This week’s question congratulates all of us for having made it halfway through the year, and asks, What’s the best pop culture, in any form of media, you’ve encountered so far this year?
I’ve been looking forward to Yorgos Lanthimos’ dystopian romance The Lobster ever since I saw a trailer for it last year, when its bizarre premise—a world where relationships are mandatory and those who fail to find one are imprisoned at a dreary British resort hotel and then turned into animals—caught my imagination and wouldn’t let go. The Lobster is even weirder and darker than its promotional materials would suggest, featuring an understated (and deeply funny) performance from Colin Farrell and layer after layer of well-thought-out absurdist world-building. (The resort management’s manipulations of its inmates’ sex drives, for example—which culminates in a scene involving a toaster, John C. Reilly, and the world’s worst breakfast service—are both thoughtful and grimly hilarious.) The allegory is rarely subtle: This is a world where self-determined loners are forced to dig their own graves so as not to inconvenience their fellow travelers when they inevitably die, but it’s also pointed as hell, leaving me thinking about my own relationships for days after the fact.
In her episode of Netflix’s The Characters, Kate Berlant nails her depiction of a pretentious, self-centered conceptual artist named Denise St. Roy, with her Marina Abramovic-esque robes and metaphor-laden art-speak. Such self-aggrandizing artists can be easy targets, but Berlant also takes on other clichéd contemporary creative types. One is an annoyingly quirky vlogger whose show’s sole content is an avalanche of internet-meme language: It’s “awesomesauce” she has her own show; she just bought “all the birdhouses”; and her spirit animal is two hamburgers (she also throws an “amazeballs” in for good measure). The second type (which I didn’t realize was a type until now) is the slick-haired, not super-smart art curator, Rachel Ross, who decided to pursue a “more passionate lifestyle” by having her dad buy her a gallery. She drinks the St. Roy Kool-Aid, because she can’t tell good art from pretentious nonsense, and recycles empty talk-show language instead of forming her own thoughts. I look forward to more of Berlant’s smart comedy in 2016 and beyond—be it as characters like these or herself.
A quick look at my iTunes play count shows that Muncie Girls’ From Caplan To Belsize has dominated my listening this year, and that’s just on my work computer. Including my home one and phone would only add to the British band’s commanding lead, and with good reason: Muncie Girls’ debut full-length is almost maddeningly catchy. I’m a sucker for poppy punk, and seldom does a band’s perspective match its hooks. Album standout “Respect” takes down online harassment via one of the catchiest choruses you’ll hear this year, while “I Don’t Wanna Talk About It” similarly dismisses everyday prejudices. If that all sounds too heady, keep in mind that From Caplan To Belsize has hooks to spare and a warm heart at its center. Come for the catchy songs; stay for the smart ideas.
Of all the pop culture specific to 2016, nothing has affected me quite as strongly as FX’s American Crime Story: The People V. O.J. Simpson miniseries. I never expected to say that. I was not obsessed with the Simpson case at the time it was happening. Sure, I watched the Bronco chase and the verdict, like everyone else in America. But I hadn’t dwelt on the matter much since the ’90s. Had it not been for the talent involved with the FX production, particularly Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, I’m not sure I would have even tuned in every week. But, goddamn, what a riveting drama this turned out to be. Each episode gave me so much to think about: race, class, celebrity, and the treatment of women in society. So much of that is due to Sarah Paulson’s performance as the dedicated, stressed-out, and occasionally tunnel-visioned Marcia Clark. More than anyone’s, it was her story that I latched onto.
You need to see Sing Street. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: “If a B review from the notorious ‘C+ Dowd’ isn’t enough to sell you on it…” Coincidentally, the first time I wrote that I was referring to Calvary, which is also set in Ireland (and sees the magnificent Aidan Gillen in a supporting role). Sing Street is a decidedly more positive film, the sort that will leave you inspired to chase your dreams. I realize how cheesy that sounds, but watching a kid so earnestly put together a band with his friends and pursue the girl of his dreams, all while an unpleasant world full of divorce and bullies swirls around him, is an uplifting reminder of the distinct sort of magic reserved for love and music. It also helps that the band is good, creating an array of ’80s songs inspired by the popular bands of the time, ranging from The Cure to Duran Duran. Listen to the standout “Drive It Like You Stole It” for proof.
I’m glad that Becca took care of the love-and-music sweetness of Sing Street so I can sing the praises of the white-knuckle hate-and-music punk thriller Green Room. Jeremy Saulnier’s punishing, beautifully made thriller isn’t about the healing powers of punk rock; it’s about a punk rock band accidentally booked to play a white-supremacist club in the backwoods of Oregon who must fight their way out after witnessing a murder. Patrick Stewart is terrifyingly businesslike as the skinhead fixer, and before the movie becomes a grueling exercise in suspense, Saulnier gets some offhand lyricism out of the instantly lovable punk band, whose members include Alia Shawkat and the late Anton Yelchin. Anyone investigating Yelchin’s career after the young actor’s sad, untimely death last month should check this one out, as he’s terrific in it. A movie like Green Room balances on the edge of a knife; it could easily become a nihilistic, torturous wallow. But the characters are so well-drawn and the filmmaking so expert that Green Room remains weirdly exhilarating; it gave me a visceral buzz like nothing else I’ve seen so far this year. It’s also a terrific companion piece to Saulnier’s previous movie, Blue Ruin. I can’t wait for the unofficial trilogy-capper I’ll assume is going to be called Red Road, though I wish Yelchin was still around to act in it.
Only two issues into its run, Marvel’s relaunch of Black Panther has me as giddy as anything released so far this year. It makes sense the company would revitalize the character for print to coincide with his movie debut in Captain America: Civil War, but what could have been an obligatory effort became so much more when Marvel announced the series would be scripted by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates’ essays on black culture and American identity are humanistic, approachable, and thoughtful and demonstrate why he’s become such an invaluable contributor to American intellectualism. He’s also a giant nerd, and allowing him to tell the story of a mysterious ass-kicking African panther ninja-king is as right and good as anything in this world. Coates leverages the same poetry-infused prose he used in his book Between The World And Me, here clarified to its essence. His language is bigger and more archetypal—fitting for telling the story of T’Challa, the hero king of Wakanda, who struggles to repair his country in the wake of a violent uprising. Coates has worthy collaborators in artist Brian Stelfreeze and colorist Laura Martin, who create a kinetic, vibrant world. Stelfreeze’s sense of movement combined with Martin’s bright, acid-tinged colors give Coates’ writing a suitably dynamic urgency.
Both The Lobster and Green Room are poised to make my top 10 of 2016, but since those have already been covered, I’m going to stump for something a bit (okay, a lot) more lowbrow: Lifetime’s Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? remake. Normally Lifetime movies fail to live up to the campy promise of their titles, but this one really goes above and beyond by having nothing to do with the original movie at all, instead telling a tale of torrid teenage lesbian vampire romance that plays like a softcore ’90s thriller with the dirty parts cut out. And those mall-goth fashions? Fantastic. James Franco executive produced, but it might as well have been Jess Franco. It’s the perfect thing for a trashy TV party with some friends—Bloody Marys not included.
I love The Lonely Island, and when I heard that there’d be a proper Lonely Island movie, I was overjoyed. Sure enough, the first, and I fear possibly only, Lonely Island movie, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (which is flopping despite rave reviews and Judd Apatow as a producer), is a goddamn delight from start to finish. It’s a hilarious, pitch-perfect parody of the Justin Bieber school of ridiculously over-the-top white-male-entitlement arrogance, but it’s also surprisingly touching and invested in the relationship of its three leads. And the music! The music is laugh-out-loud funny, particularly “Mona Lisa,” which I’ve listened to almost as much as “Jack Sparrow,” which is to say hundreds of times.
I didn’t have to venture very far outside of my natural habitat for my pick, but given the amount of press it’s gotten, I know I’m not the only one who walked away from The Monkees’ Good Times! with their jaw on the floor. I was a fan of Davy, Micky, Mike, and Peter before MTV revived their careers in the ’80s, but even so, this new album defied my expectations and easily turned out to be the group’s best full-length effort since the late ’60s. When they released their highly disappointing 1996 reunion album, Justus, I remember seeing that they’d written all of the songs themselves and thinking, “Good for them,” only to wish that they’d had the fortitude to do what they did in their heyday: mix their original compositions with top-notch songs written by other people. Finally they did, and the contributions by Andy Partridge, Rivers Cuomo, and the other pop songsmiths are just swell. My personal favorite is “Birth Of An Accidental Hipster,” written by Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller. Fifty years after their debut album and the Monkees turn in a track that sounds like it could’ve been on the soundtrack to Head? Good Times! isn’t just good. It’s great.
This is a supremely uncool answer, but I’m obsessed with “Try Everything,” a.k.a. the Shakira song from Zootopia. It’s got the upbeat feel of self-empowerment anthems like “Roar,” “Brave,” and “Fight Song” but with just a little more nuance to the Sia-penned lyrics. The song doesn’t just salute confidence; it specifically celebrates the importance of making mistakes. “Nobody learns without getting it wrong,” the song asserts before delivering the wonderfully simple lyric, “Sometimes we come last, but we did our best.” It’s Mr. Rogers meets “Waka Waka,” which is really all I could ask for from a Disney pop song. It reminds me of everything I loved about Zootopia—namely its gorgeous animation and plucky lead—without delving into the rather imperfect racial metaphor that kept me from fully connecting with the film. Plus it will always make me think of Gazelle’s sexy tiger backup dancers, which is a pretty big plus in my book, too.
I always feel dopey when I have to Google someone who I’ve “discovered” that everyone else in the world has liked for a long time. So count me doped-up at the fact that it took Bo Burnham’s most recent stand-up special, Make Happy, to bring me into the prodigiously talented young comic’s fold of fans. The guy was a YouTube wunderkind, but I never twigged to his versatile musical comedy gifts until now, even after he showed up as a spoiled country music poseur-asshole in the sixth season of Parks And Recreation, presenting the sort of faux-folksy, jean-clad pandering patriotism he parodies to hilariously fuller effect in Make Happy. Burnham’s gangly, live-wire energy recalls Dane Cook at first—until you realize that his combination of spazzy stagecraft and stellar Flight Of The Concords-quality comedy songs has surprising depth and subtlety.
Since Kenneth Lonergan’s phenomenal Manchester By The Sea doesn’t hit theaters until November, and since Jesse already mentioned the visceral thrills of Green Room, I’ll go with a small-screen triumph instead of a big-screen one. Like a lot of people, I’m unhealthily consumed by the ongoing horror show that is this current presidential election. Most of that is a pit-in-the-stomach dread that a woefully unqualified tycoon could actually be sitting in the Oval Office next year. (Our own politically savvy Alex McCown periodically talks me down from the ledge on this point.) So partially chalk it up to a desire to hear my own objections voiced on a large stage, but the Last Week Tonight segment on Donald Trump is a thing of righteous beauty—a muckraking rebuttal to the popularity of the presumptive GOP nominee (then less presumptive than he is now). Is John Oliver preaching to the choir? To some extent, yes, though the segment smartly targets undecided voters by taking his appeal at face value and rationally revealing how everything non-bigots like about Trump—from his supposed toughness to his business acumen to his lofty campaign promises—is a mirage. Whether such terrific (and very funny) investigative journalism has any practical effect on the way people will vote in November is debatable. Nonetheless, I return to it every time I’m feeling down about this election cycle—which is to say, nearly every time I feel the perverse, compulsive need to Google the candidates’ names.
There’s a special place in heaven for people who understand how to stage a fight between superheroes. Enough films have botched it that it’s always a relief to see something like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, in which the struggles between the good and bad guys feel viscerally thrilling. But everything I loved about the clashes in that film directors the Russo brothers doubled down upon and improved in Captain America: Civil War—especially the abandoned airport battle scene. Like a comic book splash page come to life, it connects all the various powered folks struggling to gain the upper hand, with the kind of inventive zeal borne of people who actually put in serious hours thinking about how a battle would unfold if you paired these groups of heroes against one another. Using powers in tandem, having the effects of one clash spill over into another, how different matchups treat their encounters emotionally… it’s all up there onscreen, and it plays beautifully. I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself putting the sequence on a loop when the Blu-ray comes out, basking in the pure kinetic rush of it all.
To tide myself over until the Netflix Gilmore Girls movies arrive, I religiously watched the second season of TV Land’s Younger. The premise of the show might seem flimsy: A divorced woman named Liza (Sutton Foster) pretends to be a millennial so she can get a job at a publishing house and support herself. But Younger’s second season dealt with the fallout from that deception in incisive and often unexpected ways. Liza tries to work things out with a much-younger boyfriend (Nico Tortorella) while battling growing feelings for her more age-appropriate boss, Charles (Peter Hermann). She’s also exhausted from having to hide the truth from her daughter and co-workers (including BFF Kelsey, played by Hilary Duff) and plagued by conniving acquaintances who want to expose her lies. Younger raises smart questions about the modern workplace and what chronological age really means—and whether it even matters—while including just enough humor, cultural satire, and soap opera drama to keep things light.
In a year of great music releases, nothing has resonated with me like David Bowie’s Blackstar. His final studio album has seven lengthy tracks, with cryptic lyrics and a whole lot of saxophone. I loved it on my first few listens, but the record became infinitely more complex to me when Bowie died two days after its release. Its songs and visuals took on new meanings and raised new questions. Was Bowie telling us this was the end when he sang these words and shot these music videos? Was the whole thing really his knowing farewell letter? Just how much did he conceive the album’s release to coincide with his death, and how much are we projecting? In the context of a career full of successful creative choices, reinventions, and departures, it’s not hard to fathom that all of Blackstar’s timely engagement with Bowie’s mortality was intentional. But whether or not he set out to make this album his final artistic statement, we’ll always experience it as that. Blackstar is a great record, forever tied to the legend’s death. As we listen and keep searching for its meaning, he lives.
I was nervous about the release of Kaytranada’s first proper album. I’ve loved his remixes and DJ sets for so long; I feared it might not live up to my lofty expectations. (His bite-size house take on Jill Scott’s “It’s Love” is a particular favorite.) So I was more than relieved to hear 99.9%, which is, at least, the most exciting electronic record to come out this year. The Haitian-born beat-maker is killing 2016, having also produced Chance The Rapper’s sublime “All Night.” But Kay managed to save some of his best work for himself, including the lead single “Glowed Up,” which features fellow rising star Anderson Paak. Kay’s tracks are danceable even at their most avant-garde, and he’s excellent at chopping samples. (Considering he’s only 23, he could be at J Dilla levels of brilliance within his lifetime.) If I’m more jazzed about a record this year, I’ll be surprised.
Full Frontal With Samantha Bee premiered in February, and I’ve been hooked since. (I may have already tried to sell it.) It’s not an exaggeration to say that I was primed for such a show—Samantha Bee was always one of my favorite Daily Show correspondents, and I’d always felt she deserved her own platform. It’s not just that it’s important to have a woman join the late-night scene (hey, that’s how the show is billed; I don’t care about time zones). As a host, Bee is all righteous anger and incisive humor. And she’s fearless—she was lambasting the gun lobbyists right out of the gate. Full Frontal is as necessary as it is enjoyable, and not just because Jon Stewart’s semi-retired and Stephen Colbert’s Late Show hasn’t found its footing. It may be preaching to the choir, as Alex Dowd noted, but it’s a tune I’m happy to listen to on repeat.
My most listened to record this year has been Pinegrove’s Cardinal and I can’t imagine that changing. I remember hearing “Old Friends,” the first song on the album, and listening to it on repeat for a full work day. Once I listened to the whole thing, it’s been rare that a day has passed without me listening to it in full. Evan Stephens Hall has a way of writing country-infused rock songs that are delightfully eccentric and seem to fall out of him fully formed. He writes hooks that are instantly memorable, while peppering in moments—such as his defeated sigh in “Old Friends”—that are both strange and genius. Live, the band takes this all to the next level, contorting its songs into new shapes that still retain their heart. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a record to go listen to.
For me, this has been a year of easily consumed and easily forgotten entertainment. Lots of stuff that went down easy, nothing that I wanted to spend a lot of time chewing on. But while trading references back and forth with a director recently, I came across “Her Friend Adam,” a short that’s been making the rounds at festivals this year. This piece is really special, a 16-minute relationship crisis that plays out in real time and manages to actually feel like real life. Director and actor Ben Petrie, a Toronto-based filmmaker who’s only made a couple other shorts, has created the best possible version of a modern-day Woody Allen piece. And yes, that sounds obnoxiously unwatchable, but it worked incredibly well, maybe because the real star of the show is Grace Glowicki, an up-and-coming actress who gives a performance that I can only describe as magnetically raw. The piece is not twee, and it’s not clever; it’s intelligent, layered, funny, and hard to watch. I’ve been thinking about it constantly, and I’m always finding new layers, new connections to my own life. If you get a chance to see it, don’t hesitate.
Saturday Night Live’s 41st season ended on a high note with “Farewell Mr. Bunting,” a rightfully celebrated Dead Poets Society parody with a spectacularly over-the-top punchline. But my pick for the season’s best sketch captures a different type of SNL chaos. Innocuously titled “Mafia Meeting,” the SNL highlight better known as “Space Pants” is both a masterpiece and a fiasco. Cues are missed, lines are flubbed, and the Studio 8H audience starts laughing before the home viewers get a look at Peter Dinklage’s celestial trousers. Yet the whole thing is held together by an inventively zany premise—it’s very hard to conduct mob business when there’s a guy “screaming about his space pants”—and a spectacularly committed performance from guest host Dinklage. Give him all the shit you want about Tyrion Lannister’s evasive accent, but he lives in the British-cyborg-programmed-by-Fred-Schneider vibe of made-up new-waver Jonathan Comets for the final three minutes of “Mafia Meeting.” To watch the sketch the night it aired was to witness the high-wire act that keeps SNL alive four decades into its run: the proof that the whole enterprise can fall apart at any second and the determination of artists not to let that happen. “Mafia Meeting” launches itself directly at the sun, but Dinklage and company successfully steer the sketch toward the heavens.
Y’all know Beyoncé released an album this year, right? I’ve never really been on the Beyoncé bandwagon—I like her hits just fine, but haven’t had strong feelings one way or another about her overall work—but Lemonade changed my mind. I watched it a couple days after it came out after finally relenting to the masses on Twitter who filled my timeline with its praises. For an album that contains so many different styles and collaborators, from the skipping musicality of “Hold Up” to the upbeat twang of “Daddy Lesson,” the work is remarkably cohesive. Much has been said about its intent, and even though I’m not explicitly part of Beyoncé’s audience, the album is a wonder that transcends whatever boundaries we mere mortals try to place around it.
I tend to listen to albums on repeat for a long time, meaning new music is filtered in to my playlists slowly, if at all. So it speaks to the immediate appeal of Whitney that its debut album, Light Upon The Lake, sits boldly next to much older fare on my Spotify, a sparkling new toy I can’t get enough of. Like a hazy dream, vocalist Julien Ehrlich’s soft falsetto floats above horns and strings in a sunny, shimmering landscape. The warm lyrics and thick, buttery instrumentals combine into incredibly soothing music that still has an edge, whether it’s the agonizing wistfulness of “Golden Days” or the uncertain aching of “Dave’s Song.”