Users' Guide to the Consumer Guide
The ins and outs of Robert Christgau's criticism
By Robert Christgau
Special to MSN Music
The Consumer Guide has a long history. I wrote my first batch of letter-graded capsule reviews for The Village Voice in July, 1969, and published them regularly till I was hired by Long Island's Newsday in March, 1972. A monthly Consumer Guide was compiled from my Newsday work in Creem, which then reprinted the column after I returned to the Voice in August, 1974, which published the Consumer Guide until August, 1006, when I was fired by new owners. Since I was hardly the only reject, this was no shock, and it worked out well for me, because now I have three gigs. My Rock & Roll & essays appear online in The Barnes & Noble Review. I do regular record pieces at NPR's All Things Considered. And Microsoft MSN Music publishes the Consumer Guide monthly.
Originally the Consumer Guide used an A-to-E grading system that I waggishly explained in the first of three decade-spanning books based on my published columns. These weren't like grades in school -- there were too many B plus records for anything lower to count as a recommendation. Yet every month I rated plenty of albums B or below. By 1990, however, I'd had it with calibrating the not-so-hot. That was for critics, I reasoned -- consumers were just looking for records to buy. So I'd limit myself to what I refer to as "A records," meaning those rated A plus (very rare, three a year is a lot and zero not uncommon, mostly because prolonged enjoyment is so tricky to predict), A (annually there are a dozen or 15 of those), and A minus (in a good year I find 60 or 70). Then there'd be a few "high B plusses" (which I agonize over so long I figure they have something but not quite enough). Only I soon decided there'd be other records I couldn't overlook altogether. At first there were maybe half a dozen of these "Honorable Mentions." But as album production increased tenfold in the '90s, so that twice as many hours of music were recorded annually than there were hours in a year, Honorable Mentions mushroomed. Engaged competence with flashes of inspiration became the essence of our musical condition. I'd changed formats just in time.
Needless to say, whether you care how I rate something is up to you. But let me suggest some possible reasons. The Consumer Guide has lasted so long because many people do find it useful -- record buyers who learn to correct for my taste and exploit my judgment. Critics and some record professionals find that I generally stuff a lot of ideas and observations into these little reviews. And members of both classes who know that at the very least I'm so hype-resistant that my opinions are actually my opinions -- and that I never strike a pose, overrate a record I've "discovered," or come on all idiosyncratic just for show.
For a critic, I have mainstream tastes in a wide variety of genres, which is not to say I'm devoid of prejudices. I like hip-hop and what I still call alt-rock and lots of "world" genres and some country and some folk and definitely some pop. I don't assume that major labels are good or evil. I think some artists peak over 50 and others should retire. My biggest gift is my appetite -- I generally have a record on 12 to 18 hours a day. Rarely do I give anything an A without having passed it through my mind-body continuum at least five times (usually more); even Honorable Mentions get three to five (often more). But my second biggest gift is that I know what I think. I don't write about something till I'm pretty sure how much I like it, and I'm skilled at recognizing when that is.
So what the Consumer Guide provides is a knowledgeable report based on extensive comparison that's beholden to no taste culture or commecial interest. What it doesn't provide is instant raves or next big things, both always suspect and these days epidemic in the online world. Fact is, the appearance of currency and viral novelty and general hotness have become such a big deal in post-print journalism that most records reviewed cannot be purchased in a store -- or, except in "advance," online -- when the reviews first appear. The Consumer Guide adheres to the opposite principle. Generally it goes up the first of the month, and every record it covers has already been released -- if something is scheduled for the second of the month or later, I save it for next time. A lifetime of listening has taught me that, more than movies or even books, recorded music is ideal for re-use. I want to make sure my A albums can be savored and enjoyed rather than chewed up and spat out.
Though I try to be timely, I won't rush to judgment and lay off for a spell when I feel myself forcing a grade. Most A records I get on pretty quick -- I like them once and keep going (although since it's now common for labels to service reviewers slowly or not at all, I often get started later than I'd prefer). But I have no compunctions about giving an A to a record most critics wrote about many months ago, and will occasionally pluck up something several years old. This is even truer among Honorable Mentions, many of them records that hit me right first time, sounded flat the next, and disappeared into a temporary limbo as more engaging music hogged my ear time. It's even worse with Choice Cuts, which list the special track or two that attracted me to a record with no other salient virtues; because determining the latter is such dull work, I often come in very late on these, which can look pretty weird with a song that's long since exhausted its chart run. Duds simply list records unworthy of further comment. I also maintain an unpublished file called Neither for twixt-Dud-and-Honorable-Mention entries. An explanation of the current grading system, with Honorable Mentions broken down for book purposes, was published in Christgau's Consumer Guide: Albums of the '90s. With Voice features like the Christmas gift guide and Thanksgiving Turkey Shoot eliminated, my monthly column in this space generally includes eight to 10 featured records plus a Must to Avoid pan and loads of Honorable Mentions, arranged in order of preference. (Choice Cuts are too. Duds are alphabetical.)
I'll spare you more except to say that I'm no less serious about criticism in this format than in any other. One way I write tight is by assuming my readers are smart and well-informed -- that they have a tolerance for cognitive dissonance and know how to use a search engine (Bing links are now occasionally provided help you out). Those wondering how I've rated artists in the past -- or would like to know who the hell that African guy is -- are invited to visit my website, www.robertchristgau.com. It's highly utilitarian -- just enter an artist in the "CG Search:" bar and voila. Those seeking even more elucidation of my general critical views should click "Books" and then each of the three CG titles. They all come with lengthy introductions. This one has been lengthy enough.