people being basically tortured or competitors on an X Factor-style program getting ridiculed and straight-up forced into porn ( I know, right?!). The events that lead up to Kaluuya’s final, tormented speech are a twisted Greek tragedy, a series of machinations as infuriating as they are resonant and deeply pessimistic about our chances versus the shiny pull of machines.

Runner Up

No matter the energy and hours we’ve wasted watching, re-watching, hyping and eviscerating it, Game of Thrones began as and remained (in its best days) nothing more than a supreme feat of entertainment. It was so good that it managed to revitalise the passion of nerd fantasy culture hyped up by Lord of the Rings almost a full decade earlier. Even with foreknowledge of the prolapsed later years to come, the scope, performances, intricacies and subversions of peak GOT in its very first season are still as divine as ever. And, eight years on, the ending of “Baelor” keeps it firmly in the list of the 2010s’ most impactful episodes.

The Rest

The 2010s’ most consistent show – now at 10 seasons and still going strong – began as an endearing series about the world’s most upbeat underdogs.

Crisply shot and meditatively executed, Enlightened is coated with impotent rage, a bungled attempt at corporate espionage in the face of society.

Though its original broadcasting chopped the chronology to shit, Happy Endings (viewed in correct order) is charming without being clingy.

The thought of pitching a show about a WASP-Islamic terrorist in 2019 makes me laugh, butHomeland ran a pretty tight ship in the early going.

A manic pixie, perhaps, but Zooey Deschanel still has undeniable charisma, as does the whole cast of this twee, wholesome bit of sundae television.

Best Album

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Before he couldn’t feel his face… before he and Ariana were singing sweetly about really needing to get a room… even before Drake had heard of him, Abel Tesfaye (aka The Weeknd) just wanted us to be comfortable for whatever he was about to do next.

Trust me… you wanna be high for this

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Every single corner of his music on House of Balloons could be seen from space under a blacklight. Dropped as an anonymous tape in the early months of 2011, the R&B wunderkind’s debut mixtape is both a celebration and an excavation of sexual obsession. At the time, Tesfaye’s anonymity afforded him liberation in pursuit of his every lascivious fancy. Addiction never sounded so alluring, and allure itself has never been more addictive.

He’s what you want… I’m what you need

Tesfaye is an expert at declarative statements that justify themselves in real time. His melismatic vocals – smack bang between MJ’s coos and the warbles of an emo frontman circa 2005 – are so fucking smooth that you start to suspect foul play. There’s a chemical element to the dank, chimeric beats and an insistence on substances that laces the whole project, a slurry rejoinder to Kendrick’s straight edge “A.D.H.D.” the same year.

This is a happy house… we’re happy here in our happy house

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It’s the sound of a generation raised on gossamer R&B videos and drowning in the conviction that everything’s fine as long as you can’t remember why it’s not. Tracks like “House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls” present a faded night for millennials: initial bouts of shout-along hooks that slowly descends into self-flagellating hedonism. It easily could’ve soundtracked the frat party from the first ten minutes of The Social Network, with its shuffle-splatter party mix followed by ominous drones and numbing opulence.

Girl put in work… 

Almost inevitably, the women on House of Balloons get a pretty raw deal. The phrase “I might get violent” is doubly disconcerting when sung in Tesfaye’s skin-tight lilt, a persistent reminder that at his rate of ingestion, the toxicity tends to spill out onto the surrounding parties. Misogyny and amorality are used both to reprimand and revel in the postures of a genre grown bitter, soaked in the dispensability of drugs and whimsy of objectification.

So tell me you love me… only for tonight

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The vibe, ultimately, is the feeling of misbeaviour brewing in utero. It’s music for when the world waxes double in front of your eyes, as you detect a tinny whine just above the bass from the dancefloor, a piercing rhythm dinning from a fair distance, a nodding shriek that – just as you begin to sway – you realise is the high song of an approaching siren.

Runner Up

I have a lot of piano music ready, but none of it’s released.” So said Blake in 2010, a young, enigmatic British producer whose work was modernity made manifest: stuttering rhythms, snazzy samples, cool-as-steel mixing. Now, here was his self-titled debut, kick-starting his journey to become the decade’s most unlikely yet (retrospectively) inevitable singer-songwriter. Opener “Unluck” throws the spanner in briskly and with relish, setting Blake’s plaintive cries over a hopscotch pattern so erratic it could trigger fits. And, for the analogians, Blake’s pleading cover of Feist’sLimit to Your Love” proves his abilities without need of any digital doohickery.

The Rest

Embarrassingly juvenile, hilariously amateurish and actively repellent, the remarkable Goblin is the 2010s’ answer to Eminem and the fucking internet.

Muddy flows and Houston-screwed samples burble on Rocky’s first tape, which somehow both sounds and makes you feel sort of… purple.

Before his twin opuses on love and isolation, Ocean nurtured a blue optimism full of teary-eyed admissions: “I’ve loved all the good times here.

Like soon-to-come releases from Daft Punk and Disclosure, SBTRKT’s self-titled album is a curated gem of featured vocalists over stupendous tunes.

A portrait of the artist as a young man, where editing is the enemy and every thought emerges with such vivid spontaneity that it feels essential.

(Read the full review here)

Four albums in, Arctic Monkeys wove jangle pop into their palette, a natural implement for exploring their perennial swings from brooding to mania.

Soft as warm butter and just as enticing, Drake’s debut album is very easy to make fun of… it’s also just kinda fun to listen to as you do so.

The first hip hop power couple of the decade (and also one of the shortest lived), flexing on God, praying on water, flipping switches and shitting hits.

Dad rock gone rogue, Wilco’s eighth album lacks innovation but manages to find redemption in Tweedy’s benevolent, avuncular, bear-hug aura.

The world’s yawpiest rapper broke through in 2011 off the back of this foul-mouthed, mildly threatening, horribly funny and super fucking odd tape.

Best Returning TV Show

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Gus Fring is not a human fucking being. His actions, behaviour and general standing within the setting of Breaking Bad – which, to be fair, is some funhouse mirror version of Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the crystal meth industry is so prevalent that it grows in matted tendrils right alongside the lily of the valley – suggests that Fring is some sort of Predator-esque creature. He anticipates everything, sees everything, and survives everything. Everything. Right up until he doesn’t (spoilers, I guess).

The duel of wits and strategy that takes place between crystal meth cook Walter White (Bryan Cranston’s defining role) and his formerly friendly employer Gustavo Fring (a chilling Giancarlo Esposito) throughout season four of Breaking Bad demands that each man be nominally invincible. Walter, continuing to survive mostly by accident, is still clever enough for most of the season to know his standing in Fring’s eyes, having saved his and Jessie’s (Aaron Paul) lives the previous season by realising how valuable he would be in the absence of Gale (David Costabile).

Meanwhile, Gus simply maintains his stranglehold on Walt, delicately placing a wedge between him and his protege Jessie, biding his time and sniffing out improvised explosive devices like a fucking bloodhound. Each episode involves a further development in Walt’s attempt to assassinate Gus, while also adding to Gus’ backstory as the world’s single most patient serial killer. The blood pumps just remembering some of the setpieces involved: a standoff with a box cutter, a slaughter at a hacienda, a deranged cackle from a conspicuously empty crawlspace.

Even though Breaking Bad is a clockwork series, where every piece is designed to fit perfectly, showrunner Vince Gilligan allowed for a surprising degree of expansion over the course of its run. DEA agent Hank’s (Dean Norris) injuries from the previous season ground the show’s violence here, demonstrating the extent of recovery required following a bad-arse survival story. And Skylar – the most unnecessarily maligned character of the decade – embarks on a financial fraud subplot in which she both saves and dooms the family.

Of course, Walt manages thin scrapes and engages in perilous risks on a daily basis, just usually in a more dramatic fashion. But even after all this time, with all those close calls and resourceful moments, he still can’t help but stoke his own ego. He purchases unregistered firearms which he has to be taught how to use properly, is beat to shit by Mike for daring to question his loyalties, and then insists to Skylar that he is the one who knocks. As the last of the great white antiheroes of television, this was always Walter White’s defining trait: loud, unearned confidence in a world passing him by.

Runner Up

Doubling down on its laurels as the most textured, warm and foolhardy sitcom of the decade, Parks & Rec took its time in 2011 to bask in the weird soup of a community it had spent the first few years of its run concocting. We knew about Ron and his ex-wife Tammy, yes, but we hadn’t quite seen the extent of their tendency to hate-fuck each other towards oblivion. Likewise, April and Andy jumping feet first into marriage is the sort of thing that could only work with two participants who are equally jazzed by spontaneity. And the will-they/they-definitely-will dynamic between Leslie and Ben is more than a little cute.

The Rest

Even with only 13 new episodes in 2011, 30 Rock remained a wellspring of inspired insanity, frequently unhinged but always incredibly funny.

Embracing the complexities of growing up rather than shunning them, the second and third seasons of Adventure Time are a salve for the inner child.

More niche yet just as infections as its first season, Archer returned with some of the most impressive and satisfying sitcom episodes of the decade.

Continuing its streak of all-time great half hours week-after-week, Community kept the laughs up even as the tone shifted and began basking in the darkest timeline.

Surprisingly spry for so late in the show’s run, HIMYM‘s 2011 was nothing if not eventful, full of funerals, weddings, pregnancies and John Lithgow.

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)

“Time’s a goon, right?”

So says one of the many aged has-beens that populate Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, the best (for my money) of the Pulitzer Prize winners of the decade. It doesn’t earn that distinction by being the most complicated or high-concept recipient, nor by having the deepest themes or by perfectly capturing the way we lived our lives in the early 2010s – although it does do that last part pretty well. No, honestly, Goon Squad’s greatest boon is its energy, its variety and the fact that it’s just ridiculously fun to read.

Our key players, for the most part, are a collection of wayward ‘80s musicians, the groupies that obsess over them and the money-hungry suits that slowly begin to circle. It all takes the form of a compilation of short stories that orbit a cast of familiar characters, à la Elizabeth Sprout’s 2009 winner Olive Kitteridge. The difference between the two is that, while the latter kept things on a tidy linear timeline, the chapters of Goon Squad jump back and forth at will through the decades, reflecting the rubber fickleness of time that occupies the characters’ minds. Further enriching the content is Egan’s use of a different literary style for each chapter, jumping from first to third person narration, from fastidious journalism to stoner bromides.

The only true throughline is Sasha, and even she doesn’t appear in every chapter. Initially a young girl too smart for her own good, Sasha runs away to Naples, is forced into being a sex worker, gets rescued by her estranged uncle, returns to the US (having developed kleptomania), begins studying at NYU and becomes an assistant to the head of a record label, all before she’s 25! In the penultimate chapter, Great Rock and Roll Pauses by Alison Blake, we find that Sasha has finally settled down with two kids, and we learn from her daughter, Alison, about the minutiae of domestic life in a household with an autistic child. By the way, this is told to us via a printed PowerPoint presentation; you have to turn the book on its side to read it.

See what I fucking mean?! I love that kinda shit: novelty with a distinct purpose. In Out of Body, the book’s most affecting chapter, Egan makes the strange but inspired choice to tell the story in second person. Everything that happens to the main character, Rob, is referred to as happening to “you”, a device that almost always feels performative and distancing. But Egan is smart about her deployment, hooking a phantom thread around our belt loops and keeping us inextricably tied to Rob and his actions. It’s a wonderful, painful way to experience the inner turmoil of an isolated human being, with a final sentence so tragic that it might literally shake you.

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