The best (and worst) of 2016

north-by-northwestI’ve already posted my favourite folk/world music and jazz albums of the year, so here are my  other cultural highs and lows.

Best gigs.

Audra McDonald, Leicester Square Theatre, Jan. I’ve always found her studio recordings too icily perfect, but her personality came through loud and clear in front of a basement full of musical theatre fanatics.

Charlie Hunter, Ronnie Scotts, Nov. A perfect balance of blues and seat-of-the-pants improv from the American guitarist.

North By Northwest Live, Coliseum, Dec. Hitchcock, Cary Grant and the ENO Orchestra: a perfect cocktail.

Natalie Douglas, Crazy Coqs, Feb.  A fabulous singer paid homage to Stevie Wonder, Joe Williams, Nat “King” Cole and Sammy Davis Jr.

National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland, Proms, Aug. Exploring the music of Duke Ellington and Iain Ballamy. The finest late-night Prom in years.

Youn Sun Nah, Union Chapel, Sept. Sometimes she sounds like an avant-garde jazz singer, sometimes she can be a non-histrionic version of Ute Lemper.

Dillie Keane, Oxford Playhouse, March. Out on her own without Fascinating Aïda, reflecting on love and death and sex.

Steve Gadd, Ronnie Scott’s, Oct. A less-is-more drumming masterclass.

Bill Burr, Colston Hall, Bristol. Cantankerous, curmudgeonly and one of the world’s great stand-up comedians.

Worst gigs

Kamasi Washington, Proms, Aug. Jazz’s visionary new saxophonist? I was hoping I’d see the light at last, but this bloated, meandering concert left me even more baffled.

Baaba Maal, Festival Hall, Jan. Not for the first time, the Malian superstar seemed to be lost in a bland no-man’s land.

Pet Shop Boys, Royal Opera House. Bland tunes, ludicrous choreography and easily the most pretentious programme note of the year.

pet shop boys programme gesamtkunstwerk

Best open-air venue. A strip of beach in the Indian Ocean that served as home to the Sakifo festival. Getting to Réunion involved a long, long flight, but it was worth it.

Best films. It seemed a stronger year than normal, or maybe I was just lucky. “Captain Fantastic”, a story about idealism gone wrong, reminded me of Paul Theroux’s “The Mosquito Coast”. Jeff Bridges was memorably grumpy, wizened and cynical in “Hell Or High Water”. Two men who had next to nothing in common made memorable small talk in “Nixon & Elvis”, while the low-budget drama “Race” deserved more praise than it actually got for its unfussy re-telling of Jesse Owens’ triumph at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. “My Nazi Legacy” was a sobering documentary about war crimes, conscience and selective amnesia.

Best theatre.  I can’t  remember the last time I enjoyed a play as much as “Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour”. When I managed to get a ticket for a mid-week performance, I went along assuming that the raves I’d read were just another case of well-meaning theatre critics getting carried away. Wrong, wrong, wrong. After wincing my way through the revival of August Wilson’s creaky but much-praised “Fences” a couple of years ago, I wondered whether “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” would be as exciting as it seemed when it first came to the National decades ago. Well, it definitely was, regardless of that slightly melodramatic final scenes. Two comedians shone too: Nina Conti proved that ventriloquism is alive and well; David Baddiel presented a gloriously irreverent tribute to his later mother in “My Family.

Best song.

The one I haven’t been able to stop listening to.

Best books. “Motown: The Sound of Young America” brought a glorious era back to life, author and fan Adam White giving the company the glossy coffee table book treatment. “What Happened, Miss Simone?” Alan Light’s biography of Nina Simone made for exceptionally painful reading at times, but it didn’t skirt awkward facts in the way that the Oscar-nominated documentary of the same name did. (Here’s my take in The Times.) Muhammad Ali’s complex, shifting relationship with Malcolm X was brilliantly dissected in “Blood Brothers”. (Here’s my Times review.)

Biggest disappointments. “The Martian” was formulaic and infantile beyond belief. Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis was a ludicrous, would-be tough guy roaming the mean streets of New York in “Miles Ahead”. Good music though. I still can’t quite figure out how a novel as over-cooked and one-dimensional as “The Sellout” won the Man Booker. “The Underground Railroad” was almost as over-hyped (my Times reviews of the books are here and here). And “The Maisky Diaries”, acclaimed just about everywhere, turned out to be very dry stuff. Lots of intriguing tit-bits for students of diplomatic history, perhaps, but one of those books that will spend more time looking impressive on the shelves than actually being read.

And, as usual, I re-read Patrick Hamilton’s “Hangover Square”.

Best cartoon. From Paul Noth in The New Yorker. Published in the summer, when a Trump victory still seemed an impossibly long way off.


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Chief theatre critic for The Times. Twitter: CliveDavisUK Facebook: Instagram: clivephotos
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