Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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CG-90s Book Cover

How to Use These Appendices

In a dogged stab at completism, I had some fun with the back matter in my '70s and '80s books, where I divided artists who hadn't made the text proper into three categories: honorable Subjects for Further Research, laughable Distinctions Not Cost-Effective, and unspeakable Meltdown. For the '80s I added a classification designated New Wave, which listed in order of preference precisely 200 bands vaguely deserving of that cheap, dated badge of rock coolness. Partly because new methods expand my coverage, and partly because new glut renders expansion futile, I've cut back on these strategems--completism isn't even a good joke anymore. Distinctions and Meltdown are gone, and Subjects for Further Research is shortened. With four artists--Steve Coleman, Fugazi, Huun-Huur-Tu, and Uz Jsme Doma--I've kept the album that got me interested (meaning the one I'm sure of) in the appropriate A List; with one--Jimi Hendrix, the exception to every rule--I stopped reviewing mid-decade and explained why in the appendix.

The A Lists, which add best-ofs to revised versions of the Dean's Lists I publish in the Voice's Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll every February, continue unchanged: registers of every A record released in a given year. As always, these are arranged in order of preference, with some caveats. Let me be clear: I have not relistened to all 870-odd A and A minus records to find out how well they held up. Listening to each one just once would take roughly eight 14-hour seven-day weeks--or, please mister, 20 work weeks as conceived by any self-respecting American union member. As part of my ongoing criticism-can-be-fun program, I have checked out titles whose positioning looked way wrong; I've also relistened to albums newly reviewed or revised for this book, and moved other titles up and down according to the use, pleasure, and stimulation they've been good for over the years. This can be tricky, especially with best-ofs pitting whole careers and genres against single albums; committed grader, rater, and quantifier though I am, I almost had an anxiety attack comparing Anthology of American Folk Music and ESPN Slam Jams Vol. 1, some pair, to my favorite true 1997 releases, Arto Lindsay's Mundo Civilizado and Sleater-Kinney's Dig Me Out. I expect my final order--Mundo-Anthology-ESPN-Dig--will seem esoteric if not bananas to part-timers who believe, sanely, that even if these are all "rock" records in my expansive sense, they're also incommensurably different. So what would you think were I then to claim that the ringer of the four is the six-CD Anthology, whose many dull moments are toned up considerably by their positioning in the monument?

Those critics who don't consider 10-best lists a betrayal of their august calling fall into three schools, two of which I belong to. Nuts to the one-from-group-A approach, in which crits pay tribute to pop's broad palette--and also prove what nonracist/nonsexist/nonrockist fellows they are--by reserving slots for rap (the Arrested Development Memorial Set-Aside) or country (didn't Dolly Parton do a bluegrass thing?) or women (not Dolly, we already counted her for country) or . . . Music doesn't break down so neatly, especially when predivided into arbitrary 12-month chunks. But I refuse to choose between the fun school, in which you vote for the records you've played the most, and the art school, in which you vote for the records you adjudge "best."

Fun is a value, in pop music a big one; not only that, quantity is a quality. Problem is, quality is a quality too. My favorite album of all time, since you ask, is either The Clash or New York Dolls (actually, that would be rock album--for reasons I'm not professionally required to go into, thank God, my all-music fave is Thelonious Monk's Misterioso). Both are "fun," as it happens. But they're also loud and harsh, and don't fit very neatly into my middle-aged, nuke-fam leisure schedule. On the rare occasions when I play them, however, they still amaze from beginning to end with their power and subtlety, their never-ending freshness and in-your-face wit. That's aesthetic quality as I define it--an important species of it, anyway. I play Guitar Paradise of East Africa much more these days, Mundo Civilizado and Latin Playboys and Have Moicy! too. They're all high on my life list as well. But The Clash and New York Dolls beat them out. The A Lists were constructed by calibrating many psychic scales--balancing fun against art, pondering how any Slam Jam could enrich my life more than Rabbit Brown's "James Alley Blues," comparing the greatest disco survey/party anyone will ever compile to a fluke career album by a deservedly cultish Australian pop band. The ones toward the top I heartily recommend to almost anyone; the ones toward the bottom I simply guarantee to be good records, whatever that means (only we both know, don't we?).

Between Subjects for Further Research and the A Lists fall two additional sections. As you might expect in a decade when the record biz made its margin repackaging history, Compilations is twice as long as it was in the '80s. Even with multiple-artist collections separated out in the text, trying to remember the title of that good African comp is bad for your mental health. The Compilations register sorts them by genre; scan down, page back to the review, and the answer will come to you. And speaking of repackaging history, who better to do the job than those who made it, if only in their own minds? Hence the cavalcade of elsewhere unaccounted-for has-beens in Everything Rocks and Nothing Ever Dies, which replaces Distinctions Not Cost-Effective, Meltdown, and even, all things must pass, New Wave.

The title originated as my colleague Eric Weisbard's all-purpose review for the venerable rock artists who would mysteriously rematerialize every summer--sometimes on big-ticket tours, sometimes on free gigs sponsored by the Parks Department and other well-meaning institutions. In less cosmopolitan areas, many hit the county fairs, where rock dinosaurs now vie with aging country stars as favored perennials. And hey, that's entertainment. Let the people have their fun and the old-timers collect their checks--no one should have to live on Social Security. But in a decade when everybody else made records, it would be unrealistic in the extreme to expect these lifers to abstain. So all the human beings and brand names listed in what I'll nickname Everything ventured albums of new studio material in the '90s. Some had lost it, some had never had it, some were proud to be skilled labor. Many were attempting comebacks, others had stuck at it, and one was Sting. None of the individuals were clones so far as I know, but too many of the groups were--the oldies circuit is rife with undistinguishable doowop brands featuring second tenors who put in three months in 1958, and, to choose one instance, the version of the Guess Who that recorded features neither of the band's leads.

Of course, were Burton Cummmings and Randy Bachman to rejoin bassist Jim Kale in a fully reconstituted band (they could open for Tal Bachman, that would be heartwarming), there still wouldn't be any reason to check out the ensuing product. For every Percy Sledge reemerging on a pretty damn good album there are dozens of Boz Scaggs and Solomon Burkes birthing barely OK or utterly DOA ones. And not only were all three of the just-named more gifted than the Guess Who to begin with, they weren't groups. Group dynamics are of the essence in rock and roll, a living metaphor and prime energy source. But they wear down a lot faster than individual metabolisms. Pere Ubu rejelled in the late '80s, and the Holy Modal Rounders have been reuniting periodically since something like 1964. But the vast majority of reunions are stillborn, bald plays for name recognition. So let us take a moment to silently honor the following groups for not making new records in the '90s: Humble Pie, Gentle Giant, Iron Butterfly, Slade, the Sweet, the Four Seasons, the Five Satins, Poco, Pavlov's Dog, Dexy's Midnight Runners, Skafish, Klaatu, the Everly Brothers, the Boswell Sisters, Mott the Hoople, Cream, and Blind Faith.

I like old people, especially old people who love music--I'm one myself. As I've been arguing since I was a wizened 33 or so, the claim that rock and roll is exclusively for the young is a big fat lie. So it's possible that one or two or even five of the precisely 200 acts specially selected for this category came up with something new. No more, though. I'm sure because I've heard nearly half of them. In fact, a great many of their contemporaries sang and played their way into the text, with more than a few--Bonnie Raitt, Randy Newman, George Clinton, Peter Stampfel, Willie Nelson, Loudon Wainwright III, Neil Young of course, why not mention Ladysmith Black Mambazo, more--coasting onto the A Lists. The downside is that I initially dispensed with several albums by Everything artists as Duds or Neithers, only to conclude that they weren't worth that much book space. War's eponymous 1994 comeback isn't half bad. But it isn't half good, either. So while it's fine with me if it recharged their Keoughs and their cardiovascular systems, I can't in good conscience advise a neutral music lover to give it a second thought.

What the Everything list might look like in 2010 I can't imagine. I can't even swear I'm looking forward to finding out. Then again, I can't really imagine what'll be on the A Lists either. But I'll bet the Keough on this: If the artists on this decade's A Lists can be said to span a 40-year age spread, 10 years from now it'll be 50. What more can I ask?

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


Z Subjects for Further Research