Friday, December 31, 2010

Reading list 2010

Holy crap, I've read a lot of books this year. Forty-four, to be precise, which is a not too insignificant number more than 2007 (34) and 2008 (33), and quite frankly annihilates last year's pitiful 27. Admittedly, looking back over this list there are a fair number of graphic novels, but in my defence some of them were really thick; Luba (number 17 on the list), for example, was over 600 pages thick and kept cutting off the flow of blood to my lower extremities when I read it in bed.

Anyway, let's press on. As usual, I've donned my best stereotypical English Lit teacher tweed jacket (note the leather elbow pads - nice, I think you'll agree), and I'll be grading each book (A+ EXCELLENT, C or below, AVOID). Links to each title will, where possible, take you through to the appropriate Amazon page where you can purchase your own copy and impress all your friends with your startling literary taste. While I'd normally urge you to buy your books in an actual bookshop, I know you interweb kids are all about instant gratification so these links are purely for your convenience. I am, however, urging you to buy your books in an actual bookshop, despite the fact that I failed spectacularly in my 2010 New Year's Resolutions to do just that. Next year, Scout's honour, really.

Moving swiftly on…

I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell by Tucker Max - True life stories of the author's ongoing debauchery. Tucker Max is a reprehensible human being, but he's also funny as hell and devilishly likeable: B+
02. All and Sundry by Paul Hornschemeier - Wonderful collection of previously uncollected sketches and short stories from one of my favourite graphic novelists: A
03. The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks - Comprehensive manual on how to survive an undead uprising: B+
04. Box Office Poison by Alex Robinson - Huge collected edition of the BOP comic book showcasing the lives of a group of friends living in 90s New York: A
05. The Troublemakers by Gilbert Hernandez - The second book in Hernandez's 'Fritz B-Movies' series sees a group of con artists trying to get their hands on $200k, whatever the cost may be: A
06. Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin - Exceptional tale of a down-on-his-luck kid who steals an aging racehorse and begins a trek across the U.S. to find his aunt. A brutally wonderful, ultimately uplifting read: A+
07. Love Buzz by Len Wallace - Bittersweet graphic novel telling the story of a guy and a girl who fall in and out of love with each other over a period spanning high school to their early twenties: A
08. Welcome to Oakland - A follow-up to one of my favourite books, East Bay Grease, that picks up on the life of T-Bird Murphy as an adult. It's a good, solid, often grim read, but after a 10 year gap I didn't feel like I connected with the character of T-Bird as I had in the earlier book: B+
09. The Complete Peanuts 1973-1974 by Charles Schulz - Another cracking collection of Peanuts strips; this one features the brilliant 'Mr Sack' storyline. Loved it: A
10. Star Trek: Spock Reflections by Scott and David Tipton; art by David Messina and Federica Manfredi - Engaging if somewhat slight tale recounting defining moments from Spock's life as he goes about a mission of a most personal nature in the aftermath of the events of the film Star Trek Generations: B+
11. The Wild Things by Dave Eggers - Enjoyable novel based on Maurice Sendak's classic children's book and Spike Jonze's Where The Wild Things Are movie that is sufficiently different to the other versions of the tale to make it a worthwhile read: B+
12. Star Trek: Nero by Mike Johnson and Tim Jones; art by David Messina - Brilliantly told story of what the villain of the latest Star Trek movie did between attacking the U.S.S. Kelvin and destroying the planet Vulcan. Great stuff: A
13. Love and Rockets: New Stories #2 by Los Bros Hernandez - The second instalment in Love and Rockets' new annual format is as enjoyable as all Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez's previous work … but the year-long gap between books is almost too much to bear! As always: A
14. Love and Rockets: Penny Century by Jaime Hernandez - The eighth volume in Fantagraphics Books' series of compact editions collecting older stories from Los Bros Hernandez focuses on old favourites Maggie and Hopey and their friend Penny Century, who harbours an ongoing desire to be a superhero. Goes without saying: A
15. Locas II by Jaime Hernandez - The second epic, paving slab-sized hardcover collection of Jaime Hernandez's Maggie and Hopey stories. Magnificent: A+
16. The Call of the Weird by Louis Theroux - Fascinating tales of Theroux's attempts to reconnect with the subjects of his earlier documentaries and discover how their lives have changed: B+
17. Luba by Gilbert Hernandez - Massive collection of over 100 post-Palomar stories featuring Luba and her family and friends. Utterly absorbing: A+
18. The High Soft Lisp by Gilbert Hernandez - More stories from 'Beto,' this time focusing on the life and loves of Luba's sister, Rosalba 'Fritz' Martinez: A
19. Scott Pilgram's Precious Little Life by Bryan Lee O'Malley - First volume in the acclaimed Scott Pilgrim series sees Scott hooking up with Ramona Flowers and fighting the first of her evil ex-boyfriends. Really good fun: A+
20. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World by Bryan Lee O'Malley - Scott faces off against the second of Ramona's evil ex-boyfriends in volume 2 of O'Malley's six-part series: A+
21. Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness by Bryan Lee O'Malley - Scott fights Ramona's third evil ex-boyfriend Todd, who is a Vegan with telekinetic powers. Compared to previous volumes this one dragged juuuuuust a tiny bit in places; still awesome though: A-
22. Scott Pilgrim Gets it Together by Bryan Lee O'Malley - The fourth volume sees Scott battling the fourth of Ramona's evil exes, Roxie (a girl - Ramona had a "sexy phase"): A
23. Scott Pilgrim Vs the Universe by Bryan Lee O'Malley - Volume five pits Scott against twin brothers Kyle and Ken Katayanagi and their robots, while his relationship with Ramona takes an unexpected turn: A+
24. The Art of Jaime Hernandez: The Secrets of Life and Death by Todd Hignite - A fascinating look at the art and influence of one half of Los Bros Hernandez. I felt the text was a little slight in places, but glimpses into Jaime's sketchbooks and unpublished works more than made up for it: A-
25. Zeitoun by Dave Eggers - The true story of a man who chooses to remain in new Orleans as hurricane katrina strikes - and the unbelievable events that unfolded in the days that followed. If this were a work of fiction it would be dismissed as outlandish; that these events actually took place is nothing short of scary. Makes you want to scream in frustration at the injustices that occurred: A
26. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Other Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald - I love the title story, but - and I know this is probably sacrilegious - I found the other stories in this collection a bit … well, dull: B-
27. Eat When You Feel Sad by Zachary German - Sparsely written yet nevertheless enthralling novella following the day-to-day life of a guy named Robert. I really rather enjoyed this: A
28. Winnie the Pooh by A.A Milne - my first ebook - or iBook in Apple parlance - is the classic tale of the bear with little brain. Utterly charming: A
29. Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour by Bryan Lee O'Malley - The sixth and final installment in the Scott Pilgrim series sees the titular hero face off against the last of Ramona's evil ex-boyfriends. Brilliantly written, wonderfully illustrated, and a fitting conclusion to the series: A+
30. Youth in Revolt by C.D. Payne - The hilarious journal of troubled teen Nick Twisp, whose life becomes increasingly more complicated after he falls in love with the girl of his dreams. Skip the disappointing movie version and read this - undoubtedly one of the funniest books I've ever read: A+
31. Revolting Youth by C.D. Payne - Picking straight up after the events of the previous book, Volume 4 of Youth in Revolt (the previous book contained volumes 1-3) charts Nick Twisp's increasingly more complex efforts to win the affections of his love by, among other things, undergoing extreme plastic surgery and adopting a new identity: A+
32. Young and Revolting by C.D. Payne - Volume 5 of the Youth in Revolt series sees Nick - or rather Rick as he's now known - and his new bride Sheeni getting into more trouble after moving to Paris. While this volume isn't quite up to the lofty standards of its predecessors, it's still an enjoyable and witty romp: A-
33. Revoltingly Young by C.D. Payne - The final Youth in Revolt novel sees Nick replaced as the narrator by his younger brother Noel, who attempts to discover exactly what happened to Nick and Sheeni in France years earlier. While I missed Nick's voice in this book, it did serve as a brilliant and fitting conclusion to a wonderful series: A
34. X'ed Out by Charles Burns - Curious tale of a young man who follows his dead cat through a hole in his bedroom wall only to find a mysterious other world. This book has all the usual wonderful hallmarks of Burns, but suffers from ending on a cliffhanger and the knowledge that I'll have to wait well over a year before the second book brings any resolution. Going on Burns' previous form I think I'll probably rate it higher when the story is complete, but for now: B
35. Love and Rockets: New Stories #3 by Los Bros Hernandez - Latest volume in the L&R annual format and, I think, the best so far; it's worth the asking price alone for Jaime's Browntown story which is brutal, heartbreaking, and utterly brilliant: A+
36. Fade In by Michael Piller - Sneakily-obtained unpublished book (why it was never published I don't know) by former Star Trek writer-producer Michael Piller detailing his experiences writing the ninth Star Trek movie, from initial story concepts to the release of the final film. A fascinatingly honest, and often humourous glimpse into the development of a big-budget motion picture from a supremely talented and sadly missed writer: A
(obviously no link for this because it was never published, but if you Google it I'm sure some enterprising individual has it available on the interwebs somewhere)
The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures by Dave Stevens - Wonderful collection of the comic book stories on which the 1991 movie was based. Thoroughly enjoyable, and a great shame that Stevens is no longer around to tell more tales of his jet-powered hero: A
38. The Madonnas of Echo Park by Brando Skyhorse - Wonderful collection of inter-connected short stories that explores how the murder of a three year-old girl impacts on the lives of several seemingly unrelated characters. Absolutely brilliant (and rewards being read quickly so you can keep track of all the characters): A
39. BOP! (More Box Office Poison) by Alex Robinson - Enjoyable collection of short stories that weren't included in the gigantic Box Office Poison collected edition: B+
40. Star Trek: The Official Motion Picture Adaptation by Tim Jones and Mike Johnson; art by David Messina - Faithful and enjoyable, although curiously late, comic book adaptation of the 2009 JJ Abrams Star Trek movie: B+
41. Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan - An exhilarating tale revealing how two teenagers meet and fall in love over the course of one night in New York. Vastly different to the movie it inspired, but every bit as enjoyable. It's a quick read - I ploughed through it in one sitting - but a memorable and surprisingly inspiring one: A
42. Wilson by Daniel Clowes - The first original graphic novel from the acclaimed writer/artist of Ghostworld follows the life of a curmudgeonly fellow using the unique format of short, self-contained comic strips on individual pages - a surprisingly effective way of dipping into key events in the titular character's life: A
43. Invincible: The Ultimate Collection Vol. 4 by Robert Kirkman; art by Ryan Ottley - It's been almost three years since I read the third volume of this immensely enjoyable superhero series, but it remains every bit as enjoyable as I remember it being (even if I did have to Google some of the characters to help pick-up story threads I'd forgotten): A
44. Invincible: The Ultimate Collection Vol. 5 by Robert Kirkman; art by Ryan Ottley - More of the above; I'd pretty much say this is the best superhero title around these days: A

There you go then - 44 books, and nothing that received a grade below a B-. I'm either really easily pleased, or I've had amazing taste in books this year. Either way, you should definitely take note of my recommendations and pick up at least a couple of these titles. Go on, I dare you.

Right. That's yer lot for this year. Have a very happy, healthy, and wonderful New Year! *doffs cap, exits stage left*

Thursday, December 30, 2010

2010: The year in reviews

Oh look, it's December 30th, which means that seeing as I'm a creature of habit it must be time for my annual Year in Reviews post! Seriously, you can read me like a book. It's pretty tragic really. Anyway, let's press on, shall we?

OK, let me preface this by saying choosing my top three books of the year this year was a bit of a nightmare, not least because I read some startlingly good ones, but because, as you'll see when I post my 2010 reading list tomorrow, I read a mind-boggling number of the things. Anyway, after a fair bit of sighing and rubbing my face in exasperation, I settled on these:

03 The Madonnas of Echo Park by Brando Skyhorse
Short stories seem to get a bit of a raw deal these days (I'm looking at you, publishers who say the public don't read them), which is a bit of a shame because when they're done right, a short story can, I think, deliver more of an impact than a full length novel for the simple reason that it's so short and precise, a bit like a punch to the gut. A couple of years back I named Knockemstiff, a collection of loosely connected short stories by Donald Ray Pollock, as my favourite book of the year, and The Madonnas of Echo Park follows a similar conceptual path. In this instance, the stories that comprise this book are based around a number of people in L.A.'s Mexican community whose lives are connected to, and affected by, the shooting of a three year-old girl while she was dancing to the Madonna song 'Borderline' on a street corner. It's a bit like the movie Crash, but less Hollywood. In fact, the greatest compliment I can give to this book is that it reads a lot like a prose version of Los Bros Hernandez's Love and Rockets comic book. It's that good. And the author has an amazing name.

02. Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin
The third novel by the frontman of the band Richmond Fontaine didn't initially appeal to me when I first read it's premise, being set, as it is, in the world of horse racing - a passion of the author. I'm not a fan of the sport, but I needn't have worried; Vlautin's story doesn't actually focus on that world, and instead uses it as a launchpad to tell an utterly heartbreaking tale of a young boy's attempt to find his aunt - the only family he has left - after stealing an ageing racehorse. It's basically a road trip story - one that is at times dark, but filled with a sense of hope. I can't praise Vlautin's sparse, poetic writing style and unique voice enough, and the ending very nearly had me in tears. Utterly beautiful, and highly recommended.

01. Youth in Revolt by C.D. Payne
For years I've told people that my favourite book was A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. It's a masterful comic novel filled with memorable characters, not least the central figure of the story, Ignatius J. Reilly. Ask me now, though, and I might just say that my favourite book is Youth in Revolt. I first became aware of Youth in Revolt when I saw the trailer for the movie version. To be honest, I wasn't terribly sold on it, and didn't bother seeing it. A few months later I found out that it was adapted from a book - a book that scored incredibly highly in Amazon's reader reviews - so I spontaneously decided to give it a whirl. After about 30 pages I'd already decided to order the sequels off Amazon, committing myself to well over 1000 pages of reading. Put simply, Youth in Revolt is quite possibly the funniest book I've ever read, as it tells the tale, via journal entries, of how 14 year-old Nick Twisp seeks to win the heart of his beloved Sheeni Saunders. In Nick, C.D. Payne has created one of the most memorable and outlandish anti-heroes I've ever had the privilege to read about. Nick's voice is so unique and well-defined, his mastery of the English language so unlike that of any other teenager but so utterly brilliant that I found myself stealing lines and using them in everyday conversation. And the situations in which he finds himself are so outlandish, so brilliantly conceived, that I literally became so involved in the storyline that I found myself wanting to shout at Nick to warn him of the pitfalls ahead, because there were plenty of them; I loved how, for example, one of his journal entries might end with something like 'things are definitely looking up for me!' and the next would inevitably begin with something like 'UNMITIGATED DISASTER!' It's just a wonderfully written, laugh out loud book, and I loved every page of it.

(Honourable mentions go to the Youth in Revolt sequels, Revolting Youth, Young and Revolting, and Revoltingly Young, which, while not quite as memorable as the first book in the series continue Nick's story in that inimitable Twispian style; Love and Rockets: New Stories Volume 3 simply for Jaime Hernandez's amazing, funny, and ultimately heart wrenching story 'Browntown'; the Scott Pilgrim graphic novels which I loved; and Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist which I found to be an exhilarating tale of love, lust, spontaneity, and what it means to be young)

I'll be honest with you: I thought it was remarkably slim pickings at the cinema this year, although I think we can put some of that down to my changing tastes; I really am finding myself going off the vacuous summer blockbusters, and that's something I never thought I'd write.

03. Inception
Expanding a bit on what I just wrote above, I find myself increasingly dissatisfied with Hollywood's summer output. In an age where CGI can bring anything and everything you imagine to life, it seems that the studios have, for the most part, rejected decent plots and good characterisation in favour of spectacular visuals, amazing set pieces, and more bangs for your buck. Thank god, then, for Christopher Nolan, who showed that you can do a summer blockbuster filled with spectacular visuals, amazing set pieces, and plenty of bangs for your buck while also having a complex plot and some decent characters. Of all the films I saw this year, Inception is the one that really made me THINK while I watched it, and that's something to be applauded. It's also a film that I think will reward subsequent viewings, and I can't wait to see it again.

02. Monsters
The complete antithesis of a big-budget Hollywood film, Monsters was filmed for something like a six figure sum, and is proof if it were needed that art thrives on restrictions. On the surface it's a film about gigantic alien life forms inhabiting a vast part of Mexico, but to label it a movie simply about aliens would be a disservice to this wonderful little film, because the monsters are little more than a background element to a story about two people growing close as they traverse the restricted zone in an attempt to get back to America. It's a beautifully shot, understated tale that remained with me long after I left the cinema.

01. Scott Pilgrim Vs The World
I noted in the honourable mentions for books that I loved the Scott Pilgrim graphic novels, and evidently I'm not the only one because director Edgar Wright transformed them into a brilliant, heartwarming, and visually-stunning movie. At its core, Scott Pilgrim Vs The World is essentially a story of boy meets girl, but the twist here is that to win the heart of the beautiful Ramona, Scott has to do battle with her seven evil exes. It was a great concept in the books, and it works well onscreen, helped by the fact that it's perfectly cast; I'm not really a big Michael Cera fan, but he keeps popping up in movies I really like, and the guy is beginning to win me over. Particular kudos also to Keiran Culkin as Scott's gay roommate Wallace Wells, who works wonders with such a small role and pretty much steals every scene he's in. Combine all that with a witty script and a great soundtrack, and Scott Pilgrim Vs The World is a pretty terrific little film.

(Honourable mentions go to Tony Scott's Unstoppable which although it was incorrectly titled - the train is, after all, obviously stoppable - proved to be a gripping thriller enhanced by brilliant performances from Denzel Washington and Chris Pine; Kick-Ass which I enjoyed greatly up until it turned into a superhero film-by-numbers in the second half; The Social Network which told the story of Facebook's birth but suffered slightly by being a chapter in a story that is still ongoing in real life; Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist which I discovered on DVD and completely fell in love with; and Youth in Revolt, which brutally truncated the book's story, but was saved by Michael Cera’s performance as Nick. See - two more Cera films there. WTF!? Also, it was a lovely to see Back to the Future on the big screen once again - a fantastic, timeless film that knocks many of today’s movies into a cocked hat - and while I only saw it yesterday, I enjoyed the hell out of Tron Legacy, even if I didn’t have a damn clue what the hell was going on most of the time. Ooo - neon!)

TV Shows!
Another category where I felt it was slim pickings this year; as a result, and as you'll see, with one exception I've fallen back on two old favourites.

03. Supernatural
God, I enjoy the hell out of this show. It's perfectly cast, utterly enjoyable, and even after five years and multiple long-running story arcs, totally accessible for new viewers. The fifth season, which I blitzed over the course of a week on DVD, put the Winchester boys in the line of sight of Satan himself as the apocalypse was finally unleashed on the world, and while I wouldn't say it was my favourite year of the show, it was still great fun. What I love about Supernatural is the ease with which it can go from serious, end of the world stories (‘The End’) to laugh out loud funny (‘Changing Channels’) all while remaining true to the over-arcing plot, consistent with its established universe, and without ever feeling forced; it's a trick few series can accomplish. Supernatural is a wicked little show, and long may it continue.

02. Blue Mountain State
This was an unexpected little gem: a series I bought off iTunes with little knowledge about what its premise was other than it dealt with an American university football team, and it was supposed to be funny. And it was. Very. The whole American football thing actually plays little part in the series, and instead it dwells mostly on the team's frat-house partying, of which there is much; think Animal House/Van Wilder and you wouldn't be far wrong. It works well as a half-hour comedy, with wonderful performances from Darin Brooks as the likeable Alex Moran whose only reason to be on the team is to get drunk and hook-up with as many girls as he can, and Alan Ritchson (Aquaman on Smallville, if you’re interested) as the somewhat ridiculous jock Thad Castle who captains the team. The 13 episodes that made up Blue Mountain State's first season went by too quickly, and I can't wait for the second.

01. Smallville
Yes, I know I named it my number one show in 2009, but Smallville returned to win me over with it's ninth season again this year. While I wouldn't rate this season as highly as the eighth (seriously, over a year after I watched season eight's Doomsday storyline I'm still raving about it), Smallville once again fashioned a riveting 22 episode story arc dealing with the arrival of the Kandorians - cloned versions of Kryptonian soldiers led by a young Major Zod. The season also saw Chloe take on a new role as Watchtower, overseeing the actions of the show's ever-expanding lineup of heroes, a feature-length episode that introduced classic characters from the Justice Society, and, of course, Clark's continuing growth and acceptance of his role as, Earth's greatest champion. Lord knows how they managed to fit all that coherently into one season, but they did - and it was brilliant. I'm constantly amazed that Smallville has managed to remain so consistently entertaining after so long, but it has. The question now is: can the 10th and final season maintain this incredible momentum while also wrapping up the show's many dangling storylines...?

(Honourable mentions go to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which I continue to love even as Danny DeVito’s performance as Frank gets increasingly more vile by the episode; Family Guy, which still makes me giggle like a speshul; One Tree Hill, which I was close to abandoning after a dire first half of the season, but which then picked up dramatically, concluding with one of the most joyous and shocking season finales I've seen in a long time; and, I'm pleased to report, Doctor Who, which began its fifth season with a new head writer (Steven Moffat) and a charming and charismatic new doctor in the form of Matt Smith, and wisely dropped the over the top performances and reliance on pointless running everywhere that had come to characterise previous seasons; ‘The Time of Angels’ was without doubt one of the best things I watched on telly all year.)

Despite having listened to a fair bit of really good music this year, picking my top three albums was a relatively easy task. Thank god, because I don’t think I could cope with having to deal with another category like books again.

03. Avi Buffalo by Avi Buffalo
I can’t remember how I came across this band - I think it was either a free single of the week on iTunes or I heard them on 6Music - but I was pretty quickly won over. Amazingly, Avi Buffalo is made up of a bunch of talented folk the oldest of whom is just 21, but you wouldn’t know that by listening to this sublime little album; it’s a dreamy, wistful, ageless collection of remarkable and beautiful songs (even if some of them have titles such as ‘Five Little Sluts’ and ‘Summer Cum’) that would make the perfect soundtrack to a hot lazy summer. This lot are pretty high up on my list of bands I want to see live in 2011.

02. The Age of Adz by Sufjan Stevens
As I mentioned in my Mix CD post, Sufjan Stevens’ latest album marked a somewhat startling change of direction for an artist previously best know for quiet acoustic offerings. Gone were the banjos and pianos of previous albums, replaced by drum beats and synthesizers; only Sufjan’s unique voice remained to provide a link to what had come before. What made the transformation even more surprising was that just a month or so before The Age of Adz hit shelves, Sufjan released an EP (although it was the length of an album) that WAS traditional Sufjan. In hindsight, you could say that it felt like he was saying something along the lines of “this is what you expect of me - and it will cushion the blow when the new album drops.” I don’t know if that was his intention, but it sure felt like it, especially as the first track on The Age of Adz, ‘Futile Devices,’ segues from the old-skool Sufjan sound to the new over the course of its 2:11 runtime. And from there on, The Age of Adz is just brilliantly mad, psychedelically bonkers and completely brilliant; ‘Too Much’ and ‘I Walked’ are classics in the making, while the title track is a dark and ominous epic that ends with an uplifting sense of hope - like the musical equivalent of driving through the heart of a fierce storm and emerging unscathed on the other side. There’s not a duff track here, which is something I don’t usually say about albums that feature a 25 minute-long finale.

01. Of the Blue Color of the Sky by OK Go
So the story here is that when OK Go first burst onto the scene I was a big fan, but then I slowly, not so much fell out of love with them as just … stopped paying attention. Yeah, I still sat up and watched when they released a new video, because who the hell didn’t after the treadmill one, but they didn’t really register terribly highly on my radar as the years passed. I subsequently ignored the release of their third album, Of the Blue Color of the Sky, not least because, well, I wasn’t paying too much attention, but because when I did bother to look at the Amazon listing, there were some pretty scathing reviews citing a change in musical direction. Big mistake, because when I did finally get the album after randomly ordering a USB stick from their website that contained two entire live gigs, a handful of videos, and Of the Color of the Sky all for just 15 quid or so, I discovered that OK Go’s latest effort was nothing less than an astonishingly awesome album. Admittedly, it did take me a couple of listens to really ‘get it,’ but I was rewarded with an album packed with joyous songs such as ‘This too Shall Pass,’ ‘All is Not Lost,’ and ‘Needing/Getting,’ and that's before we even get to the amazing ‘White Knuckles.’ Seriously, if any of those tunes come on the stereo while I’m driving you better hope to hell you’re not a passenger because I will sing along VERY LOUDLY. And as if it couldn’t get any more awesome, the band have released a new ‘Extra Nice Edition’ packed with demos and alternative versions; I’m totally going to get my grubby little mits on that, and I highly recommend you do too.

On a side note, one thing I discovered from the live gigs on the USB stick is that OK Go are an incredibly engaging band live; the between song banter at those gigs was just HILARIOUS, and I hope I get the opportunity to witness it firsthand if they tour the UK next year.

(Honourable mentions go to Flight of the Conchords who I saw up close - like, literally five rows from the stage close - in concert and were fantastic, Freelance Whales whose Weathervanes album was a lovely treat, David Bowie’s A Reality Tour which beautifully showcased a concert from the Thin White Duke’s last world tour, Screen Archives Entertainment’s wonderful expanded edition of James Horner’s score for Star Trek III, and The Californian, whose Sea of Love EP contained four utterly perfect songs that bode well for the group’s forthcoming full-length album)

Other Stuff!
Let’s see … well, joining Twitter for one. On the advice of the lovely Marsha and Lee, I finally caved and decided to give it a whirl - and since then I’ve been nothing less than addicted. I love the instantaneous nature of it, and how witty and creative people can be in just 140 characters, and even now, almost a year after joining, I still get excited by people tweeting and retweeting me. Bikram yoga continued to be a big part of my life this year, resulting in me throwing myself into a 30 day challenge, which quite frankly seemed like a crazy thing to do, but ended up being one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in a long time; plus it made me feel great and I dropped a belt-hole after just two weeks - RESULT. Other than that, buying an iPad proved an undisputed win; I had no idea what I was really going to use it for before it actually arrived, but since then it’s become a vital part of my life and has led to less hours spent sitting in front of my desktop computer (the bulk of this post was written on my iPad in Starbucks in Uxbridge, in fact). I think the writer India Knight, who I follow on Twitter, summed it up best when she said something along the lines of “computer: work, phone: convenience, iPad: JOY.” She ain’t wrong.

And the losers…
A couple of notable cinematic fails: Iron Man 2 was a noisy and charmless follow-up to one of the best superhero films of recent years, while I appear to be the only person on the planet that thought Avatar was a load of old toss; the characters were caricatures, and the aspect of it I was most interested in - Sam Worthington’s integration into the Na’vi culture a la Dances With Wolves - was glossed over in favour of a series of difficult to follow, although admittedly spectacular fight sequences. Coming from the man who brought us such stellar action films as Aliens, Terminator 2, and The Abyss, this felt, to me at least, like it was James Cameron’s Phantom Menace. While not a fail as such, I was also a smidgeon disappointed with Toy Story 3; yes it was an enjoyable movie, but after such a long gap between this and Toy Story 2 I just didn’t really feel like I really needed to revisit these characters. While we’re at it, 3D films in general? Jesus, give it a rest Hollywood; once I’ve seen one random object hurled out of the screen at me, I’ve pretty much seen them all. Please divert the money into actually paying some decent writers next year, yes? What else? Oh, yes, I kind of let running slide a bit in the wake of my 30 day yoga challenge; to be honest I felt like I’d lost my enthusiasm for it a bit and was forcing myself to do it, so it made sense to take a break and yoga suitably filled that gap. I’ll get back to it in the new year, I’m sure.

And with that, I think I’m about done for another year. Current swoon Erica Durance (Lois in Smallville, as IF you didn’t know) is handing out prizes to the winners, hopefully while wearing this little star-spangled number, while Lady Gaga is out the back fashioning something out of rancid meat for the losers. YUM!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Santa, baby

If this isn't the face of festive fun, I don't know what is.

And if that's not £1.99 well spent in Pound Crazy in Shepherds Bush, I don't know what is. What a sec - £1.99 in a pound shop? What's that all about?!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Temporary Thor

Well, London has ground to an icy halt thanks to what I am now calling 'bastard snow.' Seriously, I had to push my car into my parking space yesterday because there was so much of it. PUSH! I ask you.

Anyway, there's a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Good ol' Skip emailed me not too long ago to say he'd heard a rumour there might be a temporary thaw on Tuesday. I, of course, completely misunderstood what he was talking about and, well…

Friday, December 17, 2010

Mix CD 2010!

Um, really? It doesn't seem like five minutes ago that I popped 2009's mix CD together as a freebie Christmas gift/way of imposing my musical tastes on others. And yet here we are again, so let's not procrastinate and just get on with it, yes?

01. Do I Love You (Indeed I Do) by Frank Wilson
Motown tracks have always had this instantly identifiable sound to them, and it's one I've long been a fan of. Which makes it all the more surprising that it was only this year that I got around to actually buying a Motown album (and what a doozy - 61 songs for £7.99 off iTunes). It was obviously quite a difficult task to choose just one song to represent Motown here because quite frankly a significant proportionate number of their songs were insanely awesome. I eventually settled on this 1966 track because from the word GO it embodies everything I love about Motown; it's upbeat, instantly recognisable, utterly memorable. It's two minutes 22 seconds of utter joy in which to loose yourself.

02. I Would Die 4 U by Mariachi El Bronx
One of the regular recipients of my mix CDs is Best Mate Jo, who this year is slacking of a bit in the best mate department by buggering off to Mexico for Christmas. So, in honour of her festive trip, and because I absolutely love this band, track two is Mariachi El Bronx's cover of Prince's I Would Die 4 U. Now, if you're not familiar with this band, let me refresh your memory: they're a rock band who, for their fourth album took a complete left-turn and put together an album of mariachi music. And the whole thing is utterly brilliant. This track is actually a B-side to one of their singles (but is available from iTunes) and one of the best cover versions I've ever heard. Dare I say it, I prefer it to the original.

03. Don't Let's Start by They Might Be Giants
In all honesty, I am familiar with They Might Be Giants for two reasons: their song Birdhouse In Your Soul, which I love, and the fact that they did the theme tune to the TV show Malcolm in the Middle. But earlier this year I heard this track on the radio and instantly loved it. It's bright and breezy, and if I hear it playing I'm singing along to it in an instant. I love the way the song kind of falters after he sings "don't let's start," and the fact that once you actually listen to the lyrics it's actually prettty damn dark – I mean "no one in the world ever get's what they want, and that's beautiful; everybody dies frustrated and sad, and that's beautiful"? And yet you can still dance around to it.

04. You Make My Dreams by Hall and Oates
Blame my Dad for making me like Hall and Oates; he used to play them in the car incessantly when I was a kid, and there's only so many times an impressionable youngster can hear Out Of Touch and Kiss On My List before he succumbs to their charms. Anyway, I actually wasn't familiar with this song until I saw the movie (500) Days of Summer last year, but now I've apparently listened to it 80 times according to my iTunes library, and I'm yet to tire of it. I'm of the opinion that Hall and Oates make everything better, and I can't help but wish that everyday life was a little bit more like this:

05. Take Me To The River by Al Green
LOVE Al Green, LOVE this song. Timeless, brilliant, awesome stuff. The guy's a dude. 'Nuff said.

06. Ramona by Beck
Scott Pilgrim Vs The World was one of my favourite movies of the year, and not only that but it was accompanied by an incredible soundtrack album full of some classic tracks and newly-created material by the likes of Beck and Broken Social Scene. I've always thought I should like Beck more than I actually do, and I can't quite nail why I'm ever so slightly ambivalent about him. Regardless of that, the tracks he created for Scott Pilgrim were universally awesome - so much so that I actually had difficulty working out which one I wanted to put on the mix CD. I ultimately went for Ramona because it's such an utterly heartfelt, beautiful little song. It's the sort of track that makes everything seem like it's going in slow motion where everyone looks at each other with unending, wistful looks. It makes me want a girlfriend called Ramona so it can be OUR SONG.

07. Going Down To Liverpool by The Bangles
I know - a Bangles song that's not Walk Like An Egyptian! Who knew? Anyway, like Don't Let's Start this is another song that I heard on the radio that I adored from the word go, and swiftly picked up from iTunes to enjoy at my leisure (a scary amount of times, thanks for reminding me iTunes library…). There's something about Going Down To Liverpool that reminds me of that brilliant period in the late 80s-early 90s where everyone had big hair and life seemed so easy and brilliant and chilled out. I like the harmonies and the slightly-too-electric-sounding electric guitar; they're somewhat - but brilliantly - dated, and I can't help loving everything about this song.

Oh, and not only that, but LEONARD NIMOY is in the video: AMAZING.

08. White Knuckles by OK Go
Back when they first burst on to the scene with the song Get Over It I was nutty for OK Go. When their second album came out a few years later I bought it, enjoyed it, but didn't quite rave about it as much. And when their third album came out about a year ago I pretty much ignored it based on some reviews that said it was different to what they'd done before. But, as we all know, different can be good and you shouldn't always pay attention to reviews, because when I eventually did pick up their album Of The Blue Color Of The Sky I found it to be without a doubt my favourite of their three releases so far - and this song, White Knuckles, is the standout track. It's a breezy, punchy disco track that's almost impossible not to jig along to. It also has, as I discovered during my 30 day yoga challenge, an uncanny ability to pump you up before class too.

And being OK GO, it's also accompanied by an awesome video:

09. Spin Round by The Californian
Longtime readers might remember that I discovered - and subsequently raved about - The Californian last year. Sometime around the middle of this year The Californian unleashed a four track EP of new material on the interwebs, and it not only built on the promise of the eponymous demos album, but far surpassed it. The four songs you get for a measly $4 (that's just a smidgeon over £2.50-odd) are all brilliant - which made the task of picking which one to pop on the mix CD all the more difficult. I eventually plumped for Spin Round because … well, because I got to the point where I had to pick one to be honest. But that's not the point because this song is JOY; it is wonderful, carefree, brilliant end-of-the-movie music, and I cannot recommend this band's stuff highly enough. Do yourself a favour and pop on over to The Californian's website where you can pick yourself up a download of the EP or just listen to it streaming. It will make your life immeasurably better.

10. All The Young Dudes by David Bowie
And not just any version of this classic track, I'll have you know, but a live version taken from The Thin White Duke's 2003 A Reality Tour. Listening to the A Reality Tour CD brought back so many memories of seeing Bowie perform at Wembley Arena seven years ago, and this song in particular is a highlight for me. I remember standing on the flimsy plastic chair halfway back in the arena, swaying and singing along with several thousand other people as the tiny figure of David Bowie waved his arms in the air in the distance. It was a magical moment, and you get at least a suggestion of that electric atmosphere in this recording. And if, as I fear, that tour was the last time we'll ever see Bowie headline a show again, what a way to go out.

11. Age of Adz by Sufjan Stevens
A pleasant surprise this year was the return of Sufjan Stevens, first with a new EP, which was followed little more than a month or so later by a new album. I expect I'll witter on a bit more in-depth about this in my Year in Reviews post, but the EP was basically old-skool Sufjan while the album was … well, basically it was bat-shit crazy. But I mean that in a good way, because it was so different and brilliant and yet somehow still managed to retain everything I love about Sufjan's music. Age of Adz is the title track; it's loud and bombastic, by turns sweet and sneeringly sinister. It has an epic, heavily-layered feel to it, which is aided by Sufjan's new-found use of electrics, yet it draws to a close in the most beautiful and humble way - the perfect way to end this year's mix CD. Genius.


So that's your lot for this year's mix CD. But I'm never done discovering new music, and would you believe it, I've found a new band to obsess over in just the last couple of days - so here's a sneak preview, because this is DEFINITELY going on the 2011 CD.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Things to do in the dark

I'm not usually one for Christmas parties - mainly because I'm a slightly miserable, somewhat antisocial old bugger - and as a result I've done a sterling job of avoiding the work one for about the last five years. This year will be number six; I'm hoping if I hit 10 they'll give me a watch, although the sack is more likely.

Any-hoo, when I found out that my yoga studio was having a party I immediately thought 'yes, I'll go to that,' mainly because in contrast to several other ones I get invited to I actually like everyone at yoga. Another bonus was that I thought it would be nice to actually talk to some of my fellow yogi, rather than just grimace at them in a brief moment of shared pain during class.

So on Saturday night I toddled back to the studio clutching a bottle of wine (for them) and a bottle of Pepsi (for me) – and it was awesome. They had loads of food and drink in reception, and the studio itself was transformed into a dancehall with one of the guys who works there DJ-ing, and a live singer, who was perplexingly half-naked and wrapped in what looked like a net curtain, although he was very good so I shan't question that too much. Excitingly, I also got to check out the girl's changing room without being whacked around the face.

To top it off, they'd installed UV lights around the studio, and we'd all been told to wear white so we'd look like complete glowing loons while dancing the night away. Tragically, I actually don't have any white clothes, and plans to pop to Westfield to buy something special were scuppered by bastard snow. I had actually seen a dirt-cheap pair of white jeans online, but was put off by the fact that I wasn't sure if they meant COMPLETELY WHITE clothes or just one item. And Yazzle Dazzle said they looked like leggings, which isn't exactly the sort of thing you want to hear. Anyway, I rocked up in a gingham shirt; the white squares performed admirably well.

I needn't have worried too much, though, because the lovely lady who owns the studio was wandering around the heaving masses with a pot of UV body paint, and she made a beeline for the blank canvas that was my skin almost immediately after I entered the room. I think at first she wanted to paint something on my face, but I was a bit resistant to that so she ended up daubing a heart on my arm, which was lovely. I was tempted to get her to draw a Superman 'S' on my chest because the sight of that glowing away would've been pretty damn awesome, but she'd already complained about the hair on my arms so she would probably have had a fit at the sight of my man-chest. I doubt Picasso had to put up with a hairy canvas.

My painted UV heart, sadly not glowing. By this point, towards the end of the evening, it had actually gone a bit powdery and looked a bit like a bad case of eczema; thank god I didn't have any on my face.

Anyway, as she was applying the heart I turned into the 13 year-old boy I desperately try not to be while out in public, and said "I'm going to watch you as the evening goes on."

She stopped painting for a minute and looked me in the eye.


"Because you're walking around with a pot of UV paint and if it was me I'd probably start drawing cocks on people after a while."

She giggled and walked off.

So as the evening wore on I got chatting to a lovely fellow yogi who was brilliant and fun and quite possibly a bit mental (in a nice way), and, more importantly, a bit drunk. And at some point she managed to get hold of the pot of UV paint, and sober old me did that thing I do where I implant an idea in someone's head and then back away from taking any responsibility for it whatsoever.

A few minutes later this young chap comes wobbling out of the UV-lit studio, looks me straight in the eyes, and says "I've got a cock on my face, haven't I?"

And I looked at him, at the massive testicles that, even in the non-UV light of reception were clearly painted on his chin, and the proud penis emblazoned straight up his face to his forehead, and I replied "why yes, yes you do."

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Suits you

So, in a stunningly spontaneous turn of events last week, I bought a suit.

Now, I don't actually need a suit - everyone at work starts gossiping conspiratorially when I turn up in a shirt instead of a t-shirt with a smutty picture on it; they'd probably explode if I rocked up in a suit – but a weird thing happened while I was browsing around Topman and 10 minutes later I'd bought a classy suit.

Please excuse the MySpace-esque self portrait. And yes: OMG, the labels are still on…

I didn't mean to - honest. I'm going to blame dear old Skip; a few weeks earlier I'd gone shopping with him to help him buy a fancy new coat (I'd watched a few episodes of How To Look Good Naked and felt like channeling my inner Gok Wan), and while in Topman this suit jacket caught my eye and he made me try it on. After a minute or so posing Grattan Catalogue-stylee in the mirror, I shrugged it off, muttered something like "we're shopping for you, not me" and hung it back on the rail. I didn't want or need to spend money on it, and they didn't have my size anyway (story of my life).

And then I went back last week and it caught my eye again, and they had my size in both the jacket and the trousers and I thought 'oh, I'll just try it on' and … well, I'm weak, OK?

Anyway, I don't know what it is about buying a suit that brings out the chatty Kathy in the till monkeys - maybe they've been told to be super-nice to suit buyers because they are clearly PEOPLE OF GOOD TASTE WITH LOTS OF MONEY (wrong on both counts in my case) - but the guy on the till was talking away to me like we were best buds, in contrast to the previous week when I'd bought a shirt and he barely said two words to me. On the plus side, at least it wasn't like the last time I bought a suit, when the jaunty lady at the till asked me why I was buying it and I replied "because I'm going to a funeral," which led to something of an awkward silence, and certainly put a downer on her attempt to coerce me into getting a Debenhams store card.

So there we are chatting away, him asking if there's any particular reason I'm buying a suit and me shrugging my shoulders and replying "um, no … I don't actually know why I'm buying it, I think it's just because I like it" or something similarly inane, and then he says "oh, it should come with a suit bag, but we don't have any suit bags." And I'm like "what?" Turns out that Topman should give you a free suit bag with every suit (because you're a classy and valued shopper, obviously), but they'd run out. So, bless him, he scrawled on my receipt that I hadn't got one and told me to pop back a few days later and they'd just give me one (a suit bag, you filthy-minded heathen).

At the time of writing I've popped back and they still don't have any. I'm beginning to think they're mythical, like unicorns and Paris Hilton's dignity.

Anyway, although I haven't worn the suit properly, I'm very much looking forward to giving it an airing at the first available opportunity. I'm thinking Christmas Day, because I do like to make an effort for the fat man and baby Jeebus, and to be honest it's more of a casual dressy suit rather than a funeral/interview jobby, which quite frankly is a roundabout way of saying that Sparky Pa will probably take one look at it, frown, and say something like "well, it's not what I would've bought…"

To top it off, I was chatting to Best Mate Jo the other day, and I told her I'd bought it. She was well excited at this incredible sartorial development (obviously she can tell I'm just a rough diamond waiting to be polished), and was even more excited when I showed her the above picture, although she did ask if it was made of leather (it's not - it has a slight sheen to it and that picture is rubbish; professional Topman image HERE, though obviously it looks better on me). She then confessed that she'd bought a posh frock recently, and we immediately decided that we should debut our glamourous new selves during a night on the town at some unspecified future date.

Unfortunately, the first restaurant to spring forth from both our minds was, terrifyingly, KFC. We are nothing if not class personified.