Welcome to Expert Witness, a New Weekly Column by the Dean of American Rock Critics
Robert Christgau—a man who Lou Reed once slandered on stage—joins Noisey to tell you if your music taste is worth anything.
Say hello to the world's oldest working rock critic. Born in 1942, Esquire columnist at 25, Village Voice columnist as of 1969, and editor as of 1974 with a Newsday stint in between. My Voice job ended in 2006 after "New York's Weekly Newspaper" succumbed to a hostile takeover from Arizona. Since then I've been a staff writer/columnist at MSN Music, Rolling Stone, Blender, and Cuepoint/Medium. The searchable robertchristgau.com documents most of my published journalism—including, after a decent interval, the writing that will now continue at Noisey.
I've published over a thousand features, essays, and full-length reviews, but what most people search my site for is the Consumer Guide—the reviews I long published monthly under that heading, but that since 2010 have appeared in a blog called Expert Witness that surfaced at MSN, moved to Cuepoint/Medium, and has now relocated to Noisey. This project began in 1969: letter-graded "capsules" that run as short or as long as I think suitable but average 125 or 150 words—augmented sometimes by Honorable Mentions that average 30 or so words. I won't burden you with Consumer Guide's long history except to note that I'm coming up on 14,000 album caps and that that's a lot of listening—since people always ask, know that full reviews require five to ten plays and Honorable Mentions at least three.
Unlike most reviewers, especially in this era of the churn-it-out 24-hour news cycle, I don't aim to get there ahead of the next blog. My credo is that I'd rather be right than first. So I listen at my own pace until I know what I think. It's only my opinion, but it's an exceptionally well informed and, I hope, pungent and idea-filled opinion. The B I gave Street Hassle got Lou Reed so pissed that he called me a toefucker on its crappier live follow-up, and my early Sonic Youth pans inspired a B-side called “I Killed Christgau with My Big Fucking Dick.” Hey, no hard feelings—later I gave both artist plenty of A’s, not to make nice but because I was right and they got better.
I don't think it's crazy to celebrate popular music as an endless succession of forgettable thrills. Since the 60s I've enjoyed what's lionized or belittled as "pop," and still do—see Jason Derulo below. But because rock criticism surfaced just as the album became the staple of a music industry that's been in crisis since Napster, I also don't think it's crazy to celebrate popular music as a supposedly disposable art quite capable of withstanding ye olde test of time. In my opinion, Derulo's Talk Dirty achieves this better than its follow-up. But both make the cut.
So my working assumption is that popular music is of lasting value and that the album format remains an excellent way to realize that its value, with my little reviews part of a complex historicizing process. Eclecticism has always been my way. I got into country circa 1972, came early to punk, was onto hip-hop by 1980, and cover more African music than any non-specialist anywhere. Nevertheless, I have my negative prejudices like most sentient humans—dislike metal, find much folk music sappy, and consider contemporary dance music too site-specific, designed for club environments I seldom got to even when my knees were better. I've never gotten sick of youth music for a minute—was into both Pavement and Pink. But, significantly given my advanced years, I've argued for decades now that rock and roll's origin as teen music prepared it well to address the aging process. Yoko Ono and Willie Nelson are just two artists who've thrived past 80. Boz Scaggs just came up with his best record since 1976.
So welcome—or welcome back—to Expert Witness, which will appear in this virtual space every Friday. It began as the Consumer Guide because it's supposed to function as purchasing advice—I stopped writing pans when I left the Voice, although I may make a few exceptions. Usually, though, the grades break down A+ (the rare masterwork), A (the meat of my leisure listening), A- (well over half the total), and B+ (too close not to get half a cigar). So I hope I move you to buy some music you've read about everywhere and some you never heard of. I still get some freebies. But I put cash down on physical copies of two of the A minuses below. Helps me concentrate.
And if for some reason you crave more words about this enterprise, here's my website.
Sam Smith: In the Lonely Hour (Capitol)
Only when I finally bought the CD did I realize how well this pleasant pop I'd been MP3ing through my skull cohered as a self-portrait. This Sam Smith fella is a needy man, insecure about love as all of us are and more candid about it than most. And though manly types may scoff at his pleasing to infernally hooky tunes, not one song approaches self-pity. Both vocally and verbally, they offer the kind of emotional complexity about sexual romance's ins and outs that good pop captures better than good literature, where cynicism is such a folkway. But having established that baseline, let me single out my favorite, the lead "Money on My Mind," an emotionally complex reflection on his record deal. And let me add that the four OK-to-excellent extras on the deluxe edition dilute the original album's effect. A MINUS
Miguel: Wildheart (RCA)
It's sloppy to slot this as the latest in r&b's endless succession of sin-versus-salvation struggles. This Angeleno is more secular than that, and also less desperate. So "...goingtohell" is about romantic love and human mortality, not eternal damnation, and "gonna die young" addresses not the brutalities of the thug life but the perils of the fast lane like Frank Ocean and the Eagles before it. Nor is the chiseled Afro-Hispanic the pure sex symbol some assume—that's why the porn-inspired "the valley" is followed by the domestic morning-after of "coffee" before it's trumped by some dickish fuckery he hands off to Kurupt. You could even say this recalls one of rock's endless succession of coming-of-age struggles. The straightforwardly confused "what's normal anyway" sums it up nicely. He is normal—because he ain't. A MINUS
Jason Derulo: Everything Is 4 (Beluga Heights/Warner Bros.)
Though it's no surprise that it's less silly and romantic than the ebullient Talk Dirty, Derulo is proof that the pop machine comes in many models. Like the Chevy Malibu, Derulo has his blind spots. But his gimmicky pop r&b reminds me more of the peppy Ford Focus. At least three different ways to say ooh-ooh-ooh. Effective cameos from the iconic Stevie Wonder, the generic Julia Michaels, the useless Meghan Trainor, and the fat, deep, obscure Big Marv. Plenty of sex. Less love. Enough love nonetheless. A MINUS
* * *
Tinashe: Aquarius (RCA)
Any stroke can stretch an orgasm, any sound can state a beat ("2 On," "Wildfire") ***
Oceaán: The Grip EP (Rough Trade)
The—all right, an—erotic truth for an epoch of signal-impaired courtship and the phone pulsing every time you get a new sext ("Grip," "Veritas") **
Robert Christgau is the self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics." He currently teaches at NYU and published multiple books throughout his life. For nearly four decades, he worked as the music editor for The Village Voice, where he created the annual Pazz & Jop poll. Follow him on Twitter.