It is time now for the inaugural “Obscurer” awards, which already no-one is referring to as “The Obbies”. So, let’s kick it all off with…
- Best Single – The Strokes/Reptilia. When I initially heard The Strokes, and the first few singles from their debut LP “Is this it” I thought they sounded quite good, but I didn’t fancy the idea of listening to a whole album. All the songs sounded a bit samey, like a band doing an “Iggy Pop and The Stooges” tribute. But then they released “12:51“, a cracking song which was markedly different to their previous tracks, very reminiscent of “Pavement”, which for me is high praise indeed. They then followed this up with “Reptilia” which was just superb, a poppy, choppy guitarfest which briefly seemed to be heard just about everywhere. It was a song I couldn’t get out of my head, and that is surely what being single of the year is all about. The Strokes had apparently graduated from tribute band to great band; or so it seemed. I got the album; it consisted of 12:51, Reptilia and 9 other songs which sounded like Iggy and The Stooges. Oh well; better luck next time.
- Best Album(s) – Badly Drawn Boy/One Plus One Is One, Elliot Smith/From a Basement on the Hill.These two records are in fact linked. I first heard Elliot Smith when his song “Waltz #2” became my single of the year in 1997. Unlike my experience with Reptilia , the LP from which it was drawn, “XO” was equally fantastic and I became a fan. A few years later when I heard “Once around the Block” by Badly Drawn Boy I loved it, and part of the reason was because it reminded me so much of Elliot Smith’s work. When earlier this year Badly Drawn Boy released “One Plus One Is One” it instantly became a fixture on my stereo; a real return to form after the lacklustre and uninspired “Have You Fed The Fish?“. Taking its inspiration from such diverse subjects as his family, the First World War, the film “It’s a Wonderful Life” and The Blossoms Pub in Stockport it felt more like a follow-up to “Hour of Bewilderbeast” and “About a Boy“, a beautiful example of the singer-songwriters’ art with intelligent lyrics and some great melodies. However, buried at the bottom of the CD sleevenotes I read the words “This record is dedicated to…Elliot Smith…”. A quick check on the internet revealed the worst; that Elliot had died the previous October from an apparent suicide. On the anniversary of his death this year his final, unfinished LP was released, and it acts as a fitting memorial. Like Jeff Buckley’s “My Sweetheart the Drunk” it is perhaps impossible not to read more tragic meaning into the lyrics than you should, and one is also left to wonder whether the sparse arrangement of the songs was intended by the artist or is a consequence of them being remixed and completed after his death. In Smith’s case it all works works beautifully; his songs always wore the influence of The Beatles on their sleeves, but this time round they also capture some of the haunting, fragile beauty of the White Album. It doesn’t come much better than sounding like the the best album by the best band of all time; at some times the guitar scatters and shimmers like George Harrison, at others the bass fair bounces along like Macca in his prime (ie. before 1970). All in all a wonderful yet tragic recording.
- Best Novel – William Sutcliffe/Bad Influence. Sutcliffe fans have had quite a wait since 2000’s “The Love Hexagon“, and when I bought “Bad Influence” and saw it weighed in at a mere 163 slight pages I feared a case of writers’ block. Furthermore, although the reviews I read were encouraging, the book’s subject matter concerning the tale of 3 ten year old boys was a move away from the sort of thing I so loved about “Are You Experienced?”, his hilarious tale of backpackers in India. I needn’t have worried. This new novel still features the author’s characteristic sense of humour, but from the off there is also an atmosphere of impending menace, as the narrator Ben meets the new lad in town, Carl, a disturbed and disturbing individual, who gradually exerts a worrying influence on Ben’s best mate, the classically easily led Olly. Sutcliffe is brilliant at recapturing the feelings of being ten years old, when losing you best friend can seem the most terrible thing in the world, and where being accepted as part of the gang can lead you down the wrong path. In the end you see where the novel is going, and that it is going to turn out even darker than you imagined; you feel yourself pulling away, back peddling, refusing to accept the inevitable, appalling conclusion. Sutcliffe stops short of describing the final details, but he has already fully hinted at how it will end; these hints and the power of your imagination mean you are not spared the full horror. Brilliant.
- Best Film – Fahrenheit 9/11. When you have a child, going to the pictures becomes a major event. You either have to really want to go to the cinema to see a specific film, in which case you get a babysitter in, or if your wife isn’t too fussed about a film but you would like to see it, then you just nip out to the UGC in Parrs Wood one Saturday Morning when neither of you are working. This year, I only saw one film, which I nipped out to see one Saturday morning, and so it wins this award by default. It is quite a good film though, as I have already discussed.
- Sporting Moment – Tottenham Hotspur vs Manchester City FA Cup 4th Round.Sport is a very partisan affair. This is the reason that, despite the many great moments from the Olympics, and the fact that this has been a magnificent year the England Cricket team, and that this year saw a remarkable victory for Greece in Euro 2004, this for me was my sporting highlight; an absurd and ridiculous match that for the football fan repays the investment shelled out watching an abject 0-0 draw on a rainy Tuesday evening against, say, Lincoln. On the day of this match I was at work, due to finish at 20:45, and so I had already planned to go straight to the pub after work to watch the second half. Whilst at work the news began to filter through; we were 1-0 down, then 2-0 down. When I left work, I spoke to another City fan who had just come on for the night shift; he told me we were now 3-0 down. “Oh well,” I said, “let’s concentrate on the league”. When I got to my car and turned on my radio I found it was even worse. Nicolas Anelka, our best player, was injured, and Joey Barton had lived up to my nickname of him as the new Michael Brown by being pointlessly sent off. So, 3-0 down, our best player in the stands and down to 10 men; could I be bothered to go to the pub? Well, fortunately I am an alcoholic, so off I went. I listened to the opening few minutes of the second half in the car, and from kick off it sounded like we were having a good go at Spurs; already the commentators were mentioning what an incredible comeback it would be if we could manage it. I parked up just as Sylvain Distan scored with a header, and I raced into “The Weavers” to see if the impossible could happen. The comeback could have ended dead in its tracks had reserve ‘keeper Arne Arison not made a physically impossible double save soon after; on replay Arison is way out of camera shot from his first save as Spurs try again, and he is still out of shot as the ball reaches the 6 yard box; then he suddenly appears from nowhere and just manages to tip the ball to safety. Shortly after, a deflected shot from Paul Bosvelt makes it 3-2, but surely we can’t keep this pace up can we? With about 10 minutes to go Shaun Wright-Phillips breaks free and scores his trademark goal; wide on the right, ridiculing a mere mortal left-back with pace and skill, then whipping the ball across the goalkeeper and into the net before he knows what has happened. 3-3! I phone my wife and explain that I will be back late; it looks like were are going into extra time. Then, in the final minute John “First-division player” Macken receives a cross on his head and loops it over the Spurs’ defence and into the net! 3-4! I explode, as does the rest of the pub; full of City fans who are used to the unexpected, but nothing quite this weird. I phone my wife again; “4-3. We’ve won! I’m coming home!”. I walk home, chuckling to myself and shaking my head, leaving a pub full of people doing exactly the same thing.
- TV Moment – Alistair Campbell on Fantasy Football Euro 2004.I stopped watching “Fantasy Football” long ago, not least because it has been off our screens for years. However, while on my break at work, and with nothing else on TV, I watched Skinner and Baddiel do their stuff in a mildly amusing fashion. If you are aware of the format then you know that just before the half time break there is a ring of the doorbell, and in comes the guest for the day. Well, the bell rang on cue, Frank (or David) answered it, and in came Alistair Campbell. The reaction of the TV audience was bizarre; my impression of the “Fantasy Football” audience is that, faced with Campbell, half would say “who’s he”, while the other half would clap like seals regardless. But they didn’t; they booed him, and I just loved it. You could just tell from his expression that he wasn’t expecting it and was somewhat surprised that he was the cause of such antagonism. I was also surprised, and delighted. I think Campbell is a bit like Max Clifford, in that they think of themselves as popular heroes, only disliked by some media types, but they are wrong, very wrong, or at least I hope they are. Perhaps Campbell’s appearance on “Fantasy Football” went some way to curing him of this notion.
- Radio Moment – Mark and Lard’s Final Show. After nearly seven years in the afternoon slot, Mark and Lard went their separate ways, Mark Radcliffe to Radio 2 and Marc Riley to BBC 6 Music. I’ve not heard Lard’s show yet, but Mark Radcliffe has just picked up where his old Radio 1 evening show left of a few years ago, with the same guests (Ian McMillan, Simon Armitage) and many of the same records. It is a treat. If you never heard the afternoon show then it is a bit late now really, but the website includes an archive of many fine moments, including their final show together; worth listening to for the hilarious introduction from David Bowie, and their version of Mull of ‘kintyre from Lard’s Vinyl Vault. Priceless.