A Considered Look at Every Inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Part 7

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a place that I find, as an institution, vexing. The actual, physical hall of fame – the pyramidal building on the lake in Cleveland – is pretty cool, but it is spoken and thought of often as an intangible – as a sort of arbitrating body on the worthiness of the body of rock musicians. My thought, for many years upon surveying lists 1 and the like was to think that they have about a fifty percent success rate for getting it anything like right.

But what if it doesn’t? Previously I listened to and considered each of the best-selling albums of all time, and learned that they were considerably more of a mixed bag than I had thought 2. So what if the inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are the same sort of deal?

And so it’s time to dive in and take a look at what the nominees and their enshrinement actually are.

Click the links for Part 1,Part 2,  Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 and Part 6 of this series.

Class of 1996

David Bowie

WHO HE IS: Ziggy Stardust himself. Aladdin Sane himself. The ol’ Diamond Dog himself. The Thin White Duke himself. Liable to be the only David Jones in the HOF, unless something major changes.

WHY HE’S HERE: He had a restlessly-pliable artistic approach that led to him being the second person to do a large number of things. Every record he made from 1971 to 1983 basically provided a bedrock influence on a whole bunch of bands 3. He sold a tonne of records, and had an indelible aesthetic presence. He inspired a fanbase that is rabid beyond belief – there are people who are into David Bowie in a way that is almost unmatched by just about anybody. He was also a hell of a singer.

AND…?: I wrestled with my feelings about his music and its legacy in this space when he died, and I don’t have much to add to that, except that his music is largely fine, and also not something I engage with very much.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Inarguably.

Gladys Knight & The Pips

WHO THEY ARE: An extremely long-running soul act (they started in the fifties and had hits through the eighties) comprised mainly of family members. They are not, in fact, named “Pip,” which is something of a disappointment.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: They had a bunch of hits for Motown 4, most notably “Midnight Train to Georgia.” That seems to be one of the magic buttons in terms of getting the HOF voters to agree on your place there. I dunno, man.

AND…?: I like Gladys Knight and the Pips, but I don’t know what specific thing made them deserve a place here. I can’t think of any specific influence they would have had, and while they did have a bunch of hits, only a couple of them are enduring in any real sense. It’s a mystery.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Probably not, unfortunately.

Jefferson Airplane

WHO THEY ARE: A bunch of San Francisco folks who played Woodstock. Best known for “White Rabbit.”

WHY THEY’RE HERE: Because people can’t give up on a band that played Woodstock, I guess? Because there’s no floor on how few good songs a band can have and still be here? Jefferson Airplane’s major contribution to the world of rock music is codifying the template of “wailing big-voiced woman fronts otherwise-nonspectacular band” that you can still find on the charts today 5, but even that is just formalizing the Janis Joplin approach 6. The band also earns serious demerits for everything they did after they changed their name.

AND…?: They recorded an enduring pro-drug anthem, but other than that they were about as psychedelic as a glass of warm milk. They have high points, but not very many of them, and they aren’t very high. Their best song (the aforementioned “White Rabbit”) draws the “Lewis Carroll = drugs” connection that would provide pop culture and Hot Topic with some of their most irritating features for a long time. That’s not their fault as such, but it still colors the experience of evaluating them.

 

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: No

 

Little Willie John

WHO HE IS: A fifties R&B dude.

 

WHY HE’S HERE: He’s definitely another early-adopter of the major-asshole-drink-and-scream school of being a famous singer person. He recorded the first hit version of the song “Fever”, which has the distinction of being a song that I’m pretty sure I like every version of (including his). He was a good singer that had hits and stuff. I don’t know, guys.

 

AND…?: Again, he had nothing to do with rock music, except for providing a shitty behavior template and dying young, a thing a bunch of rock people would go on to do. But a bunch of non-rock people do that as well, so it’s not really a thing. He was fine, but we are clearly running out of major R&B figures.

 

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Not really.

 

Pink Floyd

WHO THEY ARE: Earth’s finest psychedelic band. Fight me.

 

WHY THEY’RE HERE: They were unbelievably enormous, which is pretty impressive given that even their unbelievably enormous records were weird as hell. They created the musical style that would morph into prog-rock, and then made better prog rock records than anybody else. They managed to survive their primary songwriting partnership consisting of the two biggest assholes in the world. They became the band’s primary songwriting partnership after their initial songwriter, who was the poster-child for an acid-casualty flake, wandered off, metaphorically speaking. Their sonic influence was multifaceted – you can go out right now and find a band that sounds more-or-less exactly like Syd-era Pink Floyd without even looking so hard, even if you live somewhere without much of a rock music presence. Their later, huger albums commit the sin of making it seem like a viable approach to slave over every single sound on the record and make crazy-ass piecemeal records that do not contain any actual band playing on them seem like a good idea 7. They made a great rock opera, a thing that has only been managed a bare handful of times since then.

AND…?: Obviously I love Pink Floyd more than is seemly, or more than is cool, or more than is even explicable. Their association with prog rock kept them out of the HOF for their first few years of eligibility, which is more evidence that the people in charge of this building have no idea what they’re doing.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes

The Shirelles

WHO THEY WERE: Another in the ceaseless parade of vocal groups to be inaccurately called “rock and roll” for the sake of their induction here.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: Because somebody involved had a real hard-on for vocal groups.

AND…?: They sounded great, and some of those records are delightful. “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” is about as good as this stuff gets.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Not really.

The Velvet Underground

WHO THEY WERE: The apotheosis of a cult band. The band about whom Brian Eno famoustly said that their first album “only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”

WHY THEY’RE HERE: They existed almost entirely outside the mainstream for their actual existence. The fact that “Sweet Jane” has become something of a classic-rock standard 8 is more about how well they held up as both a subject for rock and roll discourse and as a thing that existed. They made phenomenal records that age extremely well. Lou Reed would go on to be an institution (and John Cale somewhat less so, unjustifiably). A million bands sound just like them, a few million more take superficial aspects of their music, and a whole bunch of great bands were inspired to be as weird and acommerical as they could be just because VU showed the way. If they also provided one of the bedrock influences for punk rock along the way (as Legs McNeil would have it), then hell, that’s the cherry on top.

AND…?: I have said before, and will continue to say, that the Velvet Underground, and especially their first two records, are literally impossible to overrate. There is no positive thing you can say about them that isn’t as true when taken to an extreme as it is when spoken of passively. I came around eventually the latter half of their studio discography, but I like it more every time I listen to it. They were an incredible thing that existed on Earth, and they should be praised and rendered immortal as a result.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes.

Pete Seeger

WHO HE IS: The greatest folk singer that ever lived 9. He wrote “If I Had a Hammer”, “Turn! Turn! Turn” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, among others.

WHY HE’S HERE: He wrote some real-deal major folk standards. He provided the definitive version of a couple more 10. He was an outspoken activist, and provided an excellent template for how to be as a popular musician. He had a great voice besides all that, as well. He’s inducted as an early influence, which is cool, but I must also point out that his recording career started at the same time as the Pips’, who are inducted as performers, and none of this makes any damn sense.

AND…?: I’m all-in for Pete Seeger, man.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes

Tom Donahue

WHO HE IS: The DJ that helped launch FM radio, and thus a lot of the conventional audience/beliefs about rock music 11.

WHY HE’S HERE: Basically just that. He was important to the rise of FM radio, which has also proven to be surprisingly slow to die.

AND…?: I dunno. Seems like it’s fine. If you’re going to let DJs in, he oughta be one of them.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure

Class of 1997

Bee Gees

WHO THEY ARE: At this point they’re more-or-less synonymous with disco, even though they weren’t as good as Chic.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: There are a handful of disco acts in the RRHOF, which is either a weird contrarian leaning 12, or some kind of need to be “completists”, despite the fact that the HOF is for a specific non-disco genre. For whatever reason, they’re including disco 13, and the Bee Gees seem like a reasonable place to start there.

AND…?: I have nothing in particular to say about the Bee Gees. I don’t like them. I think it’s funny that they broke up in 1968, reformed a couple of years later and spent a decade turning into a completely different band and then got famous. That’s always a weird trajectory, and it’s probably the most entertaining thing about them.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: I don’t think so, no.

Buffalo Springfield

WHO THEY ARE: A Canadian folk-rock band from the sixties. You probably know “For What It’s Worth,” and if you don’t I’m jealous of you because I wish I didn’t.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: Because Stephen Stills and Neil Young were there, and they’re RRHOF royalty. Their popularity was significant, and I guess they were a fine-enough example of a form (folk rock) that had already been done better by a bunch of people when they were doing it, but those other bands didn’t have Stephen Stills and Neil Young in them.

AND…?: They were a band I don’t like that still contained Neil Young. That takes some doing.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: No

Crosby, Stills & Nash

WHO THEY ARE: An American (Stills moved south, see) folk-rock band from the sixties.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: Stephen Stills is largely RRHOF royalty because of his role in this band, who were much better. They played Woodstock, which seems to be a sort of “automatic inclusion,” but as far as folk-rock goes they were about as good as it gets. They’re praised universally for their harmonies, which were indeed spectacular. They were enormously influential, hugely popular and generally existed at the same level of quality the whole time.

AND…?: They were better with Neil Young, but even though none of their music is anything I find myself ever desiring to listen to, I can respect that they were out there doing it I suppose.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes

The Jackson 5

WHO THEY ARE: The act that launched Tito Jackson.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: They were the most popular act on Motown. Michael Jackson is quite possibly the biggest pop star to ever exist. Being on Motown helps, as does them being the bridge between classic-style R&B and disco (see above). They sold more records than I can fathom, and everyone that performed music in their basic mien sounded like them for years.

AND…?: Some of their singles (especially “I Want You Back,” but there are a handful of others) are absolutely bulletproof. What’s amazing to me is how well they performed as a group, and how even though Michael was clearly the star, they still all made their own contributions significantly. I guess being relentlessly sculpted/stage-managed by a total psycho will do that.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure.

Joni Mitchell

WHO SHE IS: Of all the California folkies, she’s the most impressive. Even though she’s also Canadian. I guess I strap the “Californian” label to people at my own discretion?

WHY SHE’S HERE: Her influence on people is absolutely incalculable 14. She was plenty popular, and continues to be among the sort of people that have always liked her. She is a genuinely phenomenal guitar player, and she had an even better voice. She also knew exactly when to quit, and has a remarkably high quality-control level.

AND…?: I mean, I don’t really ever listen to it, and when I do it doesn’t really connect up, but I’m glad she existed, and I like absolutely everything about her except for her actual records.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes

Parliament-Funkadelic

WHO THEY ARE: Sort of the prototypal funk band. The fact that it’s actually the amalgamation of two different funk bands seems beside the point – they did a lot as Parliament-Funkadelic, but all of their best material was as one or the other. I suppose it was easier to get them in in their monolithic single-band form. Weirdly they also didn’t really appear as a single fused unit until 1980, which is not 25 years from 1996, so clearly they’re being inducted on the strength of their separate material anyway.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: We’re at the point where they’re also letting disco in, which grew directly out of the family of musics performed most effectively by Parliament-Funkadelic, so it seems like it should have been time to do this. They were occasionally genuinely great 15, and they definitely had more direct influence than any funk act short of James Brown, who invented the stuff, and maybe Prince (who gave their induction speech). As Funkadelic they were more of a rock band than any other funk band, and “Maggot Brain” is sort of funk-rock’s defining masterpiece. They were decidedly weird, made a bunch of great records, and if they spent too long coasting on their own reputation, well, that’s a human impulse it’s got to be hard to avoid.

AND…?: I like Parliament-Funkadelic, especially as Funkadelic. It’s also worth griping, while I’m filling this write-up with gripes, that only the Famous Flames were inducted as James Brown’s band, and not the JBs, which means that Bootsy Collins is only in there once, despite being an enormously gifted and influential bassist.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes

The (Young) Rascals

WHO THEY ARE: Very near the bottom of the barrel for the fifties rock and roll guys, although by no means the worst.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: They were pretty important to the field of blue-eyed soul. Rod Stewart was inducted a couple of years before them, as was Bruce Springsteen, but that’s kind of the idea. I suppose by influencing those two heavily they made their mark, and they had hits and stuff, so they would probably get a pass.

AND…?: They’re fine. I’m baffled that they got nominated in 1997, and not before then, and I’m even more baffled that they got in before Gene Vincent (whose induction is in 1998, and is therefore a part of the next installment).

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED:  Sure, why not.

Mahalia Jackson

WHO SHE IS: The Queen of Gospel. I’ll never stop being happy that there are so many of these folks with easy-to-grab nicknames.

WHY SHE’S HERE: She was an undeniable influence on nearly everyone that sang soul music after her, especially the women.

AND…?: I mean, sure. As early influences go as established by previous inductions, she’s a lock.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes

Bill Monroe

WHO HE IS: The Father of Bluegrass. (See what I mean about the nicknames?)

WHY HE’S HERE: The RRHOF sort of gets this one right in an ass-backward way. I would imagine 16 that he’s here because he had a big day in the sixties, when the folk revival was happening, and when many of the inductees of this year were coming around. But “Hillbilly” music really is an elemental source of a lot of the roots of rock and roll, and Bill Monroe was a big part of that.

AND..?: Oh, he was great.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Absolutely

Syd Nathan

WHO HE IS: A noble midwesterner! He founded King records.

WHY HE’S HERE: He gets credit for starting the label that James Brown first recorded for (actually Federal, a subsidiary of King). He loses all sorts of points for being an utter lunatic, and for hating Brown’s music, only keeping it going because it sold. So it goes.

AND…?: There’s plenty of record label people in here already. I get this dude was famous and there are a lot of good stories about him, but that only goes so far.

 

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: No.


  1.  also the centerpiece of the museum itself, for those that have never been there, is a very long video encapsulating each inducted class, with clips of performances by most of them and things like that, and is generally a pretty cool thing to behold. 
  2.  although they did, as you can read here and going back from there, skew toward “pretty bad”
     
  3.  The covers album Pin-Ups is an atrocity, and nobody wants to sound like that, although I suppose given the amount of bands that are weird glam-bands playing at being psychedelia that existed (and continue to exist), even that record is not without its followers, even if unintentionally. 
  4.  interestingly, they signed to Motown in 1966, after existing for fifteen years prior. This is pretty incredible. 
  5.  there was a new Florence and Machine record, like, a month ago or whatever, you know? 
  6.  or rather the approach of marketing Janis Joplin 
  7.  they prefigured a lot of the dumb, overworked “in the box” rock recordings that are now frightfully common, but they did it before computers by having stupidly huge budgets and a slavish devotion to making their music sound as sterile and un-human as possible. This is, ordinarily, the sort of thing I complain about grumpily. On paper I should not like their enormous records, but the alchemy of the dudes in the band is such that I do, in fact, like them. 
  8.  not to mention that the death of radio as a driving-force for music discovery has sort of retroactively made hits out of “Rock and Roll” and “Heroin,” and maybe “All Tomorrow’s Parties”. 
  9.  turns out the RRHOF class of 1996 is real heavy on things I am over-the-top enthusiastic about. 
  10.  I like Lead Belly fine, but Seeger’s version of “Goodnight Irene” beats it in a walk. 
  11.  I think I’ve talked about this elsewhere here, but the idea is that the rise of FM radio also led to the album-centrism of rock sorts of attitude, among other things. 
  12.  the crowd for the HOF being, naturally, the currently-extant extension of the same set of people that used to hold record burnings for disco records. 
  13.  it’s probably the cousin of the reason they would begin including hip-hop a few years later. 
  14.  Recently Collin Newman, currently as half of Immersion, and ultimately as 25% of Wire, one of the greatest rock bands ever to exist in the history of ever, did a survey of his favorite records for The Quietus, and pointed out that “everyone who does [this interview where a musician chooses their favorite records for The Quietus] chooses Joni Mitchell.” That’s a long reach. 
  15.  pace the “two different bands” thing, above. 
  16.  but of course this is conjecture, because the actual process for nomination and induction is as opaque as it can be. 

The 2017 Shirley Jackson Awards

My name is February Makeup. I am thirty-four years old, and I live with a number of other mammals and rather a lot of computers. I have often thought with any luck at all I could have been born a much smaller person, because there is nothing particularly noteworthy about my hands that would betray, say, werewolfdom or anything else other than my size, but I have had to be content with what I have. I dislike washing dishes, and dogs, and I love all kinds of noise. I like almost no one (but have never met Constance or Richard Plantagenet), and I am indifferent to Amanita phalloides, the death-cap mushroom. Many of my family members are, in fact, not dead.

True story: Shirley Jackson is among my top-flight absolute-favorite authors ever to live on this island Earth. So it makes me happy that, for the last almost-dozen years, there have been awards given to horror and weird fiction in her honor. The (rather short) list of people who have won Shirley Jackson awards already reads like a who’s who among the sort of writer that I spend my free time with, and thus it comes to be inevitable that I shall evaluate the books hereto nominated.

The awards themselves are aimed at recognizing “outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror and the dark fantastic”, which provides the double-boon of not only being a pretty clear set of nomination criteria 1, but a set of nomination criteria that pitches the stories themselves pretty clearly into my wheelhouse 2.

And then, of course, there’s the serendipitous timing of the awards: the Hugos are a month away, the Nebulas were a couple of months ago, the World Fantasy Award nominations are still being tabulated, so I not only enjoyed this one, but I had time to read everything I hadn’t read already 3. So I’m ready for it, is what I’m saying, and I’m ready to shepherd you all through, into the dark and disturbed waters of the Shirley Jackson awards.

Edited Anthology

This category was something of a difficult one to evaluate. A mixed anthology is never the easiest thing to judge the quality of – some of these are grouped by subject matter, some by theme, and in any event nothing is going to be for everyone, and any assemblage of this kind of thing requires some pretty serious gear-shifting, no matter how capably the stories are grouped 4. This kind of fiction (the kind nominated for Shirley Jackson awards) really lives in its short stories, so I felt it was important to give each story as much of its due as possible, but it was sometimes quite difficult to get things separated enough that they didn’t just smear into each other. This may be my problem, and not even a problem for anyone else. I have no idea.

The Djinn Falls in Love, edited by Mahvash Murad and Jared Shurin, was probably the hardest of these for me to get through. I don’t read enough stories about djinn out in the wild for me to know if the difficulty is that the subject matter lends itself to the kind of material I’d sooner avoid, or if the editors themselves are into that kind of story. I’m inclined toward the former, given primarily that Claire North and Nnedi Okarafor, writers that I’m ordinarily over the moon about, failed to impress me with this one (although neither story was bad). The book wasn’t without its charms however. KJ Parker’s “Message in a Bottle” recasts a genie as an evil science monk, and it’s possible that his story ends in the end of the world, which I’m always a big fan of. Catherina Faris King’s “The Queen of Sheba” was a sort of “secret family history” story that worked pretty well. Saad Z. Hossain wrote a great story about a genie that helps start a floating restaurant for the disenfranchised, which also manages to refer to the djinn doing what the djinn does as “djinnjitsu,” which is just great. Maria Dahvana Headley’s “Black Powder” was the head-and-shoulders standout, about wishes and guns, with the idea of the “djinn” taking several different forms throughout. I was glad to read the collection for “Black Powder,” if nothing else. Oh, and there’s an extract from American Gods in it (the bit about the Djinn, as one could assume). American Gods is still great. It’s probably my favorite novel, in fact.

Black Feathers is one where I can be assured that I just don’t have much deep-seated feeling for stories about birds, since I’m more familiar with the editorial work of Ellen Datlow than Mahvash Murad and Jared Shurin, but also there are always a bunch of stories in Datlow-edited anthologies that I bounce off of entirely, and this was no different 5. Seanan McGuire’s “The Mathematical Inevitability of Corvids” is the standout of the pack – it’s brutal and affecting in the best possible ways, and concerns a non-neurotypical young lady and a certain Scandinavian counting charm. Priya Sharma’s “The Crow Palace” is an exceptional story that is also paced really well – the setup part of the beginning slides, avalanche-style into the supernatural part at the end, and it’s really compelling as a result. Nicholas Royle’s “The Obscure Bird” is brief and hard to describe without giving it away, but I liked it a lot, and owls are pretty good birds for all that. Pat Cadigan’s “A Little Bird Told Me” is a little story about a big afterlife bureaucracy, and the people trying to help folks navigate through it, and the role of psychopomps in the whole thing. Obviously the book wasn’t without its high points, but it didn’t have quite enough of them.

The Talking Board, edited by Ross E. Lockhart, was the book that I was the most surprised by. Not because it was particularly good (it’s fine, on the whole), but because it does indeed manage to mine fertile creative material out of Ouija boards. There’s a pretty cool piece of historical fantasy in the form of Anya Martin’s “Weejee, Weejee, Tell Me Do”, about nightclub singers. S.P. Miskowski’s “Pins” is a brief, moving story about the difficulties of psychic powers. Nadia Bulkin’s “May You Live in Interesting Times” is an effective story about not moving on from the dead, and about people’s reactions to actual magic. The Talking Board really excelled when it was playing to the cheap seats, though. Scott R. Jones’s “Worse Than Demons” concerns a Jehovah’s Witness who finds out the worst news possible through a talking board. Matthew B. Bartlett’s “Deep Into the Skin” concerns a tattoo artist who finds himself roped into a particularly horrifying bit of business. David James Keaton’s satisfyingly nasty “Spin the Throttle” is about a party on the back of a firetruck that probably should have been shut down a long time ago. All told, this one was wildly uneven, but occasionally very entertaining.

Michael Kelly saw the seventh installment of his Shadows and Tall Trees series nominated 6, and it remains the case that, to be frank, Michael Kelly and I do not value the same things, story-wise. It’s not bad (none of them are bad), but the things that are good about it are not necessarily things to which I respond particularly. Robert Shearman is always great, and his “The Swimming Pool Party” is as weird and scary as one could want. Mary Rickert’s “Everything Beautiful is Terrifying” is, itself, equal parts beautiful and terrifying, and concerns a woman whose best friend died when they were young, and  is haunted. Rebecca Kuder’s “Curb Day” is the best story in the collection 7, and is in the sort of “paranoid and harrowing” lane that many of my favorite things occupy, about a lady who has to get rid of a bunch of things for the unknowable benefit of some unknowable group. It’s a truly incredible piece of work.

Looming Low, edited by Justin Steele & Sam Cowan, manges to have the most hits, if not precisely the highest hit-to-miss ratio 8, of any book here. Kurt Fawver’s “The Concavity of Our Youth,” Nadia Bulkin’s “Live Through This” and Brian Evenson’s “The Second Door” were all nominated independently in the short story category, so you’ll read more about them in a minute. A.C. Wise’s “The Stories We Tell Ourselves About Ghosts” is a straight-up ghost yarn, with some decidedly modernized touches, and is wonderful for it. Betty Rocksteady’s “The Dusk Urchin” is perhaps the outright scariest of the stories here, about a little girl who can really ruin one’s traditional expectations. If it isn’t the scariest, then that would be Sunny Moraine’s “We Grope Together and Avoid Speech”, which is about mouths, and manages to make an enormous psychological impact in its very brief time across the eyes. Lisa L. Hannett’s “Outside a Drifter” is a strange, wistful story that also manages to be full-on body horror, but not in a way that disgusts, just makes one kind of sad. Kirsti DeMeester’s “The Small Deaths of Skin and Plastic” is about a woman who gives birth a lot, and is weird and ambiguous and unsettling. Christopher Slatsky’s “SPARAGMOS” is about dementia 9, and also about a weird shadowy group that is doing something weird and shadowy in the background (obviously this is the easy path to a successful goal-scoring with me). Michael Griffin’s “The Sound of Black Dissects the Sun” is the longest piece in the collection, and once it settles down past its name-dropping instincts manages to hit a groove as a deeply unsettling story about a piece of music that is so compelling that it seems like it might actually change reality, where it comes from, and where it goes. All told, I’m happy to have read Looming Low Volume 1, and look forward tremendously to volume 2.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Looming Low, Volume 1

Single-Author Collection

There are some tremendous heavy hitters here nominated. Nadia Bulkin is something of the current avatar of the Shirley Jackson awards, having won several of them, and nominated here not only for her collection She Said Destroy, but also appearing in a couple of the other collections 10. She Said Destroy is a uniformly-satisfying bit of writing, with a number of exceptional stories, especially “The Five Stages of Grief,” about a world where the dead don’t actually depart, “The Warren”, which actually also concerns the dead not staying dead as such, and “No Gods No Monsters,” about the price a family pays for their place in the world, among other things, which is also a story that I would happily have read several hundred pages of. “Only Unity Saves the Damned”, “Girl I Love You” and “Red Goat Black Goat” were also fantastic stories, and I really enjoyed “Seven Minutes in Heaven” when it was part of Aickman’s Heirs as well. All told, she’s doing wonderful work and it’ll be exciting to see more of it – she certainly seems to be prolific enough to keep us all satisfied.

Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties was not always my bag – she writes a lot of erotica-tinged pieces, and this will never be something I have an easy time responding to 11. That said, that’s a me problem, and many of the stories are more than enough to overcome my own prudish weirdness. “Eight Bites” is about bodies in a completely different way, and is just gorgeous. “Real Women Have Bodies” runs along similar lines 12, and contains probably the best single line I read for the entire kit and kaboodle 13. “The Resident” was published recently enough to be considered below, in the short-story collection, but it appears here and is incredible. The real towering achievement, however, remains “Especially Heinous,” an imagistic piece that floored me when it came out a few years ago, and that builds a braided set of helices of narrative out of the titles (and general cultural space) of Law & Order: SVU episodes. It says a whole lot about people, and the way we interact with that kind of story, and what that kind of story actually is in a way that is just impossible to not stop and gawp at for awhile. Her Body and Other Parties should be nominated for all sorts of things on its back, and this would be the case even if the other stories were no good at all.

Samantha Hunt’s The Dark Dark is a pretty good collection of fantastical literary weirdness. A lot of it feels paranoid and in extreme close-up, as it is largely full of characters with no air to breathe and no way to open up the space around them, literally or metaphorically. “The Story Of” and “The Story Of Of” [sic] bookend the collection with two very different stories about a very particular set of events 14. “The House Began to Pitch” (about a hurricane and a woman’s relationship history, broadly), “Beast” (about a weredeer, broadly) and “A Love Story” (a highly-visual story about bodies and relationships between people with bodies, broadly) are all pretty good weird-type lit-adjacent horror fiction 15. All told, The Dark Dark is a fine collection.

It really came down, in the end, to two of the books here. Chavisa Woods’s Things to do When You’re Goth in the Country is a phenomenal piece of work, and she balances the literary and the horrifying tremendously well. Her particular take on being bored and rural and out-of-place is revelatory in the completeness of her depiction of that particular emotional state. It moves from hyper-realistic to completely contra-natural. The title story (a piece of presumably at least semi-autobiographical portraiture, as well as a handy how-to, as the title implies) and the heartbreaking “Zombie” 16 are more-or-less devoid of actual supernatural elements. The long and devastating “What’s Happening on the News” is more-or-less entirely real, although it’s suffused with a narrative quality that makes it seem like there could be something extranatural going on 17. The elsewhere-nominated “Take the Way Home That Leads Past Sullivan Street” (see below) is ambiguously supernatural (spoiler alert) and is also probably the best piece of fiction that I read for these here awards that also has a really graphic sex scene in it. “A New Mohawk” is a fantastic, absurdist piece of humanist magical realism, that manages to be weird and non-real without sacrificing the gravity of its subject matter. All told, it’s a fantastic piece of work that probably deserves the award, and a bunch of other awards besides (to this point, Woods is not exactly lacking in accolades – the book is fantastic).

I think the best of them, however, is Camilla Grudova’s The Doll’s Alphabet. This collection, despite being the slimmest of the ones involved, has everything. It’s weird, it’s scary, it’s funny (sometimes all at once), it manages to be thought-provoking at pretty much every turn. The stories themselves, to a one, contain only and exactly as much information as you’d want for the story to be effective, and I don’t think there’s a wasted word in the whole thing. The title story is nothing more than a couple of sentences, for example. The best story in the collection, “Waxy,” about a world where gender relations are hopelessly skewed in a way that benefits no one and seems as dire and post-apocalyptic as anything I’ve ever read, is a previous Shirley Jackson Award winner. “The Mouse Queen” is here nominated as on its own as well. “The Sad Tale of the Sconce” is a touching shaggy-dog story (it does exactly what it says on the tin). “Hungarian Sprats” is wildly effective horror-comedy. “The Gothic Society” (about a guerilla art group) and “Please Do Not Pamper the Dead” (about a guy who…well….dies) are stories about people continuing to be people even as the world they’re in is brutally unrecognizable 18. “Rhinoceros” is a story about perseverance in a world that has moved on, and “Agata’s Machine” is about a person failing to move on in a world. The final piece, the incredible “Notes From a Spider” is light body horror 19 and a moving story about weirdness in which the weirdness is the action of the story, not necessarily its focus. There’s also a really interesting recurrence of sewing machines, which contributes to an effect where even though none of the stories are specifically related to each other, they all kind of build upon one another, and the effect of every story washing over the reader one after the other is immense.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Camilla Grudova, “The Doll’s Alphabet”

Short Stories

All of these stories but one appear in collections that are elsewhere-nominated, which strikes me as worth noting, but probably is just about par for the course, when I think about it. Anyway. Carmen Maria Machado’s “Blur” is actually my favorite of the stories that I read from her this year that were at this length 20. Also, as someone whose vision is just terrible 21, I appreciate getting to think about what it would be like if my vision were replaced with visions. NB that this may, in fact, be exactly the wrong thing to take away from this story.

“The Mouse Queen” is, as one could guess from my previous gushing about Camilla Grudova, pretty great. Perhaps unexpectedly, then, it’s also the story that has the closest thing in the book to pacing problems, the thing that I just said a couple of hundred words ago was one of Grudova’s strengths as a writer. What it nearly lacks in that department it more than makes up for in being genuinely creepy. It’s also the most “straightforward” story in the book – it’s giving too much away to say what happens, but suffice it to say it’s considerably more visceral than any other story in the book 22

Brian Evenson’s “The Second Door” is a brief, punchy screamer – it gets in, builds up a healthy sense of dread, then gets out. It deserves praise for its genuinely bizarre setting, and for Evenson’s confidence in the strength of his storytelling and his premise, and not trying to do anything particularly showy with it.

Kurt Fawver’s “The Convexity of Our Youth” is an unnerving piece of work, concerning the body-horror effects of a strange orange ball, and the reaction of the citizens of several towns (and one in particular) to said effects. It’s fully unique, and it’s genuinely creepy, but manages to twist everything back around so that you don’t know who to feel worse for in the end.

It’s Nadia Bulkin’s “Live Through This” that I think is the strongest of the nominees here. It’s the story of a young lady who kills herself, and then, through unexplained mechanisms, starts to take her revenge. It manages to encompass a number of thoughts about revenge, about justice and about memory. Bulkin is a remarkably effective conveyor of narratorial emotion, and this story is as angry as they come, and that kind of burning intensity really carries the story all the way through. Even in a year full of excellent Nadia Bulkin stories, this one is truly great.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Nadia Bulkin, “Live Through This”

Novelette

Novelettes seem to be a difficult word-count needle to thread – in other novelette categories, it seems that they’re either too long or too short. This crop largely avoids that, which is comforting, as I had started to think that I’m categorically opposed to something based on nothing more than the number of words it contains, which is a clearly-irrational position that I’m glad to be disabused of. Hurray!

Chavisa Woods’s “Take the Way Home That Leads Past Sullivan Street” is a weird piece of work that manages to use its “crypto-cultish rich people” device to tell a surprisingly moving story about expectations and class relations, and how difficult families are, all fairly obliquely. It’s not necessarily a standout from Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country, but it’s a pretty good story in and of itself.

Laura Maro’s “Sun Dogs” is a touching story about falling in post-apocalyptic love with someone who is, in fact, not what they appear to be. It establishes a lot of world very quickly, and exists very effectively within that world, without making it seem like there’s much more to say about the story in question. It’s very well-told, but kind of slighter than the other work here.

Kahtleen Kayembe’s “You Will Always Have Family: A Triptych” is a shifting-narrator story about supernaturally-affected family and revenge. It’s a nail-biter, and flings itself over the cliff of its narrative style to land at the bottom in a truly surprising ending, with scarcely a break in between 23. It’s a great ride of a story, and I applaud the nonstandard narrative style.

Jeremiah Tolbert’s “The West Topka Triangle” is about a piece of land that may be supernaturally cursed, and centers around the phrase “the nail that sticks up gets the hammer.” It’s built emotionally around the isolation of living in a small town, and of being bullied, using the very real social ostracization of the main character to add friction and texture to the character’s investigation of what is going on in the titular triangle. It’s a wonderful piece of work, generally.

Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Resident” is great. I stated previously that Machado is at her best in her longer pieces, and this is definitely one of them. It’s a bizarre fever dream that takes place in a writer’s residency. It makes an excellent argument about what art is, and contains the best closing lines of anything I’ve read all year. Along the way she ruminates on paranoia, unease and illness. It’s a big swing that largely connects, and the result is an unusually strong piece of work, even for someone who’s a very strong writer as a matter of course.

Novella

Novellas seem to be having a real moment 24, and as someone who’s always enjoyed the word-count 25, I’m pretty chuffed to see so much great work being done. This is the only category that consists solely of works that I would recommend unreservedly to just about anyone – while the other categories are all solid 26, this one is especially good, and extremely-likable, with even the most out-there stuff still being pretty conventionally successful as writing.

James Morrow’s The Asylum of Doctor Caligari is very good, albeit standard James Morrow: it’s funny, it deals with philosophy issues, and it’s probably the only piece of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari fan-fiction I’ll ever read (this last bit is not a feature of “standard James Morrow” stories). There’s a lot of art history in there, and a lot of regular European history, and while it largely avoids the dreaded info-dump there’s still a lot of factoidal narration in there. While I enjoyed this immensely – and was especially impressed and/or touched by the ending – it’s the weakest of the offerings here.

Stephen Graham Jones’s Mapping the Interior starts out very slowly, and lays out its dominoes pretty carefully, only to knock them all down in a surprising, unexpected frenzy at the end. The last domino (to stretch the metaphor) especially contains a pretty potent surprise. It’s a marvelous ghost story set on a reservation, and takes the time – although not so much that it derails the story – to deal with poverty and the socioeconomic realities of its mie. Obviously I’m a sucker for a story well-grounded in rural poverty. It’s got a lot of admirable qualities, but it really does make its bones on its ending, which I am 100% here for.

Lindsay Drager’s The Lost Daughter’s Collective is a beautiful, elliptical story, in which most of the primary action is accomplished sidelong to the actual writing. Bits of it are gorgeous prose poetry, and the language is superb. Even while telling a story that is hinted more than told (although it is pretty directly hinted) it manages to be captivating and make you feel deeply for several of the characters, and think pretty hard about what it means to have or be a daughter. Or at least, it made me, a person who does not have and has never been a daughter, think about what it means to have or be a daughter.

Margaret Killjoy’s The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion takes on one of my particular favorite ways of telling a story. The thing that happens before the action of the book is that a utopian squatters’ collective summons a supernatural force to help protect their city. The book, then, is about the problem with having a supernatural creature around that is no longer tasked with doing the thing they summoned it to do. It’s not particularly challenging (which isn’t a point against it), and it’s a breeze to read. It’s the sort of comfort-food literature that makes me happy there are people out there doing it, and if it isn’t the best of these, it’s definitely, absolutely the most outright enjoyable.

Tade Thompson’s The Murders of Molly Southbourne is a gripping and inventive story about a woman who produces a large number of clones. It’s very good in and of itself, but does lose a little bit of its effect by clearly being the thing that’s there to set up further installments in the series. That said, it’s wonderfully-written, and manages to make its outlandish supernatural premise seem livable and believable. It continues to surprise all the way through, and ends in a place that makes the reader really wonder where it’s going from there, while also providing a reasonably-good ending to the story we just read. It’s a setup novella, but as far as all that goes, it’s an awfully good one.

Samanta Schwelbin’s Fever Dream is an aptly-titled story about the splitting of a soul, and the effect of that on a family. It manages the narrative trick of seeming completely opaque, but much like its titular condition, carrying enough of its own narrative even under the gauzy, blurry language involved 27 to make itself clear. It thoroughly explores the nature of its premise, and Schweblin guides the story through its notes without necessarily making it apparent what she’s doing, but leaving the reader with an absolutely clear picture of what has just happened and why. It’s an astonishing piece of work.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Samanta Schweblin, Fever Dream

Novel

What a fantastic set of novels! I would be more-or-less happy to see any of these win. Well, almost any of these. I’ll get to it in a minute. Earlier I said that this kind of fiction really lives in its short stories, and, well, I still believe that. It turns out, however, that even so, there’ still a lot of excellent work being done in longer forms.

Hye-Young Pyun’s The Hole is probably the one I liked the least of all of them. It’s fine – it’s a tremendously effective story about isolation. It gets a lot of its initial DNA from Stephen King’s Misery, but it manages to more effectively convey its own sense of dread and solitude, and it’s more internally-driven than externally. It abandons its roots, however (wordplay!) when it starts to get seriously weird. Its real issue is that it takes a long time to get its engine running. It may also suffer somewhat in translation 28. It’s definitely good and worth the time if you feel like reading a weird book about obsession and isolation. It’s just not as good as some of the other stuff here.

Dan Chaon’s Ill Will is also about things that are not what they seem. There’s a string of murders, and a psychologist with his own murder-filled past who gets roped into trying to figure them out, while also managing to completely misjudge his relationships with several of his family members. The book is compelling and thrillingly paced, and may in fact be less distracting to people who don’t live in the place the book is set 29, and I was nothing short of awed by the ending, which can easily be the weakest part of this kind of “what is real” horror-mystery type thing. He really stuck the landing, and he did so without compromising how tremendously easy to read and enjoy the whole thing is. He also makes excellent use of typography and page layout, occasionally making really bold narrative-style decisions that all pay off and make the story more dynamic on the page.

David Demchuk’s The Bone Mother is a novel in a series of vignettes, about the end of the time of monsters on Earth, and the forces that seek to exterminate them. It starts out reading like a series of disconnected incidents, and then picks up steam as the plot actually develops. It is tremendously Balkan 30, which is a lot of fun, and, like many of the other stories I’m praising in this space, does a fantastic job of telling its story alongside the portraits of the non-humans he’s writing about. It also made me feel really bad for a bunch of made-up, folkloric non-human creatures, which is always nice. I like a story from the monster’s point of view.

Paul LaFarge’s The Night Ocean is maybe not the best of the novels I read here, but it’s certainly the twistiest. It starts out as one thing, and ends as a completely-different thing entirely. I will say, without spoiling anything here, that there was some objection to this book for awhile due to certain liberties that he took with history 31, he does not actually take those liberties. Anyway, it’s a fantastic book about obsession, and it manages to pull off the trick of being told at at least one layer of remove, and sometimes up to three or four (that is to say, the events of the book do not happen to the people that are narrating them, with a couple of minor exceptions). There’s been a whole lot of Lovecraftiana in the last few years, and this is a clear high point, and manages to be much more Lovecraftian than it would at first appear to be, in a decidedly different way than the average (i.e. there are still things man was not meant to contemplate, but they’re not space squids or giant fish).

The cream of this, and any other crop, though, is probably Victor Lavalle’s The Changeling. It’s hopefully not saying too much that I was genuinely impressed by how straightforward the title is, and how unafraid it was to dive into it supernatural elements, and not try to ambiguate them or make them at all a question. Everything that happens in the novel actually happens, which is the least of its accomplishments as a story, but the most impressive. It also manages to be a thoroughly-modern horror story, incorporating rather than finding ways to discard technology, and the highly-online state of the world as it is. All while also telling a story about the very worst thing that can happen to parents. It’s a phenomenal piece of work, and deserves this and every other award someone can think to give it.

 

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Victor Lavalle, The Changeling


  1.  which is what keeps a lot of the smaller literary awards from occurring here – I don’t know what people are looking for with a lot of them, except for the ones where it’s about country of origin, and by including several genres/sub-genres, they’re making it pretty easy to avoid debates about whether a thing really is in the genre. In a month I’ll write about the Hugo nominations, and there will be some things there that help make the latter point. 
  2.  this contributes the bulk of the rest of the reason why I don’t write about more book awards: aside from the large, vastly-encompassing ones, I just don’t have anything to stand on.  
  3.  compare to, say, the Locus awards which are great and which happen at right about the same time – they were a couple of weeks ago – but for which the nominations are announced, like, six weeks before the actual ceremony, and I simply do not read that fast.  
  4.  I struggle with how to deal with reading this kind of thing comfortably, and have basically landed on reading one story a day from each anthology, which gives me the physical distance of putting the book down – or, y’know, browsing away from the file on my kindle or whatever – to consider and shift gears while I pick up another book. It means that these things take forever to actually finish, and that I’m reading an absurd number of books at once. I suppose I could mimic this experience by closing the book and putting it down and doing a lap around my house or whatever while I’m reading, but that also seems silly. Woe is me, I guess. 
  5.  the book also forced me to confront the fact that I have basically no strong feelings about birds. I don’t know anything about them, I don’t think about them when I’m not being given an immediate pressing reason to do so, they just genuinely do not make up a part of my day. Sometimes I notice them when the starlings around my house seem like they’re about to kamikaze my face, but that’s about it. I do not blame birds for this, I am comfortable admitting this is my problem, but it is, nonetheless, the case that I do not feel anything for birds. 
  6.  I grappled with the sixth for the World Fantasy Awards a couple of years ago. 
  7.  this is the first I’ve heard of her, although I’ve since done some digging. She lives in Ohio and has some other stuff that I absolutely must read, because it is not for nothing that someone wrote a story I liked more than Robert Shearman and Mary Rickert. 
  8.  it has a lot of stories in it, y’all. 
  9.  it is actually the better of two stories that appear sequentially in the collection about dementia, the other being Jeffrey Thomas’s “Stranger in the House”, which isn’t quite as effective. 
  10.  In addition to the previously-mentioned Looming Low, she’s also in Tales From a Talking Book 
  11.  I also respond poorly to fight scenes and the like. This is not unique to Ms. Machado. 
  12.  it’s fair to say that even when any given story is not actually erotica, Machado writes primarily about bodies and what is done with them. 
  13.  “The blood runs down her arm like maypole ribbons” 
  14.  well, somewhat more than two, but you’ll have to read it. 
  15.  I suppose I am prepared to posit that this is their genre distinction. 
  16.  one of the things that I suppose fuels being so impressed by Woods’ grasp on the type of things she writes about is that rural Indiana isn’t that different from rural Ohio, and so while there are a number of reasons why I wasn’t quite as out-grouped as she was (said reasons being demographic and self-evident), the above weird reference to the “completeness” of the emotional content has something to do with the fact that we’re about the same age and came from roughly similar places, and she really gets it. So I guess what I’m saying is that “Zombie” might only be in the top ten most heartbreaking things you’ll read all year, instead of, like, the top three. 
  17.  I have so far used the words “contra-natural” and “extranatural” here, and that is not accidental – it doesn’t always seem supernatural as such, but there’s definitely stuff involved that is not part of the natural order. 
  18.  there’s nothing brutal about these two stories, just the worlds in which they take place. 
  19.  parlor body horror? It doesn’t actually take place in a parlor very much, I suppose. Well it kind of does. 
  20.  by which I mean “relatively short” – if Her Body and Other Parties was anything to go on, I generally prefer her stories when they’re longer, and find the shorter ones a little less-satisfying. I think it’s because the thing I like about her stories is their tone, which in the longer pieces is something I can really settle into. 
  21.  in addition to being frightfully nearsighted, and nearly-legally-blind in one eye, I’m also color-blind. 
  22.  except the previously-mentioned “Waxy”, which is just incredible in every aspect. I mean in the sense that I am literally not credulous in believing that a human being wrote that story. It’s so good, guys. So good. 
  23.  as, y’know, falling off a cliff doesn’t actually have a break. Well, until the end. Also I mean “falling off a cliff” in a sort of “narrative propulsion” sense, not in a “this sucks and gets bad quickly” sense as the phrase is usually used. 
  24.  there have always been novellas, but there seem to be more of them around. I assume two things: 1) that this is to do with ebooks, and the ease of getting a novella out digitally as compared to in print, and getting it seen and considered, especially given the generally-lower price point and 2) that there is way more insightful thoughts about this written somewhere else, and they are not in this footnote. 
  25.  if I seem insistent on this, please bear with me. I only recently realized that I think of things this way, and it’s a stupid way to think – to prefer one word count over another? That seems stupid. On the other hand, I guess there’s a reason things are written to these lengths. I don’t know, man. Expect a post working it all out soon enough probably? 
  26.  this set of nominees seems to be the strongest one of any book awards I’ve ever written about, although that may have more to do with it being pitched directly into my wheelhouse than anything else. 
  27.  it is a testament to Megan McDowell, the translator, that these qualities of the writing and language are maintained even in translation. 
  28.  it’s wildly popular in its native country of South Korea, and while it’s true that I don’t know a lot about South Korean book sales, I know that “very slow to start” and “wildly popular” very rarely intersect. Although it’s not unheard of, so I don’t know. 
  29.  it’s set in Cleveland Heights. At one point he is using Streeetsboro, Ohio, which is directly between Cleveland Heights and Kent (where I lived before I lived in Cleveland Heights), as a stand-in for the banality of the exurban freeway-stop town,and he names the businesses that are there in a way that made me say not “oh yeah. The banality of road towns” but rather “oh hey, I know exactly when he made this drive by which businesses were open.” That probably doesn’t happen to most readers, if I’m guessing correctly. There’s a bunch of other little moments like that. 
  30.  it takes place on the Romania/Ukraine border, which I guess would make it half Balkan, half Baltic. 
  31.  it addresses the very real weirdness of H.P. Lovecraft and his strange and ultimately quite-tragic friendship with Robert Barlow. 

The Best Songs of the First Half of 2018

Hey everybody! We’re a week into the back half of 2018, and, as usual, here’s the stuff that made Our Hero (that’s me) the happiest in the last six months. As always, these are in alphabetical order. This time in addition to the download folder (here), there’s a Spotify playlist on the bottom, because it is 2018 and I should be better about these things. NB that the Spotify playlist does not include “1010 Wins”, “Soon All Cities”, “6am matinee”, “What What Have I Done (I Was Reeling In Something White and I Became Able To Do Anything) Pt. I” or “Sippy Cup”, because they aren’t on Spotify. 

Courtney Barnett, “Need a Little Time”

I’ve written before about the performative appreciation of young ladies laying bare their emotional state in a way that seems clearly to be aimed at dismantling them, instead of encouraging. Now Courtney Barnett has written a song about the same thing, and I find that vindicating.

Black Milk, “Laugh Now, Cry Later”

Black Milk slowed down and took a breath for Fever, giving his beats and his words equal room to breathe, to sink in slowly. He’s advising us to laugh here, but it doesn’t seem likely. It seems like by taking more time to let things happen musically, he’s making it seem even more intense, which is a neat trick.

Black Thought, “Dostoevsky” (f Rapsody)

A debut album after 30 years is an already-admirable level of restraint. A debut solo album that’s short, with not a moment of fat on it, is even more admirable. Black Thought continues to be a beacon.

The Body, “Nothing Stirs”

I Have Fought Against it But I Can’t Any Longer finds Earth’s greatest heavy band disassembling their previous material and reassembling it in new, harrowing reassemblages, and somehow it’s probably their best record yet. More impressive is that incredible “Nothing Stirs,” where they are abetted by noise conceptualist/singer Lingua Ignota to create a song that is both searing and cathartic, running you all the way into the dark place and then dragging you back out entirely of its own accord.

Carla Bozulich, “Emilia” (f Francesco Guerri & Marc Ribot)

Quieter is a vault-clearing record of previously-recorded collaborations, that somehow coheres pretty well as a straight-up album. Francesco Guerri is actually someone I know only from collaborating with Carla Bozulich in the first place, but I was pleasantly surprised by how well she went with Marc Ribot, who I mostly associate with Tom Waits.

The Carters, “Apeshit”

Sometimes Jay-Z appears on a song and stays out of the way because, one feels, he’s old and lazy and doesn’t want to bother to show up anymore. For once, on Everything is Love, he feels like he knows he just doesn’t have that much to add. It’s basically a Beyonce album with a Jay-Z feature on every song, and you can see it at its best on “Apeshit”.

Neko Case, “My Uncle’s Navy”

I don’t mean to break completely from from and talk about the lyrics for the second time in this writeup, but this multifaceted breakdown of an event of shocking violence is pretty great, and it’s set to a pretty wildly-catchy piece of singing. Good job all around, then.

DDENT, “Torse de Marbre”

Does the world need as many post-rock-styled heavy metal bands? Do we, in short, need a Russian Circles for every country? Maybe not. But we’ve got a bunch of them, and DDENT are among the best, and “Torse de Marbre” is everything I could want out of that sort of thing.

E, “Hollow”

As rewrites of Mission of Burma’s “Weatherbox” go, this is probably the best one. I mean, not to minimize the accomplishments of post-punk supergroup E, just that, y’know, “Weatherbox” is a great song. I can see why you’d want to rewrite it.

Elucid, “1010 Wins”

Elucid manages that rare quality of, no matter how much or how hard I listen to his music (and it’s a lot, honestly), I feel like I’m not listening to it enough, like there is so much going on inside of it that I could never take it all in. It’s music that’s very difficult to internalize, and that makes it endlessly alluring. “1010 Wins” is as accessible as it comes, and it’s still a densely-layered tortuous run through a very complicated mind.

The Ex, “Soon All Cities”

The Ex have been a going concern for as long as punk rock has existed, and they’ve managed to make great records along that entire stretch of time. What’s always amazing to me is that, in addition to always sounding like only themselves, they sound only like themselves in a way that implies that they are still a band from the future – ever record sounds more than current 1. “Soon All Cities” is up there with anything they’ve ever written, and I can’t praise it enough.

Fire!, “To Shave the Leaves. In Red. In Black.”

Fire! are here finally making another record as a trio, having spent some time as the convoluted and less-rewarding Fire Orchestra in more recent times. They’re either an incredible jazz combination that tries real hard to play post-metal, or an amazing heavy metal band that can’t help but play jazz. They only really stretch out once on The Hands, but the result (this song) is just mind-boggling.

Freddie Gibbs, “Death Row” (f 03 Greedo)

There’s probably something to be made of Freddie Gibbs (who just got out of prison) tapping 03 Greedo (who just went into prison) to help out on his surprise-record Freddie’s best track. I’m probably not going to be the person who makes something of it, but it’s almost certainly there to be made. You know. Such as it is.

Girlpool, “Picturesong” (f Dev Hynes)

I freely admit this is a strange, left-field choice here. I normally do not give even a single heck about Girlpool’s music. I’m not a fan. Such is the power of Dev Hynes, I guess, that this all came together so well; I think this is a great song.

Gnod, “Donovan’s Daughters”

It’s always at least worth it to hear what version Gnod shows up for any given Gnod record. Chapel Perilous seems like an extension of last year’s Just Say No…, insofar as any Gnod records seem related, but “Donovan’s Daughters” is a damn revelation. 15 minutes of crunching, crushing heaviness. I think we can call the first half of 2018 the year of the 15 minute heavy masterpiece generally, but even pitted against YOB and Sleep, as they are here, this is still a clear standout barnburner of a track.

Jean Grey & Quelle Chris, “Gold Purple Orange” (f Dane Orr)

Quelle Chris is an ONAT best-of mainstay – he’s one of the hands-down best producers currently operating, and has a way with delivery that is always intriguing. For Everything’s Fine he collaborates with his longtime partner/now-wife Jean Grae, also a remarkably-consistent rapper, and the two manage to outdo themselves in terms of making fantastic, interesting music that also works on the non-conscious parts of my music listening brain.

Grouper, “Parking Lot”

Grouper continues to inhabit her “solo piano” phase, and it is nothing short of astonishing that she manages to find ways to put this combination – her voice, which hasn’t changed in fifteen or so years, and a piano, without even nearly as many of the pedals and effects that marked her mid-period albums 2 – to new and impressive uses.

Keiji Haino & Sumac, “What What Have I Done (I Was Reeling In Something White and I Became Able To Do Anything) Pt. I”

Keiji Haino, at 66, made one of the best heavy albums of the year. That’s an impressive achievement in and of itself, but the fact that he did by continuing to be his weird, ear-destroying self, only this time with Sumac as his backing band, is nothing short of a singular accomplishment. What a great record.

Paddy Hanna, “Bad Boys”

Paddy Hanna is like a Scott Walker that doesn’t suck, or an Elvis Costello that isn’t boring, he’s really out there doing his thing by being unique and strange without giving it all over to freakish weirdness. I find this nice, despite how much of my time I spend specifically seeking out freakish weirdness.

Hinds, “Soberland”

I fell hard when I was a young lad for a certain kind of no-fidelity amateurish garage rock, and spent several years as a fanatical crate-digger and all that. What I’m saying is, this stuff runs pretty deep, and I’ve got a lot of time for it. I think I’d still love Hinds even if that wasn’t true, but since it is I’m pretty much without the free will to not list this song among my absolute favorites.

Mick Jenkins, “6am Matinee”

Usually writing songs about writing songs is a real effective way to get me to either fall asleep or throw your record out the window. Mick Jenkins, though, is always a nonstandard example, and he managed to write a whole record about writing songs, and have it be as compelling and fascinating as anything else he’s done. Fair play to you, Mick Jenkins.

JPEGMAFIA, “Real Nega”

Sometimes JPEGMAFIA tracks are better conceptually, or as a part of the various wholes that are his records. “Real Nega” is not one of those times: this shit goes. Also it’s built on what is probably the best ODB sampled in the history of sampling ODB.

Mary Lattimore, “Baltic Birch”

You know, it was in listening to her third record in three years that I realized that, while it’s true that I like Mary Lattimore, and play her music all the time, and really appreciate her compositional sense, I have literally zero ability to evaluate harp-playing as an instrumental pursuit. In an interview with Bandcamp, Lattimore mentioned a bunch of harpists who were way more experimental and noteworthy than here, which is, I suppose, somewhere to start. I bet they don’t make anything this good, though.

Mamuthones, “Show Me”

The title of Mamuthones Fear on the Corner comes from smashing together the titles of the Talking Heads’ Fear of Music and Miles Davis’s On the Corner. It’s tempting to say that their music sounds like that kind of fusion, but it actually sounds like a motorik-band who attempted to rewrite some Talking Heads records as jazz musicians. In short, this is a super-weird record that doesn’t sacrifice any immediacy to its oddness.

Marie/Lepanto, “Tenkiller”

I continue to be impressed by Will Johnson’s ability to just form new bands seemingly every time he feels like it. This time he’s with the dude from Water Liars, and the result is pretty incredible. “Tenkiller,” the best song on the record, sounds like a lot of other Will Johnson songs 3, but when you write songs that are this good, there’s no real sin in continuing to do what works.

H.C. McEntire, “Red Silo”

H.C. McEntire is the singer for Mount Moriah, has a great voice, and wrote some great country songs for Lionheart, the best of which is “Red Silo.” I am not sure that I have anything else to say here. Sometimes a good song is just a good song.

The Messthetics, “Inner Ocean”

It is true that this band, comprised of an Italian improvisational guitar player and the erstwhile rhythm section of the almighty Fugazi, sounds like a no-nonsense King Crimson, but come on, they sound like a no-nonsense King Crimson! The only real problem with King Crimson is all the dang nonsense!

Migos, “Stir Fry”

Culture II is (at least) an hour too long, with the good stuff feeling like too little butter scraped over too much bread 4, but the high points are absurdly high. Migos at their best are literally the best, and if their quality-control function is a little busted, well, at least we get stuff like “Stir-Fry” to get us through the boring stuff.

Mind Over Mirrors, “Oculate Beings”

Every once in awhile all I want is a robot hoedown. In this case, that’s exactly what I’ve got.

Meshell Ndegeocello, “Sometimes it Snows in April”

It’s hard to make an album of covers that really manages much of anything. Meshell Ndegeocello managed it by reworking – and recontextualizing – eighties and nineties R&B radio songs. This isn’t some crate-digger’s vision of R&B, these are songs you’d have a better than even shot of hearing on the radio right now. Especially “Sometimes it Snows in April,” a song Prince wrote about the death of his character in Rainbow Bridge 5, and which started popping up after Prince’s death (I wasn’t exactly aware of the state of R&B radio in 1986, but I’m given to understand it was not the chart-topping sensation that some other Prince singles have been). It appears here, then, partly as Prince elegy (I’m assuming) and partly as just sheer, incontrovertible evidence that Meshell Ndegeocello can sing the goddamn holy shit out of anything. If hearing it doesn’t convince you of the need for its existence, than nothing further I can see here will. Oh, and listen to the rest of the record. It’s awesome.

Oneohtrix Point Never, “The Station”

This song, surreally, was demoed and intended for Usher. It’s hard to call it a shame, because while I would happily live in a world where Usher sang about having sex in a research station in the South Pole while it burns down, The Thing-style, it’s much, much weirder than it probably would have been, and that’s absolutely to the song’s benefit.

Brigid Mae Power, “Don’t Shut Me Up (Politely)”

I have a lot of time for people that can channel being really aggressive into a mode that is also relatively quiet. Brigid Mae Power’s approach seems like it would lend itself to a much louder result, but rarely gathers much volume as it goes, and it’s mesmerizing.

R+R=NOW, “Reflect Reprise” (f Stalley)

Robert Glasper formed another jazz group with Terrace Martin, and I suppose the fact that the resulting music is great is a sort of “dog bites man” headline. While on other parts of the record you can experience the joys of hearing Bobby McFerrin’s son, Taylor, beatbox, my favorite actual track as a single, isolated track is this one, where Stalley (currently having his own hot streak with this Shame the Devil series) jumps on and grounds the music somewhat, creating a very satisfying groove.

Rae Sremmurd, “Brnxs Truck”

It’s hard to avoid continuing to think of Rae Sremmurd as “Migos Jr.” 6, but they made a better forever-long record this year. SR3MM is an awfully good triple-album, with one Rae Sremmurd record, and one record each for each member as a solo record. “Brnxs Truck” is from Slim Jxmmi’s solo disc, JXMTRO, and is at least ten times as entertaining as trying to pronounce those “x”s. It goes, is what I’m saying. It’s a go-er.

Saba, “PROM/KING”

Saba is a Chicago story-telling rapper who lost his cousin in one of the most horrifying, senseless ways possible, and wrote an album about his loss, the centerpiece of which is the long, deeply touching “PROM/KING”. It’s worth being pretty shaken up listening to it, and it’s a clear high point for an already-exciting rapper.

Sarn, “Sippy Cup”

Deathbomb Arc continues to alternate between super-cool weirdo rap music (see also JPEGMAFIA, above) and hit-or-miss pop-noise stuff. Sarn is….kind of neither. He’s weird enough, certainly, but it’s without easy referents (like a rap Xiu Xiu? With a differently-channeled supply of aggression? I guess?), but HELLATRIPPIN manages to not only be entirely its own thing, but does it while also being a remarkably consistent listen. It makes sense, then, that this was the first release in Deathbomb Arc’s 20 year anniversary series. I’m pretty excited by this one, and I look forward to more from Sarn 7.

Scallops Hotel, “A Terror Way Beyond Falling”

This may have been from the first record that I heard in 2018 that was released in 2018, as it came out on New Years’ Day. milo (operating here as scallops hotel) announced on his Bandcamp page that this is part 2 of a trilogy, and I suppose like all things milo, that connection makes more sense to him than it ever would to me. Nevertheless, the record is brief and punchy, which is all conveyed through scallops hotel’s sparse, muttering style. It’s a nifty trick.

Screaming Females, “Glass House”

Great riffs, great singing, great chorus. Great song.

Sleep, “Antarcticans Thawed”

2018’s most unlikely-seeming comeback story is one that ended in a phenomenal record (as previously addressed). It seems…inappropriate or something that the best song on the record is one leftover from Dopesmoker, but it also happens to be the case. And the original didn’t have Jason Roeder on it, so this is a clear win for the world.

Snail Mail, “Stick”

I’m a firm believer in the power of well-constructed, passionately-executed rock music, even if it’s not breaking any ground in particular. Snail Mail is great, and “Stick” is a great song.

Sons of Kemet, “My Queen is Harriet Tubman”

While it will probably always be the case that Comet is Coming will remain my favorite of Shabaka Hutchings’s projects, it is true that Sons of Kemet’s “anything goes” approach yields fantastic results, and Your Queen is a Reptile is a variegated work of genuine actual genius, that puts a whole bunch of different things together but never really sounds like patchwork, or dilettantish. “My Queen is Harriet Tubman” is one of the cooler (in the temperature sense, not the, like, cool dude sense) songs on the record, and also the most effective.

Trampled by Turtles, “The Middle”

I listen to less country and country-derived music 8 than I used to, certainly, but there are some bands that create listening appointments just by continuing to exist. Trampled by Turtles are one of those bands. Their music manages to be the sort of forcefully joyful roller-coaster ride that I occasionally consume ravenously. “The Middle” is upbeat and joyful without being “fun” or (even worse) “happy”.

U.S. Girls, “Pearly Gates”

There’s maximalism and there’s maximalism, you know? U.S. Girls manages to pile on instruments and sounds and ideas and never stop having them intermesh and play off of each other – “Pearly Gates” builds and builds and builds until eventually it sorts of bursts like a bubble, everything quickly dissipating.

Uniform & The Body, “Come and See”

Is it because the times are truly, ineffably hideous that The Body has been able to make three great records in seven months 9? I don’t know. I know that it’s helping, I know that they’re doing incredible work, and I know that their assistance has made this hands-down my favorite Uniform record, and “Come and See”, by extension, my favorite Uniform track.

Kamasi Washington, “Will You See”

Heaven & Earth is a dense, tricky record full of things that require multiple listens to get through, that all comes to a head in the final track, the soaring, surging “Will You See”. A great song for letting it all out.

World’s End Girlfriend, “Meguri”

Often I can be found expounding on the virtues made specifically and intentionally, with thought only to the intention of the person making it. While it’s true that Meguri is made “for one person,” it is also true that it is a deeply-personal, deeply-emotional set of compositions, and as such seems to be a clear and direct communication of the thoughts and feelings of its composer, and thus could not actually be any better than it is, which is nothing short of amazing. The title track is here, but the entire composition is more than worth everyone’s time.

Wussy, “Gloria”

It’s always hard to write about very good songs from very good bands that are very consistent. This is a very good Wussy song, of the sort that they fill albums with, probably the best song on another very good Wussy album, which I am happy to listen to a whole bunch of times. Yay!

Xylouris White, “Only Love”

No other Xylouris White song whips itself into this kind of frenzy – even the other songs on Mother don’t reach this kind of whirlwind intensity – but maybe more of them should?

YOB, “Beauty in Falling Leaves”

Our nation’s heavy bands have really been stepping it up lately. How many bands can say that their eighth album is also their best album? 10 Anyway, “Beauty if Falling Leaves” is here, but it’s standing in for almost any song on the album, the whole thing is incredible.

03 Greedo, “Ballin’” (f Ketchy the Great)

Should numbers go at the beginning or the end of the alphabet, guys? I don’t know! Anyway, 03 Greedo unjustly got big when he also was a poster child for the ridiculous way that drug offenders are treated within the justice system, and is trying to fill the world with tracks before he goes to prison, which is abetted by the fact that he’s a fantastic rapper, and “Ballin” (one of 100 or so songs he’s put out in the last several months) is an absolutely terrific song.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Flatbush Zombies’ “Headstone” is fun, and as a series of references and in-jokes goes, is pretty satisfying, but it loses points for really just being that series of in-jokes, and also for the godawful “I smell pussy” liine toward the end. Kraus’s “Follow” is great bedroom shoegaze from Brooklyn, and thus is as special as it possibly can be, while also making me question my own taste for how much I enjoy it. Efrim Manuel Menuck’s “Pissing Stars” is everything one could reasonably expect from an Efrim Manuel Menuck album in 2018, and if it doesn’t rise above expectations, then it’s still nothing to shake a stick at. Natalie Prass’s “Sisters” is more terrific maximalist-pop. Daniel Romano’s “Wabash Wrecking Ball” is the real high point of his weird self-destructing albums stunt, and while it’s effective it’s also hard to get over the damn stunt in the first place. Childish Gambino’s “This is America” might be the best Childish Gambino song, or it might just have the best video. It’s hard to say.


  1.  There are bad The Ex records – or The Ex records that I don’t like, anyway – but they still sound like a reasonable outgrowth of the work The Ex are already doing. 
  2.  it seems strange to call something “mid-period” in this sense. Liz Harris is, like, my age. She will probably – hopefully – continue to make records for decades. But, with the beginning as one end and today as another, it seems sort of mid-periodish, y’know? 
  3.  I’m comfortable saying that the dude has a thing that he does best, even though he does a bunch of different stuff as a songwriter. 
  4.  it’s hard to tell if this has anything to do with them overreaching, or with one or more members featuring on seemingly every frigging record to come out in the last eighteen or so months, and using up material that way. 
  5.  it’s from Under the Cherry Moon, which is the soundtrack for the movie, but has a completely different name because Prince. 
  6.  guys, I’m old, ok? 
  7.  it’s worth pointing out that I was equally excited to discover a handful of other Sarn records back there, and they’re all pretty terrific. 
  8.  yeah I’m calling most 21st-century bluegrass country-derived. Come fight me. I’m not wrong.  
  9.  A Home on Earth came out last December and is the sort of “normal” one-off guitar/drums/noise thing that they made while they were making I Have Fought Against it But I Can’t Any Longer. 
  10.  although it’s also worth noting that Yob’s fifth album was their previous best, and that’s still pretty late, relatively speaking, to be topping oneself. 

The Best Records of June 2018

Kamasi Washington – Heaven and Earth (I appreciate a big swing, and if dude wants to make a record that encapsulates its title subjects then hell, there are worse attempts to do so, and I’m into it)

Yob – Our Raw Heart (2018 is conspiring to convince me that if I were to just listen to jazz and doom, then I’d be happy enough. This is better than every other Yob album at a walk.)

Snail Mail – Lush (You know, sonically there’s not much to say here, but the songs on this one are impeccable, and there isn’t an ounce of fat on this record, and sometimes that’s all you need)

Oneohtrix Point Never – Age Of (after a couple of deep-concept records where he explored some very specific things, this sort of catch-all sampler concept album is pretty awesome, and I like hearing him pursue his music to its furthest corners)

The Carters – Everything is Love (I know, I’m as surprised as you are, but it turns out that Beyonce is the best rapper in that family now. Go figure.)

Oh, and since Kanye Kanye’d harder than he’s ever Kanye’d before, here’s your Kanye June ranking. Here’s hoping he doesn’t come through on his threat to release 52 albums in 52 weeks:

  1. Teyana Taylor – KTSE
  2. Kid Cudi/Kanye West – Kids See Ghosts
  3. Pusha T – Daytona
  4. Kanye West – Ye
  5. Nas – Nasir

NB: all of these come in ahead of things like “his twitter feed” and “his existence as a public figure” and “his continued refusal to put down the damn drugs already”.

Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison obituaries tend to run the same way: stories about the author’s “Harlan story” 1, perhaps with a nod to the fact that he was a serial groper and generally awful, interpersonally, in the inappropriate sexuality sense, to many women, and then a list of stories he wrote that were important to the person who wrote the article.

There’s not a lot of easy ways to wrestle with Harlan Ellison’s thing, see. He was a phenomenal writer, especially early on. I mean that literally – he wrote stories in the first decade or so of his career that were a phenomenon – almost anything from “Repent Harlequin, Said the Tick Tock Man”, through “The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World” and culminating in probably my favorite short-story ever written, “Jeffty is Five” . There was work after this point (“The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore,” “Paladin of the Lost Hour”) that was also great, and perhaps even the equal of the early stuff, but it’s that first ten years that contains the work that was an absolute godhead for a lot of sf fans.

He also admitted to committing sexual assault at least once (in 1962), was rumored to be horrifyingly inappropriate to many women for several decades later, often and with much gusto, and grabbed Connie Willis’s breast onstage at the Hugo awards in 2006 2.

Beyond all of that, he made life deeply unpleasant for a lot of people, albeit usually deserving people. He was extremely litigious, suing anyone who he thought maybe might have thought about his work too hard while they were coming up with their own. He was an outspoken vigilante, and it’s not hard to find stories of him taking “revenge” on people 3 via some inconvenience. He was a tireless activist, and wrote often about the way that it was, in fact, better and necessary to be a tireless activist. For a period of time he would refuse to go to conventions or other such events in states that hadn’t ratified the ERA, but he would agree to go to those places to stump for NOW, so there are several stories about seeing Harlan Ellison give a speech supporting the National Organization for Women. 4

He was also a vocal advocate for the writers and artists he appreciated. I myself would be less likely to have known who, say, Paul Chadwick (Concrete) was if Harlan hadn’t written so passionately about him. He would bend over backwards for people he felt deserved it, and would defend the dignity and rights of his fellow writers as fiercely as he defended his own. He would write endlessly about the things that he felt needed more public attention. His famed anthology series Dangerous Visions, more-or-less essential reading for a certain strain of sf fan, contained introductions that were often better than the stories themselves 5.

Nevertheless, his attitude – his vigilante taste for prankish “retribution”, his haranguing, his sarcastic dismissals, his impatient dealings with people he felt weren’t behaving in a manner he felt was deserving his time or their station – always seemed to stem from his respect for and obsession with working hard, and respecting the work of creatives – especially writers, but not only writers – as actual work, as something created that is worthy of time and respect rather than as something that was ephemeral or unimportant or inconsiderable. He was certainly willing to work very hard at things when he decided to.

Except, of course, that The Last Dangerous Visions never came out. He solicited stories from people, promising them the moon, promising them royalty payments beyond their wildest dreams, promising them fame and exposure and really great sex, and then….they sat, gathering dust in his office, as he didn’t fulfill his end of the bargain 6. The non-publishing of the work that he had gotten from people that he counted as friends, that he sat on rather than release into the world, did yield several excuses from Ellison, and eventually became the hoariest of science fiction fan jokes.

Put together 7, it seems to be the case that Harlan Ellison was a tremendously principled firebomb, who was completely unable to apply those principles to his own actions. This isn’t uncommon: writing, especially coming up the way Ellison did, is a matter of believing in yourself to such a huge and superhuman degree that no matter how many people tell you “no”, you not only keep taking your work to other people, but you keep taking that same work to other people. It requires, essentially, that one forget that other people might have valid thoughts about you. It betrays a mindset that isn’t particularly permeable to the criticism of others.

Without going too far down this rabbit hole (and straying as far as possible under the circumstances from inappropriate armchair-psychology), it seems easy to me to see how someone goes from that kind of impermeable unsinkability to, having achieved the success one believed bone-deep was coming to them, just being done examining one’s behavior, and believing that one was special enough to get away with whatever it was he wanted to do. The problem is when you are cruel to women, his actions say, not when I do it. When I do it there’s a reason.

He was a unique genius, the sort of person that creates a schism in the field: there are works before Harlan, and there are works after. He did as much as anyone to invent a sort of science fiction-derived horror (c.f. “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream,” “Croatoan”, probably the two scariest stories I read as an adolescent). When he wanted to, he could be as good and helpful and inspiring as anyone – he, for example, did a lot to impel Octavia Butler into her own career, and that alone is worth several Good Place points.

And, y’know, in a sort of points-based scoring system, I bet he comes out ahead. I bet he did enough good, generally and specifically, to generally come out ahead as an ok guy in the balance. It’s up to each person if they decide they want to evaluate things that way, I suppose, and I don’t know that I’m one of them. 

Harlan succeeded big and failed big. He was a lot of things, he was probably actually a genius, and he was definitely, definitively himself, and that’s what he was, and that’s admirable in its way. If he was both better and worse than other people, then that’s how that happened. He couldn’t have been anyone else and he didn’t try. Is that an honor in and of itself? Not really. But it’s what he did, and if you can’t be anything else, you can at least be honest.

I want to say that a lot of this is probably equivocation. Harlan Ellison’s work spoke to me (and to a lot of other people – I am tremendously far from unique in this regard) on such a fundamental, personal level that it became a part of my personality. There is a deeply-entrenched strain of taking ideas from Ellison, not only about how to read or how to write, but about how to be 8. I am less likely, then, to throw it all out.

But as pain fades, and as people forgive, and the work remains (because in this case the work is as good as anybody’s, and probably isn’t going anywhere), then it’s probably not the worst thing to add an asterisk for the way the author behaved. In “Prince Myshkin and Hold the Relish,” Ellison allows for his treatise on dealing with authors that are bad people. Here’s a YouTube video of Ellison himself reading it. This, too, forms a part of how I deal with people who are problematic. I do think that failing to confront Ellison’s failings head-on, no matter if he thought they were failings or not, is also something that I learned to do from Ellison.

So go read something, y’know? If you can’t get past Ellison’s faults (and I would never discourage someone from avoiding things that were not at a high enough standard – the standards should always be higher. Always.), read some Octavia Butler (like, say, The Parable of the Talents or Xenogenesis 9), or his friend Robert Silverberg (The Book of Skulls), or Connie Willis (Doomsday Book is my favorite, but To Say Nothing of the Dog also won a Hugo, and I think under the circumstances, if you’re going to read a book at Harlan Ellison it oughta be one of her Hugo-winners), or hell, I’m sure Kameron Hurley or Claire North or Kij Johnson wouldn’t mind either.

My personal favorite tribute to Harlan would be to watch the Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever”, but to praise the rewriting that Roddenberry did to Ellison’s screenplay, because if I had to put up with his bullshit, he should have to put up with mine.

But I’m not going to do any of that, honestly. I’m too soft, and I’m all talk. What I’m actually going to do is I’m going to go read “Jeffty is Five” again. And I’m going to cry (like I always do when I read “Jeffty is Five”). And then I’m going to read “The Paladin of the Lost Hour” and probably “Repent, Harlequin! Said the Tick-Tock Man,” and then some other things. And I’m going to annoy people by reading them things out loud, and generally being enthusiastically, evangellically obsessive about it.

Because Harlan Ellison taught me that it’s important to try to fill the world with good things as much as possible, and that sometimes good things come from shitheads. Sorry you were a shithead, Harlan. I wish you hadn’t been.


  1.  I don’t have a Harlan story 
  2.  and, thereafter, issued a terrible apology, followed by saying several things after the terrible apology that signified that he didn’t even mean the terrible apology. 
  3.  my favorite of which is a story about him mailing a couple of hundred bricks to his publisher in regards to a contract dispute, which you can look up for more and better information. 
  4.  after which he, in all likelihood, treated some woman very, very poorly. 
  5.  his introduction to Ursula K. LeGuin is the best introduction she ever received in print. 
  6.  I suppose he’s lucky nobody mailed him a couple of hundred bricks. 
  7.  a thing that’s easier to do with the publication of Nat Sefaloff’s A Lit Fuse, the occasion of which publication caused me to say to someone (I don’t remember who), “oh, he’s dying. This wouldn’t come out if he thought there wasn’t any more of the story of his life to tell”. 
  8.  these things range from a disdain from the term “sci-fi”, which I don’t use, to a refusal to capitalize “tv”, to the notion that if you just treat everyone like a person who is equal to you then you’ve covered a lot of your bases (a thing that Harlan failed at more than any other idea he ever gave out), to the idea that good work – good writing, good art – can come from anywhere, and that disqualifying anything for its form or medium is only going to result in your loss. This last is perhaps the most reverberant of all of these things, as it’s a big part of the reason I’m in this space in the first place. 
  9.  a novel which happens to share its title with a remarkable Harlan Ellison essay about the effects of toxic fandom on sf, a thing that we’re still trying to deal with, and a thing that was enabled by, well, attitudes like his about whether or not their principles apply to themselves. 

A Considered Look at Every Inductee Into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Part 6

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a place that I find, as an institution, vexing. The actual, physical hall of fame – the pyramidal building on the lake in Cleveland – is pretty cool, but it is spoken and thought of often as an intangible – as a sort of arbitrating body on the worthiness of the body of rock musicians. My thought, for many years upon surveying lists 1  and the like was to think that they have about a fifty percent success rate for getting it anything like right.

But what if it doesn’t? Previously I listened to and considered each of the best-selling albums of all time, and learned that they were considerably more of a mixed bag than I had thought 2. So what if the inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are the same sort of deal?

And so it’s time to dive in and take a look at what the nominees and their enshrinement actually are.

Click the links for Part 1,Part 2,  Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5 of this series.

Class of 1994

The Animals

WHO THEY ARE:Vietnam-era British song interpreters, performers of a few songs that seemingly everyone breathing air with even a passing knowledge of rock music in the knows.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: They’d probably have a fighting chance for even just “House of the Rising Sun” and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”, but I would argue that their finest contribution is one that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame would be unlikely to actually honor – they were a performing-only band, and wrote very few of their own songs, and still managed to be a great band with a great body of work. Rock music is a performance-based enterprise, and it’s noteworthy to be good enough at it that you can re-shape, say, a standard like “House of the Rising Sun” around yourselves so effectively that it’s hard to think of it many other ways.

AND…?: Oh I like the Animals a lot. Hard not to, really. I’m sure I would have liked them more had I heard them through their mien and not just absorbed their music osmotically, but they’re still plenty good.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes

The Band

WHO THEY ARE: Canada’s finest gift to Americana 3. They were great on their own, they were great backing Bob Dylan, and they were great (allegedly) as the band The Barbarians on that band’s hit “Moulty” 4

WHY THEY’RE HERE: If nothing else, they backed Bob Dylan and were the subject of a fantastic Martin Scorsese movie 5. But also, during their initial run, they made a handful of very good records on their own, and their first two records are as good an opening salvo as one could hope for.

AND…?: They were decidedly their own thing the whole time also, even though from the vantage of 2018 what they’re doing sounds considerably more conventional. They blended together a lot of things that weren’t that commonly found in the same band at the time and, if you listen closely, really still aren’t. And all of this is written and until this moment I didn’t mention “The Weight,” which is one of rock music’s finest hours no matter how slice it.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes

Duane Eddy

WHO HE IS: Well, he played guitar on a bunch of songs associated with Lee Hazelwood 6, but people still pretty much think of either the theme from “Peter Gunn” or just, like, twang in general.

WHY HE’S HERE: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame loves a guitar player, and he sure was one of those. He’s instantly recognizable, and I suppose if you want to include someone for their ability to play through spring reverb then he’s the one.

AND…?: Oh, I like Duane Eddy just fine, but come on.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: No.

Grateful Dead

WHO THEY ARE: The progenitors of the jam-band, the leaders of the idea that music is to be enjoyed with only the parts that you would normally request be specifically kept out of your music, and the band responsible for one of the most inexplicably-rabid fanbases of all time.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: They were around in the sixties San Francisco scene that is oft-feted in the traditional rock historical narrative. People went crazy for them. They seem like nice enough guys, I guess.

AND…?: They are basically the apotheosis of “you had to be there” thinking. You have to have seen them live, and if you did and didn’t enjoy it then there was something else you were doing wrong, and on and on and on. This is my official opinion on the matter 7: if something only works in its own time and milieu, then it doesn’t belong in a hall of fame, the idea of which is enshrinement forever. If it doesn’t work forever, then it doesn’t go in. If you “had to be there” then why would future folk who want some idea about the shape of rock and roll care about it? I applaud that they managed to be super-extra famous without actually having, y’know, hits or record sales 8, but stop short of praising them, because they did so on the back of a bunch of dumb drug associations and godawful music.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: No.

Elton John

WHO HE IS: The guy from The Lion King.

WHY HE’S HERE: Elton John sold ten bajillion records, wrote a bunch of songs that are all over the radio or whatever, and basically carried on in the Little Richard vein for several decades 9, only, y’know, whiter. He was tremendously popular and successful, and surely somebody set out to do things like Elton John, right?

AND…?: I have a hard time with this one. Elton John’s music is tremendously not my thing. He’s a good enough singer, and there’s plenty going on with his music that is good, but it’s largely by-the-numbers, and I can’t think of any real musical impact he had on music beyond his own sales impacts. I don’t know, folks.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: I don’t actually think so.

John Lennon

WHO HE IS: The first Beatle to die.

WHY HE’S HERE: He was a Beatle, for starters. But also John Lennon did manage to construct a career in which he was responsible for some fantastic, direct raw-singer/songwriter stuff 10 and still managing to explore some deeply out-there furthest-corners experimental stuff 11, and was pretty good at all of it.

AND…?: He made some really tremendous music on both sides of the normal/abnormal coin. The fact that he also made some tremendously awful music in both areas is beside the point: his good stuff is so very good, and even when he failed, he failed full-on and honestly.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes

Bob Marley

WHO HE IS: The one reggae guy everyone can name.

WHY HE’S HERE: Even though reggae has very little do with rock music, Bob Marley did manage to have a pretty big influence on it anyway. He was an incredible singer and songwriter, who largely conducted his career at a high degree of integrity 12. He wrote great songs that have often been covered by rock dudes.

AND…?: It is fairly rare that the person who is agreed upon by consensus as being the best at something is actually the best 13, and Bob Marley is one of them. He was great.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure, why not.  

Rod Stewart

WHO HE IS: Former singer for the Faces, he was removed from school by Maggie May, who then turned out to be old. Quelle horreur.

WHY HE’S HERE: He had a tonne of hits, and was a fantastic singer. The Faces were a legitimately great rock band, and he had moments of brilliance in his later career, almost none of which were giant radio hits.

AND…?: The person he is most similar to that I have discussed here is Elton John: his talent and popularity are unquestionable. He’s a satisfying song-interpreter who wrote (probably) too many of his own songs 14. Since he, himself, is a sort of simulacrum of his own influences, it’s hard to call out where he is having influence on others directly, or where it just sort of happened to coincide.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: I don’t think so, no.

Willie Dixon

WHO HE IS: A blues guy most famous 15 for suing Led Zeppelin for songwriting credit, and receiving it in the eighties.

WHY HE’S HERE: Well, the Led Zeppelin thing probably. He was, however, also an extremely prodigious songwriter and an excellent singer.

AND…?: Sometimes he sang and played the upright bass at the same time, which is pretty cool. Beyond that, I don’t much care for it, but, y’know. He was clearly an early influence – Led Zeppelin stole his songs 16, and then a bunch of other people stole their songs.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure, it’s in the early influence category, and that seems reasonable to me.

Johnny Otis

WHO HE IS: “The Godfather of R&B”

WHY HE’S HERE: He had an enormous influence on R&B, which in turn had an enormous influence on rock and roll, but of course in the R&RHOF, R&B is rock and roll, which is annoying, so he’s an architect thereof.

AND…?: He’s here as a nonperformer, which is even more confusing, since he had a bunch of hits as a bandleader and stuff. I don’t know, man.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: I guess?

Class of 1995

The Allman Brothers Band

WHO THEY ARE: The archetypal southern rock band, complete with the archetypal rock tragedies and everything.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: Southern rock was a going concern for awhile in the seventies – after The Band and CCR made the connections they made, the Allman Brothers reified it into the commercial juggernaut it would become. They also pioneered the “the best album is the live album” existence that many great bands would go on to be a part of. Oh and they had two drummers. I don’t know if that’s good or bad on balance, but they did.

AND…?: A lot of Southern Rock takes the most obvious elements from the Allman Brothers and runs with it, which is, I guess, fair, but one of the things that the Allman Brothers did is occasionally get really weird, especially Duane. Part of the reason that their live albums are the best surviving documents of the band’s work are because that’s when the band would stretch out and abandoned their usual approach, resulting in some pretty interesting stuff. Unfortunately, nobody takes on that part of it.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Oh sure.

Al Green

WHO HE IS: The Reverend himself, the second-greatest singer in popular music history 17

WHY HE’S HERE: He had a bunch of great songs, and he sang them extraordinarily well. A whole lot of R&B folks took off from his vocal style, perhaps more than anyone else’s (even Sam Cooke’s). He might be second only to Marvin Gaye in “dudes from the seventies whose vocal stylings were widely copied.”

AND…?: Al Green was a great singer and an occasionally-great songwriter, with considerable influence, and while I don’t know how much of that influence was actually on rock music, that is, again, not the thing we’re arguing about here anymore I suppose.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure

Janis Joplin

WHO SHE IS: Perhaps the only person that rivals the Grateful Dead in terms of being the avatar of the Woodstock-type sixties musician.

WHY SHE’S HERE: Well, she’s also sort of the dictionary definition of “nonstandard vocal approach that is nevertheless effective,” which is something that rock music deals pretty heavily in. She also died tragically and young, which is another thing that seems to wonders for your legacy.

AND…?: Her band was an unbelievable snore 18. I will say that if there’s anything endemic to this mid-nineties batch of inductees, it’s that we are the in “extremely competent at a thing, but not much more than that” era. The era of the specialist, as it were. Janis Joplin was an ok interpreter and a real banshee wailer of a singer (in a good way), and as a result her music is effective when she is effective, and pretty much a sodden mess the rest of the time.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: I suppose since she’s inducted without her band, it probably stands to reason that she does belong here. So yes.

Led Zeppelin

WHO THEY ARE: The world’s premiere and foremost hard rock band. Basically the Beatles of being really loud.

WHY THEY ARE HERE: Because they were basically the Beatles of being really loud. Because the four of them were as good at doing what they did as any assemblage of players ever has been, and at least three of them invented new ways of doing their thing. They had an absolutely bulletproof run of albums, and even when their consistency died off their records still had moments of absolutely transcendent greatness.

AND…?: Oh I think Led Zeppelin are just the best. Even when they were preposterous and ridiculous, they were still pretty great. And on the rare occasions they were awful, they were awful genuinely, for their own reasons.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Without a doubt.

Martha and the Vandellas

WHO THEY ARE: A Motown girl-group most famous either for having a heat wave or dancing in the streets, depending on who you ask.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: I guess because everyone who ever recorded a note of music for Motown was under consideration, and someone was really plugging for every single Motown act to be inducted? I have no idea, here

AND…?: I mean, they’re good enough. I certainly like them. Their songs were welcome on the Hitsville: USA box set, which I suppose shows my age. I just don’t see what they’ve done that elevates them uniquely among other such folk.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: No.

Neil Young

WHO HE IS: He’s one of the only genuine actual bona-fide certifiable geniuses in the whole building.

WHY HE’S HERE: He’s a phenomenal songwriter, it’s true, but he’s an absolutely inhuman guitar player. Unlike a bunch of other guitar players here, he pretty much destroys whatever he’s playing ever time he plays it. His consistency is way high. He’s also managed to make interesting music 19 over the course of six decades of working. He’s only ever done what he wanted, and every single iteration of doing it has yielded devotees that have copied it. He’s sold a bajillion records, he’s influenced a bajillion bands, he’s done everything you could want. If he’s made some bizarre business decisions over the years, well, that’s not his music.

AND…?: I like Neil Young. He was great. I have very little else to say about it.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Absolutely

Frank Zappa

WHO HE IS: Guitar-wielding smart-ass and general progenitor of a lot of “comedy”-based rock music.

WHY HE’S HERE: He did a lot to be conceptual and weird while never actually being prog 20. He was also a tireless supporter of popular music’s right to be vulgar, testifying before congress about it and everything. He did have a lot of technical skill at the guitar, and he did bring a classically-trained musicians eye to his rock music, which is something, I guess, and which a lot of people took off from for their own careers. So he had considerable influence.

AND…?: You know, I wouldn’t have juxtaposed them like this, but I believe that Frank Zappa has gotten the reputation that Neil Young rightfully deserves. Frank Zappa made intermittently brilliant music, but wasn’t half the guitar player he gets credit for being, and generally wasn’t as clever as he thought he was. Still and all, there’s little denying his considerable influence, and in the field of dudes I’m ambivalent toward, there’s a lot worse.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: A soft yes.

The Orioles

WHO THEY WERE: Yet another forties R&B group.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: I think it’s probably fair to say that they are the Martha and the Vandellas of the forties: they did have some hits, and somebody clearly had a real hard-on for getting them in there.

AND…?: Oh they were fine. I mean, again, it’s not that they were bad, it’s that I don’t understand why they were special, and I damn sure don’t think they had very much influence over rock and roll.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: No

Paul Ackerman

WHO HE IS: A journalist who edited Billboard magazine for thirty years.

WHY HE’S HERE: I suppose since popularity is clearly part of the metric here, the folks that make the charts are a part of that.

AND…?: I actually have no opinion here. I know basically nothing about Paul Ackerman.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: I guess?


  1.  also the centerpiece of the museum itself, for those that have never been there, is a very long video encapsulating each inducted class, with clips of performances by most of them and things like that, and is generally a pretty cool thing to behold. 
  2.  although they did, as you can read here and going back from there, skew toward “pretty bad” 
  3.  at least until The Sadies, I suppose. 
  4.  more accurately, they were (allegedly) the backing band for the vocal performance by the regular Barbarians’ actual drummer, Moulty.  
  5.  possibly the greatest concert film ever made. 
  6.  I’ve never thought to be ticked off about it, but Lee Hazelwood is also not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That’s pretty dumb. He should be. Especially since Duane Eddy is.  
  7.  which I may actually be restating, I can’t remember. 
  8.  that’s not fair, they had “A Touch of Grey”. And occasionally one must sit through “Casey Jones” or “Truckin’,” but you see what I mean. 
  9.  while, in fact, Little Richard was also carrying on in the Little Richard vein. 
  10.  See the John Lennon Plastic Ono Band 
  11.  See the Yoko Ono version of Plastic Ono Band 
  12.  his personal life somewhat less so, but that’s about par for the course for HOF inductees at this point. 
  13.  Willie Nelson, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix and John Bonham are the other ones that come straight to mind, I could maybe come up with one more if I thought real hard about it. 
  14.  I mean, for all that I don’t care for it, at least Elton John knew he needed help with the lyrics. There’s nothing wrong with knowing your limitations, guys. 
  15.  justly or unjustly 
  16.  My actual opinion on the matter is to take Led Zeppelin at their word: they were taking off from blues songs the way that other blues musicians were doing – blues people would bite bits of songs (much like rock musicians still do to this day) all the time, and it was just part of the blues economy. That Led Zeppelin didn’t think their thing was contextually different is a position that could be argued with, but I believe they were acting in good faith, and they never missed an opportunity to champion any of the blues music they took their influence from anyway. 
  17.  behind Sam Cooke 
  18.  it is worth noting that I used to believe the opposite, and as of this writing, I have no idea what I was hearing. 
  19.  albeit not every time – his songwriting isn’t nearly as consistent as his guitar player, is what I’m saying here. 
  20.  the R&R HOF hates progressive rock 

The 2018 MTV Movie and TV Awards

The MTV Movie and Television Awards remain the most mercurial of all awards shows. The categories change annually – for example while last year we had “Best Fight Against the System” and “Best American Story”, this year we have “Best On-Screen Team” and “Most Scaredest” or whatever it’s called 1 – but this is perhaps because the movies themselves don’t actually change that much from year to year.

It is perennially the same assemblage of high-dollar summer action movies 2, college-friendly studio comedies, and the occasional very serious drama, but now some of those classifications have stretched to include television shows. So, naturally, the vagaries of which aspect of the thing is awarded have changed, so that the whole thing doesn’t seem quite so samey.

Or at least so I presume. For all I know there’s some battle royale going on in the MTV offices whereby categories are fighting it out to be chosen, and nobody ever defeats “Best Kiss”. I’d believe it either way.

Best Fight

The Marvel fights here are all fun – especially the Thor: Ragnarok one – but this one comes down to two very different ideas. The fight between Charlize Theron and the sniper dudes in Atomic Blonde was realistic, kinetic and well-choreographed. It was a real technical achievement. On the other hand, a large part of the power of superheroes is the iconography 3, and Wonder Woman‘s fight across no-man’s land delivers on that. While the New Critics would have us analyze every text based only on the elements present therein, it’s hard to not feel something about the image of Wonder Woman, a much-loved character who finally got her own movie, the first female-led superhero movie, no less, rising up out of the trench in her full Wonder Woman costume and dispatching a bunch of soldiers. It’s a remarkably effective scene, and it definitely deserves whatever awards it can get.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Gal Gadot vs. German Soldiers, Wonder Woman

Best Music Documentary

Sean Combs’s rise to success certainly makes for good corporate speech, life-coach style storytelling, but there is very little of it that’s suited to a documentary. Jay-Z’s Footnotes for 4:44 is an interesting companion to a very good record, but it’s also not really elevated above that. Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated is the sort of bog-standard music documentary that used to clog deep cable before it started being produced by (and therefore clogging) YouTube.  Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine’s The Defiant Ones is similarly dull, and has the added benefit of eliding what would be the interesting part of either man’s story. Gaga: Five Foot Two is fine and at least has some traction and a reason to exist, which elevates it somewhat. 

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Gaga: Five Foot Two

Best On-Screen Team

I liked Jumanji more than I thought I would. I liked the second season of Stranger Things less than I thought I would. Ready Player One is pretty far beneath consideration 4. I think that the Black Panther folks were a better team than the It folks.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Durira and Letitia Wright, Black Panther

Scene Stealer

It’s true that Letitia Wright and Taika Watiti both walked off with their parts of their respective movies (Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok), and it’s true that Dacre Montgomery and Madelaine Petsch are….people that exist on television, but only one of these people stole scenes in a movie so hard that she is, in fact, the host of this awards show based largely thereupon.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Tiffany Haddish, Girls Trip

Best Reality Series/Franchise

Whatever else you may say about how far RuPaul’s Drag Race has dragged itself away from its initial burst of funny creativity, it’s still a better show on its worst day than anything else in this godforsaken category.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: RuPaul’s Drag Race

Most Frightened Performance

This is most frightened not most frightening, so I’m going to assume we’re either meant to judge whether the person involved does the best job of convincing me they’re in the scariest situation possible, or the best job of conveying that they are the most scared in the first place. I don’t like it when I have to work to figure out what the category is expecting me to evaluate, so I’m going to assume that it’s Cristin Millioti. Her head is 85% eyeballs by volume 5, so she’s probably the best at looking real scared. If I weren’t allergic to Black Mirror I’d probably have more to say about it.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Cristin Millioti

Best Kiss

Let me explain: I hate it for the same reasons I hate it every year. It’s dumb, it’s the bad kind of pandering, and I hate it.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: No one, ever. No one is ever the rightful winner of this category.

Best Villain

Now this is a category I can get behind. Two of the Disney properties here – Avengers: Infinity War’s Thanos and Star Wars: The Last Jedi’s Kylo Ren are well-humanized without being glorified, which is nice, and makes for a better villain. Lenny (Aubrey Plaza) is the vessel for one my favorite comic-book villains of all time (spoiler alert, I guess?), which is pretty cool, but not quite in the same league. This one comes down to a villain that’s just a literal inhuman cosmic monster (Bill Skarsgard in It) and a villain that’s tremendously human (Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther). I don’t want to say Michael B. Jordan is the Best Everything Ever, but, well…

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Michael B. Jordan, Black Panther

Best Hero

I think I said more-or-less everything I have to say about Wonder Woman, so if you go read the fight category that’s pretty much how I feel about it. I like Black Panther and Rey just fine in their movies, but they sort of come up short by comparison.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Gal Gadot, Wonder Woman

Best Comedic Performance

So anything from I Feel Pretty and Schitt’s Creek are right the heck out. Kate McKinnon was as good as she could be on Saturday Night Live, but since this is for the most recent season, and the most recent season was about as poorly-written a season as I can remember, I think maybe she wasn’t enough to save it. Tiffany Haddish deserves all of her praise for the year she became a star, but I find her occasionally to be exhausting to watch, so I guess I have to go with Jack Black here, for Jumanji.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Jack Black, Jumanji

Best Performance in a Show

This is the time where, annually, I praise the MTV Movie Awards for not separating the men and women into different acting categories. In addition to it (the segregation, I mean) being an absolutely ridiculous practice that only serves to enforce existing gendered casting 6, it also becomes extra-silly when most of the shows (all but one, in fact, although see below) are driven by women. Anyway, having said that, I think the best job done here was by Darren Criss who brought a real human element to someone who was, by all available evidence, not very easy to humanize, and who did so by transforming himself into something nigh-unrecognizable.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Darren Criss, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story

Best Performance in a Movie

Boy, people sure did go extra-crazy for Timothee Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name. They also went crazy for him in Lady Bird, which Saoirse Ronan is representing here. Daisy Ridley continues to be quite good as Rey, but, y’know. Ansel Elgort is playing less a “character” than an “archetype,” which is cool and which I’m generally in favor of, but Chadwick Boseman is doing him one better in that regard.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Chadwick Boseman, Black Panther

Best Show

Well….huh. I mean, it’s not that I don’t see why these are the choices here, but somehow I still ended up somewhat blindsided by it. Go figure, I guess. I’m not a part of the theoretical audience for 13 Reasons Why, and also it is boring. I am definitely in the theoretical audience for Game of Thrones, but you can fill a soap opera with boobs and fire and I will still just think it’s a soap opera, and therefore boring. I think if Riverdale would have been more focused on bright colors and puns (like its source material) I would like it more, but as it is it’s boring. Stranger Things squandered a lot of promise on being….you guessed it…..boring. So I guess it’s Grown-ish, which at least has jokes.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Grown-ish

Best Movie

All of these movies are good. It and Wonder Woman’s problems come when they hew to closely to their parent genre (i.e. they both trip and fall at the ending). Girls Trip is a fine comedy. Avengers: Infinity War loses considerable points (as great as it is) for requiring at least a passing knowledge of a couple of dozen other movies to get the full experience. That leaves us with Black Panther, which happens to be fine with me.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Black Panther

 


  1.  and yet “Best Kiss” is here every time, because we live in the darkest timeline. 
  2.  leaving aside that the categorization of “summer” and “action” are shifting due to there being tent-pole movies year-round – Black Panther is nominated here a bunch, and came out in February, formerly a film-release graveyard. 
  3.  this is a contributing factor to how the DCU continues to get it so wrong – they throw away the Superman-ness or Batman-ness of the characters in favor of subverting them, which sometime smakes for good comic book storytelling, but rarely actually works in movies. For all their much-discussed darkness, the Christopher Nolan Batman movies were still, fundamentally, optimistic and heroic. They also (and I like them quite a lot) don’t exactly function as classic Batman stories, and are movies first and foremost, but trade in on the iconography, which is, of course, what I’m talking about in the first place. 
  4.  in many ways, I am very easy to pander to. This is not one of those ways. 
  5.  please note that I mean she has the regular human complement of two eyeballs, but they’re very large, not that she’s, like, a beholder or something. 
  6.  that is to say, when you separate men and women as actors from each other, it becomes easiest to see the differences when the roles themselves are gendered more clearly – compare this category here to any half-dozen nominees for, say, the Golden Globes, even in comedy, and you’ll quickly see that the things that men and women are traditionally awarded for at more “serious” awards shows is pretty ridiculous. This is why it’s hard for me to take any awards show actually seriously, guys. Especially the ones about acting. 

Who the Fuck Listens to This: Jet – Get Born

Rock music used to be big business. Oh, there’s still plenty of sales, and even the most cursory look around at whatever the place you live is will yield a probably-thriving situation with lots of rock music around and available with very little effort. Hell, even if you live in  place that has no indigenous rock music, you can certainly head over to bandcamp, or spotify, or google, or what have you and, by giving up minimal information, be connected with as much rock music that is to your taste as you could ever want it to be 1. But it used to have a place on the pop charts. One of the last gasps of that time is the debut album from Australian also-rans Jet.

Jet were, at the time, the kind of manufactured bit of business that never really works anymore – they made an EP themselves, it somehow got into the hands of someone at NME, which in turn gave them the press acclaim necessary to get the attention of someone at Elektra. Said contract, and the ensuing full-court-press of their intial single, “Are You Gonna Be My Girl?” was sufficient to get the attention of someone in the Rolling Stones camp, and thus they opened for the Rolling Stones as a band that was less than a year old. They jumped straight to the top of the line, and became very famous without there being any intercedent actual fan presence and/or “buzz.” This is not possible anymore.

Oh, and they were terrible. “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” was a shameless rip-off 2 , and the rest of the record is a slightly-less shameless rip-off. There were three other singles. The piano ballad “Look What You’ve Done” was the best of them, and was listenable in a kind of “this is going to be played six times an hour on the radio anyway, so it could be worse” sort of way. “Cold Hard Bitch” was like someone took all the cleverness out of “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” (there was not a great deal of cleverness to remove, as you can probably surmise). Their nadir was “Rollover DJ” 3, perhaps the only song whose lyrical approach can be called “rockist”, and which manages to attack DJ-culture for containing zero ideas, as the fourth single for an album that is, itself, made up of songs that sound like copyright-dodging library-music rewrites of AC/DC songs. They sold a bajillion records, and got positive reviews in the British music press and in Rolling Stone 4, and there was a good couple of years there where people seemed to be convinced that they liked this band. And hey, maybe they did!

If they did, however, they didn’t for very long. They made two more records that never really captured the same amount of public attention that Get Born had. This is, to be blunt, a problem that the “force-market a band into the public eye” approach often bears out – there’s a way to get people to think something is interesting enough to spend money on once, but once the trick has been performed, there’s basically no reason to buy it again. Their second album, Shine On, sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 1/10 what Get Born sold (the former went platinum, the latter sold 137,000 copies), and their third album 5, Shaka Rock (this is the real, actual title of the album) sold about half of what Shine On had. Then the band fizzled out, having done what they, apparently, set out to do, until just now, when they are making their attempt to cash in on that lucrative reunion money with, of all things, a live album featuring the songs from the one of their albums anyone remembers, Get Born.

2003, however, was a long time ago! I was a different person, etc. We are fourteen years in the future, and I am a kinder, gentler sort. I like lots more radio music than I did at the time 6, and I’m more comfortable being into straight-up braindead rock music. On top of that, the record they’re releasing to remind you how much you liked them at the time isn’t just a retread or whatever, but a live album of the same material 7. Many great bands – Mission of Burma, Cheap Trick, Swans, the Who, Johnny Cash, Neil Young, Sam Cooke – were able to make live albums that were better than their studio albums. Rock music is, after all, for all the posturing otherwise from oldsters and stereo enthusiasts, a live music form – any rock band that’s good enough to elicit a genuine response in the first place is almost certainly at their best when they’re playing their instruments in the same place at the same time in front of an audience. So maybe I’ll enjoy Get Born Live, and answer the titular question of this feature with someone positive for a change.

Besides, the primary gripe about them, at least in terms of what you can find still-extant on the internet anyway, is that they’re deeply derivative. I think that’s kind of a bum criticisms. There are plenty of reasons to praise originality – it’s, y’know, more interesting, for starters – but I think even a band that takes heavy influence from other bands can, by assembling the pieces through their own limbs/voice/experience, come out with something original by the end. I like Cloud Nothings even though I like The Wipers. I like Lightning Bolt even though I like Ruins. I like Teenage Fanclub even though I like Big Star. I think that there’s something undeniably lesser about giving over your whole sound to a sort of cover-band aesthetic the way that Jet did it, but I don’t think that, on paper, I should necessarily be opposed to the music.

Opposed or not, however, it’s a live album released 15 years after their initial splash which is, in and of itself, baffling. For starters, fifteen isn’t exactly a memorable anniversary. Additionally, I can’t remember the last time a live album in the last, let’s say, twenty years that actually managed to sell any real copies (of course, having typed those words, I’m immediately going to remember that there’s some giant exception that I’m just not remembering right now well after I hit “publish” on this piece). Furthermore, aforementioned contractual/label reasons aside, nobody was clamoring for this, right? I mean, it’s recorded in 2004, so it was at least the band at the height of whatever their powers were, but was there material to be mined out of getting people to pay for this particular document of this particular show? It’s so baffling that it almost comes back around: if they’re releasing this particular thing, it must at leat be fun, right?

It is not fun, guys. The problem with Jet, then, is not that they’re derivative, but that their music is the wrong kind of dumb. It seems insulting, even. There’s a sort of “by the numbers” approach that betrays that they probably don’t even think about what they might be ripping off, because they’re doing all the “right” stuff to signify “rock band” and, therefore, they’re worthy of the attention. It’s like listening to a band assembled out of the worst bits about Oasis 8. If “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” isn’t actually an Iggy Pop rip-off, then “Get What You Need” definitely makes up for it by stealing the riff from “No Fun” 9, and then going absolutely nowhere with it. The aforementioned “Rollover DJ” is done no favors by the setting, and the main riff for that one, a song about making up original music because you’re better than somebody who makes music on computers, is taken directly and completely from “Takin’ Care of Business.” If there’s anyone keeping score, I’ll take a million records made by computers over any given BTO riff.

They run through their retreads, clearly marking time 10 to get to the big pile-up at the end, which starts after a stage-clearing, palate-resetting run through the ballads, including “Look What You Done,” which two paragraphs ago I said was the song I didn’t hate, but does not survive the job done to it on this travesty of a record. “Hey Kids” leads into “Are You Gonna Be My Girl,” which is arranged structurally to show that it is literally one ninety-second song repeated twice. The structural change they make is to shout “WELL C’MOOOOOOOOOON I SAID ARE YOU GONNA BE MY GIRL”. Twice. The dude does this stupid thing twice. Like, he stops the song and does a second time in the middle of the song. And then there’s a brain-dead smash-fingered guitar solo. Then, of course, it’s on to the single they were then developing, the incredibly-awful “Cold Hard Bitch,” except, to create tension, they play the pre-riff for about a minute before allowing the song to start. The song, on the record, starts with an admittedly-impressive “YEEEEAH” that goes on for some time. On the live record, it does not, it receives as perfunctory a “YEAH” as you can imagine having under the circumstances 11. It ends, mercifully, and then there’s a few more songs, including an overlong cover of “That’s Alright Mama” that features a really long guitar solo by the guy from The Living End. It’s bad.

But I repeat myself. So the question here posed is: who the fuck listens to this? And this, as much as anything I’ve done in a long time, is a question I do not know how to answer. People that remember Get Born faintly and/or fondly are going to call up Get Born and listen to that. People that are die-hard Jet fans probably do not need to hear the violence done to the material that this godawful live setting provides. People that have, I guess, heard about this band and wonder what the hype is about will be actively repulsed by how lazy and ridiculous this all is. So your guess is as good as mine.


  1.  I mean, I suppose if the answer is “none,” then you probably don’t have to read the rest of this paragraph. Or the preceding part but, well, I didn’t have the chance to tell you that at the beginning of the paragraph, see. 
  2.  it was, to most folks with ears, a rip-off of “Lust for Life,” but according to Wikipedia they insisted they were ripping off the Motown sound, and (again according to Wikipedia – I avoided the seemingly-endless press they got at the time fairly successfully, so most of this is through secondhand sources) Iggy Pop agreed. So fine, it’s a rip off of “Can’t Hurry Love”, not “Lust for Life.” Fair. 
  3.  a song that some informal polling reveals most people do not remember at all, which means it’s stuck in my head alongside “Bartender” by Rehab and “FreaXXX” by BrokenCYDE as songs that I am the only person to remember, and in all three cases it’s because a part of me literally died when I heard each one, and each song diminished my capacity to feel joy forever. 
  4.  it was also, at the height of Pitchfork’s influence, the recipient of perhaps their funniest ever record review. 
  5.  which, prior to writing this piece, I was not aware existed at all. 
  6.  biographically, 2003 would have been about as insufferable about things as I ever got, actually, so Jet was always going to be in my crosshairs. 
  7.  I’m assuming the reason for this is some kind of label strife or whatever, but I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt for it anyway. 
  8.  or, for that matter, the worst parts of their erstwhile tourmates The Rolling Stones. 
  9.  not a problem: it’s a great riff, and the best riff on the record. 
  10.  seriously – the first half of this record is the equivalent of that shit you do when you clock in for the day where you futz with your coffee cup and read emails and look at the weather and maybe write out a little list or whatever. It literally does nothing for the songs, nothing for the band and, I presume, nothing for the audience. 
  11.  it is outdone, for example, by every Plane Break that Comedy Bang! Bang! took in the early days, which used that song as its accompaniment. 

Shamelessly Punting: An Ordinal Ranking of Things

Hey guys! There are things in the pipeline, I swear, they just didn’t happen this week for whatever reason (one of them took a lot more time than I thought it would, and I didn’t have time to course-correct to get another one out before it went pear-shaped). So, as is my tradition, here are some lists that take the place of a regular weekly post. Please to enjoy.

 

The Months, ranked:

  1. October
  2. May
  3. June
  4. September
  5. December
  6. January
  7. November
  8. March
  9. July
  10. April
  11. August
  12. February

 

Days of the week, ranked:

  1. Saturday
  2. Friday
  3. Monday
  4. Sunday
  5. Thursday
  6. Wednesday
  7. Tuesday

 

Hours of the Day, ranked:

  1. 11:00 am
  2. 8:00 pm
  3. 9:00 pm
  4. 12:00 pm
  5. 6:00 pm
  6. 10:00 am
  7. 1:00 pm
  8. 10:00 pm
  9. 4:00 pm
  10. 11:00 pm
  11. 9:00 am
  12. 7:00 pm
  13. 12:00 am
  14. 8:00 am
  15. 5:00 pm
  16. 1:00 am
  17. 2:00 am
  18. 7:00 am
  19. 6:00 am
  20. 2:00 pm
  21. 5:00 am
  22. 3:00 am
  23. 4:00 am
  24. 3:00 pm

The Best Records of May 2018

The Body – I Have Fought Against it But Can’t Any Longer (while it’s true that it may seem counterintuitive for The Body – a band who built their early catalog out of their ferocious singing and playing – to make what might actually be their best record yet by sampling themselves and letting other excellent vocalists take over the mic, it happened anyway, and I can’t stop listening to it. A genuinely perfect album.)

Trampled by Turtles – Life is Good on the Open Road (if it had not come out at the beginning of summer, it might not sound like the idyllic bluegrass heaven that it does, but it did, and Trampled by Turtles are all geniuses.)

Carla Bozulich – Quieter (A trunk album – a vault-clearing set of songs with a variegated set of collaborators, including Sarah Lipstate and Marc Ribot – from Carla Bozulich is still better than most other albums by most other people.)

La Luz – Floating Features (what can I say, I love saddo surf music, and I don’t think there’s nearly enough of it in the world.)

Gnod – Chapel Perilous (I also love grinding noise-metal, but that comes as no surprise at this point. Seriously, though, this record would have made it even if it were only “Donovan’s Daughters.)