Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Maturity is a tough one for pop-music artistes. Enlightenment invariably kicks off an awkward stage. And motherhood can get icky fast. So maybe what's most remarkable about Ray of Light (Maverick/Warner Bros.), on which Madonna confronts all of these career crises at once, is that it ain't half bad. Working with electronica pro William Orbit after bigger names like Tricky turned her megabucks down, Madonna has certainly organized herself a great-sounding album that goes easy on pop ears without resorting to instrumental cliches. And when she sings about s-e-x, on the boy-toy Candy Perfume Girl and the spiritually needy Skin, her old standby doesn't let her down. Still, it's hard to believe that this synthesis of Hollywood karma and radio-friendly dance music will solve her biggest career crisis of all: what the most famous person in the world does for an encore.

With Paul Simon's Capeman gone to its just reward, it's time to pay some mind to another white New Yorker who's been inspired to make salsa his own. On Buster's Spanish Rocket Ship (Island), David Johansen a/k/a Buster Poindexter treats Puerto Rican music as nothing but a party. But from the boisterous Iris Chacon to the tolerant Let's Take It Easy, Johansen's good heart and irrepressible sense of humor guarantee that this party will be fun--and that this fun will do the world more good than most of its pained message music.

Billy Swan, country singer, I Can Help; Percy Sledge, soul singer, When a Man Loves a Woman. One-shot wonders, right? Wrong--important minor artists. Get a full load of Swan's Southern hospitality on The Best of Billy Swan (Epic/Legacy) and Sledge's deep-South intensity on The Very Best of Percy Sledge (Rhino).

Playboy, Mar. 1998

Feb. 1998 Apr. 1998