These are questions submitted by readers, and answered by Robert Christgau. New ones will appear in batches every third Tuesday.
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May 19, 2021
Some thoughts on dolts (or not), the Smart Monkee, rock bios, the greatest albums of the '90s (not ranked) and the best novels of the 21st century (ranked). Plus: In every dream life a headache.
[Q] Sir. How dare you refer to Jae Millz as a "dolt." Fuck Tyga. Tyga is a Dolt. Millzy? He is not a dolt. Thank you. -- Cody Fitzmaurice, Saratoga County, New York
[A] A query that set me to wondering: Who the fuck is Jae Millz? A search on my site came up empty, which as a search for Tyga revealed was because I'd (mis)spelled Jae's surname as Milz. The reference that irked Fitzmaurice was a 2010 B&N piece on Lil Wayne involving LW's No Ceilings mixtape, where in seven words total their names included I adjudged onetime Kylie Jenner beau Tyga and Harlemite Millz as unworthy of such fellow guest contributors as Jay-Z, Gaga, and the Black Eyed Peas, as seems statistically probable without actually going back and checking. I've heard nothing especially doltish on the 25-30 minutes I've test-listened on JM's 2015 and 2020 solo albums, but also nothing of Wayne or Gaga caliber. But if Fitzmaurice wants to assert that Millz is much superior to Tyga, I'm so impressed by his passion that I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
[Q] Hi Robert, Happy Birthday! It's coming up on the 42nd anniversary of my favorite Michael Nesmith album, Infinite Rider on the Big Dogma . . . I'm still pissed at you giving it a sub-par grade of "B-"--I am wondering if you still think it is barely above average? Best wishes otherwise!--Ronald R. Lavatelle, Nashua, New Hampshire
I just re-read your review of Michael Nesmith's album Infinite Rider on the Big Dogma for the first time in around 40 years . . . it seems to me you reviewed him, his career, his business . . . but NOT the album or its music. Terrible review . . . probably hurt his sales . . . his reputation . . . and cost him a lot of money! -- Roni Lavatelle, Nashua, New Hampshire
[A] I find this so touching I couldn't resist reprinting the two queries in the order they were received. I mean, it's a very long time after the release of the ex- (and future) Monkee's ninth album of the decade, six of which I reviewed even though by 1979 "new wave" was all the rage (two including a comp got B plusses), and this fan, apparently of both Nesmith and Der Dean, is still not just brooding about my B minus but convinced that my lukewarm record review in a Greenwich Village weekly destroyed the sales of what he regards as Nesmith's masterwork. As it happens, I wrote about the Monkees respectfully in my very first Esqure column in 1967, and by the end of that year had singled out Nesmith as the true musician of the foursome, which soon became conventional critical wisdom. And just for the record, The Monkees' Greatest Hits has its own jewel-cased position right next to my 40 or something Thelonious Monk CDs. Also just for the record, I thought the Monkees' "revival" of the aughts was one-upping "poptimist" contrarianism pure and silly.
[Q] I have a question which you may have answered multiple times, and if this is the case I apologise for not digging it up. Autobiographies and biographies by musicians are relatively common, and often enough they're not particularly well written, either because the musicians aren't suited to that kind of format in the case of autobiographies, or--and this is perhaps more common--the musicians have become deities, and their biographers simply feed into that narrative with a bunch of crazy stories that don't necessarily say much about the lives and ideas of the musicians, or the world that they lived in. There are, of course brilliant ones out there too, written with great subtlety and thoughtfulness. Which are your favourite bios of musicians that you've come across over the years? -- Liam Briginshaw, Melbourne, Australia
[A] Always glad to be handed a chance to remind readers and I hope book buyers of my 2018 Duke collection Book Reports, which includes essays on books about Jerry Lee Lewis (I'd now add to Nick Tosches's Hellfire, Rick Bragg's Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story), Lead Belly, Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Ed Sanders, Richard Hell, Carrie Brownstein, Patti Smith, Rod Stewart, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Bruce Springsteen. In this newsletter itself I've positively reviewed Jim DeRogatis's dogged R. Kelly book Soulless and Charles Shaar Murray's magnificent John Lee Hooker bio Boogie Man. The Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday, Etta James, Franco, and Bob Marley pieces in Is It Still Good to Ya? are also keyed to biographies. And in my 1998 collection Grown Up All Wrong the Elvis chapter is called "Elvis in Literature" because it's based mostly on a sliver of his endless bibliography. Both volumes of Gary Giddins's Bing Crosby are superb--with the second one especially sharp on U.S. culture during World War II. John F. Szwed's Miles Davis and Sun Ra are damned good. And I should add that although I'd recommend obtaining my collections from Duke or a local bookseller, naturally, most of those essays are findable on my site, which has a Book Reviews tab to help you track down a few more.
[Q] Love your collection, Book Reports, as it has recommended some terrific books. I remember reading somewhere your admiration for Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, so I was curious as to what are your favourite novels so far in the 21st century? Thanks. -- Brad Morosan, London, Ontario, Canada
[A] This is something I happen to keep track of, so here's the top 10 as currently conceived only with extra books for a couple of authors: George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo. Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay I (also Telegraph Avenue). Norman Rush, Mortals (reviewed in Book Reports). Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora (also New York City 2140). Jonathan Lethem, The Fortress of Solitude (also Dissident Gardens). Carola Dibbell, The Only Ones (she used to be lower but that was a polite lie). Colson Whitehead The Underground Railroad (also The Nickel Boys and Sag Harbor). Elif Batuman, The Idiot. Akhil Sharma, An Obedient Father.
[Q] Does a best of the '90s list exist? (This question inspired by renewed Liz Phair excitement over new singles being quite good actually.) -- Brian, Dublin, Ireland
[A] Nope. As I'm always whining, lists like these, if properly prepared, are work. But it occurred to me that having just done my Rolling Stone top 50 a year ago, I at least had a good start--until a count suggested that more than half were from the '60s and '70s and only five, F-I-V-E (5), from the '90s--six if I count James Brown's Star Time, almost all of which was decades old by the time the four-CD comp was released, but of course I can't, just as I can't count the fabulous and now scarce Go-Betweens best of 1978-1990. So we'll begin with those five, alphabetized: DJ Shadow's Endtroducing DJ Shadow, Eminem's The Slim Shady Album, Guitar Paradise of East Africa, The Latin Playboys, Tom Ze's Brazil Classics 4. Then I will quickly add Arto Lindsay's Mundo Civilizado on the grounds that Carola requested it when feeling poorly at dinner one night recently and we were so entranced we instantly felt compelled to play it again right away and then yet again for our 19-year-old out-of-town grandniece the next day (she said she liked it and also left with a bunch of surplus CDs I was happy to declutter myself of). But of the other candidates I've tested out only Nirvana's Nevermind roared into certain top 10 status (and if you're keeping score, as I know a few of you are, that would seem to make both of those A plusses, end of story). Alphabetically once again, the remaining candidates are: L.L. Cool J's Mama Said Knock You Out, Stern's Africa's Senegalese The Music in My Head comp, Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville (which did seem a little thin musically first time out), Amy Rigby's Diary of a Mod Housewife, Lucinda Williams's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
[Q] If you made your own music, what kind would it be? Who would it sound like? -- Sergio Thompson, Salem, Oregon
[A] If my dream life is any indication, I'd be the leader of a postpunk rock quartet. On a number of occasions, I've had dreams in which I played such a role, although as I believe I've pointed out somewhere, I've also had dreams--long before my current semi-lameness, let me add--in which I could walk in 12-foot strides, and once it was the same dream. And then there's what I dreamed last night, after I'd read this query: that I'd somehow been hired to visit a college and play my songs, accompanying myself on an acoustic guitar. This was a terrible dream without being a nightmare: having arrived at my destination, I failed to call my contact and instead began gabbing with a woman I knew while avoiding all thoughts of a) not knowing how to play guitar and b) never having written a song. Hours passed, my appearance time neared, and the whole deal was so annoying I woke up to be out of it at 6:30, which is early for me. But at 7:45 I got back into bed and soon found myself in a slightly revised version of the same dream. None of this was fun. I blame you.