Spoon makes the kind of indie-pop music that pleases folks like me, and maybe you, who love its simultaneous sense of history and forward momentum. They Want My Soul was all sustained pleasure.
Pop music on a bigger scale is the triumph of 2014. Grand, glossy music-making overtook hip-hop, country and rock — or, more accurately, found new ways to absorb them; to dominate the airwaves, the charts and our consciousness. This was, after all, the year of Pharrell's "Happy," an immediately ubiquitous tune that became an anthem for thoughtful optimism as well as the go-to music for what seemed like every light interlude in a TV sitcom. And what was even poppier than Pharrell's pop? Taylor Swift's pop, of course.
This was the year Taylor Swift severed her remaining ties to country music to make her gleefully bold album 1989, which did what few albums do anymore: present itself as a carefully sequenced collection of songs designed to be listened to from first cut to last. You know, the way Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was.
The opposite of bright, catchy pop is represented on a couple of other albums on my list. The assiduously ornery band Pere Ubu makes music that is at once harsh and noisy, morosely serious and playfully nimble, and I loved Carnival Of Souls.
Even moodier is the music of Lana Del Rey, whom you might call the anti-Taylor Swift. On Ultraviolence, Del Rey stretches out syllables and song lengths so that every tune becomes a siren call, beckoning you toward her.
No album seemed as rich and deep with complexities about family, time and geography as Rosanne Cash's The River And The Thread. It's a tour through an area of the South that has meant a lot to Cash and previous generations of her extended clan. This album operates as a prodigious feat of travel reporting, historical investigation and ways to make rock, folk, country and blues work when you're a Manhattan woman maintaining connections to your roots.
It's increasingly rare that a new musician comes along who can embody an older tradition yet render a familiar form fresh, but twentysomething Benjamin Booker did it with his debut blues-rock-funk album. He was at his best when he and his guitar sounded as though he was running down a dark street, chasing after something desirable or running from something frightening.
It was the kind of year in which I was as happy to hear a bright bit of boy-band punk rock like 5 Seconds Of Summer's song "She Looks So Perfect" as I was Miranda Lambert's twangy realism in a song like "Bathroom Sink." If the year's best collection of old music was the long-awaited release of Bob Dylan's The Basement Tapes Complete, Dylan's current tour suggested that he continues to make the old stuff new. And, as I consider my favorite music — and book — of the past year, making it new while being mindful of the past is the common theme, no matter how different the sounds are.
Performing live comedy is like "a series of little scientific experiments," says John Cleese. "When you do comedy in front of an audience, they are the ones who tell you whether it's funny or not," he tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies, and each subsequent night on stage is an experiment in making jokes land better than the night before.
Cleese — who co-founded the Monty Python comedy troupe, and co-wrote and co-starred in Fawlty Towers, Life of Bryan, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Meaning of Life — has just written a memoir called So, Anyway.... The book actually covers relatively little of his 50-year career in radio, television, film and theater. Rather, it's about Cleese's childhood, education and his early years in show business. Early on, Cleese wrote and acted in British radio and television, working with his future Monty Python collaborators and others, including Marty Feldman, Peter Sellers and David Frost.
The book is a breezy collection of memories, insights and funny observations — such as his impression of the upper class boys he got to know in school: "I realised how different their lives were," he writes. "They genuinely liked chasing things and shooting them and hooking them out of the water and asphyxiating them. Death seemed the inevitable result of all their entertainments, despite their excellent manners."
On his relationship with his mother
I suppose you would say she was a very neurotic woman. She was full of fears and very anxious most of the time and constantly worrying. To give you some idea of the scale of this, when dad died and I would go ... to visit her she would greet me with a cup of coffee and a list. And the list was a list of all the worries she had been writing down during the previous two or three weeks so that she could discuss each one with me at length. She wrote them down because she didn't want to forget a worry. She had a feeling of alarm that if she didn't discuss one worry with me that it would happen — this event she was dreading — and she wouldn't have prepared sufficiently to deal with it. It was almost methodical the way she dealt with her worries and we discussed them at tremendous length.
People like this who are full of fear, they're not usually very flexible, they need to have things their own way, because if they don't have them their own way, they become so anxious they can't cope. ... She did need to have her own way, there was no question about that. If she didn't, she did throw some quite alarming tantrums and I think Dad, who had fought in the first World War for three and a half years, sometimes yearned for the relative tranquility of the trenches in France.
On performing in the "Footlights" Dramatic Club at Cambridge University
All I did when I started was I had good timing, but I didn't have any other skills at all. You see, Graham Chapman who was in a show with me in 1962, he was a really top class mime artist. He could do very funny, very, very original mimes and he could also sing and he could move quite well. I couldn't do any of those things at all. I could just write some reasonably good jokes and time them well off the audience. I was good at listening to the audience so that I timed the next line right. That was all I had to offer for a number of years. The other skills, the more physical comedy, came quite slowly.
On the challenges of making Fawlty Towers
The very act of having recorded a half an hour was an achievement because the conditions were so poor. When I came to America and was lucky enough to do things like Cheers, Will & Grace and Third Rock from the Sun, and saw those superb conditions — rehearsal and so forth and the number of writers around who were constantly polishing lines and making suggestions — it really was the Rolls Royce way of making comedy.
In England we would go off to a little London church hall somewhere and the set would be indicated by bits of sticky tape that had been laid out on the floor and then the chairs would be awful, broken-down old things that had been bought at a junk sale or something like that. Whereas in America, you rehearse on the set all week and you get used to everything, you get used to the height of the desk and the weight of any prop you were going to pick up. ... So to do the amount of pages we did — which was a very large number, we used to do 140 pages, and the average BBC sitcom was less than half that; it was about 65 pages — to do all that, to learn all the business and then to make a transition to a new studio and set ... it was one mad rush.
On learning how to do physical comedy
I think I learned it by imitation because I was no good at physical comedy. I was a terrible dancer; I dance like an Englishman and although I had good hand-eye coordination, I was so tall and skinny and muscularly weak that I just was not well coordinated. What I started to do quite early on was watch some of the great old silent comedians like Laurel & Hardy and [Charlie] Chaplin and then later on Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, and the first thing you notice about these people is how extraordinarily physically skillful they were.
I began to just learn a few little things about how to look as though I had tripped or I was good at balancing things, I could take an umbrella and I could balance it on my chin or on my foot. I just got interested in that kind of thing and as I played games more and more and got stronger physically, I just became more coordinated, but by watching the great old comedians I picked up a few tricks about how to do physical comedy and whenever I could learn something I added it to my repertoire. It was not something I was naturally gifted at, it actually was sort of work but it was fun work.
On identifying as a comedy writer
It's always hard for people to believe that — because of course any time they've seen me it's because I've been performing, you know — they don't go to their televisions and switch them on and see me sitting at home writing, you know? So naturally people's image is of a performer but the reality of it is that the writing for me has always been the most important thing and the most rewarding thing. I've always called myself a writer-performer, not an actor because I basically write what I perform and the writing is the most important and performing is just closing the circuit because I'm less likely to screw it up than anyone else.
On the way American and British fans react to him
The Americans are more enthusiastic and more likely to engage in hyperbole. The British fans are [likely] to suddenly be talking to you about something [and] you don't know how you got into the conversation. I think it's something to do with the fact that they've been watching you for so many years, you telling your story, they want to tell you their story, but you usually discover that you're discussing their son's education without really knowing how you ... embarked on the subject. The Americans are much more positive, they're much more in love with success. In Britain they're a fairly envious bunch and they love it if you fail. ... The Brits tend to be less direct. But when people quote sketches to me, half the time I don't know what they're talking about.
For this year's Best Books of the Year list, I reject the tyranny of the decimal system. Some years it's simply more than 10. Here, then, are my top 12 books of 2014. All of the disparate books on my list contain characters, scenes or voices that linger long past the last page of their stories.