Friday 16 December 2016

That Was The Year That Was: 2016

2016 was a good year for the ReaperIt's mid-December and so, with the weary inevitably of a celebrity death, it must be time for a recap of what's been good this year. Not much, I hear you say.

This is the sixth time I've recapped a year like this (for completists, here's 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011) and, taken together, all these reviews really do is demonstrate how the more things change, the more they stay the same. Only worse, this year. Still... onwards.

Best album

Going Going by The Wedding Present - much respect is due to the right honourable David Gedge who, even after plying his jangly guitar-based indie trade for 30+ years, still wants to try new things. The whole album is a joy, and the first four tracks are as innovative as anything you'll have heard all year.

Honourable mentions: hotly contested this year, with Everything At Once by Travis, A Moon Shaped Pool by Radiohead, Night Thoughts by Suede, The Bride by Bat For Lashes and Head Carrier by Pixies all being worthy of repeated plays.

Best song

Idlewild by Travis featuring Josephine Oniyama - this is a seductive earworm of a song, and reminds me a bit of various Morrissey duets (step forward Siouxsie Sioux, Chrissie Hynde, Nancy Sinatra). I could listen to this over and over and over.

Honourable mentions: Burn The Witch by Radiohead, which very nearly took top spot; the gut wrench of Dollar Days by David Bowie.

Best gig

Another win for The Wedding Present with their low-key, intimate gig at The Royal Function Rooms (a misleadingly grand name if ever there was one) in Rochester. A blistering, up-close and personal set, with Mr Gedge or especially fine form. Nice to chat with him before the gig too, in particular about the track Secretary, and to get my Going Going lyric book signed. All this, topped off with exemplary company as ever from The Man Of Cheese made this the gig experience of the year for me.

Honourable mentions: having said that, the sheer feeling of something special I got from watching Paul Simon at the Royal Albert Hall made that evening a very close second; Travis were terrific value, as always; Ben Watt with Bernard Butler was also very good (top tip: you should always take any opportunity you can to see Bernard play guitar up close).

Best book

For the seductive prose and remorseless sense of the uncanny, this year's nod goes to Slade House by David Mitchell. It's one of those that you want to race through, but don't want to end and, as a wannabe author myself, something I wish I had written.

Honourable mentions: a bit of a cheat here because it was published in 2005 but I got around to reading In The Miso Soup by Ryu Murukami and it blew me away; Mark Kilner's run of short story excellence continued with his third collection, Process Of Elimination; Adrian J Walker's End Of The World Running Club also kept the pages turning; non-fiction wise, I also very much enjoyed That's Entertainment: My Life in the Jam by Rick Buckler, despite the lack of an index and the need for a better editor; oh, and another old book, The Promise Of Happiness by Justin Cartwright, is worth a look.

Best film

A difficult category, mainly because I haven't been to the cinema as much as I'd like this year, but the nod goes to The Witch, partly for Anya Taylor-Joy's standout performance, partly for the superb evocation of time and place, partly for creeping out the entire cinema and partly for Ralph Ineson ensuring we'll never think of him as Finchy from The Office again.

Honourable mentions: this year has been all about films I wanted to see but didn't get around to (I, Daniel Blake and Nocturnal Animals, take a bow) but at least Room adapted well to the big screen; the Q&A afterwards didn't add much (aside from the odd cheap laugh) but Louis Theroux's My Scientology Movie was quite an accomplishment, especially considering the challenges faced making it.

Best television

Another fiercely contended category. The award goes to series three of Line Of Duty, for keeping me on a knife-edge throughout, and adding the phrase "urgent exit required" to my permanent pop-culture lexicography.

Honourable mentions: another good year for TV (it's the new film, don't you know?), so there are lots. Deutschland '83 very nearly scooped the top prize; series two of the BBC's Happy Valley lived up to its predecessor; Channel 4's National Treasure, in which not one of the excellent cast put so much as a foot wrong; and for documentaries, Louis Theroux's Drinking To Oblivion, shocking and heart-breaking in equal measure; I've enjoyed the second series of Humans, although it's hard to see how it will end. Oh, and series two of The Missing would doubtless have featured, except I haven't got around to watching any of it yet.

Best comedy

Last year's winner, Modern Life Is Goodish, retains its title, as Dave Gorman continues to explore the ridiculousness of our 21st Century, post-truth, post-Europe, post-everything world.

Honourable mentions: I'm Sorry, I Haven't A Clue on Radio 4, not least because Jack Dee seems to have really found his feet as host. Never fails to raise a smile.

Best theatre

Rodrigo Pardo's Flat, a show about one man in his apartment, might not sound too inspiring. But stage that show high up on the side of a building, using wirework for the actor to move around (and shift your perspective), and it turns into something truly memorable.

Honourable mentions: this might sound sappy but I don't care - I took the family to see The Lion King at the Lyceum. We had amazing seats, became totally immersed and it all got a bit emotional. Another theatrical moment I will not forget.

Best blogger

Retaining his title for the fourth consecutive year is Andrew Collins, whose Telly Addict video blog, ditched by The (foolish) Guardian but rehoused by UKTV, is twelve minutes a week of essential viewing. It should be on actual TV, if you ask me. On top of this, Andrew also writes, albeit very sporadically, the music blog Circles Of Life, in which he seeks to catalogue his favourite 143 songs of all time. Oh, and the excellent "other" blog, Never Knowingly Underwhelmed. Andrew is, once more, my blogger of the year.

Honourable mentions: blogging is dying art - a blog is to Twitter as vinyl is to MP3s, sadly. There's still some good stuff out there, not least Crying All The Way To The Chip Shop from Lee; The (New) Vinyl Villain from JC; My Top Ten from Rol; and a new entry, A History Of Dubious Taste from Jez.

Man of the year

Irish senator Aodhán Ó Riordáin, whose speech in reaction to Trump's election success neatly articulated what so many people were feeling. And he stood up and said it in a front-line political setting, not over a pint in the pub. What was it he said now? "Trump is a fascist and I’m embarrassed by the Government’s response." Or something like that, anyway. Good man, Aodhán; the world could do with a few more politicians like you.

Honourable mentions: in a year of so much misery, it's hard not to admit that Ed Balls has had a good twelve months. Okay, so he's not an MP (for now) but his book has done very well, and he's the new chairman of the football club he loves. Oh, and what's that, you say? Dancing?

Woman of the year

Abigail Bamber, who epitomises everything great about the NHS, in demonstrating that lifesavers don't have days off. In a year of awful news, click her name for a positive, life-affirming story, to whit: "most nurses go into nursing because it is a vocation - not a job."

Honourable mentions: Hillary Clinton, naturally. She fought the good fight, kept out of the gutter however often her opponent tried to drag her down to his level and, in the end, polled more votes than any male candidate in US election history. And when, soul-crushingly (for her and basically the whole world), she still lost what she must surely have felt her whole life had been leading up to, she managed to do so with dignity. #ImStillWithHer

Tool of the year

Everything that is wrong with contemporary politics, 21st Century hate crime and the normalisation of extreme views is summed up by Breitbart-peddling Milo Yiannopoulos. Ye gods. What an utter tool, the sort that only a mother could love. As a nation, we should be ashamed to have produced Milo. And what a pity that sixth formers from his old school were prevented from debating with him - they'd have given him a damn good grilling.

Honourable mentions: Trump, Farage, all the usual suspects ... what a depressing year 2016 has been.

And that's it. The year is nearly over, thank goodness. There's been a lot in to to loathe... but what have you loved?

Wednesday 14 December 2016

Clandestine Classic XLVIII - Bad Ambassador

The forty-eighth 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.

The trouble with any kind of long-running blog series (and 48 isn't especially long, but it's getting there) is that eventually you start to repeat yourself. Not necessarily in content, but insomuch as certain tropes start to appear... and reappear. For the Clandestine Classics, that trope is the question, "What do you think about when I say <insert band name here> to you?", after which I'll rattle through the obvious choices for that band and then pull a rabbit out of the hat, a non-obvious choice that is, hopefully, a belter. So, on that basis... what do you think about when I say The Divine Comedy to you? National Express, probably. Generation Sex too. Becoming More Like Alfie, hopefully. Maybe Something For The Weekend too and, with luck, the theme tune from Father Ted. And unless you're a big fan, that's probably about it.

When I think about The Divine Comedy, I think about all those songs too, of course. And I think of how their 90s flirtation with the big time, for want of a better phrase, was probably made possible, indirectly, by the sudden, unexpected but zeitgeisty prominence of Common People-era Pulp. If Jarvis could be a star, record labels doubtless mused, then so could Neil Hannon. There's probably some logic in that too, as there are doubtless similarities in their approach to the so-called rock star life, their performance style, even musically. But there are plenty of differences too, not least Neil's love of a good croon. But I digress - what about today's classic?

Bad Ambassador dates from 2001; the crest of the Britpop wave that scooped up Pulp, The Divine Comedy and so many other bands, had long since broken, there was no TFI Friday to plug your songs on anymore, no more Shine compilations to showcase your work, and no Radio 1 playlisting for Neil and his crew. Record label Setanta were replaced by Parlophone, the quirky suited look was ditched, Nigel Godrich was drafted in on production duty... it all got a bit serious, in other words. The album Regeneration was the result - less twee, less quirky, slightly harder sounding, the critics lapped it up, but the record-buying public...? Not so much. The Divine Comedy would split soon after its release.

Today's classic was the second single to be drawn from Regeneration, and it limped to a lowly 34 in the UK chart, and that's a shame because, regeneration or not, all the hallmarks of what made The Divine Comedy great were still there: whip-smart lyricism, knowing delivery, great melodies... Were there really 33 better songs in the chart that week? I find it hard to believe.

Anyway, Mr Hannon has reformed The Diving Comedy, and I had the pleasure of seeing them live in October. Let me tell you, in a live setting this song really takes off - it properly rocks out! Or, to put it more eloquently, this song works on many levels and, if there was any justice, would feature in the first five songs you mention when I ask you what you think of when I say The Divine Comedy to you. Always assuming you don't go down the Danté route...

You can pick up Regeneration on Amazon, and you won't regret it. Bad Ambassador is not on the obligatory best of compilation though, as that only mops up the Setanta years (a.k.a. the glory years). So instead, courtesy of YouTube, here's today's clandestine classic in video form. Enjoy.

Thursday 1 December 2016

Hear some more different Christmas music this year...

Last year, I threw together an alternative music advent calendar. It seemed quite popular, so I've tried to repeat the trick. There are a lot of festive cover versions this year though, so be warned... anyway, here's the patent-pending, minutes-in-the-making 2016 New Amusements advent calendar...