Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

The cornucopia is drying up, as cornucopias will. These historically correct gift ideas simply aren't as stellar as those I assembled last Christmas, even if they are as much fun. Besides, six of them came out in 1991. And right, I haven't heard a great box all year.


BILLBOARD TOP HITS--1984 (Rhino) With '80s nostalgia as certain as Lloyd Bentsen, I tested the Carly Simon Principle by snapping all five of Joel Whitburn's 1980-84 samplers into the changer. If Carly could get lucky on the radio, why not Rick Springfield, Air Supply, Journey? But for four years it was ugh, yuck, and pee-yew, with occasional relief from Blondie rapping and skanking, "Bette Davis Eyes" and "Maniac" staggering under the dreck, Men at Work's gift from Oz. Then all of a sudden CHR dawns--and after four Brits and Eddy Grant in two years, we get five black artists, five U.K. artists, and "Talking in Your Sleep." It didn't mean much--this was also the year of Reagan rampant, with "Karma Chameleon" the only vaguely progressive moment. But give two cheers for formal evolution, the mass marketplace, the pleasures of false consciousness, and England swinging like a pendulum do. A

CHIC: The Best of Chic Volume 2 (Rhino) Not the hits, as Ken Barnes notes defiantly. And about time, as I might say. They never would have written "Good Times" without disco hanging around their necks, and then where would we be? But only after they tired of that round did the sparest and smartest of the great funk bands make their move. Believe me, kids, three of their four '80s albums--the grooveful Tongue in Chic, the light-hearted Take It Off, and the serious Real People--are worth scouring the vinyl bins for. But bless Barnes for skimming the cream; I could niggle, but in fact left-field picks like the fancy-schmancy Risqué ballad "Will You Cry" and the acoustic Soup for One fantasia "Tavern on the Green" only deepen your astonishment at their intelligence, intensity, sophistication, spirituality, and verve. Oh yes, all that--there's no music like this, including the hits. It just keeps dancing. A

THE COASTERS: 50 Coastin' Classics (Rhino) They were great comedians, but they were also the most musically accomplished vocal group of the '50s. Their ensemble precision cuts the Moonglows, even the Clovers, obviating the need for a takeover guy like Frankie Lymon or James Brown. Credit tenor Carl Gardner, baritone Billy Guy, and bass men Dub Jones and Bobby Nunn, but grant authorship to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, control freaks among Atlantic's mere perfectionists--Stoller used to write King Curtis's sax breaks, for God's sake. Leiber takes off from Louis Jordan no less than Chuck Berry does; though his hyperrealism is more calculated, he brings the same bemused, admiring outsider's eye to the details and universals of black urban life that Berry brought to bobbysoxers. And Stoller's piano is invariably the best thing on records that get the most out of musicians as diverse as Barney Kessel, Mickey Baker, Willie Dixon, Panama Francis, and a young guitarist named Phil Spector, who would live to take what he learned here too far. A PLUS

JOHN LEE HOOKER: The Ultimate Collection 1948-1990 (Rhino) An ageless modern, the first blues primitivist-not-primitive: "Ain't no heaven/No burnin' hell/When I die/Where I go/Nobody knows." I could do with less Delta solitude and more urban anger, from 1948's "War Is Over (Goodbye California)" (on Specialty's stretched-thin Graveyard Blues) to 1967's "The Motor City Is Burning" (on MCA's boogieful The Best of John Lee Hooker 1965 to 1974). But just by collecting signature songs from 11 different labels, this 31-track double-CD captures his primal-not-simple beat at an unprecedented level of specificity. A MINUS [Later]

HOOSIER HOT SHOTS: Rural Rhythm 1935-1942 (Columbia/Legacy) They played flute, clarinet, slide whistle, and bass horn. They specialized in Tin Pan Alley novelties like "Connie's Got Connections in Connectictut," "From the Indies to the Andes in His Undies," and "Girl Friend of the Whirling Dervish." They became stars on WLS's National Barn Dance. They grossed up to five grand a night. They're not mentioned in any encyclopedia I own. And they make Spike Jones sound like a Sartrean existentialist. This is the silliest music I've ever heard. A MINUS

GREGORY ISAACS: Best of Volumes One and Two (Heartbeat) After roots reggae and before dancehall there was lovers rock, a tag devised for U.K.-based women singers and soon seized by JA crooners who'd never escaped their tight little island. Usually for good reason, too--if you don't believe me, check out Dennis Brown next time you have a week to kill. But even if few non-Jamaicans know it, the equally prolific Isaacs--I bet by now he's recorded 500 songs--is a master. This showcases keepers from back when sheathing his sexism and talking that dread both came naturally, though great titles like "Slave Master" and "Night Nurse" and "Extra Classic" would follow, as would a sweeter version of the chilled baritone he eventually macked to shreds. It supplants the now semiredundant My Number One as your chance to decide whether to agitate for a box. A MINUS

LOUIS JORDAN: Five Guys Named Moe: Original Decca Recordings Vol. 2 (MCA) Relativity's Five Guys Named Moe postdates the original original cast. Bear Family's boxed set is too much in more ways than one. Verve's No Moe! classes him up. And Rhino's Just Say Moe! runs out of gas when it up and leaves his Decca catalogue. But this 18-song supplement is even more fun than volume one, because it plays up the jokey side of a guy who didn't become the toast of both coasts doing dramatic readings from James Weldon Johnson. Give me "(You Died Your Hair) Chartreuse" and "Jordan for President" over a straight jump blues any time. And then there's "Jack, You're Dead," which taught Satchel Paige how to grow old, and "Look Out," which one-ups "Beware" for the ladies in the house. If MCA needs another concept, how about Moe Pie Please: Louis Jordan Feeds His Face? Start with "Hungry Man" and "Cole Slaw" and see where you end up. "Louisville Lodge Meeting." "Fat Sam From Birmingham." It could be done. A PLUS

LORETTA LYNN: Country Music Hall of Fame Series (MCA) She's not quite the singer Patsy was and Tammy theoretically remains, but her sense of self is more archetypal--deep country without Patsy's jazzy detours, male-identified without Tammy's sultry masochism. When she was flying she wrote her own songs, the feistiest (and best) the politically incorrect "Fist City" (biff-bam-boom, sister) and "Your Squaw Is on the Warpath" (his metaphor, she revels in it). But the borrowed marital laments of her decline--"After the Fire Is Gone," "When the Tingle Becomes a Chill," and Shel Silverstein's eternal "One's on the Way"--sound lived in. That can happen when you get hitched at 13, have four kids before you're 20, take off at 26 with a song that goes "Success has made a failure of our home," and stand by your man. A

TAJ MAHAL: Taj's Blues (Columbia/Legacy) I used to regard Taj as a walking Afro-musical encyclopedia, but the more I listened to this endlessly listenable anthology the less derivative he seemed. Nobody else has ever sung blues this way--cutting rural slack with urban hyperconsciousness, he's Jim Crow's bumpkin turning into Zip Coon's dandy without the negative vibe of either stereotype. Sly and cocky, but so full of fun you don't resent it, he sneaks beats from all over the diaspora under these mostly classic tunes as he shows off the effortless size and avidity of his voice and the National steel-bodied and acoustic 12-string he tiptoes out with. A

YOKO ONO: Walking on Thin Ice (Rykodisc) Four CDs of Patsy nod me out, four of Aretha make me wonder, but six of Onobox get me going. Often not great and sometimes awful, they brim with previously unheard or unnoticed highs. This 19-cut condensation skips the educational stuff and ought to convert anybody with better taste than Albert Goldman--namely, you. As a student of Western composition, an adept of Japanese vocal technique, and an avant-gardist sworn to throw convention to the wind, Yoko was unready to rock three different ways. Yet on the four early songs the transparent simplicity she strives for sounds truer than the dumb authenticity of Elephant's Memory, and by the '80s she's mastered a studio-rock art-pop whose unremarkable timbres and textures are subtly transformed by her inappropriate training. A transparently simple, transcendently self-conscious triumph of the will--and of the "Woman Power" she was corny and prophetic enough to crow about back when she was the weirdo who broke up the Beatles. A

THE SPINNERS: A One of a Kind Love Affair--The Anthology (Atlantic) Through high-res doowop and mutant Motown, Bobbie Smith, Henry Fambrough, and Pervis Jackson have been at it since 1961. But they achieved greatness by providing late arrivals Thom Bell and Philippé Wynne a battlefield. Producer Bell was cool, calm, commercial, and classically trained; lead-singer-by-acclamation Wynne was a free radical, a soul man more out of it than Al Green. Midway between his departure in 1977 and his death in 1983, I saw Wynne do a P-Funk cameo that remains one of the most electrifying live performances I've ever witnessed. But neither his solo nor his group recordings do more than suggest this high-voltage charge. Instead, Bell--who used to give him the go-ahead to sing what he wanted and then not run the tape--works him for a creamy tension that sounds richer two decades later than it did when the Stylistics and Blue Magic were there to distract us. And Smith, Fambrough, and Jackson are what Wynne tenses against for two hour-plus discs. A

RANDY TRAVIS: Greatest Hits Volume One (Warner Bros.) The consumer fraud does his rep an injustice: put all 22 tracks from his two separately sold best-ofs on one CD, where they belong, and there'd be no doubting who's the preeminent country singer of our era. As laid-back as Lefty or Merle with more voice than either, he reaches down to muse in a bass every bit as conversational as the high baritone he beseeches with, and his hits never force an emotion or waste a word. He's a homebody rather than a honky tonker, and he flirts with genre exercise--Lefty didn't need to explain, "I come from the country," or peddle an antialienation homily like "Heroes and Friends." Nevertheless, his style is so consistent that the jumbled chronology will be inaudible to listeners who didn't date their lives by these songs. Not only will it convince you that the genre is his life, but that it has something to do with yours. A

ERNEST TUBB: Country Music Hall of Fame Series (MCA) Snotnoses who think Hank and Lefty make them country fans won't believe how slow, flat, and sentimental the first honky tonker was. And though except for one hymn these 16 selections were all hits, there are livelier and more poetic possibilities that might help dilettantes comprehend his primal unflappability. Then again, so would a quick listen to Red Foley, who wasn't Pat Boone's father-in-law for nothing. Every genre needs an acid test. You may never be the same. A MINUS

KITTY WELLS: Country Music Hall of Fame Series (MCA) Granting Maybelle Carter her own category as traditionalist matriarch, Wells was country's first queen, and though she broke through on the side of the honky tonk angels, her real theme song was "I'd Rather Stay Home"--for her, the wild side of life was a last resort. Once in a while--on "Searching (For Someone Like You)," to be precise--her unadorned longsuffering gets wearisome, but Nashville was a better place after this plainest and most self-effacing of singers started voicing sentiments like "Will Your Lawyer Talk to God," "Mommy for a Day," and "I Gave My Wedding Dress Away." A

WILD ABOUT MY LOVIN': BEALE STREET BLUES 1928-1930 (RCA) I don't know about Frank Stokes or Jim Jackson--acoustic-guitar songsters can fade to gray when their material isn't on the money. But as a longtime addict of Yazoo's Memphis Jug Band double-LP, I bet Cannon's Jug Stompers also have a full CD in them, some of it more tunefully cacophonous than the famous titles compiled here--what did Jim Kweskin know, except how waggish and domestic and untamable jugs and kazoos sound? Immersed in pop and vaudeville and minstrelsy because that was the competition, slick enough for slickers and downhome enough for traveling men, this 1928-1930 stuff is a music of back alleys and medicine shows. Eventually it will spawn jump blues--and rock and roll. A [Later]

Village Voice, Dec. 29, 1992


Dec. 1, 1992 Jan. 26, 1993