Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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As is my holiday practice, the ear cookies below are guaranteed to impart pleasure and history all at once. Reasonably priced, too--no boxes, just pretty paper. The exception is depicted hereabouts, with Rhino's Ray Charles monster pending. And next week there'll be a follow-up--best-ofs that carry a modest risk, just perfect for buying . . . yourself!

ANTHOLOGY OF AMERICAN FOLK MUSIC (Smithsonian Folkways) Harry Smith's act of history--three two-record sets originally released by Folkways in 1952, now digitally remastered into a gorgeously appointed six-CD box--aces two very '90s concepts: the canon that accrues as rock gathers commentary, and the compilations that multiply as labels recycle catalogue. In its time, it wrested the idea of the folk from ideologues and ethnomusicologists by imagining a commercial music of everyday pleasure and alienation--which might as well have been conceived to merge with a rock and roll that didn't yet exist. What enabled Smith to bring off this coup was his preternatural ability to hear unknown songs that were irresistible to his own people--the bohemians and collectors who have been inflecting pop ever since. Somebody you know is worth the 60 bucks it'll run you. So are you. A PLUS

LOUIS ARMSTRONG & FRIENDS: What a Wonderful Christmas (Hip-O) Armstrong is the perfect host--always cheerful in demeanor, never maudlin in sentiment--and his grab bag of Satchmo seasonals and stellar one-shots packs a hell of a party. He even makes the most of "'Zat You, Santa Claus," not to mention Gordon Jenkins, although after he gives Steve Allen's "Cool Yule" the once-over he figures he'd better just pretend it's jazz. Beyond that, the only wet blankets are an oddly sober Louis Jordan and Lena Horne (she can't help it, she's Lena Horne). Home for the holidays: Mel Torme. Ho ho ho: Duke Ellington's "Jingle Bells." A

CLOSER THAN A KISS: CROONER CLASSICS (Rhino) Vanilla sex--yum. Eighteen white guys of yesteryear, six black but only Al Hibbler and Johnny Hartman hinting at difference, show their voices the way peacocks present their tails and rent boys display their ivory hardons. Their creamy grain and relaxed, well-groomed flow promise smooth sailing all the way to sweet, gradual, uncomplicated orgasm. A

DOROTHY LOVE-COATES & THE GOSPEL HARMONETTES: The Best of Dorothy Love-Coates & the Gospel Harmonettes (Nashboro) Although Coates's rough-cut contralto steers her away from the stately professions of faith that bog down Mahalia Jackson and Marion Williams, the honorable Specialty best-of from her '50s glory days is still somewhat homogenized by its own humility. Captured here in the late '60s, she's wilder and faster, with plenty of guitar-organ-percussion augmenting the churchy piano. In short, she rocks. With the Harmonettes shouting, testifying, and showing off their high notes, the total effect is as awesome as any God-fearer could hope. A

LEE DORSEY: Wheelin' and Dealin': The Definitive Collection (Arista) Dorsey's innate musicality runs so deep that, as with prime doowop, it gradually subsumes the popcraft of his work. So Allen Toussaint isn't the only auteur here. Sure you'll still hum "Working in the Coal Mine" and "Get Out of My Life Woman," obscurities like "Can You Hear Me" and "Gotta Find a Job" too. But Dorsey's slippery pitch and lackadaisical phrasing add different-flavor funk and whimsy to concoctions that aim for both. And when the Meters come on, backing the very obscure "Lottie Mo '68" after Dorsey's best-remembered days at Amy are over, the singer again adds his own dynamics--counterpunching like Kid Chocolate, he's as much a percussion instrument as JB, only funnier. Next chapter: the classic '70s Toussaint-Dorsey-Meters collaborations MCA and PolyGram each control half of. Somebody broker a deal. A

ESPN PRESENTS SLAM JAMS VOL. 1 (Tommy Boy) Nouveau jock jams, extreme-sports anthems, or wrinkle on a muscle-headed repackaging concept? Don't know, don't care--fabulous new wave comp is what matters. From Madness's "One Step Beyond" to the Modern Lovers' "Roadrunner," with such superobvious milestones as "Ca Plane Pour Moi" and "Dancing With Myself" marking the route, the stoopidity barrels down an expressway to your ass. You willdrive to it. Dance, too. Even bungee jump. A PLUS

THE EVERLY BROTHERS: This Is the Everly Brothers: 16 of Their Greatest Recordings (Music Club) Before they moved to Warners, which has never flattered their modest gift with the modest collection it deserves (although the 1968 concept album Rootsis sweet), Cadence made hay off the teen classics now hawked by half a dozen reissue labels (including Rhino, where they begin an endless box). All of the key moments are on this collection, which lists for $10, and while some may prefer the $20, 31-cut Laserlight triple-CD, I find that too soon their harmonies start sounding neat rather than sharp. This is their very best, epitomizing a strain of pubescence that can't be trusted to repress its horniness past the end of the song. To their elders they're always polite. With their peers they fuss, fight, and--in their all-they-have-to-do-is-dreams--fuck around. A

LEFTY FRIZZELL: Look What Thoughts Will Do (Columbia/Legacy) Rather than competing with Rhino's definitive 18-cut Best of, this two-CD set repeats it piecemeal around 16 newcomers, many never before U.S.-available. The tape I made of these has its lulls--"Forbidden Lovers" is Merle ordinaire, "Don't Let Her See Me Cry" is femme-chorus ordinaire, and so forth. But even the lulls have their charms. From the intricate "Don't Think It's Been Fun, Dear (Cuz It Ain't)" through the long-lost Jimmie Rodgers covers and the unknowns that sound eternal, most are extraordinaire. Sure he's a honky-tonk rounder, but he's only loud for contrast. His gift is his unhurried phrasing and two-stepping guitar, how gently he promises heaven and goes to hell. A PLUS

ETTA JAMES: Her Best (MCA) In addition to her junkie ways, her hack support, her adoring claque, and her bewildering discography, what makes James a myth and a secret at the same time is how hard she is to classify. Blues, jazz, pop, rock, soul--she's all of these and none, because what she really is is r&b, in its original sense: blues so fetching white people can't help but love 'em even though they're aimed at young blacks. She's got that kid thing--a big reason her dirty voice is such a permanent scandal is that for all the hard experience she conveyed at 15 she still sounds underage as she comes up on 60, never outgrowing a sensibility she was old-beyond-her-years for as she worked through the '50s and behind-the-times with when she hit in the '60s. She's been recycled as relentlessly as the grease in a french fryer. But from the makeout-party schmaltz of "Sunday Kind of Love" to the Muscle Shoals fatback of "Tell Mama," this 20-song exploitation finally gets her sensibility right. A

AL JOLSON: Let Me Sing and I'm Happy: Al Jolson at Warner Bros. 1926-1936 (Turner Classic Movies/Rhino) It's hard now to grasp that, generation gap aside, this native of Lithuania was nothing less than the Elvis of the first half of the 20th century. But fame was fleeting in that trendy, technology-driven era, and by the mid-'30s, as foolish kids and fickle oldsters embraced the big-band fad and short-lived "crooning" style, "The World's Greatest Entertainer" was slipping badly. While it's true enough that his emotionality was too cornball for an emerging generation of pseudosophisticates, the biggest problem was his resistance to new media--his radio shows were spotty, and much worse for history, his studio recordings were stiff. As anyone who screens The Jazz Singer learns, however, movies were the exception. Hollywood let him roll his eyes and shake his fanny in front of onlookers who could feed him the approval he craved. Whether he's wearing burnt cork or pancake makeup, appropriating Irving Berlin or an Oedipal kiss from his mammy, his verve, spontaneity, and sexual magnetism are as startling as, well, Elvis's. A

SINÉAD O'CONNOR: So Far . . . The Best of Sinéad O'Connor (Chrysalis/EMI-Capitol) Nobody compiles better than a genius who's also a fool, and with her Gaelic/spiritual phase due to last a while, this collection is perfectly timed. I'd substitute "You Do Something to Me" and "All Apologies" for "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," which conjures Madonna with an unnecessarily competitive edge, but beyond that, "Jump in the River" is the only track I miss off the tape I long ago constructed from the first two albums. A fool who knows her own strengths is a fool we want to hear from when she's feeling better. Or do I mean worse? A

CHARLIE PARKER: Yardbird Suite: The Ultimate Charlie Parker Collection (Rhino) Because Dial was where he changed history most consistently, 14 of these 38 tracks are also on The Legendary Dial Masters. But despite the redundancy, both newcomers and fans will find his first cross-label, legit-plus-bootleg survey a gratifyingly listenable addition to his discography--two and a half hours free of outtakes, vocalists, Norman Granz, and the other dumb distractions his admirers contend with. His alto pervades everytrack. Even the live strings belong. A

ROOTS OF JAZZ FUNK VOLUME ONE (MVP) Hitting their stride in the pre-Beatles '60s as lounge loafers diddled their hi-fis, the solid young jazzmen twixt bop and free figured out how to do Bird without getting so intellectual about it by devising midtempo heads from straightforward riffs and mining gospel for changes. Movement leaders Blakey, Silver, Morgan, Adderley, and Hubbard all contribute a signature song to this overdue summation, as do the market-ready Hancock-Montgomery-Smith and the art-thirsty Coltrane-Rollins-Mingus. A wealth of soulful sidemen--Joe Henderson, Bobby Timmons, Bob Cranshaw, Billy Higgins, on and on--never let up. A PLUS

THE SHANGRI-LAS: The Best of the Shangri-Las (Mercury) Musically, they lived and died with their producers, notably George "Shadow" Morton, an amateur who on a whim and a dare pared Phil Spector's wall of sound down to bass-drums-guitar. "Remember" and "Leader of the Pack" were three-minute symphonies on the strength of their arrangements rather than their orchestrations--big slow notes and two sets of streetwise sisters throwing themselves into a melodramatic morbidity worthy of Werther. This dark romanticism was without precedent in rock and roll, and the Black Sabbath hordes who took it up later never realized girls got there first. If those girls were gooey inside, especially with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich feeding them lines, that just deepened the effect--in their final smash, Morton's "I Can Never Go Home Anymore," the passion they expend on a martyred "good mom" is as convincing as anything they ever worked up for a leather-jacketed beau ideal. Archetypes never to be duplicated, they left a dozen songs so monumental that the filler functions as landscaping. A MINUS

TOOTS AND THE MAYTALS: Time Tough: The Anthology (Island Jamaica) This rocksteady diehard's 1968 "Do the Reggay" named a groove he was too constitutionally uptempo ever to get into; this unspoiled journeyman's soul affinities endeared him to hippie diehards and failed to touch young African Americans, who by the mid-'70s figured the soul that was passe when it came from the South must be pure shuck-and-jive if it came from the islands. So eager to please that only 1988's patently nostalgic Toots in Memphis ever showed the courage of his conceptions, he was also too songful ever to come up dry. I can think of things I miss, such as the heartily discomfiting "Famine." But this is the testament of Otis Redding's love child. His eagerness is a natural force. And his pleasures abide. A MINUS

GENE VINCENT: The Screaming End: The Best of Gene Vincent & His Blue Caps (Razor & Tie) Sticking to 1956 tracks featuring the wild and quick guitarist Cliff Gallup and the propulsivey light-handed 15-year-old drummer Dickie Harrell, 20 songs in 47 minutes add not so much flesh as spirit to the tales told of lesser rockabilly legends--Carl Perkins, Eddie Cochran, Johnny Burnette, Charlie Feathers, Rick Nelson and his studio pal Charlie Burton, every one of whom this gimpy weirdo outruns to the poontang. The compositions may not be much, but that's what they said about Bo Diddley. "Race With the Devil," "Jump Back, Honey, Jump Back," "Woman Love," "B-I-Bickey Bi, Bo-Bo-Go"--they be rockin', and in a dialect no one would get so right again. A

Village Voice, Dec. 30, 1997

Dec. 2, 1997 Jan. 6, 1998