Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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This was originally published as free content, in Robert Christgau's And It Don't Stop newsletter. You can have Christgau's posts delivered to your mailbox if you subscribe.

Finding Refuge

A 41-song playlist to mark 80 years.

This post will surface the morning of Monday, April 18, which happens to be my 80th birthday--a few hours before some two dozen friends and relatives will gather, weather permitting, in a nearby park for a Covid-unfriendly party we expect to last into the late afternoon. Given my notorious fondness for music, a peculiarity I share with every single person I've invited, it seemed a given that I'd devise a playlist for it, a labor of love for sure but a labor nevertheless. Was I glad, therefore, that I'd been inveigled by a tag team of Rolling Stone pals and my belatedly list-prone wife into collaborating with Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" promotion by cobbling together a top 50 I chronicled in a September post titled "Favorite vs. Best vs. Whatever." There I'd observed that passing judgment on singles as opposed to albums, which give peculiarities of taste more of a chance of balancing out, splits the incalculable difference between "favorite" and "best" a little too fine. So I'd figured I might as well jigger my Rolling Stone ballot to favor the '50s and girl-group gems certain to get shortchanged in the tally. Sure I took my picks seriously. Just not that seriously.

When it came to playlisting my big 8-0, however, that Stone ballot definitely came in handy. On a more or less chronological playlist I cut short at a little over two-and-a-half hours, 25 of the 41 picks were on a Rolling Stone list that my intro noted absent-mindedly skipped "Honky Tonk," the not quite chart-topping 1956 Bill Doggett instrumental that converted me in some fundamental psychophysical way to rock and roll as a musical language, and the Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset," which like my wife (who forgot it too) I've been known to call "the most beautiful song in the English language." So of course my birthday list led with "Honky Tonk" and made room for "Waterloo Sunset," a 1967 U.K. smash that never charted Stateside, which together with the Beatles' 1964 "She Loves You" took care of the British Invasion with an essential interruption from James Brown's 1965 "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," about which I will resist regaling you further. No Stones, and while I'm at it no Dylan either. No Elvis or Fats Domino. No Aretha. No Lord forgive me Ramones.

There's a reason for these apparent anomalies, of course. It's that rather than a canon in miniature, a list like this one is more a musical autobiography in miniature. In radically different ways, every song on it resonated in my aesthetic life, my intellectual life, and my emotional life. Though it was the Supremes who at a moment when top 40 radio defined popular music challenged the Beatles themselves with three straight glorious late-1964 number ones, it was Smokey Robinson's proto-soulful top 10 "You've Really Got a Hold on Me" that alerted me to Motown as an artistic force. Lingala-conversant informants long ago informed me that Franco's "Azda," in my opinion the most gorgeous song in all of soukous, was a Volkswagen commercial. Two post-disco oddities, T.S. Monk's Spotify-unavailable "Bon Bon Vie" and Imagination's barely remembered "Just an Illusion," occupy most of pages 358-59 in the 363-page Going Into the City, and the Moldy Peaches' childishly folk-punk "Jorge Regula" has played an equally large role in my wife's and my shared cosmology. It's my belief or maybe just hope that the purely aesthetic attractions of these 41 rather varied songs that have meant so much in my long life transcend and then some these historical quiddities. It's my hope that a few of the ones you've barely heard or thought about will take a meaningful place in your long lives as well.

[Spotify Playlist: Xgau B'day: Honky Tonk, Parts 1-41]

  1. Bill Doggett: "Honky Tonk Parts One and Two"
  2. Chuck Berry: "Maybellene"
  3. Little Richard: "Tutti Frutti"
  4. Five Satins: "In the Still of the Night"
  5. Bobbettes: "Mr. Lee"
  6. Chantels: "Maybe"
  7. Shirley & Lee: "Let the Good Times Roll"
  8. Danny and the Juniors: "At the Hop"
  9. Silhouettes: "Get a Job"
  10. Coasters: "Searchin'"
  11. Ray Charles: "What'd I Say Parts I and II"
  12. Charlie Parker, "Now's the Time"
  13. Thelonious Monk: "In Walked Bud"
  14. Shirelles: "Tonight's the Night"
  15. Jaynetts: "Sally Go 'Round the Roses"
  16. Smokey Robinson & the Miracles: "You've Really Got a Hold on Me"
  17. Chuck Berry: "Promised Land"
  18. Beatles: "She Loves You"
  19. James Brown: "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag"
  20. Kinks: "Waterloo Sunset"
  21. Beach Boys: "Darlin'"
  22. Al Green: "Love and Happiness"
  23. New York Dolls: "Personality Crisis"
  24. Clash: "Janie Jones"
  25. Bob Marley & the Wailers: "Redemption Song"
  26. Amaswezi Emvelo: "Indodo Yejazi Elimnyama"
  27. Franco: "Azda"
  28. Imagination: "Just an Illusion"
  29. Taana Gardner: "Heartbeat"
  30. Funky Four Plus One: "That's the Joint"
  31. T.S. Monk: "Bon Bon Vie"
  32. Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock: "It Takes Two"
  33. Moldy Peaches: "Jorge Regula"
  34. Wussy: "Yellow Cotton Dress"
  35. Gogol Bordello: "Ultimate"
  36. James McMurtry: "We Can't Make It Here"
  37. Robyn: "Don't Fucking Tell Me What to Do"
  38. Brad Paisley: "Then"
  39. Etta James: "Cigarettes and Coffee"
  40. Jeffrey Lewis and Peter Stampfel Band: "All the Time in the World"
  41. Selo i Ludi: "It's My Life"

And It Don't Stop, April 18, 2022