1) Arliss Howard, "The Human Stain by Philip Roth" (Houghton Mifflin audio books)
Album of the year? This is it: unabridged, eight cassettes, 14 1/2 hours and a tour de force by an actor less known for his roles in "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar!" and "Tales of Erotica" than for his marriage to Debra Winger. Winger has a small role in "The Human Stain"; all it does is throw Howard's performance into relief. He contrives different voices for different characters, and many different voices for different incarnations of the same character, without ever seeming to do so, without ever losing an overall narrative authority. It's as if, somewhere behind all the acting, Howard himself were the real author of Roth's novel. With not a word missing, this means a lot of ruminating, a lot of philosophy, repetitions that on the page can seem like a whisper and that spoken out loud can sound stupid. With Howard speaking, the same phrases, the same ideas coming up again and again, work in the listener's mind not as irritations, but as reminders, as part of the listener's own memory. This is the perfect companion for a long, long driving trip -- but be sure to time the end of the trip to the end of the story. Otherwise you'll be left stranded, wondering what you're doing so many miles from home, no place to be when, as at the end of Howard's reading, all of life comes crashing down.
2/3) PJ Harvey at Bowery Ballroom, New York (Dec. 11) and at Daddy-O's, 44 Bedford St., New York (Nov. 19)
Harvey was very glamorous at the Bowery Ballroom; she ran the band with her guitar. Still, she's so self-composed that when she offered a few conventional words to the crowd it seemed unnatural, out of place -- or as if the audience weren't needed at all. There were moments when doors you didn't know were there opened, moments when you might see yourself across town at the Museum of Modern Art, gazing into Jackson Pollock's 1950 "One" and realizing you could be looking at a 30,000-year-old cave painting or wall engraving, looking into an image redrawn or scored by hundreds of hands over hundreds or thousands of years. But mostly her performance was a series of songs -- and it was surprising to find the new "Big Exit" already a standard crowd pleaser. The audience's cheers made the song seem like a finished thing, already known.
A few weeks before, at a Village bar, a guy was shouting into his cellphone. The bartender cranked his Rolling Stones' "Let It Bleed" CD higher and higher; the guy just upped his own volume. But when "Midnight Rambler" and "Monkey Man" and "You Got the Silver" yielded to "You Can't Always Get What You Want," you realized it wasn't simply some self-important jerk with his Nokia that was killing conversation, or even the ever-rising loudness of the music, but the music itself. This was, after all, merely the best rock 'n' roll album ever made, and when it's playing it's kind of hard not to listen to it. The bartender proved his touch was perfect by following with Harvey's just-released "Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea." "Big Exit" is the first cut, and it immediately raised the question, Why isn't she in the Rolling Stones? It's not as if they don't need her help, or as if she's not already standing in their shoes.
4) Gossip, "That's Not What I Heard" (Kill Rock Stars)
From Arkansas: Very tough, very grimy, very Southern -- all dirt and spit, with a feeling Pussy Galore once found, probably on an old copy of "The Rolling Stones, Now!"
5) Val Kilmer on "Saturday Night Live," Dec. 9 (NBC)
Before applying himself to a startling impression of Jeb Bush being spurned by former lover Katherine Harris (and you haven't lived until you've seen her in the "Fashion Police" pages of the Dec. 25 issue of Us), at the end of his monologue Kilmer said, "U2 is actually on the show tonight." As a violation of SNL's most hardened cliché -- the hideously tiresome "[Name of musical performer] is here!" -- it was right up there with Kilmer's "Shoot him in the face" advice to Christian Slater in "True Romance."
6) "Dearly Departed: Remembering those in the arts who died in 2000," San Francisco Chronicle Datebook (Dec. 31)
Average age for the 20 entries under "Pop Music," including Roebuck Staples, 84; Lord Kitchener, 77; Edward "Tex" Beneke, 77; and Screamin' Jay Hawkins, 70: 54. Average age for the 47 entries under "Classical Music," including Neil Wilson, 44, David Shallon, 49; David Golub, 50; and Michael J. Baker, 51: 77.
7) Peter Loge, "Comment" on "Morning Edition," NPR (Dec. 20)
Big question for the nation, according to Loge, director of Washington's Justice Project, an anti-death penalty group: figuring out a future for Al Gore, especially with the possibility that he might have to subsist on "Tipper getting the Wildcats back together for one last VH1 special." Noting that Gore seemingly had "no marketable skills," and that traditional opportunities for ex-vice presidents -- motivational speaking or writing a book -- raised specters of boredom beyond hope (the Spiro Agnew-Gerald Ford tradition of lobbying, fixing and introducing corrupt foreign businessmen to influential members of Congress and the executive branch went unmentioned), Loge proposed that Gore, drawing on his years of experience showing up at state funerals and second-rank fundraisers, offer himself as an "event stand-in." Gore could rent himself out to family reunions, charity events, Little League games or whatever function someone else wanted to avoid, Loge announced somberly -- and he could be just as stiff and wooden as he wished. After all, what could be more polite at such gatherings than a robot that says "Yes," "Thank you" and "More punch would be delightful" better than any human? In other words, calls for national unity, "putting hard feelings behind us" and acknowledging George W. Bush's legitimacy as president (as, according to a December New York Times poll, 40 percent of the public, as opposed to 99.5 percent of the media, do not) are all very well, but whats really necessary to establish Bush as the landslide winner he has pretended to be since Nov. 7 is the transformation of Gore into the automatic punch line of every loser joke -- no matter that he plainly won the election, in Florida as in the nation at large.
8) "Leni Riefenstahl" 2001 desk calendar (Taschen)
Speaking of legitimacy ("Riefenstahl's current de-Nazification and vindication as indomitable priestess of the beautiful," Susan Sontag wrote in 1974, when Riefenstahl, who will turn 99 this year, could still pose as a nymph, "do not augur well for the keenness of current abilities to detect the fascist longings in our midst"), this is going too far -- or coming too close.
9) Johnny Cash, "American III: Solitary Man" (American)
"I" and "II" in the Cash revival -- put old man together with new songs -- did nothing for me; here an inner depth combines with the deep voice to take some of the songs to places neither they nor Cash have reached before. Neil Diamonds "Solitary Man" was always a great record, but also a kind of whine; here it's a testament. Will Oldham's "I See a Darkness" is creepy as Oldham himself does it as Bonnie "Prince" Billie; now it's a premonition of death that lets you see through death's eyes. The thriller is U2s "One": With Bono's bellowing gone it's revealed as a perfect tune. As the singer waltzes with himself in the studio apartment no one else has entered for months, only the pop lightness of the melody convinces you the song is something other than an old mountain air.
10) "The Suburbans," directed by Donal Lardner Ward, written by Tony Guma and Donal Lardner Ward (Tristar 1999, HBO, Dec. 7)
Ultra-adorable record company rep Jennifer Love Hewitt facing terrified one-hit-wonder '80s band now on tour for the first time in over 15 years: "So! We beat on, boats against the current, ceaselessly into the past!" Her telling the Suburbans she's quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald doesn't make them feel any better.