Although our cult of fast distractions and great disruptions is hell-bent on crushing the album beneath its caterpillar tracks, the long play musical form will always remain a pillar of art. Admittedly making an album seems to be a difficult feat for the insta-everything generation, but it is still an ideal to aspire to. In music, when you wanted to make a statement, you used to make an album. Revolutions were started within the grooves of a vinyl record, from Sgt.Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to Thriller, from Exodus to Brothers in Arms. Right now, those “statements” have become distorted descriptions of oral sex or the virtues of look-how-quickly-I-made-my-money-but-I’m-still-gangsta-though-living-in-the-Hollywood-Hills (and have you seen my crib?). Perhaps my age has made me intolerant to electronic mumbo-jumbo, the yada yada yodeling accompanying nude-flashing videos that have become a substitute to real, good, listenable music, whatever genre you prefer it in. A real band, with a real bass guitarist, a drummer playing real drums, and lyrics that say something.
I listened to dozens of albums this past year, as I do every year, but I arrived at the same conclusion almost all the time. A few good tracks here, one good song there. I kept skipping from song to song looking for a…song. It is becoming odious to listen to some artists for beginning to end, and like my parents before me, I am beginning to doubt the staying power of the records making the charts these days. That is not to say there isn’t good music out there, on the contrary. Elbow’s new album was, to an old fan, as lyrically satisfying as anything they’ve done before. Lorde’s bruised euphoria is a punchbag of emotion made by someone who, but for the maturity of her lyrics, is still very young. Lana Del Rey’s atmospheric croons exude a dark, seductive charm, sounding ethereal, sultry, jazzy and vintage at the same time.
Despacito is most certainly the song of 2017. I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t like it. The Grammy for Song of Year can’t really go to any other another song, or can it?
Are there any notable things to say this year? Of course. Kendrick Lamar is a hip hop genius who’s on a roll. He is shaking it up again, like Marvin, Bob, Michael and Tupac before him. I still do not like Bruno Mars. U2 should never make an album again, and Ireland should pass a law against it. I tried to like Perfume Genius, but it didn’t happen. For all its great reviews I thought the LCD Soundsystem album wasn’t as good as their previous one.
Looking back now, I find something common in the albums that did make it to my great subjective list – the lyrics – depicting a kind of finality and acceptance that is almost preferable to what we otherwise have to reckon with amid the uncertainty of who and where we are at this point in our lives. I care for myself the way I used to care about you, à la Lorde. Can I let go and let your memory dance in the ballroom of my mind? Lana Del Rey. Or Elbow’s submission to a fickle flame, I’m trying hard to be ignored/then my telephone shakes into life and I see your name/and the wheat fields explode into gold on either side of the train.
Ah, the sensation of sweet surrender.
1. Little Fictions ELBOW
2. Sleep Well Best THE NATIONAL
3. Melodrama LORDE
4. Lust for Life LANA DEL REY
5. Slowdrive SLOWDRIVE
1. Kindling (fickle flame) ELBOW feat. GRANT
2. Mystery of Love SUFJAN STEVENS
3. Love LANA DEL REY
4. Sign of the Times HARRY STYLES
5. I Feel It Coming THE WEEKND
6. Thirteen Beaches LANA DEL REY
7. Despacito LUIS FONSI & DADDY YANKEE
8. American Teen KHALID
9. I’m the One DJ KHALID
10. Happy Birthday Johnny ST. VINCENT
The arrival of Arundhati Roy’s second novel in twenty years was the most anticipated event in English literature this year. “Need is a warehouse that can accommodate a considerable amount of cruelty,” she says in her book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. “Enemies can’t break your spirit, only friends can“.
By now no one needs an introduction to Ta-Nehisi Coates. His writing has become essential reading, if only to understand (whether you agree with it or not) the complex reality of what it means to be black in America today. We Were Eight Years in Power is a remarkable collection of his essays for The Atlantic, a true must-have for any serious reflection of Obama’s social and political impact on race in America.
After reading Hisham Matar’s The Return, I was almost certain it would be my best book of the year. His Pulitzer Prize winning biography, searching for the truth behind his father’s disappearance during Gaddafi’s regime in Libya, is both heartbreaking and inspiring. “Returning after all these years was a bad idea,” he says…. “What you have left behind has dissolved. Return and you will face the absence or the defacement of what you treasured.” You can’t help but follow his story as though you were you were listening to an old friend, empathising with his every emotion.
Ultimately though my book of the year ended up being Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, a novel that won the US National Book Award. It is a haunting story of power, grief and tenderness, of the injustices, brutalities and violence of race. It is about the struggle to raise good children in a system that is broken, and has broken you. It is about the humanity of ghosts. It is an American road trip, laced with drugs and poverty, and the unfinished songs of Mississippi’s past. It is about being stuck in a rut, free and unfree. As Leonie, one of three protagonists of the book says, “sometimes the world don’t give you what you need, no matter how hard you look.”
1. Sing, Unburied, Sing JESMYN WARD
2. The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between HISHAM MATAR (winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Biography)
3. I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad SOUAD MEKHENNET
4. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness ARUNDHATI ROY
5. Autumn ALI SMITH
6. We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy TA-NEHISI COATES
7. East West Street: on the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity PHILIPPE SANDS
8. Exit West MOHSIN HAMID
9. Lincoln in the Bardo GEORGE SAUNDERS (winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize)
10. Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty MUSTAFA AKYOL
From the racial satire of Get Out (actually marketed as a horror film, but I bet you hours of social commentary and debate after you see it) to parents grieving the loss of their soldier son in Foxtrot (Israel’s Minister for Culture criticized the film for its portrayal of IDF soldiers – it still went on to win the Ophir for Best Film – Israel’s highest film award), 2017 has been another good year for film. I did not see what the fuss was over Wonder Woman, or The Big Sick for that matter. They were both just ok, and were it not for the hype I would happily have missed them – and the coffee on the Kenyan highlands would have grown just fine. I still haven’t seen most of the critically acclaimed foreign language films of the year (Loveless, BPM: Beats Per Minute, A Fantastic Woman) and I’m almost certain that my list would probably be different had I had the chance to see them before I made it.
One of the most poetic sequences of film this year was when a little girl and her two best friends walk aimlessly through a batch of abandoned, pastel-coloured condos in the sweltering Florida heat, scamming strangers for ice cream money while running around unsupervised. The Florida Project is a wonderful film about the people living in the in-between. Sitting continuously on the brink of someplace much better than they’re in right now, but also one much worse. It’s about a group of people, barely making ends meet, living in a beat-up motel called The Magic Castle, where sometimes Disney World tourists accidentally make reservations. To most adults, the place looks and feels like one that you’d try to avoid at all costs, but to the kids living there – it’s no different or less magical than anywhere else in the world.
Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson is a wild teenage girl with a spinning force of a tornado. She is “from the wrong side of the tracks”, but has no interest in being defined by her socioeconomic bracket. She clashes with her mother over everything. Their arguments are loud, familiar, and irreconcilable in the philosophical distance between them. In other words, Greta Gerwig (the director) has nailed how mothers and daughters argue. Because of the tonal breadth of the film, different shades of emotion are found each time they are at each other’s throats. Love is both a combative war of words and an energising force. Lady Bird was certainly one of the most enjoyable films I saw, and is most unforgettable.
After watching Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, I knew there was still so much about this film, on the joys and grieving of small town America, that would play in my mind many days after. Its subliminal commentary on racism and police brutality (black lives matter?) and sexuality, its depiction of misguided anger and the rage that follow loss, and the desire to find common cause among the outcasts of society, layered a story line peppered by clever dialogue, wit and innuendo. It is a film about seeking justice – whatever justice might mean – and the power and consequences of a few words. And I haven’t even mentioned the mersmerising force of Frances McDormand.
In his book The Go-Between, L.P Hartley told us that the past was a foreign country, that they do things differently there. In Call Me By Your Name, the past was 1983, somewhere in northern Italy. What happened there was a love story between Oliver, an older American visiting the family of Elio, a bookish seventeen-year-old boy, who plays Bach on the guitar and the piano, and chats in English, French and Italian. Intellectuals will love his family, whose ambition in life is to know everything. “Our home is your home,” Elio’s father says to Oliver when he arrives to stay with them for six weeks that Summer. “My room is your room,” Elio adds, a few seconds later. Their sharing will deepen – from handshakes to confidences, and from cigarettes to kisses and other charms, concluding in the most profound exchange of all, whispered from a few inches’ distance and proclaimed in the title of the film, “call me by your name, and I’ll call you by mine.” This is a story about being seventeen, the innocence of first love, and discovering that love is not an art or science one can muster like sheet music, or latin. Whatever colour, age, size or gender, there’s always a hard floor that awaits those who topple onto it.
“Is there anything you don’t know?” Oliver asks Elio at one point in the film. He responds: “I know nothing, Oliver. If you only knew how little I know about the things that matter.” “What things that matter?” Oliver asks.
“You know what things,” Elio says.
Oscars Academy, are you brave enough?
1. Call Me By Your Name
2. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri
3. The Florida Project
4. Lady Bird
6. Aquarius (Brazil)
7. First They Killed My Father (Cambodia)
8. Get Out
9. In the Fade (Germany)
10. Foxtrot (Israel)
Because this space is meant to be limited to the arts I will refrain from any political commentary of the year (and what a year it has been!). So I would like to end it instead with a toast to one of my favourite all-time musicians who graced my younger self with good old rock n’ roll, and whose songs of maverick youth and heartbreak in southern California (long before I ever went there for the first time) came flooding back to me this year, along with some of my best memories. “The good old days may not return” he said in one of his classic songs. Indeed they may not. Rest in power Tom Petty- into the great wide open of eternity. These kids will never make albums like yours again.
free fallin’ I’m a, free fallin’ I’m a