Add N to (X)

Everybody seems to be working up some kind of list. The ink was barely dry on the Village Voice’s annual Pazz & Jop poll when Spin published the “Spin Top 40: We Rank the Best Bands of 2001” (in an issue with—incredibly—PJ Harvey, Moby, and Bono on the front, and the darker-hued Zack de la Rocha, Mos Def, and Chino Moreno inside the fold). Rolling Stone, perhaps influenced by how easy it is to put together its annual “Hot Issue,” recently put out a “Cool Issue.” (Given how thrilling pop music is at the moment, perhaps a “Lukewarm Issue” would be more apt.)

None of these lists, ranks, and ratings meant much to me. In the many arithmetical attempts to make sense of it all, I encountered only one set of numbers that seemed to sing: Robert Christgau, in his annual Pazz & Jop poll essay, revealed that “of the record 1,621 albums named by our 586 respondents, 1,021 appeared on precisely one ballot.” Now that’s diversity.

I’m sure I contributed to that, voting for import albums by Derrero and Black Box Recorder and non-Anglophone discs by Oumou Sangare, Super Furry Animals, and Telek. On the other hand, I also selected four albums that made the Voice’s Top 40—offerings by At the Drive-In, Radiohead, Sigur Rós, and Le Tigre—which is actually an unusually high level of P&J-results accord for me. Now that’s consensus.

In other words, we critics are talking only to ourselves—except when we’re not. Which is more important, the pop-music audience’s connection or disconnection, depends on the context, the mood, the time of day. You say Eminem, I say the Butchies—and it doesn’t really matter. Unless, of course, you take the Christgauian view of pop critics. He believes that we have an obligation to take seriously stuff that sells—to deal with the marketplace, pop’s only quantifiable consensus.

Fair enough, I suppose. I’ve written about Eminem, although I draw the line at finding his “momentous”-ness—Xgau’s word—laudable. But I defy any critic who writes seriously about a wide range of contemporary pop music to come to a full rapprochement with the Hot 100. That’s just not where the action is.

I thought I’d said this all too many times before, so I was going to leave the P&J results alone, despite that fascinating 1,021-out-of-1,621 statistic. But then I finally got around to looking at Christgau’s Consumer Guide: Albums of the ’90s.

In case you don’t pay attention to Christgau, I should provide a little background: He’s been doing this a long time. He started writing about rock in the late ’60s, and he began his Consumer Guide column in 1969, dispensing compact wisdom on the latest rock records and sealing the discussion (sometimes ironically) with a letter grade: A through E—although C- is about as low as he used to go, save for particularly egregious examples of genres he really didn’t like (anything too banally or self-indulgently “sensitive,” generally, although before he fell hard for hiphop he used to really blast misogyny, too). Two previous decades of Christgau’s capsule reviews have also been collected into books, and I refer to them often, both for basic facts and pithy insights.

Things had already become somewhat unmanageable in the ’80s, a decade that saw Christgau simply ignoring some significant pop-music currents. Still, I’m surprised at how far the disintegration proceeded in the following decade. To put it simply, Albums of the ’90s is useless—and darn near unreadable.

This is in large part a matter of formatting. Christgau (like the rest of us) was deluged by new releases: “Between 1988 and 1998 the number of recordings annually released increased tenfold,” he writes, and although he admits that figure may be “a fabrication,” it sounds credible to me. So the Consumer Guide was redefined: only A+ to B+ albums would be included, supplemented by discs classified as “honorable mentions,” as well as lesser ones commended for containing “choice cuts.” As psychic payback for having to listen to albums that no longer fit the plan, Xgau designated some CDs “duds” and did an annual “turkey shoot” of prominent stinkers.

In a monthly newspaper column, this new format was a little frustrating. As the graded reviews got longer, they didn’t necessarily get better, and too much was missing from the impossibly cryptic honorable mentions, choice cuts, and duds. When Christgau designated an album I liked a dud or a turkey—as became increasingly common as our tastes diverged—I wanted to know why.

With the reviews collected in a book, the new format seems even more obtuse. Tricked out with lots of icons, the reviews are barely readable, especially when larded with the addition of some neither-here-nor-there albums marked simply with an “N.” It turns out that Xgau has nothing to say about Natalie Merchant’s Tigerlily, Esquivel’s Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music, and the Wallflowers’ Bringing Down the Horse. I await Roger Ebert’s volume listing films he doesn’t care about one way or the other, or perhaps Susan Sontag’s Novels I Think I May Have Read but Am No Longer Sure.

Albums of the ’90s proves a point the author doesn’t entirely admit to wanting to make: that ’90s pop music was too sprawling for one person—or one aesthetic—to encompass. If so, then how can anyone—even the smart, dedicated, hardworking Xgau—tell us what’s significant?

Well, he can’t. Christgau’s book is notable mainly for its exclusions, including most indie-rock that’s not made by veterans who live in New York and its environs and virtually all British pop music that didn’t break commercially in the United States. (In the decade of the Manic Street Preachers, Catatonia, Super Furry Animals, and Stereophonics, the only Welsh band that gets a mention is the Darling Buds, who rate an “N.”) Also missing are vast swaths of electronica and any world music that’s not African. (Perhaps because of George Harrison, Xgau maintains a lingering suspicion of Indian music, which didn’t serve the critic well in the decade when so much music danced to the tabla’s beat.)

If I had access to the book’s dingbats, I’d mark Albums of the ’90s with a bomb—that’s a dud—not because its individual parts are worthless but because they add up to so much less than a complete view of ’90s pop. Which is not to say that my ’90s list would be any more comprehensive. Nobody could do the decade in 400 pages, even if he or she were physically capable of listening to the 35,000 albums (Xgau’s number again) now released annually.

So instead of a dud, you could call Albums of the ’90s a respectable failure. Either way, though, the book is hardly a rostrum for issuing proclamations about what is and isn’t momentous. If Christgau can banish Fugazi to the appendix of his pop-music epic, I can certainly demote Eminem to a footnote in mine. —Mark Jenkins

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