Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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In this heyday of the re-repackage, if you don't own Smokey Robinson & the Miracles' 1995 two-CD Anthology, skip everything in this annual Xmas-gift roundup except the Holiday and purchase that singing group's 2002 two-CD Ooo Baby Baby: The Anthology, which is slightly better and, goody, twice as space-efficient. Honored below are less redundant finds, examined statistically as well as artistically.

ART BLAKEY: Ken Burns Jazz (Verve) Where MVP's Roots of Jazz Funk Volume One showcased hard bop's pop heads, here the tendency's greatest bandleader accommodates the jazz of a profusion of not-quite-pantheon improvisers. Clifford Brown, Monk, and then take your pick--Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Horace Silver, Johnny Griffin, Bobby Timmons, Wynton Marsalis, not one a titan but here you'd never know it. Heads are pretty catchy too. Plus a whole lot of drummer. A PLUS

LEONARD COHEN: The Essential Leonard Cohen (Columbia) Nothing's perfect, and most of his albums are worth purchasing separately, but at least this double CD picks all the indelibles off the supple 1968 Songs of Leonard Cohen, and half of them off the stark 2001 Ten New Songs. Also, true peace-on-earthers will appreciate the depressive gesture, as well as a seasonal party game: a Bush-era rewrite of the cultural-revolutionary threnody "First We Take Manhattan." Take it from: "They sentenced me to 30 days of rehab/For trying to have my coke and eat it too/I'll show those pricks the silver spoon that we have/First we take the statehouse, then we take D.C." A

LEE DORSEY: The Very Best of Lee Dorsey: Working in a Coal Mine (Music Club) Supplanting Arista's "definitive" Wheelin' and Dealin', this duplicates "Ya Ya," "Do-Re-Mi," "Holy Cow," "Ride Your Pony," "Get Out of My Life Woman," and "Working in a Coal Mine" natch, all essential, plus the slightly less essential "Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky (From Now On)." Unlike the Arista it also has the essential "Yes We Can" and the slightly less essential "Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley." And it's cheaper. But further comparison of its 16 tracks to the Arista's 20 establishes that it's not the "very best." Since Dorsey's lifework was grounding a handful of stone classics in a loamy swamp of beguiling oddities, there'll never be a very best. But don't you hanker for some ya ya, not to mention some do-re-mi? A

BILLIE HOLIDAY + LESTER YOUNG: A Musical Romance (Columbia/Legacy) Last year's belated twofer (four repeats) sums her up, and I should mention the 10-CD box--better completist Holiday than Sinatra or Fitzgerald or George Jones. The year's other reshuffles, Lady Day Swings and Blue Billie, are useful product. But there's never been a Holiday record I've replayed as spontaneously as this one. Nor, and this is connected, have I ever found her so credible uptempo (meaning midtempo, and fast enough). Her disdain for the trifles her '30s producers fed her can be bracing but also wearing, and while none remain trifles, some remain unnecessary. Here, that's not a problem. In love or in pain, she's smiling, she's swinging, she's dealing with it, dropping so little hint of the tragedies to come you wonder whether they were inevitable after all. She just needs the support of a man as hip and confident as Prez sounds--relaxed, savvy, off-center but that just makes him more fun. On no record, including the excellent Ken Burns, will you ever hear him so unmistakably. In real life, unfortunately, guys who play that often have a mean streak and/or a dependent side. You wonder why couldn't she make do with the worldly wisdom of Teddy Wilson, the friendly sarcasm of Buck Clayton. Because here, they too keep her smiling and swinging. A PLUS

MEMPHIS JUG BAND (Yazoo) Will Shade didn't invent jug bass, which began in Louisville, but he sure professionalized it, leading an aggregation whose shifting cast of dozens recorded more than 60 tracks between 1927 and 1934. On the pop side, leaving the likes of Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman out of it, they were the best small group in America before Louis Jordan's Tympany Five: prophetic going-up-the-city worldview, crowd-pleasing songbag of happy hokum and well-remembered folk tunes, infectious beat, and drolly soulful singers, topped by lowdown party girl Hattie Hart. But this former double LP, reduced in its reprogrammed 1991 digital version from 28 to 23 tracks, is a fine place to begin even if it skips the seminal bait track of Yazoo's recent and redundant The Best of the Memphis Jug Band, "Memphis Shakedown," which in turn omits both "Lindberg Hop," which leads this CD, and the metathematic "The Old Folks Started It." Haphazard-on-purpose Yazoo guarantees, however, that you'd be better off with several of the five omissions, especially "I'll See You in the Spring, When the Birds Begin to Sing," which leads the vinyl version, and the spelunking tragedy "Cave Man Blues." It's enough to make me mention the well-selected, budget-priced double-18-track of Classic Blues' The Essential Memphis Jug Band sound quality unheard. A

YOUSSOU N'DOUR & ÉTOILE DE DAKAR: The Rough Guide to Youssou N'Dour & Étoile de Dakar (World Music Network import) With Étoile's Stern's Africa CDs gone the way of all licensing deals, how can I say no? Maybe somewhere there was more exciting music circa 1980--punk L.A.? soukous Montreuil? hip-hop South Bronx? But don't bet on it. Exploding out of this one band and the mad rivalries it engendered, early mbalax is the grail, the very essence of musical conflict resolution not least because the groove can't quite resolve the conflict. Great singers jostle for space among spiky tamas. Horns and guitars augment and one-up each other. You never know what'll happen next. But everything they do gonna be funky. A PLUS

ELVIS PRESLEY: 30 #1 Hits (RCA) By my unofficial All Music Guide tally, this makes 385 Elvis comps, some as collectible as his soundtracks themselves, not one definitive. Although pursuing his pure essence is a fool's mission, only fools gainsay The Sun Sessions. A Valentine Gift for You is something to cherish. And there's use value in the five-CD The King of Rock 'n' Roll: The Complete 50's Masters, which duplicates 13 of these selections. But this chart-seeking slice-and-dice feeds off his schlock power. It validates his audience. And it suggests that his life was a continuous whole, not the tragically bifurcated mess of current convention. What holds it together? Think lightness, even on the supposedly feral "One Night." A PLUS

DJANGO REINHARDT (Koch International) The label is per the late, lamented CDNow, which listed this 66th of 68 Reinhardt albums for $8.49; the copy I bought my wife for Christmas a few years ago says Koch Präsent. It has a purple-and-green cover, track listings indicating years, times, and composers but not personnel, and liner notes comprising two blank squares of paper. So it goes with the Roma guitarist, whose discography is as impenetrable as any in jazz. Take for instance Bluebird's high-profile 2002 Djangology, which proves a warmed-up remaster of Bluebird's 1990 Djangology 49 in different order with prettier packaging for a few dollars more. The '49 session reunites the classic Quintet of the Hot Club of France, which means mainly violinist Stephane Grappelli, who as a Chuck and Jimi fan I like as much as the eclectic three-fingered melody master. Probably because he was getting old, I find Djangology mellower than guitar music should be. The material and players on these '36-'37 sessions are a mess, but recognizable standards are the rule, with anonymous vocalists and obstreperous big bands intruding only occasionally. More important, this CD is hot--hotter than two 2001 releases also at hand, Naxos Jazz's Vol. 2 and Music Club's Swing Jazz. Blistering, in fact--what pace. He "swings," all right--like Mondrian's Broadway Boogie Woogie. A MINUS

JIMMIE RODGERS: RCA Country Legends (RCA/BMG Heritage) Having seen the world like a true railroad man, Rodgers moved beyond hillbilly showbiz (Dave Macon, Frank Hutchison) without stooping to respectability (Bradley Kincaid, Vernon Dalhart). Thus he spawned tens of thousands of singers who sounded like themselves as they sang at the whole round world, and their collective achievement dulled our ear for his originality. With the country space he opened up so crowded, what can it mean to say that he outsang all but a few of his progeny? Maybe, as Bob Dylan says, "his refined style . . . is too cryptic to pin down." But inventors have a way of conveying that they're inventing something. So start with his diffident sense of hip, sincere and sly at the same time, anticipating two crucial structures of feeling: the laid-back and the cool. Add that he was also exuberant in there somewhere. Don't forget that yodel. Mention that he could swing à la Merle or Lefty when he wanted. And then admit that unvarnished Rodgers still requires a certain suspension of disbelief. That's what's so nice about the gloss here--Rodgers in jazz, pop, jug-band, Hawaiian, and just plain backed settings, from Louis Armstrong to local pros, all of whom make this his most listenable collection. Some of the songs are classics, some obscurities. Now try to tell one from the other without a scorecard. A

THE ROUGH GUIDE TO THE MUSIC OF NIGERIA AND GHANA (World Music Network import) For a while I niggled my compilation niggles. Sunny Ade old-timers know, Tony Allen hipsters know, I've already recommended the albums whence spring the E.T. Mensah, Eric Agyeman, Stephen Osita Osadebe, and A.B. Crentsil tracks at the end, and it's quite a reach from highlife and juju of varying vintages to Adewale Ayuba's fuji drumming and Allen's Afrobeat abstractions. Soon enough, though, I was struck by how naturally it all held together, with a fundamental sound distinct from South Africa, Sahel, and the Congo nexus. Both rhythms and voices are lighter, and however much these pop styles emphasize showmanship and innovation, talky singing and associative structures impart a folk feel throughout. Thus they suggest an innocence and archaicism that need have nothing to do with their historical context or cultural intent. It's sound. And as such pure delight. A

RUN-D.M.C.: Greatest Hits (Arista/BMG Heritage) Utilitarian, which suits them. At least it's sequenced with a sense of continuity, and unlike the deleted Profile job, it abjures remixes, live collectibles, and Back From Hell. Sure Run-D.M.C. and Raising Hell are good-to-excellent historical artifacts that render it superfluous. But what no one dares say is that by the standards of the aesthetic they made possible Run-D.M.C. are a little crude. Their rock-solid funk is more Memphis than New Orleans, their declamation the opposite of flow as Rakim defined it, their blunt rhyming neither spontaneous beat prosody nor the blaxploitation real of gangsta's true lies. In fact, for such big influences their straightforward sound is kind of unique, and their greatness harder to hear than it's supposed to be. On these 17 tracks, the consistency and reliability their hard-working music implied is a reality worthy of the lower-middle-class 'hood they represented. A

THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS: Dial-a-Song: 20 Years of They Might Be Giants (Rhino/Elektra) With invention keeping annoyance at bay for two-times-twice-13 selections, why list omitted faves? Guys who feed songs to their pet answering machine are supposed to write more than anyone can keep track of. The Eurohit is here, the TV theme, the Austin Powers-certified Shirley Bassey parody. But I'm won over by the dozens of songs I'd never heard before, or just never noticed. Yeah their unsexxxy voices and avoidance of notes that might confuse an answering machine can be off-putting. But the wit and tunes are nonstop, not to mention the historical sketches, the music lessons, the surrealist riddles, the love songs--and more faith, hope, and charity than they let on. A

WARREN ZEVON: Genius: The Best of Warren Zevon (Elektra/Rhino) For any owner of the 1996 Rhino double CD I'll Sleep When I'm Dead to buy this one too would impart new meaning to the term "sentimental hygiene," which could use it. Only five of its 22 tracks aren't nestled down in the twofer's squooshy stuff. But those who resisted the squooshy stuff then now get their reward, which sure beats the one that's laying for Zevon. All that's missing is the epithalamion "Let Nothing Come Between You" and the old Rhino title raver, presumably omitted for reasons of taste. A little late for that. The sardonic unlocks his humanity as well as his vitality, which is why this collection never wusses out. Stronger than sentiment are the melodies that proved him a pro. A

Additional Consumer News

Given how essential both bands' regular albums are, Nirvana and the Clash's The Singles aren't, but both are superb high-focus introductions. Ditto for The Best of Louis Armstrong: The Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings, which crosses purposes with two worthy boxes, and The Best of James Brown--Volume 2--The '70s, a budget boil-down of the funk Star Time canonizes. Tricky: A Ruff Guide is his second-best UniMoth album, not least because it re-makes/re-models half of Maxinquaye--without mentioning ass-fucking once. What a nice present.

Village Voice, Dec. 24, 2002

Oct. 22, 2002 Dec. 31, 2002