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, movies, and the rest… This is our comprehensive guide to everything that made surviving 2018 worthwhile.
You can find our first 25 picks here, but below, in rough ascending order, are our absolute favourite things of the year.
Tim: As a nocturnal disaster with a taste for trash, I identify strongly with raccoons, and that feeling was only intensified when I met BK, the raccoon co-protagonist of Ben Esposito’s Donut County. A lazy idiot who refuses any blame for problems that are transparently his fault, it’s nonetheless easy to sympathise with BK once you start experiencing the soothing joy of steering slowing growing holes around the lovingly-rendered environments of Donut County. Combined with the excellently soothing soundtrack and the beautiful design work, you too will soon be devastating communities and ignoring your responsibilities as you chase that donut high.
Avengers: Infinity War [FILM]
Alex: I still can’t quite believe I enjoyed Infinity War as much as I did. Big threat, bigger cast crossovers are never my favourite kind of superhero story; I haven’t really gotten along with the previous Marvel output of the Brothers Russo; and one of the movie’s big selling points was the Avengers debut of Dr Strange (not seen his movie, rubbish in Ragnarok) and the Guardians of the Galaxy (only seen the first one, don’t love it). And yet, I was thoroughly entertained by this… I mean, allegedly movie, but it felt more like the season finale to six different shows at once. It’s the cliffhanger everyone remembers, of course, but there are plenty more fantastic moments along the way: Dr Strange whipping up portal after portal, Thor powering a miniature sun, the Reality Stone, deep-fried kebabs, “rabbit”, the post-credits tease and, most important of all, every single moment with Tom Holland’s Peter Parker.
Hayley Kiyoko – Expectations [ALBUM]
Tim: You could look at Hayley Kiyoko’s debut studio album as an incredibly safe production. It blends Weeknd-style murkiness with the cleaner pop sensibilities of contemporaries like Little Mix, Camila Cabello and others to create the sort of ‘dancefloor heard from the next room’ sound that allows for great (but not groundbreaking) atmospheric pop. But that discounts the still-rare phenomena of an artist of Kiyoko’s standing, who performed on stage with Taylor Swift this year, singing honestly about the LGBTQ experience. And when some of the fuzz and echo are stripped away for album closer “Let It Be”, we get a better look at Kiyoko’s range, and a real sense of how great she’ll be when she truly takes flight.
Chvrches & Wednesday Campanelle – “Out of My Head” [TRACK]
Alex: Once upon a time, Chvrches’ music felt sharply vital. There were clear influences behind Lies and Mother We Share, but to my ears, those tracks sounded like nothing else. Slowly, for me, that slipped away. I’ve enjoyed all of their albums well enough, this year’s particularly, but the band stopped making tracks that I was willing to wrest control of a dancefloor for. Until, that is, this cheeky post-album single dropped. A collaboration with Japanese trio Wednesday Campanella, it brought back all the noisy urgency of their music rushing back. It’s a flash of lightning I hope they can recapture.
West Coast Avengers [COMIC]
Tim: Stefano Caselli is one of the most underrated artists working in comics today. He’s been producing consistently great superhero comics for over a decade, bringing a perfect balance of realism and cartooning to bear on both action scenes and quieter emotional moments. That blend made him a great fit for West Coast Avengers, where he and comics writer extraordinaire Kelly Thompson are crafting a series that combines the daily grind of a team of young superheroes with the kind of Marvel Comics Bullshit that allows for fifty foot-tall cat women and land sharks. The title is only five issues old, but already shows a wonderful sense of comedic voice and a deep love for its characters.
Alex: Season 5 was very nearly the finale of Dan Goor & Michael Schur’s cop sitcom. In the end, just one day after it was cancelled by Fox, NBC scooped up the show for a sixth season. But if this had been the end… well, how many sitcoms can claim their fifth and final season as their undisputed best? Brooklyn Nine-Nine has spent years building up the relationships between its cast, which gives the show an effortless perpetual motion machine for jokes, but also means that more tender moments – major life events and single lines alike – can kick you right in the heart.
Tim: As someone who attended a pretty run-of-the-mill Methodist church until I was around 11, my relationship with religion has always been fairly chilled – my turn towards atheism as a teen was based more on coming to terms with my own beliefs, rather than explicitly rejecting someone else’s, and came before the wave of awful Reddit Atheism that now exists. Still, I’ve maintained a simmering interest in religion, especially in the more, shall we say, ‘out there’ parts, which makes Apocrypals precisely my jam. Chris Sims and Benito Cereno go through each book of the Bible and apocrypha with an eye toward the kind of details that would appeal to two comic book writers, while also providing a wealth of historical and theological context, and calling out the less agreeable parts. Reliably fascinating.
Hollow Knight [GAME]
Alex: One of my favourite things in games is exploring: prodding at the edges of a space or a system, feeling like you’re discovering it all for the first time. Hollow Knight is better at this sensation than almost any other game I’ve played. Its world, a mostly-underground 2D map that’s equal parts creepy and cute, is huge but finely interconnected – you can drop over a cliffside and find yourself back somewhere previously visited hours before, or break down a wall to link two spaces you once thought impossibly distant. It uses maps excellently, too – they’re physical objects to be found each time you arrive in a new area. There’s no greater feeling in Hollow Knight than pushing forward into the dark, praying you’ll find the game’s travelling cartographer, or just a resting spot, before this world’s other inhabitants catch up to you.
Queer Eye [TV]
Tim: At its heart, Queer Eye is broadly similar to the vast majority of feelgood reality television. The people brought on to have their lives improved typically have a single element they need fixing and some kind of personal tragedy or relatable problem to help us sympathise with them. The solutions, smart and well-thought-through as they may be, largely benefit from having time, money and expertise thrown at them. And yes, no-one is actually sure if Antoni really knows how to cook. But those issues fall away when you allow yourself to embrace the show’s ethos of kindness, generosity, self-care and empathy. Plus, the show’s presenters aren’t just catchphrase-peddling caricatures, but genuinely charismatic people who are given time to explore the topics important to them.
Immortal Hulk [COMIC]
Alex: The Hulk is a character I’ve never really ‘got’, outside of Mark Ruffalo’s excellently twitchy big-screen interpretation. That is, until Immortal Hulk. Al Ewing & Joe Bennett first stripped the Jade Giant back to his conceptual foundations as the monster, the other, basically the shark in Jaws… and then built something fresh and weird on top of that. We’ve had moments of body horror, big superhero fights, existentialist reimaginings of the ‘70s TV series format, some wonderful character work, and an exciting new status quo for 2019. It’s the comic I pick up first every week it’s out, and the one that most often leaves me feeling unsettled.
Tim: Among our friendship group, Carly Rae Jepsen descending from heaven to grant us mortals another single is treated with the appropriate reverence it deserves. And while we await a 2019 album drop with bated breath, “Party for One” certainly served to keep us going in the back half of this year. A paean to self-love, self-care and self-pleasure, “Party for One” sees Jepsen continue to assert her place as Queen of the Dirty Double Meaning (see last year’s “Cut To The Feeling”) while producing an eminently danceable hit. The song builds on the ‘80s-inflected production of Emotion to craft a more distinctive, individual sound, and has raised my excitement at the prospect of a new album to fever pitch.
Riverdale – “The Midnight Club” [TV]
Alex: Riverdale essentially works by constantly one-upping itself – moments of bigger shock, higher camp, pushing the teen drama to weirder, sillier, more unexpected places. These moments don’t always land, which can result in the show feeling flat or even strained, but every now and then it manages an episode-long run of them. As in season three’s “The Midnight Club”, a high-point the show is already struggling to top. The episode jumps back to the early ‘90s, recasting its company of teens as their parents in its own version of The Breakfast Club. It keeps the montages, the iconic period pop soundtrack, the huge block-colour emotions of that movie, but applies them to a uniquely Riverdale plot, of drugs that look like candy, a demonic game of Dungeons & Dragons that seems to possess its players and, of course, a dark secret that will be buried for decades.
Young Fathers – Cocoa Sugar [ALBUM]
Tim: When I championed Cocoa Sugar in our March pop culture recommendations, I said that I’d almost certainly still be listening to it come the end of the year, and that prediction has proved entirely true. Perhaps more than any other album this year, the latest offering from the Scottish trio has been a constant presence in my listening, perfectly straddling that line between engaging tunes that snare your attention and great background music to work, walk or relax to. While other records may have hooked me deeper or more intensely, Young Fathers have tortoised their way into the top 20.
Charli XCX – “Girls Night Out” [TRACK]
Alex: I’m getting old, and the prospect of going out – with my girls or otherwise – is significantly less enticing than it used to be. But Ms XCX manages to sell even my old bones on the idea that it’s the best thing in the world. She squeezes an entire night out into just under four minutes, from the getting-ready “ooh-ooh”s through the squidgy club-with-a-smoke-machine beats to the lairy “alright alright alright”s, eventually ending on a kitschy Stock-Aitken-Waterman explosion sound effect that fades perfectly into whatever track you’ve got cued up next, ensuring it’s a night that never really ends. Along the way: the second verse with Charli playing her own hypeman with background ad-libs (“woo woo!”, “mwah!”, “bang-bang!”) that sound like your mate barely visible in the back of a noisy Facetime call but determined to make their presence known. Those screams that sound like the photo you buy after you stumble off a rollercoaster, a moment of dizzy head-rush frozen in time. And all of it connected by multiple layers of singalong-ready chants, perfect for stomping down the middle of a road with a premix can held high. NO BOYS! NO BOYS!
Avengers: No Surrender [COMIC]
Tim: Given how regularly they occur in modern comics publishing, a successful crossover event is actually incredibly hard to pull off. It requires a deft balancing of expectations, an iron-clad plan, and a simple core story hook that is big enough to feel impactful but contained enough to not sprawl out of control. Managing that on a weekly schedule is even harder, but Marvel did just that this summer with No Surrender. Written by Mark Waid, Jim Zub and Al Ewing, with art by Joe Bennett, Kim Jacinto, Pepe Larraz and Paco Medina, No Surrender took a video game-esque premise but gave it emotional heft by centering a different character each issue. The resulting story felt big but also intimate, and showed that while films like Infinity War can do great things in replicating their source material, comics will always do superhero action the best.
Alex: Cardi B has crafted a glittering suit of aural power armour. A downloadable package of swagger from her own immense reserve, to be downloaded via headphones whenever you need to punch a hole in whatever confidence-crumbling task lies ahead. “I Like It”? I bloody well love it, mate.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout [FILM]
Tim: It’s hard to pinpoint when the Mission: Impossible series became the darling of film critics and action connoisseurs. Most people would point to the fourth movie’s superlative Burj Khalifa sequence, but I have a long-standing affection for the third, which gave us the series’ best villain in the form of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Still, whenever it happened, each new entry in the M:I canon is now lavished with praise on arrival, and it’s not hard to see why. While Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt remains a somewhat robotic cipher, his commitment to stunt work borders on the psychotic, and results in some of the best action cinema of the past 20 years. The plot holds together impressively for something that is simply a framework to deliver grand setpieces, and Christopher McQuarrie’s direction delivers visceral thrills and slick spy action in equal measure.
American Vandal 2 [TV]
Alex: Not as funny as its predecessor (dicks > poop, that’s just basic comedy maths) but easily as remarkable. Where the whodunnit villain of the first season was a prankster gone too far, here it’s a social media terrorist. Untangling the mystery of their identity is more complicated, and goes to some darker places. It’s all told in the same found-footage style, presented as a Making a Murderer-style documentary produced by two teenagers. It’s incredibly well thought-through, stirring real-world events into the mystery, offering a reason why every piece of footage exists, and taking into account the fact that this is a series on Netflix and how that affects the story and the people telling it. Sadly, it’s since been cancelled, but on the plus side: every moment of American Vandal that exists is absolutely perfect.
X-Men Red [COMIC]
Tim: As someone who’s been reading X-Men comics pretty much non-stop for the last 25 years, I have, in my head, a sort of platonic ideal of what an X-Men title should be. X-Men Red, by Tom Taylor, Mahmud Asrar, Carmen Carnero and others, is about as close as an actual story has ever got to that perfect idea. It takes the idea of the X-Men as radicals fighting for a better world and foregrounds it, bringing in contemporary concerns over how people are turned against each other and towards hate. It embraces a global view of the world, and ties into the wider Marvel universe while remaining a mutant story. It understands that the most powerful weapon the X-Men have is empathy. And it does all that while still delivering the thrills, twists and soap opera that we expect from comics’ greatest ongoing drama. With the X-books currently undergoing one of their periodic reshuffles, I can only hope that X-Men Red is the template that future titles are held to.
Tetris Effect [GAME]
Alex: What more is there to say about Tetris Effect? I’ve written about it as the adaptation of a fascinating psychological phenomenon, as the game that unlocked VR for me, as a relic of ‘90s optimism for what games could be. I’ve raved into the faces of anyone who will listen about the way it links music, visuals and gaming’s most primal mechanics into something transcendental. So let’s talk instead about how unexpectedly good it is as a party game. There’s no multiplayer mode to speak of – one person dons the headset at a time, taking their turn to sink into Tetris Effect’s dazzling vistas, but everyone else can spectate on the TV screen, shouting advice (“bank it!” “rotate!” “no, the other way!”) or marvelling at moments of virtuoso play (yes, Amy, we do mean you – our own personal Tetris Hendrix). Pretty much everyone has a relationship with Tetris, and this game has proved a lovely campfire for conversation to gather around, as people reminisce and compare their experiences. It’s almost as wonderful an experience as what’s going on inside the headset.
Tim: Back when I first recommended Be The Cowboy, I compared her to The Smiths for her ability to combine achingly well-observed moments with lush, sonic landscapes. And while that holds true, it’s only a fraction of the real picture of Be The Cowboy. Sure, you can hear elements of Johnny Marr guitars on tracks like “Lonesome Love” and “Blue Light”, but Mitski also pulls in from electronica, country and noise rock to piece together a dozen-plus portraits of modern loneliness, desperation, loathing and lust. Be The Cowboy is a shattered mirror, and each tiny gleaming fragment shows you an angle of yourself you’d rather not see, and cuts you deeper than you’d expect.
The Wicked + The Divine: 1923 [COMIC]
Alex: Normally, nothing turns me off a comic quicker than when it drops the pictures for a section of prose. We get it, Alan Moore, you’d rather be writing novels. But WicDiv’s 1923 Special not only gets away with splitting its page count between sequential comics and chapters of prose – it turns it into one of the best issues in the entire run. In part, that’s because I’ve been a fan of Kieron Gillen’s writing style back to his days as a journalist. In part, it’s because it solves the main problem of WicDiv’s historical specials: that they can’t cram all of the carefully-researched background, new characters, expansions to the series’ worldbuilding and connections to the ongoing storyline into a single issue – prose is, after all, a much more space-efficient medium. But the real magic is that this feels like the natural shape of this particular story. In place of pop stars, the gods of the early 20th Century are mostly writers – Fitzgerald as the devil, Orwell as an oracle – or stars of the silver screen – a superpowered Buster Keaton, a murderous Shirley Temple – and the constant jumping between artforms is thematically tied to that divide, with comics standing in for the low-culture cinema. That’s just one of the many ideas contained within which caused me to swear when I realised what the comic was doing.
Into the Breach [GAME]
Tim: Alex is far and away the computer gamesman of our pairing, and in general it’s incredibly rare for me to be playing something that came out in the past three years anywhere but on someone else’s machine. But the explosion of indie games over the last 10 years means it’s now easy to find ‘game of the year’ level releases with graphics that won’t instantly melt a hole in my laptop. Into The Breach is such a game – a set of elegantly balanced puzzles disguised as a strategy game, where you and your team of giant robot pilots must use your limited set of abilities to outfox, outmanoeuvre and outlast alien invaders. With a roguelike mechanic that encourages you to play ‘just one more’ mission, almost endless variations of three-strong mecha squadrons to try, and a range of synergistic strategies to discover, Into The Breach manages to balance feeling short enough to quickly dip into and infinite enough to keep you playing for weeks on end.
Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer [ALBUM]
Alex: Dirty Computer feels like an important album, in ways I can often shy away from. It invites words like ‘masterpiece’ and ‘canon’. For someone who mostly likes pop songs about gettin’ it on, that’s dangerously respectable. But the key is right there in the title – Monáe has dropped her Archandroid persona, allowing us to see the bugs in her code. Part of that is being open about her sexuality, but whatever the topic, her lyrics have a fresh honesty to them. Whether it’s addressing us directly, guessing at our response, or singing lines that still have a little first-draft fuzz about them, allowing metaphors to be just a touch corny, this honesty provides a much-needed constant. It grounds the album as Monáe shuttles between seamlessly modes – otherworldly, funky, delicate, filled with righteous fury, just downright horny.
Dirty Computer is the Album as Statement, unabashed about how old-fashioned that notion might be. It feels precision-crafted to drop into ‘best albums of all time’ lists. It’s a record with contributions from both Brian Wilson and Prince, for God’s sake. But it’s just disreputable enough, just dirty enough, to be more fun than all that. Those aren’t bugs in Dirty Computer’s code, obviously – they’re features.
The Good Place Season 3 [TV]
Tim: There’s no denying that The Good Place arrived on our screens almost tailor-made to appeal to my and Alex’s shared sensibilities. Formalist trickery? Check. Slowly explored, consistent mythology? Check? Gently absurdist humour, a genuine emotional core and a cast of characters struggling to improve themselves? Check, check and check. Throw in the Michael Schur pedigree and the presence of Kristen Bell and you have a show that’s set up to succeed, at least as far as we’re concerned.
But what’s been so exciting and unexpected is the degree to which the show is willing to explode its own premise, again and again. As the show wrapped up its second season and began its third this year, it has continually thrown aside the kind of ideas that would maintain other shows for six-season runs, confident in its ability to land on its feet and evolve. The show now bears little resemblance to the first episode, but at its core still shares the same desire to explore philosophy and tell some really, really great jokes. Blessed with an extremely versatile cast and one of the best writing teams currently working, The Good Place is one of the most ambitious comedies of recent years, and still feels like it’s gathering pace.