Pop music was in a bit of a strange place when the ‘80s turned into the ‘90s. New wave was old news, Seattle was barely a blip on anyone’s radar, rock songs were judged by hair length, and Madonna and Janet Jackson were, like, the biggest things ever. Those last two artists especially signaled the change taking place in those one or two years—where the early ‘80s placed a high premium on such qualities as ‘attitude’ and ‘danceability’, the end of the same decade fell headfirst into a pit of ‘sincerity’. “Like a Virgin” turned into “Like a Prayer”; the youthful naïveté of “What Have You Done for Me Lately?” replaced with the surprisingly worldly Rhythm Nation 1814. Phil Collins was singing about “Another Day in Paradise”, Martika was singing about “Toy Soldiers”, and the nation’s collective consciousness was looking for ways to help, even if we didn’t know exactly what we wanted to help.
As such, Roxette fit the era perfectly, simultaneously representing a throwback to the more innocent days of the early ‘80s, while giving the occasional nod to the synthetic sincerity of the latter half of the decade. Plus, they’re from Sweden, and most of the country had, at that point, had enough time to recover from Abba, allowing for a collective readyness for a return to sugar-sweet melodies and soaring, oft-repeated choruses.
This is not to say that Roxette actually sounds all that much like Abba—on the contrary, the song that would break Roxette on American shores is “The Look”, a song uncharacteristically dominated by rock guitars and songwriter/vocalist Per Gessle’s unplugged Bon Jovi rasp. In hindsight, it was the perfect “getting to know you” lead single, a song that stood out amongst the pop landscape with its positive, yet pleasingly gritty vibe and the sort of quick, rhythmic delivery that coerces people into bad karaoke performances. Little did we know at that point that the voice of Roxette, the one we would be hearing at the front of the group’s subsequent, biggest hits, was the one buried in the chorus, echoing and harmonizing with Gessle at every opportunity. This is the voice that belongs to one Marie Fredriksson, and she’s unfailingly the “ballad-voice” of Roxette, a pitch-perfect, blindingly bleached siren who made such clichéd sentiments as “Listen to Your Heart” sound impassioned and worth hearing.
A Collection of Roxette Hits: Their 20 Greatest Songs! is, despite its cumbersome and curiously exclamatory title, currently the best compilation out there for a pseudo-fan simply looking for all the radio tunes—such a person would likely be ill-advised to pick up the simultaneously-released five-disc RoxBox, and the import compilations that separate the ballads from the dance tracks only point out the need to buy two CDs instead of just one, even if each of those discs does include a few new tracks.
The first half of this Collection is full of the songs that any child of the late ‘80s will absolutely recognize, even if the immediate recolletion is met with a bit of a blush. The aforementioned “The Look” and “JoyRide” are fun little tunes that carry with them the added bonus of Gessle’s lead vocals, a pleasing counterpoint to Fredriksson’s diva-isms, though she proves she can have fun too, what with the upbeat swagger of “Dressed for Success” proving to be one of the album’s high points. Even as it was when these songs were released, however, all of these fun little pop songs are dwarfed by the humongous ballads, songs like “Listen to Your Heart”, the lovely and (comparatively) understated “Spending My Time”, and Pretty Woman‘s smash hit “It Must Have Been Love”. These are the songs that provoked thousands of teary eyes in dark rooms, songs of simultaneous regret and empowerment, a combination that both ensured pop chart longevity and eventual public disdain. It would be only too soon that America would collectively declare Roxette cavity-inducing has-beens to be ignored and even ridiculed.
Perhaps appropriately, this transformation occurs near-instantaneously with the awful “Almost Unreal”, whose refrain’s opening line “I love when you do that hocus pocus to me” made a lot more sense for the movie it was written for (Hocus Pocus) than the movie it ended up in (Super Mario Brothers. Seriously.). As such, not only does it sound like corporate pandering, but it’s probably the most forced smash hit wannabe Roxette ever created. And just like that, Roxette’s albums weren’t showing up in the United States anymore. Given the latter half of the album, it’s kind of a shame, given that songs like the straightforward, fairly rocking “Sleeping in My Car” and the rather lovely “Milk and Toast and Honey” (which sounds like Dido before Dido was Dido) could have livened up the American pop landscape that had so unfortunately passed them by. Heck, even “Stars” could have made some noise as the best “Ray of Light” knockoff out there.
Alas, it was not to be, and we are thus left with might-have-beens. Of the new tracks, apparently recorded in 2006 but which sound about 20 years older than that, the upbeat “One Wish” is worth a listen or two, while “Reveal” is insipid and melody-deficient, and neither really deserves to break Roxette back into the American mainstream at any point, even as extras on the first American Roxette release since the last hits compilation (which was back in 2000, a re-release of a hits album that was released in Europe five years earlier). I suspect, however, that further American fame is simply one of those things that Gessle and Fredriksson could care less about, given their massive and surprisingly enduring European success. As it is, A Collection of Roxette Hits may well be perfect for the one-time fan who missed out on Roxette’s late ‘90s output, not to mention those retroficionados looking to play a little game of “what are they up to now?” Trying to evaluate the quality of a hits collection from a band like Roxette is a near-futile task, for it is what it is, but it does its job just fine, and if you buy it, you know pretty much exactly what you’re getting into. Which, I suppose, is something of a success in and of itself.