2013 in Review

I occasionally run a little “Inspirations” section under a blogpost to share what stuff I’m interested in or enjoying, because sooner or later what goes in will show up in what comes out. Plus, any chance to send people towards good stuff is one that should be taken up. This is a massive version of that sort of thing. I go on a bit, because it’s my blog and I’m allowed to.

I include old stuff that I’ve discovered this year, since this is the Internet age and it doesn’t really matter when something is released. I don’t really watch TV, so that’s out. As for theatre, I’ve seen quite a few shows this year (more than one, which is a lot for me), mainly at the RSC. None of them have moved me enough to produce an actual list, but the RSC productions of A Mad World, My Masters, All’s Well That Ends Well, and Wendy & Peter Pan were particularly good.

Obviously, this isn’t a decree, it’s a conversation. Tell me I’m wrong, what I’ve missed, what I’d like, what I have to look forward to.

Film

I barely remembered that I had this section to do, or what films I’ve seen, so, um, yeah. UK release in this year, ignoring Oscars season. Not a big movie watcher, because the cinema is expensive, so just three out of the several I’ve seen to declare “the best”.

Stuff I’ve enjoyed catching up on this year include the works of John Hughes and, as ever, Studio Ghibli. In 2014 I’ll only basically have to keep up with them, having now watched pretty much all of the canonical back catalogue, so that’s good.

Gravity, dir. Alfonso Cuaron was the best film I saw this year. It had everything you want to see in a Hollywood film – massive peril, great performances, light humour – yet was also unique in being at most a two-hander (more often Bullock is solo). It is the only time I have had to restrain myself in the cinema from swearing loudly and often.

Iron Man 3, dir. Shane Black was quietly one of the better superhero films out there. I have a working theory that while Marvel Studios films tend to keep to a consistently ok standard, but tend towards indistinctive, whereas DC films tend to be an interesting filmic statement whether it is a good film or a failure. Iron Man 3 does bear this out, but because Black treats it with comedy logic rather than action logic, it manages to craft its own niche amongst the flood of tights-wearers. This is a great instinct, considering the comedy is what works about the Iron Man films, and the action is often perfunctory. Yes, it’s basically Kiss Kiss Bang Bang for superheroes, but it’s a great watch.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, dir. Francis Lawrence – I wouldn’t count myself amongst the fandom, but I saw the first film this year and was impressed by the interesting cherrypicking of various dystopian concepts, but with a focus on the character of Katniss, and the fact of a mainstream Hollywood film being shot and scored in an idiosyncratic, almost indie style. The sequel smooths the indie right out of it, but the story gets more interesting and the performances deepen, and despite the warnings of those who read the books, I’m looking forward to the final (two) installment(s. Thanks Harry Potter for this trend in YA franchises…).

Worst film of the year is Man of Steel, dir. Zack Snyder, for reasons I’ve gone into at length. It’s almost an anti-Superman Superman film. I liked Les Miserables, dir. Tom Hooper, a lot, but it’s hardly a film, is it? It’s just a bunch of stuff happening on a cinema screen. I’m sure Before Midnight dir. Richard Linklater will make the list once I’ve caught up with it.

Books and Comics

Goodreads makes this post easy, since I’ve been taking notes all year.

Only professional critics habitually read books the year they come out, I reckon, so I’ll just pile in stuff I’ve discovered this year. Incorporating comics, because they are also things you read. No particular order, but roughly chronological.

Gun Machine by Warren Ellis – Devoured it in a night. A pacey thriller, but the best bits are about our relationships with information, technology, and our living spaces. Very worth your time. Part of a range of stuff that has made me interested again in crime, having been burnt out almost a decade ago by the endless CSI spin-offs and imitators.

Special mention to Crecy, being a comic even my dad enjoyed. A funny, sweary, bloody,  and xenophobic, history comic, about a small English peasant army killing fuckloads of French aristocrats in 1346. Quick, light, satisfying read, with great black-and-white artwork and an engaging fourth-wall breaking style. Highly recommended.

Journey Into Mystery and Young Avengers by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie et al – putting them together because you need to read both, and one leads to the other. JIM is a fantastic run, tying together superheroes and fantasy storytelling to great effect. Rather than simply enact generic tropes, it criticises them and uses them for its own ends.

Loki’s singular approach to being a hero, through intelligence and deal making, rather than Thor’s purer approach, is the narrative selling point of the series. It is worth mentioning here how well-crafted “Kid Loki” is. Rather than being an annoying brat that you’re desperate to be rid of, so the “real version” can be reinstated, you feel for Loki. However, the character is still written in a way that honours the attributes of the original character, which demonstrates how the same traits can be used for different ends. New supporting players, such as Leah and Thori, inject life into what could be drab company superhero comics. The finale is a spectacular explosion of Chekhov’s Guns.

It’s emotional, smart, and the storytelling feels right even as you despair of the turn of events. This run of Journey Into Mystery comes highly recommended, for superhero fans, lapsed superhero fans, fantasy addicts, lovers of Young Adult fiction, and anyone who wants a lesson in how to write in a shared universe whilst telling a complete, comprehensive, and satisfying story.

A lot of the above can also be said of Young Avengers. However, YA is a shorter burst of kinetic energy, where JIM is an involved, longer undertaken. What YA has over JIM is artist Jamie McKelvie. Not only does a more consistent look make it more of a piece, it’s the working relationship between the entire creative team that puts it over the top. It’s incredibly inventive, cool, and new, and everyone should be reading it and stealing its ideas.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. The perfect thing to devour in a sitting. It’s novel about life, and stories, and the place inside us where the two meet. Its climax contains best extended metaphor I’ve read in a while, and it feels astonishingly personal as well as wildly imaginative. It’s the sort of book makes you want to write, and write now, or pack the whole thing up and go grow kittens or something. If you don’t like Gaiman’s usual fairy story narrative style (Stardust etc.), you may be unconvinced, but this short novel is a full demonstration of his gifts as a writer. Highly recommended.

Special mention to Fortunately, the Milk. Very funny and very silly book, filled with all the awesome things that should be in a book, like time travel and dinosaurs and redecorating. It’s beautifully illustrated by Chris Riddell (in the UK edition, very tempted to import the US edition for the complete set now) and it has the very shiniest of covers. It’s short and sweet, and a guiltless pleasure. Go on, treat yourself.

The Seagull
 by Anton Chekhov – I read all four of Chekhov’s long plays, and this is my favourite/the one I got most in script form. It’s a funny and moving play, translated clearly and simply by Michael Frayn. It’s a deserved classic.

Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth – hilarious, moving play of the people. Must read.

When the Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs – sweet, funny, sad, and haunting.

Building Stories by Chris Ware – one of the best comics, best pieces of literature, I have ever read. Gorgeous, amazing, beautiful, sad set of books and pamphlets. Crisply and clearly written and drawn, and compelling, intelligent material. Chris Ware is a master of his art.

Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson – an amazing, inspirational series.

American Splendor and More American Splendor by Harvey Pekar et al – Fascinating alternative comix. Its version of comic book storytelling is interesting, unique, and worth full consideration.

Music

Albums

Here’s a list of the albums I like, and the albums I’m guilty I haven’t listened to. They probably deserve more of a write-up than this but meh. What I learned this year is that I really like 1. female vox, 2. interesting synths, and 3. when they’re put together for pop musical purposes.

Chvrches, The Bones Of What You Believe – probably the album on heaviest rotation this year. Great songs, snappy production, sugary pleasure, both dancey and sad, and probably the most scream-along record I heard this year.

Tegan & Sara, Heartthrob – much the same as above. Short and sweet, always a pleasure to spin, and it’s one of the records on in the nightclub in my head.

David Bowie, The Next Day – this was the event, the record all assumed would never appear, and luckily it was good as well. Both old and new, it’s good to see an artist so engaged with his music without self-parody or misguided chart-chasing.

Nine Inch Nails, Hesitation Marks – another return from a musical giant, even though Trent Reznor never went away, just diverted his energy into other projects. This is an insistent, circular record, that draws you in and traps you amongst its electronics. It’s also fairly positive, which is a nice revelation from the man who wrote “Hurt”.

Haim, Days Are Gone – just a damn good album all through. It’s nice when something of this quality catches on with so many people.

Arctic Monkeys, AM – and this effort was uncommonly good. I only realy converted to Monkeys with Suck It and See, and this continues the intricate pop lyric wordplay, but gives it some proper rock n’ roll sleaze and glamour for its backing. The sort of album you wish you wrote, the sort of band you’d want to play in.

Kanye West, Yeezus – Kanye is an innovator, and an experimenter. No album does or will ever sound like this one. Forget the dodgy lyrical themes or the intensionally off-putting harshness of the beats, the man has sheperded something into existence that will be pilfered, toned down, and spread throughout the rest of the musical world because it is too good to keep separate. This is the closest you can come to hearing a future being made – its an album that captures the spark and energy of creativity. I really do like it.

Laura Marling, Once I Was an Eagle – I met a girl once, who I liked. whose love for Laura Marling inspired me to finally go and check her out. I’m glad I did, because Marling is a true artist – a precociously talented songwriter, a fascinating performer, and, very quietly, a storyteller. Her albums seem confessional, but also crafted and dramatised, and plot a journey through the end of a love affair. The opening four-song suite of Once I Was an Eagle picks off where her last LP left off, at the bitter end of a relationship, and brings it in “Saved These Words” to a resolution, and a glimpse of hope for the future. The drone-like guitar playing, and the recital, rather than the singing, of the lyrics is hard to get your ears round, but when in there is such richness to the work. The album’s too long, self-involved, almost unapproacable, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Marling’s gift of telling the true turmoil of relationships unlocks memories of your own, which is a mark of a good artist’s work.

Keaton Henson, Birthdays – As with his first album, Dear, this is an almost too close look at the debris that love leaves behind. Similar subject matter to Marling, but much more direct, confessional, and unadorned. The tentative expansion of the sound beyond Keaton’s voice and a plucked guitar works, as do the hard rock breaks in two of the songs, since they carry emotional weight. It’s a mixture of nerves and excitement when Keaton has new material, and this time it paid off.

Other albums I liked include Anamanaguchi, Endless Fantasy (never has music so nerdy been so euphoric), Earl Sweatshirt, Doris (Odd Future are always interesting musically, and he’s a rising talent), Daft Punk, Random Access Memories (it is as good as everyone says, despite “Get Lucky” being overplayed), Queens of the Stone Age, …Like Clockwork (once you get into its groove, it’s rewarding),Jimmy Eat World, Damage (one of their most solid albums of their career, lyrically mature and musically good as ever), and Biffy Clyro, Opposites (the culmination of their pop career that brings back some of their experimental side).

Stuff I’m shouting at myself for not getting round to includes albums by ARCADE FIRE, DEATH GRIPS, FLIGHT, SAVAGES, FOALS, BABY GODZILLA, TOM ODELL, FALL OUT BOY, DAN LE SAC VS SCROOBIUS PIP, JAY-Z, SUMMER CAMP, JOHNNY MARR, FRANK TURNER, VAMPIRE WEEKEND, THE STROKES, and of course BEYONCE.

Songs

Now, individual songs. I might order this list properly later (for flow – there is no ranking implied), I reserve the right to change it/add more, and there’ll be an albums one too, but this is a good start.

It’s in two sections. The A-list is the stuff I definitely believe in, that I’ve been listening to all year and love and think is cool and want to share. The B-list is what I’ve culled from BBC Playlister (a private listing service where I’ve been vaguely adding stuff since launch as I hear it on the radio), and is more an indication of what I might be listening to next year. One song per artist, obvs, but no arcane limit on number of tracks.

Here is the YouTube playlist, Spotify, and 8tracks. Not all tracks available on all platforms, of course, so have a Google. This Is My Jam.

And here are the tracks (Artist – Track).

A-List

Drake – Hold On, We’re Going Home
CHVRCHES – Recover
Katy B – 5 AM
Eminem – Rap God
Busta Rhymes/Q-Tip – Thank You
Haim – Go Slow
The 1975 – Girls
Arctic Monkeys – Knee Socks
Nine Inch Nails – Copy of A
Daft Punk – Lose Yourself to Dance
Kanye West – I Am A God
Jimmy Eat World – Damage
Laura Marling – I Was An Eagle
Paramore – Ain’t It Fun
Keaton Henson – The Best Today
Billy Bragg – Handyman Blues
Alkaline Trio – I Wanna Be A Warhol
Amanda Palmer – The Bed Song [Single Version]
Justin Timberlake – Mirrors
Biffy Clyro – Biblical
Tegan and Sara – Closer
David Bowie – The Next Day
Olivia Deane – Chasing Shadows
Anamanaguchi – Prom Night
Pixies – Andro Queen
Against Me! – True Trans Soul Rebel [Acoustic Version]
Queens of the Stone Age – If I Had A Tail
I See Monstas – Evolution
Benjamin Clementine – Cornerstone
Lorde – Royals
The Hell – It’s The Motherfucking Hell (You Dick)
Joel Compass – Run (Pusha T Remix)
Childish Gambino – 3005
Earl Sweatshirt – Burgundy
Disclosure – White Noise
Fall Out Boy – Love, Sex, Death
Enter Shikari – Rat Race
Sub Focus – Turn It Around

B-List

George Ezra – Budapest
Royal Blood – Out Of The Black
Stylo G – Badd (feat. Sister Nancy)
Chronixx – Smile Jamaica
Marmozets – Move. Shake. Hide
Martin Garrix – Animals
Danny Brown – Dip
The Naked and Famous – I Kill Giants
Josef Salvat – Every Night
Hozier – Take Me to Church
Catfish and the Bottlemen – Pacifier
Joey Bada$$ – My Yout (feat. Maverick Sabre)
James Blake – Life Round Here (feat. Chance The Rapper)
Chance The Rapper – Juice
John Grant – GMF
Afrikan Boy – Hit Em Up
Metronomy – I’m Aquarius
The Orwells – Dirty Sheets
RY X – Berlin
Sampha – Too Much

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