Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

Billie Holiday: The Ultimate Collection [Hip-O/Verve, 2005]
Billie Holiday stands at or near the top of any knowledgeable short list of American singers. Not even Aretha, Elvis, or Al Green is in her class--her only competition is Louis Armstrong, whose improvisational smarts she emulated, and Frank Sinatra, who adored her. Yet Holiday had a much smaller voice than any of these titans, and by 1958, when she died of alcohol abuse at 43, it was a wreck. Her magic is all in her languid timing, subtle melodic variations, unmatched conversational intimacy, and above all physical timbre--young and buttery or brandy on the rocks, it goes down so easy. For licensing reasons, this overview offers just a taste of the buoyant '30s Billie, already worldly yet set on fun, while doing better by the careworn '50s Billie. What makes it invaluable is the way it bridges the two periods. Though interrupted by wartime recording bans and a federal prison stint for heroin, the 1940s found Holiday no longer feigning innocence but still clear-voiced, captured by producer Milt Gabler first on his Commodore indie and then in hit-seeking mode on Decca. The strings Holiday invited and the big-band conventions Gabler applied can be hard to take in large doses. These tracks are so astutely selected, however, that their star-time phase seems natural--a strength, even. Because Holiday destroyed her body and couldn't resist mean mistreaters, she's come to symbolize female victimization. But even in suffering she was vibrant, and this collection gets the proportions right. Not all these songs are sad, and she owns every one--a fathomless artist guaranteed to reward as many hours as you can invest in her. [Blender: 5]