Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Xgau Sez

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.

January 15, 2020

[Q] Hey Bob, I'm so excited for this newsletter. Your writings old and new have been an enduring resource and source of enjoyment for this hip twenty-something from Texas. Will there be a comment section like the one Expert Witness had? At least to me, that comment section revealed the existence of your wonderful, articulate following, which had its own contributions to my listening at the time. Also, I'm considering leaving my good-paying but tiresome job to pursue music professionally, following my dream. Do you have any advice for a young person considering entering the industry--even if it's "don't quit your day job"? -- Nathan Walker, Austin, Texas

[A] Always special to learn I've reached someone half a century younger, so thanks. As for the comments question, thanks too--for getting me to set my mind to it. Once I did the answer was a clear no, for two basic reasons. The first is that it's work to oversee a comments section, even lightly as I did back when Expert Witness was at MSN. The work I do for And It Don't Stop should be more writing, sometimes subscriber-only and sometimes not--I have several things in mind that I've yet to get to. Moreover, as you don't quite say, that comments section was a miracle--believe it or not, there was apparently a discussion group in China devoted not principally to my writing (although once a young Chinese speaker came to a reading of mine and told me he'd been part of it) but to the commenters themselves (here's to you, Cam Patterson, Blair Fraipont, Jason Gubbels, Michael Tatum, Liam Smith, Bradley Sroka, Nicky Farruggia, and so many others). It was so rare to find comments almost devoid of backbiting and trolling, which in many ways was the greatest thing about it--I made many friends including a few close ones there. In the Twitter age of course, the situation is worse. Even subscriber-only, I very much doubt the temperature would remain as temperate as it did back then, and keeping it down would be not just labor-intensive but emotionally taxing. As for quitting your day job, let me try and be a good dad. Is your good-paying job a stroke of luck or probably replicable in the absence of an economic collapse? If the former, I'd be cautious; if the latter and you're chomping at the bit, well, assuming you don't have kids yet this might be the time. I'm surprising myself somewhat by writing this, because I've been preaching since I started teaching at NYU in 2005 that the US economy is designed to exploit your generation. So please don't just ask me. It's a big decision.

[Q] Surprisingly, you only reviewed one CD by John Coltrane--with the perfect line "It gets really good after bass and piano sit out so Coltrane and his friend Jones can bash and blow at each other undistracted," which refutes your claim that you don't have the chops to review jazz. You wrote about sets by Monk and Miles and Bird but never Trane. Did you never find a great compilation on his Atlantic or Impulse or Prestige years, or perhaps you prefer the original albums? Can you recommend Lush Life (Prestige) or Crescent (Impulse) or Blue Train (Blue Note) or Olé or Plays the Blues (both Atlantic), or any others? You've provided me with guidance through Hendrix's tangled discography but I remain lost in Trane's. -- Mark Reidy, Park Slope

[A] First of all, I've reviewed three Coltrane albums, not just one. Let me remind you that I've also done lots of Ornette, who like Davis made rockish moves. Monk is about my favorite artist except maybe the Beatles, and Bird was the shit when I was getting into jazz in college. And how about Sonny Rollins? Coltrane, meanwhile, wasn't helped discographically by his early death-- not unlike Hendrix's various would-be canonizers, Impulse pushed the posthumous catalogue till distinguishing among newly fabricated albums became a game for specialists and suckers (and I should add that the old jazzbos I know don't think much of the "newly discovered" 2018 album the younger set was so impressed by). However. If only because my most trusted aesthetic advisor is always ready to hear more jazz at dinner and for that matter breakfast, I've been doing some exploring. So far I can report that neither the Atlantic nor the Prestige "Trane plays the blues" albums seems like a standout to me, and that there will definitely be Coltrane reviews in future CGs, with details yet to be determined.

[Q] Your glowing Consumer Guide reviews of the three Big Star albums have aged quite well in my eyes and ears. Does your original ranking of Radio City then Third then #1 Record reflect how you feel about the albums today, assuming you've revisited them in the past few decades? -- Jacob H., Madison, Wisconsin

[A] Yes, in that order, and these are records I still put on occasionally, as I do Chilton's solo work--at least once after early 2019, when I was checking out Chilton reissues including the Ocean Club recording and reading Holly George-Warren's excellent if dismaying Chilton biography, A Man Called Destruction.

[Q] At the risk of sounding like a "grade grubber": you gave Tha Carter III an A- in your review, but then ranked it third in your best of the 00's list, suggesting it's really an A+. As a huge fan of that album I'm wondering: what changed for you between when you first reviewed the album and when you published that list? -- Jake, Canada

[A] Thanks for apologizing, but you know you're grade-grubbing anyway. Look, fellas (and I do mean fellas), it's not hard to understand. In part because I've set up the Consumer Guide to be relatively free of normal deadline pressure, I don't generally jump the gun on grades and remain remarkably steady in my judgments over the years. But this is still journalism, and some sort of news value is the responsibility of all but its most perverse practitioners. Tha Carter III was one of the most long-anticipated albums of the '00s. So you can be sure that I felt more than the usual pressure to get to it sooner rather than later--and also that I didn't stop checking it out after I'd weighed in. I dimly recall that there was a lag before the brilliance of "Phone Home" hit me, but it was more than that--the album is remarkably substantive front to back, playable too. So as I listened, I grew to appreciate it more and them love it some.

[Q] Great 10's round-up, a blast to get into Americana and American Honey again, though both surprised and sad New Gods didn't make the cut, probably my most played album this decade. In your intro you draw attention to the discrepancies between your list and those of Pitchfork and Rolling Stone. This made me wonder: What's your overall take on the past decade in music and music criticism? -- Adam, Aarhus, Denmark

[A] Basically, I read other people's reviews to find albums to check out on Spotify and am gratified when I'm actively moved to then replay such a pick even once. This means I don't keep close enough track of current rock criticism to comment on it with any special insight. It's obvious enough that the two major outlets are caught up in self-branding, as they have to be (and as the also-rans are as well). P4K tries to stay ahead of the curve, often to what I hear as needlessly (also perishably and/or abstrusely) esoteric effect. This year, however, I was also struck not just that P4K's year-end list was dominated by women (as my 2019 list stands at the moment, it's almost half female), but by how many of the mag's female choices favored a rather retro singer-songwriter aesthetic--slow-moving, lyric-enunciating, strophic, and oft genteel--I've never had much use for. One more setback for catchy songs with a good beat, I suppose. Meanwhile, while doing a decent job of keeping up with young trendies, Rolling Stone serves as a counterweight to P4K's esotericism, finding aesthetic distinction in "residual" formal commitments that I too often find kinda just old. Wayne Robins, a very longtime acquaintance who replaced me at Newsday when I moved on to the Voice in 1974, wrote a Pazz & Jop-hooked essay (in the first year there's been no Voice-linked P&J, and by the way I've yet to glance at the Facebook-based self-proclaimed "Rip-Off" Pazz & Jop I'm told someone's launched) that deals usefully with many of these issues.

[Q] How have you built an incredible career reviewing records even though you don't know anything about music and your writing isn't that good? -- Rich Sackett, Nashville

[A] Stick-to-it-iveness and the love of a good woman.

December 18, 2019

[Q] Hello, Bob. Glad to hear your knee is doing well post-surgery. You have reviewed, mostly favorably, all of the Cloud Nothings albums except for the most recent, Last Building Burning, even though its tone and approach are not demonstrably different. But perhaps that's the problem? -- Jeff Callahan, Flat Rock, North Carolina

[A] First, this gives me a chance to mention that although my knee is doing well I can barely walk due to a related IT band problem that affects my thigh. This is not so-called IT band syndrome, a nasty variant of runner's knee. It's in my thigh specifically, and finding effective treatment has thus far been alarmingly difficult, although I've just met a trainer who impressed me. So if anyone has undergone a similar problem I'd appreciate learning about it. As for the Cloud Nothings, you've nailed the issue exactly. Look at the last Cloud Nothings review and note how I dismiss complaints about his sameyness--a little defensively, I'd say. No surprise that the new one sounded to me like one of those marginally differentiated Honorable Mentions I've vowed to cut down on. I could be missing something, of course. But the likelihood is small. I'd rather check out something differenter.

[Q] Is there any chance of seeing your review for Artpop? Just out of curiosity after seeing it make zero appearance on the lists of critics for the best albums of the last decade. -- Thomas, Beijing

[A] There is no review of Artpop. It came out during the Consumer Guide's 2013 hiatus between its long Microsoft sojourn and its brief stay at Medium. Played it recently out of curiosity and did not feel compelled to play it again, hence wonder whether I would have rated it so highly had I been compelled to write about it, a process that my ears invariably find educational.

[Q] Do you have any favourite album titles? Or book titles, for that matter. It seems like coming up with titles would be fun. How did you decide on the titles for your books? I know they're music / literature references, but you surely had a lot to choose from and probably a few good final ideas before deciding on Any Old Way You Choose It, Grown Up All Wrong, and Is It Still Good to Ya? -- Brandon, Waterloo, Ontario

[A] A good title should be intriguing, suggestive, and accurate. Magazine editing is perfect training, because it compels you to think of a lot of them. Basic method: find some good language in there and work on it. Great album titles that come to mind are Rubber Soul and good kid, m.A.A.d city. Two great book titles are by people I'm close to: Mystery Train and The Only Ones. I don't remember how I came up with Any Old Way You Choose It, but it came pretty easy and I'm more than proud of it--it was definitive, thank you master phrasemaker Chuck Berry. Is It Still Good to Ya? came to me early in the compilation process because it was the hook of what I always knew would be the prologue; Book Reports took forever, landing simultaneously with its subtitle, which just popped into my head one day. Going Into the City was there from the start. Grown Up All Wrong, on the other hand, was hard labor. I wanted to raid the New York Dolls and call it If I'm Acting Like a King, That's Because I'm a Human Being. My editor Lindsay Waters vetoed it, never budged, although we had and still have a warm personal relationship. I was stubborn about it but finally gave up, just started thumbing through artists' albums for something to filch. After half a glum hour, up popped the song title "Grown Up All Wrong." I relistened to the lyric to make sure there was nothing I'd regret, rejiggered the intro to rationalize it, and have been very happy with it ever since--better than the Dolls one for sure.

[Q] The best music for me is by bands like Hüsker Dü and the Go-Betweens and artists like Bob Dylan and Warren Zevon. I also like Mississippi Fred McDowell, the Carter Family, the Ramones, and Wire. All names that fit well into an intellectual aesthetic spectrum. But I also like bands like Blink-182, who I'm glad to see you also like, and Ace of Base, who is often frowned upon in the intellectual community. I enjoy those bands more than the music of say, Lamont Young and Terry Riley. What are your views on the above-mentioned underlying expectations to a person's taste? Does your answer have something to do with the theories of Pierre Bourdieu, 'cause that would be pretty intellectual? -- Martin Moeller, Aarhus, Denmark

[A] I've never gotten very far in Bourdieu's Distinction, an important piece of aesthetic theory I assume I agree with to some extent but in a less absolute, judgmental, dare I say snobbish way. So I can only wonder what if anything meaningful Bourdieu has to say about aesthetic pleasure itself, a real phenomenon however much it's compromised or tainted that is clearly inflected by what we know and how we grew up but I very much doubt is coextensive with our social positioning dramas. You and I like the same kind of bands, it would seem, but if you also like Ace of Base, who I've never gotten into, go with it. There's obviously real craft there. The idea is to let the music reach your ears unmediated insofar as that is possible, and although that'll always mean relatively unmediated, there are various ways to trick yourself into being more spontaneous about it. I've made it a discipline to figure out the real reasons I enjoy individual pieces of music and put my conclusions into writing for over half a century. I'm real good at it and never perfect. It's a contingent world. It's also the only one we got, and music generally makes it better.

[Q] In your 2002 interview with Rockcritics.com you mentioned classical music as one of your blind spots. In one of your asides in Going into the City you referred to "a Germanophile musicological establishment that protects its academic suzerainty to this day." Is your disposition towards musicology academes less than amiable? Do you have any friends at WQXR? -- Tim Getz, Vernon, New Jersey

[A] When the category is as vast as "classical music," it's not a "blind spot." It's something I'm not really interested in, like biochemistry or astronomy or sculpture, although in recent years I've come to care more about the first two than I do about classical music. That said, I've read a great deal of classical music history in passing, most recently when I was reviewing Ted Gioia's Music: A Subversive History for the L.A. Times. Most germane, however, is what I've written about the late great not-actually-a-musicologist (which-was-probably-a-good-thing) Christopher Small. My Voice piece about Small was eventually reprinted in a classical music journal whose title now escapes me. More to the point, the entirety of my long interview with him, transcribed over several days by none other than moi because like many who knew him I loved Christopher Small, was published in Jason Gross's long-running online music mag Perfect Sound Forever and reprinted in Robert Walser's posthumous Christopher Small Reader. I know no one at WQXR and have very little to do with academic musicologists, although onetime Times critic John Rockwell, who in "retirement" writes regularly for an opera magazine I can't keep straight from the other opera magazine, is one of my closest friends. Of course, he was also a rock critic for a while.

[Q] Can your readers expect a decade-end list from you on your Substack newsletter? -- Tom, Philadelphia

[A] Soon come.

November 20, 2019

[Q] Hi, Robert. First, hope you're doing well after your knee surgery. Second, I just reread the late great Nick Tosches's Jerry Lee bio and it still kicks ass--probably the best rock bio ever. Read your Book Reports too and agree with your A grade of Springsteen's memoir. I'd like to know if you consider any of these 4 books as worthy of your A shelves: Philip Norman's John Lennon: A Life, Charles White's Life & Times of Little Richard, John Szwed's Space Is the Place: Life of Sun Ra, Gary Giddins's Swinging on a Star: Bing Crosby's War Years. How about the autobiographies by Donald Fagen, Ed Sanders or Rod Stewart? -- George, Brownsville, New York

[A] First, knee going well. Bends to 135 degrees inside of six weeks, which my musically astute leftwing physical therapist tells me is phenomenal. When I asked him what he attributed it to--I've been pretty good about my exercises--he replied "Luck." Second, haven't read the Norman, though I own it, but the rest I'm for. Tosches's Hellfire is some kind of masterpiece though I liked Rick Bragg's recent Jerry Lee book a lot too. My choice for best rock bio is Guralnick's Last Train to Memphis, and I'm finally reading Careless Love front to back--in laps going back to June--and finding it damn good as well. The great virtue of White's Little Richard is that it's the only one there is, but in this case--pretty solid if perhaps sometimes fanciful, as in the famous Buddy Holly story--that's enough. The Szwed I reviewed briefly and is superb. The first volume of Giddins's Crosby is of Last Train to Memphis caliber except for some of the movie synopses toward the end, the new one arguably too detailed but for me, at least, a revealing and engrossing account of World War II-era America in addition to detailed and candid about Crosby. As for Fagen, Sanders, and Stewart, all are pretty good though the Fagen is uneven and all covered in, how about that, Book Reports.

[Q] Have you ever done much listening to the Boswell Sisters? After listening to Pop Music: The Early Years 1890-1950, I was really impressed by their "Everybody Loves My Baby," Googled them, and was intrigued enough to buy a 49-song double CD collection. It's very eye-opening for someone like me who had never heard them or of them. They were very innovative, even the songs I know from the titles are done to radical rearrangements. And they do a song called "Rock and Roll." From 1931! -- Ken Stillman

[A] Thank you for alerting me to the fact that although I taught the Boswell Sisters my last two terms at NYU, I never Consumer Guided them, presumably because the relevant collections were nothing like recent: Shout Sister Shout and 1930-1936. Because the And It Don't Stop version of the Consumer Guide is much less release date-sensitive, I may go back and break the available music down some time. Yes, the Boswells were great, a seminal New Orleans-spawned vocal group with eclectic tastes and great rhythm who were in addition female innovators in a music even more male-dominated then than it is now. What sparked my interest, you ask? The very first essay in the Donald Fagen half-memoir half-collection referenced just above--which I taught.

[Q] You gave everything Motorhead released from No Remorse through 1916 an A- but you gave Ace Of Spades a B and didn't review Bomber and Overkill. Did you not care for those albums or did Motorhead grow on you sort of like the Pixies? -- Mathias, Maryland

[A] Motorhead got better, sort of like the Pixies. Without having researched the question, I assume they just got tired of their speed-steamroller shtick, as why wouldn't they, and began to generate tunes. Not that there mightn't be an Honorable Mention I missed in their oover. Maybe two, even.

[Q] Good day Mr. Christgau. I was wondering if you could share your feelings about the Monkees and their repertoire. Do you feel that they have been unfairly treated by the rock press for the past 50+ years? -- Matt Latyki, Oviedo, Florida

[A] I treated the Monkees kindly in my very first Esquire column in 1967--but not too kindly, as in the more or less contemporaneous Peter Tork moment in my Monterey Pop Festival piece. I just now played them from my iTunes and thought they sounded OK--fun, some good songs, etc. But that doesn't mean their deification by poptimist contrarians is anything but a perverse absurdity. There are literally hundreds of equally catchy and rather more meaty groups of the more or less pop persuasion.

[Q] In your Consumer Guide review of The Kinks Kronikles you wrote that "Waterloo Sunset" is the most beautiful song in the English language. Considering that it was a bit of a lofty statement made near the beginning of your career, and so much more music in the English language has been made and listened to by you since then, is it a statement that you still stand by? If not, then what has surpassed it? -- Christopher, Hawaii

[A] Obviously, I hope, any such grand generalization is impossible to test empirically, because by the time you've finished relistening to all plausible contenders you've forgotten exactly how good the first one was. Also, I'd have to include pre-rock material in my sample even though I don't have enough of that canon on instant or even artificially aided recall. Moreover, anyone's notion of what constitutes beauty will change from day to day or month to month unless that person is too stolid to feel beauty in the first place. Having thus hedged sufficiently, however, I'd say "Waterloo Sunset" is certainly a strong contender. The only time I've heard it performed live was as an encore at Rich Krueger's September show before an audience of three or four dozen (and where were you that night, readers from closer to NYC than Hawaii?), I found it a thrilling, audacious, powerful move. Next morning I put the original on at breakfast. Carola adores "Waterloo Sunset." She votes yes.

[Q] Merriam-Webster or Oxford Dictionary of English? -- Marcos, Brooklyn

[A] Any serious writer should own a bound paper dictionary. I have an 11th edition Merriam-Webster where I can grab it anytime, as I do whenever I'm unsure of a meaning or spelling, which certainly happens several times a month. Online searches can be useful, especially for recent coinages and insight into the popularity of variant spellings and plurals, but I write in American English and M-W is the authority, not Oxford. I do however also own an Oxford that's probably 25 years old now. Very revealing as regards usage history. What I've written about the history of fun relies in part on the OED.

October 16, 2019

[Q] Hi, Robert. First, hope you're doing well after your knee surgery. Second, I just reread the late great Nick Tosches's Jerry Lee bio and it still kicks ass--probably the best rock bio ever. Read your Book Reports too and agree with your A grade of Springsteen's memoir. I'd like to know if you consider any of these 4 books as worthy of your A shelves: Philip Norman's John Lennon: A Life, Charles White's Life & Times of Little Richard, John Szwed's Space Is the Place: Life of Sun Ra, Gary Giddins's Swinging on a Star: Bing Crosby's War Years. How about the autobiographies by Donald Fagen, Ed Sanders or Rod Stewart? -- George, Brownsville, New York

[A] First, knee going well. Bends to 135 degrees inside of six weeks, which my musically astute leftwing physical therapist tells me is phenomenal. When I asked him what he attributed it to--I've been pretty good about my exercises--he replied "Luck." Second, haven't read the Norman, though I own it, but the rest I'm for. Tosches's Hellfire is some kind of masterpiece though I liked Rick Bragg's recent Jerry Lee book a lot too. My choice for best rock bio is Guralnick's Last Train to Memphis, and I'm finally reading Careless Love front to back--in laps going back to June--and finding it damn good as well. The great virtue of White's Little Richard is that it's the only one there is, but in this case--pretty solid if perhaps sometimes fanciful, as in the famous Buddy Holly story--that's enough. The Szwed I reviewed briefly and is superb. The first volume of Giddins's Crosby is of Last Train to Memphis caliber except for some of the movie synopses toward the end, the new one arguably too detailed but for me, at least, a revealing and engrossing account of World War II-era America in addition to detailed and candid about Crosby. As for Fagen, Sanders, and Stewart, all are pretty good though the Fagen is uneven and all covered in, how about that, Book Reports.

[Q] Have you ever done much listening to the Boswell Sisters? After listening to Pop Music: The Early Years 1890-1950, I was really impressed by their "Everybody Loves My Baby," Googled them, and was intrigued enough to buy a 49-song double CD collection. It's very eye-opening for someone like me who had never heard them or of them. They were very innovative, even the songs I know from the titles are done to radical rearrangements. And they do a song called "Rock and Roll." From 1931! -- Ken Stillman

[A] Thank you for alerting me to the fact that although I taught the Boswell Sisters my last two terms at NYU, I never Consumer Guided them, presumably because the relevant collections were nothing like recent: Shout Sister Shout and 1930-1936. Because the And It Don't Stop version of the Consumer Guide is much less release date-sensitive, I may go back and break the available music down some time. Yes, the Boswells were great, a seminal New Orleans-spawned vocal group with eclectic tastes and great rhythm who were in addition female innovators in a music even more male-dominated then than it is now. What sparked my interest, you ask? The very first essay in the Donald Fagen half-memoir half-collection referenced just above--which I taught.

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