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What’s in a (Nick) Name?

Hermann 'Der Herminator' Maier

A good nickname can show the reverence fans or the media have for the athlete, and it can demonstrate a wicked sense of humour, but always, it should demonstrate that sport, at its essence, should maintain a sense of fun.

It’s not even open to argument. Sporting nicknames aren’t what they used to be. Pin the blame wherever you want: the global paucity of sports writing, the all-encompassing dominance of hip-hop culture, or the increasing commercialisation of sports. It matters little.

But how difficult was it, in the age of Jennifer ‘J-Lo’ Lopez and Kevin ‘K-Fed’ Federline, to christen New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez ‘A-Rod’? Is that the best America’s creative minds can come up with for the dominant player in Major League Baseball? And if that wasn’t lame enough, five minutes later the LA Angels’ relief pitcher Francisco Rodriguez becomes ‘K-Rod’. Surely I’m not alone in praying that one of the other 17 Rodriguez boys in the Major Leagues comes out of the closet, purely so announcers are obliged to call him ‘Gay-Rod’?

I’m not picking on athletes going by the surname 'Rodriguez'. But a good nickname should have nothing to do with fleeting linguistic trends. In 10 years' time, people will look back on ‘A-Rod’ and cringe. Language changes. No one says “Daddio” or “forsooth” any more, so pity the player whose nom-de-field is cast into permanent historic ridicule by the fickle finger of verbal fashion.

A sporting nickname should be a badge of honour, telling the watching world that this is a special individual. Before he became Muhammad Ali, Cassius Clay was the Louisville Lip. Would his glorious career have been so memorable if he had simply been labelled ‘Double C’? Would Babe Ruth’s legacy be so revered if The Sultan of Swat had just been ‘The Big Baby’? Where, with all due respect, is the sense of fun of calling Michael Jordan ‘MJ’ or LeBron James ‘LBJ’ or LaDanian Tomlinson ‘LT’, the same can’t-think-of-anything-better nickname that was gracelessly handed to Lawrence Taylor 20 years ago?

Steve 'Interesting' Davis

A good nickname can do so much. It can show the reverence fans or the media have for the athlete in question. It can, in a few notable examples, demonstrate a wicked sense of humour (old New York Giants cornerback Elvis Patterson was known as ‘Toast’ as he was repeatedly burnt by opposing wide receivers). It can do many things. But whatever the nickname’s origins, it should demonstrate that sport, at its essence, should maintain a sense of fun. And more importantly, it should prove that discussing sport, whether in print, on line, or while sitting on barstools and full of beer, isn’t necessarily a witless and pointless occupation.

It seems like I’m picking on Americans. They’re not the only culprits. Across the English-speaking world the nickname well appears to have run dry. David Beckham, depending on who you ask, is ‘Becks’ or, as he was described by his wife, ‘Goldenballs’. Wayne Rooney, potentially the greatest British soccer talent of his generation, has picked up the nickname ‘Roo’, seemingly for its simplicity in slotting it into tabloid headlines. ‘Roo Cannot Be Serious!’ and the like.

As sports fans, we shouldn’t be sitting down and taking it. The global fight back starts here. Make a pledge today. And obey these three simple rules.

1. Refrain from calling sportsmen corporate names like ‘A-Rod’, ‘LT’, ‘Ocho Cinco, or ‘T-Mac’. Anything that will obviously look good when slapped on a poster was probably thought up by someone making money from that poster.

2. If named after a place, non-alliterative words are strictly forbidden. We’ll allow Robbie Fowler to be The Toxteth Terrier and Jack Dempsey to be The Manassa Mauler. But Toni Kukoc as The Croatian Sensation? We don’t think so.

3. Stealing another athlete’s nickname is unacceptable. Donovan ‘Razor’ Ruddock was one of the few heavyweight boxers to challenge Mike Tyson’s reign in the early '90s. The fact that overweight English journeyman footballer Neil Ruddock started calling himself 'Razor' shortly after that is quite possibly the lamest thing ever.

Eddy 'The Cannibal' Merckx

It can be done better. Some of these nicknames are vintage. Some are modern. Each of them shows that sports watchers can think out the box, and use language effectively while they’re at it. Sportswriters of tomorrow, please take note.

Steve ‘Interesting’ Davis

It seems hard to believe now, but in the early '80s the game of snooker was a big ratings winner in the UK. Essentially a slower, more boring version of pool, hours of the television schedule were set aside to provide live coverage of two men in suits dragging themselves around a billiards table, occasionally knocking one ball into another. In a bid to promote the game top players were handed nicknames. Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins and Jimmy ‘The Whirlwind’ White were so called for their fast (and allegedly exciting) style of play. The only player who didn’t have a nickname also happened to be the best – the consistent but monotone-voiced World Champion, Steve Davis.

Enter satirical TV show Spitting Image. Seizing upon the public perception of Davis having the personality of a lump of cheddar, they ran a sketch in which Steve Davis, unaware of his own tedium, christened himself ‘Interesting’. Ironically, As Davis’ snooker talents faded, he revealed a charming, self-depreciating sense of humour, perfect for all kinds of TV work. Although he hasn’t won a snooker tournament for decades, Steve ‘Interesting’ Davis remains one of Britain’s best-loved sports personalities.

Brian 'The Chiropractor' Lima

The Chiropractor

Rugby is a violent game. It’s hit or be hit. Even so, there was something so aggressive about the tackling of Samoan centre Brian Lima that stood out from the norm. Hard hitters in all sports have had nicknames for decades. The Hammer is an old favourite. The Bull, Raging or otherwise, is another classic. Neither has the gallows wit of Lima’s nickname, known by everyone around the world that loves rugby. As Homer Simpson so eloquently observed, it’s funny because it’s true.

The King of Spain

Sometimes you couldn’t make it up. To celebrate spin bowler Ashley Giles’ brilliant performances for the England cricket team in 2000, the management ordered a set of mugs that predictably declared him to be ‘The King of Spin’. The folks at the mug factory obviously weren’t cricket fans, as the shipment arrived bearing the legend ‘Ashley Giles: The King of Spain’. Word of the typo quickly escaped the in team’s inner sanctum, and for the rest of his career England cricket fans would dress as matadors and paint banners to pay homage to ‘The King of Spain’.

The Cannibal

Lance Armstrong may have won two more Tour De Frances than the Belgian cycling God Eddy Merckx, but he never even had his own nickname, let alone one as fearsome as ‘The Cannibal’. There’s nothing unusual about the undisputed top athlete in any sport having a nickname indicating just that. Muhammad Ali was ‘The Greatest’. Wayne Gretsky was ‘The Great One’. Sooner or later every soccer team has a player the fans call ‘The King’. But still, there has only been one sportsman known as ‘The Cannibal’. It conjures up images of a man totally dominating his sport, willing to inflicting pain and suffering on his rivals without a shred of pity. Which, strangely enough, was exactly what Merckx did during his decade-long reign of terror over cycling.

Der Herminator and The Turbanator

There’s something painfully predictable about anyone nicknamed ‘The Terminator’. Granted, its message is clear, but it’s lacking in subtlety. Thankfully it comes with enough imagery and history to work perfectly as a launch pad for a nickname for those willing to go beyond the obvious. Austrian Hermann Maier was arguably the world’s greatest alpine skier in the late '90s. Proving that Germanic types do have a sense of humour after all, his fans labelled him ‘The Herminator’, the name by which he was known by all for the rest of his career. As great as this nickname was, it was eclipsed by the emergence of Sikh Indian spin bowler Harbhajan Singh at the turn of the millennium, whose destructive bowling and on-field headwear earned him the title ‘The Turbanator’. This could quite possibly be the finest nickname ever.

Dr J

In its greatest form, a nickname should be known beyond the individual’s given name. Such is the case with Julius Erving, known to the basketball world as 'Dr J'. Indeed, what’s left to say about this glorious nickname, other than he had already made it his own by the time he had graduated high school? It works perfectly; creating the image of the on-court professor, slicing through the opposition defence like a surgeon. Earvin Johnson had the ultimate basketball one-word-tells-everything name, but even Magic would have to pay homage to The Doctor, owner of the ultimate on-court nickname.

Whispering Death

A nickname handed to him by umpires who were routinely startled by his light-footed approach to the crease; West Indian cricket legend Michael Holding was the fastest and most feared bowler of his generation. A welcome twist on the more familiar ‘Silent Assassin’ theme, ‘Whispering Death’ has a grace and dignity all of its own. Come to think of it, there are a lot of cricketers with really great nicknames. Probably because the people watching it have so much time on their hands. Regretfully, Brian Johnston’s famous line of commentary before one of Whispering Death’s deliveries, “The bowler’s Holding, the batsman’s Willey”, is merely an urban legend.

The Fridge

Never in human history has a nickname alone propelled an individual so far. Arguably the worst player on the great 1985 Chicago Bears team, William Perry remains its greatest celebrity. It turns out that no one could resist the tubby guy named after a bulky domestic appliance. Travel outside North America and only NFL enthusiasts could tell you about the brilliance of Walter ‘Sweetness’ Payton. But even my mum could tell you about The Fridge. He was the fat one, she’d say. And she’d be right. 22 years later, who would Americans trust more to recommended a rotisserie? And they’d be right. The guy obviously loves eating.

Through sports history there have been hundreds of athletes that have been given the epithets ‘Tiger’, ‘Bulldog’, ‘Ace’ or ‘Big’ someone or other. There has only ever been one Fridge. And there only ever will be.

‘One Size’ Fitz Hall

All soccer fans know Fitz Hall, defender for largely irrelevant English soccer team West Bromwich Albion, as ‘One Size’. Self-explanatory really.

William 'The Fridge' Perry

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

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