These are questions submitted by readers, and answered by Robert Christgau. New ones will appear in batches every third Tuesday.
To ask your own question, please use this form.
April 14, 2021
Taste vs. judgment, the (somewhat) enduring appeal of Leon Thomas, the diminishing appeal of Green Day, reading about if not listening to Joanna Newsom, and the hymnals of Judee Sill and Todd Snider
[Q] In your Auriculum podcast you differentiated between taste which is subjective and judgment which involves, I gather, some objectivity. You also discuss your own preferences in music-- e.g. fast over slow and happy over sad. How do you reconcile those preferences in the taste/judgment continuum? -- David Wasser, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania
[A] Taste, obviously. But within those tremendously broad characterizations inhere countless gradations, none of which will determine in themselves my or anyone's aesthetic responses to an individual piece of music or portion of same. This means that even at the crudest levels they should generate questions like, "If I'm such a big fan of happy music how come I hate the Kars 4 Kids ad even more than you do?" or (to choose an example from this past March 17) "Shane MacGowan takes 'The Band Played Waltzing Matilda' so slow, why am I sitting there after the dishes are done doing nothing but listening six minutes in?" I go into this in some detail in the Sonic Youth piece "Rather Exhilarating" in Is It Still Good to Ya?, which includes the following slightly edited passage: "One concept the non-old have trouble getting their minds around is the difference between taste and judgment. It's fine not to like almost anything, except maybe Al Green. That's taste, yours to do with as you please, critical deployment included. By comparison, judgment requires serious psychological calisthenics. But the fact that objectivity only comes naturally in math doesn't mean it can't be approximated in art. One technique is to replace response reports--'boring' and all its self-involved pals, like 'exhilarating' or the less blatant 'dull,' with stimulus reports." Which is to say, I'll now go on, physical descriptions of the music, best accomplished for the lay reader with colloquial, non-musicological language.
[Q] Do you really think Leon Thomas's Legend album is an A record? Listening back on it after many decades myself, Thomas's admittedly unique voice seems more a novelty than anything else and the album itself more clunky than swinging. -- Lee, Brooklyn
[A] My records indicate that I Consumer-Guided just two albums by the man who sang Pharoah Sanders's "The Creator Has a Master Plan," neither of them Facets--The Legend of Leon Thomas. Both are from 1970: The Leon Thomas Album, an A, and Spirits Known and Unknown, a B plus. But by the time I did the '70s Consumer Guide book I had hedged Thomas over into the Subjects for Further Research addendum, where I pointed out that his solo career had disappeared by 1975 and expressed reservations about his "muddle-headedness." So I couldn't tell exactly what you were talking about. But with my memory jogged I went to Spotify, so much faster than excavating my vinyl, and streamed Spirits Known and Unknown. Not clunky by me, a B plus at the very least--the yodeling rousing, the scatting spectacular. And while the rationalist I am remains well south of agnostic about the Guy, Gal, or Both with the Master Plan, he fervently believes Thomas's "Disillusion Blues" should be brought out of retirement if there's anybody out there with the chops and spiritual wisdom to shout and yodel it.
[Q] Hey Bob, I'm curious why you haven't reviewed the last few Green Day albums. I know you didn't like American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown all that much, but I'm just wondering why we haven't gotten reviews of Uno, Dos, Tre or Revolution Radio. Have you gotten bored of their shtick? -- Aidan King, Cape Elizabeth, Maine
[A] Elementary, really. When I give two consecutive albums by an artist I once liked C's, you can assume that I checked out the next one only briefly if at all, and chose not to find another way to hoist said artist on his or her own petard. In fact, said next one sounded like more of the self-important same, and I'm not sure I got all the way through the one after that, although I have a dim memory of trying briefly once. Nor has what little I've read about these albums given me any reason to believe I've missed anything. Punk is so tied up with the disillusions of growing up that punks do often age poorly.
[Q] I'm curious as to whether you have any thoughts on Joanna Newsom's last few albums; or did you merely file her under over-indulgence and logorrhea after Ys? -- Cathal Atty, Donegal, Ireland
[A] It seems to me that the answer to this and many similar questions is obvious: duh. (See Green Day directly above.) The reason I'm reprinting it here is to report that a year or two ago I received a letter that began: "Joanna Newsom is the greatest artist of the 21st century. Your misogyny is showing in your refusal to acknowledge her work." Such rhetoric is only to be expected when you're a critic because most people don't know what good criticism is, but though this correspondent was obviously only in her mid teens it was still disheartening--I am so not a misogynist. The second reason is to alert you to the superb and adulatory Erik Davis feature on Joanna Newsom in the 2007 Da Capo Best Music Writing anthology (those were the days), which I edited. Immensely long. As I explain in the book's intro, I read it in one 45-minute gulp, because I do know what good criticism is, and even though Newsom really ain't for me however much I appreciate her debut, this was clearly it. Different strokes, you know how it goes.
[Q] Any thoughts on the Judee Sill revival? Your reviews were spot-on, the grades maybe a little low (given how grades have morphed since 1972, a moot point). My knowledge of non-gospel Christian music begins and mercifully ends at Amy Grant, so I was grateful for her gorgeously rendered, way-out-there perspectives in a genre I'll never care enough to revisit. -- Keith Shelton, San Diego
[A] Having had no idea there was a Judee Sill revival, if there is, my first thought is how glad I am not to feel obliged to worry overmuch about such wavelets in music's vast sea. Clearly this is a time when every moderately gifted female singer-songwriter in creation awaits rediscovery, and Sill was a distinctive one. But where I was curious about how Leon Thomas might sound today, I found I could do without hearing Sill again. An overstater, a militant if fundamentally humane Christian--life is too short, especially when you're turning 79.
[Q] I've spent several Sunday afternoons enjoying Todd Snider's livestreaming shows--even bought a shirt to chip in for the cause. During a recent performance in which he played Agnostic Hymns in full, he claimed it was his best record. That was news to me, given how few of those songs have been worked into his recent live sets--he didn't play anything from it when I saw him in 2019. I even recall reading an interview where he seemed pretty ambivalent about it. It's always been my favorite of his (got lucky on eBay once and found a promo copy on vinyl for pennies on the dollar), so it was neat to hear Snider agree with me. I was wondering if you felt the same. Best to you and Carola. -- Jon LaFollette, Indianapolis
[A] Expecting consistency from Todd Snider is like expecting pie in the sky when you die--this is a guy who probably changes his mind while he's tying his shoes. We listen to his albums quite a bit around here given the wealth of alternatives, and the only one over the past coupla years I thought maybe wasn't a full A was East Nashville Skyline, which I expect was because I wasn't paying attention at the right times. Can't swear we've played Agnostic Hymns, however. Did definitely play both discs of The Storyteller in recent memory, and got Nina to listen to the entirety of "KK Rider Story," which as a comedy fan she loved. But since it came out our surprise fave has been 2019's apparently ramshackle Cash Cabin Sessions--have enjoyed it so much so that we entered it in our private Rolling Stone best-of-all-time sweepstakes. In that company, true, he did admittedly fall somewhat short.
March 17, 2021
Groove with a side order of vocal emotion, soul with a (small) side order of jazz organ, Queen with less kitsch and more camp, and parody with honor. Plus: two movies, one a must a see.
[Q] I notice how over the years you have reviewed music in languages that you (presumably) don't understand. How do you approach this kind of music and what is your mindset when you enjoy it? -- Eduardo Mujica, Colombia
[A] I enjoy it as music merely, kind of the way I enjoy jazz--which generally entails harmonic details in musical languages I don't understand either. This means that when lyrics are prominent, as they are in a lot of non-Anglophone pop, I tune out--even when the lyrics are in French, which I can speak and understand well enough to find a restaurant or the train station, but not to follow lyrics. All of which is to generalize broadly, with numerous exceptions. But for sure what I usually respond to in non-Anglophone music is groove with a side order of vocal emotion or affect. Because I recognize and treasure the African contribution to the Anglophone rock-etc. at the center of my pleasure zone, and also because I've long been aware of how decisive African culture is in American culture generally, I've always been eager to hear what African music I could, and so paid attention to the few compilations that began to surface in the early '80s, starting with the great John Storm Roberts Africa Dances collection of the mid-'70s, which for whatever reason delighted me from the first time I heard it and prepared me for the trickle and then flood that followed; see the 1991 Rock & Roll & called "Afropop Without Guilt" for more details. But over the years many other grooves and even tune families have spoken to me. In Colombia itself it's been cumbia mostly, which didn't take long. For some reason, though the dominant horn parts are certainly part of it, I've never really gotten into Puerto Rican salsa even though I love Puerto Rico, which I've visited many times. But once in the south of the island I watched entranced for half an hour as a cumbia band entertained near the town square.
[Q] What are your favorite albums featuring jazz organists? I'm guessing that Jimmy McGriff, Charles Earland and Booker T Jones must be some of your favorites but what albums by those artists or others do you turn to when you crave soul jazz or a keyboard master jamming out on electronic organ? -- Chris Rogers, Missouri
[A] To my surprise, since I never ever "crave" soul jazz or Hammond B-3, you guessed right. As I discovered by utilizing the Google Search function on my site, I've actually given positive reviews to albums by both Jimmy McGriff and Charles Earland. Stax mastermind and hidden genius of Willie Nelson's Stardust that he is, Booker T. doesn't have a horse in this race--soul jazz has never been what he's about, which is fine by me because I've always found that calling too schlocky by a factor of three. Jimmy Smith in particular I've avoided for half a century. Cornball, cornball, cornball.
[Q] I'm asking this because I'm a sucker for Queen, but what is your opinion on Queen--if you've ever listened in retrospect? You pretty much wrote off their albums, yet you later said their music has "the high gloss of committed kitsch" and Freddie Mercury was a "true queen." It's strange you've rarely mentioned them, especially because of the enduring popularity of songs like "Bohemian Rhapsody," "We Will Rock You," and more, plus their endless popular Live Aid set. -- Oscar, Johannesburg, South Africa
[A] I've definitely softened on Queen since I started to figure out that there was camp and joy in their overstated virtuosity as well as vitality and endurance in their tunes. I have both Classic Queen and Greatest Hits in my iTunes, but not the physicals, presumably because my daughter Nina squirreled them away in her CD folders back in the pre-Spotify days. Since Nina comes over most weekends I thought I'd burn a CD of the latter just to play it at lunch and maybe come up with a grade and some wise words about music I now both enjoy and respect without loving it the way you and Nina both do. As I recall--this was just this past weekend--she observed that she would have liked to hear more of their early stuff, but that was as far as we got. Are they worth some kind of A by me? Conceivably--we'll see how it goes. But even given this query, which I only opened Sunday, it's a tossup whether I'll ever get that far. I should definitely check out the movie sometime. Nina loves it.
[Q] Hi Mr. Christgau, I came across this piece in a New Yorker anthology of humorous prose and thought you might get a kick out of it. An affectionate parody of the CG and your style, so it seems to me. -- James Douma, Amstelveen, The Netherlands
[A] Veronica Geng, who died of brain cancer when she was just 56, was among other things a renowned parodist, so much so that to be parodied by her was an honor. That piece, a Consumer Guide to imaginary albums spun off Nixon's impeachment, was included in a 1984 collection of hers called Partners. She invited me to the book party and give me an autographed copy: "To Robert Christgau, From a little clerk, Veronica Geng." Hmm. As I recall, she told me I was harder to get right than she'd expected, but looking back at the piece, I think she approximated my stylistic tics or shall we call them methods better than I had any reason to expect: long, grammatical sentences bursting with parentheticals and festooned with slang and wisecracks. It's a sweet memory that reminds me how sorry I was when left us so soon.
[Q] What did you make of former Village Voice staffer Joan Micklin Silver's 1977 Between the Lines? I thought it was interesting but a bit out of touch for something produced THAT particular year (little by way of punk or disco--but maybe Boston was provincial like that then?), yet it had some nice riffs on rockcrit feminism. You're mentioned in the credits fwiw, but I've never seen you hold forth in print anywhere and searching your site didn't turn up anything either. Thoughts/comments? -- J.M. Welch, Elmira, New York
[A] First of all, although Micklin Silver did apparently write for the Voice before I started Rock & Roll & in 1969, I don't recall her byline and doubt she was ever a "staffer" there. She gave me $500 (??) to be some sort of musical consultant on Between the Lines, which I thought was cool because I loved Hester Street. I have a distinct but undetailed recollection of calling her from a pay phone in the course of a vacation road trip and advising that she include the Bobbettes' "Mr. Lee" in the film. Did she? Dunno. Insofar as it purports to depict the interior life of an alt-weekly I didn't think it had an especially penetrating feel, although it was certainly plausible. But that was a long time ago, and after attending the opening I never saw it again.
[Q] No-frills question (or just topic): Steve McQueen's Lovers Rock from the Small Axe pentad. Have you seen it? If so, thoughts? -- Mark Bradford, Brooklyn
[A] You should follow me on Twitter, where I got so excited about Lovers Rock I dashed out an instant lateish-night rave that got plenty of lateish-night response, the most flattering from veteran critic Ira Robbins, who immediately sat down and watched it himself past midnight and then tweeted that he was as knocked out as I was. It's not just that it's the music sector of Small Axe, every installment of which I think is terrific. As Robbins noticed too, it's how formally audacious it is--an unprecedented masterpiece, I'd say. It has no plot in the usual sense. Instead it's structured as a documentary about a London reggae house party, from food and sound prep to individual partygoers dressing up to transportation to the shifting, organic interactions of the party itself. I find most cinematic party scenes, especially club-action ones (which this isn't because of the house setting) garish, corny, overstated, stupid. Here characters and relationships emerge, crises arise and resolve themselves. There's even an ending--several, in fact, each not exactly topping but inflecting what's gone before. Like all these five films, it's so humane; like most of them, it goes places you absolutely do not foresee. I thought what McQueen made of Twelve Years a Slave was excellent. But these films, set in a U.K. McQueen knows very well indeed, have a transcendent quality so remarkable I hope McQueen gives himself time to regroup before essaying anything too ambitious--hope he takes a few deep breaths and rests on his laurels for awhile.
February 17, 2021
On writing (or not) a history of popular music, consumer guiding (or not) the '60s (and Aretha) (and James Brown) (and the Dead), and Drake (or not). Plus organizing CDs and vinyl.
[Q] You were once planning on writing a book on the history of popular music, going back to ancient Egypt, I think. Why didn't you write it? The pieces that were informed by that research are among my favorites of yours: the first section of Is It Still Good to Ya? And "In Search of Jim Crow" in Book Reports, the best thing I've ever read about minstrelsy. -- Chuck, Upstate New York
[A] The reason I didn't write the book you describe--to research which I faithfully pursued immensely enlarging 1988 Guggenheim and 2002 National Arts Journalism Fellowships--is that it was too ambitious by a factor of I'll never know how much. Were I to have devoted my entire life to it I might have come up with something but also never heard most of the A albums I've scouted out for so long. As it stands, however, what I did come up with was the essays and lectures you reference--plus, less obviously, the 1992 Details piece "B.E.: A Dozen Moments in the Prehistory of Rock and Roll," the Book Reports review of Bernard Gendron's Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club for Bookforum, and many other book reviews; much of my writing on "world music," African music especially; the introductory class of my NYU course, which went back to Egypt via Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo; somewhere there's the unfinished 6000 or something words on Greece that I put together for the NAJP; and I have to be forgetting stuff.
[Q] How do you organize your huge CD collection? Do you file everything together in alphabetical order or do you have separate sections for various-artists albums and genres like African, jazz, blues, reggae, etc.? If you file everything together, isn't it difficult to identify all your ambient albums, say, or locate your favorite various-artists CDs, or to find an assortment of jazz artists to load up your CD changer with jazz? For example, can you confidently say what your favorite various-artists CDs are without looking at your site? -- Jim, Fairfax, California
[A] I file everything by individual artists together. Organizationally, there are two classes of CDs (and vinyl too)--the hallway and, I don't know, the permanent collection. Permanent collection albums by individual artists are filed alphabetically by artist in the living room, the part of the hall that leads from the living room to my office, and my office. How many? At a guesstimate put the CDs at 10,000, the Honorable Mention stuff mostly in skinny flexible vinyl sleeves sans slug line for space, which is fast disappearing though the ever-increasing paucity of physical promos has opened up shelving that after weeks of shifting stuff around should solve my space problems for a while; in addition I've recently invested in two sets of wire CD shelves that I believe will get pending physicals off the floor where I've lined them up since I was young enough not to worry about bending for them or tripping over them, concerns I'd better take seriously as I near 80, now just 14 months away. (Wow, was it surreal to write and then read that final clause.) Then there are the multiple-artist CDs, every one catalogued and marked by genre in my computer. The good ones are crammed into shelves in my office alphabetized by title, with B stuff out of reach sans ladder on top of the industrial shelves that hold both vinyl and CDs. I can name the titles of many multiple-artist CDs off the top of my head--Indestructible Beat of Soweto, Tea in Marrakech, American Graffiti, on and on--but some titles are hard to remember, like that great hard bop comp, so I search JA (jazz, get it?) and in a minute I find it (Roots of Jazz Funk, dumb name). And then there are . . . box sets.
[Q] I've been subscribing to And It Don't Stop since its inception and I have two requests. Is there any chance we'll see another essay covering one of the pre-Consumer-Guide years, similar to one you and David Fricke wrote for Rolling Stone about the best albums of 1967? Also, I've seen mention on robertchristgau.com of playlists you created for the Rhapsody streaming service. For those of us who don't subscribe to Rhapsody, would you consider publishing those song lists in another venue (e.g. Substack or Spotify)? -- Chris Peters, Tacoma, Washington
[A] Doubt it. To deal with the Rhapsody playlists first, I no longer subscribe to Rhapsody-now-Napster and can locate no trace of the playlists in my computer, which is too bad because I found them so labor-intensive I'm curious and also hate to throw that work away. My man at Rhapsody--which paid me quite decently for several years to use Consumer Guide reviews on its site before it hired its own editorial peons--thought it would be a nice gesture for me to toss off a playlist periodically, but I found the work taxing: you have to listen to what you recommend so you can check out how it holds up and flows, or anyway I do, and that's very time-consuming. Those 1967 reviews were also time-consuming, though more fun--I did the first one during the year-plus when I was on salary at Rolling Stone, the second because the editor was a good friend who offered me a decent stipend. But to tackle any other '60s year would be major task, especially since the CD reissues often add diluting "bonus tracks" or simply don't exist at all and the vinyl would be much harder to do without the changer I retired many years ago. To a similar query from Indiana's Sidney C-W, I'd say that individual artist rundowns might be doable as well as more fun, although let me say right now that sorting out Aretha's Columbia box would be madness and '60s James Brown literally impossible. To a similar query from David Bjordemmen of Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, I'll say that sorting out the Grateful Dead's '70s output would involve frustrating-to-bewildering immersion in their endless live Deadhead catalogue, plus the regular-release albums weren't so hot. Maybe the '60s albums would be worth a shot, though, and there's also a box I've never had the gumption to address. The live one we play around here is Europe '72 more than the early A+ Live/Dead. Which of the three discs I don't recall.
[Q] Any thoughts on Perfume Genius's latest album Set My Heart on Fire Immediately? I remember you enjoyed No Shape. -- James, Liverpool, UK
[A] I've streamed it three-four-five times by now. Haven't deleted it from my ever-lengthening Spotify one-more-time list, some of which I'll eventually if not soon shitcan without further notice. But I definitely haven't grasped it, and when I replayed No Shape for context I began to wonder whether I admired that one more than I enjoyed it. In related news, I hadn't thought about Sophie for years preceding her death by poetic misadventure. No new product, for one thing. So I pulled her two albums out. Oil of Every Pearl's Un-Insides in particular sounded great.
[Q] What do you think of Taylor Swift re-recording her old stuff? I know she's mad at that Scooter guy, but it seems like a waste of time for a still-vital artist in her prime. Sinatra re-recorded some of his Capitol songs for Reprise, but never quite captured the magic of the originals. -- Jessica
[A] Without actually going back and checking, my guess would be that Sinatra's rerecordings suffered when he ditched Nelson Riddle to work with Don Costa, a capable but relatively anonymous schlockmeister, and Billy May, whose blaring brass renders him just about unlistenable by me. But in general this kind of rerecording is not a good idea--Lucinda Williams tried it with Sweet Old World to little if any positive effect. That said, Swift's voice retains a great deal of freshness, which can't be said of Williams or even the nonetheless masterful early Reprise-era Sinatra, who proved on many occasions there that he didn't need it (he was freshest in his twenties, but was drowned regularly by his Columbia arrangements, though not by Dorsey's RCAs earlier than that). And Swift is also very shrewd. Can't imagine even so that I'd lay out money for the re-recordings unless Rob Sheffield convinced me.
[Q] Hi Mr. Christgau, thanks once again for the truly singular role you play in the pop media landscape. You've expressed disappointment that Drake, despite his talent, is ultimately a pretty dull pop star. My question is what, to your ears, makes Taylor Swift more than gifted and slightly uninteresting? -- Andrew Judd, Los Angeles
[A] Melody. Also gender.
January 20, 2021
Going underground with movies and the Velvets, saying yes to sampling and no to Sidney Bechet and the War on Drugs, and putting "Brown Sugar" out to pasture.
[Q] I was delighted to read in Going Into the City of your experience with Lenny Lipton screening underground films in New York in the '60s. (And thanks for mentioning the wonderful Kuchar brothers.) That period and milieu of filmmaking is inspiring to me and I'd be grateful for other memories you could share. I figure you must have had contact with Jonas Mekas, although if I'm right your time at the Voice came after he left. This brings me to ask also about the Velvet Underground in their early days, since they were so involved with underground film. Were you aware of them during their circa 1965 Angus MacLise phase, when they accompanied film screenings? Or perhaps the Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows where the Velvet Underground and Nico played alongside Warhol's films? -- Andy Ditzler, Atlanta
[A] Actually, I did rub shoulders occasionally with Mekas during my 1969-1971 freelance tour with the Voice, but only because he knew me from the Popular Photography story my high school pal Lipton assigned and I interviewed him for, as I should have. He was the kingpin of that world and a genuinely remarkable man in many ways, but not one who had much use for me once my pop proclivities were on the table--he had no interest in "movies" at all. So while I was happy to help Lenny run the Eventorium's Friday-night film series up on West 100th Street, and sat through many hours of experimental cinema from Stan Brakhage (always interesting, occasionally great) to Gregory Markopoulos (horrible and subsequently withdrawn from the so-called New American Cinema canon and indeed circulation by the egomaniacal Markopoulos himself) because underground movies did continue to interest me, it was the New American Cinema's meager pop wing I wrote about: in particular the Kuchars, who remained friendly with Lenny after they all relocated to the Bay Area, and Stan VanDerBeek. My first glimpse of the Velvet Underground was at a St. Marks Place club called the Electric Circus, I believe under a Plastic Exploding Inevitable rubric that featured the whip-dancing of Gerard Malanga, who didn't impress me (at all). I think this preceded the release of their first album, which took me a while anyway; it was album three that truly converted me. I witnessed their legendary 1970 Max's run multiple times. Lenny, who became a successful inventor specializing in stereoscopic imaging, remains a friend although not a close one; a photo of me he took when I was 20 has appeared on this site. I hope to see him the next time I get to Los Angeles, which I hope is relatively soon. Knowing someone for 63 years is worth celebrating, believe me.
[Q] What would you say to an older musician if they were hesitant about giving permission to a younger artist who wants to sample their music? -- Zach, Washington, D.C.
[A] That obviously depends on many things--how prominent the sample is, whether or not the originator of the music likes the way it sounds in its new context, and what your commercial ambitions and prospects are, to name just three. At the very least you can offer to acknowledge the sample in your packaging and agree to give him a small piece of whatever profits ensue from the recording, which these days are of course negligible much more often than not but you never know and the originator probably knows even less. Plus you should argue that sampling is a practice that has real artistic merit, recontextualizing both new music and the musical history sampling explicitly acknowledges. I miss it terribly myself--a big reason trap generally fails to reach me. I wrote a piece about sampling that's never been collected, though I regret not shoehorning it into Is It Still Good to Ya?