Saturday, December 31, 2011

Reading list 2011

I'm not ashamed to admit that I have failed to match last year's number of books read over the course of the year; 2010 was an epic, of course, with a grand total of 44 read, but while 2011 hasn't quite reached the same giddy heights, I did manage a not to be sniffed at 38 - considerably more than 2009's 27, 2008's 33, and 2007's 34, so I think I'm still somewhat justified in calling myself a bookwhore.

Anyway, as is traditional, I'm donning my college lecturer-style tweed jacket with leather elbow patches, and accessorising this year with my fancy bow tie and braces for that authentic authoritative yet slightly geeky look; at this rate, all I need is some NHS-style glasses and my transformation into a hipster will be complete.


By now you know the drill: I'll be grading each book (A+ EXCELLENT, C or below, AVOID), and providing links to each title which will take you through to an appropriate online store where you can purchase your own copy to love and hug and call George; this year I'm going with Foyles where possible because they're an independent, their shops are lovely, and I was impressed by their website when I used it earlier in the year. Oh, and good times - I actually bought a decent amount of my books in actual shops this year rather than scurrying off to a certain large online retailer named after a rainforest. Yay for me!

Let's push on.

01. The Walls of the Universe by Paul Melko - Cracking novel about a teenager who encounters a version of himself from an alternate universe, but then becomes stranded across the multiverse when his duplicate convinces him to try his transfer device in order to steal his identity. Minor quibbles aside - some sentences just read a bit clunkily and the proof-reader in me recoiled at some typos - this was a thoroughly enjoyable read: A
02. Palo Alto by James Franco - This collection of inter-connected short stories (one of my favourite forms of storytelling - see Knockemstiff in 2008 and The Madonnas of Echo Park in 2010) by the famous Hollywood actor is a cracking read that brilliantly portrays what it's like to be young and disaffected. Funny, insightful, and realistic, I thoroughly enjoyed this book: A
03. Shootin' the Sh*t with Kevin Smith by Kevin Smith - The thing I find with Kevin Smith books is they're funny for the first 50 pages or so, then you realise everything that comes after is basically variations on the same theme. This collection of transcribed podcasts (yes, TRANSCRIBED podcasts!) is no different - and somewhat more redundant when you think that you can just download the podcasts themselves for free from iTunes. Fun in places, but ultimately overlong and, quite frankly, a bit of a rip-off: C
04. Life by Keith Richards - The autobiography by the legendary Rolling Stones guitarist is a remarkable look back at the life of one of rock 'n roll's most defining characters. Keith's voice shines through on every page, and his philosophy on life is fascinating, but it struck me (however truthful it might be) that there was a smidgeon too much sensationalist Mick Jagger-bashing. A worthwhile read, though: B+
05. Invincible: The Ultimate Collection Vol. 6 by Robert Kirkman; art by Ryan Ottley - The latest collection of the finest superhero comic book on the planet. This volume seems to major a little more on Invincible's epic smack-downs with supervillains than usual, at the expense of the more character-based storylines it does so well, but still: B+
06. The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud by Ben Sherwood - The story of how a young man learns to let go of the spirit of his dead brother when he falls in love with a beautiful yachtswoman. A quick and breezy read, and notably different to the film of the same name. I liked this a lot: A-
07. Chocky by John Wyndham - Classic tale of an 11 year-old boy who begins to hear the voice of an alien named Chocky in his head. I enjoyed this, but felt that it didn't quite live up to expectations or the promise of its premise: B-
08. The Universe in Miniature in Miniature by Patrick Sommerville - Cracking collection of loosely connected short stories, the last of which in particular - The Machine of Understanding Other People - I thought was just brilliant: A
09. Things I Like About America by Poe Ballantine - Wonderfully honest, beautifully written memoir about the author's travels across America that reads more like a collection of short stories than a biography or travelogue. Love this book: A
10. Mister Wonderful by Daniel Clowes - A touching and honest tale recounting the events of an evening in the lives of two people who have been set up on a date by their friends. A quick read, but like all of Clowes' work it's beautifully illustrated and wonderfully told: A-
11. The Decline of the Lawrence Welk Empire by Poe Ballantine - Brilliant novel about a college dropout trying to find the perfect life on a remote Caribbean island, but instead finds life getting somewhat more complex than he'd hoped: A
12. Tron: Betrayal by Andie Tong - A graphic novel that fills in some of the gaps between the original Tron movie and 2010's Tron: Legacy. It's a solid story, but I found some of the art was too dark and confusing to follow; worth a go if you like the films though: B-
13. So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell - Classic novel in which an elderly narrator recalls the effect a murder had on the life of, and his friendship with, another boy in the 1920s. A good story, but it didn't quite absorb me as I thought it might: B
14. Rasl Pocket Book 1 by Jeff Smith - Collecting the first seven issues of the latest title by the creator of Bone, Rasl follows the life of an art thief who travels between parallel universes. Brilliant stuff, with gorgeous art and a story that weaves together elements of real history such as the work of Nikolai Tesla and conspiracy theories including the Philadelphi experiment and the Tunguska event. Can't wait for the next book in the series: A+
15. Invisibly Yours by C.D. Payne - The latest novel from the author of Youth in Revolt tells the story of Axel Weston and the drama that unfolds when he discovers how to make himself invisible. While it never quite reaches the dizzy heights of brilliance that mark out the Nick Twisp series, Invisibly Yours is a very enjoyable tale, and Payne once again displays his mastery of taking a simple concept and spinning it out into a series of ever-escalating, increasingly ridiculous plot-lines: A-
16. Love From the Shadows by Gilbert Hernandez - The third graphic novel in the 'Fritz B-movies' series finds two siblings visiting their estranged father, intending to kill him to get their inheritance before the story spirals off on all manner of unusual, typically Beto tangents: A
17. Yeah! by Peter Bagge, illustrated by Gilbert Hernandez - Collecting the short-lived mainstream comic book from two of the underground comics scene's most popular figures, Yeah! follows the exploits of three teenage girls who make up the most popular band in the universe, except for on their home planet of Earth, that is. There's no hidden subtext here, it's just a good fun read: A
18. 501 Minutes to Christ by Poe Ballantine - Second volume detailing the author's travels across the U.S. and every bit as heart-wrenching, life-affirming, and brilliantly written as the first: A
19. Life With Mr. Dangerous by Paul Hornschemeier - Wonderful graphic novel following the mundane life of a young woman as she contemplates a string of failed romances as she turns 26. Brilliantly written and beautifully illustrated: A
20. Star Trek: The Children of Kings by David Stern - The first Star Trek novel I've read in years follows the crew of the Starship Enterprise as they attempt to discover who was responsible for the destruction of a Federation starbase - the Klingons or the Orions? This was a big disappointment: the author writes that it is supposed to be a prequel to the 2009 movie, yet it can't be as the film chronicled Christopher Pike's entire tenure as captain of the Enterprise; there are pointless cameos from established characters that serve no purpose (and in one instance ensure that this book couldn't be set in the Prime universe either); the characters are bland and one-dimensional; and the story featured scenes and concepts that I felt had been better covered by the franchise elsewhere, before ultimately coming to an unsatisfying conclusion. Not only that, but the cover, while attractive on first glance, is a poorly photoshopped mess on closer inspection: C
21. Third Class Superhero by Charles Yu - Collection of short stories focusing on issues of identity and insecurity, often with a slight sci-fi bent. I found the author's style a bit cold and distant as a reader, and nowhere near as enjoyable a collection as, say, The Universe in Miniature in Miniature. A bit disappointing: C+
22. Men, Women & Children by Chad Kultgen - The latest novel from one of my favourite authors explores the relationships between a group of a high school kids, their parents, and each other. I was a little bit disappointed with this novel; it lacks the humour of Kultgen's previous books, and it felt like some of the story lines were left unresolved by the end: B-
23. Black Jesus by Simone Felice - Wonderfully poetic tale of a blind soldier who returns home to a group of eclectic characters in Gay Paris, NY and a dancer named Gloria who has problems of her own. It's a breezy read and beautifully written: A
24. The Ne'er-Do-Well (issue 1) - A fantastic collection of short stories by previously unpublished writers. A brilliant annual literary magazine: A
25. The Ne'er-Do-Well (issue 2) - Building on the promise of the first issue, the second volume of stories from the Ne'er-Do-Well contains some wonderful tales such as The Marlboro Man and one about an unquenchable fire that brings a group of people together: A+
26. The Ne'er-Do-Well (issue 3) - Focusing on stories about workers (including one by Willy Vlautin), the third issue of the Ne'er-Do-Well is an utter joy to behold: A+
27. God Clobbers Us All by Poe Ballantine - Brilliant novel by one of my favourite authors in which Ballantine's Edgar Donahue character finds his life getting ever more complicated after he gives a middle-aged colleague LSD. I love Ballantine's writing: A
28. Everything We Miss by Luke Pearson - Short but beautifully written and illustrated graphic novel about the break-up of a couple and the unseen things that go on around them: A
29. Citizen Rex by Mario and Gilbert Hernandez - Collected edition of the comic book series focusing on robot rights and the reemergence of the titular character years after his disappearance. I enjoyed this story far more as a book than I did when it was originally published as monthly issues: A
30. Essex County by Jeff Lemire - Wonderful 500-page collected edition of Lemire's Essex County trilogy, which effortlessly weaves together the stories of a young boy, an old man, and a county nurse. Sad, uplifting, and brilliant: A+
31. Drive by James Sallis - Fantastic short novel telling the story of a Hollywood stunt driver who finds himself up against an LA crime family. Beautifully written and more intricate than the movie: A
32. Ico: Castle in the Mist by Miyuki Miyabe - Brilliant adaptation of the Ico Playstation title that went way beyond what I expected of a novel inspired by video game. Miyabe brings so much depth and additional backstory to the tale of the horned boy and young princess trapped in a mysterious castle, and in the process crafts an utterly compelling fantasy story: A
33. Love and Rockets: New Stories #4 by Los Bros Hernandez - Fourth fantastic edition of the new LnR annual series features two brilliant new Beto stories and a continuation of plotlines from Jaime's stunning Browntown and The Love Bunglers in the previous issue that left me utterly speechless at one point. Awesome: A+
34. The Death-Ray by Daniel Clowes - brilliant graphic novel by the author of Ghostworld about a teenager who discovers that cigarettes give him super-powers, and a death-ray gun gives him the opportunity to quickly and efficiently despatch anyone who stands in his way. It's a quick read, but beautifully illustrated and masterfully told: A
35. Power Pack Classic Volume 1 by Louise Simonson - Collecting the first 10 issues of the 1980s Power Pack comic books. I have fond memories of this series, but had never read the origin of the characters before. Not quite as good as the stories I loved as a kid (they're in volume 2), but entertaining nonetheless: B+
36. The Cabbie by Marti - Brilliant crime comic strip that evokes memories of Chester Gould's classic Dick Tracy strips. The story follows the driver of a taxi as he attempts to retrieve his inheritance from a family of slum-dwellers; it's a quick read, but one I thoroughly enjoyed: A-
37. Frisco Pigeon Mambo by C.D. Payne - Brilliant comic novel by the author of Youth in Revolt following the mishaps and adventures of a group of chain-smoking, sherry drinking lab pigeons released into the wilds of L.A. Another brilliant book by one of my favourite writers: A-
38. Esperanza by Jaime Hernandez - The latest collection of Locas stories in Fantagraphics' series of compact Love and Rockets editions focuses on favourite characters Maggie and Hopey as well as introducing new members of the cast including Viv 'The Frogmouth' and Angel. Wonderfully told and beautifully illustrated: A

And there you go then. Thirty eight (for the most part) incredible books. I suppose it could've been 39 because I did read my own book a couple more times this year, but there's something slightly egotistical about putting myself on the list so I won't. Although I'd just love it if you bought it and put it on your reading list. Go on - it's available here and a complete bargain. Yes, I'm utterly shameless.

Anyway, I've already got at least six new books sitting on the side waiting to hop on to 2012's list. So while I crack on with reading them, and as 2011 draws to a close, I'd just like to wish you a happy, healthy and altogether brilliant New Year! *sweeps theatrically offstage*

Friday, December 30, 2011

2011: The year in reviews

Would you believe it? It's that time of year where I reveal what I've enjoyed most over the last 12 months (and a little bit about what I haven't, because it's always fun being a bit of a hate-bomb). To be honest it doesn't seem like a year since I wrote the last one of these, so I can only assume either someone's playing an elaborate joke on me or time is accelerating. Either way, let's press on!

I think we all know that I love a good book, and once again I've read a fair few of them this year which once again made my task here a smidgeon more complicated than it would otherwise be. My full reading list for the year will be up tomorrow as is traditional, but in the meantime, this is my top three:

03 Black Jesus by Simone Felice
I actually won this book, but that in no way influenced its position in my top three. This short novel was written by a singer/songwriter, which from my past experience with Willy Vlautin's novels can only be a good thing, and helps explain the almost poetic flow of words that craft this lovely little tale. Black Jesus follows the life of an injured soldier returning from war to his small hometown full of a unique cast of characters and a troubled young woman named Gloria who is escaping from her past. It's a quick read - I got through it in just over a day - but to be fair it's not so much the book's length that contributed to this, but the fact that I was utterly absorbed by the story and couldn't put it down. I thoroughly enjoyed Black Jesus, and can't wait to see what Felice delivers next.

02 The Universe in Miniature in Miniature by Patrick Sommerville
I've made it clear in the past that I love short story collections, and this was one of the finest I've read in recent years. The Universe in Miniature in Miniature is a collection of tales that seem to share some sort of link, but one that only really becomes apparent in the final story, the almost novella-length The Machine of Understanding Other People, which ties everything together brilliantly and is itself a fantastic tale of epic scope. In fact, it was the way The Machine of Understanding Other People connected everything together so well - so much so that it actually had me zipping back to earlier stories to confirm the link - that helps elevate Sommerville's collection from merely very good to gobsmackingly brilliant. Highly recommended.

01 Things I Like About America by Poe Ballantine
Poe Ballantine is by far my greatest literary find of the year, so thanks to Foyles in Westfield for putting this collection of essays and biographical tales on display so prominently earlier in the year. Things I Like About America collects together some of Ballantine's real life stories from the years he spent wandering around the United States, moving from town to town and job to job. Some are downbeat, others inspiring and uplifting, yet all are utterly absorbing and heartfelt. Ballantine paints a wonderful picture of the people and places he encountered on his travels, and the result is a book I enjoyed from the first page to the very last. Not only that, but I was so engaged by Ballantine's work that I immediately picked up his other books - a second collection of true-life stories entitled 501 Minutes to Christ, and two novels, The Decline of the Lawrence Welk Empire and God Clobbers Us All - all of which I cannot recommend highly enough.

(Honourable mentions go to Invisibly Yours and Frisco Pigeon Mambo by C.D. Payne which both employed a similar sense of anarchic humour as the author's earlier Youth in Revolt series; Love and Rockets: New Stories Vol. 4 in which Jaime Hernandez wrapped up one ongoing storyline with perhaps the most shocking conclusion I've ever read in 30 years worth of LnR; The Essex County Trilogy, an epic 500 page graphic novel by Jeff Lemire that told a wonderful story involving multiple characters across multiple decades; Ico: Castle in the Mist, a frankly astonishing work of fantasy based on the old PlayStation game; and RASL, the new work from Bone author Jeff Smith that is without doubt the most enthralling science fiction tale I've read in years and didn't make the top three purely because the story is left incomplete at the end of this volume)

Y'know what? I thought this was an awful year for movies. With each passing year I'm growing more and more tired of big budget blockbusters and the belief that CGI spectacle is a worthy substitute for a decent story and interesting characters. That said, there were some movies I enjoyed the hell out of in 2011:

03 Thor
Having just moaned about blockbuster movies, I begin my top three with … a blockbuster movie. I'll be honest: I went into Thor with a sneer of derision safe in the knowledge that I'd leave the cinema with plenty to complain about - after all, I've always *hated* the character in comics. But y'know what? I enjoyed the shit out of this movie. I'd probably go so far as to say it's my favourite Marvel comics film so far. So what did I like? Well, first of all, I loved how the Norse mythology was weaved together with a storyline on Earth that made sense, and also tied in with the greater Marvel Universe plot that's been unfolding across the studio's previous films and culminating in next year's The Avengers. I thought it was cast brilliantly - Chris Hemsworth in particular - and I appreciated the nice line in humour that played out over the course of the film. Most of all, though, I liked how the filmmakers took a character I'd always considered a bit dorky and pointless and made me care about him. Basically: GOOD JOB MARVEL.

02 Super 8
I was intrigued by the Super 8 teaser trailer that was released in 2010, and wandered into a cinema in August 2011 not really knowing what I was going to be watching aside from the fact it was supposedly reminiscent of the old Amblin movies of the 1980s. And by God, it was. Super 8 is undoubtedly cut from the same cloth as movies such as ET and The Goonies, which made it by far my favourite film of the summer. I loved the 1970s small-town setting, the unfolding sense of dread as we and the main characters realise something untoward is happening, and I REALLY loved the fact that their was actual dialogue between the characters and emotion and depth - all things that are lacking from a lot of contemporary movies. This was a joyous, heartfelt, engrossing film told the old-school way with some new-school tricks, and I loved it.

01 50/50
Films about cancer aren't generally a barrel of laughs, but 50/50 managed to be just that: a comedy about someone who is diagnosed with cancer - and the result is my favourite film of the year. Let's not exaggerate the word comedy, though; 50/50 isn't a slapstick movie, but there are moments of genuine hilarity in this film - and moments of genuine emotion. I remember one scene in particular being so sad that I almost began crying when I saw it; seconds later, however, the funniest thing happened and my attempts to choke back tears were replaced by a desire to laugh very loudly. Unfortunately, the confusion of my emotions meant that I just ended up honking like a seal. There's not many films that can make me do that, but 50/50 is one of them. So it's a great film with a brilliant story, and perhaps most of all, a sterling performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt. 50/50 is also worthy of praise for actually making me like Seth Rogen, who for a change is not his usual annoying Seth Rogen-y self. A wonderful movie.

(Honourable mentions go to Captain America: The First Avenger - another brilliant Marvel Studios film, and one that took the brave move of telling a story set entirely in World War II; Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which was a brilliant sequel/prequel/reimagining of the long-running Apes franchise; The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn which brought Herge's famous character to life in a brilliantly authentic way for the big screen that was just pure fun; Another Earth, which was a lovely little character drama based around the idea of a parallel Earth appearing in the sky, and which I had the pleasure of interviewing its director about; Final Destination 5, which I just thoroughly enjoyed; and Drive, which was by far the coolest and most stylish movie of the year)

TV Shows!

While I thought there were a lot of sucky movies around this year, I'm spoilt for choice with TV shows - so much so that as I'm writing this I'm still dithering as to what exactly I'm going to put where, so…

03 Smallville
A long-time favourite of mine and a regular sight on these Year in Reviews posts over the years (it claimed the number 1 spot in both 2009 and 2010), Smallville takes third place here for its tenth and final season. Unlike many long-running shows, Smallville's done a tremendous job of evolving over the years, changing from the small-town villain of the week series it once was to a show with a grand scope and season-long story arcs. For me, Season 10 didn't quite reach the giddy heights of the last few years - the eighth season in particular remains a significant highpoint for me, one which I cite as a prime example of how a television show can and should use a season-long story to great effect - but it nevertheless remained a compelling show. The main story arc for this final year was Clark Kent coming to terms with his destiny and becoming the main the world needs him to be: Superman. This - together with the writers' knowledge that they were wrapping up the show's storyline - led to some lovely moments of nostalgia: a homecoming episode that saw Lois and Clark return to Smallville High, the return of some old characters (Jonathan Kent, Lionel Luthor, and even Lex in the season finale), and some gentle flashbacks to earlier moments in the series' run. The big news, of course, was the finale, and for the most part I thought it lived up to expectations. OK, some characters didn't really get an appropriate send-off (Green Arrow, for example, is last seen looking up into the sky), but this was a show about Clark Kent and I thought it wrapped up his storyline perfectly. You could complain that we didn't really get to see Tom Welling as Superman that much, but all things considered I thought an appropriate balance was achieved in how much we saw of the Man of Steel, and that on the whole one of my favourite television shows ever was brought to a satisfying conclusion.

Now, where's that Green Arrow spinoff I've been demanding these past few years?

02 Franklin and Bash
Another long-standing favourite in my Year in Review posts was Boston Legal, but when that show finished back in 2008 I was left with nothing to fill the anarchic legal drama void - until now. Franklin and Bash is essentially a younger, sexier version of Boston Legal focusing on the characters of Jared Franklin and Peter Bash, two rebellious yet charming young lawyers who come to the attention of a legendary attorney called Stanton Infeld (Malcolm McDowell basically playing William Shatner's Denny Crane from Boston Legal) and are subsequently hired to work at his firm. It's a short season - only 10 episodes in the first year - but there's plenty of stuff crammed in here, made all the more fun by Franklin and Bash's penchant for taking on unusual cases and a cast of eccentric characters. Definitely one to checkout ahead of 2012's second season.

(For a longer insight into what I like about Franklin and Bash, checkout my review over on HeyUGuys)

01 Justified
If there's one show I've just gone on and on about this year, it's Justified. My God, this is a brilliant show made even more wonderful by some utterly fantastic performances. Justified is based around U.S. marshall Raylan Givens (a character created by author Elmore Leonard), who is sent back to his home state of Kentucky after shooting a Miami crime lord without provocation. Once there he's faced not only with a variety of redneck crime families, but also the continued fallout of his relationships with his own family and ex-wife. While I thought the first series of Justified was brilliant, it was the second year, in which Givens goes up against the Bennett clan and its matriarch Mags in a season-long story arc, that really made me realise just how great this show is. Add to that a stellar performance from leading actor Timothy Olyphant who is just the epitome of cool as Raylan, and you have a show that I'm more than happy to proclaim as the best thing on TV at the moment.

(Honourable mentions go to Archer, the hilarious animated spy comedy that I just can't get enough of; Southland, the gritty police drama that is really coming into its own and telling some wonderful stories (and was just pipped to third place by Smallville); Supernatural, the sixth season of which I thought wasn't quite as focused as previous years, but still highly entertaining; John from Cincinnati which utterly confused me while I was watching it, but remained with me long after I'd finished the DVDs; and the reimagined version of Thundercats which against all expectations does for the classic 80s cartoon what the new version of Battlestar Galactica did for its 70s predecessor)

For the last few years this category has been named Albums! but for 2011 I'm giving it the more nebulous title of Music! Why? because two of the three top spots are taken by live performances.

03 The Californian debut album
If you've read my mix CD post (and those of previous years) you'll know I'm a big fan of the surf rock inspired sound of The Californian, and this year saw the band release their self-titled debut album - and *engages caps lock* WHAT AN ALBUM. The Californian's album is that rare thing: a collection of songs that are by turn beautiful, heartfelt, melancholy, uplifting and inspiring - all of which was done without the resources and backing of a major record label. I can't say enough good things about this album, which advances the sound of the band's earlier recordings in new, increasingly more wonderful ways, and I urge you to check it out: it's available to stream on their website, where you can also buy it (or get it from iTunes). Trust me, it's a gem.

(If you want to read more of why I love The Californian's album, click HERE)

02 Panic! At the Disco live
I saw Panic! At the Disco perform live three times this year: once at Bush Hall, then at the Shepherds Bush Empire, and then a couple of weeks later in, of all places, Norwich. Each time they were just brilliant. I've written before about how I think Panic! have grown as performers ever since the band was split in two a few years back, and I genuinely believe the current incarnation is one of THE BEST live acts playing today. Seriously; I don't go to see a band play three times in the space of four months unless I think they're exceptional. And each of those three gigs is memorable for different reasons: the Bush Hall gig came at a time when I was utterly stressed out at work, and I only managed to get a ticket at the last moment; the Shepherds Bush Empire one was the first show of my epic Month of Gigs; and the Norwich show … well, I made the spontaneous decision to go to Norwich! A fantastic band and three incredible concerts: good times. And I get to see them again in February!

01 Sufjan Stevens live
Another concert in my Month of Gigs was the long-awaited opportunity to see Sufjan Stevens play live and he delivered above and beyond what I expected. The show, based for the most part around his Age of Adz album was just the most incredible two and a half hours of neon-infused insanity and awe-inspiring music that I've ever had the privilege to behold. I could go on and on about how much I enjoyed this show or what it meant to be there for that remarkable night, but let me just say this: this isn't just my number one musical highlight of the year, it was the best concert I've ever been to and an utterly unforgettable night.

(Honourable mentions go to Panic! At the Disco's third album Vices and Virtues; Trent Reznor and Karen O's cover version of Led Zeppelin's Immigrant Song for David Fincher's film adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; and OK GO's live show at Koko which was a brilliant evening of great music and confetti cannons)

Other stuff!
Let's see … well, Bikram yoga continued to play a big part in my life, and now more than ever I can't imagine NOT going to that brilliant studio in Chiswick at least a handful of times each week. Amazingly, losing my job was also a highlight - the last project I worked on at the company really took it out of me as I worked nonstop for almost the entire first half of the year (including weekends!), so ironically it came as something of a relief to find myself being made redundant. And while I do miss the security of a monthly wage, I genuinely feel like I'm doing some brilliant and worthwhile work in other areas now that I find both challenging and exciting. Publishing my book was also a memorable moment. Has it made me rich? No, of course not, but it's nice to know that little story I worked so hard on for so long is finally out there and it seems for the most part that the people who've read it really did like it, which is always good to hear. Finally, iPhone 4S - the best iPhone yet, and it charges in my car unlike my 3GS, so it's a winner on that basis alone.

And the losers…
I'll start with a cinematic failure: Green Lantern was, for me (and virtually everyone else, it would appear) a massive missed opportunity. For one of my favourite comic book characters to be taken and made into a movie so bad was just a crying shame. I never thought I'd say this, but DC and Warner Bros. really should look at what Marvel are doing to see how they should bring their key characters (Christopher Nolan's Batman films being the exception, of course) to the big screen. Also, echoing something I said last year, can the whole 3D thing be over now, please? On TV, I totally lost interest in Doctor Who and stopped watching about halfway through the latest series (which is a real indication of how much I dislike it now as I rarely give up on shows); dull story lines, an awful attempt at shoehorning a season-long story arc into each episode, and characters I stopped caring about: after enjoying the Doctor's adventures since I was a young kid, I'm done with TV's favourite time lord.

And I think that's about it. Last year's prize giver Erica Durance did such a sterling job in her star-spangled bikini that I've invited her back again this year to hand out the 2011 trophies to the winners; the losers, meanwhile, are being shipped off to a marathon screening of every episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians as their penance *shudder*. Let that be a warning to you all for 2012…

Same time next year?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Mix CD 2011

So I've not been feeling particularly festive of late, but then like a glove-slap to the face I found myself putting together this year's mix CD and because the mix CD has turned into a bit of a Christmas tradition (this is the sixth year I've done one don't ya know) I've suddenly found myself overcome by a smidgeon of Christmassy feeling. Just a smidgeon, mind. Anyway, I've actually been quite organised this year and have been keeping a list of songs I wanted to include on the CD, so it all came together quite easily. Which is just as well because Best Mate Jo turned to me a few months back and said "last year's mix CD was really quite good, y'know," so I feel like I'm having to pull all the stops out this year to top last year's overachieving collection of awesomeness.

And you know what? BY JOVE I THINK I'VE DONE IT!

Let's crack on.

01. Everybody Loves You by The Californian
If you're a regular reader, or a stalker, you'll know that I adore The Californian and want everyone with ears to listen to them; I've put songs by this band on the last two mix CDs and by God I'm putting them on this one as well. This track is the opening song from their self-titled debut album (which yours truly has a thank-you credit on I'll have you know, and which I reviewed HERE), and it's … well, it's brilliant. It starts all slow, as if the listener is emerging from the sea, then just kicks into this utterly gorgeous singalong chorus. It's darker and has a slightly more melancholy feel to it than some of The Californian's earlier stuff, but it totally works. I could go on about how much I love this band and this song ad nauseum, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating, or in this case the listening: head over to The Californian's website where you can stream their album, and then do yourself a favour and buy it or I'll track you down and thump you.

02. Memories by Panic! At the Disco
Aaaah, memories. I saw Panic! At the Disco play live three times this year and they were brilliant every time. This track is from their latest album Vices and Virtues, and while it's by no means my favourite (that'd be Let's Kill Tonight), it's a wonderful song and actually makes me think of certain happy memories; during the Shepherds Bush Empire gig that Yazzle Dazzle and I attended we were highly amused by two young chaps pogo-ing around to this song, so much so that whenever we talk about the gig or mention the word memories we spontaneously begin jumping around and howling the chorus like loons. So there we go. Anyway, it's a cracking example of what I think a real pop song should be - fun, energetic, melodic, and with a wonderfully soaring chorus. And look, here's a video of it from the gig I went to in Norwich.

03. Starfish and Coffee by Prince
I'd like to think I'm a pretty big Prince fan, but somehow this awesome little song passed me by until I heard it on 6Music earlier this year. Taken from Prince's Sign 'O' the Times album, it's a short track about a young girl who has, um, Starfish and coffee for breakfast each day. Odd, yes, but it works. And it's just classic Prince: utterly bonkers and completely brilliant. Anyway, I can't find any live performances of official videos for this on youtube, but look: here's Prince performing Starfish and Coffee WITH THE MUPPETS!

04. Negative by Project Jenny, Project Jan
I wrote at the end of last year's mix CD post that I already had a song in mind for the 2011 edition - and that song is this song: Negative by Project Jenny, Project Jan. This track is just mad; it's kind of hip-hop-ish, and almost verges on being a parody as it tells the story of a guy taking saucy photos of his girlfriend and then losing the negatives. It's one of those songs that *shouldn't* work but it does. It's also really rude. And it's the one track that I think Best Mate Jo will turn round to me and say "yeah, loved the mix CD EXCEPT for *that* song." Equally, she could think it's the best thing evah. I, obviously, lean towards the latter.

05. Tear You Apart by She Wants Revenge
I found out about this song via The Californian funnily enough, as they toured with She Wants Revenge earlier in the year and posted a video of them performing this song. It's a really great track, very Talking Heads-ish, very sinister, and with possibly the creepiest chorus you'll ever hear on one of my mix CDs (probably best not to sing it aloud in public unless you want to be arrested). Basically this song is just gagging to be used in a serial killer movie, and I mean that in the nicest way possible.

06. Love at First Sight by The Brobecks
Here's another song that I came to via another band that I like. Basically The Brobecks is Dallon Weekes' band, and he's the bass player in Panic! At the Disco. I can't remember how I found this out, but I did and I'm so pleased that's the case because The Brobecks album is a delight and this is by far the best song on it. Why? Well, it's just a lovely, sweet little song about falling in love. It's utterly heartfelt and honest, and it tells a beautiful little story. If you don't like this song I'm just going to go ahead and call your time of death because you're evidently lacking a pulse or a heart or whatever. Anyway, there's no official video of Love at First Sight, but among the various youtube clips of it from Brobecks gigs I found this spontaneous performance of it at an airport. Ignore the sound of looming aeroplanes and enjoy this wonderful song.

07. In Your Eyes by Peter Gabriel
I experienced a sudden resurgence of love for Peter Gabriel this year brought about by this song in particular, and more specifically its use in a TV show called John From Cincinnati. In Your Eyes played a key role in that short-lived series, and it managed to worm its way into my head until I turned to iTunes and bought it, and I'm glad I did because it's awesome. Without doubt one of Gabriel's best, even after you start exploring his back catalogue and realise that, yes, you do know a hell of a lot of his songs and they're pretty much all amazing. Here's a cracking live performance of In Your Eyes from Later … with Jools Holland, made even more brilliant by some awesome side-jumping dance moves.

08. It Had Better Be Tonight (Meglio Stasera) by Michael Buble
Ahhhhh, Michael Buble. Or Bubes as I like to call him. Who doesn't like Bubes? I think my appreciation for Michael Buble began with a begrudging respect that then just caved into me acknowledging that, yes, I really like his stuff and he comes across as a genuinely top bloke whenever he's interviewed. This is by far my favourite Michael Buble song; it's got a decent rhythm that compels you to wiggle your hips to it and it gives him a chance to show his fine voice off to good effect. It's also one that I belt out without a care when I'm driving around. This song just makes me feel good.

09. I Like It by Foxy Shazam
I'll be honest: I Like It is my sole instance of exposure to Foxy Shazam, but on this basis I promise I'll explore their back catalogue - and their forthcoming album The Church of Rock and Roll from which this track is taken - as soon as possible. The best way to describe this song, and I mean it in the nicest way possible, is if I were to say that it's the sort of thing you'd expect from the bastard offspring of Queen and Led Zeppelin. It's just this raunchy, punchy instant hit of sheer over-the-top rock 'n roll, and I like it. A LOT.

10. Immigrant Song by Karen O and Trent Reznor
Despite what I said above, I'm actually not a massive fan of Led Zeppelin, yet when I heard this incredible version of Immigrant Song on the trailer for David Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, where it went hand in hand with the visuals so perfectly, I was sold. I'm probably what you'd call at most a casual fan of Trent Renor's Nine Inch Nails, but the application of that band's sound to this classic rock song, combined with Karen O's almost tortured vocals, make this nothing less than an immense success. It's darker and more menacing than the original and, dare I say it, I actually prefer it. A genuinely awesome cover.

11. Proud Mary by Ike and Tina Turner
I've long been a fan of this track; it's one of those perfect songs that really defines a certain generation of music. It starts so slowly, so soulfully, and then about halfway through just bursts into life, transforming into this incredibly potent rock. And you know what? I'm a bit of a closet Tina Turner fan and she really just nails this song. This is also one of those songs, like Memories earlier on this CD, that I'm forever going to associate with a great memory - in this instance, the yoga Christmas party that I went to at the beginning of the month. Basically, Proud Mary came on over the stereo and everyone - I mean EVERYONE - just started dancing to it in unison, as if the moves had been hardwired into their brains. It was like a scene from a movie where entire crowds spontaneously break into dance, and just a brilliant moment.

12. Impossible Soul by Sufjan Stevens
A general rule with the mix CD is that I stop at 11 tracks, but I'm going to throw that particular rule out this year because quite frankly I couldn't put this CD together without including a Sufjan Stevens track. And yes, I know he's featured quite regularly over the last couple of years, but 2011 was the year I finally got to see him live and it was quite probably the closest I've ever come to a genuinely spiritual experience. Anyway, call me crazy but I've decided to round out the mix CD with this 25 minute-long behemoth of a song because it encapsulates everything that was brilliant and bonkers and so completely wonderful and inspiring about that gig back in May. Sufjan himself referred to Impossible Soul as the "adult contemporary miniseries song," adding that it will take you through "heartache, melodrama, heartbreak, restoration, rehabilitation, a little bit of prog rock, and maybe some funky dance." And he's right: it is by turn the saddest, happiest, most heart-wrenching, most joyful, inspiring and uplifting song I've ever heard, and I'm so glad there's someone mad and brilliant enough in this world to create a track such as this. I'm also glad that some wonderful loon on youtube recorded an entire performance of it at one of Sufjan's gigs. Enjoy.


So there we have it - another mix CD! But what didn't make the cut this year? Well, Carry On My Wayward Son by Kansas came very close to going on there because it's another song that reminds me of the Panic! Norwich gig (they covered it), and I do love me some 70s classic rock, but it just didn't quite feel like it fit in particularly well with the overall vibe of this mix CD. Elsewhere, I've been meaning to include Duncan by the Delta Spirit for the last few years because it's just an amazing song with a wonderful story, but again it got squeezed off; maybe next year? And finally, just as I'd finalised and burnt the first copy of the CD I heard Steel Mill by David Berkeley and I completely and utterly fell in love with it. Too late for this year, perhaps, but next time round for sure. Other than that, I'm really pleased with this mix CD - all that remains is to see how Best Mate Jo rates it against last year's effort…

Monday, December 05, 2011

Working nine to five (thirty)

Last week I went and worked in an office for the first time since I left my old company back in July. I was obviously a little nervous at the prospect, not least because it was for a company I'd never worked for before, but also because in the months I've spent working at home I've fallen into some bad habits like sitting at my computer in my pants, wandering around the house singing loudly, and taking an hour out of each day to watch Thundercats. Add in the fact that as my previous company was impossibly informal and I developed some long-standing bad habits there, and I was faced with the very real prospect of being forcibly removed from the premises while swearing loudly and wearing only my undercrackers mere seconds after settling down at my temporary desk.

Fortunately, this did not happen. In a shocking turn of events, it seems I do have a degree of self control. Who knew?

So new temporary job was in Putney, which ironically was also the location of my very first job many years ago. It was a bit weird being back in the old stomping ground after such a long gap, but equally somewhat lovely. Putney's come on a bit since the late 90s; Our Price is long gone, but there's now a rather good Topman (which would've been dangerous back when I was earning a tiny wage). It's also - THANK GOD - gained a Starbucks where in the space of just four days I developed a rather flirty relationship with one of the baristas. Never has "do you want cream on top?" sounded so euphemistic.

Anyway, the job was good. It was odd because it was actually the first time I'd worked in a proper serious grown-up office, where some people wear suits and take phone calls on headsets that look like they were stolen off Vogue-era Madonna. I dressed smartly too, at least on the first day. It was all downhill from there to be honest, though; even the guy working at the train station who I got chatting to each morning greeted me on the Wednesday by saying "oh, dressing down today, eh?"

Oh, and trains! As a result of there being no parking at the office I was forced onto public transport each day, which was actually surprisingly fine. Because I'm basically at the end of a line I was assured of a seat every morning, and trains these days are way nicer than the odious cattle haulers they were back when I last had to get them on a daily basis. I think the novelty would quickly wear off if I had a permanent job, but for four days it was, y'know, fun. And yes, I did giggle like a speshul every time the driver tooted the horn.

As for the work, well to be honest it was easy monkey work and I thoroughly enjoyed it. After the high-pressure hair-tearing stresses of the last few months at old job it was actually quite lovely just to be the person who spins round in their chair and waves their hand in the air asking for something to do rather than be the one who has to deal with deadlines and scheduling and page plans and contributors and all that crap that actually prevents you from just doing some damn editing. And do you know what? At the risk of blowing my own trumpet, it was nice to be reminded that I'm actually pretty damn good at it too.