Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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As they run out of sell-throughs, bizzers have begun to see the utility of more righteous reissue practices. Three- and four-CD boxes are less garishly exploitative--you'll find two winners below, with Otis pending (and the latest Stax singles mausoleum a Must To Avoid). The heppest form is now the modest-looking two-CD job, good for two-and-a-half hours of music, which eight of the artists on this year's Christmas list have in them. In the section called De Trop, meanwhile, rest musicians who would have found a single disc more flattering.

ROY ACUFF: The Essential Roy Acuff 1936-1949 (Columbia/Legacy) A revered elder in the country is a missing link in the city because there's no sinner in him--the imagination that connects him to Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams is vocal, not moral. But he's not the kind of sickie who thinks pleasure and sin are the same thing--his relish is as palpable as his deep sorrow. So you can hear his moral imagination if you try. And if you want to know why the two things he treasures most are conjugal love and trains, figure he's also not the kind of sickie who thinks contradiction and iniquity are the same thing. A

THE BEST OF ACE RECORDS--THE R&B HITS (Rock 'n' Roll/Scotti Bros.) Like all Billy Vera compilations, this one isn't immune to collectoritis--gosh, not the B side of Al Collins's very rare "I Got the Blues for You"? 'Cept even the B side epitomizes the wry, insouciant cool of the New Orleans groove, con, and worldview--and the A goes "Baby with the big box/Tell me where's your next stop," or is that "Tell me where your legs stop"? Too full of itself by half, New Orleans has shoveled out enough generic music to shanghai anybody's fantasy of geographical genius. But with the right producer (Johnny Vincent) and piano player (the jocose Huey Smith plus the usual suspects) and drummer (first Earl Palmer, then somebody named Charles "Hungry" Williams), its generic music is Grade A. And with Huey behind eight of these 14 cuts (seven of 12 on cassette), generic is beside the point. "Rockin' Behind the Iron Curtain"? Generic? Not exactly. Not hardly. A

FUNKY STUFF: THE BEST OF FUNK ESSENTIALS (Mercury) The Funk Essentials series doesn't just overreach, it blares mediocrity--not only will it convince the unsuspecting to reserve the slow ones for Chic, P-Funk, and Slave, it might make them doubt the infinitude of the offbeat itself. As a restorative, I prescribe this best-of-the-best-of. Even as it invites a dock by compelling "Word Up" fans to buy the entire Cameo disc, it does Con Funk Shun and the Bar-Kays more solids than I'd thought they deserved and adds stray strokes from Leon Haywood, Bohannon, and the mysteriously MIA Gap Band. Less than you hoped for, as much as you need. A MINUS

BUDDY HOLLY: The Buddy Holly Collection (MCA) Finally a compilation format suitable to a minor genius whose achievement seems permanently shrouded in myth: neither 20 astonishing hits nor every hiccup and fingerpick he ever committed to tape, just 50 songs running barely an hour and three-quarters. Even these tracks vary considerably in quality, held together like so much classic pop by the aural glue of an identifiable sound and style--the signature of a miniaturist who till the day he died was comfortable with a radio that preferred two-minute ditties to three-minute extravaganzas, and who found untold emotional and rhythmic nuance within the constriction. He was no nerd, but nerds loved him for a reason: he played by the rules without letting them stop him. A

ELMORE JAMES: The Sky Is Crying: The History of Elmore James (Rhino) Robert Palmer (the important one, I mean) raided the vaults of eight mostly deceased labels to assemble this compiler's tour de force, designed to prove that his man belongs on Mount Bluesmore with Muddy, Wolf, and Sonny Boy II. And though that can't be done in a mere 21 songs (much less 14 on cassette), especially with the more predictable Virgin Flair and Capricorn Fire collections out there proving James's mortality, he rewrites history anyway. As a devotee who considered James a creature of "Dust My Broom," I now know him for the visionary bandleader and galvanic guitarist Palmer champions. His voice vying with the harsh distortions he gets out of his amplifier, James would play any kind of blues as long as he could make a lot of noise, and he made "It Hurts Me Too" famous after he was dead. What more do you want? How about his scariest sexual rival, "The 12 Year Old Boy"? A PLUS [Later]

ETTA JAMES: The Essential Etta James (Chess) The oft-bemoaned limits on her fame and fortune can't be passed off on her habit, her realness, or her distribution. Sometimes it was just that her music wasn't so hot. Between inconsistent material and workaday studio support, even her hits are a motley bunch, and crossover mentors Gabriel Mekler and Esmond Edwards never let their failure to map a plausible direction stop them from taking her for a ride. But even so, the tiger in her kittenish timbre combined formidably with her undeniable, unreliable smarts for r&b as seminal as "In the Basement," "Sunday Kind of Love," and "I'd Rather Go Blind." And Esther Phillips was the only peer to take so naturally to the likes of "One for My Baby" and "Prisoner of Love." A MINUS

JANIS JOPLIN: Janis (Columbia/Legacy) Having long ago wondered how she'd "hold up," I eventually concluded the answer was that I didn't feel like playing her records anymore. But it was just the opposite: one reason the music triumphs more miraculously than ever is that it's damned hard to listen to, fading into the background about as smoothly as Ornette or the Dolls or PJ Harvey. The most polished product here is the least compelling--it's in her demos, her live fracases with Kozmic Blues and Full Tilt Boogie, and especially her rough anything-goes with Big Brother that she demolishes the canard that she was some kind of blues imitator or hippie fool. For her, blues was a language to be twisted and shredded in the service of a utopian quest, a quest I swear she had the stuff to take somewhere. My only quarrel with this superb re-creation, which unveils many terrific previously unissueds and contextualizes several older finds, is that it sacrifices live rarities like "Ego Blues" to the Kosmic Blues album. You want to know more, read the liner essays by Ellen Willis and Ann Powers, which I hope aren't over the Grammy guys' heads. A

JOY OF COOKING: American Originals (Capitol) Corny? Marin to the core. But Toni Brown was smart enough not to tie her literary gifts to an acoustic guitar, and Terri Garthwaite understood blues as unsung writer and born singer--hear her scat the Alberta Hunter cover. When Holly Near was still in Hair, they led the only group ever to turn the folk-jazz mush of "women's music" into something a self-respecting carnivore could eat. A MINUS

THE MARVELETTES: Deliver: The Singles 1961-1971 (Motown) Where Diana Ross and Martha Reeves pumped personality, Gladys Horton (prettily gritty, as in "Please Mr. Postman") and Wanda Young (neatly sweet, as in "Don't Mess With Bill") took the Shirley Owens Everygirl Pledge. They were role players--proud but demure, neither pushover nor showoff. Twenty-eight of these 42 songs can be found on the old Anthology comp, including all the great ones (although not "Paper Boy": "Since the name of your paper is the Free Press/Give me one and you can sell the rest"). But Mr. Gordy wouldn't countenance a bad song--not on a 45, anyway--and unlike Diana and Martha, Gladys and Wanda were always amenable to letting Smokey or Holland-Dozier-Holland put words in their mouths. Which enabled them to lead or front Motown's only true girl group--except for Shirley's Shirelles, the best anywhere. A

CURTIS MAYFIELD & THE IMPRESSIONS: The Anthology 1961-1977 (MCA) The phat drumming and bar-band soul of Shanachie's People Get Ready tribute do Mayfield's delicacy a disservice. There's no gutbucket or hogmaw or Mississippi mud in his groove--unmooring gospel verities or floating off into space-case funk, he's so far out there that Johnny Pate's elaborate, light-bottomed orchestrations never trip him up. I'd curtail the juvenilia to salvage more of his radically sporadic solo career, but a songwriter this gifted has no trouble filling two CDs, and he's his own aptest vocal interpreter. Great unknown guitarist, too. A PLUS

MOTT THE HOOPLE: The Ballad of Mott: A Retrospective (Columbia/Legacy) I could cavil about omissions, "Death May Be Your Santa Claus" especially. But 20 years after the fact, you remember great bands for their sound as much as their songs, and these guys had one. They were prepunk, everybody knows that, but too often the "pre" is given short shrift. So remember this: committed to sarcasm, dystopia, and noise, they never took refuge in punk's inspired-amateur minimalism. On the contrary, their expansive mess was pure '60s, as was their penchant for the elegiac and the lyrical. It's a synthesis 10,000 garage bands have fucked up since. The 10,001st was Nirvana. A

WILSON PICKETT: A Man and a Half: The Best of Wilson Pickett (Rhino/Atlantic) Pickett's good albums didn't match Otis's great ones, and with only In the Midnight Hour (seven cuts) and The Exciting Wilson Pickett (four) in the racks, these 44 tracks are as much black macho as a nongangsta needs. His command was riveting, his strength sustaining, his scream epochal, his charm a boon. He got a lot of great party songs and a lot of great soul cries, and covered the Beatles, the Archies, and Free with equal aplomb. The previously unreleased live "Midnight Hour" is a true find. All that's missing is the postdisco shout where he finally said what he meant: "Lay Me Like You Hate Me." A PLUS

JOHN PRINE: The John Prine Anthology: Great Days (Rhino) There aren't 41 best Prine songs. There are 50, 60, maybe more; the only way to resolve quibbles would be a bigger box than commerce or decorum permits. And his catalogue's out there, with John Prine, Sweet Revenge, and Storm Windows durable favorites. But this is a good place to access his kind, comic, unassumingly surreal humanism. Prine's a lot friendlier than your average thriving old singer-songwriter (Young, Thompson, Cohen), and his disinclination to downplay his natural warmth or his folk-rock retro may make him impenetrable to victims of irony proficiency amnesia. But no one writing has a better feel for the American colloquial--its language, its culture, its life. Except maybe Bobbie Ann Mason. A [Later]

TOUGHER THAN TOUGH: THE STORY OF JAMAICAN MUSIC (Mango) Only residents and aficionados have heard half the 95 songs on this four-CD set, and I'm not going to tell you every one is an instant masterpiece. But I will tell you it doesn't much matter, because what's captured besides epiphanies, which are plentiful, are the homespun texture and limitless spirit of a musical culture that now stretches back 35 years. Lovingly or generously or just hegemonically, Island resists the temptation to overplay its own catalogue. Artists who were names on a page are brought to life by their moments in the sun, their place in the world of "Guns of Navarone" and "The Harder They Come" and "Police and Thieves" natural and secure, which in the end helps the classics take on a historical grandeur the label's earlier compilations don't suggest. What a miracle that one fucked-over little island should prove such a treasure house. And what a lesson. A

SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON: The Essential Sonny Boy Williamson (Chess) Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf cast themselves as forces of nature--fecund, feral. They were younger men, and for them blues already had an aura of myth. In his personal life, the former Rice Miller was harder to control than either. But when it came to business, the least famed of Chess's three W's did what had to be done, which turned out to mean electrifying in the '30s and impersonating Sonny Boy I, a harmonica hero half as talented and 15 years his junior. Miller's writing was as factual as a police complaint, his groove as sexy as a swamp in June, and he sang in the strong, slurred, subtle voice of someone who'd been talking his way out of shit since he learned to say maybe. Songs like "Eyesight to the Blind" and "Nine Below Zero" and "Fattening Frogs for Snakes" are in the canon. Songs like "Too Young To Die" and "Santa Claus" should be. A

WIRE: 1985-1990: The A List (Mute) Those who disdain Wire's second coming don't understand how the Sex Pistols and ABC could have been born of the same impulse. First freeze-drying punk, then rendering neodisco slick into Teflon sausage casing, this band knew. And by now they've recorded more memorable music than the Pistols and ABC put together--while maintaining an aesthetic distance so severe they make Sham 69 and Frankie Goes to Hollywood seem archetypal by comparison. To program this summum they invited supporters to vote on their finest recent moments, then laid the highest finishers end to end until the CD was full. Number 16 does drag. A

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Brian Eno, Vocal (Virgin): two discs of digitalizations to die for, one of songs on life support ("Seven Deadly Finns," "The Lion Sleeps Tonight (Wimoweh)")
  • Irma Thomas, Time Is on My Side--The Best of Irma Thomas Volume 1 (EMI): betta than Etta? ("Two Winters Long," "Some Things You Never Get Used To")
  • Dr. John, The Dr. John Anthology: Mos' Scocious (Rhino): takes his respectable period seriously ("Morgus the Magnificent," "Wash, Mama, Wash")
  • Uncle Dave Macon, Country Music Hall of Fame Series (MCA): old-timey comedian, populist minstrel, unpaid liquor lobbyist ("Governor Al Smith," "Tennessee Jubilee")
  • Motorhead, The Best of Motorhead (Roadrunner): rendering No Remorse slightly inferior by stealing half of it ("Eat the Rich," "Stone Deaf in the U.S.A.")
  • Sweet, The Best of Sweet (Capitol): for about 10 songs, the great glam-rock hit machine ("The Ballroom Blitz," "Fox on the Run")
  • Prince, The Hits/The B-Sides (Paisley Park/Warner Bros.): most of the A's you've got, most of the B's you've lived without ("Erotic City," "Raspberry Beret") [Later: B+] ;
  • Jerry Lee Lewis, The Jerry Lee Lewis Anthology: All Killer No Filler! (Rhino): not the post-Sun comp he has in him--and the compiled-to-death Sun tracks are only half the problem ("Money (That's What I Want)," "Drinking Wine Spo-Dee O'Dee")
  • Hot Chocolate, Every 1's a Winner: The Very Best of Hot Chocolate (EMI): high-schlock hyperaestheticism, low-concept programming ("You Sexy Thing," "Brother Louie")
  • Duke-Peacock's Greatest Hits (MCA): never a classic singles label (Johnny Ace, "Pledging My Love"; the Original Casuals, "So Tough")
  • Donna Summer, The Donna Summer Anthology (Casablanca): more proof than we needed that she actually recorded "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" ("Love to Love You Baby," "Bad Girls")
  • Zapp & Roger, All the Greatest Hits (Reprise): I've always wondered--does he put a vocoder on his bass too? ("More Bounce to the Ounce," "Midnight Hour--Live '93 (Remix)")
  • Kool & the Gang, The Best of Kool & the Gang (1969-1976) (Mercury): funk-kitsch godfathers ("Hollywood Swinging," "Jungle Boogie")
  • Heaven 17, Higher and Higher: The Best of Heaven 17 (Virgin): pet shop godfathers ("I'm Your Money," "We Live So Fast")
  • Cameo, The Best of Cameo (Mercury) not funny enough ("Word Up," "Single Life")
De Trop:
  • Bachman-Turner Overdrive, The Anthology (Mercury)
  • The Dave Clark Five, The History of the Dave Clark Five (Hollywood)
  • The Everly Brothers, Walk Right Back: The Everly Brothers on Warner Bros. 1960 to 1969 (Warner Archives)
  • Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, Live Wire!: The Singles 1962-1972 (Motown)
  • Sam & Dave, Sweat 'n' Soul: Anthology (1965-1971) (Rhino)
  • Mary Wells, Looking Back 1961-64 (Motown)

Village Voice, Dec. 21, 1993

Nov. 23, 1993 Jan. 18, 1994