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Sunday, January 01, 2006

The Brilliant 25 of 2005
Posted by Jill | 10:03 AM

Can you stand one last countdown as you down a little hair of the dog?

This is by no means an exhaustive list of who or what was fascinating in 2005. For one thing, there are no books here, because I had almost no time to read books, except on vacation. But these are 25 people or groups of people that made MY 2005 interesting.

Your mileage may differ.

25. Mike Doughty: A number of years ago, Mr. Brilliant and I went to see the Dave Matthews Band at Madison Square Garden, and sat through an awful Soul Coughing set. I knew that this was Matthews' favorite band, and I couldn't understand why. Fast-forward a few years, and Soul Coughing lead singer Mike Doughty puts out the terrific Haughty Melodic. Doughty's gravelly voice, catchy tunes, and odd lyrics combine to make him one of the more interesting of the current crop of male singer/songwriters. And oh yeah -- he was an early Morning Sedition booster.

24. The Maletosterone Boys of Survivor Guatemala: It's somehow fitting that the year in which evolution become controversial again and a gentle movie about two male sheep herders in love seemed cataclysmic, that the aging reality show Survivor played into both phenomena. First there was the proof in the form of New Jersey's own Judd Sergeant that we truly ARE descended from apes, pontificating about "it's a maletosterone thing" while the camera cut to Guatemalan howler monkeys. Then we were treated to the most homoerotic Survivor season ever, from the infamous Bobby Jon Drinkard/Blake Towsley pee alliance, to southern country boys Bobby Jon and Jamie Newton seemingly auditioning for Brokeback Mountain: The Sequel. In addition to being arguably the finest male eye candy in Survivor history, these two near lookalike model/actors had the gayest love/hate relationship in the show's history, starting with the Chest Bump Heard Round the World, and culminating in an obviously plastered-to-the-gills Newton gnawing lovingly on Drinkard's neck at the live reunion show. Now THAT'S entertainment.

23. J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof: I never thought I'd live to see the day when obscure references from Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus Trilogy and Kerry Wendell Thornley's Principia Discordia would inform a mainstream television series on a major network. But ABC's Lost, with its six mysterious numbers, one of which is the ubiquitous Discordian 23, and its I Ching-hexagram Dharma project logo, has got to be the most Trash Culture Mutant TV series in history. Forget the hot cast and the layers-of-an-onion plotting. For those of us who cut our geek teeth in 'zine culture and are perfectly willing to spend hours deconstructing its mysteries, Lost is pure gold. So it's fitting that this most Discordian of television shows comes in at #23.

22. Norbert Leo Butz: Move over Nathan Lane, there's a new clown in town. This adorably snarky little guy from St. Louis with the Jimmy Cagney face and the rubber body singlehandledly turned the otherwise ordinary Dirty Rotten Scoundrels into the most fun to be had on Broadway. If you're like me, you sat through the movie version of The Producers thinking, "God I wish it were Norbert Leo Butz in this instead of Matthew Broderick!" If you haven't seen it yet, the enormously talented and charismatic Mr. Butz, who won a Tony Award for his performance as the lowlife grifter Freddy Benson, is only in the show until June, after which he's slated to disappear into TV sitcom hell.

21. Jeff Latas: Jeff Latas, a career air force pilot, came to my attention via these incredibly moving posts on Daily Kos in which he talked about his son Jesse's battle with leukemia. Jesse is in the U.S. Army Reserve, and was recently medically evacuated from Iraq and is awaiting a bone marrow transplant. Jeff is one of the Fighting Dems -- military veterans running for Congress on the Democratic ticket. He's running in the Arizona 8th District if you want to help him out.

20. Jim Morrell, Chairman, Pamal Broadcasting: CEO of the company which owns the best radio station you never heard of. In the New York area, there's been precious little radio to listen to of late for those with an affinity for alt-rock. Yes, WFUV fills that niche to some degree, but skews a bit too much towards singer-songwriters. WXPK-FM (107.1 in the New York area) plays a mix of older and new rock bands, the inevitable singer-songwriters, and even some reggae. Not since WNEW was last good back in 1993 has here been a radio station in this area you can just turn on and leave on all day. And they NEVER play Stairway to Heaven.

19. Jeff Skoll, Founder, Participant Productions: Proof that not all dot-com millionaires blew it all on mansions, Porsches and cocaine. Skoll, a former president of eBay, started Participant Productions in 2004, under the notion that "a good story well told can truly make a difference in how one sees the world." 2005 has been a terrific year for Participant, with its first two major releases, Good Night and Good Luck and Syriana both being mentioned in the Academy Awards race. He also chairs The Skoll Foundation, which he founded under the now-subversive notion that "it is in everyone's interest to shift the overwhelming imbalance between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots'. People like Jeff Skoll prove that just because you become wealthy doesn't mean you have to adopt "I got mine and fuck you" Republicanism.

18. Sen. Barbara Boxer: While John Conyers was fighting the good fight in the House, Barbara Boxer, the mighty mite of the Senate, was doing her part in the other house of Congress. Boxer asked the tough questions of Condoleeza Rice during her confirmation hearings as Secretary of State that her male counterparts lacked the balls to ask. Recently, on December 20, Boxer delivered a scathing speech on the floor of Senate about the war in Iraq, the Bush Administration's fraud in perpetrating that war, and the price we're paying at home, both economically and psychologically, for that war. At a time when so many Democrats (I'm talking to you, Mrs. Clinton) are still hewing to the Bush line, for fear of being labeled soft on terrorism, Barbara Boxer still has the courage to speak truth to power.

17. James Wolcott: Like his differently-spelled Algonquin Roundtable namesake in the OLD Vanity Fair, Wolcott has become THE must-read commentator on the American sociopolitical scene. Wolcott would make this list if all he'd done was to point out that "a world without Sammy the Stem Cell is a world that might as well stop revolving." But his blog has become must-reading, as is his book Attack Poodles and Other Media Mutants: The Looting of the News in a Time of Terror.

16. Arianna Huffington: At first I was as suspicious of Huffington's motives as I was when David Brock left the Dark Side and came over to our team. After all, could we really trust someone who came to progressivism via comedy bits that involved being in bed with Al Franken? But any doubts were dispelled this year with the introduction of The Huffington Post. With the Web's most eclectic stable of writers, HuffPo is both informative AND entertaining. And anyplace that gives me an opportunity to comment directly to John Cusack in response to his terrific column on the death of Joe Strummer is just way beyond cool.

15. George Clooney: Clooney has always been an acquired taste, the charms of whom I never really understood till this year. An actor with the looks of a 1930's studio system movie star, he's always tried to hide his looks behind an incongruously boyish, "Ain't I adorable?" veneer. This year he finally decided to grow up, and became a powerful force not for leftist politics, though his leanings are decidedly progressive, but for the morality of Doing What's Right. Good Night and Good Luck marks Clooney's maturation as a director, bringing to fruition the promise he showed with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. It may be unfair for one person to be blessed with that much looks, that much intelligence, and that much talent, but I for one am glad that he's on our team.

14. Rachel Maddow: After a slow start as the strident voice on Air America Radio's Unfiltered, Maddow came into her own this year as not just an entertaining radio personality, but also the smartest woman in media. It remains to be seen whether her new 7-9 AM slot on AAR is enough to make me stop mourning the demise of Morning Sedition, but watching Maddow systematically demolish Tucker Carlson night after night is enough to make one glad to be alive.

13. Green Day: I have a confession. I've always liked Green Day, even back in the Dookie days. Yes, this falls into the realm of "Hey you old fart, go find your own music!" But you see, Green Day's music has its roots in MY early 20's, something easy to forget now that almost all of the Ramones and Joe Strummer are dead. Green Day manifests the perfect confluence of aggressively bad drumming, mediocre bass playing, snarky, occasionally clever lyrics, and the catchiest pop hooks this side of Tin Pan Alley. In 2004 the band, whose members are already on the shady side of 30, started to grow up, and while American Idiot may be only a minor variation of the band's signature 3-chord Ramones-punk, it has a certain teenage wasteland grandeur. No one will mistake Billie Joe Armstrong for Bono in the philanthropy department any time soon, but if this scrawny punk Paul McCartney can get the under 25-set to realize that they have a stake in the future, Green Day can join the ranks of bands that truly made a difference.

12. Randi Rhodes: Randi may not have the sheer power of grey matter that Rachel Maddow has, but Rhodes is the best-prepared talk radio personality around. It can't be easy to do four hours of talk radio day after day, but Randi does it. With her too-many-cigarettes voice and willingness to talk about her female problems to any and all, she has single-handedly made being over 40 hot. Sure, she does not suffer fools gladly, and her screaming at wingnuts can get old awfully quickly. But for everyone who wants to know how to do talk radio, give Randi a listen.

11. Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert: After a slow start, The Colbert Report has become even funnier than the Bill O'Reilly bombastfest it spoofs. Stephen Colbert's affiliation with The Daily Show has allowed him to leap right out of the gate with high-profile journalist guests such as Cokie Roberts, Leslie Stahl, and Anderson Cooper, most of whom at least pay at having no idea what he's doing to them. As for Jon Stewart, well, The Daily Show is continuing its most excellent self like a well-oiled machine. The rise of Keith Olbermann (#4) as the King of Snarky Real News has taken some of the pressure off of Stewart to be the news guy of record, but he's as on target as ever.

10. Paul Hackett: Hottest. Candidate. Ever. Paul Hackett is a Democratic candidate out of the dream factory -- tall, handsome, smart, articulate, an Iraq war veteran, and the kind of no-bullshit style that made Howard Dean a phenomenon. Hardly a raging liberal, Hackett represents a kind of pragmatic progressivism with none of the DLC's sellout tactics. This year, Hackett won 48% of the vote in a special Congressional election in a district that went 75% for Bush last year. Now he's running for Senate. Hackett was the first, but he's inspired a slew of other Iraq war vets to similarly run for office -- on the Democratic side. Did I mention he's hot?

9. Rep. Jack Murtha: Who would have thought at the beginning of this year that a hawkish Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania with over 30 years in the House and 37 years in the Marines would be turn out to be one of the Iraq war's biggest critics, and the most recent target of the 101st Fighting Keyboarders' rage? On November 17th, Jack Murtha lobbed the verbal equivalent of an incendiary device at the Administration when he dared to point out that the emperor is naked: "The war in Iraq is not going as advertised. It is a flawed policy wrapped in illusion. The American public is way ahead of us. The United States and coalition troops have done all they can in Iraq, but it is time for a change in direction. Our military is suffering. The future of our country is at risk. We can not continue on the present course. It is evident that continued military action in Iraq is not in the best interest of the United States of America, the Iraqi people or the Persian Gulf Region" Ultimately, Murtha's statements on the war have changed nothing yet, but his courage has enabled other military leaders to speak their minds as well.

8. Rep. John Conyers: The House of Representative's Don Quixote. Conyers is running a near-solitary effort to make the House do its job in keeping the executive branch accountable. This year alone, Conyers has organized a letter-writing campaign demanding that George Bush not pardon anyone indicted in the Plame leak case and another one demanding that Karl Rove explain his involvement in said case or resign; tried mightily (albeit in vain) to get the Reform Ohio Now initiatives passed, worked to stop the expansion of the USA PATRIOT Act; organized a House letter writing campaign to the White House in support of Cindy Sheehan, held hearings into the Downing Street Memo, and most recently, released a detailed report which ties together the Bush Administration's fradulent case for war, the Downing Street Memo, the torture scandal, and the other impeachable crimes of this Administration. Conyers is an American hero and patriot, and I wish he were my congressman.

7. Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Ang Lee: More than simply the gay Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Brokeback Mountain may very well be the final blow that knocks down the doors which have prevented gay Americans from being a fully-recognized part of American society. Two straight actors, one a rising star, one on the fading side of a disappointing career, breathed life into two sheep herders in love in 1963, and made them real to a country in which there are still many people for whom gays are the frightening "other." And Ang Lee, a Chinese director, proved once again that no one directs western culture as well as he does. A uniquely gay film with universal appeal, Brokeback Mountain hit the zeitgeist more quickly than any film in years. And yes, it really is that good.

6. Marc Maron and the Morning Sedition Crew: Forget about the neurotic mess you saw in Left of the Dial. By 2005, Marc Maron had matured into an accomplished radio professional, and combined with smart comedy provided by the gleefully nutty Jim Earl, Kent Jones, and Tom Johnson, with Mark Riley as the straight man, Morning Sedition had become the most entertaining radio show since kids would listen to Jean Shepherd on their transistor radios. The show was smart, funny, and as tight a news/comedy enterprise and as consistently excellent as The Daily Show. So of course Air America Radio CEO Danny Goldberg had to kill it -- just as six million Howard Stern listeners were going to be looking for a place to hang their hats -- thus proving that you don't have to be a wingnut to be a corporate asshole who can run a company into the ground. (pictured, from left: Sedition crew members Kent "Lawton Smalls" Jones, Dave "Little Goliath" Livingston, Wayne "News Daddy" Gillman, John "Boy Genius" Crimmings, Marc Maron, Jim "Sammy the Stem Cell" Earl, Mark Riley, Dan Pashman, Kris LoPresto)

5. Russ Feingold: The only true progressive who's making noises about running for president in 2008. Best known for working with John McCain on campaign finance reform, Russ Feingold has been fighting the good fight for us in the Senate. Whether it's putting the brakes on a full extension of the USA PATRIOT Act, amending a defense spending bill to include transition benefits for returning military personnel, or refusing to rule out a filibuster against the Supreme Court nomination of Samuel Alito, Feingold is a reliable progressive voice whose name is mentioned more frequently as a candidate in 2008. I don't believe for one minute that this country is going to elect a twice-divorced guy named "Feingold" as president, but right now he's the only potential nominee who could get me to show up at the polls on election day.

4. Keith Olbermann: The most underappreciated and most principled name in television news. That Olbermann's show Countdown runs opposite the reruns of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report is all by itself an argument for DVR boxes. Countdown is what The Daily Show would be if it were a REAL news show, and Olbermann, whose role model is Edward R. Murrow, has had his own Murrow Moments this year, most recently in his impassioned call for Fox Jesus Nazi John Gibson to leave the profession Olbermann so clearly loves in the aftermath of Gibson's appalling claim that all religions other than his are wrong. Keith Olbermann may be the last journalist in America who takes seriously his responsibility to report the news, not just shill for the entrenched power structure. That this respect for the American journalistic tradition is coming from a guy who made his name in sports broadcasting, and who has a regular popsicle-stick puppet theatre for high-profile legal cases, says something, but I'm not sure what.

3. John Aravosis: 2005 was the year in which John Aravosis of Americablog became The Blogger Who Gets Things Done. From his blockbuster exposure of JimmyJeff GannonGuckert as a male prostitute posing as a conservative journalist, to his David vs. Goliath standoffs with Microsoft on its pulling of support for the Gay Games, and Ford Motor Company in the face of a threatened Christofascist zombie boycott, Aravosis proved this year that while the Jeebofascists make the noise, WE have the power. For my money, John is the best, and certainly the most effective blogger in America.

2. Patrick Fitzgerald: Who would have thought that an investigator hired by George W. Bush to investigate a leak the Administration itself perpetrated, that of CIA NOC and WMD expert Valerie Plame, would turn out to be a real Eliot Ness. Fitzgerald, the kind of hard-nosed, thorough, non-showy prosecutor we thought no longer existed, isn't finished after indicting Dick Cheney's Chief of Staff Scooter Libby. He's already presenting evidence to another grand jury about Karl Rove, and it looks like Turdblossom might not be out of hot water yet. Fitz is so clean not even the wingnuts can touch him.

1. Cindy Sheehan: Woman of the year, perhaps of the decade. A half-million people marched in New York City in advance of the Iraq war, but it wasn't until this one very ordinary woman from Vacaville, California decided to camp out in Crawford and ask the President what the noble cause was for which her son died that the antiwar movement achieved critical mass. And Cindy Sheehan became extraordinary. Sheehan isn't the first woman to be galvanized into activism as a response to losses suffered at the hands of George W. Bush's policies, but her dramatic vigil in Crawford this past summer and subsequent leadership role in the peace movement made her the face of bereaved war moms all over America, and immortalized her son Casey as the face of the young Americans George W. Bush is so blithely feeding into the Iraq meatgrinder. Bush's presidency may never recover.

If this still isn't enough lists for you, pop on over to Modern Fabulousity, for all the lists you can possibly eat.

And stay tuned for my New Year's resolutions (all of them guaranteed to be broken) and my 10 best movies list, coming, oh, well, sometime.
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