The Great American Read, Part 1

Folks, The Great American Read is happening. PBS made us a list, based on the nominates of the people, and now we, the people, are meant to figure out which one of them is the best by the method of “voting for a book every day”.

Obviously, this is catnip to the person who writes these things (me) – this is my three favorite things (weird polls, popularity contests, and books) thrown together and then broadcast on PBS. I’ve been holding off on writing it for awhile, but I can wait no longer. You all simply must know where I stand. So here’s the first fifty, with the next fifty coming next week. You’re welcome.

George Orwell – 1984

WHY IT WILL WIN: Because people like having their worst fears confirmed, and a picture of a world that ours represents more and more with every passing year is an easy thing to be impressed by the prescience of.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because people don’t like to have their worst fears confirmed, and a picture of a world that ours represents more and more with every passing year is an easy thing to be horrified by the prescience of.

John Kennedy Toole – A Confederacy of Dunces

WHY IT WILL WIN: Because it’s funny and enables the kind of double-handed combination of self-importance (wouldn’t it be great to move through the world behaving that way because you’re so much better than these sheep) and self-righteousness (that you’re not that unselfaware egomaniacal jerk).

WHY IT WON’T WIN: It’s tough to take for people that aren’t on that wavelength.

John Irving – A Prayer for Owen Meany

WHY IT WILL WIN: It’s a spirtual-literature “classic”, and people love books about people who are touched by god or whatever.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: Well, The Tin Drum isn’t here, and it’s a re-write of The Tin Drum, so maybe there will be some kind of protest. Oh, and like so many of these books, if the voter isn’t here for an allegory/parable about listening to god’s calling or whatever, it’s not going to work for that voter.

John Knowles – A Separate Peace

WHY IT WILL WIN: As an attempt to create a naturalist post-war novel, it’s top-rate. It’s unlike most other war-survivor books (as are most of the war-survivor books that are on this list), and I’m always primed for people to come back and try to take another stab at naturalism.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: Well, because naturalism is weird. As an attempt to write literature based on the scientific method and strict observation, A Separate Peace largely fails, even if it succeeds as a book, and is therefore pretty hard to evaluate, as well as hard to recommend people who don’t, say, have any grounding in what “naturalism” is.

Betty Smith – A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

WHY IT WILL WIN: Because a book that values pragmatism and clear-eyed examination and thought about your circumstances, but don’t sacrifice your desire to be the thing you want to be is an incredible book for any person in any time and place. There are a lot of books about somehow being superhuman in order to escape the bounds of an unfair world, and there should be a lot more of them about being a human to do the same.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: It’s a book referenced more than it’s read, and a lot of people have to read it (like, for school) when they’re too young to really get what it’s doing. It’s probably a great book for a young person to read with the right guidance (or with no guidance), but it’s not often given proper guidance, and so ends up in the “I was forced through this and didn’t like it, but I guess I learned what ‘symbolism’ was” pile.

Mark Twain – The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

WHY IT WILL WIN: It’s got everything. It’s a funny adventure story and a useful look at a time and place created by a genuine actual genius who has a masterful grasp of his craft, setting and characters.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: I mean, it’s not even the best Mark Twain novel. It’s not even the second best Mark Twain novel.

Paulo Coelho – The Alchemist

WHY IT WILL WIN: The Campbellian hero’s journey (here called the “Personal Legend”) is a durable, widely-popular notion, and The Alchemist is probably the best novel to directly follow the form.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: It’s less satisfying as a hero story than, say, The Odyssey (which is not on the list, for reasons that I guess I’ll never understand) or Don Quixote, and it’s another one that is burned on the woodpile of misguided education.

James Patterson – Alex Cross Mysteries (series)

WHY IT WILL WIN: At 25 staggeringly-successful volumes and counting, airports would not be the same without this one. He’s figured out the formula for being a writer that tonnes of people that don’t ordinarily read enjoy greatly.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: Leaving aside the fact that information on how many of these books he actually, you know, wrote himself (he’s the credited author, but his policy of using ghostwriters is pretty well-established), there’s the fact that his books aren’t particularly well-regarded, by reason of them being pretty awful.

Lewis Carroll – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

WHY IT WILL WIN: Because a bunch of people have spent a bunch of years granting this book a bunch of extra cool because blah blah blah drugs blah blah moral philosophy blah. This happened despite the fact that L.C. just wanted to write stories for his child girlfriend about how much he hated math.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: It’s true that it’s remembered very fondly, and might actually have a pretty clear shot at the title here, but it’s a wildly uneven picaresque with a fusty tone, and the speculations about it are often more entertaining than the actual book itself, and “entertaining” is liable to be the king here in this popularity contest.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Americanah

WHY IT WILL WIN: It’s one of the most praised and well-respected books of the past few years, and it’s a real triumph of skill and execution by a very talented writer.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: It’s pretty heady, especially in the company it’s in on the list here, and it’s entirely possible that its relative-newness could count against it among people who are looking for a “classic.”

Agatha Christie – And Then There Were None

WHY IT WILL WIN: Mysteries are big business, not to mention wildly popular, and It’s the mysteriest mystery that ever mystery’d, by the mysteryest of mystery madams.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: It doesn’t really push all the buttons that a more “modern” mystery would. It also has a very unfortunate history of its title, which might not matter to the voting, but might also be enough to keep it out of the top spot.

Lucy Maud Montgomery – Anne of Green Gables

WHY IT WILL WIN: It’s a tough-to-dislike story that’s unique despite a whole boatload of imitators. It means the entire world to a bunch of people of all sorts of walks of life. There’s a significant portion of the world who wants to be plucky and Canadian and significantly touch somebody on the wrist in a way that signifies a deep and undying love. As an autobiographical aside: due to a confluence of influential people and events in my life, this is the book I have started the largest number of times without finishing.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: It’s a polite Canadian growing-up story, and I don’t know how far a book can go on sheer Canadian pluck.

James Baldwin – Another Country

WHY IT WILL WIN: James Baldwin was a tremendously influential thinker and writer of the lives of a number of out-groups to which he also belonged, and his prose is as vivid and beautiful as it could possibly be.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: Well, it’s the like fifth-best James Baldwin book, and third most well-known, and also the whole book is about the aftermath of the main character’s suicide (I’d say spoiler alert, but that shit happens right away), which is the kind of high-concept tough sell that doesn’t do well in popularity contests.

Ayn Rand – Atlas Shrugged

WHY IT WILL WIN: Because people have a bottomless appetite for stories about how awesome awesome people are.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because it’s unreadable, and the people who have the aforementioned bottomless appetite are almost universally deeply unpleasant people, and no one wants to willingly associate themselves with them.

Toni Morrison – Beloved

WHY IT WILL WIN: It’s pretty-well unimpeachable, widely-regarded (and rightly so) as a stone-cold classic, and packs more human meaning into its words than just about any other book on the list.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because it’s slow and weird, and lots of people don’t like slow, weird books, and that’s a shame for them. That said, this is one that I think might actually have a pretty fair shot. I’m not sure how much of an objection there can actually be here.

Rudolfo Anaya – Bless Me, Ultima

WHY IT WILL WIN: It’s a tremendous novel that codifies (for a bunch of people) the chicano experience (it is, in fact, the thing I think of when I think of “the chicano experience”), and is therefore a tremendously important book for a bunch of people.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: It’s one of like six million coming-of-age stories here, and it’s not the most popular. Boo.

Marcus Zusak – The Book Thief

WHY IT WILL WIN: It’s a story about a little girl who steals books to fight the nazis. What could be more crowd-pleasing/uplifting than that?

WHY IT WON’T WIN: It’s maudlin and kind of ridiculous, after all that.

Junot Diaz – The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

WHY IT WILL WIN: It’s a unique, well-constructed roman a clef that examines a culture that it is helpful to take a look at.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: Ain’t nobody giving prizes to Junot Diaz in 2018.

Jack London – The Call of the Wild

WHY IT WILL WIN: There’s a real preponderance of young adult adventure books here, and for my money you can’t do better than The Call of the Wild.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because I’m literally the only one who thinks that way.

Joseph Heller – Catch-22

WHY IT WILL WIN: It’s nothing less than the greatest anti-war novel ever written. It’s exciting, it’s gut-wrenching, and it’s funny as hell. It makes a grand argument for satire as a tool of the sane against the insane.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because satire is commonly misunderstood, and because it’s hard for a lot of people to reconcile the fact that it’s funny with the fact that it isn’t only funny.

JD Salinger – The Catcher in the Rye

WHY IT WILL WIN: We were all young once, and half of us were young men.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because we all stop being young eventually, quite frankly. Or because everyone is a phony.

EB White – Charlotte’s Web

WHY IT WILL WIN: It’s a lovely little story about a spider that creates compassion and empathy for a pig, said pig standing in for the recipient of compassion and empathy that we should strive to find in everything

WHY IT WON’T WIN: I don’t have any of this data in front of me, but I’m given to believe that most people think of the movie before the book (which is probably also a detrimental side effect for many of these, unfortunately). I’m trying not to ruminate overmuch here, either, but I also wonder if it’s going to help or hurt CW that it’s “children’s” literature.

CS Lewis – The Chronicles of Narnia

WHY IT WILL WIN: It’s a perennially-beloved series that also doubles as a useful biblical allegory.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because about half of it as actually great, and the other half is dry as dust. I’d like to imagine that we live in a world where the casual discarding of Susan is a major drawback also, but we don’t. Hell, it’d probably just make the thing more popular.

Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear

WHY IT WILL WIN: Oh it won’t. It’s porn again. This time it’s porn disguising itself as anthropology. It was – for reasons that I cannot sufficiently explain – wildly popular upon its publication. I’m going to guess the reason is “porn” though.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because it’s awful, and any historical value it may present is not for its content, but for its existence – its cycle of popularity and acclaim is deeply weird, and will present something useful for people to study in future generations.

Sister Souljah – The Coldest Winter Ever

WHY IT WILL WIN: If ever there was a time to remember the work of a woman who was performatively attacked by a sitting president, now is that time.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: It’s great for what it is, but I was surprised to see it here in the first place, so I think it probably doesn’t have much of an actual chance.

Alice Walker – The Color Purple

WHY IT WILL WIN: This is another one that’s pretty well synonymous with “The Great American Novel”, such as it is. It’s praised to the rafters and more-or-less without major flaw.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: Whatever the reason ends up being, I’m sure it’ll be depressing. I mean, it’s not my favorite book here, but I definitely can’t answer the question easily.

Alexandre Dumas – The Count of Monte Cristo

WHY IT WILL WIN: The fear of being wrongfully-imprisoned is all but universal, and there’s nothing Americans love more than a revenge tale.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because it’s still a work in translation that had been published serially, which means that in most forms it’s super-padded and weirdly-worded. For a much shorter, less-translated, less-padded version of the same story, please consider the far-superior The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky – Crime and Punishment

WHY IT WILL WIN: Any novel that is beloved among serious students of moral philosophy and dudebros alike is a novel with not only legs, but serious staying power.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: Well, we wouldn’t want to raise ire by suggesting that people who commit crimes in Russia might someday face consequences, would we?

Mark Haddon – The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

WHY IT WILL WIN: Because it’s an entirely non-controversial book that’s just challenging enough to get credit for being challenging, with a non-neurotypical protagonist. Oh, and it exists in both a YA form and an adult form, which is cute. It’s unclear if both or just one of them are nominated.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: It might have had a better shot ten or fifteen years ago. Now it reads as being kind of gimmicky, albeit admirable in its attempt.

Dan Brown – The Da Vinci Code

WHY IT WILL WIN: We live in a conspiracy-theory heavy time, and there’s something reassuring about the idea that someone out there, even something as evil as Dan Brown’s read on the Catholic church, is on the ball enough to be orchestrating huge cover-up operations. It really makes one feel that at least somebody is behind all this nonsense.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: It might win if this were a contest about product placement, or if everyone who voted on it was recently hit in the head with a bat, or if everyone who voted had only read one book in their lives, but I don’t think that’s the case.

Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote

WHY IT WILL WIN: It’s the first novel! It holds up surprisingly well, even after several hundred years and in translation, which is no small feat. A lot of people love it, because it’s very easy to love.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because it’s several hundred years old and Spanish, and as readable as it actually is, people don’t, y’know, read it.

Romulo Gallegos – Dona Barbara

WHY IT WILL WIN: It’s an excellent work of regionalist literature, and the jewel of Venezuelan novels.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because it’s a ninety-year-old Venezuelan novel.

Frank Herbert – Dune

WHY IT WILL WIN: It’s more-or-less the science fiction Lord of the Rings, in terms of archetype and influence. It’s got everything you could want out of space opera, which a lot of people like.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: It’s very long, very weird, and, even though this doesn’t have much to do with the actual content of this book itself, it has the absolute largest drop between “quality of the first installment” and “quality of the sequels,” which does tarnish it a bit.

EL James – Fifty Shades of Grey

WHY IT WILL WIN: Because people love porn. And, against all odds or decency, it is wildly successful porn. I wouldn’t have thought it was well-regarded enough to be nominated here in the first place, but well, here you have it. So I guess anything is possible.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because it’s porn? Because it’s porn that started out as fanfiction? I’ll get to this book’s parent in part 2, but honestly? There’s no way this wins, right?

VC Andrews – Flowers in the Attic

WHY IT WILL WIN: Honestly, because it is also porn. Weird historical overwrought teenager-friendly emotionally-driven porn. But still porn. Not the last time for porn, either.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because it’s almost hilariously terrible.

Isaac Asimov – Foundation (series)

WHY IT WILL WIN: Of all the great ideas to come from science fiction, psychohistory might actually be the best of them, and as an exploration of what people are and how they get where they’re going (metaphorically speaking), it’s as good as they come.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because there are six goddamn books in this trilogy, and he should have left well enough a-goddamn-lone.

Mary Shelley – Frankenstein

WHY IT WILL WIN: It invented science fiction, and did an awful lot to leave a mark on the modern conception of horror, as well as bringing humanism to the idea of a “ghost” story, which was famously the original challenge set upon at the dinner party where it was first incubated.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because most people reduce it to its film versions, and also because the book is frightfully hard to get through if you’re not pretty dead-set on doing so.

George RR Martin – A Song of Ice and Fire (Series)

WHY IT WILL WIN: Because people can’t get enough of this particular sword opera. They prize the realism (when it comes to rape and murder but not dragons) and the complex political machinations (which are left over from when it was a book about the War of the Roses)

WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because it’s so goddamn long, and it isn’t finished.

Jason Reynolds – Ghost

WHY IT WILL WIN: Because it’s the newest book on the list, and therefore will be fresh in everyone’s mind at the time of voting.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: Some books are nominated in series, some are not (see also: Anne of Double G’s, The Giver (saints be praised), et al) Why is that? I don’t know. I suspect conspiracy. The same conspiracy that’s keeping this book out of the top spot.

Marilynne Robinson – Gilead

WHY IT WILL WIN: Well hell. It won every other award on the planet, why not this one?

WHY IT WON’T WIN: Good as it is, it’s a pretty out-there fictional-memoir-journal thing that can be a little hard to get started on.

Lois Lowry – The Giver

WHY IT WILL WIN: Dystopias are big business, and this was a YA dystopia before there were nearly as many of those (there were still a bunch though – I was a young person when this one came out). Also it’s quite good if you pretend it doesn’t have sequels.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: I think people expect something a bit more…kinetic out of YA dystopias these days, and it may also suffer the hit of people having been forced to read it in school.

Mario Puzo – The Godfather

WHY IT WILL WIN: It’s the basis for one of the contenders for “greatest movie ever made” and all that.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: The movie took all the best parts, and at least one of the parts that the movie didn’t take is, notably, a disturbingly long-reaching plotline about the size of one of the characters’ vagina. It ends in her marrying the doctor responsible for her vagina ensmallment. Read more about it here. Oh, also, the book is pretty bad.

Gillian Flynn – Gone Girl

WHY IT WILL WIN: It was a very recent genuine actual bona-fide bookselling sensation for grownups, which means it has the benefit off a whole bunch of people reading it, which can’t hurt. Also see above w/r/t the threat of false imprisonment.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: It’s deeply pessimistic, and while it was wildly popular and is as well-constructed as any of its contemporaries, I don’t get the impression that it’s taken as seriously. Basically, I’m having a hard time figuring out who thinks this book is their “favorite,” although its place here prompts me to concede that obviously it is someone’s.

Margaret Mitchell – Gone With the Wind

WHY IT WILL WIN: Because we love to remember the majesty and glory of the slave-era South, we surely do.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because it’s long and boring, same as a bunch of these other ones.

John Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath

WHY IT WILL WIN: Because it’s the greatest work of literary fiction ever written by an American.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because everyone is still sad about the turtle.

Charles Dickens – Great Expectations

WHY IT WILL WIN: It’s definitely the best book with “Great” in the title on this list. That’s got to give it something, right?

WHY IT WON’T WIN: Is it too cheap to be the millionth person to make a joke about it not living up to its title, do you think? It’s just that there are so many of these books, see. I suppose it’s not as lazy as jokes about Canadians, and I have a nonzero number of those in here. 

Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby

WHY IT WILL WIN: Because people love – love – this book. Even the ones who had to read it for school. I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: It’s the worst book with “Great” in the title on this list.

Jonathan Swift – Gulliver’s Travels

WHY IT WILL WIN: Fans of the Lilliputians story as told everywhere else will be thrilled to know that there’s three more chapters. This mirrors what Neil Degrasse Tyson said on the tv show itself. Anyway, it’s very funny and an allegory that isn’t also really dumb, so it’s got a lot going for it.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because the parts that aren’t about the Lilliputians are harder to parse, and because it’s more fun for a lot of people to argue about the real-world analogues of the allegorical elements than to actually appreciate the book, which isn’t going to give it much by way of legs in the voting process.

Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale

WHY IT WILL WIN: It’s currently a very successful tv show, and its often lauded for its prescience and social currency.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: It’s Canadian. Ewwwwww.

J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter (series)

WHY IT WILL WIN: It was a once-in-a-generation epoch-defining success. There are people who were raised to adulthood on these books, who are now (or will be soon) having children to raise on these books. It’s entered a stratum of the culture left to precious few other things (The Beatles, Star Wars, that kind of thing). If it’s not the best-constructed or best-written or whatever of these books, it’s definitely an argument for that not being the thing that matters.

WHY IT WON’T WIN: Because it’s a book about wizards aimed at children and we can’t have that now, can we?

A Considered Look at Every Inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Part 7

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, Part 4, Part 5 and Part 6 of this series.

Class of 1996

David Bowie

WHO HE IS: Ziggy Stardust himself. Aladdin Sane himself. The ol’ Diamond Dog himself. The Thin White Duke himself. Liable to be the only David Jones in the HOF, unless something major changes.

WHY HE’S HERE: He had a restlessly-pliable artistic approach that led to him being the second person to do a large number of things. Every record he made from 1971 to 1983 basically provided a bedrock influence on a whole bunch of bands 3. He sold a tonne of records, and had an indelible aesthetic presence. He inspired a fanbase that is rabid beyond belief – there are people who are into David Bowie in a way that is almost unmatched by just about anybody. He was also a hell of a singer.

AND…?: I wrestled with my feelings about his music and its legacy in this space when he died, and I don’t have much to add to that, except that his music is largely fine, and also not something I engage with very much.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Inarguably.

Gladys Knight & The Pips

WHO THEY ARE: An extremely long-running soul act (they started in the fifties and had hits through the eighties) comprised mainly of family members. They are not, in fact, named “Pip,” which is something of a disappointment.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: They had a bunch of hits for Motown 4, most notably “Midnight Train to Georgia.” That seems to be one of the magic buttons in terms of getting the HOF voters to agree on your place there. I dunno, man.

AND…?: I like Gladys Knight and the Pips, but I don’t know what specific thing made them deserve a place here. I can’t think of any specific influence they would have had, and while they did have a bunch of hits, only a couple of them are enduring in any real sense. It’s a mystery.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Probably not, unfortunately.

Jefferson Airplane

WHO THEY ARE: A bunch of San Francisco folks who played Woodstock. Best known for “White Rabbit.”

WHY THEY’RE HERE: Because people can’t give up on a band that played Woodstock, I guess? Because there’s no floor on how few good songs a band can have and still be here? Jefferson Airplane’s major contribution to the world of rock music is codifying the template of “wailing big-voiced woman fronts otherwise-nonspectacular band” that you can still find on the charts today 5, but even that is just formalizing the Janis Joplin approach 6. The band also earns serious demerits for everything they did after they changed their name.

AND…?: They recorded an enduring pro-drug anthem, but other than that they were about as psychedelic as a glass of warm milk. They have high points, but not very many of them, and they aren’t very high. Their best song (the aforementioned “White Rabbit”) draws the “Lewis Carroll = drugs” connection that would provide pop culture and Hot Topic with some of their most irritating features for a long time. That’s not their fault as such, but it still colors the experience of evaluating them.

 

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: No

 

Little Willie John

WHO HE IS: A fifties R&B dude.

 

WHY HE’S HERE: He’s definitely another early-adopter of the major-asshole-drink-and-scream school of being a famous singer person. He recorded the first hit version of the song “Fever”, which has the distinction of being a song that I’m pretty sure I like every version of (including his). He was a good singer that had hits and stuff. I don’t know, guys.

 

AND…?: Again, he had nothing to do with rock music, except for providing a shitty behavior template and dying young, a thing a bunch of rock people would go on to do. But a bunch of non-rock people do that as well, so it’s not really a thing. He was fine, but we are clearly running out of major R&B figures.

 

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Not really.

 

Pink Floyd

WHO THEY ARE: Earth’s finest psychedelic band. Fight me.

 

WHY THEY’RE HERE: They were unbelievably enormous, which is pretty impressive given that even their unbelievably enormous records were weird as hell. They created the musical style that would morph into prog-rock, and then made better prog rock records than anybody else. They managed to survive their primary songwriting partnership consisting of the two biggest assholes in the world. They became the band’s primary songwriting partnership after their initial songwriter, who was the poster-child for an acid-casualty flake, wandered off, metaphorically speaking. Their sonic influence was multifaceted – you can go out right now and find a band that sounds more-or-less exactly like Syd-era Pink Floyd without even looking so hard, even if you live somewhere without much of a rock music presence. Their later, huger albums commit the sin of making it seem like a viable approach to slave over every single sound on the record and make crazy-ass piecemeal records that do not contain any actual band playing on them seem like a good idea 7. They made a great rock opera, a thing that has only been managed a bare handful of times since then.

AND…?: Obviously I love Pink Floyd more than is seemly, or more than is cool, or more than is even explicable. Their association with prog rock kept them out of the HOF for their first few years of eligibility, which is more evidence that the people in charge of this building have no idea what they’re doing.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes

The Shirelles

WHO THEY WERE: Another in the ceaseless parade of vocal groups to be inaccurately called “rock and roll” for the sake of their induction here.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: Because somebody involved had a real hard-on for vocal groups.

AND…?: They sounded great, and some of those records are delightful. “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” is about as good as this stuff gets.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Not really.

The Velvet Underground

WHO THEY WERE: The apotheosis of a cult band. The band about whom Brian Eno famoustly said that their first album “only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”

WHY THEY’RE HERE: They existed almost entirely outside the mainstream for their actual existence. The fact that “Sweet Jane” has become something of a classic-rock standard 8 is more about how well they held up as both a subject for rock and roll discourse and as a thing that existed. They made phenomenal records that age extremely well. Lou Reed would go on to be an institution (and John Cale somewhat less so, unjustifiably). A million bands sound just like them, a few million more take superficial aspects of their music, and a whole bunch of great bands were inspired to be as weird and acommerical as they could be just because VU showed the way. If they also provided one of the bedrock influences for punk rock along the way (as Legs McNeil would have it), then hell, that’s the cherry on top.

AND…?: I have said before, and will continue to say, that the Velvet Underground, and especially their first two records, are literally impossible to overrate. There is no positive thing you can say about them that isn’t as true when taken to an extreme as it is when spoken of passively. I came around eventually the latter half of their studio discography, but I like it more every time I listen to it. They were an incredible thing that existed on Earth, and they should be praised and rendered immortal as a result.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes.

Pete Seeger

WHO HE IS: The greatest folk singer that ever lived 9. He wrote “If I Had a Hammer”, “Turn! Turn! Turn” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, among others.

WHY HE’S HERE: He wrote some real-deal major folk standards. He provided the definitive version of a couple more 10. He was an outspoken activist, and provided an excellent template for how to be as a popular musician. He had a great voice besides all that, as well. He’s inducted as an early influence, which is cool, but I must also point out that his recording career started at the same time as the Pips’, who are inducted as performers, and none of this makes any damn sense.

AND…?: I’m all-in for Pete Seeger, man.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes

Tom Donahue

WHO HE IS: The DJ that helped launch FM radio, and thus a lot of the conventional audience/beliefs about rock music 11.

WHY HE’S HERE: Basically just that. He was important to the rise of FM radio, which has also proven to be surprisingly slow to die.

AND…?: I dunno. Seems like it’s fine. If you’re going to let DJs in, he oughta be one of them.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure

Class of 1997

Bee Gees

WHO THEY ARE: At this point they’re more-or-less synonymous with disco, even though they weren’t as good as Chic.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: There are a handful of disco acts in the RRHOF, which is either a weird contrarian leaning 12, or some kind of need to be “completists”, despite the fact that the HOF is for a specific non-disco genre. For whatever reason, they’re including disco 13, and the Bee Gees seem like a reasonable place to start there.

AND…?: I have nothing in particular to say about the Bee Gees. I don’t like them. I think it’s funny that they broke up in 1968, reformed a couple of years later and spent a decade turning into a completely different band and then got famous. That’s always a weird trajectory, and it’s probably the most entertaining thing about them.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: I don’t think so, no.

Buffalo Springfield

WHO THEY ARE: A Canadian folk-rock band from the sixties. You probably know “For What It’s Worth,” and if you don’t I’m jealous of you because I wish I didn’t.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: Because Stephen Stills and Neil Young were there, and they’re RRHOF royalty. Their popularity was significant, and I guess they were a fine-enough example of a form (folk rock) that had already been done better by a bunch of people when they were doing it, but those other bands didn’t have Stephen Stills and Neil Young in them.

AND…?: They were a band I don’t like that still contained Neil Young. That takes some doing.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: No

Crosby, Stills & Nash

WHO THEY ARE: An American (Stills moved south, see) folk-rock band from the sixties.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: Stephen Stills is largely RRHOF royalty because of his role in this band, who were much better. They played Woodstock, which seems to be a sort of “automatic inclusion,” but as far as folk-rock goes they were about as good as it gets. They’re praised universally for their harmonies, which were indeed spectacular. They were enormously influential, hugely popular and generally existed at the same level of quality the whole time.

AND…?: They were better with Neil Young, but even though none of their music is anything I find myself ever desiring to listen to, I can respect that they were out there doing it I suppose.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes

The Jackson 5

WHO THEY ARE: The act that launched Tito Jackson.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: They were the most popular act on Motown. Michael Jackson is quite possibly the biggest pop star to ever exist. Being on Motown helps, as does them being the bridge between classic-style R&B and disco (see above). They sold more records than I can fathom, and everyone that performed music in their basic mien sounded like them for years.

AND…?: Some of their singles (especially “I Want You Back,” but there are a handful of others) are absolutely bulletproof. What’s amazing to me is how well they performed as a group, and how even though Michael was clearly the star, they still all made their own contributions significantly. I guess being relentlessly sculpted/stage-managed by a total psycho will do that.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure.

Joni Mitchell

WHO SHE IS: Of all the California folkies, she’s the most impressive. Even though she’s also Canadian. I guess I strap the “Californian” label to people at my own discretion?

WHY SHE’S HERE: Her influence on people is absolutely incalculable 14. She was plenty popular, and continues to be among the sort of people that have always liked her. She is a genuinely phenomenal guitar player, and she had an even better voice. She also knew exactly when to quit, and has a remarkably high quality-control level.

AND…?: I mean, I don’t really ever listen to it, and when I do it doesn’t really connect up, but I’m glad she existed, and I like absolutely everything about her except for her actual records.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes

Parliament-Funkadelic

WHO THEY ARE: Sort of the prototypal funk band. The fact that it’s actually the amalgamation of two different funk bands seems beside the point – they did a lot as Parliament-Funkadelic, but all of their best material was as one or the other. I suppose it was easier to get them in in their monolithic single-band form. Weirdly they also didn’t really appear as a single fused unit until 1980, which is not 25 years from 1996, so clearly they’re being inducted on the strength of their separate material anyway.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: We’re at the point where they’re also letting disco in, which grew directly out of the family of musics performed most effectively by Parliament-Funkadelic, so it seems like it should have been time to do this. They were occasionally genuinely great 15, and they definitely had more direct influence than any funk act short of James Brown, who invented the stuff, and maybe Prince (who gave their induction speech). As Funkadelic they were more of a rock band than any other funk band, and “Maggot Brain” is sort of funk-rock’s defining masterpiece. They were decidedly weird, made a bunch of great records, and if they spent too long coasting on their own reputation, well, that’s a human impulse it’s got to be hard to avoid.

AND…?: I like Parliament-Funkadelic, especially as Funkadelic. It’s also worth griping, while I’m filling this write-up with gripes, that only the Famous Flames were inducted as James Brown’s band, and not the JBs, which means that Bootsy Collins is only in there once, despite being an enormously gifted and influential bassist.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes

The (Young) Rascals

WHO THEY ARE: Very near the bottom of the barrel for the fifties rock and roll guys, although by no means the worst.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: They were pretty important to the field of blue-eyed soul. Rod Stewart was inducted a couple of years before them, as was Bruce Springsteen, but that’s kind of the idea. I suppose by influencing those two heavily they made their mark, and they had hits and stuff, so they would probably get a pass.

AND…?: They’re fine. I’m baffled that they got nominated in 1997, and not before then, and I’m even more baffled that they got in before Gene Vincent (whose induction is in 1998, and is therefore a part of the next installment).

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED:  Sure, why not.

Mahalia Jackson

WHO SHE IS: The Queen of Gospel. I’ll never stop being happy that there are so many of these folks with easy-to-grab nicknames.

WHY SHE’S HERE: She was an undeniable influence on nearly everyone that sang soul music after her, especially the women.

AND…?: I mean, sure. As early influences go as established by previous inductions, she’s a lock.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes

Bill Monroe

WHO HE IS: The Father of Bluegrass. (See what I mean about the nicknames?)

WHY HE’S HERE: The RRHOF sort of gets this one right in an ass-backward way. I would imagine 16 that he’s here because he had a big day in the sixties, when the folk revival was happening, and when many of the inductees of this year were coming around. But “Hillbilly” music really is an elemental source of a lot of the roots of rock and roll, and Bill Monroe was a big part of that.

AND..?: Oh, he was great.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Absolutely

Syd Nathan

WHO HE IS: A noble midwesterner! He founded King records.

WHY HE’S HERE: He gets credit for starting the label that James Brown first recorded for (actually Federal, a subsidiary of King). He loses all sorts of points for being an utter lunatic, and for hating Brown’s music, only keeping it going because it sold. So it goes.

AND…?: There’s plenty of record label people in here already. I get this dude was famous and there are a lot of good stories about him, but that only goes so far.

 

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: No.


  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.  The covers album Pin-Ups is an atrocity, and nobody wants to sound like that, although I suppose given the amount of bands that are weird glam-bands playing at being psychedelia that existed (and continue to exist), even that record is not without its followers, even if unintentionally. 
  4.  interestingly, they signed to Motown in 1966, after existing for fifteen years prior. This is pretty incredible. 
  5.  there was a new Florence and Machine record, like, a month ago or whatever, you know? 
  6.  or rather the approach of marketing Janis Joplin 
  7.  they prefigured a lot of the dumb, overworked “in the box” rock recordings that are now frightfully common, but they did it before computers by having stupidly huge budgets and a slavish devotion to making their music sound as sterile and un-human as possible. This is, ordinarily, the sort of thing I complain about grumpily. On paper I should not like their enormous records, but the alchemy of the dudes in the band is such that I do, in fact, like them. 
  8.  not to mention that the death of radio as a driving-force for music discovery has sort of retroactively made hits out of “Rock and Roll” and “Heroin,” and maybe “All Tomorrow’s Parties”. 
  9.  turns out the RRHOF class of 1996 is real heavy on things I am over-the-top enthusiastic about. 
  10.  I like Lead Belly fine, but Seeger’s version of “Goodnight Irene” beats it in a walk. 
  11.  I think I’ve talked about this elsewhere here, but the idea is that the rise of FM radio also led to the album-centrism of rock sorts of attitude, among other things. 
  12.  the crowd for the HOF being, naturally, the currently-extant extension of the same set of people that used to hold record burnings for disco records. 
  13.  it’s probably the cousin of the reason they would begin including hip-hop a few years later. 
  14.  Recently Collin Newman, currently as half of Immersion, and ultimately as 25% of Wire, one of the greatest rock bands ever to exist in the history of ever, did a survey of his favorite records for The Quietus, and pointed out that “everyone who does [this interview where a musician chooses their favorite records for The Quietus] chooses Joni Mitchell.” That’s a long reach. 
  15.  pace the “two different bands” thing, above. 
  16.  but of course this is conjecture, because the actual process for nomination and induction is as opaque as it can be. 

The 2017 Shirley Jackson Awards

My name is February Makeup. I am thirty-four years old, and I live with a number of other mammals and rather a lot of computers. I have often thought with any luck at all I could have been born a much smaller person, because there is nothing particularly noteworthy about my hands that would betray, say, werewolfdom or anything else other than my size, but I have had to be content with what I have. I dislike washing dishes, and dogs, and I love all kinds of noise. I like almost no one (but have never met Constance or Richard Plantagenet), and I am indifferent to Amanita phalloides, the death-cap mushroom. Many of my family members are, in fact, not dead.

True story: Shirley Jackson is among my top-flight absolute-favorite authors ever to live on this island Earth. So it makes me happy that, for the last almost-dozen years, there have been awards given to horror and weird fiction in her honor. The (rather short) list of people who have won Shirley Jackson awards already reads like a who’s who among the sort of writer that I spend my free time with, and thus it comes to be inevitable that I shall evaluate the books hereto nominated.

The awards themselves are aimed at recognizing “outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror and the dark fantastic”, which provides the double-boon of not only being a pretty clear set of nomination criteria 1, but a set of nomination criteria that pitches the stories themselves pretty clearly into my wheelhouse 2.

And then, of course, there’s the serendipitous timing of the awards: the Hugos are a month away, the Nebulas were a couple of months ago, the World Fantasy Award nominations are still being tabulated, so I not only enjoyed this one, but I had time to read everything I hadn’t read already 3. So I’m ready for it, is what I’m saying, and I’m ready to shepherd you all through, into the dark and disturbed waters of the Shirley Jackson awards.

Edited Anthology

This category was something of a difficult one to evaluate. A mixed anthology is never the easiest thing to judge the quality of – some of these are grouped by subject matter, some by theme, and in any event nothing is going to be for everyone, and any assemblage of this kind of thing requires some pretty serious gear-shifting, no matter how capably the stories are grouped 4. This kind of fiction (the kind nominated for Shirley Jackson awards) really lives in its short stories, so I felt it was important to give each story as much of its due as possible, but it was sometimes quite difficult to get things separated enough that they didn’t just smear into each other. This may be my problem, and not even a problem for anyone else. I have no idea.

The Djinn Falls in Love, edited by Mahvash Murad and Jared Shurin, was probably the hardest of these for me to get through. I don’t read enough stories about djinn out in the wild for me to know if the difficulty is that the subject matter lends itself to the kind of material I’d sooner avoid, or if the editors themselves are into that kind of story. I’m inclined toward the former, given primarily that Claire North and Nnedi Okarafor, writers that I’m ordinarily over the moon about, failed to impress me with this one (although neither story was bad). The book wasn’t without its charms however. KJ Parker’s “Message in a Bottle” recasts a genie as an evil science monk, and it’s possible that his story ends in the end of the world, which I’m always a big fan of. Catherina Faris King’s “The Queen of Sheba” was a sort of “secret family history” story that worked pretty well. Saad Z. Hossain wrote a great story about a genie that helps start a floating restaurant for the disenfranchised, which also manages to refer to the djinn doing what the djinn does as “djinnjitsu,” which is just great. Maria Dahvana Headley’s “Black Powder” was the head-and-shoulders standout, about wishes and guns, with the idea of the “djinn” taking several different forms throughout. I was glad to read the collection for “Black Powder,” if nothing else. Oh, and there’s an extract from American Gods in it (the bit about the Djinn, as one could assume). American Gods is still great. It’s probably my favorite novel, in fact.

Black Feathers is one where I can be assured that I just don’t have much deep-seated feeling for stories about birds, since I’m more familiar with the editorial work of Ellen Datlow than Mahvash Murad and Jared Shurin, but also there are always a bunch of stories in Datlow-edited anthologies that I bounce off of entirely, and this was no different 5. Seanan McGuire’s “The Mathematical Inevitability of Corvids” is the standout of the pack – it’s brutal and affecting in the best possible ways, and concerns a non-neurotypical young lady and a certain Scandinavian counting charm. Priya Sharma’s “The Crow Palace” is an exceptional story that is also paced really well – the setup part of the beginning slides, avalanche-style into the supernatural part at the end, and it’s really compelling as a result. Nicholas Royle’s “The Obscure Bird” is brief and hard to describe without giving it away, but I liked it a lot, and owls are pretty good birds for all that. Pat Cadigan’s “A Little Bird Told Me” is a little story about a big afterlife bureaucracy, and the people trying to help folks navigate through it, and the role of psychopomps in the whole thing. Obviously the book wasn’t without its high points, but it didn’t have quite enough of them.

The Talking Board, edited by Ross E. Lockhart, was the book that I was the most surprised by. Not because it was particularly good (it’s fine, on the whole), but because it does indeed manage to mine fertile creative material out of Ouija boards. There’s a pretty cool piece of historical fantasy in the form of Anya Martin’s “Weejee, Weejee, Tell Me Do”, about nightclub singers. S.P. Miskowski’s “Pins” is a brief, moving story about the difficulties of psychic powers. Nadia Bulkin’s “May You Live in Interesting Times” is an effective story about not moving on from the dead, and about people’s reactions to actual magic. The Talking Board really excelled when it was playing to the cheap seats, though. Scott R. Jones’s “Worse Than Demons” concerns a Jehovah’s Witness who finds out the worst news possible through a talking board. Matthew B. Bartlett’s “Deep Into the Skin” concerns a tattoo artist who finds himself roped into a particularly horrifying bit of business. David James Keaton’s satisfyingly nasty “Spin the Throttle” is about a party on the back of a firetruck that probably should have been shut down a long time ago. All told, this one was wildly uneven, but occasionally very entertaining.

Michael Kelly saw the seventh installment of his Shadows and Tall Trees series nominated 6, and it remains the case that, to be frank, Michael Kelly and I do not value the same things, story-wise. It’s not bad (none of them are bad), but the things that are good about it are not necessarily things to which I respond particularly. Robert Shearman is always great, and his “The Swimming Pool Party” is as weird and scary as one could want. Mary Rickert’s “Everything Beautiful is Terrifying” is, itself, equal parts beautiful and terrifying, and concerns a woman whose best friend died when they were young, and  is haunted. Rebecca Kuder’s “Curb Day” is the best story in the collection 7, and is in the sort of “paranoid and harrowing” lane that many of my favorite things occupy, about a lady who has to get rid of a bunch of things for the unknowable benefit of some unknowable group. It’s a truly incredible piece of work.

Looming Low, edited by Justin Steele & Sam Cowan, manges to have the most hits, if not precisely the highest hit-to-miss ratio 8, of any book here. Kurt Fawver’s “The Concavity of Our Youth,” Nadia Bulkin’s “Live Through This” and Brian Evenson’s “The Second Door” were all nominated independently in the short story category, so you’ll read more about them in a minute. A.C. Wise’s “The Stories We Tell Ourselves About Ghosts” is a straight-up ghost yarn, with some decidedly modernized touches, and is wonderful for it. Betty Rocksteady’s “The Dusk Urchin” is perhaps the outright scariest of the stories here, about a little girl who can really ruin one’s traditional expectations. If it isn’t the scariest, then that would be Sunny Moraine’s “We Grope Together and Avoid Speech”, which is about mouths, and manages to make an enormous psychological impact in its very brief time across the eyes. Lisa L. Hannett’s “Outside a Drifter” is a strange, wistful story that also manages to be full-on body horror, but not in a way that disgusts, just makes one kind of sad. Kirsti DeMeester’s “The Small Deaths of Skin and Plastic” is about a woman who gives birth a lot, and is weird and ambiguous and unsettling. Christopher Slatsky’s “SPARAGMOS” is about dementia 9, and also about a weird shadowy group that is doing something weird and shadowy in the background (obviously this is the easy path to a successful goal-scoring with me). Michael Griffin’s “The Sound of Black Dissects the Sun” is the longest piece in the collection, and once it settles down past its name-dropping instincts manages to hit a groove as a deeply unsettling story about a piece of music that is so compelling that it seems like it might actually change reality, where it comes from, and where it goes. All told, I’m happy to have read Looming Low Volume 1, and look forward tremendously to volume 2.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Looming Low, Volume 1

Single-Author Collection

There are some tremendous heavy hitters here nominated. Nadia Bulkin is something of the current avatar of the Shirley Jackson awards, having won several of them, and nominated here not only for her collection She Said Destroy, but also appearing in a couple of the other collections 10. She Said Destroy is a uniformly-satisfying bit of writing, with a number of exceptional stories, especially “The Five Stages of Grief,” about a world where the dead don’t actually depart, “The Warren”, which actually also concerns the dead not staying dead as such, and “No Gods No Monsters,” about the price a family pays for their place in the world, among other things, which is also a story that I would happily have read several hundred pages of. “Only Unity Saves the Damned”, “Girl I Love You” and “Red Goat Black Goat” were also fantastic stories, and I really enjoyed “Seven Minutes in Heaven” when it was part of Aickman’s Heirs as well. All told, she’s doing wonderful work and it’ll be exciting to see more of it – she certainly seems to be prolific enough to keep us all satisfied.

Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties was not always my bag – she writes a lot of erotica-tinged pieces, and this will never be something I have an easy time responding to 11. That said, that’s a me problem, and many of the stories are more than enough to overcome my own prudish weirdness. “Eight Bites” is about bodies in a completely different way, and is just gorgeous. “Real Women Have Bodies” runs along similar lines 12, and contains probably the best single line I read for the entire kit and kaboodle 13. “The Resident” was published recently enough to be considered below, in the short-story collection, but it appears here and is incredible. The real towering achievement, however, remains “Especially Heinous,” an imagistic piece that floored me when it came out a few years ago, and that builds a braided set of helices of narrative out of the titles (and general cultural space) of Law & Order: SVU episodes. It says a whole lot about people, and the way we interact with that kind of story, and what that kind of story actually is in a way that is just impossible to not stop and gawp at for awhile. Her Body and Other Parties should be nominated for all sorts of things on its back, and this would be the case even if the other stories were no good at all.

Samantha Hunt’s The Dark Dark is a pretty good collection of fantastical literary weirdness. A lot of it feels paranoid and in extreme close-up, as it is largely full of characters with no air to breathe and no way to open up the space around them, literally or metaphorically. “The Story Of” and “The Story Of Of” [sic] bookend the collection with two very different stories about a very particular set of events 14. “The House Began to Pitch” (about a hurricane and a woman’s relationship history, broadly), “Beast” (about a weredeer, broadly) and “A Love Story” (a highly-visual story about bodies and relationships between people with bodies, broadly) are all pretty good weird-type lit-adjacent horror fiction 15. All told, The Dark Dark is a fine collection.

It really came down, in the end, to two of the books here. Chavisa Woods’s Things to do When You’re Goth in the Country is a phenomenal piece of work, and she balances the literary and the horrifying tremendously well. Her particular take on being bored and rural and out-of-place is revelatory in the completeness of her depiction of that particular emotional state. It moves from hyper-realistic to completely contra-natural. The title story (a piece of presumably at least semi-autobiographical portraiture, as well as a handy how-to, as the title implies) and the heartbreaking “Zombie” 16 are more-or-less devoid of actual supernatural elements. The long and devastating “What’s Happening on the News” is more-or-less entirely real, although it’s suffused with a narrative quality that makes it seem like there could be something extranatural going on 17. The elsewhere-nominated “Take the Way Home That Leads Past Sullivan Street” (see below) is ambiguously supernatural (spoiler alert) and is also probably the best piece of fiction that I read for these here awards that also has a really graphic sex scene in it. “A New Mohawk” is a fantastic, absurdist piece of humanist magical realism, that manages to be weird and non-real without sacrificing the gravity of its subject matter. All told, it’s a fantastic piece of work that probably deserves the award, and a bunch of other awards besides (to this point, Woods is not exactly lacking in accolades – the book is fantastic).

I think the best of them, however, is Camilla Grudova’s The Doll’s Alphabet. This collection, despite being the slimmest of the ones involved, has everything. It’s weird, it’s scary, it’s funny (sometimes all at once), it manages to be thought-provoking at pretty much every turn. The stories themselves, to a one, contain only and exactly as much information as you’d want for the story to be effective, and I don’t think there’s a wasted word in the whole thing. The title story is nothing more than a couple of sentences, for example. The best story in the collection, “Waxy,” about a world where gender relations are hopelessly skewed in a way that benefits no one and seems as dire and post-apocalyptic as anything I’ve ever read, is a previous Shirley Jackson Award winner. “The Mouse Queen” is here nominated as on its own as well. “The Sad Tale of the Sconce” is a touching shaggy-dog story (it does exactly what it says on the tin). “Hungarian Sprats” is wildly effective horror-comedy. “The Gothic Society” (about a guerilla art group) and “Please Do Not Pamper the Dead” (about a guy who…well….dies) are stories about people continuing to be people even as the world they’re in is brutally unrecognizable 18. “Rhinoceros” is a story about perseverance in a world that has moved on, and “Agata’s Machine” is about a person failing to move on in a world. The final piece, the incredible “Notes From a Spider” is light body horror 19 and a moving story about weirdness in which the weirdness is the action of the story, not necessarily its focus. There’s also a really interesting recurrence of sewing machines, which contributes to an effect where even though none of the stories are specifically related to each other, they all kind of build upon one another, and the effect of every story washing over the reader one after the other is immense.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Camilla Grudova, “The Doll’s Alphabet”

Short Stories

All of these stories but one appear in collections that are elsewhere-nominated, which strikes me as worth noting, but probably is just about par for the course, when I think about it. Anyway. Carmen Maria Machado’s “Blur” is actually my favorite of the stories that I read from her this year that were at this length 20. Also, as someone whose vision is just terrible 21, I appreciate getting to think about what it would be like if my vision were replaced with visions. NB that this may, in fact, be exactly the wrong thing to take away from this story.

“The Mouse Queen” is, as one could guess from my previous gushing about Camilla Grudova, pretty great. Perhaps unexpectedly, then, it’s also the story that has the closest thing in the book to pacing problems, the thing that I just said a couple of hundred words ago was one of Grudova’s strengths as a writer. What it nearly lacks in that department it more than makes up for in being genuinely creepy. It’s also the most “straightforward” story in the book – it’s giving too much away to say what happens, but suffice it to say it’s considerably more visceral than any other story in the book 22

Brian Evenson’s “The Second Door” is a brief, punchy screamer – it gets in, builds up a healthy sense of dread, then gets out. It deserves praise for its genuinely bizarre setting, and for Evenson’s confidence in the strength of his storytelling and his premise, and not trying to do anything particularly showy with it.

Kurt Fawver’s “The Convexity of Our Youth” is an unnerving piece of work, concerning the body-horror effects of a strange orange ball, and the reaction of the citizens of several towns (and one in particular) to said effects. It’s fully unique, and it’s genuinely creepy, but manages to twist everything back around so that you don’t know who to feel worse for in the end.

It’s Nadia Bulkin’s “Live Through This” that I think is the strongest of the nominees here. It’s the story of a young lady who kills herself, and then, through unexplained mechanisms, starts to take her revenge. It manages to encompass a number of thoughts about revenge, about justice and about memory. Bulkin is a remarkably effective conveyor of narratorial emotion, and this story is as angry as they come, and that kind of burning intensity really carries the story all the way through. Even in a year full of excellent Nadia Bulkin stories, this one is truly great.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Nadia Bulkin, “Live Through This”

Novelette

Novelettes seem to be a difficult word-count needle to thread – in other novelette categories, it seems that they’re either too long or too short. This crop largely avoids that, which is comforting, as I had started to think that I’m categorically opposed to something based on nothing more than the number of words it contains, which is a clearly-irrational position that I’m glad to be disabused of. Hurray!

Chavisa Woods’s “Take the Way Home That Leads Past Sullivan Street” is a weird piece of work that manages to use its “crypto-cultish rich people” device to tell a surprisingly moving story about expectations and class relations, and how difficult families are, all fairly obliquely. It’s not necessarily a standout from Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country, but it’s a pretty good story in and of itself.

Laura Maro’s “Sun Dogs” is a touching story about falling in post-apocalyptic love with someone who is, in fact, not what they appear to be. It establishes a lot of world very quickly, and exists very effectively within that world, without making it seem like there’s much more to say about the story in question. It’s very well-told, but kind of slighter than the other work here.

Kahtleen Kayembe’s “You Will Always Have Family: A Triptych” is a shifting-narrator story about supernaturally-affected family and revenge. It’s a nail-biter, and flings itself over the cliff of its narrative style to land at the bottom in a truly surprising ending, with scarcely a break in between 23. It’s a great ride of a story, and I applaud the nonstandard narrative style.

Jeremiah Tolbert’s “The West Topka Triangle” is about a piece of land that may be supernaturally cursed, and centers around the phrase “the nail that sticks up gets the hammer.” It’s built emotionally around the isolation of living in a small town, and of being bullied, using the very real social ostracization of the main character to add friction and texture to the character’s investigation of what is going on in the titular triangle. It’s a wonderful piece of work, generally.

Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Resident” is great. I stated previously that Machado is at her best in her longer pieces, and this is definitely one of them. It’s a bizarre fever dream that takes place in a writer’s residency. It makes an excellent argument about what art is, and contains the best closing lines of anything I’ve read all year. Along the way she ruminates on paranoia, unease and illness. It’s a big swing that largely connects, and the result is an unusually strong piece of work, even for someone who’s a very strong writer as a matter of course.

Novella

Novellas seem to be having a real moment 24, and as someone who’s always enjoyed the word-count 25, I’m pretty chuffed to see so much great work being done. This is the only category that consists solely of works that I would recommend unreservedly to just about anyone – while the other categories are all solid 26, this one is especially good, and extremely-likable, with even the most out-there stuff still being pretty conventionally successful as writing.

James Morrow’s The Asylum of Doctor Caligari is very good, albeit standard James Morrow: it’s funny, it deals with philosophy issues, and it’s probably the only piece of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari fan-fiction I’ll ever read (this last bit is not a feature of “standard James Morrow” stories). There’s a lot of art history in there, and a lot of regular European history, and while it largely avoids the dreaded info-dump there’s still a lot of factoidal narration in there. While I enjoyed this immensely – and was especially impressed and/or touched by the ending – it’s the weakest of the offerings here.

Stephen Graham Jones’s Mapping the Interior starts out very slowly, and lays out its dominoes pretty carefully, only to knock them all down in a surprising, unexpected frenzy at the end. The last domino (to stretch the metaphor) especially contains a pretty potent surprise. It’s a marvelous ghost story set on a reservation, and takes the time – although not so much that it derails the story – to deal with poverty and the socioeconomic realities of its mie. Obviously I’m a sucker for a story well-grounded in rural poverty. It’s got a lot of admirable qualities, but it really does make its bones on its ending, which I am 100% here for.

Lindsay Drager’s The Lost Daughter’s Collective is a beautiful, elliptical story, in which most of the primary action is accomplished sidelong to the actual writing. Bits of it are gorgeous prose poetry, and the language is superb. Even while telling a story that is hinted more than told (although it is pretty directly hinted) it manages to be captivating and make you feel deeply for several of the characters, and think pretty hard about what it means to have or be a daughter. Or at least, it made me, a person who does not have and has never been a daughter, think about what it means to have or be a daughter.

Margaret Killjoy’s The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion takes on one of my particular favorite ways of telling a story. The thing that happens before the action of the book is that a utopian squatters’ collective summons a supernatural force to help protect their city. The book, then, is about the problem with having a supernatural creature around that is no longer tasked with doing the thing they summoned it to do. It’s not particularly challenging (which isn’t a point against it), and it’s a breeze to read. It’s the sort of comfort-food literature that makes me happy there are people out there doing it, and if it isn’t the best of these, it’s definitely, absolutely the most outright enjoyable.

Tade Thompson’s The Murders of Molly Southbourne is a gripping and inventive story about a woman who produces a large number of clones. It’s very good in and of itself, but does lose a little bit of its effect by clearly being the thing that’s there to set up further installments in the series. That said, it’s wonderfully-written, and manages to make its outlandish supernatural premise seem livable and believable. It continues to surprise all the way through, and ends in a place that makes the reader really wonder where it’s going from there, while also providing a reasonably-good ending to the story we just read. It’s a setup novella, but as far as all that goes, it’s an awfully good one.

Samanta Schwelbin’s Fever Dream is an aptly-titled story about the splitting of a soul, and the effect of that on a family. It manages the narrative trick of seeming completely opaque, but much like its titular condition, carrying enough of its own narrative even under the gauzy, blurry language involved 27 to make itself clear. It thoroughly explores the nature of its premise, and Schweblin guides the story through its notes without necessarily making it apparent what she’s doing, but leaving the reader with an absolutely clear picture of what has just happened and why. It’s an astonishing piece of work.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Samanta Schweblin, Fever Dream

Novel

What a fantastic set of novels! I would be more-or-less happy to see any of these win. Well, almost any of these. I’ll get to it in a minute. Earlier I said that this kind of fiction really lives in its short stories, and, well, I still believe that. It turns out, however, that even so, there’ still a lot of excellent work being done in longer forms.

Hye-Young Pyun’s The Hole is probably the one I liked the least of all of them. It’s fine – it’s a tremendously effective story about isolation. It gets a lot of its initial DNA from Stephen King’s Misery, but it manages to more effectively convey its own sense of dread and solitude, and it’s more internally-driven than externally. It abandons its roots, however (wordplay!) when it starts to get seriously weird. Its real issue is that it takes a long time to get its engine running. It may also suffer somewhat in translation 28. It’s definitely good and worth the time if you feel like reading a weird book about obsession and isolation. It’s just not as good as some of the other stuff here.

Dan Chaon’s Ill Will is also about things that are not what they seem. There’s a string of murders, and a psychologist with his own murder-filled past who gets roped into trying to figure them out, while also managing to completely misjudge his relationships with several of his family members. The book is compelling and thrillingly paced, and may in fact be less distracting to people who don’t live in the place the book is set 29, and I was nothing short of awed by the ending, which can easily be the weakest part of this kind of “what is real” horror-mystery type thing. He really stuck the landing, and he did so without compromising how tremendously easy to read and enjoy the whole thing is. He also makes excellent use of typography and page layout, occasionally making really bold narrative-style decisions that all pay off and make the story more dynamic on the page.

David Demchuk’s The Bone Mother is a novel in a series of vignettes, about the end of the time of monsters on Earth, and the forces that seek to exterminate them. It starts out reading like a series of disconnected incidents, and then picks up steam as the plot actually develops. It is tremendously Balkan 30, which is a lot of fun, and, like many of the other stories I’m praising in this space, does a fantastic job of telling its story alongside the portraits of the non-humans he’s writing about. It also made me feel really bad for a bunch of made-up, folkloric non-human creatures, which is always nice. I like a story from the monster’s point of view.

Paul LaFarge’s The Night Ocean is maybe not the best of the novels I read here, but it’s certainly the twistiest. It starts out as one thing, and ends as a completely-different thing entirely. I will say, without spoiling anything here, that there was some objection to this book for awhile due to certain liberties that he took with history 31, he does not actually take those liberties. Anyway, it’s a fantastic book about obsession, and it manages to pull off the trick of being told at at least one layer of remove, and sometimes up to three or four (that is to say, the events of the book do not happen to the people that are narrating them, with a couple of minor exceptions). There’s been a whole lot of Lovecraftiana in the last few years, and this is a clear high point, and manages to be much more Lovecraftian than it would at first appear to be, in a decidedly different way than the average (i.e. there are still things man was not meant to contemplate, but they’re not space squids or giant fish).

The cream of this, and any other crop, though, is probably Victor Lavalle’s The Changeling. It’s hopefully not saying too much that I was genuinely impressed by how straightforward the title is, and how unafraid it was to dive into it supernatural elements, and not try to ambiguate them or make them at all a question. Everything that happens in the novel actually happens, which is the least of its accomplishments as a story, but the most impressive. It also manages to be a thoroughly-modern horror story, incorporating rather than finding ways to discard technology, and the highly-online state of the world as it is. All while also telling a story about the very worst thing that can happen to parents. It’s a phenomenal piece of work, and deserves this and every other award someone can think to give it.

 

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Victor Lavalle, The Changeling


  1.  which is what keeps a lot of the smaller literary awards from occurring here – I don’t know what people are looking for with a lot of them, except for the ones where it’s about country of origin, and by including several genres/sub-genres, they’re making it pretty easy to avoid debates about whether a thing really is in the genre. In a month I’ll write about the Hugo nominations, and there will be some things there that help make the latter point. 
  2.  this contributes the bulk of the rest of the reason why I don’t write about more book awards: aside from the large, vastly-encompassing ones, I just don’t have anything to stand on.  
  3.  compare to, say, the Locus awards which are great and which happen at right about the same time – they were a couple of weeks ago – but for which the nominations are announced, like, six weeks before the actual ceremony, and I simply do not read that fast.  
  4.  I struggle with how to deal with reading this kind of thing comfortably, and have basically landed on reading one story a day from each anthology, which gives me the physical distance of putting the book down – or, y’know, browsing away from the file on my kindle or whatever – to consider and shift gears while I pick up another book. It means that these things take forever to actually finish, and that I’m reading an absurd number of books at once. I suppose I could mimic this experience by closing the book and putting it down and doing a lap around my house or whatever while I’m reading, but that also seems silly. Woe is me, I guess. 
  5.  the book also forced me to confront the fact that I have basically no strong feelings about birds. I don’t know anything about them, I don’t think about them when I’m not being given an immediate pressing reason to do so, they just genuinely do not make up a part of my day. Sometimes I notice them when the starlings around my house seem like they’re about to kamikaze my face, but that’s about it. I do not blame birds for this, I am comfortable admitting this is my problem, but it is, nonetheless, the case that I do not feel anything for birds. 
  6.  I grappled with the sixth for the World Fantasy Awards a couple of years ago. 
  7.  this is the first I’ve heard of her, although I’ve since done some digging. She lives in Ohio and has some other stuff that I absolutely must read, because it is not for nothing that someone wrote a story I liked more than Robert Shearman and Mary Rickert. 
  8.  it has a lot of stories in it, y’all. 
  9.  it is actually the better of two stories that appear sequentially in the collection about dementia, the other being Jeffrey Thomas’s “Stranger in the House”, which isn’t quite as effective. 
  10.  In addition to the previously-mentioned Looming Low, she’s also in Tales From a Talking Book 
  11.  I also respond poorly to fight scenes and the like. This is not unique to Ms. Machado. 
  12.  it’s fair to say that even when any given story is not actually erotica, Machado writes primarily about bodies and what is done with them. 
  13.  “The blood runs down her arm like maypole ribbons” 
  14.  well, somewhat more than two, but you’ll have to read it. 
  15.  I suppose I am prepared to posit that this is their genre distinction. 
  16.  one of the things that I suppose fuels being so impressed by Woods’ grasp on the type of things she writes about is that rural Indiana isn’t that different from rural Ohio, and so while there are a number of reasons why I wasn’t quite as out-grouped as she was (said reasons being demographic and self-evident), the above weird reference to the “completeness” of the emotional content has something to do with the fact that we’re about the same age and came from roughly similar places, and she really gets it. So I guess what I’m saying is that “Zombie” might only be in the top ten most heartbreaking things you’ll read all year, instead of, like, the top three. 
  17.  I have so far used the words “contra-natural” and “extranatural” here, and that is not accidental – it doesn’t always seem supernatural as such, but there’s definitely stuff involved that is not part of the natural order. 
  18.  there’s nothing brutal about these two stories, just the worlds in which they take place. 
  19.  parlor body horror? It doesn’t actually take place in a parlor very much, I suppose. Well it kind of does. 
  20.  by which I mean “relatively short” – if Her Body and Other Parties was anything to go on, I generally prefer her stories when they’re longer, and find the shorter ones a little less-satisfying. I think it’s because the thing I like about her stories is their tone, which in the longer pieces is something I can really settle into. 
  21.  in addition to being frightfully nearsighted, and nearly-legally-blind in one eye, I’m also color-blind. 
  22.  except the previously-mentioned “Waxy”, which is just incredible in every aspect. I mean in the sense that I am literally not credulous in believing that a human being wrote that story. It’s so good, guys. So good. 
  23.  as, y’know, falling off a cliff doesn’t actually have a break. Well, until the end. Also I mean “falling off a cliff” in a sort of “narrative propulsion” sense, not in a “this sucks and gets bad quickly” sense as the phrase is usually used. 
  24.  there have always been novellas, but there seem to be more of them around. I assume two things: 1) that this is to do with ebooks, and the ease of getting a novella out digitally as compared to in print, and getting it seen and considered, especially given the generally-lower price point and 2) that there is way more insightful thoughts about this written somewhere else, and they are not in this footnote. 
  25.  if I seem insistent on this, please bear with me. I only recently realized that I think of things this way, and it’s a stupid way to think – to prefer one word count over another? That seems stupid. On the other hand, I guess there’s a reason things are written to these lengths. I don’t know, man. Expect a post working it all out soon enough probably? 
  26.  this set of nominees seems to be the strongest one of any book awards I’ve ever written about, although that may have more to do with it being pitched directly into my wheelhouse than anything else. 
  27.  it is a testament to Megan McDowell, the translator, that these qualities of the writing and language are maintained even in translation. 
  28.  it’s wildly popular in its native country of South Korea, and while it’s true that I don’t know a lot about South Korean book sales, I know that “very slow to start” and “wildly popular” very rarely intersect. Although it’s not unheard of, so I don’t know. 
  29.  it’s set in Cleveland Heights. At one point he is using Streeetsboro, Ohio, which is directly between Cleveland Heights and Kent (where I lived before I lived in Cleveland Heights), as a stand-in for the banality of the exurban freeway-stop town,and he names the businesses that are there in a way that made me say not “oh yeah. The banality of road towns” but rather “oh hey, I know exactly when he made this drive by which businesses were open.” That probably doesn’t happen to most readers, if I’m guessing correctly. There’s a bunch of other little moments like that. 
  30.  it takes place on the Romania/Ukraine border, which I guess would make it half Balkan, half Baltic. 
  31.  it addresses the very real weirdness of H.P. Lovecraft and his strange and ultimately quite-tragic friendship with Robert Barlow. 

The Best Songs of the First Half of 2018

Hey everybody! We’re a week into the back half of 2018, and, as usual, here’s the stuff that made Our Hero (that’s me) the happiest in the last six months. As always, these are in alphabetical order. This time in addition to the download folder (here), there’s a Spotify playlist on the bottom, because it is 2018 and I should be better about these things. NB that the Spotify playlist does not include “1010 Wins”, “Soon All Cities”, “6am matinee”, “What What Have I Done (I Was Reeling In Something White and I Became Able To Do Anything) Pt. I” or “Sippy Cup”, because they aren’t on Spotify. 

Courtney Barnett, “Need a Little Time”

I’ve written before about the performative appreciation of young ladies laying bare their emotional state in a way that seems clearly to be aimed at dismantling them, instead of encouraging. Now Courtney Barnett has written a song about the same thing, and I find that vindicating.

Black Milk, “Laugh Now, Cry Later”

Black Milk slowed down and took a breath for Fever, giving his beats and his words equal room to breathe, to sink in slowly. He’s advising us to laugh here, but it doesn’t seem likely. It seems like by taking more time to let things happen musically, he’s making it seem even more intense, which is a neat trick.

Black Thought, “Dostoevsky” (f Rapsody)

A debut album after 30 years is an already-admirable level of restraint. A debut solo album that’s short, with not a moment of fat on it, is even more admirable. Black Thought continues to be a beacon.

The Body, “Nothing Stirs”

I Have Fought Against it But I Can’t Any Longer finds Earth’s greatest heavy band disassembling their previous material and reassembling it in new, harrowing reassemblages, and somehow it’s probably their best record yet. More impressive is that incredible “Nothing Stirs,” where they are abetted by noise conceptualist/singer Lingua Ignota to create a song that is both searing and cathartic, running you all the way into the dark place and then dragging you back out entirely of its own accord.

Carla Bozulich, “Emilia” (f Francesco Guerri & Marc Ribot)

Quieter is a vault-clearing record of previously-recorded collaborations, that somehow coheres pretty well as a straight-up album. Francesco Guerri is actually someone I know only from collaborating with Carla Bozulich in the first place, but I was pleasantly surprised by how well she went with Marc Ribot, who I mostly associate with Tom Waits.

The Carters, “Apeshit”

Sometimes Jay-Z appears on a song and stays out of the way because, one feels, he’s old and lazy and doesn’t want to bother to show up anymore. For once, on Everything is Love, he feels like he knows he just doesn’t have that much to add. It’s basically a Beyonce album with a Jay-Z feature on every song, and you can see it at its best on “Apeshit”.

Neko Case, “My Uncle’s Navy”

I don’t mean to break completely from from and talk about the lyrics for the second time in this writeup, but this multifaceted breakdown of an event of shocking violence is pretty great, and it’s set to a pretty wildly-catchy piece of singing. Good job all around, then.

DDENT, “Torse de Marbre”

Does the world need as many post-rock-styled heavy metal bands? Do we, in short, need a Russian Circles for every country? Maybe not. But we’ve got a bunch of them, and DDENT are among the best, and “Torse de Marbre” is everything I could want out of that sort of thing.

E, “Hollow”

As rewrites of Mission of Burma’s “Weatherbox” go, this is probably the best one. I mean, not to minimize the accomplishments of post-punk supergroup E, just that, y’know, “Weatherbox” is a great song. I can see why you’d want to rewrite it.

Elucid, “1010 Wins”

Elucid manages that rare quality of, no matter how much or how hard I listen to his music (and it’s a lot, honestly), I feel like I’m not listening to it enough, like there is so much going on inside of it that I could never take it all in. It’s music that’s very difficult to internalize, and that makes it endlessly alluring. “1010 Wins” is as accessible as it comes, and it’s still a densely-layered tortuous run through a very complicated mind.

The Ex, “Soon All Cities”

The Ex have been a going concern for as long as punk rock has existed, and they’ve managed to make great records along that entire stretch of time. What’s always amazing to me is that, in addition to always sounding like only themselves, they sound only like themselves in a way that implies that they are still a band from the future – ever record sounds more than current 1. “Soon All Cities” is up there with anything they’ve ever written, and I can’t praise it enough.

Fire!, “To Shave the Leaves. In Red. In Black.”

Fire! are here finally making another record as a trio, having spent some time as the convoluted and less-rewarding Fire Orchestra in more recent times. They’re either an incredible jazz combination that tries real hard to play post-metal, or an amazing heavy metal band that can’t help but play jazz. They only really stretch out once on The Hands, but the result (this song) is just mind-boggling.

Freddie Gibbs, “Death Row” (f 03 Greedo)

There’s probably something to be made of Freddie Gibbs (who just got out of prison) tapping 03 Greedo (who just went into prison) to help out on his surprise-record Freddie’s best track. I’m probably not going to be the person who makes something of it, but it’s almost certainly there to be made. You know. Such as it is.

Girlpool, “Picturesong” (f Dev Hynes)

I freely admit this is a strange, left-field choice here. I normally do not give even a single heck about Girlpool’s music. I’m not a fan. Such is the power of Dev Hynes, I guess, that this all came together so well; I think this is a great song.

Gnod, “Donovan’s Daughters”

It’s always at least worth it to hear what version Gnod shows up for any given Gnod record. Chapel Perilous seems like an extension of last year’s Just Say No…, insofar as any Gnod records seem related, but “Donovan’s Daughters” is a damn revelation. 15 minutes of crunching, crushing heaviness. I think we can call the first half of 2018 the year of the 15 minute heavy masterpiece generally, but even pitted against YOB and Sleep, as they are here, this is still a clear standout barnburner of a track.

Jean Grey & Quelle Chris, “Gold Purple Orange” (f Dane Orr)

Quelle Chris is an ONAT best-of mainstay – he’s one of the hands-down best producers currently operating, and has a way with delivery that is always intriguing. For Everything’s Fine he collaborates with his longtime partner/now-wife Jean Grae, also a remarkably-consistent rapper, and the two manage to outdo themselves in terms of making fantastic, interesting music that also works on the non-conscious parts of my music listening brain.

Grouper, “Parking Lot”

Grouper continues to inhabit her “solo piano” phase, and it is nothing short of astonishing that she manages to find ways to put this combination – her voice, which hasn’t changed in fifteen or so years, and a piano, without even nearly as many of the pedals and effects that marked her mid-period albums 2 – to new and impressive uses.

Keiji Haino & Sumac, “What What Have I Done (I Was Reeling In Something White and I Became Able To Do Anything) Pt. I”

Keiji Haino, at 66, made one of the best heavy albums of the year. That’s an impressive achievement in and of itself, but the fact that he did by continuing to be his weird, ear-destroying self, only this time with Sumac as his backing band, is nothing short of a singular accomplishment. What a great record.

Paddy Hanna, “Bad Boys”

Paddy Hanna is like a Scott Walker that doesn’t suck, or an Elvis Costello that isn’t boring, he’s really out there doing his thing by being unique and strange without giving it all over to freakish weirdness. I find this nice, despite how much of my time I spend specifically seeking out freakish weirdness.

Hinds, “Soberland”

I fell hard when I was a young lad for a certain kind of no-fidelity amateurish garage rock, and spent several years as a fanatical crate-digger and all that. What I’m saying is, this stuff runs pretty deep, and I’ve got a lot of time for it. I think I’d still love Hinds even if that wasn’t true, but since it is I’m pretty much without the free will to not list this song among my absolute favorites.

Mick Jenkins, “6am Matinee”

Usually writing songs about writing songs is a real effective way to get me to either fall asleep or throw your record out the window. Mick Jenkins, though, is always a nonstandard example, and he managed to write a whole record about writing songs, and have it be as compelling and fascinating as anything else he’s done. Fair play to you, Mick Jenkins.

JPEGMAFIA, “Real Nega”

Sometimes JPEGMAFIA tracks are better conceptually, or as a part of the various wholes that are his records. “Real Nega” is not one of those times: this shit goes. Also it’s built on what is probably the best ODB sampled in the history of sampling ODB.

Mary Lattimore, “Baltic Birch”

You know, it was in listening to her third record in three years that I realized that, while it’s true that I like Mary Lattimore, and play her music all the time, and really appreciate her compositional sense, I have literally zero ability to evaluate harp-playing as an instrumental pursuit. In an interview with Bandcamp, Lattimore mentioned a bunch of harpists who were way more experimental and noteworthy than here, which is, I suppose, somewhere to start. I bet they don’t make anything this good, though.

Mamuthones, “Show Me”

The title of Mamuthones Fear on the Corner comes from smashing together the titles of the Talking Heads’ Fear of Music and Miles Davis’s On the Corner. It’s tempting to say that their music sounds like that kind of fusion, but it actually sounds like a motorik-band who attempted to rewrite some Talking Heads records as jazz musicians. In short, this is a super-weird record that doesn’t sacrifice any immediacy to its oddness.

Marie/Lepanto, “Tenkiller”

I continue to be impressed by Will Johnson’s ability to just form new bands seemingly every time he feels like it. This time he’s with the dude from Water Liars, and the result is pretty incredible. “Tenkiller,” the best song on the record, sounds like a lot of other Will Johnson songs 3, but when you write songs that are this good, there’s no real sin in continuing to do what works.

H.C. McEntire, “Red Silo”

H.C. McEntire is the singer for Mount Moriah, has a great voice, and wrote some great country songs for Lionheart, the best of which is “Red Silo.” I am not sure that I have anything else to say here. Sometimes a good song is just a good song.

The Messthetics, “Inner Ocean”

It is true that this band, comprised of an Italian improvisational guitar player and the erstwhile rhythm section of the almighty Fugazi, sounds like a no-nonsense King Crimson, but come on, they sound like a no-nonsense King Crimson! The only real problem with King Crimson is all the dang nonsense!

Migos, “Stir Fry”

Culture II is (at least) an hour too long, with the good stuff feeling like too little butter scraped over too much bread 4, but the high points are absurdly high. Migos at their best are literally the best, and if their quality-control function is a little busted, well, at least we get stuff like “Stir-Fry” to get us through the boring stuff.

Mind Over Mirrors, “Oculate Beings”

Every once in awhile all I want is a robot hoedown. In this case, that’s exactly what I’ve got.

Meshell Ndegeocello, “Sometimes it Snows in April”

It’s hard to make an album of covers that really manages much of anything. Meshell Ndegeocello managed it by reworking – and recontextualizing – eighties and nineties R&B radio songs. This isn’t some crate-digger’s vision of R&B, these are songs you’d have a better than even shot of hearing on the radio right now. Especially “Sometimes it Snows in April,” a song Prince wrote about the death of his character in Rainbow Bridge 5, and which started popping up after Prince’s death (I wasn’t exactly aware of the state of R&B radio in 1986, but I’m given to understand it was not the chart-topping sensation that some other Prince singles have been). It appears here, then, partly as Prince elegy (I’m assuming) and partly as just sheer, incontrovertible evidence that Meshell Ndegeocello can sing the goddamn holy shit out of anything. If hearing it doesn’t convince you of the need for its existence, than nothing further I can see here will. Oh, and listen to the rest of the record. It’s awesome.

Oneohtrix Point Never, “The Station”

This song, surreally, was demoed and intended for Usher. It’s hard to call it a shame, because while I would happily live in a world where Usher sang about having sex in a research station in the South Pole while it burns down, The Thing-style, it’s much, much weirder than it probably would have been, and that’s absolutely to the song’s benefit.

Brigid Mae Power, “Don’t Shut Me Up (Politely)”

I have a lot of time for people that can channel being really aggressive into a mode that is also relatively quiet. Brigid Mae Power’s approach seems like it would lend itself to a much louder result, but rarely gathers much volume as it goes, and it’s mesmerizing.

R+R=NOW, “Reflect Reprise” (f Stalley)

Robert Glasper formed another jazz group with Terrace Martin, and I suppose the fact that the resulting music is great is a sort of “dog bites man” headline. While on other parts of the record you can experience the joys of hearing Bobby McFerrin’s son, Taylor, beatbox, my favorite actual track as a single, isolated track is this one, where Stalley (currently having his own hot streak with this Shame the Devil series) jumps on and grounds the music somewhat, creating a very satisfying groove.

Rae Sremmurd, “Brnxs Truck”

It’s hard to avoid continuing to think of Rae Sremmurd as “Migos Jr.” 6, but they made a better forever-long record this year. SR3MM is an awfully good triple-album, with one Rae Sremmurd record, and one record each for each member as a solo record. “Brnxs Truck” is from Slim Jxmmi’s solo disc, JXMTRO, and is at least ten times as entertaining as trying to pronounce those “x”s. It goes, is what I’m saying. It’s a go-er.

Saba, “PROM/KING”

Saba is a Chicago story-telling rapper who lost his cousin in one of the most horrifying, senseless ways possible, and wrote an album about his loss, the centerpiece of which is the long, deeply touching “PROM/KING”. It’s worth being pretty shaken up listening to it, and it’s a clear high point for an already-exciting rapper.

Sarn, “Sippy Cup”

Deathbomb Arc continues to alternate between super-cool weirdo rap music (see also JPEGMAFIA, above) and hit-or-miss pop-noise stuff. Sarn is….kind of neither. He’s weird enough, certainly, but it’s without easy referents (like a rap Xiu Xiu? With a differently-channeled supply of aggression? I guess?), but HELLATRIPPIN manages to not only be entirely its own thing, but does it while also being a remarkably consistent listen. It makes sense, then, that this was the first release in Deathbomb Arc’s 20 year anniversary series. I’m pretty excited by this one, and I look forward to more from Sarn 7.

Scallops Hotel, “A Terror Way Beyond Falling”

This may have been from the first record that I heard in 2018 that was released in 2018, as it came out on New Years’ Day. milo (operating here as scallops hotel) announced on his Bandcamp page that this is part 2 of a trilogy, and I suppose like all things milo, that connection makes more sense to him than it ever would to me. Nevertheless, the record is brief and punchy, which is all conveyed through scallops hotel’s sparse, muttering style. It’s a nifty trick.

Screaming Females, “Glass House”

Great riffs, great singing, great chorus. Great song.

Sleep, “Antarcticans Thawed”

2018’s most unlikely-seeming comeback story is one that ended in a phenomenal record (as previously addressed). It seems…inappropriate or something that the best song on the record is one leftover from Dopesmoker, but it also happens to be the case. And the original didn’t have Jason Roeder on it, so this is a clear win for the world.

Snail Mail, “Stick”

I’m a firm believer in the power of well-constructed, passionately-executed rock music, even if it’s not breaking any ground in particular. Snail Mail is great, and “Stick” is a great song.

Sons of Kemet, “My Queen is Harriet Tubman”

While it will probably always be the case that Comet is Coming will remain my favorite of Shabaka Hutchings’s projects, it is true that Sons of Kemet’s “anything goes” approach yields fantastic results, and Your Queen is a Reptile is a variegated work of genuine actual genius, that puts a whole bunch of different things together but never really sounds like patchwork, or dilettantish. “My Queen is Harriet Tubman” is one of the cooler (in the temperature sense, not the, like, cool dude sense) songs on the record, and also the most effective.

Trampled by Turtles, “The Middle”

I listen to less country and country-derived music 8 than I used to, certainly, but there are some bands that create listening appointments just by continuing to exist. Trampled by Turtles are one of those bands. Their music manages to be the sort of forcefully joyful roller-coaster ride that I occasionally consume ravenously. “The Middle” is upbeat and joyful without being “fun” or (even worse) “happy”.

U.S. Girls, “Pearly Gates”

There’s maximalism and there’s maximalism, you know? U.S. Girls manages to pile on instruments and sounds and ideas and never stop having them intermesh and play off of each other – “Pearly Gates” builds and builds and builds until eventually it sorts of bursts like a bubble, everything quickly dissipating.

Uniform & The Body, “Come and See”

Is it because the times are truly, ineffably hideous that The Body has been able to make three great records in seven months 9? I don’t know. I know that it’s helping, I know that they’re doing incredible work, and I know that their assistance has made this hands-down my favorite Uniform record, and “Come and See”, by extension, my favorite Uniform track.

Kamasi Washington, “Will You See”

Heaven & Earth is a dense, tricky record full of things that require multiple listens to get through, that all comes to a head in the final track, the soaring, surging “Will You See”. A great song for letting it all out.

World’s End Girlfriend, “Meguri”

Often I can be found expounding on the virtues made specifically and intentionally, with thought only to the intention of the person making it. While it’s true that Meguri is made “for one person,” it is also true that it is a deeply-personal, deeply-emotional set of compositions, and as such seems to be a clear and direct communication of the thoughts and feelings of its composer, and thus could not actually be any better than it is, which is nothing short of amazing. The title track is here, but the entire composition is more than worth everyone’s time.

Wussy, “Gloria”

It’s always hard to write about very good songs from very good bands that are very consistent. This is a very good Wussy song, of the sort that they fill albums with, probably the best song on another very good Wussy album, which I am happy to listen to a whole bunch of times. Yay!

Xylouris White, “Only Love”

No other Xylouris White song whips itself into this kind of frenzy – even the other songs on Mother don’t reach this kind of whirlwind intensity – but maybe more of them should?

YOB, “Beauty in Falling Leaves”

Our nation’s heavy bands have really been stepping it up lately. How many bands can say that their eighth album is also their best album? 10 Anyway, “Beauty if Falling Leaves” is here, but it’s standing in for almost any song on the album, the whole thing is incredible.

03 Greedo, “Ballin’” (f Ketchy the Great)

Should numbers go at the beginning or the end of the alphabet, guys? I don’t know! Anyway, 03 Greedo unjustly got big when he also was a poster child for the ridiculous way that drug offenders are treated within the justice system, and is trying to fill the world with tracks before he goes to prison, which is abetted by the fact that he’s a fantastic rapper, and “Ballin” (one of 100 or so songs he’s put out in the last several months) is an absolutely terrific song.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Flatbush Zombies’ “Headstone” is fun, and as a series of references and in-jokes goes, is pretty satisfying, but it loses points for really just being that series of in-jokes, and also for the godawful “I smell pussy” liine toward the end. Kraus’s “Follow” is great bedroom shoegaze from Brooklyn, and thus is as special as it possibly can be, while also making me question my own taste for how much I enjoy it. Efrim Manuel Menuck’s “Pissing Stars” is everything one could reasonably expect from an Efrim Manuel Menuck album in 2018, and if it doesn’t rise above expectations, then it’s still nothing to shake a stick at. Natalie Prass’s “Sisters” is more terrific maximalist-pop. Daniel Romano’s “Wabash Wrecking Ball” is the real high point of his weird self-destructing albums stunt, and while it’s effective it’s also hard to get over the damn stunt in the first place. Childish Gambino’s “This is America” might be the best Childish Gambino song, or it might just have the best video. It’s hard to say.


  1.  There are bad The Ex records – or The Ex records that I don’t like, anyway – but they still sound like a reasonable outgrowth of the work The Ex are already doing. 
  2.  it seems strange to call something “mid-period” in this sense. Liz Harris is, like, my age. She will probably – hopefully – continue to make records for decades. But, with the beginning as one end and today as another, it seems sort of mid-periodish, y’know? 
  3.  I’m comfortable saying that the dude has a thing that he does best, even though he does a bunch of different stuff as a songwriter. 
  4.  it’s hard to tell if this has anything to do with them overreaching, or with one or more members featuring on seemingly every frigging record to come out in the last eighteen or so months, and using up material that way. 
  5.  it’s from Under the Cherry Moon, which is the soundtrack for the movie, but has a completely different name because Prince. 
  6.  guys, I’m old, ok? 
  7.  it’s worth pointing out that I was equally excited to discover a handful of other Sarn records back there, and they’re all pretty terrific. 
  8.  yeah I’m calling most 21st-century bluegrass country-derived. Come fight me. I’m not wrong.  
  9.  A Home on Earth came out last December and is the sort of “normal” one-off guitar/drums/noise thing that they made while they were making I Have Fought Against it But I Can’t Any Longer. 
  10.  although it’s also worth noting that Yob’s fifth album was their previous best, and that’s still pretty late, relatively speaking, to be topping oneself. 

The Best Records of June 2018

Kamasi Washington – Heaven and Earth (I appreciate a big swing, and if dude wants to make a record that encapsulates its title subjects then hell, there are worse attempts to do so, and I’m into it)

Yob – Our Raw Heart (2018 is conspiring to convince me that if I were to just listen to jazz and doom, then I’d be happy enough. This is better than every other Yob album at a walk.)

Snail Mail – Lush (You know, sonically there’s not much to say here, but the songs on this one are impeccable, and there isn’t an ounce of fat on this record, and sometimes that’s all you need)

Oneohtrix Point Never – Age Of (after a couple of deep-concept records where he explored some very specific things, this sort of catch-all sampler concept album is pretty awesome, and I like hearing him pursue his music to its furthest corners)

The Carters – Everything is Love (I know, I’m as surprised as you are, but it turns out that Beyonce is the best rapper in that family now. Go figure.)

Oh, and since Kanye Kanye’d harder than he’s ever Kanye’d before, here’s your Kanye June ranking. Here’s hoping he doesn’t come through on his threat to release 52 albums in 52 weeks:

  1. Teyana Taylor – KTSE
  2. Kid Cudi/Kanye West – Kids See Ghosts
  3. Pusha T – Daytona
  4. Kanye West – Ye
  5. Nas – Nasir

NB: all of these come in ahead of things like “his twitter feed” and “his existence as a public figure” and “his continued refusal to put down the damn drugs already”.