Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Notice that the annual box roundup in the Times was almost all mixed-to-pan? That's why I seek out archival music that won't wear out your ears or your wallet. There are two three-CD sets below, one a concession to the box urge, but the rest are single CDs that don't quit. Want to make a splash? Give two.

AFRICAN AMBIENCE (Shanachie) Skipping all over the continent, raiding definitive albums by King Sunny Ade and Franco & Rochereau, this is not the kind of Afrocomp that ordinarily gets my seal of approval. But does it ever do what it sets out to do, and what competitors on Music Club, Mango, Putumayo, and others too crappy to remember don't: segue the incongruous vocal attacks and rhythmic gestalts of, for instance, Youssou N'Dour's "Immigres" and Thomas Mapfumo's "Nyoka Musango" into the kind of danceable mix tape world-beat's venture capitalists once imagined we'd all be partying to by now. An ideal introduction for the neophyte, who might then branch out to Ade, Franco, Rochereau, and Loketo's Extra Ball too. Me, I hope I can find that album by Cameroon's Masao for less than the $26 it'll set me back at CDnow. A

LOUIS ARMSTRONG: An American Icon (Hip-O) Put off my feed by a single godawful piano solo, I fretted that this post-WWII overview was too lax. Certainly he recorded many of these 60 tunes many times; in other versions, seven are on Columbia/Legacy's 16 Most Requested Songs, an utterly convincing budget-priced survey of Armstrong the Beloved, the Entertainer--the Icon. A few selections here are merely lovable and entertaining, not iconic. But having played all three discs many times--Louis is one artist the boy-group fan in the back seat will always settle for--I've yet to locate another moment I'd rather not hear. Armstrong is my favorite artist because he epitomizes what Gary Giddins's newly reissued Satchmo breaks down as the entertainer-as-artist/artist-as-entertainer: "He was as much himself rolling his eyes and mugging as he was playing the trumpet. His fans understood that, but intellectuals found the whole effect too damn complicated." A

THE B-52's: Time Capsule: Songs for a Future Generation (Warner Bros.) The B-52's I bonded with at Max's and CBGB were an art band who epitomized the lost bohemian ideal of camp as love--embodied it so fully that after unspeakable adversity they became the thing they took off on and from. But while I could cavil about edgier song choices and '90s shortfall and their firstest was their bestest, I know that their chosen legacy honors the pop band that belongs to the ages and the masses--the band that still launches keg parties on Myrtle Beach and sells khakis at the Gap. From "Private Idaho" to "Good Stuff," songs I've never cared for are pure fun here. So are songs I've always adored. And the main thing wrong with the two new ones is that they're not fit to shine the spaceship of 1992's visionary "Is That You Mo-Dean." Personal to all tailgaters: the debut's really cool. Er, hot. What you said. A

BING CROSBY: The Best of Bing Crosby: 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection (MCA) Crosby perfected modern microphone technique and pioneered the musical use of magnetic tape. He was hip to the jive at a time when declaring yourself a Rhythm Boy was rebellion aplenty. But it's hard to hear these innovations in his countless records, partly because they've been superseded, partly because the essence of his art was an illusion of naturalness that fails if people notice it. So I've never found a record of his to get with until this 12-track cheapo, which features another Crosby--the one some count the most popular recording artist of the 20th century. The only title under-30s know here is "White Christmas." But for a child of the prerock era like me, these songs are pop music--not the well-bred harmonic pretensions pumped by Alec Wilder, but the Tin Pan Alley whose model is the Irving Berlin of "Play a Simple Melody." This was easy, sentimental music; my family sang "Dear Hearts and Gentle People" at parties, and I knew the words to "Swinging on a Star" by age four. But if to me it sounds like a social fact, to someone younger it's the indelible trace of a culture now lost. And it's Crosby who transforms it into a given. A

MILES DAVIS: Love Songs (Columbia/Legacy) Although in theory I like my makeout music instrumental--who needs a peanut gallery?--in fact I prefer undistracted silence. But I'll happily make an exception for the consensual intimacy summoned by Miles's quiet cool and taciturn affection for the limits of the melody at hand. Unless you can't keep your ears off Someday My Prince Will Come, which gives up three of nine cuts, this definitely won't kill the mood. A

BILL HALEY & HIS COMETS: The Best of Bill Haley & His Comets: The Millennium Collection (MCA) Fat (pudgy), old (30), spit-curled (so?), Haley gets no respect. And for sure you can skip his "Moon Over Miami," "Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider," and "Rip It Up." But they're not here. In his mythic moment of marketability, his mix of jump blues and Western swing was good for a small body of work that's unique in its efficient drive if only because nobody's been square enough to imitate it, though Brian Setzer is due to try. Most of it's here--12 songs, 32 minutes, 10 bucks. Give it some time and you may yet feel in your bones how "Rock Around the Clock" could change the world. A MINUS

THE ISLEY BROTHERS: It's Your Thing: The Story of the Isley Brothers (Epic/Legacy/T-Neck) Not counting them Beefheart digs, this triple is the single-artist box of the year by acclamation, and why not? It does an honorable job on a significant band whose catalogue cries out for landscaping. And compared to the completist monoliths on the Isleys from UA and RCA, it distinguishes hills from dales pretty nice. But folks, this is only the Isley Brothers. They gave us "Twist and Shout" and "It's Your Thing" and, um, "That Lady," they hired Jimi Hendrix young and learned a few things, they formed their own label and held on like heroes. They have a great single disc in them. But who's up for canonization next? Frankie Beverly and Maze? A MINUS

JIM KWESKIN & THE JUG BAND: Acoustic Swing & Jug (Vanguard) Milder but steadier than their brothers in dissipation the Holy Modal Rounders, whose first two albums have been remastered onto one Fantasy CD, this aggregation set the standard for folkiedom's hedonist wing, committed only to good-time blues, goofball hokum, and the occasional silly pop song. At this historical distance they're at least as far out there as their great inspirations Will Shade and Gus Cannon, neither of whom followed his harmonica player onto a commune when he decided he was God (Mel Lyman, you could look it up), and their selected works pack more fun than Yazoo's muddled Ruckus Juice and Chitlins comps: "Beedle Um Bum," "Ukelele Lady," "Borneo," "Never Swat a Fly," and a Maria Muldaur "Richland Woman" that couldn't make you forget John Hurt but might just inspire you to look him up. A MINUS

MTV: THE FIRST THOUSAND YEARS: R&B (Rhino) Love the title, which mocks both millennium hype and music television while implicitly acknowledging that this is but the latest slice of what the cognizant would call r&b--the part hip hop thinks is for bitchez, the sexy part that finally cracked MTV halfway into the network's going-on-two-decade life. Two of 16 tracks predate 1990, including Tina Turner's semiringer. Two fall flat--wrong Brian McKnight, any Deborah Cox. R&b being a singles music in every phase of its evolution, the few from albums worth owning all sound better here with the sole exception of P.M. Dawn's semiringer. Soft-core come-ons from Johnny Gill, Montell Jordan, Jodeci, and R. Kelly sound a lot better--they sound like a subculture seeking xscape rather than four damn liars. Even when the words dissemble, the music does not. This is how we do it--or try to do it, anyway. A

JIMMIE RODGERS: The Essential Jimmie Rodgers (RCA) Rodgers isn't the most accessible of totems--read Nolan Porterfield on his "raw energy" and "driving" guitar and you'll think somebody made a mistake at the pressing plant. But he didn't invent country music being a purist. He was the first to put into practice the retrospectively obvious truth that Southerners wanted more from their music than hymns, reels, and high-mountain laments--blues voicings and pop tunes and even a little jazz, though most of these classics are strictly solo. Also, he yodeled, a sound that encompasses the restless bad-boy escapism of "The Brakeman's Blues" and "Pistol Packin' Papa," which fortunately for rock and rollers predominates, and the dreamy good-boy nostalgia of "Dear Old Sunny South by the Sea" and "My Old Pal," without which he wouldn't have meant spit in T-for-Texas or T-for-Tennessee. Also encompassing both is "Waiting for a Train," as signal a Depression song as "Brother Can You Spare a Dime." It was recorded in 1928. A

SHALAMAR: Greatest Hits (The Right Stuff/Solar) Circa 1980, just after these Soul Train trainees pushed off the blocks, "urban" was reghettoized on the radio. So they did their best to appear not just pop but rock; whether they were that other thing wasn't discussed in polite company. Only now can we say it loud--they were disco. Producer-penned songs work courtship tropes with acceptable panache, but the content is all silky, luscious sound. Arrangements mix funk lite with kick-drum four and add enough strings to aerate the concoction. Voices promise whipped-cream sex that'll taste of mackerel in the morning. A

HOUND DOG TAYLOR AND THE HOUSEROCKERS: Deluxe Edition (Alligator) The six fingers on Taylor's hands abraded his vibrato almost as good as 10-dollar guitars and cracked amps, which is a good thing, because in the end he found his hero Elmore James a bit of a fancy man. Filling out a trio with another guitar and a drum kit, he blasted Maxwell Street with a scrawny sound the booklet swears was "huge," which is another way of saying "Play Loud." From the "It Hurts Me Too" that howls out crucial lines in a prearticulate slide to the joyously unforgiving "Give Me Back My Wig," this is the house-rockin' music nobody else ever got right, as perfect in its way as Jimmy Reed, or the Ramones. A

BIG JOE TURNER: Joe Turner's Blues (Topaz import) Even by Kansas City standards, Turner was pretty primal. The aspiring urbanity of Jimmy Rushing and Jimmy Witherspoon didn't suit him--he's a whale out of water in the big-band settings his Rhino triple is forever upgrading to. Here he hollers and moans over boogie-woogie piano--especially Pete Johnson, but also, and differently, Meade Lux Lewis, Willie "The Lion" Smith, Albert Ammons, even Art Tatum--and combos playing de facto jump blues. Broke as the Ten Commandments or taking jockey lessons because he ain't no monkey man, he's a country bluesman with a jazzman's phrasing and a bad mother fuyer's certainty of his own endangered prerogatives. A MINUS

BIG JOE TURNER: The Very Best of Big Joe Turner (Rhino) Atlantic was the site of Turner's "dumbing down," saith Jim "James" Miller, by which he means it's where the noble shouter streamlined, speeded up, and otherwise refused to act his age. The sound on this strictly hitbound single disc is one Turner devised himself in self-produced New Orleans sessions featuring a band-not-combo whose single-minded unison will pass for first r&b and then rock and roll. It's perfected with "Shake, Rattle and Roll," cut in New York with Atlantic sharpsters including drummer Connie Kay, whose sock means even more to the song than the sun shining through Jesse Stone's lyric. Until the niche marketers catch up with him, this fat (fat) 43-year-old is set to flip, flop, and fly all over America's teenaged heart. A

BILL WITHERS: Live at Carnegie Hall (Columbia/Legacy) Beyond "Use Me," "Lean on Me," and "Ain't No Sunshine," does anyone remember this guy existed? What a shame. Far more than best-ofs obliged to respect the career he maintained after this hypercharged 1972 night, his legacy is right here, a moment of lost possibility. Withers sang for a black nouveau middle class that didn't yet understand how precarious its status was. Warm, raunchy, secular, common, he never strove for Ashford & Simpson-style sophistication, which hardly rendered him immune to the temptations of sudden wealth--cross-class attraction is what gives "Use Me" its kick. He didn't accept that there had to be winners and losers, that fellowship was a luxury the newly successful couldn't afford. Soon sudden wealth took its toll on him while economic clampdown took its toll on his social context. But here he's turned on to be singing to his people--black folks who can afford Carnegie Hall. A

Village Voice, Dec. 28, 1999

Nov. 30, 1999 Feb. 1, 2000