It’s nearly the end of the year, and I’m out of inspiration. But I’ve blogged more or less every week for the whole of the year and I don’t want to ruin that run now. So I’m jumping on the bandwagon and doing a review of the year kind of thing. In a jumbled fashion. And I’m not sure it will be of any interest to anyone. But here you go nonetheless. A few things I’ve really enjoyed in 2015.
Sounds pt. 1
Let’s begin with music. I’ve enjoyed a lot of music this year, although I think I’ve more intentionally worked back through older albums rather than discovering new stuff. But the two new albums I have really enjoyed are:
Sylva – A beautiful album by the supremely talented, genre-defying, fusion band Snarky Puppy. I already loved their earlier work, but adding in the Metropole Orkest takes it to another level, with intricately layered, jazzy tunes that are moving and complex and full of attitude. Stand out tracks include The Curtain, with a great bass solo from Michael League and a beautiful piano solo from Bill Laurence, and The Clearing which has one of the best grooves I’ve heard in a long, long time. It’s rare to get to the end of a 20 minute track and immediately want to go back and listen to it again.
Hot Streak, by The Winery Dogs. You can check out my full review here. But in short, it’s an amazing second album by this powerful trio of virtuosic musicians: Portnoy, Sheehan and Kotzen. I’ve got tickets to see them live in January, and I’m already anticipating including them in my roundup for 2016!
Oh, and an honourable mention goes to An Alpha Rev Christmas. I don’t much like Christmas music, but I love Alpha Rev, and a couple of tracks on this album really showcase Casey McPherson’s stunning voice. Undoubtedly the best Christmas song ever written has to be Oh Holy Night, and this rendition of it is beautiful and moving. If you buy one Christmas song, this should be it.
Sounds pt. 2
I’ve been listening to more podcasts this year, and in particular comedy podcasts, which help me understand how to grow as a communicator and how to discuss profound subjects with lightness and broad appeal. (For reasons I’ll explain below!) A few podcasts I’ve really enjoyed include:
The Comedian’s Comedian, by Stuart Goldsmith. If you love comedy and want to hear how your favourite comedians have worked on their craft, this is for you. Or if you want to grow as a communicator and need creative inspiration (or at least someone to put into words just how hollow and painful it can feel when you’re running on empty or recovering from a failure), this podcast is brilliant! So many good episodes to recommend. Probably just scroll through the list and pick and few names you recognise and start from there. But I reckon my favourite (and the one I’ve bookmarked to listen to again) was from Sara Pascoe. Really thought-provoking and insightful.
Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast, (or as all the cool kids are calling it, RHLSTP). Herring interviews comedians and asks them questions that vary between the profound, the provocative and the profane. They discuss some big ideas. And they talk about hands made of ham. And I’ve laughed so much as I’ve worked my way through this impressive back catalogue. Again, just start out with people you know and then take a few chances and see where you end up.
You Made it Weird, with Pete Holmes. I am fairly familiar with many of the names on the UK comedy circuit, but not so much the US circuit. So this podcast by the brilliant Pete Holmes is a great introduction to a whole range of American comedians who I would never have come across. One of my favourite things about this podcast is the way Pete gets people talking about spirituality, and even though I rarely agree with their conclusions, it’s a fascinating insight into how people wrestle with the big questions of life. Highlights include Brian Regan, Tim Minchin, and Rob Bell (yes, that Rob Bell).
I should say on all three of these, they are pretty rude in places. Expect foul language and coarse themes. But if you can see beyond them, you will learn a lot and laugh a lot.
Sights pt. 1
I struggled to know what the best films are that I’ve watched in 2015. Few things leap to mind, which probably says less about the current state of cinema, and more about how few films I’ve seen this year!
A latecomer to the party, and perhaps an obvious choice, but I really enjoyed Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which achieved everything it needed to, with style; good story, great fun, nostalgic, light-hearted, a few twists, beautifully shot and wonderfully scored. And it knocked the spots of the woeful, loathsome waste of time that was Spectre…
As for the little screen… again, a latecomer, but I’ve really enjoyed the latest series (albeit only a two-parter) of Luther. It’s a brilliant, gripping show that makes me nervous to go out in the streets of London! Mr Robot was well-shot and intriguing, even if I found the interior monologue frustrating at times. And also The Newsroom series 3. It was flawed, certainly, but it brought some nice closure to this particular project of Sorkin’s.
My reading has taken a bit of a nosedive over the past few years. I managed to complete 53 books in 2013, 45 in 2014, and only 22 in 2015. So the pickings are slimmer this year… but a few books I have particularly enjoyed include:
How (Not) To Be Secular, by J.K.A. Smith. Actually, this was a re-read. A brilliant little book on the nature of secularism, and how to effectively think about and communicate faith in our secular age.
Simplify by Bill Hybels. I read this in advance of a sermon series I was teaching in, and found it really challenging and refreshing. If you want to get your life in order and build in some good habits for the new year, I’d really recommend this. And you can read more about this and my other recommendations on busyness here.
The Secret History, by Donna Tart was a brilliantly written why-dunnit. Review here. And Life After God by Douglas Coupland remains one of my favourite collections of short stories, and deserves a re-read every couple of years.
I’ve cooked a lot in 2015. I feel like I’ve got a really good handle on sourdough now and am pretty confident with that, and I enjoyed developing my chocolate, cherry and almond sourdough this year.
Oh, and also these ‘Chinese’ Cinnamon Buns. But I’m not sure they count really!
In the Summer I got a copy of Atul Kochhar’s Benares Cookbook, which is a beautiful collection of Michelin-standard Indian recipes. We ate at Benares a few years ago, and I think I would say it was my favourite meal ever. So I was eager for this book to come out so I could try to recreate some of the incredible flavours. To be honest, I’ve barely scratched the surface, since the recipes are complex and require a lot of time! But everything I’ve made from it so far has been well worth the effort. The Mangalore chutney with its punchy tamarind kick. The tandoori chicken. The spiced, pickled carrots… I look forward to having some time and space to dig further into this book!
I’ve also enjoyed some good craft beers this year, and have been on a bit of a pale ale kick. You can follow me on untappd if you want some recommendations. But a few standouts include the Commonside Pale Ale from Belleville Brewing Co. and the Paleface APA from Firebird Brewing Co.
Sights pt. 2 / Sounds pt. 3
This one crosses the boundary of sights and sounds, since I have both watched the film and listened to the album. One of my favourite comedy discoveries in 2015, which came through the You Made it Weird podcast, is Mike Birbiglia. I’ve enjoyed as much of his work as I could get my hands on, but a particular highlight is his show My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. I’ve watched or listened to a lot of comedy this year and this is the only piece I’ve re-watched in full… three times and counting. I think it’s the best-crafted piece of storytelling comedy I have ever heard, and was one of the motivating factors for me trying my hand at comedy.
Speaking of which…
In the dying months of the year I got on and did something I’ve been contemplating for a long while… trying stand-up comedy! I’ve done two gigs so far and feel I’ve already learnt so much! Maybe I’ll blog further about it in due course, once I’ve got a few more gigs under my belt. But suffice to say it’s been a fascinating experience.
I honestly expected my first gig to be a horrendous train-wreck (and thus I barely told anyone I was trying it), but the opposite was true. So much energy and fun, and the response was incredible, earning me an unexpected second place! The second gig was far, far harder. A combination of factors: the room, my place in the bill, my lack of experience, nerves… Someone advised me to make sure I had a third gig booked before I did my second, otherwise I would run the risk of never progressing beyond two gigs. That was great advice!! And even though the second gig was a painful one, I’m looking forward to trying number three in January.
But the greatest experience of all in 2015, which lays the foundation for 2016 and beyond, is that of preparing for fatherhood. As I write, my wife is 23 weeks pregnant, and we are expecting our first child! Little things along the way have helped it hit home for me. The first scan, showing the baby’s barely discernible features, looking somewhat like craters on the moon; the second scan, showing blood flowing, and heart beating and tiny but perfectly-formed digits on hands and feet; and more recently feeling it communicate via a series of morse-code-like kicks and punches.
I’m really looking forward to meeting the little chap or chapess in April 2016, and I suspect my wife will be grateful when I stop putting on my best Adele voice and singing “Hello from the other side” at her stomach. Or declaring in a wheezy Darth Vader voice “I am your Father.” As you can see, I’m already perfecting the dad-jokes…
Anyway… I’m signing off for 2015 and logging out of social media for a few days. Thank you for bearing with my waffling for another year. Hope you have a wonderful, restful Christmas and a very happy New Year.