Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Case of the Cluny Browns

I have just finished reading Margery Sharp’s 1946 novel Cluny Brown, which is a remarkably enjoyable comedy of manners somewhat in an Evelyn Waugh/Angela Thirkell mold. I’m not sure if it’s actually a good book or not; as I read, it was filtered through the 1946 movie directed by Ernst Lubitsch and starring Jennifer Jones and Charles Boyer, and that confuses the issue. Trifling details aside (Jones is decidedly not plain-looking, and Boyer is fifteen years too old), the film has a more satisfying narrative arc, with the plot twist that takes up the last twenty pages of the book given better preliminary spadework; it also includes some deftly-orchestrated bits of social satire that are missing from the book, but which ring entirely true to their time and place — so far as this twenty-first-century American can tell, anyway. Much of the best dialogue, however, is repeated verbatim, especially the delicious bedroom talk between Lady Carmel and Betty Cream. (I know, what names. It’s that kind of book.)

I would recommend Cluny Brown the book to anyone who likes Jane Austen for reasons other than the period dress, and I would recommend Cluny Brown the movie to anyone who likes Ealing comedies. The book is of course long out of print, though my copy was easy enough to find, and the movie is not out on DVD; I downloaded my copy, which has French subtitles. I look forward to reading the book again, when the movie doesn’t press so insistent on my consciousness, and then seeing the movie again in light of the book, which is the natural order of things.

Speaking of Ernst Lubitsch, it’s something of a pity that his name isn’t better known; in the 30s and 40s it was a name to conjure with in
Hollywood, but the auteurist critics of the 50s and 60s and their descendents tend to ignore him, perhaps thinking that he’d already had enough attention paid him. Five of his best movies are available on DVD now, and I’d say that no film education is complete without any (preferably all) of them: Trouble in Paradise, Ninochtka, The Shop Around the Corner, To Be or Not To Be, and Heaven Can Wait. The movie Cluny Brown may ultimately be a second-tier work, but that first tier is as good as movies get.

Oh, the title. Cluny Brown is the heroine of both stories, a plumber’s niece who, if the movie had been made ten years later, would have been played by Audrey Hepburn with greater distinction but less sex. She’s not so adorable on the page; but the rest of the cast is better served in the book.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Just a Note to Let You Know that I've Not Forgotten You.

Rejoice with me; I am now the proud owner of a four-disc set of Fatty Arbuckle movies. The accompanying booklet tries to make a good case for Fatty being the unheralded “fourth genius” of silent comedy, after Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. Since we are now, finally, at a far enough distance from the scandal that destroyed his career (silent-film historians in the freaking Seventies didn’t consider themselves distant enough from it), we can be a little objective about it. I’m willing to give Langdon the boot and institute Fatty in his place (besides, there’s almost no Langdon on DVD). But I want to mention the scandal. Briefly, at a party at Arbuckle’s house, a woman died of an overdose of drugs; she and Fatty had been alone together at different points during the night. Arbuckle was cleared of any wrongdoing at the inquest and later at a trial. Recent investigations into all the available evidence also clear him, as definitively as possible. He did nothing except be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s bizarre today, in the days of O. J. Simpson and Kobe Bryant, to realize that this meant he could never again work in Hollywood under his real name. (Which was Roscoe, by the way. But I don’t call Buster Keaton “Joseph” and Fatty remains Fatty.) Isn’t the whole point of the musical Chicago the idea that no publicity is bad publicity? But Hollywood in 1921 still labored under the delusion that the Titaness (we’ll return to this idea later; meanwhile, read Thomas Beer’s The Gay Nineties) represented the vast majority of potential ticket-buyers. Plus, Fatty was a comedian and therefore expendable.

This gets into one of the things I wanted to mention about the Lux Radio Theater: namely, that the man who hosted (and “produced”) it for just over a decade, Cecil B. DeMille, had about the worse taste of anyone with good taste in Hollywood. He waxed rhapsodic on sentimental bilge about sacrificial mothers and lovers reunited after death, and had no sympathy at all with comedy, unless it had shown itself to be immensely successful (for decades the ultimate criteria of aesthetic worth in
America). Hearing him announce, in reverent tones, “the curtain rises on the second act of Hold Back the Dawn” and then, in an expressionless voice that connotes blank incomprehension more than anything else, “the curtain rises on the second act of It Happened One Night” is a graduate course in early-twentieth-century aesthetic snobbery, of the sort that Gilbert Seldes beautifully skewered in The Seven Lively Arts. (If you want to understand any single aspect of American popular culture in the years between 1900 and 1950, you cannot do better than to read this book.)

Comedians, and perhaps especially film comedians, because they were enormously popular with an illiterate or half-literate underclass composed largely of immigrants, were second-class citizens in Hollywood — and indeed largely remain so. Not that there isn’t a sense in which Jim Carrey or Adam Sandler can’t be taken seriously until they do an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or a Punch-Drunk Love; but the aesthetic value of seriousness per se is very small, and the aesthetic value of things-that-make-us-laugh is enormous, especially when, as silent film comedy does, it holds up over the years much better than so-called drama does. Oscar winners rarely made the century-in-review best-of lists that proliferated six years ago; and I’d say the same holds true across aesthetic boundaries, in literature and comics and music.

The last thing I wanted to mention about Fatty Arbuckle is that there seems to be a history of large comedians either dying young or in other ways having a smaller body of lasting work than their talents deserve. Jackie Gleason, Zero Mostel, John Belushi, John Candy and Chris Farley come to mind as examples. I’m sure there are plenty of counter-examples, though none save perhaps Oliver Hardy come to mind.

Friday, February 24, 2006

The Big One.

Feelings of guilt and ego aside, I’m posting again for the first time in weeks because I felt, finally, like I had something to say again.

Wait. Back up. Let’s do this right.

Hi. My name is Jonathan Bogart. I’m a twenty-eight-year-old data entry clerk who lives in Phoenix, works in Scottsdale, and has a social life in Cave Creek. That’s about all I want to say about my personal life; this blog is supposed to be more about reflections on things I’ve read, or seen, or watched, or listened to, or thought about. We’ll see.

Oh, and I’m Catholic. Which may or may not end up being important, but I thought I should throw it out there to get all the biases up front. It has a definite impact on what I’m pleased to call my philosophical outlook, and to some degree on my aesthetic opinions, insofar as I have any.

Now that’s over with, let me introduce you to the part of myself that this blog is concerned with: the (for lack of a better word) aesthete. The reader, listener, audience, critic, consumer, and dime-store philosopher. The easiest way to do this, I think, is to describe the things that are around me.

To my left is a stack of books. Closest to me, the Bible, with the Catechism of the Catholic Church on top of it. And on top of that, a burned CD containing a Spanish-dubbed copy of the first movie to pair Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Flying Down to Rio. Beyond that stack, there’s a stack of three DVDs: Top Hat, Swing Time, and Shall We Dance, the three best Astaire/Rogers vehicles. They are sitting on top of an 1857 novel about the American frontier of which I have only read, and probably will only ever read, the preface. (It’s called Bay Path, by J. G. Holland. It’s an 1899 edition, which is why I bought it; I thought it was actually from 1899.) Past that is a stack of burned CDs containing movies, animated shorts, and one-to-three-reel silent comedies from, roughly, 1910 to 1950. I’ve watched very, very few of them. The stack is on top of a copy of George Barr McCutcheon’s exuberant 1902 financial fantasy Brewster’s Millions. Beyond that are my CD racks. I won’t describe the entire contents, but I do want to point out what’s on the top shelf: the first Nuggets box set of 1960’s garage-rock gems; the Left of the Dial box set from Rhino covering the alternative 80s; a cheap-ass four-disc set called Full Spectrum Blues which is actually a really good sampler of pre-war recorded blues; another Rhino box set, Rhapsodies in Black, which contains music and extracts from literature of the Harlem Renaissance; the Faces box set Five Guys Walk into a Bar....; the Johnny Cash Unchained box set; a nine-disc set called American Pop: An Audio History From Minstrel to Mojo On Record, 1893-1946; a cheap JSP four-disc set of Hoagy Carmichael songs; a Rhino Handmade documenting the 70s all-girl rock group Fanny; a recent Kirsty MacColl box set, From Croydon to Cuba; a Johnny Thunders three-disc set which I bought because one of the discs was the classic Headhunters album L.A.M.F.; and ten small books which have The 100 Greatest Short Stories on the spine, published in the 20s, and divided into topics like Romance, Men, Women, Humor, and Ghosts. Above the CD racks are my DVD shelves, which mostly contain Hollywood studio efforts from the silent era to about World War II, with a few more recent things like Oceans Eleven and Gosford Park thrown in. These shelves also contain books on music, movies, and entertainment. Below that are some homemade shelves (planks and cinder blocks) which has four rows, in the following order: 1. Oversized graphic novels, comic-strip reprints, European albums, and anthologies; 2. Short, long books, mostly comic-strip reprints; 3. Comic-strip reprints and graphic novels that are about as tall as the average hardback novel; 4. Mass-market paperback books. (Should I perhaps mention that balancing on top of the oversized books is a stack of Jules Feiffer paperbacks from the 50s and 60s?) Thence, to another set of handmade-by-a-superior-craftsman bookshelves, which contains a lot of material in haphazard fashion. Skimming over them visually, books by Jasper Fforde, Anthony Powell, William Shakespeare, Lewis Trondheim, Paul Collins, Max Beerbohm, Jack Kirby, Umberto Eco, Dorothy L. Sayers, Seth, Jacques Barzun, and Mike Mignola catch my eye. Snuggling up next to those shelves is a stack of photocopies about two feet high. These are over a thousand short stories from old books and magazines in libraries which I’ve collected as part of a project I will probably discuss in detail later. Then, peeking into a closet, the top shelf is crammed full of records. About a fifth of them are 78s (inherited from a grandfather), and the remaining four-fifths are LPs — about two-thirds of which were released in the single year 1972. Another project, tabled for the nonce. If you go out of the room, down the hall, hang a left, and then enter the second door on the right, you’ll find another set of bookshelves which contain my haphazard collection of books from the nineteenth century up to about the 1930s, which are suffered to remain there because they’re old and interesting-looking. Back to the room I’m in, let’s take in the stuff in the center of the room, lying hodge-podge on the floor, on a footstool, on a chair. This would be stuff I recently acquired and have not yet filed away (which sounds like I have a filing system, but I don’t). The latest Belle & Sebastian CD — and, according to the liner notes and a post from Adam Clayton on their website, I share with Bono the dubious distinction of this album being my first Belle & Sebastian album — The Life Pursuit, stares up at me. So does Put the Book Back on the Shelf, a comics anthology of short stories inspired by Belle & Sebastian songs. (Yes, I’ve been on a kick.) The first issue of Sammy Harkham’s comic book Crickets, the 20th issue of Kyle Baker’s comic book Plastic Man, the sixth collection of the Fables comic book, the second issue of Michael Kupperman’s comic book Tales Designed to Thrizzle, the eighth issue (but the first professionally-published) of Anders Nilsen’s comic book Big Questions, and the second issue of Dylan Horrocks’ comic book Atlas peep out from various places, as do Matt Madden’s 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style, the third copy of Milt Gross’s wonderful 1930 comic-strip novel He Done Her Wrong that I own (it’s the most recent edition, just published by Fantagraphics), and John Baldry’s 1971 It Ain’t Easy LP. Next to me is my mp3 player, which has recently been cleaned out in order to be filled with 1. a collection of singer-songwriter stuff from 1970-1974, 2. the Maestropolis discs which, yes, I will get back to cataloging if I can bring myself to give a shit again, and 3. creeping up on 450 episodes of the Lux Radio Theater, which was broadcast from 1936 to 1956, and which I’ve been listening to obsessively at work (where it’s okay to wear headphones, aren’t I lucky). And in front of me is my laptop, which contains some of the short stories from that stack of photocopies, several thousand mp3s, and four video files: a Chuck Jones cartoon featuring the cast of the Jack Benny Show as mice, a 1940s movie directed by Ernst Lubitsch called Cluny Brown, and the two most recent episodes of the current CBS show How I Met Your Mother, which I haven’t watched because every time I try Windows crashes. Oh, and on my desk above my laptop is a set of small books in green leather called Wit and Humor of America, a 1907 collection which is often as baffling as it is amusing.

This is as fitting an introduction to my magpie taste as I could think of.

Books I’ve read recently that affected the way I see everything:

What Good Are the Arts? by John Carey, which I bought on the basis of Nick Hornby’s recommendation of it in the latest issue of The Believer. I’m not convinced of Carey’s central thesis, which is that there are no meaningful yardsticks for measuring the arts because tastes differ. I wonder if he’s read C. S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism, which I think addresses many of the same concerns in a much more satisfactory (if necessarily solipsistic and unintentionally snobbish) way. The old saying about a mind so open that it falls out is, I think, applicable to Carey’s conclusion — though not to his actual engagement with works when he tries. I’ve argued variations on Carey’s points at times, particularly here. It might be too flippant to respond to the title’s question with “None,” but I think one can be a highbrow aesthete and still believe that the arts are absolutely inessential. (Several months ago, in Borders, flipping through the Atlantic Monthly, I read an essay in which the writer said — or implied, anyway — that most intelligent, cultured people would gladly trade any lives Chekhov might have saved as a doctor for more of his great writing. If she’s right, fuck most intelligent, cultured people — and the Proustian horse they rode in on.) This may be where being Catholic gives my aesthetics a push: art < life, every time.

Which makes me think of those Lux Radio Theater episodes. I’ve been listening to them for eight hours a day for three weeks. There is now, built up in my imagination, a sort of alternate-reality past in which every woman older than forty is either a saint or a shrew, every child is disgustingly cute, songs always end on the highest possible note, and marriage is every woman’s true vocation. (Oops — I don’t actually want to talk about the program right now; that’s a later post.) Essentially, it’s a false history — but would reading thousands of history books, articles in obscure journals, statistical analyses, and social-realism novels be any truer? There is a sense, almost palpable when you turn the pages of any recent work of historical fiction (and there have been so many lately), that we are getting closer to channeling the past, that enough research, enough knowledge, enough detail, will finally do it, will trump Scott and Stevenson and Doctorow, will finally enable us to return to that past, rather than simply look at it from our own perspective. We read Gone with the Wind now (actually, we don’t, because it’s a terrible book; and I hate the movie, too), and we can see so clearly how the limitations of a 1930s perspective prevented Margaret Mitchell from truly inhabiting 1865. But we won’t do any better, no matter how many old photographs are reverently used as the covers of our hardbacks. In twenty or thirty or a hundred years’ time our own attempts at historical accuracy will be seem with the same pitying scorn. Ragtime now smells of the 1970s no less than Carly Simon does. And listening to actual ragtime records doesn’t help, either; industrial music and shoegazers have changed our understanding of the old pops, crackles, and hisses: they don’t obscure the music any more; they’re part of the music. Did people actually ever talk like that guy who announces the title, label, and act before each song? So stagey and fake-English accented? When we make even serious movies set in 1905, the characters speak with our cadences and our phrasings, and our grandchildren will find them as ridiculous as the Lux Radio Theater episodes set in 1840s England, where everyone sounds like they’re on the cusp of saying “gee, that’s swell.” (Did any adult ever really say “gee, that’s swell” with a straight face? The mysteries of the past yawn unfathomably.)

I’m rambling now. I’ll sign off now, because I have a Meredith Nicholson book to finish, and a Jean Harlow movie to watch, and a John Baldry record to listen to, and a Bill Willingham graphic novel to read.

And a world to create.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Maestropolis: Still Going.

Disc Four:

01. The Raveonettes “Attack of the Ghost Riders”
How was I to know they wouldn’t just be a one-off? This is a great little single, a three-minute B-movie starring James Dean with a soundtrack by the Jesus & Mary Chain. But, oh, how very much better they would get. From the Columbia EP Whip It On, 2002.

02. The Delgados “All You Need Is Hate”
Sure, it’s a conceptual lift from the Beatles (or, more specifically, John Lennon). But the music is Elton John circa 1970, or Standard Indie Orchestral. With a fuzz guitar gently weeping somewhere in the background. The lyrics remain disquietingly opaque; they’re satirical, or are they? Why is charity a joke that friendly cities think that we’ll believe? Or am I just hearing Jimi Hendrix kiss this guy? From the Mantra LP Hate, 2002.

03. The Thrills “Santa Cruz (You’re Not That Far)”
The hook: they’re Irish, but they love California, or the idea of California they got from late-60’s Beach Boys records and early-70’s Eagles records. So, not unnaturally, they sound like a Beach Boys/Eagles tribute band. But really it’s the banjo, I think, that puts it over the top. From the Virgin LP So Much for the City, 2003.

04. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band feat. Norah Jones “Ruler of My Heart”

Hey, shut up. Norah Jones’ voice is one of the great gifts of being alive today. Of course she doesn’t even slightly hold a candle to the classic Irma Thomas version of this song, any more than the Band did “Ain’t Got No Home” better than Frogmouth. But this track is wonderful just to hear that tuba puffing the intro. And is there a slight electronic touch to the song, or is my mp3 just screwed up? From the Rope-A-Dope LP Medicated Magic, 2002.

05. Billy Bragg & the Blokes “Take Down the Union Jack”
The ultimate in long-distance Anglophilia, I suppose; my throat still tightens a bit at the final line: “to be an Anglo hyphen Saxon in
England dot co dot uk.” Although it did take me forever to decipher the line about Gilbert & George taking the piss (they’re conceptual artists). I really don’t understand why more folksingers don’t play Gibsons. Like an acoustic is so much more authentic. From the Elektra LP England, Half English, 2002.

06. Electric Six “Danger! High Voltage!”
Garage-disco, baby! (And that’s gar-ahjj, not garridge.) It came to the attention of the cool kids in the room because Jack White is doing the call & response thing, but it was such an instantly lovable track that it even ended up on the Charlie’s Angels 2 soundtrack, in overproduced form. Disco needs more skronky saxophones that sound like they stepped out of a sweaty 50’s r&b nightclub. Fire in the Taco Bell! From the Beggars XL LP Fire, 2003.

07. Simian “La Breeze”
Demented pop, like some alternate-universe version of Supergrass where they listened to Aladdin Sane instead of Electric Warrior. That false start is great to play in public, for the same reason that watching a scary movie you’ve already seen with someone who hasn’t is great. What kind of phasing do they use to get that rubbery guitar sound? Delightful. From the Astralwerks LP We Are Your Friends, 2002.

08. The White Stripes “Ball and Biscuit”
A monster, stomping behemoth of a track that chews broken bottles and spits them back in your face. (You can actually hear the exact moment of the spitting. It’s at 5:37, when Jack decides not to go back to the main riff, and just keep doing his best Jimmy Page. Meg, of course, John Bonhams throughout.) Guitar solos aren’t punk? Then fuck punk. From the V2 LP Elephant, 2003.

09. Craig Armstrong feat. Evan Dando “Wake Up in New York
The chaser; Dando (from the Lemonheads, not that that really means anything to anyone who wasn’t in college in 1992) sounds like he was personally just pummelled by Jack White before coming into the studio to sing this song. Meanwhile, the strings wax and wane with robotic precision, and if you really try hard, you can fall in love with
New York to this song. From the EMI LP As If to Nothing, 2002.

10. The Be-Good Tanyas “The Littlest Birds”
I’ve never even really tried to understand the Mormon mindset, but listening to this song makes me start to question whether polygamy is so bad. (Metaphorically, ’k? Let’s keep our panties untwisted.) Harmonies like this make any song with just one woman’s beautiful voice seem boring. The fact that the lyrics are basically a female version of “Freebird” is icing on the cake. From the Nettwerk LP Blue Horse, 2001.

11. The Joe Jackson Band “Take It Like A Man”
And for one great, glorious track, he proves that sometimes you can go home again, with slightly punchier production. Seriously, the song could be an outtake from Look Sharp!, it’s so nervy and funny and rocky and unnecessarily complexly piano-soloey. Suck it, Webster’s. (And, hey, Joe, bravo for rhyming “icicles” to “bicycles” and almost making it work.) From the Rykodisc LP Volume 4, 2002.

12. Paul Westerberg “Let the Bad Times Roll”
I heard this song before I’d ever heard any Replacements. (Yeah, yeah, I suck. Sorry for being born the wrong year, dude.) So the gravelly whine had no associations for me, whether of nostalgia or betrayal; in fact, it just made the words that much cooler. Props to Westerberg for coming up with a brilliant, this-is-our-pop-moment title, and then writing lyrics to match it. From the Vagrant LP Stereo, 2002.

13. Macy Gray “You Got to Be My Mother’s Son-in-Law”
Macy gets her Billie Holiday on. Remember when “I Try” was inescapable for a year? Now I kind of miss her, don’t you? This is just a silly soundtrack cover song, sure; but I don’t really hear enough swing anymore, and if there’s any modern singer whose voice was tailor-made for the stuff, it’s her. From the various-artists Sony LP Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood: Music from the Motion Picture, 2002.

14. The Bygones “The Book”
Obscure-as-hell Nebraska band who want nothing more than to be Bob Dylan with the Rolling Stones as his backing band. For the space of the guitar solo here, they almost manage it. Otherwise, the jury’s still out on whether the country-Dylan lyrics are brilliant or gimmicky. From the Derailleur LP Circles, 2002.

15. Bebel Gilberto “No Return”
Another cover! What the hell, man? But, no, you have to hear this one! I used to be kind of a Kinks fanatic; this song, on Something Else, was nice and pretty, but I didn’t even realize it was supposed to be bossa nova until Astrid’s daughter-in-law Girl-from-Ipanema’d it to spacey perfection. From the various-artists Rykodisc LP This Is Where I Belong: the Songs of Ray Davies and the Kinks, 2002.

16. Tricky “Mission Accomplished”
One of the downsides of being an Anglophile is that you’re always hearing about these great bands which you just missed by about a decade. Tricky apparently never lived up to Maxinquaye, but nobody told me until I had fallen in love with this tightly-wound bit of trip-grind. (Like that? I got a million of ’em.) From the Epitaph EP Mission Accomplished, 2001.

17. Virginie Ledoyen “Mon amour mon ami”
Ooh, French pop! Sung by an actress who isn’t a singer! Wait, not Brigitte Bardot? Actually, it’s so much less twee than it sounds, but there’s still plenty of twee left over. I appreciate the 40’s production; it would be terrible if they tried to put anything electric in it. Still, of course, most right-thinking Americans should hate it. In French. From the various-artists WEA Music France LP 8 femmes: Bande originale du film, 2001.

18. The Avalanches “Frontier Psychiatrist”
Is there even anything to say about this track? I must have listened to it hundreds of times by now, and I’m still unpacking the different sounds in my head. All that’s left is that pinnacle of laziness, quotation: A record? record? record? record? To an optometrist! Tighten your buttocks and pour juice on your chin, indeed. From the Modular LP Since I Left You, 2000.

19. Solomon Burke feat. the Blind Boys of Alabama “None of Us Are Free”
Possibly the last great soul man (assuming James Brown never records again). On Sundays, he preaches from the pulpit, which makes this song so inspired. The Blind Boys are his congregation here, and Reveren Burke doubles at the organ. Listen for the wildcat roar as he returns to knock the chorus home one more time. Oh, and the song is true. From the Fat Possum LP Don’t Give Up on Me, 2002.

20. The Cooper Temple Clause “Did You Miss Me?”
It seemed like this would be the perfect bookend to the album. Starts out slow and a little Pink-Floydy, and slowly builds to throbbing, burning noise, complementing the Raveonettes at the beginning of the disc perfectly. Otherwise, not really an interesting song. From the Mourning LP See This Through and Leave, 2002.

21. Nick Lowe “Between Dark and Dawn”
But then I realized that the disc had to end with this. Because if you don’t love Nick Lowe’s music, I’m not sure you qualify as a human being. From the Yep Roc LP The Convincer, 2001.


The original title for this blog was “Sidebars.” It was never meant to be a permanent name; it was just the first thing that popped into my head. Last night I picked up Ganges #1 by Kevin Huizenga (wonderful comic. Buy it. I’ll talk more about it later), opened it at random, closed my eyes, and stabbed my finger onto a page. The panel I hit had Wendy saying to Glenn, “Don’t stay up too late.” Since this is exactly what I do when I want to try to post anything to this blog, I thought it was perfect.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Maestropolis, Disc Three

Huh. Reading back over the last few posts, my tone is more defensive than I meant it to be. No apologies for listening to Interpol should ever be necessary. With that said:

Disc Three:

01. The Streets “Turn the Page”
What probably caught my ear was the references to that Russell Crowe movie where he wears a leather skirt. What kept my attention was the throat-lump-inducing (for fantasy fans, anyway) last lines: “stand by me, my apprentice . . . be brave. Clench fists.” And the disses. I mean, “rhubarb-and-custard verses?” Where is this guy from, anyway? From the Atlantic LP Original Pirate Material, 2002.

02. Mark Knopfler “Marbletown”
A standard blues song, wherein a British dude — as usual — is more convincing in his evocations of timeless Americana than most Americans since Johnny Cash died. It made me think of O Brother, Where Art Thou? and, which is better, the movie it stole its name from. The song could use a Veronica Lake, actually. From the Warner Bros. LP The Ragpicker’s Dream, 2002.

03. Blur “Don’t Bomb When You Are The Bomb”
And that’s the entirety of the lyrics; it probably won’t show up on any future greatest-hits comp, although it was Blur’s first release after their hits package, which was my introduction to the band. More electronic and African than ever before, this track would probably fit better under the Gorillaz umbrella today. From the white-label single Don’t Bomb When You Are the Bomb, 2002.

04. Radio 4 “Dance to the Underground”
Forget “House of Jealous Lovers” — this was my introduction to the nascent dance-punk scene. (See also: Liars, LCD Soundsystem, and Franz Ferdinand.) No, they didn’t do anything Gang of Four and PiL hadn’t done first, but when Blink-182 was carrying the punk banner, this was a shock of cold, head-bobbing — hell, ass-shaking — water. From the Gern Blandsten single Dance to the Underground, 2001.

05. Los Lobos “Done Gone Blue”
I have no idea why this song, over any other Los Lobos song, made the cut. Not that it’s bad, or even undistinguished; but except for the Strummery gibbering just before the sax solo, there’s nothing — oh, wait. Now that it’s down in words, that sounds pretty cool. I guess it’s the reason. From the Mammoth LP Good Morning Aztlán, 2002.

06. Björk “Pagan Poetry”
That transition, from straight-up Chicano rawk to the tinkling stabs of some kind of electronic harpsichord, is one of the reasons I like doing this sort of thing. And Björk, for once, sounds like a human being, especially when she recites “I lahve heem, I lahve heem, I lah-ahve heem” over and over. Getting-in-the-mood music for ice mummies. From the Elektra LP Vespertine, 2001.

07. Jonathan Rundman “Find Your Way to Prague”
He’s a Minnesota singer-songwriter/roots-rocker. The song is from a 52-track concept album about the Lutheran liturgical year. It’s a disco song. It was cobbled together from tape loops he had, because he didn’t want to disturb the neighbors with real drums. How Minnesotan. How can you not love it? From the Salt Lady LP Sound Theology, 2000.

08. The Polyphonic Spree “Soldier Girl”
The NME strikes again. “Light & Day” is probably better, but what the hell. Come on, chant along with the suspiciously happy robed choir: “I found my soldier girl, she’s so far away, she makes my head spin around.” There seem to be a lot of minimalist lyrics on this disc. From the Fierce Panda EP Soldier Girl, 2002.

09. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds “Oh My Lord”
Never mind; this is where all the words from the other songs went. Another of his patent wonderfully macabre psychological thrillers, in which the words “the plot, the plot” seem mysteriously to signal the point when the Bad Seeds kick it up a notch. Also, it’s long, and that’s good, because there are a lot of short songs on this disc. From the Reprise LP No More Shall We Part, 2001.

10. Apples in Stereo “Baroque”
Standard fuzz-rock, sure, maybe a little more treble than normal, but hey. That is, until the chorus, when they suddenly go all “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” on our asses. More indie rock songs should have classically-derived vocal interludes, and I don’t mean booking an out-of-work opera singer because you were too cheap to spring for the theramin. From the SpinART LP Velocity of Sound, 2002.

11. Aaron Sprinkle “I Know There’s an Answer/Hang on to Your Ego”
Sacrilege, right, I know. Not just covering the Beach Boys, covering Pet Sounds! And the alternate lyrics! Who does this guy think he is? Only, unaccountably, it’s good. Aaron Sprinkle is one of the unheralded pop geniuses of the age. Used to be in the Christian indie band poor old lu. Now mostly produces and releases his stuff to the tiny subset of Christians who are also indie-pop freaks. From the various-artists Silent Planet LP Making God Smile, 2002.

12. Ladytron “Seventeen”
It’s all about the attitude. It has to be, because it’s a terrible song, as a song. More minimalist lyrics, set this time to music that wants to be minimalist, only the band’s inner shoegazer won’t let it. This inner shoegazer, by the way, will pop up to thrilling effect three discs from now. Be prepared. From the Emperor Norton LP Light & Magic, 2002.

13. Badly Drawn Boy “You Were Right”
If you’re of a certain age (i.e., just starting to be interested in sex when you heard about Madonna’s book Sex), the line “I’m turning Madonna down” in this song is more charged than it necessarily should be. Awkward self-revelations aside, the song is gorgeous sympho-pop that also works in a list of Important Musicians who died in Damon Gough’s lifetime, yet it isn’t a bummer. Weird. From the Artist Direct BMG LP Have You Fed the Fish?, 2002.

14. Phish “Mexican Cousin”
This was supposed to be their farewell record. Two years later, they were back. But I still like this song, a pleasantly rough approximation of a Ronnie Lane song in the Faces days. (Don’t hear it? You don’t listen to enough Faces, mate.) And for once, they almost seem to be singing about something, rather than just stringing words together. Always a plus. From the Elektra LP Round Room, 2002.

15. Puffy AmiYumi “Atarashii Hibi”
For that first second, you’re not sure whether “Pump it Up” is playing, but then the two Asian chicks start singing and, no, that’s definitely not Elvis Costello. If all J-pop was like this, no other nation would have a prayer. Thank God it’s mostly breathy twaddle over breathier synths. Which makes Puffy’s glammed-up pop/rock all that much more special. In Japanese. From the Bar/None LP An Illustrated History, 2002.

16. Hot Hot Heat “Talk to Me, Dance With Me”
I guess I was really into dance-punk that year. Not that the dance-punk scenesters would look twice at Hot Hot Heat. Not only are they latecomers and therefore (always) bandwagon-jumpers, but they’re Canadian! That is so not punk. The guy still yelps like early Robert Smith, and if you can’t quite dance to it, there’s enough cowbell to make up for it. From the Sub Pop LP Make Up the Breakdown, 2002.

17. Yo La Tengo “You Can Have It All”
I hated this song for a while. Oddly enough, that was after I’d compiled this disc. It had been a last-minute desperate need-to-fill-out-the-disc addition, and I thought it killed the mood. Then I realized a) who was I kidding, there was no mood to this thing, and b) it’s a beautiful little pop ditty. Ba bum ba ba ba ba bum, ba bum ba ba ba ba bum . . . . From the Matador LP And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, 2000.

18. Zwan “Honestly”
Remember Zwan? Billy Corgan was so glad to be working in a band again? They got out one record and then split acrimoniously? Maybe he should have mixed the girl bass player higher; her voice is nice. It would have been a relief from the Wall-to-Wall Billy. Seriously, though, I was surprisingly into these guys for a couple of months, before it became apparent that it was just the Pumpkins, Mark II. Which wasn’t, actually, all that bad a thing. From the Reprise single Honestly, 2002.

19. The Beta Band “Won”
Sounding like a poorly-thought-out union between Crosby, Stills & Nash (the harmonies), a children’s version of Radiohead (the production), and ten thousand giggly pot-smoking college bands in the nineties (the lyrics), this song could only have been produced by the Beta Band. I assume. I’ve never enjoyed anything else I heard from them, even the song in High Fidelity. From the Astralwerks LP Hot Shots II, 2001.