2015: TV of the Year

I made a concerted effort to watch a lot of TV this year. With so many must-see shows, many fell by the wayside, so if it’s not on the list, I either didn’t watch it or didn’t like it as much as you! But for what it’s worth, here are ten favourite shows of the year, plus the next fifteen in briefer detail, all in no particular order within their separate quality brackets. And it wouldn’t be an end of year list on this blog without an evening’s work of sloppy photoshop work too.

THE TEN TV SHOWS OF 2015

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Fargo
With series one, Noah Hawley defied all logic and sense and turned a critically acclaimed and award-winning movie by a pair of master film-makers into one of the most entertaining shows of 2014 (indeed, my favourite of that year). That series two would end up being just as good, maybe even better, is unbelievable. Wisely going forward by going back (some 30 years before the ‘true story’ first time around), a great cast all bring their A game to a tale of warring gangsters, an oblivious couple caught up in the cross-fire, and a police force trying to make sense of it all, with so much to enjoy amid the ensuing carnage. May ‘The History of True Crime in the Midwest offer more stories to come.

Mad Men
So much has changed in the televisual landscape since Mad Men first debuted (on BBC Two – remember when the BBC showed American drama?), it was no longer the sixties setting that made it feel like a product of another time. The end of Mad Men as such feels like the end of an era. And while this second half of its final series wasn’t quite as strong as the first, it finished off its run in some style. That the last few episodes would feel deliberately aimless was a reminder that dream-like, nomadic journeys of self-discovery was as much a part of its DNA as pitch meetings, office and social politics, and the evolving wardrobe of its characters. Mad Men leaves us in a better place (at least in terms of the variety of TV out there and the ease of accessing it), and it was worth sharing the ride with it.

Better Call Saul
The Breaking Bad spin-off that was much talked about and hugely anticipated quickly established itself as its own thing, exceeding expectations and being perhaps even better than its forebear. I’d go so far as to recommend it to those yet to see Breaking Bad (so long as you skipped the first 5-10 minutes), as it has all the fun and tension of seeing a slippery central character trying to get out of various legal scrapes, but with not quite so much killing and nastiness which might otherwise be off-putting.

The Jinx
True crime documentaries have been as much a staple of television as the detective shows that form the fictitious flipside of the coin. But few have such access to its central suspect, let alone one as high profile (at least in the US at the time – I’d never heard of the case beforehand) as millionaire Robert Durst and his connections to a string of murders and disappearances. Even if you know the much-discussed ending (a deeply chilling final shot that recalled Ghostwatch of all things – while we’re on the subject, I’d also recommend The Enfield Haunting if you have an interest in said show), the whole series was one of the most engrossing watches of the year.

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Fortitude
Despite the publicity onslaught at the time, it seems all the media attention evaporated for Sky’s big original production with its impressive international cast (including Michael Gambon, Sofie Gråbøl, Stanley Tucci, and Christopher Eccleston) soon after, which is a shame, as Fortitude was my favourite new drama series of 2015. What made it especially compelling was how it was never quite clear what kind of show it would become – was it a detective mystery, a serial killer thriller, a supernatural investigation, a sci-fi horror? That it ended up being all those things to an extent, and more, while maintaining a consistent tone is remarkable. If you’re partial to the likes of The Returned and Twin Peaks but with a touch of The Thing thrown in for good measure, then Fortitude’s grim, strange delights may be just the thing for you.

This is England ‘90
Another successful film-to-TV transfer, the four-part mini-series and likely conclusion to the adventures of Shaun, Woody, Lol, et al packed in many laugh-out-loud moments as well as its fair share of heartbreak and trauma too. It could be accused of turning up the misery to the point of incredulity, but having become so invested in the characters over one film and three series (not quite #sixseasonsandamovie), I think it earned its bruising toughness, counterbalanced with a sense of hope and optimism (well, not for all of them). Tears, both happy and sad, were indeed shed.

Show Me A Hero
For those intimidated or put-off by all the hype for The Wire and unsure whether to invest the time and energy would do well to check out Show Me A Hero, also from David Simon. At six episodes, it’s a fully contained and manageable story, based on real events, and while it doesn’t sound like an exciting proposition (public housing in Yonkers, New York, in the late 80’s), its cross-section of individuals directly and indirectly affected and involved with the issues has all the drama and social commentary of its bigger brother. Great use of music and attention to sound mixing too (the noise of the public debates was particularly striking).

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Catastrophe
Sharon Horgan teamed up with Rob Delaney to deliver another great comedy that’s as good if not better than Pulling. Frequently hilarious, Catastrophe had the kind of frank, disgusting but authentic dialogue that rarely emerges from behind closed doors, but, you guessed it, a beating heart under the profanity-strewn surface. Apart from some side characters that still feel out of place after two series, it was something really special. A very whistleable main theme too.

Hannibal
So long, for now, Dr Lecter. After three series with ever-shrinking audiences, NBC pulled the plug on one of the most imaginative and beautiful programmes ever made. And how do you make the most beautiful show on television even more beautiful? Take it to Florence, that’s how! It seemed its fate was sealed as soon as it went full Eurotrash and became a ‘funny’ accent extravaganza. And granted, the first few episodes felt even more languid than usual, as it recalibrated itself following the second series finale. But once friends, enemies and frenemies are reunited, it offered much to savour. That it also managed to fit in The Tooth Fairy – now in its third filmed adaptation after Manhunter and Red Dragon – and still managed to surprise and feel fresh is testament to just how good Hannibal was, and hopefully one day may be again. Fingers crossed for a movie, but not just any movie. A full-blown, over-ripe, nightmarish, gorgeous, movie musical is about the only way I can see it going. And yes, Mads Mikkelsen can sing. Kind of.

Hunderby
Despite its BAFTA and British Comedy Awards, I thought we had seen the last of Hunderby given it being tucked away on Sky Atlantic and lack of mainstream attention. But hush-ho! We were blessed with two glorious, disgusting specials in December. The relationships became ever more convoluted, the plot increasingly contrived, all in the grand traditions of the literature of course, and Julia Davis’ vulgar vernacular made my eyes fountain with laughter and locked my face in a grin throughout. Very silly and in exquisitely bad taste and all the better for it.

AND THE NEXT FIFTEEN…

Wolf Hall
Lots of people looking miserable in dark rooms and creaky corridors is how I imagine the Tudor period, so Wolf Hall is probably a rather accurate depiction of historical events.

Inside No. 9
Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s second post-League collaboration after Psychoville mirrors its predecessor by following a good first series with a great second one.

Penny Dreadful
Still not essential viewing, but the second series of John Logan’s gothic mash-up found itself a sense of humour, and with it became far more entertaining.

Broad City
Comedy Central UK finally woke up to the fact that it might actually be a good idea to show some of the much-praised original programmes from the U S of A, so while Key & Peele, Kroll Show, Nathan For You, Review and more remain unshown, at least we finally got to see Inside Amy Schumer and this, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer’s very funny misadventures as they struggle to deal with the real world in any way, shape or form.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Not read the book and I gather chunks were understandably excised, but it didn’t affect the story-telling or character as I saw it. An enjoyably weird and unpredictable tale that offered some startling stuff.

Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp
Given how much I didn’t get on with the film when I watched it for the first time only this year, I’m pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed its prequel some 14 years after the original was made. Great new additions round out an original returning cast that has its fair share of stars already, and its goofiness is infectious.

The Returned
The second (possibly final?) series was as atmospheric as ever, though had a different feel and agenda to what came before. Less focus on character and mood, more on twists and revelations, but managed a tricky balance of being both satisfying and ambiguous.

W/ Bob & David
The team and talent from Mr. Show (which I still have not seen) reunite for a mini sketch series that not only knows how to squeeze the best out of a great set-up, but has the performances to back it up. Digital!

And Then There Were None
Superior Agatha Christie adaptation with a stellar cast, so you end up feeling extra upset when your favourites from stage and screen start dropping like flies.

Master of None
Aziz Ansari wrote the book on modern romance (literally), so it’s no surprise Master of None (co-written with Parks and Recreation’s Alan Yang, and originally developed with the much-missed Harris Wittels) would be a witty, articulate and accurate depiction of relationships (and much more besides) in this day and age.

Doctor Who
I still think this gets better year on year. Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman settle more comfortably than ever into their roles, and the good-bad story ratio was the highest it has been post-comeback.

The Great British Bake Off
Nadiya – QUEEN. Comfort food telly of the highest order.

Ash vs Evil Dead
I have a feeling I may end up writing a more in-depth review once I finish off the series, but, a few misgivings aside, this is a largely successful (and quite frankly still amazing that it ever happened) resurrection. Lively, boisterous, and very, very bloody.

Rick & Morty
Maybe not as strong as the first series, but still a remarkable, rule-breaking animation that can run rings around supposedly serious sci-fi fare. With extra dick and fart jokes.

Peep Show
As the El Dude Brothers ride off into the sunset, let’s just stop to appreciate just how such a cringe-inducing, uncomfortably accurate comedy of social embarrassment and despair with a bizarre first-person gimmick became one of the longest running sitcoms in British TV history? Just as good as ever.

2015: Films of the Year

Here are ten films I saw in 2015 that I liked a lot with some comments too (some lazily culled and edited from earlier reviews), with some fairly arbitrary ranking (I could probably swap around the top five each day). Given how film release schedules work (or don’t in one particular instance) and festival screenings and the like, it’s somewhat fluid what constitutes a 2015 film (a couple of international releases date from 2013 and 2014, one other film here isn’t out in the UK until March), but if you want the full context of my tastes and habits to avoid a “Where’s [BLANK]?”-athon, I’ve got a Letterboxd account now, which I plan to make full use of in the New Year. So now you can judge everything I watch or do not watch! Enough preamble, on with the list!

 

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1. The Look of Silence

A companion piece to Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, this time telling the story of the Indonesia genocide from the point of the view of the victims, rather than the perpetrators. Here, an optician whose brother was murdered before he was even born confronts those responsible, but this is far more complex than a straightforward revenge story.  In fact, while this may be a more accessible work than The Act of Killing in many respects, it is even more essential. Playing something like a documentary version of Dead Man’s Shoes, it’s chilling, eye-opening and powerful, and carries with it, in its main subject and his family, an emotionally engaging centre through the horror.

2. The Lobster

Though absurd in its set-up and often very funny, The Lobster has a lot to say about our own reality, namely love and relationships, and the weird rituals, mechanics and quirks that make no sense taken out of context and viewed dispassionately – even if there is something strangely moving about the central character’s own quest for companionship. Though this is his first film in the English language, Yorgos Lanthimos’ dry deliberate tone and stilted dialogue fits well with the international cast.  It’s weird, sad, dark and hilarious, reminiscent of Chris Morris’ Jam if anything, and one of the best films of the year.

3. It Follows

There is so much about David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows to talk about, it’s hard to know where to begin (I go into more detail here). For all the talent taking place on screen and off (especially when it comes to its score and cinematography), a recommendation would be hard to justify through style alone, but It Follows’ substance runs deep. It feels timeless yet current, it presents a gimmick and vague set of rules but allows an uncertainty and ambiguity to the premise to unsettle you further, and it plays on multiple themes explicitly but doesn’t vocalise them in a way to make them seem so heavy-handed. A trashier version of the film, played more for yuks and scares, could exist somewhere – and would probably be very entertaining – but as it stands, It Follows feels fully-formed and left me much impressed.

4. Carol

Carol is a simple story – in the best possible sense – impeccably performed and elegantly told. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara put in their very best work, even given their tip-top standards, and you can almost smell the smoke and perfume pouring off the screen. Every glance feels electric, every touch momentous, and every creative detail perfectly judged.

5. Mad Max: Fury Road

There were arguably better films released this year, but Mad Max: Fury Road was the talking-point movie of 2015, ten tonnes of unfiltered crazy from a singular vision in George Miller, age having done nothing to dull his sensibilities. As blockbusters get baggier and bleed into each other through ‘cinematic universes’, this is world-building done right, with exposition that cuts to the chase, characters that speak through their actions, story that is inferred without sacrificing pace. Instantly iconic.

 

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6. Force Majeure

A family skiing holiday is punctured by a sudden incident and a split-second decision that has deep personal ramifications. Sounds like a thriller, yet Ruben Östlund’s hilarious comic tale manages to create simmering tension while maintaining an excruciatingly funny vein of humour. If you can bear the cringe-inducing awkwardness of it all, Force Majeure is a biting and witty dissection of the roles and responsibilities of men and women in their social and domestic relationships. The great expanse of the Alps has never felt so claustrophobic.

7. Snowpiercer

Included here as something of a protest vote, Snowpiercer remains without a UK release due to meddlings from the Weinstein Company. A shame, as it means audiences here have been denied a chance to see another fine film from Korean master director Bong Joon Ho (his first – mainly – in the English language) on the big screen. In spite of this, Snowpiercer is a compelling addition to the future dystopia social satire sub-genre, charting an uprising aboard an intercontinental train perpetually travelling through a post-apocalyptic Earth turned icy wasteland. As with Bong’s earlier work, it can smartly juggle grim reality and sudden violence with dark humour and emotional weight, and a great cast commit themselves to the outlandish premise (Tilda Swinton particularly memorable as a Roald Dahl-esque villain). Absolutely worth seeking out.

8. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Big space movies are back. Gravity, Interstellar, Guardians of the Galaxy, even Prometheus has something to answer for (well, a lot of things to answer for). Ridley Scott’s attempt this year to make an all-together decent off-world offering was very close to finding its way into my top ten – the hugely enjoyable The Martian – but Star Wars: The Force Awakens managed to not only course-correct a franchise that had lost its sheen, but do so in such an entertaining fashion. And it’s not just an exercise in nostalgia. In fact, I was having such a good time with its trio of new characters (plus Ball Droid), it was a bit of a disappointment when Han and Chewie show up. The Internet can nitpick away at its flaws; JJ Abrams for all his success at nailing the tricky stuff does have a habit of fumbling story and speeding through leaps of logic (which makes the next instalments and spin-offs more exciting now the groundwork is out of the way). But fewer better times were had at the cinema this year.

9. Enemy

While Sicario has garnered justifiable praise, it’s Dennis Villeneuve’s previous film (released in the UK on 2nd January 2015, so just sneaking in here) that left the greater impression. Enemy is an engrossing head-scratcher that lingers long after watching, not just as you unpick the plot but with the weird sense of dread that seeps through it. Almost a year after watching it, there’s still stuff in here I’ve yet to shake off. Jake Gyllenhaal is just as good here as in Nightcrawler (though played very differently), and if Villeneuve can combine the atmosphere and paranoia of Enemy with the tension and action of Sicario, then his forthcoming Blade Runner sequel may shift from ‘approach with caution’ to ‘very exciting indeed’.

10. Anomalisa

Charlie Kaufman’s latest work is naturally as Kaufman-esque, for want of a better word, as previous favourites, witty and strange and emotionally engaging. But in teaming up with co-director Duke Johnson, together they have also crafted a quite remarkable animation to boot. The use of animation serves many functions here, especially as our lead character, a relatable but crucially not necessarily likeable writer (played by David Thewlis) is surrounded by a sea of identical faces, be it man, woman or child, all voiced by Tom Noonan. To describe what Anomalisa actually is would perhaps reveal too much as the story itself is slim and contained, but the directions it takes and the choices it makes offer much to take away for further thought and reflection. For any fans of his previous films, it is essential viewing.

 

And for making it this far – a reward! Here’s my annual Spotify playlist of favourite pieces of scores and soundtracks from 2015. Stream below or click here to open separately.

 

2015: Music of the Year

As much as I love music and seeing music being performed live and sharing the music I like with people, it’s finally dawned on me that I actually suck at writing about it. I have no sense of how to describe how something sounds, and my working knowledge of terminology, or coming up with comparisons, or even placing bands or songs into subgenres, is pretty ropey. It’s a pain to write, it’s not entertaining to read, so let’s cut to the chase, and present – largely without comment – my favourite albums released this year.

1. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie and Lowell

I will just say something about this, out of all the gigs I saw this year (admittedly not many, but some good stuff at Glastonbury, Future Islands/Beck/The Strokes at Hyde Park, Garbage at Brixton Academy…), Sufjan Stevens at Royal Festival Hall was a highlight. Impeccably performed renditions of the latest album, but when Sufjan finally got chatting with the crowd, what could have been a beautiful but sombre occasion became filled with remarkable levity, cracking jokes, fluffing lines as he got the giggles. And to cap it off, a finale that made full use of the venue’s pipe organ filled the hall with a swirling rumble that felt like a UFO landing. Extraordinary and memorable.

2. Grimes – Art Angels
3. The Dø – Shake Shook Shaken
4. FFS – FFS
5. Hot Chip – Why Make Sense
6. CHVRCHES – Every Open Eye
7. The Go! Team – The Scene Between
8. John Grant – Grey Tickles, Black Pressure
9. Tame Impala – Currents
10. Lianne La Havas – Blood

And what with a music wrap-up be without one of my Viewing Gum Listening Posts? Largely compiled from my VGLP playlists, this bumper edition will hopefully in the grand tradition offer a little something for everyone. Stream below or click here.

 

 

And that’s not all, for in my occasional duty as resident DJ of GamerDisco, I also listen to a lot of chiptune, synthwave, video game remixes, soundtracks and more. And so I also compile a Spotify playlist with some of the best tracks that you might hear at our events. Please enjoy!

 

 

HaHalloween 2: The Revenge

Because anything can happen on HaHalloween

Because anything can happen on HaHalloween

You didn’t ask for it. And yet, it came back! My spooky joke challenge has been resurrected for another year, following last year’s ordeal (and previous Christmas-themed monstrosities). Behold 31 truly terrifying ‘jokes’, ‘quips’, ‘puns’ and non-sequiturs (as originally posted on Twitter) to baffle and bemuse your friends this All Hallows’ Eve, and beyond. Please scare (share) and die screaming (enjoy).

Q. What sprouts a red and white jumper every full moon?
A. A WereWally (or WereWaldo for our North American friends).

Q. Medusa stars in which David Fincher film?
A. Gorgon Girl.

Q. What do satanists buy from the candy store?
A. Beelzebubble gum.

Q. What is Sadako’s favourite potato snack, packaged in an appropriate tube?
A. P-Ring-les.

Q. What is the largest amount of memory that can be stored on a USB stick from Hell?
A. A Cenobyte (CB).

My girlfriend is totally into giallo, she’s my tenebae.

Q. Why did the ghost throw the clock out of the window?
A. Because he wanted to see time fly. Plus he’s a poltergeist. They love throwing things.

Q. How do you inspect a witch for internal maladies?
A. A cauldronoscopy.

Q. Why did the insurance company pay out more for Shrek’s claim?
A. They were ogre-compensating.

Q. What is the wimpiest pasta dish?
A. Fettucinne Afraido.

Q. In which horror film does Mia Farrow give birth to a sheep-herding pig?
A. Rosemary’s Babe.

Q. Where does Satan buy his sweatshirts?
A. Jersey Devil’s.

Q. Who is the spookiest graffiti artist in the world?
A. Ban(k)shee.

Q. Why did the witch call the plumber?
A. Double double toilet trouble.

Actually, Honey was the name of the creator, NOT the Monster.

Q. Which company makes the best soaps in Texas?
A. Imperial Leatherface.

“Waiter, waiter, there’s The Fly in my soup!”
“Err, hi, I’m Jeff uh Goldblum.”

Q. Which ghost always looks like they are shouting when they write an e-mail?
A. CAPSLOCK THE FRIENDLY GHOST.

My toothbrush does an amazing impression of the final scene from The Blair Witch Project. [PRESS REVEAL]

Q. Which girl band member only performs with the rest of her group around Autumn time?
A. Pumpkin Spice.

Q. Where do you go to buy the most terrifying costumes for Halloween?
A. Your local scaremonger’s.

Q. In which film is it revealed that Liberace drank the blood of goats?
A. Behind the Chupacabra.

Q. Which classic  ‘Universal Monster’ was kicked out of the club for not being scary enough?
A. The Visible Man.

Q. Why did the Mummy not want to go on the rollercoaster?
A. He didn’t have the stomach. Or the guts. All his organs were in jars.

Q. Where do most UK witches hail from?
A. Coven-try.

Q. What is the most frightening Bond film?
A. James Bond Versus the Spooky Ghost.

Q. Why was the phantom desperate to see the new Mission: Impossible movie?
A. He was a TomPhan.

Q. Why is Zombie Mozart no good at his job?
A. He is decomposing.

Q. What is the best substitute for eyeballs in the ‘Witch’s Body’ game?
A. Sheep eyes probably – just ask your local butcher.

Q. Which cartoon dog investigates Haitian dark magic?
A. Scooby-Voodoo.

Q. Why is Dracula allergic to crucifixes?
A. He’s an atheist.

The NOW Years

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From 1992 to 1998, through the ages of 7 to 13 years old, I bought or received as birthday/Christmas presents every instalment in the NOW That’s What I Call Music! series. From NOW 22 to NOW 40, I had them all, mainly on cassette (only with NOW 39 and NOW 40 did I make the leap to CD), and listened to them endlessly. I didn’t listen much to music on the radio, so along with Top of the Pops and The Chart Show, they were my primary source of music during my formative years. But by the time of NOW 40, I felt I had outgrown them (geez what a precocious thirteen year old) and able to develop my own tastes. It’s a testament to their eclectic nature that I was still able to gravitate towards the indie, alternative, rock, and dance acts that would comprise most album purchases then on. Yet more so than any other compilation series, the NOW series holds a special place in the hearts of many, a time capsule of musical tastes, and in the face of the rise of internet downloads and streaming services, it’s remarkable that it is still going.

With NOW 90 recently released and on a nostalgia kick, I went back and listened to the 19 NOW compilations of my childhood (through the medium of Spotify), and created this handy playlist of songs that offer a cross-section of mid-nineties pop. Some I loved at the time, some are very much of the era, some hold up remarkably well, some don’t so much. It’s a mix of classics, curios and cheese. The only rule was that I could only include one song per artist. I hope you enjoy it!

 

Although I listen to far more music today than at any point of my life, I am very much out of touch of what’s in the charts (I am constantly listening to new music, just rarely anything that finds its way into the top 10, if that is still even a thing). So, as a means of comparison, I listened to all of NOW 90 too. What have I learned through this whole experience?

OBSERVATION ONE: Pop music is generally better now than it used to be…

To qualify this statement, popular opinion is generally ‘music was better in the 70s/80s/90s/etc’, but really it’s the good music that is remembered, the bad music that is vilified, but then an awful load of mediocre guff that gets forgotten about. But the NOW compilations do not forget. And you can pick any Side A of a NOW Compilation (where most of the pop hits end up) and it will generally stand toe to toe with any other. Two or three genuine hits, but mostly filler singles from already established artists. Which is to say, the pop music of NOW 90 is generally better produced, better presented, and less likely to rely on gimmickry, wackiness, and earworm tactics to get a hit. Plus, everyone looks cool. Pop music in the 90s was never about looking cool. Now it’s genuinely confusing when you see a handsomely made music video, really interesting use of design on the album cover, stylish fashion shoots, enthusiastic reviews from respected critics, and then you actually listen to the song and you realise, “oh this is just pop music” (looking at you, Bastille). Fewer insipid boybands, none of the gut-churning day-glo awfulness – that’s got to be a good thing, right?

OBSERVATION TWO: …but pop music is ultimately blander than it used to be.

Now this isn’t nostalgia talking, but if we get rid of those lows, it means we deny ourselves those highs, and mainstream pop music today lacks character. So what’s the problem? No more Barbie Girls, MMMBops and Cotton Eyed Joes! But what’s left to talk about if every song in the chart is perfectly agreeable, adequate, fine. With everyone able to easily pursue whatever music interest they have without having to trouble the charts or radio output, it seems harder than ever for something new and exciting to come along and change the game for everyone. There is still the potential for a genuine novelty hit – to think that Gangnam Style was almost three years ago – but more often than not (Gangnam Style being the not), a global market demands something with global appeal, something that can speak to any language or culture without causing confusion or offence. Maybe pop was always about incremental change, pilfering sounds and styles from niche subgenres, incorporating them into existing forms to make them more palatable to public tastes. But just listen through that playlist of mine, and you see the variety on offer. Try to picture any of those songs on NOW 90, and they’d stick out – not necessarily because of the genre, the sound, the technology, but because there is vibrancy, a sense of fun, excitement and self-aware silliness, that is missing.

I mean by golly, this was just at number one the other week. It sounds like something performed on The National Lottery circa 1996. Surely we’ve come a long way since? Or is pop music perpetually trapped in a state of what will ultimately just form this year’s wedding DJ songbook?

OBSERVATION THREE: Whatever happened to reggae-pop?

One thing I totally forgot about was the sudden and strange reggae-pop boom of the early 90’s? One can perhaps point to renewed interest in Bob Marley following the release of Iron Lion Zion, while Shaggy was the most famous crossover hitmaker (Oh Carolina kicked it off, but Boombastic – as featured on a jeans commercial as was the style of the time – was the biggie). And it seemed like few pop songs could resist inserting a reggae breakdown (at least if a rap breakdown wouldn’t fit the bill). How could we forget Peter Andre’s Mysterious Girl? Answer: NO ONE COULD. Aswad, UB40, Inner Circle, C.J. Lewis, Ini Kamoze, Chaka Demus & Pliers, Shabba Ranks…all had mainstream hits. Yet, few seemed to bother the charts again, and the trend had little lasting impact or influence on the charts. However, it was a flame that burned briefly but brightly.

OBSERVATION FOUR: Oldies were still churning out not so goodies.

It was surprising on my relisten that in the mid-90s, so much is comprised of what even at the time you’d think of as being ‘Dad’s Music’. In reality, there was only about a decade between their initial success and their appearance on my NOW compilations, but I’d find myself listening to Duran Duran, OMD, even the Bee Gees. Further down the running order with each passing year, but still present. Heck, side one tape A of NOW 32 featured Queen, Meat Loaf, Simply Red, U2, Tina Turner, Cher, Paul Weller, Suggs, and Paul McCartney. Doesn’t seem very 1995. Even NOW 40 kicked off things with a Grease Megamix! Looking at the NOW 90 track listing, the only genuine old-timers are Take That, while the likes of Usher, Kelly Clarkson, Cheryl (Cole), and even McBusted are the new decade old fogies. There’s little for anyone born in the previous millennium to really tangibly claim to have ‘grown up listening to’ anymore. Move along wrinklies!

OBSERVATION FIVE: Featuring…

One thing that became very clear looking through the tracklist of NOW 90 was the current trend of ‘Featuring’ other artists on songs. Many current chart-botherers have successfully piggybacked on another artist (usually a guest singer on a DJ or producer’s song) to launch themselves. A shame it’s usually in service of generic house or drum and bass of zero nutritional value and lyrics torn from an office motivational calendar that sounds like the same kind of background white noise found on any hairdressers’ radio up and down the country for the past 20 years. Still, that’s a nice way to give new talent a boost I suppose, but I’d like to see some more proper DUETS, the value of which was irrevocably damaged when the colossi of Stevie Wonder and Blue joined forces. But failing that, we need some [Artist] VS [Artist] or [Artist] x [Artist] collaborations. I think we’ve had RUN-D.M.C. VS Jason Nevins, and that’s about it. Though I always feel like those songs that shamelessly pilfer classic songs and just add a beat and a rap interlude are kind of ‘versus’ the original. And we end up with Daz Sampson ‘Forrest Gumping’ himself into Marc Bolan’s past.

And finally, OBSERVATION SIX: Um, Britpop wasn’t very good?

It’s going to be really hard to explain to future generations quite what a cultural megaforce Britpop really was, not just because it’s a term that is as weird and baggy as the fashion of the time, wrapped up in Loaded Lad culture, sold abroad as Cool Britannia, and ultimately killed off by New Labour and the Spice Girls. But primarily because it actually wasn’t very good. Just like the punk and new romantic movements before it, a select few singles will remain etched into the public psyche and doomed to ring out in pubs across the land come karaoke night, while people of my generation will no doubt bore their kids having developed their own strain of You Had To Be There-itis. But whatever Britpop was, it possibly did more harm than good. Last year’s Britpop at the BBC may have highlighted a few underrated and forgotten curios, but in the harsh light of the now, it generally seems like some of the least interesting music being made at the time. Most of the best bands lumped into it were around before it and carried on with their own thing beyond it, and as strange as it now seems that rock music dominated the radio, listening back a lot of it was frankly annoying. Preferable to the drippy earnestness of the current singer-songwriter soulful troubadour boom, but often either too clever-clever or too stupid-stupid, irony or no. While it shares little actual DNA, you can see how it created a climate in which an audience would be more willing to accept the surfer rock/ska punk of the late 90’s as a result. All I’m saying is Britpop begat Smash Mouth and there is no greater sin.

2014: Films of the Year

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IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER. SCROLL DOWN FOR A SPOTIFY PLAYLIST OF FAVOURITE SONGS AND SCORES FROM FILM AND TV OF 2014, OR CLICK HERE TO OPEN!

Boyhood

The method of its creation has much been talked about, but the real achievement of Boyhood is that the result is so impressively cohesive. Though Boyhood may be the title and it is told through the eyes of Ellar Coltrane’s youth, it’s as much about the changing lives of Ethan Hawke as the father and especially Patricia Arquette as the mother. I was constantly impressed with the vintage detail, only to remember that of course it was filmed at the time, hence its accuracy. It’s true that different people will take different things from it, as you get out what you put in, but Richard Linklater’s trick is to create a sense of memory, documenting the smaller moments that stay with you as much as the big ones. Funny, touching and engrossing.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson at his most whimsical and artificial, but also at his funniest, making it something of a surprise box office success, though richly deserved. A game cast filled with many Anderson regulars and welcome newcomers delights, but it is Ralph Fiennes in a rare comic leading turn who is the film’s crowning glory and will no doubt be a performance to return to for years to come.

Guardians of the Galaxy

Me and Marvel don’t exactly have the greatest track record. Whereas seemingly everyone else has been won over by their superhero formula, none of their output, not even The Avengers or this year’s well-received Captain America: The Winter Soldier, would trouble more than a three star grade from yours truly. That was until Guardians of the Galaxy, that had all the colour, fun, and character that seems to be missing from most non-animated blockbusters of today and I even went to see it twice. Four stars.

The Guest

Adam Wingard builds on the black comic excess of You’re Next with a throwback to 80’s style thrillers and chillers, indebted to the works of John Carpenter for instance, but also working as a smart inversion, or even subversion, of the handsome but dangerous loner of Ryan Gosling in Drive. Dan Stevens as the titular Guest delivers some amazing moments of non-verbal acting, and the film’s weird energy and humour had me grinning throughout.

Her

Spike Jonze remains one of the most interesting and visionary directors around, but with an Academy Award for best original screenplay here too, it felt like recognition for how his craft goes beyond simply the visual and technical. That being said, the world of Her is brilliantly realised, a beautiful, clear and believable near-future in terms of its style and fashion. And as far as love stories between humans and inanimate objects go (which is quite a developed subgenre), it feels genuine. A lovely and imaginative work.

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The Lego Movie

The third Chris Pratt movie to make my list (great job!), The Lego Movie exceeded all expectations, thanks to directing team Christopher Miller and Phil Lord. Having proved their talent with Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street (and the mildly disappointing 22 Jump Street released later in the year), Lord and Miller’s manic meta humour was in no way diluted, with franchise cameos galore, while reminding us all why we love Lego so much. Paddington came close, but this was the family film of the year.

Moebius

Though still trying to maintain my interest in Asian cinema, my viewing was somewhat scattershot this year, relying primarily on festival screenings. Of those Sion Sono’s Tokyo Tribe and Testuya Nakashima’s The World of Kanako offered some great moments but issues aplenty. Ryota Nakano’s Capturing Dad was dry, well-observed and (unlike most Japanese cinema nowadays) short and to the point. The Raid 2 improved upon the well-regarded original, even if I wasn’t much of a fan, by opening the story out and expanding the variety of ways people could get awfully hurt, and there was a solid remake of Unforgiven from Lee Sang-il.

However, it was Kim Ki-Duk’s Moebius that proved most memorable. It plays like a particularly violent Greek tragedy, as an already dysfunctional family is torn apart by a husband’s infidelity and a wife’s horrific act against their son. And that’s just the starting point. Uncomfortable viewing certainly, but there is a grim comic streak running through, as father and son weirdly bond over their discovery of pleasure through pain. If you have the stomach for it, Moebius is a slice of madness to be experienced.

Nightcrawler

It’s not often you see a film unlike anything else, but Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut Nightcrawler feels both like a product of the 70’s and something completely new. In Lou Bloom, Jake Gyllenhaal totally inhabits a character you can’t keep your eyes off – human in form only, armed with internet-sourced business patter, defective moral compass and sleazeball charisma. He is ably assisted with support from Riz Ahmed, Rene Russo and the always welcome Bill Paxton in a film that works equally well as satire and thriller. Also, I would pay good money for a videogame version – think Grand Theft Auto meets Pokemon Snap.

We Are The Best!

Though Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank offered an entertaining and touching insight into the creative process of a troubled ‘genius’ – as well as some brilliant songs  – it was Lukas Moodysson’s We Are The Best! that had my favourite fictional band of the year, as a trio of girls in 1982 Stockholm are determined to prove punk’s not dead. Though the story follows predictable enough beats, the naturalistic and energetic performances from its young leads make the film a constant joy.

Whiplash

Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash has been one of the buzz films of 2014 (though technically released in the UK in 2015 – check last year’s list for Inside Llewyn Davis and Under the Skin!), and it is easy to see why. What looks on the surface like a typical teacher-pupil relationship story is in fact closer to the opening to Full Metal Jacket than anything, but with jazz drumming instead of military training. It’s raw in its depiction of bullying, and both J.K Simmons and Miles Teller make for terrific sparring partners. For only his second film (and at only my age), it is shot with confidence and style, with some of the most tense and electrifying sequences this year.

2014: TV of the Year

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1. Fargo

Of all the TV prospects this year, what looked as though it would have the steepest uphill struggle was an adaptation of a much-admired Coen Brothers classic, an untouchable source as you could likely find. So it was an extremely pleasant surprise to find that Fargo was the best new show of the year. Writer Noah Hawley starts off with a familiar set-up and character approximations reminiscent of the film, and references are sprinkled here and there. But the story here goes off in different directions, yet it still manages to encapsulate everything about the tone of the original. This is just another weird, funny, violent tale in the world of Fargo. And what’s better than getting something you didn’t think you wanted but now can’t imagine not ever having?

Some elements and threads don’t quite work, sure. But these can be largely overlooked thanks to some of the best performances of 2014. Billy Bob Thornton, Bob Odenkirk and Colin Hanks were all brilliant, while Martin Freeman surprised as one of the slipperiest customers imaginable, proving even seemingly ordinary people can be capable of doing very bad things. However, it was Allison Tolman who was the breakout star, and as much as you enjoyed watching the bad guys try to get away with their crimes, it was impossible not to root for her. A resounding success.

2. Hannibal

After a frustrating first season, the second time round for Hannibal fulfilled its potential and then some. Dark and disturbing in its beauty, it’s deliciously ripe dialogue and characterisation is executed with such relish, especially whenever Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy lock antlers, that even its often ludicrous plotting is just part of what makes it such a joy to watch. Stripped for the most part of its meandering subplots and ‘killer-of-the-week’ constraints of the first season, season two is a sleeker beast, while the music, sound, and imagery remain as impeccably crafted as Hannibal’s culinary creations. And even for this hardened gorehound, there were at least two scenes that made me yelp and squirm like few before it. As sophomore seasons go, this takes some beating.

3. Mad Men

It’s easy to take Mad Men for granted these days. In a certain regard, it feels like a product of a bygone era, not just in terms of its setting, but a lot has changed in the television landscape since it made its debut. Yet, with its first half of its final season, it delivered as strong a string of episodes as it ever has. Devoted fans will have found much to unpack with some pivotal moments in history providing the backdrop for characters we have grown to love/appreciate/admire/despise (delete where applicable) as they ready themselves for a final hurrah. And for all the slow burn and subtlety of Mad Men’s opening seasons, so much is being paid off with this current run of highly entertaining episodes, that even in the unlikely event that it goes downhill from here, the journey has already been its own reward.

4. 24

Against all odds, and probably against all good advice, 24 returned for a special mini-season four years after Jack Bauer last winced and grimaced his way through a terrorist threat. After three seasons that ranged from mediocre to rotten, the world had moved on. And so had I. Or at least that’s what I thought, as 24: Live Another Day (a nonsense Bond-style subtitle that never seemed to be used outside of TV listings) was a complete return to form. Moreover, it directly benefited from a halved run of episodes (no stalling for time or launching new lengthy arcs). As silly as ever (drone strikes and Wikileaks the hot potatoes of the day) but also self-aware, the staff this time knew exactly what the audience wants from the show and didn’t disappoint. 24 was always designed to deliver blockbuster thrills on a TV budget, but few seasons have ever offered quite so many fun and exciting action sequences as this one. And the added bonus of a London setting meant we get the thrill of hearing Jack Bauer say ‘West Ealing’ and ride the Underground and get to play the “he’d never drive across town in that time” game LA residents have previously enjoyed. If it wasn’t British enough, Stephen Fry played the Prime Minister for god’s sake. I must have laughed out loud three or four times each episode.

5. The Knick

As Boardwalk Empire reached its final season (still not seen any – one day though!), the hunt is on for the next vaguely old-timey period drama with sex and violence to take its place. Peaky Blinders was an early contender, its second season more focused than its first, now with added Tom Hardy – though it still feels like its overcompensating when trying to play with the ‘big boys’ and ending up just sounding a bit silly as a result. Penny Dreadful had an impressive cast and creative team for its gothic horror mish-mash, but never quite lived up to its premise. Rather it was The Knick that emerged the most impressive candidate. True, the whole season felt more like it was setting the scene for future episodes than offering plots to really sink your teeth into (he’s the troubled but brilliant doctor with a drug habit at the forefront of new advances in medicine at the turn of the 20th Century, but here comes a new African-American surgeon!). But there was still enough intrigue, energy (with director Steven Soderbergh’s cool clinical direction and Cliff Martinez’s pulsing electronic score) and entertaining period detail (look at them marvel at X-rays!) to keep me engrossed. And perhaps in season two they’ll finally reveal what the hell Clive Owen’s accent is supposed to be.

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6. Black Mirror: White Christmas

A late entry (and a one-off at that), but not only was it good to have Black Mirror back, this might have been the best episode yet. While its twists and turns ranged from the fairly obvious to the slightly ridiculous, that didn’t stop it from being as amusing/upsetting as ever. Charlie Brooker’s writing, with its matryoshka doll-like structure and smart integration of future-tech without weighing the dialogue down with unnecessary exposition, remains the main draw, but excellent performances from its cast, especially Rafe Spall, Rasmus Hardiker and Jon Hamm in supreme charismatic slimeball mode, made the wait for a new Black Mirror instalment well worth it.

7. Utopia

Beginning with a corking opening episode set decades earlier (that worked brilliantly as backstory, recap and a standalone thriller in its own right), Utopia 2 retained its dark oddball charm for another bout of grim comic book conspiracy. Though the second series was perhaps more epic in scope, it felt tighter and more ‘close quarters’, realising that a story need not be overly convoluted to be exciting. Either way you look at it, its cancellation was too late (it should have ended after series one) or too soon (it should not have ended with a cliffhanger). With David Fincher currently working on an HBO remake, let’s hope it matches the tone, look and sound of the original that made it so unique. But my advice would be to not wait around and get on the ground floor now.

8. Game of Thrones

Along with The Walking Dead (which enjoyed a very good run of episodes in 2014 with the last half of season four and the opening few of season five, but fell apart to an extent before the mid-season finale), Game of Thrones has solidified its position as one of the most popular shows in the world right now (if torrenting stats are accurate). However, with its key characters far too scattered round, even to someone unfamiliar with the source material it felt for the first time that the writers were trying to stretch storylines and fill up the time with detours and cul-de-sacs. A shame after a propulsive and exciting third season. Yet, if Game of Thrones became more about individual moments, it made sure those moments would be hard to forget, devoting great chunks of running time, even whole episodes, to single pivotal sequences. One of the few dramas that can pass as event television nowadays.

9. True Detective

Though never quite as good as the hype suggested – and these were my thoughts pre-backlash – its vision, inventive structure and performances made True Detective truly compelling. Eventually, for all its symbolism and pretentious monologues, it all boils down to a fairly conventional serial killer thriller. And yet few shows even across multiple seasons have managed to get quite so deep into its leads nor deliver quite so many memorable scenes as True Detective managed in eight episodes.

10. Doctor Who

With the goodwill generated by the series’ 50th anniversary and the highly entertaining Day of the Doctor special, Peter Capaldi’s installation as the new Doctor had a lot riding on it. But while the opening episode (directed by the usually capable Ben Wheatley) was something of a mess, it seemed to right and correct itself remarkably well. Much of this is down less to the storytelling per se as the perfectly pitched but always shifting relationship between the Doctor and Clara (Jenna Coleman, now freed from a gimmicky arc). If Doctor Who had fallen out of your favour in recent years (though it has easily been more consistent now than it ever was after its reboot) or if you’ve even never experienced its charms and peculiarities, this series was a good starting point as you’re likely to get.

And something about comedy…

Being sorely behind on current running American comedy series and somewhat cruelly denied by Comedy Central UK failing to show many of its US counterpart’s key offerings (Review, Broad City, Kroll Show, Nathan For You, Key & Peele), only a few Stateside shows got my attention. Enlightened’s second series finally got shown and was a fine send off for a show that burned brightly in its short lifespan. Of the new shows I did see, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver proved to be essential viewing, while Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley also impressed. And the third series of the increasingly disturbing Check It Out! With Dr Steve Brule might just be the best thing Tim and Eric have ever done, John C. Reilly’s Brule now easily established as a great comedy character.

Meanwhile, Vic and Bob’s House of Fools and Matt Berry’s and Arthur Mathews’ Toast of London proved the art of very silly comedy is not dead. Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle returned for a third time for its strongest series so far, now with added Chris Morris. Cuckoo lost Andy Samberg, but gained Taylor Lautner who became an unexpected highlight. And The Trip to Italy, while admittedly and openly a retread of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s previous culinary expedition, still had me crying with laughter. Nick Helm’s sitcom Uncle surprised with its poignancy amongst the ‘bad role model learns to be good through child forced upon them’ tropes. And once you got past the generic title and set-up, The Walshes from Graham Linehan and Diet of Worms, had a very high gag hit rate.