2015 Review

Some things I liked this year…

Films

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45 Years

Short stories make the best films – something about the pacing and resistance to closure. This lonely little film stuck with me more than any other this year.

Ex Machina

Lesson (once again) for big studio high-concept thrillers: keep it simple. Very fun Frankenstein / Bluebeard / Asimov mash-up from Alex Garland.

Foxcatcher

One of the more generally terrifying contributions to the long line of mostly self-indulgent allegories on American (white male) power.

Carol

Always nice to have high hopes rewarded – though please don’t wait another 8 years between features, Todd! So immersive the credits felt like coming up for air. I was already a bit obsessed with both Mara sisters, but Rooney (& hats) a revelation here.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I’m not sure there’s much to add. Being able to sit in the cinema watching a good, new Star Wars movie still feels like a little miracle.

Also quite liked: Mad Max: Fury Road, Diary of a Teenage Girl, While We’re Young, and Tomorrowland.

TV

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Fargo (Season 2)

Another outstanding season (with added split-screen fun), proving again that the most fascinating part of the US is its weird, rural middle.

Transparent (Season 2)

As if the dreadful Pfeffermans couldn’t get more entertaining – now with a character based on (and cameo by) Eileen Myles!

Community (Season 6)

Against all odds, a classy finish for the show saved by fans. So good we immediately rewatched the entire run. The world would be a poorer place without Chang’s Karate Kid or Garrett’s wedding. Bring on the movie.

Fortitude (Series 1)

Not sure I liked the ending, but worth it for Stanley Tucci and Sofie Grabol (nee Sarah Lund). Hasn’t put me off wanting to move to Iceland.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Season 1)

Maybe the most consistently silly, feel-good show this year, despite (or because of?) its incredibly dark premise. I have ‘Pinot Noir’ in my head typing this.

Also enjoyed: The Bridge 3, some episodes of Master of None, bits of Humans, Catastrophe, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, and And Then There Were None.

Folk (Broadly)

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Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell

Easily my album of the year. I find most of his albums inconsistent and too chamber poppy for my tastes, but this is a subtle masterpiece from start to finish. Devastating as a live show too.

Anna & Elizabeth, Anna & Elizabeth

A beautiful album of proper desolate mountain music. So glad to come across their brilliant NPR Tiny Desk set – worth watching for the ‘crankie’!

Rhiannon Giddens, Tomorrow is My Turn

I always liked Carolina Chocolate Drops, but I like it even more when a first solo album has something to prove and does. What a voice.

Punch Brothers, The Phosphorescent Blues

I love most of what Chris Thile does, but was never obsessed with a Punch Bros album to this extent. That first track alone, really.

Steve Gunn & The Black Twig Pickers, Seasonal Hire

The use of prefixes like new- or prog- or jam- to describe different shades of bluegrass has gotten a bit silly, but ‘drone-grass’ seems spot-on here. Haunting set (long EP? short album?) from Gunn & BTP.

Also albums by The Wainwright Sisters, Jim White vs. The Packway Handle Band, and EPs from Punch Bros. and Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn.

Not-Folk

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Bob Dylan, Shadows in the Night

The great chameleon reinvents himself again as lounge lizard and somehow it really works. Great to see him croon these in Manchester in October.

Spooky Men’s Chorale, Warm

Cool album from this well-named Australian a cappella group. With headphones, you do feel slightly like you’re in a quirky indie movie.

Sylvain Rifflet, Mechanics

It was a good year for jazz, with big albums from Antonio Sanchez, Kamasi Washington, Jack DeJonnette, the Bad Plus, etc. I don’t know much about Rifflet, but his strange little tunes makes me happy.

Ryler Walker & Bill McKay, Land of Plenty

I also liked Walker’s debut this year, Primrose Green, with its uncanny Van Morrison / John Martyn impersonations. These live jazzy improvisations with Bill McKay are something else though.

Carter Burwell, Carol (Score)

Impossible to separate the chills I get from this soundtrack from the film’s, but Burwell has outdone himself (again). In a year when Philip Glass seemed weirdly resurgent (with the new bio, albums like Eighth Blackbird’s Filament, and the time I spent playing his complete etudes), I’m glad to see this gnawing sort of minimalism making a comeback.

Verse

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Susie Timmons, Superior Packets: Three Books

Poetry revelation of the year for me. Wave is doing a great service with these legacy collections. John Wieners’ selected also essential this year.

David McGimpsey, Asbestos Heights

A lot of contemporary poetry tries, usually too hard, to be funny. It’s a relief to read a book that takes such un-snide joy in words and form.

GC Waldrep, Testament

The verse-essay is a lost art, maybe. This book-long blast of playful thought, drafted over 12 days in residence at Hawthornden Castle, tests the limits of the hybrid form.

Rae Armantrout, Itself

Another beautiful book from Armantrout, warping images from physics into her startling little sculptures.

Juliana Spahr, That Winter the Wolf Came

Another series of essays, of sorts. Difficult reflections on activism in a difficult year, with Spahr more direct than ever while trying to find a poet’s place in the mess.

Prose

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Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life

Hard to describe in a way that doesn’t sound obnoxious, but this novel wrecked me.

Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman

It’ll sound contrarian, but I thoroughly enjoyed this. In its fumbling darkness, it’s probably the Great American Novel we deserve.

Gavin McCrea, Mrs Engels

I’m no Victorianist, but read this alongside playing a game set in 1868 London (below). It’s hard to say which was more immersive. It’ll be a long time before I have Lizzie Burns’ sharp voice out of my head.

Juliet Jacques, Trans: A Memoir

An uncanny read for more reasons than expected, since our time (and acquaintances) at Manchester Uni so nearly overlapped.

Claudia Rankine, Citizen

Of course it’s poetry, but mostly in prose. An obvious favourite, though teaching it was more unsettling than I’d expected. Fascinating to hear Dorothy Wang and others on a panel at MSA discuss the complex response to mainstream (white) fixation on this particular book.

Graphic

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Scott Snyder and Jock, Wytches (Vol. 1)

Good old-fashioned scary story, with terrific art and a great protagonist. Can’t wait for more (and a film, supposedly).

Adrian Tomine, Killing & Dying

My (and everyone else’s) favourite of the year, but these stories really do show, in six very different ways, just what the form can do. Highly recommended for graphic sceptics.

Una, Becoming Unbecoming

Inspiring, powerfully wrought memoir of sexual violence framed by childhood memories of the Yorkshire Ripper case.

Gail Simone, et al. Sensational Wonder Woman (Vol. 1)

Like Batman: Black & White, even when these self-contained stories are hit and miss, the range of interpretations are a welcome antidote to the canon/reboot-rut of mainstream superheroes.

Chrissy Williams & Tom Humberstone (eds.), Over the Line: An Introduction to Poetry Comics 

A wonderful (selfishly – very teachable) introduction to ways these forms might interact. Hard to look the same at plain text poetry after this.

Games

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Until Dawn (PS4)

Super cheesy, super fun teen horror spoof. As much an interactive film as a game, based on decision-making and the expectation that you’ll play the scary night again and again. (Four times and counting for me.)

Prune (iOS)

I didn’t think it qualified, but the most emotional game experience this year was the re-release of Journey on PS4. To some extent, Prune is the 2D zen love-child of that pure aesthetic and the earlier Petal’s happy premise.

Ticket to Ride: UK & Pennsylvania Expansion (board game)

We’ve become a bit fanatical about TTR over the past couple years (also played a lot of the Nordic board over Xmas). The new cards & rules for this latest version take it to another level.

Her Story (iOS)

Stupidly simple setup – text searching old interview videos from a murder case – but I’m still obsessed, even after completing this, and happy to debate the truth. This will definitely be on a future syllabus.

Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate (PS4)

As much as I admire simplicity in some of these other games, the comprehensiveness Ubisoft is capable of at this point is staggering – including the fantastic string & choral score by Austin Wintory (Journey).

Writerly Gatherings

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Languages of Literature: Attridge at 70 (University of York)

Star-studded affair in honour of Derek Attridge’s 70th birthday (and gradual retirement). Nice to celebrate the good things in academia.

New Generation to Next Generation 2014: Three Decades of British and Irish Poetry (Institute of English Studies, London)

I admit I had mixed feelings about this, given my mixed feelings about the ‘Generation’ promotions. Thoughtful readings and brilliant papers on contemporary poets turned out to be an essential space for these debates.

Elizabeth Bishop’s Questions of Travel: 50 Years After (University of Sheffield)

Over time, I suppose it’s inevitable that scholarly communities take on the character of their subjects. Also inevitable then, that the Bishop gang would be so lovely and rigorous.

Poetry Book Fair 2015 (Conway Hall, London)

Always good, and more action-packed than ever this year. Nice to see and chat with so many lovely of poetry’s advocates in one place. Still working through my loot.

Creative Writing in the World (York St John University)

I’m biased as organiser, but this was one of the more genuinely communal, outward-looking writing conferences I’ve been to. The first of many, let’s hope.

Other

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John Singer Sargent: Artists & Friends (National Portrait Gallery)

I’d be remiss not to acknowledge this, after two very long visits and the months I spent reading toward and writing a 70-poem sequence based on these paintings this year.

iPad Pro

Pathetic as it is, something about the size of this workspace has had a bigger impact on my way of working than anything since my first smartphone.

Martin McDonagh, Hangmen (Royal Court)

Good dark comedy, commissioned for the 50th anniversary of abolishing the death penalty, with great performances by David Morrissey and (yes, that) Johnny Flynn.

Miles Jupp, In and Out of the Kitchen (Series 4)

Another series of possibly the most middle-class radio comedy series, if that isn’t too redundant. He was a good choice for the News Quiz and very funny again here.

Limetown

The first series of Serial was one of the best things of 2014. I’d probably set myself up for disappointment with series 2. This spoof though, about the disappearance of a town, just got better and more fun with each episode (and special ‘announcements’).

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