By Carl Wilson
The slogan of B2TW is “Untimely Talk About Culture,” so while we like doing year-end best-of lists, we like to wait a while with them, like till after Chinese New Year so everyone’s more on the same page. Sorry that’s so inconvenient for Christmas shopping. Margaux posted hers last week, Carl’s is today, and Chris’s will be next week. Hope you enjoy.
1. BackStory podcast
I’m pleased this list begins with maybe the geekiest thing on it – what’s more, not produced in any conventional cultural capital but at the University of Virginia.
The M.O. of the weekly podcast and public-radio show BackStory is simple: It seizes on a topic in the recent news (or an occasion such as Thanksgiving or the election) and squeezes it through the wringer of American history. The chatty and casual hosts are three UV history professors, the “American History Guys”: “18th-Century Guy,” “19th-Century Guy” and “20th-Century Guy.” The latter has the rawest deal because the other two are kinda automatically fascinating. Though they are all white men, they invite female historians most often as their guest experts and they are highly conscious of the racial dimension of American history, as how could you not be.
Drugs, gun control, voting, infectious disease, the postal service, attempts to control the weather, presidential inaugurations, courtship, public education – just start with whatever most gets your attention. You will find out that colonial Americans were basically drunk all the time and Christmas was illegal. You will fill up your store of “Did you know?” stories for any dull moment in conversation. And you will be trained painlessly in historical thinking: that it was never “ever thus,” that most stories have so many sides that they are smooth ungraspable spheres and that common knowledge is often neither. This should comfort you in the bleakest moments and vice-versa.
2. Borgen, Season 1 (TV series, Denmark, 2010)
The glut of great Danish television is no secret by now; the country seems to be picking up from HBO’s 2000s in the 2010s. This drama about Birgitte Noyberg, who nearly by accident becomes the first Danish female prime minister (which proved prescient), is tense, enlightened, funny and human. The acting is as good as the furniture and the political analysis better than most journalism. (“Borgen” means “the Castle,” which is what Danes call the main government building.) The episode in which Noyberg has to deal with a scandal in Greenland – which is basically to Denmark what Nunavut is to Canada – treated aboriginal issues more perceptively than I could ever hope for on a Canadian series. It was wrenching.
3. Dead Authors Podcast, Chapter 12, with Laraine Newman and Paul F. Tompkins
Character comedian Paul F. Tompkins is the single funniest person to hear on any of the endless flood of comedy podcasts that come from L.A. now. I was disappointed at first with this literary-history series, in which the conceit is that H.G. Wells (Tompkins) uses his time machine to kidnap writers from the past (played by other comedians) and interview them in the 21st century. It seemed flat and mumbly early on. But then I heard this episode, with a live audience, and with first-generation Saturday Night Live comedian Laraine Newman impersonating Mary Shelley, discussing feminism and Frankenstein and what pricks the Romantics were. And more recently, the latest one with Jen Kirkman gender-bending into the role of Abbie Hoffman going on endlessly about “pigs.” Again, with a live audience.
It seems difficult to do really good improvisation without an audience or at least more participants – it’s difficult to keep a two-person feedback loop going in a vacuum unless you are Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, or having sex (or both). In any case I love the tension between mockery and respect here. Kids would get more out of books in school if we told them their writers were not only great but also nuts, and had lives that were amazing and also ridiculous. Just like theirs.
4. James R. Gaines, Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment (published 2005)
I’m excited about the upcoming first book by my friend John Shaw in Seattle, which is about the intertwined histories and meanings of the songs This Land is Your Land and God Bless America. He told me many times that Evening in the Palace of Reason is the best book about music he ever read. This summer, I finally started it, on a stay at my friend Julia’s cottage. I read it all night and all day; I don’t think I even stopped to go swimming.
Like John’s book, it’s a double-threaded story: It weaves together the backgrounds of two Prussian dynasties, the Bach family and the Hohenzollern line of rulers, leading of course to J.S. and Frederick the Great, climaxing in the famous “Musical Offering” in which Bach composed a series of ever-more-complex fugues on a theme supplied by the hobbyist-musician king (which Frederick had assumed would be impossible).
You might see why I didn’t rush to read it when John suggested it.
But it’s about so much more. For one thing Frederick’s father and grandfather were insane assholes – his grandfather, for instance, literally had a collection of “giants,” tall men whom he had abducted from their home villages and held captive so that he could fetishistically enjoy watching them walk up and down the courtyard. The Bachs were strange in a whole other set of ways. And James R. Gaines has the most compulsively readable prose on Earth. But along the way he also makes subtle arguments about the relationships between faith, art and the Enlightenment. I think the implication is that art is a bit like A.A.: It doesn’t have to be a god, but it helps to serve a power higher than the self.
5. Title cards of Girls, designed by Howard Nourmand
There are many other things I could name to admire about Lena Dunham’s inexhaustibly discussable HBO show – Adam Driver’s performance and character arc is the first to come to mind for me; Margaux pointed out several others – but they all coalesce at the beginning of each episode when after some pungent set-up, the screen clears and we see, for a brief moment, the stark colour-on-colour card that says GIRLS.
It has so many simultaneous pleasures. I can think of one for each letter.
G: It respects the way we often watch television now, in multi-episode saved-up or downloaded or streamed bunches of episodes, which means you don’t want to sit through some long credit sequence repeatedly. (When I rewatched all of The Sopranos in the early winter – it held up remarkably well by the way – I couldn’t fast-forward through the credits quickly enough, even though I love that theme song.)
I: Instead it’s like a silent-film title card, a cheap solution, a low-tech necessity. It could be held up on a square of construction paper. Girls does have a silent-comedy feel, if a silent film were really, really talkative; Lena Dunham is a little like Charlie Chaplin, if Charlie Chaplin were naked all the time. It’s a rebuke to the expectation of realism, a tip of the bowler to the potential for farce.
R: Of course it’s also a hashtag-style punchline to whatever’s just happened or is about to happen: Hannah is eating a cupcake in the shower? #girls. Shoshana is describing a reality show where people reveal their “baggage” and saying hers would be “that I’m a virgin of course”? #girls. Or, best, Ray and Charlie, rehearsing their stupid indie band, ransack Hannah and Marnie’s apartment and steal Hannah’s diary? #girls. It’s self-deprecating and disarming but simultaneously sardonic, kissing the stereotype off blithely.
L: It’s oddly soothing and utopian. The colour contrasts pulse like an orb from space or a Brian Eno iPhone app or a pricey sex toy. This goes nicely with the theme music, composed as far as I can figure out by Michael Penn (Sean’s brother btw), which is just slightly more elaborate than the sound your computer makes when it powers up. So it is like the show, like Girls as a technology, is powering up. (On Windows the startup sound was of course itself composed with Brian Eno.)
S: Finally, there’s also a cumulative effect: The trivial-but-felt suspense of wondering what the colours will be this week. The instant-dopamine rush of familiarity and celebration: Yes, it’s here, it’s on, it’s that time again, the all-too-short season has not ended. And the anticipatory awareness that soon you will be echoing it in some conversation or another: “Did you watch this week’s G I R L S yet?”
Here’s a nice set of pictures from the designers showing all the stages they went through to get there. I don’t like a single one of them better.
6. Aimee Mann, Charmer
In the past I’ve always liked but perhaps underrated Aimee Mann, former singer for 80s Boston synth-pop band ‘Til Tuesday, married to the aforementioned Michael Penn, and composer of the main music for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. I might have compared her unfavourably for instance to Sam Phillips, who makes equally pretty (you’ve likely heard her sighing la-la’s on Gilmore Girls or more recently Bunheads) but more obviously barbed and painful songs. But this album kept resurfacing and insisting on itself, at a time when I wasn’t even listening to that much music.
I liked the theme that runs through it, of either being or dealing with the charming person, who may or may not also be a functional or decent person. I’d become aware that Mann is friends with a lot of comedians I admire, and I could detect a comic knowingness in the voice of her writing, almost as if each piece were a sketch. But most of all, and this is odd because I never say this, it was the craftsmanship of it – the way that each proficient melody was fitted perfectly to the words, and rhyme to rhyme, and structure to theme. It’s like a meal of fresh ingredients perfectly cooked, though there’s nothing exotic about the dishes. Just exquisite care, to be savoured.
Yet you didn’t hear people talk about it the way they talked about, say, Grimes (whose video for Oblivion would be on this list if I hadn’t mentioned it on this site already – I hope it wins the new Prism Prize for Canadian videos next week). This is the curse of the mid-career artist these days and I think even more so the female mid-career artist. That’s the not-so-funny joke behind the Portlandia sketch in which Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein hire Mann as their cleaning lady, keep telling her what big fans they are, but then keep scolding her for how she does the laundry.
It’s good to see her comedy friends helping her out in real life though, as when Tom Scharpling directed the videos for Charmer, including the one for “Labrador,” which remakes shot-for-shot the minor-80s-iconic Til Tuesday video “Voices Carry,” featuring among others Mad Men’s Jon Hamm.
7. Kacey Musgraves, “Merry Go Round” (from the upcoming album Same Trailer, Different Park)
From a veteran singer-songwriter to a great newcomer: My friend Jody Rosen turned me on to the wordplay and emotional wallop of Nashville’s Kacey Musgraves last year – “Merry Go Round” was a minor radio hit this fall, and her first major-label album is just about to come out in March. I had hoped Taylor Swift might mature into this kind of voice as she grew up, which doesn’t really look to be happening. But Musgraves simply begins from there, doing with country music what it often seems only country music can – address white people who have much more to worry about than “white people problems.”
(Or so I say in the middle of this very damn white list. There are a couple of exceptions coming up, but just wanted you to know that, yeah, I see it.)
8. The Music Box: A Shantytown Sound Laboratory, New Orleans
This I mentioned quickly on B2TW in the summer but it deserves note again. You know the old line that writing about music is like dancing about architecture? Here’s the architecture you can dance to. A collective led by street artist Swoon and others turned a set of dilapidated structures (not exactly hard to come by in New Orleans) into a playable, amplified, megaphoned, wind-driven, synthesized, climbable, jammable, avant-gardable, neighbour-kid-interactable structure called the Music Box, on a none-too-affluent NOLA block. It was full of horns you could blow into and weather vanes that played chimes and organs and drums and looping devices embedded in all kinds of crannies. I visited it the last day it was open and wished I could spend many more days there with the local children and teens who were enchanted with it and the vital spirits who built it. Luckily, though it’s over, it’s not over: The Dithyramblina , like the Hacienda, must yet be built.
9. Eddie Pepitone at the Dark Comedy Festival, Toronto
I could name instead Maria Bamford’s set at the same festival, which was a lot like her amazing special that she performs for just her parents; or Kathleen Phillips volunteering as a foul-mouthed sacrificial “virgin” in a lame Satanic ritual in a Halloween comedy show at Double Double Land, but I have talked a lot about those two hilarious women. Eddie Pepitone was new to me this year. Not sure how that happened, it just did.
And I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so cripplingly continuously – while being moved and politically challenged and thinking about psychoanalysis and the entertainment-industrial complex, and slightly frightened because he would bomb out into the crowd to sit in any empty seat and heckle himself (because who else could heckle him so effectively?) and I had an empty seat beside me – in my life. I could try to repeat jokes to you but that never works. Pepitone also had a very affecting interview on the Marc Maron podcast, talking about his mother’s mental illness and his father’s frustrated ambition and growing up on Staten Island. I’d like to see the documentary about him, The Bitter Buddha.
10. Jerzy Pilch, My First Suicide, translated by David Frick (Polish 2006, English 2012)
A stroke of serendipity: John Darnielle (aka the Mountain Goats) mentioned Polish novelist Jerzy Pilch on Facebook one day last spring, and I asked him which book he’d recommend. He told me a different one, but literally a day or two later there was a charity book sale at work and this was there for $5. I read it the next weekend on a beach.
This is basically the biography of the viewpoint character – apparently autobiographical though the deviations are difficult to plot – in linked short stories, in what turns out to be the distinct counterculture of Calvinist Poland – like Garcia Marquez, but with Eastern European dour humour, he creates an entire world.
And then he tears it down, with a crash of vodka bottles, deactivated cellphones and dubious liaisons. The only lesson one could take from it is never grow up.
But it is fiction that is indelibly itself, with a voice that gets right into your duodenum and I will read anything he writes that I can find. The lesson I take from that is, sometimes you get lucky.
11. Three dances on the This American Life live special, The Invisible Made Visible
Last May the Chicago radio show did a live concert that was simulcast into theatres all over the continent. I couldn’t make it to any of the screenings but I downloaded the show later. There are lots of nice things in it but three great ones, all dances: Ira Glass was inspired to do the show because he sensed his audience would love the blend of virtuosity and clumsy dailiness in the work of choreographer Monica Bill Barnes, but of course he couldn’t put a dance company on the radio. This turns out to have been a very smart instinct: I’m no dance expert but I’ve seldom seen anything (though Toronto choreographer Ame Henderson’s work with Public Recordings comes close) that posed such effective solutions to the issues of the form’s artificiality – an artificiality that we desire because it’s beautiful, but might also find irrelevant because it is rareified. One Barnes dance here was based on audience behaviour at a James Brown concert; the other involved having a lot of cardboard suitcases being stacked by and then thrown at a dancer. (I took it to be about moving house.) They were gorgeous and funny and breathed a recognizable flavour of air. I told a friend they felt like a Trampoline Hall lecture in dance form. I couldn’t take my eyes off them.
The other dance was by David Rakoff (who was from Toronto by the way) talking about the cancer that cost him the ability to dance, and then doing it anyway. This performance is already kind of famous. He died not long later and a lot of people who didn’t know him are still heartbroken about that, including me.
12. Reggie Watts at the Mod Club, JFL42 festival, Toronto, Sept. 21, 2012
A continuing theme of the comedy-related items here is that I am not quite sure how to write about them. I can do it in the immediate wake of those experiences, but retrospectively they have an elusive quality. That’s both more and less true of Reggie Watts. In a sense I am on firmer ground with him because he’s also a musician, but what happened in his show was hard to keep track of even while it was happening – he would begin speaking about soda or about some street name he saw that day, and it would become this involuted R&B riff and a keyboard solo and then a falsetto rap about the constellations. He is a virtuoso in a form that doesn’t exist until he creates it, and then demolishes it. Like the best comedy and in a way the best music, it is at once profoundly intellectual and boldly stupid. The best way I can communicate it I think is to let you watch his TED Talk, which also operates very gratifyingly as a demolition job on the whole once-promising and now-bloated phenomenon of the TED Talk.
13. Your Sister’s Sister, a movie by Lynn Shelton, 2012
I guess I didn’t see that many movies in 2012, considering that I have only seen one of the nominees for Best Picture in the Oscars next week. But one that stuck with me is this film written and directed by Lynn Shelton, who made the quizzical but compelling Humpday, also starring Mark Duplass, in 2009. Her ken for sexual farce is carried forward here but into a much darker, sadder place. The funny thing is that there are things terribly wrong with this movie, including at least one chokingly bad and unbelievable twist on which the whole story hinges and a resolution that seems completely pat and again hard to swallow considering the ordeal the film’s just put you through. But the acting and the dialogue in the rest of the film make that completely unimportant. Duplass, Emily Blunt and my current favourite actor in the world, Rosemarie DeWitt, are completely present and incarnate in every frame and every second of their inappropriate triangulation, such that I felt like I was breathing and aching right in rhythm with them. The story is minute and intimate and dwells on the completely central but not-often-enough-grappled-sincerely-with subject of how people can be remotely decent to each other when they need so much and are so basically fucked up from the first dice toss. I almost wonder if the hard-to-credit happy ending is simply a vote on the side of, “Let’s say we can, even if that’s probably a lie, because otherwise, ouch.” Which is a violation of logic and form and honesty that I will take from a movie, if it’s already convinced me we are copacetic. How are you supposed to end a story, anyway? It’s always a feint. True stories don’t really end so much as stop. Like this.