Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Xmas concept this year is greatness only and no boxes. For the price of single cassette/CD (though note that the folks at Rhino continue to cheat the impecunious by holding out CD "bonuses"), someone you like can own enough musical history to keep busy for a week. See Rockbeat for the higher-ticket items the labels hope you'll spring for.

BUZZCOCKS: Operators Manual: Buzzcocks Best (I.R.S.) Punk's most incandescent singles band was rarely just catchy or even catchy-abrasive--these guys had a vision. Pete Shelley's wry, acrid, eager, inside-out romanticism connected with every kind of near-adult, and why not? But I'm betting that what inspired him to insist that his anger was about sex, defying punk's party line and inventing "power pop" in the process, was also what kept him in the closet until "Homosapien." A

THE CLOVERS: Down in the Alley (Atlantic) When Nick Tosches claims they went out after "rock'n'roll was tamed for the masses," what he means (believe me, they never mean "masses") is that it was tamed for teenagers. Fans of Louis Jordan and the Ink Spots inventing a dirty doowop that didn't come naturally, the Clovers were funnier, raunchier, and suaver than their r&b predecessors the Orioles and the Ravens, hitting their stride several years before r&b turned teen music in 1955. With help from in-house sophisticates Ahmet Ertegun, Jesse Stone, and Rudolph Toombs, they made their Alan Freed move with "Devil or Angel" in early 1956, and when I was 13 I thought it sounded peachy. In fact, it did sound peachy. And up against the doggish "Little Mama," the bibulous "Nip Sip," and the Freudian "Your Cash Ain't Nothin' but Trash," its innocence is patently insincere. A

LEFTY FRIZZELL: The Best of Lefty Frizzell (Rhino) Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson are unimaginable without him, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, and George Jones his only artistic rivals, and for sheer vocal pleasure the texture and definition of his casual drawl tops them all. Keeping pain at bay with the merest hint of good-humored resignation, his soft-edged phrasing achieves honky-tonk satori whether he's meditating ("Look What Thoughts Will Do") or stepping out ("I'm an Old, Old Man"). Without ever grandstanding, he packs enormous musical force. He can write--sad, funny, jubilant, always terse. And though the portion of his catalogue that keeps recirculating is never bad or even ordinary, no previous collection has maintained such a standard of tuneful eloquence. A PLUS

AL GREEN: One in a Million (Word/Epic) Al is no less a self-starting weirdo when he sings gospel than in any other showbiz context. The greatest of the soul singers barely missed a beat making his conversion--he remained all personal stamp and driven style, a purely human miracle. So maybe I relate to his gospel because that isn't really what it is, although it helps that I loved his voice like a church lady long before he turned it to the service of the Lord. Combining the best of two pretty good albums with one cut from the made-whole Higher Plane and another from the stiff Precious Lord, this is where ye of little faith will see the error of your ways. A

ELMORE JAMES: "Let's Cut It": The Very Best of Elmore James (Flair/Virgin) Already leading what must have been a pretty damn raucous Mississippi horn band by 1939, James is the missing link between Robert Johnson and Hound Dog Taylor. Johnson taught him, or couldn't stop him from stealing, the "Dust My Broom" lick he lived off of; Taylor converted his slashing simplification of Johnson's slide into something even simpler--boogie. These are the Bihari brothers-produced originals of tunes he recorded as often as he could get paid before drinking himself to cardiac arrest at 45 in 1963--not subtle, you could even say monochromatic, and they rock like nobody's business. I miss the endless despair of "1839 Blues" and the post-Bihari classic "It Hurts Me Too." But if you're so culturally deprived you can't hum "Dust My Broom," here's your chance to become an addict. A MINUS

GEORGE JONES: The Best of George Jones (1955-1967) (Rhino) You never know with George. On Starday's 16 Greatest Hits, which I purchased for $3.88 in 1978, are Jones originals called "Eskimo Pie" and "No Money in This Deal" that I've always loved. Now I check Joel Whitburn and discover that neither was ever a hit, great or otherwise. These were--they constitute as complete a tour of Jones's early best-sellers as has ever been conducted. That doesn't make "Tender Years" half the record "No Money in This Deal" is--Nashville hits are often cornier than city folks prefer. But he isn't the greatest country singer in history for nothing. Let a dozen compilations bloom. Just watch out for duplications. A MINUS

B.B. KING: The Best of B.B. King Volume One (Flair/Virgin) Like Louis Armstrong before him, King has evolved into American totem and international ambassador, so reliable that he obscures his own formal audacity. Since he concocted his music rather than inventing it whole, mutating Mississippi seeds into an all-inclusive synthesis he no doubt conceived during his brilliant DJing career, it's hard to keep in mind how startling and triumphant he once was. This man was an r&b ruler in the '50s because he could do it all--not just electrify Robert and Lonnie Johnson simultaneously, but croon and growl and split the air while writing standards almost as fast as Willie Dixon. Anyone who thinks he's too smooth can kiss his ass. A

LITTLE RICHARD: The Georgia Peach (Specialty) You don't go to the King and Queen of Rock 'n' Roll for variety--he's a skyrocket, and you want him to take you over the top. I wouldn't warn anybody off his three-CD box. But quibbles aside--"By the Light of the Silvery Moon" would have been cute--these 25 tracks are enough. All the hits (and as similar as they are, you wouldn't want to miss one), plus for context jump blues his (not necessarily superior) way. The pace isn't as breakneck as it seemed in the '50s. In the '50s, though, there was no soul music that knew its name, and for all his frantic ambition and rock and roll fame, this godchild was telling us about it. Caveat emptor: the CD has nine so-called bonustracks--which makes the cassette not enough. A

THE MOST BEAUTIFUL CHRISTMAS CAROLS (Milan) This European tour by the Psalette de Lorraine, a multilingual French choir so famous its name appears nowhere on the package, could be less catholic--I miss "Adeste Fidelis" and "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," especially with 3:28 expended on "White Christmas," where der Bingle and les Drifters still rool. And it's ideal seasonal background kitsch nevetheless. Beautiful. Really. A MINUS [Later]

WILLIE NELSON: Nite Life: Greatest Hits and Rare Tracks (1959-1971) (Rhino) It wasn't a penchant for rock mythos and hairstyle that crossed him over--it was pure-pop generalizations and jazz timing. "Am I Blue," a 1929 copyright for Hollywood lyricist Grant Clarke, sounds no more and no less a natural-born chestnut than "Crazy" or "Funny How Time Slips Away"; conversational strokes like "One in a Row" and "Opportunity to Cry" clue you in with their titles and proceed to amaze you anyway. "Me and Paul"'s understated outlaw narrative points to Red Headed Stranger, but it represents a break. Sooner or later this country nonconformist will go back to his roots and make an album called Stardust. A

PET SHOP BOYS Discography (EMI) More even than "hit" or "product," these boys know "concept," so there's no point complaining that "the complete singles collection" includes more than half the titles on their disco album (Introspective--Disco was another concept). Truth in promotion is their byword--the complete singles is what you're gonna get even if they're also the greatest album tracks. And after an early stiff, they establish a canon right down to the previously unreleaseds. Cerebral, sensitive, sensationalistic, shallow, this is the sound of pleasure at a distance. And also, oh yeah, pain. A

RISQUÉ RHYTHM: NASTY 50S R&B (Rhino) The blue blues compiled on Columbia's Raunchy Business and reprised on Bluesville's Bawdy Blues are novelty material. Voicing r&b's revolt of the body against the cerebral demands of bebop, this stuff is sexy. Even the novelties--the original "My Ding-a-Ling," say--are carnal, and though the oft-collected "Work With Me Annie" and "Sixty-Minute Man" may be mild as poetry, they're plenty physical as music. The Sultans' "It Ain't the Meat" and Connie Allen's "Rocket 69" are plenty physical as poetry. And Wynonie Harris and Dinah Washington will make you want to fuck. The gift that keeps on giving for any music-lover whose genitalia you cherish. A

ROCK THIS TOWN: ROCKABILLY HITS VOL. 1 (Rhino) If like me you resist the rockabilly myth, here finally is something that sounds like a national movement--not just the Sun story plus, but weirdos and up-and-comers talking to each other by phonograph. Some of these artists were one-shots, some geniuses, some pros. Showbiz kids and child country singers and crazy young hillbillies and oilmen's sons and Western swingers who got lucky, they'd turn into freebasers and adult country singers and saner old hillbillies and bizzers who'd hook up with Nancy Sinatra and Gram Parsons and corpses in Dave Alvin songs. With no input from Elvis or Eddie Cochran, seven of the 18 have died--at 17, 30, 36, 45, 52, 55, and 58. So these kids weren't kidding when they tried to capture their youths in nervous-to-frantic guitar and put them on plastic. The knew something was happening, but they didn't know what it was. And you can still kind of hear it. A

RUN-D.M.C.: Together Forever: Greatest Hits 1983-1991 (Profile) Buy the CD and use your programming buttons--the jumbled order, intended like the title to conceal how over they are, cheats them instead. Played chronologically, the music coheres--their style evolves naturally, switching gears only when they begin sweating street cred--and the rhymes lay out a tragedy. Two streetwise college kids inveigh against a scourge before anybody has an inkling it's going to happen. Preaching and demonstrating self-reliance, they start with a beatbox and two stentorian voices--"Unemployment at a record high"--and then incorporate just enough guitar to turn the market around. As they get famous, their boasts begin to sound out of touch--live '83 they're all camaraderie, live '84 it's already like the audience is down there somewhere--and by '87 or so their message seems formulaic. But in the wake of their bona fides, it retains a certain credibility--even the useless 1989 spiel "Pause" (rhymes with "Don't break laws") sounds like them as it scrambles for everybody else's pain-threshold multiplex. By the time they check out with the scary tale of a crack shooting on "The Ave.," they're packing nines--and unemployment 1983-style seems like heaven, or at least not-hell. A [Later]

GARY STEWART: Gary's Greatest (HighTone) Because the label has already reissued 1975's Out of Hand, this leans harder on his gradual decline than would seem advisable, and ends up dispelling doubts as a result--he didn't write the 1981 45-only "She's Got a Drinking Problem" ("and it's me"), but it belongs to him anyway. Stewart is obsessed with the fucked-up intersections of booze, sex, and the honest life. He's so far outside Nashville's not inelastic limits that he ended up on a blues indie. And strong song for strong song, he's the equal of any postoutlaw you care to name except maybe John Anderson. So what are you waiting for? A

BOB WILLS AND HIS TEXAS PLAYBOYS: Anthology 1935-1973 (Rhino) Newcomers may be put off by Wills's opportunistic omnivorousness. As a popularizer of what he considered Texas fiddle music, he felt no more loyal to country, which didn't mean much in the '30s anyway, than the early black songsters did to blues. An entertainer who assumed, correctly, that his audience liked everything he did--folk, hillbilly, blues, swing, and let us not forget pop--his format was the pop format of the time, the big band. Plus fiddle and pedal steel, and also plus fellow frontman Tommy Duncan, a congenial equivalent to the generic boy singers of swing. He's almost sublimely relaxed--the country meeting the city without the usual anxious excitement. The classic Wills is just plain Anthology, a Columbia double-LP turned Sony Special Products CD, which collects 24 cuts where the two separately available CDs in this package each offer 16. But these are a tad longer on sheer song quality. Volume 1 duplicates five Sony tracks, Volume 2--which finally convinces me that Wills's post-Columbia work wasn't busy and tuckered out--zero. Wills's eclecticism was tremendously ambitious, but it was never pretentious. And sometimes unpretentiousness is its own reward. A

Village Voice, Dec. 24, 1991

Dec. 3, 1991 Jan. 28, 1992