(1) Roots, Undun. Even if you catch only a phrase here and there, the story this shape-shifting album tells is plain. Just through the feel of the music, you know you are following the story of a single person, as he slowly pulls himself out of simple questions and simple answers and into a sense of self that throws off anyone else’s idea of who he’s supposed to be, even if he’s drowning in confusion, conflict, voices hammering in his head, all answers to any questions far behind him. The voices telling his tale continually change—on “Lighthouse,” the sound couldn’t be more toothpaste, but it’s also a relief from the street life swirling around it. There’s a reason the Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” is quoted early on: the same humility, the same sense of struggling to know what you don’t know, runs through the songs like a river to cross. The rapping is close to ordinary speech—the bravado, the sneer, that makes so much rapping one-dimensional and tiresome isn’t in this music. But the more you listen the more you hear—stray echoes of Dion & the Belmonts, Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise,” the ambition and the willingness to slow down, not to rush, of Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On. You don’t want this to end, and not only because of dread at what the ending will be.
(2) A Place to Bury Strangers, Onwards to the Wall (Deep Oceans). From New York, the spirit of Joy Division—until the riptide of the title song, when the band all but changes places with New Order. But New Order never had a singer like Alanna Nuala—a.k.a. Moon—who as she rides through the middle of the number could be a horsewoman riding a ghost.
(3) Pina, directed by Wim Wenders (HanWay Films). An unforgettable moment in this gorgeously vivid tribute to the late choreographer Pina Bausch, as performed by members of her Tanztheater Wuppertal, from her 1978 piece “Kontakthof,” with Peter Dennis’s delirious 1975 version of Jimmy Dorsey’s 1946 “T. D.’s Boogie Woogie” pushing them on. A line of men seated in chairs, dressed in suits, hammer their way across the floor toward a line of women in slinky dresses rubbing themselves against the wall behind them—a routine that in its aura of trance and violence seems to capture the ambitions of every avantgarde nightclub from the Cabaret Voltaire on down. As a 3-D movie Pina ought to be on a double bill with Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams.
(4) Comet Gain, Howl of the Lonely Crowd (What’s Your Rupture?). Formed in 1992, this British group appears here stuck in the Beat past of the ’40s and ’50s, with the references to Allen Ginsberg and David Riesman followed by “Herbert Huncke, Pt. 2,” a tune about the Times Square junkie celebrated by Jack Kerouac in On the Road that the Velvet Underground forgot to record; “The Ballad of Frankie Machine,” pushed wonderfully by singer Rachel Evans; and the last track, “In a Lonely Place,” which lets Humphrey Bogart’s damned face look back over all the wasted years. It doesn’t seem like a concept, merely people in the band wrapping themselves around things they like, and nothing gets in the way of a vocal diversity, of the surprise eruptions of feeling (the guitar break in the lovely, soulful “After Midnight, After It’s All Gone Wrong,” the thrill of “Thee Ecstatic Library”) that make you want to see the band opening for the New Pornographers.
(5) Rocket from the Tombs, Barfly (Fire). The group formed in Cleveland in 1974; now, almost buried behind singer David Thomas’s self-questioning, crooning croak, is the most subtle and quietly passionate guitar band in the land. A land perhaps defined by the faces on the back of the CD sleeve that the musicians key their names to: Vachel Lindsay (drummer and organist Steve Mehlman), Edgar Allen Poe (guitarist Cheetah Chrome), Mark Twain (bassist Craig Bell), Herman Melville (guitarist Richard Lloyd), and Stonewall Jackson (Thomas).
(6) Robert W. Harwood, “‘Stack O’ Lee Blues’—the first sheet music (and more)” ( iwentdowntostjamesinfirmary. blogspot.com, December 20, 2011). From 1924, the first publication of the true-crime bad-man ballad that came out of St. Louis in 1895, reduced to a lame tune and lyrics about a new dance craze keyed to a racist playground chant. The sheet-music art is what’s uncanny: in red, blue, pink, white, and black, a swirling abs traction, in circles and rectangles, that calls up the dada experimental films being made at exactly the same time.
(7 & 8) Sanford Biggers: Sweet Funk—An Introspective (Brooklyn Museum, through January 8) and Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit” (1959, YouTube). A big room, centered by Blossom (2007), an installation with a huge tree growing through a piano with its bench knocked over and lying in dirt: a prepared piano that plays a slow version of “Strange Fruit.” Nearby is Cheshire (2007), a video showing a large tree with black men climbing it, a lynching tree reclaimed with the smile of the Cheshire cat when one man reaches the top, where when black screen-breaks appear you hear “Strange Fruit” by Imani Uzuri. Here “Strange Fruit” is fixed, a reference point, unlike the 1959 footage of Holiday, old and ravaged, singing the song in a nightclub with unparalleled vividness, so that every word makes a separate scene you are forced to visualize, that she is forced to visualize—you can see and hear her resisting the song, as if she can barely stand to sing it. The piece by Biggers that lives up to this performance is Bittersweet the Fruit (2002), where a tree branch with leaves, installed horizontally, has a two-by-three-inch video screen cut in. It’s described as an allegory of the pickup-truck lynching of James Byrd Jr., in Jasper, Texas, in 1998—one of the killers, Lawrence Brewer, was executed on September 21, 2011, two days before Biggers’s show went up—you see, in a wooded area like the scrub forests Byrd was dragged through, a naked black man with gray dreads seated playing a piano. The sound plays backward, slow, fuzzed, then frantically speeding up and clattering—and the sense is that of the man trying to go back in time, to when he wasn’t dead.
(9) Randy Newman, “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country,” from Live in London (Nonesuch). It can be hard to hear the world catch up with Newman’s misanthropy.
(10) “Gaga Constellation” Christmas windows, creative direction by Nicola Formichetti, directed by Tim Richardson (Barney’s Workshop, New York, December 14, 2011). Various Gaga fantasies—and the one that works is Gaga Machine, with LG’s body painted gold and transformed into a Futurist motorcycle. Passing by, Marinetti would have broken the glass and climbed on.