2013 Pop Culture Roundup

I found this old post lurking in my drafts. Weirdly a lot of prescient stuff in there. I think Al Guthrie became my agent two weeks after I wrote this.

MUSIC

2013 has been a weird year for me in terms of music.

I finished the year listening to the twin bastions of seventies radio – LED ZEPPELIN and STEELY DAN.

You read that right.

They really helped me through BOTTLENECK. Led Zep are a band I’ve loved since I was 20s, though this year saw me buy their entire back catalogue, and especially loving IN THROUGH THE OUT DOOR, their controversial swan song, which features country+western, calypso and squelchy synth bass amongst other things. Hearing those musicians play, though, and it just sounds amazing.

STEELY DAN are one of those utter shit bands that I hated for a long time. They finally got me this year. They are probably the cheesiest thing I’ve ever listened to, but good god, they’re good to listen to and get lost in as background.

Prior to that, I’d been listening to some decent stuff. I found the BALANCE series of compilations on Spotify, really good mixes of techno and house that help me blot out the rest of the world as I hammer out the words.

Other notable old bands I got into last year were XTC and Kraftwerk, both of whom I’d admired for a long time (MAKING PLANS FOR NIGEL and COMPUTER LOVE, respectively) but had never got into them. This year, I did. XTC, in particular, are a genuinely good band.

Notable new releases from 2013 for me were few and far between. As I get older, I pay less and less attention to new music. Stuff I’ve enjoyed this year has been the new Bowie THE NEXT DAY, which is a great record, with WHERE ARE WE NOW? being among his best material. Boards of Canada’s GEMINI was very strong, though not as good as their early stuff. Johnny Marr’s THE MESSENGER had some great tunes, reminiscent of his best stuff (The Smiths, of course), even though his vocals were a bit Oasis at times… My Bloody Valentine are one of my favourite bands of all time, and I once played in a band that owed a heavy debt to them – their comeback, mbv, was good, but reminded me of a bootleg more than a proper album. Thom Yorke’s debut solo LP, THE ERASER, was an incredible record, and I’m not the world’s biggest Radiohead fan – his latest “band” Atoms for Peace, released AMOK, a continuation of that record in sound and quality, and then fell out with Spotify, meaning I had to buy it. Harrumph.

Other stuff I’ve spent a lot of time with this year, would be Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s entire back catalogue. An incredible band.

Arab Strap’s Aidan Moffat released his best record a couple of years ago, a collaboration with jazz musician Bill Wells called EVERYTHING’S GETTING OLDER, which I’ve returned to many times this year. It’s beautiful and features some of the grumpiest of Moffat’s “singing” ever.

In terms of techno, Higher Intelligence Agency were a new discovery if old, and I listened to them a lot when putting DYED IN THE WOOL to bed.

I love the guys behind Basic Channel and Maurizio, and listened to all of that stuff a lot. I found their Rhythm & Sound dub techno output on Spotify this year and got into that a lot.

In all, not a great year, but not bad.

BOOKS

This year, I got a Kindle. I love it. It’s so much better than dead tree books and I’ve read so much more and so much better stuff. I’ve also used it to clear my second-hand book habit and I’m buying stuff direct from the author.

Thought I’d read more this year, but then there were a couple of absolute monsters I got through – as well as loving crime (and general Scottish fiction), I’m into sci-fi (or speculative fiction if you’re snobby about it) and, more recently, fantasy (though the few wizards and goblins, the better).

Most recently, I got through two China Miéville books. First, THE SCAR is part two of the BAS-LAG series, though it basically shared a universe with the first. Generally, it was strong on world building (a floating city is an incredible idea) but it was just such a massive read which didn’t pick up the pace like PERDIDO STREET STATION, part one. THE CITY AND THE CITY, however, was amazing – a detective story set in a split city, where two cities exist in the same space, “unseeing” each other. Very strong and highly recommended.

The first thing I read on the Kindle was Charles Stross’s MERCHANT PRINCES series, the first six books. They sat on the edge of sci-fi and fantasy, and were strongly-written and developed. If I was a Hollywood exec, I’d look at optioning this and cutting it down to a single film – the story only really emerged in the fifth and sixth books, but what a punch at the end. I’ve been a long-term follower of his blog and the man’s immense world knowledge shines through this. Very highly recommended.

THE EVOLUTIONARY VOID was the third part in a Peter F. Hamilton trilogy which took me through the last few months of 2012 and into this. As with everything else the man writes, the scale was epic. While not as good as the COMMONWEALTH saga, in my opinion, this series was entertaining as hell and well worthy of the read.

Right, onto crime. First, three masters. I read KILLER ON THE ROAD and CLANDESTINE by James Ellroy, two early books, and I wish I could write anywhere near as coherently as he does.

Next was Allan Guthrie – I read TWO-WAY SPLIT and KISS HER GOODBYE back-to-back and was as blown away as I was with THE SLAMMER. Sadly, it seems like Guthrie’s output has been curtailed of late, but these novels were exactly what I look for in crime – crisp, articulate and full of evil idiots doing stupid things repeatedly.

Thirdly, one of my highlights of the year was getting a book signed by Ian Rankin at the launch of SAINTS OF THE SHADOW BIBLE, and going all fanboi on him. Needless to say, the book is up there with last year’s STANDING IN ANOTHER MAN’S GRAVE, the return of Rebus. This built on that and expanded the roles of DI Clarke and DI Fox. He really is the master.

A real surprise for me was THE UNBURIED DEAD by Douglas Lindsay, the first DS Hutton thriller. Wow. Everything I loved about the Guthrie books is present, wrapped in a police procedural framework full of the sort of coppers that make my lot seem competent. Brilliant and free – just get it.

I’d had two James Oswald books waiting the arrival of the kindle and I devoured them in September. NATURAL CAUSES and THE BOOK OF SOULS feature DI McLean running through some fairly standard police procedural fare – the hairs on my arms stood on end, though with the spooky stuff that was going on in both books. Definitely looking forward to book three early this year.

I had the pleasure of doing a swap-review with Jason Beech, who loved GHOST. I really enjoyed OVER THE SHOULDER and absolutely rattled through it. Editing issues aside, it was a fresh and original tale in a hackneyed genre. Very good.

I also caught up on two over my favourite authors. The late Iain Banks’ STONEMOUTH was very solid, if not one of his very best books. Irvine Welsh’s SKAGBOYS was as electric as TRAINSPOTTING all those years ago.

COMICS

I got my first ever iPad this summer. One of the big things is it’s allowed me to get back into comics, using the amazing Comixology app. I’ve never been one for the big superhero stuff, really, preferring subversions of it by the likes of Mark Millar and Grant Morrison.

One of the strongest titles I found this year was the solo HAWKEYE by Matt Fraction, which took one of the most stupid superheroes and turned him into a character with flaws and depth. It had the feel of an edgy HBO series, a million miles away from the over-the-top Marvel films.

On that topic, IRON MAN 3 is, to me, the best superhero film ever, even better than the first BATMAN, THE DARK KNIGHT and either of the first two X-MEN films. Aside from the real-world feel – failing technology, mistakes, errors – it had one of the best twists I’ve ever seen.

I took up the offer of every single WALKING DEAD comic, 117 issues for £60-ish, and it was well worth it. Really smart storytelling and worldbuilding, and the sort of stuff I’m aiming for with the SUPERNATURE series.

Another comic of note was MANHATTAN PROJECTS, which took the sort of LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN thing but using real-world scientists to do comic stuff. Entertaining, and the art was reminiscent of Frank Quitely, probably one of my very favourite artists.

I’ve got a whole load of stuff synced on the iPad that I haven’t had time to get into, including Alan Moore’s FROM HELL and a load of Garth Ennis stuff. The man is a genius, and a huge influence on me – PREACHER is one of the best things ever in any form.

FILMS

Films were pretty poor this year.

Aside from IRON MAN 3, there wasn’t much joy. The second HOBBIT was a ripping yarn, very entertaining. I’m definitely among the pro-Jackson camp – the additions to what was frankly a bloody tedious book have added a lot to it, and the weaknesses of the film tend to be weaknesses in the source material, namely a ridiculous amount of deus ex machina.

The second STAR TREK film, INTO DARKNESS, was decent, not amazing. Benedict Cumberbatch was very good, but it’s made me itch for seeing a series with that cast, like that’s every going to happen.

THE WOLVERINE was average at best, and MAN OF STEEL was just turgid. I’ve never been a Superman fan at the best of times, but that story was so generic it hurt.

Watched some decent stuff off Freeview and Lovefilm, but I can’t honestly think of anything that’s worth writing home about, to be honest.

TV

TV was great for me this year.

One of the biggest surprises was from probably the most stupid comic character again, the Green Arrow (Hawkeye being, of course, Marvel’s answer to him). The TV show ARROW had exactly the sort of qualities that made the DARK KNIGHT films so strong – a believable and driven protagonist, strong supporting cast, a brilliantly ambiguous baddie played by John Barrowman, and that whole real-world feel. Series two has got even better for me.

I’ve still not finished LOST, which is more a time thing than anything, plus the other half doesn’t like it.

I’ve really enjoyed watching WEEDS on Lovefilm, a sort-of female version of BREAKING BAD (next on the list). Very funny and very crazy.

We got Sky in October and that’s really been good for two reason.

One – lots of good TV. Watching season two of ARROW for one. DRACULA has been enjoyable (again, similar to SUPERNATURE) and we’ve started watching ELEMENTARY, which is basically an American version of SHERLOCK (speaking of which, I’m so looking forward to watching that tonight).

Two – FOOTBALL.

I’ve loved football for so long, and we’ve never really been able to afford it, so I bit the bullet and got it in. The other half loves her football now and it’s quite amazing how good the English Premier League is – virtually every match we’ve watched has reminded me why I fell in love with football in the first place.

In terms of football, my two teams are doing pretty well this season, compared to disasters last season. Aberdeen are near the top of the Scottish Premiership, in the pack chasing Celtic, whereas Newcastle United are confounding everyone with their continued chase of the top four. Let’s be honest, I doubt I’ll give much of a toss about the Champions League next season, but it’s fun this season.

FOOTBALL

I’ve loved football for so long, and we’ve never really been able to afford it, so I bit the bullet and got it in. The other half loves her football now and it’s quite amazing how good the English Premier League is – virtually every match we’ve watched has reminded me why I fell in love with football in the first place.

In terms of football, my two teams are doing pretty well this season, compared to disasters last season. Aberdeen are near the top of the Scottish Premiership, in the pack chasing Celtic, whereas Newcastle United are confounding everyone with their continued chase of the top four. Let’s be honest, I doubt I’ll give much of a toss about the Champions League next season, but it’s fun this season.

Author: edjamesauthor

East Lothian-based writer of crime fiction novels. Published by Amazon Publishing's Thomas & Mercer imprint and self-published on Kindle.

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