Top 19 Highlights of 2002

Top 19 Highlights of 2002

At the risk of sounding wholly uninspired, I’ve not deviated far from the traditional “best of the year” lists for my Top 19 of 2002. Of course, I could have spent hours thinking up something quirky and clever, such as the Top 19 Political Buzzwords of 2002 or the Top WWF Matches of 2002, but instead I’ve opted to simply pass on some specific highlights of the past year. In a perfect world, you’ll find many of these recommendations — listed in no particular order — useful or enlightening, or perhaps both.

1. My Kingdom

Director Don Boyd’s adaptation of King Lear was panned by some critics for being just another British crime film. They have a point. But if it is just another British crime film, it’s among great company, as anyone who has seen The Long Good Friday will attest to. Richard Harris, who passed away this year, gives one of the best performances of his life as Sandeman, the brash, defeated head of a Liverpudlian crime family. My only qualm (and the director’s regret, too) is that Jo, the Cordelia character, doesn’t meet the tragic end Shakespeare had intended.

2. And the Surrounding Mountains

For the past few years, The Radar Brothers have been quietly creating some brooding, expansive soundscapes from their homebuilt Los Angeles studio. This album may or may not introduce them to a wider audience; yet it’s still their most accomplished to date, and consequently one of the best of the past 365 days. AtSM encompasses love, loss, nostalgia and some meandering episodes of exquisite melancholy. Your music collection is woefully incomplete without this album.

3. A Series of Sneaks

Where the Radar Brothers are disconsolate, Spoon stands in stark contrast. Intense, pithy and raw, this tour de force is the Merge Records re-issue of the Texas band’s brilliant 1998 full-length, which might have been lost in the aftermath of Elektra’s commercial mistakes but for a few copies, prized by their lucky owners. Britt Daniel’s knack for crafting pure pop songs with the near-impossible balance of complexity and accessibility puts him close to par with some of America’s greatest pop composers — Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, to name a few. And I don’t make those comparisons lightly. If you need further proof, pick up a copy of Kill The Moonlight, Spoon’s newest album, also released in 2002. And the SoS re-issue comes with two songs from The Agony of Lafitte EP, marking the bad blood between the band and their Elektra A&R man.

4. After Nature

This is the posthumous English publication of W.G. Sebald’s extended prose poem, written in 1988 before the author had formally begun to forge his unique path in contemporary literature. Like his sui generis fiction, this particular work blends memoir, fiction, biography and historical musings to address the incomprehensible atrocities man repeatedly visits upon himself. Look for the English translation of the essay collection Luftkrieg and Literatur, entitled On the Natural History of Destruction, in early 2003.

5. A Life’s Music

Andrei Makine’s novel of a life diverted by history is as slim as a novella, but it is as compelling and elegant as Proust’s In Search of Lost Time canon. With this book, the writer has proven himself to be a measured and intelligent voice among the din of today’s appalling, self-obsessed, victimhood fiction.

6. Bowling For Columbine

Unfortunately, recommending this film puts me in the same camp as Oprah. But I’m willing to face the stigma and put Michael Moore’s sprawling, occasionally clunky but always compelling documentary in my Top 19 because it marks a first (commercially successful) attempt to cause America to look inward and see, just maybe, that all its high-minded talk of freedom and rights can begin to sound like unchecked arrogance.

7. A Love Supreme (Deluxe Edition)

Coltrane’s 1965 masterwork has been re-released as a double-CD set with the long-dormant sextet version as well as live recordings of the songs from the Antibes Jazz Festival that same year. Updated releases of jazz classics, replete with alternate takes and false starts, are a dime a dozen. Some even tend to distort or mar the original instead of supplement it. This one, however, ought to have aficionados and neophytes alike relishing every note.

8. Harper’s

Not to be confused with Harper’s Bazaar or any other bridal or home decorating magazine. Since the so-called War on Terror began and the Bush Administration started to preparing for an invasion that no one has been able to properly justify so far, this monthly publication, edited by the erudite, indefatigable Lewis Lapham, has been the sole voice of reason in a very senseless time. Most often, it seems to ask the question, What can a $600 billion military budget accomplish that $600 billion in aid, education and charitable intervention couldn’t? Or are the interests of big business the only ones at stake?

9. Plenty Good Lovin’: The Lost Solo Album

Once upon a time, there was an Atlantic/Stax duo named Sam And Dave. They played together and had lots of hits. They even inspired The Blues Brothers. Then they split up. Although battling with drugs, Sam wanted to make a solo album. He recorded it. Then his A&R people, a breed known for their warmth and foresight, told him he was nothing without Dave. They locked his album in a vault. Sam’s drug abuse escalated, but eventually he cleaned himself up. Years passed. Then, through an almost fictional chain of events, Plenty Good Lovin’ emerged and was released on the Swing Café label. Birds sang. The skies became bluer. God smiled on his creation. Deprived for so long of this soul masterpiece, now we can hear Sam Moore sing, “Git out my life, woman/ You don’t love me anymore” backed by one of the most delicious basslines the world of music has ever known, as well as other jewels of the genre.

10. ivans xtc

Based on Tolstoy’s short story The Death of Ivan Ilyich and the real-life tragedy of Jay Moloney, this film by director Bernard Rose is a contemporary Sunset Boulevard. But instead of looking at the actors who’ve fallen from grace, ivans xtc examines the real movers and shakers of Hollywood: the ruthless agents. Danny Huston is brilliant as Ivan Beckman, the high-flying agent who bags the hottest star in Tinseltown, only to discover that his celebration will be cut short by terminal cancer. Better still, Rose practices what he preaches. The film is shot using high-quality DV in an effort to undermine the inflated Hollywood budgets.

11. Rachmaninov Transcriptions

Performed by pianist-cum-conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, this brilliant album unearths some curiosities of his countryman and puts them through Ashkenazy’s balanced interpretations. His renditions of transcriptions of Bach, Schubert, Bizet et al, by the author of the famous Second Piano Concerto are almost supernatural. The real gems are the four- and six-handed repertoires that Ashkenazy executes with help from his wife and son. A real family affair.

12. Snobbery: The American Version

When I chose to review book this for Ink 19, I had no idea what a delight it would be. As a guide into the world of the contemporary snobbus americanus, Joseph Epstein, a professor at Northwestern University, is knowledgeable, honest and always engaging. His account more or less amounts to a collection of essays on various facets of snobbery — the forms it takes, its root causes, its appeal, and so on. I was fascinated as much as I was entertained.

13. The Week

I used to fret when I didn’t have enough time to read as many newspapers as I ought to in order to get a well-rounded account of the news, particularly concerning the hot issues of late that tend to receive biased coverage. Designed to be read in under an hour, The Week is a compendium of articles from all the major newspapers and magazines from your own nation and abroad. (I believe the magazine first emerged here in the UK, where I currently live, but there is a unique US edition as well.) I have almost complete faith in the summarists, who always write with intelligence and accuracy about “all you need to know about everything that matters,” as the masthead points out. It allows busy newsreaders the chance to collect a ton of information on politics, sports, art, travel and business without the dumbed-down, patronizing tone found in most of today’s other magazines.

14. A State of Wonder

Taking its title from Glenn Gould’s statement that “the purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but rather the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity,” this is the re-issue of Gould’s seminal 1955 (and 1981) Goldberg Variations, which appeared in remastered form with outtakes and interview material as a three-disc set. Much to the label’s surprise, it was a best-seller, just as the originals were (Terry Teachout discussed this in a December Commentary article), and I can only hope that it introduces another generation to this Canadian pianist’s peculiar genius. Even if you own the albums already, this quality collection is worth buying.

15. Sha Sha

Where the hell did Ben Kweller come from? One minute the Texas native was shuffling around with his band Radish and working on a record deal, and the next minute he thrust this splendid pop catharsis into our laps. It’s pure candy-coated slacker rock, and makes no attempt to be anything more, but it quickly became a staple in my CD player and reappears every time I need a quick, buoyant fix.

16. The TLS

Shortly after this weekly fixture of English letters celebrated its centenary, the novelist and essayist Ferdinand Mount stepped down as editor and former Times (London) editor Peter Stothard took over. Save for a few design changes, its content remains the same, making it one of the most respectable literary review in the UK, if not the world. Always erudite (sometimes pedantically so, but hell, no one’s perfect), it maintains the highest standards in scholarship and writing, a rare animal in this Age of Ignorance. Subscription prices are relatively steep, but worth it.

17. All Rise

About a year ago, I had a long discussion with a few of the musicians in Bela Fleck & the Flecktones about the state of jazz. Wynton Marsalis inevitably came up, and it’s no surprise that the consensus was that he’s trying to institutionalize a genre that by its very nature avoids institutionalization. With this two-disc set, Marsalis and the Lincoln Jazz Center Orchestra haven’t done anything but confirm that opinion, though this massive orchestral recording enriches the American musical tradition through its debt to Gershwin and Ellington’s more ambitious works. Supremely innovative it is not; solid, quality musicianship on a grand scale it most certainly is.

18. Arts & Letters Daily

For a little while in mid-2002, it looked as if this unique Web site was going to go the way of the dodo. Its parent company, Lingua Franca, went belly-up, almost taking A&L Daily with it. Then, through some sort of divine intervention, the Chronicle of Higher Education stepped in and saved us from having to face a world without this grab bag of intellectual curiosities and discussion, edited by the diligent Denis Dutton. The masthead says it all: “philosophy, aesthetics, literature, language, ideas, criticism, culture, history, music, art, trends, breakthroughs, disputes, gossip.” And it really does cover them all. If it’s any indication of its value, I’ve made A&L Daily my browser start page on every computer I use.

19. The Magic of Satie

This was my first encounter with the French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and what an impression he has left upon me. His recordings the works of the odd (by “odd,” I refer to his performance instructions: “on yellowed velvet,” “without pride” and “with the tip of the back of the teeth,” whereas conventional others just wrote “adagio” or “allegro con molto”) little composer, Erik Satie, are nothing short of perfect, evoking emotions in me that I’d never known existed. If making your first or even your four hundredth foray into the world of classical music =F1 or jazz, or rock, or any other =F1 this is an album to own. As if to make me struggle for still more superlatives, this album even includes hitherto unrecorded work by Satie, the Gnossiennes.

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