The Comeback Trail: Hardwired…To Self Destruct

Metallica has been “coming back” for literally the majority of my life.

Metallica conquered the heavy metal scene from the ground up, releasing some foundational, genre-limning records in the eighties. Kill Em All was thrash taken as far as it could and still have, y’know, songcraft and whatnot. Ride the Lightning found them introducing all sorts of compositional and artsy ideas into what was still, undeniably, a headbanger-pleasing heavy metal record. Master of Puppets was the refinement of the ideas on Ride the Lightning1. Then Cliff Burton died, and every Metallica record from there on out was the product of a sort of underdog adversity.

1 all but literally – the two albums are remarkably congruent, down to even track placement, except Master of Puppets is very slightly better in just about every single way.

…And Justice For All saw an expansion of their melodies and saw them folding all sorts of proggy-ass business into their songs. It works, but also, famously, suffers one of the worst mixes a record has ever had to survive2. It was also the beginning of their “super famous” period, thanks to the song “One,” and the attached video, which was a retelling of Johnny Got His Gun3. From there, the band decided they liked being rock stars, and began one of the most difficult to have predicted metamorphoses in heavy metal history.

2 out of resentment because Jason Newstead wasn’t Cliff Burton – who, remember, was dead and thus actually not capable of being in the band anymore – the band buried the bass deep in the mix, and also did several large piles of cocaine*, which affected the way they heard the record they were mixing.

* people who are high on cocaine like tinnier, less-full sounds. Obviously this really left its mark on the way things sounded in the eighties.

3 “One” is also the band’s masterpiece, mix be damned. It’s a high water mark for heavy metal, and genuinely one of the best rock songs ever written. There are a lot of great Metallica songs, but none of them are “One.”

Metallica (or “The Black Album”) was full of short songs, sounded like it could be on the radio and, in fact, mostly was. It sold somewhere in the upper gajillions4, most of the songs are still radio staples to this day. And then came the first of the band’s periods of radio silence.

4 You can read about it in A Considered Look at the Best-Selling Albums of All Time, in fact!

This marks the beginning of the Constant Comeback period. This here new blog feature had to start somewhere, and why not start with a band that has released more-or-less as many comeback albums as they have non-comeback albums5. So here we are, inaugurating The Comeback Trail with the most recent (and, honestly, probably most effective) comeback album by Metallica yet.

5 depending on where you put Re-Load, actually. That wasn’t a comeback album so much as it was a doubling down of their stated intentions for Load, but people expected a comeback album, so it’s tough to decide where it falls.


The follow-up to Metallica came six years later, and was called Load. Opinions on Load tend to range from “unimaginably terrible” to “not quite as bad as you might think,” and although it does have some pretty good (albeit unmetallicaish) songs (“Hero of the Day” is about as good as this version of Metallica gets6, “King Nothing” clearly had some legs, “Bleeding Me” isn’t so different from something that would’ve been on Metallica, and “Ain’t My Bitch” is, despite being awful, something that people seem to like). Load was followed, just over a year later, by Reload, which was, as the title promised, pretty much just a continuation of Load’s wanderings away from heavy metal, much to the chagrin of the fans. Interestingly, the two records were initially planned as a double record, but they didn’t want to put out that much material in one package, because it would’ve been a lot to digest for the audience. If only they had remembered that resolve.

6 praise that probably sounds fainter than I mean it to be – it’s not a bad song, and I don’t think Load is that much worse than Metallica, but I also don’t think Metallica is all that great.

Their not-technically-a-studio-album follow-up7 Garage Inc is probably the best record of this period of the band’s existence. They pegged it to a note-faithful (and kind of boring) cover of Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page”, and not, as they would have in a just world, their totally kick-ass cover of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Astronomy”. Clearly this was a band that was not making all of their own best decisions, here.

7 and thus not really subject to “comeback” status: nobody expects a covers album to be the one that brings you back to form.

This was, in turn, followed by the similarly water-treading S&M, where they recorded with an orchestra, and it was fine, but I can’t imagine spending a lot of time listening to it.

Then comes a basically-nonstop meltdown. They very publicly sided with the RIAA against Napster, suing their own fans for sharing their music with each other. Sometime after that, they decided to make another record, James Hetfield went to rehab, then Jason Newstead left the band, which necessitated them finding another replacement bassist, and the resultant recording sessions were made into Some Kind of Monster, the documentary about how terrible all of these people are to work with.

The album that came out of the process, St Anger, was meant to be their return to form, or at least to being really loud. They, inexplicably, brought in Bob Rock again, who had produced all of their post …And Justice For All material8. It was greeted fairly positively by Metallica fans – it certainly was louder, at least – and saw the band streamlining their approach, carving out whole chunks of songs where interminable guitar solos used to go (yet another philosophical decision they’ve chosen to abandon as of Hardwired). Ultimately, though, it’s remembered pretty negatively when it’s remembered at all.

8 my general opinion about Bob Rock notwithstanding, this seems objectively baffling: if you want to return to the sound that people liked before you got with that super-hands-on extra-active producer, maybe don’t call that guy to come in and do it?

But it was inevitable that St Anger wasn’t going to hold up – they had spent several years just being absolutely horrid and getting terrible press attention9, and Some Kind of Monster had made it clear just exactly who we were dealing with. So they took some time off again.

9 the Napster lawsuit, especially, was one of the most polarizing things I’ve ever seen a band do in public, and it’s difficult to convey just how insane this all seemed at the time, even though now it’s (rightly) mostly just fallen into the realm of “dumb shit Metallica did around the turn of the century”.  

Five years later, yet another comeback record emerged, this time in the form of Death Magnetic. Unfortunately for Metallica, this was another album that had some metatextual reasons for being rejected by and largely disappointing to the public – it was the central argument in the case against (and also the public’s awareness of) the Loudness Wars10 – when the album was eventually released for the game Rock Band, it was released with much more reasonably-mastered versions of the tracks and, lo and behold, sounded much better. It was also talked up as a return to the form for the band, and represented their return to longer songs and, of course, guitar solos.

10 I promise to all of you that I’m going to try to keep this footnote as short as possible. In the late nineties, when the radio still mattered, albums were mastered to sound louder on the radio, which meant they were produced to sound louder in general. Since there’s not an actual way to control playback levels relative to other songs, this was done by compressing the dynamic range of the record, bringing the quiet parts up and cutting off the extremes (or, in the case of Death Magnetic, even just the regular old peaks and valleys) of the wave form, then jacking the volume of the whole thing way up, so what you got was just this relentless, awful-sounding block of sound. There’s obviously a lot more to this, but that’s what’s necessary for this piece, if this is the first time you’re hearing “loudness war”.

Death Magnetic may have been torpedoed by a bad mix, and may have been instrumental in helping to end the loudness wars11, but it also was a pretty poor showing as a record. Instead of returning to actual form, DM sounds like a particularly good Metallica cover band’s originals12, and not like the actual continued songwriting experiments of the members of the band Metallica.

11 although not as instrumental as iTunes radio more recently, which has created a sort of de facto volume standard and thus made it rather pointless to master for terrestrial radio play, especially since it also doesn’t really wash on streamed digital files, which is where far more people listen to their music now.

12 that may not make any sense if you’ve never heard a cover band play any of their (the cover band’s) originals, but I assure you, it’s different in a quantum sense from just derivatively bad songwriting.

While it’s true that Death Magnetic was eight years ago, and the time since then has been spent largely not making Metallica records, smack dab in the middle of it is one of the weirdest recording projects I’ve ever heard – Lulu. For Lulu, Metallica teamed with Lou Reed to make a record that wasn’t really either of theirs13, but also wasn’t exactly a synergistic team-up. Mostly what it was bafflingly awful, but also kind of commendable – there was no way Lulu was ever going to work, certainly, and, indeed, it does not. But they went for it anyway, which is something to be remarked upon positively, even if one never need listen to the actual album again.

13 it does, with the benefit of some hindsight, fit better with Lou Reed’s work than Metallica’s, but that may be more down to the amount of unaccountably weird shit in Lou Reed’s discography in the first place.

A couple of years after Lulu, the Next Comeback talk began – a couple of years ago, Rob Trujillo started talking about all the new music they’re writing, then they went on a tour where they played old songs at the request of the audience, and started telling people at every stop how their new record was going to be a return to form (again). Then they begat unto the world “Lords of Summer,” a new Metallica single for all to behold.

“Lords of Summer” was…not encouraging, exactly, but certainly loud, and it certainly sounded like some version of Metallica. But then, so had the previous “comeback” efforts. The release date seemed to shift endlessly14, and somewhere in there it was revealed that Kirk Hammett was not going to be contributing any songs (which would mark the first time for this since he joined the band). I’m not here to cast aspersions on anyone, certainly, and creativity and memory are weird stuff, but this also seems like something that either should not have happened, or did not actually happen.

14 to be fair to Metallica here: I wasn’t paying particularly close attention, so it seemed that way to me, a somewhat-interested party, and may not have actually seemed that way with more on the ball in terms of actually following News of Metallica.

The upshot of all this is that after tours and announcements and the tragedy of phone-theft (or at least alleged phone-theft), the album is out. And the reviews are more enthusiastic than they’ve been for a Metallica record in a long time. It also sold like gangbusters15, but every Metallica album has done that.

15 or what passes for “gangbusters” in 2016, anyway

Here’s the problem (and this is often the problem with comeback albums): it might be fine if what you want is new songs that sound Metallica-ish and have the name Metallica on them, but, as previously mentioned, it still doesn’t actually sound like any of the things I actually like about the Metallica records that I actually like. It sounds like four dudes trying really hard to sound like that, though. That said: this is easily their best record of this millennium.

So, the good stuff: none of the songs are, in and of themselves, actively bad, as such. Some of the playing (especially James Hetfield’s) is genuinely pretty good. Lars Ulrich is a difficult drummer to evaluate16, but he’s certainly Larsier than he has been for a couple of records. The record does sound like they’re genuinely enjoying themselves, and it was by no means unpleasant to listen to.

16 I mean, as a drummer in and of itself it’s not difficult at all: he’s sloppy, and while it’s true that he plays very fast, he has a pretty limited set of tools and not a lot of technique to fall back on. What’s difficult to evaluate is that this clearly has a place in the band, and I can’t imagine Metallica having anyone else as their drummer, so, when the material works out, there’s nothing wrong with the way Lars plays at all.

But there’s also the bad. Kirk Hammett having his wellspring of ideas stolen sort of plays out in how much his riffs sound like, well, things he’s already done before17. He seems lost, and while the actual playing itself is sharp and well-executed, there doesn’t seem to be much going on behind it. Every song except the title track is very long (the shortest song after “Hardwired” is just shy of six minutes), there are way too many of them18, almost as if the thing they thought people missed from the old days are the lengths of the songs, instead of the stuff that went into making them that long. The mix is the kind of All-One-Sound-Always overprocessed constancy that makes it exhausting to listen to, and it doesn’t have any bass. I mean, it has a little bit of bass, but it’s not a very bass-y mix19.

17 I mean, if you wonder about my aspersions about tihe phone being stolen, I’ll just say: it sounds almost exactly like I’d imagine it would if I was stuck with a tremendous bout of writer’s block and still had to record an album with my mega-huge rock band.

18 they split Load and Reload into separate releases to help people not have a mountain of this stuff to wade through, and apparently have forgotten that this was a good idea.

19 maybe this is an homage to …And Justice for All?

So the question here proposed is this: should we, as LL Cool J would warn us not to, call it a comeback?

Well, if they had cut half of it out, quit listening to outside producers20, or at least found one that knows how to actually produce a heavy metal record, and maybe cut a couple of the guitar solos21, it would’ve probably been a genuinely pretty good record. As it is, it’s too long, it’s too same-y, it’s too aimless, it’s too derivative of their old work, and it’s too generally exhausting to count as an actual comeback, at least artistically.

20 actually, every Metallica album has had sound problems, with the last handful being the most egregious. I do not know how to get them to stop, but the answer probably wasn’t “hire the guy that produced Death Magnetic,” which is what they’ve done here.

21 St. Anger wasn’t very good, but the idea there was, and I think sounded like a much more natural expression of the band’s impulses as they are understandable*, and they could’ve given something in that vein another try before moving on to this overproduced pummelling thing.

* with the obvious caveat that I’m not in Metallica, and so have no idea what their impulses actually are or how to satisfy them. I can only go by what it sounds like to me.

Since, however, it seems to have worked out just fine for them in terms of it selling and getting their name out and enabling the next tour and whatever else, it’s clearly a career and commercial comeback (it’s sold much more than Death Magnetic and, of course, Lulu). And, you know, it sort of seems like it’s precisely artistically viable enough to enable the aforementioned sales situation, which could very well be everything they were going for in the first place.

So call it an extremely mercenary half-comeback, then.

The 2016 American Music Awards

Ah, the American Music Awards, where the fine people at Disney tell us how best to support the fine people at Disney. This year it’s even sillier than usual – the nominee pool is almost impossibly small. Many of the categories only have three nominees, and many (many many) of those nominees come up in more than one category. While I can definitely appreciate that most of the categories are actually only three people, it’s mostly the same three people recycled over and over again, which is a little repetitive.

Nevertheless, you fine people deserve to know who should win, so that’s what I’m here to do.

Onward ho!

Top Soundtrack

Two of these are actually just collections of old material. One of them is literally a thirty-plus-year-old soundtrack that was reissued to capitalize on the death of a legend. This is not an auspicious start, American Music Awards.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a fine Disney property.

Favorite Artist – EDM

I feel it is fair and reasonable to accept, as a sort of minimum standard criteria for these awards, the baseline of “doesn’t actively make me want to vomit all over everything forever”. Since two of these three do, in fact, actively make me want to vomit all over everything forever, I guess we have our winner.


Favorite Artist – Contemporary Inspirational

So I had to do some research here, since I don’t have anything by way of familiarity with any of this, and I guess what I have to say is: calling it “inspirational” is dumb1. I mean, for starters it’s a non-thing: lots of music strives to be inspirational. But additionally, it’s actually faith-oriented music, or religious music, and that is, I suppose, an attempt to inspire, but it’s also largely what Christianity scholars would agree are “devotionals” and “affirmations,” and while it’s probably technically correct2 to say that these are meant to “inspire” devotion, it’s also silly. It’s a dumb, inaccurate euphemism for what should, at least, be termed “faith-based” music, but honestly, should be called “religious,” which is just as open-ended. Oh, and these three are all terrible. But that seems like it’s beside the point.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Hillsong UNITED, because I like their insistent-seeming capitalization, and also because they sound like a soccer team.

1 ok, to be fair, I did not have to do research to decide that it was a dumb thing to call the category and/or the genre

2 the worst kind of correct!

Favorite Artist – Latin

I still only know about this category what I research for this awards show, guys. It’s a paltry amount, so, y’know, let’s just move right on, because these three all seem pretty awful.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: I’m abstaining here.

Favorite Artist – Adult Contemporary

Adult Contemporary is one of those genres where they don’t give out separate awards for the song and for the artist, which I would imagine is to Rachel Platten’s disadvantage, since “Fight Song” has more-or-less become synonymous with the genre since its release. But alas she is, in her totality (such as it is), up against Adele in her totality. So there you have it.


Favorite Artist – Alternative Rock

We can be done calling things “alternative” now, right? I mean, it’s 2016. The term hasn’t meant anything even in the radio-programming sense for which it was invented in nearly two decades. We need to retire it and let this awards category rest. It’s too late to save the word “alternative”’s dignity, but it’s not too late to save our own.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Coldplay, I guess.

Favorite Song – Soul/R&B

I guess I’m starting to change my tune about this whole “only three nominees” thing – while it’s true that it does make it easy to sift through them for a winner, it’s also true that when they have to dig deeper for a couple more nominees, we don’t get the three most obvious choices which are, by the nature of these things, much more likely to be real real bad3. That’s what we have here, and so it goes to the non-terrible (but not as good as its turnout here would indicate) “Work”.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Rihanna, “Work” (f Drake)

3 with the added catch here that Disney is trying to stack the deck in their own favor, which obviously is also not helping.

Favorite Album – Soul/R&B

There’s nothing particularly wrong with Rihanna’s Anti, to be clear – it’s fine. It’s a Rihanna album, so it’s got immediate highlights in the form of the singles, and kind of not a lot else. So it was never going to win here, but I feel like getting the exact amount of fair quality assessment is taking some doing in this context. Ah, well. The whole point here is: it’s nowhere near as good as Lemonade.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Beyonce, Lemonade

Favorite Female Artist – Soul/R&B

I mean, I know where my allegiances lie, but I also want to point out that as of the time of this writing, Janet Jackson’s picture does not appear in the little box where the rest of the nominees’ pictures appear. She’s been a pop star for literally my whole entire life, we can’t get a picture of her? I assume it’s just the American Music Awards suggesting that she’s totally not going to win, which is fair. She shouldn’t. And neither should Rihanna.


Favorite Male Artist – Soul/R&B

I would give a great many things to avoid having to think about Bryson Tiller ever again.


Favorite Song – Rap/Hip Hop

It’s a nice change, at least, to not have the rock category be the runaway worst field of nominees. It’s also sort of the limitation of there only being three nominees in each category – while it’s true that that makes it easier to get through them, it also means that “679,” which is not a terribly good song, is also the only good song here.


Favorite Album – Rap/Hip Hop

Leaving aside Fetty Wap for right now1, this category works best as a sort of primer in the power of Future: Drake’s Views is a worked-on, earnestly-meant record that he tries real hard on. And it’s not as bad as it could be I suppose, but it’s not exactly a great record. His tossed-off, clearly kind-of-underbaked record with Future, however, has Future on it, and thus is better enough than his own work that we can only credit Atlanta’s own for making the difference.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Drake & Future, What a Time to Be Alive

4 his album is just fine, and is anchored by the mighty “Trap Queen”, but isn’t the winner, and so isn’t part of this brief discussion here.

Favorite Artist – Rap/Hip Hop

My inclination, at first, was to ask what the deal was with having an “album” category, a “song” category, and then an “artist” category, but at least this year, and at least in this category, that question is answered: because Future keeps putting out a ton of releases that are all great every year, and therefore wins these with different material in each category. So you win again, forces of arbitrary category decision!


Favorite Song – Country

It’s becoming more and more common that these categories simply do not have anything to offer in terms of something actually winning an award. I guess this is a real “be careful what you wish for” situation.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: I abstain once again! Although this time for quality assurance reasons.

Favorite Album – Country

If one were so inclined, one could make the point that the Chris Stapleton and Carrie Underwood albums, by being called Traveller and Storyteller, respectively, are illuminating sort of the two sides of country music lyrics-writing. Also that Luke Bryan’s album title, Kill The Light, is perfect for his own music, since as far as I can tell he exists to destroy all goodness and light in the world. In any event, I prefer the Traveller type, and Chris Stapleton specifically.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Chris Stapleton, Traveller

Favorite Duo or Group – Country

I am not one to defend Luke Bryan here. I’m not5. But he does very much have a band that he performs and records with, in more-or-less the exact same way that Zac Brown does. He just doesn’t put the word “band” in his act’s name. They’re materially the same. I suppose it isn’t really a thing worth getting up in arms about, because he wouldn’t win no matter what category he was in, and Zac Brown probably would, but I still think it’s worthy of notice.


5 really. That’s not what’s happening, I assure you.

Favorite Female Artist – Country

Hey wait! I just noticed that the rap artist category doesn’t have male and female options! That is some bullshit right there. I mean, the weird segregation of categories in music awards shows is always pretty much bullshit, but this is especially bullshit. Man, these awards are dumb.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Cam, but these categories are bullshit.

Favorite Male Artist – Country

Taking some time off from writing about country music awards has meant that there is, mercifully, a handful of new names to consider here6. Luke Bryan is as terrible as he ever is, but Thomas Rhett, while also terrible7, is at least terrible and, y’know, hasn’t been nominated for every single country music themed award at awards shows for nearly as long as Luke Bryan. And so there is hope for an infusion of new stuff, even if I’m just going to give it to Blake Shelton. Again.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Blake Shelton. Again.

6 like, in country music awards shows in general. Not here, specifically, at the Disney ones.

7 I mean, he might even actually be more terrible? He certainly isn’t any better.

Favorite Song – Pop/Rock

I commend the American Music Awards for combining the pop and rock categories, since there’s always precious little rock music in the uncombined rock categories at these things8. It was Adele’s category to walk away with anyway, might as well shorten up the amount of time you spend announcing it.


8 I’m looking in your direction, People’s Choice Awards. Also, this in no way forgives the nonsense of calling an awards show category “Alternative” in 2016.

Favorite Album – Pop/Rock

Now if only we could convince them to combine any two categories that have literally the same three nominees. I suppose I get that theoretically I could think Adele had the best single and Drake had the best album9, but honestly. And you only have three nominees per category, why does one of them have to be Justin Bieber? In an album category? I am genuinely interested in who the person is who decides to listen to an entire album of Justin Bieber material.


9 I mean, no I couldn’t, but you see what I’m saying here.

Favorite Duo or Group – Pop/Rock

And here we have it: peak Awards Show. I do not understand the appeal of any of these musical constructs. I like pop music. I like rock music. I am open to the idea of being entertained by things that are artistically bankrupt and financially motivated. Just not any of these things, and, furthermore, while I understand the appeal of say, Major Lazer or Drake or even Luke Bryan, I am left completely in the dark about what any of these people are adding to anyone’s life. So, bereft of insights, I am left to choose between The One With Who I Am Assured is The Handsome Jonas Brother3 and The One With the Dudes From Ohio4.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Twenty One Pilots. Maybe they’ll help get us a damn train.


11 Twenty One Pilots

Favorite Female Artist – Pop/Rock

So, I’m once again going to fume here. Beyonce and Rihanna were both nominated back in the Soul/R&B category, but only Rihanna is also nominated in the pop category. While it’s easy to make the argument that Lemonade was a more straight-up R&B sort of affair, and that Rihanna’s album, by sort of occupying a more heavily-rhythm-oriented rhythm & blues stripe, is maybe the crossover thing here, it’s even easier to make the argument that the one of the people in this category is Selena fucking Gomez, so maybe it should’ve been Beyonce, no?

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Actually Beyonce. But of these three, Adele.

Favorite Male Artist – Pop/Rock

Wait wait wait. WHY ARE ALL THE REPRESENTATIVES OF MALE POP/ROCK AT THE AMERICAN MUSIC AWARDS GODDAMNED CANADIANS? This is clearly a conspiracy. I object strenuously. Luckily I also like The Weeknd.


Video of the Year

I hate “Panda”. I hate hate hate it. It’s terrible and bad, and is one of those things where people got really into it because they assumed that if someone believed in it enough to put it over then it must be something worth hearing12. I mean, Fetty Wap is elsewhere in this awards show, and the video for “679” isn’t worse than the video for “Panda”. Normally I would be excited, because clearly I am alone in this opinion, and I get to yell and yell and yell, but instead I just find myself increasingly perplexed. Stop doing this to me, people. I don’t like to be this perplexed this often. Anyway, Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” video is not good either. So that brings it down to “Work” again.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Rihanna, “Work” (f Drake)

12 I also see a lot of people that get into it because it’s what “young people” are ostensibly into, which I can’t really corroborate, except to say that that seems insulting to young people. I will also say that this is another place where I am flummoxed as to why this particular thing is happening. Dude does a bunch of drugs and talks a mad mile a minute. This is not a good song.

Tour of the Year

Well, since Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band would be the only one of these I could imagine myself paying money for, I guess it’s got to be them. Sorry, Beyonce.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

Collaboration of the Year

I guess the fact that as of this category things blow out to five nominees signifies that things are getting serious. It’s sort of a deeply unfortunate situation, as all of these are not great, but at least some are more not great than others. Meghan Trainor continues to be worked to the American public, which I think is a mean thing to do to the nice people. I’m not sure I’ll ever think the Chainsmokers are deserving of any award, really. “One Dance” is a mediocre Drake single, which means that it’s a mediocre single by a guy who’s made “mediocre single” into pretty much an entire career. Fifth Harmony’s “Work From Home” deserves some points for being one of the most gloriously dumb things I’ve ever heard, but it’s honestly pretty bad. So here we come to the least not great of all these songs: “Work,” which continues to show the world that Drake’s feature appearances are way better than his songs.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Rihanna, “Work” (f Drake)

New Artist of the Year

The subheading on this one is “unleashed by T-Mobile,” which makes me happy, because one of my favorite things is when corporate synergy renders regular sentences unintelligible. That said, they’re really phoning it in here: DNCE is actually one of the Jonas Brothers, and Zayn is just the dude from One Direction. Those aren’t new artists, they’re repackaged artists. The Chainsmokers, as previously mentioned, are terrible, and Shawn Mendes isn’t much better. So that leaves us with Alessia Cara, and a general sort of bafflement about to whom, exactly, this show is meant to be marketed.


Artist of the Year

Lots of great artists out there. I mean, there’s even kind of a couple in this category, for given values of “great”. But really, it’s 2016. It’s Beyonce. It’s Beyonce all the way down.


A Considered Look at the Best-Selling Records of All Time, Part 3

What makes an album a gajillion-seller is a combination of factors so incoherent that it’s more-or-less impossible to list or talk about them in any real sense as a class – each gajillion seller is different in its genesis. At a certain point, however, the primary force behind a record selling a bunch of copies is momentum. More copies sold means more chart presence which means more press presence means more people exposed to it means more people hearing it means more copies sold. These records have reached a point where they have a kind of gravity – they accrete sales at this point, rather than achieving them, planetary bodies around which other records orbit, touchpoints for people to find and recognize while they find other, more personal planets.

That said, many of the best-selling records of all time are not specifically good or bad. I’m not going to bat for most of them here, but there’s usually a reason. What that reason is is sometimes anybody’s guess (and sometimes it’s more a success in marketing and stuff than it is in actual music). So, in the interest of figuring it all out, I listened to them. All of them. Even when it was painful. Even when it was really painful.

So I bring you part 3 this extensively-researched, closely-examined regarding of the biggest-selling records of all time1. Part 1 can be found here. Part 2 can be found here.

1 according to Wikipedia

Nirvana – Nevermind

WHAT IT IS: I mean, sort of ground zero for your correspondent, as well as for a lot of people who are really into loud music and are about my age, give or take a few years2. The one with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on it.

WHY IT’S HERE: Well, I think the fact that it was ubiquitous is the cause of the aforementioned ground zero condition, not the result. It had an easy-to-publish story3, it’s since developed some tragic circumstances, it was associated with a music video back when that worked. Generally it’s a case of marketing working for record sales in the nineties, really.

AND…?: It’s still pretty great. I mean, it’s hampered by some truly awful nineties production4, but it holds up well.

THE BEST SONG: I suppose I can, with some distance, appreciate that it might be “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but my go-to answer here has, for a very long time, been “Drain You”.

2 that is to say, people that discovered the joys of loud music in the aftermath of Kurt Cobain’s death, and also the rise of scrunge as a pop music style.

3 to sum up: it was easy to market as being the culmination of the set of independent labels and venues, and the “breaking through” into the mainstream of the mentality. It’s kind of what the book Our Band Could Be Your Life is about (or at least is framed as being about).

4 probably the fault of the mixer, nineties button-tweaker Andy Wallace.

Pink Floyd The Wall

WHAT IT IS: I, as I may have mentioned in this space before, love Pink Floyd. I do not just love Pink Floyd in the contrarian “Syd-only” sense that a bunch of other record-nerd types do. I do not love only their mainstream work like high-end audio enthusiasts do. I love every record they made while Roger Waters was part of the band. Every single one of them. The Wall, their penultimate RW-featuring5 record, is a pretty great record.

WHY IT’S HERE: Pink Floyd were, somehow, as wildly popular as they were studiously weird (and tremendously insular). The Wall isn’t a rock opera in the sense that all the songs are related and they kind of go together in a story, it’s a rock opera in the sense that it’s a fucking opera told with fucking rock songs. Thus, most of the songs on the record don’t actually function as songs – they’re weird little interludes or spoken things that knit the songs together. All of which is to say, if you’re standing in front of the bin and you’ve got your choice of The Wall, and, like, Wish You Were Here and Dark Side of the Moon, I don’t know why you’re choosing The Wall. Probably the movie has something to do with it. If there’s a lesson to be learned from this project, it’s that people really like soundtracks to movies.

AND…?: It’s great. Less great than other Pink Floyd records, but much better than many of the other records on this list. It’s an album that’s hard to go back to for the aforementioned problem of not actually having that many songs on it. It’s overwrought, production-wise (a problem they had starting in about 1975, when they started trying to repeat the – admittedly impressive – sound of Dark Side of the Moon), but the songs and performances are there and they make it through ok.

THE BEST SONG: “Comfortably Numb,” with a special shout out to side 3 (or the first six songs of the second disc, or the run of songs that begins with “Hey You” and ends with “Comfortably Numb”, depending on the medium upon which you’re hearing it) for being one of the greatest runs of material Pink Floyd ever committed to tape..

5 it is fair to say here that while I think The Final Cut is fine, it is the one I’m least likely to reach for of all of them, and it’s not really a patch on their first 11 (11!) records. OK, it’s a patch on More. I mean, I’m not a total weirdo here.

Santana – Supernatural

WHAT IT IS: The album that re-oriented Carlos Santana’s place in the musical world from guitar-wizard world-music importer to avuncular pop-star collaborator. This is the first of the albums made with what would become his M.O. for awhile – a bunch of current radio folks sing songs that he plays guitar on.

WHY IT’S HERE: At the tail-end of the record-selling industry’s ability to market things into existence, the public loved a good “old rocker person makes vital new album” narrative6. And also people really loved Rob Thomas. That’s another of the things on this list that is going to be really hard to explain to future people, but there it is. People really loved Rob Thomas, and “Smooth” was so far beyond just normal “impossible to avoid” that it’s staggering to think of a song taking up that kind of muso-cultural space.

AND…?: I will cop to liking parts of it at the time, and on re-listen it’s…not as bad as it could be? It seems really dated, but harmlessly, almost adorably so. Like it’s comforting that this seems so much like a part of the past. The Lauryn Hill song is pretty good. The Everlast song is alright. Stretches of some of it is fine. It is, genuinely, no worse than any other Santana album, really7. At least as far as I can tell.

THE BEST SONG: “Do You Like the Way”, which features Lauryn Hill and Cee-Lo Green.

6 this sort of, to an extent, still happens, but at the time of Supernatural it was a goddamned winning lottery ticket.

7 if this seems like faint praise, that may be because I don’t really have a handle on how I feel about Carlos Santana* – I think I like him as a player, but I’ve genuinely never been compelled to listen to much of his music. I’ve seen Woodstock a bunch of times, and that’s about it.

* perhaps unsurprisingly, this is the first time he’s come up in this space.

Guns n Roses – Appetite for Destruction

WHAT IT IS: The blah blah blah debut album by the blah blah blah band that was going to blah hard rock blahever.

WHY IT’S HERE: Because Guns n Roses were the pinnacle of a bunch of record-selling industry stuff that clearly needed to bubble over, and got the full force of the marketing wing of major labels, MTV, and radio behind them. It is a cautionary tale about how much power over people’s opinions the record selling industry used to have8, and also it’s proof that people in 1987 were happy to listen to unremittingly terrible music.

AND…?: If it’s not apparent, I’m not a fan of Guns n Roses. There is something about them that rubs me exactly the wrong way, even leaving aside that it’s a band made up entirely of dildos. The posing isn’t what bothers me, the dumb swaggery fake-Aerosmith rawkin’ isn’t what bothers me. It’s that it’s assembled entirely out of components that, in other contexts, can represent things I like about bands that here are configured entirely and exactly wrongly. I’ve tried – and really, I’ve tried quite a bit harder than I probably should have – to figure out how to like this record, and I have come up empty. So empty, in fact, that I’m not seve sure why I tried so hard to like it in the first place.

THE BEST SONG: I kind of like the guitar part at the beginning of “Sweet child O’Mine”9, so I guess it’s got to be that one.

8 What’s interesting, twenty-odd years later, is to look at the path that Geffen records tried really hard to take with GNR – putting out a record on a fake “indie” label* (which was actually owned by Geffen) then “signing” them and pushing their single as if it were a sort of revolution in the underground crashing into the mainstream. What makes it noteworthy is that the thing they (that is, Geffen records specifically) tried to manufacture and fake their way through literally happened four years later with Nirvana, who actually started on an indie, and actually represented a band from the underground becoming successful in the mainstream

* this was a surprisingly common practice at the time, despite the fact that it makes precisely zero sense on its face – anybody who cared who was on an indie and who wasn’t would know that the label was fake, and anybody that didn’t know probably didn’t care. The fact that it didn’t work doesn’t make me any less confused why they thought it would in the first place.

9 kind of. Like, extremely kind of.

ABBA – Gold: Greatest Hits

WHAT IT IS: It’s ABBA’s greatest hits, but what I think is of interest here is that this has been issued several times, and keeps getting longer over time. So probably what is counted here on this list is the 1992 single-disc version, but there’s also a 2002 double-disc version, and the one that came out a couple of years ago that has three discs. I also wonder if each replaces the other as a catalog item – i.e. if you really only need one disc of ABBA songs can you go back and buy the single-disc version?

WHY IT’S HERE: ABBA had a bunch of hits, they’re all here in one place. They were couples that broke up, which is apparently catnip to people buying records from the seventies. It’s garnered a reputation of being a set of high-quality songs and productions, which always helps sell stuff. I mean, there’s a reason that this record came out ten years after their breakup and sold relatively slowly – people really needed to be convinced to buy ABBA records after they stopped being an actively going concern.

AND…?: There are a lot of people willing to praise this record for things like “songwriting craftsmanship” and stuff, but I don’t know. I’ve never been able to hear any of that. It sounds like a pop record from the seventies. Parts of it are ok. Most of it is forgettable. It all sounds pretty bad.

THE BEST SONG: Well, “Fernando” is the song Alan Partridge named his son after, so why not go with that?

Bon Jovi – Slippery When Wet

WHAT IT IS: You know, as we get further down, into albums that “only” sold 28 million copies10, this really does become more of an accident11 of time and place. Slippery When Wet is the one with “Livin’ On a Prayer” and “Wanted Dead or Alive” on it.

WHY IT’S HERE: I mean, the aforementioned two songs clearly make it a big seller among karaoke enthusiasts. Bon Jovi were huge for some pretty easy-to-spot reasons, and they had huge hits when that mattered and led to record sales. They managed to do the same thing Van Halen had done, which was to take superficial part of their hard rock/heavy metal influences and pop them up even further, which was still a pretty great way to move some units in 1986.

AND…?: It’s not good, precisely. The hits are fine, as far as such things go, but the whole thing is very much a time capsule of 1986, and that sort of detracts from the final product a bit.

THE BEST SONG: “Livin’ on a Prayer”

10 as opposed to, y’know, 50 million for Back in Black

11 I’m inclined to believe accident because the whole thing – the idea of monster success records in the 1980s especially – is target shooting with a shotgun: you’re going to hit a bullseye with something, it just won’t be with very much of what you’re shooting. So it’s intentionally trying to get the huge hits, but it’s a fluke of public opinion that made them that way.

The Spice Girls – Spice

WHAT IT IS: The first Spice Girls album, and thus the one that, for whatever else, launched the return of the not-really-R&B-ish vocal group12 to pop music.

WHY IT’S HERE: The Spice Girls were very easy to market, and marketed they were. Units were moved. A movie was made. Lots of videos. This one was as precision-manufactured as it’s possible for a musical product to be.

AND…?: It is interesting to note that Spice sold basically the same number of copies as Slippery When Wet, and came out exactly ten years later, primarily because, in a lot of ways, they’re capitalizing on very similar things; while Bon Jovi were aping and amiably watering down Springsteenian Jerseyisms, the Spice Girls were doing a pantomime version of Britpop’s Britishisms, and spray-painting it all with a sort of nigh-feminism that, taken with everything else (and especially the outfits) is tremendously dating. Oh, and the songs are terrible. Like, really terrible. But that always seemed like it was beside the point anyway.

THE BEST SONG: “Wannabe”

12 interrupting the rein of the actually-R&B vocal group that had, to that point, been performing highly on the pop charts.

Various Artists – Grease: The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

WHAT IT IS: It’s the time! It’s the place! It’s the motion! It’s the way we’re feeling!

WHY IT’S HERE: Because it’s the soundtrack to the movie musical that has literally become synonymous with “musical” for, at this point, a couple generations of people, and has, thus, earned an enormous amount of cultural capital.

AND…?: It’s one of those things that, every time I hear something from it, isn’t as bad as I remember it being, but it’s a Broadway-abetted pastiche of fifties radio pop, and is thus still pretty terrible.

THE BEST SONG: “There Are Worse Things I Could Do”

Britney Spears – …Baby One More Time

WHAT IT IS: It’s funny to consider the origins of Britney Spears, who is one of those pop stars that it’s easy to forget has normal human origins. She went from untouchably famous to untouchably crazy to semi-comeback to Vegas circuit in such a fashion that, even when she was clearly deeply flawed, she never actually seemed human. Anyway, this is the first album, the one that put her on the map, the one that started the whole thing, and ushered in the other major wave of pop music performers in the late nineties13.

WHY IT’S HERE: All those reasons, plus a deeply cynical attitude toward her music video presence, and a public persona that leaned heavily on not-actually-lurid, not-actually-prurient information. She was a one-woman, American version of the Spice Girls, but even the short couple of years between the introduction of the SG’s and that of Britney, was long enough to jettison even the veneer of social consciousness, and just be, y’know, not-lurid and not-prurient14. And that led to record sales in the nineties, which seems like more and more of a non-sequitur every time I type it. But there wasn’t another way to experience the music, and the familiarity of the video (i.e. the schoolgirl outfit, the basketball, the hallway dancing, et al) led people to remember the music, which led to sales for basic psychological marketing reasons that I’ve probably already gone into a bunch of times.

AND…?: It really needed the videos to put it over, frankly. The music wouldn’t have done it by itself. It’s hugely-forgettable. It’s also funny to note that the features (Mikey Bassie and Don Phillip) are completely inexplicable, because nobody remembers who these people are, or why they would be on this record in the first place.

THE BEST SONG: “(You Drive Me) Crazy”, which would go on to lend its title and presence to a Melissa Joan Hart romantic comedy. Peak 1999, everybody!

13 i.e. the ones that weren’t ushered in by the Spice Girls, see previously

14 a presentation which would be watered-down Madonna, if Britney had ever seemed to have any actual agency over her career. That’s the difference: Madonna was, at least, exploiting her actual self, whereas Britney was placed on stage by someone else. It’s actually a reason to heave a big sigh if you think about it for too long.

The Best Records of October 2016

Mono – Requiem for Hell (Mono made another Mono record. This one is more majestic than The Last Dawn or Rays of Darkness, and seems to go for “majestic” more than “harrowing,” all of which is a great choice, frankly.)

Two Cow Garage – Brand New Flag (Brand New Flag is the first record Two Cow Garage has made as a four-piece, and maybe somehow what they were missing was the second guitarist. I don’t know, but it sure did work.)

Solange – A Seat at the Table (For those of you keeping the tally, two Knowleses made their best records this year. Good year to be a Knowles.)

Steve Hauschildt – Strands (Hauschildt, the former Emerald who doesn’t release twenty albums a year, released another mannered, wonderful synth album. Let it wash over you in peace.)

Emma Ruth Rundle – Marked for Death (Emma Ruth Rundle turned the guitars way up, especially in comparison )