Category Archives: lists & playlists

Favourite books of 2022

My favourite book published this year was Candescent Blooms by Andrew Hook. It’s an outstanding, confident, often surreal collection, featuring accounts of the final days of Hollywood actors who died before their time. Despite its strong pitch, it remains difficult to describe – the stories are poetic, subjective, dizzying. Though there’s a huge amount of research in evidence, tone and language take precedence over biography. Normally I struggle to read whole collections from start to finish, whereas in this case I told myself I’d take my time, savour the richness of each story, but then raced through the whole lot in a couple of sittings, so that now they all merge in my mind and I couldn’t tell you which I loved most. It’s a huge achievement and a hell of an experience, and I recommend you get hold of a copy immediately.

Another 2022 novel I loved was Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel. In many ways it operates as an out-there coda to her previous novel, The Glass Hotel, and though I adored it less than that book, its broader scope, multiple time periods and tangents that double back to become relevant at unexpected moments entirely won me over.

Of the other recently published novels I read this year, the one that meant the most to me was Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession (2019). I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this story of humble, modest people achieving humble, modest success. You might describe another of my favourites as an antagonistic twin of this book: No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood (2021), which genuinely made me laugh out loud in the first half and also cry at the end, and I can’t remember the last novel that managed that. One of the most exhilarating books I read in 2022 was By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar (2020), casting Arthurian legend in bizarre new forms, a 21st-century riff on T H White’s already riff-packed The Once and Future King. I’m saving the second of Tidhar’s Anti-Matter of Britain Quartet novels (The Hood) for a later treat, and I can’t wait to find out which legends the final two novels will address. Other novels that I loved unequivocally were The Rotters’ Club by Jonathan Coe (2001), my first Coe, which sparked a season of reading his other linked books, and Geek Love by Katherine Dunn (1989), a big, bold carnival of a carnival novel which was Very Much My Thing even before the speculative elements showed up.

What else floated my boat? Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (2017), certainly, but I was late to that party. I thought The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton (2020) was superior to his excellent The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, mainly by virtue of several of its high concepts remaining concealed from the reader. The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow (2019) was one of my favourite fantastical fables of the year. Circe by Madeline Miller (2018) is another novel everybody else read before me, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Similarly, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2011) was one of those novels that seem to be everywhere for a time, which makes me contrary about refusing to read – which makes me an idiot, as it’s terrific. Three SF novels that I loved this year were The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas (2018), Skyward Inn by the always wonderful Aliya Whiteley (2021) and I Still Dream by James Smythe (2018), an excellent AI novel that seems far more prescient now that my social media feed is full of people opining about AI compositions.

On to older novels. I was blown away by the restrained energy of Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (1980), and the inventiveness of the Jekyll and Hyde-inspired Two Women of London by Emma Tennant (1989) – I must get on to reading more of her work. I found The Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe (1962) thrilling in spite, or perhaps because of, its claustrophobia.

Alongside the Stuart Turton mentioned above, my favourite crime novels this year were The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo (1946), which features a murder mystery with the most terrific explanation, and The Riverside Villas Murder by Kingsley Amis (1973), which is startling in its plotting but also its inversion of various mystery tropes, and an unlikely 14-year-old detective.

A list of wonderful novels I read this year and that I should have got around to reading much sooner includes: the amoral The Murderess by Alexandros Papadiamantis (1903), the lively Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh (1928), the unexpected pleasures of The Club of Queer Trades by G. K. Chesterton (1905), the proto-SF The Machine Stops by E. M. Forster (1909) and the intense and startlingly modern The Awakening by Kate Chopin (1899). Even odder, and somewhat embarrassing, omissions until 2022 were the wonderfully bizarre The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz (1934) and The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers (1895).

Most of the non-fiction I read this year represented writing research of one form or another. My favourite non-fiction book that I read purely for pleasure was The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions by Mark Lewisohn (1988).

In total, I read 51 books in 2022. I’m a bit ashamed to say 36 of them were written by men; I’m determined to equalise the ratio next year.

Favourite film, TV and videogames of 2022

Film

Despite a return to cinema viewing being viable for the first time in a couple of years, I saw only two films in the cinema in 2023. However, they were among my favourite films I saw this year, and the atmosphere was certainly an important part of that. Though lighter than my usual fare, I thought that the 1950s mystery pastiche See How They Run (Tom George, 2022) was near-perfect in the sense of achieving everything it set out to achieve. Seeing it with my wife, followed by Italian food and stand-up comedy on our first date night in years, was the happiest viewing experience imaginable. We saw the Bowie documentary Moonage Daydream (Brett Morgen, 2022) together a week later, which I found almost overwhelming, and which prompted intense conversation about art and ambition.

At home, the films I loved the most were the epic Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra, 2015) and the moving SF-inflected social drama Gagarine (Fanny Liatard / Jérémy Trouilh, 2020). On the back of the once-a-decade Sight & Sound poll, my most exciting discoveries didn’t include the new #1, (Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles), which I finally watched and appreciated well enough, but rather the masterful and hallucinatory Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 2000) and the 14-minute Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren, 1943), the missing link between Luis Buñuel and David Lynch.

Recently-released films I loved included the uncomfortable, oddly overlooked family drama The Nest (Sean Durkin, 2020), the heartfelt and sweet time-travel piece Petite Maman (Céline Sciamma, 2021), impactful Icelandic folk horror Lamb (Valdimar Jóhannsson, 2021), the triumphant (though perhaps fractionally lesser than the first film) sequel The Souvenir Part II (Joanna Hogg, 2022), the terrific debut of one of my favourite British filmmakers, Katalin Varga (Peter Strickland, 2009), and the effective music documentary The Velvet Underground (Todd Haynes, 2021). Honourable mentions go to moral drama A Hero (Asghar Farhadi, 2021, Lady Diana horror film Spencer (Pablo Larraín, 2021), one-take restaurant-set thriller Boiling Point (Philip Barantini, 2021), sweet coming-of-age drama Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2021), and anti-Hangover ‘buddy movie’ Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg, 2020).

Older films that I saw this year for the first time and loved included the startling The Magician (Ingmar Bergman, 1958), the intense, remarkably faithful adaptation Woman in the Dunes (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964), fantastic eco-thriller The Day the Earth Caught Fire (Val Guest, 1961), Wages of Fear remake Sorcerer (William Friedkin, 1977), Beat-era improvisation Shadows (John Cassavetes, 1959) and his much later masterpiece A Woman Under the Influence (1974) and downbeat but ultimately alarming made-for-TV domestic horror The Appointment (Lindsey C. Vickers, 1982).

TV

My favourite TV shows in 2022 were wonky sitcom The Witchfinder (2022) and the first of the two seasons of odd arthouse documentary How To With John Wilson (2020), both of which delighted me again and again. This is Going to Hurt (2022) was the most important TV drama I saw this year, and I hope it proves influential on policies relating to NHS funding. I loved the understated Drôle (Standing Up) (2022), the first season of Only Murders in the Building (2021) and Peter Jackson’s absorbing fly-on-the-wall documentary The Beatles: Get Back (2021). I finally got around to watching all seasons of Detectorists and Ted Lasso, both of which are as good as everyone says. I enjoyed bitesize comedy Cheaters (2022), sketch show Ellie and Natasia (2022), the first season of rotoscoped time-travel mindtrip Undone (2019), and the overlong but ultimately compelling Bad Sisters (2022). My guilty pleasure was the double-crossing mystery game show The Traitors (2023), though I found myself more preoccupied with the convolutions required of the production team than the bickering of the contestants.

Videogames

As usual, most of my favourite PC games I played this year were indie affairs: idiosyncratic card-game Lovecraftian mystery Inscryption (2021), monochrome Zelda-esque romp Death’s Door (2021), superb roguelike brawler Hades (2018), plant-detective simulator Strange Horticulture (2022) and compulsive timesinks Stacklands (2022) and Loop Hero (2021). Despite each of these sucking up far more of my time, my favourite indie experience of all was the 5-hour experience of The Case of the Golden Idol (2022), an Obra Dinn-esque mystery based around a series of crude fixed tableau and a click-and-drop language interface, which featured a story as compelling and labyrinthine as any novel I’ve read this year.

This year I finally succumbed to buying a Nintendo Switch for the family. Together, me and my sons  played lots of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (2017), Super Mario Party (2018) and Yoshi’s Crafted World (2019) as well as charming indie coop gateway-RPG Child of Light (2014) and nutso platform brawler Adventure Pals (2018). In the evenings, I poured hours into (in ascending order) heart-halting Metroid Dread (2021), the beautifully serene The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017) and, at long last, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015) – though I loved the essentially endless questing, plus in-world card game Gwent, I skipped almost every cutscene. Does that make me a bad gamer?

Favourite albums of 2022

Modern composition / minimalism / drone

California collective Wild Up’s performances of Julius Eastman’s works (Vol. 1: Femenine / Vol. 2: Joy Boy) were two of my favourite albums of 2022, and continue to surprise me each time I relisten. Oren Ambarchi provided two excellent albums this year, both of which build directly on the intense, repetitions of his other recent releases. Ghosted is inflected with Mingus-esque bass grooves, whereas Shebang is lighter and more slippery; both are as wonderful as you might expect from Ambarchi, who rarely puts a foot wrong. Opening Performance Orchestra’s version of Phill Niblock’s Four Walls Full Of Sound is the most engrossing, enveloping drone imaginable. Equally maddening (in the best possible way) is Reich/Richter by Steve Reich, an absorbing soundtrack to Gerhard Richter’s abstract film Moving Picture (946-3). After a run of soundtrack work that doesn’t stand up well without visuals, Colin Stetson released Chimæra I, a chilly drone that features little of his ultra-physical saxophone performances of the past, but is no lesser for it. Anna von Hausswolff’s towering Live at Montreux Jazz Festival is similarly grand, with staggering vocal performances. Sow Your Gold In The White Foliated Earth by DEATHPROD deployed odd instruments designed by experimental composer Harry Partch to great effect. In Promise & Illusion, Ecka Mordecai reaches almost the same heights with her voice. Laura Cannell had a great year, with her folk-drone EP We Long to be Haunted my favourite, closely followed by the lighter but eerier Antiphony of the Trees. Living Torch by Kali Malone is another long drone that ranges from barely-there to punched-in-the-chest. Sarah Davachi continued her wonderful work with the restrained Two Sisters.

Weird / electronica

The most remarkable electronic album I heard this year was I was born by the sea by Hull-based artist Richie Culver, featuring upsettingly jarring, glitchy electronica underpinning dour Sleaford Mods-esque state-of-the-nation pronouncements like ‘There’s more mobility scooter repair shops and bookies than there are bookshops.’  I had no less than three minimal techno releases by Deepchord on regular rotation this year, my favourite of which were the EP Functional Extraits 1 and album Functional Designs. Another act to secure more than one slot on this list is Romance, whose haunting collaboration with Twin Peaks sound designer Dean Hurley, In Every Dream Home a Heartache, is wonderful – but not as wonderful as Once Upon a Time, a vaporwave oddity stretching Celine Dion vocals beyond breaking point. Mattering and Meaning by Dan Nicholls is a superficially beautiful collection of piano loops and field recordings that becomes stranger the more you listen. I loved the ambient soundscapes Nachthorn by Maxime Denuc and the more jittery Koko maailma by Olli Aarni. Finally, I don’t know how to describe Context by Lasse Marhaug, other than it’s as dark and compelling as the entrance to a train tunnel or a looming storm cloud.                         

Indie / rock / vocal

The Ruby Cord by Richard Dawson (or ‘Richard Dawson of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne’, as the album cover emphasises) is a towering success, building on previous albums Peasant and 2020. He’s become by far my favourite vocal artist, and no matter how sweet some of his material becomes, his experimental, bloody-minded attitude shines through. Herman Dune brought the nostalgia with reworkings of favourite songs on The Portable Herman Dune. Horse Lords proved themselves reliable Beefheartians with the wonderful Comradely Objects. My favourite rock albums were Most Normal by Gilla Band and Super Champion by Otoboke Beaver, which drove my kids wild. My favourite calm albums were Gravskrift by Vessel, Ghosts by Haress, Optimism by Jana Horn and the sweet indie debut caroline by caroline.

Wild beats

I somehow missed Native Soul last year, but their 2021 release of South African amapiano house tracks, Teenage Dreams, has been on constant rotation whenever I’m driving alone. In 2022 they produced Native Roots, a more minor album featuring guest vocals, but great fun all the same. Twenty-One Sabar Rhythms is a terrific collection of precisely what it promises, from The Doudou Ndiaye Rose Family. Finally, I’m not connoisseur of house music, but Decius Vol. I by Decius & Lias Saoudi strikes me as the best sort imaginable.

Compilations

There were some terrific compilations this year! My favourite was perhaps Music from Saharan WhatsApp (Sahel Sounds), which contains the most incredible grooves imaginable. The unlikeliest collection I loved was V4 Visions: Of Love & Androids (Numero Group), featuring 90s pop and R&B tunes that sound like hits from a parallel dimension. Very different but similarly out-there was the dark and strange Síntomas de techno – Ondas electrónicas subterráneas desde Perú (1985-1991) (Buh). I loved the uplifting Soul Jazz Records Presents Studio One Music Lab (Soul Jazz), and the first and third volumes of I Had the Craziest Dream: Modern Jazz and Hard-Bop in Post War London (Death Is Not the End). More conventional (for me) delights were found in the drone wash of Hallow Ground presents: Epiphanies (Hallow Ground). Some of the strangest and most exciting compilations I heard this year were Luke Schneider Presents… Imaginational Anthem, Vol. XI : Chrome Universal – A Survey of Modern Pedal Steel (Tompkins Square), the bizarre-but-calm Thorn Valley (World of Echo) and the completely unclassifiable Elsewhere VXIII (Rocket Recordings), which ought to be unlistenable given its breadth of artists, sounds and languages, but which comes across as the most coherent mixtape you’ve ever been gifted.

Reissues

The biggest reissue release this year was the Super Deluxe edition of Revolver by The Beatles. The mournful demo of Yellow Submarine alone is worth the price of admission. Almost as exciting is the bumper ‘Farewell Horizontal’ edition of my favourite Pavement album, Terror Twilight, and a remastered version of often-overlooked electronica favourite Body Riddle by Clark. The smoky trip-hop Glass Lit Dream by Dawuna is my favourite 2021 release that I missed last year, though its reappearance in 2022 barely counts as a reissue. I played previously-hard-to-come-by Mother Is The Milky Way by Broadcast endlessly, along with the beautiful calmnesses of Tan-Tan Therapy by Tenniscoats and Sings Reign Rebuilder by Set Fire To Flames and the wonderful Peel Sessions by Movietone, and a brilliant album and band I’d never encountered before, Hydroplane by Hydroplane. The funkiest reissues I came across were Air Volta by Volta Jazz, Heart of the Congos by The Congos, Vol. 1 by Orchestre Les Volcans du Benin and the treasure trove of Charles Stepney demos, Step on Step. One of the most exciting discoveries was the Trunk release of the soundtrack to the 1976 TV show Children of the Stones, by Sidney Sager and the Ambrosian Singers.                      

Recommendations aplenty

As anybody browsing my previous blog posts can deduce, I love lists. Yes, they can be reductive, sometimes elitist, but they work amazingly as catalysts in terms of recommendations. Find a top-ten list of any media that includes some things you love, and the chances are you’ll also love the list items you don’t yet know.

On that note, I was recently asked to complete a book list for Shepherd.com. Given that my headspace has been so occupied with Sherlock Holmes recently, I opted to put together a list of ‘The best books containing satisfying mysteries’. I don’t think it’s too spoilery to show you this image of my choices, and you can read the whole article if you’d like to know my reasons for selecting them.

Tim Major - satisfying mysteries book listIf there’s one thing better than making a satisfying list, it’s being included on someone else’s. Having your work noticed by an amazing editor like Ellen Datlow goes some way to staving off the imposter syndrome (for a while) – so I’m delighted that Ellen included my story ‘The Cardboard Voice’ in her longlist of 2021 recommendations, alongside many writers whose work I love.

The story’s available to read in Nightscript vol VII, edited by CM Muller. It’s about identity, deepfakes and old audio technology.

Most importantly, if you’re interested in the state of horror fiction right now (and in my opinion, it’s in a wildly healthy state), I’d recommend you scour Ellen’s list from start to finish. That’s what I’ll be doing.

Favourite albums of the first half of 2022

I always look forward to compiling lists at the end of each year, taking stock of my favourite releases. Today I asked myself: Why wait? The fact that we’ve just passed the summer solstice makes this seem a reasonable enough moment to sum up my favourite albums of the first half of the year.

Modern composition

The most thrilling releases I’ve heard so far this year are California collective Wild Up’s treatments of the works of misunderstood but recently re-evaluated genius composer Julius Eastman. Vol. 1: Femenine is livelier than any other version of this incredible minimalist piece I’ve heard, and Vol. 2: Joy Boy (featuring pieces never performed before) is a revelation, culminating in a version of ‘Stay On It’ more frenzied and lunatic than ever before. Not only is this a huge recommendation, the collective has pledged that another five volumes are in the works! In comparison, Spiralis Aurea by Stefano Pilia is a far more soothing experience, but wonderful all the same. Ghosted, a spiky and playful piece by one of my favourite modern artists, Oren Ambarchi, continues his run of stellar albums.

 

Drone

The pipe-organ-heavy, doom-metal-without-metal, Kate Bush-esque Live at Montreux Jazz Festival is gloriously sludgy yet uplifting, and puts Anna von Hausswolff high on my list of live acts to see one day. Lucrecia Dalt’s gloomy original soundtrack for The Seed (a film I haven’t seen) is varied and, while drawing on familiar horror tropes, nevertheless satisfyingly original. The new version of Phill Niblock’s Four Walls Full Of Sound by Opening Performance Orchestra is almost as arresting as the Wild Up pieces, though you have to pick the right moment to expose yourself to such a wall of sound, and the same applies to Alvin Lucier and Jordan Dykstra’s extended-drone album Out Of Our Hands. The self-titled album by mysterious collective The pale faced family on the hill, featuring Oliver Coates, is aloof, but very good and often very surprising.

 

Weird / electronica

Mattering and Meaning by Dan Nicholls squelches loops of piano with field recordings, producing a mush of unclassifiable sound, and provides a great background to thought. Mux by drummer Julian Sartorius is more palatable than his recent collaboration with Matthew Herbert, yet his jittery pieces sound more electronic than ‘real’, but that’s no complaint.

 

Indie / rock / vocal

Actually, You Can proves that Deerhoof still actually can, and ‘Plant Thief’ has become one of my favourite Deerhoof tracks. The Voltarol Years by Half Man Half Biscuit is reliably good, and made me snort with laughter. Movietone’s collected Peel Sessions reveals a band that perhaps ought to have been bigger and more loved. Optimism by Jana Horn provides the low-key beauty missing from Aldous Harding’s most recent release; listening to this album is like falling asleep against the trunk of a tree in dappled sunlight.

 

Compilations / reissues

V4 Visions: Of Love & Androids is another superb compilation from Numero Group, featuring ‘lost’ tracks from a UK label that between 1990 and 1994 clashed American and Jamaican sounds with some pretty astounding results. Hallow Ground presents: Epiphanies is far slower affair featuring drones and tones, though often majestic. I Had the Craziest Dream: Modern Jazz and Hard-Bop in Post War London, Vol. 1 from Death Is Not The End is an amazing collection of exactly what the title describes, and almost all tracks are infectious fun. (Volume 2 didn’t quite live up to the first, though.) My favourite compilation so far this year is Music from Saharan WhatsApp from Sahel Sounds, certainly the most eye-opening release I’ve heard for months, and foot-tappingly catchy too.

Book soundtrack: Shade of Stillthorpe

As I’ve explained in previous blog posts, I create soundtracks for most of my novels and longer fiction. My lost-in-the-forest changeling novella SHADE OF STILLTHORPE is steeped in music, and definitely required a soundtrack, which I created between drafts and which in turn shaped the narrative.

You can listen to the playlist via Spotify or via the widget below.

Here’s a track-by-track explanation of the selections:

1. The Earth With Her Crowns – Laura Cannell
This track represents the ‘opening credits’, for want of a better term. SHADE OF STILLTHORPE is partly a folk horror, and this sparse track evokes plenty of Blood on Satan’s Claw-esque foreboding, and it’s utterly beautiful too. And what a title! If you haven’t been listening to Laura Cannell these last few years, do.

2. The Geography – Belbury Poly
The protagonist, Key, has a relationship with the wild that’s primarily nostalgic, and this hauntological track from Belbury Poly evokes secondary-school textbooks as much as nature. I love the sampled final line – Look for this sign to show you’re on the right track – leading directly into the immediately more pessimistic ‘Get Lost’.

3. Get Lost – Tom Waits
A track that Key might well love, without recognising the implications. Here, the command to ‘get lost’ could be interpreted as an invitation to check out of normal, dull life… but after his camping expedition with his teenage son Andrew, Key will become lost in a far more profound sense.

4. Sirene – Machinefabriek & Anne Bakker
Another folk-horror-ish, hauntological track, its beauty increasingly interrupted by glitches and errors. No spoilers, but it’s all key to Key’s experience in the novella.

5. Kool Thing – Sonic Youth
The first of three diegetic tracks (that is, music that explicitly features in the story). Key loves Sonic Youth, but when his son professes a love for the band, it’s hardly reassuring. Who is this strange boy who insists that he’s Andrew?

6. Cat Claw – The Kills
Andrew – or Andy, as this unfamiliar boy calls himself – plays the simple riff from this song on the electric guitar, and not badly. Why does Key find that so unnerving?

7. The Titans / The Chamber / The Door – Bernard Hermann
Key, Alis and Andy watch Jason and the Argonauts together, partly to allow me to feature this snippet of Bernard Hermann’s score, which accompanies the discovery of the statue of Talos. It’s one of my earliest soundtrack memories, and still gives me shivers every time I hear it.

8. Tulpar – Galya Bisengalieva
This is the turning point, I suppose, when Key finally determines that he’s losing control over his environment. Galya Bisengalieva is leader of the London Contemporary Orchestra, and her first couple of EPs are outstanding, and subtly terrifying.

9. Magic Doors (live) – Portishead
Another band that Key presumably loves, and another track that takes on new meaning in the context of his gradual unravelling. This live version is a little wilder and more frenetic than the album track, with a constant threat of the rhythm section racing ahead too fast and leaving Beth Gibbons behind.

10. 1req – Grischa Lichtenberger
Utterly terrifying, dry, relentless beats, with… what? Bat swoops? There’s no turning back now.

11. Something Big – Burt Bacharach
‘End credits’, and jarringly, deliriously upbeat. Draw your own conclusions.

You can stream the playlist via Spotify, or play it directly below.


See here for more information about SHADE OF STILLTHORPE, published by Black Shuck Books on 26 April 2022.

Favourite albums of 2021

Drone

In the latter part of this year I’ve had HYbr:ID I by Alva Noto on near-constant rotation while writing; it’s the album that most consistently pushes me into a flow state, and because I’ve done so much writing this year, by default I suppose this is my favourite album of 2021. A close contender is 7.37/2.11 by Perila, similarly ghostlike and similarly impossible to describe when not actually listening to it. My other favourite drone albums of the year are Rakka II by Vladislav Delay and Fringe by Felisha Ledesma, and my favourite field recordings are on dawn, always new, often superb, inaugurates the return of the everyday by the always excellent Kate Carr.           

Modern composition

Two unexpected delights of this year were also two revisitations of favourites from previous years. Teenage Lontano by Marina Rosenfeld features teenagers singing acapella RnB, snippets of which were previously featured on the wonderful Plastic Materials in 2009. Oren Ambarchi’s Live Hubris is, fairly obviously, a live version of 2016’s Hubris, which was among my favourite albums of that year. I loved The Changing Account by G.S. Schray, which evokes both Tortoise and Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock. Other favourites this year include Harmattan by Klein, Wild Up’s rendition of Julius Eastman’s Femenine, Cracks by Bendik Giske as well as Giske’s untitled collaboration with Pavel Milyakov, both of which stood in nicely for the absence of new Colin Stetson material other than his soundtrack work, and Dog Mountain by Laurin Huber and Antiphonals by the ever-reliable Sarah Davachi.

Weird / electronica / hip hop

One of the most notably weird albums this year was Deep England by Gazelle Twin & NYX, which is at once pagan, folk-horror and decidedly modern. It also features ‘Fire Leap’ from The Wicker Man, which gets extra points. A lot of my favourite electronica seems to be inspired by Dean Blunt’s and Inga Copeland’s muttered, hazy quasi-hip-hop productions dating all the way back to Black is Beautiful in 2012 – from Dean Blunt’s own BLACK METAL 2 to Fast Fashion by Lolina (aka Inga Copeland herself) to the tonally similar SHILOH: Lost For Words by John Glacier, the marvellous Blue Hills by Jonnine, and Equal Amounts Afraid by LA Timpa. Finally, What Is Normal Today? by Not Waving is a total departure from their recent downbeat style, instead dizzying, queasy and propulsive techno.            

Indie / rock

At this stage in their long career, it seems unreasonable to expect new things of Low, and yet they seem increasingly intent on burying their angelic voices beneath distortion and sheer noise. I’m happy to say that HEY WHAT is all the better for it, and contains some of my favourite moments of any album this year, and is almost up to the standard of the incredible Double Negative from 2018. Henki by Richard Dawson & Circle came in almost too late to feature on this list, but it’s quickly risen to become an album I can’t stop playing, particular the later songs which indulge Dawson’s hitherto-unknown liking for metal. I returned often to three excellent post-rock albums this year: Bright Green Field by Squid, Cavalcade by black midi and For the first time by Black Country, New Road, all of which owe a debt to other, better bands (notably Slint), but since when did all music have to be entirely original? Another indie album with clear influences was Anything Can’t Happen by Dorothea Paas, at her best when channelling Joni Mitchell jamming with Crazy Horse. My favourite afrobeat albums were Afrique Victime by Mdou Moctar and Kologo by Alostmen. Other notable releases I enjoyed were Half Mirror by Chorusing and CHUCKLE by Alpha Maid.

Pop / vocal

Reason to Live by Lou Barlow is probably his most accessible album, and perhaps sometimes mawkish, but still terrific. If I’d spent more time driving this year, I’m pretty sure I’d have listened to Daddy’s Home by St. Vincent a lot more. Flock by Jane Weaver channels Stereolab pleasingly, Rhinestones by HTRK is an utter joy and was my favourite music for relaxing this year, along with the divine Hanazono by Satomimagae.   

Compilations / reissues

My favourite compilation by a country mile was Rocksteady Got Soul from Soul Jazz. Then, in order of preference: Cameroon Garage Funk (Analog Africa), A Little Night Music: Aural Apparitions from the Geographic North (Geographic North) and Two Synths A Guitar (And) A Drum Machine: Post Punk Dance Vol.1 (Soul Jazz). As for reissues, the standouts for me were Kid A Mnesia by Radiohead and Radar of Small Dogs by Stephen.

Favourite fiction of 2021

Films

I did go to the cinema once this year, a Tuesday matinee with my wife to avoid the crowd. We saw No Time to Die and it was fine. Far better recent films I saw at home this year were The Green Knight (David Lowery), especially the middle sequences with wandering giants, Mogul Mowgli (Bassam Tariq) featuring an amazing performance by Riz Ahmed, Black Bear (Lawrence Michael Levine) for its bloody-mindedness, Under the Tree (Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson) for its bleak comedy and Call Me By Your Name, which secures Luca Guadagnino as one of my favourite contemporary directors.

I watched a lot of older films in the first part of the year, probably as a means of keeping sane in the January lockdown. Since then, barely anything – who knows why. My most exciting discoveries were the wonderfully tense The Servant (Joseph Losey, 1961) and Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960), the excellent double-bill of carnival horrors The Unholy Three (Tod Browning, 1925) and He Who Gets Slapped (Victor Sjöström, 1924), the stone-cold classic Orphée (Jean Cocteau, 1950), the deeply subversive duo of Billy Liar (John Schlesinger, 1963) and The Naked Kiss (Samuel Fuller, 1964) and the surprisingly affecting South Pole expedition documentary The Great White Silence (Herbert Ponting, 1924).

Books

In terms of recent novels, my favourite isn’t available or even announced yet, as I read it as a beta reader. I’d hope it’ll be snapped up by a publisher soon and you can all enjoy it. My favourite recently-actually-published novels were the dazzling The Glass Hotel by Emily St John Mandel and Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. I also loved Hello Friend We Missed You by Richard Owain Roberts. My favourite recent SF novels were Amatka by Karin Tidbeck and The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century by Olga Ravn. The two collections I most enjoyed were both published in 2021 and were written by two of my favourite modern novelists: The Art of Space Travel, and other stories by Nina Allan and From the Neck Up, and other stories by Aliya Whiteley. Most of my non-fiction reading was related to my own projects, but of the others my favourite was Writing the Uncanny, a series of entertaining essays by some of the best current writers of the weird, edited by Dan Coxon.

Going back a little further, this year I discovered the work of Tom McCarthy, beginning with the incredible Remainder (2005) and then, neatly tying to having introduced my own children to Tintin, his non-fiction Tintin and the Secret of Literature (2006). The other 21st-century novel I most enjoyed was The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt (2000), an absolute triumph in structural terms.

I read a lot of locked-room mysteries this year – odd, given that we were all in lockdown ourselves – my favourites being The Case of the Constant Suicides by John Dickson Carr (1941), The Red House Mystery by A. A. Milne (1922) and An English Murder by Cyril Hare (1951).

I also read a fair amount of 19th-century fiction, including lots of Robert Louis Stevenson, kicking off with the wonderful anthology of his work selected by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Jorge Luis Borges in the 1960s. This led me to Stevenson’s Fables (1896), now one of my favourite story collections.

Other novels I loved this year were the heartless Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov (1932), the far more humane Cold Spring Harbor by Richard Yates (1986) and the wonderfully overflowing What a Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe (1994).

My favourite non-fiction book I read this year was also the book I most enjoyed overall: The Quest for Corvo by AJA Symons (1934), detailing the life of an unscrupulous author but structured like a detective novel, and one of the least classifiable and most compelling books I’ve ever read.

TV

Was there good TV in 2021? I’m sure there was, but for the most part, the tension in the real world left my wife and I unable to face anything particularly gritty, or suspenseful, or long. We watched a lot of Taskmaster. I loved the third series of Stath Lets Flats. I thought that Together was a necessary and uncompromising overview of the early lockdown. I liked Lupin and Call My Agent! and His Dark Materials and This Time… with Alan Partridge and Frank of Ireland. The best TV show was obviously Succession, one of the funniest TV programmes this century.

Games

In gaming terms, this year has been characterised by compulsive playing in order to block out the world. The games that achieved this most successfully for me were both roguelikes: deck-builder Slay the Spire, and the hard-as-nails sidescroller Dead Cells, though Civilization VI has threatened to topple them both since I started playing it this month. Both Her Story and Orwell provided a sense of almost-real surveillance, and while I was terrible at it, Return of the Obra Dinn provided the most satisfying actual deduction. The most immersive storytelling was in the astounding Disco Elysium, which I’ve played through twice. I surprised myself by getting back into platform gaming via Ori and the Blind Forest and Ori and the Will of the Wisps, and thoroughly enjoyed playing Creaks with my sons. Two of my favourite puzzle games were Hexcells and Escape Simulator, the former satisfyingly clean and abstract, the latter almost capturing the feel of real-life escape rooms, with a thriving community scene creating new levels all the time.

Book soundtrack: Universal Language

Universal Language

My Martian murder-mystery novella, Universal Language, will be published on 6th April. It’s a classic locked-room mystery with a twist (besides being set on Mars, that is): the body of scientist Jerem Ferrer is discovered in an airlocked room, and the sole suspect is a robot whose Asimovian behaviour protocols mean it can’t actually commit murder. Private-eye ‘Optic’ Abbey Oma is on the case, soon joined by puppyish Franck Treadgold, investigating the political, commercial and criminal networks of the Mars colony to determine who killed Jerem Ferrer.

Recently I’ve written a bunch of blog posts to introduce different aspects of the novella – I’ll post links to them as they appear on venues around the web. This post is about an aspect that I suspect is more important to me than any potential readers: a book soundtrack. Still, I think it may act as much as an effective primer to the novella as a consolidation for readers who’ve already completed it.

I’ve played this game of creating a book soundtrack for each of my novels and novellas. It doesn’t so much reflect the music I’ve written to, but rather a soundtrack to a hypothetical film adaptation. Having begun to put together a soundtrack after the first draft, the tracks often begin to ‘infect’ scenes on a second or third pass, informing tone, pace or, in some circumstances, characterisation. By the time the manuscript is complete, the soundtrack is (in my mind) inseparable from the book.

Click here to listen to the Universal Language book soundtrack on Spotify. And here’s my reasoning behind the choices:

1. Space Is the Place / We Travel the Spaceways – Sun Ra & His Arkestra
I can’t remember when I decided that my intergalactic private detective, Optic Abbey Oma, would be a fan of free jazz. Quite possibly, it was when I first put my mind to soundtrack choices, after the first draft. I loved the thought of hurtling across the Martian wastes in a rover, blasting Sun Ra from her suit’s in-built speakers. ‘Space is the Place’ is rather on the nose, but I still feel it’s perfect, and this live version performed at Inter-Media Arts in 1991 is raw and raucous, and features a grandstanding outro that would appeal to Abbey’s own ego.

2. I Will Try – Holy Motors
Abbey in detective mode. Despite her bravado and callous exterior, she’s astute and thoughtful. And judging by this song choice, she’s as smooth and idiosyncratic an investigator as Chris Isaak’s Agent Desmond in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Did I mention yet that Abbey Oma would be played by Gwendoline Christie in a film adaptation, if I had any say in the matter?

3. Very Special – Duke Ellington
The wildest of bop. Any of several tracks from Ellington’s album Money Jungle would have fitted. Ideally, this track would play every time Abbey begins to follow a new lead.

4. Price to Pay – Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement
As much as anything, I find a John Peel-ish joy in following Duke Ellington with Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement, though I stand by this segue. Despite her façade, Abbey Oma is prone to deflation, and this track evokes that mood as much as her concentration on the task at hand.

5. Terrain – Julia Kent
Another handily literal track title, as this is music to evoke the Martian landscape. The colonists complain of shared dreams of storms which, I think, would sound like this.

6. Nina Simone – Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter
Abbey Oma’s self-professed ‘theme song’, with lyrics that resonate with her professional attitude: ‘Clean up your rap, your story’s getting dusty / Wash out your mouth, your lies are getting rusty’. Within the novella, this track is notable for making even mild-mannered Franck whoop and thump the steering wheel.

7. Why Spend the Dark Night With You – Moondog
I love that Abbey loves Moondog. I think they’d get on well, this spacefaring private eye and the busking ‘Viking of 6th Avenue’. This brief, beautiful track is whistled by Abbey twice in the novella, one time while levelling a pistol at Franck.

8. My Little Grass Shack – The Polynesians
Variety is important in both a work of fiction and a book soundtrack. This kitsch Hawaiian ditty represents a turning point in the plot, and, oddly enough given its cheeriness, Abbey’s lowest moment.

9. For Murder – Teresa Winter
A murky mirror image of the Moondog track, featuring the repeated lyric, ‘I’ll show you what the night is for’. I won’t spoil what the night is for.

10. Galaxy Around Oludumare – Alice Coltrane
Another fairly blunt selection, I suppose, but Abbey would love this as much as I do. The entirety of Coltrane’s incredible album World Galaxy suggests off-kilter otherworldliness, the orchestral arrangement at the start of this track is peerless, and the swirling electronica presaging the insane saxophone ‘melody’ is utterly disorienting.

11. Listen to Bach (The Earth) – Eduard Artemyev
Another slight cheat, as this is taken from Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Solaris. But I think it does a wonderful job of evoking the burgeoning religious influence within the Martian community in Universal Language, and it’s insanely beautiful to boot.

12. Sunset – Idris Ackamoor & the Pyramids
End credits music, I suppose. After all that woozy free jazz, this is far more grounded and light. I rarely write happy endings, but the ending to Universal Language makes me smile. I hope one day I’ll get to write more about Abbey and Franck’s continuing cases. They’re a lovely team.

Click here to access the soundtrack playlist via Spotify.

Find out more about Universal Language here.

Favourite albums of 2020

Drone / modern composition

Anna HauswolffSarah Davachi

 

 

 

After last year’s stunning album The Sacrificial Code by Kali Malone, it’s now becoming clear – and I realise how unlikely this may sound to some – that there’s something unexpectedly interesting going on in the realm of modern organ music. My two favourite albums of 2020 are performed almost exclusively on instrument. On All Thoughts Fly, Anna von Hausswolff abandons her gothic pop sensibilities and produces incredible textures using pipe organs that seem to rear above you like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Cantus, Descant by Sarah Davachi is a less terrifying affair, but no less overwhelming. It features six different organs in the US and Europe from reed to pipe organ, and despite running at 80 minutes, doesn’t outstay its welcome even considering the accompanying live release Figures In Open Air, with its two central hour-long performances in Chicago and Berlin. Galya Bisengalieva of the London Contemporary Orchestra manages to fulfil the promise of her 2019 Eps while also being utterly surprising with Aralkum, an instrumental concept album apparently concerning the shrinking Aral Sea, and evoking her textures for Actress. There’s a similar tone on Oliver Coates’ performance of John Luther Adams’ Canticles of the Sky / Three High Places, the patient, accumulating layers on Harbors by Ellen Fullman and Theresa Wong, and in the outstanding analogue drones of Music for Cello and Humming by Judith Hamann, which also features Sarah Hennies.

In terms of less readily identifiable drones, Finnish techno prodigy Vladislav Delay comes up with the annual goods with Rakka, and also a wonderful, doomy dub collaboration with Sly & Robbie entitled 500 Push-Up. My final two favourite drone albums are Double Bind by Geneva Skeen, and the surprisingly organic Oehoe by Machinefabriek, featuring Anne Bakker on (wordless) vocals and violin.

Folk / primitive / field

Gwenifer RaymondLaura CannellGwenifer Raymond’s take on Fahey-esque primitive Americana is heightened by the knowledge that her melodies in Strange Lights Over Garth Mountain are inspired by the Welsh valleys and folklore. Laura Cannell continues a terrific run of form with the distinctly folk-horror collection The Earth With Her Crowns. Beholder by Julia Reidy offers dizzying, ringing guitar textures in which I can lose myself for hours, and similarly the more fragile improvisations on Welsh harp on Telyn Rawn by Rhodri Davies. Dirty Three drummer Jim White, along with Marisa Anderson, provides more immediately digestible melodies in The Quickening, though still as complex as his best work. Kate Carr proves herself to be one of the most interesting current field recordings artists with no less than three releases this year, the pick of which are the stunning Fabulations and The Thing Itself and Not the Myth.

Weird / psychedelic / hip hop

The TotemistOlan MonkThis year, all of my psychedelia needs unrelated to Sun Ra were catered for The Totemist by Ak’chamel, The Giver Of Illness, which sounds like Sunburned Hand of the Man with heatstroke. Love/Dead by Olan Monk defies easy categorisation, though I suppose it’s much minimal techno as anything, though so dark and strange that it’s as if all the lights go out as soon as it begins, and equally so with Metal Preyers by Metal Preyers, which Boomkat describes as ‘chopped & screwed gristle meets ballistic singeli and mutant electro-acholi’, which, though baffling, is presumably accurate. Visions of Bodies Being Burned by clipping. is as hallucinatory as hip hop gets. Finally, Scis by Oval is a more enjoyable album than the new Autechre, for me, and certainly more frantic.

Vocal / pop / indie

Baxter DuryHunteressThe Night Chancers by Baxter Dury may not make me as deliriously happy as his earlier Happy Soup, but it’s still chock-full of his self-deprecating wit, and contains some of my favourite lyrics of the year: Carla’s got a boyfriend / He’s got horrible trousers / And a small car … Carla’s got a boyfriend / I might take care of him, to be honest. Similarly, Pillowland by Jam City doesn’t quite hit the heights of their earlier Dream a Garden, but prods the same hauntological parts of the mind, so that you could convince yourself not only that you’ve heard each track before, but also that each was in fact a key part of the soundtrack to your childhood. Set My Heart On Fire Immediately by Perfume Genius features soaring melodies and straightforwardly brilliant songwriting. Shades by Good Sad Happy Bad is rough and enthusiastic, and a useful reminder that Mica Levi was already excellent within Micachu and the Stripes before she became Britain’s best composer of film scores. Magic Oneohtrix Point Never by Oneohtrix Point Never is surprisingly direct, melodic and memorable, featuring plenty of guest artists and vocals. Finally, Laura Cannell makes another (very different) appearance in this list under the name Hunteress, playing around with synth pop on The Unshackling, and succeeding wildly.

Compilations

Beverly Glenn-CopelandField WorksThe artist I’m most grateful to have discovered this year is Beverly Glenn-Copeland, whose compilation Transmissions: The Music Of Beverly Glenn-Copeland I found staggering – a bizarre array of styles, equal parts inspirational and mawkish, and an odd sort of forward-hauntology in which e.g. Massive Attack tracks are evoked ahead of time, and a sense that the songs alter each time I listen to them. Other than that, I loved Temporary Residence’s anthology Field Works: Ultrasonic featuring Felicia Atkinson, Jefre Cantu-Ledesma and Machinefabriek.

Favourite fiction of 2020

Films

The Lighthouse

Like everyone else this year, I saw very little at the cinema in 2020. My favourite of the few films I saw was the wild, disturbing ride The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers), partly because it’s been my lingering memory of what it’s like to watch a great film in the cinema, booming foghorns and all – and I loved the alienating square aspect ratio. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma) was no less an intense depiction of people trapped together, and, equally, Parasite (Bong Joon Ho) contained foreshadowing of lockdown and a lack of fresh air. Steve McQueen’s films from his Small Axe TV anthology series were no less rich and rewarding than his cinema fare. The first two, Mangrove and Lovers Rock, were outstanding – particularly the dazzling choreography and soundtrack of the latter. On a similar note, the short film Strasbourg 1518 (Jonathan Glazer) is entirely choreographed dance, and was the most alarming film of 2020 that I saw.

The SouvenirOf more recent films (i.e. from the last decade), my absolute favourite was The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg, 2019), which I couldn’t stop thinking about for all sorts of reasons, and the knowledge that there’s an upcoming second part is tantalising. Bait (Mark Jenkin, 2019) was delightful in all respects, the best film about film that I’ve seen for a while. I found Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodovar, 2019) surprisingly affecting, particularly Antonio Banderas’ performance. The Personal History of David Copperfield (Armando Iannucci,  2019) was the most fun I’ve had with a recent film, in part due to the pleasure of spotting favourite TV character actors. I loved Aniara (Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja, 2018) – exactly my sort of setup, about a Mars migration that turns into an endless voyage – the intertitles signalling greater and greater timescales alone were powerful. And though I loved A Bigger Splash (Luca Guadagnino, 2015) in every respect, Ralph Fiennes’ creepy dancing remains its most memorable moment.

High and LowI watched a lot of classic films this year, partly as a response to lockdown, but also partly because I’ve developed new habits: I no longer fret about not finishing a film in a single session, and I’ve been watching them via BFI Player and MUBI on my (admittedly large-screened) phone, often starting at 5.30am after being woken by my youngest son. Watching films like this, with chunky headphones, in bed in the dark, has been the closest simulation of a cinema setting.

One of my biggest ‘discoveries’ this year was the wider work on Akira Kurosawa, in particular The Hidden Fortress (1958), Yojimbo (1961) and High and Low (1963), all of which rank as some of the best films I’ve seen this year. I finally watched, and loved, the long version of Fanny and Alexander (Ingmar Bergman, 1982), but surprised myself by enjoying Smiles of a Summer Night (Ingmar Bergman, 1955) equally as much. Other classic films I watched for the first time and adored included La Strada (Federico Fellini, 1954), Rome, Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945) and The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966), all stunning. I was blown away by Tartuffe (F. W. Murnau, 1925), particularly its framing story and metatextual elements. Two of my favourite finds were Cairo Station (Youssef Chahine, 1958) and Intimate Lighting (Ivan Passer, 1965), and I adored the ‘fake news’ docudramas Punishment Park (Peter Watkins, 1971) and the lesser-known Alternative 3 (Christopher Miles, 1977). For tense pulp thrills, my favourite films were the incomparable Night Tide (Curtis Harrington, 1961), the near-perfect thriller Breakdown (Jonathan Mostow, 1997) and the fantastical short film Quest (Saul Bass, 1984), included on the recent Phase IV bluray. My favourite horror film this year was the woozy masterpiece The White Reindeer (Erik Blomberg, 1952).

Books

The Easter ParadeMy immediate response to the announcement of the first lockdown was to panic-read substantial classic novels I’d always intended to read. Middlemarch (George Eliot, 1872) worked as intended: I found it totally absorbing and entirely reassuring. I suspect that Candide (Voltaire, 1759), Mrs Dalloway (Virginia Woolf, 1925) and Lanark (Alasdair Gray, 1981) and The Third Policeman (Flann O’Brien, 1967) will each be influential on my own writing in the coming years. My favourite horror novel was Thérèse Raquin (Émile Zola, 1867), which packed a punch partly because I didn’t realise it was going to be a horror novel. My most important reading discoveries in 2020 were the novels of Richard Yates, my favourites so far being The Easter Parade (1976) and Revolutionary Road (1961), the latter being as great a Great American Novel as The Great Gatsby. My most exciting discovery of 2020 was the Jorge Luis Borges-endorsed, proto-SF novella The Invention of Morel (Adolfo Bioy Casares, 1940).

A Cosmology of MonstersIn terms of more recent works, my favourites were A Cosmology of Monsters (Shaun Hamill, 2019), which has one of the most absorbing first chapters of any book I’ve read, Annihilation (Jeff VanderMeer, 2014) which I can’t believe it took me so long to get around to reading, and The Wall (John Lanchester, 2019) which made me seethe with envy. I read a lot of non-fiction for writing research purposes, but the factual books I enjoyed most for ‘fun’ were High Static, Dead Lines: Sonic Spectres & the Object Hereafter by Kristen Gallerneaux (2018) and Deep Fakes and the Infocalypse: What You Urgently Need To Know (Nina Schick, 2020).

TV

SuccessionIt’s been a great year for TV drama. My wife and I binged both series of the hysterical (in all senses) Succession, I was entirely won over by the calm pace of Normal People, and the decidedly more frenetic I May Destroy You seemed to redefine the possibilities of TV drama with every episode. Staged was an impressively comprehensive and complex response to the first coronavirus lockdown, and was very funny to boot. Upright was the TV show that most upset me, offset by all the tremendous joy, and was probably my favourite TV show of the year. Armando Iannucci’s space workplace comedy Avenue 5 turned out to be far better than expected, and I hope there’ll be more to come. The most exhilarating TV I saw this year was World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji, closely followed by the meticulous, gorgeous and subversive Anaïs Nin adaptation Little Birds. And, likeeveryone else, I thought The Queen’s Gambit was staggeringly good all round.

Games

FirewatchAfter around eight years without videogames, purchasing a half-decent laptop this autumn has allowed me to dabble in games I’ve missed in the interim period, though anything particularly open-world or particularly recent stutters like crazy – for which I’m grateful, as I’m terrified of losing too much time to gaming at the expense of work. Still, I managed to work through Portal-esque puzzle game The Talos Principle (2014), Tomb Raider (2013) and Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015) (the latter better than the first in the new trilogy but representing an almost unsurmountable graphical challenge for my PC). I enjoyed Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments (2014) far more than expected, appreciating the slow pace. I admired a huge amount of What Remains of Edith Finch (2017), which as well as providing a compelling story, acted as a showcase for the possibilities of videogames – particularly the scene involving slicing the heads off fish on a production line whilst simultaneously guiding a prince around a kingdom whilst also learning about the fragile mental health of the factory worker in question. But the only game that I truly loved was Firewatch (2016), in which the player fulfils a patient role as a lookout in a Wyoming forest, whilst developing a relationship with your supervisor over walkie-talkie. The landscape is stunning, the nudges along the path of the narrative subtle, and the story is deeply affecting, perhaps partly because the game is over within three hours or so.

Favourite albums of 2019

Drones

 

 

 

 

 

Goodness, what a lot of good drone albums there were this year! The Sacrificial Code by Kali Malone is a towering achievement – almost two hours of austere, subtly shifting pipe organ drones that slip me into a liminal space the moment they begin. I’ve listened to Genera – Live at AB Salon, Brussels by Bana Haffar more than any other album this year and still I understand it very little, but find it totally absorbing, strange and inspiring. The Gaelic smallpipe drones of The Reeling by Brighde Chaimbeul are utterly stunning – it’s an album that I’ve returned to far more than I’d expected on first listen. Bioluminescence by Shorelights is a far more manufactured confection, but there’s an organic element to the pulses, bird calls and wind beneath the surface. I can’t get enough of it. The field recordings of Vegetal Negatives by Marja Ahti are far more comprehensible, but conjure a soundscape that’s no less weird and no less hypnotic. Kimberlin (Original Soundtrack) by Abul Mogard continues Mogard’s incredible run of form, no less crucial and enveloping than any of his non-soundtrack work. Futuro (Music for the Waldorf Project) by Not Waving is an arresting soundtrack for literally anything you might be doing, and which sounds utterly different on each listen, as if the recording might respond to one’s mood. The title track of Epistasis by Maria w Horn, with its live string quartet and brooding – is it a harmonium? – is the standout track of a standout album. Traveller on the Road by Skin Crime recalls the most dread-filled moments of David Lynch movies, and sits well alongside other Hospital Productions artists such as Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement. Industry / Water by Michael Gordon / Jonny Greenwood  is the best release so far from Greenwood’s Octatonic label, as much a drone record as modern classical, and bodes well for future releases. Pyroclasts by Sunn O))) is awesome in the most awe-filled sense of the word. Pale Bloom by Sarah Davachi is another wonderful album from the Californian artist – particularly the 21-minute final track, which brings us all the way back to the organ dirge of Kali Malone.

Propulsive weird jazz and minimal techno

 

 

 

 

 

That’s a valid category, isn’t it? Atto IV by Vladimir Tarasov is an astounding album of jazz riffs and pulses that recall one of my favourite Oren Ambarchi albums, Quixotism. The man himself is present on Oglon Day by Oren Ambarchi, Mark Fell, Will Guthrie, Sam Shalabi, which delivers dizzying overlapping rhythms and a sense of huge regret at not seeing the performance live. Pink Nothing by Tom Richards, performed on an emulation of Daphne Oram’s unfinished ‘Mini Oramics’ machine, is maddeningly hypnotic. Triumvirate by Carter Tutti Void isn’t quite up to the level of majesty as their Transverse release, but it’s still ace. I by Föllakzoid is an unremitting forward march into the alien unknown.

Voices

 

 

 

 

 

All My People by Maria Somerville is comfortably my favourite vocal album of the year, neatly stepping in for the lack of new Grouper. 2020 by Richard Dawson retains Dawson’s lyrical precision and his wonderful voice, but lacks the lunacy of his previous releases. Arrival by Fire! Orchestra is more accessible than the band’s recent releases and features a surprising amount of vocals. ANIMA by Thom Yorke is assured and full of earworms. The Age of Immunology by Vanishing Twin is joyous and undemanding despite its complexity. Look Up Sharp by Carla dal Forno is strikingly familiar hauntology, an album half-remembered from childhood. The Envoy by Gavilán Rayna Russom is majestic and deeply weird, and features Cosey Fanni Tutti on vocals and arrangements by Peter Zummo.

Compilations and reissues

 

 

 

 

Three Highlife albums provided me with lots of happiness – the first being Hitsville Re-Visited by Ebo Taylor, Pat Thomas, Uhuru Yenzu, also from 1982, the most joyous recording I’ve heard all year. However, the more overly funky Control by Gyedu-Blay Ambolley & Zantoda Mark III, from 1980, and Grupo Pilon: Leite Quente Funaná de Cabo Verde by Grupo Pilon, a collection of 1980s recordings of Electro-Funaná from West Africa’s Cabo Verde Islands, give Ebo a run for his money. Oren Ambarchi rears his head again, curating a vast selection of experimental, drone and unclassifiable recordings from his own record label for the compilation Black Truffle At 10. The rerelease of Michael O’Shea by Michael O’Shea from 1982 is a revelation – Indo-European voodoo played on, according to Boomkat: a hybrid of a zelochord and a sitar, made on a wooden door salvaged in Munich, and with the crucial addition of electric pick-ups and the ‘Black Hole Space Box’. Hissing Theatricals by Tapes, a rerelease of the 2009 dub album, is wonderful, as are the 1980s synth post-punk experiments contained on Beside Herself by Michele Mercure.

Best of 2018 roundup

Though I haven’t written any fiction yet in 2019, the year has got off to a good start in terms of votes of confidence in my earlier work…

I was pleased and surprised to find that my story ‘Throw Caution’ has been longlisted for the BSFA Awards. It was first published in Interzone #276 edited by Andy Cox. It’s a terrific list of nominees, with lots of writers who I now consider friends – I’m very proud to be listed alongside them.

Dev Agarwal at BSFA Vector included my books in his Best of 2018 article: “Tim Major, (who along with Shona Kinsella co-edits the British Fantasy Association’s Horizons magazine) published a young adult SF novel called Machineries of Mercy (ChiZine) and a non-fiction book that appeals to genre consumers, about the seminal 1915 silent film, Les Vampires (Electric Dreamhouse Press). In both works, and in his co-editing of Horizons, Major brings a clear and vivid sense of location and character to bear that makes his narratives — fictional and biographic — come vividly alive to the reader.”

On his Scattershot Writing blog, James Everington included ‘The House Lights Dim’ (from Dark Lane Anthology #2, Dark Lane Books) in his list of his favourite short stories read in 2018.

Finally, and now looking forward to 2019, I recently learned that my story ‘Concerning the Deprivation of Sleep’ has been picked up by editor C.M. Muller for Synth: An Anthology of Dark SF. There’s a list of my upcoming short story publications here, which includes a story in one of Muller’s other projects, Twice-Told: A Collection of Doubles, due out in February.

Favourite albums of 2018

My favourite album of 2018 is Double Negative by Low. Low are a fine band with a discography built up over 25 years that, while unshowy, must surely make any other band weep. Like the songs of, for example, Leonard Cohen, beneath what may appear like superficial gloominess has always been a beating heart of optimism and beauty. Double Negative is a departure, and my favourite Low album since Secret Name. Alan Sparhawk’s and Mimi Parker’s ordinarily ice-clear harmonies are buried within fuzz and distortion, often squeezed out as a Sparky’s Magic Piano-esque squelch. I’m a fan of deteriorated sound, that’s for sure, but amidst all this degradation the occasional surfacing of untampered-with vocals feel like glimpses of something divine. It’s the most wonderful album, and ‘Tempest’ is my favourite song of the year.

Modern soul isn’t usually my thing, but Childqueen by Kadhja Bonet absolutely is, filled as it is with gorgeous melodies and lush orchestration. For the most part, the best aural (as opposed to vocal) comparison I can think of is Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, though there are shades of Kamasi Washington’s The Epic and Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, and the slick production of ‘Mother Maybe’ reminds me strongly of one of my 80s guilty pleasures, Sade’s ‘Smooth Operator’. I can’t think of another 2018 album that feels so pleasurable throughout its running time. In addition, Kadhja Bonet was responsible for the entirety of the album; everything written, sung and played, and she produced and mixed it too, which I find incredible.

The drone album I’ve enjoyed most this year is Rausch by GAS. It’s difficult to describe why one lengthy drone is preferable to another, but there’s a depth to these seven tracks that just, I don’t know, takes me away… It’s only now, listening carefully and attempting to analyse it, that I’m able to identify particular elements: tapping hi-hats, bass thrums, reversed cymbals. Previously, I wouldn’t have been able to describe what produced the effect, only that’s the whole is absorbing and hypnotic. For me, this album is up there with Biokinetics by Porter Ricks and What?? by Folke Rabe.

Click ‘Continue reading’ for lots more picks and a playlist.

Continue reading Favourite albums of 2018

Musical milestones

I’m pretty sure that by now everybody’s seen the recent Facebook meme of showing the 10 albums that you find important, right? Now that I’ve finished my 10-album, 10-day list I thought I’d post it here for posterity. I’m afraid I wasn’t able to stick to the rule of omitting any explanation of my choices…

#1 Victor Borge – Phonetic punctuation / A Mozart opera
I’ve chosen this album to represent my parents’ record collection, and the fact that when I was a kid I was more likely to listen to comedy than music. But also, I still think it’s hysterically funny, and the album cover is still one of my all-time favourites, and also matches my writing/editing occupation. I have the LP version framed and ready to hang once I get my attic office in order.

#2 The Beatles – 1967–1970
It’d be disingenuous to pretend that this album wasn’t the keystone of my discovering music when I was a kid. I’d heard ‘Penny Lane’ via a compilation tape (chosen because I liked fire engines) and ‘Let It Be’ on a French campsite (as close to a musical epiphany as a seven-year-old can have). I listened to the ‘Blue Album’ endlessly while I was growing up; it’s part of me.

 

 

 

 

 

#3 Tortoise – TNT   /   Gastr Del Sol – Camoufleur
TNT by Tortoise was responsible for shifting my listening from rock to post-rock and experimental music. And that self-effacing album cover! Tortoise were an important band to me, partly because they had so many side projects that would lead me into other areas. In fact, two members of Tortoise were in the original lineup of Gastr Del Sol, though by the time of CAMOUFLEUR the lineup was David Grubbs and Jim O’Rourke (with contributions from Markus Popp of Oval). Jim O’Rourke would lead me into new areas – via his indie stuff and then into far stranger listening territory. Gastr Del Sol’s CAMOUFLEUR came a little later, but is probably my favourite post-rock album.

 #4 Nick Cave – And No More Shall We Part
I know that many people would argue for other Nick Cave albums being more immediate, more visceral, plain better than this, but I adore it unconditionally. It’s one of the most literate and darkly funny albums I can think of, and it inspired my early attempts to write short stories as much as, say, John Updike’s RABBIT series of books did.

#5 Herman Düne – Not On Top
For the longest time, I considered Herman Düne my favourite band. They were charming, witty and, unlike most of the music I listened to, they were alive and there were lots of opportunities to see them play live – which I did, perhaps five or six times in total. I listened to a lot of ‘anti-folk’ at the beginning of this century, though few of the performers still have the same resonance for me as Herman Düne, who have soundtracked some of the happiest moments of my life.

 

 

 

 

 

#6 The Modern Lovers  – The Modern Lovers   /   Jonathan Richman – Jonathan Goes Country
Around 2005 I listened to little other than Jonathan Richman’s vast back catalogue, from his snotty Velvet-Underground-ish origins to his latter-day embarrassing-dad persona – both equally loveable. THE MODERN LOVERS and JONATHAN GOES COUNTRY were on constant rotation when I was working alone for long stretches in California. The former is one of the great proto-punk albums, and a tantalising suggestion of a path that Richman would decide not to take; the latter is a goofy experiment that shouldn’t work, but succeeds through its wholehearted charm. It’s my favourite music to drive to.
(My favourite detail about the change in direction after the release of The Modern Lovers in 1976: David Robinson left the group ‘due to frustration with Richman’s quest for lower volume levels’.)

#7 Lonnie Donegan – Rock Island Line: The Singles Anthology 1955–1967
Lonnie Donegan’s early singles are some of the most thrilling songs I know of: catchy, funny, utterly wild. When I discovered this fantastic compilation set in 2006 I described it as follows in a blog post:
“I can’t get enough of Lonnie’s rasping, distorted, chuckling voice. I love that he addresses his songs to ‘the boys’. I love his rambling introductions to the simplest of songs. I love the way that his songs feel spontaneous, and that when the band cuts loose it doesn’t even sound like they’re playing musical instruments. They’re beating on the walls and stamping on the floor and Lonnie is wailing through the white noise…”

#8 Steve Reich – Music for 18 Musicians
This was a total revelation to me when I first heard it around fifteen years ago, and set me off listening to modern composition and minimalist pieces. I think it’s utterly perfect.

#9 Gavin Bryars – Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet
One of the most emotional musical experiences I’ve had was the American Contemporary Music Ensemble’s performance of ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’ at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival curated by Jeff Mangum in 2012. Rose and I had recently decided to start a family, and for whatever reason the repeated words of Bryars’ piece struck me as advice from a parent to a child. By the end I was in pieces.

#10 Oren Ambarchi – Grapes from the Estate
If any artist sums up my current listening preferences, it’s Oren Ambarchi. (Jim O’Rourke’s experimental work would come close second.) These days I most often listen to music while working, so it’s almost all instrumental. Aside from being absurdly beautiful, GRAPES FROM THE ESTATE is the most wonderful background to achieving a trance-like mindset.

100 films I love right now

I’ve made a top 100 film list. I’ve tried to avoid objectivity or the temptation to pick ‘greatest’ films – instead I’ve tried to capture a snapshot of my tastes right now. I’ve tried not to pay attention to what would be my usual choices or agonise too much over my selection. I use Flickchart, so I had a starting point of a list of pretty much all the films I’ve seen, theoretically in ranked order – but to make this list I’ve cherry-picked only the films that are currently on my mind or that, when I see their titles, I want to rewatch immediately. It’s a skewed list, featuring lots of films I’ve seen for the first time in the last year or so – if I made a similar list next year, I’d guess that more than a quarter of the titles would be different. It’ll be interesting to see whether e.g. A Cottage on Dartmoor or The Swimmer stay with me.

I’ve listed the films in chronological order, which reveals a surprise: 11 of the films in this list were released this century. It’s notable that most of these recent titles are very downbeat and slow-paced – I hadn’t quite realised this is so clearly a factor in my tastes in modern cinema.

The director who appears most is Hitchcock, predictably. There are three by: Ingmar Bergman, Francis Ford Coppola, Luis Buñuel, F.W. Murnau and Nicholas Ray. There are two each by: Buster Keaton, Carl Theodor Dreyer, David Lynch, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jacques Tourneur, Jerzy Skolimowski, Robert Bresson, Roman Polanski, Thomas Vinterberg, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders and Andrei Tarkovsky.

Here’s the full list:

Continue reading 100 films I love right now

Favourite albums of 2017

RICHARD DAWSON – Peasant (Domino). A departure from his previous work, in that he’s accompanied by a band, but Dawson’s ramshackle weirdness and Beefheartian tendencies are intact. ‘Soldier’ is my favourite song of the year, and includes my favourite lyric too: ‘Let’s betroth without delay / Pack the horse and ride away / Find some better place / Where we might raise a family / My heart is full of hope / I am tired, I am afraid / My heart is full of hope’.

BILL ORCUTT – Bill Orcutt (Palillia). Orcutt goes electric! Shimmering and abstract covers album with melodies I can never quite fathom. ‘Christmas on Earth’ is my favourite.

ROB NOYES – The Feudal Spirit (Poon Village). A traditional Fahey-style fingerpicking counterpart to Orcutt’s out-there album.

DEAN HURLEY – Anthology Resource Vol. 1 (Sacred Bones). Not only do they recall the happy, woozy weeks of David Lynch’s mind trip masterpiece, these soundscapes from Twin Peaks: The Return are incredible in their own right.

DEDEKIND CUT – American Zen (Ninja Tune). Wonderful washes of noise and hints of techno.

F INGERS – Awkwardly Blissing Out (Blackest Ever Black). Barely-there dark dreams.

BLUE IVERSON – Hotep (World Music). Twenty minutes of Dean Blunt’s soul and R&B doodlings. Far more compelling than that might sound.

HANNAH PEEL – Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia (self-published). Is it my imagination, or has there been a glut of albums featuring synths and colliery brass bands this year? This was the best.

VESSEL – Nyt Alfabet (DME). Shakily soporific in the best possible way. And that voice! I’m melting.

ALDOUS HARDING – Party (4AD). Speaking of voices… I predict that next year Aldous Harding will conquer the world.

The Ginger Nuts of Horror best novels of 2017

Well, this is a good start to the day…

Jim McLeod at The Ginger Nuts of Horror has picked YOU DON’T BELONG HERE as one of his favourite novels of 2017!

‘Time travel is a funny old game, so many novels and stories are written using time travel as theme, but so many of them fail to understand the complexities and consequences of it.  Luckily for us we have writers like Tim Major who are capable of writing an enthralling novel that uses time travel in a logical and well thought way.  “you don’t Belong Here” Is an exciting rollercoaster ride across time that challenges the reader to pay attention.’

Thanks so much Jim! Despite the cold up here in my attic office, I’m glowing.

Click here for the full article.

Book soundtrack: You Don’t Belong Here

I’ve created book soundtracks for all of my longer fiction (novels and novellas, both published and as-yet-unpublished), partly as a way of consolidating the tone, partly as an indulgence and a pat on the back and partly, typically, as a distraction activity during the final draft. The idea is to provide a musical teaser before reading the novel, or a soundtrack of a theoretical film adaptation, but not simply a background playlist.

Today Ginger Nuts of Horror published my article about book soundtracks, including the rules of my nerdy game (yes, there are rules and no, I don’t always stick to them. I won’t repeat the rules here (because you can read the full article instead), or the stories behind some of the track choices, but I don’t think it’s bad form to repost the Spotify playlist:

Favourite albums of 2016

oren-ambarchi-villalobos-hubris

I know, I know. It’s too late for roundup lists. But a) the end of 2016 was crazy busy, and b) I love lists. So here are the albums I most enjoyed listening to in 2016, in no order:

  • KLARA LEWIS – Too
  • KAITLIN AURELIA SMITH – EARS
  • SARAH DAVACHI – Vergers
  • B/B/S – Palace
  • OREN AMBARCHI – Hubris
  • FENNESZ – It’s Hard for Me to Say I’m Sorry
  • LAMBCHOP – Flotus
  • DRONE – Reversing into the Future
  • JAN ST WERNER – Felder
  • GEORGIA – All Kind Music
  • MICA LEVI & OLIVER COATES – Remain Calm
  • KATIE GATELY – Color
  • NURSE WITH WOUND – Dark Fat

And my favourite 2016 reissues:

  • ANNA HOMLER – Breadwoman & Other Tales
  • LOW – The Exit Papers
  • THURSTON MOORE & TOM SURGAL – Not Me
  • ENNIO MORRICONE – Veruschka OST

Book soundtrack: BLIGHTERS

I had fun creating a soundtrack to BLIGHTERS.

The first couple of tracks and the final one are choices made by the main character, Becky, rather than me – she inherited her dad’s passion for 70s prog rock. Three of the tracks are actually named in the book (‘The Temples of Syrinx’, ‘Cat Man’, ‘Hocus Pocus’). The rest simulate the woozy experience of coming close to an alien slug that, though terrifying in appearance, produces a radius effect of utter contentment. I think it’s fair to say there’s no right answer about the correct musical accompaniment to that.

You can read more about the musical influences behind BLIGHTERS in my guest blog post on the Abaddon website.

Buy BLIGHTERS: UK|US|Rebellion Store

 

 

Favourite tracks of 2015

  • Chorus by Holly Herndon – the catchiest pop tune that emerges only in glimpses, sung by a group of otters
  • A Walk Down Chapel by Jam City – woozy 1986ish tune from a BP garage compilation tape, half-heard from the back seat of my dad’s VW Polo
  • Price Tag by Sleater-Kinney – effortless, focussed, cool and cynical as fuck
  • Era of Manifestations by People of the North – seven and a half minutes of Kid Millions’ manic drumming, culminating in a squelchy frenzy that can only end with an abrupt—
  • Letter by Blood Warrior – sometimes just being lovely is OK and the ‘Oh Lord we were naked’ transition is wonderful
  • Against Archives by Felicia Atkinson – Carter Tutti Void laptop thumps from the next room along and wise whispering in this one
  • The Rest of Us by Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld – the album track that allows Stetson the freest rein, but Neufeld is vital to keeping the momentum
  • Shatter You Through by Daughn Gibson – his ‘Take on Me’, but better
  • In Service by David Thomas Broughton & Juice Vocal Ensemble – my favourite lyric of the year: “I deeply regret all events that did pass / I killed a man wi’ a broken glass”
  • My Love, My Love by Julia Holter – Julia Holter singing Karen Dalton’s lost lyrics is much as you’d expect until the oboe or an organ comes in and is that a train and it builds and builds and now there’s feedback and birdsong and maybe someone making a cup of tea and that was bloody beautiful
  • no.harm.do.no.wrong.Do.No.Harm.Do.No.Wrong.DO.NO.HARM.DO.NO.WRONG by Big Brave – simply enormous
  • Venus Fly by Grimes & Janelle Monáe – you should see my son dance to the bassy parts
  • Brickfielder by Mind Over Mirrors – best drone of the year; it’s so calm and still that you can hear what you like in there

Favourite albums of 2015

Jam_City_Dream_A_Garden_Cover_Art

Dream a Garden by Jam City (Night Slugs)
A few years ago my friend Charley and I did a series of Spotify mix swaps, with each one based on an agreed theme. It was good fun, but the theme that killed off the game for good was titled ‘Found a c90 on the floor of my dad’s VW Polo’ – that is, recent songs that sounded like they could have been released circa 1986 and therefore have been part of our childhoods. Every song on Dream a Garden could have been included in that mix. On first listen, I could have sworn I’d heard these songs before, or versions of them. They’re dated without being self-consciously retro, sweet enough to have been plausible FM hits, filtered through analogue tech and the sound of windscreen wipers.

 

Platform

Platform by Holly Herndon (Rvng Intl.)
It’s easy to imagine looking back at this album in ten years and saying, “That’s where it all first came together.” We’ve heard fractured laptop-pop before, but Holly Herndon manages to fuse pop melodies, techno washout bliss and still have room for moments of Laurie Anderson weird vocal tricks and art-gallery-installation introspection, all without losing momentum. That an album of this weight has standout songs is remarkable, but ‘Chorus’ and ‘Home’ are absolute earworms.

 

Other albums fan 1

Art Angel by Grimes (4AD) for its joyousness and for demonstrating a savvy, self-sufficient alternative to manufactured pop. No Cities to Love by Sleater-Kinney (Sub Pop), for its immediacy and for shitting on all other rock albums this year, apart from Olimpia Spendid by Olimpia Spendid (Fonal). Au De La by Big Brave (Southern Lord), for call-and-response guitars that The Quietus described as ‘like two steel mills groaning to each other’.

 

Other albums fan 2

Sintetizzatrice by Anna Caragnano & Donato Dozzy (Spectrum Spools) for Berberian Sound Studio-style wooziness and melodies that float just above head height. Simple Songs by Jim O’Rourke for its effortless evocation of Harry Nilsson at his best. f(x) by Carter Tutti Void (Industrial) for providing a worthy studio successor to 2012’s Transverse. Never Were the Way She Was by Colin Stetson & Sarah Neufeld (Constellation) for its cold, precise beauty.

 

Other albums fan 3

Letter Ghost by Blood Warrior (Immune), for Baptist General-esque fragile indie-folk that felt immediately familiar, in the best possible way. Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens (Asthmatic Kitty), Apocalypse, Girl by Jenny Hval (Sacred Bones) and Sliding the Same Way by David Thomas Broughton & Juice Vocal Ensemble (Song, by Toad) for their honesty and frankness.

Compilations

Highlife

My favourite compilation released this year is Soundway’s Highlife on the Move: Selected Nigerian & Ghanaian Recordings from London & Lagos 1954-66. Everything else can basically go to hell, but the Earthly 6 mix by Jam City is good and the Late Night Tales mix by Nils Frahm is lovely.

2015 reissues

Reissues

Finally, Domino’s Weird World imprint rereleased The Magic Bridge (2011) and The Glass Trunk (2013) by Richard Dawson and you know what? They’re incredible. For me, the only reissues that come close are the I Crudeli OST by Ennio Morricone (Cherry Red) and 1971 Revolutionary Spiritual Afro Jazz Sounds From Exile by Ndikho Xaba and the Natives (Matsuli).

Favourite albums overall, new to me, from any year

Other than 2015 titles, my first big discovery this year was The Ascension by Glenn Branca (1981). The Adding Machine by Arnold Dreyblatt (2002) scratched a similar itch. And I can’t believe I’d never heard Watusi by The Wedding Present (1994), but I’ve now more than made up for the omission.

Book soundtrack: Carus & Mitch

I listen to music while I write. It’s usually drone, industrial or minimal techno. I could wax lyrical about the state of mind induced by Biokinetics by Porter Ricks, Grapes from the Estate by Oren Ambarchi or Water Park by Dirty Beaches. Each story I write is usually accompanied by a particular few albums on rotation.

But that’s by the by. That’s not the kind of soundtrack I want to write about here.

I’ve started creating playlists for each of the longer pieces of fiction I’ve written. You could think of them as soundtracks to imaginary film adaptations, I suppose. But who says that books shouldn’t have soundtracks in their own right? In fact, creating a soundtrack playlist has helped me pin down the tone of stories while I’m still editing them.

I like to make the process convoluted. I’ve come up with a fairly strict set of rules:

  1. The first and last tracks ought to work as an accompaniment to the story’s ‘opening and closing credits’.
  2. The playlist should include diagetic (i.e. in-world) and non-diagetic (i.e. conventional overlaid soundtrack) music. Generally, that means not much vocal content.
  3. Broadly, the tracks should reflect the mindset of the central character. My stories are mostly 1st-person or close 3rd-person POV, so by the editing stage I should have a pretty good idea what makes them tick.
  4. The ordering of the tracks should reflect the changing mood or plot events.
  5. Despite rule 4, the playlist should remain listenable in its own right, without sounding jarring. Unless jarring sounds good.

Carus & Mitch

My novella, Carus & Mitch, is published by Omnium Gatherum on Monday (23rd Feb 2015). It’s about two girls who live entirely alone in a remote house, afraid of the dangers outside. It’s kind of creepy.

Here’s a Spotify soundtrack to accompany Carus & Mitch. Hopefully, it ought to work either as a teaser to reading the story, or a kind of epilogue if you’ve already read it.

It’d probably be counterproductive to explain the reasoning behind each of the track choices. But perhaps it’s worth noting that the 1940s tracks and the ‘Autumn’ educational record are the diagetic (in-world) ones. I like the image of Carus and Mitch investigating a vinyl record collection they’ve discovered in the house.

Mild spoilers: The playlist reflects the book in that it transitions from cosy to queasy to a little bit terrifying. Enjoy.