Year of Ermahgerd

Year of Ermahgerd

Set your sight back about eight years ago…

It’s the end of the world, apparently, because the Mayans knew something they weren’t sharing. As people sit around awaiting the total collapse of the planet, everything mostly continues on fine… relatively speaking. There’s KONY 2012, a movement of white saviourdom and slacktivism so hollow that it could be whittled into a flute. Meanwhile in the Middle East, Kofi Annan’s peace talks in Syria fail, as the civil war between Bashar al-Asad’s troops and rebel insurgents critical of his fascistic government escalates dramatically. And, of course, there are the attacks on the US embassy in Benghazi that will linger in political consciousness for years to come.

By mid-year, London will hold the Olympics, where Usain Bolt sets a 9.63 s Olympic record in the Men’s 100 meters that stands unbroken to this day; also, James Bond meets the Queen. And though every month seems to bring a new one, three of the US’ most infamous shootings – Trayvon Martin, Aurora Theatre and Sandy Hook – occur within the span of six months, bookending Obama’s campaign and eventual re-election. Putin is also re-elected (yep), while Gillard survives a leadership spill and bounces back to deliver a speech calling out political misogyny.

Gangnam Style” happens, but it mostly disappears pretty quickly if you just stop thinking about it; “Call Me Maybe“, on the other hand, lingers on from the year before to enjoy resounding success as the year’s least annoying trend. Drake says YOLO and can’t take it back, a dude survives skydiving from space and we all have to live with the knowledge that a program called Here Comes Honey Boo Boo airs on the Learning Channel. Also, the last Twilight movie comes out and everyone’s still way too invested in whether or not the lead actors have sex for realsies.

Ok, speed round: Hurricane Sandy, The Avengers, Facebook purchases Instagram for a cool $1 billion, Whitney Huston dies and McKayla is not impressed.

Alright, let’s get into it…

Best Song

(Click titles for music videos)

An epic of pickled romance, “Pyramids” is a song of historical vibrancy, a tale as old as time refracted by a technicolour zoetrope. Coarse and bright, like greebles of desert sand tumbling from your hair in an ecstasy of club movement, the track is a gargantuan tussle between the well-told economies of sex and power. Cleopatra (yes, that Cleopatra… kinda) is taken – or runs away, or is killed – and the metaphorical mind runs wild, as the decade’s most towering synthline struggles to contain Frank’s train of thought, skirting legend to wind up in the most high-class strip joint in town, a monument of God-like worship. Three guesses as to the name.

Runner Up

If you’ve ever wanted an audio equivalent of that moment when it’s just the two of you for the very first time, and you both lean in and meet as the freefall hits, it’s right here: “Welcome to my bed! Almost nine years on, Jeremih can still get it in that very singular, specifically wonderful way.

The Rest

With Dean Martin and a phantom choir laid out by producer Party Suppliers, Action Bronson goes ham, rude as you like and charmingly clumsy to boot.

I have never shown this song to a person who has enjoyed it, which is weird because it has 2 Chainz saying “Nicki, Nicki, Nicki, put it in your kidney!” So.

On an album with a cross to bear, “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” took a quick breather, surveyed the landscape and assessed the softest soil to plant the damn thing.

Returned from his reformation in Samoa, the 19-year-old Earl let out a torrent of tortured feelings with the eloquence of a doomed soothsayer.

An unlikely second act from Usher this decade spawned a deluge of many club anthems, along with this aching earworm, a miserable dash of pop perfection.

The twin peddlers of young love and soured regret go electronic, trading in the IRL kit and caboodler for rushing synths and breathless, ’80s-amped chants.

Built around the droning mantra of a robot army, the centrepiece of Hot Chip’s In Our Heads quite literally commands your movement.

“Someone’s gotta help me dig” is so mystical without context – and so hilarious with it – that it nutshells Misty: cocksure poet, sleazy genius.

Have two more gloriously contradictory statements ever been thrown together with less fucks given than “I don’t care!” and “I love it!”?

A murmur never mattered more, as Jai Paul’s follow up to 2011’s “BTSTU” continued his streak of brewing up quiet storms of deep splendour.

Buffered by sunny yelps and gooey rhythms, Solange’s heartfelt lyrics spill out with sugary sadness, like caramel poured on an open would, for some reason.

Mumble rap when it meant literally not being able to understand what’s being said (did he just say “llama”?), but clapping for Soda, regardless.

There had never been a goofier group of motherfuckers assembled for a posse cut; now, you can blame this joint for Brockhampton and this atrocity.

Desperate and willing in the most oily of nice guy ways, fun.’s lead single from their (awful) album of the same name is nothing if not a sincere, full measure of winning goo.

Grizzly Bear always summon shifting landscapes with their music, the sounds of tectonic movement sped up and splayed out in wild, graceful arcs of majesty.

Best Movie

(Click titles for trailers or streaming options)

Abraham Lincoln is one of those figures who seems to exist outside of time. Like Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa and Psi, he’s a permanent feature of the topography of history, a landmark so instrumental that it’s hard to think of a time before his legend. With that said, there’s a very clear impediment to retelling the most significant part of his legacy: it’s difficult to lionise the man who abolished slavery without glossing over the stories of those who suffered its deepest ills.

Steven Spielberg has tackled this problem before, most directly in his masterpiece Schindler’s List. On its face, addressing the Holocaust through the eyes of a non-Jewish man who (at least initially) saw personal gain from the war seems misguided. But, much as Lincoln is not the hero of this film, Schindler was not the hero of his; he was merely an instrument of justice, an extra hand to help bend the arc of the moral universe. That’s how Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis (in his greatest performance) see the 10th President of the United States, not as a white saviour but as a man more awake than most to the cruelties of other men, and better equipped than any to correct the course.

Lofty ambitions and all that, but the surprising thing about Lincoln is how closely its structure hues to some of the most cherished forms of millennial cinema. Setting aside it’s bloody opening scene – where the Civil War is shown in all its violent, unwieldy horror – the movie proceeds for much of its run like a legislative heist flick and a surprisingly funny glimpse behind the curtain of American politics. With one of the largest and greatest (albeit mostly male) casts assembled this decade, Spielberg relishes in the nitty-gritty of procuring votes to ratify the 13th Amendment, setting loose the Gang of Three – consummate character actors James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson – on a crusade to bribe members of congress into realising the better angels of their nature.

Now, was this all how it actually happened? I don’t fucking know. History is long, it’s only getting moreso, and it often refuses to jump off the page and drape cinematic confetti over everything the way Spielberg can, and does. What’s important, though, and more than a little impressive is what this movie signified, arriving at a time when “white people save the day” had long been played out as a trope, when the sickly aftertaste of Freedom Writers, The Blind Side and The Help was still thick in our mouths. The difference is that Lincoln felt definitive: many have quibbled with its portrayal of slaves as passive in their own liberation, but few could deny that this was the white saviour film to rule them all, the moment slavery was abolished and the cosmic scales were ostensibly re-balanced, and now we never have to make another one ever again, right? Right?!

Runner Up

In 1964, a 23-year-old Michael Apted set out to document the lives of over a dozen seven-year-old English school children from an array of different backgrounds. The original intention was to determine the rate of success and opportunity afforded to each based on their class and upbringing; this was quickly abandoned, as Apted spied a more anthropological option. Every seven years since, Apted has re-interviewed each of the original film’s 14 subjects – or as many as are happy to participate – to prolong his cinematic exploration of a most cosmic curiosity. By 2012, they had all made the age of 56 and were up to their seventh entry in the series, the half-century having passed in a smear of wondrous chaos to which they were its most compelling testament.

The Rest

One of the strangest and most devastating documentaries ever made, as participants of the Indonesian genocide recreate their sins in vivid, surreal detail.

A grueling, sadly enlightening French tearjerker that presents love at the end of life with a clarity and dignity rarely shown in senior-centred cinema.

Suspenseful as any film of the last decade, Argo tells the true(ish) story of Ben Affleck’s valiant attempts to secure an Oscar nomination for Best Director.

A bugfuck masterpiece, the Wachowski’s and Tom Twyker weave threads of wonder over the breadth of human history, and Hugh Grant fucking eats a guy.

The second of QT’s historical revisions after Inglourious Basterds traffics in blaxploitation tropes, gorgeous gore and Tarantino’s typically rhapsodical dialogue.

A man in a limo becomes a beggar-woman, an assassin and sings a duet with Kylie Minogue in this unhinged, arthouse smorgasbord of weirdness.

Archival footage from the late 20th century recaptures the fear and bristling anger of the gay community during the first waves of the AIDS crisis.

Of a piece with Samsara, but murkier and more insular, the closeup footage of a commercial trawler is repurposed into a dance of grisly, potent beauty.

One of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final – and possibly greatest – performances, trading blows with Joaquin Phoenix in this crazed power struggle.

For years, Anderson had been working towards a movie where his characters’ age would match his aesthetic whimsy, only for the kids to be the most sensible ones onscreen.

Best New TV Show

(Click titles for episodes or highlights)

There’s always been something sneakily genius about children’s television, most especially cartoons. Whenever something’s animated and geared towards kids, we tend to let our guard down. It can be silly, maybe a little crude, or weirdly, spontaneously gross, because that’s what we expect. And there’ll always be a couple of jokes that fly over the younger audience members’ heads, and you chuckle knowingly, and that’s that. Except in the 2010s, children’s television – which had already been priming itself on SpongeBob and Adventure Time and – spawned the bombastic, emotionally vibrant joyride that was Gravity Falls.

It had the randomness and colourful buffoonery of previous cartoons, but the story of Mabel and Dipper Pines (Kirsten Schaal and Josh Ritter, respectively) and their crazy Grunkle Stan (Alex Hirsch) delved deeper than most into the mythology and familial ties of its characters. No show has a more poignant and unalloyed demonstration of what it means to be a family.

Runner Up

From David Milch, the man behind Deadwood (which either means everything or nothing to you) comes this strange, tepidly plotted but impressively textured drama centering on the world of horse racing, which only lasted for one 9-episode season. Dustin Hoffman in his only leading television role stars as Chester “Ace” Bernstein – basically De Niro’s character in Casino at the end of his life and looking for all the angles. Divining his way through meetings and squabbles with organised crime figures by always playing the odds, Ace chooses his words deliberately and makes friends with a horse. Some things never change.

The Rest

Before Eric Andre set the talk-show format on fire, Squat Lockerman and Reggie Watts gave it a light tilt and revitalised the potential for spontaneous television.

Spearheaded by one of the decade’s most divisive pop culture figures, Lena Dunham’s so-relatable-it-hurts dramedy was a well-crafted intentional cringefest.

Dropping two seasons in just their first year, MADtv alumni Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s sketch show had more bite in one episode than SNL‘s entire decade.

One of the most successful international programs of the 2010s, this French supernatural gem embroiders the zombie format with an ethereal elegance.

When it began, Veep was a satire of political madness and chicanery during relatively stable times… and then someone held Trump’s beer.

Best Album

(Click titles for music videos)

Why does synesthesia make for better musicians? If certain words or clauses made me see colour, I don’t know how it would help my writing; it’d be more of a hindrance, really, a psychedelic distraction from the content that does nothing to enhance it. But with sound, colour can bleed out in vivid waves that, occasionally, even those of us with none of that lysergic crossed-wiring can picture and appreciate.

Frank Ocean’s music, if nothing else, is fucking colourful. Named for the synesthetic phenomenon itself, channel ORANGE’s every beat and figure is drenched in dusky tones, the glow of curved light upon soft earth. It cannot quite be called cinematic, in the same way that the shifting texture of grass seen through psilocybin eyes isn’t quite cinematic. What it is, instead, is a kind of alchemy, a perspective shift in which the world becomes new without revealing any new part of itself. Like the final scene of Boyhood, as Mason sits down to gaze at a sun-dappled valley having just taken acid, the entire thing is a recontextualisation of something so familiar it can snatch at your breath.

Image result for frank ocean channel orange

So yeah, this is almost certainly the best album of the decade. And, if it’s not, it’s probably only because Ocean’s follow up is arguably better. But even just on this joint, there’s no shortage of riches: “Sweet Life” pulses with the shimmering blue and tropical greens of a resort-hopping lifestyle, both dripping in decadence and wary of the way a filtered snapshot smooths over ennui. “Crack Rock” is a swirl of rainbow-slicked oil burbling through a neon gutter, a meditation on class and addiction that gets high on its own supply while dropping some of the decade’s most harrowing details (“Your family stopped inviting you to things, won’t let you hold their infant”).

Then there’s “Thinkin Bout You”, which became an immediate staple of Ocean’s oeuvre for a dozen different reasons. There’s his now signature shift from a melancholy tenor to heavenly falsetto, the literal references to colour and B&W on a track that sounds like hues blushing into being and, of course, the whole gay thing. That’s right, Frank used the word “boy” literally once on this track and the world lost its damn mind, shuddering at the thought of a queer man being within a stone’s throw of mainstream hip hop. I mean, someone had to tell Kanye, right?!

Image result for frank ocean gif

It’s a minor miracle that this “controversy” itself didn’t dwarf the release of channel ORANGE, but it probably had something to do with Frank taking to Tumblr a week beforehand to set the record straight. His note reads: “I was 19 years old. He was too… I wrote to keep myself busy and sane. I wanted to create worlds that were rosier than mine. I tried to channel overwhelming emotions… I feel like a free man. If I listen closely.. I can hear the sky falling too.” And never was a sound as lovely.

Runner Up

Promise that you will sing about me“, is the refrain of good kid‘s centrepiece, a track that foregrounds the album’s sincere bid for immortality. In an era of both new atheism and spiritual nihilism, Kendrick’s most audacious trick is to fuse his adamant Christianity to his hard-earned respect for reality. Will we be reborn by Jesus’ blood, or (failing that) will people stop getting shot over bullshit? Does making it big mean you did the right thing, and will they remember you differently if you don’t tell it right? “I’m tired of this shit,” crops up on that same track, a declaration of exhaustion on an album that demands you wear out the repeat button.

The Rest

It only sounds easy once someone else has done it, but Mac’s carefree, slack-til-you-crack approach to songcraft sure feels like the sonic equivalent of a lazy afternoon.

A Bon Iver-style origin story of seclusion away from the wider world, Waxahatchee’s startling tone and direct lyricism only improved from here.

Fired up on the thrill of being able to keep up with one another, Dylan Baldi’s post-hardcore bangers throb like a pleasure headache, if that… makes sense.

5 Minutes 1 Take Raps” boasts one of the tracks on this scattered to fuck mixtape, a procession of stoned braggadocio and blissfully tinted throwback samples.

TDE’s most laterally-minded, shadowy member delivers a mission statement packed with dizzy rhymes and dizzier conspiracy theories.

Before the world knew it was FlyLo, many suspected Tyler or Earl of being the mystery man behind this gangly, bejeweled collection of hypnotic nonsense.

A piano has never sounded more deadly, as Fiona Apple tackles with every atom of her being, an unmitigated, a one-woman parade of nothing but everything.

A rich architecture of satiated desire and requited love, where chains don’t constrict but bind, and swelling orbs of sound mimic love in the act of constant renewal.

Road-rage on wax, Death Grips’ debut studio release is an uncanny cauldron of contradictions, strangely catchy as well as legitimately threatening.

But I can’t help myself“, sings Ed Droste in his polite yell, as the most poised indie rock band of the decade oscillate between soft noise and powerful stillness.

Best Returning TV Show

(Click titles for episodes or highlights)

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

W.B. Yeats, dude who liked tits ‘n dragons

In terms of sheer scope and impact, Game of Thrones was the television show that defined the decade. Fuck the result, because the rate of involvement and cultural relevance the show engendered will always be astounding. And it wasn’t just manna to the meek, dungeon-dwelling fantasy nerd masses, either. It mattered to everyone: people who had never heard of Tolkien – or, sometimes, even George R.R. Martin himself – could tell you the full names of entire families, allies and enemies on Keeping up with the Westerosians. It was – and I can’t overstate this – a very, very exciting time to be an avid television fan.

And now, consider where we’ve ended up. It is wild to think how drastically the general consensus over Game of Thrones has shifted in only seven years. True story: if you asked a roomful of the show’s audience what they thought about D&D in 2012, 95% of that room would have deified them as televisual Gods. The skills these partnered showrunners had demonstrated in season one – deftly muddying the waters of allegiance, ambition and avarice in an obsidian-black fantasy world – were only refined in their 2012 output, arguably the show’s strongest run of episodes.

Ned Stark (Sean Bean) is soooooo (spoilers) dead, and the North wants revenge. Cut to each one of his progeny – except Rickon, because who gives a shit? – adjusting to a Ned-less world and their place within it. Jon (Kit Harrington), the bastard son, flourishes at the Wall, and amasses the Hamlet-like power of brooding; the eldest legitimate heir, Robb (Richard Madden), continues to show a keen aptitude for warfare and the art of shit-talking; Sansa (Sophie Turner), held as a hostage bride in King’s Landing, maintains her decorum and moral fiber; Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) actually matters, trying to escape a hostile takeover at Winterfell; and Arya (Maisie Williams) takes the scenic route around the show’s edges as a not-particularly-convincing ‘Arry.

The point is this, though: why? The show saw such an astronomical jump in ratings from 2011 to 2012, and continued to climb in viewership and wider influence for the rest of the decade… but why was this the right time for Game of Thrones? The simple answer is that it wasn’t, that the show’s massive budget, adult themes and subversion of storytelling were enough to ensnare any mass of sentient beings primed for the best in media, that the show didn’t notice a trend but instead just created its own and foisted it upon us.

But I’m not so sure about that. I think Game of Thrones was exactly right for us, in so many ways. The figurative layers of the White Walkers – a far-off existential threat that was hard to believe but was surely coming – took years to come into focus as a subconscious fascination with another almost-certain impending doom. And almost every character’s refusal to compromise, the blood-thick obstinacy that drives virtually every plot point of the show, seems retrospectively to have been a thing of dormant potential, an entrenchment and divide that felt so radical and thrilling to see play out week after week. When it was just a show.

Runner Up

In its first season, Homeland was loudly silly and (somehow) quietly touching. In 2012, it went all in, as Carrie finally got to confront Brody about his betrayal and yell “I loved you!” in the greatest “Is this really the time?” moment of the decade. Eventually, the two team up against a super convincing Islamic terrorist who wants to blow up America because of shopping malls (or something), Brody’s daughter straight up murders a woman with a car, and then Brody – I am not kidding – kills the President via a secret code that’s sent to his pacemaker. Are you not entertained?!

The Rest

With Gus out of the way, Walt’s sights widen to the rest of the world, as Jessie and Mike try to contain the ruthless behemoth he has revealed himself to be.

Bob befriends a bankrobber, Tina tries breaking bad and Louise has her ears stolen in what is still just the warm-up round for the decade’s most consistent show.

Still enjoyable, even as the wheels start to spin, with Leslie’s ascent into higher office and the rest of the characters’… stuff that they do being pretty good, I suppose.

The slowest, most hypnotic of combustions, Mad Men‘s fifth season avoids repetition by reaching some logical, utterly devastating conclusions.

Don’t fuckin’ laugh: for a slim while there – after they left the farm and before the Governor got old – this show was actually enjoyable, if only for this one scene.

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)

No Award Given

Something strange happened with the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2012: no one won it. That’s not because the committee forgot about it or – like with Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow in 1974 – they simply refused to give the award on stuffy principles. There were three nominees selected and everything, but they just… didn’t feel like it.

For those interested, Michael Cunningham (author of the 1999 winner The Hours) addressed the controversy in the New Yorker, though it really offers more insight into the process of being a member of the Pulitzer Prize jury than the reasons behind the snub. But at any rate, here’s where we arrive at the conundrum of there being no single, esteemed book of the year to discuss. Instead, we have three contenders. Now calm down: I’m not about to do an equal write-up on all three. In fact, let’s be as quick about this as possible…

There’s actually already a review for The Pale King on the site, so go nuts; if you’d rather read about Wallace’s earlier novel, Infinite Jest, you can click here, or if you want to learn more about the fact that the late author was a misogynistic blowhard whose actions bordered on statuatory rape and domestic abuse, there’s this.

Ok, now the embarrassing thing about Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! – besides the godawful title – is that I haven’t finished reading it. In fact, it’s the only one of the twelve books mentioned in this weird literary stub at the end of a list of things that other people definitely will not read that I haven’t read. But, all that irony aside, I do feel bad about it, even though Russell’s prose – sometimes amusing, just as often tedious – lacks the luster to bring her story of a family of alligator wrestlers to life. I’ll say that again: this book about alligator wrestlers is kind of boring.

Oh yeah, and there’s Train Dreams. The shortest of any of the nominees this decade, the late Denis Johnson’s novella on the fragility of American colonial life is tinctured with a purposeful absence of significance. It’s very wonderfully done, actually, in its straightforward commitment to the prosaic matters of lonely people, something Tinkers was also good for. The life of its protagonist, Robert Grainier, can pass by in a single afternoon sitting, with all the fractured sadness and occasions of glee in his existence pressed into a smooth, flat circle.

But none of them won, so…

One Reply to “Year of Ermahgerd”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *