About Joey Daniewicz

Joey Daniewicz is a 26-year-old dude who never stops posting. He attended the University of Minnesota Morris and currently resides in Woodbury, Minnesota, posting to save the world.

Kacey Musgraves’ ‘Golden Hour,’ ranked!

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Earlier this week, Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour became the winner of the 2018 Pazz & Jop Critics poll. It’s the first album by a woman since tUnE-yArDs’ w h o k i l l in 2011, and it’s the second country album to ever win the poll, after Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (another sorta-country album heavily favored by people who aren’t really into country music) won in 1998.

I would have liked Janelle Monáe to win this year, but I’m not mad. I voted for Golden Hour in my sixth place spot, and might put it slightly higher if I were to have voted today.

I’ve been a fan of Kacey since her 2012 debut single “Merry Go ‘Round,” and her first album Same Trailer Different Park is still my favorite, but there merely solid Pageant Material made me worried that her approach would have diminishing returns. Opener “Slow Burn” (a great song I was still surprised to find is many’s favorite) does well to dash expectations that she’d make the same album a third time, and “Lonely Weekend” follows to assure you that she’s still adept at the zippier songs that made Same Trailer Different Park such a treat.

But what really brings Golden Hour up to this level is when she flexes her creative muscles and goes for it, expertly building around a melody with her best arrangement (my #1 song below) or lifting up a powerhouse song around her best vocals (#2 below). And I haven’t even mentioned “High Horse.”

This album is a successful, ambitious leap, the sound of an artist bounding forward in her abilities to make her music sound essentially her.

If you can, catch her tour. I did last weekend and it’s a real treat.

All songs here are at least solid. “Happy & Sad” and “Mother” stans, please be nice.

Yee haw. 🤠

13. “Happy & Sad”
12. “Mother”
11. “Rainbow”
10. “Oh, What A World”
09. “Golden Hour”
08. “Velvet Elvis”
07. “Wonder Woman”
06. “Butterflies”
05. “Slow Burn”
04. “High Horse”
03. “Lonely Weekend”
02. “Space Cowboy”
01. “Love Is A Wild Thing”

Farewell, 2018: Celeste

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Last year, I embarked on a very fun project and wrote about twelve pieces of media that touched me (#1 entry with full list included here), but 2018 didn’t shake out as neat as 2017. I could write about how Better Call Saul is still great or how Riverdale is still bonkers, and maybe fill out a list again, but it doesn’t feel quite right. So I’ll just highlight a few things that came out in 2018 I think you should treat yourself to. I’ll be keeping these brief!

Celeste (Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4, Xbox One, Windows, macOS, Linux)

“Just breathe. You can do this.”

What grabbed me the most about Celeste is that it holds your hand.

Not in the usual way, though. No, Celeste joins the ranks of Super Meat Boy and Cave Story in the ranks of ultra-tough indie platformers, but it takes a noticeably different attitude about this status. Super Meat Boy in particular always felt proud about itself, reveling in its status as a sadistic game For Serious Players.

Celeste instantly reassures you that, yeah, it’s hard…but you’ll get there.

Even aside from a storyline about accepting all aspects of who you are in order to truly realize your potential, the gameplay of Celeste instills an emotional throughline in the player that’s awfully rare in games. Especially over the past few years I’ve had too many friends that I’ve felt could use this sort of experience. I know I did.

It’s special to play a game that believes in you.

An article that’s the product of much more effort by Eryk Banatt is here. I’m sure he would also appreciate if you follow him on Twitter. Meanwhile, Celeste’s soundtrack is also wonderful! Lena Raine’s compositions for it are available on her YouTube channel.

Joey’s Top Ten Albums of 2018

Expect some deeper writing from me about 2018 stuff in this space soon!

I listened to a ton of albums this year, and I think these are the ten best!

10. boygenius: boygenius

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I know they all have their own perfectly great things going on, but I’d be more than down for a full length of this. I have friends and family who went to their show, and with time I’m growing more and more annoyed with myself that I missed it. If they’re still coming through your neck of the woods, don’t make the mistake I made.

9. Cardi B: Invasion of Privacy

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A lot to say here, like how I didn’t expect this album to have as much variety as it does, but I wasn’t sure this would be on this list until the other day it hit me just how strong a piece of storytelling “Thru Your Phone” is.

8. Snail Mail: Lush

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She’s nineteen! What the fuck! Anyway, some might think that the rest of the album doesn’t stand up to “Pristine” or “Heat Wave,” and so did I, but all of the songs pretty much live up to the latter. One day you just realize that the “Full Control” refrain is with you forever, little things like that.

7. The Beths: Future Me Hates Me

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So it’s down here at #7, but hearing The Beths’ album was probably the most excited I’ve been about music all year, the way I felt hearing Alex Lahey the first time last year. I’m so eager to follow them in the years to come.

6. Kacey Musgraves: Golden Hour

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Yeah, yeah, country for people who don’t actually like country, whatever. But not a lot calms me like a Kacey Musgraves melody, and that remains true even as she’s become more concerned with atmosphere and dropped her punchline-after-punchline approach. She’s classic in the right way.

5. SOPHIE: OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES

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PC Music mocked and lightly ribbed pop music. Here, SOPHIE has melted its pretty face off.

4. noname: Room 25

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There’s something so gentle about noname’s nimble wordplay. And already she’s put out an ambitious album worthy of her easily apparent talent. It’s cliché to point to it at this point, but, man, “My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism.”

3. Mitski: Be The Cowboy

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I was definitely of two minds when Mitski ditched her DIY sound for a polish that reminded me of, I dunno, St. Vincent? But no, this approach brings her storytelling to the fore in a way it just wasn’t before, and she’s been rightly recognized as finding a breakthrough.

2. Parquet Courts: Wide Awaaaaake!

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The political rock album of the Trump era. Unless we’ve got six more years of this. How exciting!

1. Janelle Monáe: Dirty Computer

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A lot to say about this album! I’ll keep it to one thing. Look, I love her other two albums. But I’m very happy that she released a shorter album. Instant classic.

!!!

Honorable Mentions
IDLES: Joy as an Act of Resistance.
The 1975: A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships
Pistol Annies: Interstate Gospel
Pusha T: Daytona
Kali Uchis: Isolation
Kendrick Lamar & Various Artists: Black Panther The Album
Let’s Eat Grandma: I’m All Ears
Car Seat Headrest: Twin Fantasy (Face To Face)
cupcakKe: Ephorize

Joey’s Top Ten Songs of 2018

It’s been a great year for music! I don’t have a ton to say. I’m too busy! Look at at the pretty single cover art! That’s always my favorite part of these lists. Unless they didn’t make cover art for the song. That always makes me sad.

10. “Powerglide” by Rae Sremmurd (ft. Juicy J)

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That backing track.

9. “Screwed” by Janelle Monáe (ft. Zöe Kravitz)

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“You’ve fucked the world up now. We’ll fuck it all back down.” Yeah.

8. “Shoota” by Playboi Carti (ft. Lil Uzi Vert)

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There’s just something too glorious about that triumphant, high-riding beat and the way Carti and Vert go off on it.

7. “How Simple” by Hop Along

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Some Hop Along songs sound fiercer, but none sound freer, and I adore the way that bounces off its bittersweet refrain.

6. “Venice Bitch” by Lana Del Rey

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Lana’s fallen off pretty hard from her severely underrated modern classic Born to Die, so I never really expected her to capture my attention quite this much ever again. She did so by totally bamboozling my expectations of what I think she’s willing to try.

5. “thank u, next” by Ariana Grande

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Broke: Kanye West pretending he’s Pickle Rick. Woke: Ariana Grande pretending she’s Regina George.

4. “The Story of Adidon” by Pusha T

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Yeah, it’s problematic. Yeah, the shots at 40 are too much. Yeah, I probably won’t go back and reach for this one time and time again. But if you weren’t a little stunned by the Mortal Kombat fatality Push pulled here, I don’t know what to tell you.

Drake telling LeBron that he created a response so brutal to this that it was beneath him is so funny. Like, yeah right dude.

I like this as much as I do because I feel like more than any diss track in history it’s tormented the object of its ire.

3. “Nobody” by Mitski

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I have nothing to say about “Nobody”!

2. “Nice For What” by Drake

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Fucking Drake. The charts point to him basically being the current King of Pop, and even in a year in which his reputation got brutalized (see #4, also Google “Bella Harris”), he not only arguably comes away from 2018 more powerful than ever, but he releases a song that has me playing the best-since game. Best since “Just Hold On”? Since Take Care? “Best I Ever Had”? Maybe his best outright.

I’m never happy loving a Drake song.

1. “Pristine” by Snail Mail

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This was never a particularly close race. I suspect I’m going to write more about this one in its own article pretty soon, so I’ll just say what I always say: I don’t know the last time I’ve been this in love with a guitar sound. Please listen to it.

Joey’s August 2018 Playlist: “Cleanskin Wine & Watch Mullholand Drive”

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I decided that I wanted to put a more concerted effort back into my music listening by reviving one of my favorite exercises: creating a mix, or a “playlist” as the youths say, just a bit under a CD’s limit of 80 minutes. The plan was to release one per month on the first of the month, and Alfred just told me to throw the next one on here, but I’m rather proud of this one as it is, so I’ll just throw this one up there too, with some commentary added.

1. Alex Lahey: “You Don’t Think You Like People Like Me”

The night I put out this playlist, I actually saw Melbourne’s Alex Lahey at the 7th Street Entry play nearly every one of her songs. Fantastic set. Her I Love You Like A Brother is the 2017 that I reach for by far the most often, but this track from her 2016 EP B-Grade University is my pick for her best track, and this playlist’s namesake.

2. Low Cut Connie: “Rio”

Yet again, I reach for the band responsible for Obama likely seeing me shirtless.

3. Miranda Lambert: “Me And Your Cigarettes”
4. Paramore: “Rose-Colored Boy”
5. Robyn: “Cry When You Get Older”

It will always hurt that this is absent from Body Talk.

6. Yeasayer: “O.N.E.”

I gotta admit, I’m surprised at how seldom I see this song given its due. It’s got hooks coming out of its ears.

7. Solange: “Some Things Never Seem To Fucking Work”

I still prefer True to A Seat At The Table.

8. Green Day: “Stay The Night”

Those who’ve spoken with me extensively about music know that much of my sensibility comes from an early Green Day fandom, a sense that renders my relationship with their latter day work a fairly interesting one. “Stay The Night” is by far their best song on their three-but-should-be-one 2012 albums.

9. SOPHIE: “JUST LIKE WE NEVER SAID GOODBYE”
10. Lissie: “Wild West (Roadhouse Mix)”

A top three moment from my top one experience of 2017.

11. Rilo Kiley: “The Frug”
12. Mitski: “Your Best American Girl”
13. Broken Social Scene: “Almost Crimes (Radio Kills Remix)”

For a time during the past few years, I’d been shamed away from expressing the adoration for this album I feel it deserves. Still perhaps my top album of 2002, here’s the song easiest to take in isolation (aside from maybe “Anthems for a Seventeen Year-Old Girl”), carried by the best performance of Feist’s career.

14. Linkin Park: “Breaking The Habit”

Along with My Chemical Romance, I wanted to use this playlist to change the way I heard another artist. Linkin Park actually was a band I took to when I was younger, and was as foundational to me as Green Day. But whereas I never became ashamed of Green Day, I eventually spurned Linkin Park. I’d indulged a bit since then, but my listening became unabashed when Chester Bennington took his life a year ago. The video to “Breaking The Habit,” the first song Linkin Park put out with just Chester’s voice given no assist by Mike Shinoda, is one of the best, certainly one of the neatest, videos of its decade. So I wanted to see if I could couch it between the cool kids of Broken Social Scene and TV on the Radio. I could.

15. TV On The Radio: “DLZ”

This is me being lazy. I’ve included “DLZ” on so many playlists for so long. It’s just really, really easy to slip in there. I’m excited for Dear Science to turn ten.

16. Snail Mail: “Pristine”

Song of the year. It’s over.

17. My Chemical Romance: “Welcome To The Black Parade”

Thanks to the comics of Kieron Gillen, in which I frequently find myself trying to live, I wind up listening to music from 2006 more than any year. Perhaps this trend will snap once The Wicked + The Divine finishes up next year, but that’s a ways out, and September’s playlist finds me returning yet again. One of many musical gifts Gillen’Phonogram has given me is the chance to reevaluate My Chemical Romance, a perfectly wonderful band I was too stupid and snobbish as a teenager to give its due. I began this series to end a playlist with “Welcome To The Black Parade,” assisted by my father’s recent-ish death giving this song an extra punch, and I’m very satisfied wit the result.

The blue wave is not coming

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I’m proud to be doing work with good people and candidates on the county and state levels this year.

Federally, however, the Democrats have a choice in front of them: adapt or die. They have without hesitation chosen death.

Evidence, abound, but let’s go over some buzz from the past week or so alone.

1. With only 24 Democrats opposed, 162 members of the Democratic House delegation voted in favor of Blue Lives Matter legislation, creating mandatory minimums for a routinely abused charge: assault of a police officer. Your favorite congressperson likely voted for the bill, although two notable holdouts were Maxine Waters and, easily the bravest legislator of this generation, Barbara Lee.

Perhaps the most shocking name among the long list of Democratic supporters is progressive stalwart Keith Ellison. What a humiliating signal that federal politicians on the left side of the aisle care more about Blue Lives than Black Lives. But perhaps it’s expected from a delegation so out of touch that they’ve kept the same leader since before the US had even invaded Iraq.

2. At least 62 Palestinians were slaughtered by the Israel Defense Forces as the Great March of Return began to line up with the 70th anniversary of the Nabka and the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem. These are their names. This would ordinarily be an easy way to show solidarity with the oppressed and expose our administration’s unquestioned backing of the military brutality of an apartheid state, but though the shock has sometimes turned into some sort of critique towards the terrors of Trump and Netanyahu, that’s about as far as you’ll get.

An incredible number of Democrats are complicit, with the most powerful Democrat in the country, Chuck Schumer, acting as one of the chief proponents of declaring Jerusalem Israel’s capital. Now, the 2020 likely candidates’ takes have all been somewhere between milquetoast and entirely absent. One, of course, was very much present at the AIPAC conference two months back.

3. With the judiciary, Republicans have exposed yet another way Democrats failed to capitalize when they were in power, ignoring a courtesy that, as usual, Democrats treated as law. Senator Leahy adhered to the blue slip custom, allowing many seats that President Obama sought to fill vacant. The backlog has been filled by the GOP, who will go on filling the judiciary without the same restrictions, scoring lifetime appointments that Democrats didn’t feel emboldened to take. One wonders what Democrats would do when back in power: will they stop being such suckers, or are they simply shaking their fist in disgust for the moment, thinking that the whole world is doing so with them?

4. Until recently, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s biggest hurdle to skyhigh approval among Democrats has been the scum of the earth: people who believe serial sexual harasser Al Franken was set up, the same people who resurfaced to sing the same paranoid tune about New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. She also bravely state what should now be obvious: Bill Clinton should have resigned. Her only enemies were the worst sorts of people: those who claimed to care about the #MeToo movement but fell apart when it involved politicians on their side of the court.

But in March, her public endorsement for arguably the scummiest Dem out there, Governor Andrew Cumo, signaled that perhaps she was not prepared to change the Democrats in a challenging way. Now, a quip of hers further raises my anxiety that Gillibrand is not going to challenge her party much at all. As the progressive candidate, going after bankers for the 2008 financial collapse should be easy, but trotting out strange corporate feminism undermines the actual causes behind so many ruined lives. I don’t want to dislike Gillibrand. She might be the party’s best hope at finding someone progressive enough to challenge the party enough so that a certain old timer doesn’t feel the need to run again, sending the internet even further into a hellpit of the worst damned discourse. Of course, I’m beginning to fear that the most likely 2020 nominee is one of the most hellish options imaginable.

5. The Democrats found themselves in a sort of power when it came to Gina Haspel, a torturer whose horror stories feel neverending. Yes, one could bring this failure back to Obama, who failed to bring any of the war criminals of the Bush administration to justice in a useless gesture of unity and goodwill that instead emboldened some of the sickest people on the planet to rise to power the second he left office. Yes, he established further precedent for not holding our country accountable, certainly allowing future sick fucks to torture without fear of retribution by our own country.

But with Senators Flake and Paul breaking party lines, the ball was in the Democrats’ court. And boy, did they ever blow it. These swing state Senators routinely break with Democrats to pointlessly vote for Trump’s increasingly terrifying nominees, either out of misplaced, deluded worry that the folks back home aren’t ready to see them stand up to one of the least popular administrations of all time or, more likely, that they’re simply terrible people with terrible politics. Either way, because the Democrats can’t, or don’t care to, control their caucus on important votes, one of the most evil people on the planet is in charge of maybe the most evil institution on the planet.

I could go onIrrelevant politicians of a bygone era are stepping in the way of the party finally dropping its dead weight politicians from what should be its most progressive seats. The party is on the aggressive, and their plan is to run a bunch of  intelligence and military operatives. One of the most important fundraising organizations in the party is openly hostile to the Sanders wing of the party.

The Democratic Party, faced with so many signals that it must immediately cease being the party of Schumer and Pelosi has decided that it would rather die. The party will do its best to focus on the tiny portion of America that has felt genuine conflict about Donald Trump and now finally see that he’s a bad man.

They don’t care about energizing the youth and winning the votes of the generation who just months ago demonstrated enormous interest in fixing everything that’s so dangerously, hellishly broken. They are not interested in mobilizing and inspiring voters who are the ones most certainly on their side of the aisle.

The map to retake the Senate feels impossible and I’ll be shocked if enough seats are taken for the House. Doing either of these things will take hard work, both readjusting the priorities of the party and plain, hard organizing work. But an invisible force of ill will towards the President is not about to save everyone. And in case it doesn’t, we need to be prepared for a prolonged stay in Trump’s America.

But be prepared for scores of people to blame voters.

The blue wave is not coming. Stop waiting. Start working.

Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer, ranked!

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Welcome to the first (at least to this blog) in a series of something I’ve tried my hand at for a while: ranking every song on a culturally ubiquitous album.

To begin, we’re going with the just-released Dirty Computer. It’s my likely album of the year, especially given that I like it more than anything put out in 2017, and it’s a euphoric thing to hear after stanning for her since 2010.

We’ll set aside the non-song tracks “Jane’s Dream” and “Stevie’s Dream,” knocking the competition down to just twelve songs.

Speaking of, just twelve songs! The biggest difference about Dirty Computer from its predecessors is that rather than pushing seventy minutes, it clocks in just under fifty. More importantly, her habit of putting the very best songs at the front half has fallen away.

I love The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady, but their greatest faults are that Janelle’s exuberance feels like it wears off as the albums go on. Not so with Dirty Computer. And while none of these songs is as wonderful as “Q.U.E.E.N.,” it’s her best album.

Perhaps its only peer in recent years is To Pimp A Butterfly, and that’s only because, as with Kendrick in 2015, he was the perfect voice for the moment, and he was both aware of the occasion and adept enough to meet it. That’s rare.

 

12. “I Got The Juice”
11. “Dirty Computer”
10. “Take A Byte”
09. “Don’t Judge Me”
08. “Americans”
07. “So Afraid”
06. “Crazy, Classic, Life”
05. “Pynk”
04. “Django Jane”
03. “I Like That”
02. “Make Me Feel”
01. “Screwed”

“Stevie’s Dream” is the one I’m least certain about. It’s pretty common for the longest song on an album to emerge as my least favorite, but the vibe keeps finding me a little deeper each time.

Although opener “Dirty Computer” on its own isn’t quite exceptional, “I Got The Juice” is the lone song to miss the standards set by the rest of the album, its bounce landing awkwardly. “This pussy grab you back” is a fine line on its own, although a bit too much like a late 2016 Facebook meme for my tastes, but repeated four times?  It makes all too much sense that Pharrell Williams is involved.

The other song that bounces is on the exact other end of this list. “Screwed” is at once the essential youth anthem of the moment (“We’ll put water in your guns!” sounds especially euphoric in the wake of so many angry teens) and the song that best demonstrates Monáe’s personal liberation.

 

Entertainment That Got Me Through 2017: #1, Twin Peaks: The Return

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So 2017 was over a while ago, and I still haven’t really discovered much this year, mostly picking up scraps from the one I’ve been writing about. In these retrospectives, we often seek to reclaim a year or a escape it, but in truth it moves with us. If things were miserable before, they’ll be miserable until we’ve dealt with them. And 2018 shows some promise that things might get a little better. But maybe it won’t. If that’s the case, you can keep yourself occupied with some of the best art of the Trump era, because over the past two months, I’ve counted down the best entertainment of 2017. Hopefully you’re richer for having read this series, and if you’ve decided to check any of these out, then, well, that’s beautiful.

1. Twin Peaks: The Return (Showtime), created by David Lynch & Mark Frost

Finally, time to put this best-of-2017 project to bed.

…what year is it?

It made sense that Twin Peaks was going to return. I’m sure they didn’t, but watching the original finale and seeing Laura Palmer tell Dale Cooper they’d meet again in 25 years, it feels like Frost and Lynch have been planning for it all along.

Truth be told, I’m new to Twin Peaks. I sat down earlier this year with the old material to catch up before the new season finished. “Pilot” through “Episode 14” is immaculate, absolutely perfect television. I was drawn in by the gradual exposure of a dark town in denial, the drama of hormonally-crazed high school students, and the irreverence, the jarring tension between the seriousness of a serial killer investigation and the show’s ability to guffaw at anything at anytime. Of course, I was sucked in when phenomena, for which words like “spiritual” and “paranormal” seem insufficient, came further and further to the fore.

After “Episode 14,” the show substantially lost steam, but the characters kept growing and I was pleased to just have more time with Twin Peaks and its residents, however zany or outright pointless their misadventures might have been. But “Episode 29” (the finale) and the oft-underappreciated Fire Walk With Me, both masterpieces, were just what I needed to prepare myself for the ambition of The Return.

So far, it might appear that I’m giving The Return my #1 spot simply because it’s a continuation of a stone cold classic that I happened to find this year. That skepticism is fair, but The Return is so wildly distinct, so at odds with itself, so painstakingly not quite a return that its achievement stands entirely apart from the rest of the Twin Peaks legacy.

It is not what anyone expected. It is not what anyone asked for.

The original series ended on a double cliffhanger, but it doesn’t give either a thought. What Cooper and Audrey were up to these past couple dozen years remains unclear. “Where’s Annie?” isn’t even a thought. Harry Truman is gone. Audrey Horne is barely here. Special Agent Dale Cooper, as we know him anyway, is barely here.

The friendliest moments to people longing for the old stuff are like when we see Andy and Lucy with their son, both so proud of their gibberish-spewing Brando wannabe that they refuse to take their hands off his shoulders for the duration of the scene. But even those moments are truly about the unfamiliar.

In fact, only once does The Return tend to unfinished business with any real sense of respect: Ed and Norma finally get together and shovel themselves out of the shit to Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.”

It’s a crown jewel not just of The Return but the entire series, and it knows this enough to make you wait until “Part 16” of 18.

Otherwise, any satisfaction the show gives us is fleeting. Special Agent Dale Cooper takes just as long to truly arrive, and he just as quickly shows that he never meant to truly return to Twin Peaks. Just as any good revival knows, you can’t go home again. Not really.

So what is there?

Listen to the sounds. You are far away. It’s not about the bunny. Call for help. Got a light? Drink full and descend. You’re in the shit! I’m not me. What year is it?

Each brief sentence is so evocative, whisking you back to whatever moment.

There’s Lawrence Jacoby, the creepy psychiatrist who’s now a ferocious InfoWars-style radio host, shilling golden shovels on the back of bogus self-help and vague politics. “The fucks are at it again!”

There’s the Woodsman, also quite the radioman, hypnotically closing out the daring “Part 8,” the episode that more than any other distances Twin Peaks from any other television.

There’s Diane, played by 2017 MVP Laura Dern, giving a monologue that would be the high point of any other show.

And, of course, there’s Dougie Jones. Kyle Machlachlan is tasked with three (perhaps even four or five) performances, each starkly different incarnations of Dale Cooper. The greatest of these is the hollowed out shell of Dougie Jones, one of the finest achievements in all of comedy.

So despite these and so many other remarkable standalone achievements, “Part 16” tells us so firmly that it’s all coming back together, that we’re all about to see our favorite people back in our favorite place. The show reeks of confidence.

Then it’s all undone so quickly, like the act of getting everyone in a room together undoes not just the return, but the original, leaving everything further apart than ever.

The Return is so remarkable because it’s such a thorough demonstration that Twin Peaks cannot return.

But the attempt is as haunting, as amazing as what we tried to return to in the first place.

And gosh, listen to the sounds.

The soundtrack is phenomenal, and most prominent are the performances at the Roadhouse that usually close these new episodes. A few stand out: Au Revoir Simone’s “A Violent Yet Flammable World,” Rebekah Del Rio’s “No Stars,” Chromatics’ “Shadow.”

But none force themselves into being a standout moment in a season with so many as Lissie’s “Wild West.”

It is happening again.

All that you lost you get back, and all that you want you can have.

Goodbye, 2017. It can never happen again.

Onto 2018. I’ll be fine, fine. I’ll be fine, fine. I’ll be fine, fine.

___
(previously)

Honorable Mentions
#12: Doki Doki Literature Club
#11: Riverdale
#10: 4:44
#9: 
The Young Pope
#8: Life Will See You Now
#7: Super Mario Odyssey
#6: Better Call Saul
#5: The Wicked + The Divine: “Imperial Phase”
#4: competitive fighting games (part 1: Smash 4)(part 2: Street Fighter V)(part 3: Super Smash Bros. Melee)
#3: The Can Opener’s Daughter
#2: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Entertainment That Got Me Through 2017: #2, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

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It’s been a hard year. I saw exactly one film in theaters, my favorite albums weren’t as phenomenal as my favorites in years past, and I can’t leave my phone in my pocket for one hour without the discourse shifting to the President’s tweets, another beloved celebrity being exposed as a sexual assailant, or some other Hell. So over the next twelve days, I’ll be counting down twelve pieces of entertainment that kept me sane in 2017.

2. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo Switch), by Nintendo

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is widely considered one of the greatest video games of all time.

This is silly.

Two fine pieces of criticism – Tevis Thompson’s essay “Saving Zelda,” though it’s perhaps a little desperate to reclaim a treasured experience of his past, and Game Grumps’ Arin “Egoraptor” Hanson’s Zelda entry in his video series “Sequelitis” – illustrate nicely why Ocarina of Time falls short in its imagination of what a 3D adventure could be, and both more importantly identify A Link to the Past as the culprit for the series’ corrosive blueprint that has haunted every major entry since.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is one of the greatest video games of all time.

I’ll gradually go over how it answers past complaints, but just as nice is that it’s so good that it shows Ocarina diehards why those complaints weren’t just contrarian nitpicking.

This is a Zelda game not just for those that like to quest, but for those that like to play.

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“Why are there so many complaints about the initial thrill and then disappointment of Ocarina’s Hyrule field or Wind Waker’s ocean?  Even the Lanayru desert in Skyward Sword offers a similar unfulfilled promise.  The promise being: a world, vast, spread out before you, ripe for exploration, free.  But when was the last time Zelda truly offered this?  When the game plopped you in an open field and said: here is a world – have at it.

Modern Zeldas do not offer worlds.  They offer elaborate contraptions reskinned with a nature theme, a giant nest of interconnected locks.  A lock is not only something opened with a silver key.  A grapple point is a lock; a hookshot is the key.  A cracked rock wall is a lock; a bomb is the key.  That wondrous array of items you collect is little more than a building manager’s jangly keyring.

Almost everything in Zelda has a discrete purpose, a tedious teleology.  When it all snaps into place, some call this good design.  I call it brittle, overdetermined, pale.  It’s the work of a singleminded god, a world bled of wonder.”

So goes Thompson’s argument, and though I find more wonder in these games than he does, his diagnosis is completely, entirely correct. There’s very little fun to be had in any Zelda title that isn’t planned, and a development team’s ability to plan is finite.

These limitations are even more glaring in the context of combat. Each encounter was specially curated to work in the confines of a single room, or at best in a large, samey area.

It’s actually hilarious just how far Breath of the Wild goes to break out of this habit, as if its team were outright paranoid at how boxed in their series had previously been. That camps of enemies will fight you in coordinated attacks is already a revelation, never mind that you might have to fight against the clock before one of them blows a horn and they’ve all descended upon you.

But lifting a metal box dozens of feet in the air before it crashes down on everyone? Riding a rock into a camp for a surprise attack? Carrying a chicken into battle so that cuckoos can do all the dirty work for you?

And with all of the choices those open up (and, honestly, that’s already so far gone from Zeldas past that it’s a little intimidating), the terrain always informs the confrontation. You might be storming these guys from on top of a mountain. You might knock them off a cliff only for them to run back up again.

This is all to say that one can finally exert their imagination upon a Zelda title.

Below is a pretty good window into just how much fun you can have.

Of course, there’s the other primary problem of Zeldas, and that’s that they don’t really care for you to explore: they’d rather send you on a tour. Starting with A Link to the Past, the game would tell you in pretty certain terms that the next thing you should do is travel from point A to point B. Sure, some wandering would always be required, but the sense from the original that you could venture into a place that you weren’t at all prepared for to get massacred was lost entirely. And if things already seemed tedious, the fact that you frequently had to make your way through the dungeons in an exact order drives the point home that these adventures were far too guided.

So yes, not long after Breath of the Wild starts, you can walk into Hyrule Castle to likely get totally annihilated. Bravo.

More on the castle, one of the game’s strongest points, later, but though this is true, the game still tugs on the sleeves of any player a little more than I’d like, sending us East into a few towns before truly letting us loose, and then even still giving us quite a bit of instruction.

But the freedom is still felt. Yes, it makes the four major quests feel necessary when in fact they’re only helpful, but you can complete them in any order, and you can do what you’d like before giving them any further thought. The dungeon construct seems to have vanished entirely. Good riddance.

When I first began playing, I decided to climb all fifteen towers with my base stamina wheel not because that completed my map, but because it seemed fun. I died hundreds of times in the process trying to sneak past guardians and skywatchers, falling into mud, being spotted by a wizzrobe despite my attempts at stealth. I frequently cheesed my way to the top, but it was such pointless fun that I didn’t feel guilty even when my success felt a little lucky.

I found more of the same thrill when deciding to scale whichever mountain and still do. The way Breath of the Wild implements climbing is divine and I hope it carries over to all subsequent titles.

Some might complain about weapon durability, but I think it helps remedy another of the series’ worst problems. One of Thompson’s primary complaints about Zelda’s past is that each new tool just served as part of your keyring to make your way through each game, but Breath of the Wild aggressively asserts that it’s less about what you carry and more about the thrill of finding these tools in the first place. I recently found myself low on shields. This was less an inconvenience and more something else to do, a problem that I could tackle from a myriad of directions.

I keep finding these small quests for myself.

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Have I found any issues with this game?  Well, yes. Let’s keep them brief. Firstly, Hyrule Castle is like a “dungeon” of old, but melded perfectly with the actual world around it. Divine Beasts and shrines don’t quite work in this respect: they exist outside of everything else. Hyrule Castle is wonderful: you can move through it, below it, around it, away from it, and back again. There are a few places that might come to mind when I say this (the Yiga Clan hideout), but really nowhere in the game compares to this brilliant concentration of treachery, of getting lost inside.

I do wish the game held your hand even more lightly. The game defaults to sparking your minimap with a big dot to mark where your next mission is. The game is not only better with these off (only being turned on to guide you when you’re entirely lost), but turning off the minimap entirely can make you better acquainted with the terrain, more interested in what you see and what you imagine than anything else.

Other than that…more enemy variety? Better characterization of Zelda, who despite being more fleshed out through flashbacks is still relegated to the role of the damsel? That…that might be all.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is one of the greatest games of all time, and it’s all thanks to the reimagining of a series that has always captured our imaginations but never truly rewarded them.

I could go on about Breath of the Wild‘s charms – something I haven’t brought up that goes a long way for me is the execution of its greater threats, like the ancient technology of the guardians or the body horror of Calamity Ganon –  but one thing I really feel still deserves a mention is the weather: the way light rain can ruin a climb, the way lightning can knock you right out of the sky…

But most importantly, Zeldas past used to load their speakers with wonderful musical loops from Koji Kondo.

Here, the sound is more atmospheric. Usually, it’s nothing at all but the sounds of your own character and the wind whistling through his ears.

___
(previously)

Honorable Mentions
#12: Doki Doki Literature Club
#11: Riverdale
#10: 4:44
#9: 
The Young Pope
#8: Life Will See You Now
#7: Super Mario Odyssey
#6: Better Call Saul
#5: The Wicked + The Divine: “Imperial Phase”
#4: competitive fighting games (part 1: Smash 4)(part 2: Street Fighter V)(part 3: Super Smash Bros. Melee)
#3: The Can Opener’s Daughter

Entertainment That Got Me Through 2017: Honorable Mentions

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It’s been a hard year. I saw exactly one film in theaters, my favorite albums weren’t as phenomenal as my favorites in years past, and I can’t leave my phone in my pocket for one hour without the discourse shifting to the President’s tweets, another beloved celebrity being exposed as a sexual assailant, or some other Hell. So over the next twelve days, I’ll be counting down twelve pieces of entertainment that kept me sane in 2017.

Note: Today, we’ll be trying something different! My top two I regard as pretty uniquely immaculate, so before we get to them, here are a few things that could have totally made this list but, for whatever reason, didn’t quite.

Night in the Woods (multiplatform), by Infinite Fall

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Night in the Woods isn’t the first time a video game has been built so thoroughly around a narrative that its mechanics are footnotes – the excellent Gone Home in particular comes to mind – but it’s the first to truly blow me away. Night in the Woods comes on as a story about the nether region between childhood and adulthood and failure, but then takes on mental health and the connective tissue between the weakening of organized labor and the decay and disrepair of small town America.

But on the way there are powerful character moments, many of them come automatically, but even more feel earned through your genuine persisting interest in the lives of the citizens of Possum Springs.

The most striking moments come in cutscenes, but it’s often just as powerful for a simple, understated conversation to complete a character’s gentle arc.

I was first really struck by how I felt after my (Mae’s) mother came after her for dropping out of college and I chose to say something to hurt her. Later, I felt hurt when Mae lashed out at the pastor in exchange for the pastor being honest with Mae about her enduring but incomplete belief. Moments like these pile up until a climax too intense, too haunting, to wonderful to spoil.

I was late to Night in the Woods. It came out last January, but I only got around to it after its release on the Switch last month. It would have made my list, and it would have made it pretty high. I can’t recall a game making me shed tears before.

Sex Fantasy (Koyama Press), by Sophia Foster-Dimino

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Sophia Foster-Dimino was nominated thrice in the 2015 Ignatz Awards and won out, taking home Promising New Talent, Outstanding Minicomic (for “Sex Fantasy #4”), and, most impressively, Outstanding Series outright for Sex Fantasy.

It was a question of when she would finally collect the series, and finally here is Sex Fantasy, ten entries long.

As the series progressed, its meditations gave way to meditative conversations and finally gave way to meditative stories: a woman vacationing with her husband finds herself contemplating divorce, a grown troublemaker throws a tantrum in a grocery store aisle, and a young woman’s plans to spend time with her boyfriend are thrown into chaos and loneliness by a blizzard.

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Sex Fantasy #1-8 are all available on Foster-Dimino’s blog and are astonishingly quick reads. In fifteen minutes you might be willing to throw down money for a tiny collection of them, plus two more comics.

I hate to spoil it or put a comic in text form, but allow me to share this exchange from my favorite, “Sex Fantasy #7” (available to download at that link in .pdf form at a pay-what-you-want-including-nothing rate), which is illustrative of the series’ appeal.

“When I fell down the hill and I was bleeding – is that why you laughed, because you love pathetic things?”
“Ugh…you don’t understand! It’s just that your fall was so measured and considered – almost in slow motion – it was so like you. I know it seems cruel and strange, but I felt overwhelming tenderness for you and the only expression I could find for it was laughter. But I was deeply moved. And in that moment I loved you so much.”

NBA Basketball

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Ball is life, but after the once-in-a-lifetime experience of the 2016 Golden State Warriors…

1. Making their way to the best record in league history, 2. Coming back from a 3-1 deficit against Kevin Durant’s and Russell Westbrook’s Oklahoma City Thunder, 3. Blowing a 3-1 lead to LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers to ruin a historic season, and then 4. Acquiring Kevin freakin’ Durant in an unprecedented, unholy event…

…the 2017 season felt like a formality. A team that already had made Greatest Of All Time talk united its own MVP with another, and it wasn’t a surprise when they breezed through the playoffs nearly undefeated to win it all. It wasn’t boring – the team’s personalities are too great and its gameplay is too beautiful – but it wasn’t exactly a thrilling conclusion.

It was a treat, however, to see Russell Westbrook, abandoned by Kevin Durant, go Super Saiyan, doing the unthinkable by becoming the second player to ever average a triple double (far more difficult in this era of play), and win Most Valuable Player through sheer force of will.

But 2017 was most notable for its offseason, when the rest of the NBA had a panic attack thinking about the Golden State Warriors.

Chris Paul joined James Harden and the Houston Rockets, making it the second team with two of the league’s ten best players, turning the Rockets into a machine hellbent on one quest: defeating the Warriors. The two powers in the East, the Boston Celtics and the Cavs, swapped franchise star point guards, the Celtics trading their scrappy fifth place MVP finisher after he played through the tragedy of his sister’s death for them. Paul George finally fled Indiana to join the Thunder, helping fill the void Durant left. That’s only scraping the surface of everything that happened.

The 2017-2018 season has been fun so far, but it remains to be seen what it will amount to. But the offseason had the truly memorable sight of all stars pinging around the NBA.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Disney), directed by Rian Johnson

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As I keep saying, I saw exactly one film last year. It was the one everyone saw.

No, not every decision was perfect, but disregard skeptics and embrace the humor, the ambition, and risks Rian Johnson takes, because with the trilogy’s final episode we’ll regrettably be returning to JJ Abrams.

The Force Awakens was about the safest movie imaginable, serving as an introduction and reintroduction and not a lot more. The Last Jedi was tasked with being the first to really define the thrust of these new episodes.

Kylo Ren continues to be the best thing about them and forces his way further to the fore. Mark Hamill enthusiastically leaps back into Luke Skywalker. Laura Dern shows up and is given far and away the best moment of the film.

Most else of what I have to say involves ruining the entire thing for the twelve people who haven’t seen it, none of whom are reading this, but while The Force Awakens was fun, it took this one to make Disney’s ventures into Star Wars feel like more than a cash grab.

I Love You Like A Brother (Dead Oceans), by Alex Lahey

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Japandroids’ Celebration Rock is a favorite of mine, but its sequel ended up not quite living up, so I had to turn elsewhere to ease my woes with “whoa-oh-oh”s.

It wasn’t until 2017 was about over that I heard Alex Lahey’s I Love You Like A Brother, and it was one of those rare albums that I instantly knew I’d be having a long term relationship with. Like Celebration Rock, it was exactly the sound I needed exactly when I needed it.

I Love You Like A Brother is easily my most listened to album of 2018. I find myself begging my friends to listen to her, and it feels unimaginable that she hasn’t spread yet. But the way her guitar zooms and her small songs about small things turn into big anthems just tickles something deep down in my core.

It’s the best rock album since Art Angels. It’s the best guitar rock album since Transgender Dysphoria Blues.

Boundless (Drawn & Quarterly), by Jillian Tamaki

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If one were to produce the name of the most talented person in indie comics, Jillian Tamaki is about as good as you can do. And her short form work has been piling up. Much of it is available on Hazlitt. “Darla!” “Body Pods” (part one and part two). “Boundless.” “Bed Bug.”  “The ClairFree System.”

These make up most of Tamaki’s collection, with two new stories and her best one completing it. She’d done short comic stories before, but “SexCoven,” her contribution to the wonderful Frontier series from Youth in Decline, immediately vaulted her to the fore of the form. It follows an hours-long audio file of mysterious origin on its journey from peer to peer file sharing services into a full-blown cultural phenomenon. People fuck to it. Small groups take walks at night to it. Parents have a moral panic about it. People forget about it. Holdouts continue to obsess, even moreso than before, over it.

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Tamaki’s fascination with the stranger ways of popular culture is also apparent throughout “Darla!” – about a wholesome but pornographic sitcom whose only success was in its death, thanks to the internet – and “Body Pods” – whose narrator keeps stumbling into romantic partners obsessed with the fictional cult films, remembering the way the deaths of cast members marked each period in her life.

Those stories, along with the spooky social media tale “1.Jenny,” are my very favorites, but Boundless is spellbinding throughout, and it’s in no small part due to Tamaki’s art, which helps sell opening poem “World-Class City” and closer “Boundless,” which relays the existential inner monologues of a bird, a squirrel, and a fly.

Boundless is Tamaki’s first book since her collected SuperMutant Magic Academy strips and the Esiner-winning This One Summer with cousin Mariko. It’s a stern reminder of what she can do, and it’s now the de facto starting place for anyone interested in her work. Maybe anyone interested in indie comics at all.

Samurai Jack (Cartoon Network), created by Genndy Tartakovsky

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“Do you give up? Will you abandon their hope? Can you not feel their desperation? Will evil forever rule the world? HAVE YOU FORGOTTEN?

No scene from Samurai Jack‘s original run resembles the arc of the show’s fifth season, back from a thirteen year break to conclude the series, quite like this scene from “Jack and the Monks.” Fifty years after being flung into the distant future by Aku, much of Jack’s journey through these ten new episodes is internal, over time his drive to return and save his enslaved family and people being overtaken by his gradual realization of his quest’s impossibility.

Often presented as a perfect fighter and a perfect person in the original series, Jack’s cynicism has been nurtured by the passage of time, and the new season’s second episode sees him combating this while his time might be up anyway, because Samurai Jack is finally outclassed and fighting for his life, barely surviving each second. Never has Samurai Jack‘s animation been allowed to drive home this kind of tension before. Its self-contained episodes of old couldn’t pull off what’s done here.

At one point Jack cowers, clueless, as part of him tries to convince him that suicide is the answer. He fights. He fails.

It’s one of the best episodes of television I’ve ever seen.

Honestly, this season should have been on the list proper and was simply a casualty of me realizing my error too late into the project. Especially when revivals (think The Powerpuff Girls reboot or Dragon Ball Super) keep falling well short of their predecessors’ animation, it’s stunning to see Samurai Jack move beyond its already immaculate look. The show’s move to Adult Swim gives it new depth rather than tacky grit. The serialized approach fits this story like a glove, and though I have qualms with the ending, they seem trivial when the show so expertly handles Jack’s traumas.

___
(previously)

#12: Doki Doki Literature Club
#11: Riverdale
#10: 4:44
#9: 
The Young Pope
#8: Life Will See You Now
#7: Super Mario Odyssey
#6: Better Call Saul
#5: The Wicked + The Divine: “Imperial Phase”
#4: competitive fighting games (part 1: Smash 4)(part 2: Street Fighter V)(part 3: Super Smash Bros. Melee)
#3: The Can Opener’s Daughter

Entertainment That Got Me Through 2017: #3, The Can Opener’s Daughter

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It’s been a hard year. I saw exactly one film in theaters, my favorite albums weren’t as phenomenal as my favorites in years past, and I can’t leave my phone in my pocket for one hour without the discourse shifting to the President’s tweets, another beloved celebrity being exposed as a sexual assailant, or some other Hell. So over the next twelve days, I’ll be counting down twelve pieces of entertainment that kept me sane in 2017.

3. The Can Opener’s Daughter (Self Made Hero), by Rob Davis

In 2014, Rob Davis released The Motherless Oven, a strange tale that can be summed up simply: Knowing the when but not the how, Scarper Lee deals with the knowledge that he will die in three weeks. We see those three weeks unfold as the mysterious Vera Pike changes his conception of the world while they, along with Castro Smith, quest to help Scarper escape his supposedly inevitable death. Its ending is blunt and brutal.

That simple summary is deceptive. More interesting than Scarper Lee, and even more interesting than Vera Pike, is the world they inhabit.

“The weather clock said, ‘knife o’clock.’ So I chained dad up in the shed.”
“A couple of local bands were torturing their parents outside – racing them up and down the main road at full throttle.”
“The sound of the chains on the mines is always the first sign of summer.”

The above absurdities are put matter-of-factly. Perhaps as a way to level our sense of wonder with the teenagers discovering this world, we’re presented with a land whose logic makes no intuitive sense.

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It’s not a dystopia. No, dystopian tales highlight where a society has gone wrong. It’s not an Alice in Wonderland or The Phantom Tollbooth situation, as we have no audience proxy. To these characters, this is all rather mundane.

A line from The Can Opener’s Daughter might be a worthy glimpse into said logic.

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Children create their parents, and are frequently seen riding them, carrying them, dropping them, and so on. Where children are made…it remains mysterious, and we can’t even be sure the obvious answer is involved.

And, of course, everyone knows how long they have to live. Scarper Lee had three weeks.

The Can Opener’s Daughter picks up after those three weeks, but it takes a pretty big risk for its first half: a recollection of the life of Vera Pike. Usually, I’m not for all-at-once information dumps via flashback, but the trick here is that Vera grew up in Grave Acre, where we have an entirely new set of rules to confound us. A sort of answer to the first act’s most burning question – who the hell is Vera Pike? – does little to curdle any intrigue and might actually fan its flames.

The Motherless Oven‘s Bear Park had lions standing guard during school hours, knife storms, and death days. The Can Opener’s Daughter‘s Grave Acre has an annual bird slaughter each student must carry out, nameplates whose enduring quality – both their physical well-being and the name they display –  are the greatest signifiers of social status, and scheduled suicides.

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While death in the Bear Park is absolute and tracked by the government, death in Grave Acre is always by suicide, plotted out and planned from childhood to live through the good times while avoiding wasting away in miserable later years.

This is probably the bluntest social commentary to be found in Rob Davis’ world.

But The Motherless Oven hinted that Vera was of some unthinkable importance.

The Can Opener’s Daugher does not dance around it: “Mum started drinking after she became Prime Minister. Dad started hiding under the bed.” She is the Prime Minister’s daughter. Although what it means to be Prime Minister…that remains to really be seen.

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But after the flashback and after the book begins suggesting that Vera and the her mother have some parallels worth thinking about, it begins to do with Castro Smith – whose “Medicated Interference Syndrome” is constantly on the verge of annihilating him with understanding – what The Motherless Oven did with Vera Pike: suggest that he’s the most interesting character in Rob Davis’ universe, that he’s the key to everything.

If The Can Opener’s Daughter is any indication, The Book of Forks (the last in the trilogy) will succeed through foiling those very expectations.

Though this book is punctuated by a moment when someone who puts up glorified wanted posters considers a proposal to instead use that real estate to post Castro’s grand theory of everything. In exchange for a bike. A rather useful thing in a world where cop cars travel no faster than a walking pace, simply relying on sheer persistence.

It’s just that sort of book.

Davis’ art keeps getting sharper, and these books meet their alien setting with a maintained headspace I’ve never felt before. I ache every day for the conclusion more than I do any other book, but I’m sure I’ll regret it once some sort of sense has been made.

Even moreso than The Motherless OvenThe Can Opener’s Daughter is a beautiful book to feel lost in.

___
(previously)

#12: Doki Doki Literature Club
#11: Riverdale
#10: 4:44
#9: 
The Young Pope
#8: Life Will See You Now
#7: Super Mario Odyssey
#6: Better Call Saul
#5: The Wicked + The Divine: “Imperial Phase”
#4: competitive fighting games (part 1: Smash 4)(part 2: Street Fighter V), (part 3: Super Smash Bros. Melee)

Entertainment That Got Me Through 2017: #4, competitive fighting games (part 3 of 3: Super Smash Bros. Melee)

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It’s been a hard year. I saw exactly one film in theaters, my favorite albums weren’t as phenomenal as my favorites in years past, and I can’t leave my phone in my pocket for one hour without the discourse shifting to the President’s tweets, another beloved celebrity being exposed as a sexual assailant, or some other Hell. So over the next twelve days, I’ll be counting down twelve pieces of entertainment that kept me sane in 2017.

Note: So this #4 entry has been long, and it was six stories split across three games. I’ve already done Smash 4 and Street Fighter V. Today, I’ll be finishing with the two biggest Super Smash Bros. Melee stories of 2017.

4. Competitive fighting games

Fighting games are simply unbelievable. And though ball is life, following fighting games has been far more rewarding as a hobby this past calendar. Perhaps best thought of as an advanced system of rock-paper-scissors mechanics rewarding you for being a yomi levelabove your opponent, what you are watching as you witness top players doing their dance becomes easy to understand even if you fail to grasp the more technical aspects of just what they’re doing. And the word that best encapsulates watching these people? Hype.

The tension of two people dueling, constantly trying to outguess each other, is insane, and the release of coming out on top is infectious, extending to the viewer. Though fighting games’ closest very popular analogy might honestly be tennis (regrettably, the team-based competitive video games that make the bigger bucks are actually boring as fuck), that’s obviously a slow burn. But like in tennis, the storylines that tie into one-on-one showdowns are legendary.

Super Smash Bros. Melee has existed since 2001, and a competitive scene around it has been around for almost as long. Usually, when a new game in a series comes out, the last one is abandoned competitively. It seemed for a minute like the same would happen to Melee.

Instead, it started coming back far stronger than ever before. And now Melee remains basically the lone exception to that rule. Something about its pace, its players, its mechanics…something makes it special even sixteen years later.

Here’s what made it special last year.

The Plup Club

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Between 2009 and 2011, the concept of the Five Gods of Melee was conceived of and firmly established. Mew2King was the only player from the Major League Gaming era of competition to remain at the very top of the game. Mango established himself with huge wins at Pound 3, Revival of Melee, Genesis, and Pound 4. Hungrybox solidified his rising star with wins at Revival of Melee 2 and Apex 2010. PPMD (then Dr. Peepee (yeah)) took thrilling wins at Revival of Melee 3 and Pound V. Armada (of Sweden, the only of those players not from the US) finally captured his first North American title at Genesis 2.

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Until 2014, only one player since Evo World 2007 had won a tournament at which at least two of these players were present: Jman, a player whose legacy doesn’t quite live up to that achievement, at Don’t Go Down There Jeff, a tournament whose obscurity doesn’t live up to the historical notoriety of its result.

As the game gained new life with its addition to Evo in the summer of 2013, Melee was a game with great rivalries and storylines among its top players but a gap between its top players and the field that rendered its predictable results sometimes frustrating. But not much later, a Swedish player named Leffen beat Hungrybox at Apex 2014 and then took B.E.A.S.T. 4 over a just-out-of-retirement Armada. He’d be ranked the sixth best player of the world on SSBMRank 2014 and he’d continue to collect heads until he beat the last name on the list, Mew2King, at Apex 2015, earning him the informal title “Godslayer.”

Though the Five Gods were still a mostly unchallenged concept and in its place was a clear top six, the foundations for a greater disruption had been laid just two weeks earlier at Paragon Orlando 2015 when Leffen’s ascension was temporarily interrupted.

Plup had cemented himself as the best Samus in the world the year before, but while the character was decent, the idea that it could do much to top level players felt like a stretch. So when Plup took a set off Leffen, it was hard to figure out how to take it. It was in line with Plup’s rapid improvement, but it felt like an aberration.

The feeling wasn’t wrong. Plup has been able to beat Leffen with his Samus as recently as August 2017, but two weeks after what had been his greatest success, Plup stormed Apex 2015 – one of the biggest tournaments of all time, the same one where Leffen became the Godslayer – with an entire overhaul of his game. He had switched to Sheik, and in his first such tournament, he didn’t find much success, finishing 49th. But over 2015 he’d take sets from Hungrybox (he remains the only Sheik to beat Hungrybox outside of a KirbyKaze set in 2012) and Mew2King at weeklies. He’d place fourth at Evo 2015, then the biggest tournament of all time, by beating Mango and, again, Leffen. At the first Smash Summit invitational, he beat PPMD in what would be one of his final chances. He very solidly was ranked #7 by year’s end, standing uncontested as the best player outside of the top six.

But he remained on the outside, and his 2016 would be defined by that. His ascension from #7 in 2015 to #6 in 2016 wasn’t so much the mark of improvement – though there certainly was some – as it was a result of PPMD no longer attending tournaments for health reasons.

Still, he had some great moments, like finishing third on the big stage at Evo 2016, still the biggest Melee tournament of all time. But though he made winners finals, he lost to Armada pretty convincingly. More convincing still was their meeting at Smash Summit 3. Though Armada would be an especially important win for any player at all – though the other top players were certainly dominant, none of them came close to the fact that Armada had only lost to five different players since 2010 – Armada was his white whale, perhaps the defining achievement that separated him from those ranked higher than him, why in on one’s mind he hadn’t taken PPMD’s spot in the top six and it had instead shrunken to a top five.

It looked like his 2017 would be the same. He began with a long string of fifth place showings, which is pretty impressive considering he never once dipped lower, but frustrating considering he was trying to scrape the ceiling.

Most impressively, he honored a promise to play entirely as fan favorite Luigi, a character that makes Samus look pretty great by comparison, at CEO Dreamland. En route to another fifth place finish, he beat 2017’s #49 (Ginger), #35 (Nintendude), and #12 (DruggedFox) players.

(CEO Dreamland Melee Pools: Plup vs. Ginger)
(CEO Dreamland Melee Top 24: Plup vs. Nintendude)
(CEO Dreamland Melee Winners Quarters: Plup vs. DruggedFox)

The only interruptions on his fifth place journey were CEO 2017, at which the only player ranked higher than him was Hungrybox, and Bad Moon Rising 2, at which he honored PPMD by playing Falco (which I guess is somehow not as good as his Luigi).

He’d follow those two departures with fifth place at the big one, Evo 2017, before entering DreamHack Atlanta, the tournament that would change the conversation forever.

Attended by two top players, Hungrybox and Mew2King, Plup squeaked by in 3-2 wins over Axe and Mew2King, making his way to winners finals. At this time, murmurs of the achievement bubbled up, just as they had with SFAT at CEO Dreamland or Wizzrobe at Smash Rivalries, but it felt realer this time. Plup felt more legitimate, more ready than anyone else for such an undertaking. But there was a problem: even without Armada present, beating Hungrybox was really, really hard.

(DreamHack Atlanta Melee Winners Quarters: Plup vs. Axe)
(DreamHack Atalnta Melee Winners Semis: Plup vs. Mew2King)

In fact, Hungrybox had likely been the biggest impetus in the development of his Fox (he had a surprisingly good first run with the character at Shine 2016, beating Lucky, taking SFAT to last hit, and taking Mango to game five). While he stuck by his Sheik in most every other matchup, Fox came out against Jigglypuff.

But just the week prior, he had been scared back to Sheik for his set against Hungrybox after completely imploding against Prince Abu. Not a bad option, considering Plup has easily done more than anyone in Melee history to push the Sheik vs. Puff matchup forward, but Plup clearly no longer felt comfortable with this option.

So he came out swinging and went up 2-0 on Hungrybox. Excitement reached a fever pitch. Hungrybox clawing it back to even up the game count made the tension unbearable. The last game going to last stock, then last hit? It was too much.

(DreamHack Atlanta Melee Winners Finals: Plup vs. Hungrybox)

So Plup headed to winners side of grand finals, but it still felt like a small miracle that he was there in the first place. SFAT had been in a similar position months earlier before getting wrecked by Mew2King.

And it looked like Plup was headed for a similar fate. After beating Mew2King, Hungrybox roared back to grand finals and took the first set 3-0.

It seemed like Hungrybox took his momentum from his win in the losers bracket and it was about to be lights out, but everything quickly changed. The interview afterward would confirm that Plup took advantage of having a set to lose and largely gave up the first one early on, preparing mentally for the next one.

So to follow being 3-0’d, Plup doled out a 3-0 himself to win the tournament.

(DreamHack Atlanta Melee Grand Finals: Plup vs. Hungrybox)

In his follow-up interview, asked if he had anything to say, Plup kept it lovably cocky: “I’m godlike at this game.” Godlike, yeah. He joined Leffen, becoming one of only two active players to ever win a tournament with two gods present.

But he wouldn’t have a chance to truly enter the pantheon until he met Armada again, and Armada wasn’t going to be back in America until GameTyrant Expo and The Big House 7.

Plup’s success at The Big House 7 is made more impressive by the difficulty of his bracket. Having to face Mew2King as early as winners quarters is tough, and when he beat him, people might have underestimated the achievement. Mew2King ended 2017 with a 5-2 record against Plup, with Plup only winning during his very best performances of the year. But maybe that win was a signal that Plup was on his game. Armada had easily marched through to winners semis. For the first time in nearly a year – their last meeting resulting in a demoralizing loss at Smash Summit 3 – Plup would have a shot at Armada.

To get an idea of the matchup to that point, the two had played seven sets before, Armada obviously with a record of 7-0. But if you break it down to the individual game score, the dominance seemed even starker. Armada’s individual game record against Plup was 19-1.

And that one game was a win on Battlefield. Plup’s first game against Armada’s Peach looked good, but it was a stage on which he had shown he can do it. Armada, in a decision that might cost him the set, decided to dig in his heels and demand that Plup more convincingly demonstrate his ability to beat his Peach, going to Dream Land. Plup won there, too.

Just as Armada had done against Shroomed’s Sheik with his back against the wall, he switched to Fox and quickly took a game, but despite an accidental transformation into Zelda (perhaps a foreshadowing of what was to come the following January?), Plup headed into the last stock with a solid lead.

(The Big House 7 Melee Winners Semis: Plup vs. Armada)

Plup had done it. He was the first new player to beat Armada since Leffen and Mew2King did in 2014, and the first aside from that select group of five to do it since 2010. He had broken the streak, and though Shroomed and S2J had come close earlier in 2017, it only felt right that Plup was the one to do it.

But suddenly, Plup had the potential to win one of the game’s most prestigious tournaments, winning at a level that even Leffen and Mew2King had never done. He followed his win over Armada with a quick 3-1 over Leffen to enter grand finals on the winners side.

(The Big House 7 Melee Winners Finals: Plup vs. Leffen)

But just as Hungrybox had done the week before in his huge win at GameTyrant Expo (more on that later), he had been taking names in losers.

It didn’t take much time before Hungrybox reset the bracket 3-1, finishing the set with an emphatic four stock.

But we’d been here before. Plup had turned the tables in the second set before.

But that wasn’t to be. Rather than a thrilling ascension story for a fan favorite, Hungrybox reestablished the power of the old order with another 3-1. It was an impressive win, but the disappointment among the crowd wasn’t hard to glean.

(The Big House 7 Melee Grand Finals: Hungrybox vs. Plup)

But even still, Plup finished the year solidly and surpassed Leffen on the rankings, going a spot higher.

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And in January, he’d show us that The Big House 7 wasn’t his only chance.

Hungrybox & Armada

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As recently as September, Armada’s dominance in Melee felt like a complete certainty.

He’d reigned as the #1 player for two years and was a shoo-in for a third. By a pretty sizable margin, he had the most impressive competitive resumé of anyone to ever play the game.

But even before 2015, when Armada’s chief rival was Mango, Armada’s rivalry with Hungrybox was a little more compelling, even if it was mostly defined by Armada’s dominance and Hungrybox’s occasional interruptions.

Hungrybox’s two wins over Armada at Apex 2010 forced Armada off his main at subsequent meetings. In probably the strangest counterpick of all time, Armada brought out Young Link, a character who’d never had any use at the very top level of the game. But it worked, and Armada’s evasive play, though creating some of the least popular watching experiences in the history of the game when paired with Hungrybox’s already defensive style, would plague Hungrybox for over three years. Despite starting their career head to head with a 0-2 deficit, Armada answered back by going 7-1 with Young Link, forcing Hungrybox to try and fail to answer back with other characters (Fox, Falco, even Ness).

Until Evo 2014, when Hungrybox double eliminated Armada by finally figuring out the matchup with his Jigglypuff.

Only losing his next set because of some experimentation with Peach, Armada finally discovered that the most obvious answer to Hungrybox, Fox, was the correct one. So after losing three sets in a row – two at Evo 2014 with Young Link and one at Paragon Orlando 2015 where he partly played Peach and nearly won anyway – Armada went on another 7-1 run in their new era of pure Fox vs. Puff matchups.

But while things on Hungrybox’s end of the rivalry were brutal, a peculiar thing was happening. Despite years of never sniffing wins at premier events since the aforementioned Apex 2010, Hungrybox was suddenly the second best player in the game. Despite still being stopped, it was him meeting in Armada in grand finals at three straight events in which they were both in attendance: Evo 2015, The Big House 5, and DreamHack Winter.

The last of which came after the 7-1 string and would begin a period during which the two went an even 4-4, and during which Hungrybox might have been the best player in the world. After three sets at DreamHack Winter 2015, Hungrybox won and gave a teary interview with D1, emotional for a multitude of reasons, not least of which was that he’d finally come out on top against a player like Armada.

They’d go even into the next summer, when Hungrybox fell into the losers bracket but then crawled through and beat Armada in two straight five game sets to win Evo 2016, the biggest Melee tournament of all time in arguably the most memorable set of all time.

It felt like for 2016, Hungrybox would be ranked #1.

…but Hungrybox wouldn’t win another major all year, not entirely because of but largely thanks to Armada then initiating an 11-1 run in their rivalry, including ten set wins in a row. Hungrybox had to settle for #2, and soon his odds kept looking longer and longer for coming out on top in 2017.

To start 2017, Armada won Genesis 4 almost without incident (although the exception is notable), winning the extremely prestigious tournament for the third year in a row, but it wasn’t until winning his fourth consecutive Summit that he and Hungrybox would finally square off. Despite extremely different sets, with Hungrybox trying to dictate a slower pace in winners finals before coming back more aggressively in grand finals, Armada’s victories remained oppressive.

(Smash Summit Spring 2017 Winners Finals: Armada vs. Hungrybox)
(Smash Summit Spring 2017 Grand Finals: Armada vs. Hungrybox)

In May, at Royal Flush, Armada devastated Hungrybox in winners finals with a tidy 3-0, and he looked pretty invincible. He had just gotten his tenth consecutive win over Hungrybox. He hadn’t lost a set since December (in grand finals of UGC Smash Open), and he hadn’t last a tournament since October (barely falling short in grand finals at The Big House 6). He was experiencing the most terrifying set and tournament streaks in the extremely long history of the game.

(Royal Flush Winners Finals: Armada vs. Hungrybox)

But Hungrybox didn’t make it back for grand finals. Instead, it was Mango, the last person to take a tournament over Armada.

In the first set of grand finals, Armada went offstage for what looked like the end of the tournament. But Fox is a dumb character, and Armada not only lost his first set of the year, he finally lost a tournament in a thrilling ten game showdown.

(Royal Flush Grand Finals: Mango vs. Armada)

For many, it was the most exciting moment of the year. (I’d have tried to spin a yarn about it myself, but Mango’s 2017 against Armada was otherwise…pretty bleak.)

But most importantly, for this story, it was a reminder that Armada bleeds.

So for their next meeting, at Smash’N’Splash 3, Hungrybox pulled out an old trick of dictating the pace by camping the ledge. This drove spectators, not to mention the commentators, a little bonkers, but after over half an hour, Hungrybox snapped the ten set streak and reminded himself what it felt like to come out on top in that rivalry. Even more than for its slow play, the set is memorable for a classic Hungrybox popoff.

Why, yes, yes he did break his foot.

(Smash’N’Splash 3 Winners Finals: Hungrybox vs. Armada)

He took that tournament, but Armada topping the year-end rankings kept becoming more certain. Armada took Evo 2017 entirely without incident. The next week, Hungrybox dropped DreamHack Atlanta to Plup. He finished fourth at Super Smash Con 2017, for the first time spurring on conversation that not only should he be ranked behind Armada, but maybe behind Mango, which would snap his two year streak at #2.

The idea that he’d be #1 in the world by year’s end wasn’t even really thought about, because no one asked the following extremely dumb question: what if Hungrybox just didn’t lose any tournaments from there on out?

He breezed through to win Shine, an enormous tournament that plagued him the year prior, but though that reaffirmed his spot at #2, it felt unconvincing, partly because Mango experimented with Falco, Plup played Samus, and, of course, Armada wasn’t there.

The Swede wouldn’t return to the US until late September for GameTyrant Expo, played in the home of the Utah Jazz for the biggest open tournament prize money the game had ever seen: $12,000.

After Hungrybox lost to Mew2King in winners semis and Armada beat Mew2King to reach the winners side of grand finals, one could argue that this was maybe the closest Armada was to clinching the #1 spot for the year, though, again, in no one’s mind was there anything to be clinched. Anyone overcoming Armada’s track record in 2017 was so preposterous that no one was keeping track.

But Hungrybox went through losers, just as he had at Evo 2016, taking on the usual cast of Fox players. He beat Plup, SFAT, and got his revenge against Mew2King for a shot at Armada.

Also like Evo 2016, it was an incredible, ten game set that showed the game’s two best players dealing with the highest of stakes. Down three stocks to one in the final game of the tournament, it looked like another tournament for Armada. Hungrybox had made three stock comebacks happen at the top level before, but to decide a tournament?

But bringing the tournament to last stock sent the commentators into a fit of guttural nonsense.

(GameTyrant Expo 2017 Melee Grand Finals: Hungrybox vs. Armada)

Along with Royal Flush, GTX’s grand finals would be seen as one of 2017’s peaks, but it wasn’t until the very next week at the prestigious The Big House 7 that people would start openly asking if Hungrybox could do the unthinkable.

The same thing happened, more or less. After losing in winners semis (this time to Leffen), Hungrybox went through another gauntlet of top Fox players: Mew2King, Armada, Leffen, then Plup, although spoiling the excitement around Plup made for a bit of an anticlimax.

(The Big House 7 Melee Losers Semis: Hungrybox vs. Armada)
(The Big House 7 Melee Grand Finals: Hungrybox vs. Plup)

In a truly bizarre interview with HomeMadeWaffles, Hungrybox clearly felt that the universe was less than enthused by his win, and he decided to get a little dramatic: “Did you ever have everything you ever wanted, and then when you finally have it, you’re like, ‘now what?'”

“…nah.”

But despite bursting everyone’s bubble, this was exciting! Suddenly there was competition for the #1 spot late in the year. It still felt unlikely: their last meeting for the year would be at Smash Summit 5, and Armada had won that event four times in a row. It remained an I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it moment.

But after Armada was upset at Canada Cup by Mew2King and Hungrybox took DreamHack Denver over Mango and Too Hot To Handle over Plup, it was suddenly clear: if Hungrybox won Smash Summit 5, he was the #1 player of 2017.

And after going through Mango and Leffen in winners, Armada made it back into grand finals for a winner-take-all finale.

How cool is it that the SSBMRank #1 spot came down to one last grand finals?

It went to a tense game five last stock situation, but he’d done it. Hungrybox was the #1 player of 2017.

(Smash Summit 5 Grand Finals: Hungrybox vs. Armada)

(He also took home almost $30,000, the biggest prize ever won playing any Smash title.)

Let’s get a little more clinical about the run, which spanned from Shine 2017 to Smash Summit 5.

First, I’d like to note that despite some fuss being made about midset coaching giving him an unfair advantage earlier in the year – Crunch is Hungrybox’s coach and best friend, and his support extends well beyond giving advice in the middle of sets and his benefits to Hungrybox’s play were the beginning of top level Melee’s interest in coaching – it was only when midset coaching finally was no longer an option that Hungrybox put in his best performances.

Hungrybox had to constantly run through a few Fox players to rack up these wins. Hungrybox took a bad matchup (Puff versus Fox), made it the only way to beat him, and then become the best player in the world simply by knowing and playing that matchup more than absolutely anybody else.

Let’s look at those Fox players.

In 2016, SFAT emerged as a threat from below, beating Hungrybox at Shine 2016 and then annihilating him at The Big House 6 in a convincing, demoralizing 3-0. A year later, that history was already gone, with Hungrybox disposing of SFAT at GTX, The Big House 7, and Smash Summit 5, all with commanding 3-0 victories.

Though Mew2King had arguably his best year ever against Hungrybox in 2017 – with Hungrybox ahead in sets but only at a 10-7 clip – and he did take one of the two sets Hungrybox dropped during the streak in winners semis at GTX, Hungrybox was still in command of the matchup, winning 3-1 at Shine 2017, in losers finals of GTX, and at The Big House 7.

Leffen was the other to take a set off Hungrybox during this period, winning a close one in winners semis at The Big House 7, but Hungrybox won right back in losers finals and then again at Smash Summit 5, evening up their set count for the year and preventing him from having losing set splits with anyone in the 2017 season.

Despite Plup having his moment at DreamHack Atlanta and then beating Hungrybox again at Super Smash Con 2017, the matchup looked hopeless for Plup afterward, losing 3-1 at GTX, infamously losing 3-1 twice at The Big House 7, and getting swept away 3-0 at Too Hot To Handle. Hungrybox effectively replaced Armada as Plup’s demon.

Mango historically has been an even worse demon for Hungrybox than Armada, jumping out to a 25-4 career set lead through CEO 2015 before Hungrybox began to compete more evenly. But after a 3-1 and 3-2 at Shine, a 3-2 and 3-1 at DreamHack Denver, and a 3-1 at Smash Summit 5, Hungrybox became the first player to ever beat Mango in five sets in a row in Mango’s decade-long career at the top level.

And he did the same to Armada. Though all five sets were 3-2, dating back to their set at Smash’N’Splash 3 and adding in their two sets at GTX and their meetings at The Big House 7 and Summit 5 gave Hungrybox a five set winning streak, about as fine an answer to a ten set losing streak that anyone could ever hope for, and the first time in Armada’s Smash career he’d lost to anyone five times in a row.

And the first time since 2014 that Armada wasn’t the #1 player in the world. If two particular moments had gone even slightly differently, he would still be on top.

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Many of the greatest moments in Melee history involve beating Armada in two sets in a row, simply because it feels so unbelievable. Now Hungrybox took over that role of the game’s final boss.

Now there were stories to be made by overcoming Hungrybox.

This post is now property of the Plup Club.

___
(previously)

#12: Doki Doki Literature Club
#11: Riverdale
#10: 4:44
#9: 
The Young Pope
#8: Life Will See You Now
#7: Super Mario Odyssey
#6: Better Call Saul
#5: The Wicked + The Divine: “Imperial Phase”
#4: competitive fighting games (part 1: Smash 4), (part 2: Street Fighter V)