Best Live Band - Zu
Sneaking in at the last minute (saw them twice in December) come Zu, an instrumental group consisting of Drums, Bass, and Baritone Sax. This, you might think, is not a recipe for success in these modern times but Zu have an unconventional approach to their sound which has to be heard to be believed. The honking Baritone is barked hard through overdrive and fuzz, the Drums played with power and true flair, while the Bass (?) seems to perform the role of just about everything else a band could need - metal guitar, brass riffs, sweeping electronics and some of the deepest low-notes known to mankind. The result is the sheer chunky heaviness of Helmet with the experimentation of Krautrock. No chance of the mix sounding empty with this trio - you just keep wondering who is doing what, and how the hell they can sound like that. Expect unusual time signatures, a party atmosphere and a monstrous sound.
Best Album - The Fall - Imperial Wax Solvent
Thirty years into the turbulent history of The Fall, Mark E Smith is reunited with producer Grant Showbiz and, it would seem, the joy of making records. Imperial Wax Solvent is arguably the best Fall record ever, capturing something that was often hinted at during the previous three decades but never so consistently nailed. Thing is, MES has a great band these days and it sounds like he really digs what they can do, and this in turn produces some great vocal performances and lyrics from the main man. The titles tell you a lot:- Wolf Kidult Man, Latch Key Kid, Senior Twilight Stock Replacer, and 50 Year Old Man. One track is called Can Can Summer, and once it hits the main riff you realise why :- this is the Fall album where MES comes closest in sound to the group he has long-admired - Can. Smith's wife Eleni Poulou makes a considerable contribution to the album with way-cool squelchy analog synths and one lead vocal on the magnificent I've Been Duped (in which you'll hear her sing something about two hairy men digging up Scotland. Brilliant). But central to the proceedings is the wry old goat himself - clearly enjoying himself, sounding happy and enthusiastic, better recorded and lyrically sharp as ever. I've played this album all year long, and can't wait to hear the next one.
Best Game - Far Cry 2 - Ubisoft Montreal
The Far Cry franchise got off to a spectacular start in 2004 with the release of the original PC only game. Stunningly realistic landscaping, open fields of play and extremely smart (cunning even) AI enemies. A great start for any game series, which had console owners chomping at the bit. Sadly, the console based adaptations of the first Far Cry did not live up to expectations, with less diversity to the scenery, dumber AI, and on-rails game play. This was a big disapointment to anyone who'd played the original PC version, leaving console owners feeling rather short-changed. Far Cry 2 can be considered the first proper follow-up to the original, and it even raises the standard by several notches. Coming up to this release, Ubisoft were pretty confident about FC2's landscaping and weather modelling but it's not until you've seen the game running that you'll truly appreciate how spectacular this game looks, and how well it plays. Set in Africa, the story-line is mature and non-patronising, playing as a first person shooter with 50 square kilometers of free-roam play area. You choose your missions and when to do them, leaving you free to just roam about fighting off attacks from just about everyone you encounter. The AI is back to being cunning, the gently unravelling story is compelling, and the action is full-on. Sadly, there is one problem with this otherwise-perfect game:- many Xbox 360 owners have had their game's save files corrupted (all of them) by some mystery bug when they get to 88 percent game completion, forcing them to start all over again. That's a serious glitch and one which Ubisoft should be trying to address without delay. Luckily, I only encountered one single corrupted save file, losing only half an hour of progress. I checked my stats when I completed the game and found that I had enjoyed almost 60 hours of gameplay without ever getting bored.