Sunday, August 10, 2014

Christgau's Consumer Guide: Albums of the '90s (2000)

If Amazon reviews and general word of mouth over more than a decade are any indication, this is widely agreed to be the least of rock critic dean Robert Christgau's consumer guide books. Everyone complains about the byzantine grading schema, with its confusing array of letter grades, stars, and symbology, among which are numerous overlaps and counterintuitive distinctions (viz., turkey v. bomb). But the main problem is elucidated by Christgau himself, in the introduction: "The factoid I latched onto, a possible fabrication that's tres poetic regardless, was that between 1988 and 1998 the number of recordings released annually increased tenfold, to something like 35,000. Even if the 35,000 included a whole lot of singles, which as near as I could tell it didn't, this would mean that there was more music recorded than there were hours in the year—quite possibly twice as much." Me, I have always pinpointed the early '90s as the time when my tastes began to diverge from Christgau, who until then had been a reliable arbiter, albeit with the usual quirks and oddities that come from such work (he presently has a mysterious problem with David Bowie, for example). Just a few years ago the difficulty was thrown into relief when I made a long-term project of picking up as much of his top 10s as I could from his annual "Dean's List," which has so far continued without interruption since 1974 (plus there's one for 1971). I already had many of the albums until approximately 2002, of course, many of them my own favorites too over the years. This was more about filling in the gaps and getting up to date. The result was a little discouraging—a sense he had become more unreliable for me. I heard a good deal of wonderful African music that was new to me, but on other fronts it felt like a kind of samey-ness had settled in at some point: Fountains of Wayne, the Mountain Goats, Randy Newman, Liz Phair, John Prine, Loudon Wainwright, even my beloved Sonic Youth, became way overrepresented in shuffle play, beyond anything that held up even to passing scrutiny, while others with some or very much merit by my lights (notably in the '90s) were slighted, misread, or entirely missing in action: Beulah, Catherine Wheel, Consolidated, House of Love, Lush, Mudhoney, My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, Primal Scream, Ride, and the Wedding Present. These are all matters of taste, of course, and as the old saw has it, a critic can't get to everything—especially when the new saw is that there is more music released every year than there are hours in the year. Discrimination sets in out of necessity, making matters of taste even more crucial in this line of work. That ultimately leaves this particular book at some distance from being a useful consumer guide. Christgau's writing is still in fine form when he stretches out and talks to us awhile, as in the introduction. But more often the language itself is compressed to the point of cramping and distortion, held too close to account to the grading system. I couldn't read through and through this as I had with the first two. And there's the matter of taste. My own is that this should be approached and/or used with caution.

In case it's not at the library. (Better yet, his website.)

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