The Designer’s Drugs: Top 11 of 11

So here’s my crappy end of year list.  I don’t think I liked enough albums, books, or other entertainments to warrant separate best-of lists for each medium, so I’m just smashing everything together. Deal with it.

11.  Medium: Literature. Stimulus: George R. R. Martin – A Dance with Dragons

Finally, George R. R. Martin continues his Song of Fire and Ice series with a gigantic book that nonetheless picks up the pace and is much more exciting than its predecessor.

10.  Medium: Film. Stimulus: Red State

The guy who directed Clerks and Mallrats makes a serious movie about Fred Phelps-grade religious fanaticism and David Koresh-grade domestic terrorism.  On paper, you’d think it wouldn’t work, but it works pretty goddamn hard.

9.      Medium: Game. Stimulus: The Nintendo 3DS

Most video game systems suck and have a crappy library of games in their first year.  The Nintendo 3DS bypassed this by cutting the crap and releasing upgraded versions of the company’s best games 15 years ago, Ocarina of Time and Starfox 64.  It worked.  Add a highly serviceable port of Street Fighter IV, a Mario game that is the 2011 version of 1990’s Super Mario Bros. 3, and the requisite round of Mario Kart, and the opening salvo of the 3DS hasn’t been too bad at all.

8.      Medium: Album. Stimulus: Austrian Death Machine – Jingle All the Way

If you haven’t listened to the Arnold Schwarzenegger-themed metal genius that is Austrian Death Machine, do it.  Do it now!  Their latest release is a two-song EP based on Arnold’s epic Christmas movie, Jingle All the Way.  “I’m Not a Pervert,” based on Arnold’s failed attempt at gaining a bouncy ball from a stupid kid at the Mall of America, is the feel-good Christmas song of the year.

7.      Medium: Literature. Stimulus: Albert Brooks – 2030.

A believable, grounded account of American decline without the usual futuristic vibe.  Usually, books about the future are pretty devoid of compassion and pretty bonered out on robo-fascism, but Brooks plays it calm and presents a future with real people – and, equally important, real language.  This examination of overpopulation and boomer entitlement reaching old age is less fiction than it is frightening inevitability.

6.      Medium: Album. Stimulus: William Shatner – Seeking Major Tom

Shatner Shatners it up and sings cover songs about space.  How could this possibly go wrong?  The answer: it won’t.

5.      Medium: Album. Stimulus: Peter Gabriel – New Blood

I think that instead of the usual gathering of singles into the usual stale Greatest Hits collection, all musicians who reach such a reflective point in their careers should do orchestral renditions of their best songs.  Especially the B-52s.  Consider Peter Gabriel and this beautiful retrospective to be my prime argument for this.

4.      Medium: Literature. Stimulus: Andy Schoepp – Time Ninja

Once more, the great Andy Schoepp delivers over the top martial arts action in book form, yet this time he outdoes himself.  Time traveling ninjas, giant robots, and hot assassin babes make for an epic tale.  I’ve said it before: if Andy Schoepp’s work doesn’t kick your ass, then you don’t have an ass.

3.      Medium: Album. Stimulus: Florence and the Machine – Ceremonials

This is what pop music should always sound like: well-crafted yet forceful, ambitious yet immediate, intellectual yet emotional.  Ceremonials is titanic sonic literature.

2.      Medium: Film. Stimulus: Hobo with a Shotgun

This ridiculous, ultraviolent, pun-heavy bit of low-rent cinema made me grateful to be alive.  Seeing an old grizzled hobo dispense buckshot justice to an awesome family of gleefully murderous gangsters was a joy.  Remember: when life gives you razor blades, you make a bat covered in razor blades!

1.      Medium: Life. Stimulus: Protests!

It’s breathtaking to see people giving a shit and fighting corrupt systems of power worldwide.  In America this seems even more amazing, because we’re currently the spoiled children of the planet.  Divide that down to the Midwest, where the secondary holy mantra that follows “go [insert local NFL team]” is “don’t rock the boat,” and consider my mind blown.  My expectations for humanity this year were completely shattered, and that feels wonderful.

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The Designer’s Drugs: Bill Hicks – The Essential Collection

Bill Hicks: The Essential Collection

Medium: Multiple

Stimulus: Bill Hicks – The Essential Collection

Anno: 2010

The problem with heroes is that after a while – and especially once they’re dead – they don’t get to be anything other than heroes.  Alongside Lenny Bruce, whose myth has him censored to death, Bill Hicks has become one character in the comedian’s world to be saddled with this uncomfortable status.  Yet perhaps more than Bruce himself, Hicks has been elevated to a nigh-messianic plateau, his flaws erased, his comedy bleached into the colors of philosophy.  As a person who often railed against groupthink and blind praise, I don’t think Hicks would accept the crown he’s been bestowed.

The great service provided by Bill Hicks: The Essential Collection, the new box set retrospective of the man’s life and work, is that it goes beyond the philosopher mystique.  The two discs of stand-up recordings feature his famed rants on drugs, sex, marketing, and the many ways that society is designed to keep its citizens stupid and obedient.  Within this extensive compilation, the audio is the most familiar.  It’s a natural starting point for those new to Bill’s work, though old fans may have heard most of these pieces before.

There is a swerve in the audio end, however.  Enclosed in the collection is a download card which allows the audience to obtain an album of recorded music from Bill’s website.  As opposed to the faint sounds of acoustic guitar that drifted through his stand-up recordings, this work, titled Lo-Fi Troubadour, is a full album of quietly passionate acoustic ballads.  What’s best about this facet of the compilation is that Troubadour was clearly recorded without an agenda, that it was simply Bill documenting another of his passions.  That said, he’d be a hit at any open mic.  “The Road Can Be Hard” is a beautiful breakup song, whereas “Waiting to Meet You,” despite its surface cheer, is a rather murderous tune.

The Young Outlaw.

The best part of The Essential Collection is in fact the video section.  While most such audio/video sets tend to treat the visual as secondary, this collection rewards those who want to go deeper into Bill’s work.  The most fun thing to be found in this anthology is Ninja Bachelor Party, a silly martial arts B-movie made by Bill and a few friends.  Yet the most illuminating artifacts are the many bootleg videos of Bill performing stand-up over the years.  It’s startling to see a young Bill Hicks, just out of high school, clean cut and wearing a tie.  His comedy is largely apolitical, mostly joking about the craziness of his family.  Compared to his later work, it’s very nonthreatening, and yet it’s also incredibly funny.

And here’s the point that the video section drives home: Bill Hicks was a brilliant comedian long before he ever became a social critic.  With all due respect to what he had to say, The Essential Collection rightly maintains that Bill could have said anything and brought the house down.  True to its title, this collection is essential in breaking up the myth of Bill Hicks to show more of the admirable person beyond.

Photo courtesy of the Hicks family.