Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Review of 2009

Ken’s Best of 2009

Ok, this year, I’m also doing a best of the Decade review as well, so I’ll make both a bit briefer than usual. Brevity not being one of my great skills, but I’ll give it a go! Please let me know if you think I've forgotten anything, or any other feedback..


The Beatles – Remasters (mono and stereo)
Bob Dylan – Together Through Life
Madness – The Liberty of Norton Folgate
Wilco – Wilco (The Album)
George Harrison – Let it Roll (best of)
Duckworth Lewis Method
Dave Rawlings Machine - Friend of a Friend
Roy Orbison box set

Well it certainly turned out to be Bob Dylan’s year. Hot on the heels of the incredible Tell Tale Signs collection (plus countless more concerts, radio shows etc), he releases a surprisingly quickly turned around, yet sturdy new studio album; Together Through Life. I think I gave it a fairly middling to positive review at the time, however, it has grown on me since then, and the songs play well live.

The other main release of the year was of course, Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart. Naturally, I’m joking. Not that Christmas in the Heart wasn’t enjoyable (as well as being very bizarre). His croakiest ever vocals(?) set to the most traditional Christmas arrangements you’re likely to hear!

No, the release of the year for me had to be the big Beatles box sets. I don’t think I got around to reviewing them at the time, perhaps daunted by being unable to think of anything new to say about the greatest body of work of all time (I would argue that the only individuals who can measure up to the Fabs’ seven year recording career would be the likes of Mahler, Beethoven, possibly Dylan, or the very best great writers, painters etc).
Anyway, that statement is quite enough hyperbole out of me for one year!
I made a few rough notes after my first few listens of the box sets, so here are some bullet points;

- Everything sounds extraordinary – like brand new recordings, even though these are only remasters and not remixes - the separation between the voices and between the instruments is now exceptional, not forgetting these recordings date back nearly 50 years
- In general I prefer the mono versions, especially albums like Revolver and Sgt Pepper. The White Album is very debatable, quite a big difference between the mono and stereo versions of many of it’s tracks
- Revolver – Eleanor Rigby really stands out, as does Got to Get You Into My Life. Also, For No One - I suggest you listen to the mono For No One loudly – I tried it just with my ear up against a speaker – Paul’s vocal is unbelievable – sounds like he’s right beside you
- Sgt Pepper is incredible. Especially in mono. Like most of these new versions, the album works well on all formats, but listening to it on headphones is SO revealing
- Basically, everything sounds better now. All your favourite bits, whether it be - the piano solo in In My Life, the sound of John and George’s voices duetting on You Really Got a Hold on Me, that strange organ sound on Beatles for Sale, the trumpet solo on Penny Lane, or the guitar solo on Something - they all sound clearer and punchier
- Help – a supposedly inferior album, now perhaps not so inferior?
- And my God, the quality of the backing vocals throughout the box sets are so good – one forgets that due to the happy coincidence of two random working class lads from Liverpool turning out to be two of the best ballad singers AND rock singers AND songwriters of all time, plus a good runner-up in George, plus excellent musicianship (Paul and George especially), plus the chemistry between the 4 of them, and the production; one can forget that John, Paul and George are all astonishing backing singers too, creating harmonies that for me, easily beat Crosby Stills & Nash, the Byrds, or the Band, or any of the 60s girl bands
- Some random things that sound better in stereo – I Am The Walrus, parts of Rubber Soul, the rockers on the first album, Michelle, plus possibly much of the Hard Days Night album, this most perfect pop album ringing through with their ever improving Rickenbacker guitar sound and those double tracked vocals. Feel free to skip straight through to If I Fell – boy does that song sound good!
- Finally, my advice is don’t get too hung up on the mono/stereo debate (perhaps I should take my own advice!). Just enjoy the music – if it’s your first time dipping your toes properly into the world I am envious; if you only have them on vinyl or the old CDs, it is very advisable to get the new ones, preferably BOTH box sets.

Otherwise 2009 was not really a vintage year for albums. Of the other discs I mentioned at the top of this piece, Madness punched well above their weight, and Wilco slightly below theirs. Also very enjoyable was the debut album from the 202s, a promising Dublin band (an interesting mix of electronica/indie rock/singer-songwriter, currently getting a lot of radio play and working on their 2nd album) – check them out on http://www.myspace.com/the202s.
The Dave Rawlings album was ok.
Finally, I don’t normally review live albums, and given the ease and quality of downloaded live recordings it seems the live album has become a devalued currency, but there were three of note this year;
R.E.M., Paul McCartney and Tom Waits. All pretty good, especially R.E.M., with their adventures in rehearsal/rarities from the Olympia a year or two back.


Bob Dylan – various shows; Liverpool, Glasgow, Dublin (1), New York (2)
Paul McCartney – O2 Dublin
Leonard Cohen – O2 Dublin (2nd night)
Bruce Springsteen – RDS Dublin (2nd night, although the drizzly 1st night was also good)
Wilco – Vicar St Dublin (both nights vg)
AC/DC – O2 Dublin
Ray Davies – Town Hall, New York
Lyle Lovett - Olympia, Dublin

A good year. I have already reviewed all or most of these concerts on my blog, so I won’t rake over old ground, but, really, McCartney and Cohen have to stand out. Two artists at career live peaks – giving unforgettable performances of very high emotional intensity. If you don’t believe me, ask anyone who was at either.
Hard to believe they are pushing Bob down into 3rd place, given some of the Dylan highlights of the year – the new songs, the fact that he is spending considerable time back out at the front of the stage, a reinvigorated band etc. Plus his tribute to George Harrison in Liverpool (playing Something).
And it’s also fair to say Wilco, Bruce and AC/DC (in the 02) gave excellent performances in Dublin. And I was delighted to finally see a Lyle Lovett show.
Saw the 202s in The Academy, an excellent new band (as mentioned in the album section) in a very good Dublin venue.
I didn’t go to many classical performances this year, I only seem to remember a piano/violin type trio doing Schumann in the Hugh Lane Gallery, which was enjoyable and free! Also free, was the only Festival I think I went to in 2009, the ever enjoyable Dun Laoghaire Festival of World Cultures.
I don’t really remember any poor concerts at all in 2009, perhaps because I didn’t go to as many as in previous years. I doubt 2010 will be as good, but here’s hoping.


An Education
Gran Torino
Sherlock Holmes
Dean Spanley
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
The Hangover
Glorious 39
Star Trek
Inglorious Basterds
The Young Victoria
The Reader
The Changeling
Cadillac Records

Sherlock Holmes really was surprisingly good. Who’d have thought Guy Ritchie would make a decent film, and a decent period film at that? Downey Jnr is not bad as Holmes it’s fair to say and it IS an exciting film, with a good support performance by Jude Law (I don’t think I’ve ever said that before!) and a good (if silly) plot and excellent visuals. My only complaints are;
- It’s just a little too over the top for my tastes – as a big Holmes fan I’ve no particular problem with them messing with the books, but they could have cut a few of the action scenes.
- Robert Downey Jnr’s accent/dialogue coach should be shot!

Gran Torino was yet another top notch Clint Eastwood film - that must be about 6 or 7 very good films in a row from the aging director. And let’s not forget his acting– with a fine performance (his last?) from the man himself in this one.

Dr Parnassus was enjoyable. A bit of a mess, but not deserving the critical mauling it got.

Glorious 39 was a bit of a hotch potch of genres, but a beautifully atmospheric pre WW2 drama by Stephen Poliakaff. Very well acted and thought provoking, it's certainly not flawless, but I thought it was the most underrated film of the year.

Two films I never thought would make a list of mine as they are genres I don’t usually bother with, but Up was a charming cartoon and The Hangover a truly funny gross out comedy which had more good lines than any comedy I can remember in recent years. PLUS it also worked as a good thriller, ie you really wanted to know what the hell happened to those guys!

Other films I loved this year included; Inglorious Basterds (riotous WW2 Tarantino flic), District 9, The Young Victoria and an enjoyable re-imagining of Star Trek.

But I think my favourite film of the year for me was An Education. This was a classic period film set in the early 60s, ie 50s London on the cusp of swinging 60s London. It is a biopic based on the journalist Lynn Barber’s autobiography, with a standout performance from Carey Mulligan in the lead role.
I’m pretty sure I’ve forgotten a few other films, not a bad film for cinema, all in.. Here are some films I loved but I'm not quite sure if they were 2008 or 2009; The Wrestler, Slumdog Millionnaire, Vicky Christina Barcelona.
And here are some 2009 films I regret that I haven't seen yet; White Ribbon, Katyn, Let the Right One In, Avatar, Moon, Anvil.


Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant – Abbey Theatre
Present Laughter – Gate Theatre
2 short Brian Friel Plays – Gate Theatre
All My Sons - Gate Theatre

Not too many theatre trips for me this year, and those I went too I mostly reviewed earlier in the year, so feel free to scroll back to earlier parts of my blog. I saw one or two turkeys (including a disappointing Shakespeare at the Nat. Theatre in London), but the four mentioned above were all extremely good. The Birds at the Gate, as adapted by Conor McPherson and with a good cast, was a bit of a curate's egg at best.


Corot-Monet Landscapes – National Gallery London
Vermeer – MET, New York
Baroque - V&A
Rodchenko & Popova - Tate Modern
Waterhouse – Royal Academy
Dylan Drawn Blank Series - Birmingham

I didn’t go to too many art exhibitions this year, despite attending an enjoyable History of Art course in the Autumn, but the few I've listed were very enjoyable, especially the first two. Less so, was the Munch exhibition in our National Gallery. Nothing against Munch, but black and white prints can be quite dull. I also went to the Bacon thing in the Hugh Lane, which did it’s best to change my opinion that he was only a chancer, and somewhat over rated. Still not sure really. I also visited the Frick in New York for the first time (very good), and Kenwood House near Hampstead Heath, which has a nice collection too.


I watched very little television this year, mainly because I haven’t the foggiest how to use my DVD recorder. But such is life.
The only thing I can really remember is Into the Storm, a follow up to The Gathering Storm, a TV biopic of Churchill. For some reason it just wasn’t quite as good as the first one, but credit to Gleeson for successfully taking on the role which Albert Finney did so well earlier.
Was Little Dorrit this year? A terrific follow up from Bleak House.
Sport wise, it was a great year for Irish rugby – watching Ireland finally win a Grand Slam was unforgettable.
I saw a few episodes of 30 Rock, a very funny new American comedy written by Tina Fey. Hoping to catch up on things like Cold Blood (vampire thing?) and The Wire next year. Finally finished all the box sets of Foyle's War, classic WW2 drama.

Personally, it was an interesting year. Quite a few highs, and some lows. One example of each?
Low - Getting burgled.
High - Running over the finish line of the Dublin Marathon in just under 4 hours. Is it really possible to be a complete physical and emotional wreck, and yet feel such elation, all at the exact same time? Will I ever feel a buzz like that again? Who knows, but I can only try..
Happy New Year!

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