Harris Wittels

So under-known comedy writer Harris Wittels died of a drug overdose. He was 30.

The bio stuff is that he wrote for Eastbound & Down, and he wrote for Parks & Recreation. He also wrote for The Sarah Silverman program. He invented the #humblebrag, and he was a frequent and funny guest on podcasts. Generally speaking, everything that comedy fans and his fellow comedians have said of him I echo here, with the caveat that I never met him. I would seek things out because he wrote them, I have albums by Don’t Stop or We’ll Die, the band for which he was the drummer, despite my own distaste for “funny” songs. I was a pretty big fan.

But the thing that is easy to miss, and the thing that makes me a fan, was that he was a big fan. Clearly of many things, but the specific moment that brought him into my life and my esteem was a podcast called Analyze Phish1. The idea is that the co-host, Scott Aukerman, does not understand why people like Phish2, and had been told that he just wasn’t going about it the right way. Harris Wittels, Phish fan extraordinaire, was there to show him what “the right way” was. He takes him to shows, they do drugs, he explains (in often-excruciating, fannish detail).

As a piece of comedy, it’s an amazing several hours. But the thing beyond the considerable funniness of the two principles that makes it work is Harris Wittels’ unwavering faith that, if he could just show Scott Aukerman (and, by extension, the unconverted members of the audience), then Scott Aukerman would join him in his fandom. That’s a very specific sentiment. He never backed off – he never conceded, for example, that the things that people don’t like about Phish are unlikable, just that the aspects of them that weren’t immediately being liked were unimportant to his liking of them.

But, and this is the thing that made me feel like Harris was, ultimately, on the side of the forces of good, he never copped out the other way. He never once decided that it was anybody else’s failing to not like Phish, he just kept trying to make it work. And it kind of almost did. Or, at least, it did as much as anybody can try to force these things. In a cultural environment where scornful dismissal and above-it-all ignorance are the ways that people cope with the deluge of things around them, Harris seemed like he just wanted people to like things with him.

He kind of returned the favor, much later. About a year ago he did an episode of Scott Aukerman’s podcast U Talkin’ U2 to Me, in which he talked about, ostensibly, The Joshua Tree. For someone who didn’t like U2, he spoke about them as reasonably as possible – U2 are the recipients of an enormous amount of unearned ire, and Harris just….didn’t like them. He was as happy to try again as he could’ve been, and it didn’t work. He wanted to like things with the people he was with.

But mostly he was so goddamn funny.

After his amiable, hilarious appearance on U Talkin’ U2 to Me, there was a running joke for a couple of episodes about how, of all things, Harris died on his way home from the podcast. He didn’t. He did enter rehab shortly thereafter, emerging a few months ago and giving a long, Pete-Holmes-style feelsterview on You Made it Weird. Somewhere in there he turned 30. Sometime after that he overdosed. His final appearance on Comedy Bang! Bang! (Scott Aukerman’s “day job” podcast, and the home of the very funniest thing Harris Wittels – and nearly anyone else – has ever done, “Harris’ Foam Corner”3) featured a running joke about another guest on the podcast loving chemicals so much he was like Walter White. It was, like all of the best jokes Harris Wittels (or Scott Aukerman, or, for that matter, joke-subject Paul Rust) was involved in, repetitive, out-of-nowhere, and pretty weird.

And it’s also repetitive and out-of-nowhere and pretty weird that there were so many jokes about his addiction and subsequent death therefrom that, now, seem a little less funny. But maybe only for a minute.

After making the (probable) dozenth or so joke about Harris’ death on U Talkin’ U2 to Me, Scott Aukerman points out that in the event that one of the podcast participants should actually die, he hoped that the thing the listeners took away was not the tragedy of the death, but how much fun they were clearly having making the podcasts.

And that seems pretty good. Or at least better than remembering that sometimes you don’t really have a chance against addiction.
1 true story: the A.P. style guide doesn’t have guidelines for podcasts yet, so I’m basically going on the idea that it’s referring to a larger medium, and also that Serial, the only podcast most of the media
2 c.e.: Neither do I. And I’ve listened to the whole fucking thing.
3 I’m assuming podcast segments are given the same treatment as tv episodes or songs

Not the 87th Annual Academy Awards, That’s for Sure

This is not a rundown of who should win the Academy Awards.

The Academy Awards, as the Grande Dame of the awards show circuit, are the ones that are most able to generate a lot of conversation. They are also, hands-down, the most wrong-headed, boring awards show of the year. Everyone shows up, everyone takes it deathly seriously, and for four hours, we watch people pretend to tear up and run out of time while holding up a statuette for their work on a movie we probably didn’t see.

This is especially bad in my case: I don’t really see Oscar-type movies. I’ve liked a couple here and there (each year there’s usually two or three in the major Srs Bsns categories that are interesting or that I feel are worth my time), but generally my own antipathy toward movies means that I don’t seek them out, and if I do get around to them, it’s well past the time-frame that I’m supposed to. There are a lot of reasons I’ll watch a movie, and even more reasons why I won’t like the movie. It has come to pass that, as a grown-up, I’ve had to realize that I’m less forgiving of films than I am of a lot of other narrative forms. I probably know why this is, but it’s not germane to the problem here.

Because the problem is more closely related to why I write about award shows here.  Or rather, the reasons that I write about awards shows here that aren’t “because it’s easy to make jokes” and “I’m going to watch them anyway, I might as well get some mileage out of it”.

The Academy Awards (like all awards shows) are, ostensibly, a celebration of what people do well. They get a thing, they get a title that starts with “best”1, they don’t get to thank anybody because of the fifth montage that they absolutely couldn’t cut, and then they do it all again. We’re to be happy for them, because they’re being honored by the powers that be – the first people recipients thank tends to be The Award Granting Body itself – and, tautologically, it becomes, in the eyes of the viewers, either a confirmation of the correctness of the body itself (last year’s 12 Years a Slave, Sylvester Stallone’s one-man quadrifecta for Rocky), or a denial of same (Crash’s2 best picture win, or Peter O’Toole’s mantle full of no Oscars). The system either works because it worked in one case, or doesn’t work because it didn’t work in the other.

Even when the system behaves in a way that is patently ridiculous3, people tend to think of it as an awards-granting body, and not, as it actually is, an advertising body. It probably didn’t start out that way – no professional awards ceremony does, and a full three-quarters of the ceremony (the Technical Oscars) is still pretty much just a professional awards ceremony – but at this point, it’s more ad than award now. See, the whole movie marketing system has been shifted to work around awards season – movies are released late in the year so they are closer to the fallible human memories of the voting body, and January and February have ceased being the bereft dumping ground for the leftovers that they once were, as they are the part when the Oscar buzz has done its work, making it possible for Oscar Prestige Serious Movie Times to have an easier go of it (that’s why the outward expansion of, say, Birdman and Whiplash happened in January). Oscars are enormously reliant on the push shown to the voters, which has also become a part of a very calculated ordeal, but has also created a system whereby this year’s Oscars are largely a commentary on last year’s Oscars. But this is not a history of the Academy Awards.

The point of all this is that it’s also easy to take the other route: to say “it doesn’t matter because it’s all rigged”. But it does matter (kind of) and it isn’t rigged (mostly). It matters because, historically, these are the things that people are going to look up and be able to see amassed. This awards-granting body, which at this point has the weight of money, numbers and time on its side, isn’t going anywhere. The American Film Institute made a valiant attempt to create a sort-of alternate canon, that generally didn’t occupy much of the public consciousness4, but for the time being, we’re pretty much left with the year-by-year incidental canonization of an awards body that is always voting in the moment.

I make a list of great albums at the end of the very year. It’s a list of albums that, by the end of December, have stuck with me the most since they were released (sometimes as recently as weeks ago). They’re published here, and they’ll stay here for as long as whatever, but even looking back at them now I think that I’m glad I don’t particularly have to swear by them. Academy Award voting, then, is essentially taking that same mindset, but adding the problem that all of the movies to choose from have been digested at the end of a month-long orgy of cineastic consumption. It is, in short, a decision made in haste that then becomes enshrined. It’s not rigged, it’s just poorly-considered. And yet, it is in the record.

And so we come, at last, to the reason why I write about awards shows. They matter (a little bit), and yet they are an absurdity. And, like many entertainment-industry-driven absurdities, people don’t even seem to care that this is all happening to them, allowing themselves to be led by the nose to wherever. And while that sentence looks a fair sight like it’s going to turn into a call to “WAKE UP, SHEEPLE”, it isn’t. But it’s why this is pernicious. Most people don’t put a lot of effort into finding the things that they use to entertain themselves – this is normal, and it’s just how it goes – people have things thrust upon them, and mostly choose to go with the best of the thrusted things. And while it would be great to live in a world where everybody carefully selected the artistic experiences they chose to undergo, we don’t, we can’t and we never will.

So this flawed, ridiculous, self contradictory, extremely prejudiced body of people is the thing we’ve got. And the consensus opinions that guide their decisions – the set of tropes and vagaries that add up to equal a nomination – are the consensus opinions that decide which films are given a leg up on “importance” in the years to come. There isn’t a whole lot that can be done about that, but it still drives me up a wall. And so I started declaring the rightful winners. The people that seem the most worthy of the selected nominees, given that the nominating bodies have their own advertising agenda5, or personal agenda, or whatever. And when they don’t work they can fight to the death, or someone can get the award that wasn’t nominated, or awards can be given to Mrs. Coach’s Hair, or whatever.

Because literally nothing I could say is more absurd than continuing to allow this nonsense to be taken so seriously.

But this year’s Oscars are just going to have to get skipped. We just saw what happens when one of the members of an awards-granting body fails to give the awards themselves the respect to which they felt they were entitled – Kanye, by attacking the Grammys (he did not, in fact, attack Beck, although that became the problem), was attacking the idea that they are un-attackable. If this happens, if people keep pointing at the emperor and declaring him naked, it might even come to pass that it is shown that these things are not only undefended, they are, in fact, indefensible. Because a real defense is not “that award was given to someone who plays a whole bunch of instruments” because 1) no it wasn’t (or, well, it was, but that wasn’t the reason) and 2) if that was the sole criterion, then Merzbow, who not only has played every single instrument on the last, oh, two hundred thirty or so6 of his albums, but has in fact designed and built several of them. So clearly he is the most talented musician ever by your dumb-ass metric.

I am not Kanye West (everybody sigh). And I like awards shows. I like top ten lists, I like museums, I like all-times and best-ofs and essentials. I don’t like them because they enable me to substitute someone else’s judgment for my own, but because I like to construct the through-line of the group that assembled them. I like to see people get awards because I like to see people rewarded, I like to see people happy, I like to see what other people think is good. Even if there’s no way in hell I’m likely to agree with it. So I’ll write about more awards shows. And I’ll write in Mrs. Coach’s Hair if they keep stubbornly refusing to nominate Mrs. Coach’s Hair themselves. And sometimes it’s better if a hole in the ground opens up, or if the decision isn’t made, or if the category is nuked from orbit. But mostly it probably isn’t.

Because it’s all absurd, see. None of it makes any sense, even if the nonsense ends up mattering. This year’s Oscars are as predictable as they’ve ever been. You probably could have picked the nominations out from the capsules they print in movie guides a year ago. They’re boring when they aren’t disappointing (no, seriously, how does a movie get nominated for Best Picture without having any of the best actors/actresses, the best script, or the best director? That’s insane. Like, literally insane), they’re bland when they aren’t gauche. I wrote about a bunch of them for the Golden Globes, I’ll write about a bunch more as the year progresses. I just can’t write about the Academy Awards this year. I’ll blow my brains out.

The emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. And once a year, he stands on the hill, resplendent in his finery, and we all stand in front of him and pretend that the fact that we’re watching his wrinkly, unpleasant ballsack flap around in the considerably wind of his own voice is part of the appeal because he brought with him a bunch of attractive people so we can talk about dresses and who’s dating each other7. It’s weird, it’s crazy, and part of me digs on how crazy it is, but part of me cannot muster the energy to figure it out this year.

Call me next year and I’ll take another swing at it. This year there’s no way to make it right, and no way to make a joke funnier than the existence of the Academy Awards themselves.
1 except at the People’s Choice Awards, where they get the more proletariat-friendly “Favorite”, which even there is a distinction between those chosen by experts (“best picture”, “album of the year”) and those chosen by just any ol’ body (“favorite pop singer,” “favorite movie”). The language of these things is part of their marketing, and it’s not chosen by accident.
2 not that one
3 the most baffling case of this is the “wait until the proposed end of the film series” game the academy plays with the visual effects oscars (or, if the series is Important Enough, the “real” oscars. This is what they did to the second set of Star Wars movies, to The Lord of the Rings, to Harry Potter, and, presumedly, to The Hunger Games, just to name a few. If the VFX (or the acting, or the script) is the best, why is it only the best when all the movies are out? I’m not a booster for any of those film series, particularly*, but it remains a completely transparent piece of games-playing that people are just…completely ok with, even though it, by its definition, shows that the Academy is blatantly not doing what it claims it is doing.
* unless Jena Malone is reading this, in which case The Hunger Games should have all the Oscars. Call me?
4 I mean, they’re still there, enshrining film and whatnot. People just don’t care. That’s presents some difficulty when making the argument that they have pull with the hoi polloi or whatever.
5 this is true of every awards show. The reason this one focuses on the oscars is because that’s the awards show I’m presently not writing about.
6 there’s probably fifty**, more or less, that are either from the days when Merzbow referred to a band, or recorded with another act in tandem
** these numbers are literally 100% real, if any of you reading are not familiar with Merzbow.
7 and by all means: these are the things that make the show fun, these are the things that justify it being on television, and I make no apologies for being more interested in what, say, Rosemund Pike is going to be wearing – remember that weird dress-thing she wore that was clearly there so she could breastfeed her baby easily? That was weird. Not the breastfeeding. The existence of the dress – than in ever watching even a second of Gone Girl.

RIP Checkered Records

I’m not going to be the first person to express that the world of being a music-obsessive is a different thing without the record shop, but it’s the case nevertheless. I came to weird-music-hunting in the weird online-only/record-shop-based crossover: there are people roughly my age who never had a local record store, and people my age who slowly, reluctantly turned to the world of the internet over time. a

I’m one of the latter group and, for my entire adult life, the record shop I’ve spent the most time in was Checkered Records. There were other dalliances – Northeast Ohio is home to a local used-stuff chain called The Exchange1, which was particularly good for filling CD binders on the cheap, and represented the other major source of record-purchasing, but they were interchangeable and not interesting – and visits to other record stores, some of which were even fairly enthusiastic – Kent’s late Turnup Records was great, and seemed to distribute releases from every record label that I was following2, but was doomed by an owner with the business sense of a hatpin and the work ethic of a hat – but none of which had the same staying power.

I suppose, with the benefit of hindsight, the appeal of Checkered Records begins with High Fidelity. I read the book sometime in high school in the middle of nowhere, with no real knowledge of a regular record store3, which became something of a shangri-la. In 2000 (I can remember when I read the book because it came from the library and had a movie tie-in cover), forty-five minutes away from the nearest big city, with a cranky dialup connection, it was much, much easier to read about music and hear snippets than it was to download it. Napster was heavy going in those days, but when your download speeds hung around the low nothings, you basically had to pick the one song you were going to download that weekend4. Maybe two if you got a lot of peer connections. Being the sort of person who was generally inclined to reading over just about anything else, this meant that for every song I heard, there were several dozen I read about and had to try to imagine. Albums could be ordered from Amazon, but these are late-nineties CD prices, and I was a highschool kid, so that couldn’t happen terribly often. Some gaps could be (and very much were) filled by nineties mail-order stalwart Columbia House, but that became more of a problem as I became increasingly aware that I was limited to major-label releases, and that more and more of the obscure and lesser-known stuff I was looking for would never be found within miles of a Columbia House distributor5.

And then I went to college. And then I was taken to Checkered Records. It was about an hour away, buried in an unfashionable side street, heralded by a sign6 that located it as one of the, at most, three things in that plaza that ever operated (one was a driving school, and I think another was, at one point, a picture-framer? Maybe?). There were, at this point, some record stores in my past. I knew what they looked like: new releases over here, used stuff over here. Maybe some vinyl over there (but who on Earth would buy vinyl, said a whole bunch of people in 2001). They bore about as much resemblance to the High Fidelity platonic ideal as quirky, heart-throbby John Cusack did to jug-eared English oddball Nick Hornby7.

But Checkered was it. The size of, say, a very large living room, it consisted of vinyl racks all along the outside, and folding tables atop which sat bins full of CDS. A couple of racks off to the one side had DVDs, and shelves and hanging racks everywhere had compilations, and show posters, and album art poster-things, and all sorts of assembled bric-a-brac. The owner/proprietor (and, for several decades, sole employee) was George, who stood, invariably, behind a case in which were particularly collector-y boxed sets and merchandise-y things. And it was George who made the whole thing go.

There were, basically, two kinds of record you could find in Checkered – the stuff that sold, and the stuff that George liked. In suburban Canton, it was easy to tell which was which: the stuff that sold was classic rock, or semi-mainstream heavy metal8. There were also, occasionally, the sorts of things you’d expect people to go to small, independently-owned record stores to buy. Animal Collective albums and the like. But mostly you saw the stuff that George wanted to sell.

By the time I got there (in the store’s fifteenth year, and regularly for the subsequent decade) there had been a sort of ecosystem set up: people would go to George, they would buy the things George had to sell, and they would either sell him some more of the things he wanted to sell, or sell the first things back. For the first several years I went, I was mostly interested in finally getting to gorge on the stuff that I’d read about – George was an old punk-rock guy, and in the late nineties, if you weren’t interested in dance music, that was the stuff that was written about a whole lot, so there was now a way to find them. Browsing was its own sort of balancing act – this Nick Cave reissue is twenty dollars, but those two Teenage Fanclub records are eight dollars each, and I absolutely have to have that Residents album, so I guess I should wait until next time to buy that Nick Cave reissue9 – that, occasionally, ended with, essentially, asking George to make the decision about which of the albums to buy.

I generally went in on Saturdays, and then fairly earlyish on Saturdays, so I was generally in there while a small coterie of his friends were there, talking about the ephemera of late-seventies albums and shows, or HBO cable dramas (and eventually, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) or the vagaries of property-ownership in Canton, Ohio. This took place over coffee and, for the first several years I was going there, a truly-impressive number of cigarettes (the cigarettes went after a health scare). This meant that, in addition to this being an accessible place to browse and browse, I also was not expected to talk to anyone while I did so, which both made the mental calculus (should I get the Jayhawks album and that late-period Meat Puppets album, or some of those Robyn HItchcock albums?) easier and left me to sort of figure out what was going on with all the stuff in the inventory10.

There were things about it that were basically unchanging – I went, for the last time, last weekend, and saw things (especially CDs) that I would lay even-on were there the first time I went in – especially when you went in every week. Occasionally something that you put off buying would get bought in the meantime (I not only never bought the Nick Cave reissue from Checkered that was in the above example, but I never bought it from anyone), but for the most part if you waited a week, with the next week’s allotment of “I guess this is how much I have left to spend on records” you could go home the proud owner11 of whatever that thing was. In High Fidelity, the record that never moves is known and very specific. If Checkered had one of those12, I didn’t really know, but I suspect it didn’t.

See, a lot of people have a story like this about Checkered. About how they went in and always found stuff they didn’t know they were looking for, and George could always help. No matter what it was, there was probably a surprising amount of it. And a lot of it was probably there for a long time – someone eventually bought the Whitehouse record, or the Nick Cave reissue, or every fucking Residents album that went through the door for something like two years13, And George wouldn’t lie about his enthusiasm – if you bought, say, a copy of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s One More From the Road (still the only LS record worth owning, but probably not one that you need to buy in its expanded double-album reissue form), he was noticeably nonplussed. But when you bought a bunch of Magazine albums (Howard Devoto was a particular favorite of George’s, and Magazine fans are pretty thin on the ground in general), you got to see the sort of reaction that explained why you’d operate a record store fifteen minutes away from a big dumb mall in an odd corner of suburban Canton.

And now it’s closing up. George is old, and has shepherded many, many Northeast-Ohioans through the discovery process, or through the re-discovery process. My last trip was last weekend, and even then there was a guy who came in and said, literally, “I found this record for I’ve been looking for for all these years”. He didn’t get paid until Thursday, so George put it aside on the table behind him where all the put-aside records went. That guy may very well be the last guy to get a record held for him.

On the one hand, it’s always sad to lose something like that. On the other hand, if anybody has earned the right to go home and listen to his Elvis Costello records straight on until record-collector Valhalla, it’s George. You’ve got a couple of days, he’s still out there. He’s light a promo copy of Glassworks, a Devoto/Noko album, a vinyl copy of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and Prisonshake’s Dirty Moons, but you could probably find an Alien Sex Fiend record back there somewhere.

Or even the thing you’ve been looking for all these years.

(What follows are the top 5 songs from records I bought from George) 

1 nee The Record Exchange, which dropped the “Record” from its name sometime after video games started to represent the bulk of their sales.
2 at the time: Touch and Go, Kill Rock Stars, Atavistic, Kranky, Drag City, Secretly Canadian, probably Quarterstick by that time.  
3 Marion, Ohio was home to a Sam Goody that became a Musicland*, because it had a mall in the nineties, and that’s how that worked. Eventually it would also be home to a couple of “we’ll buy any crap that’s on a disc” stores – much like the aforementioned The Exchange, or the more-national Buyback. You probably have on in your town, you know them. But to my knowledge, Marion, Ohio has never had a dedicated, bona-fide record store.
* it may have also been a Musicland that became a Sam Goody, I don’t remember
4 weekend because you couldn’t tie up the phone line while people were awake, and you couldn’t stay up late enough to complete a download on a school night.
5 interestingly, the Musicland/Sam Goody that made an appearance in FN 3 somehow had a pretty good distribution contract, notably carrying records on SST and Dischord. Especially Dischord. To whoever was in charge of the store ordering and had the foresight to stock the Rites of Spring CD, or In on the Kill Taker, or My War, or Damaged, or Zen Arcade: you did work that probably seemed thankless, and I have no idea who you are, but in hindsight I appreciate your contributions as much as anyone else’s.
6 it had, formerly, been located in an even more unfashionable part of Canton – its final location was sort-of near the mall-heavy Belden Village area, a mere ten minutes or so from the Football Hall of Fame and so, theoretically, accessible to people from out of town, even though that probably played no part in its existence. It moved from the middle of Canton, out of a building that was basically in someone’s neighborhood and would have been literally impossible to find.
7 I like John Cusack. I also like the movie High Fidelity quite a lot, actually. I love that he relocated to thematically-appropriate Chicago, I love that he updated all of the references in exactly the correct way, I think it’s a great adaptation. I also don’t think John Cusack looks anything like Nick Hornby, or even the idealized Nick Hornby that is Rob Fleming.
8 although, for literally the entire time I was going there, there was one of those CD racks that you stand the cases up in that was always full of fairly-aware death/black metal albums. Nothing earthshaking, but the albums were clearly chosen by somebody who knew what they were doing. This either belies a commitment to research, or heretofore unquestioned avenues of musical expression for George.
9 this actual argument ended with neither of the Teenage Fanclub albums, nor the Nick Cave reissue, coming home with me, and instead the Residents album, the Will Oldham album Joya, and a 12” 45-rpm Roger Miller (the Mission of Burma one, not the country one) single for prepared piano called “Groping Hands”.
10 Why did Alien Sex Fiend make so many records? Why were so many of them in that vinyl rack? Who had bought and then sold off so many Alien Sex Fiend records?
11 there is one exception: I never bought the copy of Whitehouse’s Bird Seed that sat at the front of the “W” vinyl rack for years, and this is somewhat maddening in a way that makes me want, now that Checkered is closing, to find out who bought it and go and offer him a bunch of money for it. I have Bird Seed, but I don’t have that copy, and I think I considered it every single week running for about a year, and the thing that interrupted it was that I stopped going ever week, rather than the thing getting bought.
12 and if it did, it was probably a a fucking Alien Sex Fiend record
13 my time as a Residents fan was fairly brief, but reached heights that even I, an obsessive by nature, have been known to hit. While there were bigger obsessions (roughly contemporaneously, I was also deeply obsessed with XTC, for example, and this was a few years after the obsession with Swans, much of which you can read about on this very website started), The Residents are unique, however, in that I listened to them intensely and then…stopped almost completely. I can’t even tell you when the last time I listened to a Residents album was, nor what it was.

The 2015 Grammy Awards

Ah, The Grammys. The weird runt of the major awards. Other music awards don’t have to take themselves so seriously – they’re already not the Grammys, after all, so they are free to be fun and flirty, to dress themselves up in miles of gauze and spangles and turn into a bacchanal. The Emmys and The Golden Globes have the advantage, among the serious “Awards Season” television awards, of being similarly party-inclined. The Oscars are, of course, secure in being the indomitable Force of Television Awards Shows that the whole thing is built around1.

But the Grammys are stuck propping up a dying industry (the record industry), and are stuck with their own reputation as never having been particularly correct in the first place2. Furthermore, the annual pile-on has meant that they are left with literally eighty-three categories, in an attempt to not piss off anybody that remains among their constituency.

Eighty-three categories. That is fucking crazy.

Last year I wrote about them all. That was a slog. This year I’m going to, out of deference, skip the categories I don’t really have the critical wherewithal to speak definitively on3. I don’t listen to the same kind of jazz (for example) as the Grammy voters, so I don’t really know that I have a firm opinion on Kenny Barron’s solo in “The Eye of the Hurricane” vs. Joe Lovano’s solo in “Recorda Me”. I mean, I would have one for you fine people, because that’s what I do, but you see how it is4. I’m still going to cover more categories than the telecast.

So, for your enjoyment, The Grammys: The Good Parts Version.

Best Music Video
Look, I get it. Everybody loooooooves the “Chandelier” video. I, personally, think you people are fucking weird, but I guess I’m not going to gripe about how you choose to spend your time. The Arcade Fire and Woodkid videos are fine, if nothing particularly spectacular. Pharrell’s “Happy” video gave us a dancing Tyler, The Creator, which is pretty great. But as artistic statements go, I’m in favor of explosive crotches every single time.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: DJ Snake and Lil Jon, “Turn Down for What”

Producer of the Year, Non-Classical
This category is basically a reminder of how terrible everything sounds at present. Max Martin is largely the culprit, and he did last year what he does every year, so it seems pretty dumb to give him an award for any of that. Jay Joyce has the same set of problems, only from the rock music perspective, so he’s out as well. Paul Epworth is nominated either because it’s another opportunity to fellate Paul McCartney, or because The Grammys are somehow interested in associating with FKA Twigs. I don’t care what the reason is, it’s not deserving of the award. So John Hill or Greg Kurstin? They both did pretty good songs (with Kimbra and Lykke Li, respectively) and pretty awful songs (with Bleachers and Ellie Goulding, respectively). I think the solution is to have Kimbra accept the award. Because she’s adorable when she accepts awards.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: John Hill, via Kimbra

Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical
I mention this category not because I think it’s earth-shatteringly important, but because I listen for this kind of thing literally all the time, and have no idea what the hell they’re talking about. I know the difference between a producer and an engineer, certainly, but how am I supposed to know the mechanical challenges or acoustic problems that were overcome?

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: ah, what the hell, Bass & Mandolin was such a good record.

Best Song Written for Visual Media
On the one hand, I’ve got all of the feels because of Glen Campbell, and “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” is just great. I almost feel sad that it never stood a chance.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Tegan and Sara f. The Lonely Island, “Everything is Awesome!”

Best Score/Soundtrack for Visual Media
Man, it’s hilarious how long The Grammys held out on nominated Frozen. They got mileage last year out of people expecting it, and now they’re getting mileage out of actually doing that. So that’s basically a foregone conclusion, right? Foregone conclusions annoy me.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Everyone except the Frozen people.
Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media
I don’t know if it’s still the case or not, but soundtracks used to be a curated way to find other cool bands5. I would guess, at this point, that that is less the case, because it’s much easier to find cool music without having to sit through a movie first. God, it is so much easier to be a music fan today than it ever has been.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Get On Up: The James Brown Story

Best Comedy Album
This is always a weird category, as it covers music and stand-up (and, theoretically, like, sketch or mime or improv or whatever, but where are their albums?). Patton Oswalt and Louis C.K. are responsible two of my favorite stand-up albums of all time6. Even We Are Miracles was as good as any of Sarah Silverman’s work. And so it comes as a surprise to all of us who the rightful winner is.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Jim Gaffigan, Obsessed

Best Americana Album
I swear to crisp I will give the person who explains John Hiatt to me, like, a million dollars. I get that everyone isn’t for everybody. I’m perfectly willing to concede that I’m not going to be interested in, say, John Hiatt’s co-nominee Roseanne Cash. I just do not understand why John “Absolutely Nothing Special” Hiatt is around. Anyway. I love Nickel Creek til I die, but Sturgill Simpson made a better record last year.


Best American Roots Song
blargh. blargh blargh blargh.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Mrs. Coach’s hair, which has the best American roots in the whole business.

Best American Roots Performance
This is weird, because “American Roots”, more than pretty much any genre in this awards show, is basically marked by being “the genre where people write their own songs”.  This makes it less important to nominate the performers and the songwriters each for awards, but it does mean that I can proclaim Nickel Creek the rightful winner of something.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Nickel Creek, “Destination”

Best Country Album
You know, I thought about skipping this category because I basically have to write about these same half-dozen records five or six more times this year. But why not get an early start, is what I always say. I’m absolutely not going to start thinking that Dierks Bentley or Erich Church deserve awards at this late juncture. Lee Ann Womack certainly isn’t on a blacklist (she’s no Eric Church, after all), but it isn’t her this time either. So Miranda Lambert or Brandy Clark?

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Eh, let’s give it to Brandy Clark. She doesn’t have any of these, and Miranda Lambert has a whole bunch.

Best Country Song
Boy, the reason Miranda Lambert was in competition for album was on the strength of “Automatic.” It’s a shame it’s up against that Glen Campbell song.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Glen Campbell, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You”

Best Country Duo/Group Performance
Say what you will about the transparent boosterism of the ACM awards, it ends up making for much better fields of nominees than the country categories of the Grammys. None of these songs are worth an award. On the one hand, “Somethin’ Bad” isn’t a great song, and doesn’t really have a lot of stick-around power, on the other hand, “Gentle On My Mind” is a forty-seven-year-old song that’s already won a ton of Grammys, which seems a bit like a ringer, even if this version is by The Band Perry instead of Glen Campbell. On the third hand, “Gentle On My Mind” is a great song, ringer or not.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Band Perry, “Gentle on My Mind”

Best Country Solo Performance
Alright, I may have mentioned this before, but “Give Me Back My Hometown” is, to its credit, probably the best Eric Church song. How much of a distinction that is I leave up to the reader, but at least it could be much worse. It is, for example, at least twice as good as anything Hunter Hayes has ever recorded. “Cop Car” is the dullest of Keith Urban dullness. “Something in the Water” has the same problem as every Carrie Underwood song that isn’t “Before He Cheats” (which is great) or “Jesus Take the Wheel” (which is execrable)  – it’s competently deployed (she’s got a great, albeit extremely limited, voice), and also largely forgettable. Thank the Country Music Gods, then, for “Automatic”.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Miranda Lambert, “Automatic”

Best Rap Album
2014 was a year marked by its relative dearth of major hip-hop releases, and nowhere is that more evident than when overlooking the display of schizophrenia that is the grammy nominations in the category. Eminem continues to be a surprisingly commercial force, Wiz Khalifa continues to be lauded for things other than being extremely affable, and both of those things continue to surprise me in equal measure. Discounting Iggy Azalea (because she can’t rap) and Childish Gambino (because he can’t rap), we’re actually left with Common’s pretty-good Nobody’s Smiling and Schoolboy Q’s pretty-good Oxymoron. Huh.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Vince Staples, who recorded on Nobody’s Smiling and toured with Schoolboy. Problem solved.

Best Rap Song
Ugh. OK. “Anaconda” was an ok novelty song, but there are, no joke, 12 better songs on The Pinkprint. “We Dem Boyz”’s presence has got to be either a joke or a typo. “0 to 100” is probably an OK song, but I’ve pretty solidly soured on Drake, so I’m withholding this one out of spite. “i” appears to be well-received, but I don’t understand that either, because it’s so bad7. So. “Bound 2” then.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kanye West, “Bound 2”

Best Rap/Sung Collaboration
Ah, much better. See above w/r/t Eminem for my thoughts on “The Monster,” although I suppose good on Eminem and Rihanna for plowing this field over and over and over again. “Bound 2” was a lot better in that previous category, because it really is the worst song on Yeezus (although it’s by no means an actively bad song). “Studio” is also the worst song on Oxymoron (and kind of is, by some means, an actively bad song),. Luckily, “Tuesday” by iLOVEMAKKONNEN and “Blak Majik” by Common are both good songs with spelling problems.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: As impressive as it is to have the club blowin’ UP….on a Tuesday, “Blak Majik” is the best Common single in years, and Jhene Aiko is amazing.

Best Rap Performance
Uhhhhhh….what? No. No, this is just dumb.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Lecrae, “All I Need is You”

Best R&B Album
Aloe Blacc annoyed me with his Apple commercials, so he’s right out. Toni Braxton & Babyface made an album with a title so on the nose you’d think that shit was a pair of glasses, so they’re right out. Jamie Bernhoft is certainly the best R&B artist from Norway, but honestly, he’s right out. Robert Glasper and Sharon Jones are both plowing similar fields for old-style R&B, which I think is pretty right-on, and the world is richer for them both.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Why haven’t Robert Glasper and Sharon Jones ever done a duet? That would be amazing. The winner is the imaginary Robert Glasper and Sharon Jones duets album I just made up in my head.

Best Urban Contemporary Album
This, leaving aside the boring  Mali Music thing, is a great category. GIRL was just fantastic, but it still isn’t a league with Beyonce or Jhene Aiko’s Sail Out. Honestly, I want this to be Jhene Aiko, I really do. But I genuinely do not think it is.


Best R&B Song
Well, since Usher and Luke James never stood a chance, this is, once again, down to Jhene Aiko and Beyonce. “The Worst” is a great song. “Drunk in Love” is a great song. “Drunk in Love” has a weird spoken-word part that doesn’t really manage to be saved by the part where she says “surfbort” a bunch of times. “The Worst” does not have one of those.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Jhene Aiko, “The Worst,” even though she doesn’t say “surfbort” even once.,

Best Traditional R&B Performance
Wait, where is Sharon Jones in this category? What the hell is wrong with the Grammy people? I WILL NEVER UNDERSTAND WHO MAKES WHAT CATEGORY. I HATE THIS IT IS SO STUPID.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Sharon Jones, goddammit. For, let’s say, “People Don’t Get What They Deserve”

Best R&B Performance
Well, I suppose the R&B Song category worked out correctly, since “Surfbort” is part of the performance and not part of the song. Since Jhene Aiko isn’t in this category, there’s basically nothing standing in the way of “Drunk in Love” here.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Beyonce, “Drunk in Love”

Best Alternative Music Album
I will give credit to this category making more sense than it usually does here. Arcade Fire, Jack White and St Vincent are all worthy nominees. Unfortunately, I listened to each of those albums exactly once before figuring that I got what I needed out of them8. So.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: St. Vincent, St. Vincent

Best Rock Album
These are all inarguably rock albums! It is a banner year for the Grammy Nominating Force! Granted, the youngest of these acts has still been producing for fourteen years, but compared to the venerable U2 and the downright ancient Tom Petty, that’s youngish. Granted, Tom Petty and The Black Keys have settled so hard into repeating themselves that it’s not really worth paying attention to anymore. U2 and Beck both did pretty good throwbacky things, but one poisoned their publicity with their release, and the other basically didn’t publicize his. Neither of which affects the actual music, which is, in both cases, some of their strongest in years, but it does draw attention to how clearly both acts are nostalgic for their own salad days. Ryan Adams is also far removed from his own “best” period (Heartbreaker came out fifteen years ago, guys. I’m old.), but what am I going to do, not give it to Ryan Adams? Please.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Ryan Adams, Ryan Adams

Best Rock Song
Fuck Hayley Williams and Paramore. That is all I have to add to anything I’ve already said about all of these songs.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Ryan Adams, “Gimme Something Good”

Best Metal Performance
Alright, we’ve got Motorhead and Anthrax in the “old dudes who haven’t done anything noteworthy but aren’t going away” category this time. It’s not that there aren’t Pere Ubus or Paul McCartneys or Bob Moulds in the world that continue to make great records decades after they get started, it’s that none of those people are in these categories. Slipknot and Tenacious D both made pretty good records that weren’t a patch on records they made a decade ago. Luckily, Mastodon is unilaterally pretty good.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Mastodon, “High Road”

Best Rock Performance
Beck, the Black Keys, Jack White and Ryan Adams again. This time with the Arctic Monkeys thrown in for spice. The Rock categories have officially become the same as the hip-hop categories, right down to their being only one act that deserves any of them in the first place. Although “Lazaretto” is at least the closest thing to a good song that Jack White album has on it.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Ryan Adams, “Gimme Something Good”

Best Dance/Electronic Album
I could probably have skipped this one – I’m pretty out of the “mainstream dance music” loop – but seriously, how great is Syro? Can we nominate that in a bunch of other categories just to have Richard James around? That would be pretty cool.


Best Pop Vocal Album
I think this category would be better if it didn’t mean “pop album with vocals” but rather “pop vocal” album, meaning the only vocal sounds are popping noises. I further think that not only would that make this category better, but that each of these records would be better-served by having the vocals replaced by the singers replacing popping sounds.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Man, I just want whichever one did the most popping to win, now. I’ve really ruined this category for myself here.

Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album
“Traditional” pop vocals would, of course, also include the sound of oil or a popping medium along with the pops themselves, since hot-oil popping is much more traditional than air popping. Duh.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: All of that aside, it’s really hard to get more traditional in pop music than Barry Manilow, right? Maybe we could bury him in popcorn.

Best Pop Duo/Group Performance
Here’s the thing that makes this category funny: nearly each of these songs is somewhat worse for being a duo/group performance. Ariana Grande’s presence on “Bang Bang” is completely superfluous9. Juicy J’s appearance on “Dark Horse” is actively stupid. I would like to hear whatever song Charli XCX herself would build around that “Fancy” hook, but instead we got the Iggy Azalea song. I don’t know why Christina Aguilera is on “Say Something”. Looks like we’ve got ourselves some good old-fashioned process of elimination here.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Coldplay, “A Sky Full of Stars”

Best Pop Solo Performance
Sigh. John Legend, Sam Smith and Sia are basically the trifecta of people I want to like because they seem neat as people, but who make music that spontaneously puts me to sleep. Luckily, this was never about them. “Happy” or “Shake it Off” is truly a battle for the ages.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Pharrell Williams, “Happy”

Best New Artist
Given that this category never makes any sense, is impossible to predict, and requires a definition of “new” that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with anything. So let’s say Haim, even though they don’t stand a chance, and be done with it.


Song of the Year
Man, how weird is it that they got the songwriting credit for “Stay With Me” turned around so fast that Tom Petty has been nominated for a grammy for it. In addition to his other Grammy nomination. I’m sure there’s a totally-reasonable explanation for this completely circumstantial occurrence. Anyway, all pretend-coincidences aside, this one is another foregone conclusion, especially since “Happy” wasn’t nominated in this category.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Taylor Swift, “Shake it Off”

Album of the Year
What the actual fuck is Ed Sheeran doing nominated for all these Grammies? I haven’t mentioned him in this writeup because he’s so far behind in all of his categories, but if our national character is such that we cannot stop rewarding this boring-ass ginger for being the human personification of a warm can of Heineken, then we should probably just set the whole damn thing on fire. Also, Pharrell was a producer on three of the five albums in this category. That should probably mean something. It probably doesn’t though, ah well.


Record of the Year
And once again I get to the last category having basically run out of things to say about the same endless permutations of these songs! You all know where I come down on this one!

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Taylor Swift, “Shake it Off”

1 although they had their own, more major problems, about which more in a couple of weeks.
2 Jethro Tull as heavy metal artists, post-haircut Metallica as praiseworthy metal artists, late-to-the-party overcorrections for Bon Iver or The Arcade Fire, literally every single thing pertaining to the Best New Artist Grammy, etc. ad. inf.
3 the eagle-eyed among you may notice that this is also what I did the first time I wrote about The Grammys.
4 eighty-three categories. That’s how it is.
5 the soundtrack to The Crow, to use the most prominent example in my own life, would go on to yield an enormous number of record purchases, including records by future all-time-favorites The Jesus and Mary Chain (a band whose entire recorded output I have purchased, sometimes twice*), Helmet, and Suicide (who are covered by The Rollins Band, who I also own a bunch of records by). Ditto Judgement Night, or Good Will Hunting, or Lost Highway.
* and if you’re reading this, you almost certainly know somebody that I’ve bought a copy of either Darklands or Honey’s Dead for, if I didn’t buy a copy for you yourself.
6 my top five stand-up comedy albums: 1) Patton Oswalt – 222, 2) Eugene Mirman – God is a 12 Year Old Boy With Asperger’s, 3) Chris Rock – Never Scared 4) Maria Bamford – Ask Me About My New God 5) Paul F. Tompkins – Laboring Under Delusions
7 let me just say this: Kendrick Lamar’s previous output is so good that for the first few times I heard “i”, I really, genuinely thought that I was just in a bad mood or didn’t get it or something. I was that unprepared for a bad Kendrick song.
8 That’s par for the course for Arcade Fire albums (which are never as good as I’m told they are) and St. Vincent albums (which are never as cool as she is), but man, what a shame it is to watch Jack White fall apart into a morass of studied weirdness and faux-aloofness. Remember when he used to be a crazy dude who ran around like a maniac and played his guitar with actual abandon? God, Jack White used to be great.
9 I mean, for that matter Jessie J is also, but someone has to sing the hook in the chorus, I suppose.