Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Gregory Isaacs

  • Best of Gregory Isaacs Volume 2 [GG, 1981] A-
  • More Gregory [Mango, 1981] B+
  • Mr. Isaacs [Shanachie, 1982] B+
  • Night Nurse [Mango, 1982] B+
  • Out Deh! [Mango, 1983] B+
  • Private Beach Party [RAS, 1985] B+
  • I.O.U. [RAS, 1989] B
  • My Number One [Heartbeat, 1990] A-
  • Best of Volumes One and Two [Heartbeat, 1992] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Best of Gregory Isaacs Volume 2 [GG, 1981]
Jamaica's reigning crooner is what people mean when they say reggae all sounds the same. Like most great popsters, he has a genius for the disarmingly memorable ditty, but initially he makes Shoes or the Ramones sound like a veritable smorgasbord. And while James Brown is an apter analogy, Brown's rhythmic attack is just that--vocally and instrumentally, he aims to get you up on one leg doing splits, while Isaacs and his band favor the skank, that metasexual trance best described as trucking in place. Me, I think he's kind of great. Prolonged exposure to this collection of mostly recut hits reveals his hooks at their semiglossiest, his usually romantic lyrics at their dreadest, his rhythm players at their trickiest, and his cool, drooning baritone at its most plaintive and hypnotic. A-

More Gregory [Mango, 1981]
All Gregory Isaacs songs sound the same, but some of them sound more the same than others, and for a long time I was ready to relegate his best-distributed LP to the Land of Nod. Turns out there isn't a bad track on side one, though I don't guarantee any great ones. And don't forget side two. B+

Mr. Isaacs [Shanachie, 1982]
From "Sacrifice," in which spirituality and even beauty itself follows inevitably from the comprehension of oppression, side one establishes the subtle power and grace of Isaacs' rather urban reggae, not least because it stops off at Billy Vera & Judy Clay's "Storybook Children." Side two establishes his willingness to settle for product, not least because it leads off with Smokey Robinson's "Get Ready." B+

Night Nurse [Mango, 1982]
Cumulatively, Isaacs's resourcefulness is very impressive--he almost always manages to vary his sad, soothing mid-tempo formula not just riddimically but with enduring bits of melody and observation. But because the formula is sometimes too soothing he needs more than bits to go over the top. Rastafarian marginal differentiation fans will love this record. B+

Out Deh! [Mango, 1983]
At least once the great lover takes his formulaic bent too far--"Private Secretary" is a remake of the sex fantasy "Night Nurse" in which he plays a boss instead of a patient, no advance. And on "Sheila" and elsewhere the melodies are banal rather than simple. But the rest of the time they're not only simple, but less simple than they seem, enhanced as usual by the Roots Radics' profound angularity and Isaacs's smooth concentration and subtle hooks. B+

Private Beach Party [RAS, 1985]
After sinking into ever more unctuous hits-plus-filler formula for most of the decade, JA's love king hied to producer Gussie Clarke, who put contract songwriter Carleton Hines on the case. Despite some icky moments, notably a duet about feeling irie, the move is for the good: there's a light touch to this music--Isaacs whispering and murmuring around diffident horn-section filigrees--that I'd call sexy. Maybe even irie, who knows. B+

I.O.U. [RAS, 1989]
Isaacs evolves so slowly that he'll still be catching up with pop history when he's 70, which makes keeping up with him less fun than quality music ought to be. Like Smokey, he's given up on songwriting and production, yet musically he's deeper now than five years ago: when Gussie Clarke tells him to lead with an unskanking soul-ballad groove, he gets into it no questions asked--like he owns it. Politically, however, he's disappeared, and since one of his charms was how naturally he yoked resistance and romance, he falls on just the wrong side of the almost imperceptible margin between the crafty and the generic. Though if Clarke had come up with more sound effects like the warbling electronic cricket hiding in the underbrush of "Report to Me," I'd never think to mention it. B

My Number One [Heartbeat, 1990]
Isaacs has got to be the sameyest great artist in pop history--though I own only four of these 13 tracks from his big youth on Alvin Ranglin's GG label, two of them on a tape I haven't played since I got it, just about every tune sounded like an old friend after a brief, casual interchange, because just about every one has been sending its cousins by for years. Coolly crooning lyrics that declare for self-determination up against romance or oppression, caressing and suffering with equal imperturbability, Isaacs is the aural image of an unconquerable, ganja-guzzling serenity. With ace toasters pitching in on four de facto disco discs, this is the U.S. release that will convince doubters until he gets the boxed set he deserves. A-

Best of Volumes One and Two [Heartbeat, 1992]
After roots reggae and before dancehall there was lovers rock, a tag devised for U.K.-based women singers and soon seized by JA crooners who'd never escaped their tight little island. Usually for good reason, too--if you don't believe me, check out Dennis Brown next time you have a week to kill. But even if few non-Jamaicans know it, the equally prolific Isaacs--I bet by now he's recorded 500 songs--is a master. Cooly crooning lyrics that declare for self-determination up against romance or oppression, caressing and suffering with equal imperturbability, he's the aural image of an unconquerable, ganja-guzzling serenity. This showcases keepers from back when sheathing his sexism and talking that dread both came naturally, though great titles like "Slave Master" and "Night Nurse" and "Extra Classic" would follow, as would a sweeter version of the chilled baritone he eventually macked to shreds. It supplants the now semiredundant My Number One as your chance to decide whether to agitate for a box. A-