52: Best of 2021 so far...
Hello, I hope you’re doing well, vaxxed up to the eyes and feeling at least a little optimistic, even if that’s illogical. Here’s Border Crossing issue #52.
Since we’re at the crunchy halfway point of the year, this time (as usual) I’ll bang on about my favourite arts experiences, so far in 2021.
I already shared this on socials but it’s too fab to leave out: watch this Seinfeld theme supercut, mashed with a chart hit from each year the show was on air.
A great blend of hard eco-science and travel writing: Sky’s Diana Magnay writes from Chersky, far northeastern Russia, on the terrifying prospect of melting permafrost.
The Ezra Klein Show (podcast series) interviews anthropologist James Suzman on why we work such long hours, compared to hunter-gatherer cultures.
Typically brilliant Arundhati Roy essay about the implications for India of the Pegasus Project spying scandal.
I’ve cut down on potatoes. Thank you for your kind sympathy, yes it’s heartbreaking but I’ll make it through. Meanwhile, in the grossest potato news for a long time, deep breath, potato milk is now a thing.
Best of 2021, so far…
Last week we went back to the cinema for the first time since Parasite. We watched Questlove’s music documentary Summer Of Soul, about a series of open-air concerts in Harlem in Summer 1969. As we walked in, I was feeling a bit annoyed with film critic Mark Kermode for the praise he’d lavishing on this film on the Wittertainment show. Mark raised my expectations so mightily, now I worried that even if it was a very good film, I’d still just be disappointed.
Luckily, it’s a dizzying masterpiece. Kermode is on point. Gaining access to some of the greatest unseen music footage ever to lie abandoned in a filmmaker’s attic, Ahmir Khalib Thompson more than does it justice. He honours the source material, in fact, with a phenomenal work of bravura editing. He intercuts the wider cultural perspective of the time and diaspora with this mesmerising run of live performances by legend after legend in their prime, without once losing the rhythm and energy of the whole.
Immediately, Summer Of Soul is standing alongside the quiet, dry-witted yet aching Indian dramedy The Disciple as my two favourite films of 2021 so far. I’ll watch both again, before the end of the year. I can’t think of any two music films, of any kind, from any era, that are finer than this pairing. Another (very different but) brilliant Indian movie, White Tiger is on my list with Judas & The Black Messiah, Aubrey Plaza’s absorbing indie oddity The Black Bear and The Sound Of Metal, with its super turn from Riz Ahmed as a drummer going deaf.
Come to think of it, Summer Of Soul, The Sound Of Metal and The Disciple would make a pindrop perfect movie night for musos, to demonstrate the depth and breadth of music filmmaking.
At first, I’d slightly written off the film Nomadland, despite appreciating a typically gorgeous McDormand performance. I’d watched it around the same time as reading the book, annoyed that the film version gave capitalism generally — and the bastard Amazon specifically — an easy ride, compared to Jessica Bruder’s original reporting. But with distance, a second viewing this week warmed me to it.
With albums, I’m struggling to order or tidy a sprawling list. I’ve fallen for several records briefly and intensely, then moved on without (yet) forming any especially meaningful longer relationships. Currently at the top is still folk songwriter Jon Wilks’ Up The Cut and Grasscut’s Overwinter, with the Pharoah Sanders / Floating Points collaboration (which I suppose may end up as my outright album of the year), Jim Ghedi and Lucy Dacus up there too and NYX’s collaboration with Gazelle Twin as well. But the whole list will jiggle about loads before December. Certainly everything needs more listening and anyway the big autumn hitters are still to come. Even this week I got carried away with Emma-Jean Thackray’s intellectual, acerbic jazz punt for crossover stardom Yellow, yet who knows if that will last. My ‘tracks of the year’ include Self Esteem, Bo Burnham’s ‘White Woman’s Instagram’ from his Inside show, Greentea Peng, Arab Strap and Josienne Clarke’s new stuff.
Meanwhile, music listening has got odd, since I bought a decent new stage keyboard: now, halfway into a record, especially if I’m enjoying it, I’ll find myself switching it off to go play nonsense on the keyboard instead, as a kind of immediate reaction, or a contextualisation. Like unpacking the music with my own sound to fulfil the urge to respond, before even finishing listening. Like, interrupting.
I never did this before, not when I made music professionally, though we’ve always had a piano sat right there. Music fandom is a heady mess.
In the last email I wrote about Patrick Radden Keefe’s book Empire Of Pain, about the Sackler family, responsible for first Valium and then OxyContin opioid catastrophes, over half a century of aggressive wealth accruing. Two names mentioned in passing in that book are Prince and the actor Heath Ledger. Both had oxycodone (sold as OxyContin) in their systems when they overdosed. Then, the book goes into more detail about the campaign waged by photographer Nan Goldin, who for the past few years has been taking non-violent direct action around the world, in museums and galleries, to shine a light on the Sacklers. This was inspired by her own late career opioid addiction, after being prescribed OxyContin. It’s a great book but left me wanting something different.
So then I listened to Sinead O’Connor read Rememberings, which blends harrowing child abuse survivor journal, William Blake-ish visions of angels and a rock’n’roll roadmovie memoir. Again, mentioned only in passing, it turns out that O’Connor’s mother (who was violently abusive and manipulative) misused Valium for many years. So, in walked the cursed Sackler family, once again.
The third book high on my list is John Higgs’ fantastic biographical essay William Blake Vs The World. Meandering and incredibly acute, both at the same time. Higgs makes Blake understandable (at least so far as that is possible) better than anything I’ve read on him. I’ve also got listed: Paul Kingsnorth’s Alexandria (maybe my favourite work of fiction so far this year — the new Willie Vlautin is still in the pile waiting to be read) and Harry Sword’s exhaustive, yet chewy and freaky, history of the drone in music, Monolithic Undertow. My favourite poetry has come from Natalie Ann Holborow and Ella Frears.
My art list has nowhere near enough exhibitions to judge yet. I’ve been to just three shows and only one was any good.
For podcasts, the episode of Home Cooking where, becoming a sudden chime of sincere light amidst the chaos of larking around, Samin Nosrat (the chef who gave us Salt Fat Acid Heat) out of the blue performs the poem ‘Refridgerator 1957’. It’s is right up there. Co-presenter and showrunner Hrishi Hirway (you know, that SongExploder guy) gave me permission to clip it and play it as a music track on Folkhampton, which was glorious. Laura Barton kvelled on Springsteen on Radio 4, Louis Theroux interviewed FKA Twiggs, and Annie Mac chatted live on air to a supremely wired Lana Del Rey, on her Radio 1 show. Lee Mack went all Buddhist on Adam Buxton’s show. All these are in the mix. For full podcast series, apart from the usuals, I’ve most enjoyed Maya Lothian-Mclean’s Human Resources and Arron Lammer’s true crypto-crime thriller romp Exit Scam. Noreen Malone took over Slate’s Slow Burn for series five, to unpack the run-up to the Iraq War and fully rescued what I felt had become a decaying franchise.
Finally food. I’m having a silly time with it, trying to eat less and eat better, falling off the wagon with despairing regularity but clambering back on more effectively than I used to. I appreciate it in real time as an addiction right now, which is daunting. My relationship with some of the stuff I most adore to consume has been utterly screwed up since spring came. For example, I currently only drink one or two caffeinated coffees a week. I know it’s helping and worthwhile, yet still I badly miss my indulgent coffee snobbery. Up the top of the 2021 food list sits super-cute local vegan Mexican pop-up Bendito Maiz, who are smashing this year, though again I’ve had to eke it out, so as not to demolish my insides with spicy nonsense all the time. Ditto Home By Nico’s (posh and expensive) Korean cook-at-home menu, the occasional Chili Pickle and, again earlier on in the year, Roasthost’s epic delivered Sunday roasts. Winter and spring included several incredible cream teas from different places. I originally planned a fully separate ‘cream tea’ chart, before clocking quite how foolhardy that was. Woe is me. Thank god for that one sneaky weekend spa hotel break. Probably by December, my ‘food of the year’ will just be endless kimchi, miso, brown rice and healthy vegetables. Nothing wrong with those, Chris. Blah.
get in touch
New Folk Friday — weekly Spotify playlist for new releases in folk, psych, songwriting and americana, updated each Friday.
The Hudson Records Mixtape — Spotify playlist for the Sheffield record label, updated every two weeks.
Loads of love, as always. Please look after yourself and your people.