Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Books of the Year, 2011

Here is a list of the ten best books published in the year 2011. Admittedly, there are a few thousand others I didn’t get round to, so you’ll just have to trust me that these ten are the best. Though I’m happy to entertain alternative views.

Water matters
10. Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind by Brian Fagan (Bloomsbury Press)
What it says on the bottle – an accessible account of how various past civilisations engineered water sources to irrigate their crops, flush away their shit, supply themselves with drink and, when supplies were abundant enough, prettify their gardens and public spaces. Being mankind, though, we’re on the way to exhausting our natural supplies through illogical idiocy like too many golf courses, gardens and swimming pools in places like California, Phoenix, Texas and Arizona, resulting in a chronically cost-ineffective use of energy and precious H2O. Sample quote: “The Owens River turned Los Angeles into a megalopolis, located in an arid landscape where, by the rules of common sense, no city should ever stand. Los Angeles hefts enough political clout to capture any river within 600 miles. Today, the city receives water not only from the Owens River but also via aqueducts from the Colorado River and the California Aqueduct, which runs from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to Lake Perris, in Riverside County, 444 miles to the south.”

9. Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy by John Julius Norwich (Random House)
This is an objective but entertaining chronological rundown of everyone who’s ever claimed to be Pope, how they got there, and what they did when adorned with the office of the Papacy. It wasn’t always good and godly things, you know. Sample quote: “Hadrian’s successor, John VIII (872-882), was at least energetic, but he also had the dubious distinction of being the first pope to be assassinated – and, worse, still, by priests from his own entourage. According to the Annals of the Abbey of Fulda, they first gave him poison; then, when this failed to act quickly enough, they hammered in his skull. The enthronement of his successor, Marinus I, in 882 is said to have been marked by the murder of a high Roman dignitary, that of Hadrian III two years later by the victim’s widow being whipped naked through the streets. On Hadrian’s death on his way to Germany in 885 foul play was also suspected. The next two popes, Stephen V and Formosus, died in their beds,

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

2011 Albums of the Year

This year I return to the tried and trusted formula of the meaninglessly numbered list. The reason? I looked at last year’s entry to see which album I’d chosen as my number one, and was disappointed to find I hadn’t bothered. Too lazy, I reckon, and it wasn’t a particularly good year. This year, though, I was spoilt for choice, and so (already thrilled readers, musicians and music biz executives), I gift you the shivering anticipation of the countdown. As ever, my criterion was simple: I chose albums I wanted to keep playing, again and again. It’s not really a list of records classified for technical or creative or cultural reasons, but a list of albums I most fell in love with (though from around number 30 downwards it’s less love, and more ‘fancied a lot/bit’).

20. Beirut – The Rip Tide (Pompeii Records)
With this band, you feel that anything’s possible, although more than likely it will involve brass bands and some kind of folk influence from an unlikely source. iTunes laughably classifies this as “indie-rock”. Think of any other combination of genres besides indie-rock, throw them into a catalytic converter and let Beirut toy with the result using seductive syncopation, blasted riffs, and a pale but fetching vocal. Track you’d want your town band to play at the annual parade: The Rip Tide

Classically Deathcabbish
19. Death Cab For Cutie – Coats and Keys (Atlantic)
I sometimes buy albums by bands like Death Cab For Cutie out of a sense of duty that they’re the kind of band I ought to be into, rather than actually being into. So it’s always a pleasant surprise when their records turn out to be far better than I’d expected. This is a solid, archetypally articulate DeathCabbish collection, though it sometimes takes years for their best songs to sink in – I only realized when I saw them live how much I love their earlier work. Indie-pop track to the core: Doors Unlocked And Open. Advice I won’t take track: Stay Young, Go Dancing.

18. The Feelies – Here Before (Bar/None)
Seeing as no one makes blissfully good old-style indie-pop any more, call back the old hands that did it right the first time around, as the album title hints. Okay, second time around, given that so many 1980s bands like The Feelies and Galaxie 500/Luna unblushingly but very successfully rode on the riffs of the Velvet Underground. They’ve still got what they always had – cheerfully shambolic but somehow addictive scratchy guitars on top of understated vocals in a world beyond Autotune. Track to dance badly to while wearing your retired leather jacket, smoking a cigarette and drinking get-pissed-quick, extra-strength lager: the whole album