Friday, December 30, 2016

Two Thousand and Sixteen

Everyone is saying 2016 was a bad year, but my controversial, contrarian opinion is that: 2016 was good. I started a new job that kicks ass, moved forward with my writing (get my new book The Arborist), and most importantly, avoided anything terrible happening directly to me.

Much of the "bad year" sentiment comes from shared events that everyone is aware of, such as celebrity deaths. I propose that people like me, who are in the privileged position of being able to mourn the loss of influential strangers, must actually be having a pretty good year. If I can sit at my kitchen table and shake my head at social media because something bad happened in Los Angeles, then I have shelter, I have free time, and I have the resources to be accessing information from halfway across the world. With those things alone, I'm doing better than most people on Earth, and much better than most people throughout history. 2016 isn't so bad.

Next year could be worse, of course. The tragedies that don't directly affect me now, like Brexit and Trump, could start having real, worldwide consequences. I remain a techno-optimist though; technology has, without fail, improved exponentially regardless of who is in power or how dumb the general population is. And technology is the main driver behind life, on average, continually getting better. There is no reason to think that will suddenly stop.

Anyway, here's my year in review, celebrating good stuff that entered my brain.

Most Listened-To Music:

As I do every year, here are the top 20 albums I listened to most, according to Some of these might not have come out in 2016, but I discovered them this year, so, whatever. This list actually looks pretty good this year; I recommend listening to any of these you haven't already heard.

20. Tycho - Epoch
19. Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein (SURVIVE) - Stranger Things Soundtrack
18. Tove Lo - Lady Wood
17. Groenland - A Wider Space
16. BROODS - Conscious
15. I Monster - Bright Sparks
14. Wolfmother - Victorious
13. David Bowie - Blackstar
12. Brandy Clark - Big Day in a Small Town
11. The Weeknd - Starboy
10. Zeds Dead - Northern Lights
9. Lady Gaga - JOANNE
8. Ariana Grande - Dangerous Woman
7. M83 - Junk
6. Black Stone Cherry - Kentucky
5. Glass Animals - How to be a Human Being
4. Britney Spears - Glory
3. Lindsey Stirling - Brave Enough
2. The Avalanches - Wildflower
1. Nothing But Thieves - Nothing But Thieves also provided some cool new stats about my listening habits this year:

The new job started in June, which obviously had an effect on my listening habits.

Best Television:

I watched a lot of TV in 2016. I don't really remember what I watched, but off the top of my head, the things that stuck with me most were:
  • Stranger Things
  • Black Mirror
  • Making a Murderer
  • Luke Cage
  • Westworld
  • Halt and Catch Fire
  • Sense8
  • Mr. Robot

Best Movies:

Again, I don't remember every movie I watched, or which actually came out this year, but here are the ones that come to mind when I think back:
  • The Greasy Strangler
  • The Lobster
  • 10 Cloverfield Lane
  • Captain America: Civil War
  • Rogue One
  • The Invitation
  • Don't Breathe
  • Green Room
  • The Conjuring 2

Best Books:

This is another category where I have a record of everything I took in, thanks to Goodreads. Here are the books that came out around 2016, and that I liked:

  • I Will Rot Without You by Danger Slater
  • Authority by Jeff Vandermeer
  • A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
  • City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett
  • Ritualistic Human Sacrifice by C.V. Hunt
That's all! See? There was a lot of good stuff this year even though David Bowie is probably responsible for inspiring half of it, and he died. But maybe the next David Bowie was born this year. Maybe it's your crappy kid. You never know.

Happy new year to each and every one of the five people who still read this. See you when the pixels turn to 7.


Saturday, December 10, 2016

A Deep Exploration of a Weird Doll From a Sketchy Second-Hand Store

My girlfriend came back from an expedition to the bad part of town, and shouted "I got you a gift! You're going to love it!"

She was correct.

This is Auntie Virus. The first thing you'll notice is that she is extremely dirty. Just soaked in various fluids. That's because she has been sitting on the shelf of a second-hand store for a very long time; if I had to guess, I'd say since the 90s. Meg thought she might have bed bugs or worms, so she lived in a plastic bag for a while.

Why would I assume she's from the 90s? Let's dig into Auntie Virus's true purpose.

At first glance, she appears to be a nurse with a computer for a head, but that would be doing her a disservice. Auntie Virus has layers. She is a Friendly Computer Companion that is also ... wait for it ... A PHOTO FRAME!!! The idea here is that you cut out a tiny picture of someone, then stick it in Ms. Virus's computer monitor head, like some horrible Silent Hill cyborg nurse that wears your loved one's face.

And she sits on any computer! At least she did, in the 90s. I think she'd have trouble balancing on the 6.1mm-thick computer I'm typing this on in 2016.

Apparently computers were seen as so soul-sucking that you needed another fake computer on top to "keep you smiling." With the idea of social media still a few years off, the only companionship to be found while surfing the web was a doll named E-Male who cruelly imitates your boyfriend, promising "you'll never be lonely when I'm on your computer."

N E V E R  B E  L O N E L Y  A G A I N

That's right, Auntie Virus is only one member of the WebHeads family. All the classic early Internet stereotypes are here, like the aforementioned e-MALE (a person with a penis who is online), The HACKER (a hacker), WEB SURFER (lol he's a literal surfer), eve SHOPPER (an online shopper who still needs bags?), WEBMASTER (a superhero for some reason?), and Dot E. COM (um ... a person with a plant on her head ... ???).

I wanted to meet them all, but unfortunately, is no longer in service. WEBMASTER ain't so super after all.

I said Auntie Virus has layers, so let's go one layer deeper. You may have noticed that she has pins sticking out of her chest. Those weren't mentioned anywhere on the box, were they? Oh, what have we here ... the doll came with a note:

We're venturing outside of WebHeads lore now, because I believe this note was put there by the owner of the second-hand shop. This person, presumably a powerful witch or warlock, seized the full potential of putting an actual person's face on a doll. Auntie Virus's purpose has been hijacked; she is no longer designed to make you smile, but to remotely murder your enemies.

I guess the pure WebHeads experience wasn't moving this thing off the shelf, so this person thought "maybe this will be a must-have holiday item if I, by hand, transform it into a Voodoo doll."

It worked! Now I own an Auntie Virus Voodoo doll. Don't fuck with me.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Why Walking is Good

I try to walk a lot. My step count has gone down since I started working from home, but I still get out and wander the neighborhood at least once a day, and use my feet as a means of transportation whenever I need to be somewhere else. Through years of walking, I have come to realize something:

Walking is good.

Not only for the health benefits, which certainly do exist, on days I don't use hitting my step goal as an excuse for an extra slice of cheesecake. But while walking is good for the body, I think it's better for the brain, the spirit, and even the community.

Walking is good for the brain because it doesn't use it. Driving and other forms of getting around generally require (or should require) near-100% concentration. Walking doesn't. The brain is free to take in the sights around it and learn something, even if it's just where the coolest outdoor cats hang out, or how many shades of orange trees go through in autumn. It is also free to take in more traditional intellectual pursuits, like podcasts, audiobooks, or online courses. Transportation time becomes brain time.

Walking is good for the spirit, whatever the hell that means, because walking time can be used for things other than pure intellect. There is a lot of evidence that occasionally shutting off the brain is good for mental health, and when you combine that with physical activity, it can reduce the stress that crushes so many spirits. It's also a time to let the mind wander, which is a critical phase in any pursuit that requires creativity—because nobody comes up with good ideas by sitting down and staring at a blank screen labeled goodideas.docx.

Walking is good for the community, because it gives an accurate sense of place. A long walk can meander through various neighborhoods, each with subtle differences in the people, the buildings, the feel. Those differences are missed when they fly past in a car. More importantly, there is a sense for how far apart those neighborhoods are, how they border on each other, how one leads to another. Slowly taking in the story of a city is a better way of getting to know it than always rushing through it to a specific place, which is akin to reading the beginning and ending of a book then claiming to understand what it was saying.

And maybe that's good for the community, because when the community isn't really understood, it's hard to make good decisions about it.

Not everyone can walk, or walk everywhere, or walk far, but when possible, walking is good. Not bad. Good.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Best Most Listened-To Albums of 2015

Like an emotionless robot, I am driven by data. Music is served to me via algorithms that analyze my past habits, causing further evolution of said habits, which are tracked by various entities that compete to turn information into profit. Unlike most robots (so far), I can access my habits, reflect on them, and try to squeeze some semblance of meaning out of them.

Welcome to the annual compilation of my most listened-to albums of the year, as tracked by The italicized ones are the albums I would choose as my favourite, if 2015 allowed me to be capable of conscious thought.

Runners Up:

Madonna - Rebel Heart - I gave this one a few chances, because it's Madonna. But: no. I get that it's a self-aware album, acknowledging how hard it is to be a pop star for so damn long. I just wish it explored that potentially-interesting territory with better music.

Gin Wigmore - Blood to Bone - She's never really hit the mainstream in America, and parts of this album sound like a calculated attempt to do so, but it's still fantastic.

MS MR - How Does It Feel

Foals - What Went Down - I listened to Apple Music's radio station, Beats One, for a brief period. It suffered from the same problems as regular radio, such as annoying DJs and playing the same songs over and over. That worked in Foals' favour, though, as I'd never heard them before, and when Beats played What Went Down (the title track from this album) repeatedly, I grew to love it.

Until the Ribbon Breaks - A Lesson Unlearnt - Is "unlearnt" really a word? Hmm, no red line under it. Guess it is.

Ellie Goulding - Delirium - I loved the lead single, On My Mind. The rest of the album doesn't live up to it, but is still worth a listen or two.


Wolf Alice - My Love Is Cool

Sleater-Kinney - No Cities to Love - I admit, I'd never heard of them before, and only paid attention to this album because Carrie Brownstein from Portlandia is in the band. Whatever. I still enjoyed it.

Sleater-Kinney I think?
Ruelle - Up In Flames - Likely to be in movie trailers for years to come.

Blur - The Magic Whip - Honestly, I like them as people, but I didn't like this album much. Surprised it made the list.

Mark Ronson - Uptown Special - At first I thought it was saying "don't believe me just once" and I was like ... how do you believe someone more than once? What does that even mean?

CHVRCHES - Every Open Eye - I can't get enough of Chuhverches. They sound fresh, but also tug at me with nostalgia and a rare sincerity.

Joel Placket - The Park Avenue Sobriety Test

Brandon Flowers - The Desired Effect - I haven't been a fan of the last few Killers albums, but Flowers' solo effort was an improvement.

The Darkness - Last of Our Kind - One of my favourite bands in the "are they doing this over-the-top cheese ironically or not?" genre.

Big Data - 2.0 - It's hard to love a band whose name is techno-business-jargon that I have to be exposed to every day at work. But I did anyway.

Demi Lovato - Confident - I never paid much attention to her before, but Cool For the Summer is a great pop song that manages to be sexy even with the lyric "kiss one another," which sounds like a command from a robot scientist trying to understand human mating.

The whole "Poot" thing was also pretty funny / terrible.

The Weeknd - Beauty Behind the Madness - This is such a relief after the mess that was Kiss Land. I always said that he would be the next big thing, but then he crashed and burned, putting my entire career as a once-a-year music critic at risk. Luckily, this comeback finally proved me right.

X Ambassadors - VHS - And I said hey, hey hey hey, hey hey hey hey hey hey hey.

Grimes - Art Angels - It's heartening to see an actual artist gradually gaining fans by doing her own unique thing. These songs are catchy not because they sound like other catchy songs, but because they're something different, and novelty sticks in one's head much better than sameness. I love this album more every time I listen to it, and it would probably be higher on this list if it had come out earlier in the year.

Giorgio Moroder - Deja Vu - Like most other casual music fans, I only heard about Moroder through Daft Punk's weird spoken-word track on Random Access Memories. This album is an obvious cash-in on that new wave of recognition. It is objectively terrible, yet the sound of an old man (he's 74) calculatedly collecting guest singers to sprinkle on top of generic EDM somehow worked for me. I even dug the disaster of Britney Spears covering Tom's Diner, with confused old-man Moroder wandering in for an incoherent interlude ("Sit yourself down, The funnies never end, Love is the drug, That makes you want to drink, Till the morning after" ... what?).

The Decemberists - What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World - Kinda like a more literary version of American Beauty / American Psycho (see below), I guess.

Miami Horror - All Possible Futures

Metric - Pagans in Vegas - One of those rare bands where each song gets better with every listen, and each album is better than the one before.

Madeon - Adventure

Elle King - Love Stuff - Holy shit, she's Rob Schneider's daughter? Fuck Rob Schneider; not for his shitty, occasionally-racist but occasionally-funny movies, but for being part of the Hollywood anti-vaccination club that is literally killing children. At least one of his own children managed to live, though, and now makes solid music.

Charlie Winston - Curio City - This is the yearly "I must have been drunk when I listened to it because I couldn't even name a single song from it even though it almost made the top 10" entry.

The Top Ten

10. Marilyn Manson - The Pale Emperor - Still my go-to answer when you ask me who my favourite band is. The Pale Emperor sees a more mature sound, though still relies on the "think of a funny twist on words then say it over and over" school of songwriting ("Cupid carries a gun?" Oh my, how edgy!). The band sounds better than ever, which sometimes makes me wish Manson (as in the singer) would just shut up and let the rest of the band have a turn. Grunting and growling through every minute of every song makes otherwise fantastic songs sound crowded. Still, great album.

9. Halsey - BADLANDS - Nice to have an all-new pop artist on here. New Americana is an instant  ephemeral classic, capturing the zeitgeist of young people today without being whiny.

8. Two Steps From Hell - Battlecry - These guys mostly do movie trailer music, but this album of epic new music is perfect for listening in the background at work or at a Dungeons and Dragons session.

7. Grace Potter - Midnight - This is a candidate for my favourite (vs. most listened-to) album of the year. I mildly enjoyed Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, but this diverse rock/pop/funk solo outing really hit me. The songs are musically rich, and Potter's voice is emotionally convincing even when the lyrics aren't. I haven't heard much of her on the radio, but I'm fine with having this as my personal little album of the year.

6. The Prodigy - The Day is My Enemy - Not much to say here; more of the same from the guys who have been doing the same very well since the 90s.

5. Modest Mouse - Strangers to Ourselves - It's hard to be bored by a Modest Mouse album. Even though it's been 8 years since the last album, this continues the weirdness that I've always enjoyed from them.

4. Fall Out Boy - American Beauty / American Psycho - What's with sticking "American" in front of everything? American Horror Story, American Dad, American Apparel, American Pie, etc., and this. Do any other countries do this? All I can think of for Canada is Canadian bacon, and if you're going to go all nationalist, it might as well be for bacon. Anyway, Fallout Boy still exists.

3. Everything Everything - Get to Heaven - This is one of those albums I randomly listened to on Rdio (RIP) because the cover looked weird (see below). The album itself is equally odd. It's political and full of messages, but that can be forgiven due to the wildly original music. It's hard to describe, so just listen to it.

2. Years and Years - Communion - I love this dude's voice. This dancy love song cheese is made remarkable primarily by how he sings it.

1. Carly Rae Jepsen - E*MO*TION - Apparently this, the best pop album of 2015, didn't sell many copies, proving that musical taste is dead. Carly Rae Jepsen performs the impossible task of taking novelty songs like I Really Like You, and weaving an entire album of equally catchy songs around them. In a way, she is the perfect evolution of pop, deserving of the crown that Madonna is fumbling, if only the public would acknowledge her genius.

See also: The Best Most Listen-To Albums of 2015

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Book Review: City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett

Dammit, Robert Jackson Bennett. I was about ready to give up on fantasy, as a genre, after the last few highly-regarded novels put me to sleep. Given the length of the average fantasy book, that would save me, like, five days a year. I could have had five more days of life every year by ditching fantasy.

Then Robert Jackson Bennett comes along, demonstrating that fantasy doesn't have to be boring-ass generic sword-and-sorcery Tolkien V. 99.0 bullshit. It can take place in a semi-modern world inspired by our own, but unique enough that even long passages of pure world-building are fascinating. It can have complex stories drawing from noir and spy thrillers but retaining the broad scale that often defines fantasy, then somehow pack in twist after twist without resorting to gimmicks. The story can be driven by characters that defy archetypes, each with flaws, complex personalities, and moments of badassery. And it can all be tied up in writing that is beautiful without being flowery, and is funny without dulling the story's dark edges.

I could say more, but the main point is that this is a very good book, so I can't give up on fantasy yet. Robert Jackson Bennett is solely responsible for taking up five days of my life every year, for the rest of my life. On my death bed, my family will ask: "why didn't you spend more time with us?" And I will reply: "City of Stairs, man. City of Stairs."