7.1.17

Favourite songs of 2016

As usual it's Kieron Gillen rules – one song per artist, with the rest of the body of work pushing things up the list. This saves me from doing a separate albums rundown, although interestingly this year most of the songs below have an album behind them. I'm not on trend – for a couple of years now it has been assumed that YouTube and Spotify (as well as a general pop culture shift away from rock music) will kill off the album. Perhaps that's still to come, but for now it looks like artists are still finding value in presenting their music in 30 to 50 minute suites – they still want to control the context in which an individual song is experienced. As someone to prefers to look at the intentions of creators rather than the way a work travels through the culture when it's released, this is welcome. I'm still suspicious of algorithms and playlists ordering music for me. It's better to trust the producers.

20. Martha - 11:45, Legless in Brandon

This just in, because I only heard of these guys a week ago. A pop-punk four piece from Durham – a bit like Los Campesinos! without the anguish, or blink-182 if they grew up with a sense of British irony. And like the latter in their prime, mostly singing about teenage love, which is more like a mixture of lust and idolatry. 'Legless in Brandon' is my current favourite from their album, because the hook is timeless: 'you’re good for my mind, but not my productivity'.

19. Kero Kero Bonito - Trampoline

Another future classic from these guys. This one a confidence boost, the trampoline as a metaphor for picking yourself up when you're down, and being able to jump higher next time. As with the best KKB, the seemingly silly and trivial becomes a manifesto for better living.

18. Kamaiyah - I'm On (prod. Drew Banga)

Another pick me up. Kamaiyah says her mother was absent and her father did drugs, and money was a constant source of stress growing up. Living debt free ('I don't have to finance') is therefore a source of celebration. And that celebration is inclusive – witness all those people singing along to Kamaiyah's performance in the video. And it's warm and inviting, thanks to the gentle swing of Drew Banga's production.

17. Britney Spears - Private Show (prod. Tramaine "Young Fyre" Winfrey)

One of the best things about Glory is the way Spears experiments with her voice throughout the album, nowhere more so than this song, which understandably proved divisive (a friend of mine thought it was 'horrid'). I think it's great, and betrays a sense of confidence and optimism after what has been a rough ride of a career. The gaucheness of her delivery in the pre-chorus ('wrrkit, wrrkit, boy watch me wrrkit') feels like a cheeky wink at the listener – daring them to accept the song in the way Spears wants to sing it.

16. Dinosaur Jr. - Goin Down

I'm just glad these guys are still around, 30 or so years after You're Living All Over Me, which many regard as their crowning achievement. 'Going Down' kicks off their new album with a monster riff and a blistering guitar solo, the heavy metal theatrics softened by J Mascis's unassuming, slightly flat vocal. It's a variation on the same formula, but that's OK by me. Long may they continue.

15. Katy B - Honey (prod. Kaytranada)

Katy B's latest album is a mixed bag, and doesn't quite work as a showcase for Rinse in the way On A Mission did. The most successful song is rightly put at the top. 'Honey' plays to Katy B's strengths – describing in microscopic detail the moment when a connection between lovers or dancers is made. The charged atmosphere finally erupts with Katy B's vocal overdubs in the final chorus. Slightly over the top, yes, but Kaytranada's hypnotically steady beat needs some kind of release. In that sense, it's a perfect evocation of female desire.

14. Junior Boys - Baby Give Up On It

Junior Boys's latest album works on similar principles to the Katy B song above – utilising the regular rhythms of house and techno to explore the workings of desire. Big Black Coat feels slightly older, and perhaps a bit sadder – Jeremy Greenspan describes how he took inspiration from lonely-looking guys walking around his town, who he imagined were frustrated by life and women. This track's lyrics reflect those concerns ('I don't want you anymore'), but sonically it still sounds like a come on. The ambiguity of a phrase like 'give up on it' encapsulates that tension perfectly. Whether the cut up vocals at the end signal a release from a fragmenting relationship, or its renewal, is impossible to work out.

13. Jammz - Just Eat (prod. Anz)

Jammz is usually all about serious issues, which is why having him sit back and tell a funny story is a good look for him. For sure, we still end up with a tirade, because Jammz is Jammz and his flow always conveys a sense of escalating stress-levels. That bottled up frustration is pure grime, but so is a sense of the quotidian and absurd (cf. D Double E in a cab below).

12. Levelz - Rowdy Badd

Much of the beginning of my 2016 was spent with the debut mixtape from Manchester rap and production supergroup Levelz, which served as a useful corrective to Mayoral hopeful Andy Burnham's laments about the state of the city's music scene.

11. Dej Loaf - Bitch Please (prod. DDS)

Imperial nonchalance on top of another sparkling production from DDS – so great Dej doesn't even bother with a chorus. She says she doesn't eat pie but wants you to bake it anyway. I'm not arguing.

10. Jeremih feat. Stefflon Don, Krept & Konan - London (prod. Soundz)

Obvious biases apply, but this is the best track on Jeremih's Late Nights Europe mixtape, mostly because you can actually dance to it. It's London by way of Jamaican dancehall, with a stellar performance from up and comer Stefflon Don.

9. The Hotelier - Piano Player

I found this year's followup to NoPlace a bit underwhelming, but given that NoPlace might be the best emo album since Cork Tree, perhaps that shouldn't be surprising. Goodness leaves behind the disintegration and despair, and reveals the band to be hippies at heart. 'Piano Player' employs a little bit more studio trickery, Holden sounds a little bit more like Michael Stipe, and the chorus drives through the imperative to 'sustain' by repeating the word over and over. And all of that propelled by an urgent drumbeat bashing all the way through the song's five and a half minutes.

8. Trim - Up to Speed (prod. Asa & Sorrow)

Asa & Sorrow's muscular production spurs Trim to get back on the warpath. This is high definition grime, with weighty bass squelches and horror film strings, and it adds authority to Trim's boasts of drowning out the competition. There is a nod to the insecurity that has permeated his work of late ('no matter how irrelevant I might have been'), but 'Up to Speed' is a needed reminder that Trim is at his strongest when fighting from a position of weakness.

7. Radwimps - Zenzenzense

This is another recent discovery, and a new departure for me, given that I listen to almost no music in a language other than English. Radwimps are a phenomenon in Japan, and this is taken from their excellent soundtrack to Your Name (my favourite film of 2016). The song is used to convey a sense of youthful, almost vertiginous, exuberance – where sensations and emotions pile up faster than your ability to process them.

6. Chance the Rapper feat. Saba - Angels (prod. Lido & The Social Experiment)

Chance sometimes feels like a latter day William Blake, chatting to angels in his back garden, sometimes like Walt Whitman, expounding on his own supreme excellence. No wonder the video for 'Angels' casts him as a superhero flying over the skies of Chicago, charged up with God's grace. With Saba's timpani backed pre-chorus leading into Chance's horn-fuelled chorus, the feeling of elevation is palpable.

5. Dawn Richard - Lazarus (prod. Machinedrum)

I'm still digesting Richard's final installment of her 'heart' trilogy of albums, which are as technically impressive and emotionally involving as anything put together by Radiohead. Redemption suggests a happy ending after the epic warfare of Goldenheart and the angst of Blackheart. 'Lazarus' suggests it, anyway, playing with images of ascension and appropriating traditionally male metaphors of the wolf's hunger and the king's ego. Every album review has picked up on this song's line: 'I didn't change, I became'. It's a highlight, in other words. And it might be what settling into your identity sounds like.

4. Ariana Grande - Into You (prod. Max Martin)

Dangerous Woman is a return to form after Grande's muddled sophomore effort, and it's biggest single is its most immediate entry-point. Max Martin can probably churn these out in his sleep by now, but the scale of this production's chorus is well matched by Grande's powerful voice. It's a deserved hit, and hearing it played on the radio and in shops around London goes to show that good pop can still find an audience.

3. Capo Lee feat. D Double E - Mud (JD. Reid Remix)

It's been Sir Spyro's year as far as grime's concerned. My 2015 favourite 'Topper Top' finally got a release, and his productions for Ghetts, Stormzy and P Money have all become anthems. This one for newcomer Capo Lee is my favourite, however, utilising the traditional grime technique of rhyming each bar with the same word and inflecting it with different meanings. Unfortunately for Spyro, I've fallen a little bit harder for JD. Reid's remix, which gives the ominous original a shiny makeover, and proves a better fit for D Double's cartoony rant at his cabdriver in the second verse.

2. Beyoncé feat. Jack White - Don't Hurt Yourself (prod. Derek Dixie)

I found the happily-married Beyoncé of the self-titled album strangely uninvolving. Tellingly, the most interesting song on that album for me was 'Jealous', which was the one that hinted at the double-standards and double-shift that still structures many marriages. So when Lemonade took that song and made an entire album out of it, I got right on board. Unlike 'Jealous', 'Don't Hurt Yourself' no longer redirects the rage at marital injustice inwards – it lashes out at the source: 'tonight I'm fucking up all your shit, boyyy'. That line, with the full force of Beyoncé's voice behind it, sends a shiver down the spine.

1. Johnny Foreigner - The Worst of Us

I liked the last album, but did wonder if the band were doubling down on a successful formula rather than trying to move beyond it. Turns out I needn't have worried. Mono No Aware is more adventurous with its song structures – melting together JF's pop punk influences into new forms. 'The Worst of Us' is a jagged thing, speeding up and juddering to a halt when you least expect it. It sounds like running down a series of dead ends – which is exactly what the song is about. The band sing about being trapped in grey cities, 'proxy the beach' and the sense of possibility that entails. Settling down like your parents means the world closing in around you, all escape routes shut off. But perhaps that's inevitable – 'I'm convinced I need you to stabalise'. Adventure entails risk – dropping out of your life is hard. 'The Worst of Us' is about finding that point of stability from which you can go and find those 'white mountains and silver seas'. I got married this year, and all of that rings very true. And it goes to show that JF are also a band to grow old with.

29.12.16

26 films in 2016

I haven't been to the cinema nearly enough to give a view on the films of the year. Below is just what I've managed to watch, ranked roughly in order of appreciation, and with links to the original blog posts. Just struck me that around three quarters of the films are not in the English language. Some of that's about me getting more interested in weird and esoteric material. But a little bit of it is also the fact that I watch films in terrible conditions (late at night and crouched in front of a computer), and subtitles mean I don't have to put the volume up too much and wake my family up.

New:

Matoko Shinkai - Your Name [link]
Ben Wheatley - High-Rise [link]
Hou Hsiao-Hsien - The Assassin [link]
Joe & Anthony Russo - Captain America: Civil War [link]
J.J. Abrams - Star Wars: The Force Awakens [link]
Scott Derrickson - Dr. Strange

Old:

Alain Robbe-Grillet - Successive Slidings of Pleasure [link]
David Chronenberg - Videodrome [link]
Diane Bertrand - The Ring Finger [link]
Satoshi Kon - Perfect Blue [link]
Ingmar Bergman - The Passion of Anna [link]
John Cameron Mitchell - Shortbus [link]
Bigas Luna - Jamón, Jamón (A Tale of Ham and Passion) [link]
Ingmar Bergman - Wild Strawberries [link]
Akira Kurosawa - Rashomon [link]
Wong Kar-Wai - Ashes of Time Redux [link]
Ingmar Bergman - Shame [link]
Bigas Luna - The Tit and the Moon [link]
Yasuzo Masumura - Manji [link]
Martin Brest - Beverly Hills Cop [link]
Shohei Imamura - The Insect Woman [link]
Paul Verhoeven - Turkish Delight [link]
Matoko Shinkai - 5 Centimeters Per Second [link]
Yoshiaki Kawajiri - Ninja Scroll [link]
Leos Carax - Holy Motors [link]
Bigas Luna - The Ages of Lulu [link]

28.12.16

Beverly Hills Cop

Saw this at the BFI as part of their 'Black Star' season. Although Eddie Murphy carries the film, was interesting that the role was once intended for Sylvester Stallone, and the script doesn't make many overt references to Murphy's blackness. Only occasionally does Murphy's character nod to it – when he accuses hotel staff of prejudice in order to get a room, and when he's shaming another black cop for playing at being white. In both situations, Murphy is playing mindgames with his mark in order to gain the upper hand. In fact, that's what he does throughout the film. His blackness is just another tool used to overcome the obstacles in his way.

It struck me that the film also contained a faintly homoerotic subtext. Murphy goes to California to avenge the murder of a childhood friend – someone who confesses he loves him before being killed. If it was sexual love, it was probably unrequited (Murphy flirts a bit with the only female character in the film, who becomes a damsel-in-distress at the end). But the relationship is strong enough to provide the motive for Murphy's actions throughout the film. Murphy does pretend to be gay in another scene in order to gain admittance to a private members club. And he has some memorable interactions with 'Serge', a camp employee at an art gallery. But the film's gayness, like its blackness, is understated. It's almost as if too many mentions of racism or AIDS would spoil the fun.

The other interesting thing about the film is its pacing. It kicks off with a very long-winded and expensive car chase, which apart from establishing Murphy's recklessness,i is entirely gratuitous. It goes to show that (like the intros of Bond films) frontloading action sequences is not a new phenomenon. That said, compared to modern action films, the pacing in Beverly Hills Cop turns out to be rather loose – the film lingers on not very important details, sometimes purposefully to frustrate the audience who want to find out what's happening elsewhere. It's hard to imagine getting away with that kind of thing in today's hyper-compressed blockbusters – where missing a stray bit of dialogue renders the plot incomprehensible. Instead Beverly Hills Cop is a film you can drift in and out of without losing your bearings, and it feels longer than its 105 minutes. It gives you a break. I for one found it a welcome reprieve.

27.12.16

46 books for 2016

My annual list of things I've read grows longer again this year, partly because I continue to abjure television and get my fill of visual storytelling through comics. The reason for the preference is mundane – I spend too much of my day in front of a screen and prefer to avoid it in my free time. I may well be missing out. Given the stranglehold superheroes have on the comics medium, and how everyone keeps talking about a golden age of television, my guess is that comics in aggregate may well be less innovative or interesting.

My comics consumption has been further encouraged by my agreeing to contribute columns to the London Graphic Novel Network, an initiative designed to get people to take advantage of the great selection of comics offered by London libraries. I owe my comics enthusiasm entirely to libraries (they are otherwise a very expensive form of entertainment), so this was a no-brainer for me. Links to my bits for the site are collected here.

I've also read quite a lot of Japanese fiction this year – my partner is Japanese, so it has been a way of getting to know the culture in which she grew up. It's a bit of a turnaround for me, as I'd previously avoided reading literature in translation, assuming that too much of the author's technique was lost in the process. I still think that's the case, but what you gain is still a pretty direct insight into a foreign society and history, which is hugely valuable in itself.

A lot of the non-fiction is drawn from recommendations at work (Haidt, Moretti), or following up things from the MA I did six years ago (Ryan, Tully, Geuss).

Ordered (sort of) by subject then preference. Links in the comics section go to things I've written (mostly for the LGGN), otherwise they are quotes I've posted here as I've been reading. I keep track of all this stuff on Goodreads here.

Richard Ellmann - James Joyce [link]
Alan Ryan - On Politics: A History of Political Thought from Herodotus to the Present [link] [link]
Jonathan Haidt - The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
Ian Buruma - The Japanese Mirror: Heroes and Villains of Japanese Culture
James Tully - An Approach to Political Philosophy: Locke in Contexts
Jared Diamond - Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
Richard Vinen - Thatcher's Britain: The politics and social upheaval of the 1980s
Enrico Moretti - The New Geography of Jobs
Gareth Stedman Jones - Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion
Michel Foucault - Interviews & Other Writings 1977-84 [link] [link]
Simon Parker - Taking Power Back: Putting people in charge of politics
Hugh Kennedy - The Great Arab Conquests [link]
Ben Thompson - Seven Years of Plenty: A Handbook of Irrefutable Pop Greatness, 1991-1998
J. Hoberman - Film After Film: Or, What Became of 21st Century Cinema?
Jessica Hopper - The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic
Raymond Geuss - History and Illusion in Politics [link]
James Joyce - A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Ryū Murakami - Almost Transparent Blue
Yasunari Kawabata - Thousand Cranes
Mari Akasaka - Vibrator
Jun'ichirō Tanizaki - Seven Japanese Tales
Ryū Murakami - Piercing
Jun'ichirō Tanizaki - Some Prefer Nettles [link]
Yōko Ogawa - Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales
Kieron Gillen / Jamie McKelvie - Phonogram [link]
Grant Morrison / Chris Weston / Gary Erskine - The Filth [link]
Warren Ellis / Jason Howard - Trees, Vol. 1: In Shadow [link]
Hayao Miyazaki - Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
Greg Rucka / Michael Lark / Santi Arcas - Lazarus
Matt Fraction / Christian Ward - Ody-C vols. 1 & 2 [link]
Gail Simone / Walter Geovani - Red Sonja [link]
Kazuo Koike / Ryōichi Ikegami - Offered
Magnus - The 100 Pills
Paul Pope - 100% / Heavy Liquid [link]
Jonathan Hickman / Ryan Bodenheim - Red Mass for Mars
Jonathan Luna / Sarah Vaughn - Alex + Ada [link]
Kieron Gillen / Ryan Kelly / Jordie Bellaire - Three [link]
Matt Fraction / Howard Chaykin - Satellite Sam vols. 1 & 2 [link]
Ben Gijsemans - Hubert [link]
Kentaro Miura - Berserk vol. 1
Sean McKeever / Brian Fraim - The Waiting Place vol. 1
Kelly Sue DeConnick / Emma Ríos - Pretty Deadly, Vol. 1: The Shrike
Rick Remender / Wes Craig / Lee Loughridge - Deadly Class, Vol. 1: Reagan Youth
Mark Waid / Minck Oosterveer - The Unknown
Grant Morrison / Yanick Paquette / Nathan Fairbairn - Wonder Woman: Earth One
Bryan Lee O'Malley - Seconds

24.12.16

Beckett was addicted to silences, and so was Joyce; they engaged in conversations which consisted often of silences directed towards each other, both suffused with sadness, Beckett mostly for the world, Joyce mostly for himself. Joyce sat in his habitual posture, legs crossed, toe of the upper leg under the instep of the lower; Beckett, also tall and slender, fell into the same gesture. Joyce suddenly asked some such question as, 'How could the idealist Hume write a history?' Beckett replied, 'A history of representations.' Joyce said nothing, but some time afterwards he informed the young man, 'The only amateur philosopher of any value I know is Carducci.' Later, 'For me,' he said, 'there is only one alternative to scholasticism, scepticism.' - Richard Ellmann, James Joyce

2.12.16

Your Name

I've previously been a bit harsh on Matoko Shinkai. Your Name doesn't abandon the romantic longing of 5 Centimeters Per Second, but the angst is worn more lightly, and the characters feel less like ciphers. The animation is also more restrained – the night skies no longer look like Rainbow Road in Mario Kart, and there is a rather cool dream sequence which swaps crisp photorealism for a more flowing, sketched style.

The plot, as with many a time travel story, breaks apart the more you prod at it. But the conceit of two teenagers switching bodies is employed well. Shinkai has said that some of the town vs country stuff comes from his own experience of growing up. More important for me, however, is the way inhabiting another person's life becomes a metaphor for falling in love. Because being in a relationship is sort of like that. You gain access to memories of things you didn't experience at first hand. You learn about a childhood different from your own, with a new family and set of friends. You also get to know someone else's body in intimate detail (a source of some of the film's funniest moments). And by becoming comfortable in each other's skins, the two characters find that they cannot live happily without each other.

This is eked out a bit in the final part of the film, where Shinkai contrives to separate his heroes, and have them morosely wander around Tokyo searching for their other halves. But it serves to highlight how draining the loss of such a person might be, and it leads to a very satisfying finale.

29.11.16

The Tit and the Moon

This film continues Bigas Luna's interrogation of cajones from his previous film Golden Balls. It begins and ends with the Catalan tradition of creating human castles. Our protagonist Tete is a enxaneta, the child who is supposed to climb to the top and touch the sky. At the beginning of the film, his father's shouted exhortations about having the balls to climb higher always make Tete lose. At the end, Tete has discovered women and love, the desire for which allows him to achieve his goal, and find contentment.

It's a happy ending, in other words – the opposite of what happens to Javier Bardem in Golden Balls, who fails to complete his tower and ends up an unhappy cuckold. Rather than castigate self-defeating machismo, The Tit and the Moon celebrates the state of being lovesick. It's at its most charming when exploring the fascinatingly weird marriage between the dancer Estrellita and a Frenchman mostly referred to as 'The Frog'. Estrellita is turned on by tears and feet, and plays weird sexual games with her husband where she eats a stale baguette that he sticks between his thighs. The Frog is impotent, but the marriage survives by the arrangement of a ménage à trois, and he (unlike Bardem) ends up a happy cuckold.

The yearning for the love of women appears to be the overriding theme – the film has its own peculiar cosmology where the patriarchal sun is superseded by the matriarchal moon. Nonetheless, the erotic focus of the film – Estrellita – is a rather passive figure, remaining devoted to her husband despite his neediness and volatility. The film opens with the image of her as a toybox ballerina, echoing her husband's claim to want to put her in a box and hide her away (he's true to his word and locks her up at one point). And although the film suggests that fulfillment lies with the renunciation of such jealousy, Estrellita is still little more than an idol to be fought over. Her fate is not enviable, even if she appears satisfied with it.

25.11.16

The Ring Finger

This is a curious film – more of an extended allegory than any kind of straightforward narrative. It's an adaptation of a short story by Yoko Ogawa, who specializes in eerie tales of weird people and their strange, sometimes dangerous, desires. Olga Kurylenko abandons the prospect of a normal life with a regular working class hunk, and chooses instead to become a living 'specimen'. Her employer is an older man who runs a business purging customers of painful memories. They pay a fee to have certain objects of talismanic power taken away and stored, alongside what appear to be ghosts of the man's own past.

Kurylenko's own painful memory is of the tip of her ring finger being sliced off in an accident at a bottling factory – perhaps a symbol for the way entry into the workforce mangles the traditional role of women as wives and mothers. If that's the case, she nonetheless settles for becoming an object in the house of a controlling patriarch. Her employer seduces her, and gives her a pair of red shoes that become a symbol of her subjection to him. At the end of the film, she takes them off in contravention of his wishes, but chooses to give her ring finger to him as a 'specimen'. She slips off one ring, but surrenders a much more intimate part of herself, and joins his nunnery-cum-harem.

The film is made cheaply, and it shows, but Bertrand injects a certain style into it, using frames within frames and adding surreal flourishes like Kurylenko's dream of swinging on a enormous crane. A particularly nice set-piece is the dropping of the Majong set – an entire philosophy shattered then put back together again. The mood is helped enormously by a very effective score from Beth Gibbons (of Portishead fame), which is by turns sweet and sinister. Staying true to Ogawa's fiction, the film leaves motivations opaque and the ending unexplained. But piecing together its confluence of symbols is a diverting way to spend 100 minutes.

23.11.16

Ms Marvel

A bit of my tiny contribution to the epic London Graphic Novel Network discussion on the book by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona, which is worth reading in full:

What is interesting for me about Ms Marvel is that her superpower is to change her appearance. Being a teenager is partly about experimenting with different looks and identities, and in Kamala’s case her shapeshifting brings out the (mostly subconscious) pressure she feels to conform to a certain western beauty standard – something which is not readily available to her because of her race. It’s quite a powerful moment in the comic when you realise that she is not going to take advantage of the ability she suddenly gets to appear white, blond, sexy, etc. Instead, maintaining that surface-level disguise is a distraction from the real work of saving the day. She commissions a real costume so she doesn’t have to worry about what she looks like anymore.