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Reason's 2017 Gift Guide

The best books, movies, music, and TV of the year

As 2017 comes to an end, we've asked our staff to select some of the best books, movies, music, and other media released this year. Our picks range from a faux-communist cop show to a history of food and empire, from a collection of evangelical rock songs to a novel set on the moon—plus items about biodiversity, mythology, political partisanship, pro wrestling, and more. —Jesse Walker

Ronald Bailey
Science Correspondent

PublicAffairsPublicAffairsHumanity isn't destroying the natural world; we're changing it. In many ways, our changes are creating richer and more vibrant ecosystems.

That's the persuasive and liberating argument advanced by the York University conservation biologist Chris D. Thomas in his riveting new book, Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction. "It is time for the ecological, conservation and environmental movement—of which I am a life-long member—to throw off the shackles of pessimism-laden, loss-only view of the world," he writes. As an increasingly wealthy and more technologically adept humanity continues to withdraw from nature, Thomas shows, wild creatures are returning to landscapes from which they once had been extirpated. This trend will strengthen as the 21st century unfolds.

Humanity is also creating a new Pangaea by moving thousands of species around the globe and thereby increasing local biodiversity almost everywhere. For example, New Zealand's 2,000 native plant species have been joined by 2,000 from elsewhere, doubling the plant biodiversity of the islands. As plants and animals populate new regions, they start down different evolutionary paths that are already differentiating into new species. Meanwhile, only three of New Zealand's native plants have gone extinct.

Thomas cogently argues that a thriving world of exotic ecosystems and biological renewal is at hand. By the time most readers have finished this well-written and carefully researched book, they should agree.

Eric Boehm
Reporter

Anti/EpitaphAnti/EpitaphIf the best album of the year is the best album to sing along with on a long road trip—and isn't it, really?—then the contest isn't even close in 2017. Japandroids' Near to the Wild Heart of Life is itself a road trip: one that reverses a rock 'n' roll cliché by aiming ever homeward, hungry for a love left behind.

Neither robots nor Japanese imports, Japandroids take us on an alliterative ride from the noise of a New York night to the sweltering stink of a sinking city (New Orleans). The album's third track deserves a place on the admittedly short list of libertarian love songs for its title alone ("True Love and a Free Life of Free Will"), if not for its hazy scenes of cabarets and cantinas full of cigarette smoke, through which guitarist Brian King ruminates that love is the joining of mutual passions. "And I'll love you, if you love me," he sings—a punk rock version of a wedding vow.

The Canadian duo's followup to 2012's Celebration Rock is more reflective lyrically and more experimental musically than its predecessor. The screaming guitar loops and hammering drums of the band's earlier work is still here in places, but King and drummer David Prowse pull out their synthesizers and slow the pace a bit in the middle of the album, as if giving their fans a moment to catch their breaths before another bombastic singalong. It works, and it's particularly enjoyable live, where screaming along to the driving chorus leaves you feeling like hitting the open road.

Elizabeth Nolan Brown
Associate Editor

NetflixNetflix"Fake" is our president's favorite rallying cry. "Feminism" is Merriam-Webster's word of the year. Devious Russians dominate half the country's political fears. Passionate fights rage over "political correctness" and cultural representation. In this atmosphere, GLOW—a campy, hilarious, and heartwarming Netflix series about women's wrestling in mid-'80s Los Angeles—hardly seems like a historical piece at all, at least if you can look beyond all the big hair and legwarmers. But somehow the veneer of yesteryear allows it to tackle these topics in a way that's funny and smart without feeling heavy-handed.

A fictionalized account of the rise of the real Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling program (syndicated from 1986 to 1990), GLOW follows a down-on-his-luck cult director, Sam Sylvia (comedian Marc Maron), as he assembles a ragtag team of actors and misfits for the production, bankrolled by an eager but clueless rich kid (Chris Lowell). His nemesis and salvation comes in the form of precocious wannabe actress Ruth Wilder, played perfectly against type by perennial sweetheart Alison Brie, and her best frenemy Debbie (Betty Gilpin), a hot blonde soap-opera star with a philandering husband and burgeoning ambitions beyond being a sex symbol. Debbie and Ruth work out their personal drama while learning to faux-kick the shit out of each other as patriotic cutie "Liberty Belle" and the dastardly communist "Zoya the Destroyer."

Sylvia gives all of the GLOW ladies ridiculous and—from a literalist lens—highly offensive personas to play in the ring, and the way the show addresses this leaves room for lots of humor and some subtle social commentary. It also gives the show's amazing ensemble cast room to shine. The standouts include Sunita Mani (best known from Mr. Robot) as a pre-med student who transforms into "Beirut the Mad Bomber" for the cameras; Britney Young as the stage-fright-stricken Carmen "Machu Pichu" Wade, the only one with actual wrestling skills; Kate Nash as the ditzy but enthusiastic British beauty Rhonda; and actual pro wrestler Kia Stevens as Tamme Dawson, who initially rejects being cast as the villainous "Welfare Queen" before beginning to have fun with it and ultimately stealing the show.

Brian Doherty
Senior Editor

ColumbiaColumbiaBob Dylan is notorious for alienating his fan base, but the reaction to his mid-'60s move from acoustic folk to electric blues-rock had nothing on the incredulity and anger that greeted the singer-songwriter when he donned the mantle of an apocalyptic, moralistic born-again Christian from 1979 to 1981.

With Trouble No More, the 13th installment of Columbia Records' revelatory "Bootleg Series" of archival-dig Dylan releases, we have a new chance to reconsider that period. The collection also gives us further evidence that Dylan long ago lost the instinct to know his own best work. Not only does his ferociously passionate live band give songs we already knew from Dylan's studio albums a more punchy and vivid life, but this set includes more than 10 originals that never appeared on official Dylan LPs before. Most are top-flight Dylan, especially "Ain't Gonna Go to Hell for Anybody" and "Making a Liar Out of Me."

Dylan's themes remained the same: love and justice, just seen through a more deliberately traditional lens. The consistent toughness and ferocity of the music matches the toughness and ferocity of his message of earthly depravity overcoming courage and wisdom (and vice versa). You needn't agree with that gospel message to be moved by a passion and presence of performance up there with any in his storied career. This set—particularly the generous eight-CD/one DVD "deluxe" edition—will be forevermore the place to go for these songs, even as the historically minded fan regrets the producers' decision to excise the wild sermons he peppered into his live sets during this era.

Photo Credit: Christian Kothe/CC BY-ND 2.0

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    While I still can't decide if my viewing The Americans is hate-watching or not, I forgot I wanted to watch Comrade Detective.

    Greatest cinema of the year? Obviously it's Armageddon. Same as every year.

  • sarcasmic||

    I almost got my ex wife a Putin calendar. She thinks he's hot. But she's not worth the seven dollars.

  • BYODB||

    How about a roll of pennies through a window?

  • Alcibiades||

    The Americans is serious TV heroin, although series five stumbled somewhat and just seemed to flail around aimlessely for a few episodes.

    Still, one of the most addictive and binge watch-inducing drama series ever.
    Should come with a warning; "do not view if essential chores remain unfinished".

  • Crusty Juggler||

    Agreed. Season 5 was poop, but I do have high hopes for season 6.

    Also, poor Martha.

  • Alcibiades||

    I don't know what the hell they were thinking about for Season Five.

    Couple sub plots/ themes I was kind of hoping would start/develop were:

    1. Some questioning/reflection by the parent's of their political world view after direct experience of living in the US for so long and contrast and comparing this with the political indoctrination they received in the USSR

    2. Their FBI neighbour starting to become suspicious of the couple's activities. There was a hint of this in one of the episodes from Season One I think but it never went anywhere. If this plotline is gonna playout it's all gonna have to be in Season Six.

  • Juice||

    Comrade Detective is fucking atrocious and godawful. Shame.

  • lap83||

    Is it that polarizing? I thought it was fun. Though I would like to see a version without dubbing and just subtitles.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Not a single video game. Need Soave back, at least he'd talk about Zelda.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Shackford is our real resident gamer. Isn't he?

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Is he? The only one I remember ever posting about it was Soave a year back. He did it in an embarrassing way as we would expect.

  • Scott S.||

    I've mostly retired from gaming. I spent much of my life as a big, huge gamer (arcade dwelling Gen. Xer) but I don't really have time for it anymore. I'm a "filthy casual" as they say.

  • kaddish||

    What Happened? I've heard that's a good stocking filler

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    You misheard. It's good kindling.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Yeah, but the flames that come out of it are black and produce no heat, and there are... things moving in them.

  • kaddish||

    The 'slow smokeless burning of decay'?

  • Crying Zelda Morning Link||

    Best music:

    War On Drugs - A Deeper Understanding
    Kevin Morby - City Music
    Alvvays - Antisocialites
    Chastity Belt - I Used To Spend So Much Time Alone
    John Maus - Screen Memories
    Ariel Pink - Dedicated to Bobby Jameson
    Hand Habits - Wildly Idle
    Sean Nicholas Savage - Yummycoma

    TV:

    Glow - as good as ENB says it is

  • Crying Zelda Morning Link||

    And Julia Holter - In the Same Room. Even better live!

  • Crying Zelda Morning Link||

    And 2017 was the year of the Twin Cities Reissue:

    Prince/The Revolution - Purple Rain Deluxe Expanded Edition
    The Replacements - For Sale: Live at Maxwell's 1986
    Husker Du - Savage Young Du

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