The Comeback Trail – Calvin Johnson

Welcome to a special Rocktober edition of The Comeback Trail, everybody! This one is a bit weird, so you’ll have to stick with me.

Generally when an artist impels me to write a Comeback Trail piece about them, they’re returning to the world of publicly making music after some absence. Occasionally, however, it isn’t so much that they’ve been gone as it is that they’re notably pivoting, and, in this case, seemingly reacting to their own public discourse in a way that says “hey look, I made a new album!” instead of doing something else 1. So here we have Calvin Johnson teaming up with Pat Carney to make rock music, instead of goofy-ass dance music, as he had done for most of the last couple of decades.

The album, which is only a few years past one of the aforementioned goofy-ass dance records, is being pitched as his return to the genre that launched him, and is garnering him press that he hasn’t seen in some time – reviewed just about everywhere, for example, and written about in Rolling Stone 2 – and drowning out the press over his inability to run his record label.

It turns out, however, to be unusually appropriate for Rocktober, especially around here in this space, where it combines my twin purpose statements of writing about what becomes popular and/or marketed to be popular with what is done by unique weirdos for self-satisfactory purposes. Calvin Johnson, come whatever may and given whatever other context he has, is one of our most unique weirdos.

In the beginning, when Calvin Johnson established K Records, it was to release the music of his own band, the tremendously, unbelievably amateurish Beat Happening 3, among other like-minded folks. Beat Happening were a trio of unskilled musicians, whose childishness and inability to play were soon stuff of legend. Consisting of Calvin Johnson (who sang in a sort of nasal baritone that is easily the band’s most distinctive element – if you think of anything about Beat Happening it’s probably the yawning frog at the center of “Bury the Hammer” or “Indian Summer”), Heather Lewis (who had a more sing-song-y, “girlish” voice) and Brett Lunsford (who did not sing), with the person who wasn’t singing generally either playing a guitar or drumming, and everyone swapping instruments around regularly.

The music turned out to be wildly influential on a couple of fronts. Taken in tandem with bands like The Raincoats, the Young Marble Giants and Shonen Knife 4, they were using the infrastructure – the network of bands, labels and venues – of what had to that point been punk-rock-derived music 5 and made it something significantly less masculinity-oriented.

They also created a sort of anti-scene in Eugene, Oregon to the scene several miles away in Seattle 6, forming a space where amateurism and non-seriousness were encouraged, and fomenting a place of inclusivity where a lot of previously-underserved (especially female) rock-and-roll-interested people could form bands and be heard 7

Johnson was in bands that weren’t Beat Happening at all. He followed it up with the revolving-door Go Team 8, and the goofy-ass dance-music project Dub Narcotic Sound System. While there may very well be people that know him from his later projects, it seems from everything that I’ve been exposed to (and tried to figure out for this piece) that it all pretty well comes down to his time in Beat Happening.

Well, and K Records, which is his real legacy. This also pops up – complete with attendant press-push and all – a couple of years or so after it came to light that K Records was, shall we say, not perfectly-run. As detailed in this article that ran in The Stranger, they are having enormous trouble paying their artists what they are owed, and are currently launching harebrained schemes to make money quickly to cover their enormous back payments 9. Which makes it seem less-than-coincidental that here we are with a highly-public Calvin Johnson album, complete with all-star producer, etc.

So this record, released on K Records, is framed as a return to the rock and roll spirit that made Calvin Johnson famous, or at least, y’know, known. He was able to leverage the involvement of Pat Carney 10, and generally get written up in places he wouldn’t ordinarily. Hopefully the gambit works out and he can pay Phil Elverum the money he owes him. Ultimately, however, this is why this is a Comeback Trail record, and not just another record.

It’s the first record Johnson has released under his own name in thirteen years, but it’s only been a couple of years since his last record as Selector Dub Narcotic, and he hasn’t exactly been hiding in the intervening time anyway, but here we have him putatively returning to rock music 11. So, does it work?

Before I try to answer that question, I need to play the rest of my cards: I do not like Calvin Johnson’s music. I think that Dub Narcotic Sound System were occasionally ok, and I like maybe four or five Beat Happening songs, but by and large I don’t think it’s worth listening to. I feel like the point was made more or less immediately, and the point was the thing that was worth doing about the band. The music of the band is much less worthy of consideration than the fact of the band.

And by “the point” I mean the dedication to amateurism – the simple structures, the un-technical playing, the bare arrangements. It’s worthy to tear something down as far as it will go and see if it’s still the thing. In terms of making compelling music, however, they weren’t as minimal as Suicide 12, they weren’t as rocking as The Swell Maps, they weren’t as amateurish as Daniel Johnston 13, they weren’t as fun as The Cramps. They also weren’t memorable, and they only really had a couple of ideas, each of which is played out quickly. And this is my opinion of Johnson’s best band.

So upon embarking on this journey of music that we call an album, I am coming at it from a place of deep pessimism about how good it’s actually going to be. And, indeed: it is not very good. It has its moments. I’m certain that it has just about as many of them as any other given Calvin Johnson album 14. As previously mentioned, it sounds like a mid-aughts dance rock record, only with instruments played by Pat Carney. It seems impossible to mention the record without mentioning Carney’s fiancee, Michelle Branch’s, contributions to the record, but they seem pretty minimal – she sings the chorus on the lead single and bubbles up a bit here and there throughout. She’s fine. It’s fine.

But it’s not really a “Comeback” in any meaningful sense. Maybe it’s unfair to judge it by a criterion that I assumptively gave it, based on the timing of its release and the press attack that accompanied it. I’ll admit that it’s not really something the record bears up under. But it’s also not really worth all the time spent on bringing it into the light, and really: it’s not good. Where it aims for “Fun” and “Sincere” and perhaps “Naive” it lands on “drippy,” “performative” and “falsely confident.”

It is a good record in a very specific sense, and it’s a sense that Johnson has spent a career inhabiting, and that is frightfully common, especially among older rock folks – on paper, it’s got things that are praiseworthy about it (a veteran with a specific vision who was once responsible for vital recordings teams up with a somewhat-younger rock dude who he inspired 15), and everyone loves an inspiring tale of the sort. It’s got a built-in press hook in its amateurism and its eagerness to be liked. It’s easy, in short, to write about, to think about, and to remember. But it’s not good.

So, in terms of records that it’s easy to like without listening to, it’s a wild success, but it’s still liable to be little more than a weird blip of a minor work in the legacy of someone who, by all appearances, is trying to shore up his failing business model 16. or at least make enough to stop the bleeding. 

I suppose, in closing here, that there are worse reasons to make a record, and certainly worse reasons to appreciate an album, so if it sounds like your thing, feel free to make it so. I’ll probably never listen to it again, though.


  1.  this seems needlessly cryptic, so for those of you that aren’t up on your Calvin Johnson, he runs a record label that I’m going to talk about in a bit here that was accused a couple of years ago of some pretty serious financial mismanagement. 
  2.  albeit with the latter pegged heavily to the inclusion of Pat Carney, one of the last people to have been commercially successful at making rock music. 
  3.  actually, it was also to release a series of cassettes, the first of which was titled Danger is Our Business of people singing a capella in public, and they might actually be the best, or at least most worthwhile, things that K Records ever put out. 
  4.  an early signee to K Records 
  5.  on the flip side, I can’t seem to find the old Soft Focus interview with Johnson where he talked about how important punk rock had been to him, and how he felt that kids that were coming up in bands now were missing out by no longer having the connection to punk rock that indie-focused bands had up to that point. 
  6.  much of this story is told more effectively in Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, which includes a chapter on Beat Happening. 
  7.  the approach of Beat Happening and K Records was tremendously important to Riot Grrrl, for example. . 
  8.  not to be confused with the mid-aughts dance-rock troupe, which made much better music. 
  9.  without getting too finger-wagging about it all, it does sort of make one wonder why they couldn’t just pay out the royalties on the copies sold (adjusted for whatever invoiced costs may exist) when the copies were sold. I understand that many business operate in a manufacturing debt, but if Merge or Dischord or, hell, K’s neighbors Sympathy for the Record Industry or Kill Rock Stars taught us nothing it’s that you can absolutely do this thing, even now, if you keep up your end of the damn bargain from the get-go. 
  10.  who produced it and plays most of the instruments 
  11.  although only sort of. Sonically it’s more like rock music circa-2004, as it’s mostly dance music with guitars in. 
  12.  who had one fewer member and one fewer instrument 
  13.  in fact, the undercurrent of Johnson’s entire career is one of barely-concealed careerism. 
  14. I suppose one can assume from what I said above, and be correct in assuming, that I do not listen to his records as a matter of course, and thus have no idea what a baseline for “quality” would actually be.  
  15.  I guess. Putatively. For whatever that’s worth. 
  16.  actually, his “business model” was “trust Candice Pedersen to handle everything” – she was his partner in K for fifteen years or so, leaving at the turn of the century, and re-surfacing amid the Kimya Dawson story to support Dawson and let it be known that the wheels have been coming off the business end for a long time. 

The 2019 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees

It’s Rocktober, everybody! And while many of the Rocktober traditions are pushed aside by one thing or another, there’s always time to take a look at the potential future inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 1. This year, as with most years, there’s a whole bunch of first-time nominees, as well as some real left-field folks. There are also some people that should be real shoo-ins, but almost certainly will not be

So let’s dive into this years potential nominees, and retch at the numerical majority of them!

Def Leppard

So, I do not like Def Leppard. I do not like them even a little bit. I do not even have some spare affection for them, for a number of reasons. The primary reason is that they did more than any other single band to create the eighties “hard rock” radio sound, which was a bane to the ears 2, although I suppose not moreso than any other predominant radio-production-style. Secondarily, their music is terrible, devoid of anything except slicked-out signifiers of “rockingness” without actually, you know, rocking 3. They were, in these regards, influential, because there were a tonne of bands that came after them that adopted the style – because that’s pretty much all Def Leppard was, and all you could take from them – without actually managing to make music out of it. So they were undoubtedly popular, and undoubtedly influential, but they were popular in a way that was not specific to the rock audience, and influential in a way that made everything they touched worse.

THE VERDICT: Absolutely not.

Devo

Northeast Ohio’s third-best punk band 4Devo are responsible, in all, for one flawless album, followed by one slightly-less-great album, followed by three reasonably-solid albums, followed by a slow decline that they never really pulled out of. If the only thing they’d ever done is Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo they’d still belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Actually, if they’d stopped after the one record they’d have been just about perfect. But still.

THE VERDICT: Yes

Janet Jackson

She’s nominated all the time. She was just feted by the Billboard awards, so maybe this is a sort of cultural-undercurrent situation and she’ll get in. As with every year, I will say this: her music is largely not my cup of tea, but she’s undeniably her own thing and did a lot more to pursue her own furthest corners than her brother did. She’s not rock and roll even a little bit, but when has that stopped anybody?

THE VERDICT: Not really, but I still won’t be mad if it happens.

John Prine

I have no idea where this is coming from. I guess the fact that he made a new album made people reconsider him? I don’t know. I mean, I love John Prine, and I’m happy to see him here. He’s not really a rock and roll guy, but, again, that clearly isn’t actually a factor. He’s made good records for as long as anyone on this list, he’s influenced the hell out of a bunch of singer-songwriters. He may not have sold much, but he isn’t particularly obscure, either. I’d love to see him in there. He’s better than Cat Stevens, for example.

THE VERDICT: Yeah sure.

Kraftwerk

So here’s the deal about Kraftwerk. I get basically nothing out of their music. They were clearly great – they worked very hard about music that they used to express a bunch of ideas, and people love it. They were hugely influential, especially among non-rock concerns, but even rock bands took a lot from them. They were popular for awhile in the seventies. Their case is airtight, and I begrudge them nothing. They should have been inducted many years ago. I’m not going to go listen to them for pleasure, but they absolutely should be the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 5.

THE VERDICT: Yes

LL Cool J

Some of these folks that I’ve written about every year for the past few years have been pretty-well covered. LL Cool J is, like many of this year’s crop, not a Rock and Roll artist in any way, but they’re clearly not going to stop including rappers anytime soon, and LL Cool J was good at it, and influential in his time, and his popularity has been surprisingly durable, so he probably deserves it as much as any currently-excluded rapper of his generation.

THE VERDICT: Sure.

MC5

So previously I have mentioned that the MC5 are one of the clear-cut candidates for single songs being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As of last year, they are! This is great news, because the MC5’s body of work itself isn’t very impressive 6. It’s hard to argue against “Kick Out the Jams,” though.

THE VERDICT: No, but “Kick Out the Jams” should absolutely be there.

Radiohead

Radiohead checks literally all of the boxes that could possibly be required of a band for Hall of Fame induction: they’ve sold squillions of records, inspired countless bands, and sought out their furthest corners musically. They made a string of records 7 that are among the strongest periods of output in rock music history. The fact that they clearly don’t care about it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be inducted, even though it probably has more effect than I think.

THE VERDICT: Unquestionably

Rage Against the Machine

Last year at this time I pointed out that RATM ran afoul not of the HOF’s rap problem, but of their heavy metal problem, which is real 8. They did a lot to combine the audiences of both forms, introducing a lot of suburban metal kids to rapping and including a bunch of more aggressive rap kids in their metal-ing 9. They made good records, they sold a bunch of them, and then they quit while they were ahead, which is always worth praising.

THE VERDICT: Yes

Roxy Music

This is Roxy Music’s first time even being nominated, because the RRHOF hates prog rock, even when it’s a prog band dressed up as glam, as Roxy Music is. Obviously I’m in favor of anything that gets Brian Eno in there, so I’m in favor of this, but Roxy Music have plenty of reasons to be inducted. I’m not sure why it’s taken them this long to be up on the block.

THE VERDICT: Yes

Rufus featuring Chaka Khan

Every frigging year with this. At least this year it’s Rufus and Chaka Khan, as opposed to just Chaka Khan herself 7, because at least it includes her band. Anyway, I don’t think that she should get in at all, because her music is stupid and derivative and boring.

THE VERDICT: No

Stevie Nicks

I’m not the record as not having the highest possible opinion of Fleetwood Mac, but I do sort of understand their place and the appeal and all that. Stevie Nicks as a solo act, however, can absolutely heck straight off 8. I understand that she had plenty of her own hits and whatnot, but I can’t imagine that the world would be significantly different without them.

THE VERDICT: No

The Cure

The Cure are so goddamned great. They were great in, like, four different ways. Great musicians, amazing songs, incredible records, and they’ve not lost much steam or quality along the way. On top of which there are so many bands that try to sound like one version of The Cure or the other that if you stacked them all like cordwood, you could fill the inside of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with them. The Cure are great, better than nearly every band on this list or just about any other. They should have been in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame years ago.

THE VERDICT: Yes.

The Zombies

Every year we do this, and every year I remain baffled. The Zombies belong in for all the same reasons as The Cure, with a modification that their best work is better than The Cure, and they didn’t have quite so many major stylistic shifts as The Cure. The Zombies were great and I have no idea what’s keeping them out of there.

THE VERDICT: Yes

Todd Rundgren

I am open to whatever arguments people want to make for Todd Rundgren being inducted as a performer. He seems like a great guy, and I’m glad he’s out there in the world. He absolutely belongs in the HOF as a producer – he’s great at it, and has made some all-time amazing records. As a producer, not as a performer. Because as a performer he has made like, three good songs 9, and that’s not a great track record.

THE VERDICT: Not as a performer, no.

And that about does it for this year, and we’ll find out in May how wrong they are about everything. I wouldn’t bet on The Zombies yet again, is all I’m saying here, guys.


  1.  I suppose it’s interesting and worth considering that, eventually, the Considered Look at Every Inductee Into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will catch up to the things I’ve already written about here, and we’ll see how consistent I am about how I feel about these things. True story: I actually have no idea, and in fact would not be surprised to find out that I am wildly contradicting myself about some of the marginal cases. 
  2.  they were abetted in this nonsense by Mutt Lange, about whom I have spoken previously, and upon whom I continue to wish bad things. 
  3.  in the interest of being completely fair to a band that I loathe, I will concede that parts of the first couple of records do rock genuinely, and that “Photograph” would be a good song if it didn’t sound so much like Def Leppard, and therefore just remind me of all the parts of Def Leppard that suck real bad.
     
  4.  they come in ahead of the Electric Eels and behind The Cramps. If the Cramps don’t count (they relocated to New York) then they’re still behind Pere Ubu. But then, almost everybody is. 
  5.  I maintain that they should be inducted after Can, but I think I’m marching in that parade more or less alone. 
  6.  it also ages somewhat poorly. 
  7.  which it has been for some years in the past, although her past few nominations have all been with Rufus, so maybe the RRHOF has made their official decision vis-a-vis the importance of Rufus to Chaka Khan. 
  8.  this opinion is at least somewhat exacerbated by the fact that the last thing I heard Ms. Nicks perform was her eight-hour-long song on her guest appearance on American Horror Story 
  9.  I like “Bang on the Drum All Day” and The Nazz’s “Open My Eyes,” and I’m assuming there’s another one in there somewhere, but my survey that I embarked upon to write this piece did not yield it. 

The 2018 BET Hip-Hop Awards

So, on the heels of the American Music Awards’ definitive proof that the sort of pop music that captures the corporate interests of ABC is godawful comes proof that most of the hip-hop that captures the corporate interests of BET is also godawful.

Not all of it, mind you, there are still some outliers that are not godawful, but as a set of things, the sort of hip-hop that is given awards at the BET hip-hop awards is in decline 1. Or temporarily set back or whatever.  

That said, it’s not nearly as dismal as some other music-awards shows, even just considering the awards. They’re still mostly there to prop up the BET Hip-Hop Awards Cyphers, which are, historically, the best part of any of the music awards shows.

Plus, Lil Wayne will be receiving the I Am Hip-Hop award, which is the more awkwardly-named lifetime achievement awards 2, so that’s something.

Impact Track

You know, in most years the existence of this category is enough to send me into a state of apoplexy! You can probably see evidence of this elsewhere on this very site. I think it’s dumb for  a number of reasons – I’m not opposed to people making political/philosophical stands in their music, but I do think that awards categories like this are a way for the show to shield itself from having to do anything else responsibly, because they can point to the existence of a category where something “woke” is honored, and it is used, therefore, as a tacit shield. That said, “This is America” pretty much exists for things like this, and is great, so it’s easier than it normally is to choose a winner, which is nice.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Childish Gambino, “This is America”

Sweet 16: Best Featured Verse

So I realize that there are plenty of reasons for Cardi B to be nominated for “MotorSport” instead of Nicki Minaj 3, but Nicki Minaj’s verse is better. Her verse on “Big Bank” is also pretty good, although it’s not the best of these. It’s definitely better, for example, than Drake’s verse on “Look Alive” or 21 Savage’s verse on “Bartier Cardi”. It is true that it is boring to point out that Kendrick Lamar is the best of a group of rappers, but it is kind of remarkable how well just about everything he does works, and his feature on “New Freezer” really is that good.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar, “New Freezer” (Rich the Kid)

Best Mixtape

Speaking of remarkable consistency, here’s Future again. This time with the also-quite-consistent Zaytoven. It’s impressive how long this run has gone on. BlocBoy JB’s “Simi” is better than I would have thought, as is Zoey Dollaz’s Sorry Not Sorry 4. I have fewer nice things to say about Juicy J (which is about how it usually goes), and while Dedication 6 was the best Dedication in awhile, I think that Lil Wayne is still pretty much out of the running these days. That Future mixtape, though.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Future, Beast Mode 2

Made-You-Look Award

Being forced to consider the vagaries of the way Nicki Minaj dresses vs. the way Cardi B dresses is pretty much enough to drive anyone insane. Migos are all stylish gents, though, so I don’t need to worry about it.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Migos

Hustler of the Year

My argument for this one last year was that DJ Khaled is only a public figure at all because of his ability to hustle 5, and that’s still the case, but this year he really earned it. There aren’t a lot of people that watch The Four, which is fair: it’s not very good! One of the things that was missed in its second season, however, was witnessing some portion of the light in DJ Khaled die. It was apparent that that dude did not want to be on the tv show anymore 6, but he did it anyone, and he Khaleded it up the whole time, albeit in a much sweatier way, with considerably less joie de vivre. So here’s to DJ Khaled, I guess, who is somehow not a situationist prank, and is instead the living apotheosis of Hustle.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: DJ Khaled

Best New Hip-Hop Artist

Oof. This one’s tough. Juice Wrld is fine, but indistinguishable from half a dozen other rappers exactly like him, including Rich the Kid, who is fine, but still more of the same. BlocBoy JB may have peaked with the shoot dance, and that was years ago. Quality Control’s Lil Baby is alright, and he’s the best of this bunch.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Lil Baby

Album of the Year

Several years ago, I would have been pretty confident in saying that Jay-Z was done being in serious consideration for “Album of the Year” in any given awards, but Everything is Love really is quite good. It helps that his role is largely as hype man for his wife. KOD is an ok J. Cole album. Scorpion is a dismal Drake album. Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy is a lot of fun, and has some great singles, but isn’t really the right call. Culture 2 was way too long, and while the best bits are better than a lot of things, the signal-to-noise ratio is way out of whack. So it’s The Carters.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Carters, Everything is Love

Single of the Year

So “God’s Plan” has already come up rather more than I’d like, and it’ll probably continue to be in here for awhile, and it’s still pretty bad. I suppose it’s better than “Nice for What,” though. “This is America” is a great video, but the song itself doesn’t really do much for me. “I Like It” is ok, I suppose. “Apeshit” is a great song. So it’s The Carters again.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Carters, “Apeshit”

MVP of the Year

I mean, in a race between Drake, Travis Scott and J. Cole there can be no real winners. At least not in 2018. So that leaves us with Childish Gambino, who is definitely a force for good in the world, even if his music is, as I keep mentioning, not my cup of tea.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Childish Gambino, but mostly for not-entirely-musical reasons.

Producer of the Year

This category doesn’t move around very much from year to year, which makes it hard to figure out another thing to say about, say, Benny Boom. Of these people, Metro Boomin’ had the best year.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Metro Boomin’

DJ of the Year

I’m assuming that I have, in fact, cracked the code, and that in this context, “DJ” is separate from “producer” in the sense that these people all make records with their own names on them. The Rosetta Stone here was DJ Mustard’s inclusion, since he’s been moving out in front of the laptop recently. Anyway, it’s probably him, because the rest of this field is pretty dire, and DJ Khaled is not a DJ in any meaningful sense of the word, including this one.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: DJ Mustard

Video Director of the Year

Hiro Murai was so good at directing a video that it made me praise a Childish Gambino song. It’s a seriously great video.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Hiro Murai

Lyricist of the Year

I appreciate that this category exists, as lyrics are an important part of the experience for a bunch of people, and hip-hop is especially words-focused, and it should be here. Yay for this category. I never know the words to anything, however. So I guess I’m going to say that it’s Kendrick again, because what I do know of his words is very impressive, and also because it’s not going to be anybody else here, right?

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar

Hot Ticket Performer

You know, I don’t really like Childish Gambino’s music, but he’s a good enough performer in general that I bet whatever he does live is pretty good and worth watching. Not as good as Kendrick, but pretty good I bet.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar

Best Collabo, Duo or Group

While “Best Song With More Than One Person On It” isn’t really the way to go about naming a category, it does avoid usage of the term “collabo”, which is nice. Just putting it out there. Anyway, several of these songs are comically bad. “I Like It” is mostly alright, but it still melts down in front of “Apeshit”. This seems like it’s specifically paving the way for the Carters to take it home here.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Carters, “Apeshit”

Best Hip-Hop Video

It’s rare that the last category that I write about here 7 is the best category, but this one might be, especially once you throw out “God’s Plan”. The “Walk it Like I Talk It” video is funny, even though it includes Drake. The “I Like It” video is at least kinetic and brightly colored. The “Loyalty” video is great and has been much-ballyhooed elsewhere (including on this very site), but I think I’m going to stick with “This is America”

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Childish Gambino, “This is America

And that’ll be that until next year, when I’ll probably be mad about J. Cole all over again.


  1. Solid reminder – I am old 
  2.  which is saying something, because Lifetime Achievement awards almost always have very stupid names. 
  3.  among them: it’s good for ratings, because the hip-hop media insisted loudly that the two had “beef” until they actually did, thus creating a rivalry that didn’t need to exist, and also it’s probably good for them to nominate as many different people as possible in each category, and Nicki Minaj is also rightfully nominated for “Big Bank,” see further on. 
  4.  it’s an awful title, though. 
  5.  after several years of screaming his own name in the intros to various songs/mixtapes, he rose significantly in prominence by shouting catchphrases at consumer goods – mainly shoes – on Snapchat. 
  6.  I may find some things to say about The Four next time it airs – assuming that the call for auditions at the end of season 2 do in fact lead to a season 3 – but one of the main questions I have about it is how it’s filmed – I suspect the whole thing is done in a day or two, and that it must be one tremendously long, exhausting day (or couple of days), and that this contributes to the effect. 
  7.  which tends to be the “headliner” category – the one the audience is ostensibly all here to see. 

The 2018 American Music Awards

So the American Music Awards have moved! They’re in October now! I do not have an explanation for this, other than that they wanted to make the eligibility period as short as possible I guess?

The AMAs are one of the more existentially funny awards shows – they’re transparently a way for ABC/Disney to have an in-house awards show 1, and they consist of roughly seven billion categories, but have one of the smallest pools of nominees out there – you see the same dozen or so names over and over and over again, category after category 2.

They are, as such, interesting in the main – it is always interesting to see where the business concerns of the awards show are willing to align themselves, and since the AMAs are 100% business concern, with literally no other covering 3, they are in and of themselves a fascination. This year they are slightly less tedious than in years’ past, which is something of a relief. I mean, relatively, because this is also a particularly awful field of nominees.

Nevertheless, here are the rightful winners.

Favorite Artist – Electronic Dance Music

You know, every year there’s someone in this category who I kind of almost like. This year that person is Marshmello. Thanks, Marshemello, for keeping this from being impossible.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Marshmello

Favorite Artist – Contemporary Inspirational

Lauren Daigle has been declared the rightful winner every single time I’ve covered an awards show that she was nominated for an award within. I want this to be different, but it isn’t, because MercyMe are pretty bad, and Zach Williams is even worse.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Lauren Daigle

Favorite Artist – Latin

There are pluses and minuses to the “only three nominees per category” thing that this particular awards show does. One of the primary pluses is that these are super-easy to consider – there’s only three of them, you don’t get bogged down. The minuses, however, are in a category like this, where I have to make a very finely-considered choice between J. Balvin and Daddy Yankee, which requires me to devote a whole bunch of my thinking brain to two guys that are….fine. Like, they’re not bad. They’ve both made songs I like. It’s not even a problem. It’s just that I have no ability to quantify which one is more fine. In the bigger categories, I can just find a different outlier and go with that. In this one, the odd man out is Reggaeton snoozefest Ozuna, so that’s just right out. So it goes.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: J. Balvin, I guess

Favorite Artist – Adult Contemporary

P!nk is pretty much the only option here, as Ed Sheeran and Ed Sheeran’s Living Photocopy Shawn Mendes definitely are never going to be worthy of anything ever as long as I live.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: P!nk

Favorite Artist – Alternative Rock

Imagine Dragons has been nominated for the AMA for Alternative Rock artist every single year I’ve been doing this except the first one. This is astonishing for a couple of reasons, 1) they are not a rock band 4 and 2) they are godawful. Panic! At the Disco continue to exist, which I also find dismaying. Thus it goes to Portgual, the Man.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Portugal, the Man

Favorite Song – Soul/R&B

I have nothing in particular to say about Ella Mai. While I admire the pandering to the sort of old people that would admire the throwback-y vibe and video to the Bruno Mars/Cardi B song, “Young Dumb and Broke” is actually a great song that does a better job at pandering in a satisfying fashion.

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

Favorite Album – Soul R&B

It seems almost impossible to believe that Ctrl is still out here getting nominated for awards, but the AMAs are in a weird spot in the year, and it definitely deserves the nomination, so I’m happy to see it.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: SZA, Ctrl

Favorite Female Artist – Soul/R&B

I still have nothing in particular to say about Ella Mai. Rihanna is fine, but most of her interesting work is in the sort of, y’know, existing-as-a-famous-person-in-public realm, rather than the musical realm. I still really like SZA.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: SZA

Favorite Male Artist – Soul/R&B

You know, at various points I would have found this category much more difficult. Bruno Mars has basically taken himself out of the running. Khalid is interesting, and has a great voice, but it remains to be seen what’s going to come from that. The Weeknd has sort of fallen into the lane I feel like he’s going to remain in for some time now, where he’s not as wildly good as he started out being, but he’s still better than, say, Bruno Mars and Khalid.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Weeknd

Favorite Song – Rap/Hip-Hop

Given that two of the nominees here are perhaps the two most irritating songs of the past 12 months, this really seems to be paving the way for “Bodak Yellow” here.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Cardi B, “Bodak Yellow (Money Moves)”

Favorite Album – Rap/Hip-Hop

This has no such savior as the “song” category, so I’m forced, once again, to consider some things much more than I’d like. I guess Lil Uzi Vert’s album isn’t as bad as the other two.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Lil Uzi Vert, Luv is Rage 2

Favorite Artist – Rap/Hip-Hop

Given that my opinions about these three in the “songs” category can pretty much be extended to all of the work they made within the eligibility period 5, so this one is rather predictable.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Cardi B

Favorite Song – Country

This is doing no damage to my “pop music fans are into the worst country music” argument, quite frankly.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: I guess it’s Kane Brown? I guess? For “Heaven”?

Favorite Album – Country

I don’t actually like “Heaven,” the above-mentioned song, and it’s worth mentioning down here because as I was listening to these albums to figure out which one of them was the one I’d like the most of the three of them, I got furthest into the Kane Brown album before I bailed on it, and “Heaven” was a song that I didn’t even notice as it played, which means that this field is literally competing against zero. Like, something that was even a little bit positive would get more notice.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kane Brown, Kane Brown

Favorite Duo or Group – Country

Hilariously, clicking the link to Lanco on the American Music Awards of 2018 Wikipedia page takes you to the page for the airline, because the Wikipedia editor that entered all of the AMA information didn’t bother to check his links. I’d correct it, but it’s 1) funnier this way and 2) the only entertainment it’s at all possible to get out of this category, so I’m hopeful that it’s still there by the time you’re reading this.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Lanco, but mostly their Wikipedia page.

Favorite Female Artist – Country

You know, in years past, the problem with the Country categories is that the rollover in Country music is so low, and it tends to be the same set of people over and over (and over and over) for every awards show for several years. So we’ve largely rolled over a set 6, but it’s still pretty awful. I mean, I’m happy to see Kelsea Ballerini I guess? That’s a pretty bleak state of affairs.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kelsea Ballerini

Favorite Male Artist – County

This is the same situation as the albums category, but you can all rest assured that I don’t like Luke Bryan more than Luke Combs. I mean, I suppose I don’t like him less, either.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kane Brown

Favorite Song – Pop/Rock

In keeping with the spirit of this year’s write-up, I will point out that another of the things that happens here every year is that the “Rock” is utterly superfluous in this cateogry name. It’s all just pop music, guys. Anyway, I don’t love (or even much like) “Havana,” but up against “God’s Plan” and “Perfect” it might as well be “Hey” fucking “Jude”.

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

Favorite Album – Pop/Rock

I’m reminiscing about the good old days when I had that Camila Cabello song to prevent me from deciding that I like Scorpion best of any given set of things. Remember those days? Those were good days.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Drake, Scorpion

Favorite Duo or Group – Pop/Rock

Hey, one of these is actually kind of a rock band! This means the “Rock” is not entirely superfluous every time! Also one of these (obviously not the same one) is actually good! That means I don’t have to go drink bleach!

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Migos

Favorite Female Artist – Pop/Rock

Hey! Things are turning up! I don’t even have to settle for Camila Cabello in this one!

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Cardi B

Favorite Male Artist – Pop/Rock

All of that is to say: at least none of the other categories have Post Malone in them. I mean, he’s going to continue to pop up, and it’s going to be infuriating every time because: no.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Drake. But big sigh at “Rightful” and at “Winner”.

Favorite Soundtrack

I’ll give a dollar to anyone who can tell me why Fate of the Furious is in here. A whole American dollar. The Greatest Showman was a valiant effort, but unfortunately total garbage. Black Panther had a pretty cool soundtrack.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Black Panther

Favorite Social Artist

I feel like the “Social Media” categories are in a nightmare reign for BTS, but I think that there could be other options soon. See, the logic is that BTS managed to be bona-fide pop superstars in America with little other than their rabid fans and their equally-rabid social media support from said fans. That means it’s de facto BTS, because they don’t have any of the non-online aspects of, say, Cardi B 7, Ariana Grande 8, Demi Lovato 9 or Shawn Mendes 10

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: BTS

Tour of the Year

Well, this one had two tours in it that I would attend, which is one more than this category usually features. I only considered going to see U2 very briefly, but I did consider it. I very nearly went to see Beyonce and Jay-Z, so that’s the one I suppose, in the most practical sense of “Rightful Winner,” I am once again going with the one I would have been most likely to see.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Jay-Z and Beyonce

Video of the Year

While “Bodak Yellow” is the only actually good song here, the video is just kind of…there. The “Havana” video at least has the telenovela bit at the beginning that I quite like. The “God’s Plan” video is self-aggrandizing nonsense.

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

New Artist of the Year

It’s funny that this category, usually the market-stunt-iest category, is one of the strongest fields going. Camila Cabello isn’t really “new,” having done time in Fifth Harmony. Dua Lipa and Khalid are both people with extremely nice singing voices. Cardi B is probably here to stay, and doesn’t need to “come into” her material at all, like Dua Lipa or Khalid would.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Cardi B

Artist of the Year

Aaaaaand we’re right back to the misery. Taylor Swift hasn’t come up, but she is in several of these categories, and her output in the eligibility period is extraordinarily bad. I’m usually mildly positive on the Taylor Swift scale, but this last record was just awful. Ed Sheeran is execrable, although he’s better than Post Malone. Imagine Dragons’s singer made that cool documentary thing. That was neat. It’s probably better than Drake, so why not?

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Imagine Dragons (but not their music)

That wraps it up for this one! I suppose next year at this time I’ll have to start tracking whether it’s the American Music Awards that make this field so dreadful, or whether it’s just that pop music itself is in a down period where it doesn’t much appeal to me! Whee!


  1. despite having what could accurately be called “minimal” record-selling-industry connections these days. 
  2.  sub to footnote 1, this is probably down to the record-selling interests Disney does have, lack of record label notwithstanding. 
  3.  that is to say, they lack the Billboard awards’ house-organ connection, the Grammys seriousness, or even, say, the People’s Choice Awards’ idea of a democratic winner 
  4.  I litigate this every time it comes up, but if you’re not a dedicated reader, the argument is this: they are not a band in any meaningful sense (ie the assemblage of people that are onstage or whatever bear little relationship to the music as it is played on their albums, as their album credits and, y’know, the actual sound of the actual music bear out), they do not play rock music in any meaningful sense (the music is not built on the interplay of the musicians, it does not feature the guitar/bass/drum lineup that typifies rock music, it is not played primarily in dynamics and texture, instead relying on the language of dance music – hooks, drops, godawful vocals, etc. – to make its point). There are rock bands that offer exceptions to rules, certainly (Suicide, for example, is one of the finest rock bands the world has ever known), but Imagine Dragons aren’t one of them. 
  5.  you know, one of these days I really should evaluate whether Take Care and Nothing Was the Same are actually good records, or if they just sounded better at the time. 
  6.  although Carrie Underwood persists, because it’s not like they send them out on an ice floe or whatever. 
  7.  who used to be on tv, after all 
  8.  who used to be on tv, after all 
  9.  who used to be on tv, after all 
  10.  fuck Shawn Mendes 

The Best Records of September 2018

Low – Double Negative (Would that we could all make such a startling change to our approach 25 years into doing whatever it is we do. Also: Low made a noise record, so obviously I am here for it.)

Tim Hecker – Konoyo (September proved itself to be a real banger for Kranky records alums – Low started out on Kranky – and also, Tim Hecker found a bunch of super-modern inspiration in a bunch of super-old Japanese instruments)

Spiritualized – And Nothing Hurt (Jason Pierce’s level of consistency remains much higher than I feel it should be. I have nothing new to add to the conversation about Spiritualized, but if this is indeed their last record, then this is a hell of a way to go out)

Joey Purp – Quarterthing (Most of the time when rappers try do this many different things on a record, it’s a little bit like watching someone try on clothes – it’s just better if they make a decision about the approach and go forward from there. Somehow Joey Purp made the decision to try things out, and it worked all the way through)

Milo – Budding Ornithologists are Weary of Tired Analogies (this is Milo’s third record of the year, and all three of them are top-flight incredible. I have no idea where this is coming from or how he’s doing it, but it’s amazing)