Artists Of The Year

We list the best of the best of 1997.

Brad Zellar is a Minneapolis writer and frequent contributor to City Pages.

LIFE IN A BLENDER
by Camden Joy

In this year that found me more lost (and found!) than ever, the senses split the Artist of the Year ballot six ways. Tied for near-perfect in my book are the sound of Raul Mondesi's bat, the touch of Vanessa Chase's glance, the sight of Hale Bopp's tail, the taste of Reese's peanut butter cups, and the smell of Charles Johnson's mitt--while, towering above them all, looms my sixth-sense choice: Life in a Blender!

A group of three (or four or five--or sometimes six!) musicians accompanying the incomparably warm (no--cool!) singer/songwriter Don Ralph (née Rauf), Blender didn't get much out of NYC this year, but they did release a CD (although I doubt it got much out of NYC either!). Ralph himself narrowly escaped being walloped by the bartender at his CD-release party for unplugging the jukebox in order that his band might begin their set. Ah, youth--fleeting and impetuous! Eventually, everybody got home safe--most importantly, me, holding this great thing of theirs called Two Legs Bad (Fang), a recording that made me feel so good I began to toss aloft my CD player several times a day, literally juggling my favorites. That's Life in a Blender!

Camden Joy'sThe Last Rock Star Book, or Liz Phair: A Rant will be published this spring by Portland's Verse Chorus Press.

ERROL MORRIS
by Michael Tortorello

Every year is a good year to fixate on one's mortality. That is, until the clocks start running backward, the cosmos contract, light particles lose a step on their 149 billion-meter dash from sol to Seattle, and the inexorable pageant of birth, school, work, and death takes an infinite intermission and we all come to live forever. Can I get an amen?

Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is the latest documentary by Errol Morris (best known for The Thin Blue Line), and it's less an amen than a long night of revelatory visions in the Chapel of Meditation. Consider the film, Morris's fifth, a kind of intricate cinematic bricolage based on themes from Shelley's "Ozymandias." Four men appear throughout the work--a topiary gardener, a researcher of naked subterranean vermin, a robot engineer, and a lion tamer--and they discuss what they do, what it means, and what the future could bring to their particular, peculiar callings--and what that might mean. It's both a fairly talky film and a film of ideas, implicit and central among them being the notion that we're all going to die and that our rat and robot masters won't be chartering philanthropic foundations to advance the treasured tenets of liberal humanism. Hold that amen.

When I reviewed Fast, Cheap & Out of Control this fall, I made note of a fifth character in the film, also toiling toward some illusory mastery of his treacherous medium--that being Errol Morris, whose filming and editing of this 10-year project marshaled a kind of sublimity to the screen. The retreating haunch of a circus elephant. The manic, semidemented glint in a scientist's eye. For three months after, every overedited image on TV appeared as banal and profanely pointless as I knew it to be. Say hallelujah.

Michael Tortorello is arts editor at City Pages.

DON DELILLO
by Bart Schneider

Don DeLillo's 800-page beauty, Underworld, was clearly the best book I read this year, and perhaps the finest novel I've read in the '90s. As a longtime DeLillo fan, I've come to expect a lot--the exquisite ear for American idioms, the penetrating queries about our culture, the compelling characters who, even in their small and fallible lives, attain a certain majesty from being so credibly rendered. But nothing prepared me for the scale of DeLillo's masterpiece, for how human a book it is. Not since Toni Morrison's Beloved, to my mind, has a novelist so successfully combined formal inventiveness with a full-blooded emotional narrative.

Did Underworld change my life? Well, it certainly became a part of it, and it slowed me down like a great meal does. Twenty pages in, I knew what I had and realized that only a fool would wolf down this novel. DeLillo's ode to the senses, to language, to the old neighborhood, to Cold War America, to the life of art, to garbage, and to our anxious future requires a slow reading, a savoring season. For a radiant month of the summer, I lugged the galley around like a newborn (less than three pounds without a slipcover) that I couldn't bear to put down. Consequently, my reading copy barely survived the adventure, becoming wine- and coffee-stained, bloated by lake water, and smeared with the guts of a walleyed pike.

Bart Schneider is editor ofHungry Mind Review. His novelBlue Bossa will be published in March by Viking Press.

FELA ANIKULAPO KUTI
by Christina Schmitt

Blame it on a misfiring pituitary gland, but I've always been a late bloomer, always falling for artists like Fela Kuti a little too hard and a little too late. By the time I first heard the rerelease of his Buy Africa, Kuti was already gone (he died this past August from AIDS-related heart failure at 58). But regardless of my own timing in the matter, the post-bop that Kuti learned at school while in London--which he later combined with James Brown and West African rhythms to make what he called "Afro-beat"--is simply the sexiest music I've heard this side of Al Green's Belle Album. His anti-establishment lyrics, often sung in pidgin English, make Tricky sound like a poseur.

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