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Super-Scribing Awards: Best Writing of the Year

By Jason Gross

  • Aquarius Records [scroll down page]: Review of Black Ark Oaken Saw's Welcome To The Washboard Jungle (April 2005)
    A nice April Fool's joke for slobbering fans of southern rock, metal, and dub, fulfilling many fantasies of exotica lovers out there. "Huge swaths of murky buzzsaw guitars, howled demonic David Lee Roth-like vocals, wrapped in loads of reverb and delay, but instead of blast beats, or precise triggered drums, the dark abyss is framed by spare super blissed out, dubbed out echoplexed dub rhythms, snares crack and then repeat endlessly into the blackened void, while shrieks are snipped mid phrase and then recycled into haunting otherworldy echoes of blackened dub." Not to mention another review touting a 4-CDR box set "packaged in a bundt cake pan filled with soil (complete with live worms), and containing (in keeping with the various bands' monickers) a pacemaker, a colander and a compass. Obviously super limited and a bitch to mail so be prepared to pay extra shipping."

  • Moustafa Bayoumi: "Disco Inferno" (The Nation, December 7, 2005)
    A revealing and disturbing story about how the U.S. army is using pop and rock music to torture prisoners--this includes "Eminem, Britney Spears, Limp Bizkit, Rage Against the Machine, Metallica, and Bruce Springsteen." Any jokes about how the same music tortures many Americans quickly dissipates when the writer plays a David Gray song that a former prisoner was forced to listen to constantly at high volumes-- he breaks down and weeps when he hears the song again now.

  • Michael Brick: "Cultural Divisions Stretch to Relief Concerts" (New York Times, September 17, 2005)
    Interesting that in a time of crisis, when artists have responded more nobly than the federal goverment to a disaster, there's still a divide among artists and genres about how to respond charitably.

  • Greg Burk: "Out of the Mystic--Finding a Way to John Zorn" (L.A. Weekly, February 4 - 10, 2005)
    Maybe the best explanation that you'll ever see of John Zorn's unique talent, quirks, and working methods. An article that really reflected this, however, would read like a dada manifesto, but Burke does the downtown capo proud anyway.

  • Joe Carducci: "Naomi, SST and All That..." (Unknown website, November 2005)
    A touching and extensive tribute to the late photographer for the Sun Records of '80s indie rock. It also serves as a neat history of SST itself. "In L.A., then, you had your choice: physical assault, or mind-fuck. Maybe the worst that can be said of SST at the south bay center of Los Angeles cosmology was that it was the best of both worlds."

  • Sam Chennault: "Quannum Mechanics" (SF Weekly, March 16, 2005)
    A fine tale about a resilient, grass roots, underground hip-hop label that's survived and thrived.

  • Michael Chorost: "My Bionic Quest for Boléro" (Wired, November 2005)
    It's hard not to be moved by the touching story of how the author fought doggedly against his own hearing loss just so he could hear his favorite symphony. Too bad he has no love for Kraftwerk, though.

  • Roger O. Crockett: "i-Pod Killers?" (Business Week, April 15, 2005)
    The device that might do in the i-Pod isn't another MP3 player but your cell phone--that is, if the telecom companies can make a phone that can hold and play enough tunes and transfer them to your computer effortlessly, all tied into a music download system as easy as i-Tunes. In other words, don't hold your breath. Also noteworthy: Jon Healey's "Will Your Music Hub Be A Phone?" (L.A. Times, April 18, 2005--not currently available online.)

  • Monica Davey: "Fighting Words" (New York Times, February 20, 2005)
    In an uncertain atmosphere where they can't always figure out why they're there or what they're supposed to do, American soldiers in Iraq turn to rap music for solace. Not just their favorite recordings but their own creations, including these rhymes: "I can't believe Iraqis are after me/It's got to be a tragedy/The way these people bust and blast at me/Dear God, is this the way it has to be?"

  • Justin Davidson: "Place matters: Where We Hear Music Influences How We Hear It" (Newsday, January 2, 2005) [Link not available]
    How i-Pods are helping us create our own little musical universes and how the old school European classical masters tried to do the same in the concert halls of their time.

  • Sarah Dempster: "...But Seriously" (The Guardian, May 7, 2005)
    At first glance, the author seems like an old fogey who doesn't understand those darn kids' music, but for anyone who's past 30, there is something to ponder here. Why hide in shame from the music you really prefer over the current flavor-of-the-month? Or, as Dempster puts it, "Embrace your unfashionable instincts. Nurture your inner nerd...You're only old once."

  • Nelson George: "Rhymin' and Stealin'" (The Guardian, January 23, 2005)
    Even more poignant than Greg Tate's Village Voice feature, which covers the same ground, one of rap's first print boosters surveys the terrain 25 years later. Amazing how an underground black culture came to dominate not just the whole African-American nexus but pop culture in general. And yet, George wonders what it's come to, where it's going, and what's next. More pressingly, he worries that, since it's become so dominant, there aren't many avenues left for cultural expression in the black community outside of rap today.

  • Dan Goodin: "Boycott Sony" (Wired, November 14, 2005)
    Not long after this article came out, Sony buckled and recalled their copy-protected, virus-friendly CDs but just as the controversy erupted online, the boldness of this article is summed up in its title. "It's time to draw a line in the silicon. Until Sony acknowledges the mistakes it has made, recalls the CDs and publishes guidelines for copy-protection programs it intends to use in the future, we should boycott its CDs containing the software. It pains me to say this, because artists with no control over Sony's software are caught in the crossfire." Glove-in-the-face writing you don't see often enough nowadays.

  • Ishkur: "The Trance Cracker" (Ishkur, November 19, 2005)
    An instructive and pro-active cartoon about the dangers of DJ worship and how that trend has crushed the life out of real parties, all with cutesy '50s comic figures swearing their heads off.

  • Philip Kennicott: "A Visionary Attempt To Catch Sight Of Sound" (Washington Post, June 23, 2005)
    "Unless you use the specialist's language of musicology and talk in terms that only musicians would understand, to put music into words you must borrow ideas from other art forms and the senses to which they appeal. Making sense of music requires that we speak as if we have seen it, or smelled it, or felt it with our hands. So flutes make bright tones, trombones dark ones. Composers, we say, work like architects, structuring sound, building arches of melody. At one moment, musicians may play dense or textured sounds, at another, thin and airy ones. Even the most basic musical terms--high notes, low notes--are described with spatial metaphors." Also see Blake Gopnik: "Music to Your Eyes" (Washington Post, June 23, 2005), which is skeptical about melding music and visual arts.

  • Richard Koman: "Remixing Culture: An Interview with Lawrence Lessig" (O’Reily, February 24, 2005)
    As a rejoinder to anyone who thinks that this visionary law professor (who supports technical innovation) is a piracy booster, there's this: "Now I don't personally support the idea of people using peer-to-peer technologies to commit acts that are considered illegal. So I'm not interested in peer-to-peer surviving for the purpose of enabling copyright infringement. But I am really eager that the technology be allowed to exist so that the many legal uses that it will encourage--including uses that will support the remix culture--will be able to take off." And then there's this pertinent analogy: "And the general principle that has guided American technology to date is that the maker of a technology that is capable of lots of legal uses is not responsible for the illegal uses--for example, guns."

  • Damian Kulash Jr.: "Buy, Play, Trade, Repeat" (New York Times, December 6, 2005)
    Even if you don't care for OK Go as a band, this op-ed is Kulash's greatest piece of work. A slap in the face to Sony's idiotic copy protection scheme and it's explained in non-techie English as to why it was such a stupid idea and will never really work. Not that such straightforward logic is going to stop a major label from shooting itself in the foot...

  • Bob Lefsetz: "Long, Long, Long" (MusicThoughts/Lefsetz mailing list List, May 23, 2005) [Registration required to access link.]
    As Nick Bischoff notes, Abbey Road did have plenty of darkness but despite Lefsetz's usual modern pop bashing, this is a very touching tribute to the Fabs, proving once again that not everything's been said about them.

  • Steven Levy: "Life Isn't Just as You Want It? Remix It!" (Newsweek, March 28, 2005)
    Our music, our TV, our media are all subject to our whims now. This idea was heard again and again throughout the year, but Levy’s piece was one of the first to voice this notion and do it well.

  • Neil McCormick: "First Person Singular: Hunter S Thompson" (Telegraph, February 26, 2005)
    Dispelling the myth of how destructive urges in music (and literature) aren't always good for the creator, much less their art.

  • Elizabeth Mendez-Berry: "Love Hurts" (Vibe, March 2005) [Link not available]
    A long overdue exposé of the despicable and reprehensible pattern of domestic abuse in rap music. Sad to say, the author admits, "I am receiving so much static and intimidation for writing it."

  • Paul Moreley: "Rock and Reel" (The Observer, August 21, 2005)
    Some keen observations about rock films including not just having the right hairstyle but also which subjects are deemed worthy of being captured on celluloid. Using a famous actor or an unknown, each has its advantages and disadvantages; there are also certain biographic models already laid out. Just find an out-going and larger-than-life subject and get the checkbook out!

  • The Onion: "RIAA Bans Telling Friends About Songs" (The Onion, November 30, 2005)
    "The Recording Industry Association of America announced Tuesday that it will be taking legal action against anyone discovered telling friends, acquaintances, or associates about new songs, artists, or albums. 'We are merely exercising our right to defend our intellectual properties from unauthorized peer-to-peer notification of the existence of copyrighted material,' a press release signed by RIAA anti-piracy director Brad Buckles read. 'We will aggressively prosecute those individuals who attempt to pirate our property by generating "buzz" about any proprietary music, movies, or software, or enjoy same in the company of anyone other than themselves.' RIAA attorneys said they were also looking into the legality of word-of-mouth 'favorites-sharing' sites, such as coffee shops, universities, and living rooms."

  • Dan Ouellette: "Q&A: Wayne Shorter" (Billboard, June 23, 2005) [Link not available]
    You'd be hard-pressed to find so many bon mots in a recent interview. "It's just like Art Blakey used to say: 'You can make a billion dollars on Wrigley's spearmint gum, but you can't make any money on jazz'--and I would add, 'on any kind of music that's truly creative.' If something makes a lot of money, it doesn't make it cool. People worry about missing out on that pot of gold. But what they're really missing out on is their creative process. It's about evolving." Also note his thoughts on reunions, American Idol, and squeezing blood out of artistic stones.

  • Simon Reynolds: January 22, 2005 blog entry (Blissout)
    As good as his related New York Times article [link not available] was, what he left out (detailed here) is even better, explaining the phases that modern dance music has gone through in the last two decades, how it parallels (and doesn't parallel) rock's development, and what's needed to keep it fresh in years to come. Who better to chronicle this subject than him?

  • Howard Reich: "The Spirit of Music Survives" (Chicago Tribune, December 20, 2005)
    The touching story of how Alexei Sultanov, a stroke-disabled pianist who could only play with one hand and could not speak or walk, dealt with the last year of his life, including a surprise performance for a group of new citizens and these thoughts from his wife after she scatters his ashes: "'Now Alexei can play again,' she said softly, looking toward the heavens, 'with both hands.'"

  • Frank Rich: "The Year of Living Indecently" (New York Times, February 6, 2005)
    Rich is one of my favorite columnists in any field--his no-hold-barred, righteously righteous scribing is a wondrous thing. This article draws a neat picture of how Janet's breast has been exploited as fodder for the morality crew within and outside of the Bush administration, creating a despicable, shameful culture of self-censorship as networks worry and scramble to figure out what might or might not be acceptable on the airwaves. All this ties into the recent pay-offs that the Department of Eduction gave a journalist to promote their agenda and how lesbians are OK to be paraded by Republicans when needed but not in PBS shows.

  • Tim Riley: "Can Classical Music Ever Reclaim the Populist Influence of Leonard Bernstein?" (Blog Riley, January 26, 2005)
    Bernstein as Elvis before Elvis? Not as inplausible as it seems. As Riley notes, Lenny brought "humor, showmanship, expansiveness" to the classical world, the likes of which are sadly seen in small doses nowadays.

  • Frank Rose: "Battle For the Soul of the MP3 Phone" (Wired, November 2005)
    How the phone carriers are playing nice in an uneasy dance with Apple to make music more portable. Labels aren't happy about someone else trying to get in on their business and Steve Jobs may regret the day that he decided that his Fair Play technology shouldn't be licensed out to other companies. Lest he or other players here get any cockier, this now deleted passage from a Reuters story is instructive: "Cingular...in September began selling a Motorola Inc. phone that runs Apple's music-playing iTunes software but the phone has met with a lukewarm reception." (Also see Off their ROKR, Slate.)

  • Alan Sparhawk: "A Message From Alan" (Low Community Board, May 5, 2005)
    Definitely not meant to be a piece of 'writing' per se, but a very heartfelt message to fans about why he couldn't do the rock tour thing for now. Very brave to talk about his problems this way--not looking for sympathy, just wanting a little understanding.

  • David Swanson: "FCC Censorship" (Rolling Stone, February 24, 2005)
    Howard Stern would now get off with lighter fines if he had murdered someone or poisoned the New York water supply than if he had said some naughty words over the air. Where the fuck are our government's priorities? Sorry, let me rescind that--I can only afford to run someone over in my car now instead of pay the FCC fine for saying such a thing.

  • Charles Taylor: "Dem Ol' Kosmic Blues Again" (Newsday, March 6, 2005)
    I'm not one to easily praise a put-down review, but Taylor not only suggests short-comings in a book about blues women, he also suggests several intriguing alternative ways to examine the subject. You only wish that he himself had written the book he blasts here (as I'm sure he does).

  • Terry Teachout: "Haydn!" (Commentary, January 2005)
    A contemporary of Mozart and (teacher) of Beethoven, Haydn has little of their critical cachet, even though the amount of work he produced and his humor alone should bear out his gifts. His problem? He didn't have an interesting biography and didn't embrace romanticism--the fate of many subsequent artists who are unjustly forgotten.

  • Johnny Temple: "An Argument for Writers' Taking Charge" (Poets & Writers, April 22, 2005)
    Member of Girls Versus Boys explains why indie publishing is a lot like indie rock and why you'll likely never get rich with either, and why you'll still be much more satisfied with your work if you do go that route.

  • Dr. David Thorpe: "Cliffs Notes: R. Kelly's 'Trapped In The Closet'" (Something Awful, August 2, 2005)
    If you couldn't follow along the bizarre infidelity drama that Kelly concocted in this video series, Thorpe's a very clever guide. Now maybe someone can explain why RK's trying to make his artistic persona even more strange than his personal life. Even Jacko doesn't go there.

  • Scott Timberg "Halt, or I'll play Vivaldi!" (L.A. Times, February 13, 2005) [Link not available]
    It turns out that the most effective way to rid hoodlums from an area is to blast classical music. Or so we're led to believe. By getting rid of people with classical music, doesn't that send the message that it's something to avoid? Also, why isn't this considered noise pollution? Surely some classical musicians are opposed to this elitist experiment.

  • Daniel J. Wakin: "Schoenberg, Bach and Us" (New York Times, March 27, 2005) [Link not available]
    A fascinating conversation between two diametrically opposed composers: rebel, Charles Wuorinen, and traditionalist, John Harbison. The former throws out these interesting definitions: "Entertainment is that which you receive without effort. Art is something where you must make some kind of effort, and you get more than you had before." The latter then has the perfect answer: "It's possible for people who intend to always entertain to produce something that is very perceptible as art, and by contrast it's also possible for people who are intending to make very high art to produce nothing more than entertainment." As a response, see Joshua Kosman: "Modernist Music Masters Flail Their Batons at Evil Music Critics" (San Francisco Chronicle, March 30, 2005). "Twentieth-century music is like pedophilia," Amis wrote. "No matter how persuasively and persistently its champions urge their cause, it will never be accepted by the public at large, who will continue to regard it with incomprehension, outrage and repugnance."

  • Emily Zemler: "The O.C. Effect" (PopMatters, January 14, 2005)
    Complete this sentence: Hip teen TV shows/movies and indie music A) go together well; B) have an uneasy relationship with each other; C) feed off of each other like parasites; D) all of the above.


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Choose a Section:

Introduction

1. Super-Scribing Awards: Best Writing of the Year

2. Superior Scribing Awards: Other Great Pieces of Music Journalism

3. Non-Music/Musical Stories: Great Writing About the Other Arts

4. Amazing Stories in and of Themselves

5. The Ignoble Prizes: Worst Music Writing of the Year