Q and A

These are questions submitted by readers, and answered by Tom Hull.

To ask your own question, please use this form.

April 24, 2022

[Q] 15,000 words & you omit completely any mention of the US State Dept f _ cking around in UKR for the last two decades, the billions of $ of weapons the US has poured into the country and the depredations of Victoria Nuland.

Aside from the total cr _ p Agitprop in the US media, this is the most feeble thing I've read on the topic.

Look at a map. UKR is a buffer state. Rule No. 1 of buffer states: to placate its larger neighbours. Zelensky is an abject failure at this.

A solid 'F'. -- Crocodile Chuck [2022-04-22]

[A] This is sad, especially the notion that smaller states should roll over and play dead to appease or amuse their bullying neighbors. No doubt it happens more often than not, as it's easier to notice the exceptions than the rule: Cuba defying the US since 1959, or Vietnam turning China back in 1979. Ukraine is paying a high price for defying Russia, but those who submit to more powerful neighbors pay a price too. Belarus is an example: a country which defers to Russia, run by a compatible kleptocrat. Of course, you could substitute a bunch of examples in Latin America.

Zelensky is open to second guessing on a number of counts, but he was only elected after Russia had taken a couple bites out of Ukraine, and was threatening more. It would have been prudent to negotiate a partition with Russia, but it's not clear that Putin would have accepted such a deal. So he set about trying to line up some leverage, appealing to the US and EU in terms that further agitated Russia. Still, in the final days before the invasion, it was not Zelensky who was taunting Putin; it was the US, with its leaked intelligence reports, and threats of sanctions (but no armed resistance, which Putin could have misread as an invite).

In great power rivalries, it's not unusual for local proxies to go rogue, to provoke atroities and sabotage efforts at negotiation -- a lesson we should recall from Vietnam and Afghanistan. Zelensky is less obviously a stooge, but he's been so effective at rallying American and European support that his backers have let him run the show. It isn't clear how he'll handle negotiations, and won't be until Putin is ready. In the long run, we may wind up judging him more harshly for letting the war happens and not ending it sooner, but for now his ability to stand up against Russia's imperial conceits is simply admirable.

I don't know a lot about covert US interference in Ukraine politics, but I've hardly neglected more general anti-Russian propaganda since 1991. Even if it wasn't official policy, the US security apparatus was purged of benign internationalists in the late 1940s, and restocked with ardent cold warriors, many of them with deep backgrounds full of anti-Russian loathing (e.g., Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezenski, and Madeline Albright, but there have been many more). These people never had any qualms about kicking Russia when it was down, and they rarely failed to seize upon opportunities to flip a country against Russia. The 2004 and 2014 "revolutions" in Ukraine are examples. I have no idea how much the CIA did to foment those events, but I don't doubt for a minute that they fed and nurtured them, and celebrated in their success. On the other hand, I suspect that there were other outside resources, coming from the EU, from the private sector, even from "philanthropists" like Soros. In particular, various NGOs that purport to promote democracy have, at least historically, been staged as political fronts. Conversely, I have no doubt that there is an extensive network of Russian agents operating in Ukraine, and that they played an outsized role in the separatist movements of 2014. But it's hard to tell how much of each external influence there was, and how effective it was, so I preferred not to dwell on it. But also, it makes sense to me that Ukraine should harbor both pro- and anti-Russian constituencies, and that the shifts toward Europe or Russia reflect popular wishes, as one would expect in a democracy.

It's true that I didn't mention Victoria Nuland in my pieces. She is a prominent neocon, with Ukrainian ancestry and a degree in Russia studies. She rose to prominence in the GW Bush administration, continued with Obama, skipped Trump but was hired back by Biden (Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs) -- a clear signal that Biden intended to push arms into Ukraine as soon as he took office. She is best known for a leaked phone conversation where she seemed to be picking/vetoing possible Ukrainian office holders. Wikipedia has a picture of her and Kerry meeting with "Ukrainian opposition leaders" before Yanukovych was impeached, and before her preferred candidate, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, became prime minister. This tape is often cited as "smoking gun" proof that the US was running Ukraine and using it as a wedge against Russia. That interpretation would be consistent with her history. Also worth noting that her husband is Robert Kagan, a co-founder of Project for the New American Century (PNAC), which started scheming for the Iraq War back in 1997. He was appointed to the State Department Foreign Affairs Policy Board in 2011. His father, Donald Kagan, was born in Lithuania, and has long been a promiment warmonger. Both left the Republican Party to support Hillary Clinton in 2016, and they supported Biden in 2020.

I suspect that the more we learn about the rapport between the Biden administration and Zelensky from Inauguration 2021 all the way to the invasion, the more evident it will become that Russia was being pushed into a corner with no respectable exit. As far as I'm concerned, none of that excuses Putin's invasion, or makes me at all sympathetic to his predicament. But it does show that many of the basic assumptions Washington makes about security and foreign policy are deeply and dangerously flawed.

I've written tons and tons over the years about the malign influence of neocon warmongers and their "humanitarian interventionist" helpers, so I'm surprised that someone who has read me regularly for such a long time wouldn't have noticed that thread in my Ukraine writings.

[Q] I may have missed it in your 23 theses -- eyes are a limiting factor. Sorry if I did in fact pass it over. If not, how do you see the (for USSR) disastrous and certainly motivated "delay" in the invasion of Western Europe as Stalin begged and 5 million(?) Russians died while the west waited to see if the Germans and Russians might neutralize themselves? Individual and Jungian memories of the Great Patriotic War/.. -- Barry Layton, Cleveland [2022-04-20]

[A] I don't know the answer to this, but I'm skeptical that Americans in a position to do something about it failed to see the importance of helping Russia defeat Germany. Sure, Stalin wanted the US/UK to open up a second front in Western Europe earlier than they did, but even after D-Day the overwhelming majority of German forces was aimed at Russia. At least, the US started providing Lend-Lease aid to the USSR even before the US declared war on Germany in December, 1941, which was probably a bigger help than an earlier second front would have been. I'm not sure why Eisenhower waited on D-Day as long as he did, but I doubt any of the major US policy makers were intent on sabotaging Russia. Not that there weren't Americans who hated Communism enough to propose allying with Germany against Russia -- there just weren't many of them. What did happen was that after the war, as the US no longer needed Russia to do the heavy fighting, the alliance fractured and anti-Communists became increasingly prominent, with the US doing all sorts of things Russians would grow to resent. Slighting or forgetting Russia's primary role in defeating Germany was a big one. But as I noted, Russia had a long history of feeling slighted by the West, and the Cold War added thousands of tiny cuts. Perhaps worse, it didn't end there.

[Q] Interesting point. I hadn't thought about that. I would say that both Napoleon and Hitler took the war to Russian soil. They just couldn't sustain it and lost. Would Ukraine even have the capability to actually attack in Russian or are they fundamentally just a small, defensive force? -- Robert Gable, Menlo Park, CA [2022-04-18]

[A] My point was that Russia cannot be invaded and occupied -- even by arguably superior forces, as proven by Napoleon and Hitler. No one thinks that Ukraine could even begin to mount a counter-invasion. There probably are people who think that if Ukraine can continue to inflict serious losses on Russia, confidence in Putin may fade, leading to some kind of coup. That was how Germany defeated Russia in WWI, but the odds of that happening now are very small, for a long list of reasons. The only way out is a negotiated settlement.

It is, of course, possible for Ukraine to attack points in Russia over the border, as has happened at least once so far (an attack on a fuel depot). Doing so could provoke Russia into escalating the war further, and certainly would stiffen Russian morale while making Ukraine look bad. The only way out of that quandry is to negotiate a resolution. The sooner the better.

January 09, 2022

[Q] I notice a few discrepancies in the grades for some albums; for instance, in the "Grade List Search" under Sonic Youth, I find

Sonic Youth: Battery Park, NYC, July 4th 2008 (2008 [2019], Matador) B+(***)

whereas, in the "Rhapsody Streamnotes" I find

Sonic Youth: Battery Park, NYC, July 4th 2008 (2008 [2019], Matador) A−

In this case, the album was originally graded B+(***) and later revised to A-. Somehow, the later change is not reflected in the "Grade List Search" section. -- Siddhartha Kanungo [2021-12-27]

[A] I've noticed a few such discrepancies myself, and don't doubt that there are more lurking unnoticed. It's the result of poor design -- I have multiple places where the same grade is stored separately -- and sloppy execution. Computer science has a process called normalization, where redundant copies of data are replaced by calls to a single source. It's a good idea, but it requires a lot of forethought to implement, and is usually more work to maintain -- unless you count up all the time finding and repairing all the slip-ups.

As it is, when I change a grade, I should have to change it in 4-8 places: the review file, the notebook backup, the year file, the year tracking file, the "md" (music database) file, previous review/notebook files, the indexes (year and artist) to the review files, possibly an EOY file and a metacritic/aggregate file. Of those the review file is the most accurate, but the "md" file is the only one you can readily look up. Unfortunately, the "md" file is usually the one I forget. Some of the others I consider obsolete and rarely bother with. It's messy, but at this point the work to redo it is even more daunting.

When you do find discrepancies like this (i.e., between the Streamnotes grade and the music database), please report them to me.

[Q] Do you still listen to vinyl?

I just started collecting recently, and the experience + sound + physical format is a revelation! -- Piotr, O-side [2021-11-11]

[A] Not if I can help it. I moved all of my vinyl from Boston to New Jersey when I had a job change that paid for it, but most of it remained in boxes in the basement, and a lot of it got water-damaged. I salvaged what I could from that, but when I contemplated moving to Wichita on my own dime, I decided to unload most of what I had. This was 1999, and I got damn little for it, but I saved at least $1000 in moving costs. I think I kept about 300 pieces, and have them nicely shelved, but I hardly ever play any of them. My beloved B&O turntable died after we got here, and I reverted to an even older (and much cheaper) Technics that my wife had before she met me (about 35 years ago), so it's not what you'd call a quality setup. A couple times a year I get vinyl promos, so it works for that.

I've never been much of an audiophile, although my now ancient speakers were pretty good when I bought them, as were my components, but recent replacements (mostly CD changers and computer speakers) are nothing special. I don't doubt that I'd be dazzled by better quality sound, but this setup works fine for what I do (especially given I play everything at low volume, which thankfully my ears can still detect).

[Q] I was getting caught up on your blog posts and found myself lowering my eyes and sighing deeply at your "all tyrants and would be tyrants are on the right" reaction. It seemed almost nostalgic to me. Pretty much my whole life I've shared a similar outlook but take it from this lifelong left wing liberal Democrat that even just a short time in the Seattle/Portland areas would force you to reconcile this belief against the hundreds and hundreds of hard left "activists" rabidly trying to get you fired from your job by attacking you through your employer or shut down your small business through accusations and bad reviews. They'll steal personal photos from social media and deface them in the most humiliating ways they can think of. They attack children via online school groups hoping to shame families into moving. They'll organize a march to a business or residence and destroy property. They'll block a highway. They'll cut of access. All in the name of equity, justice, mutual respect and tolerance. This is all done based on the way something may appear to be in a photo, or because of an out of context partial quote, or even a complete fabrication supplied by one of the dozens of bloggers acting as journalists promoting themselves through confirmation bias. City Council members have no qualms about lying to the media to further the narrative. They hire their own family members and cronies and appoint like minded people to city, county, and state posts where they can officially declare anyone with differing points of view "hate groups" or a "terrorist organization." Almost none of this gets any attention from local (or national) media as they operate in fear of the social justice warriors.

The big lesson of the Trump presidency for me was that the hard right and the hard left are identical mirror images.

As you can probably tell I speak from first hand knowledge so if you should reference any of this in a blog post I kindly ask that you please withhold my name. -- [name withheld] [2021-12-12]

[A] I'm shocked and saddened at your conclusion, and don't see how any fair and reasonable observer could arrive at it, even from spotty and selective anecdotal evidence. Even if the "hard left" were guilty as charged, that doesn't come close to the level of threat and malice routinely voiced and all-too-often practiced by the right (and I'm not just talking about the "hard" cases of avowed white supremacists and ultra-macho militias). And even if it did, I'd still reject your "mirror image" claim due to core principles: the right believes that order depends on a social hierarchy, where some people are privileged to rule over others, and that it's justified to enforce that order with force and deceit; the left believes that all people are equal, and that none has the right to dominate and dictate to others.

After receiving your letter, I wrote to friends in Seattle and Portland to see if they could corroborate your charges. They didn't. One allowed this much: "The hard right in Portland is the cops who kill unarmed homeless people and get a raise. The hard left yells at people about pronouns. It's not the same thing." Another friend, from Berkeley, did acknowledge several instances of "ultra leftist ideological bullying and excluding." As tactics, that sort of thing is counterproductive, but that doesn't vindicate the right. At most, it shows that some of the bad habits of the right have been picked up by people who identify on the left.

I do believe that leftists need to consider tactics carefully, and become more conscious of how their arguments and demonstrations play in the wider world. The left message promotes peace, justice, equity, honesty, openness, cooperation, and public-spiritedness, and our tactics should be consistent with those principles. But it's hard, because the right controls most of the world's wealth and power, and has no scruples about using them to misinform and manipulate, to obscure and confuse issues, and to deflect their own culpability for their intrinsic inability to cope with many of the world's most pressing problems. We need a politically viable left more than ever. And while not everyone on the left may live up to our ideals, they're the only hope we have. So enough with this "both sides" nonsense.

Needless to say, I could write on this at much more depth. I've been thinking of knocking out an outline of a book I'm unlikely to ever write (but someone should). This would start by rehashing my four-era framework for American politics (Jefferson-to-Buchanan, Lincoln-to-Hoover, Roosevelt-to-Carter, Reagan-to-Trump), then add three more detailed sections:

  1. Why the fourth (Reagan-to-Trump) era is anomalous, from its founding on principles opposite of America's liberal tradition and promise, to its degeneration into a party of lies, self-deceptions, incoherence, and incompetence.
  2. A section on how the world works: the major problems facing us in the near- and mid-term future, to figure out what sorts of solutions work and what don't.
  3. A final section on how Democrats can and should campaign, given the real problems we face and the obstacles and enemy they will have to overcome.

This final section should answer this particular question more thoroughly (or hopefully bury it). Democrats need strategy and tactics which broaden their political support, not by compromising or shying away from principles but by advancing them in ways that show their general worth and necessity.

November 19, 2021

[Q] I read your reviews every week and enjoy them, particularly the jazz reviews. Im curious what you think about the job Biden has done so far. I couldnt stand Trump and was happy the Dems took over but i have to say im disappointed in Biden so far. Based on his experience i expected more. Thanks. -- Bob Moeller, Belvidere Il [2021-11-16]

[A] My wife frequently gripes about Biden, but I for one am quite delighted with what he's done so far. For someone who had spent 40-50 years in thrall to Reagan-era orthodoxy, he seems to have emerged with humanity intact, recognizing the need for new ideas and necessary change. He's never been much as a thinker, let alone orator, so he's not especially good at explaining what needs to be done to other people, but he has shown himself to be open and flexible, and forceful when he's needed to -- most importantly during the troublesome Afghanistan exit. Much of this may be attributed to the people he's surrounded himself with -- and I certainly wish he had better picks on foreign policy -- but in the end presidents do pretty much what they want to do, so give him some credit. He's scored a couple of big legislative wins, against long odds, and he's done a lot of good things through executive orders. And while the post-pandemic economic rebound was likely to happen anyway, this one has two key features thanks to Democrats' broader priorities in the recover and stimulus bills (including the first one under Trump, which given Trump's panic over Wall Street was largely crafted by Schumer and Pelosi): wage increases, especially at the bottom of the scale, and increased savings during the pandemic, which are currently driving more consumer spending.

Unfortunately, the Republican propaganda barrage has eroded Biden's public standing, leading the ever-fickle mainstream media astray, not least in their obsession over "inflation" and "supply chain issues," as well as the perennial that government spending leads to crippling debt. Most of this is bullshit, but Democrats haven't done anywhere near an adequate job of getting out in public and explaining that in terms people (and reporters) can understand. I wrote a bit about this in a Notes on Everyday Life post on the Virginia/New Jersey elections. One might argue that the Republican margins in Virginia were largely due to how well they distanced their candidates from the derangement exhibited by Trump and most of the party, what needs to happen is for Democrats to drive home the point that no Republicans can be trusted to address and solve the nation's increasingly dire problems. That's been totally obvious to me for a long time now, but public figures, including a shameful number of Democrats, let that slip by. In this atmosphere, I no interest whatsoever in ragging on Biden. I don't even care to criticize Manchin and Sinema, although if I had the opportunity I'd point out to them that their public disputes and ultimatums are hurting their party and their supporters, and I'd try to reason with them to get to constructive compromises. I recall many occasions where Reagan cited "the 11th commandment," that thou should never speak ill of another Republican. Democrats should pay attention, especially when the media is so stacked against them.

[Q] I was wondering if you've heard the Rubinoos and what your views are if their albums -- Neil Sidebotham, Belconnen ACT Australia [2021-11-03]

[A] I recall the name, and thought I had at least heard their 1977 debut album, but couldn't find any evidence of it. What I definitely did hear was Beserkley Chartbusters Volume 1 (1975), which includes their cover of "Gorilla," but when I streamed their debut, I also recognized their cover of "I Think We're Alone Now" (and not just the Tommy James & the Shondells hit, which I must have heard but wouldn't have placed). I wasn't aware that the band kept going on forever (at least through 2019), and haven't followed up. My general impression is that their originals were meant to sound like obscure covers but more often were merely forgetable.

In the mid-1970s, my circle of friends who collaborated on the first Terminal Zone were especially into what we might call rock revivalism, the broader tendency behind pub rock and power pop. We dated this to Supersnazz, the Flamin' Groovies album from 1969, and to Dave Edmunds' 1970 cover of "I Hear You Knocking." Greg Shaw's Who Put the Bomp? fanzine focused on our interests, although I leaned more toward the UK pub rock of Brinsley Schwarz and Ducks Deluxe, as well as the post-Velvets glam bands: both seemed to sense to need to restore what was lost when rock and roll contracted to rock. Beserkley was a blip on that scene, remembered (if at all) for securing the shelved 1972 tapes of the Modern Lovers. Stiff played a similar role in the UK, but the real breakthrough only came with punk, which revived not the form of early rock and roll but its spirit. And while 1970s punk led to more brutalist hardcore bands in the 1980s, it also cracked the ice, allowing revivalists to break into the mainstream without getting tagged as nostalgiacs -- Bruce Springsteen and ZZ Top are examples. Thus postmodernism came to popular music.

August 24, 2021

[Q] The subscription-only post excerpt from "The Vanishing Legacy of Barack Obama" was long enough for me as well. Trump has, in the end, embraced being the "heel" of American politics, because that's what the Republican Party needed in the absence of principles, ideas and/or vision. There has been a constant attempt by writers on the right and left to make Obama responsible for the election of this miscreant. Should Obama not enjoy a 60th birthday party, because of the resolute "heel turn" in the Republican Party that followed his popular presidency? Do you think an Obama-like gravitas in response to these accusations and absurdities is the best hope for the future health and sanity of American democracy? -- Eugene, Atlanta, GA [2021-08-16]

[A] Isn't there a famous logical fallacy about assuming causality from sequence? [There is: Post hoc ergo propter hoc.] Trump is almost perfect as the polar opposite of Obama, but his election doesn't prove that most Americans rejected Obama, let alone that Obama's faults demanded such a radical change in direction. It seems probable to me that had Obama been able to run for a third term, he would have beat Trump rather handily, but I've come to have a pretty low opinion of the Democrat Trump beat.

I won't try to explain how writers on the right think, but I can give you several thoughts as to why those of us on the left might blame Obama for the rise of Trump:

  1. Obama wasted his first two years when he had a Democratic majority in Congress through efforts at bipartisan compromise, including making significant unforced concessions on the budget/stimulus bill (too many tax credits, not enough spending, nothing on infrastructure) and health care. He could have raised taxes to (or above) pre-Bush levels, and as long as the recession lasted return the revenues as stimulus. With oil prices crashing, he could have passed a carbon tax, which would have prodded businesses and consumers to limit oil and coal usage, putting us in sligthly better position on climate change. Both of these would have undercut the debt overhang issue (which was phony and hypocritical, but hurt him politically). ACA is messier, but had Democrats killed the filibuster, they could have passed a better bill (e.g., one with a public option). With more to show, Democrats might have done better in 2010, and the longer Congress stayed Democratic Congress, the more he could have delivered. This is clearer in retrospect, but the one thing I've always faulted Obama for was dismantling Howard Dean's national Democratic Party organization, which produced landslides in 2006 and 2008, and only focusing on his own re-election in 2012.

  2. Obama totally bought into the Clinton economic program, with much the same people in charge. He bailed Wall Street out of its mess (and didn't prosecute any of their fraudsters), promoted Silicon Valley tech rackets, undermined unions, and left the less favored parts of the nation -- the same ones hardest hit by the recession -- to fester. He was so locked into the status quo that he reappointed Bush's Fed Chair. He also helped businesses less inclined to help Democrats, especially the fracking boom in oil and gas, and he kept up defense spending. He continued Clinton's efforts at negotiating job-destroying, rent-enhancing trade deals. The net effect was that inequality continued to increase, as it had since Reagan, to unprecedented levels. This engendered frustration and resentment, which left some voters open to Trump's demagogy (especially given that Hillary Clinton only promised more of the same).

  3. He promised to change how America thinks about war, then fell right back into the "global war on terror" rut. He kept Bush's Secretary of Defense, and promoted Bush's generals (even the odious and insubordinate Michael Flynn). He escalated the war in Afghanistan, with no success. He pursued drone strikes and targeted assassinations even more aggressively than Bush. His early diplomatic efforts flopped, and were never restarted (although Kerry negotiated deals with Iran and Cuba, which Trump subsequently trashed, as he did the Paris climate pact, DACA, and everything else Obama did by executive order).

  4. Obama's whole Democratic Party organization lined up in lockstep behind Hillary Clinton as the 2016 nominee, and she lost, taking Obama's legacy with her. Only Bernie Sanders dared challenge her, and came close enough to suggest that she was out of touch with rank-and-file Democrats, but no one in Obama's elite circle seems to have noticed or cared.

None of these things really explain why Trump won. The roots of that go back to the insane reaction of right-wing media to Obama's win in 2008. Trump was the only candidate who had a personality to match the inchoate outrage whipped up by Fox. He was an outsider, relatively free of the taint of partisan Washington, but was still able to line up the billionaire right-wing donors with their crazy economic ideas. They gambled that they could control the demagugue, much like the far right in Weimar Germany thought they'd domesticate Hitler. Due to his laziness and incompetence, they had more luck this time -- not that Trump didn't leave quite some mess.

The problem with the 60th birthday party is that Obama is still primarily viewed as a political figure -- loved by most Democrats, loathed by most Republicans, in a time of intense polarization so the distinction matters a lot -- and one expects a certain sense of decorum from public servants (exempting Trump). But Obama is not too old to contemplate a post-presidential career, and he's decided to do it in show business. From what little I've bothered to glean from the guest lists -- slighting old political allies (like David Axelrod) in favor of celebrities like Beyoncé and Tom Hanks -- his party was aimed at making a social splash for his new career. Maybe he came off as a bit of an arriviste, but that appears to be the intent, and as far as I know, such events are routine in that set. (Of course, I'd have to revise this if you found a lot of politically active and/or merely rich guests on the list. Like the Clintons, Obama spent much of his political career sucking up to the rich, so he could never quite shake the notion that his end game was to be one of them.)

I don't have an answer to your final question other than to note that Obama's "gravitas" -- his reason, integrity, erudition, empathy, sanity, faith in a very idealized America few of us even recognize except as myth -- didn't play all that well, even among people who voted for him because the Republican alternative was unthinkable. And it certainly didn't convert his sworn enemies, or even make much of an impression on the swing voters. Maybe as a black man he felt he had to be perfect to get elected, but that made him a different kind of target. Joe Biden is a much less imposing figure, and that element of fallibility seems to be working for him. We live in a world where a lot of things are going wrong (pandemic, Afghanistan, climate), so maybe it's better to have someone who cares and reacts than someone who supposedly knows it all and tries to project confidence.

By the way, that last word brings up another peeve about Obama. His economic team convinced him that the key to recovery was confidence -- much like Franklin Roosevelt opened his presidency with "we have nothing to fear but fear itself." It's a truism that economies rise and fall on confidence and panic. But you can't reverse a panic just by pretending confidence, which is what Obama tried to do. (Ron Suskind's 2011 book on Obama's economic team was called Confidence Men. At the time, Paul Krugman regularly made fun of their faith in "the confidence fairy.") But the problem isn't just that confidence preaching doesn't work. More important is that you lose the edge you had to blame your present woes on the people actually responsible for them -- the greedy bankers and the Bush administration that let them run amuck (and, hitting close to home, the Clinton administration's deregulation moves) -- and the people currently trying to prevent the government from helping (Republicans, starting with Mitch McConnell and his "one-term" austerity agenda).

June 29, 2021

[Q] If it isn't too much work, it'd be great if you could create an index of graded releases for each year from like 1970 onward like on Christgau's site. I'd love if we could get pre-1990 recommendations from your site, or see non-A records you graded pre-1990, since your available lists start from 1990. Thanks. -- Ricky Erickson, New Zealand [2021-06-22]

[A] Best answer here would be to put all of the data in my "database" files into a real database, like I use for the Christgau website. Then I could write scripts to do queries. Several things make that a lot of work, but maybe some day. What's kept me from doing this is that I've never been happy with the Christgau database schema, and as much as I've thought about it, I've never come up with something I really do like. I could get into the technical weeds on that, but suffice it to say: normalizing artist and label names turned out not to work very well (which is largely, but not exclusively, Peter Stampfel's fault, or Christgau's, inasmuch as he insisted on preserving all of Stampfel's aliases); and I wanted to track recording dates as well as the arbitrary release dates Christgau uses, and that complicates things. Still, at this point I could probably come up with a single table that would work ok. The bigger problem would be correcting various discrepancies in 61,078 data records.

Another approach would be what I recently did for 1971, which was to construct a new file by hand. That took a couple days, mostly in research to verify actual release dates. For instance, I originally had Jack Johnson filed with its recording date (1970) instead of release date (1971). A lot of jazz albums in the "database" only have recording dates, as that's what Penguin Guide uses. Also, I wanted to check the original labels -- the "database" often substitues reissue labels, as that's often what I actually listened to. While interesting as a single-year project, I could see that getting real tedious trying to cover every year.

Finally, there is a third approach: I routinely generate a flat table of everything in the "database," so it's possible to write scripts to pull data from it. This is how I generate my Artist Grade Lists, so I wondered if I could spend an hour or so and write a script to pull out lists by release date. Here's what I came up with. The big problem is that the underlying data doesn't have reliable release date data (indeed, it needs to be modeled differently, which means checked and possibly changed for those 61,078 records -- the number comes from counting the number of lines in the file). A more obvious enhancement would be to sort the records by grade. (Sorting by letter grade is a bit of a nuisance, and the artist name sort is messy, too.) That's a bigger job than my time budget allowed for, but not especially difficult. Another enhancement could be to split the data into new and old music lists, based on a recording date heuristic. One could then apply the style of the 1971/2021 lists, minus rank order. It's hard and nearly pointless to try to rank within grade levels anyway.

[Q] It is well known that one of your all time favourite albums is Winter Moon by Art Pepper. There are of course of more string albums by jazz artists, Charlie Parker and Clifford Brown to name two of them. You made it clear in the past that you are not a big fan of Parker (the horn, not the strings I think) but can you elaborate on why you like the Pepper one more then the Brown. Is it the sappy arrangements, the lack of improvisation, it certainly can't be the tone. And why is there no Brown in your list of 1.000 albums for a better and happy life (not even the collaborations with Max Roach or Sarah Vaughan). -- Ziggy Schouws, Amsterdam [2021-06-21]

[A] The vogue for saxophone-with-strings albums may be something else we can blame Charlie Parker for, but it reflects an idea common in the 1950s that strings are classy, as in classical (respectable) music. The result was a spate of albums with formidable saxophone leads over string-laden murk. Parker's 1949-50 strings "Master Takes" fit that description, as do similar efforts by Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, and many others. Still, not all of Parker's strings projects were waste. The smaller string section he used in The Complete Legendary Rockland Palace Concert worked out nicely. Several cuts from that wind up Rhino's Yardbird Suite: The Ultimate Collection, which is easily the best Parker intro ever released, and recommended to anyone who wants to know what the hype is about.

Later saxophone/strings albums are more varied. Stan Getz's Focus is exceptional in that the strings are so distinctive they're worth the attention on their own. The strings on Winter Moon aren't that interesting, but with Pepper's alto (and Stanley Cowell's piano) the album is simply gorgeous -- not a concept I'm especially big on, but there's no simpler way to put it. Nearly everything Pepper did from his Village Vanguard sessions in 1977 to his death in 1982 was extraordinary. I wouldn't say this is better than the rest, but it does stand out.

There weren't many trumpet-with-strings albums, with Brown's by far the most famous. He died in a car crash when he was 25, leaving little more than 3 years of records, but during that brief period he towered above his contemporaries (including Miles Davis). I'm not a big fan of either With Strings or Sarah Vaughan (a Penguin Guide crown album), though I blame neither on Brown, who was rarely anything short of superb. It was sheer sloppiness that I left Brown off my 1,000 Records list. I had 5 of his records in my commented-out candidate list. The obvious pick should have been Study in Brown, although More Study in Brown is on the same level.

I should probably say something more about Sarah Vaughan. I've graded 20 of her albums, none above B+(***), and most well below. Technically, she was one of the greatest vocalists of all time. Her voice was deep and distinct, and her control, especially her timing, was beyond compare. Her early work with Columbia was slaughtered by her string arrangers, but even when given a decent jazz combo she seemed remote up on her pedestal. I have the same reservations about Abbey Lincoln and Betty Carter, who were about as similar as any singers could be to someone as unique as Vaughan.

[Q] What website(s) do you use as resources for new jazz releases, if any? -- Fred, Vancouver, Canada [2021-06-19]

[A] There's no simple answer to that, probably because I haven't found any sites that are broad and complete enough. I pick up information from all over the place, but I only once tried to compile a complete list of jazz releases: back around 2005. Since 2014 I've kept a tracking file, which probably peaked in 2020 with 1891 jazz records (851 rated). I started assembling my EOY list aggregate early, with points awarded for favorable reviews in 50+ publications, mostly as tracked by AOTY and Metacritic, but also including several jazz reviews they didn't track: All About Jazz, Downbeat, Free Jazz Collective, and the jazz columns in Bandcamp Daily (Dave Sumner) and Stereogum (Phil Freeman). I also counted everything Tim Niland wrote about in Music and More. I also consulted the lists maintained by Chris Monsen and Phil Overeem. I also get regular email bulletins from Downtown Music Gallery and SquidCo, although I don't compile them regularly (DMG includes a lot of reviews of old product). I also get a lot of email from labels, publicists, and a few artists, though most of it goes straight into the bit bucket.

This year I've slacked off from my music tracking considerably (thus far, the 2021 file only has 377 jazz records, 252 rated; if you pro rate for 5/12 months, my ratings this year are down 29%, but overall listings are down 52%). One thing I tried was Discogs, but even using their filters { Jazz, Album, 2020s, 2021 } the search offers 3,227 albums, so it's a long slog to find a few items of interest. I've also looked at Jazz Music Archives, but I haven't found a way to scroll back, which really limits its usefulness.

There really should be a free database and software of album release data. I thought about that as a project back in the early 2000s, and was involved in MusicBrainz for a while, but never quite saw eye-to-eye with the project (focus there was on tagging digital files where I wanted to track physical product). I don't know how hard it would be to write an application using their data, or indeed how much useful data they actually have (although a useful ap would motivate people to add data).

[Q] You seem to like her Compass Point output (two A minuses and a B plus), and you've reviewed two of her [Grace Jones] single disc compilations. I wonder what you think of the double disc collection Private Life: The Compass Point Sessions. I would assume it's a no-brainer pick for you, since it contains most of the three albums (looks like about 90%), but it uses longer versions and dub versions etc, so maybe it's de trop? Or maybe the original albums hang together better? Any thoughts? Thanks. -- David, Washington, DC [2021-04-29]

[A] Grading reissues is most often a hopeless and thankless task. By definition, the material is redundant, so its value depends first on whether you already have it -- something the critic doesn't know. If you don't, what effect has age had on interest? There was a moment when it surprised to see the model Jones struck her pose over Sly & Robbie's new wave/dance synthesis, but that moment's passed. I'm not sure anyone needs this music, although I still enjoy (if hardly ever play) the 1980-82 albums, but if you do want to sample it I'd suggest the 11-track Millennium Edition over the individual albums or the 2-CD compilation -- unless you're a DJ, the long versions don't help, and the odds and sods are marginal ("She's Lost Control" is good, but doesn't need 17:00). I'll write a separate review, but it's not good that they left out "Bullshit."

[Q] Was there a better artist during the '00s than Buck 65? I've had both Square and Talkin' Honky Blues in rotation during the past year and my fascination with both albums hasn't waned a bit -- it's just so clear how inspired and durable both albums are. Also, is Laurie Anderson's Strange Angels an A+? I think she flirts with banality far too much for it to qualify even if the good stuff outweighs the bad stuff and the concept of the record is so affecting. -- David [2021-03-31]

[A] Strange Angels is a truly great album. United States Live may also deserve an A+, but at 5-LP/4-CD it's a little mind-boggling. Christgau thinks Heart of a Dog is even better, but I didn't buy a copy, so haven't spent enough time with it (although I can still remember enough that perhaps I should).

I wrote about Buck 65 for Rolling Stone, and his grade list is here. I've never indulged in decadal rankings of any sort, and see no reason to start now.

January 05, 2021

[Q] The December 26, 2000 Consumer Guide on the Christgau website has a Postscript note you added saying that the Merle Haggard review originally included in that CG was "withdrawn by Christgau." The issue was that when he reviewed it, Christgau thought the Music Club compilation included original Capitol recordings when in fact they contained later remakes. When you say that Christgau "withdrew" the review, does that mean he asked you to remove it from the body of the CG and add the post-script, or did Christgau actually rescind the review somehow? I ask because I'm curious if he reviewed the CD simply by looking at the track listing rather than playing it. I can't believe he'd do that - but even a single spin is enough to realize that those aren't the original Capitol recordings. If he did listen to the CD, perhaps that A grade applies to the re-recordings even so. Did your conversation with him about adding the Postscript note address that? P.S. I know this could just have easily been a Xgau Sez question but figured you might know as well. -- Joe Yanosik, NY [2020-12-31]

[A] I hope "withdrawn" was clear enough. The review was removed from the main body of the column, and never put into the Consumer Guide database. I kept it in the endnote to the column in case someone checks it against the original print edition and wonders about the discrepancy. I don't recall the detailed discussion, but I wouldn't have removed any reviews without having been directed to do so. As you've painstakingly pointed out, there are reviews on the website that no longer reflect Christgau's views, but they still appear, because I haven't been directed otherwise, and because the spirit of the website is to archive the printed word.

What's still missing from the website is the letter (as best I recall) published in the Village Voice explaining the withdrawal. I'd be happy to add that if someone can track it down and forward a copy. Music Club was a pretty dodgy label, sometimes programming terrific records but never providing details about where they came from. Christgau reviewed 31 of them, including grade A collections of Lee Dorsey, The Everly Brothers, Los Van Van, Charlie Parker, and Huey "Piano" Smith, and a This Is Ska! compilation that's been permanently lodged in my travel case. Sure, any off-label Haggard collection should be suspect, but he seems to have found the label worth the risk. Even so, he admits he didn't check the authenticity (as he evidently did with This Is the Everly Brothers -- by the way, turns out that the first Everlys best-of I owned was a re-recording, and I'm still partial to some of those versions).

Your speculation that Christgau may have reviewed the album without listening to it is, well, scurrilous. I'm certain that he's never done such a thing. (On the other hand, I did once, based on a single radio cut that I heard too many times under a very high fever. He refused to run the piece until I bought a copy of the LP and played it. He didn't, however, insist that I change any words, and I didn't. He just needed to know that I had listened to the record. See Let's String Up the Outlaws.)

These days I do occasionally (but rarely) flip a record off after I'm satisfied with having written something about it, convinced that the last few minutes wouldn't make any difference. I've also been known to review something based on an incomplete stream source, although I have minimal standards, leading to my recent "Further Sampling" sections. And I often review records based on a single (complete) play, so a degree of uncertainty is baked into the very process. I'm not out to break records (although with 34,698 records graded I may have). I'm just trying to use my limited time effectively.

[Q] Ok, a response not a question. You said you might get back to fiction reading. As a public librarian for 42 years and a voracious reader across genres, I'm taking the liberty of recommending a list by foreign born authors:

  • A Long Petal of the Sea - Isabel Allende
  • Americanah - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Do Not Say We Have Nothing - Madeleine Thien
  • Exit West - Moshin Hamid
  • My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante
  • The Inheritance of Loss - Kiran Desai
  • The Sympathizer - Viet Thanh Nguyen
  • The Year of the Runaways - Sunjeev Sahota
  • Waiting - Ha Jin

Heavy on social and political themes, and all readable.

PS Yes, classic jazz has been a great source of comfort this year. -- Thomas Viti, Westwood, MA [2020-11-23]

[A] I'm slowly working my way through Kurt Andersen's Evil Geniuses (highly recommended), and have several more non-fiction books on the immediate horizon, so my hopes/threats of switching to literature are still premature. When I do, I'm likely to scrounge around the house and see what catches my eye. One book I started long ago and always means to return to is Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, and I know exactly where it is. I have a few hundred novels I bought speculatively in the late 1960s and never got around to -- a mix of classics and then-contemporary yarns -- so there is quite a bit to choose from. I recovered most of my late-teen books when we moved to Wichita, so they're in pretty good shape. (Still, I wonder where my copy of Ulysses disappeared to.)

Beyond that, my wife is a voracious reader, usually alternating mysteries with heavier tomes. She has, for instance, already read three books from your list. (I recognize My Brilliant Friend from the HBO series, and The Sympathizer from her raves.) She has managed to keep fewer books, aside from the bits stored on her Kindle and its cloud, but that is another option. I've never had much interest in e-book readers, but one would have come in handy during yesterday's lengthy blackout.

[Q] Hi, Tom. Over the years, I've found that I align with you with respect to most jazz, other than, for example, the WSQ, and with respect to most rock (although you're way more caught-up than I am). We've never aligned, though, with respect to African music. I'm pretty sure that my first record within that broad category was purchased in the early 1980s, soon after the Village Voice named King Sunny Adé's Juju Music one of the top albums in its annual Pazz & Jop Poll. Since then, every so often, your or Christgau's recommendations have prompted me to listen to other African music, usually compilations. Nothing has really rung any bells for me yet, but now that I'm (stuck) at home, playing a lot more music throughout the day, with all the music available to me via Spotify, what would you recommend if you were trying to sell me on African music--current or historical, or both? Thanks!

PS [2020-11-12]: I guess this is more in the nature of a follow-up to my question. Today, looking for something new to play, I scanned your list of top records, and saw King Sunny Ade: The Best of the Classic Years (1967-74 [2003], Shanachie), Franco: The Very Best of the Rumba Giant of Zaire (1956-87 [2000], Manteca), and Fela Anikulapo Kuti: The Best Best of Fela Kuti (1972-89 [1999], MCA, 2CD). I'll start there. -- Ronnie Ohren, Chicago [2020-11-10]

[A] Sorry for not trying to answer this earlier, but I doubt I can offer much of an answer -- nor am I likely to improve on the well-researched list offered in the follow up. At the time, I replied directly, and offered one more suggestion: Mzwahke Mbuli's Resistance Is Defence (1992, Earthworks), adding a South African example, also one mostly in English with accessible political themes. A few more individual records that stand out, not least for their variety, are: Konono No. 1: Congotronics (2004, Crammed Discs); Baaba Maal & Mansour Seck: Djam Leeli (1989, Mango); Mahlathini & the Mahotella Queens: Thokozile (1988, Earthworks); Thomas Mapfumo: Ndangariro (1984, Carthage); Daniel Owino Misiani & Shirati Jazz: The King of History (1973-79, Sterns); Youssou N'Dour: Nothing's in Vain (2002, Nonesuch); West Nkosi: Rhythm of Healing (1992, Earthworks); Orchestra Baobab: Specialist in All Styles (2002, Nonesuch); Rachid Taha: Made in Medina (2000, Ark 21); Dr. Sir Warrior & Oriental Brothers International: Heavy on the Highlife! (1990, Original Music). Also, of course, the big Serns retrospectives of Franco and Rocherau, and the early Etoile de Dakar compilations. My long list is here (although a detour is needed to pick up North Africa).

I started running into African music in the mid-1970s: Osibisa, a popular band in England in the 1970s led by Ghanaians was probably my first, or perhaps I got to South African jazz (Abdullah Ibrahim and Dudu Pukwana) before. Christgau dates his own interest in African music to John Storm Roberts' Africa Dances, which came out in 1973 but he didn't hear until 1976 -- about the time I moved to New York, where I would have heard it. Since then, I've mostly followed his leads, with slight differences in taste (e.g., he's more into the dry regions of Sahel and Sahara than I am, though I enjoy much of what I've heard).

The appeal of African music to me has always been rhythm, and I don't mind not being able to follow the words (not that I don't enjoy what little French I recognize -- I noticed early on that the former French and Belgian colonies often kept the language, while the former English ones almost never did). I especially like the exuberant pop from 1950-80, like highlife, juju, early soukous, and township jive, much like my taste in Jamaican music runs toward the ska and early reggae periods (and calypso). I play less contemporary African music than I did before 2000 -- partly because my jazz duties have pushed it to the back burner, but also because I never felt like I had the expertise, and it's becoming ever harder to keep up. Back in the '90s Christgau tried to recruit me to review African music (specifically Mbuli), but I shied away. It's even harder to jump in now, not just because the diversity within Africa probably exceeds that of the rest of the world -- that's always been true -- but because global music has soaked in everywhere (not just the rhumba and reggae that always looked back to Africa, but everything, like metal in Kampala).

Of course, I shouldn't have to reassure you that there's nothing wrong with not liking things that others acclaim as genius, or in liking someone else's garbage. Such choices are too complex to be judged.

November 09, 2020

[Q] Always find your book commentary of interest (and expense). But no books about music? Did I miss something? -- Clifford Ocheltree, New Orleans [2020-10-19]

[A] I've occasionally mentioned books on music. Not many, and not often, but I came up with 82 when I took a pass at collecting the notes I've done into a file. The master file contains 4928 book notes, so that works out to about 1.66%, or about 1 in 60. The seeingly small share can be explained several ways: I haven't read many books on music over the last 20 years (although I've gone through periods when I read a lot, especially in the 1970s); in recent years I've tried to focus on political matters, thinking (perhaps foolishly) that I have more to say about such things; and the Book Roundup form is basically designed to survey the range of current thought, giving me a broad picture of the state of the art. I've even gone so far as to collect books by right-wing propaganda houses because they give me a way to gauge the delusions and conceits of their ideology. There may be comparably bad books on music (or any other subject), but no reason to face them.

Still, might be a good idea to do a roundup on music books once or twice a year, perhaps adding other arts to get the numbers up, and/or looking back at my own shelves for older but still valuable books. I've thought about doing something like that for cookbooks, probably because I'm more actively in the market for them, and my own collection is better organized. Another topic I used to read a lot in but haven't lately is science.

October 08, 2020

[Q] As per Bob and Carola, love to one day see your RS top 50. -- Daniel Joseph Weber [2020-09-29]

[A] I figured it wouldn't be too hard to compile one just by editing down my 1,000 Albums for a Long and Happy Life, but 50 albums (which is 1 per year since 1970, or 0.5 since recording got serious around 1920) proved way too tight a squeeze. You can look at my exercise here. There's a list at the end acknowledging some fairly glaring omissions

[Q] In its obituary for Stanley Crouch last week the NYTimes mentioned his essay in Jazz Times called "Putting the White Man in Charge" in which Crouch argued that white critics promote white musicans in order to "make themselves feel more comfortable about being in the role evaluating an art form from which they feel substantially alienated." I've been thinking about that and I am at a loss to think of a white critic of whom that could fairly be said. Nat Hentoff? Gary Giddins? Ira Gitler? Orrin Keepnews? That jazz is an art form invented by Black musicians is indisputable, as is the fact that it is an expression of the best of American aspiration. Certainly it is true that it has been appropriated and diluted from time to time, but I'm troubled by Crouch's apparent belief that the form can only be shared and appreciated by only certain people. Who was Crouch referring to? -- Bill Altreuter, Buffalo, New York [2020-09-20]

[A] Crouch only mentions two critics in his column. One is Tom Piazza, quoted out of context as ammunition for his broadside on Francis Davis. Because Piazza is white, he is seen as having secret insight and authority into the minds of white critics. The charge is patently ridiculous, as is his tangent in deriding all rap as akin to minstrel shows. Why he chose this particular tack isn't clear at first, until he gets around to Dave Douglas (who "is far from being a bad musician, but he also knows that he should keep as much distance as possible between himself and trumpet players like Wallace Roney, Terence Blanchard, and Nicholas Payton, to name three, any one of whom on any kind of material -- chordal, nonchordal, modal, free, whatever -- would turn him into a puddle on the bandstand"). Davis's book is a collection, Like Young. Most of the jazz essays are on black musicians, with the major exception a piece on Douglas.

The obvious name missing from Crouch's column is that of Wynton Marsalis, who was hugely hyped in the 1980s, and in the 1990s took control over Jazz at Lincoln Center, cornering the single largest conduit of money and patronage from the rich of New York to working jazz musicians. I don't know many details, but Wynton had a very narrow conception of jazz ("blues + swing = jazz"), and he attracted a coterie of critics (including Crouch) who followed him in writing everyone else out of the jazz tradition. Wynton's star began to fade around 2000, most conspicuously when Douglas started to edge him out in "best trumpet" polls. That seems the most likely explanation. I've heard most of their recordings, and have given them both mixed grades, but one thing I'm sure of is that Douglas has the superior chops.

I haven't read much by Crouch. My impression is that he can write with considerable insight when it suits him -- which is mostly when explicating artists he admires. On the other hand, his put downs can be crude, displaying prejudice, and hidden agendas. I did read his Jazz Times columns in early 2003, and agreed with JT's editor (in a column defending his firing) that "his columns were becoming tedious, generally alternating between vitriolic rants and celebrations of his buddies." (Quoted by Daniel King in the Village Voice, in a pro-Crouch recounting of the controversy: Hanging the Judge.)

One thing I know for certain about race and jazz criticism is that any attempt to generalize is bound to be stupid and offensive. One thing I am pretty sure of is that no one who cares enough about jazz to write about it is a problem racist. People my age grew up in a world where most prominent American jazz musicians were black, so racists either stayed away or got over it. Since 2000 (or maybe 1980) the demographics have flipped (even without counting Europe, which is less white, especially in London, than it used to be), but jazz is still the most thoroughly integrated music on earth, and its fans understand that.

By the way, Ethan Iverson recently republished his 2007 Interview with Stanley Crouch, which among other things rehashes the Jazz Times column.

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