Christgau’s Consumer Guide To Albums Of The ’90s
In his intro to Rock Albums Of The ’70s, longtime Village Voice scribe Robert Christgau claims, “I’ve tried to grade every ’70s rock album worth owning” — an assertion that flirts precipitously with both hubris and foolhardiness. But excepting the much cherished (and by now forgotten) ephemera of isolated local scenes, the conceit, at the very least, has face validity; “every ’70s rock album worth owning” is a graspable, if ultimately illusory concept.
Fast forward to Christgau’s Consumer Guide To Albums Of The ’90s. With the average length of albums ballooning from roughly 40 minutes to 60 and the idea of mass culture a sepia-tinged memory, not even the Dean aspires to completeness — doesn’t even try. In fact, the exponential surge in product that’s followed fast in the wake of digital revolution and cultural fragmentation has engendered a change in his signature column’s methodology.
Where before Christgau’s monthly Consumer Guide capsule-reviewed the entire quality spectrum (the good, the bad and the indifferent — with letter grades puckishly appended), its ’90s incarnation cherry-picks A’s and high B+’s from a vast universe of current releases, relegating also-rans-and-below to a lengthy endnotes section. And though such scale compression portends grade inflation of the worst sort, the change reflects the critic’s laudable desire to sample and process as much “good music” as possible.
Not surprisingly, as a committed generalist, Christgau tends to favor breadth over depth. Thus, even the average alt.country-head probably has a better command of the scene’s players and parameters. Despite a somewhat dismissive mid-’90s thought piece on No Depression and its loosely defined “movement,” Christgau treasures a handful of alt.country-identified standouts (Lucinda Williams, Iris DeMent). But he also dismisses many others (Alejandro Escovedo, Buddy Miller) and simply ignores still more (Mike Ireland, Julie Miller).
Obviously, the reader shouldn’t demand absolute concurrence when consulting an opinionated, expansive survey — not if the survey is doing its job properly. Instead, one should expect a highly partisan, highly committed overview, a tour guide if you will, of the sprawlingly unkempt, often dizzying but nonetheless fun-packed rock landscape. And in this sense, Albums Of The ’90s proves itself a useful, if not invaluable tool.
Interested in sampling a taste of guitar-driven Afropop; how about the benga comp Guitar Paradise Of East Africa. Explored the byways of Harry Smith’s Anthology and hungry for more old world exotica; try the Memphis-specific Wild About My Lovin’. Searching for a reflective oasis in hip-hop’s early-’90s, gangsta-dominated terrain; take a chance on the Digable Planets’ grooveful, jazz-inflected debut.
Albums Of The 90s also includes much thoughtful and thought-provoking coverage of such ’90s mainstays as Nirvana, Pavement, Public Enemy, Sleater-Kinney and alt-lifers Sonic Youth — all rendered in pithy 100-150 word capsules. And though some would deem it willfully obscure (if not opaque), Christgau’s densely packed, deeply textured prose never underestimates the artist or reader. At their best, his pieces ring in the mind’s ear like catchy three-minute pop confections.
True, the ’90s edition Consumer Guide doesn’t translate as gracefully to collection format as one might hope, and true, some of the selections may seem perverse or wrongheaded (hey, I don’t like OK Computer much either). But Christgau’s aesthetic, winnowed and refined over three decades of music processing, is decidedly his own, and his prejudices are easy enough to work around. As a fiftysomething in a putatively young man’s game, he’s far more “hep” than most aging rockers. And as a tour guide, he’s eager to take you places you’ve never been before.