Thursday, December 24, 2015

2015: My Cultural Year in Review

Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons in the second season of Fargo.

It’s been a long year. We’re coming close to the end. As Mr. Lennon said, “So this is Christmas, and what have we done?” Well we’ve listened to a lot of music, and read a lot of books. Watched some movies. And some TV. Maybe my favourite TV show has been Fargo, Season 2 of which I have just finished, and I have to say I loved every minute of it. The first season was interesting, had a few surprises, like when Officer Molly got shot but the second season was where we found out just what happened at the Sioux Falls massacre. The concept of going back twenty years to explain this was sheer genius. If you haven’t watched Fargo, I recommend you start from the beginning. See the movie first and marvel at the work of Joel and Ethan Coen. Next try the first season to see how beautifully the television producers have translated North Dakota and environs to the small screen. Billy Bob Thornton was the perfect villain, and Allison Tolman as Molly Solverson was extraordinary. Her expressive eyes just captured the viewer and never let you go.

In Season Two she was just a kid, her mother is still alive, although suffering with cancer, and her father Lou is the young State Trooper who is caught up in events beyond the scope of his job. He can’t let it go. You’ll find yourself caring more than you thought possible for this small family and the web of crime they find themselves caught up in. Television perfection.

Movies? I think I went to “the show” three times all year. I caught Meryl Streep in Ricki and the Flash. It was not the best film she’s ever been in, but I think I could watch Meryl reading the phone book and enjoy it. Rick Springfield as bandmate and lover Greg was surprisingly good, and it was a joy to watch Rick Rosas and Bernie Worrell as the bass player and keyboardist. Meryl played the guitar herself. Well done. Then I went to see SPECTRE which provided the usual thrills and scenery of all good Bond films. If it’s Daniel Craig’s final go, then thanks for the fun. If not…see you next time. Love & Mercy told the story of Beach Boy Brian Wilson. They had two different actors playing Wilson. Paul Dano was mesmerizing as the younger Brian, leading a pack of experienced session musicians in the studio recording the legendary Pet Sounds album. John Cusack was less convincing as the older Wilson caught under the Svengali-like control of Eugene Landy (played by a bewigged Paul Giamatti). The studio sessions seemed like documentary footage but the whole thing was so intoxicating I watched it three times.

I bought an absolute ton of music this past year. Vinyl both new and old. CDs, downloads, any way music comes I bought it. Dave Alvin and his brother Phil provided a solid followup to their 2014 comeback album Common Ground with this year’s Lost Time. They did Big Bill Broonzy tunes last time, this year they spread it out a bit covering Oscar Brown Jr.’s "Mister Kicks" through to James Brown’s "Please, Please, Please" and rocking hard all the way. The Mavericks continued their comeback with Mono, an exhilarating collection of Latin-country jump tunes that keep the listener’s feet moving. If you’ve never seen The Mavericks live, do yourself a favour and go next time they’re in town.

A long awaited James Taylor album arrived in June reintroducing the world to Mr. Laidback. There were no surprises on Before This World but it was like running in to an old friend, and picking up right where you left off. Jeff Lynne came back in a big way too, a BBC documentary, a live concert DVD from London and a new ELO album (Alone in the Universe) all in one year. And every one of these items worth the price of admission. There were lots of other purchases too, new copies of old Badfinger LPs, a 4CD box set of the Staple Singers (Faith And Grace: A Family Journey 1953-1976), Teenage Head, and Gordie Lewis’s new band Tongue Fu too. There just isn’t time to listen to all of it.

As for books, I’ll pick the two I enjoyed most recently. Mountain City Girls is subtitled “The McGarrigle Family Album” and that’s pretty much what it is. Written by sisters Jane and Anna, the book is mainly concerned with life in Saint Sauveur, PQ. The songwriting, recording and touring is left for another book (although you do get one or two highlights) as the sisters pay tribute to their parents, and of course to sister Kate who died in 2010. Still, as a series of snapshots of growing up in Quebec, the book is eminently readable.

Elvis Costello’s Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink is perhaps the best autobiography ever written by a pop singer. Of course, Elvis has always been much more than a pop singer. From the first time I laid eyes on him when he changed songs mid strum on Saturday Night Live, to watching him guest on his own talk show Spectacle in 2009. I’ve been a fan, fascinated by his ever changing moods and textures. I was in the theatre., third row for the taping of Spectacle. Rumours were flying that the guest was Sir Paul McCartney, but no, it was Declan McManus himself, being interviewed by that well-known rock journalist Mary-Louise Parker (she of the short mini-dress and stunning legs) who came out to do battle. It was hardly a battle as she proved to be as much or more of a fan than the rest of us in the theatre that night. But Elvis and his band played a half-hour introductory set, and another hour-long closer to bookend the interview. It was extraordinary. Far better than the first show I saw in 1978 where he crammed 14 songs into a half hour, and then ran off the stage. He talks about those days, and that tour in the book, when pills and booze helped them rush through the set. He talks about just about everything, songwriting, recording, touring, his parents, his wives, his kids, his dad. His dad (musician Ross McManus) comes up quite a bit. The book is beautifully written, well illustrated and (my copy) is signed. I treasure it.

2015, it was a very good year. Did I mention there’s a new Ian Rankin, and Rebus is back? The Oxford American Music issue just arrived. Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk came out in a deluxe edition. Can’t talk…too much to do! Merry Christmas!

David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas with his wife.

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