Saturday, 20 December 2008

[103] Mike Leader's Best of Pop-Culture 2008 [CC2K]

I wrote this piece for CC2K this week. Over there, it is currently 'toplist week', or something like that, where all of the writers are asked to make a list of their favourite things of the year. Initially, we were asked to leave out films, for another special week in January. As I didn't feel too hot doing a solely music, film or comics list, I went for the all-purpose top 10.

In retrospect, especially since my birthday, I have a few more things to add, but I will publish it here nonetheless, as there aren't many truly glaring absences. You can read the article in its original context on CC2K up here.

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2008 saw me finish university and set out into the world of (un)employment. Therefore, one of the recurring themes of the year has been economy. I do like to think I keep on top of all the happenings in my chosen interests - be they books, comics, video games, films and music. However, a distinct lack of funds has stopped me from directly experiencing many of the big hitters of the year. Therefore, I find it quite hard to write lists for each discipline. So I'll lump most of them together here. The Top Ten Entertainment Moments of the Year (excluding film), in a vaguely chronological order.


1. Professor Layton and the Curious Village (Video Game, Nintendo DS)





Professor Layton and the Curious Village is notable alone for its addition to story to the realm of Brain Training puzzling. The animated scenes, voice acting and art style (a Japanese take on classic European comic art such as Tintin) created a quirky, but impressive world for the game. Equally, the puzzles, inspired by a series of Japanese books called Mental Gymnastics, are well-developed head-scratchers. In all, this points to a bright future for story-driven, deep games in the genre.


2. Nine Inch Nails - Ghosts I-IV (Music)





Early this year, Trent Reznor surprised fans with the quick internet release of this four-volume set of EPs, comprised of instrumental experiments and jams held in the wake of his freedom from long-time record label Interscope. The album was released in a variety of ways, from a free download of the first few tracks, to a supreme special edition. More crucially, it was also a bold 36-song collection of evocative soundscapes, perfect for daydreaming.


3. Braid (Video Game, Xbox Live Arcade)





Jonathan Blow's indie game Braid delivered one of the best, original experiences on a console this year. A hybrid of puzzle game, Super Mario-style platformer and post-modernist novel, Braid was tied together by its time mechanic, allowing the player to rewind their actions if necessary. What first challenges the idea of 'death' in videogames later becomes the centre of some of the most ingenious and mind-bending puzzles in recent memory. The artwork was expressive, colourful and fantastic, the music was wistful and beautiful. The narrative, and the ambiguous ending, developed in ways not usually seen in video games, and helped keep Braid in my mind much longer than bigger games of this year.


4. The Week That Was - The Week That Was (Music)





I was quite a big fan of Field Music, a pure pop / post-punk outfit from the North East of England. They announced last year that they would be breaking up; however, I was soon relieved to see that the two brothers that formed the band's creative core would be releasing solo albums in 2008. The Week That Was, which is the album by Peter Brewis, is a conceptual piece revolving around a week without television. It expands on the sophisticated pop sound of Field Music, but is rooted in a big, monumental drum sound and enveloping atmosphere that recalled Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel's early-mid 1980s albums. Tracks such as "The Airport Line" and "Scratch the Surface" are hard-edged standouts, but the whole album is damn good.


5. Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo - Joker (Book)





While The Dark Knight topped the box office charts and brought both Batman and his nemesis into water cooler conversation the world over, 100 Bullets writer Brian Azzarello and artist Lee Bermejo released a graphic novel simply called Joker. In production as the same time as the film, Joker follows a similar route to Nolan's Batman films - bringing the comic hero and his world into a more mundane, gritty real-world context. Nevertheless, the graphic novel is its own beast, as Azzarello takes a prolonged look at the Joker and his band of thuggish freaks. Bermejo's art, which shifts from straightforward inks to breath-taking painted pages, is outstanding. The writing, equally, is superb. Joker is a twisted, harrowing crime drama, and an essential Batman graphic novel.


6. Dead Set (TV series)





Critic, columnist and some-time screenwriter Charlie Brooker branched out this year by writing the mini-series Dead Set. A zombie film set in the confines of the Big Brother house, Brooker mixes together his oddball humour and his eye for satirising the excesses of society. Pitched just right between the out-and-out horror of 28 Days Later and the cheeky humour of Shaun of the Dead, this is compelling, funny and thought-provoking while still delivering some scares. George Romero should be proud.


7. Neil Gaiman - The Graveyard Book (Book)





Another wildly imaginative book from Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book came out in October, and I read it on a rainy day in November. The boy Bod is brought up in a cemetery by those interred there. Over the course of a collection of chapters, occurring during Bod's formative years, Gaiman assembles a varied group of distinctive, compelling characters from the a wide span of history. He nails the dialogue, which helps convert the book's dark, gothic aspects into something wholly charming.


8. Paul Westerberg - 49:00 (Music)





Paul Westerberg, former front man of alt-rock pioneers The Replacements, released his latest album 49:00 on the internet. Nothing too revolutionary there, but the album is one 40-odd minute chunk of music. Approximating the sound of a radio flicking through stations, Westerberg has created a collage of demos, false-starts, experimentations and honest-to-god pop-rock anthems. A rough, but beguiling listen, it makes an interesting statement regarding the place of the long-player in the world of the digital download.


9. Eddie Campbell and Dan Best - The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard (Book)





I only know Eddie Campbell's art from his collaborations with Alan Moore (like From Hell). With ...Monsieur Leotard, he teams up with Dan Best, and writes a pleasant romp about a young man who inherits his uncle's circus persona. Campbell's design work is outstanding, providing new ideas and styles from page-to-page, and the story, which encompasses much of late-19th and early 20th century history and fable, is impressive in its scope.


10. John Zorn (Music)





Easily my most listened-to artist of the year, prolific Jazz composer Zorn has released something like 9 albums in 2008. Three of these (The Dreamers, and Filmworks XIX and XX) made up the soundtrack for my 12 months. They are instrumental, gentle albums, a far cry from his more avant-garde work. These albums, while being similar in tone, show Zorn's stylistic breadth: The Dreamers is mostly surf-rock, featuring an on-form Electric Masada combo, whereas Filmworks XX is full of traditional Jewish musical motifs and arrangements. Lovely stuff.



Honourable Mentions:


Super Smash Bros Brawl (Video Game, Wii) - Probably the most polished game I've played all year. Hugely hyped, and packed with extras, unlockables and fan-service fun. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough novelty to differentiate Brawl from previous Smash Bros games.

Batman RIP (Comic) - This major event in the Batman universe, written by Grant Morrison, takes the hackneyed 'superhero death' saga and adds in surreal humour, crazy continuity and a self-aware metafictional depth. This would be up in the main list, if not for Morrison's last-minute gambit, delivering an anti-climactic conclusion to RIP series. This is not a bad thing, as the narrative ties into not only the still-ongoing Final Crisis event, but further Bat-books in 2009. Consider this still work-in-progress.

Mega Man 9 (Video Game, Wii) - A pitch-perfect exercise in sublime nostalgia, everything about Mega Man 9 is commendable, from the chiptune soundtrack to the punishing level designs. I can't help but feel, though, that its steadfastedly 1980s outlook would not only hurt its standing with newer gamers, but also prevent it from ever sitting comfortably alongside its brethren in fans' rosy-tinted memories.

Korg DS-10 (Video Game, DS) - A licensed music application emulating classic Korg synthesisers? For your Nintendo DS console? Wowzer! Hopefully this will catch on, and revolutionise the 'non-game' world. Maybe I should lobby for a world-wide confiscation of Nintendogs, America's Next Top Model: The Game and Cooking Mama, and encourage people to CREATE instead.

No More Heroes (Video Game, Wii) - A stylish, original game with bags of character that scores high on the quirk-factor. However, I felt the restrictive controls, repetitive action and minimally-realised sandbox design stopped me from truly connecting with Travis Touchdown's quest to be number one.

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