Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

There's never been a year for reissues like 1990, and there'll never be another (until DAT, heh-heh). Squeezed onto the page below are the best of the best--pleasant surprises and absolute sureshots for every rock and roller on your list (if 12 bucks a pop isn't too steep, heh-heh). They stop alphabetically at N because the Gene Vincent don't make it. More marginal stuff, qualitywise and genrewise, will pepper A Lists for months or years to come. And no, I'm not on Rhino's payroll. They've just gotten busy.

ALPHA BLONDY: The Best of Alpha Blondy (Shanachie) Unless some dancehall visionary has escaped notice, this cosmopolitan Rasta is the great reggae hope. Forget Majek Fashek, even Lucky Dube--the African skank of the Ivoirian's Solar System Band makes the Wailers themselves sound a trifle straight. And on half these gloriously hypnotic tracks they get their chance--though because he's an equal opportunity Africanist, he allots them their fair share of weird sound effects and polyglot righteousness. Marcus Garvey words come to pass. A

GARY U.S. BONDS: The Best of Gary U.S. Bonds (Rhino) It's not true he only knew one song--that's a production trick. Anyway, it's a great song, or a great party. The amazing thing isn't that a party is what mastermind Frank Guida wanted, but that a party is what he got--nobody else has ever milked live-in-the-studio for "so much fun." A MINUS

THE CHANTELS: The Best of the Chantels (Rhino) Fifties groups live on in their voices, not their material. And Arlene Smith's was unbreakable if not immortal. Smith went public at 15, quit the biz of her own accord before she reached 21, and now teaches school in the Bronx, with music on the side. Her Richard Barrett-designed vehicles vary minimally in tempo, arrangement, chord structure--as compositions, they're numbing. But her unaffected outpourings--never cute, never tough, yet right off the street--retain their power and complexity through a shrill remix: she hurts, she yearns, she wonders, but even on "The Plea" she never begs or feels sorry for herself. Smith always traced her self-possessed emotionality to Gregorian chant, which is perfect. Clearly God has touched her, yet only the size of her instrument hints at the soul music to come. And not until she moves on, for the last three cuts, can Barrett get the other Chantels to act like a girl group. A

DELANEY & BONNIE: The Best of Delaney & Bonnie (Rhino) Bonnie was the songwriter and the terrific singer, Delaney the bandleader and the real good singer. Theirs was a marriage made on Sunset Strip, where two Southerners' displaced rural conservatism met the counterculture's exaltation of earthtone authenticity in an image of hippie adulthood that lasted till the divorce was underway in 1972 (shortly after they agreed to dispense with Bonnie's live-in lover on the unbelievably tender "Move 'Em Out"). Their conjugal sturm-und-drang was "a natural fact," the most canny and heartfelt and effortless rock-soul fusion in history. Their solo careers were a depressing embarrassment. A

BO DIDDLEY: The Chess Box (Chess) Robert Palmer's noble notes to this modest two-CD collection makes all the connections I'd been noticing (kids' culture, rap) as well as plenty I didn't (to ring shouts, gospel, habanera). Palmer notwithstanding, Bo's lyrics aren't up there with Chuck Berry's, although they signify for sure. But of course the key is rhythm, or rhythms--there are as many diddleybeats as there are Diddley songs. The '80s were Bo's time to take his rightful place among the great originators for the same reason they were James Brown's time to ascend to the top of the heap. A PLUS

DISCO YEARS, VOL. 1: TURN THE BEAT AROUND (1974-1978) (Rhino) With its beatwise hooks, generic soul, and cheap orchestral effects, disco was the great singles music of the '70s. Compiler Ken Barnes tries to stick in some bad records, for history's sake. But though only "Shame, Shame, Shame" could qualify for volume two's "Ring My Bell"-"I Will Survive"-"Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now" run, Andrea True and Peter Brown are commercial crap like it oughta be, and once "The Hustle" makes its statement the hits just keep on coming on, untouched by electro blandout. Seven songs here went number one, and all four non-top 10 choices belong. Travails that touch the heart, relieved by the phony good cheer that makes life worth living. A

FATS DOMINO: My Blue Heaven--The Best of Fats Domino (Volume One) (EMI) Domino was the most widely liked rock and roller of the '50s--nobody hated him, which you couldn't say of Elvis, or Pat Boone, who despite the color of his skin charted just two more top 10 records. Warm and unthreatening even by the intensely congenial standards of New Orleans, he's remembered with fond condescension as significantly less innovative than his uncommercial compatriots Professor Longhair and James Booker. But though his bouncy boogie-woogie piano and easy Creole gait were generically Ninth Ward, they defined a pop-friendly second-line beat that nobody knew was there before he and Dave Bartholomew created "The Fat Man" in 1949. In short, this shy, deferential, uncharismatic man invented New Orleans rock and roll. These 20 two-minute hits, import-only for years, are where he perfected it. I'm overjoyed that the laggards at EMI promise another nicely annotated volume "in the coming months," and will believe it when I see it. Grab this one, kids. A PLUS

GO-GO'S: Greatest (I.R.S.) The great album they didn't have in them, so skillfully constructed that you can't tell the Talk Show from the Beauty and the Beat--can't tell Belinda Carlisle learned how to sing before she forgot how to live. How she thrives when she's stuck with her sisters' songs! How they thrive when they stick her with their songs! How fine they all sound covering "Cool Jerk"! How much is that doggie in the window? A

GROOVE 'N GRIND: '50S AND '60S DANCE HITS (Rhino) Though Allen Klein denies us "Mashed Potato Time," "Bristol Stomp," and Chubby Checker (who reshouts "The Twist" like his comeback depends on it), they'd be add-ons anyway. Eighteen dance-craze picks, no stiffs, with four CD-only finds mitigating the nostalgia factor unless you were making the scene when Billy Graves invented beach music or Big Al Downing dragged the slop in the Georgia clay. I dare any disco-sucks holdout to deny that these streetwise exploitations are one of the essences of rock and roll. If the Kathryn Murrays of Flushing High who trained me for my failed prom shot would like to try again, I'm game. A

GUITAR PLAYER PRESENTS LEGENDS OF GUITAR--ELECTRIC BLUES, VOL. 1 (Rhino) What do guitar mavens know of rock and roll? Interesting to excellent though most of the individual selections in this series are, they don't track--obvious classics meet understandable obscurities for your historical elucidation and not much else. This volume is different. I like blues and have a large record collection, yet I don't own more than six or seven of the 17 tunes here, and most of those I don't play. Now I will. The guitarists are terrific, naturally. But so are the singers and the songs. And blues variety isn't various enough to get distracting--from Albert King's "Personal Manager" (I've never liked Albert), to Elmore James's "Dust My Blues" (I've wanted this version for years) to Guitar Slim's "The Story of My Life" (too specialized for me, I thought) is seamless pleasure. And that's just a random sample. A

HIP HOP GREATS: CLASSIC RAPS (Rhino) No "That's the Joint," because the concept behind this found collection of lost keepers isn't the greatest rap records from back in the day, it's crossover in the dark of history. The rhymes are silly with moments of unimaginable grace--from Wonder Mike's bad meal to Shirl the Pearl's soft swagger, from Kurtis Blow's universal pun to "The Message"'s message. The beats are old-school funk except when Flash gets hold of them--half "The Message"'s prophecy was in its rhythms. And the youthful positivity of both style and stylists don't stop--until white lines turn into tiny chunks of poison rock. A

BILLIE HOLIDAY & FRIENDS: Classic Live Recordings (Telstar cassette) Columbia's complete Billie I file, reverently. This pieced-together live half hour I take away on romantic weekends. The "12 Hits" are prime--all right, kind of obvious, so what? And in the absence of annotation (though the sidemen who get announced are also prime), I'm assuming it documents the late phase when life started ravaging her voice, which I've always thought jibed with her specialty--flashing pain a sarcastic smile, twisting its arm till it sings her tune. A

KC AND THE SUNSHINE BAND: The Best of KC and the Sunshine Band (Rhino) Just for fun, I pushed some buttons on my CD changer and played only the five songs that aren't--or weren't, rather--on the old 11-cut version, which suffered a tragic early death. And when they came up, they sounded almost as infectious, ebullient, catchy, dancy, et cetera as the hits. Explain to the historically minded that they were an important minor band and this is all that's left of them. Then have fun. A MINUS

JERRY LEE LEWIS: Rare Tracks (Rhino) Rare doesn't mean unheard, or minor, or even especially obscure. More like bloody. Or like "So Rare," the Jimmy Dorsey hit he doesn't cover, preferring Glenn Miller as he does. I heard 13 of these 16 selections when I labored through The Sun Sessions end to end, and to the best of my recollection noticed about four--"Big Legged Woman," "Whole Lotta Twistin' Goin' On," Glenn Miller, and the (nearly) eternal "Sixty Minute Man." In this company I notice every one. Filthy, corny, classic, omniverous, it's the perfect complement to 18 Original Greatest Hits. And almost as essential. A

MADONNA: The Immaculate Collection (Sire) Seventeen hits, more than half of them indelible classics: "Holiday" (ebullient), "Lucky Star" (blessed), "Like a Virgin" (wicked), "Papa Don't Preach" (immoral), "Express Yourself" (feminist), "Material Girl" (dialectical), "Vogue" (expressive), "Open Your Heart" (naked), "Justify My Love" (erotica), "Into the Groove" (disco). Style-swallowing opportunist though she is, every one could have been cut yesterday--they're unified by the plastic practicality of her voice and the synthetic electricity of her groove. Right, she's all image. Couldn't have done it without MTV. Tell me about it. A [Later: A+]

VAN MORRISON: The Best of Van Morrison (Mercury) You'd think he'd never plumbed the depths of Scientology and Madame George--he deserves his own coffee-table compilation, with alternate takes and bootlegged live covers boxed and indexed for your scholarly delectation. And rest assured you'll get one, to commemorate his inevitable election to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But despite its upbeat market savvy, I'll bet on this spiritually enlightened hour and a quarter. For all its chronological leaps, it moves as one thing--the seven '80s cuts honor Moondance and Into the Music, including "Wonderful Remark," previously available only on a damn soundtrack. Lighten up. Listen up. A

AARON NEVILLE: The Classic Aaron Neville: My Greatest Gift (Rounder) With his status as a stylist established, it's time to mention that he's too stylized. Is "Love Letters" "Love Letters," or is it a medium-tempo falsetto-melisma standard not unlike "Cry Me a River"? The call is too close. But nowhere in his grab bag of ad hoc albums is interchangeability less an issue than on this improved version of Charly's Make Me Strong. From jaunty stevedore plaint to dope-defeated lament, Allen Toussaint writes to the singer's experience and produces to his strengths--which you'd best believe are stronger (and more experienced) than some gravel-voiced rough boy's. A MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Digital Repackages To Treasure and Enjoy:

  • Beach Boys, Smiley Smile/Wild Honey (Capitol)
  • James Brown's Funky People Part 2 (Polydor)
  • Feelies, Crazy Rhythms (A&M)
  • Flamin Groovies, Supersnazz (CBS Special Products)
  • Gilberto Gil, Um Banda Um (WEA Latina)
  • Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Blank Generation (Sire/Warner Bros.)
  • The Ramones, All the Stuff and More: Volume 1 (Sire)
All sound great. All but the Gil and the Groovies are improved by bonus tracks. The Beach Boys is a bargain and a revelation.

Too Much:

Elvis Costello, Flamin Groovies on Sire, Tommy James, Melanie, P.I.L., the boxed set as will and idea.

Village Voice, Dec. 25, 1990

Dec. 4, 1990 Jan. 29, 1991