2015 in books

A shifting commute means my reading habits were all over the place in 2015, but there were some periods where I ploughed through some great ones – and others where I plodded through some tougher ones. I got through 22 in total.

I spent four months at the start of the year reading Shantaram – amusing and fascinating, if a rather long read at over 900 pages. Still, there were some really touching scenes and many wonderfully written chapters – I’d recommend it if you don’t mind reading a lot. I then proceeded to finish reading Fleming’s Bond novels – which really tailed off into pulpable cliches. Towards the end of the year, I found We Need To Talk About Kevin to be one of the best pieces of fiction I have read. I also enjoyed The Martian – if you view it as the literary equivalent of a fun action movie – and made a start on Robert Ludlam’s Bourne series – though I won’t be rushing through them.

In non-fiction, I found Christian Rudder’s Dataclysm fascinating and enjoyed Victoria Coren-Mitchell’s autobiography. Simon Singh’s The Code Book, though, has to be my favourite factual book I read in 2015 – striking a great balance of technical detail and historical storytelling.

There were a few books I didn’t enjoy, but I won’t slag them off here – my Goodreads profile has my ratings and reviews if you want to see more. I’ve made a good dent on books in 2016 already, and look forward to a time when there might, finally, be more read than unread books on my shelf.

2015 book covers

A few of the books I read in 2015

2015 in movies

I started keeping track of the films I watched in 2015. It started off with a desire to organise the list of films I wanted to watch, and a way to keep track of the ones I had. I was recommended Letterboxd as a means to this end, and have found it to be superb.

So, I can tell you that in 2015 I watched 113 films – 77 of them for the first time. This included 9 films featuring Alan Rickman, 6 films directed by Richard Linklater, and one terrible movive entitled The 12 Dogs of Christmas: Great Puppy Rescue.

A lot of the films I watched were from a few years back – catching up on classics, the big films of the last couple of years that are now kicking about on DVD, and other recommendations and TV movies. Amongst these, and indeed amongst all the films of any age I saw this year, my favourite has to be Magnolia. Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 masterpiece of interwoven stories, long brooding shots, superb rhythm and captivating characters living contrasting city lives. Despite being over three hours long, I didn’t want it to finish a single minute early – and that’s saying something.

Amongst the year’s cinema releases, Birdman was my favourite. I have a thing for long, unbroken steadicam shots – and this film is essentially one extended shot of this type. Combined with a fascinating glimpse behind theatrical scenes and a powerful performance from Michael Keaton, then the film is not just one-of-a-kind, but darn good as well.

Closely following on the heels of Birdman are the likes of Mad Max: Fury Road (beautifully audacious action movie with fresh characters, minimum annoying exposition, and no apologies) and Whiplash (superb tension for such a character-driven movie, thanks largely to J K Simmons) – while the latest Bond and Mission:Impossible installments left me underwhelmed. In terms of older movies then I’m glad to have finally seen superb titles such as Captain Phillips, Drive, and 12 Angry Men. It’s good to play catchup.

I also made a start on watching old Hitchcock movies at the end of the year, and I’m sure that will continue into 2015. One of the most enjoyable film series of the year, though, has to be Richard Linklater’s Before… trilogy – I watched them back-to-back in a single day and loved the dialogue, the characters, and the realism of the simple settings. I’ll be back to see them plenty, I’m sure.

You can see my full 2015 in film review over at Letterboxd – including ranked lists, reviews and ratings for all the films I saw last year. For now, though, I’m off to grab a DVD.

2015 in music

It’s been a year of good new music, plenty of old music, enjoyable live music, and much singing in the kitchen. At this time of year, I like to reflect on what was making my ears happy over the last months. So, with the help of last.fm, I present the chart of my most listened-to artists, 2015:

  1. David Bowie
  2. Manic Street Preachers
  3. Radiohead
  4. Paul Simon
  5. Belle and Sebastian
  6. Ryan Adams
  7. The Polyphonic Spree
  8. Kate Bush
  9. Bruce Springsteen
  10. Fleetwood Mac
  11. The Police
  12. Sting
  13. Taylor Swift
  14. Suede
  15. Daft Punk
  16. Joanna Newsom
  17. The Kleptones
  18. The War On Drugs
  19. Public Service Broadcasting
  20. Simon and Garfunkel

There’s not an awful lot of difference to last year’s top ten – I’m a man of consistent tastes. New music is only really represented by Belle and Sebastian, who chucked out a new album in January, and Ryan Adams, whose cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989 has been one of my favourite albums of the year.

In fact, Taylor herself didn’t do so badly in my charts, just out of the top ten but slam-dunking in at number 13 thanks to several spins of 1989 and the rest of her back catalogue – it helps that I’ve moved into a flat full of Swift fans. Apart from the old stalwarts of the Manics, Radiohead, Bush and Bowie, the rest of my top artists can largely be linked to the music I’ve seen live – while Bruce Springsteen and Fleetwood Mac prop up the top ten by virtue of just being great.

In April I had an awesome night at London’s O2 to watch Sting and Paul Simon play a solid three hours of tight, moving and outright rocking music. Attracted to get tickets by Simon’s presence, I was pleasantly surprised by how much Sting I enjoyed. Since then, I’ve listened to a lot of Sting and The Police, who just miss out on the top ten as separate entities – though if I combined play counts they would jump to number 5, just behind Paul Simon himself (though that’s without songs by Simon & Garfunkel – at number 20 as a duo).

After last year’s most amazing gig in Bristol, I jumped right in for more Polyphonic Spree tickets and saw them play the entirety of their first album, plus a few hits besides, in London in September – and have filled up my collection with the rest of their back catalogue since. My other live music highlight has to be Joanna Newsom at the Hammersmith Apollo in November. Her beautiful, beautiful music had the audience totally hushed and I’m certain there were a few tears in the crowd as she played harps, piano and all sorts of other instruments I couldn’t name. Her new album, released a few weeks prior, has also received a few plays – popping her at number 16.

Tim DeLaughter and Aaron Boardley

Me with Tim DeLaughter of The Polyphonic Spree

While I also saw The War On Drugs in February this year, the other special mentions for live music have to be from my third Glastonbury festival. Florence + The Machine impressively stepped up to the headline slot, The Libertines’ surprise addition created one of the best atmospheres I’ve ever been a part of at the Pyramid Stage – until Lionel Richie crammed it full the next day for tremendous fun sing-alongs, and I’m really glad I got to see the rousing set from Duke Special (and have him stage dive on me at the end). Plus, after giving up on Kanye after three songs, I’m so pleased I went to see Suede headlining the John Peel stage. Superb guitar music for a superb Saturday night.

A final nod from the top twenty has to go to Public Service Broadcasting. Thanks to a recommendation from podcaster Brady Haran, I have feasted on their album The Race For Space time after time again since the summer. I could give a blow-by-blow recommendation for most its fantastic tracks, but I’m sure I’ve rambled enough. Why not set aside an hour to just listen to it?

As we wave goodbye to the musical highlights of 2015, and look ahead at what 2016 will stir in us, I’ll leave you with a song that caught my attention on the radio last summer and has been in my head, if not played out loud, every day since:

Wouldn’t it be terrible if there’s no music?

2014 reviews

You may have seen below that I’ve reviewed some stats of my 2014 – places I’ve been, things I’ve seen, books I’ve read and music I’ve heard.

Since I’ve waited until January(/February), I’m sure any potential audience have already lost their tolerance for such reviews with which the web becomes awash in December. However, producing an end-of-year chart in December feels somewhat premature. If you’re going to do an analysis, you might as well do it properly.

The stats are for my own interest far more than anyone else’s, but I thought I’d share them in case you might like that sort of thing. I hope to do similar next year, with a bit of year-on-year comparison thrown in, too. I’ve also started keeping track of a few others things such as the films I’m watching, so 2015 may get some bonus charts. You lucky souls.

Feel free to get in touch with any thoughts or recommendations. In the meantime –  Happy New Year!

2014 in music

I’m a fan of last.fm for keeping track of the music I’m listening to. Having the stats serves virtually no practical purpose, but I do find it interesting to look back and see the trends in my own music habits. Now seems as apt time as any to look back at the last twelve months and ask – who did I listen to this year?

  1. Manic Street Preachers (518 plays in 2014)
  2. David Bowie (356)
  3. Kate Bush (318)
  4. God Help The Girl (184)
  5. The Kleptones (160)
  6. Belle and Sebastian (151)
  7. Radiohead (141)
  8. Simon & Garfunkel (118)
  9. Fleetwood Mac (102)
  10. Paul Simon (90)

No real surprises – I spend most of my time listening to the music I’ve already bought and liked, so there’s not a lot of new music in the top ten. Paul Simon was given a boost (as were Simon & Garfunkel) in the excitement of booking to see him live in 2015. Conversely, Kate Bush enjoyed a similar boost in my distress at not getting tickets to her Before the Dawn shows in September (I was on a train to an Only Connect audition when they went on sale) – though she’d doubtless be high in the rankings anyway.

God Help The Girla film I helped to fund back in 2012 – was finally released this summer, and I have given the new soundtrack album plenty of spins since its launch. I’ve also continued to enjoy the original 2009 GHTG album on which the film is based, and was pleased to see its lead singer Catherine Ireton at the Edinburgh Fringe in August. Since both albums are simply credited to God Help The Girl, its singular inclusion in the chart disguises songs from rather a few vocalists – but it deserves a place nevertheless. As a funder of the musical film, I was pleased to attend a special screening in London where I got to meet director Stuart Murdoch (below). His band, Belle and Sebastian, have also been regulars on playlists this year.

Fleetwood Mac have done well to sneak in to the top ten, although Rumours is never far from the play button. Radiohead always make the rankings, and I maintain that music from The Kleptones is some of the best out there available for free. As my Bowie collection has grown I have more and more of his music to choose from. Why the heck wouldn’t I listen to it every day?

The Manics top it off though, thanks largely to their Roundhouse gigs in December. Twelve years since the first and only other time I’d seen them live, I was in the nostalgic crowd as they played their seminal The Holy Bible in full, followed by hits from across their career including songs from the two albums they released in 2014. Futurology, the latter of these, stands out as the best thing they’ve done in years, and crowned their position at the top of my 2014 charts.

Special mention must also go to The Polyphonic Spree, who just missed out at number eleven in my chart. One night in June I found out at the last minute that they were playing Bristol’s Trinity Centre – a 20 minute walk from my house – and decided to attend on a whim. I’m so glad I did, as I can gladly say it was the most enjoyable gig I’ve ever attended. As the huge ensemble played and danced in unison to their own fantastic songs and some great covers, I was hooked – and they made us all part of it. Soldier Girl will now forever remind me of jumping up and down with lead singer Tim DeLaughter in the middle of the hall. I can’t help but smile when I remember it. Go and enjoy them live if you can.

The other live music to mention is of course Glastonbury Festival. I saw plenty of acts throughout the event, but I have to give a nod here to the New York Brass Band who were easily my musical highlight of the week – to be honest, they’re in close contention with The Polyphonic Spree for musical highlight of the year. They do funky brassy covers of all kinds of songs whilst encouraging dance-offs, climbing speaker stacks, and forming conga lines. They’re tremendous fun. If you’re due to get married and thinking of inviting me, please book them. Please.

So, what will 2015 hold? Another Glastonbury, a new Belle and Sebastian album, more Bowie? Everything else is to play for. If you’d like to recommend me something, why not make me a mix CD? Bonus points if it has great artwork. Get in touch if you want to know where to send it. Here’s a sound new year!