Music

Best of 2001: Simon Warner

Simon Warner

Best Music of 2001 Lists



Ryan Adams, Gold (Mercury)
After a decent spell as contributor to the wild wiles of Whiskeytown, Ryan Adams set out as solo gunslinger on 2000's promising Heartbreaker but the follow up, the gorgeous and presciently-named Gold, is finer still. From the opening bars of the infectious 'New York, New York' through the harmonica-histrionics of 'Firecracker', on to the melancholy of 'When the Stars Turn Blue' and then the charming balldary of 'Sylvia Plath' (her grave's the valley over from me in the Yorkshire Pennines) show off Adams' versatility as rocker, raconteur and romancer. Literate and lustrous, Gold marks the lift-off point for one of America's finest new songwriting squires. The fact that the UK launch came replete with a video featuring a mind-searing image of Adams in full flow before the once mighty fingers of the World Trade Centre has accidentally given this push an extra layer of mythology. The portents are that he may actually live up to it.

Chris T-T, The 253 (Snowstorm)
In the midst of global record-dom, there are always those determined to keep the cottage industries of pop spinning and this quirky troubadour is a classic example of the trend. T-T works by day as a sub-editor with Press Association -- the AP or Reuter's of the UK; by night, the veritable Peter Parker dons not a spider's vest but a battered six-string and takes his mighty power pop trio, the Ducky Fuzz, around the kingdom. In between times he even runs a small scale indie of his own called Wine Cellar. Now though, his star twinkles still brighter -- Snowstorm, an independent with a high credibility quotient, have released this, his third long player, and the reception has been mighty fine. No wonder with the charmingly eccentric 'Build a Bridge, Burn a Bridge' rubbing shoulders with the anthemic majesty of 'Drink Beer' and the bucolic and Blake-like 'English Earth'. The CD title, by the way, is derived from a London bus route.

The Strokes, Is This It (Rough Trade)
There is no way I can fathom that the title of this release can be rendered without a question mark (blame the label or the printers, or maybe song meister Julian Casablancas). On second thoughts, blame no one and certainly not singer-composer Casablancas, whose pre-punk retro-ism, is the missing bridge between the Velvets and the CBGBs crew of 1974/5. Better than the Dolls, brighter than Johansen, the Strokes with Casablancas upfront, chug out 11 pearls of Manhattan surliness and still you can't help but love'em. From the title tune to the curtain closer 'Take it Or Leave It', the record plays like something from a bygone age -- songs tight, taut and economic, bristling with late adolescent attitude, spatter gun some raw emotion, posed in slick, throwaway phrases. More young Stones than Ramones, the Strokes pilfer the Jagger-Richard jauntiness and marry it to Lou Reed's urban and urbane detachment. It's a clever trick and one they'll be reprising, I propose, for a year or two to come.

Radiohead, Amnesiac (Parlophone)
Internet darlings and arch miserablists, Radiohead do things that make me smile even if Thom Yorke's fixed grimace looks beyond melting. After the lavishly praised Kid A, this prompt follow up looked, on paper, like a collection of mismatches and out-takes. Yet I feel it's already lasted better than its more heralded bigger brother. The sonic mumbles of 'Pakt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box' now provide near-catchy in-car choruses for this solo motorist while 'Life in a Glasshouse', on which the boys are joined by the gorgeously mournful strains of the Humphrey Lyttelton Band, an ancient ensemble dating from the 1940s and Anglo-New Orleans revivalism led by an octogenarian Etonian, is so extraordinary that most of the weight of last century's blues and rock seems framed in its epic and transfixing span.

Michael Franti & Spearhead, Stay Human (Parlophone)
One of the undersung giants of black American music, Michale Franti has crammed more musical emotion and lyrical muscle into his decade of projects with the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and Spearhead than most artists manage in a life-time. Stay Human is a great concept -- a 22 piece narrative tale which embraces the multi-media of song and broadcast in a most engaging fashion. A black activist is facing execution and the independent radio station campaigns on her behalf, while Franti's compositions provide the bridges between the phone-ins, the interviews and commentary that describe this fictional, but credible, political drama. The songs in almost all cases work on several levels -- upbeat hip hop dance tunes, tender romances, environmental pleadings, dogmatic manifestos. Yet their appeal hinges of the writer's ability to find the sweetest hook, the most compelling backbeat, and them embroider it with a stream of rap poetry of the highest order: many miles away from the macho bravado of downtown, rather, from the philosophical manual of real life.

Mercury Rev, All is Dream (V2)
Sweeping, cinematic, the Revsters continue their quest to rehabillate pop on a grand scale. In a year that the Strokes and the White Stripes proposed the primacy of the pared down pulse, this band adopt the lavish gesture when the three chord guitar trick might possibly just have done. But this is some way from mere progressive rock indulgence: those baroque twists evoke an older America in the way that groups like the Band, songwriters like Randy Newman, have done. 'Lincoln's Eyes' offers a fine example, reminiscent of a song they may have included in a 1940s Disney movie, it paints a vividly coloured, yet grainy vision, a dreamy fantasy in which Old Abe briefly appears in a cameo role, but one that also accommodates the actor Joel Grey, most famous as Oscar-winning club host in the movie Cabaret. Such playful reference points and borrowings, musically or lyrically, pepper most of the songs -- 'Little Rhymes', 'Spiders and Flies' and 'Hercules' plough their allegorical furrows in a mellifluous way, evoking moments from just remembered films, plays, even novels, that fill the honeycombs of memory. These 21st century rock mini-symphonies bring to mind what might have been if that giant of American music Brian Wilson had stayed the course.

Bebel Gilberto, Tanto Tempo (Warner)
The daughter of that latin tempstress Astrid lives up to her mother's reputation on this tantalising collection which delighted much of mainland Europe over the summer - a sweltering Brazilian cocktail, sung in both Portugese and English and oozing the kind of sensual pleasure generally associated with a Mediterranean coastline at least, the sands of Rio, more likely, and a sunset just off Key West. No beach bum myself, Bebel delivers these soft surf fantasies with a touch of 'Samba da Bencao', 'Sem Contencao' and the stunning 'Mais Feliz'. Only the threadbare standard 'So Nice' fails the tanto tempo test; the rest is the perfect soundtrack for the traveller who simply prefers to stay at home.

Daft Punk, Discovery (Virgin)
In Europe we play host to an annual song competition that showcases pop entries from most of the continent's nations. Unfortunately, rather like our swelling soccer competitions, there are now so many countries, post-Soviet meltdown, that the Eurovision Song Contest has to have qualifying rounds, so the likes of Estonia and the Ukraine, are no longer guaranteed a place in the TV jamboree, watched by hundreds of millions one Saturday in spring, and derided with a vengeance by the British press. The idea that an non-English speaking land can challenge the kingdom of the Beatles and the Stones, brings out the xenophobe in every press critic. Daft Punk throw such parochial garbage back in our faces. The French two piece crumble the myth of Anglo supremacy to produce the Western world's album of the year in Discovery. Synthetic, ironic, constructed and as natural as a styrofoam beaker, the band incinerate those feeble notions of roots, sincerity and authentcity that have haunted popular music and its critical vanguard for far too long. This is a state of the art take on the long lost doodles of disco, it is cyberpunk made melodious, it is the streamlined soundtrack to the new age. Just play 'Digital Love' or check the Nietzschean nuances of 'Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger' to get my drift. Oh, and every other track is worthy of single status -- the group plan to issue all fourteen tunes in an attack on the UK charts of exocet proportions. Not punks, and certainly not daft, these Gallic gauleiters, obsessive masters of the studio, a contemporary Kraftwerk with a sense of humour, are definitely green for go go.

India.arie, Acoustic Soul (Motown)
Motown, once America's biggest black corporation, once a legend in pop music circles globally, has become, in the last 20 years, a pawn, maybe a rook, in the multinational chess game called rock'n'roll. Once a part of the British EMI, then consumed by the Dutch PolyGram and now a segment in the staggeringly vast mosaic of business activity that is the French-Canadian Vivendi Universal, it is no longer sensible to think of this latterday commercial building block having much association with Berry Gordy's original Detroit Hit factory. And hit factory Motown has not been for a decade or two. Yet there is still a glimmer of magic that glistens when the land of Smokey, Marvin and Diana is invoked, which is why the emergence of the dotcom songstress herself, an exemplar of new times, Miss India.arie, is actually rather heart-warming. I don't know if Berry actually caught her singing in downtown Tinyville and guided her young hand along the dotted line but, such fantasies aside, her debut record has something of the soul once linked to the imprint joined to the intelligence of a Tracey Chapman or an Erykah Badu, which can hardly be bad. The litany of the 'Intro' -- a tribute to a gallery of mostly black figures -- the feminsist 'Video' and the proud-to-be-me swagger of 'Brown Skin' hint that India is more than just a recycler of older Motown platitudes. She represents a confident new player who will not need to rely long of the fading reverberations of her label to gain a large audience.

ani difranco, Revelling/Reckoning (Righteous Babe)
I have recently been reviewing the work of a line of American women whose roots lie in the New York punk explosion of the mid-1970s. From Patti Smith, Lydia Lunch and Kathy Acker to Karen Finley and Exene Cervenka, a long line of punk feminism -- expressed through rock, poetry, the novel and spoken word -- continues to leave a mark on the metropolitan centres of New York, LA, London and Paris. It struck me how closely the assertive and challenging voice of ani difranco fits into this genealogy and her long and largely enticing double CD (an album dedicated to each of the moods of the title) confirms this history. Her songs are glorious amalgams of folk strumming and plucking and jarring jazz inversions, but her ideas, her words, her open-hearted poetry, represent the confessions, the reflections, the celebrations of a woman who is control of her life, her music, her label, but is, paradoxically, also as exposed, as vulnerable, as endangered, as the sisters to whom we might historically connect her. To have seen Difranco on stage is a privilege -- no one I know possesses her audience with even half the vigour she exudes -- but to hear her on record is to recognise a tender, honest, uncompromising talent. While all carry traces of the Beat legacy, we know how little impression women made on that scene. Without Smith, without Acker and the others, I don't think there would have been this opportunity for extraordinary outsiders like difranco. This latest slice of her prolific output shows how heartily she has seized the chance.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

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9

If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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