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.

December 04, 2018

[Q] Don't be a Grinch, Bob. What are your favorite Christmas and/or holiday albums? -- Jon LaFollette, USA

[A] Every Christmas, I climb on a library stool and pull down Billboard's Greatest Christmas Hits (Rhino), Hipster's Holiday (Rhino), The Most Beautiful Christmas Carols (Milan), Ultimate Christmas (Arista), maybe Christmas Party with Eddie G (don't remember the label and am not getting on that stool right now), plus perhaps the Louis Armstrong Christmas album or if I'm feeling puckish the Klezmatics' Woody Guthrie Hanukkah album from the regular shelves. Put them in my changer and hit shuffle as I so seldom do. But pretty soon I'll probably be playing something else. Remember Dabke: Sounds of the Syrian Houran? What nailed that album for me was how well it went over at Christmas dinner with my Jewish friend Laura and her Christian husband Tom, who is the biggest fan of Christmas music I know. Last name: Smucker. Buy his Why the Beach Boys Matter, send him the fan letter he deserves, and maybe he'll provide some "holiday" tips in return.

[Q] I'm a 25-year-old teacher and I would like to know how you would interest young minds in pre-Elvis or even pre-Beatles music. -- Catherine Turcotte, Longueuil, Quebec

[A] Depends on how young, of course, but my advice would be to think humor and novelty, preferably uptempo. Pre-Elvis that would start selected Louis Armstrong--"Heebie Jeebies" and "Big Butter and Egg Man," "What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue" and "West End Blues" if they're older and more opened up--and also Louis Jordan. Or you could try to appeal rhythmically: Glenn Miller's "In the Mood," Count Basie's "One O'Clock Jump." Maybe some Boswell Sisters--"Heebie Jeebies" again plus "Alexander's Ragtime Band." For little kids Bing Crosby's "Swingin' on a Star" is kind of a sure shot. As for pre-Beatles, the problem is that some of the most irresistible stuff is the sexiest--the two great Jerry Lee Lewis hits are off the table. Elvis I'd start "All Shook Up" or "Don't Be Cruel" then "Blue Suede Shoes" even though it's not his song, plus maybe "Hound Dog." The great Little Richards "Tutti Frutti" and "Long Tall Sally" are even filthier than the Jerry Lees but probably over the heads of anybody who's too young for them. Chuck Berry I'd try "Johnny B. Goode," "Maybellene," and "Nadine." Buddy Holly has the right weight--start with "Peggy Sue" and "Not Fade Away," then go soft or hard, "Everyday" or "That'll Be the Day," or as responses suggest. The Bobbettes' "Mr. Lee" is an irresistibly girlish, very upbeat 1957 one-shot about a high school principal that I just discovered I don't have in my iTunes and will download shortly--in a way the first great girl-group record. Speaking of which the Jaynettes' "Sally Go 'Round the Roses" suits every taste. And now I'll stop.

[Q] Hi Dean! Given your fondness for recent Beyonce albums, I'd love to know if you heard Solange's last album, A Seat at the Table, and if you've got any thoughts on it. -- David, Nigeria

[A] I gave the Solange at least three serious runs--not just plays, multiple immersions: before it was a phenomenon, while its rep was building, and then later when it was many people's album of the year, after which I went so far as to buy rather than just stream. It has never even begun to break through to me--cannot recall a single thing on it (though I do remember that it includes a widely admired song about hair that I found musically uncompelling). So I didn't even get an Honorable Mention out of it, which was my aim when I bought it. I assume its rep isn't just some mass delusion--that there's something there, and that it has to do with black female identity. But it left me unmoved, indeed untouched, and I'm not gonna lie about it. Not so crazy about Jay and Bey's duet album either.

[Q] Why didn't you rate Bowie's Blackstar album? What did you think about it? -- Lucien Sechard, Montreal

[A] As with Solange, there was a three-part process. Blackstar had great Bowie's-back word of mouth from the git, and I was on it as soon as it was streamable. Then he died and of course I listened some more, though the great discovery of the Noisey obit I wrote were the more Eno-ish sides of Low and "Heroes." And then it won Pazz & Jop and I went back to it again. Got zero each time. Difference from Solange is that I'd been complaining about his melodramatic chanteur affect for something like 40 years by then--which assuming you're a Francophone probably sounds pretty natural to you. Solange, in contrast, is right down my alley--lyric-conscious African-American feminist, who could ask for anything more? In both cases I came out with zilch. I should add that it got a fourth pass when Rob Sheffield's superb Bowie book came out, which was well before the year ended. Played Station to Station not long ago, however, and it sounded as great as ever.

[Q] What are your thoughts on Drake and his place as reigning King of Pop? You've been pretty silent about his career so far. -- Benjamin Melles-Orrego, Toronto

[A] I've been silent about him because his albums aren't A's for me, and I only go long on A's these days. I find him forbiddingly bland, though I may yet eke out a * or even a ** for his latest, which I've heard on headphones three or four times and don't currently recall the title of. If I was still lead critic somewhere, in particular the Voice, I'd certainly have done a Rock & Roll & on him by now--the whole question of how he relates to women, in his music I mean, is of some interest to me, because I don't think he's the paragon some believe even though so many other male rappers are much worse. And then there's this question of whether he farms out his rhymes, right? Who cares is what I generally think about that stuff.

[Q] I am SO pleased you're doing the collection of your book pieces. I'm sick of printing out that Raymond Williams essay then losing it. Maybe this question is taken care of in that volume, but I wondered if you'd ever got to other great novels via music in the way, presumably, you got to that amazing blast of African fiction (Monnew, God's Bits of Wood, Ambiguous Adventure) via your interest in African music? Also: Dreiser. I read him because of you. Why is he rock'n'roll? -- Damien Wilkins, Wellington, New Zealand

[A] A tip, folks: great way to get your question answered is to help me promote my books. Ahem. Following Is It Still Good to Ya?--which was just treated to a Toronto Globe & Mail interview, Canadians out there, find it wherever you find books right now--will come April's Book Reports, about half reviews of music history and criticism and the other half not, including that lo-o-o-ng 1985 Raymond Williams appreciation I'm so glad novelist-musician Wilkins admires without claiming it's exactly a fun read--Williams was a titan who had many virtues, but fun-friendly he wasn't. Unfortunately, none of the African novels I've mentioned here and there were ever reviewed by me, although in the '80s I did do a long piece on South African fiction that didn't make the Book Reports cut. As for Dreiser, who I wrote about at some length in my 2015 memoir, Going Into the City, he was rock and roll in several ways, although once again fun wasn't prominent among them. He was avowedly common, so smart about the virtues and foibles of ordinary people without enough money. Moreover, my beloved Sister Carrie centers on a singing star, as Marshall Berman's On the Town explores with his customary depth and heart. And Dreiser's brother was songwriter Paul Dresser, who wrote a major 1890s hit called "On the Banks of the Wabash"--unless, as some believe, Dreiser wrote it himself.