Monday, 30 December 2019

The Best and Worst of 2019

Well, it's that time of the year when everyone is doing their 'best and worst of' lists, so here is mine. I'm going to list the books and movies and records I read/watched/listened to in 2019 and then pick my favourites. This isn't restricted to what was new in 2019, but what I actually watched and read and heard - some of these items might be very old indeed.


I read the following in 2019:

Jeff Vandermeer – Borne
John Grant – Tell No Lies
Paul Finch – Dean Man Walking
Douglas Thompson – Sylvow
The Residents – Bad Day On The Midway
Tanya Tadaq – Split Tooth
Dashiell Hammett – Red Harvest
China Mieville – The City & The City
Chris Beckett – Mother of Eden
Doug Jones – Posts 3
Joel Lane – Scar City
Ian Fleming – The Man With The Golden Gun
K J Bishop – That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote
Walker Percy – The Moviegoer
Ian McEwan – Atonement
Lucie McKnight Hardy – Jutland
Alison Moore – Broad Moor
Charles G Finney – The Circus of Dr Lao
Mark West - Drive
John Grant – The Lonely Hunter
Ray Cluley – 6/6
Clarice Lispector – Hour of the Star
Vladimir Nabokov – Transparent Things
Laura Mauro – Sing Your Sadness Deep
Viv Albertine – Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys
Christopher Priest – Fugue For A Darkening Island
Rosanne Rabinowitz – Helen’s Story
Neil Williamson – Secret Language
Michel Houllebeq – Platform
Nicholas Royle – First Novel
DH Lawrence – Selected Short Stories
Paul Meloy – Dogs With Their Eyes Shut
Nina Allen – The Harlequin
Rosanne Rabinowitz – All That Is Solid
Gary McMahon – At Home In The Shadows
Terry Grimwood – There Is A Way To Live Forever
Raymond Radiguet – Count D’Orgel’s Ball
Simon Bestwick – And Cannot Come Again
Stephen Volk – Leytonstone
Edited by Trevor Denyer – Night Light
Juan Rulfo – Pedro Paramos

That's worked out at 41 books this year, down from last years 43 so not too bad, although my target is probably 50 (which would take me 7 years to get through my backlog without buying any more books).

There were a couple of books this year that I struggled through and which I should probably have given up on, which included Walter Percy's "The Moviegoer" (apparently a 'dazzling classic' but for me navel-gazing and utterly pointless). "The Hour of the Star" by Clarice Lispector (like wading through a sea of treacle, soporific, a battle against ennui) and "Platform" by Michel Houellebecq (mundane and unexciting). There were also a handful of novels I thought were ok but perhaps not as good as they wanted them to be, which included "Borne" by Jeff Vandermeer (which I enjoyed for it's outré-ness but found a little unengaging) and "Atonement" by Ian McEwan (well-told but over-told).

I made an effort this year to read more books by authors that I know personally and out of the 41 books this included 22 from such folk (including a few books read for review). Overall, I enjoyed more books than I disliked this year, and the following deserve a special mention: Douglas Thompson's "Sylvow" (a multi-faceted and complex concoction), Tanya Tagaq's "Split Tooth" (brittle and harsh, as unforgiving as an Inuit landscape), Chris Beckett's "Mother of Eden" (a worthy successor to "Dark Eden"), the late Joel Lane's "Scar City" (quality urban dysfunctions), the novella, "Drive", by Mark West (an unabashed page-turner), John Grant's novella "The Lonely Hunter" (well-paced, intriguing, thoughtful), the music biography "Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys" (by The Slits' Viv Albertine), Neil Williamson's excellent collection of SF/Weird short stories, "Secret Language", Nicholas Royle's brilliant novel "First Novel" which very nearly gained a top three spot this year, and Nina Allen's "The Harlequin" which I also loved and was top three material.

However, as usual, I'm going to base my top three from my Goodreads reviews. Four books received my 5/5 rating, and so I'm edging out a collection by K.J.Bishop, "That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote", a book I described as 'surrealist baroque' and which I expanded in my review to state 'these are elegiac and mystical stories, borrowing but never cloning occasional genre standards, quirky and often humorous, but leaving the reader with a dislocation of possible other worlds which run parallel to ours but are just out of sight'. On another day, this might have made the top spot, but it probably didn't benefit from being read earlier in the year and sliding from my memory. However, without further ado, here are my favourite reads of 2019:

In reverse order:

"Helen's Story" by Rosanne Rabinowitz

I read this whilst on holiday in Cornwall and the wooded surroundings perfectly complemented this story. Confession: I haven't read Arthur Machen's "The Great God Pan" from which the title character in this novella makes a singular appearance, however I found the narrative compelling, urgent and intriguing. Despite the 'fantastical elements' the story read very realistically, nothing seemed out of place. Helen is an appealing character, someone who I found readily identifiable, someone I was interested in. To take a fictional character and make them your own is brave and a challenge. Rabinowitz achieved this with an expert hand.

"Leytonstone" by Stephen Volk

Interestingly, another novella. "Leytonstone" is Volk's tribute to Alfred Hitchcock, taking an oft-told anecdote from his youth and extrapolating an entire origin story from it which informs on - and bleeds into - the Master's movies. Volk doesn't put a foot wrong in tone, characterisation or prose. This is an engaging, compelling work which illuminates Hitchcock in the same way that Joyce Carol Oates' "Blonde" illuminates Monroe or John Connolly's "He" does the same for Stan Laurel. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

And the winner is:

"The City and The City" by China Miéville

This is a book, like Lavie Tidhar's "Osama" which was a favourite some years back, which I really should have written myself. I knew I would engage with this due to the neo-noir nod and the intrigue of the title. I won't go into the plot, suffice to say that the conceit of two cities existing simultaneously and the unseeing construct by which the citizens of each actively do not perceive the other is ruthlessly maintained by Miéville. In lesser hands, the novel would begin to fall apart as the logistics of the endeavour become unwieldy, but Miéville is married to the cause, the backdrop is the foreground, the tone is level throughout. It's a methodical book, but never labours. The investigation of the murder at the heart of the novel is legitimately stymied by bureaucracy and feels authentically Kafkaesque in principle whilst maintaining it's own identity. It concludes with aplomb. I thoroughly enjoyed it (although I can't say the same about anything else I've tried to read by Miéville, as I've never previously managed to finish one of his books)


I watched the following in 2019:

The Image Book
Taylor Swift: Reputation Stadium Tour
Doctor Chance
Steamboat Bill, Jr
A Woman, A Gun And A Noodle Shop
The Family
Funny Ha Ha
T2: Trainspotting
The Endless
Phase IV
Ghost Stories
Get Out
Await Further Instructions
The Ritual
They Live
Phantom Lady
The Silence
Mysterious Skin
The Killers
Free Solo
The Game
Le Bonheur
Dark Horse
Black Dynamite
Not Reconciled, Or Only Violence Helps Where Violence Rules
Of Horses And Men
The Double Life Of Veronique
Cold In July
Funeral Parade of Roses
The Stranger
The Front Page
The Beguiled
Jurassic Park
The House That Jack Built
Berberian Sound Studio
The Duke of Burgundy
Les Amant du Pont-Neuf
I’m A Cyborg, But That’s Ok
The Thing
Code Unknown
Café Society
Midnight Cowboy
An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn
Stan & Ollie
The Seventh Continent
Benny’s Video
Psycho (1998)
71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance
The Piano Teacher
Union City
The Palm Beach Story

That's 71 movies this year, a staggering 50 down from last year which is just terrible! Mostly it's due to changes in my partner's working hours, but that's changed again recently and hopefully I can get the numbers back up for next year. Of course, that's still a long list to narrow down to my top three, and unlike books I don't have a site equivalent to Goodreads with which to guide my memory.

As usual, however, I'm discounting movies I've previously seen. So this knocks out the always-excellent "Walkabout"; foreign favourites "The Double Life Of Veronique" (superb second time around - wasn't as keen when I saw it on release) and "Les Amants Du Pont Neuf" (a firm favourite); in addition to "Union City" starring Dennis Lipscomb and Deborah Harry (again, another favourite, and which I viewed for research purposes...).

Those movies which I found annoying or awful are easy to chronicle, and this includes "The Family" (now I love Luc Besson but this film is an absolute stinker), "Dark Horse" (the 2011 film, there are many others with this title and I assume all of them must be better than this shite), and I was also disappointed by "Roma" (heard so much about it, but I didn't think it deserved the praise from someone who watches a lot of foreign films).

Similar to my book thread, I watched quite a few films this year based on books written by friends (those lucky buggers). Whilst (author name in parenthesis) "Wounds" (Nathan Ballingrud), "The Silence" (Tim Lebbon) and "Await Further Instructions" (Gavin Williams) all had something to recommend them, it was "The Ritual" (Adam Nevill) which I thought the best of these bunch. A brilliant interpretation of the book which came close to making my top three and which I would easily watch again.

2019 was also a year in which I watched a lot of Michael Haneke. I enjoyed all his films, with "Hidden" coming quite close to my final selection. He's an excellent, intrusive, filmmaker. "The Piano Teacher" was also a revelation.

Other favourites this year include Jean-Luc Godard's "The Image Book" (a melange of imagery), "Pity" (a deadpan Greek comedy drama), both "Ghost Stories" and "Get Out" which played nicely on 70s horror sensibilities, "Psycho" (it's taken me years to watch this Hitchcock classic, dulled only by knowing too much about it), "Damage" (the Louis Malle film with the always superb Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche), "T2: Trainspotting" (a surprisingly worthy successor), "The House That Jack Built" (Lars Von Trier's brilliant dissection of serial killing married to myth), "Funeral Parade of Roses" (I loved this Japanese drama film directed and written by Toshio Matsumoto, loosely adapted from Oedipus Rex and set in the underground gay culture of 1960s Tokyo with a very French New Wave sensibility), and "Berberian Sound Studio" (directed by Peter Strickland - the film I would have made if I had ever become a director). These last three were so close to reaching my final selection.

So, as usual, I get the feeling that another day might produce marginally different results, but – today – here are my top three movies I saw for the first time in 2019.

Again, in reverse order:

"Le Bonheur" (1965) - Agnès Varda

I think this is the only Varda film I've seen (she died this year, and I should keep up). It's a bittersweet story of a happy family which shatters when the male ambivalently takes another lover and cannot contain this extended happiness from his wife. Ultimately a story about male insensitivity and also the interchangeability of relationships, "Le Bonheur" broke my heart and made me cry. It's such a simple, effective film.

"Stan & Ollie" (2018) - Jon S Baird

Having loved Laurel & Hardy films from a very early age I still repeatedly rewatch and quote from them. The humour is timeless and hilarious. I would number many of their features and shorts amongst the best films - not just comedy - ever made, so coming to this biopic I was a little fretful that it would do them justice. I needn't have worried. I thought it perfectly pitched, an affectionate and loving biopic of the greatest double act that ever lived. Coogan and Reilly excelled in their roles and their wives were also extremely well played. The final dance scene somehow managed to transcend the movie and bring the real Stan & Ollie onto the stage. I'm sure they would have approved.

And the winner is...

"Suspiria" (2018) - Luca Guadagnino

Shock! Horror! I've chosen a remake as my favourite film of the year. Shock! Horror! Yet this is more a re-imagining of the original Dario Argento classic and a brilliantly realised piece of theatre to boot. If there's any fault in it then it's the unnecessary casting of Tilda Swinton in one of her three roles, although even this affords an unsettling disconnect which perhaps adds to the unease which is channeled throughout. The denouement is wickedly executed with panache and aplomb, and whilst it might have ended just a fraction before it did, this has remained a film I've thought about over and again since I watched it and for that reason alone thoroughly deserves the top spot this year.


I listened to the following full-length albums in 2019:

The Residents – Animal Lover
The Residents – Bunny Boy
Valerie June – Pushin’ Against A Stone
Coeur de Pirate – en cas de tempête, ce jardin sera fermé
Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour
Sparklehorse – Good Morning Spider
The Plastics – Welcome Back
The Residents – Tweedles
The Residents – Intruders
The Residents – Demons Dance Alone
The Residents – Bad Day on the Midway
Buzzcocks – Another Music In A Different Kitchen
Buzzcocks – Love Bites
Echobelly – Black Heart Lullabies
Buzzcocks – A Different Kind Of Tension
Bis – Social Dancing
Buzzcocks – All Set
Paul Smith – Diagrams
Gabby’s World – O.K.
JJ Burnel – Euroman Cometh
The xx – I See You
Jordan Reyne - Bardo
Hugh Cornwell and Robert Wiliams – Nosferatu
The Flaming Lips – Embryonic
The Flaming Lips – The Terror
The Residents – Duck Stab
Scott Walker – Scott 1
The Flaming Lips – Oczy Mlody
The B-52s – The B-52s
Charlotte Gainsbourg – Rust
Sparks – Hippopotamus
Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation
Sonic Youth – Dirty
Bill Nelson – Sound on Sound
Bis – New Transistor Heroes
The Ravenonettes – Lust Lust Lust
Bis – data Panik etcetera
The Fall – Re-Mit
The Fall – Sublingual Tablet
New Found Glory – Radiosurgery
Sonic Youth – nyc ghosts & flowers
Sonic Youth – Experimental Jet Set, Trash And No Star
Blondie – Eat To The Beat
Marina – Love + Fear
Brigitte Fontaine – Kekeland
Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires Of The City
Vampire Weekend – The Father Of The Bride
Manaam – Manaam
Siekiera – Nowa Aleksandria
Fontaines D.C. – Dogrel
Mattiel – Mattiel
The Cramps – Off The Bone
Stump – A Fierce Pancake
Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures
Magazine – Secondhand Daylight
Modern Eon – Fiction Tales
Joy Division – Closer
Polly Scattergood – Arrows
Bjork – Homogenic
The Stranglers – The Raven
Emilie Simon – The Big Machine
Mattiel – Satis Factory
The Residents – Eskimo
Ciccone – Eversholt Street
Idles – Joy As An Act Of Resistance
Taylor Swift – Lover
The Monochrome Set – Super Plastic City
Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression
Devo – Something For Everybody
Slits – Cut
Essential Logic – Fanfare In The Garden
X-Ray Spex – Germfree Adolescents
The White Stripes – The White Stripes
The White Stripes – De Stijl
The White Stripes – White Blood Cells
The White Stripes – Elephant
The White Stripes – Get Behind Me Satan
The White Stripes – Icky Thump
Julian Cope – Peggy Suicide
Blondie – Plastic Letters
Hugh Cornwell – Monster
Art Brut – Brilliant! Tragic!
Iggy Pop – Free
Ultravox - Vienna
Talking Heads - Remain In Light

That's 85 albums which isn't bad since most of these were listened to on headphones whilst cycling to and from work. I've never made an album list before, and as I've done with my book and movie list I will discount anything previously listened to. And unlike movies and books, predominantly most of these will be re-listens.

I revisited Buzzcocks following Pete Shelley's death, and also the entire White Stripes oeuvre on a whim (finding their first album and also "Get Behind Me Satan" to be my favourites). As usual I played some Stranglers, X-Ray Spex, Sonic Youth, Magazine and The Fall. The Flaming Lips also made their usual appearance. Unlike most years, I haven't written much fiction listening to music, so my go-to's Echobelly and Blonde Redhead didn't make an appearance (other than the new/old Echobelly record, "Black Heart Lullabies").

I think I have fairly eclectic tastes, but on the other hand quite conservative with the same names popping up quite regularly. And I never iPod shuffle, preferring to hear full albums rather than individual songs. I revisited several albums I haven't heard for many years: Modern Eon's excellent "Fiction Tales", Ultravox's "Vienna", Talking Heads' "Remain In Light" and Joy Divisions' surprisingly good "Unknown Pleasures" (my memory of this record not quite what I thought it to be).

When it came to new releases (to me, at least), I loved Valerie June's almost country "Pushin’ Against A Stone" (such a great voice), perennial favourite Coeur de Pirate's "en cas de tempête, ce jardin sera fermé", Marina's superb pop album "Love + Fear" (very close to making my top three), Vampire Weekend's "Father Of The Bride" (an album which benefits from repeated listens), Fontaine D.C.'s vibrant "Dogrel", and Iggy Pop's jazz-infused "Free".

Ultimately, though, my top three new (to me) records played this year were all 2019 releases. And here they are (in reverse order):

"Stunning Luxury" (2019) - Snapped Ankles

This band was recommended to me through several friends and when I saw they were anonymous creators dressed as trees who played log synthesisers it was impossible not to love them. I was lucky enough to see them live this year - oldest man in the mosh pit! - and it was absolutely joyous. I love repetitive rhythms and whilst the album doesn't quite capture the feel of the live gig, it's definitely an excellent starting place.

"Satis Factory" (2019) - Mattiel

Another band I was lucky enough to see live this year, this is an excellent record of garage-pop-rock type tunes which really got under my skin and rewarded numerous plays. Mattiel's vocal is just the right side of rough and the songs are stompingly good, gritty, and fresh (despite a plethora of influences). To take the usual advice with music, play it loud.

And the winner is...

"Lover" (2019) - Taylor Swift

Considering the absolute dogshite of the previous album, "Reputation", "Lover" is a glorious revelation, marrying all Swift's previous styles to create a career-defining record. We listened to this on the last day of our Cornish holiday, lights off, in silence, soaking it up, praying after each superb track that she wouldn't fuck it up on the next one, and joyous that she didn't. "Lover" is quite simply a fantastic record with superb and witty songwriting, room to breathe, and crystal-clear production. Swift has always been a storyteller at heart, and this record exemplifies that. It's also a record of love, proving there is no finer muse. There are eighteen songs here and none of them duds, each augmenting the one before and seguing into the one following. Favourites include "It's Nice To Have A Friend" (with steel drums and harps!), "The Man" (Swift's take on a female's progress through the music industry), and "Cornelia Street" (a paean to love, hope and trust). This record has had a permanent stay in the car CD player since August and is a must listen for those who think they know Swift but don't.

So that's it, my summary of what I read, watched and listened to in 2019! Drop back in next year, but in the meantime, here's my favourite song (and my favourite video) which I discovered in 2019: "Kekeland" by Brigitte Fontaine.


  1. I quite agree with you abut China Mieville, The City and The City stretched the elasticity of my mind and made me analyse the control of social reality. And this was the year that I visited the Laurel and Hardy museum in Ulverston!