Brent Bozman

McChesney Duntz

William Ham

Dana Knowles

Gary Mairs

Leonard Pierce

Michael Tomczyszyn

Scott Von Doviak

George Wu

The Algonquin Kids’ Table: 2003 Top Ten Lists


Top 10 of 2003

1. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Opened in May in a down-and-out neighborhood in Memphis (a down-and-out kind of city), the Stax Museum is a celebration of Memphis soul, a perfect replica of the original Stax studios and a more triumphant vision of racial harmony than the National Civil Rights Museum uptown (where the tour more or less ends at the balcony on which Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot, as if the Civil Rights Movement stopped right there). Pictures in the lobby document the disrepair into which the original Stax studio fell during the ’70s and ’80s, and finally light upon a picture of a field where the museum now stands with only a lonely historical marker to document the insanely great things that happened at Stax during the ’60s. When you get into the museum, that insane greatness is the official story of Stax. You can hear Steve Cropper and Rufus Thomas talk about Stax’s multiracial approach to soul, funk, and rock. You can hear analytic breakdowns of how Stax’s sound was different from anything else happening in soul, and how the mish-mash of gospel, doo-wop, country, funk, rock, blues and r&b built that ultra-crisp Stax sound on the foundation of Booker T & the MGs. You can see eye-popping examples of excess, such as Isaac Hayes's gold-plated, white-fur-lined Cadillac. And, unlike the defeatist Civil Rights Museum, the Stax Museum brings the history to life.


2. Television — Live at the Old Waldorf (Rhino Handmade). Attention, jam bands! This record illuminates why you suck. Live at the Old Waldorf, the official release of the long-traded Television in San Francisco bootleg, cleans out the noise and demonstrates the peak brilliance of guitarists Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd pretzeling their sounds around each other (and incidentally proving the existence of telepathy). Lloyd, the more formal and restrained of the two in studio, fires off perfectly executed squalls, walking the fine line between precision and emotion, while Verlaine tips the free-form scales into fiery passion, searching for that perfect phrase regardless of time or distance. People called Television the Grateful Dead of punk rock, but neither the Dead nor any of their self-indulgent followers ever had the skill or anger to create music this powerful.


3. The Seven Samurai theatrical re-release (Cowboy Pictures). The Greatest Story Ever Told, on the big screen with deleted scenes and new subtitles, and it was better than my Criterion DVD. It came to Austin in early 2003, and, despite the uncomfortable seats in the theater, held the audience transfixed throughout.


4. Rocket from the Tombs reunion, Austin, Texas, Dec. 13, 2003. Who needs a cure when RFTT is offering a final solution? This seminal protopunk band, which splintered in 1975 into seminal punk bands Pere Ubu and the Dead Boys, featured three of its original five members and two extraordinary stand-ins on this one-time tour: David Thomas (who started the world-shattering Pere Ubu with Peter Laughner upon RFTT’s split) on vocals, Cheetah Chrome (who formed the Dead Boys with drummer Johnny Blitz after RFTT) on Gibson guitar, Craig Bell on bass, with Steve Mehlman (currently of Pere Ubu) filling in for RFTT’s original drummer Johnny Blitz (whereabouts unknown), and Television guitarist Richard Lloyd standing in for the deceased Peter Laughner on the Fender guitar (which is somewhat appropriate, given that Laughner briefly replaced Lloyd in Television in the mid ’70s). After suffering the indignity of creepy beer-throwing assholes who kept interrupting their songs, RFTT started their set over and burned the place down. I’m sure that everyone who saw the band on their too-brief tour felt lucky to experience this sort of chaos-generator, H-bomb, free-jazz noise-rock, probably for only this once.


5. Boob Jubilee: The Mad Cultural Politics of the New Economy: Salvos from the Baffler (W.W. Norton & Company). Read my article.


6. The Decemberists — Her Majesty the Decemberists (Kill Rock Stars). Of all the new albums this past year, this one was the most fun, funny, and literate. It's like listening to Stephin Merritt and James Thurber get ripped and finish each other’s sentences, all set to the sweetest exquisitely catchy chamber-pop this side of Scott Walker. Not many bands with so idiosyncratic and obvious an influence as Neutral Milk Hotel could come into their own, but the Decemberists have the wit and talent to stand out from under Jeff Mangum’s shadow.


7. Alan Moore’s Promethea (America’s Best Comics). Sure, Alan Moore is a seriously odd man with some seriously odd obsessions, but luckily for us, Moore’s obsessions with magic and mysticism have spilled over in this, the greatest of his current series. Promethea is the beautifully drawn and surprisingly realistic tale of a young woman, Sophie Bangs, who becomes the Mother of All Stories, meets God, and then learns of her destiny to end the world. The five issues from 2003 address Sophie’s poignant aftermath of meeting God, fighting with her best friend, and trying to avoid her terrible destiny. As of this writing, however, the end of the world has begun and the end of the series (and with it, Moore’s probable retirement from comics) is due in 2004.


8. Once Upon a Time in the West DVD (Paramount Home Video). Every conceit of the Western genre is pushed to its logical extreme in Sergio Leone’s 1969 classic, from the vast, sprawling landscapes to the clinically tight close-ups and haiku-like sparsity of dialogue. It’s as if Leone had never seen a Western (never mind his considerable previous contributions to the genre), but was trying to film one after having them described to him by a drunken John Ford and Sam Peckinpah. There are maybe 12 scenes total in this three-hour epic, and they’re all iconic. Who cares if it doesn’t make sense? It’s poetry.


9. “The Office” (BBC America). Britain's meanest and funniest show finally came to the United States in 2003. Awkward discomfort has never made me laugh as hard or struck so many nerves, and I’m amazed at the skill with which Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant found the subtle humanity in their cast of losers and monsters. At the end of Season One, I was glad that I didn’t know any of those people. At the end of Season Two, I saw myself in the worst of them. And I still can’t think about the end of the not-yet-released-domestically two-part Christmas Special without losing my last, palest vestiges of cool.


10. This. Being part of The High Hat kicks ass. The people who donate their time and talents to make each issue happen leave me in a constant state of awe, and my world is a better place because of them.

Bottom Five of 2003, or Signs & Portents of the Apocalypse

Sure, I could easily fill a hundred of the worst of 2003 with the words and deeds of the Bush Administration, but to spare you another angry jeremiad, I’ll stick to cultural events.

1. Country music radio’s backlash against the Dixie Chicks. How dare they speak their minds? Don’t they know that celebrities have to march in lockstep with the political leaders of their times, however morally bankrupt? That’s what it means to love America!

2. Willie Nelson & Toby Keith, “Beer For My Horses.” Willie, why do you forsake us? Please tell us that John Ashcroft was threatening to drop a semi-nude statue of Justice on Trigger to force you into recording this obnoxious pro-vigilante, pro-war, pro-frontier justice bullshit with the execrable Toby Keith.

3. Freedom fries. I’ll have mine with “free-speech” ketchup and an “I’m-a-brainless-moron” burger, please.

4. Paris Hilton’s celebrity. Why? Why do I need to know who this rat-faced anorexic brat is? Is she truly as spam-worthy as the noble cause of Nigerian financial solvency?

5. Rush Limbaugh gets his talk-radio show back. … and, meanwhile, the mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws that he supports send less well-connected drug addicts to rot in jail. I guess you’re exempt if you’re a loud-mouthed public Republican. Hey, Bill O’Reilly! Wanna start that smack habit again?