The Best of 2018
Right. Posting schedule for the next couple weeks is this. Next week, my post will go up mid-to-late week and be a review of Resolution. Then I’m gonna do a Cultural Marxism post that I’d meant to get done today but then this thing I was throwing together for Patrons got out of hand and I got busy with holiday travel and preparation and I just decided fuck it, this is a blog post now. (Patrons will be getting a draft of an essay on magic and psychogeography very soon though.) Then on January 14th I’ll be going back to TARDIS Eruditorum with a Pop Between Realities post on Blackstar. That’ll run into the summer, at which point we’ll probably start up Boys in Their Dresses: A Psychodiscography of Tori Amos. Because I’ve never done a song-by-song blog, and I’m due.
Also, you’ll want to clear some time on December 30th to be in the Discord server, where Jack and I are planning on doing a live Q&A to round out 2018.
For now, however, my 2018 highlight reel.
Weirdly the category I have the most options in. The honest answer is probably some Seeming demo I’m not actually allowed to talk about, but if we’re talking about stuff that was released in 2018, let’s go with Alice Glass’s “Mine.” Glass has been interesting but not extraordinary in her solo career, mostly contenting herself to do “I can still do Crystal Castles-style music without my abuser,” but with “Mine” she fascinatingly regears into more pop-oriented music while maintaining the perspective that led to one of last year’s highlights, her shrieked chorus of “GET THE FUCK OFF OF ME” on “Natural Selection.” “Mine” is a seductively triumphant anthem of self-reclamation through self-injury. Its chorus soars even as it describes how “I’ll go down and choose a 99 cent razor drawn line / leave a trace until I’m finally mine again” in what is one of the bravest and most genuinely unsettling moments of pop music I’ve heard in recent memory.
Runners Up: The top slot probably would have gone to one of the tracks on King Princess’s debut EP if I could make up my mind on which one. Utterly charming and unabashedly queer Gen Z pop, the personal high point is “Holy,” the lesbian dominatrix cunnilingus anthem Lorde wishes she wrote. The objectively best song on the album, however, is the lead single, “1950,” a dreamy love song about all the joys and agonies of love in the closet.
Deeper on the list, obviously we have to talk about Janelle Monáe. Dirty Computer is a triumph. “Screwed” remains my favorite track, but there’s barely a misstep all album. Chvrches had a delightful third album that finally tried new things instead of recapitulating their debut like their second album had. “Miracles” feels fresh there. Florence and the Machine’s new one was solid too—let’s go with “Big God.”
Never any doubt that this was going to go to Andrea Long Chu’s “On Liking Women.” It hit and was self-evidently a landmark. No less than Sandy Stone proclaimed this the beginning of the second wave of transgender studies, and that’s easy to believe. I almost can’t talk about it from any sort of quasi-objective theoretical perspective. A lot of the stress of my early transition, after I’d started hormones and wearing women’s clothing around the house but still had a beard and wasn’t using “Elizabeth” yet, was navigating around the ways that the trans community’s standard narrative of “you were always the gender you transitioned to” and “trans women are women, period” as though there’s nothing to discuss about the way that we are women and how this might differ from cis women simply didn’t feel like it fit me. Chu’s essay fit like a glove—the first thing I read about transition that felt like it was from a perspective aligned with mine. You could see the way the discourse shifted when this dropped—tons of people came out of the woodwork to say “yes, this.” I’m (perhaps ironically) pessimistic about the ability of writing to change the world, but this very obviously did. On top of that however, it’s whip smart and wickedly funny. Stunning.
Runners Up: You could fill a list with Andrea, honestly. “Bad TV” is monumental too, diminished only by the size of the mountain next to it. And her utterly merciless evisceration of Jill Soloway’s book is an absolute triumph of the form that includes my favorite single sentence of the year, “she mixes metaphors like a bartender in a recording studio.”
If we’re going to accept that other people exist, Laurie Penny’s account of spending four days on a Bitcoin cruise is brilliant. I’ve always had more time for Laurie’s “embedded with the enemy” style of journalism than some people—I think her Milo Yiannopoulos pieces are genuinely essential accounts of the alt-right. But here you get the technique with none of the baggage of “should this be done in the first place,” and it’s just beautiful.
I’ll also throw a quick mention of Geraldine DeRuiter’s “I Made the Pizza Cinnamon Rolls from Mario Batali’s Sexual Misconduct Apology Letter,” a piece that unambiguously proves that the clickbait essay is a form like any other and thus capable of being pushed to art.
And this is pushing the definition of essay, but the Institute of Gremlins 2 Studies’ Twitter feed is one of the most essential pieces of media criticism in recent memory.
Because this is a category in which I compete, I’ll say that I didn’t consider anything published on Eruditorum Press for the category, but my favorite things I wrote from a quality perspective were the TARDIS Eruditorum post on The Caretaker, my review of Rosa, and the long overdue return of The Last War in Albion. Of Jack’s, his dismantling of The Crimes of Grindelwald was the most fun, while “Fatherlands” was his most troubling and Fragile Talons, particularly part two, his most delightfully trolling. (I can’t pick a single bit of his extended mix of the Austrian School essay, but fucking hell, he really had a good year.)
Oh shit, and after I wrote all of this Daniel Ortberg dropped a piece on getting top surgery fuck.
A two horse race, so I’ll do the runner up first. Sorry to Bother You is wickedly funny, bursting preposterously with ideas. The third act twist is the most audacious, jaw-dropping moment of WTFery I’ve seen in recent memory, and it comes after the film has already casually torn through at least two normal films’ worth of premises. Iconic and brilliant and a film that is probably going to be the most important going forward and defining new types of cinema. Plus it has Tessa Thompson in it. It’s very hard to beat a film with Tessa Thompson in it.
But she was in Annihilation too, and ultimately that’s a movie that, while not necessarily better, caters more to my taste and obsessions, namely the Weird and finding empathy with radical anti-humanism. The movie never goes anywhere surprising per se, but when it gets where it’s clearly been going the whole time and unleashes a resolution that lives up to its promise. I think Sorry to Bother You is the better movie, but this is the one I love.
I have really fallen off on video games, so a weird outsider pick: System Syzygy. This belongs to one of my favorite micro-genres of games, which I call the narrative puzzle gallery. Basically, a heterogenous bunch of puzzles linked together with a plot and, typically, a metapuzzle at the end that in some way incorporates the end-states of previous puzzles. The most famous example is The 7th Guest, but there are a couple other examples. Anyway, System Syzygy is an homage to a bunch of obscure early 90s games, done in a kinda classic DOS style. But more to the point, it’s an elegant and bewitching set of puzzles that delighted me more than any other game this year. Also, it’s free.
Runners Up: I’ve been enjoying Smash Bros. like the basic bitch I am. Past that my gameplaying has been a lot of board games with Jill. We favor cooperative games and really like legacy mechanics, so got through a decent chunk of Pandemic Legacy Season 2 before we splurged on Gloomhaven, which has consumed our souls with cheesy D&D clone strategy gaming. Both are technically 2017 games, but I had to pad this out somehow.
Rough year for television with Game of Thrones and Mr. Robot taking time off and Doctor Who being crap. And it’s not helped by the fact that I haven’t gotten to Castlevania yet and am still in the middle of both Homecoming and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, all of which would be obvious contenders. Legion got distressingly rapey to an extent that I at least found disqualifying. A Very English Scandal was good and I’m not sure why I never made it to episode two. And I enjoyed Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas, the penultimate episode of which was probably the best single episode of anything I watched this year.
But I think I’ve gotta give this to Killing Eve. I initially bounced off of this just a little because it was pitched to me as “lesbian Hannibal” and the subsequent lack of profoundly wanky philosophical dialogue was a letdown. In its place, though, we have a story of unhealthy obsession and feminine desire. I haven’t seen Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s other series, Fleabag, but it’s fairly apparent that she’s one of the most astute chroniclers of the messy textures of women’s lives and needs in television. Wedding that interest to the structure of a spy story turns out to be pleasantly enthralling and new.
Runners Up: Kinda already ran through them in my disqualifications.
To my mild horror and consternation, the only new release book I read this year was Hannu Rajaniemi’s Summerland. I’m perfectly happy to recommend it, though. It’s an alternate history where ghosts are scientifically proven to be real, resulting in the British government creating an extensive espionage service among the dead. It’s a rolicking novel of ideas that I tore through in a single ecstatic night—the sort of one that does things like “and then the Russians merged all of their dead into a giant gestalt supercomputer headed by Lenin to create an all-powerful and godlike collective.” That’s not even what the book’s about. That’s the sort of thing it can blow on a side plot.
Runners Up: As I said, I didn’t read any other new release fiction this year. The best thing I did read was Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland’s The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., a time travel techno-thriller that I enjoyed thoroughly. I haven’t gotten to Catherynne Valente’s Space Opera yet, but I strongly suspect it’s a year-best contender.
December 25, 2018 @ 3:00 am
Oh hey, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is about that too.
I’m sorry. I can’t help it. STALKER is one of those things I get obsessed by and start relating everything to it.
December 25, 2018 @ 1:36 pm
Elizabeth: your music recommendations all interest me (and ‘Dirty Computer’ was already my album of the year). In return, all of the following 2018 highlights seem appropriate to your tastes:
Jenny Wilson’s ‘Exorcism’ is a harrowingly honest, imaginative electro-pop album about her rape and its aftermath.
Tracey Thorn’s ‘Record’ is a stately electro-pop album of (in her own description) “feminist bangers”, although it may peak for me with “Smoke”, a sad account of watching her country that she loves being taken over by vicious bigots.
TMBG’s ‘I Like Fun’ is, like ‘Join Us’ (2011) and ‘Nanobots’ (2013), a surprising recapture of the giddy, morbid, inventive glee that marked their early records.
The Sevateem’s ‘the Caves’ may be the prettiest, most soothing electro-pop album I’ve ever heard. Which is a strange choice for a story-album of “the Caves of Androzani”, given that story’s brutal energy and dark humor, but the Sevateem definitely understand the story; they just find a vein of sweetness to mine.
And, let’s see, if any of y’all missed Jesus Jones and their friendly, sample-heavy dance-rock, their reunion album ‘Passages’ is a pretty full comeback.
December 25, 2018 @ 7:22 pm
I’m also thrilled that “Last War in Albion” is making a return, and happy that Tori Amos will be getting her own starring role in the blog. Other music I liked in 2018, names and brief descriptions copied from my Facebook status of the other day (I had ranked a top five of Monáe/ Wilson/ TMBG/ Thorn/ Jesus Jones, hence the indications that everything else for now is tied for sixth):
6T. Belle and Sebastian, ‘How to Solve Our Human Problems’ (smooth, hyper-literate, highly melodic pop)
6T. Birthing Hips, ‘Urge to Merge’ (clattering, playfully experimental New Wave/ riot-grrl)
6T. Charlie Looker, ‘Simple Answers’ (melodramatic orchestral-pop with long unfolding melodies and the occasional sudden swerve)
6T. Django Django, ‘Marble Skies’ (groovy Madchester-inspired dance-rock)
6T. Ed Schrader’s Music Beat, ‘Riddles’ (punk as an offshoot of krautrock/ motorik, and plus occasional early Bowie influence in the vocals and piano)
6T. Field Music, ‘Open Here’ (upbeat with complex melodies: a leaner, funkier offspring of XTC and Steely Dan)
6T. Go-Kart Mozart, ‘Mozart’s Mini-Mart’ (uncomfortably personal, introverted songs performed with chirpy glee on ultra-cheap keyboard patches)
6T. Joy Formidable, ‘Aarth’ (noise-rock/ shoegaze music, but with shiny bits of synthesizer and exuberance)
6T. Jukebox the Ghost, ‘Off to the Races’ (sprightly pop un-self-consciously modeled after Elton John, Ben Folds, and Paul McCartney)
6T. Kleenex Girl Wonder, ‘Vana Mundi’ (tuneful, witty, introspective guitar-pop)
6T. Lingua Nada, Snuff (spazzy, noisy, hyperkinetic bubblegum-by-way-of-math-rock)
6T. My Brightest Diamond, ‘a Million and One’ (gorgeous, reserved dance-pop with a lot of classical training behind it)
6T. Of Montreal, ‘White is Relic’ (shifting, rhythm-centric Britpop)
6T. Robocobra Quartet, ‘Plays Hard to Get’ (spoken-word over small-combo jazz)
6T. Skids, ‘Burning Cities’ (reunited-after-36-years punk band makes protest album that isn’t eloquent or clever, but feels anthemic as heck regardless)
6T. Spanish Love Songs, ‘Schmaltz’ (innovation-free emo guitar-rock: tuneful and dynamic and neurotic and intelligently written)
6T. Spiral Key, ‘an Error of Judgment’ (complicated but melodic and lean-sounding heavy metal)
6T. Tune-Yards, ‘I Can Feel You Creep into My Private Life’ (Afropop/ dance pop/ New Wave girl-punk, unafraid to be called nerdy or shrill)
6T. Zeal & Ardor, ‘Strange Fruit’ (the Alabama 3 of heavy-metal: bluesy/ gospely but it sure brings great, intense riffs)
December 27, 2018 @ 3:12 am
On co-op board games (that aren’t actually 2018 board games but dominated my 2018):
Have you checked out Spirit Island? There’s no legacy mechanic, but a solid emergent narrative, excellent tactics/strategy, and a premise I think you would appreciate: You are nature spirits, whose land is being ravaged by White People, fighting back against the invaders and allying yourself with the indigenous population who are also threatened by their onslaught.
It plays like a cross between Magic:The Gathering and Pandemic (with the plague being European colonists ravaging the land).
Gameplay wise, it is fascinating, addictive, thinky, and deeply satisfying. You start out on your back feet, desperately trying to respond to the invaders’ assaults, and grow steadily over time, so that by the end you are swatting them back in deeply fulfilling fashion, doing massive damage and scaring them away from your island – hopefully, before they have completely despoiled it. The difficulty scales to exactly the level you want it to remain challenging and there is so much replay value in mixing up different spirits with asymmetric abilities, different colonial adversaries with different behaviors, and different scenarios which tweak the rules.
As a co-op, it works beautifully. Some co-ops are really single player puzzles that let more than one player participate, and so are prone to “quarterbacking” and “alpha-gaming,” where a player who knows the puzzle simply tells everyone else what to do. In this game, that is nearly impossible. Since each spirit has so many decisions to make, it is beyond anyone’s capacity to play for everyone else, or even keep track of what the choices other players have look like. But there are still so many ways you can compliment, support, and build off of what other spirits are doing, so there is lots of engaging discussion about all of the different ways you can try and respond to and preempt the invaders.
The overlapping systems of hand-management, drafting, action-selection, tactical area control, and resource management are a combination I have never seen in any game before. Mage Knight has some of those elements, as does Arkham Horror the Card Game, and as a competitive game, Mage Wars shares some similarities too. But the particular combination, the degree of asymmetry, and the way they all smoothly work together to both support the theme and provide a mental puzzle is pretty unique.
It is hands down my favorite game, and pretty much the only game I play solo, since I want to play it more often than I can find people to play it with me (though I play it co-op fairly often too).
December 28, 2018 @ 5:20 pm
That sounds amazing — and my kids were psyched when I read this to them as well. Future birthday present suggestion accepted – thanks!
December 30, 2018 @ 4:52 am
No problem, enjoy!
John G. Wood
December 30, 2018 @ 6:15 pm
That does sound good – I’ve been trying to narrow down my options for a good coop game for the family, and the best fits I’ve seen so far are Robinson Crusoe and the Thunderbirds anniversary game (Pandemic does seem to suffer a bit from the “one player figuring out what everyone should do” problem, I think). I’ll look into Spirit Island some more. (There’s no rush, since we’ll have to save up for quite some time to get any of them.)
December 30, 2018 @ 9:32 am
You really do need to watch the rest of A Very English Scandal.
It really is classic RTD, and almost entirely true: which makes even cynics like me gasp at what the British Establishment gets up to.
March 24, 2020 @ 12:57 pm
You have chosen some great music of 2018, especially my favorite one. A bundle of thanks for making my day.