By BRUCE DENNILL
The below music, literature, film, TV and theatre may not have been created or originally released during 2016, but it was only at some point during this year that I was able to see it, hear it or read it.
In all cases, I count myself lucky to have been in the venue, opened the book or slipped the CD or DVD into the player. Herewith then, the really good stuff I’ve reviewed this year.
Best Song: Mothertongue by Twin Atlantic
Huge rock songs need ripped rhythm, don’t they? Massive drums, thundering bass – all that. Except, according to Twin Atlantic (who do use that formula elsewhere on the excellent GLA album), they don’t. Mothertongue (a profound metaphor for someone who is deeply loved) is essentially a strummed hollow-body electric guitar accompanied by elegant strings and the primal wail of singer Sam McTrusty. The paucity of instrumentation allows more space for naked emotion, and McTrusty strains every sinew to fill the hole.
* Honourable mention: Head Together by Big Wreck
Big Wreck’s Albatross album came out in 2012, but only landed in South Africa a couple of years after that. And then, for whatever reason, it took a while longer to really fix itself in my psyche. Which it did, as I turned onto the on-ramp to a highway in a powerful hire car and innocently cranked up the volume, not knowing that the chanted intro was just the half-volume prelude to a skull-crushing, sternum-snapping riff that forced my foot onto the pedal and my vocal chords into a spontaneous, ecstatic howl.
Big Wreck feature again, this time represented by their singer-songwriter Ian Thornley, whose debut solo offering is at once markedly different and reassuringly linked to his work with the band. There are more acoustic ideas here, and a different production texture thanks to the sure hand of Mark Howard – who captures Thornley and his cohorts just about live (there are sparse overdubs here and there). Remarkably consistent at a high bar-setting level, Thornley and his writing seem to be, if anything, just getting better.
* Honourable mention: Twin Atlantic – GLA
Not as accessible as its predecessors – by design – this collection is a grower, and once it settles, it’s difficult to dislodge. No Sleep, You Are The Devil, Ex El, Valhalla and The Chaser are all giant slabs of rock power, while A Scar To Heal and the sublime heartbreaking Whispers prove that pace is no measure of quality. And the closing tune, Mothertongue, is the best of the lot – and the best song of the year.
Best Live Music: Albert Hammond – Songbook Tour
Albert Hammond is one of the premier songwriters of the last half-century. He’s now in his seventies, so chances to hear him deliver his own versions of the dozens of chart-topping hits he’s written are not likely to come around as much as they used to. His Johannesburg set was 30 songs long and incredibly varied, meandering through work made famous by everyone from Chicago (I Don’t Wanna Live Without Your Love) to Whitney Houston (One Moment Of Time). Hammond has one of the most storied careers in pop, and it reflected in both his performance and his storytelling between songs.
* Honourable mention: Caroline Leisegang: Oyeblikk – A Series Of Moments Album Launch
Musicians launching albums: expect hubris and overblown staging. Except in the case of young composer Caroline Leisegang, who held the event celebrating her debut album in the Circa Gallery, with her music, for the most part, performed by another artist who she believed to be of superior technical ability. When Leisegang sat down at the piano in the second half of the evening, her humility, however charming, was proved entirely misplaced.
Best Film: Accidental Love, directed by Stephen Greene
An odd, frequently silly and ultimately delightfully clever comedy that satirises the attitudes of those opposed to Barack Obama’s affordable health care plan: this film was a hoot when it arrived, when few could have predicted that it might become, with the dawning of a Trump presidency, something more akin to a documentary (there’s nothing weirder in this film than what you can read on the President Elect’s Twitter feed…). Gleefully unhinged.
* Honourable mention: Lone Survivor, directed by Peter Berg
War – any war, anywhere – is terrible. Wasteful, terrifying, galling, awful and destructive. Nobody is ever innocent and who counts as a hero depends on who’s on their side of the conflict. Peter Berg’s examination of the fortunes of a squad of US soldiers whose mission in Afghanistan in 2005 goes horrifically pear-shaped. This a brutal, often sickeningly violent look at what the real-life team endured. Brilliant filmmaking that’ll leave you queasy.
It’s ubiquitous now, but when you are first exposed to The Walking Dead as a full series – as was the case for me here – its mythology, and the flipping of the perceptions as to what constitutes real evil in a society where humans are surrounded by the undead but have, often, far more serious dangers to face in their supposedly secure settlements. These theme inversions extend to the setting for most of this series – a prison made into a place of safety – as the excellent writing makes the monstrous gore a relevant part of plot and character development. No easy feat.
* Honourable mention: Call The Midwife: Season Four
On the other end of the spectrum are the gentle manners of Call The Midwife which, though hardly ever resorting to anything more violent than a stern look, manages to take on some formidable themes including extreme poverty, broken relationships, homosexuality, prostitution, religious sects, migrants, cancer, alcoholism and medical scandals and deal with them in a way that entertains and edifies. If such people as these women (and the occasional man) exist, the world will be okay…
Best Book: Tigerman by Nick Harkaway
Nick Harkaway’s mash-up of satire, social commentary and superhero stories is one of the most original tales in years – and one of the best-written. If, somehow, the brilliantly told tale of a retired army sergeant and the youngster to whom he represents a father figure does nothing to move you, the quality of Harkaway’s prose will be reason enough to love this book. But it is his ability to make his superbly developed protagonist – Lester Ferris, the sergeant – a warmly, recognisably, arrestingly real character, who struggles with doubt and fear even as he must repeatedly step into literal and figurative firing lines, that places this novel several steps above its competition.
* Honourable mention: Jimfish by Christopher Hope
The notion of the random everyman popping up at several key points in history is a popular one – just ask anyone who paid for a ticket to see Forrest Gump. Jimfish is that sort of story, but it’s also, thanks to the combination of its author’s political stance and his tremendous writing skill, a biting commentary of the politics of half a dozen countries and on the race-based strategies of previous South African regimes in particular. Fast-paced, effortless witty and brutally incisive.
Best Theatre: I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, directed by Elizma Badenhorst
Plays about the differences between men and women are a dime a dozen and generally worth less than the former. Still, the subject matter is eternally relevant, so it’s worthwhile bringing back into the spotlight. And it has never been better delivered than in this two decade-old piece, given vibrant life by a phenomenal cast and director. It felt like the first show in years that captures any of the pathos involved when emotions are deeply felt (not just love, but also friendship, or sadness, or profound loneliness), and then delivers that difficult package wrapped in a veneer of near-constant belly laughs.
* Honourable mentions: Suddenly The Storm, directed by Bobby Heaney and Bohemian Rhapsody, directed by Alan Swerdlow
The practice of calling a tie in an awards situation always feel like a cop-out, but leaving one of these new, original scripts and performances uncredited would be ridiculous. Any new play by Paul Slabolepszy requires proper celebration, and Suddenly The Storm is his best work in years – an on-the-button examination of ennui and regret and attempts to escape it, set on Johannesburg’s East Rand. Robert Fridjhon’s one-man tour-de-force – he wrote it and plays its protagonist/s – is a remarkably imaginative deconstruction of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, detailing the story that might have led to the song’s genesis,