Brent Bozman

Hayden Childs

McChesney Duntz

Dana Knowles

Gary Mairs

Leonard Pierce

Michael Tomczyszyn

Scott Von Doviak

George Wu

The Algonquin Kids’ Table: 2003 Top Ten Lists

 

Infomercials for Myself

Ten Best Reasons I Can’t Come up with a Decent Ten Best List

1. It’s far too painful. Let’s not put too fine a point on it — 2003 sucked. Maybe not quite as vigorously as ’01, when we exited the annum scanning The Prophecies of Nostradamus for our names and cellphone numbers, but at least our panic and fear at that disjunctive juncture ensured that we were feeling something. Things haven’t changed appreciably since then (they certainly haven’t improved), but this past year, the edges of our frayed nerves were professionally sanded down, with low-level shocks steadily administered just frequently enough to keep us twitching, worried that Al-Qaeda was sure to reduce us to bloody hummus at some unspecified point in the near or possibly distant future, unsure whether forwarding Photoshopped jpegs of the President picking his nose or downloading the new Radiohead b-side, "Digitpropamitosis (I Saw the President Picking His Nose)," would get us arrested first, concerned about whether a Ph.D. in humanities would be enough to secure that highly-coveted position mopping up vomit at Babies ’R’ Us. Thinking the unthinkable — that we were once again sacrificing our young people to fight a war with no clear purpose or exit strategy, that anyone in a position of authority is not merely dismissive but openly, murderously contemptuous of anyone who’d dare question them, that personally, professionally and psychologically we were locked in the debit column of the karmic spreadsheet with no visible way out — is a painful preoccupation. So no wonder so many of us — well, me anyway — opted to numb ourselves to it by any means necessary.

2. I’m not qualified. I have to admit I’m nowhere near the pop-culture junkie that most of my colleagues appear to be, owing to the constraints-cum-collapses of finance, family and career (not to mention that rat bastard time). I’ve seen fewer movies in a theater in the last 12 months than some of my fellows have seen in the average day, I watch very little TV (and when I do, I usually avoid the networks entirely in favor of some niche programming or other on one of the thousand channels my digital cable provides — it may be more honest, but filling my list with reruns of “Night Gallery” and Shauna O’Brien movies wouldn’t reflect well on me), and, while I zealously horde all the books, CDs and DVDs I can get my grubby little mitts on, far too much of it gets neglected or ignored outright. And my real-world experiences this past year have been so wearying, distressing and depressing, that I find myself turning to the familiar for comfort rather than chasing after new textures and flavors of amusement.

3. Making lists is a chump’s game. Once in a while, sure, these best-of rundowns may inspire you to seek out some worthy film, CD or book that you’d passed over or ignored; cultural overload has reached such a level of saturation that you might even be grateful to have one of the prettiest lilies of the goddamn field plucked out and displayed for your delectation. But let’s face facts — we’re an exclusionary and defensive lot, most of us. It’s in our nature to scowl at any thrusts towards consensus. Even when a bunch of individuals separately come to an agreement on something, the ardor or disdain gets amplified and distorted; expectations grow gargantuan and unwieldy and you instinctively reach for your slingshot, ready to knock it over if it fails to rock your fragile little world in the first 30 seconds. Like Descartes said, opinions are like assholes — everybody’s got one, and mine is the only one that doesn’t stink. As soon as you lay down what you think is a rock-solid and immutable tallying of the best of something, be it the Top 10 of 2003, the 101 Greatest Over-the-Counter Cold Remedies That’ll Give You a Wicked Buzz When You Drink the Whole Thing, or the 14 Places I’d Most Like To Punch Vincent Gallo If I Ever Saw Him on the Street, watch out. Every inclusion, exclusion and malocclusion will be the subject of profane e-mails, angry blog diatribes, and misspelled chat-room beatdowns. Thank you very much, but my inbox is clogged enough with exortations to increase my penis size and reduce my debt to put up with 150 e-mails a day complaining about the lack of one-legged Native American artistes on my list and telling me to go fuck myself. (Though, come to think of it, if I increase my penis size enough, I bet I could find a way to do that and reduce my debt …)

4. It’s been done. Do you really need one more person to rhapsodize about the wonderment of “The Office,” Bill Murray’s performance in Lost in Translation, or Elephant (the White Stripes album or the Gus Van Sant picture, take your pick)? If you’ve already experienced them, you’ve made up your mind, and if you haven’t, they’ve arrived laden with too much baggage for them to take flight. Art is such modest stuff (if it weren’t, there wouldn’t be so much of it about), its pleasures usually more subtle than seismic, disposable even; with very few exceptions, the most you can really hope from it is a few jolts of pleasure (or schadenfreude, a word which will turn out to be as much an artifact of 2003 as “bloviate”) and a smile (or a cringe, which is the new smile) of recognition or two. The trouble begins when you start laying leaden garlands of significance over it. The joy is smothered; depending on your attitude, you can wind up either falling in with the herd unquestioningly or rejecting it too vehemently. So things get torn down for no better reason than too many people liking them and undeserving things get built up ex post facto by delayed reactionaries simply because no one seemed to like ’em. It’s so hard to have a pure reaction to anything these days that you wind up measuring yourself against everyone else’s reaction (and with practice, you can anticipate that reaction and react against it before it’s even stated — call it Operation Enduring Cynicism).

5. The “defining” and “best” moments of the year were mutually exclusive. When VH1 runs its inevitable snarking-heads nostalgia series, “We Love Whatever We Called That Decade After the ’90s,” will the dominant figures be Murray, Gervais, or anyone who performed acts of straight-up nobility and decency (were there any? No, seriously — were there)? Hell, no. They’ll be the pop star couple with the collective IQ of a summer squash, the twentysomething doofus with the fortysomething girlfriend whose face is so tightened up it sounds like a fat man in shorts getting out of a leather chair when she smiles, the tiny-toothed pretty (but not really that pretty) boy and his on-again off-again fiancee with the spherical glutes, the brain-dead hotel heiress who (gasp!) had sex while a camcorder was running, and the endless parade of reality-TV dupes and dupessas whose names have been forgotten so quickly they lead me to believe that Warhol must have been exaggerating.

All things considered, it’s no great surprise that the trend of wringing horror and pathos out of lame entertainment — Col. Klink and Sgt. Schultz participating in a fantasy gropefest in Auto Focus and the world’s leading supplier of low-rent game shows playing government killer in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (both 2002, but I’m not the only one who didn’t see either until ’03 — see #7) — reached its bizarre and sad nadir this past year in two separate events: half of a flamboyant pair of Euro-Vegas showfreaks getting gored by his own tiger and an aging hair-metal band immolating half its fanbase in a highly flammable rock club in Rhode Island. Tragic and unfortunate events, both of them, but if you didn’t stifle a nasty chuckle behind your hand when you first heard about them, well, you’re a better man than I am. Also, you’re lying.

6. What year was it, anyway? Popular art has always taken cues and moves from the examples of its forebears, but it wasn’t until 2003 that practically every act of note arrived on the scene constructed wholly of a thrift-store patchwork of their heroes and influences. Granted, a lot of it (the Rapture, !!!) was derived from a pretty fertile strain of late 70s/early 80s post-punk — mutant downtown disco, primitive electronica, pure conceptual noise — the potential uses of which are practically bottomless (as they were back in ’79-’81, which means that most of our modern-day practitioners will surely wind up dead, bland or dead bland inside of half a decade). But even outside of that, it seemed that every action was a retroaction. Joe Pernice revealed a buried New Order/Cure jones on the Pernice Brothers’ Yours, Mine & Ours and recalled exactly what it meant to be a Smiths fan in the emotional DMZ of a mid-’80s American high school (with barely a mention of the music, which is somehow appropriate) in Meat is Murder, his contribution to the generally excellent “33 1/3” series of tiny rock-crit tomes from Continuum Books. Hail to the Thief played like a mash-up of every Radiohead release since 1997, and strangely, even the faithful appeared to lose interest quickly. The Strokes’ Room on Fire harkened back to both the deceptively gleaming, covertly decadent pop stylings of the Cars and the deceptively grimy, covertly conventional pop stylings of the first Strokes album. A number of old-timers few expected to resurface — Mission of Burma, the Stooges, Rocket From The Tombs, Love — defied the truism that reunited rock bands are required to suck by refusing to embarrass themselves even in the least promising of circumstances, with a bare minimum of fresh material and trading largely on their considerable mystique. Wire, on its third go-round, isn’t lacking for fresh material and are too regular-guy contrary to have much of a mystique — Send, their first full-length album in 13 years, is as bracing and exciting a combination of slick surfaces and speedy agitation as could be expected from four blokes who, by rights, should be drifting into their dotage dribbling out ambient soundtracks to abstract evocations of nowheresville, but even so, all but four of its tracks date back to a pair of EPs they self-released the year before. And that’s not even getting into the embarrassment of remastered, bonus-tracked riches that made up the year’s reissue slate and often trumped the present works of the still-functioning artists in question — which would you rather listen to, Greendale and North or On the Beach and Get Happy!!? (I’m filing my entry for Best-Punctuated Sentence of 2004 early.)

And as goes the underground, so goeth the overground — it’s hardly a coincidence that the biggest industry trend of the last couple of years was to enlist aging and increasingly irrelevant rock singers — Rod Stewart, Boz Scaggs, Cyndi Frigging-Lauper-for-God’s-Sake — to wrap their rusty pipes around a menu of old standards. A pretty easy move to parse, that — the vocalists get to mask their ebbing creative juices behind a bunch of E-Z Listening standbys, and the labels get into the pockets of the one demographic that can’t figure out how to download.
It’s reached the point that some of the most exciting releases of 2003 — albums as distinct and dissimilar as the Mars Volta’s De-Loused in the Comatorium, Fiery Furnaces’ Gallowbird’s Bark, and the Love Below half of the new OutKast CD — attained originality by crunching together a gaggle of divergent genres so fiercely that they fused. (Note: the first two of the above would surely have made my Top 10 had I come up with one, while the third most certainly would not. Not because I’m hipster-cringing at commercial success, a closet racist, or troubled by the filler it’s laced with or how anchored down it is by the double-disc’s lesser half, mind you; more because some wisenheimer at the pressing plant thought it’d be a pip to attach a bone [the industry, or at least retail, term for the impossible-to-remove ID/security sticker at the top of practically every CD sold these days] to both ends of the jewel case. They apparently backed off after the first pressing, but too little, too late, melon farmers — you’re off the list, "Hey Ya!" or no "Hey Ya!" I never said I wasn’t deeply, deeply petty.)

7. The gestation period isn’t over yet. If many of the prime artifacts of 2003 were crafted well before then, then it follows that a lot of the greatest and most enduring work of that annum won’t be recognized as such until a fair bit further down the line. History bears this out: to cite a purely random example, how many 1967 best-of lists did Forever Changes show up on? Not many, I’ll wager. (Granted, rock criticism barely existed at the time and most people who would have cared about such things were too busy dropping beakersful of STP and becoming one with the black light Che Guevara poster in their dorm room to bother with something as counterrevolutionary as making lists anyway, but you get the idea.) On the other hand, what of some of the true mindblowing chartbusters of that year? The answer can be determined with a simple experiment — make the rounds of the yard sale circuit this weekend and carefully tabulate the copies of the first Vanilla Fudge album you find. Uh-huh. So fuggit, I’m not making a fool of myself by plumping for some hype-hewn piece of artistic bio-degradation, only to blush at my short-sighted idiocy next year. (It’s a quick cycle these days — I’ve already read half a dozen mea culpas from noise-nabobs embarrassed that they ranked that Interpol album so highly in 2002.) I’ve got a lot better ways of making a fool of myself, thank you. Like admitting to watching “Night Gallery” reruns and Shauna O’Brien movies.

8. I looked at 2003 through a peephole. A distorted peephole. A discolored, distorted, mirrored peephole. Like I said before, I have no particular claim on the zeitgeist — paying attention to what’s going on around me begins to lose its flavor when arcane distractions rear their archaic head. I couldn’t really tell you the difference between the Stills, the Thrills, the Mandrills, the Cotswold Hills and the Carter’s Little Liver Pills or favor you with a discourse on why “Joe Millionaire” was distinctly inferior to “Joe Average” or “Joe Bologna” (that’s the one with the guy pretending to be a cold-cut heir in order to get laid, I think) or whatever those shows were called. Before any of you applaud me for having a sense of values or proportion and accuse me of devoting myself to worthier pursuits, know that the thing that engrossed me above all else in ’03 was … British comedy of the 1960s. That’s right, while most of you were monitoring the love lives of people you’ll never meet or mooning over hairy-footed fantasy dwarves at the multiplex, I was trawling used bookstores and online auction sites for factoids about the short-lived Anglo satire boom, tossing around terms like “the Oxbridge Mafia” apropos of nothing and engaging in impassioned debates (with myself) over whether Marty Feldman was more interesting as a simple sketch writer or the bug-eyed comic personage he later came to be. Fascinated by the irony that the Lord Chamberlain’s office, responsible for vetting and censoring stage plays, wound up more respectful to the historical value of the era’s comedy material (by maintaining a comprehensive archive of all the scripts it received) than the BBC and other British broadcasting outlets (who erased the entire runs of such world-historic programs as “That Was the Week That Was,” “Not Only … But Also” and “At Last the 1948 Show,” and came breathtakingly close to doing the same thing to “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” not once but twice, in order to avoid buying fresh videotape)? Enthralled at the mere mention of people like John Fortune, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Barry Took and Humphrey Barclay? Given to daydreaming about hanging around the offices of Private Eye or loitering backstage at the Establishment Club? Of course not. Which explains why I’m singularly ill-equipped to pass proper judgment on 2003, and probably why I wasn’t much of a fixture at parties, either.

(It behooves me to mention that two of the books on the subject I most happily pored over were actually published in 2003, and are thus tangentially relevant. Tragically I Was An Only Twin: The Complete Peter Cook doesn’t quite live up to its subtitle, omitting as it does the bulk of his gloriously profane “Derek & Clive” routines with Dudley Moore [probably the result of an obscure English statute limiting the number of times the word “cunt” can appear in a hardcover], for example. Yet it’s as comprehensive a rescue operation as fans of the late comic genius could wish for, handily refuting the standard line that Cook’s brilliance was fatally dulled by the mid-’70s and providing example upon example of his unrivalled skill as a craftsman of absurdist miniatures. The Pythons: An Autobiography by the Pythons blatantly trades on the satirical sextet’s rep as the Fab Four Plus Two More of comedy with its own coffee-table oral history equivalent of The Beatles Anthology, right down to the exact same dimensions and list price. A little more self-analysis of the work itself would have been nice, but monomaniacal Monty mavens will undoubtedly delight in the scads of rare photos and artifacts, the minutiae of their near-accidental rise to worldwide notoriety, and the endless personality clashes that goosed the troupe to greatness but will probably keep them from working together again. Well, that and the fact that one of them is rather dead.)

10. I could never count all that well. Most importantly, I wouldn’t want to give in to the temptation to trash what little reader goodwill I’ve cultivated by winding the whole thing up with a lame joke.