Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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WILLIE NELSON
One Hell of a Ride
Columbia/Legacy

By far the best of the 200-odd Willie repackages to appear this decade.

As Willie Nelson turns 75, Columbia has finally put some corporate muscle behind a career overview of a label-hopping one-take-and-out compulsive who's claimed he has 2,000 more tracks in the can. Spanning his long tours at RCA, Columbia and Universal, this sanely ambitious, provisionally definitive 100-track box does country music's reigning survivor justice. Big as overrecorded coequal Johnny Cash's stylistic embrace was, Nelson's is wider--he's always had jazz leanings; his 1978 standards album, Stardust, was more audacious than his 1976 Waylon Jennings coup, Wanted! The Outlaws; and just three years ago he put out the reggae record that provides the box's subpar version of "The Harder They Come." Nelson is so prolific that subpar moments come with the territory--hello, again, Julio Iglesias. But by going 50/50 on his taciturn, precise, sometimes metaphysical songwriting and his deceptively conversational interpretive singing, this covers that territory. Once you're oriented, by all means explore.

Blender, May 2008