Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Ken's Best of 2008

Well 2008 has almost gone it’s not-so-merry way, but there were cultural compensations a plenty for anyone overly depressed by financial woes.
Firstly, to one of the main reasons we all exist – live music!

Gigs of the Year

Bruce Springsteen
Leonard Cohen

I saw somewhat less concerts than normal this year, but quality made up for quantity, and the reason I only list the above two is that they were head and shoulders above the rest.
For me Leonard was a typical 2nd tier singer-songwriter prior to 2008, probably in my top 20-30 artists, fine lyrics of course etc, but he just didn’t do it for me the way other artists do. But seeing him live has changed all that. The single biggest surprise of the year was just how damn good he is live. And how funny, how warm, how graceful, how charming. Just like Bob, Van and Neil then?! Not.
I saw nights two and three in Dublin, with night three just shading it. Incredible vocal performance and a long powerful well constructed setlist with a terrific band. Rare too, to have audience and critics in agreement as much as they were that weekend. The old argument that his music is depressing was also put to bed, each concert being three hours of the most uplifting music imaginable. Highlights – Anthem, So Long Marianne, Take this Waltz, Hallelujah. Enough said.

Tough to call, but possibly Bruce just shades Leonard. I saw all three Dublin shows, each one better than the last. I never thought he’d top the quality of some of the recent years live shows (including those memorable nights with the Seeger Sessions band), but these were awesome, and surely were at least close to his earlier 1970s/80s peaks? The E-Street Band have never seemed more panoramic yet tight, and the singing and showmanship of rock’s greatest live performer rarely better.

Just to pick two hair-raising moments from these artists – never mind Pop Idol versions, one of the best moments of the year was when Leonard soared in to the chorus of Hallelujah with his three passionate but subtle backing singers and band behind him on a drizzly summers evening in Dublin. Secondly, on the 1st night Bruce came on stage in the RDS, to tumultuous applause, and man and band launched into a searing version of Promised Land – everything perfect; the sound, the volume, the weather, the atmosphere and the performance..

Anyway, I did see some other good concerts in 2008, including three Dylans – an above average performance in Helsinki, an emotional night in St Petersburgh for his first ever Russian show, and a below par night in Tallin.
Tom Waits was quite good despite that ridiculous venue in the Phoenix Park.
Neil Young was very good in Hammersmith in the Spring, but had lost just a little of the magic of this band and tour by the time he brought it to Malahide. Almost one third of the main set comprised ‘No Hidden Path’ – I’m all in favour of long songs if the jamming is purposeful, but this was very trying for a festival type audience.
Speaking of festivals, I went to Electric Picnic for the first time and enjoyed it a lot. The clichés about the wonderful vibes (not to mention food!) are mainly true, lots of interesting cultural activities to enjoy, but, for me personally, way too much emphasis on dance music. However, there were some great performances, such as;
Wilco - the festival highlight for me not surprisingly
Foals – a rare thing for me to like a modern band this much. It’s very clinical mathematical music, I don’t know how they do it but they manage to make music that is both very catchy and yet sounds extremely bloody complicated!
My Bloody Valentine – seeing them live helped me ‘get’ them where I never did before. Normally I dislike music this loud, but they have a wall of sound type thing going on that genuinely is much better this loud! Earplugs definitely required.
Michael Franti and Spearhead – infectious
Franz Ferdinand – very catchy
Candi Staton – excellent old school soul
Conor Oberst – fine band he has these days
Sigur Ros – is it prog rock, are they the new Floyd (or even Radiohead)? - whatever it is it sounded gorgeous on a warm Co. Laois evening
Electric Picnic disappointments;
Sex Pistols – competent, but tame
Nick Cave / Grinderman – tuneless nonsense I thought.. I seem to have very mixed opinions about Mr Cave these days
The likes of Duffy, Elbow, Sinead O’Connor were ok. No strong opinions.

Other enjoyable gigs this year were Al Green, Camille O’Sullivan, The Jayhawks (well two of ‘em anyway, the two that do the harmonies, gorgeous stuff..), Chuck Berry, Lisa Hannigan and Little Feat.
The Dun Laoghaire Festival of World Cultures was also as good as ever, almost as good as Electric Picnic and about 150 euro cheaper (ie free!)

Classical wise, I saw the final night of the Arvo Part festival, which was mesmerising. I’ve been listening to his music on cd for a few years, but to hear this stuff live was another thing altogether. He was in the audience himself and made a nice speech and signed autographs. A la Harold Pinter a few years ago, he seemed overwhelmed yet delighted at such a fuss being made of him in a strange land. Speaking of mesmerising, so was the RTE concert orchestra’s performance of Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrows, also in the National Concert Hall.

That just leaves my 3rd favourite gig of the year, ie runner up to Bruce ‘n’ Leonard. It was The Waifs in Whelans. They are a cracking alt-country/Americana type band, despite singing in Australian accents a la Paul Kelly! Amazing harmonies between the two sisters, and some really good songs. It was great to see them in their more recent rocked-up incarnation, although the semi acoustic set in the middle was a reminder of how they sounded in their early days. Anyway, it was all good..


Not a vintage year, so I’ll flit through my top few;

Fireman – somewhat experimental was this Macca/Youth collaboration but it still ranks as a bloody good Paul McCartney album. None of your ‘Dance Tonight’ nonsense either.
Fleet Foxes – stunning harmonies, west coast rock that somehow reminds me of English folk music (at it’s best)
REM – A definite return to form, albeit I have never believed they lost their form as much as some others did. But, this is a rocking little 35 minute affair that has at it’s heart it’s simplicity and Peter Buck cranking out more of those REM defining riffs (much as Keef cranks out Stones defining riffs on THEIR best albums). If you are sceptical – I’ll wager just the first 4 songs on the album will convince you
The Kinks – Picture Book is a great box set. But why does every reviewer say they were rubbish after 1970. They weren’t you know!
Lisa Hannigan – loved the album. But it was more fun live.
The Waifs – Sundirtwater is a very good Americana album. The new Lucinda Williams album nearly is.
Metallica – incredible return to form and to their patented genre defining chug-chug sound. For me it easily joins their impregnable quadrilateral (Lighting, Puppets, Justice, Black album)
Neil Diamond – incredibly this one was even better than his previous effort. Which was also produced by Rick Rubin. A good year, then, for Mr Rubin. Having moved on from Johnny Cash, this year he did two of my albums of the year, Neil Diamond and Metallica. He also did the very solid new Jakob Dylan album. The big questions remaining for him though, are, will he be able to salvage the forthcoming U2 album, and will he get his wish and produce a Bob Dylan album any time soon?

Disappointments this year? Well, the AC/DC and Oasis albums were nowhere near as good as the reviewing sheep seemed to think. The Guns’n’Roses album was not bad though. No masterpiece, but worth a listen. And try as I might, I just can’t get into this Damon Albarn Monkey Chinese opera malarkey.

I’m continuing to download a lot of live music. I usually fall in love with a new genre of music most years, or discover one I’d previously discarded, so this year I’ve been leaning towards choral classical music, especially the likes of Tallis, plus blues and some heavy metal. Other artists getting a lot of rotation on my Ipod for one reason or another include, Sufjan Stevens, The Kinks, David Bowie, George Harrison, Pink Floyd, Grateful Dead..

But, the release of the year has got to Dylan’s Tell Tale Signs. A bloody amazing set, and topping most year end polls it seems. Basically it’s outtakes and odds and ends from 1989 to the present day. I know it’s not very original to say it, but his cast offs are indeed often better than the albums they were cast off from! I have made myself a one disc compilation version of the 3 disc released product, and it is seriously one of the best single discs I’ve ever heard. What’s not to like? - Girl from the Red River Shore is just a gorgeous ballad, Cross the Green Mountain also one of the very strongest latter day Dylan songs, a civil war tale well told, all those amazing versions of Dignity, Missisippi, the Bromberg outtakes, the 2 amazing acoustic album rarities. And great to get an insight to how he works, vis a vis the Time out of Mind sessions and all those chopped up lyrics and constant re- arrangements. No wonder he’s never happy with his albums, and has to go out and play them live for 20 years!


No Country for Old Men was as good as people said. There Will be Blood not quite, but not bad. Juno was very funny, extremely well acted and had a lovely soundtrack. In Bruges was very funny, the 2 lads as good as each other. Sweeney Todd was splatteringly good. Quantum of Solace was a competent Bond movie, but was woefully lacking in the comedy and sex departments. Indiana Jones was a decent effort, if not quite worth the wait. Easy Virtue was funny and looked good but very light. Eastern Promises proved, as did Australia, that Naomi Watts is the new Nicole Kidman, and doing it much better. Albeit, Australia was an interesting, if confused, failure.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was a worthy adaptation of a great childrens book, but my top 2 of the year were the chilling Orphanage (produced by Guillermo del Toro so therefore somewhat influenced by The Devils Backbone and Pans Labyrinth) and the top notch Batman film, Dark Knight. I’m not an action movie buff particularly, but this was extremely well done, and very well acted by both Heath Ledger AND Christian Bale.


I didn’t really enjoy No Mans Land to be honest. Great acting, pity about the play. However, I should point out I do like SOME other Pinter plays, so I won’t feel too bad about putting down the work of a guy who died the day before I wrote this review!
Three Sisters was a bit disappointing too. Just because it has the names Chekov and Friel on the billboard, did not, in this case, a perfect production make. It just didn’t ring true.
So much for Dublin plays.
I saw some great things in London however – humour and poignancy in very affectionate adaptations of The 39 Steps and Brief Encounter and, finally, one of the best things I’ve ever seen – Shadowlands. Sometimes a cold and clinical actor, Charles Dance was just perfect in this as the awkward but deeply feeling CS Lewis, telling the story of the relationship between the Narnia writer and Joy Gresham.


I very much enjoyed ‘What I talk about when I talk about Running’ – interesting thoughts from this Japanese writer, very useful for anyone interested in running, or writing, or life, written in a very simple way.
I’ve also enjoyed dipping in to Tony Ring’s ‘The Wit and Wisdom of PG Wodehouse’. Anyone who’s sat near me while reading a PGW knows he’s my favourite writer. It’s nearly, but not quite, too much to have all these one-liners compiled. Nothing can replace the original novels, but if you need a laugh quickly, this book is your chap.
I’ve also been reading Saki (thanks to a friend for the recommendation) – very droll and dry stuff, hard to believe it was written so long ago.
I’ve come to the conclusion this year that I much prefer Philip K. Dick short stories to novels.
And finally, my book of the year, is Hard Rain. It’s a series of pictures of the world taken by Mark Edwards, all linked to the Bob Dylan song ‘A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall’. Themes include global warming, poverty etc. It sounds po-faced, but is very far from that. I highly recommend going to the exhibition (if it’s still playing in your country), buying the book, or at least looking at the website www.hardrainproject.com


I’ve popped in to the National Gallery in Dublin this year quite a bit, but can’t really remember any interesting exhibitions they had. Unlike the Hugh Lane, which had its fine 100 year exhibition. I really like this gallery, notwithstanding it’s silly exultation of that clown, Francis Bacon!
I saw some good exhibitions in London – the dark, gloomy but powerful Camden Town paintings, the Renoir Loge paintings at the Courthold, and the amazing Hammershoi at the Royal Academy. This fella was new to me, and it was very enjoyable.


Radio wise, I’m not listening to that much, mainly Lyric FM with the odd thing from Radio 1, Phantom, Anna Livia, Today FM or Newstalk.
Best thing on the radio by a mile STILL, is Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour – Season Three is the best yet. Now syndicated in Ireland on Phantom FM.


I didn’t watch much TV either in 2008. The best two things for me by far were both on the BBC, Sense & Sensibility and Little Dorrit. I quite like Jane Austen, but if you compare her to Dickens she lacks a bit of humour and her characters can seem dull. Little Dorrit was full of everything that’s good about Dickens, a great adaptation, nearly as good as Bleak House from 2006. Having said that, Sense & Sensibility was the best Austen adaptation I’ve ever seen, better even than the Ang Lee/Emma Thompson film or any of those Pride & Prejudice(s). The performance from the two lead girls, especially Hattie Morahan, was top notch.
Otherwise, I watched bits of the occasional drama series, such as the silly but enjoyable Bone Collectors. Never saw the likes of the highly rated Spooks or The Wire.
Not much decent comedy on either it seems, but some good documentaries, and schedule changes notwithstanding the BBC continues to impress with The Culture Show and Later with Jools Holland.

Finally, some miscellaneous highlights of the year – Barack Obama, Padraig Harrington, Dublin Culture Night, your man from the Frames and whatshername winning the Oscar for best song, getting back into listening to vinyl..
Can’t think of anything else, roll on 2009, fingers crossed we all keep our jobs, our houses and our good (?) taste!



  1. Very Good Ken,
    Agree with you about Len's third gig it was transcendental at times only slightly ruined by the tone deaf clown two seats down from me joining in on most songs luckily enough he didn't have at least two of the albums !!
    I went to Iggy & The Stooges the following night which was quite a contrast to say the least but a rockin good show..
    disagree with you re Grinderman and Elbow I thought both were briliant as were MBV..The Stunning also rolled back the years with a crowd pleasing set..Big disappointments were the Grace Jones delay and the Pistols..I missed The Boss as I was in the States.
    Agree with you re No Man's Land very disappointing although I really enjoyed The Weir at the same venue..
    Arty wise I spent two days in The Met in NY an incredible place couldn't begin to list what was on it's massive..
    Favourite Album was attack & Release by the Black Keys...Very Heavy Atmospheric Blues..Jack White could learn a thing or two from these guys.. Also enjoyed the Last Shadow Puppets with honourable mentions for The Charlatans & Supergrass who both produced work that could rock with the best of the new guns.

    Well Played Sir..Roll on 2009

  2. Hi Ken,
    Re Electric picnic:
    MBV were class, great sound, they could play all night and you could stand there, just like they do! I agree Grinderman and Sinead O'Connor not great, left both early. Foals excellent stuff, great controlled energy, slick music.
    Re music in '08 didn't buy many albums, listen to radio mainly, so here are collection of top tunes over last year or so I'd recommend in no particular order:

    Neon Neon - Dream Cars
    Department Of Eagles - Teenagers
    British Sea Power - Atom
    Foals - Red Sox Pugie
    Flight of the Conchords - Bowie
    Last Shadow Puppets - Standing next to me
    Glasvegas - Geraldine
    Scarlett Johansson - Falling down
    Conor Oberst - Souled out!!
    Wild beasts - Devil's crayon
    Vampire weekend - Oxford comma
    Cathy Davey – Reuben
    Fleet Foxes – White winter hymnal

    Let me know what anyone things and their recommendations.

    Cheers ken, Tony