Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Choice Bits From a "Sorry" Year

The sane time to pick the year's best albums is in March, after the Christmas late-comers have sunk in, so regard this list as more tentative than usual. I'm sure there are a few obscure albums awaiting my attention right now that I will end up valuing more than many of the lesser records named below. The bottom five or so are pretty sorry, but then, in some ways it's been a sorry year.

My most important reservation is simply that I sense my tastes changing rapidly. A few records that received my normally foolproof A early this year didn't survive the general flabbiness of white rock and the culture to which it speaks--one of them, Todd Rundgren's Something/Anything, has come to sound completely empty to me. On the other hand, two records by black artists that sounded commendable but unexciting to me at first--Bill Withers' Still Bill and Ann Peebles' Straight From the Heart--are now among my favorites. I wouldn't be surprised if in a few months such shifts were even more pronounced.

Basically, this means that I am coming to distrust the "concept album" idea. All this ever meant was that an album embodies a conscious sensibility at a definable stage of development, and any good collection of songs can do that, concept or no.

This year, I elected to disqualify all albums by deceased artists, including Janis and Jimi. If I hadn't, Mississippi John Hurt and Otis Spann would have been in my top 10 with previously unreleased music six and 11 years old. Johnny Shines rates even though the material on his album is four years old because he is still an active artist in pursuit of his idiom. I wish I could compliment some of rock's so-called artists as easily.

  1. The Rolling Stones: Exile on Main Street (Rolling Stones). Incontrovertibly, the year's best, this fagged-out masterpiece is the summum of Rock '72. Even now, I can always get pleasure out of any of its four sides, but it took me perhaps 25 listenings before I began to understand what the Stones were up to, and I still haven't finished the job. Just say they're Advancing Artistically, in the manner of self-conscious public creators careering down the corridors of destiny. Exile explores new depths of record-studio murk, burying Mick's voice under layers of cynicism, angst and ennui: "You gutta cungdro through/I'm gonna sing them uh you/I've got the bell bottom blues/It's gonna be the death of me."

  2. Paul Simon (Columbia). Simon can think as well as feel, and it shows up not only in the lyrics but the music. Many singer-songwriters are affecting jazzy arrangements every bit as limp as the acoustic soft-rock of yore, but Simon's music is tough and spare whether its intention is grating or good-timey. One of the few albums this year with two good Top 10 singles on it. Political lyric of the year: "Peace Like a River."

  3. Manfred Mann's Earth Band (Polydor). After four or five months of continual play, this turned into one of my standards--I play it once or twice a month and it always gets me off. One of those future-rock records that will probably spawn no heirs, even by the group that made it, it is most remarkable for Mann's synthesizer inventions and the high quality of its lyrics, both original and borrowed.

  4. Mott the Hoople: All the Young Dudes (Columbia). Despite intensive recent play, I still find new stuff on this record every time I hear it again. My most recent discovery is Ian Hunter's "Sea Diver." A hopeful sign: The two best songs on the album are non-originals on side one, but side two, with songs from three band members, wears better overall. A future-rock group that may yet top itself.

  5. John Fahey: Of Rivers and Religion (Reprise). My freak fave of the year. This is not a rock record. It doesn't even have words. Just blues-derived acoustic guitar music, mostly unaccompanied. I've never played it for anyone who didn't like it, and if you're in the mood for something peaceful, take a chance on one of the last underground geniuses.

  6. Rod Stewart: Never a Dull Moment (Mercury). Rod's consistency may eventually become tiresome, but this is his best yet. The cuts that sound weak at first get stronger while the good ones maintain. Our greatest troubadour, he picks them as good as he writes them.

  7. Joni Mitchell: For the Roses (Asylum). I hated this when it arrived a month ago, and I'm not positive what I think of it now, but I am sure of this--in terms of sheer aesthetic bravado, it is the year's coup. Mitchell has integrated the strange shifts of her voice into an almost "classical"-sounding music that lacks the attractiveness of good-timing romps like "All I Want" but becomes hypnotic if you give it a chance to work. Lyrically, she is mature and reflective, but very insular, which means that after a while she may sound thin or shrill. Meanwhile, a remarkable work.

  8. Bette Midler: The Divine Miss M (Atlantic). I'm still not sure the biggest, most humane talent to emerge this year can be translated to vinyl, but this record seems to please every non-bigot (a bigot is a professional counter-culturist) who hears it. Vulgarity and taste in the same package--I have the feeling we'll need both to survive the decade.

  9. Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen: Hot Licks, Cold Steel and Truckers Favorites (Paramount). In which approximately eight zany ex-hicks ball the jack through country-rock: "Let the Alabama moon shine its light on me/Way back in those old Kentucky hills of Tennessee."

  10. Bill Withers: Still Bill (Sussex). I underrated this at first because of its pretensions, I think--Withers added a little explanatory note to each lyric, for instance. Now I realize that such earnestness makes Withers the exciting artist he is--proud, black, upwardly mobile, and always conscious of his emotional integrity in the midst of it. Also, he writes and sings real good, and Ray Jackson's arrangements are distinctive.


SECOND 10.

  1. Aretha Franklin: Young, Gifted and Black (Atlantic).
  2. Van Morrison: St. Dominic's Preview (Warner Bros.).
  3. Paul Pena (Capitol).
  4. Johnny Shines (Blue Horizon).
  5. Stevie Wonder: Talking Book (Tamla).
  6. Ann Peebles: Straight From the Heart (Hi).
  7. Bonnie Raitt: Give It Up (Warner Bros.).
  8. Joy of Cooking: Castles (Capitol).
  9. Curtis Mayfield: Super Fly (Curtom).
  10. Spirit: Feedback (Epic).


THIRD 10.

  1. Loudon Wainwright III: Album III (Columbia).
  2. Bob Weir: Ace (Warner Bros.).
  3. Randy Newman: Sail Away (Reprise).
  4. Dr. John: Gumbo (Atco).
  5. Al Green: I'm Still in Love With You (Hi).
  6. The Flying Burrito Brothers: The Last of the Red Hot Burritos (A&M).
  7. Elton John: Honky Chateau (Uni).
  8. Creedence Clearwater Revival: Mardi Gras (Fantasy).
  9. The Kinks: Everybody's in Showbiz (RCA Victor).
  10. Buddy Guy and Junior Wells: Buddy Guy and Junior Wells Play the Blues (Atco).

N'day, Dec. 31, 1972