By way of summing up the year just passed, we invited our writers to give us a paragraph on their cultural highlight of 2017, the thing they most wanted to rave about. Any genre, any format, it didn’t matter, as long as it was something that could be seen or heard in Scotland. So here, simply in the order in which they came back, are the films, albums, exhibitions, comedy shows, ballets, books, operas, gigs and theatre shows that made our year…
Despite the strong competition, my favourite act of the year was the tweed-laden duo of J. Willgoose Esq and Wrigglesworth, otherwise known as Public Service Broadcasting. Playing at the Usher Hall as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival, the rock boffins rolled out their incredible Race for Space album in its entirety, with a few more gems tacked on to the end of the set for good measure. Rarely does a live performance add quite such a tangible extra dimension to a band’s work as here, with smoke machines, flashing lights and more than one vintage television set contributing to an unforgettable atmosphere. Sublime stuff.
As much as I’d like to claim that the Scottish cultural highlight of the year was my own wedding, such solipsism shouldn’t be encouraged. There’s been some great stuff on the film front and some tremendous acts at the Fringe. I’m going to go with a film though, and it’s Raw, by debut filmmaker Julia Ducournau. It’s perhaps not the best film of the year, but a calling card for maybe the most exciting new filmmaker for some time. It’s about a young girl starting college and being turned on to the literal pleasure of the flesh. It meshes horror and coming-of-age tale like Ginger Snaps did, but is an incredibly assured and striking piece of work.
I was determined not to let the French Film Festival pass me by this year and I’m glad I made it along to Blandine Lenoir’s Aurore: Fifty Springtimes. Possibly one of the best pieces I’ve seen portraying femininity at all stages of life with the sharpest of wit, honesty and incredible warmth.
There’s been justified hype surrounding St Vincent for a while, but there’s still something shocking about just how good her new album Masseduction actually is. Moving from the deceptively sugary opening of ‘Pills’ to the charged pulse of the title track to the unforgettably raw ‘Young Lover’, Clark’s newest album is her best work yet.
Custom Lane emerged this year as a centre for design and making, which focuses on collaboration and promoting new, world-class Scottish design. Located in Leith, it hosts exhibitions and events, and provides workspaces for creative professionals. The dynamic space is also home to a micro coffee roastery, menswear brand and Edinburgh Tool Library.
Whilst it’s not the best movie of the year (that would be The Florida Project), Split gave us so much cinematic wonder to enjoy over 117mins: a spellbinding McAvoy performance, another reason to believe that Anya Taylor-Joy will be a superstar, and proof that M. Night could still Shyamalan us!
A few years ago our national ballet company struggled to excite. They didn’t seem to have either the technical prowess or the performance skills of the more successful ballet companies. But since Christopher Hampson took on the role of Chief Executive in 2015, the company have gone from strength to strength. This was exemplified in October of this year with their Stravinksy double bill which showcased a delectable balance of classical and modern. Scottish Ballet have now cemented themselves as a “must get a ticket” company.
Joe Hagan’s Sticky Fingers is a startlingly candid biography of the founding editor of Rolling Stone magazine that captures the zeitgeist of the counterculture of the mid-1960s and 1970s. As a portrait of the work ethic and machinations of a true wunderkind coping with the changes in pop music – from the Grateful Dead to Elton John to Billy Joel and Rihanna – it makes for gripping reading. It also lays bare Wenner’s troubled marriage and finally coming out as a gay man in a way that’s revelatory but never prurient.
A powerful piece of artwork from this year was Ross Little’s film and installation at Collective Gallery, The Heavy of Your Body Parts and The Cool Air of the Air Condition. Spanning Indian ship breaking yards and luxurious cruise liners, mixing raw footage with digital glitches, Little’s work examines various forms of labour in the wake of globalisation. An articulate investigation of working hierarchies within cruise ship culture and a film that left the viewer with much to contemplate.
Jerry Sadowitz is the most subversively brilliant and yet horribly repellent comedian I have ever seen. When you walk out of any venue or theatre in a daze, with a glazed expression, stunned and not quite sure how to feel about what you have witnessed . . . you know you have experienced something special.
The XX sounded bolder and more polished on third album I See You while retaining the emotional intensity which marked them out from the start. Their live performances are now almost unrecognisable from their earlier, more awkward incarnation, and they have blossomed into a confident, visually arresting band, as demonstrated to transcendent effect at their outdoor gig at Glasgow’s SWG Galvanizers Yard in August. Epic and intimate, the threesome demonstrated they are a truly special band at the top of their game.
Ellie Dubois with her bold and brilliant circus show, No Show, won my heart this year. Her three week sell-out run at Summerhall was a complete delight. Featuring four female performers, the piece shone a light on the incipient and explicit sexism in circus (who knew?) The guys get the showy tricks in so many productions, they argued. The ladies take just as many risks but often spend half of the show as nothing more than window dressing. Agenda aside, this was spectacular circus in a terrifyingly compact space. Entertainment and activism: what more could you want? For my money, not much.
2017 was a good year! The year I travelled to London to see The Cursed Child which blew my mind. The year I saw folk duo Emily Smith and Jamie McClennan wow their Eden Court audience with outstanding musicianship. And aside from the wonderfully booky blur of NessBookFest in October, it was also the year I read His Bloody Project and saw author Graeme Macrae Burnet at Ullapool Book Festival. Favourite moment of that event?
Interviewer (to Macrae Burnet): You were lucky enough to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize…
Macrae Burnet (deadpans): I wasn’t lucky ! It’s a good book.
The Scottish book of the year must be Glaswegian author Gail Honeyman’s bestselling debut, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Desperately lonely, Oliphant is a social outsider whose life revolves around buying meal deals and downing two bottles of vodka at the weekend, something that changes when lumbering, good-natured Raymond takes an interest in Oliphant’s life. A joy.
My own year-end conversations are dominated by recent memory. Perfume Genius at Art School and faUSt at Òran Mór were easily some of the best of 2017’s recent quarter, but Optimo 20, a day event in SWG3 to celebrate Glasgow’s former premier club night, was a compelling reminder of why such acts are drawn to the city in the first place.
Opera highlight of the year: the Edinburgh Festival with nine operas, the peak of which was the concert performance of Wagner’s Die Walkure in the Usher Hall with the RSNO conducted by Andrew Davies with a great cast. The first act with Siegmund sung by Simon O’Neil and Sieglinde sung by Amber Wagner brought the biggest roar of appreciation I have ever heard in an opera house!
Cultural moment of the year for me was seeing Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at the Hydro in September. Cave interacts with the audience and brings his songs to life in a way I’ve never experienced before. Hearing classics like Red Right Hand and Into My Arms played with all the passion and vigour of the original recordings made for an incredible show.
Loyle Carner’s Yesterday’s Gone was my idea of the Mercury Prize winner, a highly accomplished debut of laid-back London hip-hop, flecked with jazz. The gospel-sampling The Isle of Arran was an earworm for months. Trading in some of hip-hop’s excesses and aggression for reflectivity, thoughtfulness and tributes to his mum, he seems a thoroughly nice chap too. I was gutted to miss his Liquid Room gig in February; it’s clear a new star is among us.