Sunday, September 16, 2012

Christgau's Record Guide: The '80s (1990)

It's possible that Robert Christgau's second volume of his record guide is actually better than the first. Some of the irregularities that weakened the '70s volume were likely as not the result of Christgau feeling his way into his ultimate format of the letter-graded, pellet-sized assessments. The writing is markedly improved and more uniformly focused in the second, it has a better sense of what it can do. But it was never going to feel like the breakthrough of that first one, and it's also arguable that the '80s albums he covered just weren't as good, in the overall aggregate, as the '70s albums (arguable, I say, though I would not necessarily want to be the one to make the argument). What I know for sure is that whereas keeping the '70s volume around only gradually disclosed all it has to offer, with this follow-up, armed with exactly that information, I felt justified in sitting down and reading it like a novel, front to back, Introduction and Gregory Abbott, Shake You Down ('86, B+), to ZZ Top, Afterburner ('85, B), and all the delicious lists in the appendices. Then I put it in one of my more convenient stacks of reference books with the '70s volume. If I say I am very fond of the range of reaction Christgau provokes in me, I really mean that sincerely. He is just a pleasure to read, to browse, and to compulsively poke through. I know he can be annoying, gnomic, and full of himself. And he is the first to note that the sheer mass of industry releases, whose growth has continued unabated throughout his career, finally ran him to ground at some point in the '80s or '90s. But if he can't realize his ambition, which is to have a little something to say about everything within the narrow range of the contemporaneous rock album, he is also as reliable as rain, pointing any number of useful ways in to nearly as voluminous an amount of cultural product by metric ton as only a few others I can think of (and they are all in other areas or more general ones, such as David Thomson's encyclopedia of the cinema, or Montaigne). I am daunted, humbled, and grateful just thinking about all the stuff I know about via Robert Christgau. He is strong in a number of areas where I am weak: folk music, African music, certain select New York City acts (Dolls, Blondie, Chic, Talking Heads, Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, Amy Rigby), lots of funk, dance, and hip-hop, and all the boomer icons. Plus Al Green. You could do much worse than to assign a certain portion of your shopping dollars to tracking down his A's. He is the consummate professional in this regard, delivering what he says he's going to deliver, a consumer guide—even if he remains pointedly skeptical of the commercial infrastructure breeding and nurturing the objects of his (and our) adoration. It's that ability of his to work within this tension that might make him so effective. I have no question that he's effective. Oh, and wow, I just now noticed how beat up my old copy of this is.

In case it's not at the library.