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.

August 06, 2019

[Q] I'm saddened that the Consumer Guide is in limbo due to the vagaries of the publishing and music industries. The grades remain a very valuable consumer tool. Idea: provide the grades for new albums et al without the capsule reviews (which I assume takes the bulk of your time). You provide your recommendations to your acolytes without spending hours writing reviews without compensation. Thoughts? -- Dan Weiss, Washington, D.C.

[A] Nah. A) It's still work I'm not getting paid for, so why? B) The writing and the grading are organic to each other, so that the grade will occasionally change and often firm up as I write. Writing is the final phase of grading. C) For me it would be interesting to find out how giving up grading might change the way I hear.

[Q] Among all the rightful praise thrown your way, Dean, I would like to add this vital point: you have been right. Critics, to be worth their salt, have to emerge from the pages of history as right, right? My personal experience has demonstrated this--freakin' Field Day, for prime instance. Universally dismissed (Rolling Stone gives it the back of the hand) and you give it an A plus. A plus! Today it sounds--God--so damn good, it holds up and I expect it to do so for years into the future. My question is this: I know you have spoken about this in the past but what records do you recall as being the absolutely toughest to settle on and decide? And why? -- Werner Trieschmann, Little Rock, Arkansas

[A] Werner, as a longtime fellow toiler in the rock-critical oilfields as well as a longtime supporter of mine, you know very well that "right" is a contingent concept. The reason you're a fan and supporter is that, like many of my more devoted readers, you happen to hear music and relate to artistic expression the way I do. It's somewhat subjective. That said, I think I'm unusually good at hearing beyond the kind of timebound stylistic prejudices that cause Greg Kot in the fourth Rolling Stone Album Guide--who, be fair now, does acknowledge that the booming, echoey production on Marshall Crenshaw's Field Day is "divisive," meaning that there's another school of opinion, by which he may well be thinking of mine--to give that album only two stars out of five. But "right"--that's too grand and absolute a concept for tastes that you and I share. As for what was tough to settle on, I don't know anymore. I just scrolled through the A's on my site and couldn't find one I remembered agonizing over, except maybe for a few I expect I overrated: Spoek Mathambo's Father Creeper, almost certainly an A minus, and the utterly disrespected white-women rap trio Northern State, whose first three releases all got full A's from me. That particular judgment has proven so déclassé that I've been afraid to replay for years. But doing so right now I can say that although their flow is probably too stiff for a full A I still think the songs are first-rate.

[Q] After a few years analyzing the "meta score" between movies and music (aggregate reviews across different sources), a clear theme emerges: Movies Bad, Music Good. If you look at reviews across the spectrum of major releases between movies and music, by far, music critics are more forgiving and even shy to negatively criticize any musical act than movie critics are towards film. In short, every album that has been released for the past 10 years is at least a "B," and most movies are at best a "C" and mostly worse than that. How do you account for this grade/rating inflation? Unlike Xgau, it seems like most music critics don't have a real opinion at all. It defies reason that every album that comes out is a B. -- Douglas Smith, Orinda, California

[A] Robert Hilburn keeps harping on this piece of misleading math on Twitter as well. And while I'd agree that, as the "Rotten Tomatoes" tag indicates, there's a long-running tradition of the blatant pan in movie criticism that surfaces only seldom in music criticism, to me it's obvious that the principal reason for that is structural: there are more albums released than films by a factor of . . . what? In the old days, make it 10 or 20, but in the Soundcloud era it's even larger. So where almost every film released to theaters is reviewed, by a staff of one at many publications, often a frustrated aesthete who regards "good entertainment" as B plus at best--cineastes tend more pretentious than rock critics (who themselves often don't respect pure fun the way they should, either) --and other time someone who cares for nothing else. In contrast, most albums aren't even covered, and when they are it's by someone with an affinity for the subgenre the album represents assigned by an editor who's already decided the album is good enough to cover, where in film the same person ranges far and wide. I would add that Rolling Stone's standard three to three-and-a-half star review reads like B minus to B plus to me, and B minus ain't B, and the same goes for P4K's usual 70-80 range, where I personally take below 70 as a C plus. And I'd add as a onetime music editor that, given the paucity of review space, I was always ready to hear a critic I respected pitch me on something he or she loved and I wasn't especially impressed with.

[Q] Your top forty list of the '70s changed my life threefold. It brought to my attention Call Me by Al Green which I've considered the greatest album ever for the entire duration since 1980. It also introduced me to For the Roses which is my most listened to album ever--often it's too emotionally draining and too attention consuming to listen to Al Green. Thirdly the list turned me onto the Holy Modal Rounders. I'm not as wild about Have Moicy! as their first two albums. What's your opinion of those? You're wrong about I'm Still In Love With You being an A minus. It's on par with Call Me. -- Ted Fullwood, San Jose, California

[A] As it happens, I did an Al Green roundup for Blender in 2007, when I found that I agreed with you: I'm Still in Love With You, the conventional choice, is even better than Call Me. Find said roundup here. You should also be aware that there's a great albeit discomfiting Al Green bio available from Jimmy McDonough, very much worth reading even though McDonough is an arrogantly and also tediously contrarian anti-intellectual who thinks yours truly is a wonk--the stuff on Green's musicians is terrific, the sad biographical saga worth coming to terms with. And btw: Green's supposed autobiography is so empty I decided not even to mention it in my roundup. As for the Rounders, sure I like their early 1 & 2 stuff. But not as much as Have Moicy!, which is probably in my all-time top 10.

[Q] You gave Vampire Weekend's first three albums an A-, A, and A+. All three were produced by Rostam Batmanglij. Without Rostam, you gave Vampire Weekend a B+. Do you feel that the band missed Rostam's influence? I would argue that Rostam's production is integral to the band's sound, but you have never mentioned him in your Vampire Weekend reviews and you have not reviewed any of his solo work. -- Alan, Canada

[A] Just for the record, I did mention Rostam once, in the big VW essay collected in Is It Still Good to Ya? But not at length. Did his split with Koenig bode ill for the band? Of course. But que sera sera. Koenig remains VW's face, voice, and lyrical soul, and I doubt that Rostam's influence would have materially improved the new album, which I like a smidgen less than most. I have indeed followed his solo work and found it one more variation on the usual synthmaster texturetronics.

[Q] Please put me on your mailing list if you do go it alone. I'd subscribe to that. Best regards, Mr. C. -- Michael Craig, Vancouver

[A] Still haven't decided what I'm doing, but if I decide on a subscription model I will announce it on my site and on Twitter. As someone who's proud to have stayed off Facebook for all these years, I don't want to sell anybody on Twitter, which has many drawbacks although I've managed to render it useful by holding my fire and delimiting how many people I follow. But it is an easy way to keep up with my doings., which I always announce there.