Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

Etta James: Her Best [MCA, 1996]
In addition to her junkie ways, her hack support, her adoring claque, and her bewildering discography, what makes James a myth and a secret at the same time is how hard she is to classify. Blues, jazz, pop, rock, soul--she's all of these and none, because what she really is is r&b, in its original sense: blues so fetching white people can't help but love 'em even though they're aimed at young blacks. She's got that kid thing--a big reason her dirty voice is such a permanent scandal is that for all the hard experience she conveyed at 15 she still sounds underage as she comes up on 60, never outgrowing a sensibility she was old-beyond-her-years for as she worked through the '50s and behind-the-times with when she hit in the '60s. She's been recycled as relentlessly as the grease in a french fryer. But from the makeout-party schmaltz of "Sunday Kind of Love" to the Muscle Shoals fatback of "Tell Mama," this 20-song exploitation finally gets her sensibility right. A