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.

January 29, 2019

[Q] Hey Robert! I play in Deer Tick and just wanted to thank you for all of the thoughtful reviews. We are fans of your words. -- Ian O'Neill, Providence

[A] Just for the record, as someone who never imagines musicians should be his friends--it happens occasionally and friends are too precious to turn down out of an excess of caution, but it can get sticky--I really appreciate it when this kind of thing happens. Note that I dismissed two of Deer Tick's three most recent albums, though I liked the other one a lot. Thanks, Ian--I'm glad you care, and glad you can tell I always try to tell the truth as I hear it.

January 15, 2019

[Q] Alright Robert, so you have to live on a deserted island for a year. You can only bring one artist's discography to listen to. Whose discography do you bring with you? -- Cody Holleman, Fort Worth

[A] Kids are so cute. You apparently don't know that Greil Marcus edited a book based on this silly premise called Stranded 40 years ago. We were supposed to pick albums, not oeuvres, and although Dave Marsh concocted an imaginary compilation he claimed he could jerk off to, most of us took our assignment as what it was: a chance to celebrate a beloved album at essay length for decent money--$750, quite good for the time, not to mention this one. I cheated by picking a UK-only double-LP comprising both New York Dolls LPs. For your silly question I'll be more literal, however, and say the choice would be between the Beatles and Miles Davis and I'd probably chicken out and choose Davis because he recorded so much with so many different concepts, attitudes, grooves, and sonic gestalts. Sure I prefer Monk in real life. But he just isn't as varied.

[Q] You have reviewed every post-1970 Dylan album, and of course most of his 60s work is listed in the Basic Record Library. But you haven't commented on the five (!) albums' worth of standards Uncle Bobby has dropped on the world since 2015. Why the pass? Not interested? Tried to listen but felt meh? You dug both Willie's Stardust (a lot) and Rod's American songbook volumes (enough). If you did give Shadows in the Night, Fallen Angels, or Triplicate a listen or two (or five), what was your takeaway? -- David Sussman, Orlando, Florida

[A] I bought Shadows in the Night and listened, I don't know, three-four-five times. Probably not five, because it was painful. Dylan's voice would appear to be permanently shot, which happens to lots of singers as they approach eighty, although Willie Nelson and Elza Soares and to a lesser extent Tom Zé and many others including my near-contemporary Maria Muldaur are sounding great. Sinatra was such a virtuoso, however, that he petered out. Dylan might still get away with writing songs for the voice he has, as the shot Leonard Cohen did. But the Sinatra-style pop canon Dylan has devoted himself to lately does generally require some show of mellifluousness and pitch control. Nothing I know about the follow-ups suggest he sounds any better three years later.

[Q] Will you admit that you got Fiona Apple's debut Tidal wrong? -- Dominic, Brigantine, New Jersey

[A] Do a Consumer Guide search on Fiona Apple on my site and find her reviews topped by Tidal's Neither. But at the bottom there's a link to something called "Hearing Her Pain" that till October 2020 will inform the Fiona Apple fan that the 2012 Barnes & Noble Review essay of that title is included in Is It Still Good to Ya? and embargoed as such. But I can tell you that my view of Tidal had not changed as of that 2012 pass and that I am unlikely to revisit the question again. "Determinedly bathetic," "sodden juvenilia," "went triple platinum behind a Grammy-winning single about doing a good man wrong and a video featuring a teenager in her underwear" is the pertinent verbiage. Sorry.

[Q] It seems like Anthony Fantano's by far the most discussed music reviewer on the internet these days. Have you watched any of his reviews. Do you think he's a good critic? -- David Springer, Fairfax, Virginia

[A] I don't "watch" reviews. I read writing. When I'm at the computer I almost never click on links to podcasts or televised news much less criticism, for two reasons--first, reading is faster than listening, and second, I'm continually using my ears to listen to music. Moreover, no one I know "discusses" Anthony Fantano, a name I barely recognized. Glancing over his Wikipedia entry he seems to have arrived at a plausible brand of 21st-century rockcrit taste that runs toward what I'll call dark prog--the godfathering Swans, this year's number one Daughters, on the rap end his beloved Death Grips. But clearly he's broader than that. Little apparent interest in the pop end or indeed tune or indeed fun, however--always a tragic and psychologically revealing lacuna. Nowhere near as insensible to hip-hop/r&b as dark proggers tend to be, but note that very few female artists crack his top 10s, which in 2018 was really missing the action. Fantano seems to have figured out a way to make some kind of living by disseminating his own criticism in the online age. That's an achievement. But until he starts putting it in written language, I'll live without.

[Q] You reviewed albums for magazines that ranked by star like Rolling Stone and Blender. Especially in Blender's case, I thought you were kind of generous on the five stars with some collections (Patsy Cline and John Fogerty jump to mind). Were you really generous or did you change your mind eventually? -- Nicky, Quebec City, Quebec

[A] Every mag that rates records has a different way of doing it. If I'm working for them, it's my job to do it their way. Rolling Stone was always too stingy except when Jann Himself was reviewing one of his rich friends. I wanted to give Lucinda Williams's Car Wheels five stars and was flat-out refused, and could only raise M.I.A.'s Kala to four-and-a-half after crushing out a review just before a family vacation and then finding that all I wanted to do when I got to LA was play it again. Both are now fives for them if subsequent coverage is any indication. Partly to distinguish itself from Rolling Stone, Blender graded more leniently; I'd say they didn't recognize the A plus concept. So for them those two comps got the highest grade. Without relistening to make sure, that makes sense to me.

[Q] What stylistic rules of thumb do you live by that other writers would benefit from. -- Scott Lyons, Stirling, Scotland

[A] I don't know about stylistic, beyond find your own voice and stick with it as it develops--plus, I guess, be funny occasionally if you can. Plus plus, oh yeah, condense. But I believe in rewriting and rewriting again--rereading anything you write at least half a dozen times, which in the case of the stuff up front in anything over 1000 words usually means dozens of times. Reread on the screen, type it out and read it on paper because that's different, ask someone you know to give it some sort of edit because the simple awareness that other eyes are on it will add perspective. And then, when you're all done and ready to send it off, proofread one more time. I should add that the Xgau Sez format is designed to be more off-the-cuff so it feels less like work--I fiddle with it, sure, but not so laboriously, and it's barely edited by design. So in this format I fuck up more often. Like when I said Ghost Dog was my favorite soundtrack hands down? Completely forgot about American Honey, which I like even more.

January 01, 2019

[Q] Taking into account your own preferences and tastes, are there any artists of a style or in a genre that doesn't usually resonate for you but who are so good that personal preferences melt away and respect must be paid? -- Stuart Rosen, New Jersey

[A] For sure respect can be appropriate--as noted recently, I respect Paul McCartney a lot these days. I really respect Beethoven too--quite a lot, in fact. But the manner in which respect must be paid is an altogether different matter. Except in the pursuit of some larger critical or literary goal, you don't listen to music because you respect it, or at least I don't. I listen to it because I enjoy it. Early in 2018 me and Carola, who has a deeper personal history with classical music than I do, were serially entranced by a long scene in Kyle Stanley Robinson's 2312 in which one character gets another through a life-saving, months-long underground hike (on Mercury, as it happens) by whistling the entirety of Beethoven's Third. So we played a copy of that symphony from the random albeit alphabetized classical LPs squirreled away in the hall. But before side one was through we'd lost interest--a lot faster than we'd lost interest in Robinson's verbal description, which gripped and delighted us both.

[Q] Hi Robert, you've probably been asked this before, but I was just wondering about how your grading system changed a few years ago. Nowadays the letters range from A+ to B+, and are then followed by the asterisks, and there generally seem to be more A+'s and A's than there used to be. What are those of us who want a sense of your entire critical oeuvre (or whatever) to make of this? Is it simply that the asterisks have replaced the lower letters--three stars means B-, one star means C-, etc? Sorry for the long question! -- David Trollope, London

[A] "A few years ago" might also be rendered "since 1990"--that is, for most of the time I've been grading albums. If there are more A's these days, that's because there are more albums, an argument I've been making for all of this century. *** and ** records are B pluses I adjudge unworthy of a full review; so are most of the *'s, but I leave myself hedge room at the very bottom when there's something I feel the need to weigh in on briefly. Briefly in the early '90s I confined my negative reviews--that is B down to D and maybe there were one or two E's--to a monthly Turkey Shoot I've also explained here, but sometime in the early '90s my protégé then friend then editor then benefactor then mentor Eric Weisbard convinced me to include a "Dud of the Month" with the monthly Consumer Guide I published in The Village Voice, which after I got canned there got moved to MSN Music till June I think of 2010. When the Consumer Guide morphed into Expert Witness at the end of that year I stopped writing pans, and I don't miss it. Fact is, I'm too old to pack that kind of authority anymore, and am so glad not to be involved in the fractious trolling, infighting, and ignorameouness of the social media dystopia.

[Q] What do you think about the 1975, arguably the most important band of the 2010s? -- Sean, Denver, Colorado

[A] I think they suck, and having streamed the new one at least three times without retaining anything but the internet skit will only consider explaining why for a minimum of a buck a word--as I just said, I don't do pans anymore. Congratulations, however, for not calling them a "rock band." Rock bands still oughta, you know, rock (for better or worse--here's to you, Foo Fighters and Queens of the Stone Age). I note as well that you are not from the United Kingdom, the spawning ground of the 1975 delusion. Don't let me stop you--stick to what you believe. But don't kid yourself if you find your faith faltering.

[Q] In Is It Still Good to Ya? you included a few lectures you gave at the the EMP Conference that hadn't been published before. Were there others you thought of including, and what do you have in store for the next conference? -- Richard Cobeen, Berkeley

[A] My EMP lectures on Charlie Gillett and Henry Pleasants will appear in the Book Reports collection Duke will publish in April. The one I would have most liked to squeeze into this book is the breakdown of John Mayer's "Waiting for the World to Change," but it didn't fit conceptually. If I ever write a book on the '50s, as some think I should, I'd include a version of the Huey Smith plus incorporating the research I did on both '50s car songs and the class origins of '50s rock and rollers. And the one I did about marriage songs I'd like to preserve in book form too. But for various complicated and not necessarily permanent reasons I don't want to put them on my site yet. Title of this year's scheduled presentation: "All the Time in the World: The Living End in Peter Stampfel and Willie Nelson." Second week of April. Exact coordinates TBA.

[Q] Seeing the rise of the right all around the world (Trump, Bolsonaro in Brazil, etc.) and the popularity of speakers like Ben Shapiro or Jordan Peterson (the intellectual dark web in general), could it be said that the zeitgeist of today is in the rejection of political correctness? -- Cace, Esperanza, Santa Fe, Argentina

[A] Anybody who uses the term "political correctness" so uncritically understands politics differently from me, and I've been referencing it in print since 1979. Of course the right is resurgent, although the pushback in the US has been pretty impressive. But I don't blame that on the "zeitgeist," a vague term long used to justify all kinds of half-baked BS. I blame it on a simultaneously organic and well-plotted counterattack by the rich on the rest of us. If the rich win, which is certainly not impossible, that won't be "the spirit of the times," which is the literal meaning of "zeitgeist." It'll be the boot coming down. Here's hoping you're into sneakers.

[Q] "A tip, folks: great way to get your question answered is to help me promote my books." A tip, Dean: when it comes to sales promotion [REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED] u-press books. [REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED.] you're too shy. [REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED] Greel--an interview so l-o-n-g [REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED] interminable year-end P&J essay [REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED] B-List: Ken Tucker, Henry Carrigan, Steve Futterman, James Collins, Jody Rosen, Lou Glandfield, Keith Harris. Do you have a lively Sez website where commentators interact? [REDACTED REDACTED] Tom Hull clunker that doesn't permit interaction [REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED] -- Chadwick Henley Essex, Greenwich, Connecticut

[A] Having noted that I love Tom Hull's plain site design because it privileges the written word and have no interest in overseeing or indeed countenancing a "lively" chat room gone mega, I will observe that the word is "commenter," not "commentator," and that the only other person ever to spell it "Greel" here har har is the suddenly silent Coco Hannah Eckelberg. I assume that "she" was offended when I failed to answer "her" ignorant question about the Amazon land grab near where "she" supposedly lives. Coco and Chadwick? Could they be the same "lively" "commentator"? Do "she" and "he" have anything to do with the radio show I redacted? Were I more up-to-date we could speculate for weeks. I'm so glad we won't.

December 18, 2018

[Q] How do you make your A list? Do you keep it kinda updated all year long or do you just start from scratch in January? And is there gonna be one this year with the Voice being closed and all that? -- Nicolas Auclair, Montreal

[A] Absolutely I update it all year long. Otherwise I'd miss stuff out of sheer carelessness at year's end. So I keep a roughly ranked list all year and then start doublechecking on its rather intuitive rankings starting in November, fine-tuning constantly till I'm ready to post it somewhere, usually (always? don't recall offhand) in the post-Voice years. I pay special attention to the top 10, of course. Some version of all that stuff for 2018 should appear somewhere sometime soon.

[Q] I looked forward every year to the Turkey Shoot. It was brilliant ("caveat emptor--in spades"). Why did you end it? -- Robert Gallagher, USA

[A] I hated doing the Turkey Shoot. People think critics enjoy panning stuff, and I guess in special circumstances we all do, plus some spiritually impoverished souls are just built that way. But to do it my way I had to immerse, spending weeks and weeks of autumn listening to records I didn't like until I began to actively hate or disdain them--not everything I covered there, there were always a few regretful ones, but most. As a result, I was often marginally depressed in November. I kept doing it because it served a journalistic function for the lead critic of an important pop-music publication. But when I got there I was happy to leave it behind--my tour at MSN Music had a different shape and weight. Sometimes I found it hard enough to isolate the one Dud a month there to keep me and MSN honest.

[Q] In your critical writing, the concept of the "hook" is extremely prominent. A reader can easily grasp why this concept is so important to you, since you have to process and quickly distinguish such a huge volume of pop songs. But this does pose a question: Are there songs which DON'T have hooks? Is this a normative judgment--for instance, is labeling a song "hookless" a stinging critique? Or are there categories of hookless songs which have their own merits. Songs which get over on groove or texture or some other gestalt-type quality? -- Chris Reeder, Watertown, Massachussetts

[A] I think you mean are there good songs that don't have hooks, as of course there are, although a groove and even a texture can function as a hook, which I take to mean any sound you just love hearing again. With groove there are thousands of examples, from half the third disc of JB's Star Time to the less catchy bits of a great Ramones or Motorhead album. Texture is trickier, but start with the sheer sound of Miles Davis's trumpet or Aretha Franklin's voice and then move on to lesser mortals--Mary J. Blige and Patti Smith come to mind. But I don't believe my fondness for the hook is about the need to process quickly. I believe it's the itch-scratching pleasure--which some find annoying or worse, hence the insulting term earworm--of hearing that snatch of melody/rhythm again. And then there's, well, meaning. Is John Prine's "Hello in There" hooky? Not terribly. Did I just pull it up on iTunes as I sat here? Indeed I did, and didn't start to really enjoy it until Prine opened his mouth: "Had an apartment in the city . . . "

[Q] So much enthusiasm for Homeboy Sandman. Which album from his vast catalogue would you rank as your absolute fave? -- David K, London

[A] As I thought I'd just said in my review of Veins, that would be Kindness for Weakness. Really, folks, this guy is a keeper. A little too blunt rhythmically to qualify as an undeniable classic--all those four-beat lines--but so solid and decent and funny and colloquial and literate and dedicated to getting better. On the new Humble Pi, "Grim Seasons" and "#Neverusetheinternetagain" are standouts in completely different ways, and the first and third of his Aesop Rock Lice collabs are irresistible as well as free to DL. And let me add that he was the only artist to send good wishes to Carola when I wrote about her illness--a kick for her, because he happens to be someone she's always responded to, maybe just because in his educated way he's blunt like The Only Ones heroine-narrator Inez Fardo. Hope he fuels an album or two by hooking up with someone permanently lovable himself. And I'm reminded by the fact that he left law school to become a rapper to offer up a shout-out to the former AD the Rapper: Antonio Delgado, US Representative-elect from the great state of New York.

[Q] Hey Bob, what kind of gear do you use to listen to music? Are you picky about it, like loudspeakers over headphones? Any records you prefer to listen on vinyl rather than streaming? -- Rob, Pittsuurgh

[A] Although definitely not an audiophile, I so believe music belongs out in the air, in what is at least theoretically a social space, not inside your cranium. I use headphones only at the gym and on the street, where I check out my ever-evolving cellphone Spotify library for possible review. These seldom cost more than 25 bucks and I go through three-four pairs a year--they do break, especially when you're a klutz like me. (I do not use Bluetooth. Maybe I should.) My apartment is equipped with a good but not expensive or high-end sound system I couldn't describe without checking with its designer, my nephew-by-association Perry Brandston, a sound engineer I've known since 1966, when he was nine. I recommend quality speakers to everyone whose computer-streamed music reaches the atmosphere--I have Boses. Sometimes I stream from my personal half-a-terrabyte iTunes library because it's easier physically to locate music there. I seldom play my vinyl--I prefer the convenience of CDs. Finding working CD changers, however, is getting harder and harder. Anybody know somebody in NYC who can do a serious repair on my old Sony DC355, which I assume means a new laser? The lasers do go on these things. I think I'm on my fourth.

[Q] Hey libtard, why so cucked? -- Cuck Patroller, Anytown, USA

[A] Cue to mortarboard-sporting Dean of American Rock Critics jumping up and down with glee and chirping: "They noticed me! They noticed me! Plus they gave me a chance to say something nice about Father John Misty!"

December 04, 2018

[Q] Don't be a Grinch, Bob. What are your favorite Christmas and/or holiday albums? -- Jon LaFollette, USA

[A] Every Christmas, I climb on a library stool and pull down Billboard's Greatest Christmas Hits (Rhino), Hipster's Holiday (Rhino), The Most Beautiful Christmas Carols (Milan), Ultimate Christmas (Arista), maybe Christmas Party with Eddie G (don't remember the label and am not getting on that stool right now), plus perhaps the Louis Armstrong Christmas album or if I'm feeling puckish the Klezmatics' Woody Guthrie Hanukkah album from the regular shelves. Put them in my changer and hit shuffle as I so seldom do. But pretty soon I'll probably be playing something else. Remember Dabke: Sounds of the Syrian Houran? What nailed that album for me was how well it went over at Christmas dinner with my Jewish friend Laura and her Christian husband Tom, who is the biggest fan of Christmas music I know. Last name: Smucker. Buy his Why the Beach Boys Matter, send him the fan letter he deserves, and maybe he'll provide some "holiday" tips in return.

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