Tuesday, May 28, 2002 7:00 PM UTC

Real Life Rock Top 10

1) Laurie Anderson, “Live at Town Hall New York City September 19-20, 2001″ (Nonesuch)

An exquisite piece of work in a situation that had to be close to impossible to navigate: Straight off, Anderson offers a brief, inhumanly effete little homily on the eight-day-old ruins of New York and the blood fear of what comes next. It’s unbearably precious — until, somewhere into the first or second of these CDs, you realize Anderson’s whole performance is an exercise in breath control, and that introduction comes back as a stifled scream, a swallowed curse, whatever you think you might have said in the same circumstance, which Anderson pointedly didn’t say in your place.

Song after song becomes perhaps more of a song than it ever was before — “Let X=X,” “Strange Angels,” “Coolsville.” But how Anderson managed to get through “O Superman” without losing the strict, science-fiction beat is beyond me. Dating from 1979, the composition, it’s now clear, is Anderson’s “Gimme Shelter,” her “Anarchy in the U.K.,” her Book of Amos, her “Sugar, Sugar”; it’s the end of the world, and it’s catchy. It was always terrifying; it was always cute. But now, instead of predicting the future, the song is looking back at a future that has already taken place. Who, what wrote such lines as “Here come the planes/ They’re American planes/ Made in America/ Smoking, or Non-Smoking?” — and how did Anderson sing those lines after it had been revealed that “Smoking” was the answer the song had always contained? These nights were a great patriotic speech, with, scattered through the audience, the dead: Allen Ginsberg, Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, Abraham Lincoln.

2) New York’s a Lonely Town When You’re the Only Surfer Boy Around, Vermont Dep’t.

The Magic Rat (aka Steve Weinstein) writes from Norwich: “This is the kind of thing we have for entertainment up here, if we’re LUCKY:

“‘GANDY DANCER CAFE Presents: HUBCATS, Saturday, May 25 @ 9.00, $5 cover, 39 Main Street, Historic Downtown White River Junction, VT

“‘The HUBCATS are an acoustic duo from the Burlington, VT area. The duo is comprised of Stewart Foster and Fred Bauer. A mix of acoustic guitar, mandolin, bass, vocal harmonies and a diverse song list that tends to stray from the mainstream gives this duo a unique appeal. Stewart’s . . . early influences have been James Taylor, Jim Croce, Jonathan Edwards and others. While those influences are still noticeable in his style, influences that have played a bigger role in more recent years are such artists as Lyle Lovett and David Wilcox. Brauer has been reviewed by some as “a combination of John Paul Jones & Peter Townsend . . . The HUBCATS has just released a CD titled “FIRST SNOW.’

“Feel my pain.”

3) Gossip, “Arkansas Heat” (Kill Rock Stars EP)

Not as sharp a title as “That’s Not What I Heard,” the trio’s debut, but absolutely accurate. You can hear the whiplash of outsiders’ hate as readily as you can imagine you’re listening to a punk Rolling Stones — which is to say, Stones rehearsals, and so roughly that 20-something singer Beth Ditto can stick “1965″ in the title song as if nothing that’s happened since has fooled her for a minute.

4) Isabelle Huppert in “The Piano Teacher,” directed by Michael Haneke (Kino International)

Marketing consultants vetoed the original title: “Let It Bleed.” As well as promoting it as a version of “Pandora’s Box.” My God, where does Huppert go after the last shot?

5) “About a Boy,” directed by Paul Weitz and Chris Weitz (Universal)

There’s a dull soundtrack of new songs by Badly Drawn Boy; the musical high point of this fine picture comes near the end, when the hopelessly nowhere 12-year-old stands alone for a school “Kidz Rock” talent show and attempts to croak “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” his mother’s favorite. He’s dying a thousand deaths — until his friend and protector Hugh Grant strolls onstage strumming an electric guitar. Missing his floppy hair, looking at once slightly embarrassed and as if he’s realizing a lifelong dream, Grant gets just enough melody under the tune to make the boy’s effort seem passable, if only barely, and that’s what makes the scene — the refusal of the triumphant finish coded into the moment by countless movie moments like it. It’s a combination of Michael J. Fox’s pseudo-invention of Chuck Berry’s duckwalk in “Back to the Future” and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s excruciating but undeniable nine-minute performance of Van Morrison’s “Take Me Back” in “Georgia” — brought way, way down to earth.

6) Permanent city history exhibition, McCord Museum (Montreal, May 11)

While the delights of the Montreal city museum are many — especially an extensive, multimedia presentation of all the different ways the place gets really cold — the stopper was the surrealism-in-action display on wealth and poverty circa 1900. A photomural of an all-but-collapsing hovel and five siblings looking about three years apart handled the latter part of the story. The former was, properly, in a glass case. It contained a Japanese lacquered screen, a set of china, a gilt chair, an oil painting of the Honourable Mrs. Hugh Graham and Her Daughter Alice, and two life-size mannequins of same, clad in lovely purple dresses, a silver teapot where Mrs. G’s head should have been, a serving dish for her little girl’s.

7) Bratmobile, “Girls Get Busy” (Lookout!)

The now venerable riot grrrl originals have more fun — more experience they don’t need. Allison Wolfe may be the flattest singer this side of Fred Schneider, but it’s a far side. What she does with her limits makes her part of her audience; what Schneider does with his makes his audience an object of contempt. Hot shot: “What’s Wrong With You?” where the plaintive “Baby, I don’t hate men/ Maybe I just hate you” is followed by cheerleader chants.

8) Pet Shop Boys, “Release” (Sanctuary)

The comeback, or anyway the return — but despite “London,” which may stand with their best, they could have called it “Vaguely.”

9) Diann Blakely, “Duets With Robert Johnson,” BOMB (Summer issue)

Blakely is an Alabama-born poet and author of “Farewell, My Lovelies” (Story Line Press, 2000 — start with “Reunion Banquet, Class of ’79″). Here she weaves a very few lines from songs written in the 1930s into her own reveries, and the result is that Johnson joins a greater history than that to which he is usually consigned, which is to say that of Mississippi country blues. In Blakely’s “Crossroads Blues” the only person named is Ashley Wilkes; in her “Little Boy Blue” Johnson’s teacher Ike Zinnerman “sings, but history shakes with louder sounds,” and the modern sound of the country blues is suddenly the sound of the Battle of Vicksburg, and the little blue boys are dead Union soldiers. In her “Ramblin’ on My Mind” it truly is Blakely who lets her mind wander: One of her ancestors appears like a haunt, her wounds still open, “the first woman killed by Nat Turner’s gang,” then fades past a slave owner into the evils Blakely hears Johnson “claimed for songs/ Which foretold more bad news: factory stockyard closings/ King shot in Memphis, schoolkids selling crack/ By fallen tractor sheds. All great migrations done.” Like a songwriter — like Bob Dylan — Blakely trusts a line that cannot be pinned down by time or place, by history (“All great migrations done”), to suck those that can (“schoolkids selling crack”) into its instability, where all things are possible.

10) Stephen M. H. Braitman, “Letter to the Editor” (San Francisco Chronicle, May 18)

“I love the idea of Lucas John Helder’s alleged art project of creating a smiley face out of pipe-bombing patterns in the Midwest. It seems that Stockhausen’s comments about the World Trade Center attack [have] borne fruit. No more limits on creativity! ‘Terrorist Art’ is a new genre, and has just begun to inspire the work of artists throughout the world.”