Another year is coming to a close. And so, once again, Tim + Alex put their heads together to figure out what the best stuff of the past 12 months has been: music, comics, TV shows, live events… Here’s the first part of our comprehensive guide to everything that made surviving 2018 worthwhile.
We’ll be back in a week to count down the top 25 things of the year. But for now, let’s get started…
Camila Cabello – Camila [ALBUM]
Alex: For the solo debut of someone who had just left behind one of the world’s biggest girl groups, Camila is a remarkably low-key offering. “Havana” is the big banger here, and even that is pretty subdued for a Certified Pop Hit. But in the quiet, Camila establishes a rich smoky atmosphere, pulling from R&B, hip-hop, reggaeton and more traditional latin music to establish her own distinct sound. Using the artist’s name as a title can feel lazy, but this is the rare case where it’s justified: I really do believe this is what the inside of Camila’s head sounds like.
The Regrettes – Come Through [TRACK]
Tim: I didn’t get to a lot of gigs in 2018, but seeing The Regrettes in a sweaty, crowded basement room that held less than a hundred would have been a highlight even in a year thick with live shows. “Come Through” is a fantastic distillation of the group’s appeal – an irresistible bass line, an effortless sound that blends of 50s girl group and energetic garage rock, and witty, spiky lyrics that perfectly skewer the teenage experience. It’s the kind of song you want to blast out of open car windows as you drive away from this town, never to return.
Alex: In the ruins of a very human apocalypse, the only survivors are tribes of animals, trying to make sense of the world they’ve been left. From winged monkeys to cybernetic manatees, killing-machine cats to dolphins with built-in jetpacks, they’re all beautifully realised through Caspar Wijngaard’s chunky pastel-coloured cartooning and the way Simon Spurrier gives each species its own unique speech pattern. It looks like we’re only ever going to get the comic’s first volume but at least, with a big reveal and some thoughtful conclusions, it went out on a high.
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina [TV]
Tim: Certainly winning this year’s award for “Most Mentions of Satan in a Teenage Drama”, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina takes the formula established by Riverdale and builds on it, dialling down some of the melodrama but boosting the supernatural stakes up to eleven. Anchored around a great performance by Kiernan Shipka as the titular teenage witch, the show has succeeded in creating compelling drama in Sabrina’s mortal life and her role as a burgeoning member of the ‘Church of Night’. With able support from a murderer’s row of early 2000s British sitcom stars and the great Miranda Otto, Sabrina has developed mystery, atmosphere and engaging characters, all in half a season.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Season 4 [TV]
Alex: CXGF, as all the cool kids call it, is hard to slot into any single category. It’s a sitcom, but it’s 40 minutes long, with no static situation, and storylines about mental health and broken relationships. It’s a romance, but with a lead who is less and less interested in the question of who she ends up with. It’s a musical, each episode dropping in two tracks that parody familiar songs and genres, but honestly it feels like its songbook has started to run dry. Here in its final series, what I appreciate CXGF for most is its willingness to linger on a character, and consider their internal life. No one is just a stereotype. People, like the best TV shows, can’t be neatly slotted into a category.
Let’s Eat Grandma – I’m All Ears [ALBUM]
Tim: It’s always gratifying to be able to show some hometown pride when it comes to music, and Let’s Eat Grandma are the most exciting act to come out of Norwich since Cathy Dennis. Their debut album is an angular delight, all polished glass and dark pulses, and it demonstrates a massive versatility from a pair of musicians so young. From propulsive dancefloor electro-pop with “It’s Not Just Me” to the sparse, gothic confession of “Snakes & Ladders”, the record (and the band) refuse to be pinned down, instead embracing every potential path. I’m All Ears is a glittering fractal, and will embed itself deeply in your brain if you give it half a chance.
Alex: As high concepts go, ‘Kickstarter but for assassinations, and Uber but for bodyguards’ is almost too neat. It’s the kind of idea that feels destined to go straight from the back of a napkin to cinema screens, bypassing the comic they were supposed to be making in the middle. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that Crowded has already been picked up for a movie adaptation – but, happily, you wouldn’t get any sense of that from the comic. It solidly roots the idea in its characters, Charlie and Vita, and tells their story with a visual inventiveness – cutaways of houses, cartoony flashbacks and sound FX woven into the fabric of its reality – that could only be done in comics.
Glow Season 2 [TV]
Tim: Glow started out strong last year, with a fantastic ensemble headed by Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin and Marc Maron, and a terrific concept that mined one of wrestling history’s weirder moments for drama and comedy in equal measure. With season two, the show expanded what it was capable of, delivering great episodes exploring motherhood, family, rivalry and, in an unexpected but very effective moment, the AIDS crisis. On top of that, this season brought us the superlative “The Good Twin”, essentially a full episode of the show-within-a-show, complete with comedy skits and adverts for other public access series.
Drake – Nice for What [TRACK]
Alex: For my taste, Drake is an artist who misses more than he hits. But “Nice for What” pulls from a tradition I’m very fond of – the ‘chipmunk soul’ style made famous by Kanye, where the artist samples a soul track (or in this case, Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor”) then speeds it up to make a beat – as well as one I wasn’t previously aware of – New Orleans bounce. The latter, I mostly learned about from the excellent Switched On Pop podcast, but if you want to know more, just follow the breadcrumbs Drake has left here: the cameo by Big Freedia, background vocals from 5th Ward Weebie, production by BlaqNmilD. But you don’t need to know any of the above. All you need to know is “Nice for What” absolutely bangs.
What If? Magik #1 [COMIC]
Tim: I first became of aware of Leah Williams years ago as a presence on Tumblr, and soon found out she was an extraordinarily talented writer. It’s been incredibly gratifying seeing her enter the world of comics and absolutely kicking arse at every opportunity, and 2018 has felt like a real breakthrough year for her getting the attention she deserves. For me, her strongest work of the year was What If? Magik, where she crafted a brilliant portrait of Illyana Rasputin, fresh from the trauma of her time in Limbo, feral and wounded and angry. Combined with astonishing art from Filipe Andrade, who is perfectly suited to the curious geometries and twisting energies of a story filled with magic, and gorgeous colouring from Chris O’Halloran, it’s an amazing story about one of the X-Men’s most complex characters.
Hamilton London [SHOW]
Alex: Relatively speaking, I’m a Hamilton moderate. Like, it’s obviously a hundred times better than a musical with the pitch ‘what if George Washington… rapped?’ has any right to be, but the cast recording album has never fallen into my heavy Spotify rotation like it has for some people I know/am married to. Seeing it live, though, Hamilton moved me in ways very few pieces of art ever have. The emotion of the story, the intensity of the performances, the visible effort and ingenuity in every setpiece, a room absolutely filled with human voices working together… it’s overwhelming. As someone who only considers themself slightly into Hamilton, I’ve been twice since the production came to London at the beginning of the year. Imagine if I was a proper fan.
Go Team – Semicircle [ALBUM]
Tim: After the more laid back approach of 2015’s The Scene Between, it’s great to have The Go! Team back kicking out the jams with their latest album. Semicircle is a fairground ride of a record, switching back and forth between glow-in-the-dark amusements like “Semicircle Song” and greasy treats like “She’s Got Guns” with effortless ease. In a year when it’s been all too easy to feel overwhelmed, having a new batch of Go! Team songs to get you out of your chair and pounding the pavement with a skip in your step has been essential.
Dead Cells [GAME]
Alex: Dead Cells is the year’s best entry in a very specific subgenre of games which I love – the kind where dying is probably the best bit. Frustrating, yes, because it means the unforgiving lightning-fast combat has bested you, and because you have to start again from the very beginning. But also thrilling, because you’ll be faced with an entirely fresh game: new levels to zip around, new distributions of enemies and obstacles to overcome, and – best of all – a completely new set of weapons to collect along the way, and a chance to reshape your character from scratch. The game unlocks new toys as you progress, randomly handed out at the start of a playthrough, but more importantly your own mastery of the game inches along with each attempt. What repeatedly kills you can only make you stronger.
Tim: Given the intense character-focused films, like 12 Years a Slave and Shame, that he’s brought us in the past, you probably wouldn’t have pegged Steve McQueen to direct a taut heist thriller, much less one based on a pulpy novel that had previously been adapted as a BBC miniseries in the ’90s. But Widows is much more than that – it’s an intelligent drama that creates a richly inhabited world and fills it with characters from every level of society. The film has a frankly bonkers cast, packed to the rafters with brilliant performers delivering their A-game, and it manages to feel both massive and intimate in its scope. Plus the actual heist parts? Brilliantly directed, and positively dripping with tension.
Alex: Maniac is one of the few shows which fulfils the promise of ‘Netflix Original’. It’s not something you can imagine getting made any other way: a kaleidoscopic one-off ten-part story where two incredibly famous people (Emma Stone, Jonah Hill) basically star in a different show every episode. You might get a wonky Terry Gilliam-esque dystopia, or Austin Powers done as a prestige drama, or a ‘40s screwball comedy heist movie, or… Well, I’ll leave you to find out for yourself. Surprise is one of Maniac’s greatest strengths, but it sticks with you long after the novelty has worn out.
Brockhampton – “San Marcos” [TRACK]
Tim: “San Marcos” is the moment Brockhampton prove their boy band bonafides, having always insisted on labelling themselves as such despite a press that would prefer they were a ‘hip hop collective’ or similar. It’s a genuine ballad that wouldn’t have felt out of a place on an East 17 record in 1994, and sticks close to the themes the band explores elsewhere on iridescence, opening up about depression, dissatisfaction and a fear of vulnerability. The musical equivalent of an honest conversation at 3am in the front garden of a house party, and similarly cathartic.
Lizzo – “Boys” [TRACK]
Is there any finer pop tradition than making an utter banger and titling it “Boys”? 2017 gave us Charli XCX’s excellent Mario-sampling lustfest, and now we have this somehow even thirstier addition to the canon. Lizzo rattles off boys she likes – big boys, itty bitty boys, Mississippi boys, inner city boys – flipping the script on a million pop songs, including a gorgeous long-lashed wink to Big Willy’s “Miami”. We can only pray that 2019 continues this excellent run, and once again gives us the “Boys” we all deserve.
Star Trek: Discovery – “Vaulting Ambition” [TV]
Tim: Discovery’s first season was something of a tonal rollercoaster. It kicked off by waving goodbye to tradition, and embracing both heavy serialisation and a central protagonist in Sonequa Martin-Green’s Michael Burnham. As the show progressed and found its footing, it began to more closely resemble Star Trek series of old, with a run of excellent episodes that offered one-and-done stories while still building towards a larger narrative. Then, in the final third, the show revealed its full hand, with a series of audacious twists that demonstrated just how ambitious it truly was. “Vaulting Ambition”, the twelfth episode, is where the dominos truly start building momentum, and on both an emotional and plotting level, it’s a stunner.
Cosmic Ghost Rider [COMIC]
Alex: You know The Punisher, right? Frank Castle, family murdered, skull on his t-shirt and a fuckton of guns? What if he was also Ghost Rider (you know: Nic Cage, motorcycle, head on fire), and worked first for Galactus (big purple lad, eater of worlds, the Marvel’s own personal God) and then for Thanos (less big but equally purple lad, big on finger clicks and dusting, all-round bad egg)? This kind of conceptual mash-up isn’t particularly rare for superhero comics, but it’s rarely done this well. Donny Cates and Dylan Burnett tell a story that’s alternately funny, punch-the-air awesome, ridiculous and surprisingly emotional. All with a Punisher whose head is on fire.
John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous at Radio City [SHOW]
Tim: It’s not been a great couple of years for stand-up comedy. Far too many established performers are (at best) struggling to stay relevant in an age when audiences are less willing to laugh along with humour that looks down on society’s most vulnerable, and the old boys’ club network of clubs and gigs is still suffocating some of the more exciting upcoming voices. Thank heavens, then, for John Mulaney, a turn-of-the-century newsie trapped in the body of an aging figure skater, who blends autobiography, observation and the surreal without ever ‘punching down’. His latest special spans topics from ‘stranger danger’ school assemblies to living during the Trump administration, and still leaves me creased up with laughter after multiple viewings.
Ariana Grande – “no tears left to cry” [TRACK]
Alex: 2018 was the year Ariana ascended from popstar to part of the pop-cultural firmament: a perpetual target for tabloid snooping and bad takes, riding through this hell year with one finger permanently raised, shutting down idiots on social media and effortlessly spawning memes. But let’s not forget: she’s also still one of the finest popstars we’ve got. Consider this a Schroedinger’s entry on the list, flickering between “no tears left to cry”/“God is a Woman”/“thank u, next” every time you look away and back again.
Field Music – “Count it Up” [TRACK]
Tim: A simple description of “Count It Up” makes it sound like the worst possible exercise in faux ‘wokeness’, and the kind of earnest embarrassment that is borderline unlistenable. And yes, it is effectively Field Music’s David Brewis speak-singing a formula for calculating your own privilege, but like so much of the band’s work, “Count It Up” transcends its own descriptors. The genuinely funky melody hooks you in almost instantly, and turns lyrics about growing up with newspapers in your house into the kind of poetry that you find yourself singing to yourself three days later.
To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before [FILM]
Alex: A perfect teen movie, invoking (and criticising) John Hughes without being slavish to the formula he perfected in 1985. The first half especially is wonderfully inventive, shuffling between different visual concepts and styles like they’re dresses in a montage. And when that dies down, you’re left with kids who feel not only like real kids but more importantly like real people, whose wellbeing you care about so utterly that you could just curl up on your bed and cry about it all. Like I said, a perfect teen movie.
Tim: Whisper it: Rainbow Rowell and Kris Anka’s stint on Runaways might actually be better than the (rightly celebrated) original series by Brian K Vaughan, Adrian Alphona and others. Bringing the full team back together for the first time in many years, the series has explored the fallout of growing up in the Marvel Universe, and developed its own distinct voice that builds on where the original left off. Less interested in bombastic action or overt superheroics, it’s a brilliant character study that has taken an intelligent approach to continuity and continues to surprise. Plus with Anka on art, the Runaways remain the best-dressed teenagers in comics history.
Serial Season 3 [PODCAST]
Alex: After a dodgy second season which had a lot of us reevaluating the first with a freshly critical eye, for Serial’s third outing the podcast almost totally reinvented itself. Instead of telling a single story, Sarah Koenig and team tackle an entire justice system, via a year spent in a Cleveland courthouse. It’s compelling without (one notable exception aside) straying into rubbernecking, a series of tales about injustice in various guises that will break your heart and, it seems to hope, motivate you to take action. It’s been reported this week that Serial’s coverage of one particular case has led the city of Euclid, Ohio to reclassify marijuana possession – seemingly a small thing, perhaps, but exactly the kind of systemic change the podcast is fighting for.
See you on 31 December to count down the top 25.