Ten the Hard Way

winding my way through the year's best whatever

1. BEST TELEVISION SHOW OF ALL TIME OF THE YEAR: THE WIRE.

Serious people can no longer debate whether or not HBO’s stunning police drama (and how incredibly reductive it seems to call it a police drama, like calling Madame Bovary a domestic soap or The Wild Bunch — which The Wire echoes to the degree of actually sounding back time-twisted phantoms of its dialogue — a formula oater) is currently the best show on television. With the fourth season ending with an episode both emotionally wrenching and deeply satisfying, the show has pulled off the frankly astounding trick of getting better each year since its tremendous debut; the question must now become, is it the best show in the history of television?

On its surface, especially for those who haven’t watched it closely, the question seems absurd. The Wire has no big stars; the closest it comes to a name actor is Frankie Faison, familiar to audiences as the attendant at Hannibal Lecter’s insane asylum. It doesn’t even have a central character; Jimmy McNulty, the putative male lead, fails spectacularly at being an identification character and he isn’t even in a number of episodes. Its plots are complex and entirely lacking in not only moral clarity — which we’re reminded oh so often is important in this day and age — but also moral presence. The audience isn’t given easy choices like good and evil, or even more sophisticated ones like likeable and unlikable; the best you often can hope for is a choice between loss and regret, sadness and acceptance, black humor or blacker truth. Oh, and about that audience? Despite better ratings this year than previous, it largely doesn’t exist. The hammer finally came down late in the year, and it was announced that The Wire would not be renewed after its fifth season.

Luckily, though, that’s all David Simon and Ed Burns ever wanted. Five seasons to present us with some of the most complicated and unforgettable characters in television history: two brilliant detectives, one (Lester Freamon) righteous and proper, the other (Jimmy McNulty) shambolic and dysfunctional. Two blood-curdling villains, one (Marlo Stanfield, the most pure depiction of the young savage since Pinkie in Graham Greene’s brilliant Brighton Rock) a dead-eyed, humorless, soul-dead king and the other (“Snoop” Pearson, one of the most memorable female villains in fiction) his lively, animated, and stone cold deadly jester. A collection of unknowns and near-knowns inhabiting roles with every molecule; there’s a scene, late in season one, where young detective Leandor Sydnor laments the closing of a case, confessing with something like mourning that he’s never done work this good before and never will again. It’s not hard to imagine the actors saying something similar when season five wraps next year. Astonishing dialogue that presents inner-city teachers, downtown detectives, uptown politicians, and street-corner hoods, not a one of which comes off as stock or stereotype. And the plots: intricately constructed, spider-web delicate, and yet tight as the belt around a stage suicide’s neck. Everyone who writes about the show says that it’s constructed like a novel (no accident, as many of the writers are novelists), but with most shows, this is an inadvertent insult: TV shows aren’t novels, and most attempts to make them into novels fail abysmally. But The Wire (which, it must be said, has the benefit of appearing on a network where its exquisite rhythms won’t be shattered by commercial breaks) pulls off a near-miracle by combining a good novel’s understanding of structure and development with a good television show’s understanding of pacing and dialogue. Most amazingly of all, The Wire is about issues, and I mean really about issues, the cop-show trappings notwithstanding. It’s a deeply political show without ever being didactic (or even partisan), and a deeply philosophical show without ever being navel-gazing or embarrassing. The people who put it together, from the directors to the producers to the writers to the actors, have some very strongly held beliefs about what is ailing our American cities and our American system, and they have turned the breathtaking trick of making those beliefs crystal-clear within the framework of a drama so compelling that you’re never taken out of the story to be beaten over the head with them.

The Wire had three seasons to grow into the best show on television. With season four, it had a chance to blow it big; whatever the specifics, bringing children into a fictional environment which was once exclusively the realm of adults is always a massive risk. But instead, it delivered perhaps its best season yet. It’s got one more year to fail, and a disastrous season five might be good cause to eliminate it from discussions about the best shows in television history. But if I was a betting man, I’d bet that we’re still going to be talking about Baltimore during the Barksdale years for a good long time.

2. THE HARDEST-WORKING (LIVE) MAN IN SHOW BUSINESS OF THE YEAR: GRANT MORRISON.

What is it about British comic book writers who think they’re magicians? With Alan Moore in his dotage and Neil Gaiman puttering around with inconsistent projects at Marvel, the crown of best writer in comic books — well, okay, it belongs to Chris Ware, the Babe Ruth of graphic storytelling. But Ware works at a snail’s pace, while Grant Morrison seems to crank out brilliant postmodern superhero stories six a day and maybe a few more on the back of a cocktail napkin over lunch.

Morrison’s reputation would already be assured if he hadn’t written a thing during 2006; he was already a legend for his metafictional Animal Man, wildly anarchic The Invisibles, the legendary Doom Patrol, the officially suppressed Flex Mentallo, and well-received runs on X-Men and Justice League. (He also wrote the hilarious New Adventures of Hitler, which is exactly what it sounds like.) The previous few years had seen him produce an avalanche of worthwhile projects, from the inspired if inconsistent The Filth to the universally heralded WE3, but it was this year when he landed a gig as DC Comics’ unofficial ’rewrite guy’, becoming one of three editors (along with the mediocre Mark Waid and the horrendous Geoff Johns) responsible for shaping the future direction of the company. In that role, he produced All-Star Superman, a non-canonical take on the iconic character that instantly took its place as one of the best reads on the Last Son of Krypton ever produced; Batman, which has broken no new ground, but is a hugely enjoyable read that demonstrates Morrison’s easy facility with superhero fiction; The Authority, an opportunity for Morrison, one of the best writers in comics, to salvage a property associated with Mark Millar, one of the worst; and 7 Soldiers of Victory, a series of intertwining mini-series built around reinterpreted versions of second-string DC characters that culminated in a single-issue group title that is easily the best mainstream comic of the year. He’s also the standout writer on 52, DC’s year-long weekly series that is probably the most enjoyable “event” comic produced by either of the big two publishers since the yearly tradition started in the 1980s.

There’s simply no way one man, however talented, can keep up this pace forever; even a guy as good as Grant Morrison is eventually going to burn out under a workload so heavy. But it’s a hell of a ride while it lasts. Now, if only he’d get a chance to finish Seaguy ...

3. THE HARDEST-WORKING (DEAD) MAN IN SHOW BUSINESS OF THE YEAR: J. DILLA.

Those who decry the tragic black-on-black violence in the rap world and the body count that goes with it are overlooking one important factor: in the game, dying is often the best career move a player can make. Run-D.M.C. had a career renaissance (in terms of record sales if not quality recordings) after Jam Master Jay was shot; the Notorious B.I.G. sold even more records dead than he had alive. And 2Pac — shit, 2Pac’s been dead for ten years, and he’s still putting out albums.

But this year’s hip-hop superstar from beyond the grave is James Yancey, a.k.a. Jay Dee, a.k.a. Dilla, and he died of lupus rather than gunfire, robbing cultural conservatives of a potent I-told-you-so. ?uestlove of the Roots, likewise a drummer and a producer who transcended the boundaries of what beatmaking was supposed to mean, compared him to Charlie Parker; Bird lived longer. When Dilla died at age 32 this February, the rap world lost a prolific solo artist, a widely hailed and much-beloved producers (Pharrell Williams cited him as his favorite, and he did legendary work for Common, the Pharcyde, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes and Talib Kweli), and one of the most dedicated beat-miners in the game. A protégé of Parliament keyboardist Amp Fiddler, a gifted drummer and a decent rapper, and one of the hardest-working figures in hip-hop, Dilla didn’t seem like the kind of cat who would let a little thing like dying slow him down.

And, indeed, it didn’t: he wouldn’t live long enough to see it make the charts, but his final album, Donuts, is probably his best, a top-notch collection of instrumental shorts that takes its place as a classic of the genre alongside such works as MF Doom’s Special Herbs series and his friend and collaborator Madlib’s Beat Konducta: Movie Themes Vols. 1 & 2. His colleague, Karreim Riggins, capped off an amazingly productive posthumous career by putting together Dilla’s last recorded work and adding finishing touches that could have come from the man himself on The Shining. It may not say much about the state of hip-hop that two of its best albums of the year came from a dead man, but Jay Dee dead beats a dozen lesser producers alive.

4. BOGUS OUTRAGE OF THE YEAR: BULLY.

Rockstar Games is so good at creating controversy that it’s easy to forget that their actual business is designing video games. And, though one could be forgiven for not knowing it considering the whirlwinds of controversy that surround the company, they make pretty goddamn great ones at that. Since politicians, pundits and other professional frenzy-whippers are always looking for something upon which to blame juvenile crime and the alleged degradation of youth (other than the educational system, the parents, and the priorities and values of society), video games have become an increasingly popular target, and Rockstar is more than willing to step up and knock one out of the park. Their Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas title, very likely the best home video game ever created, is also easily the most controversial. Already constantly under attack for glorifying crime, flouting authority, valorizing gang behavior, and allowing players to murder prostitutes (curiously, America seems to care a lot more about the murder of imaginary hookers in a video game than they do actual hookers in reality), GTA:SA allowed conservatives and liberals alike to all jump in the “outraged-I-am-outraged!” pool when it was discovered that — gasp! — a hidden modification in the game would allow you to have simulated sex with your girlfriend. The game’s secret ability to suggest consensual sex with one’s significant other was judged far worse than the game’s open ability to depict beating a policeman to death with a golf club, and Rockstar immediately became second only to Michael Jackson in the corrupting-our-youth sweepstakes.

Then came Bully.

Critics of video games seem to operate on the assumption that anything young people see in a game, they will immediately do in real life. (This no doubt accounts for current youth crazes like deep sea fishing, playing in the National Hockey League, entering dance contests, and fighting Brainiac.) So, when Rockstar announced that their new release, Bully, would be set in a junior high and feature schoolyard violence as its central theme, the usual suspects went absolutely apeshit. Right-wing Christian groups and left-wing anti-bullying groups were united in their opposition to the game; petitions were circulated in the US and Europe to prevent its release; members of Parliament in England and congressmen in America spoke out against it. A Miami lawyer called it a “Columbine simulator” and sued to stop it from coming out. Curiously, though, all of this criticism began not only before the game was released, but before previews had even been made available. It was simply assumed that if Rockstar was behind it, it had to be Satanic. When the game came out, however ...

In truth, Bully is much more of a throwback to good-natured, whimsical console games like Paperboy than it is the Grand Theft Auto franchise. The most dangerous weapon in the game is a firecracker; it’s impossible to kill anyone, and attacking a girl gets you instant and unavoidable detention. What’s more, your character, far from a monstrous bully, is a foe of bullies, a friend of nerds and outcasts, a protector of the weak and tormented. You can choose to make him like boys; one of your first missions ends up with you protecting a homeless man from the game’s true villains, the antisocial and arrogant preppies and jocks. Beyond that, the gameplay is terrific; it’s got a big, playable environment, sparkling, funny dialogue, engaging missions and minigames, good character development, and a top-notch original soundtrack. If I didn’t know better, I’d say the thing is downright charming.

Did Rockstar deliberately let people think they were creating another moral outrage in order to generate the kind of reaction that would boost Bully’s sales numbers? You bet your ass they did. But in the aftermath, the controversy disappeared, leaving in its wake a swell game and a bunch of foolish-looking scolds. Far from creating controversy and producing video games, Rockstar’s real strength would seem to be, both in their product and in the reaction to it, making authority figures look stupid and venal.

5. MIDDLE EASTERN RE-CREATION OF FAULKNER’S AS I LAY DYING OF THE YEAR: A WOMAN IN JERUSALEM.

Western critics haven’t done a particularly good job of hyping A.B. Yehoshua, which is a shame, because he’s probably the finest fiction writer Israel has to offer, and his latest, A Woman in Jerusalem, is a wonderful collision of Chekov and Faulkner. Burdened with a dull title (its original name in Hebrew is The Mission of the Human Resource Manager, which more cleverly conveys the wry and mysterious nature of the book and shifts the focus onto a character who is actually alive during the novel’s action) and a lackluster publicity campaign, it’s nonetheless worth seeking out.

Yulia Ragayev, the woman in question, is dead before the novel begins, killed during a terror bombing. The human resources manager in question (who, like all the other characters in the book other than the woman, has no name) is employed by the same bakery where Yulia worked, and he is assigned by his boss to return her remains to her Slavic homeland. Along the way, he discovers bewildering and contradictory truths about the beautiful corpse: for one thing, she was a dedicated Zionist, but does not seem to have been Jewish. As the HR man begins his trek to her comically time-lost birth nation — an absurd, hilarious ex-Soviet satellite — he enacts a bizarre version, humorous and wrenching by turns, of William Faulkner’s classic As I Lay Dying.

A Woman in Jerusalem never shies from addressing the issues that surround its settings — the tragedy of terrorism, the way that people cope with living in fear, the daily disconnects of living in a postmodern multicultural city, and the meaning of nationalism in a fragmented world — as is only proper from an Israeli novelist who wants to be true to his homeland. But it also transcends its national origins, making readers ask themselves meaningful questions about morality and identity and the nature of death — as is only proper from a gifted novelist who wants to make his art available to everyone, regardless of national identity. By turns funny, surreal, canny, and vivid, A Woman in Jerusalem begins as a sort of existential comedy and ends as a transcendental drama.

6. BOOK THAT GEORGE W. BUSH NEEDS TO READ OF THE YEAR: FIASCO.

As I write these words, President George W. Bush has just completed a press conference in which he discusses the ramifications of a new report concluding that the war in Iraq is rapidly spinning out of control. His new Secretary of Defense — and how odd it seems to type those words, given that he stood by Donald Rumsfeld for so long, even after it became clear that Rumsfeld had no ability whatsoever to adapt to changing conditions on the ground, that many assumed he’d only leave office after an election or a stroke — has all but said that the war has been lost. Bush’s tone, overall, is defensive, hostile, snippy: the tone of a man who has screwed up badly and everyone knows it, but is desperate to establish that none of it was his fault. “I know things are tough,” he says, in the sort of colossal understatement typical of his approach to discussing the war. Thomas E. Ricks’ book, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, makes it clear that this knowledge was hard-won indeed.

Ricks, the former Pentagon correspondent for the Washington Post and a man who has spend much of his life reporting on war and military life, has not written a brilliant book: Fiasco is sometimes repetitive, never dazzling, and heavily reliant on a handful of sources. Those sources, though, are among the most highly-placed military men in America, and their narrative of the conception, planning (or lack thereof), and execution of the invasion of Iraq makes for an absolutely watertight blueprint for how to monkeywrench a military endeavor from the inside. The word “adventure” in the subtitle is well-chosen, as the whole thing seems cooked up on the level of a fantasy role-playing game: envisioned by ideologues with more vision than sense, planned by toadies who put political considerations miles ahead of practical ones, and executed by soldiers who — often deliberately — had not learned the lessons of Vietnam. An amazingly popular book when it debuted, Fiasco is a fairly complicated one as well, demanding the reader learns a great deal about the meaning of strategy and tactics, and painting often-complicated pictures of the bitter three-way conflict between civilian war planners at the Pentagon, politicians and diplomats at the State Department, and commanding officers in the Army and Marine Corps. Those who bought the book out of pure anti-Bush partisanship may be surprised at the lack of a single clear set of villains, although few in the administration are portrayed as being especially competent or clear-headed; what emerges is not a set of easy answers, but an endless array of mistakes both big and small, of missed opportunities and incredibly short-sighted decisions that could have been stopped but weren’t, until the whole Iraq strategy became a slippery slope of mud and blood.

There is an especially illustrative anecdote in Fiasco concerning the trial of a senior officer being court-martialed for a number of acts of abuse and mistreatment of Iraqis. In his defense, he claimed that he wanted to intimidate the natives, to show them who was boss, in order to protect his own men. He had determined at the outset, he proudly declared, that if he could at all help it, he would not return home having lost a single one of his troops, and so it was: he didn’t have to stand before a grieving widow and explain how her husband died. Unfortunately, this officer did not realize what all commanding officers must learn: the goal of a war is not to keep your men alive. If that was the only desirable end, the best way would be not to fight. The goal of a war is to win; and while no one wants to lose a man, if winning the war means losing some lives, then that is what must happen. By protecting his men at the expense of alienating and terrorizing the locals, the officer had won the battle while losing the war, and provided a perfect example of the fatal difference between successful tactics and successful strategy. It is the failure to understand that difference, as Fiasco makes clear, that made this war such a disaster.

7. SOUL CONTROLLER OF THE YEAR: GHOSTFACE.

Dennis Coles is the hottest soul singer of the 1970s. Unfortunately, this is 2006, and the style of music he cites in pretty much every interview he’s done for the last year and a half reached its zenith when he was six years old. Like a lot of performers who reach a certain point in their careers (that is, their late thirties, which is somewhere near senility for a pop musician, and for a rapper puts you in league with that ol’ Methuselah), they do what many people facing a midlife crisis do. They decide that the music of today is just a bunch of crap. Not even music, really: more a clattering racket, nothin’ but noise made by pesky kids with no appreciation for the unsurpassable tunes of their elders. The fact that people making such claims were often far too young to have actually remember this music the first time around doesn’t slow them down a bit. While the default operation for people reaching this grim stage is to record an album of pop or jazz-vocal standards, it can manifest itself in other ways: an Elvis Costello will start chumming around with string quartets, a Billy Joel will reinvent himself as a classical pianist, even a Queen Latifah will decide that she’s Broadway-bound. As for Dennis Coles, well, he decided to become the hottest soul singer of the 1970s, an era when you didn’t see a lot of people charting with the name “Ghostface Killah.”

This sort of look-ahead-by-looking-back behavior is as predictable as the tides. What’s surprising, though, is that the resulting album — Ghostface’s Fishscale — is not only not an embarrassment, it’s one of the greatest records of the year. It also proved to be a big success despite its architect’s seeming indifference to public perception and alienating comments to whoever would listen that he was bored with hip-hop. Whether it’s a case of a record finding its audience or vice versa, Fishscale has proved to be a watershed moment in the amazingly diverse and successful post-Wu-Tang Clan careers of the individual members. Ghostface’s lyrics are as intense and elaborate as ever, crammed with well-observed detail and passion, but his vocal delivery has acquired a new passion, a fluid rhythm that recalls everyone it needs to, complementing the tour through seventies soul that’s reflected in the terrific beats (by, among others, MF Doom, Pete Rock and J. Dilla). Ghost hasn’t yet found a way to go back in time to when soul was king, but his emotional punch makes you think he probably could if he tried. Dennis Coles has said he’s still gonna be rhyming when he’s in his seventies; I’m not sure if I’d care to hear that, but listening to tracks like “Whip You with a Strap,” “Back Like That” and “Clipse of Doom” (plus, for old times’ sake, a swell Wu-Tang throwdown on “9 Milli Bros.”), he at least sounds like he means it.

8. UNIVERSAL CONSTANT OF THE YEAR: NEKO CASE.

Digging Neko Case is like digging Marilyn Monroe: who doesn’t? Oh, sure, there’s a few mean-spirited detractors who will get their hate on, but Neko is as iconic in her little world as MM was in her big one. The little woman with the big, bold voice has had one of the most impressive careers of the 1990s, taking her from insurgent country to torchy vocal pop to shimmering alt-rock and points beyond. Her dynamite looks don’t hurt, of course — she’s every music nerd’s pinup queen, and her willingness to get naked and talk dirty when the mood strikes her have put her in good standing with the fellas. But such antics, which might alienate female listeners under different circumstances, don’t hurt her, as her restless intelligence and highly adaptable talent make her almost impossible not to like.

In fact, she’s become so universally well-liked — every bit the common-grounder that Jodie Foster is for movie fans, to engage in an ill-fitting cultural mash-up — that you might almost be forgiven for not noticing that she’s, in fact, not only still making music (as opposed to just posing for the covers of glossy magazines), but is actually making the best music of her already impressive career. After closing out 2005 with some impressive vocal performances on the New Pornographers’ Twin Cinema, she headed back into the studio with old collaborators (the Sadies) and new ones (Howe Gelb and, bizarrely, Garth Hudson) to record Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. The result is twelve songs — written and produced by Neko herself, the most single-minded and original work she’s ever done — that coalesce into a near-masterpiece. It’s almost pointless to mention that her voice sounds great; when does it not? What’s especially impressive, though, is the total package: the album is seamlessly produced, musically coherent, and lyrically staggering, with Case’s usual preoccupations — shattered faith, misguided love, and personal betrayal and loss — expressed in ways they’ve never been before. “Star Witness,” “The Needle Has Landed,” and “Margaret vs. Pauline” are among the best songs she’s ever done, and if anyone can sit through this record and not love Neko Case — well, I guess there’s just no pleasing some people.

9. BEST REASON TO HAVE BEEN PATIENT FOR FIVE YEARS OF THE YEAR: BUILT TO SPILL.

Built to Spill hadn’t released a record since 2001 when You In Reverse hit stores in April. They hadn’t released a great record since 1999, when Keep It Like a Secret was a near-consensus pick as one of the best albums of the year. Nobody knew quite what to expect after such a long layoff, but as soon as they cued up the album, they would hear the stunning “Goin’ Against Your Mind,” a flat-out burner that gut-punches everyone who hears it. After five years of waiting, it only took a pounding, fiery nine minutes to convince fans that Built to Spill was still one of the best bands in the world.

The shocking thing about “Goin’ Against Your Mind,” my flat-out, no-questions pick as song of the year, is that anything could follow it, but BtS manage it with aplomb. Doug Martsch’s knotty, twisting guitar lines are as impressive as ever, and the rest of the band has no dust on them, keeping up with him every step of the way on fuzzed-out screamers like “Mess with Time” and roaring neo-punk blasts like “Conventional Wisdom.” There’s not a lyrical standout like Keep It Like a Secret’s “You Were Right.” but Martsch wanders close enough to cleverness to make you notice something on occasion other than the tremendous instrumental sounds shuddering across your speakers. Built to Spill never stop conjuring Neil Young, an obvious touchstone for Martsch’s guitar-playing in particular, but they make plenty of stops along the way, blending it all into a dynamic whole that never particularly sounds like anything more than straight-ahead sizzling rock ’n’ roll, which leaves you wonder why there are so few bands that sound anything like this today.

BtS never set out to become the saviors of rock, and even in their late-’90s heyday were almost never anointed as such; but now, 15 years after recording their first song, that’s pretty much exactly what they’ve become.

10. MOVIE OF THE YEAR THAT I WON’T SEE UNTIL NEXT YEAR OF THE YEAR: SANG SATTAWAT.

Look, global capitalism. I don’t like you, and you don’t like me. We’ve never really gotten along. You ravage the environment, exploit the workers, and eradicate the very notions of privacy, personal space, and social responsibility; I complain a lot, fail to contribute to national productivity, and won’t buy a new car every two years like I’m supposed to. But I have long since decided that you are too big to be effectively fought, just as you have decided that I am too small to really be bothered with. You’re willing to overlook my inability to be useful to your overall functioning, and I’m willing to forgive how you inspire dingbats like Francis Fukuyama to write about how you have ended the role of human agency in the movement of history. We have reached what you might call a separate peace.

So here’s the deal. you arrange it so that I am finally able to see Sang Sattawat (Syndromes and a Century), the critically acclaimed new movie by Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose 2004 production, Tropical Malady, was one of the most beautiful, astonishing and revelatory films of the decade, and I will go easy on you for leading to the construction of a gigantic effigy of Colonel Sanders in the Nevada desert that can only be seen from outer space.