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.

April 17, 2024

And It Don't Stop.

Pick hits: Margret Drabble and Marshall Berman. Must to avoid: Smashing Pumpkins at Lollapalooza '94. Plus: Radio time (or lack thereof), Dave Marsh (disco mix), and old & new instant excitements.

[Q] If you are not a music critic, you must be a good literary critic. You ranked The Mars Trilogy sixth, between Mumbo Jumbo and A House for Mr. Biswas, on your list-in-perpetual-progress of favorite 20th-century novels. Do we get the full ranking? -- Debbie Chan, Shenzhen, China

[A] I'd rather not for several reasons, though I suppose might change my mind. But there's a brief novel by Margaret Drabble, a UK author I generally respect more than I admire, that I read at Carola's urging when we first got together. It's called The Millstone and I recommend it to everyone I know even though I understand childbirth is a less universal theme than some might imagine. I wrote about it in Going Into the City. It's both soulful and exquisite.

[Q] Which book by Marx is a must-read, The Communist Manifesto, Das Kapital, or the 1844 Economic Manuscripts? -- Terry Tan, Hong Kong

[A] I'm not the guy to ask, since The Communist Manifesto is the only one I've read. Instead I strongly recommend an essay collection by my dear friend the late great Marshall Berman: Adventures in Marxism. I'm probably not supposed to say this given what I haven't read, but Berman's prose is a lot easier on the cerebellum than Marx's. So I should add that circa 1967 I read and admired Marx's 18th Brumaire. It was regarded as something of a potboiler albeit a revolutionary one as I recall, but for just that reason goes down easier.

[Q] Hi, Robert. Maybe you've been asked the following questions before. However, here goes. Have you ever tuned into Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour? If so, what is your assessment of Dylan's tastes in music, assuming he chose those tunes not just because they fit the given theme, but also for their musical value. Thanks! -- Keiro Kitagami, Kyoto, Japan

[A] Essentially, I never listen to the radio, although I did when I owned a car a couple of decades ago, and then I stuck stuck to pop stations, which had and have more to teach me about what's going on. I did enjoy Dylan's book The Philosophy of Modern Song, though.

[Q] Dave Marsh once said "I don't know that [punk] was any more important than disco" and believes hip-hop is more significant than punk in musical history. Do you agree with this? -- Lance Rocke, California

[A] Given how crucial Africa has been to post-2000 pop and arguably a lot of what's earlier than that I certainly don't think these are outlandish ideas. But I would note that Marsh has been so much a lifelong anti-bohemian that his thoughts in that arena are always suspect.

[Q] Bob, I've enjoyed your work for many years. You've written about your process of putting new music on in the background to see if it grabs you. My question: can you recall some albums that have blown you away on the first listen--work that inspired something like immediate astonishment, and that you immediately knew was A or A+ stuff? Perhaps a related question (or perhaps not): do you remember your reaction the very first time you heard the Clash or Ramones? The very first spin of Sgt. Pepper's? Thank you! -- Kent, Brooklyn

[A] I don't think "blown me away" is a very useful way of putting it. Rather I'd say something like "excited me" or "commanded my full immediate attention." In 2023 there were a number of such, several of which I recognized as terrific right off but also could soon discern were clearly limited in one way or another: Gina Birch would be a perfect example--not for everyone at 69 and understandably so. Olivia Rodrigo's Guts might be an exception--terrific from first spin but also clearly calling out for deeper analysis and further elucidation. I couldn't get enough of the 2023 Lewis Capaldi for the first day or two, although that's an album few admire as much as I do, and the same probably goes for Dolly Parton's Rockstar, which I crowed about to Carola track by track first play but soon recognized wasn't for everyone on a first-to-last basis, and rightly so at that. Having already seen the Ramones a bunch of times when their debut surfaced I played it immediately and never seem to get tired of it. Then there were my first two rock album buys, The Beatles' Second Album and The Rolling Stones Now! Both are still play-it-again faves around here. As for Sgt. Pepper, I sat around with a bunch of journalists and listened to it for hours before its official release, still play it occasionally. and now resent anyone who puts it down "Within You Without You" notwithstanding.

[Q] As someone who's thoroughly read and philosophized upon your words, I figured I'd ask about your review of Smashing Pumpkins' 1991 LP Gish. I know that a * review is by no means negative, but, aside from highlighting an occasionally-aired promo single, your review was relatively dismissive. I know of your thoughts on metal ("What am I supposed to say about the latest in meaning-mongering for the fantasy fiction set?"), but the lyricism and guitar acrobatics on this album cannot be denied. Hell, it might be kind of arty, but not that arty. Not enough that it loses its relatability. This mild dismissiveness of usually beloved records would include your reviews of Elliot Smith's Either/Or, Bjork's Homogenic, and, in a more extreme case, Radiohead's Kid A and Amnesiac. I'm not asking you to love ATUM, Zeitgeist, CYR, or Machina/The Machines of God. I don't like half to 99% of the music on those records. Just please reconsider. Even the same response with reasons would be enough. -- Morgan C, New Hampshire

[A] I am genuinely flattered that you believe I'm so diligent and open-minded I can be expected to replay an album by an artist not one of whose releases I came close to enjoying as opposed to respecting. But I'm not. In fact the only one of the six artists you name I admire more than that is Bjork, and even in her case the positivity doesn't extend so far that I'm about to figure out how to insert the appropriate umlaut into her name. Many serious aesthetes among rock fans admire these artists you name. I don't, because none of their aesthetics make enough room for pop fun or African-derived grooves, both of which are gold as far as I'm concerned. With Smashing Pumpkins my disillusion arrived early in their career, at a doomed 1994 rock festival in Rhode Island whose performance I described thusly:

It was after 8, so we spread our stash of Armenian food on a desolate press table slightly aft of the stage, but although we hoped to avoid Nick Cave, all too soon rampant self-expression was drowning out dinner conversation. We took our time returning, then lounged far back as the decent conventional rock and unriveting arena solos waxed and mostly waned. Occasionally the star would announce that he was about to knock our socks off, but he never came close, and around 9:20 he started complaining in a strangely un-Australian accent. He dissed Rhode Island, he dissed the site, he told us we should "tear up the empty lot" when the show was over, he congratulated us sarcastically for attending: "There may be a bomb underneath you but you are rocking--at least you can tell your children that you came and you rocked." He pouted: "I'm sorry we suck." He rationalized: "We apologize for trapping ourselves in a vortex we can't get out of." Finally, just before 10, he advised us to drive safely and limped off to widely scattered cheers. The Quonset edition of Lollapalooza was over.

I was pissed off and deeply confused. For half an hour I'd been jeering this bad expressionist band in the expectation that soon I'd hear a good one, Smashing Pumpkins. God, I thought, that must have been some traffic jam. But when Carola asked who the female musician was, I figured it out. Nick Cave had preceded Quest--that was Smashing Pumpkins. How embarrassing for me--but how much more embarrassing for Billy Corgan. Carola, who isn't normally given to hyperbole, called it the worst performance she'd ever witnessed in her life. I told her she'd never seen Richie Havens.

I am proud to note that after this passage was published I was approached in a restaurant by a bizzer I knew who worked for Smashing Pumpkins. He thought it was a riot.

March 27, 2024

And It Don't Stop.

Hip-hop lyricism, the year of the woman circa 2018, very best vs. all-time greatest, Underoath vs. depression, in praise of Kim Stanley Robinson and Swedish socialism, remembering David Schweitzer.

[Q] Hi Robert: In your 2023 Dean's List piece you name a predominance of older artists as the year's "significant anomaly." What interests me the most, however, is the relative lack of black music--hip hop in particular. Sure there's some, but ignoring the various African releases compiling decades old music, you can almost count black artists on two hands. I seem to recall you having voiced reservations about current tendencies within hip hop, so my question: Assuming you agree with my analysis, do you think the lack of hip hop on the list is just a coincidence (just a lackluster year in that regard), or is there a deeper meaning to it? Just a curious observation: Your highest ranked hip-hop record of the year (by black artists) is Scaring the Hoes, and it's among other things a frontal attack on the hip hop scene of the current moment. Danny Brown: "Niggas don't rap no more they just sell clothes/So I should probably quit and start a line of bathrobes." -- Adam, Denmark

[A] That's a fair question and I haven't come close to figuring out why it pertains. I expect it has something to do with trap as an approach to rhythm that I don't understand, don't cotton to, or don't like at all, though I'd begin by venturing that it's not hooky enough in the pop sense, which is something I've always valued in hip-hop myself. The thing about Danny Brown is that he definitely has ambitions as a lyricist, and except for a few of what I'll call the New York intellectuals--Wiki, say, or especially second-generation Marxist Billy Woods--that's becoming rarer near as I can tell.

[Q] While reading the lists of recent years' Grammy winners, I found your review of Kacey Musgraves's album The Golden Hour, and I was really intrigued by the passage where you refer to that year (I presume 2018) as "the rock era's biggest yet quietest year of the woman to date." Could you elaborate on that? Also, do you still stand by that assessment after five years? -- Gaetano, Siena, Italy

[A] Looking back on 2018's Dean's List, I find 16 women in the top 30: Noname, Bettye LaVette, Pistol Annies, Tierra Whack, Cardi D, the Paranoid Style featuring Elizabeth Nelson, Maria Muldaur, Kah-Lo, Wussy featuring Lisa Walker, Janelle Monae, Elza Soares, Amy Rigby, Amanda Shires, tUnE-yArDs, Hinds, and the transgender Sophie. So without doing any handstands, that looks to me as if it qualifies as a yes--there just weren't that many women getting respect back then. So 16 in the top 30 deserved some sort of plaudit.

[Q] Not a question but a comment regarding the Very Best of the Shirelles. I own their 25 All Time Greatest Hits on the Varese Sarabande label, 1999. The fidelity is great. It contains "The Things I Want To Hear" and "It's Love That Really Counts" which was omitted from Very Best Of; it also has "Boys" and "Foolish Little Girl" and "I Met Him on Sunday" and "Don't Say Goodnight and Mean Goodbye" plus "A Thing of the Past" which is all on Very Best. -- Steven Goldman, New York City

[A] The Varese Sarabande seems like a best-of worth owning. And I envy you your "It's Love That Really Counts." But my 16-track Shirelles best-of on Rhino has served as one of my favorite albums ever for many years and I'll just stick with it.

[Q] Hello, I've been reading your reviews since my teen years in the 2000s and you've had a huge impact on my musical trajectory. I wanted to ask you about a record from that time that you never reviewed (frankly because it is far outside your typical wheelhouse): Underoath's Define the Great Line. It's a record that has stuck with me for a long time through my deep depression as a continual comfort, source of emotional exhilaration, and even a light of insight in my darkest times. -- Grace Brown, Salem, Massachusetts

[A] If you suffer from depression and this record braces you, by all means stick with it. Me, I've never liked a screamo record in my life and see no reason to try and make an exception for this one.

[Q] I think you share the same political philosophy as Kim Stanley Robinson. Are you a democratic socialist who supports the Swedish model? -- Meng Dang, Nanchang, China

[A] Robinson is just about my favorite contemporary novelist although the more aesthetically daring Jonathan Lethem is in the running, and while I regretfully doubt that Swedish socialism will ever catch on here I'd be delighted if it did.

[Q] I was looking for information on my old NYU friend Dave Schweitzer, who founded the rock newsletter Hawaiian Punch while there (he and I used to do a Blind Date record column), and was saddened to find that he died at the age of 44 in 2012. At the same time, I was grateful to see that, at the time he died, he was your assistant. The Dave I knew at NYU would have been thrilled to know that he would assist you one day. -- Dawn Eden Goldstein, Washington, DC

[A] David was one of my first assistants, recommended as I recall by Riffs contributor and NYU prof Perry Meisel. He had a very good brain and was a pleasure to be around. I learned of his death, which as I recall was heart-related and took place when he was pursuing a graduate degree in English in Texas, via the earliest iteration of the commenting community that grew up back when the Expert Witness blog generated a de facto discussion group that dubbed itself the Witnesses. He was mourned; it was a shock for all of us.

February 22, 2024

And It Don't Stop.

Some thoughts on Eminem, trying (and failing) to get into Neutral Milk Hotel, Chicago blues (Chess and otherwise), A+ best-of albums, pretty good live Stones, and the affordability of CDs.

[Q] As a fellow boomer and long-time consumer of your words, just thought I'd acknowledge how 100% right on and right you are on the topic of Eminem. I pity the fools who begrudge that generation their Stones/Dylan/whatever that makes sense and irritates parents. -- Bernie Kellman, Mexico City

[A] Anyone who's really interested in my take on Eminem should find what The Believer called "The Slim Shady Essay," which is available on my site and also collected in Is It Still Good to Ya? It was assigned and paid for and then left hanging as a minibook by someone who'd been led to believe by the late Dave Hickey that I might write something worthy of his recommendation. But there was only one Dave Hickey, and it definitely wasn't me.

[Q] Hi Bob! Huge fan, even if (especially IF) we disagree on certain records because I'm a huge fan of getting an alternate viewpoint. A critic will never make me stop liking what I like, but a critic who can write well will ABSOLUTELY make me give something a second listen, and your reviews have certainly pushed me out of my gen-x, rockist comfort zone. I'll stop kissing ass now. That being said, are you ever tempted to revisit reviews based on the changing landscape of popular acclaim? For example, you gave Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea a solid "Meh," which (I say this as the target audience) is totally defensible (and not . . . too far off from other reviews at the time) but it's become kind of the Sgt Pepper's of people born between 1972-1987 (I picked those numbers out of my ass, and I'll stand by them). Is there an urge (or a responsibility) to re-review a record when its place in music history has shifted radically? No wrong answers! -- Matt, Boston

[A] I have tried to get into that admittedly beloved Neutral Milk Hotel album on at least three separate occasions. Many love it and are free to do so, yourself included. Not me. I'm older than you and would at this point in my life would almost always rather devote my ever-fleeting hours to something I like already.

[Q] Hi Bob, Any opinions on the lesser known Chess blues artist Jimmy Rogers? Of course, I play Muddy and the Wolf more but whenever I pull Chicago Bound or The Complete Chess Recordings off the shelf, I enjoy them just as much. Rogers' voice may not be as distinctive as Waters or Wolf but the same band rocks behind all those Chess records. I'm wondering if you consider any of his collections A-worthy. -- Phil, Columbia, Missouri

[A] I do like Rogers but have never explored him. The only incidentally Chess Elmore James's The Sky Is Crying, assembled by the late Robert Palmer for Rhino, is one of the great single-artist compilations, and see my other James reviews as well. I play Sonny Boy Williamson as much as Wolf or Waters myself. And original Alligator Records mainstay Hound Dog Taylor, who did do a few Chess singles as well.

[Q] Who's an A+ artist that never released an A+ album in your opinion? I'd guess James Brown or Chuck Berry, if you don't count best-ofs. -- Kyoko M., Orlando

[A] But I do count best-ofs. Why not? So pin The Shirelles' Greatest Hits up in there. And Tom Ze's Brazil Classics IV. Definitely Franco's Francophonic, both volumes. And note that when Blender did a GOAT thing, sometime in the '00s as I recall, it put none other than Madonna's Immaculate Collection at the top of the list. Plus, absolutely, the James Brown box Star Time.

[Q] I enjoyed and mostly agree with your semi-longform piece on the Stones and Hackney Diamonds. The career peaks you scan through highlight by omission the dilemma that "the world's greatest rock and roll band" has never made a great live album. I like The Brussels Affair more than you, the expanded version of Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out is better than the original single disc release, the various versions of Stripped are OK (and Liver Than You'll Ever Be sounds like mud) -- but none of them are great. It's not that they haven't tried, over and over. So why do you think The Rolling Stones don't have a great live album in their canon? -- Cam Patterson, Little Rock

[A] Just to check, I dug out and put on the Stones' 2017 On Air (Deluxe Edition) which collects mostly blues/r&b/ covers from their irrepressible youth. Stands in as a pretty good live album. Otherwise, point taken. For me, that's a so what. For . . . Allman Brothers fans, perhaps? . . . not necessarily.

[Q] Maybe this is not the proper forum. But I feel like you really dropped the ball in your review of Hothouse: The Complete Live at Massey Hall in your latest CG. Not in your score or your appraisal of the music, which is excellent, but in your consumer guidance per se. You noted that you already owned "large chunks" of this set, but not that you had already reviewed the entire set by the full quintet, available as The Quintet's Live at Massey Hall and which comprises disc one of Hothouse. Disc two of Hothouse is an entirely different recording (from what seems like a different night) of a piano trio, sans Diz and Bird. And disc three is the exact same set as disc one except this time with Mingus's overdubs in place. Live at Massey Hall is findable for about 15 dollars; Hothouse for about 75. Ignoring the marginally different disc 3, as you should, this means that disc 2's perfectly solid trio material, 7 songs including a four minute drum solo, will set you back about 60 dollars. -- Ronan Connelly, Boise, Idaho

[A] I dealt with these somewhat confusing options the way I did basically because Hot House is at the moment the most readily accessible version of this extraordinary night of music and I thought it sounded great. I saw little advantage in A&B-ing Mingus's willful revisions and the much more than adequate bass parts on the "live" Hot House. To me Hot House is clearly, for the nonce, the fullest sounding, the most coherent, and the most readily available version of this music. I'm really not interested in the kind of nitpicking in which so many jazz adepts love to indulge. Both records I've reviewed are fine. If you already have a Massey Hall album you can probably stick with it. If you're in the market for one now, Hot House is almost certain to be the most readily available, with the bass parts far more than adequate. Distinguishing among/between bass parts that seem fine to me just isn't my idea of what aesthetic acuity is for. The CD, which is what I have, goes for around 25 bucks at Amazon from what I can see.

January 17, 2024

And It Don't Stop.

Radiohead and the pitfalls of prog, an executive decision, the remarkable Ms. R, cannibalizing great songs, the uncollected Consumer Guide, and the varieties of musical experience.

[Q] Hi Robert, Long-time fan here. With the frightening advancements in AI and more dependence on interconnectivity than ever, do you believe that Radiohead's OK Computer is more impactful than you originally gave it credit for? It seems as though this album in particular is a shared favorite amongst Gen Z for these reasons as they grew up alongside rapid technological connectivity that this album so heavily preached against. You described the album as, "arid." Given the fact it has been able to transcend and grow to reflect a new generation who arguably enjoys it more than the one in which it came out in, would you still say that today? -- Quindarious, Flint, Michigan

[A] Just reread my OK Computer CG brief as well as listening to the thing again and failed to register the anti-computer preachments to which you refer, which doesn't mean they're not there--I've never found the band's lyrics compelling enough to follow religiously--but does likely mean that they're more pretentiously subtle than "heavily preached." My guess is that Thom Yorke, whose political activism and general sense of principle I very much admire, didn't intend anything as blatantly ideological as you suggest. I believe the band's popularity, which these days is better designated "status," is based much more on its prog aesthetic than on its progressive politics. To my way of thinking this is one of the pitfalls of what I'll just call art-rock, which actively rejects both the catchy hooks and the compelling groove of the rock and roll aesthetic I've championed for most of my life. Moreover, I believe that the band's rejection of that aesthetic in favor of more cerebral songwriting and subtle execution is, together with their enthusiastically received live shows, why their fans love them so--insofar as they still do, since their productivity has definitely flattened out in recent years.

[Q] Respectfully, what is your review of the full 22-track version of Pink Friday 2? -- Nicholas Wanhella, North Vancouver, BC

[A] In the wake of Minaj's confusingly variegated 2023 output I've made an executive decision that when an artist releases a new album in multiple versions, I'm only obliged to review one. In this case I did what I usually do--buy, with my own money, a physical from Amazon. The one that came in the mail and I wrote about didn't even have a booklet--just a square, almost info-free 4.7"X4.7" slip of paper. It got the level of attention I estimated it had earned. The album was good, but definitely an A minus rather than full A. My working assumption is that the "full 22-track version" is longer and quite possibly as good but very unlikely to be substantially better. I don't think Minaj is so iconic she merits the extra attention.

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