Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Returning With a Painful Top 30 List

When I was on leave in July, I was already acutely aware that I was depriving myself of the critic's greatest privilege, that of compiling lists of faves at the end of the year. The prospect of missing a year so devastated me that I won my editor's indulgence. Below, a little late, I am pleased to report that you can find my top 30 albums and 10 singles of 1973. Since six of my top 10 albums were also in Dave Marsh's top 10, and three others were reviewed by me in December, I'll skip the usual run-through. The lists themselves are the fun part. Yet it pains me to admit that even the lists don't satisfy me this time.

Last year at this time I was complaining about albums and enthusing about singles, so this year I'll begin by complaining about singles. Despite a burst in early September, when five of my own top 10 were on the air, it was not a good year for AM radio. And I should know--I spent 10,000 miles in a car this summer. I figure it must mean something that the best radio moment of the trip came from a Canadian oldies station, CROK, which illuminated one post-midnight stint in Nebraska with six or seven uninterrupted greats, all pre-Beatle, most revealing impressive erudition. Since there is nothing more self-defeating than to revel in the past--as great teachers from Kahlil Gibran to David Bowie have emphasized, you can't beat Time--I can't be content with that.

Despite the usual danger signs, especially the ever-tightening playlists and the ever-flattening audience base, this doesn't mean that the sporadic, apparently cyclical world of hit music will downswing forever. But the numbers are there. In 1973, there were six or seven I thought were great and I didn't even bother going to 20. The ascension of Stevie Wonder was more than balanced by the decline of Gamble-Huff; my list is full of potential has-beens, and looking at this week's Hot 100 doesn't ease my spirit.

In some respects the album situation is similar--I would have been content to end my top 10 with Aquashow, leaving the last two out of the pantheon. On the other hand, there has been an encouraging upsurge of good-but-not-great albums. But this isn't a trend--the only trend is that there is no trend. Good albums come from every kind of source, and there aren't enough of them.

Still, I can note a few statistical aberrations. Women's music failed to grow at its promised pace, with Bette Midler and Bonnie Raitt turning in good, safe albums below their abilities and Helen Reddy transforming herself (much to my personal regret) into a star embarrassment. Except for Marvin Gaye's new thing--that makes about four the way I count--and the emergence of Al Green as the most accomplished soul singer since Otis Redding, black music, another area of promise a year ago, also seemed to stand still or retrogress. A number of New York acts added some excitement--the Dolls, Elliott Murphy, Steely Dan. None of which has much predictive value.

So here it is. If this seems like an arbitrary exercise in esthetic discrimination, it is. We are no longer blessed with a cultural consensus--I happen to have a lot in common with David Marsh, but it's significant that only three of my top 30 are among Rolling Stone's recommended 12, and vice versa. It distresses me that so many of the best records--Quadrophenia is the best example--fail to reward casual attention. They demand concentration, just like museum and textbook art. Which may just be one more sign that in 1974 enlightenment isn't going to be fun.

LPs

  1. Coulson, Dean, McGuinness, Flint: Lo & Behold (Sire)
  2. Jimmy Cliff et al.: The Harder They Come (Mango)
  3. Al Green: Call Me (Hi)
  4. John Prine: Sweet Revenge (Atlantic)
  5. New York Dolls (Mercury)
  6. Sly and the Family Stone: Fresh (Epic)
  7. The Who: Quadrophenia (Track)
  8. Elliott Murphy: Aquashow (Polydor)
  9. Steely Dan: Countdown to Ecstasy (ABC)
  10. Neil Young: Time Fades Away (Reprise)
     
  11. Al Green: Livin' for You (Hi)
  12. The Allman Brothers: Brothers and Sisters (Capricorn)
  13. Roy Brown: Hard Times (ABC)
  14. Slade: Slayed? (Polydor)
  15. Asleep at the Wheel: Comin' Right at Ya' (United Artists)
  16. Bette Midler (Atlantic)
  17. Roy Wood: Boulders (United Artists)
  18. Grin: All Out (Spindizzy)
  19. Manfred Mann's Earth Band: Get Your Rocks Off (Polydor)
  20. Loudon Wainwright III: Attempted Mustache (Columbia)
     
  21. Marvin Gaye: Let's Get It On (Tamla)
  22. John Fahey: After the Ball (Reprise)
  23. Paul Butterfield's Better Days: It All Comes Back (Bearsville)
  24. David Bowie: Aladdin Sane (RCA Victor)
  25. The Rolling Stones: Goat's Head Soup (Rolling Stones)
  26. Bonnie Raitt: Takin' My Time (Warner Bros.)
  27. The Mahavishnu Orchestra: Between Nothingness and Eternity (Columbia)
  28. Charles Bevel: Meet "Mississippi Charles" Bevel (A&M)
  29. Diana Ross: Lady Sings the Blues (Motown)
  30. Bill Withers: Live at Carnegie Hall (Sussex)

Singles

  1. Marvin Gaye: "Let's Get It On" (Tamla)
  2. Stevie Wonder: "Superstition" (Tamla)
  3. Carly Simon: "You're So Vain" (Elektra)
  4. The Allman Brothers: "Ramblin' Man" (Capricorn)
  5. Gladys Knight & the Pips: "Midnight Train to Georgia" (Buddah)
  6. Steely Dan: "Do It Again" (ABC)
  7. B.W. Stevenson: "My Maria" (RCA Victor)
  8. Grand Funk Railroad: "We're an American Band" (Capitol)
  9. Stories: "Brother Louie" (Kama Sutra)
  10. The Stylistics: "Break Up to Make Up" (Avco)

N'day, Jan. 13, 1974