As one of America's most venerable (read: oldest) and most respected (read: oldest) rock critics, Robert Christgau seems to have made a serious effort to keep up with music both popular and obscure in the 30 or so years since The Beatles disbanded. As such, his regular Village Voice consumer guides are valuable resources for anyone seeking a path through the maze of modern music. But Christgau is no Virgil, and despite his claims of populist objectivity—"the book's subject should be your albums rather than my opinions," reads the snarky introduction—he still likes the sound of his own voice at least as much as the music on which he sets his scopes. What makes Christgau's '90s guide less useful, and by extension less successful, than his '70s and '80s collections is his revamped ratings. One element that earned him the silly nickname "the dean of rock criticism" was his relatively clear and logical use of letter grades to separate the stinkers from the keepers. Overwhelmed by the sheer number of releases throughout the '90s, which he estimates at around 35,000 albums a year worldwide, Christgau has given up any claims of completism and instead focused his efforts on albums he likes or albums of some cultural import or merit. But could his system be more confusing? Letter grades from A+ down to D or so are still used, but so are star ratings (one to three) evaluating honorable mentions, symbols (bombs and turkeys, the latter generally affixed to albums everyone likes but him), and the enigmatic "N" (a vague sense of indifference). Christgau also picks specific songs to stand alone as choice cuts (denoted by a little ham steak), though he never really explains why some albums only merit a mention of a single song and others (even the bad ones) deserve a detailed critique. These new grades have been used in The Village Voice throughout the past decade, but typically not all at once, an error in judgement that robs the book of any sense of scale, context, or comprehension. Still capable of a sharp barb or two (he calls Lou Barlow a "retard" in a Folk Implosion review), Christgau leaves too many of his trademark quips as fragments, which is helpful neither as criticism nor as humor. (Of Gomez's Bring It On, he writes only, "Really da roots-rock—they mean it, man.") Even more aggravating, Christgau rarely deigns to explain any of his many "bomb" ratings, which wouldn't be much of a problem if the little graphic weren't stuck next to such widely praised and high-profile releases as U2's Achtung Baby. At the same time, Christgau is stubbornly beholden to mainstream tastes, often overestimating boy bands and hip-hop while admittedly dropping the ball when it comes to such cultish tastes as electronic music (though his cultish love of Afropop is still very much on display). A true consumer guide requires consistency, and Christgau's '90s guide offers anything but. As a time capsule of one man's eccentricities and unpredictable tastes, it's a perplexing diversion, but as a reference book of any practical value, it's a mess, like a 400-page index with no content.
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