The Unquestionable, Brook No Argument 25 Best Rock Songs Ever Written

So I did this for country music over the summer, and now it’s time to do it again at the end of Rocktober. Guys: the impulse here is to be cagey, and to say “these are the blah blah of hedge blah blah blah.” I am not hedging. If aliens land tomorrow and say “what is this rock music of which you speak” the answer is these twenty-five songs.


Unless I change my mind.

A couple of notes: the Big Three (Dylan, The Beatles, The Stones) are not represented here. That is not because they don’t have great songs – it’s because their songs have been taken from rock music and claimed, essentially, by “the idea of popular music as a thing”, which isn’t really a genre. If it would make you feel a little better, you can pretend that “Like a Rolling Stone” is #3.5, “Ticket to Ride” is 8.51 and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is 13.5. Also the eagle-eyed among you will notice that the majority of these songs were recorded between 1975 and 1985. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the chief among them is that the people that get there first get the opportunity to be signifiers instead of symbol-adopters, and that helps in “greatness.” That also neatly cuts off the modern production era, which I feel generally does more harm than good to rock music, although as you can see it’s not like great rock songs aren’t made every day.

Furthermore the reason that stupid song you like isn’t on here is because there are only 25 songs that are on here, and frankly, yours wasn’t important enough.

“TV Eye” is on a better album, and “I Wanna Be Your Dog” is the “Smoke on the Water” of punk-oriented novice guitarists, but honestly, nothing tops this song in any respect. While most of Raw Power sounds blown-out and coke-addled (too bright, too much top-end, no drums, the songs are too long), that’s how “Search and Destroy” should sound. And that means, by extension, it’s how rock music should sound.

The fundamental problem with punk rock is that a lot of it was silly. The exceptions exist – a few of them are even on this list (and, really, just go listen to “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” if you want to know from silly) – but for the most part, they all just aped “Search and Destroy” to varying degrees of success. Well after punk had turned into hardcore and right about when hardcore had begun to decay, The Replacements came up with, basically, the same way of saying the same thing. Where Iggy’s was a threat, Paul Westerberg’s was a sigh. Where Iggy assumed, pessimistically, that you had already forgotten him, and had left him with no recourse, Paul, optimistically, believed that if you just looked him in the eye you’d see for yourself. Tellingly, that’s also all of the action that Paul commands, until he gives up on asking you to figure out and just tells you “I’m so unsatisfied.” “Unsatisfied” is grammatically incorrect2, it’s the most aggressive song on Let it Be and it’s played on an acoustic guitar, and it doesn’t even really have enough lyrics. It’s a staunch refusal to be anything but itself, and as such it’s head and shoulders above almost everything else.

Of course, the beauty of rock music is that it can convey a whole bunch without being specifically about anything at all. “Monkey Trick” is, like most Jesus Lizard songs (most of which are great) built on a crazy non-riff of a bass guitar part, with other instruments added one at a time through the intro. The Jesus Lizard were a phenomenally tight band of incredible players, all of whom work together to, essentially, get blown away by David Yow. And of all the David Yow show-stealers, this is the show-stealingest. It is, therefore, the best.

At a recent show, between the opener and the headliner, “Surrender” was played, and the venue full of people pretty much unilaterally failed to react. That would have passed without being notable had the last song before the band came on not been “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Everyone stopped what they were doing and sang along to the latter. This is, of course, the proper reaction to “Surrender,” not “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It’s probably not fair to say that it’s indicative of every single problem that people sing along to “Bohemian Rhapsody”3 and not “Surrender”, but I will say this: it would be a sign of better music going a lot further with Joe Schmoe if people liked “Surrender” as much as they do “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Anyway. In addition to sometimes being silly, rock music is often at its best when it’s dumb. “Surrender” is the dumbest clever song (or the cleverest dumb song) ever written.

For awhile there, The Velvet Underground and Nico was the VU album that got all the press. I cannot explain this, except to say it’s probably a vestige of the seventies, when Nico and Andy Warhol were a lot easier to write about than the band itself. It’s a great record, but White Light/White Heat is better. Where VU&N was planned and composed (and then poorly recorded), WL/WH seems like parts of it couldn’t possibly have existed until they were recorded. In the case of “Sister Ray,” that’s largely true. John Cale plays that organ like he hates it, and the rest of the band pounds on the song until it’s basically unrecognizable, and they do all of this without any of the even-then-ossified signifiers of “rock” aggression. For eighteen minutes. How can it not pummel a place into your heart?

Crazy Rhythms is the only Feelies record that sounds like it does – everything after it became a lot more like the Velvet Underground than like their jittery, high-tension early material4. Many of its songs build and build to something like a release that just gives way to more tension, until its penultimate track. The careful, studied material gives way to “Raised Eyebrows,” one of the most joyful blasts of expression ever recorded. The song mostly does away with traditional structure in favor of a constantly-building repetition, with each section being more cathartic than the last. By the time of the first “I said ‘oh’, said ‘oh,’ said ‘oh’” you want to jump around, and by the guitar solo thing that ends it, jumping around isn’t enough. If the song were any longer, it would literally cause explosions. It’s nothing less than life-affirming.

There is definitely a place in rock music for the craftsman. Heretofore most of the words have been about loud expression, and not about the actual craft of the thing. Paul Westerberg and Lou Reed were, as songwriters, as good as anyone5, but their place here (and much of what made their pre-solo-career bands great) is largely because of their ability to make themselves heard in the first place. Alex Chilton was never forceful, and seemed almost pathologically unable to make himself heard. “September Gurls” is a lament. It’s not insistent, even when it’s spelling out the details of the up-and-down relationship that is caused by one of the titular gurls.

Most people took the wrong stuff from Jimi Hendrix. The potential of Jimi Hendrix was that a guitar, having been completely unmoored from its rhythm-section roots, could be used in exactly the same ways as a voice – it could be used as a lead melodic instrument, it could be used to carry the melody, it could be used as an instrument of rhythm. The best uses of the guitar in the hands of Hendrix were nontraditional – the “scat-singing” style guitar playing that marked “Foxy Lady” or “If Six Was Nine” is a nifty effect that lies somewhere between rhythm guitar and lead guitar, satisfying the itch of either, but it’s using his instrument to represent a panoply of nonmusical sounds that gets swept under in the wash. In order to figure out how best to conjure the variegated noises that his guitar made to represent a sonic environment6, Jimi became extremely mechanically talented – his fingers were able to do things that other guitar players could scarcely conceive of, in the pursuit of turning the guitar into as direct an expression of the sulfurous sounds in his head as possible. Witness: “Machine Gun,” in which the guitar itself becomes the voice of the protestor, and increases to be the titular weapon, artillery and the resultant explosions, the absolute chaos of armed combat, chanting, paranoia, and finally screaming. The result is an open-ended use of nonmusic from a musical instrument in the form of a rock song (and is, thus, one of the earliest and most effective rock-based pieces of noise music, about which more….well, constantly all the time on this blog). Of course, what people took away from Jimi Hendrix was not that sense of open-ended possibility, but the idea of playing a whole bunch of notes really fast. People are boring.

Of course, some people did get the lessons of Jimi right, there just weren’t that many of them. One of them is Greg Sage, who was less impressionistic in his playing, and more expressionistic: his guitar wasn’t meant to represent any particular item in the war against young people, it was meant to represent the feeling of the war against young people. For over ten minutes of a constant, pummeling rhythm (it does not change tempo, and that bass player must be the most patient person in the world), Sage hollers a bunch, then the song falls apart into a guitar wash out of which pop a weird spoken interlude, a traditional meedly-meedly guitar solo that is eventually swallowed in feedback, and then, somehow, re-coalesces (symbolically, and powerfully, with the a return to the lyric “they’re coming at you from the left side/from the right side/down the middle/til you don’t know who you are”) into the earlier motif for a final hollering run-through, ending with Sage screaming the title over and over. It sounds completely unlike anything rock music had done to that point, but is an absolutely perfect distillation in hindsight.

An underrated stratum of rock song is the “mission statement” song – “We’re an American Band,” “Repetition,” “Detroit Rock City,” “Jocko Homo” – the song that announces: this is us, and this is what we’re about. They tend to be the best songs in a band’s catalog when they exist, and the odds are good (they’re fifty percent of the songs mentioned above, in fact) that they’ll be the only worthwhile song in a band’s ouevre. When the band is as great as Fugazi was, and when the mission statement is the statement of an actual mission, you get all of the cool stuff about a sing-alongy statement of purpose, and all of the near-religious fervor that accompanied so much of Fugazi’s output.

Wire’s first three albums are the best three-album stretch in any rock band’s career, ever. Over the course of that set of records, they covered everything from the straightforward gang-shout punk of “12XU” to the psychedelic weirdness of “On Returning”. Each of the three albums is peppered with occasional pop-music interludes, and none is more effective than the one hundred and four second masterpiece “Outdoor Miner”. It’s extraordinary in its beauty, perfection in its melody, and a model of efficiency in its basic construction and its brevity. And it’s about a leaf miner beetle. So basically it’s the most rock and roll thing ever.

So sometimes you have to find two to three like-minded people with instruments and try to hope you can all find the same wavelength and ride it to being a rock band. But imagine you only found the one person, and the only instruments you had between you were an extremely primitive rhythm machine strapped to a weird electric organ thing. What would you do? Well, you would probably give up and wash your hands of the matter. Lucky for the world Alan Vega and Martin Rev weren’t you. The answer turns you to be: you pretend you’re Elvis, you rage at anyone who doesn’t believe you, and you write songs about comic books. Singularly un-rock in their formation and instrumentation, Suicide actually got closer to the impulses and drive of the first rock and roll musicians than just about anybody else.

“Echoes” is a tree viewed from the bottom. The roots of the song are established, then there’s a long trip through the trunk, then something of a guided tour through the branches that, eventually, spirals back inward to return to the trunk, this time seeming thinner and less safe. David Gilmour would, eventually, be something of a master of the very planned, very specific record, and that sense of composition (and Roger Waters’ increasing misanthropy) would power Pink Floyd to the stratosphere, fame-wise. But there’s nothing really like “Echoes,” which prefigures not only Pink Floyd’s later epics (impressive as they are), but most of post-rock in general.

Oh come now. Certainly I don’t have to explain The Ramones to anybody.

Rock music is, as a result of it being an entirely electrical medium, capable of dynamic shifts of both a suddenness and force that isn’t really possible in other forms. While a lot of bands (and, really, a whole lot of the bands on this very list) rely on extraordinary volume itself, there is also a very real place for that kind of suddenly-shifting dynamic in the canon. Slint didn’t invent the extreme shift, and they didn’t invent spending several minutes building tension for a big release. What they did do was create a document that is a singular argument for the power of four young weirdoes with some guitars and some drums to do something that sounds so powerfully otherworldly (and so otherworldly powerful) that it seems like they did it first.

I’m always surprised that singer/organist Gerry Roslie is such a normal, unassuming guy. This list is populated by people screaming their fool heads off holding a microphone, and a whole lot of that kind of thing starts with The Sonics8. “Strychnine” has that super-cool Halloween-y riff, then espouses nihilism for a couple of minutes, then end on Roslie screaming and screaming and screaming. I can’t imagine what this must have sounded like in 1964, but that seems less important than the fact that it still sounds like it does now.

Where “September Gurls” was something of power-pop’s ground zero, “What You Do To Me” is more of its thesis. Where a lot of bands had worked in minimalism, especially in Scotland, during the eighties, Teenage Fanclub went more, writing one damn riff and one damn chorus. And then performing it, over and over, for two and one-half minutes. It has four chords, one section, and twenty words. And it never once needs any more than that.

18 The Contortions – Contort Yourself (the video in that link is a picture of the NSFW cover art for Buy, so don’t click on that if you’re somewhere sensitive)
Saxophones, in general, have no place in rock music. Lots of people have nice things ot say about Clarence Clemons, certainly, and the dude from the X-Ray Spex seemed to be having a lot of fun. But that’s just about it. It’s largely a missed opportunity: the cool thing about a saxophone is if you blow hell into one end, you get hell out the other end. They’re a fantastic instrument for converting something as seemingly banal as ordinary breath into a bunch of terrible noises. James Chance knew this. James Chance also, somehow, as a conservatory-trained midwesterner who is all of five and a half feet tall, managed to convince himself that he could be the James Brown of violence. “Contort Yourself” features both (James Chance and his saxophone) screaming fit to literally beat the band. Like, individually. With fists. I don’t know what kind of dance he’s commanding us to do, but I want to go on the record as saying that the shriek that turns into a gasped “hit it” that comes after “contort yourself five times” is the single greatest moment of studio vocals in the history of recorded music.

There are arguments to be made about what is and is not a “good” song, and what makes a “well-written” song that are had in other places, and they’re had by other people. “Summertime Blues” is the best argument going for that not being a question worth asking: Eddie Cochran’s version sounds like a whiny goddamn kid. The Who made it sound like it meant something. Whatever may have been in the song, if the writer doesn’t recognize it enough to make it happen, it wasn’t his to take advantage of. But even if this song (or, hell, the entirety of Live at Leeds) were nothing more than Keith Moon’s drum tracks, this would still be the nineteenth greatest rock song ever.

Because of the aforementioned electrification, and because of the readily-apparent cosmetic differences in the sonic character of the instruments and playing styles, it’s possible for rock bands to get by on almost nothing more than a really cool sound and one pretty good idea. Mudhoney made a whole bunch of music of varying quality, but it was all on the back of this one time they got every single thing exactly right. There’s nothing musically exceptional about “Touch Me I’m Sick.” It gets by entirely on that ear-splitting guitar sound, and that incredible riff. It isn’t hurt by the fact that it’s impossible to tell if that chorus is a joke or not, also.

The promise of punk rock was that anyone could do anything they had a mind to in the rock context. The practicality of punk rock was that a lot of it became pretty heterodox in an alarming fashion. But it still left the idea that there could be power found in unlikely combinations. In the case of “Dig Me Out,” it meant a riff that spins rather like a top (doubly so in the sense that it almost seems like it’s not quite going to make it to the end), a drummer who, somehow, was not actually Keith Moon, and quite possibly rock’s greatest singer delivering quite possibly her greatest vocal performance. “Dig Me Out” is further engaging by that initial riff actually being the riff that powers the song, which means that the listener spends about half of every pass through being tipped off kilter and then snapped back by each chorus.

So what does it take to make a truly all-time great song in this, our modern world? All the good ideas have been taken, the idiom has been plundered by hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people. There is, as the good book would have it, nothing new under the sun. The answer: ignore all of that. Turn all the way up. Figure out a way to deliver a deep, unilateral truth, then shout it as loud as you can because your guitar is way too loud. And even if you can’t play drums, play them anyway. I don’t want to worry about dying. I just want to worry about those sunshine girls.

Some songs sound like blatant attempts to become the most cavemanish, primitive act possible. Primitivism in rock music is, to many, a highly-sought commodity. I’m not always sold on its merits, except for when it shows the path to exceptional work (c.f. Pop, Iggy; Smith, Mark E.; and Ramones, The). “You Really Got Me” presents a pretty incredible argument for it, though: a barely-fleshed-out (but insistently catchy) melody, a two-finger riff, and an obviously-spliced-in “OH NO NO”9, thus making it a general failure to use the studio to their advantage. It’s so simple it would have to be immortal.

Of course, sometimes there’s just as much to be said for futurism. “30 Seconds Over Tokyo”, is the a-side to the greatest debut single ever. Even today, only half of the elements (Peter Laughner and Tom Herman’s guitars, Scott Krauss’ drums) sound like they belong in a rock band to begin with. While David Thomas sings about the Doolittle Raid, the song’s secret weapon swoops around much like one of the planes in question – Allen Ravenstine played a fantastic EML 200, which he used to blanket the band in swaths of sounds. It was a marriage of noise elements to rock music that’s been chased ever since.

Rock music also has a unique capacity to get famous despite its own sonic character. You’ve all heard “Rock Lobster”, and think of it, most likely, as a semi-punchline. But listen to it: in the deep south (Georgia) a party band forms, the two homosexual members of which were old enough to have come out of the notorious free-love club scene that was, even then, being ravaged by AIDS. The disease that makes them fear for their lives is currently going unacknowledged by the public at large, and by the government itself. (AIDS would, six years later, take the life of guitarist and chief riffologist Ricky Wilson). So, in the style of “Vilkommen,” or, y’know, Nero, The B-52s threw a party in the ocean. Rock music can be a lot of things, but perhaps none of those are more important than its ability to create a venue for its practitioners to be heard. And when it was clear that no one was going to listen to the important things, it was time to be heard by saying “that’s not what we choose to define us, we’re throwing a party under the sea.” So listen to it again. Listen to the weird underwater noises, listen to Fred Schneider’s actual screaming. Listen to Ricky Wilson play his guitar in that stiff, martial surf rhythm, demanding your attention while it marches into the sea. They were determined to either be Moses or Virginia Woolf – they were going to lead you across the sea, or they were going to die trying. Turns out they kind of did both.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Oasis – Live Forever, The Jesus and Mary Chain – Reverence, Gene Vincent, Be-Bop-a-Lula, Pulp – Common People, Husker Du – Divide and Conquer, The Smashing Pumpkins – Tonight, Tonight, Sonic Youth – Death Valley 69, Led Zeppelin – Dazed & Confused, Shellac – Prayer to God, Gang of Four – Damaged Goods

1 this is not the footnote where I talk about how much of the Beatles’ canon is actually music made by a rock band. This is not that footnote because the only person in the world who has ever been interested in that question is me. And maybe Joe Carducci.
2 although he does use the correct form, “Dissastisfied”, before the whole thing is over.
3 a few years ago it was “Under Pressure.” Look, here’s what I’m going to say about Queen – feel however you need to feel, but also bear this in mind: I’ve never had a conversation with someone about Queen that didn’t include more talk of 1) their guitar player’s post-graduate education and 2) Freddie Mercury’s death of AIDS than their music. They’re a band that everyone claims to love that, honestly, no one can talk about as a band. That not only seems suspect, it makes being in public and hearing one of the three Queen songs everyone is, apparently, obligated to lose their fucking minds over one of the most annoying things in the world. A couple of people in the band were very talented, and they used that talent to write pseudo-novelty songs. While there’s nothing wrong with this, there’s also absolutely nothing special about it and GODDAMMIT JUST SING ALONG TO “SURRENDER,” YOU MORONS. Also Rick Nielsen is every bit as good a guitar player as Brian May, Robin Zander is admittedly not as good a singer as Freddie Mercury, but he’s better than just about anyone else, and Queen’s rhythm section is a terrible mess, while Cheap Trick’s rhythm section is absolutely world class. This is a comparison that I’m the only one making.
4 their incredible drummer, Anton Fier, played so hard at early shows that he would actually vomit with the effort. He left after Crazy Rhythms, but that’s him pounding the shit out of his drums on “Raised Eyebrows”.
5 maybe those are bad examples, because Lou Reed and Paul Westerberg were, as songwriters, each capable of being as bad as anyone.
6 see also: his similar take on “The Star-Spangled Banner”
7 actually, I like Wish You Were Here and Animals more than Atom Heart Mother, but that sort of ruins the rhetorical point I’m making, here.
8 well. It starts with jump blues, and before that revival sing-preaching, but I’m mostly talking about in a rock context, here.
9 the purpose of the splice is to cover up Dave Davies telling Ray Davies to “fuck off”. It not only doesn’t cover it up, but it creates a sort of separation that makes it easier to hear on the subsequent remasters. Good job Ray.

Rock, like a sausage, is best served with a roll

So, as you all know, this is the first year I’ve celebrated Rocktober on the blog, here, and it seems only fitting, since it started with a few words about the state of the industry intself, to also talk about where the genre is.

Unfortunately there’s only a few words to say about that.

Rock music is almost certainly going to always have been the most affected of the dissolution of the record industry – rock music requires a lot more outlay and resources to create and develop than other popular forms, for starters. You have to get a couple of other people together, you need instruments and amplification equipment, you need a cooperative venue and the chance to play at it. You need to maintain that equipment, as well as rehearse, as well as maintain often-complex interpersonal relationships. Contrast this to pop music – which largely doesn’t exist without enormous amounts of money to support it1, or rap music, which needs, really, a microphone and a laptop2, or dance music, which doesn’t even need the microphone. This is essentially what Gene Simmons said when he was talking about the death of rock last month – that the institutional support that enabled, say, KISS to become famous in the first place3.

But who cares? Commercial rock music tends to be pretty good about once every decade or so. But as has been oft-mentioned, there is no reason to rely on commercial music at all. It only gets easier to find anything you could want, so it only gets less useful to rely on corporate interests to deliver it to you. So the economy around rock music is going to be like the economy around anything else: if there’s money in it, then there’ll be money, and most of it will go to people that didn’t actually earn it.

The more interesting question is: what is rock music going to continue to look like? The easiest answer is to look at jazz – the former small-band music that was at the top of not only the charts, but of the culture – and to say that the same thing will happen to rock music, which means a slow ossification, followed by a period of patronage and an eventual signification of a period of history, seems like the easiest thing to say.

But it leaves out a couple of things. The first is that while jazz had its moment as the popular form of the time, it was a time when “popular” meant something extremely different – there were jazz records, of course, but serious “record collection” was something done by people who listened to classical music, which means that the majority of the consumer market (i.e. the people that were buying pricy full-length albums) weren’t listening to it. It was also considered much more a part of the fabric of things – the “jazz age” refers not just to the music, but the culture surrounding the music. When Fitzgerald’s Bernice went through the ritual of preparing to listen to jazz music, she was preparing to go out, preparing to dance4, preparing to interact with her milieu. Rock music was popular in a very different way – it was part of a generation cap, part of a couple of different culture wars, and, more importantly, it was responsible for the very infrastructure of the means to talk about music today – the stores, yes, but also the organs of criticism, and the very vocabulary of the way we talk about music itself is largely codified because of rock music, and specifically the rock-centered transfer from music as “something that happens live, but that you can have a record of if you want to” to “something that happens on record, but that you can experience live, if you want.”

The rise and reign of rock is abetted by almost the entirety of the popular culture happening around it: it happened right as television made visibility possible, it happened right as emergent recording technology was making it financially feasible for anyone to cut the six minutes of material they were capable of getting through into a record. And the kids who saw that had to create their own way to talk about it. And so they did. Jazz never had those things – it existed at the end of the previous era, and as such can only really be associated with the previous era. Even the great jazz records – and there are hundreds – that were/have been made during the rock era are still something of a throwback, still very much outside of the normal scope of these things.

But the other, more important reason that rock music is unlikely to go the way of jazz music is because rock music isn’t jazz music. Jazz music was about ephemeral chemistry – a form that had to create a usable shorthand for playing because you could have to take your skills and apply them to another set of people at any time. It relied on standard songs and musical gestures as a genre to this end. Rock music is, on the genre level, entirely the opposite: a more-or-less constant band concerned with making their own thing with little regard, at least when it’s good, for what else is going on around them5. As such its idea is less populist, and more individual – jazz had to be potentially anything to potentially anybody, and rock music was generally something very specific to people that were already on the same wavelength. The reason that hearing Miles Davis play “Footprints” is impressive is because he found a way to use the same parts as anyone else to make a completely unique whole, the reason that “Like a Rolling Stone” is impressive is because Bob Dylan found a way to create something musically idiosyncratic that still spoke to everyone.

So what is the commercial future of rock music? Well, the good news is it doesn’t matter. Gene Simmons is right – there’s no industry to prop these people up anymore. There’s no opportunity to sign away your creative self for a bunch of money (save advertising, and that’s a battle that the angels are clearly losing. sigh.). Where Gene Simmons is wrong is in saying that that’s a bad thing – if you chase away the people that will only make music for a paycheck, then you’ve chased away people that don’t really want to make music. If you chase away the people that don’t really want to make music, then the music you’re left with is the music that is made by people that want to make it. There is no way that isn’t a good thing, especially in a world when it’s almost stupefyingly easy to find any given thing.

But how is rock music doing as a genre? Ah, well, that’s an even easier question – same as it always is. A whole bunch of it sucks, a whole bunch of it isn’t worth hearing, and a whole bunch of it is made by wankers who’ve decided to use their position in a rock band to further some other gross purpose. Just like it’s been more or less since Ike Turner recorded “Rocket 88” for drug money. But you know? A bunch of it is still really good. And a bunch of the stuff that’s still really good is as good as it’s ever been. And I suppose that’s as good a sign as any.

1 it is true that pop starts have to start somewhere, and that there are a variety of ways for that to happen. For the most part, however, the ways are as follows: the singer-songwriter who tours on their own for awhile before the cash infusion (Katy Perry, Lady Gaga), the already-infused act that eventually gets label attention (Beyonce, Taylor Swift), and the auditioners (Rihanna, Iggy Azalea). There are, of course, also the songwriters and the people from the rock idiom, but those aren’t really exceptions.
2 and often at shows that isn’t even two people doing it: lots of rappers have either started using their phone to play their backing tracks or manning the “boards” as it were for their own tracks. The most impressive of these latter, in sheer terms of mechanical effort, is Busdriver, who manages to twiddle his own knobs and rap and shake like he’s having a grand mal seizure and throw himself around without missing anything. In fairness, however, he does have someone else triggering his samples.
3 although if we look at it for a minute longer, it’s just another piece of information that speaks to Gene Simmons lack of awareness – KISS had their hayday because of their willingness to play any city that would have them – they wrote a song about Detroit not because they had any personal investment in Detroit, but because Detroit’s audience was grateful enough to have an act come through that they were probably a great audience – and when they stopped showing that work ethic and willingness to go where other people wouldn’t, they almost entirely stopped being a successful act. Gene Simmons, in short, is a crazy person.
4 I’m not going to talk here about the role of functional music, but it’s worth pointing out that the period of time in which “music that sells a lot” did not mean “music to dance to” was extraordinarily short, and that it really does seem to be becoming the case that music is once again taking up this dance-oriented place in the culture once again, which is a very interesting idea for another piece.
5 obviously there are exceptions, here – jazz combos that stay together for many years, and rock bands that replace members often enough to scarcely qualify as bands – but these exceptions are also exceptions within their respective idioms, so it’s not accurate to call them part of the working system for the forms themselves.


Who the Fuck Would Listen to This PLUS Stunt Listening: Smashing Pumpkins, Adore (6-Disc Reissue)

It’s that time! Time for another new feature! In stunt listening, I sit down with a box set, giant online-only release, or similar enormouse chunk of hard-drive space and listen to the whole thing, at once, as almost-certainly-no-one ever intended. For this, the first installment, it handily crosses over with “Who the Fuck Would Listen to This” as we delve into the Smashing Pumpkins’ 1998 album Adore!

The Smashing Pumpkins have mounted a reissue campaign1 in the last few years, which has led to some pretty cool stuff – Siamese Dream was revealed to be well-honed, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness to be the most coherent chunk of a blithering mess, but both had entertaining odds-and-ends that made a disc or two of extra material worth hearing.

Their fourth album, Adore, is no one’s favorite2. So why is it the one that gets an enormous, sprawling, six-cd one-dvd reissue? Well, a sensible answer would be “because they wanted to track how a big, heavy midwestern rock band became a weird pseudo-european techno-guitar band”. And hey! Let’s be optimists! Maybe that’s what happens. There sure is a lot of material. You could probably assemble a pretty accurate chronology of events out of it!

The first thing that happens, of course, is the album itself. This is probably my first trip through it since high school, and it’s…not very good. There are some good songs (“To Sheila”, “Annie Dog” and “For Martha” are particular standouts3), some ok songs (the singles “Ava Adore” and “Perfect” are among the band’s weakest singles, but aren’t the worst songs on the album), and, for the first time in the Smashing Pumpkins’ chronology, some truly awful songs4 (“Shame” and “The Tale of Dusty and Pistol Pete”). Where the album starts to….distinguish itself (there’s no other word for it, I suppose) is when you listen to it as a piece.

And that’s where the record benefits from always having been a digital product. I can’t imagine a vinyl trip through this record – or even a cassette trip. The ratio of good songs to bad seems artificially high because it doesn’t take into account the fact that all of the songs sound very similar. The quality differences are big, but the actual sonic differences aren’t. So it’s always benefitted from a skip button, or shuffle playing. But listened to all the way through, from the first note to the last, is a slog.

The remaster doesn’t do much for the sound – it was recorded digitally in the late nineties, there probably isn’t much to actually remaster in the first place – but the production itself is one of the record’s biggest liabilities. The worst parts of the record sound like a joke about a “techno” record at the height of the nineties “next big thing” hype, and even the best parts still require that you ignore the overwhelming suggestion of dance club music. The second disc, which is the entire record again, this time in mono, creates even more problems, as removing the separation only draws out the garish, insistent heavily-dated aspects of the beat-heavy production. The exceptions here are “Perfect,” which doesn’t actually have as heavy a production hand, and “Crestfallen,” which is a boring nothing-special track on the record that becomes a pretty servicable rocker when it’s flattened out. I have no idea why that’s the case.

The remaining five discs are a weirdly-arranged smattering of outtakes, demos and remixes. They aren’t in any kind of order5, but basically there’s the “general outtakes,” something called a “sadlands demo”, something called a “CRC demo,” one song from something called the “Streeter demo”, what sounds like a radio session from San Paulo, some chunks of  a stadium show, and some remixes (dubbed reimaginings) by Matt Walker and one by Puff Daddy (don’t worry, I’ll get to it).

If they had been presented in that order it might have been more interesting – there are clearly some very early demos here. The earliest versions of these songs are basically guide-vocal tracks, and prove that 1) when Billy Corgan writes a vocal melody it really doesn’t change very much before it’s finished and 2) Billy Corgan is a really boring rhythm guitar player. This last fact is something of a surprise, as even dedicated Smashing Pumpkins haters would probably have a hard time arguing against his status as an absolute riff-machine6, but before said riff is applied, you’re pretty much left with regular singer-songwriter dude up-down strumming. A notable exception is “Sparrow,” which is part of the “Sadlands” demo, did not make the album, and is a pretty blatant ripoff of Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay.” (This may have something to do with why the song didn’t make the album).

Two things are pointed to by listening to all the demos. The first is that Billy Corgan was clearly struggling with the material – whether it’s because he wanted to do something really stupid with his sound, or because things just weren’t coming to him is beyond my ability to tell. But some songs recur in various forms, and nothing gives a window into the struggle like the many versions of “The Tale of Dusty and Pistol Pete.”

“The Tale of Dusty and Pistol Pete” is possibly the worst song on the album (I’m not intersted in a/b-ing it with “Shame”, but it’s a close race), and it appears here no fewer than five times – once in album from, once in mono, two different demos, and the San Paulo session. It’s never good, and, more importantly, it never sounds right. “For Martha” takes a similar path – and appears as many times in the collection – but ends up working out by the end, and is a standout song. So why the trouble with “The Tale of Dusty and Pistol Pete”? I don’t know. But I shouldn’t be aware that it’s a problem, because there appears to have been no time that it was a functioning, successful song. In this way throwing open the door of the creative process is somewhat illuminating, because we see that some of this material was just doomed.

But the second thing that the totality of it proves is that despite the record’s gallumphing, obvious stabs at dance-music status, there actually could have been a structural change in the band’s sound that would have been more rewarding: periodically instrumentals emerge from the haphazard tracklist that show a shoegazier, less AOR-oriented sound7. Elements of that sound end up either subsumed within songs that made the record (none of the songs ended up rerecorded, but the spirit of them lives in the non-objectionable filler songs “Pug” and “Once Upon a Time”). For all that Adore was a public (and highly publicized) attempt to break with the past sound of Smashing Pumpkins, it was also a pretty conscious break with the actual evolution of the band. And that’s why it all sounds so schizophrenic: the band8 more-or-less abandoned their own sound in favor of this thing that Corgan wanted to consciously attempt. When the album proper strikes a balance (“Annie-Dog,” “Ava Adore”) or ignores the weird glued-on elements outright (“To Sheila,” “My Martha”) it’s successful. Off the album, they relegated probably the two most successful fusions of the ideas (the beat-heavy keyboard stuff and the more atmospheric guitar stuff) to soundtracks: “Eye” (from Lost Highway) may be the best song recorded for the sessions – letting go of his guitar entirely to get swept up in the keyboards that were merely threatening on the album, with a rhythm track that actually functions rather than pretending, it’s everything this album could have been but ultimately wasn’t. “The Beginning is the End is the Beginning” (from Batman Forever) is less outright exciting, but still points to a New Order/Cure middle ground that the band could have occupied a lot more comfortably from the sounds of it.

Also embedded among the demos and things that show the songs’ evolution are the aforementioned remixes. The “reimaginings” by Matt Walker are dreadful, and aren’t worth much comment, let alone taking the time to listen to them. Suffice it to say, Matt Walker’s time in Filter is not lost on his remixing skills. But perhaps the crown-jewel of curiosities (weirder even than the banjo version of “To Sheila”, which is pretty weird) is the Puff Daddy remix of “Ava Adore,” which is a sort of chance meeting of two opportunists, one of whom was creatively floundering through an attempt to “update” his band, and the other of whom was running out of ways to continue to cash in his assassinated meal ticket. The remix is, in both existence and execution, basically Adore in a nutshell: there’s no reason for it to have happened that way, it doesn’t work on any level in totality, but sometimes, for no particular reason, parts of it are pretty cool anyway.

Perhaps as a reward for sitting through the four completely superfluous discs, the last disc gives us something worth having: actual band performances. The San Paulo9 Sessions are pleasant enough – they’re largely acoustic, with keyboards, and they present a pretty enthusiastic audience, and they lead to a session on the Mancow’s Morning Madhouse radio show, which at least gives us a revelatory version of “Blank Page”, the album’s Kojack track10 that I think I’ve listened to as often for this project as I had in the years prior to it. Then the keyboards sink into the background for stadium sized versions of “Money (That’s What I Want)”, the highly-rocking “XYU Medley,” which is actually “XYU” with brief snippets in the middle of it, and finally a show-stopping reinterpretation of Joy Division’s “Transmission” that doesn’t actually justify the seven hours I spent with this thing, but made me feel better about making it to the end.

So, as a piece of stunt listening, where are we? Well, I appreciate some of the filler-ier songs on Adore more, and I like the singles – particularly the badly-dated “Ava Adore” – somewhat less. Mostly I just never want to hear “The Tale of Dusty and Pistol Pete” ever again, as it specifically seemed to pop up exactly when I didn’t want to hear it. I can’t recommend going through the whole thing as anyone else, but I’ve certainly heard worth. And that cover of “Transmission” is totally worth seeking out.

And who the fuck would listen to this? I have no idea. It’s not a fondly-remembered album, if it’s remembered at all. It had one really stupid video (“Ava Adore”) and one pretty-cool one (“Perfect”), but it’s easier to remember those via YouTube,. This would have made a fairly-interested two-album reissue, but as it is there’s just too much stuff, and even the stuff that’s comparatively good isn’t essential. So Smashing Pumpkins completists, I suppose (although they’d already have the bulk of it). And basically no one else – process enthusiasts will hate that there’s no sequence, fans of the album proper will hate that there’s no real connection to it with much of the material, and casual Smashing Pumpkins fans probably already hate this album.

That wraps it up for this dual installment. The next Who the Fuck Would Listen to This is next month, when I’ll be tackling The Pink Floyd Abortion. The next Stunt Listening is probably going to the that giant R.E.M. rarities dump from a couple of months ago, but I have no idea when that’s going to come out. Oh, and there’s going to be another Streaming Pile of Truth in the coming couple of weeks, but not during Rocktober, because that’s when we rock.

1 y’know, like everyone else
2 actually, that’s not quite true: for awhile when I was in high school, it was my favorite Smashing Pumpkins album. In hindsight, I have no idea why I thought that. I like the singles fine, and it’s better than Melon Collie if you figure that there’s a good hour or so less filler, but there are songs that are outright dreadful beyond filler. Anyway. I have no idea why this was the point where I chose “fake techno” over “fake shoegaze,” but rest assured it never happened again.
3 whether it’s a situationist joke that all of the good songs have girls’ names in them or just happenstance is a mystery beyond this writer’s ability to comprehend.
4 there are no sub-good songs on Gish or Siamese Dream, there are some less-than-good, but still interesting, songs on Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, but none of them have actually bad songs. Funnily enough, after Adore you can pretty much count the good Smashing Pumpkins songs on one hand.
5 I literally cannot think of a reason for this – they’re not really sequenced to maximize enjoyability – or if they are it doesn’t work – and they’re not useful as archival notes because the individual chunks are scattered out over five discs.
6 top five Smashing Pumpkins riffs: 1) Zero 2) Cherub Rock 3) Rhinoceros 4) Rocket 5) XYU
7 they end up sounding something like a rocking “Disarm,” only more upbeat. It’s better than it sounds, really.
8 this is a little late in the game for this footnote, but it seems the time to address it. In the studio, the Smashing Pumpkins were generally only ever Billy Corgan and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. This is the last record of the “classic” Pumpkins, but all that means is that that’s who played live. Nevertheless, one of the things that’s impressive about those records is that Billy Corgan is playing all the instruments himself, but it’s clear that he’s writing the parts for others, which is why they work live. So in the piece I refer to the “band” because the songs were, at this point, still written with the band in mind.
9 they’re listed on their ID3 tag as “San Paulo,” not “Sao Paulo,” so that’s how they are here, which is, of course, driving me nuts.
10 the album ends, or should end, with the glorious “My Martha.” But then there’s just one more thing….


Shamelessly Punting: some wee lists because I missed yesterday’s post

Bands that are overdue for a massive re-discovery1:
  1. Void – this is almost obligatory. Void are tremendously overlooked, and all of the Dischord archive-dumping has done very little to change that. Hardcore could have been much more interesting if people had listened to Void.
  1. Robedoor – one of the most consistently creative noise bands in existence. They recently got tapped to do a True Neutral Crew song. The good part about these guys getting rediscovered is that they’re still mostly around to enjoy it.
  1. Cordelia’s Dad – the best folk band in history turned out to also be the best weird post-Silkworm rock band as well
  1. Craw – there was a massive kickstarter to get all of their albums back into print that yielded a depressing percentage of its goal.
  1. Naked Raygun – Dave Grohl appears to be trying. That’s comforting. More people should be trying.

Songs I can’t believe you people don’t know

Songs that are faster than I think of them as being
  1. Uncle Tupelo – Graveyard Shift
  4. The Velvet Underground – Sister Ray
  3. Prince – When Doves Cry
  1. The Zombies – She’s Not There
  1. Sonic Youth – Schizophrenia

Songs that are slower than I think of them being
  1. Outkast – Gasoline Dreams
  4. Led Zeppelin – Moby Dick
  3. Tina Turner – Private Dancer2
  1. Lil Wayne – A Milli
  1. Minor Threat – Minor Threat3

Reasons to have guitar solos
  5. Jimi Hendrix – Machine Gun (Jimi Hendrix) – for more information about why, come back
on Wednesday!
  4. The Wipers – Youth of America (Greg Sage) – for more information about why, come
back on Wednesday!
  3. Gang of Four – Anthrax (Andy Gill) – I mean the bit at the beginning. With all the feedback
and stuff.
  2. Guns and Roses – November Rain (Slash) – this song is fucking terrible. Like a
ridiculous, overwrought tragedy of a piece of shit. Seriously. Actually listen to it
sometime. Terrible delivery, terrible performance, terrible production. It’s the worst. But
for about eight seconds, after the terrible first part of the song, when the guitar solo
bridges the terrible first part to the terrible second part, for the first half of the guitar solo,
it is not actually a bad song. That doesn’t last, but isn’t that as big a testament to the
power of a skillfully deployed guitar solo as anything?
  1. Led Zeppelin – Whole Lotta Love (Jimmy Page). I mean, honestly.

1 note that this is more-or-less independent of their “bigness” at the time. I think they should be bigger now.
2 seriously, not only is that song terrible, but it takes, like, seventeen hours to finally finish. It exists in some sort of relativistic time loop or something.
3 even after he specifically says “play it faster”!
4 for more on these two songs in particular, come back on Wednesday!
5 I mean the bit at the beginning, with all the feedback and stuff


The Week’s Spotify Playlist

There was going to be a different playlist up this week, but then the greatest Rocktober gift of all happened: Sleater-Kinney is reuniting! They’re making an album! They’re touring! The whole ball of wax! I could not be happier about this! So bop around to what’s below, and then dig out your Sleater Kinney albums and go through them all all over again!

The Foods I Eat For You People

I suppose it can’t be all music all the time, you know. Not when there’s some kind of crazy-ass blitz happening over at fellow Ohio-native Wendy’s and their new plan to get us all high on pork fat and sugar sauce! I am here to tell you – all of you – how to feel about this.

Wendy’s itself is often sort of the distant-third bastard cousin of fast food hamburger1 restaurants. McDonald’s is iconic, Burger King is (along with Pepsi) something of the gold-standard of an industry Garfunkel, and Wendy’s is….the other one. This is in blatant deference that the Wendy’s Spicy Chicken Sandwich is among the very finest things you can buy at a place with a drive-through, which I have no explanation for.

But the margins of Wendy’s menus have, for many years, been occupied by assorted oddments. Lately they seem to have been focusing on pretending to make more upmarket faire – pretzel buns, fancier sauces, etc. So their entry into an entire other kind of meat is probably not as surprising as it should be, although it doesn’t really manage to make any sense.

McDonald’s is, as in so many fast-burger-related avenues, the leader of the fast-food pork sandwich. The McRib has been outed so many times as being a marketing gambit-cum-pork futures game that I figure if you google “McRib marketing scam pork market” you’ll soon have all you can possibly read on the matter, so I feel safe declaring that it’s immaterial to the discussion here except insofar as to say that the McRib2 is responsible for all of this barbecue nonsense in the first place.

Burger King would, many years later, follow suit, coming out with a line of sandwiches a couple of years ago (and written about in this space) that aped regional variations in “barbecue,” to varying degrees of success.

Wendy’s, to their marketing department’s credit, is not trying to play on either the iconic, fake-scarcity driven nostalgia market (like the McRib) or the “pretending to be what it isn’t3” market (Burger King’s fake-regional barbecue sauces). They are, however, trotting out three different barbecue sauces: spicy, smokey and sweet, about which more later. They are also not getting super fancy with meat choices – Burger King was doing all kinds of fancy chicken and hamburger business – this sauce is for pork. Admittedly, some of that pork is on a burger as a topping, but the sauce is still applied primarily to the pork.

There’s a sandwich of just the pork, a burger with the pork on it, and pork-and-cheese fries. Only one of these things sounds like a particularly good idea, but I’m going to try some of each, because apparently I never learn anything.

To establish a baseline, I’ll start with the pork itself. It’s….pork. It’s definitely porkier than a McRib. I would not be surprised to find that it was, in fact, the exact same meat that was in the Burger King pork products of yore. It has some texture, which is good, because it lives sort of on the edge of “pork sandwich” and “sweet barbecue pork mush”4 The “sweet” sauce is the one of the sauces that lives up to its name – it’s sweet as hell. Like, barbecue syrup. A further sandwich was considered to try it with a different sauce – the bun5 are already sweet, and adding the sweet barbecue sauce to the bun just made the whole thing seem….candied – but eventually rejected as I came to try all of the other sauces and realized it wouldn’t help. The slaw is pretty good, but it doesn’t have much of a flavor profile under the sauce and the bun, so it mostly just adds more texture. It’s not a regrettable sandwich, but it’s also not worth recommending.

The pork on a burger is, while considerably more messy than anything I’d want to eat while driving, or anything I’d want to eat anywhere where I didn’t have a bib or a tarp or something, not actually bad. Wendy’s weak spot has always been their beef patties – for all that they tout them, they have a weird texture that I’m not so into, and they never taste of much. They are a relatively generous patty, though, so that’s nice. The pork was, in this case, rolled around in the “smoky” sauch, which does not, in fact, taste anything like smoke. Or like anything that tastes of smoke. It really isn’t bad, I guess, but it’s just barbecue sauce at that point. The slaw really comes into its own here – it adds a lot of zip to the sandwich and the poorly-named sauce, which it badly needs. Of course, this comes at the expense of essentially packing another layer of items onto an already wet and messy sandwich.

And then we come to the oddest entry – both to order and to eat – on the menu, the pulled pork cheese fries. Cutting to the chase: they’re fine. They’re not at all bad. These were accompanied by the spicy barbecue sauce, which was kind of spicy. I suppose this should come as no surprise, actually, since Wendy’s has a pretty good track record of calling Actually, it was the best of the barbecue sauces, although I wonder if it would work out to mix together this and the smoky and get a sauce that actually had a flavor profile instead of a note. The fries are Wendy’s fries (i.e. not the best fries), the cheese is a cheddar cheese sauce, the things combine so that the cheese sauce and the barbecue sauce overpower the fries, the fries provide something to put in your mouth, and you’re happy to chew. The thing that really pushes the dish into the realm of “thing that I might even consider ordering again” is the onions – they would’ve been welcome on either of the sandwiches, and they provided a better crunch than the slaw did in the sandwiches. All told, there are worse ways to spend three bucks.

So the final verdict? Well, I’m sorry this wasn’t more interesting, actually. They’re fine. Like most fast-food things, they’re fine in the situation, and not really worth thinking about beyond that. Oh, except the sweet barbecue sauce. Ignore that like crazy. That stuff is terrible.

1 that is to say, discounting chicken, pizza and tacos, which are, each in their own way, better than burgers, but would also complicate this paragraph needlessly without that hedging “hamburger” modifier.
2 a sandwich about which I was wildly enthusiastic as a young person and which I sample every couple of years as a sort of devotion to my much younger self. They’re ok. Nice if you happen to be out when they’re in season, not really worth going out of your way for.
3 for all that Wendy’s hifalutin’ ingredients and names strike of pretension, they don’t really come off that way. Wendy’s has always been kind of the weirdo – they’ve got chili and baked potatoes and shit, after all – and has largely stayed firm, in market-share terms, by not taking much by way of cues from their fast-food rivals.
4 “sweet barbecue pork mush” is the name of my new Captain Beefheart cover band.
5 billed as a “toasted brioche” bun, which I’m willing to go along with because it certainly had the sugar content of brioche, if not the supporting structure or flavor.

The 2014 BET Hip-Hop Awards

The BET Hip-Hop Awards are upon us! Naturally, they happen right at the midpoint of Rocktober. That’s fine. Like their similarly single-network focused kin, the MTV VMA’s, the BETHHAs are often more focused on the network they belong to than the music they’re championing, but at least in terms of watchability, they have the edge – not only do they have more performances, but they also have the evergreen cyphers, which are often the most entertaining part of any awards show.

Which is good, because some of these categories are terrible. Spoiler alert: that is one of the worst album of the year categories I’ve seen in a long damn time.

SO HERE WE GO.

Impact Track
Longtime readers will remember that I hate this category with a passion I usually reserve for deer ticks and genocidal world leaders. But this year this is probably the best category going, so I’m going to pretend I don’t hate it, treat it like a normal award, and go about my day much happier for all that. Lecrae is dull. I still don’t trust Lupe Fiasco – I don’t know why, he’s never done anything to make me think that he shouldn’t be trusted1, but I just can’t get behind it. “Kingdom” is the best song on a kind-of-mediocre Common album.  …And Then You Shoot Your Cousing is a pretty great Roots album that has no reason to be that good, but “Never” isn’t doing a whole lot for that. So there you have it.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Talib Kweli, “State of Grace.” Also, how great is Gravitas, you guys? SO GREAT. It’s SO GREAT.

Who Blew Up Award
On the one hand, YG and Young Thug both managed to come out and  be super-promising and actually new, which is always tricky for this category. On the other hand, Schoolboy Q has been talked about on this blog alone for three years or so, and did, in fact, get pretty big. On the other other hand, if you’re talking about mere hugeness, Iggy Azalea is pretty hard to argue with, even though giving an award to Iggy Azalea for being Iggy Azalea is like giving an award to ebola, which also blew up this year in a very similar way. On the other other other hand, it isn’t Rich Homie Quan, because he didn’t actually blow up – he just did a credible impression of someone who was going to blow up. On the other other other other hand – Versace. Versace versace. Versace versace versace versace.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: I mean, between that and “Fight Night” it’s gotta be Migos, not because they blew up bigger, just because they blew up unlikelier.

Hustler of the Year
This category is so stupid. It remains the “we want to give these dudes an award so maybe they’ll show up” category, and that’s stupid. Fuck this category.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: I mean, fundamentally the problem is that none of these people have to hustle, right? Dr. Dre became the first hip-hop billionaire by accepting a buyout offer. That shit came to him. Same goes for the kid from Degrassi and the former Corrections Officer from Miami. So the hustler of the year is that kid who’s passing out his CDs at the hip-hop shows and getting drinks knocked into his face by out-of-place club kids. That dude deserves this award.

Video Director of the Year
I don’t watch nearly enough music videos for this to be a category I have complete expertise in, but luckily I don’t have to. Do you suppose Hype Williams just…gets to be nominated forever because of some soul-selling legacy deal? I think he does. Benny Boom has a stupid beard. So does Chris Robinson. I think Dre Films is a dude’s name, not a company name. Don’t name yourself that, dummy.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Director X. Mining Clueless for the “Fancy” video is literally the only thing about that travesty that’s ok. That’s saying something.

DJ of the Year
I do not know how, on record, to differentiate between the DJ and the producer. I assume this has something to do with curation. I do think, however, that there’s no way this can not go to DJ Mustard, if only by sheer weight of numbers.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: DJ Mustard

Track of the Year
The “year” of the BET Hip-Hop awards is the weirdest “year” in the awards business – it really does seem to go from July to June, which is super-duper weird. Anyway, this is really about “Move That Dope” vs. “Studio”. “Worst Behavior” is good for a Drake song, “My Neighba”2 is an ok song that I’m not going to have any affection for in six months, and “Cut Her Off” is neat in a “holy shit that’s a bunch of old dudes that can still rap” way, but not any other kind of way.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: It’s honestly “Move That Dope.” “Studio” is a pretty good song, but it’s also kind of cheesy, and frankly, Future does cheesy a lot better than Schoolboy.

Best Mixtape
I’m also going to have to say, at this point, that I have not finalized my feelings about Rich Homie Quan in general. I don’t mean that he has some songs that I like and some other songs that I don’t like – that describes everybody. I mean that he has songs that I like sometimes and don’t like other times, and I have not been able to figure out how I feel about him on balance. Luckily for me, that pretty definitionally means he didn’t make the best mixtape, so for now he’s in the same company as Wiz Khalifa and Fabolous. No Label 2 is proof that Migos is in that weird position where they’re definitely capable of not being one-hit wonders, provided that you don’t mind that all of their songs sound the same3. That also seems like it shouldn’t count for this here.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Action Bronson,. Blue Chips 2

Sweet 16: Best Featured Verse
This category is, in a postmodern sense, weird. BOB is in it twice4, and that’s certainly something, but what this represents is somethin of a post-mortem “final word” on “Control.” For those of you who don’t remember or didn’t follow – “Control” is a terrible Big Sean song with a Kendrick verse where Kendrick pronounces his intention to be a better rapper than a bunch of other people. It’s a throwbacky old-style brag rap about how much better he is than people, and it’s all anybody in the hip-hop world wanted to talk about a year ago. So here’s the opportunity to either reward it or evaluate it honestly5. Or rather, evaluate in a textual sense. Because I think an honest evaluation includes the fact that it points out that the state of hip-hop was so weirdly soft that saying anything even remotely bad about one another was, rather than being perfectly-healthy braggadoccio, some sort of gauntlet throwing. That seems stupid, and it also seems like an era that was pulled out of starting with “Control,” and that leads us to this year, where there’s at least some damn teeth starting to show.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: I guess it really is “Control,” for making the world less depressing. But, y’know, a nod to Pharrell for his verse on “Move That Dope.”

Best Live Performer
Well, I don’t necessariy need to put the money into seeing any of these assholes play live, except maybe Kendrick. The best hip-hop performer I saw this year was Isaiah Rashad (although by the end of the month it might be Busdriver).

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar, unless Isaiah Rashad is at the ceremony, in which case him.

Producer of the Year
Timbaland and Pharrell are fantastic, all-time-great producers, each of whom had a couple of good tracks last year. But that’s illustrative of the problem – there was a time when Pharrell was everywhere, and then he got famous enough to make a couple of songs a year, the end. Timabaland is in a similar position. So really, this category could be called the “Tomorrow’s Timbaland” award. Hit Boy is great, MikeWillMadeIt does some good stuff, but this entry is only as long as it is because I had to pad it out so it didn’t just say “DJ Mustard”.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: DJ Mustard

Best Hip-Hop Video
Well, right off the bat I have to say that while being the director of the “Fancy” video gets you points for making a terrible song marginally less terrible for as long as it takes to identify the reference, the video is still, itself, terrible. “We Dem Boyz” is kind of neat, but it’s getting a whole lot more attention than I feel like it probably deserves. “Move That Dope” is a great song, and I see where the video is going, but it’s just not that good. J. Cole still doesn’t deserve awards. Nothing for you, J. Cole.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Nicki Minaj, “Pills ‘n’ Potions”

The People’s Champ Award
This one is handled by voting! That means I’ve put my money where my mouth is. This category is dull, so I’ll go ahead and point out that this is the first instance where the YG song in question is “My Hitta”, rather than it’s uncensored title. Obviously I get where they’re coming from, so I come not to bury “Hitta,” but to praise it: it sure is a good idea, and it even makes some sense in context. Nevertheless, it won’t be replacing “Neighba” in my common usage. Also it’s not a very good song.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Future, “Move That Doh (f Pharrell, Pusha T & Casino”. Which, you know, has radio-sanitation issues of its own.

Best Hip-Hop Online
I mean, I get it. It’s an interesting idea, to be sure. You laud a website so that you can create a relationship with them in the minds of both your viewers and their readers, but honestly? That’s what advertising is, also. This is basically going to go to whoever BET advertises the most on, because why would they 1) jeopardize that business relationship or 2) not direct people to the website that they have the most stake in getting pageviews for? So don’t go to any of these people, they’re all stupid. Do you know what has an online presence that’s just a google search away and therefore should probably win this award? That’s right!

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Mrs. Coach’s hair

MVP of the Year
Why is Drake here? Why is he nominated? What is going on with Drake? Jesus, enough with the Drake already. Future and Jay-Z both did some cool stuff in 2013, but both also did some really dumb stuff, so they’re not quite in the same league. DJ Mustard was, as noted, everydamnwhere, and was responsible for an enormous percentage of stuff that was both good and successful. Nicki Minaj performed similarly.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: DJ Mustard, who didn’t do that stupid song with Jessie J and whats-her-name. For shame, Nicki.

Best Collabo, Duo or Group
Well, right off the bat, we can throw out Jay-Z/Justin Timberlake and Eminem/Rihanna. Those songs are both awful, even if they are inexplicably popular. They’re just awful. I still think “Studio” is a few notches schmaltzier than it needs to be. So “My Neighba” or “Move That Dope” once again, then.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: I mean, I kind of want to say “My Neighba” for the sake of variety, but it’s still “Move That Dope”

Made-You-Look Award
Boy, leaving aside Jay-Z6, and further ignoring A$AP Rocky (he’s attractive? That’s not really the same) and Nicki Minaj (ditto), you have a real honst-to-god contest here. It’s hard not to admire how much attention Young Thug managed to grab out of nowhere – even with his music still in something of a “not-so-great” state7. Kanye, on the other hand, is basically the apotheosis of this category, and managed to be so without really doing anything other than love his wife.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: I mean, wearing a girl’s dress is something, but Kanye’s rocked a skirt, and even taking as a piece of defiant contrarianism, marrying Kim Kardashian and insisting that she be a part of the same circles you are has turned out to be a remarkably effective means of garnering attention for yourself.

Best Club Banger
Is Young Thug sleeping with a bunch of the nominators? I mean, “Stoner” is an ok song, but shouldn’t a “club banger” actually, like, bang? In the club? Not sleepily drift? Right then. I also don’t see a lot of “banging” happening to “We Dem Boyz.” Here’s the real problem: three of the other songs that are nominated here are, you guessed it, “My Neighba,” “Move That Dope” and “Fight Night.” Again.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: It has to be K Camp, with the “Cut Her Off” remix. Great Boosie verse on that one, so it’s hard to feel to bad about.

Lyricist of the Year
You know, it’s a cruel joke that the categories that have songs in them that aren’t “Move That Dope” or “My Neighba” are the categories that I care about the least.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar and Nicki Minaj can share it, I guess?

Album of the Year
You know, the last year really has been pretty rough for full-length official releases, hasn’t it? I mean, there’s been some ok stuff, but most of the big releases either haven’t happened yet, or weren’t going to happen in the first place. This category is really showing its stress – Yo Gotti, seriously? – but what’s interesting is that each of the records except for Yo Gotti’s does contain a great (and really, it’s fair to say all-time great) single – Drake’s “Worst Behavior,” Rick Ross’s “Sanctified,” Eminem’s “Survival”, Future’s “Move That Dope,” Schoolboy Q’s “Man of the Year”8 – that seems to make the record get some more weight. Part of it is, of course, that as has been noted for years now, the best stuff is on mixtapes, where people can pursue the ideas that are the most interesting to them without worrying about label concerns or radio play – which is how all of the best music is made in any form. Some of it is also that a lot of the official albums are made to be something to everyone, and this is giving them some weird identity crises that just don’t work – even the best album among these, Oxymoron, has some serious identity problems, and it’s got an MC with a rock-solid identity of his own. It’s a weird thing to see happen. Anyway, the point is: the hip-hop album had a tough year, and that’s really borne out in the most mainstream of its venues, where that stuff is really on display.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Schoolboy Q, Oxymoron

And that’ll do it! Hope you enjoyed this rocktober interlude! More stuff about guitars on Friday!

1 aside from the fact that he’s a class-five nutbar.
2 I appreciate that they tried a different way, but they’re still wrong.
3 I mean, I don’t mind at all, and given the existence of “Fight Night,” neither does anybody else. yay!
4 I don’t put the periods in because I don’t pronounce the periods. Dude wants to go by Bob, dude can go by Bob.
5 it’s a pretty-good Kendrick verse, but there’s no way it would’ve gotten any kind of special attention if it hadn’t been about other rappers.
6 sometimes BET is a bit like Helga Pataky here, and Jay-Z is their Arnold. It’s sometimes uncomfortable to watch.
7 I feel like this particular piece is making me come off as way hard on Young Thug – I’m not really! I like him fine! Just, you know, not that much.
8 or “Break the Bank.” Or “Los Awesome.” You have probably figured out how this category ends, haven’t you?

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2015


Last year I wrote about the class of potential inductees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame1, and here we are back at full circle. Last year, however, I wasn’t celebrating Rocktober in this space. This year I am.


Y’all probably have all that you need of me talking about the Approved Critical Narrative and Rockism and all that, so I’ll spare another treatise on it here and say: this is hands-down the weirdest batch of nominees I can remember, and I can remember a bunch of weird-ass batches.

So, without any further ado, herein follows the truth:

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band
Last year I expressed how weird I thought it was that a band named for their harmonica player was 1) not in already and, seemingly paradoxically, was not named at all. I also mentioned that I don’t think I know any Paul Butterfield Blues Band songs. Once again I listened to one to check for any irreducible rock and roll greatness, and found basically none, and once again I write this within minutes of having listened to a song of theirs1 and saying: I have no idea if I know any Paul Butterfield Blues Band songs.
THE VERDICT: Still not worthy. Nothing has happened in the past year to change that.

Chic
This is another band that is held over from last year. This is now their ninth time around,, and they still aren’t here. Last year I even mentioned that if Hall and Oates made it in before Chic, it would be proof that whatever the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was doing, it didn’t make any sense. And here we sit, with Hall and Oates enshrined forever as an important part of Rock and Roll history, and Chic with their ninth nomination. What a world.
THE VERDICT: Still absolutely worthy. This is crazy.

Green Day
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has a super weird relationship to punk rock. They’ve inducted The Ramones, Blondie, The Clash and The Sex Pistols, and completely ignored anyone weirder (Television, The Buzzcocks) or more integral to later-waves of punk and punk-derived music (Black Flag, Nick Lowe). They’ve gone no further with post-punk than the “New Wave” people that are in – Elvis Costello, The Talking Heads and The Police – skipping over the ones with actual influence (Joy Division comes to mind as a pretty egregious omission, and while it’s a pointless war to try to fight, there shouldn’t really be a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that doesn’t have Wire in it). So in any event, it’s weird to jump straight to nineties hyper-sellouts Green Day, who I guess have an album that came out in 1989, but didn’t get famous until 19943. Anyway. They were super-duper popular, so I figure wait until the wave of “everyone that sold a bunch of records and is remembered fondly” wave (currently in the seventies – see The Marvelettes entry below) hits the nineties in, at this rate, fifty or so years, and they can get in then.
THE VERDICT: Not guilty.

Joan Jett & The Blackhearts
I just don’t know about this one. On the one hand, I have a soft spot for cover acts that no one realizes are cover acts (see also: Three Dog Night), but that’s also exactly the sort of thing that sounds like an insult to the sort of person that’s deeply concerned with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame4. But the real question is; what would rock and roll look like without Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. And the answer is: basically the same.
THE VERDICT: not worthy

Kraftwerk
For all that I am always right, there are some things I simply do not understand. Periodically one of those things is the prominence of a band that, as far as I can tell, is pretty generally not well distinguished. Kraftwerk have the honor of being the most famous of the Kosmiche (or “Krautrock”) bands, and also among the least interesting5. That said, their live recordings seem to show that they were a more interesting band than their records bear out, and a lot of people like them a lot that went on, themselves, to be important. That probably counts for something. I just feel like we should be talking more about Can. Why isn’t Can in this place instead? Can was so much better than Kraftwerk.
THE VERDICT: Worthy, begrudgingly. It’s hard to overstate their influence on rock music that uses drum machines, at the very least, and they did a bunch of stuff with drone and repetition that sounds really cool on paper but was, in practice, just not as good as Can.

The Marvelettes
I can’t imagine how many more acts that were ever on the Motown roster haven’t been inducted if we’re already at The Marvelettes, but it’s heartening: this has to be near the end. The Marvelettes were an ok act with a couple of ok songs that were, to a one, written and originally performed by other people that are already in the Hall of Fame, and to which they did essentially nothing. End of story.
THE VERDICT: Not worthy. It’s not that performance isn’t the most important thing in rock music, it’s that there’s nothing to their performances that provides anything to the material. So the material that they recorded that’s worth honoring is worth honoring by honoring the songwriter.

NWA
Another act that was also nominated last year, this remains the act that I’d love to see the final ballot counts on. This is also an act that I’d love to see an induction ceremony deal with. The guy that owns the headphones company and the guy from Are We There Yet would certainly cause heads to turn if they performed together.
THE VERDICT: Not worthy. Last year it seemed plausible that they might get in, this year it largely doesn’t. I have no idea why I’ve reversed so thoroughly on this issue. But my opinion of their music is still the same: it was hella influential, and some of the very earliest stuff holds up ok, but NWA was a mess, and their music was a mess, and it’s just not really the kind of band you enshrine.

Nine Inch Nails
The funny thing here is that I know they have to induct someone, right? Like, all of these acts seem really marginal for the most part. There are a couple of heavy-hitters coming up later, but not enough to pad out the usual half-dozen inductess. So allow me to make the case for Nine Inch Nails. Everything there was to like about Kraftwerk – a mechanized, computer-assisted take on rock music that plays up the inherent conflict between the programmed elements and the human elements – is something that it is also possible to like about Nine Inch Nails. Unlike Kraftwerk, Nine Inch Nails made great records6. But additionally, I spend a lot of time interacting with a lot of people that are into abstract music, experimental music, noise music and arty, pointy-headed electronica, and to a one, each of them over twenty-five or so had an intense Nine Inch Nails phase. So while it may be the case that they didn’t have as much impact on the bands as, say, Chic, they had an enormous impact on the audience. I don’t know what it is about the music itself that seemingly creates this impulse to find weirder, crazier music even that that, but there’s something in there that speaks to people that are inclined to go find music that goes to some pretty weird places. And that’s important – the audience is an element of the rock and roll experience that goes too often undocumented, so it’s time to start weighting it in these considerations. Oh, and seriously.
THE VERDICT: absolutely worthy

Lou Reed
I mean, dying is a pretty good way to assure that they call your name at awards season. I would imagine that the thing that annoys the organizers is that 1) “Sweet Jane”, the song that would lend itself to the big “all hands on deck” singalong so beloved of the R&RHOF induction ceremony planning people is a Velvet Underground song and 2) it was already performed at VU’s induction. I’d put money on someone young and incongruous singing “Perfect Day.” I’d bet actual American money on it.
THE VERDICT: Worthy. Which is funny, because earlier I pointed to the recorded career of NWA as a mess, and it looks like an Ikea flatpack when compared to Lou. But the Lou Reed “mess” was messy in a much better sort of way, because it was often good, rather than frustrating and boring by turns. Although a lot of it was frustrating. And a lot of other parts of it were boring. Anyway.

The Smiths
You know, it’s a funny thing about the Smiths. They’re composed of exactly the sort of hard-liners that, apparently, comprise the HOF voting bloc – they refused entirely to use synthesizers in the eighties, they worship the girl groups, glam rock and soul music (albeit seperately – I don’t think any one individual member of the Smiths is into all three), they’ve grown into bitter out-of-touch old dudes. And yet, their position as mopey wimps is probably going to keep them out.
THE VERDICT: by the unwritten and unseen rules of the Hall of Fame itself, they really should be in there. And, like Kraftwerk, their boring, overbaked records sure did make people love them for reasons I can’t fathom. So I suppose worthy, with the silver lining that whatever group of people they get to play “How Soon is Now” and “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” at the ceremony will be funny, because it sure won’t be The Smiths.

The Spinners
Oh I was wrong! The Marvelettes probably aren’t the last Motown group, because of a quirk of alphabetical order! It’s The Spinners. Just go read the Marvelettes entry again. It’s the same thing.
THE VERDICT: Not worthy

Sting
I can’t begrudge The Police’s place in the HOF – their terrible music was very popular, and made a lot of other people want to make terrible music. But Sting? He had some hits, certainly, but here, a decade plus after the most recent one, it’s probably pretty safe to say that they were pretty marginal in the grand scheme of things. If Lou Reed had to die to get in, and Chic can’t get inducted to save their own lives, then Sting can sit on his hands and wait.
THE VERDICT: Not Worthy at all.

Stevie Ray Vaughan
I am baffled – baffled – that SRV isn’t already in there. What are they waiting for? Is there something I don’t know about Stevie Ray Vaughan? Paul Butterfield is a three-time nominee. The Hall of Fame is super weird.
THE VERDICT: I mean, he’s spent time as the most holy sainted emissary of the rockist church. Did they lose his first nomination under the couch or something? Jesus. 

Bill Withers
Yes. God yes. Of course yes. Why is this even a question? Why is this his first year of nomination? This is a silly thing, and these are silly people. Of course Bill Withers. Bill Withers should be in other Halls of Fame for his contributions to being Bill Withers. Cripes.
 THE VERDICT: I don’t even have enough “yes” for this.

1 which kicked off a bunch more stuff about the Hall of Fame and its patron saint, Rolling Stone throughout the year
2 for all I know it was the same song
3 although as Nirvana proved, it really is twenty-five years after your first release, because the “Love Buzz/Big Cheese” single was what they put out in 1988. That’s a cover and a terrible original.
4 it’s really not meant to be, although this footnote is an opportunity to say that Joan Jett’s music does basically nothing for me. I just don’t begrudge it or think it shouldn’t exist or whatever.
5 they are better than Faust
6 while it’s true that last year’s Hesitation Marks was something less than great, it was more a victim of the fact that it was impossible to know what to expect from a Nine Inch Nails record at this point than anything else – it couldn’t live up to, thwart, or defy expectations because there weren’t any, and it was really hard to digest as a result. All of that is to say: it’s their weakest album and that’s the harshest criticism I’ve got for it.