By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
CONTEST ALERT: Attention, musicians: You've got until midnight New Year's Eve to submit your two-song demo to Musician magazine's Best Unsigned Band competition, one of the premier contests highlighting the work of the underappreciated musician.
Prizes include "extended coverage" in Musician (you can decide whether that's actually a prize), inclusion on a Best of the Unsigned Bands compilation (see editorial comment above) and a T-shirt and book. The grand-prize winner receives custom drums, guitar and microphones, as well as a 1,000-CD duplication package -- not a bad deal, except it costs $20 to enter the contest, so you must decide whether it's worth the investment.
In an effort to help you, here's a bit of insight from a former judge: I was on one of the early panels last year, acting as a filter to weed out all the obvious crap and then passing the 10 (of the 50 they sent me) most interesting cassettes on to the next group of judges. I did it for the hell of it, basically, to see what kind of band would enter such a contest, and I came out of the process with a simple answer: Lame bands enter this contest. Most of these bands sucked, and any band worth its salt could at least make it pretty far in the process.
Think of me as Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke. I've got 50 eggs in front of me. The first 25 go down easy. Then the reality sets in; I'm only halfway done. My face goes pale. The vibe gets grim. By the end, I'm nauseated, can't imagine hearing another mediocre rock band. Would rather pull out my front teeth with pliers. Christ. There are a lot of shitty bands out there, and all of them enter this contest.
So my advice to all of you rock bands: Enter this contest. I had to scrape to find 10 good bands among the 50 and thought that even my first choice was pretty lame (then again, none of my choices won any sort of prize, so maybe it was me). You can win this contest if you're young, good-looking and play rock music. Of course, the final judges are all A&R guysat major labels, alongwith Sting and Melissa Etheridge's producer, so make sure you color inside the lines. For contest rules and information, check out the magazine's Web site at www.musicianmag.com/bub.
BOOK ALERT: Two books -- one available now, one out the first week of '99 -- should provide you with a nice start to your winter-reading list, and both will also dictate a few visits to the record stores to bone up on the music you're reading about.
Out now and very worthy of your time is Nelson George's Hip Hop America (Viking, 256 pages, $24.95), a sturdy factual history of hip-hop from the late '70s to the present. George, who writes mainly for the Village Voice, has been a chronicler of hip-hop since it was germinating in NYC; he wrote about early block parties and gigs by Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash, and he's able to trace and contextualize the music from these roots with the insight of an insider. One of the nicest aspects of this book is its structure: Rather than provide a solid chronological rundown of the history, George takes off on tangents from time to time, jumps to the present to offer comparisons as examples, and generally moves with the freedom of a good MC. He's less interesting as the book moves on; I get the sense he's less concerned about present-day rap than the genre's first decade. Regardless, Hip Hop America is a nice read.
Jump to Public Enemy: "Elvis was a hero to some, but he never meant shit to me!" Chuck D screams in "Bring Da Noize." Elvis was a hero to Peter Guralnick, and the second volume of his Elvis Presley biography comes out Jan. 8. It's called Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (Little, Brown, 768 pages, $27.95) and chronicles the second half of Elvis' life. Vol. 1, Last Train to Memphis, was praised as one of the best books of 1997 by none other than me (along with the New York Times Book Review, Entertainment Weekly, the Nation and Time). Guralnick is one of the great chroniclers of American music; if you haven't read Last Train, start it now and you'll be finished in time to continue with Vol. 2 when it's released.