Thursday 19 December 2013

That was the year that was: 2013

A parody too farIt's that time of the year again, the time for pointing out all the things worth remembering 2013 for. I was going to give these awards a name, maybe something based on a humourous acronym, but everything I thought of was puerile. I'll just call them something like the Totally Worthless Annual Trophies, I suppose, and leave the acronyms to other people. Here we go then, eyes down.

Best album

"The Messenger" by Johnny Marr - a stunning return, reminding everybody of the power he and his guitar can bring. Some might argue that lyrics from a certain Steven could add something, and maybe they would, but that's not to lessen the album as it stands. Essential, I would say.

Honourable mentions: "Amok" by Atoms For Peace; "Tooth And Nail" by Billy Bragg; "Antiphon" by Midlake.

Best song

"Handyman Blues" by Billy Bragg - aside from the fine (and semi-star-studded) video, if there's a song from this year that I can identify with more, I haven't heard it. We're all of a certain age, and none of us are men in the same way that our dads were, however you choose to measure.

Honourable mentions: "Barriers" by Suede; "Where You Stand" by Travis . Yes, it's been a quiet year.

Best gig

Another nod here for Johnny Marr whose set at The Waterfront in March was tight, encompassed songs from all periods of his career, delivered some musically perfect Smiths renditions and sent everyone home happy. Who could ask for any more?

Honourable mentions: a covers band! The Smyths were simply fantastic, not least for their comedically accurate "Morrissey"; a surprisingly vital Boomtown Rats at UEA.

Best book

"Joyland" by Stephen King. All the fuss this year has been about Shining sequel "Doctor Sleep" but this is far, far better. The writing is superior, the story is pacier, there's no middle-third slump, and you don't have to be a horror fan to enjoy it. An easy winner.

Honourable mentions: "Let's Kill Love" by Mark Kilner, a debut collection of wonderful (and enviable) consistency and quality; "Autobiography" by Morrissey, in which Salford's finest discovers he can still trouble the charts. The book charts, that is.

Best film

Hands down, this goes to "Gravity" for its ground-breaking depiction of life in orbit. Sure, we can all nit-pick about some of the finer technicalities (though I, for one, would rather see Ms Bullock de-suit to her underwear than to a NASA nappy), and a bit of disbelief suspension is required for the ending, but overall this is an astonishing film. I hope it has the same sort of effect of the youth of today as "2001" had on me many, many moons ago.

Honourable mentions: Ron Howard's typically detailed recreation of 70s Formula 1 in "Rush"; the achingly sad captive orca documentary "Blackfish", essential viewing if you have ever been to, or even thought about going to, Seaworld.

Best television

In this year's most fiercely contended category, the award goes to "The Fall" from the BBC. This serial killer police procedural, set in Northern Ireland, pulled no punches. The shocks and scares were only outnumbered by the fantastic acting performances, chief among which was Gillian Anderson, whose turn as an ice queen Met detective was nothing short of mesmeric. The story messed with your head too, not least in its characterisation of the killer. I won't spoil it by saying more, just go and watch it as soon as you can. Series two next year...

Honourable mentions: it's been a good year for TV, so there are lots. BBC political drama "The Politician's Husband"; French genius (and spookiness) in "The Returned"; the continued brilliance of "The Walking Dead"; scarily plausible "what if?" mockumentary "Blackout"; the serendipitous comic joy of "Gogglebox"; and I've even stuck with series three of "Homeland"...

Best comedy

Easy. "Nina Conti" - not for having gone to my old uni, and not for being eminently watchable in all kinds of ways, but for delivering a ventriloquism act that doesn't pander to its audience, is clever, inventive and beautifully crafted. Not only that, Nina reclaims the honour of vent acts the world over from its Orville-based nadir...

Honourable mentions: "Modern Life Is Goodish", Dave Gorman's endlessly inventive exploration of 21st Century life; the final episode of "The IT Crowd", for reminding everyone how to end a show properly.

Best theatre (new for 2013)

"Black Watch", a show of uncompromising raw power and unique staging. Modern warfare is horrific, especially when the reasons for what you're doing are dubious to say the least, and this searing portrayal of Scottish squadies' Iraq war experience demonstrates that, and then some. Visually arresting and utterly immersive, it's hard to think of a more emotionally affecting theatrical experience than this. See it somewhere if you can.

Honourable mentions: "How Like An Angel", a stunning, atmospheric combination of gymnastics, athleticism, music and movement. The late-night staging in Norwich Cathedral only added to the experience...

Best blogger (new for 2013)

The single thing I have most enjoyed watching this year, whether film, television or online, is Andrew Collins's "Telly Addict" video blog for The Guardian, twelve minutes a week of pithy insight, knowing comedy, informed opinion and knowledgable comment. If you don't already subscribe to this, you should. On top of this, Andrew also writes, for fun, the music blog "Circles Of Life", in which he seeks to dissect his favourite 143 songs of all time. Oh, and the excellent "other" blog, "Never Knowingly Underwhelmed". Andrew is, by some margin, my blogger of the year.

Honourable mentions: "Too Much Apple Pie" from Kippers and Spike; "My Top Ten" from Rol; and the occasionally NSFW, wonderfully acidic pseudo-consumer blog "Bitter Wallet".

And that's it. Agree/disagree? What were your best bits?

Tuesday 17 December 2013

Happy birthday mate

Happy birthday to the Man of Cheese, my kith and kin for more than thirty years and the best mate anyone could ever have. Hopefully this (unlike the present) will be something new to watch!

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Clandestine Classic XXXVI - Made To Last

Feeling Strangely Fine by SemisonicThe thirty-sixth post in an occasional series that is intended to highlight songs that you might not have heard that I think are excellent - clandestine classics, if you will. Maybe they'll be by bands you've never heard of. Maybe they'll be by more familiar artists, but tracks that were squirelled away on b-sides, unpopular albums, radio sessions or music magazine cover-mounted CDs. Time will, undoubtedly, tell.

I haven't done one of these for a while. Not entirely sure why. Time is always an issue these days (see also the great unfinished novel and the house in a permanent state of ongoing decoration), that's part of it. Also, in fairness to myself, it's getting harder to think of clandestine classics. Look at the definition in the first paragraph - it's simply getting harder to think of songs that you probably haven't heard of that justify a claim of greatness. Especially when you factor in the unwritten rule that I cannot feature an act more than once in this series. But never mind, because a recent surrendipitous trawl through some CDs saw me stumble upon Feeling Strangely Fine by Semisonic. Then my problem changed from having no classics to which one should I choose from a whole album full of them?

So where to start? For those of you unfamiliar with the band, let me tell you that they formed in Minneapolis in 1995. After a couple of early releases and some Stipe-endorsement, Feeling Strangely Fine was their second studio album, released in 1998. It yielded their commercial highpoints on both sides of the Atlantic - Closing Time (#11 in the US) and Secret Smile (#13 in the UK) - along with a plethora of reliably good stuff from which I could have chosen a classic: Singing In My Sleep, DND, Completely Pleased, This Will Be My Year, and more besides. But it's Made To Last that gets the nod, and here are the many reasons why.

It starts very slowly, gently, clearly a downbeat tune with a vocal delivery and delicate acoustic guitar line to match. Or is it? Maybe it's just bittersweet? Maybe defiant too? I'm not sure, even after studying the lyrics. I read it as being a song about a relationship that has ended - singer Dan Wilson sounds gutted about it but at the same time he bears his ex no ill-will. Indeed, he hopes - seemingly without irony - that she carries on as she is for a long, long time, whilst recognising that he didn't know how to make her happy. Or... maybe this is all nonsense. Maybe it's just a meaning that I have conjured and ascribed to the song because, although released in 1998, I didn't get this album until early 2006... and right about then I was a prime candidate for wallowing in bittersweet introspection with no ill-will. It was a perfect moment of musical symbiosis - my interpretation of this song perfectly matched my mood, and as a result it lodged firmer than any of the other tracks on what is a remarkably consistent album.

Aside from the "it's all about me" mumbo-jumbo, what of the music? Well, my best description of Semisonic is that they're what Travis would sound like if they came from Minnesota rather than Glasgow. And that's a good thing, by the way - I'm not ashamed to hold my hand up and admit to liking Travis (the eighth best gig I've ever been to, lest we forget). And with Made To Last, Semisonic pull off several crowd-pleasing tricks: firstly, a song that starts off downbeat morphs into something redemptive and quietly uplifting; secondly, it goes up through the gears (notice the change of pace at 1.44 and again at 3.35); and thirdly, it has a soaring, elegiac chorus that pervades and, given the slightest encouragement, achieves ear-worm status. To do one of these things is a sign of rare quality. To do all three is the mark of a classic.

One more album followed, after which the band as a whole seems to have gone on permanent hiatus. Individual members do their own thing, and Semisonic tracks regularly get picked up for soundtrack use (notably Closing Time, used in Friends With Benefits which, coincidentally, I blogged about last month). There are semi-regular mutterings about doing something more as Semisonic but, for now, muttering is all it is. Guess that means you're going to have to content yourself with a copy of Feeling Strangely Fine and today's classic, courtesy of the daily marvel that is YouTube. Enjoy.