Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide:
Who Needs Boxes 2004

That's not counting Ray Charles, of course, or the entire history of rock and roll's roots

CHET BAKER: The Best of Chet Baker (Riverside) Baker was the genius journeyman for whom Dave Hickey devised the freelancer's epitaph: "If This Dude Wasn't Dead, He Could Still Get Work." He recorded some 60 albums, and although I know I slightly prefer this 15-track '50s selection to Hickey's "all-time favorite record" Chet Baker Sings, and much prefer it to Bluebird's jazzier 1962 Chet Is Back!, I'm not about to explore them all. His adore-the-melody trick has its limits unless his white Oklahoman affect touches you like it does Hickey, the white Texan son of a swing musician with bebop dreams. So this is ideal. As someone who's always preferred Baker's singing to his trumpet, I was surprised to find that three vocals were only one short of what I would have preferred (words on "It Never Entered My Mind" later on, please), and surprised to swoon for the instrumental opener, a 1952 "My Funny Valentine" the notes claim was a hit. I was also surprised to hear more romance--and less "cool"--in this "My Funny Valentine" 's lyricism, sensuality, and bassline than in the contemporaneous version that opens Miles Davis Plays for Lovers. Thank Baker's smooth, soft, full, breathy sound. Thank Gerry Mulligan, Zoot Sims, and (on the two jazz compositions) Johnny Griffin. Thank Paul Chambers. Thank the melodies. A

BLACK UHURU: The Best of Black Uhuru: 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection (Island) The finest reggae group of the '80s--maybe ever, behind the obvious, or until somebody with ears and all-label access does a Culture comp. In two decades solo, Michael Rose has never approached the spirit groove he hit regularly with Duckie Simpson, the great Puma Jones, and the greater Sly & Robbie, who in turn peaked with this band. Its best album was its last with Rose, 1984's Anthem, and its only previous comp, 1993's Liberation double, is mucked up with dubs and 12-inch mixes aimed at some combination of the ganja/dancehall markets. Only one such here, and only two Anthem tracks--just songs as songs, inextricable from S&R's thick, echoing rhythms, Jones's female principle, and Rose's exultation in his own powers. There's lots of exultation on this record. But even "Sponji Reggae" and "Happiness" proceed explicitly from suffering. A

RAY CHARLES: Genius & Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection (Rhino) Although I admit that if he was still alive I still wouldn't have gotten through this five-disc behemoth, on my shelves since 1997, the selected schlock at the end is as powerful as the seminal G-word at the beginning, and the size of the thing suits him. Of course it overlaps unconscionably with the classic Birth of Soul box, which does the same with the pretty damn good Blues + Jazz double. That's the way Ray planned it. Buy this in remembrance of him. A

PATSY CLINE: The Definitive Collection (MCA Nashville) In tone, timbre, and timing, Cline was the best-equipped female country singer ever. Where Dolly, Loretta, and Tammy are all downhome in their own ways, her swinging drawl still evokes the fleshpots--Raleigh! Richmond! Washington, D.C.!--and it's hard to imagine a more intelligent document of her 15 months of fame. "Crazy," "I Fall to Pieces," "She's Got You," "Half as Much"--these are perfect songs perfectly sung, now remastered to eliminate the echo that once dulled them. But though she survives Owen Bradley's strings and Nashville cats, his choruses remain, and unless you're focused, forgiving, or a sucker for kitsch, their hmms and oohs and doo-doo-doos do her in. Essential singing and history in an economical package that was long overdue. Fans will love it. But except in research mode, I bet I still play her live stuff. A MINUS

BING CROSBY: A Centennial Anthology of His Decca Recordings (MCA/Decca) Three years late, I downed Gary Giddins's biography, and thus armed found it easy enough to access these 50 songs. Giddins rewrites history to make room for Crosby, an aggressively pan-ethnic everyman with a Jesuit education and a wild-oats past who had the confidence and the sense of rhythm to put his big voice to modest uses--and dominate our mass culture, movies and music both, for longer than FDR was president. Urged to be all things to all Americans by Decca's Jack Kapp, he avoided the fancy songs beboppers would soon sing changes on and the ambitious arrangers who started Frank Sinatra on the road to Art. But he never condescended to his tunes, and he picked good ones. Credit his decency and intelligence and you can comprehend the attractions of an American dream that deserves better than the exploitation to which it's still subjected by ruling-class cynics he would have seen through in a minute. A

ERIC DOLPHY: The Best of Eric Dolphy (Prestige) Dolphy shared John Coltrane's taste for the ecstatic without ever abandoning bebop-style, European-harmony-based cogitation. Not a drinker or a druggie, he died at 36 of insulin shock after a diabetes attack. His tenure at Prestige lasted from April 1960 to September 1961 and is all available in one huge box. Nine CDs' worth of quality music in 17 months, plus Ornette's Free Jazz, Coltrane's Live at the Village Vanguard, and other major guest shots. A year later, he left his mark on me at the Village Gate, Labor Day '62 I think it was, when he encored with Coltrane--on alto? bass clarinet? surely not flute--and blew my head off. In a sense I've been trying to return to that night ever since, but though I've gotten close a few times, it was never via Dolphy (in fact, never via jazz). I dug the box, hell yeah. But there's more use value in the way his superb bands, striking heads, and unfettered improvisations fill this single disc--even his flute. A

THE FALL: 50,000 Fall Fans Can't Be Wrong: 39 Golden Greats (Beggars Banquet) To pin down those poet rumors once and for all, I availed myself of my freenet privileges and read his verse online whilst hearkening to its musical realizations off. Don't believe the hype. Mark E. Smith is a carper, a haranguer, a ranter, best comprehended in alienated snatches. But so what? Almost all of these well-culled "songs," which include half a dozen already singled out on 1990's Brixified 458489 A Sides, catch his Hyde Park cadences at their most barbed, annoying, and possibly prophetic, with the groove muscling up after the middle-period keybs go away. Unique, minor, forever eternal. A

NOVELTY SONGS: 1914-1946: CRAZY AND OBSCURE (Trikont import) Not all so obscure--starts with the Andrews Sisters' "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and includes the Ink Spots, Spike Jones (twice), and the Memphis Jug Band. Not all so crazy, either--what distinguishes Kanui & Lula's "Tomi Tomi," sanity-wise, from dozens of other "Hawaiian" hits of the '20s and '30s? But most of it I'd never heard on record, including such remnants of other media as Groucho Marx's "I'm Against It," Danny Kaye's "Tschaikowsky (and Other Russians)," and Jimmy Durante's "Inka Dinka Doo." Touchingly, given its Deutschland provenance, the selection ends with an English music hall singer praising the kaiser in 1913, Spike Jones farting in "Der Führer's Face" in 1942, and peaced-out Germans Karl Valentin and Liesl Karlstadt laughing their asses off to the accompaniment of a confused brass instrument in the hiatus between World War I and the crash. A

THE ROOTS OF ROCK 'N' ROLL 1946-1954 (Hip-O) One could question the utility of this triple-CD, and in fact it doesn't play as strong as Golden Era of Rock 'n' Roll 1954-1963, the starter kit for 12-year-olds released alongside it. But when I try to think of essential artists passed by, I get only one: Elmore James ("Dust My Broom," No. 9 r&b, 1952). There's never been anything like this: three hours of rock and roll from before rock and roll, long on boogie-beat jump blues with helpings of regular blues, honky-tonk from before honky-tonk, doowop from before doowop, and other stuff. Included are such foundational texts as "Rocket 88," "Cry," and "Crazy, Man, Crazy," early versions of "That's All Right, Mama," "Hound Dog," "Kansas City," and "Sh-Boom," and a few gems I don't recall hearing before: "Rock This Joint," "Cupid's Boogie," "Little Richard's Boogie." Arranged chronologically by year, it has a nice drape even if every track isn't a perfect fit. Afterward you can locate best-ofs, starting with Louis Jordan and Professor Longhair. A

BEN WEBSTER: King of the Tenors (Verve) Less adventurous than Lester Young or Coleman Hawkins but equally august, the Duke Ellington star turned Norman Granz fixture has been overlooked by compilers. So having absorbed the big-band Cotton Tail and the three-albums-by-three-different-leaders Soul of Ben Webster double, I'll be reaching for this simple 1954 combo LP plus three bonus cuts--including an alternate take of a self-penned blues that bypasses Oscar Peterson and Sweets Edison to give Ben more room, which he fills like the elephant he is, half honk and half heavy breathing. Yet believe it or not he wasn't a blues specialist--what made him famous was grand, intimate, sexier-than-Don Byas ballads like "Tenderly" and the twice-told "That's All." A professional and a man of his time, Webster liked brass and strings. But he was at his best helming pre-bop small bands. That this one happens to feature Benny Carter is a lagniappe. A PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention

  • Thelonious Monk: The Best of Thelonious Monk (Riverside): Superb beginning to end, duh--but inexcusably lacking both "Little Rootie Tootie" and the Johnny Griffin "In Walked Bud" ("Jackie-ing, Off Minor").
  • The Beach Boys: Sounds of Summer (Capitol): Summing up their entire career until Wild Honey, this is busted to noncom in honor of Endless Summer, only 13 of whose 20 tracks survive--"Wendy," "Catch a Wave," we salute you ("Fun, Fun, Fun," "Surfer Girl").
  • X: The Best: Make the Music Go Bang! (Elektra/Rhino): Like so many bands and the occasional couples, they didn't know when to quit ("Adult Books," "In This House That I Call Home").
  • Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music: The Platinum Collection (Virgin): The third disc will half convince you he didn't follow one decade of visionary shtick with two of waiting to meet Bill Murray ("Will You Love Me Tomorrow," "Kiss and Tell").
  • Salif Keita: The Best of Salif Keita: The Golden Voice (Wrasse import): Two CDs' worth of his Island catalog reshuffled for credible grandeur--Soro improved, Ko-Yan almost untouched ("Nou Pas Bouger--Don't Move Us," "Tekere").
  • Bob Wills: Stay a Little Longer (Rounder): Oddities and standards from a guy who recorded too many of the latter ("Who Walks In When I Walk Out," "That Brown Skin Girl").
  • Bing Crosby With Bob Scobey's Frisco Jazz Band: Bing With a Beat (Bluebird): Dixieland swing, which in 1957 still qualified as jazz ("Exactly Like You," "Dream a Little Dream of Me").

Village Voice, Dec. 28, 2004

Nov. 30, 2004 Jan. 18, 2005