The Guide #146: The best culture of the year (so far)

July is upon us, as is the midpoint of the year. Which of course means it’s time for the Guide’s best culture of 2024 so far. Yes that’s right, the ONLY results that matter this Friday are finally here. The Guardian arts desk has already shared its own lists of the best TV, films, albums and video games, so don’t take this Guide list to be the final word on the matter. But here are our highlights from the worlds of TV, film, music, podcasts, games and books …

TV

First things first: The Bear season three isn’t on this list. Not because we’re part of the Bear-lash; but because it’s only been out a week and we haven’t finished it yet. Maybe it will find a home on our year-end list instead. It will join Shōgun, the best show of the year so far – a swaggering historical epic, with memorable characters and a keen understanding of and respect for Japanese history and culture. I’ve still not caught my breath after its ripper of a ninth episode.

After years of bemoaning Netflix for the soulless algorithmic way that it made middle-to-lowbrow telly, the ubiquitous streamer finally came up trumps with three very different, distinctive shows. Baby Reindeer, Richard Gadd’s account of abuse and stalking, might have prompted difficult questions about the line between truth and fiction, but was undoubtedly remarkable. Ripley was a masterwork of mood and slow-drip tension. And One Day was utterly charming, perfectly paced – and a lesson in how to adapt beloved source material without getting a shoeing from its loyal fans.

I suspect in years to come we’ll grow quite bored of The Traitors format, particularly if they start churning out multiple series a year (a celeb version is on the way for the UK). But its second BBC series was watercooler TV of the highest order. And Larry David’sCurb Your Enthusiasm left on its own terms with a barnstorming final season that culminated in an all-timer finale – and a corrective, 20-odd years on, to the much-maligned Seinfeld finale.

Honourable mentions: Fallout; How to With John Wilson; Mr & Mrs Smith; The Responder

Albums

The mysterious Cindy Lee’s hard-to-source album Diamond Jubilee. Photograph: Cindy Lee

This truly is the summer of Brat. Even Charli XCX and hyperpop agnostics have been forced to recognise that its giant, abrasive avant-dance pop is completely undeniable. July to December’s contenders are going to have to work very hard to dislodge it from the top of best of the year lists.

No question over the word-of-mouth album of the year so far: Diamond Jubilee by mysterious psych-pop star Cindy Lee. Despite only being available via a Geocities download and hard-to-navigate YouTube stream, its timeless echoey pop songs spread across the internet like wildfire. On the more commercially friendly end of the indie spectrum, Vampire Weekend continued to broaden their sound with Only God Was Above Us, a gorgeously produced headphones album that dialled down the twee and cranked up the genre mashups.

Vince Staples’s Dark Times was the feel-bad rap album of the year to date, a series of self-reflective, downbeat rhymes swaddled in murky, moody production. At 35 minutes it was the perfect length: any longer and its mood would be overwhelming. Also offering a big mood was Moves in the Field by Kelly Moran, whose swirling player piano compositions provided the perfect exit ramp from the frenzy of everyday life. Finally, the album that I’ve had the most fun with this year is undoubtedly Paul Bunyan’s Slingshot by Michigan band Liquid Mike – powerpop par excellence!

Honourable mentions: Corridor – Mimi; Death’s Dynamic Shroud/Galen Tipton – You Like Music; From Indian Lakes – Head Void; Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – Challengers soundtrack

Plus five great songs (from bands/artists who haven’t already been mentioned): Fontaines DC – Starburster; Kendrick Lamar – Not Like Us; Nia Archives – Forbidden Feelingz; Nilüfer Yanya – Like I Say (Runaway); Thou – I Feel Nothing When You Cry

Films

Emma Stone in Yorgos Lanthimos’s bonkers steampunk tale Poor Things. Photograph: Atsushi Nishijima/AP

One positive from the strange decision to release the US’s autumn Oscar hopefuls the following January and February in the UK is that our winter gloom is always lessened by a boatload of great cinema releases. For me, the pick of this year’s crop were The Holdovers, Alexander Payne’s stirring boarding-school comedy, and disturbed steampunk fable Poor Things (pictured above) from Yorgos Lanthimos (who somehow already has another film, Kinds of Kindness, in cinemas now). Both of those picked up Oscars, as Andrew Haigh’s painfully raw ghost story All of Us Strangers should have, too, if there was any justice – although that might not be a majority view judging by some of the lively conversations/arguments I’ve had about that film.

Before Inside Out 2 gave cinemas a shot in the arm last month, it looked like Dune: Part 2 would bear the weight of this year’s box office expectations alone. It was the only blockbuster truly worth forking out on a babysitter for – grand, trippy and visually deserving of what seems like a permanent residency on Imax screens.

At the other end of the scale, Netflix’s crime caper Hit Man was – for most people – only available on the small screen, but managed to charm audiences usually used to watching TV while scrolling on their phones. Glen Powell is a proper A-lister, as he’ll soon confirm with the release of Twisters. And a word for Robot Dreams, an imaginative, heartstring-yanking animation that only played to small arthouse audiences in the UK, but surely won over every last person who saw it. Hopefully more will now it’s available to rent.

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Honourable mentions: Challengers; Copa 71; Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga; The Zone of Interest

Podcasts

Podcasting has long been rumoured to be on a downward trajectory, and yet there have been some pretty big releases already this year and – according to new figures – more Britons than ever are tuning in to them. As always, the Guardian’s Hear Here newsletter is the place to be if you want to keep a handle on the best releases of the moment, but here are five shows that have risen above the surfeit for me.

World of Secrets Season 2 – The Disciples from the BBC World Service was more than your average cult-themed true crime series, thanks to unparalleled access to former devotees of disgraced Nigerian pastor TB Joshua, and empathetic reporting from Yemisi Adegoke and Charlie Northcott. Elsewhere, Serial proved that sometimes the oldies are still the goodies, with a new series digging deep into what really goes on at Guantanamo and America’s never-ending “war on terror”, while the trio behind surprise independent megahit Who Shat on the Floor at My Wedding? returned to investigate another off-kilter “crime” in hilariously painstaking fashion for The Case of the Tiny Suit/Case.

Jamie Loftus, the My Year In Mensa and Ghost Church host who always manages to do something special with her shows, seized on an idea so fantastic that it was surprising that no one else had done it sooner – catching up with former meme stars for Sixteenth Minute (of Fame) to find out the true stories behind their online infamy. Closer to home, our Guardian colleagues also released an excellent series, Black Box, on the incredible feats and terrifying threats of AI. Hannah J Davies

Games

Shadow of the Erdtree, an expansion of the notoriously tricky Elden Ring. Photograph: Bandai Namco Europe

The magnificent, imperious and famously difficult 2022 fantasy game Elden Ring got an enormous expansion recently, called Shadow of the Erdtree – it’s great, but also completely off limits to anyone who hasn’t already spent tens of hours testing their mettle in The Lands Between. If you’re not an Elden Ring sicko, there are two more huge fantasy games that have made waves this year: Final Fantasy VII Rebirth, a gorgeous reimagining of the 1997 PlayStation classic, and the endearingly chaotic and weird Dragon’s Dogma II. If you’re after a more manageably sized indie game, there’s also Balatro, the trippy poker-inspired card game where you’re supposed to cheat outrageously. Animal Well is a mildly unsettling and mysterious subterranean platformer that feels like some lost game from the 90s and looks exquisite. Also riding the wave of 90s nostalgia is Crow Country, a clever horror game about exploring an abandoned theme park, which has a low-poly original PlayStation look. And Lorelei and the Laser Eyes is an arthouse puzzle game that is borderline impossible to describe. For those who just want to shoot stuff, January’s surprise success Helldivers II is the most fun anyone’s had with a multiplayer shooter in years. Millions of people are still playing it, so you won’t be short of squad mates as a latecomer. Keza MacDonald

Books

Miranda July returned with a sexy second novel, All Fours, about a woman’s midlife crisis – or, in her words, the start of her “second life”. Earlier in the year, Percival Everett’s James offered a reimagining of Huckleberry Finn, narrated by the enslaved Jim, that is by turns comic and horrifying. And Andrew O’Hagan’s Dickensian Caledonian Road traced a man’s fall from grace as its author turns a sharp eye to post-Brexit, post-lockdown Britain.

In nonfiction, Olivia Laing’s The Garden Against Time looked at both the ugly politics and the hopeful possibilities embedded in our paradisiacal green spaces. And Sathnam Sanghera gave us a follow-up to the illuminating Empireland, turning to look at the lasting legacy of British imperialism globally with Empireworld. For more recommendations from the first half of 2024 check out our guide to 50 of the best new books to dive into. Ella Creamer

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