Reasons to be cheerful in this bleak economy should be the celebration of the death of excess. We don't need to be fat and lazy and entitled because we happened to be born into one of the wealthiest countries in the world. The scales have been tipped. We need to refocus our attention on things that are significant in our lives. Even if culture seems trivial, it truly mirrors our times. And with that in mind, let me present my culture picks for 2009. Some of it may resonate with you, and some of it may appear gratuitous. Regardless, it helped soothe my muse.
Jeff Zenick - I collect outsider art AKA art brut; self-taught artists who've never perfected their craft in a formal university capacity. Folks like Howard Fintzer gathered loads of press back in the early '80s by rendering wonderfully unique LP covers for R.E.M. and the Talking Heads.A few months back I was trolling eBay for some inspiration and happened upon this critically acclaimed Florida-based artist. His series of pen-and-ink rendered yearbook portraits are stunning and emotionally engaging in their hard-edged simplicity. Moreover, there is nothing more satisfying than discovering a new artist and being able to afford a piece of art, all the while helping the artist earn a living.
The Takeover UK: Running with the Wasters (Rykodisc) Some critics foolishly called the melody-mad Pittsburgh indie-rock quartet the new Strokes or Libertines. While not as raw or edgy as either of those bands, they wrote better songs and played with a little more instrumental precision. Check out the revved up pop-punk classic "Ah La La" or the Kinks meets La's ballad "Evelyn." They graciously played a private concert for Culture Catch during Internet Week, too. But sadly, RYKO dropped them and a short time later they split up. Look for 3/4's of them in a new outfit called 1,2,3 in 2010.
The Last Station (Sony Classics) - Watching Oscar-worthy heavyweights Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer spar in this Leo Tolstoy love story is like watching 48 years of love from a fly-on-the-wall perspective. One is swept up in the drama of what Tolstoy must have struggled with -- if we are to believe the six diaries that this story is based on -- in his final days.
Peter Doherty: Grace/Wastelands (Astralwerks) - Who knew that U.K. rocker Pete, er Peter Doherty would reach thirty and actually still be capable of vital and dynamic music? Few in the music press thought that he'd live so long. Or that the best album of his career would be his first solo CD -- part shaggy romantic on a displaced busker's holiday. Mr. Doherty has crafted a throwback record that reminds this listener of Ray Davies social observations during his reign with the mid-60s Kinks.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (Penquin Classics) - I can be a bit obsessive with book cover designs. And this reprint from Penguin, along with seven other classic literary titles, caught my eye in a Brooklyn bookstore. I'd never read this story about soul-selling debauchery and piercing epigrams about social conventions. It is certainly one of the grand masterworks of English literature. Wilde, of course, was imprisoned for homosexual acts, and died after his release in exile in Paris. Hard to believe with all of his written output that this remains his only novel. A U.K.-produced motion picture release directed by Oliver Parker and starring Ben Barnes (Dorian) and Colin Firth (Lord Henry) should hit our shores shortly.
The Avett Brothers: I and Love and You (Columbia) - Simply stated, "I and Love and You" is one of the great songs of this decade. In a year filled with bleak economic news, rising unemployment, health care reform, and a global crisis looming on every sector, this simple, heartfelt, piano-driven ballad from this Concord, NC roots-rock band delivered cautious optimism, all while the protagonist longed for the creature comforts of Brooklyn, not Manhattan. Now that's a good thing. Thanks, Brothers Scott and Seth.
Radiohead: Kid A (EMI) As the new millennium progressed, this remastered art-rock juggernaut gained more stature in Radiohead's extraordinary catalog. In some ways, it may be considered their masterwork, even knocking off the more accessible OK Computer from that lofty perch. For me, it's like they purposely made a rock record that was stripped of all it's guitar parts in the final mix but yet those six-string vibratory frequencies still resonate in space.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (20th Century Fox) - Clooney -- even as an animated fox -- has never been better in Wes Anderson's brilliant Roald Dahl's retro-leaning stop motion animation film adaptation. As usual, the music -- including The Beach Boys, Rolling Stones, Burl Ives, Pulp's Jarvis Cocker, Alexandre Desplat's score, et al. -- is just as engaging, only enhancing the entire delightful experience. Who said crime doesn't pay? Well, for Bernie Madoff, almost.
She & I: A Fugue by Michael R. Brown (Petrarca Press) - A metaphysical non-fiction memoir written in prose style about women -- well, mostly about one young ballerina (half his age) that the author meets online after losing his wife to cancer. Raw and real, provocative and tender, but never gratuitous.
Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyer's Cut) - In the beginning there was British comedy and a short time later the U.K. sketch comedy sensation Monty Python. This 40th Anniversary original IFC documentary unveils their history with stiff upper lip poignancy and genre-defining Python wit.
The Low Anthem: Oh My God, Charlie Darwin (Nonesuch) - No finer roots-rock, top to bottom, for my money in 2009. As much as I enjoyed The Felice Brothers and Smog's Bill Callahan's fab â€™09 releases, this is the CD I've spun repeatedly. Imagine a scruffier Tom Waits filtered through the prism of Lambchop. Don't believe me? Try on "Home I'll Never Be" for a truly invigorating roots-rock elixir.
The Beatles: Revolver (EMI) - Remastered and repackaged, not much to add to the accolades apart from this CD being the benchmark for all other music released in 1966. Well, this and Pet Sounds. Most critics agree that the Liverpudlians became a studio band with it. And "She Said, She Said" is my favorite track from this early masterpiece. This is John (sans Paul) at his most revelatory, garage-rockin', angst-riddled self with its Peter Fonda LSD-induced lyrical references. Legend had it that they were both tripping while hanging out the Playboy Mansion when Fonda shared with John the immortal lines, "I know what it's like to be dead." Play it loud and play it often.
The Road (Dimension Films) - More than just an apocalyptic Sci-Fi flick adapted from the Pulitzer-Prize winning pen of Cormac McCarthy, this is a love story between Boy and Father. Devastatingly bleak and beautifully rendered on so many levels that one needs to both see the movie and read the book. Don't believe the naysayers, director John Hillcoat has crafted a movie for the ages.
The Feelies: Crazy Rhythms (BarNone) - One of the most influential new wave records ever recorded, and released in 1980 by Stiff Records, finally gets remastered. Having seen the band a dozen times back in the day, this only affirms their growing status as a truly original, feverishly idiosyncratic outfit. The twin archtop guitar attack by Bill Million and Glenn Mercer borrowed heavily from the Velvet Underground and Television, but sped up the action with an amphetamine and percussive precision. Moreover, their equally deserving, yet much undervalued sophomore effort, recorded in 1986 with R.E.M.'s Peter Buck at the helm, The Good Earth, also gets the full-on digital treatment.
Trust: Photographs of Jim Marshall (Omnibus Press) - SF-based Marshall has been capturing iconographic images of musicians for over 50 years. This latest coffee table book finds him sharing previously never-before-seen photos of Janis, Jimi, Morrison, Dylan, The Stones, Johnny Cash, et al. These artists trusted him. And his lens captured many intimate moments.
Crazy Heart (Fox Searchlight) - Jeff Bridges has deservedly garnered the accolades and award nominations for his tour de force portrayal of an aging alcoholic honky tonkin' singer/songwriter living on the edge. Part Waylon, part Billy Joe Shaver, Bridges inhabits his character so convincingly you wish he'd tour. Director Scott Cooper hired T-Bone Burnett as the music supervisor so you know everyone was schooled on authenticity. This year's Wrestler.
Antony & The Johnsons: The Crying Light (Secretly Canadian) - Released in late January 2009, melancholia never sounded so sumptuous on Mr. Hegarty's third long player. These symphonic songs are his most pensive tone poems to date and unfurl so slowly that the effect is quite hypnotic leaving one mesmerized without realizing the effect. And as captivating as this music is digitally, nothing will prepare you for the stunning beauty that Antony is live. A truly inspiring experience.
Rock of Ages Broadway Play - Who shouldn't, couldn't, wouldn't want to see this cheesy, fun evening of '80's Hair Metal indulgence, right? Right. It works on so many levels because it's campy and fun. (And you can buy beers during the show from roaming vendors.) Remember fun? When you were younger and over-indulgence was fun? When metal and hair and babes and way catchy metal-pop with outlandish music videos ruled the land. And, consider this, lead Rock dood and rising star, fourth season American Idol finalist Constantine Maroulis was the very first Tony Award-nominated Idolist this past spring. He's too cool. And he's got really terrific hair. Really.
Happy and healthy New Year to you all!
peace, Dusty Wright
Mr. Wright is the former editor-in-chief of Creem and Prince's New Power Generation magazines as well as a writer of films, fiction, and music. He is also a singer/songwriter who has released 3 solo CDs, and a member of the folk-rock quartet GIANTfingers. And before all of this he was a William Morris agent.