Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Where some papers push boxes, I advise my canny readers to hang on to their wallets--with the usual significant exception, natch. The single- and double-CD collections below will all make timeless gifts. Praise Rhino Records for keeping the faith--but not for short-counting cassettes.

LOUIS ARMSTRONG: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: 1923-1934 (Columbia/Legacy) I don't mean to start a parlor game, but does greatest artist of the 20th century mean anything to you? I mean, who else you got? Picasso? Joyce? Renoir? Elvis? So here's one $50 item you owe yourself. I doubt it could be winnowed much--expanded would be better (where's "I'm Not Rough"?), with four-plus hours an ideal introductory length. If some of it is less beatwise than a punk funkateer might hope, try to imagine how startling it sounded in an aural world that was still on the operetta standard, where John Philip Sousa ruled brass and Scott Joplin was jungle music. Then pay attention. Home in on Pops's trumpet solos--their strength, clarity, daring, ease, humor, swing, melodicism, and endless newness. Enjoy his irrepressible vocals without calling them comic relief--the comic is everywhere in this music. Get to know the brilliant originals. Hear how he takes over blues and hokum, pop classics and pop disposables without belittling his sources. Ask yourself whether high and low mean any damn thing at all. A PLUS

LOUIS ARMSTRONG: 16 Most Requested Songs (Columbia/Legacy) With his innovations long since institutionalized, Armstrong's Ambassador of Jazz period is often accused of lost spark. Four songs on this budget set from the mid-'50s had been in his repertoire so long that they're also featured in the box, and you needn't back-to-back them to hear the difference--where earlier he was exploring his gifts and establishing his rights, here he's recreating his triumphs, revving set pieces into what has come to be understood as "Dixieland," preparing effects that no one on either side of the footlights doubts will be forthcoming. And forthcome they fucking well do. No man as strong as Louis Armstrong entertains out of contempt--he lives to give pleasure, and he's so confident in his love for this material that he can do anything he wants to it. "Rockin' Chair" and "That's My Desire" are as funny as death and sex, which he knows damn well they're about. "Black and Blue" isn't funny at all. A

FRED ASTAIRE: Top Hat: Hits From Hollywood (Columbia/Legacy) Cut in 1952 with a skilled Oscar Peterson sextet, Verve's Steppin' Out: Astaire Sings is the class entry, but I much prefer this unabashed slice of nostalgia, recorded in the mid-'30s with various cheesy dance bands (and the occasional tap solo). Pushing 40, Astaire still sounds boyish--his perilously slender voice embodies the naive sophistication he invented, and from it he extracts a wealth of true notes and meanings. For all his commitment to pitch, there's something very rock and roll about the way he transcends his disadvantages with smarts, personality, and rhythmic savvy. No wonder Berlin and the rest preferred him to the orotund competition--with no tonsils to show off, he devotes himself to the songs, and he owns them. A

GARTH BROOKS: The Hits (Liberty) Ahh, get over it. For one simple reason: if you shut him out, if you let it bother you that he's full of shit, your sex life will suffer. Especially compared to Garth's, which last time the Enquirer checked was still with one woman, although songs like "Last Summer" (cowritten by his wife, who must do her share of fantasy work) keep him in touch with his urges. He enjoyed his amazing run, summed up for the cynical set by this 18-track stocking-stuffer, because he has the most voracious emotional appetite of anyone to hit pop music since Aretha Franklin, and because he's such a perfectionist that he always threads his big feelings through the eye of a succinct narrative or sentiment. There's no artist like him. I just wish he'd announced for the Senate when David Boren retired. A

BOOTSY COLLINS: Back in the Day: The Best of Bootsy (Warner Archives) "I've got a cartoon mind," he brags, and in the Toony Tune world of P-Funk spinoffs, rivals, and flat-out fakes, this was a virtue to make the most of. It helped that he worked for George, a doowop veteran whose instinct for the hook is all over this music. Because for all Bootsy's deep bass and uncut funk--a legend perpetuated here by a raw live "Psychoticbumpschool"--what makes the Rubber Band so much more consistent than the Gap Band, whose new best-of stops dead every time it trots out a ballad, is the funny, kooky, kind slow ones. A [Later]

THE "5" ROYALES: Monkey Hips and Rice: The "5" Royales Anthology (Rhino) Competing double-discs by Clyde McPhatter's Drifters and Harvey Fuqua's Moonglows convince me that these guys were the shit. The Coasters still rule, but the Coasters' sui generis wasn't their own, and beneath the musicianship they were basically comedians. Lowman Pauling's hard-touring sextet did it all, laughs included, and although Pauling's thought-through songwriting and groundbreaking guitar made him the auteur, singer Johnny Tanner deserves more grafs than he'll ever get in the prehistory of soul. They were sincere. They were dirty. They were smart. They were stoopid. They were great artists. They ended up working nine-to-five and going to church on Sundays. A

GRANDMASTER FLASH AND THE FURIOUS FIVE: Message From Beat Street: The Best of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (Rhino) They start out as street kids trying to get over, their idea of a sales gimmick "The Birthday Party"--because everybody's got one, and because in 1981 that's still considered reason for celebration. Up till "It's Nasty" they specialize in hard dance music no more serious than, oh, Tony Toni Toné's. But unlike Kurtis Blow, their only rival on record until Run-D.M.C. change everything, they think like consumers, striking poses that look good on the corner, not the stage. And then a college boy they know writes "The Message" and it dawns on big-voiced frontman Melle Mel (and hard-nosed label owner Sylvia Robinson) that he exerts an authority the stagy cannot. Although their protest phase may sound naive to the ignorant, it looks at the inner-city same-old with a freshness and moral certainty few have matched since, and played, scratched, or synthesized, their beats seize history. "Wheels of Steel" would have made a more poetic intro than the redundant 1994 megamix. But this is how rap began. A

WYNONIE HARRIS: Bloodshot Eyes: The Best of Wynonie Harris (Rhino) On record, Harris is damn near the only "unsung hero of rock 'n' roll" whose dick stays as hard as Nick Tosches says it does. An unusually exuberant sinner, he's as arrogant and probably mean in his way as Jerry Lee Lewis or Wilson Pickett, but with warmth (as opposed to mere heat) and grace (as opposed to mere rhythm) to make up for the bad stuff. His crowning achievement is his filthiest, a commercially doomed paean to cunt-juice and jism called "Keep On Churnin'." He would have bottled those fluids if he could have. And he liked whiskey even better. A MINUS

THE JAZZ AGE: NEW YORK IN THE TWENTIES (Bluebird) Crammed into Tin Pan Alley straitjackets by big bad bizzers or maybe just lacking in natural rhythm, these young white guys--Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Jack Teagarden, Red Nichols, Eddie Lang, Joe Venuti--nevertheless sound intensely happy to be alive, so delighted with the freedoms come up the river from New Orleans that they can scarcely contain themselves. Disciplined but never sedulous, they're rollicking iconoclasts tweaking hegemony as they inject greater musicians' mind-boggling innovations of pulse, phrasing, and intonation into the culture of prohibition. They sing the spirit electric without uttering a word. A [Later]

PROFESSOR LONGHAIR: 'Fess: The Professor Longhair Anthology (Rhino) A local hero or less for most of his life, rumba boogiemeister Roy Byrd is the greatest rock and roller ever to peak past 50. Yet although all his excellent albums seem to permute "Bald Head," "Tipitina," "Hey Now Baby," the heaven-sent "Big Chief," and a few others into a canon, this two-hour set is where to figure what comes next--the only LP it plows under is Rock 'n' Roll Gumbo, reissued in 1985 by an adoring George Winston. Its strength is '50s singles, all at least near-classic save an overproduced "Big Chief," but I prefer the second disc, culled from the many ad hoc band sessions a belatedly feted 'Fess cut in the '70s. Not blues and not jazz and not exactly rock and roll, not as simple as Fats Domino or as popwise as Allen Toussaint or as schooled as James Booker, Longhair supposedly learned to play on a junked piano with an octave or two of surviving keys, and for the rest of his life he made that compass an infinitely expanding universe. His Latin-tinged time was on a par with Monk's, James Brown's, anyone's, and he was also a clown and a nut. If you've never heard him, you don't know as much as you think you do. He'll kick your funnybone and tickle your ass. A

THE SHIRELLES: The Very Best of the Shirelles (Rhino) Shhh--quiet with your Chantels and Shangri-Las. Mmmm--later for Martha and the Marvelettes. Shirley Owens and her junior high pals were the archetypal girl group, the original and always the greatest. They had more than 16 perfect records in them, but although this omits "The Things I Want To Hear" and "It's Love That Really Counts" from Scepter's Greatest Hits, which is merely one of the greatest phonograph albums ever made available to the general public, it compensates with "Boys" and "Foolish Little Girl" and "I Met Him on Sunday" and "Don't Say Goodnight and Mean Goodbye." Then there are all the ones you know and a bunch you may not, topped by "A Thing of the Past," where Shirley's failure to hit a high note realizes the rock and roll essence John Lennon only thought he heard in "Angel Baby." Sweetened and seasoned by forgotten smoothie Luther Dixon, she was one of the music's great unspoiled singers, more expressive than all but a handful of the showoffs who followed in her brave footsteps--proud, tender, intensely vulnerable, her womanly sexuality tied to an emotional life richer than the guys she adores will ever be able to handle. A PLUS

DONNA SUMMER: Endless Summer (Mercury) You want meaning, I've got a nice Nick Drake CD I could sell you. This here is emotional sensation, the staple of contemporary bigpop. Her belated one-disc best-of does include the permanent excrescence "MacArthur Park" as well as a Vangelis hymn that has actually aged rather well. So you can blame the hit parade on her if you want. She'll be proud, and vocally, she'll still love to love you mister--or sister, or kid, whatever, she's utterly ecumenical (although at low points she's been known to poke nervous fun at the gay men who made her a star). When she's not simply stupendous, she simulates passion with a velvety finish. A

A TASTE OF THE INDESTRUCTIBLE BEAT OF SOWETO (Earthworks) Knowing it would be a waste to raid the seminal mbaqanga compilation of the title, which is why his market niche might buy this one (and also why he has a market niche to begin with), Trevor Herman aims to match it out of the half dozen or so less perfect ones that followed. This is self-actualized and public-spirited, and damned if he doesn't come reasonably close. Steve Kekana and the Soul Brothers sweeten the mix, the Tiyimeleni Young Sisters show the Mahotella Queens how Shangaan women call their lover boy, and Mzwakhe Mbuli has the last word. A

WHITE COUNTRY BLUES: 1926-1938 A LIGHTER SHADE OF BLUE (Columbia/Legacy) Columbia has mined its blues catalogue with an assiduousness that verges on exploitation--the thematic albums are dully inconsistent, the single-artist jobs find deathless art in every $20 take. But this one is fascinating and fun. By now the sound of half-remembered crackers co-opting, emulating, and creating 12-bar laments and 16-bar romps is more provocative than the sound of black "originals" that are often only versions themselves. It fleshes out our dim awareness that Sam Phillips's white-rebels-singing-the-blues had a long history in the South (and you thought Carl Perkins wrote "Matchbox" like the Beatles said he did). Breaching the borders of the status quo, these hillbilly troubadours hewed to the innocent escapism of small-time show business--they stole only the catchiest tunes, and when the jokes fell flat they pumped in their own. In the course of two hour-long discs, there's still the occasional irritating sense that three generations later, ordinary subcultural entertainment music has been declared good for you. But mostly it's just ribald rhymes and wrecked romance--sometimes pained, but imbued with a droll detachment that epitomizes rural cool. If late minstrelsy was anything like this, I'm sorry I missed it. A MINUS

Village Voice, Dec. 27, 1994

Nov. 29, 1994 Jan. 17, 1995