Top Ten Storytellers of the Decade
It’s been a rich decade for story. The movie and music business got shaky, TV enjoyed an culture-shaking renaissance, and video games grew legs and flew. In the center was El Internet, the paste that held everything together, and tied all the various media to each other. With media gone schizo, the need for powerful story to exist at the nexus of any franchise become more and more apparent. And so I celebrate the ten greatest storytellers of this decade.
10. J.K. Rowling
It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that JK Rowling owned this decade. Sure, Harry Potter started in the mid-90s, but the series didn’t really devour the Earth until somewhere between the third and fourth book, smack in the year 2000. From that point on, everything was wizards, phantasmagorical stags and chants of expecto patronums at bus stops and school cafeterias. And even most contrarians had to admit- this Rowling character could charm like no other. I don’t own a single Harry Potter book- but I read them all within a week of release, and they were mostly read in less than five sittings. It was nearly impossible not to. Those books grabbed your face, pulled it ten inches from the page, and didn’t let go. She’s not higher on my list because the school-year-as-structure started driving me crazy somewhere around book four, and hearing about who spent the winter holiday at whose house gave me a malign case of the eye-rollsies. Regardless, Rowling proved herself a potent storyteller- maybe the most powerful- what else commanded the world’s full attention off and on for the better part of this decade?
9. Ghostface Killah
One of hip hop’s great storytellers. I’m not going to pretend like I’m a huge connoisseur, but hearing Supreme Clientele and Fishscale for the first time, I felt like I was stepping into Staten Island for Wu-Tang Fairy Tale Hour. Rap rarely immerses me with its lyrics like that, and few albums I’ve heard have the thematic range that Ghostface’s best ones do. And if that doesn’t seal the deal, check out how he explained his obtuse lyric, ”Grey Poupon is rebel on rap” — ”This is my smooth shit because Grey Poupon is like some hype French mustard, you know what I mean? I don’t like Grey Poupon — I like French’s. Everybody else was talking about it like it was the s— because of that commercial, but I still like the yellow mustard.” Case closed.
8. Craig Finn
“The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me” grew on me slowly. My buddy Kevin gave me the CD, and before I knew it, Knuckles and The Swish were burning a hole in my car’s CD player. What really did it, more than the punch-you-in-the-face bravado and dare-me-to-sing style, was the lines I’d pick up as I heard it more and more. “I did a couple of favors for some guys who looked like Tusken Raiders.” “I’ve been trying to get people to call me Johnny Rotten, but people keep calling me Freddie Fresh.” I felt like I was eavesdropping on a fascinating conversation which I could only half-hear, and I kept trying to get closer and closer. As I kept listening, kept digging into the songs, characters and locations surfaced- Ybor City, Charlemagne. Over the next decade, every new album brought new stories, new narrative possibilities, and always an evolving style. I tried not to read the lyrics- music has that novel way of unfolding pieces of a story over weeks and months as you make out more and more lyrics. And Finn seems to design his songwriting around that notion- he hooks you in, and every listen becomes a new revelation.
7. Malcolm Gladwell
By the end of the decade, MG had created his own genre- I’ve heard many a book described as Gladwellian. And rightly so- Gladwell had perfected the tone, style and structure that transformed non-fiction writing into crack-cocaine. At it’s most simple, Gladwell took big, novel ideas, broke them out into pieces, and then wrapped each individual piece around a delectable, well-told story. The result catapulted him into the bestseller’s list time and again throughout the decade, and had business execs everywhere spouting chapters at each other as if they researched it themselves. Gladwell owned cocktail parties everywhere. And whether or not you agreed with his ideas, or even agreed with his arguments, you couldn’t help but melt when he served up a story like the history of Sesame Street and Blues Clues, or the secret of the tiny Italian town of centenarians.
6. Ronald Moore
It took most of the three hour first “episode” for me to get into it, but once I was hooked, that was it. I contend that Battlestar Galactica’s second season is the single best season of any show that exists- and if the second half of the third season hadn’t been such a resounding embarrassment (we all blame the network) BSG would easily be on the Sopranos/Wire level, at the very top of the heap. Regardless, nothing dropped my jaw more than a great BSG episode, and there were many that seemed impossibly good. How they kept cranking them out is beyond me, but their mix of politics and philosophy told through action-packed space operatics is as winning a formula as I can find. I can’t thank the BSG team enough for making me fall in love with intelligent sci-fi again. And I, for one, simply adored the ending.
5. Sam Houser
While it was a pretty rich decade for quality media, I don’t think any sucked up as much time or gave me half as much joy as GTA. Sam Houser and all the fine folks at Rockstar have created what I consider to be the most compelling format for a game. On top of that, they nailed the over-the-top tone, dreamed up some of the most ridiculous missions and cut-scenes that are out there, and just delivered the whole package with gobs and gobs of panache. And despite GTA IV being every critic’s wet dream, it was by far my least favorite, as it took itself far too much seriously. (A flaw they fixed with the downloadable content.) Houser’s genius really climaxed with the GTA Vice City and San Andreas double whammy. Whereas Vice City (my all-time favorite video game) was insane enough to leave a wild grin plastered on your face, San Andreas was epic enough to get you nostalgic for driving your psycho girlfriend around in the woods and breaking into a rich rappers mansion.
4. Peter Jackson
Lord of the Rings ruled my life for the three years it was out, and probably another two afterward. I remember reading the books again right before seeing Fellowship, then watching it and not even knowing what to think- just waking up in the middle of the night wanting to see it again. Three views later and it had been cemented as my all-time favorite movie, an honor that passed eventually to Two Towers, and finally rested on Return of the King. Peter Jackson achieved an almost impossible feat while juggling an army of actors and technicians in the process. As fellow Poptenner Jamie says, “Watching the Making of documentaries is almost more emotional than the movies.” I agree completely- tears welled up in my eyes when I watched the end of Return of the King’s doc, just because it felt like PJ took us on a three-year journey (that took him seven years) and parting was some sweet, sweet sorrow. At the root of his genius is what he told the crew on day one- “Treat the events in these books as if they were history- this isn’t fantasy, we’re simply telling history.” Amen, mate.
3. David Chase & James Gandolfini
I won’t heap more glowing adjectives on The Sopranos- you can pick them out from all over the internet, and I agree most of them. But I will say this: two years after finishing it (I watched the whole series in a two month binge in 2007) I still think about Tony Soprano on a daily basis. I can’t stop thinking about some of the choices he made, at what point he lost his soul, what motivated him to react certain ways. In other words, I’ve never treated Tony as anything less than a real person- one who haunts me constantly. The Sopranos floored me with its ability to channel the real, and Gandolfini stepped out of the screen most of all, asserting himself as your most fascinating and dangerous relative. Though David Chase was the mastermind, I have to include JG here too- he created the most convincing and brilliant fictional character I’ve ever experienced.
2. George RR Martin
No one touches GRRM’s ability to weave a compelling tale, and I’ll say it once more to make it official: yes, Song of Ice and Fire is the best fantasy series since LotR, and it might even surpass it. Martin takes an enormous cast of characters, plays them against each other in a dizzying game of chess, and takes a seemingly perverse joy in killing off our favorite ones. These are all keep-you-up-two-weeks-straight books, with twists so alarming and infuriating, I once tossed the book to the floor, hard, in an airplane. That’s as high a compliment as I can give a book– lordy I cared about the characters. Keep in mind that the TV series is coming in another year or so- read the books first, I urge you. If I can’t convince you, ask just about any other Popten writer- we’re all ludicrous fans that have stayed up nights playing the board game version of the series. (Yeouch.)
1. David Simon
A critic touched on it somewhere around the third season, and since then there’s been constant nodding- Melville and Updike be damned, The Wire is The Great American Novel. While The Sopranos leads the pack in character development, The Wire takes storytelling to a new level, creating an unlikely star out of the city of Baltimore. From the startling streets to the corruption in the docks, throughout the problem of the press, and most devastatingly, the sad sad state of inner city education, The Wire broke our hearts and minds year after year, thrilling us the whole way. There were so many times where anyone would swear it was a documentary- that no white guy could write inner city kids that convincingly- but there you have it. And that’s just at the dialogue level- never mind the uncanny knack for weaving so many disparate threads of story, and keeping so many balls in the air at once, for five straight seasons.