Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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This was originally published as free content, in Robert Christgau's And It Don't Stop newsletter. You can have Christgau's posts delivered to your mailbox if you subscribe.

Dean's List: The 2010s

The 25 best albums of the last 10 years

For me, constructing a best-of-decade list isn't just a matter of boiling down my annual Dean's Lists. It's serious work--done thoroughly, more work than any fulltime critic has time for. Recalling music that came out eight or nine years ago doesn't come naturally to anyone. And more than with year-enders, striking the right balance between pleasure and gravitas is a challenge, because gravitas counts for more in stabs at provisional canonization. One reason the Roots' How I Got Over began atop my provisional top 25 and stayed there was that, yes, my most-played 2010s album had a theme even if black middle-class angst proved so specialized the band would leave it behind for true-crime tales on their two-and-counting later albums. I note sadly that it made neither Rolling Stone's 100-album countdown or Pitchfork's 200-album monster--a distinction it shares with 14 of my other selections, most obtusely Laurie Anderson's Heart of a Dog and M.I.A.'s Maya. Check those out, kids.

I could go on for paragraphs, pages, but damn it I won't. Instead I will note that when you review 200 albums a year the older stuff has a way of shuffling off to Buffalo--my collection of sound recordings includes 4000 A minus or better albums. So while longterm playability has to figure prominently in deciding how much I truly like what I like, it can't be the definitive criterion. Sometime in the past 10 days, for instance, I concluded that I probably hadn't put on Neil Young's Dean's List-topping 2012 Americana since 2013 because it's filed on the floor next to the rear file cabinet along with some 30 other Young CDs I didn't even alphabetize until a few years ago. In the past week I've played it four times as I whoo-hooed over its conceptual brass. It had also been a while since I pulled out that dickhead Kanye's perversely superb 2010 album and even Paul Simon's So Beautiful or So What, one of three also-rans I finished my labors by comparison-playing alongside Wussy's Strawberry and Das Racist's Relax, which made the cut, and the Pistol Annies' Interstate Gospel and Yo La Tengo's Stuff Like That There, which didn't.

Another album I hadn't heard forever required no relistening: Heart of a Dog, which I played on a whim while Carola and I packed up a Florida motel room in early 2017, kept on to the end after we were done, and loved the one time I've played it since. Mount Eerie's A Crow Looked at Me is similar but darker--a death album so bleak and concrete it's hard to get through even on the rare occasions when nothing else will do. Records like those two you love for their impact, not their fun quotient or use value. But love it nonetheless is. A giddier kind of love comes with my two most eccentric picks, which finished two and three on sheer playability: Mast's Thelonious Sphere Monk, a rockish instrumental survey of my favorite musician in any genre including Chuck Berry and the Dolls (though maybe not the Beatles) and the unheralded American Honey soundtrack, which makes a single living thing of Rae Sremmurd and the Raveonettes, E-40 and Steve Earle as the must-see Andrea Arnold flick it's attached to follows a troupe of young magazine-subscription hustlers across flyover country more humane than its taste in presidents might lead cineastes to believe.

Obviously there's lots more to say about all 25 of these records. But the main thing is that, while this project was too much work, I was glad it gave me an excuse to replay more good albums than 25--40 or so, I'd guess. But now it's time for me to return to 2019, which this year-end like all year-ends will have me checking out many overrated albums and a few finds from other people's premature best-ofs for a 2019 Dean's List I hope I finalize by late January. Sad to say, that Dean's List is unlikely to include anything else that will sneak into my decade list behind 17-year-old Billie Eilish's phenomenal fourth-place When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? No teenager I can recall has ever made such an impressive album, though I guess Elvis's Sun Sessions gets an asterisk, and who knows what will become of her? She's so young anyone who identifies dad has to worry, and some of her public pronouncements have been kind of dumb. I gave her debut an A in April, so the phalanx of my unofficial fan club my manager calls the grade grubbers will no doubt be wondering whether said debut is really what I foolishly decided half a century ago to designate an A plus. Guess it is. So it would seem is everything down to 10 here except Mount Eerie, even though it comes before the Tribe Called Quest effort I rashly awarded that grade in the wake of Donald Trump's electoral coup. May that apparent inconsistency rankle the bowels of the anal until a Christmas Eve I hope is jolly for every one of you.

  1. The Roots: How I Got Over (Def Jam)
  2. Mast: Thelonious Sphere Monk (World Galaxy/Alpha Pup)
  3. American Honey (UME)
  4. Billie Eilish: When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (Darkroom/Interscope)
  5. Noname: Room 25 (self-released)
  6. Randy Newman: Dark Matter (Nonesuch)
  7. Laurie Anderson: Heart of a Dog (Nonesuch)
  8. Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Roc-a-Fella)
  9. Mount Eerie: A Crow Looked at Me (P.W. Elverum & Sun, Ltd.)
  10. A Tribe Called Quest: We Got It From Here . . . Thank You 4 Your Service (Epic)
  11. Neil Young With Crazy Horse: Americana (Reprise)
  12. The Uncluded: Hokey Fright (Rhymesayers)
  13. Tierra Whack: Whack World (self-released)
  14. Wussy: Attica! (Shake It)
  15. Frank Ocean: Nostalgia, Ultra (self-released)
  16. Wussy: Funeral Dress II (Shake It)
  17. M.I.A.: Maya (Deluxe Edition) (Interscope)
  18. Tom Zé: Estudando a Bossa: Nordeste Plaza (Luaka Bop)
  19. Rihanna: Anti (Deluxe Edition) (Westbury Road/Roc Nation)
  20. Dabke: Sounds of the Syrian Houran (Sham Palace)
  21. The New Pornographers: Whiteout Conditions (Collected Works/Concord)
  22. Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope)
  23. Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires of the City (XL)
  24. Wussy: Strawberry (Shake It)
  25. Das Racist: Relax (Greedhead)

Dean's List: The 2010s, December 20, 2019