By Larry Kaufmann
This is coming a little late, I know, but I’d like to second the sentiments from Daniel Crandall’s excellent article published last week in The American Culture. Conservatives, libertarians, and classical liberals need a place on the cultural playing field. Books, movies, television, and music – in fact, our entire quality of life – would be more vibrant and exciting if people on the right actually participated in the cultural marketplace instead of simply castigating it.
But as novelist Andrew Klavan has said (in a passage quoted by Crandall) the right “can’t win back the arts unless we love them. Too many conservatives boast of their philistinism. ‘I haven’t seen a movie in years,’ they brag, as if that were some sort of achievement. Too many others seek to clip the wings of artistic imagination, demanding that artists turn away from anything disturbing or violent or sexual, which is to say from much of life itself.”
As an omnivorous consumer of pop culture, I’m perhaps guilty of loving the arts too much. So, in the interests of highlighting worthy cultural artifacts released in the last year, this article presents my picks for the “Best of 2010” in music, movies, sports, and TV. It is a naturally subjective, and perhaps eclectic, list. For example, I don’t watch much TV, so my pick for the best in television is pretty outside-the-box (no pun intended). In contrast, I listen to a fair amount of new music, so my music selections will be a bit broader but not necessarily mainstream.
I also haven’t included anything having to do with books, even though I read voraciously, mainly because much of my reading tends to be older fiction and non-fiction as opposed to new releases.
I suppose every year is a mixed bag culturally, but for me 2010 shakes out this way: good year for sports, pretty good for music, and bad – very bad – for movies. But I’m still hopeful about the Christmas/late season releases, some of which look intriguing.
I’m also interested in what other, American Culture readers thought about the past year in culture. What movies, music, TV, books etc. were especially good, or bad? Feel free to chime in and make your own recommendations in the comments.
My pick for best album is The ArchAndroid, Janelle Monae’s ultra-ambitious, full length debut. This CD is all over the map, going from classical to hip-hop to psychedelia to cabaret jazz and back again. It all works, though, with Monae’s lovely, expressive voice and sister-from-another-planet persona holding everything together.
Two other, very different CDs also stood out for me. American Slang by Gaslight Anthem breaks out of the gloomy, Arcade Fire-ish murk of their last outing. Not uniformly excellent, but when it’s good it’s very good.
Robinella’s Fly Away Bird sailed under the radar but shouldn’t have. She’s a first-rate singer (I sometimes think of her as the Mary Lou Lord of Tennessee) who unfortunately is semi-reclusive and doesn’t record often. Her latest has one foot in Americana and the other in cool jazz, and somehow she makes that unlikely combination work.
Best Music Video
Tightrope by Janelle Monae.
1. King of Spain – The Tallest Man on Earth
Galloping guitars, eclectic lyrics and a few Dylan references (reportedly “The King of Spain” is Dylan himself) make this pretty irresistible.
2. Spirit of Jazz – Gaslight Anthem
My current favorite on American Slang. A great engine starter, and smart too.
3. Wondaland – Janelle Monae
Pure ear candy. Not exactly “typical” of the CD, but then again there is no typical.
4. The Mama Papa – Plants & Animals
Good, silly fun – and I don’t have a clue what it’s about.
5. Goodbye Sweet Dreams – Roky Erickson with Okkervil River
For something completely different…a dark song from someone who’s experienced some dark times.
6. East Jefferson – Ben Weaver
Ben Weaver’s Mirepoix and Smoke is reminiscent of Bon Iver’s debut album, since both were partly inspired by a breakup and written in a remote house in the middle of nowhere. “East Jefferson” is my favorite from a CD that grows on you.
7. The Hitchiker – Neil Young
The twisted, autobiographical tale of Neil Young’s tortured relationship with fame – and drugs. Some might hate this song, but I think it’s fascinating, because Young has written entire albums on drug abuse, so this song extends a theme in his music that goes back almost 40 years.
8. Put Out Your Fire – Somebody’s Darling
No type of pop song is probably more unloved than the power ballad (think Journey or REO). Somebody’s Darling mixes in a little twang and shows how to do a power ballad without making it sound cheesy.
9. You Are Not Alone – Mavis Staples
A simple, powerful song of faith, sung by one of America’s best singers.
12. Billie Jean – Robbie Fulks
A bonus track, because the song itself obviously isn’t from 2010, but Robbie Fulks’ long-delayed MJ tribute album was finally released last year. And who can deny this is a worthy interpretation of a very familiar tune?
I didn’t see nearly as much live music in 2010 as I wanted, but on one blissful afternoon/evening did happen to catch Corey Chisel, The Fruit Bats, Alejandro Escovedo, Jeff Tweedy and She & Him. Only Escovedo was sub-par. I’ve been a fan of Corey Chisel’s for a while, but had never seen him, and he was funny and entertaining. Also the first time I saw She & Him; Zooey was as adorably awkward as I expected, but M. Ward really surprised by busting out a couple smoking guitar solos (not something you hear on She & Him CDs). Their whole show was also much more grand and elaborate than I would have thought.
The real star, though, was Jeff Tweedy. I’ve seen him several times now – alone, with Wilco, and even back in the day with Uncle Tupelo. This was his best performance I’ve seen. And as he pulled all kinds of choice nuggets from his 20+ year career (e.g. “New Madrid,” “Passenger Side”) I realized just how deep and distinct his song catalog is. It’s hard to describe, but there really is a “Jeff Tweedy” song.
“The Social Network”: a great (although incomplete) story told very well. It even made Justin Timberlake look good.
Guilty cinematic pleasure: “Kick Ass.” Much more stylish and quirky than it had to be.
Best Sports Moment
Two interconnected moments, that bookend a great season. Roy Halladay of the Phillies threw a perfect game early in the Spring, then threw a second no-hitter in the Fall post-season (only the second post-season no-hitter in league history). Hard to top that.
Worst Celebrity Moment
Part of me wants to give this to Snooki, who went from zero to Lohan in record time. However, nothing compares to the series of drunken, taped tirades that Mel Gibson left for his ex-girlfriend. What a nasty piece of work.
Best Television Moment
One night on the road, I was flicking through the TV channels looking for something tolerable, and came upon this episode of Anthony Bourdain eating and drinking near the China-Russia border. He was in Harbin China, but evidently there is a large Russian community there, and whenever there are Russians there will be vodka. Much vodka was consumed at one dinner and, the next morning, Tony had an ice fishing date with a Chinese bar owner and his girlfriend. Needless to say, he was nursing a brutal hangover and the incredibly cold temperatures (just over the border was Siberia) took the discomfort to a whole other level. His narration of this absurd event was perfect (“I’ve been praying all morning for God to kill me…an icy death sounds good right now”), and eventually the Chinese bar owner admitted that even though he loves to ice fish, he never actually catches anything. That was unacceptable for TV, so they brought out a (dead) ‘stunt fish,’ put it on the end of the line, dropped it in the water, and filmed the fish being pulled from the frozen lake. Everyone applauded and pretended it was some great victory, just so they could go home and get out of the cold. Probably the funniest thing I saw all year.
OK, those are my picks. TAC readers, what say you?