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 cultural highlights of 2012

My cultural highlights of 2012

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 2012.

Albums:

Wayne Escoffery – The Only Son of One                     (Top Jazz Pick)

This is a burning set, mostly a quintet, with the addition of Adam Holzmann’s keyboards to the piano, bass, drums.  He uses it like an additional lead instrument and I found it surprisingly engaging (closer to Zawinul’s use of Keyboards than most modern uses).  But the real star is Escoffery and his writing.  Great stuff.

Carina Round – Tigermending                                        (Top Songwriter’s album)

This should be in the top ten of most critics songwriter’s albums of the year.  Instead its come out on a tiny release and hardly registered.  Round is from Birmingham, resident in LA, and moves in the muso-social circuits of Dave Stewart (Eurythmics) and Curt Smith (Tears for Fears).  This is brilliant stuff though… Edgy, honest… and it rocks!  At times reminiscent of Radiohead in that the arrangements don’t necessarily conform, but each do a credit to the song.

Every song on here is a potential single, hook-laden and memorable.    If you haven’t discovered this album (and the chances are high that you haven’t) then check it out.

Van Halen – A Different Kind of Truth                          (Favourite Rock album)

I’m aware that my tastes are broad and perhaps disparate to some.  But I’ve listened to this album and liked it a lot this year, so it would be unfair for me to not include it.

I loved Van Halen when I was a kid and almost found myself interested in this out of sentimentality, though everything I’ve liked I still like at some level.  This is a great rock set, these songs could easily have come out of their earliest period together in the 70s (and some of them did), but the band have found a new energy and a modern sound.  Wolfgang Van Halen (Eddie’s son) is surprisingly good on bass, now much more to the forefront of the mix, and the fact that the other three have kicked on and produced this album with Wolfie on board is good enough reason to support it, however much one liked the other fellow.

It rocks.  There isn’t much more to say about it.  Except that these guys are doing astonishingly well considering 3 of them are around 60 years old.  I’d far rather listen to this than The Rolling Stones (though I do like Doom and Gloom).

 

Films:

Rust and Bone

As The Prophet was one of my favourite films of 2009 I was very keen to see this and loved it.

To describe to someone.. “It’s a love story, really, between a bare-knuckle fighter and an amputee whale-trainer”… doesn’t half approach the level of emotional depth and warmth in this film.  It works on every level.  Incredible acting, breath-taking cinematography and a great score.  And I’m still thinking about it now, a few months after seeing it.

My film of the year.

Other mentions:

As a Bond fan, I loved Skyfall.  My lengthy review of it is here: bit.ly/TeLrmU

The Master was a bit dissapointing.  It shared great acting, cinematography and music with There Will be Blood, but lacked story.

TV:

My drama highlights were Borgen and The Bridge.  Far and away the best things on television this year.  Borgen I have a slight preference for, because I love politics and its the best drama about it ever made.  The Bridge was ultimately a mystery, and I’m not such a great fan of those – although the characters made The Bridge utterly compelling (I even discovered The Choir of Young Believers, who sing the theme tune).  When are they on again?  Not soon enough.

The Hour Series 2 was all about Ben Whishaw.  He was largely absent for the first episode, and it seemed strangely lacking until he arrived.  The last two episodes though were great.  Peter Capaldi had the single best scene on television this year (if not ever).  If you’ve seen it, you’ll know what I’m talking about.  It started with him re-arranging things on his desk and ended up with him destroying the room.  I love The Thick of It and Malcolm Tucker, but his range is a bit wasted on all that swearing compared with this.

Having always thought Mastermind and University Challenge were the ultimate quiz shows I discovered (several years after the fact) Only Connect this year.  And became addicted.  So much to I long to play that I’m applying to be on it.

Mad Men Series 5 was long awaited, and similarly enjoyed, although there wasn’t any dramatic reveal or arc to the series.  One can’t help feeling all the backstory has been revealed now.  It does rather allow the makers to concentrate more on the relationships between the established ensemble.  I recently re-watched the first episode of my favourite series ever, Six Feet Under, and realised that every character and everything they would go through in the six series that followed, were all there in that pilot episode.  Now that’s classy TV  writing.

I’m looking forward to more Luther in 2013, and hopeful of some more Shane Meadows TV.  As well as the next series of Borgen and The Bridge of course.

 

Books:

Of the books I’ve read that came out this year, I can recommend wholeheartedly Richard Ford’s wonderful Canada, which is, obviously, about the USA (and what it means to be American).  It’s rich in detail and a very captivating read.

I would also recommend Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues, a wonderful and interesting novel about being a [black] jazz musician in pre-war Nazi-Germany; the latest Houellebecq, The Map and the Territory and two London gangster novels – of a sort.  Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker and Martin Amis’s Lionel Asbo.  The latter is basically a very British take on The Godfather.  And a very Amisian take on The Godfather, filled with hyper-real characters and laugh out loud humour (‘They called her Cynthia, which has seven letters, even though they can only pronounce four of them [‘Simfia’]).  It’s not Amis’s best, and I think he’s slightly more successful when turning the eye on to his own ilk rather than imagining a lowlife, council estate family (They’re neither Shameless or Fish Tank).  But its funny, and good.

 

Gigs:

 

A wonderful gigging year.  If I had to pick a few favourites it would be:

Faith No More – Hammersmith Odeon

Toto – Lucca Summer Festival (I’ve blogged about this here: bit.ly/RfBx88)

Radiohead – The Greenwich Arena

 

But the standout was Joe Jackson, with the Bigger Band, at the Cadogan Hall.  I’ve seen Joe lots of times with his trio, but seeing him with a full band (and not only that, but one featuring the amazing Regina Carter on Violin, Jesse Harris on Bass and Nate Smith on Drums) playing tunes with close to (or better than) original arrangements, was amazing.  I wish I’d gone the next night too.