Sunday, 27 December 2020

The Best and Worst of 2020

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 2020 and then pick my favourites. This isn't restricted to what was new in 2020, but what I actually watched and read and heard - some of these items might be very old indeed.


I read the following in 2020:

Rachel Smith – Artificial Flowers
Allen Ashley & Sarah Doyle (editors) - Humanagerie
Philip Roth – The Dying Animal
Mark Morris (editor) – New Fears 2
Exquisite Corpse – Poppy Z Brite
Deborah Harry / Marcus Reichert / Amos Chan – Behind Union City
Jorge Luis Borges – Doctor Brodie’s Report
James Everington & Dan Howarth (editors) – Imposter Syndrome
Philip K Dick – A Maze Of Death
Nina Allan – The Rift
Brian Aldiss – Frankenstein Unbound
Cathay Che – Platinum Blonde
Georges Simenon – The Snow Was Dirty
Juan Rulfo – Ilano In Flames
Ian Whates (editor) – Ten Tall Tales
Andrew Humphrey – Trick Of The Light
Malcolm Devlin – Engines Beneath Us
The Arrival of Missives – Aliya Whiteley
Don Delillo – The Names
Javier Marias – All Souls
Mark West and Stephen Bacon – The Lost Film
Jeffrey Eugenides – The Virgin Suicides
Jonathan Carroll – Bones of the Moon
Andrew Gallix, Tomoé Hill & C.D. Rose (editors) – Love Bites
John Travis – The Terror and the Tortoiseshell
Georges Perec – W, or The Memory of Childhood
George Sandison (editor) – 2084
Giorgio de Chirico – Hebdomeros
Breece D’J Pancake – Trilobites
Ian McEwan – On Chesil Beach
Allen Ashley – The Planet Suite
C S Forester – Payment Deferred
Ian Drew Forsyth (editor) – Afterlives Of The Writers
Brian Aldiss – Non-Stop
Georgina Bruce - Honeybones
Ross Warren Anthony Watson (editors) – Darker Minds
Arthur Schnitzler – Dream Story
Marcus Reichert – The Memoirs of Jerome Berger
Pascal Garnier – Moon In A Dead Eye
James Everington – The Quarantined City
The Residents – The Brickeaters
Eugen Bacon – The Road To Woop Woop
Douglas Thompson – Barking Circus
Eugen Bacon – Ivory’s Story
Haruki Murakami – Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
Joel Lane – The Autumn Myth
Quentin S Crisp – Remember You’re A One-Ball
Brian Clemens – Rabbit Pie
Caroline Hardaker – Composite Creatures
Debbie Harry – Face It
Celeste Bell & Zoe Howe – Dayglo: The Poly Styrene Story

That's worked out at 51 books this year, up ten from last years 41 so pretty good, and much helped by Covid-19 which meant I was reading a lot more in the day job for a month or two. My target is generally 50 books a year, so I'm happy with this. I should mention that I also proofread and copyedit and adding those novels into the mix would increase the list by about 25 books this year.

I can count the number of books I've ever given up on before finishing them on one hand, and unfortunately this year that includes "Ilano In Flames", a collection of short stories by Juan Rulfo which I just couldn't get into. Other books I weren't keen on included "On Chesil Beach" by Ian McEwan (so appalling British, so righteously sneering, so dumbingly anal), "Honeybones" by Georgina Bruce (which I desperately wanted to connect with, but just couldn't - try it though, others love it), "Moon In A Dead Eye" by Pascal Garnier (one-dimensional, run-of-the-mill), "Remember You're A One-Ball" by Quentin S Crisp (which I found passionless and unengaging), and "Rabbit Pie", a collection of short stories by Brian Clemens which was ok but which has dated considerably from when it was written.

I made an effort again this year to read more books by authors that I know personally and out of the 51 books this included 22 from such folk (including a few books read for review and those in an editorial role). Overall, the following deserve special mentions across the board: "Humanagerie" edited by Allen Ashley and Sarah Doyle (an animal-themed anthology of poetry and prose), "The Dying Animal" by Philip Roth (typical white middle-class male perspective, but bang on the nose with it), "New Fears 2" edited by Mark Morris (some brilliant horror stories here), "Exquisite Corpse" by Poppy Z Brite (exquisite!), "Doctor Brodie's Report" by Jorge Luis Borges (a strong collection of his later short stories which are primarily realistic in nature, although in some instances proving realism is equal to the fantastical), Nina Allen's "The Rift" (a writer who also mixes the mundane with the fantastical in this great novel), "Engine Beneath Us" by Malcolm Devlin (great novella with some interesting ideas), and another novella, "The Arrival of Missives", by Aliya Whiteley. I'd also recommend "Terror and the Tortoiseshell" by John Travis (noir detective story, with animals), "The Planet Suite" by Allen Ashley (the expanded version of his earlier novel of the same title: inventive and brilliantly written), "W, Or The Memory Of Childhood" by Georges Perec (a powerful treatise on both memory and remembrance), "Hebdomeros" by Giorgio de Chirico (one of the most immediately engaging surrealist books that I've read), "The Memoirs of Jerome Berger" by Marcus Reichert (an existential jailbreak novel with a dash of authentic narrative surrealism), "The Quarantined City" by James Everington (almost made my top three, brilliant central conceit), Douglas Thompson's endlessly inventive "Barking Circus", Eugen Bacon's vibrant "Ivory's Story" (and her collection, "The Road To Woop Woop"), and finally Deborah Harry's autobiography, "Face It".

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 "Behind Union City: The Making of an Independent Film" by Amos Chan, Deborah Harry and Marcus Reichert, which is a sumptuously beautiful book about the film Union City containing both stills and original photographs, as I tend to stick to fiction in these round-ups. However, without further ado, here are my favourite reads of 2020:

In reverse order:

"The Bones of the Moon" by Jonathan Carroll

A beautiful couple meet, fall in love, and have the world at their feet, but the world has other plans and conspires to undo them by renting reality asunder. In this case, the cause could be the guilt Cullen James feels over an earlier abortion, but pinning psychological meaning under character's actions aren't really necessary in Carroll's work because it is the journey which needs to be savoured and not the vehicle you travel in. A good Carroll novel makes you want to be part of that world - however romantic or terrifying it may be. "Bones of the Moon" ticks those boxes for me and whilst often I feel Carroll really doesn't know how to end his books (they can feel abrupt, or unsatisfactory, or insufficient), here everything pulls together well.

"The Names" by Don DeLillo

The back cover blurb describes this as an 'exotic thriller' and it would be interesting to know what usual readers of 'exotic thrillers' would think of this novel because it certainly - thankfully - isn't that. What we have here are deliberations on language, culture, identity, relationships, isolation and good old white middle-aged male angst and existentialism. Everything is exquisitely rendered with some of the best prose I've encountered for a long while. The pacing is slow, a little scattershot, but somehow works. The 'thriller' aspect is glacial, muted, incidental. I love books which run around the outside of things without needing to speak specifics and I loved this.

And the winner is:

"Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage" by Haruki Murakami

I won't lie that this took me a while to get into - the set-up seemed too pat to be convincing - but where Murakami works best for me is when he pinpoints and nudges that tiny ache inside you, that difference between wanting to be like everyone else and wanting to be different. It's not necessarily so overt in his other novels, but they do have that sense of be(longing); here, it's more explicit, and it resonated deeply. Murakami walks a line of everything being preordained despite us having free will, he sees past present and future for what they are - a jagged edge rather than a linear construct. Without giving spoilers away, the last chapter encapsulated that for me (others might prefer a different resolution), whilst retaining that sense of mystery, whilst defining that ache that just can't be erased, whilst understanding that the reader knows this, whilst wanting that ache to remain. For that reason alone, it has to be my number one for this year.


I watched the following in 2020:

Jessica Forever
Here To Be Heard: The Story of the Slits
Phantom Thread
In Fabric
Une Femme Est Une Femme
The Castle
You Were Never Really Here
River of Grass
The Favourite
Miss Americana
High Life
Bob le Flambeur
George Washington
Lady Bird
The Idiots
Fantastic Planet
The Wild Goose Lake
The Man From London
Les Valseuses
Robot Monster
Night Train
Valley of Love
Sympathy For Mr Vengeance
Un Flic
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari
Cemetery of Splendour
47 Meters Down: Uncaged
Bad Taste
Hiroshima Mon Amour
Celine and Julie Go Boating
The Consequences of Love
Il Divo
One Man Up
The Family Friend
Endless Poetry
The Blood of a Poet
Testament of Orpheus
No End
Time Trap
Visitor Q
Le Corbeau
La Bête Humaine
John Wick
Toy Story
Animal Crackers
Everest: Death Zone
Popeye The Sailor vs Sinbad The Sailor
Piglet’s Big Movie
A Bug’s Life
Swimming Pool
Angel Face
The Shining
The Addams Family (2019)
The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water
The Devil All The Time
The Trout
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Baxter, Vera Baxter
What Have They Done To Your Daughters?
Alvin & The Chipmunks: Chipwrecked
See No Evil, Hear No Evil
Hotel Transylvania
Stir Crazy
The Lorax
Theatre of Blood
Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood
The Great Alligator
Monster House
The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge On The Run
Things To Come
The Other Lamb
Meek’s Cutoff
His House
My Favourite Wife
Jojo Rabbit
Rio 2
The Grinch
Sorry To Bother You
The Hills Have Eyes
Lilo & Stitch
Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions
The Platform
8 Women
The Christmas Chronicles
The Kindergarten Teacher
The Muppet Christmas Carol
They Listen
Black Water: Abyss
Cold Meridian
Where The Wild Things Are
A Short Film About Love
A Short Film About Killing

That's 120 movies this year, a staggering 49 up from last year which is just what I wanted! Mostly this is due to my partner's working hours realigning with mine, renting about 25 movies from our library during the first Covid-19 lockdown, buying a larger TV to make the experience more enjoyable, but also making time each Friday to watch kid-friendly movies with my eight year old. From those, "Onward" won our hearts this year. All of us were crying.

Anyway, this means it's quite 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 one of my favourite films, Jean-Luc Godard's "Une Femme Est Une Femme" which I've seen half a dozen times or more, "Alphaville", also by Godard, which was much better third time around, Peter Jackson's "Bad Taste" (clearly his best movie), the sublime "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" (which I could watch on repeat and cry every time, Gene Wilder and the whole cast are brilliant), and films as diverse as "Animal Crackers" and "The Shining". Not to forget either the final two films on the list by Krzysztof Kieślowski which are sublime.

Those movies which I found annoying or awful are easy to chronicle, and this includes "In Fabric" (I've loved Peter Strickland's other films, but I almost physically and mentally recoiled from this it was so bad), "High Life" (director Claire Denis and actress Juliette Binoche should have been a match made in heaven, but I just couldn't engage with this film), "Sharknado" (which is so obviously awful, but I still had a lot of fun with), "Parasite" (the Oscar-winning South Korean film which I thought opened with some good ideas but which finished up all over the shop), and "Jojo Rabbit" which I really wanted to enjoy but which I found vacuous and derivative.

One of my favourite platforms for movies is Mubi, and I loved that they showed a variety of Isabelle Huppert movies this year, as I would rate her as my favourite actress. These included "The Trout", "Things To Come", "Malina" and "8 Women", all of which I thoroughly enjoyed, and all of which could have made this year's top three.

Other favourites included "Solaris" (the Andrei Tarkovsky original, particularly the driving sequence), "The Idiots" (Lars Von Trier's provocative - aren't they all - early feature), "The Wild Goose Lake" (a Chinese neo-noir thriller directed by Diao Yinan), "The Man From London" (Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky's almost inexorably slow but ultimately rewarding black and white masterpiece), "Night Train" (the 1959 Polish film directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz which was very engaging), Rainer Werner Fassbinder's "Querelle" based on a Jean Genet novel (visually stunning, a dynamic work), "Hiroshima Mon Amour" directed by Alain Resnais (beautiful, realistic love story), Celine and Julie Go Boating (Jacques Rivette's sprawling, metamodern film which probably requires two views to completely love it), "The Consequences of Love" (the best of five early films I watched directed by Paolo Sorrentino with a surprising ending, and a great opening sequence to a song by Lali Puna), "Endless Poetry" (Alejandro Jodorowsky's brilliant and visually inventive auto-biopic), Jean Cocteau's "The Blood of a Poet" (so far ahead of its time), the quirky "Redoubtable" directed by Michel Hazanavicius which takes a chapter in the life of Jean-Luc Godard and gets it just about right, "Baxter, Vera Baxter" directed by Marguerite Duras (who also wrote the screenplay for "Hiroshima Mon Amour" mentioned above, a semi-solipsistic musing), "Midsommar" directed by Ari Aster (a riotous horror film of unnerving skewed logic which narrowly misses on a top three place through being slightly ridiculous), "Theatre of Blood" (a tremendous Vincent Price vehicle which also narrowly misses out on my top three due to an aversion with forced feeding), "His House" (extremely affecting horror film very relevant to today's society, one which resonated deeply), "Calibre" (taut British crime thriller with great realism that skillfully sidesteps expectations), and "The Platform" (another intriguing horror film which posits a social dilemma at its heart to create an interesting dialogue).

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 2020.

Again, in reverse order:

"Border" (2018) - Ali Abbasi

It's really difficult to talk about this film without giving too much away about the plot, which is in turns bizarre, amusing, repulsive, extraordinary, and oddly life-affirming. There was so much here which wrong-footed me on a basic level, and despite the exceptionally odd subject matter it also resonated deeply. It is an honestly weird film which adheres to an inner logic and I loved it.

"Phantom Thread" (2017) - Paul Thomas Anderson

This was one of the first films I watched at the beginning of the year so whilst it has considerably faded in my memory it would be disingenuous not to include it in my top three because of that. Anderson is one of my favourite modern directors and this story of an haute couture dressmaker who takes a young waitress as his muse would probably not even come up on my radar with another director, but I'm so glad I watched it because frankly it's quite brilliant.

And the winner is...

"Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood" (2019) - Quentin Tarantino

I absolutely loathed "The Hateful Eight", Tarantino's previous film, so it took me quite some time to summon up the effort to watch this long movie. However, this film seemed an ideal way to christen our new large TV and I'm so glad we took time to watch it. Unlike others, I'm happy to watch Tarantino rewrite history (as in "Inglourious Basterds"), and in this feature that conceit is even more of a delight. As the Manson Family ascend to Sharon Tate's abode I was really not wanting what I expected from Tarantino and I became overjoyed at realising what I really should have expected from Tarantino. Generally, the dialogue, visuals, story arc, and duration of the film are all perfect. It would be impossible not to chose this as my best film watched in 2020.


I listened to the following full-length albums in 2020:

The Talking Heads – ‘77
The Residents – Not Available (pREServed edition)
Pins – Girls Like Us
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Ghosteen
Coeur de Pirate – Coeur de Pirate
The Monochrome Set – Fabula Mendax
Maximo Park – Risk To Exist
Talking Heads – Fear of Music
Talking Heads – More Songs About Buildings And Food
Can – Ege Bamyası
The Murder Capital – When I Have Fears
Fontaines D C - Dogrel
The Residents – Eskimo (pREServed edition)
Wire – Chairs Missing
Blondie – Panic Of Girls
Blondie – Ghosts Of Download
Blondie – Pollinator
Mattiel – Satis Factory
Taylor Swift – Lover
Blondie – Autoamerican
Amy McDonald – This Is The Life
Siekiera – Nowa Aleksandria
Bjork – Vespertine
Lali Puna – Scary World Theory
Taylor Swift – 1989
Negativland – dispepsi
Negativland – Negativland
The Stranglers – La Folie
The Stranglers – Black And White
The Stranglers – Rattus Norvegicus
The Stranglers – No More Heroes
The Stranglers – The Raven
Paramore – After Laughter
the xx – I See You
The Stranglers – The Gospel According To The Meninblack
The Stranglers – Feline
The Stranglers – Aural Sculpture
The Stranglers – Dreamtime
The Residents – A Nickle if your dick’s this big
The Stranglers – 10 
The Damned – Evil Spirits
The Sex Pistols – Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols
Sparks – A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip
The Residents – Metal, Meat & Bone
Polly Scattergood – In The Moment
New Found Glory – Forever + Ever x Infinity
Taylor Swift – folklore
The Residents – The Big Bubble
Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride
Bedouin Soundclash – Light The Horizon
Maximo Park – Too Much Information
Dixie Chicks – Gaslighter
Poly Styrene – Translucence
Taylor Swift – Red
Taylor Swift – Fearless
The Residents – Tunes of Two Cities
The Residents – The Mark of the Mole
The Residents – Commercial Album
Ciccone – Eversholt Street
Rebekah Delgado – Don’t Sleep
Locust Fellow & Friends – Curse Of The Baleful Caller
Buzzcocks – Love Bites
Vampire Weekend – Contra
Captain Beefheart – Trout Mask Replica
X-Ray Spex – Germfree Adolescents
Television – Marquee Moon
Sonic Youth – The Eternal
Rachel Sweet – Fool Around
The Anti-Nowhere League – We Are The League
Dead Kennedys – Frankenchrist
The Residents – Mole Box
The Flaming Lips – American Head
Snapped Ankles – Stunning Luxury
XTC – White Music
XTC – Wasp Star
XTC – The Black Sea
The Residents/Renaldo & The Loaf – Title In Limbo
Sztywny Pal Azji – Europa I Azja
Taylor Swift – evermore
The Clash - Sandinista

That's 80 albums which isn't bad considering I used to mostly listen to music on headphones whilst cycling to and from work and I haven't had to do that since March as I've been working from home. I also haven't been writing fiction to music this year so haven't heard any that way either. So, headphones on and bopping around the kitchen making dinner it is, then.

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 my favourite band, The Stranglers, following the unbearably sad death of keyboardist Dave Greenfield from Covid-19. Both "Black and White" and "The Raven" would be within my top ten albums of all time, closely followed by many of their other records. And as usual I played some Blondie, X-Ray Spex, Maximo Park, and The Residents (digging into the pREServed editions from Cherry Red there is much Residents' material I haven't heard or has been reworked there, to my delight. "Not Available" and "Eskimo" being the best of these). 

I think I have fairly eclectic tastes, but on the other hand am quite conservative with the same names popping up quite regularly. And I don't seem to have listened to much 'young' new music at all this year.

I revisited several albums I haven't heard for many years: Dead Kennedys' "Frankenchrist", Television's "Marque Moon" and several XTC records with "The Black Sea" being the best of those. I also - finally - managed to track down a Polish band I used to listen to, but couldn't remember: the album "Europa I Azja" by Sztywny Pal Azji is a firm favourite and it was great to hear it again.

When it came to new material (to me, at least), it was good to listen to Talking Heads' first three albums which - very surprisingly - I've never heard before. Some great material on there. It was also good to listen to Can for the first time and Negativland (both bands who should have been very much on my radar before now). At the opposite end of that spectrum, the Dixie Chicks country album, "Gaslighter", has some excellent lyrics and tunes, and of course Taylor Swift followed up "folklore" with "evermore", a record that I think will need to bed in a bit before I become fully enamoured by it.

Other favourite artists released new music this year which I loved: pop punks New Found Glory turned in an album much like many of their others, "Forever + Ever x Infinity", but they do it so well, Polly Scattergood's "In This Moment" also has much thoughtful material harking back in some respects to her eponymous debut which devastated me, The Flaming Lips released "American Head", yet another album of intricate gorgeousity which would have made my top three if it wasn't so similar to other Lips' records, and new Sparks' record "A Steady Drip Drip Drip" continues to embed them in pop history with some fantastic songs and was also a close miss from my final selection.

Ultimately, though, most of those three might have budged for third place, but today my top three new (to me) records played this year are (in reverse order):

"Fabula Mendax" (2019) - The Monochrome Set

I've been a fan of this band for many many years and haven't always kept on top of their recent, prolific output, with "Super Plastic City" being the last new material I'd listened to back in 2014 and they've released another five albums since then! However "Fabula Mendax" is a great album, purportedly based on manuscripts written in the 15th Century by Armande de Pange, a companion of Jehanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc), although I think the truth is probably much different. Either way, this is a great collection of songs some of which luckily I was able to hear live earlier this year prior to lockdown.

"Metal, Meat & Bone" (2020) - The Residents

Another record based on questionable source material, purportedly the songs of Alvin Snow, an albino bluesman who recorded some demos under the name Dyin' Dog before vanishing many years ago. Whether this is the case or not, the album contains all of Dyin' Dog's original demos, plus The Residents' often completely different sounding reinterpretations, plus another handful of songs the band have written inspired by Dyin' Dog's music. It's a great concept album, with some mournful singing and some truly inventive moments. "Bury My Bone" also has to be one of the catchiest Residents' songs ever.

And the winner is...

"folklore" (2020) - Taylor Swift

Taylor made my top spot last year with "Lover", but this album goes in a completely different direction and was dropped by surprise to her record company a day before release. Whilst in no way as experimental as some would have you believe, this record is perfectly pitched for lockdown, a low-fi selection of nostalgic songs which break Swift's usual mould of writing about herself and therefore expands her repertoire accordingly. It's a truly Great American Songbook and will hopefully draw more fans to her music. The trio of songs from the perspective of different protagonists are a highlight, but for me the crux of the album is encapsulated in four songs in the middle of the record: "Mirrorball", "Seven", "August", and "This Is Me Trying" which are absolute perfection, the latter song of that quintet breaking my heart each time. As a songwriter and storyteller Taylor speaks to me on every level, and it would be impossible to ignore this superb record. Undoubtedly, it's my favourite of 2020 and certainly the most listened to.

So that's it, my summary of what I read, watched and listened to in 2020! Drop back in next year, but in the meantime, here's Lali Puna's "Scary World Theory" which I mentioned above from the soundtrack to "The Consequences of Love" and which would be good to play out to.

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