Following the deaths of Lemmy, David Bowie, Prince, Keith Emerson and Greg Lake, Darwyn Cooke, Steve Dillon, Alan Rickman, Gene Wilder, Victoria Wood and many more people, it's been a difficult year for pop culture. So it's good to once again focus on some of the positives from the past twelve months. As in other years these aren't what I'm saying are the best things, merely my favourites from the past twelve months. You can see the 2015 list here.
TV Drama – Stranger Things
For the second year running the show I liked the most was a Netflix original. This 8-part series completely came out of the blue for me, I hadn't heard of it until friends started posting about it on social media. I managed to watch it before it went on the typical arc of being over-hyped and then derided for being too nostalgic within a matter of days. Being set in 1983 certainly helped get me interested and everything from the music to the titles lifted the whole show. It was fresh and different and I thoroughly enjoyed it from beginning to end, I loved the young cast and I can't wait to see what the Duffer Brothers do in Season Two.
Honourable mentions – Westworld came very close to taking top spot and in many ways was the most well constructed show I saw this year. Technically it was the show I appreciated the most and it lead us all on a merry dance, but having taken half the season to emotionally engage with the characters that meant it wasn't quite the show for me. The best of this year's returning shows included Better Call Saul, which maintained its high bar, Game of Thrones which was the best season in years particularly the later episodes, Daredevil, which wasn't quite as good as season one and Jack Irish, which successfully spun the TV movie series into a season long show. Perhaps if I had found time for Luke Cage, that too would have made this list too.
Film – Creed
Kids films apart, I've spent very little time at the cinema this year so I had relatively slim pickings to choose from. Having said that, I love boxing movies and the Rocky franchise in particular, and was pleased when this finally got a UK release, many months after the US. I wasn't sure about the idea of continuing the story with Apollo Creed's son as the focal point, but it was an excellent decision. Much like the first two Rocky films, this had a big heart and was handled with a deft touch. The fight scenes were breathtaking and Stallone really should have picked up an Oscar for his portayal of the former boxer turned mentor.
Honourable mentions – Captain America: Civil War was the film I would have day dreamed about as a ten year old, although far from perfect balancing so many Marvel characters in one film was no mean feat. And they brought Spider-Man into the MCU finally and actually made it work too. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was far better than I anticipated and felt and looked like it belonged with the original trilogy, it also had some of the best casting of the year with some top notch talent in front of the camera. Deadpool was another film which surpassed my expectations, far funnier than anticipated and really well put together. Zooptropolis (or Zootopia if you're in the US), was excellent, and much like Paddington, managed to highlight the social injustices in the world within a family movie without it overshadowing the story. Looking back, maybe in 2017 I need to make a point of seeing more original films on the big screen, as well as franchise films and reboots, I'm kicking myself for not seeing The Nice Guys, Manchester by the Sea, Hell or High Water and 10 Cloverfield Lane amongst others.
Album – Folklore by Big Big Train/Sorceress by Opeth (tied) .
It was very, very close this year. And I drafted this post a few times with either album in top spot as I don't usually allow myself such indecision. When it came down to it, both albums had the same affect on me, both made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and gave me goosebumps on multiple listens. I'm emotionally invested in Folklore, having been an extra in the title track's video and attended the album launch listening party at Real World Studios, so that album had a very high chance of being the one I liked most. Just like their previous work, and the other two non studio albums they put out in 2016, it connected with my emotional and thoughful side. With Opeth it was something different, building on what they'd done before on Pale Communication, this album hit all the different things I look for in music and the perfect balance of light and shade, within one small collection of songs.
Honourable mentions –
F*** Everyone And Run by Marillion was very, very close to making it a three way tie. In many ways it's the most 2016 album of all, as the lyrics resonate very strongly. They planned to make an important album and succeeded, possibly creating the defining work of their career. Iy just didnt quite have the same impact on me as BBT and Opeth.
Other long players of note came from Giraffe Tongue Orchestra, featuring members of Alice in Chains, Mastodon and Dillinger Escape Plan, Iggy Pop, who has found the perfect collaborator in Josh Homme, The Mute Gods, Nick Beggs' Porcupine Tree with a pop slant style project, Radiohead, who returned to form again, ex Beardfish and current BBT man, Rikard Sjoblom, BBT drummer Nick D'Virgillio's new power trio The Fringe, and English art rockers Moulettes.
Song - The New Kings by Marillion.
The radio edit of The New Kings was the first Marillion song I'd heard since the days of Fish and the band playing Kayleigh and Incommunicado on Top of the Pops. I then listened to the five piece full prog suite in all its glory (which everyone should do) and was completely blown away. Lyrically it speaks to these difficult times (we have the keys to Russia's locked doors) and musically it transcends genre and delivers on all levels. Superb stuff.
Honourable mentions –
Familiar by Agnes Obel was my song of choice until I heard The New Kings, it's a song I discovered listening to Bob Harris on Radio 2, while waiting for him to play Big Big Train. It's hauntingly evocative and sounds different on every listen, I was surprised when it started to be used as Match of the Day incidental music.
Realm of You and Me by Rikard Sjoblom is a singalong classic from the former Beardfish frontman and one of the songs from 2016 that put a big smile on my face whenever I heard it. As their albums were so impressive, of course Sorceress, Will O the Wisp and The WIlde Flowers by Opeth and Folklore and Telling the Bees by Big Big Train have a place on this list. Daydreaming by Radiohead is beautifully restrained, as is Tears for the West by Levee Walkers feat Jaz Coleman (Mike McCready, Duff McKagan and Barrett Martin supergroup goodness with the Killing Joke frontman) and Metallica's Moth to a Flame helped blow off the cobwebs. The Mute Gods singles Feed the Troll, Father Daughter and Do nothing till you hear from me all deserve high praise too.
Gig– Rikard Sjoblom, The Victoria (Swindon)
This was another very difficult one and I almost made it a tie too, but in the end this show just shaded its nearest rival. In a small pub venue in Swindon I was treated to an excellent evening of music, starting with support act George Wilding.
What followed was a perfect set from the Swedish multi-instrumentalist which made me wish I'd seen Beardfish live before they split up. Singing along to Realm of You and Me was one particular highlight, but the evening just kept getting better. Fellow BBT members Rachel Hall and David Longdon joined him on a couple of numbers and the night was rounded off by most of Big Big Train performing Uncle Jack and Wassail. I get goosebumps just thinking about it and it cost the princely sum of £5!
Honourable mentions –
Tin Spirits (The Road to Tokyo) at Riffs Bar near Swindon was within a whisker of being my pick. Another band with a Big Big Train connection as legendary former XTC guitarist Dave Gregory is in both bands. I love both their albums and really came to appreciate their musicianship even more by seeing them perform live, especially in the front row in such a small vene. They also treated us to a raft of XTC songs too and you can see and hear some of their version of Senses Working Overtime from the show here. And once again this was a gig that set me back a fiver!
Ben Folds at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff was a gig I wasn't expecting to go to and it was thanks to friend and fellow writer Chris Lynch having a spare ticket that I got to go. Support act Lera Lynn, as seen and heard in True Detective, was excellent and there was a real party atmosphere when Folds himself came on.
Chris Cornell at Colston Hall in Bristol with my regular gig buddies, which includes another writer Rob Williams (Suicide Squad, Unfollow) was very good too. Hearing Hunger Strike, Fell on Black Days, Rusty Cage and Black Hole Sun live was worth the admission fee alone. I would like to have heard more songs from Euphoria Morning and a few less covers, more than anything else it made me wish I'd seen Soundgarden live.
Comic – Lazarus (Image Comics)
Three years in a row and the only book I'm picking up in single issues now. Having said that even considering how much I enjoy the titles I read in trades, there is a reason why I pick this up monthly, it really is a must read. As the world gets stranger and darker and oligarchical this book carries even more weight and value.
Podcast – Unjustly Maligned.
Over the years I've enjoyed Antony Johnston's writing, his convention DJing and his public speaking and I can now add his podcasting to that list of things. In this show he interviews someone who has chosen to defend a film, book, comic, TV show etc that they feel doesn't get fairly treated. It's made me want to watch General Hospital, re-watch Clue and had me listening to Tin Machine again, but it didn't quite convince me to re-evaluate cricket.
Honourable mentions –
The Prog Report, features excellent interviews with musicians from what has become my favourite genre, iFanBoy continues to be consistent and the return of Talksplode has made it even better, The British History Podcast which I started listening to for research is extremely entertaining, my stable mates Geek Syndicate and Grouchy Old Geeks are always good value and the same can always be said about World Balloon and Comics Experience too.
Thanks goodness for so much pop culture goodness to distract us all from the news. When I wasn't keeping up with the latest releases I was busy watching Luther and Community, reading The Book of Genesis and 100 Bullets, listening to Bloodmage and Phil Collins: Not Dead Yet and lots of comic book collections from the library.