Xgau Sez: February, 2021

On writing (or not) a history of popular music, consumer guiding (or not) the '60s (and Aretha) (and James Brown) (and the Dead), and Drake (or not). Plus organizing CDs and vinyl.

You were once planning on writing a book on the history of popular music, going back to ancient Egypt, I think. Why didn’t you write it? The pieces that were informed by that research are among my favorites of yours: the first section of Is It Still Good to Ya? And “In Search of Jim Crow” in Book Reports, the best thing I’ve ever read about minstrelsy. — Chuck, Upstate New York

The reason I didn’t write the book you describe—to research which I faithfully pursued immensely enlarging 1988 Guggenheim and 2002 National Arts Journalism Fellowships—is that it was too ambitious by a factor of I’ll never know how much. Were I to have devoted my entire life to it I might have come up with something but also never heard most of the A albums I’ve scouted out for so long. As it stands, however, what I did come up with was the essays and lectures you reference—plus, less obviously, the 1992 Details piece “B.E.: A Dozen Moments in the Prehistory of Rock and Roll,” the Book Reports review of Bernard Gendron’s Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club for Bookforum, and many other book reviews; much of my writing on “world music,” African music especially; the introductory class of my NYU course, which went back to Egypt via Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo; somewhere there’s the unfinished 6000 or something words on Greece that I put together for the NAJP; and I have to be forgetting stuff.

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How do you organize your huge CD collection? Do you file everything together in alphabetical order or do you have separate sections for various-artists albums and genres like African, jazz, blues, reggae, etc.? If you file everything together, isn't it difficult to identify all your ambient albums, say, or locate your favorite various-artists CDs, or to find an assortment of jazz artists to load up your CD changer with jazz? For example, can you confidently say what your favorite various-artists CDs are without looking at your site? — Jim, Fairfax, California

I file everything by individual artists together. Organizationally, there are two classes of CDs (and vinyl too)—the hallway and, I don’t know, the permanent collection. Permanent collection albums by individual artists are filed alphabetically by artist in the living room, the part of the hall that leads from the living room to my office, and my office. How many? At a guesstimate put the CDs at 10,000, the Honorable Mention stuff mostly in skinny flexible vinyl sleeves sans slug line for space, which is fast disappearing though the ever-increasing paucity of physical promos has opened up shelving that after weeks of shifting stuff around should solve my space problems for a while; in addition I’ve recently invested in two sets of wire CD shelves that I believe will get pending physicals off the floor where I’ve lined them up since I was young enough not to worry about bending for them or tripping over them, concerns I’d better take seriously as I near 80, now just 14 months away. (Wow, was it surreal to write and then read that final clause.) Then there are the multiple-artist CDs, every one catalogued and marked by genre in my computer. The good ones are crammed into shelves in my office alphabetized by title, with B stuff out of reach sans ladder on top of the industrial shelves that hold both vinyl and CDs. I can name the titles of many multiple-artist CDs off the top of my head—Indestructible Beat of SowetoTea in MarrakechAmerican Graffiti, on and on—but some titles are hard to remember, like that great hard bop comp, so I search JA (jazz, get it?) and in a minute I find it (Roots of Jazz Funk, dumb name). And then there are . . . box sets.

I’ve been subscribing to And It Don’t Stop since its inception and I have two requests. Is there any chance we’ll see another essay covering one of the pre-Consumer-Guide years, similar to one you and David Fricke wrote for Rolling Stone about the best albums of 1967? Also, I’ve seen mention on robertchristgau.com of playlists you created for the Rhapsody streaming service. For those of us who don’t subscribe to Rhapsody, would you consider publishing those song lists in another venue (e.g. Substack or Spotify)? — Chris Peters, Tacoma, Washington

Doubt it. To deal with the Rhapsody playlists first, I no longer subscribe to Rhapsody-now-Napster and can locate no trace of the playlists in my computer, which is too bad because I found them so labor-intensive I’m curious and also hate to throw that work away. My man at Rhapsody—which paid me quite decently for several years to use Consumer Guide reviews on its site before it hired its own editorial peons—thought it would be a nice gesture for me to toss off a playlist periodically, but I found the work taxing: you have to listen to what you recommend so you can check out how it holds up and flows, or anyway I do, and that’s very time-consuming.  Those 1967 reviews were also time-consuming, though more fun—I did the first one during the year-plus when I was on salary at Rolling Stone, the second because the editor was a good friend who offered me a decent stipend. But to tackle any other ‘60s year would be major task, especially since the CD reissues often add diluting “bonus tracks” or simply don’t exist at all and the vinyl would be much harder to do without the changer I retired many years ago. To a similar query from Indiana’s Sidney C-W, I’d say that individual artist rundowns might be doable as well as more fun, although let me say right now that sorting out Aretha’s Columbia box would be madness and ‘60s James Brown literally impossible. To a similar query from David Bjordemmen of Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, I’ll say that sorting out the Grateful Dead’s ‘70s output would involve frustrating-to-bewildering immersion in their endless live Deadhead catalogue, plus the regular-release albums weren’t so hot. Maybe the ‘60s albums would be worth a shot, though, and there’s also a box I’ve never had the gumption to address. The live one we play around here is Europe ’72 more than the early A+ Live/Dead. Which of the three discs I don’t recall.

Any thoughts on Perfume Genius’s latest album Set My Heart on Fire Immediately? I remember you enjoyed No Shape. — James, Liverpool, UK

I’ve streamed it three-four-five times by now. Haven’t deleted it from my ever-lengthening  Spotify one-more-time list, some of which I’ll eventually if not soon shitcan without further notice. But I definitely haven’t grasped it, and when I replayed No Shape for context I began to wonder whether I admired that one more than I enjoyed it. In related news, I hadn’t thought about Sophie for years preceding her death by poetic misadventure. No new product, for one thing. So I pulled her two albums out. Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides in particular sounded great.

What do you think of Taylor Swift re-recording her old stuff? I know she’s mad at that Scooter guy, but it seems like a waste of time for a still-vital artist in her prime. Sinatra re-recorded some of his Capitol songs for Reprise, but never quite captured the magic of the originals. — Jessica

Without actually going back and checking, my guess would be that Sinatra’s rerecordings suffered when he ditched Nelson Riddle to work with Don Costa, a capable but relatively anonymous schlockmeister, and Billy May, whose blaring brass renders him just about unlistenable by me. But in general this kind of rerecording is not a good idea—Lucinda Williams tried it with Sweet Old World to little if any positive effect. That said, Swift’s voice retains a great deal of freshness, which can’t be said of Williams or even the nonetheless masterful early Reprise-era Sinatra, who proved on many occasions there that he didn’t need it (he was freshest in his twenties, but was drowned regularly by his Columbia arrangements, though not by Dorsey’s RCAs earlier than that). And Swift is also very shrewd. Can’t imagine even so that I’d lay out money for the re-recordings unless Rob Sheffield convinced me.

Hi Mr. Christgau, thanks once again for the truly singular role you play in the pop media landscape. You’ve expressed disappointment that Drake, despite his talent, is ultimately a pretty dull pop star. My question is what, to your ears, makes Taylor Swift more than gifted and slightly uninteresting? — Andrew Judd, Los Angeles

Melody. Also gender.