The 2014 Trainie Awards

Guys! Try to contain your excitement when I tell you that this is no mere commentary on existing awards!

The landscape is so plugged full of awards shows that even a dedicated blogger, with an endless, bottomless appetite for the things, is helpless before their constant onslaught. So, essentially, there could be an award for anything at all. But there is not an award for anything at all. There are some things that, despite the clutter and ephemera, simply are not properly awarded.

Being a singular force for right and good in the world, I’m here to rectify this problem. So, what follows is the spackle in the gaps of the award-granting public, the wrongs that are now righted, the heralding of the unheralded.

The Goat Whey Award for Cheese You People Aren’t Eating Enough Of
Geitost1. Brunost cheese in general are slept on, partly because they’re hard to find and odd to make (they’re made with whey, rather than with milk themselves, which leads to stupid people deciding that they are not truly cheese, although just what these stupid people think they are is somewhat beyond my ability to understand stupid people). In any event, you boil the cheese-wort2 until it’s brown, and then you eat it on toast, and then you eat even more of it because, well, it’s delicious. Go get some now.

The Jonathan Winters Memorial Award for Person Who is Much Funnier Than He Ever Needs or Is Expected To Be, Even when Those Expectations Are Quite High
I feel like I need to hold more awards just to give them all to Andy Daly. If Andy Daly was a cheese, he’d be the winner of that first category. He’s had a fantastic tv show (Review) a supporting role on another fantastic tv show that just ended (Eastbound and Down), a seven-part, five-hundred hour podcast (The Andy Daly Podcast Pilot Project) and, most recently as of this writing, did the kind of tour-de-force improvisation that makes improv comedy seem like a good idea on the 300th episode of Comedy Bang Bang. Plus he’s probably appeared in several thousand movies this month alone, generally as a walk-on part in which he is, easily, the funniest part of the movie. Andy Daly, guys.

The Single Most Astonishing Interview in the History of Pop Musicians Giving Interviews
This interview of Nasri, from Magic!, by Puja Patel. From the pull quote on down, it’s basically a master class for aliens in how not to come off like someone who has no idea how Earthlings work. Decorum prohibits me from merely reprinting the entire thing, and my brain prohibits me from merely pasting all of the best parts in a fit of stupor, but the highlights do include referring to reggae as “one of the soulful types of music”3, theorizing that he got his reggae talent in exchange for a piece of cake at Snow’s daughter’s birthday party4, lists Sam Smith, Bruno Mars and Lorde as his contemporaries and then talks about pop music as though that’s not what he was just talking about, calls Taylor Swift, writer of “Teardrops on My Guitar,” “I Knew You Were Trouble,” “Picture to Burn” and “Red” as “positive”5, and repeatedly and insistently refers to himself as a reggae musician, despite being a songwriter-for-hire who, as far as I’m aware, has been a writer of reggae songs only for long enough to write “Rude”, which is to say, negative twelve seconds.

Person Who I Feel is Maybe Not Telling as Many Stories Publicly as He Should, Because I Think He’s Probably Got a Bunch of Them
Stephen Brill is the writer of The Mighty Ducks movies, and moved from an apartment to Marc Maron6 to, eventually (with some interludes), an apartment with Peter Berg (whom he wanted to play Gordon Bombay originally). He’s basically made a successful career around or despite surrounding himself with total weirdos. He should write a book or something.

The Most Unexpectedly Brilliant Sign of What is Either the End Times or That People Are Entirely Wrong About How Bad Things Are, and We’re All Alright After All
Reality television, any nabob with thirty seconds to spare and a dire outlook will tell you, is destroying the world. Not only that, but every single new level of reality television existence is worse than the last, rushing headlong to a place where “television” consists of people just screaming obscenities at other people. Probably while naked. (The fact that this is the prediction at a time when scripted television is literally more thoughtful than it’s ever been does not seem to create any dissonance with aforementioned nabobs). If you’re good enough at reality television, you can even enter the world of minor-empire building: thousands of pixels are spilling out about Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, an extremely well-designed “click and wait” sim that, in its own bizarre way, expresses something extremely timely. Namely: the game is a facsimile of the fame-seeking world, as lived by Kim Kardashian, as people imagine it (obviously with not only her permission, but her abettance), which is simultaneously glamorizing (people don’t generally get paid to show up at clubs or whatever) and humanizing (the gaming usage of “grind,” doing something simple and repetitive to end up with in-game currency – and Kim Kardashian: Hollywood has three kinds – collides with the real-world, in such a way that getting ahold of the next dress involves doing whatever it is that you do to get the money or lightning bolts or whatever7. It galls people to hear that people who are famous and have a lot of money also get annoyed at their jobs – even if their jobs seem like non-jobs – but here is a game that does a credible job of really capturing the tedium8 that comes with being expected to show up at places in something revealing, have your picture taken a bunch of times, and try not to say anything racist or throw up on oneself. Also, early in the game you get to date a dental hygienist. I don’t know why I think that’s the funniest thing ever, but there you have it.

The Jiminy Glick Memorial9 Award for Misplaced Self-Confidence and a Complete Lack of Self-Awareness
If Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is basically the best-case scenario for finding your arrow via a sex tape10, then let us turn to the other side – former Teen Mom and current fountain of schadenfreude Farrah Abraham. While young Kimberly was persuaded (by Ray J, by Kris, or by her own willingness – I don’t know, I’m not interested in trying to figure it out, and I see no value in the distinction) to have sex with Ray J in front of a handheld camera, she was able to parlay the resulting attention to become even more of a cultural presence than her predecessor11. Several people failed to rebottle that particular lightning, but few people tried as hard as Farrah Abraham, former teen mom12, who made a “sex tape” with the equipment and location of professionally-produced pronographic films, as well as with a star of professionally-produced pornographic films. And far from the somewhat-logical idea of finding a performer who would work cheap, Farrah Abraham made her “sex tape” with James Deen, one of the most recognizable performers in the field. All of that is the groundwork for what has been, in the last twelve months or so, an absolutely astonishing series of completely unselfaware events – she has “written” a “book” that is actually a Jacqueline-Susan-style roman a clef (albeit shot through with a nigh-unbelievable degree of narcissism) about a lady that makes pornographic films to catapult herself into the limelight. The award-winning behavior, specifically (i.e. the clip that would have been submitted to the academy, were this an oscar), is the recent decision to talk about the casting of the film based on her book. I’m not interested in who she thinks should play her (although she is fairly delusional about it, if for no other reason than that’s not a role anyone’s career is in a place that it’s necessary to accept), but more in the very idea that there should be a Hollywood film based on the vanity romance novel of someone who can’t even invent a story independent of her own actual experience. Eventually, she’s going to bundle the film rights to her book based on her sex tapes with the novelization rights of that film, and enclose herself in an unending loop of drawing on this one event for the rest of time.

The Mrs. Coach’s Hair Award for Mrs. Coach’s Hair
Mrs. Coach’s Hair.

Dumbest Decision Stemming From a Delusional Attachment to an Idea of Genre-Based Musical Purity, and the Delivery Medium Thereof
Neil Young is, unquestionably, a man who has never answered to another person. Every single thing his career have ever included has, pretty clearly, originated with Neil Young. That’s a set of things that includes ideas both forward thinking (Tonight’s the Night) and backward-thinking (Re-ac-tor), as well as great (Zuma) and absolutely terrible (Trans). Nevertheless, it comes as something of a surprise that he has decided to enter the digital-music world. Apparently he’s written at length about his distaste for digital music as a delivery mechanism, and he’s out to fix it. It shows that he has simultaneously recognized that consumers are valuing convenience and portability (which has literally always been the case), but that, somehow, if they can just be presented what he considers to be high-quality audio13, they will change their listening habits. So the Pono Player, which he assures people has the backing of several major labels, and is, for all intents and purposes, a FLAC player with a weird shape that looks like it would cause problems in your pocket. Leaving aside the general movement of the casual listener (the source of most of the major revenue for any large-selling release) toward streaming and ephemeral sources, this is also, once again, a player for a format that has been a part of the market for a very long time and has, despite its availability, not actually made much commercial headway, but that, also, there is absolutely no shortage of available players for (and that’s not even counting the literally hundreds of portable devices that will automatically convert them into something playable on the player). All for the low, low price of $400, plus having to purchase (at high-quality audio prices) anything you wanted to listen to on it. I would also bet, because it seems of a piece, that individual songs will not be available to purchase for this thing, because generally the next thing that people who are worried about the sound quality of music someone else is listening to talk about is how no one buys full albums anymore. But that’s conjecture.

HONORABLE MENTION: Jack White’s “Lazaetto” single, advertised as the “fastest-recorded single ever”, and preceding the “best-selling vinyl release of the SoundScan era”, served more as a demonstration of how schtick can run away with the performer in an exceptionally dramatic fashion. By tying up a record-pressing-plant (one of the not-very-many still around) for a stupid stunt, and therefore taking time away fom the record-pressing ability of bands that didn’t have the financial or publicity wherewithall to buy the presses back out from under him, Jack White was able to make a record, from playing to release, in a few hours. Yay. Jack White has assumed the completely-inaccurate mantel of “Defender of Analog Recording Techniques,” despite expressing his enthusiasm for literally all of the wrong reasons14, and has used his imagined throne mainly to complain about how other rock musicians aren’t as “real” as he is, despite his having lifted his entire image and approach from Billy Childish himself15. Who has, for the record, never stopped releasing records on vinyl, generally makes his records in a couple of days rather than a couple of years, and who has never made much of a big deal about it. NB: the unabashed second-hand-ness of the music and approach is exactly what made the White Stripes so compelling as a band, and it’s a damn shame to see him buy into his own hype like that. But still not as much of a damn shame as that stupid Pono Player idea.

Tune in later this week for Part 2 of this dramatic awards ceremony!

1 also known as “gjetost”
2 this is not what it’s called
3 on whatever planet he comes from, music appears to be separated into genres, like on Earth, but that the genres themselves are classified as “soulfull” and “non-soulfull,” which is weird, and also leaves me wondering the criteria in which these genres are evaluated*.
* actually, no it doesn’t. He’s pretty clearly using “soulful genres” to mean “genres where black people sing”.
5 also “elegant” which, well, I’m not unpacking that right now, but holy shit dude.
6 he’s the guy that Eric Stoltz is playing in the episode of Maron that Eric Stoltz is in.
7 I’ve not, in fact, played the game. This all comes from reviews and screenshots and stuff.
8 in addition, the game doesn’t deal with having a mother whose controlling stake in the reality show with your last name in it means an enormous intrusion at all times, nor a husband that somehow thinks it’s appropriate to keep giving Big Sean reasons to be in public, nor a sister that forces you to sometimes share a room with French Montana.
9 this is presuming that the character, who has not made an appearance in a decade, is dead. Martin Short is, as far as I know, perfectly ok. Don’t panic.
10 there is no way, now that I think about it, that Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is titled with basically the same convention as Kim K: Superstar by accident.
11 One P. Hilton, now a relatviely-staid bajillionaire in Los Angeles.
12 it is in fact possible that she, definitely a former teen, is also a former mom, given the likelihood that she is not particularly in her daughter’s life.
13 apparently leaving aside the fact that the people have pretty much spoken here, and that most people go their whole digital-music lives without thinking much about reproduction quality.
14 the strengths of analog recording techniques and releases are that they end up with a finished product that is duplicated mechanically – i.e. it doesn’t require software or proprietary code to play back, and a player can be fashioned out of parts, provided someone knows what they’re doing. This protects the recording – provided the physical artifact itself is kept safe and secure – from shifts in proprietary digital forms, or hard drive crashes, or data corruption. It is, therefore, the only real option for truly long-term storage. Jack White’s (and a number of other people who are more interested in the sizzle than the steak, but Jack White seems to be at their head) enthusiasm for the form seems based around the afore-scorned idea of “purity” – that it’s “warmer” or “more vital” or whatever, which is entirely subjective and is a perfectly good reason to do what you want, but not a very good reason to insist that it’s the only right way to do it.
15 right down to the post-Blunderbuss use of a male band and a female band, something that Billy Childish did decades ago with The Headcoats and Thee Headcoatees.

In which a defense of Guy Fieri is made

Occasionally, in the sphere of popular discussion, there happens into view a target so big, so juicy, so hard to not see1 that people don’t even try to resist taking shots at it. Here, in 2014, that target is Guy Fieri.

Complaints about his existence can be found just about anywhere, but the “serious” foodosphere began treating him as anything more than the latest Food-Network-Marketed Food Personality in earnest after Pete Wells’ (admittedly hilarious) restaurant review in the form of a series of questions, extending to include, a couple of weeks ago, NPR’s critique of an absurd dessert at a different restaurant, and including, most recently, Eater’s Flavortown Generator. Each of them is, to varying degrees, an entertaining piece of work, and each of them is created by someone whose work, generally, I’m more interested in than Guy Fieri’s. In between those were any number of “analyses” or “opinion pieces” or “clickbait bullshit” examining the menus, press profile, or general raison of his various enormous, heavily-commercialized restaurants.

Some of the wings of the food press are doing this because this is part of the cycle: a person becomes famous as a chef2, then builds their brand more than their food, then becomes successful at that, opens a series of increasingly-meaningless profit-generators, and the food press points out that, while once any of these things might have been a real dish, they are now simulacra, doing an impression of the dishes they may have once resembled3. Some of them are doing it because there has been, for the last fifteen years or so, a wing of the food press devoted to hating whomever was the point person for The Food Network.

I’ve not eaten at a single one of his restaurants4, but I’m willing to believe Pete Wells, and I’m willing to believe other people that eat there. The menus belie a reliance on hugeness and weird flavor-combinations that belie their owner’s day job as an eater at the kind of places that serve that food as a matter of course (rather than as a matter of engineering), and I have very little interest in that kind of thing, for the same reason I have little interest in film comedies that exist as a result of focus-marketing, or records that are constructed toward specific marketing demographics by teams of unconcerned producers: it’s not real, and I see no reason to evaluate it as though it was real. Is half a cheesecake, studded with potato chips and pretzels then slathered in chocolate sauce really the thing that we want to spend our critical faculties on? The only person I can imagine thinking that was an actual good idea is a stoned twelve-year-old, and, frankly, I’m not interested in operating on the same evaluatory level as a stoned twelve-year-old.

What is worth evaluating, and what almost never actually is, is the fairly-interesting trend that his menus seem to point toward, and to talk about that I’m going to have to digress for a spell. Traditional “fine dining,” as developed by the French and taught at the higher class of culinary school (at least most of the time), tends to lean heavily on the “traditional” French composition: protein, starch ,vegetable, sauce. In its way, this format has influenced an enormous amount of western eating, from the way we expect food to exist in a restaurant to the way we eat at home5. A couple of decades after it took hold in the US (which happened due to a confluence of factors, mostly stemming from the end of World War II, but this is about Guy Fieri, it’s not a history lesson), Alice Waters and nouvelle cuisine happened, with its modernized sauces (vinaigrette and jus instead of bechamel and espagnole, for example), and its focus on freshness, and simplicity, and all sorts of things that snooty restaurant-types are still accused of being concerned with6.

But the major shift post-nouvelle is the change of focus from the decadence of the experience as arranged by the chef6 – the size and scale of the meal, the number of courses, the richness of the food – to the refinement and awareness of the meal on the part of the eater. That shift would resonate through the following major movements – the incorporation of “Asian Fusion”, the modernists/molecular gastronomists, the “rustic”-inspired faux-traditionalists, the farm-to-table folks. With rare exception, the idea there is that the burden of appreciation is on the eater – satisfaction cannot be assumed, the chef is not accomodating, only providing. In its way, Guy Fieri’s pepperoni-wrapped breadsticks, or chocolate-covered cheesecake, or donkey sauce, are the refutation: you don’t have to be able to appreciate this, because unlike something delicate or subtle or that requires some bit of esoterica to understand or eat or even consider, everyone knows why wrapping a piece of bread in pepperoni and then dipping it in cheese is a good idea – everyone has already done it.

Even more interestingly is that, as much as that refutation is a natural part of the back-and-forth that’s always part of the culinary landscape, when you dig into Guy Fieri’s dishes, what you’re actually looking at is a rise of the things that were lost when people turned away from traditional Fine Dining – cream sauces, mandatory sauces, dishes that are decadent not because of the number of them, but the amount of food in them. These ideas are basically the foundations of old-style restaurant cooking, and nobody seems to be talking about that7.

But the reason to be an apologist for Guy Fieri actually has nothing to do with his place in the vorocultural landscape as a restaurateur, and everything to do with his position as a television figure. Ironically, this is the job that’s harder to ignore: if I don’t want to consider “donkey sauce”, I don’t have to step foot into one of his restaurants, and I can live a life free of it. His television shows, however, are all over everything. Omnipresent on The Food Network, promoed endlessly on the other Scripps and Tribune networks, and parodied on one of my favorite TV shows, it’s hard not to get an idea for what they look, sound and feel like. He’s a monolith – other Food Network personalities have been big, but Fieri – the unicorn that manages to grab male viewers, a rarity among Food Network personalities – is especially outsized, both in presentation and visibility.

And that’s great. See, unlike with his restaurants, which are the kind of food-mangling vanity projects that basically everyone that cares about such things knows enough to avoid, his television shows are focused on one of two things: going to locally-owned, small-time restaurants, or normal people cooking (with one exception, an outlier that I’ll get to toward the end, here), and certainly neither of these things is something to complain about.

Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives is a ratings demon, and is, perhaps, the most laudable of his shows – encouraging people to pay attention to places that have local favorites, sure, and, for the intrepid, to look for places that might become similarly-beloved, but the show is also surprisingly willing to show things like “where the restaurant is” or “what the people eating there look and sound like,” factors that come to bear in a realm where real estate prices (which drive so much of the restaurant business) mean that places run by well-intentioned, high-minded (or at least high-concept) operators tend to be in neighborhoods that aren’t precisely frequented by the sort of people who sit and watch Food Network. Increased traffic to the businesses in those areas increases the money in those areas, which makes everything better for everyone.

Slightly more abstract, but still a positive effect, is the fact that Guy Fieri’s show relies heavily on the already-existing language of food8. For all of his faults as a restaurateur and slang-maker-upper, he’s not talking down to either his audience or the restaurant folk who appear on his show. This means that people who are interested in big-ass sandwiches, or fried chicken constructions of the most clogging sort, or even just people that like the flame-headed corvette-driven seeking-a-new-way-to-ingest-something-somewhat-absurd aspect of it9, have had conversations with me, or with other food-oriented people in my sphere of jabbering, about aspects of food culture that, prior to Guy Fieri, we were only having with each other.

Obviously, there’s no real argument for everyone knowing about the vagaries of technique, or the minutiae of any given set of ingredients or methods or whatever. The upside to food being a necessity is that pretty much everyone can learn how to make as much or as little of it as they want – someone whose interest goes basically no further than knowing how to make, say, fifteen things so they can cook for themselves and not get too bored is going to be as happy with their knowledge as the guy who made soylent, or Alice Waters. Everyone gets to decide that for themselves. But there’s no harm in making the knowledge, or at least the language, available to people who would otherwise dismiss it as so much pretentious claptrap – an especially useful concern since there’s so much overlap between the groups “are not willing to consider that the way we talk, culturally, about food” and “will reject any talk of a higher-minded, more mindful way of eating as needlessly elitist”.

It seems unlikely that people are learning to look at food and consider how it’s made by someone who is then going to stuff his face with several pounds of deeply unhealthful food10, but sometimes the world is a strange and wonderful place.

The various Guy and Rachael challenges, the Food Network Stars, whatever other show he may be hosting this year, and the constant endorsements are also generally not worthy of further consideration, but a special consideration must also be given to Guy’s Grocery Games. While good food competitions shows are pretty thick on the ground over at The Food Network, Guy’s Grocery Games11, in which the conceit is that professionals are limited to the ingredients they’d be able to find in a grocery store, which takes away the self-contained aspects of both Chopped and Cutthroat Kitchen, and places the show in the world. Futhermore, often the chefs are limited in the challenges by time, space, and cost, which, more than anything else, are the three things that most limit the home cook. The idea of Guy’s Grocery Games, more than any other cooking competition show is: here is what happens when these trained people have to cook like you do. Whether it ends up better or worse, what it ends up as is accessible, and it remains the only show on the entirety of the network (and, indeed, most of the Scripps family of networks) that acknowledges the economics of making food. And how can that be a bad thing?

In a world where people eat a diet that is widely accepted to be a pretty terrible way to eat, in a world where people unthinkingly accept the craftily-marketed idea that the world outside the corporate food bubble is an unsafe wild place that only maniacal hippies and trained professionals can operate in, in a world where the idea of “fanciness” might as well be an act of war, it takes the lowest of low-brow, heavily-branded, seemingly-thoughtless personalities on television to show what has shown to be, for all practical purposes, a way through.

So for heaven’s sake, quite ordering those cheesecakes, they’re gross. And absolutely shudder and gasp at every mention of “donkey sauce,” and stay away from his restaurantstrosities. But remember that there’s always implications, and if thinking about flavortown gets people actually thinking about flavor, about food, about what and how and why they eat, then, ultimately, there is no number of shitty, untenable restaurants that can undo that worthiness.

1 in this case, literally, because he looks like a testicle someone set on fire.
2 I am, in this case, going to use the term. “Chef” means “boss,” and he’s run kitchens at Stouffer’s, Louise’s Trattoria and, presumable, any of his own restaurants. A better job title is probably “operator” or “restaurant manager,” and indeed it’s the latter term that wikipedia sticks with. But in his role as menu-creator and creative driving force of his restaurants, he is acting as a chef, and, therefore, is a chef.
3 this is, actually, not a hard thing to witness yourself, albeit going in the other direction – nearly everyone has an example of a local spot that they loved until they fell on hard times/opened a second location/was inherited by money-hungry relatives, and they’ve watched the dishes, once made a certain way in a certain place with certain ingredients, become less and less distinctive as the people, the ingredients and the methods change to try to scrape together whatever economic benefit the operator thinks can be salvaged from cutting corners. On the large scale, this is streamlining to make more like a production line, on the smaller scale it’s to try to make more money where there isn’t any, but it’s the same action, and it’s why it’s disappointing to people that eat fancy.
4 nor do I have any real or specific intention to do so.
5 the easiest way to see how pervasive, and how non-universal, this is is to look at Italian-American food as opposed to Italian-Italian food, and pay special attention to the roles of protein and sauce in the eating. In its own way, nouvelle cuisine made it easier to appreciate a dish like fettucine con aglio e olio, by dint of leaving room for something so small in scale.
6 sometimes because they are
7 nb: I consider this neither good nor bad – it was going to happen someday anyway, it might as well be Guy Fieri that does it.
8 that is, when he’s not making up new words or portmanteaux.
9 for all that he can be annoying, he’s a charismatic dude who seems pretty amiable. There’s no wondering about why he’s on television, certainly.
10 on a more personal note, I find it difficult not to get all the way behind Guy Fieri’s appreciation for real fats, given that margarine is second only to the mass production of white bread in terms of “crimes against the american conception of food”.
11 I would love to abbreviate this, but frankly, Guy already calls it “Triple Gs,” and I can’t deal with giving him the satisfaction.

The MTVu Fandom Awards

The MTVu fandom awards, guys! I don’t know what they are, you don’t know what they are, but I have to applaud their existence. Taking place at Comic Con, it’s not technically an awards show. What it seems, transparently and baldly, is an attempt to gather together a bunch of stuff that “the kids” are talking about and basically praising that audience for being an audience.

Now, the nature and existence of fandom1 is one that is near and dear to my heart, given that I’m a pretty earnest person who is very interested in telling the world what I like (that’s why you’re all here, after all). In order to pit fans against one another competitively, however, one has to establish the criteria for “best.” In this case, that isn’t done. It’s nearly impossible to evaluate what is actually being awarded here, because it’s impossible to tell by what criteria the thing is evaluated.

There are four categories: movies, tv dramas, tv comedies and animation, each of which has eight nominees. What follows is a rundown of what they are, what’s up with the fans (in an attempt to establish criteria) and, of course, who should win.

Let’s go!

The Hunger Games
THE THING: Interestingly, of the eight nominees in the movie category, six are based on print works2, but there is no “book” category. That seems like it’s missing a big point of the zeitgeist, except that each of the major players in the cultural conversation right now also has a corresponding movie, so we’re back there. Anyway. The Hunger Games is basically the elder statesman of this category (with certain allowances for the superhero franchises, which have to be considered separately), having existed for several years, the entire run of its books, and 50% of its film presence3. Nevertheless, it’s been a juggernaut, and is, of all the nominees here, the one with the most traditional “respectability,” for whatever that’s worth.
THE FANDOM: Not as intense now as it once was, but still thriving, The Hunger Games made most of its bones on appealing to people outside the target audience for dystopian young adult novels. Nevertheless, it also converted a large proportion of those people into selfsame audience, so it’s hard to hold that against it.

THE THING: Another dystopian YA book-series-turned-film-series, this one without dead squirrels or cake decoration. Sort of the Brave New World to The Hunger Games’ 19844, Divergent is also the more recent arrival (the books started in 2011, three years after The Hunger Games) of the two.
THE FANDOM: It’s got a bunch of fans that came late to the Hunger Games party and wanted a thing of their own. I don’t see as many grown-ups as enthusiastic about Divergent, which is a shame, because it’s just fine as a series of books. I’d hazard that the fandom is less huge, but probably more loyal as a mass.

The Hobbit
THE THING: The jolly, introductory prelude to The Lord of the Rings has become an overblown, ten-hour film series. Tim from The Office finds some jewelry in a cave then has to steal a rock from a fire-breathing Sherlock. Now a ten-hour film series, formerly a three-hundred page novel.
THE FANDOM: It brings together Tolkien fans, Cumberbitches and fantasy-movie people. It’s in the film category, despite the fact that, although a ton of people I’ve talked to have seen the movies (myself included), no one really prefers them to the book. Also currently a fandom that exists somewhere between Lord of the Rings book people, Lord of the Rings movie people, and, again, Benedict Cumberbatch’s not-inconsiderable following.

Veronica Mars
THE THING: A tv show that did not get the attention it deserved, the viewership it warranted or the posthumous grieving it should’ve until it was far too late became a kickstartered-into-wild-success film, giving Rob Thomas the satisfaction he should have had and also prepping him to make the fucking Party Down movie that is, really, the only way to show gratitude for all this.
THE FANDOM: Thirty-year-old tv geeks. I have no idea what this show is doing here, except that people who really like the show (cough) also have blogs and are most likely to watch weird awards shows on MTV (cough).

The Fault in Our Stars
THE THING: More cancer than Funky Winkerbean, less Mike Birbiglia than Sleepwalk With Me, more purple prose than Prince’s autobiography. Lachrymose, laconic, lacking.
THE FANDOM: Rabid, evangelical, omnipresent. This is at peak popularity, and is a bona-fide phenomenon. It’s fandom could be anyone. Even you

Captain America: Winter Soldiers
THE THING: OK, here’s where things get weird. See, it would make sense if this was Captain America in general. He’s had two very good movies, he’s a part of The Avengers, Chris Evans is pretty awesome. No problem. It would also make sense if this was The Marvel Cinematic Universe5. But it’s just the most recent Captain America movie.
THE FANDOM: Uh…Captain America fans. Seriously. This is actually a subset of the actual fandom. The movie has made 700 million dollars. Its audience is “everyone that kind of wants to see a Captain America movie.” Some of that audience is probably its own fandom, but seriously, this is why this is a bullshit award.

X-Men: Days of Future Past
THE THING: See above, but also Days of Future Past the comic-book run has a long history. Fondly remembered as one of the coolest stories of the early-eighties X-Men6, it was rumored to be the subject of a movie before there even was an X-Men film series. But this isn’t about that, because this is about the movie. Sigh.
THE FANDOM: Jennifer Lawrence/Nicholas Hoult shippers, since they got back together I guess? Again, it’s not “the current X-Men film series,” it’s “this one particular X-Men film.” Maybe Frasier obsessives who are happy to see their favorite call-in psychologist getting more acting work?

Pacific Rim
THE THING: Braindead, thoroughly enjoyable action movie about giant robots beating up aliens that never once does anything you don’t expect but, like a hot dog, gives you exactly what you wanted by agreeing to it in the first place.
THE FANDOM: Surprisingly complex! This is one of the more active fandoms, given the source material. Since there’s very little to try to parse out of the movie (which is, seriously, just robots punching monsters, then punching them again, intercut with wisecracks), they mostly have gone in for filling in the biological details of the kaiju, and filling in backstories. It’s pretty impressive stuff.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: I would like to say Pacific Rim, because it really is some impressive work, but really – the entire existence of the Veronica Mars movie is owed directly to the fans, who paid for the movie to get made in the first place. I don’t know what MTVu is using to make this decision, but that’s how it works for me.

TV Dramas
THE THING: The almost ten-year-old series about extraordinary handsome gentlemen who also fight the supernatural.
THE FANDOM: People who want to watch extraordinarily handsome gentlemen do things. Also: CW shows have extremely loyal fanbases, mainly by delivering what people want out of a silly serialized soapy supernatural story.

Teen Wolf
THE THING: Taylor Lautner’s character from Twilight, recast as the lead of True Blood with werewolves, and named after a 1985 movie, for reasons I can’t fathom.
THE FANDOM: Uh. This is pretty much here because the show itself airs on MTV. While there are people out there who like Teen Wolf, it really doesn’t have the same class of fandom as the rest of this here. We can just move on.

Game of Thrones
THE THING: Dune in medieval Europe, plus dragons and loads of boobs.
THE FANDOM: Extremely layered. Some of the characters have their own fandoms unto themselves, ranging from the bizarre (Ned Stark, who died7 at the end of the first season, to the extremely discomforting (Arya Stark, who, well, it’s just really discomforting) to the perfectly sensible (Tyrion Lannister, because Peter Dinklage is awesome all day). People get really involved in Game of Thrones, and I’m just enough of a hipster douchebag to point out that this is another fandom that would’ve been better-served by making a books category, because the book fans leave the tv show fans standing cold.

The Vampire Diaries
THE THING: Another surprisingly-long-running show on the CW, this one is sort of a basic-cable True Blood. Why do I keep comparing things to True Blood, you ask? Well, this one is even about vampires.
THE FANDOM: The CW thing, mostly. It should probably have its own category, as I’m fairly certain I’ve seen a lot of crossover between The Vampire Diaries and Supernatural

Doctor Who
THE THING: Long-running science fiction adventure serial. Immortal guy with two hearts regenerates every few years, travels with a companion, does a bit of rescuing and, when things are going really well, eats jelly babies. Recently mired in a bunch of way-overblown stories that don’t go anywhere, it made the decision to cast an old cranky dude in the role of The Doctor, perhaps realizing that all of the best doctors were old cranky dudes.
THE FANDOM: Grown (in America) out of desperate science fiction television fans/anglophiles that probably heard about it through its connection to Douglas Adams9 who clamored so loudly for a revival that we got one, which then grew to include all sorts of other science fiction television fans, anglophiles, and has become something of a present-day Buffy: the fandom’s web spaces are every bit as important as a shibboleth and touchstone and general community-round-up as they are as an actual place to discuss the actual show. Basically, it’s gotten bigger on the inside.

THE THING: The BBC adaptation of A.C. Doyle’s detective. This one is considerably more faithful than any of the others in terms of plot elements, while being willing to change the technological stuff to reflect the present day, which is brilliant. Unique among every other multi-part work in this list for basically not having a “bad patch.” The birthplace of public awareness of the Fandom Elemental Force known as Benedict Cumberbatch.
THE FANDOM: Again, the Benedict Cumberbatch thing. This is also beloved (again, in America) by anglophiles who, for whatever reason, don’t want to watch Downton Abbey, probably even some mystery fans, and people who would literally watch Martin Freeman eat soup (cough).

Breaking Bad
THE THING: The recently-departed Show That Oh My God I Can’t Believe You Aren’t Watching or, alternately, that I Stayed Up All Night Bingeing Because I Couldn’t Believe It Was That Good. Chemistry teacher deals drugs with one of his students, and then all hell breaks loose.
THE FANDOM: This is another one that’s tricky. There’s no denying that Breaking Bad is beloved, certainly, but I think its fandom is actually a subset of the tv geek fandom that was also responsible for propping up Justified or Mad Men or Oz or The Wire. As its own fandom it’s primarily the sort of re-watching obsessives that you don’t find very often outside of science fiction, but that accounts for a very small portion of the people that are into it.

Pretty Little Liars
THE THING: Another former book series, this one is something like Nancy Drew crossed with The OC10. I’ve never watched a minute of it, but it skews younger than the other soapy shows on this list, and it airs on ABC Family
THE FANDOM: Young and earnest. This one has the most traditional-type fandom, as the ironic distance with which people enjoy Supernatural and The Vampire Diaries isn’t there, except for in the parts of the fandom that intersect with people that watch Supernatural and The Vampire Diaries.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: This one isn’t really even fair. It’s Doctor Who in a walk. Even though Game of Thrones and Supernatural have extremely lively, extremely visible fanbases, they’re still not near the subculture that Doctor Who has put together.

TV Comedies
THE THING: Lawyer has to go back to community college, all of pop culture is filtered through it, the sitcom is reinvented, a gas leak causes an enormous, catastrophic failure. Then Dan Harmon came back and everything was great again. Soon to be a show on Yahoo.
THE FANDOM: A feverish set of people who watch sitcoms and want them to be good. The reason that Community works as a source of comedy is its underlying belief that things, and people, can be actually good, instead of just signifying good. I have more to say about this that I might even say another time.

Parks & Recreation
THE THING: A local Parks & Recreation department becomes a surprisingly-complex web of interconnected comedy stories. This is the show that gave the world Ron Swanson and, if nothing else, should probably canonized for that.
THE FANDOM: Less fervent than Community, and also less specific to Parks and Recreation, which has many of the same notes as Breaking Bad. It is, in cultural terms, occupying the same space as Breaking Bad (with Community as its Mad Men) on the comedy side.

New Girl
THE THING: The website for this award, the website for the tv show, Fox, and the wikipedia page all say it’s New Girl and not The New Girl. I feel like I’ve been lied to. Anyway, Zooey Deschanel is quirky, and people whose opinions I respect and appreciate say that it’s gotten much better than its first season. I’m willing to take their word for it.
THE FANDOM: This has a fandom? It’s a successful tv show that’s popular among critics (again, after the first season). I’ve watched up to several minutes of a handful of episodes for less-than-savory reasons11. It’s clearly got a deep backstory and some character-development stuff going that I’d have to wade through. That said, I guess the loyalty that keeps it on the air qualifies as a “fandom,” even though I don’t really know what else they do.

THE THING: Oh just stop it, MTV. You’re embarrassing yourself.
THE FANDOM: It exists primarily in the dreams and intentions of MTV’s marketing department. They probably have crossover cons with the Teen Wolf  “fandom”

How I Met Your Mother
THE THING: Also recently-departed, very-long-running sitcom about friends, one of whom spends nine years telling one story to his kids. Notable for an extremely talented cast, and for being, for a long time, the exception when people talked about not watching three-camera sitcoms.
THE FANDOM: Surprisingly vocal! This was one of those shows that people liked a whole lot for its run, and its ending (as covered in this very space) was met with a reaction just short of biblical. Tend to be a bit older, and people who also like sitcoms and want them to be good, and also want them to not be screaming at them about why they should think this particular sitcom is good, nor surrounding the goodness in a package of, say, interpretive dancing for a Spanish grade.

THE THING: A first-season phenomenon that has since quieted way down to a cult show (which, really, is what it should have been the whole time) about people singing pop songs while going through the biggest, most obvious motions of something like acceptance. The ladies of the show may be cursed, as two of them have had boyfriends die almost exactly a year apart.
THE FANDOM: At this point I think it’s down to the people who were themselves in glee clubs in high school? Occasionally they poke their heads into the wider world, but at this point everyone pretty much knows what they’re about, and they continue to go on their merry way.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
THE THING: You know, the state of television production is a mess. Shows that don’t perform extremely well for networks get unceremoniously axed, unless the network itself is doing so poorly on that night that they keep a critical favorite around so that someone’s favorite is on the air. And they complain that they can’t do things like cable, because of larger overheads, etc. And yet I put it to the theoretical television executives out there: maybe you could? Because the cable model isn’t based on anything other than sticking with profitable enterprises even if they aren’t particularly profitable. When It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia started, it was early days for original programming on FX, and it was mostly touted for being Danny Devito’s tv show. It’s the launching pad for Charlie Day, and remains a favorite source of quotes, image macros, gifs, and all of the other markers of online fandom presence. Plus, it’s been on and successful for nine years. So what’s the argument?
THE FANDOM: As mentioned, it’s extremely visible, probably because the show lends itself so well to sharing the punchlines and not losing any of their quality. And also partly because it’s been on for nine years. The fandom doesn’t seem to be any unified group, but they’re very much out there.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine
THE THING: A very funny show about cops that, if nothing else, gives us two things: Andre Braugher being very funny, and a wider platform for the comedy genius of Chelsea Peretti.
THE FANDOM: See, this is where that all falls apart. Is it a fandom? It’s a successful show. I guess what we’re learning here is that I think of a “fandom” as being something that exists as an entity, not just the mass group of something’s fans. A “fandom” is a sports team’s stands, as it were, rather than the people that catch the game in a bar. So I don’t think Brooklyn Nine-Nine has one of those. And if it did, I’m pretty sure I’d have found it, as it was my favorite show that premiered last season.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: This one’s tough, because this category more than any other would require some definition to really make the judgment call. I suppose, using the “the fandom was enough to bring it back” argument, you’d really have to give it to Community12.

Attack on Titan
THE THING: Post-apocalyptic anime, adapted from a wildly successful manga (again – a print category, guys. Seriously.), it starts out one thing and becomes something different and more complex, without losing the action story that started it out in the first place.
THE FANDOM: I’m still in America, so I’m, once again, speaking only to the American wing of the fandom. Anime fans tend to periodically love something so fervently, it shoves itself into the mainstream consciousness, and, at least as far as I’m aware, these tend to be really, really good13. This fandom in particular is very active and very visible.

Free! Iwatobi Swim Club
THE THING: This is more anime that comes from manga (which, to be fair, a lot of it does), and i’m going to have to confess: I know almost nothing about this, although some of the characters look familiar, like I’ve seen them around the internet somewhere, but honestly, I have no idea what’s going on here.
THE FANDOM: Uh…I guess it’s fine? I feel like I have to disqualify myself from judgment, but we all know that’s not going to happen. I’m going to say that it seems to be somewhat visible, in the sense that I’ve seen fans around, and that it’s not visible enough to grab more of my attention.

THE THING: One of the greatest voice casts ever assembled makes a spy show that’s more focused on one-liners than literally anything else.
THE FANDOM: They are also very visible, but they seem, to me, to be pretty casual. Even people that quote them all the time are still basically there for the jokes. Not that there’s any better reason to enjoy a comedy, I just think that, as a fandom, they’re somewhat outclassed by, say, the Attack on Titan people. Or by….

Adventure Time
THE THING: A boy, his dog, their imaginations and a bunch of candy rescue princesses, rock out, play video games and generally adventure around a world where seemingly anything can happen at any time for any reason.
THE FANDOM: Adventure Time has the distinction of being one of the most idiosyncratic cartoons to ever air, and its fandom is borne of that. While Archer and Attack on Titan are fine programs with big viewerships, Adventure Time is deeply personal, and, as such, while their fanbase doesn’t have the visibility or even the recruitment measures (it’s hard to convince someone why they should like AT if they don’t just by seeing it) of other fandoms, it burns awfully bright.

South Park
THE THING: The 900 pound gorilla of cable comedy. It’s been running for seventeen years, it’s probably not going anywhere. A couple of generations of comedy junkies have come up through its off-color sensibilities, and a thousand cartoons have been launched by imitation.
THE FANDOM: Sometimes a thing is around so long that, where it would have the normal fandom of a successful show, its mere longevity means that it’s been around for an enormous portion of the viewer’s life (over half of mine, even though I’ve never been a regular viewer, and don’t count myself as part of the fandom), and that people grow enormously attached to it. This is helped by the fact that the creators are still the writers, and the show still has a very definite, specific voice, but that it’s covered an enormous amount of ground in its run, and there’s probably an episode or two for just about anybody, which ensures that potential fans can always find their way in.

THE THING: Anime about a ninja that wants to be the head ninja. This one has a deep mythology, a lot of bright colors, and is surprisingly funny.  
THE FANDOM: The manga is a giant phenomenon in Japan, and simply by dint of the bulk of its popularity, it has some pretty solid hooks in the U.S. as well. The fandom here largely consists of the younger end of the anime fandom, as well as a number of the more “serious” older anime fans who are impressed with its craft.

Blood Lad
THE THING: A vampire tries, repeatedly, to bring his ghost girlfriend back to life. This is a very, very Japanese story, with a very specifically Japanese usage of “demon”, “vampire”, “ghost” and, honestly, “girlfriend”.
THE FANDOM: largely Japanophiles, as far as I can tell. The show itself is O.K., but, like Sherlock, it sort of has more of a fanbase because of its cultural frame of reference than its actual qualities. Which is a fine reason to have a fanbase, but it makes it rather hard to parse.

Family Guy
THE THING: A televisual abortion that leads to hate, which leads to suffering, which leads to the dark side14. That was a reference to a thing you already like, which means I’m at least 85% of the way to being a Family Guy writer. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to perform some casual misogyny to make up the other 15%.
THE FANDOM: The rose-colored-glasses of fan memory (it didn’t used to be the criminally, punishingly un-funny tv show that it is now, and the first few seasons even have a couple of jokes) got it un-cancelled, which would give it a strong showing (as these are the criteria I’ve established) if it weren’t for the fact that I’m fairly certain that “nostalgia” is a shitty reason to want more, new versions of something and also: it’s really, really terrible.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: On the one hand, Attack on Titan has almost nothing giving it a foothold except its fandom, and it’s still a pretty prominent feature out there in the television world. On the other hand, South Park is basically a religion to some people. And it’s hard to compete with that.

Best Fandom Forever (BFF)
Harry Potter
THE THING: Harry Potter15 is the story of a kid who goes to wizarding school, is forever having spells cast at him that put him out of commission while the spoiled “chosen one” scarface jerkball gets to go off and have adventures until the seventh book, at which point the real hero finally gets to chop a snake in half.
THE FANDOM: At this point in the proceedings (with one exception, which we’ll see here in a  moment), there’s a jump in scale. Naruto and Glee are things that, even at the bottom-end of the modern fandom scale, still just have modern fandoms. Harry Potter is for life. For life.

The Lord of the Rings
THE THING: It’s kind of the O.G. of fandom, really. Before all the cons and all the celebration of fandoms, before many of the people that created the things on this list were even alive, J.R.R. Tolkien was yelling at the people who, he felt, were too obsessed with his story of elves and dwarves and rings and such.
THE FANDOM: Longevity makes it hard to gauge, really. Lord of the Rings has basically passed beyond traditional notions of “fandom” into a thing that people generally stop by on their way to other fandoms. It’s true that not everyone has read it, or seen the films, or even likes it if they have, but what is true is that it set the template for basically all of this.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer
THE THING: Witty, attractive vampires, plus demons and wisecracks and specific speech patterns. Will they or won’t they, prominent homosexual characters, and the worst late-cast addition since Scrappy Doo.
THE FANDOM: There were, prior to Buffy, shows that people were obsessed with, certainly. But in terms of modern fandom, at least of the television type, Buffy is ground zero. Call it the starting point for second-wave fandom. Buffy fans are probably still increasing in number. The entire extension of Joss Whedon fandom grows out of the soil of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which yields not only the rabid (and often tiresome) Firefly people, but also his current job as writer of the MCU.

Doctor Who
THE THING: See above. This, presumably, is meant to mean that it’s Nu Who that’s nominated above, but I refuse to acknowledge their attempt.
THE FANDOM: this has the distinction of being a cult item in America (where, for a very long time, regular video copies of it didn’t exist, so you had to know somebody, or keep your eye on the PBS listings, to watch it), while just being some bygone part of the popular culture in the U.K. that got brought back. This is why I’m sticking to American fandom throughout.

THE THING: You know, maybe I’ve been too narrow and that instead of this referring to the title off the tv show we’re meant to consider the entire pop-cultural life of the thing itself. That would be basically impossible to evaluate. Yikes.
THE FANDOM: It’s the same as it was above, really. I also think it’s pretty outclassed in this competition – it’s the exception I mentioned before. It’s a fine program, certainly, but it’s only existed for a few years, and hasn’t generated that much output in that time. It could, very easily, be something that doesn’t sustain over time (even though that, admittedly, doesn’t seem very likely).

THE THING: See, now we need not just parameters for fandom, but parameters for what is included here. The whole character of Batman, in any medium, includes dogs, encounters with Superman, being strapped inside of an enormous coffee pot, nuking the ocean directly above Gotham City, a batsuit with nipples, growling “I’m the goddamned Batman”, and, always, sex with Catwoman.
THE FANDOM: Batman as a property is basically a whole bunch of fandoms. Comics fans, movies fans, people who like specific bits of the comic or specific iterations of the movie.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Actually, I’m going to say it’s Batman. While Harry Potter is a big deal to a lot of people, that’s going to end up The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in a couple of generations: not unpopular, but not always greeted as rapturously. The Lord of the Rings has been at it a very long time, but doesn’t have the depth or breadth of catalog to sustain most people for very long. Buffy is the closest contender, I think, but is still too self-aware to get the kind of “living for it” fan that other properties get. Sherlock never had a chance. Batman, though. People live and die Batman. People eat, sleep and breathe Batman. Batman is a thing that changes lives16.

And there we have it! Tune in to the show itself on Sunday, if you can figure out if you get MTVu and where it is on your cable system, and you can see just what the hell this whole thing is on about!

1 used here, in the awards ceremony and throughout the rest of this piece to mean the concrete mass of people who are fans, rather than the abstract state of being a fan.
2 four novels, two comic books, but the comic books get weird, so keep reading.
3 remember, the last, shortest, and least-complicated book is, somehow, getting split into two movies.
4 The Hunger Games is about a totalitarian government, intra-citizen paranoia, police-state brutality and, in general, a boot stamping on a face forever. Divergent is about personality-sorting, and people undermining it for the cause of love.
5 it would make the most sense if this was The Marvel Cinematic Universe and the next entry was The X-Men Cinematic Universe, since the MCU is run by Disney/Marvel and the X-Men films are owned by Fox. This is why there’s two Quicksilvers, for example – the character has a weird split ownership, which enables him to get bundled with both The X-Men (he’s a former member of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, and he’s Magneto’s son) and The Avengers (he’s Scarlet Witch’s sister, which matters even though she’s never made a film appearance and would likely also belong to both studios).
6 this would be the Chris Claremont/John Byrne period, a.k.a. “The X-Men’s golden age, and maybe the strongest run on any superhero comic ever”. Seriously, this story has fans.
7 this would be a spoiler if you didn’t know anything about Sean Bean
8 which actually started on UPN and then went to the CW in the merger. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was re-run on The CW because it had aired on The WB originally, and probably is part of the “extreme loyalty” genetic makeup.
9 this is how I and most of the other Old Who fans found out about it, so my sampling is unscientific, but anecdotally it’s 100%.
10 don’t call it that.
11 Lizzy Caplan was in four episodes, but I could only watch the first part of three of them.
12 this ends up looking like I’m just picking my favorites, to which I will say: I like Pacific Rim more than Veronica Mars and Breaking Bad more than Nu Who.
13 exception granted for Ranma ½, which is the boring kind of crazy. Also I’m too old to have gotten into Pokemon, Dragonball Z, or Sailor Moon, but I see the merits of each.
14 it skips the fear step because it’s terrible
15 as an aside, the first Harry Potter novel is two months older than South Park. That’s how much South Park there is.
16 also, with the exception of The Animated Series, The Dark Knight, The Killing Joke, Secrets and Lego Batman, I don’t much care for it.

The Best of the First Half of 2014

Guys! I would’ve sworn I put this up last week. I can’t believe I left you dangling off the precipice of not knowing what to think for, like, five extra days or something!

It’s July, and you know what that means! It means it’s time for me to make sure that you know what your ears have been missing! Or, if they haven’t been missing them, then to reaffirm that your ears are still correct! As always, remember: there were probably a couple hundred good songs released in the last six months, and so while these are inarguably the fifty best, it’s entirely possible that this list isn’t all-inclusive! They’re in alphabetical order, as always, because I don’t like to pick favorites1, and you can find a folder full of all the songs here, which should, of course, spur you to go out and buy the ones you like. Onward ho!

A$AP Rocky – In Distress (w Gestaffelstein)

Man, “Black Skinhead” sure did raise Gestaffelstein’s profile. In any event, this song is fantastic on the strength of its beat, but it also kind of illustrates A$AP Rocky’s limitations as a rapper – his voice isn’t really doing much for that beat except adding another percussive element. Of course, since A$AP Rocky has never really topped the list of “people that have bars” it’s some of the best use of his delivery so far.

Ab-Soul – Gods Reign (f SZA)
TDE (and with it, Black Hippy) is a long way from where it was when I first wrote about Ab-Soul in this space, and it’s to Ab-Soul’s credit that he clearly doesn’t see it that way. Actively a weirdo, always a champion of hip-hop’s most hopeless causes (Canibus! Slaughterhouse!), plus a healthy scoop of the good old fashioned Illuminati2, Ab-Soul made a hell of a record by partying like none of them ever went gold. These Days… then, almost sounds like a throwback, albeit a throwback to, what, eighteen months ago? Anyway, “Gods Reign” deserves points for working his two lyrical foci (his newfound money and his weird-ass new age hippie spiritualism) into the same song in a way that isn’t stupid.

Adderall Canyonly – Some Sort of Sacrifice Maybe
Isn’t that the best band name ever? I couldn’t hear you answer, but since the answer is “yes, yes it is” I assume that’s what you said. I was thrilled when Lucid in a Wasted Way turned out to be so good, because it meant I could finally share their name with the world. This song manages to combine some of the best elements of drone music with some of the best elements of weird-ass synth-y post-rock3, in a way that’s accessible even, which is a pretty neat trick in an environment where even indie-pop dudes are trying to make their music as inaccessible as possible.

Alex G – Hollow
For most of the last decade, “just ignore bands from Brooklyn” has been a pretty easy rule to follow. But man if Orchid Tapes (where you’ll also find the excellent RickyEatAcid) isn’t making that harder. Yeah, “Hollow” sounds kind of like that record that Lou Barlow and Chris Bell never made together, but isn’t that cool enough?

Oren Ambarchi – Park it Where the Sun Don’t Shine
Oren Ambarchi has had an enviable year – he’s made two great records under his own name (the single this is from, “Stacte Karaoke” and a record with Stephen O’Malley and Randall Dunn called Shade Themes From Kairos) and has, presumably4, also played on the two pretty-fantastic Sunn0))) records this year5. He has, all told, been one busy Australian. I don’t have a source for the sample that powers this song (the flip of the single is built on the opening riff from “La Grange,” which is also amazing), but it’s a pretty incredible use of the repetition and the slow-build.

Asaad – Corporate Hood Neighba/Forged
It’s sometimes hard to keep track of Asaad’s music, what with the Tupac-buggering and the Pusha T-baiting. Asaad, most interestingly in a metamusical sense, seems to be forging a pretty normal career out of the usually-pendulous relationship with “internet rap”6. But mainly, this is a pretty-out there song from a pretty out-there record by a pretty out-there guy, and that’s basically my wheelhouse.

Boris – Angel
“Angel” was a song I’d heard about long before I heard it. The first time I actually, finally, got to clap ears on it was when they played the Grog Shop last year, and let me tell you, it was just about as mindblowing as I’d heard. So when it finally came out on a record, I was super-excited to be able to have a copy of my very own. NOISE, the album from whence it comes, is being spoken of mainly as an “overview” of Boris’ career. I think it’s more of an album built around “Angel,” as most of the elements of the song are explored elsewhere on the record. But jesus, what a song to build an album around.

Bottomless Pit – The Big Game is Every Night
If there’s any comfort to Jason Molina’s death, it’s the outpouring of support and fond remembrance from his fellow musicians. The tribute record, Farewell Transmission was, predictably, a mixed bag, but the always-reliable Bottomless Pit turn in a phenomenal version of “The Big Game is Every Night”. It’ll make you said for Jason Molina all over again.

Carla Bozulich – Deeper Than the Well
I don’t know if or how we were supposed to believe her when she talked about Boy being her “pop” album, but I suppose, insofar as Carla Bozulich albums go, it’s not an inaccurate descriptor. After several records in a row of wandering, increasingly-experimental music, she has tightened it up to songs with recognizable structures and, generally, a sense of forward motion. While sometimes this doesn’t work out in the record’s favor, it does mean that the high points (such as “Deeper Than the Well”) are very impressive.

Brightside – Jetpacks
It’s possible that there are reasons not to like this song. I mean, it’s not like it reinvented the wheel or anything. But if you’re the kind of person who can listen to the chorus and not be made a little bit happy, then by jove, you’re the kind of person who I won’t be inviting to my parties.

Cities of the Plain – Rivers of Red and White
It was something of a big year for post-rock. Slint’s Spiderland and Mogwai’s Come On Die Young got reissued (and their respective bands toured behind them7), and that led to a bunch of talking about it as a historical artifact, but not much talking about it as a genre. That’s a shame, because it’s not like there’s a shortage of bands out there that picked up on “Nosferatu Man” and “Christmas Steps” and decided to run with the ideas. Cities of the Plain is one of those bands, complete with CODY’s spoken-word clips and a really wicked crescendo.

Clipping. – Ends
So, in the year or so since Midcity, Clipping. have gotten people’s attention in a truly major way. The funny thing is that they’re mainly written of as something like the “more polite Death Grips,” or something similarly euphemistic that generally means “their album covers are about 85% less likely to be an erect penis in a shower with the album title written on them.” They’ve also toned down both the power electronics and horrorcore elements of the record, leaving us with something like…well….Death Grips. CLPPNG is a pretty good record with a couple of really great moments (the first track, “Intro” and the last track, “Ends”, chief among them). “Ends” does a neat trick by, essentially, falling apart (in the best possible way) by the end of the track, so that the sections themselves all seem to be playing in unison, rather than in any kind of synthesized manner. It shows them to be a little more thoughtful about composition than they were on midcity, which will be welcome.

Cloud Nothings – I’m Not a Part of Me
I never would have picked Cloud Nothings records as being ones that were inspiring for showing a new light forward. Starting out as a man in place to fill the void left by the passing of Jay Reatard8, he’s grown into an inspiring performer in his own right. Here and Nowhere Else tempers the wandering, stringy Attack on Memory with some of the “not thinking at all” aspect of Turning On and Cloud Nothings. All of which is to say: while even I can be somewhat enthusiastic about pronouncing the deadness of rock music as a commercial force, it seems to be doing just fine otherwise. Thanks, Cloud Nothings!

Death Grips – Black Quarterback
After seeming to falter, Death Grips’ last couple of releases have really come out of the swamp. Of course, this song, from Neighbas on the Moon, the first disc of a double-disc album that’s also (apparently? Who the hell knows) going to be released physically later in the year on Harvest records, was released (along with the rest of its…erm….half-album) with no warning, and no real comment other than “Bjork appears on all the tracks.” Since this was later found to be a (pleasant) surprise9 on the part of Bjork, it’s probably more accurate to say “Bjork is sampled.” And, you know, sometimes that ends up being something pretty cool, but for the most part it has the same effect as those Black Flag and Pink Floyd samples back on Ex-Military: recognition provides not a key, but rather further alienation. If their napkin-scrawlings are true, and this is the first half of their last album, their run will be able to go down as one of the strongest in recent history.

Drive-By Truckers – Grand Canyon
While we’re going out on limbs, let’s go ahead and call this the best song ever written in memoriam to a merch guy. English Oceans would be, I suppose, the “back-to-basics” DBTs album, if they’d ever strayed to far from the basics in the first place. Down to just Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood, songwriter-wise, it actually ended in Cooley being the one to step it up. Patterson Hood, who’s been on a hell of a strong run these last few years, ends up with the best song, though, the huge, album-closing “Grand Canyon.” I don’t have a whole lot new to say about the Truckers, but I don’t really think I need to.

Ex-Hex – Hot and Cold
Mary Timony liked the name of one of her solo records so much she turned it into a band, which now has an entire single to its name. This would be unbelievably frustrating if “Hot and Cold” weren’t so good. I mean, I’d still like ten or eleven more of these on an album,. but that’s just being greedy.

The Felice Brothers – Constituents
Usually Felice Brothers are reasonably-good affairs anchored by one or two top-notch, A+ songs. Usually, Felice Brothers albums are recorded in gymnasiums or barns or winnebagos or whatever. Favorite Waitress was recorded in an actual recording studio, by an actual record producer, and happens to be the most consistent of their records to date. Of course, that means that it lacks a standout as good as “River Jordan” or “Run Chicken Run” or “Frankie’s Gun,” but it also means that I won’t completely forget the name of the record itself the next time I go to talk about it.
Fennesz – The Liar
You know, periodically, there’s a song that’s just great, and it’s hard to say a whole lot about. Here’s “The Liar” by Fennesz. He’s Austrian! He was born on Christmas! His first name is Christian! He hasn’t made a record this face-melting since Endless Summer! I’ve listened to this record compulsively since it came out! Can you believe that? Born on Christmas!

Ben Frost – Venter
Ben Frost is a real lesson in the power of consistency. He’s made consistently great records, and his run since Theory of Machines has been basically untouchable. He even contributed to Virgins, which was my favorite record of last year. A U R O R A is, even given his high level of success, still his best record since Theory of Machines, and it might even rise above that high-water mark. “Venter” is nearly a random choice: I had it narrowed down to four songs from this record, and Venter was the one with the best title. Just go buy A U R O R A already.

Fucked Up – Led By Hand
Album-wise, the first six months of 2014 have been something of a “well, it’s not bad” period of music. Glass Boys is Fucked Up’s first full-length record since David Comes to Life, and, as with so many things, had a basically impossible job to live up to. Glass Boys is an awfully good record, and is not nearly as disappointing as most of the reviews make it out to be – it’s got all the stuff you could want from recent-period Fucked Up, and some really inventive arrangement/production stuff that is interesting to see them branch out into. “Led By Hand” is actually a monster song10, marred in reception only by its time of release.

Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Scarface
While I can’t say I’m honestly surprised to find that gansta rap is something that ebbs and flows over time, one of the things that I probably wouldn’t have been able to predict11 is how fluid it would end up being. There’s room for Schoolboy’s self-analysis and Boosie’s uh….Boosieness, on the fringes, which is a pretty wide-open space for a pretty narrow subgenre. But throwing into the “weird-ass gansta records” of 2014 is Pinata, which marries one of gangsta’s gangsta-est rappers to one of the trippiest of producers (he’s the other half of MF Doom, for Christ’s sake) and the result really came out something pretty awesome. “Scarface” manages to go one further, and turn the way-overcooked “rapping about Scarface” subject material on its head in a way that makes it, if not actively compelling, then at least a reasonable place for his verses.

Horseback – Piedmont Apocrypha
Even after last year’s vault-clearing A Plague of Knowing, there still isn’t enough Horseback in the world. Especially recently, he’s really found a way to quietly, unassumingly, drop a whole bunch of really fantastic music into our ears. I don’t know if he intentionally waited until metal and drone were out of fashion again to make this record, or if it’s just serendipity, but it’s pretty incredible either way.

Kool AD – Tight (f Lakutis & Mr Muthafucking eXquire)
Maybe if we continue to point out that Word O.K. actually had some good songs on it and might even be worth hearing more than a couple of times, Kool AD will stop making seven mixtapes a year and we can get some more songs as good as this one? Or, barring that, some more verses from MMX? I would settle for that.

Mark McGuireIn Search of the Miraculous
Why aren’t the “Tense, arty-styley horror movie” people beating down Mark McGuire’s door? I guess maybe they are and I’m just not hearing about it. Even if they aren’t, they should be.

Miguel – Simplethings
Lyrically, it’s Prince’s “Kiss”, rewritten to be appropriate to the soundtrack to Girls. Musically, this is why we love Miguel. Boasting the best guitar sound I’ve heard all year, and a bomber of a riff, he could be singing about his love for peanut butter and banana sandwiches and I’d still think this song was, basically, everything good and vibrant about R&B.

Bob Mould – Fire in the City
It’s entirely possible that, thirty-three years into his career, Bob Mould has kind of settled on a sound an approach. It’s also possible, and a testament to just how out-of-this-world incredible the man’s body of work is, that I think this based on two, maybe three albums12. But the thing is, when you’re Bob Mould, you can just write songs like “Fire in the City” (or “I Don’t Know You Anymore,” or “Forgiveness”) forever and I’ll be happy with that.

Nothing – Endlessly
If nothing else, I want to make it clear that shoegaze never died, that there will always be a place in my heart for bands that in the mix are about 85% slowly-strumed guitar (and less than 5% vocal), and that the best heavy music these days really is coming from dudes that just want to be really sad and really loud13.

Obnox – Grease
This Moment in Black History’s (and Cleveland’s own) Bim! There have been a bunch of awesome records by drummers that consist mainly of drums and rhythm tracks, but this one is probably the best of them, mainly because he seems to be aware that sometimes it’s good to have, say, a melody. Or at least a vocal. Name-checking Cleveland weather may seem, to some, unnecessary, but to other’s it’s….well, it’s certainly there, isn’t it.

Tunde Olanirian – The Raven
Imagine if someone took all of the best ideas from British hip-hop from the last decade or so and moved them to Detroit, where they were forced to live in a house with Detroit’s dance music. Wouldn’t that be awesome? Well, it turns out it’s called Yung Archetype, and it’s pretty awesome.

The Old 97s – Guadalajara
Rhett Miller, as a songwriter, is the master of a sort of mature unsophistication. He’s just as hung up, self-lacerating and inward-focused as any kid songwriter, just as booze-and-shoutin’ focused as any lunkhead country singer, just as groupies-and-even-more-booze focused as any longtime rock-and-roller, but in there is a real poet, who manages, generally, to find new ways to express those ideas, and new depths to which they can be expressed. Nothing on Most Messed Up is quite as good as “Question,” or “Niteclub,” or “(Murder or a) Heart Attack,” but the best moments are still the work of someone who’s looking for new ways to say things14 And so, “Guadlajara,” which lets Murry Hammond and Ken Bethea’s apparent love of all sounds Southwestern run around over a lyric about being a nine-to-fiver having a close encounter with a semi-clad vacationer. Full marks for ambition, and even fuller marks for Ken Bethea knowing (as he always does) exactly how to complement a song with his guitar.

Tara Jane O’Neil – This Morning Glory
There have been a lot of very, very talked about releases by sad, frail ladies with guitars in 2014. For this I blame not the ladies (many of whom have been making records for far longer than they’ve been getting the attention for it), but rather the braindead nature of the hype machine15. Anyway, I’m generally anti-competition, but every time I read an article about Sharon Van Fucking Etten, I wonder where these people are when there’s finally a new Tara Jane O’Neil solo album. Stop sleeping on it, fools.

Orcas – Infinite Stillness
It’s Benoit Pioulard, a dude from Efterklang, a dude from The Sight Below and a dude from Telekinesis, which sort of makes it the Cream of drone-folk. Or whatever you want to call what they do. And it sounds more like Explosions in the Sky than you’d guess. Only drone-folkier.

Priests – Doctor
Every one of these lists includes a song that’s so beyond introspective analysis that it seems sort of silly to try. YOU STICK YOUR FINGERS IN OTHER PEOPLE’S MOUTHS ALL DAY, DON’T YOU DOCTOR?

Isaiah Rashad – Brad Jordan (f Michael Da Vinci)
So, whereas Freddie Gibbs wrote about Scarface, the movie character and longtime Gangsta focus, Isaiah Rashad took a left turn and wrote about Scarface, the rapper (whose real name is Brad Jordan). Biographical, enthusiastic and fannish, it basically hits all the high points it needs to and just feels really good.

Ratking – Bug Fights
Recently, on the podcast “Shots Fired,” Jeff Weiss and the Baka Boyz talked about the geocentric nature of hip-hop, and how it’s because of the listening environment that it so neatly and regularly arranges itself into scenes – that is, there are L.A. rap albums that sound better in your car on the freeway (see: the previous entry) and New York albums that seem better-tailored to walking around and listening to. Rat King is from New York, and most of So it Goes mostly sounds like walking around, late at night, while something kind-of bad happens over your shoulder. “Bug Fights,” specifically, sounds like the point where you decide whether or not you want to look and see what it is.

Robedoor – Neutral Scum
So True Neutral Crew requested a track from Robedoor (it would, eventually, become the TNC song “More a Kid”) to use as a beat. Now, I like True Neutral Crew, but Robedoor is an all-time favorite, and the un-cut, non-rapped-over version of the song is a pretty exciting slab of noisy tension. Play it at your next house party. It’ll be a hoot.

The Roots – Black Rock (f Dice Raw)
After a sequence of albums that spoke more to The Roots’ unparalleled ability to comfortably, predictably be The Roots (and one terrible album with Elvis Costello), …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin is surprising not only in its quality, but also in the lack of things it has in common with recent Roots albums. Small, dark, clean and gloomy, “Black Rock” is a real triumph.

Rick Ross – Sanctified (f Big Sean and Kanye West)
The album itself is something of an overbaked letdown, but “Sanctified” pretty much single-handedly justifies its existence. I’m relatively certain that the continued career of Big Sean is little more than Kanye showing off. “You know how good at this I am?” he seems to say every time he comes on after B.S. “I’m good enough that that terrible, terrible rapper will not only not ruin this song, but he won’t ruin it even if I give him the hook.” In a few years, when this is played on throwback night, I would bet on people forgetting that it’s actually a Rick Ross song, since he basically turns in a feature on this one.

Schoolboy Q – Los Awesome (f Jay Rock)
In any way that matters, 2014 was the year of “Happy”. That’s fine. It’s a fine song, that was on a soundtrack to a movie a bunch of people saw, it had a video that got a bunch of eyeballs, it was easy and unobjectionable in a way that great pop songs are. It is worth noting, however, that several months later, his contribution to Schoolboy Q’s Oxymoron is one of the tightest, neck-snappingest beats ever constructed. Oxymoron is full of fantastic, emotional songs that, even with the increased commercial production and requisite major-label touches still mostly works as a piece of geniune artistry. Of course, “Los Awesome” is a club-banger with a pretty solid Jay Rock verse, and Schoolboy can’t quite get out of its way. Really, if it’s the only song you hear from Oxymoron that’ll be a shame, but it’ll only be fair to that beat.

Signor Benedick the Moor – Nihilistic Neoclassical Narcissist: American Beauty Part One
Most recent True Neutral Crew member, SBtM turns out to also be, like, twelve. Which makes his wordy, ferocious bars all the more impressive. clipping. may be getting all of the attention, but I think Benedick is going to continue to make us happy for a long time. Of course, that’s what I thought about Ab-Soul, also.

Son Lux – Easy (Switch Screens) (f Lorde)
Son Lux’s Lanterns (his last full-length record) was, as most of his records are, a pretty-good record by a gentleman who is not as good a singer as he is a producer, and many of the songs were also marred by his studied self-awareness. In short, he’s got something in common with nearly anyone else who’s making basement dance-pop. Nearly anyone else. Lorde’s Pure Heroine was a pop record made by someone who, increasingly, is not actually interested in making pop music. For the strongest evidence to date, I give you: this re-recorded verson of the standout track from Lanterns, “Easy.” For “Easy (Switch Screens),” Lorde rewrote the lyrics to suit what is, more importantly, a much better vocal performance. Son Lux responded by rearranging the song to be much spookier, much more sinuous and, well, much better. Between this and the Sisyphus album there’s a pretty good argument for Son Lux continuing to collaborate.

Sunn0)))) & Ulver – Eternal Return
Black Metal, as a genre, is one of those things that it’s pretty easy to grow out of. It’s attractive when you first become aware of it, and then it slowly becomes something that’s less and less interesting as you start to get an idea for what it’s doing – there just aren’t that many ideas, and people seem pretty happy to splash around in the ones that exist for awhile before moving on to some other form. The best of those bands generally move in the noise direction, but occasionally you get a genuine composer out of it, and those tend to really be the best. The problem with Ulver’s composed, traditionally-played later records is that the band itself doesn’t have the kind of focus (or abandon, either would work) to make the music really compelling. That focus is, basically, the entire appeal of Sunn0))) – their records are magical not because the playing is impressive, or because the compositional ideas are so mind-expanding, or because they’re making new sounds16, but because of the intensity with which they’re able to apply themselves to what is, basically, the most elemenatl, bare-bones version of heavy metal possible. Combining Sunn0)))’s highly-focused drones and Ulver’s minimalist compositions appears to work about half the time, if Terrestrials is to be believed, but the half that does work (which includes “Eternal Return”) is just incredible.

Swans – Oxygen
Alright, so To Be Kind is not the outright masterpiece that The Seer was. That’s fine. What the new crop of Swans fans are in for is the truth about Swans, which is: they’re not always at their best on record. Not Here/Not Now and their tours, however, have shown a new dimension to their music, which is something like a jam band – their songs are arranged into sections that they play for as long as they need to get their point across, moving from section to section within each song after whatever period of time seems right. It’s getting them out of the song-focused nature of My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky and The Seer, and into something that seems to be more amorphous, while at the same time having more to do with traditional rock music. “Oxygen,” then, would represent both the end of the song-oriented Swans and the best statement of their newfound traditional-rock structure. And that’s neat historically, but to be honest, the pleasures of “Oxygen” are that, even without all the high-minded talk about artistic expression and all that, Michael Gira is a phenomenal vocalist, and “Oxygen” is one of his best performances ever.

Thee Silver Mt. Zion – Austerity Blues
I think this was the first album released this year that I heard? In any event, it’s almost certainly my favorite TSMZ album, which mostly just means that it sounds the most like Godspeed. Released on the heels of Godspeed’s highly-public dealing with the Mercury Prize, and featuring their usual end-of-days sociopolitics, it’s hard to see Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything as anything but a reaction to the a world that has gone through all of the motions of embracing them, even as it’s abundantly clear that this increased visibility, and increased audience, isn’t actually increasing the number of people who legitimately care about what they have to say.

Tungs – Dick Talk
These entries sure have gotten long down here at the bottom of the alphabet. It’s a good thing that pretty much everything there is to say about this song is right there in the title.

The Unsemble – Cyclone
It’s boringly common to say of a band “they sound like they make soundtracks to movies that don’t exist,” but honestly, that’s basically what The Unsemble sound like. Although it’s probably also fair to say that they sound like ambient music made by one of the guys from the Jesus Lizard and one of the guys from Einsturzende Neubauten, which is exactly what it is. Duane Dennison’s career is full of weird traps, and The Unsemble is pretty lumpy, but it’s three great players (the third person in the band is a drummer whose work I am not aware of other than this record) who manage occasional brilliance, which is kind of the theme of the first half of 2014 – it’s a great time for individual songs, but most of the records are turning out to be kind of a slog.

Chester Watson – Smoke Veteran
Chester Watson is another toddler with a microphone, thus granting us all hope for the 21st century. Remarkably prolific, and much more consistent than his basically-constant output generally leads one to be considered, Chester Watson still feels like someone who’s yet to break out, which is exhilarating.

Watter – Seawater
How great is it to have Britt Walford in a band again? How much greater is it that he’s in an instrumental post-rock band with Zak Riles from Grails? How much even greater is it that the record has fucking Rachel Grimes on it? And Todd Cook? Basically, this is the record about which I got most excited all year. And it mostly delivers! It’s clear that Zak Riles was doing a lot of the creative driving – some of the problems on the record (a somewhat-limited palette of sounds and progressions) are the same as on Grails records. But when it all clicks together, it’s pretty potent stuff. If they can put out some more songs as good as “Seawater,” I will be completely happy with them. Even if they can’t, I’m still pretty happy about it.

Wussy – Beautiful
Athens, Ohio’s best country band made a pretty, artsy record that is both underheralded and exactly what you’d probably expect out of Wussy in 201417. “Beautiful,” the best song on the album, is actually pretty surprising, in that it has a really off-kilter form, and bounces around from part to part in a way that prevents it from ever seeming settled, while still being awfully catchy.

Xiu Xiu – Stupid in the Dark
Theoretically, Xiu Xiu is whatever Jamie Stewart says they are at any given moment18, but it’s hard not to notice that their albums have sort of taken on a similar quality. It’s not unlike what happened to The Fall – the early records coalesced into a fairly-consistent vision, and the lone constant member and creative voice is happy to work within that. At times, however, Angel Guts: Red Classroom seems to be aware enough of its existence that it’s poking fun at people who would mistake consistency for complacency. Instead of doing something to get away from the sound of Always or Dear God I Hate Myself, Xiu Xiu burrowed into it, coming out with their bleakest, most unrelenting album. “Stupid in the Dark” is as scary of any of it, but as with the last three or four Xiu Xiu albums, it packs its wallop by also being a pretty effective pop song. Here’s hoping that, with his vocal cord problems, we aren’t at the end of Xiu Xiu, but if we are, this is the band taken to their logical extreme.

Honorable Mentions: I blame my general indifference to The Haxan Cloak (who produced it) for my somewhat-conflicted feelings about The Body’s last album, but  “Hail to Thee Everlasting Pain” is pretty good. Peter Buck made another solo record, and continues to be Peter Buck, which is a bonus for the world, and while “Drown With Me” is even a collaboration with the inimitable Corin Tucker, it still all feels more like a nostalgia trip than a record that’s bringing anything new to the table. In a year populated heavily by post-rock supergroups (see also: a bunch of the songs on this list), Inventions (made of members of Eluvium and Explosions in the Sky) rose pretty high with “Flood Poems”, but ultimately it just didn’t hold up to the other, better post-rock supergroups. Jessica Lea Mayfield went in a more rocking direction, and  “I Wanna Love You” might be her best song. Centro-Matic reconvened to make another record and, in true Centro-Matic fashion, it has a handful of pretty good songs buried in filler, with “Relative Unto the Aces” being the real standout. Vince Staples’ “Humble” boasts maybe the best chorus of the year, which is good enough to get played a bunch, but not quite good enough to make the list. Herzog made, as usual, a pretty good power-pop record, and “Mad Men” almost squeaked on to the list. Black Milk continued his high-water period with “G”, which sees him working with Guilty Simpson again, and thus reunites 66% of the disappointingly-unheralded Random Axe. Sturgill Simpson is getting a lot of press for being “country music for people that don’t like country music,” which must explain why I, someone who does like country music, don’t quite agree with all the hype, even if “It Ain’t All Flowers” is a pretty effective tune. I want to like Kelis “Rumble” more than I actually did, but full marks for effort. I like Son Lux, I like Serengeti, but Sisyphus never really rose above the sum of the parts, and “Alcohol” is both the best track and emblematic of the problem. Wreck & Reference are doing some pretty cool things with shouty, growly power electronics, but don’t really have a song that should make the list, despite the record being pretty awesome. Give “Corpse Museum” a listen to hear what they’re doing. True Neutral Crew’s “More a Kid” is a pretty good song, but the Robedoor track it comes from is even better, so it’s down here. The Weeknd’s “Often” may benefit from lowered expectations, or maybe trying out being explicit rather than implying is working out for him. Either way, it’s as good as anything in Kiss Land.
1 that’s a lie. I love to pick favorites. But putting fifty things in order from best to worst takes a really long time, and makes it hard to find things.
2 that’s not the name of a rap group.
3 I probably could’ve squeezed some more hyphens in there, but that would have been silly.
4 But really, who the hell knows. Except Stephen O’Malley. That guy knows.
5 let it stand as a testament to the climate in the last six months that this is Oren Ambarchi’s lone appearance on this list. At this time last year, there are probably a couple more songs that would have made it under the bar.
6 I don’t really know what else to call it? Noisey shouted out to Lil B, Kanye and Mixtape Weezy, which sounds more-or-less what I’m trying to say, here.
7 and, more importantly, each played Cleveland. Yay!
8 a loss that, frankly, is felt more with each passing year. If there’s a rock and roll heaven, I hope Jay is currently dumping beer on their stupid amps.
9 she was pretty happy about it. Can we just take a moment to talk about how awesome Bjork is? She’s so awesome.
10 really, it’s dwarfed in their ouevre only by “Queen of Hearts,” “David Comes to Life,” “Son the Father” and “Twice Born”. Which is pretty good company to be in.
11 before you think that’s an admission of being wrong, remember that no one predicted it, and I do say “probably”
12 Even if you start this “period” of his career with Disctrict Line*, that’s still only six years.  to be fair his first band had, six years into their existence, gone from Land Speed Record to Flip Your Wig which is quite possibly the best, most consistent six-year run in rock and roll history, and which ends with Zen Arcade-New Day Rising-Flip Your Wig. So he’s set a high bar for himself. Also, his second band didn’t even last six years. So you can see why this seems like something of a holding pattern.
* which is a little too Workbook 2: the Mouldening to really be the same thing as, say, Silver Age
13 see also: Pallbearer, Deafheaven, Jesu, The Cheatahs
14 to be fair: the moments that don’t work are the result of finding outside help to continue, as near as I can tell, to try to rewrite “Niteclub,” since all of the kind-of weak songs on the record are, basically, “Niteclub.”
15 and then I promise never to say that again.
16 naming your band after your amp is, actually, a pretty good way to notify the world that you have no intention of ever changing your guitar sound.
17 provided, of course, that you’re expecting anything out of Wussy in 2014.
18 as of July 3, 2014, he was playing shows as Xiu Xiu by himself, improvising material with an analog synth and a table full of effects equipment, so he’s still not singing after the vocal cord surgery that sidelined the Xiu Xiu tour earlier in the year.

The fault in our faults, and whose fault it is

Hi! Welcome back. I know that you all didn’t go anywhere, I did. But it’s been quite some time since I posted regularly, for the second time this year. Rest assured: it probably won’t happen again.


Anyway, John Green, right? Now, in addition to having a stupid book everyone’s read, there’s a stupid1 film based on the stupid book.

I hate John Green.

But this isn’t just about John Green, this is about “feels.”

You see, John Green is a young adult novelist, or, in his own words, someone who writes “novel[s] that are just like regular novel[s] that people actually read.” And, as has been mentioned by basically every single person with a keyboard and an outlet, YA novels are the novels that sell. Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Twilight, Divergent, Scott Pilgrim, The Mortal Instruments and, most recently, John Fucking Green.

It’s not a bad thing! People buying books, people supporting currently-working authors, authors making lots and lots of money, these are good things. The difference between John Green and what he represents and, say, Suzanne Collins and what she represents is that insane triumphalism2. It’s fine to be successful, it’s even fine to be successful by jumping on a bandwagon. What isn’t fine is crowing about how you’ve successfully jumped on a bandwagon and that makes you better.

The Fault in Our Stars, for those of you who don’t know, is about two kids who each have cancer, and then one dies and the other is very sad. It’s weepy and depressing, and features loads of terrible things happening to characters for no fucking reason, and loads of scenic, beautiful things happening to characters for the very specific reason of looking good on film and, therefore, making John Green a ton of money on the film rights. There’s a ton of ridiculous, improbable shit that happens, both because it would elicit maximum “feels,” and because, at it’s core, it’s about two people that are dying, but it’s written by a moron, so he can’t build a character, so he can’t figure out how to say anything about kids that die. But what do you say about a young girl who died? That she was beautiful and brilliant? That she loved Mozart and Bach, the Beatles and me3?

And there it is. The Fault in Our Stars is Love Story except 1) Ryan O’Neal (Ansel Elgort) dies instead of Ali McGraw (Shailene Woodley) and 2) it’s being touted as being anything other than weepy teen grief-porn. And John Green believes it.

Look, it’s not John Green’s fault (except insofar as it is). The literary climate is a pretty weird one, and books are, essentially, being held to the same entertainment rubric as literally everything else: if it causes people to feel, then it’s good, and if it doesn’t, it’s bad. This piece could be about The Walking Dead, it could be about that stupid violin pixie that was on America’s Got Talent and that makes internet-dwellers get all weird, it could be about anything that is successfully force-marketed instead of constructed with ability and heart.

Because that’s what we’re looking at, here: feels. Not feelings, not emotions, not genuine response, certainly not thoughtfulness. Just…sad shit happens, and I’m sad, so it must be good. It’s literally holding things to zero criteria. If you were successfully able to resist feeling sad a stupid, manipulative story of children with cancer4, then it must be a mark of quality or the work, rather than a mark of you being a goddamn human being.

But that’s it: the critical conversation has devolved so far that literally the only tool we’ve left ourselves about whether or not things are “good” is whether or not they elicit an involuntary reaction. This would be like if my one criteria for “good cheeseburger” was that it made me feel not hungry. That would place the McDouble, the Swensons Galley Boy and the Greenhouse Tavern’s lamb burger on exactly the same level. If that seems ridiculous, it’s because it is ridiculous. There’s nothing wrong with being easy to consume5, but it’s folly to pretend that that’s the same as “good.”

I’ve already gone on, at some length, about how the spoiler people and the “I’ve done that” people have basically done everything in their power to ruin discourse, and so I don’t need to keep going on about this. I just have this to say: if you’re a John Green fan, that’s fine. I don’t care, but please understand that there is no incontrovertible quality in his work, and that allowing him to believe that he’s the best because he’s the most popular is your fault. And writers are the only people that we do this for. There’s no wrong thing to like, and there’s no wrong reason to like something, but this kind of reader-assisted delusion, the result of the current pop-culture discourse, and its level, is absolutely bonkers.

Everyone has things that push their buttons. It’s a part of being a part of entertained. Some of us, and I include myself here, are willing to give themselves over to having their buttons pushed. I’ll even offer myself up here: I am a huge ol’ sucker for crowds singing along to bands. I love it. It can be the worst song in the world, by the worst band, and if I’m watching a crowd of people singing along with it, I will be moved. Often to tears6. I get it. Furthermore, there are a bunch of people who have made a good living out of that kind of basal-level movement: Charles Dickens is considered a literary titan, and let me tell you, nobody made it further out of playing people like a fiddle than Charles Dickens.

Except possibly William Shakespeare. And so we come full circle: John Green is a hack stylist, who writes over-flowered, purple prose about topics that are impossible not to get emotional about7. The title of The Fault in Our Stars comes from a line in Julius Caesar:
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

I don’t know how you all feel about Shakespeare, but I will say that, in this line, and in this play, is all of the difference between what is good about William Shakespeare and what is bad about John Green.

You see, that quote is the result of a discussion between Brutus and Cassius (who utters that line) about whether their duty is to the state of Rome (the place they were born and raised, and, more importantly, the place they ultimately decide is their utmost priority) or to Julius Caesar (their friend, who they still love and appreciate as a human being, even though he’s becoming a tyrant, in a precedent which they cannot allow to set). If they were celestial beings, they’d be perfect, there would be no wrestling. But they are imperfect humans, left below the stars to decide for themselves what the right answer is, or whether there is even a right answer at all.

Where The Fault in Our Stars (and, indeed, most feels-oriented popular entertainments) aims for big, emotion-stirring speeches and words, they miss the important part of why those speeches work. The Fault in Our Stars, specifically, plays out its hand: it culminates in a speech. Augustus8 dies, and the girl he meets, who was forced to attend the cancer group against her will at first, and eventually falls in love with him, after which (or during which or, hell, even before which, it’s not like character motivations are at all clear in this shitheap) he makes arrangements for her to meet a writer they both admire, and Augustus sends him some stuff to read a eulogy about Hazel. That stuff is as follows:

“[He] was the great star-crossed love of my life. Ours was an epic love story, and I won’t be able to get more than a sentence into it without disappearing into a puddle of tears. Gus knew. Gus knows. I will not tell you our love story9, because like all real love stories, it will die with us. As it should. I’d hoped that he’d be eulogizing me, because there is no one I’d rather have. I can’t talk about our love story, so I will talk about math. I am not a mathematician, but I know this. There is an infinity between 0 and 1. There’s .1 and .12 and .112 and an infinite collection of others. Of course, there is a bigger set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million. Some infinities are bigger than other infinities. A writer we used to like taught us that. There are days, many days of them, when I resent the size of my unbounded set. I want more numbers than I’m likely to get and God, I want more numbers for Augustus Waters than he got. But, Gus, my love, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. You have me a forever within the numbered days, and I’m grateful.”

My intention is not to pick the speech apart. It’s not terrible, as such things go, it’s just forced. The discussion of infinities is an element that has popped up throughout the book in such a way that it ends up feeling like he wrote the punchline first, and then the setup. It’s not a bad metaphor – it’s actually a pretty good metaphor – except that the way it’s introduced is so pedantic, so insulting to the audience that there’s no way to travel with it. Literally, as well as emotionally, he’s telling you: “this is exactly what this means, and there is no room for yourself within it.” The speech can never be moving, because it starts out by telling you exactly what’s going on (“I won’t be able to get more than a sentence into it without disappearing into a puddle of tears” telling the reader “this is the sad part, and this is the response”, because the character has not shown any ability to behave any way other than the most predictable).

Julius Caesar, as it happens, also ends with a eulogy. You probably know the first seven words (or even the first seventeen), but bear with me, here:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones, so let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus hath told you Caesar was ambitious: if it were so, it was a grevious fault, and grievously hath Caesar answered it. Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest – for Brutus is an honorable man, so are they all, all honorable men – come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral. He was my friend, faithful and just to me: but Brutus says he was ambitious, and Brutus is an honorable man. He hath brought many captives home to Rome whose ransoms did the general coffers fill – Did this in Caesar seem ambitious? When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept – ambition should be made of sterner stuff. yet Brutus says he was ambitious, and Brutus is an honorable man. You all did see that on the Lupercal I thrice presented him a kingly crown, which he did thrice refuse – was this ambition? Yet Brutus says he was amitious and, sure, he is an honorable man. I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke, but I am here to speak what I do know. You all did love him once, not without cause. What cause withholds you, then, to mourn for him? O judgement! Thou art fled to brutish beasts and men have lost their reason. Bear with me – my heart is in the coffin there with Caesar, and I must pause til it come back to me.

Do you see how that eulogy goes forward without anyone telling anyone else how they’re going to feel? Or without drawing a fine point about the plot elements of the story that (heard in context) they just fucking saw?

It’s not fair to hate someone for not being Willaim Shakespeare, obviously. There’s only been one. It may also even be fair to say that it’s not fair to expect that someone to be able to write a soliloquy as good as Mark Antony’s. But John Green made the comparison himself. And in so doing, he implied that his direct, unsubtle, overwritten prose was the same as Mark Antony’s plea to the forum that they not hate the man they just allowed to be killed, and remember the whole truth about him.

And no character in The Fault in Our Stars even has a whole character. If any of them have ever done anything bad, it was only to further them doing something plot-appropriately dramatic later on.

So what I’m saying is: this is the person that believes that it is a mark of quality that he is a popular: a man who has no problem comparing himself to Shakespeare, and that clearly has no idea what he’s doing when he does so.

And this is why being able to elicit a reaction is less important than being able to stand up to scrutiny, to analysis, to thought, and to conversation. And this is why plot is not the most important part of a story and why, honestly, the story that makes you feel something is the story that you should spend the most time on.

Because your emotions are easy to play on, but your brain is much harder, and your reactions don’t need as much exercise as your consciousness.
1 but Mike-Birbiglia-containing, and so non-useless
2 this isn’t the place where I put to fine a point on this, but also: he’s the only man that’s writing these, and frankly, it’s really hard to not notice that John Green seems to be immune to the unilateral dismissiveness that tends to follow his distaff counterparts around everywhere. I’m just saying, it’s a hell of a coincidence, given that his prose is, in fact, no better.
3 hi mom.
4 stay tuned for my bestseller “The Guy Who Only Ever Punched Kittens
5 by which I mean: every McDouble was probably the right choice at the time, as was ever Galley Boy, but that’s not the same thing, and it’s silly to pretend otherwise.
6 to be fair, I tear up at basically any opportunity. Sad things, happy things, well-written passages in Vanity Fair articles, nasal spray commercials, whatever.
7 once again, children dying of cancer is very sad, and only a monster would think otherwise.
8 look, can I just say: if you’re going to rob Shakespeare, can you not rob his second-greatest play*?
* 1) A Midsummer Night’s Dream 2) Julius Caesar 3) King Lear 4) Othello 5) Macbeth
9 she’s also not going to ask him what order, but the answer is: alphabetical**
** hi again, mom.