Tom Hull (critic)

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Tom Hull (born 1950) is an American music critic, web designer, and former software developer. A native of Wichita, Kansas, Hull had an isolated childhood marked by a deep interest in reading, particularly works by absurdist writers and leftist thinkers. While studying at Washington University in St. Louis in the early 1970s, he pursued courses of a similar political vein before a friend introduced him to rock criticism, a flourishing field at the time.

Tom Hull
Born1950 (age 70–71)
Wichita, Kansas
  • Music critic
  • web designer
  • software developer
Alma materWashington University in St. Louis
Periodc. 1974–present
SpouseLaura Tillem

Hull began writing criticism for The Village Voice in the mid 1970s under the mentorship of its music editor Robert Christgau, but left the field to pursue a career in software design and engineering during the 1980s and 1990s. His work for different software companies developing operating systems such as Unix would earn him the majority of his life's income. In the 2000s, he returned to music reviewing and wrote a jazz column for The Village Voice in the manner of Christgau's "Consumer Guide", alongside contributions to Seattle Weekly, The New Rolling Stone Album Guide, NPR Music, and the webzine Static Multimedia.

Hull's jazz-focused database and blog, Tom Hull – on the Web, hosts his reviews and information on albums he has surveyed, as well as writings on books, politics, and movies. It shares a functional, low-graphic design with Christgau's website, which Hull also created and maintains as its webmaster.

Early life and educationEdit

Hull was born in 1950 and raised in Wichita, Kansas.[1] His mother Bessie (nicknamed Bea) was a homemaker, and his father Carl worked for Boeing, and he grew up with two younger siblings, Steve and Kathy.[2] Hull describes his childhood as being "very isolated" and "miserable". He particularly disliked high school, beginning in the 8th grade, and recalls losing enthusiasm for his "first love" of science in the 9th grade because of a "brutish" teacher. About two years later, in January 1966, he dropped out of high school and entered "a very anti-intellectual phase", interested mainly with race cars. Soon after, he began to read books, frequenting the library and bookstores.[3]

Having disliked much of his high school's literature curriculum, Hull gravitated toward Dada and beat writers. He recalls his first book purchase to be The Theatre of the Absurd (1962) by Martin Esslin, which led him to related works by the writers Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, and Jean Genet, as well as the publisher Grove Press and the literary magazine Evergreen Review. The New Radicals, a 1966 collection of documents from radical groups, edited by Saul Landau and Paul Jacobs, impacted Hull profoundly. It offered him a "New Left" political mindset to help rationalize his anti-Vietnam War stance, while leading him to similarly-minded magazines such as Ramparts, The Realist, Liberation, and The New York Review of Books. After reading Staughton Lynd's 1968 book Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism, which Hull says suited his idealistic and naïve ideas about U.S. history, he was shocked to read the Marxist historian Eugene Genovese's severally critical appraisal of the book in The New York Review of Books. Hull wrote a letter to Genovese protesting the review, prompting Genovese to send back a response. At Genovese's suggestion, Hull read his other published works and consequently took an interest in Marxist schools of thought such as the Frankfurt School.[3]

Brookings Hall on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis, where Hull attended college

Hull spent five years reading in his room, occasionally writing, and keeping to himself, before considering college. He attended Wichita State University for one year, before transferring to Washington University in St. Louis. There, he contributed to Paul Piccone's philosophical journal Telos, edited the "quasi-student paper" Notes on Everyday Life, and attended classes taught by leftist thinkers, with Steven Schwarzschild impressing Hull the most.[3] One day, fellow student and friend Don Malcolm shared an essay on the Beach Boys with Hull, who had not been familiar with the band's music since the mid 1960s.[3] Hull was highly skeptical of Malcolm's ideas, specifically his connecting the music to "high art", but their argument sparked Hull's interest in rock criticism, which was a burgeoning field at the time.[4] As Hull recounts:

I learned some things from that experience: that I enjoyed exploring popular music, that it provided me with a sort of psychic balm, and that it gave me something to talk about that nearly everyone in my acquaintance related to. Then I got a day job, left academia, and never read Marxist theory again. In a nutshell, it had become too automatic, too predictable, whereas rock crit in the early 1970s expanded my world.[3]


1970s: Beginnings as a rock criticEdit

Hull's first foray into music criticism began around 1974, after Malcolm had encouraged him to write. Hull read rock-centric magazines like Crawdaddy and Creem, finding encouragement to listen studiously to music and recover from the exhaustion of studying Marxism. "As I rebounded, I found pleasure in rock and a subject for my critical proclivites", he later explained.[5] At the time, Hull worked in a typesetting shop in St. Louis, one of whose clients was St. Louis Today, an alternative weekly newspaper that did not have a regular music columnist. Hull offered himself in the role to the newspaper, who agreed but went out of business before they could publish any of his writing.[3]

Logo of The Village Voice, one of Hull's earliest writing stints

One of Hull's earliest writings was a review of The Village Voice critic Robert Christgau's 1973 essay collection Any Old Way You Choose It. In it, Hull asserted that anyone can write rock criticism, leading him to write "The Rekord Report", which imitated Christgau's popular "Consumer Guide" album-review column. Hull's reviews were published as a four-page insert in Don Malcolm's Overdose, a collection of Malcolm's columns for Washington University's student paper. Hull performed the collection's layout and typesetting in exchange.[3]

After Hull's friends encouraged him to send Christgau the Overdose insert, Christgau sent him back a letter offering a job to write at The Village Voice in New York under his editorship.[6] His first assignment was to review the 1975 Bachman–Turner Overdrive album Four Wheel Drive. "Unfortunately, the [album] was their worst to date, but Christgau and I had sort of a working class bond over the band", he recalls. While he says Christgau had "welcomed me to New York, and further extended my ears … by 1979 or so my desire to write rock crit was flagging, and everyday life was moving on", citing in part the limited workload afforded to him by the Voice.[3] He left the newspaper around 1980, but would later serve as a resource for Christgau's decade-encompassing "Consumer Guide" collection, Christgau's Record Guide: The '80s (1990).[7]

1980s–1990s: Career in softwareEdit

A Z80 processor board, similar to Hull's for his early software designs

Beginning in 1980, Hull worked in software engineering and design, which would earn him most of his life's income. He started by designing software that would execute operating systems for typesetting, first working on an Apple II computer, which he quickly traded for a S-100 bus with Zilog Z80 processor. In his first five years, Hull worked software jobs in New Jersey and Massachusetts, and eventually became the resident Unix systems specialist at a startup company that built a 3D modeling computer-aided design system intended for prepress and packaging design. His job there at various points entailed staff management and leadership of special projects.[3]

Hull also worked on free and open source software, such as Linux.[8] After more than 10 years at the startup company, he left to pursue his own business involving a free software program he had designed. However, the venture failed, and Hull returned to New Jersey to work at a Santa Cruz Operation (SCO) facility. There, he developed kernels for the UnixWare system. In 2000, after the dot-com bubble hurt SCO's value and marked the company's imminent end, Hull was laid off and moved back to Wichita to find a scarcity of good jobs. He considered website design, consulting, and starting a home automation business as potential pursuits, but ultimately wanted to write again.[3]

2000s: Return to writing and web designEdit

After his dismissal from SCO, Hull created an online database – It features his past and contemporaneous writings and a catalog of primarily jazz-based records and reviews, which adopt the grading schema from Christgau's Consumer Guide: Albums of the '90s (2000).[9] The jazz focus originates from Hull's personal collection, gradually built from reading jazz critics Gary Giddins and Francis Davis in the 1970s and 1980s, and from more thorough research of the jazz canon when Hull lost interest in rock during the 1990s, citing the period's domination by grunge and gangsta rap.[3]

In 2001, Hull also created Christgau's website – – at the latter's apartment in New York, where Hull's trip from Wichita had been prolonged by the September 11 attacks and the death of his nephew's wife in the World Trade Center.[10] The website made the majority of Christgau's published writings and reviews freely available for public viewing.[8] The idea for the site was conceived by Hull and went into development after Christgau embraced it in mid 2001. Hull's background in software lent him the expertise to create the website, adhering to a minimalist aesthetic favoring text over graphics, similar to his own site.[3] After went online, Christgau called Hull "a computer genius as well as an excellent and very knowledgeable music critic", and said that "the design of the website, especially its high searchability and small interest in graphics, are his idea of what a useful music site should be."[8] Hull remained involved with the site as webmaster, a role which author and Oxford Brookes University music lecturer Dai Griffiths later applauded. "Anyone who studies Christgau is indebted to Tom Hull for his magisterial work on Christgau's website", Griffiths wrote in 2019 in the academic journal Rock Music Studies.[11]

Robert Christgau (pictured in 2010) – Hull's original mentor, longtime friend, and colleague

In 2003, Hull was enlisted by Rolling Stone editor Christian Hoard to contribute entries for The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (2004). In February of that year, Hull also began writing "Recycled Goods" – a "Consumer Guide"-style column on archival music releases and reissues – for the Chicago-based webzine Static Multimedia at the behest of its editor Michael Tatum. In 2005, Christgau asked Hull to replace Giddins, The Village Voice's longtime jazz columnist, who had quit. Although Christgau was dismissed from the Voice by new ownership the following year, Hull's "Jazz Consumer Guide" continued to be published in the paper for the next several years.[3] During this period, he also contributed to Seattle Weekly.[12]

Hull's "Consumer Guide" reviews encouraged him to survey more jazz records for his own website, which was later expanded as Tom Hull – on the Web to include blog writings on movies, politics, and books. As he explains in 2014, "I've written several million words since 2003, expanded the ratings database from about 10,000 records to 23,000. I've tried to write a bit about everything I've listened to since 2006, so I have at least 10,000 notes on records – some can be called reviews, and some don't quite rise to that level."[3] Christgau, who finds it personally difficult to review jazz in his own writing aesthetic, has since recommended Hull's website for readers seeking advice on jazz albums.[13] In a commentary of Hull's jazz album reviews, Patrick Jarenwattananon of NPR writes:

His picks reflect a remarkably eclectic sensibility, where the mainstream players (Houston Person, Randy Sandke) swim freely among with the modern progressive cats (Kenny Garrett, Donny McCaslin) and the post-modern rearrangers (Rudresh Mahanthappa, Nik Bartsch, Mostly Other People Do the Killing). Seeing as how jazz criticism has historically been dominated by people pushing agendas – e.g. the DownBeat writer who called John Coltrane "anti-jazz" in 1961 – it's nice to see a professional listener with tastes across the spectrum.[14]

Hull has written for NPR Music and worked with Francis Davis in compiling ballots for the project's annual jazz critics poll.[15] He has also voted in DownBeat's annual international critics poll.[16] Information and data from these polls are hosted on his website.[17]

Personal lifeEdit

Hull has lived in Wichita most of his life, although he has relocated to New Jersey, and then Massachusetts, during his software career. He and Christgau have remained friends since the end of their first professional relationship at The Village Voice, seeing each other often in the ensuing decades. Hull told in 2014, "After my first wife died, I visited my sister-in-law in New York pretty often, and usually I dropped in on Bob and Carola [Dibbell]."[3] Christgau introduced Hull to his second wife Laura Tillem, who had been a friend of Christgau's in Boston and worked as an editor. They have been together since 1989.[18]

See alsoEdit



Further readingEdit

External linksEdit