User's Guide to the Consumer Guide
The Consumer Guide has a long history. I wrote my first batch of letter-graded capsule reviews for The Village Voice in July, 1969, and published them regularly till I was hired by Long Island's Newsday in March, 1972. A monthly Consumer Guide was compiled from my Newsday work in Creem, which then reprinted the column after I returned to the Voice in August, 1974. My last Voice Consumer Guide appeared in the August 15-21, 2006 issue. Two weeks later I was fired.
So I now have three gigs. I'm a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, where I'll write many record reviews slightly longer than what has become the average Consumer Guide length of 125 words. I do regular record pieces at NPR's All Things Considered. And Microsoft MSN Music will publish a Consumer Guide the first day of every other month. For the benefit of old fans, I'll explain how the MSN CG will differ from the Voice version shortly. But first let me explain to new readers how the feature works.
Originally the Consumer Guide used an A-to-E grading system that I waggishly explained in the first of three decade-spanning books based on my published columns. These weren't like grades in school -- there were too many B plus records for anything lower to count as a recommendation. Yet every month I rated plenty of albums B or below.
By 1990, however, I'd had it with calibrating the not-so-hot. That was for critics, I reasoned -- consumers were just looking for records to buy. So I'd limit myself to what I refer to as "A records," meaning those rated A plus (very rare, three a year is a lot and zero not uncommon, mostly because prolonged enjoyment is so tricky to predict), A (annually there are a dozen or 15 of those), and A minus (in a good year I find maybe 70).
Then there'd be a few "high B plusses" (which I agonize over so long I figure they have something but not quite enough).
Only I soon decided there'd be other records I couldn't overlook altogether. At first there were maybe half a dozen of these "Honorable Mentions." But as album production increased tenfold in the '90s, so that twice as many hours of music were recorded annually than there were hours in a year, Honorable Mentions mushroomed. Engaged competence with flashes of inspiration became the essence of our musical condition. I'd changed formats just in time.
Needless to say, whether you care how I rate something is up to you. But let me suggest some possible reasons. The Consumer Guide has lasted so long because many people do find it useful -- record buyers who learn to correct for my taste and exploit my judgment, critics and the like who find that I generally stuff a lot of ideas and observations into these little reviews, and members of both classes who know that at the very least I'm so hype-resistant that my opinions are actually my opinions without being willfully idiosyncratic.
For a critic, I have mainstream tastes in a wide variety of genres, which is not to say I'm devoid of prejudices [*see below]. I like hip-hop and what I still call alt-rock and lots of "world" genres and some country and some folk and definitely some pop; I don't assume that major labels are good or evil; I think some artists peak after they turn 50 and others should retire.
My biggest gift is my appetite -- I generally have a record on 12 to 18 hours a day. Rarely do I give anything an A without having passed it through my mind-body continuum at least five times (usually more); even Honorable Mentions get three to five (often more). But my second biggest gift is that I know what I think. I don't write about something 'til I'm pretty sure how much I like it, and I'm skilled at recognizing when that is.
So what the Consumer Guide provides is a knowledgeable report based on extensive comparison that's beholden to no taste culture or commercial interest. What it doesn't provide is instant raves or next big things, both always suspect in rock criticism and these days epidemic in the online world.
Most A records I get on pretty quick -- I like them once and keep going. But there are many exceptions -- I have no compunctions about giving an A to a record most critics wrote about many months ago, and will occasionally pluck up a release that's several years old. This is even truer among Honorable Mentions, many of them records that hit me right first time, sounded flat the next, and disappeared into a temporary limbo as more engaging music hogged my ear time.
I should also mention Choice Cuts, which list the special track or two that attracted me to a record which ended up having no other salient virtues; because the second part of that formula is such dull work, I often come in very late on these, which can look pretty weird with a song that's long since exhausted its chart run. Duds simply list records unworthy of further comment. I also maintain an unpublished file called Neither for twixt-Dud-and-Honorable-Mention entries. An explanation of the current grading system, with Honorable Mentions broken down for book purposes, was published in Christgau's Consumer Guide: Albums of the '90s.
For design reasons, the Voice Consumer Guide got squeezed to nine or even eight A records plus the Must to Avoid pan I include every month to keep myself sharp. Bimonthly at MSN Music, with Voice features like the Christmas gift guide and Thanksgiving Turkey Shoot eliminated, I expect to include 10 to 12 A records and loads of Honorable Mentions -- arranged, as always, in order of preference. (Choice Cuts are too. Duds are alphabetical.)
But where Voice readers could count on my grading every A and Honorable Mention I could find except for those I wrote full columns about, Rolling Stone requires that I wait four months after reviewing a record there to do an A review here, and often I'll just take a pass. I can still do Honorable Mentions right away -- in my first MSN CG, Justin Timberlake and Jones-Haggard qualify. But Dead Moon (B plus), the Teddybears (A minus), and Lee Scratch Perry's Panic in Babylon (A minus) I'll probably skip. Tom Waits's Orphans, on the other hand, will get a second look come April 1.
I'll spare you more except to say that I'm no less serious about criticism in this format than in any other. One way I write tight is by assuming my readers are smart and well-informed -- that they have a tolerance for cognitive dissonance and know how to use a search engine. Those who wonder how I've rated artists in the past -- or who would like to know who the hell that African guy is -- are invited to visit my Web site. It's highly utilitarian -- just enter an artist in the "CG Search:" bar and voila. Those seeking even more elucidation of my general critical views should click "Books" and then each of the three CG titles. They all come with lengthy introductions. This one has been lengthy enough.
*Prejudices? Quote from my interview at Rockcritics.com:
[q] It's safe to say that no other rock critic has ever covered as wide a range of music as you have. In terms of genres or significant artists, what -- if any -- do you think are your blind spots as a music critic?
[a] First of all, I don't think I cover more kinds of music than any other critic. I think I'm remarkably enthusiastic and knowledgeable about African music and that confuses people. Jon Pareles and Chuck Eddy, to cite just two colleagues who jump to mind, have as broad a range as I do. As for my limitations, they're public and they're legion. Metal, art-rock, bluegrass, gospel, Irish folk, fusion jazz (arghh) -- all prejudices I'm prepared to defend and in most cases already have, but prejudices nevertheless. I pretty much lost reggae with dancehall; my acquaintance with most techno is a nodding one (zzzz); I've never really liked salsa even though Puerto Rico is one of my favorite places on earth and my daughter loves salsa and my niece and nephew run a music club in San Juan. (Admittedly, all my rels share my fondness for older Cuban-influenced styles.) Mostly the salsa thing is a matter of brass tuttis -- I've never liked most '30s jazz because I don't like tuttis. I also don't like flutes or vibraphones most of the time. As I said, I'm prepared to argue these prejudices -- even the tuttis. I oppose shows of virtuosity and undisciplined outpourings of self-regarding emotion on deeply held aesthetic grounds. But since I'm always ready to make specific exceptions to any such generalization, it would certainly be fair to argue that in all the above styles I'm not ready enough.
Oh yeah -- classical music. Did I mention classical music?
Newer [Feb. 2008] version here.
MSN Music, Dec. 2006