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 20, 2023

[Q] Being a PJ Harvey fan since I first read about her in your reviews, I was very curious to know your thoughts about her latest album which came out in July this year. So when the December Consumer Guide came out and there was still no review of it, I started wondering if you were even aware of its release, or maybe you had listened to it but didn't consider it good enough (or interesting enough) to dedicate a review to. If that's the case, even with artists who you previously covered and showed appreciation for, I wanted to ask what's your criterion (if there is one of course) for deciding not to review an album. Also, in that regard, Paul Simon's latest album comes to mind, especially since you mentioned in a previous Xgau Sez that you were going to listen to it. -- Gaetano, Siena, Italy

[A] I've streamed the new PJ maybe four-five times, which isn't to claim front-to-back by the way, without feeling inclined to forget about it quite yet. But that's mainly because I respect the artist as much as I do. This is PJ Harvey, after all. That said, so far it hasn't passed either of my two tests: 1) Do I want to play it again just to hear it? 2) Am I ever actively and consciously enjoying what I'm hearing on some purely aesthetic level? Not as of now. The Simon, which I purchased on the grounds that it was Paul Simon after all, failed both tests, so I'm not reviewing it. I'm giving PJ the month off and will check it out again before January is over.

[Q] How do you decide which albums you want to listen to? I imagine there are artists where you listen to their new music automatically, based on their fame or their track record. What about new ones, or those you haven't kept up with before? -- Jamie, Texas

[A] I read a lot of reviews and hear many more albums than I write about. I also have advisors de facto or otherwise--my editor Joe Levy most of all, after that my sister Georgia and my daughter Nina and my webmaster Tom Hull. But I talk music with most of the people I know and will take a likely-sounding tip from anyone.

[Q] My son is just about two years old and I have been slowly feeding him a diet of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Bob Seger, Knopfler (both Mark and David), Warren Zevon (who I discovered owing to your blog) and Gordon Lightfoot. He is showing a clear inclination towards them and I'd like to introduce some jazz into the mix too. Being a jazz novice (and musically illiterate) where should I start him? -- Abhinav Arora, India

[A] Louis Armstrong's 16 Most Requested Songs. Later, Kind of Blue. Maybe Dave Brubeck's Jazz Goes to College. And jazz aside, by all means get him started on the Beatles. Sgt. Pepper, why not?

[Q] After decades of fielding promos, along with whatever you've acquired on your own, how do you manage your physical collection inside of a 21st century NYC? And are you happier now that most review content is sent digitally? -- Joe Siiva, Atlanta

[A] With insufficient space and ever-increasing difficulty. Any intellectual my age has to start pondering how to dispose of his library, but usually those faced with that ever-expanding dilemma aren't also working full-time. I am. That said, it's high on my to-do list and may even be something I want to write about. And I should add that as I've indicated before here, I much prefer physicals, especially CDs--in part because they're simple to stick a bunch in a changer for an informal compare-and-contrast but also because, just as with e-books versus printed books, I find listening to streamed music different psychologically from putting CDs in a changer. In both cases I'm old enough to be somewhat disoriented by its lack of materiality.

November 15, 2023

And It Don't Stop.

Therapy, the Vandellas vs. the Supremes vs. the Marvelettes, Wilco (The Reviews), the listening method, the Kennedys then and now, and Pazz & Jop motivations.

[Q] Have you ever done psychiatric or psychological therapy? Do you perceive the ongoing concern for mental health and well-being with some degree of generational skepticism and distance or is it a welcome change from what I perceive may have been a diminished interest in the topic during your youth? Would you rather there be more political interest in today's artists (not that they're mutually exclusive), could "mental health" be code for selfishness or is that too cynical a view? Am I simply ignoring the fact that it's nothing new and you saw it being dealt with lots back in the day? -- David, Calgary, Alberta

[A] I don't know enough young people to comment on how much therapy they do except to wonder how they pay for it. Maybe things are different in socialized Canada, but here in NYC it can cost plenty. That said, I know plenty of people who've done therapy, count one therapist an old friend, and have written about my own experiences with therapy in Going Into the City. One shrink played a minor but key role in my decision to set my sights on a relationship with none other than Carola Dibbell, while another was in our lives when Carola and I had a crisis in 1980 and certainly did me more good than the marriage counselor we consulted did the two of us. Then again, the NYU-linked therapist Carola consulted for free in the early '70s was such a key figure in her life that he's the focus of her strange, poignant, funny, highly recommended short story "Surviving Death." Carola gets free counseling as part of her so far successful treatment for multiple myeloma and also consults a therapist who specializes in counseling writers who gets a thank you she deserves in the acknowledgments to The Only Ones.

[Q] Hello Mr. Christgau, I recently checked out Martha & the Vandellas' The Definitive Collection and had my mind blown by the extended mix of "Heat Wave," where the Vandellas' feverish "burning, burning, burning" cheers Martha on as she pushes the song into a new emotional peak. After that I looked into their history more and found after Motown shifted its focus and resources to Diana Ross (and the Supremes) they seemed to stop getting material from its first-string songwriters/production teams; at least the Marvelettes had Smokey Robinson writing a few more indelible classics for them. And while the Supremes were commercially irrefutable, I couldn't help but think with the same support and resources they got Martha or The Marvelettes could've done just as well, what do you make of this? -- Clement Lin, China

[A] I do not own The Definitive Collection but wasn't wildly impressed by the not-all-that-extended "Heat Wave" when I found it on Spotify, which is too bad because Carola adores "Heat Wave," which appeared around when she was beginning her sophomore year in college and--along with the Beatles, natch--reconverted her to rock and roll. (She had a jazz phase that has served her well for decades without cutting into her rock and roll fandom. When I asked whether it wasn't maybe "Dancing in the Streets" that so impressed her she stuck with "Heat Wave." "It's my favorite song," she said indignantly. "It's everybody's favorite song.") Me, I'm not such a big Reeves fan, partly because while finally purchasing a couple of LPs I adore to this day I also bought her Dance Party, which definitely didn't hold up against The Beatles' Second Album or The Rolling Stones Now. Not only that, but my fave '60s ur-Motown album is The Marvelettes' Greatest Hits, purchased in 1969 or maybe 1971, I still remember finding it in a bin in Berkeley. Motownwise, Reeves got the shaft as the Supremes took over the label, not least because she was bizwise enough to nurture big ambitions that sat poorly with Berry Gordy, who was more bizwise by a considerable margin. In my view her voice was just big enough to justify dreams of taking her pop legit. By the time I was getting records in the mail I recall getting a solo debut from here, maybe the Richard Perry production Nelson George references in his Motown book Where Did Our Love Go? For sure she had a bigger voice than Diana Ross or Gladys Horton of the Marvelettes, but that's never enough. The album was a dog.

[Q] I've read your reviews of Wilco and I find them completely mystifying. Disagreeing with your reviews is familiar territory for me. But I usually (almost always) think you have interesting things to say about interesting music. But reading what you wrote about Wilco makes me wonder if you accidentally listened to and reviewed the wrong music. Did you accidentally swap your Bright Eyes disks into Wilco jackets? The best Wilco album is up for debate, but Wilco (The Album) is not it, and that's not debatable. My vote would be Summerteeth, but I wouldn't argue with anyone who said YHF, Ghost, or Sky Blue Sky, each of which you dismissed so lazily I can't believe you actually listened to them. My question is, how did you get your Wilco reviews so spectacularly and colossally wrong? -- Matt Petersen, Earth

[A] One of the more depressing things about spending your life as a critic is haters who should probably avoid criticism because disagreement sits so poorly with them. Many of these people are just stupid, but Petersen doesn't seem to be--his syntax is fine, and sometimes he thinks I'm "interesting." He just loves Wilco so much that the fact that a name critic doesn't share his full-bore enthusiasm drives him mad. You'd think to read this aggrieved fan's hate mail that I'd panned all of Wilco's albums when in fact only one of my nine repeat nine reviews is negative. The problem with the others, presumably, is that they're not positive enough--one A minus, two B plusses, three three-star Honorable Mentions, one two-star, one one-star. In addition they collaborated on an album I love, the Billy Bragg-enhanced not to say -dominated Woody Guthrie tribute Mermaid Avenue. But going back to Uncle Tupelo I've always thought Tweedy was overrated as both a singer and a songwriter and explained why in prose I can guarantee wasn't "lazy" because I know how hard it is for me to put sentences together.

[Q] When you're listening to an album, what do you do? Do you sit there and take it all in, or do you do something else while it's playing? Personally, I usually have to be doing something else, but I have noticed I get a better connection with the songs if I lay in bed and listen to it. -- Ray, Atlanta

[A] My basic method is the one I've used since I started listening to the radio in my own room when I was 12: have music playing all the time and see what attracts your attention. By "all the time" I mean something less absolute, of course--only when I've lived alone has it been literal, and from the beginning there was often baseball vying for my attention, and seldom did I do both at once. But all the preceding assumes I'm living alone when for the past half century I've cohabited with a woman who I'm forever milking for offhand opinions. If she likes it I almost certainly do or will. But that only happens when she's not working herself--more often we have to negotiate so she's not distracted by my sounds, and for years she got to rent her own work space in a friend's apartment upstairs (which she still misses). All that said, absolutely once I've determined that a record pleases me on a casual basis I hone in on it, generally playing it five or 10 times and making sure I catch every lyric. I don't think the kind of listening many fans do requires that kind of attention. But if the music is to your taste it will repay it.

[Q] This is something that has been bugging me a long time. I'm 62. JFK was assassinated when I was two. RFK was assassinated when I was seven. I have no memories of either. But the media is still fascinated by the Kennedy mystique. And most of them are far younger than I am. I remember vividly Tom Brokaw commenting after Al Gore's acceptance speech in L.A. in 2000 that he was no JFK. It infuriates me to this day. With RFK, Jr., do people, younger than I am, still hold to the Kennedy "mystique"? Is this a media myth? Or am I missing something? -- Theodore Raikin, Metuchen, New Jersey

[A] JFK became president by barely defeating Richard Nixon, who even in 1960 seemed like the amoral menace his eventual presidency proved him to be. Kennedy's never fully explicated assassination suggested that despite the Bay of Pigs disaster he was regarded as a dangerous agent of change by the forces of evil, plus he projected a youthful vigor and gathered an impressive liberal brain trust around him. Hence his legend, which while it wasn't justified by his actual achievements as of November 1963 is rightly associated with what LBJ soon accomplished as his de facto political heir, in particular the Civil Rights Act and then Medicare. True, Vietnam took root on JFK's watch as well, and while I suspect he would have done better with it than LBJ, how much better cannot be known. That said, though, RFK did become genuinely antiwar, which to me indicates that JFK would probably have taken a less hawkish path though who can know for sure? What is clear is that RFK's own antiwar feelings were genuine. Without having the expertise to vouch for its unconventional details, I recommend the "investigative poetry" of Ed Sanders's Broken Glory: The Final Years of Robert F. Kennedy (which also has plenty of alarming stuff on the MLK assassination). RFK Jr., however is clearly a menace and has been since he went on the Covid-period anti-vax crusade many other Kennedys have condemned.

[Q] What was your motivation for starting the Pazz & Jop poll? -- Michelle, Chicago

[A] My main motivation was to establish a critical consensus like any other critics' poll. Not that such a consensus is definitive, but it's certainly informative as regards both the critics and the art form they cover, plus it was a standard journalistic circulation-booster that filled a gap left by the departure of a mag called Jazz & Pop, and clearly that gap needed filling. In addition I thought that, as with "Dean of American Rock Critics," Pazz & Jop was a handle that might attract some attention on its own. A hook, we call that in the music biz. Like the blatantly obvious "Consumer Guide," this one definitely worked.

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.

September 27, 2023

And It Don't Stop.

Unhappy news, the one-man campaign to render "Mr. Lee" a recognized classic, working with the State Department, McCartney (not Paulie), genius and generations, whining from down under.

[Q] Hi. Unhappy news. Last night I was digging around a Seward Park alumni chat page and found this: "Mr. Steve Anderson -- Teacher at Seward, a Founder of LoMA. We. are sorry to have learned of the recent passing of Steve Anderson, who taught at Seward Park High School from 1985 until the school's closing in 2006. He then became one of the founders of LoMA on the Seward Park campus after Seward closed." Just a few other details there. When I searched for more, I found your pieces mentioning him and his book. I'm stunned and deeply saddened. Steve was a good friend when I taught at SPHS, adored by colleagues and students alike. He was quietly brilliant, with a delicious dry wit. I left teaching in 1992, but last ran into him on the train a few years before the pandemic. Now this. So much I would love to say to him and about him. He kept me a little saner back then. The lack of info online is upsetting. Oh, Steve. I hope your departure was easy. -- CM Kessler, Brooklyn

[A] When I reconnected with Steve in July he told me that he'd had a heart attack a few months before. Heart incidents are fairly common after 65 and Steve seemed pretty together if not quite hale and hearty when I walked down to St. Marks Place to pick up the clips we wanted to reprint, so I didn't give this news much thought. But then came a phone call from a friend of Steve's telling me he'd died of a heart attack--more or less instantly was the impression I got. I was shocked of course and started bellowing "oh no" into the phone, and soon I was worrying among other things that the renewed attention might have triggered the coronary. Which I suppose it might have, although I'm told by those close to him that he was delighted to be remembered. It turns out Steve had completed another novel. It's set in the Kansas of his boyhood and titled Heat, Then Rain. His wife asked if I would proofread it and I did. Liked it a lot. Will be sure to alert readers when it sees print.

[Q] I recently watched the 1977 film Between the Lines and saw your name in the credits. I carefully revisited the party sequence and could not spot you. Are you in the movie? What was your contribution to this enjoyable picture? -- Erik Nelson, Houston

[A] I was the musical advisor on that Joan Micklin Silver flick, for which I received a modest honorarium, although my recollections of exactly what I contributed are pretty dim 50 years later. Not much I don't think. I was on vacation during part of the shoot, no phone in our state park cabin, and recall dialing from a roadside pay phone to convey a few suggestions. And something tells me that I tried to get them to include the Bobbettes' "Mr. Lee," although not whether I succeeded. My one-man campaign to render "Mr. Lee" a recognized classic has never gotten very far, so I assume I failed.

[Q] I just stumbled onto this little anecdote about the '70s band Fatback on your website: "I once blindfolded-tested Fatback along with a dozen other members of the State Department's Committee on Jazz, Folk and Popular Music. Every one of us got the funk. When I returned home, however, I could never find that groove again." Is this a joke I missed, or did you actually get together with a government committee and listen to funk? What's the story here? -- Ronan Connelly, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

[A] No joke--for maybe two years in the mid-'70s I did indeed work with a State Department committee charged with determining which nonclassical musical artists merited government support for their overseas tours. Details have faded, including who else was on the committee, whether we got an honorarium (small one I think--$200?), how frequently we convened (twice a year?), how travel was arranged, etc. But for sure I found the experience interesting. I'm pretty sure I was the only rock guy. My two memories are dim but real. One is that Pete Seeger's half-brother Mike, who I liked tremendously, got upset when I said something positive or maybe just matter-of-fact about folk music's debts to the CPUSA. The other is a battle royal over the Grateful Dead, accounted grooveless slobs by most of my jazz- and folk-oriented confreres (no women as I recall). I believe I ended up winning that one. Didn't remember the Fatback story, but am proud I had something to do with it.

[Q] Given how much you love the Beatles, I've always been a bit mystified by your harsh assessment of Paul McCartney's solo work. It's not even so much that you don't like his records, he seems to annoy you on every level. Given that many of his precious, whimsical qualities were on display in his late-'60s Beatles output, I'm wondering how do you square your love for a band with your dislike for its co-leader. As much as I adore John Lennon, I think Macca was the greater creative force in the band--though only by a little, and of course this is a debatable position. So I'm curious: What are your favorite Paulie songs with the Beatles and what do you regard as his chief contribution to the band? Also, are you sticking with your pans of Band on the Run and Ram? Both are masterpieces and sound better every year, IMO. -- James Bradley, Chatham, New York

[A] "Annoy you on every level" is such a silly overstatement I find it difficult to address seriously. First and most obvious, Paul was a mere quarter of the Beatles, not a half--remember those George and Ringo guys, I forget their last names it's been so long, but not that both were far more vivid figures than anyone in Wings but Paul himself--doesn't pack as big an impact as you're suggesting, although his melodicism was obviously crucial to what the other three Beatles put out there. Indeed, his whimsy in the Beatles context can be positively refreshing on occasion, and to choose the most obvious example, if he ever did anything as feral as "Long Tall Sally" in Wings, for some reason nobody noticed. I regret some of the language I used in my McCartney reviews, although it was more justifiable at the time--calling him "Paulie" especially, and "a convinced fool" no longer flies though it made some sense rhetorically in the moment. In addition, I came to admire Linda with the years and had nothing but respect for their marital commitment. Moreover, McCartney has become a much solider public figure over the years, and much less a public pothead, which I always found regrettable. Reports from his shows suggest that they're very well put together, and not only that--he's apparently taken to charging substantial admission to sound check rehearsals and donating all those proceeds to charity, a great idea for an icon. But am I gonna relisten to all those albums? Nah--life is too short. So my certainty that the songs on the superbly curated 1999 covers album Run Devil Run cut all but a few of his solo compositions could well be a judgment I die with.

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