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.

June 17, 2020

[Q] Mr. Xgau, why are you so hung up on Bob Dylan's voice? I am a young 28-year-old man who loves the fact Bobby D insists on continuing to attempt to sing despite his last vocal cord giving out sometime around Y2K. Do you know who else insists on singing despite being wholly unable to do so? Kanye West, M.I.A., Neil Young, et al. Inability to sing has never held any rocknroll genius back from singing. Yet anything in the last two decades you've written about Dylan has to be centered on the same rote "gee whillikers just can't stand that damn bobby bray." Who the f cares? -- Alan Wagner, Los Angeles

[A] This is ignant. My position forever has been that singing is as much a matter of brains as physical equipment, as Dylan proved by changing his voice constantly in the '60s and also by turning his songs to mush and self-regard for most of the '80s. I gave "Love and Theft" (2001) an A plus, said it "render[ed] his grizzled growl as juicy as Justin Timberlake's tenor--Tony Bennett's, even." I wrote a rave review of Modern Times (2006) that compared him to known great singer Bing Crosby. My B plus for the underrated Together Through Life (2009) said he was incapable of tenderness, not of hitting the notes. My review of the overrated Tempest (2012) said his voice was "crumbling audibly," which it was, and gave it a B plus anyway. But I can't stand the pop-standards albums he began rolling out when his songwriting muse left him in the lurch (2014, was it?). That singing was imbued with privilege, not intelligence. We'll see how this new album sounds--haven't heard it as I write, and am hoping for at least a little better. As for the rivals you named, Young is often a great singer, M.I.A. often an effective one, Kanye smart enough to have transformed the valence of Auto-Tune before he turned into a Trump fan, Jesus freak, etc.

[Q] Has your opinion of Prince's early albums changed since his tragic death on opioids? I'm surprised to see Purple Rain and 1999 with only A- grades and his great Hits + B-Sides box only a B+. Don't you think they should all be A+ like his other masterpiece Sign O the Times? And do you think Prince was just getting started or was his best music behind him already? -- Bob S, Ridgewood, New York

[A] It just so happens I recently relistened to most of these records and asked myself very similar questions. Having done so, I stand by both my reviews and my grades. These are very good albums that I ranked top 20 but not top 10 if you'll look at the Dean's Lists, as I did to check. High A minuses, as I like to put it. The lesser tracks good but in the end imperfect or simply lacking that compelling je ne sais quoi as I hear it. You hear it differently, as I'm sure makes good sense to your particular mind-body continuum--people are different, and that's as it had better be. As for the greatest hits thing, I'm simply reporting that he's so damn good, as you've just insisted and I've just affirmed, that the greatest hits format is wasted on him--unless the B sides are almost as transcendant. Which in my opinion they're not.

[Q] What's the best album you never reviewed? -- Oldfart, New York

[A] That's easy as these questions seldom are: either The Beatles' Second Album or The Rolling Stones, Now! Which, as best I can recall, are two of the first four rock albums I ever purchased not counting The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963) and Ray Charles's What'd I Say? (1962). In 1965 I believe, at Korvettes. The other two were Scepter's The Shirelles' Greatest Hits>, another all-time fave whose very similar Rhino iteration I gave an A plus in 1994, and Martha & the Vandellas' Dance Party, a typical Motown hits-and-filler no longer in my home shelves. I've probably played the three good ones more than any other albums I own just because they got such a head start. Half inspired covers (Solomon Burke, Amos Milburn, late Chuck Berry), half superb neglected originals ("Off the Hook," "What a Shame," "Surprise, Surprise"), Now! was easily the sharpest of the pre-Aftermath Stones LPs. As for Second Album, it's been pretty much written out of the canon because it was U.S.-only, prompting Dave Marsh to write a whole book about it. Beyond "She Loves You," one of my favorite records of all time (which I bought in its Swan version in 1963 not because I was any kind of collector but because that was the one this State Street shop in Chicago was selling), I love it for the covers, which predominate. Far as I'm concerned, "Money" and "Please Mr. Postman" are two of the best things they ever recorded, both surpassing the superb Motown originals.

[Q] In your last post, you linked a 1969 essay on revolution in which you said: "Anyone who is serious about changing things ought to be willing to prove it by taking risks. Right now, that means engaging in what I would call prerevolutionary politics . . . It means accepting the labor of organizing now and remembering that violence may be necessary later. It means being ready to give up your comforts if things turn out to be as bad as they seem." I'm a 24yo healthcare worker of color working in a pandemic as police kill unarmed black folks. I've given up my comfort, and things are as bad as they seem. Life-risking riots have made their way to the White House lawn. Elected officials literally endorse violent suppression. Resoundingly, the new word to have is revolution. Half a century ago, you said tactical violence may be necessary later. Decades of organizing have since failed to change oppressive structures. This generation has proven itself; is it time for violent revolution? -- Omar, Texas

[A] When this query arrived three weeks ago it seemed so urgent that I decided to answer it in a separate post, which I then spent 24 hours laboring over. Wrote about 1200 by no means completed words that I thought pretty much sucked. So I gave up. Here I'll keep my two main points as short as I can. First, 1969 was unimaginably different from 2020. At the end of the '60s what began as a black registration drive in 1964 and widespread antiwar protests in 1965 had spawned not just fervent, widespread popular opposition to LBJ's disastrous Vietnam policy but the black power movement, the women's movement, the gay rights movement, the environmental movement, and various violent revolutionary splinters, most prominently the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground. It is literally not possible for people who didn't live through it to imagine the exhilarating ferment of the time. But all that emotion was fed by a continually expanding post-WW2 economy that engendered even in African-Americans a collective confidence that would collapse as that economy stalled--and was then scooped up by the financializers who now hold almost all of us young and old in some kind of economic thrall. But especially young. Which is to say that the spiritual conditions today are very different, and while maybe the desperation they engender is just the thing to start a revolution, I doubt they're enough to sustain one. That's point one. Point two is that "tactical violence" was a crock even then, one I expect I stuck in there to shore up my limited credibility. There was some, of course--inept bombing ventures epitomized by the West 11th Street explosion that destroyed a townhouse and killed three Weatherpeople next door to Dustin Hoffman and across the street from a friend of mine who soon decided to become a swami. Since then, as we're now all too aware, local police forces have been fully militarized and, as no one seems to mention, a once obscure organization called the National Rifle Association has encouraged its vastly expanded membership, some of which holds rightwing views far more extreme and developed than those of, say, the John Birch Society in the '60s, to arm themselves with multiple killing machines they know how to use. Even in Texas our side is nowhere near as well armed, not to mention quick on the draw. Which is a major virtue, I'd say--but not one that improves our odds in an armed revolution.

May 20, 2020

John Prine's half century of great songs, playlisting for fun and work, 72 words in 24 hours, and what's at stake on November 3rd

[Q] Hope everything is good for you and your family with the corona virus going around. I have been an enthusiastic reader of your writing since high school! Just one question: Any thoughts on the death of the great John Prine? -- Keiro Kitagami, Japan

[A] I knew I was a Prine fan but was amazed at a) how big a fan and b) how many different artists clearly loved the shit out of him. When he died I felt personally bereft, which Lennon aside never happens to me in these cases. Kept playing his records for weeks, sometimes on Spotify because I never got CDs of the early stuff and sometimes extracting vinyl from my shelves, and not just because Carola kept making requests. His death was a shock to both of us because the report from his wife Fiona had been that he was out of intensive care and getting better, though at his Grammys tribute in January--Bonnie Raitt doing "Angel From Montgomery"--I worried that he wasn't performing himself and looked kind of frail in the audience. (Note however that it's been said he seldom performed as much as in the last few years.) And then everyone started writing and tweeting about it--I'm told Wussy did "Christmas in Prison," one of my many favorites, at an at-home show. He wrote great songs for half a century, right up to the present--I underrated Fair and Square in 2005. In 1999 I did a piece about him that's in Is It Still Good to Ya? But there's a detail I left out. Carola had been invited to the dinner where it begins but decided our daughter Nina needed the company and stayed home. When I got there everybody urged me to call and have her come up, so she did. We'd both met him just once before, backstage at a folk festival on Long Island when I was working for Newsday, probably 1973. Prine took one look at her and remembered that meeting, after a quarter of a century. What a sweetheart. What a noticer. And what a master of vernacular English. As I wrote somewhere, halfway up Mount Rushmore at least.

[Q] Do you think music will change in the next year or two as a result of the global pandemic? Will new albums by "bands" cease to exist for a time while only DIY electronica artists like Four Tet, Burial, Flying Lotus, and godfather Brian Eno, all of whom have new albums out now incidentally, are released? -- Jack Westin, St. Louis

[A] I'm very concerned about how the pandemic will affect music. In addition to the loss of discretionary consumer income sure to ensue, it's an economic disaster for most of the marginal types I devote so much time to--with streaming having turned records into a glorified merch niche monetarily, those who still earn their livings at it do so on the road, which will probably be off the table for all of 2020 as the epidemic fails to recede due to Trump's murderous indifference and aversion to complex ideas. It will also be harder to sustain economically when it returns. Nor is dance music likely to fare any better. That said, so far a lot of good music is being released, and bands (no quotation marks by me) practicing together as opposed to playing out seems like a far simpler and safer thing to accomplish as quarantines ebb and flow. As for an efflorescence of DIY electronica, I suppose it's inevitable structurally, though neither Burial nor Flying Lotus has released anything actually new and Eno stopped making interesting music decades ago.

[Q] Do you take into consideration and artist's statement about their work in terms of "intentions" or "message" as you review their albums? Do you care at all about finding out what they are? Is your current attitude in that regard a result of your evolution as a music critic or has it been the same from the beginning? -- Eddy, Canada

[A] Absolutely I care about intentions, and fairly often refer to them or even cite them as unattributed facts as in my recent Fiona Apple review. Do I therefore believe artists achieve what they say they've achieved? Absolutely not. I write about what I find in the music, occasionally also citing the critical consensus. Popular music doesn't exist in some formal vacuum. It's also almost always a social fact, and it would be just as foolish to ignore that as to feel obliged to address it every time out.

[Q] Your recent tweet about your wife's birthday playlist inspired me to check out your Spotify page, where I see you made other playlists. Minstrel Tunes looks interesting and the Woody Guthrie looks like his best, but the two that intrigue me are First Rock N Roll and Frankie Manning's Swingin' Big Band Favorites. I streamed the First Rock N Roll playlist and it's awesome - how did you select those 45 tracks? I liked the Big Band one so much I found a CD under that same title with the same songs and may just buy it. It looks as good as RCA's Fabulous Swing Collection which has been my go-to CD for big band swing for years. Why did you make a playlist of an available CD and not just buy it if you obviously love it? -- Mitchell Muhr, Brooklyn

[A] The public playlists on my Spotify page were assembled years ago for my NYU courses, one on popular music history and the other on the '50s. First Rock N Roll was based on What Was the First Rock'n'Roll Record by Jim Dawson and Steve Propes, which we read in the '50s course. I notice that a lot of it is now grayed out . The swing album was put together by the legendary swing dancer Frankie Manning, who was still teaching and performing professionally when he died at 94 in 2009 and who I later taught in the pop history course. An old friend of mine was his partner and manager for many years and would come in and lecture about swing, about which she knows far far far more than I do--she's still very active in that world. I don't make most of my Spotify playlists public because I don't want fans or bizzers to know what I might review--most of them are whole albums. But I can see why people who like my writing might enjoy the NYU ones.

[Q] Thank you for flagging your "The Road Taken" in the last Xgau Sez. I was wondering if you could say a bit about your writing process for longer essay pieces. You've outlined a lot about how much work goes into your album-review capsules; are essays as painstaking, and full of revisions and drafts? -- David, London UK

[A] Essays tend to be even more painstaking because they're under construction longer. "The Road Taken" in particular was very hard to write--because it was so personal it was hard to find a tone that didn't seem self-indulgent, because Carola's feelings had to be taken into account, and because it forced me to articulate bedrock concepts I'd long understood generally and felt emotionally without ever getting that granular about them. Took me a week of steady work. More typical were the Barnes & Noble essays, which generally took three or four days but sometimes longer. In the Louis Armstrong piece reprinted in Is It Still Good to Ya? appears the following 72-word graf:

To me, this way of seeing things is suspiciously undemocratic. One meaningful distinction between high and popular culture is that there's way more good popular culture--because its standards of quality are more forgiving, because sobriety isn't its default mode, because there's so damn much of it. Since there's so damn much of it, and a lot of that is terrible, it rewards connoisseurship. But its strengths are quantity and variety--democracy.

That paragraph, which summed up ideas I'd been thinking about for 40 or 45 years and had already addressed in print many times, took me a full, miserable 24 hours, much of it at my desk but some in a fetal position on my bed contemplating my own ineptitude. Then it came, all in a burst that lasted five or ten minutes though I did some minor cleanup later. Both Greil Marcus in his Rolling Stone Q&A about the book and David Cantwell in the lovely The New Yorker rave he gave me cited that little passage. It looks so simple, doesn't it? But it wasn't. That's how writing can be.

[Q] You wrote a great essay in the final weeks of the 2016 campaign advocating for Hillary Clinton and explaining your issues with Bernie Sanders. Care to share your thoughts on the 2020 race? Where do you stand on Biden, and who were you gunning for during the Democratic primary? How worried are you about the outcome this time? -- Jason Silverstein, Brooklyn

[A] That piece is another one that took forever--a steady, frustrating week--because so much was at stake. I stand by every word. Hillary hasn't been a deft loser, which even though I never thought she was deft has been a disappointment. But those who believe she would have handed over the economy to the billionaires and hung Puerto Rico out to dry to kick off every kind of racist outrage is deluded. Which is not even to mention, of course, Trump's corrupt, ignorant, literally murderous response to a health crisis few politicos outside of some enlightened Obama bureaucrats even envisioned in 2016. So of course I think the 2020 election is even more crucial--democracy's last stand because Europe can't do it alone. Of course that democracy is infuriatingly partial. But as a longtime skeptic as regards the efficacy of revolution--see this 50-year-old piece--I believe anybody who doesn't understand how much is at stake in the forthcoming election is criminally stupid. The demise of the post office will make room for a full-scale attack on public education. White supremacism will flourish. Immigration will be under constant attack--the disgusting Stephen Miller is one Trump bureaucrat who knows how to make the evil he covets happen. Every working stiff, techies included, will have to get by on less. Public health will be so underfunded and inept that new contagions are more likely than not. Abortion will end, feminism atrophy, gay rights shrivel. Our scant chance of avoiding climate catastrophe will sink to near zero. Et cetera. I'll likely be dead before much of the worst fully materializes, but even if I didn't have a daughter all of this would depress and enrage me as a convinced democratic humanist. So was I pro-Biden to start? Of course not. I was strong for Warren as soon as she showed a taste for electioneering that looked to me like a knack, although it proved less effective than I'd imagined, and yes, I blame sexism plus rage-fueled political indifference and incomprehension. Biden is nowhere near as strong or deft a candidate-as-candidate as I'd prefer, although I blame his tendency to misspeak more on his childhood speech impediment than on a "senility" I regard as 90 percent ageist fantasy. But his brand of centrism does come with certain advantages, because unlike the Clintons and plenty of other Dem muckamucks he's not an ideological neoliberal. Instead he's an habitual if not instinctive compromiser, which with the Democratic party having moved left with more to come in the wake of the plague means he'll be much more open to something approaching socialized medicine as well as tax structures that soak the rich at least a little. So I hope to work for him this fall, health permitting--knocking on doors may prove impossible physically, meaning I may need to up my computer skills. Of course, that's assuming there'll be an election. That's the scariest possibility, and don't think I'm paranoid for mentioning it.

April 15, 2020

How we're doing, songs celebrating conjugal love, the last time Kanye was brilliant, the long road nowhere from "461 Ocean Boulevard" and lunch with Randy Newman

[Q] How are you and Carola dealing with the public health crisis (in the immediate medical sense, the existential sense)? Selfish as it is, can you please keep posting to And It Don't Stop (you have been, but this is a shameless plug for your newsletter), since those of us who are house-bound abso-fucking-lutely need the comfort of Xgau routine delivery, which may be an unfair burden put on you, but there it is nonetheless. -- Buddy Glass, Upstate New York

[A] We're doing as well as can be expected, although stay-at-home timing ruled out elective back surgery scheduled for March 31 that very likely would have eradicated or at least eased my thigh pain. As things stand, so to speak, I can't walk, so Carola does all the shopping we don't have delivered. Her oncologist recommended she walk a mile a day, which is sometimes terrific and sometimes scares her and sometimes she just skips. Since 2018 we've spent a lot of time alone together due to her cancer and my lameness, so that part is fine in its way--we actively enjoy being alone with each other, get mileage out of Netflix and Hulu and to a lesser extent Prime, plus she's plugging away at some writing. My writing is unabated, and over the past week I've gotten serious about home exercise--I bought this home cardio device called a Cubii that's working out fairly well, and Carola dug out our weights to I can do light upper-body stuff. Also good is that so far the only Covid cases we know of, some half dozen or so, are in their fifties or younger--not one of our senior friends has gotten sick. What the ultimate economic and political ramifications will be may cost me sleep--I am overly fond of Advil PM these days--but haven't much yet. Which is not to say, of course, that they aren't dire. I'm worrying a lot right now about the post office, an old passion of mine. But Trump Inc. has been a revolting and terrifying horror throughout.

[Q] I am always moved when you talk about your marriage and, in a previous dispatch, you described yourself as "a marriage fan." It made me wonder if you already had in your head or could conjure up some songs that highlight and best encapsulate the institution of marriage. As a member of the great unwashed (i.e., the singles), I think I could find it educational. Thanks. I just read your piece "My Thigh Hurts." I hope the rehabilitations--yours and your wife's--can continue to improve. All the best. -- Ben, Columbus, Ohio

[A] To name a few songs in no particular order: Ashford & Simpson's "Is It Still Good to Ya?," John Lennon's "Oh Yoko," Etta James's "Cigarettes and Coffee," Brad Paisley's "Then," Marshall Crenshaw's "Monday Morning Rock," the Beach Boys' "Darlin." Half of these are cited in the introduction to my 2015 memoir Going Into the City, which if you really care about this theme might make good quarantine reading, because rather than an account of what it's like to hobnob with the stars, which ain't me, it's an account of how I helped turn rock criticism into public discourse, but more importantly it's a love story. All of which is also explained in the introduction, but I'll add this: due to various details of my personal history, it's very consciously a story about sexual and emotional maturation of an American male with sexual insecurities to overcome like almost all American and indeed human males. As I've said many times, I think conjugal love gets a bad rap in supposedly sophisticated writing, rock criticism definitely included. I try to correct for that, quite consciously, because as it turned out the first woman I loved as an adult was both a powerful thinker and a lifelong opponent of marriage as an institution (though she ended up in a loving and lasting relationship with a remarkable man), which compelled me to theorize my own conclusions. If you'll look back at the last Xgau Sez you'll find links to three John & Yoko essays that are pertinent. Even more pertinent, however, is an 1800-word-piece called "The Road Taken," which some regard as the best thing I've ever written. And I should mention one more thing. A year ago Carola and I were featured in a special marriage issue of New York magazine--it was supposed to be a profile but ended up running as an interview. Here 'tis.

[Q] I'm one of your Chinese followers and firstly I want to express my respect for your big contribution to music criticism. Seriously, after you revisited Lady Gaga's Artpop in your q&a several months ago, your followers in China had a big fight about it. Some people support your new idea and think that Artpop had always been overrated from you, but some have reverently believed for years that Artpop is one of the best female albums of the 21st century and its commercial flop just made it even more legendary. Just wanna let you know. Also, Kanye West is an icon but his music is getting more extreme now, so how do you like Jesus Is King and his Sunday Service program? One last thing is Post Malone, who you've never mentioned. What caught my attention is that he was wildly popular for his personality. Maybe you're not interested in his music? I don't know. Thank you for choosing my message. It will be my honor to get your reply. -- Bobby, Qingdao, China

[A] I respect Kanye West as an artist. If not I wouldn't have given even the Kid Cudi collab EP Kids See Ghosts the time of day, but it was pretty good, so it snuck in at the bottom of the 2018 Dean's List. But that was a close call. Jesus Is King was not a close call. As a militantly secular ex-Christian, I'm not crazy about Christian music in general, but I make plenty of exceptions, and I diligently streamed Jesus Is King three-four times before finding better things to do. Grandiose, self-involved, uninspired, plus there are the underlying politics, which far as I'm concerned verge on evil. Compare My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the last time he was brilliant though I can hear why Ye has its cult; I don't like the philosophical underpinnings there much either, but sonically it's undeniable. And if you want to argue that he still had plenty on the ball with the Jay-Z collab and yes Ye and even Life of Pablo though I never wanted to play it once I'd reviewed it, well sure. Not now. Spiritually he's an egomaniacal shell, and the music is nothing. May he be born again for real, but I'm not holding my breath. As for Post Malone, I'm too old for that pop world and have no notion of what you mean by his personality. My only recent new pop enthusiasm is Lewis Capaldi, and that only because my now 34-year-old daughter hipped me to him, although she never could sell me on One Direction. I knew Post Malone was a big deal and streamed him half-heartedly a few times--none of my scattered pop informants, my daughter included, thought he was much. Heard nothing there and moved on.

[Q] I read where you said you had lunch with Randy Newman a year back or so. I like thinking about that lunch. It seems to me that you saw something very early in his work--probably 12 Songs first. Does he see it that way? Let us be a fly on the wall. -- JB Poersch, Alexandria, Virginia

[A] When I was still at Esquire, BMI's late great Russ Sanjek, a onetime music journalist who authored a three-volume history of popular music that I regret to say falls apart in the 20th century, called me up, found out I was heading to Cali with Ellen Willis, and asked me to write brief profiles of two artists I'd never heard of for the BMI magazine: Van Dyke Parks and Randy Newman. Don't remember much about meeting Parks, though I was quite a fan of Song Cycle for a while. But I got along with Newman, then living with his first wife in a modest corner house in Studio City. In fact, we went to the park and played one-on-one basketball, where I plugged away and won even though he had several inches on me. I didn't remember I'd won until the lunch you refer to. Thought the debut album was fine but had its limitations, but when the sparer 12 Songs came out in 1970 I was bowled over--still one of my favorite albums ever. I'd spent time with him when I was at Newsday--once watched a World Series game in his Manhattan hotel room--and was fairly close to a long-deceased pal of his, but was nonetheless astonished when he phoned me out of the blue in 2014, or did he maybe email me first? Anyway, that was in June--he told me how much he liked my criticism and credited me in particular with having opened him up to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a masterpiece by him. Then when he was in NYC in October he invited me to a rehearsal and a concert and then set up a lunch--me, Carola, his (female) (road?) manager, and Randy at a Japanese place where he ordered the best sashimi. We had a great conversation about all kinds of things including family and got along very well, but Carola would be a better fly on the wall because with her memory she always is--he told me later that he was impressed by how close she and I were, to which I'll add that the "Venus in sweatpants" touch on his new social distancing song "Stay Away" sounds uxorious enough to me. The big thing I remember him saying was how the whole semi-classical Tin Pan Alley palette--which he knows well because it's in his blood with two uncles big-time Hollywood composers as he now is as well--was blown away by four chords circa 1954. What he does for Hollywood, of course, encompasses both traditions, plus he still makes a great solo album every once in a while. When Covid hit I found myself hoping he was OK and emailed him to say so. If me and C ever get to LA again, I hope to look him up.

[Q] Except for Layla and 461 Ocean Boulevard you have been very dismissive of Eric Clapton's music. He's one of the great guitarists in rock history and he should have racked up a dozen A records in his 50-year career. What's your overall opinion of him? Do you think he wasted his talents or did he just shoot his wad early with the Yardbirds, Cream, and Derek and the Dominos? You never reviewed his Crossroads box or 5 Live Yardbirds or any Cream albums so I hope you at least agree that Cream's first and best album Fresh Cream is an A. -- Eric Wallach, New Milford, Connecticut

[A] There is a 1994 Clapton essay in my 1998 Harvard collection Grown Up All Wrong, which is not available online and never will be because that's the contract I signed. It's an excellent book, worth buying. But right, I'm not a big Clapton fan. Here's a copied-and-pasted excerpt (and a few grafs later you should see what I say about his sex life): "A promiscuous sideman whose monklike aura has never diminished his extravagant appetites, Clapton likes to get paid, and he's amassed a discography that for an artist of his caliber is remarkably undistinguished. In his self-protective self-deprecation he often attributes this to his own laziness or his need for a catalyst, but it's also guitar hero's disease: like many other guys whose hand-ear coordination is off the curve, he's a casual tunesmith and a corny lyricist, and his band concepts are chronically hit-or-miss." As I recall--remember, please, that I only started the Consumer Guide mid 1969--my favorite Cream album was Goodbye but I ended up liking Fresh Cream more in the end than I did when it came out to too much fanfare. Problem wasn't Slowhand, it was bassist-vocalist Jack Bruce, the original model of countless metal frontmen with classical pretensions--hate his singing, hate his lyrics too. As for the Yardbirds, I've been gifted with Yardbirds albums by not one but two friends hoping to prove what I missed, one of them Lester Bangs. A more than OK band, sure, but not much as songwriters, which matters matters matters--I so prefer the Who and the Kinks and for that matter the Hollies, maybe even the Dave Clark Five.

[Q] I've always been immensely satisfied with your reviews of Nirvana. I'm curious: what do you think in retrospect set that dynamic trio of Cobain, Novoselic, and Grohl apart from the rest? -- Hugh, West of Ireland

[A] Grohl. The band was excellent before him, world-historic after he moved in on drums--not, please, guitar. Probably Nirvana would have happened anyway, but a great band needs a great drummer and that was the timeline. One of the many tragedies of Cobain's death was that it stuck us with the Foo Fighters.

March 18, 2020

Xgau in China, Judy Garland, John and Yoko's feminism, Brian Wilson, contemporary jazz, and the best album of the 21st century

[Q] First I want to thank you for your music writings that help an internet community of Chinese pop music fans (please bear with my possible English mistakes) to appreciate many music aesthetics rarely heard in our daily life but extremely addictive. I joined it a bit late (after I already spent lots of time on adult contemporary and brit-pop that I gradually realized lack the identity, dynamics and flow of those truly great music) but I think it's created by a user who spent years in listening, digesting your writings and introducing them in easy Chinese to most of us. I have two questions. First, how you would rate Beatles' Revolver, White Album, Abbey Road that you seemed not mention much or I may have missed? Second, in 2010s I can feel more personal, inward looking hip-hop and R&B, or more outspoken, confident female country, but are this decade's characteristics more subtle than any before, and do you have any thoughts on directions of evolution of pop music in next decade. -- Minghan Yan, New York

[A] I'm deeply flattered by this, which I haven't edited an iota as your English is plenty accomplished--I get cruder prose all the time. Around 2010 I began to get word of China-based enthusiasm for my work, even a discussion group about the Expert Witness commenting community, and I hope every one of that group is doing well in this scary moment. Sharing a reading with my wife in a Queens bookstore in 2015, in fact, I was amazed to learn that among the attendees was a fan from China, a teenager or young twentysomething who introduced himself afterward. As for your questions, it's worth pointing out occasionally that the Consumer Guide only began mid-1969. This means that all but a few of the '60s albums reviewed on my site were done in connection with special '60s lookback spreads in the Voice and Rolling Stone. As for the Beatles, my favorites among the late albums are Sgt. Pepper and Rubber Soul with Abbey Road third. Revolver I find somewhat cluttered, the White Album somewhat scattered, though both are high A minuses at least. As for the evolution of music, I think you did well by the 2010s, though I'd add the persistence of punk and the evolution of Afropop. All anyone dare say about the future is that it will be bigger and more various than anyone can comprehend. The prog tendencies I've been complaining about since early in the century will certainly persist. I'd add that at the moment the welcome and indeed essential efflorescence of female artists in general seems to have brought with it a folkie madonna renaissance I can generally do without.

[Q] What's your opinion of Judy Garland? I never see her name come up in any of your discussions of the all-time great natural pop singers which is odd given her huge popularity at the height of her career. Rufus Wainwright is such a fan he recorded his own version of one of her albums. Don't any of her recordings attract you in the same way that, say, Nat King Cole or Peggy Lee records do? -- Neil Sherman, Mahopac, New York

[A] As with the Boswell Sisters a while back, an artist I thought I'd reviewed but hadn't. That's because I did review Rufus Wainwright's take on the legendary Judy at Carnegie Hall, which original I bought and quickly decided buried the tribute, but never wrote about in itself. A strong A minus at least. But when I go back to check out one of the two or three single-label studio best-ofs I've been sent over the years, most recently because I liked the Renee Zellweger vehicle Judy quite a bit, I didn't hear anything I felt I needed to delve into. Might yet, but might well not.

[Q] Yer right, John Lennon's politics were not radical, unlike, say, those of your late friend Ellen Willis. But, I believe that John Lennon was the first male rock STAR to sing and speak about feminism, which is something. I, too, like him best of the Fab Four, despite his (and Ono's) extreme self-absorbtion, his unjustifiably mean-spirited "How Do You Sleep," and his violent tendencies. -- A.C. Wilson, Chicago

[A] First of all, I don't expect any rocker to be radical the way Willis was, not least because I'm not myself. And I'm glad you mentioned the violent tendencies, because before Yoko and possibly after they cut into his pro-woman proclivities big time (as they did those of other male rockers). But for sure his attraction to/adoration of Yoko said something major and positive about his feminism even though on an ideological level she wasn't any kind of conventional feminist herself; in my opinion, "Woman Is the Nigger of the World" has survived its dubious claim on the N-word. And as someone who identifies feminist himself but is also deeply into marriage, I thought their marriage of at least metaphorical interest even though I wouldn't recommend it as a model--it was pretty eccentric. After Lennon's death I wrote about this twice: for the Voice in 1981 and for a Rolling Stone John and Yoko book in 1982. If you've read that far, however, I suggest you also take a look at a 1983 review Carola and I did of May Pang's Loving John.

[Q] In February's Xgau Sez you listed some popular musicians who could be the most important of your lifetime: "Bob Dylan, James Brown, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Prince." For me this person would have to be Brian Wilson. His output from '63-'68 (most of the early singles and B-sides, Today!, Pet Sounds, Smiley Smile, Wild Honey) and less consistently since (Sunflower, Surf's Up, American Spring, Love You, the assembly of Smile) is without equal for innovation, uniqueness, and great tunes. Lyrically, he falls well short of Dylan, Lennon, and the bulk of the artists you listed. Was this the disqualifying factor to you, or was there something else those other had that Wilson did/does not? -- Jacob H., Madison, Wisconsin

[A] First of all, those are all individual artists--no Beatles, no Stones, etc. Second, the ringer on my list is Bowie, who like Wilson seems to me to have worn out after a single decade, the '70s as opposed to the '60s. The difference is that I found my good friend Rob Sheffield's On Bowie more convincing than my even better friend Tom Smucker's Why the Beach Boys Matter (which you should definitely check out). That's because Sheffield praised late work I knew I had no predilection for formally--that I expected he could hear better than me--while Smucker praised late work whose less evolved formal materials are in my wheelhouse yet despite Tom's tips never broke through for me because they seemed all too merely competent. (Tellingly, the great exception is the magnificent remade Smile, which embellishes and finalizes inspirations almost four decades old.) Lyrics are certainly Wilson's weakness (though he didn't write all of them, by any means)--underrated though the imaginary teendom of "surf" and wigged-out whimsy of Wild Honey and Love You are, he's not remotely in a league with Dylan or Prince or even Smokey Robinson, Lennon-McCartney God knows or indeed Jagger-Richard. All that said, Wild Honey and Smile never disappoint when I put them on, as I do. (Carola loves Wild Honey; "Darlin'" is definitely one of Our Songs.)

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