Ahh 2018. What can you even say. Worse than 2017, but hey, probably better than 1347! As the world spirals unchecked into just about every disaster story you can think of, let’s talk about entertainment I liked a lot! That’s always fun!!
My top favorite things of the year are all here, but not everything is something I’d consider the absolute “best” in its form. Instead I wanna talk about the broader trends my favorites fit into and the other things I really enjoyed that fit into those trends.
While several of the most popular rap albums of the year were long as hell, with Post Malone’s bad album clocking in at an hour and four minutes, Drake’s bad album hitting an hour and a half, and Migos’ sadly disappointing album stretching on to an hour and forty-six minutes for some reason, the albums that thrilled the most and really felt like advancements of the form were tiny. Kicked off by Kanye West being a weird idiot, he produced a string of five 7-song albums, all clocking in under 30 minutes, apparently with more hits than misses (I unfortunately listened to more of the misses). Pusha T’s Daytona is a tight, focused assault of rap bars, and Kid Cudi’s and Teyana Taylor’s albums were also well received. The less said about Nas and Kanye’s offerings the better.
Beyond this sphere though were several other rappers moving to shorter forms independently. Freddie Gibbs followed up his half hour 2017 album You Only Live 2wice with the even shorter Freddie, probably the hardest hitting rap album all year. Open Mike Eagle’s What Happens When I Try to Relax is more low key than his fantastic album from last year, but no less personal and well constructed (also everyone’s been calling it an EP but if these other pieces get to be albums this one sure as hell does too).
Oh god this is gonna be interminable okay here’s some albums I wanted to talk about more
Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs
Earl’s had a rough fucking decade. He released his debut mixtape in 2010, having only just turned 16, and it really showed through all the adolescent nastiness that Odd Future became infamous for. Thanks to troubling behavior and a fraught relationship with his mother, he got sent off to a therapeutic school in Samoa in order to work on himself. Thanks to shit stirring from his friends and Odd Future fans buying right into it, he came back to a new, different kind of stress, and you could hear him getting tired. While Doris served partly as a triumphant comeback, a weariness shows itself throughout, one that only deepened on his follow-up I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside. Throughout all this was a developing outlook on his father, famed South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile. His father separated from his mother and exited his life while he was just eight years old, and throughout his work he’s wrestled with his feelings about it. He seemed to gradually open up to the idea of reconciling with his dad, and Keorapetse himself was open to it too, saying that when his son was ready to show him his music, he would listen. A reunion seemed to finally be in the works. And then Keorapetse died.
Almost all of Some Rap Songs was written before the death of Earl’s father, and all through the album there’s a kind of optimism. He still sounds weary, but he’s being kinder to himself and seems energized, rapping with a fire that’s seemed absent for a long time. A lot of his darker themes are there, but alongside them is a kind of motivated positivity. Listening to this album feels like watching a beautiful but hazy sunrise. Every song contains a single unbroken verse from Earl, with hooks staying in the margins, often sounding like just part of the verse itself. It’s filled to the brim with complex and often hard to parse structures and beats that gradually become clearer with every listen. It’s the sound of a dude who just really goddamn loves to rap.
Some Rap Songs starts to close with an ode to his parents, a collage formed with a list of thank yous from a keynote his mother delivered (with praise saved for her son that honestly makes me tear up to hear) and a poetry reading from his father, speaking of refugees and the homes they are denied. It manages to feel like a love letter and an unpacking, and he was going to surprise his dad with it. The song following is maybe the most soul-crushing minute and fourteen seconds I’ve ever experienced in hip hop, a fractured, sorrowful look at Earl’s state of mind after he lost his father. He closes on an instrumental made up from a larger piece by Hugh Masekela, a South African jazz legend who was a close friend of the family, and also passed shortly after Keorapatse. It manages to be both optimistic and sorrowful, ending on an ambiguous note. This album is a quiet, devastating masterpiece.
Vince Staples – FM!
Summer being the season of gang violence isn’t exactly a new topic, but Vince Staple’s FM! focuses on it and “plays” with it to great effect. Every song is, on the surface, a fun summer banger, but the content of the songs is pretty uniformly morose. Vince takes on an exaggerated persona, often rapping in a cartoonish, faux-cheerful voice about the violence and death he grew up in. As a bonus, Earl shows up with twenty seconds of straight fire, showing he’s still got enthusiasm for rapping even after dealing with the deaths of family and friends. As an anti-bonus, Tyga gets a song too.
Tierra Whack – Whack World
I’m gonna just be forward and say it: You’re fucking up if you don’t check Whack World out. Tierra Whack made her debut at 22 with an album of fifteen 1 minute long songs which by itself is gutsy as all hell, but beyond that it’s genuinely incredible. Every single song is a tiny, clever, and vibrant burst of hip hop and R&B, and they all feel completely developed and distinct from each other. She censors herself on a song called “Fuck Off.” It rules.
Death Grips – Year of the Snitch
Okay this one’s kind of a cheat because it’s the only album over half an hour that I’m mentioning and it’s not even the shortest Death Grips album. I just wanna talk about it (and 37 minutes is still kinda short!!).
I’ve been really into Death Grips for almost their entire existence at this point but this is the first time I’ve felt they’ve really lived up to their promise. While they’ve always had a wide range, pushing the definition of hip hop to some weird places, it wouldn’t be hard to describe each of their previous albums as industrial noise rap with heavy punk influence. With Year of the Snitch, genre is almost meaningless, with genres changing radically from track to track, and often within the tracks themselves. We got shoegaze, hardcore punk, grindcore, jazz, piano rock(???????????), the closest thing Death Grips have ever come to a club banger, and a song I swear to god was influenced by Undertale. It’s a wild ride and I adore it.
I’m a little worse at keeping up with all the movies that come out but my favorites of this year all share themes of the difficulties of living in this world. Corporations are increasing their stranglehold on every aspect of society, with governments more than happy to aid them, the environment rapidly deteriorating as a result, with stratification based on class and identity becoming worse and worse. These movies all tackle these subjects in very different ways but they’ve all been helping me get through the shit.
Sorry To Bother You
When I went to go see Boots Riley’s debut film Sorry To Bother You I was expecting a lot of things. I knew it was very class conscious, I knew there was gonna be some kind of twist in it, I knew it was gonna be very outsidery while still being pretty entertaining. And it was definitely all of those things. It’s an absolute feast of bizarre imagery, offbeat humor, and openly left politics. But what I wasn’t expecting it to be at all was a carefully built argument on the evils of capitalism, on the ways that capitalist society turn us on each other, desperate to climb on top of each other for a promise of a better life, and that the way forward isn’t through acquiescing to what’s expected of us by society, but by coming together, unionizing, organizing to change society to be better for the people at the bottom. And also maybe someone should kill Jeff Bezos.
It’s very easy to read Annihilation as a cynical movie. And honestly I don’t think that reading of it would be wrong, as it paints a very grim portrait of humanity and its protagonists (similar to director Alex Garland’s previous sci-fi effort, Ex Machina). It sends its five protagonists, all women scientists, into the heart of an unknowable, unstoppable force that reduces them to screaming, exaggerated messes of personalities. What keeps it from devolving to total nihilism, to me anyway, is that the characters don’t really feel judged for some of the devastating choices they make. When the lead character lies about the identity of her husband (the sole person to return from the alien tainted region alive) to protect herself, and when one of her companions finds out and binds and interrogates the rest of the group out of paranoia and fury, neither of them feel like completely bad people.
These women have all been broken in one way or another, and are placed in unreasonable pressure, and while their actions aren’t good, they come from somewhere. Annihilation posits that we all, on some level, have an urge to self-destruct. It’s an urge I’ve felt incredibly strongly through this hellish year. The team succumbs one by one to the nightmares of the world they find themselves trapped in. But the protagonist survives. Unlike the rest of the team, she hasn’t yet lost all her will to live, but has a complicated mix of reasons for taking on such a suicide mission, both selfish and not. She emerges from hell with a desire to change, even if it took a bit of prodding from an alien force.
The way I’ve been pitching Widows to friends is “it’s a heist movie by Steve McQueen, and it absolutely feels like a heist movie by Steve McQueen.” A team of criminal husbands botch a job, all winding up dead, and leave behind a group of widows who are devastated more than by just grief. All of the women who form the eventual heist team face financial ruin as a result of their husbands’ irresponsible choices, and are forced (and kind of manipulated) to help the lead protagonist, a black woman, follow plans left by her late husband, a white man, to make a huge score and pay off their debts, with a little left over on the side to enjoy.
While this would all make for a perfectly fine, incisive movie on its own, it also goes out of its way to tackle police brutality, racial and gender politics, and upper-class indifference to poverty, all framed within the setting of Chicago, a city where these topics are incredibly central. A single, stunning shot shows how close some of the worst slums in Chicago are to the lavish estate of a family of racist politicians, and honestly could be a scathing statement on its own. Through all of this is a tense, exciting heist film with well drawn characters that are hard not to love. It’s really great and everyone should see it.
Here it is baybee video games!!!!!!!!!!!
When many people talk about queer representation in Japan, the conversation tends to skew negative. As I’ve talked about numerous times before (alongside Timber Owls’ own Ashley), there’s often a perception among Westerners that Japanese media and culture is exceptionally negative and judgmental to queer people, in a way that just isn’t tolerated here in America. The problem is this exceptionalism just isn’t the case. Japan certainly does have its issues with queer people, and those issues are often different than the ones that crop up here, but you could say that about any country on the planet. America is not a shining beacon of progressive values and to judge other countries on whether they meet our standards reeks of cultural imperialism. Whenever a video game or an anime presents a positive, healthy representation of queer people and Western critics catch on, you’ll often find language that implies that these are exceptions to a culture that consistently produces games like Persona 5 or Breath of the Wild, that treat their queer characters like jokes.
But whenever critics single out “the good ones” like with 2016’s gay figure skating anime Yuri On Ice or this year’s The Missing, it requires a larger ignorance of Japanese media (did you know that in the same year Yuri on Ice aired, there were at least three shows focused around women who loved each other?). Anime and manga with explicit, positive queer themes are nothing new, with the origins of yuri, a genre about lesbian love, stretching back to the early 1970s. In the past few years alone, there’s been countless stories centered around well drawn queer women, and further down, you’ll see a few examples of anime from this year that continue this trend. But for now, let’s check out some of the tremendous queer games from this year that seem to be going unnoticed.
The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories
There’s not much to say about The Missing that I haven’t already said in my piece about it, probably because it’s a hundred billion words long, but I can’t state enough how incredible it is. While it did pick up a modest, passionate following, the larger critical sphere passed it by almost entirely, which is a real shame for how well that game used its medium to tell a painfully honest but cathartic story of a young trans woman. It has its fair share of jank and awkwardness, but beyond that is an extremely unique puzzle game with a heartfelt and genuinely important story. Never in my life have I encountered a story that so directly imparted on me a message that not only is my identity valid, but so is my pain and my mistakes. It has left a mark on me that I can’t see ever going away.
one night, hot springs
Like with The Missing, I’ve shared a lot of thoughts about this wonderful little visual novel already. It’s so sweet and kind and the tremendous impact it left on me hasn’t gone away in the slightest. In the time since playing it and writing the line “I may not be ready to present myself to the world quite yet, but when I am, I’ll be thinking of this game” I’ve presented openly in public for the first time. It was scary as all hell but I knew I could trust my friends to be there for me and Haru and her story were there giving me the strength to know that and to not be afraid.
Developer npckc has since come out with two more games since one night, hot springs. Penguin Cafe is a tiny game about a gay cat dude who shows up for a date and realizes he’s been stood up, and it skillfully utilizes the anxiety of waiting for texts to let you embody the main character while getting to know the charming barista who keeps you company. lilac & her light is a short adventure game about a girl who turns everything she touches to the color grey and the witch who helps her get her color back, and uses this setup to touch on depression and the social ostracization of groups of people. npckc uses these small games to great effect, and I’m excited to follow them into 2019.
BanG Dream! Girls Band Party!
BanG Dream (usually referred to as Bandori) is a gacha mobile game that feels like it shouldn’t exist. At first glance it seems like it’s gonna be your typical idol gacha but with a rock band framing, with trappings aimed at a young male audience. And don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to get out of franchises like Love Live and Idolmaster. But I expected the girls to be uncomfortably sexualized, and as soon as I saw that I was to inhabit a voiceless character in the world help managing all these girls I expected a lot of the typical, frustrating “yeah these girls all somehow express vague romantic interest in you” situations. But aside from the occasional expression of appreciation for helping them get this music collective idea off the ground, Bandori isn’t interested in these girls’ relationship with you, it’s interested in their relationships with each other. Other series absolutely have plenty of character interactions, and do tend to tease at romantic feelings between the girls, but it’s never felt as blatant and well developed as it does in Bandori.
Bandori’s focus on character interactions and relationships is developed through a frankly unbelievable amount of writing through weekly event stories, stories about each individual band, multiple small stories for every single character, and a staggering amount of small conversations between characters accessed via the game’s pint sized hub world. All of this is on top of the main storyline that establishes why all these disparate bands are hanging out in the first place. While the characters play to types on the surface they all wind up revealing depths to themselves, and my favorite aspect of it is the way it allows for characters to have difficult, troubled personalities without judging them. It knows these girls are teens still figuring themselves out, and even with characters that can get mean, it never feels mean-spirited. On top of all of this are relationships with romantic subtext that’s so blatant it might as well just be text, and they’re given convincing, heartfelt writing through a team with real bona fides in the Japanese yuri scene.
Also it’s a rhythm game and the soundtrack whips ass.
Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk
So this is a weird one because I have a bunch of caveats, namely that I’m only halfway into it, and I’m aware of troubling content ahead of me that I’m not yet qualified to address. However, what I have played so far has been a treat.
Labyrinth of Refrain is a dungeon crawler about a witch claiming to be Baba Yaga and her young apprentice who have ventured to a far off town in search of the titular labyrinth and the secrets it holds. The first half of the game is largely setup, getting you familiar with the town and the people who live in it, alongside learning more about your protagonists, Dronya and Luca. Nippon Ichi Software is no stranger to flawed, even villainous protagonists, but while Dronya fits into a clear line of them, there is less of the NIS humor around her. While some of the people on the receiving end of her scorn absolutely deserve it, she also takes her frustrations out on her apprentice Luca, and it’s very uncomfortable to see, even for other characters who witness it. When she stumbles and falls due to her prosthetic leg, it’s not treated as a pratfall but as something that deeply upsets her. She’s an asshole but she’s also treated as a person. When events happen that clearly dig under her skin there’s enough there to see hints of the hurt inside her fueling her maliciousness.
So, while I haven’t gotten there yet myself, I know the story begins to accelerate past the halfway point, and direct themes of queerness begin to show up. Dronya’s identity as a lesbian is alluded to earlier on, and is fully acknowledged in the latter half. Her identity is taken seriously and I understand that a fully fleshed out, positive lesbian romance develops alongside the main plot as well. However with this comes some warnings. This game explores a lot of ugliness, and even early on there are uncomfortable scenes of attempted sexual assault and casual misogyny, and is filled with scenes of graphically described violence. Rape is implied later into the game. While I don’t think these topics cannot be meaningfully broached, it’s hard for me to say right now how I feel they’re handled by this game. Nonetheless, even if I wind up feeling like these are missteps or even genuine problems, I believe that this game’s worth talking about as a part of a diverse collection of stories that take their queer characters seriously and allow for happiness through their identities and despite their pain.
Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege
Rainbow Six Siege is the latest, multiplayer focused iteration of the long running Tom Clancy se- wait hahaha how did this get here. what’s this doing here lmao. how did… wow weird. this shouldn’t be here. huh.
So alongside all the gay games I got to play, I was hoping to dig into this year’s anime. But life made sure I didn’t have the energy to focus on watching shows and I sadly missed out, so instead here’s a list of anime I wanted to watch but didn’t, and how gay I heard they are.
Sword Art Online Alternative Gun Gale Online: when I hear “gun-based spinoff of Sword Art Online” I don’t exactly expect to find out it has an honest to god lesbian relationship with kissing and everything!!!
Yurucamp: More focused on friendships and camping, but with that good yuri subtext throughout
Revue Starlight: Lilly had the highest praise for this and I will read her article on it whenever I actually watch it. I hear it’s pretty damn gay
Bloom Into You: it’s a straight up lesbian romance and also features an older lesbian couple that gives advice to young lesbians it’s hard to get gayer than this.
SSSS. Gridman: seems mostly straight but also with enough undertones between the female leads to fuel mountains of shipping. The lead guy seems nice enough.
Zombieland Saga: I don’t know how gay this one is but it managed to feature a respectful and widely praised depiction of a trans girl who’s. a zombie
I did watch Pop Team Epic and it’s got cute gay stuff in it but also it’s. not really about that. at all.
If you made it this far somehow, thank you for sticking with it. This year was a rough one for a lot of reasons, but also I was given the opportunity to do the kind of writing I love through a truly wonderful website. This website!! They just let me do shit like this! Timber Owls is still small but always growing, and offers what I believe to be a truly important home for thoughtful and independent perspectives. My short time here has been a great experience, and I think we’ll get up to some real good shit next year. 2019 baby, a better world is possible!