Who Needs Boxes?

The very best of the year's best-ofs for your economical holiday-gift-giving convenience


THELONIOUS MONK
Monk
Columbia/Legacy

I love Columbia's recent Monk reissues: my beloved twice-purchased Criss Cross, Solo Monkwith its organic bonus tracks, It's Monk's Time set up by the staggering stride of "Lulu's Back in Town." I also dig the much-praised Underground, for its full sound and wealth of originals—though I prefer "Boo Boo's Birthday" to "Ugly Beauty" and "Green Chimneys," am glad Teo Macero axed those bass solos, and consider Jon Hendricks's ratchety vocal and witless lyric to "In Walked Bud" a sacrilege. But this is my favorite, because he and his men rehab standards so crookedly (Gershwin, Berlin, p.d. playground chant), and because boon straight man Charlie Rouse is all over it—not least on Monk's "Pannonica," originally the property of Sonny Rollins himself. A


BILL MONROE
RCA Country Legends
RCA/BMG Heritage

Barraged for years with acoustic country music of every region, era, concept of reality, and elevation above sea level, my lifelong resistance to bluegrass has weakened— the old autonomous nervous system perks up of its own accord when I segue from natural-born archivist Roscoe Holcomb, say, to this certified genius. But while I also brighten at Classic Bluegrass From Smithsonian Folkways, I notice more details on the equally inauthentic Classic Old-Time Music, which may explain my special attraction to this transitional collection, from before the style Monroe fabricated knew its name or Earl Scruggs. Virtuoso stuff without the intense harmonies, precise interlocks, and competitive showmanship that make goo-goo eyes at slickness on the Columbia comps and MCA's post-Flatt & Scruggs Country Music Hall of Fame Series, these 1940-41 recordings share a sense of innocent fun with the mountain music Monroe was just then jazzing up. The piety and pain are palpable; occasionally a beat stumbles or a voice cracks. You can understand why Monroe wanted something better for himself. You're just not sure he was right. A MINUS


AUGUSTUS PABLO
East of the River Nile
(Shanachie)

I always thought Pablo's great album was King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown, also due for enhanced reissue, but that was just his great dub album, because unlike most frequenters of the void that separates all notes, he also had a gift for whistling in the dark. Generally he pursued this pastime on his faithful melodica, but as someone who learned his trade sneaking into the school chapel to doodle on organ, he sometimes found a keyboard more melodic. Where his early hits were catchy novelties, by 1978 he was a natural mystic, and his first all-instrumental album sounds it. A strange, simplistic mood-music masterwork—calming, childish, and inexplicable. A


ART TATUM
The Best of the Pablo Group Masterpieces
Pablo

Digitally spectacular and harmonically futuristic, solo Tatum is also florid and self-involved. But with Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge, Benny Carter, Buddy DeFranco, etc. playing one thoughtful note to a handful of his brilliant ones, the aptness, ambition, and jaw-dropping entertainment value of his silvery showers shine through. The young Tatum was so enamored of his own technique that he suffered sidemen begrudgingly, and all these standards were recorded, mostly in quartet or trio formats, over the three years before he died at 47. You'd never guess he'd slowed down by then if the booklet didn't swear it was true. A


ETHEL WATERS
The Incomparable Ethel Waters
Columbia/Legacy

Born 1896 in a red-light district to a 12-year-old rape victim, Waters was the record industry's first crossover star by age 25. She made her mark distilling dirty blues through timbre and diction clear as a glass slipper—on the long-deleted Greatest Years, "My Handy Man" and "Organ Grinder Blues" are further eroticized by how supplely she restrains the hot mama inside her. But with only two tracks that predate 1930, this collection documents the Broadway fixture who'd win an Oscar nomination and back Billy Graham. Listen through her protective decorum, which takes effort after half a century of radio raunch, and you'll encounter not just a gifted vocalist but a born actress who delivers every lyric and walks off with several—most famously, "Stormy Weather." A MINUS


Additional Consumer News

Dud of the Year:

TALKING HEADS
Once in a Lifetime
Sire/Warner Bros./ Rhino

Most pretentious objet de rock ever. Unique 5-x-17-inch design, suitable for storage with spare lumber, assures that the appreciations by Rick Moody, Mary Gaitskill, Maggie Estep, Dick Hebdige, Kyoichi Tsuzuki, and last but not least David Fricke will come loose if you dare read them. Illustrations include lovely water-colory thing of young teenager with severed penis. Fourth disc a DVD. Third disc loaded with True Stories and Naked, which I once thought overrated. I was wrong. They sucked. C


Honorable Mention:

MILDRED BAILEY
The Incomparable Mildred Bailey
Columbia/Legacy

The missing link between Bing and Billie—only subtler, meaning less substantial, than either ("Shoutin' in That Amen Corner," "The Weekend of a Private Secretary").


THE CLEAN
Anthology
Merge

Began crude and ended tired like most mortals, but for two-thirds of these two CDs, they were dronin'! ("Beatnik," "Two Fat Sisters (Live)").


SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW: THE GOLDEN AGE OF HOLLYWOOD MUSICALS
Rhino

Great songs by mediocre singers! Mediocre songs by great singers! Sometimes g-g! Often m-m! For movie fans mostly! (Gene Kelly, "Singin' in the Rain"; Judy Garland, "Over the Rainbow").

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