Xgau Sez: June, 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.

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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

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, I 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.

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

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.

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Did the Beatles ever make an A plus album? — Faizal Ali, Toronto

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 listSgt. 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.

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

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.

I have been an avid reader of robertchristgau.com 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

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.

I was wondering when this summer tasting of yogourts from around America happened. — Rishi Patel, London, Ontario

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.”