Top 5… People of 2008

5 Jan

So here it is, the last best-of list for 2008.  And only five days into 2009, too!  I’m so glad to get these done just past the time when everyone stopped caring.  Next year, I’ll wait ’till February, just to be even more different.

So, first was Games, then TV, then Music, and now, we’re on to the top five people who rocked in 2008.  I’m gonna go ahead and disqualify anyone who has previously been a Person I Want to Be, as well as Barack Obama, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert.  Just to keep things interesting, because otherwise that would be my top four, and, you know, everyone else’s too.

Please make sure your seatbacks and traytables are in their upright and locked position…


5. Rachel Maddow

Wow, I never thought I’d watch MSNBC.  I still don’t, really, but ever since we got rid of HBO in my apartment, and Comedy Central became the Scrubs Central (at least during diner time), it seems like anytime I want to get in a quick 15 minutes of TV while the pasta water heats, I’m watching Maddow’s show. And damn – she’s great! I still can’t really deal with Olbermann, and I would have thought I’d find her smugness irritating, but actually, it’s kind of endearing, particularly now that I’ve had a chance to see her go out and interact with people in real life, as in her winning appearance on Colbert.

Bespectacled and dorky-cool, she was a real charmer, and clearly a pretty damn sharp tack, to boot.  The fact that she’s giving Fox news a run for its money in the ratings is truly indicative of a sea change in the country. Just let’s not become that which we once so hated. It would suck for young people in, say, 15 years to cheer the falling of the horrible left in the same way we have been the horrible right.  As long as Maddow can stay on an even keel (and so far, seems like she probably can), I think we’ll be okay.


4. Miguel Zenon

Alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon is a guy to whom up until a few years back I’d had no exposure, and then, slowly, like that guy in the airport that you keep on catching planes with who then turns up at the mall after you’ve landed, I started to see him everywhere.  He’s held down the alto chair in the SF Jazz Collective alongside  and those other freaks for a few years now, and he consistently supplies some of the best playing to the group, as well as some of my favorite compositions. Which, when you take into account the lineup – Joshua Redman, Dave Douglas, Joe Lovano, Eric Harland, etc – is no small feat.

Last year, Zenon won the $500,000 MacAurthur Foundation Genius Grant, and as a result, was mocked on the Colbert Report (“Never give money to Jazz musicians.  They’ll just blow it on berets and heroin”).

To my mind, that’s the sign that you’ve really arrived, and he did it without any weird tricks, genre-mashing, or loop stations; he just played the saxophone really, really well. Rock on, Miguel!


3. Nate Silver

Silver, the baseball statistician-turned-pollster who kept the internet-addicted left sane during the 2008 campaign, is my freaking hero. The guy provided the absolute best, most unbiased poll aggrigation available anywhere online, and best of all was the way in which he did it.

His site,, was all about transparency, and he pushed it at every opportunity. The amount of data on the site is frankly overwhelming, and it’s great to know that, should anyone question his methods or conclusions, the data are right there for examination.It’s something that you’d think that all polling sites would do, but that was the most surprising thing of all – the fact that Silver’s site was unique in its transparency.

Before last year, I had no idea that the polls at, say, weighs its polls unfairly and supplies no FAQ or explanation, nor did I know how easy it is for hacks like Drudge and Hannity to cherry-pick outliers in order to sell a narrative they’re spinning.  Only Silver, sitting, I imagine, in a small office filled with baseball memorabilia and un-filed papers, cut through the bullshit and gave us numbers that were based on the track records of their polls, and showed us how he arrived at his conclusions.

All of that wouldn’t count for much if his model didn’t get results, but boy, did it ever – the guy all but called the election exactly months before it happened, just as he did with the Iowa Caucus months before.

He continues to give us great coverage of the Senate recount in Minnesota, and even called THAT one for Franken back in mid-November, once again putting him well ahead of the curve.  We may not read his site as much over the next three years, but it’ll be good to know that he’s out there, perfecting his numbers, ready to keep us in the loop in 2012.


2. Sean Penn

I’ve always agreed with the popular critical concensus that Penn is one of our generation’s greatest actors (as well as the other popular consensus that he’s kind of a douche sometimes) but I don’t think I really internalized what they meant by “best” until I saw Milk.  Man, there hasn’t been an actor whose shown me the actual, real power of acting in a loooong time, and maybe no one’s done it to the extent that Penn did it in that film.  I’ve already gone on in great detail about how much I liked the move, but as cool as the music and the directing were, Penn’s performance was the reason for the season.  It was like some sort of miracle-work or something, the way the guy simultaniously pulled in and then just exploded out, his smile and warmth and heart filling the screen for every scene he was in.  How that hell does a person even do that?  It was without a doubt my favorite performance of 2008, one of the best film performances I’ve ever seen in ever.  Other actors better take note – this is what is possible in your medium, so crank it up and give us more, please.


1. Michelle (and Barack) Obama

Okay, so there was only ONE RULE that I set at the outset, but I’m going to break it. Because who the hell else could be number one on this list?  Some pundit, or a trumpet player or something?

So, yeah, the President-Elect’s speech from the Denver convention was pretty damn incredible, but my favorite moment from that week was, without a doubt, watching Michelle do her thing on Monday night, and thinking about the ramifications of her and Barack’s couple-hood.  I’d seen her on TV, in particular a Daily Show interview that was just lovely (though I can’t remember if it aired before of after the convention), but this was something else.  The lady is serious business – she fucking commands attention, with a clear and passionate oratorical style that meshes quite well with her husband’s.

In fact, I sometimes find myself thinking, “Yeah, they’re both Obamas, they’re married, it makes sense that they’d both be really good speakers.” But, when you think about it, what the fuck?? Why exactly does that make sense?  It’s this fallacy that led to the thinking that Hillary would be a good president just because her husband was, only it’s even weirder: since when do we assume that because two people are married, they share the same natural talents?

And yet that’s the truth of it: both Barack and Michelle have a God-given natural talent for moving large groups of people, and the fact that they’re married to one another is just kind of a freak coincidence.  A freak coincidence of awesomeness.  Couple that with their amazing, tightly-knit group of friends (and when do groups like this stop being “friends” and start being “cronies?”  I guess around the time that it stops being about helping out with the kids and starts being about favors and kickbacks), and you’ve got a couple of people who truly do seem as though they were brought together to do that which we are now entitled to demand of them: to lead our country from darkness into a new day.

If anyone’s up to the task, it’s those two.

I think that’ll do it for me and the top 5 lists.  Back to regular posting, in what looks to be anything but a regular year.  Let’s make 2009 count, y’all!

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