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Reinvention and Reclamation: Robert Christgau on a Batch of Cover Albums

The Dean of American Rock Critics reviews Motörhead's 'Under Cöver,' Ryan Adams's '1989,' and tributes to The Beatles and Don Williams.
Tabatha Fireman / Redferns via Getty Images

The self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics," Robert Christgau was one of the pioneers of music criticism as we know it. He was the music editor at the Village Voice for almost four decades where he created the trusted annual Pazz & Jop Poll. He was one of the first mainstream critics to write about hip-hop and the only one to review Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water with one word: "Melodic." On top of his columns, he has published six books, including his 2015 autobiography, Going Into the City. He currently teaches at New York University. Every week, we publish Expert Witness, his long-running critical column. To read more about his career, read his welcome post; for four decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website.


Motörhead: Under Cöver (Silver Lining Music) In a cheap, foolproof simulation of life after death, Lemmy's pals assemble a selection of cover versions so obvious Donald Trump Jr. could have thought of half of them. Ramones? "Rockaway Beach"! Sex Pistols? "God Save the Queen"! Stones is harder, so how about "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Jumping Jack Flash"?! T.A. Nugent? Duh (as he himself might put it)—the one where a pussy dentata bloodies his dicky-bird 'cause what else is there? Motörhead kill every one of these classics, and though after that my expertise fades some, I can attest that Judas Priest's "Breaking the Law" is a perfect opener and Metallica's "Whiplash" an acceptable finale. Moreover, I swear-to-God the true killer is the only previously unreleased: "Heroes." A major Bowie song that's grown with time, right? So who owns it from the grave? Lemmy does. A MINUS

Gentle Giants: The Songs of Don Williams (Slate Creek) Williams wasn't forceful enough to make himself a legend, but he had such a way about him that I was surprised by the credits on this MusiCares benefit, released a few months before he died September 8. I'd thought of him as pure auteur, a pop-folk singer-songwriter gone country. But he wasn't. These 11 tracks were written by 11 Nashville pros, collaborating occasionally but none listed more than twice, with Williams's sole credit a cowrite. Yet he is in control, so gentle even the Pistol Annies and Garth Brooks dial it down and even Keb Mo is tolerable. The exception is Chris and Morgana Stapleton, who take autobiographical possession of "Amanda" by revving it up, never mind that it was Jason Isbell who married an Amanda—Amanda Shires. Isbell-Shires, meanwhile, do "If I Needed You" so quiet there's no if about it. All in all, a lovely respite from the sturm and snark the times demand. A MINUS

Let It Be: Black America Sings Lennon, McCartney and Harrison (Ace) Let it be they don't—beyond my picks, check out Fats Domino, Dionne Warwick, Mary Wells, the Supremes, Ike & Tina, and Junior Parker getting theirs back (Earth, Wind & Fire, "Got to Get You Into My Life"; Ella Fitzgerald, "Savoy Truffle"; Nina Simone, "Here Comes the Sun") ***

Ryan Adams: 1989 (Blue Note/Pax Am) Chivalrous Nashville fellow traveler proves the superiority of younger fellow traveler by failing to top much less reinvent a single performance on her breakaway album, which he covers front-to-back like the gifted fanboy I guess he must be ("This Love," "I Know Places") **

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