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 18, 2018

[Q] How do you make your A list? Do you keep it kinda updated all year long or do you just start from scratch in January? And is there gonna be one this year with the Voice being closed and all that? -- Nicolas Auclair, Montreal

[A] Absolutely I update it all year long. Otherwise I'd miss stuff out of sheer carelessness at year's end. So I keep a roughly ranked list all year and then start doublechecking on its rather intuitive rankings starting in November, fine-tuning constantly till I'm ready to post it somewhere, usually (always? don't recall offhand) in the post-Voice years. I pay special attention to the top 10, of course. Some version of all that stuff for 2018 should appear somewhere sometime soon.

[Q] I looked forward every year to the Turkey Shoot. It was brilliant ("caveat emptor--in spades"). Why did you end it? -- Robert Gallagher, USA

[A] I hated doing the Turkey Shoot. People think critics enjoy panning stuff, and I guess in special circumstances we all do, plus some spiritually impoverished souls are just built that way. But to do it my way I had to immerse, spending weeks and weeks of autumn listening to records I didn't like until I began to actively hate or disdain them--not everything I covered there, there were always a few regretful ones, but most. As a result, I was often marginally depressed in November. I kept doing it because it served a journalistic function for the lead critic of an important pop-music publication. But when I got there I was happy to leave it behind--my tour at MSN Music had a different shape and weight. Sometimes I found it hard enough to isolate the one Dud a month there to keep me and MSN honest.

[Q] In your critical writing, the concept of the "hook" is extremely prominent. A reader can easily grasp why this concept is so important to you, since you have to process and quickly distinguish such a huge volume of pop songs. But this does pose a question: Are there songs which DON'T have hooks? Is this a normative judgment--for instance, is labeling a song "hookless" a stinging critique? Or are there categories of hookless songs which have their own merits. Songs which get over on groove or texture or some other gestalt-type quality? -- Chris Reeder, Watertown, Massachussetts

[A] I think you mean are there good songs that don't have hooks, as of course there are, although a groove and even a texture can function as a hook, which I take to mean any sound you just love hearing again. With groove there are thousands of examples, from half the third disc of JB's Star Time to the less catchy bits of a great Ramones or Motorhead album. Texture is trickier, but start with the sheer sound of Miles Davis's trumpet or Aretha Franklin's voice and then move on to lesser mortals--Mary J. Blige and Patti Smith come to mind. But I don't believe my fondness for the hook is about the need to process quickly. I believe it's the itch-scratching pleasure--which some find annoying or worse, hence the insulting term earworm--of hearing that snatch of melody/rhythm again. And then there's, well, meaning. Is John Prine's "Hello in There" hooky? Not terribly. Did I just pull it up on iTunes as I sat here? Indeed I did, and didn't start to really enjoy it until Prine opened his mouth: "Had an apartment in the city . . . "

[Q] So much enthusiasm for Homeboy Sandman. Which album from his vast catalogue would you rank as your absolute fave? -- David K, London

[A] As I thought I'd just said in my review of Veins, that would be Kindness for Weakness. Really, folks, this guy is a keeper. A little too blunt rhythmically to qualify as an undeniable classic--all those four-beat lines--but so solid and decent and funny and colloquial and literate and dedicated to getting better. On the new Humble Pi, "Grim Seasons" and "#Neverusetheinternetagain" are standouts in completely different ways, and the first and third of his Aesop Rock Lice collabs are irresistible as well as free to DL. And let me add that he was the only artist to send good wishes to Carola when I wrote about her illness--a kick for her, because he happens to be someone she's always responded to, maybe just because in his educated way he's blunt like The Only Ones heroine-narrator Inez Fardo. Hope he fuels an album or two by hooking up with someone permanently lovable himself. And I'm reminded by the fact that he left law school to become a rapper to offer up a shout-out to the former AD the Rapper: Antonio Delgado, US Representative-elect from the great state of New York.

[Q] Hey Bob, what kind of gear do you use to listen to music? Are you picky about it, like loudspeakers over headphones? Any records you prefer to listen on vinyl rather than streaming? -- Rob, Pittsuurgh

[A] Although definitely not an audiophile, I so believe music belongs out in the air, in what is at least theoretically a social space, not inside your cranium. I use headphones only at the gym and on the street, where I check out my ever-evolving cellphone Spotify library for possible review. These seldom cost more than 25 bucks and I go through three-four pairs a year--they do break, especially when you're a klutz like me. (I do not use Bluetooth. Maybe I should.) My apartment is equipped with a good but not expensive or high-end sound system I couldn't describe without checking with its designer, my nephew-by-association Perry Brandston, a sound engineer I've known since 1966, when he was nine. I recommend quality speakers to everyone whose computer-streamed music reaches the atmosphere--I have Boses. Sometimes I stream from my personal half-a-terrabyte iTunes library because it's easier physically to locate music there. I seldom play my vinyl--I prefer the convenience of CDs. Finding working CD changers, however, is getting harder and harder. Anybody know somebody in NYC who can do a serious repair on my old Sony DC355, which I assume means a new laser? The lasers do go on these things. I think I'm on my fourth.

[Q] Hey libtard, why so cucked? -- Cuck Patroller, Anytown, USA

[A] Cue to mortarboard-sporting Dean of American Rock Critics jumping up and down with glee and chirping: "They noticed me! They noticed me! Plus they gave me a chance to say something nice about Father John Misty!"