50 cultural things that ruled in 2017

Everything from A to ‘Zelda.’

50 cultural things that ruled in 2017

Everything from A to ‘Zelda.’

2017 was terrible for many reasons, but fortunately, the culture was quite good, a much-needed something else to think about as we all tried to figure out what the emoluments clause was. Because I could not insult you by pretending to have a ready, ranked list of my favorite songs, albums, books, video games, movies, televison shows, or whatever else, here are my favorite cultural events of the year.

50. The solar eclipse

Earlier this year I worked in Midtown, a neighborhood populated mostly by block-long lines for Chop’t, and tourists visiting the HBO Store. Everything else is commerce; once, while standing in line to purchase a sandwich, I observed that I was the only man wearing shorts in what was eighty degree weather. A few weeks later, as the eclipse approached, many of the people in my office evacuated our positions to go out to the street, glasses in hand, so that we could collectively witness what we had been told was a once-in-a-long-time event. There, on the sidewalk, stood hundreds of the Midtown workers — bloggers, bankers, businessmen, vendors, all. New York was not in the path of the totality, so as the eclipse approached we perceived a mild darkening of the sky, blue shading into slurry grey. A friend handed over a pair of glasses, so I could perceive the moon as a black disc rimmed in gold tones. The striking visual, the happenstance community — it was, and I mean this in the most earnest way possible, magical. I went back inside and finished my sandwich.

49. Lil Pump - “Gucci Gang”

I’m 29, which means all teenagers now terrify me, but one of the things that rejuvenated my steadily disappearing youth was my capitulation to the charms of newly trendy, endlessly enjoyable rap music. Take Lil Pump’s koan-like ode to clothes I will never be able to afford. Or don’t — your article about how Lil Pump represents a new unskilled, amoral normal is probably right. But who cares; let me be young through whatever available means. One common myth about Botox is that it treats all of the lines in your face. It only treats the lines that move.

48. White Tears (Hari Kunzru)

A lot of white boys imagine themselves the most down white boys who ever lived, and use their curiosity as a cloak to signal some kind of racial solidarity they lack the language or feelings to display. “How can the whites respect the culture?” is the question behind Kunzru’s haunting, meditative novel about two of those white boys, whose morbid fascination with blues music takes them inside a bloody American past that has never been resolved.

47. Riverdale

Let me somewhat trollishly suggest that it’s weird to have a critically and commercially beloved show about hot teenagers who fuck (sometimes their teachers) in a year when we repudiated Roy Moore for dating teens. Fake vs. real, okay, as well as a million other things, but you see how they bleed into each other? Right? Gritty reboots can only be so gritty when your protagonist’s name is Jughead; Christopher Nolan should take notes.

46. Fidget spinners

I saw the most amazing fidget spinner on my birthday. I can’t tell you anything about it, because I was catching strep at the same moment I was trying to consume 1,000 beers, but there were lights that spelled out some kind of phrase when spun, and perhaps sounds. Again, it was amazing. Before that, I’d found $5 on the street, and used it — at that moment, the only money in my wallet — to purchase a fidget spinner branded with the crying laughter emoji, which was being sold at a makeshift table outside the train. It seemed like a fair deal — $5 for a lifetime of brusque whirls, for the dumb fun.

45. Lana Del Rey - “Love”

A few years ago Kim Kardashian and Maria Sharapova said “Young and Beautiful” was their favorite Lana Del Rey song — don’t make me spell out the obvious subtext — but I bet they’d change their answer.

44. Borne (Jeff Vandermeer)

Vandermeer turned a frankly absurd premise into an exceptionally affecting story of companionship in the dystopian hell we’re all set to inherit. It’s nerd shit, but in the best way — if there’s any justice, the eventual film adaptation will triple the gross of Ready Player One. It will be harder to film than Annihilation, for sure.

43. Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” at karaoke (public room)

My favorite karaoke bar in the world is a place in Chicago called Alice’s; the DJ is a guy named Fred, who is both the most encouraging and withering host possible. Acquit yourself with passion and sincerity, and he’ll bust out an inflatable instrument to play alongside, or even add some background harmonies; make a joke of your performance, as many people do, and he’ll play you off with a comment like, “That was Dan, who will be going home alone tonight.” You get a mix of performers. There are some regulars who dip into a niche repertoire of torch burners, but mostly it’s the whiskeyed hordes who want to sing Adele and Weezer and Metallica and so forth. Every now and then, the right selection unites everyone in song, and spirit. The last time I went it was Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” a magnificently schlocky creation that was written to be her “Wuthering Heights,” and sounds exactly like you’d expect Celine Dion doing “Wuthering Heights” to sound. As the verses and chorus rounded into shape, everyone at the bar came in, and Fred popped up from his seat to bestow a high honor, waving a Canadian flag over the singer’s head for 30 seconds. Moments of gold, flashes of light.

42. Katsuyori Shibata vs. Kazuchika Okada at Sakura Genesis 2017

The most fascinating wrestlers to me are the guys who seem to not know or care (what’s the difference?) that it’s all supposed to be fake. Katsuyori Shibata is a wrestler-turned-MMA-fighter-turned-wrestler-again who insisted on hitting his opponents as hard as possible, despite the conventional wisdom that you’re supposed to pull your kicks and punches at the last minute, instead of blasting your coworker in the face. But blast he did, which made most Shibata matches must-see for the real violence that would infect the choreographed action. His championship match against Kazuchika Okada, the top star of New Japan Pro Wrestling, seemed more like a fight than a staged fight, punctuated by an indelible moment where Shibata headbutted the champ as hard as possible, producing a sickening sound and a rivulet of blood streaming down his face. You cannot fake that, even if the result was never in question. Shibata lost, and collapsed after the match; fans thought he was merely acting, but he suffered a subdural hematoma during the match, and was soon sent into semi-paralysis, from which he has yet to fully recover. He’ll never wrestle again, but as (unintentional) retirement matches go, it might have been the best in history.

41. Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine (Joe Hagan)

Coked-up megalomaniacs can do a lot of awful things — what about the one in the White House, folks — but molding the counterculture into the establishment was only a villainous act if you’re naive enough to think that some other idiot wouldn’t have done it. Jann Wenner did too many drugs, was indefensibly rude to too many people, and he put every bad U2 album in the top five of the magazine’s best albums lists because he’s besties with Bono, but he made his mark, and Sticky Fingers is a must-read for anyone curious about how the (white, male, rock-oriented) musical canon has been shaped over the last 50 years.

40. Sheer Mag - Need to Feel Your Love

I’m sure there are people bitching aimlessly right now about how granting interviews and photoshoots killed off Sheer Mag’s punk credibility, but honestly, everyone should make a lot of money.

39. Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open

Federer and Nadal’s rivalry is so bloodlessly competitive at this point, all of the intensity and machismo of typical sport subsumed into a hearty laugh and a cheerful “It’s always fun to play Rafa,” that you sincerely believe they’re friends even though they make each other cry. I’m still not even sure what “it” is, but Federer taking it back at his age definitively proves magic is real. He should buy Rolling Stone.

38. Marshmello at Governors Ball

The kind of thing the person next to you says, “You like this, huh?” about, and you smile and nod, but you can’t hear them, and anyway here’s (the drop on) “Wonderwall.”

37. Broken Social Scene - “Hug of Thunder”

During my interview with some of the members of Broken Social Scene, I was asked my favorite song on their new record Hug of Thunder — and sensed they were disappointed when I picked the title track, sung by Feist, which is one of their best songs ever. Hoping that the obvious best thing isn’t the obviously best thing — especially when it’s by your rich classmate — is one of those art school hang-ups, but keeping it on the album means growing up.

36. Golf Story (Nintendo Switch)

There’s a sequence where you have to kill undead skeletons by whacking balls at them, which is great subtext at worst and all I’ve ever wanted from golf at best.

35. Haim - “Want You Back” video

Haim sort of tanked this year — between their bizarre press tour in which they refused to even say if they believe in political engagement and the fact that they’re not actually all that well-known even if they vacation with Taylor Swift, Something to Tell You sold basically nothing. That was definitely not the goal of all those Los Angeles billboards they bought. This clip, though, captured the joyful frisson their first record once effectively displayed as a default position, before all the managers got in place. To put it in the terms of their collaborator, Paul Thomas Anderson — maybe Haim 2.0 just sounded too There Will Be Blood. You know what’s a good movie? Inherent Vice.

34. Collectively anticipating the new Taylor Swift song and then it turning out to be “Look What You Made Me Do”

As one of many registered Swifties amongst my cabal of content-craving media elites, I’ll never forget the rush of shocked texts sent and received in the minutes following the release of this dud, her worst lead single by far. This was the song? Really, this? Vampy ad-libs and baby’s first beat compiled by the second-most important member of Fun.? The old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now, because she’s dead? Jesus Christ! Sad to say, the song grew on me.

33. Get Out

Our theater was attended by mostly couples with at least one person of color, which I imagine made for a lot of nervous watching by the whites — a whisper here, an elbow there as the drama revealed itself one painful, pro-Obama affirmation at a time. My mom’s review of the movie: “Yikes!!!!!” Well, yeah.

32. Tom King’s Batman

Superhero comic books are for children, and adult superhero comic books are often especially for children, but King somehow managed to dredge thrilling stories out of decades-old, decades-boring Batman characters. Seriously, how do you make the Riddler interesting? His ongoing Batman run was a must-read — if you’re into kids stuff, of course.

31. Japandroids - Near to the Wild Heart of Life

One of my first-ever tweets read, “JAPANDROIDS - I QUIT GIRLS,” dispatched just like that, in all caps at around 5 a.m., which I could prove if I hadn’t deleted it in a fit of shame. You get the sense that Japandroids almost did the same to their band, in order to prove they were responsible enough for a mortgage. I’m glad they didn’t, though, and it was exciting to see them return — a little less drunken yearning, a little more grown up, but thankfully as noisy as ever. Quiet Japandroids record? NEVA DAT.

30. So Many Olympic Exertions (Anelise Chen)

A bleakly funny, heartbreaking novel about my favorite subjects: tennis, death, regretting grad school.

29. Kevin Durant defending himself under a fake account on Twitter

Kevin Durant is an awesome basketball player who still sucks for a bunch of stupid sports reasons that I have no interest in litigating, except to say that if you think he’s cool you’re probably “ya mcm” everyone seems to mock. He’ll have to take the heat for a few more years before he transcends the vacuum of that sucking — ask LeBron — but this moment of weakness was a truly endearing career highlight. How else is a millennial meant to defend himself, if not by being extremely online?

28. LCD Soundsystem - “how do you sleep?”

Depending on if you’re talking to their haters or their booking agent, the LCD Soundsystem reunion has either been not as bad or not as good as hoped. But a song as hard-hitting as “sleep,” which processes synthesizers in a way that sounds like waves hitting my useless body over and over again, is worth a thousand broken hearts over the money spent on real tickets to a fake goodbye.

27. LaVar Ball

The only person to get the better of a war of words with Donald Trump. He's running.

26. Guy Fieri on Hot Ones

Fieri as peak leather dad, willing to acknowledge his own goofy myth while refusing to be self-deprecating about legitimately impressive accomplishments. My guy didn’t need a single sip of water through the entire torture chamber of hot sauces, and even coined a phrase — the hierarchy of heat — that Complex’s PR department would kill themselves to own. Guy’s American Kitchen is the worst restaurant I’ve been to in my life.

25. Kendrick Lamar - “Humble” video

Kendrick is riding one of those rarefied artistic waves we’re able to appreciate in real time; there will be no reassessment required in the future, just a nod that, damn, he really did this. He put out the only good U2 song in 2017, and oh yeah a classic album, but my favorite moment was this magically angled video — which made him look like the best and coolest rapper alive.

24. David Crosby’s Twitter account

Without even attempting to be cutesy funny or depressed funny about it, Twitter really is that bad, and this year I further retreated — or attempted to further retreat — from using it as a serious medium. And yet a rare ray of light was the Twitter account of David Crosby, former Byrd and classic rock legend, who would literally not stop posting. (I didn’t keep track, but just clicked over as I wrote this and found this gorgeous reminiscence of finally understanding a Miles Davis interpretation of his song, as well as a frank answer about who had the better weed between him and Jerry Garcia.) When I worked at SPIN we decided to cover the best of his tweets like news, which led to a wonderful serendipitous moment where Winston Cook-Wilson was able to interview him; to be honest I never liked his music all that much, at least not with the Byrds or CSNY, but — in a year defined by its terrible ones — coming up with good tweets was no small act.

23. Dirty Projectors - “Up in Hudson”

An icy breakup record about a public figure was never going to play well in some circles, and it wasn’t surprising to see the latest Dirty Projectors record get their most muted reviews since you couldn’t go to an awful art party without hearing Rise Above. I’ve found Longstreth to be a sort of savant, both in the best and worst ways. He’s incredibly thoughtful and smart — but I also get the sense that it’s been a long time since anyone was able to properly put him in his place, on a conversational or artistic level. (Or whatever level saying “Shave your beard!” is on.) His freedom in sorting out all his ideas is what makes him an interesting artist, though, and while the lyrics of “Hudson” were at-times too intimately specific, the music — those wheezing hums, those drums clacking in place like mantras — was ridiculously beautiful. SHAVE YOUR BEARD.

22. Super Mario Odyssey (Nintendo Switch)

The biological implications of a Mario-sized human in a regular-sized human world were way, way too heavy to handle, but the joy of turning Mario into anything — a dinosaur, a bird, a spring, a hammer-throwing turtle, a fish, a balled-up walrus-type creature — was, just, ah! The joy, the joy.

21. The Killing of a Sacred Deer

I can’t really connect to Yorgos Lanthimos’ worldview, but I love to see it play out.

20. Mulan’s “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” at karaoke (private room, we were all Asian)

This song is insanely, wildly gender essentialist in a way that would inspire about one trillion, billion negative blog posts if Mulan were released in 2017, but a few weeks ago I sang it in a private room with a bunch of friends and for three minutes felt no less than the spirit of ancestors course through my blood — as swiftly as the river, one might say.

19. Listening to Van Halen during a bachelor party

One of my best friends got married earlier this year, and for the bachelor party we rented a house in upstate New York, and proceeded to chill harder than anyone has ever chilled for a few days. At one point during the bender we were outside, playing cornhole with a set that I literally went to the Target in Queens to procure for my buddy, drinking cheap beer and blasting Van Halen’s “Panama,” and there was a moment in the sunlight and the heat with the friends and the alcohol where I thought, “You know, this is good.”

18. Priests - Nothing Feels Natural

I went to Washington D.C. to profile Priests ahead of this, their debut album, as they played a charity show on the day of the presidential inauguration. Being in D.C. that day was surreal; I didn’t watch Trump’s speech, because I was on the train to meet the band, and because on several levels I didn’t think I could handle the reality of what was happening. But the chance to watch an excellent punk band hold their shit together in front of a crowd thirsting for communal release was sorely needed, and this record — a wild sprawl of sounds and sentiments — symbolizes the potential of what comes next.

17. Big Shaq - “Man’s Not Hot” (original BBC version)

This was marginally funnier when I thought it was a real grime song, and not just an incredibly skilled parody of one, but “the ting goes skrrah” ad-libbing is the best joke of the year.

16. Listening to Ed Sheeran’s “Castle on the Hill” on top of a hill at first ironically, but then not

Ed Sheeran makes music for sentimental losers, but who doesn’t. At the aforementioned bachelor party we climbed a hill, then listened to some songs about hills — “I Can See For Miles,” “Solsbury Hill,” etc. “Castle on the Hill” takes the tradition of songs about hills and adds a castle to it, which I like. Jamieson and I sang it twice that weekend: first, when we realized we were the only people around for miles, speaker in hand, volume turned up, sun dappled across our faces (photo caption: “when the Sheeran hits”). Later, we replicated our singalong for the bachelor boy, in his arms next to the dying fire at the end of a long, happy night. He promptly left to go throw up.

15. LeBron James calling Donald Trump “U bum” on Twitter

LeBron, to me, is as good as Jordan — a transcendent superstar who won a shitload and was a blast to watch. Oh, and he got into it with the fucking president, levying a devastating insult — U bum, U bum, U bum, U bum, U bum, U bum, U bum, U bum, it rolls right off the the tongue — and catching basically no shit for it, because Trump is a coward who knows when he’s been dunked on.

14. Watching Mount Eerie perform at the Billboard office in a hushed silence while someone was typing somewhat loudly on their laptop and everybody wanted to say something but nobody did, so we all just sort of sat there looking at each other like “What the fuck?” as this incredibly sad music played

Comedy = tragedy + millennial.

13. Lincoln in the Bardo (George Saunders)

Not to sound like a yokel, but how did he write this?

12. Horizon Zero Dawn (Playstation 4)

Sometimes I can’t wait for the next wave of thoughtful, conceptual video games, and sometimes I can.

11. Any scene in Game of Thrones where a dragon went nuts

Game of Thrones is full-blown fantasy nonsense by now, and certainly not as coherent as its early years, but Daenerys unleashing her dragon on the Lannisters was the most exciting televised sequence I saw all year. Also any TV critic who had a problem with ZOMBIE DRAGONS is a cop.

10. Seeing Mother! in a packed theater

I walked out of Mother! — an insane movie I barely enjoyed, filmed to make you physically sick, so many close shots over Jennifer Lawrence’s shoulder, and then the stuff with the baby and the taking poetry seriously and the brutality — having experienced something like the most authentically bewildered crowd response I’ve ever been a part of. The audience buzzed throughout, and when the lights went up it was a high school lunchroom, a collective thrumming of chatter that did not dissipate even throughout dinner, for those who could eat.

9. Lorde - “Green Light” video

Lorde, even at 21, is sort of the perfect teen — whom amongst us doesn’t wish we’d been so talented, self-aware, and bold at that age? She might never be big as “Royals” again, but she coaxed a career production performance out of Jack Antonoff, and this video — the colors, the faces, the movement, the cars, the I watch movies now vibe (hers, then mine) — was like a less obnoxious Baby Driver.

8. Big Little Lies

My theory — and hear me out — is that all television should be tightly scripted and portrayed by the best actresses alive.

7. The “Goop on Ya Grinch” tweet

A lot of rap writing is very corny, as writers apply the worst principles of arts criticism to art that deserves a little more joy — sometimes, a Gucci gang is just a Gucci gang. “Goop on Ya Grinch,” while not so solely applicable to what people stereotype as Pitchfork-style writing, gave me a means for never, ever having to consider what the problem with this type of criticism is — now, all I have to do is mention that goop and that grinch, and dozens (hundreds?) (dozens) will know what I mean.

6. Frank Ocean - “Chanel”

Your fave could literally never, unless your fave is Frank Ocean, in which case he did.

5. Homesick for Another World (Otessa Mossfegh)

There’s a story in here about an old pervert trying to have sex with a young woman that’s maybe 1000 times better than “Cat Person,” please don’t tweet about it, no disrespect.

4. Kenny Omega vs. Kazuchika Okada at Dominion 6.11 in Osaka-jo Hall

The two best wrestlers in the world working for AN HOUR, built with so many callbacks and false finishes and feats of pure imagination that I briefly forgot, for AN HOUR, that wrestling was fake.

3. Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo Switch)

“You can go anywhere” is a worn-out mechanic in games with a tenth of the curiosity they should have, but Hyrule — a fantasy world made newly fresh after decades in the gamer consciousness — was this year’s best place to get lost.

2. Rostam - “Bike Dream”

If your dream has a bicycle in it, it’s supposed to mean you’re dreaming about balance, which is dumb maybe and perfect maybe and somehow what this song sounds like. Two hands, no hands, fall off the bike or don’t — it doesn’t matter. You’re in a dream.

1. Phoenix - Ti Amo

There was a lot of bad political art this year, as hacks saw an opening to make a point and only ended up appealing to people with no taste. Phoenix offered a fantasy of how the world might feel once it’s placed back together, writing songs that sounded like long, hopeful nights in unfamiliar cities. I tilted toward art that helped me forget the present reality, and nothing was more idyllic than Ti Amo, the vision summed up best on “Fior di Latte,” a blissed-out song that begs the world, “Don’t think about it, trigger me happy.” Not in that order, please.