Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Sly & the Family Stone

  • A Whole New Thing [Epic/Legacy, 1967]  
  • Dance to the Music [Epic/Legacy, 1968]  
  • Life [Epic/Legacy, 1968]  
  • Stand! [Epic/Legacy, 1969]  
  • Greatest Hits [Epic, 1970] A+
  • There's a Riot Goin' On [Epic, 1971] A+
  • Fresh [Epic, 1973] A
  • Small Talk [Epic, 1974] C
  • Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I'm Back [Epic, 1976] B-
  • Back on the Right Track [Warner Bros., 1979] B
  • Ain't but the One Way [Warner Bros., 1982] B

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

A Whole New Thing [Epic/Legacy, 1967]
Prophetic in their rhythms, racial philosophy, and ostensible gender relations, Sly & the Family Stone scored a string of '60s hits that crystallized a vision of freedom--as Greil Marcus summarized, its complexity, coherence, wild anarchy, and endless affirmation. Unfortunatey, that vision is present only in embryo on this much-sampled debut, which doesn't generate a single song any ordinary fan need remember. [Rolling Stone: 2.5]  

Dance to the Music [Epic/Legacy, 1968]
One great song here--guess what. But highlighted by the 12-minute "Dance to the Medley," the thing moves, a groove album that pits Larry Graham's athletic bass against Gregg Errico's leadfoot drums, with articulate horns and multivalent vocals swirling and punching and meshing up top. [Rolling Stone: 3]  

Life [Epic/Legacy, 1968]
This is where Stone figures out his shit--although the hits were minor on this album, its individual tracks stick, from the dyn-o-mite guitar of "Dynamite!" and the clucking horns of "Chicken" to the no-holds-barred clinches of "M'lady" and the erotic ennui of "Jane Is a Groupee." [Rolling Stone: 3.5]  

Stand! [Epic/Legacy, 1969]
Highlighted but not exhausted by five songs Greatest Hits would recycle just a year later, Stand! revealed the magnificence of which Sly's band would all too briefly be capable. "Sex Machine," which precipitated James Brown's, wah-wahs on a bit, but everything else is etched in Stone, from the equally precipitous "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey" to the Chaka Khan fave "Somebody's Watching You" to, yes you can, "You Can Make It if You Try." [Rolling Stone: 4.5]  

Greatest Hits [Epic, 1970]
As someone who was converted to Sly over the radio rather than at the Fillmore, I still have my doubts about his albums--even Stand! falters during "Sex Machine." But this is among the greatest rock and roll LPs of all time. The rhythms, the arrangements, the singing, the playing, the production, and--can't forget this one--the rhythms are inspirational, good-humored, and trenchant throughout, and on only one cut ("Fun") are the lyrics merely competent. Sly Stone's gift for irresistible dance songs is a matter of world acclaim, but his gift for political anthems that are uplifting but never simplistic or sentimental is a gas. And oh yeah--his rhythms are amazing. A+

There's a Riot Goin' On [Epic, 1971]
Despairing, courageous, and very hard to take, this is one of those rare albums whose whole actually does exceed the sum of its parts. Bleak yet sentient songs of experience like "Runnin' Away" and "Family Affair" lend emotional and aesthetic life to the music's dead spaces; bracing alterations of vocal register, garish stereo separations, growls and shrieks and murmurs, all the stuff that made Sly's greatest hits the toughest commercial experiments in rock and roll history, are dragged over nerve-wracking rhythms of enormous musical energy. The inspiration may be Sly's discovery that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow doesn't mean shit, but what's expressed is the bitterest ghetto pessimism. Inspirational Verse: "TIME they say is/The answer/But I don't believe it." Original title: Africa Talks to You. Length of title track: 0:00. A+

Fresh [Epic, 1973]
Now that the truncated rhythms of Sly's post-dance-to-the-music have become the stomping ground of War (heavy) and Stevie Wonder (bubbling over), Sly takes the lyrics into middle-Dylan territory, exploiting his own genius for hook phrases--"in time," "thankful n' thoughtful," "babies makin' babies"--only to fasten a superabundance of elusive images to a jagged groove. Many of the songs turn in on themselves--one vaguely inspirational number ends with a derisive "cha-cha-cha"--as Sly's vocals shift in tone, texture, and volume and the extra percussion and repeating horn riffs accentuate the music's brutally staccato effect. He seems willing once more to sing of love and fun, of gratitude and the great circle of life, but he also equates his legendary tardiness with his legendary self-destructiveness and comments on his inaccessibility as decisively as is appropriate. Plus a great twist in Sly's relationship with the white power structure: a cover of "Que Sera, Sera." A

Small Talk [Epic, 1974]
Although you can hear different, you'd almost think Sly's sense of rhythm had abandoned him, because his first flop is a bellywhopper--its scant interest verbal, its only memorable song a doowop takeoff. Back to what roots? C

Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I'm Back [Epic, 1976]
The rhythms and vocals may not be compelling, but they're certainly unpredictable. The words aren't great, but they play the margins of black music's romantic-spiritual themes with some finesse. Anyone else and we'd be waiting until he fulfilled his potential. But he already has. B-

Back on the Right Track [Warner Bros., 1979]
This really is Sly's best since Fresh, but the title does give it away, because Sly isn't going to progress by trying to recapture the past. Fresh was a great finale because it gathered five years of energy and innovation into an almost autumnal synthesis. There are cuts here--"The Same Thing," "Shine It On"--that might fit into that synthesis. But there aren't any that could define it, much less suggest a new one. B

Ain't but the One Way [Warner Bros., 1982]
I called Back on the Right Track his best since Fresh in 1979, and for what that's worth it was, and this may even be a little better--the aphoristic snap of the songwriting recalls better days, and the mix generates some heat. But where in 1979 it seemed theoretically possible that Sly was on some track or other, there's no way this'll pull him through--often sounds as if he's not even there. Which he wasn't when Stewart Levine finally converted the tracks he'd laid down in 1980 into 1983 product. What a waste. B

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