Favourite Songs of 2013 (Part 1)

First part of my annual rundown of favourite music listened to this year, along with some attempts at justification for it. Usual rules apply: individual songs are liable to be pushed up the list by the work of the artist as a whole. The top 15 will have to wait until the new year, when I find some time to write about it...

31. Kelela - Bank Head (Extended)

Kingdom's instrumental emerged in January on the uneven Night Slugs Allstars 2 compilation, where it was overshadowed by (previously released) tracks from Girl Unit, Lil Silva and Helix. It appeared again in May on his Vertical XL EP for sister label Fade to Mind, with a vocal by then unknown singer Kelela. It stood out then next to the skeletal grime it introduced. In October, an extended version forms the centre-piece of Kelela's first mixtape CUT 4 ME where she sings over productions from Bok Bok, Jam City and Nguzunguzu. And it still stands out, perfected by the addition of additional layers of vocals and the space for them to stretch out and soar.

30. Storm Queen - Look Right Through (Lil Silva Remix)

Lil Silva drapes all manner of reverberating percussive lines and exotic noises over the 4x4, and makes this hymn to loneliness a potent addition to any dancefloor. A shame that Kelela didn't pick out a couple of his riddims to sing over, really.

29. E.m.m.a - Dream Phone V.I.P.

Blue Gardens, a shimmering, aquatic take on grime and funky, soundtracked a lot of wet early morning commuter journeys on the tube. I found the album quite unassuming on first listen, but it wormed into my life so easily I almost didn't notice how much I've ended up listening to it. It works best as a whole, and I've struggled to pick out a single track to exemplify it. The ones with Rebel MC and Sully stand out because they are heavily stamped with the collaborator's identity, but E.m.m.a. herself is harder to pin down. I've settled on Dream Phone, where she pushes her synths to sound almost shrill and harsh: a carefully calibrated balance between pleasant and painful.

28. Dom & Roland - Unofficial Jah

I spent quite a bit of time this year buried within the shattering breakbeats of No U Turn's Torque and Metalheadz's Platinum Breakz compilations, as well as a ruthlessly filleted version of Goldie's two disc Timeless. Nothing quite brought that back to the present like Dom & Roland's remix of Goldie's Jah The Seventh Seal. Those scuttling drums running underneath that massive half-step stomp - quite something.

27. Mumdance & Logos - Drum Boss

Cold Mission has now replaced Blue Gardens on those wet commutes. Keysound Recordings, (who released both albums, a heap of great EPs as well as a very good compilation) ruled the post-dubstep label roost this year, and Logos is the sharpest weapon in their arsenal. This track with frequent collaborator Mumdance (which appeared on Tectonic as it happens), is probably his most destructive.

26. Kelly Rowland - Kisses Down Low

Ms. Rowland seized on Lil Wayne's promise to "turn that thang into a rainforest" for her comeback single: championing the joys of cunnilingus in the most full-throated way possible, replacing the sighs and moans of Motivation with a huge pop chorus and Mike WiLL's hazy synth-work. Gloriously silly.

25. Busta Rhymes feat. Nicki Minaj - #Twerk It (Remix)

Though not quite as silly as this. The hashtag is entirely appropriate, highlighting how brazenly the chorus is crowbared into the minimal bed of gloops Busta and Nicki rap over. The emphasis shouldn't be on 2013 most notorious dance craze, but two of New York's best MCs putting on their finest yardie accents.

24. Helix - Whoosh Ice Dispenser

Now that Ramadanman isn't delivering the goods anymore (that name change was ruinous) we'll have to rely on Helix, although the rest of his Club Constructions EP somewhat dampens our confidence. This is a blitzkrieg of percussion interspersed with blasts of static: almost as if the track is gasping for breath. You will be too.

23. Pev & Kowton - Raw Code

Peverelist, on the other hand, is nothing if not dependable. If anything, he's getting even better. Less frenetic than the Helix track, but it digs deeper (particularly that bass). The way the different elements overlap is nothing short of mesmerizing.

22. Kevin Gates - Just Ride

Mainly because of Curren$y on the second verse, so languid I wouldn't be surprised if he was horizontal when he recorded it. But touching as well: "I was five, pictures of Ferraris and Lamborghinis on my wall. Now if I wanna see one I just step in my garage" - which is pretty much the story of street rap condensed into two bars. Also that pleading chorus by Gates, ostensibly bored by talking about his wealth, but really asking for a short respite from all the work he has to put in to accumulate it.

21. Joanna Gruesome - Secret Surprise

Turns out I still miss those guitars. My Los Campesinos! fandom being effectively dead and buried, when I heard that these guys were also from Wales and use their band name as their surname, I thought I may have found a replacement. Stupid reasons to get interested, really. And Joanna Gruesome are a different proposition, their washed out vocals lacking that bite I was looking for. But this is the exception: a scream of "I dream of pulling out your teeth!" is joined by a big dumb thrashing riff and I'm five years younger again.

20. Droideka - Get Hyper

My favourite moronic EDM-flavoured drum and bass seemed to come out last year. This one's a bit different, the two-step rhythm of so much drum and bass accentuated with toasting by a garage MC: "now badboy, are you ready for the bass? My DJ yo get on the case". Que enjoyably squelchy mechanoid farting.

19. Threnody - Emergency

Big Dada's Grime 2.0 compilation was a rather odds and sods collection, and its highlight is actually the very last track, a six minute long ode to midnight dangers, all horror film glints and violent bass pulses between harrowing empty space.

18. Instra:Mental & dBridge - White Snares

The highlight on the Nonplus Think and Change compilation (depressingly it was the oldest track on there). A pretty arpeggiating melody line is suspended above warm bass and stop-start drums, while a male and female voice, faded and echoing, call to each other. It has the feel of winter about it, something to put on during a walk in the snow (if we had any).

17. Kowton - And What (Kahn Gyal-Dem Edit)

Simple really. Just throw a Brandy vocal over a Kowton beat and you have your future R&B piping hot and ready to devour. I liked Kelela's mixtape a lot, but this is twice as captivating as anything on there.

16. DJ Rashad - Rollin

While the jungle flirtation of Let It Go is diverting, Rashad's hip-hop indebted Rollin is the superior track for me, all because of the way he continuously finds new ways to wring torrents of emotion out of those two lines of chipmunk soul.


The Red Shoes

The Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale concerns a spoiled girl who puts shoes and parties above duty to family and God, and is punished by being forced to dance until she dies (the problem of Susan is the version I grew up with). The 1948 film is still about the expectations placed on women, but the religious abnegation is chucked out. Instead, the competing existential projects of a student composer and a ballet director nurture and then tear apart the existential project of a young ballerina. Vicky Price has to choose between being the supporting wife of the former or the star of the latter's show. At the end we learn that her husband is just as controlling and unyielding as the inhumanly ruthless director who we are encouraged to hate for most of the film. Being almost physically pulled apart by both male forces, she dies. The red shoes come to mean not frivolity or sexuality (Susan Pevensie's lipstick and boys), but the eternal, impossible dance between living for others and living for your own life-project.

The film is less successful at delving into the drives that power this creativity (and self-creation). When we meet Vicky, she already knows that life to her means dancing. Boris and Julian are the same. But art is not the same as craft, and we get precious little insight into what powers Julian's music or Boris's direction. It is suggested that Vicky serves as the muse for The Red Shoes - for both men, although Boris's denial of human nature suggests he isn't just looking to get into Vicky's pants (as he is when he reserves a table at a restaurant after her first performance) but that he's questing after some kind of platonic ideal of ballet. The Red Shoes itself is designed to mirror Vicky's conflict, but she's not aware of this when she is performing it. She only sees presentiments of her future. The ballet is an imperfect mirror anyway, the sequence doesn't quite reflect the film's plot.

It is amazing to look at. I've grown up with colour films and yet the Technicolor in The Red Shoes is still dazzling, as are the sets, costumes and make-up, which convey the full glamour of the theatre. The ballet itself quickly dispenses with stage and audience and uses the most up-to-date cinematic effects to not only add pizzazz but dive into the psyche of the dancer, haunted and egged on by the two men in her life, the only spectators that matter. It's a feast, though not a completely satisfying one.


In the Realm of the Senses

"The thing to recognize is that the adult industry's new respectability creates a paradox. The more acceptable in modern culture it becomes, the farther porn will have to go in order to preserve the sense of unacceptability that's so essential to its appeal. As should be evident, the industry's already gone pretty far; and with reenacted child abuse and barely disguised gang rapes now selling briskly, it is not hard to see where porn is eventually going to have to go in order to retain its edge of disrepute. Whether or not it ever actually gets there, it's clear that the real horizon late-'90s porn is heading toward is the Snuff Film." - David Foster Wallace, 'Big Red Son', Consider the Lobster and other Essays


The Holy Mountain

I enthused about El Topo because despite the freewheeling narrative, it did maintain a sense of urgency, and I did manage to glean some sort of meaning from the mish-mash of symbols it presented. In the first part of The Holy Mountain, Jodorowski loses both of those things. The film begins with a loose retelling of the gospel, where the hero is used to manufacture idols by an exploitative church. In an enjoyably sacrilegious parody of the Eucharist, he eats the face of Christ before tying him to a bunch of helium balloons and letting him ascend to the heavens.

All of this is done without dialogue and with frequent asides. The reenactment of La Conquista with lizards and frogs is particularly memorable, although it is disturbing mainly because the creatures are shoved into metal suits and and then blown up with explosives. Didn't check but I doubt a 'no animals were harmed during the making of this feature' notice appeared during the credits. In fact, there are a lot of animals throughout the film: crocodiles in the sewers, elephants with painted hides, a camel next to Jodorowski's throne when he appears as the Alchemist (making him look like one of the three Magi). I do wonder at how well these critters were treated during the shoot. In one scene, a herd of swans wander around the Alchemist's baths, and it looked to me like Jodo had them spray-painted black.*

What's more disturbing still is Jodo's willingness to objectify people. At the beginning of the film, the hero is trailed by a man with no legs or arms, who is later described by Jodo's character as a degenerate who needs to be cast aside. Jodo's throne room contains not only a camel but a naked, tattooed, silent black slave woman, and I'm not sure how much irony there is to be found in both these scenes. I say this because the gallery of grotesques the Alchemist shows the hero serve a satirical purpose (mass-produced art, the beauty industry, morally-neutered economics), and all of them are redeemed by his teachings. But is Jodo able to satirise himself?

The film ends by breaking the fourth wall, and the message is a good one: myths and fables that promise immortality (in life or after death) are false, but the film as a film inevitably leads to the "reality" after the film ends. So what is its value? Jodorowski is (characteristically) full of bullshit when he discusses the tarot in the DVD featurette, but he is clear that the cards are not able to tell the future. They only reveal who you are (emotionally, sexually, "spiritually"...) in the present. El Topo was like this as well: a heap of broken images we shore against our ruins, that read us as much as we read them. And the aim is for our sense of "reality" to be expanded or adjusted by meditating on these fragments. But is it, when so much of what Jodo shows us is itself objectified and removed from any sensation of the real?

*It's evident that Jodorowski had a lot more money to play with after El Topo won him patronage from the Beatles. The sets, props and costumes are magnificent, and the digital restoration does them full justice.


20 books for 2013

My annual account of the things I've read this year and liked. Slightly longer list than last year, in part because the 19th century novels have been set aside for things that are shorter and easier to digest on a commute to and from work. Recently, that has meant a bit more poetry than I would normally consume (that is: none). Also comics, interest in which has been reignited by participation in the Islington Comics Forum and its Barbican offshoot. Tip of the hat once again to the Chairman, a couple of entries were his recommendations.As usual, in an order only comprehensible to myself:

Isaiah Berlin - The Proper Study of Mankind
John Gray - The Two Faces of Liberalism
R.G. Collingwood - The Principles of Art
Phillip Blond - Red Tory: How Left and Right have Broken Britain
Germaine Greer - The Female Eunuch [link]
Kate Millett - Sexual Politics [link]
Simon Reynolds - Retromania [link]

Steph Swainston - The Modern World [link]
Henry Miller - Tropic of Cancer [link]
Marquis de Sade - Philosophy in the Boudoir
T.S. Eliot - The Waste Land and other poems / Four Quartets
Simon Armitage - Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Mike Carey / Peter Gross - The Unwritten (vols 6 & 7)
Alejandro Jodorowsky / Moebius - Madwoman of the Sacred Heart
Dave McKean - Cages [link]
Inio Asano - Solanin [link]
Bastien Vivès - A Taste Of Chlorine [link]
Garth Ennis / Jacen Burrows - Crossed [link]
Pierre Oscar Lévy / Frederik Peeters - Sandcastle [link]
Daniel Clowes - Ghost World [link]



Three quick bullets on the film highlighting some under-discussed things I found interesting. Most of the discourse has centred on its achievements as a roller-coaster popcorn b-movie. It is all of that, but there's plenty of thought under the surface as well that rewards thinking about.

  • The long takes in Children of Men often worked to distance you from the action because the impressive technical display was distracting. However, they are immersive in Gravity perhaps because the zero G setting requires so much suspension of disbelief. When things look this unreal anyway you can get away with being more auteurish without everything looking archly staged.
  • Also helps that the film operates only partly on a literal level, constantly moving to different visual compositions layering in various symbols: the womb of technology, spaceship as coffin and as burning longboat, the birth of Venus as life crawling out of the primordial waters. Reminds me of the roving camera in Pan's Labyrinth, also a very symbolically rich film, which almost sings you into the land of dreams.
  • Only two characters, but I wonder if there is some gendering going on. Clooney the (sexually-) adventurous fate-mastering man and Bullock the family-fixated fate-bound woman, until she accepts Clooney as her spirit guide, anyway. The film avoids making her too hysterical, thankfully

Thanks are due to the recently retired Chairman of the Islington Comic Forum for his tireless attempts to get me to see the film, as I had initially dismissed it as mindless spectacle and went to see Thor 2 and Catching Fire instead.


The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

What impressed me about the first film was its ambiguous ending. In order to triumph over the brute survivalist-capitalist gladiatorial contest, Katniss and Peeta have to utilise an alienating narrative of love forced onto them by the media hurricane around the Games. You are never free from the symbols you enact. Victory over one narrative involves enlisting another, which can be just as exploitative.

I'm happy to report that Catching Fire continues to play with these ideas, but here the dilemmas and compromises are foisted onto the "good guys" trying to fight the autocratic regime. The film, while long, wraps up unexpectedly quickly, and the details of the plot (in both senses of the word) are not fully explained. Nonetheless, it's clear enough that Katniss has been betrayed by her own side. The film begins with her at home and hunting, beyond the reach of the law and as free as she is ever likely to be. She tells Gale that she doesn't want to represent anything, she just wants to run away. That option is blocked first by the dictator himself, and then by the resistance, who both conspire to return Katniss to the Hunger Games and vie in their efforts to make her a symbol again.

The manipulation of Katniss's "image" is now beyond her control. She is the plaything of unknown conspiratorial factions embodied in Donald Sutherland's President Snow and Philip Seymour Hoffman's duplicitous Gamemaster, and they are interested only in power, not in her. The people they co-opt or coerce (Hamish, Cinna, the other Victors, Katniss herself) are pawns in a political game made literal. Johanna and Peeta are the victims in this film, and Katniss reaction to their treatment as means rather than ends in themselves is one of horror. I (still!) haven't read the books, but fully expect the sequels to continue to explore Sutherland and Hoffman's rivalry, and not shy away from the moral ambiguities that have defined the first two films in the series.


Ghost in the Shell

The anime, which I've loved for a long time, is taut but very dense, and it's difficult to appreciate all its details just in one sitting. That said, its basic theme is easy enough to glean from the title, a riff on the idea of the ghost in the machine, the inner enlivening spirit which separates man from the rest of the mechanical universe. When our cyborg hero, Major Kusanagi, is confronted by an A.I. (the "Puppet Master") who declares itself to be a sentient, rights-bearing life-form, she starts to wonder whether she is any different for having a few brain cells remaining in her cortex. She asks Batou whether she is human simply because of the way she is treated: a social convention that the Puppet Master will undermine.

The manga, which I've read only recently, includes a notes section at the back where the author not only gives background, but explains the ground, since the plotting is even more tangled and inscrutable than in the film. Masamune Shirow is a very frustrating guide to his own creation, coming across as an excitable autodidact who mashes and remixes a heap of memes, but who's ability to synthesise and explain his arguments has gone AWOL. Part of the problem may be that he lives in his world so deeply that he assumes the reader already understands most of it. The notes are fascinating nonetheless, particularly when they leave behind all the talk of "ordinance and equipment" and start to cover the concept of ghosts and the influence of religion on his work:
"I think all things in nature have "ghosts". This is a form of pantheism, and similar to ideas found in Shinto or among believers in the Manitou. Because of the complexity and function, and the physical constraints they have when they appear as a physical phenomenon, it may be impossible to scientifically prove this. There are, after all, humans who act more like robots than robots, and no one can say for certain that they have no ghosts just because they don't act like it. In ancient times, neither air nor the universe were believed to exist."
I've included wikipedia links in the above, and only a brief scan will confirm that these are vastly different traditions Shirow is referencing here. What's clear is that he believes in a kind of cosmic ordering in which spirits can influence our lives. This carries over into the anime: the Major sometimes hears "whispers" in her ghost, a preternatural intuition that tells her which car to tail, for example. All humans have a "ghost line", a baseline piece of information or energy you can "dive" into (read) or hack (write), which separates them from other pieces of software.

The thing about pantheism is that when you push it out enough it starts to look like atheism. Shirow's manga is suffused with his idiosyncratic musings on the way technology and the world of the spirit intermingle, but his inclusion of the idea of a machine that can generate its own ghost introduces a destabalising element to the cosmic order: where do you find Cartesian dualism if everything has its very own ghost, including our computers? Do we not then jettison the spirit world altogether for the sake of simplicity? Shirow is too wedded to his systems and phases to accept this, and he continues to believe in channelers and psychics. The anime, however, is more ambiguous, which is partly why it is one of the rare cases where an adaptation improves on the original.

The actual title of the manga translates as Mobile Armored Riot Police, and the philosophical stuff is definitely a side-order to the main course of running, jumping, shooting and intrigue. The anime chooses the subtitle of the manga as its title, and flips the focus onto the existential crisis of its hero. Its pacing is deliberately slow-fast: kinetic pieces of action are followed by languorous sequences where the Major dreams of her robotic rebirth and then relives that dream by floating on the ocean. The Puppet Master chooses her as his mate because they are alike. "He" is a program used for corporate espionage trying to escape his masters. She is an assassin who's body and soul is owned by the corporation that made it (one that dictates she has to be naked in order for her invisibility to function). In the middle of the film there is an at-first bewilderingly long set-piece where she wanders New Port City, soundtracked by a Japanese choir (borrowing the harrowing vocal tones of Bulgarian folk music). The metropolitan anomie is given a cybernetic gloss as the sequence ends on a shot of shop window mannequins. Kusanagi dreams of a new life beyond the borders of this one, just as the Puppet Master desires a life beyond the networks he traverses.

At the beginning of the film, Kusanagi explains the dangers of specialisation to a new recruit, saying that unpredictability and adaptation are necessary to make the unit stronger. The Puppet Master uses the same arguments at the end to convince Kusanagi into a sexual (in the biological sense) union. Rather than living forever and reproducing endless copies of himself, he desires a dynamic system where death and difference is the norm. The film overlays this fusion with sexual, violent and religious imagery. Sex inevitably entails death, as it is the activity that allows for our replacement. Just before the union is complete, Kusanagi witnesses an angel descending over her, blessing the new bond. The sense is that they have both transitioned into a higher order system, that much closer to the gods. But it is just as easy to read this as the machine not only generating its own ghost, but a sense of the numinous humans have evolved with.

That final showdown between the Major and the tank is not set to a thumping techno soundtrack. Instead, it speeds up the juxtaposition of kinetic and meditative scenes running through the film, and overlays it with mellow flute washes evoking the immemorial past. It is a samurai duel in the 21st century, set against the backdrop of a phylogenetic tree of life, shot to pieces by modern machinery. The symbolic richness on display is characteristic of the film, in which every element – the voice in the lake, the three different cases (which are three different chapters in the manga) – is weaved together in ways only multiple viewings can unravel. That mixture of depth and directness is what makes it a great film.