Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Roy Orbison

  • In Dreams: The Greatest Hits [Virgin, 1987] B
  • Mystery Girl [Virgin, 1988] B
  • 16 Biggest Hits [Monument/Legacy, 1999] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

In Dreams: The Greatest Hits [Virgin, 1987]
From Chuck Berry on Mercury to the reunited Everlys, rerecorded best-ofs like this one rarely deliver magic or chops. The youthful buoyancy that kept the melodrama from getting soggy is in short supply, and without much trade-off in the standard interpretive nuance. A quarter-century later, his voice still socks and soars, and if on some songs--"Pretty Woman" of course, "Blue Bayou," "Candy Man"--it's clear that only the original artyfact will do, nobody who wasn't there would swear to the general inferiority of this marginally more tasteful recreation. After all, just exactly how great were his hits? Crowning him rock's first neurotic is as overwrought as damning Donald Duck for a protofascist--pop-rock (cum countrypolitan) self-pity has its own conventions just like slapstick did, and he is their slave. So as a heretic who isn't positive Phil Spector was good for rock and roll, and also as a heretic who was there, I'll stick with the artyfacts after all. They're certainly no worse. And versions you don't need. B

Mystery Girl [Virgin, 1988]
If you're guessing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity squandered by the assembled bigshots, guess again. They've done their man's tradition proud. Problem's the tradition--just listen to the latest Rhino retrospective, which celebrates its inevitable schlockification at MGM, and you'll know why Orbison's comeback was made for this corporate era. When he gets a great tune produced just right--Wilbury-penned lead hit, Bono-Edge title ballad, Waylon's "In Dreams" sequel--his unassuming seriousness can make you think twice about opera. But with his mythic voice no longer distinguishing surely between tenderness and sentimentality, "A Love So Beautiful" and "Windsurfer" are bathos. And when Elvis C. leaves him stranded atop a ferris wheel and he just sits there contemplating his tragedy in song, the only thing mythic is the scale of the self-parody. B

16 Biggest Hits [Monument/Legacy, 1999]
Not counting imports, there are now 13 best-ofs on 10 labels by this opera singer from the wrong side of the oil rig. Unless you worship Scott Walker, rockabilly, or both (a big unless), you need precisely one of them. There's no Sun ooby-doobie-booby here, just 16 of the 20 tracks on All-Time Greatest Hits of You-Know-Who, where you pay a buck apiece for four expendables, including Roy's third hit, which peaked at 27 while the other four went 2-9-1-2, wonder why. Here you get what you want: amazing vocal range, a beat that would give Scott Walker lumbago, the mystic miracles "Blue Bayou," "Only the Lonely," and "In Dreams," lesser product slow and fast, and one of the greatest records ever made: "Oh, Pretty Woman." A-