Talking Right: How Conservatives turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show. By Geoffrey Nunberg.
Nunberg offers a witty and authoritative guide to American political linguistic history, from how the word “elite” became shorthand for out-of-touch liberals to how “values” became an all-purpose stand-in for right-wing hot buttons such as abortion and gay marriage. A fun and rollicking archaeological dig (with what might be the year’s best subtitle).
Our Town: A Heartland Lynching, a Haunted Town, and the Hidden History of White America. By Cynthia Carr.
A photograph of a 1930 Indiana lynching is the central mystery and motivating force behind Our Town. As Carr tries to figure out what really happened on the night captured in the picture, she uncovers her own family’s shameful history. One of the most fascinating and challenging explorations of race to arrive in a long time.
Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness. By Erik Reece.
Reece spent much of 2003 and 2004 watching a mining company “topping” a Kentucky mountain—dynamiting its peak off to scoop out the coal inside. He makes a powerful case that modern, hi-tech coal mines are not much better than those of old country songs, back when coal was as controversial as oil is today.
The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability. By Laura Kipnis.
A fresh analysis of the contemporary American woman’s psyche looks at the dilemma of reconciling feminism and femininity. Despite an at times overly contrarian shtick, Kipnis still delivers a witty and smart analysis of enduring gender gaps, including the housework gap, paycheck gap, confidence gap, and orgasm gap.
One of the best of the recent slew of books on Iraq, The One Percent Doctrine uses high-level sources from inside the intelligence community (notably former CIA head George Tenet) to tell the story of the planning of the Iraq War. No book better explains how questionable intelligence was embraced by honest professionals (and not-so-honest ones) and used to take the nation to war.
Blood Money: A Story of Wasted Billions, Lost Lives, and Corporate Greed in Iraq. By T. Christian Miller.
Miller, a top-flight investigative reporter, exposes the United State’s low-rent Marshall Plan to rebuild Iraq in this colorful tale of corrupt profiteers, murdered contractors, and cargo planes packed with tons of $100 bills that American officials blasted across Iraq “like a leaf blower.”
The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter. By Peter Singer and Jim Mason.
A stomach-churning look at the American diet co-authored by the intellectual godfather of the animal-rights movement that avoids knee-jerk criticism of the food industry or easy praise for the organic and local food movements. Though a committed vegan, Singer even gives his approval to the McDonald’s-owned burrito chain Chipotle. Nonetheless, a challenging read for anyone who wants to eat more ethically.
You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir. By Wole Soyinka.
Peace and quiet have long eluded the Nobel Prize-winning writer, who spent decades fighting to restore democracy to Nigeria, eventually going into exile in 1994. In his dense new memoir, he recounts the paradox of being a private artist and a compulsive public figure, a split that Soyinka has managed to navigate with clear-eyed pragmatism.
In the Studio: Visits with Contemporary Cartoonists. By Todd Hignite.
Yale University Press made a bold entry into the comics publishing biz with these beautifully packaged titles. Brunetti’s idiosyncratic anthology is packed with short but arresting work from familiar names such as Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Joe Sacco, and Seth, as well as many underexposed talents. It’s perfectly complemented by Hignite’s in-depth interviews with Clowes, Ware, Seth, Brunetti, and five other big-name penmen.
Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984. By Simon Reynolds.
Reynolds convincingly argues that ’80s postpunk was the most fertile and influential musical period since the Summer of Love. Encompassing everything from Joy Division to Gang of Four to the Specials to Talking Heads to (gasp!) Human League—it’s the perfect nostalgia trip for the perennial grad student who still rocks the stovepipe jeans.
The Discomfort Zone. By Jonathan Franzen.
The novelist recounts his childhood fears (“spiders, insomnia, fish hooks, school dances, hardball, heights, bees, urinals, puberty, music teachers, dogs, the school cafeteria, censure, older teenagers, jellyfish, locker rooms, boomerangs, popular girls”), awkward adolescence, and adulthood struggle to become a wildly successful writer. Along the way, he discovers bird-watching, which becomes an obsession and his connection to environmentalism.
This Oakland rap duo has been around since the early ’90s, but this album, its first in five years, is the most musically rich. Not that the group has smoothed down its political edge. (Sample lyrics: “War ain’t about one land against the next/it’s po’ people dyin’ so the rich cash checks.”) And don’t miss the catchy pre-apocalyptic slow jam, “BabyLetsHaveABabyBeforeBushDoSomethingCrazy.”
Show Your Bones. Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
Following up to the phenomenal Fever to Tell, singer Karen O turns down her signature screaming and cranks up the guitar. The result is a little less paradigm-shifting, but still first-rate melodic punk with a female voice at the helm.
With Strings: Live at Town Hall. Eels.
This live album captures über-Eel Mark Oliver Everett’s gift for writing songs that burrow into your cerebral cortex and torment you with heartbreaking hooks and gorgeous melodies. Includes a generous dose from his recent masterpiece Blinking Lights and other Revelations.
Post-War. M. Ward.
The lo-fi alt-folk whiz continues his tuneful quest to pick up the pieces of his broken heart. With the help of a solid backup band, Ward rocks out more than usual, but without sacrificing his trademark handcrafted aesthetic.
Russian-born Spektor’s unusual voice and polyglot upbringing combine to create bouncy tunes full of literary allusions. An indie gravitas tempers her ethereal sound.
Marie Antoinette (Soundtrack). Various.
Vivaldi mixes with Air and the Bow Wow Wows in this eclectic, Chex-mix of a movie soundtrack. Best of all, the two-disc set won’t remind you too much of the fluffy film that inspired it.
Long Walk to Freedom. Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
The South African a cappella group shifts into party mode, reworking favorite songs with help from Emmylou Harris, Taj Mahal, and Melissa Etheridge.
Yell Fire! Michael Franti and Spearhead.
Having long outgrown his roots in ’80s hip-hop, Franti delivers a fervently uplifting album that makes optimism seem not foolish but downright necessary.
20/20. Dilated Peoples.
This L.A. hip-hop trio shows little interest in playing nice, whether it’s calling the George W. Bush “Lucifer” or considering picking up arms to battle racism (a recurring Peoples theme). Conversational raps, fat beats, and delightfully furious scratching.
All the Roadrunning. Emmylou Harris and Mark Knopfler.
A collection of amazing duets so authentic they feel like an intimate discovery. But don’t be disappointed if you come back down to earth once you hear it playing in coffee shops and chain bookstores.
A Blessing and a Curse. Drive-By Truckers.
These stinging vignettes of down-and-dirty living have the resonance of a great short story collection. Images of blood in the sink and crystal meth in the bathtub swirl amid ornery guitars that cross the Stones and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
This enthralling album’s shimmering, moonlit melodies suggest a quietly ominous dream. Case unleashes an arresting stream of impressionistic lyrics, sketching the outlines of troubled lives such as the “girl with the parking lot eyes.” Fresh meanings surface with each hearing.
The Information. Beck.
Moving past Guero’s cheesier, poppier tunes, Beck offers honest yet fresh melodies without sacrificing the succinct beats we’ve come to expect. And how can you resist an album that comes with D.I.Y. cover art and features the line, “Carry my heart like a soldier with a hand grenade”?
The Ricky Gervais Show.
OK—it’s not music. This podcast is the brainchild of British comedian Ricky Gervais, creator of both the British and American versions of the The Office. Heavily inspired by underground British humor favorite Derek and Clive, The Ricky Gervais Show is hold-your-sides funny, and worth tracking down on iTunes.
This year, I’ve given this Georgia-based music/pop culture magazine to a dozen-odd friends. Why? Really, it’s all about the CDs Paste sends with each issue. Containing a pitch-perfect mix of songs that run a gamut of styles—mostly alt-pop with a singer-songwriter bent—they’re a great way to sample a lot of new music if you’re too busy to live at the iTunes site. Oh, and the magazine is pretty cool too.
Television & Film
The critics are right! The SciFi Channel’s reinterpretation of the campy if beloved ’70s series is one of the best things on TV. Not only does its cast blows all others out of the water when it comes to hottitude, the show also engages the burning issues of the day—the clash of civilizations, torture, faith-based initiatives, the perils of technology—while employing some cool special effects. And Gaius Baltar is a villain of Miltonian heft: funny, sympathetic, devious, and in desperate need of five-session-a-week therapy. If your computer is up to snuff, try ordering the downloadable episodes.
This Film Is Not Yet Rated.
Director Kirby Dick goes on an undercover quest to expose the opacity and hypocrisy of the the folks who decide whether to slap a PG, R, or a distribution-killing NC-17 on our movies. For his trouble, he earned a NC-17, but don’t let that scare you away.
Long before reality TV came along, Michael Apted’s absorbing documentary series tracked the lives of more than a dozen British men and women in seven-year installments since they were seven years old. In the latest chapter, his subjects are entering middle age, settling down, but still pushing the boundaries of the class system. West End cabbie Tony is enjoying some hard-won social mobility and even the series’ lost soul, Neil, seems to have landed on his feet.
This fascinating re-release of the Maysles brothers’ 1975 documentary depicts the decrepit, crumbling world of Little Edie and Big Edie, elderly former socialites living in a Long Island manse. Their joie de vivre and unique fashion stylings (Using a shirt as a turban? Every day?) are delightful; their conversations, unforgettable.