Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

My Christmas best-of ritual is an act of pop faith, and occasionally this year I found myself wondering why I bothered. Certainly few of my colleagues or readers would scrutinize Greatest Hits of the Outlaws in search of new values, or old ones either. In the little world of rockcrit, such music is beyond the pale, as immutably schlocky as Air Supply or Lana Cantrell. But it is nevertheless true that sales, airplay, or both indicate that somehow, somewhere, it's pelasured the species, and part of the pop faith is to believe, provisionally, in people's pleasure. Judge that pleasure shallow or escapist or downright vicious in the end, but first confront what it actually is, because you always stand a chance of discovering new sources of fellowship or enjoyment. In 1982, unfortunately, such fine sentiments were mostly theoretical. A music biz driven to eke a few stray dollars out of what was once complacently dismissed as "catalogue" has damn near made this the Year of the Reissue, and you'll find more recommended compilations in Additional Consumer News than in any year since 1977. But while in a few cases these illuminate the grace of minor artists or accumulate the power of pop moments, most are predictable consequences of commerce, and too much of the bad stuff is venal or worse. Still, I salute the Bellamy Brothers, and hope to introduce them soon to Steve Miller and A Flock of Seagulls.

TONI BASIL: Word of Mouth (Chrysalis) The only woman ever to offer to take it up the ass on top 40 radio (close your eyes and really concentrate on "Mickey" if you don't believe me) tops that trick by making four words out of "Don't want nobody" and then playing the double negative both ways. If like me you think it's kind of neat for a bizzer who's pushing 40 (helped out on The TAMI Show in 1965) to come on as a dirty teen dream, you'll enjoy the cunning of her modestly futuristic El Lay pop-rock. But if like me you've never fathomed the appeal of (David Essex's) "Rock On" and treasure other versions of "Be Stiff" and "Little Red Book," you won't mistake her for Blondie or Nick Lowe. B PLUS

CHIC: Tongue in Chic (Atlantic) Following their song album, their guitar album, their compilation album, and their made-it-all-possible album, this is their groove album. Maybe their throwaway album as well, yet I enjoy it fine, because I get from Chic what devotees of Memphis soul used to get from Booker T. & the M.G.'s. Which group you prefer is partly a matter of which rhythms feel like life to you, of course, so I'll add that like New York these are pretty swift. I'll also add that their in-concert theme song makes me wonder what the live album might be like. A MINUS

GEORGE CLINTON: Computer Games (Capitol) Nothing on this mature work of art will tear the roof off any mothersucker--Dr. Funkenstein's earthshaking jams are past. But that's hardly to suggest that he's lost his sense of rhythm or hermeneutics. In other words, if your ears say you've heard some of these grooves before, don't tell your ass about it and your mind'll never be the wiser. Clinton has deepened in the wake of his failure to turn the planet upside-down, and this is his most flawless album, paced and orchestrated without a dead spot and thought through like a mothersucker. Even the earthshaking jams of the past are accounted for, and in two or three different ways. Man's best friend spelled backwards is? And why would anyone want to spell it backwards? A

BOOTSY COLLINS: The One Giveth, the Count Taketh Away (Warner Bros.) Not the one to give, but who's counting? In theory (i.e. in the count), me; in fact (i.e. on the one) you. Get it? If you do, you'll know what to do. B PLUS [Later]

JOHN COUGAR: American Fool (Riva) The breakthrough fluke of the year has it all over his predecessors in REO Speedwagon--Bob Seger, Cougar's current role model, has been dreaming of riffs with this much melodic crunch ever since Night Moves, and when I don't think about whys and wherefores they satisfy my mainstream cravings. But the guy is a phony on the face of it, and not in a fun way--anybody with the gall to tell teen America that once you pass sixteen "the thrill of living is gone" has been slogging toward stardom for so long he never noticed what happened to Shaun Cassidy. B

CULTURE CLUB: Kissing to Be Clever (Epic/Virgin) A lot of new English bands I wish were even worse than they are--every time Haircut 100 or Depeche Mode finds a riff or a groove it means they may last longer than the 15 months allotted by the march of fashion. This new English band I wish were better, because for all their fashionability I think their hearts are in the right place--they look so weird because that's the way they feel. They do come up with catchy tunes, too. But their bland Caribbean rhythms move no muscles, and their confrontations with racial issues are rarely more than a phrase deep, and Boy George really doesn't sound like Smokey Robinson--not the way Frankie Miller sounds like Otis Redding, not even the way John Cougar sounds like Bruce Springsteen. B [Later]

DEFUNKT: Thermonuclear Sweat (Hannibal) At twenty-eight, Joseph Bowie comes on as spoiled and stunted as the most solipsistic hardcore teen, so it says worlds for the power of his rhythm section and the imagination of his guitarists that he can't ruin his own music. More Ornette than Contortions this time, he even shows off his good breeding by funkifying a Charlie Parker tune. On the other hand, his "For the Love of Money" sounds like slumming, especially from a guy who couldn't outsing Kenny Gamble in the shower. B PLUS

THE DREAM SYNDICATE: The Days of Wine and Roses (Ruby) Punctuated as well as buoyed by drummer Dennis Duck, Karl Precoda shapes a guitar master's trick bag of basic chords and ungodly electric accidents into drones that won't quit, so abrasively tuneful I get off on this album strictly as a groove--the way I get off on perfectly mindless funk like, say, the Gap Band singles. But Steve Wynn's take on the usual world-weary table topics is gratifying matter-of-fact and no more, and music like this--music where the fun is in the no-fun--feels incomplete when it stops there. B PLUS

MERLE HAGGARD: Going Where the Lonely Go (Epic) Country legend or no, Haggard has no more business doing an album about broken relationships than Public Image Ltd. As a result, material that might be touching from a more austere singer is barely credible, and the three songs that open side two--one by Merle and Jimmy Dickens, one by Merle's off-and-on wife Leona Williams, and one by the austere Willie Nelson--ooze with the kind of moist self-pity ordinarily encountered only in leaders of the men's liberation movement. C PLUS

MERLE HAGGARD AND GEORGE JONES: A Taste of Yesterday's Wine (Epic) What might have been a historic get-together overplays both the good-old-boy camaraderie and the cry-in-your-beer sentimentality of country's male-bonding mode. Willie Nelson's keynote tune becomes completely bathetic, and that the nostalgia and mutual self-congratulation it presages are even bearable is one more proof of Jones's genius. B MINUS

MICHAEL JACKSON: Thriller (Epic) This is virtually a hits-plus-filler job, but at such a high level it's almost classic anyway, with the three Michael-composed songs on top. "Beat It," in which Eddie Van Halen wends his night in the service of antimacho, is the triumph and the thriller. But while I'm for anything that will get interracial love on the radio, playing buddies with Paul McCartney is Michael's worst idea since "Ben," and I expect to bear more of "Wanna Be Startin' Something" and "Thriller" on the dancefloor than in my living room. A MINUS [Later: A]

DAVID LASLEY: Missin' Twenty Grand (EMI America) Great falsettos like Smokey Robinson and Clyde McPhatter flow uphill, while lesser ones like Maurice Gibb and Russell Thompkins settle for the formal panache and expressive limitation of acknowledged artifice. Lasley certainly doesn't flow, but he doesn't settle, either--his struggle toward full emotional range sounds forced at first, but then willed, which is different. Playing head voice for homosexual angst rather than love-man tenderness or androgynous affect, he sets his colloquial confessions to pristine studio soul backup completely appropriate in a concept album about a white guy in love with black music. But at times it does seem forced. B PLUS

LILIPUT (Rough Trade import) Although only the lead cuts pack the goofy punch of such singles as "Ain't You," "You," "U," and "Eisiger Wind," formerly Kleenex has kept the faith. Where the Slits aspire to Mango and the Raincoats to ECM and the Au Pairs to Grunt, these Swiss women clearly belong with the rest of Rough Trade's amateur anarchohumanists. In another context I might disapprove of the clumsy white funk toward which their instrumental atmosphere has evolved, or fret about just what their references to ichor, stilts, and kicking heels might signify. But this music combines the spirit of a kindergarten rhythm band with the sophistication of an art school, just like the real Cabaret Voltaire. B PLUS [Later]

MEN AT WORK: Business as Usual (Columbia) Video sure didn't kill these radio stars, and I wish I could give them the air, but at some level they seem to try, they really do. Though the music is obviously auxiliary Police--more players, fewer dynamics--the words aspire to a compassion so bland and rootless I can only describe it as Australian. Sorry Olivia, sorry Rupert, sorry AC/DC, but one's sense of distance does leave one feeling a little out of it down there, now doesn't it? And from the perspective of up here, one is. B MINUS [Later: B+]

MISSING PERSONS: Spring Session M (Capitol) By combining me-first ideology with kewpie-doll vocals, spokesperson Dale Bozzio makes it sound as if she caught on to the autonomy fad kind of late. By combining cold studio gloss-and-kick with surefire electronic hooks, musicmeister Terry Bozzio makes it sound as if he caught on to the new-wave fad kind of late. Another perfect marriage. B MINUS [Later: C+]

PRINCE: 1999 (Warner Bros.) Like every black pop auteur, Prince commands his own personal groove, and by stretching his flat funk forcebeat onto two discs worth of deeply useful dance tracks he makes his most convincing political statement to date--about race, the one subject where his instincts always serve him reliably. I mean, you don't hang on his every word in re sex or the end of the world, now do you? A MINUS

LIONEL RICHIE (Motown) At least Jeffrey Osborne wants to sing like Peabo Bryson or somebody; no sooner does Richie split off from his unnecessarily successful funk group than he starts making like Andy Williams. Not that this comes as a surprise to those who know the funk group. But there are better ways to integrate this great nation of ours (see above). C [Later: C+]

RICKY SKAGGS: Highways and Heartaches (Epic) If Skaggs has come up with the best country album of the year, as he probably has, it's because despite his abandonment of bluegrass purism he's still a bluegrass purist at heart. Which means his commitment is more to the style than to the songs. Which means that above all his success is proof positive of the pusillanimity of the competition. B PLUS

ALFONIA TIMS AND HIS FLYING TIGERS: Future Funk/Uncut! (ROIR) Tims' guitar, uncommonly lyrical in a style where chop and slash has become a convention makes the funk-here-ska-there modality-somewhere else excursions seem comfortable enough. But not only can't he sing, he can barely chant, and the dull sound that plagues ROIR tapes deadens any compensatory bass-and-drums thrust. B MINUS

CRIS WILLIAMSON: Blue Rider (Olivia) Proving that lesbians are normal folks with normal hopes, normal regrets, even normal string arrangements--just like you, me, and Nicolette Larson. Next question. C

Additional Consumer News

This year, for purposes of convenience rather than definition, I've divided the swag into categories. There are good records and bad in every one, with Blues/Soul/R&B the most rewarding, as you might expect, and Heavy metal the least, ditto. And yes, when I say "rewarding" I feel like somebody just gave me a sawbuck. That's the point. . . .

The Classics are plagued by redundancy--fans will already own (or covet) albums that overlap with the new product, making current cash expenditure intensely uncomfortable. The Beatles' 20 Greatest Hits (Capitol), for instance, is a bargain of sorts whose putative rationale--every song number one in Billboard!--is no reason to forgo the original configurations. The Beach Boys' Sunshine Dream (Capitol) collects post-Pet Sounds sounds with none of Endless Summer's ineffable raison d'Ítre--not with the superb Wild Honey and Smiley Smile still in better racks. Credence Clearwater Revival's Chooglin' (Fantasy offers the "full-length original versions"--digitally remastered and pressed on virgin vinyl!--of five boogie classics, and while except for "Pagan Baby" all are groovy, they sound better mixed with real songs unless you happen to be throwing a hippie-nostalgia party. But while the 15-cut John Lennon Collection (Geffen) is just as superfluous--basically an Apple best-of plus John's songs from Double Fantasy--it's on my A shelf, because sometimes I want John without Yoko, and because it omits Shaved Fish's half-cocked "Cold Turkey" and ragtag "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" and does wonders for "Give Peace a Chance" by not medleying with it. And Steve Wonder's Original Musiquarium I (Tamla) distills an admirable but somewhat discursive album artist (cf. the four new cuts for further confirmation) into one of the great songwriters and rock and rollers of the '70s. . . .

My fave in Blues/Soul/R&B is Billy Stewart's The Greatest Sides (Chess), mostly because I'd barely thought about "Summertime" and "I Do Love You" since he died in a car crash in 1970 and hadn't ever heard most of the others. The swinging, ringing "Fat Boy" sounds in retrospect like a minor master, his backing band includes Pete Cosey and Maurice White, and both programming and pressing are pluses, a pleasant surprise. The Platters' Platterama (Mercury) skips three cuts from Encore of Golden Hits, the standard work, but only "I'm Sorry" is really missed, and the mono sound does justice to Tony Williams's romantic tenor, which loses essential clarity in reprocessed stereo. Just wish the thing didn't end with an electronic version of the medley they now do just before "Send In the Clowns." Muddy Waters's Rolling Stone (Chess) is welcome because it's in mono and in print, and why it skips "I'm Ready" and "Hoochie Koochie Man" I don't even want to know. Isaac Hayes's Greatest Hit Singles (Stax) sound a lot better than they did a decade ago, while The Best of Swamp Dog (War Bride) sounds slightly worse, which is what happens when you have pop faith--I always knew Hayes had a sense of humor, but I didn't know how much of it he got into his music because I was too busy groaning at his excesses, as in a sense was Mr. Dogg. The Dells (Chess) preserves and shapes the rich, raw soul baritone of Marvin Junior, which I barely noticed back when such voices were all over the radio. The Moments' Collectors' Addition Vol. 1 (Victory) is a much spottier showcase for tenor Harry Ray. The Best of Tyrone Davis (Columbia), honest later work by a modest Chicago soul stylist whose honest earlier work (on Dakar) never reached me, is skillful enough to make me doubt my taste but not powerful enough to make me change my mind. Albert King's Masterworks (Atlantic/Deluxe) is short on Stax standards and long on his post-prime with Tomato, owned by the guy who now runs the Atlantic/Deluxe series. And the Greatest Hits of blues journeyman Little Johnny Taylor (Fantasy) were never all that great. . . .

It was in Country that my pop faith was sorely tested. I expected nothing from Mickey Gilley or Lynn Anderson or Ronnie McDowell or Joe Sun, but I've admired both Hank Williams Jr. and Conway Twitty in the past. So it was depressing to reconsider Hank's Greatest Hits (Elektra) and realize that even though he may be Rosa Luxemburg compared to the Nashville squares he's forever railing against, he's also a repulsively self-indulgent, self-pitying, self-mythifying MCP. Twitty's Number Ones (MCA), meanwhile, suggests that his polite courtly-macho speeches have turned into sheer pettifoggery whether he's running for hub or stud. Twitty's also imitated Roy Acuff, Mel Tillis, etc. by rerecording (and cheapening) the great cheating songs on Decca's Greatest Hits Vol. 1 for Elektra (catalogue, y'know). Elektra's Best of Jerry Lee Lewis is a more creditable resuscitation program, because it includes no remakes and because Jerry Lee's the next best thing to immortal (that is irredeemable), though it's no accident that the collection's three top cuts are the only three produced by Bones Howe and the only three drawn from his 1979 comeback Jerry Lee Lewis, which is preferred. My guilty pleasure of the season is the Bellamy Brothers' shamelessly smarmy, hooky, and slick Greatest Hits (Warner Bros.). They're about as country as Mike Curb, who signed them, but if you can resist "If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body Would You Hold It Against Me" you don't eat fried food, and to hell with you. Nonpuritans are directed. "Get Into Reggae Cowboy," which I'm glad I never heard on the radio--in controlled doses, it's the match of "Lovers Live Longer" and "Redneck Girl." And then there's George Jones's Anniversary--Ten Years of Hits (Epic). Sure he's inconsistent and self-destructive, but he's such a natural singer that all the insanity goes into the mix, and such a pro that the greatest performance on all four of these sides, "He Stopped Loving Her Today," was recorded with a year between the first verse and the bridge. Jones's Starday and Musicor compilations are as essential as Jimmie Rodgers or Robert Johnson, but in many ways he's a greater artist today. . . .

I welcomed the pick of Rock, Timepieces--The Best of Eric Clapton (RSO) when it arrived last spring. After all, the guitarist somehow evolved into a master of the laid-back single during the '70s, and here they all were. Yet to be honest, the record never broke through, which may simply reflect historical fashion--I'll give Clapton five years any time. Meanwhile, I'll admit to having gotten some jollies from Eagles Greatest Hits Volume 2 (Asylum), probably because the Bellamy Brothers had softened me up, though they did nothing for the Little River Band's Greatest Hits (Capitol) (Bellamys without glitz) or Poco's Backtrack (MCA) (Eagles without glitz)--or, in all fairness, Greatest Hits of the Outlaws (Arista). . . .

Actually had more fun with Heavy Metal, which does permit a certain horrified fascination. The Best of Vanila Fudge (Atco) indeed--Tim Bogert (Carmine Appice?) may well have inspired more godawful singing than Jack Bruce himself. Then there's Rematch, by onetime Donovan and Patti Smith fan Sammy Hagar (Capitol), who lost his ideals/values/pretensions when he discovered the boys-together-outrageously pleasures of that molten road. By bringing us back to a time when frontmen like Steve Marriott thought of HM as white blues, Humble Pie's The Best (A&M) sounds quite human by comparison. And I actually, er, get off on the musclebound goosiness of Great Gonzo--The Best of Ted Nugent (Epic), a 1981 release so subtle it passed me right by. . . .

Top of the Pop, Ray Parker Jr.'s Greatest Hits (Arista) is just the thing for those benighted who can't believe they need five pieces of long-playing ass-man jive. Well, actually they don't--necessity has nothing to do with it. But after playing side one once they'll make it twice, and then maybe they'll want Raydio or The Other Woman or maybe A Woman Needs Love. In that order. Shalamar's Greatest Hits (Solar) is designed to have the same effect, but although I note that six of these 10 cuts began life on Three for Love, I find the smooth Solar production signature sufficiently anonymous to stick with the hooky calligraphy of the best-of. Olivia's Greatest Hits Vol. 2 (MCA) features the Melbourne chameleon (surname: Newton-John) in her perky-cum-funky mode, a lot sexier than Barbara Mandrell. The Pointer Sisters' Greatest Hits (Planet) is premature, maybe because Richard Perry's label switched distribution recently; it begins and damn near ends with "He's So Shy" and "Slow Hand." Peter Allen's The Best (A&M) is fatally haute-demimandaine, Quincy Jones's The Best (A&M) cries out for Michael Jackson, and Best of Jennifer Warnes (Arista) still sounds like second-hand Linda to me. . . .

Finally--and you know you're getting older (I mean you; I figured it out in 1970) when it comes to tis--we have New Wave. Not counting the two-disc Burning Ambitions: A History of Punk (Cherry Red import), which I'll get to along with other multiple-artist jobs at an as yet undetermined date, there are either four or six, and can K-Tel be far behind? Squeeze's Singles--45's and Under (A&M is quite magnificent, squeezing their tour de force wit onto a long-player that never seems forced or strained, and unless you adore their regular releases, which I'd consider ill-advised, it's the compilation of the year. Magazine's After the Fact (I.R.S.) is everything you need ("Shot by Both Sides," "I Love You, You Big Dummy," maybe "Goldfinger") and more from the band that invented post-punk pretension. The Best of the Runaways (Mercury) tries to be a Joan Jett album, but if Kim Fowley had known how to make a Joan Jett album he would have done the deed in 1976. Robert Gordon's Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die (RCA Victor) has four too many words in its title, given Gordon's veteran status and RCA's failure to include any of the rockabilly ballads that have always set him apart from the other cats. And lost but not least we have Bow Wow Wow's Twelve Original Recordings (Capitol) and Bowwowwow's I Want Candy (RCA Victor). They can't be called best-ofs--the Capitol comprises almost everything Annabella McLaren Ltd. recorded for EMI, including the theoretically never-to-be-disced Your Cassette Pet, while the RCA reshuffles the Last of the Mohicans EP with the See Jungle LP. I say wait for a real compilation, three or four years down the line, after Malcolm irons out the corporate complications. 'Cause in the end corporate complications are what this shit is all about.

Village Voice, Dec. 28, 1982

Nov. 30, 1982 Jan. 25, 1983