Who the Fuck Listens to This: Miley Cyrus Unplugged

MTV’s Unplugged is one of the most bizarre bits of programming basic cable has ever birthed. It was launched in 1989 as a weird college-rock focused collaboration/showcase hybrid. After a respectability- (and popularity-) boosting Paul McCartney episode,  it spent some time not really knowing what was going on for better (LL Cool J/De La Soul/A Tribe Called Quest) or, often, for worse (Queensryche covering “Scarborough Fair”). In 1992 it started to come into its own: Pearl Jam (then the biggest rock band in the universe) played a show, Eric Clapton completely exsanguinated “Layla,” and Mariah Carey covered the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There”1.

Having established its position in the larger world, 1994 saw it get really weird: Bruce Springsteen completely ignored the premise (even calling the resulting album MTV Plugged), Bob Dylan did nothing out of the ordinary whatsoever except allow MTV’s cameras into the show, 10,000 Maniacs represented the last gasp of the show’s college-rock origins, Page and Plant reunited, and The Eagles sucked a lot2. For the remainder of the nineties, Unplugged was primarily a curiosity – some of the episodes were good, most of the episodes were execrable, and sometimes the result was downright bizarre3.

Throughout the subsequent decade, the show was revived as a special, which works better for the form – rather than having to try to fill space, they could air one when there’s a good idea (Jay-Z and The Roots performing together in 2001 being possibly the best idea anyone had in 2001). Alicia Keys created a time capsule of the world of pop music in 2005, and then the show went into stasis for a few years. Then it was a webseries in the early ‘teens, and since then there’s been one or two a year.

All of which is to say: this show has a history of not making any damn sense. And so we enter Miley Cyrus. After several months of representing Declining Moral Standards4, Problematic Social Problems in Popular Music5, and The Problem With Kids Today6, she’s going to get onstage (with Madonna, no less) and sing in front of some acoustic guitars. Maybe she’ll even play one herself!

But that’s just the set of things that make it obvious why Unplugged would want Miley. What is it, exactly, that would make this worth listening to? I suppose as excuses for televised Miley shows, it’s not a bad one, but why watch it under the Unplugged brand instead of just watching footage of her regular live show or something? It doesn’t even qualify as an event: it was dumped off at nine o’clock on a Wednesday, and even all of the hype of a promised Madonna cameo couldn’t seem to get any kind of leverage on word-of-mouth.

Usually, the WTFLTT fodder is the end-of-the-line mercenary cash-grab, so it’s a slight change of pace this time to be recognizing the cash-grab potential of someone who is still an active pop star – still promoting hit singles and, by all appearances, nowhere near the end of the line7. More important to the question asked in the headline, here: Miley’s fanbase is too young to remember when MTV Unplugged was a regular occurrence, and the MTV Unplugged nostalgists are probably not Miley Cyrus fans. Obviously we end up back, here, at “market it as an event and hope that it sticks,” but it’s still such a bizarre choice for an “event” that I have to wonder about the sanity and well-being of the person to whom it occurred.

So how was it as an event? Not very noteworthy, actually. Miley Mileyed it up gamely, appearing dressed as a picnic table in a terrible blonde wig and grinding on a pantomime horse9. There was a costume change twenty-minutes or so in to the show, to an outfit that looked like someone made a bikini/jacket/jeans ensemble entirely out of sparkly denim parachute fabric that someone then took a pair of garden shears to. With a cowboy hat10.

The instrumentation of her band included, at various points, a guitar11, a banjo, a couple of violins (never actually played as fiddles, even though the general idea was to present Miley as “getting back to her country roots”), an organ, a piano (never both at the same time though, unfortunately), a drummer, an upright bass, a couple of backup singers, and a dancing little person, who will not be coming up again.

The song selection was, I presume, exactly what someone more familiar with Miley’s music would have expected. She played some songs that I didn’t know, but that the audience seemed to know well enough, and they were largely boring. Most of the way through “Wrecking Ball,” my Viewing Companion pointed out that she lost her ear monitor12, and that was just about as interesting as things got until the Madonna part.

Ah, the Madonna part. As previously mentioned, Madonna and her antics should represent a big, flashing sign to people all through Miley’s career that this has basically happened before. Rather than adopting the mannerisms of the black club culture at the time, she adopted those of the Downtown New York club scene (i.e. the remnants of disco and what would eventually, in her hometown of Detroit, become the techno scene, at least for those parts of her career where it hadn’t already), and specifically the gay club scene13, which gave her both imagery and dance moves. Thus making the perfectly valid point that the people who are concerned with handwringing over Miley’s career are essentially morons – she’s bringing Madonna onstage with her, because even if everyone else is going to pretend to forget, anything Miley is doing is something lady pop stars of a certain stripe have been doing for literally the last thirty years. And that’s even only if you start with Madonna.

So Miley sings “Don’t Tell Me”, and Madonna comes on and takes over the singing of that, and Miley weaves “We Can’t Stop” in and out of it in a live mash-up. Madonna is singing what may, in fact, be her weakest single (and I’m by no means a Madonna fan), but that’s ok, because Miley is singing her weakest single (except maybe “The Climb”) and the thing that really sticks out is that Madonna – who was never Earth’s greatest dancer – is not really done any favors by dancing next to Miley. The song ends, the show ends, the Madonna part is mercifully over, and the world goes on, and we are all reminded that of all of the things that are interesting and worth paying attention to about Miley, her music is way down at the bottom of the list.

So who the fuck was listening to this? I suppose anyone that was bored at nine o’clock on a Wednesday night was unlikely to find anything else. It made a pretty good lead-in for the finale of American Horror Story, so it could have been people that wanted one of those? Other than that, the audience seemed to mostly be bloggers.

Which, I guess, gets Unplugged written about, and Miley written about, and (sigh) Madonna written about and we should all just go hang ourselves. Nevertheless, it would have been much more better had it been Lorde.

1 it was by no means out of the woods, however: There are 100 or so episodes, and 1993 also saw Roxette and Duran Duran.
2 and so, like Bob Dylan, did nothing out of the ordinary whatsoever except allow MTV’s cameras into the show.
3 this is also skimming over Nirvana’s episode, which is by no means the most popular, but may be the most critically-acclaimed, and is one of a tiny number of episodes (perhaps the only others being Lauryn Hill’s and Jay-Z’s)  that actually stands as a vital part of the act’s discography.
4 i.e. being the first twenty-year-old to ever perform provocatively or dress scantily onstage ever ever ever
5 i.e. being the first young white girl to adopt “black”* mannerisms of speech and dancing ever
* i.e. not demure enough, which is perfectly ok as long as our little white girls aren’t dancing that way
6 i.e. they aren’t the passive, nonthreatening shrinking violets that the old white people and concern trolls having these conversations think they should be, with their sexting and their knockout games and their standing squarely on my lawn
7 another thing that’s relatively interesting about Unplugged is that there haven’t been many episodes populated by the washed-up. Generally it’s only the still-fertile that get to perform them.
8 I have no idea how old the average Miley Cyrus fan is
9 at one point she sits astride the horse, in the typical fashion, and my Viewing Companion and I discussed the physical details of what the poor chap in the back of that horse must be doing during this portion, given that his head is already in someone’s butt and now he has a human being sitting atop him.
10 she did, however, lose the weird wig
11 actually a semiacoustic, rather than a straight-acoustic, which is actually a pretty common touch in Unplugged episodes. That guitar riff that opens “The Man Who Sold the World” from Nirvana’s episode is actually even run through a distortion pedal. This one wassemiacoustic because the guy was using a slide, and it was probably just EQed to help wtih sustain. I couldn’t really tell, given the general sound quality problems with the episode, about which the less said, the better, except that there was a really obnoxious problem whereby the spoken between-song-patter vocal was significantly quieter than the sung vocals, and I didn’t always feel like rewinding, so if there was important information in the introductions to the songs, I probably didn’t catch it.
12 quoth V.C. “I saw something dangling under her necklace and though she had something in common with 2 Chainz* and then I saw that she didn’t actually have anything in common with 2 Chainz. Well, except for her one chain.”
* i.e. she had 2 chainz
13 see: the handwringing vis a vis Madonna taking the blame for the co-opting of gay dance’s “Vogueing,” and its outright similarity to Miley taking the blame for the co-opting of black dance’s “twerking”*. Of course, there’s also the fact that Madonna didn’t adopt black mannerisms in order to offend the old white people of the time, which seems to be where most of the anti-Miley-ism comes from, and which, frankly, is so appalling that I can hardly talk about it.
* NB: also note how, although both women just capitalized on something that was pretty-well integrated into the young white lady repetoire, everyone pretended to have extremely selective memory loss about it so that they could engage in said handwringing.


Anything to Add, Monty? Episode 1

Guys! Have you read posts and listened to mixes and thought “I wonder what these guys have to say about sports movies?” Well you’re out of luck. Because what we have here is a podcast devoted to sporting cinema. We are classier than that. Try to keep these things in mind as you follow along.


Once you get your act together, maybe put on a clean shirt or something, you’re welcome to stream the first episode here (right click to download). It’s about D2: The Mighty Ducks, and it’s probably the best thing you’re liable to hear since pod met cast.

If you’re still a dinosaur like me, you can add the feed here to your favorite feed-dispensary, and stay tuned in a couple of weeks for the next episode!


The 2014 Grammy Awards

Ah, the Grammys. Of the major awards-season shows, obviously the Grammys are the ones I have the most feelings about. Mostly bad feelings. But feelings, nonetheless. This year’s is especially baffling as, at one point going through, I had to look some things up to make sure I was looking at the nominees for the right year. A lot of the records here are old.


Anyway, like last year I’m largely skipping the classical and jazz categories. Part of that is because I don’t really have the ability to evaluate them in the “Grammy” sense – I don’t listen to enough classical recordings to have any kind of idea what makes one arrangement any “better” (in the awards show sense) than another. And the contemporary jazz that gets nominated for Grammys is officially the most boring crap it’s possible to nominate for anything1.

Basically, if I don’t feel I can give the firm, definitive pronouncement of the proper winner that I know you’ve all grown accustomed to, I’m not going to write about the category. That said, I’m probably also going to write about some categories I didn’t write about last year.

Onward!

Best Music Video
Boy, Jay-Z really has lost his fucking mind, hasn’t he? That really happened all at once. Anyway. Picasso Baby is dumb bullshit. “Suit & Tie” is proof that Jay-Z isn’t keeping his brainworms to himself. I have literally no idea why “Can’t Hold Us” should be nominated for anything, as that video is dumb. The “I’m Shakin’” video is pretty cool. Jack White sure does have a strong sense of style. But that Capital Cities video is cheese city with extra cheese, and I can’t turn that down.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Capital Cities, “Safe and Sound” (Bonus: now that fucking song is in your head. BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.)

Best Remixed Recording, Non-Classical
I feel like this is the first time I’ve seen a remix category at the Grammys? I don’t remember there being one in years past. Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention. Anyway. This is perhaps the most challenging category, as what is it, exactly, that makes a remix “good”? I decided that I didn’t want to answer that question, and evaluated each remix as thought it was a completely new song, and then again in relation to the original, and it turned out that the same song came up on top both times.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNERS: Lana Del Rey “Summertime Sadness (Cedric Gervais Remix)”

Producer of the Year, Non-Classical
Another technically-challenging category, the only way to evaluate the effectiveness of a producer is within the context of the act (Pharrell, for example, is almost certainly not trying to do the same things for Mayer Hawthorne that Jeff Tweedy is trying to do for Mavis Staples, and that’s even sort of within the same genre). That said, Dr. Luke had just about his worst year on record, if his grammy-nominated songs are to be believed. Ariel Rechtshaid and Rob Cavallo seem to have the same talent: producing songs that people like to play on the radio (or whatever passes for radio these days). And so we come back to Pharrell vs. Jeff Tweedy. On the one hand, Pharrell is basically in his element, and did make some crazy good records this year. On the other hand, Jeff Tweedy produced a Low album.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Jeff Tweedy. Duh.

Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical
I’m not actually that fussed about the winner here, but I would like to say that Pistol Annies/Madeleine Peyroux/Alice in Chains/Queens of the Stone Age/Andrew Duhon/Daft Punk is probably the weirdest set of people in one category.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Daft Punk, because whatever else they may or may not be good at, their records are engineered as soundly as a Swiss watch

Best Historical Album
Uh huh. Uh huh. You know, I probably could have skipped this category, but I like that it exists so much. Still, though. What a boring set of choices.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Pictures of Sound: One Thousand Years of Educed Audio

Best Album Notes
Why is Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard here and not above? Please note: this is not the first time I will question the category that something winds up in.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: the person that writes me a note explaining why these categories are a massive, confused jumble.

Best Boxed or Limited Edition Special Package
Man, here’s one for all the physical media enthusiasts out there! I buy a lot of records physically, but 1) not any of these and 2) rarely conversation pieces. Still, though, I suppose the population of “people who only want to buy a Paul McCartney album if they can display it tastefully above their mantle” are pretty happy this year.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: I can’t even pretend to care.

Best Recording Package
You know what I’ve never actually considered? Who actually makes the packaging decision for, say, a Metallica album. Some research also shows that I have absolutely no idea what could possibly be being awarded here. There is nothing remotely interesting about any of the “packaging” of any of these records, unless it refers to cover art, in which case “David Bowie’s thirty-five-year-old album cover with a big fuck off square in the middle of it” is the clear winner.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: David Bowie’s thirty-five-year-old album cover with a big fuck off square in the middle of it.

Best Song Written for Visual Media
Cleverly worded so that songs from tv shows can be included! And, presumably, not paintings! But a song from a painting would be pretty boss. Anyway. This is a collection of the dullest music in the present environment. Like, seriously. Even the ones (Adele, Regina Spektor) who can be not be boring are, here, quite boring.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Paul F. Tompkins, “Skyfall”

Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media
I liked the score for Argo a lot a year ago when I wrote about it for the Oscars. I feel that I still like it.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Argo

Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media
How bad do you think Baz Luhrmann wants these Grammys every single time he shits an idea out of his stupid butt brain? WELL HE’S NOT GETTING THIS ONE.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: I actually don’t care, I just want someone to not give it to Baz Luhrmann

Best Comedy Album
Uuuuuuugh. Jesus. I almost feel like they must have tripped over that Tig Notaro record by accident. Like, how did they even find it? Clearly they have absolutely no idea where to look. Bob Saget? Kathy Griffin?

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Tig Notaro, Live. Because it’s actually great, but also because it’s the only good thing in this godforsaken category.

Best Spoken Word Album (includes Poetry, Audio Books and Storytelling)
I can honestly say I’ve never heard a “storytelling” album. Also I firmly believe that Stephen Colbert’s jokes are better than Pete Seeger’s poetry.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Stephen Colbert, America Again: Re-Becoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t

Best Folk Album
Hey! It’s Sarah Jarosz! Hi Sarah Jarosz! I legitimately thought I heard about Guy Clark having died a couple of years ago. I guess he’s not even retired. Huh. The Milk Carton Kids and The Greencards didn’t manage to do anything of much inspiration, and Arhoolie Records would have to be trying to not put together an impressive compilation, so that kind of seems like cheating.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Sarah Jarosz, Build Me Up From Bones

Best Americana Album
I skipped Best Bluegrass Album, but that, the folk category and this category all seem like they could all be one category, no? I guess they’re not as worried about the categories that’ll probably just never be televised. Anyway. This worked out a lot better than last years Americana crop. Especially once you throw out Steve Martin and Edie Brickell (“folk music for people that think folk music is best appreciated by people who don’t have any idea how folk music works”). It’s hard to throw out Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, and even harder to throw out Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell. I guess the reason they can’t lump this in with folk or one of the country categories is that would leave out Allen Toussaint and Mavis Staples, which would be a shame.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Mavis Staples, One True Vine

Best American Roots Song
And then, of course, my carefully-reasoned theory is thrown out in favor of not making any goddamn sense. So all the categories are just lumped together up here in “roots song.” Anyway. Steve Earle. He’s a reliable workhorse. Still not giving it to Steve Martin and Edie Brickell2. So nobody named Steve, then. Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott will probably be sad to know that it’s not them either. I like Allen Toussaint, but I always feel like I don’t like him as much as people expect me to. Or as other people tell me they do. Anyway.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Sarah Jarosz, “Build Me Up From Bones”

Best Country Album
Skipping over the CCM3, latin, jazz and other assorted small-band categories means that the Country category follows logically from the other, well, country categories. I think that for as long as I do this I’m going to have to be annoyed at Jason Aldean. That’s fine. I’m in this for the long haul. We’ll see who rusts first, Aldean. I’m just going to move Tim McGraw and Blake Shelton out ofthe way right away – not because they didn’t make good records4, but because Red and Same Trailer, Different Park are both quite good, and it was always going to come down to them.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer, Different Park, because it’s actually a country record.

Best Country Song
There used to be such a fuss made about whether or not any given performer wrote their own songs. Remember that? That was, in hindsight, pretty goddamned ridiculous. Anyway, I mention it because that would mean that Taylor Swift was the only person those people would take seriously which, if you think about who the people who thought that writing your own songs was important are, is goddamned hilarious. Actually, most of the effort people go to to marginalize non-rock music was pretty funny.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER:  All of us, really, because we are allowed to look back upon such silliness.

Best Country Duo/Group Performance
This remains the category that I basically care about the least. The country music duet is a form with a long and storied history that has led to some of the genre’s best moments, up until the early nineties and the advent of adopting the model of playing in the studio with your touring band5, which made it even more awkward to bring in another singer that had no chemistry. Now, as we move away from that model once more, it seems only fair that the noble country duet gets some more time in the sun. But that is also something that’s probably going to happen outside of the Grammy awards

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: In the first repeat winner of the category, it’s Mrs. Coach and Mrs. Coach’s hair! Way to go, ladies!

Best Country Solo Performance
Miranda Lambert’s, “Mama’s Broken Heart” appears on the Grammys’ website with no album attributed to it, which tells me that the Grammys are as embarrassed about the title of Four the Record as everyone associated with it should be. It’s an ok song, but they’re right: it can never win. Anyway, everyone here knows that I think Hunter Hayes should be set on fire. I just listened to the Lee Brice song “I Drive Your Truck,” again, and I’ve already forgotten it. That leaves us with Blake Shelton vs. Darius Rucker.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Darius Rucker, “Wagon Wheel”, because it really is a great song.

Best Rap Album
One of the things I love about Kanye West is that, even though his creative output is pretty uniformly incredible, and even though he has the ability to basically bend all of hip-hop around him, he is still his own biggest fan, and this Grammy nomination was the source of a hissy fit because it wasn’t all the other Grammy nominations. That’s beautiful. Anyway, I do actually think that Yeezus is better than Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, but I’ll be interested to revisit that opinion in a few years.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Yeezus, if only because Kanye’s thank-you speech would be infinitely more entertaining than Kendrick’s.

Best Rap Song
Huh. “Thrift Shop.” I thought awards-granting bodies had already moved on to “Same Love.” I guess they aren’t controlled by a sinister monomind like I thought. Anyway, both songs are terrible and neither deserves anything. Drake still did not start from the bottom, and that song sucks, too. “Holy Grail” is possibly the best song on Magna Carta Holy Grail, but that’s not actually saying that much. ONAT First Half of 13 favorites “New Slaves” and “Fuckin’ Problems” are both great songs, and it appears that we have yet another Kanye vs. Kendrick fight on our hands. These are really hard on my heart, guys. I totally know how children from broken homes feel now.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kanye West, “New Slaves,” but I don’t think we need to dwell on it. I LOVE YOU BOTH, KENDRICK IT’S JUST THE RIGHT CHOICE FOR RIGHT NOW.

Best Rap/Sung Collaboration
In a just world, this would be a Drake song vs. a Future song and maybe, like, a Rich Kidz song or something. But it isn’t. It’s rap songs with sung hooks. And it’s got J. Cole in it! But, somehow, inexplicably, not Macklemore! But two different Jay-Z songs! I don’t understand anything! Anyway, it’s obviously not J. Cole or either Jay-Z song. I’m sad to say it’s not “Remember You,” either, but that’s more because Wiz Khalifa is, like Blake Shelton, such a happy puppy that I feel bad for denying him stuff.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar & Mary J. Blige, “Now or Never”

Best Rap Performance
There are four terrible songs in this batch, and one stone-cold great one. Oh, and I’d like to single out “Thrift Shop” for still sucking.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar, “Swimming Pools (Drank)”

Best R&B Album
HOLY SHIT, EVERYBODY. IT’S FAITH EVANS. HOLY JESUS. Anyway. She’s not going to win a Grammy, but it’s good to know she’s still…around? I mean. It’s good to know the advertising wing of some label or other figured out how to convince the Grammy-granters that she’s still around. That’s very nice. The R&B Grammy is not the Urban Contemporary Grammy, so I think it’s fair to call this one “the R&B Grammy for Old Folks.” And old folks looooooove John Legend. And, possibly, Faith Evans.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: John Legend, Love in the Future

Best Urban Contemporary Album
This category (“R&B for young folks”) has been such a goldmine in years past that this year’s anemic selection seems like it should be an accident, but upon some digging: it pretty much isn’t. Oh sure, it would be nice to see Blood Orange or the Weeknd or whoever in there6, but they’re not really the Grammy type. It’s also somewhat notable for the fact that Unapologetic is the Rihanna release that’s gotten the most breathing room, Rihanna’s-release-schedule-wise. It’s still not a very good album, though, although it’s better than Fantasia or Tamar Braxton could do. That Mack Wilds record is ok. The Salaam Remi record is better.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Salaam Remi, One: In the Chamber

Best R&B Song
I mean, I know that I devote a lot of words to it, but literally nothing about the Grammys’ genre separation makes a single lick of sense. So songs that were “Urban Contemporary” in album categories are now “R&B” in song format, and I AM MORE THAN A LITTLE CONFUSED BY THIS. Anyway, I quite like “Pusher Love Girl”.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Justin Timberlake, “Pusher Love Girl”

Best Traditional R&B Performance
“R&B for people who can’t bear to admit they listen to R&B”, I guess? Anyway. That Fantasia song was on an Urban Contemporary record a minute ago. If it seems like I’m just splitting hairs, consider: they called each of the categories different things, why can’t they either open up the field of nominations, or figure out what it is they want to call it?

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Gary Clark, Jr., “Please Come Home”

Best R&B Performance
Y’know, the non-traditional ones. Actually, this just brings to mind a bunch of seventies-style jumpsuited, finger-poppin’ song and dance men re-enacting Marina Abramovic pieces. Which, obviously, is something that needs to happen right away.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Marina Abramovic

The Best Alternative Album
More fun with genres! Luckily, “Alternative” never meant anything in the first place. Nine Inch Nails’ Hesitation Marks, The National’s Trouble Will Find Me, Neko Case’s The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You7 – the winner of this year’s ceremonial “willowy lady with a really long album title nomination” – and Modern Vampires of the City are all albums by bands that have made significantly better albums. They are also all albums that I find it hard to do anything but shrug at. I dunno. But that Tame Impala album was tits.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Tame Impala, Lonerism

Best Rock Album
Lord help us all. Given that they’ve managed to boner every single category, do you wonder what it is the Grammy voters could get right? Also, isn’t Celebration Day a film? Of all the dumb-ass intergenre nonsense the Grammys have managed, nominating the soundtrack to a concert film in this category seems like it’s pretty much the dumbest. Anyway, that Queens of the Stone Age record is pretty good, and people really had a lot of very excited things to say about that David Bowie record, but I don’t understand any of those things.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Queens of the Stone Age, …Like Clockwork

Best Rock Song
I feel Gary Clark Jr’s presence here and in the R&B nominations is either proof that the Grammy academy can’t decide what is and is not R&B, or that I’m being fucked with. I, obviously, choose to believe the latter. Anyway. The average age of the nominees in this category is 56. You can take that as a victory for the vitality of old people, as a sign that young people aren’t making commercial rock music anymore, or as a sign that the Grammy Voting Academy is hedging whatever their bets may be by trying to appeal to the most tried-and-true acts. None of it particularly matters, I suppose, because the only good song in the bunch is that Gary Clark, Jr. song, and that’s not a rock song.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The vengeful ghosts of all of the genres that were dismissed casually by an audience created by the mainstream commercial rock machine.

Best Metal Performance
Actually, this set of nominees is going to leave us with “least terrible” metal performance but, as with several of the country nominations, at least they got the fucking genre right. Dream Theater, Black Sabbath and Anthrax are all bands that have made vital contributions to the music environment. The most recently that statement could have been present tense for any of those bands is twenty full years ago. And even that only applies to Dream Theater. Seriously. If the Grammy nominators think that R&B fans are inscrutable and/or mercurial, they obviously just think that heavy metal fans are just old.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: I couldn’t even begin to tell you. I’m too busy listening to The Body.

Best Rock Performance
I’m still protesting the inclusion of Celebration Day. Is it a bribe to get the surviving members of The Entity Currently Calling Itself Led Zeppelin8 to show up to the awards ceremony? Is it because commercial rock is in such a weird place right now that there’s basically no idea to tell what it even is9? Alabama Shakes’ “Always Alright” is actually from a proper soundtrack to a non-concert film, so I’m ok with it in the larger sense, if still thinking it’s not very good in the smaller. “My God is the Sun” and “I’m Shakin’” are both fair-to-middlin’ songs by acts that are (or have been) capable of genuine rockin’ greatness. “Radioactive” is, easily, the worst song of 2013. Easily. Handily. In a walk it is the worst song of 2013. I could devote thousands more words to this fact. Instead, I won’t.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: A recording of the sigh and headshake this category deserves. Alternately, a righteous haunting by the ghost of John Bonham.

Best Traditional Pop Vocal
The “traditional pop” category was introduced in 1992 – right around the last time there was a major divide in the targeted ages of Grammy categories. It has also been won in half of those years by Tony Bennett (that’s not a joke). And he’s up for it this year, and history shows that he’s likely to win it again. Cee-Lo’s Christmas album and Gloria Estefan’s album of standards are beneath consideration. Dionne Warwick’s oddly-assembled (albeit mildly interesting10) Now is better on paper than in execution. That means it comes down to Michael Buble and Tony Bennett, and frankly, who am I to argue with the force of history and tradition?

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Tony Bennett & Various Artists, Viva Duets

Best Dance/Electronica Album
I am pretty happy to take any opportunity to shit on Calvin Harris. Even this one. Fuck you, Calvin Harris. Kaskade and Disclosure are both so deathly dull that I can’t imagine giving them an award for anything, except possibly “most bafflingly adored act currently going”11. I’ve written enough on this blog about how uninteresting I find the Daft Punk record. Luckily, Pretty Lights is here to save the day.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Pretty Lights, A Color Map of the Sun

Best Dance Recording
Seriously, do you think if we just start swatting Calvin Harris on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper he’ll go away? I’ve given up on ever remembering the time he was talented. Kaskade is here again, officially setting them on the road to being the J. Cole of the Grammys. Duke Dumont and Armin Van Buren have other, better songs that they aren’t nominated here for. I kind of like that Zedd song.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Zedd featuring Foxes, “Clarity”

Best Pop Vocal Album
The 25% of The Complete 20/20 Experience that’s good is quite good. And it’s depressing that among this field it puts that record in the middle of the pack – healthily above Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines and Lana Del Rey’s Paradise. But Unorthodox Jukebox and Pure Heroine are both better records.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Bruno Mars, Unorthodox Jukebox, because even though it’s an uneven, inconsistent record, it’s not as uneven or inconsistent as Pure Heroine

Best Pop Instrumental Album
Of all the categories at the Grammy awards, this is the one that seems the weirdest. I listen to more instrumental records per year than anyone I know, and I’m basically entirely-unaware of the field of “pop instrumental” music, at least as separate from EDM (which is how it’s presented here).

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Herb Alpert, Steppin’ Out, because why not?

Best Pop Duo/Group Performance
Man, if you throw out “Blurred Lines” you have a category full of songs that are both 1) good and 2) nominated in the correct category. It’s a Christmas miracle! “Suit & Tie” still has that terrible Jay-Z verse. “Just Give Me a Reason” still has all those parts that aren’t the chorus. “Get Lucky” is still a minute too long.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: “Stay,” but it should be accepted by Low or, failing that, Patti Smith.

Best Pop Solo Performance
Now this is a category. Sara Bareilles’ come-from-behind Grammy showing is mildly interesting in and of itself, and “Brave” is a pretty good song, even. Unfortunately it’s outclassed here. “Mirrors” is the high point of The 20/20 Experience, “If I Was Your Man” is the only Bruno Mars song where the whole song is as good as the chorus, “Roar” is the best Katy Perry single since “Hot and Cold.” But this is also my first opportunity in this blog space to profess my love for “Royals”.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Lorde, “Royals.” Seriously. It’s so good.

Best New Artist
I see no reason to beat around the bush here. Sorry, Kacey Musgraves.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar

Song of the Year
Oh there’s “Same Love.” Right. Well, that’s a piece of shit, so it doesn’t win. “Just Give Me a Reason” is still a cut below the rest of the nominees here. “Roar” is too reliant on its performance and production to win the “song” category12. “Locked Out of Heaven” is good, but also production-driven.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Lorde, “Royals.”

Album of the Year
Obviously, The Heist is still awful. Where once it held the pleasures of Ryan Lewis’ production (and, make no mistake – he’s a very good producer), that’s pretty much wiped out by the sheer, unbelievable crassness that marks basically every other aspect of the record. Branch out on your own, Ryan. Make beat records and post them on Soundcloud or something. Leave Ben to do his own weird, insulting, bandwagony thing. You’re better than this. I did have some nice things to say about Sara Bareilles, and I was as surprised as anybody, but let’s not get carried away here. Random Access Memories is still not a very good album. Red has an absolutely top-notch clutch of singles, and would be the winner in a Kendrick-free field.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City

Record of the Year
Ah, here it is! The big one! The Grande Belle award of the evening! Unfortunately, in these writeups, as in the show itself, there’s basically no suspense left. There are no surprises here. So I’m going to take this last opportunity to say: Robin Thicke is gross, and Imagine Dragons are mind-bogglingly awful.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Lorde, “Royals”

1 there are also a whole bunch of Latin categories that I just don’t feel like I can evaluate, having essentially zero exposure to any of the music, which would mean coming to a conclusion about which Latin record is best to someone who literally has no idea about the mien of the record. That’s like getting fashion advice from a Kardashian*.
* ZING!
2 a note, here: I have never gotten the impression that Steve Martin’s banjo-playin’ folk musician career was anything but completely genuine. I think he really means all that pickin’ and grinnin’. I think, however, that he also has been enabled in his earnestly-meant “folk music” stylings by the sort of people that like the idea of a real person going over the fence to play hillbilly music they don’t have to feel bad about liking. Actors make vanity records all the time, but only in Steve Martin’s case does it turn into some twisted form of fake-legitimacy because of the genre in which he chooses to work.
3 for those of you who were waiting patiently for the answer posed back in the American Music Awards writeup to the question “is it still called CCM?” – yes, yes it is. You may now resume breathing normally.
4 Well, Blake Shelton did. Tim McGraw did not make a good record.
5 an advent that I’m all in favor of. The country music duet gave us some strong parts, but it is also the easiest way to make a song that’s just terrible.
6 I am going, here in this footnote, to call this next year for Jhene Aiko, who really does appear to be gathering hosannas, which is pretty cool.
7 to swallow the cat to swallow the rat to swallow the spider* to catch the fly
*that wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her
8 I realize that it’s still ¾ of actual Led Zeppelin, but calling John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant without John Bonham Led Zeppelin is like calling a grilled cheese sandwich a cheeseburger because it has most of the right parts.
9 hint: it’s this one.
10 she reconnected with Burt Bacharach, Hal David and Phil Ramone to remake a bunch of songs that had already been hits for them, which is a neat idea.
11 this applies only to Disclosure. As far as I can tell, nobody likes Kaskade.
12 the “record” categories go to the artifactual existence of the record itself – all of the things that you physically hear. The “song” categories try to isolate the song in some kind of metatextual existence. Or, rather, textual existence. Whether this is possible or not is up to you to decide, but whatever feat of songwriting you can conjure up, the effectiveness “Roar” is borne of its singer, and therefore has very little to do with the song.


The 2014 Golden Globes

Well, I’m sure all of you had excellent holidays and all that. I’m not going to ask specifically because you can’t hear me. But guys, it’s the for-real awards season! No more fake, humanistic awards that pretend to be by or of the people! No, we have now the mechanistic overlord-driven ABSOLUTE DIKTATS coming forward. These are, truly, the best of times. The Golden Globes appears to be playing up the segregation between the TV and Movie portions of the awards show this year. That’s kind of weird, but I guess they kind of do that every year? I don’t really know. Obviously the coverage and advertising surrounding an awards show is one step too meta for me1. Anyway, here, as always, is all you need to have your hand held during the ceremony. You poor little lost lambs.


Best Miniseries or Television Film
That’s right. No opinions here. We are declaring the best. Wikipedia tells me that Dancing on the Edge is about a Black Jazz Band in London in the early 30s. But they’re British, so it isn’t Jazz, so it’s dumb. Although it seems like the Emmys were, like, a million years ago, they were actually just four months ago, which is why Behind the Candelabra seems like it’s been being nominated for things for seven thousand years. Top of the Lake reminds me that I feel like I should like Jane Campion, even though I don’t actually know that I do. I have no such compunctions about Philippa Gregory – I don’t like her – so The White Queen is right out. American Horror Story: Coven isn’t over yet (and won’t be when the awards are given out), and so shouldn’t probably be eligible. Although I guess next year the Golden Globes will be smack-dab in the middle of the fourth season, and that’s a long time to hold on to the memory of a show, but that doesn’t seem to be stopping Behind the Candelabra. So nyeah.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Behind the Candelabra

Best Supporting Actress in a Series, Miniseries or Television Film
I suppose you could watch Dancing on the Edge and The White Queen and get some sort of weird 1-2 picture of English Aristocracy or something. I guess. Maybe. But that would be the only reason to watch them. Sofia Vergara made one acting decision several years ago, that she probably should be out of awards for, because honestly. Hayden Panetierre is doing much better work on a night-time soap opera than I would have thought, which sounds like damning with faint praise2.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Monica Potter, I guess. I mean, she’s plenty good on Parenthood, it just seems like…it could have gone better.

Best Supporting Actor in a Series Miniseries or Television Film
One of the problems, I find, as someone who writes stuff about awards shows, is not saying the same things over and over even though sometimes the categories look similar. This is why I haven’t always written about every awards show. In any event, the major players here are basically the same as the Emmys, so this is feeling a little rerun-y, so I’ll save you all some time here. Breaking Bad was great, and will never be nominated again, but there’s only one Josh Charles.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Josh Charles

Best Actress in a Miniseries or Television Film
Again one has to wonder: why do the supporting performers all get lumped into the same mush pot, but the leads don’t have to fight as many people? There are way more supporting performers than leads in any given piece anyway. That said, the “miniseries and television film” categories are always my least favorite – I tend to have zero interest in what people tend to make into television fllms and/or miniseries, so it tends to be a bit of a slog. All of which is the long way of saying: I’m throwing this one to Jessica Lange and calling it a wash.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Jessica Lange

Best Actor in a Miniseries or Television Film
We also have the further problem of the miniseries category not only containing American Horror Story, which is basically a regular series in every sense, albeit one with a high concept, but also BBC television as well, which makes Luther stand out in this category. Because THIS IS AMERICA GODDAMMIT, AND IF YOUR SHOW DOESN’T HAVE A WHOLE BUNCH OF EPISODES IT ISN’T A SHOW. Anyway. It’s a good thing he was nominated here, otherwise I would have no idea what to do with this category.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Idris Elba

Best Actress in a Television Series – Musical or Comedy
STILL THE BEST FIELD OF NOMINEES IN THE WHOLE PROGRAM. Anyway, I would still be pretty happy if Zooey Deschanel went away. Nurse Jackie is a bit much, and the second season of Girls was kind of a misfire. That leaves us with Julia Louis Dreyfus and Amy Poehler.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: It’s actually Julia Louis Dreyfus, but that’s only because hosts don’t have to present the awards. If they did, I’d want to see Amy Poehler present an award to herself.

Best Actor in a Television Series – Musical or Comedy
I do understand that at one point there were more musicals on television, I guess, but were any of them regular shows? I’m just saying that this seems really specific. Also: how is Luther a miniseries, but Arrested Development wasn’t? Is it grandfathered in through some weird “it was a series at one point so it’s always a series” rule? This is confusing and, frankly, I’m disappointed in the whole lot of them. It’s a moot point, as Jason Bateman isn’t the winner. I continue to have the same Jim Parsons problem I have every time I write about television awards, and that’s sad. Michael J. Fox may have once deserved a bunch of Golden Globe Awards, but now is not that time, and I’m not even sure how he got nominated.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: As much as I also love Don Cheadle, I think it’s actually going to be Andy Samberg, in another split decision.

Best Actress in a Television Series – Drama
While this is becoming a catalog of things that are annoying to me, I would also like to say that I’m really bristling every time I have to type the word “actress”. I’m sure I’ll get over it. Tatiana Masley certainly did the most acting work on dramatic television this year, but I don’t know that that’s the same as the best. Taylor Schilling was fine. Robin Wright is fine. I don’t know, everyone here seems like they’re just fine.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: MRS. COACH’S HAIR. IT WAS IN A DAMN COMA.

Best Actor in a Television Series – Drama
Showtime is really bringing it to the televisions this year. Man. Remember when it was kind of a joke? Down is up. Up is down. Anyway. Ray Donovan looks better than it probably is. The Blacklist is silly, kind of fun, but not the sort of thing for which you nominate the lead actor. Actually, the same thing could pretty much be said of House of Cards. I like Michael Sheen just fine in Masters of Sex, but really.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Bryan Cranston

Best Series – Musical or Comedy
I like that I live in an awards show environment that sees, in the same category, The Big Bang Theory and Girls nominated. I mean that legitimately. I enjoy that there are a lot of options in the world without having to resort to compromise. And there’s also Modern Family which, as enjoyable as it is, is largely the embodiment of compromise. And that leaves us with Brooklyn Nine Nine.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Brooklyn Nine Nine

Best Series – Drama
This is literally the last award that Breaking Bad will ever be up for, so it seems appropriate that it should go to Breaking Bad, ja?

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Breaking Bad

And just like that, we’re on to film! This is how to not bog down a part of your awards show in a bunch of stupid categories, people.

Best Foreign Language Film
The Hollywood Foreign Press, giving an award to what Americans call a “Foreign Language” film always makes me feel a little uncomfortable. Besides: the “foreign language” designation is clearly the part that matters more than any other. I’ve decided that I’m boycotting this category.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: THE DOWNFALL OF THE IMPERIALIST OPPRESSORS

Best Animated Feature Film
…..Boy. It sure wasn’t a good year for animated films, huh? Three nominees and all. Golly gee. Well. I guess at least that makes the choice easy.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Despicable Me 2

Best Original Song
2014: the year the guy from Steel Train (and Anathallo!) got nominated for a Golden Globe for a song he did with Taylor Swift. That’s neat. Too bad it’s a terrible song. Too bad it’s still better than all of the other nominees in this category, including “Please Mr. Kennedy,” which I want to like a whole bunch but kind of don’t.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Taylor Swift & Jack Antonoff, “Sweeter Than Fiction”

Best Original Score
I think the score to Gravity must lose something when not listened to in its theatrical habitat, because when I listen to it, I don’t really hear the great stuff. I also don’t trust their motives for really playing up Mandela, but only in the music categories. Hans Zimmer has enough golden globes, the score for 12 Years a Slave seems to be tastefully out-of-the-way.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Alex Ebert’s score for All is Lost is basically the only other character aside from Robert Redford, and that’s pretty impressive.

Best Screenplay
This is quite the field of people that I like for reasons other than the award they’re nominated for. Steve Coogan is a hero, but not as a screenwriter. Spike Jonze is a great director, whose scripts are unilaterally functional. John Ridley almost never gets to write a good movie (pretty good comic books, though), so it’s tempting to give it to him just for that reason. I can’t imagine David O. Russell has, even altogether, earned half a screenwriting award.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Bob Nelson, Nebraska

Best Director
Here is an award for which one could have nominated David O. Russell. And yet, here he isn’t. And while I’m sure there are reasons for Alfonso Cuaron or Paul Greengrass to be nominated, I’m not very into hearing them. But Steve McQueen and Alexander Payne are pretty much the major players in this game.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: I say Steve McQueen, and maybe Alexander Payne can catch up next year with his adaptation of Wilson3

Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture
June Squibb is just great, isn’t she? She sure is. I’m sure Sally Hawkins did a fine job, and Julia Roberts and Jennifer Lawrence are generally worth commending, but there’s a reason that Lupita Nyong’o’s nominations are basically unilateral.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Lupita Nyong’o

Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture
Boy, I bet we could nominate Michael Fassbender for best supporting actor in a still picture and he’d deserve it. It’s nice to see Bradley Cooper and Jared Leto getting recognized for fine work after years of being pretty terrible. I’m sure Captain Phillips is fine, but I really can’t get past Tom Hanks’ weird voice. Even though it’s Barkhad Abdi that’s nominated here.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: I think it’s Daniel Bruhl. Probably not entirely because he has rock dots in his name, but, you know.

Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy
Is American Hustle really a comedy? Especially since Blue Jasmine is up for awards as a drama? Shouldn’t those two movies be the same genre? It turns out I really have problems with the Golden Globes’ film designations. Huh. Anyway. It disqualifies Amy Adams, because I’m not happy with the designation. See what you did, Hollywood Foreign Press? I see we’re also calling Before Midnight a comedy. And August: Osage County. Is this a product of the same brainworms that makes publishers describe every single novel that contains even one joke as “hilarious,” even if it’s a dude’s memoir about the loss of his frontal lobes to dust mites? Actually, that book would be pretty funny.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: That book about dust mites that I just made up. Or, like, the actor that played the lead female character in the film adaptation of that book about dust mites that I just made up.  

Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy
NEBRASKA is listed as a comedy here? Oh my god I’m making my dust mite movie.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The actor that plays the lead male character in the film adaptation of that book about dust mites that I just made up.

Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama
At least when you call a movie a “drama” all you’re really saying is that it tells a story. That’s nice. Anyway. I feel like someday I’ll have a reason to lift my “it’s not Sandra Bullock” embargo, but Gravity ain’t it. The remaining nominees are some real heavyweights of cinema acting. Emma Thompson loses points for, by all historical accounts, not going far enough with the misanthropy of P.L. Travers. I fucking love Jason Reitman, but I don’t think Kate Winslet deserves it for Labor Day, although it pains me to say so. So it’s down to Cate “I only win awards for playing Queens” Blanchett or Judi “I can’t think of a clever nickname” Dench.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Judi Dench, I suppose

Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama
Let’s start by saying this: until they re-record the voice track, it cannot be Tom Hanks for Captain Phillips. Matthew McConaughey is really tearing it up being nominated for this movie. I suppose they say it is an honor just to be nominated. Let’s hope that’s alright alright alright for Mr. M’s sake. Because for my money, if you have to watch a movie about one of these dudes dying of AIDS, it’d be Tom Hanks, who did it without using his Captain Phillips voice. I would like to say it goes to Idris Elba but I think that the Mandela movie was kind of a cynical cash-grab4, and besides – Captain Phillips was a much more humanizing look at the problems and issues facing the post-globalization African populous, even if the titular character does have a preposterous voice. Robert Redford did a movie in which he put together an impressive performance despite rarely having anyone to perform with. Much like Tom Hanks did in Castaway many years ago, before Captain Phillips ruined his voice. Chiwetel Elijofor made a whole bunch of people deeply feel what slavery meant, and that’s a job good enough that I’m not going to try very hard to shoehorn in a Captain Phillips joke.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Chiwetel Elijofor, but I think the whole category should be announced and presented in the stupid fucking voice Tom Hanks is doing for Captain Phillips.

Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy
Film comedies, man. They used to be good movies. Now “good” comedies are all the same kind of dull awards bait. Someone should look into this. Anyway, this list is very nearly a shortlist of my favorite currently-active directors, which means that my choice here is a lot like Sophie’s, obviously. Anyway, I think David O. Russell is only ever going to disappoint me anymore. I think the Coen Brothers made a few adventurous, different movies, and now they’re getting lauded for returning to a formula. I like that Martin Scorcese got back to being funny, but I dislike that he’s basically made Goodfellas again. I still refuse to recognize Nebraska as a comedy.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Her

Best Motion Picture – Drama
Obviously I don’t have to keep telling you how I feel about Captain Phillips. I can probably also avoid going into too much about my feelings toward Gravity. Rush seems like its nominations all wandered into the wrong awards show. I don’t really understand what it’s doing here. And so we are left with Philomena and 12 Years a Slave.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: 12 Years a Slave, as if there was any doubt.

And that’s it folks! At least until the Oscars, when I have to say some more things about these movies again.  

1 I’m actually kidding. I very nearly started a piece on the advertising leading up to awards shows. I…I think I have a problem.
2 actually, it kind of is damning with faint praise.
3 provided Shia LeBouef doesn’t rip it off first. DANIEL CLOWES JOKE.
4 I promise to understand if you disagree.


2014: The Year in Review in Preview



It’s that time of year. The lights are down, the oil removed from the lamps, the wrapping paper largely removed from the living rooms in which it was joyously flung, the prospect of several months without a holiday full of hullabaloo1 looming before us. We’re all sitting back at our blogification devices to talk about the things we’re going to talk about in the next year. And that’s nice. And I could tell you about being super excited about the second season of The Americans, or I could tell you about the Days of Future Past movie or an upcoming (finally!) Tara Jane O’Neil album, and all of that would be neat. But I think we can agree that what we’re really looking forward to this year is the gibbering nonsense. So here’s a brief list of stories that I’m looking forward to in 2014. It’s like being able to tell the future, only it looks exactly like betting on the braindead uselessness of thinkpiece journalism.


1. The “being nice is nice” moment will foment itself. This more than anything is the thing I’m looking forward to people lining up behind. For those of you who are unfamiliar: the books editor at Buzzfeed2 – a former book-industry publicist – declared that he would not be writing any negative reviews, because blah blah blah and apparently the function of a critic is to hug everyone constantly. Fine, whatever. Everybody gets to pick what they write about, it’s the future, the world is a wide and wonderful place, etc. So Tom Scocca took to Gawker and wrote this, in which he positions as a major problem the idea of allowing the politeness of delivery to take over for the message. And it was, in a lot of ways, all but impossible to disagree with him. While I generally come down on being positive, there are things3 that it’s worth voicing disapproval of. I don’t write actual reviews of anything – I tend to focus more on the reception of things in this space than the things themselves, which is why I write about awards shows more than anything4 – but I do write the occasional Who the Fuck Listens to This series, which I only tend to write when the thing is blatantly cashgrabbing, or, alternately, creatively bankrupt in ways that make me ask the titular question. The point here is that I don’t actually have a dog in the race – I’m not a reviewer, and I don’t really bother much with arguments about “tone”, which is the other major venue where the “snark vs. smarm” question is played out.

But there’re problems with Scocca’s rundown – it’s not really as complete or as cut-and-dried as all that, so there’s some space for someone who, for good reasons or for ill, feels that there is a way to only be positive. There was a tidal wave of responses to Scocca’s piece at the time, both of the agreement and non-agreement sides5, but I feel that the big one has yet to come. Mainly because the piece landed, and then the holidays and the year-end “make a bunch of lists” seasons took over, and I predict (and I am, in case you’ve forgotten, always correct) that someone is going to revisit this, well after it’s done being discussed, and figure out how to argue that it’s nice to be nice, and this whole damn thing is going to turn into “Rockism” all over again.

2. The “appropriation” argument will eat itself

Everyone has an opinion about a twenty-two-year-old club kid dancing like twenty-two-year-old club kids dance, and most of it is worth ignoring. There is, however, the branch of the discourse devoted to shouting about how the real problem with Miley Cyrus isn’t her skin-baring or bear-baring or whatever, but rather that she’s “appropriating” the style and culture of the black people she hangs out with. Leaving aside how dumb it is to think that doing the stuff that your friends do is some sort of cultural maneuver. Leaving aside that this argument is always accompanied by the “proof” that her “appropriation” is “slang, and a kind of dancing that white girls have been doing for years now”, we’re still left with this idea that, somehow, bounce music and a very, very west-coast brand of club culture belongs exclusively to a certain set of people, and that adopting elements of it as a pop star (let alone as a young adult human being) is somehow akin to taking credit for it. The cycle repeats for Lourde, who’s even younger – sixteen – and not American to begin with, and whose sins of appropriation are so nebulously-defined that, basically, the only two groups of people who can even try to take it seriously are misogynists and concern trolls. And the king of unchallenged appropriation, Wacklemore, even saw his throne of Whitesplanation shaken by the far superior Le1f and Mykki Blanco. I predict that sometime around the big pop release of next summer there will be a point at which the people hollering about appropriation are, themselves, accused of appropriation. My prediction: the people who started this whole thing (the people who whined about PSY getting popular among people who don’t know K-Pop, who now pretend to have always liked K-Pop, despite there being no record of it anywhere) are going to bite off more than they can chew, and there’s going to be a big argument about K-Pop, and then it’s all going to go away. But that could also be wishful thinking.

3. Hipsters will replace themselves

Sometime in 2013, “hipsters” died. It wasn’t an occasion that could be marked, and I’m sure there’s still some pockets of the discussion where they’re talked of in real terms, but for the most part, the word “hipster” (near as I can tell, defined as: a young person who I have decided to dismiss, or, alternately, someone who has a funny haircut) stopped appearing seventeen billion times a day in every single thing written in English in America. And so we have a beautiful, glorious caesura, in which no one has to hear a poorly-defined group of people referred to by a word that means literally nothing (and has meant basically nothing since its introduction in the 40s, when it meant a very specific group of people and had very little do with fixie bicycles or Green Point). But that’ll all change, because it always does. I’d imagine it’ll probably have something to do with whatever musical form becomes the most popular with the young people of interesting-haircut persuasion next year, but I can’t say the right kind of sooth to be able to tell you what that will be. But it’ll happen. And there’ll be HuffPo slideshows aplenty identifying that whatever-they-are-ers. And I shall sigh.

4. The NFL will continue to hang itself
Boy, there just isn’t any good news coming out of NFL front offices anymore, is there? Accusations of racism, accusations of homophobia, constant revelations about the medical conditions of people who stop playing professionally. I’ve never been a football head, and I never really will be. It’s a silly sport in which grown men act like dogs fighting over a rag. That said, there are ways to crunch numbers to make it look like other sports are more popular, but literally no other sport occupies as much of the public’s attention. To not like football (trust me) is to be given weird looks. And then, most of the time, you have to then talk about football anyway. But I suspect that something in 2014, probably in the late off-season, is going to happen that’s going to make not liking football something that’s a little more outspoken. As it is now, there’s no real argument: “hey, this entire professional organization seems to be made entirely of individually-wrapped bags of dicks” is met with “let the locker room police itself” or “it’s football, what do they expect,” and I don’t think that’s going to be good enough. I’m not saying I hope anything happens to the game of football, I understand that it’s a pastime that brings joy and quality to a lot of lives, I’m saying that there are going to be people who do say that, and there are going to be people who listen, and that that’s going to be an interesting moment. Please note: none of this says “there’s going to be a change,” because there probably isn’t. Oh, and the NHL is probably going to fold, because holy shit are they in trouble.

5. The IP debate is going to get a bunch weirder
The two big intellectual property stories at the end of 2013 have been YouTube’s ContentID….problems and Shia LeBouef’s plagiarism. I think that this is going to somehow merge with the “comment section” chin scratching from earlier in 2013, and there’s going to be an awful lot of discussion about what it means to be anonymous, what it means to be unseen (a lot of the unspoken focus of the ContentID problems has been on the fact that smaller producers appear to be the ones getting fucked the hardest), what it means to inspire, or respond, or appropriate (boy, wouldn’t this and #2 be a real hydra?). This is the most nebulous prediction of all: I think that these things are going to be compressed into one argument, but I’m not sure what form that argument is going to take. Much like with the NFL example above, I think that, in the end, it’s going to be a lot more arguing for argument’s sake than actual progress made, but isn’t that most of what anything does, anyway?

Oh, and season 2 of The Americans is going to be fucking great. And so is Days of Future Past. Ack like ya herd.

1 MLK day is nice, but nobody does much of anything for it except stay home. Valentine’s Day is really no reason to get excited unless you also thing string is a viable source of entertainment. The reason that people get excited about St. Patrick’s day is that by mid-March, there’s literally nothing to celebrate, so dull people go and get as drunk as possible as early as possible. Did I mention that ONAT East is in a college town? It’s totally in a college town. Anyway, Memorial Day at least represents a reason to take a sausage to the mouth, which means that it’s the official end of the Opposite of Holiday Season*.
* Oh, and fuck the Super Bowl.
2 and, seriously, let’s keep in mind: the person that caused Tom Scocca to get so angry that he had to write a manifesto was the books editor of fucking Buzzfeed. Now, I’m generally on Tom’s side here, but if that isnt’ a big ol’ mountain to sculpt out of that teensy molehill, then I’ll eat my hat.
3 in the last couple of years, for example: The Oatmeal, Macklemore, David Lowery
4 stay tuned for both some more awards shows (later this week) and some words about why I write about awards shows (early next week)
5 as well as the favorite tactic of the also-on-blast fake contrarian (I’m still fighting that battle, dammit): the people who insist that his argument is invalid because of his tone if anyone else’s argument is invalid because of their tone. These people need to be swatted on the nose repeatedly until they stop using “NO U” as an argument.

The Best of the Second Half of 2013

Here at last are the fifty greatest songs of the second half of 2013! The second half of 2013 was one of the strongest six-month stretches in a long time! It’s a very good time to be alive. Anyway.  You can find a folder full of them for your perusal here, and then you should go buy all of these records and make everybody rich.


A$AP Ferg – Shabba (f A$AP Rocky)
Boy oh boy if A$AP Ferg doesn’t look like he’s about to turn into the Earl Sweatshirt (or at least the Domo Genesis) of the A$AP Mob. And boy oh boy is that the 2013iest sentence in this entry. Anyway. Shabba. That’s a good song.

Ab Soul – Christopher DRONEr (f Schoolboy Q)
MYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY WAR. YOU’RE ONE OF THEM. YOU SAY. THAT YOU’RE MY FRIEND. BUT YOU’RE. ONE OF. THEM. ONE OF THEM. ONE OF THEM. YOU’RE ONE OF THEEEEEEEEEEM.

Jhene Aiko – Drinking & Driving
With modern indie R&B1 having been codified around the scads of people who were already performing it, we’re sort of left with a huge body of work and no road map. Solange Knowles’ Saint Heron compilation rounded up much of the best of it, but head and shoulders above the field is Jhene Aiko. This song, from the aforementioned compilation, is better than most of her mixtape work, and it’s worlds better than that fucking Drake song she sings the hook for.

All Dogs – SAY
There’s a lot to be said about the current resurrection of indie cassette music, and maybe I’ll even say some of it at some future date. For now: “Summer Babe” was such a fucking great song that a power-pop band from Columbus in 2013 can take its main riff and turn it into a mostly different fucking great song.

Julianna Barwick – The Harbinger
It came as something of a surprise when Julianna Barwick stepped out of her bedroom, into Iceland, and made a record that turned out to reveal strengths in her other records as well as being pretty great outright. It’s a bit like long division: people can explain it to you until they’re blue in the face, but until it actually clicks, it never makes any more sense. Nepenthe is that glorious click, and “The Harbinger” is the best moment thereof.

Willis Earle Beal – Everything Unwinds
He tries so hard to bury his actual music in a weird mystique thing (that does, admittedly, provide a nifty press hook for a lot of people), which makes it easy to dismiss the records themselves as the product of the kind-of-interesting back story. Which is why I slept on his first record. Luckily, Nobody Knows is good enough to get my attention back. He seems to be chasing the “R&B Tom Waits” crown2, and makes that seem like an awfully good idea.

Beyonce – XO
As much as Beyonce dropping her album by surprise was a big, newsworthy event, it’s also probably important to point out that it’s really the last step in the internet levelling the playing field: a frequently-heard joke in the aftermath was that bands release albums without much fanfare every day. And so we have a new Beyonce album, and while it was released in an era where pop stars are trying to force each of their records to become these big, epochal events, it turns out that by just putting it out, she generated more buzz than she necessarily would have if she had built it up. And why not? Isn’t the best way to get people talking about your record to make sure that the best way to find out about it is to talk about it? Either way, if you had a time machine, and you went back to 2003 and told me that there would come a day, in 2013, when I would think that Jay-Z made a unilaterally bad record and that Beyonce would make a record that I legitimately enjoyed, I would think you were crazy.

Black Milk – Parallels (ft. AB)
It had been three damn years since the last Black Milk record. That’s too goddamn long. I mean he had the Random Axe record and the record with Danny Brown, which made it seem like there was an awful lot of Black Milk a couple of years ago, but seriously. Three years without him rapping. He should never do that again. Anyway, it was good to hear from AB, also. Although it hadn’t been three damn years.

The Body – An Altar or a Grave
My problem, generally, with heavy metal these days is how much of it is going out of its way to be ridiculous. Drums that are treated beyond the point of listenability, vocal lines full of growling and mumbling, the same eight guitar effects. It’s like louder EDM. Or, well, I guess EDM is like less-guitar-y heavy metal. My point is, all of those people look like ridiculous nonsense-peddlers, because there is basically nothing heavier than The Body. Extra bonus quality: no cookie monster vocals, and you can’t understand the lyrics, so you don’t have to worry about how dumb they must be.

Body/Head – Last Mistress
I don’t know that I would have put Kim Gordon and Bill Nace in a band together, but I’m glad they did it for me. Eventually I will learn to trust Bill Nace’s decisions, and my life will improve forthwith. Anyway. This is better than a Bill Nace record would have been. Here’s hoping there’s some more like it in the future.

Bottomless Pit – Fleece
Among the other groups that it was a pretty good year for: ex-Touch & Go refugees. Formed around the two surviving members of Silkworm and rounded out with the drummer from Seam, Bottomless Pit is one of those bands that never seems to get the attention they deserve. Which, I suppose, makes them a bit like Silkworm. Anyway, this is easily one of the best straight-up rock records of the year, if not the best outright, and “Fleece” is a hell of a single.

Danny Brown – Clean Up
I tend to like Danny Brown at his most fatalistic, which made “Clean Up” something of a home run. There’s an interesting little inversion of the usual hip hop fake-world-building in the lyrics: instead of bragging about how consequence-free his life of bingeing is, he imagines a world in which he feels bad about it. I suppose maybe there’s some truth about it, but for all of its downtempo worrying, it really just sounds like the lament of someone who wishes they felt as bad about their lifestyle as they feel they should. And that makes it all the more fascinating.

Bill Callahan – Summer Painter
I don’t even know how to talk about Bill Callahan. Giving the lie to most of the assumed modes of being surprising and sonically inventive – making country music, not using volume or the lack of volume, growing from a home-recorded composer/mumbler into a writer of structured, arranged songs – Bill Callahan manages to make records that are interesting and compelling without giving up on being easy to listen to. He makes you interested by making you want to be interested. The linchpin of “Summer Painter,” especially, is something of a masterpiece: during the storm that forms the song’s centerpiece, the traditionally aggressive instruments – the guitars, the drums – are swept away by the “delicate” flute and auxilliary percussion. It’s just one brilliant, ingenius touch on an album carefully composed by a phenomenal songwriter.

Anna Calvi – Love of My Life
After ten years of increasingly-disappointing PJ Harvey records, along comes Anna Calvi to make better PJ Harvey records. And I’m perfectly OK with that.

clipping. – killer
clipping. probably earns the title for the band that has fascinated me the most in 2013, and they did it with basically one fairly-simple idea: fusing horrorcore (which had been semi-revived by both an increase in attention paid to ICP and their contemporaries and also by the label-avoidant Odd Future) with power electronics in a way that made the two seem like stepsiblings. Stripping the backing tracks down to the bursts of staticky noise and the throb-style beats that are common to both microgenres, and constructing lurid, graphic rhymes3 that would, if written out, feel at home on a Coil record.

Crystal Antlers – Rattlesnake
Another Touch & Go refugee4, Crystal Antlers came out of the gate strong, and then sort of lost their way. Nothing is Real was heartening, bringing back the self-titled EP’s focus and not getting rid of the follow-ups’ focus on traditionally rocking out. There’s probably not a great band in Crystal Antlers, but they show every sign of being a pretty good band who can make a great single, and that’s certainly good enough for me.

Cut Hands – Damballah 58
It’s dead air! In a Cut Hands track! It’s a Cut Hands track with headroom and breathing space! And beyond that, it sounds as much like a piece actually made (as opposed to bullied into existence – and I say this as a man who loves Cut Hands. There’s nothing wrong with that.) with the African drumming source material as has come out of Mr. Bennett. I wouldn’t have expected to have the opportunity to write “Cut Hands’ party track,” but here we are anyway.

Death Grips – Birds
Government Plates managed to be the first Death Grips record to be cohesive as an album, but that meant that it didn’t have anything in terms of Earth-cracking singles, like “Hacker” or “Takyon” or “Come Up and Get Me.” “Birds” is the turning point of the record – the point at which the now-established Death Grips-style shout-along turns into a twistier, twitchier, noisy kind of…well, of shout-along. “Birds” actually is exactly the turning point: the first half of the song is like the first half of the album, the second half the same as the second, which makes it possibly the most interesting thing they’ve recorded, if not as viscerally satisfying.

Don Trip & Starlito – Shut Up
The two best rappers in the non-Atlanta South made a sequel to their landmark mixtape. Is it quite as landmark? Well, no. But for a couple of rappers who’ve made some pretty goddamn bleak records in the last couple of years, it’s nice to see them enjoy themselves. It’s a lot of fun to play around with them while they go back to the mid-nineties style that clearly left a pretty big mark on them. Kind of like an older, brainier Joey Bada$$.

Drag the River – Here’s to the Losers
It has been forever since a proper Drag the River studio record. There’s something about bar-band-style country-rock that just doesn’t work when it’s self-aware, and I’ve always liked best about Drag the River that they seem to know that. They’re not reinventing a sound or an approach, but they’re always ready to take up their particular corner of it. That makes it hard to write about, but by no means hard to appreciate.

Future of the Left – The Male Gaze
There were a lot of reasons to be happy about rock music in 2013, and several of the reasons that weren’t “a new Drag the River record” were to be found on Future of the Left’s How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident. “Inconsistency” sometimes means a band doesn’t always know how to write a good song. But sometimes it means that the band is trying things outside of its comfort zone, and when you swing for the fences, you strike out more often. And so we have “The Male Gaze,” a home run on a record full of big, powerful swings (which also has an impressively high hit-to-miss ratio anyway, so why worry about it?). Andy Falkous actually has such a knack for oddball left-field songs like “The Male Gaze”  that it’s almost a shame when he delivers yet another fantastic shouter. Almost.

Girls Against Boys – Let’s Get Killed
Eleven years after their semi-return-to-form You Can’t Fight What You Can’t See, former Touch and Go vets Girls Against Boys popped back onto bandcamp to surprise-launch an EP, thus completing the circuit on a bunch of recurring themes of 2013. At 30 years old, I sometimes forget what it’s like to be absolutely baffled by the public reception (or non-reception) of a band, so I’ll take this time to say: guys, Girls Against Boys are fucking great. Their albums (with the exception of the major-label disappointment Freak*on*ica5) are all fucking great. This EP is fucking great. It’s great, and it’ll make you want to listen to all of their other albums, which you should do, because they’re all fucking great. Seriously. I can’t say these things enough.

Grant Hart – Run for the Wilderness
I think I’ve already used up my quota of “this band sounds like that other band” jokes for this writeup, and I’m only in “H”, so I’ll say: Grant Hart’s “Paradise Lost” record, The Argument, is actually a lot more fun than you’d think possible from the descriptor “Grant Hart’s ‘Paradise Lost’ record”. It’s a pretty killer concept album with some pretty good Grant Hart corkers, and it’ll probably be another decade or so before we get another one, so you might as well savor it.

PJ Harvey – Shaker Aamer
PJ Harvey’s current cycle seems to be “one album full of overproduced bullshit that makes people long for To Bring You My Love followed by an album of things that can be called stripped-down while not actually being a tenth as awesome as anything on Rid of Me or, jesus christ, at least Dry”. “Shaker Aamer” isn’t from an album, which may explain why it’s hands-down the most satisfying song she’s recorded in over a decade. And it is, without putting too fine a point on it, a song featuring her singing and playing the guitar that was recorded unfussily and without a big deal being made about it. Sigh.

Angel Haze – Echelon (It’s My Way)
I’m willing to continue betting on Angel Haze, because I think there’s going to come a time that she’s going to make a record that’s going to absolutely slay everybody. She’s got some great moments, and she’s certainly doing her, often quite admirably. And maybe the best part will be the journey, and maybe the best part will be songs like “Echelon,” which is pretty staggering in and of itself, but I think there’s going to be more.

Tim Hecker – Stab VariationNo one in 2013 was as good at anything as Tim Hecker is at being Tim Hecker. The idea of assembling a bunch of like-minded experimental musicians to create pieces to then Tim-Hecker into Tim-Heckerness is absolute genius, and this album is good beyond words. I should put it all on this list, but I went with just the one song, because this isn’t ‘Nam, and there are rules.

Illangelo – The Forsaken Ones
Credited as The Weeknd’s “executive producer,” and apparently occasionally responsible for actual production work6, The History of Man would, in a just world, bring Illangelo out from behind The Weeknd and into the light for himself. Something like a less-imagistic, less lyrics-focused Weeknd record, The History of Man stood out even in a field crowded by people who are attempting to do basically what Illangelo helped start. And anyway, there is basically no music ever that isn’t better without lyrics, so it stands to reason that this would be better than Kissland.

Jesu – Everyday I Get Closer to the Light From Which I Came
I am just a sucker for any ol’ shoegaze record. Even when it’s pretending to be a heavy metal record.I CAN STILL SEE YOU THERE, SHOEGAZE RECORD. Anyway, you guys remember Jesu, right? This is still Jesu. He’s dropped some beepy-boopy out since Ascension, which is definitely for the better.

The Julie Ruin – Run Fast
Kathleen Hanna had a pretty great year, I’d wager. Good for her, she deserves it. The first album by The Julie Ruin probably can’t avoid the comparison to the album Julie Ruin7, even though it shouldn’t: Julie Ruin is such a small, insular record, and Run Fast (the album) is a big, celebratory party record. Anyway, “Run Fast” is all pretty good form, and manages to deliver on what I would wager anyone wanted from a Kathleen Hanna record, or at least what I wanted.

Lustmord – Abaddon
Brian Williams could make very silly music. He tends to lean toward the silly: his first live performance within my lifetime was for a Church of Satan ritual, for example, and he’s always recording his source material in crypts and the like. Instead, he makes really compelling ambient music, where the nature of the source material doesn’t really matter that much anyway. Also, it’s fun to read articles about him and imagine that they’re talking about Brian Williams, the anchorman.

Melt-Banana – Infection Defective
Japanese noise music is largely known for its relentless intellectualism in pursuit of seemingly-random happenstance. Keiji Haino’s improvisations are informed by a studious devotion to challenging the listener. Merzbow’s records are often studies in attempting to answer the question “what even counts as music”. Melt Banana seem in many ways like an inversion: I don’t know anything about their process, but I do know that it sounds like it comes from the idea that you should follow every impulse until and only until you don’t have it any more.

Naturally Born Strangers (Rich Kidd, Tona & Adam Bomb) – A Gun & A Pack of Sandwiches
I’m not sure whether Naturally Born Strangers, which is the name of the album, is also meant to be the name of the project as well, but I do know that that fucking Radiohead sample just about made me lose my mind. They made a pretty great record, but holy smokes – that sample.

Noveller – Mannahatta
She made the second-best record by an ex-member of Parts & Labor! She collaborated with a bunch of people, including David Yow and Lee Ranaldo! I don’t really have a lot to say about “Mannahatta,” obviously, but it’s a great small song, and I’m always glad to have a new Noveller record.

Tara Jane O’Neil – Wordless in Woods
There has been seemingly no end to people doing the one-man-band thing and making small, quiet experimental music in the last few years, and so it has been extra frustrating that Tara Jane O’Neil hasn’t been out among them. She’s had a couple of pretty good collaborations, but there hasn’t been a TJO record since 2009. And there still isn’t one! But there will be soon, and this is the advance single, and it sounds like it’s at least worth the five damn years we had to wait for it.

Oneohtrix Point Never – Inside World
When Tim Hecker and Dan Lopatin collaborated last year, it seems like they swapped some parts out: Hecker borrowed Lopatin’s propulsion and open sounds, Lopatin borrowed Hecker’s fatalism and dark color pallette. And so the two men made two of the best records of the year separately. Truly it’s a great world in which we live.

Overseas – All Your Own
Will Johnson seems to have drifted from project to project these last few years, and this is a collaboration with David Bazan of Pedro the Lion and the Kadanes from Bedhead and The New Year. It remains to be seen, I guess, how serious this is as a project. But it remains to be seen how serious any Kadane brothers project can be, reliant as they are on someone being willing to wait the interminable time between releases. This is a good record, though, and I’m cautiously optimistic.

Pelican – The Cliff
It seems blindingly obvious to me that if your heavy metal band doesn’t have a singer, they will obviously be better because seriously: no singer. But I guess not enough people agree with me, despite songs like “The Cliff”.

Primitive Calculators – Dead
Their story – they existed as a journeyman Australian post-punk band with meager recorded output, they turned up on a compilation a few years ago that ignited some interest for them, resulting, eventually, in their reformation to make a new studio album last year – is fascinating enough, but the real surprise comes with just how psychotic these old Australian dudes sound. It’s one thing to call a band ahead of its time, it’s another thing entirely to get them back together and find that it’s true.

Pusha T – Numbers on the Boards
Do you ever wonder if the real reason Kanye married Kim was that so he would always be able to look into the press when he needed to feel like he had something to prove? Was it really only a year ago that the announcement of My Name is My Name came on the heels of the not-very-good Cruel Summer mixtape and we all sighed and decided that the era of Kanye was over? Was there some way in which Yeezus didn’t draw it all out of Kanye? Pusha T hasn’t sounded this good in a decade, and Kanye’s beat is so good it makes me feel like I’m being punished.

Raum – Blood Moon
Sometimes when two artists collaborate, they do so out of a sort of synergy, with the two styles coming together and each leading the other into a slightly different space where they can combine their efforts. Raum is all the more interesting for not really sounding like that: it sounds like Liz Harris making a record at the same time as Jefre Cantu-Ledesma (whose band Tarantel
is much missed, and whose Devotion barely missed a couple of lists on this very website), and the two don’t really bend to meet each other, while at the same time making music that is greater than those two parts. On top of which the music itself is some really driving fuzzed-out ambient work that stands up to the best work of either of them.

Russian Circles – 1777
Seriously, though. If Pelican’s “The Cliff” didn’t convince you that your heavy metal band doesn’t need a singer, “1777” will.

The Sadies – Leave This World Behind
The Sadies are always such a delight when they stop being a backing band for hire (or Mekons or Heavy Trash for that matter) that I’m willing to overlook the question begged by their music, which is: how is the best country band on the planet Canadian? There just isn’t any justice.

Slow Walkers – Wake
Unlike Raum, it isn’t entirely clear where Liz Harris’ contribution to the Slow Walkers record ends and where Lawrence English’s begin. This is partially because there just isn’t that much sound on the record. But it’s worth noting that Grouper songs sound rather like something found: like Harris just recorded them and then left them behind to take on whatever life they were going to have, and that Lawrence English has made a body of work out of field recordings, literally found objects that were turned into art by dint of their existence. Information on the record is scant, and I can assume that this is because whatever is meant to come of it is meant to come from the listener. And so it’s hard not to treat it like one of Lawrence English’s field-recorded soundscapes, in which the field is Liz Harris’ sound treatments. The record is pretty staggering, but “Wake” singularly so.

Earl Sweatshirt – Hive (f. Vince Staples & Casey Veggies)
Possessed of probably the most interesting story in Odd Future, a lot of ink got spilled when Earl’s Doris came out and had about as much in common with his previous record, EARL, as it did with Led Zeppelin III. Formerly the most obviously-gifted rapper in the collective, he tempered that with being the most savage. And then he was sent off to boarding school and, long after “free Earl” stopped being a rallying cry, was freed and decided to become a backpack rapper. Turns out everybody grows up.

THEESatisfaction – Moon God (f JusMoni)
Even in a field with a seeming glut of dark, fuzzy, gloomy R&B, it’s nice that there are still the occasional weirdos out there. Still making woozy, weirded-out songs that end up smooshing together and playing on record like one extended piece, THEESatisfaction have become one of the most consistent sources going for off-kilter pop music. “Moon God” is a rare beast, in that it really is pretty stand-alone, and would be a hit in an alternate world where things were a lot more fun than they are in this one.

True Neutral Crew – Monsanto
How good is clipping.? So good that Daveed Diggs’ other band made it on this list. That’s not actually fair to True Neutral Crew – they made an excellent record in their own right, and similarly adopted the experimental music elements that clipping. also trades in, albeit without all of the aggression. “Monsanto” is, at its heart, earnestly-expressed hippie-rap, in which it does exactly what it says on the tin. Of course, it’s also eight minutes long, doesn’t really have a repeating section, and sometimes appears to have not coalesced into an actual song. So it’s not that conventional.

Mick Turner – Long Way Home
Mick Turner’s Don’t Tell the Driver is largely about cars, and “Long Way Home” is pretty explicitly so, and that seems appropriate. You know how sometimes you’re driving back from something, but you’re having kind of a nice time for no particular reason – it’s not a special drive, you’re not doing anything special, it just seems like things are going really well and you don’t mind the time it’s taking out of your day? “Long Way Home” is like that.

Underachievers – NASA
Well, I struggled to find anything to say about Underachievers in July, and here I am again in a similar boat. Erm. NASA in this case stands for “New Age Smokers Anthem,” which sounds like something you’d come up with when you were really high. Which is probably what it was.

The Weeknd – Live For (f Drake)
It’s not that it would’ve been impossible for The Weeknd to follow up 2011’s mixtapes. It’s that literally anything wouldn’t have been as good. In addition to being some of the most airtight records made this decade (House of Balloons is pretty much already on the way to instant-classic and Echoes of Silence continues to get better over time, astonishingly), they represented a real, actual surprise: they didn’t sound like much of anything else – and they still don’t really sound of their time. While at the time they had their clear precedents (Massive Attack, the better bits of Trey Songz records, the then-fomenting PBR&B scene), and while now seemingly every other band is mining the same vein, what made The Weeknd so special was how not the same it sounded. And so Kissland, for all of its charms, never really stood a chance. It was always going to be just an album. Not an enigmatic representation of a number of things missing from the current musical climate, not a particularly fascinating look at a creative mind that was clearly set in a direction pretty different from where even other downtempo R&B singers were headed. Just an album. And for all that: it’s a pretty good album. It may even get better with hindsight – it’s already something of a grower. But it’s telling that “Live For” is the track with Drake on it – Drake took the dumbest things about The Weeknd and incorporated them into his big, sticky mess of a record this year9 – by singing with probably the most popular R&B singer at the time, The Weeknd brings himself back into a larger context, which is where he’s most effective. On most of Kissland, we’re already there with him – he successfully inducted listeners into his world with his mixtape trilogy, and so there’s no reason to hear him in any context but his own. Even the slight parting of the waters to allow Drake – from the same scene, no less – into the picture he’s painting means that he stands out even more. And so “Live For” is the most effective track on Kiss Land, and also the reason to hold on to hope for Mr. Tesfaye: there’s still a world out there. He just needs to get lost in it again.

C. Spencer Yeh, Okkyung Lee & Lasse Marhaug – Tonight We Sleep Like Empty Hard Drives
On the one hand, this probably would’ve made it for its title alone10. On the other hand, when does a noise record also get to be funny? Very rarely. Wake Up Awesome is an ode to the idea that, in addition to chance-created music being serious and process-oriented, it can also be goofy and full of boings and beeps and other sounds largely associated with the things kids do when they play. And that’s what “Tonight We Sleep Like Empty Hard Drives” sounds like – some noise musicians at play. Albeit some noise musicians with some pretty serious chops.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Liz Harris didn’t make a third appearance on this list with Helen’s “Felt This Way,” but she probably could’ve if I’d been in more of a power-pop place at the end of this year. Come to think of it, that’s probably what kept Ty Segall’s “The West” out, as well. Disappears wrote an album whose one good song, “Ultra,” wasn’t quite good enough to be included here, and James Ferraro made a great record – NYC, HELL, 3:00 AM – with no songs that stuck out enough, although “Stuck 2” comes close. Wooden Shjips’ “Everybody Knows” is good in a way that will last until the next chummy, strummy rock song hops along. Prodigy & Alchemist did exactly as predicted, and “Death Sentence” was a pretty satisfying result. Believer/Law made the heaviest record of the year until The Body, and “War Story” still holds its own pretty well. DJ Rashad got a whole lot of positive press and made a bunch of year-end lists, and “Let it Go” almost helps me understand why. Xiu Xiu’s cover of Nina Simone’s “Pirate Jenny” was alright, although NINA wasn’t quite the experience I would’ve liked it to be. Saintseneca’s  “Uppercutter” is a pretty top-shelf piece of Seam/New Year-style melancholia, and would’ve done better in a year without new records by bands that features members of Seam and The New Year. Shearwater’s cover of “I Love the Valley, Oh” was great because it highlighted how good the Xiu Xiu version was, which is kind of a weird reason to call it a great song, but there you have it. Black Diamond did a pretty good job producing Stalley’s “Cup Inside a Cup.” Whatever reasons Emeralds may have had for breaking up, it’s pretty obvious they weren’t musical direction, at least if Steve Hauschildt’s “Different Directions” is any indication. Arliss Nancy helped usher in a minor alt-country boom at the end of the year with “Vonnegut,” as did Have Gun Will Travel with “The Show Must Go On”. Tookie vs Dorner was another great multi-artist mixtape, and Busdriver, Open Mike Eagle & milo’s “All Pastel Everything” is nearly as good as its title. Curelight Wounds would have been yet another D&D reference in a band name here, but “Clearest View” was a pretty great piece of shoegaze magic.

1 I don’t know what else to call it, but if you don’t know what I mean you don’t have to worry about it.
2 I mean, I say he’s chasing it, but he’s sort of the only farmer ploughing that field.
3 I know I made a joke a few songs ago about never knowing the words, and that this is another thing, but the lyrics on midcity are perhaps the most actually-challenging hip-hop lyrics of the year to a certain type of person. While to anyone who isn’t already fairly familiar with the lyrical tropes of noise music they’re going to be basically indistinguishable from the usual slasher-movie nonsense that horrorcore travels in, to people who are familiar with the usual faire of power electronics, a white microgenre that has never once come under fire for the violence in its lyrics, this is something of a commentary on context, the fickle eye of public attention, and what it actually means to be suis generis in a musical environment where “genre” has basically as little meaning as it possibly can. And so the lyrics to “killer”, which are also sophomoric and puerile, become something of a statement. I still don’t listen to them, mind you.
4 Fun fact: Crystal Antlers were the last act to release a record of original material on Touch & Go
5 although, really, who would’ve thought that these guys wouldn’t be able to catch on from a major? The nineties were a weird time, guys.
6 the division of labor within The Weeknd, as well as who the collective name actually refers to beyond Abel Tesfaye at any given time is still pretty difficult to parse.
7 which is kind of interesting, as Le Tigre, the band that isn’t her current band, was created to tour behind Julie Ruin, the first album.
8 I suppose a better understanding of that sentence comes if you know that she’s a filmmaker as well as a musician, but here I am, burying it in a footnote.
9 his own inability to sustain anything as good as Take Care is less surprising, since Take Care was obviously such a fluke, but what is kind of nice is that he had a number of high-profile guest verses that were actually pretty cool this year, which reinforces that he did, in fact, develop some talent, he just doesn’t know how to cut himself off.
10 or possibly for the title of the album its from, which is Wake Up Awesome.