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 other Tuesday.

To ask your own question, please use this form.

September 18, 2018

[Q] I'm curious about one of your early A-plus grades that was never revisited: Procol Harum's A Salty Dog. There's hardly a review to go on. What was it that you discovered in them? Did you ever revise that grade downwards? The group didn't earn high marks from you in subsequent releases, and the album itself doesn't seem to reflect your tastes in later years. Thanks. -- Noel Hinton, Bunbury, Western Australia

[A] Like many young critics discovering the satisfying judgmental thwock of a grading system, it took me a while, probably the better part of a year, to get my sea legs and not overstate for effect. Hence the too quickly rated A Salty Dog (such an anomaly that at least two others have asked about it)--which, however, I did revisit later as penance and judged rather better than most Procol Harum albums, in B plus territory though I'm sure not going back and double-checking. In general handing out A-plusses is very tricky business because it's essentially a prediction of continuing future use value. So whoever asked about Arcade Fire's Neon Bible and Graham Parker's Squeezing Out Sparks, right, those were mistakes: Arcade Fire just too grandiose, the sexism of Parker's title song too much to bear. On the other hand, whoever asked about 1970's six A-plusses, well, 1970 was really a hell of a good year. I'd now say all my top eight are A-plus: Layla (though no longer number one), Sly's GH record, Newman's 12 Songs, Moondance, After the Gold Rush, Sex Machine, John's Plastic Ono Band (retrospectively downgraded to an A in 1980, but still a record I pull out with pleasure, so jack it back up), and Aretha Franklin's Spirit in the Dark.

[Q] Are there any A-plus records that you have not originally rated as such? This includes records such as The Roots How I Got Over and Wussy's Funeral Dress. What do you think is the best Beatles album--any of them reach A-plus? What about Miles Davis' Kind of Blue or Dusty Springfield's Dusty in Memphis? -- Patrick Hoeppner, San Jose, California

[A] As I was just saying, predicting of future use value is very difficult to do accurately--and that's gotten harder as the number of A albums has increased steadily over the years, rendering the competition for my future non-work listening tougher and tougher. But good for you -- as it happens, all four of the albums you've named are records I return to often, insofar as "often" is a word that makes sense for someone who has what we'll call ten thousand albums crammed into his less than gigantic Manhattan apartment. As for the Beatles, which others have asked about too, let me just say that the UK-US differentiation of their pre-Sgt. Pepper catalogues make that a much more complex question. Nevertheless, I wouldn't be surprised if, after devoting a week or two to the question that no one will ever pay me to do so I won't, I didn't decide most of their albums were A-plusses. That said, no question which two I play most: the U.S.-only The Beatles' Second Album, which I first purchased in 1965, and, yes, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

[Q] Hi Robert. I was wondering what your thoughts are on the Soundcloud rap that has been quite dominant in the latter half of this decade, and if you think it is any way comparable to the DIY sensibility of punk. -- Khalid Sayeed, Toronto

[A] 1) As with most underground music punk included, I find it more efficient to let the marketplace do some sorting before I get on it. And in Soundcloud rap however exactly you define it I'm not at all impressed by the job the marketplace has done. 2) DIY punk involves minor but telling variations on a simple musical frame I've often compared to blues. Soundcloud rap involves (or anyway, should) beatmaking strategies I'm ill-equipped culturally to feel from the git insofar as they're not raw lo-fi ineptitude/indifference. 3) Soundcloud rap is at least as afflicted as any other kind of hip hop with sexist rhetoric I need very good reasons to hear past. I'm way sick of the word "bitch." I hated the XXXTentacion album in particular and wasted no time mourning his death. 4) Insofar as any new rap is a singles music that's just not what I do as a critic. 5) Cheap production and distribution techniques are one reason why all "death of the album" talk is bullshit. But the sheer profusion of music means much good stuff will get lost.

[Q] You've never shown any love for Nina Simone. She has quite the oeuvre, but you've only reviewed two of her albums, both dismissive. You really see nothing there? -- James Bradley, Brooklyn

[A] Right, I don't like Nina Simone. I'd never claim there's nothing there, especially given the heroic status she's gradually accrued. But I don't take to it, and I've given it a bunch of tries, even taught Daphne Brooks's terrific essay on her in her Jeff Buckley book (speaking of artists I don't take to). Simone's default gravity and depressive tendencies (which may be related but aren't the same thing) are qualities I'm seldom attracted to in any kind of art. I've always assumed her classical training--which was extensive; she only started singing in clubs to make money--was connected to my response as well.

September 04, 2018

[Q] Your published compilations of Consumer Guide columns and your website present your capsule reviews, formally, as a unified body of work. Those reviews, of course, represent almost a half century's writing. They seem to show that your critical perspective has changed over time, like anybody's would, based on your life experiences. To take one example, you seem more prone in your 70s to dig into records that explore aging and the end of life than you did in your 20s. (I realize that there are also more records like that now, and more older artists.) I imagine other life changes have affected your critical sensibility in all kinds of ways. Do you think it makes sense for readers to view your writing over 50 years as a largely unified body of work? In other words, when I read a 1973 review and then a 2016 review on your Web site, to what extent am I reading the work of materially the same critic? -- Greg Magarian, St. Louis

[A] Of course I'm materially the same critic. As you understand, people change. But it doesn't seem to me that my critical sensibility has done any sort of about-face, just as I wouldn't say Pauline Kael's or Andrew Sarris's or even the latish, structuralism-friendly Raymond Williams's did. It's just broadened and gathered detail. Moreover, my enthusiasm for the music I liked 40 and 50 years ago hasn't for the most part diminished. Of course it's been diluted by all the great music that's followed. But doing a little pleasure listening off the iPod on the only brief getaway Carola and I have managed this summer, we found ourselves digging Hound Dog Taylor, who's come up before on such jaunts, and the Roches, who haven't, and Donald Fagen's The Nightfly, an old fave of Carola's she recognized instantly but took longer to name--it's been 36 years, after all. What should also be said about this, however, is that with the significant exception of jazz only with more verbal content, no pre-rock music has ever produced anything like the late-life efflorescences of not just Elza Soares and Willie Nelson but of those strange Boz Scaggs and Ray Wylie Hubbard keepers that seem to arise from nowhere. I say this is partly just a function of the same increasing longevity that enables me to do what I do at 76. But despite the fact that most rockers do start repeating themselves all too soon, some do it rather well--the amazing Jon Langford, or that fine Pere Ubu album following a bunch of willful eccentricity (which some, my pal Greil for instance, insist is great, and from another perspective they could be right). I've long said that a music that began by fetishizing adolescence is liable to ponder the aging process in more detail than the kind of earlier pop that aspired to maturity from the git. There's probably a book here, and I wouldn't be surprised if someone was writing it or already did only it sucked so I didn't notice. But for the nonce let me stop.

[Q] Are we to assume that--well, for example, your reports on Sting's solo records end with Mercury Falling in '96, though god knows he's kept it up for several albums since. Are we to assume that you finally reach a point with artists like ole Sting there where you just give up? No more listens, you've had enough? Or do you continue subjecting yourself to, say, the work of Phil Collins, or Edie Brickell, et al, and simply decide not to waste any reader's time, let alone any more of your own? Do you ever lose hope? Examples appreciated. -- Thomas F., St. Albans, Vermont

[A] Of course I give up on people--a lot of them. Often I don't "lose hope" either--in the case of these two guys there was little or no hope to begin with. Edie Brickell, as it happens, is a different matter--I put in some time on her Steve Martin collabs, one of which as I recall was nearly a *. And since someone in your vicinity asked why I stopped reviewing Nils Petter Molvaer, that to me seems like a similar question. I bet Molvaer's later albums are pretty good--he was very consistent when I was writing about him. But all those albums serviced a rather narrow sliver of my earscape and, I suspect, weren't for most of my readers. So when they stopped coming free in the mail I didn't miss them. Plus he's the kind of artist I find even harder to review conveniently via streaming, which is never the way to go if you can avoid it. Too abstract, unsegmented, ambient.

[Q] In the intro to your 80's record guide you mention the change in listening habits caused by the introduction of CDs vs vinyl/cassette and having to consume the whole CD in one listening (inhuman!)--can I ask what are your feelings/listening habits now when it comes to CDs? Do you listen to the whole thing in one sitting or listen to a half at a time a la vinyl/cassette? -- Trevor Minter, Shoreham, West Sussex, England

[A] Basically, I succumbed--it is what the format would seem to insist upon, after all, and has led to adjusted pacing aesthetics and strategies. But I often program my changer to play three tracks apiece from CDs I haven't heard, then go back and play more of the ones I think might be worth the time. And the brute fact is that when I do a final pre-review listen complete with following the lyrics more assiduously, as I usually do before writing a full review, I often run out of gas midway through and go back a little later to finish, which is kind of the same thing as playing one side at a time.

[Q] I wonder if you've ever considered retrospective reviews (or perhaps just overviews) of albums from the early- and mid-sixties, that highly combustible phase of rock & roll. I've always been curious about, for example, whether you prefer Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde on Blonde, or whether A Quick One is amusing enough to be a worthwhile buy. -- Dustin Lowman, Westport, Connecticut

[A] Not that I can't imagine devoting my eighties to writing that isn't for an audience. But basically, I write for two reasons: participating in a discourse I've devoted my creative life to and money. Were the right venue to offer me the right word rate, as Rolling Stone just barely did with those retrospective 1967 reviews I shared with David Fricke, I might take the gig, although that one was a lot of work if also considerable fun. But until that highly unlikely event occurs I can tell you from memory that A Quick One is worth your time.

[Q] Hello Mr Christgau. I would like to know which grade would you give to Tyler the Creator's last album, Flowerboy, if you had the opportunity to listen to it, and more generally your opinion about his solo career? Thank you. -- Adam, France

[A] Actually, a couple of positive, finally-he-fulfilled-his-potential reviews plus one or two Spotify headphone streams inspired me to buy Flowerboy, so thanks to this question I didn't quite throw the money away. Three-four more plays in I decided it wasn't worth reviewing--exactly why my current grading structure doesn't oblige me to articulate or try now to recall, except that it was more in the territory of bleh than of the usual fuck you asshole. Tyler shares with Van Morrison the honor of inspiring two different pieces in Jessica Hopper's recommended The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic. Both the Morrisons are raves, a bit over the top I'd say. Both the Tylers are mean, totally convincing pans. Yay.

[Q] Politically "rock critics" run in a hopey-changey herd. Take Greel. During Ronald Reagan's presidency he caterwauled about how America--a nebulous abstraction in which Greel has a vested interest--had betrayed him. No doubt voting Carter/Mondale then Mondale/Ferraro. Yet a recent historians' poll--did you miss it?--ranked Reagan as the most "influential" 20th century president after FDR, with some placing him third after Wilson or Teddy. A president is not a human being but an image, personality, character, idea, platform, administration, record, legacy, cop or crook, mix of both, legend for good or legend for ill, etc. Complicated. Alone the deep focus of time reveals a president's place in history. Which, face it, is academically sanctioned fake news. So, Dean Christgau, over time has your own opinion of Ronnie changed--especially in light of the exhausting dramedy of President Donald "Spankee" Trump from our beloved Queens? -- Coco Hannah Eckelberg, Long Island City, New York

[A] The historians' polls I've missed are without number, but the word "influential" is a typical non-normative academic/journalistic evasion--"most humane" is so ideological, and "best," fageddaboutit. Of course Reagan was influential. But he was also the most evil of 20th-century presidents. He began the evolution of the Republican Party into the amoral pack of Ayn Rand-worshipping, Jesus-perverting Repuglican empathy deniers it is today. He used the air traffic controllers strike to kick into gear an ongoing attack on the union movement that has done untold harm to most Americans. He empowered the entire Oliver North school of rightwing dark-op specialists who infest both government and the ever vaster private security infrastructure. He wasn't as bad as Trump because Trump is truly a special case--a barely sane megalomaniac who is among other things immensely more dangerous than Christianist hypocrite Mike Pence. And though I could go on, I have other things to do, so I'll stop except to say that rooted in racism though its promise will always be, I still believe in America too.

August 21, 2018

[Q] You're on the record as saying that Sinatra is your favourite singer of the first century of recorded music, but, apart from a couple of passing references, I'm not sure which of his albums you hold in highest esteem. I know you're a Capitol guy over Reprise and Columbia (who isn't, though). What are, for you, the A/A+ albums of Ol' Blue Eyes? Do you think there any Capitol duds? And are there any records from his other periods that you regularly spin? -- Tim McQueen, Brisbane, Australia

[A] Conceptually, this is important. I never said Sinatra was my favorite singer of the 20th century. In the obit I published in Details, I said he was the greatest singer. Which brings us immediately to the heart of all how-dare-you-rate-music questions. Yes, there is such a thing as assayable musical skill, and sometimes--usually but not always: bye-bye Steve Vai--this skill is enjoyable. Sinatra is definitely one of those cases. Concentrate on his his shading, his time, the way he strays a few microtones off pitch, and even if you couldn't describe those effects technically--which I can't, not with true specificity--you'll certainly be impressed, and if you're me, moved, engaged, occasionally enthralled. But that doesn't mean you have to like the man who achieved these effects, and in good criticism you make such distinctions, explicitly or implicitly, all the time. My wife, for instance, find herself generally unmoved by Sinatra's enactments of male vulnerability-as-mastery. Which is why I don't play a lot of Sinatra even though I have a dozen or two of his CDs in my shelves. My two favorites are the old-man anthology Everything Happens to Me, which I've written about (and which Carola does kind of like), and the classic Capitol ballad album In the Wee Small Hours. Of the uptempo Capitols, I like Songs for Swingin' Lovers. I always prefer him with Nelson Riddle, one of the few classic-pop arrangers I actively admire. Beyond those three albums, I've never had the opportunity to calibrate and probably never will, although I do explore albums I barely recall once or twice a year.

[Q] I was surprised when about a decade ago on the Expert Witness forum you said you rarely if ever listen to (the) radio. It's played an important if rapidly diminishing role in my own listening life, with college and non-commercial radio leading me to many artists I hadn't heard of before. My question is what role radio once had in your life, and when you stopped paying attention to it? And do you see any use to the algorithms that are rapidly taking radio's place? -- Mark Rosen, Dallas, Texas

[A] As with all queries as to my non-review-oriented listening, I ask everyone here to do the math. To find my Expert Witness quota, I devote say 90 percent of my pretty much continuous ear time to records I've yet to write about and may want to. So basically I haven't listened to the radio since it became possible to play cassettes in cars. Without question this skews my listening in many ways, including away from singles. It's not ideal critically either, as I well know, and I should say right now that I wouldn't live this way if I didn't get paid for it, although my ability to enjoy it as much as I do--and I do, often tremendously--is one of my critical gifts. But even if I had the time to play mostly whatever I felt like I doubt I'd return to the radio. Instead I'd play my A albums as much as it seems most of you do.

[Q] Since Childish Gambino has become more known, you've stopped reviewing him. What gives? -- Oscar, Los Altos, California

[A] I don't recall the details with Because the Internet because it was four years ago, but in general it sounded like a falloff to me, plus it was a double, so though it may well have been some kind of Honorable Mention--the guy's a talent, no doubt about it--I never put in the time it would have taken to find out. "Awaken, My Love!" was different--in my opinion a seriously overrated piece of romantic P-Funk retro that owes its Grammy nomination to Atlanta. Atlanta itself, on the other hand, is a motherfucker. Got around to it late because with TV I generally do, but watching the first season on Hulu was one of 2018's highs by me. Unfortunately I've only seen the first show of the second season. Twice, actually--held up, too. But then, near as our imperfect smart-TV smarts can determine, it disappeared, though it's been a month or so since I tried to locate it. Anybody who has any ideas as to how we see it, we would love to know, even though my sister Georgia, whose tastes often parallel mine although she didn't dig Blindspotting, says it got too arty.

[Q] In your article "Trying to Understand the Eagles" from 1972 you said that the Eagles were an accomplished band. You liked the music which was brilliant but false, but you hated the Eagles as the culmination of the counterculture reaction. The Eagles set out to capture the "me decade" attitude of the '70s and its consequences. In your opinion, how successful were the Eagles in chronicling the attitudes of the 70s? -- Jan-Frederick Lochert, Oslo, Norway

[A] I wasn't saying I liked the music--more that I admired it and enjoyed some of its formal elements. In fact, I think Frank Ocean's "Hotel California" rip "American Wedding," which with his usual generosity of spirit Don Henley quashed, is the best thing Ocean ever recorded. And I did give their Greatest Hits megaseller a B, which is far from a claim that there's nothing worth hearing on it. But I don't think they were "chronicling" me-decadism. I think they were embracing it full on and never stopped, although I'm sure someone can remind me of something they did late as individuals if not a band that's actively worth hearing.

[Q] As a fan of the Jack Johnson Sessions box, what did you think of the final two Miles Davis box sets: The Cellar Door Sessions and The Complete On the Corner Sessions? And I'm sure being a fan of Davis's later fusion albums doesn't mean that you don't enjoy any of his earlier works so do you recommend any of his sixties albums as A records? Four and More (1964), My Funny Valentine Miles In Concert (1965), Miles Smiles (1966), Sorcerer (1967), Nefertiti (1968)? -- Bob H, Astoria, New York

[A] The late-'60 Wayne Shorter edition of Miles's band is my least favorite Miles--not that I think it's bad, but I've always found Shorter too cool. Nefertiti is the one I play from that period, mostly because Carola loves jazz trumpet and it's certainly more than OK, figure an A minus by me. I put some time into The Cellar Door Sessions, which has tremendous word-of-mouth, but when it didn't connect after four-five passes I put it aside. In general I think alternate takes boxes are specialists-and-collectors-only profit takers. If you range as wide musically as I do you don't need that kind of marginal differentiation. But Jack Johnson is a record I adored from the git, an eccentric call at the time, so that particular case made sense for me.

[Q] If Elvis had been born female ("Elvina"), achieved the same level of success, endured the same downfall, become the same punchline, died the same death straining stool on the same poopy-poop toilet--how would the fact she was female not male have changed the history of rock music? The history of sex? The history of the world? -- Chadwick Henley Essex, Greenwich, Connecticut

[A] Not nearly as much as if he had been born a salamander.

August 07, 2018

[Q] You wrote a favorable review of The Monitor by Titus Andronicus--do you have any opinions on their subsequent albums? I'd particularly like to know if you have an opinion on their even more ambitious rock opera The Most Lamentable Tragedy. -- Hector, Los Angeles

[A] I've gotten a lot of questions like this--requests to evaluate specific artists or albums. And why not? By its very nature Expert Witness nee the Consumer Guide has always attracted completists and list fetishists. As I told back in 2002, Greil Marcus (whose occasional Ask Greil feature on his website inspired my rabbi Joe Levy to suggest a Christgau version, and who has given me his blessing) "attracts fans who write avant-garde theater pieces based on his critical fantasies and I get guys asking for my favorite albums by knuckleballers." But I'm not going to answer many of those questions, because I believe my readers are smart enough to understand some basic parameters. Implicitly, my deal is that every week I find two-three records in the A plus down to B plus range, B plus being a liminal realm that includes only the very top of the albums the 1969-1989 Consumer Guide would have assigned that grade, the rest of which are now the ***, **, and * albums reviewed briefly as what I call Honorable Mentions. My deal also is that I struggle like mad to find all those letter-graded albums, which hardly means I never miss one. But I do not make the same promise as regards Honorable Mentions, of which there are probably thousands every year in this age of underpaid musical overproduction. So once I've written kindly about an artist--Titus Andronicus, say, or Songhoy Blues, to cite another request--it's a safe bet I've checked out their newer work and not at all unlikely that I've checked out older stuff in search of more A's (although usually only one relatively recent release back). Similarly, you can bet that I've checked out anything that's gotten an 8.5 in P4K or **** in Stone or crowds toward the top of the Metacritic cumes and isn't metal or electronica esoterica. I also check out many cult faves like Mac Demarco, who someone asked me about, and pop marginals, like Charli XCX ditto. Usually I do this via Spotify on headphones if I haven't been mailed a CD, which I usually haven't. What I don't ultimately cover is lucky to achieve any fraction of a third play, and much of it I never get through once--that Titus Andronicus monster, for instance, although I tried harder with the new one before also deleting it from my phone. So just in general, if I haven't written about something and it has a rep, chances are excellent I didn't think it was worth writing about. I'm pretty diligent, but I'm also pretty judgmental. If I wasn't I couldn't do what I do at all. And yes, there will be exceptions. This is a contingent world.

[Q] Have the philosophical works you studied in college been of any practical use in later life? -- Sergio Thompson, Salem, Oregon

[A] Of course they've been of practical use in later life--I've made my living as a critic for half a century, and achieved a modest measure of fame at it , too. I was an English major, so I didn't read that much philosophy per se, but what I did read was probably more generative than the New Criticism I read more of. At the very least both prepared me for the philosophically inclined writing I delve into to this day. For me, college was a generative experience even if I ended up rejecting a lot of the ideology that underlay what I studied there. As with fundamentalist Christianity, I couldn't have rejected it if I didn't study it to begin with. Read all about it in my memoir Going Into the City, still available at better bookstores, libraries, and remainder outlets nationwide.

[Q] I've noticed that your reviews have begun to reflect a lot of political thought in the days of Donald, beginning with A Tribe Called Quest's most recent album (and your most recent A+). The questions I wish to ask are these: how do you perceive art unbiased when you have a political view? Do you believe in having an obligation, as part of a publication, to highlight certain a political agenda? -- Henry Glover, Australia

[A] A surprising number of my interrogators seem to think criticism should be "unbiased," or even that I make such a claim for my own. That's silly. Everybody's "biased." Every one of us has a different set of values. The critic's responsibility is to be explicit about those values and put them to use. I've always been more candidly and aggressively political than most critics, and by political I mean "of the left." That doesn't mean the word can't just as readily signify more moderate or conservative views, although in rock criticism the latter are still pretty rare. When I started rock criticism was counterculture-identified and therefore left-identified, although some critics tried to muffle those connections--take a look at my early essay "Rock 'n' Revolution." But I was also very aggressive about the aesthetic legitimacy of popular and mass culture, which I associated with class prejudice and still do, although that point has become far too hegemonic. But all of this has a graver weight in the Trump era, because we thought World War II defeated fascism and it didn't. Trump hasn't succeeded at fascism (yet) only because the USA's institutional structure makes that difficult to bring off--and also, I hope, because the number of citizens who would welcome a government even more racist and authoritarian than the one Trump and the revanchist, oligarchical Republican Party of today has done its damnedest to put in place is smaller than even Trump's poll numbers suggest. Take a look especially at Poland, Hungary, and Italy as well as Putin's Russia (and the China of president-for-life Xi). I don't believe there's much room for moderation in this schema, although I believe that moderates like Merkel and Schumer-Pelosi do put a kind of brake on it. So yes I'm making a special effort to write about politics when I find music that finds a way to address this crisis, which is very difficult to do without being merely preachy or worse. And damn right too I think rock critics/"music journalists" should do their best to fight this fight and hammer home these points, which is also very difficult to do effectively.

[Q] Hi! Can you recommend please any specific greatest hits CDs by The Four Seasons, The Flamingos, or The Shondells? I know and like a few songs by each of them but don't know if any of these oldies groups are really worth buying a CD for. Thank you so much. -- Elena B., Brooklyn

[A] Know this, Sezzers. This person was not born Elena. He was born Joseph, and has no transsexual tendencies I'm aware of. Joseph suffers from a rare psychological disorder called greatest hits fetishism and, because I'm the only rock critic who takes the compilation seriously, is always trying to get me to answer questions like this, leaving me less and less inclined to be his enabler. He's posing as a woman here because he knows something deep about me: I wish the whole enterprise I set in motion with the Consumer Guide in 1969 wasn't so Boy. I love women. I've been learning about music from women for more than half a century and have had sexual relationships with two dynamite rock critics, the latter of whom stuck at trying and ultimately succeeding as writing dynamite fiction instead (Carola Dibbell, The Only Ones, now available in French as well as English). So far, 17 of my 45 A records this year are either by women or feature them definitively (that's Wussy and Yo La Tengo). So if any of you guys can persuade the female music lovers I hope and believe are in your lives to visit here, I'd be grateful.

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