My Cultural Highlights of 2014

My Cultural Highlights of 2014

I do this every year about this time… a few of the things I’ve loved and been inspired by in 2014.

Television.

The first half of the final season of Mad Men was back up there in terms of surprises and strength of story/character. But the best thing I saw on television this year (and possibly ever) was a real surprise.

I’ve always enjoyed Homeland but it went a bit crazy in Series Two and Series Three as it contrived to keep Brody in the story long after his story was done. Without him, Series Four was able to do what Homeland’s always had the capacity to do, but did it even better than I’d hoped for. There’s always been those moments in Homeland that just hit you, where the unexpected happens and shocks you. There’s also that wonderful thing that often happens about two-thirds or three-quarters of the way through the Series when you suddenly realise what’s been happening all along, and how it was all planned.

Series Four had both of those and more. I had serious problems getting to sleep after it frequently, and it wasn’t just because I was shocked, but because I was so engaged with it. That’s powerful TV.

I did enjoy some comedy this year too, and despite my fondness for the one-liners that populate Lee Mack’s Not Going Out, this latest series was surprisingly moving, and definitely back to form. Hugh Dennis provided a foil for Lee that he has missed since Tim Vine left the show. I hope Lee Mack get’s another show.

Jack Whitehall’s Bad Education was also very funny. Not because of anything to do with teaching or schools, because it bears no resemblance to reality in those areas. Just because it was very funny.

However, in comedy terms, 2014 was really about a very sad but understandable goodbye to the family of Outnumbered. One of the most naturally funny shows ever and also the best chorincler of family life. I’ll miss them.

Books.

A rich year for me in reading, although several of the books that came out this year I’ve still yet to read. But I managed to read 31 books this year, in a year in which one of them was The Luminaries (which I enjoyed very much, if not loved). My standout favourite was Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell. The sort of book I got very excited about when I first heard of it, just because he’s one of my favourites, but was not at all disappointed by. A stunning imagination, but such a good creator of real characters and natural dialogue. Despite spanning such a long period of time, with each part telling a slightly different story, each part was highly engaging and some of them would be in themselves among the best books written this year, were they standalone stories. This particular skill of David Mitchell’s was also realised in Kate Bush’s Before the Dawn (about which more later) as he also provided the dialogue for one of the key scenes between father and son.

I also read all three of Joshua Ferris’s novels this year. The Unnamed and And then we Came to the End were completely different from each other and both brilliant. Filled me with so much hope and excitement at a new novel, and I was bitterly disappointed with his latest To Rise again at a Decent Hour. Very hard to get on with and missing all the traits of those first two that were so good.

Nevertheless, there remains for me to look forward to in 2015 Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman and Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens among others.

New Music

New Faith No More. Very exciting for me. And typically Faith No More that they release their first song in 20-odd years, it’s brilliant and catchy and yet not socially acceptable to sing out loud because of it’s title (at least not in my family). But a new album next year is a much looked forward to treat. I’m also very excited about the new Tears for Fears album – as one of my favourite bands.

But this year was mostly about jazz for me. And in terms of albums I loved Brice Winston’s Child’s Play. David Virelles and Marcus Gilmore have the making of greats and I even really like Mike Moreno’s playing on this – despite not being a fan of jazz guitar.

I also loved Opus 5’s new album Progression. That’s another great band. Closer to home great albums from Tommy Andrews (The Crux) and an astonishingly assured and beautiful debut album from Singer/Violinist/Piano Player Alice Zawadski (China Lane).

These albums are all highly recommended.

And I should mention George Michael’s Symphonica. Most of the arrangements are very like they are on the original album. But the shape of the band dictates that the setlist is largely my favourite style of George Michael music… and these are very good songs. Hearing Praying for Time and Cowboys and Angels from Listen without Prejudice is one thing, but there’s also his rather wonderful arrangement of Let Her Down Easy by Terence Trent D’Arbay (that’s not on any album), and his Brother, Can You Spare a Dime gets me up and singing.

Gigs

I went to lots of gigs this year, and the quality quotient was very high. Two absolute highlights loom large above the others though…

The St Petersburg Philharmonic playing Shostakovich’s 10th at the Royal Festival Hall was a career highlight. Nobody plays Shostakovich like they do and there no-one writes a symphony like Shostakovich. So much to love and so much inspiration. The same could be said of..

Kate Bush’s Before the Dawn tour, and will be. £150 per ticket, but genuinely worth every penny, in terms of what I got out of that concert. I loved every note of it. Amazing band, great setlist – amazing to hear A Sky of Honey performed in it’s entirety and amazing theatre. More elaborate theatre than one is ever likely to see and with a better score too, performed live by Kate herself. By her current standards she’ll be 80 when she next plays a concert… and that’s at the expense of a new album. Hopefully both will be seen again before then.

Film

12 Years a Slave, The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Lego Movie all good films from the early part of the year. More recently I enjoyed Interstellar – which was let down by its numerous plotholes and extreme overlength, but I guess that makes it a Kubrickian film (fatally flawed but with moments of sheer spectacle and joy and left me thinking about it). I preferred the Russian film Leviathan, which wasn’t flawed at all (just perhaps lacking the spectacle, although not lacking in any human drama and with a good deal more humour)… however, I think if I had to pick a favourite, it would be Paddington. Brilliantly conceived, designed, acted, shot and edited. Manages to be faithful to the London of the 1950s original and yet also contemporary. But heart-warming in a very genuine way, not smug and entertaining.

Personal Highlights

There’s so much inspiration in all that, so perhaps it’s fitting that 2015 is shaping up to be a pretty big year for me too. My own personal highlights are tied equally… a great family summer holiday in Sweden and Denmark that I’ll remember forever, even though I’ll be returning as soon as I can… and having one of my personal heroes Robert Wyatt come out of retirement to record a vocal for one of my songs. The resulting song is beautiful, and will be on an album to come out in the spring. His won’t be the only big name on it, but it will be the meeting that I have most cherished this year. A legend, and a lovely bloke.

So, my year of Robert and Kate and David Mitchell. That probably sums up 2014. Roll on next year.

Some of my favourite things from 2010:

In no particular order…

The End of the Party, by Andrew Rawnsley

An insightful and gripping documentation of New Labour’s time in office

Perfectly, Still, by Curt Smith

One of three gorgeous slices of melancholic bliss released this year by Curt.  I can’t make up my mind though, on whether I wouldn’t prefer to wait three years and get a whole album at once.

This Is England ‘86 (Shane Meadows)

Probably the best TV ever.

The General Election

Not for the result and everything that’s followed, which is the worst government for this country since the early 80s, but for the sheer drama of it; for the great fall experienced by the BNP; for the unmasking of Nick Clegg as a power-crazed Tory scum; for the ability to say ‘I told you so’ to anyone who thought that the Tories weren’t so right wing anymore…

San Francisco, Karlsruhe, Copenhagen

Three great cities visited this year – all of which had so much to offer that I’ll definitely be going back.

Geeky Section:

Twitter

Android 2.2.1

Head First by Goldfrapp

A really nice, very 80s flavoured album of Electro Pop.

Luther (BBC)

Fantastic performances – Idris Elba is sensational.  Seemed a bit unbelievable at first, but the narrative arc took an idea and ran with it, leading to the most memorable conclusion.  “What now?”

A Single Man (Tom Ford)

He doesn’t just make nice suits, he makes nice films too.  Although Colin Firth deserves a lot of the credit.

Charles Lloyd Quartet + Norma Winstone Trio (Barbican – LJF)

A great double bill.  Charles Lloyd is okay, but Eric Harland is amazing and often dominates a bit (like Tain Watts).  But here he was beautiful and understated throughout.  Norma Winstone’s trio seems unsual, but is so perfect and perfect as a complement to her voice.  Memorable evening out.

A Prophet (Jacques Audiard)

A Prison drama that takes its time to tell its story (the growing in stature and rising through the prison heirachy from nobody to, well, Prophet) but is always involving and smart.

Chronic City (Jonathan Lethem)

Another sprawling[-ish] NY novel from Lethem.  It doesn’t hit the highs of Fortress of Solitude, but is much more than the enjoyable whimsical You Don’t Love Me Yet.  Always entertaining, its not till the end that the whole thing makes sense.

For the Ghosts Within (Atzmon/Wyatt/Stephen)

Robert Wyatt’s latest album, a collaboration with Sax player Gilad Atzmon and String player/arranger Ros Stephen, is beautiful.  Mostly standards, but for the odd re-visitation (Dondestan) and the odd new track (the stunning title track).  I was fortunate enough to be at the launch gig at Scala as well, sans Wyatt, but still an evening of enchanting and intricate music.

The Sea (Corinne Bailey Rae)

A late addition to the list – I just bought it, but I’ve listened to it 3 times in a row and know that I’ll listen to it a lot more.  I heard about it when it came out, knew that it was a heartfelt tribute to her partner who died recently.  But its a lovely mix of soul, funk, pop, jazz, gospel, never definedly either of them – a lot of Philly in it – a really talented artist and songwriter.  She’s be great too live, I bet.

And some things that came back in 2010 and were still great (or better):

Doctor Who (BBC)

Steven Moffat takes the reigns and the two-part finale goes from being over-the-top throwing in everything including the kitchen sink, to being clever, surprising and emotional.  Although the series as a whole had some weak moments, Moffat’s contributions were great and Karen Gillan is a great find.

Mad Men (BBC4)

A pleasant surprise to be brought forward to airing only a few weeks after its American showing – although now we have to wait a full year for anymore.  Is Don on the verge of a midlife crisis, about to collapse in the next series and surprise us all with his stupidity – or is he evolving into a higher order being?  Only a year [or so] to find out.

Miranda (BBC2)

I love this sort of stuff.

I may add more if I’m particularly gripped by anything in the next week – chances not high!


Things I’ve Loved from 2009 (in no particular order)

Them Crooked Vultures

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway

Marcin Wasilewski Trio – January

Faith No More [reunited] @ Brixton Academy

Mad Men

The Wackness  (d. Jonathan Levine)

Mingus Dynasty @ Ronnie Scotts

The Phoenix Cinema Film Quiz @ Bald Faced Stag

Miranda (BBC2)

Breath by Tim Winton

Fish Tank  (d. Andrea Arnold)

Pharoah Saunders @ Ronnie Scott’s

NZ vs. Pakistan, First Test, Dunedin

Dr No @ BFI, Cubby Broccolli Centenary Opening

The Thick of It & Peep Show

Moon  (d. Duncan Jones)

Tomasz Stanko

Outnumbered (even if it was only the Christmas Special)



Gerald.