The Top 30 Films of 2017

These were the best films of the year – no debate!

Of course there’s debate, there’s always debate. That’s what makes writing about film so interesting. For instance, I read many great pieces on the brilliance of Blade Runner 2049, but to me it seemed like a sluggish bore with precious little of the original’s poetry. And overall critical fave Get Out didn’t convince this horror skeptic that its social commentary was pointed enough to overcome the dull descent into horror movie cliches.

So you won’t find those films on my list, as adored as they are. But you will find a variety of other joys, some of them critically respected, others ignored or passed over. Here they are (films released in the U.K. in 2017 only):

 

1) Moonlight

The first time that the Oscars’ choice for Best Film has matched my own since 2007’s No Country For Old Men. Just like La La Land, its narrative is based on an age-old genre: the Bildungsroman. But Moonlight transcends its genre limitations with more agility than La La Land. Its conception of the fluidity of identity is marked by the graceful flow of its cinematography and the narrative ebbs and flows, all beautifully controlled by Barry Jenkins, whose work on the film so much deserved the Oscar for Best Director over Damien Chazelle. As a study of toxic masculinity coming up against the frightening honesty of love, it’s a story for our age, and for all ages to come.

 

2) My Life as a Courgette

Delightful; upsetting. I have rarely been as surprised by a film’s tonal complexity – this is in the league of Bambi, The Night of the Hunter, and Blue Velvet. Like those films, this one has moments of sheer childish pleasure, which restore your faith in a medium that is all about childish pleasures, but also contains moments of horror that could be traumatising for young viewers. Set in an orphanage, and with slightly creepy luridly coloured children with heads as large as their hearts, this doesn’t shy away from the potential calamitous damage of growing up and is all the better for it. Yet you won’t see a more heart-warming film all year.

 

3) The Handmaiden

Another coming-out-of-the-closet film? Good, we can’t have too many. Based on Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, but with the action transposed to Korea, this is audacious enough to suggest that male-female sex has its limitations, and that female-female sex might in many ways be preferable. In a film about complicated power struggles between the sexes, the heated lesbian sex scenes become symbols of equality in the face of male oppression. It’s steamy, yes, and so lusciously photographed as to be accused of glamorising sex on screen. Yet the final moments are inspiring, and crucial in understanding how this is a great story, and not mere pornography.

 

4) Manchester by the Sea

Perhaps the story that most people will recall from Hollywood this year is of victims of abuse speaking out against their oppressors. We always knew that Hollywood was full of grim sleazeballs, but the extent of the damage was nevertheless still a big shock. Casey Affleck has long been problematic as an actor/director who stands accused of various acts of sexual aggression towards his co-workers. I know reasonable people who refuse to watch his films because of the allegations made against him. I understand this – the charges really are grave. But in the same way I can still watch Hitchcock or Polanski films without remotely liking the men behind them, I can’t stop myself from marvelling at this film and Affleck’s performance in it. His character is the ultimate antihero – difficult, abrasive, insular. He can’t even chat up women in a bar. Which makes the depth of care you’re made to feel for him all the more remarkable. Director Kenneth Lonergan handles it all with humour and sensitivity, eliciting stellar performances from all involved.

 

5) The Red Turtle

A gorgeously rendered, tranquil, bleak animation that wordlessly weaves its charm. It has a faith in mankind’s ability to improve its relationship with the natural world that’s never stupid (i.e. hippieish, as in Avatar) or absolute (there are moments of cruelty by man against nature, and vice versa). And there are sequences with all the wonder of an episode of Planet Earth, and with the same moving sense of our species’ insignificance.

 

6) Call Me By Your Name

Try looking at a peach the same way again after watching this. Such is the magic of film: ordinary objects can be made to take on extraordinary meanings. And the magic of this particular film is in how it takes a potentially sleazy situation, with a 17 year-old falling for his father’s research assistant (an older man), and transforms it into a beautiful summer’s dreamlike illumination of romantic ecstasy. Just perfect in the youthful role, Timothée Chalamet is all gangly charm and pent-up sexual energy, his eyes full of a hope that his summer liaison can last whilst his prodigious smarts let him know that it can’t. It follows close to Summer With Monika and Before Sunrise, not to mention the Grease song ‘Summer Nights’, in showing a love affair that becomes heightened because of the time limit imposed upon it.

 

7) Risk

This really is the riskiest move that Laura Poitris has ever made as a documentarian. She follows Julian Assange: first respectfully, then questioningly, and finally with a growing sense of disillusionment as the rape allegations and other charges build up against him. It’s an expose of the man’s nastiness that raises an important question over the legitimacy of the Wikileaks project as a whole. Top marks for honesty.

 

8) A Monster Calls

At first I couldn’t shake the TV-movie-of-the-week feel – we know that watching a parent slowly dying from cancer must be an almost unthinkably awful thing for a young child to cope with, so why do we need to watch a film about it? Isn’t life difficult enough? I think that this film is necessary. For one, it doesn’t sentimentalise its main character: a boy who lashes out verbally and physically against the people he loves. Its fantasy elements, much like Pan’s Labyrinth, deepen the sense of psychological reality by revealing the hidden truths in a child’s mind during a terrible moment of crisis. And one devastating truth that comes towards the end transforms it into one of the most honest depictions of being forced to watch a loved one die that I’ve ever seen.

 

9) The Big Sick

At last! A Judd Apatow production that cracks my top 10, through sheer force of likeability. It would be as useless to argue with this film’s many charms as to argue with an ex-girlfriend in a coma.

 

10) Detroit

Kathryn Bigelow takes a big step up with this, a look at one particular instance of racially motivated violence perpetrated by the police during the Detroit riots in 1967. Impressively, it eventually zooms out to depict how injustice permeates all levels of the US judicial system. It’s tense beyond belief, and there’s a deeply unsettling portrayal of how private insecurities can be dangerously unleashed in the form of violent bigotry. Particularly unnerving (and brilliant) is Will Poulter, seemingly possessed by the spirit of all of his country’s worst impulses.

 

11) Toni Erdmann

12) Okja

13) The Lost City of Z

14) The Florida Project

15) Dunkirk

16) 20th Century Women

17) The Salesman

18) Marjorie Prime

19) It Comes at Night

20) A Ghost Story

21) City of Ghosts

22) Frantz

23) Elle

24) Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

25) Paddington 2

26) Harmonium

27) Laerte-se

28) Logan

29) La La Land

30) Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press

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Top 10 TV Shows of 2017

Please don’t ask about Game of Thrones or, Lord help us, House of Cards (is anyone else bored with beautifully shot scenes of dull people killing each other?). Below are the 10 best shows in what’s been a terrific year, mostly thanks to Margaret Atwood. I’ve yet to be convinced that television is better than film, as many wise people continue to argue. But it’s certainly much better for comedy, so much so that I feel a little embarrassed for Hollywood. Comedies hold their own very well against serious dramas on the small screen(s), I feel, and my list reflects that. The same can’t currently be said for film.

One caveat for my list: I haven’t watched Twin Peaks yet; haven’t had time to even watch the original. As a huge David Lynch fan, I acknowledge that this makes my list even less authoritative than it usually is. Never mind; these were my outstanding experiences of the year:

 

1) The Handmaid’s Tale

So disturbing that it took months to shake, this appalling vision of a future in which women are harvested for their wombs, based on Margaret Atwood’s sci-fi novel, has of course already been signalled as a Trump-era classic, summing up the pessimistic feelings of liberals the world over. But in the end, I’ll remember it more for the scenes of small moral triumph: the spitting out of a cookie that’s been patronisingly offered by a superior, driving a car into law enforcers, riding on top during sex, most significantly the dropping of a stone (those who’ve seen the show will understand). Equally, after the years have (hopefully) erased some of the damage that Trump has wrecked, I hope that we’ll remember our own small moments of moral triumph. In particular the Women’s Marches and ‘Me Too’ movement, which proved that millions of people refuse to put up with repressive bullshit. So yes, The Handmaid’s Tale will always be a troubled reflection of the times in which it was made. But it’s also an achingly felt, militantly proud manual in how to resist patriarchal fascism.

 

2) Alias Grace

The great Margaret Atwood again. This adaptation of her book about a real life 19th century murder case doesn’t hit as hard as The Handmaid’s Tale, because it’s not as cinematic, but it remains an engrossing success. Adapted by the great Sarah Polley (director of Take This Waltz and Stories We Tell – two of the best films of the decade), it continues her enduring fascination with how we construct narrative, wittingly and unwittingly, in order to obfuscate truth. The story is an endless riddle, in which a prisoner, Grace, weaves her spell on various men and relates a past in which she may or may not have been a murderer’s accomplice. Did she do anything criminal? If you expect tidy answers, look elsewhere. But if you’re looking for an exceptional performance to captivate you for 6 episodes then look no further than the great Sarah Gadon, whose electrifying eyes pierce the screen and dare you to work out whether her character’s play-acting or not. Grace could be a femme fatale and an abhorrent, deliberate murderer. She could be the victim of masculine abuse, and accidentally complicit in terrible crimes. Or she could just be psychotic. Perhaps, as this series brilliantly suggests, she could be all three. So it doesn’t follow a neat feminist arc – this is real life, or at least an approximation of it, which means it’s at once more disturbing and complicated.

 

3) The Vietnam War

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 18 hour documentary, 10 years in the making and with a budget of $30 million, is so comprehensive it makes previous efforts to document the Vietnam war look facile. Many classic fictional films have been made about the conflict. But I would sacrifice Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter for just one episode of this. The series looks set to become a definitive document, like Shoah managed with the Holocaust, through the simple yet essential virtue of interviewing the widest array of people involved: American troops, the NVA, Viet Cong, ARVN, Vietnamese civilians, American protesters, and journalists all get a say. Their voices merge into a complex and frightening portrait of a conflict that was prolonged through a series of catastrophic choices – on many sides. The episode about the Tet Offensive is harrowing beyond belief. It’s as convincing an example of man’s irredeemable nature as The Act of Killing and indeed Shoah before it. Still, the series as a whole manages to conclude, painfully and incompletely, as a work of humanism.

 

4) Girls

Lena Dunham achieves a rarity for a comedy series, hell for any series: a last season that’s the show’s best. The ensemble cast have never been sharper comedically or more unsettingly antipathetic towards each other – their lack of chemistry was always the point. Adam Driver continues to steal every scene he’s in (the show never was just about Girls). And in its final episode, the show’s ever-frank depiction of the female body helped to set up the most honest depiction of the difficulties of early motherhood that this young male has ever seen. What a finale.

 

5) Love

As sensitive a look at the title’s emotion as any I’ve come across this year. The longform series works magic for Judd Apatow’s trademark scenes of long, mindless, sexually frank chatter. And the central characters are convincingly damaged goods. They cause pain to themselves and each other without ever (completely) losing a kind viewer’s sympathy. It’s a triumph that never insults the audience’s intelligence… until the last episode, sadly, when some of the plot’s sillier machinations dictate a suspension of disbelief that renders its central lovers shallow at a crucial juncture in their relationship. Otherwise perfect.

 

6) Master of None

Aziz Ansari’s brainchild takes the ‘will they won’t they’ dynamic of countless sitcoms to new heights in a one hour penultimate episode special. The chemistry between Ansari and his Italian belle, Alessandra Mastronardi, reaches new peaks – she’s engaged, and they recoil from acting on their impulses. I won’t ruin what happens for you: you must see it for yourself. Rest assured, it’s a great reminder that cliched plot elements can be made to feel fresh again through winning performances and a refreshing lack of irony.

 

7) The Deuce

Just like Francis Ford Coppola, David Simon knows that the story of American capitalism is the story of America, and also the story of America’s deeply ingrained failings. But also like Coppola, he knows that the illegal trades of the country form a less alienating way of telling that story (people can distance themselves from mafiosi thugs), so he’s moved on from the drug slinging and political corruption of The Wire to depict ’70s prostitution and the rise of the porn industry. As a writer, he remains a bit too fascinated by tough men acting tough. But he redeems himself with an interest in tough women acting tough, even, contradictorily, as they’re promoting their own abuse in the sex trade. Strangely (and perhaps perversely), it’s a lot more fun than The Wire, despite its dark subject matter: it has a pulpy flow to it, and lively performances from Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Franco keep spirits high. But it’s not quite as deep.

 

8) The Crown

You don’t have to be a royalist to enjoy this show any more than you have to sympathise with real-life thugs to enjoy The Sopranos. Because The Crown is another excellent family drama – the best on TV right now, I’m convinced. Elizabeth and Philip’s relationship wouldn’t be any more interesting than millions of others were it not for the fact that, in her majesty’s words, they can never get divorced because of the awkward matter of their peculiar social standing. And it is peculiar; these are flesh-and-blood human beings like the rest of us, yet by birth they are deemed ‘superior’. One of the many things this series highlights so well is just how odd it is that we romanticise and hold to a different level of scrutiny these figures who, beyond their fabulous wealth, ultimately bathe in the same water as the rest of us. Their marital and interpersonal problems are as common as muck – infidelity being the key, as is so often the case. However, the solutions that they’re required to formulate are, by necessity, anything but normal. Such is the fascination of this show, heightened by the intensity of Claire Foy and Matt Smith in the melodramatic lead roles, and the gorgeous period design, which makes the old-fashioned world feel so vibrant and real.

 

9) Blue Planet II

Oceans cover over 97% of our amazing planet, so really you have no excuse not to spend 7 hours of your life watching this spectacular achievement.

 

10) The Trip to Spain

More of the same, of course. Which is no bad thing. Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan could pretty much travel anywhere, they could keep talking ad infinitum, and I’d still be hanging onto their every Michael Caine-inflected word.

Top 40 Albums of 2017

Here are my favourites of the year. I think it was a fairly strong one for music, although from my perspective there were no instant classics to match the likes of Lemonade or To Pimp a Butterfly. My number one choice is a little too uneven for my liking, and try as I might I couldn’t find much jazz, metal or electronica to tickle my fancy, all of which I find disappointing. Still, I had a busy year, and I still managed to discover these 40 albums of good-to-great quality, without much difficulty. Which goes to show that the industry is still going strong for us poptimists. As usual, I’m sure there’s plenty I’ve missed – please feel free to share your favourites. I’m always on the lookout for more great music. Just please don’t mention Father John Misty…

 

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1) Angaleena Presley – Wrangled

It can feel pretty lonely as a British country music fan – there are sadly too few people to share my passion with. So two years ago I attended one of Angaleena’s gigs in Bristol, and along with the 100 or so other people gathered there I was transported to another realm that was as exhilarating as any live experience I’d ever had. Angaleena embodies all that I love about the best country music: its plain-spoken everyday wisdom, its addiction to “three chords and the truth”, its striving for beauty over innovation. Wrangled is far from perfect. But Angaleena’s seeking out of her own brand of perfection within genre limitations, driven by a poignantly unrealised desire for commercial success, inspired me like nothing else in music this year. Plus “Bless My Heart” is the funniest country song since “Gravity’s a Bitch”.

 

2) Lana Del Rey – Lust for Life

This has the best Love/Lust duo of the year (sorry, Kendrick), and for once Lana’s ethereal voice sounds tethered to a grounded optimism. It’s long, but then who sets a stopwatch on amazing music?

 

3) Music From the American Epic Sessions

I loved everything about the American Epic project – the 3-part documentary series exploring the lives of some of the founders of American music, the 1-disc soundtrack, the 5-disc collection – but most of all I loved this, a 2-disc celebration of the series’ music with contemporary artists recording old and new songs using the very first recording equipment. The primitive technology means that they have to record live in the studio: one take, no multitracking, no overdubs. The results are revelatory and enormous fun. Highlights include several Jack White numbers, Nas demonstrating through his cover of “On the Road Again” that gangsta rap is as old as time, Ashley Monroe sweetly duetting with a sonorous cello on “Jubilee”, and Beck sounding like he’s discovered gospel for the first time on “Fourteen Rivers, Fourteen Floods”. But there’s so much more.

 

4) Randy Newman – Dark Matter

This cynical old bastard just keeps on getting funnier – and as he gets funnier, remarkably, he also gets sweeter. Dark Matter summarises the state of the world in 2017 pretty well, one in which Putin naturally gets centre stage, much to any thinking person’s dismay. Yet it finds redemption in curious places. Not least in the pathos of “She Chose Me”, which could easily have appeared on the Toy Story 2 soundtrack.

 

5) Fever Ray – Plunge

Take the plunge into this sometimes harsh, dissonant electropop and come out drenched in erotica and right-on political creeds to quote at your enemies. Go on, I dare you.

 

6) Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

I resisted for a while, because I missed the deeper funk of To Pimp a Butterfly, but it’s damn hard to resist the pull of the greatest rapper alive. There’s simply no doubt that this is the most lyrically engrossing album of the year: profound, interconnected, mysterious, and of course challenging, like all of the best art. I still find it a tad musically inconsistent. But it’s the earworms of “DNA.”, “LOYALTY.”, “LOVE.”, and several others that keep me coming back again and again to explore the words.

 

7) The xx – I See You

So gentle it’s easy to miss. Indeed, it’s been passed over in many EOY lists. Yet its calmness bespeaks a confidence: the band use samples without worrying about dullards in the indie circle who bark on about “real music”, and their songcraft this time around has a hopeful romanticism about it. Their sound is forming an ever-clearer vocabulary of its own, that is nevertheless always evolving. And I’m all on board.

 

8) Sampha – Process

Proof that nice guys don’t always finish last. He’s the most promising Mercury Prize winner since The xx. He sketches soundscapes with vivid imagination, shading them with snatches of melody that are usually affecting. Many want him to come through and change the R&B world, but I merely want him to be himself, because the self that comes through is so scintillating.

 

9) The Magnetic Fields – 50 Song Memoir

50 songs covering 50 years of Stephin Merritt’s life rarely get tiresome, even as the music flits from style to style, e.g. from solo ukulele to disco to new wave pop. Though it’s not a straightforward A to B autobiography, covering musings on various other topics, its autobiographical details when they come are always lovingly and humorously sketched, maximising emotional involvement.

 

10) Old 97’s – Graveyard Whistling

In which Rhett Miller thanks God for Irish Whiskey and Pretty Girls, and God (a woman) tells him to behave himself. Yea verily, the time has come in this band’s life to contemplate their own mortality, just like countless others before them. Luckily they’re no hacks and their sturdy country-rock, the best by far this side of the Drive-By Truckers, is up to the task.

 

11) The New Pornographers – Whiteout Conditions

12) Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound

13) Conor Oberst – Salutations

14) Sleater-Kinney – Live in Paris

15) Paramore – After Laughter

16) Tinariwen – Elwan

17) The National – Sleep Well Beast

18) The Bob’s Burgers Music Album

19) Sunny Sweeney – Trophy

20) Young Thug – BEAUTIFUL THUGGER GIRLS

21) Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice

22) Orchestra Baobab – Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng

23) Jlin – Black Origami

24) Jay-Z – 4:44

25) Chuck Berry – Chuck

26) Hamell on Trial – Tackle Box

27) Syd – Fin

28) Saint Etienne – Home Counties

29) Nicole Atkins – Goodnight Rhonda Lee

30) BROCKHAMPTON – SATURATION II

31) Starlito & Don Trip – Step Brothers THREE

32) Margo Price – Weakness EP

33) Swet Shop Boys – Sufi La

34) Trio Da Kali & Kronos Quartet – Ladilikan

35) Prophets of Rage – Prophets of Rage

36) Dawn Oberg – Nothing Rhymes With Orange

37) Charli XCX – Pop 2

38) Withered Hand & A Singer of Songs – Among Horses I

39) Whitney Rose – South Texas Suite

40) Sheer Mag – Need to Feel Your Love

Top 10 Songs of 2017

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I love lists, always have done. But let’s face it, they’re a pretty ridiculous exercise in trying to exert order over chaos. Why do these 10 songs, out of all the tens of thousands released this year, particularly appeal to me? I can try to explain, but really there’s no logical explanation. They just hit me in the gut, and make me want to scream about them from a rooftop. It’s that latter part that makes this all worthwhile – it’s fun to scream about things you love. And maybe you’ll find 1 or 2 songs here that you wouldn’t have otherwise known about had a madman not been screaming about them from a rooftop.

Probably not though. Most likely you’ll look at these 10 songs and think “ok then” and move on with your lives. Which I’m cool with. But as they mean the world to me, prepare to be shouted at. Here goes:

 

1) The New Pornographers – High Ticket Attractions

Proof, if any more were needed, that bouncing male and female vocals against each other atop joyously modulated waves of synthetic music, with a killer rhythm section and hooks thrown in for good measure, creates guaranteed jubilation. Like much of the best pop music, what this band says matters far less than how they’re saying it. And like much of the best recent indie, how they’re saying it is with a goofy grin and a tongue-in-cheek nod back to 80s pop. It’s pastiche done right. So right.

 

2) Kendrick Lamar – DNA

The double helix around which the rest of the album revolves. The themes of Loyalty, Lust, God, and all the others, so vital to Kendrick’s vision of himself at this moment in time, all pop up in various forms. So if you were going to save just one song from the album, this would be it. It epitomises everything else. And oh yeah, it’s also the catchiest and has the slinkiest beat to boot.

 

3) Conor Oberst – Napalm

If you’re going to crib from someone, might as well be a genius like Dylan. And if you’re going to crib from Dylan, might as well be his “wild mercury” sound from Blonde on Blonde – it’s so distinctive, so magical. Luckily Conor Oberst has the talent and the backing musicians to pull it off; with added snottiness, this could easily have fit onto that great double album. Yet here it is in 2017, proudly serving as the highlight of Oberst’s underrated (he’s always been underrated) Salutations. It’s a must-hear for anyone who still clings on to that musty old dream we call rock n’ roll.

 

4) Fever Ray – To the Moon and Back

Chipmunk-styled synths would normally make sane people snigger, but not in this case. Because this is the most powerfully erotic song of the year, squeaking its way towards an unbridled ecstasy that’s seemingly related to Fever Ray’s recent divorce and her subsequent release of homosexual energies. “I want to run my fingers up your pussy” she declares, and the surging musical backdrop makes that idea sound every bit as exhilarating as her voice portends.

There’s a bonus for Donald Trump in the music video; just check out the golden showers, sir!

 

5) Lorde – Green Light

As far as I’m concerned, this is the second time Lorde’s topped a pretty good album with its irresistible lead single. I’m in the minority, I accept, but in the future when I fancy me some 2017 Lorde, I’ll likely just play this one and stop. Why go downhill from such a high?

 

6) Khalid – Young Dumb & Broke

He ain’t dumb or especially broke no more, and he won’t be young for much longer. This look back to goofing about with relationships in high school tacks refreshingly away from the opposable perils of nostalgia and cynicism. Instead, it manages to steer a perfect course through lazy memories of adolescence, guiding listeners unsentimentally through their own.

 

7) Randy Newman – The Great Debate

In which the irascible equal-opportunities-offender puts everyone on trial in the form of a debate: believers, atheists, straw men, Randy Newman… Who wins? Come off it. This is satire, so everyone looks worse coming out than they did going in. Brilliantly arranged for maximum comedic impact, I’ve yet to tire of this elaborate joke, which is less a song than an operetta, complete with distinct movements separated by recitative.

 

8) BROCKHAMPTON – BOOGIE

With its demented sax riff and boogie-inducing rhythmic propulsion, this is my favourite of the many tracks released across BROCKHAMPTON’s three SATURATION albums this year. Seeking to redefine the label of “boy band”, which they assigned to themselves, they lay out their clearest statement of intent within this track’s madness: “Best boy band since One Direction/Makin’ niggas itch like a skin infection”. Um, does that count as lucid? Perhaps not. But it makes me giggle – these young hip-hop hopefuls really are a lot of unruly fun.

 

9) N*E*R*D – Lemon

Like most of the tracks on N*E*R*D’s latest album, the ace up this one’s sleeve is its guest star. True, it manages to work up a sweat all on its own, thanks to the Neptunes’ production which works an irresistible beat that feels like it could suddenly bounce off in any direction – just like dropping a lemon. But it’s Rihanna who gives “Lemon” its life force. She breezes in sounding like the baddest motherfucker in the world, which she undoubtedly is. Her frosty flow is so self-assured it commands the attention every time, like Jay-Z at his best. Her swagger’s always been perfect for hip-hop, and here the production is strong enough to help maintain her at career peak level, which began with last year’s ANTI and I hope won’t end any time soon.

 

10) Sampha – (No One Knows Me) Like the Piano

Piano ballads are treacherous ground for most people, but most people don’t have the keen ear of Sampha. He knows just how much to plink away at your heartstrings with his chosen instrument, the one that’s in his mother’s room and now reminds him of her absence (she passed away from cancer). His voice doesn’t go too far into over-emoting; it goes just far enough to suit the purpose of the song. It’s a triumph of exquisite judgment.

Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile: Lotta Sea Lice (2017) – Album Review

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Lackadaisical charm personified, this album deserves to be played next to chestnuts roasting on an open fire. It’s a warm record where the underlying theme is companionship, despite the fact that there’s a cover of Belly’s appositely titled “Untogether”. Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile manage to turn that indie downer and most of what else they touch (each other’s songs, new songs, and especially Barnett’s wife’s song) into good-natured noises in the extreme. It’s the opposite of Eminem’s latest, in other words.

Recorded in Melbourne, these intercontinental friends share a knack for songwriting that appears offhand but, particularly in the case of Barnett, is actually rich in illuminating details. They also share a, shall we say, tangential interest in singing, their lazy drawls (those hooked to more conventional singing should look elsewhere) easily blurring into each other on this album. Which works fine, because the general atmosphere is so hazy and relaxed anyway. And because their guitars prod and play with each other amidst the haze in such a way as to keep one’s interest; some of the licks have had a way of teasing their way in and out of my consciousness for several days now, always with a pleasing effect.

Lotta Sea Lice starts off with a bum note, however. “Over Everything” is too long and has too much Kurt Vile (Barnett is the superior songwriter), both of which could be fair accusations of the album as a whole. Because the album’s tone is one-note, and no matter how pleasing that one note might be, perhaps this would’ve hit harder as a mini-EP?

Maybe. But there are at least 5 tracks that I would have had to insist remain: “Continental Breakfast” is an acoustic delight and one of the most touching odes to friendship since “Two of Us”, “Blue Cheese” is laugh-out-loud silly, “Peepin’ Tom” is gender-bending of the highest order and contains Barnett’s best vocal performance to date, and the aforementioned cover of “Untogether” vaults over the song’s meaning to find a deeper resonance in the aurally evident enjoyment of the two working together as friends.

Skip one or two tracks if you must. Or just press play and let its affable charms wash over you, unabated, as you flick through photos of your old friends, and are reminded of one of the key reasons to live – even more important than music.

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Fever Ray: Plunge (2017) – Album Review

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“Hey, remember me?/I’ve been busy working like crazy.”

That lyric applies to me here in China, working away at learning how to be an effective teacher, but it applies far more to Fever Ray.

One half of the brother-sister electronic duo The Knife, it’s been four years since their last album and eight years since Ray’s eponymous solo debut. So maybe you could accuse her of slack, but you’d be wrong; just listen to this new album and it will become self-evident how hard she’s been working at perfecting her craft.

Plunge may be the Swedish auteur’s most triumphant work of individualism to date. Always the more intriguing half of The Knife, she takes her electronic wizardry and carefully articulated vocals to new heights, and then douses it all in the kerosene that is her personality.

Where Fever Ray was a slow, sombre meditation on marriage and motherhood, Plunge erupts with a midlife vitality borne from the ashes of turmoil. Because, as 42-year-old Fever Ray, a.k.a. Karin Dreijer, confirmed to The Guardian in November: “Yes, I got divorced… This [album] is about freedom, and curiosity. Now I think it’s absolutely possible to create a family that isn’t a nuclear one.”

So Plunge is the sound of her explicitly breaking free from those domestic shackles, breaking free into the wider world again. In fact, it goes even further than that: it breaks free not just from the concept of marriage, but also from the idea of heterosexuality.

Plunge isn’t a “coming out” album per se, but it’s clearly a party thrown to celebrate the queer aspects of Dreijer’s identity. The most ecstatic moments come from sexual unions with women: “I want to run my fingers up your pussy” she declares, as a chorus of jubilant synths voice their approval, on the BDSM fantasy of “To the Moon and Back”. “She makes me feel dirty again” she sings with a sly confidence on “Falling”. And then there’s “A Part of Us”, set in a gay club, which is described as a “safe space”. Why? Because there’s “No disrespectful gaze.”

What makes this album so interesting is the apparently conflicting ideas of danger and safety combining in queer spaces to provide an electrifying union of sexual and romantic possibility. That’s what you can see in the video for “To the Moon and Back”, the album’s first single, in which the alluring (for some) transgressions of a BDSM gathering take place in the most innocent of settings: a tea party. And that same duality is all over the album: compare the fetishistic urgency of a song like “This Country” (“Gag me, awake my fighting spirit”) with the almost banal pronouncement of affection of a song like “Mama’s Hand” (“The final puzzle piece/The little thing called love”).

The frissons of sexual excitement and romantic possibility in the air, despite her frequent acknowledgments of heartbreak (“Wanna Sip” can be painful to listen to), give Fever Ray’s music huge reserves of confidence and buoys up the overall atmosphere. It’s a world away from the funereally paced and haunting dirges of Fever Ray. The beats are generally fast and punchy, the electronics upbeat and vivacious. It’s hard not to get caught up in the infectiously positive vibes. The great “IDK About You”, for instance, rips along at 150 BPM, seemingly denying the uncertainty of its subject matter through the vigour of a musical whirlwind.

It’s her most consistent set of songs to date, including the 5-minute instrumental title track, which several listens have taught me to respect as essential to the album’s narrative. Its ever-changing rhythmic backdrop captures the uncertainty of this moment in Fever Ray’s life, but its strength manages to convey how she will power through regardless. It’s a “Plunge” into the unknown that close listening reveals to sound truly exhilarating, and is vindicated by the celebratory “To the Moon and Back” that follows it.

If Ray’s style is still a little too arch for my tastes, a little too wilfully bizarre, well, that fault is probably my own. Because objectively speaking I admire every single one of these 11 tracks. And subjectively speaking, I enjoy returning to over half of them. Which is plenty.

Plus, there’s the very best political jibe of the year: “This country makes it hard to fuck”.

And she lives in Sweden!

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Harmonium (2016) – Film Review

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It’s that time of year again when every blogger is weighing up their ‘best of’ lists and scrolling through others to find out what they’ve missed. That’s why I leave my lists to the very end of December; I know there’s always more great stuff to be found. I’m never going to be able to catchy every worthy film, no amateur reviewer is, but it’s the effort that counts, because it uncovers hidden gems like this one.

Harmonium is a tragedy in miniature, impressively written and directed by Kōji Fukada. It won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year, and despite that honour it had only a very limited cinema release in the UK, hence explaining why I missed it.

It concerns a family whose discord is evident from the very first scene: Akie (Mariko Tsutsui) and her daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa) say grace at the dinner table as the man of the house Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) carries on eating. Conflicting worldviews are established without a single word passing between husband and wife. It reminds me of the opening of Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman, in which a shattered window foreshadowed the widening cracks in a seemingly content relationship. Here the mood is just as tense underneath the surface.

We find out that the girl, Hotaru, plays the instrument of the title and is going to appear in a concert. In order to perform, her hands must be able to play in harmony. Likewise, in order to perform the function of a working family, this trio must harmonise. Are they able to do so?

Well, it’s certainly thrown into doubt when a friend of Toshio’s, Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), a man with a shady past, comes to the door seeking a job and lodging. Toshio obliges his friend, and we sense that this is not just because of the Japanese custom of politeness, but because he is atoning for a sin of his own from the past.

Yasaka seems to be a man of harmony: he is calm, collected, and is always wearing the same white shirt tucked into black trousers – he’s a picture of elegance and decorum. Yet he moves stiffly, as if weighed down by some burden, which indeed he is. And this burden will latch itself onto Toshio and his family, plunging them deep into a river of discontent, in which they might well suffocate.

Kōji Fukada directs his melodramatic story with a poise as careful as Yasaka’s, ready to pounce on an unsuspecting audience and shock them. He’s no Hitchcock – suspense is limited to one or two long tracking shots. But he maintains a constant gnawing sense of unease, one that remains right up until the tragic-farcical conclusion. And it’s to his credit that this unease sticks around hours after the credits have finished rolling.

Biblical themes of Catholic guilt and eternal damnation are dealt with, yet never heavy-handedly, and the ensemble cast convincingly portrays a dissatisfaction with life’s vicissitudes that manages to universalise these religious underpinnings. In this way, it reminds me of Leviathan, a film which also showed how momentary slips from the past, a.k.a. sins, can bubble up to deny redemption.

Harmonium isn’t as powerful as that film; it doesn’t have the same self-righteous anger. Yet it works very well as a study of one family who live as if they’re playing a harmonium with hands out of sync, and tragically it seems they always will be.

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Marjorie Prime (2017) – Film Review

I haven’t posted in a while – partly because of settling in to life in China, partly because I’ve struggled to find worthy films to review. Here’s one.

It’s everything that Blade Runner 2049 should have been and more, and at just a fraction of its budget: a genuinely contemplative science-fiction film that’s also a moving meditation on the nature of memory and reality. Written and directed by Michael Almereyda, it’s an adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-nominated play by Jordan Harrison about a family who use holographic projections (a.k.a. “primes”) to replace deceased relatives in their squeaky-clean luxurious home by the sea.

Marjorie (Lois Smith) is an elderly woman in the early stages of dementia who takes some comfort in talking to the hologram of a 40 year-old version of her deceased husband, Walter (Jon Hamm). She lives with her daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and son-in-law Jon (Tim Robbins), who later on will make use of similar “primes” to cope with losses of their own.

As there’s always been something distant about Jon Hamm, you never really question or forget that he’s a projection rather than a real human being in this film. And what’s interesting is that Marjorie never forgets it either – she always talks to him on two levels, on one level as if he really is Walter, and on another simultaneously aware that he isn’t. It’s the same technique we use to watch films: we interact with a film’s “reality”, taking its stories seriously, whilst also being aware that it’s definitely not real. Pretending in this way might just help us to cope with problems in our own lives; looking at fake projections is a form of therapy. And similarly, Marjorie copes with her grief by interacting with a fake, youthful hologram of the husband that she’s lost. It’s make-believe, but that doesn’t make it any less useful or therapeutic.

Lois Smith is really rather wonderful as Marjorie, a character that crackles with wit and intelligence, yet has a cold edge that gleams often in her eye, a steeliness that seems to have caused great damage to her family and in particular her daughter. To say any more would spoil the plot, what little of it there is, as the narrative pivots unexpectedly twice. Part of what makes the film so satisfying is adjusting to these jolts.

Like an Ingmar Bergman film, Marjorie Prime accrues emotional weight merely by having characters talk to one another, exposing their inner flaws and long-held grievances towards each other. And like many a play, much of the key action is held offstage, which means you really have to concentrate. Yet the long-held shots that linger on the character’s faces (real or not) and the remote beach locale in which much of the action is set, plus the lush string-laden score by Mica Levi, help to inject a cinematic flow into what is otherwise a stagey affair.

Indeed, some of the dialogue translates badly onto film, creating a few clumsy interactions that can damage your suspension of disbelief a little, which as we know is crucial – when this happens, the holograms onscreen are exposed for the actors they really are.

What’s worse, it winds up concluding in a scene that is too enigmatic for its own good; like The Tree of Life, its reaching for higher metaphors winds up deadening the overall emotional impact.

Which is not to say that you won’t be moved multiple times before the denouement. In particular, I was touched by the film’s portrayal of an old woman, for once, as a complicated web of personality traits, only one of which is adorably cantankerous. So it joins Amour in the list of films that manage to look at the ageing process unflinchingly – a list that I hope will grow, because it’s a rich, relatively untapped area for filmmakers to explore.

If there’s a finer film about memory this year, I don’t remember it.

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Update on My Blog

I’ve been absent on here for a few weeks, and there’s a good reason for that… I’M MOVING TO CHINA! Tomorrow!!

I’m going to teach English in Guangzhou, which is the largest city in the south – it’s pretty near to Hong Kong. Needless to say, I’ve been busy getting my work visa and everything else sorted, so I haven’t been able to keep up with as many new films and albums as I’d like to. What I have caught up with hasn’t inspire me to write about them, either, which is another reason I’ve been silent. I was looking forward to writing about Blade Runner 2049, being a huge fan of the original, but frankly I don’t think it’s good enough. The critical adoration it’s received makes me feel a little uneasy, as it tends to overlook huge problems with the pacing, acting, dialogue, and even some of the basic plot elements. I don’t get, I just plain don’t get, certain critics who have said that it’s a better film than the original – it’s not even better than Logan, which is a far from perfect film, but is still my favourite blockbuster in what’s been a very disappointing year.

Another reason I’ve been quiet lately is that I’ve started writing for The Young Folks, an American reviews website. It’s voluntary, but it’s a lot of fun as I’ve been able to write pieces on older music that I love as well as more recent stuff. Here’s my review of Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP in case you’re interested, and my review of Tricky’s latest (mediocre) album ununiform that I wrote for them. I’ve just finished a piece on Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love which was a joy to revisit and write about, it should be up soon.

The final reason I haven’t been posting on here lately is that I’ve been editing a film that I made with my grandma, interviewing her friends, older people, about their views on Brexit. The results were fascinating, because in my hometown of Lewes most older people actually voted to Remain and were horrified by the outcome of the referendum, unlike the rest of the country where older people were much more likely to vote Leave. That’s because it’s a middle class community full of retired academics from Sussex University and London, what the Daily Mail would describe as ‘elites’ no doubt. But they’ve lived through a lot, most of them through WWII and all of them through the formation of the EU, so I think they’re worthwhile and fascinating to listen to, and you can often feel the weight of history hanging over their carefully chosen words. Here’s the video, in case you’re interested:

I haven’t decided what to do with this blog while I’m in China; censorship and a shortage of cinemas will sadly make reviewing films a lot trickier, and I don’t know how much of my listening time the music reviews for The Young Folks will end up taking. It’s possible I could start writing about my experiences of teaching in China instead. We’ll see.

But I’ll carry on coming over to WordPress to check out what you’re all doing, for sure. And if you don’t hear from me for a while, I wish you all the best in the near future and hope y’all carry on with your excellent blogging work.

Prophets of Rage: Prophets of Rage (2017) – Album Review

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Public Enemy + Cypress Hill + Rage Against the Machine = FUCK TRUMP3.

So goes the formula for this group, formed during last year’s appalling US election campaign, which smashes Chuck D and DJ Lord from Public Enemy, B-Real from Cypress Hill, Tom Morello and the rhythm section from Rage Against the Machine, all together in a Hadron Collider of rage.

Don’t use the word ‘supergroup’ though – as Tom Morello told Rolling Stone last year: ‘We’re not a supergroup, we’re an elite force of revolutionary musicians determined to confront this mountain of election year bullshit, and confront it head-on with Marshall stacks blazing.’

Erm, ok then Tom. To be fair, I do understand what he’s trying to say – most supergroups are formed in order to massage their member’s egos and make them feel self-important, whereas Prophets of Rage have a specific purpose that exists outside of themselves, which is to create a ‘revolution’ I guess. Yep, I’m being snide: I don’t believe these chaps are any more capable of starting a genuine revolution than Russell Brand.

But then I like Russell Brand, quite a bit actually, because he’s the rare celebrity who genuinely cares about improving himself and the world around him, even if his confusion and egocentrism often gets in the way of results. What’s more, he talks in a genuinely musical way, with a casual poetry that is quite absorbing on a surface level.

So it is too with Prophets of Rage: they don’t have the discipline to really change the world, but anyone expecting that from them is missing the real satisfaction, which is at the surface level: they’re rock stars and they rock pretty fucking hard. Anyone looking to rock stars to effect genuine change is delusional at best, so just sit back and enjoy the ride. If it gives you an outlet for expressing repressed anger about the current political scene, that’s great, but don’t expect any Trump fans to suddenly jump on board the progress train because a rap-metal album is yelling ‘No hatred! Fuck racists!’ at them (the chorus of ‘Unfuck the World’).

Me, I hate Trump and the way the world is going so much that I’m thankful for any soundtrack to vent my frustrations, and this album does the trick. Even if it never comes close to the subtlety of It Takes a Nation of Millions, the fist-pumping calls to action here make you feel a part of a community who genuinely care, if only for 40 minutes. Then it’s back to watching the news and feeling western democracy’s collective sanity eroding away…

It gets me pissed off and head-banging more than any other metal album I’ve heard this year, which is a good thing, when that anger is channelled into a cause rather than directionless, as is the case with so much heavy metal. And if Tom Morello falls back on his collection of sound effects rather than communicating genuine revolutionary fervour on his solos, the Rage Against the Machine rhythm section is the musical highlight here, particularly Tim Commerford on bass who funks it up to provide the catchiest moments – check him out on ‘Unfuck the World’ and ‘Smashit’.

His funk also allows the band’s roar to accommodate the three rappers, who manage to react with their heavy metal without combusting. Predictably, Chuck D is the most absorbing to listen to, his indomitable bass being one of the most consistent pleasures in musical history. Yet B-Real arguably gets more chances to shine, adding a touch of lightness on the weed-supporting ‘Legalize Me’ and then suddenly getting serious about homelessness on ‘Living on the 110’ to prove he’s not just a Flavor Flav. The difference of their unmistakeable timbres makes for intrinsic interest throughout.

I wish they’d call out Donald Trump more often, and by name. But as a collection of political sloganeering it has the same chant-along power of RATM’s ‘fuck you I won’t do what you tell me!’ It’s far more likely to move drugged-up crowds at a festival than get people marching on Washington, true. But then, ever since the 60s, that tradition has gifted us with a lot of terrific music, and if this doesn’t stand with any of the hippie-era’s greats, it’ll do the trick just fine at this awful moment in time.

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