The 2018 E! People’s Choice Awards (because that’s what they’re called now)

So the People’s Choice Awards are here, and they’re tremendously different! This year they’re owned by E!, having previously been broadcast on CBS and owned by Procter & Gamble 1. Whether this is a chemical company divesting itself of some television interests, or a basic-cable network’s hostile takeover for some more eyeballs, either way I think the net result is a win for all of us, because the People’s Choice Awards are exactly the sort of brightly-colored, absurd candyfloss that E! exists to bring to us.

With the new network, and the new production, comes not only a move to the other end of the year 2, but also a bunch of differences in the categories, including podcasts and one of the vaguest categories known to man. So strap in and prepare as I speed my way through the categories, because there’s still a billion of them. Here we go!

The Pop Podcast of 2018

Many things will bear out over the course of this awards show, but one of them is E!’s unquestionable devotion to Amy Schumer. For example: here she is in the podcast category, which I was not aware she was an entrant in. I will say for someone plagued by accusations of not writing her own jokes, coming up with a podcast title that is infringingly-similar to early-podcast stalwarts Keith and the Girl is a weird choice.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Anna Farris is Unqualified

The Game Changer of 2018

On the one hand, Colin Kaepernick has had an enormous impact in how football 3 was talked about, and Serena Williams had an enormous impact in what we talked about when we talked about the behavioral expectations of black women. On the other hand, Aly Raisman was part of the group of people who got a monster put in prison, and helped steer the conversation around everything. So. Her then.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Aly Raisman

The Style Star of 2018

Zendaya is the sharpest dresser of this set of people, although I’ll be damned if I can figure out why they’re all nominated. I guess E! would know better than I would.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Zendaya

The Comedy Act of 2018

See? Here’s some more Amy Schumer 4. On the one hand, nobody had a bigger year or so than Tiffany Haddish. On the other hand, the funniest of these people is Kevin Hart. I think I need to stop relying on my hands to sort people.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kevin Hart

The Animal Star of 2018

I…don’t understand this category, beyond its potential for absolute delight at having, say, a giraffe on the red carpet. My favorite famous animal of 2018 was Ariana Grande’s pig, but I’ll accept Lil Bub as a reasonable substitute. I like cats so much, guys.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Lil Bub

The Social Celebrity of 2018

So often at these huge, galumphing awards shows my question is: what are we evaluating in a category like this. In the case of social celebrities, it’s usually a pretty clear answer – I’m not on social media, so whichever celebrity’s social media presence I’m most familiar with is the best one. In this case, however, I think that Taylor Swift’s seismic decision to weigh in on politics is the most notable use of social media by an American celebrity all year, at least in terms of generalized impact, and probably deserves the award.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Taylor Swift

The Beauty Influencer

I’m sure Esther Povitsky is not precisely bummed to not be nominated here, but as she’s the only “beauty influencer” with whose career I am familiar, I suppose I am bummed about it. But hey, this is my website! I call the shots!

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Esther Povitsky (who is not nominated)

The Social Star of 2018

Shoutout to Jenna Marbles for still managing to stay on top of this shit after so many years. Even bigger shoutout to Lele Pons for being actually funny, and managing to navigate the end of vine 5.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Lele Pons

The Concert Tour of 2018

You know, I didn’t mention it yet, but I kind of like the editorial stance of calling all of the categories the. As in this is the concert tour of 2018. It seems in keeping with the E! house style, I think. Anyway, this one’s still just Beyonce & Jay-Z.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: On the Run II Tour, Beyonce & Jay-Z

The Music Video of 2018

It’s pretty clearly “This is America,” and I will be very interested if the fine folks at E! try to pretend otherwise, given the other nominees here.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Childish Gambino, “This is America”

The Latin Artist of 2018

I’ll tell you this definitively: it’s not Becky G, because I had no idea she was even still out there.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: J. Balvin

The Country Artist of 2018

Because the non-country awards nominated the same, like, seven people over and over again, it’s worth noting that I’m not choosing Blake Shelton, like I usually do, because I hate “I’ll Name the Dogs” that much.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Keith Urban, I guess Or Carrie Underwood.

The Album of 2018

Well, there are two of these albums that I’ve listened to all the way through. And while I’m sure I’ve listened to Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy all the way through more than once, I tend to stick with the singles, and even then not all of those. Nicki Minaj’s Queen is pretty good (Although still too long) and the only song I don’t listen to on that one at least occasionally is the one with the sex criminal on it.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Nicki Minaj, Queen

The Song of 2018

I hate all of these songs. I mean, I’m not surprised that the move to E! meant a drop in the quality of the music here selected for award, but it is kind of alarming how awful all of this is.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Cardi B, Bad Bunny & J. Balvin, “I Like It”

The Group of 2018

My love of the “the” notwithstanding, this really should specify that it’s the music group, and not, like, the assemblage of more than one person at a time, y’know? Anyway. I don’t like any of the music of any of these people, but I like everything else about BTS.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: BTS

The Female Artist of 2018

E! is doing their best to capitalize on the Nicki/Cardi beef. Nicki Minaj is on as a performer, and I’m willing to bet publicly that, given that Cardi B just shows up to everything all the time, they’re counting on having them in the same room together, and that creating sparks or headlines or shoe-wounds or something. Anyway. I’m not really in favor of this sort of thing – I love giant spectacle until people are getting hurt – and, besides, this is a really boring beef. So that brings me to Nicki’s friend Ariana Grande, who is the BTS of young ladies, in the sense that I like everything about her (and her pig) except her music, because her scream-singing gives me panic attacks.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Ariana Grande

The Male Artist of 2018

You know who isn’t like BTS or Ariana Grande? Any one of these assholes. Well, maybe Keith Urban a little bit I guess.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Keith Urban

The Sci-Fi/Fantasy Show of 2018

There’s something kind of comforting about Supernatural’s ability to just…keep going. It trucks on and on, after years and years and years. It’s rumoured to be ending any day now – I think the current guess is that season 14 (!) is the last one, but there’s nothing official – but it doesn’t, and I kind of like that it’s out there. I think I’ve seen, like, four episodes of it ever, and it isn’t very good, but it’s there, and isn’t that the important thing about TV?

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: I mean, The Expanse is the rightful winner. But it’s nice that Supernatural is still on.

The Bingeworthy Show of 2018

I mean, it should be Bojack Horseman. These people are dumb. I do wonder if bingeing Outlander makes it better than watching single episodes, but not enough to actually try it, because Outlander is the most boring thing I’ve ever seen that was intentionally made for people to intentionally watch. So I guess it’s Queer Eye or whatever.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Queer Eye or whatever.

The Reality TV Star of 2018

I know that it’s, like, the old-man-yelling-at-clouds-iest thing to say, but I genuinely actually don’t watch any of this. Like any of it. At all. Except Queer Eye a little bit. So, once again, I guess it’s Antoni Porowski, or whatever.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Antoni Porowski, or whatever.

The Competition Contestant of 2018

This one really should include Fatima Ali, who was one of the best competitors in Top Chef history 6 even before her story is rapidly accelerating toward unbelievable tragedy. So I’m writing her in, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop me.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Fatima Ali, Top Chef (also not actually nominated)

The Nighttime Talk Show of 2018

See? There’s Andy Cohen, right there! Also most of these are terrible. There are plenty of good nighttime talk shows these days, and these are none of them. Except The Daily Show. That’s still pretty good.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Daily Show with Trevor Noah

The Daytime Talk Show of 2018

I would rather be tied by my ankles to the rear bumper of a car and dragged down the road than consider which of these shows is the “best”. A man must know his limits.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Uh..The Ellen Degeneres Show

The Comedy TV Star of 2018

I hate having to choose between Atlanta and The Good Place (which are, of course, the only real options). Luckily “Teddy Perkins” made that very easy for me.  

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Donald Glover, Atlanta

The Drama TV Star of 2018

The best-case scenario for an actor (I’d imagine) is getting cast in something that, even though you’ve been on tv so much, makes people notice that you exist. That’s what appears to have happened for Darren Criss, and very much deservedly so – he’s great in American Crime Story, and I don’t even like acting.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Darren Criss, American Crime Story

The Female TV Star of 2018

I feel like Viola Davis is the most obvious choice. I also feel like she’s also the correct choice.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Viola Davis, How to Get Away With Murder

The Male TV Star of 2018

I don’t know everything. I mean, contrary to my editorial stance here, I don’t even know most things. The more I find out that I don’t know, the more I think I don’t really know anything. But I do know some things. I know several things. Among the things that I know, without a doubt, is this: Jughead. Is. Asexual. And Riverdale can go fuck itself.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: literally every male tv star of 2018 who isn’t Cole Sprouse

The Competition Show of 2018

It’s the competition show category that really suffers from peak tv – there are over eleventy billion of them, and it’s almost impossible to evaluate them all. I will say this: I always liked American Idol at least a little bit, and I liked its revival just fine, and I’d be happy to see it win. Especially since the rest of the actual nominees in this category are dumb.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: American Idol

The Reality Show of 2018

I don’t actually have a lot of opinions about Queer Eye or whatever. I just think it’s better than all the rest of these shows or whatever.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Queer Eye or whatever. Again.

The Revival Show of 2018

I don’t want to live in a world where this is a category. I don’t like it circumstantially, I don’t like it practically, and I don’t like it specifically. I am, however, relieved that I don’t necessarily have to give another of these to Queer Eye or whatever. That’s kind of nice. Not super nice, but kind of nice.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: American Idol

The Comedy Show of 2018

This category is made easy by the fact that the best show on television is nominated here, which is great.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Good Place

The Drama Show of 2018

This category does not have the same advantage as the comedy category, as none of these shows are the best show on television. Some of them aren’t even among the good shows on television, to be honest.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Handmaid’s Tale

The Show of 2018

They had the opportunity, here, to include The Good Place, but they elected not to do so. That’s dumb, they should have nominated The Good Place. I guess it’s time to go rogue again.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Good Place (which, once more, was not actually nominated)

The Action Movie Star of 2018

The stars of Black Panther were Michael B. Jordan and Letitia Wright, obviously. So this cannot stand. But since I suppose Chadwick Boseman played the title character and all, he’s a reasonable compromise between the forces of what’s right and the forces of the production staff of the People’s Choice Awards.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Chadwick Boseman, Black Panther

The Comedy Movie Star of 2018

This is where E!’s devotion to parent company Universal really starts to show. Some of these movies would not be nominated otherwise, and it’ll pop up throughout the remainder of the movie categories 7. Anyway, the kid from Jurassic World was pretty good in Love, Simon, I suppose. He wasn’t particularly funny, but I guess that’s how it goes.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Nick Robinson, Love, Simon

The Female Movie Star of 2018

NB: A different lady cast member of Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again is here in this category 8. Anyway, Ocean’s 8 is not a Universal movie, which means that it’s here twice for whatever other reason it would be here twice. You got me, man. I have no idea.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Scarlett Johansson, Avengers: Infinity War

The Male Movie Star of 2018

Plenty to love here, but only one Chris Hemsworth.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Chris Hemsworth, Avengers: Infinity War

The Drama Movie Star of 2018

There is something to be said about the way that various strains of “genre” filter in and out of respectability, and one of the keys to understanding it is this: no one from Black Panther or Avengers: Infinity War are nominated here 9, which means superhero movies aren’t “drama” in the eyes of the nominating body for the People’s Choice Awards. That’s fine. What is more interesting here are the nominations for the principles of A Quiet Place, a movie whose nominal genre – horror – was also excluded from serious consideration at various times in the history of awards-granting 10

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Emily Blunt, A Quiet Place

The Family Movie of 2018

I think The Incredibles 2 should probably have been nominated in more categories, but I do understand the difficulties of evaluating voice performances against in-person performances. Anyway, it’s nominated here, and it should win here.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Incredibles 2

The Drama Movie of 2018

I suppose it’s nice to see a set of nominees so thoroughly divorced from the consensus critical opinion. Obviously Fifty Shades is another one of those shared-corporate-overlord situations, but Red Sparrow? What the hell? It’s refreshing, is what I’m saying. I don’t know how else I’d get an opportunity to imagine which of these movies I liked better otherwise.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: A Quiet Place

The Action Movie of 2018

Boy oh boy, here’s Oceans 8 again. This is a deeply strange movie to get this attached to. I still have no idea what’s going on. Luckily, it wasn’t ever really in it, y’know?

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Black Panther

The Comedy Movie of 2018

I feel like the other possible explanation for the odd, largely un-praised selections is that E! Knows what they want to win, and are padding out the categories with things that they think won’t get the vote. That is, if I’m going to go full conspiracy theory, easiest to see in this category, where Crazy Rich Asians is the only good movie.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Crazy Rich Asians

The Movie of 2018

Hey, here’s The Incredibles 2 again! This is excellent news! Also I’m pretty sure my aforestated conspiracy theory falls right the heck apart when it comes to this category. So either they didn’t stack the big ones, or I’m being overly paranoid about their enthusiasm for Oceans 8 and/or Mamma Mia!: Here I Go Again.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Incredibles 2

So anyway, there you have it. We’ll see how E!’s first foray into awards-grantsmanship goes, and hopefully we’ll all meet back here again next year!


  1.  which means that, technically, they are no longer owned by anyone in Ohio, which, if I haven’t mentioned it, could really use a train connecting the top of the state to the bottom. 
  2.  it is a bit strange to be writing about this nearly two entire years after the last one, but there are lots of awards shows at the beginning of the year, so moving this to the other end – i.e. the beginning – of awards season probably isn’t a terrible idea. 
  3. a cultural phenomenon I thought was absolutely immune from negative influence 
  4.  she also shows up in, like, every “highlights from the red carpet” clip package, and is probably here because she always gamely shows up and Amy Schumers all over whichever Ryan Seacrest Type and/or Some Lady is hosting the red carpet event. I suppose that’s how you reward that kind of loyalty. By handing them a trophy. 
  5.  the loss of which I am still unbelievably bitter about. I will never get over it. 
  6.  ordinarily I would shrug my shoulders and assume it had something to do with not wanting to cross-promote for a different basic cable reality monger, but Andy Cohen is nominated in the very next category. 
  7.  The preponderance of nominations for Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again, which was no one’s favorite movie, even Mamma Mia! Superfans, is the dead giveaway. 
  8.  see what I mean about the preponderance? 
  9.  I’m thinking specifically of Tom Holland and Michael B. Jordan or Danai Gurira here. Although I’m also always thinking of Michael B. Jordan anyway. 
  10.  with the caveat that it pops in and out of “respectbility,” usually based on whether there’s a “serious” auteur-type currently active – Hitchcock won a bunch of awards, after all, and Jonathan Demme broke awards-winning records with The Silence of the Lambs.  

The Best Records of October 2018

Mick Jenkins – Pieces of a Man (Mick Jenkins takes big swings in naming his record after a Gil Scott-Heron record, and also by writing about the biggest of life’s questions, and connects pretty well with all of it)

Yowler – Black Dog in My Path (the erstwhile All Dogs singer moves away from her previous Grouper-lite style and makes much more interesting, band-oriented music, and it is a real win)

Cloud Nothings – Last Building Burning (Cloud Nothings still only do the one thing, but this time they do it louder, and more efficiently, and with a kind of fury they haven’t shown in a couple of records)

Chester Watson – Project 0 (Chester Watson adds a considerable sense of humor to his abstract, tense style and I couldn’t be happier)

Petite Noir – La Maison Noir/The Black House (simultaneously brief and maximal art-R&B, with some fantastic features)

The 2018 World Fantasy Awards

As always, I close out the year of book-awards-declaiming with the World Fantasy Awards. It started out a few years ago as a way to open up my reading horizons 1, and has continued because, well, I enjoy them. There’s considerable overlap 2 with the other awards, but that’s alright, it gives me an opportunity to reconsider them in a slightly different context.

The World Fantasy Awards are also, this year, without much drama. I mean, I’m sure there’s some hurt feelings or long-simmering resentments or whatever, but the controversy over the form of the award itself pretty much stopped causing problems last year, so this year there’s nothing left for it but to be a completely respectable, absolutely normal awards-granting ceremony.

Which means this can be a completely respectable, absolutely normal awards-granting-writing-about, complete with absolutely infallible information about who deserves what award.

It’s worth noting that the Lifetime Achievement awards are going to Charles de Lint, who is one of the guys who helped invent urban fantasy (and whose work I haven’t read as much of as I’d like to), and Elizabeth Wollheim, the head of DAW books, who do consistently excellent work as publishers. Additionally worth noting is that the World Fantasy Awards always includes special awards for various and sundry services to the field of world fantasy, and I always skip those also, because I do not have the knowledge base to evaluate who deserves them.

Best Artist

Artist categories are always tricky ones for me to cover, but at least in terms of the World Fantasy Awards I’m able to more-or-less capably evaluate whether its effective in terms of its milieu 3, but I still don’t have what you’d call a reasonable critical eye in this regard.

That said, this should be pretty quick, since I don’t know enough to have much to say. Omar Rayyad is good, but draws in what I think of as “Basic Fairy Tale Modern” – even if you aren’t familiar with Rayyad’s work itself, you’re familiar with the idea – soft lines, pastels, familiar forms. It’s well done, but it’s not really jumping out at me as particularly original.

Similarly, Gregory Manchess is an impressive formalist 4, but it doesn’t really stick out for me for anything beyond his mechanical ability. Fiona Staples is in a similar boat, with art that is well-rendered, but without a lot that makes it jump out 5. It is with these artist that I am the most willing to cede that my lack of background in analyzing their form leads to what could be the least on-base call: I tend to find myself more impressed by things that are weirder and more visually distinctive, which could lead me to novelty-based decisions more than I would be if I knew what I was talking about.

Victo Ngai was my favorite last year, and continues to do excellent illustration work in some unlikely places (i.e. advertising), which continues to be impressive, but I was more struck by Rima Staines weird-ass fantasy troll people. I found it the most compelling on its own, which means I’m comfortable declaring her the rightful winner here.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Rima Staines

Best Collection

The single-author collections category (this one) is one of the categories I look forward the most to reading through – it takes a lot to get a single-author collection published, and it usuall points to someone doing a great deal of highly-worthwhile work, and it tends to have the highest hit rate of any of the categories I read for any of the book awards that I cover here.

Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties is tremendous, and is certainly the most-nominated collection of, I’m comfortable saying, any author collection all year 6. I wrote about it more extensively when I wrote about the Shirley Jackson Awards, but in the interest of situating it here I will note that “Especially Heinous” is still one of the absolute best things under consideration here by anyone under any circumstances. “Eight Bites” and “The Resident” remain incredible pieces of well-wrought prose that get the reader deep into a very specific frame of mind, and “Inventory” is a wonderfully innovative piece of post-apocalypse fiction. It’s a fantastic contender, and worth reading by just about anyone

Tim Powers’s Down and Out in Purgatory is a bit more of a mixed-bag. Powers is a veteran fantasist, and any collection of his best work is going to be a sure bet, as this book definitely is. He’s reliant on a handful of plot-drivers – weird time travel features prominently, and several of the stories are about rare book collectors, for example – and makes his interests 7 plain throughout, which can make the stories blur together a bit. The title story is rightfully the start of the show – a fantastic look at revenge, the afterlife and what it means to determine one’s course, as well as what it means to be responsible for things and the consequences of our actions, all told in an amusing, unfancy tone that suits the story. The book-opening “Salvage and Demolition” manages to be sort of the archetypal Tim Powers story, as it contains all of the repertory elements mentioned earlier – a rare book dealer travels through time to smoke cigarettes in Los Angeles, and everyone’s car figures prominently – and does so in a gripping, twisty story that ends up going to some really surprising places. “Fifty Cents” 8 is the other great time travel story, and is even more surprising and open-ended. The trickiness of having a family and not really wanting the same things out of yourself as they do comes up in the immortal (and immoral) family of “The Way Down the Hill,” the negligent parents and attendant imaginary friend of “Night Moves” and, in the outright-funniest story in the collection, in the perhaps-doomed Thanksgiving of “Sufficient Unto the Day,” where some relatives literally just won’t leave. We could probably throw the loopy rollercoaster of “Pat Moore” into either of those two categories also, although it’s not really a time travel story or a family story 9. His Catholicism also comes to bear on “The Bible Repairman” (in which damnation is averted by those with the resources to hire someone to make it so by “repairing” the bible to make sure that they aren’t in conflict with it) and “Through and Through” (in which damnation is unaviodable, because if the rules exist they must exist) 10. All told it’s a very good, if fairly uneven collection, and probably the best thing published by Baen all year.

Jane Yolen’s The Emerald Circus is a collection of previously-released material specifically taking a look at characters from other works. The two best stories are both about real people – “Andersen’s Witch” recasts Hans Christian Andersen’s career as a version of his own story about the Snow Queen, and “Sister Emily’s Lightship” puts Emily Dickinson in space – but she has a way with finding a new way to tell the story of a well-known character. “Blown Away” 11 finds the farmhand who does or does not turn into the Tin Woodsman telling an earthbound story of Dorothy, in which the circus of the book’s title makes its appearance. “Lost Girls” gives Wendy her agency back, and also gives us the very best portrayal of Captain Hook ever committed to the page. “Rabbit Hole” shows us an aged Alice, and is surprisingly moving. “The Gift of the Magicians, With Apologies to You Know Who” gives us Yolen’s excellent and under-seen sense of humor 12. It’s all well-done, and it was surprising in that the stories I ended up enjoying the most (“Sister Emily’s Lightship”, “Lost Girls”, “Rabbit Hole”) were about things that I had no real prior close relationship to – I like Lewis Carroll, for example, but he never really left the impression on me that he did on other people 13. That said, it’s not one of her more impressive collections, even if it is a lot of fun to read.

Sofia Samatar’s Tender is probably the most ambitious, or at the least the collection that covers the most ground, of the ones nominated here. Her stories have a wide range of voices and tones, and include a great many subjects. The leadoff story, “Selkie Stories are for Losers” 14 contains probably the best paragraph in contention, which I won’t include here because it also spoils the ending (it’s at the end of the story, and is the thesis statement of the story, and kind of of the collection in general). Youth and memory figure into “How to Get Back to the Forest,” about the kinds of things that happen at camp, in “Honey,” where the idea of parents sacrifice for the future of their children is literalized, and in which the fair folk are as effectively made terrifying as they were in anything I’ve read in a long time. “An Account of the Land of Witches” and “Walkdog” are both highly experimental stories about friendship and being a young person, and while they are not very much like each other, they are similar in their treatment of the intersection of the real world and the world of stories. Actually, “Fallow,” the longest and most emotionally-engaged piece here is similarly about that same sort of loss, and takes place on a spaceship populated by a very particular-minded set of people 15. “A Girl Who Comes Out of a Chamber at Regular Intervals” is a pretty effective look at people that dream of being robots, and robots that dream of being people. “Request for Extension on the Clarity,” similarly, is also about the desire to forget about being a human being, and the desire to move forward into the future by severing the past entirely. “Tender,” by contrast looks at a woman who believes that her loss is the result of her dishonesty, and who ends up also in a debatable state of human-ness. The whole collection is well-rendered, and often emotionally effective, and it misses out on being the rightful winner because of the last collection here.

Ellen Klages’s Wicked Wonders is, if nothing else, pretty well completely unlike anything else. It’s far ranging and effective in a bunch of different ways, from the not-at-all-supernatural “Woodsmoke” – a long story about young love and finding oneself – to the realist science fiction of “Goodnight Moons,” which turns out to be about the first person raised on Mars, to the creeping horror of “Singing on a Star,” where there’s a song that literally transports the listener, and it may not be entirely good, to the outright mythological fantasy of “Friday Night at St Cecilia’s,” in which an ancient folk evil must be defeated through the playing of games. There’s also some more deeply-moving stories of young girls’ friendship 16 both on a generation ship (in “Amicae Aeternum”) and in the world where you try to do all the magic you can to prevent tragedy (“Gone to the Library”). Early attempts at doing magic also grace “The Education of a Witch,” which the story notes reveal was as autobiographical as Klages could make it. She really wins the day here, however, by not sacrificing her world or her storytelling ability to be tremendously, uproariously funny. “Sponda the Suet Girl” is a long-ish story about alchemy and getting one up on con men. “Household Management” is a wicked screamer with an equally-wicked punchline. “Mrs. Zeno’s Paradox” is about not actually sharing a brownie. And then, of course, there’s the formerly-viral, all-time-classic “The Scary Ham”, which is not a work of genre fiction by dint of it not being at all fictional, and at the same time being so wonderfully, life-affirmingly hilarious that it absolutely couldn’t be anything but the last story in such a collection.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Ellen Klages, Wicked Wonders

Best Anthology

Unlike the collection category, the anthology category can be a lot more slipshod. This year, interestingly, it also featured a couple of different sort of “Best-Of” scenarios and, perhaps predictably, they were better than the theme-arranged collections. Nevertheless, it all had something to recommend it, for the most part.

The Djinn Falls in Love was covered back in the Shirley Jackson awards, and is still probably the one of these that I like the least. Saad Z. Hossain’s “Bring Your Own Spoon” is still inspiring and amusing, Catherina Farris King’s “The Queen of Sheba” is still a well-constructed, satisfying story, and if KJ Parker’s “Message in a Bottle” is the least of the KJ Parker stories that were under consideration here, well, it’s still a pretty good one. The price of admission 17 is more than paid by Maria Dahvana Headley’s peerless “Black Powder,” which is truly first-rate.

Black Feathers: Avian Tales was also covered at Shirley Jackson time, and while I understand why it’s here, I wasn’t as into that one as I was into other collections either. Pat Cadigan’s “A Little Bird Told Me” would make a nice opening act for Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr (see below). Seanan McGuire’s “The Mathematical Inevitability of Corvids” is also about crows, and manages to make a deeply affecting, deeply sympathetic portrait of its lead character. It may be the story from this collection that has stuck with me the most emotionally. As a piece of craftsmanship, though, I can’t let this pass without praising Priya Sharma’s “The Crow Palace”, which is just a masterful work of construction and execution. All told, this one had more worthwhile bits than The Djinn Falls in Love, but it still isn’t quite on the same level as the better collections here.

The Book of Swords is one of the last books edited (well, co-edited) by Gardner Dozois, and that’s kind of sad, since it isn’t actually very satisfying. The essay at the beginning situating Sword and Sorcery as a genre is fantastic 18, but most of the stories kind of fall short of being the same level of quality. KJ Parker’s “The Best Man Wins” is a good, if standard-issue Parker-style story about a craftsman and the things that compel one to ambition, with a pretty satisfying ending. Robin Hobb’s “Her Father’s Sword” distinguishes itself by its ambiguity – there are a lot of mysteries about the vagaries of the world that are raised and never really answered 19. Rich Larson’s “The Colgrid Conundrum” is a con-man story, and I’m a genuine actual sucker for those. Almost as big a sucker as I am for Beowulf fan fiction, which is what CJ Cherryh’s “Hrunting” is. Both are effective, but that about wraps it up for the highlights in this collection. It’s probably something you’d enjoy more if you have any real affection for sword & sorcery as a genre. Obviously I do not.

The Best of Subterranean definitely benefits from both it status as a best-of 20, as well as from its prodigious length. It loses some steam by being not particularly well-selected – it seems, specifically, like some things were included to include the names of the authors rather than any particular actual merit 21. That’s not to say that all of the big names were a bust – Joe Hill’s “Last Breath” is a particularly terrifying work about a very specific collector and George R.R. Martin’s script for an unproduced Twilight Zone episode titled “The Toys of Caliban” would have been a fantastic episode, had it been made. A much better showing is made by the standard-issue (if indeed there is such thing) anthology-titans that may not be as well-known outside of sff circles. Ted Chiang’s “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” is about posthumanism, and the purpose of language, and a missionary, but mostly is about how memory and the way that we keep memories informs the way that we related to each other. Kelly Link’s “Valley of the Girls” is similarly about the way that the encroachment of technology shapes our interactions with each other, and also about our relationship with the past and how it shifts as the way that we related to each other changes. It’s also about sarcophagi. James P. Blaylock playful literalizes the sort of solipsistic sense of being cursed that affects anyone who takes the weather personally in “The Dry Spell.” 22 KJ Parker’s huge, affecting “A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong” again concerns the price of mastering a skill, and the relationship between economic realities and our emotional centers. It’s probably the best of the stories that were considered in anthologies here (there are three of them). Catherynne Valente recasts folkloric coyote stories as a high school melodrama in “White Lines on a Green Field,” and in so doing makes them somewhat scarier. Karen Joy Fowler’s “Younger Women” takes a rather biting look at the penchant for immortals to take up with younger women, and comes to some conclusions about neurocranial development in the process. “Dispersed by the Sun, Melting in the Wind” finds Rachel Swirksy cataloging the end of the world, one person at a time. 2018-sff-mvp Maria Dahvana Headley contributes “Game,” about a hunter who was not honest, even with himself. Michael Marshall Smith’s funny “The Seventeenth Kind” tells the story of a television snake-oil salesman whose career goes quite alarmingly sideways. Kat Howard’s “The Least of the Deathly Arts” deals with an actual encounter with death and, perhaps most impressively, contains an actual sestina. Hal Duncan’s “Sic Him, Hellhound! Kill! Kill!” reimagines both werewolves and vampires, taking a marked distaste to the latter, and is perhaps the most outright entertaining story in the collection. Tim Pratt’s “Troublesolving” is the best book about time travel, interior designers and a really twisty espionage plot that I’ve read all year. Possibly ever, given the relative lack of interior designers in time travel stories. Kelly Armstrong’s “The Screams of Dragons” is a dark attempt to look at what would happen to children who actually exhibited reality-altering magical powers. If this seems less like a sort of thematic look at the book and more just a list of what the best stories in the book were 23, that’s also sort of the trick: the book doesn’t flow well, and there are many more stories. It is likely that more of them would appeal to any given writer, but with little unity beyond “these all were published in the same magazine”, it’s not an easy book to get through. Perhaps it would be good to skip around in. In any event, its lack of unity is the main thing that keeps it out of the top spot here

I feel like the clear winner here is the Peter S. Beagle edited New Voices in Fantasy. There’s a part of me that wants to declare it – a sort of greatest-hits survey of the best work being done in out-there fantasy – unsportsmanlike, but it really is a remarkably effective collection of stories. Several of the stories have been nominated for awards that are here considered, including Alyssa Wong’s terrifying “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers,” about a terrible secret society, Ursula Vernon’s “Jackalope Wives,” which, as the story of a skin-changing woman, makes an excellent companion to the also-here Sofia Samatar story “Selkie Stories are for Losers” (see above), Carmen Maria Machado’s beautiful retelling of “The Green Ribbon,” “The Husband Stitch” and Usman T. Malik’s “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Djinn,” a genie story that actually works 24. It also contains awards standbys. Brooke Bolander’s “Tornado’s Siren” is, as the title would suggest, about the love story between a woman and a tornado. Sarah Pinsker’s “Left the Century to Sit Unmoved” is about people who jump into a pond and mostly crawl back out again. Maria Dahvana Headley’s 25 “The Tallest Doll in New York City” is about the courtship of city buildings. It also includes some things that were utterly new to me. Max Gladstone’s “A Kiss With Teeth” is a surprisingly sweet story about a vampire who has something of a minor midlife crisis. Hannu Rajaniemi’s “The Haunting of Apollo A7LB” is another of the stories in the book that can, surprisingly, be taken more-or-less at its title, and is about the memory of things, and the nature of ghosts. Chris Tarry’s “Here Be Dragons” is another excellent con-man story 26, it’s also about dragons, the allure of the unknown, and how far responsibility goes in the face of temptation. The whole thing passes by very quickly and is expertly arranged, and every story is at least worthwhile, even if I didn’t single them out here. If you’re only going to jump into one of these, this would be the one. 

RIGHTFUL WINNER: The New Voices of Fantasy, edited by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman

Best Short Fiction

The set of short stories that came up this year is better than I can remember it being for some years – each of these is very good, and even if they didn’t all stick with me, they all have their merits.

Fran Wilde’s “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly-Steady Hand” was also nominated for a Nebula and a Hugo this year, and what I said about it in both of those write-ups still stands: it’s a good piece of tone work. Stitched together out of wisps of description and with a really powerful narrative voice, it really does slip past like someone giving you a tour of a very strange place. It didn’t make a huge impact when I read it, but I find that months later there are parts of it that still very much stick with me, so perhaps I’ll get more out of it upon re-reading it.

Rebecca Roanhorse’s “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” was not only nominated for the Nebula and the Hugo this year, but it won both of them. I can’t argue too strenuously against this – it’s a fantastic, haunting piece of writing that manages to be absurd and upsetting in equal measure. But I still don’t think it’s the best one here.

Natalia Theoridou’s “The Birding: A Fairy Tale” is the story of a plague, and is indeed arranged as a fairy tale, an explanation of something that is beyond human comprehension. It’s affecting, and it’s somewhat more “literary” than most of the other stories in this category. It wouldn’t be a terrible thing if it won, but it’s also kind of forgettable, and while the broad strokes of the story itself stick around, it doesn’t have a lot of staying power.

But there is a better story. Caroline Yoachim’s is an allegorical parable for individual difference, as told via a world of clockwork denizens who have to go through life with wound springs. It’s beautiful and said and unfair, and I’ve read it over and over again since it came out, just for the sheer joy of the words. Even without being a sturdy, useful parable it would still be an impeccable piece of craftsmanship, and by being successful in every vector in which a short story can be successful, it is a singular achievement and deserves the award.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Caroline Yoachim, “Carnival Nine”

Best Long Fiction

The World Fantasy Awards saw an unusually strong set of nominees in almost every field this year, and the novella category was a surprise because I had less misgivings about it than I usually do 27. Only one of these stories is really the wrong length 28, and they’re all pretty good.

Stephen Graham Jones’s Mapping the Interior was also nominated for a Shirley Jackson award, and is still suitably scary, and still deserves full marks for its fantastic ending. Without that to recommend it, it’s merely a pretty-good ghost story that really deserves more space. As it is, it squeaks into “excellent” territory at the end.

JY Yang’s The Black Tides of Heaven is enough to convince me to give more silkpunk a try 29, and is even better when taken into consideration alongside The Red Threads of Fortune. It’s got a fantastic lead character, and not only justifies its length, but is actually made all the better for it. It’s very good, although there are aspects of it that didn’t stick with me very well, and it really does need the other bit to feel like a complete story.

Simon Avery’s The Teardrop Method is about a psychic musician, and might actually be the weakest of the stories here – there’s rather too much middle, and it takes forever to actually get going. The last third or so of it is pretty strong, but even then it just sort of dissipates into the memory, and it’s hard to recall what I liked or didn’t like about it specifically 30.

Peter S. Beagle’s In Calabria wins the award for being the most fun to read. It is definitely one of the most fun-to-read things I read all year, in fact, for this or any other reason. I would happily have spent many hundreds more pages in the head of Claudio Bianchi, with this farm, his sheep, and (especially) his cats. It’s got a unicorn in it, as perhaps we should come to expect from Peter S. Beagle, and it’s funny, light and moves very quickly without skimping on time spent with our protagonist in his idyllic setting. Its only real downfall here is that the interpersonal stuff isn’t as rewarding as the rest of it, and the end just…happens, very quickly and seemingly without the care for plot as the rest of the book.

Ellen Klages’s Passing Strange was very nearly my pick to win the Nebula 31, and it’s my pick here. It’s an extremely rewarding story about magic and San Francisco, and love and revenge, and also witches and dancing. It was so good, in fact, that I made audible noises of delight when a couple of the characters popped back up in Wicked Wonders (see above). There’s little else to say about it beyond: it’s great, it’s wildly inventive, and it’s tremendously satisfying.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Ellen Klages, Passing Strange

Best Novel

If many of the other categories could not escape mention for having been marked by their relatively-high quality, then let me say here that this one was kind of disappointing. I find that fantasy, in general, lives better lives in its shorter work – there’s more space to suggest rather than explicate, and more room to focus narrowly rather than spread out into something that lends itself to being more sprawling than necessary.

The usually-steadfast Fonda Lee’s Jade City is rather indicative of the trouble here: it’s too long, and there’s too much of it. There are a lot of characters, and about half of them are worth following around the book. Furthermore, it’s the first book in a series, so an enormous amount of the time is spent setting things up. While there are stories in there that are as good as Lee usually is 32, a lot of it is soggy, and it could use about two fewer pov characters.

S.A. Chakraborty’s City of Brass has a similar set of problems 33, but fares a little better. It doesn’t have as many point of view characters, for starters. It also squeezes its mythology in a bit better. Nevertheless, it is still sprawling and takes a long time for the story to settle into itself. While I would recommend it generally, it would come with some heavy qualifications. Nahri’s attempts to learn to practice medicine in Daevabad, on the other hand, is something I would read a whole lot of books about, and the book really shines during the parts that aren’t related to the (ugh) love triangle or the court machinations. Maybe later books in the series can course-correct.

I also evaluated Theodora Goss’s The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, and the deluge of praise that it has received has turned me around a bit on it – things have been pointed out that are admirable. I still think it seems unnecessarily like The League of Extraordinary Gentlewomen, and I still don’t like the narrative conceit of the characters interrupting the narrative in the weird meta-way that they do 34, but, again, these are things that can be worked out as the series goes, or maybe I’ll just get used to them. As it is, I’m not converted to actually liking it, but I have been shown what there is to like about it, and I don’t begrudge it its fans or its likability.

Daryl Gregory’s Spoonbenders should be eligible for the same special “extreme likeability” award as Peter S. Beagle’s In Calabria – it’s great, and wonderful to read, and I’ll probably read it a couple more times before I’m done with it just for the sheer joy of it. It’s being turned into a tv show, which seems excessive, but if that gets more people to read it, then I’m in favor of the idea. It’s not as weighty as the other selections here, and it’s not as innovative, but it’s a tremendously fun story about a family of psychics 35, and very well executed.

John Crowley is an author whose work I had not, before this very moment, read very much of. He’s one of the architects of urban fantasy 36. Perhaps it is the case, then, that Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr is atypical of his work (it’s in no way urban). Even so, the book is incredible, with the story of an immortal crow through the ages turning out to be touching and thought-provoking, and rocketing from adventure to action to melancholy to all sorts of other, secondary modes. The crow remains a crow the whole time, and if nothing else it would be an interesting thought experiment in how sapience would work for a corvid – that is to say, he always seems to think like a crow, and have a crow’s set of values 37There’s also a lot of really great stuff about how language shapes the crow’s thought, and how exposure to the crow’s thoughts shapes the thoughts and language of the people around him. It’s kept out of the top spot by being slightly draggy, and also by being a bit weighed down by a not-super-necessary framing plot that never quite arrives in the same sense as the rest of the story.

Victor Lavalle’s The Changeling received scads of praise and heaps of awards, and back at the Shirley Jackson awards I declared it the rightful winner 38, and I’ll do so again here. It’s lean, it’s deep and it’s a fantastic piece of craftsmanship. It may also be built around a pun 39, which I approve of wholeheartedly.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Victor Lavalle, The Changeling

And that wraps it up for the World Fantasy Awards! See everybody next May, when the literary awards start back up with the Nebulas.


  1.  I read a lot of fantasy when I was a kid, and then didn’t read much of it at all as a matter of course until I started analyzing the World Fantasy Awards for these writeups. 
  2.  especially now that I include the Shirley Jackson Awards 
  3.  that is to say, I have an easier time telling whether the ideas/imagery are conveyed effectively because I know more about the grammar of fantasy than I do about that of other representational art uh…genres? See? This falls apart very quickly. 
  4.  and he’s probably here largely on the back of the book covers he did for Joe Lake, which are indeed pretty righteous 
  5.  She is the artist part of Saga, which is great and effective comics art, but does sort of elicit a thing: after some hoopla surrounding Neil Gaiman’s win in 1992 for Short Fiction with the Midsummer Night’s Dream issue of Sandman, comics are no longer eligible for World Fantasy Awards, which makes one wonder what of Staples’s art is considered. 
  6.  It was nominated for a National Book Award, and declared a best book of the year by a dozen or so publications, for example, on top of its Shirley Jackson awards win (and a bunch of other awards that I’m less familiar with). 
  7.  he loves driving, for example, and smoking, and also Los Angeles. Charmingly, one of his collaborations with James Blaylock also manages to feature the latter’s love of cheese enchiladas. 
  8.  one of the collaborations with James Blaylock, specifically the one with the enchiladas. 
  9.  the element it unquestionably shares with “The Way Down the Hill,” and something I would be more than happy to read a hundred more Powers stories about, is an examination of the vagaries of a person taking possession of another person’s body, a thing about which Powers writes well, and takes a lot of thought-provoking angles on. 
  10.  “Through and Through” is maybe the outright scariest story in the book 
  11.  which probably deserves some kind of award for having the best title 
  12.  there’s plenty of humor in her work, but I still would like there to be more of it, is what I’m saying. I’m greedy. 
  13.  I suppose I can’t even pretend to say that I have ever received any joy or emotional contentment from the works of J.M. Barrie, but that’s how it goes. 
  14.  which also appears in The Best of Subterranean, see below 
  15.  I wanted to point out that it’s about a cult, but I’m afraid that it would upset someone for being a spoiler (I don’t think that it is), so I’m putting it in the footnote and deciding that the lessens the possibility that anyone would read it I guess? 
  16.  it was something of a banner year, in fact, for stories about young ladies who are friends and are separated. “Woodsmoke,” mentioned first, is also one of these stories. 
  17.  metaphorically speaking, of course, I just got it from the library. 
  18.  a feature of Dozois introductions, actually. His Year’s Best Science Fiction introductions show him to be a shrewd analyst of genre trends, as well as a pretty good historian. 
  19.  I also think it could introduce a bunch of really fun stories about the two characters that form the center of the story, for a sort of black-comedy and/or depressing value of “really fun”. 
  20.  furthermore from being a best-of of a particularly good and relatively high-profile magazine. 
  21.  the whole thing could do to be significantly shorter, so even if the inclusion of the Big Name folks wasn’t actively keeping people out (I have no idea if it was or not), leaving out some of the more egregious inclusions still would have improved the book. 
  22.  enchiladas make an appearance 
  23.  a thing it resembles for a very good reason…. 
  24.  I read a lot of genie stories this year, guys. They did not all work. 
  25.  no seriously, she’s having probably the best year anyone’s had as a writer in a long time – she’s filling the world with incredible work. 
  26.  obviously, as previously stated, I have a particular weakness for con-man stories. 
  27.  my usual issue with the average novella being that it’s either too long or too short. While it’s possible for any work to have length issues, no matter the length, it often seems like novellas are either a waterlogged, over-swollen short story or a too-thin novel in practice. Note also that this turns out to be a bigger problem in awards that include a “novelette” category.  
  28.  Mapping the Interior is too short, although I will also say that JY Yang’s contribution would seem too short if it wasn’t just the first half of a two-part work.  
  29.  although, to be fair, I haven’t yet. There are so many books, y’all. 
  30.  by which I mean that I remember it in the main, but that my notes don’t include very specific clues, and I’m having a hard time dredging up most of the specifics, other than that the beginning is tremendously slow and it’s not good for nearly as long as its dull. 
  31.  you can see my ambivalence play out here 
  32.  she’s usually so efficient that to see her succumbing to world-building and character bloat was kind of disappointing, and also quite surprising. 
  33. in addition to a similar title 
  34.  this is considered a feature, not a bug, by the book’s supporters. 
  35.  and the con man at their center – truly, it’s been a great year for con man stories. 
  36.  along with the aforementioned Charles de Lint, who’s receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award. I am not up on my urban fantasy originators, guys. 
  37.  obviously lacking any sapient crows, I can’t actually confirm that it’s accurate, but it feels like it would if it were verifiable. 
  38.  As more evidence that I have no idea what people are going to like, it lost to The Hole, which was my least favorite of the novels in contention. 
  39.  the troll/troll business is just too juicy to be a coincidence. 

The Comeback Trail – Calvin Johnson

Welcome to a special Rocktober edition of The Comeback Trail, everybody! This one is a bit weird, so you’ll have to stick with me.

Generally when an artist impels me to write a Comeback Trail piece about them, they’re returning to the world of publicly making music after some absence. Occasionally, however, it isn’t so much that they’ve been gone as it is that they’re notably pivoting, and, in this case, seemingly reacting to their own public discourse in a way that says “hey look, I made a new album!” instead of doing something else 1. So here we have Calvin Johnson teaming up with Pat Carney to make rock music, instead of goofy-ass dance music, as he had done for most of the last couple of decades.

The album, which is only a few years past one of the aforementioned goofy-ass dance records, is being pitched as his return to the genre that launched him, and is garnering him press that he hasn’t seen in some time – reviewed just about everywhere, for example, and written about in Rolling Stone 2 – and drowning out the press over his inability to run his record label.

It turns out, however, to be unusually appropriate for Rocktober, especially around here in this space, where it combines my twin purpose statements of writing about what becomes popular and/or marketed to be popular with what is done by unique weirdos for self-satisfactory purposes. Calvin Johnson, come whatever may and given whatever other context he has, is one of our most unique weirdos.

In the beginning, when Calvin Johnson established K Records, it was to release the music of his own band, the tremendously, unbelievably amateurish Beat Happening 3, among other like-minded folks. Beat Happening were a trio of unskilled musicians, whose childishness and inability to play were soon stuff of legend. Consisting of Calvin Johnson (who sang in a sort of nasal baritone that is easily the band’s most distinctive element – if you think of anything about Beat Happening it’s probably the yawning frog at the center of “Bury the Hammer” or “Indian Summer”), Heather Lewis (who had a more sing-song-y, “girlish” voice) and Brett Lunsford (who did not sing), with the person who wasn’t singing generally either playing a guitar or drumming, and everyone swapping instruments around regularly.

The music turned out to be wildly influential on a couple of fronts. Taken in tandem with bands like The Raincoats, the Young Marble Giants and Shonen Knife 4, they were using the infrastructure – the network of bands, labels and venues – of what had to that point been punk-rock-derived music 5 and made it something significantly less masculinity-oriented.

They also created a sort of anti-scene in Eugene, Oregon to the scene several miles away in Seattle 6, forming a space where amateurism and non-seriousness were encouraged, and fomenting a place of inclusivity where a lot of previously-underserved (especially female) rock-and-roll-interested people could form bands and be heard 7

Johnson was in bands that weren’t Beat Happening at all. He followed it up with the revolving-door Go Team 8, and the goofy-ass dance-music project Dub Narcotic Sound System. While there may very well be people that know him from his later projects, it seems from everything that I’ve been exposed to (and tried to figure out for this piece) that it all pretty well comes down to his time in Beat Happening.

Well, and K Records, which is his real legacy. This also pops up – complete with attendant press-push and all – a couple of years or so after it came to light that K Records was, shall we say, not perfectly-run. As detailed in this article that ran in The Stranger, they are having enormous trouble paying their artists what they are owed, and are currently launching harebrained schemes to make money quickly to cover their enormous back payments 9. Which makes it seem less-than-coincidental that here we are with a highly-public Calvin Johnson album, complete with all-star producer, etc.

So this record, released on K Records, is framed as a return to the rock and roll spirit that made Calvin Johnson famous, or at least, y’know, known. He was able to leverage the involvement of Pat Carney 10, and generally get written up in places he wouldn’t ordinarily. Hopefully the gambit works out and he can pay Phil Elverum the money he owes him. Ultimately, however, this is why this is a Comeback Trail record, and not just another record.

It’s the first record Johnson has released under his own name in thirteen years, but it’s only been a couple of years since his last record as Selector Dub Narcotic, and he hasn’t exactly been hiding in the intervening time anyway, but here we have him putatively returning to rock music 11. So, does it work?

Before I try to answer that question, I need to play the rest of my cards: I do not like Calvin Johnson’s music. I think that Dub Narcotic Sound System were occasionally ok, and I like maybe four or five Beat Happening songs, but by and large I don’t think it’s worth listening to. I feel like the point was made more or less immediately, and the point was the thing that was worth doing about the band. The music of the band is much less worthy of consideration than the fact of the band.

And by “the point” I mean the dedication to amateurism – the simple structures, the un-technical playing, the bare arrangements. It’s worthy to tear something down as far as it will go and see if it’s still the thing. In terms of making compelling music, however, they weren’t as minimal as Suicide 12, they weren’t as rocking as The Swell Maps, they weren’t as amateurish as Daniel Johnston 13, they weren’t as fun as The Cramps. They also weren’t memorable, and they only really had a couple of ideas, each of which is played out quickly. And this is my opinion of Johnson’s best band.

So upon embarking on this journey of music that we call an album, I am coming at it from a place of deep pessimism about how good it’s actually going to be. And, indeed: it is not very good. It has its moments. I’m certain that it has just about as many of them as any other given Calvin Johnson album 14. As previously mentioned, it sounds like a mid-aughts dance rock record, only with instruments played by Pat Carney. It seems impossible to mention the record without mentioning Carney’s fiancee, Michelle Branch’s, contributions to the record, but they seem pretty minimal – she sings the chorus on the lead single and bubbles up a bit here and there throughout. She’s fine. It’s fine.

But it’s not really a “Comeback” in any meaningful sense. Maybe it’s unfair to judge it by a criterion that I assumptively gave it, based on the timing of its release and the press attack that accompanied it. I’ll admit that it’s not really something the record bears up under. But it’s also not really worth all the time spent on bringing it into the light, and really: it’s not good. Where it aims for “Fun” and “Sincere” and perhaps “Naive” it lands on “drippy,” “performative” and “falsely confident.”

It is a good record in a very specific sense, and it’s a sense that Johnson has spent a career inhabiting, and that is frightfully common, especially among older rock folks – on paper, it’s got things that are praiseworthy about it (a veteran with a specific vision who was once responsible for vital recordings teams up with a somewhat-younger rock dude who he inspired 15), and everyone loves an inspiring tale of the sort. It’s got a built-in press hook in its amateurism and its eagerness to be liked. It’s easy, in short, to write about, to think about, and to remember. But it’s not good.

So, in terms of records that it’s easy to like without listening to, it’s a wild success, but it’s still liable to be little more than a weird blip of a minor work in the legacy of someone who, by all appearances, is trying to shore up his failing business model 16. or at least make enough to stop the bleeding. 

I suppose, in closing here, that there are worse reasons to make a record, and certainly worse reasons to appreciate an album, so if it sounds like your thing, feel free to make it so. I’ll probably never listen to it again, though.


  1.  this seems needlessly cryptic, so for those of you that aren’t up on your Calvin Johnson, he runs a record label that I’m going to talk about in a bit here that was accused a couple of years ago of some pretty serious financial mismanagement. 
  2.  albeit with the latter pegged heavily to the inclusion of Pat Carney, one of the last people to have been commercially successful at making rock music. 
  3.  actually, it was also to release a series of cassettes, the first of which was titled Danger is Our Business of people singing a capella in public, and they might actually be the best, or at least most worthwhile, things that K Records ever put out. 
  4.  an early signee to K Records 
  5.  on the flip side, I can’t seem to find the old Soft Focus interview with Johnson where he talked about how important punk rock had been to him, and how he felt that kids that were coming up in bands now were missing out by no longer having the connection to punk rock that indie-focused bands had up to that point. 
  6.  much of this story is told more effectively in Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, which includes a chapter on Beat Happening. 
  7.  the approach of Beat Happening and K Records was tremendously important to Riot Grrrl, for example. . 
  8.  not to be confused with the mid-aughts dance-rock troupe, which made much better music. 
  9.  without getting too finger-wagging about it all, it does sort of make one wonder why they couldn’t just pay out the royalties on the copies sold (adjusted for whatever invoiced costs may exist) when the copies were sold. I understand that many business operate in a manufacturing debt, but if Merge or Dischord or, hell, K’s neighbors Sympathy for the Record Industry or Kill Rock Stars taught us nothing it’s that you can absolutely do this thing, even now, if you keep up your end of the damn bargain from the get-go. 
  10.  who produced it and plays most of the instruments 
  11.  although only sort of. Sonically it’s more like rock music circa-2004, as it’s mostly dance music with guitars in. 
  12.  who had one fewer member and one fewer instrument 
  13.  in fact, the undercurrent of Johnson’s entire career is one of barely-concealed careerism. 
  14. I suppose one can assume from what I said above, and be correct in assuming, that I do not listen to his records as a matter of course, and thus have no idea what a baseline for “quality” would actually be.  
  15.  I guess. Putatively. For whatever that’s worth. 
  16.  actually, his “business model” was “trust Candice Pedersen to handle everything” – she was his partner in K for fifteen years or so, leaving at the turn of the century, and re-surfacing amid the Kimya Dawson story to support Dawson and let it be known that the wheels have been coming off the business end for a long time. 

The 2019 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees

It’s Rocktober, everybody! And while many of the Rocktober traditions are pushed aside by one thing or another, there’s always time to take a look at the potential future inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 1. This year, as with most years, there’s a whole bunch of first-time nominees, as well as some real left-field folks. There are also some people that should be real shoo-ins, but almost certainly will not be

So let’s dive into this years potential nominees, and retch at the numerical majority of them!

Def Leppard

So, I do not like Def Leppard. I do not like them even a little bit. I do not even have some spare affection for them, for a number of reasons. The primary reason is that they did more than any other single band to create the eighties “hard rock” radio sound, which was a bane to the ears 2, although I suppose not moreso than any other predominant radio-production-style. Secondarily, their music is terrible, devoid of anything except slicked-out signifiers of “rockingness” without actually, you know, rocking 3. They were, in these regards, influential, because there were a tonne of bands that came after them that adopted the style – because that’s pretty much all Def Leppard was, and all you could take from them – without actually managing to make music out of it. So they were undoubtedly popular, and undoubtedly influential, but they were popular in a way that was not specific to the rock audience, and influential in a way that made everything they touched worse.

THE VERDICT: Absolutely not.

Devo

Northeast Ohio’s third-best punk band 4Devo are responsible, in all, for one flawless album, followed by one slightly-less-great album, followed by three reasonably-solid albums, followed by a slow decline that they never really pulled out of. If the only thing they’d ever done is Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo they’d still belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Actually, if they’d stopped after the one record they’d have been just about perfect. But still.

THE VERDICT: Yes

Janet Jackson

She’s nominated all the time. She was just feted by the Billboard awards, so maybe this is a sort of cultural-undercurrent situation and she’ll get in. As with every year, I will say this: her music is largely not my cup of tea, but she’s undeniably her own thing and did a lot more to pursue her own furthest corners than her brother did. She’s not rock and roll even a little bit, but when has that stopped anybody?

THE VERDICT: Not really, but I still won’t be mad if it happens.

John Prine

I have no idea where this is coming from. I guess the fact that he made a new album made people reconsider him? I don’t know. I mean, I love John Prine, and I’m happy to see him here. He’s not really a rock and roll guy, but, again, that clearly isn’t actually a factor. He’s made good records for as long as anyone on this list, he’s influenced the hell out of a bunch of singer-songwriters. He may not have sold much, but he isn’t particularly obscure, either. I’d love to see him in there. He’s better than Cat Stevens, for example.

THE VERDICT: Yeah sure.

Kraftwerk

So here’s the deal about Kraftwerk. I get basically nothing out of their music. They were clearly great – they worked very hard about music that they used to express a bunch of ideas, and people love it. They were hugely influential, especially among non-rock concerns, but even rock bands took a lot from them. They were popular for awhile in the seventies. Their case is airtight, and I begrudge them nothing. They should have been inducted many years ago. I’m not going to go listen to them for pleasure, but they absolutely should be the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 5.

THE VERDICT: Yes

LL Cool J

Some of these folks that I’ve written about every year for the past few years have been pretty-well covered. LL Cool J is, like many of this year’s crop, not a Rock and Roll artist in any way, but they’re clearly not going to stop including rappers anytime soon, and LL Cool J was good at it, and influential in his time, and his popularity has been surprisingly durable, so he probably deserves it as much as any currently-excluded rapper of his generation.

THE VERDICT: Sure.

MC5

So previously I have mentioned that the MC5 are one of the clear-cut candidates for single songs being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As of last year, they are! This is great news, because the MC5’s body of work itself isn’t very impressive 6. It’s hard to argue against “Kick Out the Jams,” though.

THE VERDICT: No, but “Kick Out the Jams” should absolutely be there.

Radiohead

Radiohead checks literally all of the boxes that could possibly be required of a band for Hall of Fame induction: they’ve sold squillions of records, inspired countless bands, and sought out their furthest corners musically. They made a string of records 7 that are among the strongest periods of output in rock music history. The fact that they clearly don’t care about it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be inducted, even though it probably has more effect than I think.

THE VERDICT: Unquestionably

Rage Against the Machine

Last year at this time I pointed out that RATM ran afoul not of the HOF’s rap problem, but of their heavy metal problem, which is real 8. They did a lot to combine the audiences of both forms, introducing a lot of suburban metal kids to rapping and including a bunch of more aggressive rap kids in their metal-ing 9. They made good records, they sold a bunch of them, and then they quit while they were ahead, which is always worth praising.

THE VERDICT: Yes

Roxy Music

This is Roxy Music’s first time even being nominated, because the RRHOF hates prog rock, even when it’s a prog band dressed up as glam, as Roxy Music is. Obviously I’m in favor of anything that gets Brian Eno in there, so I’m in favor of this, but Roxy Music have plenty of reasons to be inducted. I’m not sure why it’s taken them this long to be up on the block.

THE VERDICT: Yes

Rufus featuring Chaka Khan

Every frigging year with this. At least this year it’s Rufus and Chaka Khan, as opposed to just Chaka Khan herself 7, because at least it includes her band. Anyway, I don’t think that she should get in at all, because her music is stupid and derivative and boring.

THE VERDICT: No

Stevie Nicks

I’m not the record as not having the highest possible opinion of Fleetwood Mac, but I do sort of understand their place and the appeal and all that. Stevie Nicks as a solo act, however, can absolutely heck straight off 8. I understand that she had plenty of her own hits and whatnot, but I can’t imagine that the world would be significantly different without them.

THE VERDICT: No

The Cure

The Cure are so goddamned great. They were great in, like, four different ways. Great musicians, amazing songs, incredible records, and they’ve not lost much steam or quality along the way. On top of which there are so many bands that try to sound like one version of The Cure or the other that if you stacked them all like cordwood, you could fill the inside of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with them. The Cure are great, better than nearly every band on this list or just about any other. They should have been in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame years ago.

THE VERDICT: Yes.

The Zombies

Every year we do this, and every year I remain baffled. The Zombies belong in for all the same reasons as The Cure, with a modification that their best work is better than The Cure, and they didn’t have quite so many major stylistic shifts as The Cure. The Zombies were great and I have no idea what’s keeping them out of there.

THE VERDICT: Yes

Todd Rundgren

I am open to whatever arguments people want to make for Todd Rundgren being inducted as a performer. He seems like a great guy, and I’m glad he’s out there in the world. He absolutely belongs in the HOF as a producer – he’s great at it, and has made some all-time amazing records. As a producer, not as a performer. Because as a performer he has made like, three good songs 9, and that’s not a great track record.

THE VERDICT: Not as a performer, no.

And that about does it for this year, and we’ll find out in May how wrong they are about everything. I wouldn’t bet on The Zombies yet again, is all I’m saying here, guys.


  1.  I suppose it’s interesting and worth considering that, eventually, the Considered Look at Every Inductee Into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will catch up to the things I’ve already written about here, and we’ll see how consistent I am about how I feel about these things. True story: I actually have no idea, and in fact would not be surprised to find out that I am wildly contradicting myself about some of the marginal cases. 
  2.  they were abetted in this nonsense by Mutt Lange, about whom I have spoken previously, and upon whom I continue to wish bad things. 
  3.  in the interest of being completely fair to a band that I loathe, I will concede that parts of the first couple of records do rock genuinely, and that “Photograph” would be a good song if it didn’t sound so much like Def Leppard, and therefore just remind me of all the parts of Def Leppard that suck real bad.
     
  4.  they come in ahead of the Electric Eels and behind The Cramps. If the Cramps don’t count (they relocated to New York) then they’re still behind Pere Ubu. But then, almost everybody is. 
  5.  I maintain that they should be inducted after Can, but I think I’m marching in that parade more or less alone. 
  6.  it also ages somewhat poorly. 
  7.  which it has been for some years in the past, although her past few nominations have all been with Rufus, so maybe the RRHOF has made their official decision vis-a-vis the importance of Rufus to Chaka Khan. 
  8.  this opinion is at least somewhat exacerbated by the fact that the last thing I heard Ms. Nicks perform was her eight-hour-long song on her guest appearance on American Horror Story 
  9.  I like “Bang on the Drum All Day” and The Nazz’s “Open My Eyes,” and I’m assuming there’s another one in there somewhere, but my survey that I embarked upon to write this piece did not yield it. 

The 2018 BET Hip-Hop Awards

So, on the heels of the American Music Awards’ definitive proof that the sort of pop music that captures the corporate interests of ABC is godawful comes proof that most of the hip-hop that captures the corporate interests of BET is also godawful.

Not all of it, mind you, there are still some outliers that are not godawful, but as a set of things, the sort of hip-hop that is given awards at the BET hip-hop awards is in decline 1. Or temporarily set back or whatever.  

That said, it’s not nearly as dismal as some other music-awards shows, even just considering the awards. They’re still mostly there to prop up the BET Hip-Hop Awards Cyphers, which are, historically, the best part of any of the music awards shows.

Plus, Lil Wayne will be receiving the I Am Hip-Hop award, which is the more awkwardly-named lifetime achievement awards 2, so that’s something.

Impact Track

You know, in most years the existence of this category is enough to send me into a state of apoplexy! You can probably see evidence of this elsewhere on this very site. I think it’s dumb for  a number of reasons – I’m not opposed to people making political/philosophical stands in their music, but I do think that awards categories like this are a way for the show to shield itself from having to do anything else responsibly, because they can point to the existence of a category where something “woke” is honored, and it is used, therefore, as a tacit shield. That said, “This is America” pretty much exists for things like this, and is great, so it’s easier than it normally is to choose a winner, which is nice.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Childish Gambino, “This is America”

Sweet 16: Best Featured Verse

So I realize that there are plenty of reasons for Cardi B to be nominated for “MotorSport” instead of Nicki Minaj 3, but Nicki Minaj’s verse is better. Her verse on “Big Bank” is also pretty good, although it’s not the best of these. It’s definitely better, for example, than Drake’s verse on “Look Alive” or 21 Savage’s verse on “Bartier Cardi”. It is true that it is boring to point out that Kendrick Lamar is the best of a group of rappers, but it is kind of remarkable how well just about everything he does works, and his feature on “New Freezer” really is that good.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar, “New Freezer” (Rich the Kid)

Best Mixtape

Speaking of remarkable consistency, here’s Future again. This time with the also-quite-consistent Zaytoven. It’s impressive how long this run has gone on. BlocBoy JB’s “Simi” is better than I would have thought, as is Zoey Dollaz’s Sorry Not Sorry 4. I have fewer nice things to say about Juicy J (which is about how it usually goes), and while Dedication 6 was the best Dedication in awhile, I think that Lil Wayne is still pretty much out of the running these days. That Future mixtape, though.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Future, Beast Mode 2

Made-You-Look Award

Being forced to consider the vagaries of the way Nicki Minaj dresses vs. the way Cardi B dresses is pretty much enough to drive anyone insane. Migos are all stylish gents, though, so I don’t need to worry about it.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Migos

Hustler of the Year

My argument for this one last year was that DJ Khaled is only a public figure at all because of his ability to hustle 5, and that’s still the case, but this year he really earned it. There aren’t a lot of people that watch The Four, which is fair: it’s not very good! One of the things that was missed in its second season, however, was witnessing some portion of the light in DJ Khaled die. It was apparent that that dude did not want to be on the tv show anymore 6, but he did it anyone, and he Khaleded it up the whole time, albeit in a much sweatier way, with considerably less joie de vivre. So here’s to DJ Khaled, I guess, who is somehow not a situationist prank, and is instead the living apotheosis of Hustle.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: DJ Khaled

Best New Hip-Hop Artist

Oof. This one’s tough. Juice Wrld is fine, but indistinguishable from half a dozen other rappers exactly like him, including Rich the Kid, who is fine, but still more of the same. BlocBoy JB may have peaked with the shoot dance, and that was years ago. Quality Control’s Lil Baby is alright, and he’s the best of this bunch.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Lil Baby

Album of the Year

Several years ago, I would have been pretty confident in saying that Jay-Z was done being in serious consideration for “Album of the Year” in any given awards, but Everything is Love really is quite good. It helps that his role is largely as hype man for his wife. KOD is an ok J. Cole album. Scorpion is a dismal Drake album. Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy is a lot of fun, and has some great singles, but isn’t really the right call. Culture 2 was way too long, and while the best bits are better than a lot of things, the signal-to-noise ratio is way out of whack. So it’s The Carters.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Carters, Everything is Love

Single of the Year

So “God’s Plan” has already come up rather more than I’d like, and it’ll probably continue to be in here for awhile, and it’s still pretty bad. I suppose it’s better than “Nice for What,” though. “This is America” is a great video, but the song itself doesn’t really do much for me. “I Like It” is ok, I suppose. “Apeshit” is a great song. So it’s The Carters again.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Carters, “Apeshit”

MVP of the Year

I mean, in a race between Drake, Travis Scott and J. Cole there can be no real winners. At least not in 2018. So that leaves us with Childish Gambino, who is definitely a force for good in the world, even if his music is, as I keep mentioning, not my cup of tea.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Childish Gambino, but mostly for not-entirely-musical reasons.

Producer of the Year

This category doesn’t move around very much from year to year, which makes it hard to figure out another thing to say about, say, Benny Boom. Of these people, Metro Boomin’ had the best year.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Metro Boomin’

DJ of the Year

I’m assuming that I have, in fact, cracked the code, and that in this context, “DJ” is separate from “producer” in the sense that these people all make records with their own names on them. The Rosetta Stone here was DJ Mustard’s inclusion, since he’s been moving out in front of the laptop recently. Anyway, it’s probably him, because the rest of this field is pretty dire, and DJ Khaled is not a DJ in any meaningful sense of the word, including this one.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: DJ Mustard

Video Director of the Year

Hiro Murai was so good at directing a video that it made me praise a Childish Gambino song. It’s a seriously great video.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Hiro Murai

Lyricist of the Year

I appreciate that this category exists, as lyrics are an important part of the experience for a bunch of people, and hip-hop is especially words-focused, and it should be here. Yay for this category. I never know the words to anything, however. So I guess I’m going to say that it’s Kendrick again, because what I do know of his words is very impressive, and also because it’s not going to be anybody else here, right?

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar

Hot Ticket Performer

You know, I don’t really like Childish Gambino’s music, but he’s a good enough performer in general that I bet whatever he does live is pretty good and worth watching. Not as good as Kendrick, but pretty good I bet.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar

Best Collabo, Duo or Group

While “Best Song With More Than One Person On It” isn’t really the way to go about naming a category, it does avoid usage of the term “collabo”, which is nice. Just putting it out there. Anyway, several of these songs are comically bad. “I Like It” is mostly alright, but it still melts down in front of “Apeshit”. This seems like it’s specifically paving the way for the Carters to take it home here.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Carters, “Apeshit”

Best Hip-Hop Video

It’s rare that the last category that I write about here 7 is the best category, but this one might be, especially once you throw out “God’s Plan”. The “Walk it Like I Talk It” video is funny, even though it includes Drake. The “I Like It” video is at least kinetic and brightly colored. The “Loyalty” video is great and has been much-ballyhooed elsewhere (including on this very site), but I think I’m going to stick with “This is America”

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Childish Gambino, “This is America

And that’ll be that until next year, when I’ll probably be mad about J. Cole all over again.


  1. Solid reminder – I am old 
  2.  which is saying something, because Lifetime Achievement awards almost always have very stupid names. 
  3.  among them: it’s good for ratings, because the hip-hop media insisted loudly that the two had “beef” until they actually did, thus creating a rivalry that didn’t need to exist, and also it’s probably good for them to nominate as many different people as possible in each category, and Nicki Minaj is also rightfully nominated for “Big Bank,” see further on. 
  4.  it’s an awful title, though. 
  5.  after several years of screaming his own name in the intros to various songs/mixtapes, he rose significantly in prominence by shouting catchphrases at consumer goods – mainly shoes – on Snapchat. 
  6.  I may find some things to say about The Four next time it airs – assuming that the call for auditions at the end of season 2 do in fact lead to a season 3 – but one of the main questions I have about it is how it’s filmed – I suspect the whole thing is done in a day or two, and that it must be one tremendously long, exhausting day (or couple of days), and that this contributes to the effect. 
  7.  which tends to be the “headliner” category – the one the audience is ostensibly all here to see. 

The 2018 American Music Awards

So the American Music Awards have moved! They’re in October now! I do not have an explanation for this, other than that they wanted to make the eligibility period as short as possible I guess?

The AMAs are one of the more existentially funny awards shows – they’re transparently a way for ABC/Disney to have an in-house awards show 1, and they consist of roughly seven billion categories, but have one of the smallest pools of nominees out there – you see the same dozen or so names over and over and over again, category after category 2.

They are, as such, interesting in the main – it is always interesting to see where the business concerns of the awards show are willing to align themselves, and since the AMAs are 100% business concern, with literally no other covering 3, they are in and of themselves a fascination. This year they are slightly less tedious than in years’ past, which is something of a relief. I mean, relatively, because this is also a particularly awful field of nominees.

Nevertheless, here are the rightful winners.

Favorite Artist – Electronic Dance Music

You know, every year there’s someone in this category who I kind of almost like. This year that person is Marshmello. Thanks, Marshemello, for keeping this from being impossible.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Marshmello

Favorite Artist – Contemporary Inspirational

Lauren Daigle has been declared the rightful winner every single time I’ve covered an awards show that she was nominated for an award within. I want this to be different, but it isn’t, because MercyMe are pretty bad, and Zach Williams is even worse.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Lauren Daigle

Favorite Artist – Latin

There are pluses and minuses to the “only three nominees per category” thing that this particular awards show does. One of the primary pluses is that these are super-easy to consider – there’s only three of them, you don’t get bogged down. The minuses, however, are in a category like this, where I have to make a very finely-considered choice between J. Balvin and Daddy Yankee, which requires me to devote a whole bunch of my thinking brain to two guys that are….fine. Like, they’re not bad. They’ve both made songs I like. It’s not even a problem. It’s just that I have no ability to quantify which one is more fine. In the bigger categories, I can just find a different outlier and go with that. In this one, the odd man out is Reggaeton snoozefest Ozuna, so that’s just right out. So it goes.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: J. Balvin, I guess

Favorite Artist – Adult Contemporary

P!nk is pretty much the only option here, as Ed Sheeran and Ed Sheeran’s Living Photocopy Shawn Mendes definitely are never going to be worthy of anything ever as long as I live.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: P!nk

Favorite Artist – Alternative Rock

Imagine Dragons has been nominated for the AMA for Alternative Rock artist every single year I’ve been doing this except the first one. This is astonishing for a couple of reasons, 1) they are not a rock band 4 and 2) they are godawful. Panic! At the Disco continue to exist, which I also find dismaying. Thus it goes to Portgual, the Man.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Portugal, the Man

Favorite Song – Soul/R&B

I have nothing in particular to say about Ella Mai. While I admire the pandering to the sort of old people that would admire the throwback-y vibe and video to the Bruno Mars/Cardi B song, “Young Dumb and Broke” is actually a great song that does a better job at pandering in a satisfying fashion.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Khalid, “Young Dumb and Broke”

Favorite Album – Soul R&B

It seems almost impossible to believe that Ctrl is still out here getting nominated for awards, but the AMAs are in a weird spot in the year, and it definitely deserves the nomination, so I’m happy to see it.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: SZA, Ctrl

Favorite Female Artist – Soul/R&B

I still have nothing in particular to say about Ella Mai. Rihanna is fine, but most of her interesting work is in the sort of, y’know, existing-as-a-famous-person-in-public realm, rather than the musical realm. I still really like SZA.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: SZA

Favorite Male Artist – Soul/R&B

You know, at various points I would have found this category much more difficult. Bruno Mars has basically taken himself out of the running. Khalid is interesting, and has a great voice, but it remains to be seen what’s going to come from that. The Weeknd has sort of fallen into the lane I feel like he’s going to remain in for some time now, where he’s not as wildly good as he started out being, but he’s still better than, say, Bruno Mars and Khalid.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Weeknd

Favorite Song – Rap/Hip-Hop

Given that two of the nominees here are perhaps the two most irritating songs of the past 12 months, this really seems to be paving the way for “Bodak Yellow” here.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Cardi B, “Bodak Yellow (Money Moves)”

Favorite Album – Rap/Hip-Hop

This has no such savior as the “song” category, so I’m forced, once again, to consider some things much more than I’d like. I guess Lil Uzi Vert’s album isn’t as bad as the other two.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Lil Uzi Vert, Luv is Rage 2

Favorite Artist – Rap/Hip-Hop

Given that my opinions about these three in the “songs” category can pretty much be extended to all of the work they made within the eligibility period 5, so this one is rather predictable.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Cardi B

Favorite Song – Country

This is doing no damage to my “pop music fans are into the worst country music” argument, quite frankly.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: I guess it’s Kane Brown? I guess? For “Heaven”?

Favorite Album – Country

I don’t actually like “Heaven,” the above-mentioned song, and it’s worth mentioning down here because as I was listening to these albums to figure out which one of them was the one I’d like the most of the three of them, I got furthest into the Kane Brown album before I bailed on it, and “Heaven” was a song that I didn’t even notice as it played, which means that this field is literally competing against zero. Like, something that was even a little bit positive would get more notice.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kane Brown, Kane Brown

Favorite Duo or Group – Country

Hilariously, clicking the link to Lanco on the American Music Awards of 2018 Wikipedia page takes you to the page for the airline, because the Wikipedia editor that entered all of the AMA information didn’t bother to check his links. I’d correct it, but it’s 1) funnier this way and 2) the only entertainment it’s at all possible to get out of this category, so I’m hopeful that it’s still there by the time you’re reading this.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Lanco, but mostly their Wikipedia page.

Favorite Female Artist – Country

You know, in years past, the problem with the Country categories is that the rollover in Country music is so low, and it tends to be the same set of people over and over (and over and over) for every awards show for several years. So we’ve largely rolled over a set 6, but it’s still pretty awful. I mean, I’m happy to see Kelsea Ballerini I guess? That’s a pretty bleak state of affairs.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kelsea Ballerini

Favorite Male Artist – County

This is the same situation as the albums category, but you can all rest assured that I don’t like Luke Bryan more than Luke Combs. I mean, I suppose I don’t like him less, either.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kane Brown

Favorite Song – Pop/Rock

In keeping with the spirit of this year’s write-up, I will point out that another of the things that happens here every year is that the “Rock” is utterly superfluous in this cateogry name. It’s all just pop music, guys. Anyway, I don’t love (or even much like) “Havana,” but up against “God’s Plan” and “Perfect” it might as well be “Hey” fucking “Jude”.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Camila Cabello, “Havana” (f Young Thug)

Favorite Album – Pop/Rock

I’m reminiscing about the good old days when I had that Camila Cabello song to prevent me from deciding that I like Scorpion best of any given set of things. Remember those days? Those were good days.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Drake, Scorpion

Favorite Duo or Group – Pop/Rock

Hey, one of these is actually kind of a rock band! This means the “Rock” is not entirely superfluous every time! Also one of these (obviously not the same one) is actually good! That means I don’t have to go drink bleach!

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Migos

Favorite Female Artist – Pop/Rock

Hey! Things are turning up! I don’t even have to settle for Camila Cabello in this one!

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Cardi B

Favorite Male Artist – Pop/Rock

All of that is to say: at least none of the other categories have Post Malone in them. I mean, he’s going to continue to pop up, and it’s going to be infuriating every time because: no.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Drake. But big sigh at “Rightful” and at “Winner”.

Favorite Soundtrack

I’ll give a dollar to anyone who can tell me why Fate of the Furious is in here. A whole American dollar. The Greatest Showman was a valiant effort, but unfortunately total garbage. Black Panther had a pretty cool soundtrack.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Black Panther

Favorite Social Artist

I feel like the “Social Media” categories are in a nightmare reign for BTS, but I think that there could be other options soon. See, the logic is that BTS managed to be bona-fide pop superstars in America with little other than their rabid fans and their equally-rabid social media support from said fans. That means it’s de facto BTS, because they don’t have any of the non-online aspects of, say, Cardi B 7, Ariana Grande 8, Demi Lovato 9 or Shawn Mendes 10

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: BTS

Tour of the Year

Well, this one had two tours in it that I would attend, which is one more than this category usually features. I only considered going to see U2 very briefly, but I did consider it. I very nearly went to see Beyonce and Jay-Z, so that’s the one I suppose, in the most practical sense of “Rightful Winner,” I am once again going with the one I would have been most likely to see.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Jay-Z and Beyonce

Video of the Year

While “Bodak Yellow” is the only actually good song here, the video is just kind of…there. The “Havana” video at least has the telenovela bit at the beginning that I quite like. The “God’s Plan” video is self-aggrandizing nonsense.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Camila Cabello, “Havana (f Young Thug)”

New Artist of the Year

It’s funny that this category, usually the market-stunt-iest category, is one of the strongest fields going. Camila Cabello isn’t really “new,” having done time in Fifth Harmony. Dua Lipa and Khalid are both people with extremely nice singing voices. Cardi B is probably here to stay, and doesn’t need to “come into” her material at all, like Dua Lipa or Khalid would.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Cardi B

Artist of the Year

Aaaaaand we’re right back to the misery. Taylor Swift hasn’t come up, but she is in several of these categories, and her output in the eligibility period is extraordinarily bad. I’m usually mildly positive on the Taylor Swift scale, but this last record was just awful. Ed Sheeran is execrable, although he’s better than Post Malone. Imagine Dragons’s singer made that cool documentary thing. That was neat. It’s probably better than Drake, so why not?

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Imagine Dragons (but not their music)

That wraps it up for this one! I suppose next year at this time I’ll have to start tracking whether it’s the American Music Awards that make this field so dreadful, or whether it’s just that pop music itself is in a down period where it doesn’t much appeal to me! Whee!


  1. despite having what could accurately be called “minimal” record-selling-industry connections these days. 
  2.  sub to footnote 1, this is probably down to the record-selling interests Disney does have, lack of record label notwithstanding. 
  3.  that is to say, they lack the Billboard awards’ house-organ connection, the Grammys seriousness, or even, say, the People’s Choice Awards’ idea of a democratic winner 
  4.  I litigate this every time it comes up, but if you’re not a dedicated reader, the argument is this: they are not a band in any meaningful sense (ie the assemblage of people that are onstage or whatever bear little relationship to the music as it is played on their albums, as their album credits and, y’know, the actual sound of the actual music bear out), they do not play rock music in any meaningful sense (the music is not built on the interplay of the musicians, it does not feature the guitar/bass/drum lineup that typifies rock music, it is not played primarily in dynamics and texture, instead relying on the language of dance music – hooks, drops, godawful vocals, etc. – to make its point). There are rock bands that offer exceptions to rules, certainly (Suicide, for example, is one of the finest rock bands the world has ever known), but Imagine Dragons aren’t one of them. 
  5.  you know, one of these days I really should evaluate whether Take Care and Nothing Was the Same are actually good records, or if they just sounded better at the time. 
  6.  although Carrie Underwood persists, because it’s not like they send them out on an ice floe or whatever. 
  7.  who used to be on tv, after all 
  8.  who used to be on tv, after all 
  9.  who used to be on tv, after all 
  10.  fuck Shawn Mendes 

The Best Records of September 2018

Low – Double Negative (Would that we could all make such a startling change to our approach 25 years into doing whatever it is we do. Also: Low made a noise record, so obviously I am here for it.)

Tim Hecker – Konoyo (September proved itself to be a real banger for Kranky records alums – Low started out on Kranky – and also, Tim Hecker found a bunch of super-modern inspiration in a bunch of super-old Japanese instruments)

Spiritualized – And Nothing Hurt (Jason Pierce’s level of consistency remains much higher than I feel it should be. I have nothing new to add to the conversation about Spiritualized, but if this is indeed their last record, then this is a hell of a way to go out)

Joey Purp – Quarterthing (Most of the time when rappers try do this many different things on a record, it’s a little bit like watching someone try on clothes – it’s just better if they make a decision about the approach and go forward from there. Somehow Joey Purp made the decision to try things out, and it worked all the way through)

Milo – Budding Ornithologists are Weary of Tired Analogies (this is Milo’s third record of the year, and all three of them are top-flight incredible. I have no idea where this is coming from or how he’s doing it, but it’s amazing)

The 2018 Trainie Awards

As always, as “the year” turns its face toward “the end of the year,” and as “the sporadic summer awards season” becomes “the awards season”, I turn my face to the fact that this site, which has something to say about just about as many awards shows as I can manage to come up with things about 1, is also the occasional granter of its own awards.

Of course, the Trainies aren’t the usual awards ceremony, they’re more of an opportunistic and variable sort of ceremony 2, and as such, they are presented to a variety of categories for a variety of achievements. This year, in keeping with the general trend, I will also do my very best to keep them brief.

Outstanding Achievement in Continuing to be the Worst Possible Fanbase

Star Wars sure oughta inspire better than it does, right? I mean, lots of good/neutral people like or don’t like Star Wars for lots of good/neutral reasons, certainly. I, myself, don’t like plenty of Star Wars. I, however, have never been so overtaken by rage that I had to help chase someone off the internet, as has happened with Kelly Marie Tran 3. It’s also never driven me to do anything as goofy as create, disseminate and sign a petition to remove The Last Jedi from canon, which would be ordinary internet windmill-tilting-at (see last year’s business with Rotten Tomatoes and the DC movies) if it weren’t for the fact that it generally seems to be the same people who are motivated to yell at Kelly Marie Tran (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, John Boyega) that aren’t merely happy knowing that they’ve made the people that they blame (wrongly) for their displeasure with a movie miserable and afraid, but that the rest of the movies in that series need to not even make mention of this thing. The presumption, of course, being that if the movies that come after are not the product of a complete disavowal, that the people doing the harassing/petition signing will just keep on doing it.

Of course, if Solo taught us anything, it’s that they also can probably be taken at their word just not to see anymore Star Wars movies, which, ultimately, is fine, and brings to mind the one thing that remains true of every single generation of Star Wars fan: what Star Wars fans really hate is Star Wars.

Outstanding Achievement in Convincing People to Poison Themselves

The great Tide Pods-ening of late 2017/early 2018 came and went, and since every day of the news cycle is 6,000 years long, it’s easy to forget that it was just a few months ago that it all happened.

But it did. A joke about how Tide Pods look like candy became a meme, the meme got out of control, and people started posting videos of themselves eating or allegedly eating soap for YouTube 4. This became a media circus – where it was reported that 11 out of every 10 teenagers was eating Tide Pods three meals a day – and then a series of jokes about the media circus. At the end of the day, YouTube banned eating Tide Pods on YouTube, the joke floated off into the ether, and that one dude in Florida (who made candy that looked like Tide Pods, in a nicely recursive step) and that one pizzeria in Greenpoint probably had to find new gimmicks for their menus.

At almost exactly the same time, in an interview with one of the founders of Juicero, the community of people who drink the soup of minerals, animal excreta, dirt and algae that presents itself as “raw” water saw some of the harsh light of day. This is, to just about anyone who thinks about it for more than a few seconds, a terrible fucking idea. Like, a truly terrible idea. Among the first things we did at every step of the way as humans achieving civilization was figure out how to treat water so that we could drink it, reliably, and not die.

The idea, though, is that water that is filtered is filtered of the things that give it life 5, and this is bad for all of us, plus they pump it full of fluoride 6 and it has drugs in it. Whereas highly-marked-up completely untreated water has all that, y’know, stuff in it. To keep you alive or whatever 7.

The entity receiving this award, though, is neither the group of people that ate (or didn’t eat but were reported to have eaten) the Tide Pods, nor is it the Silicon Valley tech bros that are right now incubating healthy populations of glorious and thriving dysentery in their gut. It’s the American food industry, which has simultaneously told two populations contradictory things all through the magic of nothing more than their own marketing. You see, the reason that Tide Pods look like candy is because the marketing-driven decision that caused their appearance comes from the exact same research that decided how candy should look – the same appealing, bright, friendly qualities are wanted for both potentially-dangerous household chemicals and potentially-dangerous sugar garbage treats.

Similarly, the food marketing angle that leads people to believe that “less treated” is “more natural” and that “more natural” is “more healthy” has given the tech bros the idea that this is a concept that should be taken all the way to its most extreme position, that even the water that we drink should be untouched.

Kids aren’t going to admit to being swayed by advertising, and tech-bros aren’t going to blame the marketers that provide so much of their own lifeblood, so basically you have the two populations that are most likely to believe the marketing wing of the food industry’s nonsense uncritically, and they’re killing them. This seems like bad business.

Outstanding Achievement in Being the First to Do Something That Will, Eventually, Work

Beating out Amazon Go 8 and Bodega 9 is Air France, and their utterly preposterous Airline for Millenials, which features VR entertainment, fancy dress and….something called a “rooftop bar.” When I think of reasons why this is absurd, I think of many things, but none of them so much as the idea of a “rooftop bar” on a fucking plane. I suppose if there’s a bunch of deaths on a plane because people were enjoying coldbrew or oat milk smoothies or kombucha or whatever on the top of it, I’ll be proven wrong, but otherwise: there’s no reason to call it that. It’s just a bar. Go heck yourselves.

Anyway, there are many businesses I approve of less than this one, but this is here because it’s about to start happening more, and, eventually, it will work. Someone will start a business in this fashion, it will hang on, and no one will pour any out for poor ol’ Air France, whose only real business sin was not waiting until millennials had the money to spend on weird novelty flights. It’s going to work because one of the things that does mark the set of people who are in their mid twenties to mid thirties 10 is a weirdly-consumptive level of brand engagement (c.f. Wendy’s Twitter, allegiances to social networking sites that seems extra-absurd) and an ability to believe that they’re (we’re, I guess) impossible to market to. A company is going to crack this code, and it’s going to be stupid. But it ain’t Air France, and it ain’t this.

Outstanding Achievement in a Field I Didn’t Know it Was Still Possible to Have an Outstanding Achievement In

My love of newspaper comics is not news around these parts (and my saying so goes back to almost the very beginning of this blog). I love ‘em. I love ‘em in 2018. So it warmed my heart when long-running gentle humor comic Nancy got, for the first time in its 80-odd years of existing, a female comics artist.

She goes by Olivia Jaimes, and she’s currently anonymous 11, she’s said to have already been a successful webcomicist, and her run on Nancy is funny. Like, genuinely funny for a newspaper comic strip. She’s got a good, updated, line on who the characters are and how they interact, and she’s willing to drag the strip back in the twenty-first century, while bringing back to the strip a sense of playfulness that it hasn’t had for years.

The comic’s creator, Ernie Bushmiller, was a genius. A genius of minimalism, a genius of form, a genius of the sort of playfulness that should, quite frankly, inhabit the comics page. It’s only ever been drawn by a handful of people, including Jerry Scott (the Zits guy) 12, before Guy Gilchrist drew it as the leaden thump that it’s been for the last couple of decades. James’s arrival manages to start the comic back into the air, and, of course, by changing something on the comics page, it has also caused no small amount of cranky yelling about how much better things were in the halcyon days of Guy Gilchrist 13

HONORABLE MENTION: Occasioned by this piece in The Outline, as well as public remarks by Nick Wiger and (as always, and he’s been on this beat forever), the Comics Curmudgeon, people really seemed to get into present-day dadaist masterpiece Heathcliff, which warms my heart to no end, but isn’t quite as cool as Olivia Jaimes.

Outstanding Achievement in Terrible Ideas That Are Still Developing

The Oscar for Popular Film is a colossally bad idea. That’s not new – the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences comes up with four bad ideas before breakfast – but the fact that everyone agreed that it was a colossally bad idea was a nice time for internet dwellers. The idea that shunting off an entire uh….OK, so it was clear that something was being shunted off 14, but it was never entirely clear what they were doing. Popular films win Best Picture all the time. Several years ago, they tried their cockamamie thing where they made the field of Best Picture nominees super-big, and that didn’t really work for them either. So this time they played their hand super-close to the vest, and didn’t even tell people what this category was for, other than, y’know, popular films.

Never mind that there still isn’t an academy award for casting, never mind that they could have very easily – and to much fanfare 15– brought back the “Unique and Artistic Picture” Category, thus inverting the equation. They never would, of course, because it would start to wear away at their “acceptable genres” idea – they didn’t do this in the wake of the boomlet of musicals in the early aughts, or the period-drama onslaught of the nineties, they did it during the superhero years, making it entirely clear which side of their bread is buttered.

Anyway, there may be some more about this in February, when the whole thing will have shaken out, but the upshot is: they did a dumb, unpopular thing, then, after everyone got mad at them, said “well we definitely weren’t actually going to do that anyway,” which means that AMPAS is officially a recalcitrant eight year old. Way to go, guys.

Unless, of course, they totally do it anyway, or continue to make gestures at it, in which case this will in all likelihood be around next year to be the first repeat Trainies winner.

Outstanding Achievement in Public Speaking

We always like to go out here on a high note, so allow me to present to you, Ursula T. Vernon’s speech at last year’s Hugos 16, where she won for her incredible story “The Tomato Thief” 17. The Hugos had a rough few years, and have largely settled into being more fun than they were before the puppies arrived, at least for me 18, and Ursula Vernon (who has won Hugos before) decided that this time, she was going to do the thing that everyone wishes they could do: she was going to talk to a huge crowd of people about something cool: whalefall. It’s all in the link above, and it involves zombie worms, and, frankly, it’s more memorable and meaningful than a list of “thank you”s would have been, or a brief speech about where a story came from (although I understand the utility of the thank yous, and begrudge no one his or her need to thank people). But it’s nice, isn’t it? Whalefall.

HONORABLE MENTION: Patton Oswalt, who in this Vulture interview walked back what is easily the worst of his earlier jokes, and generally proves himself to be a pretty stand-up guy. That’s a funny joke that I gave you all for free because I love you. Also if Patton Oswalt turns out to have done sex crimes or whatever I’m burning this country to the ground. So.


  1.  and have time to genuinely consider. 
  2.  specifically, they are meant to “honor” things that I tried to write about in this space, but either didn’t have the time, couldn’t find the angle, or didn’t have enough to say about them to involve making an entire separate post about them. 
  3.  That’s Comedy Bang! Bang!’s own Kelly Marie Tran! 
  4.  this, coupled with the last few weeks’ reportage of the frequent mental terrorism undergone by YouTube creators, means that the Tide Pod thing was only the first time YouTube’s algorithim encouraged creators to literally attempt to kill themselves. 
  5.  the idea that if something is a healthful environment for one thing, it is necessarily healthful for all things has given us pseudoscientific dumbshit ideas from Avicenna all the way through to Jordan “We Are All Made of Lobsters” Peterson. 
  6.  this is already the longest award granted, and I’m trying to keep this brief, but if anyone reading this hasn’t ever encountered the fluoride conspiracy theorists, gird your loins and jump onto Google because it’s terrific material. 
  7.  interestingly (?), one of the things that the raw water folks are insistent upon is the preponderance of healthy probiotics in their water, and the touters of probiotics have also themselves come under some scrutiny for not being the panacea that they were sold as being. PS: there is no such thing as a panacea. There are no one-stop solutions. 
  8.  which wasn’t specifically targeted at “millenials”, and also which I’m embarrassed by how much it appeals to me. 
  9.  which held onto this spot for much longer than it would have in other years for also being one of the first things shouted down as cultural appropriation became something people were more vocal about not liking in 2018. 
  10.  NB I am at the early end of “millennial,” having been born in 1983.  
  11.  although she’s going to make a public appearance at CSC, a comics convention, so she probably won’t remain so for much longer. 
  12.  and, famously, not including Ivan Brunetti, who was justifiably not hired – his Nancy was, even by his own admission, not the best use of his talents, which are otherwise entirely worth seeking out. 
  13. GoComics is weird to navigate, but here you can see some of Gilchrist’s…uh….work, and here you can see not only Jaimes’s, but also the comments, where you can see some real yelling-at-clouds shit, even as late as July (where that second Jaimes link is from) 
  14.  that “something” was almost certainly set to include Black Panther 
  15.  because it would have been elevating something that was less-visible, and also because it would have been celebrating the kind of brainy smart people film that folks like the receive credit for liking. 
  16.  I’m fudging the dates on its inclusion, because the speech itself didn’t become public until November, which was within the eligibility period. 
  17.  as was declared rightfully so. 
  18.  I have never been anything but open and honest about the fact that I thought the pre-Puppies Hugos were dumb, the Puppies themselves were dumb, and that the post-Puppies Hugos are a step in the right direction, and that having that editorial position is way better for me as a reader. 

Who the Fuck Listens to This: Third Eye Blind

Pity the once-popular band that is still alive and shambling around 1. Years and years past the time when they were selling records and were a going concern, now stuck in a position of wanting to continue to do the thing that impelled them to start a band in the first place – i.e. write and perform songs for an audience – and stuck in a place where they have to figure out how to do that while also pleasing the people that want to hear them play, say, “Jumper”. This is the situation that the current incarnation of Third Eye Blind find themselves in, and it 2 is what leads them to record a covers EP, Thanks for Everything, which is what we find ourselves confronted with today.

Muddling that position is the fact that Third Eye Blind, the band itself, is currently a band containing one original member – singer and notorious blowhard Stephen Jenkins 3, while a version of the band, XEB, containing multiple original members 4, is out there playing the hits that people would be compelled to want to hear. I suppose there’s some calculus in the minds of the Third Eye Blind fan (?) to decide whether to go hear the songs they’re going to enjoy, or to watch some hired guns play new songs by the guy that wrote roughly 50% of the old songs.

The new material, then, appears to also be something of a mess. Like a lot of bands that depend on the record-selling industry’s support (such as it is), Third Eye Blind decided to go the “frequent shorter release” route in 2012. They released an EP, then announced a second one, Summer Gods, which sort of came out – they released an EP called Summer Gods that was not an album of new material, but instead of live versions of songs, most of which were hits from the before times, when Third Eye Blind had hits. One can assume, given this ambivalent-seeming interview in which Jenkins says his plan is to eventually release a full-length album comprised of songs from the EPs, that this was not the actual plan – unless he planned to release an album of half original songs and half live versions of songs everybody already knew 5. It would appear, to the casual observer, that the band is spinning its wheels. Jenkins even basically admitted as much, stating that “[t]he idea with this EP was to amplify some of that music and art, and in doing so, catch inspiration for our next album”. Sounds like a plan.

In the band’s defense, recording an album full of covers is a classic wheels-spinning move. The Rolling Stones were just praised to the rafters for doing it. Metallica did it and it revealed that they needed to fire their bass player 6. Rage Against the Machine did it to delay breaking up. But hey, it kind of worked for Slayer 7 and the aforefootnoted Tori Amos 8

It has, at least, drummed up more press for the band than anything else they’ve done in awhile – I was previously unaware of the whole “recording only EPs thing,” or anything about their continued existence. I suppose I was dimly aware that they were still out there, but I hadn’t considered them. Jenkins has filled the press with quotes about how much he likes this version of the band, and how intergenerational the audiences at Third Eye Blind shows are 9. Nevertheless, the whole project has a sort of “trying to get out of this box” quality that makes it seem more put-on than it maybe is.

The assemblage of songs – seven in all – is a white elephant sale of cover versions. Power-pop journeymen Happy Diving and sort-of-big indie band Chastity Belt make a little bit of sense, I suppose. Covering Babyshambles (the least-good of Pete Doherty’s bands) is always a publicity move, since there isn’t, y’know, anything going on in any of their songs 10. Tim Buckley and Bon Iver are the “respectability” bids, and Santigold and Queens of the Stone Age the “cool” bids 11. It’s hard to tell who is being communicated to, and what the communication is, other than “we are a band that likes popular songs and can learn to play them.”

The surprising end result of listening to them steamroll their way through the songs I was familiar with 12 was a sort of fugue state, where I thought about what “songcraft” is and what it means to be a rock band. That probably seemed loftier than it was, but I actually thought that a professional, relatively well-played cover band is not a terrible thing to be, and wouldn’t be a terrible thing for Third Eye Blind to be. It might even be easier than whatever it is they’re trying to revive here – it seems like it’s easier to learn a bunch of cover songs and use them to fill the set in between, y’know, “Jumper” and “Never Let You Go” or whatever. Obviously I have no business or artistic concern with Third Eye Blind, and am more than happy to let every band do what it is that they do, without it having anything to do with me. Preferable, really: it’s the only way to be surprised or have any kind of genuine moment of communication. Nevertheless, I think there is nothing dishonorable about deciding to perform other peoples’ songs, and that they would be well served by considering it more often 13.

So, in its way, it’s probably the Third Eye Blind that I found most interesting, and most genuine: even if they’re just trying to give the people what they want, they’re doing so by interpreting other people’s’ songs, and somehow managing to make them all sound their own thing 14even if that “thing” is utterly free of nuance or anything that would mark it as distinct – it’s like someone turned seven really interesting dishes into seven soups – it’s not that there’s anything wrong with soup, as such, it’s that soup is hard to make distinctive under most conditions, and none of these things were actually soup to begin with.

And so we come back to the question: who the fuck listens to this? Leaving aside the obvious evergreen answers (Stans, trufans, whatever you want to call them)? It raises its own kind of curiosity, so maybe that would be enough to answer the question. But as with a bunch of these things, the question then is: who the fuck listens to this twice? I can’t imagine that question has an answer.


  1.  in some form, see below. 
  2.  in addition to some other factors, see below again. 
  3.  to his (or the band’s) credit, he is also the only distinctive element of the band, as, as far as I can tell, no instrumentalist has ever played even a single distinctive note, but Jenkins’s voice is at least somewhat-memorable. Or recognizable, at least. 
  4.  formed, dizzyingly, as a result of Kevin Cadogan, the band’s original guitar player and the leader of XEB, having been ousted from Third Eye Blind, Inc. because of a record deal that left Stephen Jenkins with sole control of the band.  
  5.  a thing that almost kind of worked when Tori Amos did it on To Venus and Back 
  6.  The efficacy of this move is, of course, a matter of some argument 
  7.  I mean, Diabolus in Musica is the one right after Undisputed Aggression, but the album after that is God Hates Us All, and that’s a pretty effective comeback right there. 
  8.  which actually tells me that Slayer might be the magic ingredient, as Strange Little Girls contains a cover of “Raining Blood”. 
  9.  Although in the AZ Central link, above, he also states that their audience includes “a whole generation of millennials and even Gen Zs”, which is….not that large a range. 
  10.  Jenkins explained it to Consequence of Sound by saying  “There’s a raised fist in this song and that’s what we need right now.” Which, I mean, I guess so? But not really. It’s not as much of a “raised fist” as it is a “Can of lighter fluid doused all over oneself, and a struck match.” 
  11. twenty years ago, one of these would have been replaced by an “ironic” song, and it came as a small relief to me that none of these really qualified. At least the world has moved forward in this one small way. 
  12.  Tim Buckley’s “Song of the Siren,” Queens of the Stone Age’s “In the Fade,” and Santigold’s “Not Our Parade” are songs that I knew outright. Babyshambles’ “Fuck Forever” and Bon Iver’s “Blood Bank” are songs I recognized from hearing them incidentally. I did not really know Chastity Belt’s “Joke” or Happy Diving’s “10” well, although I listened to them again to compare them for this, because I do research, people.  
  13. it brings to mind Beach Slang, who are known for playing an almost-absurd number of cover songs in their live sets, which are great. 
  14. including the extraordinarily ill-advised decision to perform “In the Fade” as a weird pop-funk reggae-lite bit of business that suits neither the band nor the song.