Once more we return to the 2010s, for our countdown of the twenty best things – as in, albums, comics, games and other pop cultural artefacts – that were released during it. You can find entries #20-11 here, but join us below the cut as we climb to the very summit of the decade. Warning: it gets emotional.
#10. Hawkeye [Comics, 2012-2015]
Tim: As I write this, I’m sat in a café, wearing a t-shirt that says “Kate Bishop is my Hawkeye” in the distinctive font and colours of Matt Fraction and David Aja’s series, which should give you an idea about my affection for this title. It’s hard to tell whether the Hawkeye series came at exactly the right time, or if it only seems like that because of the quiet revolution it triggered. Probably a little of both. There have long been series where creators apply their distinctive voice to a B-list superhero, of course, but the Fraction/Aja Hawkeye seemed to kickstart renewed faith in this concept, and led to a wave of innovative titles that’s still going strong.
The series begins with such a simple premise – here is what Clint Barton does when he’s not being an Avenger – and from it crafts a story about resilience, loneliness, independence and family (both biological and found). Aja’s art is exemplary, supported by Matt Hollingsworth’s astonishing colour work, and Fraction knows when to furnish the pages with truly delightful dialogue, and when to get the hell out of the way. Format-busting issues like #11 (“Pizza Is My Business”) may receive the bulk of praise, but every instalment of Hawkeye is an example of creators at the very top of their game. Talent like Francesco Francavilla and Annie Wu round out the series and elevate what could be called ‘fill-in issues’ to chapters with their own distinct voices. Altogether, the series crafts what will long be the defining portrait of two heroes called Hawkeye (even if we know who the real one is).
#9. Al Ewing’s Avengers [Comics, 2013-2019]
Alex: Al Ewing’s run on The Avengers is… ah, look, I’ve already misspoken. This isn’t a run in the usual comics sense: a single author on a single title, or at least a single character. Instead, we’re talking about a loose collection of books with an ever-shifting cast, most but by no means all of which include the word ‘Avengers’ somewhere in their titles. I’m not sure where I’d draw the boundaries, even – does it begin with Mighty Avengers #1 or before that, with the remarkable alt-universe standalone issue Avengers Assemble #14AU? Does No Road Home count as the conclusion, given Ewing was just one of three writers, or does it stretch into the future, starting with this week’s Incoming #1?
Honestly, though, if you’re looking for neat beginnings and endings then superhero comics just might not the medium for you. And luckily, Ewing is very good at making the most of messiness. He takes the Marvel Universe, a composite creation of a thousand different minds, a magpie constantly snatching shiny ideas from every other source imaginable to make its own nest, and he embraces the inherent contradictions.
People talk about Ewing as a pure superhero writer, in the sense that he’s not using them as a gateway into a genre that interests him more. But this doesn’t mean he’s necessarily a traditionalist one, or even one with a single way of telling these stories. Instead, he dials up one genre or another as it suits the story, or finds points where decades of storytelling clash against one another and uses that as fuel for drama. And underneath it all, there’s an earnest love of what these characters mean that shines through even when you’re not familiar with the history he’s playing with. He’s the kind of writer who can take something as simple as “Avengers Assemble” and find meaning in it, turn an empty catchphrase into something that, carefully deployed, can bring a tear to my eye.
#8. The McElroy Brothers Podcasting Empire [Podcasts, 2010-]
Tim: I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that the various podcasts created by the McElroy Brothers (primarily My Brother, My Brother and Me and The Adventure Zone) have helped me survive this decade, and I mean that in a very literal sense. On days when I was feeling down, or useless, or scattered, the combination of gentle absurdism and heartfelt positivity that these three West Virginia brothers bring to all their projects has sustained me. Their brand of humour has carried me through dull jobs, difficult journeys and dark days spent alone, somehow managing to bring a smile, a chuckle or a guffaw when I felt numb to everything else.
Podcasting is a format that thrives on simulated intimacy and parasocial relationships, but to me, the McElroys have never felt false or calculated. Instead, the McElroy family and their many collaborators managed to find the perfect midpoint between the informal goofing of three brothers and a keen ear for great gags and storytelling. In The Adventure Zone, they expanded their scope, creating engaging worlds, characters and stories while still retaining the inclusive, generous spirit that is at the core of their work. As we close in on the tenth anniversary of MBMBaM’s first episode, it’s pretty clear that the McElroys dominated the decade in podcasts.
#7. Community [TV, 2010-2015]
Alex: When Tim + I first brought our individual picks together, and we looked out over the combined list and saw that it was good, a few observations were thrown out. Like how well it serves as a summary of the pop-cultural points where our two brains meet. Which makes sense, given you can mark the 2010s by the development of our romance, from online flirtations to dancefloor courtship to fervent collaboration and, latterly, a more comfortable companionship. And Community was one of the first gifts Tim ever gave me – something I picked up from his Tumblr, and the first Person of the Year post he wrote for my blog.
You can mark the decade by Community’s influence, too, the lines that run straight to Childish Gambino and Rick & Morty and the Russos’ share of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, all dominant forces of the 2010s. But most importantly it is itself one of the things that we – to speak for Tim, as I’ve spent so much of the last decade doing – treasure most: a comedy that’s smart and warm and cares about more than just jokes. (We’ll be seeing more of those on our ascent to the top.)
There’s the ambition of its high-concept episodes, yes, and those touches of nerdy detail, but most of all the relationships and interiority of its characters. You can probably see a model for the Tim + Alex partnership in Troy & Abed, but on my current rewatch, I’ve found myself drawn to Jeff: the occasionally-reluctant centre of a group who can’t stand to be anywhere but, the former gifted child who still struggles with not being the best at everything he does… He’s much more than the snarky lawyer cut-out he could have been, is my point, and for all its stumbles, you can say the same about pretty much every part of Community.
#6. All Day – Girl Talk [Music, 2010]
Tim: Recency bias is always going to creep into lists like this, with more recent work looming larger in our collective estimation. But when casting an eye back across the decade, I was delighted to find that All Day fell within the remit. The release of Girl Talk’s final album-length mash-up came within about a year of me discovering his earlier work, and when it dropped in November 2010, it felt like a real event. Alex + I were still early into our friendship and Twitter was not quite the toxic hellscape it has devolved into. I fondly remember passing links to commentaries, dissections and the hottest takes back and forth with Alex and others as All Day played on loop wherever I was.
From the opening hum of “War Pigs” to the closing bars of “Imagine”, All Day is a sonic voyage that embodies the best of mash-up culture. Familiar songs are juxtaposed or layered with perfect partners, drawing attention to moments in them that might otherwise be overlooked. The effect is not just a seamless tour of the musical landscape of the time, in the way a mash-up of the year’s biggest hits might be (enjoyable as those are), it feels like falling through a hundred FM stations, as snatches of tracks dating back decades brush up next to the latest hits. It’s a reminder of the timeless nature of pop music; sometimes you don’t need a perfect song, just a good hook or a solid verse that can grab hold of someone’s brain.
I could easily spend the whole of this entry just picking out moments I love from All Day, the kind of moments where Gregg Gillis has indelibly coloured all my future interactions with the songs he samples. It’s almost impossible for me to hear Portishead’s “Sour Times” without wanting to break out Big Boi’s “Shutterbugg”, and I’ll silently be adding “All the Girls Standing in the Line for the Bathroom” over “Dancing in the Dark” for the rest of my days. Plus, I’ve somehow yet to mention Jacob Krupnick’s astonishing dance video “Girl Walk//All Day” that came out a year later and added gorgeous visuals and a narrative to the album. Mash-ups seem to have faded in popularity from their peak, a decade back, but All Day is a reminder that they can extend far beyond “two songs stuck together” and that a skilled alchemist can create something that is far more than the sum of its parts.
#5. Android: Netrunner [Game, 2012-18]
Tim: In which we pour one out for our favourite card game of the 2010s.
Sitting neatly right in the middle of the decade (it was first published in 2012 and went out of print in 2018) Netrunner was about as elegant a blend of subject matter and game design as you can get. It took the class divisions and power dynamics that sit at the heart of cyberpunk and reconfigured them into an asymmetrical card game where one player risks life and limb while another is a faceless corporation, largely suffering setbacks to its quarterly profits at the worst.
If that sounds a little dry and depressing, then rest assured, each game of Netrunner was a cat-and-mouse conflict where fortunes could shift as quickly as information flittered from terminal to terminal. Netrunner offered endless variations on a simple set-up, with both sides of the game offering players a huge range of options in terms of how to construct their deck, and how to play once they begin. The ‘living card game’ model meant that the meta was constantly shifting, while also allowing players to construct reliable, competitive decks without having to buy endless booster packs in the hopes of finding a crucial card.
Netrunner supported all levels of play, from the serious-minded competitors hewing closely to the meta to the casual player who just had a beat-up copy of the core box set. Our regular gaming group sat somewhere in the middle, happy to experiment with weird decks inspired by a particular synergy, an evocative bit of backstory or an especially fun illustration. It was a game that allowed you to approach it on whatever terms you wanted, and always offered a rewarding experience, no matter how many times you went back. The fact that it is no longer supported by the publishers is both a tragic ending for a game that seemed to be going from strength to strength… and a tantalising invitation to try and track down every last card ever released for it.
#4. Kanye West – My My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy [Music, 2010]
Alex: I entered the 2010s convinced that Kanye West was a bellend and that most of the music he put out was rubbish. I leave it pretty much the same way. Call it symmetry, I guess.
But for most of the decade, I felt very differently indeed, and that’s all thanks to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I can’t remember which I heard first, “Monster” or “All of the Lights”, but the transformation was instantaneous.
And I’m sure Kanye would be thrilled to hear it, because Fantasy feels designed specifically to trigger this transformation. It’s Kanye reckoning with his own reputation – never quite apologising for anything, but certainly acknowledging it – and crafting the preceding years into something that basically demands you approach it with the word ‘masterpiece’ already in mind. Kanye founded a ‘Rap Camp’ in Hawaii to make the album and invited a list of collaborators that, just to recap the highlights, would eat up my remaining wordcount. It’s a process recounted beautifully by the Dissect podcast, the kind that’s followed with whispers of twenty-four-hour recordings and Brian Wilson-like obsessiveness – but I don’t want to glorify any of that, and I certainly didn’t know it the first time I listened to the album.
I didn’t need to. When you step inside My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, it envelops you. Voices and samples are layered dense, like a forest canopy, the light of the outside world strained and coloured by it. It’s an album with its own mythology, a combination of Christianity and celebrity and The Very Particular Gospel of Kanye Omari West. It feels like an attempt to take in the whole sweep of existence – the political, the mundane, the profound, the scatological – and press it down into fuel for undeniable bangers.
Fantasy is the kind of album that causes me to muddle my metaphors – it’s a novel, a cathedral, a party with a troubled host at the centre – because I can’t hold it in my head all at once. Kanye would go on to make another two-and-a-half excellent albums before he squandered all my good will, but nothing could stand up to this. Honestly, it’d be unreasonable to expect them to. You only get one masterpiece. Like, by definition.
#3. The Sitcoms of Mike Schur [TV, 2010-]
Tim: When, in the past, Alex + I have put together collaborative lists, we have adopted what in my mind I always refer to as ‘the Kieron Gillen method’ – when restricting yourself to one entry per artists on a list, if a given creator would otherwise appear multiple times, their single entry gets boosted up the rankings. That’s exactly what happened here, but to an even greater degree – we couldn’t even come to a consensus over which Mike Schur show deserved the top spot, so instead his entire oeuvre claims the number three spot.
Let’s tackle them in chronological order. Coming off his work as a writer and producer at The Office, which had successfully transformed the cynicism and tragedy of the UK version into something far more hopeful and warm, Schur co-created Parks & Recreation with Office showrunner Greg Daniels. After a rocky first season (which all falls in the previous decade anyway), the show took The Office’s affection for its characters and ran with it, creating a show that could be kind-hearted, enthusiastic about public service and filled with happy endings without ever sacrificing an ounce of comedy.
Then came Brooklyn Nine-Nine, co-created with Daniel J. Goor in 2013. The show’s cast managed to mix big names, US comedy mainstays and relative unknowns in a rare alchemy that felt familiar right from the outset. That amazing chemistry, combined with top-notch writing and Schur’s steady guidance, helped establish the show at a time when the US was not exactly brimming with confidence in law enforcement. Perhaps it was because of that atmosphere that the show felt so necessary – Brooklyn Nine-Nine offers us a glimpse into a world where the police force is diverse, where honest cops are willing to challenge authority and outmoded thinking, and corruption is reliably rooted out.
Finally, we have The Good Place, where Schur was the sole creative force, and perhaps the ultimate statement of his optimistic approach to the world: a comedy both daring in its plotting and deft in the way it integrated philosophical concepts into every episode. The man himself has cited Lost as an inspiration (a show that always makes me sad I was not better friends with Alex at the point when it was being broadcast), but the truth is, he and the others working on The Good Place have easily surpassed it. As the show approaches the end of its fourth and final season, I can’t wait to see what Schur turns his talents to next.
#1. Carly Rae Jepsen – E•MO•TION [Music, 2015]
[Okay, so maybe this is a cheat, but listen: in that aforementioned moment of combining our picks, Tim + I realised we had the same two picks in the top spots of our individual lists, but in the opposite order. (Feel free to guess who put which at the top – you may be surprised.) We laughed, briefly considered wrestling for it, then concluded it was actually kind of perfect. Because if you had to sum up our decade in two artefacts of pop culture, it would be these. And lo, we had two picks in joint first place.]
When I think of Emotion, I always come back to the very first time I ever heard it. It was in that weird months-long gap between the Japanese release and it arriving in the rest of the world, when internet piracy made the album an open secret. But, having hung up my eye patch and tricorn long before, I still hadn’t got my hands on it. And then (inexplicably, in the middle of a night out) I found myself in the home of someone who had, just me and him. He put it on, and we just stood and danced, for the duration, to songs I’d never heard before. A pop music miracle, by any definition of the word.
And then, when the album had played through, I wondered aloud whether it was a bit samey, whether it’d stand up to repeat listens. Reader, I was a fool. According to Last.fm, Emotion is my second most listened-to album. The Deluxe edition is my fourth, for a total of 1,226 listens. That’s about a hundred spins of the album, front to back – and with the gaps in my Last.fm history, I suspect that’s far from the whole story.
These days, I don’t really think of Emotion in terms of individual songs. In my mind, I treat it as a single mass of obsidian marbled through with blue and pink and all the colours of that iconic jumper. I tell myself that none of the individual songs are among my favourite CRJams, but then I actually listen to it. And, partway through, have to hit pause to attend to something. When I return an hour later, I find myself unsatisfied with this start point and jump backwards through tracks I need to hear again, right fucking now… until I’m back at “All That”, the point where the rollercoaster tips over the top, teeters for a second, and then plummets into the most untouchable run of songs on any album ever.
And I hit play, and I think back to that one summer where it was all I listened to, and the many, many times I’ve revisited it since. To the Friday it finally officially came out, coinciding neatly with an outing to girlpop clubnight Passionate Necking (RIP), where – at least in my memory – every third song was a Carly Rae Jepsen one, and everyone there already knew the album well enough to dance. (Not, as we’ve established, that knowing them is a prerequisite.) I think back to house parties and impromptu dancefloors and just being sat at this same desk I’m at now.
So yeah, I can’t help but think of Emotion as a single unit. Namely, in terms of roughly hour-long chunks of my life, some mundane but many of them among the happiest times of this decade we’re waving goodbye to here. I hope we’re not too old, or doomed, for that miracle to happen again in the 2020s.
#1. The Wicked + The Divine [Comic, 2014-2019]
Tim: Oh, you thought for once we wouldn’t be talking about The Wicked + The Divine? Face it tiger, even now the series has concluded, it’s going to cast a long shadow over my + Alex’s writing, and our friendship.
As we’ve worked our way through this list, often reading through and editing the other’s work before moving on to the next entry, this little project has become less a look back over ten years of pop culture and more a retrospective on a relationship now a decade old. In 2010, Alex and I were internet acquaintances, largely familiar to each other from posts on message boards and occasional blogging. In the time between now and then, we have become friends, travelling companions, dance partners, co-workers, muses, groomsmen and, frankly, brothers. Perhaps the reason this project has kicked up so much emotional dust is that our relationship has always revolved around the pop culture we are passionate about, and few items have inspired our ardour like The Wicked + The Divine.
We’ve both always connected deeply with the work of Kieron Gillen + Jamie McKelvie, and WicDiv seemed especially primed to catch our interest. An expertly considered blend of mythology, mystery, cultural commentary and examination of the power of art, it was always going to be Very Much Our Shit. So much so, we decided to just lean into it and launch a blog dedicated to the book.
The structure that the project brought (‘cos boy do we love our structure) meant examining each issue with more care and thought than I’d given to almost any book previously, and for a far longer period. While this could have turned into the worst kind of barrel-scraping-for-hot-takes that parts of the critical world seem to have devolved into, WicDiv was a book that could support that intensity of scrutiny. It wasn’t an abyss we were gazing into, but an exploding nebula of colour, ideas and potential, and I like to think that at our best, it was staring back at us.
In many ways, The Wicked + The Divine is a book about coming to terms with your youth, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a story that grabbed us so completely took place over the period when we both turned thirty and went through some considerable Life Stuff. I won’t say I feel lost now that it’s no longer coming out, but that final issue, released so close to the end of 2019, felt like it drew a line under a very distinct part of my life. I hope that the next decade brings more art that I can connect with as deeply as this, and I hope that Alex is there holding my hand for every step along the way.