Friday, February 15, 2008

Best Reading & Listening over the Last Twelve Months

Normally, I'm not in to lists and after the initial appeal of all those nostalgia shows on TV, I have got bored to death of shows with titles like "Top 100 Greatest Celebrity TV Dog Moments Ever of the Nineties" or whatever.

But, unapologetically, and with no real reference to wider culture, here are a couple my favourite reads and listens recently - if for no other reason that to give myself something to come back and laugh at in ten years.

  1. The Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell - admirable for its structure (six nested novella length stories , each in a different literary style, each set in different eras form the 19th Century through to a bleak, post apocalyptic far future by way of a detective novella, a farce, a disjointed set of letters from a venal composer between the wars and an Orwellian dystopia), its readability (you can't put it down - seriously!), and the elegant and beautiful way it brings all six narratives together in an exploration of the human capacity to transform ourselves and our world for good and ill, and the journey of one soul through time. A sort of bildungsroman for the 21st Century. It is also a brave literary author who ventures in to Science Fiction - and pulls it off (the two SF stories have echoes respectively of Huxley's "Brave New World" and Le Guin's "Always Coming Home", along with several very Atwood-esque unreliable narrators).

    Above all, it is about how humans can really foul up the world - and how we have the potential to put it right again.

  2. In Rainbows - Radiohead. Well, just when I though their avant had disappeared up it's garde and the bleeding edge had exsanguinated itself, Radiohead come out with something immensely listenable, but still way out there (at least in terms of commercial pop and rock). It is also dark and ironic.

    One of the great iconic moments of "The Royle Family" is the two leads singing to "Baby David" Radiohead's "No Alarms & No Surprises" as a lullaby. This was Caroline Aherne making an ironic statement about how little most people really listen to music - the song has a beautiful, almost childlike melody, whose lyrics are about suicide(hardly fitting stuff for a lullaby).

    This juxtaposition of lyric and melody is a bit of Radiohead trademark ("Fake Plastic Flowers", "High & Dry", etc.). In this album we have one such moment at least in "House of Cards", a beautifully transcendent piece of music that should be a tender and passionate love song, but turns out to be about wife swapping and lust. "You are All I Need" compares the singer to "an animal trapped in your hot car" - a dark reflection on co-dependency. There are glimmers of hope, but you do get the feeling that Tom Yorke feels humans are a bit of a mess, and not very nice - there is no redemption here. He has a point, but it could do with some leavening with hope and a bit less post-modern irony - but maybe you need faith to do that, and that does seem to be the biggest absence.

    But it's really the music that grabs you - energetic and almost hypnotic - with some almost unbearable melodic tensions stretched out to the limit before being gloriously resolved. It is quite the most beautiful thing they have done since OK Computer, and one of the very best albums of the last year.
The list will be added to as I get through more books and albums (and the odd film or two).