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.

July 20, 2022

And It Don't Stop.

Francophone bias, loving the '90s without loving grunge, quoting a misogynist without endorsing a misogynist, B sides, don't stop can't stop won't stop, and a few words from the estimable C.D.

[Q] Hi Bob, hope you and Carola are doing well, back here with another question: is there any reason why you've never reviewed Jacques Brel? To me at least he seems to be one of the major artists of the 20th century and one of the greatest live-performers, aside from being a vocal powerhouse. Please don't tell me that's just my Belgian bias. -- Arthur Hendrikx, Brussels, Vlaams-Brabant, Belgium

[A] It's not your Belgian bias, it's your Francophone bias, only calling it a bias would diminish it egregiously--that's not a bias, it's a power or capability. You speak French, but though I can read a little French when necessary, I can't hear it. So while my wife's great ear extends to foreign languages, not just French but also Spanish and even once when we were lost south of Rome Italian, I can't begin to hear Brel's lyrics. Hence I've never even played her Brel because I've tried a few times and know I don't get him. In French chanson especially, this is a major deficit, because French chanson is more logocentric than any other popular music I'm aware of. I have little doubt he's the titan you say he is--certainly his reputation is absolutely tops. But not in my physical and hence intellectual experience.

[Q] Why do you hate grunge and early '90s music in general? The only alternative artist that you've bestowed an A rating on is Nirvana, which of course is not controversial. Does this stem from being a crotchety old man by the time the Gen Xers began to take over the content or is it more related to being a New York hipster who predictably favours the children of the CBGB scene? I think it's time to give credit where it is long overdue. -- KG, Oslo

[A] I certainly don't hate early '90s music. Skipping hip-hop and for purposes of argument overlooking snobby New Yorkers like Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo, how about Pavement, PJ Harvey, Archers of Loaf, Los Lobos/Latin Playboys, Liz Phair, L7, the Chills, My Bloody Valentine, Hole, the Pixies? True, there are many wimmin in there, not to mention, ulp, Latinos. "Early '90s" they all were, however. As for grunge, I don't hate it, I just don't like it that much, which is different--it tends too dark, too melodramatic, and even so I was always OK with the grunge-adjacent Pearl Jam. But as I put it in my Lenny Kaye review a few months ago: Seattle was "an overcast burg with a 'metal undercurrent' and more heroin ODs than a primal animal can stand." I had many good times there when it was the home of the pop conference. But I'll never love the Melvins.

[Q] Will you be reviewing the Harry Smith B-sides box set that came out in late 2020? Although it's certainly an historic archival release, I question its playability as compared to the canonical Anthology of American Folk Music which got a rare A+ from you. If you've played it through a few times, I'd be curious how you enjoyed it. Thanks. -- Chris, New York City

[A] I bought it, for big shekels, and played it several times without ever being moved to write about it. I may yet, of course. But its word-of-mouth in my tiny corner of the musical universe is nothing special. They don't call 'em B sides for nothing.

[Q] I have been a fan of your music criticism for decades. As a pro-life political conservative (with libertarian leanings on immigration), I don't expect to agree with hardly anything you say about politics, but I do expect you to have some awareness of the facts. Your slam at Justice Alito for citing Matthew Hale in your Lookback is incredibly ignorant. As many have pointed out, liberal justices whom I assume you would never accuse of tolerating misogyny have cited Hale quite recently. A lot of his views are unacceptable to many people today. I am confident your advocacy of unrestricted abortion on demand will be regarded by virtually everyone as barbaric in the not-too-distant future. But in that future, it would be stupid to assume that, because of your grave errors on certain topics, you shouldn't be cited about any matter. -- Stan Greer, Fairfax, Virginia

[A] That a few of what I presume is the usual phalanx of radical-right disinformation warriors have spread the news that the likes of Justice Kagan has been known to cite the same prominent 18th century British misogynist jurist Alito quotes in his barbaric abortion decision doesn't mean she was endorsing said misogynist. It means that Kagan is doing what debaters do: saying "See, even this famous 18th-century proto-ultracon agrees with me, so why don't apprentice proto-ultracons like Brett and Clarence do the same?" She's pretty sure it won't work, but anything is worth a try and maybe she'll even make them so mad they'll flash their dicks and she can snap a quick pic and get them in trouble. FWIW, as the boyfriend of organizer Ellen Willis I attended the inaugural March 1969 abortion speakout at Washington Square Methodist Church (without, you bet, opening my mouth). A month or so later I helped Willis sign out a young woman who'd recently had an abortion from Bellevue, where a young internist with an Italian surname fought to detain her, presumably until he could get her in trouble with the law. Willis prevailed--she was tough. The woman slept on our couch that night and was fine next morning. Researching Going Into the City, I found in my files a sheet of yellow paper listing doctors who'd do abortions in the Northeast. I know many women who've had abortions. As it happens, every one my wife and I could think of also raised children and did a great job of it too.

[Q] Given your Substack title And It Don't Stop, what's your favourite "don't stop" song? "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough"? Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop"? "Don't Stop Believing"? "Don't Stop Me Now"? Just a silly little question. -- Liam, Johannesburg, South Africa

[A] "And it don't stop" was an early hip-hop usage--a rhythmic device, a kind of readymade early rappers used to pull out to keep the beat going until they figured out what should come next. Raquel Cepeda once called an anthology of hip-hop journalism she put together And It Don't Stop. Both those things said, however, "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough" is very much my favorite Michael Jackson track and always has been--it's quite the thematic title, after all. So when Kit Rachlis, Tom Carson, and Jeff Salamon assembled a festschrift for my 60th birthday, that's what they called it. Still for sale at my site.

[Q] I'm going to follow up on last month's Xgau Sez reply to the question about taste differences between Bob and his wife Carola, who is me. At the time he wrote his answer, I was not in a mood to pin down what I thought Bob got wrong but afterwards found it bugged me, so I'd like to get this straight. Bob pointed out that I like singer-songwriters less than he does, explaining that I respond more to music than lyrics, which he connected to my musical training. I don't think four years of piano lessons in elementary school did this to me. I think I just crave something I'm more likely to find in bands or groups, not just sound and beat and danceability but attitude--fuck you, don't let them get you down, hallelujah I'm a bum. And I get something from the group identity. When I hear Parquet Courts, who project some kind of political alertness, I feel like I'm part of something, but even an idea-free group like Chai fills a space no individual could. (It's true some singer-songwriters do these things too. I'm thinking Todd Snider.) Bob and I have our arguments but rarely about music. I can't even think of anything he likes that I hate. But he has his own rules for listening--he has to like all the cuts on a record to give it an A, and I will love a record based on the lead cut. Of Bob's recent A's, I've gone for the Ukrainian band Selo i Ludy and that South African dance record from DJ Maphorisa. Thanks, Erin, who wrote the original question, for remembering my old Go-Betweens review and for reminding us to relisten to the sweet and soaring sounds of Aztec Camera, what a treat. Here's another modest piece I'm proud of: "Esther Phillips With a Twist." -- Carola Dibbell, New York City

[A] When Carola told me she was going to write this I told her I had the perfect riposte: "Yes dear." But as usual she worked so hard on it she took the wise guy right out of me. So I'll just say that four years of piano lessons puts her well out of my league in itself--after all these years my formal knowledge of music is still approximately zero. And I'll add as well that that Esther Phillips piece is a winner. But then, they pretty much all are.

June 15, 2022

And It Don't Stop.

Standing by some old judgments; grade-grubbing Nas, Al Green, and A Tribe Called Quest; appreciating Billy Joel's attention to prose; and an encomium to the estimable C.D.

[Q] I ask this with respect for your intellectual and emotional engagement with records and artists of all stripes across many decades (including my beloved Wussy), and as a muso who excitedly read and re-read your Pazz & Jop essays and your Rock & Roll & columns in the Voice: Do your casual judgments of '70s Soul artists like Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway, and Roberta Flack ever bother you in retrospect? Not so much the assessment of the music as the way you frame it--like Betty Davis as "the most overstated cartoon sex since Angelfood McSpade"? (Yes, I'm very familiar with the RL Crumb comics.) Particularly in light of the way Black American history has played out across the past several decades, isn't there something a little "crime," as my kids would say, about the white male Dean sitting in such casual, sometimes cruel, judgment of Black artists? -- Pete Cenedella, South Orange, New Jersey

[A] I'm certainly aware of this issue. But that doesn't mean I feel any shame or guilt about what I wrote. My attitude in the '70s and '80s, after which I stopped writing as many pans as I had though the Turkey Shoots could be pretty insulting, was that it was my job to review all of popular music, including much more black music (which I'd now call Black because I recognize and affirm that that usage has changed) than any other generalist except Dave Marsh, because as I've written many times, almost all American pop music, especially post-1900, is part-African. But since I was often pointed and jocular about white rock, I saw no reason why I should treat Black music any differently--these too were commercially ambitious artists trying to sell their music to anyone with the shekels, and to protect them from barbs, to pretend that they were incapable of the same kind of failures of concept and execution that white musicians were, or that they didn't sometimes grind out ordinary or weak product in hopes of selling it anyway, would be more condescending than disrespectful. As I keep saying, we like what we like, period. These days, when the Consumer Guide no longer makes any pretense to completism, I'm free to ignore both self-importance (no point getting in trouble by naming any offender here) and offensive content (the sexism and brutality that continue to be currencies in some of the hip-hop I don't go for) of a lot of music I long ago might have felt obliged to pan. But I still think that Curtis Mayfield stretched himself way too thin and that Betty Davis was and remains overrated. I'm still bored by Hathaway and Flack. Nor are any of those judgments "casual"--they're examined and ear-tested and and thought through. And by the way, I make it a principle not to censor myself--or simply avoid criticism--by removing anything I've published from my site even if I have regrets about it in retrospect.

[Q] Hi again, Bob. Hope you're well. I ran across an article from January in the Atlantic, which was embedded in an article about the somewhat marginal Jack White and wondered if you'd read it, and if you had thoughts. The premise, statistically supported right or wrong, is that nobody listens to new stuff anymore; that the marketplace is deliberately stagnated by corporate types; that we should want to break out of that and maybe we will. It posits some theories about why everyone is just content to listen to Police songs and have zero interest in further expansion. You're the guy who never stops searching--so, thoughts? Is it that there's just too much stuff?? Thanks. -- David Poindexter, Illinois

[A] I value the Atlantic because it does some of the best political reporting and analysis in America, not because I pay much mind to its music coverage. Ted Gioia, who wrote the article you refer to, is a music historian of impressive breadth and appetite whose intellectual acuity is nothing special and whose heart is with jazz--see this review of one of his recent books that I wrote for the LA Times. To me it seems as if the stats he cites have a much simpler and less momentous explanation. First, people listen to more older music because every year there's more of it. In addition, the way these things are categorized relatively recent albums are classified as catalog -- almost all of all of streaming champ Taylor Swift's 12 albums qualify as old music. Electrical recording is now just under a century old; what we might call hi-fi dates back to the rise of the LP circa 1948; pop became a "billion-dollar business" with the profusion of new product that boom generated circa 1971; crucially, digitization and then streaming made more music more available early in this century. There's no question that recording artists' revenues are down and will probably stay that way, so that most musicians will need to make their living on the road as they did through most of history. Whether that means that young consumers are hearing or indeed caring about less new music now than in say 2000 is another question altogether. Moreover, that older consumers are still listening to the music they grew up loving seems completely natural even if I get more sustenance myself by mixing in a lot of new stuff. And two more things. One, Gioia pays almost no attention whatsoever to hip-hop or dance music, both of which tend more innovative. And while he is especially interested in the venture capital the major labels put into new music, what I find significant is that music can now be recorded so cheaply and distributed so freely that a substantial chunk of what shows up in the Consumer Guide is DIY or close to it--stuff I learn about via various grapevines and online journalism.

[Q] After reading in your Lookback piece that you voted for A Tribe Called Quest for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this year (good on ya), I was wondering if you'd re-assessed their '90s classic The Low End Theory? I generally agree with your ratings, or at least can see where you're coming from, but that one only being an honorable mention I've never understood. I love every track on the thing, it's got some of Q-Tip's and Phife Dawg's best verses ("float like gravity, never had a cavity" is my favorite ever nonsense rap boast), and it builds to a splendid climax with "Scenario." A plus by me. -- Oliver Hollander, UK

[A] I've been playing TCQ a fair amount since reading Dan Charnas's J. Dilla bio and certainly agree that Low End Theory is more than an Honorable Mention, but back to back I still prefer their de facto postscript cum summum, the relatively slept-on 2016 We Got It From Here. So let's just make it an A for the time being, OK?

[Q] Hi Bob, hope you're doing well. Any reason why you didn't review the last three Nas albums? King's Disease II in particular was really good (he sounds more focused than ever since Illmatic), I'd love to know your opinion. Also: still no regrets about not giving Illmatic an A plus? With every new year that album sounds more like an A plus to me (and a lot of other people). Even a principled vulgarian such as yourself should hear that! And the same goes for Enter the Wu-Tang; if that's not a A plus I don't know what is. -- Arthur Hendrikx, Brussels, Belgium

[A] Actually, I did review two recent Nas albums in February, subscriber-only of course. There was a third I thought negligible and skipped, as I have many others--thinks a lot of himself, does Nas. As for Illmatic, A not A plus for me pretty sure. Since getting into the Wu-Tang Clan due to their Hulu bioseries I've been meaning to replay their debut album. Would be surprised if it didn't sound like a full A. Would also be surprised if I thought it was an A plus.

Nas: King's Disease (Mass Appeal '20) Showcasing the powers, pleasures, responsibilities, contradictions, and elephantiasis of the ego that accrue to so many hip-hop tycoons ("Car #85," "10 Points") *

Nas: King's Disease II (Mass Appeal) Many hip-hop fans of a certain age consider Nasir Jones's 1994 debut Illmatic hip-hop's greatest album, and for sure the Honorable Mention I gave it in 1994 was way low. There was a leanness to his flow and timbre back then that the Pete Rock/Large Professor/Premier production honored and enhanced, and I admire how matter-of-factly unmoralistic lyrics from the Queensbridge Houses come to a proper climax with "Represent" and "It Ain't Hard to Tell." But that honest broker went what we'll call conscious gangsta with the thuggier I Am . . . and didn't regain his more humane voice until the mid 2000s trilogy Street's Disciple/Hip Hop Is Dead/Untitled--a voice that hasn't been approached again till this follow-up to its crasser namesake. I know I'm showing my age when I say EPMD, Lauryn Hill, and Eminem make it better and Lil Baby doesn't. But if you suspect I could be right let me remind you that backloading the humane stuff is an old hip-hop trick: "Composure," "My Bible," and "Nas Is Good" provide relief at the end. And oh yeah--the bottom falls out on the so-called Magic he released just four months later, summed up by this Insecure Verse: "You're top three, I'm number one, how could you say that?" B PLUS

[Q] I'll bet you're tired of grade grubbers but it's driving me insane that I'm Still In Love With You is still an A minus even though you've put it in the same tier as Call Me. You had no problem with changing the grades for Call Me and Al Green Is Love so why not ISILWY? If ever there was an A plus album it's this. Thank you. -- Ted Fullwood, San Jose

[A] I'm Still in Love With You is certainly an A not an A minus, and I can see making it an A plus. But note that the closing tracks that expand the CD version, "I Think It's for the Feeling" and "Up Above My Head," are both weak.

[Q] Do you have a favorite reaction from an artist to your negative review? -- Dario, Croatia

[A] Billy Joel reading or reciting a portion of my measured pan of I don't remember what from the Madison Square Garden stage, assuming it actually happened that way--eyewitness accounts vary and memories do fade. Maybe he just named me, which would also be cool, but less so. Having my prose trumpeted to his masses would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. (BTW, I gave his GH 1 & 2 an A minus. What a crybaby.)

[Q] Sometimes I think about Carola's uniquely effusive fondness for groups like Aztec Camera, or your shared adoration of Pretzel Logic-era Steely Dan. Or how she casually wrote the greatest-ever concert review of the Go-Betweens. Speaking as half of a great team, what do you consider your greatest distinctions--differences, I mean--as critics and listeners? -- Erin, Austin, Texas

[A] First of all, how did you know she liked Aztec Camera? Did she write about them and I lost it? But you're right, she does, and definitely still did when your note gave me the idea of pulling it out recently. The biggest difference between us, I guess, is that her formal knowledge of music exceeds mine, which is one reason I respond more readily to singer-songwriters than she does--music as mere accompaniment to words she's not necessarily focusing on doesn't grab her. The other big difference, critically, is that she writes very, very slowly--that Go-Betweens review may look casual, but I guarantee without recalling any details that it was hard to write. One reason I assigned her Riffs is that I figured correctly that deadline pressure would speed her up. But one reason my successors in the editor's chair assigned her pieces is that the results were invariably great and sui generis. A lot of her best music writing--cf. Go-Betweens, right, but also Cornershop, Latin Playboys, Fleetwood Mac, Guinness Fleadh, Reed/Smith, Steely Dan, Oumou Sangare, "Inside Was Us," just to name stuff off the top of my head--was done post-1990. (All can be found on her site.) And then she got her teeth into The Only Ones and that was that for rock criticism except insofar as she remains my chief musical advisor, ahead even of Joe Levy. Usually I play archival stuff at meals, including a lot of jazz, though after I got her to read Charles Shaar Murray's John Lee Hooker bio Boogie Man blues also became a deal--she was a bigger Hanging Tree Guitars fan than I was. But as deadline approaches I have permission to play "work music" and often sneak in stuff I want to know if she notices, whereupon I pick her brain and invariably learn something, often musical angles or details I hadn't brought to the surface.

May 18, 2022

And It Don't Stop.

Spreading out from NYC, Pulitzer to pop: drop dead, reviews not on the road to ruin, impressed by David Crosby (sorta), abundance and multiplicity vs. marginal differentiation, and wedding playlists.

[Q] Hi Bob, thank you for your many years of delighted, curious, knowing, sensitive music writing; I can't say enough about how much your criticism and alertness to pleasure has taught me. I was struck recently by this sentence in your A+ review The Rough Guide to Youssou N'Dour & Etoile de Dakar: "Maybe somewhere there was more exciting music circa 1980--punk L.A.? soukous Montreuil? hip-hop South Bronx? But don't bet on it." This hypothetical made me wonder: are there any periods and communities of musical ferment you wish you could have been personally present for, as you've been present for so many in New York? Years when a venue or a whole neighborhood or city felt alive with energy, history-being made? If you could revisit a cultural community or musical moment from the past--Dakar 1980, Kingston in 1967, Brazil in 1972--which do you think you would most joyfully choose? -- Jay Thompson, Seattle

[A] An interesting question that within a minute alerted me to two key facts. One, I write as a New Yorker, the best music city in the world during my lifetime. Second, ultimately I'm a record man, not a scene man. I'm intensely grateful I got to witness NYC punk close up plus been here for the very dawn of hip-hop plus disco at a distance and indeed the Monk-and-Coltrane jazz of the early '60s. And I'm also grateful to have covered other "scenes" journalistically: Monterey and the Summer of Love, Kingston in 1973 for Newsday, punk England for the Voice 1977, Akron for Pete's sake. Resided for eight months or so in both Chicago (Muddy Waters 1963!) and L.A. But I'm glad I'm such a New Yorker--it grounds me. And I'm glad too I've made album reviews my specialty, because strictly aural immersion in various regional musics has situated me virtually in Soweto and Dakar (though I'm also glad I've visited Africa twice), New Orleans and Seattle (both of which I've also visited more than once). I'm glad I've been so spread out. Because that spread is the most enlarging thing about music of all.

[Q] I recently came across the Wikipedia page for the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, which lists every winner since the award's inception in 1970. I may be mistaken, but it appears the award has never been given to a critic of non-classical music. Do you feel that rock/popular music has been unfairly overlooked by the Pulitzer Prize board? Are there any music critics you feel are particularly deserving of a Pultizer? -- Omar, Texas

[A] Sure, but what else is new? I'm always pleased when my paper or a pal or even acquaintance gets a Pulitzer or comes close, as has happened a few times--it's good for their professional autonomy and their pocketbooks. Sometimes too a Pulitzer will have a progressive political effect. But the kind of journalists I hang out with don't take the Pulitzer that seriously--it's quintessential stuffed-shirt stuff. (I notice Pauline Kael got shut out, which is disgraceful even though the '70s weren't her best decade.) In my world the critic most unfairly shut out would have to be the great jazz-plus specialist (and my longtime colleague and friend) Gary Giddins, a dynamo of enormous range and productivity.

[Q] I have to wonder why your reviews about MJ were so consistently negative and demeaning. Could it be perhaps be that the most famous and popular artist made you, someone who had to write about him in newspaper, jealous? Oh likely not. Well regardless of how many albums you downplayed (sentiments that ruined his life), every single album is on the top 50 best selling list, including the best seller (Thriller), and two others in the top 15 (Bad and Dangerous). In addition to the biggest music tours of the 20th century and being the most popular artist ever. I'll never understand the critics. -- Ahmed

[A] I only reprint this benighted question--"consistently negative and demeaning" for reviews that include three A's and two more A minuses, for instance--to highlight the benighted notion that bad reviews ruined MJ's life. Reviews very seldom ruin artists' lives, and don't believe they have without plenty of corroborating evidence. Fact is, I very much doubt MJ ever read a word of mine in his life. Instead his ruin began with his abusive father, systematic mistreatment that was likely transmogrified into his own fucked up and very likely abusive sex life. None of which in my opinion diminishes the artistic value of his music, though it does make it harder to get with emotionally.

[Q] Hey Bob, just sending in a silly music question while off work recovering from the plague. I'm curious to hear your thoughts on the public rehabilitation of David Crosby. In recent years he's gone back on the road, had a fairly sympathetic documentary released, and emerged on Twitter as a sort of curmudgeonly hippie grandpa, readily offering hot takes on other musicians of his day. It would appear that in the process, he's managed to shift his public perception from being a punchline to perhaps almost a respected elder statesman of rock 'n' roll. Do we all just naturally soften to figures from a previous era as they age and fewer of them remain? And while we're on the topic, I was always curious about your review of Remember My Name, where you advertised a competition for readers to "Rename David Crosby" -- were there any good entries? Did anyone win? -- Kevin, Dublin Ireland

[A] Writing about Déjà Vu, a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young doc about Neil's CSNY Living With War documentary, for Film Comment, I found all three fifth wheels more likable than I once had. I was especially impressed by Stills, who electioneered for the Dems in his spare time. But I was also impressed by Crosby: "Older, wiser, and off crack, Crosby explains: 'CSNY is not a democracy. It's a dictatorship, a benevolent dictatorship. Neil is in charge not because he demands it. It's not because he bosses people around. It's because he thinks about this stuff All. The. Time.'" And in general Crosby too has been vocal politically, which I admire. But his supposed comeback album, 2021's For Free, lost me after one-and-a-half plays. Feel better. (P.S. I am highly unlikely to recall any response to second-rate jokes I concocted half a century ago.)

[Q] Not a question, but just one of no doubt too many lists of personal-favorite Neil Young albums, you'll be receiving. My #1 is Re*ac*tor which I--and practically no one else, including you--have loved with a passion for 40 years now. #2 Decade, which sums up his career brilliantly, and doesn't really replace Everybody Knows . . . , After the Gold Rush, Harvest, On the Beach, etc., but makes the list easier to make. #3 Way Down in the Rust Bucket, which stands in for all his great double lives (second only to James Brown). Each has its own special attractions. #4 Harvest Moon #5 Rust Never Sleeps #6 Americana #7 Tonight's the Night #8 Living with War #9 Mirror Ball #10 Trans. I hope someday you get around to rating all these 21st-century releases from the vaults, which are bewilderingly tough to keep track of. It would be a valuable service. -- Ken Stillman, Columbus, Ohio

[A] Not a bad top 10, though any truly accurate good one on my part would require more relistening than I will ever have time for--for business or pleasure, there's just too much other music to listen to and will be till the day I die. Which goes approximately tenfold for the vault releases, about which I have a far less indulgent attitude than you do. Egomaniacal profit takers is the short of it, and the same goes for all the Stones outtakes digging and Dylan arcana and to a lesser extent Beatles remasters and for that matter reconstituted jazz geniuses. If mad fans and specialists care so much about an individual artist they want to delve into one or more of these options, they're welcome to do so. I did it with that fine Monk in Palo Alto thing myself. But what I treasure most about the music I've devoted my life to is its abundance and multiplicity, not its marginally differentiatable manifestations of individual genius. Will there be an exception or two sometime in my future? Perhaps a serendipitous one, like via some especially compelling word-of-mouth or special request. But in principle I don't care.

[Q] I'm going to marry soon. What are some songs you think would be great for a marriage playlist? -- Xo, Paris, France

[A] The best songs for any wedding playlist, assuming music has been an important part of the couple's lives, are those they arrive at themselves. Brainstorm; replay stuff; keep a list. That said, however, I can name a few that seem relatively universal to me: Chuck Berry's "You Never Can Tell," Al Green's "Let's Get Married," and the Beach Boys' "Darlin'," although that's a more subjective call. Listen hard to Brad Paisley's "Then," as good a marriage lyric as I've ever heard, and see if it moves you. Others that come to mind are chancier. Etta James's version of Otis Redding's "Cigarettes and Coffee," for instance, has become a favorite in this household, but cigarettes being the noxious things they are could well seem beyond the pale in your case. Thelonious Monk's take on "Tea for Two" is great only if you're familiar with the simplistic "Tea for two/And me for you" ditty it simultaneously celebrates and deconstructs. And Kate & Anna McGarrigle's "Walking Song" carries with it the pall of the marriage it references, which is a major reason it's the only love song Kate ever wrote.

March 16, 2022

And It Don't Stop.

On not grading on a curve, not loving Nina Simone, not pledging unqualified fealty to Bruce Springsteen, & not finding fun in fascism, Kid Rock, or Kanye West. Plus: the story of Nirvana's "Bluebaby."

[Q] Thank you for all your great work. It has increased the pleasure I take from music. My question: do you sometimes grade, even a little bit, on a curve? For example, you recently said that you'd give Beggars Banquet an A. Is that partly because it sits behind other albums by the same band, and you want your marks to reflect that? It seems to me that if Beggars Banquet were subtracted from the world, that would be a bigger loss than the subtraction of any number of other records you've graded as A+, and I imagine you might agree. But no doubt there are also better Stones albums, and if A+ is the highest grade you give, maybe you feel that some separation is lost if all their classic albums get bunched together under that heading. Thank you for any comment. -- Henry Baskerville, New York City

[A] That is not the way it works for me. I decided Beggars Banquet was worth a full A because I sat there with Carola with both of us saying, "Holy shit, that one" as familiar classic we hadn't heard in a while followed familiar classic we hadn't heard in a while. Context and oeuvre had nothing to do with these responses and in principle never should. For the same reason there is no A plus album I think better subtracted from the world than any A album. But to be clear that's the world and this response is mine and mine alone, so instead of "the" world it should probably be "my" world. Moreover, there pretty much have to be some albums currently graded A that should be A plus--quite a few, conceivably. The one I always think of is Wussy's Funeral Dress. Nor is it impossible to imagine hearing an A plus and deciding it's only an A. But only insofar as it's a good use of ear time to make such judgments every time you play something. I try not to. Makes the fun too much like work.

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