Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

Harry Belafonte: The Essential Harry Belafonte [RCA/Legacy, 2005]
"There was never a performer who crossed so many lines as Harry," says Dylan of this Harlem lefty turned matinee idol. "He appealed to everybody, whether they were steelworkers or symphony patrons or bobby-soxers." Though this artist-selected double CD bypasses the hit 1957 studio versions of both "Day-O" and "Mama Look at Bubu" for show-band arrangements, it's pretty impressive once you learn to listen through his compromises with conspicuous respectability. He deploys Caribbean percussion as subtly as folk melody, jokes around about sex roles without getting sexist about it, ends a ban-the-bomb verse "Back to back and belly to belly," and keeps the musical-comedy exoticism to a tolerable modicum. Though "Jamaica Farewell" isn't quite "Chances Are," he was one of the decade's prettier balladeers. Born poor, he made himself a folk hero. [Recyclables]