This is the triumphant return of Staff Picks, a recurring feature, in which Juneau Empire and Capital City Weekly staff share what they’re reading, watching, listening to and playing.
Since 2019 is almost over, this Staff Picks focuses on our favorite media from this year.
What we listened to this year
Ben Hohenstatt, arts and culture reporter, “Dogrel” by Fontaines D.C. (Album): This debut album from the Dublin-based band Fontaines D.C. was in my rotation all year. Unlike a lot of guitar-driven debut albums, “Dogrel” easily sidesteps the sort of sameness that can creep in when a debut album is a clearing house for all of a band’s early good ideas. It opens with literary post-punk, includes moody meditations and indulges in some straight-forward Ramones-aping rock.
Michael S. Lockett, crime reporter, “Let the Vultures In” by Des Rocs (Album): While this and Des Rocs’ other album, “Martyr Parade,” are only five songs apiece, they’re tightly wired and well put together. Recommended to me by a South African colleague, Brooklyn’s Danny Rocco excels as a one-man band with a handful of jams, including “Dead Ringer,” “Let Me Live/ Let Me Die,” and “Used To The Darkness.” Logical continuations of recent trends in alternative and indie rock, the one-man band shreds with precision and reminds me of elements that worked for southern rock bands from earlier in the decade like Kongos and the Black Keys.
Nolin Ainsworth, sports reporter, “The Search” by NF (Album): NF consistently puts out relatable rhymes, in particular uncomfortable feelings of self-doubt and sadness. The Catholic new site Aleteia responded to critics who felt the album was too gloomy, writing, “Man, Pascal wrote, is both wretched and great — and he is great because he knows he is wretched. NF’s music isn’t just about the experience of suffering and sin; it’s also about the sheer grace of facing it and wanting to overcome it.”
What we watched this year
Peter Segall, government reporter, “Watchmen” (Series, HBO)
A really well done show which kept me guessing until the very end. For most of the season’s run I had no idea where they were going with the whole thing but at the same time everything was well done and made sense in the end. Great performances from Regina King and Jean Smart and the rest of the supporting cast. Even though it took place in a fictional version of 2019 America, it still made poignant societal critiques about the country today. As the series went on, it did lean much more heavily on the original 1987 comic by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, so if you haven’t read that it might get confusing. In fact, one of the most refreshing things about the series is that the writers rightly ignored Zack Snyder’s 2009 Watchmen film and properly identified many of the characters in the book as raging fascist psychopaths and not as heroes like Snyder did.
Michael S. Lockett, “The Boys,” (Series, Amazon Prime): I enjoyed reading the source comics, written by the same author as “Preacher,” Garth Ennis. The show, as with the comics, is based on a squad of anti-superhero vigilantes, known as “The Boys.” A superlative performance by Karl Urban anchors the show as they hunt and kill the “supes” for their gratuitously degenerate behavior as they try to hide their sins behind the appearance of religious piety for the masses. It’s certainly not a show that pulls punches when it comes to explosive violence, though it does tone things down from the even more gory comic. Season 1 was released in July; Season 2 is due for release in 2020.
Nolin Ainsworth, “Stranger Things” (Series, Netflix). I’m very grateful for my roommate introducing this series to me just prior to the release of Season 3. The childhood touchstones featured in the show reminded me of my own childhood, especially the scene of the Snowball Dance at the end of Season 2. Any other Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School alums watch that scene and think of the eighth-grade dance?
Ben Hohenstatt, “The Other Two” (Series, Comedy Central): It’s rare for the first season of a television show to be confident and funny right out of the gate, but this show’s first 10 episodes were outstanding. Drew Tarver, who folks might know from stand-out appearances on the “Comedy Bang Bang” podcast, and Heléne Yorke, probably best known for work on Broadway, play floundering siblings of a viral music sensation. It’s a smart satire but not especially high-minded, and a lot of comedy heavy-hitters show up.
What we read this year
Ben Hohenstatt, “Your Favorite Band is Killing Me: What Pop Music Rivalries Reveal About the Meaning of Life,” by Steven Hyden (Nonfiction, Book): As a record-collecting dweeb with friends and family who aren’t similarly afflicted, I get a lot music-related books, and I do a really bad job of ever actually reading them. This year, I finally tackled this 2016 book by the always amusing Steven Hyden. It examines the bizarre way dichotomous music rivalries (Nirvana v. Pearl Jam, Blur v. Oasis, etc.) can tell us how we view ourselves or want others to perceive us. It’s also full of deep-pull anecdotes and references that any armchair critic will enjoy.
Michael S. Lockett, The “Machineries of Empire” Trilogy by Yoon Ha Lee (Fiction, Books): This was a damned weird science fiction like nothing I’d read before that nevertheless captured me quite completely. Unmercilessly unexplanatory, the book doesn’t hold your hand, launching you into a universe the author created that’s quite divorced from the Western concept of science fiction. A universe where the authoritarian interstellar government is held up by faith in calenders, sacrificial offerings and flat out weirdness, I was astounded by how consistent and intriguing the characters and plots were in a trilogy anchored around math-based warfare and governance. “Ninefox Gambit,” “Raven Stratagem,” and “Revenant Gun” were released in 2016, 2017, and 2018 respectively.
Nolin Ainsworth, “Faith of Cranes: Finding Hope and Family in Alaska,” by Hank Lentfer (Nonfiction, Book): I’ve never been to Gustavus, a nearby town at the entrance to Glacier Bay, but this book put me there. Author Hank Lentfer is my former landlord and writes with vivid description of the people, places and recent events of the small outpost, which comes alive every year when sandhill cranes pass through it.
What we played this year
Ben Hohenstatt, “Vampyr” (Nintendo Switch): I feel odd picking this because this year I played some games that were objectively much better, but “Vampyr” sunk its teeth into me. As a vampirism-afflicted doctor, who is a veteran freshly back from the front lines of World War I, you navigate a grimy London and spend a ton of time talking to characters and solving minor mysteries. Thankfully, the talking parts are what the well-acted and well-written game does best. The combat and overall plot are forgettable, but the atmosphere and characters ensured “Vampyr” was how I spent way too much free time for a couple of weeks. This game is also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox 1, and PC.
Michael S. Lockett, “The Outer Worlds,”(PlayStation 4): Developed by Obsidian Entertainment, the same company as the superb “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II” and “Fallout: New Vegas,” “The Outer Worlds” will be familiar to anyone who’s ever played a Fallout game, particularly the generation before Fallout 4. An exquisitely produced game world set in a decaying corporate feudalistic system far from ours, “The Outer Worlds” is both lovely and well written, encouraging you to solve your problems your own way as you brush through the game. While it’s not very long, it’s very complete, and doesn’t waste your time with fetch quests or other bloating filler content. This game is also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox 1, and PC.
• Contact reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt