Cultural Detritus We’ve Enjoyed, 2009 Stylee

Having already exhumed our jazz picks for the year, here’s a list of off-topic items that have excited us over the last 12 months. A peek behind the curtain of our other interests. We’re also extremely curious about what’s affected you this year. We look forward to reading your highlights in the comments.


By no means an 09 phenomenon — though volume 5, vs. the Universe, did come out early in the year — 2009 was nevertheless the year of Scott Pilgrim for me. I don’t think I derived more pure pleasure from any other reading experience, nor looked forward to future volumes — future anything – with more expectancy. These were passed to me one by one, handed off by a friend and work colleague, with the kind of shared passion that recalled nothing more than teenage fandom for a new favorite band. An utterly refreshing look at relationships between a group of North American twenty-somethings, Bryan Lee O’Malley’s sparkling series combines anime, band member frictions, young love lost and found, evil ex-boyfriends, and and some serious ass-kicking into a beguiling, totally winning long-form story. Bonus points for making me feel slightly pervy for flashing these covers on the Brooklyn-bound 4 train. Coming in 2010: the eagerly awaited concluding volume 6, and, inevitably, the (if we must) movie. Bonus Pilgrim material can be found at O’Malley’s SP site, but I strongly recommend starting from volume 1 and going from there.

Also (literally) discovered this year in comics: Daniel Clowes’ David Boring, Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, and Twentieth Century Eightball, all seemingly being discarded by someone on my block. I say seemingly because I still find it hard to believe a person would toss pristine copies of these three books! For me, having only read Ghost World at the time, a mammoth discovery. I recommend all wholeheartedly, especially Velvet Glove, which had my jaw dropping in amazement over and over again — Lynchian weirdness on an intimate scale. Intense.

Dyer is the kind of author who is terribly hard to sell to other people. No two of his books are that much alike, and the “hooks,” such as they are, are varied and usually a little sketchy sounding. I’ll say this: I don’t think anyone else writes a more engaging sentence than Dyer. He is a joy to read, no matter the subject. He’s easily the best writer going when it comes to describing the difficulties of writing itself; he makes not being able to write seem like a noble endeavor. Or at least a worthwhile one. He’s also one of the least pretentious, and least ponderous, of literary types, even if he can be a bit precious. So Jeff in Venice: it’s a two-part affair, as the title suggests. In the first, an art journalist named Jeff is in Venice to cover the Bienale, and has an intense romp — very sexy — while in the second half, an unnamed protagonist (maybe the same Jeff?) plays spiritual tourist at the religious dumping ground that is Varanasi, ultimately losing track of himself. Sex, identity, belief, connection, cultural tourism, death — it’s all here. Though, again, it’s much better than that sounds. I’m glad I’m not his publicist.

Other books of note: Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist; the Parker novels of Richard Stark (aka Donald E. Westlake), currently being reissued by U Chicago Press; Said Sayrafiezadeh’s amazing memoir, When Skateboards Will Be Free. It almost goes without saying that this was a great year in music books, too, the only problem being that I’ve only made progress on George Lewis’ fab (so far) history of the AACM. We look forward to tackling the others on the pile: Robin D.G. Kelley’s Monk bio, the Robert Palmer anthology, more Giddins on jazz, The Jazz Loft Project, Terry Teachout’s Pops

Watched a lot of kids’ TV this year. My favorite show featured at least one musical number per episode. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the evil Dr. Heinz Doofenschmirtz:

Am I a little old to be watching and actively enjoying this program? Yes, yes I am, Joe.


I really whittled my blog reading way down this year, possibly too far down. But I always made room for The Awl. I have a lot of love for this site, which often felt like a little gift basket I got to open in the middle of each work day. Though there are running themes — a strong dose of international news; the “animal interest” story; the state of journalism and movies and culture-making in general — it’s the general unexpectedness that really gives the Awl its bite. That, and the unbelievably high standard of writing — informed, funny writing — with a hit rate that is really unparalleled online. I shudder to think of the work involved in this venture, and am saddened (sometimes) to think at how un-reproduce-able a model it is, depending entirely on the wit, brains, and stamina of its chief contributors and editors. But I do thank my lucky stars it’s around now. The commentariat also pull their weight, somewhat annoyingly.


Like many folks, I was entranced by albums by the xx, Animal Collective, Amadou and Miriam, Broadcast and The Focus Group, Sun O))), Micachu and the Shapes, etc. I was riveted by movies like Hunger, The Limits of Control, The Hurt Locker, Summer Hours, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Lorna’s Silence, etc. And I obsessed over Lost and laughed my ass off at It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. But here are some more rarefied enthusiasms, a few things that might have passed you by.

When people reexamine this year decades from now, I won’t be surprised if Wallace Shawn’s Grasses of a Thousand Colors is one of its key markers. This visionary play was by far the most impressive piece of art I came across. A decade in the making, it’s the culmination of Shawn’s brilliant – if often overlooked – career as a playwright. The joyful dystopian story melds bioengineering, anthropomorphic fairy tales, transgressive sex, and noblesse oblige into a dazzling narrative that’s formally daring and emotionally devastating. It’s impossible to shake off the play’s mysterious allure, mythic resonances, and haunting implications.

This was a good year for literature in general with Dennis Cooper’s Ugly Man, Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Cesar Aira’s Ghosts, Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas, My Vocabulary Did This To Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, Roberto Bolano’s 2666, The Complete Stories of JG Ballard (R.I.P.), and much else.

The BFI deserves an ovation for releasing this lavish 4-disc set of little-known British filmmaker Jeff Keen. What might initially seem like folly and overkill quickly reveals itself to be essential and long overdue. Since the mid-60s, Keen has expertly mixed camp narratives and kinetic animations, creating fistfuls of short-form masterpieces like White Dust and Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke that are ravishing, dreamy, trashy, fun. Elements of Kenneth Anger, Terry Gilliam’s animations, and John Waters are compacted into a singular aesthetic that Keen has dubbed “Kino-blatz!” Delirious and deliriously entertaining.

Other essential DVDs: John Cassavete’s best film, Husbands, was finally released in its full version; Antonioni’s eye-popping and unfairly maligned  Zabriskie Point proved to be ahead of its time; American Treasures IV: Avant Garde Film 1947-1986 offers the best deal — 26 exceptional and uber-rare films, carefully restored with new scores and lavish packaging, at recession-friendly prices.

When it comes to music, the past seems inexhaustible. A cadre of industrious small labels has been exploring the far reaches of so-called world music and finding gold where indigenous musics started to adopt psychedelic textures. Revelations have run the gamut from Welsh Rare Beat to fuzzed-out Turkish folk to Benin’s hypnotically funky Orchestre Poly Rythmo de Cotonou. For an expansive sampler of the phenomenon, check out this fall’s excellent Psych-Funk 101.

Recently, I’ve been knocked out by Dirty French Psychedelics, a compilation of Gallic tunes from the 1970s that evokes an enchanted era of briefly glimpsed utopias and unusual possibilities, a sleeve in time somewhere between punk and disco where chanson singers and classical composers briefly shared the same avant-pop sphere.  The tunes are seamlessly sequenced and by the end you can almost draw the outlines of a time period that has evaporated like smoke and may have only existed in the compiler’s minds – and now in yours.

Another rich vein has been Brazil’s Pernaumbuco scene. This wild and woolly underground was tangentially inspired by Tropicalia, but concocted it’s own far-flung mix of ethnic music, guitar-drenched psych blowouts, and free jazz. The main touchstone is Lula Cortes and Ze Ramalho’s epic Paebiru (1974), but Time-Lag Records has also unearthed highly worthwhile works involving Lula Cortes like Rosa de Sang and Satwa.

Maybe I’m just reliving some acid-flashback teenage freakout, but what’s most striking about these historic excavations is how forward looking the music remains.

Picturebox’s massive Gary Panter tome was a visual neutron bomb dropped on my head. Although it skimped on his great comix work, his paintings, sketches, posters, and sculptures were more than enough to leave a permanent and pleasing dent in my psyche. File it between the Jumbotron and the African sculpture.

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