Review of the year: Our critics' choices

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The Independent Culture


Modern Times Bob Dylan

Thoughtful and intimately textured, Modern Times confirmed Dylan as the Picasso of pop, an artist able to move through different periods as his career develops. It enabled him to become the first sexagenarian to enter the American album chart at number one.


Engrossing, explosive and fascinating, Taiga found this Japanese all-girl, avant-rock group reaching rarefied new heights with an atavistic mix of pounding percussion, vocal chants and abrasive sonic sculpture. Not one for the faint-hearted.

The Trials of Van Occupanther Midlake

With their blend of winsome harmonies, oblique melodies, mysterious lyrics and retro-classic arrangements, Midlake became the alt.rock successors to idiosyncratic innovators such as Sufjan Stevens and Arcade Fire.

American V - A Hundred Highways Johnny Cash

A fittingly sombre affair, suffused with deathly portents, but redeemed by his ability to wring new depths of emotion from old chestnuts like "If You Could Read My Mind".

The Corner of Miles and Gil Shack

The likes of Lily Allen and the Arctic Monkeys may have grasped the UK MySpace zeitgeist more firmly, but a more enduring impression was made by Shack's understated but imaginative album, in which subjects such as bondage and spiked tea were treated to diverse arrangements.


The Human Touch Michael Frayn (Faber & Faber)

Quantum leaping between physics and metaphysics, cosmos and consciousness, Frayn's companionable tour d'horizon laid bare the scientific and philosophical fixations that drive his career.

Half of a Yellow Sun Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Fourth Estate)

Set during the Biafran conflict, this panoramic epic of war, exile and survival in Nigeria tempered horror with humanity, and marked the coming-of-age of a commanding new voice in African literature.

Suite Francaise Irène Némirovsky (Chatto & Windus)

More than six decades after its author's death in Auschwitz, this rediscovered masterpiece of the fall of France changed the history of European fiction and enthralled readers.

Occupational Hazards Rory Stewart (Picador)

A searing literary (and human) document of the Iraq war, written by the young writer-diplomat who tried to govern two southern provinces after the 2003 invasion, and documented the crumbling of all his hopes.

The Ruby in her Navel Barry Unsworth (Hamish Hamilton)

Muslims and Christians live side by side as geopolitical tensions threaten a multicultural peace. But this is Sicily in 1149 and it's brilliantly brought to life as Unsworth's distant mirror of our times.


Janacek's The Makropulos Case English National Opera

The opera about death that explodes with life in Christopher Alden's steely production.

Beethoven's Fidelio London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis

The domestic drama with cosmic reach in a performance of near-perfection ennobled by Christine Brewer's flawless Leonora.

Tchaikovsky's Symphony No 6, Pathétique London Symphony Orchestra/ Valery Gergiev

By a mile the 2006 Proms highlight - the kind of inspirational performance that reignites a familiar masterpiece.

Britten's Peter Grimes Opera North

Phyllida Lloyd's fiercely intelligent staging - austere, visceral, heart-rending - was a triumphant piece of ensemble work.

Britten's The Turn of the Screw Glyndebourne Touring Opera

Spookily appropriate to the Sussex estate, Jonathan Kent's brilliantly atmospheric staging of the Britten/Henry James psychodrama will enter the main festival next year.


Bolshoi Ballet, London

This year's highlights included The Bright Stream, a romp by the company director Alexei Ratmansky, and Natalia Osipova's star-is-born debut as Kitri in Don Quixote.

Marianela Nuñez Royal Ballet, London

Dancing with enthralling richness and musicality this year.

Wayne McGregor's Chroma
Christopher Wheeldon's DGV Royal Ballet, London

Two new works, both hits, both superbly danced - leading to McGregor's appointment as resident choreographer with the Royal Ballet.

Merce Cunningham Ocean, Roundhouse, London

In truth, Cunningham's 90-minute dance in the round is uneven - but the scale of the work, the setting and some glorious dancing made this one of the year's events.

Dance Umbrella Gala Sadlers Wells, London

Contemporary dance's great and good gathered to celebrate Val Bourne, founder and director of London's Dance Umbrella, on her retirement: gorgeous glimpses from Mark Morris, Richard Alston, Michael Clark and others.


Red Road

This Scottish drama, directed by Andrea Arnold, would make a great double-bill with Hidden as a meditation on guilt, rage and the moral complexities of surveillance.

London to Brighton

Paul Andrew Williams's tense and tightly written debut about two girls on the run is one of the best British thrillers in years.

United 93

Paul Greengrass's brilliant, heart-arresting recreation of events inside the doomed flight hijacked on 9/11 is as close to an ordeal as cinema gets.

The Squid and The Whale

This poignant comedy-drama about a Brooklyn family in meltdown is based on writer-director Noah Baumbach's memories of his parents' divorce, and features a superb performance by Jeff Daniels as the excruciatingly pompous father.

13 (Tzameti)

France-based Georgian director Gela Babluani packs existential weariness and psychological dread into a no-budget monochrome thriller debut that leaves you winded with shock.


The Rolling Stones Twickenham Stadium

The Stones' greatest hits show was a typically immodest affair, with the full complement of fireworks, flashing lights and 30ft tongues of flame bursting from a set which appeared to be modelled on the Guggenheim Museum - yet behind all the grandiose bells and whistles lurked the reassuringly snotty attitude of a bunch of overgrown schoolboys.

Sufjan Stevens Barbican Centre, London

Attired for the occasion with giant paper wings, performing on a stage piled high with inflatable Santas and Supermen, Sufjan Stevens confirmed his reputation as one of the most intriguing new talents of recent years with a show that drew heavily on the one-twenty-fifth of his 50 States project available so far, played by an extraordinary ensemble featuring French horn, banjo and celesta as integral parts.

Bob Dylan Cardiff Arena

The latest leg of the Never-Ending Tour featured Dylan on electric organ, engrossing as ever as he recast his songbook yet again, like a sculptor chipping away doggedly, trying to find the exact form the work deserves - an awe-inspiring process to witness, as enduringly American as Mount Rushmore, Citizen Kane and Charlie Chaplin, with echoes of all three.

Tinariwen The Sahara Desert

OK, so only a few lucky Euro-punters were able to make the show, but the Tuareg desert-blues band's performance for a small crowd of nomadic tribespeople out in the scrubland near their north-eastern Mali home base was quite enchanting, their cyclical, intertwining guitar lines spiralling off into the starlit sky as womenfolk keened their approval, and young Tuaregs danced with a restrained courtliness akin to an 18th-century gavotte.

Allen Toussaint Bush Hall, London

It may have lacked too many of his signature songs, and featured rather too much of his recent collaborator Elvis Costello, but the New Orleans R&B legend's performance featured a flamboyant charm that suited its surroundings, while his between-songs patter offered a genial masterclass in both songwriting and entertainment.


Guy Barker's dZf BBC Maida Vale, London Jazz Festival

Possibly trumpeter Barker's most ambitious project to date, a thrilling reworking of the story of The Magic Flute set in 1940s New York and scored for big band and narrator.

Kenny Garrett Ronnie Scott's, London

The alto saxophonist from Detroit showed grand master maturity and a coherence of approach across post-bop, funk and R&B in the gig of the year at the refurbished Ronnie Scott's in the summer.

Kurt Elling Pizza Express, London

Elling may well be the most accomplished all-round jazz singer in the world at the moment, with an astonishing technique in vocalese and scatting and remarkable control over dynamics and tone. Brilliant, but not for the faint-hearted.

Julia Biel Vortex, London

The most interesting young British singer to emerge over the past year or so, Biel opts for a soft jazz-folk setting and produces a sound by turns arresting and beguiling.

A Life in the Day of B19: Tales of the Towerblock (Dune) Soweto Kinch

Saxophonist and rapper (below left) Kinch's second album is powerful, complex, amusing and humane, further justifying the acclaim that this brilliant young man has already received.


Humphrys in Search of God Radio 4

Old Growler left his fangs at home for this trio of interviews with men of religion, and produced what was a genuinely searching, sympathetic exploration of the place of God in the modern world. By the end, Humphrys' faith in God was not restored; a lot of listeners' faith in radio was, though.

Hungary Night Radio 3

In a year of rather too many seasons (Iran, Memory and Suez on Radio 4, Confucius on Radio 3) the commemorations of the Hungarian uprising of 1956 stood out; and this exploration of Hungary's uniquely rich culture - a tiny, proud country positively infested with mathematicians and musicians - kept me surprised and moved for three hours together.

Imagining Albion Radio 4

A three-part series on the distinctively sceptical, satirical traditions of British science-fiction, from H G Wells to Iain M Banks, that - thanks to the wit and ingenious simplicity off the presenter, Francis Spufford - turned out to be one of the most literate, thoughtful programmes of the year: it sent me scurrying back to my old E C Tubb space operas.

Blake Resonance FM

More imaginings of Albion: Tam Dean Burn's unevenly, possibly misguided, but undoubtedly heroic project of reading the complete works of William Blake, notebooks and all, in time for his 250th birthday: "And then we'll have a big party." Those who live outside Resonance's tiny catchment area can look forward to a promised podcast.

The 2006 Radio Ballads Radio 2

Forty years ago, Ewan MacColl and Charles Parker's Radio Ballads - social documentaries plus songs - transformed ideas of what a radio feature could do. This new set of six, about topics such as hunting, Aids and the steel industry, was afflicted, like the originals, by worthiness and strained rhymes, but compensated with a palpable passion and a sense of history.


The Winter's Tale/Pericles Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

The Swan is gutted and transformed into a dislocated, magical environment for Dominic Cooke's paired promenade productions of two of Shakespeare's late romances where the cross-casting and the staging release extraordinary insights into these wondrous, complex works.

Frost/Nixon Donmar Warehouse/Gielgud, London

It's been a great year for Peter Morgan, the scriptwriter of one of the best films (The Queen) and the author of this shrewd and enthralling play about David Frost's televised encounters in 1977 with the disgraced former president - a piece that finds strange persuasive parallels between the two men and pulls the interviews into a fresh, arresting perspective by repositioning them in a theatrical context.

Cabaret Lyric, London

The id was very close to the surface in Weimar Germany and Rufus Norris's brilliant revival of the classic Kander & Ebb musical sets it free in a vision of Berlin that incisively dramatises the relationship between the decadence of the period and the jackbooted Nazism that stamped it out.

Caroline, or Change National Theatre, London

Set in Louisiana, 1963, at the time of the Kennedy assassination, this enchanting and genuinely breakthrough new musical - by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori - uses a domestic dispute between a Jewish child and a black maid to illuminate the painful stirrings of the Civil Rights movement.

Rock'n'roll Royal Court/Duke of York, London

Unfolding in the period between the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the Rolling Stones' concert in Prague after the Velvet Revolution, Tom Stoppard's complex and moving play explores the link between rock music, European dissidence and the fall of communism and offers a touching portrait of two generations of an academic Cambridge family.


Drama Life on Mars

Proof that the dead horse of the cop show could be flogged back into life again.

Reality The Apprentice

Gripping and with a built-in consolation for the business community - as long as they were competing for a job with his company they couldn't be screwing up yours.

Documentary Darwin's Nightmare

A hellish vision of life in the cracks of globalisation, narrowly edging out Brian Woods's fiercely angry A World Without Water.

Guilty Pleasure Prison Break

As Lost got lost up its own backside, Prison Break locked us - well, me and a few others - into a more old-fashioned form of implausible thrill.

New Comedy Lead Balloon

Funniest single moment of the year was Mark Heap self-administering a hot coffee enema in Green Wing, and Extras came back strong, but Jack Dee's dyspeptic self-caricature was a welcome new arrival.


Gothic Nightmares Tate Britain

British visual culture at one of its high points, with dreams, spooks, magic, terror, jokes, madness, perversity, satire, fairies and apocalypse from Blake, Fuseli and Gillray.

Velazquez National Gallery, London

Still "the painter of painters" (Manet) - a survey of the coolest and most sophisticated old master.

Test Site Carsten Höller, Tate Modern

These elegant helter-skelters were a landmark in the inexorable convergence of high culture and top-end leisure.

Marion Deuchars The Guardian

Deuchars's beautifully economical, poetical images were adorning the op-ed pages of another newspaper until, bafflingly, earlier this year, they stopped.

Artists and Camouflage Dean Gallery, Edinburgh

A small but perfectly composed meditation on art, war and nature, and a homage to Scottish artist Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006).


The Dusty Foot Philosopher K'Naan BMG Canada

This was an album that turned hip hop upside down with a mixture of minimalist backing, thoughtful and sensitive lyrics, and African influences.

Savane Ali Farka Touré, World Circuit

Touré said this was his "best album ever", and it was one of the tragedies of the year that he should die before it was released.

Forever Polida Moussu T e lei Jovents, Le Chant Du Monde/Harmonia Mundi

Cheerful, classy songs from Marseilles, sung in French and the local Occilan language: the Mediterranean answer to country music.

Abacabok Tartit, Crammed

Another great band from the deserts of northern Mali, but unlike the better-known Tinariwen, Tartit are dominated by women.

Discovery Mandekalou 2

More great music from Mali, from a supergroup made of griots (hereditary musicians). including guitarist Djelimady Tounkara.