Tuesday, December 29, 2009

December Mailbag (Year In Review Edition)

December 2009: the end of a year, a decade, and (sure, why not) an era.

No matter who you are or where your pop cultural allegiances lay, the past year (and past several years) brought plenty to your proverbial table. It's maybe the happiest byproduct of an increasingly accelerated culture: there's a ton of stuff to choose from. Don't like something? Wait ten minutes.

Of course, every blogger, magwriter, talking head, headshrinker, podcaster, and lieutenant of taste is searching for a way to sum up this decade. Everyone wants the all-inclusive cultural stamp that will give the Zeroes a cohesiveness they've thus-far evaded. Nine years later, we haven't even decided what to call this decade (Oughts, Zeroes, O's?), much less how to describe it. It's been said (a lot) that the hallmark of this year--and, in a way, this decade--is how disjointed, incongruous, and difficult to summarize it's been. In 2029, what will we remember as definitive of this era? What pop cultural offerings (films, albums, TV shows, celebrities) will be remembered as typifying American life?

These questions--and a few others--are on the minds of the Blog's readers.

So let's tackle them in December's Mailbag!

(As always, these are questions from actual readers. If you'd like to send one in, just drop me a line! chris@chrismilam.com)

Hey Chris! A while back, you listed some Best Of the Decade nominees for people to vote for. Who were the winners, and what got your vote?
--Ben, Los Angeles

Because of some bad Blogger gadgets, real vote-collecting was rendered impossible. However, I did get a sense from FB/Twitter/email where most folks were leaning. There wasn't a real consensus; if anything, the general consensus was that there is no consensus. People voted more for the "Other" option than anything. This is interesting for a few reasons:

1) It supports my original hypothesis: a Decade Best-Of consensus would be difficult because this decade was defined by fragmented culture, niche-driven media, and highly specialized fanship.

2) People also didn't agree on what constitutes "pop culture," or at least didn't agree with my basic premise: for something to define (or top) an entire decade, more than twelve people had to like it.

3) The closest thing to a consensus is that hip hop's biggest singles had a greater impact and more relevance than those of the other genres. In other words, U2, Bruce, and even Radiohead couldn't touch Outkast, Kanye, and Jay-Z. This is also interesting for the sheer number of people who state, "I like everything, except rap." Yet there's this wordless understanding (among people that don't like rap) that the decade's best hip hop hits probably came the closest to defining this era.

4) If there is a current King of Pop, it's Justin Timberlake. There is an almost universal, overwhelming recognition of/respect for his celebrity in 2009. Considering his image in 1999 , this is a little surprising.

In the interest of full-disclosure, I'll give you my votes for each category. If you'd like to see the full breakdown and nominees, just click here.

Best Rock Album - Green Day, American Idiot
A slightly unexpected pick, since I've rated 21st Century Breakdown above American Idiot, and both were made this decade. They're both remarkable albums--I just happen to like the songs on 21CB a little more. I don't think there's any question, however, that American Idiot was more accurately of its time; 21st Century Breakdown feels like the first record of a new decade more than the last record of this one.
Listen Here: American Idiot

Best Singer/Songwriter Album - Josh Ritter, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter
This is a tough one to call. The mainstream media pick would be either:
1) John Mayer (probably Continuum), because he was the biggest new singer/songwriter of the Oughts, and he seems to have a requisite amount of "Seriousness" to make him a respectable pick.
2) Bruce Springsteen (The Rising), because these whippersnappers ain't got nothing on the Boss, man.
I don't agree with either, because I think better pop albums were made than Mayer's, and better topical albums were made than Springteen's.

The unhappy median would be Conor Oberst/Bright Eyes (I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning/Digital Ash In a Digital Urn), because:
1) He's of this generation.
2) He's "serious," and "topical," and "political," and "these things mattered in the 2000's."
3) Bright Eyes were a seminal band under the greater tent of whatever-people-mean-when-they-say-emo. And, for better or worse, "emo" was an advent of this decade.
Again, this isn't satisfactory, because there were better "serious," "topical," "political," and "stylistically influential" albums this decade, too--albeit less popular.

So, I'm picking what I believe was the best collection of songs released by a singer/songwriter: Josh Ritter's The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter. No atmospheric crooner can touch "Wait for Love," no nascent lyricist can touch "To the Dogs or Whoever," and nobody, period, can top "The Last Temptation of Adam." It's simply the best collection of songs by a singer/songwriter this decade--it just so happens singer/songwriters weren't especially popular this decade.
Listen Here: The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter

Best Hip Hop Album - Outkast, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
As much as I love The Black Album and College Dropout, they came out in the wrong era. The moment Speakerboxxx/The Love Below dropped, everyone else was playing for second.
Listen Here: Speakerboxxx/The Love Below

Best Pop/R&B Album - Amy Winehouse, Back to Black
There's little doubt that it's Timberlake's Popworld and we're all just living in it, but Amy Winehouse had the best--and most relevant--pop album of the Oughts.
Listen Here: Back To Black

Best Rock Single - MGMT, "Time to Pretend"
This was a hard choice, especially because it's nowhere near my favorite rock single. But a vote from my brother (then, oddly enough, ESPN's Sports Guy) got me thinking: there might've been bigger singles, and there might have been personal favorites (mine was My Morning Jacket's "One Big Holiday"). But there was no better rock hit in the Zeroes than "Time to Pretend." It's a twisted, re-imagined Teenage Wasteland, obsessed with celebrity, easy success, and stunted emotional growth. It's equal parts earnest and ironic, rocking and electronic, contemporary and futuristic, dreamy and nightmarish. It sounds like two hypersmart kids trying to put the final nail in rock's coffin--and subsequently bringing it back to life.

Best Hip Hop/Pop Single - Outkast, "Hey Ya"
Truly, the best hip-hop single of the O's was from 1999: Outkast's "B.O.B." Never one to retread old paths, "Hey Ya" focused on the individual warfare of a single relationship, rather than the cultural warfare depicted in "B.O.B." You won't hear "Bush," or "terrorism," or "Paris Hilton" in "Hey Ya"; you'll hear the best, most multi-faceted, bittersweet, jubilant depiction of a relationship gone wrong this side of 2000. And you will hear perhaps the most all-encompassing throwaway lyric of all-time, "Y'all don't wanna hear me/you just wanna dance." I can't think of a better epitaph for the Oughts.

Best TV Comedy - The Office
For transcendent comedy, only Arrested Development's masterful three seasons can compete with The Office's best work. However, AD's influence was limited by its niche audience, while The Office shifted the paradigm of American network comedies. Like Seinfeld in the 90's, it's that rare, great, groundbreaking show that also became a massive hit.

Best TV Drama - The Wire
The exception to my "limited audience, limited influence" rule: The Wire was so much better than every other TV drama (this from a Mad Men superfan) this decade, and so perfectly descriptive of American life in the 2000's, that it simply doesn't matter how many people own the DVD's. If you don't, I promise: it's your fault, not The Wire's. The show's that good, that important, and that characteristic of its time.

This wasn't the best TV drama, or TV show: for my money, The Wire was the best piece of art American pop culture offered this decade.

Best Film Drama - The Departed
It featured arguably the strongest collection of this generation's actors (whether younger actors, or older ones peaking now). It also grappled with The Wire's themes of institutional poverty, crime, blurred moral lines, villainous heroes and heroic villains, and what it means to fight a losing battle. I can't think of a better story to tell from the decade that was.

Best Film Comedy - Royal Tenenbaums
The Departed masterfully tackled societal issues on an individual level; the Royal Tenenbaums characterized individual issues in a social context. The closest thing to a perfect film I've seen this decade.

Agree? Disagree? Let me hear it!

Dear CM, what was your favorite album of the year? Your favorite song? Thanks!
--Rachel, Memphis
You're welcome! This is a great question. Because my favorite song and album are different from what I think were the "best" song and album, I'll answer both:

Best Song of the Year: Green Day "21st Century Breakdown"
It's a more complex, anthemic, and dynamic song than the thematically similar "Know Your Enemy." It's as good a finale for the decade as I've heard, and as good a prologue to the 2010's as we could hope for.

Honorable Mention: Kings of Leon "Use Somebody"
This song has received all the predictable backlash a monster hit engenders. It's blustery, almost too catchy, and the video's beyond ridiculous. It's a lot of things, but dumb isn't one of them. When I first heard it (on the album in late 2008), I thought it was the quintessential Kings of Leon song: "You know that I could use somebody/someone like you" finally juxtaposed the strength/vulnerability conflict KOL's been writing around for years. The play on "use" puts him equally in the passive and active role--the narrator needs someone (he "could use" some company; he's lonely, isolated, exhausted, etc.), but he also knows he could leverage his fame/fortune/celebrity to have anyone's company (hence, manipulating/"using" them). It's a tidy refrain that sums up the band's lonely-rockstar image and executes it to perfection in the song composition itself. Folks who think "Use Somebody" is dumber than "Viva la Vida" either a) aren't paying attention, or b) don't speak English.

Favorite Song of the Year: The Avett Brothers, "I And Love And You"
Gorgeous songwriting, flawless execution, refreshing production, and I heard it the night before I moved to New York. It owned me from the opening chord.

Best Album of the Year: Green Day, 21st Century Breakdown
This was a relatively strong year in the pop/rock world--certainly cause for celebration and optimism leading into the next decade--but I can't make a strong case for anything but 21CB. In 2009, there was Green Day, and there was everyone else.

Favorite Album of the Year: Lucero, 1372 Overton Park
Because there is nothing so exciting--and rewarding--as a music fan than watching a good band become great.

But what were your favorites of the year? Hit up the comments or drop me a line (chris@chrismilam.com) and let me know!


Christofferson! Do you have any New Years resolutions?
--Nicole, New York
First, congratulations to Nicole for being the second person to call me Christofferson. Second, I do have some New Years resolutions. I always make New Years resolutions, because I genuinely believe in everyone's capacity for self-improvement.

I once knew a girl who told me, "New Years resolutions are dumb. I don't make any, because I know I'll forget or abandon them by February. Everyone does. It's a silly ritual and a set-up for disappointment."

Or, you could use an arbitrary date on the calendar to set real, tangible goals for yourself and try to meet them. It's amazing to me when folks believe self-improvement should come from anywhere but them, through hard work, over time. Nothing really good is really quick or really easy...but it is worth it.

Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe I only think this because I'm a masochist, a workaholic, an insomniac, and a hyperactive loon. Hence, I love New Years resolutions. I love making a list of "hard stuff to do" and forcing myself to do it long after I've reconsidered its worth. I make a ton of resolutions. Here are a few for 2010:

New Years Resolutions (A Sampling):
--Write at least 60 new songs.
--Play at least 50 concerts.
--Learn 1 instrument I've never played before.
--Make 1 new album (needs to be made in 2010, not necessarily released in 2010)
--See 5 states I've never seen before.
--Visit 1 country I've never visited before.
--Visit my family in West Virginia.
--Do not miss any birthdays of friends or family.
--Read at least 1 book that I don't want to read.
--Read at least 1 book that's been recommended to me.
--Go see at least 1 movie that I don't think I'll like.
--Talk less.
--Listen more.
--Give up something for Lent (something big, TBD).
--Beat the Phaal Challenge (an Indian place on my block has the hottest curry in America, and I'm destined to conquer it).
--Take (generally) more pictures.
--Pray for other people, when asked. It doesn't hurt anything.
--Never hold back a compliment.

Then there are a bunch of resolutions and goals specific to my career, which might bore you, and a few more personal ones, which might not, but I won't write them.

What are your resolutions? Do you make any? Gonna beat the February jinx this year? Hit up the comments and give them to me--I'd love to hear how 2010's looking better already.


Hillary Brooke said...

CPM, I like your resolve. (A lot. ) I hope you inspire others to make such genuine and True Blue resolutions....actually I can say with confidence that you already have.

Michael said...

I'm in total agreement w/ what you have to say about The Wire. I just wanted to let you know.

Chris Milam said...

Michael, you're a Wirehead? Awesome. So you wouldn't rank Mad Men or (ehem) Lost above it?

Anyone else out there witness to its blinding spectrum of genius?

Any NYE resolutions?

Michael said...

I think the Wire was in a league of its own.

-Eat less food that has ingredients I can't pronounce

-Read more

-Cycle 2000 miles

-Successfully grow tomatoes.

Chris Milam said...

A league of its own, indeed. Also in a league of its own? A League of Their Own. Think about THAT!

Right on with the food-pronunciation-pre-req. I had a sea change a few years ago: all the bad stuff stopped tasting good to me. I'm seriously considering giving up meat for Lent, which is a big deal. Being a carnivore is one of my greatest joys, alongside football and January Jones.

Everyone in East Nashville grows tomatoes. If you need help, look there. I need help spelling tomatoes.

Here's a question: how many miles do you have to bike for that leg of a triathlon?

Michael said...

There are a few types of triathlons -

sprint has a 20km bike ride
olympic has a 40km ride
long has a 90km ride
ultra (or ironman) has a 180km ride

I've done a few 180km rides but not in addition to a marathon and 2 mile swim. That'd be crazy.

I'll let you convert that to miles.

Remember Meewes? He's done multiple ironmans and I'm convinced he has gone completely mad.

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