I read a lot this past year. 99% of it comprised student papers, student exams, tax forms, office paperwork, e-mails, and bills. So a real top 10 list of things read would give wide coverage to those aforementioned things. However, I'm choosing to focus on the other 1% of my reading matter. Only one caveat: I'm not including anything that is political, just because I think it would turn people off; ironically some of the best writing I've read this year has been political in nature. Anyway. Culture:
• Mark Grief, "The Hipster in the Mirror," The New York Times, November 12, 2010: This is a surprisingly interesting take on the 'hipster' phenomenon, which goes behind the obvious aphorism that no hipster would be caught dead admitting that they're a hipster.
• Zadie Smith, "Generation Why?," The New York Review of Books, November 25, 2010: Remember there was a time when everyone who was on Facebook was complaining about being on Facebook? This is not an article about that. This is a review of that movie about Zuckercorn, I mean Zuckerburg, by Zadie Smith, the very young British novelist who wrote White Teeth, who is now apparently a tenured professor at NYU.
• Eliot Weinberger, " 'Damn Right,' I said," London Review of Books, January 6, 2011: The author makes the obvious comparison between George W. Bush and Michel Foucault.
• David Bromwich, "The Fastidious President," London Review of Books, November 18, 2010: Completely nails it as to why Barack Obama is strangely uninspiring and like a ghost.
• Steven Hayden, "What Happened to Alternative Nation?," The A.V. Club: Somebody had to do it. Twenty years later, this guy is brave enough to revisit the frenzy over 'alternative' music in the early to mid-nineties, a period that seems slightly embarrassing in many ways now. This is a six-part article taking the story from the pregnant-with-expectation of something-big-about-to-happen circa 1990 on the cusp of Nevermind, all the way through Seattle, to the inevitable and inexorable slide to Bush in the mid-nineties. There's all sorts of unexpected detours in the essay, and even if the topic doesn't interest you, it's worth reading as a reasonably good example of rock'n'roll history as personal memoir done without nostalgia.
• The A.V. Club, Gateways to Geekery: There's so much good shit on the A.V. Club that it's kind of pointless to identify specific articles, but I've always liked this feature. You know how for years your friends would talk endlessly about a band or a director or a TV show or a genre and you'd kinda picked up on it but you never really committed to it and so you were never 'in the know'? And now ten years later it just seems too overwhelming to enter the canon anymore? (I feel like that with Buffy, Lost, Leonard Cohen, Frank Zappa, for example). Well, these folks give you an excellent introduction to that thing, complete with how to start, where to go deeper, and where not to go. These lengthy articles, my friend, are the finest examples of public service. They have good ones on Anime, French New Wave, Roxy Music, Paul Weller, The X-Files, Humphrey Bogart, John Waters, the Fall, and a gajillion other things. By the way, I really don't like Leonard Cohen even though I've only heard one song by him. Just the concept of Leonard Cohen completely rubs me the wrong way.
• "Retroactive Listening: Perspectives on Music & Technology," PopMatters.com
"The Secret History of Technology and Pop Music," NPR
Recently, I've become interested in the relationship between popular music and technology. Both PopMatters and NPR do a great job of distilling down the main issues in a series of articles/radio clips. If you are at all interested in the history of popular music, this is as insightful as it gets. Great stuff.
• Dana Steves, "The Heat Seaking Panther: A Few Thoughts on the Mannered Weirdness of Nicolas Cage," Slate.com: Just cause I think Nicolas Cage is a genius; and I don't say that with irony or with a wink. He seems to possess some ineffable force within him that compels him to do things that make no sense at all. One day, they will give him a lifetime achievement award or something and I pity the person responsible for putting together the set of clips that make up his oeuvre.
• Annalee Newitz, "A History of Zombies in America," io9.com: I was teaching zombies this past semester. This was a fairly interesting exposition on the phenomenon which appears to have reached a zenith in the past few years.
• Phil Freeman, "Captain Beefheart: A Beginner's Guide," The Village Voice: Yes, they all say the same thing: for the love of God, DO NOT BEGIN WITH TROUT MASK REPLICA.
• Mark Hogan, "This Is Not a Mixtape," Pitchfork.com: I've been suddenly thrust back into the world of cassettes because of two things: first, the other day, as a way of educating my progeny, I was searching for the sounds that whales make underwater and I remembered that I had a cassette tape from the early '90s of said sounds. I dug it out of a box, and lo and behold, it sounded strange and beautiful (if a little muzak-y). For those interested it's called Beneath The Waves: Vocals By Humpback Whales. The other reason I am into cassettes is because of Jet Set Siempre No. 1 by Clive Tanaka y su orquesta, available here. It was recommended by someone at work and it is only available on cassette. Beautiful music. This essay by Hogan kind of parses through the history of the cassette as an artform and its supposed resurrection these days. I'm not sure I buy the fact that it's "coming back" but I will always have an old fogey's fondness for the cassette, both in premade form and as a mix(ed) tape.
• Joe Tangari, "Africa 100: The Indestructible Beat," Pitchfork.com: This was a great introduction for me into the world of African pop, especially stuff from the 1970s.
• "All Things Reconsidered: The 35th Anniversary of Bob Dylan's Blood On The Tracks," PopMatters.com: Not that there needs to be more written about Blood On The Tracks, but the set of essays makes for interesting reading. In the last decade or so, there has a been a massive mainstream media fetish for all things Dylan related, and I'm not sure I understand why this has happened. It's actually kind of annoying in a way. Dylan (like the Beatles) has been overwritten into our collective pop consciousness in way that has almost completely denuded them of any kind of mystery. All this media attention has made them less interesting, not because of the volume of it but because of the tenor of it; you know that when Martin Scorsese produces a documentary about Bob Dylan that the PBS-Starbucks-NPR-ization of Dylan is not far behind. So much for "Play It Fucking Loud." When I listen to Blood On The Tracks (which I try to do sparingly), I feel removed from it. It no longer blows my mind or makes me weep. It's still one of my favorite albums of all time (probably in the top 5) but this is because the music and words are utterly beautiful, not because they make me feel weak at the knees. I know that made no sense.
• "Detours: The Strangest Albums From the Biggest Artists," PopMatters.com: I've always been fascinated by completely mainstream artists doing absurdly weird albums ever since I heard Fleetwood Mac's Tusk. The articles here break it down, and although I don't agree with many of their choices, I still feel like conceptually it's an awesome topic. What makes Tears for Fears produce a b-side like this or Paul McCartney do this? Who knows.