Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The List and the Listener

I last saw my colleague Tom Moon in May 2006, at the last hurrah of Pew Foundation funding for the National Arts Journalism Program. Moon had quit his rather good job at the Philadelphia Inquirer because he was fed up with the descent of rock criticism into what's-hot and the brutal speed-up that besets every daily paper's arts salarymen in the online age. On the bus back from the Barnes Museum, cordial yet oddly pensive, he explained why he'd skipped earlier stages of the goodbye confab. He was busy writing a book called 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die.

Having reviewed some 10,000 albums in three Consumer Guide collections, I felt his . . . not pain but travail. No wonder the guy seemed underwater. Though my guides were based on published columns, all needed major additions and revisions, especially the first. For eight months in 1980, I worked 80 or 90 hours a week, reviewing 1,200 albums as my dining room took on vinyl and my marriage reeled and rocked. So I commiserated. We talked mechanics a little, and economics too, though I was too discreet to inquire after the exact condition of his advance.

At that point, Moon had been working on his opus for a year and a half. Now, two and a half years later, he reemerges with the prize: 1,000 alphabetical, handsomely designed critiques of 968 albums and 33 singles (two by Mitch Ryder), each a healthy 300 or 400 words, each with end matter naming key tracks, an alternate selection by the same artist, and suggestions for related listening. Plus back matter that includes a list of 108 albums it killed him to leave out, genre breakdowns for those discomfited by proceeding from Rameau to Ramones, and recommended listening in such categories as Lazy Sunday Morning, Cardio Workout, and Roadtrip Soundtrack AM. Thanking his wife and daughter for their patience and support, Moon seems proud and pleased, as he should be. For the rest of his life, whenever he wants a good time, he can page through this volume and rediscover a wonderful album he hasn't heard in years.

There are many record guides, but few are written by critics as classy as Moon. Few, in fact, are written by just one or even two people, a major reason most are unreliable compendiums of random opinion in which scantily paid hacks and friends of the editor occasionally stumble on a great notion or put a few songs in the historical record. But that doesn't mean I sat down and read Moon's book cover to cover--it's 1,007 pages long. Instead, I elected to prepare a sortable master list of his picks--** for yeah, xx for nah, ?? for wha??, rr for replay, uu for unheard, and cc for classical. This took, well, two days--I had to investigate hundreds of titles I dimly remembered (or didn't). Halfway in, my wife peeked at my screen and got miffed. "I boast about your new column, and then I come in and you're not even writing--you're making another list."

Having survived the first Consumer Guide book, my wife--a terrific critic herself when she feels like it--fully respects and understands what it means to devote half a serious writing career to short record reviews. No one gives me better advice. Yet even she has reservations about the mechanics of the process, which require a schematic cast of mind few associate with the unimpeded aesthetic response. Only maybe "schematic" isn't quite the right word. Maybe "nerdy" is more like it. Maybe the few critics who do this work with a passion are just a shaky step up the evolutionary ladder from collectors, obsessing over serial numbers and never playing their biggest finds because then they'd stop being mint.

But the taste set Moon brings to his schema isn't nerdy. Record nerds tend to be either pop people like me or genre purists like most collectors. Moon is neither. A onetime professional saxophonist, he is what is called in my world a muso, a guy for whom such formal considerations as instrumental technique, group synergy, snazzy arrangement, imaginative song structure, and sonic irreducibility trump both literary value and such pop selling points as the unifying persona and the catchy tune. Given the universalist mission of this volume, which means to encompass not just every variety of pop but the full panoply of jazz and what we vulgarians designate classical music from before Monteverdi to after Arvo Pärt, the author had damn well better be a muso.

Moon needed help in classical, where his Inquirer colleague David Patrick Stearns provided extensive advice on his 145 selections. But as a muso he commands the frame of reference to describe them with enough acuity to jolly me into imagining I can penetrate that world before I die, a fancy I abandoned after nodding off at a Schubert recital by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, a Moon-approved pairing most experts would account irresistible. Musos are also equipped to put a human face on totemic albums that are spottier or shallower than Great Works should be--Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, Norah Jones's Come Away with Me. As a muso, Moon also has the temperamental chops to render felt distinctions in--to name areas I generally pass on, thanks--bluegrass, gospel, samba, rock en español, fusion, metal, and prog, among others. Jazz-trained, he comes to that tradition as a knowledgeable insider, and he's a veteran of Latin bands who understands Spanish. Yet unlike many musos, he's not altogether insensible to rudeness or fluff, and though his writing style can be utilitarian--"unusual orchestrations and vividly realized themes" won't tempt me to give Symphonie Fantastique another shot--he's more a total critic than most ex-musicians. He hears meaning, and he isn't shy about pleasure.

Still, being a muso isn't all "Brandenburg" Concertos, Cachao descargas, and ABBA for dessert. Moon barely gets punk--I can live with London Calling over The Clash but not with Sandinista! as the alternate. His grudging Saturday Night Fever entry reprises the weary plaint that disco killed live music, which it obviously didn't, even if it was hard on journeyman saxophonists. He lets Coner Oberst of Bright Eyes and Neko Case of the New Pornographers stand in for a wealth of songful young alt-rockers--sure you can choose among Old 97's, Spoon, Drive-By Truckers, Rilo Kiley, Shins, and Hold Steady, but bypassing them all (even as alternates) smells like teen dispirit. And in the long run Moon favors playing over songcraft. He stints on show albums, barely mentions the one and only Irving Berlin, prefers smoky old Fred Astaire interpreting standards with jazz stalwarts to reedy young Fred Astaire delivering standards over plain white background, and seems unaware that Ronnie Van Zant wrote better tunes than "Free Bird" (also than the Allman Brothers). This tendency dovetails with his disregard for vocal groups. Altogether absent are not just pre-Beatles rock 'n' rollers he's too young at 48 to know firsthand--the Shirelles, the Marvelettes, the Five Royales, the Chantels, the Spaniels, the Moonglows, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers--but such old-timers as the Andrews Sisters, the Boswell Sisters, and the Golden Gate Quartet (the Mills Brothers get an alternate); reduced to one single are the Coasters, the Temptations, the Supremes, and the Shangri-Las (the Drifters get an alternate). He admits that his obscure solo pick fails to "fully capture" Curtis Mayfield but never mentions the Impressions, where Mayfield did his finest work.

I do very much admire this book, so I'll quit carping once I explain a procedural objection that connects directly to my last point: the book's strong, though neither consistent nor altogether explicit, preference for regular-release albums over greatest-hits retrospectives. Sometimes this makes sense--Etta James's Muscle Shoals-generated Tell Mama has a coherence absent from her best-ofs (which I prefer anyway). But it nevertheless devalues the catchy tune and the unifying persona. Every group I just named has been seamlessly and indelibly captured on a terrific best-of, three or four of which are in my lifetime top 200, as have many artists Moon virtually or utterly ignores (Chic, Randy Travis, Garth Brooks, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Donna Summer, Joe Tex) and others represented by good but distinctly inferior albums (Fela Kuti, George Jones, Eric B. & Rakim, Bo Diddley, Madonna, Elvis Presley). My version of Moon's labor of love would also include many more multiple-artist compilations, starting with The Rough Guide to the Music of the Sahara and Rhino's fabuloso Dance Floor Divas: The'70s. Check out for more elucidation than you can stand, and for Moon's full list and more. And now I really will stop disputanding the gustibus. The main reason I reviewed this book was to have some fun, and I did.

Fun is an elusive notion, like the "pure pleasure" Moon claims as his "only meaningful metric." Yet one thing makes his guide more fun than most--for him, only the best will do. So it was my pleasure to pretend that responsible coverage meant checking his picks (and my wife thought those lists were ends in themselves!).Through the miracles of subscription streaming and my brother-in-law's salsa jones, I played 75 and counting, and though a few times I convinced myself that known winners counted as work--looking the **list over again, I am fighting that very temptation as I write--most of these were unheards.

It may surprise outsiders to learn that after grading 14,000-plus albums, I was still unfamiliar with 300 of Moon's non-classical selections. But though nine times in ten I did know the artist, my jazz service was erratic even when the biz was flush, and reissues are impossible to track. So I scanned my lists and scored find after find. Not in rock, though Carl Perkins boogied better than I remembered and I'd missed the Propellerheads' wild big beat debut. And not that everything panned out--far from it, though Moon insists I play that enticingly concrète-sounding Hermeto Pascoal fusion monstrosity through to the end. But in jazz it's been gangbusters. The comps I've always craved on Bix Beiderbecke and Lester Young and Albert Ammons (Bill Broonzy, too). The Fabulous Swing Collection mitigating Moon's jazz snob neglect of Glenn Miller. A Steve Lacy-Mal Waldron "chess match" I'd filed away. Finally a great Peggy Lee album (in fact, two), and Juju, the Wayne Shorter keeper the overpraised Native Dancer isn't, with drumming by Elvin Jones, who also motorvates yet another Sonny Rollins date I need to own. Recent collections by the legendary Cuban Africanizer Arsenio Rodriguez, whose older ones I couldn't locate last time I looked. And the breathtaking McRae Sings Monk, where a singer I've never cared for goes someplace utterly new with a musician I've adored for half a century. Since streaming won't do for music this essential--I want better audio and more flexibility--my research could cost me a few hundred bucks.

Of course, time has turned me into kind of a muso myself, which means all but a few of the above names resonate for me just as names. Since most readers won't quiver quite so readily, they'll need Moon's prose. Beiderbecke: "He understood the stop-time tricks and other conventions of early jazz, filled each break with disarmingly wistful phrases that could not be easily copied." Young: both "a jazz of poise and utter incandescence" and "a freewheeling attitude, a kind of furloughed-soldier irreverence." Shorter: "His pealing, jagged melodies establish an avenue of inquiry, and then his improvisations draw listeners deeper--into tangles of emotion, mystic unknowables waiting beneath the surface." Propellerheads: "This precise combination of source material becomes even better than any one 'real' thing. The beat is huge, and filtered to sound hyper real."

Enticed? Then you'll have to start your buying with Moon's book. In this unpropitious time for arts writing, no way did his advance pay him fairly for his travail. Like my lists, his labor was its own reward, paid in the durable currency of music.

Barnes & Noble, Dec. 14, 2008