My Most Memorable Pop Culture of 2019

Once again it’s time for my annual post on the pop culture that was most memorable to me over the past year. As always it doesn’t have to be something created in 2019. It just has to be something I consumed over the past year. And as always I emphasize that these are the things that meant the most to me, not necessarily the things that I think are the best thing made in any given category. In past year’s I’ve mostly tried to limit myself to one thing per category. I’m going against that this year in several categories because who says I have to choose just one thing? Sometimes I enjoy multiple things an equal amount and don’t want to choose between them. These are the things that brought me joy this year and why shouldn’t I want to introduce you to as many great things as possible? I make the rules here, so I say no arbitrary limits on how many things I’m allowed to write about!

Movie I Saw in a Theater

I often lament the lack of good romantic comedies like there once were, so I always try and go see the few and far between rom-coms that make it into movie theaters even when I know they are going to be terrible because I want Hollywood to know there’s a market for them. This year though the one rom-com I saw in a theater was not terrible. In fact it was my favorite movie of the year, The Long Shot starring Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen. I was slightly dubious about it because I don’t love Seth Rogen and all his drug humor. There was some of that in this movie, but just the right amount. I thought it was a very funny and sweet movie with a great modern day rom-com set-up for why the two leads just couldn’t be together.

I’ll also give a shout out to Knives Out, which was a very fun whodunit.

Movie I Watched at Home

This is the category I always have the hardest time filling out partly because I can never remember what I watched. Last year I kept a list and that worked out really well, so I thought that I would do that again this year. It didn’t really work though because every time I watched a movie at home, which wasn’t that frequently, I thought well that was okay, but I’m not even going to bother adding it to my list because there’s no way I would put it in my end of the year blog post. And that’s how it went for pretty much every movie I watched this year. There were zero movies on that list as of mid-December.

I didn’t initially think to include it because it’s not a traditional movie per se, but I’m going to go with the four hour Tom Petty documentary, Runnin’ Down a Dream. I’ve been meaning to watch it for years because Tom Petty is one of all time favorite artists and I’ve always heard good things about it. I just never wanted to commit 4 hours to it, but this year when I had a snow day back in February I thought today is the perfect day to finally watch this. It was indeed a very good music documentary. It focused mostly on Tom Petty’s musical career and didn’t delve much into his personal life, so I felt like it was a very good companion with the book Petty: The Biography by Warren Zanes which gets much more into Tom Petty as a person.

Fiction Book

I have two very different books I’m putting in this category this year. First is The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai, which I recently read for my book club. The book moves back and forth in time between 1980s Chicago during the height of the AIDS crisis and 2015 Paris where you pick up with the sister of one of the young men who died and who nursed many of the men in his friend group as they too succumbed to the disease. The 1980s part is for sure the better half of the story. Some of those characters are still with me. The 2015 half while not as good is still engaging enough as to not drag the entire book down and I appreciated how everything came together at the end.

The other novel that I really loved this year was Fear of Falling by Georgia Beers. It was just a really great romance about a famous singer who recently lost her manager and whose label assigns a woman to manage her that she winds up having feelings for. It has very realistic obstacles throwing a wrench in their budding romance and I literally couldn’t put it down. We were on vacation in L.A. and my husband finally had to force me to quit reading so we could go out to the Griffith Observatory.

Non-Fiction Book

I actually have three non-fiction books that I want to write about. One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America by Gene Weingarten. In this book a reporter picks a random day out of a hat and writes a book about what happened on a day that historically we would say nothing really happened. He digs into stories that may not have garnered national attention but that certainly impacted individual people, families, and communities. I found it to be a really fascinating book.

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe is fantastic book covering the modern history of the I.R.A. and the Irish troubles. It’s a really well written book that presents a lot of information in a really accessible way. I learned so much more than I ever knew and it gave me a much better understanding of why a hard border being imposed as part of Brexit would be such a big deal.

My final non-fiction book is Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland by Jonathan Metzl.  Physician and sociologist Jonathan Metzl explores how long held ideologies based on both overt and covert racism cause people to create policies that are detrimental to their own lives. Using focus groups and lots of comparative data analysis looking at states both before and after they passed certain laws and comparing them to states with similar demographics with opposite laws. He looks at gun laws in Missouri and how they have led to a huge increase in gun based suicide by white men. In Tennessee he examines the decision to not expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act causing significantly worse health outcomes compared to people in Kentucky where the Medicaid expansion was passed. Finally, he looks at tax cuts passed in Kansas particularly focusing on the effects on education. It’s a really well-researched book and a really compelling though maddening read.

TV Show

As much as I lament the lack of certain types of tv shows that once existed in larger quantities before streaming and prestige television took over there were still a number of tv shows that gave me great pleasure this year. I have already implored you multiple times to watch both Atypical and The Bold Type, and I’m not sure I have much new to say about them. However, as far as I know I haven’t convinced anyone else to watch them yet, so I’m going to keep trying because they are really great shows. I rarely rewatch tv shows because there’s always so much new stuff out there, but I’m already considering an Atypical rewatch because I miss those characters.

Chernobyl was an excellent show. I avoided watching it for a long time despite all the rave reviews because I thought it was going to be too depressing. I thought maybe I’ll watch just one episode a week to make it more bearable and then I wound up binge watching it because it was so good.

Derry Girls was pure delight. I also liked that having read Say Nothing meant I had a little better insight into the time and place when the show is set, but it’s not really necessary to know that much about the Irish Troubles to enjoy the show. It’s just a wonderful broad comedy about teenagers in Derry, Ireland in the 80s. The 12 episodes that exist right now are just not enough. I can’t wait until the release more.

Speechless ended its run on a high note back in the spring. If you’re unfamiliar it’s a sit-com about a family whose oldest son has cerebral palsy and who is played by an actor who does in fact have CP. It was a funny and heartfelt show that I think ended in a perfect way even if I wish we got more episodes. Also a special shout out to two other shows I loved that ended their runs this year Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Jane the Virgin.

Unbelievable was a really well done limited series based on a true story of a young woman who was raped and not believed and the two female cops working on rape cases years later who finally brought her justice. It stars Kaitlyn Dever, Toni Collette, and Merritt Weaver giving excellent performances.

I also really enjoyed Ken Burns’ documentary Country Music. It was well worth the 16 and half hours of my time. I even wanted more because he didn’t go far enough in time for my liking. Maybe he’ll add more onto it down the line at some point.

I also would be remiss to not include Grey’s Anatomy because it’s still one of my favorite shows to watch every week. Last season and this season have felt like somewhat of a resurgence for the show even though I’m super annoyed with all the tie-ins to Station 19 to try and force people to start watching that. Seems like it’s only going to get worse when that show actually returns after the new year, which is just going to make me madder. All they’ve done is make me never, ever want to watch that show just out of principle.

TV Episode

The best tv episode I watched this year is also the hardest episode of anything I think I’ve ever watched. It was the fifth and final episode of the limited series When They See Us about the Exonerated Five who were wrongly convicted of brutally attacking and raping a woman in Central Park when they were teenagers. The final episode focuses on the experiences of Korey Wise, who was the oldest of the boys and the only one sent to an adult prison. It’s a brutal watch even beyond the rest of this series, which is extremely difficult but important.

In an entirely different vein, I love episodes of character based tv shows that just feel like a joyous pay-off for the characters where you get to mostly just watch them enjoy themselves. It obviously wouldn’t make for compelling television if every episode were like this, but I love when a show has developed its characters enough that they get a well deserved episode to just have fun and have good things happen to them. Season 2, Episode 9 of Pose, “Life’s a Beach”, felt like that. There were many excellent episodes in season 2 of this show which only got better this season in no small part because they dropped the stupid white characters from season one that were obviously there to sell the show to the network. Anyway, in this episode the ladies get to mostly take a break from their struggles and head away to a weekend at the beach. Their road trip is wonderful and watching them singing together in the car on the drive to the beach brought me great joy.

Album

If you don’t know what’s coming in this category then you obviously have not been paying attention to anything happening here in the past year. There were two albums that dominated my 2019. Way back on January 18 when it was released I predicted that Maggie Rogers’ Heard It in a Past Life would very likely be my album of the year, and I was not wrong. Every amazing album that came after it in 2019 did not manage to unseat it from my heart. It is by far the album I have listened to the most in 2019 (my highly skewed Spotify stats notwithstanding). I adore every song on it, and it’s one I’m sure I’m going to continue to go back to in 2020.

The album that Spotify thinks is my most played album of 2019 is the other album that deserves a spot here and that’s the debut (and maybe only) album by The Highwomen the country super group composed of Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, and Natalie Hemby. Spotify thinks that because I did for sure listen to this album a lot, but unlike other albums pretty much only on Spotify because I bought the album as a physical CD along with a hoodie and bumper sticker. The CD is still sitting under my coffee table wrapped in cellophane. It’s too much of a pain to drag out the external optical drive to upload the songs from the CD onto my computer (#firstworldproblems).

The Highwomen’s album is full of amazing songs by these women that seek to uplift other women. As they have said many times it’s more than an album or a group it’s a movement. I adore everything that it stands for. I love these women together and separately. Even though the idea for the group came from Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile has sort of been the front woman for the project. I’ve heard them call her their quarterback. This is only a small part of what she’s doing to lift up other women in music and there’s a reason I will follow her to the ends of the earth (I already have tickets to see her three times in 2020 in places nowhere near where I live.)

Recently she was awarded the Trailblazer Award for Women in Music by Billboard. It so happens that Maggie Rogers was the one to present the award to her and Maggie’s speech pretty much exemplifies why I love both of these women so much.

Song

2019 was a fantastic year for music. My 2019 playlist of songs I loved during the year is longer than any playlist I’ve created by over half. I’ll share that in a future post, but for now I’m going to focus on a single song here even though I could include a hundred. It’s the title song from The Highwomen called “Highwomen”. It’s a rewrite of the song from The Highwaymen, the 80s and 90s male country super group which they created a female alternative to. It re-imagines the lyrics with each verse telling the story of a woman who was persecuted. It’s an incredibly powerful song. I first heard it before it was even released when they performed it at the Newport Folk Festival. It gave me chills and made me know for sure that this album was going to be something that I loved to my very core.

Actually I lied. I have two songs because I was just reviewing the list I keep throughout the year for this blog post and realized that I had Gary Clark Jr.’s song “This Land” listed under this category as a possibility and I think it deserves a mention. It is one of the most powerful songs I can remember hearing and the video just drives it home. When I watched his Austin City Limits episode I was wondering if they were going to bleep the n-word in this song, which they did. But then I saw a promo for the episode that included a snippet of this song that didn’t bleep it. Go figure.

Concert

I usually don’t allow myself to choose a set from The Newport Folk Festival to go in this spot because I’m pretty sure I would never write about anything that didn’t happen at Newport ever again. Perhaps I should just create a new category for the best thing I saw at Newport, but I’m not going to do it this year. I am however going to write about two sets that happened at Newport though because one would have been the highlight of my year if it weren’t for the second and the second is the literally the most amazing musical experience I have ever had in my life so there was no way I couldn’t include it here.

The first set I’m referring to was The Highwomen’s debut and as of this writing still the only actual full concert set they’ve done. I thought that they would at least do a couple dates in conjunction with the release of their album and was willing to travel anywhere to see them again, but they never did and at this point I don’t know if they ever will. I’ve seen up to three of the four of them join each other for a few songs at each other’s shows, but no other full on performances. I’ll be seeing Brandi Carlile at the Ryman in January and Natalie Hemby is opening for her. Since Amanda Shires and Maren Morris both live in Nashville and it doesn’t look like either one of them will be touring then I’m hoping maybe we can get a little reunion during that show if Maren isn’t in labor since she’ll be hugely pregnant by then. Anyway, I feel so blessed to have seen them perform. The album wasn’t out yet at that point and listening to them play it through I knew it was going to be one of my favorite albums of the year. Since I already embedded my favorite song in this post here’s a song I love, but the best part of this video is the intro.

The other set was obviously the Saturday night all-female headlining set curated by Brandi Carlile with surprise guest Dolly Parton. It still really don’t have any words for it. It was truly magical to see so many awesome women up on stage together collaborating. It would take me to long to even name them all. One of the stories I read about it after the fact said something to the effect of can someone please go check on Jade Bird and make sure she’s all right. She was smiling so big up on the stage I’m worried she hurt herself. It’s true. I went back and looked at her in some of the video and I don’t think she could have been smiling any harder. That’s how I feel about it. I still smile every time I think about it. Newport always surprises me, but I don’t know how anything can ever possibly top this experience in my book.

Broadway Theatre Production

For some reason I apparently was very into pop culture reflecting stories about 1980s Northern Ireland and the Irish troubles in 2019. I don’t know why. It’s not something I sought out. It just happened. This is all a lead in to say that my favorite thing I saw on Broadway this year was the play The Ferryman. It’s for certain the longest show I’ve ever seen as a three act play clocking in at 3 hours and 15 minutes including a 15 minute intermission and a 2 minute “pause”. It has a sprawling cast of people from seniors to a real baby about which I jokingly wondered how many babies do they have backstage to make sure they have one that isn’t crying during the show? It pretty much had all your emotions covered bringing you through experiences of great joy and others of sadness. It was also super intense at times particularly the ending, which I did not really see coming. I left that play thinking I have no idea how those actors do that 8 times per week. It’s closed on Broadway now, but if you ever get a chance to see a production I highly recommend it.

Baltimore Theatre Production

I adored Come From Away when I saw it on Broadway and saw it again in 2019 as part of our 2018/2019 season tickets at the Hippodrome. It was just as effecting as when I saw it the first time. It’s definitely one of my all-time favorite musicals ever. It’s still running on Broadway and if you’re ever in New York looking for a show to see I can’t recommend it highly enough. Don’t let the fact that it’s about 9/11 make you think you’ll leave horribly depressed because you won’t. Of course there are sad and difficult parts, but it will also leave you filled with a hope for humanity that seems in very short supply these days. The current cast did a Tiny Desk Concert at NPR this year on the anniversary of 9/11, which will give you a great taste of the show.

Podcast

I still love Make Me Smart, which I’ve mentioned in this category the past two years, but this year I’m branching out and talking about two limited series podcasts. At a total of 19 episodes between the two of them you can listen to them both in less than a day’s time. I seriously did listen to Bhi Bhiman’s Peace of Mind in a single day save for the final episode, which hadn’t dropped yet when I discovered the podcast. It’s billed as the first album released as a podcast. Bhi Bhiman wrote a bunch of songs related to social and political issues and then recorded podcast episodes exploring further the topics he wrote about in his songs. It’s really fascinating and is something I for sure have never seen done before.

The other podcast I have to recommend to you is Dolly Parton’s America, which I feel like everyone has been listening to. I’ve seen so much written about it, posted on social media, talked about on other podcasts, etc. I even overheard the people at the table next to me at brunch the other week talking about it. Jad Abumrad uses interviews he had with Dolly over the course of several years as a spring board to talk not only about her and her career but how they relate to the larger country and the issues we face as a whole. It’s really great.

Podcast Episode

Obviously I thoroughly enjoyed and very much recommend all the episodes of the podcasts I just talked about, but I thought I would branch out a little for my favorite episode and talk about the two episodes (part 1, part 2) of the Out of the Blocks podcast titled “Out of the Docks”. I’m not going to lie. There’s a good chance I picked these episodes just because I love the punny episode title so much. In these episodes rather than visiting a single city block in Baltimore like they normally do they talk to people who live and work on boats in some of Baltimore’s harbors. It was a fascinating look at the difficulties of living on a boat and the reasons why people choose to do it.

Dolly Parton’s America

I was reminded at a party this weekend that I promised to write about more than just music. I am apparently doing less well at that than I was hoping. I even have photos for multiple posts that I took months ago and then never wrote them. I will get to them eventually. For now, I’m going to sort of write about something that’s not about music in that it’s about a podcast that is related somewhat to music. Baby steps people.

I have been meaning to write about the Dolly Parton’s America podcast for awhile now and just haven’t done it. I figured I needed to get my act in gear though because spoiler alert it’s going to show up in my annual most memorable pop culture post. I didn’t want to write about there without first having dedicated a post to it. I was sort of hoping to wait and write about it after the final episode, but it doesn’t seem like that’s going to drop before I would have wanted to have this post written.

Dolly Parton’s America as you’ve obviously gathered by now is a podcast. It’s produced by WNYC Studios and hosted by Jad Abumrad, who is also the host of RadioLab. He was able to conduct some extensive interviews with Dolly thanks to a connection he had through is father, who was once Dolly Parton’s doctor. In total it’s going to be nine episodes long. At the time of this writing 7 of them have aired, plus one bonus episode on music inspired by the podcast.

If you’re a Dolly fan it’s not a podcast in which you’re likely to find out anything you didn’t already know about Dolly. Jad Abumarad uses his interviews with Dolly Parton as a jumping off point to take a more sociological view of some bigger issues as well as Dolly and her career. For instance he examines how Dolly manages to appeal to a large cross section of Americans who you usually don’t see in the same spaces, especially in our currently divided country. He looks at things like what does it mean to be a feminist when many of your actions are seen as feminist but you refuse to call yourself one as Dolly does? Is it okay to not take a larger stand on things you personally believe in and does that calculus change if it’s due to personal beliefs or a business decision? Is Dolly Parton lifting up the poor Appalachian area she came from or exploiting it? Those are just some of the questions addressed in the podcast. As someone who loves Dolly and is a sociologist at heart it’s right up my alley. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Even if you don’t care for Dolly Parton’s music I still think it’s well worth a listen.

The Original Cast

It’s been awhile since I recommended a new podcast around these parts. I actually meant to write about The Original Cast way back in the spring, but I never got around to it and then I forgot until this week. I listen to lots of podcasts having to do with the things that bring me joy like pop culture in general and music, but for some reason until earlier this year I never listened to any podcasts about theatre. Since it is also one of my great loves I don’t know why it never occurred to me to look into any.

The Original Cast is a podcast in which the host and guest talk about an original Broadway cast recording of the guest’s choosing. The podcast is hosted by Patrick Flynn who is a playwright and a professor in the School of Communication at American University. His guests are generally people who work in theatre in some way. My friend Heather, who is a costume designer, was a guest on the show back in the spring talking about the cast album for the most recent Broadway revival of She Loves Me starring Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi. We actually went up to New York together to see the show, so of course I had to listen to her podcast episode when she told me about it. And that’s how I found out about The Original Cast and started listening to it.

There were years worth of back episodes, so I’ve been slowly making my way through some of those on the shows I care about as well as listening to the new episodes. In addition to the full-length episodes that are put out every other week, on the off weeks he posts mini-episodes he calls Intermission. Sometimes they are little episodes he records by himself on a specific topic, but in general they are pieces of conversations from the full episodes that he edited out when they veer significantly off topic for a lengthy period of time. He then releases those conversations as mini-episodes at a later date. That’s what reminded me that I wanted to write this post because this week’s Intermission episode was part of the conversation he had with Heather on design that was cut from the original episode.

Although I don’t doubt that there are many excellent theatre and Broadway podcasts out there, this is the only one I’ve listened to. I already can’t keep up with all the podcasts I have in my feed, so I don’t generally go out hunting for new ones. Sometimes they just fall in my lap though like this one. As such I can’t actually compare it to any other podcast on the topic, but one thing that I like about this particular theatre podcast is that it’s created by someone who doesn’t live in New York and get to see Broadway theatre all the time. Many of his guests work work on Broadway, but as someone who lives in DC, Patrick Flynn is coming at it as someone who like most of us is lucky if they get to see one or two shows a year, but generally is either falling in love with a show through the cast album or maybe a touring production. I appreciate that perspective. If you enjoy the theatre like I do, I definitely recommend taking a listen.

Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City

Remember how I keep saying I already have too many podcasts to listen to and I can’t keep up, but that I couldn’t resist listening to another one? Well you can add one more podcast to that list because I am now in love with Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City, which just started its second season. It airs locally on public radio station WEAA every other Friday, but then like many radio shows these days is available in podcast form which is how I’m listening to it. It’s part of a documentary radio series called Finding America produced by AIR and funded in part by the Corporation of Public Broadcasting (insert something here about why funding for public media is important).

Host Stacia Brown provides an oral history of Baltimore institutions and places via interviews with people involved with them. It provides a look at some of the things that make Baltimore truly great and the history behind them, but she does not sugarcoat anything. The problems of the city both historically and at present are incorporated into the stories. She’s done stories on things like Shake & Bake Family Fun Center, the Great Blacks in Wax Museum, Druid Hill Park, and my own neighborhood Hampden, which is obviously a favorite episode of mine. Episodes are under 30 minutes and there’s only 14 of the at this point, so you can very easily catch up. I highly recommend doing so. I somehow missed that this existed until 2 weeks ago when someone who is not even from Baltimore recommended it on Twitter, so don’t think you need to be from Baltimore to enjoy this. Obviously Baltimoreans will have a different appreciation for it, but anyone who is interested in cities and people should enjoy it. Go give it a listen.

My Most Memorable Pop Culture of 2016

Once again it’s time for my post on what was the most memorable pop culture of the year to me. It’s pop culture I consumed in 2016, not necessarily things that were exclusively released in 2016. And once again I point out that this is the stuff that made the greatest impact on me. It’s not a list of the top anything. Even I acknowledge that there are things on this list that I would not put in a top 10 or even top 20 list. They’re not necessarily the best of anything, just the stuff that I enjoyed the most or which had some special meaning to me.

Movie I Saw in a Theatre

I’m pretty sure I saw more movies in the theatre in 2016 than I have in a long time. I’ve seen 4 movies since Thanksgiving alone, which is very unusual for my life these days. I enjoyed most of the movies I saw, but I’m giving this category to La La Land. It was the one movie I saw this year that I almost immediately wanted to see again. It wasn’t a perfect movie. It didn’t quite live up to its promise as a movie musical. It started out with a bunch of musical numbers and then almost completely dropped them until the end. It was a little uneven, but I still loved it. It’s a beautiful to look at, and I really could just watch Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling interact forever. Their relationship seemed so real. At the time I saw it I was a little disappointed that they didn’t end up together even though realistically that’s what should have happened. Usually I would have enjoyed that ending, but wasn’t in the mood for at the time. In retrospect though I can appreciate it, and whatever my feelings about it were they did not detract from my love of the movie as a whole.

Movie I Watched at Home

Last year I said I should probably retire this category because I don’t watch that many movies at home, and I had a hard time thinking of any. I’m still singing that tune this year, but I’m apparently not quite yet ready to let it go because it’s still here. In doing a review I discovered I actually watched a lot more movies at home than I thought, but I literally had to go back and look because I couldn’t remember any of them. Once I did though the obvious choice was Sing Street. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a sweet little film that takes place in 1980’s Dublin about a teenage boy who starts a band to impress a girl. The songs in it were all written for the movie, but definitely evoke the sounds of 80s music. It’s a delightful little film.

 

Fiction Book

Alas my great streak with books I loved last year did not continue into this year. I did manage to meet my reading goal of 100 books for the year, but there were very few I rated above 3 stars on Goodreads. This category like several other ones exemplified how out of sync I was with pop culture this year. Almost every best of book list I saw had Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad as it’s top pick. I did not care for that book. The fiction book I most enjoyed did show up on most lists as well, so I guess I wasn’t completely off. It was Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. Essentially its a series of connected short stories, which makes it unusual that I would like it that much since I generally don’t care for short stories. The thread that connects them though is following two lines of a family through two sisters on the Gold Coast of Africa, one who is sold into slavery and the other who becomes a slave traders wife from their lives in the 1600s up through present day. Each story is essentially a new generation. It was a wonderful and heartbreaking book that really demonstrates how the sins of the past continue to haunt the present even hundreds of years later.

Non-Fiction Book

I had much better luck with non-fiction books this year than fiction ones. Most of the books I rated over 3 stars on Goodreads were non-fiction. My favorite non-fiction book of the year was another book that was not very uplifting, but was extremely interesting. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond explores poverty and housing through the lens of the city of Milwaukee. Desmond explores the intricacies of housing and the tenant/landlord relationship especially when dealing with people living in poverty. Many books like this seem to take sides, but Desmond does a really good job in following a couple of landlords and their tenants at showing how complicated the relationship and that there are failings on both sides.

TV Show

With as much good scripted television as there is these days I feel like I’m going a little off book in declaring my favorite tv show of the year as Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. It was the biggest surprise to me because I was never the hugest fan of Samantha Bee when she was a Daily Show correspondent, especially towards the end of Jon Stewart’s run when she really seemed to be going off the rails a little bit. I didn’t even plan on watching Full Frontal because I figured it was just going to be more of the same stuff I wasn’t enjoying on The Daily Show, but my husband insisted that we at least try it out and I’m very glad he did. Full Frontal is really smart, and I appreciate having a woman’s voice in the late night world, especially one who will focus on woman’s issues in a way that no one else is. I’m definitely going to need Sam Bee’s outrage to help keep me sane as we move into the horrors of whatever this Trump presidency is about to bring us.

 

TV Episode

I stopped watching Halt and Catch Fire a few episodes into its first season, but decided to get caught up this summer after hearing so many people talk about how much better the second season was. So in a way it’s a little surprising to me that my favorite episode of the year was from the third season of this show. Season 3, Episode 7 – The Threshold is a great hour of television. Donna and Cameron’s relationship and their building of Mutiny together was the heart of season 2 and what turned this show into something worth watching. Watching it fall apart in this episode was sad but wonderfully acted and excellent to watch.

Album

Music is where my tastes really did not converge with critics or other music listeners as my favorite songs and albums really didn’t show up on any best of 2016 lists. My favorite album of the year was Joseph’s I’m Alone, No You’re Not. Joseph is a group of three sisters who have wonderful harmonies but some of their songs also have a great pop sensibility. I love this whole album, and I hope to be able to see them play more of the album live in 2017.

 

 

Song

I suspect the song I’m putting in this category has a bit of recency bias. I suspect that if I first fell in love with this song say back in March instead of November that I’d probably be sick of it and wouldn’t be including it here, but Wrabel’s 11 Blocks was the song that I loved to sing along to in the car more than any other song this year and the one I always hoped I would hear on the radio when I was driving which is what it earns it this spot. Realistically my choice here should have been Joseph’s SOS (Overboard), which I love and is probably the song I listened to most this year.

 

Concert

Every year my real favorite concert experience is going to the Newport Folk Festival. This year that was no exception. I was already beat down my 2016 at the end of July and that weekend was such a balm for my soul, but I always like to pick another show from the year for this category since Newport being a festival isn’t really a single concert. This year my favorite concert was Garth Brooks. I never got to see him back in the 90s, so I’m glad I finally got the chance. He is an amazing performer and manages to make an arena show feel intimate and so fun. It was so fun to sing along to all those songs of his I loved and also to see Trisha Yearwood perform some of her songs. They are some of the first country artists I ever fell in love with and it was great to finally get a chance to see them live.

 

Broadway Theatre Production

In last year’s post I named Hamilton my favorite theatre production of the year and said I’m going again in April of 2016 so maybe it will be my favorite show of 2016 too. Let’s be realistic. It was. But I also saw other great Broadway shows this year. So even though the best show I saw was Hamilton again, I’m going to put She Loves Me in this category. The production starred Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi and it was delightful. I even paid to re-watch it online when they broadcast a recording of it later in the year.

Baltimore Theatre Production

My favorite theatre production that I saw in Baltimore snuck in at the last moment. It was the touring production of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. The Broadway production won the Tony for Best New Musical in 2014 and I’ve wanted to see it for years. It was never something that I felt that I needed to see on Broadway though given the limited number of shows I get to see there each year. I always knew I was going to wait until it toured to see it, so I was happy that it finally came around as part of our season tickets to the Hippodrome this year. It was a great show and well worth the wait. It was extremely smart and clever and a show the likes of which I haven’t seen in a long time.

Podcast

I already gave away in a post a few weeks ago that my favorite pocast this year was Out of the Blocks, a local Baltimore podcast from Aaron Henkin and Wendel Patrick. Their tag line One City Block, One Hour of Radio, Everybody’s Story pretty much describes what the podcast is about. It’s a fascinating look at the city and in the human condition. I highly recommend it to everyone not just people from Baltimore.

Podcast Episode

If Out of the Blocks didn’t exist Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs would have gotten my vote in the previous category. Instead they’ll get the mention in favorite podcast episode. I of course had to pick the episode where they discuss the song I requested, Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You”.

Out of the Blocks

I have failed you dear reader. In starting think about what will be filling up the categories in my annual year end best of pop culture post, I realized that I never wrote up a post  (spoiler!) on my favorite podcast of the year, Out of the Blocks. I thought about it several times, but I guess always when I wasn’t in the mood to write or when I didn’t have time to write and it just never happened. But now that I’ve rectified the error of my ways you can download all the season one episodes for your listening enjoyment over your holiday travels.

Out of the Blocks is a radio show played on WYPR, Baltimore’s NPR station and then made available as a podcast. The show is produced by Aaron Henkin with music by Wendel Patrick. The show is exactly what its tagline implies: One hour of radio, one city block, everybody’s story. Henkin and Patrick choose one block in Baltimore and spend time there recording interviews with everyone associated with it. Depending on the block that can include people who work at businesses on the block, people who frequent the businesses, people who live on the block, or just people who hang out on that block for whatever reason including homeless people and drug dealers. All the interviews are then edited down for the hour-long show with each person’s story I would say averaging about five minutes.

Wendel Patrick composes the music based on the interviews often incorporating the sounds from the businesses or the street into the music. For instance in coffee shops you may hear the coffee brewing as part of the music or hear the buzz of electric razors in barber shops. They’re wonderful compositions that really enhance the stories that are being told and bringing about a sense of place to the pieces.

It truly amazes me the stories that come out of some of the people even after spending such a short time with Aaron Henkin. He really gets them to open up about some very personal things. People really just want to be heard and to tell their stories. It’s so fascinating.

Each block that they visit has it’s own personality and there are so many stories of immigrants and people just trying to make their way in a city that can be very hard. I know Baltimore like any big city has immigrants, but I really never realized how many places people are coming from until I listened to these eight podcast episodes. There are also some really sweet and amazing stories shared by people. I definitely cried more than once listening to this podcast.

I live in Baltimore, so obviously I feel some connection to the blocks in the podcast but I don’t think you need to know Baltimore in order to love this podcast. It’s really about humanity. It could be recorded in any city. It just happens to be recorded in Baltimore. I can’t recommend this podcast highly enough. I am so happy there’s going to be a second season in 2017.

Code Switch Podcast

As I’ve said in this space before, I need another podcast like I need a hole in my head. I already can’t keep up with what I’m already listening to. NPR really needs to stop putting out podcasts that I really want to listen to. Even though I’m already way over my listening capacity I couldn’t help but add NPR’s Code Switch podcast into my rotation. It even has the honor of being something I generally listen to on the day that it comes out.

The podcast which is about race and identity is hosted by a rotating cast of people from NPR’s Code Switch team. They all bring a unique perspective based on their own race and experiences. There are often interviews with other people that are part of the podcast as well.

They of course have episodes on what anyone would probably identify as the biggest race issues facing our nation today like police shootings and Black Lives Matter, but they also look at a variety of topics relevant to how race affects people’s every day lives such as the most recent one where they explored having a name that is commonly mispronounced. There have also been episodes about race in relation to pop culture talking about the recent OJ documentary and another episode on feelings about representation on TV shows. One of favorite episodes so far has been one in which they talked to journalists of color on the idea of being objective especially in the face of covering some very recently racially charged stories like police shootings and the Donald Trump campaign.

It’s a great podcast and I would highly encourage everyone to listen to it. No matter what your race and background there is always something to be learned about others who share different experiences from you. New episodes drop on Wednesdays. Check it out.

Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs

Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs is one of my new favorite podcasts. As you may have guessed it is in fact a podcast where hosts Mark Blankenship and Sarah D. Bunting talk about songs. It differs from the other music podcasts I listen to like Pitch (come back Pitch you’ve been gone too long), Switched on Pop, and Song Exploder because those podcasts tend to focus on the mechanics of the music or things having to do with music production and the music industry. Instead Mark and Sarah tend talk about what they think about a song and the use whatever the song they’re talking about is as a jumping off point for what it reminds them of. Sometimes it’s other songs or artists, but also where they were in their lives when they first listened to the song a lot and what was going on the culture at large at that point. I fall into their same general age range, so their cultural touchstones and age milestones tend to gel with mine.

The episodes post on Fridays, and their seventh episode went up this past week. I’ve been meaning to write about the podcast for several weeks now, but I hadn’t gotten around to it. Since they talked about a song I requested in the most recent episode I decided I should make time to throw them some love.

My request was for them to talk about Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You”. I apparently wasn’t the only one who wanted to hear what they had to say because two other people also requested it. I think I still have a love for the song a little more than they do. Even though I’m 37 I still like to indulge my inner angsty 90s teen from time to time, and as they point out this song is pretty much nothing but that. I had fun listening to them talk about it though as well as the discussion that springboarded from it.

I used to love Mark Blankenship’s writing about music, but he hasn’t really been doing that in any consistent way for a long time now. I still miss it, but the podcast is sort of filling that hole. It’s not exactly the same, but I’m still super excited about it and happy to have it in my ears every Friday. Plus at about 20 minutes an episode it fits perfectly to fill up my hour at the gym when paired with Pop Culture Happy Hour which also posts on Fridays.

If you’re a music person like me I highly suggest checking it out.

My Most Memorable Pop Culture of 2015

Once again it’s time for my post on what was the most memorable pop culture of the year to me. It’s pop culture I consumed in 2015, not necessarily things that were exclusively released in 2015. And once again I point out that this is the stuff that made the greatest impact on me. It’s not a list of the top anything. Even I acknowledge that there are things on this list that I would not put in a top 10 or even top 20 list. They’re not necessarily the best of anything, just the stuff that I enjoyed the most or which had some special meaning to me.

Movie I Saw in a Theatre

I jokingly want to say Aloha for this category because I insisted I was going to see that movie in the theatre no matter how bad the reviews were because I miss romantic comedies. I wanted to tell Hollywood hey I miss these please make more. Well the joke was on me because the reviews were uniformly awful. I kept my word though and although I admit the movie was a hot mess I didn’t hate it. I enjoyed it much more than the reviews led me to believe I would. Hopefully Hollywood will get its act together and make more movies aimed at women. It’s not only the romantic comedies that are missing, but more dramatic stuff the likes of Beaches and Steel Magnolias back in the day.

The real movie I’m putting in this category is of course Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I really didn’t expect this movie to affect me as much as it did. I’ve seen the original trilogy a number of times and due diligently saw the prequels in the theatre not really enjoying any of them. I’m not any huge Star Wars nerd though. I didn’t have high hopes for this movie and had it lived down to my expectations I wouldn’t really have cared all that much.

I really loved this movie though. The fight scenes even kept me engaged and I could give a flying flip about movie fight scenes. Mostly though I adored the whole storyline with Rey. I never even knew how much I longed for a female lead in the Star Wars universe that actually did something until I saw this. It made me so happy that young girls like my 5 year old niece who is already into Star Wars will have a character to look up to when she’s old enough to see it. I’m actually looking forward to the next one in the series. Well done J. J. Abrams.

Movie I Watched at Home

I should really retitle this category movie I watched on a plane because I’m not even sure I watched any movies at home this year. I’m sure I did, but I can’t think of any off of the top of my head. I really prefer tv shows so much more than movies now that we’re in this golden age of television. Generally the only time I wind up watching movies unless I go to see something in the theatre is on long airplane flights.

I think of the few movies I viewed on planes this year Whiplash is the one I enjoyed the most. It’s nothing I’d ever want to watch again because it’s super intense and not really anything I’d want to sit through again. Still I thought it was a well done movie, and it kept me interested despite the description not at all appealing to me.

Fiction Book

I read a lot of really good books this year, so it’s hard to decide in both this category and the non-fiction category. If you want a full accounting of the books I’ve read visit my book reviews blog. Ultimately I’m choosing The Royal We for this category because it is the one book I remember reading this year that I couldn’t put down. There were a number of others that I also really enjoyed and gave the same rating to, but this is the book that I couldn’t stop reading.

Non-Fiction Book

For my non-fiction book I’m choosing Then Comes Marriage: United States v. Windsor and the Defeat of DOMA by Roberta Kaplan. I feel like it deserves the nod given the historic ruling on same sex marriage that happened this year and which seems like one of the few bright spots in the blight of a year that was 2015. Also I really appreciated the fact that even though I knew the outcome the case the book was written so well I was kept on the edge of my seat waiting to see what happened.

TV Show

I watch a ridiculous amount of tv, so this is a hard category for me. I binge watched all the seasons of Gossip Girl early in the year. I really enjoyed it and feel like it’s the last of the television shows of its ilk that I have to go through, which makes me a little sad. I love a good teen drama, which Gossip Girl definitely was.

Deutschland 83 was my favorite show of the summer. As I mentioned in my post dedicated to it I think one of the reasons is that the fact that it’s in German with English subtitles forced me to pay attention to it in ways that I don’t with most tv shows I watch these days. I suspect I might enjoy some other shows more if I dedicated more attention to them. That of course isn’t the only thing that makes this good though. It’s a great spy drama on it’s own and I hope it gets a second season.

This was a fairly weak class of new fall tv shows this year. My favorite of what we’ve been given is Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. I was a little worried that this show would lose it’s way quickly, but so far it has been delightful every week. The songs are still great and the fact that Rebecca seems self aware to a degree that her actions are insane make it not as uncomfortable to watch as one would thing. Trust me I hate watching people embarrass themselves in tv and movies. I seriously have to watch it through my fingers. I was worried that this show would force me to do that all the time, but it really hasn’t even though Rebecca is constantly doing embarrassing stuff.

TV Episode

Last year I named a Parenthood episode as my favorite episode of television from 2014 and I think I’m going to repeat that this year. Parenthood ended its run early in 2015, so I’m going way back here, but the Parenthood finale is the one that really sticks out in my mind. I still miss that show and wonder what the Bravermans are up to. The finale was everything I would have wanted it to be and featured some stellar music. So here’s one last shout out to an excellent show that I wish I were still on my tv.

Album

Last year I was almost at a loss as to what to put in this category because I felt like 2014 was such a pitiful year in music. 2015 however has been an embarrassment of riches, which almost makes it harder. Last year I just wound up choosing the album I listened to most over the course of the year. This year there’s been so much that even though I liked the music more I haven’t listened to any single album as much as I listened to the few from last year.

I mean if we’re going to talk about which album I listened to the most this year it actually has to be the Hamilton Original Broadway Cast Recording. I definitely listened to that more than anything else and that’s saying something seeing as how it wasn’t released until September.

Probably though I’m really trying to decide between Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free and Brandi Carlile’s Firewatcher’s Daughter. I was very much looking forward to Something More Than Free since I adored Southeastern so much, but I was also scared that there was no way it was going to live up to my expectations. I didn’t need to worry because it far surpassed them. It’s a gorgeous album full of songs that paint pictures that just kill me. I remember people talking so much about beautiful, painful realism of small town life created in Friday Night Lights and Isbell’s lyrics on this album evoke that same exact feeling in me.

Brandi Carlile is one artist who I never worry about if I’m going to like her next album because so far I’ve liked every single one better than the last. Firewatcher’s Daughter is no exception. I did keep forgetting that it came out in 2015 though because somehow it seems like it’s been with me forever. The songs are beautiful pictures of what home and family mean and this album really seems to elevate her to a place she wasn’t before. I adore it.

Song

Ok guys stay with me here. I can’t believe this myself, but the song I have to write about here is Justin Beiber’s “What Do You Mean”. That’s part of the reason I have to write about it. Remember this is the most memorable song not the best song of the year we’re talking about here. I would never claim that this song was the best song of 2015, but it’s certainly memorable in that it’s the first Justin Beiber song I have actively liked and looked forward to hearing on the radio. I know I’ve heard other Justin Beiber songs, but I honestly couldn’t name you one and am not confident I could tell you I was listening to a Beiber song if you played one for me without me knowing what it was. I was shocked how much I loved and still like this song. So way to go Justin Beiber you’ve apparently graduated beyond attracting the tween /teen set.

Artist

Ok so there no way this category wasn’t going to be Jason Isbell. I was sitting here thinking whether there was someone else should go here when I saw him tweet that 2015 was the best year of his life and then I thought who am I kidding of course it’s Jason Isbell. I assume the birth of his daughter by far beats out anything else to make this the best year of his life, but the incredible success of his album Something More Than Free I’m sure also factors in. It debuted on the Billboard Top 200 at number 6 and the Country and Rock album charts at number 1. It’s quite an accomplishment and it’s of course what is partly making me choose him as my artist of the year.

I also chose him because even 2 years after falling in love with his Southeastern album my love has not abated. I waited patiently as Newport rolled out their lineup this year and was never as excited as the day they announced he would be playing a set there. His lyrics cut me to my soul with their beauty and realism. He’s the artist I talked about the most and recommended the most in 2015 so of course this category belongs to him.

Concert

I went to so many good concerts this year that it’s really hard to choose which one I want to write about here so I’ll probably write about a few that stand out to me. Obviously the Newport Folk Festival as an entire experience wins hands down every year, but I like to think about that more in terms of sets in order to be fair to every other concert I see throughout the year. The Consequence of Sound named Newport their top festival pick of the year and in this great article that really expresses my feelings about the festival Jay Sweet says he worries about people’s expectations and no longer being able to beat them every year. I am over here telling him he has absolutely nothing to worry about as long as he keeps bringing in good music. I don’t need any big headliners or crazy surprise guests. Those are all fun, but the best sets I’ve seen in each of the past three years have all been from bands I only knew about because they were playing Newport. This year was Christopher Paul Stelling whose whole set was revelation. Mostly just him up there on his guitar and he had the audience eating out of his hand. I didn’t know him before I chose to sit in on that set, but I do now. His set was amazing and ended with this awesome moment of him proposing to his girlfriend and backup singer as they were walking off stage.

I also have to mention Brandi Carlile’s set at Newport this year because she is never not amazing. I never leave one of her shows without immediately wanting to see her again as soon as possible. NPR had a recording of the entire set up on their website and I have listened to it countless times because it is so wonderful.

There was also the great first concert in the BSO Pulse series featuring Dawes in which the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra collaborates with an indie band. I love musical collaboration and this one was fantastic. I loved how the BSO is using these collaborations to help introduce new audiences to classical music and I guess maybe some classical music lovers to some new indie bands. I look forward to seeing more of the concerts in this series in the future.

Finally I have to give a shout out to Florence + the Machine. She’s been fantastic every time I’ve seen her and this year’s concert at Merriweather was no exception. I was on my feet dancing the whole time and it was definitely again one of those shows where I left and immediately wanted to see her again.

Broadway Theatre Production

Well this one is a no-brainer. I was fortunate to see Hamilton right after it moved from Off-Broadway to it’s Broadway run. Now you can maybe get tickets a year out. I’m actually going again in April, so maybe it will be my favorite show of 2016 too. For now it’s definitely my favorite show of 2015 and one of the best shows I’ve seen in a very long time. The hype is not overblown. One of the things I love about it too is that it has people I never see talking about theatre talking about theatre. Most of the time when I talk about theatre most of my friends eyes glaze over and they have no idea what I’m talking about. This show has managed to permeate the culture enough that even my friends who don’t follow theatre know what I’m talking about. It was also one of the few things that made Twitter a delightful place to be this year instead of all doom and gloom and yelling at each other. The day it was announced that Lin Manuel Miranda wrote the song for the cantina scene in the new Star Wars resulting in the Star Wars/Hamilton mashups was one of the best days.

Baltimore Theatre Production

My favorite local theatre production was Centerstage’s Marley written and directed by their Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah. It was a musical based on the life of Bob Marley. It was a jukebox musical, which I typically don’t care for. However I liked the way the songs were incorporated into the show in this case as if for the most part they were naturally being sung instead of being shoehorned into telling the story. It was a really fun show and a great way to end the 2014/2015 season.

Podcast Episode

I am really choosing this particular podcast episode because I decided I really wanted this category to be about my favorite new podcast of the year which is Switched on Pop. I adore the way they break down pop songs and really get to what makes a pop song and how they’re related musicologically to music back through history including Classical music. I’m choosing to highlight Episode 14: The Final Dropout in which they discuss how it’s become very popular for pop music to end with a sort of sudden quiet moment. It’s a great and fun look at a current musical trend in pop music and is very representative of the podcast as a whole.

Switched on Pop

I keep saying that I don’t have time to keep up with the podcasts I already listen to, but I keep hearing about new podcasts that I can’t help but check out. Within a few weeks ago two of the podcasts I already listen to, Pop Culture Happy Hour and Pitch, were both singing the praises of the Switched on Pop podcast. Now that I’ve listened to it I can say it was with good reason.

Songwriter Charlie Harding and musicologist Nate Sloan break down pop music every couple of weeks. Sometimes they talk about a specific song or artist. This week they looked at Justin Beiber’s most recent singles, but they’ve also examined artists like Kacey Musgraves or why even though they really like Carly Rae Jepsen’s “I Really Like You” it didn’t turn into a big hit like “Call Me Maybe”. Other weeks they take a more themed approach by looking at things like a cappella, the use of the saxophone in pop music, or the song of the summer.

They really do a deep dive into the music examining things like the production, structure, chord progression, and lyrics. As a musicologist Nate Sloan often looks back in music history and compares current pop songs to classical music. They really look at music in a way I never think about it, but that I really enjoy.

If you are a music fan like I am I cannot recommend this podcast highly enough.