Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Any Old Way You Choose It Book Cover

Best Singles of 1972

Nineteen seventy-two was a very bad year for albums and a very good one for singles, the first year in my six-year tour as a rock critic when that has been unequivocally true. There have been exciting, innovative albums this year, but for the most part they haven't sold, and since we're talking about popular music, that's a contradiction in terms--innovation in a vacuum. In contrast, most of my favorite singles have been big sellers. In fact, since I listen to singles only on AM radio, they pretty much had to be. Aesthetically, record for record, I think the singles on my list are as exciting as the year's best albums. Some of them are almost revolutionary. But because they sell, they are exciting not only aesthetically but culturally. They can be expected to move and change people in a way no rock album has for years.

It should come as no surprise that so many of the year's best singles are by black artists. Black music has always been geared to the AM radio and the singles market, and now that it is experiencing a surge of vitality unlike anything since the heyday of soul in the midsixties, it dominates the airwaves once again, disseminating a humane and sophisticated kind of racial pride that justifies all the silly struggles with meaningfulness which have weakened it in the past.

Since part of my pleasure in singles is hating a few of them, I will also include my ten-worst list, and since compiling a top ten always leaves me with a bad conscience about omissions, I'll also include a second ten. Singles are so subjective that I wouldn't argue a hard judgmental line on any of them, but I will say that every one of them made me happier than any recent album I can name off-hand. I'll list the worst ten first--might as well end things on an up note.

Tune-Outs

  1. The Doobie Brothers: "Listen to the Music"
  2. Seals & Croft: "Summer Breeze"
  3. America: "A Horse with No Name"
  4. Mac Davis: "Baby, Don't Get Hooked on Me"
  5. Billy Preston: "Outta Space"
  6. Three Dog Night: "Black and White"
  7. The Moody Blues: "Nights in White Satin"
  8. Don McLean: "Vincent"
  9. Sammy Davis, Jr.: "The Candy Man"
  10. The New Seekers: "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing"

Second Ten

  1. B.J. Thomas: "Rock and Roll Lullabye"
  2. Rod Stewart: "You Wear It Well"
  3. The Raspberries: "Go All the Way"
  4. The Jackson 5: "Little Bitty Pretty One"
  5. Bread: "Everything I Own"
  6. Led Zeppelin: "Rock & Roll"
  7. Paul Simon: "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard"
  8. Melanie: "A Brand New Key"
  9. The Temptations: "Papa Was a Rolling Stone"
  10. Johnny Nash: "I Can See Clearly Now"

Top Ten

  1. Elvis Presley: "Burning Love" (RCA Victor). The follow-up is a schlock ballad--whadja expect, "All the Young Dudes"?--but this is the most exciting single Elvis has made since "All Shook Up," sixteen years ago. Not only that, it's dirty. Who else could make "It's coming closer, the flames are licking my body" sound like an assignation with James Brown's back-up band?

  2. Curtis Mayfield: "Freddie's Dead" (Curtom). I wonder whether I'll ever fully digest the complexity of this record, which transmits the bleakest ghetto lyric through the uncompromising vivacity of Mayfield's music. Maybe what he's really telling whoever needs to hear it is that both candor and the rhythms of life are necessary components of our survival.

  3. Aretha Franklin: "Day Dreaming" (Atlantic). The most credible version of the often saccharine domestic fantasy--apparently a reaction to the dangerous turmoil of black family life--that reached its incredible 1972 low in Love Unlimited's "Walking in the Rain with the One I Love." It works because of an imaginative (unclichéd) lyric that is literally about the imagination--supported, of course, by Arif Mardin's arrangement (special credit to Hubert Laws on alto flute) and the transcendent flights of Aretha herself.

  4. Bill Withers: "Use Me" (Sussex). A good, obsessive song about sex without love and how good and obsessive it can be--the perfect complement to this year's power-of-friendship standard, Withers's "Lean on Me." Hook-of-the-year award for Ray Jackson's electric piano riff.

  5. The Chi-Lites: "Oh Girl" (Brunswick). This masterful piece of folk kitsch, suggesting a new kind of male black persona related to but not identical with Aretha's dream-boat, is the best of an important trend--the return of the falsetto group. Not as good as "In the Still of the Night," better than "The Closer You Are."

  6. Alice Cooper: "School's Out" (Warner Bros.). Backing up Alice's vocal, an all-time ugly, is an honest-to-true kiddie chorus that at some indecipherable point is transmogrified into a synthesizer--earphone heads, dirty necks, so twentieth century. Who has ever said more about the crazy dropped-out thrust of hard rock: "We got no class/ And we got no principles/ We got no innocence/ We can't even think of a word that rhymes."

  7. Gilbert O'Sullivan: "Alone Again (Naturally)" (MAM). I can't remember a number-one ballad that I didn't hate by the time it dropped from the charts--not until this one. The secret is not just the leaping brilliance of the lyric--imagine, real compassion amid all the phony crap--but O'Sullivan's cracked whine of a singing voice. Or maybe I'm just getting old.

  8. The Staple Singers: "I'll Take You There" (Stax). A perfectly edited single, with Mavis's raunchiest vocal complemented by exciting breaks from each musician, even the bass player. I wonder what Three Dog Night was doing when that line about smiling faces lying to the races was on every radio. Probably cruising around in a LearJet.

  9. Derek and the Dominoes: "Layla" (Atco). Recorded in 1970, this was the most innovative hard-rock single to hit in 1972, so maybe there's a place for album artists after all. The two greatest hard-rock guitarists (Clapton and Allman) at their densest and most complex as well as their most pyrotechnic. A multileveled masterpiece. All that and an incomprehensible lyric--rock and roll must be alive after all.

  10. The O'Jays: "Back Stabbers" (Philadelphia International). Whenever anyone challenges my singles rap, this is the retort I think of first. The best record ever from the year's top producers, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. A smooth, hard-rocking concoction, it mixes dozens of elements--Latin rhythms and faintly jazzy singing, mellifluous back-up and harsh lead, even strings and brass--into what can only be called the rock and roll of the seventies. The most musically compelling version of the smiling faces phase of an old black-music theme: Trust your brother, but not too damn much.

Newsday, Dec. 1972
Any Old Way You Choose It, 1973


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