My Cultural highlights of 2015

My cultural highlights of 2015

New music.

A great year for me for new music. Of which my absolute two favourite albums of the year are:
Anneli Drecker – Rocks & Straws
I’ve been recommending this album to everyone, and everyone has loved it. It’s her best work ever (which is saying something), but the craft in these songs, the string arrangements, the hooks and the way she sings these beautiful words have haunted many an hour for me this year and will continue to do so. This is one of the best albums ever recorded.

Brice Winston – Child’s Play
A low-key release, but [only] the second album as a leader for Terence Blanchard’s Tenor Player is a great set. The band features David Virelles, Mike Moreno, Joe Sanders and Marcus Gilmore. And they’re all great on it – especially Winston himself. This is exactly how I like my jazz. I even like the guitar on it (and I’m not normally a big fan of jazz guitar). And did I mention it’s got David Virelles on it? Because he’s extraordinary – definitely the next big thing – and on this he plays straightahead.

I should also give honorable mentions to some more albums from this year that I just can’t stop listening to:

Faith No More – Sol Invictus
My only problem with this album is that – at just over 30minutes – it’s too short.
David Gilmour – Rattle that Lock
Between this and On an Island there’s one incredible album.. this one’s much stronger lyrically and thematically though.
Maria Schneider Orchestra – The Thompson Fields
Classy stuff – great writing
Brian Wilson – No Pier Pressure
Terrible pun of a title, terrible album cover, amazing pop writing.
Gigs

James Farm – Cadogan Hall, London Jazz Festival
David Virelles – Kings Place, London Jazz Festival (Did I mention how incredible Virelles is?)
Marcin Wasilewski – Barbican Centre, London Jazz Festival
Anneli Drecker – RichMix, Shoreditch, December (Did I mention how amazing Anneli is?)
Films

Mad Max Fury Road
SPECTRE (I’ve been meaning to write a longer review of this, which I will at some stage)
Carol
TV

It’s always a bit difficult to think of anything else in a year in which Shane Meadows does something, and his This Is England ’90 was a suitable finale to this incredible series. But this is also a year which saw lots of quality TV towards the end of the year in particular, including a very satisfying and moving second series of the French drama The Returned (bringing lots of the answers we wanted after Series One and also leaving a lot enigmatically unanswered), the incredible London Spy (which was largely centred around one of the great acting performances of all time from Ben Whishaw), but and let’s hope it’s creator Tom Rob Smith does some more TV drama.

Also, honourable mentions to Catastrophe and the final series of Peep Show. PS set a new bar in comedy ten years ago and it felt like Catastrophe might not have existed without it. But both maintained very high standards and lots of laughs.

Roll on 2016.

My personal cultural highlights of 2013

As in recent years… a few personal cultural highlights from this year.

Albums:

Kairos 4Tet – Everything We Hold

A bit of a strange album – part jazz album, part songs (and not necessarily jazz songs, though definitely jazzy).  But lovely.  And I keep playing it.

Opus 5 – Pentasonic

My kind of burning bost bop jazz.  Donald Edwards is one of my favourite drummers ever.

Tomasz Stanko – New York Quartet

I’ve always loved Stanko’s trumpet playing and composition.  Here he gives us a full double album of new material.  Exquisite.

Goldfrapp – Tales of Us

I loved their last album, the synth-poppy Head First, but this is a lovely, contemplative album and a good companion to Head First.

Prefab Sprout – Crimson/Red

I would have preferred a full band rather than Paddy playing everything himself, and some of the arrangements are a bit strange.  But it’s Prefab Sprout!!  The lyric-writing is just in a different league and the melody writing is effortless.

Suede – Bloodsports

Bloody good.  Sadly overshadowed by their idol Davie Bowie springing an album on us a week or so before, but this is a much better album.  More consistent, catchier and definitely one of their best albums.

Curt Smith – Deceptively, Heavy

Probably his best solo album to date.  Vibrant and catchy.  Every song is hook-laden.

Other releases:

Ready to Start – Tears for Fears (Arcade Fire Cover)

It sticks in my head – in a good way.  Roland’s voice is perfect for it.

Looking forward to in 2014:  New Joan as Policewoman, Jimi Goodwin (Doves), Tears for Fears, Phronesis

Books (I’ve read lots, but of those that actually were released this year, my favourites are):

A Delicate Truth – John Le Carre (blogged about here)

A Tale for the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki (I’ve found all her books incredibly moving.  Loved this)

Films:

The Great Beauty – Paolo Sorrentino

Argo – Ben Affleck

The Place Beyond the Pines – Derek Cianfrance

Haven’t been to the cinema as much as I would have liked this year, but these three films really stand out from what I’ve seen.

Gigs:

Phronesis – The Cockpit Theatre

Peter Gabriel – Back to Front Tour

Manu Katche – Ronnie Scotts

TV:

Homeland, Borgen

April Albums

So I’m playing #AprilAlbums this year.  The rules, apparently, are:Pick a number of albums to listen to in April, one per artist and no compilations.  I can’t promise the former, but I won’t bother recording them here more than one per artists (nothing about listening to the same album repeatedly)… should be interesting to see how many I end up listening to and what the range is.  I am an album person, after all.  I’ll be blogging about them – but maybe not immediately.  So I thought I’d aim for 150, but that’s an average of 5 per day.  Then I thought 100 might be more realistic.  I’m not going to make that, but I have been extremely busy this month (and reviewing mixes for my own forthcoming album has taken a lot of listening time).  But it was fun… if I felt like listening to a single tune, I listened to the whole album instead.  A couple are Spotify plays, not having the album, but virtually all were listened to on speakers in my living room – I love listening to music, but not on the go (there was a flight and a few car journeys, otherwise all CDs, all on the stereo).  The not-repeating an artist thing also made me delve more deeply into my collection, which I enjoyed.

In full, from the 1st of April:

  1. Light at Night – Dave Hamblett  (Dave plays on my new jazz album.  He’s a great young player and he really swings)
  2. Silence Talks – Nicholas Meier Group  (Thanks Jazzwise – present for renewing my subscription.  Really interesting stuff though.)
  3. The Next Day – David Bowie  (Who was it that said it’s Bowie’s best album since 1979 and I’ll probably never listen to it again?  I might agree with him.)
  4. Time on Earth – Crowded House
  5. Accident and Insurgency – Arnie Somogyi’s Ambulance  (Listened to this a lot before my jazz album.  My kind of jazz)
  6. Long Distance – Night  (I dare you to find this album.  I bought it in a bargain bin years ago, mostly cos it’s got Robbie McIntosh AND Stevie Lange and Tim Friese-Green produced it.  There’s some – well, at two anyway – great pop songs on it.)
  7. 50 Words for Snow – Kate Bush  (Yes, it was snowing in April.  I’m hoping for a summer-themed concept album to companion this one)
  8. Vantage Point – Simon Phillips/Jeff Babko Quintet  (Another of my favourite jazz albums that I listened to a lot whilst preparing mine.  I even asked Simon Phillips if he was available to play on it.  And he was really nice and didn’t just say no.)
  9. Steve McQueen – Prefab Sprout  (Only discovered this a year ago, a brilliant pop album, great writing, great playing, great production.  Though I love the song Appetite most, I don’t know what he means by “I think I’ll name him, after you.  Yes I think I’ll name him Appetite”  If anyone has any theories I’m interested).

10. Only by the Night – Kings of Leon  (Not always my kind of thing, but sometimes it hits the spot – particularly in the car)

11. Under Rug Swept – Alanis Morrissette  (One of her good albums)

12. Made by Walking – Tim Garland  (Worth it for Geoff Keezer’s astonishing solo on the first track alone – such a great piano player.  Although Jeff Hamilton was rude to me at the london launch gig for this years ago, and it put me off him in a big way.  Git.)

13. Live at Smalls – Rick Germanson Quartet  (Another great modern jazz player coming out of NY.  Eddie Henderson plays on this too (as well as 5.) so doubly good)

14. The Tide Has Changed – Gilad Atzmon and the Orient House Ensemble

15. Say You Will – Fleetwood Mac

16. Ten Summoner’s Tales – Sting

17. Ruth is Stranger than Richard – Robert Wyatt  (A great album – and probably the best album title of all time)

18. Musicmagic – Return to Forever

19. Concerto for Saxophone & Orchestra – Michael Kamen

20. Scott 4 – Scott Walker

21. Us – Peter Gabriel

22. That’s Why God Made the Radio – The Beach Boys

23. Rain – Joe Jackson  (I love Joe Jackson.  This is his last original album – his most recent being the Duke Ellington album ‘Duke’.  It’s a trio, playing great pop music.  Closer in spirit to his early new-wave style of the late 1970s than much since, but from the piano. )

24. Past, Present and Futures – The Chick Corea New Trio  (I was really excited by this album, and this trio – despite the presence of Jeff Hamilton on it (see 12), but like many Chick Corea projects, it wasn’t to be a long term band.  Sadly.

25. Tigermending – Carina Round  (Still one of the best rock albums from 2012.  This is blinding stuff and it’s anyone who hasn’t heard of her should check it out)

26. String Quartets 12 and 14 (Beethoven) – Alban Berg Quartet

27. Symphony No 3 (Neilsen) – BBC Scottish Symphony/Osmo Vänskä

28. Radiodream – Radio String Quartet Vienna  (I saw them at last year’s jazz festival.  I had no idea what to expect and was completely captivated throughout.  They’re a string quartet, but they don’t play straightahead classical.  What they do play is very good modern music, harmonically, melodically and rhythmically interesting.  Not background listening though)

29. The Seeds of Love – Tears for Fears  (My favourite album of all time… still)

30. Crescent – John Coltrane Quartet

31. Wislawa – Tomasz Stanko New York Quartet

32. Bloodsports – Suede  (My friend Ingela used to take me to Suede gigs a lot in 1997.  This one’s for her.  It’s good)

33. Metals – Feist

34. Nicky Holland – Nicky Holland  (She co-wrote a lot of the Seeds of Love (29), then moved to NY and released this.)

35. Mayfield – Mayfield (Curt is Mayfield)

36. Mama Rosa – Brian Blade  (Not a jazz album.  Brian sings and plays guitar on this.  Beautifully [and a bit of drums])

37. The Only Son of One – Wayne Escoffery

38. On an Island – David Gilmour

39. Skyfall OST – Thomas Newman
(Not technically a compilation as every track is the same artist from the same sessions.  If not the best Bond Soundtrack in years, certainly the best Bond Soundtrack Album in years).

40. Love Over Gold – Dire Straits
(I pulled an LP out at random to check the size for a new cupboard I’m building for my records.  It was this one.  I put it on.  It was fun.)

41. Kingdom of Rust – Doves

42. Pandora’s Box – Tim Hopkins (I discovered Tim, and this album, about 15 years ago in NZ.  He’s great, and I think this is his best album.  It swings and there’s some great playing.  My kind of jazz)

43. Images – Rosario Giuliani  (I love Rosario.  His last few albums – this is his latest – haven’t had as much fire as his earlier ones, but he’s great to see live.)

44. Universal Syncopations – Miroslav Vitous  (Miroslav Vitous, Chick Corea, Jan Garbarek and Jack De Johnette.  All on one album.  Marvellous)

45. Timeswing – Guy Barker

46. Profile –Jeremy Pelt  (He was still big then.  He’s now much thinner, and more refined)

47. Trichotomy – Trichotomy  (Another free one from Jazzwise.  Not my kind of jazz.  Not enough melody, just ‘clever’ grooves.  In fact, anyone want it?)

48. Sweet Warrior – Richard Thompson

49. All things must pass – George Harrison

50. Peace at Last – The Blue Nile

51. Real Life – Joan as Policewoman

52. The Heart of the Nightlife – Kisses

53. Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too – New Radicals

54.  The Real Thing – Faith No More (Had a massive impact on me when it came out in 1991 and is still pretty much unrivalled in its energy and timbres)

55. The Spaces Between – John Surman  (People play the Jan Garbarek/Hilliard Album all the time and talk about how brilliant it is, but this is much more interesting and beautiful to me).

56. Yatra – Ivo Neame

57. Mind if We Make Love To You – Wondermints  (This is an absolutely brilliant album.  Not all of their are, but this is an album of brilliant pop songs played by a fantastic band.  It’s a regular on car journeys in my family, but also an occasional Sunday afternoon play).

58. The Seventh One – Toto (Obeying the rules, I felt like listening to one song, so listened to the whole album.  Brought back wonderful memories of their gig in Lucca last summer – see the earlier blog post)

59. Gold Dust – Tori Amos  (I only realised afterwards this could be labelled as a compilation album – is probably best enjoyed as such.  Not marketed as that, as these are all arrangements for Tori, Piano and Orchestra… but to be honest, they’re almost never an improvement on the originals.  There’s a lot of arranging in the originals and not much from the orchestra)

60.  The King of Limbs – Radiohead

61. Smack Up – Art Pepper (Classic 70s Art.  Brilliant stuff.  God I love Art Pepper)

62. Slaves and Masters – Deep Purple (Another old record – and probably the worst DP album ever – features the immortal lines, “I’m a real smooth dancer, I’m your fantasy man. A master of illusion, sleight of hand.”)

63. Memory Almost Full – Paul McCartney  (This guy’s a pretty good songwriter and not in any particular style other than great pop songs.  I think he’s got a bright future)

64. Scoundrel Days – a-Ha  (They get a bad rap for being cheesy, but this could well be the inspiration for all the 80s bands of today)

65. The Crossing – Red Garland/Ron Carter/Philly Joe Jones (Mine is billed as a Red Garland album, but could be a Ron Carter session for how high the bass is in the mix… and it’s his horrible 70s tone.  But you can’t deny the class oozing over this session, and their version of my favourite standard, Love For Sale, is one of my favourites).

66. Magic Box – Bel Canto  (Anneli Drecker’s band, produced by Jah Wobble.  What’s not to like?)

67. Endtroducing – DJ Shadow

68. Before and After – Tim Finn  (An album I like more and more as the years go by.)

69. Grace – Jeff Buckley

70. The Flat Earth – Thomas Dolby (my least listened-to TD album.  But not for any particular reason.  I like it a lot and thought I’d make this my April TD listen (apart from 9. of course, which he produced and has a lot of him on it)

71. Pass It On – Dave Holland Octet

72. Here to There – Neon  (I love this album.  The last track would probably be one of my Desert Island Discs.  It’s all about rhythm and harmony.  The sound is modern, European, but with elements of 60s French New Wave and West Coast American.  I Loved this group.  Then Gwilym Simcock left, was replaced with Kit Downes and it lost everything that it had.  They’re still good (like everything Stan Sulzmann does), but somehow what made it great is gone.)

73. Get Ready – New Order

74. Smile – Brian Wilson  (Pulling out the big ones, perhaps late in the month.  Definitely one of my favourite albums ever.  And I’m not cheating.  I’ve listened to The Beach Boys and Wondermints, but this is Brian Wilson… all got the same good things about them… but 3 different artists)

75. Third – Portishead  (Love this.  Experimental but beautiful and [fairly] accessible

76. Buhaina’s Delight – Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers

77. Different Corners – Thelonious Monk

78. Study in Brown – Clifford Brown/Max Roach  (It was World Jazz Day after all)

And that’s it.  May’s here now.  Maybe I’ll do this again 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.

10 Reasons why I love ‘The Living Daylights’

1)    John Barry’s score.  4 great themes, 1 great theme song and the last time ever we heard his trademark horn writing underscored by some beautiful orchestration.

2)    Timothy Dalton.  Not as tough and mean as he was to become as Bond, but still serious.  And along with Daniel Craig, probably the best actor to play Bond.

3)    The last Cold War Bond film.  By 1989 (the subsequent Bond film) the Berlin Wall had fallen and Perestroika was coming in.  But Bond was built for the Cold War.

4)    The Cello Ski Chase.

5)    That moment at the fairground in Vienna where Bond wins a prize for Kara by shooting three shots in a row.  Poor unsuspecting stall-holder.

6)    The first use of an Aston Martin since 1969.  Its a beautiful one too, understated compared to the slightly ‘bling’-y models of today.

7)    Aghanistan.  The Mujaheddin were exotic, the Russians the enemy.  How much has changed in 25 years.  But those scenes in Art Malik’s mountain home are truly beautiful and exotic.

8)    The final setpiece on the Hercules.  One of my favourite setpieces ever in any action film.  So good that Lee Tamahori ripped most of it off again for Die Another Day.  Genuinely edge of seat stuff.

9)    A-Ha’s theme song.  John Barry described the process of writing it as being like ‘playing ping-pong with three balls’.  But I love this tune.  It’s Bondian, but also a great tune (more than I could say for… )

10) “It’s all so boring here Margot, there’s nothing but Playboys and Tennis Pros.  If only I could find a real man.”

“I need to use your phone… she’ll call you back. Exercise control, 007.  I report in an hour.”

“Won’t you join me?”

“Better make that 2 hours.”

 

 

So they say that invariably the first Bond actor you saw is your favourite. I don’t know to what extent this is true.  I’m sure that if I had been around in the 60s and saw Sean Connery as James Bond in Doctor No or From Russia with Love, then that probably would have been the case for me (I saw Doctor No a couple of years ago at the BFI Gala screening and its easy to imagine how exciting and seductive that film must have been, in the early 60s).  I struggle to see how anyone, on seeing Bond for the first time in the mid to late 70s could have thought Roger Moore the most exciting, definitive Bond.

 

My first James Bond experience was Roger Moore.  It was 1985, I was 10.  My sister must have been at a friend’s on a Saturday night.  My parents decided to take me to the cinema to see the latest Bond film.  I knew nothing about Bond at all.  Before we went out, we were watching an exciting new show on television.  An action-man type called MacGyver was behind enemy lines, trying to escape, without using any guns (it was the first episode of that too).  I asked my parents what Bond would be like.  ‘A bit like this’, I remember them replying.

 

It was A View to a Kill.  I loved it.  Far more exciting than MacGyver.  This chap went to much more exciting places, had much bigger adventures, was far more attractive to women.  It inspired me enough to read a few James Bond novels (starting with Thunderball), watch a few TV specials.. get myself a bit more ready for the next one (because apparently the Bond fan got one new film every two years).. when it arrived, I was 12, a confirmed Bond fanatic, and about to watch my first Bond film as a fan.

 

So maybe that’s what they mean, when they say the first actor you saw is your favourite – actually, the first you see as a Bond fan.  Because my favourite is Timothy Dalton.  And it has been ever since I saw The Living Daylights early in 1988.  That was the film that made me buy every Bond-related book I saw (many of which I read out to my family until they were sick of it), the film that set me on my path of collecting, watching and reading every film, novel (even the Raymond Benson ones.  Thankfully there’re no more of them).  Dalton was the closest to Fleming’s Bond.  He wasn’t particularly suave, but had that animal magnetism and a physicality.  You’d be frightened if you bumped into him in a dark alley late at night.

 

I then had the joy of watching Licence to Kill, which I loved, and the desolation of waiting 6 whole long years, seeing Timothy Dalton playing Rhett Butler instead of James Bond, and then hearing he would do so no more.  I sat through the Brosnan years, always hoping the films would get better.. return to the Dalton-era realism.. it never quite did.  There were good bits, even in Die Another Day, but it wasn’t until Casino Royale a whole 16 years after Licence to Kill that I saw what I’d been craving all those years.  And Daniel Craig is great – possibly up there with Dalton for me.  I certainly think Casino Royale is a much better film, but I would have loved to seen Dalton in 5 films like that.  I guess the 90s just wasn’t ready for Tim Dalton as James Bond.

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.

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.