In the Critics this week

Rowan Willaims, Ed Miliband, AS Byatt and many others choose their essential reads of the past year, Leo Hollis on London's architectural future

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, the magazine’s friends and contributors choose their books of the year. The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, chooses Robert Harris’s financial thriller The Fear Index and the political philosopher Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy as his favourite reads from 2012. Sandel, Miliband writes, “makes a powerful argument that applying market values where they don’t belong . . . can corrode our ideas of right and wrong”. His shadow cabinet colleague Ed Balls, a keen cook, chooses the second volume of Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, singles out If You Sit Very Still by Marian Partington, whose sister Lucy was murdered by Fred and Rose West. “Her spiritual journey . . . is as moving as anything I’ve ever read on such a subject,” Williams says.

Leading novelists offer their choices: AS Byatt praises Jenny Uglow’s Pinecone; Ali Smith chooses Peter Hobbs’s second novel, In the Orchard, the Swallows; Margaret Drabble plumps for Salman Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton; and Colm Tóibín chooses a new edition of The Book of Kells.

Other contributors include: Melvyn Bragg, Tracey Thorn, Alain de Botton, David Willetts, Douglas Alexander, Douglas Hurd, Norman Lamont, Laura Kuenssberg, Jon Snow, Julie Myerson, Joan Bakewell, John Banville and many more.

Elsewhere, Leo Hollis’s architectural review questions the future of Britain’s built landscape. “Already Renzo Piano’s building-objects has come to symbolise the confused and anxious state of the city” he notes of the Shard as he charts the rise of the ‘starchitect’ and questions the government’s plans to “to restart the economy through bricks and mortar”.

Elsewhere in the Critics: Rachel Cooke reviews Channel 4’s The Aristocrats, Ryan Gilbey takes a look at Silver Linings Playbook, Alexandra Coghlan on Ceclia Bartoli at the Barbican, Antonia Quirke on Radio 4’s A Place for Us, and Will Self’s Real Meals.

Tha Shard: "the architectural hubris of the previous decade has turned our dreams into steel and glass" according to Leo Hollis (Photo by Jesse Toksvig-Stewart/Getty Images)
Harry Styles. Photo: Getty
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How podcasts are reviving the excitement of listening to the pop charts

Unbreak My Chart and Song Exploder are two music programmes that provide nostalgia and innovation in equal measure.

“The world as we know it is over. The apo­calypse is nigh, and he is risen.” Although these words came through my headphones over the Easter weekend, they had very little to do with Jesus Christ. Fraser McAlpine, who with Laura Snapes hosts the new pop music podcast Unbreak My Chart, was talking about a very different kind of messiah: Harry Styles, formerly of the boy band One Direction, who has arrived with his debut solo single just in time to save the British charts from becoming an eternal playlist of Ed Sheeran’s back-catalogue.

Unbreak My Chart is based on a somewhat nostalgic premise. It claims to be “the podcast that tapes the Top Ten and then talks about it at school the next day”. For those of us who used to do just that, this show takes us straight back to Sunday afternoons, squatting on the floor with a cassette player, finger hovering over the Record button as that tell-tale jingle teased the announcement of a new number one.

As pop critics, Snapes and McAlpine have plenty of background information and anecdotes to augment their rundown of the week’s chart. If only all playground debates about music had been so well informed. They also move the show beyond a mere list, debating the merits of including figures for music streamed online as well as physical and digital sales in the chart (this innovation is partly responsible for what they call “the Sheeran singularity” of recent weeks). The hosts also discuss charts from other countries such as Australia and Brazil.

Podcasts are injecting much-needed innovation into music broadcasting. Away from the scheduled airwaves of old-style radio, new formats are emerging. In the US, for instance, Song Exploder, which has just passed its hundredth episode, invites artists to “explode” a single piece of their own music, taking apart the layers of vocal soundtrack, instrumentation and beats to show the creative process behind it all. The calm tones of the show’s host, Hrishikesh Hirway, and its high production values help to make it a very intimate listening experience. For a few minutes, it is possible to believe that the guests – Solange, Norah Jones, U2, Iggy Pop, Carly Rae Jepsen et al – are talking and singing only for you. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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