Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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This was originally published as free content, in Robert Christgau's And It Don't Stop newsletter. You can have Christgau's posts delivered to your mailbox if you subscribe.

A Consumer Guide to the Music I've Devoted My Life To

From New Orleans to Kharkiv, with stops in between for the invention of rock & roll, the greatest ballad singer this side of Frank Sinatra, Africa's biggest pop star, and, of course, fried ice cream.

For 30 years or so my old Village Voice compadre and fellow Flushingite Mark Jacobson has overseen a monthly event at the unusually vertical East 4th Street bar KGB--the KGB Journalist Reading Series, he says it's called, though if so Google knows naught of it. A few weeks ago he asked me to headline the March 14 edition with some Consumer Guide material, and I said sure without reflecting overmuch on what such a gig might entail. This was naive of me--as I explained to my SRO but not therefore huge audience, it's one thing to select five or 10 consecutive pages of a recent book or article to read aloud, another to cherry-pick 25 or 30 "album briefs," as arts editors call them, out of the 15,000 or whatever it is you've turned out over half a century and counting. Selecting 27 of them, which was the 25 minutes' worth I ended up with, proved a tougher job--one that took several days further complicated by a dysfunctional printer and a looming appointment with the family accountant.

That said, the hours I put into constructing the list, which is reprinted in full below, paid off--everyone seemed to have a good time, and I sure did. In the audience were Alex Morris, whose comic yet touching New York Magazine report on the very belated teen wannapunks of St. Marks Place I was glad I heard most of; longtime Voice writer and then editor Doug Simmons, now happily retired from a long tour at Bloomberg; my music-savvy physical therapist Joe Spallone, whose Function First operation on 23rd Street I recommend to anyone who asks--"strongest hands in the business," as his client Carola Dibbell once tweeted; and my sister Georgia, who located the climactic Low Cut Connie review on her phone after I discovered I'd forgotten to print it out.

Of course I went for some laughs--the Mötley Crüe and Leonard Cohen closers scored in that department, as did the Master Musicians of Jajouka lead. But the real aim was to construct not merely a supercondensed precis of the mini-reviews that like it or not are my trademark form but a drastically abridged account of the music I've devoted my life to for an audience most of whom had given this matter less thought than me or my fanbase. Hence I began with Louis Armstrong and then Chuck-and-Elvis (only Elvis as pop not rock) and ended with Low Cut Connie's historical overview and four Ukrainians' struggle to participate in that history (latest news is Selo i Ludy are alive and not unwell and hoping to resume live gigs). But I also wanted to provide some notion of my own critical progress, which includes changing my mind sometimes, as with the Ohio Players (who Carola nominated for the extended joke of their first two entries alone). I wanted something like parity between Black and white music and regret not ending up with more female artists. But I know all too well how partial the achievement of all such goals is destined to be and feel no need to apologize further. So I'll merely close informing obsessives that the Wild Honey brief is not the official Consumer Guide version I wrote for a Voice lookback at the holy year of 1967 but rather one I later cooked up for a Rolling Stone stab at the same concept.

Louis Armstrong: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: 1923-1934 [Columbia/Legacy, 1994] I don't mean to start a parlor game, but does greatest artist of the 20th century mean anything to you? I mean, who else you got? Picasso? Joyce? Renoir? Elvis? So here's one $50 item you owe yourself. I doubt it could be winnowed much--expanded would be better (where's "I'm Not Rough"?), with four-plus hours an ideal introductory length. If some of it is less beatwise than a punk funkateer might hope, try to imagine how startling it sounded in an aural world that was still on the operetta standard, where John Philip Sousa ruled brass and Scott Joplin was jungle music. Then pay attention. Home in on Pops's trumpet solos--their strength, clarity, daring, ease, humor, swing, melodicism, and endless newness. Enjoy his irrepressible vocals without calling them comic relief--the comic is everywhere in this music. Get to know the brilliant originals. Hear how he takes over blues and hokum, pop classics and pop disposables without belittling his sources. Ask yourself whether high and low mean any damn thing at all. A PLUS

Chuck Berry: The Definitive Collection [Geffen/Chess, 2006] I hope a few young folks out there are aware that the inventor of rock and roll made his bones with six genre- and generation-defining '50s hits: "Maybellene," "Roll Over Beethoven," "School Day," "Rock and Roll Music," "Sweet Little Sixteen," and "Johnny B. Goode." I also hope they'll believe that he later wrote three equally titanic songs: "Almost Grown" and "You Never Can Tell," in which his patented American teenager goes out on his own and gets married, and the sub rosa celebration of the Freedom Rides "Promised Land." And I hope they won't be surprised to learn that those nine titles are only the cream of a 10-buck, 30-tracks-in-75-minutes collection whose most dubious selection both the Kinks and the Rolling Stones thought choice enough to cover. ("Beautiful Delilah," to be precise--I've come around on Berry's sole #1, the naughty 1972 sing-along "My Ding-a-Ling.") Bo Diddley excepted, Berry was the most spectacular guitarist of the rock and roll era, and every '60s band learned his licks. His bassist-producer was the capo of Chicago blues, his pianist entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on his own recognizance, and his drummers were huge. Yet though the size of his sound was unprecedented, the penetrating lightness of his unslurred vocals was as boyish as the young Eminem's because the crystalline words meant even more than the irresistible music. In the hall of mirrors that is Chuck Berry's catalogue, this is where to get oriented. But be forewarned that there's also a 71-track three-CD box that slightly overplays his blues pretensions and Nat King Cole dreams, and that this one could tempt a person to covet that consumable too. I dare you to find out. A PLUS

Elvis Presley: A Valentine Gift for You [RCA Victor, 1985] I know he invented rock and roll, in a manner of speaking, but I have news for you--that's not why he's worshiped as a god today. He's worshiped as a god today because in addition to inventing rock and roll he was the greatest ballad singer this side of Frank Sinatra--because the spiritual translucence and reined-in gut sexuality of his slow weeper and torchy pop blues still activate the hormones and slavish devotion of millions of female human beings worldwide. Beginning and ending with the schlock masterpieces "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" and "Can't Help Falling in Love" and rescuing tracks from such renowned works of phonographic art as the Viva Las Vegas EP, the Spinout soundtrack, and the Something for Everybody album, this may not be a religious experience, but it comes close. My only real complaint is Peggy Lee's (not Little Willie John's) "Fever." Because in this company I really miss "It's Now or Never." A

The Beach Boys: Wild Honey [Capitol, 1967] Produced mostly by Carl Wilson, this 24-minute album follows Smiley Smile by three months and gets no respect from those who believed trick harmonies and arcane changes were what made the group artistic. Called their "soul" album, perhaps for its Stevie Wonder cover or its use of the Negro term "out of sight" but more likely because it emphasized emotive lead vocals, its special gifts are an achieved naivete and irrepressible good humor as Southern Californian as baggies and woodies. There's not a deep or wasted second on it. A

The Shirelles: The Very Best of the Shirelles [Rhino, 1994] Shhh--quiet with your Chantels and Shangri-Las. Mmmm--later for Martha and the Marvelettes. Shirley Owens and her junior high pals were the archetypal girl group, the original and always the greatest. They had more than 16 perfect records in them, but although this omits "The Things I Want To Hear" and "It's Love That Really Counts" from Scepter's Greatest Hits, which is merely one of the greatest phonograph albums ever made available to the general public, it compensates with "Boys" and "Foolish Little Girl" and "I Met Him on Sunday" and "Don't Say Goodnight and Mean Goodbye." Then there are all the ones you know and a bunch you may not, topped by "A Thing of the Past," where Shirley's failure to hit a high note realizes the rock and roll essence John Lennon only thought he heard in "Angel Baby." Sweetened and seasoned by forgotten smoothie Luther Dixon, she was one of the music's great unspoiled singers, more expressive than all but a handful of the showoffs who followed in her brave footsteps--proud, tender, intensely vulnerable, her womanly sexuality tied to an emotional life richer than the guys she adores will ever be able to handle. A PLUS

Ohio Players: Skin Tight [Mercury, 1974]
Alternate title: Shoogity-Boogity. B

Ohio Players: Fire [Mercury, 1974]
The makers of Shoogity-Boogity bring you: More Shoogity-Boogity. B

Ohio Players: The Millenium Collection: The Best of Ohio Players [Mercury, 2000] A snazzier gleaning would include "Far East Mississippi" and some Westbound hits. But as competing UniMoth entries by the Gap Band, Trick James, and LTD make clear, this Dayton crew got the funk. What seemed like novelty ad infinitum in the '70s was in fact kompletely kinky, and not in the sense of honey-covered cover girls or (too bad) fresh interpretations of "Lola" and "You Really Got Me"--just wound-tight bass and drums and three horny men following turn for turn. Topping all was Leroy Bonner's falsetto etc., as toon-town as Bootsy yet, like Bootsy, soulful to the nth when it chose. Remember the 1974 ballad "I Want to Be Free"? No? Well, rent Spike Lee's Kings of Comedy, where a whole arena in Charlotte knows every word. A

James Brown: Sex Machine [King, 1970] Some doubt the claim that this was recorded in concert in Augusta, Georgia, but everyone believes in the music. On "Get Up I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine" he creates a dance track even more compelling than the single out of the same five elements: light funk-four on the traps, syncopated bass figure, guitar scratched six beats to the bar, and two voices for call and response. When he modulates to the bridge it's like the Spirit of God moving upon the face of the waters. After that he could describe his cars for three sides and get away with it (hope this doesn't give him any bright ideas), but in fact all of what remains is prime JB except for the organ version of "Spinning Wheel" (horn bands will out) and the cover of "If I Ruled the World" (thought he already did). Side four, with its powerful "Man's World," is especially fine, closing with a soul-wrenching scream that says it all. A

Funkadelic: One Nation Under a Groove [Warner Bros., 1978] I can't figure out why some Funkateers profess themselves unmoved by this one. The twelve-incher does come up a little short on guitar, but a generous Hendrix fix is thoughtfully provided on a 17-minute, seven-inch third side, and the title cut is as tough and intricate as goodfooting ever gets. Plus: "Who Says a Funk Band Can't Play Rock?" and "Into You," two manifestos that bite close to the bone, and "The Doo Doo Chasers," a scatological call-and-response cum responsive-reading whose shameless obviousness doesn't detract from fun or funk. Fried ice cream is a reality! Or: Think! It ain't illegal yet! A

Eno: Another Green World [Island, 1976] Although I resisted at first, I've grown to love every minute of this arty little collection of static (i.e., non-swinging) synthesizer pieces (with vocals, percussion, and guitar). Think of it as the aural equivalent of a park on the moon--oneness with nature under conditions of artificial gravity. Played in the background, all thirteen pieces merge into a pattern that tends to calm any lurking Luddite impulses; perceived individually, each takes on an organic shape of its own. Industrialism yes. A PLUS

Rolling Stones: Exile on Main Street [Rolling Stones, 1972] More than anything else this fagged-out masterpiece is difficult--how else describe music that takes weeks to understand? Weary and complicated, barely afloat in its own drudgery, it rocks with extra power and concentration as a result. More indecipherable than ever, submerging Mick's voice under layers of studio murk, it piles all the old themes--sex as power, sex as love, sex as pleasure, distance, craziness, release--on top of an obsession with time more than appropriate in over-thirties committed to what was once considered a youth music. Honking around sweet Virginia country and hipping through Slim Harpo, singing their ambiguous praises of Angela Davis, Jesus Christ, and the Butter Queen, they're just war babies with the bell bottom blues. A PLUS

Joni Mitchell: For the Roses [Asylum, 1972] Sometimes her complaints about the men who have failed her sound petulant, but the appearance of petulance is one of the prices of liberation. If this has none of the ingratiating ease of Blue, that's because Mitchell has smartened up--she's more wary, more cynical. Perhaps as a result, the music, which takes on classical colors from Tom Scott's woodwinds and Bobby Notkoff's chamber strings, is more calculated. Where the pretty swoops of her voice used to sound like a semiconscious parody of the demands placed on all female voices and all females, these sinuous, complex melodies have been composed to her vocal contours with palpable forethought. They reward stubborn attention with almost hypnotic appeal. A

Master Musicians of Jajouka: Apocalypse Across the Sky [Axiom, 1992] Apocalypse my ellipsis, pipes of Pan my patootie. Forget the delusions of grandeur this Tunisian mountain music has given rock and rollers since Brian Jones expected to fly and settle for a few facts, because the facts are grand enough. We have here an incontrovertibly sacred music with no regard for what any theocrat would validate as decorum or beauty. Dominated by screechy horns, it's loud, fast, percussive, and, whatever its scalar conventions, dissonant. Not only is it exciting because it's ugly, it's supposed to be exciting because it's ugly. That's why Bill Laswell went and recorded it again. And a good thing too, because a quarter century after Jones died, we rock and rollers know its scales well enough to find it beautiful too. Excitingly ugly we already knew about it. A MINUS

Motley Crue: Shout at the Devil [Elektra, 1984] It's hardly news that this platinum product is utter dogshit even by heavy metal standards; under direct orders from editors who don't know Iron Maiden from Wynton Marsalis, my beleaguered colleagues on the dailies have been saying so all year, and every insult goes into the press kit. Still, I must mention Mick Mars's dork-fingered guitar before getting to the one truly remarkable thing about this record: a track called "Ten Seconds To Love" in which Vince Neil actually seems to boast about how fast he can ejaculate (or as the lyric sheet puts it, "cum"). And therein, I believe, lies the secret of their commercial appeal--if you don't got it, flaunt it. Follow-up: "Pinkie Prick." D

Run-DMC: Raising Hell [Profile, 1986] Like the Rolling Stones twenty years ago, they're middle-class lads who are into music that's hard above all--they're street because they want to be. Granted, the analogy is less than exact. Where the Stones dramatized their streetness by becoming bohemians, Run-D.M.C. remain defiantly and even paradigmatically middle-class, a much tougher trick. Run-D.M.C. project less respect for women than the Stones, and less interest in them, too. They commit more lyrical gaffes. And their music is a lot further out. Without benefit of a "Rock Box" or "King of Rock," this is their most uncompromising and compelling album, all hard beats and declaiming voices. They're proud to be black all right, but I don't think it has much to do with George Washington Carver. They're proud to be black because it means they can do this. A MINUS

Prince: Sign o' the Times [Paisley Park, 1987] No formal breakthrough, and despite the title/lead/debut single, no social relevance move either, which given the message of "The Cross" (guess, just guess) suits me fine. Merely the most gifted pop musician of his generation proving what a motherfucker he is for two discs start to finish. With helpmate turns from Camille, Susannah, Sheila E., Sheena Easton, he's back to his one-man-band tricks, so collective creation fans should be grateful that at least the second-hottest groove here, after the galvanic "U Got the Look," is Revolution live. Elsewhere Prince-the-rhythm section works on his r&b so Prince-the-harmony-group can show off vocal chops that make Stevie Wonder sound like a struggling ventriloquist. Yet the voices put over real emotions--studio solitude hasn't reactivated his solipsism. The objects of his desire are also objects of interest, affection, and respect. Some of them he may not even fuck. A PLUS

NOFX: Punk in Drublic [Epitaph, 1994] In which these pranksters proceed to prove absolutely that a sense of humor provides useful training in broader human feelings. Among those they don't put down are a porn actress, a happy born-againer, a guy in Birkenstocks and a tie-dyed Rancid T-shirt, Hasidic O.G.'s, and--implicitly--people who like tunes with their rant and rave. They're a six-figure advance away from that exalted state where assholes everywhere can call them shallow and suburban. A MINUS

Leonard Cohen: The Future [Columbia, 1992] Sometime between ages 54 and 58, Cohen appears to have lost his voice. Where once his whisper was the essence of intimacy, now he's singing loud and saying less for longer. Which ends up not mattering because the music is his best since John Lissauer split in 1979. Even the instrumental is satisfying minor Cohen, kind of like the sexy stuff. The political stuff--the horror-stricken "The Future," the hope-stricken "Democracy"--is major. And the eight-minute sendup of Irving Berlin's 10-line "Always" is a pomo triumph: the hoarsely pitchless singing, the soul-on-demand of the backup girls, and the thudding beat are all travesties, all acts of love. At first you think, Sure, Lenny--"Always." Endless love, just your style. But as the minutes wear on you begin to think he may mean it, and then you begin to worry. Holy shit--is this old drunk going to be on my case for the rest of his unnatural life? Would he settle for a lost weekend? A MINUS

Metallica: Load [Elektra, 1996] One of the nice things about being old is that I'm neither wired to like metal nor tempted to fake it. Just as I figured, these here-come-the-new-heroes-same-as-the-old-heroes could no more make a "grunge" album than they could do double-entry bookkeeping. Grunge simply isn't their metier. So no matter what riff neatniks think, for outsiders this is just a metal record with less solo room, which is good because it concentrates their chops, and more singing, which isn't because they can't. C PLUS

The Moldy Peaches: The Moldy Peaches [Rough Trade, 2001] They are your parents' nice children and they are not decadent, they're still nice. They don't so much risk cute as sit on its face--they're cute fatties who need a 40 before declaring their fear of skinny girls who talk about bands, cute folkies who break without warning into punk noise and sing a deeply catchy song called "Who's Got the Crack," cute floozies who'll fuck anybody with anything when that's their mood or stage of life. Ambitious teen Adam Green writes about hiring whores older than his mom, bunny-suited twentysomething Kimya Dawson about Josie and the Pussycats. Only Kimya is so lovesick, malleable, or deep-down bad that she'll sing anything Adam tells her to, like the rhyme line on (note st-k consonances) "Who mistook this steak for chicken?/Who'm I gonna stick my dick in?" She's going to be fine, though--in fact, she's fine now. If she wasn't, she wouldn't be cute. Would she? A MINUS

Youssou N'Dour: Rokku Mi Rokka (Give and Take) [Nonesuch, 2007] Unlike the two previous Nonesuch albums by Africa's premier pop star--the 2002 ecumenical, the 2005 Muslim--this isn't designed to inspire conversion experiences. But believe that its melodicism and vocal dexterity exceed those of whatever contemporary standard-bearer you favor in those realms, that the clarity and range of the singing epitomize what is usually meant by beauty, and that at 48 this Sufi has got him some beats. Having long realized that crossover was most gracefully accomplished by conceptual clarity, he keeps things organized this time out by tending to business at home. On half the tracks a banjo-like ngoni, which this being Senegal N'dour designates a xalam, gestures toward the Malian desert directly to his north, imparting a capering intricacy and folkish flavor to what remains Dakar dance music. To most Americans, however, it will probably just sound like Africa, and pretty darn good. A

The Roots: How I Got Over [Def Jam, 2010] It's not like hop-hop and anxiety are strangers. But usually that means the mortal fear epitomized by the Notorious B.I.G., or the rampaging neuroses dramatized by Eminem, or the hand-to-mouth worries some alt-rappers cop to. Here it's garden-variety upper-middle-class anxiety. What's next? Am I doing the right thing? Can I pass my accomplishments on to my kids? Is the economy about to go phlooey? Is God on my side? Is God on anyone's side? These are exactly the querulous feelings associated with the alt-rock famously present on the Roots' ninth album in the form of the Dirty Projectors, the Monsters of Folk, and the perfectly sampled Joanna Newsom. Difference is, complex-rhyming Black Thought and his many gifted guest MCs express them more directly, thoughtfully, eloquently, and entertainingly than any of those tyros. And then they up the ante and confront their anxieties with a fortitude and even optimism embodied by Kamal Gray's keyboards, never my idea of this band's strenth, and, especially, ?uestlove's drums. I love sampled beats. But 90 percent of the time I'd rather ride Ahmir Thompson's hand, feet, and brain. A

Dabke: Sounds of the Syrian Houran [Sham Palace, 2012] From seven weddings and such in southern Syria, 42 board-tape-to-vinyl-only minutes collected by Sublime Frequencies' Mark Gergis and released in an edition of 1000. Why you should want such a fetish object is simple--access to the most intense music you'll hear all year, including anything by Gergis's related discovery Omar Souleyman. It's very male and replete with strange noises: grunts and yelps, chipmunk squeals, and the buzzy overtones of a bamboo flute called the mejwiz--sometimes live, sometimes sampled, sometimes, Gergis says, both. Yes the music drones--it's supposed to. No you won't understand a word they're singing--insofar as they're singing any. A little one-dimensional sure--assuming you're not from southern Syria yourself. A MINUS

Wussy: Attica! [Shake It, 2014] In which the best band in America remains the best song band in America while passing the Sonic Youth consortium on the outside to become the best distorto-guitar band in America, and although the competition in both categories has thinned out, how many ever dared combine it? Television? Nirvana? The Thompson Couple? That is the territory here. What once seemed the overkill of replacing minimalist Dawn Burman with muscleman Joe Klug opened a thruway to the big beat. What once seemed the neighborly gesture of taking in Ass Ponys steel hand John Erhardt powered sonic dimensions arena-rock dumbos risk tinnitus to achieve with Marshall stacks. The lyrics mix heroic feats of individual transcendence with a romantic striving vexed equally by economics and psychology as the melodies flow on unabated. Gender parity also guaranteed. A PLUS

Low Cut Connie: Tough Cookies: Best of the Quarantine Broadcasts [Contender, 2021] Even during lockdown I remained a record man, with little interest in DIY livestreams. But Adam Weiner, whose band I talked up for years before they somehow evolved into the hardest-working draw on the theater circuit, survived the live-music drought bigger and better than ever with his indefatigable Tough Cookies series, which he often augmented with sub-celebrity interviewees from Richard Hell to Hunter Biden. This musical cherry-pick of those 101 shows encapsulates their enthusiasm and charm. Sometimes performing in his underwear and always accompanied by Low Cut Connie's Will Donnelly, whose command of an encyclopedic panoply of hard-strumming guitar intros makes the music move, Weiner never fails to project smarts and heart, and these 23 tracks document his range and chutzpah. Beginning with a "West End Blues" where Weiner sings the trumpet part and ending with a deeply felt cover of Vera Lynn's "We'll Meet Again," his selections showcase his open range and big-hearted intelligence. An exceptionally fluent and percussive piano player if only a committed singer, he gives every selection including a "Kaddish" in Hebrew his all. Not counting the Armstrong-JB-Wings-Prince kickoff, my favorite sequence follows a pained version of Springsteen's "American Skin"--"This song was written over 20 years ago," he reminds George Floyd's mourners--with material that originated with Cardi B, Chic, Donna Summer, Grandmaster Flash, and the Weather Girls. Hava nagila. A

Selo i Ludy Performance Band: Bunch One [self-released, 2019] I first heard this Kharkiv-based accordion-balalaika-bass-drums band covering A-ha's "Take on Me" on an MSNBC segment shot early in the war in a basement bomb shelter they shared with nine other patriots, and was soon delighted to find this 2019 covers album in their "funny folk punk polka style" on Amazon. Not counting the two Rammstein tracks Alexander Goncharov intones in German, it comprises nine radio-friendly rock standards, two of the three I like most squeezed into a "Sweet Seven Nation Dreams" mashup Jack White deserves for copping the Eurythmics' bassline. What makes these songs standards is that they're catchy fun when done right, but in this context they also comprise an inspired claim on the democratic capitalism and artistic freedom even Ukrainians with surnames like revered Russian novelists want in on. This is where Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing," Bon Jovi's "It's My Life," and Queen's "I Want to Break Free" become cultural artifacts to build a dream on. With the band's drummer evacuated although Goncharov assures us he'll be back because the worst is over and the war will be won, they've been live-streaming as a trio from a grimmer looking bomb shelter on their own YouTube channel, where PayPal and Patreon options helps American admirers underwrite a rebuilding Selo i Ludy insist is no less inevitable than it is essential. With Putin apparently set on turning Kharkiv into Aleppo as I write, I just hope there'll be enough left to rebuild--with Selo i Ludy intact enough to keep pitching in. A

And It Don't Stop, March 22, 2023