Artists Of The Year

Despite these seemingly insurmountable odds, I learned to stop worrying and love the Beck, and I'll tell you how I did it: I let the tunes wash over me and stopped caring about whether he had anything to say. He doesn't, and neither is he the great postmodern visionary that many of his peers say he is. He's just a guy with impeccable taste in samples ("The Moog and Me," "I Can Only Give You Everything"), an ear for incredibly cool sounds (old analog synths, some killer sax, a bit of sitar and tabla), and a sure-fire way with a groove that makes that "enchanting wizard of rhythm" bit in "Hot Wax" seem like justified boasting.

I'm not saying you should believe the hype. But in a year of really strong genre-hopping groove albums--Luscious Jackson's Fever In Fever Out, Mark's Keyboard Repair by DJ Money Mark, and DJ Shadow's Endtroducing... among them--Beck made the best, and he even made a believer out of me.

Jim DeRogatis is author ofKaleidoscope Eyes: Psychedelic Rock from the '60s to the '90s (Citadel Underground).

HAL HARTLEY

by E.J. Levy

Left off New York magazine's list of the 100 smartest New Yorkers, Hal Hartley has been perennially overlooked on annual round-ups. However, with the release of what is arguably his worst film, Flirt, he crashed the gates of the prestigious New York Film Festival and garnered critical acclaim. Nevertheless, his appearance at a screening of the film at the Walker in May gave me my quote of the year: "I want to be affected by everything," he said.

If Hartley's films attest to the possibility of acting with integrity in the face of the relentless commodification of all that is best in us--art, love, desire, faith, knowledge--Flirt is his first sell-out. Made, Hartley says glibly, because he was given the money to make it, and featuring gratuitous nudity (though he once said that he avoids nudity because every time he sees someone take off their clothes in a film he was aware he'd paid money for it), Flirt marked the nadir of my art-going year.

Nevertheless, Hartley's my artist of the year because in a culture that trivializes things like art, love, desire, faith, and knowledge, he reminds us why they count. Unabashedly philosophical, formally complex, his films blend brilliant comic timing with a earnest intellection. In Amateur, his best film yet, the editor of a dirty magazine comforts an ex-nun who has failed to write a smutty story (she has written poetry instead). "A mistake," he says, "is not necessarily a failure... Look at me. I'm a fairly successful editor of dirty magazines. I never intended this.... But, you know, things happen... We drift away from our vocation." Hartley's films remind us that we have a vocation; I have faith he has not drifted from his.

E.J. Levy editedTasting Life Twice, which received a Lambda Literary Award.

JAMES CARTER

by Jon Dolan

The critical cliche goes like this: James Carter is a rock star. A saxophone-squawkin', silk-tie sportin', Bennie Moten-swingin' r-o-c-k star. But it's hard to disagree. His brand of jazz revivalism delivers the classiest take I've heard yet on the everything-old-is-new school of pop culture revisionism that has fueled, for better or for worse, so much of '90s hip-culture's quest for self-definition. Yet, unlike the '70s sitcom arcana nerds and cabaret kitsch fans that characterize hipster consensus circa 1996, Carter, at 27, approaches history with something even the best of his (mine, your?) generation just doesn't have: respect.

His brilliant 1996 album for his late father, Conversin' With the Elders, recycles 60 years of jazz history and fuses them into a sweet new style that can only be summed up by the title of its transcendent tune, "FreeReggaeHibBop." Whether he's covering John Coltrane or Anthony Braxton, paying respects to Charlie Parker, weirding out on Lester Young, or playing Lester Young in the very hot house band in the not-so-hot movie Kansas City, this self-proclaimed fan of cartoon soundtrack composer Carl Stalling and the Wu Tang's Ol' Dirty Bastard kicks a flavor that has my recovering indie-rock geek self convinced he's the best thing American postmodernism has going. And I can't think of a better way for people my age (I'm 23) to get in touch with the richest American art there is than by throwing themselves ass over head into Carter's back-talkin' new blues. It beats the hell out of Juan-Garcia Esquivel reissues.

Jon Dolan is a Minneapolis writer.

DEFNIA

by Beni Matias

It's winter. When I need a fix of Puerto Rican heat I go to my dining room. No, I'm not looking for food for the body. It's food for the soul: An inexpensive print by the young Puerto Rican artist Defnia hangs on the wall. Her whimsical interpretation of la Mano Sagrada--her father, mother, former boyfriend, and herself as finger puppets--reinvents the religious icon of the Sacred Hand where each finger represents a member of the holy family--baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and Mary's parents Ana and Joachim. The background is Old San Juan. Narrow colonial houses where women dance in dark archways, people float in mid-air hanging off clotheslines criss-crossing the plaza, and men and women hold hands to form a ring around the wrist of the giant hand, which dominates the print. Defnia captures the internal tension of Puerto Rican families. We communicate without talking. Family members become mind readers. There is individuality that carries with it many of the family traits. The extended family is there to support and rally around us. They witness who we are and what we are doing. Defnia's print reminds why I stay away from my family for long periods of time, and why I go running back to them searching out their nonstop chatter and movement.

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