First, there were lyrics. Skip ahead a bit. In 1999, the confused masses rejoiced at the creation of Urban Dictionary, an online reference point that, through community contributions, would allow every man, woman, and child to find the real meanings of slang terms you can’t find in Merriam-Webster’s. This had the potential to open up rap music to a much broader audience… but, over time, Urban Dictionary proved too broadly useful to focus on that particular goal. Moreover, rap music isn’t alone on the radio in being filled with sideways references, poetic metaphors, and outright shibboleths that outsiders might wish to have explained. For my part, I spent most of high school relying on SongMeanings comment threads instead, to mixed results.
Now, a solution exists. Rap Genius—I mean, Genius—has opened my eyes to the truth behind songs of every genre. By allowing for multimedia annotations with a fairly loose style guide, Genius goes for greater fluidity in communicating ideas to a somewhat narrower audience than, say, the user base of Wikipedia. I’ve been told that the guys who founded the site are jerks in person, but the moderately publicized gaffe from May of this year wasn’t enough to deter me from their product. Oh, and if you need an exegesis of the menu at Chipotle, Genius has your back; personally, I just use it for the lyrics.
In shooting for diversity on this list, I brainstormed: what’s the best new thing to happen to the world of sports? Cowboys Stadium (now AT&T Stadium), bastion of American symbolism that it is, opened just a few months before Earn This launched; a near miss. A playoff system for the FBS has been a long time coming, but I’m filing it under “the future” till we see it happen. The 2013 NHL realignment, while a positive change, fails to truly excite me on review. And even among Steelers Nation, few would put the 2012 debut of the bumblebee throwback jersey on any list of favorites.
Once struck upon, The Body Issue became my certain choice. On the surface, it has been ESPN The Magazine‘s direct response to the Swimsuit Issue that Sports Illustrated has been running since the 1964. But, if you’ll pardon some honest smut, I must believe that The Body Issue ranks far lower in wanks per reader; and that is because it taps into something at once visceral and transcendent. Human figures are elevated by skilled photographers to stir cauldrons of beauty, sexuality, power, vulnerability, and intelligence present at once. I have read of a philosopher who described beauty as “that which prompts delight with an absence of desire.” Unlike the overt skin buffet of the Swimsuit Issue, ESPN’s take evokes beauty and desire, together and in turns, in my mind, and above all fills me with awe.
Despite the conclusions reached in the decade-by-decade “iconic” podcast, my music library leans heavily toward the 21st century. I love prog rock, but listen to Porcupine Tree all the time and Pink Floyd basically never, which might be very difficult to explain to people if anyone cared. The space that exists for combining old techniques and ideas in new ways is fathoms deep: essential new cultures in music have risen up within my young lifetime around djent, witch house, what Wikipedia calls PBR&R, and what I call cloud rap after some clever critic’s turn of phrase.
What, then, is the best release of the last five years? Probably something I haven’t even heard. But the release I most want to tell people about and share is the self-titled debut from Fang Island. The band once described their sound as “everyone high-fiving everyone,” and while no other attempt will ever approach that one, I’ve started saying their songs are like “an arena rock band playing your birthday party.” This album literally begins and ends with recordings of fireworks going off. Here is a video of them playing “Chompers,” off their sophomore record, for a class full of kindergarteners. I’m going to end this paragraph now so you can go buy their music and then come back for the rest of this post. Go.
My two greatest regrets in moving away from Boston last year: no more Middle East and no more Night Shift. The Middle East is a passable restaurant that combines an ideal location for Cambridge-based students with two cozy performance spaces that are utilized every single night to bring in anything from local DJs up to tier-two nationally touring indie bands and tier-one niche acts (think “stoner metal” or “psych rock”). Night Shift Brewing was not convenient, operating out of a garage in the northern suburbs until a couple of months ago. Instead, Night Shift was essential.
As an avid imbiber, I can talk your ear off about beer—in fact, clamor for beer articles in the comments if you want those here. And in that world, I’m a thrill seeker, often most impressed by “big” beers that go way off in some new direction and don’t even “taste like beer.” Weird inspiration and un-beer-ish flavors are Night Shift’s wheelhouse. Check out the descriptions (and batch-by-batch tasting notes from the brewers themselves!) of the three brews they launched with: Taza Stout, Bee Tea, and Trifecta. Their Sour Futures and Barrel Society programs are like DIY kickstarters for big tasty bottles of handcrafted love. Occasionally you’ll see word that the guys dumped an entire batch down the drain because it didn’t come out right, which takes more bravery from a nanobrewer than you’ll find at many larger operations. I’m not the only one giving them rave reviews, but I am more desperate than most for them to start distributing out-of-state like Massachusetts neighbors Clown Shoes—founded 2010.
Magic: the Gathering is titanic. For their simplicity, I’ll allow that many games over 100 or 1,000 years old may be better designed. Recently, though? Since 1993, Magic has released new game elements several times per year and engaged a player base that is currently both the largest it has ever been and growing rapidly. Think: 1993 was before Nintendo 64. Heck, it was before the first Warcraft game—you know, the RTS available on CD or as a set of four floppy disks. Most players are not deterred by the steady cost of remaining a Magic aficionado, although if you want to find a problem with the game, that’s one place to look.
So two free-to-play online games are now rolling out that take inspiration from Magic‘s design while remaining more portable and accessible. SolForge is still in open beta, but is my less favorite of the two anyway. Hearthstone, which uses characters from Blizzard’s popular MMORPG as the basis for a collectible card game, is just brilliant fun. The makers have provided an excellent structure that begins with an overt tutorial yet continues to teach you the game’s strategy in subtler ways, often by enticing you to reach toward shiny rewards and face bite-sized challenges. Matches play out with elements of resource management, long-range planning, and risk/reward evaluations. Even aside from actually playing, I enjoy watching a well known streamer who posts video series demonstrating that it is possible for players who invest zero dollars to compete with the most competitive top-tier foes.