2009 favourites

The final installment of the decade roundup will be broadcast shortly, but now we take a little break to consider a few of my favourite things 2009 has given me. Starting with...

Favourite song: 'My Girls' - Animal Collective

Hand on heart, when I first heard it (on Radio 1 of all places) I didn't buy it. Too long, too weird, too sugary. It's as Patrick Stump so memorably sang on 'Dead On Arrival': the songs you grow to like never stick at first.

Too many people have already written more than enough about 'My Girls' for me to add anything very valuable. I just want to mention my favourite part of the song's glorious five and a half minutes. When the first verse gets repeated again, and right before the drums come in, the lead vocal is echoed by a backing vocal. Whenever I hear it, I get the urge to sing along with the backing vocal in response to the lead vocal. Exactly the same dynamic is present when Beyoncé sings "All the single ladies!". You have to be made of stone to not shout "All the single ladies!" back at Beyoncé. In 'My Girls' the call and response vocals run through the first two verses, before merging triumphantly in the third. This is what the song is about for me. Noah Lennox's desire to shelter his family isn't universal, but the song makes it universal anyway. It breaks down the barriers between people. It makes us mirror each other. It synchronises everyone's emotional state until we are all one, all singing the same thing, feeling the same joy, love, devotion, responsibility. Step back, and you realize 'My Girls' is less about thirtysomething worries about family, and more about sharing, community, friendship. That's what makes the song so powerful. It gives me this incredible elated feeling every time I listen to it, and nothing this past year has quite matched that.

Favourite album: Actor - St. Vincent

This one was tough. A month ago, Bat For Lashes would have got the top spot for her gorgeous second album Two Suns. I have been listening to it regularly since it came out in the spring and I was sure it would triumph over all comers in what has been, for me, a supernova year in music. I thought Two Suns was as well-crafted and assured as anything emerging from the Brooklyn pop explosion (your Grizzly Animal Projectors), but ultimately it was Natasha Khan's vocal performances: hushed and yearning in 'Daniel', lonely and delirious in 'Sleep Alone', out-Florenceing Florence on 'Glass', that pushed her ahead. However, while a powerful voice can transform uninspiring lyrics, the lyrics do remain uninspiring. The dual persona idea didn't do anything for me, and the fantastical symbols sometimes got a little cliched and silly. This very slightly marred my appreciation of the album, and allowed another to sneak in and steal the top spot.

St. Vincent's Actor sounded quietly inoffensive when I first heard it, and so was relegated to working music for most of the year. Only during the winter did it make the jump onto headphones, and I pretty much fell in love with it. I wish I could write about music properly so I can describe Actor in all its wonderfulness, but I really can't. Let's just say that St. Vincent makes intricately arranged odd-ball pop songs, the tinkly melodies and soothing, airy, sing-song vocals only sometimes being overturned by blasts of crashing, chugging electric guitar.

Much of my love comes from the fact that Actor reminds me of early Death Cab songs, before Ben Gibbard developed his Radiohead crush and decided to be a rock star. Annie Clark has that same perfect voice, the same sideways mentality, the same concerns with repressed feelings in a post-industrial, consumer-driven society. Compare Gibbard's "there's a tear in the fabric of your favourite dress, and I'm sneaking glances" to Clark's "I stood transfixed by a hole in your t-shirt". Actor brings back everything I loved about We Have The Facts And We're Voting Yes. The unbearable tension between a light vocal singing about the weight of the world. But with those heavy metal crunchy guitars, it brought a release as well, so we could all sing (or scream) along: "H.E.L.P. Help! Me! Help! Me!"

Favourite film: Jennifer's Body

A month ago, this accolade would have been evenly split between Swedish arthouse vampire film Let The Right One In and Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster Star Trek. Each film had something the other lacked. Let The Right One In (see note here) was deliciously bleak, the final scene resplendent with hollow hope. But it was also slow, confused, meandering. There was no spark of humanity, no lightness, to it. I can't love a film like that. Star Trek I can love a great deal. After the dramatic opening sequence (which got the tears flowing with embarrassing ease) it was just non-stop hilarity plus aliens plus spaceships. But for all the glee-inducing geekiness, the problem with Star Trek was that it was all lightness. The villain, though wonderfully hammy, was weak, and the clash between the Spartan Romulans and the United Nations-a-like Starfleet didn't go anywhere. Fun is great, but ultimately I want something more from my films.

And so we come to Jennifer's Body (see note here). I confess, if I have to watch horror films (I don't get it, why do people like to be scared??) I would prefer them to be punchy, witty and a little silly. You can read that as less scary if you like, but actually, I found Jennifer's Body just as frightening as the tense creepiness of Let The Right One In, so it fulfilled the goal of a horror film, although being a wuss, it's difficult for me to judge these things.

The point is, Jennifer's Body has the lightness and the fun that was lacking in Let The Right One In. But it's also just as profound, and to my mind, just as original. I'm not especially aware of the genre, but I've never heard of a horror film that has a prevalent feminist tone. And Jennifer's Body doesn't just expose the evils of patriarchy, it provides a lesson in how to deal with it. In comparison, Let The Right One In only investigates the inevitability of love turning sour and poisonous, and it is possible to read the vampire-girl Eli in a very misogynist way. I'm uncomfortable with that. Jennifer's Body I can stand firmly behind. And it made me laugh. And it used Megan Fox's sex object profile to brilliant effect. And I love it all the more because everyone either hated it or ignored it. Mark Kermode didn't even have the decency to stick it in his 2009 top ten, the fool. Don't you clowns realise that this is even better than Juno? Bah! It's the best film of the year. Consider it as part of the previous post's honourable mention list. and you can also add Diablo Cody's name next to Martin McDonagh as the writer/filmmaker to watch in 2010.

Favourite television show: Dollhouse

Was it ever gonna be anything else? I've grown tired of reading detailed diagnoses of why the show doesn't work -- silly plots, no characters, Eliza Dushku is rubbish etc. I don't care. Has there ever been a science fiction show as fascinating as this? Not even Firefly went to the places Dollhouse has got to in its first season. Should mention here that season 2 is still unavailable on these shores, and I'm waiting for the DVD this time.

Oh, it's cancelled of course. Not even Whedon fans could get fully behind it. The mood over at Whedoneque was resigned rather than angry when the news broke. More than a few comments expressed the hope that Whedon would now return to Dr. Horrible. Without the funnies, and without the creation of family, Dollhouse was doomed. It didn't have enough zaniness or heart to make the genre tackiness tolerable. And few would give a damn that the show's cheap thrills were being used for a higher purpose. Well, I gave a damn. This stuff was important to me. I wanted to see Whedon's brain at work. That he was at his most dull while he was being smarter than ever is unfortunate, but Dollhouse is still an achievement, one of the most impressive in Whedon's career.

Favourite comicbook: Phonogram: The Singles Club

It was touch and go between that and Young Liars. On the latter, I recorded my amazement upon completing the first trade over here. The second managed to be even more mental and confusing (the third should be out shortly). Young Liars astonishes because absolutely fracking anything can happen. David Lapham is so sure of his craft that he can push his story wherever he wants. He can make it do backflips and pirouettes, and all the while keep you invested enough to keep going. It really is virtuoso comics. And, haha, cancelled.

Speaking of which, it's been difficult being a Phonogram fan this year. I had absolutely no clue when the next issue would come out. As far as I understand, a collapse in pre-orders meant there was no money to pay the artist, and so issues trickled out pretty randomly depending on how much Jamie McKelvie could squeeze in between jobs. Unsurprisingly, the series sold poorly, (even though the trade is expected to do well) which means further series are just not gonna happen. Which, if you like comics, is just no fun at all.

The distribution problem is probably the single most significant reason the series failed, although I have a few other suggestions. First, the references. Kieron Gillen kept insisting that you don't need to know the bands in order to appreciate what's going on. Phonogram is about music, not particular pieces of music. But the fact that he had to spell it out so often is suggestive. References can be inclusive or exclusive depending on whether you get them or not. There is a certain joy in recognising a reference, and a certain frustration when you don't. When Seth cracks a joke about Girls Aloud, it won't really work as well for people who don't know who Girls Aloud are. I'm an English indie kid, so the world of Phonogram was easily accessible to me. But I wonder what an American, or an Australian, or a Bulgarian would make of it.

Second, and more controversially, the theme. Phonogram uses a music=magic metaphor to explore, in Gillen's words, 'issues of philosophy' -- different reactions to / beliefs about / uses of pop music. This isn't something I have devoted much brain-time to, and I'm grateful to Phonogram for making me think about it. That said, I suspect those who would have thought about it, or who would be interested in it, would mostly be either music makers, music journalists, or assorted wannabies like myself. A small audience, in other words. Most people don't intellectualize when they listen to music. They just want to feel. They are not that bothered about deconstructing the process that makes them feel. You're welcome to call bullshit on that, btw. The point is primarily inspired by my own feelings, not extensive field research into other people's.

So wait. If I didn't particularly respond to Phonogram's theme, what the hell is the series doing at the top of the pile of comics I read this year? Well, the only way to explore people's subjective experience of music in funnybook form is to have characters subjectively experiencing music. The Singles Club is billed as seven individual experiences of a shared social event, the event in question being a shitty indie night in which only songs with female vox are played. And in this humdrum environment, the characters we meet are broken down and transformed. The magic of music is obviously part of the process. But another part, for me the more important part, is the way the characters interact with each other. People's subjective experience of music isn't that interesting. People's subjective experience of people is endlessly facinating.

Comics are particularly suited to documenting this kind of thing. You can freeze a moment, and study in detail the way a person stands, the expression on their face, what they say. And this is where you start to appreciate how much McKelvie brings to the table. His artwork is clean, sleek, and beautiful, like a shiny pop single. But he can also bring a character to life like nobody's business. Two frames of my favourite character, Laura Heaven, particularly stick out as I'm writing: one where she is standing nervously at the bar, spying on Penny and Mark, and the other where she is looking at Lloyd, with this strange mixture of longing and sadness in her eyes. Being able to draw that is pretty impressive. I think it's a sign of Gillen's trust in his artist that he is comfortable leaving his dialogue well-trimmed and suggestive, knowing that McKelvie will do the rest of the work.

To sum up. Phonogram does something I love: take little moments of existence and make them trancendent, beautiful, meaningful. And I'm in awe of the fact that these little moments are not experiences of inanimate objects -- the dancing plastic bag in American Beauty -- but happen between two people subtly reajusting themselves in response to each other. That's a pretty magical thing all on its own. And it makes Phonogram by far the most amazing comic book I have read this year.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous11.1.10

    I read parts of this and share your views on Dollhouse.

    Thanks for this =)