Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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CG-80s Book Cover

How to Use This Book

This guide is arranged alphabetically by individuals' last name (Styrene, B., Petty), title (Captain, Mr., DJ), or nickname (Kid, Biz, L.L.) and groups' first word (Cocteau, They, Orchestra). Alphabetization proceeds as if spaces and punctuation weren't there, with English-language articles ignored; foreign-language articles are treated as words, numbers and abbreviations as if spelled out. Artist names will vary slightly when their billing does--I respect the record as text, compensating as sanely as possible for internal inconsistencies (which usually means following the label rather than the cover art). Drastic anomalies (Lucinda Williams was just Lucinda on her 1980 album) are cross-referenced, as are collaborations that might get lost in the shuffle. Nearly 150 compilations and soundtracks are interspersed alphabetically by title through the text and indexed in the appendix.

As I've explained, completeness was impossible in the '80s, and maybe inappropriate too. I've located every U.S.-released rock B+ I could, including cassettes and twelve-inch EPs. But I'm sure I've missed dozens, maybe hundreds, and in the various rock-related styles, not to mention the other genres that tickle my sensibility--especially those available only as imports, where my forays are sporadic--my breadth of coverage is even less reliable. I've tried to trace the outlines of recording careers, but a good many listings stop short in the middle, or begin and end with a single review. If I admire one record by an artist, especially a rock-and-roller, I almost certainly know the surrounding work, so figure when I skip something that I consider it disappointing in a boring way. It's common for a group to hit it right once, often on a debut album, and then sink into drought, confusion, compromise, or self-imitation, and there are only so many times you can say that before your readers wonder why you're bothering.

Why I choose to say it about some records and not others is often somewhat arbitrary, though critical hyperbole or unwarranted chart action do get me going. Similarly, while I've been diligent about B+'s, I've been negligent about B's--competent records with a few striking cuts on them. Most of the records I don't review--by artists on the New Wave list, for instance--are probably a little worse, in the B- or C+ range, where moderately clever, hard-working, and original people make music that sounds OK and rarely if ever catches you short. But some would no doubt turn out to be B's if I gave them my full attention for a play. I just don't have the time. I've learned from doing the job with newsworthy artists that distinguishing a B from a B- from a C+ is the most soul-wearying aspect of music processing, and I'm not mad enough to pursue it; often the B's I do write about are albums I want to like more, because they're conceptually worthy or have a couple of gems on them. So it's conceivable that I missed a thousand B's in the '80s. No one will ever know, or care--including me.

Each artist's entries are arranged chronologically, in order of U.S. appearance. Dates reflect actual year of original release (which sometimes differs from the pub date on the jacket), although especially with imports I sometimes reviewed the record much later. (Three important late-'79 U.K. releases that never found a U.S. record company--Pere Ubu's New Picnic Time, the Sex Pistols' Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, and The Raincoats--are snuck in as 1980 albums, which in the U.S. they should have been.) I've noted whatever label I originally encountered a record on, with significant subsequent changes (not intracorporate logo switches or imports gone domestic) reported in brackets at the end of the review. I haven't caught them all, I'm sure--there's a lot of product being dealt with these days. And while I've tried to note significant CD/cassette-only bonus cuts, I've definitely missed a lot of those.

I'm no vinyl fetishist and no audiophile. If anything, I prefer CD sound, although the upfront percussion of early digital remixes was irritating, and if CDs prove as durable as their manufacturers claim, which I doubt, I'll be grateful--it's depressing to pull a prized title out of its cardboard jacket and find the music obscured by surface noise. Nevertheless, there's something about CDs that's always bothered me: they only have one side, so unless you program your CD player, which most don't, you consumer a whole album at once. This may be the way God planned it, but it's inhuman: except in the flush of rapt concentration or first acquaintance (or when enjoying an illicit C-90), the typical vinyl or cassette owner has always used albums one seventeen-to-twenty-three-minute, four-to-six-song side at a time. Crucial perceptual habits have grown up around this time frame, which is based partly on vinyl's physical limits and partly, I suspect, on an attention span bound up in the mysteries of the industrialized sensorium, but in the CD era it's disappearing. Song lengths over five minutes and album lengths over fifty are now common, and even worse, these already puffed-up albums are generally wolfed down, well, two sides at a time.

I'm sorry, that's the way I hear things even if it means my whole approach to reviewing is obsolete. The side isn't dead yet--although cassettes are fragile and clumsy, they're cheap, and they continue to outsell CDs. But as a commercial proposition, especially for the relatively affluent consumers who buy records in quantity (and record guides to advise them), digital is taking over, and with it whole new vistas in perceptual organization and product availability.

The disappearance of vinyl was engineered by bizzers who liked CD profit margins--once you own the equipment, they cost less than vinyl to manufacture, and they let you repackage (and resell) your bundles of rights. But each repackage has a start-up cost, and as vinyl is deleted, which is now a runaway phenomenon, the accountants will be figuring out what titles justify digital remastering--from their point of view, of course. It's my practice to respect the "work" anyway: I've never felt obliged to figure out which album is in print and which isn't. But especially with uncommercial artists on major labels--sometimes artists who in their minor-label manifestation are profit-makers--the prospects of finding some of the older titles on my A lists are grim. And since repackaging is a very literal concept--first two sides at a sitting, then bonus tracks to sucker in vinyl-owners, finally recompiled oeuvres--I can't guarantee that the CD version of an album would hit even me the way I describe it. Most of the time the difference won't be that great, especially if you invest in a CD player that's easy to program. But with individually compiled Personics-style tapes (digital, of course) in the middle-distance offing, the '80s may be the last decade for which an album guide makes a whole lot of sense.

In the short run, used record stores will do big business. And sometimes I imagine that vinyl isn't really going to disappear--that it will simply become a specialty item, marketed by mail or in boutiques by visionary entrepreneurs who begin by buying tons of cutouts and end up investing in discarded pressing equipment and obtaining vinyl-only rights to quiddity-tickling music the majors don't have time for. Insofar as my '50s and '60s self expects a social dimension of rock and roll, this will be highly unsatisfactory, but it will also be better than nothing. For social dimension I'll have to settle for the next Madonna, Prince, Springsteen, or Kool Moe Dee, who I'm sure will keep me occupied. That pop machine really is good for something. Only you know what? I'm not so sure I understand it better than its keepers anymore.

Christgau's Record Guide: The '80s, 1990


Canons and Listening Lists A