HAPPY EFFING NEW YEAR and, oh yeah, our YEAR END TOP 10 lists!!!

January 2004
By Scott Speh

So when compiling these year-end best-of lists, I usually scan the previous year's columns to jar my memory, to remember what I liked during the year. And I discovered that I only wrote ONE stinking column this year. So effing embarrassing. I could apologize to you, loyal reader (readers?) but whatever. I was busy.

With this column we won't screw around: no malternatives, no potshots at celebrities, no griping about commercials. I was going to rant about this new comic the Tribune is running called Frazz, about an erudite 25 year old grade school janitor, but I'll save it for the next column. We'll tear through some art from the last six months, mostly from Chicago and then scream into the New Year with my highly anticipated (?!) recap of popular culture from 2003.

Don't Fail Me Now at TBA, River North, Chicago

A wonderful grace note opens this show: Amanda Ross-Ho's Trenchcoat, a Sir Walter Raleigh chivalrous gesture, looks to be an overcoat thrown over a puddle, which you encounter upon entering the space. If you follow the show in a clockwise path, you next see Ross-Ho's Raincloud, a cartoonish cloud, cut from a newspaper that spews a narrow stream of golden and colored threads, that are affixed with arrows, doilys, fake leaves, dead balloons, paper cups, chewing gum, sea shells and other sad bits of trash. The melancholic gray rain cloud overwhelms this colorful, playful rain. It's basically trash. And even if the text in the newspaper cloud didn't contain reviews of a Grateful Dead show, the piece would still be a wistful rumination of a failed hippie dream. I love this piece.

I also love David Altmejd's disturbing horror-film-crossed-with-Sesame-Street sculptures, which I last witnessed at Matthew Ritchie's killer "demonclownmonkey" show at Artist's Space in New York City last year. He slathers his signature werewolf head with tar and then bejewels it with gaudy costume baubles. A cheap necklace dangles from beneath the bust, unfussily connected by hot glue that looks like a sussed up drip of spunk. The whole thing is capped off with a crappy brunette wig in a bob cut, matted and mottled with clumps of hot glue. It's a horrific, pornographic, unsettled slice of debased beauty. The other Altmejd (who will be in this year's Whitney Biennial) sculpture across the gallery is better (or worse, considering your sensibilities): a female mannequin head, hollowed out and charred, as if a grenade carved off the face. It's propped by a wooden dowel leading down to a wooden base covered with plaster droppings, like it's been ripped straight out the studio. A dragonfly broach attached to a wire strand wrapped around the dowel pokes out the left of the base. This abomination (and I mean this in the best sense of the word) is "pretty vacant" to rob a Sex Pistol's title.

Curators Keri Butler and Lisa Williamson give us a palette cleanser next in Molly Smith's handsome landscapes. Modest black silhouettes on gray grounds depict mountains, valleys and lakes. These works are certainly contemplative and have a simple grandeur; they are also a little haunting, the silhouette robbing the scenes of any specificity. Her next work seems odd and out of character at first, as it seems to be goofy and fun. Propped against the wall is an 8' tall cardboard blob, kind of a ghost, with wedge sliced out halfway down the right side. Cut green construction paper unfurls from this wedge, which looks like a mouth. It's hilarious. This piece, titled Mountain, actually works within her landscape project: an abstracted natural form, a cartoon Half Dome in Yellowstone Park, with a green waterfall. So I now see it as a punky mountain sticking its tongue out at us.

The curators seem to veer from the cartoonish and garish to the contemplative and haunting from piece to piece, making this the rare group show that takes you on a rollercoaster ride where the valleys are just as fascinating as the peaks. The most outlandish piece is also the largest: Meg White is so Hot for Me. The first time through the show, I did not look at a works list, so I didn't necessarily know whose work was whose. And on first reaction, I thought woman made Meg White is so Hot for Me. This blocky, gigantic, chunky sculpture of cleaved together styrofoam harkens back to the White Stripes video Fell in Love with a Girl, you know, the one where she and Jack White were depicted in Lego form. Here Meg is frozen in full bash mode, raising her arms, ready to beat the hell of the drum kit, on top which the artist affixed a photo of Jack White, his face all scribbled out with black marker. I thought this was total a riot-grrl style empowerment piece, saying that Meg rocks! And that she doesn't need no stinkin' Jack White to rock! Well, a dude made the piece, Andy Moore and its title is Meg White is so Hot for Me, so I was, like, so wrong. The second time I was wrong in this show. (I thought the cardboard mountain was a goofy cartoon blob). But if I also mention exhibit B, Andy Moore's other piece, Rabit the Class Warrior, you might also think that a woman might've made these works. This shitty little drawing (in the best sense, again) shows a scribbled rendering of Eminem, with text scrawled across it: "Em, I like your class based themes. They are fucking great but why do you have to be such a woman hating homophobe. I mean, you are undermining the good stuff by being small and stupid."

There's a lot of rock and roll in this show. Rock inspired art often celebrates the power, empowerment and thrill of music. Many of the works in this show take a decidedly more complicated view. Aligning oneself with notions like the power of rock, or the ideals of the hippie generations, or the Romantic awe of nature's glory often leads to disillusionment. See the failed hippie dream in Ross-Ho's Raincloud or Altmejd's mannequin head. Jay Heikes' Kill Yr Idols Part 1, taps into this messy behavior by exaggerating song lyrics in heavy metal-style gothic script in playful cut felt. The care, craft, labor of rendering words forged by rock gods seems to be a glorifying act, "All hail the mighty power of rock!" yet he throws them on floor in a casual pile. Is it a comment on the media constantly building up and tearing down pop idols, or is it a personal response to the endless anticipation and disappointment inherent in perpetuating this mythology?

The show started with that sweet gesture of the coat covering the puddle, possibly raising expectations for good things to come. But we shouldn't forget that puddle. The curators might be giving us a cautionary tale. Sure, indulge in whatever sort of idol gets you through the day but beware the fall. The title of this show is hopeful, Don't Fail Me Now, but it's also a demand. Perhaps we should refer to that noted philosopher Billy Joel, who told us in 1983's Keepin' the Faith that "the good ole days weren't always good and tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems." You know, keep hoping for the best. Butler and Williamson end the show on a similarly positive note: Amanda Ross-Ho's Rainbow, a cheery C-print of multi-hued clothes hanging from a hook in the bathroom, a casual and sunny scene that sent me out to the street with a smile on my face and spring in my step.

Paul Nudd at Bodybuilder & Sportsmen, West Loop, Chicago

Nudd's doodles rank with the weirdest: his furry, intestinal, flecked, accretioned, orgasmic corpuscles pulsate with ooze and energy and recall the more disgusting sections of R. Crumb, Mark Alan Stamaty, Erik Parker and Mike Kelley's graphic oeuvre. But hot damn, his videos, I could watch them forever. In miniature, cave-like interiors, Nudd sets up hybrid scenes combining swamp-like naturalism and other-worldly f/x. While Nudd's drawing seem to pulsate, his images in the video projections are always gurgling and splattering, with bubbles exploding, paint spewing, and goo drips and oozes. I think of them as screen savers: there's no beginning middle or end. And they mesmerize: were I to have them on a continuos loop on a monitor in my house, I would never get anything done as I would stand there, slack-jawed, spit oozing from chin in perfect mimicry of Nudd's feral imagery.

Scott Fife at Bodybuilder & Sportsmen, West Loop, Chicago

Fife makes busts of rock and jazz icons, both dead and alive, that are ugly, but in a really great way. I don't know if it was my hangover or what, but I felt a little dizzy in front of these massive weighty sculptures, as if they had this irrepressible stolidity that threw everything in their vicinity off their vortex. But seriously, these busts, hewed from cardboard, wood, wood screws, glue, all seams visible and visceral and painted with an impossible, impassive gray, seem rooted in classical sublimity yet retained a palpable sense of now.

Laura Owens at Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Owens is only the most influential painter of the Nineties, so our overlooked Midwestern wasteland was lucky to have an excuse to visit Milwaukee, the new jewel of great lakes, for the second stop of her travelling retrospective. Owens is also my favorite painter or at least my favorite famous painter (otherwise, I'm quite partial to Dan Attoe), though the monkeys do nothing for me, nor do the sleeping children. But the paint, I come to Owens for the paint. Yum, yum, yum, the thick, ropy, clunky, stupid and fresh chunks of pigment, often squeezed directly from the tube, get my juices flowing. There's at least one masterpiece in the show. I'd tell you the title, but she doesn't title any of them, so telling you its' title is Untitled, 1997, does, like, nothing for you, or me. Anyway, you know in kid's drawings, when they portray faraway birds in silhouette against the sky in little, loopy Vs? Owens places two of these abstract birds and their shadows against an effortless Carolina blue. I love the tension between the bottom 1/16 of the painting where the gray and cerulean and deep blue paint (mixed with modeling paste) is taffy-times-three thick against the weightless upper 15th of that blue sky. I also love the bird silhouettes and their shadows. Each bird is squeezed out in a clumsy rope and a spray painted shadow follows about 4 inches behind and to the left. This is SO dumb. Birds can't have shadows against the sky, unless they're in a painting, of course. Nevertheless, the visual frisson - the illusion that the bird Vs are dimensional, and that they seem to flying right off the canvas, as if they're hovering in front of the canvas - is uncanny.

The world's worst painted bees, hamfisted globs of ochre and black, delineated with pathetic, skinny tube squirts for wings, hover around some cool, flatly painted beehives. These hives started a strand of her work that can only be described as child-like. One gigantic canvas depicts smiley-face figures posing as sheriffs and pirates running amok through the woods underneath an imposing inverted rainbow. This rainbow directly references Noland, even down to the stain application but it's stripped of any abstract context with all the flora and fauna below: deer, mountain goats cavort in Old West motifs, waves (or wheat fields?) mountains and forests on raw, unprimed linen. Wildlife populates much of the newer works. Bears, orangutans, mountains, butterflies are painted in varying degrees of improving realism, while the chunk and funk of her early paint explosions are played down. She's either staining unprimed canvas or building up washes on selectively pre-masked sections of gessoed canvas.

The genre exercises do not work. Owens is oft lauded for her for allegiance to no one style, to explore the efficacy of painting in several idioms of depiction. Whatever. I hate her figurative stuff, especially when she cops Elizabeth Peyton's washy, liquid style - though not as shimmery -- for an untitled canvas from 2002-03 of two lovers embracing in what could be the cover of a pulpy, Fifties romance novel. For an artist who has inspired legions of female grad school painters, it's odd to see her rip off a contemporary's style. Maybe it's homage. I couldn't stomach the untitled soccer players consoling one another, painted with wispy, effete, strokes, and plopped, almost collaged, into a shit brown puddle. For artists like Peyton and Billy Sullivan to employ this almost ephemeral approach seems appropriate to their subject, with Owens it seems capricious, as subject matter has never been the driving force in her program. Maybe she's looking at the popularity of new figuration with artists like John, Currin, Lisa Yuskavage, Peyton et al., and wants to jump on that bandwagon. Strange after the bandwagon she's led: Pia Fries, John Cheever, Michael Reafsnyder, Dennis Hollingsworth, Scott Reeder and those thousands of grad students still look to her as leading light. I still get a visceral thrill from her earlier, more abstract paintings, or even her Kevin Appel-like painting of an art gallery but am concerned with the impishness of her current direction.

Julia Hechtman and Jon Parot at Dogmatic, Pilsen, Chicago
Jon Parot, 12x12, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

Julia Hechtman employs a playful cultural appropriation, and appreciation, in the upper gallery at Dogmatic, still Chicago's most kick-ass gallery. A looped video of Hechtman mugging for the camera, close-up shots of roller skaters and mirror-balls and extreme close-ups of her jewelry set to a slowed-down version of Michael Jackson's Rock with Me provides a soundtrack for her large photos mounted on light boxes. Hechtman re-envisions her youth in the hip-hopping streets of early 80s Brooklyn by dressing as a take-no-shit latina, replete with gaudy necklaces, belt buckles and big time attitude. Julia wears a gold necklace with pendant spelling out her name in a chunky font that seems more funky than it actually is. I always been fascinated with it but have avoided a sustained study as I don't want her to think I'm staring at her chest when I'm really staring at her bling-bling. My favorite photo shows her upper torso and neck. Her top has a plunging neckline so I get to examine the pendant and stare at her cleavage!

Jon Parot may well be my favorite artist in Chicago (besides Stan Shellabarger, of course) and his two drawings in Dogmatic's basement are breathtaking! Both use a inkjet print of Velvet undergound singer and 60's ice queen Nico as a backdrop. Her vacant expression, staring into space, her sense of ennui is palpable. Parot arts these inkjet prints, one in color and one not, up with his signature funky deco geometric doodles, like crystallized rain or tear drops. Or they could be abstract lips or clouds. Like Nico's ambivalent expression, Parot's imagery can be imbued with all kinds of interpretation or projections. If you're feeling sinister, they could be free-base residue or bong crystals. Or if you're a little blue, tear drops fit the bill. In the color print, Parot neatly inscribes the following: "Endless reverie, How could I escape your gaze? Don't try to save me. Wanna drown in your purple haze." In the black and white reads "Already bored with my new tattoo, the one I got especially for you." He mounted these two drawing on lurid purple blobs that sweep across two walls, an elegant and louche touch. And... his 12x12 show at the MCA fucking rocked. It made me want to cry, to pull out my old Heart and Zeppelin albums and most especially, do canyonloads of blow. I've never done blow and I never will. But never have mountainous peaks of cocaine looked so alluring to me. It's like that David Lynch movie "Wild At Heart" made me want to smoke, the way Lynch romanticizes, dammit, eroticizes the cigarette.

Jeremy Blake at Feigen, Chelsea, New York City

Aren't you getting sick of 30-something artists mythologizing the 60's? Me too! (except for Parot, of course. Parot pop for pathos, not for romance) They weren't there. Sure, all that sex and drug use sounds like good, dirty fun. And the fashions were cool. But those people are dead now. Blake's digital video projection employs every fucking cliché of that era: glamorizing the parties, the narcotics, the gossip, the psychedelics - he even overlays the sound of hiccups and crackles of a turntable and then swirls in some his signature amorphous, abstracty blobs. It's alternately a pretentious and cloying piece of shit, and yet….I really liked it!

Pablo Helguera at Julia Friedman, West Loop, Chicago

Pablo Helguera' Parallel Lives could be the artistic equivalent of being told to eat your vegetables, or least taking a field rip in grade school to a really boring museum. The installation has this natural history museum feel, little dioramas, grainy old-time photos, idiosyncratic objects that rest somewhere between art and idolatry and head sets for self-guided tours. And you can't fully comprehend this show without the self-guided tour. Helguerra presents 10 or so objects and/or photos through the space, with 5 sets of accompanying numbers that correspond to narrations on the self-guided tour. He's weaving together the lives of 5 individuals or belief systems, from the last remaining Shaker community, the archivist of the Guggenheim museum, the world's worst opera singer, a builder of memory containers, and Frederick Froebel, the inventor of Kindergarten. This project could've been extremely dull, in fact, it looked a little dry, a little imposing, and it was certainly time consuming. But were you to give up 45 minutes of your life, these stories come to life like the best stories on This American Life or the documentaries of Errol Morris.


Art Exhibitions (see either above or the last column for descriptions):

1. STERLING RUBY, Free Association Always Ends Up With Pelvic Mirroring, 1R Gallery, West Loop, Chicago
2. DON'T FAIL ME NOW at TBA, River North Chicago
3. JON PAROT at Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
4. VINCE DERMODY, Suitable Gallery, Humboldt Park, Chicago
5. PHILLIP GUSTON at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
7. EL GRECO at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
8. PAUL NUDD at Bodybuilder & Sportsmen, West Loop, Chicago
9. JAY HEIKES, Kill Yr Idols, Vedanta, West Loop, Chicago
10. ERIK WENZEL, Dog Height / Nirvana Paintings, Gallery X, SAIC, Downtown Chicago
11. PANCAKE BREAKFAST, Law Office, Wicker Park, Chicago
12. KATY FISCHER, Suitable Galler,y Humboldt Park, Chicago and Julia Friedman Gallery, West Loop, Chicago
13. SIEBREN VERSTEEG at Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
14. LAURA OWENS at Milwaukee Art Museum
15. JULIA HECHTMAN AND JON PAROT at Dogmatic Gallery, Pilsen, Chicago


My TV addiction waned this year, especially on Wednesday nights: Dawson's Creek ended and I just can't do the West Wing anymore. I can only go four or five years with these dramas - they get stale and predictable. Tell me one, just one, interesting storyline on NYPD Blue or ER in the last five years. TWW got desperate and they lost me. So the only drama I watch is 24, which is still gripping, just gripping, dammit. In fact my top shows are pretty much the same as last year, only one new entry. Plus the Sopranos and Curb Your Enthusiasm showed no new episodes this year.

1. The Daily Show - I get way too much of my news from this show. I love Jon Stewart's pithy and understated indignance and Steven Colbert's over-the-top deadpan.
2. 24 - I always have at least one date a week: at 9pm with Kiefer! Though this most recent plot twist, almost a Dallas-like everything was dream, is close to a deal-breaker.
3. Scrubs - So pleasant this show is, it always brings the wry.
4. PTI - Hi, my name is Scott Speh and I am a Tony Kornheiser addict. I listen to his radio show religiously, read his Washington Post column on the rare occasions he actually writes one and watch PTI whenever I can. I need help.
5. The Simpsons - This week Homer said he was "soberish."
6. Arrested Development - The one new show worth watching (until I get caught up with the OC, which looks like a promising replacement for my beloved teen dramas, Dawson's and Felicity). Shown in a jittery hand-held quasi documentary style, AD chronicles a spoiled upper crust Orange County family whose patriarch is in jail for insider trading. The middle son, played by former child star Jason Bateman, futilely attempts to keep the family business afloat amidst his insane and hilarious family. Particularly and satisfyingly infuriating is David Cross as Bateman's brother-in-law, who quit his psychiatry practice to pursue an acting career. He has no talent. He is also a "never nude" - he can't be completely nude and always wears skimpy cut-off jeans, to bed, in the shower, under his clothes. The delicious Portia de Rossi plays his wife, a layabout mother who constantly harasses her brother for money, while they bond against their marinated and mildly evil mother. All in all, it's a wickedly funny look at entitlement and supreme weirdness in California. Oh yeah, the majestic Jeffrey Tambor, he of "Hey Now" Hank Kingsley from HBO's The Larry Sanders Show fame, plays with the jailed patriarch with malevolent glee.
7. King of the Hill - So I think all I watch now is Fox on Sunday nights and Comedy Central.
8. Insomniac - As I am a professional business traveler, I'm always looking for new places to get drunk when on the road, so Dave Attel and his dirty mind and mouth provide me a perfectly hilarious and bawdy travelogue.
9. Bernie Mac - Yay, Bernie Mac is now on Sunday night on Fox! This show doesn't have a ton of laugh-out-loud laughs, but he's infinitely watchable, balancing his no-bullshit parenting with a creeping tenderness.
10. Andy Richter Saves the World - Those idiots at Fox! How could they cancel this insanely creative, fresh look at office politics? If they had only put it on Sunday night…


We're counting down, Casey Kasem style, in reverse, to increase the tension. Like last year, any of the top three songs would've been worthy for the top slot. But only one thug could muscle his way to the top of Scott's pops.

25. He War - Cat Power: OOOHHH, that sinister, wicked little guitar just nails this venomous screed.
24. Beautiful - Clem Snide: This alt-country-ish melancholy cover of the Christina song just proves how fucking great it is!
23. Move Your Feet -- Junior Senior: The years perfect disposable pop song. Gets you pumping on the dance floor or be-bopping at your desk in the office (wearing headphones of course so you look like an idiot, but it's ok. The shit rocks) and then when its over, you've completely forgotten it. I wish french fries were like that.
22. Stay Loose - Belle & Sebastian - I'm not much of a fan of this twee popsters, but this song was so weird. A structurally complex mini-epic, I was particularly freaked out by the Allman Brothers-lite guitar bridge.
21. Los Angeles, I'm Yours - The Decemberists: Arch, Baroque, decadent pop, a fin de siecle vibe with a undercurrent of evil
20. 21 Questions - 50 Cent: A middling to decent mid-tempo rap ballad that is on this list for the single best line in any song this year: "I love you like a fat kid loves cake."
19. Just Because - Jane's Addiction: Damn, who'd thunk that Jane's had it in them. The best nostalgia act of the year.
18. Ride of a Black Swan - ZWAN: A sweeping, soaring journey to classic, prog-rock guitar heaven.
17. I Can - Nas: I've never jumped on the Nas bandwagon like most hip-hop heads, but I'm a sucker for children belting out the hooks in a hip-pop song, like Jay-Z's "Hard Knock Life."
16. Where's the Love - Black Eyed Peas: A question I often ask as well.
15. The Leaving Song Pt. 1 - AFI: Wow, 80's metal is back! Not the hair metal stuff, but Iron Maiden, Queensryche prog inspired bombast. Well, it's a little hair - the screeching in the chorus recalls the golden locked glories of White Lion.
14. Rock your Body - Justin Timberlake: JT channels early Micheal Jackson - -the pop isn't quite as perfect but the mood definitely sexier - -I love the "I'm gonna have you naked by the end of this song" line.
13. Amsterdam - Guster: An inoffensive, perfectly pleasant pop confection that totally sounds like college radio circa 1989.
12. Holidae In - Chingy, Ludacris and Snoop: As a business traveler, my hotel of choice is Holiday Inn, so I kinda think this is my theme song. I now answer the phone with" I'm jus chillin at the Holidae In, why dontcha come over and bring four of your friends."
11. Where have all the rude boys gone? - Ted Leo and the Pharmacists: When I first heard this song on I thought, what the hell is a modern rock station doing playing a Thin Lizzy song? A spirited, jaunty reminiscensce of the Big Beat era and the best damn electric guitar workout on alt-rock radio
10. Beautiful - Christina Aguilera: By far the best, full-throated bombastic ballad of the new century. I love belting out this one in the car. And dammit, I AM beautiful. No matter what you say, words can't bring me down!
9. Like a stone - Audioslave: Most of the album sounds labored as the angular, metal/funk stomp of Rage so doesn't mesh with Chris Cornell's classic rock bellowing, but this song reaches the right heights.
8. Danger! High Voltage - Electric Six: Perhaps the funnest rock song of the year, Electric Six seem to do for the dance floor what Andrew WK did last year for mosh pit. Fire in the Taco Bell,indeed!
7. Stacy's Mom - Fountains of Wayne: Seriously, the second best sexist, I-want-to-fuck-an-older-woman song and video ever, just after the Van Halen classic, "Hot for Teacher."
6. Beautiful - Snoop Dogg: The Neptunes to the rescue again, will Pharrell William's falsetto never fail? 'Cept that Snoop more than holds his own with the ace production. We almost believe his sincerity.
5. Senorita - Justin Timberlake: JT does it again. This is the song where I decided that he has real talent and isn't just reaping the benefits of killer production. Even if he's copping a Stevie Wonder vibe, I feeling the organic warmth. And lovin' the call and response from the guys and the ladies.
4. Reignition (remix) - R. Kelly: This is a much better mid-tempo romp, R. Kelly's silkiness drives us through an all-night party. Love the part about the "hotel lobby."
3. Crazy Love - Beyonce: She rocks your body -- your pelvis gyrates involuntarily. You cannot NOT dance to this song. And Jay-Z just brings down the house. His confidence is infectious.
2. Hey Ya - Outkast - Rob Sheffield in Rolling Stone said it best: "If you don't like this song, then you don't like music."
1. In da Club - 50 Cent: This song - despite everything wrong with 50 Cent: the materialism, the thug bullsHIt, the 80's crack dealer mentality, the misogyny - is simply undeniable. An update of Danny and the Juniors "At the Hop", In da club is so simple -- a perfect marriage of Dr. Dre and Eminem's sensibilities: the swooping synths offsetting the menacing minimal guitar riff -- yet it packs the dance floor every time. Plus I think it's nice the Fitty tells us he's "a'ight" after declaring that he's been hit with a shiv and walks with a limp.


1. Speakerboxx/The Love Below - Outkast: Messy, overlong, crazy - I would not change a thing. Some critics wish they'd sand down the rough edges and condensed both discs into a single CD. Hell, the mess is fascinating. I've always been more of a fan of Andre's weirdness and willingness to expand the rap game, but damn if Big Boi's classic style doesn't rock! As subtly experimental and envelope pushing as Andre's disc is more extravagant.
2. Greendale - Neil Young: No rocker of his age, save for Bob Dylan, is still this driven and true to his artistic ambitions. Young unleashes a multimedia explosion - a cd, dvd, and concert chronicling a California family suffering through the struggles of modern life. He reaches into his immense grab bag of styles to tell the stories - somber acoustic ballads, lead-footed guitar stomps and just plain cranky and weird touches, like screaming a chorus through a megaphone. Young looks a the changes technology and the media and small-mindedness have ravaged through his lifetime and finds solace in his regular themes of love, family, saving the earth and never becoming, as he famously slammed CSN "park bench mutations."
3. Hearts of Oak - Ted Leo and the Pharmacists: Ever wonder what it would sound like to combine Elvis Costello and Thin Lizzy, with a dash of pre-rave Manchester pop?
4. Elephant - The White Stripes: How can they sound evil and sweet in the same song, song after song?
5. Justified - Justin Timberlake: Haters, step back, JT is the real deal, yo. Last year, the Neptunes were the best thing going on pop radio. In 2003, Justin makes the radio tolerable. Sure he colaborates with the best (Neptunes, Timbaland etc.) and maybe he doesn't write all his lyrics or arrange his songs, but damn, the boy can get yo ass moving on the dance floor.
6. Hail to the Thief - Radiohead: So we were all hoping for a "return to rock" but yet another Radiohead disc that is entrancing and oddly addictive.
7. Mary, Star of the Sea - Zwan: A majestic orgy of buzzing guitars. Pay special attention to Jimmy Chamberlain's thunderous drumming. His punch girds the soaring six string attack and Billy Corgan's oft incredulous vocals. Chamberlain nows gain entry to the pantheon of contemporary rock drummers. The others? Dave Grohl, Phil Selway, Lars Ulrich, Steve Shelley, Travis Barker, Alice Bludgeon. Will he or any of the other reach the John Bonham, Keith Moon, Charlie Watts, Neil Peart level? Only time will tell…
8. War All the Time - Thursday: Lots of screaming, redolent of the restless inventive energy of the erstwhile At the Drive-In, these New Jerseyites look for meaning in the mess of the aftermath of 9/11.
9. Room on Fire - The Strokes: A blatant redux of "Is this it?" but so what?
10. On the Beach - Neil Young: This one's a reissue from 1974, previously unavailable on CD and vinyl copies are few and far between, On The Beach is Neil at his crankiest. Most of the songs lurch and creak into the cold, dark night as Neil stares down the failure of 60's idealism, the increasing influence of Hollywood, and his failed relationships. On the Beach starts with the upbeat "Walk On" which only sounds jaunty, as it's a scorching indightment of encroaching conservativism and laziness of his former bandmates Crosby, Stills and Nash: "Some get stoned, some get strange, But sooner or later it all gets real. Walk on." Then the next song, "Revolution Blues" is a real doozy: a paranoid fantasia where a gun toting Young shits on everything and everyone and creeps one and all out, perhaps channeling Manson, with this oft quoted lyric:
I got the revolution blues, I see bloody fountains,
And ten million dune buggies comin' down the mountains.
Well, I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars,
But I hate them worse than lepers and I'll kill them in their cars.

The rest of the album is just as fascinatingly bleak.

What's not on this list?
I write this with a heavy heart, but Andrew WK's "The Wolf" will not make my best-of list. I'm still a huge fan and trekked up to Milwaukee to see him rock Summerfest last year. But this new disc…it really sucks. AWK forgot that the rock is what makes his over-the-top cheesiness so palatable and on "the wolf" he forgets to rock. I go back "I Get Wet" and hear that the synths, the soccer chants, the solos are grounded by Slayer-worthy heavy riffage. "The Wolf" is overloaded with syrupy, cavity-inducing high key guitar solos. Remember the Top Gun soundtrack and how ridiculously heroic the background music was. Take that and multiply by one hundred. And a majority of the songs are mid-tempo. Dude, you do not need to be writing mid-tempo songs. And the lyrics, never his strong suit but on "I Get Wet" usually pitch perfect, rarely rise beyond Tony Robbins self-improvement malarkey. It's just sad, so sad.


1. School of Rock - My favorite flick of the year. Sure it's formula, but it's rare when formula is executed so damn well. Plus Jack Black explodes of the screen. Black: "I'm hungover. Do you know what that means?" Snotty kid: "That you're drunk." Black: "No, it means I was drunk yesterday." And you know how much I like rock movies. This one out rocks them all. I was grinning from ear to ear afterwards and I immediately called everyone I knew to demand that they see this. Considering my obsession with rock and pop in the movies, I'm insanely jealous that Mark Caro wrote this pithy, efficient sentence in the Chicago Tribune: "School of Rock is the movie version of a perfect three-minute pop song."
2. American Splendor - Love Paul Giamiatti. Good to see him graduate from veteran character actor in this engrossing interpretation of underground comic writer Harvey Pekar. The film fascinates with its triple degrees of representation. Giamatti plays the irascible Pekar, a Cleveland malcontent who befriended R. Crumb and started writing a comic book about his life as file clerk at a VA hospital. Then Pekar himself appears, commenting on the story and Giamatti's performance. Pekar collaborates with a different cartoonist with each issue of his comic "American Splendor" so cartoon version of Pekar pop up in the film.
3. Lost in Translation - Nothing really happens in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation. I loved it for its sense of place. Few movies give you such a palpable feel for the city it's set in. Tokyo is the third star, after Bill Murray's winsome mugging and the sublime Scarlet Johannsen's ennui. It's almost a travelogue, capturing all that's weird, idiosyncratic and romantic about contemporary Tokyo.
4. Bad Santa - The perfect antidote for my Xmas crabbiness. How can you go wrong with a movie where adults cuss at kids, dwarves get drunk, bar sluts yell "fuck me Santa, fuck me Santa" and everyone get kicked in the nuts.
5. Shattered Glass - You wouldn't think a procedural about a lying journalist would be so engrossing. But it is. Great look at a sneaky charmer and some gripping inside baseball about hubris and arrogance in the political publishing world.
6. Thirteen - I thought this would be a trashy, soap operatic look at the oh-so-wild youth of America, and it was a little bit. A little reminiscent of Larry Clark's "Kids" though without the creepy, Michael Jackson-ish lust, Thirteen nonetheless grabs you by the throat as it's smart 13 year-old protagonist all to willingly plunges into sex and drugs in a quest to fit in with the cool kids. Sure it's a tale oft told, but director Catherine Hardwicke and especially powerhouse actress Holly Hunter gives us a convincing taste of lower middle class single mom struggling to keep her family together. The girls gone wild stuff is a tad hyperbolic but from everything I see through my job in visiting high schools, Thirteen is not without it's truths.
7. A Mighty Wind: Can Christopher Guest and his mighty crew do no wrong?! Catherine O'Hara rules yet again and Eugene Levy adds a sad note of pathos amid all the satire. Plus Parker Posey - she could just sit there and be worth the price of admission for me.
8. X-2: X-Men United - I am not a comic book geek, a sci-fi dork nor a fan of action movies. I did not see the first movie and only saw this grudgingly on video, but dammit if this saga of mutant anti-heroes didn't suck me. Incredibly cool visuals and a story just gripping enough to keep you interested until the next kick ass f/x.

I did see more than eight movies, but the ones not on this list just sucked. I have yet to see the following and imagine a few them could make this list. These are listed in the order I want to see them:
The Lord Of The Rings: Return of The King, Kill Bill: Volume 1, Mystic River, Finding Nemo, Laurel Canyon, Intolerable Cruelty, The Fog of War, Tupac: Resurrection, Garage Days, Capturing the Friedmans, The Barbarian Invasions, Pieces of April, Seabiscuit , Elephant, Master and Commander: The Far Side Of The World, 21 Grams, Winged Migration , Something's Gotta Give, Buffalo Soldiers, XX/XY

I do not want to see Radio. And you could not pay me to see Love, Actually!


So my new year's resolution is to write this column more often. Encouragement helps. So if you find yourself jonesing for a Hot Commodities fix, drop me a line and I'll try to feed your head.


I don't know karate, but I do know ca-razy!


Respond to this blather



HC 18
September 2003
Lots of Chicago shows: Sterling Ruby, lots of works on paper shows, Scott Wolniak, Dogmatic Gallery and little bit from NYC
HC 17
January 2003
2002 Year end lists, plus more malternatives, Chicago and NYC art
Summer 2002
Premium malt beverages, rock and roll, movies, Chicago art, art criticism rules
A last gasp of art in NYC: grab a beer, this column is long --
Spring 2002
My big move to the city of Big Shoulders, Jack Featherly, Su-en Wong, Andrew WK, Lists, ShitBeGone and tons more....
Early Spring 2002
Lots o'Art: Richter, the Armory Show + tons o' gallery shows: Neo-Grunge art, Paul Henry Ramirez, Type A and more on J-HOVA.
Valentine's Day 2002
Way too much info on my TV watching habits, plus Danielle Tegeder, Brad Tucker and art in Boston and much, much more...
Best of 2001
Moulin Rouge, Mulholland Drive, Missy Elliot, Jay-Z, James Ensor, Wayne Thiebaud, Radiohead, System of a Down redux
Thanksgiving from Hawaii
Serra, Pardo, Katz, Coen Brothers all suck. Grabner, Sienna, Prekop, Jay-Z all rock
Early Fall 2001
The Onion, Rodney Graham, Jim Lambie, Larry King, Music Movie Sundays, sucking up to Jerry Saltz and stuff...
Early Fall 2001
Skinny actresses, Fall Previews, Hair metal (again), and some other crap...
Late-Summer 2001
Chicago Art, Radiohead, Tony Kornheiser, another David E. Kelley rip and more...
Summer 2001
Wane Thiebaud, Printmaking, movies, more summer shows and more...
Summer 2001
Summer Shows, Paul McCarthy, Me, My Sister and more...
Spring 2001
James Ensor, Ennui, Journey, New Art Examiner and more...
Late Winter 2001
Dawson's Creek, Jessica Stockholder, David Salle, Albums of the Year and more...
Early Winter 2000
riffs on rock-Roll Singles, the West Wing, Bernard Frieze and more...
Fall 2000
The dirt on Damien Hirst, Jibangus, Cable TV and more...



Hot Commodities