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.

October 18, 2023

And It Don't Stop.

Sinead's voice, Chinese novels, Placebo and the ecstasy of influence, the squall of Johnny Thunders, radio days, Spofity's Roganomics.

[Q] Any thoughts on Sinead O'Connor since her passing? I agree with your reviews that the albums did dip in quality after the first two. And I can't say if I'll ever read her memoir. But absolutely love her voice and am saddened to know we won't receive any new recordings -- James Kean, Liverpool

[A] O'Connor was obviously a bit of a skyrocket. She peaked early and never seemed to regain her equilibrium, insofar as she ever had any. Her voice was so remarkable it carried her, pretty much, through an uneven and occasionally unhinged career powered in part by an active and admirable but not especially consistent or persuasive social conscience. I hadn't put her on in years when she died, played Do Not Want a little, and moved on. But it's worth noting that a week ago Carola and I were visited by an intellectually ambitious grandniece with an active interest in music who'd just graduated from college. An hour or two into our colloquy she asked me what I thought of Sinead, who she'd been playing and felt like hearing again. So I dug out a CD. In that context, I thought O'Connor sounded great.

[Q] I know that you read a lot of books, especially novels. As a Chinese reader, I would like to know if you have read any books by Chinese novelists. If so, which books would you recommend? -- Meng Dang, Jiangxi, Nanchang

[A] Not many, and if you don't count Chinese Americans, just one: Cixin Liu and Ken Liu's The Three-Body Problem, clearly a work of genius though it didn't blow my mind to the extent others report. Counting Chinese-Americans, start of course with Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, which is more novelistic than it pretends. Liked Eugene Lim's Dear Cyborgs and even more Charles Yu's Interior Chinatown. Not crazy about Ling Ma's Severance. Highly recommend the long China section of Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt, and the Chinese protagonist of his Red Moon.

[Q] How come you never particularly liked Placebo? Brian Molko cites as influences artists that are very much to your taste--Pavement, Sonic Youth, PJ Harvey, Pixies, Bowie. There's a general consensus that their first 3 albums would be the best, but those didn't really catch your attention at all. -- Victor, Romania

[A] C'mon, Victor, try harder. As a rock fan in a secondary market, that is your lot, a demographic inconvenience you're doomed to cope with. THIS PECULIARITY I ADDRESS AT LENGTH IN THE FULL-LENGTH COLUMN ON PLACEBO I PUBLISHED ON OR AROUND MY 64TH BIRTHDAY, WHICH YOU MISSED WHY?? It's easily finable from the Placebo page in the digitized Consumer Guide. I'm listening to Meds as I write, probably for the first time since I wrote that column, though I did keep their best-of, which inconveniently enough came out during the part of 2013 when there was no CG and which sounded excellent when I played it. Meds also sounds pretty darn good in more or less the way I describe. Tuneful, rockin', smart enough. But just for the record, for an artist to admire the artists you list is no guarantee that he, she, or they will approach the excellence of those aesthetic models. It's to Brian Molko's credit that he came as close as he did.

[Q] There are two Johnny Thunders related records you didn't include in your Guide--the Heartbreakers' '77 album L.A.M.F. and Johnny's '78 album So Alone. I think this was because they were UK import-only. I'm just curious to hear your thoughts on those two albums. I know the sound of the original L.A.M.F. record was panned by many, but it's since been reissued, most recently as the Found '77 Mixes last year. The sound quality is improved and really showcases the band playing at their best. There are bonus tracks too. There's also an excellent set of demos from the L.A.M.F. sessions that also came out last year worth hearing. Finally, Johnny's So Alone album has also been reissued with great bonus tracks. Don't think you wrote about his acoustic album Hurt Me and Que Sera Sera either. Love them both too. So what do you make of all these? What grades? How would you describe Johnny's unique style of playing in just a few words? -- Jamie, Sunderland U.K

[A] I have both those albums on vinyl and liked them fine in their moment, bypassing them for review, as you figure, because I didn't do imports back then. Reconsidering them as CDs might be fun, although I note that Amazon is currently selling what seem to add up to 18 Johnny Thunders/Heartbreakers bootlegs-I-presume, some CD and some vinyl, a plethora that diminishes the fun potential of sorting them out considerably. In my recent David Jo appreciation I came up with the adjective "squalling" to describe Johnny's sound, and the same word popped into my mind unbidden as I considered your query. A good start descriptively.

[Q] Since you're well-known for listening to and reviewing so many albums over such an extraordinary span, I wonder if since becoming a critic you've had much time over the past many decades to listen to the radio? If so, were/are there particular radio stations/shows you liked listening to for their music selection? I also wonder if you were ever tempted/wishful to have your own radio program, where you could play your favorites for your listeners and discuss the music? Oh, and that's another way of saying that I have enjoyed your Auriculum episodes quite a bit. -- JR, Brooklyn

[A] I haven't listened to the radio in any systematic way in over 40 years, which for somebody whose life was changed by Alan Freed on WINS in 1954 and who kept carefully calibrated files of Peter Tripp's Top 40 on WMGM for his entire junior year in high school is a fundamental change. The radio was very important to me in the '60s and '70s, and it's not as if I never hear it now, or that I don't sometimes discover or at least get a bead on a pop hit I might otherwise miss by overhearing it there. It used to happen in stores before they all started subscribing to streaming services. Tuning in the radio in a rental car can also be enlightening. As for my own show, I had a weekly one under Village Voice auspices 2001-2002. I insisted they pay me, I think $100, which in the end they decided wasn't worth their while, as it probably wasn't. But I earned the money--preparing playlists was WORK.

[Q] What's your take on Spotify bankrolling Joe Rogan? -- Mark Millard, Austin

[A] What should it be? Spotify is by no means "progressive." It's a business, one that's now essential to my work. Granted, for Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and a few others to boycott Spotify may well have its "political" dimension. But note that by comparison Substack is a hotbed of rightwing argumentation, which doesn't come close to meaning I ever itch to take my wares elsewhere.