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 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!