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.

June 16, 2021

Lousy (or not) Stones albums, world champion Beatles albums, some musical geniuses, some upbeat albums, and whither rock & roll? Plus: the story of 1974's Consumer Guide to America's Yogurts.

[Q] I really enjoy your reviews and your writing in general. I do notice that you sort of pick your favorites, though--you gave the Rolling Stones' Dirty Work an A and Steel Wheels a B+??? You cannot be serious with these positive reviews--these are two albums that even the band will tell you are terrible. I love the Rolling Stones but Dirty Work might be one of the worst-produced albums of all time. I mean it's just bad. Do you honestly pull out this album out still? As for A Bigger Bang, it's OK but nowhere near as good as the review you give. It's sort of a very good imitation of a Stones album. "Streets of Love" is just terrible second-rate Mick Jagger solo album material. You honestly think these albums I mentioned above don't top any of Queen's first six albums? I mean really? -- Adam Marr, New York City

[A] What a strange question even disregarding the fact that I gave Steel Wheels a B minus, not a B plus. Though I'm glad you like my work, I'm sad that some basic principles haven't gotten through. A major one is that in the end people like what they like, and that a simple way of understanding the critic's job is that critics should among other things try and explain what their opinions/responses are and where they come from. As has already come up in this space, I'm not a Queen fan even though, inspired mostly by my daughter, I've warmed to their precise, campy comic grandeur. When I find time to explore, I might listen more intensively. But if I live to 100 I'll never find time to hear much less immerse in their first six albums. Maybe my feelings will shift a little, but I'll never like them that much, and at best I'll limit myself to a best-of or two. Moreover, the Stones are inscribed a lot deeper on my sensorium than on yours--I've been a sucker for a fundamental groove I attribute mostly to Keith Richards and the great Charlie Watts since "It's All Over Now" hit the airwaves in the fall of 1964. And even though Jagger isn't my kind of guy as a human being, their sound plus his flair sparked into life longer than most aging rockers could manage. My unconventional fondness for Dirty Work remained in place last time I checked--a tremendously underrated album especially given the pass the Stones got on the 1983 Under Cover, its opprobrium based mostly on the overblown reaction to the echoey way producer Steve Lillywhite did drums, which is neither here nor there as far as I'm concerned. Replaying A Bigger Bang for the first time since 2006, my A minus seems right--the opening "Rough Justice" is a strikingly ironic/acerbic expression of both Jagger's musical gift and his romantic limitations and the songwriting strong is throughout, though "Streets of Love" is no high point. In addition to the CG review, wrote longer about A Bigger Bang for Blender in 2005 and then reviewed a 2006 show of theirs for the same mag. I stand by everything I wrote. Check it out--especially the show review.

[Q] In your recent Too Much Joy review you quip that they aren't Randy Newman meets the Clash cause those acts are genius while Too Much Joy just have high IQs. I've noticed that genius seems to be a word that you are hesitant to use to describe musicians. It got me thinking, how do you define genius when it comes to musical artists? Is it based on their sonic innovation, language, what you think they'd get in an IQ test, or something else? Also, who are the definite geniuses in music, and do any/all of the following qualify: Prince, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Kanye West, David Bowie, M.I.A., El DeBarge, Eminem, Lil Wayne, Stevie Wonder, Taylor Swift, James Brown, Billie Eilish, Captain Beefheart, Frank Ocean, and Brian Wilson. -- Anonymous, Europe

[A] First of all, I use the word "genius" plenty--too much, probably; Google says it gets 1130 hits on my site where "talent" comes in at 1050 and "smart" at 913. Second, musical genius doesn't have much to do with IQ, certainly not, for instance, the 175 that talented non-genius Bob Mould claims in his memoir, though 120-125 would probably be a good idea just to utilize and kick-start the musical genius properly. Third, most of the musical geniuses I can think of are Black: on your list James Brown above all with Prince second, maybe Wonder, not DeBarge or Ocean, but how come you left out Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin? (And Louis Armstrong! Duke Ellington even though he's never been a favorite of mine! Thelonious Monk! Miles Davis!) The one obvious white genius who comes to mind is easy and isn't on your list: Bob Dylan. Ditto for Joni Mitchell whatever her vanities, Lennon probably, Eminem in his fucked up way conceivably, and I definitely wouldn't rule out Swift. The others less, with understandable candidate Beefheart exemplifying near-genius's limitations. Billie Eilish PLUS HER BROTHER, THAT'S DEFINITELY A PARTNERSHIP, might qualify in 10 years and might not. When I wrote my Billboard obit of George Jones I pulled out the G-word, which didn't seem preposterous, especially for someone on a death deadline. As for Randy Newman and the Clash, both come close enough to justify a good joke, Newman in particular given his soundtrack sideline. And now I declare an end to this party game.

[Q] Did the Beatles ever make an A plus album? -- Faizal Ali, Minneapolis

[A] Ordinarily I skip A plus questions but this one I couldn't resist. How could I not nominate the two I put on my Rolling Stone list: Sgt. Pepper and The Beatles' Second Album, the latter of which most Beatles scholars don't believe counts if they even acknowledge it exists? But because so much of my early Beatles listening was their U.S. albums, I'm not qualified to distinguish among the "official" UK versions that preceded Sgt. Pepper. Moreover, while I feel and understand the artistic skill and historical momentousness of prime candidate Rubber Soul, in fact I only cream for three of its songs: "Norwegian Wood," "Girl," and "In My Life." A plusses have to do more than that for me.

[Q] hello mr. christgau, i am a big fan of your writing and music ratings. i often agree with your reviews, except for a few rap records that i disagree with haha. anyway, i would like to know what "happy/upbeat" records are some of your favorites? i am talking records in the likes of: rilo kiley's under the blacklight; van morrison's moondance; donald fagen's the nightfly and robyn's body talk. these are some of my favorite records to listen to and i would like to know more albums like them that i should listen to. -- gavin highly, minneapolis

[A] These things are so personal. I mean, I love The Nightfly and Carola adores it. But Donald Fagen "happy/upbeat"? That pathological ironist? How??? Still, I thought it might be fun to find something suitable. Two records I go to for that sort of thing are Franco & Rochereau's Omona Wapi and Manu Chao's Proxima Estacion Esperanza, but both may be too world-musicky for your tastes. Either '70s New York Dolls album? KaitO's Band Red, a recent if admittedly esoteric rediscovery around here? The New Pornographers' Whiteout Conditions? Toots and the Maytals' Funky Kingston, which another reader just excoriated me so passionately for giving it an A minus rather than a full A that I replayed it and found it was still an A minus for me. Hey wait, I've got just the thing: The Beatles' Second Album. Guaran-fucking-teed.

[Q] I have been an avid reader of since I was in high school (now about 10 years ago). During that critical time in my life, my taste has evolved a great deal, and your writing has proved a major influence on that evolution, helping me become attuned to and fall in love with (broadly speaking) African music, rock-n-roll, and classic soul. Having fallen in love with those (meta)genres, however, I can't help but feel a bit melancholy at the increasing marginality of rock-n-roll and classic soul songforms and archetypes in the popular consciousness (music from the African continent being marginal in the US by definition). Is it possible we might have a revival of interest in these ways of doing music? Do you think the great music of the '50s and '60s can translate to a new audience raised on the internet? Will bands ever be a "thing" again? Am I being overly pessimistic? PS: Special thanks for introducing me to Youssou N'Dour & Étoile de Dakar with your A+. -- Grace Brown, Montreal

[A] What can I say? Popular music evolves just like any art form--Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven were revolutionary in the late '20s and still sound amazing today, but while it's possible to imagine some historically inclined imitator reviving that sound to an extent, that's a long shot technically and an impossibility culturally--just wouldn't strike the kind of same spark, in the audience or among the musicians themselves (plus, of course, no Satchmo). It's distressed me for many years that the rock and roll of the '50s is an unmapped antiquity for most young listeners--to me the great Chuck Berry and Coasters and Buddy Holly records plus many doowop one-shots (let's hear it for, hmm, how about Johnnie and Joe's "Over the Mountain, Across the Sea") are thrilling on the face of it, but to listeners your age (assuming for the moment that your autobiographical profile is factual) that music has been aesthetically inaccessible for decades. Almost the same goes for soul stylings, although a few aging holdouts as well as some young multiformalists like (Brown University graduate) Jamila Woods continue to work in that general area. But with bands it's different. There are still plenty of bands, some even g-g-b-d or g-k-b-d, exploring that option, and still venues for them too.

[Q] I was wondering when this summer tasting of yogourts from around America happened. -- Rishi Patel, London, Ontario

[A] Forgive me for rendering it yogurt from here on--just learned that your Canadian spelling came to be because it's bilingual, correct in French as well as English as Canadian law requires. Anyway, I no longer remember the sequence, but there was an editor named John Lombardi at a short-lived Playboy-backed girlie mag dubbed Oui, a purportedly "hipper" variant as I recall, who was taken with the letter-grading thing. (He also assigned me an Al Green profile that ended up in Boston's Real Paper which changed my view of rock history after I plumbed the Joel Whitburn books and learned that many Black artists--not Green, he was too young--had been scoring minor hit singles in the lower reaches of the Billboard chart in the early '60s, when radio heads like myself were unaware they existed.) I suggested that the much more food-savvy Carola Dibbell collaborate with me on consumer guides, let's lower-case the term, to beer, which occasioned many naps as well as a search for flatulence medications, and coffee, which once had me roaring down West 8th Street in my Toyota at 45 miles an hour in pursuit of some jerk who'd cut me off. The yogurt edition, which I'm amazed got published (with a comically salacious illo of course) we researched when we undertook a four-month road trip across the U.S. in 1973 in that Toyota--stored our dairy purchases in an ice chest in the back. We took a lot of notes and came up with language on the run when we could. Most of the writing on all the food pieces was Carola's, who's terrific at physical description, and looking back I love how funny this piece is. "One of the worst yogurts in America. Smells like fresh chemicals, and the blueberry looks like extract of used typewriter ribbon. Cheap and gummy." "The best supermarket yogurt. Although most of the flavors were not special, you could spill the tart, cheesecakey orange into a sherbert glass and call it dessert." "They say the best yogurt is the yogurt you make yourself, but that's not as easy as it sounds. In Laramie, however, there are no reasonable alternatives. George Szanto's first batch melted in our mouths, something like snow. The second had some rough residue and was too sour. But it was fresh, and it sure beat Meadow Gold Viva." "One of the worst. The aftertaste penetrated its most lurid flavors, and the boysenberry was gray." Or here's the long-running Colombo, now a proven quality brand that earned its A as surely as Randy Newman: "The blueberry, with its dusky blue color, generous strewings of berries, and creamy consistency is the best in America, as is the all-natural honey vanilla. When they make it right, even the wheat germ and honey is better than you can mix yourself."

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.

April 14, 2021

Taste vs. judgment, the (somewhat) enduring appeal of Leon Thomas, the diminishing appeal of Green Day, reading about if not listening to Joanna Newsom, and the hymnals of Judee Sill and Todd Snider

[Q] In your Auriculum podcast you differentiated between taste which is subjective and judgment which involves, I gather, some objectivity. You also discuss your own preferences in music-- e.g. fast over slow and happy over sad. How do you reconcile those preferences in the taste/judgment continuum? -- David Wasser, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania

[A] Taste, obviously. But within those tremendously broad characterizations inhere countless gradations, none of which will determine in themselves my or anyone's aesthetic responses to an individual piece of music or portion of same. This means that even at the crudest levels they should generate questions like, "If I'm such a big fan of happy music how come I hate the Kars 4 Kids ad even more than you do?" or (to choose an example from this past March 17) "Shane MacGowan takes 'The Band Played Waltzing Matilda' so slow, why am I sitting there after the dishes are done doing nothing but listening six minutes in?" I go into this in some detail in the Sonic Youth piece "Rather Exhilarating" in Is It Still Good to Ya?, which includes the following slightly edited passage: "One concept the non-old have trouble getting their minds around is the difference between taste and judgment. It's fine not to like almost anything, except maybe Al Green. That's taste, yours to do with as you please, critical deployment included. By comparison, judgment requires serious psychological calisthenics. But the fact that objectivity only comes naturally in math doesn't mean it can't be approximated in art. One technique is to replace response reports--'boring' and all its self-involved pals, like 'exhilarating' or the less blatant 'dull,' with stimulus reports." Which is to say, I'll now go on, physical descriptions of the music, best accomplished for the lay reader with colloquial, non-musicological language.

[Q] Do you really think Leon Thomas's Legend album is an A record? Listening back on it after many decades myself, Thomas's admittedly unique voice seems more a novelty than anything else and the album itself more clunky than swinging. -- Lee, Brooklyn

[A] My records indicate that I Consumer-Guided just two albums by the man who sang Pharoah Sanders's "The Creator Has a Master Plan," neither of them Facets--The Legend of Leon Thomas. Both are from 1970: The Leon Thomas Album, an A, and Spirits Known and Unknown, a B plus. But by the time I did the '70s Consumer Guide book I had hedged Thomas over into the Subjects for Further Research addendum, where I pointed out that his solo career had disappeared by 1975 and expressed reservations about his "muddle-headedness." So I couldn't tell exactly what you were talking about. But with my memory jogged I went to Spotify, so much faster than excavating my vinyl, and streamed Spirits Known and Unknown. Not clunky by me, a B plus at the very least--the yodeling rousing, the scatting spectacular. And while the rationalist I am remains well south of agnostic about the Guy, Gal, or Both with the Master Plan, he fervently believes Thomas's "Disillusion Blues" should be brought out of retirement if there's anybody out there with the chops and spiritual wisdom to shout and yodel it.

[Q] Hey Bob, I'm curious why you haven't reviewed the last few Green Day albums. I know you didn't like American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown all that much, but I'm just wondering why we haven't gotten reviews of Uno, Dos, Tre or Revolution Radio. Have you gotten bored of their shtick? -- Aidan King, Cape Elizabeth, Maine

[A] Elementary, really. When I give two consecutive albums by an artist I once liked C's, you can assume that I checked out the next one only briefly if at all, and chose not to find another way to hoist said artist on his or her own petard. In fact, said next one sounded like more of the self-important same, and I'm not sure I got all the way through the one after that, although I have a dim memory of trying briefly once. Nor has what little I've read about these albums given me any reason to believe I've missed anything. Punk is so tied up with the disillusions of growing up that punks do often age poorly.

[Q] I'm curious as to whether you have any thoughts on Joanna Newsom's last few albums; or did you merely file her under over-indulgence and logorrhea after Ys? -- Cathal Atty, Donegal, Ireland

[A] It seems to me that the answer to this and many similar questions is obvious: duh. (See Green Day directly above.) The reason I'm reprinting it here is to report that a year or two ago I received a letter that began: "Joanna Newsom is the greatest artist of the 21st century. Your misogyny is showing in your refusal to acknowledge her work." Such rhetoric is only to be expected when you're a critic because most people don't know what good criticism is, but though this correspondent was obviously only in her mid teens it was still disheartening--I am so not a misogynist. The second reason is to alert you to the superb and adulatory Erik Davis feature on Joanna Newsom in the 2007 Da Capo Best Music Writing anthology (those were the days), which I edited. Immensely long. As I explain in the book's intro, I read it in one 45-minute gulp, because I do know what good criticism is, and even though Newsom really ain't for me however much I appreciate her debut, this was clearly it. Different strokes, you know how it goes.

[Q] Any thoughts on the Judee Sill revival? Your reviews were spot-on, the grades maybe a little low (given how grades have morphed since 1972, a moot point). My knowledge of non-gospel Christian music begins and mercifully ends at Amy Grant, so I was grateful for her gorgeously rendered, way-out-there perspectives in a genre I'll never care enough to revisit. -- Keith Shelton, San Diego

[A] Having had no idea there was a Judee Sill revival, if there is, my first thought is how glad I am not to feel obliged to worry overmuch about such wavelets in music's vast sea. Clearly this is a time when every moderately gifted female singer-songwriter in creation awaits rediscovery, and Sill was a distinctive one. But where I was curious about how Leon Thomas might sound today, I found I could do without hearing Sill again. An overstater, a militant if fundamentally humane Christian--life is too short, especially when you're turning 79.

[Q] I've spent several Sunday afternoons enjoying Todd Snider's livestreaming shows--even bought a shirt to chip in for the cause. During a recent performance in which he played Agnostic Hymns in full, he claimed it was his best record. That was news to me, given how few of those songs have been worked into his recent live sets--he didn't play anything from it when I saw him in 2019. I even recall reading an interview where he seemed pretty ambivalent about it. It's always been my favorite of his (got lucky on eBay once and found a promo copy on vinyl for pennies on the dollar), so it was neat to hear Snider agree with me. I was wondering if you felt the same. Best to you and Carola. -- Jon LaFollette, Indianapolis

[A] Expecting consistency from Todd Snider is like expecting pie in the sky when you die--this is a guy who probably changes his mind while he's tying his shoes. We listen to his albums quite a bit around here given the wealth of alternatives, and the only one over the past coupla years I thought maybe wasn't a full A was East Nashville Skyline, which I expect was because I wasn't paying attention at the right times. Can't swear we've played Agnostic Hymns, however. Did definitely play both discs of The Storyteller in recent memory, and got Nina to listen to the entirety of "KK Rider Story," which as a comedy fan she loved. But since it came out our surprise fave has been 2019's apparently ramshackle Cash Cabin Sessions--have enjoyed it so much so that we entered it in our private Rolling Stone best-of-all-time sweepstakes. In that company, true, he did admittedly fall somewhat short.

March 17, 2021

Groove with a side order of vocal emotion, soul with a (small) side order of jazz organ, Queen with less kitsch and more camp, and parody with honor. Plus: two movies, one a must a see.

[Q] I notice how over the years you have reviewed music in languages that you (presumably) don't understand. How do you approach this kind of music and what is your mindset when you enjoy it? -- Eduardo Mujica, Colombia

[A] I enjoy it as music merely, kind of the way I enjoy jazz--which generally entails harmonic details in musical languages I don't understand either. This means that when lyrics are prominent, as they are in a lot of non-Anglophone pop, I tune out--even when the lyrics are in French, which I can speak and understand well enough to find a restaurant or the train station, but not to follow lyrics. All of which is to generalize broadly, with numerous exceptions. But for sure what I usually respond to in non-Anglophone music is groove with a side order of vocal emotion or affect. Because I recognize and treasure the African contribution to the Anglophone rock-etc. at the center of my pleasure zone, and also because I've long been aware of how decisive African culture is in American culture generally, I've always been eager to hear what African music I could, and so paid attention to the few compilations that began to surface in the early '80s, starting with the great John Storm Roberts Africa Dances collection of the mid-'70s, which for whatever reason delighted me from the first time I heard it and prepared me for the trickle and then flood that followed; see the 1991 Rock & Roll & called "Afropop Without Guilt" for more details. But over the years many other grooves and even tune families have spoken to me. In Colombia itself it's been cumbia mostly, which didn't take long. For some reason, though the dominant horn parts are certainly part of it, I've never really gotten into Puerto Rican salsa even though I love Puerto Rico, which I've visited many times. But once in the south of the island I watched entranced for half an hour as a cumbia band entertained near the town square.

[Q] What are your favorite albums featuring jazz organists? I'm guessing that Jimmy McGriff, Charles Earland and Booker T Jones must be some of your favorites but what albums by those artists or others do you turn to when you crave soul jazz or a keyboard master jamming out on electronic organ? -- Chris Rogers, Missouri

[A] To my surprise, since I never ever "crave" soul jazz or Hammond B-3, you guessed right. As I discovered by utilizing the Google Search function on my site, I've actually given positive reviews to albums by both Jimmy McGriff and Charles Earland. Stax mastermind and hidden genius of Willie Nelson's Stardust that he is, Booker T. doesn't have a horse in this race--soul jazz has never been what he's about, which is fine by me because I've always found that calling too schlocky by a factor of three. Jimmy Smith in particular I've avoided for half a century. Cornball, cornball, cornball.

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