By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
By Steve Weinstein
By Araceli Cruz
Though I'm pleased to finally figure out Memphis Minnie (skip Columbia's Hoodoo Lady), you'll find no new canon candidates in the pre-Christmas list below. Just subpantheon rockers and prerockers as individual as (and subtler than) the soundtrack schlock and rec-room pop contrarians niche-promote.
BOBBY BLAND: Greatest Hits Volume Two--The ABC-Dunhill/MCA Recordings (MCA) Insofar as it's now dimly believed that blues and soul were the same thing, kinda, perhaps I can rescue B.B. King's perpetual opposite number from the limbo of name recognition by promoting him as a great soul voice. After all, he did sing gospel before moving down, up, or over to Beale Street, and by the time mean old Don Robey sold him up the river, he was ready for anything--soul, lounge, country, disco, B.B. duets. Be it an aab gem like "Goin' Down Slow" or generic gold like "Yolanda" or a pop gewgaw like "Love To See You Smile," he claims these songs with his suave baritone and trademarks them with his unique growl. Never played an instrument, or danced much. Never had to. Proves sophistication has nothing to do with diplomas. A MINUS
SOLOMON BURKE: The Very Best of Solomon Burke (Rhino) From Jerry Wexler to Peter Guralnick and beyond, the authorities who consider this minor hitmaker (five top 40s, none after 1965) the greatest soul singer or something like it delight in his eye for the main chance. Hawking food on tour buses, skipping the playback of his label debut so he can get back to his snow-shoveling concession, he proves soul is as much show business as sincerity or gospel truth. But maybe it's not so great that he can turn his talent "on and off so easily, seemingly at will." Maybe the readiness with which the man would sing country or preach pop bespeaks a detachment from music as a calling. These mostly New Yorkrecorded songs, all crafted with Atlantic's staunch commitment to bottom and hook, rarely create the illusion of necessity. Smooth and commanding, hustling his blarney with humor and grit, he risks remaining just out of reach of your two willing ears. A MINUS
GRANDMASTER FLASH, MELLE MEL & THE FURIOUS FIVE:More of the Best (Rhino) Beyond the extended "Flash to the Beat" and the essential "Wheels of Steel," these 12 tracks were recorded '84-'87, when they sounded a little lost. Heard as musical form rather than cultural positioning, however, they flesh out Flash's beatmastery, grandly intricate yet stone solid, and establish that Melle Mel beat Chuck D to the game--the fire-and-mutant-dogs "World War III" hits like "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos," and lays down political science in the bargain. A MINUS
WOODY GUTHRIE: Hard Travelin': The Asch Recordings Vol. 3 (Smithsonian Folkways) For the words, which suffice. Conjugating "Howdjadoo," naming fish he's read about and bugs he knows personally, describing women's hats from memory, creating a "Hanukkah Dance" for the daughter he calls "my little latke" (pronounced lot-key), his vocation was transmuting the folksy into Americanese. If he also wrote more songs than necessary with the word union in them, his heart was in the right place. Propaganda may be awkward, ineffective, annoying. But that don't make it wrong. A MINUS
MAMA DON'T ALLOW NO EASY RIDERS HERE (Yazoo) Most Yazoo compilations take egalitarianism too literally, mixing the classic and the generic so that every 78 in the vault stands a fair chance of digitalization. That may happen on this collection of "Piano Rags, Blues & Stomps 1928-35" as well--note that Cow Cow Davenport's hit "Cow Cow Blues," which is definitive by definition, "will be included on a later album"--but boogie-woogie is so much more fun than country blues itdoesn't matter. Beyond the distinct voices--Davenport's barrelhouse solidity, Arnold Wiley's quicksilver chromatics, Will Ezell's playful chopsmanship, Speckled Red's errant enthusiasm--a single rhythmic idea animates the flow, and just when you're tired of piano Red opens his mouth and teaches America the dozens. Plus on the ride out we have the lost Oliver Brown classic "Oh You Devil You," about which we know nothing, including how Harry Smith missed it. A MINUS
JOHNNY MATHIS: The Ultimate Hits Collection (Columbia) "Wonderful! Wonderful!" "It's Not for Me To Say," "Chances Are," "The Twelfth of Never," "Wild Is the Wind"--no matter what vision of principled glitz Mark Eitzel glimpsed at the master's feet, those five songs are the substance of Mathis's legend and legacy. Poised on the cusp of black and white, masculine and feminine, they projected an image of egoless tenderness, an irresistible breath of sensuality that infused the airwaves for the second half of 1957 and kept 1958's Johnny's Greatest Hits on the album chart for 490 weeks. By 1960, however, he'd been pimped by Vegas vainglory, flexing his vocal muscle though millions of women yearned only for his touch, and at his all-too-normal worst ("Love Theme From Romeo and Juliet," arghh) he's pure beefcake. Yet though you can still buy Greatest Hits (and cheap, too), most of its filler is utterly characterless. This regular-price 18-cut does turn to schlock, but also offers up the young Johnny doing right by standards like "Misty," "Maria," and "Stranger in Paradise." Give him his due--and then use your programming buttons. A MINUS