The 2016 World Fantasy Awards

For the second year in a row, I bring you ducklings the most important opinion possible about the World Fantasy Awards: mine.
It’s been a year where literary prizes are all topsy-turvy. The Hugos continued to be besieged by puppies, the Nobel Prize for literature went to a goddamn folksinger1, the Man Booker prize went to an American2, down is up, up is down, etc.
1 I have an opinion on this matter, but I’m going to link here to John Hodgman’s (ironically titled “No One Should Want My Opinion On Bob Dylan”), which is pretty much congruent to mine. I will also point out that Bob himself seems to agree with it, given his reaction – or, well, non-reaction – to his receipt of this mismatched award.
2 nb: there is no editorial judgment w/r/t the Nobel (at least, not here anyway) or Man Booker wins, just that they are both pretty off-standard choices. I quite like Paul Beatty.
And, of course, the World Fantasy Awards are changing the form that their physical award takes. I addressed, last year, the deal with H.P. Lovecraft, and mentioned that last year would be the final year of the Gahan Wilson bust that has, in recent years, caused so much controversy. The new award itself has not been announced or seen, and the WFC did not give a reason, as such, for the substitution, although one can surmise any number of things. This was, predictably, also met with backlash, headed (at least as far as I can tell) by S.T. Joshi, biographer of Lovecraft and assembler of Lovecraft “mythos” fiction, about which see a bit more later. Suffice it to say, if the rains of 2016 bring chaos and discord to literary prizes, the World Fantasy Awards saw their share.
As with last year, I am leaving out the Special Awards, because they’re kind of grab-bag-y and I don’t always know what I’m evaluating.
So let’s examine them, and see where we’re at, quality-wise.
Artist
As always, I have basically no prior familiarity with these folks, but obviously that’s never stopped me before. Richard Anderson has a neat color palette and a really distinctive thing that he’s applying to kind of dull pictures. Julie Dillon has a less interesting color palette and a similar subject problem. Thomas Kuebler makes admirably creepy sculptures. I wonder if they got him to sculpt Octavia Butler for the award. Kathleen Jennings does really cool shadow-play/negative space things that are really compelling. Last year I think I unfairly dismissed Galen Dara, whose work I’ve now investigated for the second time, and which is generally pretty awesome.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Galen Dara
Collection
This was easily the best category of the year. Each of these books is genuinely no less than very good. That said, CSE Cooney’s Bone Swans was kind of uneven (it is at it’s impressive best when the story is funny). V.H. Leslie’s Skein and Bone has some fantastic work, including “The Blue Room”, which is an elegant punch to the gut of a short story, and very much worth seeking out. James Morrow’s Reality By Other Means only really suffers from having to be graded on a curve – James Morrow is great, his best short stories are great, but also there are some strange omissions. Ah, well. The Collected Fiction of Leena Krohn is the amassment of the life’s work of a writer whose work is finally appearing in English, and parts of it3 are astonishingly good. It suffers a bit from having multiple translators, some of whom are working better than others. The final two here are Mary Rickert’s You Have Never Been Here (which also contains last year’s ONAT favorite “The Mothers of Voorhisville”) and Kelly Link’s Get in Trouble. I love Kelly Link, and I believe her to still be my favorite writer in the whole actual entire world, but I really think that You Have Never Been Here is just a hair better4.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Mary Rickert, You Have Never Been Here. But I wanted it to be Kelly Link.
3 particularly the every-bit-as-good-as-it-was-hyped-to-be Dona Quixote and also The Pelican’s New Clothes.
4 I suppose I can take solace in the fact that You Have Never Been Here was published by the publishing company owned by Kelly Link, so she must like it a bunch also.
Anthology
Perhaps knowing there would be no Lovecraft bust, there are two different Lovecraft-inspired anthologies. One of them, Black Wings IV, is part of a long-running series put together by the aforementioned sourpuss S.T. Joshi. It’s pretty bog-standard, with a couple of gems and one top-flight story by the predictably-great Caitlin R. Kiernan , “Black Ships Seen South of Heaven”. Joshi returned his World Fantasy Awards already, and is boycotting the ceremony, so let’s just give him what he wants and not consider him, yeah? In more enjoyable news, She Walks in Shadows is pretty good. It’s a collection of Lovecraftian fiction by women, and it contains “The Thing on the Cheerleading Squad,” which might not be the best story I read all year, but is definitely the one that made me smile the most. The rest of it is fine, but, y’know, it’s hard to plow new furrows in Lovecraftiana, and while it sometimes does, and it’s never bad, it’s not super great. Also not super great: the King in Yellow-inspired Cassilda’s Song, which scores points for mining some source material that not a lot has been taken from5, and kind of loses some points for there not actually being that much of said material – there’s a lot of repetition, although it is kind of neat to see how everybody folds the elements of whichever story they’re taking from into their own work. It would probably be better if it were shorter, or not actively arranged in such a way that the repeating themes becomes a problem. Aickman’s Heirs was another “playing in an Old Master’s sandbox” collection, and while the standouts are stand-out-ier (particularly Helen Marshall’s “The Vault of Heaven”), this one actively lost me due to a lack of familiarity with Aickman’s original work, which I feel takes something from the stories6. That leaves us with Ellen Datlow’s The Doll Collection, which is unique among this year’s crop for being grouped around a theme, rather than an inspiring author, and which has enough good parts to make it the best all-around collection in the category. Special shoutout to John Langan, whose “Homemade Monsters” is a standout in The Doll Collection, and who also contributed the quite excellent “The Underground Economy” to Aickman’s Heirs.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Doll Collection
5 Aside from, y’know, the first, enormously popular, season of the HBO’s True Detective. Aside from that, I mean.
6 Which, I suppose, is kind of my fault for not reading much Aikman, but I think that if the stories don’t really work on their own, they aren’t as good as (in this particular category) other stories that do, in fact, work on their own, without any foreknowledge.
Short Fiction
Selena Chambers’ “The Neurastheniac” technically appears in two categories here, since it is also a part of Cassilda’s Song. It’s the least Chambersesque7 story in that collection, and it’s fine. No problems with it. Just not great. Sam J. Miller’s “The Heat of Us” is a good story, plenty entertaining, but it also does a thing that I am never really on board for, which is that it takes an actual historical event (in this case the Stonewall riots) that came as a result of the capacity for humankind to affect great change, even at great personal risk, and turns the impelling force into one for the supernatural. I get that there’s ways to think about it that way that don’t diminish the fact that it was actual, factual people doing the thing there, but it never really sits right with me. Tamsyn Muir’s “The Deepwater Bride” is as engaging as you please, and plenty of fun to boot. Amal El-Mohtar’s “Pockets” is a fine idea, and is (as everything I’ve read by El-Mohtar has been) impeccably written, but it feels kind of incomplete. Alyssa Wong’s “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” is complete, and resonant, and satisfying, and doesn’t turn any real people into agents of the supernatural. It is, therefore, the best of these.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Alyssa Wong, “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers”
7 I mean, it’s also literally the most Chambersesque, provided you mean “in the manner of a Chambers” rather than “in the manner of Robert Chambers, who wrote The King in Yellow
Long Fiction
One thing remains certain: “The Waters of Versailles” by Kelly Robson remains the best story I’ve ever read about plumbing. It’s not the best story here, but it deserves at least that much mention. Kim Newman’s “Guignol” is a sort of spy-mystery in blood-theater’s clothing, and it’s fine, although doesn’t accomplish much beyond its surface charms.  Usman T. Malik’s “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn” is a fine story about inheritance that lands a little too gently. On the one hand, Bud Webster’s “Farewell Blues” is the story of these that I’m most likely to go back to, but on the other hand, Kelly Barnhill’s The Unlicensed Magician made me wish it was much longer – I would’ve spent a great deal of time in that world, given the option – even if it ends so satisfyingly that there isn’t much to go back for.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: I guess “Farewell Blues,” but it could go either way, really.
Novel
As with Joshi, it’s easy enough to dismiss Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant by pointing out that he doesn’t want it to be called fantasy, and doesn’t want anything to do with fantasy, so it’s easiest to just give him what he wants. Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts is an admirably-spooky narrative, with a satisfying lack of actual answers. K.J. Parker’s Savages is a twisty, tightly-plotted largely-magic-free8 work of fantasy that deserves a great deal of praise9. Anna Smaill’s The Chimes is another pretty incredible world that I’d happily spend more time in, and is a book that I loved a great deal – it’s actually great enough to unsaddle Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, which I also loved, from the “competing with N.K. Jemison” seat. It still should probably go to Jemison, though.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: N.K. Jemison, The Fifth Season
8 there is the matter of one of the, like, four prophecies in the book actually being accurate. I won’t tell you which one. But that’s definitely some magic shit right there.
9 it is very much in the vein of the also-excellent Grace of Kings by Ken Liu.


The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2017

Of all the Rocktober traditions that I hold dear (and there are many), perhaps none are as exciting as getting all het up about the list of potential Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees. This year, as every year, the main thing that is clear is this: there are too many “classic rock” bands, and their constantly being feted here is never going to end.

This year’s list was, to say nothing else of it, downright surprising. For example: The Meters once again aren’t nominated, which means they will once again not get in, which means we live in the darkest timeline. Fine, no big deal. But also there’s a bunch of people that are nominated, and this is about disapproving of them, not disapproving of the world in general for its failings. So here they are.

Bad Brains
So, speaking of surprises, here’s one STRAIGHT OUT THE GATE. Washington D.C.’s second-greatest hardcore band1: nominated for inclusion here in 2016. Such a crazy world we live in. They join a number of one-great-album bands (in this case their self-titled cassette on ROIR) that are on this list, although their post-great-album material isn’t bad or anything, just not as good as that one white-hot tape. In any event, above-average, if un-great, hardcore is much better than the bar set on entry in previous years, so I think they probably go in there.

THE VERDICT: It’s a yes, but it’s not a strong yes.

1 They’re not better than Minor Threat, they’re probably better than Void, Rites of Spring weren’t a hardcore band.

Chaka Khan
Last year Steve Miller made headlines by publicly declaiming the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for not including more women. So there’s three this year (which is, y’know, higher than average), plus whatever assortment of their singers wind up included in the nomination for Chic (see below). Which is fine, I suppose, but when you’re still leaving a bunch of women on the table, why are you continuing to circle around Chaka Khan, who, to be frank, is terrible? I feel like this isn’t a win for the forces of gender equality, and it definitely isn’t a win for the forces of me not having to consider Chaka Khan’s terrible music.

THE VERDICT: Nope.

Chic
Every. Single. Year. I am baffled by this, and every single year they don’t get in, and then every single year they are nominated again. I don’t understand it. I’ve covered this previously, but the general gist is: I don’t love Chic, particularly (they’re fine), but there’s tonnes of less rock-oriented disco performers already in the R&RHOF, and also they’ve been nominated so many times. It’s just silly.

THE VERDICT: Yes, for crying out loud.

Depeche Mode
I mean, it’s probably a long-lost cause to hope that Joy Division would ever get the nod, insofar as all that goes, but surely New Order isn’t so out of the question? They had a bunch of hits and stuff. Long career. Lots of playing the game successfully. My point here is: Depeche Mode were a bunch of derivative ninnies2 who almost certainly don’t belong in the HOF before, oh, a dozen or so bands that aren’t there. I mean, at least the butt-rock dudes are getting in in the right order, even if their deservingness itself is questionable. To which point also: Depeche Mode’s deservingness is highly questionable.

THE VERDICT: A resounding nope.

2 specifically of New Order, hence all the stuff at the beginning about New Order.

Electric Light Orchestra
I suppose if the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is to ever address their Prog Problem3, then the band that bridged prog and yacht rock is the place to go. I mean, ELO are fine. They’re far from the worst act on the list of people who are up for nomination. But, like, do they really need to go in there? Roxy Music isn’t in there, and they were way better. I promise this whole writeup won’t just degenerate into pointing out which band that the nominee sounds like deserves it more, but it just happens that we have a couple of sterling cases here.

THE VERDICT: I am genuinely on the fence. Maybe not this year, but if, as I keep predicting, prog has its moment of popular revision, they can come in. After Roxy Music. And after Yes.

3 addressed previously and summed up as follows: they don’t like ‘em. Rush, Pink Floyd and Genesis seem to be about as far down the path as they’re willing to go, which is a sort of line in the sand when the other major commercial rock movement of the seventies (the aforementioned butt rock, which would eventually become yacht rock) is basically represented rank and file up in there.

J. Geils Band
I mean, where would the rock world be without “Centerfold”? And where would America’s Funniest Home Videos have been without “Freeze Frame”?4. Peter Wolf comes to the nomination shindig visibly most years, so it sure seems like he’ll just get in. And, in a Hall of Fame where Paul Fucking Butterfield is enshrined, he probably deserves it. But, like with ELO, I’d need to see some grounds beyond “has a couple of songs everybody knows”.

THE VERDICT: Well, I just gave a “no” to ELO, so maybe the J. Geils Band gets a “yes” because you’ve got to induct somebody and, y’know, it’s not like they’re not ok or whatever.

4 it’s entirely possible that “Freeze Frame” was used on America’s Funniest Home Videos only, like, once or something, but in my memory it was used seventeen times an episode, every episode. Whatever my opinion of the J. Geils Band is (generally I like them, but specifically I don’t listen to them anything you’d call “often”), I really, really hate “Freeze Frame”. I am unsure which of these (the feeling or the memory) is causal.

Jane’s Addiction
As the period of eligibility moves inexorably forward, as does time itself, I find I’m going to have something of a problem here: the bands that are coming up in their early years are bands that I have something of a lived experience with as vital concerns, rather than an academic part of the Whole General Classic Rock Wash. This affects my impartiality, which I’ll get to in more detail in a few entries, but it comes up here in the case of Jane’s Addiciton, because there was a fairly brief period of my very-late teens5 where I listened to Nothing’s Shocking like all the time. Anyway, they have a couple of songs that everyone knows, and are, basically, a time-shifted J. Geils Band, in that there’s nothing actually wrong with them, but it’s pretty much just background stuff at this point.

THE VERDICT: I dunno. This is three in a row I’m ambivalent toward, but let’s say “no” on general principle.

5 I’m not really trying to minimize it, it was just very short.

Janet Jackson
Still the more interesting Jackson, musically. I stand by that, even though I enjoy her music less (such as it is). She still belongs in the HOF before Chaka Khan, but also is by no means a rock musician, so doesn’t really belong in the first place.

THE VERDICT: Nope, but definitely before Chaka Khan if such a thing matters.

Joan Baez
Wait…why isn’t Joan Baez in the damn thing? This is actually the first year she was nominated? They eat shit like this with a spoon. I just don’t get these guys.

THE VERDICT: I mean, sure? But definitely yes, given the case they’ve set out for themselves.

Joe Tex
I will say this for Joe Tex: he kind of invented the “answer song”, which would, over time, become the diss track. He spent a great deal of time feuding with James Brown, even though James Brown stopped feuding back fairly quickly. He claimed to write the song “Fever,” which would be a hell of a thing to have written if it’s true6. He definitely wrote the song “Baby You’re Right,” which, perhaps relatedly, I only know as a James Brown song (albeit a great one). He’s definitely a colorful dude who you could spend a lot of time learning about and be happy, and he probably belongs in the RRHOF at least attitudinally, which is not to say that he didn’t also make some awfully good music.

THE VERDICT: Sure.

6 NB: I have no idea if it’s true or not.

Journey
Clearly the nominating monsters at the HOF will not rest until all of our nation’s worst corporate rock bands are enshrined. There clearly is no fighting it. They’re coming for us all eventually. As someone who breaks out into severe internal bleeding every time I hear “Don’t Stop Believing”7, I can only say that the world is a terrible place and that, once again, we clearly live in the darkest timeline.

THE VERDICT: I mean, of course not, they make the world worse by existing in it, but it’s seemingly inevitable.

7 which, given the frequency with which I hear that song, means that I basically subsist on surgical sponges and paper towels, just to increase the general absorbency of my insides.

Kraftwerk
I mean, rock music would clearly be a different thing without them. They invented a bunch of stuff8, and made a new way to rock. They also had a hit. That’s about all you’d want out of a nominee, even if Can were, like, twenty times better.

THE VERDICT: Yes. Easily.

8 although, in all fairness, a lot of the stuff they were innovators of is stuff that affected other genres more deeply, but Kraftwerk themselves were a rock band, so it counts anyway.

The MC5
I made the case with Deep Purple for a long time, and I’ll make it again here (and also with Steppenwolf, see below9): The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame should allow single songs for induction. Rock music is song-oriented, after all, and there should be a way to acknowledge contributions like those of the MC5 while also sparing them the indignity of having to fairly consider their entire body of work. I will say this: I have had more conversations about trying (and not being able) to like Made in the USA than I have maybe any other record. Certainly that’s anecdotal, and maybe you’re one of those people that love it, but really – they’re here because of “Kick Out the Jams” and for basically no other reason. Unless I’ve drastically miscalculated Legs McNeil’s role in this thing.

THE VERDICT: Not really, but “Kick Out the Jams” is super great.

9 spoiler alert!

Pearl Jam
Aha. So. Earlier I mentioned that as the line of eligibility moves forward, we move further into my lifetime and into bands with which I have significant personal experience rather than the knowledge of someone else’s. There is no band I will ever have to evaluate the worthiness of that I am less able to be impartial about than Pearl Jam. They were probably not my first favorite band (maybe?) but they were definitely the first band with which I was obsessed, and I was completely obsessed. Very, very, very into them, is what I’m saying here. I feel that I can say, objectively (or, well, pretend-objectively), that they were a pretty good example of what an effective long-running band looks like (especially once the drummer situation settled down in the late nineties), they made great records that sold a bunch, they did a bunch of different things within their own sound, they continue to be a vital and interesting live band10. Plus, if they just get inducted already, I won’t have to agonize over whether I think they’re legitimately a great, hall-of-fame-worthy entity or whether I am just completely unable to consider them anything else. It would be a deeply-appreciated favor to me, is what I’m saying.

THE VERDICT: Yes, if only for my own sense of self.

10 admittedly, while I still have their more recent records, the most recent ones don’t get the same kind of play.

Steppenwolf
See above w/r/t single songs. Also understand that I’m not “forgetting” about “Magic Carpet Ride,” I am specifically declaring it not worthy of notice. There are other MC5 songs that are ok, also, but it’s still just “Kick Out the Jams” that deserves immortality. Furthermore, I do not actually like “Born to be Wild” all that much. I think it’s too much of the wrong kind of dumb, and not enough of the right kind of dumb.

THE VERDICT: Gosh no. Not until the single-song thing that I am the only person lobbying for actually happens. But really. No.

The Cars
Last year I said I would be rankled if they got in before Cheap Trick. Well, they didn’t, so I am not rankled11. But, y’know, the first couple of records are still great. This is a thin year. It would be a good year to induct them.

THE VERDICT: Yes

11 I also said I would mutiny if the Steve Miller Band made it in the same year as Cheap Trick, which they did, but also Rick Nielsen gave Steve Miller a guitar as part of his induction speech, so I guess I don’t really have to mutiny about it. In case you were wondering why I wasn’t actively out mutinying.

The Zombies
My opinion of The Zombies hasn’t changed – it’s a travesty they aren’t in already, they’re great, etc. – so I’m going to take this opportunity to instead call out the alphabetization of the list of nominees on the page for fan voting, which is where I’m taking the list here from. “The”s count as part of the name, first names are alphabetized before last names, The MC5 don’pt include their “The”, nor does The J. Geils Band12. It’s just higgledy-piggledy, and it might be put right if The Zombies got their rightful due.

THE VERDICT: Yes yes of course yes.

12 a band whose name trips up a lot of traditional schema for alphabetization anyway.

Tupac Shakur
The HOF is taking a pretty hard-line West Coast stance here, at least in terms of nineties hip-hop – first NWA, now Tupac, with narry a Biggie in sight. I guess there’s still Public Enemy and Run DMC. Anyway. Tupac, right? Not my cup of tea, but certainly a big, important influence on a whole bunch of rappers. By no means rock music, but I guess we’re just going to have to overlook that, because at this point we’re including rappers a bunch. Although, I suppose, to be fair, in 2016, it’s probably rare to find a rock band composed of members who don’t at the very least have a familiarity with (and opinion about) at least something of Tupac’s music.

THE VERDICT: Sure, why not?

Yes
At this point it’s an annual tradition – the HOF pretends to nominate Yes, and I pretend to agree with this nomination, point out how much I like “Roundabout,” and the world continues ever on. It would be nice if this changed, but, like the inevitable Journey performance at the stupid ceremony, it’s just not going to be so.

THE VERDICT: Yes, but the fates are awful and we, for a third time now, live in the darkest timeline, so we’ll be right back here next year to do this again.


An Examination of the Commercial Health of Rock and Roll Music as Indicated by the Current Billboard Rock Album Charts

Happy Rocktober, everybody! It’s that wonderful time of year when we celebrate guitars and stuff! And we’re going to do that today by looking at the actual, kind-of-dumb rock charts!

It seems, at its face, a particularly ridiculous thing to look at sales charts to determine what rock music is doing. It has, at least for the last few decades, simply not been indicative of nearly anything that’s been interesting or worthwhile about the genre. Still and all, ONAT is, if nothing else, particularly concerned with popularity, and the whys and wherefores thereof, so it stands to reason that a worthwhile thing to do this rocktober is to look at the rock charts and see where we’re at, popularity-wise.

It’s handy that Billboard does, in fact, have a dedicated rock chart1, because if you were to examine the primary charts you’d find almost no rock music2. The charts themselves are in an interesting (well, interesting to me) position here, because nothing is selling anything. Looking at the charts from week-to-week, weird archival releases pop up because of some kind of sales happenstance3.

1 I mean, they have a dedicated chart to a lot of things, but, y’know, it’s still handy for our purposes here.
2 A brief inventory of the items that made the Hot 100: 2 Twenty One Pilots songs, 1 Coldplay song and 1 X Ambassadors song, for a total of four. There is about the same percentage of items in a higher position on the Top 200 albums chart, which mostly just says that the rock audience buys albums.
3 this week The Eminem Show, an album that came out nearly 15 years ago, was the #79 album on the charts.

I’ve always been interested in the charts themselves as an artifact4 – for a while when I was young I would look through Billboard as often as I went to the library – but, as time has gone by, I have been less so. Since there’s also not really any radio in my life5, and since the record-selling industry’s dreams of centralization have still not really resulted in anything material, I find that I have tremendously little connection to the world of commercial rock music.

4 I mean, it was sort of a pithy throwaway up there, but if there’s something that can be said to be largely true for what I’ve been doing here lo these years, it’s a sort of examination on things that become popular, and what they’re doing there.
5 beyond the extremely-sporadic and long-dormant “Streaming Pile of Truth” series that appears on this very site.

For a long time, the rock charts have been something of an elephant graveyard – the lumbering husks of old giants come in and stop moving, to be picked at by the smaller scavengers who may also leave their bones, but will mostly go unnoticed and unremembered. Thus is it the case now, with the whole thing lacking nearly any vitality. There are good records on the rock charts (I mean, there are a few good records on the rock charts), and there are even three that I actually, myself, contributed to the sales figures of6, as well as a fourth that I considered buying before actually listening to it and deciding not to7. And even among the ones I, myself, am unlikely to ever get to owning, there are a few8 that are worthwhile pursuits, just not to my taste.

6 the Drive-By Truckers album, The Radiohead album, and the Bon Iver album
7 The Head and the Heart
8 Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, Opeth, maybe The Lumineers

What I’m saying here is: even with the assumption that there could be nothing of value on the charts, there are still several things that stand out. Admittedly, it’s slightly more than a quarter of the things9, but that’s something.

9 and, tbh, I’m not going to argue for the essentiality of at least two of the things listed in the footnotes above, even without counting the kind-of-included Lumineers.

Of course, none of what it says is actually applicable to rock music as a genre. All Billboard charts are, by their definition, pop charts – they are literally charts of what is popular. It includes, by nature of including all sales, the audience for rock music, but it also includes every incidental copy of every record sold that week, which means it includes much more than the rock audience. Thus the rock chart isn’t really much good for telling us about rock music, but rather about rock music as consumed by pop fans. It still is an interesting place to look, however, because these are, for the most part, the only records filtering through to the audience of people that aren’t specifically looking for them – these are the bands that are on the radio (such as it is) or that make television appearances or that get interviews in whatever magazines or websites still exist.

What is interesting is that this chart, in particular, is dominated by a certain kind of consistent seller: most of the acts here have been around for quite a while (the balance is made of acts that are nominally rock, but that very much have a pop audience), and probably have been selling the same number of copies the whole time, with the major change being the sales figures of the more pop-oriented acts around them.

So before we look at the chart itself, a quick update on the state of rock music on the whole: it’s fine. Still a bunch of great bands, still a lot of terrible bands, just like always. The good stuff requires you to look for it, just like always, but also it’s never been easier to find, so you’re still totally in luck.

All of that said: let’s dive in! Here are the rock albums that are selling, what that could possibly mean, and what you should spend your money and/or streaming counts on to better help the health of the genre.

1. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
WHAT IT IS: Midwestern saddo makes what is genuinely his weirdest record yet.
WHAT IT SIGNIFIES ABOUT THE HEALTH OF ROCK MUSIC (WISATHORM): Bon Iver is one of those acts that a bunch of people can agree on, so each of his records is going to sell a bunch, especially in its week of release (which this chart is from). I would be interested to check back in and see how fast this one drops, since it’s a weird, prickly record. If it continues to sell, it’ll speak to at least an interest in theoretically forward-looking stuff, albeit of the most palatable stripe. If it doesn’t, it’ll be an unsurprising return to liking things that are easier to digest.
BUT IT WOULD BE A BETTER STATE IF YOU BOUGHT (BIWBABSIYB): Let’s say Angel Olsen’s new record. It’s her least sad, but it’s better.

2. Red Hot Chili Peppers – The Getaway
WHAT IT IS: Rock’s bro-iest institution made another record. It’s presumably about bro-ing down, california, having sex with the ladieeeeees and also not doing drugs or yoga or something.
WISATHORM: RHCP are in an interesting position, in that I know a whole bunch of people that used to like them and don’t anymore, and it seems to be a phase that the person moved through rather than the band10. Objectively, it is interesting that a band that is more-or-less an actual, interacting rock band with a band’s creative impulse (even with a remarkable inability to hold down a guitarist). Subjectively, this music is terrible and I don’t even like the RHCP albums I used to like, so I’m going to say that it’s a wash: cool that there’s a band going out and doing what they want. Bully for their creative impulse. Uncool that their impulse is this braindead nonsense.
BIWBABSIYB: Kaytranada’s 99.9 isn’t by any means a rock record, but it brings better funk, would lead to a better party, and is generally better for the health of rock music by not being this atrocity.

10 another band like this is the long-defunct Operation Ivy

3. Van Morrison – Keep Me Singing
WHAT IT IS: Rock’s Marlon Brando continues to exist and make records, despite the fact that I keep thinking he’s dead. Not that I want him dead or anything, I just flat-out do not remember that he’s alive.
WISATHORM: Well, long has it been true that one of the groups of people still buying records is old people, and Van Morrison is much beloved among a certain type of old record nerd, so it signifies that some things are basically unchanging. Van Morrison is eternal.
BIWBABSIYB: Bonnie Prince Billy is also an old, mercurial weirdo, and his new album of Mekons covers (with the aforementioned Angel Olsen, and also Emmett Kelly from The Cairo Gang), Chivalrous Amoekons, is damned delightful.

4. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
WHAT IT IS: Long-running art-rock oddballs make another record that seems like it’s as good as their old records at first, and then reveals itself to definitely not be as good as their old records.
WISATHORM: Actually, that line above describes a tonne of bands that exist in the null space between a legacy act that lives on its back catalog and a band whose ever record is an “event.” There are always a couple of these, and now it’s Radiohead. It’s nice that it’s a band whose music is still pretty good, still pretty interesting, and still relatively vital11. I’m going to call it generally a turn up for the books.
BIWBABSIYB: I mean, Radiohead is fine, all told, but if you want something more out-there and experimental, the new Wrekmeister Harmonies record, Light Falls, is good for the ears and good for the soul.

11 I mean, saying that their records aren’t as good as their old records is just saying something that’s true of nearly every record, given that very few records are as good as Radiohead’s old records.

5. Bob Weir – Blue Mountain
WHAT IT IS: A former member of the Grateful Dead made another record.
WISATHORM: I mean, whatever else there is to say about the Grateful Dead, they had pathologically loyal fans. I would imagine that a Bob Weir solo record is among the best offerings of a thin patch, so they probably turned out for this one in droves. So I’d guess it signifies nothing new, just that people really show up for the Dead, just like always.
BIWBABSIYB: If you’re beholden to the idea of buying a record by a guy named Bob who used to be in a band that a bunch of people liked and were known for their live show, the most recent Bob Mould record, Patch the Sky, runs rings around this record.

6. Bruce Springsteen – Chapter and Verse
WHAT IT IS: Rock’s foremost workaholic continues an unusually productive streak as an old person.
WISATHORM: I mean, in the case of The Boss, it’s a heartening and always-welcome reminder that, sometimes, occasionally, the cream rises to the top, and also that it’s possible to continue to work under your own impulses even after unimaginable success and accolades are heaped upon you. So while I’m unlikely to go get the record itself, I’m glad it exists, and I’m glad he still has his audience, even if said audience is almost entirely old people. A version of this paragraph could also have appeared under Van Morrison, but I don’t like Van Morrison, so it doesn’t.
BIWBABSIYB: I mean, I’m pretty sure I’m completely unable to convince a Bruce Springsteen fan of anything else, but certainly there’s room in everyone’s heart for the forthcoming Two Cow Garage album, Brand New Flag, which, at least from what I’ve heard live and in terms of advance stuff, should be pretty amazing.

7. Opeth – Sorceress
WHAT IT IS: Long-running art-metal Swedes made another in a string of records that, honestly, sound pretty much alike.
WISATHORM: One of the non-old-people groups that still buy records are the metal dudes, and they galvanize pretty hard around Opeth, who clearly appeal to people who listen to all sorts of metal subsubgenres11, and thus are selling a whole bunch of records here.
BIWBABSIYB: If it’s a long-running metal band you’re after, the new Neurosis record meets the unusually high bar they’ve set for themselves (again).

11 an editorial note about metal dudes and people who listen to metal subsubgenres: I don’t know that I’ve met many – if any – who don’t listen to a, whole bunch of said subsubgenres, so they’re clearly nonexclusionary, but it seems important (to the metal dudes) that they exist, so I’m trying to respect that here.

8. Drive-By Truckers – American Band
WHAT IT IS: It’s the best album on this chart, certainly. Another long-running band with a highly consistent fanbase12.
WISATHORM: Kind of the same thing as Opeth, actually – there’s a certain breed of country-inflected rock music that has a devoted group of people that still buy records (hi), and it’s enough to launch them, when nothing is selling, into the higher branches of the chart.
BIWBABSIYB: Nah, it’s pretty great that people are buying American Band. Yay.

12 and, secondarily, a heroically consistent output

9. Regina Spektor – Remember Us to Life
WHAT IT IS: The lady behind the Orange is the New Black theme song continues to make records.
WISATHORM: I would go so far as to say that is says nothing about rock music, except that it’s in the wrong category. I don’t think even an extremely loose definition of “rock” includes piano-based pop songs by someone who doesn’t really have a band. I am somewhat curious about how this decision is made. To wit: does the label decide which chart it should appear on, or do the Billboard/Soundscan people? In any event, I like Regina Spektor generally, although I haven’t bought the last couple of records, I just don’t think it should be here. Although, in its defense, this kind of thing (non-rock records making the rock charts for reasons that I can’t quite fathom, although it probably has something to do with the way it’s performed and/or produced, which I could say very much about, but probably won’t because it’s the kind of digression we don’t need here)13 has always been a feature of the rock charts.
BIWBABSIYB: Thalia Zadek is another oddball singer with an interesting way of constructing songs, and the Thalia Zadek Band’s Eve is much better than this.

13 I’m not even going to footnote it!

10. Yellowcard – Yellowcard
WHAT IT IS: The last record by violin-toting emo stalwarts.
WISATHORM: I guess there’s some buzz that comes with it having been announced that this is the end of the road for Yellowcard (until the inevitable reunion, which I’m comfortable betting on being a thing that’s definitely going to happen). I haven’t listened seriously to a Yellowcard album since Ocean Avenue (and I haven’t liked a Yellowcard album since One for the Kids), but I reckon there are a lot of people (probably around my age) who still are, and that’s where this is. It says that at a certain point, in terms of the salability of the genre, familiarity is the greatest asset.
BIWBABSIYB: It’s not sonically similar in any way (thankfully), but if you want to let it all out to some loud-ass music, you should definitely improve the health of rock music by listening to Wreck and Reference’s Rivers Romance End.

11. Blink 182 – California
WHAT IT IS: Pop-punk lifers made another record with the dude from former pop-punk lifers Alkaline Trio. This, apparently, worked, since it came out months ago and is still on the rock albums chart.
WISATHORM: That I am old enough to be a part of the nostalgia market, which has always been a powerful force for record sales. Blink 182 has spent the last decade basically emerging from collapse – Tom DeLonge left and then came back, and then left again to be replaced the dude from Alkaline Trio – and have, in that time, almost certainly become known, at least among a general audience, as “the band that Travis Barker is in when he’s not doing shit on tv and/or with rappers”. Once again, familiarity breeds record sales.
BIWBABSIYB: Beach Slang’s guitar player, it turns out, is probably involved with some pretty bad shit, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that their newest record, A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings (an album which completely lives up to its title) beats this record in a walk for catchy punky satisfaction.

12. Suicide Squad: The Album
WHAT IT IS: Proof positive of Warner Bros’ ability to successfully ape at least one aspect of Guardians of the Galaxy – it had a soundtrack stuffed with radio staples that made people like stuff about it.
WISATHORM: In the ongoing “Considered Look at the Best-Selling Records of All Time”, elsewhere on this site, I am often flabbergasted by the popularity of soundtrack albums, and I sort of thought those days were behind us14, but here we are, with a bunch of people buying the soundtrack to this wretched movie. I’m sure there’s a way to blame Queen for this.
BIWBABSIYB: Oh jesus, just listen to the radio for an hour. You’ll probably even hear the same fucking songs. What’s wrong with you people?

14 when you can get any individual song you want at basically any time, why would you need a label-approved list of these specific songs?

13. Eric Clapton with Special Guest JJ Cale – Live in San Diego
WHAT IT IS: I mean, it’s all pretty much there in the title. This particular live album is E.C.’s 13th (and the second one this year), and also is the first of two appearances by Doyle Bramhall II, who is one of the the other guitarists in Clapton’s band. It’s the second of the 13 live albums to feature JJ Cale, and also Robert Cray is in there. Also Derek Trucks. It is unclear if there are any non-guitar-playing instrumentalists on the record. I mean, there must be, but that’s a whole lot of guitar players.
WISATHORM: It says that Eric Clapton is a shrewd capitalizer on his status as a live draw. I generally approve of this as a method – if your audience primarily exists to see you live, why not just make your albums live albums – except that Clapton also released a studio record this year, so clearly he’s just trying to work every available money-making angle here. Also, to the mainstream record-buying clot of old dudes that buy these things, there is no such thing as too many fucking guitarists. Jesus, Glenn Branca had fewer guitar players than this record. I bet they all play solos for a fucking hour each, too.
BIWBABSIYB: Aidan Baker, who is a fantastic and inventive guitar player, has released a handful of collaborative records this year, a high point of which is the great live improvisation record Werl, recorded with Tomas Jarmyr. It’s more mind-expanding, less cash-grab-y, and more satisfying in every way than this Clapton nonsense.

14. Twenty One Pilots – Blurryface
WHAT IT IS: Columbus’ most famous rock band’s most awful pop record. I mean, I assume it’s their most awful. I’m not particularly intersted in finding out if they can do worse. Oh, also, the most recent single from this garbage fire of a record is also on the Suicide Squad soundtrack. I guess that’s worth noting.
WISATHORM: This is the pop audience buying music that’s classed as rock music, here. I mean, it is rock music, but the audience for it is a pop audience. It says “ugh, this is still happening and that’s terrible” is what it says. It also says that Fueled by Ramen is still an operating label, which seems less important, but, y’know, also worth noting, just like the Suicide Squad thing.
BIWBABSIYB: It’s a year old, but if you’re looking for an actual-rock songwriter-y band from Columbus, that’s pretty much wrapped up by Saintseneca, whose Such Things is a worthy addition to your life.

15. Jimi Hendrix – Machine Gun: The Fillmore East: First Show 12/31/1969
WHAT IT IS: Noted perfectionist Jimi Hendrix’s every recorded note continues to be plundered for any available dollar by unscrupulous folks that can’t imagine not being able to extract every cent of value out of what should be a pretty-much flawless legacy15. At least a full live set is less insulting than any given set of studio outtakes16, but it’s still pretty gross, especially since the Cox/Miles rhythm section was pretty clearly meant to be temporary, and now here they are, still being a part of the damn thing. I bet there’s a bunch of fucking Buddy Miles’ scat singing on there. Gross.
WISATHORM: That the same old dudes that bought the Eric Clapton record still have money, so still have to be bilked, and will fall for basically anything. Which is bad.
BIWBABSIYB: I mean, the Velvet Undergrond’s Complete Matrix Tapes are marginally better (although still a plundering of the archives) as an ethical quandary, but worlds better as an album – they were a better band than the Hendrix/Cox/Miles lineup presented here – but would scratch the itch of wanting to hear whole sets by performers known for their live show.

15 every record that Jimi Hendrix approved of and released within his lifetime is basically perfect, and the rest of it adds nothing.
16 although it must be noted that this record is basically both: the New Year’s 1970 shows at the Fillmore (there were four of them) were what Jimi cut together and tried to salvage as the record Band of Gypsys. BoG is a good record, but also the reason for the phrase “approved of” in the above fn: Hendrix didn’t like it, despite the fact that maybe his single greatest moment as a guitar player, “Machine Gun” appears on that record. There’s a version on this one as well, but the version that made Band of Gypsys was from the third show, and is several minutes longer. See? Basically outtakes.

16. The Pixies – Head Carrier
WHAT IT IS: Unswayed by the fact that no one fucking wants a new Pixies album, the Pixies went ahead and made another album.
WISATHORM: That thanks to advances in medical science and also music marketing, there are now two generations of old dudes who buy records to sell dumb inessential bullshit to.
BIWBABSIYB: I mean, if it’s a veteran indie band’s new work you’re looking for, Wilco’s Schmilco would be a better way to scratch that itch than this.

17. Sully Erna – Hometown Life
WHAT IT IS: The guy from Godsmack’s second solo record. I dunno, man.
WISATHORM: You know, I’ve tried to do pieces like this before, and I always run up against this problem: it means that the nostalgia market is bigger than the market for new music, at least in the rock sector, and all the stuff I’ve already said about familiarity. It says that the health of the genre might be ok, but that the commercial health is failing because, metaphorically, it’s becoming more inbred and cloned and overworked.
BIWBABSIYB: Emma Ruth Rundle is also a metal-type songwriter refugee, and her Marked for Death isn’t a product of the commercial flailings of the record-selling industry’s ability to dictate sales based on familiarity and recognition.

18. Panic! At the Disco – Death of a Bachelor
WHAT IT IS: More pop-punk, which I guess is a surprisingly durable sales genre, provided the band is somewhat old17.
WISATHORM: I guess it says that they’re surprisingly vital. I’ve never had much of an opinion about their music, but I don’t think they’re really old enough to qualify as a part of the nostalgia market. It’s not quite like Twenty One Pilots (that is, I don’t think it’s necessarily the pop audience buying this record), so it’s probably more like Bon Iver, in that it’s possible to build a fanbase and sell records to them. So in that sense, bully for them. Good job being good for the genre as a commercial concern, whoever is actually in the band (I think it’s just Brandon Urie at this point).
BIWBABSIYB: Hiss Golden Messenger’s Heart Like a Levee is also a catchy record by a dude who is basically the only member of his band, and isn’t nearly so disposable as Panic! At the Disco’s music seems to be.

17 At only a decade or so in, they actually qualify as the younger of the pop-punk bands here.

19. The Beatles – Live at the Hollywood Bowl
WHAT IT IS: Yet another archive-milking full-concert release, in this case by a band that stopped touring literally half a century ago.
WISATHORM: That The Beatles will always sell, no matter what it is, forever and ever amen.
BIWBABSIYB: I mean, this particular show is mostly famous for being inaudible to much of the audience due to the screaming of the crowd, so I don’t know, literally anything? Literally any rock record that isn’t this one. Except the Suicide Squad soundtrack. Fuck that.

20. Epica – The Holographic Principle
WHAT IT IS: Symphonic metal is a weird thing. People go nuts over it. There have been a handful of bands18 that have done good work, but mostly it’s all kind of pander-y and not very good.
WISATHORM: See above w/r/t the metal audience and their tendency to still buy records. In Epcia’s case it almost entirely about the genre, because there really isn’t anything to distinguish the band itself beyond that.
BIWBABSIYB: Mono’s Requiem for Hell, which should satisfy your urge for big, sweeping heavy music with a composed sort of bent19.

18 chief among them (I think) being Paradise Lost, but I’ve also had good things to say about X Japan, and I used to like Nightwish. I could probably come up with a couple more if I needed to. But I don’t need to.
19 and also their Hymn to the Immortal Wind is one of the greatest records of any genre ever recorded, and features orchestral (albeit not symphonic) accompaniment.

21. The Lumineers – Cleopatra
WHAT IT IS: Folksy-type chummy, strummy music. Jack White is a fan.
WISATHORM: Well, you’ve probably heard them on television, since they seem to work their singles by having them appear in tv shows. So I guess there’s still some selling power to be had if you can get on television. Good for them.
BIWBABSIYB: Amanda Shires’ My Piece of Land is chummier, strummier, and all-around more enjoyable.

22. Doyle Bramhall II – Rich Man
WHAT IT IS: “Hey,” you’re saying, “that’s that guy from the Eric Clapton album a few entries ago.” And indeed it is. He’s actually a sideman/replacement guitarist for a bunch of people. And he makes solo records, of which this is one.
WISATHORM: Guitar dudes have an overlap with the white blues dudes, and also buy records. I do not know anyone that would buy/has bought a Doyle Bramhall II record that isn’t a guitar dude.
BIWBABSIYB: For the musical stylings of an erstwhile sideman, you would do a lot better to get ahold of Peter Broderick’s John Cage-inspired Partners. It’s a record of mostly piano, so it won’t scratch the guitar dude itch, but if you’re a guitar dude, you probably wouldn’t be interested in not buying a Doyle Bramhall II record anyway.

23. Suicidal Tendencies, World Gone Mad
WHAT IT IS: It’s apparently not a joke? I mean, this has to be a joke, right? There’s no way this isn’t a joke.
WISATHORM: I hate to say the word “familiarity” again, but I genuinely have no idea what else would explain this record charting. Like zero idea. Not even the presence of the truly great Dave Lombardo as their drummer gives me any kind of clue as to what is going on here, except name recognition.
BIWBABSIYB: I mean, it’s not a thrash record, it isn’t a legacy record, and the band has never broken up or reformed, but if you want a metal record that’s not totally ridiculous, you should probably try Sumac’s What One Becomes. Or even Cult of Luna and Julie Christmas’ Mariner. Or, hell, I think there’s a new Meshuggah record and that probably is a thrash record. Pretty much anything that isn’t this. Seriously.

24. Skillet – Unleashed
WHAT IT IS: Veteran rockers for Jesus soldier on, marching as to war.
WISATHORM: I would wager that like all of the genre work on this chart, it’s a result of music that appeals to very specific people also being likely to sell to those same specific people. I have very little actual exposure to the jesus rock scene, but Skillet is a band of which I’m aware, so I’m going to hazard that they are sort of the big name in there. Insofar as that goes. Good for them.
BIWBABSIYB: Subrosa’s For This We Fought the Battle of Ages is also steeped in religion (although it’s not what you’d call a praise album), even if it is sort of the vicissitudes of the Mormon church. It’s a fair sight heavier than the Skillet record, though. Probably harder to sing along to with your arms in the air. I’d be interested, however, in someone trying.

25. The Head and the Heart – Signs of Light
WHAT IT IS: More extremely likable strummy music
WISATHORM: I think the thing we can take away here is: if you want to sell and not be old af, you should either be a metal band or a strummy band. Let it be known.
BIWBABSIYB: As previously mentioned, I almost bought this record, but it’s probably fair to say that since I did actually get Chris Staples’ Golden Age that that’s a reasonable replacement.

Who The Fuck Would Listen to This: Heart – Beautiful Broken

I feel like this one needs a bit of a preface. You see, the Who the Fuck Would Listen to This series is not, necessarily, about bad albums. Oh, sure, most of them are pretty terrible – it’s hard for me to be inspired to write a couple thousand words about a record that’s merely mediocre – but just being terrible isn’t enough for inclusion here. In order for me to actually wonder who the fuck would listen to these things, the record’s entire actual existence must be a mystery to me1. Dumb follow-ups are a pretty easy way to baffle me2, but I rarely delve into the continued body of recordings by once-vital legacy acts, because usually the answer is “longtime fans of the band that want to hear new stuff.”

1 a major caveat here mention to the Madonna record that made the cut – I never understand why people listen to Madonna, and especially don’t understand why people would listen to Madonna after people largely (finally) stopped listening to Madonna. That one’s personal.
2 It’s worth pointing out, for example, that one of these pieces includes a Carly Rae Jepsen song, which I figured was the height of dumb follow-up, and which turned out to be the advance single for Emotion, which is a genuinely great pop record. So it’s always possible that I’m missing something at the time of the piece.

This is, however, not actually “new stuff.” It’s got two new songs on it3, but mostly it’s re-recorded versions of post-heyday material4. Now, bands re-recording their own back catalogs is also non-baffling – it happens all the time, and it usually has to do with rights issues5 – the artist wants to be paid for the use of a song (rather than the current rightsholder), so they slavishly re-create the original, in the hopes that it will be picked up for radio/commercial/soundtrack use instead of the less-lucrative, label-(or whoever-) owned original version.

3 one of which, “Two,” was written by Ne-Yo. That’s weird.
4 the oldest songs are from Bebe Le Strange from 1980, which I guess is sort of the end of their heyday, but does mark the beginning of their MTV period (which is clearly outside their heyday) – it also is the first album recorded after Roger Fisher left, so is a good point to mark as “post-heyday”.  
5 Kiss, Def Leppard and Kid Rock all made headlines for doing this a few years ago, but it’s happened before and after that involving various acts

This is also not one of those records. At least, not as far as I can tell. For starters, none of these songs seems to be something that would be particularly lucrative (there is, for example, no “Barracuda” or “Crazy on You” or even “Even It Up,” which was the hit from Bebe Le Strange). In addition, Heart is still more successful than you might think (their records do still chart somewhat, at least in some places), but they also are in one of those positions where every record sells basically the same amount as the last one.

All of that said, there is something to the idea that it could have been a gambit to get people interested in the current incarnation of the band – I heard about it, for starters, and I haven’t heard about a Heart record being released in, oh, a great many years6. After hearing about it, however, and hearing the conceit, namely that it was largely re-recorded version of extant Heart songs7, my immediate thought was “ok, why?”. Heart is no stranger to the live album – they’ve released seven of them, and most of their draw and/or fanbase (at least from what can be seen online) exists around their live show8, so wouldn’t a live album with this material make more sense? Or, hell, just forgo the re-recordings and make a compilation with the same couple of new songs, which is at least a pretty standard gambit for a legacy act that’s still a touring concern and is pushing a new compilation. I suppose it’s the charitable thing to assume that this is, in fact, part of the Wilson sisters’ creative vision for Heart, the band9. So the answer, then, may lie somewhere in the music.

6 I mean, some of this is probably down to the nature of the way that I discover new things, part of it might also be that whatever circles I travel in aren’t exactly full of fans of present-day Heart, and both of those things are true and also entirely the point.
7 and a song written by Ne-Yo, which is crazy.
8 one of the songs here, “Heaven,” is actually a re-recording of a song that was only previously released on live albums.
9 a less charitable thing to conjecture is that the band, currently signed to Concord Bicycle, which is owned by UMG, was obligated to deliver an album of original, non-repackaged material (since none of the existing material was owned by Concord/UMG), and instead chose to record the one song they had and dig around in their own back catalog for the stuff that made it here. I footnote this rather than operating on it for two reasons: 1) it still doesn’t actually explain why this record happened and 2) I don’t know the vagaries of Heart’s contract with Concord/UMG, and won’t pretend to.

In order to talk further about this, I need to say a couple of things about rock bands (and it is Rocktober, after all). There is a certain type of rock band that is built around a sort of showing-off of the mechanical talents of a member of the band. In this case, that’s Ann Wilson, whose (admittedly impressive) loud, soaring voice is the centerpiece of Heart. It’s also secondarily the (admittedly impressive) rhythm guitar work of Nancy Wilson, who (I assume, given the information available) still provides the riffs that Heart songs are built around. Bands constructed this way10 essentially treat the lead show-off-er(s) (heretofore l.s.) as the main show, with the rest of the band providing a support structure around them, reducing the band (in this case the rhythm section, and also a way overactive keyboard player, about whom more later) to a sort of scaffolding, doing little more than making a bed over which the l.s.(s) are enabled to do the wailing and/or riffing that the audience pays their money to see. This is not the kind of rock music that appeals to me much11, and so Heart’s body of work isn’t something that I’ve ever had any real feelings for – it all just sounds like a scaffolding holding up the spectacle itself, rather than an entire, self-contained “thing”.

10 Queen is sort of the gold standard of them, but also any band Eric Clapton was in that wasn’t Cream*, or Dinosaur Jr after about 1987 or so, post-reunion Don Caballero, or Royal Headache, or Pallbearer. This may not be a distinction everyone makes, in which case you’ll just have to read on and figure it out from context clues.
* Cream had more than their share of showing off Eric Clapton’s work, but it was, for better or worse, in the context of being a body of work by an actual band, rather than by a support structure for the guitarist.
11 there are probably exceptions, but I wouldn’t be able to argue them, because when I think of some of the obvious candidates – The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Screaming Females, etc. – I still just hear actual, functioning, interplaying bands with standout musicians

As a result, I am in a position of extremely casual familiarity: I know the half dozen or so Heart songs that I know, and am happy with the amount of Heart that filters into my life naturally (i.e. I don’t think I’ve ever knowingly actually chosen to play a Heart song on my own other than for this piece, but I’ve listened to several enough to know them, and don’t actively shut them off if they come up on the radio or whatever). So this album required considerable research12 as I didn’t know even one of these songs. So, some ground-laying here: the original versions are, as could probably be predicted, overproduced and underwritten. There’s always (at least in these songs) too much terrible keyboard, and it always sounds, production-wise, like the worst parts of whatever year it was made in. So it’s not like the material is unimprovable – it starts out in a weird, dated place and could only (pretty much) go up from there.

12 shout out to YouTube user SuperKevinHeart, who has uploaded a ton of Heart videos and songs, including every song that was re-recorded for Beautiful Broken.

So does Beautiful Broken improve the material? Well, kind of. It’s still pretty overproduced, and the songs didn’t get less underwritten13, but, on the whole, it sounds better. So I guess mission accomplished! One of the potential objectives was met! I still don’t understand why anyone would listen to this set of songs under this set of circumstances.

13 which, I suppose, is logical, but I do think that if I were going to rerecord a bunch of my existing songs, I would at least run through them and see if there wasn’t anything I wanted to change about them materially, to at least make it more interesting. I suppose this is why I’m not a rock musician.

It leads off with the title track, which the press surrounding the record makes much of for its James Hetfield backing vocal14. It’s fine. It’s always interesting to listen to bands that start out “heavy” and then move their definition of “heaviness” to include the signfiers of “heaviness” of the time. So, I mean, it’s got that going for it. The follow-up track is “Two,” the song written by Ne-Yo15, and it sounds an awful lot like a song written by Ne-Yo.

14 the “guest singing on one of the songs” thing is a thing Heart has done for their last couple of records – Sarah McLachlan did it on the previous record and, although it doesn’t really count, Geddy Lee is credited with some guest whistling on the record before that. It seems a weird choice, given that the entire appeal of Heart is arranged around their singer, but hey, I’m not a marketer anymore than I am a rock musician.
15 which is crazy

The effect that these two songs in juxtaposition have on me, the listener who is not overly familiar with Heart’s work, is that I have no idea what band they are now. The two songs don’t share much in terms of sonic character – aside, that is, from Ann Wilson’s voice16. Oh, and too much from the keyboards. That is, apparently, a part of the Heart sonic aesthetic that just…isn’t going to go anywhere.

16 I mentioned earlier that Nancy Wilson’s rhythm guitar was distinctive enough – and focused-on enough – to qualify as a sort of second ring to the circus, but it really isn’t a presence in these first couple of songs.

After the initial weird step, the rest of the record is more recognizable as Heart. The next couple of songs (“Sweet Darlin’” and “I Jump”) have super-obtrusive string parts that are, genuinely, the most baffling part of a baffling record – what are the strings doing? Are they supposed to make us think we’re watching a movie about this song? Are we supposed to imagine it’s an opera? The effect could be Jim-Steinman-esque, I suppose, but it isn’t. It’s just too much stuff. And that’s sort of the through line of the record – there’s too much of it. There are too many sounds per song, and too many of those sounds are too big. There’s not enough song, and definitely not enough scaffolding, to support the big, enveloping choruses.

The songs following are not really an improvement – “Johnny Moon” is a terrible song, it has a truly hideous guitar solo, and the guitar sound in general is pretty bad. It’s saved from being the worst by not being “Down on Me.” Before we get there, though, we’re treated to what is, genuinely, legitimately, a good song. “City’s Burning” started out a thin, dumb, mistreated song and is turned, here, into a genuinely-rockin’ thing (albeit with dumb strings) that doesn’t overstay its welcome, features a reasonable amount of good-sounding guitar playing, and has a pretty good chorus. I may even find a reason to listen to this version of “City’s Burning” on my own for no other reason than I want to.

That creates a pretty good (and necessary) buffer for “Down On Me”, which is just dreadful. It creates the interesting lyrical position of not in fact being a double entendre. It’s presented like a “double entendre sexytimes song,” but it is, instead, a “why you bein’ so mean” song. It is piled on with the worst guitar sounds, the lumpiest chorus, and a healthy scoop of too much keyboard part.

Things improve somewhat from there, but only a little, with the two slow-burning slow-jams that are slow to end the album. “One Word” ends in a spoken-word segment17, which is never, ever cool. And then the final, torchy “The Language of Love” lets you get a jump start on the album not playing anymore by being incredibly forgettable (as in I forgot it was playing while it was playing).

17 which makes a lie out of the title by having a bunch of words in it.

I was surprised by how much of it wasn’t actively terrible (although, again, the only thing redeeming “Down on Me” is that it is not, thankfully, a cover of the Jackyl song18), and I really did enjoy “City’s Burning”, but it never really explained itself to me. It is, as I said, better than the originals in most regards19, but it’s a weirdly unformed batch of songs itself. It would certainly not drive me to seek out the original albums, and, I reckon, if I’d had a long time to sit and get familiar with the songs themselves in their original forms, I probably also wouldn’t appreciate the changes in the arrangements and versions. I suppose, in keeping with the whole Heart raison, and to her credit, Ann Wilson’s voice sounds great, and indeed better than it did on some of the originals.

18 it’s also not a cover of the Janis Joplin song, which would probably at least be better.
19 Although I vacilated on the two versions of “Down On Me,” because on the one hand at least the one was terrible in its original context, and the re-recorded version is an update of a song that was terrible in its original context, and therefore represents multiple levels of failure. My opinion may reveal itself to me if I listened to it again, but that would involve, y’know, listening to it again, and I’m never going to do that intentionally.
So who the fuck would listen to this? Heart completists, certainly. I suppose if you haven’t heard anything since Dog & Butterfly (or if you bought Bebe Le Strange and would like to hear a really awful song from that record in a slightly different form), this would probably catch you up on what modern-day Heart is up to. But honestly, who are those people? And just buy a live album, they’ve got to be better.

And also, whatever you do, skip “Down On Me”. Your sanity will thank you.


The 2016 BET Hip Hop Awards

It’s Rocktober, everybody! So, of course, let’s kick things off by looking at some rap awards! Clearly, I am not consulted when it’s time to figure out where all these things go.

Anyway, the BET Hip-Hop Awards are actually a thinly-veiled front for the BET Hip-Hop Awards Cyphers, which really should have their own show, but instead are the core of a putative awards show. Such is life.

All of that, however, is possible to take in stride. I’ve done them before1, and if I weren’t so committed to this, I would skip this year as well, because the host of the BET Hip-Hop Awards is DJ Khaled.

1 I skipped last year (along with a bunch of other smaller awards shows), due to general awards-show fatigue, but I’m back now!

If you had told me a few years ago that DJ Khaled had not reached peak annoying – that the guy who showed up on seemingly every mixtape to shout his own name and a handful of interchangeable introductory statements would someday discover snapchat and convert himself more fully into a viral-marketing self-promotional chatbot, and also would, in so doing, usher me into the realm of cranky old man that yells at what kids these days are entertained by. And now he’s hosting an awards show (and I, in the interest of disclosure, am being cranky about it on a blog). Expect many borderline-sensical catchphrases, and probably for people to be declared to be playing themselves, or possibly not playing themselves.

But also expect people to get awards! The following people, if we all suddenly wake up in a perfectly just world tomorrow.

Best Hip-Hop Video
See here’s the thing. DJ Khaled is nominated here. I guess I just don’t know when we started to be ok with this. He’s been kicking around for awhile, and in the last year or so (due largely, as far as I can tell, to his snapchat) has really come into a sort of lunatic respectability. I am not ok with this. I will fight this. I mean, “I Got the Keys” is a marginally better song than Desiigner’s “Panda,” but the video isn’t really, so it’s a moot point. I think when we’re talking about hip-hop videos this year, we should probably still be mostly talking about “Famous”

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kanye West, “Famous”

Best Collabo, Duo or Group
So I guess DJ Khaled just officially gets nominated for everything because he’s hosting? I don’t think that’s how it should work. I mean, I really don’t, because his two songs here are bad. It’s good to see French Montana getting work, even if it’s just a feature on a shitty Fat Joe song. Also it’s not actually good to see French Montana getting work. I lied. So it’s gotta be one of the Drake songs, by process of elimination. I prefer the one with Future. I prefer Future in general, really.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Drake & Future, “Jumpman”

Best Live Performer
You’d be hard pressed to convince me to go see any of these people live. That said, it’s probably Kendrick Lamar.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: probably Kendrick Lamar

Lyricist of the Year
I am, as oft-noted, not a lyrics dude. Even when I’m listening to rap. So I guess I’ll play it safe and say Kendrick Lamar again.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar

Video Director of the Year
I think every time I do these I’m surprised that Hype Williams is still working. I mean, I don’t know why I’m surprised. It’s not like he’s terribly old or anything, it’s just that his aesthetic is so completely tied to an era (the late nineties) that is currently out of fashion2. Some viewing of his recent work suggests that he’s changed his mien somewhat, so I guess he chose the first part of the “adapt or die” mentality that churns through music video directors. Anyway, Colin Tilley, Benny Boom, Director X, none of these guys have anything that makes them stand out to me. Neither does Kanye West, but it’s hard to get the public in general to care about music videos, and the “Famous” video was a rare exception, so good job, Mr. West.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kanye West

2 although that will change as we move forward in time – we’re already getting some nostalgia for it out of the pop people, and we’ve been on the early-nineties NYC-mining thing for an awfully long time.

DJ of the Year
OK, but IS DJ KHALED ACTUALLY EVEN A DJ THOUGH? I mean, I’m sure he’s a DJ in the sense that if you paid him a bunch of money he would show up to your thing and push buttons and music would come out. But seriously. Really? Seriously. No. Stop it.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: DJ Mustard

Producer of the Year
I mean, Compton was pretty good. I do believe that to be the case. But it wasn’t really “Producer of the Year” good. I called DJ Mustarrd the best DJ, but after the couple of years where he was on every fucking song, I think we can call his job well done without actually rewarding him to continue to do pretty much what he always does3. I have feelings about Pharrell, but mainly appreciate that it’s hard to get big names into this category, so I don’t begrudge them for putting him here. Especially since Dr. Dre seems unlikely to show up. I love Metro Boomin, I love MikeWillMadeIt. Mike was responsible for part of Lemonade and part of Sremmlife, so he gets the nod.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: MikeWillMadeIt

3 a criterion I normally haphazardly apply to actors that I’m digging out here because I need to thin the field, dammit.  

MVP of the Year
I mean, we know who DJ Khaled thinks is the MVP of the year. For that matter, we also know who Kanye West thinks is MVP of the year (and every year. Forever.). It’s not Drake. Future and Kendrick Lamar is a pretty good matchup, and I wouldn’t be sad to see either of them take it, but I think it’s probably Kendrick Lamar, just because he’s had a bunch of killer features and his album this year was an album of castoffs that’s still better than most people’s proper records. Future’s having a long, long hot streak (still!), but I think this year Kendrick has the edge.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar

Track of the Year
Ew yuck. No. Yuck no. This is terrible.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Let’s just skip on ahead.

Album of the Year
Well, I’ve made my feelings pretty known about DJ Khaled. I also think I’ve made my point about Compton – it’s fine. Really. Fine. Views is an unsurprising Drake record, which means it’s not a very good Drake record. Fetty Wap’s self-titled record is pretty cool, and had a flat-out great single. The Life of Pablo is very, very good, but I have a hard time evaluating the fact that it could all change at any time, and also it’s ridiculous. So that leaves us with Future.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Future – DS2

Best New Hip-Hop Artist
Anderson.Paak takes this basically hands down. Bryson Tiller is bad. Desiigner is worse. Tory Lanez is merely mediocre. I like Chance the Rapper a whole lot1, but really. Malibu is a top-shelf record, this NxWorries record looks like it’s going to be a complete monster, Paak’s features have been incredible. He came out of the gate swinging, and only gets better.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Anderson.Paak

1 although I would quibble with “newcomer” – Acid Rap was everywhere a couple of years ago

Hustler of the Year
I suppose by any classical definition of the term, DJ Khaled is doing more hustling than just about anyone, provided you’re also willing to stretch the classical definition to include shouting catchphrases on snapchat (which, to be fair, is way more than, say, Jay-Z does). So fine, DJ Khaled, you win. You’re the rightful winner of an award. Ugh. I feel so gross saying it.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: DJ Khaled

Made-You-Look Award
“How do we get A$AP Rocky on our awards show? Is he still calling himself ‘pretty?’ Maybe people will want to look at him. Hey maybe that’s it!” This conversation probably repeated itself, with detail variation, for Nicki Minaj. And then the “Famous” video came out1. So there. We definitely all looked for that thing, regardless of the intention for the looking itself. I mean, among all the other dumb “look at me” things Kanye did this year.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kanye West

Mixtape of the Year
Well, three of these are genuinely pretty great mixtapes that are worthy of awarding. So we throw out Lil Uzi Vert and French Montana4. Slime Season 3 has some amazing moments, but is the beginning of Young Thug’s current “wildly inconsistent” uh…thing? I am prepared to be alone in this belief, but it seems like his inconsistency is intentional? I dunno. Seems weird. Anyway, Purple Reign is the opposite of inconsistent, and Future, really, genuinely, is killing everybody out there. But, y’know, I don’t even know how to try not to love Chance the Rapper.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book

4 who is, let’s be honest, probably only here because of the whole Max B story, which, y’know, doesn’t make the music any better.

Sweet 16 – Best Featured Verse
So “Work” is a pretty good song that would be better without the Drake feature. I think that makes this basically the opposite of what we’re awarding here. On the flip, Kodak’s verse on “Lockjaw” is way better than any of French Montana’s material. So that’s mostly what we’re looking for, but it’s still not any good. Nicki’s feature on “Down in the DM’ is fine, but nothing else is really noteworthy about the song. “Freedom” is a great song with a good Kendrick feature, but Chance’s “No Problems” is just great from top to bottom and manages to get a good verse out of 2Chainz in 2016. So it’s Chance again.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Chance the Rapper, “No Problems (f Lil Wayne & 2Chainz)”

Impact Track
I loathe this category when it appears, in any guise, in any awards show. It always, as I’ve mentioned previously, reeks of trying to get some sort of cred out of recognizing that sometimes people record songs about stuff that’s important to them. This isn’t helped by all of the songs being terrible, except the J. Cole song5, which puts me in a bit of a quandry: I long ago swore that J. Cole would never be the rightful winner of one of these awards, and yet here he is. I just don’t know how to deal with this.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The forces of consistency, or possibly O. Henry, for the shocking twist of a J. Cole song being the only good song in a category.

5 I know, this is super weird for me, also.

The People’s Champ
“The People’s Champ” in this case is a song, not a person, which is confusing, but on the plus side all the songs are fucking terrible, so at least we won’t have to worry about being represented by a real “Champ”. Well, I guess Young Thug’s “Best Friend” isn’t terrible. It’s just not as good as, say, several dozen other Young Thug songs. So we have a winner, by barest default.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Young Thug, “Best Friend”

And there we have it for another year! Everybody try real hard not to play yourselves! That would be embarrassing for everybody! DJ KHALED!

The Best Albums of September 2016

Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition (probably my favorite currently-productive rapper makes what is probably his best record, although admittedly I haven’t had enough time with it to declare it so. Still great, regardless)

Neurosis – Fires Within Fires (There are no bad Neurosis albums, but after a couple of sub-great ones it’s good to see them back in full form.)
Eluvium – False Readings On (Matthew Cooper is on a pretty indomitable mood-music hot streak, y’all)

Drive-By Truckers – American Band (I guess it might actually be the case that the Truckers’ best records are made with a band that’s as close to the core Cooley/Hood partnership as possible, because as it pares down further, the records get better.)

Wrekmeister Harmonies – Light Falls (This time Robinson augments the regular players with members of Godspeed, writes about the Holocaust, and makes the most focused and powerful Wrekmeister Harmonies album yet.)