Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Back Catalogue

Jimi Hendrix

The doomed guitar king records a career's worth of albums in four years

There's no discography in rock like Jimi Hendrix's, not because he died at 27 but because--unlike Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain, all also gone at 27--Hendrix was a true improviser. So in his case, the inevitable outtakes and concert tapes merit prolonged attention. Not counting inaudible R&B backings now finally suppressed by his estate, Hendrix's studio career began in October 1966 and ended when he asphyxiated on his own vomit in September 1970. While alive he generated three albums with the Jimi Hendrix Experience (Brits Noel Redding on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums) plus the live Band of Gypsys LP (Africa-Americans Billy Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums). That he left behind a much vaster body of important music reflects his enduring status as the greatest electric guitarist ever. How many versions of "Foxey Lady" do you need? Start deciding here.

Classic

*****

ARE YOU EXPERIENCED?
Experience Hendrix/MCA, 1967

Try to hear this bombshell debut as an English pop record--only two of the 11 skillfully placed tracks, three titanic bonus cuts and three fascinating B-sides run over four minutes, and hooks abound. You could hum these tunes. Yet humming definitely doesn't capture their essence, a roiling sea of guitar that would change how a generation of fans heard music and conceived their own blown minds.

*****

ELECTRIC LADYLAND
Experience Hendrix/MCA, 1968

"It wasn't just slopped together; every little thing you hear there means something," said Hendrix of his two-LP masterwork, his final completed studio album. And though it isn't perfect, perfection wasn't the idea. No previous rock album had flowed like this, and while jazz albums often support as many contrasting sonic moods, Louis Armstrong himself didn't match Hendrix's appetite for sound effects and general silliness. His spaced-out spirituality is the fullest musicalization of "psychedelic" ever accomplished.

*****

VOODOO CHILD: THE JIMI HENDRIX COLLECTION
Experience Hendrix/Universal, 2001

This budget double--18 studio tracks balanced by 12 live recordings--whups the 20-track Experience Hendrix: The Best of Jimi Hendrix. Beyond "Manic Depression," it omits no essential songs. Several arrive in uncanonical live versions, but you can't comprehend Hendrix without some of those. Despite climaxing with "Wild Thing" at Monterey rather than leading with it, disc 2 stands as his best live album.

Great

****

BLUES
MCA, 1994

"That sound was really--not evil, just a thick sound," Hendrix said of the Muddy Waters and Elmore James records he heard at his dad's parties. Though it's reductionist to define Hendrix as a bluesman just because he was black, he melded Chicago blues and country blues and interplanetary blues and bent blues like a supernatural. His sound was even thicker than mentor Albert King's, yet it could get as fanciful as prime Skip James.

****

BBC SESSIONS
Experience Hendrix/MCA, 1998

Seattle native Hendrix was already a veteran of the R&B circuit when ex-Animal Chas Chandler brought him to England and gave him a group. Instant sensations in London, the Experience were regular guests at the BBC, where they got to work out material under better-than-live recording conditions. There's dross and duplication here, but the sound is thinner on Rykodisc's more judicious 1988 Radio One, and all three versions of the jamming "Driving South" belong.

****

LIVE AT WINTERLAND
Rykodisc, 1987

It's been eclipsed sonically (Berkeley) and conceptually (Woodstock). But this pioneering digitalization, piecing together songs from three San Francisco nights in October 1968 to simulate one uninterrupted concert, redefined posthumous Hendrix and remains a surpassingly realistic live keepsake.

Good

****

WOODSTOCK
MCA, 1994

Hendrix's Woodstock performance with the under-rehearsed Gypsy Sun and Rainbows band wasn't his greatest, but its aura is enhanced by this condensed reconfiguration--deleted in favor of the real-time, warhorse-laden Live at Woodstock once the Hendrix family gained control of its favorite son's catalogue.

****

FIRST RAYS OF THE NEW RISING SUN
Experience Hendrix/MCA, 1997

"If you give deeper thoughts in your music, then the masses will buy them," Hendrix said, and if he'd finished this double LP his dreams might have come true. But as reimagined by longtime engineer-collaborator Eddie Kramer, it's less startling musically than Electric Ladyland and not too profound lyrically. It's also a powerful collection by a genius whose songwriting kept growing and whose solos rarely disappoint. Alternative: Polydor Russia's The Cry of Love/War Heroes combines two early-'70s posthumouses.

***

LIVE AT BERKELEY
Experience Hendrix/Universal, 2003

Hendrix's last band was his best. Holdover drummer Mitchell understood both his straightahead momentum and his taste for adventure, and army buddy Billy Cox's bass grounded the music rhythmically as Noel Redding could not. This well-recorded live disc documents a full set from May 1970, with Hendrix energized by the easing of the tour grind manager Michael Jeffery had long imposed.

Be Careful

***

AXIS: BOLD AS LOVE
Experience Hendrix/MCA, 1968

True believers praise the spaced-out lightness of his second album, released just half a year after Are You Experienced? But since Hendrix immediately heavied up again, figure they're kidding themselves--half the songs are forgettable as songs if fine as recordings, and there's even some pro forma guitar. Not much, though, and to hear Mitchell going wild on tracks even briefer than the debut's is to nudge Keith Moon over on his freestyle drumming pedestal.

***

SOUTH SATURN DELTA
Experience Hendrix/MCA, 1997

Discographically presumptuous though this melange of odd tracks, alternate takes and previously unreleased songs is, it establishes the listenability of Hendrix's dribs and drabs. Crazies with time on their hands and somebody else's credit card can have a not dissimilar experience with the four-CD The Jimi Hendrix Experience box.

**

BAND OF GYPSYS
Experience Hendrix/Capitol, 1970

The now deleted Band of Gypsys 2, unveiled early in the CD era, was preferable to this overrated 46-minute concert LP, laid down New Year's Eve 1969 with the solid-to-stolid Cox-Miles rhythm section. The project was a ploy if not quite a scam, conceived to satisfy a legal judgment that required Hendrix to give Capitol an album on the basis of a commitment incurred working with R&B journeyman Curtis Knight. The world's greatest guitarist sure leans on the wah-wah here.

For Fans Only

**

BLUE WILD ANGEL: JIMI HENDRIX LIVE AT THE ISLE OF WIGHT
Experience Hendrix/Universal, 2004

Three weeks before his accidental death, Hendrix headlined at a notoriously ill-starred festival, where his set was weary and dispirited. It wasn't terrible, as the two CDs and DVD-with-interview-exposition make clearer than necessary. But there are many better ways to spend 40 bucks.

**

LIVE AT THE OAKLAND COLISEUM
Dagger/Experience Hendrix, 1998

This competent unauthorized mono recording of an April 1969 concert has now been certified by Experience Hendrix's majordomo, Jimi's step-sister Janie Hendrix, whom he barely knew. It's a bootleg, it sounds like one and it's expressly "not intended for the casual fan." Big deals: 18-minute workout on "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" and, heart be still, a guest shot by Jefferson Airplane's Jack Casady.

*

POWER OF SOUL: A TRIBUTE TO JIMI HENDRIX
Image, 2004

In which aging stars and young souls try to prove that Hendrix's compositions, as opposed to performances, will earn royalties forever. Songwriting wasn't Hendrix's strength, but don't blame him for this--he was too busy reinventing the guitar to anticipate the tribute album. The two best tracks are by people who were as dead as he was when it came out, and the main thing it proves is that Hendrix's guitar isn't inimitable, just unduplicatable.

Blender, Dec. 2005