Artists of the Year

Until this year. While the aptly titled No More Drama isn't the most musically accomplished collection of Blige's ten-year career, it's the sort of brave, emotionally transformative work that ultimately distinguishes art from craft. And because no female vocalist since Aretha Franklin is a more empathetic force of nature than Blige, we feel her joy as thoroughly as we have felt her pain. At least a dozen times this year, I've blasted Blige's "Family Affair" as a means of temporarily escaping the listlessness that 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan have wrought. "C'mon everybody, get on up," she commands. "We're celebratin' no more drama in our lives."

Move on to Blige as a cautionary elder invoking her life story on "Where I've Been." Listen to how she elevates sappy love songs like "Beautiful Day," "Flying Away," and "Never Been" into honey on the tea leaves of your life. Pay attention to the erudition of her poem "Forever No More," and the powerful modesty of the gospel coda "Testimony."

Mary J. Blige turned 30 this year. Long may she smile.

Britt Robson is a staff writer at City Pages and writes regularly about music for the Washington Post.

 

Jonathan Franzen
By Will Hermes

 

Twenty-five million words. That's a rough estimate of my intake of news on the new world order after September 11. Each day I bought my papers from Raash, the kindly and nervous Pakistani dude who owns the Mobil station near my house (and who sadly seemed to grow more nervous whenever I tried to make small talk to allay his nervousness). Each day I probed Web sites, swapped e-mails. Each day I wallowed in cable news. All in hope of gleaning some fuller understanding of human motivation that could help me accept what was coming to pass.

But more than all those words, it was the 568 pages of Jonathan Franzen's National Book Award-winning novel, The Corrections (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), that cast the brightest light on that point. It didn't deal with international terrorism--although the portrayal of a Lithuanian warlord-wannabe (who asks "What do I do...when the invader is a system and a culture, not an army?") resonated enough to get Franzen talking-head time on news shows in the wake of 9/11. What The Corrections does is map the psychological topography of an American family at the end of an amoral, free-trading, drug-gulping 20th Century. And it does so with such harsh, unsentimental precision that Franzen's empathy feels hard-won and revelatory. It's Don DeLillo's Underworld strapped on the therapist's couch. It's that culturally marginal yet still-essential thing, a Great Novel, and not incidentally American.

Strangely, Franzen became notorious this year less for the book itself than because he dared to admit his reservations about being marketed via the Oprah Book Club. The result was a brouhaha in which the pop-culture demigod canceled his scheduled appearance on her show while the literary world tut-tuttingly defended their powerful patron. "She's picked some good books, but she's picked enough schmaltzy, one-dimensional ones that I cringe myself, even though I think she's really smart and she's fighting the good fight," Franzen had confessed at Powell's Books in Oregon.

Give me a break--what casually discerning book fan could deny the truth in that? The author even got denounced by the Lithuanian government for what they felt was a disrespectful portrait of their country. No fatwa from anyone yet. But it's reassuring to know literature can still raise a fuss. Will Hermes is a senior editor at Spin.

 

Alan Sparhawk
By Matthew Wilder

 

I have been advised by my editors to state up-front: We've printed far too many articles about this guy's band, and there are lots of worthy locals who haven't gotten enough ink. So blame me, not them. I'm not an indie-rock guy; I don't read the indie-rock press, and I couldn't tell Girlfrendo from Goldfrapp from Mandy Moore. Those in the know need read no further: All I know is that this actor friend of mine gave me a CD that--can we still use this corny phrase in the post-Almost Famous era?--changed my life.

Alan Sparhawk, the apparent creative center of the Duluth-based Low, has single-handedly restored a spiritual dimension to the thoroughly debased landscape of pop music. As you may know, Low's basic technique consists of: unsuppressed, unironic, unashamed emotivity; sugary harmonies; a throbbing bass sound that evokes the feeling of a passing oil tanker; and, most important, a tempo so slow that one might think it unable to sustain life. The rigor of Low's extension of individual notes--seemingly ignorant of "correct" time signatures--is what seems an eccentricity of form, but which paradoxically produces its opposite: the physical, real-time verification of the existence of human souls.

I direct plays, and I have put Low songs in everything I've done since first I heard the band. This is not white-hipster stuff: This is the 21st-century equivalent of Bach's O Endless and Eternal Night. These musicians--and especially Sparhawk--are major, major artists. Seeing Sparhawk run to the back of L.A.'s El Rey theater to sell his own T-shirts at the end of a recent show was like seeing Degas walk from table to table selling napkin drawings at McDonald's.

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