Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Our Own Critics' Poll

Let us proceed in order of importance. Displayed elsewhere in this spread are the results of the second Pazz & Jop Critics Poll--a neat top 30, very aesthetic, a little short on black music. The confusion of forms originally implied by the title (a play on the very defunct Jazz & Pop magazine, which came up with the rating system) does not show up in the box. The critics I polled like rock and roll, and all of the records they selected collectively (a few did name specific jazz records) fall unequivocally into the pop category. The next three paragraphs list my own top 30, with the numbers after the top 10 indicating values assigned in my Pazz & Jop entry.

1. Steely Dan, Pretzel Logic 21. 2. Bob Dylan/the Band, Before the Flood 19. 3. New York Dolls, In Too Much Too Soon 16. 4. Raspberries, Starting Over 10. 5. Eric Clapton, 461 Ocean Boulevard 8. 6. Joni Mitchell, Court and Spark 6. 7. Bob Dylan, Planet Waves 5. 8. Labelle, Nightbirds 5. 9. Randy Newman, Good Old Boys 5. 10. Thomas Jefferson Kaye, First Grade 5.

11. Gram Parsons, Grievous Angel. 12. Nilsson, Pussy Cats. 13. Stevie Wonder, Fulfillingness' First Finale. 14. Gladys Knight & the Pips, Claudine. 15. Big Star, Radio City. 16. Rolling Stones, It's Only Rock 'n Roll. 17. Esther Phillips, Performance. 18. Van Morrison, It's Too Late to Stop Now. 19. Average White Band. 20. Mighty Clouds of Joy, It's Time.

21. Roxy Music, Stranded. 22. Linda Ronstadt, Heart Like a Wheel. 23. Aretha Franklin, Let Me in Your Life. 24. Bryan Ferry, These Foolish Things. 25. Millie Jackson, Caught Up. 26. The Wild Magnolias. 27. Bobby Bland, Dreamer. 28. Neil Young, On the Beach. 29. B.B. King and Bobby Bland, Live Together . . . for the First Time. 30. Leonard Cohen, New Skin for the Old Ceremony.

When I began thinking Top 30 a month or two ago, the prospects depressed me, but the 30 albums I ended up with renew my hope. This was not such a bad year for rock and roll after all. But what an effort to figure that out. In the past, I could put together the year's best simply by sifting all the As out of the year's Consumer Guides and calibrating them. This year, however, I discovered not only the inevitable missed-it-the-first-time black album (Stevie Wonder) but several LPs which originally had seemed too perverse or idiosyncratic to warrant inclusion--Neil Young, Roxy Music, Average White Band, and especially Big Star's Radio City.

This is because popular music is becoming ever more difficult. Steely Dan, currently my favorite rock group, is a case in point. When their first album appeared in 1972, I first dismissed it as slick shit and then passed it off as a weird B plus album with a hit on it. Now I know it was one of the best records of the year. But it wasn't until after Pretzel Logic appeared that I found myself with anything meaningful to say about them, and now that a fourth LP is due (in February, they tell me) I'm winding up to say a little bit more. Meanwhile, half the people I try to turn onto them dismiss the music as slick shit. Difficult.

Radio City is another case in point. Their cult, which consists mostly of rock journalists, went all to pieces in praising the album's mid-60s weltanschauung last January. But I didn't really hear all of that, not really, until I learned to love the Raspberries' Starting Over, the final proof, simultaneously smooth and powerful (and slick and mechanical), that good art and a longing for the past are not always incompatible. Radio City is not so much the flip side of Starting Over as its underside, revealing all the loose musicianship of the albums the Beatles were making a decade ago--Beatles VI, say--to be a good deal more pain-filled, and daring, then they've ever seemed before, without surrendering any of that music's adolescent semi-innocence.

Rock is art. Remember rock-is-art? Remember how we railed against it? But rock is art more indubitably every year, and as the years progress we're not so sorry we lost the battle. Art does endure, a little, and we come to value endurance as we endure ourselves. We no longer regret the way the strictly aesthetic, no-sale triumphs of Gram Parsons and Big Star coexist with the cultural accomplishments of Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder, because even if culture does mean art plus society, art itself can often offer more excitement than all of the most accomplished popular culture in a time when society provides few satisfactions.

The last (and first) Pazz & Jop Poll took place three years ago. I announced it as a critics' poll and ended up certifying everyone who entered as a critic. This year admission was by invitation only, and, of the 25 critics I asked to help me out, only one, Jon Landau (who in the great tradition of Pauline Kael has never compiled a top 10--and even he tried) was unwilling to do so. We're a more securely judgmental bunch than ever. And of course, judgment went into my invitation. I missed a few (sorry, Ed; sorry, Lenny) but in general stuck to the critics who seemed most responsible to me, critics who I knew listened to as many albums as they felt they could. I also tried to squeeze in a few devotees from the outlying areas of black music, country and folk, but found that only the black music people (Vince Aletti and Vernon Gibbs) were much involved in separatism. (Their lists, along with a few others, can be found in the box scores at the end of this piece.) My thanks to all: Jim Wolcott, Frank Rose, Stephen Holden, David Marsh, Ed Ward, John Rockwell, Ellen Willis, Vince Aletti, Robert Hilburn, Chet Flippo, Geoffrey Stokes, Vernon Gibbs, Paul Nelson, Janet Maslin, Greil Marcus, Ben Gerson, Jim Miller, Ken Emerson, Wayne Robins, Lester Bangs, John Morthland, Jaan Uhelszki, Bud Scoppa, Kit Rachlis and Ira Mayer.

What's sad about all this critical responsibility is that it's so damned predictable. I picked nine of the eventual top 10 (missing only the Dylan/Band record, which is bad-mouthed in some circles) before I had received an entry. I knew Stevie Wonder would place on race guilt alone. Black music is obviously the most vital area of pop right now, but most white critics like very few black albums, and those in unpredictable patterns.

One rather ominous corporate note. Of the 31 albums in the top 30, 19 came from Warner.

Plus some oddities. A few LPs--Gladys Knight & the Pips' Imagination, Bruce Springsteen's The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, and Al Green's Livin' for You--would have gotten some votes if December '73 albums hadn't been banned. Keith Jarrett is the favorite jazz musician of rock critics, but didn't amass enough votes because several felt he didn't qualify for a pop poll. (At least two entries were required to get any record in the top 30; John Rockwell gave Jarrett's Solo Concerts 20 points, but that wasn't enough.) Finally nary a vote for: John Denver, Elton John, Aretha Franklin, Rod Stewart, Carly Simon, James Taylor. And only one for: each of David Bowie's LPs (both from Robert Hilburn, a diehard).

GREIL MARCUS: 1. Rolling Stones, It's Only Rock 'n Roll 20. 2. Roxy Music, Stranded 20. 3. Bob Dylan/the Band, Before the Flood 15. 4. Steely Dan, Pretzel Logic 15. 5. Bryan Ferry, These Foolish Things 5. 6. Van Morrison, It's Too Late to Stop Now 5. 7. Firesign Theater, Everything You Know is Wrong 5. 8. Randy Newman, Good Old Boys 5. 9. Neil Sedaka, Sedaka's Back 5. 10. New York Dolls, In Too Much Too Soon 5.

ED WARD: 1. Roxy Music, Stranded 20. 2. Bob Dylan/the Band, Before the Flood 20. 3. Commodores, Machine Gun 10. 4. Steely Dan, Pretzel Logic 10. 5. Ducks Deluxe 10. 6. Willie Nelson, Phases and Stages 10. 7. Electric Light Orchestra, Eldorado 5. 8. New York Dolls, In Too Much Too Soon 5. 9. Bob Wills, For the Last Time 5. 10. Sutherland Brothers & Quiver, Dream Kid 5.

VINCE ALETTI: Ecstasy, Passion and Pain; Labelle, Nightbirds; Earth, Wind and Fire, Open Our Eyes; Whispers, Bingo; Quincy Jones, Body Heat; Joni Mitchell, Court and Spark; Lou Courtney, I'm in Need of Love; Blue Magic; Average White Band; First Choice, The Player. (No points, no order).

GEOFFREY STOKES: 1. Bob Dylan/the Band, Before the Flood 16. 2. Joni Mitchell, Court and Spark 15. 3. Randy Newman, Good Old Boys 14. 4. Eric Clapton, 461 Ocean Boulevard 10. 5. Gram Parsons w/Emmylou Harris, Grievous Angel 10. 6. Raspberries, Starting Over 9. 7. Elvis Presley, Elvis Recorded Live on Stage in Memphis 8. 8. Paul Simon, Live Rhymin' 7. 9. Alan Price, Between Today and Yesterday 6. 10. Black Oak Arkansas, Street Party 5.

VERNON GIBBS: 1. Isley Brothers, Live It Up 20. 2. Blue Magic, The Magic of the Blue 15. 3. Barry White, Can't Get Enough 10. 4. Ohio Players, Skin Tight 10. 5. Donald Byrd, Street Lady 10. 6. Stevie Wonder, Fulfillingness' First Finale 10. 7. Betty Davis, They Say I'm Different 5. 8. Dom Um Ramao 10. 9. Bennie Maupin, The Jewel in the Lotus 5. 10. John Lee Hooker, Free Beer and Chicken 5.

JIM MILLER: 1. Steely Dan, Pretzel Logic 10. 2. Raspberries, Starting Over 10. 3. Stevie Wonder, Fulfillingness' First Finale 10. 4. Linda Ronstadt, Heart Like a Wheel 10. 5. Meters, Rejuvenation 10. 6. Bunny Sigler, Keep Smilin' 10. 7. Keith Jarrett, Facing You 10. 8. Phil Woods, Musique du Bois 10. 9. Marion Brown, Sweet Earth Flying 10. 10. Merle Haggard, Presents His 30th Album 10.

ELLEN WILLIS: 1. Bob Dylan, Planet Waves 15. 2. Van Morrison, It's Too Late to Stop Now 14. 3. Bob Dylan/the Band, Before the Flood 14. 4. Eric Clapton, 461 Ocean Boulevard 12. 5. New York Dolls, In Too Much Too Soon 11. 6. Rolling Stones, It's Only Rock 'n Roll 9. 7. Stevie Wonder, Fulfillingness' First Finale 7. 8. Bachman-Turner Overdrive: Not Fragile 7. 9. Gladys Knight & the Pips, Claudine 6. 10. Gram Parsons, Grievous Angel 5.

Village Voice, Jan. 20, 1975

1971 Critics Poll | Dean's List 1975