Tom Hull Book Reviews

Christgau's Consumer Guide:
Albums of the '90s
by Robert Christgau
2000, St. Martin's Griffin

This book claims "over 3800 reviews," but that's more like a sample size. That's far from exhaustive, but no doubt exhausting work for any single reviewer: more than a new record a day, every day for ten years. (For what it's worth, I have a web site where I've rated some 3000 records from the same decade, including many reissues, and it's taken me 8-10 hours/day listening time to accumulate that -- without writing reviews. Much more is hard for me to imagine.) Sure, most are quickly disposed of with icons for Bombs, Neither (good nor bad), short lists of Choice Cuts, or cryptic Honorable Mentions, but in most cases that's information enough. That leaves us with about 1100 single paragraph reviews: mostly "A List" records, with a smattering of Turkeys for balance, perspective, and blowing off a little steam. I don't care much for the Turkeys, but I suppose it's good to know that Christgau actually thought about the likes of Michael Bolton, MC Ren, and the Verve Pipe before sloughing them off. But once you sort through the data, what's left is the broadest and most erudite survey of popular music in our time. Christgau eschews categories since he transcends them: his picks range from Al Jolson to Spring Heel Jack, Sleater-Kinney to Mzwakhe Mbuli, Ruby Braff to Prince Paul, Freedy Johnston to Liliput, Tricky to Garth Brooks. The writing is denser than in previous Consumer Guides: partly the accumulated weight of his experience, partly a bias for the analytical over the informative, and possibly a reaction to the bloat in the music he critiques. This can be difficult, and can send you scurrying off to other guides for background. And by limiting the scope to an arbitrary decade, it lacks context. But these days almost all record guides are tepid committee works, usually locked into a single limiting genre. By contrast, this book offers us a single, coherent critical viewpoint, often brilliant, applied to an impressively broad musical spectrum. This book is unique, and we're fortunate to have it.

Last revised: 12 Feb 2001, 19:59 CST