Lists of 2015

I took a break from top tens last year due to… I don’t know. Something like not really being interested? Anyway, here we go again.


 

Top Ten most played songs from 2015 in my iTunes

  1. Destroyer – Dream Lover
  2. Destroyer – Girl In A Sling
  3. Modest Mouse – Lampshades on Fire
  4. Destroyer – Times Square
  5. Wilco – Random Name Generator
  6. Everything Everything – Distant Past
  7. Modest Mouse – Be Brave
  8. Caetano Veloso & Gilberto Gil – Terra (live at Jazz in Mariac)
  9. Blur – I Broadcast
  10. Everything Everything – Regret

A pretty interesting year. Probably my favourite album of the year was the Everything Everything one. Luke Kennard said he played that one so much that he sort of wore it out very quickly and I was the same. The Wilco one is probably the album I go back to most.


 

Top Ten most played songs from 2015 in my iTunes, adjusted to one song per band

  1. Destroyer – Dream Lover
  2. Modest Mouse – Lampshades On Fire
  3. Wilco – Random Name Generator
  4. Everything Everything – Distant Past
  5. Caetano Veloso & Gilberto Gil – Terra (live at Jazz in Mariac)
  6. Blur – I Broadcast
  7. Mark Ronson – Uptown Funk
  8. Sleater Kinney – Surface Envy
  9. Andrew Bird – The Fake Headlines
  10. Django Django – Shake And Tremble

The Sleater Kinney and Django Django albums are splendid. And you don’t like Uptown Funk? I think you’re wrong.


 

Other albums I liked not represented in this list

Julia Holter – Have You In My Wilderness

The Belle & Sebastian album was okay, but I haven’t really gone back to it. Good singles on El Vy and Dilly Dally albums. I’m only just scratching the surface of Kendrick Lamar and Kamasi Washington albums, but they’re pretty great so far.


 

Top Ten Films of the Year

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road
  2. Inside Out
  3. The Martian
  4. Brooklyn
  5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  6. The Lady In The Van
  7. Amy
  8. Selma
  9. Ant-Man
  10. Sicario

 

Worst Film of the Year

Kingsman: The Secret Service. I really disliked that film.


 

Top Five Plays of the Year

  1. I Want My Hat Break, National Theatre (Temporary Theatre)
  2. A View From The Bridge, Wyndham’s Theatre (Young Vic production)
  3. Pirates of Penzance, ENO, Coliseum
  4. King Charles III, Wyndham’s Theatre (Almeida production)
  5. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Gielgud Theatre (National Theatre production)

Turns out I really like plays that transfer to the Wyndham’s.


 

Top 10 most played songs in iTunes – all time

  1. Queens of the Stone Age – The Lost Art of Keeping A Secret
  2. Spoon – Finer Feelings
  3. Spoon – Everything Hits At Once
  4. St Vincent – Actor Out Of Work
  5. Arcade Fire – Ready To Start
  6. Queens of the Stone Age – Go With The Flow
  7. Beck – Hell Yes
  8. Death From Above 1979 – Romantic Rights
  9. Janelle Monae – Tightrope
  10. Lambchop – Slipped Dissolved and Loosed

 

Review: Beck, Morning Phase

I’m an occasional contributor to Third Way Magazine, a magazine of Christian comment upon culture which is available by subscription.

Here’s a review of “Morning Phase”, the album by Beck, which originally appeared in the April 2014 issue.

Everyone needs sad songs occasionally. A little musical wallow can be an important part of the healing process – whether you’re getting over loneliness (Nilsson’s “Without You”), a departed child (The Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home”), or the destruction of Jerusalem (the Book of Lamentations – not as catchy, that one).

Sea Change, Beck Hansen’s 2002 album, was a collection of tear-drenched songs inspired by the break-up of Hansen’s nine-year relationship, and as such provided some superior material for moping around your bedroom crying. These were songs performed at a glacial pace, draped in sincerity rather than the slacker cool of Beck’s career highlight Odelay.

Now, twelve years later, he’s gathered the same musicians together for a tonal sequel to Sea Change – this time the blood-letting coming not as a response to the death of a relationship, but following an extended period of incapacity because of an injury to his spine.

Because of this shift in the source of the misery, Morning Phase’s mood is more one of existential malaise than the raw nerve-endings of its prequel. Indeed, after a ten-year marriage and two children, Beck sometimes seems a little bit too happy to be singing sad songs – the music plucking the heart-strings, but the lyrics only offering formless cut-up poetry in response.

There are glimmers of commentary about his injury – lines like “Bones crack / Curtains drawn / On my back / And she is gone” from Say Goodbye are practically begging for lyric nerd interpretations on SongMeanings.com – but it’s more the mood of these quiet, slow songs that communicates the grief.

Stylistically, the homage to Sea Change is striking – Nick Drake-esque folk augmented by stately, deliberate country swing. The lush strings of Hansen’s father David Campbell are once again employed to great effect, washing over the finger-picked guitars; particularly on “Wave”, where the nautical swells of the string arrangements underline the woozy mood. However, taken as a whole, there’s an unnerving sense that Hansen is walking a path he’s already ventured down; the great innovator’s comforting retreat into the language of his past.

There are a few diversions – the emphatic piano stabs of “Blue Moon”, some lovely phased keys in “Unforgiven”, or the Gothic country of “Turn Away” – but the album’s tone is so monolithic, so uniform, that it slips effortlessly into a forgettable slab; Beck as background music.

As a second-generation Scientologist, Beck is – presumably – extremely familiar with the ‘auditing’ process, where individuals relive past traumas to free themselves of their baggage. It is perhaps unfair to suggest this, but maybe Morning Phase fulfils the same function. It’s Beck talking us through his post-injury isolation, telling us how it felt to be in that room. Lonely, motionless, inert – his thoughts fractured, his sense of self washing away on the tide.

Tom’s Perenially Inaccurate Top 10 of 2013

Each year, we go through the frustrating shambles of listing the top ten tracks in my iTunes. Here we go.

1) The National, “Pink Rabbits”
=2) David Bowie, “Where Are We Now?”
=2) Foals, “My Number”
4) Vampire Weekend, “Step”
=5) Arcade Fire, “Reflektor”
=5) Arcade Fire, “Afterlife”
=7) St Vincent, “Birth In Reverse”
=7) Vampire Weekend, “Ya Hey”
=9) The National, “Demons”
=9) Vampire Weekend, “Diane Young”

Some interesting wrinkles… the fad for releasing one track in advance has caused two problems. One of which is that, if the pre-release and album versions of the song “Reflektor” are counted together, they are easily the song I’ve listened to the most. But as they’re two tracks, they come in at joint fifth and joint eleventh.

We’ll have the same problem next year, I’ll warrant, with “Birth In Reverse”, from the unreleased St Vincent album.

Good albums this year, weren’t they? I found The National a bit patchy and Janelle Monae a bit less electrifying than her previous one, but Arcade Fire, Vampire Weekend and Everything Everything were all extremely strong albums. And the David Bowie one was a revelation. That kid’s alright.

Here’s the list, limited to one track per artist:

1) The National, “Pink Rabbits”
2) David Bowie, “Where Are We Now?”
3) Foals, “My Number”
4) Vampire Weekend, “Step”
5) Arcade Fire, “Reflektor”
6) St Vincent, “Birth In Reverse”
7) Everything Everything, “Cough Cough”
8) Daft Punk, “Get Lucky”
9) Destroyer, “Maria De Las Nieves”
10) Janelle Monae, “QUEEN”

The iPrune continues. We’re now down to 26830 songs over 135.57gb. And my iPod has recently stopped syncing. Thanks Apple.

And here’s the all-time list (last year’s position in brackets):

=1) Queens Of The Stone Age, “Lost Art Of Keeping A Secret” (1)
=1) Spoon, “Finer Feelings” (2)
=1) St Vincent, “Actor Out Of Work” (3)
4) Arcade Fire, “Ready To Start” (4)
5) Queens Of The Stone Age, “Go With The Flow” (5)
=6) Bracket, “Trailer Park” (5)
=6) Rolling Stones, “Tumbling Dice” (new entry)
=8) Beck, “Hell Yes” (new entry)
=8) Foals, “Cassius” (9)
=10) Death From Above 1979, “Romantic Rights” (new entry)
=10) Interpol, “The Heinrich Maneuver” (new entry)

There we go. See you next year.

Catching up on 2013

I’ve been doing National Novel Writing Month, and as such have been collecting together some thoughts (naively) on how it’s done. (Particularly naively as today has been appalling for wordcount. Anyway…)

But I thought that might be tricky without running through what I’ve already been up to this year, as the last time I posted about that was in February, and I’ve ended up writing a lot of other things.

Sitcom

I had been writing the action screenplay at the start of the year, but was prodded by the wise and fashionable Richard Hurst to have a solo-written sitcom in my drawer. So I wrote one.

Peace Love Death Metal is a sitcom about a Viking Metal band. It needs another draft, with more jokes added in, but what sitcom doesn’t?

Play

I’d been toying around with an adaptation of The Beaux Stratagem by George Farquhar for ages, and this summer I finished it. It’s now – sacrilegiously – called Gentlemen Gone Wild. It needs a bit of a final brush-up, and then it should be ready.

It’s been quite an interesting process – it felt less like writing and more like Sudoku, going through the text, rewriting it, and reassembling the scenes in a way that made sense. A fun dramaturgical exercise, for sure, and hopefully there will be some jokes in it at the end.

Novel

The novel I’ve been writing for Nanowrimo is called Orphans. I’m not really saying much else about it at this stage, other than it’s about orphans. It won’t be finished by the end of November. The plan will be to do more writing and rewrites once November is over and then we’ll see how it turns out.

Old Things

I’ve also had a couple of reminders this month that unmade scripts never really die – they can suddenly lurch back into life from nowhere. The two projects are ones of which I have very fond memories, so it would be delightful to work on either of them. We shall see.

Review: David Bowie, “The Next Day”

I’m an occasional contributor to Third Way Magazine, a magazine of Christian comment upon culture which is available by subscription.

Here’s a review of “The Next Day”, the album by David Bowie, which originally appeared in the May 2013 issue.

Aging has been a preoccupation of David Bowie since the very beginning. It’s a metamorphosis much slower than his lightning quick development in the 1970s, from Ziggy to Thin White Duke to Berlin, but one he’s been aware of all along. “Look out, you rock n’ rollers / Pretty soon now, you’re going to get older”, he sang in 1971, and following a heart attack whilst touring his 2003 record Reality, he must have felt another change was about due. He effectively retired for the next decade, his output dwindling to an occasional guest vocal, his legacy complete.

However, within seconds of the start of The Next Day, we’re aware that someone has put something pretty exciting in Bowie’s tea, because he sounds engaged, creative, eager to take risks. The album opens with the thumps and screeches of the titular The Next Day, the angular chops reminiscent of his single Fashion, Bowie’s voice wheedling, hectoring and growling. The second track is even better, deepening the feeling of a creative corner turned – Dirty Boys is a quacking New Orleans funeral march by way of Iggy Pop’s Nightclubbing.

Rather than the late-period cosiness of his previous three albums, where aping the style of his glory days aimed to remind the world of his relevance, The Last Day has an iconoclastic glee at tearing away bits of Bowie’s history and deconstructing them for nobler ends. Valentine’s Day builds a slice of ‘70s narrative pop from a Mick Ronson-esque crunchy guitar line and sha-la-la backing vocals, and (You Will) Set The World On Fire trips between punky rock and Bowie’s inherent pop sensibilities. Even the cover art takes the past and cheekily, unforgiveably, obliterates it with a square of nothingness – the past informing the present, but ultimately discarded.

Bowie’s lyrics here are dense with oblique imagery, even in the quieter moments – exemplified by Where Are We Now, a gorgeous, heart-aching ballad which echoes his experimental heights by namedropping Berlin landmarks. He seems to be once again drawing inspiration from his long-term hero and rival Scott Walker; most notably on Heat, the final track on the album which sees Bowie appropriating Walker’s haunted crooning. Walker found a way to turn his pop career into a vehicle for albums like The Drift – challenging, uncomfortable, explosive – and maybe Bowie is now ready to follow his lead.

You get the sense that Bowie needed to make this album – that old creative spark ignited in the face of becoming an institution, an influence, passive and inert. On the title track he snarls “Here I am, not quite dying / My body left to rot in a hollow tree”, and mortality hangs heavily over the album; his raging at the dying of the light giving him permission to follow his impulses. It’s this emotion that turns it from a late-career cash grab into something more vital.

Creativity is bound to wax and wane over a fifty year music career, and The Next Day is a cogent reminder that passion and invention aren’t solely the preserves of the up-and-coming. After a break from the album-tour-album cycle and a wander in the wilderness, Bowie sounds reinvigorated and alive – ready to try something new in a career that has seen so much change. Thrillingly, it suggests he isn’t finished yet, and there’s still an appetite there for turning and facing the strange.

Thank God for February

Well, January happened. Lots of day job shenanigans going on, which meant I mainly spent January angry and writers-blocked and frustrated. I guess it wasn’t writers block as much as non-writing stuff becoming too prominent in my head.

But this, dear reader, is February. Sweet February. All change.

Screenplays

So on Monday, after a week off work, I started writing again.

The “skeletal action script” I mentioned back in November got slightly fleshed out over December, to the point where I had about 31 pages. Then came day-job upheaval – the only way to explain it, really, is to point you to some really apposite Dilbert cartoons.

When I sat on the bus on Monday, I started by writing a few scrappy bits and pieces… feeling my way back into the story, and adding a few ideas – single lines, recurring themes – that can sit in my draft until I have to flesh them out.

I also took the decision to scrap a scene that was in the 31 page draft, to reduce the scope of the climax a little. This is another large, silly action film like my first two screenplays, but I want to focus it a little – to bring the restraint of The Secret Society into the expansive set pieces of God Save The Queen.

Essentially it’s a base-under-siege story, and I had thought the climax might happen somewhere very far away from the base. Now I think it’s walking distance.

So after five mornings of writing, I’ve added twelve pages to the script, and it feels much better as a result.

I’ve also got into a funny pattern of writing the set-up expositional scene and the payoff scene in a pair, and then slotting them into place in the script. It’s quite an interesting way of doing it, as it works like a joke – setup and punchline – but you’re doing it across the expanse of time.

That was actually the first thing I wrote after my January break. A piece of dialogue by the antagonists, which is then brought back around the end of Act Two, and then at the climax of Act Three. It’s almost inconsequential – two lines of dialogue that demonstrate how two characters relate to each other, but the lines paired across the whole story makes it quite satisfying.

So, we’re at 43 pages. Good progress.

Other writing

I did a little script editing for a short film that my frequent writing partners Sarah Dean and Kate Chedgey were making, and found that fun to do. I hadn’t been involved in the conception at all, so it was easier to spot the ways it would hang together better from the perspective of an outside eye.

We’ve also got a first (might be second, actually) draft of the team-written sitcom that Sarah is showrunning. I’m a bit down on it, but we’re considering broadening the team for a 30 Rock-style joke pitching session. That might be interesting.

Other stuff

Given day-job frustrations, I’ve been feeling I need more creative opportunities, so I’ve signed up for a puppeteering course. It was on a whim. I’m looking forward to it, though. It’s an evening course, designed for adults, and is a good opportunity to meet some new people.

I’ll also recommend again the Comedian’s Comedian podcast. Full of insight on the writing process, masterminded by my lovely former landlord Stu Goldsmith, and home to some of the brightest and most open people on the comedy circuit. The Mike Gunn one is a great place to start.