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.

March 18, 2020

[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.)

[Q] Do you listen to much current jazz? I've always found your takes on albums by icons like Ornette, Monk, and Sonny to be spot on, and you have stepped out through the decades for commentary on the likes of David Murray, James Carter, and David S. Ware. It seems to me that the world of jazz is exploding now in lots of interesting ways, and I frequently wonder about (and occasionally crave) your take. Some examples would be the English scene, the International Anthem label, and the surging of women (like Tomeka Reid) into the spotlight (such as the jazz spotlight is). -- Phillip Overeem, Columbia, Missouri

[A] I find keeping up with new stuff in my natural but increasingly distant musical habitat quite challenging enough, thank you. The Substack incarnation of Consumer Guide gives me the opportunity to explore old jazz classics I've never paid enough mind, with Carola cheering me on. If I run out of those I might spelunk around, although it might be just as rewarding to dive into some of the '60s rock albums that like I was just saying I've barely written about. Every once in a while along comes a Harriet Tubman or Sons of Kemet album that hits me where I live. But the likes of Kamasi Washington and Makaya McCraven (not to mention that horrible Miles Okazaki Monk thing) sound not much better to me than Roy Ayers did when Gang Starr started pumping him in the early '90s. I do follow Tom Hull's reviews and every once in a while check out something from there. But I'm very selective and very judgmental so seldom come up with anything.

[Q] So Bob, with another decade gone is M.I.A.'s Kala still your favorite album of the century? -- Daniel Groza, Satu-Mare, Romania

[A] Yup. No contest.

February 19, 2020

Aesthetic morality, Macca and history, hitting a benchmark, "Sweet Home Chicago," working class Wussy and all in the family

[Q] No question here, just wanted to say thanks for all that you do. You've helped me deepen my appreciation for all kinds of music and discover artists I never would've come across on my own. Speaking of which, I'd also like to submit Young Thug's Barter 6 for consideration in the discussion of all-time great album titles. Okay, fine, a question--how do you balance aesthetic and moral judgments when grading the quality of an album? -- Ben, Grand Rapids, Michigan

[A] For me, the moral is inextricable from the aesthetic. Maybe that reflects the fact that my aesthetic has more pleasure than beauty in it, although both these grand experiential abstractions should be in quotes because defining either is impossible. But this far we can go--the moral impinges on pleasure more than it does on beauty, because pleasure is more subjective than beauty. It's experienced from within rather than observed from without, although we do take ("subjective") pleasure in ("objective") beauty. Thus I've never been able to enjoy or even appreciate D.W. Griffiths's mise-en-scene in the morally odious Birth of a Nation, or found any use for Toby Keith's lynching bagatelle "Beer for My Horses" no matter how much Willie Nelson loves it.

[Q] I'm a millennial. I've only known Paul McCartney as pretty much the most important musician alive. So, I'm trying to piece together how people thought about him in context during his prime years, and particularly why people disliked him. Was there an ethos about him that turned people off? Was it because, compared to John, he was pretty much apolitical? Maybe people just thought he was a dork. -- Sam P, Minneapolis

[A] First of all, you don't have to hate Paul to think it's silly to view him as "pretty much the most important musician alive" in a time that also included Bob Dylan, James Brown, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Prince, etc. But in any case you're misapprehending how it was in the Beatles years. Maybe some people preferred the Stones--that was always an argument. Dylan, too. Maybe even Miles Davis, although among white listeners rarely then James Brown. But Beatles fans, which was most of us, usually had a favorite Beatle and liked them all--for me the order went John-Ringo-Paul-George. And if you liked John best it wasn't about his politics, which were simplistic and not terribly radical back then. It was about seriousness and substance and what we would not then have called soul combined with sharp wit and a hard edge. After the breakup, however, this got more confused and sectarian, not least because none of them made much Beatles-quality music, although I say John's was by far the best and most consistent even so. During what I assume you mean by his prime years--1970-1985, something like that?--Paul was prolific going on facile and a sucker for pothead whimsy. As a marriage fan, I always approved of Linda's co-starring role in Wings in principle, but compared to Yoko, just as a for instance, she was a cipher musically. There were great tracks, sure, but never enough to constitute a decent best-of, especially given the air pudding like "My Love" and "With a Little Luck" any such would be saddled with. The superb covers album he made after Linda died is a great exception, however, and the scuttlebutt about his 21st-century concert tours is impressive. I've come to admire him as a survivor and a public figure, and were someone who knows how my ears work to burn an Xgau-specific sampler I'd listen. But even recently, when I've given some well-reviewed new Macca album a few tries, it's invariably fallen short.

[Q] I just noticed your Substack newsletter is listed as having thousands of subscribers (as opposed the "hundreds" it used to), and I thought I'd take a moment to say congratulations. -- Grade A Grubber, Lincoln, England

[A] That stat is an exaggeration traceable to Substack's practice of calling anything over one thousand "thousands." Between Christmas and New Year's we did indeed hit the 1000 mark, which is much higher than I ever expected this project to go. But one thousand isn't "thousands"--we've picked up more subscribers since, but we're a long, long way from two. Of course I'm gratified to have gotten this far--thrilled, really. But "thousands"--nah.

[Q] Years ago I called into Johnny Otis's Saturday morning radio show on KPFA in Berkeley (he used to broadcast live from the now long defunct Powerhouse brewery in Sebastopol). I was fool enough to ask him what he thought was the definitive version of "Sweet Home Chicago"; more than ready for such a silly question he promptly belted out the chorus, then said "That was it!" and hung up. I figure it was an honor that Johnny sang for me and so I'll ask you the same question, Mr. Christgau: in your expert opinion, what's your favorite or as near to definitive as possible version (studio or live) of "Sweet Home Chicago"? Boldly assuming that you even like the song . . . Thanks! -- Brendan, San Diego

[A] As someone who certainly likes the song and just as certainly doesn't love it, I went to my iTunes and found four versions: Magic Sam, Robert Johnson, Taj Mahal, Buddy Guy & Junior Wells. But while Johnson's version obviously has some jam, only Taj's, amply and crucially abetted by the Pointer Sisters, made me want to hear it again--probably because he/they mess so joyfully with what is by now a generic song. That said, the Guy-Wells is also a step above, and cult Chicagoan Magic Sam's seemed markedly more vital than anything I then played on Spotify except Johnson. Order of frequency as Spotify has it: Blues Brothers, Johnson, Eric Clapton, Urban Knights (??), Steve Miller. I can't remember who sang it in the Blues Brothers (Ackroyd? did Matt Murphy even sing?) and am tired of trying to find out. Clapton's version is dull vocally as became the rule as he got older and "bluesier," abandoning the Don Williams and J.J. Cale impressions he was born for. Midway through Miller's version I'd had enough; Magic Sam is seventh in the Spotify queue.

[Q] Thank you Robert for belief in Wussy. I am 56 and have been hauling fuel in and around Chicago for about 40 yrs. I found out about Wussy by happening upon Ass Ponys sometime back. Just wanted to let you know. I get it. -- Doug, Shorewood, Illinois

[A] Thanks. Music fans tend to live in insular worlds. Usually they're students and then borderline bohemian when young, as you might have been or still be. When they get older they make their livings in what I'll broadly designate the information industry--teaching, law, journalism, advertising, promotion, if they're younger tech. It's always encouraging to encounter a fan from a different work world. One of the most enthusiastic Wussy fans I've ever encountered was right next to me at a Studio at Webster Hall gig singing more words than I could have remembered offhand. We talked a little, and he told me he was a cop. Bring your pals was my attitude.

[Q] You've documented how your daughter helped you get the Backstreet Boys and Carola urged you to listen more closely to DNA. I know you always give Carola credit as your second set of ears. But are there any other stories in particular you'd like to share where your family helped guide your ear and how did family influence the music you listened to in your formative years? Also, has your family ever turned you onto films and artwork in other mediums that you enjoy fondly that you probably wouldn't have come across otherwise? I hope you are all doing well. -- Ian Carroll, Skerries, Island

[A] This is an enormous question I can answer only in part. Nina is not as big a music fan as she used to be, but she was always into One Direction, who I, perhaps callously--Rob Sheffield loves them--simply could not hear. But last June she expressed a similar interest in Lewis Capaldi and Capitol was kind enough to get me three tickets--for me, Nina, and her friend Val. Val knew nothing of the man and is no pushover, but she was knocked out, and so was I--live, so hard-working and self-deprecating and kind and, crucially, funny. The funny does not come across as much on record, but I liked his album anyway--he was nominated for one of the Grammys Billie Eilish won and looked a little sad after even though he'd been a longshot, only to recover with enthusiastic applause as I expect is his way and don't believe is at all phony, at least not yet. I also have a sister and brother-in-law living upstairs in my building and always want to know what they think about music--Georgia published rock criticism for years. Steven retired from the law to play as much trumpet as he can. Ga and I have such related sensibilities that I take her movie and fiction recommendations as seriously as those of anyone I know. And then there's . . . Second set of ears? No shit. Now more than ever. I adore Carola for many reasons--many many--but our aesthetic compatibilities are high on the list. When we disagree, which happens, we wonder why and interrogate it a little. If Carola had wanted to be a fulltime critic she would have been a first-rate. But one reason her responses and ideas are so insightful and original is that she didn't, which freed her up to respond at will in a way full-timers rarely can. Insofar as I'm an exception to that generalization it's partly because having her around frees me up--I play new music with her in the room almost every day. Indulge me and follow this link to a review of a Fleetwood Mac concert she covered because 12-year-old Nina was such a fan. Note how skillfully she skirts the fact that, actually, she isn't so much. Note how irrelevant that pirouette remains to any reader who just wonders how the show was.

January 15, 2020

Parsing posthumous Coltrane, grading Big Star and Lil Wayne, and the uses of critical esotericism and formalism

[Q] Hey Bob, I'm so excited for this newsletter. Your writings old and new have been an enduring resource and source of enjoyment for this hip twenty-something from Texas. Will there be a comment section like the one Expert Witness had? At least to me, that comment section revealed the existence of your wonderful, articulate following, which had its own contributions to my listening at the time. Also, I'm considering leaving my good-paying but tiresome job to pursue music professionally, following my dream. Do you have any advice for a young person considering entering the industry--even if it's "don't quit your day job"? -- Nathan Walker, Austin, Texas

[A] Always special to learn I've reached someone half a century younger, so thanks. As for the comments question, thanks too--for getting me to set my mind to it. Once I did the answer was a clear no, for two basic reasons. The first is that it's work to oversee a comments section, even lightly as I did back when Expert Witness was at MSN. The work I do for And It Don't Stop should be more writing, sometimes subscriber-only and sometimes not--I have several things in mind that I've yet to get to. Moreover, as you don't quite say, that comments section was a miracle--believe it or not, there was apparently a discussion group in China devoted not principally to my writing (although once a young Chinese speaker came to a reading of mine and told me he'd been part of it) but to the commenters themselves (here's to you, Cam Patterson, Blair Fraipont, Jason Gubbels, Michael Tatum, Liam Smith, Bradley Sroka, Nicky Farruggia, and so many others). It was so rare to find comments almost devoid of backbiting and trolling, which in many ways was the greatest thing about it--I made many friends including a few close ones there. In the Twitter age of course, the situation is worse. Even subscriber-only, I very much doubt the temperature would remain as temperate as it did back then, and keeping it down would be not just labor-intensive but emotionally taxing. As for quitting your day job, let me try and be a good dad. Is your good-paying job a stroke of luck or probably replicable in the absence of an economic collapse? If the former, I'd be cautious; if the latter and you're chomping at the bit, well, assuming you don't have kids yet this might be the time. I'm surprising myself somewhat by writing this, because I've been preaching since I started teaching at NYU in 2005 that the US economy is designed to exploit your generation. So please don't just ask me. It's a big decision.

[Q] Surprisingly, you only reviewed one CD by John Coltrane--with the perfect line "It gets really good after bass and piano sit out so Coltrane and his friend Jones can bash and blow at each other undistracted," which refutes your claim that you don't have the chops to review jazz. You wrote about sets by Monk and Miles and Bird but never Trane. Did you never find a great compilation on his Atlantic or Impulse or Prestige years, or perhaps you prefer the original albums? Can you recommend Lush Life (Prestige) or Crescent (Impulse) or Blue Train (Blue Note) or Olé or Plays the Blues (both Atlantic), or any others? You've provided me with guidance through Hendrix's tangled discography but I remain lost in Trane's. -- Mark Reidy, Park Slope

[A] First of all, I've reviewed three Coltrane albums, not just one. Let me remind you that I've also done lots of Ornette, who like Davis made rockish moves. Monk is about my favorite artist except maybe the Beatles, and Bird was the shit when I was getting into jazz in college. And how about Sonny Rollins? Coltrane, meanwhile, wasn't helped discographically by his early death-- not unlike Hendrix's various would-be canonizers, Impulse pushed the posthumous catalogue till distinguishing among newly fabricated albums became a game for specialists and suckers (and I should add that the old jazzbos I know don't think much of the "newly discovered" 2018 album the younger set was so impressed by). However. If only because my most trusted aesthetic advisor is always ready to hear more jazz at dinner and for that matter breakfast, I've been doing some exploring. So far I can report that neither the Atlantic nor the Prestige "Trane plays the blues" albums seems like a standout to me, and that there will definitely be Coltrane reviews in future CGs, with details yet to be determined.

[Q] Your glowing Consumer Guide reviews of the three Big Star albums have aged quite well in my eyes and ears. Does your original ranking of Radio City then Third then #1 Record reflect how you feel about the albums today, assuming you've revisited them in the past few decades? -- Jacob H., Madison, Wisconsin

[A] Yes, in that order, and these are records I still put on occasionally, as I do Chilton's solo work--at least once after early 2019, when I was checking out Chilton reissues including the Ocean Club recording and reading Holly George-Warren's excellent if dismaying Chilton biography, A Man Called Destruction.

[Q] At the risk of sounding like a "grade grubber": you gave Tha Carter III an A- in your review, but then ranked it third in your best of the 00's list, suggesting it's really an A+. As a huge fan of that album I'm wondering: what changed for you between when you first reviewed the album and when you published that list? -- Jake, Canada

[A] Thanks for apologizing, but you know you're grade-grubbing anyway. Look, fellas (and I do mean fellas), it's not hard to understand. In part because I've set up the Consumer Guide to be relatively free of normal deadline pressure, I don't generally jump the gun on grades and remain remarkably steady in my judgments over the years. But this is still journalism, and some sort of news value is the responsibility of all but its most perverse practitioners. Tha Carter III was one of the most long-anticipated albums of the '00s. So you can be sure that I felt more than the usual pressure to get to it sooner rather than later--and also that I didn't stop checking it out after I'd weighed in. I dimly recall that there was a lag before the brilliance of "Phone Home" hit me, but it was more than that--the album is remarkably substantive front to back, playable too. So as I listened, I grew to appreciate it more and them love it some.

[Q] Great 10's round-up, a blast to get into Americana and American Honey again, though both surprised and sad New Gods didn't make the cut, probably my most played album this decade. In your intro you draw attention to the discrepancies between your list and those of Pitchfork and Rolling Stone. This made me wonder: What's your overall take on the past decade in music and music criticism? -- Adam, Aarhus, Denmark

[A] Basically, I read other people's reviews to find albums to check out on Spotify and am gratified when I'm actively moved to then replay such a pick even once. This means I don't keep close enough track of current rock criticism to comment on it with any special insight. It's obvious enough that the two major outlets are caught up in self-branding, as they have to be (and as the also-rans are as well). P4K tries to stay ahead of the curve, often to what I hear as needlessly (also perishably and/or abstrusely) esoteric effect. This year, however, I was also struck not just that P4K's year-end list was dominated by women (as my 2019 list stands at the moment, it's almost half female), but by how many of the mag's female choices favored a rather retro singer-songwriter aesthetic--slow-moving, lyric-enunciating, strophic, and oft genteel--I've never had much use for. One more setback for catchy songs with a good beat, I suppose. Meanwhile, while doing a decent job of keeping up with young trendies, Rolling Stone serves as a counterweight to P4K's esotericism, finding aesthetic distinction in "residual" formal commitments that I too often find kinda just old. Wayne Robins, a very longtime acquaintance who replaced me at Newsday when I moved on to the Voice in 1974, wrote a Pazz & Jop-hooked essay (in the first year there's been no Voice-linked P&J, and by the way I've yet to glance at the Facebook-based self-proclaimed "Rip-Off" Pazz & Jop I'm told someone's launched) that deals usefully with many of these issues.

[Q] How have you built an incredible career reviewing records even though you don't know anything about music and your writing isn't that good? -- Rich Sackett, Nashville

[A] Stick-to-it-iveness and the love of a good woman.

December 18, 2019

In praise of differenter things, suggestive titles and (relatively) unmediated aesthetic pleasure

[Q] Hello, Bob. Glad to hear your knee is doing well post-surgery. You have reviewed, mostly favorably, all of the Cloud Nothings albums except for the most recent, Last Building Burning, even though its tone and approach are not demonstrably different. But perhaps that's the problem? -- Jeff Callahan, Flat Rock, North Carolina

[A] First, this gives me a chance to mention that although my knee is doing well I can barely walk due to a related IT band problem that affects my thigh. This is not so-called IT band syndrome, a nasty variant of runner's knee. It's in my thigh specifically, and finding effective treatment has thus far been alarmingly difficult, although I've just met a trainer who impressed me. So if anyone has undergone a similar problem I'd appreciate learning about it. As for the Cloud Nothings, you've nailed the issue exactly. Look at the last Cloud Nothings review and note how I dismiss complaints about his sameyness--a little defensively, I'd say. No surprise that the new one sounded to me like one of those marginally differentiated Honorable Mentions I've vowed to cut down on. I could be missing something, of course. But the likelihood is small. I'd rather check out something differenter.

[Q] Is there any chance of seeing your review for Artpop? Just out of curiosity after seeing it make zero appearance on the lists of critics for the best albums of the last decade. -- Thomas, Beijing

[A] There is no review of Artpop. It came out during the Consumer Guide's 2013 hiatus between its long Microsoft sojourn and its brief stay at Medium. Played it recently out of curiosity and did not feel compelled to play it again, hence wonder whether I would have rated it so highly had I been compelled to write about it, a process that my ears invariably find educational.

[Q] Do you have any favourite album titles? Or book titles, for that matter. It seems like coming up with titles would be fun. How did you decide on the titles for your books? I know they're music / literature references, but you surely had a lot to choose from and probably a few good final ideas before deciding on Any Old Way You Choose It, Grown Up All Wrong, and Is It Still Good to Ya? -- Brandon, Waterloo, Ontario

[A] A good title should be intriguing, suggestive, and accurate. Magazine editing is perfect training, because it compels you to think of a lot of them. Basic method: find some good language in there and work on it. Great album titles that come to mind are Rubber Soul and good kid, m.A.A.d city. Two great book titles are by people I'm close to: Mystery Train and The Only Ones. I don't remember how I came up with Any Old Way You Choose It, but it came pretty easy and I'm more than proud of it--it was definitive, thank you master phrasemaker Chuck Berry. Is It Still Good to Ya? came to me early in the compilation process because it was the hook of what I always knew would be the prologue; Book Reports took forever, landing simultaneously with its subtitle, which just popped into my head one day. Going Into the City was there from the start. Grown Up All Wrong, on the other hand, was hard labor. I wanted to raid the New York Dolls and call it If I'm Acting Like a King, That's Because I'm a Human Being. My editor Lindsay Waters vetoed it, never budged, although we had and still have a warm personal relationship. I was stubborn about it but finally gave up, just started thumbing through artists' albums for something to filch. After half a glum hour, up popped the song title "Grown Up All Wrong." I relistened to the lyric to make sure there was nothing I'd regret, rejiggered the intro to rationalize it, and have been very happy with it ever since--better than the Dolls one for sure.

[Q] The best music for me is by bands like Hüsker Dü and the Go-Betweens and artists like Bob Dylan and Warren Zevon. I also like Mississippi Fred McDowell, the Carter Family, the Ramones, and Wire. All names that fit well into an intellectual aesthetic spectrum. But I also like bands like Blink-182, who I'm glad to see you also like, and Ace of Base, who is often frowned upon in the intellectual community. I enjoy those bands more than the music of say, Lamont Young and Terry Riley. What are your views on the above-mentioned underlying expectations to a person's taste? Does your answer have something to do with the theories of Pierre Bourdieu, 'cause that would be pretty intellectual? -- Martin Moeller, Aarhus, Denmark

[A] I've never gotten very far in Bourdieu's Distinction, an important piece of aesthetic theory I assume I agree with to some extent but in a less absolute, judgmental, dare I say snobbish way. So I can only wonder what if anything meaningful Bourdieu has to say about aesthetic pleasure itself, a real phenomenon however much it's compromised or tainted that is clearly inflected by what we know and how we grew up but I very much doubt is coextensive with our social positioning dramas. You and I like the same kind of bands, it would seem, but if you also like Ace of Base, who I've never gotten into, go with it. There's obviously real craft there. The idea is to let the music reach your ears unmediated insofar as that is possible, and although that'll always mean relatively unmediated, there are various ways to trick yourself into being more spontaneous about it. I've made it a discipline to figure out the real reasons I enjoy individual pieces of music and put my conclusions into writing for over half a century. I'm real good at it and never perfect. It's a contingent world. It's also the only one we got, and music generally makes it better.

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