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The pre-2016 entertainment that got us through 2016

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A roundup of our favorite older things to watch and hear this year

The Dixie Chicks
Sony BMG

As we head into the final weeks of 2016, the inevitable nostalgia for six to 11 months ago is kicking in across the pop culture universe. Everyone’s surveying the most significant films, books, music videos, memes, celebrity shade-offs, and what have you from the past year, and deciding what was most important for them in 2016. But while the hype cycle operates in tidy annual waves, our lives don’t. We’ll be getting into some of the best of 2016 on the site shortly, but we figured we’d kick things off with a staff look at the things we loved in 2016 that weren’t from 2016, and talk about how those favorite things got us through a tumultuous year.

Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk

We The Internet have collectively agreed on 2016's status as a Level 6 Garbage Fire. In my personal life, 2016 was more like a grease fire, a small flame, but one that refuses to go out and promises to burn your life down if you let it. My grandmother passed away, my wife and I continued to mourn the death of a close friend, and as if tormented by metaphor, practically every appliance in our house broke in the span of six months. This week, I got food poisoning, in a cheeky full stop to a year that often felt, emotionally speaking, like barfing and shitting at the same time. As an act of self-preservation, I turned on most Sunday mornings to Tusk, Fleetwood Mac's experimental 1979 folk album. In a 2015 Letter of Recommendation for New York Times Magazine, Sam Anderson perfectly described Christine McVie's voice as "smooth and sad, a melon-flavored wine cooler on a vacant beach at sunset with the one you know will eventually leave you." Fleetwood Mac is McVie, Lindsey Buckingham, and Stevie Nicks, and when they were authoring this music, the latter two were just entering their 30s. Even rock stars, their lyrics suggest, must grow up and do battle with the dragons of mundanity: death, heartbreak, and finances. In 2016, those beasts appeared over and over, over and over, and Tusk served as a torch, rarely leading the way, but always illuminating the darkness. –Chris Plante

The Critical Hit podcast

I’m an RPG dork, but I’ve never been a Dungeons & Dragons superfan, because it’s such a high-density, mathy system that the details tend to get in the way of the storytelling. In 2016, I found the solution: let someone else handle the math and the storytelling. Better yet, let the storytellers be people with strong personalities and a flair for drama and creativity. By early 2016, the Critical Hit D&D live-play podcast had became my primary audio obsession. Critical Hit started back in 2008, and at this point, they’re closing in on 400 episodes, and more than 600 hours of podcast. That’s a huge commitment for a new listener, but once I really fell into the story, the scope of the backlog actually became a comfort, because there was so much of this thing I’d fallen for, and disappearing into it on a bad or boring day was so effortless. Listening to the podcast is like reading a series of epic fantasy novels where the protagonists frequently drop out of character to joke around with each other, or thoughtfully discuss the rules of the world where they live. As geeky as it feels to eavesdrop on someone else’s gaming sessions, the story still keeps surprising me, and the personalities involved have become as familiar as some of my friends. The GM, Rodrigo Lopez, is a master at creating immense, intriguing, world-spanning stories and keeping the players at least nominally on task. This was the podcast that kept me laughing or breathless through every commute, every errand, and every household chore in 2016, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes in 2017. –Tasha Robinson

Dragonforce, “Through the Fire and Flames”

The main downside of getting into running again is that my musical taste has suddenly regressed by a more than a decade, and I’m listening to all this really bad early ‘00s power metal again. (Before you ask, no, I was never a Guitar Hero player; I was just sort of emo.) Is this song power metal? I’m not sure. Is it even comprehensible? Not really. It’s embarrassing that I used to earnestly listen to a lot of this, but the melodrama is great for powering through the last 20 minutes of a run. And running, more than a lot of things, has been helpful in dealing with this year. Maybe in 2017, my musical taste will progress to where it was the year after I listened to Dragonforce, which means a lot of Björk and Portishead. Much better. –Angela Chen

The Dixie Chicks, Taking the Long Way

One of my favorite places to hang out in the first brutal days after the election was the YouTube comments under the Dixie Chicks’ 2006 Bush-defying single “Not Ready to Make Nice.” They were full of sad, angry girls, being sad and angry together. The whole album is about dealing with injustice that feels personal, and with anger that feels insatiable, and it’s more or less a direct response to the abuse the Dixie Chicks suffered after criticizing then-president George W. Bush. After lead singer Natalie Maines said at a concert that she was ashamed to be from Bush’s home state of Texas, the group was all but banned from country-music radio, their CDs were destroyed in public demonstrations, and they received death threats. The album is a decade old now. Where a year ago its most hopeful, forward-looking songs seemed like they had been validated and made at least partly irrelevant by the Obama era, they now sound urgent again, and more than a little naïve. (Like all of us!) There’s also a love song on it called “Easy Silence,” which is about tuning out and shutting up for a second and probably hugging someone. I highly recommend all three things, and also the song. –Kaitlyn Tiffany

Marge Piercy, He, She, & It

When things feel as apocalyptic as they do now, I have two instincts: to look at ways people have imagined things blowing up in the past, and ways they imagined them getting better. He, She, and It is both! On one hand, it’s a novel where the world is divided into desperate slums and predatory megacorporations with social mores that control your media consumption, your diet, and how you name your children. The environment has disintegrated to the point that you have to wear a second skin to go outside, where you will probably be killed and harvested by organ pirates, who sell your body parts to the rich because artificial organs are vulnerable to targeted hacks by cyber-assassins.

On the other, after a million recent TV series and films about men falling in love with or sexually exploiting self-aware female AIs, it's incredibly refreshing to see a nuanced, poignant story about a woman’s consensual relationship with a machine-man from all the way back in 1991. And a book that's unapologetically about women, domesticity, motherhood, and relationships, without treating them as incompatible with cyberpunk hacking sequences, corporate warfare, a secret all-female society of radiation-resistant cyborgs living under the ruins of Israel, or an extended frame story about the Golem of Prague. –Adi Robertson

Britney Spears, Greatest Hits: My Prerogative

Whereas 2016 was perhaps the worst year ever, 1999 was a good year, aside from Y2K. I was eight in 1999, and practically nothing mattered in my life except Britney Spears and singing along to “…Baby One More Time.” (Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen mattered a little, but they weren’t Britney.) So I can’t say I’m surprised that my first instinct while watching the world go to shit this year was to return to Britney. I listen to “Oops! …I Did It again” and “Lucky” for the same reasons I eat spaghetti and meatballs or hug my mom when I’m down. They make me feel assured, happy, and a little less burdened by a world leader’s asinine tweets. Britney has fallen in love, gotten divorced, shaved her head, gained weight, lost weight, and starred in a feature-length film. She’s had two kids, released arguably bad albums, and kissed Madonna. And now, with her recurring sold-out Las Vegas show, Britney is proving to be the most resilient pop star. I love her and her bejeweled belly-button ring that she won’t give up. She is both the inspiration we needed in 2016 and the woman I’ll revisit to remind myself to keep on going in 2017. –Ashley Carman

Clark And Michael

Clark And Michael is Clark Duke and Michael Cera's 2006 mockumentary web series for CBS. I love it so much. It's more than a decade old now, and it might be the only non-sentient thing I've loved this long. Because it's a TV show about two TV writers, you'd be forgiven for assuming it was boring and self-important, but you'd be wrong. Clark is the frequently drunk one who wears a scarf to look professional and scares off potentially interested networks, while Michael is the egotistical baby. (Michael's teary breakdown in the bathtub prompts Clark to yell at the camera crew, "No bathroom stuff!") The entire 10-episode season is available on YouTube, and at around 10 minutes per episode, it's just the kind of dumb, funny thing my limited attention span needed this year, and will probably need for the next several years, too. –Lizzie Plaugic

Edward Abbey, Desert Solitare

I found my favorite way of escaping 2016 when I started reading a book this summer, one that brought me half a century into the past and let me get lost in the desert. I had never heard of Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire until I saw this post, which sums it up better than I can here. What you need to know: It’s a beautiful book about Abbey’s time as a park ranger at Arches National Monument in Utah’s Moab desert. It’s also sometimes crass and funny in a way that is rare in writing about nature, though Abbey is also never crass just for the sake of it.

Desert Solitaire appealed to me for two reasons. One, it’s a poetic meditation on and description of the stretch of protected wilderness that is Arches Park. True wilderness has become harder to find (and defend) since Abbey published this book in 1968 — we even see him describe this shift as he writes about the way the park gets treated by an influx of tourists and developers. Abbey helps explain why wilderness is worth protecting, while plotting the course of where we went wrong in protecting it. (For an inverse examination of this problem, I can’t recommend Summer Brennan’s 2015 book The Oyster War enough. It focuses on oyster farms and wilderness protection in the Pacific Northwest, but it looks deep into the past as well. The two complement each other well.) I read Desert Solitaire in what felt like appropriate stages, too: I started it during a trip through Acadia National Park in Maine, and finished it while playing through the entirety of No Man’s Sky. The end result was that nature now occupies a place in the front of my mind in a way it hasn’t for most of my life.

The other reason I loved this book is Abbey’s approach. "In recording my impressions of the natural scene I have striven above all for accuracy, since I believe that there is a kind of poetry, even a kind of truth, in simple fact,” he writes. "Language makes a mighty loose net with which to go fishing for simple facts, when facts are infinite.” It’s a way of thinking about writing that became increasingly relevant every time I came back up for air to greet the absurd events of 2016. –Sean O’Kane

Alto’s Adventure

I used to play a lot of iPhone games. Between long bus rides to class and long train rides to work, they've always been a good way to kill some time and take my mind off the world. These days, I mostly use it to play Alto's Adventure. It's a meticulously designed, beautifully rendered endless runner where you play as a snowboarder — Alto — chasing down his escaped llamas. It's got a scoring system for tricks, and a variety of power-ups, but I keep coming back to it over and over since it's just so relaxing. And while there's a certain peacefulness to skiing alone down a mountain that Alto's Adventure can't quite replicate, its pocket-sized sense of calm is the next best thing. No matter how bad things outside in the world may be, I'm always a quick tap away from Alto and his mountain, trying to make it a few meters farther or a few points higher than the last run. Alto's Adventure has had a spot on my phone's home screen since it came out in 2015, and I can't imagine I'll be replacing it with anything else in the near future. –Chaim Gartenberg

Law and Order: SVU

One of the things I’ll most reliably watch while channel-surfing is any entry from the Law & Order franchise. I’ve always liked procedural cop shows, and no matter what iteration of the story was on, I’d inevitably keep it in the background. This fall, I fell into a long binge-watch of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. I don’t have to watch these episodes closely — I’ll throw them on while I’m cleaning or cooking dinner, — but I never miss anything important. There are points where I feel that I’ve invested too much time to give up now, but it keeps me reasonably entertained.

I’m not sure exactly why I’m into this: I’ve caught a ton of the episodes over the years, but there’s something really intriguing about starting from the beginning of a show that’s lasted for more than 15 years. Creators can do interesting things with characters in that amount of time, and watching Benson and Stabler morph over the years is interesting, even if each individual episode follows the same rigid formula. It’s also interesting to see just how social attitudes change in that same amount of time, and there’s points where the show feels refreshingly progressive when it comes to gender, sexual orientation, or dealing with trauma.

I don’t think SVU is my favorite entry in the Law & Order franchise. Vincent D'Onofrio’s Bobby Goren and Kathryn Erbe’s Alexandra Eames are extremely hard to beat, and the UK edition of the show is also worth checking out. But SVU is definitely a force in itself. –Andrew Liptak

Lucia Berlin, A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories

A famous music producer once told me he could make a great record and release it a decade later, and it would still sound fresh. To him, that was a definition of a classic. Lucia Berlin has been dead for more than a decade, but her collected stories, A Manual for Cleaning Women, was released in 2015. Her stories sound so of the now, it’s almost alarming. “Mrs. Snowden waited for my grandmother and me to get into her electric car,” is the first sentence of “Electric Car, El Paso.” It’s a story about a slow ride in a tall-short electric car from a Bible-quoting senior. The senior woman is prepared for the future, and she carries an emergency Fig Newton stash wrapped in Kleenex to prove it. Make of that what you will, since most of Berlin’s work was produced in the 20th century. Berlin published 76 stories in her worldly lifetime, which was filled with both enchanting and tumultuous events. But in each of her stories, she captures the peculiar in the everyday moments, where even the small stakes seem high. In a time of such highs and lows, Berlin’s writing illuminates the stuff that stays true. –Tamara Warren

Marvin Gaye, Trouble Man

You know that scene in Captain America: The Winter Soldier where Sam Wilson recommends Trouble Man to Steve Rogers as basically the quintessential 20th-century American album? I took that recommendation seriously at the time, and he’s not wrong. 2016 has been a year of trouble, a great deal of it bad. Trouble in our politics, trouble in media, so on and so forth. For me, it was a hard year both professionally and personally. But the point is always to keep moving. The lesson I’ve taken from it is, you will absolutely face strife and hardship — “There’s only three things for sure / taxes, death, and trouble.” — but moving forward is reward enough.

This is my “late-night walk through the Lower East Side” album. I feel tougher than leather when I hear “‘T’ Plays It Cool.” I let myself give into melancholy when I hear “Life Is A Gamble.” Marvin’s voice is sweet, sad, and soulful throughout this record. He doesn’t even have to sing, so much as just moan along with the music. But I come back again and again to the title track, because on days when I feel beaten down — like, say, on November 9th — it’s only right to remember that trouble is always going to be there. And I tell myself that trouble, man, don’t get in my way. –Kwame Opam