TOP STUFF OF 2018!

Nobody reads the intros to end-of-year lists, so let’s get right to it! No books this year because everything I physically read was stuff I bought two or three years ago and only now got around to — and I’m all about keeping things current.

MY TOP 5 MOVIES OF 2018

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5) The Night Comes for Us: With Iko Uwais and a cadre of colorful villains on deck, this spiritual sister to The Raid series — about a Triad heavy who incurs the wrath of his colleagues when he goes clean to save a girl — cements Indonesia as this generation’s epicenter for bloody, brutal, and overall badass martial arts action.

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4) Annihilation: Hot off the success of Ex Machina, director Alex Garland administers another injection of sci-fi shock and awe with this adaptation of the acclaimed novel. The film expands on the source material’s meandering ambiguity in favor of a more explicitly horrific journey through a mysterious place where change itself is a deadly foe, without losing any of the story’s Lovecraftian dread and thought-provoking moments. “The bear scene” is a waking nightmare in all the right ways, and the climatic confrontation channels Kubrick’s 2001 in the transcendent paranoia it invokes.

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3) Mission: Impossible – Fallout: It’s a longstanding joke that these missions can’t be too impossible if they manage to pull it off every time, but that very contradiction is a testament to the series’ ascension to the throne before which all other popcorn cinema kneels. With professional lunatic Tom Cruise at the helm, and a focus on practical stunt-work setpieces instead of the muddy CGI bonanzas which plague most blockbusters, this latest globetrotting adventure — while not the best yet (I’m still a bit sore over a few critical-looking scenes from the trailer not making the final cut) — proves the journey matters more than the destination.

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2) Hereditary: An artist tries to balance work and parenting after her mother’s death, but as disasters and desperation continue to mount around the house, all hell slowly and surely breaks loose. Eschewing traditional jump scares in favor of a bleak, mysterious mood may not suit fly-by-night horror fans, but get in the mood and stick with it, and you’ll behold a series of last-act revelations so twisted and bizarre that you’ll be twitching at tongue-clicks and peeking over your bedsheets (specifically, in the corner of the ceiling) for many nights to come.

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1) A Star is Born: Three remakes in, one would imagine this Old Hollywood tale would be played out, but with unprecedentedly vulnerable and grounded performances, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga breathe new life into the story of a world-weary celeb falling for a rising starlet — with heartrending, unforgettable music every step of the way. Not much more to say; it’s just a simple, timeless, and beautifully tragic love story.

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(Honorable Mentions) Ready Player One and Avengers – Infinity War: This Spring belonged to a pair of movies hinged upon jaw-dropping spectacle and “I understood that reference” elbow-nudging — and that’s a compliment. RPO’s is more of an E for Effort, admittedly, owing to its Death Star-sized plot holes and willfully contradictory message, but the result is nevertheless a fantastic collage of nerd fantasy that makes one proud to both be a gamer and have had an at least 80s-adjacent upbringing. Meanwhile, Thanos did the unthinkable and snapped the last Avengers adventure in two; though we all know they’re coming back, those final moments, where half of all the superheroes we’ve come to know and love over the last decade disintegrate in front of our eyes, are a landmark in the subgenre. I saw Spidey die in Iron Man’s arms, for Pete’s sake! (no pun intended)

 

MY TOP 4 TV SHOWS OF 2018 (didn’t get around to a fifth one)

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4) Westworld: “These violent delights have violent ends,” warned the closing hours of Season One, and yet it turns out a violent new beginning was just around the corner. Without a doubt, some serious glitches popped up in the programming this year — watching the Abramsian mysteries of the park unfold and following the hosts’ ascension from unquestioning robots to bonafide humans in search of freedom was vastly more engaging than the familiar revolution antics which take up the bulk of screen time here, and a few attempts at mimicking that mindblowing twist with the Man in Black fall flat. And there’s not nearly enough Shogun World! (and, uh, Jungle World?) But at the end of the day, the environments are still gorgeous, the effects work still stunning, and the commitment to cerebral, character-driven sci-fi still a cause to be championed. Here’s hoping season three both gets back on track and keeps up the good work.

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3) The X-Files: The X-Files’ revival in 2016 had a lot to prove, and it mostly went about that by having Mulder and Scully shoehorn references to Google and Edward Snowden into a script already straining to explain why two graying former enemies of the state would be welcomed back to the FBI with open arms. But once you get past the mother of all cop-outs in the opening minutes, Season 11 settles back into the classic groove of “monster of the week” assignments interwoven with high-stakes conspiracy capers. Aside from a bafflingly technophobic midway ep (which I’ve been meaning to do a video analysis of), this new batch of cases left me eager for plenty more.

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2) Channel Zero – The Dream Door: Imaginary friends come to life. Eerie doors. Old secrets returning to haunt our protagonists. There’s nothing in this fourth season of CZ that its predecessors (or, indeed, countless horror media) haven’t already shown us before, but the way it presents those tropes with lingering, uncannily grounded cinematography and a propulsive (albeit aesthetically questionable) synth score creates a memorably disturbing chapter of the creepypasta-cooking anthology series.

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1) The Haunting of Hill House: Can grounded family drama and blood-curdling horror coexist? That’s the question both this Netflix miniseries and the protagonists themselves ask, as adult siblings reunited with their estranged father in the wake of a tragedy must grapple with their inner demons — and some outer ones. Director Mike Flanagan channels the dual-timelines conceit of his sleeper hit Oculus into another exploration of the fear inherent in confronting traumatic childhood memories, and even though it’s a square-peg/round-hole presentation at times (it really shouldn’t take this long for someone to just come out and say what actually happened when they were kids), the result is still a binge-worthy horror-mystery where the haunted house is as much a character as the dysfunctional people — alive and dead — wandering its halls. Not only that, but it’s the rare piece of ghost-focused media where whether the spooks exist or are just metaphors isn’t a binary interpretation. These spirits are real, but so is the all-too-human pain they represent and carry on.

 

MY TOP 5 ALBUMS OF 2018

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5) Neon Future III, Steve Aoki: After two concept albums and countless intermittent collaborations (including a well-intentioned but heinous remix of “Welcome to the Black Parade”), Steve Aoki gamely maintains his DJ cred in an era when the genre’s mainstream fame is fading with this hat trick of straight-up bangers steeped in solid features (blink-182!) and science-tastic interludes.

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4) ye, Kanye West: Yeezy garnered some not-unjustified scorn across 2018 for his scattershot, contrarian political ramblings, but from the unhinged confessions of “Yikes” to the hypnotic yet tormented outro to “Ghost Town,” this succinct LP is ironically his most focused in years — even if that focus is, as always, on Kanye.

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3) M A N I A, Fall Out Boy: I was prepared to call this album one of the worst of the year when I first heard it, but chalk that reaction up to bad marketing and outdated expectations. The trap-EDM trash fire of a promo “Young and Menace” is wisely relegated to a penultimate slot on the tracklist, and while my inner emo will always miss the verbose, self-loathing ramblings of vintage FOB, what remains are some of the most badass, head-bopping pop tunes in the scene today. You may not believe Patrick Stump anymore when he declares “I’ll stop wearing black when they make a darker color,” but that won’t keep you from singing along.

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2) The Unheavenly Creatures, Coheed & Cambria: For most of their career, C&C’s musical sci-fi epic “The Amory Wars” has been a chore for me to enjoy, much less understand — “Welcome Home” aside, most of their output is heavy on obtuse worldbuilding and light on memorable riffs. But with this debut to a promised pentalogy, the boys have struck pop-prog gold. While a number of tracks still drag, the highs are higher than ever — the title track soars like its titular dark angels, the pleading chorus of “Toys” is an earworm against all odds, and only a dead man could avoid na-na-na’ing along to “Up in Flames.”

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1) A Star is Born (Soundtrack): Was there any doubt? Combining rock, folk-country, pop, and show-stopping piano ballads with vocal interludes delivers a roundabout audio version of the film which invites repeated listening for any mood. “Shallow” deserves every bit of praise its crescendoing urgency has already received from countless others, and “I’ll Never Love Again” wraps a simple ode in a stunning, shimmering farewell that brought me dangerously close to manly tears.

 

MY TOP 5 SINGLES OF 2018

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5) “KILLSHOT,” Eminem: Em got off to a shaky start this year in the wake of the profoundly mediocre “Revival,” and an abrupt follow-up in “Kamikaze” — while proficiently a return to form — still felt more like a collection of insecure grievances than a confident release (and the contractually obligated turd-on-top “Venom” didn’t help). But when Machine Gun Kelly had the audacity to call him out, Shady responded with a blistering dis track that delivers a public lesson in respecting your elders. Now if only he’d spit that kind of fire on a consistent basis!

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4) “We Appreciate Power,” Grimes feat. HANA: No doubt influenced by the time with Elon Musk on her hip, the pop charts’ resident goth girl delivers a dark, dominant, and undeniably catchy siren song on behalf of our inevitable robot overlords. What will it take to make you capitulate?

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3) “Slow Dancing in the Dark,” Joji: Plenty have scoffed at George Miller’s transition from grotesque YouTube clown to glitched-out R&B crooner, but as an always-aspiring renaissance man myself, I say more power to him. While his debut LP this year was a bit too weak overall to make my list, this plaintive, dreamy early track establishes that the “Joji” name could have serious staying power.

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2) “Never Sure,” Mayday Parade: Melodrama and fragile young love have been the name of the game for this Tallahassee quintet going on twelve years, and while the band bucks convention by dialing back their operatic side, the juxtaposition of clichéd and achingly real sentiments (“I know how much that it makes you cringe / to think about you and I as friends / together forever until the end”) — held together by a humble yet powerful chorus — get their latest record “Sunnyland” off to an unforgettable start.

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1) “Choke,” I DON’T KNOW HOW BUT THEY FOUND ME: “IDK” lifts its name proper from a Back to the Future quote, but a more apt geek reference for this breakout single would be “Aliens” — the merrily acid-tongued delivery of lines like “if I could burn this town, I wouldn’t hesitate to smile while you suffocate and die” puts Xenomorph spit to shame, and recalls vintage Panic at the Disco in all the right ways.

 

MY TOP 5 VIDEOGAMES OF 2018

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5) Tetris Effect: Tetris is, by at least one metric, the most popular videogame of all time — but for better or worse, only so much could be done to modernize it (no, Tetrisphere doesn’t count). That was, until this year, when the revelatory decision was made to draw inspiration from the trippy rhythm-based puzzlers that’d seemingly lapped Tetris in relevance. Combined with virtual reality functionality and side modes that upend the very convention of four-sectioned tetriminoes (heresy!), you’ve got a basic but peerlessly addictive game that more than justifies its invocation of the titular psychological compulsion.

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4) Super Smash Bros. Ultimate: Since the original Super Smash Bros. almost twenty years ago, each entry has distinguished itself in some way: Melee unwittingly set the standard for the self-fashioned genre of “party fighter,” Brawl doubled down on fanservice with an ambitious story mode, and Smash 4… well, you could play it on two different systems? Iunno, that one was kinda just okay. But Ultimate aims right out of the gates to be the definitive Smash Bros. experience: Everyone really is here — over 70 fighters, with more on the way — and even novice players are bound to notice tweaks both large and small that refine the combat to a unprecedented T. Only the focus on a trading cards-y “Spirit” system in lieu of classic modes like Home Run Contest and Break the Targets hampers the game’s potential GOAT status. Overall, though, it’s a well-oiled machine of cartoonish clobbering effectively two decades in the making — and plenty worth the wait.

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3) A Way Out: In an age of online-only multiplayer, one could rightly wonder whether the split screen is dead. Fortunately, from the makers of indie sleeper hit Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons comes a short but sweet title that not only allows two players to share the same TV but requires it. You and a friend assume the role of freshly imprisoned felons seeking to fly the coop co-op, but what starts as a Shawshank-esque jailbreak turns into a wild adventure full of shocking developments and clever puzzles that require timing and teamwork in equal measure. You’ll either love or hate your compatriot by the end, but you won’t be able to deny the experience is one for the ages.

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2) Marvel’s Spider-Man: With great power comes… well, you know. But Marvel and developer Insomniac were as responsible as could be in crafting this outstanding superhero adventure, and while its combat cribs shamelessly from the Arkham series, the result is an action-packed open-world brawler that makes you feel like the Webbed Wonder as never before. In a virtual Manhattan stuffed with gadgets, side missions, Easter eggs, and more, there’s never a dull moment, and the rejiggering of famous friends’ and foes’ roles ensures even dedicated fans won’t quite know what to expect (even if you’ll be checking your watch for when Dr. Octavius has a certain workplace accident).

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1) God of War: Like Uncharted 4 before it, this soft reboot of the deicidal hack-n-slash series accomplishes the seemingly impossible in transforming its focus from mindless adventure fantasy to an earnest, deeply emotional journey. But this is no touchy-feely walking sim — mountains split and monsters bleed with equal intensity to its predecessors, and with a groundbreaking “single-take” camera style, Kratos’s fights and feats feel more raw than ever. If it weren’t for some samey enemy variety and “expanded universe”-style plot threads left frustratingly strewn across the story, this game would be practically perfect — with how well it deservedly sold, the sequel will hopefully pick up the slack ASAP.

Now y’all go out there and check this stuff out if you haven’t already, but be sure to set aside some time to create your own art, too! And have a Happy 2019.

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2016: A Year in Stuff

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Forget 2017, already–let’s party like it’s 1986!

It has been, by all accounts, a year of unmitigated death and depravity. If it weren’t for finally getting out of college and having super-awesome friends and family who’ve been with me for some amazing moments, 2016 would’ve been a total loss. Still, as an unrepentant pop culture geek, I feel a duty to briefly roll up my sleeves and dig deep for a silver lining in the media ephemera of the last 365 days. Onto the TOP STUFF LIST!
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–Best TV–
(1) Stranger Things: A fantastic homage to the idealized 80s in all its rad glory, this at once nailbiting and heartwarming supernatural tale can’t hit season two soon enough.
(2) Black Mirror (Season 3): Chillingly plausible story hooks and a diverse cast of characters made the return of this peerless techno-satire essential viewing.
(3) Westworld: Obtuse yet epic, it managed the impossible task of having me enjoy cowboy shootouts one second and ponder the depths of consciousness and free will the next.
(4) Channel Zero: Its reimagining of one of the most famous creepypastas in “Candle Cove” struggled with pacing and direction at times, but was still a cracking good start to anthology horror for a new generation.
(5) The X-Files: An “E” for effort, admittedly (it was never going to be *fantastic* after over a decade), but Mulder & Scully’s chemistry still shines, the paranoia still pops, and the middle ep is a series classic.
–Best Movies–
(1) 10 Cloverfield Lane: Mixing a claustrophobic setting with big-name actors, this slow-burn scifi flick provided more thrills on $15 million than most studios do with five times that budget.
(2) Hardcore Henry: The dictionary definition of an R-rating, this Russian rampage through knifings, shootouts, decapitations, and motorcycle chases is first-person adrenaline in a Blu-Ray.
(3) Arrival: Adapted from a story by the underrated Ted Chiang, Dennis Villeneuve’s taut, moody stylings lent a mindbending yet emotional air to an alien invasion.
(4) Captain America – Civil War: It’s more like Avengers 2.5, but who cares? Seeing all these insane characters duke it out on-screen after almost a decade of buildup is as close to a rollercoaster as theater gets.
(5) The VVitch – A New-England Folktale: Despite a Sundance screening in ’15, this humble horror movie really made waves with a wider release this February–and for good reason. With a painstaking attention to period dress and dialogue, it depicts the ultimate nightmare of 17th-century Puritans with spectacular subtlety and unrelenting dread.
–Best Games–
(1) Uncharted 4 – A Thief’s End: The adventure game, perfected. While it may lack the instantly iconic setpieces of its predecessors, this end to Nathan Drake’s saga packs a gripping plot, heart-pounding action sequences, and some of the best graphics I’ve ever seen into one disc.
(2) DOOM: Third time’s the charm with the latest reboot of the granddaddy of gory FPSes. The place: a demon-infested Mars. The mission: If it moves, kill it. On a busy schedule, that’s a goal I can get behind.
(3) INSIDE: The long-awaited sophomore release from dark Danish devs Playdead, INSIDE follows the eerie mystery of its predecessor LIMBO with a world of mind-control, parasites, and scientists dead-set on discovering… something.
(4) Layers of Fear: Naysayers call it a bunch of cheap jump scares designed for PewDiePie and his ilk–but for me, this was possibly the most terrifying game I’ve ever played. Like Jacob’s Ladder meets The Haunted Mansion, time, space, and object permanence mean nothing as you journey through the home of an insane painter desperate to finish his greatest work… even if it kills him.
(5) Pokemon Go: Need I say more? Sure, the hype only lasted a few weeks, but for that glorious midsummer time, 90s nostalgia and cutting edge AR tech joined forces to turn a good chunk of the urban populace into the pocket-monster hunters we always wanted to be. Just do not trespass while playing.
(Honorable Mentions): Hyper Light Drifter and The Last Guardian: I haven’t finished these yet, but the former is a gorgeous love-letter to SNES-era labyrinthine fantasy action games, and the latter is a legendarily delayed tale of a boy and his enormous killer furry pet (but really, it’s finally out!!).
–Best Albums–
(1) David Bowie, Blackstar: Perhaps it’s the freshness of the wound from his premature passing talking, but the choice was obvious. Prophetically or deliberately, Bowie portrays a stirring vulnerability across these seven jazz-tinged tracks like never before.
(2) Dance with the Dead, The Shape: It takes a lot to stand out among 80s-electronica throwback acts these days–anybody with a synthesizer and neon on their cover can ape John Carpenter. How does DwtD earn its stripes? By bringing dance-floor-ready beats and goosebump-inducing chants and guitar solos into the mix.
(3) Radiohead, A Moon-Shaped Pool: Cool, creeping, and cerebral as ever, Thom Yorke and company reassert their the radio-unfriendly art rock cred with monochrome majesty.
(4) Yeasayer, Amen and Goodbye: From mandolins to child choirs to funky beats, you never know what you’ll get with Yeasayer, but it’s sure to get stuck in your head. Underrated!
(5) Panic! at the Disco, Death of a Bachelor: Frontman Brendon Urie never met an abrupt genre change he didn’t like, but this mashup of glam-rock and swing is still unmistakably P!atD: Raucous, cocky, and Hot-Topical.
–Best Other Songs–
(1) “Light Tunnels,” Macklemore & Ryan Lewis feat. Mike Slap: Selling genuine awe and being starstruck is hard when you’ve already topped the Billboard charts, but somehow Macklemore manages it on this breathless opening track.
(2) “Famous,” Kanye West feat. Rihanna and Swizz Beatz: I just wanted you to know.
(3) “Tiimmy Turner,” Desiigner: Straight, unintelligible fire.
(4) “Campaign Speech,” Eminem: Shady goes a capella–but anything but apolitical–and doesn’t let off the gas for eight minutes. If this is any indication of what his next album will be like, both Marshall Mathers LPs have some serious competition coming down the pipe
(5) “Exist,” Avenged Sevenfold: What else can you ask for in a prog-metal song but a Neil deGrasse Tyson cameo outro?
(6) “Starboy,” The Weeknd feat. Daft Punk: The inimitable hairdo may be gone, but electro-R&B’s golden boy goes for the triple and then some with this infectious title track.
–Best Books–
Embarrassingly, I can only recall one book published in 2016 that I read for pleasure this year: Atlas Obscura. But for anybody into world travel, pick up a (hefty) copy and start marking your maps for the most bizarre and/or fascinating sights the seven continents have to offer!
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And that’s about it! Best wishes for a bright(er) 2017. We can have no illusions of it being sunshine and roses, but neither should we resign ourselves to things just getting progressively worse. Every era has its own phase where folks think “it’s all downhill from here,” but self-fulfilling prophecies are the hardest ones to heed. Make the changes you want to see in the world in your own life, and let that conscience motivate you. Let it drive you pursue your goals, whether you want them taken care later today or in ten years.
And remember: this world can still make sense, if you don’t force it to.