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.

September 18, 2018

[Q] I click on my Robert Christgau bookmark every Monday morning, and every few weeks you're late on an update, which means I have to Google your name to make sure your Wiki page still says "is." What's gonna happen when you're gone? I've discovered some really great shit through your reviews, but even after reading hundreds of them I still don't have a good sense of what you would say about a band or album. When I no longer have your reviews to trust, I'm afraid I might not have the tools to discern quality on my own. For example, you gave a Backstreet Boys album a higher rating than any album by The Cure or the The Smiths. I want to better understand the principle here, so that I don't wind up a Morrissey fan on accident in the (hopefully distant) future. I guess the question I really want to ask is: to what degree (if any) are your letter grades relative to genre, as opposed to an absolute measure of quality? Is the Backstreet Boys album only an A as far as vapid teen pop goes? -- Paul England, Michigan

[A] Three things. First, I don't do any of the tech stuff on my site. Techwise I'm an idiot. So be thankful my webmaster Tom Hull does that work for me and also for you, and if he's late once in a while figure he has more rewarding things to do with his life (plus he's been beset with server problems recently). Second, the Cure I got for better and worse, but if there's a band I think I missed it's the Smiths. Definitely there was more to them than I thought at the time; their failure to make the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is an America-first outrage. Maybe someday I'll have the time to go back and figure them out, but that's a big job of small journalistic utility for anyone but my major fans. Third, that Backstreet Boys album is among other things a showcase for Max Martin, clearly a major genius of contemporary popular music.

[Q] Hey Bob! Nice to see you getting into this Xgau Sez thing. My question: Given what I already understand to be your stance on jazz in general (different universe, etc.), I'm nevertheless left wondering why you don't review more of your finds in the genre--particularly the many, MANY '50s & '60s iterations you've never gotten around to writing about? I mean, call me simple, but the very notion of all those poor, defenseless potential A-listers leave me fending off the cold shakes (and other assorted demons) on any given unfortunately dark & grim night. Think of the children! Why you wanna do us like that, man? -- Ioannis Sotirchos, Athens, Greece

[A] I can't notate and am not at all well-schooled in the jazz albums of the '50s and '60s. So I have neither the language nor the frame of reference to write readily about them, plus they lack the news value of recent pop albums, and this is journalism I'm supposed to be doing here. Jazz is hard to write about the impressionistic way I do it. Even with the few artists I've covered often--Davis, Coleman, Rollins--finding the words involves either considerable effort or a stroke of luck. So check out Tom Hull's list if you need some tips.

[Q] I'm curious about one of your early A-plus grades that was never revisited: Procol Harum's A Salty Dog. There's hardly a review to go on. What was it that you discovered in them? Did you ever revise that grade downwards? The group didn't earn high marks from you in subsequent releases, and the album itself doesn't seem to reflect your tastes in later years. Thanks. -- Noel Hinton, Bunbury, Western Australia

[A] Like many young critics discovering the satisfying judgmental thwock of a grading system, it took me a while, probably the better part of a year, to get my sea legs and not overstate for effect. Hence the too quickly rated A Salty Dog (such an anomaly that at least two others have asked about it)--which, however, I did revisit later as penance and judged rather better than most Procol Harum albums, in B plus territory though I'm sure not going back and double-checking. In general handing out A-plusses is very tricky business because it's essentially a prediction of continuing future use value. So whoever asked about Arcade Fire's Neon Bible and Graham Parker's Squeezing Out Sparks, right, those were mistakes: Arcade Fire just too grandiose, the sexism of Parker's title song too much to bear. On the other hand, whoever asked about 1970's six A-plusses, well, 1970 was really a hell of a good year. I'd now say all my top eight are A-plus: Layla (though no longer number one), Sly's GH record, Newman's 12 Songs, Moondance, After the Gold Rush, Sex Machine, John's Plastic Ono Band (retrospectively downgraded to an A in 1980, but still a record I pull out with pleasure, so jack it back up), and Aretha Franklin's Spirit in the Dark.

[Q] Are there any A-plus records that you have not originally rated as such? This includes records such as The Roots How I Got Over and Wussy's Funeral Dress. What do you think is the best Beatles album--any of them reach A-plus? What about Miles Davis' Kind of Blue or Dusty Springfield's Dusty in Memphis? -- Patrick Hoeppner, San Jose, California

[A] As I was just saying, predicting of future use value is very difficult to do accurately--and that's gotten harder as the number of A albums has increased steadily over the years, rendering the competition for my future non-work listening tougher and tougher. But good for you -- as it happens, all four of the albums you've named are records I return to often, insofar as "often" is a word that makes sense for someone who has what we'll call ten thousand albums crammed into his less than gigantic Manhattan apartment. As for the Beatles, which others have asked about too, let me just say that the UK-US differentiation of their pre-Sgt. Pepper catalogues make that a much more complex question. Nevertheless, I wouldn't be surprised if, after devoting a week or two to the question that no one will ever pay me to do so I won't, I didn't decide most of their albums were A-plusses. That said, no question which two I play most: the U.S.-only The Beatles' Second Album, which I first purchased in 1965, and, yes, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

[Q] Hi Robert. I was wondering what your thoughts are on the Soundcloud rap that has been quite dominant in the latter half of this decade, and if you think it is any way comparable to the DIY sensibility of punk. -- Khalid Sayeed, Toronto

[A] 1) As with most underground music punk included, I find it more efficient to let the marketplace do some sorting before I get on it. And in Soundcloud rap however exactly you define it I'm not at all impressed by the job the marketplace has done. 2) DIY punk involves minor but telling variations on a simple musical frame I've often compared to blues. Soundcloud rap involves (or anyway, should) beatmaking strategies I'm ill-equipped culturally to feel from the git insofar as they're not raw lo-fi ineptitude/indifference. 3) Soundcloud rap is at least as afflicted as any other kind of hip hop with sexist rhetoric I need very good reasons to hear past. I'm way sick of the word "bitch." I hated the XXXTentacion album in particular and wasted no time mourning his death. 4) Insofar as any new rap is a singles music that's just not what I do as a critic. 5) Cheap production and distribution techniques are one reason why all "death of the album" talk is bullshit. But the sheer profusion of music means much good stuff will get lost.

[Q] You've never shown any love for Nina Simone. She has quite the oeuvre, but you've only reviewed two of her albums, both dismissive. You really see nothing there? -- James Bradley, Brooklyn

[A] Right, I don't like Nina Simone. I'd never claim there's nothing there, especially given the heroic status she's gradually accrued. But I don't take to it, and I've given it a bunch of tries, even taught Daphne Brooks's terrific essay on her in her Jeff Buckley book (speaking of artists I don't take to). Simone's default gravity and depressive tendencies (which may be related but aren't the same thing) are qualities I'm seldom attracted to in any kind of art. I've always assumed her classical training--which was extensive; she only started singing in clubs to make money--was connected to my response as well.