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.

August 21, 2018

[Q] You're on the record as saying that Sinatra is your favourite singer of the first century of recorded music, but, apart from a couple of passing references, I'm not sure which of his albums you hold in highest esteem. I know you're a Capitol guy over Reprise and Columbia (who isn't, though). What are, for you, the A/A+ albums of Ol' Blue Eyes? Do you think there any Capitol duds? And are there any records from his other periods that you regularly spin? -- Tim McQueen, Brisbane, Australia

[A] Conceptually, this is important. I never said Sinatra was my favorite singer of the 20th century. In the obit I published in Details, I said he was the greatest singer. Which brings us immediately to the heart of all how-dare-you-rate-music questions. Yes, there is such a thing as assayable musical skill, and sometimes--usually but not always: bye-bye Steve Vai--this skill is enjoyable. Sinatra is definitely one of those cases. Concentrate on his his shading, his time, the way he strays a few microtones off pitch, and even if you couldn't describe those effects technically--which I can't, not with true specificity--you'll certainly be impressed, and if you're me, moved, engaged, occasionally enthralled. But that doesn't mean you have to like the man who achieved these effects, and in good criticism you make such distinctions, explicitly or implicitly, all the time. My wife, for instance, find herself generally unmoved by Sinatra's enactments of male vulnerability-as-mastery. Which is why I don't play a lot of Sinatra even though I have a dozen or two of his CDs in my shelves. My two favorites are the old-man anthology Everything Happens to Me, which I've written about (and which Carola does kind of like), and the classic Capitol ballad album In the Wee Small Hours. Of the uptempo Capitols, I like Songs for Swingin' Lovers. I always prefer him with Nelson Riddle, one of the few classic-pop arrangers I actively admire. Beyond those three albums, I've never had the opportunity to calibrate and probably never will, although I do explore albums I barely recall once or twice a year.

[Q] I was surprised when about a decade ago on the Expert Witness forum you said you rarely if ever listen to (the) radio. It's played an important if rapidly diminishing role in my own listening life, with college and non-commercial radio leading me to many artists I hadn't heard of before. My question is what role radio once had in your life, and when you stopped paying attention to it? And do you see any use to the algorithms that are rapidly taking radio's place? -- Mark Rosen, Dallas, Texas

[A] As with all queries as to my non-review-oriented listening, I ask everyone here to do the math. To find my Expert Witness quota, I devote say 90 percent of my pretty much continuous ear time to records I've yet to write about and may want to. So basically I haven't listened to the radio since it became possible to play cassettes in cars. Without question this skews my listening in many ways, including away from singles. It's not ideal critically either, as I well know, and I should say right now that I wouldn't live this way if I didn't get paid for it, although my ability to enjoy it as much as I do--and I do, often tremendously--is one of my critical gifts. But even if I had the time to play mostly whatever I felt like I doubt I'd return to the radio. Instead I'd play my A albums as much as it seems most of you do.

[Q] Since Childish Gambino has become more known, you've stopped reviewing him. What gives? -- Oscar, Los Altos, California

[A] I don't recall the details with Because the Internet because it was four years ago, but in general it sounded like a falloff to me, plus it was a double, so though it may well have been some kind of Honorable Mention--the guy's a talent, no doubt about it--I never put in the time it would have taken to find out. "Awaken, My Love!" was different--in my opinion a seriously overrated piece of romantic P-Funk retro that owes its Grammy nomination to Atlanta. Atlanta itself, on the other hand, is a motherfucker. Got around to it late because with TV I generally do, but watching the first season on Hulu was one of 2018's highs by me. Unfortunately I've only seen the first show of the second season. Twice, actually--held up, too. But then, near as our imperfect smart-TV smarts can determine, it disappeared, though it's been a month or so since I tried to locate it. Anybody who has any ideas as to how we see it, we would love to know, even though my sister Georgia, whose tastes often parallel mine although she didn't dig Blindspotting, says it got too arty.

[Q] In your article "Trying to Understand the Eagles" from 1972 you said that the Eagles were an accomplished band. You liked the music which was brilliant but false, but you hated the Eagles as the culmination of the counterculture reaction. The Eagles set out to capture the "me decade" attitude of the '70s and its consequences. In your opinion, how successful were the Eagles in chronicling the attitudes of the 70s? -- Jan-Frederick Lochert, Oslo, Norway

[A] I wasn't saying I liked the music--more that I admired it and enjoyed some of its formal elements. In fact, I think Frank Ocean's "Hotel California" rip "American Wedding," which with his usual generosity of spirit Don Henley quashed, is the best thing Ocean ever recorded. And I did give their Greatest Hits megaseller a B, which is far from a claim that there's nothing worth hearing on it. But I don't think they were "chronicling" me-decadism. I think they were embracing it full on and never stopped, although I'm sure someone can remind me of something they did late as individuals if not a band that's actively worth hearing.

[Q] As a fan of the Jack Johnson Sessions box, what did you think of the final two Miles Davis box sets: The Cellar Door Sessions and The Complete On the Corner Sessions? And I'm sure being a fan of Davis's later fusion albums doesn't mean that you don't enjoy any of his earlier works so do you recommend any of his sixties albums as A records? Four and More (1964), My Funny Valentine Miles In Concert (1965), Miles Smiles (1966), Sorcerer (1967), Nefertiti (1968)? -- Bob H, Astoria, New York

[A] The late-'60 Wayne Shorter edition of Miles's band is my least favorite Miles--not that I think it's bad, but I've always found Shorter too cool. Nefertiti is the one I play from that period, mostly because Carola loves jazz trumpet and it's certainly more than OK, figure an A minus by me. I put some time into The Cellar Door Sessions, which has tremendous word-of-mouth, but when it didn't connect after four-five passes I put it aside. In general I think alternate takes boxes are specialists-and-collectors-only profit takers. If you range as wide musically as I do you don't need that kind of marginal differentiation. But Jack Johnson is a record I adored from the git, an eccentric call at the time, so that particular case made sense for me.

[Q] If Elvis had been born female ("Elvina"), achieved the same level of success, endured the same downfall, become the same punchline, died the same death straining stool on the same poopy-poop toilet--how would the fact she was female not male have changed the history of rock music? The history of sex? The history of the world? -- Chadwick Henley Essex, Greenwich, Connecticut

[A] Not nearly as much as if he had been born a salamander.