Artists Of The Year

We list the best of the best of 1997.

This isn't to say that my love affair with Kuti was always smooth. Since he was a practicing polygamist, marrying the 27 or so dancers and singers in his group back in '78, I wondered how much affection I could keep for an anarchist who embraced misogyny--and whether I'd be forced again to stand outside the music made for a culture that wasn't my own. So it was with relief when I later discovered that he divorced his wives in '85 because, as he put it, "no man has the right to own a woman's vagina"; and that Kuti's mother was at the forefront of Nigerian feminism. Soon I wished that I could have lived in Kuti's compound (a zone he called the Kalakuta Republic) with his band, the 30- to 40-piece outfit called Africa 70 (and later called Egypt 80). Or at least I would have hoped to live there in the time before the legendary '77 raid--when more than a thousand police officers stormed the pot-smoking and free-living refuge, breaking Kuti's hands and imprisoning him, and throwing his mother out a window to her death. Like I said, one's love affair with this great musician--unlike his music--cannot be smooth.

Christina Schmitt is A List editor at City Pages.

by Britt Robson

Matt Adams

Rick Bragg is, in the best sense of the phrase, a momma's boy. The luckiest of us have a father who pushes against us, and a mother behind us who provides the curve of character and compassion that lets us be. Rick Bragg was not lucky. He had an alcoholic father who pushed too hard when he pushed at all, who brutalized and then abandoned Bragg, his two brothers, and, most of all, his mother.

All Over But the Shoutin', Bragg's memoir of growing up in the pine woods of Alabama, tells of a father who killed a man in the Korean War and then drank to forget it, brawling with the things he wanted to love. But most of the book is about the woman who pretended to forget to eat so that her children would have enough, who absorbed the shrapnel of a blasted life so that her sons could be spared. The painstaking, mundane, heroic sacrifice of parenthood is one of the hardest things for any writer to capture. Bragg has done it better than anyone I have ever read. There is an organic, sagacious magic to his writing. His prose has the curve and compassion his mother willed him, clean and plumb as finish carpentry, with a plain grace immune to artifice. A 1996 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his feature writing in the New York Times, he knows how to feed and restrain a real-life melodrama, how pain and poignancy resonate longest from the simple truth.

Others have compared All Over But the Shoutin' to Melville and Faulkner. I only know that my stomach knotted as I read Bragg describe the violent pall that hung over his childhood home, and that I wept with happiness reading of his mother's first escalator, her first restaurant dessert tray, and the shy smile that obscured her toothless gums after he coaxed her to New York to watch him accept his Pulitzer. From the first paragraph of the prologue--in which a redbird attacks its reflection in a mirror until both are smeared with blood--I knew this was a great book. When I finished I knew it was a masterpiece.

Britt Robson is an associate editor at City Pages.

by Robert Christgau

Although I normally teach college because I enjoy intimacy with my youngers, my elders were there waiting when I took over a graduate course in "cultural reporting" this fall. I learned plenty while re-encountering the masters who lured me into my trade--for instance, how much of the journalism I treasure, including early Kael and Macdonald and Sontag's Notes on Camp, was written for journals that paid even worse than this one. But the permanent revelation was A.J. Liebling.

New Yorker stalwart Liebling was not one for noble poverty. But neither did he have much use for the bourgeoisie, except insofar as it underwrote French cooking. Instead, he specialized in what his bourgeois colleagues would call low life, including a pre-rock & roll study of the Brill Building. Plus, oh yes, press criticism, such as "Death on the One Hand," in which he described the cavalcade of phony experts who took over Gotham's dailies during the news blackout that separated Stalin's fatal stroke from his actual demise. But however hilariously he preached (and practiced) just-the-facts orthodoxy, Liebling's best writing was always full of Liebling, all 300 pounds of his unmistakable first person. The touchstone is "Ahab and Nemesis," an account of the 1955 Archie Moore-Rocky Marciano fight in which the African American represents art and reason and his white opponent takes the role of nature. It ends with Liebling fressing a "smoked-salmon sandwich on a soft onion roll" while two cops discuss Kafka's Metamorphosis. How low can you go?

Robert Christgau is a senior editor at the Village Voice.

by Sarah Jacobson

Besides my mom, who is my lifelong hero, my biggest hero of 1997 is Lori Barbero from Babes in Toyland. In the last year, I've gotten to know her pretty well and I'm always totally blown away by her kindness and her honesty, no matter what weird circumstances are swirling around her. Once I was staying at her house when I found out that my film Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore had gotten a really harsh review from a very big, important magazine. I was totally devastated. Lori said to me, "That's nothing. Babes in Toyland has gotten such nasty, horrible reviews that once we made a T-shirt out of one." She was one of the few people who could have brought me back to reality, speaking from real experience.

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