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.

My best of 2011 list.

Things I’ve loved in 2011

As in previous years, I don’t listen to anything like enough new albums, watch enough new films etc to produce a top 100 list… not even a top 10.  But here’s some of my favourite things in the Cultural world from 2011.

Albums:

Kate Bush – 50 Words for Snow

A beautiful and wondrous work.  Begins with those expansive piano melodies.. all about things cold and icey and yet warm beautiful music.  Sparse but perfectly arranged.  And then you get the wonderful duet with Elton John.  I don’t like Elton John usually (well, not since about 1982 anyway) but his singing here is fractured, honest… occasionally soaring.  Its really good.  I can’t speak highly enough of this album.  For me, I listen to it like I might listen to a Symphony.  Its best to just sit back, dim the lights and play from start to finish.

Thomas Dolby – Map of the Floating City

I loved his last album, Astronauts and Heretics.  I still listen to it fairly frequently, but it came out about 1990.  Its really nice to have a new one and while I am a bit ambivalent about the americana, there are enough good tunes on here.  And Oceanea in particular is again, beautiful, soaring, showing a lovely quality to his voice (and the full range).  This is great.  (And the gig was even better as his tight, experienced band played lots of the back catalogue too)

Joan as Policewoman – The Deep Field

I love the piano torch songs of previous albums, but this is sumptuous funk.  Dliberately textured and layered and with a wonderful use of horns, bass, moog and Parker Kindred’s great drumming.  Not quite as free-flowing live though (lacking a bass player, I felt).  To cross-reference to some literature, I’ve realised recently while reading The Beautiful and Damned what a great soundtrack to a particular New York Joan makes too.

Radiohead – King of Limbs

I’ve loved every Radiohead album more than the one before it (with the possible exception of OK Computer), until this one.  That’s not to say its bad, but for me In Rainbows may well have been the perfect Radiohead album.  Mind you it would have been better if it had In Bloom on it, or Lotus Flower.  There is a lot to love about this one but I’m always left slightly deflated at the end.  The album ends for me at track 7, and then comes Separator.  I know a lot of people like that track the most, and I can see why, but the album has petered out by then.  All the punch is at the beginning. Maybe it just needs Weird Fishes, All I Need  and 15 Step (from In Rainbows)… now that would be a great album.

Films:

Black Swan

Was ultimately about one very vulnerable and unstable ballerina who was definitely out of her depth in the cut-throat world of professional ballet and cracked up.  Great music, great performances, great film (how can anything with Winona Ryder in it not be, though, really).  Really intense and sumptuously told story.

Blue Valentine

Made me want to play the Ukulele.  Just so I could recreate something of its magic.

TV:

Luther Series 2

Not normally my sort of thing, but I loved the first Series so much – its narrative arc over 6 hours and the two main characters (Idris Elba and Ruth Wilson).  This didn’t dissappoint, except in being only 4 hours long.  Its back next year for a third – lets just hope its longer.

The Hour

Billed as the British ‘Mad Men’ it so wasn’t.  But it was compelling, and built on a set of great characters.  Freddie Lyon, in particular.  Its definitely given a taste for how Ben Whishaw plays Q in ‘SkyFall’ next year and wanting to see what happens next to this bunch of people.

This Is England ‘88

Shane Meadows is a genius and these characters stories continue to evolve.  This ongoing series is the best TV ever.  Although the storylines seem to have reached fairly natural conclusions.  Not sure if there’ll be more, but there should definitely be more Shane Meadows on TV.

Books:

I’ve read loads this year.  I seem to have gotten to a point where I’d rather read my book of an evening than watch TV.  And I also alternated reading a novel with an academic paper for three months of the year.  I’ve kept this list though, to books that came out in 2011.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet by David Mitchell

A new David Mitchell book for me is a cause for great excitement, and although this one took me a long time to read, I enjoyed every minute of it.  Beautiful prose and some interesting history.  Fairly straightforward narrative for David Mitchell, but with some classically typical twists.

Transition by Iain Banks

Probably for me up there with The Crow Road and The Wasp Factory as one of his best, and this after a decade or so of lacklustre, fairly lacking in imagination novels.  I might even put this above those books.  I loved it.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Every bit as good as the plaudits might have you believe, and a lot more accessible than it might have been.  Every chapter picks up a different character, but within sentences I was into every one.  Certainly filled the hole between Lethem novels nicely.

The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis

His most accessible novel and a great read, not so much about sexual jealousy or sexual obsession as some of his books, but plenty about sex.  Much friendlier and more compassionate though, in its narrative… and it made me want to read Jane Austen (I did, subsequently)!

Gigs:

Roy Haynes, Robert Glasper – LJF

I got to see just two gigs at the London Jazz Festival this year, but both were stunning, in completely different ways.  For neither, did I really know what to expect.  Would Roy Haynes be a bit past it?  Would Robert Glasper be a bit too hip for my tastes?

Glasper had the most delicate touch of any piano player I’ve experienced.  Particularly surprising given what a big man (and larger than life character) he is.  Beautiful music, every note played exactly as intended.  I loved this gig and will definitely be checking out some of his trio stuff – not very fond of his hip hop side though – but he’ll always play alongside great jazz like this.

Roy Haynes is an 86 year old who played with Monk, Powell, Parker etc., back in Harlem in the 1940s.  The last living legend of jazz still alive.  And although he was showing his age in certain ways (he played a set just over an hour, with no encore, claiming exhaustion) he also started the show by tap-dancing on stage.  He was a true gentleman, an old-fashioned bandleader and a great drummer too to his young band (featuring the excellent Jaleel Shaw, who’s great albums feature Glasper as a sideman).  They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

And finally…

Its worth noting my contribution to technology in arts this year.  I read 2 e-books.  Didn’t enjoy it.  I see the point if you’re travelling long-term, or going to a destination that doesn’t have lots of English language books available.  Otherwise, seriously, a paperback doesn’t isn’t any bigger than a Kindle, and the author gets more for the actual book.  Main reason I didn’t enjoy it was because I had no sense of progress, no sense of satisfaction at the end.

MP3s.  I still buy CDs.  And I like them.  I predominately listen to music in my living room on my hi-fi, so I’ve no need for downloaded music.  I like to keep my albums on shelves where I can hand-pick what I would like to listen to.  I’ve sensed a bigger change here than in subsequent years though.  I don’t know if my next album will get an actual album release, which is a shame (partly because I make no money off downloads).

However, I have made moves in the world of DVDs.  I’ve cancelled my LoveFilm subscription.  I don’t get to watch that many, and when I do its just as easy to rent a digital film on itunes (on my laptop) which I can then plug into the TV (and Hifi) and watch in decent widescreen (and stereo).

Roll on 2012.