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.

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.

[Q] Hi Bob, with Guts already my most played album in years and Olivia Rodrigo just about my favourite artist on the planet, I wondered if you'd care to expand a little on your two glowing capsule reviews. Just how good/great do you currently rate her? Think she can keep this going? Planning on seeing her live in 2024? -- Trevor Minter, Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex, United Kingdom

[A] With an artist as gifted as Rodrigo, predicting the future is difficult to impossible, although it is worth noting, as she does in the notes to Guts, that she works with an experienced collaborator named Daniel Nigro who it's safe to assume transformed at least a few good songs into great ones. Also worth remembering is that thus far she's been free to write as something approaching what she is: a remarkable young woman whose professional life and love life are both bound to become more complicated, with who knows what effect on the songs she writes except that just because the writing has been so consistent up till now a few unresolved twists and complication or for that matter some sort of satisfactory resolution or turmoil in her romantic interpersonals likely awaits her, with unpredictable effects on her art itself--although just because she's so talented it's not at all impossible that her next bunch of songs at least will be more complex and unexpected than is within our power to anticipate.

[Q] What's your gut reaction when you hear a well-known song or artist being used to sell a commercial product? Is this practice simply morally wrong, or are there examples of positive synergy? -- Andrew Maslar, Baltimore

[A] As a general matter, there's nothing morally wrong about cannibalizing a great song for a commercial, and yes I said cannibalizing. A lot of musicians feel they don't get paid enough for their work, and many of them have a point. So I don't even think twice about it, which may be why I can't even cite a relatively offensive example. A gravity knife? A Kid Rock Trump anthem? A conspicuously pricey timepiece? An AK-47? Some oxygen-sucking SUV I can't even name?

[Q] Hi, Bob! I love your work--own all your books, but still find myself using your huge website a lot even though I own it all in print. It's addictive. I wonder if you could comment on your decision-making about putting so much of your work online for free. Do you think it has hurt total book sales? Helped them on balance? It's an interesting choice that I imagine many authors have to think about. -- Henry, Brooklyn

[A] Critics do not make meaningful money from their books if they're lucky enough to have a few, and this applies especially to criticism per se--bios and to a lesser extent historical studies are somewhat different. Also, like all writers critics want to be read, to have their carefully honed analyses and opinions be a part of public discourse so that guys like you can share them or elaborate them. Hence I didn't think twice when my old friend and in some respects protege Tom Hull made the tremendously generous offer to create a website for me back in 2001, which I should mention now includes 24 years of Consumer Guides that have never achieved book form. If he hadn't, and if Wikipedia hadn't gleefully cited and sometimes cannibalized it, I wouldn't be making a remarkably decent living on Substack, which at least for the nonce I am. A fulltime writer at 81. I'm very fortunate.

[Q] First of all, thank you very much for your concise and precise writing. My question concerns the relationship of this writing (and the research that fuels it) and your enjoyment of the music you critique. I am an academic who writes on cultural production--thus far, primarily comics, though I am beginning to branch out into music (primarily classical). I find my close engagement with a work (perhaps a piece of music or an album), through research, close listening, etc., to have a significant effect on how I listen to/hear it. This effect is neither clearly negative nor positive, but rather more complicated. What are your thoughts on this relationship? A related follow-up: Are there albums you hesitate to listen to closely for fear that this attention will significantly (and perhaps irreversibly) change how you experience them? -- John Benjamin, Nanuet, New York

[A] I think my most important gift as a critic is how intensely, variously, and most important voraciously I respond to music. That said, it's far more common for such responses to be enhanced and intensified by analyzing and listening critically, a process generally jump-started by what begins as more casual or incidental enjoyment. But the opposite certainly happens sometimes--I come to realize that I've been attracted only to a single song or two, or even that I've gotten tired of or seen through the track that initially pulled me in.

December 20, 2023

And It Don't Stop.

An implausible hypothetical briefly considered; Taylor's rerecordings, same; PJ Harvey and the two tests; tips welcome; a jazz starter kit for toddlers; CDs welcome.

[Q] Quick one: If your 20 favorite artists formed a committee and announced their support for Donald Trump in 2024 (whatever their reasons, w/chaos being an acceptable reason), would you continue to listen/support them? -- Liam, California

[A] This is a hypothetical so implausible--forget Trump, what about "formed a committee"?--that it's not worth answering except to point that out. I suppose you could posit a situation in which his opponent was heinous in some way, but whatever the Dems' limitations that's not plausible either. And in any case, my politics are my own, which doesn't mean they won't inevitably be affected by the neverending flow of new information that can come from anyone. I read more about politics online than I do about music.

[Q] In light of Taylor Swift's nomination as the Time Magazine Person of the Year, I was curious as to your thoughts on her decision to rerecord her first six albums. What are your feelings about this significant action? -- Brad Morosan, London, Ontario

[A] Only occasionally do I even listen to rerecordings or remasters, and almost never do I write about them. These niceties may well matter to the artists, but they're also profit-takers pure and simple that tend so marginal aesthetically that except in jazz, where improvisation counts for so much, I just feel like I have better things to do with ears that work 12-18 hours a day. Maybe what I assume about Swift is obvious; maybe it's even public knowledge. I just haven't cared enough to poke around about it. But I assume that her primary reason for those rerecordings is economic, not artistic--a way to combat the sale of her catalog out from under her nose. But I will also say that having raved about her as long ago as 2008's Fearless, I personally have found Swift's recent songs of solid quality but at the same time somewhat more predictable and/or fame-specific, hence less than compelling.

[Q] Being a PJ Harvey fan since I first read about her in your reviews, I was very curious to know your thoughts about her latest album which came out in July this year. So when the December Consumer Guide came out and there was still no review of it, I started wondering if you were even aware of its release, or maybe you had listened to it but didn't consider it good enough (or interesting enough) to dedicate a review to. If that's the case, even with artists who you previously covered and showed appreciation for, I wanted to ask what's your criterion (if there is one of course) for deciding not to review an album. Also, in that regard, Paul Simon's latest album comes to mind, especially since you mentioned in a previous Xgau Sez that you were going to listen to it. -- Gaetano, Siena, Italy

[A] I've streamed the new PJ maybe four-five times, which isn't to claim front-to-back by the way, without feeling inclined to forget about it quite yet. But that's mainly because I respect the artist as much as I do. This is PJ Harvey, after all. That said, so far it hasn't passed either of my two tests: 1) Do I want to play it again just to hear it? 2) Am I ever actively and consciously enjoying what I'm hearing on some purely aesthetic level? Not as of now. The Simon, which I purchased on the grounds that it was Paul Simon after all, failed both tests, so I'm not reviewing it. I'm giving PJ the month off and will check it out again before January is over.

[Q] How do you decide which albums you want to listen to? I imagine there are artists where you listen to their new music automatically, based on their fame or their track record. What about new ones, or those you haven't kept up with before? -- Jamie, Texas

[A] I read a lot of reviews and hear many more albums than I write about. I also have advisors de facto or otherwise--my editor Joe Levy most of all, after that my sister Georgia and my daughter Nina and my webmaster Tom Hull. But I talk music with most of the people I know and will take a likely-sounding tip from anyone.

[Q] My son is just about two years old and I have been slowly feeding him a diet of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Bob Seger, Knopfler (both Mark and David), Warren Zevon (who I discovered owing to your blog) and Gordon Lightfoot. He is showing a clear inclination towards them and I'd like to introduce some jazz into the mix too. Being a jazz novice (and musically illiterate) where should I start him? -- Abhinav Arora, India

[A] Louis Armstrong's 16 Most Requested Songs. Later, Kind of Blue. Maybe Dave Brubeck's Jazz Goes to College. And jazz aside, by all means get him started on the Beatles. Sgt. Pepper, why not?

[Q] After decades of fielding promos, along with whatever you've acquired on your own, how do you manage your physical collection inside of a 21st century NYC? And are you happier now that most review content is sent digitally? -- Joe Siiva, Atlanta

[A] With insufficient space and ever-increasing difficulty. Any intellectual my age has to start pondering how to dispose of his library, but usually those faced with that ever-expanding dilemma aren't also working full-time. I am. That said, it's high on my to-do list and may even be something I want to write about. And I should add that as I've indicated before here, I much prefer physicals, especially CDs--in part because they're simple to stick a bunch in a changer for an informal compare-and-contrast but also because, just as with e-books versus printed books, I find listening to streamed music different psychologically from putting CDs in a changer. In both cases I'm old enough to be somewhat disoriented by its lack of materiality.

November 15, 2023

And It Don't Stop.

Therapy, the Vandellas vs. the Supremes vs. the Marvelettes, Wilco (The Reviews), the listening method, the Kennedys then and now, and Pazz & Jop motivations.

[Q] Have you ever done psychiatric or psychological therapy? Do you perceive the ongoing concern for mental health and well-being with some degree of generational skepticism and distance or is it a welcome change from what I perceive may have been a diminished interest in the topic during your youth? Would you rather there be more political interest in today's artists (not that they're mutually exclusive), could "mental health" be code for selfishness or is that too cynical a view? Am I simply ignoring the fact that it's nothing new and you saw it being dealt with lots back in the day? -- David, Calgary, Alberta

[A] I don't know enough young people to comment on how much therapy they do except to wonder how they pay for it. Maybe things are different in socialized Canada, but here in NYC it can cost plenty. That said, I know plenty of people who've done therapy, count one therapist an old friend, and have written about my own experiences with therapy in Going Into the City. One shrink played a minor but key role in my decision to set my sights on a relationship with none other than Carola Dibbell, while another was in our lives when Carola and I had a crisis in 1980 and certainly did me more good than the marriage counselor we consulted did the two of us. Then again, the NYU-linked therapist Carola consulted for free in the early '70s was such a key figure in her life that he's the focus of her strange, poignant, funny, highly recommended short story "Surviving Death." Carola gets free counseling as part of her so far successful treatment for multiple myeloma and also consults a therapist who specializes in counseling writers who gets a thank you she deserves in the acknowledgments to The Only Ones.

[Q] Hello Mr. Christgau, I recently checked out Martha & the Vandellas' The Definitive Collection and had my mind blown by the extended mix of "Heat Wave," where the Vandellas' feverish "burning, burning, burning" cheers Martha on as she pushes the song into a new emotional peak. After that I looked into their history more and found after Motown shifted its focus and resources to Diana Ross (and the Supremes) they seemed to stop getting material from its first-string songwriters/production teams; at least the Marvelettes had Smokey Robinson writing a few more indelible classics for them. And while the Supremes were commercially irrefutable, I couldn't help but think with the same support and resources they got Martha or The Marvelettes could've done just as well, what do you make of this? -- Clement Lin, China

[A] I do not own The Definitive Collection but wasn't wildly impressed by the not-all-that-extended "Heat Wave" when I found it on Spotify, which is too bad because Carola adores "Heat Wave," which appeared around when she was beginning her sophomore year in college and--along with the Beatles, natch--reconverted her to rock and roll. (She had a jazz phase that has served her well for decades without cutting into her rock and roll fandom. When I asked whether it wasn't maybe "Dancing in the Streets" that so impressed her she stuck with "Heat Wave." "It's my favorite song," she said indignantly. "It's everybody's favorite song.") Me, I'm not such a big Reeves fan, partly because while finally purchasing a couple of LPs I adore to this day I also bought her Dance Party, which definitely didn't hold up against The Beatles' Second Album or The Rolling Stones Now. Not only that, but my fave '60s ur-Motown album is The Marvelettes' Greatest Hits, purchased in 1969 or maybe 1971, I still remember finding it in a bin in Berkeley. Motownwise, Reeves got the shaft as the Supremes took over the label, not least because she was bizwise enough to nurture big ambitions that sat poorly with Berry Gordy, who was more bizwise by a considerable margin. In my view her voice was just big enough to justify dreams of taking her pop legit. By the time I was getting records in the mail I recall getting a solo debut from here, maybe the Richard Perry production Nelson George references in his Motown book Where Did Our Love Go? For sure she had a bigger voice than Diana Ross or Gladys Horton of the Marvelettes, but that's never enough. The album was a dog.

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