Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

Etta James: The Essential Etta James [Chess, 1993]
The oft-bemoaned limits on her fame and fortune can't be passed off on her habit, her realness, or her distribution. Sometimes it was just that her music wasn't so hot. Between inconsistent material and workaday studio support, even her hits are a motley bunch, and crossover mentors Gabriel Mekler and Esmond Edwards never let their failure to map a plausible direction stop them from taking her for a ride. But even so, the tiger in her kittenish timbre combined formidably with her undeniable, unreliable smarts for r&b as seminal as "In the Basement," "Sunday Kind of Love," and "I'd Rather Go Blind." And Esther Phillips was the only peer to take so naturally to the likes of "One for My Baby" and "Prisoner of Love." A-