Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Long experience gleaning gifts that keep on giving from the glut of best-ofs convinced me that this year the action would turn to multiartist comps, and I could find more. But although the titans have been anthologized to a fare-thee-well, I might also have squeezed in other second-level artists--Warren Zevon, Shangri-Las, Smiths' Singles, maybe even Aerosmith. Merry Whatever.

THE BEST PUNK ALBUM IN THE WORLD . . . EVER! (Virgin import) I can just see the ad scrolling down the late-night screen: "Anarchy in the U.K."!/"2-4-6-8 Motorway"!/"Alternative Ulster"!/"Teenage Kicks"!/"Psycho Killer"!/"Blank Generation"!/"Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll"!/"Milk and Alcohol"! Images of leather and shirtless Iggy and pogoing and skinny-tied Joe and safety pins and Siouxsie with her tits jutting out (hey, get rid of that swastika fer Chrissake). But even with the Clash MIA, this stupid two-CD hodgepodge is how punk or new wave or whatever the fuck it was hit U.K. rock and rollers--with strong, fast songs by white people with a tendency toward attention deficit disorder. It ignores L.A., which London didn't know existed ("I Hate the Rich"!), and preserves some tracks you can't stand (Tubes, Adam and the Ants) as well as unearthing a few you missed (Skids, Jilted John). Collectors of a certain age don't need it, especially at import prices, and volume two is less surefire. But the title tells it like it is. A

DANCE FLOOR DIVAS: THE '70S (Rhino) Sans Donna Summer or Gloria Gaynor, and irritatingly redundant for investors in the reissue monopolists' Disco Yearsseries (nine tracks from the first three volumes), this is the finest disco compilation you can buy even so. Especially if you believe, correctly, that the spirit of classic dance music is women singing. And talking. And shouting. And screaming. And scolding. And imploring. And just plain getting over. A

ELLA FITZGERALD: Love Songs: Best of the Verve Song Books (Verve) The third hour-long budget album PolyGram has constructed from that 16-CD box you passed on seems much the best to me. It doesn't limit a swinging chick to ballads, or apply her automatic sophistication to lyrics whose brilliance verges on silly, like "Miss Otis Regrets" or "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered." Because the emotional complexities love songs deal in are known to us and assumed by her, we're free to ignore her questionable interpretive powers and luxuriate in an instrument as pleasurable as Sinatra's or Jones's. I'm not just talking subtle force and supple range--those you can pick up in the gym. I love its verve and its reserve, and can't get over the character that grains but never roughens its lissome clarity. A

THE GO-BETWEENS: Spring Hill Fair (Beggars Banquet) In the Indian summer of a formal moment, singer-songwriter-guitarists Robert Forster and Grant McLennan joined a shifting lineup headed by steadfast drummer-inamorata Lindy Morrison and mercurial violinist-inamorata Amanda Brown to fashion as deep and intricate and prematurely mature a body of traditional relationship songs as, oh, Joni Mitchell herself, who should only have accessed half their empathy and synergy. Hiding their hooks in arrangements and lyrics as often as they brandished them in tunes, they were modest, affectionate, funny, cheerful, never too oblique or ironic--pop for the ages if anything is. But with the 1978-1990 compilation now import-only, novice songseekers are confronted instead by a remastered, reannotated six-album oeuvre. So acquire them all, I guess, thusly: Tallulah (1987, Amanda and "Right Here"), Spring Hill Fair (1984, produced yet rough), Before Hollywood (1983, austere yet gorgeous), 16 Lovers Lane (1988, poppest), Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express (1986, talkiest), Send Me a Lullaby (1981, punkest). Accounted too damn subtle for a U.S. market whose favorite Aussies were MTV flukes and whose favorite Brits had surrealistic haircuts, these Brisbane-bred Londoners' first three albums were never accorded the decency of official U.S. release. This is my paltry attempt to extend a nation's apology. A

HALF JAPANESE: Greatest Hits (Safe House) It might be possible to array all their best-realized inspirations in neat rows and convert the fogies who've never given the brothers Fair a first hearing or a second thought. But if they themselves were capable of such compromises, there'd be no point. So here are two sprawling CDs somewhat more consistent than the messes that are their albums--69 not quite randomly ordered tracks (and don't think they can't add), at least 45 or 50 of which you'll be happier for knowing, with annotations that include David's guitar lesson ("I like to put six different sized strings on because that gives the most variety, but my brother used to put six strings of the same thickness on so he wouldn't have so much to worry about") and the news that Loud, which was released in 1981, was recorded in 1982. Theorem: Jad, who likes girls, is more winsome (and talented) than David, who fears them. Corollaries: their romances top their sci-fi, and despite their renowned noise, their greatest moments are slow ones about crushes, usually sweetened by competent sidemen. The imperfect introduction. A MINUS

L.L. COOL J: All World (Def Jam) He can be better than his singles, but more often he's been worse, and no other rapper has maintained the hit-making knack so long. The coups are the sex raps "Back Seat" ("It's so relaxin'") and "Doin It" ("oohh"). I must counsel against aspiring to his superstud fantasy. But it's a measure of his pop credibility that I suspect he could be telling some sort of truth. A

THE LOUVIN BROTHERS: Tragic Songs of Life (Capitol) I wondered why I didn't warm immediately to the fabled harmonizers' Razor & Tie best-of until I figured out what had put me off their newly reissued Satan Is Real: it leads with the title track, just as the best-of begins, "That word broadminded/Is spelled s-i-n/I read in my Bible/They shall not enter in." Add a weakness for marketable seminovelties and I'll take a newly reissued 36-minute 1956 debut whose hard, sad, simple tales are neither bedizened by Mammon nor drenched in Jesus, although they certainly welcome their Calvinist fate. Traditional ballads are matched with venerable pop fakes and newly minted sob stories, including the Louvins' own account of a seven-year-old who offers up all his toys and pennies to prevent his chosen lifemate, the daughter of the migrant workers next door, from moving on. Stark, beautiful, and imbued with an intensity of belief that will eat your sense of camp for breakfast. A

MASTERS OF JAZZ: BEBOP'S GREATEST HITS (Rhino) The title means what it says. These aren't the style's most seminal or scintillating performances, although Bird's famously impossible "Ko Ko" acknowledges that concept. They're its best-known tunes--standards and theme songs and novelties and genuine near-hits, "'Round About Midnight" and "Lullaby of Birdland" and "Night in Tunisia" and "Oh-Sho-Be-Do-Be." Except for a two-sided single, only the last two break the three-minute barrier of a music that was invented in the age of the 78 even if its inventors had to prove themselves in an endless gantlet of after-hours cutting sessions. Here and there, even acid jazz fans will recognize the opening bars. A

THE METERS: The Meters Anthology (Rhino) This was a totally original band. Driven on and crazy by the very different drummer Ziggy Modeliste, the eccentric instrumental New Orleans funk the quartet cut for Josie sounds epochal a quarter century later. If the 26 cuts on disc one are more than you need at a sitting, program. On Reprise they went pop, presaging both the Neville Brothers (sans Aaron) and the mediocre fusion a band of the same name tours behind to this day. Disc two does this period as proud as possible right down to the shameless grease of "Funkify Your Life," if not the shameless schmaltz of "Be My Lady." Sometimes too minimal, and not devoid of dead spots. But seminal and essential--and fun. A MINUS

JONI MITCHELL: Hits (Reprise) Would it were modesty that inspired her to release the hour-long Hits and Misses rather than the usual multi-CD doorstop. But given that she's fed her enormous ego hunks of what was once an equally enormous talent for 20 years now, figure the opposite. Unable to abide the thought of superceding any portion of her catalogue, much less adjudging some of it less worthy than the rest, the Grammy-winning Billboard and BMI awardee elected to concentrate beloved older songs in one compilation and leaden newer ones in another. The result is an uncommonly fabulous educational tool for the Ani DiFranco fan on your list that does more for the two post-1980 items it tacks on than Misses does for the seven that weigh it down. But since the cream of the 15 selections can also be found on her four prime early-'70s albums--For the Roses, Court and Spark, Blue, and Ladies of the Canyon--it's docked a notch for inutility. A MINUS

MUTABARUKA: The Ultimate Collection (Shanachie) In which a health-food nut whose definitive album is a decade behind him reconstitutes himself as a people's prophet with a thing about ice cream. Only four of the 16 tracks, including the unanswerable spoken "Dis Poem," are from The Mystery Unfolds; there are just as many nonalbum singles, plus several worthy remixes and a live "Witeman Country." Muta's wisdom and humor greatly exceed the Rasta norm, and since he's always been dub poetry's most musical performer, the working peace he's negotiated with dancehall is no surprise. The surprise is how coherent and compelling his best music seems when it's gathered in one place awaiting humanity's attention and respect. A [Later]

ROLLER DISCO: BOOGIE FROM THE SKATING RINKS (K-Tel) Was there such a thing as roller disco? Or were there just songs you roller-discoed to? As Frankie Smith might put it: "Willzoo kizzairs?" The few overcollecteds (Cheryl Lynn, Taste of Honey) and underwhelmings (Rick James, Dazz Band) detract barely a whit from a 10-track budget item that peaks with two magnificent rarities: Vaughan Mason's transcendently utilitarian "Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll" and Taana Gardner's kittenishly walkin'-'round-here-so-intense "Heartbeat." A

SONNY ROLLINS: Silver City (Milestone) I was all set to call my man Giddins and ask whether this two-CD set could possibly be as unerring as I thought when I learned that most of the choices had been put forward by Gary himself, for the Voice's Rollins issue. So moan all you want about conflict of interest. This is the shit--funny, tortured, profound, romantic, carnivalesque. Surprisingly for a modernist of fabled young alienation, Rollins adds to the easeful, virtuosic majesty of his mature sound an enlightenment that takes the entire vocabulary of the saxophone, from follow-the-notes melody reproduction to squeaks and blats that know no tonal referent, as a sound-palette that is its own reason for being. Hence he may come off too well-adjusted for the what-you-got rebels of rock's supposedly alternative nation. But if you feel about rock and roll the way Rollins does about the saxophone--that it's all one structure of feeling from howl to croon, bubblepop to jungle, Mariah to Polly Jean--you should forget your singing habit and sign on for one hell of a ride. A PLUS

JOE TEX: The Very Best of Joe Tex (Rhino) I recently asked two young musos who Joe Tex was. The Irish guy didn't have a clue, but the African American did--"Bang a Gong," right? Sheesh. Before and after he became a Black Muslim minister, this East Texas moralist-jokester mixed such timeless trifles as "Skinny Legs and All" (God, don't you even remember that one?) and "Ain't Gonna Bump No More (With No Big Fat Woman)" (a lucky last gasp occasioning a luckier album that came out for "sissies") with a good-humored country wisdom that rivaled Smokey's urban variant for pith and empathy. Nashville pro Buddy Killen oversaw the Muscle Shoals funk, but the music's economy and amiability grew out of Tex's character and talent. So "Hold What You've Got," people. Remember that "The Love You Save (May Be Your Own)." And don't neglect the p.i. benchmark in which a Vietnam-era GI Joe hears from his sweetheart: "And your letter brought me so much strength/(Tell you what I did, baby, huh, you won't believe it)/I raised up and got me two more enemies." A

Village Voice, Dec. 31, 1996

Dec. 17, 1996 Jan. 28, 1997