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.

2019: Dean's List

Find hereabouts my 45th Dean's List, a tradition that goes back to the first (yes, first) Village Voice Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll in 1971, when I published the full top 10s of 40 working critics (fans' lists were also tallied that year, but not reproduced) after appending my own top 30, not yet dubbed the Dean's List, to an earlier Consumer Guide. In 1974, when I returned to the Voice from Newsday and resumed Pazz & Jop, I continued to publish a longer list of my own, which I expanded from 30 to 40 in 1979 and to an indeterminate length in 1981; the shortest subsequent one checked in at 49 in 1985 (by an odd coincidence, the year my daughter was born) and the longest in 2011, when I located 107 A records.

Clearly these varying lengths reflect my own diligence and workload: in 2019 the Consumer Guide was out of business all summer as I transitioned from Noisey to And It Don't Stop, and I also sunk below 80 in 2014, when I was transitioning from MSN to Medium. But the earlier expansion from 30 to 40 and beyond was fundamentally a function of how much music was out there. In the '90s I began pointing out that there were more hours of recorded music released every year than there were hours in a year, and in the Soundcloud/YouTube age the disparity has become incalculable. In 2019, the 46th or 47th Dean's List ended up honoring 76 A albums that include three EPs, and also 13 long-players released in 2018 and even before.

Leading the list you'll find two albums I pegged as certain top 10s from the time I reviewed them in March and April, although their one-two finish seemed unlikely with most of the year to come: Billie Eilish's flighty, electro, best-selling When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? and Todd Snider's earthy, primitivist, fans-only Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3. But down below things got messier. It took diligent summer listening for me to decide that Chance the Rapper's The Big Day was a backlash victim and enjoyable winter listening to conclude that it belonged at number three. I was a late convert to my number-four Purple Mountains. And although I was on Carsie Blanton's fifth-place Buck Up before it was officially self-released in March, I didn't even hear Kalie Shorr's ninth-place September self-release Open Book until 2020.

And then there was everything else. Of the 76 albums that made the cut, I've played or replayed all but a dozen since I began getting serious in December. When I did, some records bounced up (Ex, Tagaq, Mark) or down (Nassif, Saadiq, Capaldi); B plus Jamila Woods rocketed to 50 while A minus 6lack fell off the list altogether. And though these judgments have more muscle on them now than when I wrote my reviews, they're unlikely to remain final. I'm diligent about not jumping the gun on the grades I parcel out, but albums do continue to grow or diminish for those they touch. They're living things.

It should surprise no one that few of the albums in my top 10--Billie Eilish, Purple Mountains, and Kim Gordon, to be precise--made much of a dent among the deciders at Pitchfork and Rolling Stone, which with Pazz & Jop kaput now host the year-end album lists of record. Nor is it any surprise that only three of my finishers are under 30 and four are past 50. I'm 77, and while I identify with the young more than most of my cohort, my life issues are radically different from theirs. Without excavating the details, I'll note that though there are plenty of women on my list, most of them aren't on other people's--Angel Olsen's overbearing banality, to choose a prominent example, completely escapes me (although I reserve the right to end up upping Lana Del Rey's September ***). It would appear that I'm not quite the big hip-hop fan I once was either, though I expect that blip to right itself once I bear down a little.

Then again, while time and again I've decried the paucity of political music in the most politically fraught year since Hitler took cyanide and then shot himself (you go, Adolf), there was more than I sometimes feared and I latched onto what I found. Snider, Blanton, Tagaq, Delines, Ex, McCalla, Sleater-Kinney, Furman, Rapsody, Woods, Slowthai, Priests, Saadiq, and Quelle Chris all focused their wit, rage, fellow feeling, and hooks on racism and sexism, the wages of wealth and the rape of the planet. It should also surprise no one that I hope there's more in 2020, and that it makes a difference. Everyone reading this could use a happier newer year, and music alone can never guarantee that.

Expand reviews

  1. Billie Eilish: When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (Darkroom/Interscope)
  2. Todd Snider: Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3 (Aimless)
  3. Chance the Rapper: The Big Day (self-released)
  4. Purple Mountains: Purple Mountains (Drag City)
  5. Carsie Blanton: Buck Up (Carsie Blanton)
  6. Kim Gordon: No Home Record (Matador)
  7. Danny Brown: uknowwhatimsayin? (Warp)
  8. Sonic Youth: Battery Park, NYC: July 4th 2008 (Matador)
  9. Kalie Shorr: Open Book (Kalie Shorr)
  10. The Paranoid Style: A Goddamn Impossible Way of Life (Bar/None)
  11. Bruce Springsteen: Springsteen on Broadway (Columbia '18)
  12. Salif Keita: Un Autre Blanc (Believe/Naive)
  13. Stella Donnelly: Beware of the Dogs (Secretly Canadian)
  14. Big Thief: Two Hands (4AD)
  15. 75 Dollar Bill: I Was Real (Glitterbeat/Tak:til)
  16. Harriet Tubman: The Terror End of Beauty (Sunnyside '18)
  17. black midi: Schlagenheim (Rough Trade)
  18. Tanya Tagaq: Toothsayer (Six Shooter)
  19. The Delines: The Imperial (Decor/El Cortez)
  20. Chai: Punk (Burger)
  21. Lee "Scratch" Perry: Rainford (On-U Sound)
  22. The Ex: 27 Passports (Ex '18)
  23. that dog.: Old LP (UME)
  24. Tyler Childers: Country Squire (RCA/Hickman Holler)
  25. Leyla McCalla: Capitalist Blues (PIAS America)
  26. Sleater-Kinney: The Center Won't Hold (Mom + Pop)
  27. Jeffrey Lewis & the Voltage: Bad Wiring (Don Giovanni)
  28. Alex Chilton: From Memphis to New Orleans (Bar/None)
  29. Ezra Furman: Twelve Nudes (Bella Union)
  30. Lizzo: Cuz I Love You (Atlantic/Nice Life)
  31. Diabel Cissokho: Rhythm of the Griot (Kafou Music)
  32. Miranda Lambert: Wildcard (RCA)
  33. Craig Finn: I Need a New War (Partisan)
  34. Charly Bliss: Young Enough (Barsuk)
  35. Little Simz: Grey Area (Age 101)
  36. Ariana Grande: Sweetener (Republic '18)
  37. Rapsody: Eve (Jamla/Roc Nation)
  38. The National: I Am Easy to Find (4AD)
  39. Guy Clark: The Best of the Dualtone Years (Dualtone '17)
  40. Youssou Ndour: History (Naïve/Believe)
  41. Rachid Taha: Je Suis Africain (Naïve/Believe)
  42. Taylor Swift: Lover (Republic)
  43. Hama Sankare: Ballébé (Clermont Music '18)
  44. Pedro the Lion: Phoenix (Polyvinyl)
  45. Malibu Ken: Malibu Ken (Rhymesayers)
  46. The Coathangers: The Devil You Know (Suicide Squeeze)
  47. Chuck Cleaver: Send Aid (Shake It)
  48. Oumar Konaté: I Love You Inna (Clermont Music)
  49. Epic Beard Men: This Was Supposed to Be Fun (Strange Famous)
  50. Jamila Woods: Legacy! Legacy! (Jagjaguwar)
  51. Derek Senn: How Could a Man (self-released)
  52. Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba: Miri (Out Here)
  53. Amber Mark: Conexão EP (Virgin EMI '18)
  54. Nicki Minaj: Queen (Young Money/Cash Money/Republic '18)
  55. Big Thief: U.F.O.F. (4AD)
  56. Slowthai: Nothing Great About Britain (Method)
  57. Tyler Childers: Live on Red Barn Radio I & II (Thirty Tigers/Hickman Holler '18)
  58. 100 gecs, Dylan Brady & Laura Les: 1000 gecs (Dog Show)
  59. Sudan Archives: Athena (Stones Throw)
  60. Thiago Nassif: Três (Foom '18)
  61. Priests: The Seduction of Kansas (Sister Polygon)
  62. Saba: Care for Me (Saba Pivot '18)
  63. Madonna: Madame X (Interscope)
  64. The Seeds: Pushin' Too Hard: Original Soundtrack (GNP Cresendo/Big Beat)
  65. Raphael Saadiq: Jimmy Lee (Columbia)
  66. Khalid: Free Spirit (RCA)
  67. Quelle Chris: Guns (Mello Music)
  68. Daniele Luppi & Parquet Courts: Milano (30th '17)
  69. Lewis Capaldi: Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent (Capitol)
  70. Jealous of the Birds: Wisdom Teeth (Atlantic)
  71. Dua Saleh: Nur (EP) (Against Giants)
  72. Sneaks: Highway Hypnosis (Merge)
  73. Sharon Van Etten: Remind Me Tomorrow (Jagjaguwar)
  74. Alex Chilton: Ocean Club '77 (Norton '15)
  75. Serengeti: Dennis 6e (People '18)
  76. Bob Mould: Sunshine Rock (Merge)

And It Don't Stop, Jan. 26, 2020


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