Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Editor's Note: To see Robert Christgau's full 2010 Dean's List, click here.

In 2010 I stopped hearing the death-of-the-album guff that's been in the virtual air since the great Napster bubble of 1999. Not that the album has retained its economic primacy, though for many musicians of quality that was always a chimera anyway, good for a passing windfall or auxiliary revenue stream in a career dependent on the rigors of touring and the luck of the licensing deal. On the contrary, sales continue to dip. But the album isn't about to go away, because it remains the most efficient way for musicians to showcase their songbooks. If you take pride in your art qua art, as musicians of quality tend to do, that showcase is satisfying in itself--and conveniently, it also builds touring demand and licensing contacts.

Of course, the album form does get messed around with plenty, and this year's Dean's List includes its share of oddities: four free hip-hop mixtapes, a download-only girlpop EP, Girl Talk's illegal art, and the longest of three overlapping 2010 albums by Swedish teenpop grad Robyn. But there'd probably be more such oddities if I wasn't so committed to doing things the old-fashioned way. As ever, I had no time for the unmappable world of alternate versions, disco remixes, online retweaks, mashups, videos, and interpretive dances on YouTube--byways many music geeks wander daily. Yet even so I flagged down a couple of left-field surprises for my catch-as-catch-can singles list: Die Antwoord's "Enter the Ninja," whose gruesomely jubilant video I imposed on visitors for months, and Ian Nieman's "club mix" of Jason Derulo's "Ridin' Solo," a catchy-generic focus track on songwriter Derulo's generic-period r&b album that in Nieman's hyperextension became the centerpiece of--what a coup--Now That's What I Call Club Hits 2.

But if mapping pop music's expanding universe is indeed impossible, that doesn't mean a guy can't have serious fun trying, and the best way is still to bird-dog albums like Scooby-Doo on a thermos of Dunkin.' Once again I found more than 80 A records in 2010--records I expect to savor in 2015 or 2020 if I'm still alive and have the time. Beyond Kanye West and Vampire Weekend, my top 10 differs markedly from the critical consensus, which in my analysis--based on my webmaster Tom Hull's breakdown of some 1000 online lists rather than the Village Voice Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll, scheduled to go live shortly after this does--includes the Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem, the National, Deerhunter, Big Boi, and Janelle Monae. But the only one you won't find further down on the Dean's List is Monae, and only Deerhunter continues 2009's prog takeover, when the Pazz & Jop top six included Animal Collective, Phoenix, the Dirty Projectors, and Grizzly Bear. The unbearable Grizzly Bear excepted, I didn't hate those records, though not even the Dirty Projectors' sat as well with me as Deerhunter's this year. But as a seeker after legible songs and compelling grooves, I did hate its hegemony. It'll come back strong whenever that gang puts out new albums--some in 2011, probably. Nevertheless, 2010's rough map suggests that it's less ascendant than I'd feared.

Instead I see in the numbers a hip-hop resurgence. I don't pretend to project the future from such statistical "trends," which usually involve too much happenstance, such as the simultaneous return to form of Eminem, Big Boi, and Kanye West. Clearly more momentous than the 2009 tokens by Mos Def and Raekwon even if they're slightly overrated, these three faves are the latest and most decisive proof that hip-hop has supplanted rock as popular music's most aesthetically fruitful genre. Right, happenstance happens--there was no Bob Dylan album in 2010, no U2 if I must, no Yeah Yeah Yeahs, no . . . Coldplay? Also, distribution arrangements complicate these analyses unduly. Still, isn't it striking that not one of the over two dozen rock records on the 2010 Dean's List came from a major label unless DFA's Virgin deal puts LCD over the line, and that Hull's top 40 adds just the Black Keys and Broken Bells? Yet of the 17 Dean's List hip-hop albums (last year there were just seven), seven were accounted profit-promising by the guys with the obscene expense accounts.

"Def Jam payment plan" bitching and all, one of these was my own album of the year, the Roots' How I Got Over. No big crusade here--How I Got Over is getting more respect than Eminem's Recovery, 2010's top seller, because the Roots always get respect, and if momentous counts I can see why many prefer West's ginormous not to mention prog-friendly effort. But for reasons I'm not about to bloviate into a theory because I believe the main one is happenstance, this just wasn't a momentous-type year. If I felt obliged to vote momentous I would have gone with M.I.A.'s stupidly dismissed Maya, which got spanked because it tried to be momentous and because unlike West she proved unequal to her own celebrity. But my only obligation is to my ears, and in 2010 what sounded best was the Roots' brave and sometimes painful change-of-life hip-hop, a multivalent reflection on the pop lifer's danger years, the late thirties. That's when, even if you're now Jimmy Fallon's house band, you start to worry that you'll look and/or feel like an idiot devoting your adulthood to what idiots consider a youth artform. So before I return to hip-hop, I should mention that my number two album comes from the same generational cohort: Welder, by Nashville-based singer-songwriter and Sirius Radio morning jock Elizabeth Cook, who at 37, after four fairly good albums, strung together 14 fairly perfect songs about such country things as love, marriage, sex, rock and roll, farming, and her sister the junkie.

My hip-hop picks skew younger, although the Roots' contemporaries tend 35-40 and even the next wave has 30 surrounded by now (Eminem, in fact, is 38). They include four collections by 25-or-sos Nicki Minaj and Das Racist, three of them freebies, as well as second albums by three 28-year-olds few hip-hoppers know exist: second-generation Rwandan Shad from Toronto, medical writer turned rap prof Dessa from Minneapolis, and spoken Cockney artist Scroobius Pip from London. Six of the 15 artists are black and six white; the others are Sri Lankan British-American M.I.A., Afro-Indian Trinidadian-American Minaj, and Hispanic-Indian duo Das Racist. Nas's Damian Marley collab is more reggae than rap; Die Antwoord's Cape Town electrohop, fronted by an Anglo named Jones pretending to be an Afrikaner named Ninja, risks racist misprision at a pitch Das Racist wouldn't think of. Then there's supercallifragilistic MC Paul Barman, whose DIY label is called Househusband and who wrote one of his raps as an acrostic, and Boston Irishman Esoteric's concept album about his dead dog and ailing vocation. Note too that the roll call includes three women plus Ninja's better half Yo-landi Vi$$er--not enough, but not the usual zero-to-one.

Get the idea? In general black hip-hoppers make richer music than white hip-hoppers and major-label hip-hoppers make richer music than alt hip-hoppers. But hip-hop as a whole is every bit as unruly and rewarding a free-for-all as [prefix-implying-"artistic"]-rock, and anyone who hopes to stay on top of semi-popular music without it will miss the damn plane. Fold in some dance records and DJ soundscapes and frost them with a Girl Talk mixtape that integrates no-account crunk and pop-historical touchstones and suddenly prefix-rock is looking kind of feeble. These days even the young adults who overrate wall-of-noisers Sleigh Bells and outsider-who-came-in-from-the-lo-fi Ariel Pink recognize that there's some truth to this, although beyond Das Racist they seem insensible to alt-rap. But they grew up with hip-hop. Those who didn't can either get on it or settle for Neil Young's Daniel Lanois album.

Ageist, moi? C'mon--I'm 68. In fact, the greatest peculiarity of my 2010 top 10 is its three albums--three!--by septuagenarians. Sexagenarians have happened--Bob Dylan, Orchestra Baobab--and once 91-year-old Doc Cheatham came in 12th with help from 23-year-old Nicholas Payton. But not this. Given my skepticism regarding Johnny Cash's Rick Rubin years, I'd never have figured that the barrel-scraping American VI would prove Cash's death album seven years after his physical demise at 71. As for Tom Zé and Peter Stampfel (OK, a ringer, he's 72 but Dook of the Beatniks was recorded in 1999 and neither of his fine little 2010 albums--yes, there were two--is as strong), all I can tell skeptical twentysomethings is that I know more about youth than they do about old age, and that in these cases happenstance has occasioned miracles as vital if not quite as juicy as Macy Gray making her best music at 40 or Robyn making her best music at 30 or the Care Bears on Fire making their best music at 15.

Not that I believe these assertions will staunch twentysomething skepticism, or that they should. Too often right reason puts a damper on unlikely music. And while what Harold Rosenberg called the shock of the new has long since degenerated into the frisson of the new and the next big thing of the week, it's to the credit of prefix-rock that there are still so many twentysomethings trying to carve out a new sliver of turf within its expanding confines. My main problem with this is that by now many in that cohort think the turf encompasses stuff I can't stand--metal, prog, lounge jazz, Enya, etc. Not to mention classical music, which I can stand but have zero interest in. But there's also the sliver problem--so often the new turf, even when well-tended, is too narrow to provide sustaining nourishment. Sleigh Bells, I wish you the best, really.

This charge cannot be lodged at my considered choice for the most overrated album of the year. Janelle Monae can do it all, and that is why The Archandroid has created such a fuss. My riposte is that all she can do well is dance--her songwriting is 60th percentile, her singing technical, her sci-fi plot the usual rot. For me, the anti-Archandroid is Halcyon Digest by Deerhunter, who after nine years and a typically muddled release history decided and/or learned how to sequence 45 minutes of coherent music--in late-'90s Sonic Youth mode only with fewer tunes and less sprawl, conjuring form out of mess and emotion out of mood. It's not quite brilliant, but unlike so many comparable projects, it definitely works if you give it the time a record this beloved has earned. So while I'm pleased to note that in its reactive way indiedom has re-engaged with pop songform after long declaring it yucky, Halcyon Digest means more to me than Surfer Blood's Astro Coast or Best Coast's Crazy for You. It means less, however, than an unnoticed songfest from England: the eponymous Allo Darlin', featuring Queensland, Australia, twentysomething Elizabeth Morris, whose flirty voice and storytelling flair render romance physical and indeed sexy where for Best Coast's superficially sunny Bethany Cosentino it's atmospheric and indeed foggy.

I've been bird-dogging popular and semi-popular music for longer than two-thirds of the artists on the 2010 Dean's List have been alive. Of course I hear things differently than they do. But probably not as differently as I did compared to my less-distant elders in the late '60s. That was a time of schism; musically, this continues to be a time of expansion, evolution, and sometimes mutation. I was fortunate to experience it from the beginning, and far as I can tell, that experience hasn't made me an idiot. In a new time of schism whose politico-economic evils got closer to the pith of most people's lives than any artistic palliative could, I wish more people my age--hell, more people over 35--understood that. It wouldn't solve their problems. But it might ease them a little.

Editor's Note: To see Robert Christgau's full 2010 Dean's List, click here.

Barnes & Noble Review, January 12, 2011