Thursday, December 31, 2009

Year's End

I apologize for the biliousness of the previous post, but those dark thoughts are hard to resist as the media over the past few months has been obsessed with looking back on 2009 and, more depressingly, the decade as a whole, an era that is striking in its colossal rankness. Not culturally--this was a fertile time for the formerly despised mediums of television and comics and there were lots of bright spots elsewhere--and not for me personally, I should point out, but I do think there's a very good chance the '00s will be seen by historians as a nadir, a terrible hybrid of swamp and plateau (at least in the U.S.).

I've lost count of the ridiculous number of lists I've read, and I've mentally composed and then discarded several posts responding to them. I almost started a few months ago with Pitchfork's hilariously early top 200 list which struck me as telling in many ways: an easy-to-predict top 10 heavily slanted to the first couple years of the decade and just enough mainstream choices to distill the slightly self-conscious way this decade's "indie" fans embraced certain pop, rap, and r'n'b acts; I wonder if country will be added to that list in the next decade. If you wanted to attempt the should-be-difficult task of arguing that this decade sucked for music, ironically that list would be a great place to start--though I suppose arguing that Pitchfork itself sucks was a major pop cultural meme this decade--reading through it I could feel a great shrug gripping me; if the '70s was the Me Decade, this one might have been the Meh Decade (I'm sure I'm not the first to come up with that phrase).

Even beyond the ennui inspired by that particular list, reading lots of them* has a mind-numbing effect nicely summed up in this piece from Dusted, and I quite like Ben Tausig's conclusion: "There is no reason to abandon year-end lists, but there is every reason to reform them. For the sake of readers, critics shouldn’t get away with writing lazy features, of which the album-of-the-year list has become exemplary."

*I know: no one is making me read them . . . but they're like junk food for geeks and even after reading that first Dusted piece, I read or skimmed almost all the other lists they posted.

His made-up examples struck a chord with me as I've just read the new collection of John Porcellino's King-Cat comics, Map of My Heart. Porcellino is one of my favorite comics creators and deserves a lengthy post of his own, and one of the more minor but affecting elements of his minicomics is his tendency to include top 10 or top 40 lists that are really just lists of things he enjoyed during the time period covered by the comic. So he includes lots of records and books, but also his cat, his wife, places he visited, etc. With cultural critics and writers I respect, this would be much, much more interesting (The Wire's individual writer lists in their annual "Rewind" issue--usually presented as lists of pros and cons--come close) and truer to one's own experience over the course of a year. When I was younger and thought keeping abreast of the zeitgeist was an intellectual responsibility, I probably could have come up with a top 10 list of records for the year, but I doubt I bought ten albums released, rather than reissued, in 2009, whereas I probably did pick up close to ten from 1968. So here is my top 10 list for 2009:

1. The Sixties
For some reason--obviously I was thinking a great deal about nostalgia, but I don't think it's that--this year I became more interested in music from the (late) '60s than I have been since I was a teenager who only listened to classic rock. It began with the Kinks, who I'd been meaning to figure out for years. Listening to their run of amazing albums from Face to Face to Lola* was a major revelation, especially the justly celebrated The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society and the unjustly overlooked Arthur: Or, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire. Then, over the summer, I fell in love with Donovan; I've already mentioned a germinating post on him and that might actually happen if I can resolve a four-month dispute with the lobotomized monkeys at Barnes & who are preventing me from getting my hands on his excellent The Hurdy Gurdy Man album. Much like the Kinks, "discovering" a band as monumental as the Byrds felt a little foolish, but getting past their major hits--the ones guaranteed to be on the soundtrack of any movie about the '60s--their blend of psychedelia, folk, country, and rock is probably America's best claim to their own Beatles, see especially The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Speaking of the Beatles, I got the mono box set for my birthday and it's been a pure pleasure spending time with the music that first made me think about music as music.

*My friend Stephen has been urging me to pick up Muswell Hillbillies for almost a year now and I still haven't, but based on my one listen to it, I'm tempted to add that to the list.

I'm also about halfway through Joe Boyd's excellent memoir White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s. Boyd is most famous for his production work with the leading lights of the British folk scene, including Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band, and Vashti Bunyan, but he's also one of those people uniquely gifted with being at the right place at the right time: everything from working for the Newport Folk Festival during Dylan's notorious plugged-in performance to learning how to eat mussels from Freddie Hubbard in Barcelona ("Well, go on, man, suck the motherfucker!"). Boyd's voice is charming, funny, and refreshingly humble; his account is also largely free of the Baby Boomer sentimentality that makes so many younger people reflexively dismiss the '60s as overrated or painfully naive--Boyd avoids that latter charge by being quietly wise on issues of race and class and having very broad ears.

2. Early '80s Dancehall
If I'd done this list last year, late '80s digital dancehall would have been number one--this year I closed the gap between the arrival of that very new, different sound (with Wayne Smith & King Jammy's 1985 sensation "Under Mi Sleng Teng") and the rocksteady/roots/dub stuff from the late '60s and '70s that I've been obsessing over since I was eighteen. Chronologically that was a strange way to get into the era, but ultimately logical as dancehall* is a transitional music easier to define by what it isn't than what it is. It isn't yet the obviously different sound of the digital period with its trademark Casio and DX7 synth sounds. But it also differs from the preceding roots era in harder-to-define ways. Those digital sounds were anticipated by the almost robotic tightness of early '80s rhythms and the gradual shedding of horn sections for economic reasons, and it was during the dancehall era that the DJ (equivalent to the MC in hip-hop) became more popular than the singer. Likewise, lyrical themes shifted from Rastafarian hectoring--which I, godless heathen, love dearly--to more earthly concerns like romance, sex, food, clothes, and the dancehall itself. Along with excellent stuff by Eek-a-Mouse, Sister Nancy, Lone Ranger, Henry "Junjo" Lawes, Jah Batta, Wayne Jarrett, and more, photographer Beth Lesser's excellent book Dancehall really cemented my love for the era.

*"Dancehall" seems to be the consensus term for this period, but after the roots era, reggae taxonomy becomes contested and "dancehall" is still being used to describe contemporary JA music (this is especially confusing as '90s reggae is often called "ragga").

3. Ghost Box
The Ghost Box record label has been getting numerous mentions in The Wire and on British music blogs for years, and everything they said sounded delicious to my ears: a label founded on mutual obsessions with a variety of things musical and not. As their website puts it: "Ghost Box is a recording label for artists that find inspiration in library music, folklore, vintage electronics and haunted television soundtracks." (All four of those ideas come into play in Broadcast's recent collaboration with The Focus Group, which I've already mentioned here.) So I was overjoyed when Other Music finally began distributing their albums in the U.S. this past spring and even happier when the music lived up to the sounds in my head. It's hard to pick just one to recommend, but the BBC Radiophonic Workshop fan in me is particularly fond of the analogue synth-heavy the Advisory Circle's Other Channels.

4. Three Excellent Jazz Albums
Apart from general passive cultural exposure through films, commercials, etc., my earliest, personal interest in jazz was sparked by one of those old Red Hot AIDS benefit compilations, Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool, which brought together members of the jazz old school with young representatives of the boho side of contemporary hip-hop in a Guru's Jazzmatazz kind of style (I was pretty into the Digable Planets album Blowout Comb at the time as well as the Native Tongues stuff). The second disc of that comp had a just fucking awful version of John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" performed by Branford Marsalis (!) followed by a much weirder and seductive version by Alice Coltrane. That one track led me to another Red Hot comp, Red Hot on Impulse!, which was really just a label sampler for the late '60s/ early '70s heyday of Impulse! Records and featured more great stuff from Alice Coltrane, her husband John, and Pharoah Sanders. I became obsessed with this blending of Indian, African, and Middle Eastern music with jazz, but it was difficult to find much more of it and a few missteps into glutinous hippie noodling scared me off for a long time.

This year though, I picked up three fantastic albums all with that same otherworldly but rootsy feeling: Don Cherry's Brown Rice, Alice Coltrane's World Galaxy, and Yusuf Lateef's Eastern Sounds. The Lateef, from 1961, is one of the earliest examples of a jazz musician borrowing from non-Western cultures and therefore doesn't deviate from jazz norms all that much. On the first track, "Plum Blossom", Lateef plays a Chinese globular flute to haunting effect--it's quite beautiful, and then you read in the (actually rather irritating) liner notes that the flute has only a five-note range and it becomes astonishing. World Galaxy and Brown Rice are from 1971 and 1975 respectively and could easily spark tedious arguments about what counts as "jazz." But that's an extremely uninteresting question to raise in the face of this pair of unique, funky, badass albums. Sadly, World Galaxy is only available in mp3 form ("sadly" because apart from the loss in audio quality, I'd also really like to be able to look at the Peter Max-designed cover), but if I start complaining about that this might turn into another rant about the decade. Nonetheless, these three albums have rejuvenated my passion for jazz of all kinds.

5. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
It was early 2008 when I saw my first Powell & Pressburger (aka the Archers) film, but this year--when I got to see A Canterbury Tale on DVD and A Matter of Life and Death and The Red Shoes on the big screen--their oeuvre became quite possibly my favorite in cinema (I almost named our new kitten Pressburger; classic Bollywood singer Rafi took that honor instead). Being both something of an Anglophile and someone who thinks verisimilitude is overrated, it's a natural fit, but even if you don't share those prejudices, I urge you to seek out their films. I'm not sure where I'd suggest starting--and I still haven't seen a few of their classics--but if you can see any of their Technicolor films on the big screen, do it!

Sadly, this was also the year that brilliant cinematographer Jack Cardiff died; Cardiff shot A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes, and Black Narcissus for the Archers and everything smart I might have to say about him would be mostly cribbed from the Self-Styled Siren's blog, so go read her if you're curious.

Since I often have to suppress my strong Luddite tendencies, I'm glad to acknowledge that I've been using free online music-streaming service since this summer and I highly recommend it. It won't lead you to undiscovered music like Pandora, but for checking things out that you know you want to hear, it's pretty amazing. And you can discover new music if you participate in the very low-key social media aspect of "follow"ing and being followed by other users, which allows you to check out what your friends are listening to and easily recommend songs or albums to others (hell, if you let me follow you, I'll probably bug you a lot more than Pandora!). Definitely the best thing that's happened to the internet in a while--sadly I hear Apple's recent purchase of the service means it might not be long for this world.

7. A Good Year for Animation
With Pete Docter's Up, Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo, and Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox all being released in American theaters, this was a good year for animated films. Up was a return to a more classical cartoony approach for Pixar after the more ambitious run of The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Wall-E, but it was both very funny and quite moving. Ponyo was a delight even if, on further reflection, it was Miyazaki's slightest film yet. I found Wes Anderson's two previous films to be dull (The Life Aquatic) and problematic verging on terrible (The Darjeeling Limited), so Fantastic Mr. Fox felt like a major triumph even though it wasn't flawless. No matter, if the fundamental appeal of animated films stems from seeing a new, unique, and personal world entirely created by an artist's hand (well more than one artist, obviously) come to life, then Fox succeeded and gave me hope that Anderson, once one of my favorite filmmakers, hasn't lost his gift. And along with Ponyo's gorgeous watercolors, Fox also made clear that an old-fashioned, analogue approach to animation can still thrive in the face of 3-D hype.

8. Dollhouse
I can't recommend Joss Whedon's ill-fated and now canceled series Dollhouse without a lengthy preamble about the show's slow start and the aggravating tendency for viewers and critics to confuse the premise of the series with the creators' moral beliefs--a preamble that would defeat the celebratory goal of this list. Suffice to say, this is handily Whedon's most intense work to date: I often found myself having to relax my grip at the end of each episode and even the infamously compromised first five episodes succeed on the level of thrilling action. Following that detour into somewhat generic action fare, Dollhouse proved itself willing to go into darker, messier, and more intriguing places than any other show I can think of--I'm totally serious when I say it's as close as we're likely to get to seeing something genuinely Philip K. Dickian on TV. And given many people's reservations about star Eliza Dushku, the show somewhat surprisingly has become an actor's showcase, particularly for Franz Kranz, Olivia Williams, the chameleon-like Enver Gjokaj, and a number of memorable guest stars; and for what it's worth, I think Dushku ranges from adequate to excellent. In a way the cancellation is a blessing as a show this visceral and morally queasy could have turned into a depressing slog if extended for too long (c.f. Battlestar Galactica). Now it will endure as a more or less compact story with twenty-six chapters and I am geekily psyched for the concluding three episodes airing in January.

9. Indian Novels
I began 2009 in Ahmedabad, India, which was a genuinely wonderful experience that reignited an abiding interest in Indian history and culture. Over the course of the year that meant watching a couple of Bollywood movies, listening to the handful of amazing Indian classical music CDs I picked up for ludicrously cheap there, struggling to read a somewhat dry history of the country, and reading three very different, very good novels by Indian writers: Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games, and Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies.

The White Tiger is a refreshing antidote to the kind of novels that Salman Rushdie's success made ubiquitous: India painted as a candy-colored carnival of spice and sex and gods. Those novels were often overstuffed and florid--even when tragic they celebrated the vibrancy and multiculturalism of the subcontinent above all. The White Tiger is spare, lean, and cutting--I've never read any other novel as pessimistic and condemning of Indian culture and character as this. Adiga has acknowledged that he drew on mid-century African American literature as his model and the debts to Invisible Man and Richard Wright's books are obvious, but Adiga uses them to explore the new context of a totally corrupt "modernized" India where the oppression of the caste system still persists, not least in the relationship between the wealthy and its servant class.

Massive, sprawling, enamored with local dialect, and highly influenced by Bollywood, Sacred Games at first feels a bit like one of those Rushdie clones. And though it is ultimately more life-affirming and celebratory than Adiga's poisoned rant, Chandra's lightly fantastic epic of crime dons, cops, gurus, madams, and spies reveals an India as distant from its post-independence democratic idealism as Adiga's full-frontal assault does, but it's much more fun to read. Ghosh's The Sea of Poppies is even more enamored with language than Chandra is (both books have glossaries, though Ghosh's is quite eccentric), and the book's chief pleasure is the crazily polyglot and musical mixture of more languages than I care to list here. The book is intended to be the first of a trilogy and things are definitely only just beginning at the end of its 500 pages. But there is much to enjoy now, including a large cast of fascinating characters, multilingual puns, and a revelatory look into the history of the East India Company's opium trade (the novel begins in 1838 on the eve of the Opium Wars with China). If the next two books are as excellent as this one, Ghosh may emerge as the most important Indian author alive.

10. Random Reading
David Mazzuchelli's widely praised Asterios Polyp is absolutely beautiful, and after a few years where my intense interest in comics felt like it was waning this was a welcome sign that the medium is still capable of works of stunning genius. I cannot recommend David Mitchell's Black Swan Green more highly; while it hits some of the personal Anglophile, Thatcher-era buttons that I've mentioned before, in all seriousness, if you were ever a thirteen-year-old boy or you know someone who was, you must read this book.

This year I finally started reading some South American literature after trying a couple of Marquez novels and not really getting the hype. I started with Brazilian author Jorge Amado's Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, one of those big social novels you don't see much after the Victorian era where the town itself functions as the main character; I found it highly witty and an excellent way to broaden my knowledge of Brazil beyond the area of music. I'm also slowly making my way through Jorge Luis Borges's Complete Fictions; I won't pretend I have anything fresh to say about this masterpiece, but I will say that if you've been intimidated by Borges's reputation, don't be, the brevity of many of the pieces makes it perfect for commute reading.

I was going to conclude with a personal list mentioning: more on being in India; the Cloisters and Barcade; my sister's wedding in June and my brother's in August; Weird Baby; the most recent issue of Bailliwik; this here blog thing; lots of great times in Chicago, including my brother-in-law finally getting a visa to visit, drinking Harar with C and H and drinking grappa with S, the surprisingly awesome architectural boat tour, and the Modern Wing; and our new kitten, Rafi. But reading this far means you've already wasted an entire day of your life, so I'll simply say, Happy New Year!


  1. Hooray! What a fun top 10 list! I vote for list-making to become a regular occurrence on this here blog thing.

  2. I was wondering where Rafi got his name from... :)
    I vote Yes for list-making on this here blog thing, too!

  3. This is definitely on my top 10 list of top 10 lists of 2009.