A Considered Look at Every Inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Part 5

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a place that I find, as an institution, vexing. The actual, physical hall of fame – the pyramidal building on the lake in Cleveland – is pretty cool, but it is spoken and thought of often as an intangible – as a sort of arbitrating body on the worthiness of the body of rock musicians. My thought, for many years upon surveying lists 1 and the like was to think that they have about a fifty percent success rate for getting it anything like right.

But what if it doesn’t? Previously I listened to and considered each of the best-selling albums of all time, and learned that they were considerably more of a mixed bag than I had thought 2 So what if the inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are the same sort of deal?

And so it’s time to dive in and take a look at what the nominees and their enshrinement actually are.

Click the links for Part 1,Part 2,  Part 3 and Part 4 of this series.

Class of 1992

Bobby “Blue” Bland

WHO HE IS: “Frank Sinatra of the Blues,” Bland was a Beale Street guy 3. He was a singer, predominantly, and sang a sort of gospel-y blues.

WHY HE’S HERE: He was connected to B.B. King, opening for him for decades, so maybe that? He also uh…”pioneered” the practice of getting super-duper fucked by his record label, which is a time-honored rock and roll tradition. Poor guy.

AND….?: I don’t know, man. He had a nice voice. He’s in the Blues Hall of Fame, which seems right. I can’t imagine what any of his music as to do with Rock music, or anything outside of the Blues circles in which he was very famous.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Probably not.

Booker T and the MGs

WHO THEY ARE: The house band for Stax records. Two of them are also members of the Blues Brothers’ band. You probably know “Green Onions,” even if you don’t think you know “Green Onions”

WHY THEY’RE HERE: They were a fantastic band that played on a bunch of amazing records by people who are also inducted into the rock and roll hall of fame 4, as well as making their own tremendous records. Still not Rock music, but still great.

AND…?: Oh, they were fantastic.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes

Johnny Cash

WHO HE IS: The country musician that it’s “ok” for non-country dudes to like 5. The last of the million-dollar quartet to be inducted. The Man in Black.

WHY HE’S HERE: You know, sometimes I pessimistically talk about the need for people to take things that are very good and, rather than use the quality of the thing to challenge their own assumptions (i.e. “this is good country music, so there must be good country music”), they remove the thing from its original context/genre and insist that it’s so good it must be something else entirely (i.e. “Johnny Cash is, if you think about it, more like a rock star” etc.). But I’m feeling chipper today, so I’ll just say his songs were good enough that they won people over that would ordinarily be opposed to his approach. He did have significant influence on folks of all sorts of genres, despite never really having anything at all to do with rock music. My favorite under-reported influence was that his band for a couple of decades, the Tennesse Two, pioneered the kind of primitive amateurism that would be celebrated in rock music. What I’m saying here is that Luther Perkins, his guitar player on his most famous albums, could barely fucking play his guitar, and Johnny Cash wasn’t much better at it.

AND…?: Great records, except for the ones that are terrible. The American Recordings records manage to be great even while they’re ridiculous, which, come to think of it, is also something that Johnny Cash did consistently.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Absolutely.

The Isley Brothers

WHO THEY ARE: Well, the logline is that they were a long-running R&B group, but that leaves aside that they spent several decades being amorphous, ambitious and able to do pretty much everything they tried. They were wildly successful for a very long time, and really didn’t make much bad music along the way.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: A handful of their songs are songs everyone knows – “Shout” first and foremost among them, but also “It’s Your Thing,” “This Old Heart of Mine”, “Nobody But Me” and “Who’s That Lady”, to name a few more – and whatever their actual influence on rock and roll music may have been. Oh, and for one not-particularly-successful year, Jimi Hendrix was their guitar player (that’s him playing on “Testify”).

AND…: they were a fantastic band who made fantastic records. They fell off in the eighties, as the general currents of R&B and the production of the time carried them into some fairly uninspiring places, but they were very good for a very long time. They were even much closer to rock and roll than many of the R&B bands listed here.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes

The Jimi Hendrix Experience

WHO THEY ARE: Jimi Hendrix’s first, longer-running band. The band that made all of his studio albums 6.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: Well, they were Jimi Hendrix’s vehicle. It’s not very often that the person who is the best at something makes himself apparent with few challengers, and Jimi Hendrix is one of those people. He is the best player of the electric guitar that ever happened. There are lots of great guitar players, and plenty of super-great guitar players, and none of them are as good at playing the guitar as Jimi Hendrix. So this, his band that helped him create his studio work, is a band with an assured place. That said, they were also a fantastic band. Mitch Mitchell would have been the best musician in literally any other band he could’ve been in, and Jimi Hendrix is an underrated singer. And Noel Redding was, y’know, a bass player. He did a fine job.

AND…?: It can be hard to throw on a Jimi Hendrix record for funsies in 2018 – the best parts have been jackhammered into everyone’s skulls all the time by five decades of radio play – but they hold up really well, and are quite good. I have nothing bad to say about any of them, even though this is the first time I’ve really listened to them of my own volition in many years.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes

Sam & Dave

WHO THEY ARE: Double Dynamite! The Sultans of Sweat! You didn’t have to love them, but you did but you did but you did! And they thank you!

WHY THEY’RE HERE: They did a lot to invent modern R&B. They sang the shit out of everything all the time. They had a large number of giant hits. They had absolutely zero to do with rock music.

AND…?: Great singers, great songs. Bruce Springsteen goes on and on about them every now and again, which is pretty cool.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Oof. There are unlikelier people who I think are rightfully inducted, so I suppose they can get past me, but they really very much entirely were not a rock concern.

The Yardbirds

WHO THEY ARE: A british white-blues outfit with a bunch of famous guitar players or whatever. Eventually they morphed into Led Zeppelin, which was the most productive use of anyone’s time.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: Because they are a trivia question – “which band had all these famous guitar players in it?” – and because they pioneered white-blues. Their primary influence on rock music was finding reasons to praise them that had nothing to do with their bog-standard (but competently executed) take on the blues.

AND…?: there is nothing in any of these descriptions that should leave you with the impression that I think any of this is any good.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Several of the members of the Yardbirds would go on to be inducted, most rightfully, and that’s fine, but the band themselves are, once again, the answer to a trivia question, and aren’t due the seriousness with which they are considered.

Elmore James

WHO HE IS: Blues guy. He played more or less all the kinds of blues at once, on a really loud slide guitar.

WHY HE’S HERE: He was pretty great. He’s an “early influence” and for once I can’t argue: the dude had the coolest guitar sound in the world for a good decade for his entire career, and he was a fantastic, inventive player.

AND…?: I’m into it. He came up through a system where all music was music to dance to, and he got really good at making downright weird music that still compelled people to dance. That’s a pretty cool approach, and even if a lot of his acolytes make dumbshit music that I can’t get behind, he was very good.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes

Professor Longhair

WHO HE IS: A New Orleans jazzbo. He was around for a long time, and was big stuff in the seventies (right before his death) when a bunch of people were vocally into him.

WHY HE’S HERE: I guess the “big stuff in the seventies” thing? I don’t really know. He wrote some songs that get covered fairly often. My guess – and this is purely baseless, as the nomination/induction process is notoriously opaque – is that they wanted New Orleans jazz represented somewhere in the “early influences” section, and they landed on Professor Longhair. To be fair, if this is the case, that’s probably just about what I would’ve done.

AND…?: I don’t know. It doesn’t have anything to do with rock music. The people that took the most from Professor Longhair – the Meters, and the assorted Neville constellation – are absent from the HOF completely, which is a crime and a miscalculation, so it’s not even like his influence is felt very much among the artists that are in there.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Not really, but as a token representative of a subgenre, I suppose I can’t fight against it too hard.

Leo Fender

WHO HE IS: The guy who founded Fender guitars, and the guy who designed the Telecaster, the Stratocaster and the Bassman amp, among other things.

WHY HE’S HERE: Well, those three things (and their long, long list of copycats) are pretty indispensable to rock music as it is played.

AND…?: No argument here. Pretty open and shut.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yep.

Bill Graham

WHO HE IS: The show promoter who booked the Fillmore, which is a very famous (and historically important) venue, as well as a bunch of big extravaganza-type concerts.

WHY HE’S HERE: Because the Fillmore is a very famous (and historically important) venue. And the big, extravaganza-type concerts as well.

AND…?: I dunno. On the one hand, rock music is primarily live music. It certainly needs places to happen, and the Fillmore was definitely one of those places. On the other hand, he was still just a promoter.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Not really

Doc Pomus

WHO HE IS: An early lyricst. He wrote the words to “This Magic Moment.”

WHY HE’S HERE: I guess the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame would like you to believe that forties lyricsts have an appreciable impact on the form or content of Rock and Roll.

AND…?: He’s a lyricist.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: No

Nesuhi Ertagun (actually from 1991, but I forgot to put him in there so he’s here)

WHO HE IS: Ahmet Ertugun’s brother. He was actually inducted in 1991, but I missed him. He got a lifetime achievement induction.

WHY HE’S HERE: In addition to being his brother, he was also Ahmet’s business partner.

AND…?: I mean, I guess if he did all the stuff Ahmet did, only wasn’t as out in front, he’s probably due.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure, why not?

Class of 1993

Ruth Brown

WHO SHE IS: A fifties R&B singer. She was also an activist for the rights of musicians.

WHY SHE’S HERE: She was very popular. Specifically, she was very popular for Atlantic records, which you may remember is the label founded by Ahmet Ertegun.

AND…?: She maybe should have been inducted as a non-performer for her activism, but she had nothing at all to do with rock music, and I’m not sure how much influence she’s had beyond her popularity.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Not really

Cream

WHO THEY ARE: A supergroup containing the “cream of the crop” of British blues musicians, largely according to…well, the members of the band.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: Because people cannot get enough of inducting Eric Clapton. Cream is probably the best band he’s ever been in 7. Ginger Baker was a terrific drummer, also.

AND…?: I mean, I get it. These guys got together and fulfilled a lot of the fantasies for the people who were then young people who, in 1993, were voting on whom they should induct into the rock and roll hall of fame. But this is very much a “you had to be there” situation, or else it requires a lot more of a premium placed on the pedigree of band members rather than on the actual music they actually made, which was sometimes fine, and mostly tremendously forgettable.

 

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: No

 

Creedence Clearwater Revival

WHO THEY ARE: A bunch of dudes from El Cerrito who want you to believe they are from the depth of the American South.

 

WHY THEY’RE HERE: They were an incomparable influence on Southern Rock, which did big business there for awhile. They were front and center about their politics, and took on a position of defending the underclasses. They created a half dozen actually great albums, and there’s not much wrong with their last couple. They got out while they were ahead.

 

AND…?: I mean, I love CCR to death and little pieces. The aforementioned six great albums came between July of 1968 and December of 1970, and they wrapped it up by 1972. In that time they wrote more great rock songs than most bands write in decades of work. They did it while only sounding like themselves, while at the same time never actually repeating themselves. Everything about their career was pretty admirable. Oh, and their last album, Mardi Gras, is their least-good, but has maybe their best song, “Lookin’ for a Reason.”

 

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Inarguably

 

The Doors

WHO THEY ARE: The subject of a 1991 biopic by Oliver Stone.

 

WHY THEY’RE HERE: Well, they made an enormous impact in their time, and their behavior contributed to a tonne of legends and semi-truths that inflated the story around that enormous impact. They managed to create the “wildman singer”, and thus paved the way for your jumping-around Iggy Pop/Henry Rollins types, as well as giving your extra-cool Steven Tyler/David Johansson types someone that wasn’t Mick Jagger to crib from. They were a storied rock and roll band during a storied time in rock and roll history, and they managed inspire a bunch of people to make bands.

AND…?: There is a lot that goes with The Doors that is not any of those things. They managed to build this sort of legend, fuelled largely by half-truth and gossip, about their relationship to the world that’s all pretty hard to take, especially when it burrows into the idea of Jim Morrison as a shaman or a poet 8. It is impossible to deny that The Doors, as they are, were a band that inspired a bunch of people. It is also very, very difficult to listen to their music with any sort of clear-headedness, without also buying into the considerable unearned mythology, and also ignoring that half the band was composed of some pretty terrible people, including Mr. Morrison himself. It’s also worth noting that most of the things that are remembered and/or important about the band are extramusical – their singer’s shenanigans, their drug use, their approach to their music – which is always a red flag for a band’s presence in this sort of thing.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: On paper, they were popular and influential, and people still like them, so there’s not really an argument for them not being inducted. So yes. But I implore all of you to listen to them as music, and not as the musical wing of a legend, and try to explain why any of it is special.

Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers

WHO THEY ARE: Another doo-wop group. You thought there weren’t any more doo-wop groups? I HAVE BAD NEWS FOR YOU, MY FRIEND.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: Well, they were very famous, certainly. And since the cutoff for “early influence” seems to end at about 1950, they are inducted as performers, and this is, of course, infuriating.

AND…?: Look, they were a perfectly fine doo-wop group, and they were at least more rock-adjacent than other doo-wop groups, such as it is, but holy smokes, folks.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: It’s a shame they’re this far in, because if any doo-wop group belongs in here it’s probably them, but man, am I tired of having to evaluate doo-wop groups.

Etta James

WHO SHE IS: A tremendous singer who rode the blues all the way into early rock and roll.

WHY SHE’S HERE: This is another pretty open-and-shut case 9 – she was great, she sang great songs that people liked and remembered, and a lot of people have tried to sing that way.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes

Van Morrison

WHO HE IS: A Northern Irish singer who’s been making music pretty much continuously for fifty-odd years.

WHY HE’S HERE: A lot of people get credit for being great rock and roll singers without having a traditionally great voice, but none of them are as nontraditionally great as Van Morrison. That guy turned a set of really weird attributes into a surprisingly elastic, remarkably expressive instrument. He also wrote a bunch of songs that people really like, and admirably pursued whatever his own muse was at any given moment.

AND…?: I’m lukewarm-to-middling on most of his actual music, but I get what there is to like, and reserve the right to someday come around on it.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes

Sly and the Family Stone

WHO THEY ARE: Earth’s finest psychedelic funk band, and a band that still putatively exists in some form or another.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: Their completely bugshit crazy frontman aside, they made some incredible music. At their best, they were as good as anybody, and they managed to throw all sorts of influences into their sausage machine and make it all sound good and like it belonged together.

AND…?: They weren’t always at the top of their game, but their best work is some of the best work. That’s good enough for me.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes

Dinah Washington

WHO SHE IS: The Queen of the Blues! Blues has a lot of royalty, guys. A lot.

WHY SHE’S HERE: Well, she was an accomplished jazz singer 10, and sang in a style that would influence a bunch of people that would go on to influence rock music. Once again, the early influences are a little too early.

AND…?: She also recorded the best extant version of Hank Williams’s “Cold, Cold Heart,” which is no small feat.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure, why not?

Dick Clark

WHO HE IS: The deceased host of American Bandstand. And, more modernly, Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.

WHY HE’S HERE: American Bandstand did genuinely bring rock and roll music into people’s houses, and he was the creator of it.

AND…?: I mean, there are lots of reasons to hold Dick Clark in disdain, but he did have a positive effect in this way.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure.

Milt Gabler

WHO HE IS: A record producer who made a bunch of pre-rock and roll records of note.

WHY HE’S HERE: Some of those records were important, influential ones by people who are in this very hall of fame.

AND…?: The relationship that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has with record producers seems weird and nonsensical, but I’m feeling charitable today.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes


  1.  also the centerpiece of the museum itself, for those that have never been there, is a very long video encapsulating each inducted class, with clips of performances by most of them and things like that, and is generally a pretty cool thing to behold. 
  2.  although they did, as you can read here and going back from there, skew toward “pretty bad” 
  3.  B.B. King being the most famous Beale Street guy, musically speaking. 
  4.  My thoughts on Sam & Dave are below, and on Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett are elsewhere. 
  5.  as generally expressed in the phrase “I don’t listen to country music. Except Johnny Cash.” This is sometimes also extended to Willie Nelson and/or Hank Williams. I’m sure you’ve all heard people say it. Some of you are even the people who say it. 
  6.  Band of Gypsys, a glorious mess of a record that, nevertheless, features my actual two favorite Jimi Hendrix guitar performances – the opening one-two punch of “Who Knows” and “Machine Gun” – was actually a live album featuring a different band (the titular Band of Gypsys). 
  7. this is a pretty thin compliment. 
  8.  both of which were things that Jim Morrison called himself. 
  9.  with the usual kvetching that the bulk of her work was not done in the rock and roll idiom, although at least in this case some of it was.AND…?: I have neither an argument nor much to add to this one.  
  10.  I know! But she was queen of the blues! It’s crazy! 

The 2017 Nebula Awards

The SFF-Award season can probably be said to exist in the summer, and the first of the major sff awards 1 is also my favorite: the Nebulas. This year they are terribly close to the ONAT headquarters 2, and so there is an extra frisson from knowing they’re right there.

Anyway, it was a pretty good year, all told – nothing was actively a slog to get through, and even some of the things that I wouldn’t ordinarily like were better-than-usual examples of it. Peter S. Beagle 3 is going to be declared a grand master, and we’re all going to live happily with that.

Without further ado, the rightful winners of the 2017 Nebula Awards.

The Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy

This one is not technically a Nebula, but it’s given out at the Nebula ceremonies, so I’m including it. Feel free to sue me. Both Cindy Pon’s Want and Fonda Lee’s Exo found teenage protagonists negotiating violent rebellion situations while also falling in luuuurrrrrrve with someone deeply entrenched in the situations (On opposite sides! They’re crossed by the very stars!) themselves. They are both fine 4 novels, but neither of them is ahead of the pack here. The “pack”, then, also includes Kari Maaren’s Weave a Circle Round, which propels itself along nicely and manages some good ideas, but which I found didn’t cohere as nicely around its central mythology as I would have liked. It was good, though. Sam J. Miller’s The Art of Starving is an incredible book – probably the best YA book I’ve read since I started doing this 5. It hits all sorts of fantastic notes about all sorts of subjects both near to me and otherwise, and doesn’t miss a step in its treatment of some pretty fraught territory.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Sam J. Miller, The Art of Starving

Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation

This is also not technically a Nebula, but the same deal applies down here also. This is a tricky category this year. One of the things that must be considered here is the work’s ability to hold up to an audience that isn’t already a part of its “thing.” That is to say: each of these things must be attended to singly and without consideration for its role in a larger sense – even though there is every hint that some things are included here for their role in a larger narrative. This comes to bear primarily on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which is a very good Star Wars movie, but which is almost impossible to evaluate outside of its place in the Star Wars milieu. However 6, it’s not like Star Wars’s milieu is somewhere outside the mainstream or difficult to find out about, so it isn’t docked that severely. The question of where something falls in the narrative is actually going to affect “Michael’s Gambit,” the last episode of the first season of The Good Place, and a thing that’s impossible to talk about in good faith. I suppose there’s probably a rule about only single episodes being nominated, because otherwise it would just be the entire season, but as an episode itself, it hinges too severely on the rest of the season to work, awards-wise. The first season in toto would be an eligible recipient, though. The Shape of Water is the best movie about the love between a mute woman and not-Abe not-Sapien ever made. Wonder Woman and Logan are both exemplary superhero movies – among the best ever made, but they also each have their ending-troubles 7. Get Out was originally conceived with a better ending (look it up, folks), but the one we got was good enough to call it “not a flaw.”

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Get Out

Best Short Story

Rarely are these categories disparate enough that it’s genuinely difficult to figure out which of them is the best 8, but this one was pretty close. Fran Wilde’s “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly-Steady Hand” was good, but was a lot more “tone” than “story,” and seemed to have lost some effectiveness as a result. It’s nice to see something so oblique, and I like Fran Wilde generally, but it was the easiest to rule out. “Utopia, LOL”, by Jamie Wahls, was funny, but also relied heavily on a reveal that was…not actually much of a reveal, and so lost it at the end 9. Vina Jie-Min Prasad’s “Fandom for Robots” was also funny, and not as slight as it might have seemed, but isn’t quite ahead of the rest. Rebecca Roanhorse’s “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” was also funny, but angrier and more pointed, and was very effective. It was probably more effective than Matthew Kressel’s “The Last Novelist (or a Dead Lizard in the Yard),” which was good, and about the finite-nature of lifespan, and contains some effective metaphorical storytelling and is very moving. But the winner here is Caroline Yoachim’s “Carnival Nine,” which is allegorical more than metaphorical, and tackles many of the things that “The Last Novelist” also deals with, only more effectively, and in a more emotionally-engaging way. I know, I know, the affective fallacy. Good thing I’m not a New Critic. 

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Caroline Yoachim, “Carnival Nine”

Best Novelette

As usual, many of the novelettes were either too long or too short. Richard Bowles’s “Dirty Old Town” is probably the former – the story spends a lot of time explaining a lot of information about the people and what happens to them that it might not have if it had been able to stretch out a bit in a longer form. Kelly Robson’s “The Human Stain” is the latter – there’s a lot of asides and showing-of-her-work, and it gets in the way of an elliptical, admirably mysterious bit of weirdness. Jonathan P. Brazee’s “Weaponized Math” is a military-sf novelette about how marines are super good at shooting things with guns and have a wealth of camaraderie from all their time spent shooting at things and learning how to shoot at things. It is 75% one fight scene 10. K.M. Szpara’s “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time” manages to get over on wrapping its fairly-lurid romance tale in a really interesting piece of world – a world in which vampirism is regulated, and additionally an examination of how, in such a world, a trans* vampire 11 would be dealt with. Vina Jie-Min Prasad’s second appearance here, “A Series of Steaks” contains a Spoon reference in the title, and an internal Mclusky reference (among others), and is a cracking good caper story about a meat fabricator. Sarah Pinsker, however, contributed another tremendous, incredible story about the intertwining of lives and music, with “Wind Will Rove,” which is not only the best thing in this category, but possible the actual best work nominated for a Nebula. Or, at least, my favorite, which isn’t quite tantamount to the same thing, but makes it harder to distinguish.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Sarah Pinsker, “Wind Will Rove”

Novella

I suppose with as great as “Wind Will Rove”, we can forgive how relatively-unfulfilling “And Then There Were (N-One)” is. It’s a reasonably good murder mystery/love letter, although to what I won’t say in case you haven’t read it yet, but it’s not much of a standout here. Lawrence M. Schoen’s Amazing Conroy stories continue to reliably be a blast to read, and Barry’s Deal is a particularly good one, but they also aren’t really elevated beyond “a fun science-fictional time”. J.Y. Yang’s The Black Tides of Heaven was built around a fantastic character who I loved a lot, and came to a very satisfying conclusion, but also feels like it’s only part of the story, and is without its other half 12. Martha Wells’ “All Systems Red” is brilliant, tremendously entertaining, and deals with the what-if AI stuff really well, but also very much is an introduction. I would bet, if I were the sort of person to do so, that future Murderbot books will be nominated for similar such awards, and will probably deserve them. From here I’m torn. Ellen Klages’s Passing Strange is a fabulous piece of magic-oriented fiction, that deals with visibility and identity and all sorts of other such things. On the other hand Sarah Gailley’s River of Teeth is about cowboys who ride hippos and herd hippos and, well, there’s a lot of hippos in it. And it’s a western about a down-on-his-luck lawbreaker who has to get the band back together for One Last Heist. So Passing Strange is the sort of thing I’d like to encourage there to be more of in the world – satisfying emotionally and intellectually, carefully drawn, very much like the fluid, androgynous characters at its center, or the delicate chalk pictures that provide one of its plot points. River of Teeth, on the other hand, is a damn hippo. It’s bulky and pushy and bitey and totally rad. So I mean, it’s going to be River of Teeth, but definitely also read Passing Strange.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Sarah Gailley, River of Teeth (or possibly Ellen Klages, Passing Strange. I’m only making this decision because I have to here, by my own rules).

Novel

This is a real “best of times, worst of times” category right here. Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough is, presumably, sff because it takes place on a world that isn’t Earth 13, but contains basically no further sff elements. Maybe they’re forthcoming. In any event, as retellings of Cabaret go, it’s not so bad, but it’s not really up to part in this category. Fonda Lee’s Jade City builds an interesting world and includes a couple of really great subplots, but the action is diffused a little too much, and the book takes on more than it seems to be able to handle effectively. Theodora Goss’s The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is a sort of League of Extraordinary Gentledamsels, and it seems like it was a lot of fun to write, but was a little too self-conscious and not quite direct enough to go over 14. Muir Lafferty’s Six Wakes is a fun little mystery, but the ending is either so audacious that it has to be entertaining or utterly stupid, and I oscillate between these two positions every time I think about it. It has some nifty world-building, but not a whole lot of structural integrity as a story (i.e. there are huge whacks of it that don’t, in specific terms, make any actual sense). I’m a sucker for a book about a robot, and even more of a sucker for a book in which a robot decides to see how human it can be, and even more a sucker for a book in which corporations are dystopian generators of evilness, so Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous basically triple-suckered me into loving it to bits and pieces, which I do. It’s fantastic, but not quite as good as the last two. Daryl Gregory’s Spoonbenders is a fun, deeply moving story about people with actual superpowers. It deserves high praise for its plotting, even if nothing else, but it has tons of great stuff to dig into in its portrait of a family, and the huckster that holds them all together. But really, this one belongs justly and rightfully to N.K. Jemisen’s The Stone Sky. While it’s true that I thought The Obelisk Gate had a bit of a draggy case of second-book syndrome, The Stone Sky manages to stick the landing and create a deeply satisfying ending to the trilogy.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: N.K. Jemisen, The Stone Sky


  1.  I am not being fair to a bunch of awards right now when I say this, but I think the “major” line has to be drawn somewhere, and I’m drawing it at the Nebulas. 
  2.  they’re just right over there in Pittsburgh!\ 
  3.  whose work I am almost completely – barring a couple of short stories here and there – unfamiliar with. This is a large hole in my awareness, that I confess here to you fine people. 
  4.  and don’t actually have that much in common beyond a similar approach – one has aliens in it, the other just the regular Earth future.   
  5.  unless it’s Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree, but this isn’t the space for this argument. Could be Nimona, also, now that I think about it. 
  6.  and you’ll notice that I did not take this into consideration at all when I talked about last year’s Nebulas, awarding it to Rogue One because it was, as I said at the time “the best Star Wars movie released in my lifetime.” It still is, too. In that case, the field for the Bradbury award wasn’t as strong, and it fell upon me to declare something’s rightfulness given the candidates. Also I contain multitudes and all that.   
  7.  WW in the form of yet another giant-CG-villain showdown for the last half hour or whatever, Logan’s in the dumbest macguffin known to man, an adamantium bullet. Either movie would be considerably better with a different ending by which the ending was to work/the villain to be defeated. 
  8.  longtime readers will know that I rarely actually have any problem declaring something the winner, but I do acknowledge that this was a little trickier than usual.  
  9.  I suppose if there’s a unifying trend here, it’s this: good setups with bad endings. 
  10.  military sf is fine. I am not opposed to it as a matter of course – Jack Campbell! Lois McMaster Bujold! Joe Haldeman! – but this is particularly not-good. I’m sure it’s fun for people that like to read detailed descriptions of people shooting guns and then are rewarded with some entry-level pandering about the brotherhood of the military or whatever, but of all the things whose nomination I disagree with, this is the one that baffles me the most. At least this year. 
  11.  NB: this is a trans* person who is changed into a vampire, as all vampires are sort of trans-vampires, given that one cannot be born a vampire. Y’know, by the standard vampirism model. I’m sure there are exceptions. 
  12.  well, sort of. The Red Threads of Fortune isn’t really the other half of the story – they’re both self-contained – but it is the companion piece, and it does make the whole thing better. There’s also meant to be a third volume, but I haven’t read it. 
  13.  it’s also published by awards-juggernaut Tor 
  14.  there is also a narrative device throughout the book – which is being written by one of the characters – of the other characters interrupting her to put in their two cents. I kept thinking it would amount to something, but it’s just a way to provide metacommentary on the book itself while you’re reading it. It is not the most effective device, is what I’m saying here.  

The 2018 Billboard Music Awards

Every year, I consider not doing the Billboard awards. After all, there are two things going against it: 1) they are the kind of professionally-focused award that I tend to avoid 1, and 2) they’re actually based on sales and streaming data and whatnot, and so aren’t really the work of a body deciding award-worthiness so much as they are the result of an already-tabulated popularity contest 2.

But this year is different, this year I rebut both notions. For they are both televised and deeply silly, so whatever they’re subjecting themselves to, they are doing so via context and whatnot. Furthermore, they are chosen by the most ridiculous nominating body of them all: all of us. Even awards shows that allow for some kind of vote still have a self-selecting audience. Thanks to the fine people at Nielsen, every time we purchase/stream a song, we are voting for the Billboard awards.

The world is a vasty panoply of options, a smorgasbord of consumption for people who are looking for something. Even so, I feel it is fair to limit the options available to those that are here nominated. Obviously the kind of popularity that gets someone a Billboard award is the kind of popularity that one has to pay for and market toward, so while it was my initial impulse to declare the “rightful winner” the artist I think would most-justifiably be the most popular in a proper world, I am going to limit myself to the artists here nominated. It seems a reasonable position, and, after all, I’d hate to take the mantel of “arbiter of what is popular” from the shoulders of The People, after all.

In any event, this year the show will be hosted by Kelly Clarkson 3, and they’ll be presenting the Icon award to Janet Jackson, which is nice. Oh and there’s a thousand categories, so this’ll be presented speed-round style. To make the reading experience even easier, here’s a spoiler: I declared Kendrick Lamar the rightful winner in 26% of the categories. So here we go. 

Top Social Artist

This one is, y’know, explicitly fan-voted. As always with fan-voted it’s actually a weird Venn diagram of fans of the artist and, by the nature of these things, fans of the awards show. I have no idea how the two things would map onto each other, to be honest, but I also don’t know how one would take into account the totality of a popstar’s “social” presence, which is true for every single awards show with a “social” category.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Demi Lovato, I guess?

Billboard Chart Achievement

This one is also fan-voted, and it’s even more baffling. What the hell does this mean? The artist whose chart performance most pleased the fans of that artist? This is crazy and weird, guys. Define your categories.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Cardi B

Top Soundtrack/Cast Album

As enjoyable as they are, I still don’t think the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtracks should be eligible, although, again, it’s sales that decide it. I suppose Moana deserves to have sold the most, given that it’s the most cohesive and that it operates partially 4 in a genre that isn’t represented here very often.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Moana

Top Gospel Song

So the Gospel categories 5 are among the reasons that I don’t just give a blanket “rightfulness” – I don’t know much about any of this. Upon listening, I like the Travis Greene song the most.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Travis Greene, “You Waited”

Top Gospel Album

There’s also very little deviation in these categories, which is a thing that tends to happen at the Billboard awards – an album is generally heard on the strength of its singles, and generally represents an artist’s entire output during the eligibility period, so there tends to be some repetition. They’re not completely identical, however, and so we’re left assuming that Tamela Mann (who is present in the song category but not the album) had a single that didn’t drive people to her album, or that Marvin Sapp had an album that didn’t move its single. This is interesting to me, and part of why I do this, but also that’s about all there is to say about it. Oh, and Gospel is one of those genres where a live album can really work.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Travis Greene, Crossover: Live from Music City

Top Gospel Artist

One of the acts that is present in all three Gospel categories is Anthony Brown & group therAPy, and I have no idea why it’s capitalized like that, nor is information on said capitalization available easily to someone just encountering it. Maybe if I were more of a Gospel-head I’d know something. I guess it’ll remain a mystery.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Travis Greene

Top Christian Song

True story: I did used to like Lecrae. I mean, I still like the stuff that I used to like, but it was awhile ago, and I haven’t checked back in with him in awhile. This new stuff seems fine. I can dig it.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Lecrae, “I’ll Find You” (f Tori Kelly)

Top Christian Album

One of these is an Alan Jackson album, and I still don’t like Alan Jackson.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Not Alan Jackson, whatever else is fine I guess. I have no opinion here, this is all pretty awful.

Top Christian Artist

Another true story: Hillsong UNITED and Hillsong Worship are two different outfits from two different megachurches called Hillsong on two different continents (a third megachurch band, Elevation Worship, is also in the offing). Whatever else is happening in the nightmare hellscape that we call this world, it took two different Hillsongs to get us there.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: uh…MercyMe I guess? But I’m not happy about this, either.

Top Dance/Electronic Song

Kygo from the Rio Olympics is still around, guys! Here he is! I don’t exactly hate this Zedd song, although I think I’ve had it foisted upon me in public too often to really enjoy it. It’s still the best option.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Zedd, “Stay” (f Alessia Cara)

Top Dance/Electronic Album

Avicii died, and that is sad, because he was very young. Since I don’t like any of this, I feel it’s fitting to call this category a memorial for Avicii.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Avicii, Avīci (01)

Top Dance/Electronic Artist

I mean, it would be more fair to give this one to Avicii, but what do I know. The answer to that question is: I know that everywhere I look, Marshmello is there. So I guess it’s him. He’s worn me down. I do like his headpiece.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Marshmello

Top Latin Song

I like the Bad Bunny part of “Mejores,” but I like all of “Mi Gente”. So that made this very easy.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: J. Balvin and Willy William, “Mi Gente” (f. Beyonce)

Top Latin Album

Some albums have an accretive power that gets you into the album as it flows from one moment to the next. Those albums are not any of these albums. I only ever listen to “Latin” music 6 when I’m researching one of these things, but I’m starting to get the idea that it might not be an “albums” genre, guys.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Christian Nodal, Me Deje Llevar. I like mariachi.

Top Latin Artist

Bachata, a genre that I have discovered only recently, is a kind of Dominican country-blues, but not like that at all. It has some sameyness problems, but for the most part is better than the other genres here represented, and it’s therefore easier for me to like Romeo Santos, the practitioner of Bachata in this category.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Romeo Santos

Top Rock Tour

The best of the old farts that still sell enormous amount of tickets on tour is a tough call to make. Rock music, as a touring economy at a small scale, is the healthiest it’s been within my lifetime. It’s easier – as it has been for a long time now – for bands to have fans anywhere they go, and play shows that are well-attended and profitable, provided the band has some kind of head on their shoulders. But only one of them would have even possibly found me in attendance, and that’s U2 7. So I guess they’re the winner.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: U2

Top Rock Song

I have, in the past, had nice things to say about Portugal, the Man. I may even still, but the sight of the animated Peter Rabbit bouncing around to the chorus of “Feel it Still” haunts my nightmares. It still isn’t as bad as Imagine Dragons. The Revivalists are  a pleasing-enough (if slight) old-style outfit that I don’t mind. I could try fainter praise, but not without expending more effort on it.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Revivalists, “Wish I Knew You”

Top Rock Album

Oh also Portugal, the Man’s album is called Woodstock, and that annoys me, although I couldn’t tell you why. Chart-rock just doesn’t do it for me.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: I mean, it’s still mostly Woodstock, I’m just mad about the name.

Top Rock Artist

This is another one where there’s a surge of sales because of someone’s death, in this case Tom Petty’s. I suppose that’s nice for the estate and family of Tom Petty, as well as for whatever it brings in for the surviving Heartbreakers.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Top Country Tour

I think the real winner he is not going to see any of these acts on tour, quite frankly.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: not going to see any of these acts on tour, quite frankly.

Top Country Song

The recent ACM awards showed that Country is finally heading out of its years-long bro-country wilderness, and that’s great, but the signs of its forward progress have not gone as far as the top of the Billboard charts yet, so this category is still full of execrable music.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Dustin Lynch is ok, I guess. “Small Town Boy” is the least-execrable song here.

Top Country Album

If you read the ACM awards, you saw this category in a basically-identical form. It was Chris Stapleton then, it’s Chris Stapleton now.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Chris Stapleton, Songs From a Room, Vol. 1

Top Country Duo/Group Artist

Once again, country music is the only category (other than the “general” or “overall” awards, see below) to have a duo/group category in addition to the individual categories. I do not know why this is. I do not know what this means.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Zac Brown Band

Top Country Female Artist

On the one hand, I do appreciate that Kelsey Ballerini is forthright and upfront about the fact that she is a pop singer who performs in a country idiom. It hadn’t really been a done thing 8, so it’s refreshing. It doesn’t make her music any better, though.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Maren Morris

Top Country Male Artist

I think we all know where this is going.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Chris Stapleton

Top Country Artist

None of these people are the top of anything, and I’m going to set the whole thing on fire.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The flames of righteous indignation

Top Rap Tour

Once again, the only one of these people I would go see is Kendrick.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar

Top Rap Song

Bodak Yellow” was a #1 hit, which is unlikely enough, and it ushered in the delightful public career of Cardi B., which is great, but it isn’t, y’know, actually that good a song. Not really. I mean, it’s fun and all. This is my stance, I guess.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar, “Humble”

Top Rap Album

Migos are here for Culture, not the far-inferior Culture 2, which may come up next year, since it did still sell like hotcakes, and Culture is genuinely great, but, for probably the last time in this space, I must say that it is less-great than DAMN. I mean, DAMN. won a Pulitzer. How would it win a Pulitzer and not a Billboard award, you know?

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.

Top Rap Female Artist

Look, I know that it’s A Thing to decry that Bhad Bhabie has parlayed what should have been a single annoying appearance on a talk show into a “career” as a “rapper.” I know that it’s also A Thing to point out that, such as it is, she’s not a terrible rapper. Both of those things are true. Furthermore, since the Billboard awards is about sales, and not about the Whole Moral Point of it All, it can be excused that she’s here – she wasn’t specifically chosen. She was, in any way that matters, nonspecifically chosen. And I’m not some stick in the mud about all this: Cardi B came from a reality show, which isn’t much better, and she’s just fine. What I’m saying is, we are concerned, to an admittedly-amorphous standard, with what’s “rightful” here, and is there anyone among you who can say, genuinely, that Bhad Bhabie deserves to rightfully be in this position? Because I do not always know what “Rightful” is, but I know that this isn’t. And any of you who disagree are, of course, welcome to catch me outside. How about that.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Nicki Minaj

Top Rap Male Artist

Oh, and fuck Post Malone, also.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar

Top Rap Artist

It’s obviously going to be Kendrick, but I feel I should also say: fuck Post Malone.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar

Top R&B Tour

Aw, Lionel Richie. What a thing there. Suppose we can chalk that one up to anticipation about American Idol or something? Since he hasn’t toured since the show started or whatever. I dont’ know. I can’t find myself in the headspace of someone who would go see Lionel Richie live. Ew.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Weeknd

Top R&B Song

There are, in fact, two Bruno Mars songs in this category. That seems excessive.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Khalid, “Young Dumb and Broke”

Top R&B Album

SZA famously doesn’t think Ctrl is very good. She is, literally, the only person that thinks this. She is a silly goose.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: SZA, Ctrl

Top R&B Female Artist

Any of these folks would be fine winners and all that, but I think SZA really did have the best year, all things considered.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: SZA

Top R&B Male Artist

I still like The Weeknd pretty well, and I liked Starboy a lot, but Khalid is really growing on me in a way that I did not expect, so I feel like it should be him, even though I wouldn’t be too put out either way.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Khalid

Top R&B Artist

I do, however, have no trouble deciding between Khalid and SZA.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: SZA

Top Touring Artist

Adding Bruno Mars and Ed Sheeran to the list does not make this any more difficult, or any more interesting, or change my answer in any way whatsoever.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: U2

Top Collaboration

God help me, I do not mind “Havana” as a song, and it is weird and gratifying that Young Thug is a full-on pop star.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Camila Cabella, “Havana” (f Young Thug)

Top Streaming Song (Video)

On the one hand, there are probably several perfectly good reasons why Cardi B’s video is here, but some of them are more obvious than others. On the other hand, it is actually a pretty cool video, as far as all that goes. However, since it’s probably the last time I’ll get to declare it so, “The Shape of You” remains the only video on this list in which Ed Sheeran gets punched, so it’s a great video.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Ed Sheeran, “The Shape of You”

Top Streaming Song (Audio)

I’ll be sad next year, when, in all likelihood, nothing as good as “Humble” will be noinated for every award all year. Sigh. Oh, additionally, so that it doesn’t go unsaid: fuck Post Malone.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar, “Humble”

Top Streaming Artist

I don’t want to give you guys the wrong impression here. I mean, it’s true that I have very little use for the whole entire crop of face-tatted mumble-rappers 9, but I do mean: fuck Post Malone in particular.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar

Top Radio Song

Is this really what’s played on the radio? When I’m hearing the radio – which is largely at the gym or whatever – it seems like it’s a lot more lady-heavy. There are no women here. This is weird.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Bruno Mars, “That’s What I Like”

Top Radio Songs Artist

The name of this category is super-unwieldy! But this category does have a woman in it. And while it’s not true that she won because she is a woman, it is also true that…well, this whole category bites the big one.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Halsey

Top Selling Song

The people that spend their money on pop music have spoken, and they would like you to know that they quite like Imagine Dragons. So there.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Uh….pass.

Top Selling Album

It’s easy enough to look up sales figures and know how to be right about this, but I want, just for a few more days, to live in a world I can declare it rightful that DAMN. outsold [cosecant] or whatever the fuck Ed Sheeran’s bullshit album is called 10, reputation, which is uncapitalized and unlistenable.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.

Top Song Sales Artist

While we’re on the subject: fuck Post Malone.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar

Top Hot 100 Song

Presumably this is “the song that sold the most or whatever out of all of the songs on the Hot 100,” which I’m sure is more complicated than I think, but also is dumb when you’ve already got so many other distinctions in play. This is why these are all so short: there are TOO MANY CATEGORIES. Also, fuck Post Malone.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar, “Humble”

Top Hot 100 Artist

This year is so abysmal for the artists in most of these categories that I’m basically one step away from just opening a goddamn Church of Kendrick. Fuck Post Malone for real, tho.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar

Top Billboard 200 Album

So the Billboard 200 is the totality of all things considered in the streaming/sales divide, rather than just one or the other as in previous categories, which means that…honestly, it means it’s going to be the same person in all three places, because that’s probably how things work. Once again, I could look up the numbers to corroborate this, but I won’t. I’ll just say this: fuck Post Malone.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.

Top Billboard 200 Artist

I don’t know what deity intervened to make it so that only difference between this category and the last was the substitution of Chris Stapleton for Post Malone, but I’m (obviously) very happy about it.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar

Top Duo/Group

Hey look! It’s a category that I can’t just give over to Kendrick Lamar and be done with by definition! He’s not a duo OR a group! Huzzah!

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Migos

Top Female Artist

Seriously, though. This is an indictment of the public: none of these women, except Taylor Swift, appear very often in these awards. And maybe they should. Apparently we’re in a “nobody listens to music made by women” phase of the world. That’s terrible. We should stop doing that.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Cardi B

Top Male Artist

For the last time in this piece, and with as much gusto as I can muster: fuck Post Malone.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar

Top New Artist

I like Cardi B more than Khalid in the main, although I probably listen to Khalid’s music more. I suppose I am part of the “not listening to music made by women” problem in this one regard. Ah, my own petard. There it is. Hoisting me.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Khalid

Top Artist

I bet it would be really funny if I got all the way down here and then gave it to Post Malone, but no. He’s not even up for it. Once again, I choose to take this as a sign that there is tonnes of justice in the world, and we just haven’t seen it all meted out yet.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar, of course.


  1.  Sort of like the WGA awards or whatever 
  2.  there’s also the problem of it happening – and this is the second year in a row now – the same weekend as the Nebulas, which is why this is going up a week early. Last year I pushed the Nebulas up, but why should I respect the Billboard awards time slot? Those dudes suck. 
  3.   who, for whatever else, seems to really be taking this pivot into the world of television quite seriously. 
  4.  I mean, it’s an ineluctably Disney-ish version 
  5.  actually, all faith-based categories, I don’t really listen to any of it 
  6.  as defined by the people that make categories at awards shows 
  7.  they were touring behind The Joshua Tree, which is fine, and I only considered it for long enough to realize that I did not want to pay the price of a plane ticket to go to a football stadium to listen to a band play half a mile away while I watched them on a screen. Admittedly, the large-scale rock-star thing pretty much misses me entirely. 
  8.  remember that Taylor Swift “switched” and made some sort of kabuki of abandoning country music for pop, despite having straddled both charts, and didn’t acknowledge her pop background prior to that fact. 
  9.   who’d’ve thought that I would someday pine for a world in which they were only as bad as Lil Yachty. Ah, simpler times. 
  10.  True story: I’m looking right at the title, and I hate it so much that I still won’t type it here. 

The Comeback Trail Double-Header

So a couple of weeks ago, on the storied twentieth of April, two bands associated with marijuana usage 1 decided to release their first recorded statements since the Bush administration. Each caused their own ruckus, in their own way, and the two records have very little in common with each other, but nonetheless I am moved here to talk about A Perfect Circle’s Eat the Elephant and Sleep’s The Sciences.

Eat the Elephant was the more high-profile – A Perfect Circle, after all, had actual bona-fide on-the-radio hits right around the time rock radio ceased to be a going concern. They had been thought long gone, dropped down the oubliette of other rock-star side projects, when Maynard James Keenan, their singer, possibly to deflect the constant Tool-related questions 2, made rumblings about taking a break from Puscifer records/wine-making to work on some APC material. Soon the band’s only other constant member, erstwhile guitar tech Billy Howerdel, confirmed these plans, and the band hopped back into action.

A Perfect Circle was always an interesting – for a certain degree of remove attached to the word “interesting” – notion. Where Tool were self-consciously artsy 3, A Perfect Circle seemed like a way to apply the same ideas to what was then all over the radio. They revealed Keenan to be something of a dab hand at a pop song 4, and capable of writing tunes and lyrics that worked in the sort of rock-forward direct approach preferred by Howerdel. Howerdel, who wrote all of the songs, had worked for Billy Corgan, and while it might not be fair to reduce his set of influences that far, it doesn’t not sound like an alternate-universe Smashing Pumpkins, especially on the first record (see the then-ubiquitous “Judith”). Their first record, Mer de Noms, arrived, was extremely likable music, sold a bajillion copies, and was nigh-inescapable.

On their second record (and my favorite of their records, such as it is), The Thirteenth Step, they introduced the idea of making things much more dour, and brought in a bunch of new-wave-ish influences 5 to make their music moodier and darker, more sculptural than the straightforward blasting of Mer de Noms. It’s the second record that gave me real hope for their continued existence – it includes probably the best Failure cover ever recorded (“The Nurse Who Loved Me”) 6, and the use of guest musicians landed them their finest-ever moment, “The Noose”, which features vocals by former-Swan Jarboe and guitar from Nine Inch Nails’ Danny Lohner, and ended with at least one blogger thinking that Jarboe and Keenan should work together more 7. The record had legs, but didn’t sell nearly as well as the first one.

It was followed up by a covers album, where the band reworked “When the Levee Breaks” and “Imagine” into turgid, lightless exercises in Making a Point. It is not the most flattering version of the band’s sound, which meant that, when they hung it all up after the cycle for eMotive ended, it wasn’t very hard to say goodbye to them and assume the band had run its course.

They went their separate ways, with Keenan releasing a handful of records, with a revolving cast of collaborators, as Puscifer 8, and Howerdel more-or-less immediately making a record as Ashes Divide (which was never followed up), with the only stirring being the release of a greatest-hits record 9 several years later.

Eat the Elephant, then, veritably sped from announcement to release (the populous only really heard about it six or so months ago). It was made by the band’s usual MO, with Howerdel working up instrumental ideas and Keenan writing lyrics and melodies for them in a long distance back-and-forth, and the two eventually coming together to finish the songs and release the album. This time they allowed for an outside producer for the first time, radio-rock dude Dave Sardy 10, which is the first time a record hasn’t been produced by Howerdel.

The process itself – writing songs cross-country and then rewriting them and fiddling with them and retouching them and then fiddling with them some more and then massaging them into some sort of highly-fiddled-with shape – seems tortuous, and the results are…less than inspiring. Eat the Elephant is not a bad record as such – the singing is particularly good, the playing sounds ok, and it generally seems to represent the band, such as it is – but it doesn’t really go anywhere when it’s over.

Some of the songs, especially the opening one-two punch of the title track and “Disillusioned”, sound pretty cool, but aren’t very memorable when they’re over. Some of them (“Hourglass”, for example) sound like they might have been good ideas that just died in the process (or for some other, unknowable reason). For the first time in the band’s career, however, they have also managed songs that are just dreadful (“So Long and Thanks for All the Fish,” and “Get the Lead Out”). All told, the band would have been better off either spending more time assembling the simulacrum of the record, or less time on them and just recorded something more straightforward.

It’s not their fault that they suffer from the comparison made real by their choice of release date, but as far as comeback albums go, it’s hard not to recommend that every band try to learn something from Sleep.

Sleep were absolute titans of the stoner-metal scene right around the turn of the century. They made one relatively minor album (Volume 1) followed by one very good, trouble-free release (Holy Mountain), followed by one of the most storied 11 releases in history with their third album, Dopesmoker, a once-in-a-lifetime, all-time-great heavy metal album that for a long time did not get to be heard in the way the band intended. An hour-plus long single track, it was originally rejected by their label, and released promotionally in a remixed form 12. It was then released in an unauthorized form as Jerusalem by Tee Pee records 13, and more-or-less contemporaneously as a single-track bootleg. Eventually it saw what amounts to the actual version of the album with a remaster by the fine folks at Southern Lord, which version is the de facto “good version”, due to it 1) sounding good and 2) being actually available to people to listen to.

While all of this was happening, the band went their separate ways, with guitarist Matt Pike forming the mighty High on Fire, and Al Cisneros and Chris Hakius (the drummer at the time) comprising the almost-as-good-as-Sleep heavy band Om.

I suppose there’s another way that the two bands in this piece can be compared, it’s that Sleep left the world as underheralded geniuses, and reformed as a supergroup. They’re joined on drums by the outstanding Jason Roeder, who is also the drummer for Neurosis 14 and the record is produced by Neurosis’s samples-and-synthesizer maestro, Noah Landis 15. And so it came to pass that, with zero leadup or fanfare, Sleep released The Sciences on 4/20.

It is true that A Perfect Circle could have learned something from the seamless resumption that Sleep displays here, but it is also true that almost everyone could learn something from this one. Stitching together a couple of songs that were originally written at the time of Dopesmoker 16 with a few new pieces, the thing is as mighty a collection of riffs as could exist.

Ultimately, the record succeeds by enhancing the features of Sleep that already were there – it’s an unabashed slab of Sabbath-worshipping riffs welded together with Cisneros’s weeded-out lyrics 17 , and propelled by Roeder’s phenomenal drum performance. All rock music is better when it’s the sound of a set of people interacting with each other in a specific idiom, but heavy music is especially dependent on the interplay of the members themselves 18, and The Sciences is the sound of a set of people making music that only that set of people could possibly make. The fact that a couple of the songs predate one of the now-members’ involvement does not seem to change the fact that the three of them together have made an amazing artistic statement.

Anyway, this is running over into the fawning 19, and we all have places to be. So, is A Perfect Circle’s Eat the Elephant a worthy comeback, and does it have a place in their oeuvre? Eh. Maybe. It might grow on me. Their fans seem to like it well enough, and it certainly isn’t a crass retread or anything, so I guess it has its merits, I’m just not hearing them. The Sciences, however, is not only a worthy addition to the discography of Sleep, but might actually be their best record. It’s well and truly above and beyond anything anyone could have expected out of a Sleep record in 2018, that’s for sure. It might be the best record I’ve heard so far this year.


  1.  one very explicitly and one only by circumstance and/or fanbase 
  2.  Tool would have, for my own purposes here, been more thematic, and will almost certainly be revisited if their next album ever actually proves itself to exist. 
  3.  my feelings on Tool are thorny enough to warrant two different footnotes, and while at the time I thought they were an absolute godhead of weirdo-metal, I am now able to more-or-less identify them as the sort of gateway drug to weirdo-metal. They were proggy as hell, but satisfyingly heavy, and their music isn’t quite as good as I thought it was contemporaneously, but it’s still fun, and a lot of it – especially their second full-length record, Aenima – holds up pretty well. 
  4.  a sad teenager may very well be moping to “3 Libras” even now. 
  5.  a thing that was happening a lot at the time. 
  6.  incidentally, everyone should go listen to Failure’s records. They’re very good. 
  7.  some of you in the audience are probably pointing out that I’d probably say that about Jarboe and anyone, to which I say: fair. 
  8.  a band that was born as a Mr. Show sketch, in which Keenan appears. 
  9.  always a strange idea for a band with only three records, especially in 2013, even if it wasn’t exactly bad. 
  10.  Sardy is also a film scorer – he did Monster Trucks and End of Watch, among other things – and the producer of LCD Soundsystem’s Sound of Silver, which implies that he’s pretty good at working with people who usually – and probably should, on balance – produce themselves. He also, weirdly, worked with Sleep, see below.  
  11.  and, frankly, most botched 
  12. the remixing was handled by Dave Sardy, as mentioned above. The bands are connected again! 
  13. this is the version that I first heard 
  14.  one of the only heavy bands in history that’s better than Sleep 
  15. it remains the case that any album with multiple members of Neurosis on it is a very good album. 
  16.  “Sonic Titan” was a bonus track on the final, band-approved reissue of the record in 2003, and “Antarcticans Thawed” was a contemporaneous contribution. 
  17.  I’m not a lyrics person, as I mention here frequently, but Cisneros is a good lyricist – his koan-like chanting and mystic searching in Om is part of what elevates that band to genuine greatness – and his work with Sleep is self-aware and funny without being silly or overly-winking in a way that most stoner bands never really bother with. There’s a reason that Sleep is being fawned over in this space and I’ve never really said much about, say, The Sword.  
  18.  whether this is because heavy music is, due to circumstance and/or history, especially prone to weird, overtweaked production nonsense or because the fact that it works so gutterally requires complete honesty and directness is beyond the scope of this footnote, but I suspect that both factors play their part. 
  19.  this is why I don’t really review records in this space 

The Best Records of April 2018

Sleep – The Sciences (Stoner-metal titans make what may actually be their best record yet, and is certainly as compulsively listenable as anything they’ve ever done)

Grouper – Grid of Points (The shortest Grouper record is also one of the most interesting, becoming in itself a work about brevity and interruption. A truly beautiful record.)

Wrekmeister Harmonies – The Alone Rush (J.R. Robinson has adopted full-time frontman duties for his own band, and the result is as “normal” as a Wrekmeister Harmonies record has ever been)

Mind Over Mirrors – Bellowing Sun (Turns out that playing this stuff with a full band makes it that much better, and I’m hopeful that that’s Jaime Fennelly’s take-away from all this also, since this is the best Mind Over Mirrors record at a walk)

Christina Vantzou – No. 4 (A good month for experimental music, obviously. Also a good month for Kranky, which released both this and Grid of Points. Anyway, it’s also a good month to be, obviously, because this record is also incredible.)