Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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CG-90s Book Cover

Introduction

This isn't supposed to be where I tell you how I wrote this book. This is supposed to be where I tell you how I conceive the '90s. Only, how I wrote this book dovetails with how I conceive that decade. So let me outline my method of business.

The time-consuming work of engaging a multiplicity of recordings--of learning how they sound and discovering how they feel--has been standard in my life since the summer of 1969, when as a fledgling Village Voice rock columnist I thought up the Consumer Guide. For the next two decades, I dispatched 20 LPs a month with a brief review and a letter grade from A plus to E minus (A to C minus, practically speaking). But after I transformed my '80s columns into a book worthy of its ISBN, a task that involved double listening for a year or two, something had to give. I wanted to hear as much music as ever, from 10 to 18 hours a day of it. I just wanted to enjoy it more.

As long as you prefer compact cars and have never understood why people burden themselves with country houses, rock criticism is a peachy job. It would be graceless to complain about a life whose chief drawback is a shortage of shelf space. But one thing has always bothered me. I probably take active pleasure in more records than any critic out there--and not casually, either. By the time I parcel out an A or an A minus, I've heard the CD five or 10 times, concentrated hard at least once or twice, perused the credits and the lyric sheet if there is one, and ascertained that it gives me a charge I can't resist. If it doesn't, it's not worth an A or A minus--that's the main way I tell. My other secret is that I count cuts, avoiding the temptation to listen through the humdrum songs that interlard or trail off from the galvanizing few, which is how critics itching to announce their latest discovery fool themselves. But once the judgment is rendered and the review written, the record sometimes leaves my life forever. Looking over my A List from 1992, say, I can pick out half a dozen titles I don't remember playing since I wrote about them--records I wish I could play right now. Only I can't, because I'm listening to something newer that I want to know about.

I started working this way out of ethics (the label gave me this, I should use it) and hubris (the crude desire to know more about my subject than anyone else in the world). For quite a while I tried to sample at least a cut or two of every record that came my way, and got to 80 or 85 per cent. But by 1980, when I finished my '70s book, I'd accepted the imperfection that my .800 average quantified--there were things I was never gonna dribble past the pitcher, much less slam out of the park. A decade later my BA was down to .400, and that's only counting the pitches I actually saw--plenty were never delivered. Being on all the major-label lists was no longer enough.

Independents were a factor in the '70s--in just the S's from that decade I count 20-odd, including traditional r&b, rock, and jazz companies, a few folk start-ups, and a stirring of the fan and DIY labels soon to mushroom into the postpunk underground. The Voice being the original alternative weekly, many such labels mailed me stuff. But one reason indies put out interesting music is that they're unrationalized, and since that extends to hit-or-miss PR, just keeping track of what was available soon became almost impossible. Moreover, not since the early-'80s heyday of Rough Trade, Twin/Tone, and SST has an indie imprimatur been anything to get excited about. The majors play it safe, supporting established artists, well-connected nonentities, imitations of whatever's selling, gifted young musos who color inside the lines, and occasionally some undeniable talent or genius. Even the good music they underwrite is too predictable. By serving specialist markets whose enthusiasms can be shared by generalists with open ears, indies underwrite an outsized share of rewarding music. But they have their own problems, usually starting with myopia of genre, scene, or--since most express the tastes of one or two impresarios--sensibility, with boosterism, aestheticism, obscurantism, and self-righteousness just down the track. Convinced of the justice of their cause, everyone in the indie world--owners, publicists, clerks, fans, fellow musicians, and what pass for critics--waxes ecstatic over music no one outside the circle need care about. By 1990, the predictive value of postpunk word-of-mouth was approaching zero.

I bring this up mainly because the Amerindie aesthetic has been keeping me busy for two decades now. In point of fact, the independent label explosion--itself just one aspect of the boutiquing of America, which in a direct response to the malling of America created a boom for all manner of workshop-crafted goods in the '80s--was hardly limited to rock. Even as the big boys conglomerated, there were folk and world and blues and jazz and soul and reggae and Latin and house and techno and rap and Christian companies all over the place. Though many indies released only a few records a year, others were prolific, and their total output was overwhelming, especially combined with expanded production at the majors and their shifting web of affiliates, farm clubs, vanity imprints, and distributees. So the decision not to listen to everything, which began as a straightforward piece of time management that formalized my limitations as a music processor, was by the end of the decade a physical inevitability. That wasn't my conscious motivation for adjusting my methods again. But I'm sure I sensed it.

In September of 1990, then, I overhauled the Consumer Guide. The hardest part of the job I'd set myself was telling a B minus from a C plus, and then finding language to say yet again that there weren't enough good songs on a record either way. So I decided to give B minuses and C pluses short shrift. Most of my readers--not critics and bizzers, but real-life consumers--used my primary critical outlet for its putative purpose. They wanted to know what to buy. So thenceforward--with time out for a November Turkey Shoot consisting entirely of pans--I'd review only A records, meaning anything from A minus, which would greatly predominate, to A plus. The bad ones I'd just list ungraded, as Duds. When a good song set me on the spoor of an otherwise mediocre album, I'd give the song credit, as a Choice Cut. And, let's be realistic, there'd always be things on the cusp; it would be efficient to review those too, doling out the occasional B plus, formerly my commonest grade. As for the lower B pluses, well, the solid ones would get 10 words in a section called Honorable Mention. Wouldn't want to waste all that ear time, would I?

Not wasting ear time is a weakness of mine. Not cheating is another. So just to prove I'd given Honorable Mentions a fair shake, I thought it only proper to recommend cuts from them, a piece of fussbudgetry that's cost me hundreds of hours. But the Honorable Mention was the fatal flaw in this schema in any case. For the first year or two I wasn't too good at it--saying something meaningful in a phrase can be tough. But by 1994 or so the category, which initially added just three or four records a month, was up to 10 or 15, an extra job in itself. Other categories evolved as well. Early on I told myself I had to listen one final time before declaring anything a Dud, a scruple I eventually abandoned; some of the Duds in this book (meet and greet Ned's Atomic Dustbin) are records I specifically recall being unable to stomach again back when. In 1992 I initiated an unpublished file called Neither ("neither here nor there") for records that weren't good enough for Honorable Mention or bad enough for Duds. And in early 1993 I succumbed to the arguments of future Voice music editor Eric Weisbard and began reviewing and grading a Dud of the Month in each column. Where the highest grade for a Turkey was B minus, Duds included a fair number of dull, disappointing, or overhyped B's; for book purposes, the two categories have been combined. I trust my negative gradations are of critical interest. For consumption purposes, however, read everything from B on down as a flunk.

At some gross level the revamping worked as planned--I found about 20 more A records per year than in the '80s, and had more fun as a result. But I'm not certain this wouldn't have happened anyway. The reason I can't be sure is that in the '90s, musical production stopped expanding and started exploding. Supposedly the decade's the biggest story is digital sound, which began by making the compact disc a commercial standard and ended by threatening to render the CD and the album itself obsolete via the Internet. But as of January 1, 2000, digital's main practical effects had been to encourage self-expression (a/k/a bloat) by accommodating 75 minutes of music per disc where vinyl held 50, and to spur bizzers to deplete their archives in a deluge of reissues, reconfigured best-ofs, "rarity"-stuffed boxes, proudly unearthed old concert tapes, genre surveys of varyingly encyclopedic expediency, concept compilations that included series keyed to golf, cigars, and chicken soup, and newly canonized schlock, cheese, treacle, kitsch, and crap. Moreover, catalogue exploitation wasn't even the main reason production went through the roof. There were simply more artists making music and more hustlers financing it, in America and all over the world. The factoid I latched onto, a possible fabrication that's très poetic regardless, was that between 1988 and 1998 the number of recordings released annually increased tenfold, to something like 35,000. Even if the 35,000 included a whole lot of singles, which as near as I could tell it didn't, this would mean that there was more music recorded than there were hours in a year--quite possibly twice as much. I'd escaped completism in the nick of time.


Many bemoan this state of affairs. Artists record too soon, charge old DIY'ers belatedly smitten with the aesthetic efficiency of quality controls. It's impossible to rack everything, bitch retailers who once lured big spenders to best-sellers with one-stop shopping. We don't have time to prescreen anymore, snivel college radio jocks who've been conflating different with good since they discovered Mouse on Mars. And it's daunting for me too--I regularly contract vertigo contemplating all the records I'll never hear. But if I remain upbeat about the future of rock 45 years after its estimated birthdate, it's primarily because I've always believed the distinction between quantity and quality was 50 per cent elitist jive.

The standard whine among my contemporaries concerns what I long ago dubbed The Mattering. Music doesn't "make a difference" anymore, 'tis said. Once we thought it would change the world; now we're lucky if it can change its socks. Who can possibly believe that Madonna and the Wu-Tang Clan mean as much to the Culture at Large as the Beatles and Aretha Franklin? These objections obviously reflect the strictly subjective reality of listeners who've heard far more music now than they had in 1969--listeners whose lives have accrued so much experiential bulk that nothing budges them much anymore. But they're real nevertheless. Much as I detest '60s nostalgia--and punk nostalgia, which sickens me less only because it isn't my fault--the popular music we call rock did once galvanize social forces in a way it hasn't since, not even if you regard the cripplingly site-specific U.K. rave/acid house/techno phenomenon as "revolutionary." As an unrepentant leftist, I'm distressed by this. In the tradition of Emma Goldman, who never had much use for rave either, I want a revolution I can pat my feet to. I wish rock and roll could spark or catalyze or at least provide the soundtrack to a drastic restructuring of the class system that ended racism, sexism, and homophobia in the bargain. But I never really expected that in the first place, which never stopped me from conceiving rock politically. So if it seems just about impossible now, don't put it past me to see a bright side.

To state it plainly, popular music in the year 2000 is a democratic cornucopia. Nothing else compares. Forget TV, which too readily induces the passivity envious elitists too readily blame on it. Forget movies, beyond the means of freelancers at their most low-budget. Forget sports, capitalist tools whether you love 'em (baseball, basketball) or hate 'em (football, hockey). Forget zine and net and comix and fan-fantasy culture, all so atomized they hold out no promise or metaphor of broad-based communion. Music is the great equalizer. Created by a worldwide virtual community comprising hundreds of thousands of artisans of vastly disparate technical training, general education, and raw intelligence, milking hundreds of promiscuously disseminated styles and genres whose mixed pedigrees make nonsense of any notion of the pure or authentic, music puts us face to face with one of democracy's first principles, which is that people with nothing to say to you have plenty to say for themselves. You may not want to listen to all of them--a third of a century on, I'm still taking potshots at whiners, mooners, swooners, wimps, simps, snobs, thugs, back-slappers, breast-beaters, cunthounds, bigots, universalists, damnfools, pretentious wankers, and seekers after mystical enlightenment. But with the possible exception of damn fools (regular fools we obviously need), not a one of these objectionable personality types has proven incapable of skill, wit, joy, imagination, individuality, or musicality. Which means representatives of every one have had something to say to me after all.

Especially if you noticed how I set up this pronouncement by slipping from the warmly inclusive "rock and roll" to the impossibly general "popular music," you may think I'm some kind of universalist myself. But I'm not--I'm just a pluralist, into many-is-many, not all-is-one. Because I follow many genres without devoting my life to any of them, I understand the chronic disgruntlement of pop monists--aging alt-rockers, techno ex-utopians, roots loyalists, jammers, jazzers, citizens of the world, the Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, and Slovenians manqué of the hip hop community. Objectively, there's not enough going on in their worlds to keep any of them running at full capacity. And although many hip hoppers and a few armchair ethnomusicologists enthuse madly anyway, they'll never convince the rest of us. The reason ordinary consumers can't figure out what's going on with most raves in the flagship hip hop mag The Source, or for that matter its tiny world-music counterpart The Beat, isn't just that ordinary consumers are square, or that superfans can't write, or that specialists are to formal wrinkles as princesses are to peas. It's that the reviewers in question are kidding themselves. I don't kid myself, and you don't have to either. There's just too much out there.


That's what I mean when I say that how I wrote this book dovetails with how I conceive the decade. Spread your net wide, experiment without slipping into self-improvement mode, and the way things are currently set up you'll never run out of new music. But while we're not kidding ourselves, let's not kid ourselves about boutique capitalism (which in this millennium is often online capitalism; although I reside in the retail paradise of Manhattan, I end up purchasing half the obscurities no one's sent me on the Internet anyway). People fret about The Mattering because most of the best popular music is what I've long called semipopular music. Semipopular music fuels subcultures without number, but its relation to any bigger social entity is a metaphor, not a promise; in fact, a cardinal value of most such subcultures is that bigger is worse. How anyone can believe this is altogether a good thing is beyond the ken of an old-fashioned humanist like me.

Yet though my style of eclecticism commits me to both pop and change, my nominees for the happening musics of the '90s are all subcultural, and also, give or take a few shifts in jargon and attitude, all the same as my nominees for the happening musics of the '80s. What once was rap now is hip hop, an endlessly various mass phenomenon that continues to polarize older rock and rollers, although it's finally convinced some gatekeeping generalists that it may be of enduring artistic value--a discovery to which they were beaten by millions of young consumers black and white. The Amerindie of the early '80s became known as alternative or alt-rock, ascendant from Nirvana until 1996 or so but currently very unfashionable, never mind that the music is still there. And although I found well over 100 terrific new-in-America African albums in the '90s, I don't pretend they'll make you the life of the party. Its hip moment long over, Afropop is now clearly an eccentric taste unless you happen to be one of 500 million black Africans--I would guesstimate its non-African following in the 100,000 range.

Supposedly, an arthritic boomer like me shouldn't enjoy such things at all. Even Afropop, much of which gets here 10 or 15 or 40 years late and attracts an audience as aged as John Fogerty's, is seen as an affectation. But I swear the old-fashioned humanist in me craves all three styles, a hunger that proceeds directly from the taste epiphanies of my teens--the Alan Freed-style rock and roll of Chuck Berry, the Coasters, and "In the Still of the Night," with a touch of the Bird-Monk-Miles-Ornette-'Trane(-Brubeck) that filled my college years. It would be racially politic to cite in addition Jerry Lee Lewis, the Crickets, and "At the Hop," all favorites of mine, but in fact r&b crossing over hit me deepest. What I heard in '50s rock and roll, I believe (the formula undergoes perpetual modification), was pop music quite distinct from the pop music that preceded it, but pop music nonetheless. I heard good songs with a good beat. Although they foregrounded rhythm--in part because they had a more compelling beat, in part because that beat didn't have as much to compete with--the simple melodic resources of these songs were no less winsome than those of their Tin Pan Alley rivals. They were best sung by the unsophisticated--teenagers and their admirers, JDs and hillbilly cats, African-Americans of modest pretension. Direct, compact, energetic, meant to move your body and create a disturbance in your mind, they were the province of a young, urban/suburban variant on what interested slummers since Herder had referred to as the folk.

Note, however, that when stuck on a New Hampshire campus far from WINS, I passed up "folk music" for jazz. This was a minority option--folkies transformed American rock in the '60s, not jazzbos. So rather than explain it--something about pulse and dissonance and hating Joan Baez--I will merely point out, in the way of a consumer advisory, that it bears on my enthusiasms to this day. I'm not musically schooled enough to follow jazz changes, but I get my charge from them anyway, because bebop and its progeny signify on a more vulgar level than connoisseurs of "America's classical music" might prefer. In fact, I access punk with much the same part of myself that loves Thelonious Monk, who, like punk, buzzes the synapses while stimulating gross motor function, a metaphor and catharsis designed for the modern city. In the '90s, avant-punks like Sonic Youth and Pavement made this convergence explicit as hip hop propagandists pumped jazz analogies--earning them best, I've always thought, in the screeching beats the Bomb Squad dropped on Public Enemy, not the literally jazz-inflected swang of A Tribe Called Quest. As for Afropop, it's considerably more jazzlike than Ameripop to this day.

But jazz is for shading--what I still value most is good songs with a good beat. The problem is that even for adepts of neoprimitivism, the aesthetic preferred by fine rock and rollers everywhere, good songs have gotten more complicated. Pop formulas that were liberating in the Brill Building's glory days are now often as deadening as snobs always charged. Beyond the international ballad of Celine Dion and Diane Warren--beyond the schlock that is always with us--two bigger-is-better genres made impressive passes at revitalizing the formularistic in the '90s: country and teenpop. But neither succeeded. The onset of Garth Brooks, a major artist despised by most critics, inspired much wild talk of a Nashville takeover. But Garth was Garth and Vince Gill wasn't, ditto Shania and Faith Hill; anyway, well before Brooks achieved self-parody it was clear that Nashville didn't address all of America any more undeniably than Newt Gingrich did. With teenpop, rampant for a year as I write, I don't have the benefit of hindsight. As with Nashville, however, the quality call is a no-brainer. Although there's genuine genius there, as is usually the case when entertainers fill a yawning need, most of it is pap. In the age of Internet boutiquing, I can imagine economic models in which teenpop and similarly mass-cultural strategies would dominate corporate rock, which has always idealized the passive consumer. But most of the best songs would be elsewhere, in subcultural interstices maintained by self-supporting artisans and small entrepreneurs.

Although I see the undaunted if segmented alt-indie world as the prime source, great songs are everywhere, from Shania and the Backstreet Boys to Le Tigre and Imperial Teen. Folkies write plenty, r&b revisionists quite a few. Forget lyrics-not-singing-or-meaning and Afropop is full of 'em; forget melody-not-hook-or-cadence and hip hop is fuller. But gradually, the good beat part of the rock and roll mantra has become more prominent, a development addressed in rather different ways by Afropop, where intricate polyrhythms flow and mesh, and hip hop, where rugged polyrhythms jerk and clash. The complexity of both musics (which sometimes exchange m.o.'s, natch) would have been unimaginable and probably intolerable in the '50s. But as far as partisans of the third significant '90s movement are concerned, the crucial action was elsewhere, in the dance movement Americans call techno, although Brits who've lived through their island's rave and/or acid house upheavals barely recognize the term.

Until they realized they weren't taking over the world, techno's prophets were the most utopian futurists rock has ever known. Much too much is made of the political bent of '60s rock; it was "nihilistic" punk that produced the great radical bands--Clash, Gang of Four, Minutemen, Mekons. But at least acidheads knew there was a war on. Beyond some antiauthority/antimilitary rant, the '60s that rave reinvented were a totally cultural affair in which drug-fueled dances and technological extensions of man were all the justice and equality a passion for change required. This illusion wasn't necessarily fatal--fond of much naive folk-rock for its naked postadolescent lyricism alone, I was fully prepared to get close to the high-tech textures and artificial energy of mindless electrodisco. In a few cases I did, too: Utah Saints! Utah Saints! But soon I realized that techno just wasn't for home consumption. Inextricable from massive sound systems, mixed in the live moment by the DJs who were its true auteurs, heightened by communal ecstasy and the chemical Ecstasy that made it feel real, it was designed to be accessed exclusively by its subculture. And it was also designed to kid itself--to leave its claims to magic immune to empirical verification.

Due in part to its disdain for vocals and song form, techno's subculture never got as massive as projected, never became bigger and better--certainly not in the U.S., and really not in Europe either. I like Big Beat, the poppest of its uncountable subgenres, and faithfully check out its succes d'estimes, most of which are overrated--although the very best, by Tricky and Moby and DJ Shadow, rank among the decade's truly brilliant albums. I also test-drive likely-looking compilations, the most accessible of which show up in my columns sporadically, if only as Honorable Mentions or Choice Cuts. But I don't want to kid you--my techno recommendations are for dabblers. Worse, I'm convinced dabbling is what the music deserves. Good songs with a good beat have been the essence of popular music for as far back as we can guess. They aren't used up, and they aren't going away. Any futurism that counts them out is no futurism at all.


And there in a nutshell is how I conceive that decade--richly chaotic, unknowable and that's good, thus highly subject to vagaries of individual preference, but nevertheless conducive to some manageable degree of general comprehension and enjoyment by any rock and roller. The main purpose of this book is to help you join in no matter where or when your tastes took shape--like it says, it's a consumer guide. Above all I'm urging you to please shake your groove thing or climb out your window. But I have another stake in this writing--a writer's stake, a commitment to language and ideas that assumes the best about who's shaking or climbing. I intend my paragraphs and one-liners to be informative, entertaining, and, uh-oh, original; at best I hope they say something new, even difficult, and at worst I insist that they take truisms a half-step further. Since this is rock and roll, I do joke around when possible--years of loud guitars have convinced me that ideas are best expressed rudely. Nevertheless, my reviews are often densely textured--written for readers who may not catch all the references, but are willing and perhaps even eager to infer their context. In theory, precisely this sort of curiosity is what gets people to try out strange-looking records in the first place.

So I hope you read this book for fun and edification as well as buying tips. But since it's fine with me if buying tips are your prime concern, I ought to explain more about how it was put together before I direct you toward Jewel Ackah and away from Adamski. Approximately 3800 records released in the '90s are reviewed or listed herein. More than 500 of these were never Consumer Guided in the Voice, and many hundreds of the previously published capsules have been tweaked, revised, or totally rewritten. Every A record I could find by May 2000 is reviewed herein. But where in 1990 I allowed as how I must have missed some B pluses, now I'm sure I've missed A minuses. For starters, there are imports, and not just by Brits--dozens if not hundreds of African records I've never heard would certainly make the cut. And despite the unreliability of subcultural word-of-mouth, I'm sure there's more '90s hip hop in my future. With alt-rock, where the ethos is closer to home, I'm more confident even if my disdain for lo-fi shoegazers makes me uncool forever. And with mainstream pop I believe I've gotten all of what not much there is to get, though I may have missed some country. Beyond a few young acoustic players, blues records were mostly bar fodder and journeymen repeating themselves in the '90s. But though the dancehall strain that dominated reggae proved as specialized as techno, it must have more to offer those who feel its groove and affect than I could find.

Yet with all these musics and a good many others I kept my antenna up and hit the high spots--most of the Duds, Neithers, and Choice Cuts you never heard of are records that somebody worth taking seriously pumped pretty hard. In fact, I deleted about 100 published Duds and unpublished Neithers from the book because only some tiny cabal ever gave them support--Sexpod, Linoleum, Drugstore, goodbye forever. I may have missed a few early records by artists I discovered late (I've yet to hear Destiny's Child's debut, the Dismemberment Plan's either), but usually I've checked back and usually they're inferior. If an artist gets a good grade early in the decade and then vanishes, chances are excellent that I sampled a few later cuts and moved on--and that neither sales nor press impelled me to reconsider.

Criteria for inclusion and grading of best-ofs and archival music also merit explanation. I automatically consider any old material that's never been available on album in the U.S., whether newly unearthed live tapes or newly collected singles and vault exhumations. With African and Latin American artists who've never enjoyed the U.S. hearing they deserve, old music is brand new. But in the pompous boxed-set rip-off, so-called rarities are customarily proferred as bait to consumers who already own the core music in another form. Except in the very few instances when the bait redefines a canon--James Brown's Star Time and Janis Joplin's Janis are shining examples--you can assume I recommend single albums by the artist in question, not the box. With all compilations, utility and redundancy as well as listenability are relevant critical considerations, which is why some best-ofs (XTC's Upsy Daisy Assortment, say) that draw heavily on albums worth owning in themselves have been downgraded, and others have been ignored altogether. For the most part, excellent new best-ofs on artists who were already icons in 1990 have been left for some other book--a simple call with Lefty Frizzell or the Marvellettes, tougher with Woody Guthrie or Captain Beefheart. Since compilation itself is a quintessentially CD-era craft, I've honored the amazing likes of Closer Than a Kiss and American Pop: An Audio History, and the rediscovery of Anthology of American Folk Music was such a pop event I couldn't ignore it. But if in the end any of my decisions in this area seems arbitrary, what can I say? Someone had to make them, so I did.

Alphabetization protocols are unchanged: by surname, nickname, or group's first word. Numbers and abbreviations are ordered as if spelled out; English articles are ignored, foreign articles treated as words. Especially thorny cases have been cross-referenced. Those familiar with earlier Consumer Guide books may wonder why I dispensed with the original grades I used to provide when a record got knocked up or down a notch or two. Because I decided the book's subject should be your albums rather than my opinions, that's why. (For the record, the biggest rise was accorded Shania Twain's The Woman in Me, C to Honorable Mention; the biggest dip was by the Kronos Quartet's Pieces of Africa, A minus to Neither. Ten or so titles lost an A, and as many Honorable Mentions picked one up.) Label designations are as they originally appeared, and although these shift with the corporate tides (which is why updating is useless), pursue artist-and-title and you'll find what you want. Multiartist compilations are now separated out at the end of each letter-chapter as well as cross-indexed in an appendix. Some Choice Cuts are marked [comp] or [ST] to indicate compilation or soundtrack in the confusing cases when the artist who recorded the song isn't credited with the album. Note also that Honorable Mentions, which in the Voice are listed in order of preference, have been divided into three-star, two-star, and one-star categories that reflect a similar gradation.

Those Honorable Mentions are all pretty good records--I'm rarely sorry to hear them again. So since tastes differ, you may want to avail yourself of a few, especially if you've figured out that your feeling for an artist or genre is warmer than mine. But since you could go broke just buying the nearly 900 albums that fill the A Lists in back, you should probably start there. In fact, I recommend that if you have your doubts about this book you perform a test. Go up toward the top of one of the A lists, where the true A's as opposed to high A minuses are found. Check out a few corresponding reviews, purchase the album that seems coolest, and--this is important--play it more than once when you get home. If you like it, buy the book; if you don't, move on.

Forgive me for believing I could sell a lot of copies that way.

Christgau's Consumer Guide: Albums of the '90s, 2000


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