Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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This looked for a while like the year reissues ran dry. But what the hell. If 1994 ended up providing many of the last-minute Xmas gifts below, 1995 probably will next year--it takes time to catch up with the past. I've included a few straight or enhanced reissued albums as well as the usual best-ofs, insisting on consistency as always. Note that all but the Motowns and the Spike Jones are single CDs. Right, maybe I missed a box or two--Willie Nelson? Then again, maybe I didn't.


THE DRIFTERS: The Very Best of the Drifters (Rhino) Contract singers hired out to contract producers, the post-1958 Drifters were pop product as perfect as Abba or the Archies: where some cite Ben E. King's "There Goes My Baby" as primal soul music, I say Leiber & Stoller's "There Goes My Baby" was the first true rock and roll record with violins on it. Here the product is reduced to 16 songs in 41 minutes--roofs and boardwalks, last dances and numbered tears, this magic moment and some kind of wonderful. Deprived of such professionalism, beach music would be immeasurably poorer. A

AL GREEN: Greatest Hits (The Right Stuff/Hi) With the Hall of Famer's pop oeuvre now in print and worth owning (start Call Me, Gets Next to You, Living for You, Belle Album), this 15-track expansion of the 10-track classic may seem de trop. But unlike Aretha, his only rival vocally, Al never sold himself short in the studio. Where the albums follow the vagaries of genius, the hits exploit Al's personal production line, every one a perfect soul record and a perfect pop record in whatever order suits your petty little values. Brashly feminine and seductively woman-friendly, he breaks free in a register that darts and floats and soars into falsetto with startling frequency and beguiling ease. He's so gorgeous, so sexy, so physically attractive that only masochists want to live without him. A PLUS

HILLBILLY FEVER!: VOL. I: LEGENDS OF WESTERN SWING (Rhino) The strangest style in all American popular music--urban and rural, Eastern and Western, virtuosic and simplistic, hip and corny, swinging and square. Bob Wills was its king, but its minor masters ruled the plains, and despite a stupid, unrepresentative, disruptive Stan Kenton cover, this is the best sampler ever compiled. Not only that, it features a 1937 release with the word fuck on it. A

JOE FRANKLIN PRESENTS . . . THE ROARING '20S ROAR AGAIN (Legacy) The liveliest of a budget series barely scathed by Joe waxing nostalgic to sum up is especially recommended to provincials still unfamiliar with the young Louis Armstrong, who has two of the 12 selections. There are signature songs by Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, and Sophie Tucker, all of whom now sound excessively historical over their own full albums, and tickets to sin like Adelaide Hall's sinuous "I Must Have That Man," Bing Crosby's speculative "Let's Fall in Love," Ruth Etting's underpaid "Ten Cents a Dance," and Blossom Seeley's epochally jaunty "Yes Sir, That's My Baby." This music was nowhere near as safe and quaint as you think. Give it to your grandma and ask her how it felt. A

LITTLE WILLIE JOHN: Fever: The Best of Little Willie John (Rhino) As with the otherwise radically dissimilar Otis Redding, this depthless bantamweight's unique soul power was old beyond its years--a gift of his gene pool more than his life experience. He imbued longing, anxiety, arrogance, pain, lust, and generic escapism with a self-possession that sounds spiritual even if it's entirely somatic. When he cut the shrewd "All Around the World," the bereft "Need Your Love So Bad," and the consoled "Home at Last," he was 17 years old. When he cut a "Fever" so fervid Peggy Lee couldn't top it with a strip-tease, he was 18. When he last charted, he was 23. When he died in the penitentiary, guilty of manslaughter but too good for whatever befell him inside, he was 30. A

SPIKE JONES: Musical Depreciation Revue: The Spike Jones Anthology (Rhino) I've heard bitch-and-hoe jokes funnier than the ugly "Wild Bill Hiccup" and the wife-baiting "Happy New Year." But the king of musical comedy cared too little for sex to let reflexive misogyny stand in his way. He was a stickler for detail in a good cause--the democratic largesse of his panethnic stereotyping reveals Zappa's misanthropic perfectionism for the baseless condescension it was, and no one deserves his panoply of fart noises more than the German tyrant and Italian composers he cut them for. Liberace and Peter Lorre and Maurice Chevalier and I hope tiki music are behind us forever, but the fun he made of them lives on. And the winner is--Fietlebaum. A

NEW ORDER: (The Best of) New Order (Qwest/Warner Bros.) Marvel all you want over Ian Curtis's desperation--I dig the band on the matched Joy Division comp Permanent and prefer detached techie Bernard Albrecht here. Where 1987's Substance showcased the music's remixed, interwoven glory, this pushes Albrecht's mild-mannered vocals as far front as they'll go. Turns out he has normal feelings about love and rejection and such, dislikes war and guns without getting preachy--just super-unassumingly super-catchy, as befits Britannia's ranking pop group. I mean, could Blur or Oasis write a World Cup anthem so rousing, danceable, and informative? A

THE O'JAYS: Love Train: The Best of the O'Jays (Epic Associated/Legacy) The O'Jays were a moderately gifted r&b trio fortunate enough to hook up with Philadelphia International's Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff for an extended if belated '70s run. Smarmy lead Eddie Levert served as mouthpiece for smarmy black capitalist Gamble on such Big Statements (and Small Sellers) as "Family Reunion," which were resuscitated on subsequent compilations. Two decades later, however, this collection leaves the bullshit to Farrakhan and showcases pianist-hookmeister Huff, who along with arrangers Thom Bell and Bobby Martin outfitted the O'Jays in a shifting soul-funk-pop-disco amalgam that was most convincing when you didn't have time to think about it: "Back Stabbers," "992 Arguments," the indelibly bass-hooked "For the Love of Money." "Rich Get Richer" shouldn't have been bypassed. This is everything else. A MINUS

PAUL REVERE & THE RAIDERS: The Essential Ride '63-'67 (Columbia/Legacy) Organized by a Mennonite conscientious objector and fronted by an omniverous pop showman, this was the one American garage band whose recorded output justified the ensuing mythos. Where here-and-gone hitmakers like the Standells and the Count Five were never as good as their best songs, and wild Northwest rivals like the Sonics and the Wailers never even had best songs, these guys sunk their chops into professional smashes ("Hungry," "Kicks") until they figured out how to write them ("Ups and Downs," "Him or Me--What's It Gonna Be"). And long before that, they figured out how to rock out, beating the Kingsmen to "Louie Louie" and daring the previously unreleasable frat-orgy classic "Crisco Party/Walking the Dog." Eventually, they also figured out how to wimp out. But unlike their vinyl best-of, this CD is programmed to cut out first. A MINUS

SMOKEY ROBINSON & THE MIRACLES: Anthology (Motown) The hard truth that minor Miracles songs are just barely carried by the breathy faith and modest grit of Smokey's tenor is softened by the minor miracle of how diligently he nurtured the inspiration that put him on the charts at 18. Granting a few wonderful moments, this gets going midway into disc one, with 1963's "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," my nomination for the best thing he ever recorded. It rolls through 1967's "I Second That Emotion" and then starts wandering--wandering attractively, intelligently, imaginatively, professionally, but with only "Tears of a Clown" (and its follow-up, the graciously sarcastic "I Don't Blame You at All") worthy of serious payola. A MINUS

SONIC YOUTH: Screaming Fields of Sonic Love (DGC) Would have been funny to start with Daydream Nation and concoct a perfect Goo-style song album in reverse chronological order. Only they didn't have the material. So instead they concoct a meaningfully imperfect song-and-mess album out of several perfect ones and several meaningless ones. This is less funny. A MINUS [Later]

HOWARD TATE: Get It While You Can: The Legendary Sessions (Mercury) The CD biz caught up with both Great Lost Soul Men in 1995. Razor & Tie's The Essential James Carr documents a Memphis depressive who feels everything and understands nothing, and although the half that wasn't on Blue Side's 1987 At the Dark End of the Street is markedly less distinctive than the half that was, it'll sure make you wonder what Eddie Vedder has to get so upset about. Tate is a blues-drenched Macon native who had the desire to head north and sounds it every time he gooses a lament with one of the trademark keens that signify the escape he never achieved. He brought out the best in soul pro Jerry Ragovoy, who made Tate's records jump instead of arranging them into submission, and gave him lyrics with some wit to them besides. In return, Ragovoy brought out the best in Tate. So corporate politics be damned--I'm docking this a notch for ignoring their great lost '72 Atlantic collaboration. A MINUS

THE TEMPTATIONS: Anthology (Motown) The Tempts were too good for their own good--good enough to placate what was once called the adult audience with so-called "standards." Fortunately, the horrible examples that blotch their catalogue are held to "The Impossible Dream," which closes disc one with a dull, symbolic thud. Whereupon they start fronting Norman Whitfield's funk group, which was one of the best. Personally, I would have skipped a few Motown subclassics for a little of the crazy and mellifluous late doowop they made back when Paul Williams was their soul man and Berry Gordy hadn't finalized his formula. But as any American should know, "My Girl" and "It's Growing" and "My Girl" and "I Wish It Would Rain" and "My Girl" and "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" and "My Girl" are the essence of that formula--and also, if he was as lucky as we hope, of David Ruffin's tragic life. A

THE WHO: The Who Sell Out (MCA) Back when they were as underground Stateside as Jefferson Airplane or the Mystery Trend, their charm was that they didn't take their pretensions seriously. This illusion was perpetuated beguilingly on their only great album, an exultant tribute to top 40 consumerism in which sleek, glorious singles yield gracefully to dumb, catchy ads--all paced as if the world's smartest AM jock has been stricken with laryngitis and forced to juggle 45s and carts until help arrives. There are no bad songs here, ads included--my three favorites, "I Can See for Miles" included, are "Tattoo," "Armenia City in the Sky," and "Heinz Baked Beans," none of which most AORheads ever heard. Plus 10 bonus cuts that are good for something. A PLUS

JACKIE WILSON: The Very Best of Jackie Wilson (Rhino) I don't begrudge Wilson his three-CD box. Excess is the essence of the man; no point liking him if you can't abide a bit of schlock. What's that you say? Can't hear you with the band blaring. All right, a lot of schlock. Musically, the most transitional of the early masters was the creature of Dick Jacobs, whose orchestral overkill make the guys who buried Bobby Bland and Joe Turner in brass sound like acolytes of Louis Jordan. From "Lonely Teardrops" to "Baby Workout," Jacobs's rockers are suitably--i.e., supernaturally--sharp. But he felt more at home beefing up Saint-Saens, Tchaikovsky, and Pagliacci, and Mr. Excitement felt honored by the company. Raw and wild though Wilson could be, his spectacular chops sold him on a nightclub circuit that catered to big-band fans. So if you actually can't abide a lot of schlock, stick to this rocking condensation and learn why "Danny Boy" is a folk song. A

FRANK ZAPPA/THE MOTHERS OF INVENTION: We're Only in It for the Money (Rykodisc) Whatever his ultimate standing as social critic or present-day composer who refuses to die, Zappa was everything he claimed to be on this 19-cut, 40-minute sendup of the Summer of Love. No, it wasn't like this; most of the naive teens who lost-and-found themselves in the Haight were sweeter and smarter than the "phony hippies" he lacerates with such hopeless contempt. But that doesn't mean his cruelty isn't good for laughs. And not only is every wee tune--motive, as composers say--as well-crafted as a Coke commercial, they all mesh together into one of those musical wholes you've read about. With bohemia permanent and changed utterly, this early attack on its massification hasn't so much dated as found its context. Cheap sarcasm is forever. A

Village Voice, Dec. 26, 1995


Nov. 28, 1995 Jan. 23, 1996