31.1.13

Margaret

The personalities in this film don't cohere between scenes. What you get are fragments that, when gathered together, suggest a complete consciousness (reminds me of the technique employed in Wolf Hall). There isn't an arc as such – rather a long denouement unfolding slowly from the traumatic incident at the beginning, a device which serves to expose the hidden pathology of the protagonist. The story itself is simple, a teenager trying and failing to deal with her guilt, but the scale surrounding this character study suggests wider implications. The film is three hours long, wrapped around meandering shots of the canyons of New York City and the chatter of its citizens. Lucy Coen is pretty and articulate, but like her mother her breezy attitude disguises a distressing inability to connect with others. The people around her aren't real, they are actors in her drama, and she becomes extremely distraught when they refuse to play along with her. The heated classroom debates suggest a political metaphor – the film as a comment on America's stroppy self-assurance. But it also works as an exploration of an aesthete despair at a world that refuses to please them. The final scene of the film offers some hope of the protagonist being able to box in those dreams of perfection in art, and allow herself to feel human again.

27.1.13

A Taste of Chlorine

The universe presented in this book is pretty much composed of the aquamarine of the swimming pool, in a similar way to A Waking Life being the summation of an entire existence in a rotoscoped dream-world. But while Linklater's film spends ages introducing us to a variety of phantasms which talk our ears off about their outlook and beliefs, in A Taste of Chlorine, the big question is posed in one scene at the centre of the book. The protagonist asks whether we are destined for a particular life project. He is unsure himself, but desperately wants to know if anyone feels that they could die for something, or never let go of something. The reply he receives from a girl in a swimming pool who gave up competing professionally is somewhere in the middle. She swims as much as she can, but she won't devote her entire existence to her passion. Indeed, she gives up and leaves the pool when her boyfriend has had enough. For many of us, unfortunately, this is the settlement we have to reach.

The book ends with the protagonist in the same position as his friend, except he cannot even grasp that something that he will never let go of. He sees a phantom of the girl swimming ahead of him, but he cannot reach her – he almost drowns in the process, but manages to grab the sidelines and safety.

The book's panel borders look like the uncertain surface of a pool of water. That permeable barrier runs like a thread through the book: the open air is for broken conversation, the depths are for silent observation. We don't really know what is going on with the mysterious muse directing the protagonist's swimming lessons. She tries to mouth her answer underwater, a kind of attempt at telepathy. But on the way out of the pool she gets cold feet: "I'll tell you on Wednesday", and of course she never comes back. The book ends with more mouthings from the mystery girl (expressions of thanks to the people in the Acknowledgements perhaps) before she swims away to the surface, leaving us underwater, with only the vaguest intimations of her meaning, or her author's.

The impersonal but public space of the swimming pool is built for this kind of exposed but wary interaction. Swimming is a lonely activity, but your vulnerabilities and mistakes can nevertheless be examined by strangers. Our bodies, and the thoughts they harbour, are our own. But they are also available and scrutinized by others. It's a clever way to characterize our experience of the world, and our mitigated and imperfect interactions with the people in it

24.1.13

Tropic of Cancer

I started reading Sexual Politics straight after finishing Tropic of Cancer, and immediately skipped forward to the chapter on Henry Miller. I had been ready to look past his objectionable attitude towards women because it was bound up with an objectionable attitude to pretty much everything. Miller's whole project seemed to be about detailing the rank corruption of a twilight zone at the end of all things, from a perspective embedded in, and participating in, that corruption. Miller is describing a civilization eaten away by cancer (hence the title), the hero an embodiment of Nietzsche's brutal individualist master-race. There is a kind of ironic distance between the reader and the protagonist – an 'artist' living a life uninhibited by conventional morality, alluring but repulsive. Van Norden is a caricature aimed to show this up, referring to all women as "cunts" and at one point hysterically exclaiming, "can you imagine what she'd be like if she had any feelings?" Are we supposed to take that at face value, actually ADMIRE this collection of sad, wandering, expat freaks?

Millet doesn't spend much of her time on these ironies and ambivalences, although her discussion of Miller ranges across his entire output, which is far more distasteful and provides much more to disapprove of. It looks to me like after the success (or notoriety) Tropic of Cancer achieved, Miller couldn't help himself and kept producing cruder and cruder variations of the same book. But Millet's most interesting criticism, which applies to everything Miller wrote, is that EVEN IF he was out to cause outrage, that very act nevertheless reinforces anti-female (and anti-human) attitudes. Miller is actually DEPENDENT on the conservative sexual mores he flouts, since that is how he achieves his effects. By exposing the hypocrisy of Victorian politeness, he underlines the 'fact' that there is no possibility for harmony or equality between the sexes.

But SHOULD we take that reading at face value? Once again I think back to Ellen Willis's point about art which is "antiwoman, antisexual, in a sense antihuman", but can support your "struggle for liberation". Aggressive exclamations of THIS IS ME I EXIST can have a profound impact whatever their content. Miller's happens to be at a time at the cusp of modernity, where writers and thinkers are adjusting to a life without the certainties of a religious ethic:

"I have found God, but he is insufficient. I am only spiritually dead. Physically I am alive. Morally I am free. The world which I have departed is a menagerie. The dawn is breaking on a new world, a jungle world in which lean spirits roam with sharp claws. If a am a hyena I am a lean and hungry one: I go forth to fatten myself."

Reading Lovecraft for the first time last year, I've become increasingly interested in this collection of writers at the turn of the 20th century dealing with the collapse of a Christian culture, and turning to Nietzsche in order to build out from that ground zero: either exhaling the triumph of the individual, or reveling in the empty meaninglessness of our reality.

20.1.13

The Big Lebowski

Not sure if David Thompson's ambivalence about the Coens pre-2003 was shifted by No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man, both of which are a level removed / raised / above their earlier work (that I have seen). But I'm in agreement with Thompson's view that The Big Lebowski "felt too cute by half, like a film watching itself, more intent on being droll that life". The Coens are particularly interested in men tripped-up and entangled in forces beyond their control and understanding – a horror at the feeble sovereignty we can assert over our lives. With the Dude, the Coens celebrate one possible way to survive the chaos underlying our experience of the world – a tumbleweed blown around by events, oblivious, abiding. But the camaraderie between Jeff Bridges, John Goodman and Steve Buscemi rarely goes beyond a joke. And the entire film is framed in this really self-satisfied, condescending way – Sam Eliott's "The Stranger" appearing at the start, middle and end to add nonsensical, empty "depth"...

14.1.13

Les Miserables

Peter Bradshaw was beaten into submission, and after seeing the film this evening I understand where he's coming from – the intense sincerity of each performance is an almost physical force punching through all your defenses. Did peak early, though, with Anne Hathaway's 'I dreamed a dream'. Her contortions reminded me a little bit of Kiera Knightley's gurning in A Dangerous Method, which is kind of the point. Hooper obviously wanted to avoid any romanticisation of the prostitute's life, it's just unremittingly grim. And the ache in Hathaway's voice is overpowering. Imagine this with the ethereality stripped away. Everything else can't quite match it, and by the end I was growing increasingly conscious of the film's length and my sore backside (TMI, probably, but those seats really were death-traps).

Hooper told his DP to go crazy on this film. Cameras thrown all around, waving all over the place. Every shot a tilt. Every crane shot elongated into a sweep over a CGI landscape. Not quite Baz Lurhmann but you get the idea. Only once did the effect descend into parody – an introductory two shot at the start of the scene in which Valjean reveals his past to Marius, set at a bizarre tilt. It was so arch I almost lolled in the cinema. But everything else works like magic. The cameras swoop like bats through the set, enhancing the sense that it's all a universe-sized theatre stage – crucial, since the actors are singing all the way through.

It's all artifice, these musicals. Manipulative as all hell. My instinct would be to resist, and the buy-in is often quite difficult. This manages it, however, probably because the singing sounds real – often flawed and all the better for it. At its best moments the acting actually interferes with the words of the song as they come out. In a world where everyone sings, not being able to anymore carries its own special force, and in fact some of the most powerful lines are spoken 'prose'. The normal (histrionic expressiveness) breaks down, and you're left with emotions so heavy they're impossible to articulate.

13.1.13

Woman of the Dunes

The 1965 review included in the DVD booklet suggests that the film presents "a set of sardonic and paradoxical glosses on the Marxist definition of freedom as the recognition of necessity". It refuses to elaborate, insisting that only the literal-minded would wish to "reduce the film's complex visual poetry to simple verbal formulae". So why did it bother to try, then? We'll elaborate instead, quoting Engels:

Freedom therefore consists in the control over ourselves and over external nature, a control founded on knowledge of natural necessity

The film begins with Eiji Okada walking confidently over the desert, hunting for insects, master of his surroundings. He wishes to make advances in science, and have his name live on by finding a new type of bug. Nature gets the better of him, however. Forced to shovel sand and robbed of modern comforts, his horizons shrink. At the end of the film, he abandons bugs for experiments with a reservoir, a more pressing concern for the people around him. He finds freedom not in the opportunity to go home, but in helping the community who have exploited him.

That's about as far as that reading takes us, so let's try another, existentialist angle. Freedom as the ability to pursue a life project of your choosing, a freedom the Woman of the Dunes cannot have, being cloistered in a shack sinking into the ground. Shoveling sand gives the Woman purpose – she is happy to be boxed in. For her guest, this is intolerable. While she digs for the bones of her family and clings to the old community spirit, he wants to escape and be famous – private and public spheres clearly delineated. Not only that, but the woman is effectively prostituted by the people around her. She is capable of genuine affection, perhaps, but it's moulded heavily by the demands of the men she serves. Those sexual demands prove to be her downfall. She has almost no subjectivity at all, being an automaton used and discarded by the powerful.

Marx does come in through another angle: the dialectic. The Woman of the Dunes can be said to be at one with nature and her fellow man – being oblivious about her exploitation, completely submissive towards the men around her, and having very simple goals (preserving the group – even the radio is justified as being for someone else's happiness). Her guest on the other hand feels the full weight of his alienation. But in living with the Woman of the Dunes, some of that old community spirit rubs off. He stays even when he doesn't have to, his labour given freely to assist his fellow men according to their needs. And that transformation is not achieved through revolution, but through something resembling love and sacrifice.

And finally, a reading through Lovecraft. The two main characters in this film are reduced to insects burrowing in the sand, as if they were observed in close-up by an alien intelligence watching their equivalent of a nature documentary. This audience only dimly perceives the difference between living and dead matter – its interest divided equally between the shifting sands and the human drama playing out around them. There is a kind of existentialist terror to all this – men and women scrabbling over the face of the earth, their stories as cosmically significant as a boulder of sand.

Have I reduced the film enough? That initial review is right in that a film so symbolically rich as Woman of the Dunes lends itself to multiple responses. But there's nothing wrong with cataloguing a few, right?

12.1.13

Favourite songs of 2012 part 2

My top ten:

10. Objekt - Cactus
Spent relatively little time following the Hessle / Hemlock / R&S end of things this year (do things inevitably run out of steam once a label compilation is released?). Arguably Objekt’s ‘Cactus’ is more of a carryover from 2011 anyway, when I was really immersed in this stuff. Listening habits have shifted since then, but this release is a very satisfying farewell point. It’s a prickly, stubborn track, like a series of rescinded provocations. Painstakingly designed and bristling with kinetic energy, it hits that golden mean of weirding you out and making you move at the same time.

9. Nina Sky - Comatose
Lovemaking stretched into a blissed-out slowdance – the movements perfect, the sensations overwhelming, the desire endless, making the risk of dissolution a small price to pay. Nicole & Natalie was also one of the best pop releases this year, give or take a Carly Rae Jepsen, which pushed the center-piece track up the list.

8. Cooly G - What This World Needs Now
The clear stand-out from Cooly G’s debut album, a reworking of the Bacharach classic made all the more poignant by Merrisa Campbell undercutting the sentiment with just a whisper of “is this all that we..?”

7. Wynter Gordon - Waiting
I learned to love the Phil Collins stylings of ‘Stimela’, but much prefer Wynter Gordon’s experiments with 1990s woman-fronted alt-rock. ‘Waiting’ pretty much leaves R&B behind entirely, crafting a stadium-sized singalong which even features something resembling a guitar solo. Exactly the kind of triumphant soundtrack I needed as I made the journey home after more than a year abroad.

6. Azealia Banks - NeedSumLuv
What do you do after ‘212’? How do you top perfection? Well, imperfection can have a certain beauty as well. Machinedrum’s ‘SXLND’ is probably the best thing he’ll ever do, and Banks is definitely NOT on top form as she whines and warbles over it, competing with and losing out to that Aaliyah sample. Entirely fitting with her tale of infatuation with an attached man. Her super-confident raps, extensively deployed elsewhere, are abandoned for unpolished singing. Dissatisfaction lingers: a song that could have been, but cannot be flawless, a romance that just doesn’t work no matter how aggressively you’re flirting, seducing, begging. ‘NeedSumLuv’ also set the tone for a year characterised by drift and experimentation which alienated many. But actually, combine the best bits from that Fantasea mixtape and the 1991 EP and you have pretty impressive debut right there, which is why Banks is so high on the list.

5. Rihanna - Birthday Cake (Funkystepz Miami Bass Mix)
But not as high as Funkystepz. This one is the best, because of the lust, the hoovers, and the CAKE CAKE CAKE CAKE CAKE CAKE CAKE CAKE CAKE CAKE CAKE CAKE CAKE CAKE CAKE CAKE

4. Terror Danjah feat. Riko - Dark Crawler
Fifty adrenalin shots in the arm and you’ll still have trouble keeping up with the relentless pace of ‘Dark Crawler’. Danjah is set on carpet-bombing the dance, and if you think you can outrun the explosions, think again. Riko’s voice is almost swallowed up by the barrage of flying ordinance – the self-proclaimed London City Warlord just about manages to get the message about your impending doom across as missiles whizz and mortars fall around him. Grime’s deranged belligerence turns out to be a fitting soundtrack to Ragnarok. Prepare for your elimination.

3. Wiley - Humble Pie
2012 was the year when, for the first time in pretty much ever, Wiley sounded more vital than Dizzee. Personal view, obviously – I haven’t spent the past 10 years tracking their careers that closely. In fact, I had pretty much dismissed Wiley as a disgruntled elder eternally caught between envy and admiration for his apprentice turned master. Wiley’s view that Dizzee was the first one from the grime scene to become an ‘artist’ is correct: Dizzee was able to marshall the unruly vibrancy of the genre into a exemplary debut album. Wiley was scattershot by comparison, his non-sequiturs standing awkwardly next to Dizzee’s story-telling nous. But while Dizzee drifted onto new pastures, determined to escape the ends and enjoy himself as much as possible, Wiley kept at it – producing such huge quantities of music that the quality inevitably kept rising. He can just churn this stuff out. His genius isn’t focused like Dizzee’s, it manifests in hair-brained, impromptu, near free-associative outpourings that outline a messy, fallible, honest person: “that’s just being human” as Wiley would put it. I didn’t even notice the levels rising until the steady stream of ‘Step Freestyles’ started pouring out this year. Wiley mentions Lil Wayne as an influence, probably not just in terms of lyrical approach, but marketing strategy: saturating the internet with free music that kept the fans talking. It worked – Wiley finally scored his long-desired number one single. You can’t argue that it wasn’t well deserved. Picking one song to represent the mass of stuff I enjoyed this year is impossible. ‘Humble Pie’ doesn’t showcase the ferocious wit of his battle raps, but does provide some insight behind the scenes. But it really soars at the end with that floating saxophone line, and Wiley ad-libbing over it: about his Boy Better Know family, London, and then dorking out over a girl.

2. Dawn Richard - Save Me From You (Remix)
Yeah, I don’t care if the original version was released last year. Fact is, this is the culmination and encapsulation of the Armor On EP, which is one of the best albums of 2012. Dawn punctures the insecurity inherent in entrusting your salvation to another. The superhero metaphor only universalises this principle. Waiting on deliverance only attracts heroes who are stronger when you’re gasping (my discomfort about Whedon’s Avengers was basically over this). Your rescue depends on your own self-sufficiency. The song transforms bitterness into assurance, dependency into independence, providing the answer to all those waiting to be rescued: go rescue yourself.

1. Purity Ring - Fineshrine
What, again? You could (if you were a soulless husk) describe Shrines as 10 slight variations on ‘Ungirthed’, Purity Ring’s breakout hit and my favourite song of last year. But no, this good thing you can’t have enough of. The same way I can listen to Harriet Wheeler warble and sigh through David Gavurin’s glistening arrangements for all eternity, I can listen to Megan James navigate the wonder-filled starry night laid out for her by Corin Roddick. Purity Ring use modern sounds (imagine The Knife getting heavily into hip-hop), but they capture the same child-like exuberance and terror The Sundays did twenty years ago. Too much is made of their disturbing imagery. James is not out to shock, her outlook is one of innocent curiosity at the marvels around her. ‘Fineshrine’ talks about ribs cracking, but only to illustrate the physical ache of devotion to another, the unquestioning self-sacrifice involved. The hyperventilating vocal snippets accent that eagerness to surrender everything for someone else, an impossible will-to-abnegation. Dawn’s suspicions about the relationships of power that underline love are the mature response, but Purity Ring imagine a world free of those lines of division, where we can become each other’s resplendent shrines.

Some thoughts:
So 2012 turned out to be the year guitars completely disappeared from my listening habits. It's been building for a while now, only held back by residual affection for the bands around Los Campesinos!. But Gareth and Tom have moved on to where I can't follow, and I'm resigned to the fact that Johnny Foreigner will never achieve anything as perfect as their first EP and album. Time to let go. I wouldn't say I'm in indie rehab (where Alex Ostroff positions himself) – I don't actively want to flush guitars out of my system. I've adapted to and accommodated Belle & Sebastian, the Hold Steady and the rest, and they won't be got rid of. But their successors haven't been as successful, for whatever reason. Ideas have either run out, or have disappeared into bandcamp.

So what has replaced the guitars? Pop, hip-hop, R&B and dance, pretty much. The sort of stuff I listened to before I was a teenager, the stuff that had absorbing narratives and formal invention hiding in plain sight. And of that, you could characterize my tastes as shifting from the kind of things argued about on Dissensus to the kinds of things argued about on ILM. The conversations around music continue to be one of the main sources of interest in the sounds themselves, and although ILM is less good-natured, its debates are fiercer and more intriguing. I owe a secret debt to many of the members of the board, but I'll mention two names: Guardian critic Alex MacPherson and Pitchfork contributor Tim Finney.

Life of Pi

I haven't read the book, because I have an aversion to fables featuring talking animals (maybe George Orwell is to blame). I watched the film solely because Ang Lee was behind it. The technical wizardry everyone is talking about is front-loaded – the credit sequence at the beginning of the film introduces us to the animals in the zoo, which look both real and animated. I suspect that actual footage may have been involved in some of the shots, which was touched up to resemble the animated shots (the most brilliant of which is a monkey flitting about the branches of a tree). It works because the tale isn't supposed to be realistic – it is framed as a story told by a survivor of a shipwreck. I saw the film in 2D, but Mark Kermode may well have given the 3D version a pass because of this distancing (or 'Brechtian alienation', whatever he wants to call it).

Peter Bradshaw is right to focus on the question asked at the very end – the moment the entire film builds towards, the bit where we are all supposed to start believing in God. Bradshaw thinks the exchange is fatuous, and it is: just because one man allegorises the horrific trauma he experienced in order to move on doesn't mean we all have to embrace a religious life. However, I think the film poses a more insidious question: why shouldn't we prefer an imagined reality if it bestows comfort? Why should we privilege an understanding of the world based on the rational investigation of the evidence of our senses? A Dawkins acolyte may respond by stressing the many comforts brought about by science (something the film acknowledges). But another tack might be to question the assumption that people need an imagined reality to feel content – perhaps some are able to find tranquility without it.

10.1.13

2012 blind spot: Jeremih - 773 Love

This didn't (and won't) make it onto the rundown of my favourite songs of last year, having only discovered it when Jeremih started popping up on EOY summaries (most unexpectedly in Resident Advisor!) and appropriating picks from other lists feels somehow fraudulent (btw, I am crazy). Anyway, '773 Love' has been on repeat the past two days, to the extent where I didn't even need to be connected to my MP3 player – it just ran on and on in my head. THAT hasn't happened in a while – this kind of intense devotional commitment to one song. I think 'Ungirthed' was the last, and that was 2011's number one. Perhaps if I had discovered this sooner (and not heeded those dismissing Late Nights with Jeremih as a consolation prize for bandwagon-jumpers and Tetrius Nash fans), it could have claimed the top spot in 2012...

'733 Love' reminds me a lot of JoJo's 'Demonstrate' – someone racked by carnal desire hoping beyond hope that the phone will ring. I mean, there's no way "been thinking lately we can get more physical" is any kind of chat-up line that could lead to an actual exchange of phone-numbers (I don't know, perhaps I'm just British about these things). Like JoJo, Jeremih is in the throws of sexual fantasy, but while 'Demonstrate' is slightly introverted and neurotic about it, '773 Love' is all-ablaze at the fact. Mike Will Made It crowns Jeremih's pleas in the chorus with blasts of triumphant synth. There's no shame whatsoever: "tonight them draws is all I need! falling off of your body!". Jeremih's passion is expressed as a full-throated roar, glorious and absurd. JoJo's yearning feels more desperate, more pathetic. She doesn't have the confidence to say all the ridiculous things Jeremih is coming out with.

A gendered reading of the two songs inevitably presents itself: men as the creators and masters of sexual relations have the space to shamelessly bare all, as it were. Women aren't able to articulate their (similarly fervent) cravings as easily. That said, JoJo's 'Demonstrate' is more universal than that – its writhing pent-up ardor isn't exclusive to women, I assure you. One hopes (for all our sakes) that Jeremih's more assertive account is as accessible, in the future if not now.

6.1.13

Favourite songs of 2012 Part 1

The top ten, and maybe some more general discussion, still to come. Below are 16 highlights from the past year. As with previous lists, one song per artist, although admired albums etc. tends to push stuff up the rankings.

26. Rockwell - Tripwire
Before embarking on a Rustie-inspired, synth-slathered diversion into hip-hop, Rockwell released this impossibly detailed, propulsive, drum & bass barnstormer. Named ‘Tripwire’ because of the way it sounds like it’s tripping over itself, for me it feels more like being chewed-up inside the mouth of a beat-boxing android. Whole-heartedly committed to d&b’s drive towards inhumanly complex but irresistible body-tugging rhythms, ‘Tripwire’ also carries forward the sentiments in last year’s ‘Aria’: a hymn to the loneliness of digital living. “It’s the love you save” echoes through the masticating jaws of the drumbeat, the ghost in the machine.

25. Disclosure feat. Sam Smith - Latch
I was pretty dismissive of Disclosure’s initial output – it seemed to be a cleaned-up version of the rude squelchy bassline-affiliated UKG movement peddled by the likes of DJ Q and Mike Delinquent Project (both show up below). However ‘Latch’ ended up stealing my heart at the end of the year. A proper song, this. Sam Smith’s creeping (slightly creepy) loverman verses and floaty desire-addled pre-chorus leave you completely unprepared for the ecstatic yelping in the chorus, when he clasps his prize.

24. Swindle feat. Footsie & Nadia Suliman - Ignition
'Airmiles' and 'Spend Is Dough' were anthems, but sounded overly busy to these ears, which is why Swindle's embrace of space on tracks like 'Tongue Tied' and 'Ignition' was revelatory. The former is an accomplished piece of lechery from accomplished lecher Sam Frank. I’ve settled for the bouncier 'Ignition', because Nadia Suliman’s declaration that “It’s my time to shine” better encapsulates the lift-off Swindle achieved this year, and also because it features Footsie on the verses – another artist who had a particularly good 2012. Big fan of his '1 Spliff' single with Sukh Knight and the Zoot Break EP from earlier in the year.

23. Angel Haze - New York
Innumerable rappers before Angel Haze have declared their conquest of the capital of hip-hop, or have insisted on their own importance within the canon. Haze's lyrical skill makes her claim less than outrageous, for sure. But there’s something about the booming stomps that punctuate the clicking beat, especially the way they underline the swelling pride in the statement that she “made this shit in COVERT” – from the street she grew up in to blanket dominance of a city teeming with wannabe rap stars. You can’t help but be swept up in that narrative, oft-retold though it may be.

22. DJ Q - Brandy & Coke
An old idea, the U.K. Garage Remix of U.S. R&B, and when I first heard DJ Q’s version of Brandy’s ‘Best Friend’ it didn’t really blow a gasket in my brain. After all, what’s new here, really? What I didn’t register was the retention of the original’s understated tone, preserving its status as a quietly powerful declaration of undying companionship. Also included in recognition of DJ Q’s prodigious output this year – life-enhancing almost without exception.

21. Cassie - King of Hearts
Obviously this is a disco-ball of dancefloor delights (handclaps! strings!), but also interesting in that Cassie’s position as R&B's resident Aphrodite is flipped – a charming princess whose only vocation is to seduce, pedestalled and worshipped by hordes of bloggers, nevertheless pines for a King of Hearts to call her own.

20. Chronik - Man In The Boot
Fog everywhere. A shadow creeps along London’s dusky pavements. It lurks in the dark corners of the street, alone, bitter at unpaid dues and the ignorance of a pampered younger generation. Menacing whispers drift over the streets, about old feuds and verbal jousts and the buzz of radio battles, before television and the internet ushered in the present regime. War-cries echo through the gloom. Worked up by the invocation of a forgotten age (an age of blood and fire!) the shadow creeps out, a flickering streetlight gives it definition. It is Chronik, frothing with the memory of unspeakable deeds and glorious victories. He’ll take you on a drive haunted by the spirits of grime’s past. He threatens, lunges, splutters, slows, the memories fading. A final fond recollection of a favoured lyrical weapon issues out, before the light dies and Chronik disappears into the night.

19. The Mike Delinquent Project feat. Lady Leshurr - Step In The Dance
Lady Leshurr is probably one of the most skilled MCs in the U.K. right now, and here she’s toasting over one of Mike Delinquent’s most confident and masterful productions, ranging from bassline-laced 2-step all the way back to jungle. A lethal combination.

18. Jubei feat. Flow Dan - Say Nothin’
A lot of drum & bass producers have been drawn to the ‘dungeon’ dubstep sound associated with Kryptic Minds and Youngsta. Jubei’s contribution is positively Dungeons & Dragons – that long roar grinding through the swinging lope of the beat. Flow Dan’s red-eyed lectures on navigating an environment cluttered with stealthy enemies and hidden traps only enhances the feeling that you’re treading though a particularly tense section of an RPG campaign, minimizing risks, conserving resources, thinking three steps ahead.

17. JoJo - Demonstrate
The song plays between two moments. The beat warping around JoJo’s yearning to “demonstrate” all that freaky shit in her mind – like time and space being bent by the force of frustrated desire, to the point where it actually seems possible that the object of JoJo’s affections could be summoned to the room. And the soaring vocal when this is (imagined to be) achieved. Back and forth, never resolving. JoJo continues to chronicle her fevered bed-bound internal dramas with the help of Drake producer Noah “40” Shebib, and long may she do so.

16. Lea-Anna feat. Lioness, Ce'Cile & Lady Leshurr - Murder (Remix)
Included in recognition of a trend in female-fronted grime to band together as a way of amplifying your voice, an interesting contrast to male-fronted grime’s declarations of standing apart (see Kozzie’s entry to come). This track actually reaches beyond borders to link up in solidarity with the cream of dancehall’s female vocalists, together murdering the mandem with their fabulousness. Which ties-up with a more personal reason to include this – a deepening interest in dancehall particularly from the early 2000s.

15. Usher - What Happened To U
Most of Usher’s album (even ‘Climax’) felt distant to me, as if he was acting out certain expected poses: using that voice mechanically rather than really feeling the emotions he is supposed to be expressing. That same distance is an asset in ‘What Happened To U’. Usher only seems to liven-up when he’s recounting all the money, clothes and fancy cars he’s accumulated. He’s a black, young and clever man trading in lovelorn croons while boasting of having “too many” women (sometimes two at a time!) Usher doesn’t really miss anyone, and I’m not sure he really wants to go back. But he has to try and convince you anyway. For the consummate showman, this is where the mask slips.

14. Nicki Minaj feat. Beenie Man - Gun Shot
Weirdly, I’ve ended up taking away more tracks from Pink Friday than I do from Roman Reloaded. Perhaps only ‘Stupid Hoe’ and maybe ‘Come On A Cone’ can stand beside monoliths like ‘Did It On'em’, ‘Blow Ya Mind’, ‘Wave Ya Hand’ and ‘Girls Fall Like Dominoes’. Of course, Minaj’s towering achievement thus far has been ‘Super Bass’, and it’s strange that Kane Beatz (its producer) only contributed once to her follow-up. ‘Gun Shot’ ends up being the best thing on the album, though. It’s just sad that everyone who fell so heavily for ‘Super Bass’ ended up dismissing the follow-up. Gains extra points because of the dancehall connection, and my newfound admiration of Beenie Man.

13. Rudimental - Deep In The Valley (Woz Remix)
YOU KNOW WE AIN’T FRIENDLY, YOU KNOW WE AIN’T PALLY! UK funky smattered with grime, and one of the best workouts of 2012.

12. Kendrick Lamar feat. Gunplay - Cartoon & Cereal
Haven’t invested nearly enough time in these two, which look to be 2012’s most well-respected rappers, but does seem like they will never top what they achieve here: Lamar’s serpentine nasal flow coming up against Gunplay’s straight-talking growl. One using his intelligence to plot his escape, the other relying on sheer force of personality.

11. Kozzie feat. Merky Ace - Yeah (Remix)
Preditah was everywhere this year, responsible not only for some of its best grime moments, but also for a couple of undeniable garage hits. This gothic monster is probably my favourite. Sinister strings and chimes are wreathed around a rock solid banger, which the tag-team of Kozzie and Merky Ace attack with a blinding ferocity. When Preditah pulls back the track during their second verses, the drops make the earth shake.

Top ten coming soon...

4.1.13

Waking Life

Midway through this film the protagonist finally starts talking and the audience finally starts understanding the basic set up – the rotoscoped picture-world represents a dream we are trying to escape. In it we a confronted by numerous personages lecturing on their particular experiments in living. A recurring theme is the question of free will and the possibility of self-definition in a chaotic, uncontrollable reality. The existential projects of all these people only seem possible in this brightly-coloured dimension where physical and moral laws bend around you. As the film was progressing, I was trying to predict how it will end. I thought the logical conclusion would be some return to live-action where the rules of reality are once again imposed on our wandering/wondering hero – the freedom promised in dreams (and all that flighty talk) annulled. That doesn't happen, but my estimable friend with whom I watched the film convinced me that it didn't need to. The film did not present a fundamental opposition to the viewer like I thought. Indeed it keeps repeating the idea that dreaming and waking life are equivalents. Our dreamer wishes to wake up just as we often wish to escape into a dream world. He ultimately has no control over his reality just as we don't have any control over ours. I thought the final set-piece in the film was an unsatisfying fudge, deferring the question of whether we are safe in our beds or in the land of the dead. It wasn't: it's a metaphor for degradation, death and the unknowable afterlife. At the beginning of the film, a boy manages to grasp reality and just about avoid being swept into oblivion. The audience is then treated to a long lesson about our wills not being able to define our lives. At the end, our protagonist tries to get in the car (move on, start living) and can't. The world slips from his grasp and he is lost.