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

Aby Wolf
Sharolyn B. Hagen

City Pages' Artists of the Year issue is our annual thank-you to the artists of the world, the imaginative souls who inspire us with their creativity and show us how to see life in a different way.

So why, you're wondering, is Brett Favre on the cover of this year's issue? Athletes aren't artists, you may say, so why are we giving so much space to some sports guy who already gets more than his share of publicity?

You may say that—or you could just lighten up.

Artistry comes in many forms, and anyone who has seen Favre painting the field with his passes, dancing from the grasp of a blitzing linebacker, or singing out audibles at the line knows that a true master is at work. As a quarterback, Favre is a poet, renowned for his creativity, and by leading the Vikings to an 11-3 record so far this year he has helped Minnesota sports fans, at least, see life in a different way.

So we have given Favre pride of place in our 2009 Artists of the Year issue, but we also pay copious tribute to traditional artists—the poets, painters, dancers, writers, and musicians who have made our lives unimaginably richer, and have done so usually without the adoration of millions or, for that matter, a paycheck of millions.

Yeah, we hear you saying, but why couldn't you at least put a real artist on the cover?

Didn't you hear us? The Vikings are 11-3! —Matthew Smith

Aby Wolf

By TD Mischke

I'm a sucker for any young woman slinging a guitar over her shoulder and stepping out into the windy world looking to say something new, looking to stir something up, looking to place that haunting, smoky glow on the hard edges of things. With eyes as clear as her voice is strong, skin as smooth as the sweet delivery of those achingly soulful notes, she is a reminder of the loveliness still pulsating in the midst of a worn and ragged world.

Meet Minneapolis artist Aby Wolf. She sings and I slip effortlessly into an otherworld, a place so far removed from the angst of a fretful day that, for a moment, I wholly surrender to the honest purity in things.

She could pass as a twin sis to French actress Marion Cotillard, with those same dark, penetrating eyes that tell you what she's about to sing is simply true.

She hails from the rolling Mississippi bluff country of northwest Illinois and names it, not other songwriters, as her greatest influence. The serene simplicity she knew there is the quiet energy she channels into her most potent songs. She is a painter, and she writes like one. Her imagery appears as clear, broad brushstrokes of oil, until her guitar and those angelic harmonies meld and it's all sent tumbling into a watercolor sea of heart and soul.

Songs are mysterious, ephemeral things that ought not be written about in too much detail. Instead, go to Aby's MySpace page and take in the video of her singing "Keara" at the Cedar. The next day, round about the same time, that song will find its way back into your head, and you'll soon wish everyone you met spoke with the same clarity and depth you witnessed in those eyes.

TD Mischke is a City Pages columnist and webcaster who can be heardweekdays from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. at www.citypages.com.

Tony Kushner

By Quinton Skinner

Perhaps it was mixed feelings about the size of the Guthrie Theater's influence over the local scene that spurred such a range of reactions to its Kushner Celebration. Indeed, on the opening night of The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures (a world premiere commissioned by the Guthrie), a whiff of schadenfreude was in the air after word came down that Tony Kushner was revising the thing deep into rehearsals.

There were those who wouldn't have minded seeing the Big Blue Battleship steer itself right into a reef of hubris and ambition. Luckily, though, a solid majority was more interested in seeing a good play or two, and the trilogy of works by Kushner was a revelation. It would be hard to imagine three works more different from one another, yet still beating with the same wounded heart and searching intellect.

Caroline, or Change arrived first, an operatic musical about a washerwoman in the 1960s Deep South. Gaudily virtuosic, it drew together metaphors of race, loss, and suffering. In the process, it established local actress Greta Oglesby as nothing less than a star, her Caroline riding currents of regret, frustration, and stoicism that made the big numbers feel as though the earth was falling from beneath our feet.

Up in the Dowling Studio, Tiny Kushner, a series of short plays, was delivered by an ace local cast that elevated what could have been disconnected oddities into a funny, brainy, satisfying night.


It was Intelligent Homosexual, though, that had the country buzzing. It was a big, sprawling work that, incongruently, deployed an unexpected naturalism in telling the story of a family wracked by aging, infidelity, lost ideals, and general hypercharged nuttiness. Kushner seemed to lack total faith in it at the time, rewriting amid bet-hedging that it would appear in New York in a different form.

Whatever happens to it, Intelligent Homosexual as we saw it was a passionate, engaging, challenging work that stacks up against anything in American theater. It validated both Kushner's stature as a writer and the Guthrie's faith in him (as well as its brass balls in filling three simultaneous stages with his work).

Quinton Skinner is City Pages' theater critic.

Padgett Powell

By Melissa Maerz

Some wise old Chinese guy once said that a man who asks a question is a fool for five minutes, but a man who never asks questions is a fool forever. If that's the case, Padgett Powell must be a genius: The guy never stops asking questions. Every single sentence in his latest novel, The Interrogative Mood, is a question, and every last one is hilarious and sad and political and personal and ridiculous and capable of making your imagination explode like a lizard in a microwave. Like: "If you could have feathers instead of hair, would you?" And: "If you could see a large-animal trainer mauled...would you prefer to see the mauling done by a lion, a tiger, or a bear?"

Now, this book might sound like a great parlor game for stoners—and it is—but it's so many other things, too: a refutation of the idea that a novel must be a narrative, a war on ambivalence, a celebration of reckless open-mindedness, a reminder that the simple joy of wonder can still light up your brain like a spaceship. Some questions are great absurdist jokes. (My favorite: "If you were to be executed and, by standard practice in executions, were offered anything you wanted as a last meal, and instead of ordering lobster...you said, 'I want boiled kittens and puppies, and I want them boiled alive, like crabs,' do you think there would be amusement, and do you think they would comply?") Others test your capacity for empathy. ("Will you believe me," asks the nameless narrator, "if I tell you that I am a little fragile, psychologically speaking, and that there is an eagle over the woods outside my window, and every day that I see him gliding around...gives me a small but palpable lift, and not being him a small quickening of depression?") Even the most banal questions ("Are you going to be happier in the future?" "Is there any hope?") feel like precious little hand mirrors, reflecting your deepest hopes and fears back to you.

As for answers, there are none. That's the whole point: The possibilities are endless—in the book, as in the real world. Somewhere in those open-ended questions is a plea: Don't fear uncertainty. Dream bigger, dream weirder. Life has so much more to offer. All you have to do is ask.

Melissa Maerz is a New York-based writer and former music editor of City Pages.


By Andrea Swensson

Much has been written about Stef Alexander's banner year—his success playing before the masses everywhere from Minneapolis to Los Angeles to Hamburg, Germany, plus glowing praise from Spin, MTV, Pitchfork, and more. But those accomplishments are only a gilded frame around the real cause for celebration: having a forward-thinking artistic mind capable of crafting albums like this year's accurately named Never Better.

It's hard to say if there is a "Minneapolis sound" anymore, but if there is, it might sound something like Alexander's tracks on Never Better. It's a love letter to the city, with shout-outs to fixed-gear bikers, the Triple Double Tuesday DJ nights at the Triple Rock, his friends who helped him along the way—all sung and recited over a mash of snare drum beats, heavy electric guitars, distortion, twinkling organs, plastic cups, sniffles, and whatever other noises and moments Alexander happened to capture and splice into song. Part indie rap, part punk rock, and part playful, no-holds-barred experimentation, Never Better pushes P.O.S. even further out of the confines of traditional hip hop and toward something groundbreaking and undeniably fresh.

Combine his latest effort with his reputation for contributing to both the local punk scene (with Building Better Bombs) and rap scene (with Doomtree), and it starts to add up: Could we have ever guessed that our newest Rhymesayers breakout artist would show up on MTV this year, singing a note-perfect version of "Why Go" by Pearl Jam over a beat he made up on the spot? Well, yeah. We could.


Andrea Swensson is City Pages' music editor.

Michael Yonkers

By David Hansen

For nearly four decades, Michael Yonkers was quietly renovating the musical landscape, and no one knew it. Outside a cloister of avant-garde enthusiasts, Yonkers's work was the stuff of shadows and kept secrets. Hard to believe, especially after a Sub Pop reissue of his masterpiece Microminiature Love and soaring collaborations with local rockers the Blind Shake turned the Yonkers name into sacred syllables.

But as his cultural currency appreciated, his health faltered. Yonkers has suffered from an excruciating back condition since the 1970s, one that has him bedridden often, and which has turned his increasingly rare live appearances into ghostly overtures of physical agony. This summer, just as his latest release with the Blind Shake was preparing to drop, the announcement was made: Yonkers's condition had worsened. Even standing upright had become an impossibility. Yonkers was bedridden, nearly paralyzed with pain. His time on the stage, after almost half a century, was over.

There are great risks intrinsic to being a musical outlander. The promise of fame is gravely decreased. The chance for a life's work to go completely unheard skyrockets. But Yonkers is our champion example of the dividends such elusiveness can pay. He's beloved and revered as a technical craftsman, a performance virtuoso, and a musical thinker of the highest caliber, and his works are now canonical touchstones of discord, mansions of otherworldly elegance and fragility, and the listening lives of many thousands have been made stranger and more beautiful for his touch. Will Yonkers's retirement stick? It's unknowable—his life, much like his career, is a Rocky-esque, come-from-behind triumph. For now, Yonkers stands as a monument to the suspicion that becomes truer and truer the more one pays attention: Invariably, the finest work is done by the intellectual outlaw.

David Hansen is a Twin Cities writer. He is a regular contributor to City Pages and its music blog, Gimme Noise.

Matthew and Michael Dickman

By Steve Mcpherson

Matthew Dickman's poetry is in love with life and with all things living and, most specifically, you. You hear about poems being a "celebration" of this or that, but they ain't shit because anyone present at a Matthew Dickman reading featuring his newish poem "Your" will understand that this is not just a poem that's celebrating—it's a poem that wants to undress you slowly and have its way with you. "Your/Ankles make me want to party,/want to sit and beg and roll over," it begins, working its way up to an ass that "is a shopping mall at Christmas,/a holy place" and shoulders "each a separate bowl of rice/steaming and covered in soy sauce." By the end of his reading this past summer at St. Olaf the crowd was whooping and giddy: Every guy wished he could have written that and every woman was flushed. "This is why I never follow him," admitted his twin brother, Michael, who had read earlier.

If Matthew's poetry is fireworks and a big brass band, Michael's is the darkness lying down on the ground beneath the exploding sky, the empty street after the parade passes. "I didn't make my brain," he writes in "We Did Not Make Ourselves,"

but I'm helping
to finish it

Carefully stacking up everything I made next to everything I ruined
in broad daylight in bright

The poems in Michael's debut collection, The End of the West, are like that: carefully stacked from lines, many of them only a word long—a catalog made from the same Portland, Oregon, upbringing that inspires his brother's overflowing odes to everything from public parks to Jay-Z's Black Album in his debut, All-American Poem. For them, poetry isn't a dodge or a pose—it's life and flesh and blood. Perhaps poet Dorianne Laux put it best in her poem "Savages," inspired by the Dickmans and their friends: "They buy poetry like gang members/buy guns—for aperture, caliber/heft and defense."

Steve McPherson is a Twin Cities musician and writer. He is a regular contributor to City Pages, including his Gimme Noise blog column, Point of Departure.

Andrea Carlson

By Suzy Greenberg

My favorite artists are the ones who can't stand still. They are always driving their work to that next place. This year Minneapolis artist Andrea Carlson has driven her work all the way to cannibalism. With her flair for finding meaning within meaning, cannibalism isn't just a tasty snack—the work is layered with flavors. She speaks of cultural cannibalism as a "metaphor for the assimilation and consumption of cultural identity."

Carlson's own cultural heritage plays a large role in her art. The work often teeters between her Native American and European ancestry. She has a remarkable ability to portray a seemingly universal cultural style. Viewers always seem able to read their own cultural interpretation into her pieces.


In her current series of paintings, "VORE," objects and words float above Carlson's signature stylized backgrounds. Some pieces depict museum objects; others contain titles of cannibalism exploitation films. In Cannibal Ferox (named after the film), statues hold human "drumsticks" with mouths agape, ready to chomp.

In addition to taking on a fierce subject, this year Carlson made us proud by landing a show at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (New York) and booking upcoming solo exhibitions at the Plains Art Museum (Fargo), Tweed Art Museum (Duluth), and Bockley Gallery (Minneapolis).

In a year of freaks and geeks coming of age, it seems fitting that the cannibals should get their day.

Suzy Greenberg is executive director of Soo Visual Arts Center.

Piotr Szyhalski

By Diane Mullin

Always challenging our assumptions, Piotr Szyhalski has once again taken on our violent present and laid bare its dangerous absurdities. Earlier this year in a small gallery at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Szyhalski restaged his Theater of Operations in full force and new form. He called this iteration The Second Sonic Reenactment of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and he did more than reprise his 2008 project—he dug even further into his latest investigation of our perceptions of war.

Theater of Operations was first presented in the historic Allen Theatre in Cleveland. Throughout the vacant theater space, Szyhalski, an MCAD media arts professor, created a sonic installation that capitalized on the rich, cavernous lobby space, mining its aura of anticipation (as the entryway to the other world of the theater) and its utter emptiness. The sound piece, based on Erik Satie's composition for a theater lobby, pushes the unreal, or maybe the surreal, character of war, and it's a gateway to the video piece inside the theater itself. Installed behind barely raised curtains, the images on the screens placed on the stage floor were obscured from full view, drawing viewers to peek beneath the curtains.

As is his usual practice, Szyhalski used found images from the media, in this case movies of military operations produced by U.S. soldiers now available on YouTube. The soundtrack is a transcript of the videos read by a series of "actors," including the artist's colleagues, wife, and daughter. These non-soldier-like voices only add to the strangeness of the experience. At MCAD, Szyhalski seized on the tightness and coldness of the small gallery space to interrogate yet another ubiquitous and controversial image of war—the returning casket of the fallen warrior. He aligned a series of box-like video monitors alluding to a coffin and turned them face to the floor, forcing viewers to slide beneath the coffin/screens to watch the videos.

Szyhalski's work always fascinates—the seemingly endless layers draw us in and turn us around. If you missed his latest Twin Cities installation, you can make up for it next summer when he unveils his next work in the MCAD/McKnight Fellowship exhibition. It is sure to be eye-opening.

Diane Mullin is associate curator at the Weisman Art Museum.

Sally Rousse

By Linda Shapiro

A rogue ballerina who exposes her nerve endings to the world every time she performs, Sally Rousse floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee. Her tiny body contains multitudes. She can deploy her pointe shoes as weapons, attacking movement like a commando, or flit with the protean grace and vulnerability of a wild forest creature. The speed and boldness of her dancing are matched only by her elegance and wit.

Rousse's voracious curiosity has led her to study aerial work, achieve accreditation in Brain Gym and reiki, and explore alternative dance forms like contact improvisation. A co-founder, artistic associate, and dancer with the James Sewell Ballet, this year she has also produced two major works of choreography, performed with the outré dance collective Mad King Thomas, improvised to poetry by Garrison Keillor, restaged a duet with cellist Laura Sewell for JSB, and hosted the 2009 Sage Awards.

Her Paramount to My Footage, commissioned by Walker Art Center and the Southern Theater, was a foray into audacious autobiography. An airborne Rousse slammed herself repeatedly into a movie screen, which later featured video footage from her life behind sumptuous dancing. Fueled by a Fellini-like mix of fantasy, farce, and intimate revelation, Paramount was smart, gutsy, and hugely entertaining. Her ballet Petrouchka for JSB, a re-imagining of Mikhail Fokine's 1911 production for the Ballet Russes, enhanced the tragic puppet's emotional range by strapping him into an aerial harness that sent him literally flying, crumbling, plunging into despair.

Rousse, a multitasking mother of two, also writes about dance with intelligence and enthusiasm. An introspective artist with celebrity allure, she is forging a style of her own while launching (and sometimes hurtling) classical ballet into the 21st century.


Linda Shapiro is a freelance writer who writes about dance and performance.

Chad Daniels

By Bryan Miller

The crowd goes quiet, eking out a few begrudging chuckles when comedian Chad Daniels asserts, "I don't think fat people should get to use wheelchairs." Undeterred by the cold reaction, he adds, "Stare all you want—I'm not taking it back."

This exchange, captured on his sharp new album, Busy Being Awesome (recorded at Acme Comedy Co. and released by Minneapolis's own Stand Up! Records), perfectly encapsulates Daniels's take-no-prisoners style of comedy. The Fergus Falls native is not interested in Minnesota Nice. With his onstage swagger and arsenal of incisive, uproarious material, he practically bullies the audience into loving him.

"With the crowd and me, it's an 'I'm not going to take your shit, you're not going to take mine' deal," he says. "Let's just agree that we're going to hate each other a few times during this show."

Daniels's aggressive comedy has earned him some of the most coveted achievements in the industry—not only a major-label CD but his own Comedy Central half-hour special and, most recently, a spot on The Tonight Show, the big brass ring of the standup world. His set on Conan O'Brien's show was a prime example of what sets Daniels apart from the pack: Plenty of comics have jokes about marriage and children, but few speak about the experience with such uncompromising honesty. "My dad abandoned our family when I was 15 and my sister was 10, and now that I have a boy and girl of my own, I look at them every day and I think, 'How in the hell...did it take him that long?'"

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

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.


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.

More than most, Tucci understands the power of restraint—but he can cut loose as needed, too. This summer he was a gas as the adoring, much shorter husband of Meryl Streep's gigantic Julia Child in Julie and Julia, the kind of male helpmeet so rare in Hollywood movies, who takes genuine pleasure in her successes, sticks around through the failures, and is willing to follow her to the ends of the earth if that would keep her happy. Enjoying themselves without reserve, Tucci and Streep come off as the improbable, utterly adorable couple of the year.

Ella Taylor is a Los Angeles-based critic who writes for NPR.org, Village Voice Media, Elle magazine, and other publications. She is a frequent contributor to City Pages.

Stephen King

By Kerri Miller

Yeah, yeah, I know: Stephen King needs more gushy praise like Tom Petters needs more whistleblowers. The guy's a bazillionaire with enough clout to frighten off even the best editor. His latest novel, Under the Dome, is 1,072 pages! Need I say more?

But King surprised me when he came to the Fitzgerald Theater to be interviewed for the Talking Volumes author series in November.

First, I thought he'd be creepy. Not hair-on-the-palms-of-his-hands creepy, just off somehow—too accustomed to living in the half-gloom of his aberrant imagination. He wasn't. In the green room before the show he munched on a big slab of berry tart while we talked about dogs and books and where he'd go for a late supper. Compare that with James Ellroy, who confessed to me before the show that he does little else in his life but write and make love.

I had also expected King to exhibit a certain kind of been there, done that ennui. After all, he's one of the few authors in the world who can tell the publishers to stuff it when they start making noises about a book tour. Yet he told me backstage that he was grateful that we had "gone to all this trouble." Did he really not know that we could have sold out the Fitz three times over? People flew in from Kansas and Toronto for that show.

But most of all, I didn't think he'd be so much fun. Offstage, he dished some pretty interesting dirt on the publishing biz and certain authors (enough said about that). Onstage, he let me gently mock him when he told the story of running out to buy his wife the romantic gift of a hair dryer to celebrate the sale of his first novel. And when the conversation turned to music, he lit up, revealing that when he retreats to his writing shack in the woods each day, he gets in the mood by blasting the daylights out of Judas Priest and Metallica.


Sinister clowns and nightmarish ghosts aside, that's a guy you gotta love.

Kerri Miller is the host of Mid-Morning on MPR from 9 to 11 a.m. and of Talking Volumes. The next Talking Volumes show is in May with Monica Ali.

Nico Muhly

By Rod Smith

Unlike a slew of other countries, the U.S. rarely celebrates classical composers hard or long enough to turn them into full-blown celebrities. Our last was Leonard Bernstein. Sure, Phillip Glass's film work is making his music ubiquitous. But how many of the people who know the 72-year-old, minimalist role model from, say, the Watchmen soundtrack could pick him out in a lineup? And how much does Glass care?

His assistant is another matter. Already prime media fodder in New York, Nico Muhly has all the requisite attributes for nationwide household-name status: charm, good looks, an easy way with audiences, killer conducting style, willingness to travel (and to work his perineum off). Whether or not the 28-year-old wunderkind becomes our next Bernstein remains to be seen, but he is already the face of Classical 2.0—no small feat given the field's crowdedness.

Speaking of 2.0, Muhly enjoys a ton of advantages Bernstein never dreamed of. He blogs with perceptiveness and style, tweets like a demon, boasts a massive YouTube presence, and even owns the means of production. His Bedroom Community label, co-founded with frequent collaborator Valgeir Sigurðsson, serves as a vector for much of Muhly's work and for releases by like-minded souls from all over the musical spectrum.

Plus, he's a compelling instrumentalist and utterly fearless composer, willing to try anything from writing a short opera around William Strunk's Elements of Style to working with the likes of Björk, Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons), and Grizzly Bear—who he played with at All Tomorrow's Parties weekend in England days before his Minneapolis debut last April. The crowd at that packed Southern Theater show—featuring Muhly alongside his equally youthful muse and interpreter of choice: viola monster Nadia Sirota—encountered the composer at his energetically laid-back best, using his laptop and MIDI controller as much as the piano, and spontaneously cracking a multitude of jokes. As for our feelings about a classical dude who wears makeup and says "fuck" onstage? In the 21st century? Uh, how could we fucking resist?

Rod Smith is a Minneapolis-based writer, educator, composer, and DJ.

Greta Oglesby

By Marianne Combs

I first saw Greta Oglesby perform several years ago in King Lear with Ten Thousand Things. She was Kent, a nobleman loyal to Lear, who spoke his mind freely and bluntly. Even though I saw this play in a men's prison, with the lights up full, Oglesby had me convinced of the solidity and strength of her character throughout. I've been a fan of her work ever since, and have enjoyed seeing the breadth of her talent onstage in such productions as Crowns (at the Guthrie) and The Piano Lesson (with Penumbra Theater). But it wasn't until this year that I saw her perform a role that put to use all of her abilities—dramatic, comedic, and musical—in one powerful package.

In Tony Kushner's Caroline, or Change, Oglesby gave what Kushner himself said was the definitive performance of his character. Caroline is a woman weighed down by her worldly burdens while trying desperately to stay true to her values. Oglesby's portrayal took audiences on a roller coaster of emotions, from the heights of her indignity down to the most nuanced notes of her tenderness. Never before in my years of theatergoing have I been part of such a unanimous standing ovation, as more than a thousand people rose to their feet in what felt like a single motion. Greta Oglesby is an artist of the year not because she suddenly became more than she already was, but because she finally got the part that allowed us all to see just what she's capable of.

Marianne Combs reports on the arts for Minnesota Public Radio. She also writes "State of the Arts," MPR's blog exploring everything from theater and dance to fashion and architecture.

Tamara Ober

By Caroline Palmer

Tamara Ober is full of surprises. As a member of Zenon Dance Company, the radiant Sage Award-winning performer has proven many times her ability to interpret works from a variety of choreographic perspectives, but this year she fully revealed her own with the solo performance Pipa, a Fringe Festival favorite (not to mention a first runner-up for best English-language production at the Montreal Fringe).


Ober wrote the text, composed the music, and danced in this original work about a young girl's fantastical journey through fear and wonderment, with only hand-drawn maps from her mother to guide the way. This was tricky subject matter—Pipa could have ended up as an overly precious reflection on growing up, but Ober's subtle portrayal of the tension between brightly colored childhood daydream and darker adult reality was altogether believable for its balanced blend of optimism and disillusionment.

Although she spoke in Pipa, Ober's body really told the story. She is a robust and muscular dancer with a keen sense of her relationship to the ground, but in this work she imbued her movement with the antsy awkwardness of a pre-tween, tormented by curiosity and impatient to consume as much information about the world as possible. As Ober's character tried to tame her restlessness (while learning the hard way how others might take advantage of it), we saw an artist who can effortlessly transform a spare stage into a fascinating, if sometimes perilous, wonderland, as seen only through her wide-open mind's eye.

Caroline Palmer is a Minneapolis attorney, dance critic, and frequent contributor to City Pages.

Raye Birk

By Peter Rothstein

Raye Birk is an extraordinary actor with an open heart, a brilliant mind, and a gift for nuanced, transformational performances. The past season he gave us one phenomenal performance after another, beginning with his transcendent portrayal of an old Viennese voice teacher who survived Nazi Germany in Old Wicked Songs at Theater Latte Da, followed by his fourth year as Scrooge in the Guthrie's A Christmas Carol. Scrooge is an incredibly demanding role, which Birk tackled with zeal for hundreds of performances. He closed A Christmas Carol and immediately stepped into Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance, where he was brought in as an emergency replacement and was in front of another Guthrie audience after only four days of rehearsal.

It was a remarkable achievement. Even without a rehearsal process, Raye brought to his role the extraordinary level of detail and the emotional honesty he is known for. He went on to the Guthrie's When We Are Married as part of a powerhouse ensemble and closed a triumphant year there with Faith Healer, demonstrating the tremendous range and charisma of this Twin Cities treasure.

Peter Rothstein is a Twin Cities stage director and the founding artistic director of Theater Latté Da. His upcoming projects include Violet for Theater Latté Da and M. Butterfly for the Guthrie.

Mary Karr

By Michelle Orange

Both credited with and blamed for triggering the confessional memoir avalanche that buried the last decade in all sorts of "it happened to me" human muck, Mary Karr returned to the fold this year with Lit. Her 1996 debut, The Liar's Club, has not had a true equal since its publication, and her 2000 follow-up, Cherry, solidified Karr as not only a singular raconteur but a masterful stylist. As the form became more and more tarnished by shoddy workmanship, exploitative fare, and then flat-out scandals, new memoirs were being greeted with something just short of derision: Oh, really? Another? When it was announced that Mary Karr would be coming out with her third memoir, this one chronicling her descent into—yes—alcoholism and subsequent redemption through poetry and prayer, even I, one of her biggest fans, was given pause.

In fact no entry could be more perfect for the post-memoir, perpetual present moment we now find ourselves in. Lit, the longest of her three books by far, presents Mary Karr as an artist working along a kind of biographical continuum; it is her first book to deal with her life as an adult, and it picks up, as Cherry did, where her last book leaves off.

There is nothing either disposable or particularly sensational about this part of her story. Karr writes a memoir about finding her way out of solipsism and self-absorption (traits often associated with the form), excavating the time during which she wrote The Liar's Club—it's a memoir of a memoir. The Herculean strength of her prose alone (she writes of alcohol- and exhaustion-induced slumber as "black-brained sleep"; of her sudden wish to have a child she says, "I carry in me the feverish craving of a woman wanting to lodge some luminescent bubble of baby in my middle") certifies Lit as a giant book. Her ability to craft true art—not simply biography and not what we have come to call memoir—from her life raises Karr above her peers this year and for many to come.


Michelle Orange is the author of The Sicily Papers and the editor of From the Notebook, a story collection published by McSweeney's. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, and The Virginia Quarterly Review, among other publications.

Michael Jackson

By Dessa

Dancing and singing are special kinds of art. You don't need gear. Or money. Or instructions. You just need a room with air in it. Watching a Michael Jackson performance is watching a man turn calories and oxygen into something so entertaining that people lose consciousness. They're just physically incapable of being more entertained. In fact, hulking men are paid to find the over-entertained, lift their limp bodies above the crowd, and carry them to safety.

I've heard that the first time Michael Jackson moonwalked on TV, viewers thought it was a trick—thought he'd rigged his socks with mirrors. A skinny grade-school girl at the time, I remember leaning toward Michael's image onscreen. Afterward, I danced on the carpet till I accumulated enough static electricity to shock myself on the doorknob.

I'm from a pretty cerebral family: Dad was a broke lute player, Mom earned her master's in Elizabethan stagecraft. The general understanding was that our bodies existed to carry our heavy minds from place to place. Michael Jackson rattled that worldview. He made it look good to be a body, good to be an animal. He made it look like we weren't the soft, slow creatures who conquered the planet on the technicality of an opposable thumb.

Jackson has been as confounding a celebrity as we've had. We're partial to binary thinking, to yes-or-no answers. And along comes Michael singing like a girl, interviewing like a child, and looking lighter every year. He re-brands the common zombie as a sex object and, strangely, we love the idea. He becomes a self-styled humanitarian, then arouses concern about his conduct at home. He pairs outrageously sexualized dance with an irresistible smile and pretty tame lyrics. In doing so, he retains his position in the industry as a family entertainer. He complicates our ideas of maleness, of blackness, of heterosexuality, of gloves.

I don't know what to think about Michael Jackson, not exactly. But sitting in the darkness of a theater, watching This Is It, the film of rehearsal footage from the London concerts he was about to perform, I got exactly the same feeling I'd had 20 years before. His every syncopated flourish made me want to get up and try it myself. Rocking in my chair, I thought, There is nothing like this on the Nature Channel. This is something that only our kind of animal can do.

Dessa is a writer, rapper, singer, and member of the Doomtree crew. She is the author of a short volume of essays called Spiral Bound. Her upcoming full-length album is A Badly Broken Code.

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