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.

December 04, 2018

[Q] Hi Dean! Given your fondness for recent Beyonce albums, I'd love to know if you heard Solange's last album, A Seat at the Table, and if you've got any thoughts on it. -- David, Nigeria

[A] I gave the Solange at least three serious runs--not just plays, multiple immersions: before it was a phenomenon, while its rep was building, and then later when it was many people's album of the year, after which I went so far as to buy rather than just stream. It has never even begun to break through to me--cannot recall a single thing on it (though I do remember that it includes a widely admired song about hair that I found musically uncompelling). So I didn't even get an Honorable Mention out of it, which was my aim when I bought it. I assume its rep isn't just some mass delusion--that there's something there, and that it has to do with black female identity. But it left me unmoved, indeed untouched, and I'm not gonna lie about it. Not so crazy about Jay and Bey's duet album either.

[Q] Why didn't you rate Bowie's Blackstar album? What did you think about it? -- Lucien Sechard, Montreal

[A] As with Solange, there was a three-part process. Blackstar had great Bowie's-back word of mouth from the git, and I was on it as soon as it was streamable. Then he died and of course I listened some more, though the great discovery of the Noisey obit I wrote were the more Eno-ish sides of Low and "Heroes." And then it won Pazz & Jop and I went back to it again. Got zero each time. Difference from Solange is that I'd been complaining about his melodramatic chanteur affect for something like 40 years by then--which assuming you're a Francophone probably sounds pretty natural to you. Solange, in contrast, is right down my alley--lyric-conscious African-American feminist, who could ask for anything more? In both cases I came out with zilch. I should add that it got a fourth pass when Rob Sheffield's superb Bowie book came out, which was well before the year ended. Played Station to Station not long ago, however, and it sounded as great as ever.

[Q] What are your thoughts on Drake and his place as reigning King of Pop? You've been pretty silent about his career so far. -- Benjamin Melles-Orrego, Toronto

[A] I've been silent about him because his albums aren't A's for me, and I only go long on A's these days. I find him forbiddingly bland, though I may yet eke out a * or even a ** for his latest, which I've heard on headphones three or four times and don't currently recall the title of. If I was still lead critic somewhere, in particular the Voice, I'd certainly have done a Rock & Roll & on him by now--the whole question of how he relates to women, in his music I mean, is of some interest to me, because I don't think he's the paragon some believe even though so many other male rappers are much worse. And then there's this question of whether he farms out his rhymes, right? Who cares is what I generally think about that stuff.

[Q] I am SO pleased you're doing the collection of your book pieces. I'm sick of printing out that Raymond Williams essay then losing it. Maybe this question is taken care of in that volume, but I wondered if you'd ever got to other great novels via music in the way, presumably, you got to that amazing blast of African fiction (Monnew, God's Bits of Wood, Ambiguous Adventure) via your interest in African music? Also: Dreiser. I read him because of you. Why is he rock'n'roll? -- Damien Wilkins, Wellington, New Zealand

[A] A tip, folks: great way to get your question answered is to help me promote my books. Ahem. Following Is It Still Good to Ya?--which was just treated to a Toronto Globe & Mail interview, Canadians out there, find it wherever you find books right now--will come April's Book Reports, about half reviews of music history and criticism and the other half not, including that lo-o-o-ng 1985 Raymond Williams appreciation I'm so glad novelist-musician Wilkins admires without claiming it's exactly a fun read--Williams was a titan who had many virtues, but fun-friendly he wasn't. Unfortunately, none of the African novels I've mentioned here and there were ever reviewed by me, although in the '80s I did do a long piece on South African fiction that didn't make the Book Reports cut. As for Dreiser, who I wrote about at some length in my 2015 memoir, Going Into the City, he was rock and roll in several ways, although once again fun wasn't prominent among them. He was avowedly common, so smart about the virtues and foibles of ordinary people without enough money. Moreover, my beloved Sister Carrie centers on a singing star, as Marshall Berman's On the Town explores with his customary depth and heart. And Dreiser's brother was songwriter Paul Dresser, who wrote a major 1890s hit called "On the Banks of the Wabash"--unless, as some believe, Dreiser wrote it himself.

November 20, 2018

[Q] How do you feel about the listening habits and practices of current generations compared to that of previous? -- Giorgio Tolaini, London

[A] Big question that I will answer partially. I stream all the time. It can't be avoided if you're to review seriously, much less as comprehensively as I do. And for economic reasons I never hear a good portion of my Honorable Mentions any other way. But anything that sounds like a possible A I buy--mostly from Amazon, to my chagrin, though I do sometimes use Amoeba or CDUniverse and check with Bandcamp when appropriate. In my art-friendly nabe the only generalist CD retailer is Barnes & Noble, where the shelves are scanter all the time; at Best Buy the clerks barely know what a CD is (of course, they also barely know one charger from another, or where the air conditioners are). My preference for physicals isn't about audio primarily. It has to do with what I've come to call externality. Streaming creates the illusion--greatly magnified by headphone use, which is another matter--that music is a utility you can turn on and off; the water metaphor is intrinsic to how it works. It dematerializes music, denies it a crucial measure of autonomy, reality, and power. It makes music seem disposable, impermanent. Hence it intensifies the ebb and flow of pop fashion, the way musical "memes" rise up for a week or a month and are then forgotten. And it renders our experience of individual artists/groups shallower. In a promotional 500-worder for the now defunct Borders to help promote Grown Up All Wrong in 1998--which now ends the introductory section of Is It Still Good to Ya?--I wrote about getting to know "musicians themselves, not as they 'really' are, but as they create themselves in music." This year I'm feeling that way about two rather different acquaintances, both from Chicago: Noname and Rich Krueger. The physicals were crucial to that.

[Q] Wading through 12 takes of "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go," I'm wondering what Xgau Sez about the musical anthropology enabled by digital technology, record company desperation and rabid fandom. I appreciate Paul Williams' comment that "If a great artist singing a great song results in a precious work of art once, why not twice, or as many time as inspiration and accident allow?", but life is short and there's lots of music. Has it changed the way you listen to certain artist or changed your opinion of certain records? And do you think things like More Blood, More Tracks ultimately factor in to CG-focused reviews? -- Steve, Seattle

[A] Basically I have less than no use for this stuff. Moreover, I think Williams's rationalization speaks poorly of his aesthetic range. As a democrat, I prefer variety, plenitude, and meat and potatoes to delectation. Those Prince piano etudes that someone raved about in Pitchfork a while back sounded like nothing much to me, and though I did play a single-CD distillation of More Blood, More Tracks they sent me--imagined it might be a way to commune with the classics while pretending to work--I thought it was dead on its feet. My buddy Greil, not a guy averse to delectation, dismissed it in Rolling Stone.

[Q] I've noticed that for some artists you more or less continue to regularly review all of their new releases (e.g., Neil Young, Willie Nelson). For others you've pretty much stopped--Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney come to mind here (with obvious exceptions like Memory Almost Full). Two questions. First, for artists like Costello and McCartney, does that mean that you've stopped listening to their new releases, or does it mean you listen and decide they're not worth commenting on? Second, if you have listened to most of the McCartney albums since 1990 or so (and leaving out Run Devil Run): if someone were to take the strongest cuts from these albums and compile them on to a single CD, would that be a great album? A very good album? That is, are there hidden jewels sprinkled throughout these albums, or just at best some skilled and polished songcraft? -- Charles, Canberra, Australia

[A] To begin, I've failed to find even a * in so many Neil Youngs I was chastised here for it, and right, usually I've tried. But in the case of these two artists, I always listen once and seldom get past twice. So though I don't have the knowledge to answer your question, I would certainly check a compilation out were someone else to give the job a shot. But while I actually respect both these men quite a bit as public figures, including the relationship to music that's a key part of who each of them is, I doubt anyone could extract better than a strong Honorable Mention from either of them.

[Q] What are some records that you would recommend to start with for someone who wants to get into African music? -- Ian Carroll, Dublin

[A] Many of the best are old, expensive, and hard to find, in part because I've helped make them cult records, probably: Trevor Herman's glorious Guitar Paradise of East Africa comp, for instance, which he failed to license properly and kind of disappeared. But The Rough Guide to Youssou N'Dour and Etoile de Dakar, The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, Franco & Rochereau's Omona Wapi (the four-track Shanachie condensation of the original), the first volume of Ken Braun's Rochereau anthology for Sterns and the second of the Franco (not that both volumes aren't great in each case), Ladysmith Black Mambazo's Classic Tracks, King Sunny Ade's The Best of the Classic Years, Youssou's Rokku Mi Rokka and Egypt, and Oumou Sangare's Worotan seem findable as I write and are all records I'll put on for visiting newbies or casual, who tend to become intrigued. Congotronics 2 and the first Staff Banda Bilili records are post-soukous Kinshasa music that's worth a dip. Get 'em while supplies last. And in addition, a listen to the Riton and Kah-Lo record I just reviewed might make sense. It's slighter than any of the above, but it's also a contemporary fusion that might be a good intro.

[Q] You recently said in this forum that Sex Machine was an A+ even though for years you said it had its flaws (I remember you bitching about "If I Ruled The World" and the Blood, Sweat and Tears cover). It made me ask myself if, in the end, you named it an A+ because it's a great JB album. Do you think that the fact that it is one of the best albums of one of the most important artist of the 20th century gives it more value than a great one-shot of similar quality by an "inferior" artist? Like, I don't know, Hole's Live Through This or Big Star's Radio City or Manu Chao's Proxima Estacion or the Pogues' Rum Sodomy and the Lash? -- Nicolas Auclair, Montreal

[A] Before I answer, let me commend your choice of plausible A plusses, two of which--the Big Star and the Pogues--are reasonable candidates. (The Chao nah because replayable though it is it only has four or five real tunes on it, the killer one keeps repeating, and the Hole not good enough by me but I'd understand why others disagreed.) But you made me wonder if I'd thought sloppily about Sex Machine, given the dubious tracks you single out, so as I seldom do with these queries I replayed it. And not having thought in that kind of judgmental detail about it since 1981 I was astonished by how much more inventive and accomplished it was than I remembered. For one thing, Brown is still a real singer. He hasn't yet blown out his pipes using them as a rhythm instrument the way he was already doing in his popcorn phase of 1969-70--this version of "Man's World," hardly my favorite James Brown song, is sharper musically than the single. The segues are so cannily designed--using the 1:29 "I Can't Stand Myself" as a transition, for instance--and the groove is so deep yet so changeable. As in "Live" at the Apollo, the crowd noises, which as I recall without looking it up are not provided by an actual live crowd, are deployed to both musical and dramatic effect. On and on. As for the Blood Sweat & Tears and Tony Bennett numbers, they both work within the flow of the album, organ feature plus vocal demonstration--not high points, but of conceptual use. So, yeah, A plus.

[Q] What's the joke behind your constant misspelling of Philippe Wynne's name in Spinners reviews? -- Mark Desrosiers, Minneapolis

[A] I no longer remember the details, but it was Wynne (Wynn?) who began fooling around with his name. I just ran with it. I once watched Win do a 10-15 minute dance improvisation (maybe it was shorter, but that's how it felt) out on the west tongue of the Apollo stage in the early '80s after George Clinton absorbed him into P-Funk. One of the most memorable performances I've ever seen. A few years later he was dead of a heart attack at 43. Fuck cocaine.

November 06, 2018

[Q] Correct as they may be on issues, progressives are woefully serious, damnably dull, and as grimly humorless as expired parking meters. Bernie? John the Baptist not the Messiah. Elizabeth Warren? A nanny-spanker. The progressive leader must be young, smart, charismatic. Young? Experience enslaves you to a political status quo championed by pusillanimous geriatrics like Feinstein (85), Grassley (85), Hatch (84). Smart? High intellect, argumentative skills, strategically astute, politically savvy enough to never use the word "socialism." Charismatic? Can't deny Trump's raffish NYC swagger appeals to many. Even Democrats relished how he flattened his opponents right up until he flattened Mrs. Glass Ceiling. Dean Christgau, give me one progressive leader to counter Trumpism who's as young, as smart, as charismatic, as the firebrand flashing her gams at 29:00 below. One. -- Coco Hannah Eckelberg, Long Island City

[A] EVERYBODY WHO'S READING THIS GO OUT AND VOTE IF YOU HAVEN'T AND FINISH MY RAMBLINGS LATER. NEW YORKERS TURN THE BALLOT OVER--IMPORTANT PROPOSITIONS THERE, YES ON ALL. First, Coco expects me to follow a link to a video like countless naive publicists before "her"--by the time I bothered it was blocked, so I don't know whose gams I was supposed to admire, though if it's Ocasio-Cortez's I definitely think she's cool and pray she survives the grotty compromises of lawmaking the way good pols do (only wait a second, she uses the s-word). I was all "Warren 2020" as of 11/9/16--Post-Ited that prophecy on the subway wall--and have no idea what she means by nanny-spanker even after Googling it. But as I began to calculate the sexism of the 2016 electorate, particularly its female component, my confidence wavered, and I settled on Sherrod Brown, who's old but not as old as Warren much less Feinstein but who also shows no sign of wanting the job, so here's hoping while doubting that he'll win in a landslide in Ohio, where voter suppression cost Kerry big in 2004 and makes the landslide part unlikely. Brown's ruggedly Middle American exterior makes his eloquence on the issues even more effective. But now to the "raffish" (??) Frump, a clod and a bully I despised from afar well before he put his trussed gut behind birtherism and never "relished" for a second -- and who "flattened" Clinton by minus three million votes. As for Sanders, right. John the Baptist. He did historically essential work and now should take care of his blood pressure. I stopped listening to him repeat himself the third time I heard him give a speech and as his NYC-raised contemporary soon grew to dislike him as a familiar type -- an egomaniac who could and should have worked a lot harder for Clinton and never denounced Jill Stein in the detail she so manifestly deserves. But until one of those he heralded undergoes the seasoning political effectiveness requires, we have to not only vote for the best we can do, which looks like Warren again to me but may not even be that good, we have to get behind it emotionally. In which connection see the pre- and post-election pieces I wrote for a Village Voice that still existed in 2016.

[Q] To quote your review of A Crow Looked at Me, why is it essential to differentiate the "persona who sings the song from the person who created both the song and the persona"? I know the idea of persona was briefly touched on in your review(s) of Lennon's Plastic Ono Band and "The Slim Shady Essay" (which is now temporarily blocked), as well as other places I'm sure, but I'm not so sure I understand the benefits regarding the distinction. -- AS, Minnesota

[A] Two major matters here. First, that blockage is temporary all the way to November 2020, should this nation last that long. "The Slim Shady Essay" is part of the 70 percent of my new Is It Still Good to Ya? collection that Duke University Press understandably required me to tuck away out of reach on my site to motivate readers to buy the book, which all of you should because it's a great read. Second, "persona" is something I've been writing about forever on the assumption that my readers understood what I meant. Like its close relative "authenticity," it can be explored endlessly, so I'll just be as brief as possible. When Bob Dylan or Aretha Franklin or Chuck Cleaver or Noname sings or raps, never assume that they are expressing their true selves, whatever that could even mean. Rather they are artists creating a character, sometimes a character that shifts or is continually adjusted in the course of an album and other times not. Especially in the singer-as-songwriter model that goes back to Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly but became pervasive as the folkies of the early '60s transmuted into the rockers of the late '60s, those personas are conflated with the singers' "true selves." One great thing about A Crow Looked at Me is how impossible it makes this distinction, because it's infused so deeply with Phil Elverum's raw autobiographical suffering. This degree of embeddedness is extremely rare. And that's all I'll say on this endless topic right now.

[Q] Some music buffs and I were recently playing "Make Me Choose Between" and someone posed the question: "Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett?" I sparked some fire by saying that was a hard choice, but a much more interesting question arose: "Had Otis lived, what would have been his path?" I got in more hot water by suggesting that, just like many other soul stars, the post-MLK assassination environment, the shifting of audience interests, the rise of more polished and more political soul (plus disco) might have presented him obstacles, which with the addition of Otis's "country" appeal and predilections might have ended up consigning him to a regional, Malaco-like niche. Others assured me he was such a star he would have continued to deliver timeless music and ride a popular wave. Your speculations on this, if you don't mind. -- Phil Overeem, Columbia, Missouri

[A] First of all, Redding vs. Pickett doesn't seem like a hard choice to me. Pickett's albums hold up surprisingly well--they're unrelenting. But his emotional palette is very narrow, and not in an attractive way--what I once called in Rolling Stone his hard soul made him hard to like except on special occasions. Redding never worked up as fierce a groove. But to me it seems clear that he had more brains and heart than any of his soul-identified contemporaries except--as artists, once again--Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson, and Marvin Gaye. And it's my biographically inexpert guess that as a person he reigned supreme in the heart department. Brains plus heart means that in principle he was well-equipped to keep making first-rate music. But bridging stylistic and historical shifts is difficult. Franklin floundered from 1974 until 1980; Al Green only managed by turning to gospel; even James Brown was winding down creatively by 1975. Whatever your personal opinion of quiet storm, Smokey did better. Redding might have found his own niche in that approach, and "Dock of the Bay" suggests he had places to go as a songwriter too. So my guess is that the Malaco fantasy sells him somewhat short, but that he was unlikely to retain all his '60s magic.

[Q] Are you following the Tracey Thorn imbroglio? Thrilled I was to read your first-ever, real-deal review of a long-time favorite singer of mine, she was not pleased with being described as a "55-year-old wife and mother" for reasons that have nothing to do with her age. I can see her point and it's very much hers to make. The real heartbreak for me is I'm 52 and have been reading you and listening to her since high school. It was like watching your parents split up, an analogy not likely to endear me to either of you. -- Keith, San Diego

[A] This question came in a while ago and the imbroglio such as it was presumably breathed its last longer ago than that. Getting involved in social-media bustups breaks my never-read-the-comments rule, and I avoid it. But in this case allies informed me of the gist and I read the beginning of what she had to say, which included that I'd never refer to a man that way when in fact I've been writing about both marriage and age as regards both men and women for years--and, not by accident either, followed her review with a review of Jinx Lennon that led with his marriage and parenthood though it carelessly failed to mention that he was 52. (His review was written weeks before the Thorn. I was aware of the marriage parallel when I paired them, but should have underlined the similarities it by adding Lennon's age.) I don't know if you're aware of it and very much doubt she is--very much doubt, in fact, that as a good UK chauvinist she's more than dimly aware of me at all--but my major writing on Tracey Thorn was a memoir review in Barnes & Noble Review. I quite liked her book, albeit not as much as Ben Watt's astonishing Patient (his second memoir, Romany and Tom, is pretty good too, plus it came free in the mail; didn't even know about Thorn's Naked in the Albert Hall till I wrote this), and hence felt obliged to explain why I'd never warmed to her music even though I respected it. So it was a nice surprise to truly enjoy an album of hers. Which is running around forty in this year's Dean's List, though it'll sink some as other albums come in.

[Q] You've been a great champion for the incredibly underappreciated Jinx Lennon, and I've always been curious how he came upon your radar. Even more curious how is it a Yank has a finger on the pulse in regards to Irish culture and politics? -- Larry, The Sticks, Ireland

[A] I learned about Jinx Lennon from a generous Irish fan of mine named Liam Smith. I reckoned him a winner when my wife plus my daughter in the back seat got with Know Your Station Gouger Nation as we drove back to NYC from Connecticut--"Gobshyt in the House" and "Forgive the Cnts" both proved family favorites. As for the pulse of Ireland, glad you think so. I'm just a fairly well-informed person who probably did a little reading as I put the review together, though I remember more of that when I wrote my little Voice feature on Lennon. And by the way, ya think Tracey Thorn knows who he is?

[Q] Do you have music on while reading novels? -- Jose Luis, Thunder Bay, Canada

[A] I always play music when I read, but I play music differently than most people, because so much of the listening I do is processing--relatively new and unfamiliar, because finding out what penetrates my concentration or sticks with me later is essential to how I work. That said, I also often read along with music I choose, say, to please Carola or people I'm visiting in the country. I have no problem with music being a background to other activities. Its ability to function that way is one of the reasons recorded music especially is such a gift.

October 23, 2018

[Q] No question--that seems very trivial now. Just my hope that Carola's painful treatment will restore her health. Also, I hope that someone helps support the caregiver (you) since you likely need care too. -- Dan Weiss, Washington DC

[A] Since I got several of these get well soon notes both here and on Twitter--and appreciated they all are, believe me--I thought I'd offer a progress report. First of all, as I understand it pain is not one of the major dangers of a stem cell transplant. It's more days of serious gastrointestinal disruption, profound weakness and fatigue, a rash and worse associated with what's called engraftment syndrome, and dangerous opportunistic infections. Digestively Carola was uncomfortable but not alarmingly so, and she had trouble sleeping--still does. But basically she avoided the bad stuff, as some but not most patients do. Moreover, her white blood cells and hemoglobin and platelets rebounded with unusual vigor. She came home four days into her third week and is doing so well she doesn't require as much care as many patients, meaning I'm allowed to leave her alone to shop or go to the gym, which we didn't expect. Moreover, we have many friends close by in our rather communal building--my sister lives upstairs with her husband, as do Why the Beach Boys Matter author Tom Smucker and his wife. Which isn't to say it hasn't been tiring for me--caregiving is hard. First full day she was home I got into bed at 9 at night and got out of bed at 9 the next morning. Carola won't be out and about till January. But things have worked out very well.

[Q] Hello, Dean--you gave Liz Phair (2003) an A. Pitchfork gave it 0.0. What do you make of that and what does it say about rock criticism and subjectivity? If rock critics aim to tell fans what to listen to/buy, what are we to make of such an extreme difference? More generally, what do you think of Pitchfork reviews and how they line up/don't line up with yours? -- Rob, New York City

[A] Did you read the review--which, I should make clear, is a formally eccentric essay, not a CG brief--or just look at the grade? I just reread it and was convinced all over again, then turned off the CD I was checking out and cued Liz Phair up on iTunes. Sounding great to me as I write this. I almost put that piece in my Is It Still Good to Ya? collection--OUT THIS FRIDAY, OCTOBER 26, FROM DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS AND BETTER BOOKSELLERS NOT QUITE EVERYWHERE--and then chickened out because the accompanying Whitechocolatespacegg column seemed a little weak; now I'm sorry. As for the Pitchfork review--by one Matt LeMay, author of both an Elliott Smith 33 ⅓ and something called Product Management in Practice--almost no review with a grade of 0 should be taken seriously, and "subjectivity" has nothing to do with it. It took me a couple of years of Consumer Guiding to stop grading punitively because I could, which I believe lent cred to the E I gave G N' R Lies in 1989 as a way of refusing to shrug off the vile "immigrants and faggots" provocations of "One in a Million" (and even then I granted the album's "musical quality" a C plus in the text). But in 2004 P4K was still riding that warhorse to punish Dismemberment Plan guy Travis Morrison for the sin of growing up. Back then P4K was still a snotty boys club open to many "critics" were barely critics at all, although these were outnumbered by the honorable exceptions even then (Marc Hogan and Douglas Wolk come to mind, but not everyone I take seriously was at their level, founder and self-made millionaire Ryan Schreiber foremost among them). Too many amateur wise-asses and self-appointed aesthetes throwing their weight around. Eventually the general level rose a lot; I get better tips from P4K than from anywhere else these days, although I have to pick and choose, and although the departure of the Lindsay Zoladz-Carrie Battan-Amanda Petrusich troika a few years back was a blow. But to return to Liz Phair, it got killed in the indie press for two things: the indie sin of hiring name producers, which my review goes into in some detail, and explicit sexuality. Good sex songs are hard to write, but I love them when they happen; "Favorite" and "HWC" stand out. But the stone classic here is "Little Digger," in which her young son comes into the bedroom she's sharing with a guy not his dad. A complete killer, clearly over LeMay's head. Not yours, I hope.

[Q] You rate Lennon, Green, Holiday, and Sinatra great singers. Hey, me too! But I would like to know your opinion of singers many don't rate so high like Bob Dylan, Joe Strummer, and Patti Smith, to name a few personal favorites I've defended plenty of times over the years. For me, Dylan is a great singer by any measure I care about--expressivity, grain, soul, surprise, phrasing. Do these singers do it for you? What makes a great singer, according to you? -- Andreas, Malmö, Sweden

[A] In general, great singers are supposed to combine what are called great voices with not just technical mastery but--bye bye, Mariah Carey--technical originality. Of the four you and I agree on, Green and Sinatra qualify on all three counts, Holiday is so technically original that everyone ignores how small her physical voice is, and Lennon is an outlier few would put in their class even though to my ears he also qualifies on all three counts. I guess my feeling is that, bottom line, a great singer has to supply what I can only call sheer physical pleasure--a slightly more flexible and permissive notion of the great voice that for me includes more "limited" vocalists such as, say, Willie Nelson or Lil Wayne or Shirley Alston of the Shirelles. But as much as I enjoy hearing Patti Smith and Joe Strummer, they're not quite in that category physically--unlike Johnny Rotten/John Lydon, who I find less interesting than either of them. And then there's Dylan, who I definitely do rate a great singer, not so much for all the qualities you list accurately enough, but for his humor, his intelligence, his malleability, his willingness to do anything and fuck you if you can't take a joke or make an adjustment.

[Q] Do you have a favorite film soundtrack, if so, what is it? -- Robert Joyce, Phoenix, Arizona

[A] It's so nice to get one of these impossibly general questions I can answer, mostly because I'm not really interested in soundtracks. Answer is the RZA's Ghost Dog, hands down. Eventually caught the movie on television, which was OK but no more. In addition, I am a fan of some soundtracks that are really compilations, notably American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused.

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