My List For 2017

Tear down the wall, always.

To some, I guess, they were a stoner band – they made songs ideal to light up to. That’s a fine approach to Pink Floyd, even if it wasn’t mine. For other fanatics, Pink Floyd were soundscapers in the prog tradition, immediately identifiable instrumentalists who made music that was effortlessly immersive. Put on a Floyd album and get lost for forty-five minutes; I certainly did plenty of that. Still others saw them as a band of might-have-beens: what if Syd hadn’t lost his mind, what if Rick and Dave had kept on singing, what if Roger hadn’t, to paraphrase James Mercer, grabbed the yoke and flown the whole mess into the sea?

Yet to me, Pink Floyd has always been a concept band. It was because of their mastery of concept – their ability to buttress a philosophical or political idea with flourishes and sonic coloring that reinforced its meaning – that Pink Floyd became, along with Yes, one of the pillars of the temple of rock where I knelt at night. Yes was the sound of heaven: the world that I wanted, an eco-utopia of perpetual change and elfin magic and the revealing science of God. Pink Floyd was the world as it was: the smokestacks and the ticking clocks, the pigs and dogs and sheep, and always some mad bugger throwing up a wall.

Roger Waters, for all his faults (and to his credit, he’s always worn them in plain view) was the concept-keeper for the Floyd. Without him, they would merely have been a great band; with him, they stayed on topic and theme better than any rock group ever did, or ever will, probably. It was Roger who told Syd’s story in diamond-hard imagery on Wish You Were Here, and laid out the breakdown of the postwar dream in The Final Cut, and on Animals, ushered you into the coldest shower you’ll ever take – a vision of society that, because of its ruthless accuracy, still rings like an alarm all these years later. Roger kept it going in his solo career, too; even if he didn’t have his former mates to back him up with music worthy of his ideas, he kept those big ideas coming.

While Pink Floyd kept those sets tidy, it was, by 1977, apparent that Roger was working on a grand concept that transcended single albums. He had something to say about war and the welfare state, greed and surveillance and state-sponsored distraction and the price of liberty, and our human obligation to take care of each other. Sometimes it took the shape of a personal story: a father he never knew, “buried like a mole in a foxhole” at Anzio, as Roger, who was desperate to make that sacrifice mean something, sang in “Free Four”. Sometimes it drew from classic dystopian literature, like the echoes of Orwell and Bradbury in Animals, and sometimes its inspiration came directly from headlines about miners’ strikes and trouble in the West Bank and Gaza. This was sanctimonious at times, and it sure could be strident, but it was never forced. It was all an expression of Roger’s soul, and in singing it with the passion that he did, he was playing according to the rules of his chosen style. He expanded the parameters of what rock could be. He was making progressive music, even though he thought he was.

His monomaniacal pursuit of his vision wrecked Pink Floyd. The other players in the band were way too good to be marginalized. In retrospect, it’s easy to blame Roger for the estrangement that followed The Wall; nobody likes a guy who puts his sociopolitical agenda ahead of his relationship with his mates. Yet Roger Waters was driven, as many great artists are, by a story he absolutely had to tell – and fifty(!) years after The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, that ambition is still paying artistic dividends. Is This The Life We Really Want? is the culmination of a through-line in Roger Waters’s writing that begins with Corporal Clegg’s wooden leg and threads through Obscured By Clouds and the stealth-socialism of The Dark Side Of The Moon, the despair of “Another Brick In The Wall, Part 1″ and the elegy for liberal democracy on “The Gunner’s Dream”, the quiet outrage of the When The Wind Blows soundtrack, and the unanswerable moral rage of “The Bravery Of Being Out Of Range” from Amused To Death. All of that is present and profoundly reinforced on the new album, which is the most succinct elaboration of Roger Waters’s worldview ever waxed, and the only rebuttal to the State Of The Union address you’ll ever need. With Is This The Life, Roger has done something that few artists, even great ones, ever manage to do. He’s stuck the landing.

It may remind you of Pink Floyd.  That’s intentional. Roger has always loved callbacks, and as it’s his catalog, he’s free to re-use it however he likes.  Nigel Godrich, who produced this set, is an obvious Floyd obsessor who knows the discography backward and forward, and he’s pulled off an impressive balancing act – he alludes to Roger’s past without overwhelming the listener, or the singer, with it.  The record that Is This The Life We Really Want? most closely resembles, in tone and theme, is The Final Cut, and if you’re one of those Floyd fans who can’t countenance that one because of the way Roger was treating his (soon-to-be-ex) bandmates, you might want to run these two back to back to remind yourself just what was at stake.

The Final Cut is a record about a missed opportunity: our chance, according to Roger, to refashion society according to egalitarian principles in the wake of World War II has slipped through our fingers, and now we’re living with the consequences. Just like his role model Jeremiah, he names names, howling his head off about Margaret Thatcher and Leonid Brezhnev and Galtieri, and you, First Worlder, who has put material comfort ahead of your responsibility to your neighbors. The threat of nuclear holocaust hangs over the whole set, but the proximate cause for all the shouting was the Falklands War, which Roger saw as grubby and intemperate backslide into pointless militarism. Confrontational as it is, the album contains some of the most beautiful poetry ever written by a rock band, including the second verse of “The Gunner’s Dream”, a distillation of the promise of social democracy that beats the stuffing out of any political speech I’ve ever heard. If pop music is, at its best, an attempt to fill up the infinite space between the people we are and the people we wish we could be, here was a reach farther than most artists dream, let alone attempt.

The band, however, was coming apart, and I can’t deny The Final Cut sounds fractious. Roger, who has always sung like a wailing revenant, is even more cracked and exhausted here than he usually is. Unfortunately for all of us – Roger included – the world has given him another chance to make many of the same points. Thirty-four years after The Final Cut, we’re right back to petty nuclear brinksmanship, authoritarianism, and near-psychotic disregard for the welfare of our fellow travelers on the planet. On Is This The Life We Really Want?, Roger illustrates our predicament with graphic images that would’ve seemed over-the-top if circumstances hadn’t proven them dead right: I like the description of life in 2017 as a seat on a windowless, doorless private plane manned by an insane crew, but you may be more moved by the dead child face down on the beach, or the woman killed by drone strike as she cooks rice for her family, or the tank crushing a student, or a home, or a pearl. This is ugly stuff he’s entertaining us with, no doubt, and it isn’t for the faint. Same as it ever was, Pink Floyd fan. Somebody has to preach, right?, and since the churches have abdicated their positions as moral arbiters, it’s down to the pop stars to bring the fire and brimstone.

While other members of his cohort – Randy Newman, Paul Simon, Ray Davies, etc. – have succumbed to various flavors of despair, Roger Waters continues to insist that we’ve got options.  What differentiates us from the bug on the wall is our capacity to act selflessly and open our hearts to the stranger and the refugee.  When we stand by, silent and indifferent, and allow the suffering of others to continue, we’re choosing to dehumanize ourselves – which, according to Roger, is exactly what we’ve been accomplishing. Note that the album title is a question: we’ve all got the option to choose humanity over anthood, so why don’t we?  Roger’s tone throughout is one of anguished disbelief – this can’t be the life we want, can it?  These choices we make, they serve no one, do they?  Yet we keep making them. This time around – and this hasn’t always been true on his solo records – he’s got a band who’s right there with him, illustrating his poems with performances that feel anguished, weary, accusatory, repentant, all the things that the music suggests. As for Roger himself, he’s still broken-hearted when he mumbles and properly astringent when he shouts.  He’s also revealed a heretofore dormant talent for playing the piano.  Nothing he does is flashy, mind you, he hits the keys slowly, and dolefully, like he’s knocking on your door to deliver the disastrous news.

Is some of this grumpy-old-man business, a litany of bellyaches about the parlous state of the world? Well, certainly, and if you want to argue that there’s no place for that in pop music, on certain dark days I’m willing to concede the point. But if anybody has earned the right to complain, it’s Roger Waters. Fifteen million copies of The Dark Side Of The Moon were sold in the United States. Songs bearing Roger’s heavy lyrics have been in rotation on classic rock stations for decades.  It’s not that he hasn’t been heard, it’s that he hasn’t been heeded. How many of those people who chanted at rallies about building the wall and keeping immigrants out have copies of Pink Floyd albums in their collections? How many of them attended a Pink Floyd concert, or sang along to a song on the radio?  Quite a few, I’d imagine. The generation that Roger Waters has been addressing, so eloquently and passionately, for sixty years?, those guys turned out to be real pieces of work. We’re not much better. For more than sixty million Americans (not to mention voters in the UK who’ve got their own problems) Roger’s poetic verses meant nothing. I’m not sure how any artist could try any harder, or believe in his causes any more fully, or make his case any more plainly. Honestly, it’s a minor miracle that Is This The Life We Really Want? is as even-handed as it is; if he’d gone straight off the rails and put out an album of fist-shaking rock, I wouldn’t have blamed him. Instead, he’s given us another perfectly balanced cycle of songs, rueful and gorgeous in all the right places, thoughtful, imploring, open-hearted. I’d like to think that Governor Kasich, self-proclaimed Pink Floyd fan, heard it, and let the lessons sink in. I’d like to think that it mattered to you. It couldn’t have mattered more to me.

Album Of The Year

  • 1. Roger Waters — Is This The Life We Really Want?
  • 2. Saint Etienne — Home Counties
  • 3. Laura Marling — Semper Femina
  • 4. LCD Soundsystem — American Dream
  • 5. Tyler, The Creator — Scum Fuck Flower Boy
  • 6. Randy Newman — Dark Matter
  • 7. Elizabeth & The Catapult — Keepsake
  • 8. GoldLink — At What Cost
  • 9. Paramore — After Laughter
  • 10. Susanne Sundfor — Music For People In Trouble
  • 11.  Morrissey — Low In High School
  • 12. Natalia Lafourcade — Musas
  • 13. Marika Hackman — I’m Not Your Man
  • 14. Lana Del Rey — Lust For Life
  • 15. Elbow — Little Fictions
  • 16. Lucy Rose — Something’s Changing
  • 17. Jay-Z — 4:44
  • 18. Wand — Plum
  • 19. Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton — Choir Of The Mind
  • 20. Drake — More Life

My List For 2017 — Singles, and the rest of Page 1

My favorite album cover of 2017. Garish, isn’t it? I love the way the fingers create an anatomical riddle. Oh, and the album’s pretty great, too.

Nobody wants to look old and in the way.  This especially applies to critics, who need to keep up on trends or come off even more preposterous than they normally do, and musicians, who operate in an industry that puts a heavy premium on youth.  Usually this isn’t much of a problem for me at this time of the year: there’s some kid’s-stuff mall emo I’m waving the flag for, or a 20-year-old rapper out of the Midwest with a mouthful of slang meant to confound mom and dad, or an indiepop project from adorable twee Scots who sound and behave so much like twelve-year-olds that they might as well be lined up for the recess bell.  The world likes young people, the biz likes young people, I like young people, everything’s in bloom on the spring chicken farm.

But this year, my album list featured a septuagenarian coot in the top position, an even older grump at number six, and the grouchiest senior citizen in the entertainment industry at number eleven.  What’s going on here?  Have I finally capitulated to age and thrown in with the codgers? Or has the mask fallen, and am I now making my generational allegiances plain?  Damn millennials with your cellular phones and your bit coins.  Take those avocado toasts and shove ’em.

Probably not.  In 2016 and 2017, we got a bunch of mea culpas from Baby Boomers; things, if you’ll notice, didn’t exactly turn out the way they were supposed to during the Summer of Love.  They’re the Jerkiest Generation, and always have been, but at least they were kind enough to send their best poets to deliver the bad news.  Message received; next year’s album list is virtually certain to skew toward the whippersnappers.  But I’m glad things broke as they did, and not merely because I never miss an opportunity to tell the world what Roger Waters and Randy Newman (and, for that matter, Morrissey) have always meant to me.  It also gives me an opportunity to clear up a few things up about my priorities — and there’s no safer place to do that than on a personal page that you’re only reading because you like me.

About five years ago, I was caught up in a long-running rock-crit debate between two warring ideological camps. On one side were so-called poptimists: critics, mostly younger, who believed that marginalized forms of popular music were just as worthy of critical scrutiny as those moldy old records designated classics by first-generation rock writers. They defended ephemerality as a virtue, argued that commercial performance was a legitimate barometer of merit in a capitalist industry, lionized fun and entertainment, and criticized their opponents for their implicit racism and sexism and insistence on evaluating everything by the standards set by late-’60s Beatles albums.  Not everybody was trying to make Tommy, dammit, and it was unfair to demand a magnum opus out of every teenager with an MPC who probably just wanted to dance.  On the other side of the debate were the rockists, largely older and largely male, who felt it was preposterous to stack, say, Britney Spears up against Bruce Springsteen.  Any fool could see the difference in artistic merit between the two, and it was only doing readers a disservice to pretend that an equivalency existed.  Rock, and pop, for that matter, had peaked around 1973, and everything has gone to hell in a handbasket since.  Now I’m caricaturing the position, but not by very much.  I’m also using the past tense, because the debate is more or less settled: the dust has cleared, and the poptimists have won. Major pop releases are now received with the seriousness that used to be reserved for rock records by canonical artists.  It would be the rare critic indeed who’d argue that a new set from Rihanna, or Beyonce, didn’t deserve front-page treatment.

I love Beyonce, and Rihanna, and Katy Perry, and just about every other pop star you might like to name (hey, that new Camila Cabello album sounds pretty good…)  Because I’ve been pretty loud about my appreciation for what they do, many readers have assumed that I pitch my tent among the poptimists, and have said so, in angry letters to the editor that I still have.  Well, the nice ones called me a poptimist; the others used language that I won’t repeat here.  Let’s just say they impugned a masculinity that I don’t exactly value in the first place.  Many of these guys — and they were all guys, of course — were so vitriolic in their accusations that they were unable to see that I agreed with them far more than they thought I did.  I just don’t condemn modern pop stars; I think they’ve managed to make some classic albums too.  But my real, honest-to-god position is about as close to vulgar rockism as you’re likely to find from a critic who still cares, and very much, about contemporary music.  I believe the classic period for pop and rock albums ran from 1967 to around 1974, and just about everything of merit since then has been attempts to recapture the glories of that period.  The only difference between me and the worst of the rockists is that I’m still buying, and enjoying, new albums by the hundreds.

I do understand the sociopolitical problems with this, and I try to be sensitive to them.  But just because something is problematic doesn’t mean it’s wrong — especially when everything we’ve ever learned about the history of artistic movements suggests that it’s right. Heydays exist.  Those writing about other mediums aren’t shy about pointing them out.  Elizabethan drama, Flemish portrait painting, Abstract Expressionism, bebop, Japanese bamboo art; heck, there are literary critics who’ll tell you that the novel went into aesthetic eclipse for decades in the mid Eighteenth century. There is a short period of groundbreaking and standard-setting, and then a much longer era of stasis, institutionalization, and decline. There oughtn’t to be anything controversial about pointing this out, just as there’s nothing outrageous about noticing and celebrating the great stuff that continues to get made after the classic period is over.

Mind you, none of this is nostalgia.  I have no retrospective appreciation for the Vietnam era.  That must have been an awful time to have been a young person. Advances in recording technology must have been, in that context, a very small consolation. But more consequential, I’d wager, than the advent of gazillion-tracking and the studio as an instrument and the Wall of Sound and all the rest of it was that it was then possible to get that technology into the hands of the right people. The business was, by modern standards, pretty small-time — it hadn’t consolidated yet. Nobody knew what the kids wanted; there was no good outline or target marketing, or, God forbid, any algorithm to predict audience response. Instead it was entirely reasonable, and economically defensible, to give money and resources to the big-nosed likes of Van Morrison or Randy Newman. A fully mature industry — one that operates confidently and efficiently — has neither interest in nor room for guys like that.  They’re going to adhere to best practices, which will usually mean pleasing the crowd as expediently as possible.  Since there are now instant methods of ascertaining crowd desire, their jobs are done for them.

And if you still don’t believe me, consider that we all watched this exact thing happen in hip-hop. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the industry was shapeless, executives were tentative, and nobody had any idea what was going on or what was going to sell. This led to record deals and promotion for funny-looking, idiosyncratic, visionary artists who’d never, ever sniff major industry money if they were rhyming today: De La Soul, KRS-ONE, Rakim, you know the names as well as I do.  Public Enemy seemed like a dodgy proposition to the suits when they first came out, but the attitude was, what the hell, who knows with this crazy rap stuff, let’s throw it out there and see if anybody pays attention. By the late ’90s, that uncertainty was gone. This is not to say that there are no longer great hip-hop albums made, because great albums are released every year.  I merely point out that there is far less interest in the sort of protean personalities that exist during the classic phase of any style.  This is basic corporate theory: when the institution is in a nascent stage, big personalities tend to dominate.  Once an institution is mature, big personalities are no longer necessary; eventually, they’re no longer welcome.  The game runs by itself.  There’s no demand for wild cards in the deck.

The coterie of artists whose personalities defined the classic pop-rock period are now saying goodbye.  They’re making closing statements, pulling it together one final time to get their aesthetic estates in order.  Since they effectively wrote the rules of album-making, they’ve got certain advantages that younger artists can’t pretend to. Do these make up for the stigma of age — the feeling among some listeners that veteran rockers said their piece and had their turn, and it’s time to turn the floor over to the next generation?  Well, sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t.  I’m enough of a softie that I don’t want to throw grandma out in the snow when she might have some wisdom left to impart, just as I’m still enough of a tyro to decry gerontocracy wherever I see it.  But I do think that the poptimist argument that it’s unfair to judge younger artists working in alternative styles by the standards of the early ’70s classics is undermined by the influences and models that those younger artists consistently cite. Zeppelin, Nina Simone, Neil Young, Nilsson, Pet Sounds, Motown and Stax-Volt, Dusty Springfield and P-Funk: the names dropped in the press releases I see these days are, pretty much, the same names I saw ten years ago. The album wasn’t supposed to have made it past Napster; here we are in the second decade since the millennium turned, and everybody doing pop, rock, and hip-hop still dreams of dropping a classic full-length.

My favorite single of 2017 was made by a woman born thirty years ago in the frozen fjords of Haugesund, Norway.  As far as I can tell, she’s never lived in the United States; I don’t know if she’s ever even toured here.  Yet this Scandinavian avant-garde art rocker has chosen, on her lead single, to emulate Dolly Parton circa 1971. Other songs on Music For People In Trouble chase Judy Collins, Grace Slick, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell circa For The Roses. She’s happy to own up to these sources, which were as far in the rear-view mirror for her when she was born as Doris Day and Perry Como were for me. She might be the rare artist who is able to stand up to her sources (Laura Marling is another), but her aspirations aren’t unusual. That’s because those artists and those albums are the benchmark, and they will always be.

Music is both the very best thing that people do and the thing that allows people to be at their best.  We are never more ourselves than we are when we are singing, or dancing, or making up songs, or deejaying, or just listening.   Music amplifies and broadcasts the strange, irreducible parts of our personalities, those elements that can’t be counterfeited; when you’re in the presence of a real musical artist, you immediately know it’s her, and you know there’s nobody else who can do what she does.  Around fifty years ago, rock, pop, and soul artists figured out how to get the album — the forty-minute sequence of songs and musical ideas — to be the ultimate conveyor of personality.  Ever since then, we’ve been scrambling to replicate the work they did.  We’ve gotten pretty good at it, too: we’re skilled at sound-matching, and song-sequencing, and singing and playing our instruments in a manner that makes our individualities manifest.  It’s no shame to admit that it’s never going to be quite as exciting as it was in the classic period; it never is.  The qualitative distance is real, but it’s also been exaggerated.  The very worst record that’ll be released tomorrow will still be more interesting to engage with than almost anything else you might have devoted your attention to in a year as deadening as 2017.  It shouldn’t depress us that we’ll never quite live up to our models.  We should celebrate that our models are as world-bending as they are. Thank goodness for them. Go right on copying them.

Single of the Year

  • 1. Susanne Sundfor — “Undercover”
  • 2. Paramore — “Fake Happy”
  • 3. Phoebe Bridgers — “Motion Sickness”
  • 4. Tyler, The Creator — “See You Again”
  • 5. Vince Staples — “Big Fish”
  • 6. Nelly Furtado — “Pipe Dreams”
  • 7. Harry Styles — “Sign Of The Times”
  • 8. Future — “Mask Off”
  • 9. 2 Chainz — “Trap Check”
  • 10. Cloud Nothings — “Internal World”
  • 11. Drake — “Passionfruit”
  • 12. Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee — “Despacito”
  • 13. Charly Bliss — “Glitter”
  • 14. Morrissey — “Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s Up On The Stage”
  • 15. LCD Soundsystem — “Tonite”
  • 16. Liam Gallagher — “For What It’s Worth”
  • 17. Kendrick Lamar — “Humble”
  • 18. Alvvays — “Plimsoll Punks”
  • 19. Idles — “Well Done”
  • 20. Poppy — “Moshi Moshi”

Best Album Title

Music For People In Trouble. Because we are, you know.

Best Album Cover

See above.

Best Liner Notes And Packaging

The Saint Etienne album came with a little map of the Home Counties, a made-up (and hilarious) police blotter, and an essay that namechecked Orwell and Virginia Woolf. So yes, Sarah Cracknell was speaking my language, and not for the first time. I’d also like to acknowledge Poppy and her evil overseers for a thank-you section that lists most major financial institutions in bold pink type, and instructions for folding the CD insert into a cult hat complete with Illuminati eyeballs.  She’s all in on the character, bless her.

Most Welcome Surprise

I was pleasantly surprised that Harry Styles and Nelly Furtado want to be alternarock stars; there’s not a lot of dough in it these days, but at least you get the opportunity to work with real racket-makers. Also, while I’ve always liked Lucy Rose, I didn’t think she had the capacity to make an album as good as Something’s Changing.  My real answer in this category, though, is Colin Meloy, who, via the Offa Rex album, proved to me he could do a genuine Martin Carthy imitation. Whatever you want to say about that guy, concede this much: he’s a talent.

Biggest Disappointment

I covered this in the Abstract, but I’ll say it again: it’s been years since an album has disappointed me as much as Melodrama did. Lorde let Jack Antonoff, he of the one chord progression (and an unimaginative one at that) run roughshod over her writing, which is not an outcome I thought was possible in 2013. But I also confess a certain disappointment that Taylor Swift is drinking as much as she seems to suggest that she is on Reputation, if you accept the dubious proposition that her narrators are proxies for her. This year, I sorta do.

Album That Opened Most Strongly

Natalia Lafourcade’s Musas.

Album That Closed Most Strongly

Semper Femina

Song Of The Year

“Nothing, Not Nearly”. Sometimes I think that the entire British folk-rock tradition — from Sandy Denny in Fairport and Jacquie McShee in the Pentangle through Nick Drake and Renaissance, Kate St. John and Beth Orton singing about that abandoned shopping trolley — was all just a buildup to 3:03 – 3:12 on this track.

Okay, page two soon.  Thanks for reading along.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My List For 2017 — Page 2

If you don’t believe him now, will you ever believe him?

On “I Wish You Lonely”, a musical curse hurled by Morrissey on his hand-grenade of a new album, the fussy old vegetarian compares himself to a humpback whale. Not any whale, mind you; he envisions himself as the last survivor, defiantly swimming through the seas with harpoon-boats in pursuit. Like so much about Morrissey, it’s simultaneously funny and not so funny. For thirty-five years now, it’s never been clear whether his listeners are supposed to laugh. I suspect he wants the authority to crack jokes, but also the prerogative to look down his nose at you if he thinks you’re approaching his lyrics with a surfeit of levity and an inappropriate amount of gravity.

If you know Morrissey at all, and you certainly do, it’ll be clear to you why he identifies with the whale. Humpbacks are intelligent (something he’s positive he is), free-roaming and grand, ugly-beautiful, hounded by bullies. Also, famously, humpbacks sing. Not everybody understands their song, and many, tone-deaf that they are, would deny that that whale is singing at all.  Nevertheless, it goes right on with the show.

Like many people who feel marginalized, Morrissey has always been acutely sensitive — both on and off record — to threats to his autonomy and his liberty to speak his mind.  Years after topping the UK charts, he still feels very much like an outsider, and he has never been willing to modify or even soften his positions for the sake of the pop game. If you ask Morrissey an opinion question, he’s not going to waffle. You’re going to get an actual answer.

In 2017, few of his fans liked the answers he gave. The nasty nativist streak that has always been present in his writing — from “Panic” through “Bengali In Platforms” and “National Front Disco” and the rest of it — grew too wide for his apologists to ignore. Morrissey made statements that were unambiguously xenophobic and blatantly Islamophobic, too, and went on the record in support of a politician who was odious even by the low standards of the UKIP.  In so doing, he appeared to be aligning himself with the ringleaders of the tormentors — the closed-minded thugs who most members of his following feel persecuted by. This all came to a climax in an interview with Der Spiegel which played like an audition for a Prison Planet talk radio gig.  Lamely, he claimed he’d been misquoted (nope, you’re on tape, pal). It was all too much, and certain nervous parishioners in the Church of Morrissey ran for the exits.  Martin Rossiter, for instance, who did practically nothing but pilfer from the Smiths on those early Gene records, took to the Quietus with a broadside headlined “Why Morrissey Is Dead To Me”. It was like a former Christian washing his hands Jesus; Jesus if he’d gone alt-right.

Me, I’ve got a very high threshold for perturbation.  Even back when I was a teenager, searching for all the friends on the pop charts I could find and singing along to “Cemetry Gates” in the back of a speeding car, I always considered the Smiths problematic.  I liked discos and the people inside; I always figured I’d be one of the people burned along with the deejay if Morrissey ever had his way with the kerosene. I never wanted that double-decker bus to ram into me. I suspected, very much, that he didn’t either: if he was dead, how would he run his mouth?  But Morrissey was a fully-formed character, and thus indispensable in a pop landscape where personality was in short supply.  He also wore his flaws in plain sight, which, I had come to recognize, was a hallmark of a legitimate artist.  He never tried to hide anything from his listener – it was all right out there, on the surface, gruesome in broad daylight.  So even though I never got into World Peace Is None Of Your Business, I figured I needed to give my cranky old uncle Morrissey a spin.  There were songs on the new one with such titles as “The Girl From Tel Aviv Who Wouldn’t Kneel” and “When You Open Your Legs”.  My rubbernecker’s impulse had been fully engaged.

Low In High School isn’t as good as Vauxhall or Your Arsenal, but it’s probably a stronger and more rewarding set than late-career high points like Years Of Refusal and You Are The Quarry.  Neither of those two very good albums made all that much of a splash, so it’s hard to blame this professional attention-getter for turning up the volume and amping up the rhetoric.  If that’s all there was to High School, it would still be worth cursory engagement from people whose lives were saved by the Smiths (or so they used to like to say), regardless of the principal’s position on Brexit.  But the latest Morrissey is more than that. Yes, it’s abrasive, bombastic, self-righteous/self-pitying, conspiracy-minded – everything the public Morrissey has become over the past decade. But it’s also very funny (as always), peculiarly romantic, lovelorn, properly astringent; acid squirted in the eye of some targets that really do need a good spritz.  Seventy per cent sympathetic, thirty per cent abominable – same as it ever was, according to my count.

While nothing on Low In High School contradicts Morrissey’s new identity as a volunteer UKIP spokesperson, it doesn’t lead with the distaste for multiculturalism that has marred so many of his recent interviews. This is, instead, an album about violent conflict: not merely battles between armies, but a war that the singer is convinced, and not without reason, is being waged on people like Morrissey.   This is why he opens with a berserk love letter to his fans – he assumes you, long time listener, are something of a humpback whale, too, solitary and hounded by men (always men) who are determined to put the harpoon through softer human specimens.  Low In High School argues that war is a choice made not by governments, but by individual male humans who cannot govern their own destructive impulses.  I, too, have looked around the country, and the globe, and you know what?, I believe him.

“I Bury The Living”, the stupendous centerpiece of this enraged, justifiably defensive disc, lays the blame at the foot of the Man With Gun: the anonymous grunt, “just doing his duty”, or so we’ve been assured. “Give me an order/I’ll blow up your daughter”, he says, succinct and hard-eyed, hungry to kill.  He doesn’t care what the war is about – he just wants an excuse to discharge his weapon. The song is the best rejoinder to mindless Support Our Troops rhetoric since Belle & Sebastian’s “If You Find Yourself Caught In Love”, and it works for the same reason – it isn’t afraid to be offensive.  Because war is offensive, people, a million times more offensive than anything a pop star might sing.  One song later, on “In Your Lap”, against the backdrop of the Arab Spring, Morrissey ducks and covers as combatants, righteous and fascist, get their jollies by burning, clubbing, and spraying each other. You aren’t responsible for what armies do, he tells us on “Israel”, they are not you. These are the songs that the Decemberists, great as they are, have been trying to write for twenty years; Colin Meloy’s politeness, balance, and sense of decency prevents him from going all the way with the arguments.  Morrissey, a goddamned problem, isn’t so burdened.

His remedy: all the young people, he tells us, must fall in love. A little hippy-ish, sure, especially from the guy who wrote “Shakespeare’s Sister”, but I don’t think I’ve heard anything better, or more practical, from the so-called authorities lately.  Also – and he is dead serious about this – he requests that you stop watching the news.  I think he’s right about that, too.  Broadcast journalism got caught in the rapids around 2013 and has since gone right over the waterfall, and it’s mostly been yelling and kicking up a dangerous froth ever since. They’ve mastered psychological techniques to keep you tuning in, waiting for the big revelation that never comes.  I appreciate Morrissey pointing the finger, and putting it to us as straight as he does, just as I commend him for what appears to be a legitimate concern for the mental state of those he counts as members of his tribe. On Low In High School, he really does sing like he’s worried about you, Morrissey listener, ostensibly fey individual who, for all he knows, may actually be a girl, clinging to passive resistance in the face of toxic masculinity.  All of his songs have always been pitched at you, of course – that’s why you scribbled the lyrics on your notebook.  But he’s never made the stakes quite as clear as he does here.

No matter what they tell you during election years, artists aren’t terribly interested in politics.  For the most part, an artist’s prime responsibility is to the art, which, in a capitalist society, means securing enough funding to do the next project.  That’s it; that’s the driver, and there’s no shame in it.  A real artist will make all kinds of horrid compromises and enter into relationships of complicity with any number of ghouls to make sure the next album comes out. I think we fans of popular music have come to accept this, just as we acknowledge that most “statement” records don’t really make statements at all: they say exactly what you’d expect them to say given conventional wisdom and the general liberalism of the pop audience.  Morrissey, though, is different.  He wants fame and fortune as badly as the rest of the pop stars do, but some ancient injury that won’t heal (I think I know what it is) makes him incapable of going along with bland consensus or playing to the crowd.  I heard hundreds of political records in 2017 – records from old artists immobilized by guilt for what their generation had done and young artists determined to be broadly inspirational and inclusive.  The only singer who convinced me that he’d actually stand up and fight for me – the only one willing to jeopardize his career in order to speak out on behalf of his audience as he imagines it – was Morrissey, for better and for worse.  It’s there in the high note he reaches on “Home Is A Question Mark”, and in the way his voice breaks at the climax of “Israel”, and in the gritted-teeth delivery of “I Bury The Living”, and in the very sharp words he aims right at your beleaguered eardrums.  If it’s all an act, it’s a heck of a good one.

You know what?, it’s not an act.

Best Singing

Steven Patrick Morrissey

Best Rapping

Kokamoe is an old guy who jumps on buses in D.C. and starts rapping.  He’s been doing it for decades, which means he’s been in town for quite a bit longer than Devin Nunes (R, CA-22). The “Kokamoe Freestyle” is the virtuosic peak of GoldLink’s At What Cost, the year’s best pure rap album, and a needle-drop directly into the groove of the nation’s maligned capital. It’s not so much a tribute to Kokamoe as it is a celebration of the local color of a city that, too often, is hated on by the rest of the country.  The real D.C. is right there, somewhere past the monuments and the National Mall. GoldLink wants to show you.

Best Vocal Harmonies

Tie between Harry Styles’ multi-tracked Southern Cali-voices on “Ever Since New York” and Lana Del Rey “singin’ with Sean” Lennon in awe and wonderment at the great spinning wheel of schlock that is showbiz. My favorite backing vocals were done by the Big Moon, the outfit that supported Marika Hackman on I’m Not Your Man. Their album has its moments, too.

Best Bass Playing

Much as I’d love to vote for the Dutch Uncles’ art-funky Robin Richards here, I’ve got to go with James Murphy for his successful Tina Weymouth impersonation. Thousands upon thousands have tried. Only a handful have survived to tell the tale.

Best Drumming

Evan Burrows of Wand is my man this year — his playing demonstrated a neat familiarity with punk and jazz and jam-band free-for-alls, not to mention proggy drama, and he jumped between the styles with more grace than genre-hoppers ever seem to manage. While I’m at it, I want to send a great big shout to the rhythm section on Lucy Rose’s Something’s Changing: they really did capture that Sirius XM The Bridge “mellow classic rock” sound that I thought had gone out of style with Phoebe Snow.

Best Drum Programming

Pop singers over trap beats: that’s become a horrendous cliche, and one we all wish would go away in 2018. But Lana Del Rey isn’t just any pop singer — she’s the Queen Midas of absurdity, and everything she touches is blown up to a ridiculously epic scale. She’s also so closely in tune with Rick Nowels that he can anticipate her emotional states and reflect it in their beatmaking. Those heart-flutters and tight-throat sobs, the sudden accelerations of thought and roller-coaster drops into melodrama are all present on Lust For Life. They’ve got this character down pat. The miniseries ought to be lots of fun.

Best Synth Playing/Programming

Bobby Sparks on Nelly Furtado’s The Ride.

Best Piano Or Organ Playing

If you like piano-playing singer-songwriters, 2017 was your year. Susanne Sundfor, Roger Waters, Tori Amos, Randy Newman, Lucy Rose, Steven Wilson — they all took to the eighty-eight with sensitivity and skill. Elizabeth Ziman of the Catapult was the flashiest (check out “Mea Culpa”) and that counts for plenty to this showoff over here. But the very best was Emily Haines.

Best Guitar Playing

Los Macorinos.

Best Instrumental Solo

Bobby Sparks’s organ ride at the end of “Pipe Dreams”. It’s the rare pop star willing to share space on her single with the organist. Think of that gesture of magnanimity the next time you’re tempted to make fun of Nelly Furtado’s name. Oh, wait, that’s not you who does that; that’s me. Sorry, Nelly.

Best Instrumentalist

It was a hell of a year for Greg Leisz. Not only did he add his slide guitar to records by the usual classic rock characters, he also made a significant incursion into alternative music. St. Vincent, Father John Misty, Susanne Sundfor, Haim, Phoebe Bridgers — Leisz decorated all of those albums. He plays on two of my three favorite singles of 2017. Despite all of that, he’s still a bit unsung. Call him what he is: one of the best and most versatile guitar players working today in any style.

Best Production

No I.D. for 4:44. He had Jay-Z’s consent to try to make a classic album, commercial aspirations be damned; he had to keep up with his wife, and couldn’t be bringing home any sub-standard bags of groceries. But Jay is such a brand that No I.D. was left with a difficult needle to thread: the music had to be cohesive, and allude to Hova past while never overwhelming the listener with nostalgia. Come to think of it, that’s the same challenge Nigel Goodrich overcame on Is This The Life We Really Want? Those two should get together, swap notes, trade stories about their crazy bosses.

Best Arrangements

I sat through years of look-at-me misogyny and press-baiting homophobia and kill people burn shit fuck school — a whole lot of nonsense, in other words — to get to the moment on “See You Again” when Tyler lets the brass pour all over the track like warm honey on a biscuit. Truth is, he was never convincing as a anti-social tough guy. I saw him as a would-be soft-rocker and maker of beautiful music, in the Englebert Humperdinck sense, from the outset. If you haven’t watched his tiny desk concert, it’s by far the best one I’ve seen. What a goof, what a clown, what a total, wonderful nerd. I still can’t believe the Moral Majority was ever scared of this guy.

Best Songwriting

Bill James, infamously, once called Don Mattingly “100% ballplayer, 0% bullshit”. That was it; that was his whole comment on Mattingly’s career. I watched Mattingly play, and I know what James meant — he never wasted one moment of his too-short run under the limelight indulging in extraneous nonsense. He had a talent, and he stayed true to it as long as he could. Anyway, I’d like to say that Natalia Lafourcade is 100% musician, 0% bullshit, but I can’t leave it at that: I’m too much of a blowhard. Sometimes marketed north of the border as Mexico’s answer to Norah Jones, she’s really more of an indiepop version of Lila Downs. Like Downs, she’s got an encyclopedic understanding of Latin American folk forms and the energy of an international pop star; unlike Downs, who’s a bit of a roughneck, Lafourcade possesses a voice from twee heaven and a light touch on the faders. When she puts the flowers in her hair and plays her ukulele, it’s like somebody opened the otter enclosure: it’s cuteness overload that the human eyeballs are not equipped to handle. I’m still scarred, and the scars are pink and taste like sugar dots. Hasta La Raiz, which was either the best or second-best album of 2015, played like a cross between Belle & Sebastian and Julieta Venegas that I thought existed only in my lucid dreams; Musas, the new set, is pure, patriotic engagement with the Mexican folk tradition from a Veracruzana linda with a not-so-subtle message for bigoted Americanos. Some of the songs are penned by trad., and some are Lafourcade originals, and I’ll bet you a plate of split-pea tlayocos that you’ll never be able to tell which are which. Here’s a hint: hers are the ones that sound even more like Latin jazz-folk standards than the actual jazz-folk standards. She is amazing; we’re not worthy; etcetera; etcetera; my favorite artist in the world at the peak of her powers. New album next week!, I am hyperventilating.

Best Lyrics On An Individual Song

Jay-Z’s “Marcy Me”. Dense, old-school rhyme about dense, old-school New York City.

P.F. Rizzuto Award For Lyrical Excellence Over The Course Of An Album

The songs on Dark Matter concern, in order: a hypothetical debate between smug fundamentalists and clueless scientists, the Bay of Pigs invasion reimagined as an effort to kidnap Celia Cruz, the psychology of Vladimir Putin, a woman berating her children from her deathbed, the theft of the identity of the bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson, the masturbatory thrills of the conspiratorial mindset, a funny-looking man’s disbelief in the face of his beautiful wife, a beach bum about to be drowned by rising sea levels, and a crushed old man who has lost his youngest son — probably to heroin addiction, but you can’t expect Randy to give you all the specifics, now, can you? He sets the pace. The rest of us jokers chase.

Band Of The Year

Elbow. Ssh, they don’t like calling attention to themselves.

Best Live Show Of 2017

St. Lenox at the Sidewalk Cafe.

Best Music Video

All the fabulous clips for Musas songs aside, I was knocked dead by this video for “Magpie Eyes”. New Jersey has its own Home Counties, and Union, where I grew up, is one of them.  I don’t recognize the architecture, not exactly, but I understand the sentiment: there’s a big city out there, and by many signs it isn’t that far away, but it may as well be on the other side of the moon for all it intersects with your life. Everything around you feels simultaneously functional and dated — you know it’s not going to be replaced, but you’re vaguely conscious of a standard by which it would all appear worn out and maybe even risible.  You can spend your teenage days dreaming, or you can appreciate the strange, eerie, subtly cosmopolitan beauty of what you’ve got. The tower blocks, the rail stations, the right angles in concrete, the longing faces of your friends.

 

Sun’s setting, that’s all for today.  I should probably proofread this, no?  Next essay will be the pseudo-political one. Sorry about that; the good news is that there are plenty of categories to come. Also, there’ll be a last word, and this one is long overdue.

Pages 3, 4, and 5 (Miscellaneous Categories)

It’s fine, ‘cos she is just a girl: Marika Hackman.

For four and a half decades, I’ve been watching American society, closely and warily. Though I’ve sometimes written hard words about my country, I try not to be hyperbolic about it. So when I say that I believe that America is, in February 2018, more susceptible to fascism than it ever has been in my lifetime, I hope you don’t think I’m ringing alarm bells for the hell of it.

I also hope you won’t think that I’m saying that fascism is about to be imposed from above on an unwilling nation by the current government. Our leaders are amoral and brutal and prone to authoritarian action, but they are, like all governments in the West, expressions of desire, both conscious and unconscious, by citizens. The government is a symptom – and though symptoms can kill, I think the incoherence of our present regime is, ironically, one of the best safeguards against fascism we have left.

The other safeguards are crumbling away. Day by day, story by story, post by social media post, they face constant pressure from a public desperate for retribution. Americans want to see forceful action taken against their perceived enemies. Since those enemies in this cold civil war are other Americans, the justice system has become the designated instrument of vengeance. For the past few months, American politicians and bureaucrats have been wrangling over control of the FBI: all the combatants want to use the bureau as a cudgel to beat their adversaries, and to my dismay, the whole nation seems united in cheering on the fight. Lock them up, throw away the key, raid the DNC, raid the RNC, hooray for the special counsel, the special counsel is crooked; the circle gets more vicious by the week.  If you’re part of this chorus – if you spend any part of your day fantasizing about your political opponents behind bars – you may be more fascist than you think you are.

I have made my extreme distaste for the President and his henchmen plain.  That said, one of the very last things on earth I would like to see is anybody led away from the White House in handcuffs.  That might appeal to some primitive lizard-being inside me that wants to punish those I believe are up to no good, but it would be a disaster for this democracy, or whatever is left of it. It would set a precedent from which there’s no coming back.  It is illuminating to me that many, many people who consider themselves liberal and broad-minded would applaud this outcome, just as Trump’s popular stump line about jailing the Clintons made me realize we were descending farther into a tribal hellscape than I thought Americans would ever voluntarily go.  Cheering on the cops and throwing them handfuls of investigatory powers like Halloween candy used to be a Republican pastime, but now everybody does it, and that’s exactly why we’re in the trouble we’re in. No matter what superficial allegiance you claim, if you’re hungry to have the police solve your political problems, you’re in the ideal state of mind for a fascist ascendancy.

If and when it comes, it won’t look like what you think it will look like. Those dumbos in Charlottesville with the jackboots and their chants about Jews?; that’s not the vanguard, that’s the ass end. Fascism for the twenty-first century will be a polite, algorithm-driven thing, a crowd-pleasing thing, attenuation of privacy rights and erasure of personal boundaries by police organizations that have unprecedented invasive authority. Your life will be transparent to law enforcement, but law enforcement will be opaque to you. The searchlight that shines on the nation will become more searing than we can imagine.

Fascism will come with a blank face and a closed fist.  It’ll speak, when it does, in the language of legal procedure.  Obstruction, misconduct, conspiracy, transparency: interfering with the police will be the worst crime.  Every hard-drive will be digitally seized, every cache will be snooped through, every sheaf of correspondence will be subjected to inspection, and it’ll all be done in the name of truth and justice.  It’s happening already.  So desperate are Americans to see their enemies jailed — because that is, they’re convinced, the inevitable outcome of all this police  action —  that they are acquiescing to general surveillance as a way of life and a means of retribution.  When it all comes out, they say, then we’ll really nail the bastards; godspeed to the investigators, go faster and harder, bring the boot down.  If you’ve been hungry to see memos released, and classified documents aired, and tax returns made public, and personal e-mails stolen and posted to a leak website, you’re exactly where they want you.

Once in the whirlpool, it’s oh so difficult to swim free.  Whole institutions — education, tech, broadcast media — become part of the law enforcement apparatus, bound up in the task of social supervision, theoretically independent but forever ready to jump to the rhythm of the police baton. Journalism was, once, a kind of direct, to-the-moment division of storytelling; it still is in part, but that’s not what we’re demanding of our reporters.  Instead we want them to expose, dig up dirt, investigate; we want their pieces to assist the downfall of powerful people we believe to be wrongdoers. We want them, in other words, to do police work.  We want columnists who cheer on that police work, and who argue for its necessity in weaponized language we can reuse (and retweet).

America is an experiment in civilian control.  Through our regular elections, we’re asked to send ordinary representatives of Joe Schmoe to Washington to execute the general will. Never mind whether it actually functions that way or how imperfectly we’ve realized the aspirations of the Athenian philosophers; stop to think for a second how crazy it was, and is, to even dream of giving that kind of power to the public. That any version of this has ever been allowed to happen is astonishing.  Yet we did it, and because of our success (and probably no other reason) we’ve been emulated by other wealthy nations. As Americans we reserve the right to elect the very worst citizens in the land to represent us. We may have done just that. But when we fuck up, we cannot and should not call the cops to kick down the door and put things straight.  For one thing, they’re very unlikely to put things straight, not in the way we want them to: they’re cops, that’s not what they do. More saliently, they will trample on the rug and wreck the furniture and break all the windows while they’re at it. This is our house, dammit, not theirs, and we will have opportunities in 2018 and again in 2020 to atone for our mistakes in the way that grown-up citizens do, secure in the knowledge that police-assisted regime change has never worked in the developing world and it sure as heck won’t work here. Our current leaders aren’t going to help us out: through laws and executive orders and the language they use, they’ve made their preference for ruthlessly expeditious governance manifest. Luckily — and despite it all — it’s not up to them.  We can still keep the republic if we want to.  Boy, I hope we want to.

Rookie Of The Year

Perverse old 2017 — the year a YouTube satirist out-popped Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Haim, and Lorde.  Poppy’s album really isn’t half as mesmerizing or trenchant as her fifty second spots, but if it was, it would be Top 10 material.  As it is, it’s pretty promising, and with “Pop Music”, she came up with a statement of purpose that ought to carry her along until the next album, or the next video, or whatever Satanic Pee Wee’s Playhouse she chooses to inhabit next.  I’m glad she’s around.  Pop needs great characters, and she’s arrived fully formed.

Best Guest Appearance

2 Chainz on Drake’s “Sacrifices”.

2017 Album You Listened To The Most

Marika Hackman’s I’m Not Your Man.  I kept waking up with those songs in my head.  What can I say?, I guess I like being taunted for not being a girl.

2017 Album That Wore Out Most Quickly

Bedouine

Most Notable Cover Version

Phoebe Bridgers’s gorgeous, weirdly empathetic run through the murder/rape ballad “You Missed My Heart” made me re-evaluate Mark Kozelek a little. Maybe he’s good for something other than throwing dirtbombs at The War On Drugs.

Most Romantic Song

Brad Paisley’s “Go To Bed Early”. Much of Love And War was too corny for me, even, which is saying something. But if you like numbers about irresistible attraction to your wife (I do), Brad’s got you covered.

Funniest Song 

Partner’s “Everybody Knows”. The best number ever written about getting stoned in the grocery store and in front of your professor. College humor, to be sure, but still pretty amusing.

Most Frightening Song

The horrors of A Crow Looked At Me aside (and best left undiscussed), I admit I found the “numbers on your phone of the dead that you cannot delete” section of “Emotional Haircut” pretty terrifying. Because I got ’em. I bet you do, too. It’s something about the unsettling collision between physical mortality and a machine-world that has trouble letting our identities go.

Most Moving Song

Natalie Hemby’s “Cairo, Illinois”. Ghost towns give me the chills.

Sexiest Song

“Soledad Y El Mar” by Natalia Lafourcade. The mariachi version of “Mexicana Hermosa” qualifies, too.

Meanest Song

Marika Hackman’s “Boyfriend”. The target probably deserves to have his girlfriend pinched, but she didn’t have to sound so gleeful about it, did she? Guess she felt she was proving a point.

Saddest Song

Randy Newman’s “Wandering Boy”. First he introduces the character — an aging sad sack who can’t even get the rest of the family to come to the annual party. Then he wades into the reason they’re despondent: they’re crushed by the plight of their youngest son, who has crashed through all safety nets and is now lost on the streets. “I hope that he’ll come home”, Randy sings, and in his voice, you can hear that the hedge-maze between the wandering boy and his broken-hearted father is high and thick and dark and impossible to navigate. When he pauses before delivering the last line and tells the crowd to search him out and push him toward the light, the delivery is so distraught that I choke up every time; hell, I am tearing up just writing this. I don’t know why those barriers exist between us and those who love us, and I don’t know why people fall into addiction. Randy doesn’t either. His compassion is equalled only by his despair. This is one of the greatest songs in a catalog loaded with greatness, and demonstrates that at 74, his singular vision hasn’t blurred a bit.

Best Historical Re-creation

Guess this can’t really go to Liam Gallagher, now, can it?  That’s not fair. How about White Reaper and their album-equivalent of an ’80s Camaro doing donuts in the Sam Goody parking lot?

Best Sequenced Album

At What Cost

Crappy Album You Listened To A Lot Anyway

Rostam’s Half-Light.

Artist You Don’t Know, But You Know You Should

King Krule, again.  Should I?

Album That Felt Most Like An Obligation To Get Through And Enjoy

Crack-Up by Fleet Foxes.

Album That Sounded Like It Was The Most Enjoyable To Make

2 Chainz is at that great point in his career where he doesn’t have to prove anything to anybody, and he can relax and settle into a set of beats like a big man in a rocking chair on an Atlanta porch.  Pretty Girls Like Trap Music wasn’t the best rap album of 2017, but it might have been the most assured; he knew the audience was there, and he knew he had exactly what they wanted. No pressure, no sweat, no straining to impress, no energy wasted, nothing but tight rhymes from an elder statesman who learned long ago how to present a verse and tell a story.

Album That Sounded Like A Chore To Make

Eisley’s I’m Only Dreaming. Sherri DuPree did her best, but she couldn’t compensate for the departure of both of her sisters — or the loss of the signature vocal harmonies they provided. Those must have been some strange and strained sessions.

Man, I Wish I Knew What This Song, Or Album, Was About

I admit I could use a hand with some of the new Dutch Uncles stuff. I had a good sense of what the songs on O Shudder were getting at, or at least I thought I did. Big Balloon just mystified me.

Most Consistent Album

Near To The Wild Heart Of Life.  I don’t think that album ever ends, technically; somewhere down that magic highway, the Japandroids are still humping away on that same rudimentary chord progression. Good thing it’s a nifty one. The Who sure liked it.

Most Inconsistent Album

Pacific Daydream was, among other things, a weird stab at pop relevance from a bunch of guys who are far too long in the tooth to pull such stunts. When Rivers Cuomo and Butch Walker tried, instead, to forge some bizarre mecha-hybrid of the Beach Boys and Weezer on some of the less mersh tracks, the results were magnificent — and the rest has grown on me. I can’t hang with the crowd that claims Weezer is back to the bad old days of Raditude, no matter how much Pat has pruned his drum parts. The recent songwriting is simply too tuneful, and those tunes are developed too nicely. Cuomo has, in his old age, become one of the best bridge-builders since Roebling.

Album That Should Have Been Shorter

More Life, though I do love it.  I could have used a little less rakalakabakalaka and Batman jokes from the goofy British emcees, though. Steven Wilson’s To The Bone could have been tightened up, too.

Album That Should Have Been Longer

Puxico.  Nine songs is just not enough from the most prolific pen in Music City.  Throw in some of that Kelly Pickler filler, why don’t you, Hemby?

Album That Turned Out To Be A Hell Of A Lot Better Than You Originally Thought It Was

After Laughter.  What can I say?, I missed Jeremy Davis. Those kids ought to call off the lawyers.  I promise, they’ll be much happier without them.

Album That Was The Most Fun To Listen To

Scratch & Sniff by the Jazz Spastiks.  Lotsa jokes about bananas, popcorn, oranges, toothpaste, marijuana, kids from old ’50s commercials spliced in with audio from Wall Street and a sexy health-food nut going on about her marshmallow elixir. Forget what I said about Partner; this was the real funniest stuff of the year.

Thing You Feel Cheapest About Liking

I was all set to answer PWR BTTM, but I didn’t get the opportunity.

Least Believable Perspective Over An Album

No, I don’t believe that Drake is going to kill me.

Most Alienating Perspective Over An Album

Sylvan Esso. God, I hate when would-be pop stars complain about the starmaker machinery. You’ll get no sympathy from me — not when scores of your more talented peers can’t even get slapped on a lousy Spotify playlist.  And while I’m at it, I can’t say I really care if Andrew McMahon is a family man. If he’s doing it all to bring home the bacon for his wife and child?, good for him, I’m sure he’ll make a fine Republican congressman someday. Seriously, pal, go on and party if you want to party. In pop-rock, the business which you have chosen, there’s a long tradition of this exact thing. You’ll fit right in.

Most Sympathetic Perspective Over An Album

Sarah Cracknell’s.

Artist You Respect, But Don’t Like

John Dwyer of OCS.

Album You Learned The Words To Most Quickly

Dark Matter

Album You Regret Giving The Time Of Day To

Lotta Sea Lice. Ruins Courtney Barnett for me, a little.

Young Upstart Who Should Be Sent Down To The Minors For More Seasoning

Alex Cameron

Hoary Old Bastard Who Should Spare Us All And Retire

Win Butler

Worst Song Of The Year

“Believer” by Imagine Dragons. It’s got everything I hate: an umalabumarumalabumala verse, an “inspiring” message, big, screechy falsetto vocals and martial drums that sound like they’re scoring a military demonstration in Pyongyang, and if that wasn’t bad enough, a video with Dolph Lundgren hitting people. Mercy.

Worst Singing

Chris Tomson of Dams Of The West. Youngish American actually has good, funny lyrics, but he sings in such an artless monotone that you’ll never make them out. He has no idea how to set up or deliver a joke, he doesn’t know when to shout or when to whisper, and he completely garbles the emotional climax of “Polo Grounds”, a song that’s so neatly written that it shouldn’t be possible for it to fail to connect. “Will I Be Known To Her?”, indeed; probably not, sad to say.

Worst Rapping

This really ought to go to Taylor Swift, but I’m afraid she’s spared the indignity by Vic Mensa, who is an excellent rapper when he gets going and gets good guidance. Unfortunately, somebody let him put an uplifting spoken-word disaster on the end of his album in a bid for, I dunno, Def Poetry Jam cred, and it’s probably the most excruciating four minutes of 2017. “Everybody wanna get free shit/but nobody wanna get free/Shit!” Ugggggggh.

Worst Lyrics

Ed Sheeran, “Supermarket Flowers”.  It manages, simultaneously, to be pulverizingly mawkish and make no sense at all.

Worst Lyrics By A Good Lyricist Who Should Have Known Better

Reputation, especially “Gorgeous”. “I can’t say anything to yo face/coz look at yo face”. Maybe go easy on the Stella Artois next time, Taylor.

Most Unsexy Person In Pop Music

Neil Portnow. How do you get that gig, anyway?

Most Overrated

Migos. Not to rehash what I wrote in the Abstract, but… aw, hell, let me go ahead and reprint it.  At least Lil Yachty has stupid hair and an unfashionably sunny outlook; these stylish ciphers won’t even give you that much. If you ever want to understand the political bankruptcy of music sites such as Pitchfork and etcetera, just cross-reference the rhetoric in their social-justice editorials with their assessments of the Migos. These folks who are oh-so super sensitive about gender nomenclature and the fragility of queer identity and the creation of safe space are awfully quick to rave about a group that never misses an opportunity to put on a sexual objectification clinic, and whose homophobia is very much on the record (and on their records.) And this exception, like many other exceptions of a similar complexion, is made because… well, why? Because the Migos are poor and underprivileged and therefore deserve Whitey’s sympathy? They’re from Gwinnett County in the Atlanta suburbs. Because Whitey lacks the positionality to lodge a moral objection against this particular expression of black culture? Lame, and chickenshit, too. Because Negroes are zany? Hey, I could give a fuck about the things Migos say, but then I’m a loudmouth and it’s hard to offend me. All I ever ask is that they come up with some original, or at least unusual, content. Because right now all they’ve got is catchy singles, and that’s just not enough. The Motley Crue of hip-hop.

Worst Song On A Good Album

Angaleena Presley’s “Country”. I get what she was trying to do there, and I understand her frustration. But she’s not anywhere near the vocalist she’d need to be to pull that off.

Song That Would Drive You Craziest On Infinite Repeat

“Pills”

Good Artist Most In Need Of Some Fresh Ideas

Alisdair MacLean could stand to vary his songwriting approach a bit. Twenty years on, we’re still on that same rain-washed London side street, and there’s still eeriness approaching. You’d figure the phantom would have gotten him by now.

Most Thoroughly Botched Production Job

I’ve come to see Jack Antonoff as a menace — not because he’s a “good guy” around girls, as a lengthy but irrelevant hit piece recently suggested, but because he’s got one musical idea and he insists on sticking all of his clients with it.  Or maybe they’re more than happy to take it on; regardless, he’s the guy in the producer’s chair, so he gets the blame. Anyway, go over to your guitar. Strum a major chord — a C will do. Now, sing a cliche, something like “are we out of the woods are we out of the woods”, or anything from that crummy Lorde album, or just make one up, since it doesn’t really matter what you’re saying. Repeat it a few times. Now, on the third measure, without changing the melody of the phrase you’re singing, switch over to the relative minor (Am) while keeping the bass note the same. You’ll still be singing “are we out of the woods are we out of the woods”, but it will somehow sound more dramatic. On the fourth bar, resolve the phrase. Congratulations, you have made a Jack Antonoff production. Pick up your Grammy from Neil Portnow on your way out.

Will Kanye Be Back? 

Yes, but I expect a quality drop.

Is Taylor Swift In Premature Decline?

She’s got one more great album to give us, but it probably won’t be for awhile.

How Much Longer Does Drake’s Hitting Streak Continue?

Two more albums, or until he decides to start making movies in earnest.

Next Artist To Come Back From The (Metaphorical) Dead

Green Gartside. I hope.

Place The Next Pop Music Boom Will Come From

Canadian wave — Montreal in particular. Canada-Caribbean collaborations, cutting the U.S. out.

Will Still Be Making Good Records In 2027

We’re all betting on Laura Marling.

Will Be A 1-Hit Wonder

Portugal. The Man, which is sad, but there you go.

Biggest Pop Music Trend Of 2018

Pop stars hopping on remixes of Latin hits. Let’s call it the Despacito Effect.

Best Album Of 2018

Chance IV

 

Okay, friends, I’ve got a Last Word, but I might not get around to it until Friday.  Good night.

 

Last Word

Enough.

In October 2002, then-Senator Hillary Clinton voted to authorize the use of military force in Iraq. The prior year, she’d been in favor of the USA Patriot act; in 2006, she voted to renew it. As Secretary of State, she was one of the loudest and most influential voices advocating intervention and regime change in Libya. There were always plenty of reasons to distrust Hillary Clinton’s judgment and worry about what kind of President she’d be. We did not have to drag Anthony Weiner into it, or John Podesta and his party-planning e-mails, or spirit cooking, or Comet Ping-Pong, or Seth Rich’s grieving family, or Laura Silsby and the missing children of Haiti, or Uranium One, or Baphomet, or the Illuminati, or anything else a bored agitator might dredge up on 4Chan.

Nevertheless, we persist. Hillary Clinton, citizen of Chappaqua, New York and current non-factor, holds no public office and is in the running for nothing in particular. But more than a year after her forcible divestiture of power at the hands of the American electorate, she continues to be a news item and a trending topic, a flashpoint for conspiracy theories and a boogeywoman in the President’s closet, nightmare fodder for fabulists, an online punching bag for people who, frankly, have too much time on their hands. Is she really running a child prostitution ring and sacrificing babies in the basement of a pizza parlor?  Who knows?; maybe she is. Seems to me like an odd pastime for a seventy year old functionary, but I don’t know her personally, and her middling, mixed-bag voting record and bone-dry public persona don’t exactly fire my curiosity. Honestly, why anybody would care at all about Hillary Clinton in 2018 is beyond me. But thousands upon thousands of Americans — and non-Americans, too — do care, and remain driven by the desire to see her prosecuted, or at least legally humiliated.  For all the reasons I discussed in Wednesday’s essay and more, we need to cut that out.  Now.

There are those who argue that any woman with the temerity to run for President would have been demonized. “Lock her up”, in this view, was always a simple expression of anxiety about female autonomy: restrain the woman, put fetters on her feet, limit her choices, don’t let her get her manicured hands on the levers of power. I get it, and I sympathize, but… I don’t really agree. Hillary Clinton was saddled with some of the highest negatives any nationally-recognized politician has ever had.  She’d been a site of suspicion and mass hysteria for the better part of three decades. Long before anybody had heard about her e-mail server, let alone James Alefantis or QAnon, thousands of Americans had already decided that Hillary Clinton was a human manifestation of near-supernatural evil. All the old trash was reheated during the election until it stunk to high heaven — and while it was cooking, foes old and new chucked extra piles of radioactive garbage into the fire. When she went down, she suffered a celebrity’s end, not a politician’s: she hit the dirt amidst sex scandals and wild rumors of duplicity, a whiff of brimstone, and a heightened emotional pitch straight from the red-letter, bold-type headlines of the National Enquirer. And sadly, it all fit — because Hilary Clinton is a celebrity. Just like her opponent, she was a celebrity candidate for the office of the Presidency.

That’s not to make any claim about her qualifications. There are all kinds of celebrities: hucksters, men and women with actual talent, reluctant bathers in the limelight and those who are born to it. Once she got to Capitol Hill, even her Republican opponents conceded that she was prepared, serious-minded, very intelligent, a quick study; in short, up to the job and then some.  State Departments are notoriously tough to judge, but I don’t think anybody ever claimed she ever went into an international meeting without exhaustive knowledge of the items on the agenda. But her persona was always a hundred times bigger than the offices she held, and how could it not have been?, she’d been the First Lady, a Democratic one to boot, conceptual heir to Jackie O. It was that celebrity that she was parlaying, not the iffy track record as a public servant or her prior success as a vote-getter, when she launched her candidacies. And I think it has always bothered people that she wouldn’t admit it — that she consistently framed herself as a ladder-climbing achiever, an heir apparent to the corner office by virtue of her hard work and superior fitness, rather than the recipient of quite a stroke of luck.

It’s possible that celebrity status is the only means by which a woman can hope to approach the highest offices in the land.  Our society is pretty far gone; we’ve given back much of the territory that feminism claimed in the ’70s and ’80s, and everything appears, at least to me, to be trending hard in the wrong direction. Hell, it’s entirely possible that a non-celebrity man can’t do it anymore, either, and we’re now going to be electing the equivalent of Larry the Cable Guy and The Situation to high office for the remainder of the life of the republic. But one thing I’m certain of: there will, always, be an election. In America, we have decided that preparation, and qualifications, and intelligence, and leadership skills are nice traits, but insufficient: first and foremost, we subject any would-be chief to a interminable popularity contest that doubles as a feat of endurance. I don’t think this has been serving us very well, but it’s what we’ve always done; we seem to enjoy the heck out of it, and we’re pretty dug in about it. And despite her lofty popular vote total, there’s now ample evidence to suggest that Hillary Clinton is spectacularly bad at this — so bad that it actually offends people that she keeps trying to do it. It reads like the same entitlement that led her to think that she could, unelected and without a mandate, ram a comprehensive healthcare bill through Congress as First Lady plus portfolio, or hold her delegates as long as she could in order to squeeze the State Department out of candidate Obama.

In July 2016, I watched Hillary Clinton accept the Democratic nomination for President of the United States.  As she gave her speech, I believe I identified with her more than I’ve ever identified with a politician in my lifetime.  Not since Little League had I watched a person quite so ill-suited for the role she desperately wanted.  She had none of the BMOC swagger or populist charm or Woman of Destiny gravitas we associate with Presidents; no, here was a career bureaucrat, a smart, capable behind-the-scenes policy wonk, reaching for a crown that simply would not fit on her head.  I saw a woman who’d been tripped up by a junior senator from Illinois after she’d been anointed her party’s standard-bearer, one who’d blown primaries to Bernie Sanders and proven herself unable to shut down his gadfly run, a woman with the short and dirty end of the stick in too many personality tests.  This, I realized, was key to understanding why she engenders such vitriol: Americans simply cannot deal with people out of position.  It’s our great imaginative failure, and it’s nationwide.  Never mind how hard you’re going to work at it or how long you’ve trained for it — we demand that people look the part and act the part before we’ll accept them in the part.  Me, I don’t fit either.  But I keep right on fighting for things I want, no matter how decisively I’ve been disqualified by my peers. Hillary Clinton was doing the same thing on a historic level: going against her nature and her identity to take a prize she was determined to have.  I had to admire that, and cheer for it, even if as suspected that she’d be punished by the American people for her audacity.

Mind you, I didn’t think that punishment would be quite so immediate.  I figured she’d win; I didn’t believe that we’d gotten completely unmoored.  But it did occur to me that in order for her to come out on top, she’d had to scrounge up the single most offensive person in the country to stand against.  Well, this will surely work, right Robbie Mook?, can’t possibly lose to that guy.  And I recall thinking, well, this is quite a risk you’re taking with the nation here, gambling it all on a throw of the dice, the courts, people’s health care and welfare, all of it.  So I’ll admit I was pretty miffed when she went right back to taking the outcome for granted: campaigning badly, and listlessly, and in the wrong places, secure in her believe that she’d already earned it, and all that was left to do was fill out her cabinet. Barack Obama said as much in his post-mortem, if you read between the lines, after the election, reminding Democrats that it hadn’t been his Shepard Fairey marketing that won it for him in 2008 as much as it was his determination to grind it out at every county fair in Iowa. That personal connection is crucial for any would-be progressive seeking office; he has to convince the voters, who don’t like change, that he’s not a monster bent on turning the Capitol upside down.  It’s a conservative country for a reason.  We’ve got a lot here worth conserving.

In November 2016, I voted for Hillary Clinton.  I’d never done that before.  I did it because my alternatives were either unelectable, unemployable, or unconscionable.  Perhaps I will have occasion to do it again.  But before that happens — and I truly believe this — every other Democrat in the country, including those presently in jail, will have to drop dead.  That is the only condition under which I can see her getting on a ballot after the debacle of 2016, so those of you conspiracy theorists fearfully predicting a Clinton resurgence can call off the dogs right now.  Hillary Clinton is out of your hair, for good, so you can stop behaving like she’s still a threat to whatever version of national security you believe in.  She dropped a winnable election to a man who acts, every day and right in public, like the rich kid in class who didn’t crack the books but is trying to bluster and bullshit his way through his oral exams.  She must have seen this as a repudiation of everything she represented, and yeah, that’s exactly what it was. After everything that happened — all the public humiliation and castigation — if you believe Hillary Clinton needs further punishment, you might have a serious sadism issue.  It’s a downright shame that the election loss will lead her obituary, but as the philosophers say, it is what it is.  Maybe every Icarus gets the sun she deserves.

Hillary Clinton was a woman of her moment: a strange one, one in which celebrity and popularity are the only currencies left.  She chased her dream, she got knocked down, she got up and chased it again. She pissed off a whole lot of people who deserved a little irritation, and angered a bunch more who didn’t. There were laughs, though not too many of them, there were cries, there were balloon drops, there were paper shredders. She made history; she made mistakes. Now that story is over.  Friends, it’s time to close the book, and put it on the shelf for good.

* * * * * * *

 

P.S.:  I supported Senator Sanders and did what I could for his campaign, and I’m sympathetic to his complaints about institutional Democratic politics. You probably are, too. But a few of my Sanders-supporting friends continue to insist that the Senator was robbed — and that the party prescripted the outcome of the primary elections. That’s not true.  Millions of individual voters decided those elections.  In my state, Clinton beat Sanders by 26 percentage points and more than 200,000 votes.  She won my county by 33%.  This was not a rigged result.  It was an evaluative decision made by my neighbors, and it was echoed by most communities that share our demographic profile.  Although I disagreed with it, I accept that judgment.  I also know that re-fighting battles that have already been settled will get us all nothing but black eyes.

The world will never know if Bernie would have beaten Trump in the general election.  I’d like to think he stood a chance, but I also suspect that darker forces were working in the American psyche than any of us were ever willing to acknowledge. I also recognize that as a career legislator from a small, polite, and culturally homogenous state, he’d never had to face down a real Republican opposition research squad. Sanders fans thought that Clinton and the DNC had been rough on him in the primaries?, well, that was only a tiny fraction of what would have been thrown at him in a general.

When we imply that Senator Sanders lost those primary elections because they were rigged against him, we insult millions of people who decided that Clinton was the better candidate. Those people didn’t come to that conclusion because they were mind-controlled, or because the Clinton campaign spent more money, or because the DNC perverted their values. They weighed the two candidates and opted for the one we didn’t. It was an autonomous choice made by non-stupid voters — actual Democrats — and we ought to respect that decision.

If Hillary Clinton was any good at rigging elections, she’d be in the White House right now.

 

* * * * * * *

 

Okay, that’s all.  Thank you for reading.  We’ll do this again, for real, next year.

tris@trismccall.net, now and forever.

Play the game tonight ’17

Last year at this time, I ran down a list of the ten boardgames I’d played most frequently in 2016.  It was not, to put it bluntly, the most well-read piece in the history of this site.  But a few of my pals with similar affections for cardboard bits and wooden pawns did write in with some enthusiasm, and a few strangers with their own lists of boardgaming favorites sent recommendations.  A few of those are now where the Christmas tree used to be.  It’s a small hobby, at least in America, but those of us who are involved in it tend to be passionate about it.  So because I like traditions, and year-end recaps, and making much ado about meeples, I’ve decided to do it again.

In 2017 we made a commitment to try games we’d never played before.  Half of the titles on this list are new arrivals, and two others are games that landed in our collection sometime in 2016.  We refashioned our living room in a manner that gives our boardgames pride of place along with the books; sit on the sofa, and our forty or so boxes are what you’re going to see.  As home entertainment centers go, it’s prettier than a flat panel screen, more interactive than your grandma’s curio cabinet, and it functions perfectly well in a brownout.  The particular games we play are called as Euros (boardgames are broken down into more subclassifications than heavy metal) which means they tend to be peaceful affairs without many random elements and virtually no chance of player elimination.  American games are heavy on theme and simulation and often come with tiny, meticulously sculpted replicas of tanks, or money, or star-cruisers.  Euros are more abstract and mathematical, and turn on mastery of intricately calibrated gaming mechanics.  You may be encouraged to think of a colored cube as cattle, or currency, or a civilization of thousands.

In ’16, Hilary and I were enchanted by a fast-paced card-swapping and chip-grabbing game — heavily recommended by the baseball columnist Keith Law — called Jaipur.  Part of the reason we played it so much: it fits in a box not all that much bigger than a portable speaker.  We could, and did, throw it in travel bags and play in airports and hotel lobbies.  None of this year’s games, alas, are small enough to travel with.  To play these, you’ll need a table, and time, and some dedicated players.  Desire to build a farm, or a cloister, or a city, and see in flourish in spite of obstacles — that helps, too.

#10. At The Gates Of Loyang  This is an early game made by a favorite designer named Uwe Rosenberg who, it has to be said, is obsessed with crop growth.  Sheep, too; Loyang is the rare Rosenberg game that’s sheepless.  Uwe Rosenberg has made many games, but he’s still probably best known for Agricola, a punishing medieval farm simulation that is tons of fun if you can handle the constant threat of famine.  At The Gates Of Loyang is sometimes considered the weak sister in Rosenberg’s so-called Harvest Trilogy, which also includes the shipping empire-builder Le Havre.  I understand why some gamers call this one unspectacular, but we don’t agree with their assessment: it may not share Agricola’s devilish complexity or multiplicity of outcomes, but it’s pretty quick, it’s beautiful, and it’s the rare Euro designed to accommodate two players.  In Loyang, you’re a Chinese vegetable farmer whose objective is satisfy the demands of a procession of customers with various produce desires.  On your turn, you’ll be scrambling for ways to obtain different vegetables and fields on which to plant them, and, if all goes right, sending the customers home happy.   Sometimes that’ll happen by the skin of a lima bean — you’ll manage to activate the right farm laborer to procure you the right vegetable to swap for another right vegetable to prevent your clients from expressing dissatisfaction and losing you money — and when it does, it’s extremely satisfying to pull off.  There’s a card playing and bluffing element in the game where you’ll be making certain resources available to your opponent, and a certain amount of gambling necessary: it will sometimes be advantageous to draw cards blind from a deck, but woe betide the farmer who draws a customer who demands a hard-to-acquire leek at the wrong time. But mostly the joy here comes from plopping the little wooden vegetables down on the fields as they bloom, and then harvesting them and delivering them to the customers.  Like all Uwe Rosenberg games, the immersive quality is augmented by twee cartoons with a touch of Herge (in this case, Lotus Bleu) and maybe a bit of Richard Scarry, too.  That might not fire your tank engine if you believe it’s beneath your dignity to be a humble turnip salesman. But my local grocers are my personal heroes, so this is right up my alley.  I only wish I could acquire clementines and pomegranates with the grace and skill of the crew at P&K Fruit Market on Newark Avenue.  Some people like to make believe they’re generals or quarterbacks. I like to pretend I can get it for you wholesale.

#9. Puerto Rico  A classic of the Euro genre — one we used to play all the time in the mid-’00s.  We’d put it in drydock a few years ago after it began to bug me that the third player to go had a small but noticeable advantage over the first two, and I was unable to devise a house rule that might rebalance the scales. It was Hurricane Maria, sad to say, that prompted me to pull it back out: I thought of the Morro and Viejo San Juan, and the long history of Caribbean storms, and the next thing I knew, I was lining up the plantation commodities and loading the, um, “colonists” on to the “colonist” ship (more on that in a moment.)  Our 2017 games of Puerto Rico were, again, disproportionately won by the third player, but that didn’t stop it from being fun.   Puerto Rico is notable for its unsurpassed implementation of the role-selection mechanic that isn’t uncommon in Euros — one player picks an office, say, the mayor, or the trader, and then all players must carry out the action associated with that role.  This makes Puerto Rico an exercise in mind reading.  Not only must you time it so you are in the best position to take advantage of the role available to you, you also must anticipate the roles the other players are likely to take, thereby making hay on their turn as well as your own.  In practice, it’s impossible to anticipate everything that’s going to happen — especially when the player count reaches five — so you’ll constantly be revising your tactics, improvising on the fly, and rueing the day you chose to sit next to a friend who keeps wrong-footing you with counterintuitive role selections.  The theme of the game is farming and shipping in the colonial era, and you’ll often have the option to acquire new plantations and buildings that improve your position and score, and manufacture commodities like corn and coffee for resale in the Old World.  These can be stockpiled until somebody calls Captain — at which point there’ll be a mad scramble for limited space on the Spanish galleys, and anything that doesn’t fit will need to be stored or it’ll rot in the tropical heat.  Now, in order for any of your buildings or plantations to function, they need to be staffed, and the person who cuts the sugar and processes the tobacco is represented by a little brown disc. Also, he comes from overseas in a crowded boat, and once you can’t get these “workers” anymore, the game is over.  If you know anything about American history, you also know what’s being depicted here, and it might make you more than a little uncomfortable. Euro designers: not always in tune with legitimate New World sensitivities.

#8. Scythe This was a Kickstarter-funded game, and like many Kickstarter projects, Scythe is distinguished by the detail and high quality of its components. Inside the mammoth box, along with dozens of cubes and meeples and beautifully illustrated cards in a style that borrows from steampunk, are statuettes of warriors riding battle beasts and inch-tall plastic mechs with fearsome toy weaponry.  So this is a wargame, you might reasonably think.  Only it isn’t, not really.  Battles do occur on this alternate-history map of Europe, but they’re ancillary to the real action, and they are, by far, the least effective part of Scythe.  Most of what you’ll be doing on your turn may be familiar to you from other Eurogames: methodical exploration to find new resources and conversion of those resources to buildings and upgrades that will let you process those resources more efficiently.  Eventually the empire you build and the secret goals you hold will cause you to bump up against your neighbors’ designs, and when it does, the conflict that ensues will be resolved through a wholly unsatisfying system driven by a scale on the board and a deck of cards with a limited range of values.  This means that outcomes are almost never a surprise, and while that may be true to the experience of Cold War commanders, it doesn’t make for an exciting component of a game that leads with its teeth.  The shame is that the rest of Scythe is really fun if you like slow-moving Euros (we do).  A lot of what works here mimics Terra Mystica, one of my absolute favorites.  Each playable nationality has unique powers, and each major upgrade unlocks new abilities specific to your faction.  Some of these are, again, the sort of thing that might get you in trouble with your local anti-defamation league, i.e., the Germans win points for aggressive play, the Crimeans, who are sort of Arabic, are shifty, sharp-eyed traders, Poles are friendly, Norwegians love to swim, etc. None of this stuff was necessary to make Scythe run, and since this is an alternative history, the designers can and do take all sorts of liberties with the background anyway.  It’s there, I think, because the Kickstarter audience values worldbuilding; in fact, it’s possible to go on to the Scythe website and learn more about the postapocalyptic (I think?) scenarios and the characters depicted by the statuettes.  Only nothing about the gameplay compels me to do this. What’s engrossing about Scythe, like all Euros, is the turn-by-turn puzzle-solving element that motors the mechanics, not the characters in the game.  I can admire the intricacy of the art on the token, but I’m really no more curious about the Russian woman with the pet tiger than I am about the backstory of the hat in Monopoly.  I’m overemphasizing the problems; Scythe is an engaging game and I expect to keep on playing it.  But when I do, it’ll be for the features common across Euros.  I don’t think that those features were novel enough to sell the game on Kickstarter, so it probably became necessary to add some window-dressing redolent of American deep-theme boardgames, wargames, and RPGs.  If you’re looking for any of that, you’re not going to be satisfied.  Don’t believe what the box and the pieces promise.

#7. Fields Of Arle This is another Uwe Rosenberg game, and you’d be forgiven if you thought that it had been stamped out of the Uwe Rosenberg factory.  Many of the elements familiar from the Agricola series of games are here: wheat to plant, sheep to herd, a blank green space to develop into a farm, buildings to add to a grid and workers to send out to the fields to bring home resources, a complicated array of resource conversions, etcetera.  Even the box looks nondescript.  Yet Fields Of Arle is more properly understood as a Rosenberg boss battle — the game to play if you think you’ve got Rosenberg’s prior farm simulations mastered and you’re looking for a field-plowing, swamp-draining, church-raising upgrade. Unlike most Euros — even Loyang has special rules for four players — Arle can only be run as a duel. It’s also the rare worker-placement game that doesn’t give you an opportunity to expand your family of pawns: you begin and end the game with four pieces under your control. At first, it feels like there are a bewildering array of places to assign your workers, and a lovely assortment of animals to gather, things to grow, resources to convert, polders to dry, and handsome wagons (you get a garage to store them in!) to assemble to take your products to town. That board fills up in a hurry, though, and your opponent often has designs on the same scarce resources that you do. In practice, Fields Of Arle plays like a tense wrestling match where the upper hand is awfully elusive and your hold, such as it is, constantly threatens to slip.  Chances are, no matter what farm-building strategy you opt for, you’ll be racing that wagon down to the finish line neck-and-neck with your competitor. This might be the best calibrated board game I’ve ever played: every mechanic, and there are many of them, feels perfectly balanced; no strategy feels overpowered, and every worker you place, or fail to place, sets off reverberations in perfect proportion to the move you’ve made. Fields Of Arle was published in 2014, and I don’t know where Uwe Rosenberg goes from here — this one seems like the ideal realization of all of the game development ideas he’s ever had, and his geographical and biological obsessions, too. Though apparently there’s a new one out where you’re a Norwegian shipbuilder in the fjords.  An Arctic Circle farming simulation cannot be far away.

#6.  Tsuro My little sister picked this one up for us in a mall while Christmas shopping.  Like most of what you’d get at a games kiosk, this is a simple game most suitable for big parties.  On your turn, you place a random tile on a grid-like board and advance your token to the end of the line depicted on it. Other players will be choosing tiles and advancing their own tokens, and the lines they place may interfere with your progress or force you off the board and out of the game.  With eight players this becomes an exercise in tile-laying chaos, but since it’s all over in ten minutes max, you probably won’t mind the hair-raising qualities of Tsuro — or the near absence of strategy.  Just get your token going and see where it takes you; the fun is the ride, and the twists and curves of the paths as they’re collectively assembled. It could be argued, I suppose, that a game like this could be presented more elegantly as an iPhone app — especially since line-drawing and line-following is at the heart of so many iOS games. But then you’d miss out on the pleasing heft of the curved plastic pieces, and the glossy tiles, and the rice-paper covering that goes along with the Far East theme.  I also like that Tsuro gives you the option of a grey or a brown pawn.  More unusual colors in boardgames, please; I can’t be red all the time. (Just most of the time.)

#5. Ora Et Labora The third of the three Uwe Rosenberg titles on this list.  I wrote about this one last year: it’s similar to Rosenberg’s other games, only it’s a bit longer and more relaxing (which isn’t to say it’s forgiving of mistakes) and instead of farming, you’re a medieval monk creating a diocese on your map.  Our version of Ora Et Labora shipped with a pair of scenarios: last year we mostly played the French variant, and this year, we built our principalities in Ireland.  There are different buildings in the two scenarios, but the main distinction is the way that the monks get drunk.  The French version allows you to grow grapes for winemaking; the Irish game gives you the option between milling grain for beer or distilling malt for whiskey.  I never quite got the hang of the resources necessary for a strong whiskey game, and it seems to me like a dead-end strategy.  Then again, there’s something realistic about that.

#4. Istanbul This splashy little race game incorporates my single favorite Eurogame element: it’s got a modular board.  The playing area is assembled from sixteen rectangular cards representing different buildings, and unless you’re running one of the specific layout scenarios in the game booklet — which you won’t do after a very short while — you’ll shuffle them each game and play on a permutation that’s unique to your experience.  You’ll hop around these spaces in order to gather resources that can be converted into rubies, and the first player with five rubies wins.  Restrictions on movement force the players to calculate clever trade routes, but it’s not always apparent what the most efficient route between buildings might be.  The action takes place in a fantasy version of Istanbul in which all resources are provided to you by swarthy male Turks and there isn’t a woman anywhere to interfere with your homosocial romance. Strange city!, but I’ve never been there. Istanbul plays quick and dirty, and once you’ve cracked the code to the board you’ve assembled randomly, play tends to accelerate toward an ending that you’ll probably see coming within the first ten minutes.  American games usually allow trailing players to gang up and thrash the front-runner, but the narrow mechanics of Euros tend to discourage that kind of play.  In Istanbul, it’s virtually impossible to stop the leader.  Since this entire game is a mad sprint with the finish line perpetually in view, this is a real problem — at least for me.  In general, Americans seem to like comebacks more than Europeans do; I don’t think we believe narrative tension is possible without the possibility of reversals of fortune.  We like social mobility and uncertain outcomes. The Yankees notwithstanding, we find dynasties monotonous.  Do you realize that only six different clubs have won the Premiere League championship?  It’s true.  No way would American sports fans put up with that.  We need to believe in the possibility of going from worst to first.  Otherwise the game feels rigged for the incumbents, and we lose interest.

#3. Dominant Species Scythe is a standard Euro dressed up like a wargame.  Dominant Species is just the opposite.  Everything about it looks like it belongs to the geometric, dispassionate, abstract world of Eurogames: playing pieces are little wooden blocks and colored cones, the board has the antiseptic feel of a classroom aid, there are tiny cardboard chits representing resources on a terrain map, etcetera.  Yet this is an actual, bonafide, ball-breaking wargame, albeit one that imports many of its game mechanics from Euros. There’s a worker placement phase, an area control element, a modular playing board, an exploration option, all stuff you’d expect to find in a cube-pusher, as they’re sometimes disparagingly called.  The object of the game, however, is to take control of territory and blast your opponents off the board, as mercilessly as possible — and since you take the role of an entire phylum of animals in the perilous days before an Ice Age, there’s a feeling of raised stakes that a cardboard recreation of the Battle of Agincourt simply cannot supply.   What’s both thrilling and horrifying about Dominant Species is the sheer number of obliteration mechanisms that the game provides.  For instance, you can just go ahead and eat your competitors, or, if that’s not flashy enough for you, you can force them to regress on the evolutionary scale, or you can deplete their habitat of the resources they need to supply, or you can take control of the glacier (yes, there’s a glacier in this game) and ram it through the heart of their biome, or you can select a (literally) world-shattering event from a deck of cataclysms. After awhile of this — and Dominant Species does take a good long while — it begins to make ordinary army-driven wargames feel like hopscotch. The asymmetrical powers of the factions seem tiny at first, but the game systems are so well balanced that even minor variations are consequential in practice, and they do add Voyage Of The Beagle spice to the game: the bugs swarm and birds fly fast and spiders get aggressive and mammals sit smugly atop the food chain.  More than anything else, it’s this immersive quality, rare in any game, that makes Dominant Species one of the very very best titles on our shelves.  When I’m playing, I really do feel like I’m battling for survival on an inhospitable earth; I feel the advance of the ice and the dwindling resources in my habitat, and if, say, I develop a giant predator lizard that eats all the mammals, I can hear the flap of the wings of the birds as they scatter for safety to faraway hexes.  The beautiful part is that the deep evolutionary theme is not drawn up cheesily with models or artwork (although the artwork here is, in general, good) — it’s generated by the same intricate, abstract game systems that power most of the best Euros.  There’s no other game I’ve ever played that I can say that about.  If you’ve got the time, and if you’ve ever enjoyed reading Darwin, this is highly recommended.

#2. Trajan Uwe Rosenberg might be Hilary’s favorite game-maker, but the designer of her single favorite game — Castles Of Burgundy — is Stefan Feld.  Feld, like Rosenberg, has a particular authorial stamp that’s difficult to miss; over the years, he’s refined his chosen mechanics to the point where it’s no overstatement to say that he’s mastered them.  If you’re playing a Stefan Feld game, you can count on chain reactions: doing one thing that allows you to do something else, which in turn opens up the possibility of performing another action, and so on. Trajan may or may not be Feld’s best game, but it definitely is the one where the chain reactions are the most consequential, and since the designer loves tipping over dominoes, this could be the best peek we have into his boardgaming soul.  Nothing about Trajan looks very impressive: the action on the main board is broken down into a handful of minigames that are not, by themselves, very interesting. There’s one that’s straightforward area-control on a small map of Europe, and another that’s about collecting sets of cards, and another that’s a simple race up a track.  In order to participate in those mini-games and score victory points, however, the player needs to move little colored pebbles around a series of pits on her player mat — and this is where Trajan gets subtly fantastic. Pit and pebble, or mancala, games have been around forever and nearly always provide brain-burning diversions. Shrewdly, Feld yokes this ancient engine to his series of minigames, and in so doing, he makes the whole board interlock like clockwork gears.  It is fiendishly difficult to work the mancala, and you will spend most of the ninety minutes it takes to play Trajan in deep concentration, staring at your mat, fussing with the colored pebbles in a desperate attempt to hit upon the right combinations of colors that correspond to the optimal set of effects on the big board.  It is a puzzle that never rests, and it will frustrate you. That said, when you drop the right pebble in the right pit and take the right action that allows you to make the move that triggers another action that opens up another scoring opportunity… well, let’s just say that electricity jolts through the circuit you’ve made, and lights up all your neurons at once. Although we didn’t start playing it until 2017, Trajan has been around for awhile, and it’s acquired a polarizing reputation.  Some gamers call it a masterpiece, and others consider it a good example of everything that makes Euros feel like math homework.  I understand some of the criticisms, and I can even sympathize with a few.  The theme here, which has something or other to do with the Roman Empire, is absolutely tacked on and adds next to nothing to the experience.  You, or more painfully, your friends, will occasionally be paralyzed before your mancala on your turn; there’s no way around this short of a chess clock. But I reject the notion that Trajan, and games like it, are multiplayer solitaire.  All the mechanisms here are taut and well integrated and mutually dependent, and every decision you make affects the fortunes of all other players, powerfully.  The surest way to lose Trajan is to keep your head down in your mancala and ignore what’s happening around you.  Regardless of how you play it, your brain will be lit for the time it takes to run a game.  That, alone, seems to me a good reason to give it a go.

#1.  Five Tribes  The game we played the most in 2017 uses an adapted version of the mancala, too.  But there are no pits in Five Tribes: just colored meeples on a modular board that you will pick up, one handful at a time, and drop one by one on adjacent tiles.  Sets of different colored meeples trigger different effects and score points, and once they’ve all been played and retired to their drawstring bag — there are about a hundred meeples on the board — Five Tribes is over.  Straightforward?, well, it is and it isn’t.  Five Tribes is published by Days Of Wonder, a games company that puts a great deal of effort into crafting pretty components.  The aesthetic over there skews young and glossy, but Five Tribes is meant to be a slightly more grown-up game than the usual Days Of Wonder title, so the art is over the top in a more adolescent-fantasy fashion than usual.  Most of the playing pieces are carved out of wood and are pleasant to handle, including a clutch of replica palm trees and camel tokens in various colors and “palace” archways painted gold.  Minaret pieces come in fuchsia and aqua and hot orange, and there’s a deck of large black-backed cards with images of different genies, each of which looks not unlike something you’d find on the cover of a Mercedes Lackey book.  All of this fires my juvenile imagination, and helps me forget that Five Tribes is basically just a big open math problem.  The point value of any given play on the board is easy for everybody to calculate — so there’s always an optimal move to make, and you may be gripped with the fear that you’re missing something obvious.  This makes Five Tribes the rare game that slows down the more players know what they’re doing: novices will race through it gleefully, picking up meeples oblivious to consequences, but more experienced players will probably agonize over their turn, calculating and re-calculating their scores, worried that Miss Crabtree is about to give them a D.  That hasn’t stopped us from playing it, a lot. But even after more than twenty games, I’m still not sure how good it is.  Guess I’ll just have to keep on putting it to the test.  Wanna play?

A prayer for 2018

George Washington called the American political idea a grand experiment, and for three hundred years, we’ve run with that self-concept. America tries things that other countries won’t — and it’s worth remembering that our willingness to take chances has served us pretty well. Last January, our latest and most dangerous experiment began. Though we’d been governed by some shady characters in the past, never before had we handed over supreme executive authority to a lowlife. We did this at a precarious moment in our history: through means popular and underhanded, an unprecedented amount of power has been drained from the other branches of government and concentrated in the Oval Office. The aggressively unscrupulous individual who was sworn in has more latitude for consequential action than any of his predecessors did — and given America’s might and weight, quite possibly more than anybody in the history of the planet.

Because you’re not a complete nihilist, this troubles you. Of all the millions of human beings on the globe, you would not have chosen to hand that supreme power to a reality television star whose narcissism bankrupted several casinos and landed him into hot water in a place as ethically compromised as Atlantic City. Others did. Sixty-three million Americans surveyed their choices and came to the conclusion that Donald Trump was the correct answer to the American riddle. Today, it’s not your responsibility to ratify, or rationalize, or even humor that decision — in fact, I think it’s pretty important that you don’t. You’re probably grasping for some silver linings: Trump’s secret connection with the Russians will get him impeached, Robert Mueller will ride to your rescue, a bombshell pee tape revelation is bound to destroy his presidency, his administration will collapse under the weight of his ignorance of world affairs, there’s going to be great punk rock, etcetera. You’re looking for comfort during days when comfort is scarce.

Buddy, I can’t help you there. I don’t think any of that stuff is going to happen. (Well, maybe the punk rock, but that would have been true regardless of the outcome of the 2016 election.) Alas, I believe we’re stuck with Donald Trump for the next three years at least. In order to get through the rest of this term, we’re going to need to understand how the monster was made, and, more importantly, how not to make another after the beast is done with its rampage.

There are complicated things in this world: rocket science, international diplomacy, the most recent Kendrick album. Election ’16 wasn’t one of them. The Trump ascendancy was the logical outcome of several American trends that have been right out in the open for years. I didn’t think Trump would be able to ride that wave of junk all the way to the White House — I figured that sanity and a sense of self-preservation would intervene. 2016, the Year of Hard Lessons, taught me that we’re farther gone than I realized. We’re not irretrievable, though, and if we have it within us to plot a course correction, now is the time. So as much as I hate to shovel more words atop the mountain of discourse that this most undeserving of presidencies has prompted writers to generate, I’d like to take this occasion to point out a few things that seem pretty obvious to me — though I guess they aren’t, because they aren’t getting discussed enough.

Think back, if you’re old enough, to the media environment of the 1970s. Your family probably got a newspaper or three; maybe a local one plus another with an international bureau like the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post. A copy came every day. Maybe you read it, maybe you didn’t, but it was there for you like running water. That newspaper was divided into discrete, easy-to-understand sections: if you didn’t want to bother with the stories about Iran and you were just interested in what Charlie Brown was up to, you could pull out the funnies and disregard the rest. Your television was limited to seven or eight channels, and most of the programming was devoted to entertainment. At designated times during the evening, the networks would break for a news show; after that, it was back to Fantasy Island. During major events like a debate or an election, the regularly-scheduled programming would be pre-empted — otherwise, the network chiefs figured, perhaps erroneously, that you’d rather get a sitcom than a bulletin. Above all, there was a bright line drawn between Happy Days and Walter Cronkite; you were meant to laugh at one and take the other one seriously, and never the twain were meant to meet.

But there were always individuals obsessed with the news — surely many more than the network chiefs in Los Angeles ever realized. Somewhere on your block, there was probably a guy awake at 2 in the morning, staring at the ceiling, angry about Jimmy Carter’s sweater. When he turned on his TV, he was confronted by a vast wasteland of static, white noise, and throwaway programming. The newspaper, which belonged to the day gone by, had grown stale. What on earth was happening now? This very instant? The advent of cable TV meant that this itch could, theoretically, be scratched: soon there were channels that promised viewers a 24-hour current events focus with no sitcoms in sight. At the time, my social studies teachers thought this was a wonderful thing. We finally had the option to engage with political affairs around the clock. We were sprung free of our captivity to cheap entertainment and were on the road to becoming an informed electorate.

The first and biggest challenge that the news-specific networks faced was a simple budgetary one. Real journalism — especially international story-gathering — is expensive. Not only does a responsible news network need to pay for the upkeep and security of reporters working on active stories in dangerous countries, it also must maintain operational bureaus in places where news isn’t being made, just in case that changes quickly, as it’s sure been known to do. Today’s quiet backwater is tomorrow’s hotspot, and the only way for a news organization to stay on top of a confusing planet as it changes is to shell out for a worldwide staff of on-the-scene correspondents and editors. Taping a segment from the field is costly, too — there are production expenses and transmission costs, and for every five minutes of video that gets aired, there are at least five hundred that never see airtime.

A network news show had a half hour to make compelling; the 24 hour networks needed to fill the entire day. If they presented nothing but real journalism, they’d go broke. They began to supplement and replace the news shows with panels of employees — experts, in theory, but really television personalities like any other — whose job it was to sit behind a desk and pop off about the news. Cable news networks certainly didn’t invent punditry, but they had every financial incentive to elevate and glorify the pundit at the expense of the field reporter. Certainly it was cheaper and easier to hire a discussion panel than it was to maintain a team of reporters and film crew in a difficult place, and never mind that this practice contradicted the journalistic orthodoxy that insisted, correctly, that a single eyewitness is infinitely more valuable than somebody’s loudmouth opinion.

Along the way, the networks discovered something significant. The news obsessor didn’t mind the transition from field reporting to behind-the-desk punditry. He actually liked it. He may well have known that it represented deterioration of journalistic standards, but it didn’t matter: what he was looking for, as it turned out, was not news itself but the constant discussion of news. He wanted to hear the strong opinions of people who he broadly agreed with, but who might be more articulate about issues than he was. There was a debate raging in his head, and he had a pathological need to be on the right side of that debate. Here we see that the casual, periodical news reader or news viewer was actually saner than the obsessor, which should have been obvious from the beginning, but gets glossed over by people who valorize inquisitiveness and staying plugged in at all costs. Nobody ever stopped to ask: do we really need 24-hour news coverage? Is there really enough variance in reporting or even opinion-having to justify constant engagement with current events? At what point are we simply throwing fuel on a bonfire that would otherwise burn out naturally?

As competition between round-the-clock news networks and other news sources intensified, these organizations started beating the bushes for strategies to keep viewers tuned in — and, just as crucially, methods of converting casual news readers into news obsessors. One timeworn tactic: blurring the lines between those discrete sections of the paper. But celebrity-worship only gets a news agency so far. After awhile, reports of Bruce Springsteen’s exploits get just as tiresome as those of the President, who, to millions of half-committed political observers, is essentially a celebrity. Exhaustive coverage of the Boss might please rock and roll maniacs who can’t get enough Springsteen, but it does nothing for those outside the cult. Eventually editors embraced the awful human truth that the generalist audience for a story about a triumphant Springsteen concert was far smaller than the audience would be for a story about Springsteen falling down and wetting his pants. And if Springsteen, or someone with a similarly large following, could ever be persuaded to fall down and wet his pants every day in a slightly different way, well, then there’d really be something cooking.

You might have a weakness for celebrity trainwreck stories yourself; if they’re a guilty pleasure for you, you’re hardly alone. For the educated employees of round-the-clock news operations struggling to justify their existences, celebrity trainwrecks are a godsend. Every day there’s a new peg: what crazy thing did Celebrity X just do or say? What fresh madness has motivated Michael Jackson to act as he does? Where did Britney Spears deposit her baby last night? All journalists handling this stuff know that it’s toxic sludge, but they’ll muck around it it anyway because they can’t resist drawing a crowd. Of course, celebrities can’t always be counted on to demean themselves in public. Hence the need to manufacture figures who actively court humiliation and are impervious to ridicule. Throughout the ’80s, the media began to cooperate with the ambitions of attention-hungry human cartoons — people whose personalities fit the broad strokes of some actual activity — whose entire purpose was to be pilloried.

Or so we thought. It was right around this time that Donald Trump first started banging his own poorly-tuned drum in the town square. From the very outset, it should have been apparent to anybody who was paying attention that he was a celebrity trainwreck version of a businessman, a talent-free media-generated hallucination, and that his publicized fluctuations in fortune were the financial equivalent of Oprah’s various weight gains and losses. The ’80s were years of financial insecurity and populist fist-shaking at the Masters of the Universe; Trump was never one of those, but his lavish overspending, gauche tastes, and blatant overcompensation via gross womanizing made him a Symbol, and symbols are crucial to storytelling. Nothing about Trump was particularly entertaining, so the press instead made believe he was newsworthy — and kept the trainwreck rumbling along on the front pages and lead stories. In order to justify his prominent position in what was starting to be called the news cycle (stop and think about that term for a minute), journalists had to pretend that he was some kind of brilliant tycoon. He was nothing of the sort; not then, not ever. He’d already started racking up astronomical debts and stiffing creditors, putting his name wherever he could, running his businesses into the ground and making an ass of himself in public.

Certainly there were more than enough wicked businesspeople to go around in the 1980s; why was this clown getting all the attention? Well, an actual brilliant businessman wouldn’t have been helpful to the networks at all. His life looks outwardly dull; by this sign ye shall know him, or shall not know him, as is usually the case. Nobody would watch a segment about that guy. This brings us to the real crux of the problem we face — the ugly, central, irreducible fact about our society that needs to be understood to make sense of the outcome of last year’s elections, but which reporters out searching for the true feelings of Joe Sixpack are swerving around: we’re bored. America is bored. Not idle, cloud-watching kind of ennui, either, but the sort of frustrated, annoyed, ants-in-your-pants boredom that makes people start fires in the garage. Alleviation of that feeling of boredom, one that has descended on the continent like an old moth-eaten blanket, has become our major preoccupation.

If there is one characteristic common to 21st century Americans, young and old, rich and poor, it’s just this: the American demands constant stimulation. Because he cannot endure silence, he needs to be provoked. His value system revolves around impact — things are worthwhile to the extent that they create waves on a line that otherwise stretches out toward a blank horizon. He is desperate for happenstance. Industries that exist to cater to his appetites misrecognized this at first. They thought that he demanded amusement by those more talented than he was. Once they figured out that a sharp stick or an irritant would do just as well, the game was up. Fashioning simple, low-wattage provocations — enough to give the nervous system a shudder — became the objective. This is, by and large, how people use the Internet anyway: habitual checking-in, refreshing feeds, scratching an itch at the base of the mind, desperate for novelty, or mild levity, or fresh outrage, a hand-slap on the engine, little jolts to idle craniums.

The news biz, to its credit, resisted this model of demand for a long time. During the early days of the Internet, serious journalists treated readers as prodigal sons who’d soon come back to mother newspaper, and his senses, once his reserve of wild oats were expended on websites and forums. In retrospect it was adorable that they did, since the writing on the wall was legible the moment the first social network launched. Yet it was not until this decade that the whole house came down in a heap. Spooked by fears of irrelevance, editors throughout the industry abandoned their pretenses in a panicked rush. They erased the line between Walter Cronkite and Happy Days, and began to cover every story as if it was entertainment journalism. The lure of a celebrity trainwreck presidential candidate — a true embarrassment in a position of immense power and influence, with all the concomitant disasters that that implies — was too attractive not to bite at, and by the time they realized what they’d done, the hook was already through the jawbone.

In order to understand how this happened, and why storytelling on the Internet has degenerated as far and fast as it has, it’s crucial to understand the mechanisms that editors, publishers, and producers believed would save them from the haymaker they expected the new media to deliver. The first and worst technique goes by the fancy name of search engine optimization, which makes it sound like a much more scientific practice than it is. In practice, SEO, as it’s called, means larding down headlines and opening paragraphs with popular proper nouns and trending topics that a visitor might plunk into the rectangle on the Google main page. If you ever wondered why every news article seems to lead with the President’s name — even when the topic doesn’t seem like it has all that much to do with the President — there’s your answer. The search engine algorithm has become the true editor in chief of the Internet, and he’s an uncompromising bastard. One with a brutal aesthetic, too.

That editor has become inseparable from his ugly assistant: SMO, or social-media optimization. Designing news stories to be shared on network platforms has taken a hammer to the kneecaps of journalism, and that is because social networks aren’t news services. They’re games, fundamentally, and the object of the game is for the user to gather more public approval and popularity than his peers. Posting on a social network is a kind of small-stakes performance: people are looking to share content that will earn them impressive heaps of likes and retweets. Editors know this, but they’ve been powerless to stop themselves from chasing trends, and they’ve outsourced their critical faculties to the crowd. What plays best on the social networks is outrage pieces — opinions, and other re-heated hot air — and behind-the-scenes exposes about celebrities, and celebrity trainwrecks, that require cozy access with powerful people to tell. Stories like these need a heavy, and Trump fit the bill like a dream. (His opponent did, and does, too.) This is why the occasional Republican alarmism about the President’s awful approval rating is misleading: it underestimates the practical value of having a President we can safely disapprove of.

So that’s where we’re at: an endless procession of stories about the biggest celebrity trainwreck around, adorned with unreadable headlines and ledes meant to jig up the post’s Google websearch position, authored (in theory) by celebrity journalists obsessed with follower count, and crafted to meet the needs of those playing the popularity game on social media. This is how candidate Trump was able to get billions of dollars worth of free airtime and publicity during the election, and it’s how he continues to consolidate his power and authority even as networks and newspapers assure you that his administration is in a shambles and a dramatic comeuppance is right around the corner. There are major broadcast news organizations that do nothing all day but run panels about Trump, and tell every story, no matter how remote it may seem from the White House, as if Trump is its protagonist. Snowfall in the capitol: how will this affect the President?

The United States is a wealthy superpower that maintains the world’s reserve currency, military control of the oceanic commons, and cultural hegemony. Other countries are, justifiably, afraid of us. Coca-Cola, Goldman Sachs, and Taylor Swift still make the world spin. We can absorb a great deal of tomfoolery and hold our position at the top of the pyramid. Nevertheless, we’re really pushing it, and if we’re as dissatisfied as we should be with misrule by clowns, we citizens of this alleged republic do have some recourse to take. Every electronic device we own can still be powered down. We need to start availing ourselves of that off switch. If journalism has become a constant chase after trending topics, we don’t need to abet that chase. When you see an article with the President’s name in the headline, you don’t have to click on it. Because when you do, no matter how negative the headline reads, you’re voting for that guy all over again. When you see a piece designed to provoke a sensation among your followers on a social network, you don’t have to share it or give it your approval. This includes broadsides from subcelebrities who have rebuilt personal brands on the backs of mass disdain for the President, and comedians who’ve made cheap Presidential satire the heart of their acts. Whether they know it or not, they’ve fallen into the black hole. Trump has become their lives. Their identities have been absorbed into his. It’s disgusting. Avert your eyes.

Most of all, you can reconstruct your relationship to the news industry. You do not have to be tuned in all day to be an informed and responsible citizen. I’d wager you’re as informed as you need to be, and you know all you ought to know to render an accurate judgement on this administration. On most days, a news hour is perfectly acceptable: once you’ve gotten what you need, which is not a lot, you can shut it off and turn to healthier pursuits. That may or may not include actual consequential activism. One of the most painful ironies of the past two years has been how news obsession has taken the place of local political engagement.

We access news differently than we did ten years ago, but the basics of worthwhile journalism haven’t changed: they still involve a reporter going somewhere, talking to people, and telling you what she’s discovered there. If it doesn’t look like that — if it is, for example, a bunch of guys in a studio sitting behind a panel and blabbing — it’s not journalism, and it won’t be salutary to watch. Those panel-sitters have gotten awfully good at laying snares: they will constantly tease a big event that never comes. They will imply that your political enemies are about to be led off in handcuffs; they’ll appeal to your schadenfreude, your appetite for disgrace. It won’t happen, and you shouldn’t want to see that anyway. You’re not a cop or a fascist bullyboy. A government that comes to power in the wake of a sting operation will never be legitimate — for better or worse, legitimacy in America is bestowed by popular consent and nothing but. If you don’t like these guys, you must beat them at the ballot box. Anything else is going to exacerbate the problem.

Friends, you cannot help but have noticed: this President is not worthy of your attention. He’s not worthy of your outrage; he’s barely worthy of your eye-rolls. He certainly does not deserve your analysis, or your deep thoughts, or your best jokes. It is my ardent wish that he take up as little of your time as possible in 2018. Alas, we’re not going to get through this year unmolested — policies that he’s put in place are going to have an awful effect on your life, if they haven’t already. When they do, remember that we wouldn’t be in this spot were it not for the total conversion of the news biz into an operation calibrated to saturate your life with the likes of the President. If we ever want a better class of leader than the kind you might find in Atlantic County bankruptcy court, we need to wise up and tune out. It only sounds impossible until you start; once you do, I promise you you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it earlier.

A very wise woman once told me that hegemony was never as total as we might think it is in our darkest hours. These are dark hours indeed, but those words hold truer today than they ever have. The gatekeepers have gone home, and the crude dynamics of the present media environment are frighteningly simple. Whatever you click on, you’re going to get more of. You’ll pump hot air into the balloon of whatever you share. Donald Trump became the President because we couldn’t stop rubbernecking. If we haven’t learned our lesson by this time next year, another electoral disaster will surely proceed from our addictions, and we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.

Catching my breath

I’ve been writing and mixing nonstop since February. No complaints — it’s been nothing but fun. But I have to take a moment here to reload: come up with a few new stories, finish a couple more songs and rebuild the buffer, get some new art, all of that. So: tiny July break while we stockpile some more stuff for you.

If you’ve been enjoying the Almanac so far, tip your cap to Chris Littler, whose art design brought the website to life. It’s Chris who took the idea of the map and made it real for me and who created the basic template of the city pages. I owe him a bunch. Chris has been up to another project that updates periodically, but this one has a much higher profile: he’s written the music to a podcast musical that’s currently available for download on iTunes. The project is called 36 Questions, and Chris composed the music with Ellen Winter, his partner in the Chamber Band. Although it’s somewhat experimental — this is the only podcast musical I can think of — the production company has been able to enlist some real-ass Broadway performers to take the lead roles, including Jonathan Groff, recently seen in Hamilton. To be totally honest, I like Chris Littler’s singing better than Jonathan Groff’s, but I’m not the biggest modern Broadway guy and you might think I’m nuts (Chris and Ellen probably do.) The musical, which is getting released in three installments, concerns a couple trying to save a relationship on the rocks, but it’s really about deception and that weird thing in human nature that, for reasons we don’t understand, recoils from intimacy. I encourage you to check it out. Chris and Ellen are extraordinary writers.

What else is going on? Well, as you probably know, Mike’s album is now out and available on Rhyme + Reason Records, and he’s been supporting Try Your Hardest on radio stations around the Jer-Z area. I believe Mike did a performance on WSOU this weekend, and Pete Creekmore came by the station to play sax; it’s probably archived on their site, but I haven’t looked yet. We’re currently working on a Jersey City show later in the summer, but not too much later — I’ll let you know when that gets booked. Meanwhile, George The Monkey is presently making a video for “My Absence Will Go Unnoticed,” one of the most depressing songs (and therefore one of my favorites) on The Well-Tempered Overlord. Apparently he shot the whole thing at a soon-to-be-abandoned K-Mart somewhere in the heart of Pennsylvanian suburban desolation. Jay Braun, too, is hard at work on a top-secret project that may or may not be salient to his Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

So, yeah, everybody is up to some loopy stuff in this, the summer of Tropicalia. (It’s the Summer of Tropicalia, btw, because of the amazing Lygia Pape show that’s about to close at the Breuer and the stupendously fun Helio Oiticica exhibition that just opened at the Whitney. I went Brazil nuts.) As for me, I’m almost at the point where I can start banging the works-in-progress on the Almanac into the general shape of a couple of albums. I’ve got about three songs to get right with Mike and about four to finish with Jay. I’m not completely sure which album is going to come together first, but I trust things will fall into place. It’s time for a quick step back to see where I’ve come from and how much road I’ve got left to travel. Then it’ll be right back on the road. Thanks for your attention so far; I’ll continue to try to justify it.

Gurleez

Gingko biloba and the conqueror root.

When I first met Michael Flannery, he was a local rock star, and that’s no hyperbole. In 2000, he was one half of an act that was, albeit briefly, about as popular an attraction as a band on the Jersey club circuit ever could be. I’ve seen the Feelies at Maxwell’s many times, Bob Mould to ring in the new year, Yo La Tengo, the Bongos, all the state heroes. The most crowded I ever saw that room was for Little T & One-Track Mike. There were kids on top of kids on top of kids on those risers for those shows. Many of them had just graduated from Rutgers. Little T & One-Track Mike — Tim Sullivan and Michael Flannery — had, too.

I was very lucky to be on some of those bills. I have no idea what those crowds thought of me or my combo, and a part of me doesn’t want to know. They were there for the headliner, and I was happy to be along for the ride; those were, to cop a phrase from Craig Finn, some massive nights. What was important, at least to me, was that Little T & One-Track Mike themselves appreciated what we were doing, and were always supportive. For those who were too young or who just don’t recall, the duo (who usually performed with a band) did something not unlike what Macklemore and Ryan Lewis have been up to for the past decade and a half. Tim was the very earnest, very witty, mostly-PG rapper, and Mike was the producer/multi-instrumentalist who pulled from all sorts of music and generally kept things sunny. The live show was an absolute blast, and anybody who claims otherwise wasn’t in the room.

Before anybody really knew what was happening, the label scouts were out, and Little T & One Track Mike were snapped up by Atlantic Records and sent to conquer America. There was a tour with OutKast, a guest verse from Slick Rick, a video on MTV; I wasn’t really conscious of any of that, as I was busy playing Planescape: Torment or miniature golfing or something. Somebody involved in that scene — it might have been Andy Gesner, now that I think of it — called me to say that Little T & One-Track Mike might ask me to join their crew on synthesizer. This terrified me. My dirty little secret then, which was not widely known around town, was that I didn’t want to be a rock star. I wanted to cling to Hudson County, and Maxwell’s, and the moment, like a drowning man with a life preserver.

Shortly after that — and I remember this like it was yesterday — I got a call from Mike. I decided to take the initiative and demur. I believe I made up some garbage about pressing things I had to attend to. He laughed and cut me off.

“Man,” he said, “we’re not calling because we want you to join our band. We’re calling because we want you to be our friend.”

This was straightforward. I respected it. I’m sure I felt pretty stupid, but that was nothing new. Anyway, Little T & One-Track Mike went the way most major label acts do, and everybody returned to the New Jersey metropolitan area, as I like to call it. Little T changed his name to Tim Fite, signed on with ANTI-, and cut a series of really good folk/rap records; my favorite is Over The Counter Culture, which came out in 2007 and still makes me laugh when I think about it ten years later. Mike continued producing music for other acts and made a bunch of acclaimed children’s records with his brother. But he never put out an album of his own. Until now.

There are twelve songs on Try Your Hardest, the Mr. Flannery & His Feelings album; I’m on most of them. On Thursday night, we’re going to attempt to play the album in its entirety, which’ll be a stretch for me, as I’m going to try to cover piano parts that I have no business attempting to play. But like a tabby cat, I enjoy stretching. I’m grateful to Mike for letting me scribble MS2000 parts all over his songs, I’m pleased he asked me and my combo to warm up the crowd at Pianos for him (I’m on at 8, and then the main event happens at 9; Maia from Kid In The Attic is doing a solo thing at 10.) Practices for this show have sounded really good, and Mike has been able to call on people he’s met during a life in showbiz to give him a hand, including — and I am dead serious here — the former singer of Chic, who’s going to be duetting with him on a song called “Full Grown And Ready.” No kidding. She sounds great!, and yeah, you didn’t need me to tell you that. If you ever want to feel really self-conscious about your playing, here’s a surefire way to do it: get a member of Chic in the room. That ought to confirm your suspicion that you’re no Omar Hakim.

But no, I’m never surprised by the people Mike pulls through the practice door, because making personal connections happen between artists is what he’s always been about. If he wants to be your friend, there’s nothing cagy about it — he’ll come out and say so. And while that’s served him well over the years and earned him a deep reservoir of good will, I’m not ashamed to say that it’s served me even better. Every single person I’ve met through Mike has been creative, sweet, humble, intelligent, and altogether worth knowing; I’m not sure where I fit into all of that, but heck, there’s got to be a black sheep in every bunch. Mike introduced me to the designer of the Almanac site (that’s Chris Littler, who sings for the Chamber Band), the woman who drew most of the cartoons on the city pages (that’s Ula Bloom, whose images continue to inspire me), the drummer who cut the basic tracks for many of these new songs, including the goofy kinda-hair-metal number we uploaded yesterday (that’s Eric Tait, whose studio, The Farm, is a wonderful place to hang out and make music); his wife Katherine, who has rapidly become one of my favorite people, and even his mom and dad, who are Jersey artists, too. (Mike’s mother painted the album cover; his father is a psych-rocker and guitar-builder.) I’ve got a tendency to withdraw and write and play games and spin Tropicalia records at home all day; it’s a pleasant way to spend time, but ultimately, it isn’t very good for me or the world around me. I thank Mike for dusting me off and airing me out.

Much of the recording for Try Your Hardest was done in a little room at Bass Hit Studios on 26th Street in Manhattan. That’s the same place where I wrote the songs that became the Almanac project, many of them on the same red guitar that Mike is going to play at Pianos tomorrow night. I’d rented time in that room from Mike after running into him at the Grove Street PATH Station; I’d told him then and there about an ill-defined musical project I wanted to do that was better left undone. But Mike was willing to take it seriously, and he helped me re-focus and discipline my thinking so that it could take the shape of songs again. That was a fortunate meeting for me: I’m pretty confident I wouldn’t have gone on a writing streak without the encouragement and the studio resources. In fact I’ve grown so accustomed to coming away from an encounter with Mike with an opportunity in my bag that I fear I might start taking it for granted. I doubt I’m the only one. Tomorrow night, everybody gets in on the action. It ought to be something to see.

 

American Flag

 

Wave it around in an infinity sign.

While an armistice was signed at Appomattox in April 1865, the Civil War never really ended. The shooting stopped, mostly, but fighting continued by other means, and on other battlefields: in the courts, in newspapers, in popular culture, in flag controversies and statue-erections and statue-removals, and and, most of all, within the institutions of electoral democracy. America continues, and will probably always continue, to pay the price for the monstrous acts of violence — slavery, genocide, labor exploitation, ecological devastation — that accompanied the march of the flag on this continent. For four years in the mid-nineteenth century, Americans stood in neat ranks on battlefields and attempted to blow each others’ heads off. Since then, the aggression has been expressed less evenly, but not, when you get right down to it, much less lethally.

Some journalists have lately suggested that civil war — shooting war, I mean — is about to break out again. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you why: public discourse, or what is left of it, has deteriorated to the point that it no longer has any practical political application. When words become useless, people who seek power turn to other tools. I don’t know for sure if those who crawl around in the nastiest corners of the Internet are just trolling us, or puffing themselves up, or if they really do mean business when they write they’re taking up arms and coming for those who don’t share their outlook. But that it’s even conceivable that they could be serious — and that they could be getting aid and comfort and reinforcement from people in positions of great power — tells us how far along the road toward actual violent confrontation we’ve come.

So on this ominous Independence Day, I’d like to remind everybody of an important lesson of American history that has, lately, been lost amidst the anxiety and noise. Sooner or later, the Confederates lose. Always. Oh, they make a heck of a rebel yell while they’re in mid-charge, and they fight vigorously, and they shed gallons of blood and scorch acres of earth. But the war always ends the same way: the Confederates downed after a hard struggle, bruised and grumbling, in retreat, swearing that they’ll rise and fight again. And then they do. And then they lose again.

We can kid ourselves, if we want to, about our moral and technological superiority. If that’s reassuring to you, Yankee, in 2017, go ahead and believe it; I’m not in the mood to strip anybody of her security blanket today. But the real reason the Confederates always lose is because defeat is the very foundation of Confederate ideology. Even as he marches, the Confederate, and his many modern analogues, understands that he has already lost: history has passed him by, he has been weighed against the standards of modernity and found wanting, he is prohibited from participation in the society to come. This is why he fights so ferociously. He is looking to inflict pain on you, who he imagines, is the beneficiary of the same processes that he feels have dispossessed him. If he can’t have it, he doesn’t want you to have it, either. The turning of the world is, for him, a grave accusation, and he is looking to avenge that insult.

This is a powerful motivation. But, I hope, you see that it’s also a dead end. No society will ever be refashioned or even realigned according to these principles. To put it crudely, too many people have far too much invested in the American experiment to let it crash to the earth. The Confederate threat will always, in the long run, be answered. Those who have to do the answering are often caught flatfooted by the force of the indignation; they aren’t mobilized, they look slow and out of touch. But don’t mistake lack of initiative for irrelevance, or senescence. Confederates and their heirs have been making that error for centuries. I can see them making it right now.

Leaders come and go; some are acceptable, some are awful. America has, in its long history, weathered plenty of misrule. We’re going to get through this crisis, too: not without a terrible cost, I’m sure, but when has it ever been easy? I think most of us realize we’ve got some sins to pay for, and that national atonement takes strange shapes. As novel as the present moment feels, just about everything that is troubling the country right now has deviled us before, in one form or another; go on and ask a historian and she’ll tell you so. She’ll also probably tell you that its going to get worse before it calms down — so be careful out there, and choose your side wisely.