Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Xgau Sez
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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.

June 18, 2019

[Q] Here is a list of my top nine favorite African artists:

  1. Youssou N'Dour
  2. Rachid Taha
  3. Tabu Ley Rochereau
  4. Papa Wemba
  5. Orchestra Baobab
  6. Kanda Bongo Man
  7. King Sunny Adé
  8. Étoile de Dakar
  9. Miriam Makeba

With whom shall I complete my top ten? -- Adam S. Fenton, Temecula, California

[A] Whoa, Nellie. You're missing someone I didn't notice at first because I assumed he was there--Luambo Franco, next to if not along with N'Dour the very greatest, start with the two superb Sterns Africa two-CD Francophonic comps and the Rochereau collab Omona Wapi. Moreover, I'd count N'Dour and Étoile de Dakar as one artist--that band was his invention, period--leaving room for another woman. Oumou Sangare or possibly Mariem Hassan would be my picks.

[Q] Do you like "Old Town Road"? -- Alexander Robertson, Wilton, Connecticut

[A] I like "Old Town Road" in the Billy Ray Cyrus remix. But I don't love it. As a song I think it tops Childish Gambino's "This Is America" but not Cardi B's "Bodak Yellow," two previous must-hear this-is-a-phenomenon singles I got on late because I'm so album-oriented in this phase of my life, but found none of the three as culturally or aesthetically compelling as I was supposed to. This may be because I'm 77 and may be because most current "memes," if that's what these are, are less intrinsically compelling than must-hears should be. More than, let us say, "Beat It" or "Hound Dog" (but maybe not the overrated "Heartbreak Hotel"), they are pure functions of an information system less universal than such information systems are credited with being. This is why so many "memes" would once just have been called "hypes." On the other hand, taking "Old Town Road" off the country chart strikes me as racist pure and simple, because country radio remains racist regardless of the Darius Ruckers and Kane Browns it makes room for. And of course, it's also sexist in an era when so many of the edgiest country singers are women: Miranda Lambert, Angaleena Presley, Becky Warren, Margo Price, Ashley Monroe, Mary Gauthier, even Kacey Musgraves, can I mention Lori McKenna, and I know I'm forgetting people.

[Q] Do you still stand by C- for Master of Reality and if so why? -- William Hjelte, Brooklyn

[A] Why wouldn't I, and why doesn't the review I wrote--I believe in 1980, when I was filling out the first Consumer Guide collection, rather than 1971--suffice to explain? Was Sabbath an Important Band that belongs in the Rock Hall? Of course. Did I think the Osbournes' reality show was kinda funny? Indeed I did. But people like what they like, and why you'd expect someone with my sensibility to change his mind about that particular band I can't begin to know. It so happens that when I was doing my radio show for the Voice in 2001 my producer was a Sabbath fan. I liked him a lot, so when he asked me to give them another shot and provided a CD to make it easier, I did, for two-three plays. No go. End of story. Life is short and great music an all but infinite expanse.

[Q] I notice you don't review jazz records much lately, though you used to, notably Ornette Coleman. I know you chewed out Richard Meltzer back in the day for trying to review jazz without having the chops--did you even make him apologize to Gary Giddins?--but I would be curious to hear your views on Kamasi Washington's recent The Epic, especially because image wise it seems aimed at a wider/pop/rock audience. Although he puts a large orchestra plus a female choir into the kitchen sink, I hear rather little emotional substance. -- Simon Hearn, Vancouver

[A] First of all, I've never reviewed jazz much. Instead I followed jazz artists with rock or "rock" connections--Miles Davis's avant-electro-'70s, Ornette Coleman with his harmolodics (both of which claimed and for the most part earned "funk"), James Blood Ulmer and his ilk, the prolific and ever-changing David Murray, Nils Petter Molvaer and a few other trumpeters extending Miles's '70s into dub and techno--plus a few classic favorites, notably Monk and Sonny Rollins, who I had language and experience to explain to rock-oriented readers who'd followed me that far. Plus some overrated '70s "fusion" when that was a thing. These days, the old masters I came up with are gone, and I find I don't have the interest to explore new guys: Joshua Redman in particular clearly has something going for him, but also pretty clearly limitations I don't have the listening experience or critical chops to unravel. The recent Sons of Kemet and Harriet Tubman albums were gratifying exceptions. I hope there are more, but I have no intention of immersing in deep research or going off half-cocked to find them. As for Kamasi Washington and the rest of that LA posse, I think it's soft and all too feel-good. But that's a hunch only, one I'm unlikely to expand on in a format that has no use for Duds. (P.S.: As for Meltzer, there was never any way to "make" him do anything, which is to his credit.)

[Q] You've spoken before about how Johnny Griffin's tenor sax solo on Monk's Misterioso represents your favourite piece of recorded music. Are there any other segments of music that give it a run for its money? -- Adam, London

[A] The one parallel to that "In Walked Bud" solo I can think of I've written about before: the first, non-hit side of Bill Doggett's 1956 "Honky Tonk," its second side the biggest rock instrumental of the '50s, which I listened to for an hour straight on the living-room rug at 14 and came out a different person--my conversion to the blues template, which I replay occasionally to this day, although I listen to both sides consecutively now. That was life-changing. So it makes sense in a way that the more recent alternatives that come to mind are both death-related: Willie Nelson's "September Song," which my bedridden mother-in-law listened to over and over in the last months of her life (although often we played more of Stardust than that), and the Beach Boys' "Darlin'," which brought my wife and me to tears in the early days of her stem cell transplant sequestration last September. Those are obviously not strictly musical judgments, wonderful though the music has to be to make such an impression. Nevertheless, when I replay them now, and I do once in a while, the impact recalled remains.

[Q] You periodically reference requiring a certain mood/circumstance to completely appreciate an album--"Granted, its uses are limited--best for late nights alone," for Leonard Cohen's Songs of Love and Hate, "I'd have to be in a very special angry mood to play it," for an Idles album. It strikes me as the critic in conversation with the listener, the critic toward the "objective" (I know) end of the spectrum, the listener adding a necessary dose of subjectivity. I'm curious about how an album's "usefulness"--its ability to match or mold a mood--figures into your evaluations. Does a narrow range of commensurate moods make for a lower grade? -- Dustin Lowman, New York City

[A] What I really listen for is the kind of thrill that at its most intense feels like love. But on the earthly plane the fact is that I care much more about use value--a term Google reveals comes up dozens of times in my reviews over the years--than "objective" aesthetics, especially since a chief virtue of the latter is that they boost the former: the better executed or made an album, the more likely its use value is to endure. Indeed, it's rare for me to play an album without being something like "in the mood" for it, which is use value enough. And this goes way back. I've published precisely one poem in my life unless my rewrite of "Short People" counts, at Dartmouth when I was 19. It begins: "I will make poems/for my own uses/musical as hurdy-gurdies/and sad as the old man whimpers." Still sounds like me, I'd say.