I always have difficulty when it comes to thinking about ‘best of the year’ lists, which most people seem to have no trouble at all with. With the exception of monthly comics, I don’t tend to keep track of what’s ‘now’ and what isn’t, and I often end up discovering things five or ten years after they came out (I bought my first Cerebus phonebook on the day issue 300 came out, though I didn’t realise that til later). So while I’m constantly acquiring new music, it’s for a rather flexible definition of ‘new’ that can include this year (the Passing Strange soundtrack album, That Lucky Old Sun) a couple of years ago (L.E.O.’s Alpacas Orgling, one of my favourite albums of ‘this year’), or decades ago (a compilation of banjo tracks by Uncle Dave Macon), and I don’t really pay attention to which is which. Same goes for books.
So I’m going to do top 5 lists only (because to do a top 10 would be scraping the barrel) for gigs and comics – everything else I can’t be sure what year it came out.
Best Comics Of The Year:
1 All Star Superman #10 by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant.
This may well be the best single issue of a superhero comic ever produced, and it’s certainly the best Superman single issue since Alan Moore’s couple of issues in the mid-80s (and may be better even than them). It encapsulates all the themes not only of this series but of everything Grant Morrison has been working towards in his career, and the script is complemented perfectly by Quitely’s art.
2 Judenhaas by Dave Sim
Sim is my pick for ‘greatest comic creator of all time’. I can think of people who are his equals – but not his betters – at the individual talents he has (Alan Moore as a writer, J.H. Williams as an artist, Todd Klein as a letterer), but nobody who can combine do everything as well as he could – to my mind he even beats both Eisner and Kirby in terms of quality of work.Judenhaas is only a minor work by him, in comparison with, say, Jaka’s Story or Melmoth, but minor Sim beats major everybody else most of the time. I’m uncomfortable with this work, it seems to be ‘Oscar-bait’ – the message that the Holocaust is bad is not a particularly original or insightful one – but it’s executed so well… it also seems completely at odds with Sim’s own expressed views on women, which again brings up the fascinating (in a train-wreck kind of way) question of how *that* artist could also be *that* person.
3 The Amazing Fantastic Mr Leotard by Eddie Campbell and Dan Best
Eddie Campbell, like Sim, is another comic creator whose work I will always buy sight-unseen, because he’s never let me down (though I still don’t have a lot of his early material). The Fate Of The Artist and his collaborations with Alan Moore are among my very favourite comics of all time. This one is a lovely Munchausen-esque, vaguely Fortean story about the nephew of the inventor of the leotard.
4 Achewood – The Great Outdoor Fight by Chris Onstad
A slim volume, but a good representation of a great period in the most artistically interesting webcomic out there.
5 Sandman – Dream Hunters by Neil Gaiman and P. Craig Russell
Not for Gaiman’s story, which, while competent, has been published before and is also the kind of stuff he can knock off in his sleep. But Russell’s artwork is just gorgeous – I don’t usually buy comics for the art, being more orally/aurally oriented than visually, but this stuff is stunning.
Bubbling under – Comic Book Comics, Batman, Final Crisis, and Glamourpuss
Best gigs of the year
1 Mike Love’s “Beach Boys” – Manchester Apollo
The touring ‘Beach Boys’ have come in for a lot of stick from a lot of people, not least myself , over the years, for doing boring ‘touring jukebox’ sets, often with shoddy musicianship. However, over the last few years they’ve got much better. Their tour in 2004 was superb, but this was phenomenal. Having replaced Mike Kowalski (the worst drummer I’ve ever seen live) with John Cowsill (who had formerly been the band’s second keyboardist) , and added in for the UK tour only Dave Marks (the rhythm guitarist with the Beach Boys on their first three albums) they sounded better and fuller than ever, and did a fifty-two song set, including not only all the hits, but tracks like Forever, Kiss Me Baby, Sail On Sailor and ‘Til I Die. The highlight of the set was a three-song mini acoustic set about Transcendental Meditation, believe it or not. Simply superb.
2 Leonard Cohen – Manchester Opera House
I’ve seen Laughing Len twice this year (once last week at the MEN arena and this one in July). This gig was a very odd experience – a friend of the family had just died, my in-laws (whose tastes run more to Peter, Paul and Mary and contemporary country radio) were visiting and came with us (as did my parents, but they’re both Cohen fans) and the whole thing felt very dreamlike. When my Dad said “Here’s someone you know” and I turned around and Jeremy Paxman was stood behind me in the queue for the bar, I felt like the next thing to happen would be my primary school headmaster riding in on a unicycle or something.
Cohen, surprisingly, has an immense stage presence, owing more to the crooners than to the folkie image he still has to an extent, and his voice has aged very well – huskier and mellower. It was more like watching Tony Bennett than any rock-era musician I’ve seen, and it was quite shocking to think he hadn’t toured in 15 years before that show. If you get a chance, go and see him, but I wish he’d stayed in the smaller venues – the arena gig was just as good, musically, but the MEN is a horrible venue.
3 Martin Carthy & Dave Swarbrick – The Lowry
Not much to say about this one. Either you like traditional folk music, in which case you know how special a gig this was, or you don’t, in which case you won’t care.
4 Mercy & Grand: The Tom Waits Project – The Lowry
This was a production put on by Opera North, with Gavin Bryars (the composer of Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet, Wait’s favourite record, and frequent Brian Eno collaborator) leading a ‘circus band’ (guitar, harmonium, tuba, double bass, woodwinds, accordion, violin, soprano singer if I recall) in a performance of Waits classics along with a couple of pieces by Kurt Weill, some Fellini film music and a couple of old English folk songs. To an extent it was Bryars remaking Waits in his own image – the song selection and choice of other music was clearly chosen to present Waits as part of a particular line of songwriters, and one could have done a very different but equally ‘true’ re-contextualising of Waits’ music by using songs by, say, Ray Charles, Captain Beefheart and Bruce Springsteen. Bryars clearly thinks of Waits in ‘art music’ terms, and that misses a lot of what makes Waits great. But having said that, the musicianship was superlative, Bryars’ arrangements were gorgeous and inventive, and you can’t go wrong with Tom Waits and a bit of Weill, can you?
5 Brian Wilson – Royal Albert Hall
It seems odd to be placing Brian Wilson at number five when Mike Love is at number one, but Wilson’s performance was more expensive, at a worse venue, shorter and had a much less interesting setlist. Since 2002, the interesting material has been steadily removed from Wilson’s sets, replaced by more and more of the earlier surf ‘n’ girls ‘n’ sun music. This isn’t so bad when (as in 2004 and 2007) he’s been premiering full albums of new material in order in the second set – the lighter, frothier, fun stuff sets off more difficult music like Smile very well – but it makes for a show which, while still excellent, is not as good as Brian and his band are clearly capable of.
Brian’s band are still the best I’ve ever seen, and it’s still BRIAN WILSON, and he’s still performing songs like God Only Knows and Heroes And Villains, and if I hadn’t seen this band do some of the very best shows I’ve ever seen in my life I’d have thought this was excellent. But it was like Brian and Mike had swapped setlists.
(Note for Americans – Brian’s US shows this year have been to promote That Lucky Old Sun and have included full performances of that album. None of the criticisms above apply to any show where that is the case…)