OUR GUIDE TO THE BEST CRITICS: ROCK MUSIC

THOSE WHO HEAR MUSIC IN THEIR SLEEP | March 14th 2008

Patrick Fugit in "Almost Famous"

In our fourth instalment of "Reviewers revered", Tim de Lisle, Tom Shone and others name their favourite rock critics. One specialises in "velvet slayings"; another makes her sentences sing. (Read our introduction to the series here, as well as our selection of favourite critics of books, films, and dance, art and classical music) ...

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE

In our list below, the name at the top is the nominee, and the nominator is listed as a sign-off. For more about our contributors, see our introduction.

*****

SASHA FRERE-JONES

(The New Yorker, about twice a month)

When Sasha Frere-Jones first landed in the New Yorker, nobody even knew what sex he or she was. The writing was so good on just about everything from rap to country that many suspected a dastardly plan, concocted by those clever folks at the New Yorker, to bedevil the strait-jacketed niche-marketing of the American record companies. Then you re-read the reviews and you know the truth: the man listens to music in his sleep. ~ TOM SHONE

Pop music is such a generational thing, it's rare to find a critic who can address a wide audience with authority. Frere-Jones not only knows his stuff, but writes with great insight and elegance--and you can't tell how old he is. ~ MICK BROWN

ROBERT FORSTER

(The Monthly, first Wednesday of the month)

Forster is a rock critic with a major difference: he is a successful singer--mainly with the Go-Betweens--who writes on the side. He does it so well that he beat all Australia's full-time critics to the 2006 Pascall Prize for Critical Writing. He specialises in gleeful endorsements and velvet slayings. Making good music isn't easy, so he explains, and seldom cringes, when it goes bad. He's awake to producers, mixers, marketers, songwriters-for-hire; to "not too disconcerting lyrics about the boy-girl situation". In three years as a critic, he's hardly written a dead sentence yet. ~ CHRISTIAN RYAN

  

LAURA BARTON

(The Guardian, alternate Fridays)

There are many solid pop critics, but strangely few who make sentences sing. In Britain, the rock writer with the best voice is Laura Barton, whose freewheeling fortnightly column is music to your eyes: soulful, rhythmic, fearlessly open, and fully engaged with life, not boxed off from it. ~ TIM DE LISLE

  

RICHARD WILLIAMS

(The Guardian, about once a month)

For pleasure, I read Laura Barton (above); for edification, her colleague Richard Williams, whose reviews are sporadic as he is now the Guardian's chief sportswriter. A former rock critic of the Times and editor of Time Out, Williams has been an authoritative guide to good records since at least 1971, when he discovered Roxy Music. ~ TIM DE LISLE

  

GREIL MARCUS

(Interview, monthly)

Marcus's "Mystery Train" (Dutton, 1975) is the best book ever written on the subject of rock's complicated relationship with folk history. His eccentric, multi-directional column in Interview is called "Elephant Dancing: the who, what, the wow and the why". It runs the rule over all the peculiar things which have captured him lately. There are no star ratings. Merely cool stuff is of no interest. What Marcus likes is the big picture and the details which fill it right to the edge. ~ NICK COLEMAN

  

MARCUS BERKMANN

(The Spectator, once a month)

Berkmann's column, which has run for more than 20 years, is only monthly but the wait is invariably worth it. He has tremendous comic timing, is quite unswayed by fashion, and seems to operate completely outside the industry, buying his own music and enthusing about it--or rubbishing it--just like any normal consumer. ~ SIMON O'HAGAN