james debate
james debate

Sunday 27 December 2020

debbie debbies end of year awards 2020 covid coronavirus office space michael bolton best films music
First let me address the elephant in the room. I thought long and hard about not doing the Debbie Awards this year. After all, 2020 is not a year that many would want to remember, much less see honoured in such a way. But after careful deliberation I was minded of the precedent set in the case of Office Space (c. Mike Judge - 1999): "He's the one who sucks, why should I have to change?" And besides, a year with so much bad only makes it all the more important to celebrate the good. So I will be doing the Debbie Awards this year after all, but I am not going to enjoy it.

Otherwise, it's a new decade, so new Debbie. Enjoy it in all of its beardy glory. And now, without further ado, let the curtain fall at long last upon 2020 as we begin our definitive review of the past 12 months:

2020 Debbie Awards

Cinema & TV

1. The Debbie for TV Show of the Year 
Winner: Schitt's Creek (CBC)
Runner Up: The Boys (Amazon)

best tv show 2020 schitt creek cbc dan eugene levy

If 2020 is remembered for one thing, surely it will be as the year in which the world fell in love with Schitt's Creek, a TV series that had been around for several years but for some reason we only started caring about just as it was finishing. This is one of those series that people had been telling me to watch for a long while and I am glad I finally did. Schitt's Creek is a delight, funny but also warm and comforting, filled with stellar performances from its talented cast. It will be sorely missed now that it is gone, but is sure to live on as one of those series that you can happily throw on an episode and unwind for years to come.

Dark, raunchy and surprisingly complex. The Boys' irreverent satire on consumerism and pop culture has achieved something beyond its graphic novel source material and crafted an identity of its own. Now in its second season and getting better with each episode, this show is fast becoming a crown jewel in Amazon's burgeoning original content library. Superbly entertaining and irresistible television.

2. The Debbie for New TV Show of the Year 
Winner: Ted Lasso (Apple TV+)
Runner Up: Devs (FX)

best new tv show 2020 ted lasso apple TV plus TV+ jason sudeikis

Easily the surprise package of television in 2020. When Apple announced a TV series based on a forgettable series of one-note NBC sports ads many people, myself included, were quick to scoff and predict that this would be lowest common denominator nonsense. So to have turned this into something that is not only good, but very good indeed, is quite some accomplishment. Ted Lasso is funny, but in a tasteful, measured way, with a pitch perfect balance between humour and heart. Like many of the best comedies, Ted Lasso presents an idealised version of the world, one where even the bad guys are charming in their own way. This is a series that constantly exceeds expectations, fleshing out seemingly superficial characters into something that is easy to love. I look forward to season 2.

Coming in second is a series that, until recently, I felt pretty certain would take the Debbie this year. Devs is a new miniseries from sci-fi mastermind Alex Garland, author of The Beach, The Tesseract28 Days Later, and more recently director of Ex Machina and Annihilation. The result is as mind-bending as you would expect, asking very real and interesting questions about pre-determinism and whether the laws of physics permit free will to exist. It's a very fascinating topic and one that I have pondered in the past myself, depicted with genuine insight through stylish storytelling. Unfortunately things do get a bit muddled towards the end, as the series veers from real science to Hollywood science fiction, but overall this is still premium sci-fi and well worth watching.

3. The Debbie for Film of the Year 
Winner: Trial of the Chicago 7
Runner Up: Hamilton

best film 2020 trial chicago seven 7 aaron sorkin sacha baron cohen joseph gordon levitt eddie redmayne michael keaton mark rylance

In many ways, 2020 has been an unfortunate year for film. Most of the year's most anticipated releases ended up being delayed until 2021 due to the pandemic. Many others released direct to streaming platforms (a good development that I hope persists in some way, especially around the holiday period). Despite this, there have still been a number of strong releases this year, films that deserve to be lauded in any context. So make no mistake, this is a Debbie well earned, despite the abdication of many of the year's expected big-hitters.

It is somewhat ironic that Aaron Sorkin, a man who once played himself on Entourage and insisted that he would never want to become a director since he's a writer by trade, has actually moved into the realm of directing. If his first project, Molly's Game did not strike as wholly convincing, his latest film sure does. Trial of the Chicago 7 is a dramatisation of the events surrounding the real-life trial of the Chicago Seven, a group of anti-Vietnam war protestors charged with crimes in the wake of the 1968 riots. While I had no doubts that Sorkin could write his way through what might otherwise have been a relatively dry courtroom drama, what I did not expect was for him to be able to direct it in such an exciting, kinetic fashion. The result is a film at the peak of its genre and a highlight of 2020 cinema.

It may not be eligible for the Oscars, but you ain't in Hollywood anymore fella. These are the Debbies and here I make my own rules. Hamilton released back in the summer, an amalgamated recording of various performances of the now legendary musical featuring the original Broadway cast. That millions all over the world would be able to finally see this brilliant show for themselves would ordinarily be sufficient cause for celebration, but it is made all the more remarkable by just how well it comes across as a film in its own right. It is difficult to put a theatre performance on the big screen, I have never seen it pulled off with any great degree of success, but here they have managed something very impressive, capturing the energy and immediacy in a way that has defied many others. This is not just a visual cast recording for fans of the show, but two and a half hours of entertainment to be relished.

4. The Debbie for Variety Show Host of the Year 
Winner: John Krasinski, Some Good News

jim krasinski some good news covid coronavirus talk show host of the year 2020

In a year where we could all do with a pick-me-up, few have stepped up to the plate to make it happen as much as John Krasinski. The former star of the Office (and now talented filmmaker in his own right) hosted Some Good News, a tragically short-lived webseries the sole premise of which was to celebrate the good news of the day from around the world, in contrast to the general news media's tendency to focus on reporting the tragic and awful. While this series was created as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic, it's a premise that would have been equally valid in most years. It sounds so deceptively simple, almost shallow. But the way in which it was pulled off with genuinely good humour, clever celebrity cameos and remarkably heartfelt showstoppers makes this a very special creation indeed, well worth a Debbie.

5. The Debbie for Hollywood Rising Star of the Year 
Winner: Kingsley Ben-Adir

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One name you are sure to be hearing more of in the coming years is Kingsley Ben-Adir. Two years ago, Kingsley was a largely unknown British theatre actor, but he has had one heck of a run and emerged as a bona fide one to watch. In just twelve months he has appeared in the well received Disney Christmas film Noelle, the hotly tipped Malcolm X story One Night in Miami, the hit HBO series Love Life and played Barack Obama in the the award winning political drama The Comey Rule. It's a hot streak of which any actor would be proud and I expect there's only more to come.

6. The Debbie for YouTube Channel of the Year 
Winner: Kurzgesagt, in a nutshell

debbies youtube channel of the year kurzgesagt in a nutshell 2020

YouTube at its best can be informative, entertaining, and address niche topics that most mainstream media will never touch. Kurzgesagt covers all these bases, with a series of slickly animated education videos that address topics as wide ranging as Designer Babies, automation, the healthiness of milk, and pulsar stars. Science, philosophy, politics, biology, health and safety, nutrition, this channel touches on so many different topics and approaches all of them with the same sensitivity and fact-based approached (indeed all data is sourced). There's something here to cater to any interest, perfect for anyone with some intellectual curiosity.

Music, Art & Theatre

7. The Debbie for Theatrical Production of the Year 
Winner: The Haystack(Hampstead Theatre)

haystack hampstead bush trump cia gchq edward snowden chelsea manning best theatre 2020

I figured that this might be a tricky year for this award, given that the theatres have been closed for most of the year. Sure, there have been shows streamed online, but for the most part these have been recording of older productions, rather than actually new theatre. Fortunately I did manage to see a few shows in the first two months of the year, one of which was good enough that it would have been a contender even in an ordinary year of theatre. The Haystack tackles issues of digital privacy, GCHQ snooping, and all kinds of political intrigue and digital espionage that always feels uncomfortably close to reality. It makes for an enthralling, yet brainy drama with sharp writing, stylish directing and anchored by strong performances. Excellent theatre.

8. The Debbie for Album of the Year 
Winner: We Will Always Love You - The Avalanches
Runners Up: Shore - Fleet Foxes, Imploding the Mirages - The Killers

avalanches we will always love you since i left wildflower killers imploding mirage fleet foxes shore third album best album 2020

If there is one area of entertainment that has been relatively unaffected by global events over the past twelve months, it is music. As a form of media that is already mainly consumed at home or on one's own personal devices, the business of production required only a relatively smooth adjustment, with delays amounting to a few months compared to entire years as we saw in television and film. So there was no shortage of decent music this year. But in a year crowded with notable releases, one album stood above the rest: We Will Always Love You, the third studio album from elusive plunderphonics outfit The Avalanches. Introspective, but still bursting with the band's typical creativity and playful spirit. This is a sublime production that works well as a whole and as individual tracks, most notably the likes of Running Red Lights, Interstellar Love, and The Divine Chord.

Meanwhile it has been an impressive return to form for folk rockers Fleet Foxes, whose new album Shore ranks up their with the finest the genre has produced in recent years. Crisp melodies rendered with brilliant complexity and the spark of heat that was sorely missing from their last album, with great tunes like Can I Believe YouSunblindFeatherweight, among others. This is top drawer stuff from a great band and easily a musical highlight of 2020.

For our second runner up, we must make honourable mention of The Killers, a band who in 2020 produced what has to be their best album in years, Imploding the Mirage. This is an album that hearkens back to the very best the band has produced. In My Own Soul's Warning they channel the Springsteen energy of Sam's Town. With Dying Breed they turn to that driven, electronic rock and roll style that typified Hot Fuss and Day & Age. Then there's the fantastic My God, a roof-raiser more in the style of Brandon Flowers' solo work.

9. The Debbie for Debut Album of the Year 
Winner: Hugh Harris - Hugh Harris
Runner Up: Your Hero is Not Dead - Westerman

hugh harris kooks best debut album 2020

This year's winner came as a surprise. When I heard that Hugh Harris, best known as the lead guitarist of British indie band The Kooks, was releasing a solo album, I expected some pleasingly breezy rock and roll tracks. What I was not expecting from his eponymous debut was a collection of such infectiously catchy tracks, with such a high level of consistency throughout. Curious Illusions and Earth Like You are just brilliant tracks, but check out also Icy Palace, a song that is guaranteed to get stuck in your head.

One name that I am sure we will be hearing plenty from in coming years is indie pop sensation Westerman. He was tipped for a big break this year and accordingly his debut album Your Hero is Not Dead was met with general acclaim for its breezy, introspective style. Key tracks like Confirmation and Waiting on Design bring to mind other low-fi artists such as The xx, but infused with a distinctly echoey 1980s flavour. Very promising indeed.

10. The Debbie for Song of the Year 
Winner: Queen Bee - Johnny Flynn
Runners Up: Become a Mountain - Dan Deacon, The One - Lemon Twigs

queen bee johnny flynn dan deacon lemon twigs best song 2020

For perhaps the first time ever, this year's lineup of top tracks does not feature any music from our winners in the best album categories. It's always very difficult to pick out individual songs from an entire year of music. In such cases you need to learn to go with your gut and in this case my gut is telling me that Johnny Flynn's folksy Queen Bee is the standout piece of music from twelve months in which there have been many. Simplistic sounding on the surface, but intricate and playful with a certain timeless quality that ensures it will live long in the memory.

And now for something completely different: from charming folk music to the dazzlingly complex electronic stylings of Dan Deacon and in particular this year's Become a Mountain. As brilliantly experimental as we have come to expect from Deacon, his latest rumination on mortality and life manages to capture something quite profound and pensive, without stifling his soaring pop ambitions.

We close with yet another completely different genre, Lemon Twigs and their delightful slice of retro rock and roll, The One. Lemon Twigs have built a career on crafting punchy and enjoyable retro rock and roll heavily inspired by the bands of yesteryear like Buddy Holly, The Ramones, and The Beatles among many others. Their latest in particular apes on those Buddy Holly riffs and Beatles harmonies and the result is absolutely irresistible.

11. The Debbie for Live Performance of the Year 
Winner: Zucchero

zucchero covid coronavirus best live performance 2020

For obvious reasons, 2020 has been a somewhat limited year for live in-person musical performances, instead we have mainly had to make do with online live-streams. Fortunately there have been a huge number of those, from casual Instagram moments to massive, choreographed benefit concerts. There have been some great artists performing live for viewers at home, but out of all of them, I think there was one in particular who stood out to me: Italian songwriter Zucchero and his soulful rendition of Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometime performed as part of this summer's One World: Together at Home concert. A perfect capture of the melancholy of the moment performed with genuine heart.

12. The Debbie for Art Exhibition of the Year 
Winner: The Affordable London Art Fair

affordable london art fair covid coronavirus best art exhibition 2020

On a similar note: art exhibitions. For reasons we are all aware, this would be an otherwise impossible Debbie to award in 2020 with museums basically shut down. But instead of scrub this prize entirely for the year, I would like to use this to draw attention to the Affordable Art Fair Online. The Affordable Art Fair is a wonderful organisation that does in-person events in a variety of locations. In the absence of those fairs, they now have an online collection that's free to view and can be browsed for purchase. It's a great way to get started on building your own art collection without having to break the bank, and also to support local artists in this difficult time.

13. The Debbie for Book of the Year 
Winner: Daisy Jones and the Six - Taylor Jenkins Reid

daisy jones and the six taylor jenkins reid best novel book 2020

As regular readers of this blog will recall (or should do, I mean I posted about this like a week ago) I had a shall we say long shortlist for this prize. But the winner was rarely in doubt. Daisy Jones and the Six is an excellent novel and I have absolutely nothing negative to say about it. This tells the story of a fictional band of the same name, allegedly based loosely on the history of Fleetwood Mac, in the style of a documentary film. The quality of the writing here really is excellent in many ways. Vivid and believable characters with motivations that are explored to just the right extent without feeling like forced subtext. The pacing in particular is just about perfect, never feeling like the story is dragging whilst also never feeling like it has to rush through it's plot points.

Business & Technology

14. The Debbie for Scientific/Technological Breakthrough of the Year 
Winner: Covid-19 Vaccine
Runner Up: Life possibly detected on Venus

covid coronavirus vaccine venus life best important technological breakthrough 2020t

This year has actually seen a number of very interesting scientific developments, but from these there can only reasonably be one winner. The development of a vaccine from scratch is something that typically takes years, so to have come up with an effective Covid-19 vaccine in less than a year is nothing short of a modern miracle of science, a testament to how damned clever we can be when the pressure is on (and clearly when huge amounts of cash are funding it). Here's hoping that 2021 sees a nice speedy rollout, but in the meantime the efficiency and ruthlessness with which our civilisation has mastered this thing should make us all proud.

But I also wanted to highlight some non-virus news from 2020 and the one that most caught my imagination was this potential discovery of bacterial life in the atmosphere of Venus. I can practically hear some of your dozing off as I write that, but it really can not be overstated just how significant a discovery it would be to finally confirm that humanity is not the only life in existence. These findings are still to be confirmed, but if they ultimately are then it will mark a profound moment that calls for a rethinking in the minds of many as to our place in the universe.

15. The Debbie for Videogame Console of the Year
Winner: PC

PC computer windows mac best console for gaming 2020

PC has won this Debbie a few years in a row now, which is not necessarily surprising as the current console generation winds to a close and current systems more frequently run up against the limitations of their hardware. But we are in the midst of the dawn of a new console generation, which theoretically should mean some really high quality new hardware custom tailored to the gaming experience. Only one problem: I don't have one and until shortages are resolved, I won't have one. So for now, PC remains king, we'll see if that's still the case next year.

16. The Debbie for Videogame of the Year 
Winner: Crusader Kings III (PC)
Runners Up: Cyberpunk 2077 (PC), Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Switch)

crusader kings cyberpunk 2077 sayonara wild hearts pc console game of the year 2020

How does one decide what the "best" game of the year is? The most fun? The most memorable? Or just the best executed? The two games which stand out most from 2020 are contrasts in these disparate points. One is a game of such ambition and emotional impact, but a mess in terms of execution, the other is a more conceptually modest strategy title, but one that has been honed to absolute perfection. In this instance I have gone for the latter and award my Debbie to Crusader Kings III, the latest in Paradox Interactive's series of medieval strategy. As always, the unique hook of this series is the blending of the strategy genre with storytelling/RPG aspects. This latest iteration takes the best aspects from its predecessor as well as the nearly decade's worth of expansions, and has produced arguably the finest strategy game on the market today and one of the best story generators ever conceived.

In second place is Cyberpunk 2077, one of the most hyped games of the last several years the release of which has been met with no small share of controversy due to bugs, missing features, and accusations the company misled consumers in the build up to launch. Through all the controversy, though, is one of the greatest worlds ever created in a videogame, with story, visuals, and a level quest design that ranks up there with some of the best ever. It's a bug-riddled, half-finished mess, but underneath all the wet muck is a gemstone waiting to be polished.

I will also give honourable mention to a game that got a great many people through lockdown this year: Animal Crossing: New Horizons. At a time when most of us were stuck inside for weeks on end, Animal Crossing provided some welcome escapism, a chance to craft your own dream island, a village full of colourful characters, and build your dream cartoon home. It also helps that New Horizons is an exceptionally well designed iteration of this long-running series with strong attention to detail and a delightful amount of customisation options.

17. The Debbie for Company of the Year
Winner: Wild

bloomscape small startup company of the year 2020

Businesses focused on environmental sustainability are (joyfully) a dime a dozen these days, but Wild differentiates itself by having a product that is not only great in concept but just great in general. Wild make a deodorant stick that aims to do away with all the associated plastic waste. The aluminium case is reusable, one simply inserts a new cartridge when the previous one is empty. The cartridges themselves are completely biodegradable and compostable with zero plastic anywhere in the product or packaging. This is all obviously a boon for the environment, but fortunately it's also a very fine quality product in its own right. The aluminium cases are gorgeous with a very solid build quality. The deodorant cartridges themselves come in a variety of different fragrances (I'm quite partial to fresh cotton and sea salt) and contains no aluminium, so no irritation and no nasty aluminium stains on your shirts. A portion of all sales also goes to climate charity On a Mission. Great product that makes a difference.


18. The Debbie for Footballer of the Year 
Winner: Robert Lewandowski - Bayern Munich

robert lewandowski bayern munich best footballer player in the world football 2020

Robert Lewandowski has been in the game for a long time, but this is finally his year. The towering striker's form for Bayern Munich has been exceptional, bagging an astonishing 55 goals (more than a goal a game) during a disjointed Covid-19 impacted season that saw him named the European Golden Boot winner as well as the recipient of this year's FIFA Men's Player award. If the Ballon D'Or had not been scrapped, he would surely have been a shoo-in for that prize as well. At 32, Lewandowski is no spring chicken, but for the time being at least he appears to be at the top of his game.

19. The Debbie for Under-21 Footballer of the Year 
Winner: Erling Håland - Borussia Dortmund

erling håland borussia dortmund best young footballer player in the world 2020

Second year running for Erling Håland, who has lived up to his billing following a move to Borussia Dortmund. The man has scored an eye-watering 33 goals in 32 appearances for his new club and become the first teenager ever to score in five consecutive Champions League games as well as the second teenager to score ten Champions League goals.  But it is not just the number of goals, as the manner of his play - that combination of power and explosive pace. His ability to turn and run on a sixpence is as good as any player I've seen. Still only twenty, this guy is not just one of the best young players in the world right now, but among the best of any age. A real star in the making.

20. The Debbie for Football Manager of the Year 
Winner: Jürgen Klopp - Liverpool

best football manager in the world 2020 jurgen klopp

It would be easy for me to add to the chorus of praise that has been directed towards Jürgen Klopp, but the man really does deserve it. This was the year in which he finally ended Liverpool's decades long search for a league title. Many have come close, but Klopp is the man who, after all these years, was finally the one to make it happen. He will surely go down in club folklore. Certainly, it is a victory for proponents of giving a manager time and years in which to pursue his vision (this transformation did not happen overnight), but even given all the time in the world few managers would have been able to execute this project so successfully, and many had tried.

21. The Debbie for Football Club of the Year 
Winner: Liverpool FC

football club of the year 2020 liverpool

Every club has its day, and right now Liverpool FC is having a glorious day. It is hard to argue against them being the best team in world football right now, having been crowned Champions of Europe two seasons ago and Champions of England this year (and having been named runners up in both competitions in the alternate year). This is an accolade that is earned not just by their on-the-pitch performances, as much as the extensive work that has been done to turn what was, until recently, a pretty old fashioned kind of outfit into one of the best run clubs in the business. Profitable, an academy producing world class talent, and a brand that makes them one of the planet's sporting icons. I am not a Liverpool fan, but it must be a good time to be one.

Current Events

22. The Debbie for Politician of the Year 
Winner: Joe Biden

joe biden politician of the year 2020

It is difficult argue anyone else for this award. After decades in politics, Joe Biden will finally become President of the United States, the most powerful man in the world. That alone earns this Debbie, but he surely deserves even extra credit for the manner in which he has claimed this victory: becoming only the third candidate in the past century to defeat a sitting President, staging a remarkable comeback during the Democratic primaries having been considered all but out of the race less than a year ago following defeat in all three of the initial contests. 

Defeating an incumbent is no easy challenge, even more so when an ongoing pandemic prevents you from staging any in-person campaign events. The fact that he managed to pull this off, sure it speaks to the weakness of his scandal-ridden opponent, but also says much of his appeal as a candidate and as a human being. The entire world celebrates the dawn of a new era in which decency and the rule of law once again reign supreme in America.

23. The Debbie for Scandal of the Year 
Winner: Trump attempts to abolish democracy

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First the good news: Donald Trump will no longer be President in a few days, meaning this is, hopefully, the last time he will be mentioned on this website. It speaks to the nature of his chaotic regime that this particular award has been mainly a foregone conclusion during his tenure, and it will be refreshing to see a 2021 in which there is once again actual competition here. But sadly, Trump has once again earned this award and in truth he probably holds four of the top five positions on the ranking to claim this award. This is, after all, a year in which he was impeached for high crimes and misdemeanours, confirmed to be the target of multiple major investigations into criminal fraud and financial crimes, and implicated in arguably the worst bribery-for-pardons scandal in American history. 

Yes, believe it or not that all happened this year, but they aren't winning this Debbie. No, at the end of the day none of the above can trump a good old fashioned coup d'etat. And let's not mince words, that is exactly what has been happening in the wake of Donald Trump's electoral defeat back in November: a concerted, unlawful attempt to supersede the results of a democratic election and unseat America's duly elected leader in order to install himself in office. Donald Trump has done a lot of terrible things while in office, several of which are likely to have risen to the level of criminal in nature, but in this writer's view none will prove to have been quite so appalling as a literal attempt to abolish American democracy. Enjoy your final Debbie Mr. President, you will not be missed.

24. The Debbie for Cause of the Year
Winner: Democratic Enfranchisement

corruption democracy enfranchisement right to vote voting election democratic republican trump brexit nazi fascist autocracy authoritarian most important issue 2020

America likes to think of itself as the land of the free and the beating heart of democracy on this planet. Sadly this is laughably far from the truth. The Economist's Democratic Index ranks the United States at only 25th in the world, with the level of "flawed democracy", just one level above "hybrid regime". This is the 2019 ranking as well, there is every likelihood that the country will sink even further in the rankings after what we have seen in 2020.

The sad truth is that millions in America do not have the right to vote nationally, whether this is due to being lesser citizens of non-States such as Puerto Rico or Washington DC, or for being convicted felons. Depending on the state you live in, even those with minor offences such as drug possession can be denied the right to vote forever. It is tragically the case that even in 2020 many Americans can be denied the right to vote on the basis of their race or background (see Oscar nominated documentary 13th for a horrifying summary). This is before we even take into account the substantial, shockingly mainstream voter suppression efforts that have somehow become a regular part of American politics. The Republican party openly admits that voter suppression is a core part of their strategy, and repeatedly opposes measures to make voting easier for precisely this reason.

America makes for a sad case study of how weakened our democratic rights have become even in countries that hold themselves out as a democratic nation, but they are just one example in a world where every year our rights are increasingly under threat from unscrupulous ideologues who have learned to game the system to their advantage (Brexit being another prominent example). If you take away one thing as we head into 2021 it should be a reminder that we need to stay vigilant on this matter, lest we sleepwalk into a world where democracy is just meaningless marketing phrase.

25. The Debbie for Person of the Year 
Winner: Anthony Fauci

anthony fauci coronavirus covid person of the year 2020

Most publications in an election year will tend to give these awards to political leaders, but that strikes me as particularly ill-fitting after the year we've just had. Instead I feel it is more deserving that this Debbie go towards recognising some of the real heroes of the past twelve months. Indeed, this has been a year of many heroes, most of whom you will never hear by name in the media. I speak, of course, of the essential workers and healthcare providers that have had a gruelling year of sacrifice and peril unlike any other. 

Each of them is worthy of such an awards, but this Debbie is bestowed upon a single individual rather than a group or class of individuals. The single individual that I feel is worthy of this Debbie is Anthony Fauci, head of the White House Coronavirus task force and soon to be chief medical advisor of the new administration. In a year in which our leaders have far too often exhibited the worst aspects of humanity, greed, dishonesty, and selfishness at a time when the opposite was needed, Fauci has stood as a welcome contrast and a pillar of truth and compassion. Fauci represents the best of us, a rare voice of competence and decency in the national spotlight and a visible face for all frontline workers who have done so much for us.

Social & Lifestyle

26. The Debbie for Restaurant of the Year 
Winner: The Harwood Arms
Runner Up: Davies and Brook

harwood arms london best restaurant 2020

An old favourite, winner for the second year running and a restaurant that year after year continues to impress. The Harwood Arms became famous as the first Michelin starred pub in London, but in truth its solitary mark undersells the quality of its food. The concept is British cuisine, done very, very well. So you might get Cornish crab on toast, or fallow venison. Meats, fish, winter vegetables, and with a wide selection of British sparkling wines. It is mystifying that this myth of the inferiority of British cuisine still persists, and the Harwood Arms provides ample proof that the cliché is not deserved.

Our runner up prize goes to a newcomer: Davies and Brook, the excellent new restaurant at Claridge's. This is the latest project of Daniel Humm, best known as the head chef at New York's Eleven Madison Park, formerly ranked the world's greatest restaurant. It goes without saying that 2020 has not quite been the debut year they would have hoped for, but the establishment has been quietly building some deserved hype, both for its set menus as well as the more casual bar-food on offer for walk-ins. It's a pricey meal but well worth it for a special occasion, with some show-stopping main courses and, in particular, some delightful dessert options.

27. The Debbie for Club/Bar of the Year 
Winner: The Maytime, Swinbrook

maytime gin pub inn swinboork asthall best bar club nightclub 2020

It has been a year in which most of us only attended bars/clubs sparingly. For this year's award we are thinking outside the box and giving the spotlight to The Maytime in Swinbrook. On the surface this appears to be your typical charming country pub, but upon closer inspection you will find one of the most extensive gin selections in the country: more than 150, all extensively detailed on their menu in terms of background, flavour profile, etc, and all paired with one from a wide variety of different tonics and garnishes. A dream come true for gin lovers.

28. The Debbie for Destination of the Year
Winner: Home

home staycation best holiday destination 2020

This year's destination of the year: Home. Suffice it to say, 2020 has not been a year for travel and even to the extent that we have been able to travel, you really should have avoided doing so and stayed home. And what's so wrong with that? Even in an ordinary year there is nothing wrong with a good staycation. No dealing with airports, no running around cities to hit every item on your checklist, just pure relaxation and a chance to fully unwind. Maybe you want to use that time to catch up on things, read a book, or just sleep. Doesn't matter, the world is your oyster thanks to... staycation.

29. The Debbie for Wine of the Year 
Winner: Famille de Boel, Le Meilleur de Nous rosé
de boel meilleur de nous rose best wine 2020

I don't know about you, but I have spent most of this year in my flat. It is always way too warm in my flat. For this reason, it has been a year of non-stop summer wines and there has been none more satisfying than this delightful rosé from Famille de Boel, Le Meilleur de Nous. A floral rosé from the Provence region which carries the IGP Méditerranée appellation and consists mainly of the caladoc varietal. This is a perfect refreshment on a warm day, but can also pair nicely with a surprising variety of different foods, from a light supper to more flavourful meats.

30. The Debbie for Tipple of the Year 
Winner: Otter Brewery

best tipple liquor alcohol 2020 otter brewery

And finally our award for best tipple, a non-wine alcoholic beverage in which you would be wise to partake, goes to Otter Brewery. The award winning Devon-based brewery is fast establishing itself as one of the nations favourite craft distilleries, available in many local pubs and expanding quickly into London and beyond. These are refreshingly crisp beers in a variety of styles, with a strong minerality that helps build its strikingly "fresh" flavour profile. I award this Debbie to the brewery as a whole, because in addition to their range of beers, they also distil a very fine gin, New Moon, which is smooth with fresh citrus notes. Definitely a name to add to your regular roster of tipples.

Well there you have it. Sayonara 2020. Ordinarily at this point I offer hope that next year will be even better than the last, and for once I don't think that will be difficult to achieve. Roll on 2021: a year in which we will be rid of Trump, get a Covid-19 vaccine, and who knows maybe referees will even call a decision in Chelsea's favour. See you there!

Tuesday 22 December 2020

Developed by CD Projekt Red
Published by CD Projekt
Genre Action RPG
Platform PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PS4, PS5, Stadia

cyberpunk 2077 witcher cd projekt red flop disaster failure best game 2020 xbox playstation pc windows
Before you say it, yes it's a bit late in the year to be posting a review, but this one concerns a release so prominent that I felt it worth taking a break from writing my end of year Debbie Awards. Had I known this would prove to be a topic of such heated emotion I may have stuck to something less controversial, like Donald Trump or Brexit. This is, of course, the review of Cyberpunk 2077, the latest release from CD Projekt Red

CD Projekt Red have spent the last several years riding high on a wave of adulation following the almost universal acclaim that has been lavished upon their previous project, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Armed with new global renown and a AAA budget far beyond anything they had seen previously, the developer set its sights on adapting Cyberpunk, a somewhat known tabletop RPG whose original format dates back to the 1980s.

First teased back in 2012, this title has seen what can be charitably described as a protracted production cycle. Even when the game was finally given a release date last year, that date ended up being delayed repeatedly. A lot of people joked that this release would never come, but it has and we've played it.

Let's not mince words, the hype for this game has been stratospheric: a developer who was seen as incapable of doing wrong, a reimagining of an intellectual property with cult following, all packaged into an ambitious, grand open-world RPG package with endless possibilities. This wasn't just a new game, it was billed as a generational moment in the industry, a milestone against which future titles would be compared. Few could possibly have foreseen the shitstorm that came next. It turns out there was a reason for the frequent delays. Cyberpunk 2077 simply isn't finished. 

Let's step back a moment. Cyberpunk 2077 is an action RPG set in the dystopian near-future Night City, located on the American west coast. The world's governments have mostly collapsed, meaning that most power lies with corporations. Sophisticated, intelligent AI is a thing, and cybernetic technology has improved to such an extent that people can and do augment their bodies with regularity. These augmentations can include anything from the functional (think extra RAM or physically stronger limbs) to the superficial (like a shiny metallic gold body). 

It makes for an interesting setting as there is an awful lot to like about this future. This is a world where you can be whoever you want. The ability to completely customise one's own body has led to an explosion in self-expression, both through augmentations as well as fashion, hairstyling and gender fluidity. Then there are the obvious advances that this level of technology would offer. Ocular implants can project information within one's vision. The brain's operating system can jack directly into computer systems to transfer information. Technology may even be on the verge of digital immortality, which forms a focal point of the game's main story. In many ways, this is a technical wonderland.

But this is ultimately a dystopia, a world where corporate greed has created an unsustainable level of wealth inequality, where law enforcement and government is riddled with corruption and criminal gangs run essentially unchallenged so long as they play by the corporations' rules. Indeed, as with any good cyberpunk dystopia, it is the technical marvels that provide much of the tension in this world, with people abusing technology for their own nefarious gains, be it through the inevitable weaponisation of cybernetics, the unshackling of AI, or by direct brain hacking for various ends. 

Players will explore this world through the eyes of "V", a protagonist of the player's design who will begin from one of three starting points (nomad, street-kid or corpo) before becoming a mercenary for hire. This being an RPG, players will choose various stats for their characters that help determine their abilities going forward, but Cyberpunk 2077 never locks you into a particular path or class, allowing players a refreshing amount of freedom to vary their play-style at will.

It is worth talking about everything that Cyberpunk 2077 does right, and to be clear there are a lot of things that the game does very well indeed. 

Night City might well be one of the greatest videogame settings of all time from a design perspective. The scale and level of detail in this city is simply unparalleled. It is clear that a great deal of love has gone into crafting this city, with every nook and cranny seemingly carved by hand and dripping with atmosphere. It's absolutely stunning to look at and surprisingly diverse, with an array of different neighbourhoods and landmarks, as well as a vast expanse of wild desert beyond the city limits to explore. 

If you are playing on a high-end PC (more on that later) then this is a visually spectacular game. From the breathtaking vistas, to the textures, lighting and character models, this is a beautiful game if you have the hardware to do it justice. Some spontaneous moments are so striking that they almost look like they could have been carefully framed by a professional cinematographer. I'm not a big screenshots of videogames kind of guy, but there have been moments here that I felt moved to capture, so impressed was I by the quality and composition.

A great deal of attention has also been paid to the sound, be it the ambient sounds of the city or the excellent original score. Night City even features a line up of radio stations full of completely original music. While that last component can feel inconsistent (seriously this is cyberpunk, why so few retro or synthwave tunes?) it's all generally of a very high quality and fits the atmosphere extremely well. Voice acting is also generally very good (not so much with the protagonist's voice actor) and pairs well with the high quality of writing, although I must say I did find the romance dialogue to be a bit sophomoric, occasionally bordering on offensive.

The attention to detail here is often insane. I noticed NPCs playing guitars with accurate chord fingering, shoes making different footstep sound effects depending on the style of shoe, amongst other things.

Between the audio and visuals, I don't think a game has ever nailed the atmosphere of a setting quite as well as Cyberpunk 2077. Both elements are put to excellent use in the game's story and questing system, resulting in certainly one of the better story campaigns I can recall in recent years. The quests in general are very good: well written, incredibly directed, and full of different player decisions and variants that create the strong sense of player agency that you want from an RPG. The main campaign, it has to be said, was disappointingly short, but the real star is in the many and varied side quests. Some of these have stories that are at least as good, if not better, than the main campaign and most will in some way affect the ending you ultimately achieve. For this reason it is well worth not rushing the main campaign and taking your time to complete all of these side quests.

So Cyberpunk 2077 contains an incredibly presented game world with quests that are excellently designed and produced. It is clear that the developers were building something truly remarkable here. But as we so often see, sometimes the interests of the shareholders can run against the interests of the creatives (somewhat fittingly considering the themes of the game) and it is clear that after many years in development and several delays, CD Projekt was simply not willing to give the developers more time to realise this vision. The result is a game that in many places feels half-finished, poorly tested, or filled with obvious gaps from where content has been cut at the last minute. 

This includes some obvious cut content such as ostensibly useless items left in-game which have had their apparent functions removed as well as defunct locations like an unused subway system that can still be accessed through glitches. It also includes some explicitly developer-confirmed cut content such as the ability to upgrade player apartments, rideable public transport and a third person camera view (seriously what is the point of all that character customisation if you never see it?).

It includes features that are still in-game but clearly half finished or unpolished, most notably the police/wanted system. Whereas previously police were intended to chase you in police cars and increase in intensity depending on the severity of your crimes, this all appears to have been replaced late on by a very rudimentary system. Police now spawn on foot right behind you as soon as you commit a crime, sometimes literally appearing out of thin air. If you hop in a car you're basically free because the police AI can't drive - strangely police driving AI does still appear to be in the game, it's just not used for some reason. Another example is the relationship system. Originally the plan was for V to be able to meet and enter into romantic relationships with characters, but at some point this was scaled down to just a single option per gender and orientation and is now entirely quest-based - ie, there is no actual relationship system, it's just an optional part of the quest line with no interactivity outside of these quests.

Perhaps the most egregious example of missing content is the lack of player customisation after the start of the game. A huge part of the hype over this game has been the extent to which you can customise your character (hair, tattoos, cybernetics, etc), yet for some reason you can only do this right at the start of the game. That's right, you can't change your hair style or colour, you can't get additional tattoos, and even though you can augment your body with cybernetics it doesn't actually affect your appearance at all.

Then there's the bugs, oh lord the bugs. Let me say this up front: if you are planning on playing this on console, don't! The console versions are just broken,  unplayable to such an extent that the game has actually been pulled from the Sony game store. I can not stress this enough: if you have a good gaming PC, play it there, if not, then wait until they patch the current problems.

Even on the relatively stable PC build, this is a buggy game. This can range from the mildly irritating; lips not moving in cutscenes, invisible clothes, janky physics, people/vehicles spawning inside of things or falling through the floor; to the infuriating; on-screen notifications that won't go away, things exploding for no reason; to the downright game-breaking; missions getting stuck, unreachable objectives, save corruption. Often, things just don't work in this game and it's not like these bugs are hard to reproduce. There's no good reason for them to have not been patched out in development other than that it was rushed to market.

But I can forgive most of these issues. The quantity of cut content is disappointing when compared to what had been promised in the lead up to release, however I ultimately tend to think that what is in the game is more important than what is not. Many of these missing/cut features will no doubt be added post-launch anyway. I can even forgive the bugs (except for the broken console port, seriously DO NOT play this on a console), after all I've played and enjoyed many notoriously buggy RPGs over the years (the Bethesda RPGs come to mind) and these will surely be patched in due course.

Instead, the biggest issue for me lies in what is otherwise its greatest strength: the game world. While Night City may be absolutely beautiful to look at and listen to, it is a dead place, a piece of beautiful window-dressing with nothing behind the curtain. Right now, Night City serves mainly as a backdrop as you move from quest marker to quest marker, with little else to do. There are no activities, no games, no social life, no bars, very few shops. You can come across some repeatable "crimes in progress" events that basically amount to a bland shootout with cookie cutter badguys, but otherwise there really isn't much reason to explore this incredible place and that's a pity. 

If anything, playing Cyberpunk 2077 makes you really appreciate the incredible work that developers like Rockstar (Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption) have been doing when it comes to open world gaming. Those games have living, breathing, dynamic worlds and have done for years.

This brings me to a very surprising core criticism of this game. Far from the cutting edge revolutionary title it was tipped to be, Cyberpunk 2077 feels strangely dated in a number of ways. From the disappointingly lifeless open world, to the lack of avatar or vehicle customisation, to the poor AI (drivers in particular are very basic, just following a set path and unable to navigate around obstacles), to the rudimentary police system, to the bullet-spongy enemies, this just feels like a weirdly outdated game for something that was supposed to be so cutting edge. Production on Cyberpunk 2077 began seven years ago and it shows. 

Yet despite all these issues, I am loving this game. It's a mess in so many ways and a shadow of what was expected, but what is here is so engrossing and the RPG elements very satisfying. I think ultimately while this may be a poor open-world game, it is still a very good action RPG. If you are willing to appreciate this game for what it is instead of what it is not, then you can lose yourself in this world and get your money's worth (but only on PC).

So this is a difficult game to evaluate. It's clear that more time was needed, at least another year, in order to realise the developers' original grander vision. It may well be that this vision can still be realised post launch. For now, though, we are left wondering at what might have been.

At its core, cyberpunk 2077 has the feel of a game with high ambitions that has simply not been finished. Where the game shines is through its superlative setting, storytelling and quest design, but in just about every other aspect there are other games that have done the same thing but better. The end result is, on the balance, a very solid game that nevertheless fails to be the generational milestone it was tipped to be.

Sunday 20 December 2020

As with most of you, my new year's resolutions for 2020 went out the window pretty quickly. I did not travel to a new country in 2020, nor did I find a good opportunity to get back into driving after years without getting behind the wheel of a vehicle. But there was one challenge that I did manage to achieve. Last December I pledged that I would read one book every month in 2020. Here's what happened next.

one book every month year challenge 2020

It sounds pretty simple when I write it down, actually. But the reality, not so much. Some books are longer than others, and forcing yourself to meet that monthly deadline every single month without fail takes more discipline than one might expect. I'll admit there were times it felt like a bit of a slog, perhaps more so because of the self-imposed deadline. Oddly, this is probably the one challenge that was actually made easier by the ongoing global situation, having found myself with an overabundance of time due to the lack of going out and actually doing things. So one book for each month, plus a few bonus books (and some of the "just for fun" kind that I won't list here). Here's what I read, the good, the bad, and the downright neutral. Enjoy:

January - "The Secret Commonwealth" by Philip Pullman

After all these years, we finally get to see a continuation of the story of Lyra Belacqua, protagonist of Philip Pullman's classic His Dark Materials series. Truth be told, two books into this trilogy and I am still waiting to see what exactly it was that inspired Pullman to resurrect his long dormant creation, but even if that moment never arrives so far it has been a hugely enjoyable romp. 

This latest entry in the series the sort of globetrotting adventure one would hope for, but also recognises that both its cast of characters and its target audience are a little older and more mature than they were in the original trilogy of novels, taking a darker turn in its content, particularly as it pertains to the mental state of the novel's protagonists. A very fine work of fiction, albeit nothing as of yet as seminal as its predecessors. We will wait and see what the final book has to offer.

February - "The Guest Book" by Sarah Blake

Often delightful. The Guest Book traces the fortunes of a family of American aristocrats across three generations from the interbellum to present day, and in particular their life spent on the family private island and its guest house. Flashforward to present day and the family, now on harder times financially, is looking to sell the island and all the memories that reside within its grounds.

There's a lot to like about this novel. It tackles the topic of social inequality from a perspective not commonly explored in fiction and manages to weave its narrative across a broader story about family, nostalgia and loss. Unfortunately other than its themes, the actual narrative is a bit thin and one gets the impression it is drawn out considerably longer than is justified. The Guest Book also suffers from having, to be frank, way too many different minor characters. Most barely even figure into the plot, are mentioned once and then promptly vanish. I can imagine it being tricky to keep track of if you don't read it in a condensed space of time as I did.

March - "The Supernova Era" by Liu Cixin
To quote the old football maxim, "it's a game of two halves...". The Supernova Era has perhaps one of the best set ups to a sci-fi novel that I have read in many years. A nearby supernova bathes the Earth in radiation, dooming the planet's adult population and requiring a sudden and urgent training of children in order to keep the world running in their absence. 

The first half of this novel is brilliant. As with his other work (notably the Three Body Problem), Cixin has a knack for setting up an outlandish premise and following it through to its logical conclusion, imagining what one might actually do in such a situation and how it would play out in a manner that is extremely believable. Unfortunately about half way through, the novel takes a complete left turn into the realm of the unbelievable and nonsensical. It's an example of an author who clearly wants to make a satirical point, even at the expense of a coherent story, and it's a pity.

April - "Daisy Jones and the Six" by Taylor Jenkins Reid

This is a brilliant novel and I have absolutely nothing negative to say about it. Daisy Jones tells the story of fictional band Daisy Jones and the Six, allegedly based loosely on the history of Fleetwood Mac, in the style of a documentary film. The quality of the writing here really is excellent in many ways. Vivid and believable characters with motivations that are explored to just the right extent without feeling like forced subtext. The pacing in particular is just about perfect, never feeling like the story is dragging whilst also never feeling like it has to rush through it's plot points.

I wouldn't surprised to see this one pick up a Debbie in a few days time. If you read one book from this list, I would make it this one.

May - "This is Going to Hurt" by Adam Kay

I remember seeing a live performance by Adam Kay at Imperial College freshers week (where he had studied medicine, before quitting medicine to become a comedian). While I thought he was hilarious, he somehow managed to deeply, deeply offend both my female friends and my LGBT friends who were with me that night. That should give you some clue as to the type of wit to expect with this novel.

This is Going to Hurt serves as a memoir of the ever irreverent Adam Kay's days in medicine. A series of moments and snippets in a diary format that range from rolling in the aisles hilarious to tragic and some that are just downright nauseating, but always entertaining. It seems Kay may have finally struck the right balance between edgy and funny that allows his particular brand of humour to go mainstream, a TV adaptation is expected to land sometime next year.

June - "Men Without Women" by Haruki Murakami

A collection of short stories penned by legendary Japanese surrealist author Haruki Murakami on the topic of relationships. Inspired by and sharing a name with the similar collection of short stories by Ernest Hemingway. As with any collection of short stories, the quality and tone of each tale varies, but the quality is as consistent and immersive as one would expect from the author.

One often gets the impression that Murakami is inherently suspicious of women, as indeed the female characters in his novels often turn out to be hiding mysterious, often duplicitous sorts and sometimes these gender biases can grow a bit stale. Fortunately the short-form nature of this collection allows a greater variety of devices to be employed, including some that break refreshingly from the typical Murakami tropes that one might expect.

June Bonus - "An Average War" by Mike Peyton 

Confession time: I had already started reading the previous entry last year. So by way of recompense, I added another (much shorter) novel to this month's reading list. An Average War is the autobiographical tale of somewhat noted illustrator Mike Peyton and his adventures during the war.

One can tell from the quality of the prose that Peyton is not a professional wordsmith, but he has much to say and does so in an engaging fashion. These are stories that range from the exciting and adventurous to heartbreaking, often told with dark humour. Some incidents are so farcical as to be scarcely believable, but that only serves to highlight the tragic reality that at the end of the day these wars are just fought by regular people in all their flaws and idiosyncrasies.

July - "Agent Running in the Field" by John le Carré

The final work of the recently deceased espionage legend. Le Carré's career spanned six decades and includes such seminal pieces of work as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Night Manager and The Constant Gardner. 

Agent Running in the Field, to be quite blunt, is le Carré's Brexit novel, inspired by the real life events of the past few years and in particular the Russian intelligence efforts behind Trump and Brexit. Le Carré makes no apology for his frank and to the point political commentary, but one wonders if his desire to explore contemporary politics has come at the expense of the story itself. This is a good novel, but undeniably among the more simplistic and straightforward in the le Carré bibliography. Still, the opportunity to see a master of the espionage genre tackling such current and relevant events is a treat you will not want to pass up.

July Bonus - "Superman: Red Son" by Mark Millar

In most cases I might have included this among the "for fun" items that don't make the list, but Superman: Red Son is one of those graphic novels that is so sensational that is genuinely merits consideration among more traditional forms of literature. 

Red Son is an alternate telling of the Superman mythos: what would have happened had Superman's spacecraft crashed in then Soviet Union instead of the United States, and he then grown up into an ideological soldier of communism rather than the posterchild of the American way of life. It's a great premise and Millar makes the most of it crafting, for me, one of the best comicbook stories of all time.

August - "Once Upon a River" by Lorian Hemingway

This one sounded good on paper. A mystery tale set against the backdrop of towns along the river Thames, a period setting, a tapestry that touches everything from folklore, to science, magic and myth. Unfortunately the execution is far less wondrous than the pitch.

The story itself is not bad, but it is paced so excruciatingly poorly, with everything stretched out and packed with unnecessary filler. After the enticing opening scene, the novel takes a drastic detour and doesn't return to the main plot for more than 100 pages. Dozens of pointless and irrelevant characters are introduced and their backstories fleshed out for no apparent reason. It's meandering, plodding, and ultimately not worth sticking with to uncover its deeper meaning.

September - "Exhalation: Stories" by Ted Chiang

A series of short stories by renowned author Ted Chiang, who you may know as the author of the short story on which the Oscar winning film Arrival was based. The stories contained within Exhalation cover a variety of topics from mankind's place in the universe, to the nature of humanity, free will and technology.

On the whole I found this collection to be less impressive than his first anthology, but still well worth reading. Most stories are good, some are brilliant, and only one felt like it overstayed its welcome.

October - "Utopia Avenue" by David Mitchell

David Mitchell is known for his dizzyingly ambitious works of fiction, most notably Cloud Atlas. Notoriously obtuse, multi-layered and often with a strong underlying link to the supernatural and metaphysical. By contrast, Utopia Avenue almost seems oddly traditional by his standards. This made for odd reading as, on the surface, the novel bore many similarities with Daisy Jones, concerning itself also with the story of a fictional band in the 1960s. Indeed for the first half of the novel it follows many familiar story beats. But don't you worry Mitchell fans, persevere and eventually it starts to get every bit as weird as you would expect.

I actually loved this book. I felt it had the perfect balance between a rich, traditional story and the classic David Mitchell weirdness, making for one of the more accessible entries in his bibliography. Certain parts can make for difficult reading and you will certainly gain the most from this text if you are familiar with the man's work, but this is very much a worthwhile novel.

November - "The Invisible Life of Addie Larue" by V. E. Schwab

Addie Larue makes a deal with the devil to live forever, the trade-off being that no one will ever remember who she is and thus she is unable to ever form any lasting relationships with anyone. Then one day 300 years later she meets someone who does remember her, but why? 

This was a pretty good one. Takes a fascinating premise and runs with it. Often these high concept stories peter out when they can't think of a reasonable justification or resolution, but Schwab packs enough interesting twists and turns that the plot never becomes stale and impressively manages to find a satisfying conclusion that neither succumbs to trope nor banality.

December - "Migrations" by Charlotte McConaghy

For my final book of the year I decided to pick something from the annual best sellers' list on Amazon, place my luck in the wisdom of the crowd. The result was Migrations, a novel set in a not-too-distant future where most animal life on Earth is extinct due to pollution and mankind generally being a bit shit. Our protagonist manages to talk her way onto a fishing vessel to allow her to follow perhaps the last ever avian migration, only she has ulterior motives...

I sometimes get the impression that there are novels out there that succeed not because of their quality but because of their statement, and this is one of those novels. It's not bad by any means, the quality of writing is strong, with an absorbing sense of atmosphere and place. There just isn't a huge amount there beyond "humans bad". Most of the novel is spent filling in the tragic backstory of our protagonist, which is serviceable enough, if emotionally manipulative, and nowhere near as interesting a setting as its initial premise. Just about worth reading but there are better novels on this list.

So there it is. Twelve months in books. Do I dare take on the challenge again next year? Only time will tell.

Friday 18 December 2020

Genre Plunderphonics
Label Modular
Producers Robert Chater

we will always love you avalanches best new album 2020

The unconventional career-to-date of The Avalanches has become the stuff of mythos in the music industry. The elusive purveyors of plunderphonics stormed onto the scene in 2000 with Since I Left You, an experimental debut that would go on to define the genre and draw widespread critical and commercial acclaim. Yet for the longest time it appeared that the group may go down as a one-album wonder, the sophomore effort Wildflower taking some sixteen years before it finally saw the light of day thanks to a seemingly never-ending litany of legal, creative and personal setbacks. It was worth the wait. Wildflower turned out to be every bit as much a masterpiece as its predecessor, earning a place on this blog's top ten albums of the past decade among other accolades. 

The traditionally troublesome third album has seen no such drama, arriving a relatively brief four years after Wildflower. The result is We Will Always Love You, an album that on first listen feels very different from what the band has previously produced, yet no less brilliant.

Musically, this feels like quite the departure for the band. If the first two albums were noted for their high energy party style, WWALY feels distinctly more introspective and bittersweet. Core themes of loss and the passage of time feel like a fitting reflection of this year and it permeates throughout the production of this album. This album sees itself as a love letter to those that have come before us; samples of deceased artists from the past century, immortalised through their work. An explicit statement of love and remembrance beamed straight into the heavens. Even the album cover reflect this notion, featuring an image converted into sound and back into an image of Ann Druyan, creative director of the Voyager Golden Record project, the objectives of which dovetail closely with the ambition of this album.

This latest album is also notable for its shift away from the trademark plunderphonics of their work-to-date and into more traditional songwriting. The Avalanches still make use of samples aplenty, but with a greater focus on original instrumentation and vocals. Indeed, just about every song on this album features a completely original set of vocals from a lineup of mostly all-star collaborators including MGMT, Jamie xx, Blood Orange, Rivers Cuomo (of Weezer fame), Karen O (of Yeah Yeah Yeahs fame), Kurt Vile, Johnny Marr of The Smiths, and many others. 

One could be excused for worrying that this change in style might deprive the band of some of their uniqueness, but such thoughts are quickly dashed by a display of the same fundamental creativity that made the first two albums so memorable. At its heart, this is very much an Avalanches album, brimming with the same sense of nostalgia and multi-layered ingenuity that we have come to expect. If anything, the fact that the music is this good only serves to highlight how talented this group is when it comes to songwriting.

As with the first two albums, WWALY is less a collection of songs and more a single thread that runs from start to finish. Each track flows logically to the next by way of a contextually seamless interlude, like different movements of a singular piece. The music is good enough that each track can be enjoyed in isolation, but certainly on the first listen I recommend a full play with your undivided attention. For this reason it can be difficult to immediately pick just one or two stand out tracks, but on repeated listens a few key moments will emerge and stay longer in the memory.

Running Red Lights is a highlight. A dreamy and wistful pop song featuring a career best vocal performance from Rivers Cuomo of Weezer. It's a great song because it sounds so deceptively poppy, appearing on the surface like your typical radio-friendly pop song, but with enough subversion and unexpected musical deviations to retain that classic Avalanches edge. Title track We Will Always Love You, meanwhile, serves as a mission statement for the album, repurposing a long forgotten sample of the Roches into the centrepiece of what feels like a love letter beamed into space.

On the more playful side, Interstellar Love pays homage to its cover star Ann Druyan and her (literally interstellar) love story with famed scientist and father to the Voyager Golden Record, Carl Sagan. The result is a slice of feel-good and one of the album's catchier tracks. For those seeking some pure adrenaline fuelled music to dance to, Music Makes Me High is a welcome throw back to the band's sunnier previous work and a welcome respite from the album's otherwise more somber tone.

But particular mention needs to be made of the excellent collaboration with MGMT, The Divine Chord. This song is everything, a cosmic trip of the highest calibre. This collaboration takes the best qualities of the Avalanches and MGMT and produces a work of beauty that is simultaneously lonely, optimistic and oddly comforting.

These are highlights, but really there is wonderful work to be found throughout, from We Go On's tragically poignant tribute to the story of Karen Carpenter, to the mellow psychedelia of Gold Sky, amongst several others that would be worth mentioning.

As a whole, this is an excellent album. The quality of production is sublime throughout, indicative of a team of musicians who are increasingly confident in honing their craft. In a strange way though, it does sometimes feel like something has been lost without the roughness of the first two albums. Those songs weren't great because of their technical proficiency, but for their raw, carefree energy. In smoothing out the production, it sometimes feels like the music is (as strange as it is to say) a little bit too perfectly formed.

It is also a shame that by the time WWALY released in mid-December, we had already heard most of the songs. No fewer than six singles were released in advanced of the album's launch, some as far back as February. No doubt this bizarre rollout will have been to some extent a result of the pandemic, but it does mean that on first listen the album may not blow you away as much as it might have done had you been hearing all these songs fresh for the first time.

This is a great album from a band that is clearly not afraid to evolve their style and in doing so reveal an entirely new depth to their songwriting talent. While it may not quite hit the same ecstatic heights as their landmark first two albums, We Will Always Love You is nevertheless a wildly memorable cosmic ride and arguably their most finessed and technically accomplished work-to-date. It still feels weird to live in a world with regular new Avalanches albums, but I suspect I could get used to this.

Must Listen :
Running Red Lights

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