Another year over and I’ll be quite glad to see the back of 2018, all things considered. Thankfully we’ve had plenty of interesting media to consume to take our minds off the bizarre direction the world seems to be taking these days. This year I’ve made a slight change to the format, as well as adding an extra category. I’ve found it tougher than ever to pick my favourites this year as the competition has been so fierce (and I wanted to avoid any ties), so I’m giving each category a podium, 1st, 2nd and 3rd place finish this time around. So here it is then my list of the things I liked most during the year, not necessarily the ‘best’ but what I personally enjoyed the most. If you are so inclined you can check out my 2017 list here.
TV Drama –
1. Cobra Kai
I wasn’t sure if I was going to watch this, despite being a big fan of the Karate Kid films. It was on YouTube for starters and it felt like yet another nostalgia fuelled continuation that probably would be done with its tongue firmly in its cheek. When friends whose opinion I really trust started to rave about the show, I decided to give it a go and I was very pleased that I did. It shouldn’t have worked, but it really did. Both William Zabka as Johnny and Ralph Macchio as Daniel put in pitch perfect three dimensional performances, it is funny, heartwarming and dramatic in equal measure. If you haven’t seen it, I would highly recommend that you do.
2. The Last Kingdom (S3)
I loved the first two series of this historical drama based on Bernard Cornwell’s books, having missed them on the BBC and caught up on Netflix, so I was very excited when Netflix announced they would be bringing the show back for a third season. This series was a textbook example of how you pay off things in a TV show and reward viewers who have been with you since the start without betraying the characters or their motivations. Many of the plot lines and interpersonal relationships of the previous series came together to make a thoroughly satisfying series from start to finish. I may have even shed a tear or two along the way.
3. Daredevil (S3)
By far the best of this year’s Marvel Netflix shows and sadly ending with this season having been cancelled. I was on the edge of my seat, with my heart in my mouth throughout the series and only The Punisher, Jessica Jones’ first season and Daredevil’s own first season pulled off this level of tension. The stakes kept getting higher from episode to episode and that made it a truly gripping set of thirteen episodes. Across all three of my favourite shows this year there have been times when the main character has frustrated or annoyed me, but in a compelling narrative way. I’ve shouted at the screen to Johnny in Cobra Kai, Uhtred in Last Kingdom and Matt Murdock in 2018. The best main characters are so well executed that they make you care even when you don’t agree with their actions.
Honourable mentions – It was Netflix that showed my two favourite new shows too. I loved Maniac, the remake of a Norwegian show and I’d highly recommend animated series Final Space too. Both balance humour and pathos beautifully and had me thinking about them long after I finished watching, both came close to my top three. I’m halfway through Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which would based on what I’ve seen so far would have made it onto this list. Godless, Happy and The Punisher were great too, but came out last year so aren’t eligible and I didn’t get to the likes of Killing Eve, The Bodyguard or The Haunting of Hill House.
Of the other returning series Glow came back stronger in Series 2, adding more character depth to make things even more interesting. Better call Saul maintained it’s incredibly high standards in its fourth season, despite the loss of a major character. For me Ozark took a slight step back from its debut season by pushing the believability of the storyline too far, but having watched both seasons back to back may not have helped there. The Walking Dead started well but the cast changes and time jump had me finally calling it a day on the show, which I think I can live with. I didn’t get to Iron Fist, Jessica Jones wasn’t great this time out, but Luke Cage was strong for 90% of the series until a dodgy conclusion. Legion, which was my favourite show in 2017 was still good and had some truly superb episodes (the one all about Syd in particular) but as a whole I found it too confusing and out there for its own sake ultimately.
1. Avengers: Infinity War
I was worried going into this film that they wouldn’t be able to pull it off, too many characters and visual styles to try to combine in one film. I needn’t have worried. It certainly wasn’t perfect, but it was just what I wanted as a spectacle and as an emotional journey in a crossover movie. This is the closest a film has taken me to feeling like an eleven year old reading Secret Wars again and the ending has stayed with me all year. I’m pleased that Marvel now feels confident enough in the following their cinematic universe has to go fully Marvel with their stories, rather than skirting around the edges as they have in the past. This film was firmly rooted in proper Marvel lore and was all the better for it now that the characters are well established and loved. I’m counting down the days until the next one. It felt even more poignant in retrospect after my childhood hero Stan Lee passed away too.
2. Spider-Man: into the Spider-Verse
I was totally sceptical when I first heard about this film, I wasn’t sure we really needed an animated Spider-Man film right now. I was very wrong. I’ve been a fan of Spider-Man since I first read the comics and saw the Spider-Man and Friends cartoon series when I was about eight and he’s the character that’s been most present in my life overall. This film was the perfect way to give a new generation of movie viewers their own Spidey, much like the comics did when Miles Morales was first introduced. This may be the most fully realised superhero adaptation, as it takes so much from the source material and also uses that medium as part of the storytelling process. There are easter eggs within easter eggs for seasoned comics readers, a wonderfully moving Stan Lee cameo (as it’s the first one to arrive on screen since he passed away) and much to love about the characterisation of Miles and Peter Parker too. I now have a forty something Peter Parker to relate to as well. Even without all of that this film deserves the highest praise for its visual style, it’s breathtaking to look at and is one of the most engrossing animated films I’ve even seen. More of this kind of thing please, it gives me hope (which is what Spider-Man has always done).
3. Creed II -
Creed 2 was another sequel that had me a little concerned going in. No Ryan Coogler in the director’s chair for this one and the return of Ivan Drago felt like an intentionally crowd pleasing and somewhat cheesy move. Despite those hurdles, this was a very enjoyable and emotional film, with some clever nods to the past while keeping one eye on the future. It didn’t quite reach the heights of the previous outing, but I’m not sure how it could have done. The acting across the board is great, not just Michael B Jordan, Tessa Thompson and Sly Stallone but also Dolph Lundgren and former boxer Florian Munteanu who played Drago Jr. My only real criticism, considering the outlandish premise, was that the training scenes were too short.
Honourable mentions – I keep forgetting that Black Panther came out this year too and that helped Marvel to have an very strong year and widened their cinematic universe further. Not only was this an important cultural film, it was also very enjoyable too with a very strong cast delivering throughout . Ant Man and the Wasp was an excellent sequel, just as much fun as the first movie and a reminder of how charming Paul Rudd always is.
Bohemian Rhapsody wasn’t a film I was that keen to see. I love Queen but have struggled with what May and Taylor have been doing since Freddie Mercury passed away. It sounded like this was going to be a saccharine version of their charismatic frontman’s life. It was hardly a warts and all expose but I really enjoyed it and it hit the right emotional beats and put on the right kind of show, despite playing fast and loose with the timeline. Good fun and a chance to listen to lots of Queen songs, which is never a bad thing.
Hereditary and Widows were two films that I appreciated more than I enjoyed. Hereditary was beautifully shot and extremely atmospheric, but the second half didn’t work for me at all, probably as I’m not really a horror fan. Toni Collette deserves to win awards for her performance though. Widows had a great cast, interesting story, evocative cinematography, long deliberate takes, but despite all this it didn’t blow my socks off in the way I expected. There was something missing, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Viola Davis is another actress whose performance deserves lots of praise.
Solo: A Star Wars story was pretty good, but doesn’t quite make this list as it fell into the Expendables trap of using lines from other movies as knowing nods. It also explained things that didn’t need explaining and in a few cases in very unsatisfying ways. Deadpool 2 was good fun, but I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as the first one but Incredibles 2 left me cold, despite being a big fan of the original movie. By far the biggest disappointment had to be The Predator, Shane Black writing and directing a Predator movie should have been my absolute cinematic sweet spot. There were some good scenes, but overall it was a mess and use of lines from the other films made a mockery of the whole franchise. A film I expected to be my favourite of the year, was actually the film I least enjoyed on the big screen. There was a raft of other movies I didn’t get to see this year that I wish I had like Equaliser 2 and A Star is Born.
1. Prequelle by Ghost
The first few singles didn't really grab me and I wondered if the Ghost bubble might have burst since it essentially became a Tobias Forge solo project. Once I heard the full album a few times I realised how wrong I was. Yes, it’s catchier and more anthemic than their previous albums, but in a very good way. There are some more proggy elements in here and in producer Tom Dalgety (who also co-produced Opeth’s Sorceress album) I think they’ve found the perfect studio partner. The lyrics expand on their usual satanist schtick too and you can interpret them being about the Black death or possibly the lawsuit filed by former band members. Pro Memoria and Witch Image are brilliant tracks and there are two breathtaking instrumentals on here too, Miasma and Helvetesfonster. The main thing I love about it is how well it works when you listen to it end to end. I now wish I’d seen them when they played the Royal Albert Hall. Essentially this is what would happen if Benny and Bjorn from ABBA united with Jeff Lynne to make an album with Iron Maiden after listening to 80s cartoon themes for a day. How could it not be my album of the year?
2. The Blue Hour by Suede
I hadn’t listened to a Suede album since I bought Head Music in 1999, but I kept hearing good things from people I trusted. I gave it a few spins and was surprised by how different, yet familiar it sounded. Once I’d watched the Sky Arts Suede documentary and listened to the album a few more times I suddenly realised quite how special an album it is. The old magic is there, but there are so many new elements that it feels like a new band or at least a completely reinvigorated one. Came very close to toppling Ghost, it’s another one that works so well when listened to in one setting.
3. Friendship by Rikard Sjoblom’s Gungfly
Rikard is one of my favourite musicians and songwriters, so it comes as no surprise to see his latest album in my Top 3, following on from taking joint top spot in 2017. In some ways he is spoiling us by putting out so much music, but you certainly won’t hear me complaining. He continues his rich vein of form with this excellent album focussing on the loss of a childhood friendship. A great collection of songs and another album that works best played in one sitting particularly as it centres on one theme. I particularly enjoyed hearing If you Fall, Part 2, as the first part was on the previous record. I’m still really hoping for a UK tour in 2019. That makes it Sweden 2 England 1!
Honourable mentions –
There was an awful lot of good music released this year, with new albums by the likes of Phideaux, The Fierce and The Dead, A Perfect Circle, Riverside and The Pineapple Thief all scratching my prog itch with very strong records. My friend Dave Clifford gave me a copy of Queen of Time by Amorphis which is described online as melodic death metal, if it wasn’t for the screamo vocal moments it may have broken my Top Three.
On the more electronic side of things Wanderlust ,the latest from Blancmange, which I listened to in preparation for seeing them live was a wonderfully dark album. And The Grind Show by North Atlantic Oscillation, which was recommended to me by Spike Worsley was a real treat too. In the more straight up rock world, Alice in Chains and Skindred both put out very good albums in 2018 too. Next year should be interesting with new work by the likes of Big Big Train and Flying Colors on the horizon.
(NEW) Live Album -
With so many amazing live albums being released in 2018, it made sense to add this extra category to showcase some of them.
1. Merchants of Light by Big Big Train
Sometimes a live album can perfectly capture a magical moment in your life and this record does just that. I went to the Big Big Train Sunday matinee at Cadogan Hall last year and this album takes the best performances from the three day London residency that show was part of. It was my favourite gig of 2017 and the shows also won Prog Magazine’s Readers Poll Event of the Year. This album brings that to life, showcasing a supremely talented group of musicians playing some wonderful songs, with excellent production. There will also be a Blu-Ray to accompany the album, that’s due next year and I would highly recommend that too as I was lucky enough to see it at a recent preview cinema screening.
2. All One Tonight by Marillion
If my number one live album served as a reminder of a show I attended, then my second choice introduced me to a show I really wish I’d been to. Over the past few years I’ve come to really appreciate Hogarth era Marillion and their 2016 album F E A R in particular. I got the Blu-Ray of this show before the album came out, but I have been listening to the album a lot since. They play all of FEAR in their Royal Albert Hall show and it’s truly astounding, emotional and inspiring and the same can be said for the rest of their set too. As soon as Marillion announced their 2019 dates I made sure to buy myself a ticket and I’ll be listening to this album a lot between now and then.
3. Home Invasion by Steven Wilson
Another Royal Albert Hall show and another seminal artist. The setlist here is almost the same as the show I saw in Cardiff, but what elevates this show is the fact that Ninet Tayeb is there in person rather than recorded as she was on much of the tour. The set is a good mix of Steven’s solo work and old Porcupine Tree songs, all performed by an excellent group of musicians. Even the most casual Wilson fan will enjoy this. I now have the Blu-Ray to go with this one too, which also features extra songs from rehearsals.
Honourable mentions – Magenta’s live album, We Are Seven was within a cigarette paper of the top three and it really reminded me of the excellent show I saw in Cardiff. This recording at The Robin 2 in Wolverhampton featured the whole of of We are Legend and Seven albums and I have the accompanying DVD of this one too.
Steve Hackett and Haken also put out live albums this year that I really enjoyed. Hackett’s covered last year’s tour which I attended in Cardiff and was recorded on the Birmingham leg . Haken’s recorded show was from Amsterdam and I liked it enough to book tickets to see them in Bristol next year.
1. I don’t know by Paul McCartney
I certainly didn’t see this coming, that’s for sure even if it is a single from one the all-time greatest ever songwriters. It totally disarmed me on first listen. It’s a beautiful song and from the very first note there is so much to love. The lyrics and Paul’s aging voice give the whole song a charming vulnerability that really gets under your skin. Add in some mellotron and no other song I heard this year came close.
"I wrote this after going through a difficult period. Like people have nothing sort of madly serious or anything, but just one of those days when it’s like, "Oh my god, am I doing wrong here", you know. And sometimes that’s a good way to write a song, because you’re coming from your soul. And we often used to say that writing a song was like talking to a psychiatrist, a therapist or something. Because you’re saying it… You are saying it in a song rather than in a room to a specialist. Yeah, so it was me just thinking this problem out, and putting it into a song." Sir Paul McCartney.
2. Vale of Tears by Riverside
I’d never taken that much notice of Riverside, but this single (their first since their guitarist sadly passed away) grabbed me by the scruff of the neck the first time I heard it. A mix of prog and alternative rock, this is a really strong anthemic track that will get stuck in your head.
3. Self Destructive Mind by Ninet Tayeb
Another song that I heard outside of its album context, which is a rare treat. Like many people I discovered Ninet through her collaborations with Steven Wilson, but the former Israeli Idol winner has a successful career in her own right. She has also performed with the likes of Jesus and the Mary Chain and Cyndi Lauper and her Tiny Desk concert is absurdly excellent (shades of PJ Harvey). She cites Pink Floyd, Nirvana and Pearl Jam amongst her influences, but this song has a touch of Sheryl Crow about it. Another infectious treat.
I’ve decided against doing any Honourable Mentions for this category, as the other songs by Ghost, Gungfly, Haken and Pineapple Thief were singles I heard first on their respective albums which is a different experience to hearing a single cold.
1. Tin Spirits, The Victoria, Swindon
This was the second time I’d seen Tin Spirits play live. The first time was as a warm up for their Japanese tour, so the set focussed on XTC tracks more than their own material (guitarist Dave Gregory, who is also in Big Big Train is ex-XTC you see). This time out there was more room for their own songs, including one of my personal favourites Little Eyes. It was the two new songs, Harder to Break and Saline that completely blew me away though and helped seal this as my gig of the year. Harder to Break saw the dual guitarists, the aforementioned DG and bandmate Daniel Steinhardt in rock god mode, swaggering around delivering monster riffs. And Saline was a prog listener’s dream, complex, intelligent and involving. This was always going to be in my top three shows as a result of those two songs, but having heard since that the band have called it a day, being at their final show means a lot. I sincerely hope those two new songs see the light of day, even without a third album. I’d happily chip in to crowdfund an EP.
2. Zervas & Pepper, The Globe, Hay on Wye
I saw Zervas and Pepper three times this year, but it was their acoustic show in Hay on Wye that was my favourite of the three. There were a number of external factors that made that the case.
It was on my birthday.
It was in one of my favourite towns, which gave me the excuse to spend a weekend in book shops.
My wife and daughter were both able to come with me (the place we stayed was amazing too).
We were in the front row of this small, friendly venue
Even without these extra bits of icing on the cake, it was a magical show. The acoustics and layout meant that you could really appreciate Paul Zervas and Kathryn Pepper’s amazing voices and world class harmonies. It was goosebumps time from the moment they came out on stage. Unforgettable.
3. Big Big Train, The Anvil, Basingstoke
This was the third time I’d seen the full Big Big Train line up play live and it came just at the right time and the wrong time. It was a time when I needed my spirits lifting, so I spent the following day exploring Winchester which was a wonderfully relaxing day. The gig did clash with England’s World Cup semi-final match, which meant more empty seats than usual and a few people surreptitiously checking their phones during the show though.
The Beatrix Players were an excellent support act, I was very impressed with their performance. The BBT set was decidedly more proggy than the two previous London shows I’d been to and it was good to see the band let their hair down a bit more. This was however a warm up gig for their triumphant headlining show at Night of the Prog in Loreley, Germany and I am still kicking myself for not finding a way to attend that show. I think that’s probably taken it down the list as a result, as I’m left thinking what might have been.
Honourable mentions –I was meant to be cutting down on my gig going in 2018, but having embraced the ‘live music as therapy’ mantra over the past few years I ended up seeing more live music than ever before this year.
Magenta at The Globe was something special, as they played both We are Legend and Seven in their entirety and the whole band was on fire. Like last year their Acapela show was also noteworthy as Alan Reed played too and joined them for a superb version of Don’t Give up, which was just one of many highlights.
Focus at the Earl Haig in Cardiff was the only gig I could walk to from my house. Hocus Pocus has been a big song in my life and it was good to hear that live. The whole show was superb and the guitarist and drummer blew me away and I’ve been listening to an awful lot of Focus in 2018 and my first vinyl purchase since getting a record player for Christmas was Focus 3.
Steven Wilson at St David’s Hall in Cardiff was an important show for me, as I’ve loved his music since Porcupine Tree’s Stupid Dream in ‘99. The show happened when I was at a bit of a personal low, I was a bit too far from the action seating wise and I was distracted by the guy in front of me flouting the no photos or filming rule, so it wasn’t quite the experience I wanted which robbed it of a top three finish. I’m glad I have a blu-ray from the same tour to allow me to appreciate it more as the musicianship on show was flawless.
Zervas & Pepper were the band I saw most, and all three shows were absolutely brilliant. As well as in Hay, I also saw them at St Johns Church in Cardiff with the full band and Christopher Rees in support and then more recently at The Globe in Cardiff. All excellent shows and The Globe gig gave me the chance to hear a couple of new songs too.
I’m sure TC&I would be the number one gig for most people who attended their shows in their hometown of Swindon. This was as close as we are likely to see to a full XTC reunion, with bass player and singer/songwriter Colin Moulding reuniting with original drummer Terry Chambers and rounding things out with some other excellent musicians. I’m a relatively new XTC fan so don’t have the history others do, so come to it with less nostalgia. It was the fourth night of a residency and we seemed to be surrounded by people who had already been earlier in the week which changed the atmosphere and also two people in the row behind me talked through the whole show which really didn’t help! That said, the performance was very good, with TC&I’s own song Kenny and XTC favourites like The Smartest Monkeys, Making Plans for Nigel and Bungalow sounding amazing live.
The Zombies at The Tramshed in Cardiff was the biggest surprise for me. I went on a bit of a whim and was blown away by the songs and the performances. Hearing Zombies and Argent songs was amazing, but it was a song I’d never heard before, Old and Wise by the Alan Parsons Project that really connecting with me. It ended up being the song I listened to on Spotify the most this year - I’m seeing their singer Colin Blunstone solo next year as a result of this show.
Francis Dunnery at The New Crown in Merthyr Tydfil was a small, intimate gig and all the better for it. I brushed up on my It Bites knowledge and listened to a lot of his solo material in readiness for this show. The stories he told in between the songs were as entertaining as the songs themselves and he certainly knows his way around a guitar.
Blancmange at Acapela in Pentyrch near Cardiff was very good too. I enjoyed the mix of classic songs and ones from the excellent latest album too and the atmosphere was electric..
Pearl Jam at the O2 in London was a rescheduled show, after Eddie Vedder lost his voice on the original date. I went with my regular PJ gig buddy Rob Williams and the new date meant we got to see the inflatable Trump baby at least. They did a typically eclectic and long set, with thirty three songs played altogether. They are as strong live as ever and I’m pleased that they ‘Let Stone sing’ but after years of getting up close at smaller gigs I felt oddly disconnected sitting up in the gods. I now think my days of attending stadium gigs may be coming to an end.
I already have tickets for Big Big Train (coming to Newport no less), Marillion, Magenta, Haken and Colin Blunstone for 2019, so I already have plenty of gigs to look forward to.
1.Slots (Skybound/Image Comics)
Crime + Boxing + an older jaded lead + writer/artist Dan Panosian put this series right in my wheelhouse. The second half of the Slots mini series gave this book top honours, as the first half did in 2017. If you haven’t read this, you can now get the whole story in one collection. I’d highly recommend you do.
2. American Carnage (Vertigo)
Brian Hill and Leandro Fernandez’s series reminded me of the likes of Scalped and 100 Bullets and felt like a return to the Vertigo of old, even down the art style and Dean White’s colouring. The premise had me intrigued and a recent Word Balloon interview with Hill coupled with an iFanboy pick of the week convinced me to pick it up. I’m very glad I did, it’s gripping and unsettling and speaks very much to how things are currently in the USA. I can’t wait to read more next year. You can read a nine page preview of the series here.
3. Grave Danger (Comixology Originals)
Revival is one my all time favourite comic series, so I was excited to see what Tim Seeley and Mike Norton did together next. This digital only series leans a bit more to the B movie mindset of Seeley’s Hack/Slash work, but maintains the deft characterisation and dialogue that helped make Revival stand out so much. The only slight criticism I have is that there were almost too many ideas for this short run to handle. All five issues came out in this mini-series in 2018 and I’m hoping that won’t be all we see of this title.
Honourable Mentions - All three books come from Image Comics this time out. Bitter Root was a very strong contender for my top three after just two issues, it’s full of pulpy goodness and Sanford Greene’s art on the series is outstanding. Lazarus has been my pick for many years, but only a couple of issues graced the stands in 2018, hopefully the new quarterly schedule will bring the book back in a big way. Die has only recently launched, so there was only one issue to base this on. I loved the high concept, I’ve heard it described as Goth Jumanji, but as the back matter attests this book takes more from the old Dungeons and Dragons cartoon than anything else. I’m interested to see where it goes.
1. The Prog Report
This ended up being the easiest category, as this show has become the one I will always play as soon as an episode drops. Presenter Roie Avin is amiable and knowledgeable and he puts together a few different kinds of episode which keeps things interesting and have moved it into the number one spot. He interviews musicians, musicians take over the show to share their Top 5 Prog songs and sometimes a round table discussion to create a Top 5 (The Queen episode was a particular highlight).
2. Wolverine - The Long Night
One man’s podcast is another man’s serialised audio drama! I do find it odd how radio plays are now branded as podcasts, but the episodic nature of this series worked very well. I would agree with the criticisms that Wolverine, played excellently by Richard Armitage, wasn’t in the show enough but overall I find this held my interest and the performances and production were very strong. There will be a second season with Wolverine, which I’m pleased about and more Marvel shows like this would be of interest (Mile Morales maybe or Alpha Flight) and this show made me think about writing audio again too.
I’ve been listening to Josh and Connor (and Ron and Paul) for years and I’m impressed by how consistent it still is. Despite reading far less weekly comics than I used to, I still listen to their Pick of the Week show every Monday. The Talksplode episodes are always very informative, quality interviews with creators that matter. And when a comic based movie drops I always head to their Special Edition show first after seeing it, usually to have my own opinions borne out. I think even if I ever stopped reading or writing comics, I’d still listen to the show for the hosts alone. This Talksplode episode with Jeff Parker is a good example of what makes it so good.
Honourable mentions – I’ve been enjoying the same shows as list year mainly perennial favourites like On Story and Nerdist's The Writers Panel, last year’s favourite Here’s the Thing, Geek Syndicate, Grouchy Old Geeks, World Balloon and Comics Experience.
That was exhausting and I can’t help thinking how much content I could be creating in the time I spend thinking about work other people have created! It’s good to take stock there and remember what you like in a time when people are too quick to spent time and energy telling you what they don’t like. Here’s to another year of excellent entertainment in 2019! Excelsior!