Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

Louis Armstrong: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: 1923-1934 [Columbia/Legacy, 1994]
I don't mean to start a parlor game, but does greatest artist of the 20th century mean anything to you? I mean, who else you got? Picasso? Joyce? Renoir? Elvis? So here's one $50 item you owe yourself. I doubt it could be winnowed much--expanded would be better (where's "I'm Not Rough"?), with four-plus hours an ideal introductory length. If some of it is less beatwise than a punk funkateer might hope, try to imagine how startling it sounded in an aural world that was still on the operetta standard, where John Philip Sousa ruled brass and Scott Joplin was jungle music. Then pay attention. Home in on Pops's trumpet solos--their strength, clarity, daring, ease, humor, swing, melodicism, and endless newness. Enjoy his irrepressible vocals without calling them comic relief--the comic is everywhere in this music. Get to know the brilliant originals. Hear how he takes over blues and hokum, pop classics and pop disposables without belittling his sources. Ask yourself whether high and low mean any damn thing at all. A+