PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD DECEMBER 27
Show me a man’s bookcase, someone once wrote, and I’ll show you the contents of his soul. If that be true, I’m about to peel back every last layer of my own soul, by revealing what defined this decade for me, not only in literature but across arts and entertainment.
I know some folks contextualise time passed in terms of politics, social trends, or sport. Personally, my deepest engagement with the age tends to be through culture. So these are the things that most rocked my world from 2010 to 2019:
In 2011 I fell in love. Her name is Agnes Obel, she’s Danish, seems nice…and the most spectacularly gifted musician I’ve come across in quarter-of-a-century. In fact, Agnes is my artist of the decade, in any art-form: the woman is a genius.
Her haunting, otherworldly chamber-pop songs and instrumentals are beautifully wrought, her singing almost literally angelic. Shivers all up and down the spine.
Lykke Li was another Scandinavian woman who reshaped rock and pop into fascinating forms, as did Anna Calvi, St Vincent and Feist. Meanwhile, turning the volume up, Wolf Alice reminded me how exciting rock can be with their unique blend of grunge, power-pop and even a little folk.
The mighty Suede returned with one great album, two good ones and a string of barnstorming gigs. David Bowie signed off with Blackstar, a fittingly eccentric mélange of jazz noodlings, industrial drumbeats and melancholy lyrics.
David Lynch released two even weirder, but brilliant, albums. I also liked A-Ha’s Unplugged, Heligoland by Massive Attack, and the unashamedly meat-and-two-veg rock The Black Keys’ El Camino.
Not too many other albums stayed with me, though there were a lot of great individual songs: Old Town Road by Lil Nas X is a current fave. Props to the nine-year-old for the recommendation…
(EDIT: Hillary Woods’ album Birthmarks, released in March of this year, would absolutely have made the cut if she’d brought it out a few months earlier. It’s fantastic. Never before has sheer noise sounded so beautiful. Not that it’s only noise: there are lovely melodies too. But the noise! The discordance! I love the way it rattles through the bones; Birthmarks is almost as much a visceral/bodily/vibrational experience as an audio one. I’m a little bit obsessed with this record, to the point that I think it’s even turned up in my dreams a few times. It sounds like the inside of David Lynch’s head…if you know what I mean.)
Generally I can’t stand “tasteful”, middle-brow, Oscar-nominated fare. For me it’s either well-crafted genre pulp, or really arty art-house.
So, from the former category, I really enjoyed stomping actioners John Wick, Mad Max: Fury Road, Inception and The Raid; horror films The Babadook, You’re Next and Housebound; the Coen brothers’ western True Grit. From the latter, I loved dreamy films where nothing really happens, and very slowly: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Only Lovers Left Alive, Cosmopolis.
Skyfall, The Revenant, Django Unchained and Drive sort of combined the best of both: artfulness and mainstream thrills. Meanwhile Frozen was the best kids’ film of the decade – and I don’t care what you’re going to say.
Many of the real giants of this so-called Golden Age of TV left me cold and/or bored: Westworld was lame, Breaking Bad was dull, Game of Thrones was mostly horrible. But all three seasons of Fargo are as good as anything ever seen on the medium; the first season of True Detective likewise. Twin Peaks: The Return was elegiac, enigmatic and often terrifying (I literally shuddered at Agent Cooper’s final line).
Narcos and Mindhunter were brilliant dramas hewn from real-life stories; Channel 4’s Utopia had memorable characters and a phenomenally clever conspiracy at its heart. We weren’t left behind here either: Love/Hate and Dublin Murders, in different ways, were excellent.
Archer is still the funniest cartoon (funniest show, period) of the millennium. Bridget & Eamon remains deliriously daft and very amusing. Inside No 9 mixed comedy and horror in incredibly well-written scripts.
But the best show of the decade? Justified. US Marshall Raylan Givens is the coolest SOB ever to wear a Stetson, bringing rough justice to the hills of Kentucky. Finally, the great Elmore Leonard is done justice on-screen.
The two best novels I read this decade couldn’t be more different. Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland by Dublin author Mia Gallagher is fractured, oblique and strange, filled with unnerving reverie and remarkably vivid characters; I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes is a rollercoaster of a thriller which feels like being punched in the face for 800 pages – and enjoying it. But they were equally impressive.
In fiction I also really admired Colson Whitehead’s take on zombies, Zone One; Francis Spufford’s bravura history of post-war Communist Russia, Red Plenty; Night Film by Marisha Pessl, a wildly spooky mystery; Haruki Murakami’s epic alternate-universe drama 1Q84; and The Pier Falls, an exceptional story collection by Mark Haddon.
In non-fiction, Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with JG Ballard provided the required fix for us Ballard devotees, now that the great man has passed away. Morrissey’s Autobiography was often self-indulgent, even petulant, but captured the essence of its subject perfectly: the point, surely, of any memoir.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, Time Travel: A History by James Gleick and The Zoomable Universe by Caleb Scharf were peerless works of pop-science. Daniel Kalder’s Dictator Literature showed that politics is often far more bizarre than any fiction.
Finally, HHhH by Laurent Binet was a little bit of everything and a real one-of-a-kind: artily written fiction blurring into recorded fact, a meta-textual history of the famous assassination attempt on Reinhard Heydrich, the author commenting on his own writing process throughout. Flann O’Brien would have approved.