Every month at the AE offices, we choose our Pop Culture Picks. It could be an album, a band, a book, a movie, a TV show, a podcast, or anything else we enjoyed over the previous 30 days. Keep scrolling to find out what caught our attention in July, so that you can check it out in August!
TL;DR: The music says “happy dance pop, uplifting, a throwback to disco”, while the lyrics say “society is declining and the outlook is bleak”.
Arcade Fire is one of the few bands out there that really define their albums as a full experience. Any individual song is great, but you need to listen to the full album to get the real effect and go through the emotional journey. Arcade Fire’s music (both past and present) feels somewhat like the voice of the millennial generation. It is full of frustration mixed with going-with-the-flow, along with feeling powerless to stop the way the world is headed. It is angsty, but only if you pay attention.
Their sound is reminiscent of Abba, Coldplay, and Imagine Dragons. There’s dance, electronic touches, and long mellow songs that will put you in a pensive mood. They love to experiment with a variety of instruments, which makes their music sound unique. I like Arcade Fire because their music always brings me back to a calm middle-ground, and that’s a nice tool to have when I need it.
Although the critics were a bit more lukewarm with Everything Now than with past Arcade Fire albums (The Suburbs is in my Top 5 favourite albums ever), I’m ignoring that and I love it!
Disgraceland Podcast 🎙
TL;DR: It turns out rock stars aren’t very nice people: a podcast about them and their infamous crimes.
I’m a big fan of True Crime podcasts – like a lot of people, I caught the bug with the first season of the Serial podcast. And while Australia’s Casefile is still your best bet for unadulterated factual storytelling, I’m always on the lookout for something with a bit of a twist on the genre.
Disgraceland podcast covers true crimes related to famous musicians – episode titles like “Motley Crue: Sex, Drugs and Holy Sh*t, How are These Dudes Still Alive?” and “James Brown: Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag… of Meth” give you a good idea of what to expect. Unlike many true crime podcasts I’ve listened to, the presenter is charismatic and informative and lays out the artist’s career informatively before moving on to the crimes in question. I thought I knew everything there was to know about the Tupac / Biggie killings and Sid Vicious’s demise, but I learnt something new here, and enjoyed it immensely at the same time.
In short: Exceptional indie folk-rock from a lesser-known group destined for great things!
Before I write my pop culture picks, I often read some articles on the subject to get more context and learn new facts about my pick. With Quiet Hollers, there wasn’t much reading I could do — they don’t seem to have gotten much attention yet(!!!). I think that will change. They sound like an indie cult classic in the making and I wouldn’t be surprised if they blew up in the next few years. (And when they do, I humbly request they come to Australia, where I will be living.)
In their self-titled 2015 album, their sound and mood remind me a bit of a folkified The National (“Conversation 16”, “Bloodbuzz Ohio”), and maybe a little Father John Misty (“Mr. Tillman”, “Nancy From Now On”). That’s not to say they don’t have their own unique sound. I should also mention that Quiet Hollers have become more beloved to me in the past couple weeks than both of these more-established bands. Seriously…they’re really, really good.
Their most recent album, 2017’s Amen Breaks, carries a more pure melancholy sound with less angst — a little more Lord Huron-at-their-moodiest (“The Night We Met”, “The Ghost on the Shore”).
For some reason, my two favourite Quiet Hollers tracks so far are fairly bleak compositions both named after locations in France: “Côte d’Azur” and “Mont Blanc”. I also love the video for “Côte d’Azur”. It’s about as straight-up as you can get: just footage of the band playing the song, but something about the incongruous party decorations and frontman Shadwick Wilde’s emphatic dancing make it iconic. Not to mention, you can tell he would put on an awesome live show.
Fall in love with Quiet Hollers now, and you can forever go around telling people “I liked them before they were famous” from way up on your high hipster horse. I mean, if you want to be that person.
TL;DR: Simply put, FKJ has refined the art of vibe-y soul-filled grooves through live looping.
FKJ is an amazingly talented multi-instrumentalist. While his album French Kiwi Juice is fantastic and one of my personal favorites this summer, his YouTube videos are what really reveal his talent level. The first one I saw that completely blew my mind is “Tadow”, a collaboration with another great multi-instrumentalist, Masego. Simply put, FKJ has refined the art of vibe-y soul-filled grooves through live looping. His collaboration “Losing My Way” with Tom Misch is also an amazing piece.
FKJ Live at La Fée Electricité is a solo performance at a highly atmospheric venue where all audience members are listening via Bluetooth headphones. The entire setting nicely accents the ambiance that FKJ’s music communicates. Would strongly recommend putting on a pair of headphones and ( ( (vibing) ) ) along.
In short: Death-fearing robots that take over the world. What’s not to love!
My lovely friend and fellow sci-fi fan Dwight recommended Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill for my next read.
I’ll preface this by saying I’ve consumed a lot of science fiction. I’ve always been drawn to imaginings of the future: the political structure, the pop culture, the space travel and of course aliens!
So when I picked up Sea of Rust I wasn’t expecting too much, perhaps a fun romp with robots. Happily, within the first ten pages, I was a new C. Robert Cargill fangirl.
You begin by meeting the main character Brittle, a robot who’s combing a red desert named the Sea of Rust for spare robot parts. It’s 30 years since humans lost the war to robots and now there’s a battle taking place between AI and robot factions across the earth.
There’s a lot of backstory in this book that would’ve been such fun to dream up. And of course there are some epic robot battles, but halfway through the novel I found myself forgetting Brittle was a robot. Robots in this future are driven by instinct and fear shutdown or assimilation.
There’s a rich cast of robots, as well as flashbacks to humans Brittle knew. A few twists and turns move the plot along nicely, plus there’s interesting exploration of what it means to be human. I’ve thought about the novel several times after finishing it, always a good sign.
This book made me look at the world in a totally new light. It allowed me step back and look at the systems within which we exist — such as nations, religions and economics — and understand the unique aspects of human thought that even make them possible.
At a high level, this is an expansive history book covering human (Homo sapiens) development from the prehistoric period to the modern day. That in itself makes the book interesting, as it reminds you where we have been as a species and what path we followed to get where we are. But what I found really insightful is that Harari presents this history alongside evolutionary theory to describe how and why humans were able to do these things.
His argument is that at some point we developed the ability to imagine things (described as the cognitive revolution). This impacted us (and the world) in two major ways.
One, it helped us plan ahead by taking what we know and projecting out possible outcomes. For example, “I saw a lion tracking some deer in that direction, it is probably heading to the river.”
But secondly, it allowed us to imagine a belief system, e.g. “The lion is our tribe’s guardian spirit.”
The second impact is key for human cultural development, because it allowed us to create shared belief systems. It doesn’t mean much if one Homo sapiens believes the lion is the spirit guardian, but if the whole tribe does, you have a shared framework to work and cooperate within.
This ability then allowed us to move from small hunter/gatherer tribes into larger groups, villages, towns, cities, and nations. This wasn’t possible until we had the ability to share the same belief system. The larger the network of this belief system, the broader the cooperation. The book follows this premise through the agricultural revolution, empire building, creation of currency, and scientific advancement.
I will say that this progression is not necessarily presented as a net positive for the planet. The impacts of our development cover the extinction of other species, including Neanderthals and various megafauna (sorry mammoths!), wars, famine, environmental damage, etc.
Overall, I enjoyed this book a lot. I often had to put it down just to think about what I’d read. There has been a little pushback from some of the scientific community on some of the assumptions made by the author, but even so they mostly agree it is a great read. I’d recommend this book for anyone looking for a refresher on human development and history.
Read our picks from previous months:
TL;DR: A cold breakbeat tethered with deep-pocket bass grooves, melodically driven by exotic reverberated guitar, delivers an undeniably cool sound.
*I highly recommend checking out Khruangbin’s Tiny Desk Concert (a short, YouTube-tailored performance) for an introduction to their music.*
Music discovery is at an all-time peak due to streaming services like Spotify. I believe that there are certain bands that I may never have been exposed to, or at least gotten into, had it not been for these services. Khruangbin is one of these bands. With a name that poses a significant pronunciation challenge and songs that are mostly void of lyrics, Khruangbin, I think, falls under a lot of people’s radars. But personally, this is one of my favourite bands that I’ve ever stumbled upon.
Khruangbin makes you feel like you’re in a 1970s Middle Eastern espionage film or something. A cold breakbeat tethered with deep-pocket bass grooves, melodically driven by exotic reverberated guitar, delivers an undeniably cool sound.
Overall: Fantastic ideas and concepts, great storytelling, and amazing acting from the likes of Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Woods, Tessa Thompson, Thandie Newton, Anthony Hopkins, and more.
What is real? What defines us as human? Or being alive? What is good and evil? Who is good and evil? What is consciousness? How far would you go to save yourself, or to save your species?
Think back to all the things you’ve done while playing a video game. Would you do that in real life? Of course not! Enter Westworld, a game in the future that is set up like a huge theme park (yup, you guessed the theme — the Old West). All the theme park characters are androids, but they are indistinguishable from humans. They aren’t real and no-one is watching you… live out your fantasies and do whatever you want.
The first season is chock full of awesome little moments that eventually lead to a self-aware AI. Now the sh*it hits the fan. Cue those philosophical questions I asked at the beginning. Season two follows the consequences of all these questions, providing some answers and leaving us with more questions about good and evil. Yes I’m trying to be vague so as not to give anything away ;).
Westworld questions the nature of our reality and gives a glimpse of a future world that may not be so far away after all. Yes, there is lots of violence, but it drives the plot in terms of how we act and are treated in return. It’s a bit excessive sometimes in true HBO fashion, which will satisfy the cravings of anyone looking for action without wanting to delve deeper into philosophical meanderings. If you liked the movie Memento, you might enjoy Westworld as well from a storytelling aspect. Especially in season two, the storytelling often focuses around the character Bernard, but in fragments of scrambled memories that are presented disjointedly and out of order. It’s confusing. They want it to confuse you. It does. Part of the thrill is figuring out what’s really happening and how the choices everyone makes leads to those moments.
This show poses many deep philosophical concepts, so give yourself lots of time between episodes to digest and analyse it. Ask yourself, what are the choices that you would make?
In short: Seeing van Gogh’s art and his story brought to life in this way is deeply evocative, and truly an incredible feat on the part of the film crew.
So, I’m not usually a movie crier. People can die and lose their lifelong loves on-screen and generally, I keep my poker face. The beginning montage of Up? Didn’t get me. The Notebook? Please. As if. Even Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, despite making me feel MANY emotions — didn’t make me cry.
However, I do have my kryptonite. (I’m not dead inside…I think?) There are exactly two things in the world of filmdom that have the inexplicable power to leave me an emotional wreck.
I was going to say dogs dying, but that actually doesn’t capture the full scope of this phenomenon, as I learned after re-watching Homeward Bound a couple years ago.
2. Vincent van Gogh
There’s something about van Gogh that just gets me. It’s not only that his extraordinary artistic talent went unrecognized in its time, but also the crushing irony of just how keenly it’s recognized now. More than a century after his death, van Gogh is everywhere. Starry Night is one of the most universally recognized paintings in the world. I have it on a pair of socks, for Christ’s sake. You can buy it on mugs, on postcards, on t-shirts and umbrellas, on puzzles and coasters and calendars. This is the same painting, mind you, that Vincent wanted to exhibit in the hope that it “might give others the idea of doing night effects better than I do.” Little did he know no-one could do it better than he had.
On a similar note, he once wrote to his brother Theo, “I dare swear to you that my sunflowers are worth 500 francs.” At that time, no-one else thought they were worth anything, much less 500 francs. But fast forward one hundred years, and one of van Gogh’s sunflower paintings sold for $39.9 million in 1987.
Ultimately, van Gogh died mysteriously at 37, of a gunshot wound (traditionally thought to be self-inflicted, although no-one knows for sure), penniless and ostracized due to his mental illness.
Don’t you just want to reach back through time and tell him how loved and respected he is now?
So…that was a pretty long, roundabout way of saying that Loving Vincent made me cry semi-hysterically. I watched it without knowing anything about the plot, so I was a little surprised and disappointed at first when I realized the movie is set after Vincent’s death. I soon came around, however, as we see the man himself in plentiful flashbacks.
The main character, Armand, ends up serving as the perfect proxy for a modern audience. Armand is a young man whose father, the postman Joseph Roulin, was friends with Vincent. The elder Roulin asks Armand to deliver Vincent’s last letter to his brother. Armand doesn’t know or care much about Vincent, but soon becomes drawn in by his art and his story, and attempts to learn the truth about his puzzling death.
Loving Vincent is greatly strengthened by its breathtaking animation — 65,000 frames hand-painted in oils by a team of 125 artists who have faithfully rendered Vincent’s story in brushstrokes as much like his own as anyone could hope to manage. Seeing van Gogh’s art brought to life in this way is deeply evocative and truly an incredible feat on the part of the film crew.
Fortunately, this stunningly beautiful film is available on Netflix. Just make sure you have tissues handy.
TL;DR: Hip hop‘s greatest living rapper teams up with one of its greatest producers for seven killer hip hop tracks.
It’s been 6 years since Nas’ last album (the patchy-but-not-completely-terrible Life Is Good) and it’s great to have him back. Arguably hip hop’s greatest living rapper, he still sounds fresh at 44, and Nasir is a worthy addition to his legacy.
It also helps that he’s teamed up with one of hip hop’s greatest ever producers. While it gets harder every day to defend Kanye West the man, his production skills are still on point. In fact Kanye’s on something of a creative streak at the moment, releasing four albums in the last month: Kids See Ghosts with Kid Cudi, Pusha T’s DAYTONA and his own Ye – only the latter of which fails to live up to expectations.
My pick gives you: Badass Russian spies, some of the best dialogue on TV, and 1980s nostalgia.
I’m very sad to be leaving behind the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington DC where Philip and Elizabeth Jennings live with their two kids. Suburban America in the 80s has never been cooler because Philip and Elizabeth are RUSSIAN SPIES! And they are badass Russian spies.
Over the six seasons of lies, deceit, murder and family life there are many things I’ve enjoyed about the show. Certainly it’s some of the best dialogue on TV, plus add in wicked 80s outfits and pop songs — it makes me nostalgic for my own childhood! (There was no way my parents were Russian spies.)
The team behind the costumes, hair, and makeup are brilliant, and always amazed me with their ability to totally change the main characters.
Here are a few faces of Elizabeth:
I’ve also come to care for many of the characters on the show, especially the Jennings’ neighbour Stan Beeman who is an FBI agent. Stan thinks something is a little bit off about his new friends…oh, the cat-and-mouse games in this show are delightful and the finale did not disappoint.
There are six seasons of this drama and it’s well worth the binge. Don’t just take my word for it — apparently Barack Obama is a fan, so you know it has to be good, right?
Critical Hit by Yukon Blonde 🎶
Overall: A great album to enjoy throughout the summer, and I look forward to seeing where else Yukon Blonde will go with their music.
Having just celebrated Canada Day and taken a week-long vacation in the Yukon, I felt it was appropriate to include Canadian band Yukon Blonde’s new album, Critical Hit, as my pop culture pick this month.
Yukon Blonde are not actually from the Yukon; they were originally formed in Kelowna, BC, but have been based in Vancouver for the last 10 years or so. Critical Hit is their first release since 2015’s On Blonde.
Their previous albums have had an indie rock feel, with a little swerve into pop. But with Critical Hit, they have taken a much sharper turn into synth-y new-wave pop, reminiscent of the 80s and 90s. I like the result. The well-produced album is clean, crisp, and filled with dancy beats.
While the album’s sound comes across as upbeat and light, the actual lyrics are another story. The track “Summer in July” is probably one of the best examples of this jarring difference in sound vs. lyrical content. In fact, many of the tracks do appear to focus on struggling relationships, with “Emotional Blackmail” and “Cry” being other examples where you may find yourself head-bobbing to heartbreak.
The album shows some good variation from start to finish. “Too Close to Love” is a straight-to-the-point, anthemy opener that kicks things off nicely. “Feeling Digital” is one of my favourites and picks things up in the middle with a nostalgic nod to how we used to make connections prior to the Internet overload. “Ritual Off the Docks” finishes the album off sad and leisurely with a 9-minute-long, Beach Boys-esque bomp-a-bomp-bomp track.
Read our picks from previous months:
The 2018 VIATEC Awards
One magical night in June…
The Roaring Twenties were resurrected, sixteen young robots found their forever homes, and a couple dozen inflatable whales got their wings.
That’s the VIATEC Awards for you.
Nobody can make whales fly quite like the tech community in lovely Victoria, B.C., and we couldn’t be happier to be a part of it.
We’re also incredibly proud to add this young gentlerobot to our growing team as Emerging Tech Company of the Year.
YYJ All the Way
Getting to where we are today has been a marathon over the last seven years. It feels incredible to be recognized by the Tectoria community for our vision and potential. Our new robot friend will serve as a reminder to keep moving forward, keep growing, and keep giving it our all.
“Being awarded the Emerging Technology Company of the Year award is incredibly inspiring and honestly, we hadn’t expected to win. There are brilliant minds in Victoria doing inventive and ground-breaking work. We had very stiff competition from FreshWorks Studio, Alta Bering, HYAS Infosec, TrichAnalytics, Certainty Software, LlamaZOO Interactive, and EyeSpy Innovations.
Jeff and I feel so honored and inspired to live up to our award. We always knew that moving our company from California to back-home in Victoria was the right thing to do. This award has certainly cemented our belief that Victoria is a place where technology businesses will succeed. Go Victoria!”
— Annabel Youens, CMO and Co-founder
We absolutely need to do a giant shoutout to VIATEC, the legendary organization that makes this awards night happen every year, in addition to countless other events and initiatives that make Victoria’s tech community the vibrant and welcoming environment it is.
We’d also like to extend a friendly wave and high five to all the other fantastic companies and individuals we had the pleasure to meet and bond with on Friday night. You are all such an important part of this community we’ve come to know and love so well. You make us feel so welcome, and we deeply admire all of you for the incredible work you’re doing out there.
The AE Team
NASA’s Exoplanet Travel Bureau (website)
Space, The final frontier. Where no one has vacationed before….
My pop culture pick this month is the Exoplanet Travel Bureau, a website developed by NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program. This program is NASA’s ongoing project to “seek out” habitable planets and life beyond our solar system.
The Travel Bureau is a wonderful combination of creativity, imagination, and actual scientific data collected and archived from the Kepler and Hubble missions.
The premise of the site is an imaginary travel agency that promotes exotic destinations on planets that could be habitable based on the known data. Each of the planets selected has a neat-looking travel poster that promotes the potentially unique aspects of visiting there. For example, the tagline for Kepler-16b is “Where your shadow always has company,” because this system has twin suns.
The really cool feature, though, is that NASA has created a virtual 360-degree landscape for some of the planets. You can check out these vistas on your computer, or better yet, with the VR headsets available for smartphones. You can rotate around and take a look at what scientists think the surface and sky may look like based on the (admittedly limited) data collected. There are no actual photos of the planets’ surfaces since they are many light-years away, but by using what we know from long-range observation, they’ve made their best estimation.
I’m all for any projects that help us imagine a future where humans may actually set foot on these planets. Hopefully the locals are welcoming and we don’t make pests of ourselves.
Parachute Ice Cream (company)
In short: Parachute is a local ice cream company based in Victoria, BC and they make THE BEST ICE CREAM I’VE EVER HAD.
Okay, there was some debate in our office whether ice cream is a “Pop Culture Pick”, but I will defend my love of ice cream vigorously.
What makes Parachute so good? The baked goods they lovingly tuck into their ice creams. One of the co-owners, Robyn Larocque, also owns the Victoria Pie Co. based in the Hudson Market. It’s these locally baked goods that appear in some of their very popular flavours. Piescream (which might just be my favorite) wraps chunks of apple pie in cinnamon-vanilla ice cream.
Other popular picks in my family are the Mexican Chili Chocolate (so spicy and rich), Cinnamon Bun (yes, chunks of cinnamon bun!), Birthday Cake (my daughter’s go-to) and a new favorite Oatmeal Chocolate Chip (chocolate-chip oatmeal cookie bits in vanilla ice cream). Parachute also make their own waffle cones that are crisp on the outside but soft on the inside — perfect.
Parachute HQ is growing with the evolving Victoria food scene and the Rock Bay food district. Some of the other lovely folks making delicious things are: Hoyne Brewing Co., Singing Bowl Granola, 49 Below, The Coffee Lab, Moon Brewery, Saltchuck Pies, Victoria Soda Works, Jenny Marie’s Cracker Company and Holy Homous.
To get your own taste of ice cream love, you can visit their main scoop shop on Bridge Street or their new summer pop-up shop at Uptown. The flavours are always rotating and they also offer yak milk and vegan flavours.
I recommend trying all the flavors you want. Those little spoons deliver the perfect taster and the lovely folks behind the cooler never complain, no matter how many you try. My final tip is get the 1 scoop, 2 flavours. It’s big, but not unmanageable and you get to sample two delicious flavors.
How to Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman (book)
In short: This book offers a true “day in the life” experience of the Victorian era.
Chapter by chapter, beginning with the morning wash and ending at bedtime, Goodman takes the reader through an ordinary 19th-century day as it would have appeared across the period (1837-1901) and across the social classes.
Ruth Goodman is certainly an authority on the subject — she lived for a year as a Victorian woman for the BBC series Victorian Farm. How to Be a Victorian differs from most history books in that respect: it draws not only from historical writings and extensive research, but also from the author’s own experience wearing corsets (took some getting used to but provided excellent back support), cooking on a kitchen range (she lit herself on fire), and styling her hair with bandoline (she found it very similar to modern hairspray).
Although the book also covers broad topics like sport and leisure, work, and education, I most enjoyed learning about the mundanities of personal grooming and hygiene that you never see in literature from the period. (Of course, this omission makes perfect sense — it would be strange for a novel to go into explicit detail about the character’s hair products and the specific utility of each of her undergarments.) Nevertheless, despite having enjoyed my share of Dickens, Brontë(s), Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, etc., etc. — I still had no idea if Victorians like, used toothpaste…at all…?
Turns out they did, but it’s probably not like the kind you use. The main ingredient was an abrasive; most often chalk, powdered cuttlefish, or charcoal. Instead of the fresh minty taste we’re used to nowadays, Victorian “dentifrice” tasted more medicinal — it was usually flavoured with camphor or burnt alum.
Some more fun facts:
- The average range of waist size in women’s clothing was 19 to 24 inches. I took a tape measure to my own waist and found I clock in at 27 inches — a figure that would be considered “matronly”, according to the author. I’m sure that after a lifetime of corset training (girls generally started wearing them around age seven or eight), I would fit into those tiny bodices no problem…but I’m pretty glad I don’t have to. Matronly figures all the way!
- The modern swimming pool evolved from the concept of the public bath, in which the large and cheap “public plunge pool” turned out to be surprisingly popular among young working-class boys, who used it more for the entertainment than for getting clean.
99.9% by KAYTRANADA (album)
TL;DR: Dance-y electro hip hop/soul that grooves you all the way through long projects and assignments.
Lately I’ve been quite drawn to low-fi/down-beat hip hop music. KAYTRANADA aggregates low-fi stutter grooves with soul and dance-y, ethereal electro melodies. The collaborations on this album are very strong, with Anderson .Paak on “GLOWED UP”, BADBADNOTGOOD on “WEIGHT OFF”, and GoldLink on “TOGETHER”, and many more. Each collaborating artist brings a different, but well-integrated sound to the very smooth tracklist.
My personal favorite track is “GOT IT GOOD”, which has a driving stuttery low-fi-esque drumbeat met with suave soul/R&B all overlaid with dreamy backup vocals and ethereal, melodic hooks.
OK Go Sandbox (website)
TL;DR: The band OK Go created this website to teach others about all the technical work that goes into their amazing music videos.
Every once in a while someone comes around and revolutionizes something that has become all too predictable. OK Go has done this over and over again with their music videos. Each video is elaborate, unique…and shot in a single take! Their creativity in both concept and execution is something that you just don’t come across every day. Before you continue reading my review…watch this video (you’ll be hooked after this!).
Their videos always leave me wondering: how do they come up with these ideas? How many retakes? How do they actually make it happen? Well, after years of awesome videos, OK Go has created a website they call the OK Go Sandbox for teachers. Here they show you the video and then take you behind the scenes with detailed interviews explaining how it was made.
That music video you just watched? Here’s what they can teach you from it.
Physics? Check. Math? Check. Electronics? Check. Art and design? Check. OK Go uses all these skills to make a successful music video, on top of their musical talent. That’s why I love OK Go: they find so many ways to inspire the next generation. Whether you are a musician, singer, artist, mathematician, or physicist, there’s a place for you here.
Sam Cooke (singer)
TL;DR: Smooth soul sounds from one of the all time greats.
With the recent GDPR changes, we’re all sick of talking about cookies — so let’s talk about Cooke instead. I’m talking about Sam: in my opinion the greatest soul singer of all time.
In a lot of ways Sam Cooke was the first real soul singer: he was one of the first singers to cross over from the gospel circuit to the more secular pop circuit. In doing so he influenced many of the singers to follow, from Otis Redding to Aretha Franklin to Rod Stewart. He wasn’t technically the greatest singer of all time, but his voice was unique, and he largely wrote his own material. Many of his songs remain staples of the soul genre to this day, despite his untimely death in 1964.
Check out the compilation album Portrait of a Legend.
Read our picks from previous months:
Our top pop culture recommendations for the month of May.
Dirty Computer – Janelle Monáe (album)
In short: This album shows a true and rare talent. It’s worth taking the time to listen in full without distractions — it will enrich your day, I promise.
Dirty Computer, released on April 27, is a progressive album that shows how much raw and unique talent Janelle Monáe has. The album has notes of inspiration from Prince, Michael Jackson, Aerosmith, and Outkast. Rolling Stone describes Janelle Monáe’s sound as “bridging the gap between neo-soul and all that was to come, unafraid to fuse rock, funk, hip-hop…R&B, electronica and campy, drama-kid theatricality.”
The album as a whole is a tour de force. Every song tells a story through its lyrics and overall sound, ranging from vulnerable to sexy, provocative, introspective, or powerful. Collaborations with Zoë Kravitz, Grimes, Brian Wilson, and Pharrell Williams provide an added depth of sound.
Her first solo release from the album is “Make Me Feel”, a super funky and catchy song that Prince listened to and loved before he passed. The music video is fantastic to boot (I dare you to look away!). The song “Django Jane” is one of Janelle Monáe’s more rare experiments with rap music and it fits so well it’s hard to believe that’s not her main style. Immediately following “Django Jane” is “Pynk”, her own feminine take on an Aerosmith song that any fan will recognize. Towards the end we are invited to share her vulnerable side with “So Afraid“.
Dirty Computer shows the breadth and strength of Janelle Monáe’s voice both literally and figuratively — as a queer black woman, she is an important figure and activist (especially for women’s rights) in today’s pop culture society.
Paul Stamets (public figure / mycologist)
TLDR; Paul Stamets is an expert in the study of fungi. His work and insights are truly inspirational! You should definitely check out this podcast.
I recently discovered Paul Stamets through his YouTube videos. Stamets is an expert in the field of mycology (the study of fungi). Throughout his career, he has made key discoveries and advancements in the realm of mycological medicine, pharmacology, and environmental sustainability. For example, Stamets discovered a strain of mycelium that could mitigate or eliminate the worldwide catastrophe of colony collapse disorder (disappearing bee colonies).
What gets me excited about Stamets and the field of mycology are his mind-blowing insights into the nature and potential of mushrooms and mycelium. Stamets speaks of how the general Western attitude is mushroom-adverse (or mycophobic), which has held us back from not only uncovering the medicinal, cognitive, and environmental benefits of fungi, but also utilizing the knowledge other cultures have held for many, many years.
A great introduction to Paul Stamets’ work is his guest appearance on the Joe Rogan podcast. He goes into detail about certain species of fungi and their astonishing neurogenetive effects, as well as the ability of many species to fight viral and bacterial illness. Stamets explains the foundational role that fungus has played and continues to play in global ecology — how they essentially operate as the life recyclers of the Earth, as well as the Earth’s natural internet.
The Wild – The Rural Alberta Advantage (album)
My pick gives you: Intense vocals and evocative lyrics inspired in part by a wildfire and a crashed satellite.
If there’s anything I’ve learned about myself through my Pop Culture Picks these past few months, it’s that my music taste is apparently very Canadian. After recommending an awesome group from Fernie, B.C. last month, I’m returning to my prairie girl roots for May with The Rural Alberta Advantage.
Their most recent album, The Wild (2017), isn’t as explicitly Albertan as earlier stuff (their debut album featured such tracks as “The Deathbridge in Lethbridge” and “Edmonton”). Notably, however, the first track “Beacon Hill” is about the 2016 fire in Fort McMurray.
Frontman Nils Edenloff’s raw singing style is perfectly countered by Robin Hatch’s smooth backup vocals. Edenloff’s voice has a certain sharp-edged quality that I can best compare to Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock or The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy. Edenloff takes it to the next level by half-screaming some of his lyrics (particularly in “Dead/Alive”), which I love!
I found this album had a darker tone than their previous works, which seems fitting actually. After all, weathering those long Alberta winters on the flat, featureless prairies is a uniquely dismal experience. Just kidding. Sort of.
The Great Interior Design Challenge (TV show)
In short: If you like interior design, British accents, and contestants under pressure, this show should be your next Netflix binge.
While my number one reality show will always be Survivor (I once threw a Survivor finale party where we all drank from coconuts), I have a soft spot for British reality shows.
My latest British indulgence has been The Great Interior Design Challenge on Netflix. It’s your classic round-robin style tournament with an ultimate finale showdown where one person is crowned the winner. What I love about this show is that all the contestants are amateurs. You’re watching people whose hobbies are upcycling furniture or sewing plaid cushions for their living room sofa. They’re competing in a challenge with a limited budget, limited time, and they need to work to the client’s brief. That’s a lot of pressure!
The entrepreneur in me loves all the crisis moments in the series: the paint isn’t drying! The lampshade won’t fit! The client hates the colours of the brief! It’s fascinating seeing the contestants overcome the crisis or drown in the problem. It also reassures me that we all have challenges and problems to solve every day, regardless of where we work.
I also love seeing how the contestants combine colours to make a room appear bigger or cozier, or create innovative pieces like a lampshade comprising palm leaves laser-cut from metal. The creative ways they use colours and patterns inspire me in my own sewing and design projects.
Love is for Losers – The Longshot (album)
TL;DR: Green Day’s singer goes (sort of) back to basics with a new side project.
I’m a big Green Day fan, but let’s be honest, their recent output hasn’t been that great and they seem to be heading deeper into bland stadium-rock territory. They’ve always had great side projects though: classic Bay Area punk with Pinhead Gunpowder, new wave with The Network, and raucous rock ‘n’ roll with Foxboro Hottubs. It’s nice to see singer Billie Joe Armstrong get back to basics with his latest offshoot, The Longshot.
It’s not reinventing the wheel – this is still very recognizable as the singer from Green Day. Love is for Losers is simply fun and catchy pop rock. This is the type of stuff Green Day churned out effortlessly in the past, but without the pretense and grandiosity of recent recordings. Just a great garage rock album. Sometimes simple is best.
Check out our picks from previous months:
Persona 5 – Playstation 4
TL;DR: Fight monsters whilst attending Japanese high school. A completely unique gaming experience and very highly recommended.
The Persona series is part traditional JRPG and part Japanese high school simulator. Sounds weird, but anyone who has played one of the previous games in the series will know how unique and fun this combination is — and this most recent installment is the best yet.
In the game, your character’s Persona (their alter ego) battles monsters in an alternate dimension featuring a variety of dungeon settings (a bank and an Egyptian pyramid are my two favourites so far). Meanwhile, back in the game’s “real world”, your test scores and relationships with your schoolmates help improve your powers in the virtual world.
Everything about Persona 5 is beautifully designed, right down to the menus. Even the post-fight and loading screens offer more visual flair than most entire games. It’s a unique and stylish gaming experience that comes highly recommended.
Ethnos – tabletop game
In short: This game is a nuanced combination of earning points for playing card sets and controlling the map. It’s quick, lots of fun, and full of replay potential.
Based on its Conan-esque cover art (which I like), you might assume that Ethnos is pretty much a tabletop version of Dungeons & Dragons (which I also like). But it’s actually more of a dressed-up Rummy-style game with a map control twist — along the lines of Ticket to Ride, but far more dynamic.
The goal of the game is to get the most glory points, which you achieve by playing sets of cards and placing tokens on the board (a map of Ethnos and its 6 kingdoms). When you play a set, you must give up any remaining cards to a general draw pile. This rule creates tension when you know another player is looking for a specific card, but you need to play your sets to get points or take over a kingdom.
The deck comprises 12 tribes (giants, merfolk, halflings, minotaurs, and other fantasy denizens) and three dragon cards. The dragon cards divide the game into three point-gathering phases called “ages”: each age ends when the third and final dragon card is drawn.
Only 6 of the 12 tribes are in play each game (chosen randomly) and each tribe has a different special ability, making Ethnos hugely variable from play to play. The tribes’ abilities can give advantages in card play or map control, so the winning strategy will differ based on these and other mutable factors. Overall, it makes for an exciting and ever-changing game experience.
Florence – mobile game
In short: Florence is a short game, but its standout design, music, and storytelling make it absolutely worth 45 minutes of your time.
Florence is a unique mobile game now available on both iOS and Android. It tells the story of a young woman falling in love for the first time. At the start, you get to know Florence, who is all of us when we’re in our 20s: working a job and just going through life. She meets Krish and they go through the ups and downs of a relationship together. The game provides an emotional glimpse into a part of life we can all relate to and reminds us how the people in our lives change us (hopefully for the better).
What makes this game so exceptional is how the story unfolds as you play. The entire experience flows seamlessly and the gameplay makes you feel involved and emotionally invested in Florence’s story. The music and art are standouts here and make every minute enjoyable. Although it is a short story, there’s no better way you could spend a free 45 minutes.
Shred Kelly – band
My pick gives you: Irresistible energy, neon ski jackets, and manic banjo playing.
I first discovered Shred Kelly through the irresistible 2015 track “Sing to the Night” and its accompanying video: a perfect representation of the vibrancy, joy, and manic banjo playing that defines Shred Kelly’s particular variety of “stoke folk”.
This March, they were back on my radar with a vengeance as I prepared my ears for their Victoria show on the 30th. I was especially pleased to discover their carefree, addictive new single “Archipelago” (from the recently released album of the same name) and the delightfully weird video for “Family Oh Family”.
I would enjoy Shred Kelly’s music regardless of their nationality, but their overt Canadianness makes them all the more endearing to me. They hail from a small Rocky Mountain town and aren’t afraid to shoot music videos during the snowy winter (including the aforementioned “Sing to the Night” video — which, really, you should watch. It’s great.). When I’m far from home, Shred Kelly will certainly appear on my nostalgia playlist alongside The Tragically Hip and other quintessentially Canadian groups.
Malibu by Anderson .Paak – album
The short and sweet: An amazing R&B/Soul hip-hop album with big vibes.
I discovered this 2016 album very recently and have been listening to it quite a bit these past few days. What I love about this album are the elements of very thoughtful R&B/Soul compositions supplemented with smooth hip-hop elements. The first track, “The Bird”, teases the soul with colourful lyrics, tasty saxophone chops and an overall sense of warm nostalgia.
Rachel Rising by Terry Moore – comic book series
In short: I spent an entire day going through the seven graphic novels and wanting more after finishing them.
As you’ll see in some of my future Pop Culture Picks, I am a voracious reader of books, magazines and comic books. This month’s pick was an accident. I caught a recommendation on Twitter about how the series had been added to the Unlimited Reading List of Comixology (a subscription-based service offering a mountain of comics to read from multiple publishers).
At first I was unsure, but I was drawn in by the story arc of a modern girl being reanimated from the dead and searching for her killer. Add in the eternal battle between good and evil, a town with a history of witches, and a young girl destined to host the anti-Christ, and it became an immediate binge. Soon it evolved into a deeper story of lost love, family, and self-transformation. Do we control our own destiny or are we just playthings in larger game around us?
What’s your April pick? Tell us on social media.
Our top pop culture recommendations for the month of March. Don’t forget to check out our picks for February too. There’s lots of good stuff in there for you!
Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game
My pick gives you: a cold, bleak, desolate feeling with a touch of zombies. Enjoy!
Oh, I love a good board game. Throw in some zombies, food rationing, teamwork and a few good weapons and I’m very happy.
Dead of Winter is a board game for 3-5 players. It takes about 2 to 2.5 hours to play it for the first time. After that, it’ll be a solid 1.5 hours of fun gameplay and not so much rulebook consultation.
You and your friends each play a survivor character with a secret objective and a team objective to complete before the zombies take you down. Working together, you have to complete your objectives while searching locations like the school or the police station for valuable items (gasoline, guns and medicine.) And every time you step outside the compound you risk being “exposed”. Exposure to frost bite or a wound will make things uncomfortable for your character, but a zombie bite will take you down and the other survivors nearby.
The gameplay is mostly chance/luck by the roll of the dice, but you also get to make decisions with your teammates that affect the outcome of the game. The best advice I can give you is to watch out: there could be a betrayer among the survivors. Oh and double-tap, always double-tap.
NOFX: The Hepatitis Bathtub and Other Stories by NOFX with Jeff Alulis
Long story short: It’s not for everyone, but if you’re a fan of the band or just great rock ‘n’ roll biographies in general, this is a must.
I’ve been a fan of the punk rock band NOFX for a long time now — they’ve been around for over 30(!) years and I’ve been there for close to 20 of those. They’re still going strong, but given their DIY attitude and aversion to interviews, it’s been hard to piece together a history of the band until now.
Written on a chapter-by-chapter basis by current and former members of the band, this book details their long and fascinating story in what many might consider disturbing details: drummer Smelly’s battles with heroin addiction, singer Fat Mike’s weird sexual habits, and the band’s well-known enthusiasm for illegal substances all get written about here.
TL;DR: Vulfpeck is an explosion of high-energy, musically flawless funk that keeps delivering tasty hooks bound to make you want to move…or at least bob your head.
Vulfpeck is a quirky, yet slick funk group. The core musicians are almost exclusively instrumental; however, many of their songs feature talented vocalists such as the very soulful R&B singer Antwaun Stanley, who sings on a few of my favorite tracks — 1612 and Wait For The Moment, to name a couple.
The backbone of this band is undoubtedly the bassist, Joe Dart. He is consistently deep in the pocket delivering funky intricate rhythms. One of the funkiest, tastiest contemporary bassists around today that I’ve heard. A standout track for Joe is definitely Dean Town, and one of my all-time faves out of their catalog.
Furthermore, the rest of the band comprises extremely tight funky musicians chock-full of exciting showmanship. Their energy renders the group accessible, yet there are quite a few interesting chord changes and stylistic fusions along with general quirkiness that separates them from the pack. This inventiveness keeps Vulfpeck fresh and intriguing to listen to…over and over again.
In terms of albums, you should definitely listen to The Beautiful Game. It’s amazing.
To sum up: Coco is beautifully animated, culturally immersive, and heartfelt.
Coco was released on DVD in February. Once again, Pixar explores some familiar tropes — loss, family and coming-of-age — but still manages to keep it fresh and heartfelt. The exploration of Mexican culture and mythology is just as immersive as the representation of Polynesian culture in Moana. As you’d expect, Pixar’s animation is unbelievably beautiful, especially with the rich landscape of bright Mexican colors and themes.
It’s hard not to compare Coco with The Book of Life (also amazing) since both films focus on the Day of the Dead holiday, but the interpretation is actually quite different. There were two elements that really resonated with me about Coco. The first was the value of family: how family is a binding force, how we establish traditions, and how our sins can haunt those who come after us. This understanding also applies to our work families and even extends to our society. We are all one family and what we do today will affect generations of tomorrow.
Secondly, with all of the nationalist movements and xenophobia spreading across the world and especially here in the United States, I deeply appreciate Pixar/Disney’s choice to keep making movies that celebrate diversity and other cultures. From Moana to Zootopia and now Coco, it seems that Disney, through entertainment, is helping to show the world the importance of tolerance and kindness — that all cultures should be celebrated and that diversity makes us stronger. Well done, Disney and Pixar. Well done.
RUINER (available on PC and consoles)
TL;DR: RUINER is a stylish and fast-paced top-down cyberpunk shooter, with a kick-ass soundtrack to boot. Go get ‘em, puppy!
This game was released in September 2017 by the Polish indie studio Reikon, but has been regularly updated, including the recent “Annihilation Update”.
I have a soft spot for the old-school-style isometric shooters and platformers that only seem to be released by indie studios nowadays. RUINER is a cyberpunk-inspired isometric shooter with a slick art style and a great soundtrack that really enhances the futuristic setting. The overall look pays homage to Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell.
Your character is a cybernetically enhanced individual who can only communicate via nods or shrugs, as well as through a helmet that displays feedback across its faceplate. You are assisted by a seemingly friendly hacker who offers encouragement and direction as the story unfolds. However, nothing is as straightforward as it seems, and unraveling the mystery plays a large part in encouraging the player to progress.
Gameplay utilizes dual stick controls (moving/aiming) which keeps the action fast-paced and fluid. A dash option allows your character to move quickly across the screen, avoiding damage and moving in for the kill. Weapons include guns (lots of them) and melee (bats, swords, pipes, etc.)
Layered over those basic controls is the ability to customize your play style via skill tree. For example: unlocking an ability to trigger a “slow-mo” mode that makes dodging bullets easier or “hacking” your enemies to get them to fight for you.
The game is challenging (on normal or hard), but offers enough checkpoints for you to stop and start when you like without losing progress. RUINER is a great game to fire up and enjoy without having to worry about investing huge chunks of time.
Kaputt by Destroyer
My pick gives you: an absorbing album dripping with ambiance and smooth, cool 80s style.
This album actually came out in 2011, but it’s a new discovery for me. I love an album that you can really get lost in and this one is ready-made for a heavy daydreaming session. Kaputt is smooth and dreamy, lush and impressionistic. It’s a little bit jazzy, a little bit new wave, and 100% nostalgia. I may have been born in the 90s, but I can still miss the 80s, right? (Cue I Miss New Wave by Matthew Good…there’s a bonus recommendation for you!)
What’s your March pick? Tell us on social media.
We love all sorts of media and we want to share some favorites to fill up your February.
The Vanity Fair Diaries by Tina Brown
My pick gives you: glamor, glitz, back-stabbing, social climbing, legendary authors and ladies trying to get it all done
This month, I polished off the The Vanity Fair Dairies. I first heard Tina Brown being interviewed by Preet Bharara, former U.S. attorney, on his brilliant podcast (another recommendation). I loved hearing about Tina’s experience being a young woman and editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair in the 1980s. She spoke about getting the best from her writers and being a wife and mom while trying to build a business (Vanity Fair was flailing when she took over).
I related to her passion for telling true stories, both in the magazine and in her life, so I grabbed her book. As you’d expect, the pages are full of juicy celebrity tidbits (I distinctly remember the hubbub of the Demi Moore cover) and the male power plays in the publishing world.
It’s lovely and fun, but what really drew me in were her moments of truth, like when she trusted her gut and went after the position of editor-in-chief, or when she lamented over not spending enough time with her kids and juggling so many work nights out.
Xenoblade Chronicles (Wii)
My pick gives you: classic JRPG, great graphics and excellent British voice acting
This game is a few years old now (it came out in 2010 — positively ancient in gaming terms) and its sequel has just been released on the Nintendo Switch to mixed reviews, but it’s the original that’s really got me hooked at the moment. Released on a platform not known for its “serious” RPGs, Xenoblade received a limited release in the West and as such, has become a cult classic amongst JRPG nuts like me.
With great graphics (for the Wii), excellent (and very British) voice acting, and expansive, lovingly created environments (the entire game world is set on the back of two giant robots), Xenoblade Chronicles has everything and more for fans of the genre. It’s a classic JRPG that I’d rate in my top 5 of all time — right up there with Final Fantasy 7.
TL;DR: “If Oden played RTS’s, he would be pleased with Northgard.” — Some dude on steam
Northgard is a super fun and engaging RTS game that is currently in early access. It’s a bit slower paced than some traditional RTS games, such as Age of Empires. The slower pace –combined with beautiful, artistic graphics — renders it almost relaxing. It is Norse-themed and revolves around expanding territory, surviving harsh environment changes, balancing economy, conquering other tribes, and many other meta game mechanics.
Although the game moves at a lesser rate, it consists of rich gameplay dynamics and varied win conditions that give way to a plethora of strategies. If you enjoy RTS games, you should definitely check this one out. It’s currently available on Steam. Despite being in early access, it is a complete game with a few minor glitches here and there — but hey, that’s half the fun of early access!
The Worm’s Heart by The Shins
My pick gives you: classic indie sound with an interesting twist
This is a really interesting concept album. It’s essentially a “flipped” version of their most recent album, Heartworms. Frontman James Mercer said in a news release that he wanted to make “an alternate version, an opposite version” of that album.
Basically what that means is that the track listing is reversed: slow songs are now fast, fast songs are now slow. I really like to see bands experiment and play with their music, treating it like a raw resource rather than a final and solid object. I was a fan of The Shins already, but I’m especially impressed with them after this recent effort.
The Shape of Water
My pick gives you: spies, spunky cleaning ladies, stunning visuals, a new kind of swamp monster, and a trip back in time to the 1960s
This is maybe a pretty obvious recommendation — movies generate so much buzz that I’m sure you’ve heard all about it already. But it would be terribly misleading if I were to pretend that anything else had had as great an impact on me this month as The Shape of Water did. I saw it twice, it hit me that hard.
Del Toro and his incredibly talented team have created a beautiful film in every sense: cinematically, narratively (is that a word?), musically, and dramatically. It manages to be fantastical yet grounded, and it wasn’t just the creature and the main character that I fell in love with — I also loved the supporting characters: Giles, an elderly gay artist, Zelda, a caring cleaning lady, and Dmitri, a Russian spy/scientist.
What’s your pop culture pick? Tell us on social media!
Back in the day, AE started out working directly with music labels and management companies to help connect artists and fans through Spotify and other platforms. We’ve never forgotten those musical roots.
We want you to listen in on our monthly Spotify playlist.
Taking messy customer noise from far-flung internet networks and compiling it into useful data lends itself to compiling songs into a kickass playlist. How about that!
Want a sneak peek? Give this track a listen or keep scrolling for more bite-size portions of our new Spotify playlist. We love all sorts of genres, so rest assured, there’s something on there for everyone!
We’re a couple weeks into a new year now and we want 2018 to be exciting, fun-filled, and inspired. I guess you could say it’s our new year’s resolution. We’re so excited to see what the year has in store for us. Our challenge was to channel all that positive energy into something concrete that we could all contribute to and share…within the AE offices and beyond!
The result is our first monthly AE Spotify playlist. That’s right, this isn’t just a one-time thing! No need to be sad when it’s over, because you can already start looking forward to February’s jams.
Don’t forget to reach out to us! We’d love to hear from all our smart marketers, music junkies, and partners. This playlist is a team effort and that includes you! So let’s talk music. What’s your favourite track? What should we add? What do you want to hear next month?