Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Buena Vista Social Club, GZA/Genius, T.I. Get Nods; Lucinda Williams, Ice Cube, Young Jeezy and more receive honorable mentions; Plies is Dud of the Month

American music, I muttered to myself. Why can't I find any American music? Then I remembered how few hip-hop labels mail their albums to old white guys like me, and I had my answer.

Buena Vista Social Club: At Carnegie Hall (Nonesuch) Recorded July 1, 1998, a 78-minute double-CD proves how stiff and thin this made-up collective's mysteriously canonical 1997 studio album is. How? By kicking off with and obliterating the same three songs in the same order, then moving on to a less striking rendition of the lead track from the much better Introducing . . . Ruben Gonzalez. Together for years by then, they're playing off each other and to a crowd--looser, louder, showier, more excited. Yet even so, chief vocalists Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo never leap the language barrier the way pianist Gonzalez does, and if this be the last hurrah of genuine Cuban son, what are those Cooders doing in the mix, and those rumba horns? For too long in the middle, it's just pleasurable exotica-next-door. But then the climactic "Candela" goes an extra minute-and-a-half for a reason. And then Ferrer and Portuondo get beautiful. B PLUS

Chromeo: Fancy Footwork (Vice) Now repackaged with a free remix disc I'll never play again, this Montreal duo do Daft Punk with simpler, surer hooks and marginally human voices. Dance by genre, they're pop by spiritual affinity, and whaddaya know, they sing in English--presque pas de français. This matters deeply only on the sweetly revealing "Momma's Boy," but it's reassuring throughout. They love them some girls, and they're so uptempo about it. A MINUS

Franco: Francophonic (Sterns Africa) As monumental as, and meatier than, Stern's Rochereau retrospective The Voice of Lightness, this overview of the big man's first three decades plays less smoothly because smooth was never the idea--he was John to Rochereau's Paul. The two of them ruled Kinshasa because they were bandleaders on a par with James Brown: shrewd businessmen, charismatic bosses and unrelenting musical conceptualizers. But though Franco helped create the onwards-and-upwards rumba lift that turned their city into the musical capital of pan-Africa, he remained rough and local. His lyrics eschewed romance, his singing favored a declarative midrange, his famed guitar was loud and plangent rather than nimbly lyrical. Where compiler Ken Braun gives us a Rochereau who sheds idiosyncrasy as he defines a genre and masters a personal style, his Franco is always thinking. Even on the later disc, he's masterminding a transcendent commercial and then mourning his younger brother, teasing out a buildup on one song and delivering nonstop climax on the next. Rhythms and tempos shift: here a cha-cha, there a torch song, there some eerie 3/4 time. But he never stints on melody. You may need Braun's notes to get your mind around songs your body has already internalized. Or you may decide to just enjoy how it sounds. A PLUS

GZA/Genius: Pro Tools (Babygrande) Never thought I'd say this, but RZA isn't missed--the budget production enhances a master lyricist's specialty by subtraction. After dispensing with the "horrific torture by prolific authors" upsmanship, he's both factual, as on the doomed "Short Race" and "Path of Destruction," and fanciful, as on "0% Finance"'s renovated terraplane and "Cinema"'s scary movie. RZA re-enters rapping on the farewell "Life Is a Movie," in which a wild script takes off from humble facts but runs into trouble in production. B PLUS

Homeboy Sandman: Actual Factual Pterodactyl (Boy Sand Industries) This logorrheic rhymer says he comes music first, which means extended loops from anywhere: speed-rock, roots dancehall, humming and whistling, Bach or somebody, Jon Hassell or somebody, Kenna nailing his Thom Yorke impression. On the one about the ill-fated mambo contest, there's a mambo; on "I-Tunes Song," there's an intrusive jingle. But though the loops have some jam and Kenna will never sound better, what sustains is the words. Some you'll get right away, others you'll let pass with your head spinning. But they'll be there waiting. Conscious enough, Homeboy loves to play, which greatly enhances his wisdom hear how "Or" arrays 200-odd "or" rhymes: "I am a sight for sore orbs/Flow like a cyborg albacore." Married to this hip-hop for richer or poorer, he's never been divorced. His brand of hip-hop is nothing like yours. A MINUS

Love Is All: A Hundred Things Keep Me Up at Night (What's Your Rupture) As intense one of those hummingbirds that consume twice their own weight every day, Josephine Olausson makes being tiny a virtue. She wants it all, which scares her half to death--her multiple paranoias provide an album title. But tune and tempo conquer all even if love doesn't, and soon, if you listen up, you'll hear her toss her head and move on, jubilant in her capacity for jubilation. Well past thirty now, she's one of those happy punks--in art and, one hopes, in life. A MINUS

T.I.: Paper Trail (Grand Hustle/Atlantic) Determined to provide for his dependents during 2009's scheduled downtime, Atlanta's favorite convicted phenom bids subcultural purism goodbye, augmenting King's steamroller anthems with all the hooks we can eat, putting the words on paper before delivery. After three impressive "What You Want" rips, the third of which exploits moral confusions he would never have copped to when he was king, he buries the hatchet with Ludacris, whose rhymes bury his, but who's keeping score? Then it's on to a "Numa Numa Dance" sample foreshadowing the "Paper Planes" sample to come, an obliging sex boast soon converted by YouTube schoolkids into a get-out-the-vote ditty, a chant about designer headscarves, a walk around the block with Usher and Justin Timberlake. He proves he belongs on the same record as Jay, Wayne, and Kanye by hiring them to rhyme in on "Swagga Like Us," which cleans out the taste of "Every Chance I Get," the only misogynist braggadocio on an album that swaggas as a matter of principle. Hip-hop's amoral guardians may bitch and moan. But if you can't get with this expediently excessive piece of rich-get-richer, commercial rap albums are beyond your ken. A MINUS

Honorable Mention

  • Lucinda Williams: Little Honey (Lost Highway) Her band jams for real as her songs bewail the artist's plight or just stay out of the way ("Honey Bee," "Real Love").
  • Bob Dylan: Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006 (Columbia/Legacy) Out of 29 tracks, not counting the dozen in a deluxe edition that'll run you another hundred smackers, I count two or three stunners, eight or nine keepers, many outtakes, and a few live versions and movie songs ("High Water [For Charley Patton]," "Series of Dreams").
  • Ice Cube: Raw Footage (Lench Mob) Some of the smartest raps of his career--"Most rappers are parrots/They say what they told to say to get a neck full of carats"--and some of the easiest beats ("Hood Mentality," "Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It").
  • DJ Drama & Lil Wayne: Dedication 3 (Gangsta Grillz) He loves the studio, which earns it, and his young-money peeps, who don't ("Still Rise," "Magic").
  • Ry Cooder: I, Flathead (Limited Deluxe Edition) (Nonesuch) Soundtrack to the nifty book of linked short stories this version includes, which is more entertaining than the songs because the characters aren't all musicians ("Pink-O Boogie," "Ridin' With the Blues").
  • The Rough Guide to Calypso Gold (World Music Network) Trinidad as Novelty Island, including many songs preferable in their Top 40 versions (Lord Kitchener, "Ah Bernice"; Houdini, "Uncle Jo' Gimme Mo'").
  • The Clash: Live at Shea Stadium: October 13, 1982 (Epic/Legacy) Arena-rock focused them punker than hit-making did ("Rock the Casbah," "Clampdown").
  • Nguyên Lê Duos: Homescape (ACT) Vietnamese guitarist-programmer co-constructs atmospheres, from electric Miles to Chinoiserie ("Mali Iwa," "Stranieri").
  • Judi Chicago: X 1,000,000 (Judi Chicago) Gay aggro-house comedy for singles by electoral fiat ("Jack Your Box," "An-Anatomy").
  • Grampall Jookabox: Ropechain (Asthmatic Kitty) The Indianapolis version of Barcelona's El Guincho is longer on madness and shorter on joy--must be the water ("Let's Go Mad Together," "You Will Love My Boom").
  • Young Jeezy: The Recession (Def Jam) President No Drama or President O'Drama, the crack trade will survive ("What They Want," "My President").
  • Kieran Hebden and Steve Reid: NYC (Domino) With New York drummer Reid in the driver's seat, "folktronica" turns frantic, dark, urban ("Lyman Place," "1st & 1st").
  • Nik Bärtsch's Ronin: Holon (ECM) If you can't imagine a jazz pianist whose biggest inspiration is Philip Glass, he does it for you ("Modul 45," "Modul 44").
  • A Jazz & Blues Christmas (Putumayo World Music) If swing them bells you must, wrap them in this (Ray Charles, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"; B.B. King, "Christmas Celebration").
  • Gang Gang Dance: Saint Dymphna (The Social Registry) Soundscape dance-rock more artful than arty ("Vacuum," "First Communion").
  • Vivian Girls: Vivian Girls (In the Red) Adoring Bikini Kill adoring the Go-Go's adoring the Ramones adoring Phil Spector ("Tell the World," "Never See Me Again").
  • Hercules and Love Affair: Hercules and Love Affair (DFA) Beatier than Culture Club, but less winning, the usual price of transforming pop into art ("Raise Me Up," "Blind").
  • The Pretenders: Break Up the Concrete (Shangri-La) For some people, love never gets easier ("Boots of Chinese Plastic," "You Didn't Have To").
  • Craig G & Marley Marl: Operation Take Back Hip-Hop (Traffic Entertainment/Good Hands) Undie old-schoolism as narrative, not just rhetoric ("The Day Music Died," "Don't Make Me Laugh").
  • Q-Tip: The Renaissance (Universal Motown) If jazz lite it must be, by all means, rap on top ("Shaka," "Official").
  • Homeboy Sandman: Nourishment (Second Helpings) (Boy Sand Industries) Penn grad and law-school dropout Angel Del Villar solidifies his career plans ("Kain News," "Us and Them").
  • Hector Zazou: In the House of Mirrors (Crammed Discs) Middle East meets Far East for trance sans dance ("Hool Ki Seva," "Twice as Good as We Are").
  • The (International) Noise Conspiracy: The Cross of My Calling (Vagrant) Emo egoism meets anarcho-punk rhetoric--wild ("The Assassination of Myself," "Washington Bullets").
  • Bun B: II Trill (Rap-a-lot) Pimp C . . . he dead ("Damn I'm Cold," "If It Was Up II Me").
  • Immortal Technique: The 3rd World (Viper) Gangsta rage run through hard-left analysis--lethal ("The 3rd World," "Mistakes").
  • Deerhunter: Microcastle (Kranky) In their bad dream, life never stops, so they take the easy way out and fix it up a little ("Never Stops," "Nothing Ever Happened").

Choice Cuts

  • Ice Cube, "Ghetto Vet," "Higher," "Natural Born Killaz" (In the Movies, Priority)
  • Elvis Presley, "Blue Christmas," "Merry Christmas Baby" (Elvis Presley Christmas Duets, RCA)
  • MC Frontalot, "A Skit About Robots" (Secrets From the Future, Level Up)
  • Kieran Hebden and Steve Reid, "The Sun Never Sets," "Our Time" (Tongues, Domino)
  • Devin the Dude, "I Can't Make It Home" (Landing Gear, Razor & Tie)

Dud of the Month

Plies: Definition of Real (Big Gates/Slip N Slide/Atlantic) Who better to address metaphysics than an autobiographical goon in a ski mask? He knows what reality is. It's giving grief a bad name. It's missing the daddy and dissing the baby mama. It's leaving a hater with a colostomy bag, collecting debts from suckers' wives in the only currency at their command, hiding in the bushes with your goon squad until it's time to empty 200 rounds into the object of your attention. Real hip-hop fans respect Plies for making like a goon. The rest of us are reminded of a colostomy bag. It all depends on your metaphysics. D PLUS

More Duds

  • Antony & the Johnsons: Another World (Secretly Canadian)
  • DJ Khaled: We Global
  • (Koch)
  • Jakob Dylan: Seeing Things (Columbia)
  • The Game: LAX (Geffen)
  • Rise Against: Appeal to Reason (Interscope)
  • Trick Trick: The Villain (Koch)

MSN Music, December 2008

November 2008 January 2009