In some respects 2021 continued looking so bad, we tried not to look. But some things just wouldn't quit - here are the items too good to miss. If you did...
ALEX V COOK
BEST MUSIC DOC...
The Sparks Brothers
(Focus Features, Directed by Edgar Wright)
Easily the best 2021 movie I’ve seen in a theatre since it is the only one. The talking heads of this loving biopic distract a bit - Beck saying any time you get a group of musicians together, they talk about Sparks. Er, maybe Beck talks about Sparks, but I polled a roomful I was playing with last night and no one had ever heard of them. Perhaps Sparks is the band people who Ron and Russ Mael give it up fully, their Gilbert and George/Elton John vs Leon Redbone act in full-effect the 70s. Their mom is cute in the archive photos. Their weird and warm relationship is aglow. The things Sparks didn’t actually get to do are staggering, as is the avalanche of things they did. I wish Brian May had been dragged in to talk about Queen opening for Sparks in their early days. But that’s a mild regret. The rest is a carefully meta-pop delight.
All throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s when I discovered Dolly Parton, I can still remember how Dolly Parton was portrayed as a dumb blond with huge breasts, and that was it. She was recognized as a singer and actress, but journalists usually were very tongue in cheek about her talent. These misconceptions of Dollywood didn’t help. Sometime around in the early 2010s, people rediscovered Dolly and she started getting respect from the unwashed masses and instead of commenting on her tits, they started realizing how great her music was; how much time she put into LBGT causes, and her philanthropy. Then we all found out she pitched in on a COVID vaccine when no one else even reached for their wallets. Has anyone else come close to giving a shit as much as Dolly this year?
COMPETITIVE SPORTS ARE BACK AND I DON'T MEAN THE OLYMPICS
The Challenge: Double Agents
The one-time music television channel that literally shaped a generation of budding Gen X kids with important cultural programming such as the first 10 seasons of the Real World, True Life, and Alternative Nation has one crown jewel left: The Challenge. The Challenge: Double Agents, the latest season of the “fourth sport” really was a spectacle to watch. I’ll resist divulging too much here, but Double Agents had everything baseball, basketball, football (both of them), and hockey lacked this year -- real drama, breakneck violence, and the slight sense of desperation I like to see in a competitive athlete.
BEST THING TO COME OUT OF JAPAN (AND IT'S STILL NOT THE OLYMPICS)
I haven’t been this excited about a Japanese pop band since Pizzicato 5 dazzled and delighted me in the early ‘90s. More Beastie Boys than P5, Chai is dripping with high aesthetics and is one of the only things that make me happy these days and this latest LP of theirs -- WINK -- is one of 2021’s best kept secrets. (And their video for “Donuts Mind If I Do” is lousy with charm and sweet soul music.
MY FAVORITE MOVIE TRAILER
The Many Saints of Newark
I’m not going to build up The Many Saint of Newark based on a trailer because I’ve been fooled before, but when you hear James Gandolfini’s voice in the first couple seconds of this clip, and then you see his son, Michael Gandolfini -- the spitting image of his old man… well, I got chills -- it was like seeing a ghost. A young, good-looking Italian ghost with just the right length of shag. If the film is half as strong as this trailer, The Many Saint of Newark may be receiving a coveted OUTSIDELEFT Golden Boot award in December.
I LOOKED FORWARD TO THE SEQUEL
Coming 2 America
It wasn’t as great as the original recipe, but Coming 2 America wasn’t all that bad considering sequels almost always disappoint. Personally, I thought Eddie Murphy was working off a rushed script and the plot was driven more by appeasing our new Cancel Culture overlords and it tried to make everyone happy, but in 2021, I’ll take anything that diverts my attention away from the world for a couple hours.
Prince: The Parade & Sign o’ the Times Studio Sessions (1985 - 1986)
In his latest book, Duane Tudahl documents just about every moment Prince spent in the studio or on stage with the most precise details imaginable. It’s the kind of exhaustive book that every music obsessive wishes their favorite artist would somehow release. Why did Prince write the Black Album? Why did he fire most of his band in ‘86 and essentially end the most productive era of his career? No funny quips about this one -- Tudahl’s work here is a music lover’s wet dream.
BEST IN WINSLET
Mare of Easttown
While this limited series might have been one episode too long, (and the person we find out who really killed Erin McMenamin seemed slightly far fetched, the one shining light throughout Mare of Easttown was Kate Winslet as Mare Sheehan. It takes a lot to make a divorced, small town Pennsylvania cop interesting, but Winslet turned a turd into something I looked forward to watching once a week. Now if she just didn’t have to deal with the shadow of the silly Titanic looking over her prestigious career...
ONE SOUNDTRACK TO HEAR
Akounak Tedalat OST
If this music travelled across the Atlantic and wound up in San Francisco where it was electrified and commercialised and thrown into the great showbiz pot of America which was sold in bite size portions to the skinning up, blotted and cosmic middle class kids who made up the generational Coca Cola advert that was hippy… and then it filtered back across the Atlantic after messing with skinny kids at CBGBs in NYC or at Erics in Liverpool (and it did) then it was, comparatively, just a short step from where the sons and daughters of its originators were, in space and time more recently, to where they are, here and now with the music once more in their hands. A simple plugging in of an electric guitar and it is back where it should be, but with a new, bemused and delighted audience of Velvet Underground fans and Womad dad dancers. Modern living shouldn’t be taken for granted. Neither should electricity.
Best in poetry
Back in 2018, in what was a different world, Okri compiled 'Rise Like Lions' an exceptional collection of protest verse, Rilke, Blake, Shelley, Bob Marley, TS Eliot, Marvin Gaye. Poets have always spoken out… At that time, Okri had penned some of the devastating poems collected in 'A Fire in My Head'. Although 'Grenfell Tower June 2017' is an elegy to those who lost their lives, it is unflinching in its depiction of the horror and the grotesque inequality that led to the disaster. Find a recording of Okri performing it. His slow, measured, eloquent delivery is remarkable. 'Shaved Head Poem' addresses the behaviour that created a pandemic: '...for too long now we've wallowed in excess/we've wrought damage on the world in a relentless pursuit of wealth.’ Most moving of all though is 'Breathing the Light' addressed to George Floyd and, beyond the pain, sadness and anger, tries to find hope:
there's no poetry
of change greater
then when the world
sees at last that
it can be free.
'A Fire in My Head' is an extraordinarily powerful collection.
Best in Covid wear
So many masks to choose from this season. Single, double. Paper, fabric, hockey style face shield? Quirky with sequins (though surely rancid as how do you wash that), nationalist with flags, or god forbid the smiling skeleton faces or cats and dogs. People who wear those, we all hate you. My vote goes to the kid who came into my work with double masks (standard paper), yellow rubber washing up gloves taped at the wrists and knee pads because, you just never know.
Best in Lying
There are many lies to choose from, and the silver medal has to go to a gestalt of Hancock, Cummings and Johnson, which is of course the new line-up of Mumford & Sins Sons. But overall I would choose Stewart Lee's inspirational audio documentary "Unreliable Narrator", in which Lee examines narratives and narrators who cannot be trusted. Of course this gives him the opportunity to play with the documentary form itself, and the obvious but ignored fact that we cannot trust the creator of a documentary, cannot believe that the interviews were carried out as they seem to have been, or that it is a documentary at all. This means discussion of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Anne Quin, Ivor Cutler, Dylan (not saying which one or who by), and the modification of facts such that they resemble truth more than reality, as Andre Gide put it, possibly.
Best Beer Can
Hard to argue with a beer can inspired by the cover of Denim’s 1997 single Summer Smash, approved of by Lawrence and available mail order. The beer itself is flavoured with melon, juniper and mint, to accompany the festivals that will / won’t take place (delete as applicable this week), and 3.7%, so you should be able to cope with a couple on a hot afternoon.
Best in Breakups
Bill and Melinda Gates
Earlier this year, Bill and Melinda Gates announced their marriage after 27 years with feeble tweets, as couples do nowadays. Apparently this breakup was a long time coming, and Melinda mentioned something about her dislike for her husband’s new friend -- peodophile and child-trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. (Is Bill into sex with minors? Only time and a thorough investigation will tell.) I’m not sure why this, or any celebrity breakup gets me off. Maybe it’s because for all their fame, weath, and adoration, things like messy, public divorces are our great equalizer. So with all that said, I say “Melinda, if you feel like making another charitable donation to the arts, OUTSIDELEFT is a tax write off and always accepting endowments.