Christgau is known for his terse, letter-graded capsule album reviews, first published in his "Consumer Guide" columns during his tenure at The Village Voice from 1969 to 2006. He has published three books based on those columns, beginning with Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies (1981), along with two collections of essays. He continued to write reviews in this format for MSN Music, Cuepoint, and Noisey—Vice's music section—where they were published in his "Expert Witness" column until July 2019, when the final edition was published. Shortly after, he announced that he is "considering self-publishing at one of several sites designed to facilitate such ventures".
Christgau was born in Greenwich Village and grew up in Queens, the son of a fireman. He has said he became a rock and roll fan when disc jockey Alan Freed moved to the city in 1954. After attending a public school in New York City, he left New York for four years to attend Dartmouth College, graduating in 1962 with a B.A. in English. While at college his musical interests turned to jazz, but he quickly returned to rock after moving back to New York. Christgau has said that Miles Davis' 1960 album Sketches of Spain initiated in him "one phase of the disillusionment with jazz that resulted in my return to rock and roll". He was deeply influenced by New Journalism writers such as Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe. "My ambitions when I went into journalism were always, to an extent, literary", Christgau later said.