Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Gift Albums

It has been said by one of the people who say such things that rock and roll isn't art, it's history. That cuts two ways, of course, because rock and roll isn't just history, it's ongoing history, fired by a demand for novelty that is always threatening to burn it out. This year, there has been lots of interesting new music, but few wholly satisfying new albums, and the music industry has plumbed its own history as never before. Five labels (Chess, Polydor, Fantasy, Atlantic and King) have launched new blues series, and three others (United Artists, Decca and Mercury) have repackaged whatever rock and roll was in the vault. Added to the bewildering proliferation of retrospectives and best-ofs, this means that a lot of the year's albums were recorded long before 1972.

What follows is a Christmas list not of the hottest new music, but of the finest old stuff. Unlike so many reissues, these albums are more than profiteering gadgets. All are distinguished by intelligent conception, and all serve a useful function--they don't duplicate or half-duplicate already available albums, even if all the music they include can be bought elsewhere. I'll be writing about worthwhile but less extraordinary collections later this week, but this is the cream. I have singled out more than half of them as gifts for my own friends, and what more can I say?

Mississippi John Hurt: Last Sessions (Vanguard). Hurt may be the gentlest male performer on record--his delicate timbre and picking style have none of that dense, tortured Delta quality. These fragile, somewhat fragmentary sessions, made shortly before his death in 1966, convey his almost elfin blend of the down-to-earth and ethereal exquisitely.

The Gospel Sound, Volume II (Columbia). As a suspicious neophyte, I have the feeling that diligent sacrifice might produce an even more representative sampler, emphasizing the minor labels where good gospel flourishes, but this is a listenable introduction. Even Mahalia Jackson, the gospel showpiece of the whiteskin world, sounds terrific on three selections, none of which (not so strangely) is included on her must-to-avoid posthumous repackage, The Great Mahalia Jackson.

Sonny Boy Williamson: This is My Story (Chess). This is not to suggest that Williamson is any greater than Howlin' Wolf or Muddy Waters, both of whom were also repackaged in two-record sets by Chess this year. But Sonny Boy, who died in 1955, is much more obscure, and that's not right. An important harmonica stylist who sang in an intense moan rather than shouting, he was also a wry, terse songwriter, and is worth getting to know even in Chess's disgracefully fuzzy reprocessed stereo.

Otis Spann: Walking the Blues (Barnaby). Although I've always been a fan of the greatest modern blues pianist, this never-before-released 1960 session is the first of the dozen or so Otis Spann albums I've heard that has hooked me. The production is imaginative and uncluttered, with Spann's piano augmented only by the guitar of Robert Lockwood Jr. and vocal variety provided by the mordant inventions of St. Louis Jimmy, who sings four of his own compositions. I play this often.

Fats Domino (United Artists). The best of UA's painstakingly researched and annotated Legendary Masters Series. Unlike Little Richard and Chuck Berry, Fats was no genius, just a steady, original and persistent New Orleans musician, but his hits still sound strong, and Nat Cole and Ray Charles are the only black performers with more. I wouldn't be surprised if a creditable Volume II could be culled from the rejects.

A 25th Anniversary in Show Business Salute to Ray Charles (ABC). A remarkable example of benevolent corporate cooperation, this set devotes one record to Charles' early work with Atlantic, often ignored by his ballad fans, and one to the best of his pop-influenced period on ABC, often unjustly maligned by rhythm-and-blues purists. The ideal introduction.

The Best of Otis Redding (Atco). I think the title is a misnomer as the set contains not one cut from the atypically soft-spoken last-sessions release, The Immortal Otis Redding. Taken together, though, Best and Immortal comprise the essential Otis, and with no duplications. Compiled with a care that transcends commerce by the folks at Atlantic, who even went so far as to re-record instrumental parts (using the original musicians) to provide true stereo on three early cuts.

The Kinks: The Kinks Kronikles (Reprise). Self-konfessed kultist John Mendelsohn has selected the 28 tracks on this set with an ear to preserving a few minor Ray Davies masterpieces available only on singles and deleted LPs, but it doesn't matter. This is the record I play when I feel like a dose of Davies' fey, somewhat dotty anti-modernism. Magnificent liner notes too.

Nuggets (Elektra). The subtitle, "Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968," indicates the loving skepticism with which critic Lenny Kaye compiled and annotated this set. Obscure but well-remembered superschlock from the Electric Prunes, the Count Five, the Mojo Men, the Vagrants, the Chocolate Watch Band, and 22 others. In order to understand this album, you had to be there, but then, you probably were.

The Jackson Five: Greatest Hits (Motown). Anyone who denies the greatness of the Five is suffering from hearing loss, hardening of the arteries, and a cold, cold heart. I love their best ballads ("I Found That Girl" is my fave) and their rock and rollers are Motown at its best.

Duane Allman: An Anthology (Capricorn). Unlike Eric Clapton, Duane Allman merits a retrospective, because he's dead. I would argue with a few of the early cuts, but they do recall how deeply Allman was rooted in the soul music of the Deep South, which so many of his fans tend to ignore. Side four is the most listenable, waste-free 20 minutes of Allman Brothers yet released.

Phil Spector's Christmas Album (Apple). Last and definitely least, some seasonal cheer, not to mention the first vintage Spector to be generally available in years. Rereleased just in time to offend the pious deadheads who insist on playing "The Little Drummer Boy" while you're passing the turnips. Darlene Love sings "White Christmas," and more, much more.

N'day, Dec. 17, 1972