It's hard to think of 2009 as a very good year. Recession. War. Divisive politics.
Maybe that's why some of the good things that happened this year - in South Carolina and throughout the world - seem so memorable, perhaps even transcending.
Here, a look at some of the highlights of an otherwise low year.
How does the top look?
You can ask Darius Rucker on his way up - for the second time.
Rucker, the frontman of Hootie and The Blowfish, is enjoying the kind of career resurgence that few imagined.
When Rucker announced he was "going country," it seemed like a last clutch at fame and relevancy, similar to his forgotten attempt at R&B, 2002's "Back to Then."
Instead, "Learn to Live," his debut album released on Capitol Nashville in September 2008, was something that stunned country music: It was a country-sounding record.
Unlike, say, Jessica Simpson, The Eagles or Bon Jovi, Rucker didn't simply dress up otherwise acoustic-based pop songs with a lap steel or fiddle. He dared to wrap himself into the music, making country music fans, the most loyal listeners in the music-buying populace, acknowledge his presence.
Rucker isn't a black man making country music; he is a country singer who happens to be black, the first since Charley Pride to have a No. 1 country hit.
Rucker's approach to entering country music has worked. In November, Rucker won the CMA's best new artist. The trophy might not have significance to TV viewers or iTunes-playlist makers, but it does in Nashville. Rucker now has a seat inside the same Music City deal-making booths that brokered Taylor Swift's ascension.
Rucker has been accepted. He's one of them now. He can release holiday songs like "Candy Cane Christmas" and get immediate radio attention. He won't be appearing in any Burger King commercials anytime soon. (Remember that?)
So how does the top look?
It doesn't look as good on the way down.
And Rucker knows, from his days in Hootie, that the second album - especially if the first is a success - matters more than the debut. Country music has learned to live with Rucker.
But it can live without him, too.
- Otis R. Taylor Jr.
TOM MCNALLY, DEAN OF LIBRARIES AT THE UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH CAROLINA
From Chinese films to rare books of wildlife drawings, the gifts kept flowing to the University of South Carolina libraries in 2009.
The library collection is recession-resistant "because of donors who set up endowments that help the university in good years and bad," said Tom McNally, dean of libraries at USC.
The Easterling Hallman Trust contributes $70,000-$100,000 each year to buy items for the libraries. This year, the funds were used to acquire letters written by Ernest Hemingway.
USC's existing collections also draw other collections. The 1980 donation of the Fox Movietone newsreels proved the school's capability to serve as an academic-based film repository, leading to the donation in 2009 of 650 films and 1,500 DVDs by the Embassy of the Peoples Republic of China.
Among the other major donations/acquisitions at the USC libraries this year:
- A rare, first edition of Mark Catesby's two-volume, 18th-century "The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands," donated by Susan Gibbes Robinson of Columbia.
- A collection of books written or collected by Winston Churchill, donated by E. Conyers O'Bryan Jr. of Florence.
- Two historic portraits of poet John Milton and his mother, Sara, donated by Peter and Caroline Koblenzer of Philadelphia.
- More than $100,000 from the Class of 1958 to renovate Thomas Cooper Library's computer lab.
But the most exciting event in 2009 for McNally took place daily behind Thomas Cooper, as the new Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library began to take shape. The $18 million building, scheduled to open in May 2010, will add 50,000 square feet of library space on three levels.
"That's going to be a showplace where everyone can come to see these treasures we're acquiring," McNally said.
- Joey Holleman
701 CENTER FOR CONTEMPORARY ART
701 Center for Contemporary Art, which opened in October 2008 at 701 Whaley St., hit its stride in 2009. It has become a place for the community to convene. Whether it's art, a fashion show, a concert or a book reading, 701's mark was impossible to overlook.
Here are some of my highlights from the year: Phil Moody's artist-in-residency "As Bees Practise Geometry"; Anne Boudreau's artist-in-residency "a delicate balance"; George Singleton's reading; "The State Art Collection: Contemporary Conversations"; Maya's Wonderland; "What's Love Got to Do With It"; Runaway Runway; and the jazz performances promoted by Arnold Taylor Situations.
And the bathrooms there are really, really clean.
- Otis R. Taylor Jr.
Chaz Bundick had a good year, but the next should be better.
Bundick, the frontman of the angular indie-rock band The Heist and The Accomplice, took a step toward national exposure with his solo project Toro Y Moi.
Toro Y Moi signed with indie label Carpark Records in early 2009. The signing wasn't as remarkable as what he did after: tour.
Columbia, for what it's worth, has a talented yet frustrated music scene. A band cannot command label attention - and the attention of a larger record-buying audience - by staying close to home.
Bundick took his one-man electro-pop show - keyboard, guitar, programmed beats - on the road and toured with Islands and Ear Pwr. He has already received blog love from tastemaking Web zines Pitchfork and Gorilla vs. Bear. (The single "Blessa" made the latter's best-of list.)
The response to Bundick's debut album, "Causers of This," set for an early February release, should be emphatic by the aforementioned sites. Another, Stereogum, named it one of its most anticipated albums of 2010. The applause should be resounding enough that traditional publications will take notice.
Bundick's music, which has been described as summer-pop and lo-fi dream-pop, is really an amalgamation of what it is to be young with a spirit that wants to make music that bubbles rather than scrapes, tickles rather than scratches and soothes rather than aches.
We should all be fortunate for a good year to be followed by an even better one.
- Otis R. Taylor Jr.
THE ALL-LOCAL FARMERS MARKET
For four years, the market, which sells products grown or made by South Carolina farmers, was open twice a month at two different locations.
On Fourth of July weekend, it found a permanent home -Columbia's Olympia neighborhood.
The market is now open every Saturday, year-round, in the warehouse building next to 701 Whaley. Breakfast was recently re-started, prepared each week by Gervais and Vine and Rosso's.
The yellow stucco building directly east of 701 Whaley offers a few thousand square feet of warehouse space to sell the items, along with outdoor areas for tents and parking. The market is about to start construction "that will make the building look more like 701, with a porch, copper roof, garage doors along the front that open so you get fresh air," said market founder Emile DeFelice.
DeFelice said the market now has upward of 40 vendors showing up each week, selling all-natural or organic produce, beef, eggs, chicken, lamb, pork, grains, honey, flowers and milk from South Carolina farmers. Also for sale are local baked goods, goat milk soaps and lotions and handmade items.
It regularly draws 600 to 700 shoppers each Saturday, he said.
"What's really nice is we collect fees from one another, pay our rent, pay utilities. The market takes care of itself. No handouts, no taxes used," he said. "Each week gets better and better. It's been a great thing."
- Megan Sexton
THE WHITE MULE
The scene was waiting for this: a listening room on Main Street.
Well, this town needed a listening room, period, a place where the audience knows the music should get more attention than gossiping conversation and clanking bottles.
Dave Britt and Travis Maynard, two local booking agents, combined their resources to open the bar in the space that formerly held Jammin Java, a listening room that had but one detraction: It didn't sell alcohol. The White Mule leans toward singer-songwriters, but several bands have booked shows there. There's even been a punk matinee show. The food on the menu is great, and the people who frequent it are cool.
Because of The White Mule's efforts, along with that of The Whig, Frame of Mind: The Art of Eyewear, the Sheraton Columbia Downtown Hotel and the engaging cultural events and exhibitions at the Columbia Museum of Art, which expectedly had a great year, Main Street, if you don't know, has become a hangout destination.
- Otis R. Taylor, Jr.
It took 12 years, but Treadmill Trackstar got it done.
The band released "I Belong to Me," its first album since 1997's "Only This," which was released on Atlantic Records. Atlantic didn't push the record, and the band was unceremoniously released from the label.
It took more than a decade - and the Rockafellas' reunion in November 2007 - to get the band back together. That show inspired the members to write again.
"It feels great to have this record out," singer and guitarist Angelo Gianni said. "What's great about our situation is that we don't have to spend any energy worrying about the album being successful because nothing is riding on it.
"Don't get me wrong, we want a billion people to hear it, but it's not life or death like it used to be."
Gianni worked on most of the album from his Asheville home studio. He was joined in the recording process by members Tony Lee (drums), Heidi Brown (cello) and Mike Mills (bass). Kenny McWilliams, formerly of Baumer, produced the album. The band used fan donations to pay for much of the record.
It took 12 years to get the album out, but Gianni doesn't feel a sense of vindication, redemption or relief.
"We made this record because the reunion show reminded us how much we love making music together, not because we needed to prove anything," he said. "As for relief with it being finished, I was sad when we left the studio. We had a blast making this record."
The self-reflection, tempered bitterness and hopeful energy on the CD is palpable. What would it be like live? We might have to wait a while to find out.
"We're not a normal band, and we didn't want to do a normal show," Gianni said.
Lee suggested letting people hear the record first and then performing a show.
"That way it'll be the folks who appreciate the album who come, and the folks who don't like it can go see a movie that night," Gianni added. "We also need some more time to prep the kind of show we'd like to do."
I've heard there might be a release show early next year. When you think about it, what's the rush?
To get the record, visit treadmilltrackstar.com.