It seems just like yesterday when we were writing our 2017 Best and Worst list. But here we go again. Everyone that writes about pop culture has to do these lists and we are no different. It’s been a pleasure writing these past 2 years and we look forward to writing more in 2019. We hope our readers have a happy and healthy 2019. Thanks for reading!
So last year I ranted that Marvel may never put out another good film then they release Black Panther, which was good, still not loving the CGI in these films, but Panther proved me wrong. Like I said last year I wish I had more time to see everything I want to, Netflix puts out more stuff than anyone truly could watch, never mind the other avenues. But I did experience some great pop culture in 2018 and I don’t pick just three, I kind of cheat a bit but it was hard to pick just three items. I mean it’s still lists, right? I will also go on a very big rant for my worst of pick.
This was a banner year for documentaries. The medium of streaming services allows for creators to make these documentaries and fit them into whatever time frame is needed to efficiently tell a compelling story. Whether it be two episodes or ten. Others I would mention outside of my two picks are: The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling (HBO), Bobby Kennedy for President (Netflix), They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (Netflix), and Evil Genius (Netflix).
Wild Wild Country (Netflix)
Wild Wild Country produced by the Duplass brothers tells the story of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (Osho) and his assistant Ma Anand Sheela, who created a cult community in Wasco County, Oregon in the 1980s. I was shocked that I had no clue what this was. I feel in tune with this type of history. I have read up on cults, true crime and serial killers but had missed this completely. I was alive at the time and watched the news but again I was surprised. The documentary is six parts and it has a slow build but it’s mesmerizing and well-done. Cults fascinate me (see below), I love trying to understand how people follow these leaders who are rarely well-meaning. Osho’s assistant Sheela is also quite a compelling character. It really turned this northwestern conservative county upside down for a while. It was a fascinating piece of history that I enjoyed learning about. It was a hit to the point that Saturday Night Live even spoofed it.
Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle (Sundance)
The fascinating part of cults for me is how people get to a point where they do the things they do in the name of the cult or cult leader. This 4-hour documentary on the Sundance channel is very convincing on why common people followed Jim Jones. It shows how Jim was charismatic in the beginning and promised people who didn’t have much that he could lead them to better lives including the use of fake “healings”. Terror in the Jungle had a good build up of how they got to the final destination. They had some really good interviews with some of Jones’ children and the few cultists that escaped. In talking to them they seem like normal people who just were fooled. The aftermath of the mass suicide is gone over and its gripping. Hearing some of Jim Jones’ speeches and ramblings during their time at Jonestown are chilling. At the end of the day, there is still no reconciling a lot of it. I have read about and watched a lot of TV about Jonestown (including the TV movie with Powers Boothe as Jones) and this documentary still told me things I didn’t know and was very well-done for novices a well as people with a ton of knowledge.
MG: I also found documentaries to be entertaining this year, and cable/streaming networks are the perfect place for them, as the broadcast networks generally shy away from anything edgy or something that takes a long time to portray. I watched a good chunk of Wild Wild West (I mean “Country”) and was amazed that this went on in the US.
I am the first one to admit that I am no longer into much of the music of today, at least the mainstream radio play, I wish I was, I always had an eclectic take on music, but I just feel that rock/pop has disappeared and there are too much rap and dance-pop acts on the radio. Not that I don’t like some of it, a Jason Derulo or Pink single once in a while is pretty good but generally I want more pure pop and rock mixed in and I know there are bands producing it, you just have to find it. Last year I picked the band Charly Bliss as a best of and they fit that description. So I have a few picks from this year for best of.
Dove – Belly
In 2018, Belly reunited with it’s latest album Dove. their best output since their debut album Star in 1992. I have always been a fan of Tanya Donnelly, including her days with Throwing Muses and the first Belly was a 90’s classic, with hits like “Feed the Tree” and “Slowdog”. When I heard they were reuniting I was excited and the album does not disappoint, it sounds like a Belly album. The first single “Shiny One” feels like its the early 90’s all over again but with today’s technology. The best track on the album is “Human Child”, the lyrics are meaningful and the music is powerful. I love the lyric “I’m not here to save you”. Donnelly sounds great her voice hasn’t lost a beat. I’m hoping they continue to record and tour, I am psyched to see them put out new music that is updated but still has some of that old appeal.
Any Other Way (Album Track) – Neil and Liam Finn
I have been a huge fan of anything Neil Finn has put out, which is pretty clear if you read this blog. This year was a huge year for him as he got picked as a member of Fleetwood Mac. He also put out his first album with his son Liam who is also a singer/songwriter in his own right. It’s definitely a different sound and I think even I have to give it more time to sink in. It mixes Liam’s experimental sound with Neil’s songwriting and melody. So it’s an interesting experience. On that album which is probably never going to crack the U.S. is the track “Any Other Way” a beautiful haunting tune that showcases Neil’s lyrics and voice with the backdrop of Liam’s sound. Personally, I would love another Crowded House album but any Finn output is a great thing.
Sucker Punch (Single) – Sigrid
22-year-old Norwegian singer Sigrid put this fantastic single out in preparation of her 2019 album. She had charted on a couple singles in the UK and “Sucker Punch” hit twelve on the Norweigan charts. I heard it on web radio station indie617 for the first time and not sure if she will break through the crap playing on pop radio. I’m not really sure how to define this song or her style, she has a great voice, maybe synth pop, dance pop, indie pop, just not sure, but I love it and it should be heard. She also writes her songs which is also a step up from a lot of pop today. My favorite lyric is “I’m freaking out ’cause I’m scared this might end bad, but I still come back for that sucker punch” which I totally relate to. I hope she makes it big, she did get a Leonard Cohen cover in the Justice League movie so maybe that will help when her 2019 album drops.
MG: As a fellow Neil Finn fan, I should get around to checking out that new album with his son. I did give “Any Other Way” a listen and it’s ok – a little Brian Eno-esque with the music. The Sigrid song is a catchy song, although hearing both songs makes me long for less programming/voice modulation, but I know that’s the way music is today.
The best show I saw this year was easily The Crown, I binged both seasons but unfortunately, it was not a 2018 show. After I finished it I was just looking around for something else and Bodyguard showed up on the top of my Netflix guide. So I gave it a chance without much knowledge it just looked interesting and continued my British fascination. Richard Madden, who I last saw in Game of Thrones as Robb Stark, plays the title character who is the bodyguard to Julia Montague the Home Secretary in Britain’s cabinet. Montague is played by Keeley Hawes in an amazing performance. I had no idea who she was prior but I was impressed. It’s a six-part show which is something I love about British TV (see below for more). The script is tight, things I normally wouldn’t believe the writers convince me to believe. It’s got a good quotient of action and twists. The series opens with an intense scene and there are others as well. I think the cinematography of London is on display, it’s beautifully filmed. I struggle with Madden’s hard Scottish accent at times early on but got used to it by the series end. The short series leaves me wanting more which is what a show should do. I’m not sure a second series could match this so maybe just leave me wanting more.
MG: I watched the first two episodes based on your write-up. Good stuff. You are right, the first episode is quite intense, but then the second episode ramps it up even more. I’m definitely interested to see where it goes. The Brits are exceptional at putting out quality shows and so many good actors for the size of their country.
I am often at odds with my friends over network TV. I have strongly believed that network TV still has some merits but I am increasingly finding it harder to defend it. 2018 was one of the worst years for network TV viewing quality and that is putting it mildly. I consider network TV to be NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX, and the CW only. PBS and other cable channels do not count. With Hulu, Amazon, Netflix, YouTube, and others I would think the networks would be upping the game but this is clearly not true. These streaming services and cable networks have adopted the British way of having smaller seasons for most of their shows. Do we need 20 plus episodes of any of the network series? A series should not be overbloated just to hit 20 plus episodes. The best comedies can’t put out that many good episodes and serialized dramas start to get ridiculous over that long. Tell the story that needs to be told regardless of length. I still watch the networks but how many shows do I actually enjoy? It’s a few.
I generally enjoy the CW mostly because I enjoy their “DC universe” and even then it’s only because I like comic book heroes the shows aren’t always good. CBS is made up of rebooted shows (Magnum, Hawaii 5-0, Macgyver, Murphy Brown, SWAT), iterations of their NCIS franchises, terrible comedies (The Neighborhood, Happy Together), a generic show called FBI and something called Bull. Their only redeeming quality is Survivor. It’s a terrible network. I don’t find myself really watching much at FOX anymore, the one quality show (Brooklyn Nine-Nine) I liked they dumped and NBC had to save. I am generally indifferent to FOX. Speaking of NBC, another station with a bunch of junk, including a night that pays tribute to Chicago, has some guilty pleasure TV (Manifest, Blindspot, Black List) for me and The Good Place. That’s it and yet it still may be my favorite of the lot. This brings me to ABC, where I literally watch The Goldbergs and hate-watch Modern Family (Please put this out to pasture). I can’t get behind their 40-year-old “rookie” cop show or any of the scandalous good doctoring getting away with murder shows. This is the same network that brought us the magician solving crimes show last year. Come on networks it’s time to make better TV, stay on the map, write better shows, make me laugh, be innovative. If I can sit through most shows and find constant plot holes and unrealistic dialogue than there is an issue, I am no Aaron Sorkin. If I could fix an episode you can do better. Every cop and procedural show is the same. You don’t have to be edgy and drop F-bombs, just be smarter because if you don’t I won’t be watching and certainly not defending you.
MG: I will echo the disdain for broadcast TV offerings, although I’ve mostly given up on the OG big networks for a while now. There’s always been plenty of low-denominator stuff on there, but it’s reached (or sunk to) a whole new level. I still do enjoy Survivor on CBS and both seasons this year were strong. I know these companies have their cable networks for their “edgy” fare, but there should be at least some decent shows in the mix.
I have to admit that I was probably not as tuned-in to pop-culture in 2018 as I have in the past. Getting to the theater for movies I like gets tougher each year, although my kids are getting older and I only had to see one animated film, Incredibles 2, which was actually enjoyable and I’m sure many other adults saw. I continued to gravitate to Netflix and Prime and even forayed into Hulu stuff (I really enjoyed 11.22.63, but it came out two years ago). I had high expectations for Hulu’s Castle Rock, but it ended up a mixed bag, at best. For music, I wasn’t grabbing onto many new album releases, but I still enjoy mixing in some Top 40 on my Sirius radio in the car. I agree with DJ that I wish there was more (any) rock included in the top 40 these days.
TV – Cable & Streaming
By far, this was my primary source of entertainment this year. New seasons of shows I previously wrote about such as Bosch and Black Mirror were really solid. I was able to find some good comedy choices, a change for me, with GLOW’s second season and I’ve started the acclaimed Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on Amazon Prime and it is solid so far. I even enjoyed the critically-maligned Lost in Space on Netflix as something I could watch with the family. Other than Stranger Things there haven’t been many family appropriate choices. Here’s a quick list of 2018 shows/series’ I really enjoyed:
- The Alienist (TNT) – One of my favorite books finally realized in an impeccably produced series. It was a slow burn, but it caught me up in it. Daniel Bruhl was excellent and deserved award recognition.
- Sharp Objects (HBO) – This was one of the most unsettling shows I’ve seen in a while, and the acting was downright intense. This stuck with me for a while.
- The Staircase (Netflix) – A documentary on a bizarre murder case in the early 2000s. Part of the doc originally was released in 2004, but I believe this year was the first time it was released as a Netflix series. The access the filmmakers had to the defense team was remarkable
DJ: I started The Alienist but it was a slog. I got to the 4th episode and TNT wanted me to pay for that episode so I gave up. I do love the book so that’s why I struggle with my feelings toward it but it was hard to get through. I haven’t seen the other two, not sure how I feel about starting Sharp Objects sounds like a downer. The Staircase will probably get on my viewing list soon, seems like the kind of thing I like to watch.
I’ll state up-front that I am not up on enough current music to say what is “the best” for 2018. Everyone has their personal lanes of music they like, so I think only professional music critics could really say what is good vs. bad (though even that is dicey). This was the first year in a while I didn’t go to any concerts at all, which was kind of a bummer. Just couldn’t find the time. It didn’t seem like there were specific dominant artists in pop music this year – maybe Kendrick Lamar and Cardi B? I like Lamar’s stuff on the radio but can’t get on the Cardi B train. Here are a few bits of music that caught my ear this year.
- “Happier” – Marshmello & Bastille – I really liked Bastille’s debut album Bad Blood (released in 2012) and hoped they would become a new favorite band for me in the vein of Toad the Wet Sprocket or Crowded House, but it hasn’t happened yet. This track, a collaboration with masked DJ “Marshmellow” caught on with me this year, and I hope Bastille’s upcoming 2019 album is something good.
- Retrospective – Chris Cornell – This album (4 discs in the deluxe edition on Amazon Music) is a great summary of his career, from Soundgarden to Audioslave to his lesser-know solo stuff. The live tracks were truly revelatory to me and showcased what an electric live singer he was – either rocking hard on tracks like “Jesus Christ Pose” or mellow songs like covers of “Imagine” and “Nothing Compares 2 U”. The greatness of this material made me sad again about his passing, and also that I never took the chance to hear him live in concert.
- Ariane Grande – “Thank You, Next” video – We wrote about the golden age of MTV a few months ago, so it was fun to see a well-conceived and fun video come out this year. It tweaks her own image while spoofing on four movies including Mean Girls and Legally Blonde. Grande has a good sense of the comedic, as we also saw in her hosting of Saturday Night Live a few years ago.
DJ: Usually a middling fan of Ariana Grande but I may be over her at this point, too much drama and I don’t love the song. I may check out the Cornell stuff, he was a unique talent that should still be here putting out music.
I like to see movies with the family, but that usually means going to the high-profile franchise films – good for popcorn entertainment, but typically not “best of” list material. For whatever reason, I also had a tough time catching up on new releases when they came out on-demand/streaming too. I think I was always in the middle of a series and not checking out the new movies-on-demand/streaming. In the summer I had an eight-hour flight each way to/from London, so that was a great way to catch up on like 6-7 movies. Here are some that I enjoyed (by the way, we have to be allowed to write about the films that are released in the last two weeks of the previous year):
- Hostiles – It was part classic Western/part modern morality tale. Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, and Wes Studi were fantastic in this deceptively simple story.
- Mission Impossible: Fallout – I watched the MI catalog with my teenage son (maybe that’s where my movie time is going) and the films from MI:3 and onward still hold up well. Fallout was an all-around well-made and entertaining movie. It’s what you go to the theater for.
- A Quiet Place – It’s not Oscar-worthy, but I like well-crafted genre films like this. Has Emily Blunt ever been bad in anything? It was perfect for killing two hours of said plane ride.
DJ: Emily Blunt was not good in the 5 Year Engagement. I did see Hostiles and thought it was really good, I love westerns so that fit into my genre, it’s a slow plotting film which I do like on occassion. It reminds me of older films where everything doesn’t always need to be said or pointed out. I love the Mission Impossible films but life got in the way and just didn’t get out to see it, it should be rented very soon. I will probably check out A Quiet Place too although horror is not my bag.
MG: Yes, The Five Year Engagement was a terrible film, but I can’t recall if Blunt gave a truly bad performance in it. A Quiet Place isn’t really horror – more sci-fi or action.
I do my best to keep an ear out for what is good and what is getting bad reviews/word-of-mouth, but sometimes I still get caught with a bad entertainment experience. Here are a few from this year:
- Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom – My kids dragged me to this, and despite low expectations, it was worse than I thought. This was one of the worst scripts I can think of in recent memory.
- Homecoming (Prime) – I’m a big fan of Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot, but this story was so flimsy, even great acting and camera work couldn’t save it for me. Yet, it’s being showered with awards. I’m thinking the awards nominators just saw Julia Roberts looking serious and frumpy in the trailer and assumed it was good.
- The Marvel MCU – When I saw Infinity War in the theater, I thought it was decent, then when I watched it again on the small screen, it turned bad for me. Then Ant-Man and The Wasp was even worse – notching perhaps a new low-point for the MCU. I feel like they squandered what they achieved with Black Panther earlier in the year, and I hope they can get back on track with Captain Marvel. I want good stories – less spectacle and endless CGI battles.
DJ: I have no plans to see the first two on your list, I can’t stand Jurassic World so I can’t see how part 2 could be any better. Homecoming sounds like a drag. I agree with the MCU stuff, I did get out to see Infinity War and was waiting for it to be good. I hated it almost from the start and seeing the Endgame trailer has left me even less excited for the finale.