Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The very best of the year's best-ofs for your economical holiday-gift-giving convenience

KING SUNNY ADE: King of Juju (Wrasse import) Of the '82-'83-'84 Island LPs that inspired Ade's dreams of international stardom, Juju Music was a fluently constructed ethnopop sampler, Synchro System a fully integrated Martin Meissonnier album. Here both are seamlessly patched together with two Nigeria-only tracks, a Manu Dibango curtain call, and the Stevie Wonder cameo from Ade's final and best Chris Blackwell project, Aura. Better Sunny's synths than Salif Keita's, and he's never made warmer or hotter records--loaded with fun sounds and Lagos themes, deeper on body bass than talky drum. Only those who own the originals on CD should pass up this recapitulation. A

BAD BRAINS: Banned in D.C.: Bad Brains Greatest Riffs (Caroline) As hardcore fans have always known, they were as historic a band as Fugazi or Black Flag. And as the subtitle knows, they weren't about songwriting--this was a band band, one of the few with the talent, experience, discipline, and love to bend master chops to a downpressed style. There are no weak links or even unequal partners. Sure H.R. and Dr. Know got the attention, but skank scholar Darryl Jenifer and power polymath Earl Hudson stand just as proud. From this seminal unit proceed both Living Colour and Limp Bizkit--every metallurgist who saw that guitar heroism had to get faster and funkier. A great sound--and a lyric sheet you'll need. A

THE BEST THERE EVER WAS (Yazoo) Between conglomerates milking catalog and collectors tailgating hype, I don't know how many multi-artist blues CDs I've gone through in an absurdly oversold year. Not counting Clint Eastwood's piano comp, this purist entry from a label that scoffs at both musical consistency and proprietary propriety is the only one I've wanted to hear again. This may be because I've never paid country blues due respect, so that the three artists I've long treasured--John Hurt, Skip James, and Blind Willie Johnson--provide a launching pad into the more-difficult-than-advertised pleasures of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, and Charlie Patton himself. But it's also because the right songs by these artists hang together sonically--their strong tunes and distinct voices transcend regional disparity, as varied as the hit parade. And it's also because such minor legends as Geechie Wiley, Frank Stokes, King Solomon Hill, Robert Wilkins, and Garfield Akers score one-shots no matter what else they've got in their kits. A

DE LA SOUL: Timeless: The Singles Collection (Tommy Boy/Rhino) Right, their albums are worth owning, so if you've collected them all, rip the track sequence off Amazon and burn yourself a present. But the explanations and booklet pix will soften up the rap haters on your list, who'll thank you for proving once and for all that skewed rhythms can be humane even when singers don't validate them and "live" musicians don't play them. These focus cuts add tunelet and dancebeat to a quirky, homemade funk lite that never partook of the lounge or the suave sex the lounge implies, and manifest the rhythmic uses of spoken words for guys no one would mistake for orators, romeos, or thugs. Prince Paul taught them that any piece of music was a beat in potentia. Dry, droll, and tender they were on their own--intelligent too, as befits learners for life. Inspirational Sample: "Oh the big dic-dictionary/Is very necessary." A PLUS

ELLA FITZGERALD: The Best of the Concert Years (Pablo) With minor exceptions not named Cassandra or Sarah (or Carmen or Betty), I find just two jazz singers of consistent interest as melodic improvisers and sonic producers. Ella did sink to shtick on the four albums boiled down here, but on this selection the live format turns a pop interpreter into a jazz musician. She's 54 on the first two tracks and 35 on the next six with little change in clarity or sprightliness. But by the last five, when she's 65, her voice has thickened drastically, and to compensate she overdoes it like her lessers--flatting lines, distorting words, laying on gutturals and vibrato. Listen three times and you'll hang on every phrase. A

THELONIOUS MONK: Monk (Columbia/Legacy) I love Columbia's recent Monk reissues: my beloved twice-purchased Criss Cross, Solo Monk with its organic bonus tracks, It's Monk's Time set up by the staggering stride of "Lulu's Back in Town." I also dig the much-praised Underground, for its full sound and wealth of originals--though I prefer "Boo Boo's Birthday" to "Ugly Beauty" and "Green Chimneys," am glad Teo Macero axed those bass solos, and consider Jon Hendricks's ratchety vocal and witless lyric to "In Walked Bud" a sacrilege. But this is my favorite, because he and his men rehab standards so crookedly (Gershwin, Berlin, p.d. playground chant), and because boon straight man Charlie Rouse is all over it--not least on Monk's "Pannonica," originally the property of Sonny Rollins himself. A

BILL MONROE: RCA Country Legends (RCA/BMG Heritage) Barraged for years with acoustic country music of every region, era, concept of reality, and elevation above sea level, my lifelong resistance to bluegrass has weakened-- the old autonomous nervous system perks up of its own accord when I segue from natural-born archivist Roscoe Holcomb, say, to this certified genius. But while I also brighten at Classic Bluegrass From Smithsonian Folkways, I notice more details on the equally inauthentic Classic Old-Time Music, which may explain my special attraction to this transitional collection, from before the style Monroe fabricated knew its name or Earl Scruggs. Virtuoso stuff without the intense harmonies, precise interlocks, and competitive showmanship that make goo-goo eyes at slickness on the Columbia comps and MCA's post-Flatt & Scruggs Country Music Hall of Fame Series, these 1940-41 recordings share a sense of innocent fun with the mountain music Monroe was just then jazzing up. The piety and pain are palpable; occasionally a beat stumbles or a voice cracks. You can understand why Monroe wanted something better for himself. You're just not sure he was right. A MINUS

AUGUSTUS PABLO: East of the River Nile (Shanachie) I always thought Pablo's great album was King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown, also due for enhanced reissue, but that was just his great dub album, because unlike most frequenters of the void that separates all notes, he also had a gift for whistling in the dark. Generally he pursued this pastime on his faithful melodica, but as someone who learned his trade sneaking into the school chapel to doodle on organ, he sometimes found a keyboard more melodic. Where his early hits were catchy novelties, by 1978 he was a natural mystic, and his first all-instrumental album sounds it. A strange, simplistic mood-music masterwork--calming, childish, and inexplicable. A

POSTWAR JAZZ: AN ARBITRARY ROADMAP (no label/Weatherbird) Gary Giddins Jazz, I call it. Not officially for sale and never will be, permissions being the slough of greed, vanity, and indifference they are. But available on the Net to those as know how, I am assured by one of the two nuts of my acquaintance who copied, borrowed, ripped, and otherwise purloined a six-CDR set comprising the 1945-2001 choice cuts our greatest jazz critic annotated for the June 11, 2002, Voice. Beyond the cross-generational ecumenicism Giddins champions--the assumption that jazz musicians are artists for life, so that a supernally lucid summation by 78-year-old Benny Carter takes the 1985 prize--is a music in which intellection harnesses energy and feeling and rides them hard toward the horizon. The selections are sometimes too avant for my tastes, and insufficiently electric (Craig Harris over Blood Ulmer in 1983?!); I wouldn't agree they're all "great records." But the vast majority come close enough. Among the artists I'd never have believed could dazzle me like this are Art Pepper, Gil Evans, Tommy Flanagan, Stan Getz, George Russell, and, I admit it, Sarah Vaughan. Why had I barely heard of Sonny Criss? How the fuck did I miss "Little Rootie Tootie"? A PLUS

ART TATUM: The Best of the Pablo Group Masterpieces (Pablo) Digitally spectacular and harmonically futuristic, solo Tatum is also florid and self-involved. But with Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge, Benny Carter, Buddy DeFranco, etc. playing one thoughtful note to a handful of his brilliant ones, the aptness, ambition, and jaw-dropping entertainment value of his silvery showers shine through. The young Tatum was so enamored of his own technique that he suffered sidemen begrudgingly, and all these standards were recorded, mostly in quartet or trio formats, over the three years before he died at 47. You'd never guess he'd slowed down by then if the booklet didn't swear it was true. A

ETHEL WATERS: The Incomparable Ethel Waters (Columbia/Legacy) Born 1896 in a red-light district to a 12-year-old rape victim, Waters was the record industry's first crossover star by age 25. She made her mark distilling dirty blues through timbre and diction clear as a glass slipper--on the long-deleted Greatest Years, "My Handy Man" and "Organ Grinder Blues" are further eroticized by how supplely she restrains the hot mama inside her. But with only two tracks that predate 1930, this collection documents the Broadway fixture who'd win an Oscar nomination and back Billy Graham. Listen through her protective decorum, which takes effort after half a century of radio raunch, and you'll encounter not just a gifted vocalist but a born actress who delivers every lyric and walks off with several--most famously, "Stormy Weather." A MINUS

Dud of the Year

TALKING HEADS: Once in a Lifetime (Sire/Warner Bros./Rhino) Most pretentious objet de rock ever. Unique 5-x-17-inch design, suitable for storage with spare lumber, assures that the appreciations by Rick Moody, Mary Gaitskill, Maggie Estep, Dick Hebdige, Kyoichi Tsuzuki, and last but not least David Fricke will come loose if you dare read them. Illustrations include lovely water-colory thing of young teenager with severed penis. Fourth disc a DVD. Third disc loaded with True Stories and Naked, which I once thought overrated. I was wrong. They sucked. C

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Mildred Bailey: The Incomparable Mildred Bailey (Columbia/Legacy): The missing link between Bing and Billie--only subtler, meaning less substantial, than either ("Shoutin' in That Amen Corner," "The Weekend of a Private Secretary").
  • The Clean: Anthology (Merge): Began crude and ended tired like most mortals, but for two-thirds of these two CDs, they were dronin'! ("Beatnik," "Two Fat Sisters (Live)").
  • Somewhere Over the Rainbow: The Golden Age of Hollywood Musicals (Rhino): Great songs by mediocre singers! Mediocre songs by great singers! Sometimes g-g! Often m-m! For movie fans mostly! (Gene Kelly, "Singin' in the Rain"; Judy Garland, "Over the Rainbow").
  • The Jam: The Sound of the Jam (Polydor): Catch him before he turns into John Cougar Mellencamp--oops, too late ("In the City," "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight").
  • Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup: Rock Me Mamma (Bluebird/Arista Associated Labels/BMG Heritage): The only sure way to convince fools just how good Elvis was ("That's All Right," "My Baby Left Me").

Village Voice, Dec. 30, 2003

Dec. 2, 2003 Jan. 13, 2004