This week’s question is a yearly tradition:
What non-2015 pop culture did you just discover this year?
As far as shameful secrets go, never having read Art Spiegelman’s Maus is hardly “I accidentally killed someone and got away with it,” but it’s a big hole if you’re interested in comics at all. Spiegelman’s graphic-novel retelling of his father’s experiences as a Jew in Europe during the Holocaust—including his time at Auschwitz—is understandably hailed as a triumph, a ground-breaking work that told an incredibly powerful story in a new and thoughtful way. When I saw an exhibit about Maus at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2012, I resolved to read the two-volume story. Uh, three years later, I finally did. It lived up to the hype, but also surpassed my expectations for the brutality it described—especially the stories about children. What Spiegelman’s father and mother endured is mind-bending, but Spiegelman doesn’t hold them up as saints (especially his father). It’s part history lesson, part memoir of a family, and completely engrossing all around.
For the past couple of years, so many people had been telling me about the extraordinary work of Matt Fraction, that I ended up doing that childish contrarian thing where I basically set my jaw, buried my head in the sand, and ignored it. (A tough feat, when a friend was the artist for one of his books.) By the end of last year, however, it was more or less impossible to ignore his comics if you even set foot in a comic book store, so I finally checked my grumpy attitude and was rewarded with some of the most thoughtful and inventive storytelling happening in the medium. From his superlative Sex Criminals to the best version of Hawkeye I’ve ever seen, Fraction reminded me of everything I love about comics. I’ve been steadily plowing through his back catalog, and have yet to find a dud. I will now commence being one of those vocal advocates who previously drove me nuts.
I’ve been repeatedly told to watch Broad City and mostly avoided it because I felt full on shows about “millennials” living in New York City that are “real” or “raw” or what have you. Broad City is just that, but the comedy that oozes out of Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson (especially the former) is consistently laugh-out-loud funny. Now caught up on the first two seasons, I can say my favorite episode is season two’s “Coat Check,” which guest stars Alia Shawkat. It’s a perfect example of Broad City’s somewhat raunchy humor. Season three premieres on February 17 on Comedy Central, which gives you more than enough time to ready yourself by enjoying some laughs with the ladies throughout the first two seasons.
I started reading George Saunders right around the time the author and MacArthur genius was experiencing his big 2013 breakout, a breakout predicated on the short story collection Tenth Of December. And yet it wasn’t until this summer that I got to tuck in to Tenth Of December, plowing through its pages over the span of a few days—give or take the recovery period required by the book’s heart-breaking centerpiece, “The Semplica-Girl Diaries.” “Empathy” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in relation to Saunders’ work, and Tenth Of December did an impressive job of throwing me into the mindsets of its characters, even (and especially) when the actions inspired by those mindsets were subjectively despicable. That’s one of the umpteen things I loved about the book (including but not limited to: the precision of the prose, the lack of showy endings, the hilarious names for fictional products and corporations), but it’s the part that sticks out in my mind, all these months later. If the novel Saunders has been teasing since Tenth Of December’s release ever surfaces, I hope that immersive sense of inner monologue comes with it.
Well, this is super dumb, but I hadn’t heard anything on Taylor Swift’s fully ubiquitous 1989 beyond “Shake It Off,” because I never listen to the radio and I think that was the only single at that point. Maybe it wasn’t. Regardless, I hadn’t yet been introduced to the rest of the record, which as many really annoying critics who usually shun “pop music” have already told you, is good. But for some reason or other, my 5-year-old son heard “Bad Blood” this year. (Maybe he heard it pumping out of every speaker in the world.) And then he wanted to listen to 1989 almost all the time. First it was “Shake It Off” on repeat. Then it was “Bad Blood” on repeat. Lots of times in a row. Eventually he settled on “Wildest Dreams.” I was desperately thankful for the Ryan Adams version of the album, not because I’m a huge Ryan Adams fan—I’m not—but because it could deliver the same songs in a new way. Eventually, my little dude said, “Let’s listen to the man singing ‘Bad Blood,’ I like that better,” which maybe makes him a junior hipster?
My up-to-now unfamiliarity with this one isn’t for lack of trying; I’d been trying to track down a copy of Terry Southern’s The Magic Christian for years, scouring old bookstores for tattered paperback copies of the author’s nastily satirical opus. (Online ordering was, of course, out of the question; when on a hard-to-find book hunt, Amazon is the worst form of cheating.) But it wasn’t until I moved to Portland, Oregon, and got lured into the bibliophile’s wonderland known as Powell’s City Of Books, that I finally sighted my quarry. Happily, the book itself didn’t disappoint. While Southern’s dark masterpiece is really more of a short story anthology than a full-fleshed novel, as a collection of cruel little amorality plays excoriating the worst aspects of human nature, it can’t be beat. It’s hard to pick just one of prankster billionaire Guy Grand’s misanthropic schemes to hold up as an example of the book’s angry, mean-spirited wit, but the title story—in which Grand tricks a bunch of wealthy snobs onto a posh cruise liner that slowly descends into madness and anarchy, complete with the ship’s mad-eyed captain getting attacked by a guy in a gorilla suit—seems like a good start.
I discovered Steven Universe during a brief period of unemployment this year—and yes, I’m embarrassed to admit that I caught on so late. My 6-year-old niece introduced me to the Crystal Gems (and Steven) in the spring, and I am now a much more dedicated viewer of the show than she is. But I was sold on it from the first episode, which introduced a courageous little boy who’s being raised by the extraterrestrial guardians of the Earth. His washed-up musician dad cheerfully pitches in when he can, though he’s never depicted as pathetic. Simply put, Steven Universe is delightful—the stories are at once hilarious and touching, the characters complex, and well, I don’t think I have to sell anyone at The A.V. Club on this particular show. But I’ll go on: Despite only having a 12-minute run time, Steven Universe manages to tell episodic stories and also lay the groundwork for longer arcs. I was more anxious to learn what happened to Lapis Lazuli than anything going on in the second season of True Detective. But honestly, I would probably keep up with Steven Universe for the songs alone; I sing “Giant Woman” aloud often enough to get dirty looks from people at the grocery store.
I’m always behind the curve on animation, and it took almost everyone I knew inside The A.V. Club office and out incredulously exclaiming, “You haven’t seen Rick And Morty?!” for me to sit down and watch Rick And Morty. And you guys were right. It’s brilliant. My personal favorite episode is probably “Total Rickall,” which perfectly encapsulates the show’s blend of wildly creative absurdity and pitch-black existential despair that makes it so enjoyable for cynical jerks like myself. But every episode is so densely packed with jokes and lovingly skewed pop-culture references—Scary Larry!—Mister Meeseeks!—Curse Purge Plus!—Get Schwifty!—that making that call is practically impossible. Even the episode descriptions, with their frequent use of the word “broh,” are hilarious. So now I join in the chorus and cry: Rick and Morty forever, 100 years!
I purchased Shadow Of Mordor for cheap on Steam and have been enjoying it far more than I expected from my budget-minded impulse purchase. The story of a human ranger and his spirit-bonded elven lord companion is an enjoyable expansion of Tolkien’s mythology while not being overly dense or heavy-handed. But the best part is the games nemesis system, where killing or being killed sets off a chain reaction within the command hierarchy of Sauron’s army. As enjoyable as it may be to run down a cruel Uruk slaver and pop a knife into his noodle, it’s even better when you get to watch the power struggle that ensues in the wake of your freewheeling murders. Orcs will challenge each other for supremacy, changing the entire command chain in the process. It’s like a game of needlessly cruel, smelly chess. As much as I enjoy running through the games intricate world, I would spend good money just to watch temperamental, short-sighted goblins whack each other all day. Added bonus: Mordor has surprisingly lovely sunsets.
I’ve been using 2015 to actually watch the Star Wars movies, four of which I’ve never actually seen. (I’d somehow managed to see Phantom Menace and New Hope, for what it’s worth.) It’s been an interesting exercise, considering I’ve spent my whole life unconsciously learning the plots of the movies, the names of the fighters, and fictional planet names. More than that, though, it’s served as a slight point of contention in my house and in my office, as—shocker!—as a 34-year-old woman who’s been subjected to hundreds if not thousands of hours of Star Wars hype, I’ve come out of the viewings with only a slight respect for the actual product. Don’t get me wrong—Han Solo is cool, or whatever, and I like R2-D2, but I just can’t get behind The Empire Strikes Back as an objectively “good” movie. That’s right. I said it. Want to fight?
I thought I’d heard (or at least heard of) just about every great dream-pop band of the ’90s. Not only was I obsessed with that sort of stuff back then, I worked in an independent record store throughout the ’90s that heavily stocked it. But when I got a press release recently for the first album in 17 years from “one of the original dream-pop set”—the band Butterfly Child—I had to scratch my head. Butterfly Child? Didn’t ring a bell. So I checked out the band’s trio of albums: 1993’s Onomatopoeia, 1995’s The Honeymoon Suite, and 1998’s Soft Explosives. I’m glad I did. Led by Irishman Joe Cassidy, Butterfly Child crafted ethereal pop songs out of acoustic guitar and synthetic textures, like a skeleton of shoegaze. Of Cassidy’s three full-lengths, The Honeymoon Suite turned out to be my favorite; it’s the last album he made before moving to the U.S., making Soft Explosives, then giving up on releasing new Butterfly Child material. Until now; the group’s fourth album, Futures, comes out this month. And while it’s quite good (if more conventionally shoegaze), those brittle, beautiful ’90s albums feel like wayward radio signals from another era.
As was the case last year, my main non-2015 pop culture discoveries came courtesy of assigned viewing for my podcast, and by far the highlight was PopOptiq’s Ricky D forcing me to finally watch The Wonder Years. This is a beloved show to many, but I’d never taken the time to sit down and watch any and when I did, I was blown away: It’s as good as everyone says, if not better. Right from its remarkable pilot, the ’60s-set series captures the beauty, joy, boredom, and utter silliness of being a kid in the suburbs, combining it with real pathos and grief, as 12-year-old protagonist Kevin Arnold watches his neighbor Winnie Cooper and her family cope with the news of Winnie’s brother’s death in Vietnam. The performances are fantastic throughout and the writing shines, plus the show has quite possibly the best soundtrack ever compiled for a TV series. The Wonder Years truly feels magical (it’s easy to see why so many network shows have tried to recreate its formula, and failed miserably, over the past few years) and it’s essential viewing for fans of TV. To those out there putting off catching up with this tremendous series, do yourself a favor and move it to the top of your queue—you won’t be sorry.
I’d heard about The Sapphires from enough people that it wasn’t so much discovered as eagerly awaited, but the thrill’s the same. The story’s based on a real-life Indigenous Australian girl group who sang for the soldiers in Vietnam, and director Wayne Blair has a light touch with that historical grounding, a mark of trust in his audience that means The Sapphires neatly sidesteps a lot of the tired tropes of the genre—it knows we know how these stories go. (There’s also some historical weight from Australian politics—one of the Sapphires was kidnapped as a child and forcibly assimilated in a government school, a lingering trauma for the characters that makes for uneasy conflict and some deeply personal stakes.) But the heavier moments are balanced by an easy, wry chemistry among the cast; Deborah Mailman and Jessica Mauboy took home AACTAs for their performances. (The only awkwardness comes via fellow AACTA-winner Chris O’Dowd, whose perfectly good performance is hampered by the inevitable plot points that make him “that white guy who can turn these ladies around.”) Its reception in the States has been small, but it’s a savvy, heartfelt feel-gooder with family ties, political depth, and charming-as-hell musical numbers; what’s not to like?
Although I hosted an internet radio show for years back in the days of RealAudio, I avoided their modern-day equivalent—podcasts—for reasons I can’t really articulate. But my lack of interest was so entrenched, it took someone at the very, very top to get me to change my ways. Namely, the president of the United States. When Marc Maron somehow landed an interview with Barack Obama, I decided that if I was ever going to listen to a podcast, now’s the time. Since then, I’ve been hooked on WTF?, going back through the archives and enjoying Maron’s uncanny ability to get public figures to open up about their private lives. Maron’s been in the business long enough that virtually any comedian who comes on the show has a history with the host and old stories to share. But it’s the non-comedians—David Byrne talking about turning his solo ukulele act into the Talking Heads; Sir Patrick Stewart opening up about his changing relationship with his abusive father; Iggy Pop being shockingly erudite and insightful—that end up being the most fascinating. Not only have I had to take back my disdain for podcasts, WTF? has been a gateway drug, and since opening my heart to podcasting, I’ve spent countless hours catching up on back episodes of How Did This Get Made?, Comedy Bang! Bang!, Hardcore History, and other essentials.
Rainbow Rowell, where have you been all my life? I read Fangirl earlier this year and enjoyed it, but was told that was nothing compared to the glory that is Eleanor & Park. The novel about two teen outcasts who fall in love was one of the books I brought on a recent vacation. Who needs sun and sand when there’s Nebraskan teenage love to devour? I read the book in a day and have rarely felt so deeply about two characters. It’s lovely and deep in a way that few titles labeled “young adult” are. But calling Eleanor & Park young adult isn’t fair, it just happens to feature teenagers. One of Rowell’s great talents is how viscerally she makes young love feel. Anyone who has ever felt not just the pangs of adolescent obsession for another person, but for another object, will relate to Eleanor & Park.
I don’t read a lot of Westerns, and before this summer, I’d never heard of Oakley Hall, or his most famous novel, Warlock. Hearing positive word about the book online (plus finding out Thomas Pynchon apparently loved it) inspired me to track it down, and I’m very glad I did. A fictionalized account of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the showdown at the O.K. Corral, the book follows the small town of Warlock as its citizens struggle to build a civilization out of a lawless, violent history. There’s action, but what makes the story so singular is Hall’s canny marriage of psychology and philosophy, allowing characters to debate their circumstances in a way that never feels overly stylized or didactic. His mastery of dialogue is especially impressive, as the book’s dozen or more important figures all stand out in their own unique way, and the hard truths won throughout are as fascinating as they are thrilling. It’s just a terrific read, exciting and thoughtful at the same time, and I highly recommend it.
I can’t claim to have discovered Billy Joel in 2015; I’ve been listening to him for well over 20 years at this point, from hearing his Greatest Hits and River Of Dreams in my family’s minivan to my own cassettes of Piano Man, The Stranger, and Glass Houses. But knowing the Greatest Hits collection and a few other albums has allowed me to overlook gaps in my experience with his discography. When my wife got me tickets to see him for Christmas last year, I bought a used vinyl LP of Turnstiles. As it turns out, I think this might actually be his best record (or at least in close competition with An Innocent Man); I knew “New York State Of Mind” and “Say Goodbye To Hollywood” already, but I didn’t know the album’s third city song, “Miami 2017,” very well, and it’s become one of my favorites. Overall, the record has great songcraft, unencumbered by his occasional self-aggrandizing streak. Joel has been a hits artist for so long that it’s easy to forget how solid some of his deeper cuts can be, and my love of Turnstiles has encouraged me to seek out other back-catalog albums by artists with lots of familiar material (though I think we’re good with the greatest hits, Steve Miller Band).
I’ve been a Richard Thompson fan for decades, and have a couple of Fairport Convention CDs that I rarely listen to; but earlier this year I found a copy of the 1976 anthology Fairport Chronicles on vinyl, and it immediately became not just my favorite Thompson record but maybe in my Top 20 albums of all time. Drawing on all of the major LPs from the Thompson/Sandy Denny era—and adding a few key tracks from side projects—Fairport Chronicles emphasizes the more mainstream folk-rock side of the band over the traditionalism, positioning Fairport as a peer to Joni Mitchell, The Band, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. There have been a lot of Fairport Convention collections in the decades since A&M released Fairport Chronicles (in the U.S. only), but none capture this period so well. I know some people turn their noses up at “best ofs,” but a well-chosen greatest hits can be as much of a work of art as any proper album; and it’s a shame that so many of the best pre-CD-era anthologies have fallen out of print, never released on any other format.
Although it’s something I’d be doing even if I wasn’t living with the inconsistent income of a freelance writer, I love to frequent used book sales, and to cut down on how many books I bring into our house, I made a solemn vow a few years ago to only buy books that I might arguably be able to use for work purposes. As you might imagine, this has resulted in the acquisition of a number of celebrity biographies and autobiographies, and the best one I picked up this year was Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography, by Victoria Price. Originally released in 1999, it’s a fascinating read, filled with a number of facts I’d never known about Vincent Price, and there’s certainly plenty of drama, but what I most took away from it were Price’s many witticisms, the most memorable of which was tied to Michael Jackson’s Thriller and how Jackson only paid him “what amounted to a small honorarium” for his contributions to the album’s title track and no more, not even when the song spawned one of the most significant videos of the 1980s. When word got out that Jackson had paid a reported multi-million dollar sum tied to charges of inappropriate behavior with a minor, Price responded, “All I can say is that Michael Jackson fucked me—and I didn’t get paid for it!”