Wednesday, 31 August 2016
Created by The Duffer Brothers
Starring Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown
Genre Science Fiction, Horror
Running Time 8 episodes, 45-55 mins each
Those who know me best will know that I am partial to a good TV binge, after all I do go to the effort of drafting The Ephemeric's annual TV Hot List as an advance guide to a year's worth of television. At the same time, regular readers of this blog will know that in spite of this, I rarely actually post articles on the subject outside of this once a year preview. Today will be the rare exception. Stranger Things is the show that everyone is talking about right now; a series that has come out of nowhere, endured no fewer than fifteen network rejections before being picked up by Netflix, and has gone on to overtake House of Cards and Making a Murderer as the all time most watched original content on Netflix.
The basic premise of Stranger Things is simple: a young child goes missing in small town America, his young school chums go off on a grand adventure to rescue him, while simultaneously he is searched for by his mother and older brother, and, separately, the local chief of police. As the search proceeds it soon becomes clear that something strange, and decidedly supernatural, is afoot.
If this all sounds familiar, it's by design. Stranger Things is very much an homage to 1980s pop culture, with particular reference to the Steven Spielberg brand of kids' adventure movies like The Goonies and ET, and the small town Americana horror of Stephen King. Throw in Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind with a dash of a John Carpenter "creature feature", and a pinch of John Hughes, and you have some idea of where this is coming from tonally. This is a show that is clearly very happy to wear its influences on its sleeve, from the setting and references, to the beautiful synth score, and the eye-searingly gorgeous artwork (see above). This is a show that oozes with nostalgia and fuzzy memories of millennial childhood.
But to summarise the show as merely a nostalgia piece would do it a disservice. Stranger Things contains some of the tightest writing of TV's golden age; a potent and immersive world and characters that are surprisingly complex and addictively easy to which to grow an attachment. Across Season 1's roughly eight hour running time the show never overstays its welcome, never feels like it's dragging things out, or that it's meandering aimlessly. Pitch perfect in tone and pacing, the show is self-aware and light where appropriate, but treats its surreal subject matter with the necessary respect. This is an exceptionally well made piece of television.
I have previously made a point on this website about the fine line of tastefulness that exists between nostalgia and cliché (see as a contrast the new M83 album Junk, which falls on the wrong side of that line). Stranger Things is very much an example of nostalgia done right, evoking the atmosphere and essence of a thing, without ever seeming pandering or forced. Rather than an endless parade of "hey remember this movie?" to drive the plot forward, Stranger Things manages to evolve organically within its own mythology and with a refreshing sincerity. Whether it's the asshole cop who rises to the occasion to become a hero, or the douchebag boyfriend who turns out to be a decent guy, the show celebrates well worn tropes while putting enough of its own spin to avoid feeling obvious or derivative. It's a show which celebrates the simple conceit of its source material while maintaining the modern sensibilities that help the characters and setting ring true in a way that even its greatest sources often failed to do.
Then there is the cast. Winona Ryder takes the top billing as one might expect, but arguably it's the fabulous David Harbour who takes the main plaudits. The child actors themselves are a surprising delight. Child actors can be an annoyance when used poorly, but this astoundingly talented array of young actors never put a foot wrong. Pay particular attention to the name Millie Bobby Brown, who is surely destined for great stardom after this breakthrough performance. These few that I have mentioned are no exception, the casting is spot on right down to the smallest role.
Stranger Things then is a deftly written, brilliantly acted, and impeccably produced few hours of television. But the show's success lies in how all these qualities sum together to form something that's even better than it should be. It's show of which every fiber, every character, every moment is so full of love and care that it will win over even the most skeptical viewer with its high quality, and its sheer sense of fun. Will the Duffer Brothers ever produce something of this magnitude again? It's too early to say, but what they have created here is truly hard to fault, and if you haven't watched it yet, you simply must.
Monday, 22 August 2016
The Rio Olympic games have been enthralling so far. Despite pre-tournament worries of Zika, crime, or terrorism, events have gone ahead mostly as planned, which thankfully allows us to focus on the sport side of things.
Indeed it has been a tournament for breaking records and setting historic milestones, but the subject that I'm hearing people discuss most at the moment is the sensational story of Team GB. How has such a tiny country, one with a generally undistinguished history at the Olympic games until recent years, come out all of a sudden to become such a global sporting powerhouse?
As one can see from the official Team GB website, there has been a clear improvement in the country's performance at the summer games, beginning with 2008 in Beijing, a run of success that has seen Team GB finish fourth, third and so far second in the three summer tournaments since then. In the twenty years preceding those games, 1988-2008, Team GB won an average of 23.4 medals per game. From 2008 onwards, that average increases by 130% to 54 total medals, a number that will certainly increase even further as the Rio games continue to unfold.
Now a note of caution: the summer Olympics only take place every four years; with such a small data set you're bound to get some funky data. But any accusation that 2008 was a fluke, or that 2012 was just down to home advantage must surely have evaporated now given Team GB's showing in 2016, away from home in a hostile climate, and at the time of writing having won more medals than even massive China.
It's perhaps most starkly illustrated when you analyse the data of medals won per capita. On first glance, Great Britain ranking at thirteenth may not seem all that overwhelming, but look closer. All the other major players at the Olympics, USA, China, Russia, all way down the list. Most of the top ranked nations on this list are tiny micronations with a population of a million or fewer that have by some chance won a medal. If you look for larger countries, with population of 25 million or more, Team GB is ranked top. More pertinently if you look at the countries that have won more than just a handful, ten medals or more, GB is top.
So how did they pull it off? Well if you look again at the data, there's another strong correlation, GDP per capita.
Sunday, 21 August 2016
Welcome back football fans. With such a busy summer of sport behind us you may not even have noticed the absence of Premier League football, but the Ephemeric has felt it deeply. The season ahead promises plenty of drama, convoluted narratives that would make Game of Thrones blush, and hopefully some decent football. As per usual the Ephemeric is here to run the rule over every team in the Premier League and render a few inevitably accurate predictions. Read on for the ultimate preview of what awaits us these next nine months.
Premier League 2016/17 Predictions in a nutshell:
Champions: Manchester United
Champions League qualifiers: Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham
Relegated: Hull, Watford, Burnley
Golden Boot winner: Sergio Agüero (Manchester City)
Golden Glove winner: David de Gea (Manchester United)
Player to watch: Paul Pogba (Manchester United)
New signing to watch: Paul Pogba (Manchester United)
Young player to watch: Reece Oxford (West Ham United)
First manager to get the sack: Walter Mazzarri (Watford)
Shock of the season: Paul Pogba is just ok...
Nickname: The Gunners
Ground: Emirates Stadium
Position last season: 2nd
Manager: Arsene Wenger
Poor Arsenal, it just never happens for them. Even in a season where all their main rivals fall by the wayside, someone comes out of the blue, just for the purpose of stopping them from winning a first league title in 15 years. On the bright side they finished 2nd, a high point in recent years that breaks the 4th place curse that has become so regular as to have taken on "meme" status, but as a new season dawns they still look a side that is incapable of delivering the big prize.
Typically the problem with Arsenal has been money, not that they don't have it, but that they refuse to spend it. Whether by some misplaced morality, or the simple greed of the club's board, the club has become typified by a lack of ambition. Now with massive recent outlays on transfer spending, including the £50 million deals for Ozil and Sanchez, and this summer nearly £40 million on Granit Xhaka, the club seems finally to have accepted this new reality. Now the question is whether they waited too long and are simply too far off the pace to seriously challenge the big clubs.
But more positive is the return to form of certain key players, most notably Mesut Ozil who in his first few seasons with the club had appeared to be written off as one of the Premier League's big-money flops. Last year he finally showed glimpses of the potential that had made him such a prospect all those years ago, and if he can keep that going this season he'll be one of the league's stars. Meanwhile Xhaka looks to be another smart signing, albeit one for whom Arsenal might have overpaid, but notably the club seems uninterested in strengthening the areas that most need attention, ie a striker, an experienced defender.
Key Signing: Granit Xhaka
Key Man: Mesut Ozil
Verdict: Should be another solid season for Arsenal, but if they couldn't mount a title challenge last season, they never will.
Nickname: The Cherries
Ground: Dean Court
Last season: 16th
Manager: Eddie Howe
An impressive Premier League debut for Bournemouth, who comfortably stayed up, and pulled off some strong results in the process including victories against Chelsea and Manchester United. For them the question is whether they can kick on from here, or suffer the dreaded second-season syndrome.
Their challenge is not helped by the departure of key player Matt Ritchie to Newcastle, but they have not been shy about strengthening the playing staff, with the record signing of Jordon Ibe from Liverpool, and quite intriguingly Nathan Ake on loan from Chelsea. There has been little in the way of defensive reinforcements, which is surprising for the second leakiest defence in the league last season.
Thin depth at the back of the pitch aside, they are well stocked in the midfield and up front, especially with striker Callum Wilson back from injury. There is no doubting the difficulty of what lies ahead, but Eddie Howe is a good manager and on paper they don't look worse off than last year.
Key Signing: Jordon Ibe
Key Man: Callum Wilson
Verdict: A tough season in store, with a real threat of relegation, but Bournemouth can survive if their new signings gel.
Nickname: The Clarets
Ground: Turf Moor
Last season: Promoted (1st)
Manager: Sean Dyche
Sean Dyche has been with the club a long time now by modern standards. He has seen the club relegated and he has seen them promoted, most recently as Championship winners. But the Premier League is a different beast, and even winning the lower division is no guarantee of Premier League success.
There are red flags already. After promotion, you have to strengthen, and yet a lack of transfer activity over the summer has left Burnley's squad looking even weaker than it did last season. Joey Barton and Michael Duff have gone, and their biggest transfer moves have so far been rebuffed by the selling club, it's starting to look bad.
Dyche is a fine manager and has a proven record at working well with meagre options, but that won't be enough on its own, given how competitive this league has become. Even other lower half of the table teams are spending tens of millions on new players, it's no longer the case that such an outlay is a luxury, it is the bare minimum needed to survive.
The one bright side appears to be the imminent signing of Belgian midfielder Steven Defour, which promises to be something of a coup for the club and go a long way towards steadying the ship.
Key Signing: Steven Defour
Key Man: Andre Gray
Verdict: One of the favourites for the drop, but the signing of Defour might yet save them.
Ground: Stamford Bridge
Last season: 10th
Manager: Antonio Conte
Chelsea never do things simple do they? This time last year they had just been crowned Champions by a comfortable margin, but even then there were red flags. In the Ephemeric's preview, I lambasted the club's transfer policy and warned that combined with a blisteringly tough start to the fixtures, a poor season could be in store, even while all other pundits were tipping them for the title. Sometimes I hate being right, but even I would never have predicted the complete and utter devastation that occurred.
Mourinho promptly got the blame and the sack, whether deservedly or not. The new manager Antonio Conte looks more than capable, but then so was Jose. The issue the club faces is that they appear not to have learned their lesson even after the disaster they just witnessed. N'Golo Kante from Champions Leicester is a very astute signing, and Michy Batshuayi looks like potent support for Costa, but Chelsea's problem last year was not a lack of firepower or midfield strength, it was a complete dearth of defensive quality.
A right back playing at left back, three centre backs, two of which are in their mid thirties, the other is crocked, and a right back who can't run any more. Chelsea's disjointed defence was their undoing last year, and it will be again this year. At the time of writing not a single defensive signing has been made, and the club starts the season without a left back in the squad, not one. Chelsea's board seem to be in denial, and it will cost them again this year.
Key Signing: N'Golo Kante
Key Man: Eden Hazard
Verdict: Yet another season of disappointment awaits the most mismanaged club in the league. Top four surely beyond reach.
Nickname: Eagles, Glaziers
Ground: Selhurst Park
Last season: 15th
Manager: Alan Pardew
Big things were expected of Crystal Palace last season on the back of some very positive signs of progress in previous seasons, and they duly... did not deliver. Alan Pardew has kept his job, and probably rightly so, but he needs to address the problems that still face the club and start taking them forward again.
His approach over the summer to taking on this challenge appears to have been an increase in transfer market activity, and the club has spent big. Andros Townsend, James Tomkins, and Steve Mandanda are all very good signings, but that only scratches the surface. Even bigger money bids were made for Batshuayi, who ended up moving to London rivals Chelsea, and Berahino, who so far has opted to stay at West Brom. They finally got their target position sorted with a huge £27 million signing of Christian Benteke, an addition that could turn out to be a major boon for the club.
But even without further signings they have a solid squad on paper. Wayne Hennessey has always been very dependable in goal, Yohann Cabaye remains a giant in the midfield, and up front they have the attacking talent of Connor Wickham and Wilfried Zaha. This is a squad that succeed in the Premier League, and a manager with plenty of experience in doing so. It's worth noting the role that injuries to key personnel played in last season's disappointment. If Pardew can keep these lads fit they should do well.
Key Signing: Christian Benteke
Key Man: Yohann Cabaye
Verdict: Minimum expectation is to finish higher than last season, and a push into the top half is not beyond them.
Ground: Goodison Park
Last season: 11th
Manager: Ronald Koeman
Everton... it all looked to be going so well under new manager Roberto Martinez, but two disappointing seasons in a row was apparently the limit, and he was shown the door last year. Ronald Koeman is the replacement. The former Barcelona star had a very solid tenure as Southampton's chief, stepping into the hard to fill shoes of Mauricio Pochettino, but Everton will be a different sort of challenge.
The squad is strong, but lacking balance. New investment from billionaire Moshiri will need to be put to good use. The selling of defender John Stones was not a good start, but the astonishing £50 million fee was understandably difficult to turn down, and they have replaced him well with Swansea's Ashley Williams. Stekelenburg and Gueye are fine signings too, but they will need more, especially if Lukaku leaves.
But the key addition is Yannick Bolasie formerly of Crystal Palace, for a huge £25 million fee. A fine player, but is it the statement of intent that Everton needed? Good things may yet be to come in the ensuing years, but this season looks to be more of a settling period, for the new manager and owners alike.
Key Signing: Ashley Williams
Key Man: Romelu Lukaku
Verdict: Too soon for a major improvement, but expect another solid upper mid table finish.
Nickname: The Tigers
Ground: KC Stadium
Last season: Promoted (Play-off)
Manager: Mike Phelan
Club owner Assem Allam has never been popular with the Hull fans. Since taking over the club he has been determined to implement all sorts of controversial and out of touch ideas such as changing the name to "Hull Tigers". These haven't panned out, and now due to illness he has become less involved in the club. This has only led to more drama, with manager Steve Bruce first falling out with Allam's son, and then resigning just days before the start of the season due to frustration at the lack of transfer activity.
So here is the club, starting the year with an astonishingly small squad with only 13 full squad members, a caretaker manager, and complete uncertainty at what the future holds. But they are in the Premier League, and as long as they're here they have a chance.
This is a squad with some solid and experienced players, Michael Dawson, Tom Huddlestone, and Curtis Davies among them, but it's shockingly thin in depth, and with seemingly nothing on the horizon, one has to make them a favourite for the drop, but then again, sometimes adversity can spur a team on to great things.
Key Signing: Will Mannion is so far the only signing...
Key Man: Michael Dawson
Verdict: Favourites for relegation, will have to rise in the face of serious adversity.
Nickname: The Foxes
Ground: King Power Stadium
Last season: Champions
Manager: Claudio Ranieri
Last year's title win will go down as one of the greatest stories in the history of sports, an astonishing upset, a huge triumph above all expectation, not just for the players but for the manager. Now the question will be, was it just a fluke?
Leicester City have a lot of money at their disposal, a capable manager, and as last season showed, a pretty good team. But even with last season's heroics, you'd have to say that on paper they still aren't at the same level as the other big clubs in England. It would be crass to dismiss what they accomplished as a fluke, but sometimes clubs do simply perform above their level, and that can be enough to achieve incredible things.
At the same time, they have lost a key player in N'Golo Kante. His replacement Nampalys Mendy will be under great pressure to fill his role. But they have kept Mahrez, they have kept Vardy, and they have added six players to the squad. This is not a club under any illusion of invincibility and one incredible season at the top will not distract from what has been a succession of very positive years of development leading up to that triumph. This is a club with a long term plan and solid foundation, the key thing is not to win the title again this season but to keep the long term development going.
Key Signing: Nampalys Mendy
Key Man: Riyad Mahrez
Verdict: Will struggle to meet last season's lofty achievements, but top 10 finish should be doable.
Last season: 8th
Manager: Jurgen Klopp
That one year Liverpool nearly won the title under Brendan Rodgers now seems a bit of a fluke. Yet with Jurgen Klopp, one of the hottest managers in the world today, the feeling is finally one of genuine optimism and direction. Can he take this club back to the top?
Now it might seem like such statements are made every season, and there is something to that, especially with the dominance of ex Liverpool players in the pundit class, but the things Klopp accomplished at Dortmund are not to be sniffed at, when faced with the total monopoly of German football and sponsorship that is Bayern Munich. That they won the title and damn near won the Champions League should not be understated. Add to that the return to fitness of key players like Daniel Sturridge, and this should be a very different looking Liverpool side to the one that we watched for most of last season.
Some big signings have been made in the form of Mané and Wijnaldum, but then Liverpool are no stranger to the big money transfer that doesn't pan out. Will this be different? The key to Liverpool's success will be the fitness and consistency of key players like Philippe Coutinho, a man who has shown glimpses of brilliance throughout his Liverpool career.
Key Signing: Sadio Mané
Key Man: Philippe Coutinho
Verdict: A return to the top 6 looks likely.
Ground: Etihad Stadium
Last season: 4th
Manager: Pep Guardiola
Manchester City finished a disappointing 4th place last season, but really it should come as no surprise when you announce half way through the year, in the midst of a tight title race, that the manager is to be replaced at the end of the season. Unsurprisingly, after that announcement the club's title challenge fizzled out.
Now the board has got it's man Pep Guardiola, one of football's great charlatans who has made a career of taking over the best club in the world and then making them no longer the best club in the world. How will he fare at a club that's not the best in the world? Not well we reckon. If his mediocre tenure at Bayern damaged his reputation, City could be the venue where it finally gets buried.
His saving grace is that the Manchester City team he inherits is probably still the strongest in the league on paper, and most likely would have won the title last season if not for the board's astonishing self-sabotage. From Joe Hart to Sergio Aguero, Vincent Kompany, Raheem Sterling, and Kolarov, this is a club that is overstocked with talent in every position, in a way that no other British club can match.
Pep hasn't been shy about adding to that squad either, with a huge £150 million spent so far on the likes of John Stones, Leroy Sane, and Gabriel Jesus. It's a bold gesture of faith from the board, especially considering none of his signings for Bayern or Barcelona ever exactly became key players. With all the money he spent, it was always the players he inherited that carried his teams.
On the balance of things, you'd have to say City have a good shot at the title, with such a great squad. But for me they're not the favourites.
Key Signing: John Stones
Key Man: Sergio Agüero
Verdict: Without doubt a title challenger, but likely to fall short in my view.
Nickname: Red Devils
Ground: Old Trafford
Last season: 5th
Manager: Jose Mourinho
Manchester United are, quite simply, the team to watch this season. They have one of the best managers in the world in Jose Mourinho, a year after his latest flameout with Chelsea. He's a man with something to prove, and with his arch rival Pep managing Manchester United's arch rivals City, there's some extra venom to this story.
Then there's the new faces. Obviously we have the world record signing Paul Pogba. If Chelsea were red-faced at letting Nemanja Matic to go Benfica for cheap, only to re-sign him at 5 times the cost 2 years later, this one really takes the cake. Pogba was sold to Juventus for free, now to be re-signed just years later for near £90 million. It boggles the mind. How can anyone live up to that fee? We shall see.
But he's not the only signing. Eric Bailly is solid at the back, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic has always performed and brings some great experience and mental edge to the team. He joins a healthy mix of hotly tipped youngsters like Rashford and Martial, and some well seasoned veterans such as Davide De Gea and Juan Mata. But still the key man remains the legendary striker Wayne Rooney. Whether he plays up front or in a deeper midfield role, everything good that the team creates flows through him.
The squad is strong, but perhaps less so than City. Still, the combination of momentum, talent and managerial brilliance make United our favourites for the title.
Key Signing: Paul Pogba
Key Man: Wayne Rooney
Nickname: The Boro
Ground: Riverside Stadium
Last season: Promoted (2nd)
Manager: Aitor Karanka
A tasty new addition to the Premier League. It's been a number of years since I last had the pleasure of previewing Middlesbrough, and they make for an interesting prospect in this new season. Promoted as the runner up in the Championship after a number of seasons threatening to make the cut, they now look well prepared for a strong return to the top flight.
Perhaps most interesting is the manager, Aitor Karanka, the former Mourinho assistant manager from Real Madrid days. Karanka has been hotly tipped for a while now, and despite some rocky waters last spring, seems to be doing a fine job with Boro. Now for the first time he faces his mentor in competitive football.
Their squad is not bad for a newly promoted side, featuring the experienced hands of Stewart Downing and David Nugent. Crucially they have made a concerted effort to strengthen over the summer, something which usually determines how well a newly promoted side is likely to fare. And they have made some interesting moves with Victor Valdes, Brad Guzan and Fabio among 8 new acquisitions so far. They have also loaned Alvaro Negredo for the year in a move that could be the most significant.
Their defence last season was remarkable, if they can transition well to top flight football then they will be well prepared for the rigours of the stronger competition. Negredo in the meantime will provide a much needed boost to what has been a lacklustre attacking force.
Key Signing: Alvaro Negredo
Key Man: Ben Gibson
Verdict: Well placed for survival.
Ground: St. Mary's Stadium
Last season: 6th
Manager: Claude Puel
One of the Premier League's great success stories in recent years, Southampton's rise to the top has been hugely impressive. But a series of managerial changes and player departures has started to leave them looking a bit disjointed. A club that wishes to remain at the top needs to at some point consolidate what they have, and yet Southampton continue to turnover at a rate more befitting a club of less promise.
Few will have heard of new manager Claude Puel, and this summer has seen the untimely departure of the likes of Sadio Mané and Victor Wanyama. On the flip side, they have signed the very impressive Nathan Redmond, and a line up featuring James Ward-Prowse, Fraser Forster, Oriol Romeu and Shane Long is more than impressive. This is a side that can compete at a high level.
Still the season starts with rather more of a dour mood than in recent years. Particularly after an impressive 6th place last year finish fans might have hoped for a real statement of intent going into this season. That has not happened, and a tricky season lies ahead.
Key Signing: Nathan Redmond
Key Man: Fraser Forster
Verdict: A slight step backwards and a mid table finish likely.
Ground: Britannia Stadium
Last season: 9th
Manager: Mark Hughes
Last year we predicted a strong season from Hughes and the boys, and they duly delivered. Mark Hughes has done a very impressive job with this team in shaking off the utilitarian ways of Tony Pulis and building a side that can play real football and play it well.
Having been extremely active in the transfer market in recent seasons, this year looks to be something of a consolidation. They have made one marquee signing in the very talented Joe Allen, but otherwise they look to line up with mostly the same eleven, barring further moves.
For this reason Stoke will be one of the more interesting sides to watch this season. No one expects them to push for Europe, and they probably are safe from a relegation tussle, but to watch this club's continued evolution from the rugged jalopy of football into something representing more of, if not a ferrari then an alpha romeo, is fascinating.
Key Signing: Joe Allen
Key Man: Marko Arnautovic
Verdict: Could be a special season for Mark Hughes and his team.
Nickname: Black Cats
Ground: Stadium of Light
Last season: 17th
Manager: David Moyes
Another year, another managerial change, and this time they have turned to the once highly regarded David Moyes. That's manager number seven in five years.
Sunderland were one of the favourites for the drop last season, and only escaped through a last minute miracle of former manager, now England manager Sam Allardyce. A lack of meaningful transfer activity means they are likely to face a similar challenge this year. So far the only major signing has been Papy Djilobodji, the much mocked last minute Chelsea signing of last year, who failed to play a single game for the club. At £8million it's hardly a cheap move either, but we'll see how it plays out. A loan move for Manchester United's once hyped midfielder Adnan Januzaj is more hopeful.
Elsewhere there's many familiar faces, Lee Cattermole, Jermain Defoe, Jack Rodwell, Fabio Borini, and the excellent Patrick Van Aanholt. It's really not a bad team on paper, which makes their continual struggles all the more surprising. For whatever reason, these players haven't gelled, and off the pitch travails haven't helped. There's no more room for error now though.
Key Signing: Adnan Januzaj
Key Man: Lee Cattermole
Verdict: A tough season to avoid relegation, but they have the talent on paper to survive.
Nickname: The Swans
Ground: Liberty Stadium
Last season: 12th
Manager: Francesco Guidolin
It's a genuine shame to say that after a few very promising seasons in charge, Garry Monk was dismissed last season. Despite this, Swansea had a fairly decent season with a creditable mid-table finish. New manager Francesco Guidolin will have to ensure that disruptions off the pitch don't start to derail progress on it.
They're not off to a good start, with huge upheaval in the dressing room following the mass exodus of players that has seen no fewer than twelve players leave, including some key personnel such as Ashley Williams, André Ayew, and Eder. At the same time they have brought in a good seven new signings, most notably the extra firepower of Fernando Llorente, and Borja Baston.
There's a lot of new faces, and one would have to assume there will be a gelling process before we see this Swansea team come together. Expect a transition year.
Key Signing: Borja Baston
Key Man: Gylfi Sigurðsson
Verdict: Probably safe from relegation, but mid table is realistically the best they can do.
Ground: White Hart Lane
Last season: 3rd
Manager: Mauricio Pochettino
Last season was a stunning success for Tottenham, one that has cemented Pochettino's status as one of the hottest managers in football. Champions League qualification is already a great step for the club, but more than they they have emerged as genuine title challengers, and weren't too far off winning it all last season until a late season slip.
So a very exciting time to be a Tottenham fan. The management have clearly decided that few changes are needed, and that more valuable will be to allow the impressive squad more time to develop as a cohesive unit. As such there have been just two signings so far, Vincent Janssen providing more options up front, and Southampton's very talented Victor Wanyama in the midfield.
The squad undoubtedly ranks among the strongest in the league, with Lloris, Kyle Walker, Dier, and Eriksen all top performers, but the real star is of course Harry Kane, who has been in phenomenal goalscoring form these past two years. If he keeps that up this year, anything is possible.
Key Signing: Victor Wanyama
Key Man: Harry Kane
Verdict: A good shout for top four.
Ground: Vicarage Road
Last season: 13th
Manager: Walter Mazzarri
The rollercoaster continues, another managerial change, and another summer of mass squad upheaval. Last summer following promotion Watford signed fifteen players, this summer they sold or released twelve of them and another seven have come in.
Despite this madness, the team actually performed fairly decently last season, coming comfortably in the mid table and never really looking at danger of relegation. A similar result for this year is surely looking unlikely. New team, new tactics, stories of unrest, and a poor pre-season does not paint an optimistic view of the season ahead.
It's hard to put a firm prediction on the league's least predictable team, but all signs suggest a tough season ahead. Past form suggests they won't go down without a fight, but Watford are one of a few teams with a real risk of relegation.
Key Signing: Younes Kaboul
Key Man: Troy Deeney
Verdict: Premier League enigmas, but will do well to escape relegation.
WEST BROMWICH ALBION
Ground: The Hawthorns
Last season: 14th
Manager: Tony Pulis
An up-and-down season for the Baggies saw them headed, as predicted, for relegation. But ultimately the well tested skills of Tony Pulis kept them stable, kept them focused, and saved the day.
Tony Pulis is one of the very best when it comes to winning Premier League points with only meager resources at your disposal. He did it with Stoke, and he did it with Crystal Palace. With Pulis at the helm, West Brom will be safe from relegation. The question now is can they push on and make a case for the top half of the table.
To do that they will have to address the lack of goalscoring prowess they showed last season. They are well stocked in defence and midfield, having failed to score in nearly half their league games last season it's quite clear where the weakness lies. It's surprising, then, that West Brom haven't been more active in the transfer market, with only the one, fairly unremarkable signing so far.
The extra spice to the tale is the club's recent acquisition and new owner. Pulis' job appears to be safe for now, but questions remain on how this will affect the club's ambition going forward.
Key Signing: Matt Phillips
Key Man: Darren Fletcher
Verdict: Should be safe, but on the lower end of mid table.
WEST HAM UNITED
Nickname: The Hammers
Ground: The Boleyn Ground
Last season: 7th
Manager: Slaven Bilić
By all accounts last season was a phenomenal success for the Hammers. Promising things were expected under hot new manager Slaven Bilić, but few would have expected the very credible push for European qualification that the club ultimately put forward.
Now with a new stadium, highly regarded manager, and a team that's performed above expectations, West Ham starts this season in one of the most optimistic positions the club has found itself in for many years, with the new expectation being a top half finish for sure, and hopefully another push into the top seven.
But there's a lot of work on to achieve this goal. The squad is strong, sure, with Dimitri Payet, Mark Noble, and Adrian particularly impressive last season, but this is a team that needs depth, particularly with the additional challenge of European football on the table. So far the major transfer has been Andre Ayew of Swansea, but a good eight other players have joined him as new signings.
This is a team with big changes, and they likely are not done yet. While hopes remain high, the challenges are many and fans would do well to temper expectations for the next nine months.
Key Signing: Andre Ayew
Key Man: Dimitri Payet
Verdict: Will push for top 7, but comfortable mid table position likely.
1. Manchester United
2. Manchester City
7. Leicester City
9. West Ham
12. Crystal Palace
13. West Brom
14. Swansea City
Tuesday, 9 August 2016
Summer Music Round-Up Part 2: "Red Hot Chili Peppers", "Christine and the Queens", "Michael Kiwanuka"
Hello everyone and welcome back to the Ephemeric's Summer Music Round-Up on this beautiful Saturday afternoon (note: if by the time this post is complete it is no longer a Saturday please disregard that last sentiment).
In Part 2 of our guide to the best music of the summer 2016 we will review three of the hottest albums out right now, with the new LP releases of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Christine and the Queens, and Michael Kiwanuka.
"The Getaway - Red Hot Chili Peppers" Album Review
At this stage, Red Hot Chili Peppers are one of those venerable rock bands that seem to have been around for ever, and one for which most people have a soft spot tucked away somewhere.
Still there is no denying that they have been on the wane in the recent years of their career, perhaps most punctuated by the departure of former lead guitarist John Frusciante. Even prior to that, however, their's is definitely a sound in a rut, short on new ideas, increasingly frequently recycling riffs and melodies and sticking to the tried and tested radio-friendly sound that they settled upon around the time of By the Way.
Still with producer Danger Mouse at the helm of newest album The Getaway, I am pleased to say that they have produced their finest effort in some years.
Still heavy on the blended soft-punk and pop-rock, the melodies sound fresher than they have in a while, with more delicate guitar work and fully realised soundscapes smoothed out by excellent production. It's an all together more mature sounding work, a product of finesse, airy enough to let the music flow comfortably without losing its edge. Title track The Getaway is a great song, while Dark Necessities, Sick Love, and Goodbye Angels are also standouts.
A good return to form, and well worth listening to.
"Chaleur Humaine - Christine and the Queens" Album Review
Another of The Ephemeric's successful predictions, Christine and the Queens began the year with high expectations. I had tipped them to make a big splash in 2016 back in this year's Hot List in January, and indeed they are now well on their way to becoming a household name in the European music scene.
Debut album Chaleur Humaine, unusually, was actually originally released in 2014, but only in France. 2016 has seen the wider release in other regions, and the re-recording of several songs in English, and it hasn't taken long for them to catch on.
It's hard to describe just what makes Christine's music work. There's something intricate and meticulously composed about these tracks, which lends them a minimalist sound not entirely dissimilar to other celebrated bands like The xx. But there's also a fascinating combination of sounds, for example in No Harm is Done which blends rap with a light piano backing, or the ethereal Jonathan which comes across as both forceful and vulnerable at the same time. It's expert songwriting.
A critical and commercial success, and a promising start to a career that we will watch with interest.
"Love & Hate - Michael Kiwanuka" Album Review
When Michael Kiwanuka's debut album Home Again released in 2012 it was something of a revelation. A collection of tracks seemingly out of nowhere that varied from light and playful to darker and more profound. In my view one of the best acoustic albums in many years.
So no pressure to follow up album Love & Hate, which additionally sees the appearance of uber-producer Danger Mouse for the second time on this list.
Fans need not have fretted, Kiwanuka has not lost any of the soul that made his simple arrangements so powerful. Far from it, Love & Hate is full of much deeper and richer compositions, with a greater variety in instrumentalisation from understated acoustic style to fuller and more complex crescendos of jazz and funk.
The sombre title track Love & Hate is the best embodiment of this album, and Kiwanuka's talent as a whole, beautiful soul music that builds into a full soaring cry for help. Really gorgeous. Many songs on the album are worthy of note, from the somewhat peppier One More Night which sounds more reminiscent of Kiwanuka's debut album, to the wonderful construction of I'll Never Love. In my view though the real pinnacle is the heavily introspective Father's Child with it's frantic strings and powerful yearning guitar in the finale.
These are excellent songs, every bit the equal in quality of his first album, and certainly of a more refined production. If there is one criticism of the album it's that it strikes such a continually morose and heavy sound that it can get a bit exhausting by the end, meaning the last few songs might simply pass a listener by on the first hearing, a true shame as the best songs are those at the end. Compare to Home Again which more effectively mixed things up tonally.
This is lush, textured music with a quality of production that lends it a truly timeless quality. It might take a few listens but it is wonderful.