Aby Wolf, K'naan, and P.O.S. top Artists of the Year '09

Paying homage to those who speak the language of creativity

It's this acidic material, cut with underlying sweetness and served up with a knowing smirk, that makes Daniels not just one of the top artists of the year but one of the funniest men in America. Busy being awesome, indeed.

Bryan Miller is a Minneapolis-based comedian and writer and a regular City Pages contributor.

Dan Chouinard

By Kevin Kling

Aby Wolf
Sharolyn B. Hagen
Aby Wolf
Tony Kushner
Joan Marcus
Tony Kushner

We are blessed with so many talented artists in Minnesota, gifted souls who could easily prosper in any other city but due to family, friends, or sense of community choose to live here. On purpose. One such artist is Dan Chouinard. He plays keyboards, piano, accordion, and organ. One night he's onstage with Peter Ostroushko, the next night it's torch songs with Prudence Johnson and Ann Reed or opera with Maria Jette or playing Tom Waits with Robert Berdahl or underscoring a reading by Patricia Hampl or conducting a service at Joan of Arc church.... He's everywhere—part of our cultural fabric, our Zelig of the ivories. I get the feeling that's important to Dan, to be part of his community.

He has wonderful theatrical sense and an endless repertoire. It's been said that genius isn't knowledge but the capacity for knowledge. If that's true, Dan not only has it, he remembers where he put it. If the Martians visited and left behind sheet music, I'd bring it to Dan. And there's more: He is also a master storyteller, reminiscent of Steve Allen on a roll—funny and clearly the smartest guy in the room. My favorite, however, is when he combines his gifts for his shows at the Fitzgerald: Mambo Italiano and The Sing-Along Show. Between Dan and the skyways, it's easier to explain to others why we live here. On purpose. Recently he was performing in northern Wisconsin. After the concert he played out in the lobby into the wee hours, singing along with my mom and her pals.

Okay, that did it. That's an artist of the year.

Kevin Kling is a Minneapolis playwright, author, and storyteller. His commentaries can be heard on NPR's All Things Considered.

K'naan

By Peter S. Scholtes

For all the crate-diggers who thought somebody should sample the Ethiopiques series, K'naan appears to be the first rapper to actually do it. His choice of Ethiopian soul from the '70s on his 2009 CD Troubadour could be nostalgic, since he's old enough to remember a peaceful Somalia, and that mysterious funk preceded the wars that have pitted those countries against each other ever since. But when K'naan loops the horns-and-guitar intro of Tlahoun Gessesse's "Yene Felagote" he makes a whole new world, layering organ, beats, and harmonies over a playful lyric about sending cash to, or receiving it from, loved ones back in Africa.

"15 Minutes Away" isn't a jingle for Western Union any more than Cast Away was an ad for Federal Express—it's about the nature of connection, purpose, and habit. The song's repetitiveness becomes hypnotic: You can imagine the Toronto singer recalling time spent in Minneapolis in the late '90s, still daunted by the United States and processing violence back home, jotting down his first song ideas in an apartment near Chicago and Lake:

This month has been the hardest
I couldn't afford some omelets
I'm broke like an empty promise
Sometimes when I'm in a meeting
And everyone else is eating
I feel so awkward asking
So I pretend like I am fasting

K'naan's is the immigrant song of many Minnesotans in 2009, which is partly why he played here twice this year. His wry chuckle at the end of that last line, like so much of Troubadour, suggests a proud humility that's rare in rap: Having nothing left to lose isn't the same as having nothing left to give. He's a masterful performer—his great album is still the one you walk away with in your head after a show—and he has been a voice of sanity on U.S. policy toward the Horn of Africa.

But comparisons to Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, and Fela (to whom he's paid tribute on recent downloadable mixtapes) would be laughable if he weren't simply a great maker of pop songs that transmit his sometimes traumatic experience into Eminem-sized bites for your emotional memory bank. For now, that's enough.

Peter S. Scholtes is a Twin Cities writer and teacher.

Stanley Tucci

By Ella Taylor

If ever there was a career that affirmed the variety, longevity, and sheer fun of being a character actor, it's Stanley Tucci's. Tucci has the sharp features and pursed lips of a born villain, which brought him a steady living in his youth playing thoroughly bad lots in film and television. In his prime Tucci, who looks like Peter Sellers (oddly enough, he played Stanley Kubrick in a biopic about the late British actor), has strayed fruitfully all over the characterological map. Like Sellers, he juggles saturnine, bovine, and impish seemingly while barely moving a muscle.

Tucci's scene-stealing turns in The Devil Wears Prada, as the gay fashion designer and mentor to Anne Hathaway—a kindly pussycat disguised as a world-weary industry player—flexed new acting muscles. This year Tucci stretched himself anew in two supporting roles that ran the gamut of naughty and nice. In Peter Jackson's adaptation of Alice Sebold's novel The Lovely Bones, the actor dyed his hair and mustache blond to play a suburban pedophile with his own private underground slaughterhouse. Tucci hints at rather than flags the dark heart of this mild-mannered good neighbor, and he plays both sides of the role with perfect sincerity. Against the grain, he's the only actor not overdoing it in this hyperventilating fantasy.

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