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Favourite films released in 2011

Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, USA)
At first glance, ‘Black Swan’ appears similar to Aronofsky’s previous film, ‘The Wrestler’, with its shaky documentary style and focus on a single struggling performer. But soon enough the film reveals itself as an out-and-out horror film with a fresh treatment of genre tropes (transformation, mirrors and doubling). Perhaps what seals it as not only my favourite film of the year, but my favourite cinema experience, is that I saw it amid a well-to-do North Oxford audience who’d been terribly misled. Many of them were ballet aficionados who saw ‘Black Swan’ following a screening of the Bolshoi Ballet’s ‘Swan Lake’, and seemed utterly unprepared for Aronofsky’s nightmare film, which resulted in an electric tension in the cinema.

The Tree of Life (Terence Malick, USA)
Watching the credits at the end of ‘The Tree of Life’, I felt less like I’d finished watching a film, and more like coming to after a protracted daydream. I struggled at the start, where the structure of the film comprises of tiny snippets of footage, but lost any scepticism during the ‘creation of life’ sequence (and felt that the dinosaurs fitted in perfectly well). After that point the pacing slows and the story becomes more accessible, I think, and I was totally won over. The ending on the beach may have enraged some critics but I thought it was wonderful and that it didn’t compromise Malick’s vision at all.

True Grit (Ethan and Joel Coen, USA)
‘True Grit’ contained some of my favourite suspense sequences that I’ve seen in any film this year. Jeff Bridges may have been wonderful, but I think it’s Hailee Steinfeld that steals the show, and it was great to see Matt Damon tackle something out of his normal range. After ‘True Grit’ and ‘No Country for Old Men’ (and the teeth-grinding awfulness of ‘Burn After Reading’), I’m starting to dread the Coens’ return to comedy.

Rango (Gore Verbinski, USA)
It was the involvement of the Coen’s cinematographer, Roger Deakins, as visual consultant that tipped me off that ‘Rango’ might be a treat. The film pastiches are accurate and funny and all the western signifiers are in place, but I wasn’t prepared for the tightness of the script. All of the key elements are laid out within the first twenty minutes, whereupon the rest of the film plays out satisfyingly. It makes ‘Toy Story 3’ seem rambling and incoherent in comparison. And the creature designs are so gruesome and gormless that it’s hard to imagine anyone involved believed that they were really making a children’s film.

Win Win (Thomas McCarthy, USA)
Yet another reason to hate Thomas McCarthy, director of ‘The Station Agent’ and ‘The Visitor’, respected actor starring in the fifth season of ‘The Wire’ among other things, and by all accounts a very nice man. There was no easy way to promote this midlife crisis/wrestling/parenting tale, but it’s a real shame that more people didn’t get to see this at the cinema.

Tyrannosaur (Paddy Considine, UK)
From the brutal opening sequence to its bleak ending, ‘Tyrannosaur’ is hard to watch, but the moments of humour lift the film from gratuitous misery. Olivia Colman has deservedly garnered lots of praise – her character is introduced with apparent whimsy recalling Colman’s ‘Peep Show’ persona but then changes out of all recognition – but Peter Mullan’s Joseph is equally compelling, in particular in any scenes without dialogue where his suffering is most apparent.

Point Blank (A Bout Portant) (Fred Cavayé, France)
This is the only film on this list that I’ve seen more than once, and just thinking about it makes me eager to see it again soon. At 84 minutes, it’s one of the punchiest action thrillers I can imagine. There may be some plot twists that challenge credulity, but this is a fantastic rollercoaster ride as Gilles Lellouche’s main character becomes trapped in a violent world, making bizarre choices that always seem perfectly logical in context.

Troll Hunter (André Øvredal, Norway)
Another action film that really delivers. Øvredal surprises us by laying out all his cards on the table almost immediately, as it becomes apparent that the trolls aren’t going to be shrouded in mystery, but seen up close throughout. The pacing is surprisingly nimble and the film gives viewers everything they could possibly hope for, with humour, scares, a variety of trolls and some fantastic chase sequences.

The Ides of March (George Clooney, USA)
It’s not quite up there with ‘Good Night and Good Luck’, but ‘The Ides of March’ at least proves that Clooney is dependable at delivering considered, mature political thrillers. Ryan Gosling comes into his own, and the support cast is fantastic, particularly Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman. We saw this at the Nitehawk Cinema in Williamsburg and even the horrendous hotdogs with George Washington sauce couldn’t detract from this excellent film.

Beginners (Mike Mills, USA)
Like ‘Win Win’, this is another film that must have caused headaches for the marketing department. The pre-release emphasis on Christopher Plummer’s character, an elderly father who comes out as gay, suggested an entirely different film. The true focus is on Ewan McGregor’s Oliver, to whom his father’s attitude is just another factor in his wavering indecision about his own life. Mills fills the film with curious touches which add up to create an intimate portrait of his lead character and produce a romantic comedy that feels natural and reaffirming.

Just outside of my top ten of films released in 2011:
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, UK)
Submarine (Richard Ayoade, UK)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, USA)
Source Code (Duncan Jones, USA)

And some notable, high-profile disappointments. All of these films make me shiver slightly to recall them:
The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar, Spain)
Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, Spain/USA)
Hanna (Joe Wright, USA, UK, Germany)
The Fighter (David O. Russell, USA)

There are various films released in 2011 that I haven’t yet got around to seeing, including Lars Von Trier’s ‘Melancholia’, the Dardenne Brothers’ ‘The Kid with a Bike’, Terence Davies’ ‘The Deep Blue Sea’, Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Contagion’, Alexander Payne’s ‘The Descendants’, David Cronenberg’s ‘A Dangerous Method’, Steve McQueen’s ‘Shame’, Asghar Farhadi’s ‘A Separation’ and particularly Michel Hazanavicius’ ‘The Artist’, which I’m really excited about.

Favourite tracks of 2011

Click the image above for a Spotify playlist featuring all of these songs.

Isabel – Baxter Dury
I love Baxter Dury’s album, ‘Happy Soup’ as much as I did last year’s ‘Things To Do and Make’ by Ergo Phizmiz. Dury’s vocals have a sloppy, sub-rehearsal quality, he mutters, he’s cynical and he sounds wonderful. ‘Isabel’ is probably my favourite song of the year, mainly for the chorus: Isabel’s sleeping / Isabel’s sleeping / I think my mate slept with you when you were in Portugal. There are at least three other tracks on the album that are standouts, too.

Lonely In Your Arms – Deep Sea Arcade
Excellent jangly surf pop.

Satellite – The Kills
I first listened to ‘Blood Pressures’ in my now-deceased Ford Ka. The speakers were barely operational and the music was being fed from my iphone to the radio via FM transmitter. The door kept vibrating with the farting motion of the ragged speakers and it sounded like nothing on Earth. One of my favourite moments in any track this year is one minute and twenty-three seconds into ‘Satellite’, where the thumping guitar winds down to an abrupt silence – for just a moment it feels that the track ends, making the remaining three minutes a joyous lap of honour.

Future Crimes – WILD FLAG
This will keep me going until the reformed Electrelane finally record some new material. WILD FLAG’s self-titled album is rock-solid and raw.

If I Keep On Loving You – Let’s Wrestle
Straightforward indie pop and all the better for it.

Shark Ridden Waters – Gruff Rhys
Andy Votel’s sampling adds a kitsch, comic element that, in retrospect, seems to have been missing from the majority of Gruff Rhys’ solo work. I only wish that the final sampled chorus had been used more throughout the track – other than that, it’s blissful pop.

FFunny FFrends – Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s music sounds like it’s been recorded on C-90 cassette and then retrieved from a puddle. A bizarre slice of grungy funk through destroyed speakers.

Midnight Wave – Two Wounded Birds
More surf pop, this time even more indebted to Dick Dale.

Waveforms – Django Django
Oh, I love this. Beta Band vocals against DIY, skittery beats and 303 mayhem.

Mindkilla – Gang Gang Dance
Another of my absolute favourites this year. More than any other track on this list, this is the one that’s been drawing me back again and again. And surprisingly, I found that ‘Eye Contact’ was the perfect album to use as a backdrop for November’s novel-writing frenzy. Who’d have thought it?

Hipster – Monky
I love the chiptune vibe here. If I was a DJ, you’d all be dancing to this.

Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win – Beastie Boys featuring Santigold
It was a bit of a surprise to find this catchy dub pop buried in the Beasties’ ‘Hot Sauce Committee Part 2’. It definitely benefits from pushing the Boys down in the mix and the bassline is infectious.

Please Don’t Take Him Back – Bearsuit
Bearsuit straddle the line between catchiness and annoyingness throughout ‘The Phantom Forest’. This song is one of the more conventional but still catches them at their best.

Be a Doll and Take My Heart – Herman Dune
I still haven’t really got over the disappointment of ‘Strange Moosic’, in which David Herman Dune’s freewheeling lyricism is cut back to endlessly looping choruses. ‘Be a Doll and Take My Heart’ is lovely, albeit far less special than the brothers are capable of being.

There’s Nothing in the Water We Can’t Fight – Cloud Control
Is this great or awful? Last.fm tells me that this is one of the tracks I’ve listened to the most over the last six months, so it’d be hypocritical not to include it, even though Cloud Control is the worst band name ever.

Now the Smile Comes Over In Your Voice – The Wave Pictures
In an opposite trajectory to Herman Dune, The Wave Pictures have upped their game this year. Now that they’re signed to Moshi Moshi they’ve achieved a cleaner studio sound that befits them and sounds far closer to their live shows, but Dave Tattersall’s focus on British mundaneness remains intact.

Lotus Flower – Radiohead
‘The King of Limbs’ is the Radiohead album I’ve been hoping for since ‘Kid A’. I may be in the minority here, but with this release, Jonny Greenwood’s soundtracks and Thom Yorke’s coming out as a dubstep DJ, I think that Radiohead have never been in better shape.

Death Major – 13 & God
This track is more heavily weighted towards Anticon’s Doseone than the Notwist’s sweet choruses and features one of the best raps I’ve heard this year.

The Merry Barracks – Deerhoof
This appeared on last year’s list as a pre-release single, but is worth including here now that ‘Deerhoof vs. Evil’ is on Spotify. It’s a shame the rest of the album couldn’t live up to this glorious mess.

A Candle’s Fire – Beirut
This song does little to further Beirut’s sound and even sounds familiar on first listen. But it’s absolutely joyous, all the same.

Teenagers in Heat – Caged Animals
Childlike and wonderful, with a chorus that endears itself to me by sounding a little like ‘Tim Major’s in heat’.

Ping – Hauschka
More than any other Hauschka album, this captures the excitement of one of Volker Bertelmann’s live performances. It’s a rush of staccato rhythms and rattling, often achieved by placing a bundle of ping pong balls into the grand piano to be bounced up and down on the strings. Like Battles’ ‘Mirrored’, the effect is of machine-like intricacy, but ‘Salon des Amateurs’ somehow manages to remain soothing throughout. ‘Ping’ is one of my top tracks of the year.

It’s Choade My Dear – Connan Mockasin
Is this as lovely as it seems? I just looked up the word ‘choade’ and now I feel queasy.

Balance Her in Between Your Eyes – Nicholas Jaar
Chosen as a representative of the excellent album, ‘Space is Only Noise’. Once again, this woozy, hypnotic album turned out to be an excellent writing aid.

Abu Dhabi – Rough Fields
In its own odd way, this is probably the most beautiful song on this list. The listening conditions need to be perfect, but if you get it right this can be transcendent.

by this river – Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto
‘summvs’ is another of my favourite albums this year, even though I still don’t have much of a handle on it after many listens. This cover of Brian Eno’s song is the most accessible track on the album. I really love the high-pitched tone that’s used as a kind of punctuation mark.

Spotify playlist: Tim’s favourites of 2011

NaNo November 11: That went quickly

It all went in a blur. I’ll take stock about what went right and what went wrong (likely to weigh heavily on the latter), but for now I’ll take a break from writing. In the meantime, these are the albums that accompanied my 23-day flurry of novelling:

Actress – Splazsh
Alva Noto & Ryuichi Sakamoto – summvs
Animal Collective – Fall Be Kind
Animal Collective – Feels
Atlas Sound – Parallax
Burial – Burial
Burial – Street Halo EP
Ellen Allien & Apparat – Orchestra of Bubbles
Gang Gang Dance – Eye Contact
Gang Gang Dance – God’s Money
Hauschka – Foreign Landscapes
Little Wings – Black Grass
Magnetic Fields – 69 Love Songs
Mark Hollis – Mark Hollis
Mazzy Star – Among My Swan
Mazzy Star – She Hangs Brightly
Mose Allison – The Collection
Nicholas Jaar – Space Is Only Noise
Serge Gainsbourg – Vu de l’Exterieur
Studio 54, May 2, 1977 playlist
The Boats – Sleepy Insect Music
The Boats – Words Are Something Else
Thom Yorke – The Eraser

By far the most often-played album was Nicholas Jaar’s ‘Space Is Only Noise’, followed by Gang Gang Dance’s ‘Eye Contact’. It was a real surprise that Gang Gang Dance proved so conducive to writing and now the album feels rather hard-wired into my mind.

What I read in 2010

I saw a similar list on the blog Worlds in a Grain of Sand, and couldn’t resist. These are the books I read in 2010, in the order I read them.

The Victorian Chaise-Longue (Marghanita Laski, 1953)
A young mother recuperates from tuberculosis in 1950s London, lying upon a Victorian chaise-longue, and dreams, or perhaps becomes, Milly in 1864. Little in terms of mechanics is explained, but the view of Victorian society from a 20th century perspective is fascinating.

I Am Legend (Richard Matheson, 1954)
Far closer to the fantastic 1964 film adaptation, The Last Man on Earth, than the 2007 turkey. The final act makes a huge amount more sense in the novel, linked to a double-meaning in the title. If more modern vampire films could use the more routine elements of this novel as an influence, they’d be better for it.

City of Glass (Auster/Karasik/Mazzuchelli, 1994)
Firstly, Paul Auster’s original story (part of the New York Trilogy) is one of the finest and most concise short stories I’ve read. The surprise is that this comic adaptation retains almost all of what is striking about the text. The additions – wordless explorations into recurrence of patterns and images – add an aspect that’s now fused with the original story in my memory.

Telling Tales (Melissa Katsoulis, 2009)
A great account of literary hoaxes and swindles. My favourite were the cases where the hoaxers produced their finest work under a pseudonym, whilst attempting to mock the establishment.

5 is the Perfect Number (Igort, 2003)
A classy affair. Igor Tuveri’s style is pretty spare and the characters are treated coldly, but I enjoyed this graphic novel about a workaday Mafia hitman.

Apples (Richard Milward, 2007)
Richard was in the year below me at secondary school – this novel charts teen relationships in a rundown suburb of nearby Middlesbrough. The dialogue is spot on (Irvine Welsh contributed a cover comment to Richard’s followup, Ten Storey Love Song) and it’s easy to see why this talk-heavy analysis of teen idiocy was adapted for the stage.

The Lovely Bones (Alice Sebold, 2002)
My first book club title of the year, and certainly a novel I wouldn’t have read in other circumstances. Perfectly neat and all, but other than the character of the father, it didn’t lodge in my mind.

Castle Waiting (Linda Medley, 2006)
A mainly feminist reinterpretation of fairy tales, this graphic novel is rambling and full of heart. Perhaps not as special as the beautiful cover promises, but a cosy experience all the same.

Lunar Park (Bret Easton Ellis, 2005)
I had an enjoyable struggle with the amount of foreknowledge that Ellis expects of his readers, and the first third of the book had me hooked. But I quickly tired of (character) Ellis’ self-obsession, and the recurring images (the Terby, the peeling walls of the house) felt hammered home. The novel may have been intended as a parody of Stephen King-style thrills, but I felt that it fell for its own joke.

Fup (Jim Dodge, 1983)
A happy way to spend an hour or so. This wafer-thin novel features stars a man who believes he is immortal, and a duck. It’s wry and warm.

20th Century Eightball (Daniel Clowes, 2002)
A collection of Clowes’ early comics, this is far less assured than the only other of his works I’ve read, Ghost World. It’s fun, but there’s little to hold together this collection of short strips.

The Riddle of the Sands (Erskine Childers, 1903)
Good grief, this one dragged. I bought it on the strength of its being included in Penguin’s Read Red series of adventure stories (I wouldn’t have got round to reading the excellent Prisoner of Zenda without this series). At first, it lived up to it’s billing as an early espionage thriller, but soon became bogged down with minutiae about tides and boatcraft. Left a bitter taste and slowed down my year’s reading.

The Reader (Bernard Schlink, 1997)
Following up The Riddle of the Sands with this ponderous novel (another book club choice) was bad luck. To be fair, I would have resented it far less had I not seen the Kate Winslet stinker of an adaptation a few months previously. The view of post-war German attitudes to Nazism was fascinating, but the relationships were not.

Purple Hibiscus (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2003)
Another book club pick, which I’m embarrassed about: I rarely read female authors, and had never read a book by an African novelist – so the only way I would have read this was through coercion. I’m really glad this was picked – it was perfectly accessible and the account of post-colonial Nigeria was captivating.

The Unlimited Dream Company (J G Ballard, 1979)
Another novel that I laboured over, although this time it probably wasn’t the fault of the book. This story of a would-be pilot crashlanding in Shepperton, only to become trapped by unknown forces, was a real surprise to me. I’ve not read any other Ballard, and was impressed/baffled by the levels of woozy sexual fantasy. Unlike anything I’ve ever read.

Neuromancer (William Gibson, 1984)
Another author I’d been meaning to read for ages, and this book seemed a sensible place to start. The sci-fi tropes may now be overused, but still felt fresh, and the plot was pleasingly light and action-packed. Compare this with another novel with a similar heritage, Snow Crash – I tried listening to the audiobook of that book and its clunky, meandering prose completely put me off. I’d like to read either the sequels to Neuromancer, or Pattern Recognition, in 2011.

Ubik (Philip K Dick, 1969)
The only Dick novel I’ve read, other than Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and it was a relief to read his work without it being overshadowed by images from a film adaptation. The humour was unexpected, more like Douglas Adams than highbrow sci-fi.

Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro, 2005)
Another defiantly speculative-rather-than-science fiction novel. Never Let Me Go felt effortless, its female characters were wonderfully drawn, and the sense of impending doom was palpable. I felt a terrific amount of frustration with the characters inability or lack of desire to get to grips with their situation, even once they’re fully aware of their fate. My memory of this novel is of a vague, thick atmosphere, as hazy as distant schooldays.

Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood, 2003)
I read and loved The Handmaid’s Tale last year, and while this is a bit less distinctive, it’s a solid post-apocalyptic tale with some snarky humour. I’m looking forward to reading the sort-of followup, The Year of the Flood. Margaret Atwood’s books are the ones I immediately think of when trying to pin down a definition of speculative fiction, as opposed to science fiction. The big ideas are there, but she doesn’t get bogged down in technical detail.

The Chrysalids (John Wyndham, 1955)
I recently bought a bunch of Penguin John Wyndham editions with the beautiful 1970s illustrated covers, so I’ll be ploughing through them in 2011. But the edition of The Chrysalids was a later one, with a singularly unhelpful cover (to describe it would spoil the plot, by deduction). Rather than ruining the story, this left me completely unprepared for the turn of events and, in fact, resulted in one of the most rewarding reading experiences I had all year. I have my thoughts on a different outcome to the plot that I would have preferred, but having that kind of strong opinion about a novel was inspiring in itself.

Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides, 2002)
I adored this book. I love hunting for the Great American Novel as much as anyone, and this was the best contender I’d read since Michael Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay. Middlesex ought to feel overblown, with several main themes: Greek families, American immigration and hermaphroditism – but it’s a flowing experience. A couple of episodes perhaps too neatly tie in with important events in US history, but on the strength of this novel, I’m anticipating Eugenides’ next book as much as Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.

Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes (Patricia Highsmith, 1987)
I’m a sucker for Patricia Highsmith, but this was the first of her non-Ripley books I’ve read. These gloomy short stories are all about beginnings – Highsmith constructs a nightmarish or upsetting scenario, lets the consequences play out for a handful of pages… and then stops abruptly, apparently uninterested in conclusions. A strange contrast to the environment in which I read these stories, my head leaning against an upturned canoe after trips down the River Wye.

Linger Awhile (Russell Hoban, 2006)
I used to be in a band called The Hired Sportsmen, named after the children’s book Captain Najork and the Hired Sportsmen by Russell Hoban. Our singer rang Hoban (who was at the time quite ill), who agreed – with some bewilderment – to us using the name. It was only after this point that we discovered that Hoban was, in fact, a prolific author of magic-realism novels. Since then I’ve read Riddley Walker and Amaryllis Night and Day – the latter of which is one of the most lovable books I’ve read in the last five years. I also love Hoban because, of all of the writer’s rooms photographed in the Guardian Review section years ago, his was the only one which was a total pigsty. Linger Awhile is the most frivolous of Hoban’s books that I’ve read (Hollywood cowgirl is raised from the dead, subsequently becomes a vampire), but the leaps in logic and non sequiturs are wonderful.

Herland (Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1915)
I came across this title in lists of proto-science fiction novels, and had expected the story of a lost land populated only by women to be a fun curiosity. But this Jules Verne-style exploration tale deals with big issues, and the arguments about the probably success of a female-only society are, while hugely biased, pretty convincing. Even more interesting is the story of Gilman herself: feminist, divorcee, child-abandoner – and editor of The Impress, a feminist journal to which she was the sole contributor.

A Long Way Down (Nick Hornby, 2005)
Although I enjoyed High Fidelity when I was about 15, it feels that both Nick Hornby and I are unsure whether his writing style can be adapted to mature fiction. The tone wavers between whimsical and navel-gazing, neither of which tend to feel appropriate for this story of four would-be suicides. A book club pick.

Scoop (Evelyn Waugh, 1938)
I’m embarrassed to say that I took ages to get through this one. I loved the Fleet Street and rural episodes, but the bulk of the book, with reporters stationed in a civil war-torn African state, left me cold. Still, I’m determined to read Brideshead Revisited this year.

And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie, 1939)
I hadn’t read an Agatha Christie book since my early teens, and this felt like a real palate-cleansing treat. Most impressive was Christie’s abruptness – it felt sometimes that she could condense what might be a chapter’s worth of exposition into a sentence. Less appealing was her tendency to sketch back stories with just one single image per character, repeated ad nauseum. I paused before the epilogue and tried to convince myself that each of the ten characters in turn had been the murderer, and all seemed equally valid. Expecting a forehead-smacking revelation, I was disappointed with the outcome.

The Magic Toyshop (Angela Carter, 1981)
I’d expected magic realism similar to Jeanette Winterson’s books, but this story of orphaned children, an authoritarian father figure and swan rape was incredibly bleak. I’m still not sure I fully understand the significance of sizeable portions of this book.

A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller Jr, 1960)
Back to my default, this is another post-apocalptic story, but with a difference. Each of the three books follow the events surrounding an abbey: in the first book the monks gather relics of the destroyed civilization and attempt to canonize Leibowitz, an ordinary engineer; in the second book the abbey protects the relics and redevelops pre-existing technology; in the third book the abbey witnesses the second rise of civilization and an impending nuclear war. It’s wryly funny and skippy for such a long book but packs a punch – definitely recommended.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Thornton Wilder, 1927)
Wow. I’d thought this novel sounded neat: five people fall to their deaths from a bridge in Peru and a priest researches each life to understand why God chose them to die. But each of the stories is totally engrossing, each character so idiosyncratic and appealing, I just raced through this short book. Page for page, the most impressive work I’ve read this year.

Timequake (Kurt Vonnegut, 1996)
I can’t get enough of Kurt Vonnegut, and, as with Nabokov, I’ve taken to rationing myself so I don’t get through them too quickly. This novel is barely fiction – Vonnegut tells the story of a temporary contraction of the universe which sends everyone ten years back in time, doomed to make exactly the same decisions all over again. But really this conceit is an excuse for Vonnegut to hold forth on his favourite topics: humanism, family and his alter-ego, Kilgore Trout. Since reading this book I’ve regularly been espousing Vonnegut’s wisdom to poor Rose.

I’ve missed out the four books I’ve yet to finish. All are non-fiction: The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross (absorbing account of modern classical music, but I got distracted making companion playlists); The Great Philosophers edited by Frederick Raphael; Teach Yourself Humanism by Mark Vernon; and an analysis of Jorge Luis Borges by Beatriz Sarlo.

I’ve already agonised over my choices of books in an earlier post. Suffice it to say that I didn’t read as much as I’d have liked to, and my to-read list is still longer than the list of books I’ve ever read.

My year of needless data

About five years ago I asked my friend Charley a question: If it were available to buy, how much would you pay for all of the quantifiable data about your life up to this point?

The data would (presumably) include such numerical data as number of hours spent on the toilet, number of times spoken the word ‘shoe’ out loud, but also magically-derived but still quantifiable data like number of minutes spent thinking about sex, and so on.

At the time we both agreed that a Microsoft Excel document containing this information would be worth around £10,000. While I don’t have this sort of money, nowadays I think that £20,000 sounds more like it. Sometimes I think that if only I had access to more data about myself, I’d be able to understand myself, second-guess myself, and become the person I’d like to be. Writing a diary, blogging, logging books read and listing films watched are all ways of building up some kind of data picture about myself.

Anyway, on to more readily available data…

Books

In 2010 I kept a log of all the books I read. I like to think that I read bits and bobs from different eras and styles, but on closer inspection I’m far more conservative than I’d expected.

I’ve always thought that it’s crazy to assume that the best literature (or music, or whatever) is that produced in the last few years – but still, exactly half of the books I read this year were from the 2000s (17 of a total of 34). Similarly, 18 of the books I read were from the USA and 14 were from the UK.

I’m more comfortable with my selection of book genres. In 2010, I made a conscious decision to read more science fiction / speculative fiction, as it’s a genre that I love but have unconsciously pooh-poohed since I was a teen.

Like the near-obsessive that I am, I’ve been rating books in 2010, too. The books I enjoyed most were Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides), Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro), The Chrysalids (John Wyndham) and The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Thornton Wilder). The four books started but failed to finish were all non-fiction works.

Films

Most films that I’ve seen in the cinema this year (12) would have been made in 2009 or 2010 – but still, 48 of the 79 films I watched in 2010 were made in either the 2000s or this year.

As for films genre, it’s been drama almost all the way. Perhaps my genre tags are a bit lacking here. But still, a pleasing lack of action blockbusters last year.

This next one, I’m less proud of. I barely watched any non-English-language films in 2010.

As for ratings, there were nine films I watched in 2010 that I adored. Five of these were films that I’d seen before (The Conversation, Aguirre, There Will Be Blood, Adventureland, City of God), so the four films new to me that I loved were Adam Curtis’ documentary It Felt Like a Kiss, Kubrick’s 1956 noir The Killing, Tomas Alfredson’s Swedish vampire horror Let The Right One In, and the 2010 critics’ darling, David Fincher’s The Social Network.

Favourite tracks of 2010

Near-constant Spotify usage has meant that 2010 has, for me, been more about songs than albums. Or perhaps it’s not been much of a year for LPs? Either way: here’s the unordered list (although, for the record, my favourites are Run Overdrive, Late and Mandrill).

Oh, and here’s a Spotify playlist for almost all of these tracks.

Run Overdrive – Civil Civic

At a bit of a stretch, I can imagine this instrumental track as the theme to a parallel-world Top of the Pops. It’s infectious, uplifting and, for those inclined, presumably quite danceable – but it’s also a little twisted, in particular the rocket-propulsion synths that remind me of Xinlisupreme’s speaker-shredding tracks.

It’s also refreshing to hear a band comfortable without a vocalist (I really hope they don’t succumb). Come to think of it, I still haven’t had the opportunity to play this track at really high volume… I bet it’s a riot live. One of my very favourite tracks of the year, for sure.

New York is Killing Me – Gil Scott Heron

Did anyone else see this coming? ‘I’m New Here’ came from nowhere for me – Gil Scott Heron sounds bruised and weary – and good grief, his voice is incredible these days. The clicking, clapping backdrop to ‘New York is Killing Me’ leaves space for Heron’s mournful complaints. The remix featuring Nas works well, but for me Nas’ contributions dilute a terrifically sparse track.

Microlite – Trophy Wife

I’m predisposed to like Microlite as they’re an Oxford-based band, and put on a good night at the newly gig-centred Modern Art Oxford. While it’s early days and they struggled to find enough material to fill their set (a limp Joanna Newsom cover almost spoiling the fun), this track, their first single, stands head and shoulders above the rest.

Late – Ergo Phizmiz
I’d previously only heard Ergo Phizmiz tracks in collaboration with People Like Us or via Ubuweb or Free Music Archive – but here it is, a genuine Phizmiz album, available in the shops. While on most of the album Ergo does a spot-on Viv Stanshall tribute, this track summons the spirit of Syd Barrett – all late-night meaderings and childish rhymes about Boris the florist.

Bright Lit Blue Skies – Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti

While ‘Before Today’ doesn’t contain a perfect track like ‘Every Night I Die at Miyagi’s’ (from ‘House Arrest’), this hits all the right notes for me. Much of 2010 has felt like the past, musically speaking, and when I hear ‘Bright Lit Blue Skies’, I’m transported to family camping holidays in France, circa 1988. Although the definition of hauntology seems to shift, I understand it as music that evokes false memories – and even on first listen I could have sworn that this had been a hit in my childhood.

On top of all of that, it’s a terrific pop song.

Ancestors – Gonjasufi

I don’t know who Gonjasufi is, but I know that his voice is ace. Over a backing similar to some recent Doom tracks, Sumach Ecks’ whispers his hesitant rhymes in a style unlike any rapper I’ve heard before. Intriguingly, Wikipedia lists his occupation as ‘rapper, singer, disc jockey and yoga teacher’.

Uncertain Memory – Grass Widow

Nothing on ‘Past Time’ quite reaches the heights of Grass Widow’s self-titled debut album. But this track, with its surf guitars and Electrelane chorus, is a winner. What on earth is the time signature here? Like Deerhoof’s ‘My Heart’ remix, ‘Uncertain Memory’ is reluctant to let the vocals die away, cutting away bars in order to preserve the flow. Add in the grandeur of the strings parts in the second half, and this is a track that keeps on giving.

Peppermint – Spectrals

Another track influenced by Phil Spector, ‘Peppermint’ filters sunny 60s pop through a grimy filter (see The Drums’ ‘Summertime!’ EP).

It’s an effortlessly hummable pop tune, just brilliant.

Bellringer Blues – Grinderman

The first Grinderman album was a mixed bag, and it was hard to shake the sense of midlife crisis from Nick Cave and co. ‘Grinderman 2’ is another story. I’ve enjoyed this album more than anything from Nick Cave since ‘No More Shall We Part’ – partly due to Cave’s ballsy confidence, but largely down to the instrumental backing. The guitars crunch and stutter and, on ‘Bellringer Blues’, reverse and slow down, creating a drunken structure that the song can only just contain.

Cave described the album as “like stoner rock meets Sly Stone via Amon Düül”, and on this album returns to his fallen prophet persona. ‘Bellringer Blues’ features Gabriel and deals swiftly with the Bible: I read that book every page / And then I put it away / Said I don’t think so / It makes slaves of all of womenkind / And corpses of the men

But it’s the looping weirdness that does it for me. Welcome back, sort-of-Bad Seeds.

Hand Covers Bruise – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

‘The Social Network’ was one of my favourite films of the year, and the classy production values were exemplified in Reznor and Ross’ soundtrack. ‘Hand Covers Bruise’ plays over the opening sequence, immediately dispelling any notion that a film about Facebook might be in any way whimsical. Sparse and haunted, ‘Hand Covers Bruise’ is a statement of intent. Surely Trent Reznor will now be the soundtrack composer of choice?

All Packed Up – Idiot Glee

Kentucky’s Idiot Glee is my pick of bands to watch. James Friley dodges Animal Collective copyism by referring directly back to Pet Sounds, but with Four Tet-like folktronica backings. Short and sweet, I’ve had ‘All Packed Up’ on more or less constant rotation for months.

Lightning Fossil – Prince Rama

This could almost be a lost Incredible String Band track. The banshee wail becomes less of an accompaniment and begins to lead the rhythm, until the point that the song threatens to become operatic prog folk. That this all happens in less than four minutes is astounding. Also, it gives me a mental image of Kate Bush singing with those head-throwing muppets from Labyrinth.

FM Tan Sexy – El Guincho

A bit of a surprise turnaround, ‘Pop Negro’ all but ditches the calypso plundering of 2008’s ‘Alegranza!’ in favour of a curious mixture of retro disco styles. I can almost imagine ‘FM Tan Sexy’ as an academic study of synthy 80s pop – as with Ariel Pink, it feels familiar on the first listen. Halting and bombastic, ‘FM Tan Sexy’ didn’t necessarily match my expectations of the return of El Guincho, but is terrific in its own right.

None an Island – Lorn

Another act that I know little to nothing about.

I can totally picture Doom rapping over this track, but there’s a certain glory in its sparse grind, carried by the tweeting high-pitched organ riff.

Tightrope – Janelle Monae feat. Big Boi

Outkast only really work for me in the context of Singstar. This track has all the same bolshy fun, but Janelle Monae’s vocals act as a convincing ‘fuck off’ to Duffy and the like. This track also features Big Boi’s Jemaine Clement-esque rhyming of ‘NASDAQ’ and ‘asscrack’.

Four – STLS

Apparently Lisa Schonberg and sts perform live facing each other, each playing a full drum kit. I have to see that. Four is buried at the end of the ‘Drumcore’ EP, but is the pick of the lot: the two drum kits intially compete, then phase together momentarily, forming one huge beat. Alternately shambolic and tight, ‘Four’ fills me with unbridled enthusiasm every time I hear it.

Hotel – Ergo Phizmiz
Another track from ‘Things to Do and Make’. Sitting somewhere between the Bonzo Dog Band and Madness, this is a track that’ll always put a smile on my face. A simple song of complaint about a seedy hotel (‘There’s spiders on the floor here’) with a refrain played on a detuned guitar, it contains some Flight of the Conchord-worthy endearing lyrics, including: And the manager is manic / And he may well be Hispanic / He’s obsessed with the Titanic / And his morals are appalling.

Midnight Boycow – The Sexual Objects

Davy Henderson has cited the Modern Lovers as a template for The Sexual Objects’ album, ‘Cucumber’, although I’d say there’s a Kinks influence in the mix too. There’s something really endearing about these slightly filthy and ramshackle pop songs, and ‘Midnight Boycow’ (closely followed by ‘Merrie England’) is my pick of the bunch.

The Young People – Belbury Poly

My favourite of Ghost Box’s ‘Study Series’ EPs, this features crude synths and that ‘Look Around You’ sense of 1980s wonder.

It really feels that Ghost Box have lived up to expectations this year. And that cover artwork – just superb.

Hey Boy – The Magic Kids

Hopelessly naive indie whimsy, with a severe Brian Wilson hangup and none of Suburban Kids With Biblical Names’ self-deprecation.

It shouldn’t work so well, but it’s just lovely.

Go Do – Jónsi

Only slightly tarnished by featuring on a Dulux advert, this is a storming track from Sigur Ros vocalist, Jón Þór Birgisson.

It’s a track that somehow, in spite of all cynicism, feels genuinely other-worldly.

Marathon – Tennis

Tennis are super-cool, is that right? I fell a bit oblivious to any hype – but this track is just beautiful, a Spector girl group turning to Jackson 5 falsetto, filtered through wobbly FM. Also, just short enough to leave you wanting, immediately ready for repeat.

The Merry Barracks – Deerhoof

I’m allowed this one, because although it’ll be on next year’s album, Deerhoof Vs Evil, the band released it as a free download this year. And on the strength of this, I’m more excited about the new album than any album for an awfully long time. The loping electronic rhythms, Satomi Matsuzaki’s absentminded childish vocals… just magic.

Let’s Go Surfing – The Drums

A borderline choice given that this first appeared on the ‘Summertime!’ EP in 2009, but given that it also appeared on The Drums’ debut album this year, I’m going to allow myself this one. I’ve written about this song before, but I still love it, not least because Rose insists that the chorus is ‘Obama, I just wanna go surfing’.

Parrot in the Pie – Ergo Phizmiz

Am I labouring the point? Ergo Phizmiz’s album ‘Things to Do and Make’ is my album of the year, and picking only four highlights from it is still doing it a disservice.

Roadtrips would be drastically improved if only I could memorise the chorus to this track.

Gold – Darkstar

I’ve had Darkstar’s ‘North’ on rotation since it was released, and while debut track ‘Aidy’s Girl is a Computer’ may still be the standout track after much reworking of the rest of the album, this cover of The Human League’s ‘You Remind Me of Gold’ is a real grower. I think I may have latched onto the album more because of the lack of new material from The Notwist: Darkstar’s skittery, spidery rhythms and two-note piano melodies scratch a similar itch – but I’m really glad that I’ve given ‘North’ the time to sink in.

Take Me Back – Aloe Blacc

Without even googling for reference, I imagine that Aloe Blacc’s similarity to Bill Withers and Al Green has been much discussed. But tracks like this are a reminder that there’s no technical reason why few artists are creating this kind of raw soul.

Too Much, Too Fast – Solex vs. Cristina Martinez & Jon Spencer

This really shouldn’t have worked. The appeal of Elisabeth Esselink’s tunes have always been the charity-shop ramshackleness, and having Jon Spencer widdling all over them ought to have been dreadful. But the album, ‘Amsterdam Throwdown, King Street Showdown!’ is just fantastic – and this track in particular is excellent fun.

Female Guitar Players Are The New Black – Marnie Stern

Marnie Stern’s awfully good at playing the guitar, isn’t she? Having said that, I’ve just looked up the lyrics to this song online, and while the track sounds like an orgiastic wrestling match, it appears to be about foxes and some wind near a bridge. So, perhaps a little disappointing, but Marnie’s ten-finger tapping and the frenetic drums still win me over, foxes or no foxes.

Sing – Four Tet

Other than his wonderful collaboration with Burial (‘Wolf Cub’ – one of my most-played tracks from last year) and the live performances with drummer Steve Reid, this is my favourite Four Tet song since ‘She Moves She’ way back in 2003. The bleeping melody gives Hebden plenty to monkey around with, and over the course of nearly seven minutes becomes hypnotic. To be frank, it could be twice as long and I it probably wouldn’t outstay its welcome.

Vietnam – Crystal Castles

Crystal Castles do not need Alice Glass, and were far better before they had a vocalist. I’m not sure if this is against the common consensus. Or do people hate Crystal Castles after the hype train for the debut album? Either way, this track reduces Glass’ contribution to a series of sampled pitches, over a ‘Downward Spiral’ synth thump. I’m a total sucker for this kind of quasi-chiptune treatment of voices.

Mount Hood – Hauschka

We saw Hauschka play in St Michael’s Church in Oxford, freezing cold sitting on the pews, even wearing our winter coats. While much of his work is composed for a 12-piece orchestra, he played solo with a grand piano prepared with card, duct tape, leather, tambourines and ping-pong balls resting on the strings. With eyes closed it was almost impossible to imagine one man making so many rattling, clattering noises all at once, with the soft piano lines interspered. The most inspiring music I’ve heard live this year.

1977 – Ana Tijoux

This track makes me question what I actually get out of hiphop – I can only understand 10% of the words, but I still get a real kick out of this.

Does anyone else out there find great pleasure listening to rap in a language you don’t understand?

My Heart (Deerhoof remix) – Wildbirds and Peacedrums

Forget my earlier comment. I’m allowing myself this one anyway.

Last.fm tells me that this is the track I’ve listened to most this year, which sounds about right as there were a few days when I listened to little else.

Silver Sands – Stereolab

Stereolab’s career distilled into just over 10 minutes.

A track of two halves, this begins with sugar-tinged Krautrock before making an about-turn into Heatwave noodling territory.

Ambre – Nils Frahm
Uncomplicated and beautiful, this track buried into my brain a long while ago.

Music like this does rather make other, fussier productions seems a bit ridiculous. ‘Props’ to Thom Yorke for recommending this via Spotify.

Mandrill – Ergo Phizmiz

This is the tune that’s been stuck in my head more than any other this year. And it features easily the best collection of words from any song this year: This mandrill / he was mauvish in the chops / and delicious / I met him down the shops one day / And he said ‘How d’you do?

When the third verse begins, Ergo’s pals pull together to make the most joyous sound I’ve heard for such a long time. Seriously, this is going to sound over-the-top, but this ‘novelty’ song makes me well up with happiness.

Listen to the Spotify playlist containing most of these tracks.