Who the Fuck Listens to This: William Patrick Corgan – Ogilala

Ogilala is the infuriatingly-named third 1 album from former Smashing Pumpkins singer/songwriter/guitarist Billy Corgan, temporarily (he has sinced gone back to the diminutive) operating under his full name, William Patrick Corgan, which I can only imagine is because he’s already assuming that anyone who hears it is going to want to call him by his full name, disapproving-mother style.

Billy Corgan used to be great. He wrote a bunch of great songs that he played great guitar parts over. If the Smashing Pumpkins were never much of a band in the studio as such 2

All of which is to say, William Patrick Corgan had, to all available evidence, run out of steam. And that means that as much as this is inexorably the work of Billy Corgan himself, it is also necessary to discuss the role of Rick Rubin.

For the last twenty-odd years, Rick Rubin’s name has meant, in certain contexts 3, come to mean “a return to simplistic, authenticity-based music”. The genesis of this reputation comes from his career-reviving work with Johnny Cash through the nineties, in which Rubin cleared the table of Cash’s gospel and weirdly-directed 4 eighties material, and recast Cash as the authoritative voice of country authenticity, shepherding him through a series of cover songs (including, perhaps most famously, Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”) and occasional duets (with Nick Cave, Will Oldham – on one of Will’s own songs, even – and Tom Petty, among others). The results speak for themselves: the alchemical nature of the often left-field song choices and the impressive performances by Cash gave the songs a bit more gravity, and the great man himself a bit more traction to listeners that might have been turned off by the weird, meandering course of his discography.

The transformation for Cash was so effective that Rubin has had several opportunities to do the same for other artists, with mixed returns. Almost immediately after the American Recordings series got started, the ol’ hurdy-gurdy man himself, Donovan, came a-knocking, and the resultant album pretty well failed to bring anything back from anywhere. A decade after American Recordings, Rubin produced Yusuf’s 5 album Tell ‘Em I’m Gone, which did manage to get some acclaim and bring the former Cat into the public eye, and also featured some nice work by Richard Thompson. Neither, however, was enough to eliminate the perception in the eyes of the public that going to Rick Rubin was a good way to lend some Serious Artist context to your new project.

And so, while Billy Corgan is hardly the same sort of elderly, time-shifted, somehow-overlooked statesman, this is the context into which he is permitting this album to exist. While it’s only been twenty or so years since his chart dominance, he has become much more noticed 6 for his non-musical business: he’s a basketcase, obviously, but he’s a basketcase that opened a tea house, and appears on Alex Jones regularly to let the world know just how many baskets he has in his case. He wrote for and eventually bought a professional wrestling league of some description. He dated noted Nazi-enthusiast and fellow basketcase Tila Tequila. He generally did everything he could to make sure that it was as difficult as possible to muster up a single drop of goodwill for him.

This seems less like a new development for Corgan than a simple escalation of the behavior he’s pretty much always exhibited. He started his career claiming to already be above the late-eighties Chicago alternative (college rock, punk rock, whatever) scene 7, mostly as a way to justify lucking into a promoter that stuck them on every high-profile bill in town, and Corgan being willing to play ball with anything that would increase his record sales, as well as taking huge chunks of his band’s sound from the downstate Illinois scene, which in the museo-political environment of the time, combined to him not being a much-beloved Chicago figure. He would go on, later to feud seemingly-constantly through the nineties.  

And so, these many years later, it seems to make more sense to hook up with Rick Rubin to make a “stripped-down,” “back to basics,” “‘authenticity’-forward” album – the double quote marks on authenticity are necessary because there’s nothing actually authentic about it – the records that Rubin makes, even when they’re good, are still a study in play-acting authenticity – signifying “truth” and “honesty” and “realness” – by setting everything up, and without actually representing an authentic document of anyone’s artistic impulses without first covering it in several layers of cred-seeking window dressing. But then, that’s also Corgan’s thing. When he made great music, it was also through several layers of performative rock-star posing 8, so changing the gloss over the whole works would, theoretically, enable him to maintain the distance he clearly needs to create from his material in order for it to work.

Thus the whole thing wasn’t necessarily set against Corgan from the get-go, and might have even worked, if it weren’t for the actual fact of the matter. To wit: Billy Corgan’s voice is a hard sell 9, and without the guitar trickery and bigger-than-big arrangements, that’s pretty much what we’re left with on Ogilala.  

Even if the album had been sung by a literal angel, it would still have to contend with the fact that it was written by someone whose inspiration seemed to flee from him long ago. Even the songs that have some life to them – the terribly-titled “Half-LIfe of an Autodidact”, the pleasant “Antietam” – sound basically like all the other songs on the album, just slightly better. I suppose the best case scenario here would have been an album of thirteen new songs that sound like “Disarm,” the mega-hit Smashing Pumpkins song that most closely resembles a stripped-down acoustic number.

 

But “Disarm” was still a huge, sweeping song, with layered guitars and strings and all sorts of bombast, and the bombast was a big part of the appeal. Billy Corgan doesn’t write subtle, thoughtful music for the background of whatever you’re doing. Or, well, as this album proves, he does, but he definitely shouldn’t.

 

In a lot of ways, the problems with this album are in line with another high profile Rick-Rubin-associated failure to come back 10, Neil Diamond’s 12 Songs and Home Before Dark. Diamond’s intransigent Diamond-ness proves to be too much for Rubin’s “authenticity”-focused “production,” and the end result (especially in the case of 12 Songs) is something that fails to be a Neil Diamond record, but also proves that Neil Diamond can’t be anything else 11. As a result, the album failed to be the comeback that was perhaps being tried-for, and succeeded as being an object lesson in Neil Diamond’s ability to perform under in a new context.  

Billy Corgan, then, is no Neil Diamond. Where Diamond adapted his approach to meet the sheer fact that he can’t do the sorts of things that Rubin did with Johnny Cash, Corgan doesn’t have the ability to mold himself into anything. Where Diamond’s approach was unassailable due to his own decades of being a very specific performer, and spending most of that time writing songs that were fluid enough to be sung by pretty much anyone  12, Corgan has really only ever written songs for himself, and has spent the last twenty years 13 applying his talents to contexts that aren’t really where he’s best-suited.

And so Ogilala is, far from the revitalized, re-contextualized celebration of his “pure,” “raw” “songwriting” “talent”, just another stop on the string of weird, dumb albums that Billy Corgan seems to feel compelled to make.

So who the fuck listens to this? I suppose Billy Corgan die-hards. Maybe there are Rick Rubin fans, I guess? I can’t imagine that’s true, but it might be. I really have no idea. If you are the sort of person to whom “acoustic, downtempo Billy Corgan album that’s mostly piano” sounds like a good time, feel free to let me know why, and also be advised that it’s still pretty bad, even for all that.


  1.  Well, kind of third – his only other “official” solo album is the also infuriatingly-named TheFutureEmbrace, but he released a “tea house and/or one record store in Chicago” record called AEGEA as a publicity stunt a couple of years ago. 
  2.  their records were famously never really the product of a band playing songs together, and there’s not much to be said for their live shows that I’ve ever heard – I’m sure they were good enough at one point to win people over, but it wasn’t a very long period of the band’s existence. – their albums were (with the exception of the first one) largely all-Billy affairs, with Corgan taking over most of the instrumental duties due to his studio-borne perfectionism. Unfortunately, he appeared to run out of ideas well before he actually hung up his hat – there are people who will defend late-period Smashing Pumpkins albums 14, but it’s largely the type of defence that grades the act on a steep curve.   
  3.  alongside the stuff I’m going to talk about here, he’s also got his regular old “very famous record producer” career, which yields something like an album every eighteen months or so, and is largely outside the scope of what we’re talking about here. 
  4.  the bad kind of weird. The “why are you doing this?” kind of weird. 
  5.  formerly Yusuf Islam, formerly Cat Stevens, nee Steven Georgiou 
  6.  when he is, in fact, noticed at all 
  7.  This would be the Chicago scene populated by the Wax Trax folks, Liz Phair, what would become the Jim O’Rourke/Tortoise improv jazz scene, and most importantly Touch & Go Records, the greatest record label to exist within my lifetime. 
  8.  in this sense he had the most in common with his rough contemporaries in Oasis, or, for the absolute top-dollar best version of that sort of thing, The Jesus and Mary Chain, or Boris at their most normal. 
  9.  for the first time in my life, while listening to Ogilala, I found myself wondering whether his singing voice – which has very little in common with his speaking voice – was a naturally-occurring phenomenon, or something that he developed as a way to be distinctive (or whatever – I can’t really speak to his motivation) onstage. Is he, in short, more of an Emo Phillips, making the best of a voice he can’t do much about, or a Bobcat Goldthwait, coming up with something abrasive to make some sort of point. 
  10.  although in this case not necessarily an artistic failure, which Ogilala definitely is. 
  11.  Home Before Dark fares a bit better, because it loosens up on the idea of “Spare” and “direct” and gives Neil back some strings and some big, swollen arrangements. 
  12.  time spent as a professional songwriter is good for some things, after all, and not knowing who is actually going to be singing the thing you’re writing almost certainly necessitates that you leave your songs more open than someone who is only writing songs for themselves to perform. 
  13.  basically since Adore, about which you can read more here. Also – there were other installments in the Stunt Listening series that I completely abandoned. I should get back to those. 
  14.  there are somewhat fewer people who will defend the Zwan album, or TheFutureEmbrace, but I’m sure they’re out there somewhere. 

The 2017 American Music Awards

There’s more awards shows! Even more of them! This is the time of year when just about everybody tries to trot out their trophy and foist it upon people. The American Music Awards, as addressed previously, were concocted by Dick Clark. Theoretically they are an alternative to the Grammys, but due to the vagaries of broadcast television and corporate ownership, they largely serve to prop up the music interests of Disney 1

They have a billion categories for nomination and, this year as every year, it’s really not that many people nominated over and over again, in nigh-endless shuffling variations. Due to this, and this being the eightieth awards show this month, and a general avoidance of pop star fatigue, the rightful winners will be presented here speed-round style, and I’ll try to make it as efficient as possible.

Oh, and Diana Ross will be receiving a lifetime achievment award, which seems fair I guess, although I can’t think of any reason for her to be receiving it now over, say, any other year. I suppose sometimes there aren’t any real reasons.

Tour of the Year

Whatever else there may be to say about Garth Brooks and/or Coldplay, U2’s most recent tour featured them playing The Joshua Tree in its entirely, and that’s better than anything the other two acts here nominated could manage.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: U2

Collaboration of the Year

Three of these give me hives, one of them is (begrudgingly) not that bad, and one of them Trojan Horsed a Hedwig and the Angry Inch reference onto the pop charts. I know where my priorities lie.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Weeknd & Daft Punk, “Starboy”

Top Soundtrack

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 is the crowd-pleaser here, but Moana is more interesting as a piece of music and as an artifact. Note that both of these movies are also Disney properties.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Moana

Video of the Year

Literally none of these are good videos.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Bruno Mars, “That’s What I Like,” although that’s for being the best song 2, not for having a good video

Favorite EDM Artist

Last year I at least had Major Lazer to fall back on. Sheesh.

 

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Calvin Harris (I guess)

 

Favorite Contemporary Inspirational Artist

It’s sort of quaint that ABC is still, here, using “inspirational” in the sense of meaning “religious, and actually totally modernist Christian,” instead of its actual definition. It is quaint for two reasons: one, its use was to ostensibly keep the door open to the idea of, say, some really spiritual klezmer or, like, Chaabi or something. The other is that it sort of pretends like the entire Contemporary Christian Music tradition is not, in fact, its own genre, with its own conventions and tiny portion of the record industry. It would be fine to call it what it is, guys.

 

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Lauren Daigle

 

Favorite Latin Artist

I mean, I’m calling it for Daddy Yankee for what seems like the fiftieth year running, even though Luis Fonsi was all over the charts, because “Despacito” is a war crime of a song, and nothing Daddy Yankee has ever done has been anything like that bad.

 

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Daddy Yankee

 

Favorite Adult Contemporary Artist

I already made my joke about a possible keymaster/gatekeeper relationship between Shawn Mendes and Ed Sheeran, so now I’ll point out that there’s a more hopeful answer: maybe their encounter in this category will yield a sort of matter/anti-matter reaction and they’ll both be annihilated.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Barring the annihilation thing, Bruno Mars

Favorite Alternative Artist

On the one hand, I’m not really sure that “finally losing your lifelong battle to depression” is the same as “releasing a good record,” and I’m not terribly comfortable conflating the two. On the other hand, Linkin Park made better music than 21 Pilots or Imagine Dragons.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Alas, it’s Linkin Park

Favorite R&B Song

Still “Starboy,” a song that I like a lot, but have basically nothing left to say anything about.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Weeknd, “Starboy” (f Daft Punk)

Favorite Soul/R&B Album

Childish Gambino definitely made the best record of his recording career, but that’s kind of thin, all things considered 3. The Weeknd made his best post-pop star album, and that’s somewhat less thin 4

Favorite Soul/R&B Female Artist

Beyonce is here on her laurels – she hasn’t done anything really in the eligibility period – so it goes to Rihanna.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Rihanna

Favorite Soul/R&B Male Artist

This is literally the same set of people as in the Album category for the same genre, so my feelings are the same as they were back there.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Weeknd

Favorite Rap/Hip-Hop Song

I still love Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles” more than almost anything, but unfortunately, the breadth of that “almost” is enough to catch the fact that “Humble” is just…better.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar, “Humble”

Favorite Rap/Hip-Hop Album

I still love Migos’ Culture more than just about anything, but unfortunately, the breadth of that “almost” is enough to catch the fact that DAMN. is just…better.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.

Favorite Rap/Hip-Hop Artist

I still love Migos more than just about anything, but unfortunately, the breadth of that “almost” is enough to catch the fact that Kendrick Lamar is just….better.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar

Favorite Country Song

I mean, I’m not a person who loves “Blue Ain’t Your Color,” but it’s on its own here in that at least I see what there is to love about it.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Keith Urban, “Blue Ain’t Your Color”

Favorite Country Album

I suppose there’s no better way to make Chris Stapleton look like a living genius than by putting him up in this nonsense category.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Chris Stapleton, From a Room: Volume 1

Favorite Country Duo or Group

I would resent that Old Dominion was so specifically-convened and assembled to sell a bunch of records, specifically, but at least they’re doing so and they’re not bad.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Old Dominion

Favorite Country Female Artist

I mean, I suppose it’s Maren Morris, although I have no strong feelings one way or the other, to be honest.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Maren Morris

Favorite Country Male Artist

This particular set of categories, much like the CMA Awards earlier in the month, could very convincingly be slanted specifically to let Keith Urban come out on top. That’s probably inevitable, but also there’s really nobody else in this category that did anything even worth considering. Sigh.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Keith Urban

Favorite Pop/Rock Song

You know, the real tyranny of “Closer” isn’t that it’s not a terrible song despite itself, but it’s that it exists in a time where, say, it’s up against “The Shape of You” and “Despacito,” which are, y’know, the worst songs. Truly these are trying times.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Chainsmokers, “Closer” (f Halsey)

Favorite Pop/Rock Female Artist

All of the pop/rock categories are decidedly lacking in the “Rock” part of the equation. They are, of course, segregated by sex, because women and men clearly don’t do the same thing when they sing. Obviously.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Rihanna

Favorite Pop/Rock Male Artist

Philosophically, this is about Bruno Mars, who may someday make a good song again, and Drake, who had a couple of years of making compelling music, and will probably never be so again. It would be an interesting conundrum if it weren’t for the fact that it also fills me with sorrow and sadness.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Drake, I guess

New Artist of the Year

I think the only person who really quailfies as a “new artist” this year 5 is Julia Michaels. So, as much as I’d like it to be Rae Sremmurd (now working on their third album), it’s got to be the one actual newbie.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Julia Michaels, though it pains me to say it.

Artist of the Year

Oh good grief. Where would we be without Kendrick Lamar? Well, we probably wouldn’t be writing about the American Music Awards, that’s where.

 

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar


  1.  which is unsurprising, as everything that is distributed through an arm of Disney is, in fact, there to prop up the interests of whatever thing it is that Disney is distributing. What is surprising is the nature of Disney’s music interests – they’ve divested themselves of most of it through a deal with the Universal Music Group, but they still hold some cards here, and they’re mostly peeking out through the specificity of this awards show. 
  2.  not for being a good song, just for being the best of these three. 
  3.  I do spend some time examining my feelings on this matter, and for this reason: Donald Glover was a writer for 30 Rock, a main character on the first four seasons of Community, and is currently the main character and lead on Atlanta, which means that for his last 3 major television projects, he has been responsible for at least some portion of literally my favorite show on television at the time. And he also makes rap records, which I do not like. I think I do not like them on their own (lack of) merits, but man, it really does make me wonder sometimes if I wouldn’t feel differently about them if they weren’t records made by Troy Barnes. Or at least by the guy who wrote “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah” 
  4.  as a counterpoint, I know that my opinion of The Weeknd is affected deeply by the difference in quality between his first three, nuclear-blast mixtapes and his later label-supported material. 
  5.  as opposed to an old artist that the AMAs just decided to start noticing this year. 

Rocktober Special: Jeff Ament’s T-Shirt, Part 2

Last year, the rock and roll combination known as Pearl Jam was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and as part of the ceremony, Pearl Jam’s bass player, Jeff Ament, wore a shirt, protesting that a bunch of the people on it were not in the HOF 1. Not necessarily being one to publicly gainsay Jeff Ament, but definitely being the sort of person that has an excess of opinions, this obviously created an opportunity to weigh in on at least one person’s candidates for “unjustly left out of the proceedings.”

So here you have it: part 2 of the special Rocktober analysis of Jeff Ament’s t-shirt. There’s a whole lot of them. I will try to be brief.

The Replacements

My feelings on the Replacements are well documented here and everywhere else I’ve ever talked about music. The handle I use to write this very blog comes from the lyrics to one of their songs. They were a platonic, beautiful disaster of a band, who wrote some of the very best rock songs ever written, and also some of the very worst. While there are bands that can be lauded for their consistency and the effort they put in, it’s also true that sometimes the best version of a band that can exist is the messiest and the most frustrating – there are few things as worthwhile as the diamonds that are in the coal mine. Although in the Replacements’ case it’s more like the coal in the diamond mine – they really were good more than they were bad, at least on record.

THE VERDICT: Yes

The Pixies

The big question with The Pixies is how much of their post-reunion career should be considered. Taken as a totality, they’re yet another band with a very powerful initial set of material that they have no spent the last fifteen or so years just ruining. Their post-reunion recordings have been terrible parodies of their original selves. But then, they’d hardly be the only band in the hall of fame to have a bunch of terrible records they made past their artistic prime, so I suppose if we allow for the four perfect albums they made in the late eighties and early nineties 2, then they’re basically a shoo-in.

THE VERDICT: Yes

The Black Crowes

I guess this idea clearly comes from the same brain as the Lenny Kravitz idea, but jesus, it’s still a terrible idea.

THE VERDICT: Lord no.

Black Flag

Black Flag were, within the realms that they existed, tremendously influential innovators – they brought a lot of what hardcore would be to what was then just regular-core punk rock, they exemplified the kind of back-breaking, bone-grinding work ethic that most other bands never come anywhere near, they demonstrated a tremendous devotion to doing things on their own terms, and an even more tremendous devotion to being in the band they created. They had three great singers (out of four), the last of whom was the incomparable Henry Rollins 3. They had a couple of the best rhythm sections in punk rock 4 , and once they’d exhausted hardcore, they went on to be a hugely instrumental influence on the set of heavy metal subgenres that developed out of their mid-eighties material (sludge metal, stoner metal, ultimately doom metal and drone metal). This is all against the backdrop, of course, of their guitar player being an unbelievable, towering wizard of an instrumentalist, and also a terrible, exploitative businessman, a vindictive son of a bitch, and possibly a complete psychopath. Comme ci, comme ca.

THE VERDICT: Yes, but I would hope Greg Ginn wouldn’t show up.

Big Star

Even if their output wasn’t top-shelf, Big Star would probably have earned their place for basically being the textbook example of a “cult band” – a band that never had hits and never did much by way of sales, but that ended up meaning a whole lot to an overwhelmingly large percentage of the people that did hear them. And their records are uniformly amazing.

THE VERDICT: Yes

Billy Idol

He can start a club with Lenny Kravitz and the members of the Black Crowes, right? I mean, he’s better than those two, but I still would love to know what the argument here is.

THE VERDICT: Of course not

Bjork

Every time a bunch of people come up in a list like this, I run up against the practicality of the fact that, while I don’t think Bjork has any place in the rock and roll anything. But of course, the rock and roll hall of fame has well-established that you don’t have to play rock and roll music, or any of its myriad derivatives, to get in there. So that leaves us with the following facts: Bjork is a genius, all of her music is incredible, she has been incalculably influential, she’s sold a whole bunch of records, and she’s been going at it for a very, very long time.

THE VERDICT: Yes

Bon Jovi

I addressed this previously, and feel like giving it even more words is not really going to edify anything. Bon Jovi is awful.

THE VERDICT: No

Smashing Pumpkins

It pains me to say it, but the Smashing Pumpkins almost certainly have no place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I love them – I really do – but the things they did that were cool were basically lifted wholesale from other bands 5, and while it’s fun to listen to, it does sort of mean that the artistic contributions they made themselves are basically negligible.

THE VERDICT: Sadly no 

Blue Öyster Cult

Eh. I also like the Blue Öyster Cult, but other than their contribution to the field of unnecessary umlauts, and a couple of admittedly-great tunes, they were sort of prog-rock lite, and therefore not terribly necessary.

THE VERDICT: No

Public Image Ltd

Man, I have about six thousand different opinions of PiL, based largely on what day it is. The things that are constant is this: their first album is really good, and their second album is legitimately one of the best albums ever made. Flowers of Romance and Album are where things get a little wobbly. I oscillate between thinking that the former is an inspired piece of outsider-ish experimentalism as an attempt to salvage a once-vital band, and that it’s an amateurish garbage fire from a churl who didn’t know when to leave well enough alone, and that the latter is a sturdy art-pop record with guitars and that it’s the final sign that John Lydon had given up the creative ghost entirely to just coast on his own name. Second Edition notwithstanding, I just don’t think the rest of it holds up, but this is probably the closest edge case in the bunch.

THE VERDICT: No, but only barely.

The Melvins

They mostly invented a new way to be a heavy metal band, and they did so without falling into any of the traps of being a heavy metal band 6. They’ve sounded basically the same for literally my entire life, while never managing to actually sound like they were repeating themselves. They’ve made too many records, of course, and the records generally have too many songs on them, but in their catalog is a strong couple dozen truly-amazing pieces of work, and a lot of very-good secondary material. So I’m pretty comfortable saying their place should be assured.

THE VERDICT: Yes

Fugazi

See everything I said above about The Minutement? All of that is true of Fugazi, with the added bonus that Fugazi is, somehow, even better. They are, as far as such a thing has ever existed, the platonic ideal of a rock band, and they never made a bad record. They barely even made bad songs. They were exactly what they meant to be the whole time, were ferociously capable, and did the whole thing by their own rules and on their own terms. While it’s perverse to say that they belong in a shrine to the commercial aspects of rock music, it is also true that if there is anything at all to the “hall of fame” aspect of the organization, then their place is undeniable.

THE VERDICT: Yes

Dio

Yet again: capable rock band, did a fine job, great singer. Dio is in much the same situation as The Misfits. I like Dio, and I think that Ronnie James Dio’s gifts to rock music should be appreciated, but I don’t really know if the Hall of Fame is the place for it.

THE VERDICT: No

Elliott Smith

I mean, imagine if Cat Stevens (who is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame already) were exactly the same, only like 1,000% better in pretty much every appreciable way. Luckily, you don’t have to imagine it, because the world has already given us Elliott Smith. Great songs, great records, great singing, great playing, just great all around.

THE VERDICT: Absolutely

Psychedelic Furs

This is another band that folks of a certain age 7 are really into, that really left an impression on a very specific group of people, and that, while I sort of understand what they’re on about, are really, really context-dependent. And I think we all know my feelings on context-dependency when it comes to Halls of Fame.

THE VERDICT: Not really

X

As someone who listens to an enormous amount of music that happens at the intersection of punk rock and country, I would be lying openly if I were unprepared to acknowledge the huge contribution of X to this field. Their first few records are pretty incredible, and they definitely created something that wasn’t quite there before.

THE VERDICT: Yes

Free

Often it’s a nonsense thing to call a band “ahead of its time”. What that tends to mean is that a band’s influence was felt beyond their popularity. The latter is true of Free, but it is also true that they really were ahead of their time: they forged their way through a sound that, shortly after they stopped using it, became frigging huge. They only had one major hit (the unimpeachable “All Right Now”), but that doesn’t lessen the hugely-underrated quality of the rest of their records. Calling them merely the top-dollar best band Paul Rogers was ever in is not saying nearly enough about how much better Free were than any given band that sounds like Free.

THE VERDICT: Yes

New Order

It is completely inexplicable that not only is New Order not in the RRHOF, but they’ve never even been nominated 8.  I mean, I wouldn’t put them in before Joy Division 9, but I’d put them in before a ton of other bands. But they’ve never even been nominated. What a sick, sd world it is.

THE VERDICT: Yes

Tom Waits

Y’know, I don’t know if I’d call Tom Waits as being included for a number of reasons, but it turns out that it doesn’t matter. Contrary to Jeff Ament’s shirt’s proclamations, Tom Waits was inducted into the HOF in 2011.

THE VERDICT: Moot. He’s already in there.

Emerson Lake & Palmer

A titan of prog-rock. As preposterous as Yes, as ambitious as Genesis, and as bombastic as King Crimson. They, along with Wendy Carlos did a lot to get rock dudes into classical music, and they were a reliable touring and sales draw. I’m not sure that they’ve still got a bunch of acolytes out there but hell, why not?

THE VERDICT: Probably

The Jam

The Jam’s best songs are some of the best songs. They more than any rock band that precedes them except The Who did more to fuse together catchy tunefulness and extremely loud instrument-bashing. They devolved (and Paul Weller continues to chase whatever the bottom of this hole is) into a band with a look and very little else, but the period from 1976 to 1980 was as good as you could reasonably expect a band to be.

THE VERDICT: Sure

The Smiths

I hate The Smiths. I hate their stupid moaning singer, I hate his late-stage turn into reactionary politics, I hate their wasteful deployment of a genuinely-great guitar player. I hate that people that hate this band don’t even hate them for the correct reason 10. Due to a number of ongoing biographical influences in my life, I have tried and tried and tried with The Smiths, and I like about three of their songs, although sometimes that number is as low as one. That said, they launched about a million people into making their own records, they continue to have a rabid, devoted fanbase to this day, and their deeply awful, stupid garbage music has meant a great deal to a whole lot of intelligent, discerning people, many of whose opinions I respect. I think they absolutely have earned a spot in the Hall of Fame, but it’s a stupid, terrible spot that I never want to visit.

THE VERDICT: Yes.

The Descendents

I mean, I’ve so far argued for the inclusion of bands for inventing rock-dervied subgenres like hardcore and sludge metal, so it seems like exactly the wrong time to clamp down on the Descendents, who were by no means bad, despite the fact that they invented pop-punk. This is because if there is vanishingly little good hardcore, there is even less good pop-punk, and it is largely a shameful thing to have helped invent. Bill Stevenson (see Black Flag) remains an all-time great drummer though.

THE VERDICT: Not really

Kraftwerk

Of all the motorik bands, Kraftwerk had the most outside appeal. Hip-hop would be unquesitonably different without their records, even if you only count the times they were directly sampled, and a lot of electronic-inflected rock music wouldn’t really exist in the same form without them. Plus their thing is well-known and identifiable enough to be a one-word punchline on The Simpsons, and how can you get more recognizable than that?

THE VERDICT: Of course

Sonic Youth

Sonic Youth are the most well-known noise rock band to ever exist. They did this, primarily, by not actually being a noise rock band full time. Despite this, they made a streak of untouchably-great weirdo experimental rock records (Bad Moon Rising/EVOL/Sister) that they followed up by a trio of almost-as-great much more traditionally (but still noise-inflected) rock records (Daydream Nation/Goo/Dirty), before spending the remained of their time as a band exploring the various unplumbed corners of their own sound. During that time they also recorded eye-opening collaborations with Jim O’Rourke, Merzbow, Ikue Mori, Mats Gustafsson, and Yamatsuka Eye, all of whom are genuine actual titans of noise music. They were, in a way that is obvious if you’ve spent any time reading these here pieces, a huge part of my own musical development, and in a couple of generations’ worth of people learning to value noise and texture over craft and mechanical execution. The fact that they wrote great songs and were rocking besides, and were tireless champions of the things they liked 11, meant that they constructed an entirely new paradigm for rock bands to exist within, aesthetically. And, of course, they sounded like no other band that came before them, and only made one actually bad record.

THE VERDICT: Unquestionably.

Todd Rundgren

I’m not sure if Jeff Ament is calling for Rundgren’s inclusion as a producer, in which case a fairly strong argument can be made, or as a performer, in which case I would have to ask if Jeff Ament has rocks in his head.

THE VERDICT: As a producer, yes. As a performer, no, never.

Ted Nugent

Fuck Ted Nugent.

THE VERDICT: No

The Cure

The Cure were nominated in 2012. I have no idea what kept them out that year, because The Cure were great, and were willing to make records that ranged from extremely likable to deeply weird, and covered all sorts of ground in between, while still always sounding like The Cure. They wrote some of the best songs, they were hugely influential, and they existed as a vital unit (albeit with some turnover) for a very long time. They should probably be in before the overwhelming majority of bands on this list.

THE VERDICT: Yes

The MC5

Still a “no”, with the single-song “Kick Out the Jams” caveat. Also, when presented with this argument, a very vehement companion argued that Wayne Kramer’s contribution to rock music was a willingness to be an outspoken, tireless activist for causes that were important to him, which was also influential on a bunch of people who also were inclined to do so. But also, his band kind of sucked except for some spotty exceptions here and there.

THE VERDICT: Yes to the activist hall of fame, no to the rock and roll hall of fame.

Captain Beefheart

Captain Beefheart was relentlessly experimental, to the point of seemingly-literal madness. He did a bunch of things that are legendarily crazy to get his bands to make the sounds that existed in his head, and he genuinely (at least for a couple of records there) made records that defied giving the listener much to grab onto, and with pretty much zero outside reference points. If they weren’t influential sonically – i.e. there aren’t many band that sound much like Captain Beefheart – then the influence there was that you can use the rock music idiom to make literally whatever sounds you wanted, and you could call it music. He expressed thoughts and ideas in ways that are, upon listening to them, completely otherworldly. He found ways to get people to play “freer” than just about any jazz musician, while still constructing disruptive anti-grooves like someone who wanted to turn music itself inside-out. What I’m saying is: if we had more Captain Beefhearts, we’d have a better world, musically-speaking.

THE VERDICT: Yes

Warren Zevon

It sounds like damning with faint praise, but I like Warren Zevon fine, even though I don’t have much to say about him, and he’s famous enough and respected enough and influential enough that he probably has a spot waiting for him, but it’s more for reasons of “I can’t really see why not” than anything I can actively think of.

THE VERDICT: Sure

Link Wray

He was an awfully good guitar player, and “Rumble” is great, but I don’t know that there’s enough there to justify an actual induction.

THE VERDICT: No

Weather Report

Oh, here’s a weather report for you: it’s raining cats and go fuck yourself out there.

THE VERDICT: Good lord no.

Devo

Without Devo, there would not be hundreds of wiry, nerdy, complete odd-ball rock bands in the world, without each of whom the world would be somewhat lesser. It’s hard to describe the power that Devo’s existence gives people of a certain bent and inclination without it sounding overblown or like a joke, but then, Devo’s entire existence was perched right on the edge of being a joke itself. It sure wasn’t, though, and they absolutely deserve credit for forging their way through the world in exactly the form they felt they should take.

THE VERDICT: Yes

The Flaming Lips

The Flaming Lips can have a spot in the rock and roll hall of fame just as soon as someone explains to me a quality of their musical existence that is a reason to think anything of them at all that actually has anything to do with their music. This question (“what, musically, would give me a reason to listen to the Flaming Lips?”) is one I have asked many, many, many times in the last, oh, twenty or so years, and I’m still waiting on the answer. They are dumb and terrible, with easy-to-remember album “hooks”. That Yoshimi album was ok, I guess. That’s about it.

THE VERDICT: No

Nick Drake

Nick Drake was nothing short of revolutionary in his contributions to taking volume out of rock music without taking out the emotional content. He was a folk musician 12 first and foremost, despite his high-tension, high-desperation songs. For essentially proving that you didn’t have to yell in order to rock, Nick Drake deserves a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

THE VERDICT: Yes

Harry Nilsson

John Lennon loved him, that’s for sure. So do a bunch of dudes who are John Lennon’s age, and a bunch of dudes who are of the generation after. I guess you had to be there.

THE VERDICT: Nah.

Neu!

This is the other of the major group of motorik bands (see above) – they, in fact, are composed of a couple of guys who had been in Kraftwerk. They only made three records 13, but they’re mind-blowing 14. They’re notable for being probably the most rockin’ of the motorik bands, and for having an unbelievable drummer in the form of the great Michael Rother. They came in, they did what they did, they got out, they didn’t waste their time or do anything not worth hearing. If it wasn’t as wildly influential as Kraftwerk or Can, well, I suppose that’s the world’s fault and not theirs. They did everything they could.

THE VERDICT: Yes

Chad Channing

Last year, there was some minor controversy with the selection of Pearl Jam’s drummers that was nominated for inclusion, and presumably this was on Jeff Ament’s mind when he commissioned this t-shirt, because Chad Channing’s contribution to rock music is mostly that he was the drummer on Bleach, Nirvana’s first album. So I mean, his heart’s in the right place I suppose.

THE VERDICT: Probably not

Sweet

Hey, I like “Fox on the Run” as much as anybody, I get it. I’m not heartless. But no.

THE VERDICT: No

Raymond Pettibon

Raymond Pettibon was another cover art dude. Specifically, he was the guy that did the covers for a bunch of SST albums, and is most closely associated with Black Flag 15, and also the cover to Sonic Youth’s Goo 16 . He seems ambivalent about his time associated with hardcore record covers, but he did a lot to create the look of punk-rock releases in his wake, and there are album art folks in the HOF, so I suppose in he goes.

THE VERDICT: Sure, although I doubt he’d enjoy it very much.

Oasis

Much like the Smashing Pumpkins, this is a band who has made records that I absolutely adore, but I think that putting people in the Hall of Fame for essentially being good at being super-derivative isn’t really a Done Thing, and I see no reason to start now.

THE VERDICT: No

Bad Company

Whatever you’d like to have called “sticking the landing” here, this most certainly is not it. Bad Company were mostly representative of the sorts of things that I can only call “harmful” to the general state of rock music around them, and I can’t imagine that their music, which dates poorly and sounds bad, could yield very many arguments in its favor that don’t have something to do with being there in the original context.

THE VERDICT: No.

And that wraps it up for this particular t-shirt, but not for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame itself – tune in soon for a Considered Analysis of everyone who is actually currently in the R&RHOF, to run in multiple parts in the coming several months or so.


  1.  although it is not true that none of them are in the HOF, which I suppose is the risk you take when you make your own t-shirt. 
  2.  and the fifth, somewhat-less perfect one after that 
  3.   and honestly, how could you not want to hear Henry Rollins’ induction speech? 
  4.  Kira Roessler/Bill Stevenson and Chuck Dukowski/Robo, with a shoutout to “Dale Nixon” (actually just Greg Ginn operating pseudonymously)/Bill Stevenson 
  5.  specifically they glued a lot of the English shoegaze sound onto a carbon copy of the then-current downstate Illinois scene (think The Poster Children), and rode it all the way to selling a bajillion records. 
  6.  i.e. they never fell into the “authenticity” game or anything like that 
  7.  “certain” in this case meaning “basically Jeff Ament’s” 
  8.  some of this is down to the fact that this kind of synth-driven British new wave is only just now seeing its first set of nominations, but The Eurythmics have been nominated, and Depeche Mode has been nominated, and New Order is better than both of those bands put together, which is actually just saying they’re better than The Eurythmics, as Depeche Mode is bringing basically nothing to that particular equation. 
  9.  Joy Division does not appear on Jeff Ament’s shirt 
  10.  I don’t hate Morrissey because he’s sad, I hate him because his preening, performative sadness makes him basically an inverse Bret Michaels – instead of being self-assured in his unspectaculr, boneheaded self, he’s making everyone in his audience assure him. I really have a lot of feelings about Morrissey, and his effect on certain musical concerns that his influence has affected in ways I don’t like. 
  11.  even if this sometimes meant just championing things because what “they liked” was to be seen liking those things 
  12.  for a time he had a band that was cobbled together out of members of The Fairport Convention – including the inimitable Richard Thompson –  and their contemporaries. 
  13.  there are other records, but they’re not composed affairs. Neu 4 was released in the eighties and is composed of outtakes, and Neu 86 was, perhaps unexpectedly, released in 2010, and is actually just a different version of Neu 4. 
  14.  and produced by Conny Plank, the sort of “house producer” of motorik, who probably also deserves a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but, alas, does not appear on the t-shirt in question. 
  15.   he is in fact the brother of aforementioned psycho, owner of SST records, and Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn 
  16.  released, perhaps ironically, several records after they’d already left SST 

The 2017 EMAs

So, because of the place in the year where the EMAs fall 1, it has been a full three years since I last wrote about them! It’s a shame, because they’re one of the weirder, more entertaining awards shows. Part of their weirdness is that they’re built around the tastes of an entirely different continent (obviously), but part of also seems to be their deliberate effort to not have any more in common with their more American counterparts than is strictly necessary.

In any event, even in the field of MTV-based awards shows – a field which is already known for its pronounced, decided “fun above all else” focus – the EMAs are pretty fun-oriented. There’s also not a lot of categories, which makes it easy to drop in and consider.

So let’s proceed to the dropping in and considering!

Best World Stage

I assume that we’re meant to be honoring somebody who played a set somewhere….in the world. In theory, this would mean that literally every note played publicly by anyone at any point anywhere all year would be included. Even if we extend the definition of “World” to its apparent implication 2, it just so happens that three of the best performances on “The World Stage” happened to occur at venues that MTV could use and televise. This seems like quite a coincidence.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: MTV Europe, obviously, for arranging such a thing.

Best Push

“Best combination of advertising, social media presence, effective market presentation and also just general visibility” is probably too long a category name to be allowed to stand here, but I appreciate its brazen simplicity. This is an award, simply put, for being in the public eye effectively in the year so being honored. Very straightforward. The only real difficulty here in choosing the rightful winner is that I do not, in fact, live in Europe, and therefore can only evaluate the presence of these people from the United States. I will also go a little further to say that, while the overall quality of the musical output of these folks varies wildly, I don’t really think any of them are exactly setting the world on fire, as such. That said, Khalid has been super visible in a pleasant way, and his music is pretty alright, so I’m pretty happy to give it to him.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Khalid

Biggest Fans

I do love a fan category. Although this category is full of people who do genuinely have loyal fans that seem to be a great deal into their thing, it also could be listed as “most inexplicable fans”. Katy Perry is in her most musically fallow period yet, Ariana Grande has barely done anything this year, Shawn Mendes is a total snooze, Justin Bieber continues to prove that no matter what he does, he can’t manage to murder his career, and Taylor Swift is currently at the beginning of one of the most confusing public-image pivots/musical let-downs of the modern era. I suppose the most inexplicable is Beebs, and since he’s got fans despite having basically no actual reason to have fans, his fans deserve this award.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Justin Bieber.

Best Alternative

Even by the most charitable definition of “alternative,” there’s no real reason for Lana Del Rey or Lorde to be here. Which is a real shame, because they’re also the only ones that make anything like good music 3. I suppose I should just do what I normally do, and pretend that the genre distinctions make sense to someone, and just name the one I think is the best in the field. So that is what I will do.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Lorde

Best Hip Hop

So Eminem never actually went away, it’s true, but I still feel like his recent set of interactions with the public have been really visible in a way that says “comeback” to me. Maybe next year he’ll be eligible for “Best Push”. He has not, as yet, actually managed to make any of the best hip-hop of the year 4. Post Malone isn’t really in the running here, and neither is Drake. Future would probably win in a non-Kendrick year, but that’s probably going to always be Future’s lot, given the timing of both of their careers (at least so far). Poor Future.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar

Best Rock

Well, one thing is for sure: Royal Blood have more of a hold on the European MTV audience 5 than they do on the USA audience. That notwithstanding, this is one of those rare awards show “rock” categories that is, in fact, composed of rock bands. That’s something to celebrate anyway. Hell, three of the five has even, at some point in their history, made a great record. Granted, in each of those cases it was minimum fifteen years ago, but still. It’s a good effort. Great job EMA folks, you are the real winners here.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The EMA folks. They’re all just doing a wonderful job over there.

Best Electronic

According to Wikipedia, Martin Garrick was impelled to become a DJ by seeing Tiesto, and his dream mentor is Calvin Harris. A cursory attempt to listen to his music yields the fact that this might well be true, and none of us are better off for it. Mr. Harris himself is also here, and while his material has been better in the last year or so than it was in many of the preceding years, it’s still not as good as he used to be. The Chainsmokers are still pretty loathsome. David Guetta is still David Guetta. So that means Major Lazer takes home another one of these by default.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Major Lazer

Best Pop

I feel like the best-case scenario for this sort of thing is some sort of unholy Dr. Moreau hybrid of Taylor Swift 6 and Miley Cyrus 7. We don’t have one of those, though, and it’s probably the literal opposite of Demi Lovato or, god help us all, Shawn Mendes. Camila Cabello is pretty unobjectionable, but also pretty boring (although still better than Shawn Mendes), so not really in the same league.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Taylor Swift, I guess, but I don’t think we should be too quick to discard my Cyrus/Swift unholy hybrid idea. Let’s work on it, guys.

Best New

You know, I think the best we can hope for is that all of these people are quickly forgotten, and that I don’t have to try to figure out how to write about any of these people ever again.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The oubliette of time, into which most pop stars are cast, never to escape except during nostaliga-themed playlists. Or Khalid. He’s not so bad.

Best Artist

I feel like the presence of Ed Sheeran and Shawn Mendes in this category could possibly be the last stage in some kind of apocalyptic summoning ritual, and that we’re all going to have to face the possibility of an eldritch abomination getting involved somehow, and that probably shouldn’t be allowed to happen. Alas and alack, I am powerless to stop it, so consider this a Cassandraic 8Luckily, this category also has Kendrick.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar

Best Video

It is the case that Taylor Swift’s video for “Look What You Made Me Do” sure did manage to get talked about. It is also the case that it achieved that sort of the saturation for all the wrong reasons – the circumstances of its genesis and release, the unbelievably bad song, the tone-deaf attempt to be doing….something 9, as well as a lot of Deep Thinking about what that “something” might actually be. On the other hand, none of those things make it a good video (it isn’t), and that’s sort of what we’re here for. The rest of the videos are pretty thin gruel, although at least Katy Perry’s video for “Bon Appetit” is super weird, and pretty discomforting, which means that it makes me feel something, which means it’s better than the rest of this pack.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Katy Perry, “Bon Appetit” (f. Migos)

Best Song

Oh, maybe this is why I don’t do the EMAs every year. Good grief. What a truly horrible set of songs to be nominated for anything.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Clean Bandit, “Rockabye” (f Sean Paul and Anne-Marie) 10


  1.  you can see even here that part of the problem is that they’re surrounded by the AMAs, the CMA Awards, the World Fantasy Awards, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees, and all sorts of other annual business that tends to crowd the calendar a bit. 
  2.  i.e. “the non-US parts of the world”, or perhaps even “the Europe part of the world,” which would probably be the most accurate way to do it. 
  3.  NB that Lorde is much better than Lana Del Rey 
  4.  his BET awards cypher was fun enough at the time, but really sort of lost its glow very quickly. 
  5.  or, well, on the MTV nominating body, at least. 
  6.  who, most recent material aside, is at least capable of writing and delivering prety good songs 
  7.  whose music is unlistenable dreck, but who in all other pop star categories is doing just fine. 
  8.  I mean, I’m assuming it’s Cassandraic. If any of you reading this have the power tos top an EMA award nomination from being officially announced – or Intoned to Complete the Ritual, as it were – then feel free to heed my warning and do so. We’ll all be forever in your debt. 
  9.  in the long run, what the “Look What You Made Me Do” video is liable to teach us all is that Taylor Swift has no real natural ability to work in the realm of metatext, and is pretty much only able to be effective shen she’s also being self-absorbed right up the edge of self-parody. 
  10. not that one 

The 2017 CMA Awards

It has been three years since last I wrote about the CMA awards, so here we are, back finally! The reasons for the break are ones I’ve stated before, but here they are officially: there’s very little turnover in country music these days – the people that have hits are basically the same set of people year over year – so it becomes hard to figure out new ways to write about them annually. There are also a lot of awards that cover country music, either solely or as part of the general music they cover, so it’s not like I’m not making my opinions on, say, Miranda Lambert known to the general public.

After three years, however, the landscape is indeed somewhat different. Not terribly different, but at least different enough that I feel like I do have something to say here 1. So let’s dig in and see what it is!

New Artist of the Year

I mean, I may in fact have things to say, but we’re off to a rather dispiriting start. Part of the problem here is that some of these people are playing the long game, and it may take a few years yet for their persona and/or mien to open up a bit so we know what they’re on about 2. As of the time of this writing, however, Brett Young is a slice of white toast. Luke Combs is a slice of white toast who also uses electronic beats in his country music. Jon Pardi fares a little better, and although his approach – a sort of throwback style to nineties-country 3 – isn’t winning any points with me, he’s not that bad. Lauren Alaina follows the general rule that he runners-up on Amercian Idol are almost always better than the winners 4, and it’s good to see her back again. Old Dominion is a rocking-er sort of group formed by a couple of relative-veteran songwriters who, I guess, decided it was their turn out in front of the mic. Perhaps betraying the time they’ve already spent doing all this stuff professionally, it’s also their music that I like the most of this set of people – actually, Happy Endings is quite good.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Old Dominion

Music Video of the Year

Well, from the jump I can say that I have no idea what makes Keith Urban’s video for “Blue Ain’t Your Color” anything other than a bog-standard, nothing-special music video. While I do like the time-honored tradition of the country-music shaggy dog story (such as it is) 5, I don’t really like Point Break, so the Brothers Osborne’s “It Ain’t My Fault” doesn’t do much for me as a video. Also, apparently “robberies” were a real motif this year, since Thomas Rhett’s “Craving You” also features one heavily. It doesn’t really work any better for him. Little Big Town’s “Better Man” is a pretty good song, but the video does basically nothing that the song doesn’t also do. Miranda Lambert’s “Vice” is more or less as good a Miranda Lambert song as there is, and the video has a pleasing sort of “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” thing 6, which, I suppose, means it’s the best video in and of itself.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Miranda Lambert, “Vice”

Musician of the Year

This is one of the hardest categories to enumerate, not because it’s difficult to recognize good playing vs. bad playing, but because even once I’ve tracked everything down, I still have to try to pick it out of wherever it’s placed in an (inevitably) terrible mix 7. So, given the availability of the material to me, I’m calling it for Dan Huff. But I’m sure each of these folks did fine work that I might not have heard.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Dan Huff

Musical Event of the Year

Well, I still don’t know what this award is actually given for. It seems to be “an interesting duet.” And while it’s true that this year sees an erstwhile Carolina Chocolate Drop nominated for a country music award (!), it’s also true that Glen Campbell is dead, and went out in a glorious, heartbreaking fashion, and it’s hard to find anything else as moving.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Glen Campbell with Willie Nelson, “Funny How Time Slips Away”

Vocal Duo of the Year

OK so in FN 7 I mentioned that we’d moved through the scourge of bro-country, which is not entirely true. Some of it still, unfortunately, hanging around, and a lot of it is in this category. Throwing those acts out leaves us with Maddie & Tae, and the aforementioned Brothers Osborne. So this one was easy.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Maddie & Tae

Vocal Group of the Year

Of all the things in this world that I don’t “get,” the thing I don’t get the hardest is the continued existence of Rascal Flatts. No seriously. Why? Why are they still happening to me? 8. Anyway. I don’t ordinarily like Little Big Town much, “Better Man” notwithstanding. Lady Antebellum are better, but still not quite good enough. Old Dominion vs. the Zac Brown Band is the sort of contest that I wish the CMA’s yielded more of 9. I guess I’m going to go with Zac Brown here, but I’m open to it going either way.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Zac Brown Band

Male Vocalist of the Year

See all those new and exciting things I had to say up there? Yeah, this category isn’t a place where there’s any of that. It’s not Keith Urban. It’s never Keith Urban. It’s not Dierks Bentley. It’s never Dierks Bentley. It’s not Eric Church. It’s probably never Eric Church. It’s not Thomas Rhett – but it could be I guess maybe! It’s Chris Stapleton. Yay.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Chris Stapleton. Yay.

Female Vocalist of the Year

Hey look it’s Reba McEntire! I actually heard the record that got her this nomination for the first time while researching this very writeup 10. She’s still a pretty good singer. Probably better than Kelsey Ballerini or Carrie Underwood. She’s probably not a better vocalist than Miranda Lambert, but Reba does select better material for herself, so she’s got that. I think I’m going to give this one to Maren Morris, as a sort of compromise between whether this award is actually about mechanical vocal talent (in which case it would be Miranda Lambert), or is instead about an ability to perform appropriately-selected songs well (in which case it would be Reba McEntire).

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Maren Morris

Song of the Year

True story: the only CMA Award that Taylor Swift was up for this year was for writing Little Big Town’s “Better Man” (she’s the sole credited writer). I would probably call this a cynical, ratings-bait move: a naked attempt to get Taylor to show up to the thing, despite the fact that she has basically nothing to do with country music anymore as a performer, but it’s not a bad song, certainly, and actually “songwriter” is probably a better lane for Taylor Swift, given her difficulties with both her public persona and her, y’know, singing voice. Anyway, it’s probably also the best song here, which is why I don’t mind spending this entire paragraph talking about Taylor Swift. I mean, I suppose it means that I am, like the CMA, taking this opportunity to take advantage of Taylor Swift’s presence to maker her a part of the whole thing. Truly one must beware when fighting monsters not to become a monster, for I am staring into the abyss, and the abyss stares also into me.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Taylor Swift, “Better Man”

Album of the Year

It is weird to see Jason Isbell on this list! I would like to know what this means! Did he recently do something that made inroads into his mainstream-country acceptance? Did the CMA go to him, since he’s already doing the sort of thing that say, Chris Stapleton, Old Dominion and Zac Brown have also recently become very famous by doing, and has been for decades? I have no idea. All I know is that he’s here, and while The Nashville Sound isn’t his best album with the 400 Unit, it’s surely not a bad one, and it’s better than the other albums on offer.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Jason Isbel & The 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound

Single of the Year

I would genuinely burn this whole thing down if it meant I never had to hear “Body Like a Back Road” again. I mean this genuinely. The upshot of all that is that next to “Body Like a Back Road,” all of these songs sound much better. Even “Dirt On Your Boots.” Even “Blue Ain’t Your Color.” Luckily, “Better Man” isn’t just a compromise, it’s also a good song.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Little Big Town, “Better Man”

Entertainer of the Year

The Entertainer of the Year CMA award is one of the most cursory top-line awards in the business – it’s often completely obvious who it should go to from the word “go” 11, in which case the other nominees are just there to fill out the list and get that specific set of people to get there. This year isn’t quite that situation – there are definitely some monster-selling acts represented here, but there isn’t any sort of single dominant act – and so we have Luke Bryan and Eric Church 12, and Chris Stapleton, who’s a reasonable guess. But also we have Garth Brooks, whose position as “Entertainer of the Year” is simultaneously completely honorary (it’s not like he’s contributed much to his body of work this year) and also completely earned (it’s not like there’s much of anyone doing more to entertain people – inside of country music or outside of it – in the mainstream part of the music business). I mean, it’s also pretty clearly Keith Urban’s year, given the predominance of “Blue Ain’t Your Color” in the rest of the proceedings here, and since I’m generally opposed to the emeritus awards-show win, I guess I’m once again going to have to side with the forces of the CMA. Sigh.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Keith Urban


  1.  for example, this year there is no Blake Shelton anywhere at all, which is at least interesting because he was so often my default “I guess it’s him” choice in so many of these awards shows – he’s always good enough to be better than the immediate competition, even though I rarely am actively into what he’s doing. 
  2.  After all, Luke Bryant, Dierks Bentley and even (to a lesser extent) Blake Shelton, to name a few recent examples, all started out pretty nondescript at first, and grew into their recognizable forms over time. It’s a regular occurrence in the country music cabbage patch. 
  3.  He even got to open for Alan Jackson, who’s sort of the reigning avatar of that sort of thing, since Garth Brooks has made it apparent that he’s not really much of an active participant anymore, although see below on that subject as well. 
  4.  She lost to Scott McCreery 
  5.  the most famous of which is Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue,” but the best of which is Robbie Fulks’s peerless “I Told Her Lies” 
  6.   i.e. it appears to start over at the beginning when it gets to the end, which is probably commentary on the cycles of vice-driven behavior or some such thing that I’d probably have to pay more attention to the lyrics to get anything out of. 
  7.  Longtime readers will note that I am not a dude who supports the notion that country music is necessarily any worse than it’s ever been – there are times when there’s more good country music than others, but we’re actually doing pretty well right now, having largely come through the bro-country garbage fire and back into better musical pastures. But god, the production on these records is jaw-droppingly bad. I mean, it’s not worse than the production on any other record made for the radio, but it’s still worth noting that it’s really, really bad. 
  8.  yes OF COURSE I think it’s personal. 
  9.  i.e. the kind where everybody wins 
  10.  these are the things I do for you people! 
  11.  i.e. some monster-selling record or single or whatever that dominates the year – this happens about one in every three years. 
  12.  who are largely unrepresented in other parts of the awards show, but whom it behooves the Country Music Academy to have attend the ceremony. 

2017 World Fantasy Awards

It’s almost the holidays, so it’s time for the third of the literary awards that I cover here at ONAT, the World Fantasy Awards 1 . These are generally a bit weirder, and the most literary of the three of them, and they’re also the ones that are the furthest from my usual reading comfort level, so they’re a fun and exciting time for us all. This year, for the first time since I started writing about them a couple of years ago, the form of the award is decided and no longer under controversy 2, which is probably good, as it means things are getting back to something more like normal.

Also as is customary in this space, I’ll be leaving out the special categories – I’m not really invested in such a way that I’m able to evaluate whether, say, Beneath Ceaseless Skies or the director of the Clarion workshop has done more for the state of Fantasy in 2017, so I’ll just nod approvingly at whoever it goes to.

The lifetime achievement awards this year are Marina Warner, whose mythology work is essentially peerless 3, and Terry Brooks who, for whatever his failings may be, was still responsible for an enormous amount of work (at least by page count) of work that I spent some happy adolescent time on, so I’m pretty happy to see that as well.  

And here are the rest of the categories.

Best Artist

This is a particularly strong year for this category. Greg Bridges and Julie Dillon are both here for continuing to make excellent work in the field, but it’s all pretty tradiational, so, as good as it is 4, it’s not quite in the same class here. My 2015 pick, Jeffrey Alan Love 5, did some more excellent work, but this year it’s not quite at the top of the heap. Paul Lewin does some incredible things with color and iconography. But Victo Ngai continues to make incredible art, and often for things where it is less-likely than you’d think her art to necessarily need to be that good – she does a lot of ads and stuff, is what I’m saying here – so I think she gets it for not only being super-great at it, but for being super-great at getting that stuff in front of people in somewhat-unexpected places 6.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Victo Ngai

Best Collection

Joe Abercrombie’s Sharp Ends is pretty cool. I’m not a huge proponent of the needlessly grim ‘n’ gritty, but I will cop to be entertained by it when it contains a healthy dose of joie de vivre, as Abercrombie’s best work inevitably does. L.S. Johnson’s Vacui Magia oscillates between excellent lyrical modern fantasy and kind of getting bogged down in its own style 7. Tina Connolly’s short work isn’t always as funny as her novels 8but it’s still pretty entertaining. Jeffrey Ford is a wonderful writer (and he’s from Delaware, Ohio), and A Natural History of Hell has a bunch of stories in it that I loved reading it, and had loved previously, but this category was kind of always Ken Liu’s to walk away with, and The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories doesn’t falter.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Ken Liu, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories

Best Anthology

The impact of HP Lovecraft has really been felt in the World Fantasy Awards for the last few years 9  – it could be a residual effect of the controversy over the old statuette, or it could just be one of those periodic-resurgence bits of business. Children of Lovecraft is a nice collection, but it’s kind of numbing, and some of it goes a little further past derivative for me to be entirely happy with it, although the reliably-great Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “Excerpts for An Eschatology Quadrille” is very impressive. The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016 seems like kind of a cop-out 10, although it also isn’t the best anthology, so whatever unfairness it may seem to have in its favor, it’s not really that effective. The Starlit Wood is a book of re-imaginings of fairy tales, and while parts of it are as good as you could hope, particularly Cathrynne Valente’s unsettling, very frightening “Badgirl, the Deadman and the Wheel of Fortune,” Charlie Jane Anders’ exuberant “The Super Ultra Duchess of Fedora Forest,” 11 and Naomi Novik’s “Spinning Silver,” which gives some actual agency to the protagonist of Rumplestiltskin. A lot of it, however, is pretty standard-issue “what if it was like the original fairy tale, only different-er?” stuff that’s pretty thick on the ground anyway. Clockwork Phoenix 5 is a worthy addition to the series, and worth a look for CSE Cooney and Carlos Hernandez’s beautiful “The Book of May,” as well as Beth Cato’s “The Soul of Horses,” not to mention probably the best story written about literal squids all year, Rich Larsen’s “Innumerable Glittering Lights,” but as with all Clockwork Phoenix installments, it also has a high incidence of writing that goes for “clever” over “effective.” That leaves us with Jack Dann’s wonderful Dreaming in the Dark, which isn’t always consistent, but is always ambitious, and contains some of the year’s absolute best work – including by ONAT favorites Sean McMullen, Janeen Webb and Angela Slatter, whose “Neither Time Nor Tears” is an especially good piece of work in a standout pack.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Jack Dann (ed.), Dreaming in the Dark

Best Short Fiction

Brooke Bolander’s “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” is back! And, as with the other awards it’s been nominated for, it’s still good, but not quite good enough. Rachel K. Jones’s “The Fall Shall Further the Flight in Me” deserves full credit for coming up with a really cool take on angels, with some great images, but it falls short in a couple of other respects. G.V. Anderson’s “Das Steingeschopf” is a nifty story about a gargoyle craftsman, that also has a really interesting way to build magic into the story. Maria Dahvana Headley’s “Little Widow” is a very satisfying story about a dinosaur carnival that really sticks its landing. In this case, however, I think that Amal El-Mohtar’s beautiful “Seasons of Glass and Iron,” 12 with its embedded empowerment stories and its examination of the roles of women in such stories, is the best one in this category, especially for an award devoted explicitly to fantasy.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Amal El-Mohtar, “Seasons of Glass and Iron”

Long Fiction

Someday I will read enough Kai Ashante Wilson to be able to appreciate what are, clearly, his work’s considerable charms. Really. He’s a wonderful writer, obviously, loads of craft and talent, I just can’t get his stories to stick with me. Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is still a wonderful piece of work, but is overshadowed by the other great contribution to Lovecraftia in this category. Every Heart a Doorway is a great piece of work, and makes me excited for the future installments in the series 13, and I wouldn’t be sad if it won, but it’s probably still only in third place, which is an incredible embarrassment of riches. Paul F. Olson’s “Bloodybones” is a great look at small-town murder, the development of folk legend, and just generally a ripping good ghost story that goes to a lot of really thoughtful places, and it almost won. But honestly, I keep going back to Victor Lavalle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, and its incredible take on Lovecraft and the real world, and I keep being impressed by how, even with such a tightly-focused specificity in its subject matter, it keeps bringing more things to my attention.

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

Novels

So, for starters, all of these are very good books. Betsy James’s Roadsouls builds a hell of a world to put in between her star-crossed lovers (sort of), and I would happily have spent more time in it, even if the pacing sort of runs out of steam once it becomes apparent where it’s all going. Mishell Baker’s Borderline is still a great take on mental illness and disability awareness, putting the main character’s mental and physical issues front and center in a way that is plausible 14, without being exploitative or delegitimizing. Claire North’s The Sudden Appearance of Hope works a lot of intrigue and emotional truth into a story with a surprising premise – the main character is forgotten by everyone who interacts with her, invariably, every time – and also manages to make several points about the technology-assisted modern pursuit of an ideal without being bogged down by it. The Obelisk Gate is nigh-perfect, and is kept out of the top spot only because it remains a middle installment, and although it’s more standalone than a lot of middle installments can be 15, it also works better as part of a series than as its own consideration. Although, really, stay tuned for next year, where this category is basically Jemisin’s to lose. So that leaves us with Matt Ruff’s incredible, funny, moving, scary Lovecraft Country, which doesn’t have to conted with the idea of its place in a series at all, and is, besides all of that, basically flawless from cover to cover.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Matt Ruff, Lovecraft Country

And that wraps it up for this year’s World Fantasy Awards! Tune in next year, when a bunch of these books’ sequeles will be up for some more!


  1.  the faithful among you will note that this breaks up the rocktober business, meaning that rocktober will extend WELL into November, because obviously the timeline is slipping. 
  2.  see previously 
  3.  although the caveat here is that I’m not super familiar with her fiction 
  4. and I don’t want it to escape notice that I genuinely love Greg Bridges’ work. 
  5.  Samuel Aray was the “official” winner, but not the rightful one. Obviously.   
  6.  although also some more likely places 
  7.  it also has a couple of scoops too much sex in it for me to really get behind it, but that’s a personal thing. 
  8.  although the story in this collection that’s set in the Seriously Wicked universe is suitably comedic. 
  9.  see the Long Fiction and Novel categories, below 
  10.  although as a longtime supporter and reader of various and sundry Best American series, I’m happy to welcome it into the fold (this is only the second volume in the series), and think that it’s definitely worth a read. 
  11.  which adapts the Grimm Brothers’ curiosity “the Mouse, the Bird and the Sausage”, and finally answers the question that is left to stand on its own in the original, namely: why does a sausage have identification papers? I assure you, this is genuinely a plot element in the story as collected by the Grimms. 
  12.  which also appears in the aforementioned The Starlit Wood 
  13.  the second volume, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, is equally wonderful, and is about two of the characters in Doorway. 
  14.  I mean, as plausible as stories about fairies that includes a girl who can transfer her feelings into an invisible magic dragon is going to be. 
  15. and, actually, now that the end of the triology is out and I’ve read it, it holds up even better than I thought back when I first wrote about it for the Nebulas 

The Best Records of October 2017

Bell Witch – Mirror Reaper (This is the follow-up to their incredible Four Phantoms, which was explicitly about four different ways of dying, and is conceptually tied to the death of their founding drummer. It’s a surprisingly beautiful, harrowing piece of doom, and it’s utterly essential.)

Husker Du – Savage Young Du (I mean, it’s probably less-than-ideal that this cuts off before their SST material – material that could desperately do with the sound upgrade – but it’s still an amazing look at a band that wasn’t quite yet, but would soon become, one of the greatest rock bands of all time)

UUUU – UUUU (Graham Lewis continues to be one of the most interesting purveyors of weirdo rock music, this time diving further into outright noise than usual, and coming up with the best record he’s played on in a very long time. Call it “unlikely second acts part I”)

Watter – History of the Future (Britt Walford’s newer band turns out to have real legs, and their second album is just as good, if not better, than the first one. Call it “unlikely second acts part II”)

G Herbo – Humble Beast (It’s been several years since G Herbo helped export drill music from Chicago, and in that time he’s really figured out how to maximize his approach, with an expertly-crafted album, and a strong bid for being a genuinely great hip-hop songwriter.)