Issue December 31, 2008

Good riddance

This was the year that I finally gave up on pop culture. No, that’s not exactly right. I kept hoping that I’d hear, see or read something worthwhile, and I kept looking, but my disappointment was very nearly universal.

There were a couple surprises that kept me from giving up completely.

While “The Dark Knight” and “Iron Man” (and even “The Incredible Hulk”) were of surprisingly high quality, I was not completely satisfied by any of them. The only big action movie I saw this year that fired on all cylinders was “Speed Racer,” and that one was panned by every single critic who bothered to watch it.

The Wachowski Brothers’ version of the ’60s import was a perfect realization of live-action anime. Everything about it was cranked up to 11: The pace was insane, the colors were mind-bending, the story went all over the map, but every aspect was resolved satisfactorily. The major plot involving the corruption of corporate sponsorship was timely and appropriate (considering the source material). The romantic moments between Speed and Trixie were awkward, and the misbehavior of Spridle and Chim Chim worked as a plot element. And there were three (count ’em, THREE) major races.

The only other movie theater experience that really knocked me out was the trailer for Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen,” which was shown with “The Dark Knight.” With no opportunity to screw up the plot, the trailer delivered everything we could hope for in a big-screen adaptation of the all-time greatest superhero graphic novel. The finished movie will almost certainly disappoint anybody who read the book, but it might also be the first superhero movie to get an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture (if “The Dark Knight” doesn’t score that nod first).

Meanwhile, one of the most profound listening experiences I had this year involved another critical failure, Reality Check, the debut release by a French “neo-new wave” group called the Teenagers. The opening track, “Homecoming,” offers a brutal skewering of stupid American girls; the male singer reports with glee how he met and bedded his American cousin, who is a cheerleader or something like that. Specifically, he sings, in English, I fucked my American cunt.

His version of the story is offset by an alternating version offered by a female vocalist, I loved my English romance. The joke here isn’t just that the American girl is too dense to realize that she was used for sex, but that she can’t tell the difference between the English and French. This was the song that woke me up and got me going in the early days of 2008. Song of the Year.

Runner-up in the Song category would have to go to Neil Hamburger’s “Please Ask That Clown to Stop Crying” from his album Neil Hamburger Sings Country Winners. Basically a spoof of the pathetic talking songs that made Red Sovine famous, “Clown” gets extra points for never revealing why the title character (also the singer) is crying at his daughter’s 7th birthday party when he is supposed to be putting on a show.

As for choosing an Album of the Year, I would almost have to give the title to Guns N’ Roses for finally releasing Chinese Democracy. I haven’t heard it, and I’m sure it’s absolutely atrocious, but being awful, it probably qualifies as the most characteristic example of the year’s albums.

Thankfully, I actually found two records that I genuinely liked from beginning to end, as albums. The best of the two was the almost-eponymous debut by the Dutchess and the Duke, She’s the Dutchess, and He’s the Duke. The lyrics should appeal to fans of Hubert Selby Jr., while the music is as infectious and engaging as the Beatles circa Help!. A bitter pill wrapped in caramel. An absolute masterpiece.

The other album that garnered repeated plays on the old SpongeBob boombox was the Silver Jews’ Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, which defied convention at every turn, twisting classic country music into an obtuse stew of upbeat existentialism. Weird as can be.

As bad as 2008 has been, I am looking forward to the inauguration of Barack Obama. I think it will help to have a leader who can form intelligent, complete sentences and chew with his mouth closed. Will things get better? Can 2009 possibly be worse than 2008? Maybe if everything was on fire.

For further consideration: Listen to David Bowie’s entire catalogue from “The Man Who Sold the World” (1970) through “Scary Monsters” (1980), and then start a band.