The Comeback Trail: At the Drive-In

Right before these last couple of awards shows, another band, this time El Paso’s At the Drive-In, made their own hobo-esque attempt to hop the rails of this gravy train we call the reunion racket and launch a putative next phase of their career 1. And so it is time to anger LL Cool J, call it a comeback, and then decide whether or not it was worth it.

At the Drive-In were one of those bands who, for their initial run anyway, had a basically-perfect existence. I don’t mean they were musically perfect, they just started out small, played shows incessantly, never left the road, became a finely-honed musical machine that released their own records on their own schedule for their own reasons. Then they decided to be famous.

When they decided to take a swing at record-sales success 2, they launched a couple of high-profile national tours 3, and connected with a big fancy name producer, Ross Robinson, then known as a first-call dude for nu-metal bands 4

The end result, whatever the intentions for making it were, was the best album of At the Drive-In’s career, and one of the best albums period. It’s probably not overextending things to say that what’s coming back here is less At the Drive-In, the journeying hard rock band from Texas, and more At the Drive-In, the band that recorded Relationship of Command. It is rather their defining statement. Of course, in classic ATDI fashion, guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez has spoken of RoC as being the album he’s least proud of.

Some of Rodriguez-Lopez’s chagrin is undoubtedly the fault of the aforementioned Ross Robinson, who produced it the same way he produced the commercial-metal records that were his bread and butter 5, which made it “pop” on the radio in a really effective way, and also dates it pretty unfortunately. Some of it is also probably that the friction and infighting that would cause the group to fall apart in Relationship of Command’s aftermath actually started right around the time of its recording.

The factors that would eventually break up the band sort of reach a point of critical mass around the 2001 Big Day Out festival, when the band protested the violence with which people were “dancing”, warned the audience that someone could get hurt, and walked offstage after lead vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala called the audience sheep and then, perhaps to drive the point home, made sheep noises at them. The remainder of that story is that eventually Limp Bizkit incited the crowd to dance more violently, and literal actual people literally actually died 6. So, even if their behavior may have seemed hostile at the time, the worst they can be called now is prescient.

Right or wrong, however, the band never really recovered from storming offstage in the middle of a festival set. They staggered around a bit, and eventually just called it quits, never finishing out that last tour.

After the break-up of At the Drive-In, other guitarist Jim Ward formed Sparta, who made a handful of records in a handful of years, and also made some solo records. He didn’t proceed at what you’d call a frenzied pace, and largely stayed out of public for huge whacks of time. Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala continued to work together, first in the Mars Volta 7, and then again in Antemasque, with various projects for both men in between and concurrently (Rodriguez-Lopez, specifically, has been in something like eighty billion bands, some of whom did not exist for longer than it takes to type their names), each of which ended the same way: with vocal recriminations from Bixler-Zavala, and, presumably, hoovering up a bunch of drugs to transition into a new thing.  

It is in the post-At the Drive-In careers of the band’s founders that we see the shape of the wedge that drove them apart: Jim Ward was a consistent, salable commodity who was also kind of a flake 8, and Cedric Bixler-Zavala was ferociously musically-focused and inventive, but also self-indulgent (and chemically-indulgent) to the point of occasional unlistenability, and, of course, unbelievably vitriolic in the press about the failings of the people he had worked with 9. Admittedly this last didn’t contribute to the break-up of At the Drive-In, but rather to the fact that it has taken years to even materialize to the limited extent that it has. 

You see, the band got back together before, in 2012. They played a set of shows that didn’t work and that ended in grief and (everybody all together now) vitriolic recriminations. There were a number of statements about how nobody really wanted to do it in the first place. Compounding whatever of that was true, Bixler-Zavala’s mother died more-or-less immediately before he went onstage for the first show, so it’s justifiable that his heart was never really in it. The band went their separate ways, and even the Mars Volta (having then run for over a decade) broke up, at which point Bixler-Zavala complained about Rodriguez-Lopez’s work ethic, and complained that the Mars Volta were never as good as At the Drive-In anyway, at which point he started another band (ZAVALAZ), who then broke up amid public recriminations when Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala reunited (recanting most of the previous recriminations) as Antemasque.

Then the band re-convened last year, insistent that they were going to release music by the end of 2016, and, naturally, they did not. They made it almost halfway through this year before they managed to actually release it. Shortly before its release, the band announced that Jim Ward was not involved. He had been replaced by his erstwhile co-Sparta-n Keeley Davis 10, who honestly, is probably a pretty good fit. The Washington, DC post-hardcore scene isn’t miles away from where At the Drive-In were, musically speaking 11.

In the run up to Inter Alia (that’s what they ended up calling it), there were a couple of advance singles that were…fine. I mean, they weren’t very good, and that should have been more of a warning sign than I saw it as, but the problem with the singles is more or less the same as the problem with the album itself: there’s nothing you can point to and say “that thing is specifically real real bad” 12, but none of it really works. 

There are certainly moments. “Grounded by Contagions” was probably the reason the advance singles didn’t raise flags – it’s pretty good, and clearly the best of the material here. “Holtzclaw” is fine, if overly silly. “Continuum” is unquestionably good, but it’s all pretty thin gruel.

The problem, such as it is, is that the members of At the Drive-In are no longer At the Drive-In. Cedric’s voice has changed (it’s been almost two decades, and in that time he’s had to recriminate a lot, and also do a whole lot of drugs), and it’s no longer the high-flying instrument of destruction that it was the first time around. Perhaps that’s unavoidable – people do age, and vocal cords don’t last forever – but he doesn’t seem to be doing anything to work around it, he’s just not delivering his vocals with as much force. Omar Rodriguez-Lopez has become a more technical player, and doesn’t seem as interested in the sort of riff-assisting descant-style playing that was so striking. The rhythm section is fine, but also seems looser and less-tried than previously. I’m not sure where Keeley Davis entered the process 13, but his playing is pretty nonspecific.  

I think, ultimately, the thing that makes Inter Alia such a weird experience is that it seems to me that these people are fundamentally incapable of being this band anymore. It’s possible they could have formed a new band and incorporated some of their At the Drive-In material. It’s also possible that they could have toured this for longer to give it more time to set.

At the Drive-In’s original discography is a testament to what happens when five dudes spend their time in a band as a band. Relationship of Command especially betrays an almost-telepathic ability for the members to play together as one synergistic rock band unit. Inter Alia is a testament to how hard that can be to bottle back up, especially when it appears to be for non-creative reasons 14, or at least reasons that aren’t related to any kind of creativity that have spurred them all to make great music in the past.  

So is it a worthwhile comeback? No. It’s not. It’s a weak, unsatisfying album that adds nothing in particular to the legacy of this band, except for continuing the story of how they can’t manage to get back together in any kind of healthy or reasonable way. I’m not ruling out the possibility that they could, somehow, manage to stay together as a band for long enough to play some of these songs on the road a bit more, and gel a bit more as a unit (again), and reclaim their ability to be in this band. But as of the end of Inter Alia, I have to say that they might have been better served by just staying on the reunion circuit and not trying to add anything to a body of work that, outisde of this record, is pretty untouchable.

  1.  actually, in all fairness to the members of At the Drive-In, there is no way of knowing whether they thought this was going to be a long-term thing, or whether this record was just the next thing they were doing. 
  2.  I mean, they also went no bigger label-wise than The Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal, then also the home of Jimmy Eat World and Atari Teenage Riot. 
  3.  including one with not-actually-that-similar but superficially-very-similar Rage Against the Machine. I mean, their singers sound a lot alike for starters. 
  4.  which sounds today like something you’d want to specifically avoid being, but, y’know, the past is a different country. 
  5.  Ross Robinson is a heavy-handed, nonsense-driven producer who, nevertheless, managed to make pretty good commercial metal albums in the nineties, a thing that happens somehow and despite him, not because of him. 
  6.  this is a year and a half or so after Limp Bizkit, those lovable lads from Jacksonville, had basically become intimately associated for inciting crowds to irresponsible, harmful and criminal violence at the catastrophic Woodstock 99. 
  7.  who made probably the best of the post-At the Drive-In records with De-Loused in the Comatorium, although Sparta’s first album, Wiretap Scars, has held up remarkably well. 
  8.  Ward also quit At the Drive-In multiple times, in addition to his casual, unhurried pace at making music. Please note I am not opposed to people working leisurely, it just seems like it might have added to the existing problems with At the Drive-In. 
  9.  often accompanied, years later, by comments retracting the initial, vitriolic ones, because ugh seriously just shut up Cedric. 
  10.  actually, Davis was a replacement member of Sparta also, so he’s made something of a late-period career out of pinch hitting for these guys. He did, however, start out in the under-rated Engine Down, so he’s clearly got some stuff on the ball. 
  11.  physically speaking it’s, y’know, on the other side of the country. 
  12.  it’s not as bad as, say, At the Drive-In’s fellow MTV-emo-invaders The Refused’s Freedom from a couple of years ago. 
  13.  Jim Ward didn’t play on the record at all, which, weirdly, is not a first – their early EP El Gran Orgo was recorded during one of the aforemetioned stints in which Ward had quit the band, and thus also doesn’t have him on it. Anyway, I’m unsure how much of the writing process he was a part of, or how much of this was “written” by “process”, honestly. 
  14.  I mean, I’m not a member of At the Drive-In, so I’m not going to talk about my knowledge of anyone’s motives, but it seems clear from the result that whatever it is they were intending to do, it wasn’t “put out a record that sounds like it could use another year or so in the oven.” 

The 2017 Billboard Music Awards

We’re coming up on the beginning of unofficial summer (Memorial Day, as opposed to official summer, which is in June), and of course the summer awards season is in full swing. Here we have the Billboard music awards, which take the chart-publisher’s uh…brand and extend it to also handing people a trophy for far more nebulous, less-secure reasons than those that would place them on one of Billboard‘s charts.

Since it’s hot and nobody has an attention span, and also because this awards show is terrible, I’ve decided to lightning-round my way through the rightful winners, rather than hashing everything out from nominee to nominee. Besides, I genuinely do not have that many things to say about Twenty-One Pilots.

Top Gospel Song

Let’s give this one to Tasha Cobb, who just got married and therefore clearly needs a wedding present in the form of a hat-tip from a blogger. Plus her song title is a nonsense phrase. I love that.  

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Tasha Cobb, “Put a Praise on It (f. Kierra Sheard)”

Top Christian Song

Apparently to the Billboard people “Christian” is entirely a music genre, separate from gospel. I feel like that’s not ok, but, y’know, very little of what Billboard does isn’t kind of dumb. Let’s give this one to Lauren Daigle. I bet her last name gets mispronounced a bunch.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Lauren Daigle, “Trust in You”

Top Dance/Electronic Song

I have a confession: The Chainsmokers are completely nsufferable, and I have basically no interest in Halsey (and, really, am only familiar with her from awards shows and her appearance on a Chainsmokers song), but I kind of like “Closer”. I suppose we don’t always choose what sounds speak to us.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Chainsmokers & Halsey, “Closer”

Top Latin Song

I’ll say this for this category: it’s got Daddy Yankee in it in 2017, which is a testament to either his longevity, the loyalty of his fanbase, or the general ineffability of the world, but either way, is pretty much entirely not something I expected to see.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The element of surprise.

Top Rock Song

I feel there is nothing to be said for the state of commercial rock music in 2017 that can’t be summed up as part of the sentence “three of these songs are by 21 Pilots”. Oh, except this part: “one of these songs is three rappers and two rock bands on one track”. And the remaining song is just the non-Imagine Dragons band from the rap song. This category, in short, is a mess.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Whatever the exact diametric opposite of “commercial rock music in 2017” is.

Top Country Collaboration

I mean, if you’re looking for an excellent collaboration between countries, you can’t do better than the International Space Station, obviously.


Top Country Song

Alright, ok. I have to start declaring actual rightful winners. But actually everything in this category is terrible so I’m just going right on to the next one.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Going right on to the next one.

Top Rap Collaboration

Leaving aside the execrable choices (Zay Hilfigerr and Machine Gun Kelly), we’re left with a pretty great field actually! Ah, what a relief after I thought the storm of awful nominees would never end.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Migos, “Bad and Boujee” (f Lil Uzi Vert)

Top Rap Song

This is the exact same as the last category, except there are two different songs that are awful. The three good ones are the same, is what I’m saying here.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Migos, “Bad and Boujee” (f Lil Uzi Vert)

Top R&B Collaboration

Drake, featuring Drake, featuring Drake, The Weeknd, The Weeknd. The actual winner here is obvious.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The city of Toronto.

Top R&B Song

I’m glad “Starboy” was nominated twice, so that I can declare it the rightful winner here.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Weeknd, “Starboy”

Top Collaboration

I’m even gladder that “Starboy” was nominated a third time so I don’t have to re-hash the embarrassing thing about “Closer” again.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Weeknd, “Starboy”

Top Streaming Song (Video)

I suppose it’s only the pride of the remaining vestige of the record-selling industry and/or Disney (the parent company of ABC, who airs these awards) that prevents the Billboard awards from getting some of that sweet sweet synergy and just calling this the YouTube award. Because really, where the hell else does anyone ever watch a music video? I’ll throw a live octopus at the person who just said “Vimeo.”

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER:  Rae Sremmurd, “Black Beatles” (f Gucci Mane)

Top Streaming Song (Audio)

“Starboy” has already won a bunch of these, probably time to share the wealth.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: D.R.A.M., “Broccoli” (f Lil Yachty)

Top Radio Song

“Top streaming song (over-the-air, non-on-demand)”

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Oh dear god I think I have to say it’s “Closer” again. Aauuugh.

Top Selling Song

So while it’s true that sales aren’t the only thing that drives Billboard chart performance, this is still kind of a redundant category since it’s going to shake out in one place or another, but I guess if you include streaming separately, you should include sales separately. It’s all terribly confusing.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: I mean, this one can be supported mathematically, so, like, the one with the biggest number.

Top Hot 100 Song

This is the best song that appeared on the hot 100 chart, which is an aggregate of all the other charts, which takes into account streaming and sales (which is why “sales” is its own category), and is therefore somehow even more redundant than the other categories.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Seriously, this is just a terrible place to be in as the person writing these things.

Top Gospel Album

Did you know the Kirk Franklin album “Losing My Religion” has nothing to do with the REM song of the same name, except that they probably both come from the same Southern expression for losing one’s temper, with extra-special wordplay bonus meaning for Mr. Franklin, who is a gospel dude. Layers, guys. Like ogres.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kirk Franklin. Dude’s got layers.

Top Christian Album

Twice now, for no reason I can discern except for that she’s blonde, I have gotten Hillary Scott confused with Hillary Duff. That seems unfair to one of those women, although I have neither the time nor the energy to deduce which.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Lauren Daigle, How Can It Be?

Top Dance/Electronic Album

As god is my witness, I did not know the Chainsmokers had two albums.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The idea of a secret album. I think it’s cooler than any of these, anyway.

Top Latin Album

Man, here I was, prepared to see Daddy Yankee again, and yet there he isn’t, not anywhere on this dang ol’ list of nominees. Such a disappointment.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Juan Gabriel, Los Duo 2

Top Rock Album

Well this is way better than the song category, even if only because it has just one nomination for 21 Pilots.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Radiohead, A Moon-Shaped Pool

Top Country Album

So the Billboard website puts album titles in quotation marks, which is OBVIOUSLY dumb and wrong, and is currently driving me nuts.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Chris Stapleton, Traveller. See how nice that looks italicized, and how you totally and absolutely know that it’s not the title of a damn song?

Top Rap Album

Did you know that J. Cole went platinum with no features? It’s true! And also he didn’t make as good a record as Kevin Gates.


Top R&B Album

Did y’all remember that Blonde was my favorite album of 2016? It’s true, it was!

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Frank Ocean, Blonde

Top Soundtrack/Cast Album

So there clearly isn’t a thing that says it has to have come out in the last year. That’s a super-weird and woolly sort of world they want us to live in over at Billboard. I mean, I guess Purple Rain was reissued, but that doesn’t usually have that much effect and, frankly, with all the albums that are re-issued every year, the presence of PR here says more about Billboard’s need to glom onto something than it does about, say, the audience for Prince. That said, it’s a better choice than Suicide Squad I guess.


Top Billboard 200 Album

The Billboard 200 is analogous to the Billboard Hot 100, but where the latter is for songs, the former is for albums. So basically all of these are the same category forever. Wheeee!

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Beyonce, Lemonade

Top Gospel Artist

See what I mean though? They just cycle through the same set of permutations three times. Song, album, artist. In a minute we’ll also start seeing “tour,” but not for the gospel folks, for reasons.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kirk Franklin. Even after all that, dude’s got layers.

Top Christian Artist

Oh man, I can hardly believe Skillet is even still around. Points for longevity, I guess.


Top Dance/Electronic Artist

Ugh. Jesus take the wheel.


Top Latin Artist

Poor Daddy Yankee. I was all excited about his prospects in this awards show, and here he was actually shut out of the non-song Latin categories. Gosh. Now I have to make it appear that I like Juan Gabriel A LOT more than I actually do.


Top Rock Tour

Right, so, here’s where the “tour” categories start. I suppose because it’s the one thing that still makes money.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band

Top Rock Artist

I feel like it’s at least some kind of progress that only two of these acts are in the late stages of their career. That’s something.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Lumineers? I guess

Top Country Tour

All of the “Tour” categories except the last one have three nominees instead of five. I’m assuming this is so that people don’t become bewildered and, subsequently, enraged. It’s very nice, I can spend a handful fewer seconds deciding who deserves it. Think about what I can do with all the time I’m saving!


Top Country Artist

So, I say this a lot, and really, this is an excellent opportunity to not say it, but I have literally nothing else to say here: there is so little turnover in the upper-echelons of country music that I have basically exhausted all of the words I have in the world for these five acts.


Top Rap Tour

People that went to Billboard-approved rap tours were saaaaaaaaad. Or at least they wanted to watch a sad dude onstage.


Top Rap Artist

Hey guys did you know J. Cole went platinum with no features?


Top R&B Tour

Here I thought Daddy Yankee was going to be the biggest surprise of this set of nominees, but I’ll be gosh-danged if Lionel Richie isn’t all up in here, being an even bigger surprise.


Top R&B Artist

This is the least terrible field in the whole awards show!


Top Touring Artist

Now, see, the top touring artist in general has five nominees – the three from the rock category plus Justin Bieber and Beyonce – which makes the whole thing seem weird. If it were composed of the top one from each of the other categories it would probably make more sense, but it would probably also give away who won the awards, and heaven forfend that we have spoilers for the Billboard Music Awards.


Top Social Artist

I mean, the fact that this is the Billboard awards would imply, to me at least, that this means the top social artist in terms of chart performance, but there’s absolutely no way that can be true, right? I mean, that doesn’t even make sense.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Selena Gomez? Right?

Top Streaming Songs Artist

Obviously that’s “top streaming songs artist,” not “top streaming artist.” “Top streaming artist” sounds like something a living, breathing human would say, and “top streaming songs artist” sounds like insane blather, so obviously that’s the one we call our awards category. Obviously.


Top Radio Songs Artist

The problem with dealing predominantly in endless permutations of these things – song, album, artist, tour, streaming, radio – is that it’s basically impossible to know what, exactly, is being evaluated. This is a problem I often have with awards shows – they want to maximize the number of people to whom they give an award, thus increasing the sort of codependent brand-awareness of acts/labels/awards, and so they nominate people in six hundred minutely different categories, and it makes me insane. This is especially dumb because the only difference between this and the previous category is that this one has Justin Bieber in it instead of Desiigner.


Top Song Sales Artist

So on the website listing the Billboard nominees, each one is accompanied by a thumbnail image (because when you’re looking at nominees for a music award, it’s important to know what they look like), and Prince’s is, instead of a publicity shot of the late man himself, just a purple square. That’s cute.


Top Hot 100 Artist

In fact, I like the Prince as purple square idea so much that I sort of wish everyone would be assigned a color and given that block of color to represent them, if only so I could stop looking at pictures of Twenty-One Pilots.


Top Billboard 200 Artist

I feel like even though there are other awards that are ostensibly ahead of this one on the call sheet, this is kind of the award of the awards. The Hot 100 Artist would be an award given to an artist on their singles, which is how people overwhelmingly listen to music, but this one is given for albums, which are the things that are the most profitable and are given the most serious consideration by the people that give these awards. So, you know, obviously it’s not going to be Drake, then.


Top Duo/Group

Guns n Roses are in this category, presumably on the strength of their “all the members you care about” reunion tour, having only appeared in the tour categories (they haven’t released an album since Chinese Democracy – almost ten years ago! – after all). So I guess touring is the thing that makes the Billboard folks pay attention.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Uh….Coldplay? But I’m not happy about that.

Top Female Artist

I guess it seems weird that this is the first category with Adele in it (she’ll pop back up again in a couple of categories)? I don’t know if she’s under-served by the weird genre placement of the rest of it or what, but it seems odd. Of course, I didn’t think anything of it until I saw her name down here, so I guess maybe I’m part of the problem?

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Beyonce. I mean, it’s weird that Adele first appears in this category, but she’s still not the winner, y’know?

Top Male Artist

Future and The Weeknd are longtime ONAT Mainstays, and I don’t like that I’d have to choose between them, but I suppose life is merely a series of difficult decisions, most of which ending in disappointment, until we die. Which, come to think of it, is probably something there’s a Future song about.


Billboard Chart Achievement Award Presented by XFinity

What, exactly, is this award? Aren’t they all chart achievement awards? What is happening? What does XFinity have to do with any of this? This is stupid.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: XFinity, because I haven’t thought of their stupid name since they stopped being Comcast.

Top New Artist

2017’s music awards period is going to be the period during which I officially ask the question a bunch of times: does leaving a boy band mean that you qualify as a “new” artist? I maintain that it does not, just a new brand.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Alessia Cara, I guess.

Top Artist

They doubled the field of nominees to ten to include basically everyone in the upper-est echelon of pop music. Isn’t that nice and inclusive of them? I think it is. Hearty pat on the back for the folks at Billboard.


2016 Nebula Awards

There are so many awards for sff 1, and traditionally my attentions here have been focused on two 2 – the two that have, historiobiographically, been the most interesting and useful to me. The first of those to happen in the year are the Nebulas, and so here we are to discuss them.

The Nebulas are given out by the Science Fiction Writers of America, and represent the sort of peer-to-peer honor I generally don’t talk much about here 3, but that I do in this one case because I want to, and I contain multitudes. I’ve also included the Norton and Bradbury awards, because they are given out at the Nebulas, and also because most people don’t actually think of them as separate things, as they’re also listed alongside (or, well, under) the Nebula awards on the Nebula website.

Oh, and this year I’m writing about them an entire week early, because they are the same weekend as the Billboard Music Awards, and I literally flipped a coin.

So here we go.

Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy

Last year I was happy that this category had moved out of the “supernatural love triangle” rut it spent some years in, toward more adventure-y things. This year continued that journey, with an additional general-trend toward a lot of this being about the roles that women were placed in (historically or pseudohistorically), and their struggles against those roles. The Star-Touched Queen is the one that is the least satisfying – it’s well written, but jumps from plot point to plot point in a really jarring way. Arabella of Mars and Railhead are very similar in terms of their broad-strokes plot – a kid flees their family to go on a journey via semi-archaic mode of transportation and finds political intrigue and the like – which is not necessarily a criticism, as they’re both a lot of fun to read 4, but are also not the winners, and are so lumped together here in two different ways. The Girl Who Drank the Moon is an interesting case, as it has two great characters in it (Glerk the swamp monster and Fyrian the Simply Enormous Dragon) that I would have happily read a much longer book about, but the rest of it isn’t as vividly-drawn 5. The Evil Wizard Smallbone is somewhat less than TGWDTM, as far as stories about magic-users and parents and things not being as they seem and protecting cities with magic go, so it’s also right out. Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies had a nifty central-conceit (both the system of magic and its implementation vis-a-vis the characters), but tried too often to be clever and/or metacool to actually succeed fully. Even if the other books hadn’t had their flaws, the rightful winner was likely to be Francis Hardinge’s incredible The Lie Tree, because it’s super-great.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Francis Hardinge, The Lie Tree

Ray Bradbury Award for Dramatic Presentation

Doctor Strange is one of the most visually distinctive Marvel movies to date, but also it has a wisecracking protagonist who fights a villain that comes out of a goddamned portal, so it loses a large number of points. Tilda Swinton is great, though. I like Zootopia just fine, and it does a good job of creating a pretty good primer on institutional prejudice, and the direct action that it inspires 6 , but it’s also not as spectacular as the others here. Arrival is the best movie ever made about a linguist who saves the world, and has a lot of genuinely good stuff going on, for a movie full of Acting. It is, essentially, the sort of thing that deserves an award for its story (which it already has – it’s based on the Nebula-winning novella “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang), but has nothing really about it as a visual thing in and of itself 7  that recommends it for the Nebula. Kubo and the Two Strings is a visually-incredible movie with an off-kilter magic storyline that I liked a lot that is, unfortunately, crushed by the bulldozer that is my love of Star Wars. Rogue One is the best Star Wars movie made in my lifetime 8.


Short Story

There are this year, in two different categories, two different stories about people who are kept out of fantasy-lands they were able to enter in their youth. A. Merc Rustad’s entry in that highly specific subgenre appears here (“This is Not a Wardrobe Door”), and is fine, but also is sort of badly-placed by dint of not being as good as the other one (see below), even if the other similar entrant is in a completely different category, and has a completely different tone 9. Caroline M. Yoachim’s “Welcome to the Medical Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station | Hours Since the Last Patient Death: 0” is a funny, absurdist fake choose-your-own adventure 10 about the inevitable bureaucracy of an interstellar society, and also a commentary on the erosion of healthcare systems when they’re used as a battleground. Brooke Bolander’s “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” is significantly better than last year’s “And You Shall Know Her By the Trail of Dead” – it seems to arrive somewhere and make more of a point, and she’s better when her work is shorter and punchier. I look forward to more, but it wasn’t the best one this year. Barbara Krasnoff’s “Sabbath Wine” is a pretty good story about responsibility, grief and also the undead. Amal El-Mohtar’s “Seasons of Glass and Iron” is a beautiful story about the burdens of women, told through folk tale and embedded stories. The ever-reliable Sam J. Miller’s “Things With Beards” is a deeply-felt, expertly-rendered piece of John Carpenter fan fiction that speaks metaphorically of a number of things clearly and assuredly. The also-ever-reliable Alyssa Wong’s “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers” is an incredible unfolding-narrative story about loss, and suicide, and grief. I have vacillated from day to day on which of these latter two should be the winner, and I’ve come up differently every time I’ve considered, but today I’ve decided to go with Sam J. Miller, just for variety’s sake.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Sam J. Miller, “Things With Beards” True story: this is the edited rightful winner, and even while writing this I initially had it going to Alyssa Wong.


This category had a bit of a post-announcement kerfuffle 11 , the upshot of which being that Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s “The Orangery” earned an eleventh-hour nomination, which it definitely deserves, even though it is definitely not the winner. Fran Wilde’s “The Jewel and Her Lapidary” is a fine story with an excellent bit of world and magical devices and whatnot, but suffers from the fact that it is either too long (there is a bunch of word-building and also huge whacks of nothing in the story) or too short (but if she had filled it out some more and made it full-novel length it would have been really compelling). Jason Sanford’s “Blood Grains Speak Through Memories” is a good enough story about the planet taking revenge on its abusers, but also about human nature that starts out pretty shakily, and improves significantly by the end. William Ledbetter’s “The Long Fall Up” is an emotionally affecting story about a guy who is caught between a government that isn’t acting in any of the characters’ best interest and a woman who is doing what he’s indoctrinated to believe is wrong. The great Sarah Pinsker’s “Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea” is about the usefulness of glamourized entertainment figures in the post-apocalypse, and also the usefulness of guitars. I mentioned above that there would be more Alyssa Wong, and here we have it: probably her greatest story to date, “You’ll Surely Drown Here if You Stay,” is a weird western with a were-thing and some desert and some really gnarly magic stuff 12 in it, and, thus, is the winner here.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Alyssa Wong, “You’ll Surely Drown Here if You Stay”


Here we find the other of the “person is returned from fantasy-land and doesn’t want to be” stories in the form of Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway. It’s an excellent look at expectation and belonging and the like, and it’s worth every second spent reading it, but it’s not quite the best one here. Kai Ashante Wilson’s A Taste of Honey is another piece of historical fantasy that is drawn expertly through its dialogue and characterization that remains pretty much entirely not my thing. S.B. Divya’s Runtime is a good piece of athletic science-fiction 13, that does an excellent job of conveying the miseries and frustrations of being in the underclass. John P. Murphy’s The Liar is a great oral-style yarn with a pretty good bit of a magic in it. The introductory text in its original form calls it something like Garrison Keillor mixed with Stephen King, and that seems about right. Kij Johnson’s The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe is a pretty great piece of magical weirdness that examines what it would be like to be a woman and an academic in a world created by H.P. Lovecraft. Unfortunately it falls in the same year as Victor Lavalle’s earth-salting, reclamatory The Ballad of Black Tom, which recasts Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook” from the perspective of actual reasonable humans, and in so doing makes it something much more intense, and much scarier, and a much more realistic look at the human spirit.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Victor Lavalle, The Ballad of Black Tom


And finally we come to the big category. This was an excellent field this year 14 . Nisi Shawl’s Everfair is a beautifully-rendered piece of steampunk alternate history, and I’m sure that it’s someone’s absolute favorite book – it’s impressively epic in scope, it’s singularly-written, it’s got a command of itself that marks it as a completely unique thing. I am not one of those people, for all of its good points. Similarly (or perhaps invertedly), Mishell Baker’s Borderline is a close, personal-type story with some whippy storytelling and some generally-audacious worldbuilding 15 that was a sheer delight to read (I read it all the way through in one sitting), but also probably isn’t the best book here. I mean, absolutely go read it, and also Everfair. Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit has a couple of great narrative conceits regarding its characters, some really excellent space-battle stuff, and a whole lot of math, which isn’t a detriment necessarily. It will be interesting to see where the series goes from here. N.K. Jemison’s The Obelisk Gate almost manages to avoid middle-book syndrome, but does get a little bit caught up in maneuvering the pieces into position for the finale, and so barely misses out on being the rightful winner. Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky probably has its flaws 16, but they’re easily swept away by it being a bright, unique vision of the world and the people in it, and by being shot through with a particular kind of optimism that makes it as fun to think about as it is fun to read,.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Charlie Jane Anders, All the Birds in the Sky

  1.  I am not going to list them, but they are for sff, and paperback sff, and horror, and mysteries, and all sorts of permutations of any of those, and most of them are tied to conventions. There are, it can be said, many more of these awards than I am aware of, as evidenced by the fact that every year I find out about more of them. 
  2.  I wrote once about the Locus awards, but that was difficult because of their scope. I have said in the past that I will not write about the Hugos, but this year I’m going to, for reasons that will be stated when I do that (in a couple of months), and of course I’ll maintain coverage of the World Fantasy Awards. 
  3.  they’re earnestly-meant, even if the organization that gives them out is, as all assemblages of humans acting as a group, imperfect, which makes them hard to make dumb jokes about or whatever, since they represent the opinion stated by the people that the creators in question work with for and around. 
  4.  Arabella of Mars wins full marks for taking place largely on a literal, actual ship from Earth to Mars – like with sails and an overboard and everything – and then having its characters land and walk around on Mars, breathing the air and being subject to Earthlike gravity while they interact with the Martians (Martians!), and not giving a single rip about reconciling this with the real world.
  5.  that said, the book is wildly popular, so if there’s a category I’m liable to be wrong about, it’s this one. 
  6.  even if it doesn’t hold up to analysis with any kind of depth. Specifically, some of those animals literally and actually eat some of those other animals. It would be akin to saying “that class of people isn’t necessarily criminals, even if they are naturally inclined to be”. You have to go along with more premise than just “they walk on their hind legs and talk” is what I’m saying here. 
  7.  i.e. none of the qualities that make it Nebula-worthy are things that aren’t present in the source material, and it’s not actually all that visually interesting, except for the language that was created for the movie 
  8.  since I was born in September of 1983, that actually only covers the prequel trilogy and The Force Awakens. 
  9.  it is, of course, deeply unfair to say “this short story is not as good as a novella with a similar logline”, and that is not anything I would expect to hold up in court, but the other truth is that it isn’t the best short story, and that’s as good a reason as any for blogging purposes. 
  10.  I suppose there’s no reason it has to be a fake choose-your-own-adventure, but I read it all the way through word by word and it only yelled at me once. 
  11.  Cat Rambo’s pretty-good Red in Tooth and Cog was initial nominated, then discovered to have missed the word count for the novelette category by some few hundred words. If she had accepted a nomination in the short-story category, it would have knocked out three stories due to the three-way tie for fifth, so she withdrew her nomination. As a point of trivial interest, Cat Rambo is also the president of the SFWA, the body that grants the Nebulas, so one is free to imagine her giving herself the phone call there. 
  12.  truly, Earth’s finest literary minds can be categorized by our willingness to talk about “really gnarly magic stuff” 
  13.  by which I mean that the action of the story is built around an athletic contest, a thing that happens at the Nebulas most years, and not that it seems like it was written in a particularly athletic fashion, like with Ms. Divya standing on her head or writing it mid-pirouette or something. 
  14.  actually it was a generally-good field overall this year – there were only a couple of things I just flat-out wouldn’t be able to get behind. 
  15.  a duplicitious, murderous little-person, a secret organization staffed by the mentally ill, a dragon-thing that’s mostly-invisible and also contains emotions, a conspiracy among Hollywood producers, you know, that sort of thing. 
  16.  for starters it has an interminable sex scene about two-thirds through, although ymmv on how big a problem that is. I probably don’t have to continue to share my feelings on the matter.  

The 2017 MTV Movie & TV Awards

The start of summer awards season 1is upon us! It’s the season where awards shows are loopier, less-serious and, at least theoretically, more youth-oriented 2. They’re also more fun, if not precisely more interesting or more thought-provoking. And this year, the one that’s taking the biggest swing at being cool or whatever, is the MTV Movie & TV Awards.

In case you missed it, this year, MTV has elected to include television in their movie awards. My first inclination was to assume that they wanted to include their own properties this way (or more of them, at any rate, since I think they still have their hands in film production), but the list of nominees basically does not include any of MTV’s shows, so that was wrong. I remain certain that there’s a bunch of marketing-related reasons for this inclusion, nevertheless.

There are also some changes to the way the categories work 3, as will be addressed in the individual categories below. Thus we push onward to the categories!

Best Fight Against the System

Right away, you see what I mean here – the MTV Movie Awards have always had some pretty weird categories, but this one seems like they’re really trying to keep up with the what they’re seeing as giving the people the socially-aware awards that they want (much as the successful among the movies of the last year have revealed an audience that wanted such a thing). I suppose the question here is which of these is the most useful tool for inspiration in your own fight against the man, in which case, Hidden Figures and Loving have a clear advantage, as they are based on triumphs of the human spirit that actually happened. And Hidden Figures is the better of those because people end up in outer space. Obviously.


Best American Story

I want to be clear here: I don’t think this woke angle they’re approaching this from is at all bad – the opposite, in fact. Plus it means they can honor Moonlight, which is not only the best of these things, but one of the lowest-grossing best picture winners of all time, and therefore something that a little extra boost wouldn’t hurt. Go watch it, young persons!


Best Duo

Man, these are all over the place. I can’t fault any of the choices necessarily – even Blake Shelton and Adam Levine represent the best thing about the television show they’re on 4 – but really, and with all apologies to Luke Evans and Josh Gad, my heart belongs to only one of these duos.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Bryan Tyree Henry and Keith Stansfield, Atlanta

Next Generation

Next generation of what? These people are wildly disparate in age and experience. Two of them are older than me! One of the ones who is younger than me has been on tv for over half of her life! Of course, this awards show is bringing me joy even in my bafflement. THIS, after all, is the MTV Movie (and TV!) awards that I’ve come to know and be annoyed by. Anyway, having no idea what on Earth this is meant to be an award for, I’m left to give it to my favorite of these people.



Some of these awards, by their nature, are giant spoilers, which, y’know, I don’t mind. Especially since many of these cases I’d be fine if they went away and I never heard from them again. Almost all of them, actually. All of them but one, in fact. And even that one is just, like, pretty good. It’s not like I’m worshipping at its altar or anything. Just pretty good.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Moonlight. It’s pretty good!

Best Host

I, like all hosts, am the home of a number of very important things, specifically, however, I’d like to call out my bacteriodetes, whom I’ve been trying to be hospitable to so they enjoy their new home as the stars and VIPs of my poor delicate gut biome. Since I’ve gone to the trouble of rolling out the red carpet and encouraging them so much, I think that makes me the best host. Better luck next year, all of you other folks.


Best Reality Competition

It would probably be a sign that we lived in a less-dark timeline if there were reality competition movies 5. Or maybe that would be too close to the apocalypse. I can’t tell. Anyway, The Bachelor and America’s Got Talent are definitely products of the darkest timeline. RuPaul’s Drag Race had a fair few years out in front of the pack, but has since ossified into a kind-of staid, kind-of boring, tremendously predictable annual outing 6MasterChef Junior shares this trajectory, but ran through it much more quickly. It also shares bicapitalization in the first word of its title. That sort of leaves me staring down the abyss of saying The Voice is the best at something, but I’m not going to do that, because actually it is terrible. So while it’s still true that RuPaul’s Drag Race is an echo of its former self, at least it’s still fun.


Best Documentary

Earlier (specifically in FN5) I mentioned that there was only one attempt to make a “reality movie,.” This, of course, is only true insofar “reality movie” isn’t just another word for “documentary” 7. Still and all, none of these are competitions 8Anyway, Gigi Gorgeous’s story is nice enough, but clearly this is here because MTV had a hand in its production. O.J.: Made in America is goddamned exhausting, albeit in an impressive sort of way. 13th and I Am Not Your Negro are both super-great examinations of blackness in America. TIME: The Kalief Browder Story is infuriating, and informative, and illustrates a problem with the court/prison system that shouldn’t ever have to be an issue in a civilized society.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: TIME: The Khalief Browder STory

Best Kiss

Hey guys, did you know I still hate this category? I don’t know that I’m going to go so far as to say that it’s my least-favorite category in all of awardsshowdom, but man alive I sure do hate it right now.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Whoever eventually decides to get rid of this stupid fucking category.

Best Villain

If you need even more proof (see above) that we live in the darkest timeline: Jared Leto is nominated for an award for what is, and I’m not being hyperbolic here, one of the absolute worst performances I’ve ever seen in a professionally-made movie 9. Also, Wes Bentley was not only not the best villain of the year, he wasn’t even the best villain in American Horror Story: Roanoke 10. The Demogorgon is less “villain” than “MacGuffin” in Stranger Things (I would argue that Matthew Modine is the villain, with the Demogorgon just trying to munch on some sweet preteen innards, as a Demogorgon does). So that leaves us with Allison Williams, which in addition to being pretty right-on, is also a spoiler, which should teach all of you whiny assholes to go see good movies instead of Suicide Squad.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Allison Williams, Get Out

Best Hero

All but two of these are from television, which is an interesting state of affairs when, like, every fourth movie is some hero’s journey special effects movie. It’s great to see Millie Bobbie Brown and Grant Gustin (who is doing a great job with an often-dumb character) there. Real-life portrayals can’t really compete with highly-cinematic (or, given the circumstances, highly-televisual) stuff – Taraji P. Henson’s Katherine Johnson was super cool, but didn’t deliver the Death Star plans or unveil a massive crime conspiracy or telekinetically take out a Demogorgon. As much as I like to believe what me and Mike Colter have is special 11, it’s not really him, either. Stephen Amell, obviously, was never in the race. Although given that one of the prospective heroes here is from a Star Wars movie, and that that Star Wars movie is the excellent Rogue One, none of these people were really in it anyway.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Felicity Jones, Rogue One

Best Comedic Performance

I suppose the presence of Seth MacFarlane in this category is to make sure that Jared Leto doesn’t feel like he’s the only person nominated for resolutely terrible work. I mean, Sausage Party was Seth Rogen being Seth Rogen, but at least it wasn’t straight-up bad. Adam DeVine is my third-favorite Workaholic, Broad City is great, but I’m opposed to two people being nominated in single-person categories as a matter of principle, Will Arnett was great as Batman again – one of the very greatest as Batman, in fact, but I think we should take this opportunity to recognize the excellent job done in the difficult role of “comic relief (and hero!) in a horror movie”.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Lil Rel Howery, Get Out

Best Actor in a Show

Every year, at every awards show (except this one) I complain that actors and actresses are separate. Here they are together in one category. Once again, this is progress of a sort. I mean, it doesn’t make up for the fact that there’s still a “Best Kiss” category, but it softens the blow. Anyway, Donald Glover is in my absolute hands-down top-shelf favorite show of last year, but he’s not actually doing that much acting-wise. Emilia Clarke isn’t doing anything she hasn’t been doing for years. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is a fine scenery-chewing villain, and even though he hasn’t been on The Walking Dead for that long, they’ve had a bunch of characters who have done exactly that thing for years. Gina Rodriguez is pretty good. Mandy Moore is something less than pretty good. Once again we arrive at our winner by process of elimination.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Millie Bobby Brown, Stranger Things

Best Actor in a Movie

I mean, I want to pretend like I’m somehow above Logan, like I’m someone other than a person who was a seventeen-year-old who was also a rabid X-Men fan when the first X-Men movie came out, or that I’ve grown as a person such that the end of the character – who predates my actual, literal adult life – is something that isn’t moving even divorced from the specific fact of the movie itself, but honestly, it’s Hugh Jackman. That’s not to say the rest of this isn’t fine, and some of it is even great, but you only get one last Wolverine performance, so here it goes.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Hugh Jackman, Logan

Show of the Year

I don’t know that I’ve had a lot of opportunities to make it clear 12, but I loved loved loved Atlanta. So there’s some pretty good shows here! 13, which is great, but Atlanta is a genuine actual masterpiece, so it’s Atlanta.


Movie of the Year

So obviously Beauty and the Beast and Edge of Seventeen are pretty severely outclassed, here. And while the whole general theme of this year’s thing is social responsibility, and I thought that Logan and Get Out are both vital, important, worthy films that have something to say, I also think Rogue One was an excellent Star Wars movie soooo….


  1.  a far less-illustrious awards season that starts at the MTV Movie Awards and ends at the VMAs, and so is bookended by MTV’s offerings. 
  2.  the ones covered in this space are the MTV Movie Awards, the Billboard Awards, the Teen Choice Awards, and the VMAs. I mean, that span of time will also see the Nebulas and the Hugos, but those are in the summer for a completely different reason, and aren’t televised anyway, so aren’t really a part of the same thing. 
  3.  the list of categories for which MTV Movie (& TV) Awards are given is more malleable than with other awards shows, and often includes a bunch of goofy crap, so there’s always some slip in this regard. For example, this year there’s no “Best Shirtlessness” category, although “Best Kiss” unfortunately remains in place. 
  4. such as it is 
  5.  I mean, little-remembered 2003 film The Real Cancun was an overeager attempt to make a “reality movie,” (albeit not a competition) and while MTV didn’t have a hand in it directly, it came from Bunim/Murray, who are also responsible for MTV reality-godfather The Real World. I’m just saying, I’m surprised nobody at MTV has even tried it. It could have something to do with the fact that The Real Cancun failed to make back it’s seven-million dollar budget. 
  6.  This is, as far as I can tell, the lifespan of a television competition show – it is good only for a certain amount of time, and then once it establishes itself and what it’s out to do, it just become safe and then, ultimately, boring. 
  7.  there are further differences, however – a documentary is trying to say something – it has a point it’s driving at, it has a thesis statement, or it is, at the very least, an attempt to examine something. To date, 100% of all “Reality Movies” have had the point: “what about drunk, shirtless teenagers tho?,” which, if you were to make a list of The Big Questions, would be somewhere below, say, “what were the lasting effects of O.J. Simpson’s hugely-divisive circus of a trial.” Also, I wonder if I’ve officially devoted more words to The Real Cancun than anyone else in 2017 yet?   
  8.  although this is, again, with a proviso. This time it’s true as long as you don’t consider a trial a competition. While it’s true that calling a trial a “competition” is crass, there’s nothing wrong as such with the roughly-synonymous “contest,” which is used in a legal sense pretty regularly. Also, I hasten to add, once again, that The Real Cancun is not a competition.  
  9.  I’m not being contrarian, either. There’s a resurgence of DCU fans to insist (this happens from time to time) that everyone that really doesn’t like the DCU is lying, and trying to make everything Marvel. I don’t care if every movie is like a Marvel movie or not, I just don’t want Jared Leto playing the Joker in anything ever again. 
  10.  that was Robin Weigert. Or maybe Cuba Gooding Jr. 
  11.  What me and Mike Colter have is totally special, you guys. 
  12.  except, y’know, two categories ago. 
  13.  a sign that it’s tough competition is that something as good as Stranger Things is coming in second, honestly. 

The Best Records of April 2017

Kendrick Lamar – Damn (I mean, certainly consensus opinions are wrong more often than not, but they are right sometimes)

Robyn Hitchcock – Robyn Hitchcock (Robyn Hitchcock hasn’t made a record this out-and-out enjoyable since Spooked, and he’s one of the all-time greats. A welcome surprise)

Colin Stetson – All This I Do For Glory (A surprisingly groovy beginning to this new album cycle)

The New Year – Snow (almost a decade after their last record, The New Year continue their basically-unbroken streak – stretching all the way back to the Kadanes’ time in Bedhead – of making incredible, basically-flawless albums)

Mary Lattimore – Collected Pieces (I mean, if nothing else this is the album where you’ll find the hands-down best song ever written about Wawa sandwiches)