Best of the year

Play Off: Picking 2013’s Best Song – Round 1

Welcome back to the somewhat-delayed Play Off tournament, where I’m pitting tracks against one another for the title of Best Song of 2013… but, hey, I explained this already.You can click the above image to embiggen and check out all 32 contenders, but it’s about time we set these bloodthirsty songs loose in the no-holds-barred arena that is Blogspot, and narrowed them down to 16. I recommend listening along on Spotify here.For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to split this into four parts, starting with: Kavinsky – Rampage vs Camera Obscura – Every Weekday We open with a match-up between two tracks from pretty much opposite ends of the spectrum of my taste. Rampage is a condensed package of propulsive energy. No words, just a constant neon beat carrying you on into the night. The details kind of blur as you speed past, and then the song drops a ’70s cop show sting, slams on the handbrake, and is over. The beauty of Every Weekday, meanwhile, lies in the individual moments, and particularly the way that Campbell twists little chunks of lyrics. There’s a real performance to her vocals, which turns a line like “I don’t want to sound like I’ve written us off” into a series of hills and valleys, a whole song’s worth of brittle, beautiful drama in ten words. It’s a song of delicacy and subtlety, two characteristics Kavinsky couldn’t be accused of – but this year, that kind of swaggering momentum was just something I needed more. Winner: Kavinsky – Rampage Fat Tony feat. Kool A.D. & Despot – Hood Party vs CHVRCHES – Recover Chvrches pretty much ruled my year in 2012. I fell for the sharp purity of Mayberry’s vocals, and even more the way each song distorted them into something nearly tactile; as natural as cold silt, as inorganic as a lab-grown hamburger. Unfortunately, they’re about to get knocked out in the first round. Hood Party is the sound of the greatest, loudest party you’ve never been invited to. Its huge blown-out bass doesn’t quite sound like you’re at the party, but just outside of it. In the queue, or across the street, or maybe in the toilets, watching your breath condense on the vibrating warehouse walls, just as you pick out the bassline of that song you’ve been waiting all night to hear. The song has many, many more facets than that, which we’ll get round to in future rounds, but that alone is enough to carry it to victory. Winner: Fat Tony feat. Kool A.D. & Despot – Hood Party Daft Punk – Giorgio by Moroder vs Daft Punk – Get Lucky (Radio Edit) I swear this pairing was a coincidence – and prepare yourself, because there’s another equally unlikely one coming up shortly – but it gives us the perfect chance to talk about the Daft Punk album. Get Lucky was always the obvious lead single, but Giorgio, essentially a musical memoir, is a much better representative of what Random Access Memories is actually like: noodly, unusual, overlong, a little pompous, but never less than interesting. In a way, I think putting Giorgio out first would have lessened some of the disappointed backlash the album faced on release. As it was, we all heard Get Lucky a couple of billion times, and I know for a lot of people that killed it. The song is so familiar to me now that it’s hard to remember hearing it for the first time, to imagine ever being surprised by it. In a way, Get Lucky feels it has always existed, has become part of the canon, and that’s dangerous for a song that’s so much about being joyously alive. But it also feels inevitable. The song, as I’ve argued before, is designed to be played over and over, practically begs for it. It’s a series of interlocking loops, a circular song that fades out but could very well go on forever. Get Lucky‘s magic is still there, but its grooves are worn down by over-use. And while Giorgio has little to offer the hips, there’s plenty for the head – and has the advantage of still feeling brand new every time I come to it Winner: Daft Punk – Giorgio by Moroder Holy Ghost! – Okay vs Autre Ne Veut – Ego Free Sex Free Often, with my favourite songs, it’s all about scratching an itch. There’s got to be something that means you keep coming back to a single track, that makes you crave it in the mornings like a cigarette or a cup of black coffee or a bowl of chocolate-coated Frosties [delete as applicable]. In Okay, it’s this little instrumental call-and-response that opens the song, a moment-long series of interlocking sounds, like a cheat code unlocking something deep in my brain. After delivering your fix early, the song takes it away, dropping occasional fragments throughout but making you wait till the end of the chorus to get the full thing. And, strong as the rest of the song is, for the addict it’s pretty much all a tease – something which fits nicely with the lyrics’ tale of late-night missed calls and lapsing back into an old relationship. “And the punchline isn’t far”, sings Frankel at the end of each verse – but it’s always too far away. Ego Free Sex Free, meanwhile, is all itches. The song is constantly playing every trick it’s got, moment piling on top of moment. Here’s the sound of a choir, ebbing in and out of existence; here’s the crystalline smashing of virtual glass; here’s Ashin’s own voice, sharpened into a spike. There’s structure underpinning it all, yes, but the surface is constantly fidgeting, never letting you – or itself – get comfortable, always making sure there’s something new to engage with. Winner: Autre Ne Veut – Ego Free Sex Free The next lot into the mincer: The Juan Maclean – Feel Like Movin’ vs Vampire Weekend – Step I’ve mentioned before how I really don’t […]

2012’s Finest: THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

THE CABIN IN THE WOODSPeople talk about The Cabin in the Woods as a post-modern horror film, and it sort of is, but the word I keep coming back to is ‘maximalist’. That makes it hard to write about. The film is essentially its own essay. Taking into account the fact that talking about anything, even its opening scene, could outright ruin the experience of watching The Cabin in the Woods, and it’s almost impossible to know where to start. So I’m just going to just spoil everything. Consider this fair warning. It’s a film worth seeing, and worth seeing with as few preconceptions as possible. A lot of the joy of Cabin in the Woods lies in discovering it. If you haven’t seen it yet, I hope the fact that I singled it out of a great year of movies is all the encouragement you’ll need to check it out. If you have… well, I hope you’re sitting comfortably. Drew Goddard (director, co-writer, of Cloverfield, Lost, Buffy fame) and Joss Whedon (co-writer, of being Joss Whedon fame) apparently wrote this film over a furiously creative weekend, locked in a rented bungalow until it was finished. That feeds noticeably into the film’s feel, its tone and density, but really I’m really just bringing it up as a historical sidenote. Going into the cinema, I was excited to see a new Whedon film, but that was quickly jettisoned in favour of just trying to keep up. Cabin in the Woods constantly delights in pulling out not just the rug but the entire floor out from under you. The film’s 90-minute running time is divided into rough thirds. It’s actually a pretty great American Pie-style teen comedy for its first half hour, mixing up gross-out humour with genuine wit: Five College Kids. One RV. The Holiday of a Lifetime. Then a hatch opens up in the floor of the cabin, and the five of them step into the basement, and accidentally raise the dead. The Buckners, to be precise, a “zombie redneck torture family”. The kids start to get picked off, one by one, in a variety of gruesome ways, as they try and escape the cabin. Then, just as it looks like they’re all dead and we can all go home, the film takes a left turn into sheer insanity. The two surviving kids find a hidden underground hatch, and step behind the curtain, and help bring about the end of the world. Each half-hour segment could almost be its own film. It’s standard slasher-film business, I believe, to set up the characters in a non-murderous status quo, but I really would pay to see that Goddard/Whedon teen comedy. And it’s impressive how close to the half-hour mark each act change comes. …Except it’s not that simple, even structurally. The whole film jumps between these kids and an entirely different set of characters. They’re actually the first characters on screen, as the film cuts from its credit sequence showing various historical depictions of human sacrifice to two guys discussing their wives over a coffee. Pull back: they’re in a lab of some variety. Pull back: they’re monitoring the kids. Over the course of the film, we pull back and pull back (it’s here that Goddard’s Lost pedigree shines clearest) until the full truth of the situation is apparent. They’re the guys who make the horror movies – manipulate the kids, prep the locations, and drop in the killer clowns/zombies/unicorns until all the kids are dead. They’re making them for the benefit of the Old Ones, world-destroying demons whose hunger for human sacrifices apparently got a whole lot funkier circa 1968. It’s easy to see where the post-modern thing comes from. We’re watching the film from over these guys’ shoulders – they’re the filmmakers, checking conditions are just right on their banks of monitors, and the audience, cracking a beer and whooping as the blonde pulls her top off. On its own, that could make for a reasonably interesting film, but nothing particularly new – a combination of Scream and Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. Trying to force the audience to question why they’re here watching these acts of unspeakable violence is a bit of a well-worn furrow for horror films. And I think that, for people who found the film a bit clever-clever or less original than it thought it was, this is where they stopped. But I think that misunderstands the film a little. Yes, it plays with horror tropes, to varied effect. The clichéd ‘creepy old guy at the gas station’ is played for laughs, but the way the kids are sorted into ‘whore/athlete/scholar/fool/virgin’ archetypes, while making it clear that none of them really fit that role, is a serious criticism. But Cabin in the Woods isn’t that interested in making a single argument, about horror or otherwise, as much as revelling in the joy of just arguing. It’s a film about pretty much everything. The catharsis of violence in movies, yes, as both a good and bad thing. How that ties into our need to see people punished. The way the older generation can view the youth in tabloid-simplistic terms. How young beautiful bodies are commoditised. Reality TV. The fact that the younger generation genuinely are arrogant and selfish. Whether it’s right to force people to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Whether it’s right to say no. How quickly we can become desensitised to that question, and to graphic violence. The rise of ‘torture porn’. How we cope with a violent world. How we cope with our jobs, unethical as they might be. The banality of evil. How we cope with boredom. Pause for breath. It’s a film which tries turning on every switch, is what I’m saying. Even better, it’s on everyone’s side. There are, at least, ten characters in this film, and Cabin in the Woods is interested in all of their viewpoints. The guys behind the curtain aren’t depicted as straight-up bad guys – they’re sympathetic and, […]

2012’s Finest: DISHONORED & LONDON

2012 was the very much The Year I Moved To London. I found my flat on New Year’s Eve and moved in on the second day of the year, so the two are inextricably linked in my mind. So it seemed only right, in my round-up of the year, to talk about the feeling of being A Londoner (or the lack thereof), in relation to the game that got me reflecting on the whole thing. DISHONORED & LONDON I’m that guy that loves the Shard because it reminds me of the Citadel out of Half-Life 2 – a single gleaming finger to heaven, a navigable point visible from almost anywhere. So it’s only appropriate that a game designed by Viktor Antonov, the architect of HL2‘s City 17, should be the one to get me thinking about my relationship with the nation’s capital. It’s important to stress at this point: Dishonored isn’t set in London. It isn’t – the city is called Dunwall. It isn’t – the majority of characters speak in American accents, and even the game’s title is missing a vital ‘u’. It isn’t – this is a fantasy universe, with magic powers and giant acid-spitting crabs. It really isn’t London. What Dunwall is is a beautifully realised caricature of London. To achieve that, all that Arkane Studios really needed to get right were two elements – the bricks, and the sky. They nailed both. The sky varies between sheer grey and sharp blue, but the key is the permanent slight haze. I realise it’s at least partly due to draw distance, but it’s a beautiful use of its technological limitations. Seeing distant landmarks faded into the mist feels like London to me. The buildings themselves are just right too, in the way they run up against one another, the texture of their bricks and roof tiles, and most of all the colours – that London mix of sandstone and terracotta and, yup, greyest grey. I can pinpoint the exact moment that Dishonored becomes brilliant. It takes a little while to reach Dunwall proper – the game’s opening takes place in a too-bright palacey bit, then a largely personality-free jail and sewer (which might be beautiful imitations of London’s jails and sewers, I guess, not having been to either). But that moment: You’re in the boat of Samuel, the game’s resident boatman, as it chugs along whatever Dunwall’s equivalent of the Thames is, on your way to meet the hastily-assembled bunch of rebels that are your only allies in the game’s world, as you round the corner and their makeshift base comes into sight. A pair of chimneys huffing out smoke into the overcast sky. A giant red-brick towerblock, bits of extraneous masonry pruned away by some unknown explosion. And in between the two, the crux of their headquarters – a pub. Of course it’s a pub. The Hound Pits is a perfect recreation of what a London pub should be – stained-glass door, brass taps, red-cushioned booths, backrooms and cellars … the only thing it’s missing is an overflowing urinal. From this point, the game opens up – like an estuary, like an oyster, like another tenuously London-relevant simile – in all sorts of ways. Everything comes into focus: the way the game plays – as you get handed a mix-and-match toybox of magical abilities – and its structure – individual ‘get in, assassinate target, get out’ missions – and, most importantly, its approach-them-as-you-wish levels. The same weekend I reached this bit, I rode the Thames Clipper for the first time. Heading east from the centre towards Greenwich, you escape the famous monuments pretty quickly, and the shore transforms into docks and those fascinatingly identical chunks of waterside flats. I loved it, and it was an experience I would always have enjoyed, but something clicked. It’s incredibly wanky, but I’m going to defer to Oscar Wilde’s Decay of Lying here for a moment: “Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? … At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist till Art had invented them.” See? Even in the 1890s, people were constructing their own personal London out of snatches of culture they’d experienced. After I started playing Dishonored, the rest of 2012 was spent turning corners and suddenly catching on a moment of strange déjà vu. As well as being a brilliant imitation of London architecturally, there’s something about Dunwall which resonates with the way I think about living in the capital. A lot of London’s history is collapsed into Dunwall. Most obviously, the Victoriana stuff, which is understandable, given how heavily that period still weighs on the capital. But the diseased rats which are constantly underfoot take their lead from the Great Plague of 1666. The occasional steel structures amongst all those brick buildings wouldn’t be too far out of place on London skyline up until the end of the ’90s. Walls are covered in the scrappy remains of those painted adverts that were the 20th Century’s inheritance from its predecessor. The crumbling buildings hint to a post-war landscape. That’s kind of how London works. It’s a city built on top of itself, in a very real sense, but especially in the imagination. If you try and summon up a vision of London in your head, everything overlaps – Dickens/Pepys/Curtis/Holmes/the Romans/Wilde/the Krays/Britpop/Abbey Road/Albert Square/graffiti/Zadie Smith/Jack the Ripper/Mary Poppins/gin/opium/tea – and this is the palette Dishonored uses to built its world. Maybe it’s just me. There’s a […]

2012’s Finest: SAGA

I’ve already talked about today’s pick – very briefly – in my Comics round-up post. I called it “the much-anticipated return of Brian K Vaughan, a writer who must shoulder a large part of the blame for my comics habit. The first two issues were good, but failed to blow me away. But returning to it in trade form, I found it rich, complex and … worth writing about in depth, basically.”I’m such a little tease. But I’m not one to break a promise, not least one made on the internet, so here goes: SAGA “Face it, our only choice is to lay low and stay out of trouble. We have a family to think about n–”“Don’t! / Don’t you every say those words to me! / Sorry. But ‘we have a family to think about now’ is the rallying cry of losers.” For all its sci-fi set dressing – the winged and horned main characters, the quest to get escape a warring planet, the excellent monster design from Fiona Staples – at its heart, Saga is a story about what compromises you are and aren’t willing to make in order to protect something dear to you, something you’ve created. It’s a comic about selling out. Saga starts with the birth of the series’ apparent eventual protagonist, Hazel – a character who doesn’t speak a single word throughout the first volume, due to being a baby, but does narrate the action, in borderless captions scribbled on top of the pictures, children’s book-style. In fact, she even gets the book’s first words: …Which is pretty much the comic’s mission statement (especially because it’s almost immediately undercut with the slightly more earthy “Am I [defecating]?” from the birthing mother, Alana, but we’ll get back to that). The first scene, as well as being a beautifully, brutally honest scene of childbirth, keeps drawing this same line between creating a child and creating, you know, art. “But ideas are fragile things,” says Hazel, as her parents consistently ground these highfalutin ideas with talk of sex and poo and pain. “That’s why people create with someone else.” And so the line is drawn, nice and thick, between Hazel’s mother and father, and the book’s – Vaughan and Staples, writer and artist, each providing their half of the whole. Within moments of birth, Hazel is in danger, and the book has its drive: Mommy & Daddy have to get off the planet before the various forces hunting them down can hurt Baby. And there are plenty of forces who want to cause them harm: Marko (horny dad) and Alana (winged mom) are from two warring species, and both sides want to get the results of this starcross’d union. Enter hunky bounty hunter The Will, and aimless robot prince Prince Robot IV, who will have their own matching dilemmas set up before the first volume’s out. Every character has a clear set of values, and something they want to protect – which is actually a child in every case – and are asked by the story: what are you willing to give up for that cause? Take Marko, who puts his violent past behind him to become a pacifist, a vow made physical in the sheathing of his ceremonial sword. But, with two bounty hunters, a TV-faced robot and two armies all trying to harm his daughter, that doesn’t last too long. For The Will and Prince Robot those dilemmas are only set up in this volume. (And if you don’t want to know how, skip the rest of this paragraph). Will, clearly disinterested in bounty hunting, finds a little girl enslaved into prostitution, and realises the only way to save her is by buying her freedom. His hypocrisy is constantly, and disturbingly, questioned: “it’s morally acceptable to execute people of any age, but only to make love to a select few?” Meanwhile, Prince Robot is sucked into the conflict when he discovers he has a child of his own on the way (courtesy of an earlier scene of hot robot sex) and is told he can’t return to the kingdom until this matter is dealt with. Later, his TV-screen face – which flashes involuntarily with symbols showing his thoughts – shows a rattle with a ribbon tied around it, right before he puts a big sinewy hole in the chest of another character. Violence is something the characters of Saga are forced into. For a sci-fi adventure comic, there are surprisingly few action scenes, and what it is there is ugly. The nearest we get to ‘good’ violence is Marko’s beserker rage with that sword – and any glamour is undercut by him pratfalling ingloriously out-of-panel. It might be reaching a bit to read Marko’s attempts at pacificism – and his lack of consistency on the matter – as Vaughan himself trying to avoid big action setpieces, but there’s certainly a sense of him trying to stomp down on any signs of genre convention throughout. Vaughan and Staples are drawing as much from fantasy imagery as he does traditional sci-fi, but – like Marko and Alana turning their back on their races, which happen to be magic- and science-based respectively – Saga isn’t interested in playing by either genre’s rules. Mundane real-world elements are constantly dragged in, from the aforementioned Chaucerian interest in bodily excretions to everyday technology (one character complains about auto-updating apps crashing his phone). Even the choice of Fiona Staples on art is unconventional. She draws some deeply excellent aliens (the character design of The Stalk, another bounty hunter, being an art highlight of not just this book but of the year). What she really excels in is drawing people and emotions – something Vaughan always seems to find in his collaborators. They’re the focus, not her (admittedly gorgeous) backgrounds. So often, building the world is the real meat of sci-fi, but here they’re sketchy, smudgy, watercolour-soft. It all reflects the fact that the characters, on both sides, just aren’t interested in the big trad sci-fi conflict. They’re certainly not going to be piloting X-Wings into the heart of […]

2012’s Finest: CHVRCHES

Happy New Year! 2012 is officially over, and with it our collection of Best Of lists. But I have trouble letting go and so, over the next few days, I’m going to be writing something a bit more focused in each of the media I covered before – games, films, comics, and, starting right now, music. Enjoy. CHVRCHES Some bands just have the perfect name, y’know? The Knife. Crystal Castles. Ladytron. Robyn. These names are statements of intent – deep cuts; dark cocaine fantasyland; the beat of an androgynous titanium breast; popstars don’t have surnames, etc – and the very best of them could just be copied and pasted over and over, to the length of a full review. Not coincidentally, these bands are also some of my go-to touchpoints for describing Chvrches.Chvrches. (or more properly: CHVRCHES, which is even better but totally exhausting to type.) They were previously named Churches – which is much less perfect – until they realised that Google needn’t be their enemy, they dropped the U for a sharp Romanesque V. As Alan Moore, Dan Brown and the cast of Sesame Street will tell you, there’s a certain magic about the letter V. It’s a great visual, echoed in The Mother We Share‘s cover art, endlessly repeatable and suggestive. There’s a hint at that most dog-eared of music journo descriptors,‘cathedrals of sound’, and at something a bit eldritch. The surgical removal of a soft, organic vowel sound, replaced with crystal-clear enunciation. The way it turns the word into something familiar, altered… Seven letters. Am I reaching a bit? Of course I am. There’s something perfectly-formed about Chvrches which repels my attempts at analysis. I have listened to these two songs – The Mother We Share and Lies – on endless repeat since I found the mp3s. But each time I try to probe further, I just surface with handfuls of cliché, like silt between my fingers.Statement of intent. Sharp. Crisp. Cold. Icy – but no, that’s not right. Laser-tight. Beamed. Warped. Alternate Universe Pop. When I try and talk about them, I keep reaching for tactile words. I think that’s telling. The best synths have a hallmark texture, and listening to this thin selection of songs over and over feels like exploring that surface, like running your fingers over old wallpaper, like they were designed to be made into Audiosurf levels. So let’s explore a little: Lies, 2:25–2:45. It starts with an echoing “anyoneanyoneanyone”, then suddenly the crunching synths – which have until this point supported the song’s weight – drop out to make way for another echo: ohohohohohoh. It’s a smooth stone skimming along a fluid surface, which is left to just hang there for a moment. Then it’s given an electronic tweak. The sound starts to multiply and mutate, getting layered over itself, another anyoneanyoneanyone dropped on top of it… and then the stompy bit drops back in, like a godsent L-shaped Tetris piece at just the right moment. Delicious. Because of that reliance of the synths to build the songs, it’s hard to read the sonics as anything but cold and mechanical, especially given the way they squash and squeeze Lauren Mayberry’s wonderful vocals. But the way I respond to these songs is anything but inorganic – as I type this, I’m dancing at the laptop, thrusting my hands into the air at each climax, singing the nearest approximations of the words I can manage. At their best, Chvrches are capable of what I think of as ‘the Arcade Fire Moment’ – songs that can flood into you, through your mouth and eyes and ears and into your heart and lungs. Songs like that have been few and far between of late for me, so it’s something I treasure. I want to say the songs are built around a basic emotional core, as simple as the Beach Boys, but I couldn’t begin to tell you what any they’re about. Well, I can: they’re about looping endlessly on the biggest headphones you’ve got, and looking up to one of those perfectly clear London skies and thinking this is it, all transcendental and that… Just not, like, what the words are actually about. But since when has that mattered round here? (And just in case you’re as addicted as I am, here is pretty much everything else they’ve put out. For all my brow-furrowing over that V earlier, it’s worth noting the playfulness of retitling their Prince cover to I Would Die for V)

It’s the End of the Year as We Know It: THE MUSIC OF 2012

[Now with a handy Spotify playlist] If you have spent any time drinking with me in the latter half of this year, I’ve probably bemoaned that 2012 and I haven’t clicked musically. And not for lack of trying – apart from clawing at friend’s sleeves and demanding recommendations, the workday mix of Spotify, This is My Jam, and finally discovering BBC 6Music should’ve given me plenty of chances to dig up stuff I’d dig.There’s been plenty I liked, but not much I fell in love with. With some notable exceptions, of course. Notable exceptions Looking back at the year, two pop singles stand out – Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe, and Taylor Swift’s We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together. They’re sleek colossi of purest pop. Songs for dancing, for pretending you’re in a pop video to. They are, of course, filled with some of the most perfect Moments of 2012. We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together is absolutely overstuffed with them – extra yeahs, switched intonations, the spoken asides. “Like, ever.” The way Taylor inserts a series of full stops in “Said. You. Needed. Space” and immediately follows it up with a fourth wall-breaking “what?”. The last bit is a raised eyebrow to her audience – can you believe this guy? – and though the song’s “you” is the (ex-ex-ex)boyfriend, you get the impression she’s talking to her mates here. The eye-rolling sneer of “some indie record that’s much cooler than mine”, and the layered-over laugh that follows.  It’s all put together to ensure you never get bored of its simple repeating chorus, that constant machine-gun punchline. The song itself comes off as slightly insecure, trying to convince the listener, which is just perfectly right given what it’s about. There are moments when another Taylor breaks in, impatient to hammer the point home. The song is constantly rushing forward, desperate to get to the second listen, the third, so much so that it forgets that the rest of the time it’s trying to convince you this is live, individual and performed just to you, because that’ll get you on side, right? True to her country music past (which, just FYI, I am actually very fond of) Taylor’s voice breaks and cracks, with occasional moments of show-offery. At the song’s end, the music drops out a second early, so Taylor’s voice can plant its flag one last time – a live outro if ever I heard one. By comparison, Call Me Maybe is much more controlled. It’s confident it knows how to push the right buttons, and it does. For its Moments, it mostly goes to stuff built into the structure of the song – the slow build of its opening, into the glitter-confetti explosion of the first chorus. The mid-song verse tumble of words, rushing past with no time for breath or line breaks, especially next to the sharp punctuation of each line of the chorus – that violiny stab, which is a Moment in itself. Turning up the drumbeat for the final couple of choruses. Every single time the volume peaks. And if we’re talking about outros, listen to the way the song’s close just melts out of existence, a trick last played on Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me a River. It knows it’s a pop record, and wants to remind you of that fact, but it’s also a big ‘Game Over’ screen. PLAY AGAIN? That’s pure confidence (of course you will), and just like the slight self-doubt of We Are Never…‘s delivery, it fits the subject. Jepsen makes it clear she knows all the other boys want her, so why wouldn’t this one?  It’s interesting because the pop archetype it’s tapping into – the fancying from afar song, so often the unrequited love song – is often the preserve of the boy looking nervously at his shoes.  Here, the consummation isn’t a foregone conclusion, but the power is undeniably in Jepsen’s hands. She’s a force of sexy nature. Honestly, it could be creepy with the gender roles reversed. Instead it’s an excellent bit of female gaze (see also: the video’s ripped abs moment). While most chart-bothering songs seek for new ways to tell a girl her tits look nice, her ass is perter than average, Jepsen delights in little thrilling details – those ripped jeans, skin was showing – which feel more like the marks of real human sexuality. And healthy sexuality too: there’s no shame here, no debasement. Ultimately, I think it’s telling that there’s no question mark at the end of the song’s title. There’s only question to ask, of both the listener and seducee: WHERE D’YOU THINK YOU’RE GOING, BABY? Dancing like a mutha I used to dislike dancing, at least in public, and not without reason: my body is clumsy, all elbows, and has little sense of rhythm. But as I get older, and have less and less opportunities to dance, it’s just another embarrassment I’ve learned to slough off. The most formative musical experiences I’ve had this year have all involved dancing – Grimes’ Oblivion pulling me into a warehouse in Ljubljana and setting off a night of furious dancing and repeatedly losing my friends. Atta Girl in Birmingham back in March, scribbled requests on my hands and being held aloft to Heaven is a Place on Earth. Various points throughout Sam Lewis’ wedding. But most of all, despite it being a comics event (and the best one in the UK), Thought Bubble in Leeds. At the mid-con party, I was the first one on the dancefloor, along with Dance-Comrade Tim Maytom, and we stuck there until it had filled, and they’d played Call Me Maybe twice, and it was triumphant. But being quiet means DJs can take the opportunity to play songs you’d never heard before, or only in the confines of your bedroom, and getting to test them on a live dancefloor. Especially, I’m thinking of Lies by Chvrches – which, it turns out, kicks and stomps in all […]

It’s the End of the Year as We Know It: THE COMICS OF 2012

Our round-up of 2012’s best pop culture continues to run off the rails of the originally planned schedule. But fear not, the final piece, on the year’s best music, will be with you in time to change your NYE playlist accordingly. In 2012, I read more comics than in any other year of my life, thanks to Comixology’s endless stream of sales and the truly excellent Canada Water library. I developed such an addiction to comics podcasts (between the industry analysis of House to Astonish, the close reading of Kieron Gillen’s Decompressed, iFanboy‘s chatty quickfire reviews, and Mindless One’s SILENCE!, in many ways its scrappy British cousin) that I’ve recently had to cut back. Moving to London meant I saw what my girlfriend describes as my ‘comics friends’ far more, hitting up the ever-wonderful Thought Bubble and owning its dancefloor with them.I’m more immersed in comics culture than I’ve ever been. …And yet, coming to write this, I find myself with a rather thin list of actual comics which came out in 2012.Buying cut-price digital issues on Comixology – plus monthly splurges on Amazon – has forced me into reading older material and collections. It means I’ve finally got past the first trades of The Invisibles, Sandman, and a wealth of other stuff I’m embarrassed to admit I hadn’t read before, but I’ve also dropped off buying monthly issues almost entirely. If I wasn’t a tradewaiter (non-comics people translation: someone who doesn’t read their comics monthly, in issue format, but waits for the bi-annual-ish ‘trade paperback’ collections) before, I certainly am now. However, it also means I haven’t read any further into Journey into Mystery, my favourite comic of last year, than I had at the time. It’s very nearly all available in trade, though, so I’ve got a wonderfully condensed period of high adventure, deep thinking and, if the internet is anything to go by, big emotions ahead of me. And it’s not all bad: regular trips to the library have furnished me with handsome editions of the first five Locke & Key volumes. It’s a story about the Locke family and their ancestral home, Keyhouse, beginning with a father’s murder and blossoming out from there. The titular keys (and nominal locks) each come with their own magical power, and a matching metaphor.In truth, despite being written by Stephen King’s son, Locke & Key‘s nearest relative is probably Buffy. It transitions deftly between tense thriller/well-drawn ensemble drama/experimental formalism/pure horror throughout, but the draw is always the characters. The series’ scope has widened, drawing in more of the family’s history and pushing towards the fantastical, as it reaches its climax but it stays anchored to the human stories of Tyler, Kinsey and Bode Locke. It all concludes next year (five more issues, or one more collection) – catching up is highly recommended. Meanwhile, the Comixology model has produced Double Barrel. Playing with the format rather than the form, the Brothers Cannon have developed a monthly digital comics magazine, centred around an ongoing story from each, but also drawing in essays, mini-comics, and how-to’s. Both stories are solid, with Kevin Cannon bringing smoother art to the Arctic pirate space adventure story Crater XV and Zander Cannon delivering my favourite story in Heck, a modern slice-of-life riff on Dante’s Inferno.Without the constraints of print, each chapter can be as long or short as it needs to be, but for just $2 (and dropping below $1 after a month) Double Barrel is the most interesting bargain in the modern comics landscape. I think overall, I’ve settled into the reading rhythm that’s best for me, grabbing #1s digitally (year’s best? Hawkeye, which promised a modern blueprint for superhero comics) and then using them to decide what I’ll pick up six months later.It gives series more room to breathe. For example, the first couple of issues of Saga – the much-anticipated return of Brian K Vaughan, a writer who must shoulder a large part of the blame for my comics habit – were good, but failed to blow me away. But returning to it in trade form, I found it rich, complex and … worth writing about in depth, basically. Living up to what people had been saying about it in the first half of the year, the first volume of Prophet made for an intoxicating read. The art shifts as constantly as the world, with little touchstones serving to link up the style of each artist: The dense alien landscapes intended to be pored over. The inventory panels stolen straight out of a videogame. The tactile gnarliness of it all.Meanwhile the story, which jumps between a number of John Prophet clones I never quite learned to tell apart, is either some higher-level narrative magic, or nonsensical. But really it’s all just an excuse to join Prophet (the one with the tail, or the one with the mohawk, or the one that’s dead inside his robot bodyguard) as he journeys through a mad, inventive, beautifully rendered world.Some of the experiences you, the cosmic tourist, can expect to enjoy – falling from the sky in the pink womb of a protective star skin; sharing a post-coital cigarette with your vagina-faced alien lover; watching the stars from the shoulder of a curled-up fetus planet. Morrison’s Batman run has been a regular feature on these end of year round-ups since I started doing them, and Batman Incorporated is shaping up to be a fitting end to his extraordinary run. The story has embraced Batman’s entire history, even the bits fans normally wince at, but it’s now been running for long enough that it can mine its own past. All the pieces are being brought together. Dozens of Batmen of all nations, and as many interweaving subplots, all battling the forces of evil in the form of Leviathan.The shadowy organisation’s even shadowier leader was revealed to be Talia Al Ghul, Batman’s onetime lover and father of his son, presently Robin and potential Devilbatman of the future. With that, the whole epic saga has […]

It’s the End of the Year as We Know It: THE GAMES OF 2012

Sorry, the running order has already slipped, due to yesterday being a lovely day of family, friends, and boardgames, but here’s today’s scheduled Games article. Comics should be with you tomorrow. It’s been a big year for games, in about every conceivable way. Between the rise of Kickstarter, and the continuing flood of Humble Bundles and its ilk, it’s not hard to look at 2012 as a year that awealth of alternative approaches opened up to game developers.But looking at the industry – which also spent a lot of the year showing its ugly side – isn’t really my forté, or that interesting. It’s not about the machine, it’s about what it produces. On to the games! Probably the most ‘important’ game of the year is Thirty Flights of Loving, which introduced a bit of fresh vocabulary to the medium in its hard cuts and hypercompression. Over the 20 minutes it lasts, the game jumps around non-linearly, squeezing in enough story, world and character for your average blockbuster. It’s not a game I fell in love with, but it is a useful game, the kind you can expect to see name-dropped endlessly in articles about game narrative from now on.Dishonored‘s narrative is much more traditional, telling Dunwall’s story with a mix of cutscenes, overheard conversations and level design (graffiti, audiologs, books, bodies, etc). The real story, of course, is in how you played it – leaping rooftop to rooftop, freezing time and possessing rats; switching cups of poison and hiding under tables to watch the outcome; silently dispatching roomfuls of men and leaving their unconscious bodies on top of chandeliers.It’s not quite the machine for memorable anecdotes I’d hoped for, but partly that’s down to how I played, strictly sticking to a set of rules I’d assigned myself – never get spotted, never kill (with the exception of those who framed me for the murder of the Empress). It meant I found myself restarting at the slightest provocation, getting into sticky situations becoming a nuisance rather than a chance to improvise with the excellent toolbox the game grants you.It made me realise how much I love games which force me to live with my actions and mistakes – more on that later.Halo 4. Now there’s a game I didn’t expect to see on this list.I’ve played every game in the Halo series, now six installments deep (not including last year’s remake). Together, I’ve probably devoted more time to it than any other series in videogaming (and therefore probably more than any other hobby full stop).The game picks up, two games later, where Halo 3 left off back in 2007, with Bungie handing over the reigns to first-time developer 343. It wasn’t too promising, especially once I heard about the CODification of the multiplayer, introducing levels and points and perks, abandoning Halo’s trademark simplicity.And then the chatter came through the wire. Twitter suddenly blossomed with praise, throwing around phrases like “ballet” and “finely tuned” and expressing their surprise at just how good it was.On paper, Halo 4 shouldn’t be as good as it is. There’s nothing particularly original on offer – the opening of the singleplayer campaign, at least, is so structurally similar to the 2001 original it could be a remake. It even trims off some of my favourite features – multiplayer minus my beloved Invasion mode, and the rather-good Firefight has been replaced. But most damningly, there’s not even a good control setting, or even a customisable one.And yet everything somehow feels fresh and elegant. Both the visuals and handling are satisfyingly chunky, delivering on the promise of Halo at its best. Maybe it’s just down to streamlining the experience and turning all the dials to 11 – in multiplayer especially, where respawn time is erased completely, and weapons and vehicles are thrown into each level with careless abandon.I don’t know, it’s just an utter joy, and I need to play more. Now.One of the great pleasures of having spent so much time with a game’s predecessors is being able to really appreciate the various tiny changes – in the case of Halo 4, take the way the singleplayer campaigns provides with much more limited ammo. You can see why it was changed – it forces you to constantly switch around your arsenal – and it’s a satisfying process of discovery, even if you disagree with some of the changes.It’s a similar story with Spelunky, an Xbox Arcade remake of possibly my favourite PC game ever (and the other contender for the game I’ve spent most time spent playing). I love that there’s no ‘restart’ button, encouraging you to live with the consequences of getting stung by a scorpion in the first 10 seconds of a game, which really focuses the point of the game. The in-game encyclopaedia, as much it offends my inner Spelunky purist, is rather smart, and I love the way the Tunnel Man asks for items rather than/as well as cash to dig his shortcuts, which adds a sprinkle variety and narrative to your encounters with him.Mostly, though, I can feel how the distribution of monsters, damsels-in-despair, and traps has changed. They’re laid out more densely, which upsets my play style a little – and means letting a boulder loose can get you in a lot of unintended trouble as it steamrollers shops, shrines, and damsels – but ensures levels never get boring, especially with the addition of all the new monsters and secrets.The removal of end-of-level scoreboard is the change that hurts most. It always helped lend a sense of progression to a session of bashing your head against Spelunky‘s unforgiving world, and was tied neatly into the game’s physical levels.But, really, Spelunky is such a complete, rounded concept to start with that it doesn’t really matter, and the port is responsive and pretty. Plus, one of the changes is the ability to switch out all the Damsels for pugs, which eliminates pretty much any criticisms I could raise.FTL picked up many of the same […]

It’s the End of the Year as We Know It: THE FILMS OF 2012

I suspect that 2012 was a really exceptional year for film, if only because the list of films I regret missing in cinemas – The Raid, Skyfall, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Dredd, Sightseers, Silver Linings Playbook, Moonrise Kingdom, Life of Pi, Beasts of the Southern Wild – is far longer than the list below, and I was more than happy with the year of films as it was. For me, though, 2012 was all about Joss Whedon. Three out of the dozen times I made it to the cinema this year were down to Whedon, who released two films (of the three it looked like we might be getting at the start of the year, boo hiss Much Ado). One of them was the year’s biggest grossing; the other was my personal favourite experience in a cinema all year. We’ll get to the latter in another post, but (Marvel’s) Avengers (Assemble) was exciting because of the amount of influence and money it seems to be putting into the hands of one of my favourite directors – but also because it’s a truly great blockbuster, one which inspired me to write 3,000 words back in August. Six months on, what I remember about it most is: -Containing a whole bunch of moments which caused my jaw to drop – the helicarrier, Black Widow kicking guys in their heads, the vast majority of the final action scene. -Being a great and colourful introduction to a sprawling family I want to spend more time with – probably the way in which Avengers is truest to the (very best of) its source material. -Geoff being absolutely wrong about Hulk, something we fight over in pubs to this day. He argues Hulk is treated too lightly, with too much comic relief given over to this monstrous being. But of course, Mark Ruffalo is the best Hulk ever, including the pencil-and-ink one, and it’s a totally Whedon thing to get that the Id isn’t a completely bad thing. Denying a whole part of you – the funny bit, the sexy bit, the bit that likes to dance – is where the sickness really starts (for all people who haven’t taught The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde to an A-Level English class, now would be the time to go and reread it). There are maybe some continuity issues with the previous film, but for me these films are so much about stripping these characters back to their core metaphors and letting that interpretation run rampant for two hours that it doesn’t matter too much. Oh, and it of course absolutely stomped all over the highly misleadingly titled Amazing Spider-Man, which had thirty seconds of great fight scene and Emma Stone in high socks. How it compares to that Other Superhero Film of the Year, Dark Knight Rises, I sadly can’t answer, as I still haven’t seen it – something which owes a lot to the deflated reaction that followed its incredibly hyped release, and a conversation with Tim ‘Person of the Year‘ Maytom in a Camden pub in which he described trucks of cash being driven up to Chris Nolan’s front door in a borderline threatening manner. As seems to be the official line on it, Brave wasn’t Pixar’s best, but it was still a non-Cars Pixar film, and therefore pretty great. It took a standard-issue fantasy setting and set of tropes, along with a rather broad sense of humour, and made something beautiful (though it was out-prettied by the accompanying La Luna short) and engaging, with the rare achievement of fight scenes that had me rooting desperately for the good guys. Also, it was yet another reminder that the combination of sweeping scores and parental relations in a cinema can put a very big lump at the back of my throat. “THIS DECADE’S THE MATRIX,” the poster screamed. The chorus of early reviews roughly concurred. I went into Looper thinking it might be my film of the year, which is never a healthy expectation, and given that, it handled itself very well. Looper is a neat package – a smart concept, neatly executed, and full of neat moments I won’t spoil here. It’s set in just the right kind of sci-fi world, one that is rarely pushed in your face, but rather gives you the pleasure of hunting through the background details and piecing together a history of the future yourself. It toyed with other film’s visions of the future, but found its own identity in the wide open spaces that surrounded the futuristic city. There’s also a full essay on how cleverly it presents and contrasts Willis and Gordon-Levitt’s firearms, to characterise the differences between them and to help define the plot, and what we can all learn from that. But that’s a story for another time – and besides, what’s most important, more than how stylish and smart it was, is that how surprisingly emotionally involving Looper was. Watching it the week after Brave, its climax matched that film in the ‘nearly making Alex cry’ stakes. Beyond that, I’m finding myself having to score the release schedules to remember what I actually saw. Young Adult was a downbeat, volume-turned-down follow up to Juno from Cody/Reitman, swapping that film’s primary colours caricature for something more muted and aching. Something a bit more adult… but not quite grown up. It was great, and just the right level of tough, and deserves a spot on everyone’s DVD shelf. Cosmopolis left me cold despite taking the approach to sci-fi I described above, and despite the great line-up of talent involved. Seen on a whim, Red Lights was very pleasant, if unspectacular, company for two hours. American (Pie: The) Reunion left me wandering around Tesco’s feeling strangely desolate about growing up.

Games I Liked in 2011, Part Three: “Discovery”

It’s been a little while, but we’re still rumbling along the trail of games I really liked last year; I’m still illustrating each post with a set of posh felt-tips, and WWE All Stars is still the Greatest Videogame of 2011. But we’ll get to that. Bastion A unique voice. It’s something that’s all too rare in videogames – style, look, and feel all adding up to a coherent identity that feels new and vibrant. It’s what made Portal so special. It’s something Valve are good at, actually – look at the way TF2 built a uneven but hilarious world around a multiplayer team-based shooter. It’s the reason why people – thinking back to Psychonauts, and Grim Fandango – are excited enough about this new Double Fine project to donate three and a half million dollars towards its creation. Ico and Shadows of the Colossus have their own voices. So does World of Goo. It’s not a long list. At best, each year will produce a fistful. Of the games that came out in 2011, Bastion’s voice came through loudest. Which is impressive, given that Bastion is basically a tarted-up Diablo clone. It’s an action role-playing game (ARPG), which means you walk your little guy – in this case, the adorably tough, pudgy Kid – around the screen, picking up loot and clicking on baddies to make them explode, so you’ll get some experience points. It’s even more impressive given that Bastion takes place in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world, perhaps the most played-out setting in 21st Century pop culture. But the pleasure of Bastion is that it treads so close to the familiar, and then tweaks and builds on it, or introduces something completely new. That’s obvious from the moment you set eyes on it. Bastion’s squishily-proportioned, anime-eyed characters are set against  delicately painted backgrounds. It’s beautiful in the way only game’s manuals used to be.  All of which complements a fairly unique style, which lifts a little from steampunk – it certainly shares the same unhealthy preoccupation with cogs – but equally from the illustrations in children’s books. That combination, deconstruction, and recombination of familiar elements run through every part of the game. Not least, you know, the actual game bit. Familiar tropes are expressed in a fresh way. The rewards from levelling up turn into a brewery of switchable tonics; difficulty modifiers into a shrine to the gods; Achievements into sketchy notices, pasted on a monument to the dead. Into each and every corner, the game squeezes lore and history and, most of all, personality. They feel like a natural part of the world. But they also work very neatly as parts of the game. I never felt the need to turn on any of the shrines, to make the game harder, but each unlockable modifier finds something more interesting than just “more enemies” or “less health”, and can be combined as you see fit. The way that the ground rises up beneath your feet as you explore levels is an an elegant solution to the item-rich tangents each level offers. It can be easy to lose track of where you’ve wandered already, but here, there’s a simple test – does that path lead into fresh air? Then it’s not one you’ve already trodden. (Unfortunately, that fresh air is something you’re going to become quickly acquainted with – playing on PC, with keyboard controls, is jarringly inelegant. You see the world from a Sims-esque isometric angle which, coupled with the four directional options presented by W, A, S, and D, makes moving diagonally near-impossible.) But it’s also a subtle hint towards the game’s thematic underpinnings. From the very first moment, as the Kid rubs his eyes and gets up, his first footsteps narrated by a mysterious voice, the world is being created right in front of him. Bastion is all about storytelling. That mysterious voice, for example. Which belongs, it turns out quite quickly, to fellow survivor Rucks. Living on the titular chunk of earth, he provides the game with its narrative drive. And its narration. Like a kind of ethereal John Motson, he gives a running commentary throughout, in the most handsome bass rumble of a voice. He says things like: Rucks provides exposition, making his words the reward for progressing, taking the role often filled by experience points and levelling up, providing a reward for progressing. Or Rucks reacts to your choices, big or small. It’s one of the things which Human Revolution missed from the original Deus Ex, actually – that sense of feedback. After a mission, you’d get congratulated on taking the sneaky route, or chastised for sneaking into the women’s toilets back at base. So little decisions, like which pair of weapons to equip, will get a fitting comment: Or Rucks nonchalantly hands out tips, giving a little nudge in the right direction. Or just provides colour. It all works to consolidate the storybook feel set up by the visuals. It’s like playing a fairy tale. But, as in all the best fairy tales, there’s a hard edge to Bastion. As becomes clear in the final act. As the story lays all its card on the table, the storytelling motif is turned on its head, to remind you how blurred are the lines between telling tales and telling lies. The wait, as lines are fed drip by drip, becomes torturous. Pauses are perfectly spaced. Vital “but…”s are left hanging. And a rather leisurely game suddenly shifts to frantic. It’s that end-of-book feeling, as you race over words – or in this case, click desperately through fights – to find out how it all ends. Bastion isn’t a skinny game, but not a single element of it feels wasted. Everything threads together into one extremely neat whole. Elements borrowed from elsewhere and streamlined – the Bullhead Shield, which is hardly original in its ‘time the button press just right to counter’ mechanics, but is smooth and satisfying, and deserves an essay of its own. […]