Artists Of The Year

We list the best of the best of 1997.

Being a "creative" woman always has its weird quirks that a very limited number of people can understand and be sympathetic to. In the last year, it's been such a godsend to talk to Lori and to discover that things that I take so personally are sometimes just par for the course. I get so inspired by how Lori's priorities are her love of music and her relationships; she's able to keep ego and pettiness out of her artistic life. And I love how she's a supporter of the arts as much as a participant.

It's easy to underestimate how much she's done for the music scene. I think she deserves a lot of credit for helping to build an underground network of people, which despite the corporate-music explosion still allows a lot of artists to create work and show/play/screen it without the mainstream's permission. Lori is brave, caring, solid, genuine, creative, and strong in a way that is totally unique.

Sarah Jacobson is a Bay Area filmmaker and the writer-producer-director ofMary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore.

STEVE ERICKSON
by Sarah Vowell

While the book on every amateur politico's lips this year was all about the "dark side" of entertainingly dead Kennedy Schmennedy and his kinky Camelot fun, I couldn't get Steve Erickson's painfully relevant American Nomad out of my head. This beautiful but bleak '96 campaign diary is almost hilariously no fun at all, requiring the reader to face up to "the meaning of America" circa last year. And who has the energy to talk about that? But the book kept on conversing: with those sad Bob Dole credit-card commercials, with Bob Dylan's lonesome new record, with The X-Files' Fox "I Want To Believe" Mulder when he confessed he no longer knows what he believes.

Erickson, a novelist, set out to cover "a year in the inner life of the country during the campaign" for Rolling Stone (a publication that hasn't had an inner life for years), got fired for doing exactly that, and decided to keep going, gluing together a poetic collage out of all kinds of voices--from Pat Buchanan to Patti Smith, from the memory of what Erickson calls Lincoln's "undaunted heart" to the reality of speeches by the likes of "the irrepressibly berserk Robert Dornan." This book contains the sanest, smartest writing about Bill Clinton I've ever read, which is to say that it is unsentimental and heartbreaking all at once, conceding that "he was bound to let us down" while reminding us that, on the night of the inauguration in '92, "cynicism wasn't smart; it was for cowards." Remember that? That one fine day when, for a few hours, all the nomads had a home?

Sarah Vowell is a Chicago writer whose bookRadio On: A Listener's Diary was published by St. Martin's Press.

RON SEXSMITH
by James Diers

Tucked somewhere between Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale on the rubbernecking Interscope Records roster, Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith is all but doomed. Never mind that the man is a tender, folk-tinted marvel whose superhuman melodicism owes zilch to Dylan (and whose sworn devotees include John Hiatt and Elvis Costello). Unless you're a yodeling chanteuse from Alaska, it seems the pop world still isn't entirely safe for softspoken troubadours.

Still, Sexsmith's Other Songs proved to be the most spellbinding midyear respite from 1997's trashy rock maelstrom, boasting toasty acoustic wonders that only crack co-producers Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake could have nurtured. The album's thumbnail poetics and understated Anglo-Canuck soul didn't defy this year's global/urban/electroni-ska mélange so much as they quietly mopped up the emotional mess left in its wake. If Nick Drake had lived to see Prozac, he would likely have envied Sexsmith's dour optimism and delicate revelations, sealed with a vibrato sent straight from Heaven, Ontario.

For Sexsmith, real truth lies in the simple things: city buses, cemeteries, circus clowns, honest mistakes, and that cute girl back in the fourth grade. "This warm and reckless kiss/...Nothing good could ever come from this," he figures with an air of ambivalent triumph on "Nothing Good," surely one of the most gorgeous modern-rock radio ditties that no DJ in the country got within a mile of all year long. No worries, though. If third-wave folk hits it big in '98, this gentle giant ought to have it made.

James Diers is a Minneapolis writer and frequent contributor to City Pages.

KEVIN SMITH
by John Pierson

I know it's completely uncool to shill for a former protégé at year's end. But given how the Twin Cities embraced Kevin Smith's influential debut Clerks three years ago; served as a location for the much-derided follow-up, Mallrats; and then launched a backlash against the widely acclaimed, back-to-his-indie-roots Chasing Amy, I can't resist.

Artist of the year? As far as the new breed of entrepreneurial young filmmakers goes, Smith is the paradigm of the year. The smart, crudely funny, heart-on-its-sleeve Chasing Amy started Kevin's comeback, at age 26, at Sundance in January. His new maturity still left room for hockey fights, Lando Calrissian, and, as always, oral-sex banter. If nothing else, Mallrats provided Amy's exceptional cast.

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