Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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It's Been a Soft Year for Hard Rock

As per tradition, let me open this discussion with my own personal top 30 for 1975, arrived at with more travail than seems healthy to me.

  1. Bob Dylan/The Band: The Basement Tapes 24
  2. Neil Young: Tonight's the Night 11
  3. Steely Dan: Katy Lied 10
  4. James Talley: Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got a Lot of Love 10
  5. Bob Dylan: Blood on the Tracks 10
  6. Toots and the Maytals: Funky Kingston 8
  7. Elton John: Rock of the Westies 8
  8. Bob Marley and the Wailers: Natty Dread 8
  9. Patti Smith: Horses 6
  10. Bonnie Raitt: Home Plate 5
  11. Roxy Music: Siren
  12. Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run
  13. Lynyrd Skynyrd: Nuthin' Fancy
  14. Neil Young: Zuma
  15. Eno: Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)
  16. The Band: Northern Lights--Southern Cross
  17. Fleetwood Mac
  18. Amazing Rhythm Aces: Stacked Deck
  19. Gary Stewart: Out of Hand
  20. Manfred Mann's Earth Band: Nightingales & Bombers
  21. Terry Garthwaite: Terry
  22. Loudon Wainwright III: Unrequited
  23. John Prine: Common Sense
  24. Randall Bramblett: The Other Mile
  25. K.C. and the Sunshine Band
  26. Shirley and Company: Shame Shame Shame
  27. Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here
  28. Al Green: Al Green Is Love
  29. The Meters: Cissy Strut
  30. Leon Redbone: On the Track

A lot of my colleagues are feeling beamish with power these days: this has been a good year for rock and roll, they tell me, burping contendedly after trying to fit 13 records onto their 10-place ballot for this year's Pazz & Jop Critics Poll. I disagree, and I think Pazz & Jop illustrates why. Look carefully at the results for a moment: I did not choose the figure 13 arbitrarily. Roughly speaking, that is where the critical consensus stops short. Not that any of the 38 participating critics chose from precisely those 13 records on which the consensus arrived. But those were the possibilities that dominated our collective mind; with the inevitable exceptions (especially vehement on Patti Smith, who is not much appreciated outside of New York, at least not yet; more weary and widespread on Roxy Music, who understandably leave many listeners cold, and the Who, whom even admirers of the present LP suspect of moribundity) people who apply aesthetic standards to "rock" agree that all 13 are "good records" of one sort or another.

In contrast, consider the next three finishers. Paul Simon's staunchest fans will admit that Still Crazy represents a slip--the controversy is over how big a slip. Red Headed Stranger is a cosmic cowboy cult record. And while Fleetwood Mac is very, very pleasant, as my own list attests, it most certainly garnered its votes as "good listening" rather than "good art."

Since rock criticism is determinedly hedonistic, that distinction still doesn't go down with some participants, who insist that what they listen to is identical to what is good. Lester Bangs voted for The Dictators Go Girl Crazy! and Metal Machine Music because the played them more than he did Blood on the Tracks; Vince Aletti omitted Al Green Is Love because he filed it away after admiring it a few times. But more than ever the results represent a kind of balance. What mattered was not only what we'd been playing, but also how much a record had to give when it did reach our turntables.

Which brings us back to the lucky 13. Look at the titles again--a rather limited selection, wouldn't you say? Two each from Bob Dylan (numero uno), Roxy Music (critic's band), and Neil Young (genuine comeback, hooray). An album by numero uno's band. Old faves the Who, new faves Steely Dan. Token blackness from two of the three single-artist reggae LPs released in America in 1975, one of them a compilation stretching back more than half a decade for its goodies. And two critic's records, one an enormous--frightening, I'd say-- commercial success, the other as yet unproved among people in general. Charley Walters--who voted for Diamond Head, by Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera--looks over his list and experiences some disquiet: "It makes me feel as though I spent the entire year listening to Dylan and Roxy."

In 1974, the top 13 were not so sharply demarcated from what came below, and there were really 13 of them: Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Randy Newman, Stevie Wonder, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and the Band, Roxy Music, Jackson Browne, Eric Clapton, New York Dolls, Linda Ronstadt, Gram Parsons, the Raspberries.

Admittedly, part of this year's narrowness reflects nonoutput by Newman, Wonder, the Stones, and Browne, all of whom will be back. But it also reflects the death of Parsons and the break-up of the Dolls (now semi-reunited and looking for a contract) and the Raspberries (a fluke anyway, I suppose--leader Eric Carmen's solo album of this year received just one mention). And it reminds us of how badly Joni Mitchell (two mentions), Linda Ronstadt (also two mentions, albeit such enthusiastic ones that she placed number 26), and Eric Clapton (one mention for his studio LP, two for his live) let us down this year. Two fine LPs from Neil Young don't quite compensate for all of that.

Of course, I could be reading too much into this. A certain ebb and flow is to be expected, and I have no doubt that some of the artists who were disappointments in 1975 will surprise me pleasantly in 1976 or 1979. But there's more reason for my gloom; you can find it in the point values I assigned in my own Pazz & Jop ballot: The Basement Tapes 24, Tonight's the Night 11, . .. . There were 12 albums vying for my top 10, but only one of them had the earmark of greatness--the same album that also dominated the Pazz & Jop consensus by a wide margin. This album was never intended to be an album at all, which is fine with me--I'm not much of a studiolator myself. But it has to be just a little depressing to people that the accident occurred in 1967.

I made the counterargument myself when the set appeared last summer: it would have been the best of 1967, too. I think so. But it is significant how utterly The Basement Tapes dwarfs even the most courageous music to come out of this year, this time. Tonight's the Night and Horses--both uncompromising records--sound puny and desperate in comparison. They lack the utopian edge, that hint of cultural possibility, that gives the realism of The Basement Tapes its agreeably wry flavor. Realism is narrower now, more personal, and so 1975 produced 13 "good records" by 10 artists plus a lot of (often excellent but nevertheless) personalized taste.

This fact embarrasses critics a little, I think--Jerry Leichtling told me he omitted The Basement Tapes to make his list more contemporary, and others commented that they didn't want to list two records by one artist. Which is to say, the consensus could have been even broader. As I compiled it was not clear for a while which of the top four would pull ahead. I was surprised and gratified by Patti Smith's strong showing (which came almost entirely from New York in what is purposely a New York-dominated poll--a late vote from Larry Rohter of the Washington Post would have put Springsteen back in second) and slightly embarrassed by Springsteen's. But I was worried by both, because the two records seem to me to typify the inevitable insularity of criticism.

Taking a lead from MIT prof and former Rolling Stone reviewer Langdon Winner, who came out of semi-retirement in the Real Paper to point out that Born to Run represents the formalization of all rock's rebel precepts, I have to believe that neither Springsteen's sense of history nor his saving vulgarity contributes as much to his popularity as the subliminal promise of aesthetic safety he offers. And while the acceptance of Patti Smith signifies the receptivity of rock's critical establishment to music that is genuinely avant-garde in roots and intent, that does not obliterate two objections: one, that Smith's avant-gardism is second-hand, semi-realized, or both--I'm not convinced that many of the critics who like her work are qualified to judge how vanguard it really is; and two, that the popular appeal of Smith's music maybe limited to those who want to think of themselves as avant-garde, critics included. I'm not saying I believe this myself; I don't think I do. But the possibility remains, and I think it's much too early to declare Horses any kind of masterpiece. The victory of The Basement Tapes represents the bitter truth about a year that was equivocal at best: I'll always settle for that.

This was a bad year for black music, especially on albums; if I'd contacted more critics specializing in black music--next year I will--I'm sure the Harold Melvin album would have done even better, but after that it's Earth, Wind & Fire, the equivalent of Fleetwood Mac. It was also an excellent year for country music, with four albums making the top 30 as opposed to one last year. In the case of each fringe I think this is largely a matter of care in making the albums inconsistent at best, while country artists are just beginning to catch on to the great Sgt. Pepper/Otis Redding album-as-work-of-art tradition.

Pazz & Jop expanded this year; due to my own bad organization, I didn't reach as many critics as I would have liked. Critics who don't know a lot of other critics are the best corrective to critical cliquishness, though a certain penchant for the obvious does tend to result as well. Last year 24, this year 38, next year 52? And maybe someone named Brenda to help me with the tabulations.

Meanwhile, thanks to all voters, plus a few sample ballots below if there's room: Vince Aletti, Lester Bangs, Patrick Carr, Georgia Christgau, Ben Edmonds, Ken Emerson, Danny Fields, Ben Gerson, Toby Goldstein, Peter Herbst, Robert Hilburn, Stephen Holden, Lenny Kaye, Jerry Leichtling, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Janet Maslin, Ira Mayer, Bruce Meyer, Jim Miller, John Morthland, Fred Murphy, Paul Nelson, Wayne Robins, Lisa Robinson, John Rockwell, Frank Rose, Mitchell Schneider, Bud Scoppa, Tom Smucker, Geoffrey Stokes, John Swenson, Ken Tucker, Mark von Lehmden, Charles Waters, Ed Ward, James Wolcott.

Other Critics Pick Their Hits

PATRICK CARR: 1. Red Headed Stranger 20; 2. The Basement Tapes 15; 3. Delbert McClinton: Victim of Life's Circumstances 15; 4. Natty Dread 10; 5. Dreaming My Dreams 10; 6. Horses 5; 7. Allen Toussaint: Southern Nights 5; 8. Bad Company: Straight Shooter 5; 10. Funky Kingston 5.

VINCE ALETTI: 1. Silver Convention: Save Me 10; 2. Donna Summer: Love to Love You Baby 10; 3. Smokey Robinson: A Quiet Storm 10; 4. To Be True 10; 5. The O'Jays: Family Reunion 10; 6. That's the Way of the World 10; 7. The Salsoul Orchestra 10; 8. Barabbas: Heart of the City 10; 9. The Trammps 10; 10. Bohannon: Insiders Out 10.

TOM SMUCKER: 1. Shirley and Company: Shame Shame Shame 20; 2. Evie Sands: Estate of Mind 20; 3. Prisoner in Disguise 15; 4. Stacked Deck 10; 5. Pink Floyd: Man Shakes Hands With Man on Fire 10; 6. Commodores: Caught in the Act 5; 7. Horses 5; 8. Red Headed Stranger 5; 9. Northern Lights--Southern Cross 5; 10. The Miracles: City of Angels 5.

LESTER BANGS: 1. Horses 30; 2. The Dictators: The Dictators Go Girl Crazy! 20; 3. Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) 15; 4. Born to Run 5; 6. David Bowie: Young Americans 5; 7. Lou Reed: Metal Machine Music 5; 7. That's the Way of the World 5; 8. Kraftwerk: Autobahn 5; 9. Country Life 5; 10. Funky Kingston 5.

ED WARD: 1. Elvin Bishop: Juke Joint Jump 22; Dreaming My Dream 20; 3. The Basement Tapes 10; 4. Asleep at the Wheel: Texas Gold 10; 5. Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) 7; 6. Man: Slow Motion 7; 7. Tonight's the Night 7; 8. Out of Hand 6; 9. Natty Dread 6; 10. Betty Wright: Danger High Voltage 5.

GREIL MARCUS: 1. The Basement Tapes 17; Katy Lied 15; 3. Blood on the Tracks 14; 4. Got No Bread . . . 12; 5. Northern Lights--Southern Cross 12; 6. Siren 10; 7. Funky Kingston 5; 8. Natty Dread; 9. Tonight's the Night 5; 10. Born to Run 5.

GEOFFREY STOKES: 1. The Basement Tapes 23; 2. Tonight's the Night 12; 3. Blood on the Tracks 11; 4. Horses 10; 5. Funky Kingston 10; 6. Rod Stewart: Atlantic Crossing 8; 7. Bonnie Raitt: Home Plate 8; 8. Stacked Deck 7; 9. Tut Taylor: The Old Post Office 6; Northern Lights--Southern Cross 5.

FRED MURPHY: 1. That's the Way of the World 10; 2. Revelation 10; 3. Natalie Cole: Inseparable 10; 4. Labelle: Phoenix 10; 5. The Pointer Sisters: Steppin' 10; 6. Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan 10; 7. Isaac Hayes: Chocolate Chip 10; 8. The Isley Brothers: The Heat Is On; 9. To Be True 10; 10. Roberta Flack: Feel Like Makin' Love 10.

JAMES WOLCOTT: Horses 18; 2. The Basement Tapes 13; 3. Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) 13; 4. The Who by Numbers 12; 5. Blood on the Tracks 10; 6. Northern Lights--Southern Cross 10; 7. Katy Lied 7; 8. Elton John: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy 7; 9. Born to Run 5; 10. Beserkley Chartbusters Volume 1 5.

FRANK ROSE: 1. Blood on the Tracks 14; 2. Horses 14; 3. Funky Kingston 13; 4. Born to Run 13; 5. Zuma 11; 6. Ronnie Lane: Ronnie Lane's Slim Chance 9; 7. Joni Mitchell: The Hissing of Summer Lawns 8; 8. Millie Jackson: Still Caught Up 7; 9. Northern Lights--Southern Cross 6; The Basement Tapes 5.

JERRY LEICHTLING: 1. Blood on the Tracks 15; 2. Tonight's the Night 13; 3. Marlena Shaw: Who Is This Bitch Anyway? 12; 4. Northern Lights--Southern Cross 12; 5. Katy Lied 10; 6. Jan Hammer: The First Seven Days 10; 7. Melissa Manchester: Melissa 9; 8. Larry Coryell: The 11th House: Level One 8; 9. Leon Redbone: On the Track 6; 10. Funky Kingston 5.

LENNY KAYE: 1. Physical Graffiti 10; 2. Tonight's the Night 10; 3. Blow by Blow 10; 4. The Basement Tapes 10; 5. Natty Dread 10; 6. Steve Harley & Cockney Rebels: The Best Years of Our Lives 10; 7. Albert Ayler: Witches and Devils 10; 8. Beserkley Chartbusters 10; 9. Horses 10; 10. Siren 10.

CHARLEY WATERS: 1. Country Life 13; 2. The Basement Tapes 13; 3. Phil Manzanera: Diamond Head 12; 4. Physical Graffiti 11; 5. Siren 11; 6. Katy Lied 10; 7. Blood on the Tracks 9; 8. Hummingbord 8; 9. The Who by Numbers 7; 10. Mahavishnu Orchestra: Visions of the Emerald Beyond 6.

JANET MASLIN: 1. Blood on the Tracks 15; 2. Still Crazy After All These Years 15; 3. Katy Lied 13; 4. The Basement Tapes 13; 5. Bee Gees: Main Course 10; 6. To Be True 8; 7. Born to Run 8; 8. Ian Hunter 6; 9. Millie Jackson: Still Caught Up 6; 10. Northern Lights--Southern Cross 6.

PAUL NELSON: 1. Born to Run 13; 2. Zuma 13; 3. Red Headed Stranger 13; 4. The Basement Tapes 13; 5. Blood on the Tracks 13; 6. Tonight's the Night 9; 7. Northern Lights--Southern Cross 9; The Who by Numbers 7; 9. Rod Stewart: Atlantic Crossing; 10. Elliott Murphy: Lost Generation 5.

Village Voice, Dec. 29, 1975


1974 Critics Poll | Dean's List 1976