Xgau Sez

Aesthetic morality, Macca and history, hitting a benchmark, "Sweet Home Chicago," working class Wussy and all in the family

No question here, just wanted to say thanks for all that you do. You’ve helped me deepen my appreciation for all kinds of music and discover artists I never would’ve come across on my own. Speaking of which, I’d also like to submit Young Thug’s Barter 6 for consideration in the discussion of all-time great album titles. Okay, fine, a question—how do you balance aesthetic and moral judgments when grading the quality of an album? — Ben, Grand Rapids, Michigan

For me, the moral is inextricable from the aesthetic. Maybe that reflects the fact that my aesthetic has more pleasure than beauty in it, although both these grand experiential abstractions should be in quotes because defining either is impossible. But this far we can go—the moral impinges on pleasure more than it does on beauty, because pleasure is more subjective than beauty. It’s experienced from within rather than observed from without, although we do take (“subjective”) pleasure in (“objective”) beauty. Thus I’ve never been able to enjoy or even appreciate D.W. Griffiths’s mise-en-scene in the morally odious Birth of a Nation, or found any use for Toby Keith’s lynching bagatelle “Beer for My Horses” no matter how much Willie Nelson loves it.

I’m a millennial. I’ve only known Paul McCartney as pretty much the most important musician alive. So, I’m trying to piece together how people thought about him in context during his prime years, and particularly why people disliked him. Was there an ethos about him that turned people off? Was it because, compared to John, he was pretty much apolitical? Maybe people just thought he was a dork. — Sam P, Minneapolis

First of all, you don’t have to hate Paul to think it’s silly to view him as “pretty much the most important musician alive” in a time that also included Bob Dylan, James Brown, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Prince, etc. But in any case you’re misapprehending how it was in the Beatles years. Maybe some people preferred the Stones—that was always an argument. Dylan, too. Maybe even Miles Davis, although among white listeners rarely then James Brown. But Beatles fans, which was most of us, usually had a favorite Beatle and liked them all—for me the order went John-Ringo-Paul-George. And if you liked John best it wasn’t about his politics, which were simplistic and not terribly radical back then. It was about seriousness and substance and what we would not then have called soul combined with sharp wit and a hard edge. After the breakup, however, this got more confused and sectarian, not least because none of them made much Beatles-quality music, although I say John’s was by far the best and most consistent even so. During what I assume you mean by his prime years—1970-1985, something like that?—Paul was prolific going on facile and a sucker for pothead whimsy. As a marriage fan, I always approved of Linda’s co-starring role in Wings in principle, but compared to Yoko, just as a for instance, she was a cipher musically. There were great tracks, sure, but never enough to constitute a decent best-of, especially given the air pudding like “My Love” and “With a Little Luck” any such would be saddled with. The superb covers album he made after Linda died is a great exception, however, and the scuttlebutt about his 21st-century concert tours is impressive. I’ve come to admire him as a survivor and a public figure, and were someone who knows how my ears work to burn an Xgau-specific sampler I’d listen. But even recently, when I’ve given some well-reviewed new Macca album a few tries, it’s invariably fallen short.

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I just noticed your Substack newsletter is listed as having thousands of subscribers (as opposed the “hundreds” it used to), and I thought I’d take a moment to say congratulations. — Grade A Grubber, Lincoln, England

That stat is an exaggeration traceable to Substack’s practice of calling anything over one thousand “thousands.” Between Christmas and New Year’s we did indeed hit the 1000 mark, which is much higher than I ever expected this project to go. But one thousand isn’t “thousands”—we’ve picked up more subscribers since, but we’re a long, long way from two.  Of course I’m gratified to have gotten this far—thrilled, really. But “thousands”—nah.

Years ago I called into Johnny Otis’s Saturday morning radio show on KPFA in Berkeley (he used to broadcast live from the now long defunct Powerhouse brewery in Sebastopol). I was fool enough to ask him what he thought was the definitive version of “Sweet Home Chicago”; more than ready for such a silly question he promptly belted out the chorus, then said “That was it!” and hung up. I figure it was an honor that Johnny sang for me and so I'll ask you the same question, Mr. Christgau: in your expert opinion, what’s your favorite or as near to definitive as possible version (studio or live) of “Sweet Home Chicago”? Boldly assuming that you even like the song . . .  Thanks! — Brendan, San Diego

As someone who certainly likes the song and just as certainly doesn’t love it, I went to my iTunes and found four versions: Magic Sam, Robert Johnson, Taj Mahal, Buddy Guy & Junior Wells. But while Johnson’s version obviously has some jam, only Taj’s, amply and crucially abetted by the Pointer Sisters, made me want to hear it again—probably because he/they mess so joyfully with what is by now a generic song. That said, the Guy-Wells is also a step above, and cult Chicagoan Magic Sam’s seemed markedly more vital than anything I then played on Spotify except Johnson. Order of frequency as Spotify has it: Blues Brothers, Johnson, Eric Clapton, Urban Knights (??), Steve Miller. I can’t remember who sang it in the Blues Brothers (Ackroyd? did Matt Murphy even sing?) and am tired of trying to find out. Clapton’s version is dull vocally as became the rule as he got older and “bluesier,” abandoning the Don Williams and J.J. Cale impressions he was born for. Midway through Miller’s version I’d had enough; Magic Sam is seventh in the Spotify queue.

Thank you Robert for belief in Wussy.  I am 56 and have been hauling fuel in and around Chicago for about 40 yrs. I found out about Wussy by happening upon Ass Ponys sometime back. Just wanted to let you know. I get it. — Doug, Shorewood, Illinois

Thanks. Music fans tend to live in insular worlds. Usually they’re students and then borderline bohemian when young, as you might have been or still be. When they get older they make their livings in what I’ll broadly designate the information industry—teaching, law, journalism, advertising, promotion, if they’re younger tech. It’s always encouraging to encounter a fan from a different work world. One of the most enthusiastic Wussy fans I’ve ever encountered was right next to me at a Studio at Webster Hall gig singing more words than I could have remembered offhand. We talked a little, and he told me he was a cop. Bring your pals was my attitude.

You’ve documented how your daughter helped you get the Backstreet Boys and Carola urged you to listen more closely to DNA. I know you always give Carola credit as your second set of ears. But are there any other stories in particular you’d like to share where your family helped guide your ear and how did family influence the music you listened to in your formative years? Also, has your family ever turned you onto films and artwork in other mediums that you enjoy fondly that you probably wouldn’t have come across otherwise? I hope you are all doing well. — Ian Carroll, Skerries, Island

This is an enormous question I can answer only in part. Nina is not as big a music fan as she used to be, but she was always into One Direction, who I, perhaps callously—Rob Sheffield loves them—simply could not hear. But last June she expressed a similar interest in Lewis Capaldi and Capitol was kind enough to get me three tickets—for me, Nina, and her friend Val. Val knew nothing of the man and is no pushover, but she was knocked out, and so was I—live, so hard-working and self-deprecating and kind and, crucially, funny. The funny does not come across as much on record, but I liked his album anyway—he was nominated for one of the Grammys Billie Eilish won and looked a little sad after even though he’d been a longshot, only to recover with enthusiastic applause as I expect is his way and don’t believe is at all phony, at least not yet. I also have a sister and brother-in-law living upstairs in my building and always want to know what they think about music—Georgia published rock criticism for years. Steven retired from the law to play as much trumpet as he can. Ga and I have such related sensibilities that I take her movie and fiction recommendations as seriously as those of anyone I know. And then there’s . . .  Second set of ears? No shit. Now more than ever. I adore Carola for many reasons—many many—but our aesthetic compatibilities are high on the list. When we disagree, which happens, we wonder why and interrogate it a little. If Carola had wanted to be a fulltime critic she would have been a first-rate. But one reason her responses and ideas are so insightful and original is that she didn’t, which freed her up to respond at will in a way full-timers rarely can. Insofar as I’m an exception to that generalization it’s partly because having her around frees me up—I play new music with her in the room almost every day. Indulge me and follow this link to a review of a Fleetwood Mac concert she covered because 12-year-old Nina was such a fan. Note how skillfully she skirts the fact that, actually, she isn’t so much. Note how irrelevant that pirouette remains to any reader who just wonders how the show was. 

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Ten Movies I Love

My contribution to an already fading Twitter game

  • Chinatown  Roman Polanski

  • A Hard Day’s Night  Richard Lester

  • Jackie Brown  Quentin Tarantino

  • Jules and Jim  Francois Truffaut

  • The Last Detail  Hal Ashby

  • Make Way for Tomorrow  Leo McCarey

  • Nothing but a Man  Michael Roemer

  • One-Eyed Jacks  Marlon Brando

  • Roma  Alfonso Cuaron

  • Where Is the Friend’s Home?  Abbas Kiarostami

Some notes on this alphabetized, not just seat-of-the-pants but hardly exhaustive or final list. First, it should surprise no one that when I had six or seven I brought them to Carola Dibbell over breakfast. Unlike me, Carola went to the movies regularly as a kid. She put her first husband through film school in London. She worked with her documentarian friend Janet Mendelsohn in the late ‘70s. In short, she’s smarter than me about movies (and plenty else). Nonetheless, our tastes are remarkably congruent. The Kierostami was her thought, and My Neighbor Totoro and All About My Mother would definitely be on her list, which definitely wouldn’t include One-Eyed Jacks.

Although I am not someone who watches movies over and over, the only one of these I haven’t seen more than once is Roma. Roma and Where Is the Friend’s Home? are the only ones I haven’t seen in theaters on a big or at least (with Make Way for Tomorrow, which we stumbled on in 1973 at the Berkeley Cinema Guild) medium-sized screen. Then again, the only one I’m not sure I’ve seen in my living room is One-Eyed Jacks, directed by and starring Marlon Brando, which I went back to some half dozen times in one of the cheapo rerun houses that were once the jewels of a tattered 42nd Street. At least one of these reviewings was occasioned by a 1966 assignment from my long-lost friend James Stoller (who later, while a copy editor at the Voice, suggested naming my prospective column Rock & Roll &) to write about it for Stoller’s short-lived but legendary film mag Moviegoer. As I recall, my chief point compared the transmutation of a cheap locket by the sincerity of Brando’s love for Louisa to the film’s transmutation of the corny kind of Western it was. Stoller rejected it and, being some kind of genius, was probably right, although someday I should dig out a copy if there is one and make sure. I should also mention that my memoir Going Into the City includes a few pages about Jules and Jim and that the most obscure pick here, the Kiarostami, is recommended by not only my wife but my daughter, who was never one to allow her fondness for Justin Timberlake to blind her to her fondness for this great Iranian filmmaker.

Dean's List 2019

The 76 best albums of the last year (or so)

Find hereabouts my 45th Dean’s List, a tradition that goes back to the first (yes, first) Village Voice Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll in 1971, when I published the full top 10s of 40 working critics (fans’ lists were also tallied that year, but not reproduced) after appending my own top 30, not yet dubbed the Dean’s List, to an earlier Consumer Guide. In 1974, when I returned to the Voice from Newsday and resumed Pazz & Jop, I continued to publish a longer list of my own, which I expanded from 30 to 40 in 1979 and to an indeterminate length in 1981; the shortest subsequent one checked in at 49 in 1985 (by an odd coincidence, the year my daughter was born) and the longest in 2011, when I located 107 A records.

Clearly these varying lengths reflect my own diligence and workload: in 2019 the Consumer Guide was out of business all summer as I transitioned from Noisey to And It Don’t Stop, and I also sunk below 80 in 2014, when I was transitioning from MSN to Medium. But the earlier expansion from 30 to 40 and beyond was fundamentally a function of how much music was out there. In the ‘90s I began pointing out that there were more hours of recorded music released every year than there were hours in a year, and in the Soundcloud/YouTube age the disparity has become incalculable. In 2019, the 46th or 47th Dean’s List ended up honoring 76 A albums that include three EPs, and also 13 long-players released in 2018 and even before.

Leading the list you’ll find two albums I pegged as certain top 10s from the time I reviewed them in March and April, although their one-two finish seemed unlikely with most of the year to come: Billie Eilish’s flighty, electro, best-selling When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? and Todd Snider’s earthy, primitivist, fans-only Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3. But down below things got messier. It took diligent summer listening for me to decide that Chance the Rapper’s The Big Day was a backlash victim and enjoyable winter listening to conclude that it belonged at number three. I was a late convert to my number-four Purple Mountains. And although I was on Carsie Blanton’s fifth-place Buck Up before it was officially self-released in March, I didn’t even hear Kalie Shorr’s ninth-place September self-release Open Book until 2020.

And then there was everything else. Of the 76 albums that made the cut, I’ve played or replayed all but a dozen since I began getting serious in December. When I did, some records bounced up (Ex, Tagaq, Mark) or down (Nassif, Saadiq, Capaldi); B plus Jamila Woods rocketed to 50 while A minus 6lack fell off the list altogether. And though these judgments have more muscle on them now than when I wrote my reviews, they’re unlikely to remain final. I’m diligent about not jumping the gun on the grades I parcel out, but albums do continue to grow or diminish for those they touch. They’re living things.

It should surprise no one that few of the albums in my top 10—Billie Eilish, Purple Mountains, and Kim Gordon, to be precise—made much of a dent among the deciders at Pitchfork and Rolling Stone, which with Pazz & Jop kaput now host the year-end album lists of record. Nor is it any surprise that only three of my finishers are under 30 and four are past 50. I’m 77, and while I identify with the young more than most of my cohort, my life issues are radically different from theirs. Without excavating the details, I’ll note that though there are plenty of women on my list, most of them aren’t on other people’s—Angel Olsen’s overbearing banality, to choose a prominent example, completely escapes me (although I reserve the right to end up upping Lana Del Rey’s September ***). It would appear that I’m not quite the big hip-hop fan I once was either, though I expect that blip to right itself once I bear down a little.

Then again, while time and again I’ve decried the paucity of political music in the most politically fraught year since Hitler took cyanide and then shot himself (you go, Adolf), there was more than I sometimes feared and I latched onto what I found. Snider, Blanton, Tagaq, Delines, Ex, McCalla, Sleater-Kinney, Furman, Rapsody, Woods, Slowthai, Priests, Saadiq, and Quelle Chris all focused their wit, rage, fellow feeling, and hooks on racism and sexism, the wages of wealth and the rape of the planet. It should also surprise no one that I hope there’s more in 2020, and that it makes a difference. Everyone reading this could use a happier newer year, and music alone can never guarantee that.

  1. Billie Eilish: When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (Darkroom/Interscope)

  2. Todd Snider: Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3 (Aimless)

  3. Chance the Rapper: The Big Day (self-released)

  4. Purple Mountains: Purple Mountains (Drag City)

  5. Carsie Blanton: Buck Up (Carsie Blanton)

  6. Kim Gordon: No Home Record (Matador)

  7. Danny Brown: uknowwhatimsayin? (Warp)

  8. Sonic Youth: Battery Park, NYC: July 4th 2008 (Matador)

  9. Kalie Shorr: Open Book (Kalie Shorr)

  10. The Paranoid Style: A Goddamn Impossible Way of Life (Bar/None)

  11. Bruce Springsteen: Springsteen on Broadway (Columbia ‘18)

  12. Salif Keita: Un Autre Blanc (Believe/Naive)

  13. Stella Donnelly: Beware of the Dogs (Secretly Canadian)

  14. Big Thief: Two Hands (4AD)

  15. 75 Dollar Bill: I Was Real (Glitterbeat/Tak:til)

  16. Harriet Tubman: The Terror End of Beauty (Sunnyside ‘18)

  17. black midi: Schlagenheim (Rough Trade)

  18. Tanya Tagaq: Toothsayer (Six Shooter)

  19. The Delines: The Imperial (Decor/El Cortez)

  20. Chai: Punk (Burger)

  21. Lee “Scratch” Perry: Rainford (On-U Sound)

  22. The Ex: 27 Passports (Ex ‘18)

  23. that dog.: Old LP (UME)

  24. Tyler Childers: Country Squire (RCA/Hickman Holler)

  25. Leyla McCalla: Capitalist Blues (PIAS America)

  26. Sleater-Kinney: The Center Won’t Hold (Mom + Pop)

  27. Jeffrey Lewis & the Voltage: Bad Wiring (Don Giovanni)

  28. Alex Chilton: From Memphis to New Orleans (Bar/None)

  29. Ezra Furman: Twelve Nudes (Bella Union)

  30. Lizzo: Cuz I Love You (Atlantic/Nice Life)

  31. Diabel Cissokho: Rhythm of the Griot (Kafou Music)

  32. Miranda Lambert: Wildcard (RCA)

  33. Craig Finn: I Need a New War (Partisan)

  34. Charly Bliss: Young Enough (Barsuk)

  35. Little Simz: Grey Area (Age 101)

  36. Ariana Grande: Sweetener (Republic '18)

  37. Rapsody: Eve (Jamla/Roc Nation)

  38. The National: I Am Easy to Find (4AD)

  39. Guy Clark: The Best of the Dualtone Years (Dualtone ‘17)

  40. Youssou Ndour: History (Naïve/Believe)

  41. Rachid Taha: Je Suis Africain (Naïve/Believe)

  42. Taylor Swift: Lover (Republic)

  43. Hama Sankare: Ballébé (Clermont Music ‘18)

  44. Pedro the Lion: Phoenix (Polyvinyl)

  45. Malibu Ken: Malibu Ken (Rhymesayers)

  46. The Coathangers: The Devil You Know (Suicide Squeeze)

  47. Chuck Cleaver: Send Aid (Shake It)

  48. Oumar Konaté: I Love You Inna (Clermont Music)

  49. Epic Beard Men: This Was Supposed to Be Fun (Strange Famous)

  50. Jamila Woods: Legacy! Legacy! (Jagjaguwar)

  51. Derek Senn: How Could a Man (self-released)

  52. Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba: Miri (Out Here)

  53. Amber Mark: Conexão EP (Virgin EMI '18)

  54. Nicki Minaj: Queen (Young Money/Cash Money/Republic ‘18)

  55. Big Thief: U.F.O.F. (4AD)

  56. Slowthai: Nothing Great About Britain (Method)

  57. Tyler Childers: Live on Red Barn Radio I & II (Thirty Tigers/Hickman Holler ‘18)

  58. 100 gecs, Dylan Brady & Laura Les: 1000 gecs (Dog Show)

  59. Sudan Archives: Athena (Stones Throw)

  60. Thiago Nassif: Três (Foom ‘18)

  61. Priests: The Seduction of Kansas (Sister Polygon)

  62. Saba: Care for Me (Saba Pivot ‘18)

  63. Madonna: Madame X (Interscope)

  64. The Seeds: Pushin’ Too Hard: Original Soundtrack (GNP Cresendo/Big  Beat)

  65. Raphael Saadiq: Jimmy Lee (Columbia)

  66. Khalid: Free Spirit (RCA)

  67. Quelle Chris: Guns (Mello Music)

  68. Daniele Luppi & Parquet Courts: Milano (30th '17)

  69. Lewis Capaldi: Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent (Capitol)

  70. Jealous of the Birds: Wisdom Teeth (Atlantic)

  71. Dua Saleh: Nūr (EP) (Against Giants)

  72. Sneaks: Highway Hypnosis (Merge)

  73. Sharon Van Etten: Remind Me Tomorrow (Jagjaguwar)

  74. Alex Chilton: Ocean Club ‘77 (Norton ‘15)

  75. Serengeti: Dennis 6e (People ‘18)

  76. Bob Mould: Sunshine Rock (Merge)

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Say It, Sisters

James Daley, Ed: Great Speeches by American Women (2008, 179 pp.)

Having taken just one history course since high school, I may be more excited about this book than my juniors might be. While I’ve read unsystematically in and around feminism since I was given a copy of The Second Sex in 1965, the nearest I’ve come to history is Alice Echols’s Daring to Be Bad, which begins in 1968 and ends in 1972. By now, I hope, the women’s rights details I caught up on via this collection are part of the standard college history curriculum. But having laid down five bucks for it at the modestly mind-blowing Women’s Rights National Park in Seneca Falls, New York, I found myself equally mind-blown by its chronological selection of 21 speeches ranging from two to 22 pages, with the longer ones front-loaded because oratory was public entertainment in the 19th century.

Most of these older selections proved spellbinding for me. I was well-versed enough to recognize the names from Sojourner Truth to Jane Addams. But it was bracing and even shocking to encounter not just the eloquence of their voices but the details of the oppression they were combating: the absurdities, indignities, injustices, and outrages, as regards property and employment law as well as political rights, to which all of these brave and brilliant human beings bear witness. Twice they feel compelled to enlighten all-male audiences of legislators so sexist they need to be schooled about malefactions committed in front of their faces—often, bet on it, by themselves.

In 1854 Lucretia Mott catalogues endless evildoing in a lecture to the 5th National Women’s Rights Convention titled simply “Why Should Not Woman Seek to Be a Reformer.” In 1880 Susan B. Anthony explains to the Senate Judiciary Committee that it should pass a women’s suffrage amendment on the simple ground that cruder men reject it, dropping in similar arguments for the temperance movement that was also her passion. In 1892 Elizabeth Cady Stanton tells the same committee that women deserve rights equal to men’s because women are even more beset than men by “the immeasurable solitude of self”: “Alone she goes to the gates of death to give birth to every man that is born into the world.” In 1893 Lucy Stone, the first American woman to decline her husband’s surname, outlines half a century of women’s progress to the Chicago World’s Fair’s Congress of Women. The daring anti-lynching journalist Ida Wells-Barnett cites example after example of black men murdered by mobs of white men for the unspeakable crime of letting white women love them. Settlement house godmother Jane Addams delivers an astonishing critical essay comparing the bloody Pullman strike of 1894 to King Lear.

The 20th century material is less consistent: pols Margaret Chase Smith, Geraldine Ferraro, and, sadly, Nancy Pelosi fail to distinguish themselves, although Hillary Clinton is fine on the 2006 reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act she couldn’t know the Roberts court would gut in 2013 and you have to love the way salty left-populist Ann Richards rams home a 1988 Democratic convention keynote that begins: “After listening to George Bush all these years I figured you need to know what a real Texas accent sounds like.” But more than compensating are two longer selections I expected less from because they were by, well, celebrity feminists: Gloria Steinem and Jane Fonda.

About Steinem I should have known better. She’s always been an ace journalist who knows how to put words together, here by sketching “A 21st Century Feminism” that rather than standing “on the bank of the river, rescuing people from drowning” works to replace a “patriarchal-nationalist” system that “going on in various stages between five and eight thousand years” has proved “a failed experiment.” But Fonda deploys no less adventurous and commanding a mind as she schools a 2004 conference her daughter had scoffed was “so New Age” in unapologetically New Age terms: “the empathy gene is plucked from their hearts,” “we have to become the change that we seek,” “she moved from a place of love,” “empathic government,” “Eve, life, consciousness.” Men, she charges, are “emotionally illiterate.” But she cites her “favorite ex-husband Ted Turner” nonetheless: “Men, we had our chance and we blew it. We have to turn it over to women now.”

Sixteen years later, of course, that hasn’t happened. Instead we have every right to fear that we stand on the cusp of a sexist reaction that will wreck the planet and what was once called mankind along with it. But this book stands as a reminder that for going on two centuries, wise, brave women have been struggling to insure that the human race survives.

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