Artists of the Year

Hurricanes, war, avian flu, locust plagues, that annoying song you couldn't get out of your head. It wasn't the greatest of all possible years. Nor was it halfway decent. But to prove that it wasn't all bad, we asked 29 writers to rave about the ar

Lovingly shot in the half-dead format of 16mm (and transferred, ambivalently, to high-def video), The Joy of Life gently reflects on the dual function of cinema: to preserve the past while foretelling the present's imminent demise. Like a master hypnotist, Olson (a native of Minnesota) coaxes us into slowing our frenzied pace, into meditating at the sight of tree branches and telephone wires or a bridge over water--nature and culture staring each other down, daring one another to survive. This is a small, simple film with the rare ability to alter one's brain chemistry, to enhance one's perceptions of the world. Or so it can under the right circumstances, i.e., projected on a big screen in a darkened room for a gathering of strangers--another joy of life that feels at grave risk of falling away.

Rob Nelson is film editor at City Pages.

 

 

Kanye West
By Britt Robson
My ego wanted to make an unconventional choice for Artist of the Year. Someone like Ministry's Alain Jourgensen, whose Rantology has become my go-to anti-Bush colonic when torture and wiretapping suffuse the news. Or 87-year-old Bebo Valdes, whose Bebo de Cuba may be the most sublime swath of Afro-Cuban music I've ever heard.

But 2005 belongs to Kanye West, and not just because he was perhaps the only artist with enough stones and eminence to call out the president on national network television. "George Bush doesn't care about black people," was, in the aftermath of Katrina, both patently obvious and something that needed to be said.

But almost everyone forgets that a few sentences earlier, West had indicted his own hypocrisy when it came to caring for Katrina's victims. It gets in the way of the pervasive critical thumbnail view that West is laden with hubris. Deep into its own midlife crisis, the September Spin essentially called him an uppity nigga in a hilariously conflicted review (graded B+!) of Late Registration, the disc I played and enjoyed the most in 2005. Even the rave reviews couldn't bring themselves to say that Late was every bit as good as last year's spectacular College Dropout. But history will.

Hubristic compared to whom: Jay-Z? Ludacris? Nelson Mandela? His few battle rhymes on Late are spit with the vigor of LL Cool J on Prozac, and most of the allusions to his recent success are delivered with a "pinch me I'm dreamin'" vibe. So his "arrogance" must be his willingness to get dirty wading into messy issues of race and class. "Gold Digger" is gleefully misogynistic and then gleefully isn't. "Diamonds from Sierra Leone" is both a PC scold and a bling-tastic rave-up. "Crack Music" jumbles a paranoid conspiracy theory, a downward spiral of racial self-hatred, commercial sellouts, and political redemption. "Roses" contrasts the successful AIDS treatments that iconic baller Magic Johnson can afford with West's poor grandmother dying in a hospital bed because "she was just a secretary who worked for the church for 35 years." And at the end of the skit-series "Broke Phi Broke," Kanye's kicked out of the frat for owning a new pair of shoes.

With an assist from co-producer Jon Brion, the music on Late Registration is more gloriously complex than the lyrics, opening up fresh facets on each new listen, like a Rubik's Disco Ball. West scours the crates for seamlessly simpatico Gil Scott-Heron, Etta James, and Curtis Mayfield samples; invites Nas, Jay-Z, Maroon 5's Adam Levine, and a dozen other notables to the party; and enlists a full complement of strings and brass.

Next year the critics will be saying that his new platter can't top the last two. I suggest he call it Extra Credit.

Britt Robson is a senior editor at City Pages.

 

Don Asmussen
By Greil Marcus
A banner headline in the San Francisco Chronicle, January 14, 2001:

ASHCROFT: "I'LL ALLOW BLACK ABORTIONS"
Bush's Attorney General Nominee Meets Halfway
Nominee's openness to compromise shows that Bush's promise of a new era of bipartisanship is heartfelt.

Don Asmussen is not a political cartoonist; he's the Chronicle's twice-weekly comic-strip artist, and in 2005, in the strip now called Bad Reporter--you can find it archived at sfgate.com--all the stops came out. There were times when you could feel him going through a period where nothing connected, when his outrage was blocked, when his favorite--i.e., most loathed--'70s bands stopped playing in his head, and then it all came back in a rush, for weeks on end. As with "The Bottom of the Seventh Seal," where the Angel of Death and/or Retirement comes for Barry Bonds. Bonds's trainer tells the slugger to challenge the Scythe-man to chess; losing to Bonds's superpowered right arm, the Angel subpoenas both Bonds and God. "God almighty," says a government lawyer, "did you use the clear to help you during your triumphs over evil?" "I'm not here to talk about the past," the Big Man says. "Make sure my son is in the picture," says Bonds, at God's right, his arm around his cute kid. "Mine, too," says God, holding up a three-foot Jesus on a stick.

Nobody ever smiles in an Asmussen strip; everyone is keeping a straight face in the presence of absolute absurdity. As a few weeks ago, with this shock headline: "KANSAS VOTES 4-1 TO ALLOW INTELLIGENT DESIGN." But it's the group, not the state, and somehow that's infinitely, or perhaps the word is transcendently, worse, or creepier, or simply more: "1970s Rock Band Now Says We're All More Than Just 'Dust in the Wind.'" "Scientists Warn Against Calling 1970s Rock Anthems 'Science,'" reads a follow-up story. "Only Foreigner's 'Cold as Ice' Holds Up." (They were an infinitely, or transcendently, better band.)

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