Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Toots and the Maytals

  • Funky Kingston [Island, 1975] A-
  • Reggae Got Soul [Island, 1976] B+
  • Pass the Pipe [Mango, 1979] B+
  • Just Like That [Mango, 1980] B
  • Toots Live [Mango, 1980] B+
  • Reggae Greats: Toots and the Maytals [Mango, 1984] A-
  • Time Tough: The Anthology [Island, 1996] A-
  • True Love [V2, 2004] A
  • Got to Be Tough [Trojan Jamaica, 2020] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Funky Kingston [Island, 1975]
The quick way to explain the Maytals is to say that in reggae they're the Beatles to the Wailers' Rolling Stones. But how do I explain Toots himself? Well, he's the nearest thing to Otis Redding left on the planet: he transforms "do re mi fa sol la ti do" into joyful noise. I wish he had real politics--any Jamaican who can only pray to God about this time tough hasn't ever been compelled to explore all his options--and lately his arrangements have been looser than I'd like, but this is a gift. A-

Reggae Got Soul [Island, 1976]
In Toots the physical voice is all but equivalent to the artistic "voice," the way that term is applied to poets sometimes, and all its warmth, humor, and vivacity come through here. But what has made Toots doubly impressive is the amazing hit songs his voice was attached to. For starters: "Sweet and Dandy," "5446 Was My Number," "Monkey Man," and "African Doctor." None of these has been released on an American Maytals album, and nothing on this album, not even "Rasta Man" or "True Love Is Hard to Find," equals any of them. B+

Pass the Pipe [Mango, 1979]
This isn't as well-crafted song for song as Reggae Got Soul, but because it doesn't assume that "soul" equals U.S. success it's a lot less confused, and I like it more. The music's momentum is unimpeded by bad faith, and the three compositions that do stand out--especially "Famine," as amazing a juxtaposition of horror and good cheer as Jimmy Cliff's "Viet Nam"--sound like great ones. B+

Just Like That [Mango, 1980]
"Turn It Over" is an instrumental. So's "Turn It Up." "Chatty Chatty" is a charming throwaway. So's "Dilly Dally." Let's Get It Together" is a message number. So's "Israel Children." "Journeyman" is about just who you'd hope, for better and worse. B

Toots Live [Mango, 1980]
Toots's spirit and improvisatory verve merit a concert LP, and for a while I thought this one might double as a best-of--I was even ready to hold my fire on the inevitable remake of "Funky Kingston" when offered the first U.S.-album version of his magnificent "5446 Was My Number." But the exigencies of crowd control induce Toots to work that bittersweet ex-con's victory cry as a shoutalong, and when something similar happens to the climactic "Time Tough" I give up. Toots's ability to exult in suffering (cf. the unfortunately omitted "Famine") may be a miracle, but loaves and fishes it ain't. So why should a multitude join in? B+

Reggae Greats: Toots and the Maytals [Mango, 1984]
Jumping all over the place chronologically and indulging his recent crooning ventures, this still isn't the ideal Toots Hibbert record. But it'll do. Leading off with "54-46 That's My Number," as unbowed and compassionate a prison song as any in the Afro-American tradition, it includes the two Harder They Come standards as well as a remake of the primeval "Bam Bam" that proves he doesn't have to croon if he doesn't want to. Because he's never cultivated a deep reggae pocket, tumbling naturally into a rocksteady groove even with Sly & Robbie, the programming doesn't jar as it skips from 1969 to 1976 to 1980. And 1983's "Spiritual Healing" proves he can croon if he really wants to. A-

Time Tough: The Anthology [Island, 1996]
This rocksteady diehard's 1968 "Do the Reggay" named a groove he was too constitutionally uptempo ever to get into; this unspoiled journeyman's soul affinities endeared him to hippie diehards and failed to touch young African Americans, who by the mid-'70s figured the soul that was passe when it came from the South must be pure shuck-and-jive if it came from the islands. So eager to please that only 1988's patently nostalgic Toots in Memphis ever showed the courage of his conceptions, he was also too songful ever to come up dry. I can think of things I miss, such as the heartily discomfiting "Famine." But this is the testament of Otis Redding's love child. His eagerness is a natural force. And his pleasures abide. A-

True Love [V2, 2004]
Opening with glorious versions of two titles not in my recall memory--Willie Nelson's 1993 "Still Is Still Moving to Me," where the composer takes the song away from his host midway through, and Toots's own 1976 "True Love Is Hard to Find," where Bonnie Raitt gives up the caring he needs--this 2004 duet album then becomes a somewhat more generic greatest-hits remake. But with Hibbert's slightly less muscular timbre as roughly soulful as ever, that's more than fine--hearing how vital the 61-year-old remains here just makes his Covid death at 78 feel more vivid, tragic, and unnecessary. Although occasionally there are transformations--Jamaican newblood Shaggy verifying "Bam Bam," funkmaster Bootsy Collins and hip-hop band the Roots adding funk rhythms not riddims to "Funky Kingston," even 44-year-old Fun Boy Three grad Terry Hall claiming "Never Grow Old"--these are remakes, right. But they constitute as fine an album as he ever made. Never grow old indeed. A

Got to Be Tough [Trojan Jamaica, 2020]
Label owner and former Who/Oasis drummer Zak Starkey--who with Sly Dunbar on hand plays guitar here--financed what he didn't know would be a farewell salute from the eternal second banana of first-wave reggae. But when an artist has a bunch of good new songs ready as he pushes 80, now is always the time. What I like about these and Starkey must have too is how conscious they are. Having long favored danceable love songs, he spends most these 36 minutes looking time tough in its ugly face. "Just Brutal," "Warning Warning," and "Got to Be Tough"; bus fares, low wages, invisible pensions, and picking yourself up off the ground. But he's also proud to stand accused for feeding his enemies. A-

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