Sunday, April 16, 2017

Runday Seeding 3 (4/16/17)

This week: steps forward on developing the socialist analysis of games; moving money around; big esports news and challenges; what happened in Berkeley, and more.

Red & Black; Games & Podcasts

Political Economy

Historical Materialism

Fighting Fascism

Runday Seeding is for a materialist snapshot of games in the context of leftist movement building and other culture.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

5 Thoughts on "The Xena Scrolls"

I don't know that I'll be doing every recap episode, but man, season 2's clip show picks up and develops the thoughts from before in a neat way. It's nowhere near as good as "Athens City Academy of the Performing Bards," but most things aren't.

  1. Up to this point in the series, it almost feels like the writers are more interested in characterizing by inversion. From Hudson Leick's two-episode stunt as Xena to Lucy Lawless' role as Xena, Dianna & Meg in "Warrior...Princess...Tramp" to Gabrielle's bloodlust in "Ten Little Warlords," there's a lot of it. Including "The Xena Scrolls," it's almost at the point where it feels as common as any of the characters acting like they're "supposed to" act, even though that obviously isn't strictly true. Even Joxer gets it here, to an extent.

  2. Where "Athens City" was a recap episode that largely focused on structure but allowed for some very clear, good moments of character development, "The Xena Scrolls" is very structurally focused on character while allowing for a couple moments of what we'll call worldbuilding. Nearly all the clips in "The Xena Scrolls" give a moment of character rather than re-tell a story, which makes sense given that it would be pretty weird if the centuries-later descendants of Xena, Gabrielle and Joxer did a lot of character work for any of the ancestors. The thing about this, though, is that up until now it's clear that Xena: Warrior Princess is set in a sort of mythological time; Xena herself invents CPR in Ancient Greece -- which would have been anachronistic even in "The Xena Scrolls" -- and hops happily through histories of Grecian, Roman, and Biblical origin as though they were separated by a few miles and weeks. "The Xena Scrolls" not only positions itself during World War II with explicit references to Nazis and Hitler, it ends with a sting saying "Fifty Years Later" with a fantastical version of the show being pitched to Rob Tapert (executive producer on Xena: Warrior Princess) by a thoroughly 90s 'descendant' of Joxer. It's the first episode, in other words, that puts Xena: Warrior Princess definitively in, if not our own timeline, then one that is self-contained.

  3. I'm glad they reused the trope of not just using clips from Xena: Warrior Princess, although the way they did it this time (Joxer tries to take credit for what look like some old Universal Horror pictures & gets called on it) is significantly reduced from "Athens City."

  4. The anti-Nazi stuff, which when I watched a few years back I probably kind of balked at, feels embarrassingly more relevant. I wonder how it felt a year and a half ahead of Saving Private Ryan; probably trendy?

    Even more than that, though, it feels strange coming just two episodes after "Ten Little Warlords," which is Ares, God of War's big coming-out-as-a-character episode. In that he loses his godhood and has to go through the tribulations of being human, until Xena ultimately helps him win his sword, and so powers, back. A (really very bad) Christmas episode later and we're here, where Ares gets out of his tomb and immediately talks about how dope he thinks Hitler is and how much he wants to help him. And, as previously mentioned, one of the big points of "Ten Little Warlords" is that Ares' absence causes folks who aren't used to harnessing anger to completely lose control, which goes completely unaddressed here. I wonder what that looks like in the Xena universe.

  5. For all the shitting on Hitler this episode does, there is a bit of a feel of equivocation on whether biology is destiny. There's an obvious alternative version where Lucy Lawless is a descendant of, say, Gabrielle, Renee O'Connor of Joxer and Ted Raimi of Xena. They didn't go that route, though, even as they largely change the characters of the descendants (Lawless' Mel is meek; O'Connor's Janice is swashbuckling; Raimi's 'Jacques' is ... pretty much Joxer). Around half of the way through the rest of this season is where I stop rewatching and start seeing a show for the first time, so part of me hopes that they went along with the idea here and dug through it: this episode takes place in the 1940s and 1990s; why not have The Xena Scrolls II in the 2040s? Make Lawless Joxer's great-great-great-etc. granddaughter.

    I'm sort of just doing fandom work here (decades late), but the point is that the show opens itself up to the possibility of not conforming in this way. Which isn't to say it's a radical show -- it closes itself off in a million others -- but the constant inversion of characters, the contextualizing work of non-Xena: Warrior Princess properties in the clip show, the myth-time of it, and much more makes Xena: Warrior Princess a peculiar thing that I hope gets explored as much as it could.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Runday Seeding 2 (4/9/17)

This week: how the economics of the direct comic market fuck representation; Conference presentations from Queerness & Games and Theorizing the Web; updates from the emulation and streaming worlds; and everything else from glitterbombing Nazis to the brilliance of hybrid human-computer intelligence in Chess.

Runday Seeding is for a materialist snapshot of games in the context of leftist movement building and other culture.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

5 Thoughts on "Athens City Academy of Performing Bards"

Calling "Athens City of Performing Bards" (Xena: Warrior Princess Season 1, Episode 13) one of the best clip shows of all time would be talking out of my ass -- the only other clip show episode I can think of is "The Prince Who Runs Through the Night" from Revolutionary Girl Utena -- but it's still an impulse I have. And I think it's worth saying, at least, that it's a wildly successful recap episode that manages to successfully develop characters and themes and to produce great moments. The rest of this post will be a quick rundown of some of the cool shit in this episode.

  1. The storytelling advice is kind of garbage, but makes sense for Gabrielle. The points are basically: Your story needs a moral, and it needs to be visual. These are things that I think are self-evidently the kind of craft garbage that can be useful for the inexperienced but is ultimately harmful; and I like that it's coming from Gabrielle here, who is the most autodidact of the bunch. She's a very empathetic character but she's also super gifted in a way that leads to cockiness (see "Hooves & Harlots") in the fiction, and this kind of misguided helpfulness genuinely feels like it develops the character.

  2. The show to this point is surprisingly interested in systemic problems; two of the dozen prior episodes feature scenarios in which war is on the horizon, and the culprit is quickly rooted out as the financially interested party (an arms dealer and a ('neutral') warlord. So when this episode stages its central conflict -- Gabrielle's not being properly registered -- as a story of organized power of students/workers against an administrative/owner class, it works pretty well. It's also tied into the Spartacus usage, which brings us to the next point.

  3. It's a recap episode that's actually pretty necessary, and done in a way that provides not just wrap-up but context. The others who are trying to get into the Academy tell stories that pull from old Hercules movies and the Kubrick film Spartacus, situating Xena in the context of a history of period pieces. It also pulls from the episodes of Hercules: The Legendary Journey in which Xena the character was created, providing backstory that the show itself has largely only gestured toward to this point. On top of that, it has Gabrielle tell these stories from the position of being someone insistent on a moral and visual focus, so it reinforces that the conflicts to this point are not just the development of Xena's character but an attempt at an education of a sort.

  4. The last time I watched this episode was around three years ago, and I think we had decided that we were going to make an EP about this first season (you can find that here). When we were making that, I was writing a short essay (as a sort of liner notes) putting Xena: Warrior Princess into the frame Malcolm Harris developed for his essay "Upping the Antihero" -- what he called a "consultant procedural." The argument wasn't that it fit perfectly, but that it was surprisingly apt for a show that significantly predated the shows he was discussing, especially given that he was arguing for a specific reading of it as a collusion of genre and material developments. The stories that Gabrielle tells in "Athens Academy of Performing Bards" reinforce just how much Xena's deeds (to this point in the series) rely on governmental stability -- whether that's a town council, a druidic cult, or a king -- that gives episodic stability to her adventures while simultaneously allowing her to act outside of the law. Each set of clips more or less boils down to: a thing happened; we consulted a pseudo-governmental body which reacted in X or Y fashion; Xena won the day through cunning and prowess. I still think there's something to that connection, anyway.

  5. Two little pieces of character development also make this a pretty great episode. The first, at the very beginning, is for Xena: when Gabrielle wants to go to the Academy, she first makes sure that Gabrielle at least thinks she's doing it for the right reasons, and then unconditionally supports her. The second is in Gabrielle's relationship with Orion/Homer: he's maybe the half-dozenth love interest she's had, and the first that signals that she's aware of this happening. Rather than go full bore on the romantic elements, she takes a role more typical of Xena to this point, except with her skills. She reads the situation and supports him through his troubles with his dad, and ends with him as something between a potential lover and a friend. It's a nice way to acknowledge that the show has relied on certain structural pillars and that it feels confident enough to shake them a bit, while at the same time giving Gabrielle precedent for not having to rely on them to make sense as a character.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Sunday Reading Archive; Starting Runday Seeding

I've been a(n inconstant) Sunday Reader since November of 2015. In the last couple months or so, I feel like I've kind of hit a groove with it, so I'm putting all the stuff I've put into it here and then I'll (hopefully) keep doing it in this space for a little while, at least.

The gist of it is that I'm centering around trying to take little snapshots of the political economy of videogames. So there will be articles about politics in games, about the economy in games, and completely other shit -- often including broad Marxist discussions or antifa actions that don't talk about games at all. Part of that's because I want to, part because I think it's useful to have these things configured even in minor ways, and part is because I see this more as a thing to return to in the future than one that will matter in the present, for me at least, and so I want to have touchstones. Anyway, enjoy.


Liberal Feminism Is Not a Winning Strategy in Gaming
Tom Clancy's Inherent Silliness: Why Ghost Recon Wildlands Couldn't Escape Its Fate
"Take ecstasy with me": a manifesto for Gay VR
How 'Resident Evil' Finally Lived Up to Its Title
A taste for Adventure
YouTube's restricted mode is hurting video game channels and LGBT content creators
Tencent cleared $10 billion game revenue in 2016
NHL sizing up eSports opportunity
“Consumers at home are only part of the picture for VR”
Playtonic removes controversial YouTuber JonTron from Yooka-Laylee GameStop blames sales dip on "weak" game category
Why Blizzard welcomes some mods and sues others bags $1 million for PC store that sells 1 game at a time
10,000 game projects have been funded through Kickstarter
Chasing the First Arcade Easter Egg
IMPALING MARIO, REVERSING SONIC: Inside Pedro Paiva’s Bootleg Games
David Kanaga’s Dog Opera, ‘Oikospiel’, Is Delirious Protest Art
Support staff are the secret industry that anchors League of Legends


The Roots Of Cowboy Music
Making political videogames may not work. But we have to try
Pokemon Go is a mass demon summoning that's destroying our reality
An Insider Look into the World of Competitive Bullet Hells
Theorizing local games cultures in a post-TIGSource era
Washington, D.C. becomes one of the first cities to sponsor an esports team
Kinda Funny's Colin Moriarty resigns following controversial tweet
What it’s like making games in Pakistan
Inside The Unregulated And Scam-Filled World Of Video Game Betting
How Episode became the world's biggest interactive fiction platform
Wii emulator can now buy games from the official Wii Shop Channel


Face It, Meatsack: Pro Gamer Will Be the Only Job Left
Telemundo Actors Vote To Join SAG-AFTRA
The melancholy of screen space in "Universal History of Light" by Stephen Lavelle
“We want games to be as important to us as film and TV” - BAFTA
The Good and Bad of a Decentralized Game Industry
UK [Games] Industry braces for Brexit impact, with 40% considering relocation
These Designers Want to Keep Protest Alive via Games
Framing Dystopia
"I worked on a VR project in 1993, for instance, where we were expecting that a grandmother, and her children, and their children, would be going to the venue together. The game was designed to appeal to all of them."


A Video Game Immerses You in an Opera Composed by Dogs
What We Talk About, When We Don’t Talk About Natives
This anarchist and ‘anti-fascist’ activist is using facts to go after the far-right fringe
Torment: Tides of Numenera Is Like Playing Through a Novel
Seaman designer Yoot Saito implores game devs to ‘swim against the stream’
Night in the Woods’ Scariest Monster is the War Between Boomers and Millennials
Black Skin Is Still A Radical Concept in Video Games
Response to Fascist Entryism Into Libertarian Circles
How things end
Falling Upwards: Gravity Rush as guide for the complex intersections of women’s lives


The Video Game Industry Is Afraid of Unions
How Technocratic Hyper-Rationalism Has Birthed Right-Wing Extremism
Road to the IGF: David Kanaga’s Oikospiel, Book I
Here’s Why There’s Anime Fan Art Of President Trump All Over Your Facebook
We Killed Milo: What The Media Misses and Ignores
The Little Town Down the Road: How Silent Hill Homecoming Hid a Gem in a Trainwreck
Striking on International Women’s Day Is Not a Privilege


Why won’t the games industry share its digital data?
Students of Many Forms
How Was the March 8 International Women’s Strike Woven Together?
Lawsuit alleges Magic Leap workplace is ‘misogynistic,’ ‘dysfunctional’
US games industry adds $11.7 billion to GDP – ESA
Prison Action News 10.1 Released
Antifa Worldwide: A Brief History of International Antifascism
The implications of Overwatch League
YouTube, Disney Distance Themselves From PewDiePie Following Anti-Semitic Videos
Everybody Hates the Berkeley College Republicans


MTV News is Organizing
Young M.A Still Isn’t Compromising
Global Nonviolence Action Database (Browse Methods)
Back in Black
Redneck Revolt Respond’s To Milo’s Berkeley Video
“Press Forwards” and the pleasing death of agency
We Are Chicago review
How the Heroes of Kingdom Hearts Find Strength In Transformation
‘Pokémon Sun and Moon’ is a Tourist’s Version of Hawaii
Milwaukee County requires parks permit for Pokémon
YouTuber behind FIFA gambling site avoids jail time
Facebook is closing hundreds of its Oculus VR pop-ups in Best Buys after some stores went days without a single demo
Political chaos threatens the whole games business
SAG-AFTRA Draws More Than 500 to Video Game Strike Rally
FBI reveals 173-page Gamergate file
New GameStop Program Leads Employees To Lie To Customers
eSports: The missed billion-dollar opportunity for publishers and platforms
green light
On Homesickened
I am become Bonk, the destroyer of worlds
VHS, Resident Evil, and the Found Footage Tradition
Korean Literature for Beginners –Part One, Part Two
Making the Best of Mass Arrests
Oakland crews, police clear out ‘Promise Land’ homeless camp
Beyond Lean-In: For a Feminism of the 99% and a Militant International Strike onMarch 8
Ecology and Japanese History: Reactionary Environmentalism’s Troubled Relationship with the Past
Terminal Showdown


< Video Game Voice Actor Strike Now Second-Longest In SAG History
Telemundo Performers to Vote on Joining SAG-AFTRA in Historic Unionization Ballot
Discussing the SAG-AFTRA Strikes with Geralt of Rivia
Insane Clown Posse is organising a ‘Juggalo March On Washington’
Why doesn’t MacArthur Park gentrify?
Game Developers Speak Up in the Face of Obamacare Repeal
More Stories of How Obamacare Has Affected Game Developers
Cutting Arts Funding Will Imperil Video Game Projects
Exploring real-life protests in Riot: Civil Unrest
A Deeper Conversation About Class and Inequality in ‘Gravity Rush 2’
‘You Sold Out’ to ‘You Deserve it’: How WWE Turned Indie Wrestling Corporate
Ladykiller in a Bind shows that we’re not ready to handle messy queer stories: When content warnings aren’t enough
Rez’s Trance Vibrator Changed the Conversation About Women’s Sexuality in Games
Queer Game Studies, “On FeministWhorePurna and the Ludo-material Politics of Gendered Damage
Power-ups in Open-World RPG Video Games”
Two speed market drove over $30 billion in games deals in 2016
content world
Don’t Die: Interview with Saru Jayaraman


Opinion: Now is the time to unionize the game industry
Voicing A ‘Final Fantasy XV’ Character Is A Strange Journey
Parsing Nolan North’s Vague Comments About The Voice Actor Strike
SAG-AFTRA Strike Negotiations and the December 1st Deadline
Nolan North has strong words for striking voice actors
An Oral History of Azeroth’s Most Influential Guild
The Highs and Lows of Moderating a Porn MMO
What ‘Watch Dogs 2’ Gets So Right, and So Wrong, About Race
Our Backyard: Disasters Waiting to Happen


SAG-AFTRA’s video game strike could spark unrest in other Hollywood labor unions
SAG-AFTRA Video Game Strike Could Last Months
Overwatch Actor Weighs In on Voice Actors’ Strike and Blizzard’s Role in It
The Industry, the Union, and the Strike
Games: We Are One Community. [A Letter to Game Developers from concerned SAG-AFTRA Performers]
Why Performance Matters: A Consumer’s Take on the SAG-AFTRA Video Game Strike
The Videogame Industry’s Invisible Workforce: Part 3 [Part 2, Part 1]
How ‘Dark Souls II’ Reflects Our Historical and Political Anxieties
‘Dear Esther’ Offers A Different, Romantic Sort of Apocalypse
Video Games Are Boring
The Rhetorical Effects of System Design, And Toilets
For better or worse
Inside Nintendo’s Plan To Save Video Games From Congress


The Desert and the Valley: Games as Refuge
It’s Not Easy Putting a Gay Sex Game on Steam
30 Minutes on: “They Live”
Saying Goodbye to Games is Getting Harder Than Ever
The Jungle Book
The Incredible Leaning Flip of West Oakland
MIDI Sans Frontières: An Open Invitation to Collaborate


Prince Had A Videogame, Here’s How You Can Run It
The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

Fixing the Bugs
FFS get Gamergate out of my mentions
Notes on Cho-Am: The Myth of Closure
Notes on Military-Industrial Complex: Finger on the Button
Metagames: Playing at Good and Evil
Istanbul, Texas


1979 Revolution and the Politics of Choice
1979 Revolution: an Interview with Navid Khonsari, Part 1
Part 2
You’re Crunching. So Now What?
Ghost in the Shell and anime’s troubled history with representation
Meet the Woman Who Invented Cosplay
4 Ways You Are Being ‘Aged Out’ By the Gaming Industry
Videogames and Legitimacy
In Defence of De-Persons
Gun Modelling for FPP Games
Meet the Smash Sisters


A Deep Dive into the FBI’s Bizarre Anti-Extremism Browser Game
Demystifying WWE’s Business
Liars Cheaters and Thieves: Why You Should Break Every Game You Get Your Hands On
A Personal Remembrance of Hayabusa
The Zombie Apocalypse, 10 Years On
Freed From the Shackles of Work?
Get Mad and Get Even
Talking, Selling, and Wrestling: A Conversation with Jim Ross
We’re Already Violating Virtual Reality’s First Code of Ethics
Marginalia: The Problem of Other Minds
Don’t Die with Liz Ryerson


Fire Emblem: Fates is a fantasy chess game where you can make the chess pieces kiss.”
The Weeknd in the Wasteland
Style Savvy and Taste in Games
The Forgotten Amerasians
The Half A Press Sensation
Why Are JRPGs Dead?
With Those We Love Alive (Review)
Taming the Inexplicable
Birth of the Flight Simulator: Genius and Scandal


An Interview with Alexander Chee
The Grace of Keanu Reeves
The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe – The Roots of the Crisis
Part 2
The Top 10 Saddest Statues in The Witness
Good Bad Guys: What Marvel’s Villain Problem Reveals About the MCU
Now That I Beat The Witness, I See What’s Wrong With It


Long Seventies Conspiracy Cinema: An Introduction
Dropsy is a game about a clown who, despite appearances, wants nothing more than to do good.”
That Dragon, Cancer and how the digital age talks about death
Serfing the Net
The Power of the Isolated Vocal Track
Nipplegate Revisited: Why America Owes Janet Jackson a Huge Apology
I’m concerned about your academic career if you talk about this publicly
At World’s End
Cinematic Realism: John Brindle on the Metal Gear Solid Series
It’s Okay to Feel a Little Guilty About Your Guilty Pleasures


Jeff On: Emulators, Speedruns, and That Video Where the Guy Only Presses A 0.5 Times
The Modest Fantasy of the PICO-8
The Beginner’s Guide and Videogame Criticism’s Awkward Baby Steps
Radical Feminist Self-Care, MLA Style (Towards a Manifesto)
The Algorithms of Value
Apparatuses of Capture: Producing a New Regime of Accumulation Through a New Community of Men
Democracy, Disposability, and the Flint Water Crisis
Is this the first Instagram masterpiece?
Soldier’s Heart: The Campaign to Understand My WWII Veteran Father—A Daughter’s Memoir (review)
Cyberqueen (review)


When Authors Demand Payment for Every Copy, They Advocate Communism
Gods of Egypt: A Three-Act Tragedy
Sunless Sea, 80 Days and the rise of modular storytelling
The Humbling and Inspiring Tale of the Game That Proved Hitler’s Name Is Still Worth at Least A Million Dollars
Gender, Sex, and Sexuality in SF: A Conversation
Toward a New Fantastic: Stop Calling it Science Fiction


Jim Cornette’s Islamophobic views should have no place in wrestling
Battle for Boyle Heights’ Last Japanese Retirement Home
Why Can’t We Talk About Class and Art in Canada?
Donald Trump, Unlikely WWE Babyface and Cultural Mega-Heel
Here are these two middle-aged lesbian artists hanging out on an island, and then here come the Nazis. And these two women, …they decide they’ll go after the Germans themselves.”
Brazil’s Students Occupy Their Schools to Save Them
Is There a Community Outside This Text?
The Silent Hill Wiki circumcision meltdown of 2015


It seems small — the Japanese tag on Bandcamp — but that’s territory that could benefit actual Japanese artists who don’t have many areas to share their work, basically blocking them out.”
Dragon Quarter: The Powerless Fantasy
Woke Up Dead
many of the best and most interesting games to be released over the past few years or decades, from
Theresa Duncan’s CD-ROMs to Jack King-Spooner’s “Beeswing” and many more, have been marked by a specific attempt to move from a static formal framework and representational hierarchy to more supple and elastic system of affinities
Bioshock to the System
Community and consent: property rights in online roleplay
Making Sense of the Static
No, Crisis


Aevee Reviews The Destiny Flavor Text (following up A Thing Or Two About Destiny)
A review of Over the Garden Wall, and the criticism it inspired
Homecoming, in games and life
Continuing HRT After Arriving in the UK, a guide
Spoiler Alerts: Three Books on Trash
Video Game Programmer Culture Must Change


Elliott Johnson: the young Tory destroyed by the party he loved
Altgame Profiles: Kitty Horrorshow
Intel at IndieCade: The Cost of Diversity in Games
Diversity of Existence
Forget all the comparisons to cinema–games are more like operas
Conversations with Pippin Barr: Time and Performance
Climate Change and Apocalypticism: A Hope Indistinguishable from Nihilism


Kill the Player: “Oppressive politics such as white supremacy and heterocissexism enter creation through the ghost of the player-construct while enculturation to a capitalist and imperialistic culture is etched into products that define the player-construct’s existence.”
Videogames Without Players
A review of Kitty Horrorshow’s Dust City
On Furniture Design in Videogames
The Death and Life of Simulated Cities
It’s challenging to accept that there are situations where you can’t do anything useful, but once you have accepted that fact, you’re off the hook … there’s another kind of player agency … the situation where you have limited but not zero power.”
Thoughts on Liz Ryerson’s Problem Attic, following on the previous
More on the PRACTICE conference
Education is for Everyone Unless You Are Special
For the better part of two years, two of the biggest video game publishers in the world have done their damnedest to make it as difficult as possible for Kotaku to cover their games.”


Claris Cyarron’s Discourse on The Spatiality and Themes of Fallout New Vegas
The New Intimacy Economy
Weak and Wounded: “Session 9”, Work, and Insurgent Femininity
there are so many different kinds of invasion lit in sf/f; even exploration literatures are just invasion literatures written backwards.”
on “The Ressurection of Jake the Snake” and reality in professional wrestling


Watching Pasolini’s Salò in Kuala Lampur
A Review of Peter Jackson’s King Kong[: The Official Game of the Movie]
The Meaning of Marx
César Vallejo on Art and the Social Sphere, Charlie Chaplin…
Three essays on JMW Turner (the Lana Turner journal's pretty good, y’know)
How NBCU and WWE are Working Together to Woo Advertisers
If you work for Elsevier you are basically doing harm to your community” (& guess who got Libgen shut down this week)
The Indie Comics Animation Gold Rush
How to address the lost history of girls’ games
Consentacle: Tangles with Romance
The social reproduction approach, on the other hand, posits a capitalist totality” (&, like, all of the new Viewpoint issue)
The Third Annual Queerness and Games Conference


Austin and Speech Acts: An Attempt
“It Follows”: Contemporary Horror and the Feminization of Labor
Working time among video game developers: Trends over 2004-14
Ethnic studies courses to be offered at all OUSD high schools
Three Fauvists
About Schmidt: How a White Nationalist Seduced Anarchists Around the World (Chapter 5)
Guitar Hero TV and the Rebirth of Music Television
‘being yellow’ by binghao wong
Why you should be checking out this year’s interactive fiction competition
Conversations with Lana Polansky: Bodies and Living Art

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Valentine's Day Compilation on Fuck the Polis! (round 2)

Here's the proposition: a compilation for Valentine's Day. Send me a song -- theme of Solidarity -- by February 14th to be included (day of is probably fine too). Email's uninterpretative at gmail, or sendspace or mega it or whatever to @Benladen on twitter or on my facebook.

The compilation is going on my terrible little netlabel Fuck the Polis!, and will be the second of these. You can find the first here. You can also see more about the original idea in the call for the first comp here.

Like last year, the theme of Solidarity is as loose as you want it to be. A song about worker's power would fit, but so would an expression of living in the world with others, in a way as oblique as a sample or an unmarked quotation. And I'm happy with a rejection of the theme entirely as well. Do feel free to hit me up personally if you'd like. All styles/genre and levels of professionalism (including none) welcome.

Hi thank you for reading this I appreciate you and I hope if this sounds fun/interesting you will consider it and yeah.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Friends of 2016

"Six Science Fiction Novels (And Then Some) To Read in the Age of Trump" by Adrian M. Ryan

Adrian recommends some science fiction in order to reflect on it, and on the possibilities the new president opens up. Hint: they aren't positive.

CMRN KNZLMN Presents Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea by Cameron Kunzelman

Cameron's little game of peace and frustration is pretty cute.

My Mother Grows Plants With Her Eyes by The Bedroom Witch

The hook of the thing is definitely The Bedroom Witch's cover of "Genie in a Bottle," but the title track and "Last Myth Standing" are the reasons you stay. The Bedroom Witch's music is 70s or 80s pop and horror flicks, and it's good. From the just-too-high BPM of "Wheel of Misfortune" that gives it a tense edge to the title track's Suspiria sample, it's an EP of really well-made structures with interesting objects inside.

"I'm Dreaming" by Last Nights of Paris

David's reconfiguration of Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" is exquisite.

Some Shit I Drew by Water Beetle

Beats by Water Beetle, co-production by meddlr. Two old (noise) friends collaborate on swimmy straight beats and make some neat shit.

Nihilismo by Sole & DJ Pain 1

I'm sure I've said this before somewhere or other, but Sole's work with DJ Pain 1 has been super cool to watch. They keep killing it with Nihilismo.

Allkore Film Festival by Allkore

The Allkore folks have been putting together themed compilations at the edge of (Japanese) nerdcore (not nerd rap!) and noise and other genres of electronic music for a few years now, and I've been pretty into all of them. This comp is themed around (favorite) films, and is killer for it.

Organ Grinder by Kuniklo

A short film featuring the queer land project's puppetry in a loose narrative. The costumes reminded me, for some reason, of Himitsu Sentai Gorenger, which I mean as the highest praise.

Scream Queens Magazine Issue #1 (+ Compilation) by Scream Queens Radio

Friends in Oakland have been running a radio show for years now, and while I rarely listen, it's an inspiring thing. They just put together the first issue of their magazine, and released an accompanying compilation.

Wrote about children's books and was sad on beaches by Aishwarya Subramanian


Valentine's Day Compilation by Fuck the Polis!

This might be a slightly awkward inclusion, since I put it together (as well as playing guitar on track 3 & producing track 12), but this isn't exactly a formal thing. The group includes people who have never recorded music before and people who do so extensively; people I have or currently live with and folks I've never met in person; old friends and relatively recent ones. With a theme of pop, we got together and made songs in the orbit of punk and folk and metal to glitch-noise and rap and, of course, pop. It's a thing I'm extraordinarily proud to have been part of.

Orphy Goes to Hell by Daniel Waldman

A short film by Daniel Waldman that I think is very neat.

The Repulsion is Mutual by Inverts

Inverts have such a good sense of the suspension of metal, and of the kind of writing that foregrounds political and personal commitments so heavily they shine through tracklists without needing to be spoken. The title track in particular kills.

Piss Cameron by IlllllllllllllI

A book about former PM David Cameron holding in his piss.

Live at KALX! by Sorry, Not Sorry

In April, Erica Botz passed in an accident. As a member of Tender Buttons, she made some incredible music; her most recent band was Sorry, Not Sorry, who released their first album Teenage Tea Cake last year. After her passing, the band released Live at KALX!, with a fifteen minute interview and a half hour live set. My personal favorite of their songs comes in at 6:28.

Split CD by Ceschi / Pat the Bunny

Ceschi's post-prison work has been so tight and meaningful. Pat the Bunny seems like he's alright.

Soundcloud tracks by PRIST

Cash Askew, who passed away in the fire at the Oakland venue Ghost Ship and was half of Them Are Us Too, didn't release a full album with her industrial/EBM solo(?) project PRIST, but a handful of tracks went up on her soundcloud. They're very good. Tight loops layer with thick drums threading them together, always with an ear toward structure. "Unseen" is a personal favorite.

"Fall" by SBSM

A new track from SBSM for the Open Space series at SF MOMA, in which Bay Area musicians respond to winter and night. In SBSM's own words, the track is "Against all presidents, fascists, cops, bros, white supremacists, colonizers, landlords, and those who defend them," and toward a spring of liberation. A slow, meditative, apocalyptic song that feels as appropriate as possible.

I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas

A murder mystery at a Lovecraft convention, narrated largely through the dead man's degrading neural pathways. A very beautiful representation of fandom and absolutely an example of my little-remembered concept of fantastical materialism. The most impressive thing about I Am Providence, I think, is the ability of Mamatas to correlate all its contents. Specifically the social and economic contents. I couldn't write a better riff, sorry, I tried.

Half Moon Bay by Joyride!

Maybe my favorite Joyride! record so far, and a lot of that's to do with how they let out the structure on songs. Everything still drives forward -- it's still (pop) punk -- but in a way that seems happy to take detours when they feel right. The writing feels like it has been pared down to what works, and the playing is perfectly capable of taking up what used to need to be said straight.

Situationist Taqiyya by Zareen Zahra zeero

Zareen's twice-monthly newsletter of poetry and fragments is great.

Photography by Pauline Veatch

Pauline started taking cool pictures with instant film.

"Boucher, Backbone and Blake -- the Legacy of Blake's 7" by Erin Horáková

Erin Horáková's huge, brilliant essay about some British science fiction I'd never heard of before is a solid argument that she's one of the best SF critics working, in my opinion.

Watch Me Screw by Aurist

I'm not very familiar with juke, so I don't know how much I'm seeing of Aurist's past in noise and poetry in Watch Me Screw and how much juke just lends itself to beautiful ambient soundscapes when extrapolated from the tight loops and percussive drive. But then, that's only even a question because Aurist gives us "Erere," "Erere (Remix)," and "Erere (Remix 2)," which develop an ambient sketch into a full blown juke track, in a way that makes it clear how it was there the whole time.

Waitin' Around EP by Alex Pieschel

A longer review is available in the second issue of QROCC. Alex Pieschel is a great critic and editor, and I like this EP quite a lot, too. Moody and atmospheric Americana with a light vocal touch.

Welcome to the Fantasy Zone by Christa Lee

Christa Lee's Welcome to the Fantasy Zone is an album made in tribute to SEGA games, from a person who I don't know personally at all but who is a wonderful twitter presence, a great musician, and an incredibly smart thinker around games, music, and film.

I'm not a person who grew up with SEGA's games, although I've come to quite a few of them later in life, so I can't speak to the ways it hits on that sense of nostalgia. And I'm also the sort of person who tends not to listen to game soundtracks as I play them, so I'm in many ways the worst to talk about that. The point being that even if those aren't things you have or do, this is a really beautiful album.

Little Bug by Buddy System Games

I spent a good amount of the summer of 2016 touring with Buddy System's twin-stick platformer; I didn't make it to Seattle for PAX, but I did get to go to Indiecade, Fantastic Arcade in Austin, EVO in Las Vegas, and elsewhere. The demo is pretty neat still, y'know?

In memory of Erica, Feral, and Cash.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Top 10 Country Albums of 2016

Author's note: all reviews reprinted from issues of the Quarterly Review of Contemporary Country, including the fourth as-yet-unreleased issue. I listened to so much goddamn country this year.

10. Kane Brown by Kane Brown

In the first volume of this mess of a zine, I wrote a review of Kane Brown's EP Chapter 1. The text in full, reads:
Kane Brown's surprising voice doesn't do much to change the fact that his songs are about being a shitty dude, to the exclusion of everything else. Couple that with unexceptional music and Chapter 1 isn't objectionable so much as a total bore.
Now, frankly, I remember nearly nothing about that EP. I know that I came from a real place with that, and I am also fully aware of my own shortcomings around this project. From the ones I state constantly (mostly my own (lack of) history with this genre) to the ones I allude to but don't really talk about (the hilarious toll this has taken on me) to the ones that I don't talk about at all (the racial component), those shortcomings are more or less the definition of QROCC as it is, and as it will forever be preserved. And so I can say, at least, that Kane Brown's Chapter 1 was boring to me, and that there might be a whole lot going on there that I didn't understand or couldn't quite grasp.

I say all of this because Kane Brown's debut record is a much more nuanced, complicated, and interesting thing than, at the very least, I gave credit to his second EP for being. The album opens with two songs that are some of the most anxiety-representative songs I've heard since I first listened to early kode9 dubstep, and they're songs about how Brown puts on for his town and how he might not be a shitty man. It's followed by "Learning," which for whatever reason reminds me a lot of Tupac's "Changes," and then goes off into some weird world. "Cold Spot" is a near-perfect mess of a country single except that it's pretty clearly not a single; "Ain't No Stopping Us Now" has a first half that seems impossibly generic, and a second half that seems impossibly specific.

The thing about Kane Brown's self-titled is that the singles don't quite work, and the songs that aren't quite singles are kind of fucking incredible. There's "Cold Spot," but then there's also "Rockstars," a song about early aughts pop rock hits that is wrapped vaguely in a love story and would be an awful single, but is impossibly fun to listen to as a just-not-quite single.

That Brown's self-titled navigates race -- from an explicit reference in "Learning" to the offhand mention of forty acres on "Better Place" -- in a way that is neither coy nor self deprecating is certainly a bonus. Which is tied into the specificity of the songs; "Cold Spot," in particular, is one of those "where I grew up" songs that takes place in a convenience store of sorts, that manages to thread together the "life lessons learned" genre with the "small town undercut by capitalism" genre. Which is partially why the song is a miss as a potential single, I think; there's a genuine specificity there, rather than a finely-crafted sense of it developed specifically to appeal to a cod-universal sentiment.

Kane Brown's self-titled isn't quite the exemplary pop country of a Granger Smith, full of swagger and ambivalence and hooks, but it's not in competition either. Kane Brown has all these things, but they're configured differently. And I think that he's managed to put something together that's worth celebrating.

9. A Sailor's Guide to Earth by Sturgill Simpson

You don't really need to know the particulars of the concept behind Sturgill Simpson's to appreciate it, and it is a bit hard to say whether knowing actually enhances the album. The concept is more important as a structuring mechanism, unless you're very inclined to get misty about a dad singing to his newborn son. I am, uh, not. That structure allows Simpson to explore country in a way sort of similar to Shooter Jennings'; by setting the focus of the ideas outside of the genre, both artists can take things to places that they wouldn't otherwise be allowed.

Some of that experimentation involves nearly quoting David Bowie to open his album, as Simpson takes the Major Tom approach to welcoming his son to the world. The histories that Simpson draws on are interesting; Bowie to open, some Elvis throughout, a Nirvana cover and plenty of alt-country. It gives the record something of a sense of timelessness—albeit very much rooted in whiteness—that works well with the subject matter. And Simpson kind of kills the cover of "In Bloom," which absolutely shouldn't work.

One of the ways that Sturgill mutates the lineage he is engaging with is to mutate a lot of the social aspects into something more personal or delicate. This is, generally, something I'd despise, except that he doesn't simply erase them. Simpson's focus as far as the social goes is refracted through the personal; he uses his time in the Navy to talk about the shittiness of war and of armies in a way that is seriously bolstered by his relative lack of other soap boxing. It is pretty nice to hear a record that's just like, goofy dad tells his son how the world works, and that includes how garbage war is, from experience, and in very non-sensational ways.

More than anything else, what Simpson constructs with is a really phenomenal album. It's the sort of thing that is mostly in execution, and so hard—for me at least—to talk about at length. Other than to say, I suppose, that it is fantastic.

8. Countach (for Giorgio) by Shooter Jennnings

The seventies were the decade of punk and disco, of Pinochet and Thatcher and the Historic Compromise, when AIDS and Reagan loomed. It's when Outlaw Country came into its own, the same way that cyberpunk would later in the decade; by positioning itself explicitly against the work of women in the genre the decades prior.

Which is all a way of saying that as left field as outlaw disco might sound on its face, Shooter Jennings' Countach (For Giorgio) actually makes plenty of sense. And it's reflected in the record itself; for all the juxtaposition it does, opening with a rendition of "Ladies Love Outlaws" that onslaughts into synths, the jarring quickly becomes a synthesis.

There's a third term as well, in this historical artefact-cum-fucked up album. "Chase," the sixth track, features Richard Garriott de Cayeux, the game developer behind Ultima, Ultima Online, and (most recently) Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues, inside of which Countach was debuted in a listening party. Garriott's work in game design began in the mid-70s, positioning him as one of the field's oldest practitioners. And a contemporary of all the aforementioned.

It would be easy to say that this overlapping history has had implications on the reactionary nature of games culture (it does). So, short of that, it is perhaps enough to acknowledge that, and move on.

As for the actual music on Countach (For Giorgio); it's fucking good. Marilyn Manson is kind of embarrassing, and the NeverEnding Story theme is a weird thing to hear. Even that is in a good way, though; Jennings' album is always interesting, and often incredible.

The particular movement it performs, between an emulation of Moroder's disco embedded in his compositions and the country that gives Jennings his celebrity, is most beautifully represented in its chaotic movements. When tracks go from lightly, twangily sung to digital vortices; it's not just aesthetically pleasing, but politically. It's Reagan's delivery devoured by its consequences, the pretty veneer of games answered by its ugly underbelly. And, importantly, the real pleasure always comes from the latter half.

7. The Weight of These Wings by Miranda Lambert

Miranda Lambert is, to some greater or lesser extent, the reason for this project. Her music is what sustained my interest in country music even when I wasn't in a place to actively follow it (which is to say: when I wasn't regularly driving a car for extended periods of time by myself), and what I would show to people who had some interest but not a whole lot. "Gunpowder and Lead" has always been The Song, for me, with "Kerosene" up there, but every time I discovered a new old single of hers I was taken up again. "The House That Built Me" is a sweet song with the strangest narrative structure (at no point does Lambert do anything other than describe why she should be let in) that I love, and there's not a thing that the Pistol Annies have done that I'm not into that I know of. Lambert is the kind of singer who can be as joyous in spite as she is in love, and she reserves that spite for abusive men, mostly.

A more concrete example: I've never cringed at a Miranda Lambert song where she mentions cigarettes. This is, as you may or may not imagine, a kind of unbelievable feat. The easiest way to explain it is to ask any nineteen year old boy in a black shirt and long hair to write you a short story, and pay attention to his use of cigarettes and smoke. There are a million ways to get it wrong, as many as there are ways to think about being a smoker without knowing what it's like to be one. Which isn't to say that it's a problem of youth or inexperience; your contemporary great American novelists are as likely to fall short as that random kid. Cigarettes are one of those things where their translation to a symbol seems to almost require shucking off so much of what makes them real things in the world, leaving them only as a dramatic gesture or an empty gesture at "cool."

Lambert, by comparison, opens The Weight of These Wings with "Runnin' Just in Case," which itself opens with a stuttering loop of a bassline and light drums for three quarters of a minute, followed by the lines:
There's trouble where I'm going but I'm gonna go there anyway.
I hate Sunday mornings cuz they always seem to start this way.
I'm looking for a lighter, I already bought the cigarettes.
Guess I picked me up a habit on my way out of Lafayette.
Turning up "East Bound and Down" on the radio, she drives "north on 59, but [she] know[s] good and well [she's] headed south / Cuz [her] and Birmingham don't have a history of working out." The story itself could hardly be simpler: Lambert sings as a person driving because she is out of place everywhere, Louisiana to Alabama, Lubbock, Texas to "all the rest;" she hasn't "unpacked [her] suitcase since the day that [she] turned 21 / it's been a long ten years since then, it's getting kind of cumbersome." The justification that the character makes to herself is equally so: "it ain't love that I'm chasing, but I'm running just in case." It's a song about movement and history, about the American South and a woman who has momentum and inertia and life. There is even a moral, locked into a coda: "I carry them around with me, I don't mind having scars / Happiness ain't prison, but there's freedom in a broken heart."

It's a story where cigarettes fit unbelievably well; the loss of place and the open road, the way that habit or addiction are culminations of history and its oblivion. And it's important that Lambert doesn't lean on them, doesn't even smoke one; they are as real in life as the desire to smoke as they are in the act itself. It's a small thing, and I'm usually averse to these sorts of arguments -- I can easily see myself rolling my eyes at this analysis had I not written it -- but it's one thing among many that makes Lambert so special to me personally.

The joy of The Weight of These Wings, Lambert's new double album, is as much that it is Lambert on form as anything else. But beyond "Runnin' Just in Case" is a full hour and a half of songs that range from incredible to really very good. "We Should Be Friends" is about finding solidarity in your messes, "Pink Sunglasses" a goofy song (that would be incredibly annoying in less capable hands) about the way that changing your literal vision changes your metaphorical outlook; "Vice" as good a single as she's ever produced, from its vinyl-crackle opening that drops into a beautifully full drums and guitars and stabby, smoky synth swell. "Smoking Jacket" is basically a Dolly Parton song that Lambert does perfectly good credit to, which itself is a high bar to reach.

If there's a thing to criticize about The Weight of These Wings, it's that it has significantly more strength on the first disc than the second; the second disc's opening track, "Tin Man," about how the Ozian tin man is lucky to not have a heart, is not nearly as strong as "Runnin' Just in Case." With songs like "Things That Break" and "For the Birds," both goofy little things with some weight, it's still incredibly solid, and incredibly welcome for someone who his inclined towards Lambert's music already, but it doesn't quite measure up, track by track, to the incredible first disc. Track by track is one thing, though; as a full album that runs from beginning to end, the second disc is as valuable as the first in adjusting and elaborating on the tone of the whole, in making it a world unto itself, alive and beautiful.

6. Another Black Hole by Malcolm Holcombe

If the best albums use their opening seconds to indicate what's in store, then Another Black Hole opens with deception. Based on "Sweet Georgia," you might be lead to believe that you're in for a pleasant little twang with a bit of a dark side. It's fitting, in its way; this is an album about dying, and spitting, and not minding how much you hate it.

The spit's literal, and it's remarkable. By "To Get By," Holcombe's already talking respiration: "Too young to buy cigarettes, so I stole them for a friend of mine. / He don't breathe too good these days, but he ain't given up trying." Once "Don't Play Around" hits, Another Black Hole's revealed its true colors; the wet rage with which he pronounces the sibilant fricative in the line "keep my mouth shut" is supplemented by his own belabored breaths throughout. It takes until "Leavin' Anna" for Holcombe to lay it out straight; "Florida sunshine baked my bones, all my life I've been cold. / Bronchitis, Winston cigarettes, I layed in bed alone." It's not some affectation, but it sure is an affect. Hearing a man barely able to breathe is upsetting. Especially when he's using that barely to sing for you.

What takes Another Black Hole to another level is just how that wet rage is used. On "Papermill Man" it's fairly straightforward: "Do you live to eat, do you eat to live for a dollar a day on the river / Damn Vanderbilts hold all the keys to the city." Holcombe's cynical, and all you need to do is listen to his voice to understand how that might be legitimate; but he's also down to take aim at the folks that deserve it over some rock 'n roll. "Leavin' Anna" is more subtle, and also has one of the single best lines I've ever heard in music. "A working man is a working man, makes a delicate flower grow" is such an expansive understanding of labor, and such a beautiful sentiment.

If there's a single criticism of Another Black Hole, it's that I really wanted Holcombe to stretch a little more in the direction of PSF Records-era Mikami Kan. But then even by being reminiscent of Kan, Holcombe's done enough; Another Black Hole is a treasure.

5. Remington by Granger Smith

If QROCC were in the business of giving out awards, Granger Smith's Remington would likely take the first quarter. That's knowing that Lucinda Williams' The Ghosts of Highway 20 is better put together, that Gene Watson's Real. Country. Music. is stronger track by track, that Carrie Rodriguez' Lola is more powerful as a combination of both of those things. But QROCC begins from a place of appreciation for pop country in all its weird bullshit, and Granger Smith sure does do a lot of weird bullshit.

Remington leads with the single, "Backroad Song," which works better here than in the video. It is, honestly, just a good country single, in the sort of way that actually hooks; that there's something off about it, some weird choices that don't quite stick. It's something like how the woo's feel like they were written for a different song and shoved in.

If we're continuing with the claim that Remington's a QROCC award winner, then it's these weirdnesses — these missteps, frankly — that make it. Some are unequivocal fuck ups, like "Echo," which is kind of just a shitty song, and "5 More Minutes," which is a fine little tune that gets overloaded with sentimentality in a way that doesn't work. Making up for that are how bizarre and discomfiting and still completely relatable and enjoyable songs like the title track and "Blue Collar Dollars" are.

This isn't the place to go into a big thing about expectations, but "Blue Collar Dollars" is So Weird. It's a country song about hating your job — which, yeah, of course? — that you had over a summer once. There's tropes to this. Summers are for beach songs or margaritas or first kisses, not blue collar labor. It's the bourgiest fucking country song, and it's on the same album where Smith takes on a dip-chewing alter ego named Earl Dibbles Jr. who claims that "Merica" are "back to back undefeated world war champs" who "sent a man to the moon, and before we're done / we'll probably send one to the sun." And he does all this without ever coming off as condescending to his audience, at least as I read it.

If country as a genre is a working-through of the terms of white working class solidarity, then Remington is either some false-consciousness PSYOP or it's a real exploration of just how internally complicated that can get without even beginning to fracture on its face. The title track itself is horrifying and incredible, in a way that approaches unparalleled. "Remington" starts out as a bizarrely self-aware love song, with a lyrical 'I' that is clearly gendered male that actively desires tenderness. And not only that, but that is expressing its own willingness to be malleable and accommodating to the desires of its partner. This is all, of course, in service of a metaphor; the man in the song is a fucking gun. Everything about "Remington" is such a textbook understanding of masculinity as controlled, explosive violence, but performed in a way that drives directly against that.

This is what the desire for interesting stories in country comes down to; these weird fractures, these moments of sublime confusion. I can't recommend Remington enough to anyone who takes country music seriously, and can appreciate its weirdness.

4. Beyond the Bloodhounds by Adia Victoria

I'm about as certain that Adia Victoria's Beyond the Bloodhounds is the album of the third quarter as I am that I can't find words to put to it. What an incredible album.

3. Pure & Simple by Dolly Parton

I suspect that there are any number of reasons to be a little trepidatious about a Dolly Parton album in 2016. For my part, my appreciation of her is not particularly long-lived, and extends little beyond popular hits and random other pieces of albums, and so I am not entirely sure what her work looks like at this point. Couple that with the cover of this album, and the fact that it's called Pure & Simple, and I really didn't know what to expect. I don't doubt that a Parton album of quiet devotional songs would still be good, but it's not exactly what I come to her for, most of the time. I come to her because she's fucking weird and delightful, and, well, let's just say that Simple & Pure is both of those things and so much more.

There are three songs on worth highlighting, one of which I kind of want to go deep into. So lets get to the other two, first: "I'm Sixteen" and "Kiss It - And Make It All Better."

The first thing about "I'm Sixteen" is that it is an immediately, overwhelmingly joyous song. From the opening doo doo doos on, "Sixteen" is the kind of song that you ought to be hard pressed not to grin through. And it's very much aware of how goofy it is, down to Parton singing "I'm sixteen, don't I look sixteen? You don't have to say, but I feel sixteen!" But what really makes it stand out is how fucking weird it is that there's some dude singing bass on it. Like, he'd just there? Singing backup in a super deep voice? And not really adding anything? It isn't even really about sonic texture or filling a gap or adding flourish, at least not in a way I can tell. There's no way the song wouldn't feel full without him. But he's there, for all the world presented as though it makes total sense for Parton to be singing a goofy song about feeling young through love while some dude just kinda repeats what she says. It's brilliant.

"Kiss It," on the other hand, is a song that's also goofy but, through word choice and through the way it is framed, hints at something much less so. That latter is something that's harder to articulate: Parton's first verse recalls being young and having parents kiss a bruise or scrape or whatever. Except it's not whatever, because she explicitly sings "Scraped scratched or broken / a kiss was a token / that mended and cured every part." The broken's what sticks out, obviously. To some extent it's just a way to rhyme with token, of course, but goddamn. She doesn't say outright that she wasn't taken to a hospital, but that's kind of the subtext? Which you could read a number of ways that I won't get into here, but feel free to imagine some. The point being, though, that Parton doesn't choose to talk about kissing her own children, or talk abstractly, or embody herself at that age, all of which are easily-considered alternate framings. Because the chorus goes like this:
Kiss it and make it all better
kiss me and heal all this hurt.
Kiss me all over and over, all over,
cuz that's where it hurts the worst.
Which is, like, terrifying? Like, jesus. The "kiss me all over and over" particularly. That's really sad and upsetting and true? I don't really know what to say other than goddamn.

And then there's "Can't Be That Wrong," which is, in my opinion, maybe the best song of this year. It's certainly in the running. And because of that, I'm going to do what I often try not to, and talk about it as a thing that exists outside of the vacuum of this album. Because I didn't know about it, really, before hearing it before, but I ended up falling into the rabbit hole of this particular song and being incredibly enamored of how it came to be, and how explicitly it contradicted the narrative I had in my head of this album before hearing it.

First things first: "Can't Be That Wrong" is about being in a bar, contemplating the godliness of cheating on a lover. It's actually a rewrite of her 1984 semi-hit "God Won't Get You," from the soundtrack to her film Rhinestone. The major lyrical difference comes in the chorus: for "That Can't Be Wrong," it goes (in part):
I guess I should be singing 'Rock of Ages,'
'Amazing Grace,' some of those good songs.
But my cheating heart can tell on me tomorrow.
Cuz anything that feels this right can't be that wrong.
as opposed to the chorus of "God Won't Get You:"
And I guess I should be singing 'Rock of Ages,'
'Amazing Grace,' and some of them good songs,
But my cheating heart will tell on me tomorrow.
If you think that God won't get you, well you're wrong.
Parton also puts a pretty fine point on it after the final chorus, with the line "To Hell with Heaven if it means I'll lose you." It's not quite the quiet, devotional Dolly that I figured might emerge out of that album cover, in other words.

Without getting too far into it, "Can't Be That Wrong" is great not only because "God Won't Get You" is a pretty fantastic song on its own, but because of the specific ways in which it was changed to become the new version. The specific change from the moralistic final line of the chorus to the new, permissive one is less about Parton having become less moral in her age and more about committing to the narrative, in my eyes at least. She no longer feels the need to distance herself from the character; instead she simply sings through her, and presents a much more honest, psychologically complex portrait. Which fits perfectly with the idea that this is a song about being confused and feeling betrayed by yourself and God and, at the same time, remaining determined to be true to how you feel. It's just, I can't really say enough positive things about this song.

But then we can zoom out too, and say that even songs that aren't on the level of the three just mentioned are, if not great overall, inclusive of really great moments on their own. "Head Over High Heels" is the kind of conceit for a song that's been done a million times, but Parton's particular exclamatory voice makes that not particularly matter. A lot of the same goes for "Never Not Love You," which combines a really pleasant little banjo line with Parton's patented whisper to impart intimacy and joy into it. There really isn't a single song on that I wouldn't relisten to just for a moment or two in it.

2. The Ghosts of Highway 20 by Lucinda Williams

The Ghosts of Highway 20 declares its intentions from the beginning, with guitars panned heavy left and right, trading on washy drive and harmonics before the brushed drums come in. The album's about space and spacing, and the delicacy of the hook — "you couldn't cry if you wanted to" — that precedes the elongated chorus, just "even your thoughts are dust" over and over again. And then, somehow, "Dust" bleeds into a solo that's as delicate and high as you could imagine.

If there's a three song run on Ghosts, it has to be "Death Came," "Doors of Heaven," and "Louisiana Story," the last of which is probably the album's greatest achievement. Like the album as a whole, "Louisiana Story" is on paper overlong, but in practice absolutely gorgeously paced, exactly as lackadaisical and meandering as it needs to be. With a chorus that could be onomatopoeized as "wuhhhh, wuhhh" and lyrics like "On a good day, mama'd make us sweet coffee milk. / On a bad day she'd cuss when something got spilt," it isn't that the nine minutes fly by, but that they all feel earned. Coming after the blues-rocky demand of "Doors of Heaven" to "open up the doors of heaven and let me in / I think I'm finally tired of living, let me in" and the almost twinkly guitars of "Death Came," "Louisiana Story" somehow exists as both culmination and respite, simultaneously.

Williams' cover of Springsteen's "Factory" is likely the 'a-ha' moment of the album, in uncovering how and what it means. Springsteen's original is intentionally abstracted, especially geographically; the whole point is to tell the story of working men, regardless of place of work. Williams, without changing a lyric, makes it sound like the most situated song ever written. There's a weight to this change; what once was a song that potentially signaled for class solidarity against geography is made to become something less universal. But then, being situated is hardly a disavowal of universality in favor of particularity, as though being in space was for the local and against the global. And much of what allows her cover to feel as it does has to do with her voice.

If there's a critique of country music singing, it's that it can tend toward the impenetrable in a way that isn't apparently aesthetic. The twang never gets to be an expression of anything other than the whole, which is Country, as if it was nothing other than a note struck on the banjo. It's always more than that too, of course, a performative marker of race and class and gender and histories, and of broadly-held beliefs and material relations to all of these things.

Coupled with ideas of how music is appreciated, how good or impressive singers are the ones who stretch words or syllables to the breaking point of unintelligibility — whether in terms of length, alteration, pitch, whatever — without breaking, and the deck's rigged from the jump. Twang doesn't count toward that point; it's always already past it, and already also tangential to it. You can modulate it with smoke or technique all you want, make it mellifluous or distinctively grating, age-worn or infantilized; short of sanding it down, nothing really changes.

The easy thing would be to say that Lucinda Williams just doesn't give a damn. The reality's more complicated, of course. The relative absence of banjos and mandolins and fiddles changes the textures of class and history on Ghosts. And that's how the factory moves from rallying cry to space; in the timbre of Williams' voice, in the quality of the stories she tells, the ghosts aren't the dead. They're the spaces full of living, and absence.

1. Lola by Carrie Rodriguez

Lola opens with one of three songs sung entirely in Spanish — one of four songs that are entirely monolingual — and closes with the same. Rodriguez referred to Lola in interviews as a "TexMex" album, which is true insofar as it is sung throughout in admixed Spanish and English, but that framing is key; listening to Lola, the first and final is the former, not the latter.

Which is part of why songs like "Z" and "The West Side" (the latter the aforementioned English exclusive) hit so hard; when Rodriguez sings in English, it is always fraught with Othering. And that's used with all the ambivalence that lived experience demands; in "Z," for instance, she ventroloquizes her grandmother in the chorus, saying,
Not everybody's gonna spell your name right honey
Might get it wrong on the grand marquee,
But you can just sing 'em a song, hija mia,
Tell country music where to put the 'Z'
"The West Side" is even more blunt: "You are welcome here, but remember dear / that you are different in every way." It's, at least in the first quarter of 2016, not easy to find an honest appraisal of race in country music; on the one hand are the Dickinson's with their anxiety of influence, on the other the Upchurch's with their, well [racism -ed note].

There is a reading of the chorus of "Z" that sees it as vindictive, but something about how it rocks the drums mixed with the way the guitar loves its single slow strum, sustained, that makes the whole thing sound unambiguously like a good time. Which in turn makes the argument a little more nuanced; "Z" is as much a song about how visibility on its own is at best worthless against microaggressions, at best only an exacerbator.

The worst thing I can think to say of Lola is that it might be a bit heavy on ballads for some. It's a milquetoast criticism, given how important the sense of space is to the album; that "TexMex" means country and ranchero rhythms mixed together as much as it does the two languages, and the result is that it has plenty of space to stretch its legs. The slower songs might not be as immediately gratifying as something like "Z," but they contribute to and capitalize on the whole aesthetic.

On the other hand, though: Lola is an incredible, incredible album, that I can't recommend highly enough.