Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

Pop Music: The Early Years 1890-1950 [Columbia/Legacy, 1999]
Unlike the equally amazing nine-CD American Pop: An Audio History (still floating around the Net for $70), the sole prize from Sony's misshapen series of two-CD Y2K keepsakes (discounted at Wherehouse.com for $20) relegates the folk to other keepsakes and deals solely in pop: not only "commercial" music, which all records aimed to be, but manufactured music, geared to the demands of a known distribution system. It doesn't avoid schlock (bandleader Ben Selvin, who laid down 2000-plus sides, is a far commoner denominator than Elton John or Celine Dion), and it's got its ringers--14 of these 50 records aren't on Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories charts. But most of the nonhits serve some historical or artistic purpose--in my favorite (conceptually, at least), the Italian American impostor who played Aunt Jemima in the original Show Boat delivers "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," her only release. In general, these tracks are more urban, Northern, immigrant, Jewish, female, female-identified, arranged, literate, timely, faddish, vulgar, sophisticated, expert, confident, compromised, conflicted, and monocultural than their folk counterparts. They're also every bit as fascinating and enjoyable. Education can be fun. Pop is art. A