Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Originally I had grander plans--an all best-of Consumer Guide that would cover the reissue boom as well as the usual output of greatest hits collections by contemporary artists. But the volume got out of hand, so I decided to split the job in half, which means you'll have to wait a while for graded evaluations of Blind Lemon Jefferson and the Music Machine. My guidelines are simple if arbitrary--I've defined contemporary as beginning in 1970 and included only compilations that earned a B plus or better. Every album below (there are 19 instead of the usual 20) is worth owning by me, with a caveat. Evaluating best-ofs is tricky because the music they highlight is available in other forms, and there are a few titles below (by Burning Spear and Iggy Pop, obviously, but perhaps also Bob Marley and even Wire) that force the prudent consumer to ponder the pros and cons of duplication, the conveniences of reprogramming, and the eternal truth of the ripoff. In my view, a best-of is redundant if it steers listeners away from richer configurations of the same music. Admittedly, this was more of a problem in the High Album Era than it has been since the singles aesthetic began to reassert itself with disco and punk, and it's possible some will want to invest in the redundancies I've catalogued in Additional Consumer News--especially the Bowie, the second side of which is a remarkably compelling digest of his post-Station to Station work for RCA. Detailed decisions will have to be based on cut-by-cut comparisons of jacket listings. All I can guarantee is that every album I've reviewed here, not one of which I paid for, sounds pretty damn good to me.


JOHN ANDERSON: Greatest Hits (Warner Bros.) Except maybe for Ricky Skaggs, this folksy eccentric sings fewer embarrassing songs than anyone in country music. Unlike Skaggs, he plays at innocence rather than striving for it, which is why there always seems to be something comic bubbling under the eager warmth of his voice. And as you soon learn from lyrics like "Black Sheep" and "Swingin'," he's unlike Skaggs in another way as well: he's not a moralistic tight-ass. A

BURNING SPEAR: Reggae Greats: Burning Spear (Mango) Spear's back-to-Africa wail can enthrall Babylonians with no particular interest in reggae, though it's probably too out for dabblers who consider their Marley and UB40 albums exotic. He's a left-field classic, like Hound Dog Taylor or Jimmy Rogers in blues. Unfortunately, this compilation, devised solely to take its place in Island's new Reggae Greats series, invites hair-splitting. The 1976 debut Marcus Garvey is more of a piece, which matters with a prophet of autohypnosis like Rodney; the 1979 compilation Harder Than the Best configures eight of the same tracks more gracefuly. Scout around for both before putting money down on this substitute. But don't be afraid to settle. A MINUS

JERRY BUTLER: Only the Strong Survive: The Legendary Philadelphia Hits (Mercury) Like Billy Paul, who struggled vainly to fill his slot at Gamble & Huff Inc., Butler was pretty jazzy for pop, but unlike Paul he wasn't vain about it--instead of italicizing the artistry of his big voice, he phrases so you can hear him talkin' to ya. And of course it's just this unassuming sophistication, this taste too considerate to acknowledge its own exquisiteness, that makes a simple 12-hit chronology so imposing. Dream merchant indeed. A MINUS

J.J. CALE: Special Edition (Mercury) When he came up, Cale seemed one more carrier of the laid-back contagion, but fifteen years later, with the contagion dispersed into the adult-contemporary ether and its carriers in hock up to their souls, you have to respect him for the principled bluesman he's proven to be. Principled, but distinctly minor--only convinced narcoleptics want the complete set. The rest of us will be happy to stop at this compilation, though we'd be happier if it didn't pass up "Call Me the Breeze" and "I Got the Same Old Blues" for more up-to-date entries. B PLUS

JOHN CONLEE: Greatest Hits (MCA) Conlee sounds the way Merle Haggard would if Merle sang through his nose and didn't like jazz. He may even deserve his billing, "The Common Man"--apparently he still works a farm and drives to Nashville in a pickup. The sole romantic ballad here drips with contrition--like most country artists he's more at home with sin than with grace. And like 'most everybody he's better off when he gets away from such polarities--on the thematic "Backside of Thirty" and "Common Man," and especially on "Friday Night Blues," about a guy who's too bushed to go out with his wife. A MINUS

THE CRAMPS: Bad Music for Bad People (I.R.S.) One hears loose talk of minimalism from their demented admirers, but except for a few realists, which these artistes ain't, cartoonists are minimalists by definition. So how do they draw? Crudely, but with an undeniable flair. And are they good for a few laughs? Boiled down to greatest jokes they are. My favorite is "She Said"'s slavering geezer. B PLUS

GAP BAND: Gap Gold: Best of the Gap Band (Total Experience) What a waste. If ever a band cried out for that corny old fast side/slow side split, it's the creators of "Burn Rubber," "You Dropped a Bomb on Me," "Early in the Morning," and, God spare you, "Season's No Reason To Change." Taken in a single rush, the uptempo classics (augmented by a few expert imitations, including "Party Trains"'s imitation Gap Band) would stand as twenty-five minutes of rock and roll so spectacular you'd never think to turn the damn thing over. B PLUS

GEORGE JONES: By Request (Epic) At least there's a rudimentary honesty to the title--this compiles the legend at his most broad-based, and while I'd request half of it myself, only the Ray Charles duet can't be found in more exciting company. [Original grade: A minus] B MINUS

BOB MARLEY & THE WAILERS: Legend (Island) This painstaking package captures everything that made Marley an international hero--his mystical militance, his sex appeal, his lithe, transported singing and sharp, surprising rhythms. And oh yes, his popcraft, which places him in the pantheon between James Brown and Stevie Wonder. Though he had a genius for fashioning uncommon little themes out of everyday chords, he was no tunesmith--"No Woman No Cry" and "Redemption Song" could be said to have full-fledged melody lines, but from "Is This Love" to "Jamming", most of these gems are hooky chants. Which given his sharp, surprising rhythms only makes them catchier--play either seven-cut side twice before bedtime and you won't know where to start humming next morning. A

MOTORHEAD: No Remorse (Bronze) The critics who used to call Motorhead the worst band in the world had a point, which may be why Lemmy's high-speed metal has now turned into the thinking person's headbang. The stuff is so pure it's almost rarefied: no operatic declamations, no schlocky guitaristics, no satanism or medievalism or sci-fi or sexist s&m. Just aggression, violence, noise. Lemmy doesn't even bellow--his voice is more a hoarse, loud, one-note roar. This tasteful two-disc best-of-plus-four (new and definitive: "Killed By Death") is the first Motorhead product praised by Headheads since No Sleep 'Til Hammersmith, eight of whose eleven songs it includes (the eight best, too). Unless you've got an extra Y chromosone or beat your meat till it bleeds, you likely don't need it on a regular basis. But it'll sure come in handy at those precious moments when you want nothing so much as to smash somebody's face. [Original grade: B plus] A MINUS

PARLIAMENT: Greatest Hits: P. Funk, Uncut Funk, the Bomb (Casablanca) Clinton, Collins, Worrell & Co. always saved their funnest riffs (and scored their smashest hits) for P-Funk's kiddie half, which means that these radio-length condensations of the peaks toward which their concerts unwound (and around which their albums cohered) constitute their most tuneful and atypical LP. In a band that made a point of prolonging foreplay, it's like a serial climax, and the effect can be exhausting and even disorienting. But as you might imagine, it's also very exciting, an opportunity to concentrate on the deep vertical pleasures of music that makes forward motion a first principle. And as you ought to know, it was always the dense layering of whomever's guitar, Worrell's keyboards, Collins's bass, and Clinton's crafty vocal arrangements that made their forward motion stick. A

TEDDY PENDERGRASS: Greatest Hits (Philadelphia International) Heard in retrospect, Teddy's solo ascendancy seems a quantum more relaxed than his indenture with Harold Melvin--the aural equivalent of Tom Selleck, though Teddy isn't quite so coy about how much pussy he gets. It also seems more seminal than I would have figured, the inspiration for midtempo come-ons by everybody from Jeffrey Osborne and Al Jarreau to the creaky old O'Jays and Isleys. Teddy even induces a normal guy like me to enjoy this deplorable trend. Slick-talking greaseballs like Eddie Levert and Ronnie Isley are a social menace, but hunks like Teddy are just wonders of nature. And thank God there aren't too many of them. A MINUS

IGGY POP: Choice Cuts (RCA Victor) Give or take some song-shuffling and a minor substitution, side one of this strange piece of product comprises side one of Ig's 1977 Bowie-produced The Idiot and side two comprises side one of Ig's 1977 Bowie-produced Lust for Life. Makes you think Bowie knew what he was doing--"Jimmy, please, what do you say we put the, ah, less accessible things on the B?" Though I would have subbed with "Success," that's a quibble on such a consistent album, and though I find that the less accessible things retain their narrow interest, I admit that this is the first time in the '80s it's occurred to me to listen to them. Obviously, no one who owns the originals needs this record, but dollarwise students of that long-ago time should be grateful. Too bad they'll never hear "Dum Dum Boys." A MINUS

GIL SCOTT-HERON: The Best of Gil Scott-Heron (Arista) Good that he refuses to shy away from explicit revolutionary reference, but 1980's "Third World Revolution" would have spared us the "hairy-armed women's liberationists" Scott-Heron's been smearing ever since he recorded "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" in his angry immaturity fifteen years ago. Besides, it's catchier. From "The Bottle" to "Re-Ron," though, this should convince doubting sympathizers that effective political art--aesthetically effective political art, I mean--isn't tantamount to avant-garde polarization. It's got a good line, and you can dance to it. A MINUS

SLAVE: Best of Slave (Cotillion) If pop best-ofs showcase hooks, funk best-ofs showcase beats--cowbell grace note here, JB-plus guitar there--and side one is Slave's movingest ever. But assuming Mark Adams's bass and ignoring the disco hook of "Just a Touch of Love," what makes side two listenable is two tracks from their movingest album ever, Show Time, which also contributes "Wait for Me" to side one. One of these LPs you could probably use. B PLUS

STEEL PULSE: Reggae Greats: Steel Pulse (Mango) Lifting five cuts from the overrated Handsworth Revolution and only two from the underrated Reggae Fever, retrieving two detachable songs-as-songs from the basically conceptual Tribute to the Martyrs, and adding a great lost single, this is as economical an introduction as you could reasonably expect to the English reggae pioneers, who've never surpassed their early peak. You say it all seems a little too "rock-influenced" to you? You were expecting maybe Gregory Isaacs? English--they're English. A MINUS

THE SWEET: Sweet 16: It's It's . . . Sweet's Hits (Angram) Side one is pure pop for then people, eight pieces of punchy Chapman-Chinn bubblegum from the mid-'70s glam band whose cross between T. Rex and Slade made the competition look both authentic and inefficient. Songs like "Poppa Joe" and "Wig Wam Bam" will take on the spiritual resonance of "Chewy Chewy" only if you happened to reside in Britain when they were dominating the airwaves, but give them a few spins and they'll push your fun button. Side two is more problematic, summing up as it does the period after they parted with Chapman-Chinn to write their own songs and earn their own royalties, or so they thought. B PLUS

TOOTS AND THE MAYTALS: Reggae Greats: Toots and the Maytals (Mango) 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 MINUS

WIRE: And Here It Is . . . Again . . . Wire (Sneaky Pete) Documenting the evolution of punk's quintessential self-conscious aestheticians from semicompetent but never exactly crude thrashers to polished but never exactly slick art-poppers. The seven-title selections from the near-perfect Pink Flag, all 12:15 of it, leads off with the fuzzed-up live Roxy London WC2 versions of "Lowdown" and "12XU" and has the effect of transforming that twenty-one-track marvel of seamless pacing into a string of sardonic punk blowouts. The succinct 1978 single "Dot Dash" and the all-out 1979 single "A Question of Degree" ease the transition in and out of the transitional Chairs Missing. And the three survivors from 154 sound like popular music--or at least popular art. A

Additional Consumer News

Also-Rans: The Best of the Temprees (Stax) (falsetto groups always have material problems); the Charlie Daniels Band's A Decade of Hits (Epic) (if he sang as good as early Merle I might forgive his jingoism altogether); Stiff Little Fingers' All the Best (Chrysalis import) (great punk, strained pop); Profile II: The Best of Emmylou Harris (Warner Bros.) (pristine neo-bluegrass, pristine rock oldies); The Best of the Dramatics (Volt) (the limits of velour); David Allan Coe's For the Record: The First 10 Years (maybe he did murder somebody after all); Merle Haggard's His Epic Hits: The First 11 (very sad); Iggy Pop (Pair) (two of the three Arista albums from which this 16-cut "double-LP" is culled are available as midlines); Best of Nazz (Rhino) (collector's collection); Heatwave's Greatest Hits (Epic) (Michael J. sure has improved Rod T.).

Redundancies: Fame and Fortune (David Bowie's All Time Greatest Hits) (RCA Victor) (Side B: "Golden Years," "TVC15," "Heroes," "D.J.," "Fashion," "Ashes to Ashes"); Jimi Hendrix's Kiss the Sky (Reprise) (remastered for digital, recycled for profit); Reggae Greats: Linton Kwesi Johnson (Mango) (try Making History, then Forces of Victory); Ricky Skaggs's Favorite Country Songs (Epic) (never trust a Baptist businessman); the Isley Brothers' Greatest Hits Volume 1 (T-Neck) (great rockers plus dubious hunkisms); The O'Jays Greatest Hits (Philadelphia International) (ditto); Ray Parker Jr.'s Chartbusters (Arista) (try Greatest Hits and/or "Ghostbusters").

Beyond My Ken: The Best of DeDanann (Shanachie).

One Play or Less: Abba, Peabo Bryson, John Denver III, Frizzell & West, Gatlin Brothers II, Mickey Gilley, Waylon Jennings II, Jon and Vangelis, Kansas, Ronnie Laws, Mad Lads, Michael Martin Murphey, Juice Newton, Oak Ridge Boys, Elvis Presley V, Eddy Raven, Lou Rawls, Jerry Reed, Sly & Robbie, Conway Twitty Warners I, Visage, Don Williams III.

Village Voice, Mar. 19, 1985


Feb. 26, 1985 Apr. 2, 1985